BY: ELVI JOY
For Elizabeth Campbell, disguised as Elena Martin, life isn’t about walking away from the man who had imprisoned her for half a decade. Not anymore. Now it’s about running. It’s about searching. It’s about escape. When threats lurk around every corner, and all leads are dead ends, she turns to the one man she knows will help her.
Max Logan has loved Eli all his life and had gone as far as committing a murder for her. Then she disappeared from his life. Now she’s back. Not as Eli, his childhood friend, but as Elena Martin, his karate student. He knows she’s in trouble and thinks he’s prepared to do anything to help her. But when a string of weird accidents and mishaps begin to occur, Max can’t help but wonder. Is Eli responsible for what’s happening, or is she as innocent as she claims? How can he be sure? And how far is he prepared to go to find out?
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Redeem Me by Elvi Joy, Elena lives in fear that her old life will find her. On the run from an abusive relationship, she begins taking self-defense martial arts lesson at a local dojo, run by her childhood sweetheart, Max. She knows he would help her, but she can’t bring herself to trust him enough to tell him her problem. The monster she is running from is relentless, and she fears that, if he finds her, he will turn Max against her as he has everyone else. But the time is fast approaching when she may have no choice.
The story is both moving and intense, a true romantic suspense, with emphasis on the suspense. If you are looking for a romance with a little more meat to it, this is the one for you.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Redeem Me by Elvi Joy is the story of a woman on the run. Elena Martin has changed her name, disguised herself, and built walls to keep anyone from getting too close. She is also taking martial arts, in hopes she can defend herself the next time her past catches up with her. But she hadn’t counted on Max, the man who runs the dojo where she trains in martial arts. Max knew Elena when her name was Elizabeth, and he has loved her since he was a teenager. Now that she is back in life, he is determined to keep her. But Max has no idea what he is up against, and Elena is too afraid to tell him. This can only lead to disaster.
Redeem Me is a first class romantic thriller. Well written, intense, and poignant, the story highlights the much-too-common situation of women trapped in abusive relationships with no escape. A chilling tale that is all too real. Very well done.
In death, Jerry Sanders did not look so cocky. I knelt over him, searching his cornflower blue eyes for a veil of puzzlement. A small spark of recognition. Perplexity. But he disappointed me. There was nothing but frozen fear in his unblinking gaze.
I allowed myself a few moments to watch the blood congeal over the long gash at his right temple. Saw the flushed pink skin of his baby smooth face wax over. As my gaze traveled down his torso, his hands amused me. Curled into semi-rigid claws, they reminded me of Frankenstein.
I could have spent hours, if not days, watching the fascinating pool of blood under Jerry’s neck and around the area where his penis had once hung proudly from his body. Boy, hacking off that particular bit of anatomy had given me the chills. But in the end, it was all worth it.
Down the hall, Shannon’s house party was progressing at full throttle. The band he hired was doing a swell job of letting loose their ear-splitting Rock. If I were to step outside now, the air would be ripe with the sickly stench of cheap perfumes, booze, and sweat from undulating bodies. Heat would be intense in the small dance floor, the noise level bordering on insane. Jerry should have been there too, playing drums, flashing his surfer boy grin, making moves on unsuspecting girls. Too bad. The only moves he would be making now would be into my heavy-duty rubble sack, and from there to the woods behind the old cemetery.
I hadn’t planned on killing him tonight. Next week, maybe. Or a month from now. He knew what was coming for him, and he had made no effort whatsoever to avoid me. A part of me grieved for Jerry. Even at this moment of death, he was still the most handsome man I’d ever seen. If it wasn’t for his idle hope and bad fucking judgement, I would have left him alone. But the other part, the part which had enjoyed his panicked stare, kind of convinced me I did the right thing by him.
Why prolong the inevitable? He’d messed with the wrong woman. He touched something he wasn’t supposed to. Obviously, he had to die.
Fear was a strange entity. It could live and breathe inside you like an oily, insidious monster, overtaking each and every cell in your body until you were robbed of your ability to breathe, to think, to move. The fact that she was ensconced in her own bathroom, enjoying the warm water pelt against her skin, with no one around to interrupt her moments of peace hadn’t mattered to her mind. It had to go into freeze-mode, allowing the dormant fear to take over, debilitate her until she was forced to slump down onto the wet tiles and pant.
Panic attack. That’s all it was, a freaking panic attack. As if the complications in her life weren’t enough, now her body was failing her.
No. She refused to be useless.
Frozen to the spot as she was, she tried to force her mind to work properly. She forced air through her lungs, grateful no one was around to witness these moments of weakness. She went to the martial arts lessons every other day. She made it a point to work out like crazy in the safety of her home, where no one was around to hear her swear at her nemesis. She was good at self-defense moves. And had plans to take up shooting lessons as soon as she could save up some pennies. She was doing all the right things. Then why couldn’t she shake off this fear that crept up on her at the most inconvenient times?
You’re where you wanted to be, she reminded herself. She now lived in the normal she’d always craved. She didn’t know how long it would last, this reprieve, so every second of every day mattered. There are no moments you aren’t ready for. Nothing was going to surprise her or shock her. She had no friends left, no family, no one close that could be hurt because of her stubbornness. She was free, and secure, something she should not take for granted.
Reaching out, she grabbed onto the shower knob and got to her feet. Once she turned off the shower, toweled, and bundled herself into the bulky bathrobe she had picked up from the op shop, she did her last round of checks, then curled on the single recliner in her living room. A car horn sounded outside the house. It was raining, beautiful rain that pelted down in fat droplets, drenching her miniscule garden, turning the small patch of turned earth to muddy slush. All sounds were softened. In the faint streetlight, that slithered in through the half open curtain, her home with its meagre furnishings, looked serene and peaceful.
