Strays: An Anti-Hero Romance by Cora Brent

Prologue





Rafe





5 years ago





I’ve been free for less than twenty-four hours.

Getting used to life on the other side of the bars takes time, whether I’ve been inside for a week or for five months. The noise and smells of the jailhouse rot stick to my senses like glue and nothing except the passing of days shakes them off. Right now I’m still in the stage where I keep my back to the wall, ball a fist at any loud sound and sink only halfway into my dreams in case someone goes nuts.

I don’t know how it is for other men. I would never ask.

Usually when I get out I’m in a hurry to use my dick and fuck up my head for a few hours. I’ll get to all that.

First, I’ve got a situation to deal with.

The truck I’m driving looks like it was assembled from rusted scrap pieces and duck taped together. I can’t sit here for long with the engine running while black exhaust clouds puff out of the tailpipe. This is the kind of neighborhood where people notice things like shitty trucks hanging out beside the curb for no particular reason. The truck’s not even mine. It belongs to a sad sack named Dempsey who still owes me two grand and is terrified that I’ll do something meaningful to extract it now that I’m out.

“Sure, you can use my truck, Rafe. It’s got a full tank and hey, take your time.”

Ha! I’ll do that. And maybe I’ll even bring it back in one piece before I start stepping on his nuts in order to squeeze some cash out of him.

Before I walked into the cage to serve time for this latest piece of bullshit I had a truck of my own and it was a few sturdy notches above this junkyard carcass. But the garage where I’d arranged to park it for my five-month vacation went belly up and the owner is long gone. As for the truck, there’s no trace. Dempsey heard a rumor that the guy went way up north to one of the Dakotas and I’m thinking if he wants to keep his fingers attached then he’ll stay there. Of all the things I don’t have the patience for, being ripped off is at the top of the list.

I need to just go knock on the motherfucking door and get this over with. The house is exactly what I expected, with infinite tall windows fronting its many rooms and boxy front yard hedges that someone spends a lot of time shaping. There’s even a damn balcony, a cup-shaped space jutting out above the entry, complete with fancy wrought iron scrollwork in front of double glass doors.

As if those glass doors have felt me staring, they crack open. A second later a woman floats through them. She’s wearing a floor length purple robe and one hand holds a purple drink tumbler while the other scrolls through her phone. She steps over to the railing and it’s easy to see that this is really her natural habitat, but then again I knew that. I never even bothered to look for her at Spit, a rat trap of a country bar that serves an uneasy mix of hardcore criminal types, dumbass college pricks, and the occasional upper crust wife in search of a decent dick.

Guess which category she falls into.

She kept me busy for a few months and it was all kinds of hot but we weren’t built for anything special. I’ve had better than her before and I could be having better right now.

No, I’m here because of what she told me on my last night of freedom.

When I get out of the truck I shut the door loudly enough to catch her attention. She looks down from her balcony perch. She freezes. Her lips form a soundless word that might be my name or it might be “Fuck.”

She disappears and I wait right where I am. This is a risk. She could be calling 911 and saying anything she wants. With my record I’m not the one who will be believed.

The front door is a mammoth iron monstrosity and it creaks open. Dana Walsh steps outside with the diamond Rock of Gibraltar on her left hand while her right hand cradles her swollen belly.

“Rafe,” she says.

Dana closes the door behind her but stays where she is. This is not a conversation to have from thirty feet away so I trample her lush front lawn to get closer. Along the way, my foot accidentally kicks a double-bowled dish filled with pet food and water. Everything spills. Not my problem.

Her eyes are wide and she nervously tucks an escaped strand of artificially red hair back into place.

The hand returns to guard her big belly. “I didn’t know you had been released.”

“Just yesterday.” I gesture to the reason I’m here. “You look like you’re about ready to pop.”

A smile flashes. “Eight more weeks.” The smile fades. “I didn’t think I’d see you again.”