The mocking voice froze us in our tracks. Max’s grip on my arm tightened.
My heart stuttered, then began pounding. Nausea and vertigo set in, and if not for Max’s steadying hand, I may have collapsed.
As one, we slowly did an about-face.
Ira stood in the doorway to the house, a shoulder propped against the jam, arms crossed over his broad chest. He wore his straight hair long, halfway down his back, and parted in the middle. A small braid graced each temple. The dark mane outlined an arrogant, copper-hued face that looked as if it were chiseled in stone. Revealed in a faded and tattered denim vest, his upper body and arms were heavily muscled, tapering down to a flat stomach and narrow hips. Washed out blue jeans hugged his long legs, ending on the tops of dusty black boots.
My heart jumped into my throat, stuck there. All the old feelings came flooding back, undiminished by the passage of time. Love, passion, shame, guilt roiled around inside, joined by a new element: fear.
Our eyes met. A small smile curled his lips.
“Ira…” I squeaked.
He pushed away from the door facing and strode across the porch, his body moving with the liquid grace of a panther, stopped on the top step and looked down at Max and me. He grinned, but the wolfish smile failed to reach his eyes; they were as hard and cold as forged steel. “Who’s the pussy, Chloe?”
Max stiffened but said nothing.
“Aren’t you going to introduce us?” Ira asked. At my continued silence he turned the full force of his gaze upon me. Snake eyes, I thought. “I’m waiting.”
I did what he wanted. “Ira, this is M—Max Taylor. Max, th—this is Ira J—Jamison.”
Ira executed a sweeping bow, then his eyes fastened on Max. “And what might you be to our sweet little Chloe?”
“I’m her fiancé,” Max answered, his voice strong and calm. “And you?”
“Didn’t she tell you…Max?” Ira descended the steps. He clasped his hands behind his back and leaned forward, bringing his face closer to Max’s. His eyes skittered and danced. “I’m her long lost brother, her best friend, the first fuck she ever had.” His eyes swung back to me. “But not the last, huh, little girl?”
I sucked in my breath but remained silent. It was apparent to me, as I’m sure it was to Max, that we were dealing with something dangerous and deadly.
“I know all about you,” Max said.
“Oh? And what is it that you think you know about me?”
“I know that you and Chloe were kept in the dark about being siblings,” Max answered. “I know about Bubba and your father and the—”
“You told him!” Ira rounded on me, grabbed my shoulders, and jerked, breaking Max’s grip on my arm. “Did you tell him everything?”
My eyes locked on his glittering mad ones, I shook my head, too frightened to speak.
Max shoved between us. “Run Chloe!”
I stood rooted to the spot. I couldn’t run, couldn’t move, could barely comprehend what was taking place.
Max backed away. Ira advanced, arms held loosely at his sides. In a blur of motion, Max lunged forward and slammed a balled fist into Ira’s mid-section. Ira ignored the blow and lashed out with one of his own, backhanding Max across the face. Max went down, blood squirting from his nose. As soon as he hit the ground, Ira was on him, kicking him again and again, in the ribs, the back, the head. Max rolled through the high grass, trying to escape. But Ira followed, his boot delivering blow after blow. Then in the wake of a vicious kick to the head, Max lay still.
Ira pulled a knife from the scabbard attached to his belt and dropped down on him. The sight of the gleaming blade galvanized me into action.
“No!” I leaped on Ira’s back, wrapped my arms around his shoulders and pulled with all my might. “Don’t kill him, Ira! Please don’t kill him! Oh my God, don’t!”
My hands lost their purchase as Ira rose to his feet, causing me to fall back. I landed hard on my butt. He stepped over Max’s prone body and turned to me. I stole a quick glance at Max. He was unconscious, but Ira hadn’t used the knife on him.
My eyes traveled from Ira’s booted feet to his face. Our eyes met and held. For a few moments, the rest of the word ceased to exist as I was caught up in his dark eyes, so familiar and yet so completely alien.
He squatted in front of me, so close I could have reached out and touched him. “Why shouldn’t I?” he asked.
“Kill him.” He motioned toward Max with his knife. “You told him all about me, didn’t you, little girl?”
“He won’t say anything. He’s a psychiatrist…confidentiality, you kn—know.”
Max groaned. One of his hands twitched. Ira calmly slammed his fist against the side of Max’s head, causing him to go limp.
The meaty thump’s sound made me feel as if I had been punched in the stomach. I came up on my knees and grabbed Ira’s fist with both hands. “Don’t hurt him anymore. Stop hitting him.”
“Would you rather I used this?” Ira held the six-inch blade in front of my face. I shook my head. My hands still wrapped around his fist, he used it to push me back to the ground.
“Take off your shirt,” he said.
“You heard me. Give me your shirt.”
