Ravaged River: Men of Mercy Excerpt
By Lindsay Cross
Hoyt Crowe tilted back the bottle of whiskey as he faced his reflection in the bedroom mirror. The man staring back was so poisonous he destroyed everything around him. Friends. Family. And, fucking worst of all, himself.
Hoyt didn’t deserve to be alive. Not anymore.
A car door slammed outside and he jerked, almost dropping the bottle. Goddammit. His control was gone. Destroyed. How could he protect his team if he flinched at every little sound?
Sweat drenched his body. Hoyt lifted the bottle for another drink, spilled some liquor on his chin. His once sniper-steady hand shook like a new recruit on his first mission.
Laughter erupted over the music from the living room, thrusting Hoyt back to that shack in the woods on Crowe Mountain. Three months ago, he and Jared had taken a trip to their past and returned to their former home–the place they’d fled as kids. Of all the mistakes he’d made in life, it was the one he regretted most. He’d been captured and tortured by his cousin and his cousin’s girlfriend, who’d mistakenly thought he could give them the deed to the mountain. They’d trussed him up and the bitch had taken a flaying knife to his skin. He’d never forget the look of glee in her eyes as she sliced into him. Her shrill, screeching laugh. The same sound that was streaming in from the living room, except this time it was lacking the edge of madness.
And just like that untrained newbie would have done, he’d blubbered and begged for his life.
He took another swig, praying the fire from the whiskey would burn through his shattered nerves, and spilled more on his shirt. He ripped it off and threw it in the corner. Bile clawed up his throat, lacerating him from the inside out. I can’t even take a damn drink without shaking.
His reflection was a mockery of what it had once been. Sliced and diced – he could write the manual. The deepest wound was on his face. The bitch had made sure he’d remember her every time he looked in a mirror.
Now his lips pulled in a sideways smile even when he frowned. Not one smooth inch left.
How could Hayden look at him, let alone want to be with him? She didn’t deserve to be tied to this. I am a weak, disfigured monster.
Of course, monsters weren’t afraid of the dark, so he couldn’t even call himself that. Hoyt’s twisted lips pulled into a smile that didn’t reach his pale blue eyes.
A knock sounded at the door. Hoyt ignored it. He wasn’t ready to face anyone.
“Hoyt, it’s Hunter. I need to talk to you.”
Christ. Hayden’s brother and his team leader wanted to talk to him in private. Hunter James wasn’t the type of man who was easily ignored. Hoyt staggered over to the rich oak dresser against the far wall. The mirror resting on it was as big as the dresser. There was no escape from his ruined reflection.
“Open the damn door or I’ll kick it in.” Hunter’s voice rose over the pulsing music.
Open your mouth and answer him. “Give me a minute.”
Hoyt set the bottle down for long enough to rip a shirt from the drawer and yank it over his head. He glanced down at the Grateful Dead logo on the front of the tee. At least it fit him.
He picked up the bottle and stalked to the wood door, the rustic hardwood creaking beneath his bare feet, and jerked it open. “What do you want?”
“Jesus.” Hunter towered over Hoyt by at least three inches, and his black hair was cut short, military style. “You stink of alcohol.”
Hoyt lifted the bottle in salute and took another chug. “Maybe this is why.”
“What are you doing? Your house is packed full of people waiting to see you.”
“I didn’t want them to come.”
Hunter crowded into Hoyt’s room and shut the door behind him. The dark look on his face suited his nickname—the Grim Reaper—but Hoyt wasn’t afraid of him. No, his fears were all wrapped around that cabin in Crowe Mountain.
“Why are you here? My big brother send you to pull me out of my cave? He can’t stomach looking at me anymore.” Hoyt let his face fall into the sneer that had become his signature look, the one that always sent Jared away. It could make milk curdle.
“Your brother would kick my ass if he knew I was back here. He’s got some misconceived notion that he has to protect you.” Hunter crossed his arms and the veins on his arms popped across his massive muscles. “But I’ve got the feeling he might need protection from you, not for you.”
Hoyt snarled and bared his teeth, feeling every inch the feral animal he’d become. “I’d never hurt my brother.”
“Just like you’d never hurt my sister? Look at yourself.” Hunter advanced, prowling closer and closer, menace pouring off him in waves.
“I look at myself every damn day.” Heat radiated outward from his chest, but his hands were shaking. He took another slug of the cheap rotgut, needing the numbness only oblivion could bring.
