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       Tainted Heartbreak (Tainted Knights Book 3), p.1

           Terri Anne Browning
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Tainted Heartbreak (Tainted Knights Book 3)


  Copyright © Terri Anne Browning/Anna Henson 2018

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of Terri Anne Browning, except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.

  Tainted Heartbreak

  Written by Terri Anne Browning

  All Rights Reserved ©Terri Anne Browning 2018

  Cover Design & Picture by Sara Eirew Photography

  Model: Gus Caleb Smyrnios

  Edited by Lisa Hollett of Silently Correcting Your Grammar

  Formatting by M.L. Pahl of IndieVention Designs

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  Tainted Heartbreak is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. No part of this book can be reproduced in any form by electronic or mechanical means, including storage or retrieval systems, without the express permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer who may quote short excerpts in a review.

  Prologue

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Epilogue

  Playlist

  Prologue

  Cash

  Pulling off my sunglasses, I walked into the empty elevator and pressed the button for the third floor. It was late, well past visiting hours, so the halls were eerily quiet as I stepped off moments later. Unease twisted in my gut, my palms sweating in a way they never did before I took the stage with my bandmates. I had played for hundreds in the beginning, and more recently, tens of thousands of people, yet the thought of seeing one tiny woman was making my heart pound so hard my stomach was unsettled.

  The halls were intricate, so I stopped in front of a nurses’ station for directions. An older woman in green scrubs with her hair pulled back into a severe bun lifted her head from the charts she had in front of her when she heard my footsteps. “Visiting hours are over,” she clipped out.

  “Yes, ma’am,” I said, giving her the smile I’d learned from my father during all his campaigns over the years. This smile had gotten me and the guys out of some pretty deep shit over the years. It worked on everyone, with the exception of Emmie Armstrong. She saw straight through my bullshit, and every time she saw that smile, she put me on merchandise detail. “I’m sorry for that. But my grandmother was admitted yesterday, and I jumped on the first available flight as soon as I could. But there was bad weather out west, and my plane had to set down in St. Louis and I came straight here from the airport.” I could see she was wavering, her eyes full of sympathy. I pouted my bottom lip out ever so slightly, going in for the kill. “I would have waited until tomorrow, ma’am, but I have to get back to work tomorrow night or I’ll get fired.”

  It was all bullshit, but she didn’t need to know that. Even as popular as Tainted Knights was, with our latest single already sitting in the top ten on all the charts, I doubted this woman recognized me. The guys and I had been keeping our noses clean, staying out of the spotlight, unlike some of the other up-and-coming musicians lately. After the hell Emmie had raised over Kale ending up in the tabloids a while back, we were all a little scared of the hot redhead.

  “Who’s your grandmother?” she asked, still thinking it over.

  “Doris Mathias,” I supplied.

  Eyes rounding, she looked at one of the screens in front of her and struck a few keys. “She’s in 310, straight down this hall, take the left, and it’s the third door on the left. Don’t overtire her, though, and make sure you let me know when you’re leaving.”

  I turned up the wattage of my smile. “Thank you, ma’am.”

  Room 310 was a private room. I knew that before I even tapped on the door. Gigi sharing a room with anyone was never going to happen. She would have demanded to be taken to another hospital, no matter how sick she was.

  “Come in,” a hoarse voice commanded, and I pushed the door open enough to stick my head inside. The light over her bed was still on. She was seated upright in her bed, with half a dozen pillows that looked as if they had come straight from her own bed propped up behind and around her. Dressed in a robe with her hair perfectly coiffed, she looked like she was just as comfortable here as she would have been at home.

  “Hi, Gigi,” I greeted her with a grin.

  My grandmother’s eyes shot up from her book, warmth instantly filling those normally chilly brown orbs. “Cash.” Closing the book, she waved me in, her arms lifting for a hug.

  I crossed to her in a handful of steps and wrapped my arms around her slender shoulders. As I hugged her, I inhaled deeply, breathing in the scents I’d always associated with this woman. Eucalyptus and white gardenias. The eucalyptus had always been to help decongest her. Even when I was I kid, she’d had lung issues, so when I got the call she was in the hospital with pneumonia, I wasn’t all that surprised. That she was asking for me, however, had shocked the hell out of me.

  But I loved this old lady more than any other person on the planet, so I’d let go of her part in my past and grabbed the first flight to Virginia.

  Her arms belied their appearance of frailty as she hugged me tightly, then pushed me back a few inches so she could see my face. “Don’t you own a razor, boy?”

  Laughing, I straightened. Thrusting my hands into my jean pockets, I grinned down at her. “Well, you don’t seem like you’re at death’s door. You look like the same Gigi as always.”

  She scoffed, waving her hand and rolling her eyes like she wasn’t inwardly pleased with my compliment. Not much had changed with her in the years since I’d last seen her in person. Other than the IV in the back of her left hand and oxygen tube up her nose, she didn’t look like she was sick. But then again, Gigi was never one to show her weaknesses.