“If you want to keep lover boy breathing, just do it.”
Hands shaking, I grasped the tail of my T-shirt and pulled it over my head. I handed it to him, then crossed my arms over my white bra.
He hacked the shirt in two and twisted the fabric pieces to form crude ropes. He tied Max’s ankles together, rolled him on his stomach and bound his hands behind his back, then picked him up and slung him over his shoulder. “Chloe?”
I looked up, met his eyes.
“Stay right here,” he said. “Don’t move.”
Max’s head bobbing on his back, Ira strode toward the house. When he reached the steps, he stopped and turned back. “Don’t try anything. If you run, I’ll kill him.”
There was no doubt in my mind he would carry out his threat. I nodded again.
He climbed the steps and disappeared inside. In less than a minute, he came back out, retraced his steps across the porch and through the waving grass to where I sat. He hunkered down and offered one of two beers he held.
“I don’t like it,” I said.
“Drink it anyway.” He wiped beads of sweat from his brow. “You need something wet.”
The can felt almost as hot as the summer day. “But it’s warm.”
“I said, drink it anyway.” He sounded irritated. Not wishing to antagonize him—one didn’t poke an angry bear—I popped the tab and took a small sip. The taste almost made me gag. Now if it had been whiskey…
I gathered my courage and spoke. “What are you going to do with us?”
“Oh, I don’t know…haven’t decided yet. A lot depends on you.” He trailed his fingers over my cheek. I jerked away. He cupped my chin and turned my face up to his. Fire danced in his eyes. “What’s the matter, little girl? You used to like for me to touch you.”
“Y—you scare m—me, Ira.”
The anger drained from his face. “I’d never hurt you, Chloe, you know that.”
“What about M—Max?”
A fleeting look of irritation crossed his features. “Long as you behave yourself, he’ll be just fine. But I’m warning you, Chloe, you try and leave and I’ll kill him…after a while.”
“I won’t leave.”
His eyes fastened on my quivering lips. His fingers slipped down my neck, and lightly circled the base of my throat. “You always was a good little girl.” He moved in closer.
I knew what was coming. All that kept me from pleading for him to stop was Max’s safety. Don’t pull away. You can get through this.
I steeled myself for the feel of his mouth on mine, the revulsion it would bring. But when his lips closed over mine in a brutal kiss, my body responded with a mind of its own. Awash in raw desire, my back arched, and I returned his fiery kiss, my jaw dropping open to his questing tongue. My loins contracted, the feeling so intense it was almost painful.
Ira broke contact and sat back on his haunches. He took the beer from my hand, and together with his, placed them on the ground a short distance away. Hands gripping my shoulders, he lowered me on my back. He stripped off his vest and tossed it aside. “Know what I’m gonna to do to you, little girl?” he asked, his voice a husky whisper.
Staring into his eyes, I said nothing, just lay there in the tall, prickly grass as bewitched by him as I had been at fifteen.
“Something I’ve dreamed about doing for years: I’m going to fuck you, Chloe.” Using an elbow to prop his upper body, he stretched out beside me. His free hand smoothed the damp curls from my face as his eyes bore into mine, eyes filled with a longing I remembered from years past.
“Don’t do this,” I said. “Please.”
His hand stilled. “Why not? You want it just as much as I do.”
“You know why.”
“No, I don’t.”
“You’re my brother,” I sobbed.
He jerked back. “You’re not going to start that stupid shit again, are you?”
“It’s true and you know it!”
He stared down into my face. “I don’t give a flying fuck what you are—sister, devil, or jesus-fucking-christ. It’s all the same to me.”
He came closer, his long hair brushing my face. At the last moment, I turned aside and his mouth made contact with my neck. I felt his teeth sink into my flesh and cried out in pain. I tried to push him away, but it was like trying to move a mountain.
He licked the wound he had created. I shivered, both fear and lust coursing through my body. The throbbing pain gradually receded, giving way to increasing desire as he continued to stroke my neck with his warm tongue.
I couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t deny what my body and heart wanted, had always wanted, and feeling as if I had gladly entered the gates of hell, I turned my face, searching for his mouth.
His hair dropped down around us like a curtain, shutting out the hot sun, and I was lost. Our kiss was savage, tasting of blood; whether from my mouth or neck, I didn’t know and didn’t care.
His lips never leaving mine, Ira rolled me on my side flush against his body. I strained toward him striving to squeeze even closer as my fingers twined through his hair, cradling his head. He groaned when I stabbed my tongue into his mouth, and capturing it, sucked it in deeper. I whimpered my pleasure.
Keeping our mouths locked together, he rolled me onto my back. I felt him leave me. My eyes flew open.
He was on his knees between my spread legs. He removed one of my sneakers, then its mate. His hands found the top of my shorts, unbuttoned, unzipped, and tugging them down. My filmy panties followed suit.
