by AC Arthur
Book 4 in the Donovan Dynasty
The next step…
For Talaya, the past ten months have been a roller coaster of emotions—fear, grief, joy, love. She’s not sure which ones are simply frequent visitors or which are the reality she can hold onto. All she knows for certain is that she wants Ridge, for however long fate allows.
For Ridge, turmoil and influx aren’t new. Waking up every morning to a gorgeous headstrong woman in his bed though, well that’s something he’s surprisingly getting used to. Until her nightmares begin and the careful realm of normal he’d been trying to weave for them comes crashing down.
Now, to save the family they’ve both yearned for, they must confront the darkness that just won’t relinquish them. But will facing this adversary only open the gates to a world of death and destruction?
Publisher’s Note: Talaya is the SECOND PART to Ridge. Storylines from Ridge are further explored and completed in Talaya’s book. For premium enjoyment, Ridge should be read first.
Book 4 in the Donovan Dynasty
Three more steps, then a pause.
Rhythmic thumping echoed around her while her hands chilled with sweat and fear. Her eyes were closed tight but she wasn’t sure why. Wasn’t sure how this would end.
The footsteps were right outside her door, the shadow visible from the floor and the light in the hallway. Her bedroom was dark—big girls always slept in the dark.
That’s what Mama said to her when she was just a child, five or six years old, probably. She was sixteen now, no longer a child but not quite an adult.
And she was afraid of the dark.
He’d made her afraid.
Her fingers grasped the sheets, pulling them up until they were over her head as she gritted her teeth and told herself repeatedly, “Don’t scream. Don’t scream. He’ll go away if you just don’t scream.”
It was a lie. She knew it and yet she told it to herself over and over again.
Don’t scream. Don’t scream. Don’t scream.
The doorknob jiggled and she held her breath. If she died, he would leave. He wouldn’t have a reason to come into her bedroom at this time of night. He’d walk away and find someone else to kill.
She didn’t breathe, didn’t open her eyes, didn’t release her hold on the sheets. She just waited and waited…until he was gone.
The scene shifted, still cast in dim light, mood somber, heart heavy.
“He’s sick,” her mother said as she smoothed a hand down Talaya’s head. Talaya had gone to the hairdresser two days before and her naturally curly dark brown hair had been flat ironed into a long wrap just like the one Aaliyah wore on her One In A Million album cover. She’d been listening to Aaliyah songs and dancing around her room to them since she was seven years old and had waited very impatiently for her mother to deem her old enough to have her hair styled like the singer’s.
“He’s sick and he’s going away to hopefully get some help,” Regina continued in the soothing and assuring voice only a mother could possess.
Tears rolled down Talaya’s cheeks as she kept her eyes closed tightly. Self-preservation had her willing her mind to replay the moment Alicia Keys had stepped onto the stage to accept her R&B Album of the Year grammy for The Diary of Alicia Keys. She’d loved the white dress the singer wore that night. Alicia’s hair was straight just like Aaliyah’s had been on that album cover and Talaya had smiled and run her fingers through her own straight tresses. She’d felt pretty and, dare she think, “sexy”. She could only think it because her life’s focus was supposed to be on her studies and the future in political science her father had already planned for her.
But those dreams, along with everything else she’d known had collapsed when Alicia’s acceptance speech was interrupted by a breaking news bulletin.
“Senator Jameson Brennan was arrested and charged with the brutal murders of seventeen women in the Long Island area.”
Her mother’s hand on her head was comforting but it wasn’t enough. And try as she might, Talaya couldn’t hold onto that memory of the awards show she’d waited all day to watch. Instead, her thoughts shifted from her mother’s words, which were only mildly punctuated by a break in Regina’s voice. That hitch in her breathing told Talaya her mother was crying as well, but Talaya didn’t dwell on that sound, her thoughts were already moving to the seventeen dead women, her father’s smiling face and fear. Thick, heavy, cold-as-ice fear that spread like a vicious virus throughout her body until she could no longer listen to herself, could no longer take the advice she’d insisted on chanting and she screamed.
