I've been here before. Though it looks all wrong, I know where I am and the fear grips my throat.
It seems like a restaurant, though there is no one else around. A harsh spotlight shines down on me, washing out my features so that I could almost disappear into the whiteness. All around is shadow, but I know something is there.
My parents are seated at the table across from me; smiling, laughing, proud. "You're alive," I whisper.
My mother's eyes sparkle, but she doesn't answer me. She doesn't see the shapes moving in the shadows behind her, but I do. I know the danger. "Mom, we need to go," I tell her, but she is not paying attention. She laughs merrily with my father, so alive it hurts me.
"We need to go," I repeat. I stand up. The noise of the chair scraping across the floor is so loud that I cringe. If they didn't know where we were before, they do now. I'm too loud, I've caught their attention.
The first black lens snakes around the corner, shining and metallic, but also strangely plastic, melding into the shape of a hand reaching for me. I stare at it, dumbfounded, and then I suddenly understand.
This is a dream, a nightmare. I've been here a thousand times before, and nothing can prevent what happens next.
My parents are going to die.
With a cry, I leap forward, ready to fight. Maybe this time I can save them. Maybe this time things won't end the way I know they're going to end.
The flashes start going off. Blinding, harsh. I stagger backwards, and my heel catches on something, sending me sprawling to the ground. The metallic black glare of the cameras closes in on me. They are ready to devour me and move on to my parents. I have just one last hope...
I swing upward, wrapping my arms around the shifting black monstrosity and I yank it away. I've done this before as well. I know that what I see next will ruin the rest of my waking hours. The faces of the men who stalked my parents, running them off the road. Richard Senna, Gil Hastings and Howard Blair, their faces the same grim masks they wore in their mugshots. But in the dream they will snarl at me like wild animals, baring teeth too sharp to make sense. And then I will wake up sweating.
But I have to protect my parents. They don't know the danger they are in. And so I wrestle with the cameras that are now the size of giants. "No," I shout, straining against them. "You won't win. I won't let you in. You can't find me anymore. I won't let you in."
I heave the camera away from my attacker and hurl it to the floor where it shatters into a million pieces. Shielding my eyes from the rain of glass, I wait to wake up. I wait for it to be over.
But this dream is different. From out of the shadows, my attacker steps into the light. Sanniyah's gorgeous face smiles up at me. "You already let me in," she smiles, radiant and contented.
"No," I groan, as the shadows close in. "You're not like them. You can't be like them."
Dream-Sanniyah's face begins to melt and contort, the beautiful color melting away into the sallow, yellowed face of Howard Blair. "You already let me in," she tells me again, just as I'm falling, falling away into the black.
My whole body jerks on impact and suddenly I am wide awake, safe in my own bed. I am covered in a fine sheen of sweat.
Sanniyah makes a small, soft sighing noise in my arm, nestling against me with a little squeak.
I stiffen and count to ten, reminding myself that it was a dream. Sanniyah isn't working for the tabloids. She has nothing to do with my parents.
I know that.
I know that.
I clench my whole body, every muscle, as tight as I can. Then one by one, I release the tension, starting at my toes and working my way up. The last thing to unclench is my fist, and I open my palm wide before resting it lightly on the curve of Sanniyah's hip.
I could be different with her, I tell myself as I smooth my hand upward. She mutters something in her sleep and pulls away irritably and I have to suppress a laugh. Yes I could definitely be different with her. I want to. I am ready to stop mistrusting the world. I am tired of grief and mourning, of shock and hatred. I am ready to feel good again.
With a shudder, I forcibly banish the nightmare from my mind and pull her closer, pressing my lips to the soft place where her neck meets her shoulder. She mutters again, rolling onto her back and brushing her hand up to my face. I catch it and kiss her fingers, one by one, watching the smile curve around her lips.
"Let me be different for this one," I silently beg the universe. "Let me be whole again...for her." I stare at her, watching her sleep, the rise and fall of her chest hypnotic in its beautiful rhythm. My own eyelids droop closed again and I find myself sleeping without the bother of dreams.
I jerk awake. For a moment, panic grips me as my bleary eyes resolve my unfamiliar surroundings. There is something heavy weighing me down and I fight the urge to fling it off me before understanding finally takes hold.
I am in Carter's bed.
His arm is slung over me.
And he is fast asleep.
I shift a little, trying not to disturb him as I roll over and regard his sleeping face. It shouldn't be possible, but he is even more beautiful in the soft light of dawn. There is a faint golden stubble along his jaw, and it glints in the sunlight like he has been polished to a bright sheen.
I catch myself smiling softly at him, and for just a moment all is peace. Little twinges and aches sound in my body as soft, subtle reminders of the incredible night I had with him. I can feel the tenderness between my thighs and flush slightly as I remember how he looked up at me, watching me writhe as he slowly drove me insane. Desire starts to throb in my core, my body already craving his touch like an addict.
Carter Easton, the reclusive billionaire, golden playboy, darling of the tabloids...I can't believe it. Carter fucking Easton is asleep next to me. And all because I was lucky enough to plan his sister's wedding.
The warmth in my body freezes to ice and I stiffen. Slowly, the dawning realization of how badly I have fucked up grips me.
He is a client. Camilla is a client. I am a professional, who has built her reputation in the business by being level-headed and unflappable. Reviews from happy brides point out my rational, pragmatic nature. Not someone who is ruled by her emotions.
Definitely not someone who sleeps with the brother of the bride.
Slow horror roots me to the spot, and with it comes the shame. I crossed a line that should never have been crossed. I allowed myself to succumb to private islands, wine and a man who was far too skilled with his tongue.
The memory of his tongue's skill sends another flood downward, but this time, instead of heat it brings only guilt. I hurriedly untangle myself from his l
imbs and stand up.
Carter shifts a little without opening his eyes. "Good morning," he murmurs, his voice muzzy with sleep.
I shift on my toes, panic gripping at my throat. "I need to go," I say, gritting my teeth.
Carter rolls to the side and opens his eyes, smiling, a devastating dimple on his cheek. He looks me up and down, a long, lascivious look that threatens to reignite the heat that has fled from my body. "You don't look like you do," he says, casually.
I look down and blush. Hard.
I am still completely, ridiculously naked.
"You look like you should be back in bed with me, honestly," Carter says, lazily sitting up and treating me to a lingering glance of his washboard abs.