All of the Lights
by K. Ryan
Publication Date: August 22, 2016
Two households. One secret that will change everything.
I was raised to believe his family was nothing but trash. I was raised to believe her family was the root of all evil. I sent his brother to prison. I should hate her for what she did. I’ve never fought a day in my life. I’ve fought every day of my life. I need him to help me find answers. I need her to set the record straight. I should stay away from him. I should walk away from her. But I can’t. But I can’t. *This book is a standalone, contemporary/mystery romance and is intended for readers 18 and older*
There’s nothing but darkness in this alley and that’s all I need. Am I stupid? Absolutely. But something tells me it would be even stupider to stay out in the open and anywhere near the lighted street. At least here, I can hide in the shadows. All I have to do is wait. What exactly it is I’m waiting for remains to be seen. I shift anxiously from side to side, keeping as much pressure off my sore knee as possible and my eyes tilt up to the night sky. Right in between the buildings, above the skyline, there they are. All of the lights in the city can’t hold a candle to the stars—they’re my savior from the darkness, the guides that lead me to something bigger, something better, something peaceful. A door creaks open to my right and my head snaps toward the sound. Out here by myself in this dark alley, I’m pretty sure I’m a disgrace to my gender. I know better than this. I know better than to drift away from the herd. Nothing good ever comes from it. And then I get better look at this new, potential threat standing just ten feet away. Heat flushes my cheeks and I have to swallow my heart back down into my stomach. It flipflops one more time as my eyes flit back to my intruder, whose presence seems to take up the entire alley. He’s tall with a mess of dark hair, the sides buzzed tight against his head, with just a plain white Tshirt and black gym shorts on. My eyes zero in on his broad shoulders and the myriad of tattoos reaching all the way down to his wrists. Finally, my gaze trails back up to his face. Even though half of it is covered by dark scruff, I can’t look away. His eyes glint in the moonlight as he catches me staring and I can’t tell if that’s good or bad for me. Is it completely wrong that I’d gladly hand over my purse if he asked? He has one of those faces that’s almost painful to look at, but it’s the contradiction written all over him that I can’t move past. From the tattoos, the thick silver cross dangling around his neck, the dark intensity radiating off him, the thick muscles peeking out from his shirt sleeves, everything about him screams danger. Even his stance reads as defensive—wide legged, chest puffed out, both hands in his pockets, shoulders square with the building in front of us. It’s the curve of those full lips that has me rooted to the cement. The way his grey eyes soften with curiosity as they roam my face. His left eyebrow lifts when I find myself fighting a smile and finally, he tilts his head back to gaze up at the stars I’d just been admiring before his interruption. “Nice night,” he murmurs and it takes me a moment to realize he’s not talking to himself. His accent is unmistakable. The clipped syllables, hard consonants, and quick ‘i's are a dead giveaway. It’s been awhile since I’ve heard a true, genuine Boston accent—Philly doesn’t even come close to the distinct pronunciation you’ll hear in Boston, and specifically, in Southie. Bennett’s inflection has waned through the years, mostly from when we lived in Philly during college. From this guy, though, it might as well be music to my ears. I swallow hard as my stomach flutters a little too much. “Yeah, it is.” That’s the best I can come up with? Really? He tilts his chin up in my direction as he ventures a step closer to me. “Hey. You got a light?” “No,” I laugh. “Sorry.” He just shrugs and pulls a vape pen out of his pocket so he can take a nice long puff from it. “Why did you ask me for a light if you didn’t need one?” I frown at him. His lips curl around his vape pen and some vapor flows out of his nostrils before both his shoulders shrug again. “Just wanted to getcha talkin’. Figured it was worth a shot.” “That was your move, huh?” I laugh as my eyebrows shoot up into my forehead. “Does that usually work for you?” Now his lips pull apart in a wince as his free hand scratches the back of his head. When his head turns to find me, there it is again. The hard with the soft. The masculinity right along with a sheepishness, a shyness even, that just doesn’t make sense. “Ah,” he exhales. “You’re right. That beat wicked hard. It was the best I could come up with under the pressure.” His accent has me biting down on my bottom lip to keep from smiling. Wicked hard. If only he could hear himself from my end… “What?” he frowns. “Nothing.” Those gunmetal eyes narrow ever so slightly, but there’s no danger to be found. They’re all a playful softness that I haven’t seen in...God, I don’t know how long. “Can I have another shot?” And here I was fully prepared to hand over my purse. My smile must’ve been the goahead he needed because he takes that opportunity to inch a little closer to me, but he’s still got his shoulders square with the street as he slips his vape pen back into his pocket. “Okay,” he