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Published by EVERNIGHT PUBLISHING ® at Smashwords


www.evernightpublishing.com




Copyright© 2017 Angelique Voisen



ISBN: 978-1-77339-384-1


Cover Artist: Jay Aheer


Editor: Stephanie Balistreri



ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.


This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.



DEDICATION


To my readers, thank you always, for your wonderful support. To Evernight, for giving this book a new home.



CONQUER



Angelique Voisen


Copyright © 2017


Chapter One

Will


There’s something unnerving about a clean-swept, empty apartment. Maybe it’s the lack of life, the roaring silence, and the numbness that settles after. Self-imposed exile has it perks, but loneliness is one of its drawbacks. Makes me wonder for the hundredth time why I’m here, in the middle of nowhere, and hauling in the last of my meager belongings. The entire contents of my pathetic life, divided into five boxes.

“Oakville, population three thousand. Fucking charming little town where no one knows I exist,” I mutter to the empty room.

I’m going crazy. There’s no other explanation for talking to myself. I grunt, realizing I left the front door open. I’m about to slam it shut. Two smiling faces come into my line of sight—a middle-aged couple, probably my new neighbors, judging by the pie dish the woman’s carrying. Hard to believe people still do this kind of shit.

“Hello there, new neighbor,” the guy says. “We’re Stuart and Martha Cumbers.”

I silently count to three. Their smiles falter after catching sight of me. I’m a huge bastard. Slabs of muscle, scars, and ink all knitted together to make a mold that passes for a broken human being. They exchange concerned glances. The woman takes a hesitant step back.

“Will Grove,” I say, waiting for the axe to fall.

Recognition flashes through Stuart’s gaze. Shit. I’d rather play the hard-ass with the invisible ‘don’t fuck with me’ around his neck, than have a fan recognize me after my stint back in Maine.

Fight of the decade they called it. Get your money’s worth to see the Berserker take down the biggest heavy weights in the circuit—the ads read. Except I clocked out early. Tasted the mat after three rounds and that was it—the highlight of my fucking career … or the end of it.

I might as well commit suicide. Hell, I did consider it. This time, though, living won. I moved to Oakville to nurse my wounds. Get back into shape and with enough work, rebound right back into the game.

“Will ‘Berserker’ Grove?” Stuart asks with undisguised interest.

“Who?” Martha asks, looking puzzled.

“Only one of the best MMA fighters around … until Maine, that is.”

Awkward silence. I clear my throat and stick out my hand. Stuart shakes my hand and flashes me a relieved smile.

“I’m on hiatus for now. I’m here to enjoy the outdoors for the next couple of months. I hear Oakville makes the best apple pie around these parts.”

That makes Martha smile. She offers me the pie dish.

“Three-time winner of Oakville’s annual pie-making contest,” Stuart boasts.

I don’t like small talk, but that doesn’t mean I’m not good with it. After half an hour, I make up an excuse that I need to meet a friend. Before the Cumbers leave, Martha takes me aside and says five strange words.

“Watch for the crazy recluse.”

“Excuse me?”

Stuart winces. “Unit 311, next to yours. No one has seen the tenant since he moved in six months ago.”

“Ever? Even to take the morning paper?” I ask, unable to hide the intrigue in my voice.

Martha shakes her head. “He trained his dog to fetch it for him. These days, everything can be ordered online, including groceries. I think he allows the delivery guy in.”

“Don’t tell me we’re all holed up with a serial killer?” I joke, but they don’t find it funny. They look dead serious.

“Once, Old Ted from 312 came knocking. Tried to invite him to a floor party, but the guy shoved the barrel of a shotgun at Ted’s face. Nearly gave the old guy another heart attack,” Stuart says.

“And no one’s reported this to the police?”

Martha shakes her head. “He hasn’t hurt anyone yet. We thought he was secretly growing weed in there, but the cops came out clean, shaking their heads.”

“Yeah, okay, thanks for the tip.”

I close the door and sit myself in my empty kitchen. Stuart is right. The pie is amazing. I finish it off in a forkful of generous bites and down it with two bottles of the town’s locally brewed beer. Something this sinful screws with my diet, but I think I can afford a break. Later, when I have things sorted out, I’ll head to the supermarket and buy my essentials in bulk.

“Damn,” I mutter, still tasting the cold and smooth amber liquid down my throat. “They never said they make good beers, too. Maybe self-exile won’t be such a bad thing after all.”

Fuck. I might even pick up some hobby. Gardening or some relaxing shit to pass the time. Get my stress levels way down. Maybe, if I feel a little wild, I’ll swing by the roadhouse I spotted on the way here. Time to strap on a pair of balls and see if there are some rugged cowboys or lost young men looking for a night out.

My stomach churns at the thought of being with another man other than Gary.

I’ve been out of the dating game for half a decade, five fucking years down the drain just like that. Sixty months of manufactured memories. In the end, Gary made it plain he only valued me for one thing—for being a winner. It only took one loss for Gary to sever bonds and move on, not caring about the scars he left behind.

