A Recovered Innocence Novel #2
Beau. . . Six years. That’s how long I spent behind bars for a crime I didn’t commit—the murder of the woman I loved. Now I’m free, but life on the outside is a different kind of prison. I don’t know who I am or who I want to be. At least I have my sister, Cora. She never stopped believing in me. She even got me a job at the private investigation agency that cleared my name. And then Vera Swain walks into Nash Security and Investigations and kicks my world on its ass.
Vera… There’s only one thing that would make me come out of hiding after two years on the run—finding my sister. I made the mistake of telling a monster about her. The same monster who beat me and broke me. Now, I’m forced to confide in Beau Hollis of Nash Security and Investigations. He looks at me like he knows me—the real me. He sees too much, makes me feel too much. The pleasure he offers is exciting and addictive. But I can’t fall for him…because my love could get us both killed.
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~~Praise for Atone~~
‘(Atone) was heart-wrenching but beautiful.’ ~ Tracy, Book Binge
‘Atone was a good combination of all the things I enjoy in a read, romance, a dash of suspense and a good hit to the feels.‘ ~ Shannan, Wicked Reads
‘Great read for those who like suspense and hot romance!’ ~ Holly, It’s About the Book
‘I enjoyed this story, something different you don’t read all the time.’ ~ Katie, Nerdy, Dirty, and Flirty
I walked out of the California Institute for Men in Chino, California, two thousand, two hundred and seventy-one days—more than six years—after I walked in. I was finally free.
I don’t have the same definition that most people have for that word. While I’m no longer serving a life sentence for a crime I didn’t commit, I’m far from free. The repercussions of my incarceration blasted every area of my life, pitting or obliterating everything in sight. There isn’t a single thing left unscarred. I don’t have a home. I don’t have friends. I don’t have a job or any qualifications to get one. I don’t have any money. I don’t have the same family I had on the day of my conviction.
And I don’t have Cassandra.
There’s a big gaping hole in me where she once lived. Of all the things that were taken from me, she’s the one thing I can never get back. I left her sleepy, naked, and sated in her bed almost seven years ago, stealing out of her apartment with other things on my mind, unimportant things. I had an early day the next morning and needed to get home. I bent down, kissed her forehead, told her I loved her, and left.
I never saw her again.
She was brutally raped and murdered that night.
I haven’t been able to take a full breath since. Not because of my subsequent arrest and conviction for her murder. That was nothing. Well, not nothing. It was definitely something. But it’s not why I can’t pull in enough air. There’s a hole in my chest she used to fill. There’s too much space and I can’t imagine or even remember what it felt like to be whole. I’ve been walking around with this big, sucking chest wound since the night she died.
I’m raw yet scarred over. Little things scratch at me, reopening the wound so it never truly heals. A song. The scent of jasmine. A movie. A joke. Her name. I haven’t been able to say her name out loud since I screamed it outside her apartment when her body was found and the place crawled with law enforcement personnel.
I see her everywhere.
I get a glimpse of her at least once a day. Every time I turn my head I have to remind myself it’s not her. It will never be her. I won’t get to hold her hand, have her lay her head on my chest the way she used to, or make love to her ever again. I can’t call her and tell her about the stupid things that happened to me that day. She won’t ever tilt her head up with the look in her eyes that was only for me. I haven’t laughed in so long I’m not sure if I remember how.
My sister, Cora, thinks I should see someone, a grief counselor. I don’t want to. My grief is all I have left of Cassandra. Cora doesn’t understand that. No one does. I can’t explain it. There are no words for what it feels like to carry it everywhere. I’m pretty sure it’s the only thing holding me together. I walk around, going through the day-to-day of living, relying on those feelings to get me through. What would I have without them? Who would I be? I’m not the same man who left Cassandra’s apartment that night. I’ll never be him again. I shouldn’t be him. I sure as shit shouldn’t want to be him.
And yet . . .
Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to be normal. What would happen if I took off this mantle of grief and laid it down? Would I stop seeing Cassandra everywhere? Would the smell of a common flower stop reminding me of her unique scent? Would I forget what she sounded like, her laugh, and how she felt under me? Would I lose her all over again, this time forever?
The air outside of prison not only smells different, it feels different. I’m not used to anything resembling normal life. I’m still on prison schedule despite having been out a couple months now. My only rebellion is letting my hair and beard grow. I don’t know who that man in the mirror is. He’s rougher, harder than he was . He has scars and crude tattoos jabbed into his skin by makeshift prison tattoo . He looks like he doesn’t give a fuck about anyone or anything.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Cora arranged for me to come I think she’s hoping it will give me something to aspire to. I’m lost. I don’t recognize anyone or anything. I don’t know who or what I want to be. There was a time when everything I wanted to do and be was lined up in my head just waiting for me to tick them off like a fucking checklist. Go to college. Check. Get a good paying job. Check. Marry Cassandra. Check. Buy a house. Check. Start a family. Check. Grow old with Cassandra. Check.
None of those boxes will ever be crossed off.
I have to create a new list. But where do I start? I’m twenty-four years old. I should be halfway through my checklist by now. Cora tells me I can do or be anything I want. She pushes community and technical college catalogs at me, trying to get me interested in something. At night I lay awake and attempt to imagine my life a year from now. All I see is me still lying on Cora’s couch, still struggling to figure my shit out. I’m frustrating her and myself. Maybe this Take Your Brother to Work Day will give me some kind of direction, even if it only helps me realize what I don’t want to do.
I wait outside for Cora, sipping a cup of strong black coffee. I got the taste for it in prison. Before that I never touched the stuff. Cora bought me a coffeemaker even though she doesn’t drink it. She’s been good to me. Too good. Better than I deserve. She’s the reason I’m leaning against her car on a foggy San Diego morning, waiting for her instead of sitting in a prison cell wondering Why me? She was the only person who believed in my innocence. The only one. Not even our parents—who should’ve stuck by me no matter what—considered for a moment that I could be innocent.
I don’t know who that says more about—them or me. Cora says them, but I’m not so sure. My conviction destroyed my parents individually and as a couple. I haven’t seen either one of them since shortly after being assigned a prison uniform. At first Cora made excuses for them when she visited, and then she stopped mentioning them altogether. We’re supposed to have a family reunion this Sunday. Cora arranged it. She’s the only reason I agreed to go. I’d do anything for her. She’s more than proven she’d do anything for me. She’s done everything for me.
Cora backs out the front door of her garage apartment, her arms full. I jog up the walk and relieve her of the files she’s carrying. She locks the door and turns to me, a big smile on her face. It gets me every time. A combination of joy and surprise like she can’t believe I’m really there. I can’t believe it either. I hope I never get used to this feeling or that smile. I hope she doesn’t either.
I follow her down the walk to her car and put her files in the trunk. I stand just in time to see the car keys flying at my face and catch them before they smack into my nose.
“You have to practice sometime,” she says. “Drive us to work.”
I haven’t driven in more than six years. My license expired while I was in prison. My parents sold my car.
“Are you sure?”
She opens the passenger door and climbs in with a wink. I let out a frosty breath in the cool morning air. This is one more thing I have to relearn in my life outside. I slide into the driver’s seat and adjust it for my bigger body and longer legs.
“The mirrors too,” Cora reminds me.
It’s like I’m taking driver’s ed all over again, but with my little sister as my teacher. I hope driving isn’t as hard as riding a bike. That shit took me too many tries to get right. I’m wobbly like a kid riding without training wheels for the first time. Bike riding is a fucked-up metaphor for my life now. Everything is an uphill struggle and scary as fuck. I suck so bad at it, I wonder sometimes if I shouldn’t just commit a crime for real this time so I can go back to the predictability and reliability of prison life. I won’t, but the thought is scarily tempting sometimes.