rubs his hands together in thought and then shoots me a sly glance. “How ‘bout this one? I just heard someone inside the club say the word of the day is legs. What do yah say we head back to my place and spread the word?” My eyes widen, momentarily stunned into silence, and my mouth practically hangs on its hinges. It takes me a second, but as soon as I see the mischief in those grey eyes, I bark out a loud laugh and shake my head. His hands spread out at his sides. “What? No good?” “Terrible,” I laugh. “And offensive, too. If I didn’t know you were joking, I’d have to punch you. Or scream for help. There’s gotta be something a little better,” I squint up at the sky in thought, “What about this one? It’s a good thing I brought my library card with me because I’m checking you out tonight.” After a moment of careful consideration, he nods. “It’s not bad. It’s not great either. There’s always this one—you look cold. Wanna use me as a blanket?” I blow out a breath, my head rocking back and forth a little on my neck as I mull it over. “Eh. I’m not into it. How about this? I lost my keys. Can I check your pants?” His shoulders shake with laughter and he rubs a hand over his mouth. “Okay, okay. I can get behind that one. I’m a big fan of this one though: are you free tonight? Or do I have to pay you?” "Ugh,” I groan and tilt my head back to squeeze my eyes shut. “Never say that again. Ever. What about...got any Irish in you? Want some more?” “Nice try. I guess we’re on the right side of town for that one,” he shudders a little through his chuckle and then snaps his fingers. “I’ve got it: you have 206 bones in your body. Let’s add one more.” I resist the urge to swat him on the shoulder. Do not get engage physically. Pretend he’s a creeper. God, if this is what a creeper looks like, then sign me up. He must have a waiting list. I get the sense our little game has reached its end because he glances covertly around my shoulder and cocks an eyebrow at me. “I’m not gonna have an angry boyfriend all up in my face now, am I?” This time, I don’t miss a beat. “Geez. That’s probably the worst line you’ve used on me this entire time. Not very subtle, my friend. Not. At. All.” He holds his hands up in defense. “Just tryin’ to cover all my bases before we slide into home later tonight.” “Oh God,” I grumble. “I take it back. That was the worst one. And no, there’s no angry boyfriend, so you can rest easy while you watch the fight now.” Grey eyes squint back at me for just a second and then one side of his face curls up into a smirk. “I wasn’t that worried,” he slips his phone out of his pocket and glances at the screen before tilting his chin up to me again. “Got a little time before I have to head back inside. You’re comin’ in for the fight though, right?” “Ah, no. I wasn’t planning on it,” I shake my head at him and his eyebrows fly into his forehead. “What?” he frowns. “What are you doin’ then? And don’t take this the wrong way, but you really shouldn’t be out here by yourself. You’re lucky as shit it was me who walked out that door and not someone else.” “I know, I know,” I wave off his concern even though my cheeks are hot. “It’s a long story. My sister wanted to see the fight, but she’s not on the list. My friend has a cousin who bartends here, so he’s trying to get her in. I just wanted some quiet, but this wasn’t really the place to look for it, was it?” Now his frown just deepens and I can see how this would be confusing. If I’m standing outside waiting with my sister to get in the club, then why wouldn’t I go inside too? That would just open up a whole other mountain of questions I don’t want to touch with a tenfoot pole, so I skirt around anything that would potentially identify me as the one person who shouldn’t be within a hundred miles of this place. “Besides,” I push on. “You’re one to talk. I thought the whole reason people vaped was so they didn’t have to go outside to smoke. What are you doing out here?” “Same thing you were,” he shrugs and then that sly glint is back. “If your friend can’t get your sister in, I’m sure I could find a way to sneak her inside.” “Thanks,” I smile. “That would be really nice of you.” “It’s not a problem. Especially if it gets you inside the club, too.” My eyes lift back up to the night sky above us. “Another terrible line. And sorry, but my friend and I have other plans tonight.” “It wasn’t a line,” he tells me and I think I believe him. “What exactly are these other plans?” “Oh, you know, just some dancing and listening to awful club music. But it’s good though. I’ve been needing to do something like this for awhile.” All I have to see is the question in his eyes and it just tumbles out. “I just moved back to the city three months ago. I was stuck doing accounting and riskmanagement for a firm in Philly and I hated every single second of it. I’m sure you’re wondering why I even bothered,” I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye and didn’t give him the chance to respond. “I guess the simple answer is that math was just always something I was good at, so I just kept doing it.” It was the safe choice and it was a choice I’d regretted all the way up until my boss called me into his office. Still, a stable career with guaranteed income and health insurance is hard to argue with, but there’s a reason I still haven’t updated my resume. “Anyway,” I