Hayden. Hadn’t he done right by her? He’d broken it off, or had Jared to do it for him. Hoyt couldn’t lie to her face and tell her he didn’t want her any more. Not without revealing his true feelings. It’d been two months since that day he’d sat on his bed, listening to her cry from the next room while what was left of his soul bled out.
Hunter stopped pacing, and Hoyt watched the anger slowly slide from his features until the only thing left was pity. Fucking pity.
“Don’t look at me like that.” He wanted to shout the words, but all he could manage was a strangled whisper.
“I’m sorry, man, I shouldn’t have gone at you like that.”
“No. Don’t you back off now. Finish what you came here to do.” Hoyt was the one getting up in Hunter’s face this time, like mouth-to-mouth close.
“I’m done.” Hunter didn’t move.
“Fine. You need help. You went through a lot. If you don’t get help on your own, I’ll take care of it for you.” Hunter hit the deadpan look he’d perfected, everything about him locking into a concrete wall.
“That’s not why you’re here, is it?” Hoyt got up on the balls of his feet, bringing him to eye level with his team leader.
Hunter growled but didn’t breach the invisible centimeter-wide wall separating them.
“Why don’t I just say if for you? You came to tell me to stay away from your sister.” Hoyt barely held back from launching a punch into Hunter’s spleen to punctuate the words.
But Hunter took a step back, breaking the tension, getting his shit under control, and said, “Promise me you’ll continue to leave her alone. She’s out here right now and she’s not ready to give up on you yet. She deserves better than you can give her right now. You know it. I know it.”
Hoyt lowered down from the balls of his feet, needing to feel the solid floor beneath him. He knew he didn’t deserve her.
He didn’t deserve any woman, let alone one as perfect as Hayden.
But he wanted her like he wanted to breathe.
Hoyt took in a deep breath, accepting his fate. Getting comfortable with the heavy pit of emptiness in his chest.
He couldn’t be mad at Hunter. They all knew Hoyt’s body wasn’t the only thing that had been ruined in that cabin, but Hunter was the only one with the guts to say it. The rest of the crew had been treating him like he was a china doll with a crack in its head. Yes, he appreciated the truth, but it hurt to lose what little hope remained to him. “I promise. I will never lay a hand on her again.”
Hunter stood there, lips parted, studying him. For a moment, Hoyt thought he might relent, but then he stalked out of the room and shut the door behind him.
Hoyt stood there in silence for a moment, catching his breath, and then turned back to face the monster in the mirror. He’d never been a coward before, and he wouldn’t start now.
He couldn’t hold a sniper rifle steady. He couldn’t hold his woman. She could no longer be his woman. He couldn’t even hold his shit together without pills and alcohol.
His friends were here to celebrate his recovery. They were in the living room eating, drinking and having fun like the old Hoyt was back. Like he was normal.
His chest felt like a thousand-pound wench was cinched around it. And now he couldn’t breathe in his own bedroom, the large open space as tight around him as a layer of shrink wrap.
The walls closed in, trapping him, robbing the room of oxygen. His throat closed with it. Hoyt gasped, helpless to stop the panic, just like when he’d been helpless to stop the torture. Strung up like a piece of meat in that shack in the woods.
“Fuck you!” He threw a desperate punch, and his fist shattered the mirror. Shards of glass flew everywhere like shrapnel. His shoulders pinched tight and he threw the bottle of whiskey.
Nothing could help him. Not the pills. Not alcohol. Not Hayden.
Hoyt sank to his knees amidst the glass.
No amount of counseling would fix him. He was as broken as the mirror and if he didn’t do something, he’d destroy his loved ones.
Hoyt picked up a shard of glass.
He was a burden. A disgrace to his team. Worthless.
He wouldn’t give them the choice to try to save him. He didn’t deserve it. Besides, he knew Hayden enough to know she might not stay away. He didn’t want her to waste her life on him.
Hoyt stuck the tip into his skin and sliced down his arm, making sure to slice the right vein.
He’d been a coward when they’d tortured him. He’d begged. He’d pleaded. He’d given up his identity.
But not anymore. This was the way he’d reclaim himself.
A wave of dizziness hit and he fell to his hands. Blood gushed from his arm. He dropped flat on the floor and let it all go.
No more nightmares. No more panic attacks. No more pity. Just darkness.