I only need to look at my boxes to see bits and pieces of Gary poking out the cartons. Shows what a pussy I am, keeping reminders of him without his knowledge. I flinch at them all—Gary’s favorite Seahawks sweatshirt and the pair of cheap sunglasses I bought him when we vacationed in Rio. The gun-shaped lighter he loved, along with the button he earned from Nicotine Anonymous for staying clean for six months.

It never would’ve stuck. Gary doesn’t like consistency. He got his kicks and then moved on, same with people. Any therapist would tell me all this is unhealthy behavior. Better to forget the past and move on. I can’t. Gary’s things are puzzle pieces I need. Someday, I’ll piece them all up and understand why he left me.

I’m hopeful they might even contain answers on how I can win him back. For now, I’ll remain in Oakville. Get lean and back in shape. Good enough to win fights in the rings, and Gary.

The sound of clanging pans startles me back to reality. I narrow my eyes. My body tenses, ready to spring into action. A curse comes from next door, from the thin walls separating me from the psycho living there. I stand and press my ear against the wall.

A dog barks, followed by a gruff voice. My mysterious neighbor begins coaxing his pet in soothing tones. I can’t make out the words yet, but the stranger on the other side sparks my interest. Is he an old grump, some misunderstood vet who wants to be left alone? Can he be a disturbed young man, plotting something sinister?

I snort. “Look at me. I’ve got nothing better to do than eavesdrop on my neighbor. Oh, and talking to myself. All I need is to get a cat.”

Disgusted, I pull away. A list. I need one to be organized and remain sane. It takes me an hour to find a notepad and a working pen from my boxes. I plan what I need to do for the next few hours, days, and weeks. Work is good. It helps elevate the pain and rage. Makes it easier to lock them up in a box and forget them for a while. Sooner or later, I’ll need to take out that box. Confront my fears, but not today.

Still, I check my phone for messages or emails from Burt Green, my manager, or Gary. I hate myself after, for allowing myself to feel self-pity.

“Home Depot then grocery shopping,” I mutter, glancing at my list. I grab my jacket and car keys.

Time to take the first step forward.

“If I’m still feeling lonely, I’ll stop by the pet shop and get myself a fat tabby to share my misery with.”


Chapter Two

Matt


A couple of heartbeats stand between the front door and I. Twenty-four steps, to be exact. I should know. I counted. But where did that get me? A glance at the wall clock tells me it’s been an hour, sixty minutes of me standing here in my bathroom and boxers. A grown twenty-five-year-old ex-soldier who’d seen and experienced the finest hell had to offer, unable to take those last steps to open the door and get his morning paper.

That’s pretty laughable if you ask me.

I rub one sweaty palm against the towel-like fabric of my hoodie. Transfer my service revolver to the other, before wiping my other palm. Nestled on my sofa in a pile of blankets, Homer, my faithful Welsh corgi, raises his head, and then lowers his muzzle again. No fucking way my sick dog was getting the morning paper anytime soon.

“Don’t be such a fucking pussy, Matt. Just open the damn door, grab the paper, and lock it shut. No one else would see,” I mutter to myself.

Dr. Wells, my therapist, would say talking to myself isn’t healthy, but neither is locking myself in my apartment for six months. I take deep breaths. Try to calm my galloping heartbeats and ignore the sweat beading down my back. I know where this is going.

I focus on other things around me so I won’t break out into a panic attack. A quick look around my studio apartment, my self-made prison, tells me everything is in order. Blackened windows keep the outside word from leeching in. Every piece of furniture and object is back where they belong.

I like order. Keeping busy and sticking to a routine helps take my mind off the ugly things. They’re effective soundboards keeping the demons of my past from breaking in, just like the solid walls of my apartment.

I silently count to a hundred, then a thousand. Homer lets out a weak whine.

“Sorry, boy. I know it’s past your meal time,” I say. “But if I move away from this spot, I won’t be able to gather the courage to get the paper. You know I can’t start the day without reading the news with my cereal.”

The minute hand of the clock strikes twelve. Christ. Is it noon already? Hard to tell time sometimes in here—exactly why I need a routine. I irritably rub at the scar on my cheek, one of many souvenirs from the desert.

“Okay.” I clutch at my revolver, aware of how ridiculous I look.

The last time someone knocked on my door, I nearly pulled the trigger on the inconsiderate bastard. Would be practical to put the gun down, but I can’t. The solid feel of the metal assures my safety, back on the battlefield or in here. Outside that door, I know my demons are waiting. One misstep and they’ll come back, with suggestions and whispers. A braver man would kill himself, but not me. I’m a coward pathetically clinging onto the hope that someday I’m going to be bold enough to step out the door, banish those demons, and rejoin the sunlit world. Not today, though, or tomorrow.

Someday.

“Only a couple of seconds, Matt. Nothing’s going to happen to you.” I gulp.

It was now or never. I pull my hood over my face. Gripping the revolver close to my chest, I take another step forward, then break into a panicked sprint that leaves my lungs gasping for air. My free hand fumbles for the locks, five in all.


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