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When Vanessa Riddick’s beloved older brother, Tony, aka Basco, dies unexpectedly, finding his journal leads to more discoveries…like his secret life and friendships in the local BDSM community. Vanessa’s world revolved around work and her brother, so she gravitates to his friends, who welcome her with open hearts.
Reed and Lyle were friends and play-partners with Basco and wondered what happened to him, why he’d suddenly dropped off the radar. As they get to know his little sister, they realize their interest in her is more than trying to keep the spirit of their friend alive.
They are falling for her.
Vanessa has lived her life in a career-driven stranglehold, and now the loss of her brother has sent her into an emotional tailspin. One thing’s for certain—she can’t keep going the way she is. And she’s beginning to wonder if Reed and Lyle might be the answer to her finally having the life she’s longed for.
Vanessa Riddick found his diary under his bed, tucked away in one of those cloth-covered box organizer drawers, like what you’d find stashed in an IKEA cube shelf. She wouldn’t show it to anyone, especially their parents.
They were in enough pain.
She made the discovery late Tuesday, one day after her brother’s funeral on Monday, and four days following his death late Friday night. She finally opened his bedroom door and stepped inside, determined to start the long and emotional process of going through his things. Leaving the room a dormant shrine to her older brother wouldn’t be healthy for anyone.
She also didn’t want to share the task, not even with her parents. She’d gently rebuffed them, and friends, who’d offered to come over and do things like sort through his clothes for her.
It was a task she wanted to do—needed to do. By herself.
When she was ready.
Besides, she knew he wouldn’t want anyone else in his room, anyway. He was very private. She’d respected that privacy during his life, and would do her best to honor it in death as well.
After her parents had left to fly back to Seattle, where they lived, and on her way home from driving them up to Tampa International, she’d stopped by a grocery store. There, she’d bought herself several bottles of moscato wine—Tony’s favorite—and decided to spend most of the next three days of her personal leave from work, and the weekend following it, tanked to the gills.
No, not the healthiest way to spend it, sure, but it wasn’t like she was driving now that her pear-shaped butt was safely home and she had a freezer full of food brought by friends and distant family.
Her parents had gently hinted that maybe they should stay longer, for her, but in all honesty she didn’t want that, as cold as it sounded.
She wanted—needed—to be alone and start to process things. Since Saturday, her life had been a non-stop blur of activity during which she didn’t even have a chance to catch her breath. Both her parents worked for a software company out in Seattle, had tons of friends, an active social life. Yes, they were grieving. And yes, she was planning on traveling out to stay with them at some point, but she also knew they weren’t exactly flush with cash and couldn’t afford to spend weeks in Florida coddling their adult daughter.
Not to mention for now…for right now, she needed to be alone. If nothing else, to finally begin accepting how alone she really was. Having her parents hanging around and delaying her inevitable good-bye with them would only prolong the agony for her. She knew they needed her, and yes, she felt more than a little like a horrible daughter for it, but for the sake of her sanity she needed them to get on with their lives. She also desperately needed her remaining time off spent getting her game face firmly back in place for work.
With the first large drinking glass full of wine and ice cubes in her hand, she sat on the floor next to his bed. His dog, Carlo, laid down next to her with his head resting on her leg. The cocker spaniel mixed-breed mutt looked as morose as she felt.
She stroked his head. “Guess it’s just you and me now, buddy.”
His tail thumped once, unenthusiastically.
She sighed. “Yeah, I know. I miss him, too.”
Tony had easily gained custody of the dog because the dog had hated Tony’s ex-wife, Kelly. When Carlo immediately fell in love with Vanessa, it had pissed Kelly off to no end at the time, much to Vanessa’s secret pleasure.
She stared down at the dog, her last remaining breathing tie to her brother. Since Tony’s death, Carlo had barely let her out of his sight while she was home, and he’d slept on her bed every night, much as he had Tony’s bed.
Guess I need to get this done.
After taking a deep breath to steel herself, and setting her glass aside, she reached under the bed.
Starting there felt safest to her. She didn’t want to face his dresser drawers full of neatly folded shirts and briefs. She didn’t want to stare into the gaping maw of his closet, arranged far more neatly than any retail store display.
It’d been all she could do not to break down sobbing that morning when she’d gone to fish clean underwear out of the dryer and realized that some of his clothes had gotten mixed in with the load her mom had done for her the night before.
He kept several plastic storage bins under the bed, and three of the square cloth bins. She thought the shelving unit the cloth bins went into was either disassembled in the garage or residing in his storage unit.
Another chore that could wait until another day.
It was in the second cloth bin that she’d discovered the journal.
When she opened it and realized what it was, she froze, hesitating.
Should she even read it?
It took her a while to make that decision. A long while, and draining the glass of wine.
Vanessa’s older brother, Tony, had been thirty-nine when he passed suddenly from pneumonia. Only five years older than her, and while not quite the center of the universe, his position in her life had pretty much cemented him as the center of her world. Her big brother had been her best friend growing up. He’d moved in with her at her insistence over four years earlier, after a nasty divorce that took pretty much everything from him except Carlo and some furniture.
