Ava Stone stood concealed in the parking garage of the Danvers International Office Building staring as her longtime friend Mac—McKinley Powers—greeted his new girlfriend. Mac was nothing if not polite, so if he had noticed her, he would have insisted on introducing her to Gwen. But Ava already knew all about the other woman. When she found out that Mac was dating someone who also worked for Danvers, she’d made it her business to find out everything she could about Gwen for two reasons. First, Mac was a friend and in her mind, no one was good enough for him, including—and perhaps most especially—herself. Second, Ava had been in love with Mac for years and if she couldn’t have him, then she didn’t want to see him end up with just anyone.
The relationship between Ava and Mac had been complicated for many years. Mac had grown up next door to their grandfather. Ava and her brothers, Brant and Declan, had come to live with their grandfather when their parents were killed in a plane crash. At the time Ava was thirteen and her brothers a few years older. Their grandfather had been an indifferent bastard who accepted responsibility for them but mainly just wanted them out of his hair.
Ava and her siblings had known Mac and his family for most of their lives, since their parents had insisted that they visit their grandfather on a regular basis, even though they weren’t particularly close to him. Their grandmother and grandfather had divorced when Ava’s father was still young. She had packed her bags and walked away. As far as Ava knew, her father had never seen or spoken to her again. Actually, no one mentioned her—ever.
Ava thought the visits with their grandfather were more about her parents having a couple of weeks away without having to drag their kids along than any real family bonding time. One of those solo trips to Florida had taken a tragic turn when they didn’t come back. Their plane had crashed, and they were simply gone in the blink of an eye.
Ava had been crushed at the death of her parents, seemingly more so than Declan or Brant. Later she came to realize that they all just handled the grief in different ways. Brant, as the oldest, had grown up almost overnight and tried to watch over her and Declan. He had also attempted to keep the peace with their grandfather, feigning an interest in his company that she wasn’t sure he’d had back then. Hell, she wasn’t sure if he had ever really developed a genuine interest for the business, but he felt it was expected of him as the eldest. And Declan, well, he turned into a hell-raiser. The old man chewed his ass out almost as an afterthought every time he got into trouble, but Declan didn’t care. She was pretty sure that their grandfather had secretly loved it. She suspected he felt as though he was reliving his youth through his younger grandson.
She, on the other hand, had struggled to find her place in the world with the loss of the two people she had depended on to watch over her. They might not have been Ward and June Cleaver, but they were her parents and a life without them seemed unimaginable. So, on the days that she just couldn’t cope, she turned to Declan’s friend Mac. Even when she was a teenager, he had been a caring presence in her life and he always made time for her. She felt special when she was with him. He always acted as if he wanted to hear her thoughts and dreams. She also had a huge crush on him, which she was sure was no secret.
As the years passed and she got older, she started to resent Mac for not returning her feelings. Her resentment had come to a head around the time she was seventeen and had been dating at that point. No matter how alluring she dressed, he still ruffled her hair and slung his arm around her shoulders in an affectionate gesture whenever they were together. He asked about her dates and told her about his. Unlike with most boys from school, she never caught him looking at her in any way other than as just another brother.
Her emotions had been all over the place as she dressed for the senior prom. She was looking forward to wearing the pretty dress that her grandfather had given her the money to buy, but she was less than thrilled with her date. She had gone out with him several times, mainly to take her mind off Mac, but she wasn’t really interested in him. He was handsy and determined, and those hands were always trying to get under her clothes. Sometimes it seemed as if he had way more than two hands. As soon as this evening was over, she planned to tell him they were through. He was simply a means to a social end tonight.
Later, she would come to know him as the animal who stripped away her innocence and left her lying in a bed of dried leaves in the woods, a mile from her house. It would take her what would seem like hours to walk, stumble, and finally crawl toward the lights of a house in the distance. Mac’s house. She had lain bruised, cut, and bleeding on his doorstep, unable to summon the strength to reach the doorbell. The beautiful iridescent gown that she had twirled in earlier on the dance floor was tattered. The delicate material had been ravaged by first her date, then by the weeds and briars as she crawled through the dark forest.
She had no idea how long she had lain there, staring into the starry night as if in a trance, when the door suddenly opened. The bright light in the room beyond made her blink in surprise. She was no longer even certain where she was.
A foot connected with her bruised leg, causing her to cry out in pain. “What the hell?” she heard as she tried to struggle into a sitting position. Suddenly, strong hands were on her shoulders. She was breathing hard, terrified that he’d come back. She twisted away frantically, terrified of what would happen next. “Ava? Honey, is that you?”
She stopped suddenly, causing the hands holding her to slide. She knew that voice. He’d never hurt her. Even as her body screamed in protest, she climbed onto the man’s lap squatting next to her and held on with everything she had. She was shaking so hard she could barely keep her arms looped around his neck. “Mac . . . please help me,” she remembered whispering frantically.