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Beautifully Damaged(17)

By:L.A. Fiore

"There's nothing wrong with me. Stop being so sensitive."

I felt my temper stir as I held her glare. "You've been a bitch ever since you started dating Todd. If he makes you so fucking miserable, why are you with him?"

"He doesn't make me miserable. I love him."

"You barely know him."

She leaned up against the counter as a nasty smirk covered her face. "You are going to give me advice on relationships? The twenty-three-year-old virgin?"

"And that's not bitchy?"

"I don't need your permission or your approval, Ember. Stay out of my business."

"Fine, as long as you stop the catty bullshit because frankly, Lena, your company lately sucks out loud." And then I turned without another word and walked to my room.

Trace was punctual and as excited about our date as I was, I was disheartened by the confrontation with Lena earlier. As I pulled the door open for him, he seemed to recognize something was off when he asked, "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, just roommate trouble."

"Do you want to talk about it?"


He studied me for a minute before he asked, "Are you ready?"

"I am."

He reached for my hand and linked our fingers. The heat from the contact felt really good. He walked me to his bike and placed his helmet on my head before he straddled the bike so I could climb on. I liked riding with him, liked having an excuse to be so close to him. When we arrived at a small gallery, I was pleasantly surprised.

"This artist is one of my favorites," he offered in way of explanation.

He pulled me into the little gallery and handed me a glass of wine from a passing waiter before we made our way to the first painting. The artist was without question very talented but his paintings were all very dark. Looking at his work you could all but see the demons that haunted the man and how he tried through paint to exorcise them.

At one point in the evening Trace was studying a particularly disturbing painting that depicted faces, elongated in terror. The eyes were black voids and the mouths had been painted to look as if they were shouting for help yet no words escaped. He was so fixated on the painting that he was oblivious to everyone around him. What broke my heart watching him was the look in his eyes, a vacant look that was so very similar to the eyes in the painting.

I stood there watching him and realized that Trace liked this artist because he could relate to him. Trace Montgomery had his own demons. My eyes moved to his arm and the tattoo as tears burned the back of my eyes. What secrets was he hiding? I turned from him so he wouldn't see me watching him and moved across the room.

I saw a woman approach him. She'd been eying him all night. Her hand came to rest on his arm, and her eyes lowered so she could look at him through her lashes. She was throwing off all the right vibes, the ones that said, "Yes, you could pull up my skirt and take me right up against this wall." What was interesting was Trace's response to her. For a player, he very effectively shut her down before turning away from her.

His eyes found mine from across the room and a smile touched his lips as he started towards me. I was probably reading too much into it but my heart did a long, slow roll in my chest. He stopped in front of me and I had the strongest urge to wrap my arms around him and just hold him. I had a terrible suspicion that he lacked that in his life, someone offering him simple comfort. There was far more to Trace Montgomery than met the eyes and I wanted to know him, all of him.

"What do you think?"

I held his gaze and a smile touched my lips while my heart hurt. "His work is beautiful."

And deeply disturbing.

"Are you ready to go?"

"I am if you are."

He reached for my hand and linked our fingers as we walked from the gallery towards his bike. We were halfway through the parking lot when we both heard the sound. It sounded like a muffled scream but the parking lot wasn't lit very well so it was hard to see anything. I felt Trace tense at my side as he pulled me back to the gallery.

"Wait here." Before I could say anything he turned and disappeared into the shadows.

I stood there for only a few minutes when I heard the distinct sound of flesh against flesh. It wasn't a conscious choice that had me following the sound and that's when I saw Trace. He was pounding on some guy; his fist was relentless as he hammered into the man's face. I couldn't move, couldn't tear my eyes from the sight and that was because of the look on Trace's face. I couldn't describe the look but it scared the hell out of me.

I noticed the woman then, who was hunched near a car and immediately hurried over to her.

"Are you okay?"

"I am, thanks to him."

I turned my head just as Trace dropped the guy who looked to have passed out. When his eyes found mine I saw a level of rage in him that was frightening. When he spoke, his voice was soft, menacingly so.