He’d insisted it would only be temporary.
She’d insisted it wouldn’t.
This time she’d won, in typical little-sister fashion.
After refilling the glass with wine and more ice cubes, she sat on Tony’s bed with Carlo curled up next to her and started reading. Apparently, this journal was one of several, based on the dates and indications he’d made on the inside cover. This one had been started over four years earlier, just before he’d filed for divorce and a few weeks before he’d moved in with her, and he didn’t write in it every day.
It did, however, uncover startling revelations about her beloved brother. Nothing that would make her hate him, or lose respect for him.
But it made it perfectly clear she’d done the right thing following her instincts to handle this herself. Especially when she started reading and learned there was a lot more to her brother than she’d ever suspected.
Like the fact that he was bisexual, something he’d successfully hid not just from his family, but from his ex-wife as well.
And the fact that he was into BDSM
* * * *
I can’t take it anymore. I’m going to file for divorce from Kelly and move in with Nessie. I’ve dragged this out long enough and I can’t deny the inevitable. Hence, the new journal. All fresh and empty and ready to be filled.
There’s a joke there, but I’ll avoid making it…
Vanessa couldn’t help but laugh. That was sooo Tony, always ready with a quick double-entendre to crack her up. Not at work, no. He was professional at work, but at home or around friends, he was easily the funniest guy in the room.
…but I’ll avoid making it and instead take a moment to reflect. Ten years of my life where I denied who I was even more than I had in the past. Where I stuffed my needs and tried to pretend I could be that “normal” guy with the dog and the wife and the great job and the great house and maybe even kids.
Kelly wasn’t the person for me. I know that now, and no, this isn’t fair to her. I thought I was going through a phase in my life and thought I’d successfully locked the door.
All it did was point out to me in glaring clarity how wrong I was. How I should have listened to that still, quiet inner voice that always told me I wasn’t vanilla. That I wasn’t strictly hetero. That I wasn’t the image I’d tried so hard to portray to everyone.
And now I will, unfortunately, be hurting Kelly in the process. I’ve tried to hint around at it, but she’s not taking the hint. I thought maybe she was as unhappy as I am, but apparently not. The crater-pocked battlefield of her parents’ marriage must have numbed her to dysfunction at an early age.
Yes, red flags I should have looked at, but I thought it would be okay. The fact that she doesn’t like Nessie and hates spending time with my parents, too, should have been another. Not that she doesn’t have her good points, because she does, but she’s not the person for me.
I suspect this won’t go well, that there will be a lot of anger on her part. That there will be more than a little bit of fighting before I get through to the other side. Hell, no, I won’t tell her everything. I hate to say it, but I can’t trust her not to fling it in my face or take it to my family and friends. Hell, maybe even my regional supervisor.
What does that say about me, that I settled for someone that I can’t fully trust like I can Nessie? Hell, there’s shit I told Nessie as a kid I know our parents never heard about. She’s about the only person I can trust in this world…
Now she broke down crying again. That was the other thing that greatly sucked about this, beyond the grief over losing her brother.
She’d lost her best friend, her confidant.
The one person she knew would never pick on her in a mean way, who would never violate her trust. Well, yes, she loved her parents, but they were her parents, not friends.
Tony had been her best friend, not just her brother. It saddened her a little that he’d never admitted any of this to her before, but she suspected she understood. He thought it better to hide it away completely than to risk her freaking out over it. He knew she never snooped in his room or about his life.
Another reason she’d wanted to be the only one going through his things. She didn’t know what she’d find—case in point—and didn’t want anyone else finding it.
That’s not what he would have wanted, and she knew it.
And yes, Kelly had made Tony’s life a living hell during the divorce. Now knowing that he’d tried to make things easy on Kelly, that just pissed Vanessa off even more, that he’d martyred himself in the divorce for a woman who wasn’t worthy of him.
…trust in this world to not tell my secrets. I wish I could tell her about all of this but I don’t want to burden her with it. No, I’ve never cheated on Kelly, but I have started going to events on the side to make sure, and now I know this is what I need. I’m going to have to walk a bitter line and come up with a valid excuse as to why I want—need—out. It’ll mean giving up a lot, maybe everything.
But that’s just stuff. Things. Material possessions I can replace later.
I think I married Kelly partly because I was worried I was missing out on something. But then when Kaden died…I think that was the final wakeup call that shook me to my core.
Life is short. Too damn short. I don’t want to be at the end of my life and looking back at all the things I wish I’d done in the limited amount of time that I had. I don’t want it to be a series of regrets over things I didn’t do. Better one large regret of having to divorce Kelly to be my real self, which will also allow her to find someone better for her than I am while she’s still young enough to rebuild her life.
