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The message hit Jesse’s phone like a grenade.
I miss you read the text, but it was the accompanying photo that exploded raw feeling through Jesse’s insides. Merisa in a kittenish pose, her head tilted to the left and long hair roped over one shoulder, lush lips pouted like a sooky child. She’d squeezed her hands and arms together in front of herself to deliberately push up her cleavage, well on show thanks to a thin, scooped singlet top. She regarded Jesse with soft wide eyes, feigning innocence she’d never possessed.
Desire burned with savage intensity for several heartbeats before bitterness snuffed it out, leaving nothing but a cold void.
Jesse flipped his phone onto the coffee table. He sank back, fingers pinching hard at his bottom lip. The football game he’d been watching continued on the television screen, figures moving in a blur.
He felt his dad’s gaze skim his face, concern tightening his mouth. Or maybe pity. Jesse hated both.
Heat flared once more. The heat of anger. The heat of want.
The heat of betrayal.
He jerked upright. ‘I’m going out.’
Fraser Greene regarded the coffee table and Jesse’s phone with a furrowed brow. ‘You sure that’s a good idea?’
Jesse shrugged and snatched up his phone. Most likely it wasn’t, but he was too frazzled to stay at home, jittering in front of the telly. He needed to move. To expel the caustic emotion threatening to eat him from the inside out.
Fraser said nothing for a long moment, then he lifted his gaze from the empty space on the coffee table to Jesse’s. ‘She’s not worth it, son.’
Fraser absorbed that. Finally, he nodded. ‘Be careful.’
Jesse drove into the city. He probably should have caught an Uber or taxi, but being behind the wheel made him feel more in control, and he’d been feeling out of it since Merisa’s message came through.
Why was she doing it? She had to know how much she was hated. By Jesse. By his father and brother. She’d sold them all out when she went to the media with her tell-all stories about loving a son of Fraser Greene.
Except she’d never loved him. Even Jesse, who’d been blind with adoration, could see that now.
The city lights flashed past, bright and garish, like warnings. He exited the freeway and wound into the city. Melbourne’s central business district was conveniently laid out in an offset grid, making navigation simple. Jesse knew where he was going anyway. He’d been a regular at XS nightclub in the months before the shooting, Merisa tucked against his side, him showing her off. A prize he couldn’t crow enough about.
The XS bouncer recognised Jesse and used a radio to call for a valet. Jesse handed over his keys and headed for the entrance, glares from the long line-up of patrons waiting to get in hot on his back. Another night, Jesse would have grinned his superiority, but it’d been a long time since he’d felt superior about anything, least of all priority access to a nightclub.
Or maybe the glares were simple hatred. Merisa had managed to make him and his family look hateful enough with her tales of bullshit.
He nodded to the stunning woman guarding the inner door. Her face was studiously non-judgemental. Given the people who frequented XS, she and her colleagues couldn’t afford to be anything else.
House music pounded Jesse’s ears as he pushed through the crowd. Saturday night meant the beautiful were out in force. Girls in skimpy, spangled clothes and skyscraper heels, their hair smooth and styled, make-up artful.
Heads turned as Jesse worked his way to the bar. He nodded at those he knew and ignored the others, especially the ones who kept their eyes on him as they lowered heads to share gossip.
The barman greeted him by name and reached for the vodka. Jesse shook his head and pointed to the low-alcohol beer tap. He scanned the room as he waited for his drink. Women vied for his attention, some with brazen come-on smiles, others feigning shyness. They weren’t what he was after.
Truth was he had no idea what he was after. Or even why he was here.
Jesse paid for his beer and wandered. Acquaintances clasped his shoulder in greeting or shook hands. Jesse made small conversation. It was too hard to talk over the music and they were all too aware of what wasn’t being said. When women sidled over or the conversation ran out or threatened dangerous territory, he moved on.
He found a less-crowded spot at the back of the room and leaned against the wall, watching. Searching.
She wasn’t here. Of course she wasn’t. The photo had been sent from her bedroom. Jesse had recognised the photo collage on the wall—Merisa posing with friends, with her soccer team, her uni mates. With him.
He tensed his jaw against the urge to open his phone and zoom in on her photo to check for gaps in the collage where his image used to be. It wouldn’t do him any good.
Jesse rubbed his jaw. Being here wasn’t doing him any good either. The bitterness, the loneliness seemed worse in the crowd.
A group of girls came off the dance floor, glittery and glossy, intoxicated with drink, laughter and their glorious youth. One of them spotted him. Merisa’s friend and soccer teammate, Violetta. She twinkled her fingers, spoke to the girls she was with, and headed to him.
She kissed Jesse’s cheek in greeting and leaned her shoulder against the wall next to his. She was long, lean and very blonde, and wearing a thigh-high orange dress that showed off her sporty body. A tiny silver handbag barely big enough for a mobile phone dangled from her fingers, matching the thin sparkling straps of her stilettos.