  The woman could put the fear of God in a person with a look cold enough to refreeze the polar ice caps. My friend Caleb always joked that my grandmother could put an end to global warming with just a glare in the right direction. I couldn’t say I disagreed with him. Gigi wasn’t like my mother. She didn’t bow down to anyone, ever. She took shit from no one and gave zero fucks about who she hurt as long as she got her way.

  I used to be just like her—and my father by proxy. But after taking a long look at myself, I realized I didn’t like the person I was turning into. That, along with the fact that my father had told me to pick his path to follow or get out, was why I’d really walked away from my old life. I changed my name so that my career couldn’t touch Dad’s political aspirations—and his couldn’t touch mine. I didn’t want to ride the coattails of my father’s name, even in the music world.

  “How are you really, Gigi?” I asked in a quiet voice, concerned for her, but more curious as to why she would suddenly call Emmie as a go-between to ask to see me.

  A tired sigh left her mouth, and for some reason, my heart dropped into my stomach before she even spoke. “I have lung cance
r, Cash. I’m not just here for pneumonia. They’re doing tests to see how much it has spread.”

  I sucked in a breath, absorbing what she’d just confessed. Cancer. Spreading. The thought that this tough as nails woman could succumb to such a disease didn’t make sense to me. I knew cancer was something that could touch anyone, rich or poor, young or old. But Gigi was too cantankerous for cancer to fuck with her.

  I had to clear my throat before I could speak again. “How bad is it?”

  She shrugged, like it was nothing more consequential than telling me it was going to rain tomorrow. “Stage 4.”

  My mind went crazy, trying to remember what the stages of cancer meant. Was it like DEFCON, where one was the worst? Or was it the other way around? Four could mean anything…

  “It’s terminal, Cash,” she supplied with a completely neutral face, giving away none of her emotions. “The doctor says I have a year at the most—if I follow the treatment plan he wants to implement immediately.”

  “If?” I choked out, fighting and losing the battle over my emotions. “What the fuck do you mean ‘if,’ Gigi?”

  “Language,” she chastised me with a glower.

  “Gigi,” I muttered in exasperation. “You don’t tell me that you’re dying and then expect me to act like a goddamn robot. I’m not Dad.”

  “I’m not dead yet, mister. You aren’t going to use that kind of language around me.” She folded her hands in her lap primly, giving me that same look she used to reserve for only me when I was a boy and had disappointed her in some way. That look had the ability to make me feel about three inches tall no matter how old I was.

  “Sorry,” I grumbled.

  “I’m sorry, did you say something?” She touched a hand to her ear. “I didn’t catch that.”

  I scrubbed a hand over my face, mentally cursing up a storm at how big a pain in the ass this woman was. As I pushed my hair back from my brow, I met her gaze. “I apologize, Gigi.”

  A smirk teased at her lips. “Apology accepted.”

  “Now, please, just tell me what you mean by this ‘if’ nonsense.”

  She lowered her lashes, but I saw the flicker of emotions in them before she could mask it. Fear. Doris Mathias was scared, and that terrified me like nothing else could. “They want to do some high doses of chemotherapy, radiation. Medications. And even with that, they can only say I might have a year. Maybe. What kind of life would that year be, though? I would rather have a few months with my dignity than a year with no quality of life.”

  “You’re just going to give up?” I exclaimed, staggered by her confession.

  “I don’t see it as giving up,” she assured me, completely stone-faced now. “I’m just putting it into God’s hands.”

  “Bullshit,” I exploded. “You’re just going to throw in the towel and let this disease swallow you whole. That’s not the Gigi I know and love. That’s not the woman who raised me never to back down from anything.”

  “That woman is now old and tired, Cash,” she murmured, and it was only then I saw just how weak she really was. Her shoulders, normally so straight and proud, were slumped as if they could no longer hold up the weight of her body. There was a yellow tint to her eyes that I hadn’t noticed before. In that moment, I realized she was much sicker than she was allowing the world to see, including me.

  “I don’t want you to die, Gigi,” I whispered, my heart breaking, tears clogging my throat. “I don’t want to lose you for real.”

  The crack in my voice had her head snapping up. “Regardless of when I die, you will never lose me.”

  “Is that why you wanted to see me?” I demanded, angry at the tears that were burning my eyes, pissed at her for letting so much time go by before reaching out to me after the fallout with Dad. Mad at the fucking world because cancer wasn’t supposed to touch my family. They were the goddamn Mathias clan. Nothing and no one could tell them to bow. Especially not Gigi. “To tell me you’re dying?”

  She straightened her shoulders, lifting her head proudly, and the look in her eyes was back to the one I remembered so clearly. “No, actually. That’s not why I asked you to come.”

  “Figures,” I muttered half under my breath. Grabbing the chair from the corner of the room, I dropped it beside her bed and sat. Stretching out my legs, I opened my hands, offering her to lay it all out. “Let’s hear it.”

  Chapter 1

  Amara

  Throwing my hair up into a knot, I grabbed the bottle of sunscreen and started slathering my entire body. The temps were going to be in the nineties with clear skies, and if I was going to be outside in it all day, I desperately needed to make sure every exposed inch of skin was protected.