Ever since Kaden died, I knew what I had to do. It started out a tiny seed, growing more over the past several months, until I can’t ignore it any longer…
Vanessa frowned as she reached the bottom of the first page. She’d never heard of a friend named Kaden. Especially not one who’d died. That wasn’t exactly a fact her brother would usually conceal.
Absently stroking Carlo’s head, she reread the first page.
Poignant and sad, nevertheless very truthful and self-aware.
While he’d lived with her, he’d tried his best to get her to relax, to lighten up. They’d even taken a vacation together, the first one she’d allowed herself in…ever. They’d taken a road trip with Carlo along the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains Parkway, stopping at every park and attraction they could along the way, hiking, and generally enjoying themselves.
Tony had been six months post-divorce and looking for something relaxing to do when he’d seen a show on TV about the parks and insisted that would be their sibling vacation.
Of course she’d agreed to it. He was her big brother.
And they’d had the time of their lives. For the first time in her adult life, she’d been able to not think about her job, not stress about anything, and just relax and enjoy herself with no expectations, no plans, and no worries about anything other than what they were doing at that moment. Tony had made sure of that.
How am I going to make it through the rest of my life without him?
* * * *
Vanessa read the entire journal that night. There were eight blank pages in the back of it, and his last entry had been only two weeks earlier. She’d discovered a new, blank journal, also in the same bin, so he’d been planning on continuing the habit.
I’ll have to go through his stuff in the garage and storage and see if there are any other journals.
She couldn’t imagine this was a habit he’d just randomly picked up. In high school and college, he’d been interested in writing, but his business degree hadn’t exactly been made for that pursuit. And when he’d ended up promoted at his job at a grocery store chain to assistant manager, and later store manager, followed by area manager…he’d stayed with that because he was making good money.
She gathered journaling was his way to fill the creative need in his soul to set words and thoughts down on paper.
Apparently, he’d known he was kinky since his teenaged years, but he’d first assumed those thoughts were “wrong” and shouldn’t be pursued. College had allowed him to dip a toe into the water, both in terms of exploring his sexuality and his kinky side, but then he’d pulled back after he graduated as work took over. He’d started working part-time as a stock boy and bagger back in high school and had never intended to make it his career, but luck had been on his side. When he’d died, he’d been making close to a hundred thousand a year, and had been on track for a promotion to regional manager.
She’d taken a similar track, except for an auto parts store chain. And she’d never gotten her four-year degree like he had. She’d spent her time as a kid hanging out with him, watching over his shoulder as he’d worked on his own beater rides in high school and college. When it came time for her to get a job, he’d talked to his friend, an assistant manager at a local parts store, and got her in as a part-timer, because the grocery store he worked for wasn’t hiring at the time.
From that point, she’d taken her fate into her hands. It was challenging, but she enjoyed it and enjoyed the work.
She wouldn’t deny secret satisfaction when she proved to men—co-workers and customers alike—that she was not only up to the task, but excelled in it. She learned everything she could about cars, poring through repair guides and Internet car sites, subscribing to car magazines and e-mail lists, and generally charting her own course.
She hadn’t had the grades for an academic scholarship to USF like Tony had, so she’d opted for two years at the community college, paid for in part by her parents, while she still continued working.
By the time she was twenty-three, she was a store manager, one of only four female store managers in the state of Florida for the chain.
By the time she was thirty, she’d spent three years as an area manager before being promoted to regional manager handling over thirty stores in west-central and south Florida.
And there she sat. She’d reached her comfort level, both with her salary and her job responsibilities. She could have pressed onward and tried to work her way up to a national corporate position, but she really didn’t want to. As it was, corporate frequently flew her out to other regions who were having issues so she could go over their records and help identify the problems as well as offer up possible solutions.
That was enough for her.
Her house was paid for, her car was paid for, and she didn’t have any significant debt. She paid her credit cards off every month. She had a modest retirement plan and savings, which would grow now that she’d paid off her house late last year and was putting all of that money into her retirement accounts.
She considered herself very, very lucky.
She also couldn’t deny she was lonely as fuck, and losing Tony drove that home in about as painful a way as possible. The only recreation she willingly engaged in, besides yard work or reading her Kindle, was working out at the gym on occasion. The only reason she did that was to keep her weight down.
As it was, at five six and one-sixty, she knew she wasn’t exactly a twig. But she’d kept herself around this weight for a couple of years now and realized she didn’t want to kill herself working out when she despised it. It was enough to be healthy. So she wasn’t a size two.
She didn’t need to be. She had well-rounded curves in all the right places, and while she ran into plenty of eligible men in her line of work, she never mixed business and pleasure.
Unfortunately, she really didn’t do much socializing, either. Hell, she’d gone out to eat with other people more often in the past several years while Tony lived with her than she had in the years before he moved in.
Most of the friends she had now were only because they’d been Tony’s friends, and she got to know them through him once he moved in.
I am fucking pitiful.
Emotionally drained and mentally exhausted, she got up, with Carlo following close on her heels, and closed Tony’s bedroom door behind her. She would start again tomorrow.
How she’d make it past then remained to be seen.