The Shadow – Book 5
Chapter Two – Preview
Michael Huang sat on the porch of a house he’d moved into, a week ago, in the middle of small-fucking-town Kentucky along the outskirts of hicks-where. It was supposed to provide good cover. They’d tried large cities, Asian countries, the European countryside and more recently, Canada. Each and every time, they’d been sniffed out.
His uncle, who’d stepped into the role of his father since he was seven years old, had been the one to suggest he move to Henry, KY on his own. The four of them—his uncle, his aunt, and their daughter—moving together had been too large of a group, and Mike had agreed to move alone since the last time they were tracked, his cousin, Yàn had come too close to getting hurt. They’d spent so much time pretending to be brother and sister she felt like his real sister, so he would have never been able to live it down if she’d gotten hurt.
Now, he was here, in the middle of virtually nowhere and in a town with a population of less than eight-thousand.
It had only taken him two days since enrolling at the local high school to get into his first fight. In Canada, the people were nicer so it had taken him an entire six months there. In Taiwan, eight weeks. He hadn’t seen mainland China since the four of them left all those years ago.
He’d moved to Henry under the guise of being a troubled teen his “parents” needed help with, with the understanding that he would be living alone, and in the hope that the small-town feel would help calm his aggression. There’d been no sympathy from the school officials who’d all looked, collectively, like they were tired of every last high schooler’s shit. It was hard to blame them. The fight he’d gotten into today had been merely because some kid named Ant asked him his name, he didn’t answer, and that had pissed Ant off.
Mike pressed the soles of his Nike slides against the wooden porch railing and tipped his chair back. The work here was easy, so he’d finished his homework while tuning out the teacher in a different, even easier class. He’d then written a letter to his uncle that he’d drop off in the large blue mailbox he passed on the walk to school.
A year here, alone, was going to be brutal. He could already feel it, like hundreds of ants biting his skin. If the Gàu found him here, he wasn’t certain he wouldn’t give himself up. Running was wearing down on his body, tearing at his psyche, and he’d been running for eleven years now. He didn’t have the strength to do it anymore.
The man who’d killed his parents was the type of man who would stop at nothing to make sure their entire family was wiped out. Mike knew there would never be any “normalcy” for him or even a chance to let down his guard. It made little sense to remain in hiding when death seemed much more preferable to a life of constantly looking over his shoulder. It was a life he loathed almost as much as the man who’d forced him into it.
Hollowed clicks on pavement caused his left ear to twitch. Mike leaned forward in the chair, set the legs on the porch floor, and looked toward the sound.
It was her.
Mocha skin. Dark eyes. Pouty mouth. Hair that swept a café au lait birthmark the shape of a diamond in the middle of her back with each step she took.
He was familiar with the dynamics of high school. They really didn’t change much across cultures. There were popular kids, nerds, jocks, emo kids, and those who didn’t really give a damn about social structure and did their own thing. He always inadvertently fell into the last group. Although he hadn’t been trying to, because of those social dynamics, he’d still learned this girl’s name.
Henry wasn’t exactly a rich kid type of town. The neighborhood that fed the school was filled with middle class, blue-collar working folk. It was the neighborhood where his house was located, paid in cash by his uncle for less than .01 percent of what the house he’d grown up in had cost. The residents kept mostly to themselves. Ant was the only one who’d troubled him so far, but this girl was the one who’d unsettled him.
Xara Merritt traipsed around school with people flocking to her as if trying to sip her popularity and get drunk on her aura. Even if he hadn’t been trying to see her, he would have anyhow. She lit up a hallway like a fucking lantern. When she smiled, it was hard to look away. And the girl was always smiling.
It made him sick.
There was no reason for any human being to be that happy all the damn time.
And then, those heels. She was always wearing heels. They made her ass perk up and pushed her height nose to nose with his. Even now, the girl was still wearing the same outfit she’d had on earlier. Normal people didn’t go for walks through their house, much less outside, dressed in that snug of a dress or in shoes like those.
It was dark and his porch light was off, so she didn’t see him see her look his way when she walked past. Her arms were crossed in front of her body, her hands gripping each elbow. Her gait was slow, and she didn’t seem to have a destination in mind.
Mike was pushing up out of his seat before he realized it. Either the girl was completely naïve or didn’t care what happened to her. The neighborhood wasn’t the worst, but they only had about a half-hour of daylight left. There was no outrunning an attacker in those death traps on her feet.
Blood warmed his face when he heard a familiar voice call out to her in the dusk.
“Xara, you sticking up for chinky-eyed motherfuckers, now?” Ant appeared in front of her, blocking her path.
“Ant, I’m not in the mood for your crap right now.”
She took a step to the right.
So did Ant.
“You know I’ve been trying to get at your friend for a minute now,” Ant went on. “But y’all think y’all too good for a hood cat like me.”
Even in the dark, Mike could see her eyes roll.