“I bet that sonofabitch has been putting it to you,” he said. “When I’m through with you, you’ll forget him, you’ll forget every man that’s fucked you but me.” He unbuttoned the fly of his jeans.
Leaning over me, he grasped my ankles, putting them over his shoulders, and thrust inside me.
A powerful orgasm tore through me, and I clutched at him, crying out his name. Raining kisses on my face, he lay motionless atop me until the spasms began to taper off. Then he started moving again, stoking the fires, turning me into a quivering mass of need, wanting only to be filled by him. “Cum for me again, Chloe,” he whispered, his fiery breath scorching the crook of my neck.
I teetered on the edge, then fell off, clinging to him as if he were my lifeline. He lunged inside me once more, then was still.
“I love you!” someone called out.
And I don’t know if it was him or me.
I was hot…burning hot…
“Shut the fuck up!”
With a start, my eyes popped open. I sat up. Confused, I looked around. My eyes took in the trampled grass, two beer cans, a few pieces of scattered clothing. My clothing.
And I remembered.
My head snapped up.
“Chloe…” It was Max.
“Goddamn it, I said to shut up!” And Ira.
Forgoing the bright pink panties, I stood and hurriedly pulled on my shorts. I had to get to Ira. There was no telling what he might do to Max if I wasn’t around to stop him.
Squaring my shoulders, I started toward where he sat on the porch steps.
Something in the crushed grass ahead caught my eye: my blazer. I picked it up, slid my arms into the sleeves, and did the buttons.
Ira watched through hooded eyes as I approached. “Want some?” he asked, holding out a can of peaches.
I shook my head. “Maybe later.”
He shrugged, going back to spearing the slices with the tip of his knife and popping them in his mouth.
“Chloe…” Max’s voice from inside the house.
Ira twisted around. “If you want your fucking head kicked in, just keep it up!”
Ira shot to his feet, slinging the can of fruit to the ground. “That sonofabitch…”
“Don’t.” I grabbed his arm. “Let me talk to him. I’ll make him be quiet.”
Rabid eyes glared at me. “I’ll fix his ass. He’ll shut up.”
Using the only weapon I had available, I stroked his bare chest, then let my hand slide down to grasp the waistband of his jeans. “Let me talk to him. Please.”
Slowly, deliberately, he wrapped a section of my tangled hair around his fist. He pulled my head back and ravaged my mouth with his.
As had been the case since the first time he had touched me, I was powerless to deny him anything. The woman I was now wanted him every bit as much—if not more—as the girl I had been fifteen years ago. I was terrified of him, and yet I loved him. He was my brother, and yet I loved him. He was insane, and yet…I loved him.
It would be a mercy if I were crazy as well. Maybe then my soul wouldn’t be in such torment.
He broke the kiss, released my hair, and stepped back. “All right, but just for a minute.” He followed me to the door but stopped there while I went inside.
After my eyes had adjusted to the gloom, I spotted Max in the far corner of the front room. Still trussed up, he lay on his side on the filthy littered floor like an abandoned sack of garbage. I went to him and squatted beside him. “Max?”
“Chloe…” he murmured. “…that you?”
“Yes, it’s me. Are you all right?”
“Don’t know…head hurts…maybe concussion…think ribs broke…oh, shit..”
I cringed inside, wishing I could somehow ease his pain. It was my fault this sweet, gentle man had been injured. I didn’t know how, but I was going to get him out of this alive.
I glanced over my shoulder. Ira stood just inside the door, watching. I leaned down, my lips close to Max’s ear. “You’ve got to be quiet,” I whispered. “He’ll kill you if you aren’t.”
“No, I’m fine. He won’t hurt me.” I hoped. “But he will you if you’re not still.”
“I know.” He mumbled something else.
“What’s he saying?” Ira asked.
I raised my head. “He’s thirsty. Can I get him some water?”
“Please? If there’s a bucket, I’ll draw some from the well.”
“Oh, I don’t think you want to do that, little girl. Get him a beer…over there.” He waved his hand, indicating a cardboard box setting on the tattered sofa.
“Water would be better, if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind at all, but you might.”
“What do you mean?”
His eyes glowed with wicked amusement. “Pa’s in there.”
“He’s at the bottom of the well, tied to a couple of cinder blocks, what’s left of him anyway. Probably ain’t nothing but bones down there now.” He paused. “But if it’s water you want, help yourself. I think there’s a bucket out there.”
I swallowed down a wave of nausea. “Beer will be fine.”
Besides beer, the box held a small assortment of canned goods, an opener, and a box of crackers. It looked as if Ira had come prepared. I took one of the warm Coors back to Max and supported his head while he gulped down half.