‘You look miserable,’ she said, thick lashes beating in what he supposed was sympathy, but could have been mockery for all Jesse knew. ‘Missing Merisa?’
Jesse didn’t answer.
‘I know she misses you.’
That earned her a snort. He took a gulp of beer, wanting to stay silent, unable to. ‘She tell you that?’
‘She did, as a matter of fact.’
Jesse would have laughed if he wasn’t so bitter. Missing someone required a heart and that was something Merisa didn’t have. He kept his eyes on the crowd. Violetta would get the message eventually.
Violetta leaned closer. ‘She said you’re still refusing to take her calls.’
Jesse’s lip curled. If his pulse wasn’t revving like a Formula One car, he’d have laughed at the gall of her.
‘You want her to beg, is that it?’
That did make him laugh, although it was edged with acid. ‘I don’t want anything from her.’ Or Violetta either, but as far as he knew she’d never sold him out to the papers. Probably because she had nothing to sell. Violetta had only visited Fraser’s Middle Park home once and then Fraser had been out, and Jesse had never spoken of his notorious father to Merisa’s friends, even when they’d probed.
To Merisa though, he’d poured out his feelings. Not just about Fraser, but about his eccentric, obsessive mother, Kate, and his taciturn, equally obsessive brother, Jack. She knew all his secrets, all his pain.
And she’d valued none.
Violetta gave an exaggerated sigh and poked him in the chest with a silver painted fingernail. ‘You’re hard work.’
His gaze landed steadily on hers. ‘You don’t have to hang around.’
Violetta slapped her palm to her chest and feigned a stagger. ‘You wound me, Jesse Hargreaves.’
He smiled, despite himself. Violetta had always been fun. She was beautiful too, in a painted doll-like way. That kind had never really appealed to Jesse and was why Merisa had caught his eye so easily. She’d seemed natural, unaffected and she was smart, studying to be a lawyer. He’d been so attracted he’d even enrolled to study law too and been doing well.
Another part of his life now in ruins.
Jesse’s smile shrank back from where it came.
Violetta made a strange breathy squeaking noise. Jesse ignored her and took another gulp of beer. It was probably disappointment that his amusement hadn’t lasted. Like he cared.
‘Jesse,’ she said, holding out her tiny handbag, ‘would you be a darling and mind this while I go to the loo?’
Jesse regarded the handbag like it was a cockroach.
‘It’ll only be for a few minutes. The loos are totally foul and I don’t want to risk hanging it on the door. There’s been thefts lately.’
‘Yeah, okay.’ He took it, letting it hang by his side out of view.
‘You’re a doll. Thanks.’ She kissed his cheek and disappeared.
Jesse stared broodingly at the dance floor until his attention was caught by a rippling through the crowd. He frowned as the ripples grew more agitated, then he recognised the blue caps of the police.
‘Shit,’ he muttered, sculling the last of his beer and dumping the glass. He scanned for Violetta and found no sign of her. He contemplated the handbag. He couldn’t just leave it. It probably had her keys and ID inside. He hunted for her friends but they’d disappeared.
He slumped against the wall with his arms folded, pissed off that he’d have to wait. Raids were a pain in the arse. Jesse ought to know. He’d been caught in enough.
A sniffer dog burst through the crowd, tail wagging. His handler watched him closely. Jesse didn’t move. This time he had nothing to hide.
The dog trotted toward him. Jesse nodded at its handler and checked again for Violetta while the dog inspected him. Where the hell was she?
The dog sat and stared up at Jesse.
His heart thudded. No, no, no. This could not be happening. He had nothing on him, and that was a life he’d given up. Fraser’s solicitor had made it clear the last time Jesse got into trouble that he couldn’t afford any more missteps.
He stared at the copper in dismay, a bloke he’d encountered before. A decent sort. They’d even shared a joke or two. Jesse spread his hands. ‘I don’t have anything.’
‘Not what the dog says.’
‘The dog’s wrong.’ Then he felt the bag swing from his fingers. He closed his eyes, his head hitting the wall with a thud. Violetta. ‘It’s not mine. I’m just minding it.’
‘It’s the truth.’ But he knew he was wasting his breath.
How could he have been so stupid? Fraser would kill him for this. As for Jack … Jesse didn’t want to think about what Jack would say. His reconciliation with his older brother was still fragile. Jesse’s last arrest had caused him to miss their mother’s funeral and if the shooting hadn’t brought them together, they’d probably still be alienated.
‘Jesus,’ said Jesse, scraping his hand down his face.
The copper seemed to feel some sympathy. ‘Thought you of all people would have learned by now you can’t trust women.’
‘Yeah, you’d think, wouldn’t you?’
But it wouldn’t be a mistake he’d make again. He’d had his final lesson.
This time, Jesse was done for good.
End of Excerpt