push on, very aware that his full attention rests on me. “I got let go, which, let’s be honest, is just a nice little euphemism for you suck and you’re fired.” He huffs out a laugh, but I find sympathy there, too. He’s listening. He’s not walking away now that our conversation has shifted to something a little more personal. He wants to keep talking to me, so I might as well run with it. Who knows when I’ll ever get the chance to have a moment with someone like him again? “It was a relief, actually, even if their methods were terrible,” I shake my head at the memory. “They actually called me in on a Thursday morning, told me I’d lost my job, and then expected me to finish out the day.” “Jesus Christ,” he exhales and blows out a deep breath. “So did yah stay?” “Nope,” I grin back at him. In a rare show of real courage, I’d packed up the little belongings I had at my desk and walked right out the door. It’s one of the few things in my life I’m actually proud of. “Good girl,” he nods. “What were they gonna do? Fire yah?” “Exactly.” “That’s feckin’ typical, though, right?” he shakes his head and tucks that vape pen out of his pocket again to take a long pull from it. “You’ve got these corporate jockeys who just see you as a number on their spreadsheets and a notch on their yearly takehome ‘cause they have to give you a severance package. Lemme guess, they used the good ‘ol, this has nothing to do with your job performance excuse, huh?” “Pretty much,” I laugh mirthlessly. “And they added in, this is strictly budgetary too just for good measure.” “Bastards,” he mutters with a smirk. “You’re better off where you’re at now.” “Maybe,” I allowed. This was the part where I really needed to end the story, but my mouth just wouldn’t stop. “I guess it didn’t really help that my boyfriend decided to dump me a week later.” The sting still hasn’t gone away. That rejection and dismissal from both my job and my relationship. Not being wanted. Not being important enough to fight for. I guess that’s the story of my life—one big fat deadend after another, forever fated to afterthought status. His eyebrows fly all the way up to his hairline and he lets out a long whistle. Now he’s angled his body so that we’re finally facing each other for the first time since he walked out here. A tight smile presses to his lips, but this time, some of the playfulness that had been there before has evaporated. Before either of us can get another word in, my phone rings from inside my purse and I dig inside it to glance at the caller ID. My sister’s puckeredup face flashes across my screen. For the first time in too long, I hit ignore as he watches my movements from over my shoulder and toss my phone back into my purse. “That was my sister,” I shrug, but I can’t focus on much else but the way his forehead has creased into a deep frown. “I’ll check in with her in a little bit.” His eyes flick back up to me again and some of that softness is back again. “Your sister doesn’t look anything like you,” he muses, gauging my reaction carefully. He’s officially hit a sore subject—I’ve responded to this exact same nonquestion my entire life and giving my stock answer one more time still doesn’t sit well. My sister, with her long, flowing chocolate hair, matching eyes, and tiny frame, is the spitting image of my stepmom. I, on the other hand, look like a clone of my mom, or so I’ve been told. “We’re halfsisters,” I tell him, my eyes drifting back down to the pavement as I speak. I have no idea why I just told him that. It wasn’t like he asked, but I offered that piece of information without a second thought. He mulls it over as he rocks back on his heels a little. “Families are bizzah.” I’m still rusty, still trying to shake Philly off me, and it takes me a second to realize he means bizarre. Still, I appreciate the sentiment and return the sympathetic smile he’s sending my way. “All families are messed up. I think some of us are just better at hiding it than others.” He nods with a somber smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “So I really can’t convince yah to come in, can I?” “Nope,” I shake my head even though I have to admit, he’s almost got me. “Sorry.” “Did you at least put some money down on the fight?” I hadn’t thought about it, but I guess since I’m here anyway… “Who should I bet on?” That devilish smile slides up his lips again. “Put whatever you’ve got on Flynn. He never loses.” “Huh. I didn’t know that.” He slips his phone out of his pocket again to glance at the screen. “Couple more minutes and I gotta head back inside. Well, if you’re ditchin’ me tonight, maybe I can catch yah tomorrow?” Heat rushes into my cheeks again and spreads all the way down to my toes. If he knew who I was, he’d probably push me into oncoming traffic, but I can’t resist the sincerity in his voice. I’ve known this guy for a whole ten minutes and I’ve basically told him my life story, save for a few minor, important details. It just slipped out and I don’t really know why I felt comfortable enough to tell him all that. I just know I felt it. Too bad there’s a little snag in his plan. “I’m pretty much working all day tomorrow,” and then the words slip out before I can stop them. “What about Sunday?” He clucks his teeth together and winces. “Sundays aren’t real good for me, but I’d move some things around if I didn’t have to work.” “Where