Until her throat felt raw and fresh tears spilled from her eyes, Talaya screamed and screamed as if her life depended on that blood-curdling sound. As if her ear-shattering howl would somehow wash away all the others that had cried out because of the man whom she’d once adored.
Ridge scooped her into his arms like she was a newborn and sat on her side of the bed to cradle her in his lap. She burrowed her face into his chest while her body jerked as the screams gave way to sobs and tears dampened his bare chest.
“Shhhh,” he cooed and with one hand caressed her arm, while the other pressed against the side of her head, holding her tight to him. “It’s okay, baby. I got you,” he told her. “I got you.”
And he did have her. He’d told her so, more times than he could recall in the ten months he’d known her. In all his life he’d never given so much of himself to one person before, had never pledged every ounce of his being to another soul. Yet, for this woman now shivering in his arms, he would give his very last breath. Any and everything he owned, could buy, could pay someone to invent to bring her the peace she deserved.
His chest ached with each sob that had her arms tightening around him, her fingers digging into his bare skin. The tears that seeped onto him were hot enough to sear right through his flesh, penetrating his heart until it crumbled with the sadness and fear he knew lived inside of her.
Fuck Jameson Brennan!
How many times had he cursed that man, the one whose semen had helped create Talaya and whose demented personality had shredded her innocence. If Ridge could dig his rotten ass up from that barely marked grave the penitentiary had put him in, he would, just so he could kill that bastard again. His fingers itched to do exactly that, teeth gnashed with the need to exact revenge on Talaya’s behalf. Only there was no one to take it out on, no one to make up for all that she’d had to endure through no fault of her own.
“I’m sorry.” She said those two words so softly he barely heard them.
But he knew she’d said them because she said the same thing after each one of these episodes. The nightmares she’d have at night or panic attacks she would have during the day, she saw them as her fault, her failure. He saw them as the remnants of a pain that plagued her far beyond what those pills she took each day or the therapy sessions she attended monthly could remedy.
“Don’t be,” he whispered and touched his lips to her forehead. “It’s not your fault.”
He could say that a million times too, but until she believed those words wholeheartedly, she would never get past this.
Her hands relaxed until her fingers brushed over his skin as she moved them up and down his back. “I wish I could make it stop,” she said.
He did too, but he didn’t say that. It only made him feel more helpless because wishing obviously wasn’t enough.
“It’s like I go hours, sometimes days without the memories sneaking back to the forefront, and then it’s like they kick through the door and make their presence known. Like they want to make sure I never start to believe I can have a life without them.” She shook her head and sniffled. “I just want them to be gone.”
“Do you?” he asked and hated the way her body tensed at the question.
“I do,” she insisted. “Why would I want to be miserable? Why, after all that has happened, wouldn’t I want to be whole and happy?”
He didn’t know the answer to that, had laid awake so many nights trying to figure that out for himself. Because if he could pinpoint why she seemed to refuse to let herself be happy with all that he’d been trying to give her these past months, all the love and attention he’d poured into her, the love and adoration his family had offered her, then he could figure out a way to fix it. He would figure out a way to fix it because that’s who he was. He didn’t back down from a challenge, could only ever imagine the success of whichever endeavor he set his mind to.
But this thing with her, this quest to make her happy, wasn’t working.
The logical part of his brain warned it was because he wasn’t responsible for her happiness, that Talaya had to want to achieve that goal for herself for it to really come to fruition. No matter what he bought her—and he’d bought plenty in these past months—no matter how much time he gave her, she had to want to accept and enjoy both those things. Had to want this place they were building in their lives to be the culmination of everything good just as much as he did. That therapist he’d decided to start seeing months ago had earned three times her hourly rate once she’d gotten him to admit this point.
Still, knowing that Talaya’s happiness wasn’t entirely in his control didn’t mean he was going to stop showering her with every material and emotional tidbit he could to show his love and dedication to her.
“Maybe you should think on those questions,” he suggested. “Really be honest with yourself about the answers.”