“Ant, get over yourself,” she warned. “We live in the same neighborhood. Maybe if you’d stop trying to play Deebo all the freakin’ time, Val would give you the time of day. I don’t understand why you have to put on that whole ‘bad boy’ act when you know Val doesn’t go for those types.”
Ant laughed, exaggerating his humor by tossing his head back. “Whatever, Xara. Think your momma would like if I told her you were opening up your legs for the Asians now?”
She tried stepping around him, to the left this time. Again, he mimicked her movement.
“What do you want, Anthony?”
“We grew up together right here on this street,” he said. “I’m here for an apology for your behavior today.”
Mike made his way down the porch steps toward them. When he was a few steps away, Xara’s hand went up.
“Thanks, but I can handle this,” she said.
He stopped dead in his tracks. How the hell did she know he was there? Virtually no one heard him unless he wanted them to. It was a trait he’d learned from his father, uncle, and the man who now hunted him like forbidden prey.
“Oh, what do we have here?” Ant peered over Xara’s shoulder. “Your boyfriend coming to save you?”
“Ant, do better,” she spat. “Boys who look like you have enough to worry about in this world and here you are, choosing to act like an asshole. You’ve had a crush on Val forever and she’d probably give you the time of day if you’d act like you matured, even a little, since our middle school days.”
Ant took a half-step back like she’d struck him. “Whatever, man.”
“Don’t whatever me.”
Mike smiled. She was in full lecture mode now. Her right hand was in the air, index finger pointed upward like a preacher about to deliver a scathing sermon.
“So, what are you trying to say?” Ant asked.
“I’m saying ‘do better,’” she repeated. “You’re so much more than this act you put on. You don’t have anything to prove, to anybody. Plus, if you say anything to my mother, I’ll just go to your grandmother. We both know Mama Peoples doesn’t play, and she’ll come down harder on you than my momma will.”
Ant sucked in a breath and batted the air, but he walked off the opposite direction without further incident.
When he was gone, Xara spun around and faced Mike, her voice a whisper. “Oh my god.” She started toward him. “I didn’t think that would wor—”
The next thing he knew, she was in his arms. He didn’t remember stepping forward but he had, catching her before she fell face first to the sidewalk.
“Those damn things are going to be the death of you,” he said, glancing at her feet.
The lowering sun made her brown eyes appear onyx. This close, her heart beat against his. Her breasts were soft against his chest. The faint scent of roses snuck into his nostrils from the pulsing hollow of her throat.
She looked down at the shoe whose heel had hooked against an uneven plate on the sidewalk concrete. “I know.”
“So why do you wear them?”
He helped her upright. She winced.
“They hurt?” he asked. “Why are you out here walking in them?”
She returned to that closed in demeanor, warming her arms even though it wasn’t cold outside. “I needed to get out of the house in a hurry.”
She shrugged, which wasn’t much of an answer, but he didn’t push.
“It’s getting dark, Xara.”
Her eyes flickered at the sound of her name leaving his lips. It didn’t feel as foreign as he’d been expecting. In a way, he liked the way it sounded and felt between his teeth.
“You remembered my name.”
Mike huffed a sigh, turned, and tapped his shoulders. “Come on.”
Although he wasn’t looking at her, he still envisioned the look on her face at his gesture, surprise and affront with a bit of attitude. In other words, cute as fuck.
“Come on where?” she asked.
“You obviously can’t walk all the way back home in those.” He tapped his shoulders again. “I’ll carry you.”
“I don’t even know your name.”
“It’s Mike.” He tipped his head. “Come on. It’s getting late.”
After three wobbling clicks, he felt her hands on his shoulders. They were smaller than his, and not as soft as other girls’ hands he’d known. He’d been here two days but already knew she loved to design things, mainly clothes and fashion accessories. Needles and thread had probably left their fair share of calluses on her fingertips, and he found he didn’t like thinking of her not having the benefit of smooth hands.
He bent his knees, and she clumsily climbed onto his back.
“Can I touch your thighs, Xara?” he asked, ignoring the flush that went through him at the thought of his hands on her skin.
He felt her nod, and he hooked his hands under her thighs while she wrapped her arms around his shoulders. She wasn’t a short or thin girl, by any means, but on his back as he walked with her, she felt small. Like someone who needed to be protected. Too bad he would never be able to do anything for her.
She wiggled against him.
“What are you doing?” he asked, stumbling and maneuvering to try to avoid dropping her.
“Pulling down my dress. My booty was all out.”
“Wear something looser next time.” Like that would help. She had a peach of an ass. He’d noticed it on the first day of school and could spot it coming down a hallway.
“Yes, Father,” she teased.
He followed her directions until he was depositing her on her front stoop. The minute she lowered onto the steps, she slipped the shoes from her feet and made like she was going to toss them into the neatly trimmed hedge that ran along the porch wall.
“You might as well,” he told her. “Don’t wear those again.”
Her head towered slightly above his from her position on the step. “I don’t take orders from strangers.”