“It’ll be okay.” But Max didn’t hear me; he had passed out again.
I lowered his head to the floor and stood. A wave of lightheadedness washed over me. Not having eaten since early that morning, I knew I must be hungry, though I didn’t feel it. But knowing I would need my strength for what lay ahead, I took a few crackers and a beer from the cardboard box.
I passed Ira, walked across the porch, and sat on the steps. He joined me.
“Why in the world did you come back here?” I asked, munching on a stale cracker. “You could get caught. You ought to leave before someone sees you.”
He laughed, the sound more bitter than amused. “You’re not tired of me already, are you, little girl?”
“I’m careful. And nobody comes out here this time of year anyway.” He gazed off into the distance. “I knew you’d come back.”
His statement brought to mind my own certainty that I would find him here. “You did?”
“Yeah. I’ve come back every summer since you’ve been gone. After I took you to the hospital that night, I laid low for a few months, then went to West Memphis. But you hadn’t gone back there. Nobody I talked to had any idea where you was. I paid a visit to Old Amos not long after, and he told me nobody but the sheriff knew where you’d gone, and for your protection, didn’t tell nobody. And you know what?”
I bit off a small piece of cracker. “What?”
“The fucking sheriff’d had a heart attack and died the day before I got here.” He paused. “So I came back here every summer…when the wind told me to. I knew that I’d find you here one day, that it was just a matter of time.”
His conviction that we’d meet again didn’t surprise me—hadn’t I felt the same?—but still I asked, “How did you know?”
“It was meant to be. We were meant to be. You know that as well as I do, don’t you?”
My voice small and shaky, I said, “Yes, I know.”
We lapsed into silence. I ate a few more crackers.
“Where have you been all these years?” he asked.
I told him about Brownsville and Aunt Alice, and about my career with Texas Social Services. But I said nothing about Max; I didn’t want Ira’s mind to dwell on him—or any other man.
“A social worker of all things, a do-gooder.” He chuckled. “But that don’t surprise me none. You always were too softhearted.”
That stung. “What’s wrong with helping people, especially children? But you wouldn’t understand because you don’t have any kind of heart, soft or otherwise, do you?”
“It’s better that way. I learned a hell of a long time ago that you can’t get hurt if there’s nothing there to hurt.” For a fleeting moment, I saw a trace of the boy he had been.
“Where did you go, Ira? What did you do?”
“You don’t want to know.” He pulled his knife from its scabbard and started cleaning his fingernails.
“Would you put that away, please? It makes me nervous.”
“You don’t like knives?” He held it up to the afternoon sunlight, turning it this way and that, watching the rays glint off the razor-sharp blade.
“No, I don’t.”
“I’ve always been partial to them, myself.” His grin was pure evil. “They’re more intimate than…say…a gun, don’t you think?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
A peal of wild laughter escaped his mouth, flushing a pair of blue jays out of the towering oak overhanging the porch. Then it ended as if it had been chopped off, and Ira grabbed a handful of my hair and pulled my head back. He placed the point of the blade against my exposed throat. “Sometimes I dream about knives…and you…” The look in his eyes turned the blood in my veins to ice. Was this it? Was he going to kill me now?
I felt a slight sting as the knife tip pricked me.
No! I wouldn’t let it happen. Max had zero chance of staying alive without me. I was all that stood between him and Ira. “Get that damn thing away from me, you idiot!” I pushed his hand away.
He offered no resistance, and with an animated smile, returned to cleaning his nails.
To all outward appearances calm, I brought another cracker to my mouth and bit off a piece. I chewed and swallowed, barely able to force the tiny chunk down my dry, constricted throat.”
“Tell me about her,” Ira said.
“Who?” I croaked.
What could I tell him? That she had been mentally ill? That when she hadn’t gotten her way—like him—she could be a dangerous person? Mother and son were so alike I wondered why I hadn’t realized it before now. I was like Mama on the outside, but Ira was like her inside. “Everyone used to say that I look like her, and I suppose I do, only she was a lot taller,” I told him. “I really don’t remember her very well anymore. She was sad and drank a lot. That’s about all I can recall.”
Ira gave me an oblique glance. “Oh? You used to talk about her all the time.”
“That was years ago, a lifetime ago. I’ve forgotten a lot since then.”
He slipped the knife into its scabbard, then with a finger under my chin, tilted my head back until our eyes met. “You didn’t forget me, though, did you?”
I could drown in his eyes. “No Ira, I never forgot you.”
“You’ve never stopped loving me, have you?”
“I’ve always loved you,” I answered truthfully. “And I always will even though I know it’s wrong.”
“It’s not wrong, little girl. It’s the only right thing I’ve ever had.” His eyes shimmered with tears. “I love you, Chloe. I’ll never let you go again.”
To be continued…