He knew the second she pulled back to look up into his face that she hadn’t liked what he’d said. He probably could’ve figured out how to say them in a way that she might have digested better, but he’d never been one to mince words. He said what he felt and let the chips fall where they may.
“You do think I’m doing this on purpose?” she asked and then shook her head. “You think I just want to wake up in the middle of the night screaming, sweating and heart thumping with fear.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But it’s what you meant,” she roared back at him, one of her hands now in her lap, the other one, somewhere, but no longer on him. “I’m not trying to get attention, Ridge. And I’m not playing the victim either.”
She jumped off his lap before he could think to stop her. Her movements had come too fast even for her and she stumbled back a bit before regaining her footing. He was on his feet in seconds reaching for her, but she stepped to the side to avoid his touch.
“I don’t want to be trapped in this dark space for the rest of my life,” she continued. “Hell, I thought I’d gotten past most of this. I hadn’t had the nightmares in years and my daydreams normally weren’t darkened by this stuff. But now, it seems like they’re coming back full force and I don’t know why. I can’t explain why this is happening now or how to even stop it.” She folded her arms over her chest as she walked away from the bed they shared.
He watched her move aimlessly about the third-floor suite in his Kensington home. The very short green cotton shorts she’d worn to bed with a matching tank top, her bare feet with purple painted toenails and the pink satin bonnet she wore on her head most nights were a comforting sight. A sight he’d grown used to in the months they’d been sharing this space since returning from Sansonique back in December. He’d wanted her with him and she’d wanted to be here with him so he’d opened his home to her. Gave her free reign to take all the space she needed, to change whatever she wanted from bed linen colors to daily menus. Her mail came here, her new Mercedes GLE was parked in the garage next to both his SUVs, his 918 Spyder and his vintage ’69 Mustang Fastback. On the double vanity in the bathroom her electric toothbrush was on the power deck right beside his, her shampoo and other hair products crowded the shower racks and took up most of the cabinet space below the vanity. Her perfume permeated the air throughout the room for hours after she’d left to go into her office. The office located in the building he’d purchased four months ago to house the Maxine Donovan Future Foundation, named after his mother.
“And it makes me feel so weak,” she admitted and turned to him, her eyes brimming with tears. “I’m not this person. I’ve fought this for so long. I’ve focused on being better, took my meds, and went to all the therapy sessions. I’ve done everything and it just won’t let me go.” She pressed her palms to her cheeks and attempted to blink back the tears. “He won’t let me live.”
Ridge closed the space between them, he touched his hands to her wrists and brought them both to his mouth. He turned first the left one over until the word “unbreakable” she had tattooed there was visible. He put his lips to the scripty letters and let them linger there for a few seconds. Then he went to the right wrist, turning that one over so that the phoenix she had there was staring back at him with all the confidence and tenacity he knew she still had inside of her. He kissed her there too. When she whimpered, he knew before looking up at her that her battle with her tears had been lost.
“You’re not a victim,” he said in a somber, yet forceful tone when he finally brought his glance to meet hers. “You’re not weak.”
She sighed as tears streaked her cheeks. “I’m healing,” she said, her voice catching on that last word.
He nodded. “That’s right. You were deeply hurt so you needed a lot of care, but you’re healing now. You’re working toward being whole again.”
With both of them in therapy for C-PTSD, it was natural that themes they learned in their private sessions would spill over into their personal relationship. In that way, Ridge had been even more thankful to have Talaya in his life. He would’ve never gone to therapy without watching the adult her, manage the childhood learned stress disorder that held both their futures hostage. While their situations had been vastly different, the ongoing stress and repeated traumatic events that had brought them to this point in their lives had done mutual damage and if they wanted this relationship between them to have a fighting chance, they both had to heal.
He cupped her face in his hands and now she gripped his wrists. Tilting her face up to his he stared down into her warm amber eyes, feeling her gaze reach inside him to squeeze his heart until he didn’t think he could breathe again without her. “We’re going to get through this,” he told her. “I promise you we will. Together.”
She nodded and he used his thumbs to brush away the tears that continued to fall. “Together,” she whispered and gave him a tentative smile.