do you work?” It finally dawns on me that he hasn’t asked me that question yet and I’m grateful for it. I just want this to last a little longer before the inevitable implosion. He motions with his head toward the bar. “Really? Are you a bouncer or something?” He laughs again and shakes his head. “Nope. I bartend here pretty much every day except Fridays and Saturdays. It turns into a pretty nice, respectable sports bar when all this other shit isn’t goin’ on.” I can’t help the way my lips curl up at his pronunciation: baah. “What?” “Nothing,” I say innocently. He rolls his eyes up to sky and glances at me exasperatedly. “Anyway, if you’re done zooin’ on me, maybe you’d wanna stop by this way on Sunday anytime after six? I gotta go to mass and then I gotta visit my brother, so I won’t be in the bar before then.” “Oh,” I nod carefully, weighing the pros and cons of actually showing up here again on Sunday. I just need more time, so I shift from side to side, wincing a little as the pressure on my knee shoots down to my ankle. He frowns at the moment, catching the pain that must be written all over my face. Now I throw the first thing I can come up with at the wall and hope it sticks. “Does your brother live here in the city?” Cloudiness fills his eyes and all I get is: “No.” Still, I push forward because I’m grasping at straws in my weak attempt at stalling. “Where does he live?” “Prison.” “Oh,” that’s about all I can come up with. “I’m sorry.” He just lifts a shoulder, but a tight line ticks down his jaw. “Maybe it’d be a little different visitin’ him every week if he actually did what they said he did.” I don’t have much time to digest that because my phone rings again and some quick digging inside my purse shows me that Bennett’s calling me this time. This is dangerous territory, but I just can’t force myself to walk away just yet. It’s so easy, standing here and talking to him like this. I can’t remember the last time anything felt this effortless. But when he glances at his phone again, I know our time has officially run its course. It was bound to happen eventually, but that still doesn’t explain the disappointment that this fleeting moment in a dark alley outside a club is over. “I gotta head back inside now,” he pauses and then his lips curl into the most devastating grin I’ve ever seen. “You gotta come in for the fight. Even if it’s not your thing, your sister’s probably already inside and you can meet up with her. And after the fight, I’d really like to buy you a drink. I can usually guess people’s drink and I think I’ve got you figured out. I wanna see if I’m right.” “I doubt it,” I laugh, but it’s forced and fake, seeped in regret. It feels duplicitous, standing here talking to him like this when I know I’ll never get to see him again, when I know something he doesn’t. “I don’t drink hard alcohol anyway.” He just shrugs like that little kernel of information isn’t important and in the grand scheme of things, I guess it isn’t. I almost said, anymore, but he doesn’t need to know that. And I don’t need to rehash why either. So I waver between doing the smart thing and the dumb thing. The problem is that it feels like there’s a dangerous grey area between those two choices. Part of me desperately wants to see where this goes and how long I can slide under the radar. The other part of me knows this will just epically blow up in my face. “Come on,” he tries again. “I don’t even know your name. Help a guy out, you know?” My body freezes right where I stand. Here it is. Next stop, Implosion City. “Okay, fine. Let’s do this the hard way,” he chuckles and shakes his head as he backpedals toward the side door. “I lost my number. Can I have yours?” A light chuckle vibrates in my throat and even though the risk is obvious, I don’t care. This is a freefall I don’t know if I can survive. But I jump anyway. My fingers grope around my purse for a pen and something to write on. When my name and number are scribbled on the back of an old receipt, I hand it to him and leave the rest up to fate. His eyes skim the paper and his lips curve up victoriously. “Rae,” he murmurs. “That’s pretty.” “Thank you.” He shoves the paper deep into his pocket and holds a hand out for me to shake. I slip my hand into his larger, warm one and the feel of his skin against mine shortcircuits my brain for a second. “Jack,” he tells me with a wide grin. He doesn’t let go of my hand, but I freeze all the same. Jack. Whose brother lives in prison. Who works here at this club. Every day except Fridays and Saturdays. When the fights happen. His lips dip into a frown, but when they part, his eyes shoot up to something over my head and toward the front of the street. Strong arms shove me protectively into the cement as a hard body shields mine from the chaos around us. Everything seems to happen in slow motion and before my brain even has a chance to catch up, the quiet night air erupts in earsplitting pops.
ABOUT K. RYAN
K. Ryan lives in the Green Bay area with her crazy-supportive boyfriend and the best decision of her adult life, a not-so-stray cat named Oliver. When not writing, she’s either binge-watching something on Netflix, running, reading, or cheering on the Packers. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram (@authorkryan) and Facebook or visit her website,www.authorkryan.com, for updates and news.