  Riley came out of the bathroom in nothing more than her panties. A wall of steam followed after her, trying to suck her back into the bathroom. “You look like a tacky tourist right now,” my roommate snickered as she grabbed her bikini top and tied it in place. “Why are you wearing socks up to your knees? It’s like ninety degrees out there.”

  “Ninety-two actually,” I agreed. “And while it’s a sauna outside, you have turned our hotel room into a damn igloo. My nipples are trying to cut through my shirt right now because it’s so cold in here.”

  “You’re so weird,” she laughed, grabbing a pair of shorts.

  I watched silently as she pulled them over her curvy ass, leaving them unbuttoned and unzipped. The shorts were corseted, the black material held together on the sides with shoestrings. She made them herself—hell, on any given day, most of the items in her closet she had made. Dressed in only the shorts and her bikini top, she looked more like she was on her way to work a shift at a strip club than going to a rock festival. That particular look wasn’t unusual for my sexy friend. Riley wanted to start her own clothing line for short and curvy women, and she was her own model for every outfit she created.

  “Will they even let you through the gate dressed like that?” I asked as I watched her fix her boobs in the mirror.

  “I’m going to wear a shirt over it. I just don’t want to be too hot later.” Picking up her foundation brush, she set to work doing her makeup, and I curled up into a ball under the blankets on my bed.

  Crap, I should have talked Lindsey into coming instead. I had over a dozen favors she owed me that I could have cashed in on.

  Riley had won an all-inclusive package to attend one of the biggest rock festivals on the East Coast, in Charlotte. None of us thought she would actually win when she signed up for the contest on the Demon’s Wings’ website. With the millions of fans who must have entered, the actual chances of Riley winning had been slim to none. Yet, by some miracle, she had.

  Everything from first-class plane tickets for two, to ground transportation, to hotel and shuttle service to and from the festival. On top of that, she was going to get to meet some of the hottest legends and hang out with them tonight. She wanted one of us to come with her, and it seemed like I lost the coin toss with our other roommate, Lindsey.

  I hadn’t really complained about it. Not when I was just as into the rock genre as Riley was, whereas Lindsey was more the classical music or nothing type. Getting to meet the members of Demon’s Wings and OtherWorld had been the seller, so I’d jumped at the chance to go with my friend, having never been to a festival before.

  Riley’s clothes revealed more than they covered, leaving nothing to the imagination with her perfectly rounded ass cheeks peeking out of the shorts. I could see it now. All those drunk, high-off-their-ass fuckwads we had encountered the night before, panting after Riley like the horny dogs they were. It always amused me to watch the male—and even some of the female—population salivating over my best friend. But I couldn’t help feeling trepidation as the morning went on. I wanted to bundle her up and take her back to California.

  Dressed in a pair of distressed cutoff shorts with a T-shirt I’d cut up the night before so the back was shredded and my hair pulled under an old ball cap that belonged to one of my little brothers
, I thought I looked cute. Cute was good enough, especially when I was comparing myself to the blazing hotness of Riley.

  Her dyed, jet-black hair was short, ending just past her chin. The ink on her back—a single peacock feather—went the entire length of her spine. With her golden skin and those piercing blue eyes, she looked exotic in a sea of mundane. Her eyes always told guys to go fuck themselves, though, and the smirk that was normally close to the surface made her lips look even fuller than they really were. She was a few inches shorter than me, but her curves more than made up for her lack of height.

  Grabbing my fake ID and my cash, I followed Riley out of our room. There was already a group standing in front of the bank of elevators. The three guys and two girls all ran their eyes over us. I was easily dismissed, but the girls took one look at Riley and decided she was after every guy on the planet. They grabbed their boyfriends’ hands and pulled them closer, forcing them to snap their mouths closed as drool beaded down their chins.

  The third guy, who only seemed to be tagging along, stepped away from his friends. Lifting his can of beer to his lips, he took a long swallow before offering it to Riley. “Drink, sugar?”

  My roommate’s eyes raked up and down the guy. Stretched out T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, jean shorts that looked new, and flip-flops. He was in decent shape, if a bit skinny, and had a cute face, but he was nothing like what Riley went for. She liked them to look more like a bear than a stick. Every guy she ever brought back to the apartment had always been on the huskier side, with full beard and arms the size of tree trunks. When she stood beside them, she looked like a tiny pixie, but that was how Riley liked it. She wanted to feel like a fairy.

  Lindsey called her a punk Tinker Bell the first day she moved in with us.

  “Yeah, no thanks.” She grabbed my hand and entwined our fingers. “I’m taken.”

  The guy’s mouth fell open, and I heard the girls snicker. “You’re a lesbian?”

  “Obvi.”

  “I don’t believe you.” He was getting angry for some reason, and I figured he was already drunk. If he was drinking beer at ten in the morning, the guy was going to be wasted by the time the festival opened at noon. “Kiss your girlfriend, and maybe then I’ll believe you.”

 
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