“I’m not a stranger. You know my name now.”
She quirked her right brow. “Thanks for the ride.”
She dropped down off the step and came close enough for her body heat to cast its warmth over him.
“What?” he asked, not sure why he didn’t step away. Or why his heart was pounding, hard, in his chest all of a sudden.
“Nothing.” She dragged down the corners of her mouth. “Are you dangerous, Michael?”
He avoided showing any evidence she was having an effect on him. It wasn’t an effect he understood or was even familiar with, but it wouldn’t be ignored. Tiny beads of perspiration on his forehead joined the racing in his chest. His throat felt near to closing.
Fucking teenage hormones.
“I never told you my name was Michael.”
“I’ve never met a Mike who wasn’t. Answer the question.”
“I don’t understand the question.”
“The way you fight.” She circled him. “And the way you appear without being heard. Are you dangerous?”
When she was in front of him, he stopped her circling with an easy grip on her shoulders. It was time to turn the tables.
“Very dangerous.” He leaned forward. “The kind of dangerous that gets good girls like you wet.”
She blinked, a quick and nervous flutter of her eyelids.
“What was that?” He ticked his head to the side. “Did I make you uncomfortable?”
“No.” She sucked her bottom lip into her mouth. “Why would you?”
He made the gap between them even smaller, crowding her although being this close was having the same effect on him as it appeared to be having on her. “You like bad boys, Xara? You stay up late at night touching yourself to guys you think are . . . dangerous?”
Even though she was obviously rattled, she held his gaze, and he hated what that mix of challenge and innocence did to his dick. His life was complicated, so he would have preferred that if someone wanted to be in it, they didn’t expect much. Xara seemed like the type to expect more than he was capable of. She also seemed like the type who deserved it.
She released her bottom lip and it glistened, making her mouth look even more plump than it usually did. Her breaths were slow and shallow and her gaze was so fixed to his, he wondered if she was truly looking at him at all. Maybe “into” him. Whatever she was searching for, he hoped she found it. When he looked at himself in the mirror, he saw nothing worth searching for.
“Xara,” he leaned closer, his face inches from hers, “did I get that pussy wet?”
Her nostrils flared. “Hmm?”
“Xara . . . is that pussy wet for me? Right now?”
They both turned as the front door swung open. Standing in the entryway was a woman who looked like she was out for murder. On her face, Mike could see where she resembled Xara, but there weren’t many similarities. They had different complexions. Different hair. Xara’s skin was more dark roast, her face oval, and her hair jet black and silky. This woman’s face was heart-shaped, her skin butterscotch, and her hair long, thick, and light brown.
Xara stepped away from him. “Mama—”
“That’s what you’ve been doing? You’ve been meeting with a boy?” The woman’s attention moved to him. “Get the hell off my porch, young man.”
“He’s not on the porch, Mama,” Xara countered.
Xara’s mother smacked an open hand against her chest. “You stormed out of the house like a brat and now, you come back here and talk to me like this? Your own mother? I was worried about your ungrateful behind and here you were, spreading your legs for some Japanese boy.”
Mike thought about correcting her but realized it wasn’t the time nor place for his asshole ways to rear its head. He was more interested in the dynamic between the two women. The minute the woman stepped outside, Xara shrunk to half her size.
“Mama, you hurt me with the things you said,” Xara argued, voice low. “I didn’t mean any disrespect. I just want you to understand—”
“You hurt me when I gave birth to you.” The older woman looked his way again. “If I come back outside and you’re still on my porch, I’m calling the police to beat the yellow off you, do you understand?”
Then, she was a blur as she whirled back into the house.
Xara started up the stairs. “Thanks for your help, Mike.”
“Anytime,” he called after her. “Actually, Xar?”
She turned half her body toward him, her hand hovering over the knob on the front door. “Yeah?”
Growing up as the son of the leader of one of the most dangerous clandestine organizations in the world, he knew conflict. He sniffed it like people did fruits at a market, and something was rotten in the Merritt house. He didn’t know much about Xara’s mother—nothing, really—and he believed she had an older brother, but the way her posture changed from confident to closed in, only one person in that house had any power.
“Goodnight,” he said.
It wasn’t his place to pry, and he wasn’t a savior. He couldn’t help her, didn’t want to, and didn’t care enough about her home life to contemplate finding out what had made her change.
If he reminded himself of that enough times, maybe he would start to believe it.
She lowered her head in a brief nod and disappeared inside the house. Mike remained standing there, staring into the soft light coming through the glass on the front door. He wanted to tear it from its hinges, barge his way inside, and drag Xara back out onto the lawn. He wouldn’t stop dragging her until she was in the middle of his house behind a door where . . .
He stopped his train of thought. She wouldn’t be safer with him, not even with a mother like that. However, as he turned and made his way back home, he realized that maybe a year in Hicktown, USA wouldn’t be as bad as he’d previously thought.