You wouldn’t think being free would be so hard.
I do as Cora instructs and start the car. She coaches me the whole way. I’m relieved when we arrive safely. Driving is a hell of a lot easier than riding a bike. We get out of the car and head into the offices of Nash Security and Investigations. I owe Cora and everyone in this place everything. If Mr. Nash and his son, Leo, hadn’t agreed to help Cora find the bastard who killed Cassandra and worked to set me free, I’d still be sitting in a cell. How do you repay someone who rescued you from hell and gave you your life back?
I juggle Cora’s files that I retrieved from the trunk, open the door for her, and follow her inside. The receptionist, Savannah, looks up at Cora, then does a double take when she spies me trailing behind my sister. Her first, fleeting glance is full of female appreciation that quickly morphs into avid curiosity tinged with fear. She doesn’t want to be attracted to an ex-con, but I’d put money on her panties being soaked at the thought of fucking me. I’m a walking, talking good girl’s bad-boy dream. I’m the guy she bangs once or twice on the quiet just so she can brag about it later to her friends.
I grin at Savannah, following it with a wink and a lick of the lips. She gasps and presses her hands to her chest. Her cheeks bloom red. If we were alone I bet I could take her right there on top of her desk. Wouldn’t even have to pull her panties all the way down, just push up her skirt and pull them aside. She’d shower after, feeling dirty, and later she’d jack off, reliving it. I’m not even the slightest bit tempted by her or any other woman I’ve met since I got out.
Another way my life’s fucked up.
I set Cora’s files down where she directs me to. Her office is small, with two desks in the middle facing each other. It’s an odd arrangement, but Cora likes it this way, I guess.
She gestures to the desk opposite hers. “Have a seat.” She sifts through her pile of files until she finds what she’s looking for, then pulls it out and comes around to where I’m sitting. “I thought maybe I’d start you off with some simple searches. See if you like the work.” She twitches the mouse, bringing the computer screen to life. “These are the search sites we use.”
Clicking on the top three bookmarked sites, she brings them up, explaining how they use them and what info the sites can provide. She has me do some easy searches, then leaves me on my own. I don’t suck at it. I’m actually quite good. And I like the work. I’m halfway through the searches Cora wanted me to do when Savannah sticks her head in the doorway.
“Vera Swain, your ten o’clock, is here,” she tells Cora. Her gaze darts to me, then back to Cora.
“Thanks, Savannah. Want to sit in?” Cora asks me. “Take a break from the computer?”
“Sure.” I stand and stretch.
Savannah jumps and squeaks, then disappears from the doorway.
Cora’s mouth bends into a frown. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her lately.”
“I’ll talk to her.”
I follow Cora into the reception area. Savannah blocks whoever it is she’s talking to so I can’t see who it is, but whoever they are, they’re small, much smaller than Savannah’s five-nine frame. Savannah shifts, revealing a pastel confection of a young woman about Cora’s age.
All lace and silk, she’s sweet-looking in her soft colors like she just walked out of a Sunday church service. But the look in her eyes is wary . . . suspicious . . . jaded, reminding me of angry, hard prison stares. This chick’s seen some shit. More than that, she’s experienced some shit, has maybe even done some shit. She’s a survivor. This I understand. I recognize her in the same way I recognize the new man that stares back at me in the mirror.
Her costume is nearly perfect. I bet if I sniffed her she’d smell like baby powder and lemons. I edge closer to her. She catches me with a sudden flick of a glance, freezing me where I stand. Everything about her shouts back the fuck off. It only makes me want to draw closer. Who is she? Who or what made her this way? And why does she look at me like she knows who I am? Not the TV-news-segment me, but the real me, the Beau deep down inside.
For the first time since I got out of prison I don’t feel alone. There really are others out there like me. One of them is standing mere feet in front of me, regarding me with the same guarded, expectant look I’m wearing.
And she’s beautiful.