She occupied one of the duplex units, something she wouldn’t have done if the other one hadn’t been empty. This corner of Highgate wasn’t highly populated, thanks to the row of abandoned warehouses that occupied one side of the street. The area gave off some intense creepy vibes. But it suited her just fine. She had wanted no nosy neighbors, no interruptions to her routine. The old man who lived two houses away from hers seemed to be a tougher recluse than her. Him and the crazy cat lady, at the corner block, made her look like a social butterfly. Safety was important to her, so she had seen to the security herself. Top of the range, police grade locks from Bunnings. Entry door alerts, and window chimes, she had ordered through eBay. A Wi-Fi baby monitor installed above the front door. She had done everything she could.
Still the doubt lingered. Had she locked the doors properly? What if she’d unlocked them again, without realizing?
No. She had checked it. They were locked.
Are you sure?
Again. She had to start all over again.
Cursing, she started at the front door. Her body was freezing. Still, she made herself concentrate. Just once more, she told herself.
By the time she crawled back to the recliner, it was closer to three in the morning. Closing her eyes, she felt the ebb and flow of thoughts running through her brain, the rhythm of her breathing, the gradually diminishing weight on her chest. She willed her heart to slow down, her thoughts to grind to a halt. To channel them away from the source of her nightmares, she thought about Max. Sexy, hard-ass, Max Logan. A far cry from the seventeen-year-old kid with shoulder-length hair parted in the middle. She thought about how she was going to train herself not to be so jumpy around this rough, stubble-cheeked version of him. Because sooner or later, he was going to notice. She liked the dojo, loved that he was her trainer. It had taken weeks of research and hard work before she could find a place that she felt suited her needs. To change now would be a big inconvenience.
Having Max around was a pleasant bonus. When he trained her, his capable hands touched her to correct her posture or moves, all the thoughts inside her head just melted away. Every time she trained with him beside her, that jolt of surprise stayed with her for hours, like a happy buzz that refused to dissipate. She didn’t dare investigate too deeply into that particular thought pattern. Doing so would be futile.
Max Logan was a distraction she couldn’t afford at this point of her life. He was all authority, capability. And he had this annoying habit of looking at her, that made her feel as if he was looking right through to the back of her brain. Those pretty green eyes saw too much. She knew she looked different these days, walked different. Still there was a slight chance of him recognizing her as the girl from his past. So far, he hadn’t acknowledged her. He dealt with her as he dealt with all his other students—with utter calm. Occasionally, he’d become cranky, if they didn’t deliver what he expected from them. So, she’d left it at that. Since she didn’t have any intention of mixing and mingling with him outside the safety of the dojo, she decided she shouldn’t worry much about him. She wouldn’t let past familiarity impair her judgement. She’d done that once, and look where that landed her?
‘Don’t make me do this to you, Elena.’
A voice popped inside her head—cultured, smooth, refined. It was the one she had worked her ass off to block, yet there it was, forcing the air to rush out of her lungs. Stupid meditation and deep breathing techniques. What good was that crap if it couldn’t help her mind to compute beyond her past?
Nothing had changed, she realized. Nothing would. Sleep was out of the question now. The queasy thoughts were back—oily, insidious. She bolted upright, but a wave of dizziness forced her to sit, head between her knees. Guess she’d skipped her dinner again.
Minutes dragged on. Finally, she pushed herself out of the recliner and marched toward her small kitchenette, took out a carton of milk from the bar fridge, and gulped down the cold liquid without bothering to look for a glass. All the while, her mind seethed, her nerve endings sizzled with anger. Her next stop was the corner where she had set up her equipment. Riding on the residual fury, she grabbed her padded gloves.
“Fuck you, bastard,” she said quietly, then threw a knockout right hook.
For the love of God, woman, just leave me alone.
Max Logan leaned against the back rest of the chair and half-heartedly listened to the blonde sitting across from him drone on about her precious offspring. He didn’t want to do this, not today, not tomorrow. But it was not as if he had a choice. He couldn’t just up and go. He was stuck. It was his job to listen to parental concerns, no matter how trivial they sounded, and come up with solutions. Some days, being the boss sucked.
“Max,” the blonde whined, bringing his attention back to her. He knew she was attempting for marginal sophistication with her phony English accent, but all he could hear was a petulant voice going blah-blah-blah…
Mrs. Coleman, or Letitia as she preferred him to call her, leaned forward, the deep V of her dress allowing him more than a glimpse of her ample cleavage. Even with the square wooden table separating them, he could scent the Chanel cloud clinging to her as she went on and on about how, she thought, her little darling had the potential to be a wannabe-Bruce Lee.
“He’s got skills. You know he does,” she declared, batting her fake eyelashes at him.
Christ, take me now. Max had an insane urge to roll his eyes and snort at the rich bitch, possibly both at once. He didn’t. Of course, he couldn’t. This was his livelihood, for heaven’s sake. He was not about to waste his breath telling this woman that he had seen drunken frat boys with better hand-foot coordination than her darling champ. The kid didn’t have it in him. And Max could bet his ass that this weekly circus was not the kid’s idea of fun.
“Eleven months, Max. My Rohan has been in the beginner level for eleven months. Surely you agree that he is ready for the next belt.”
“We’ll see during the next grading, Mrs. Coleman,” he agreed almost absently, his eyes searching out the nearest exit. Don’t need this drama.
Ignoring her hadn’t worked so far. Pretending to be busy hadn’t worked out well either. The woman was determined to wear him out. For almost a year now, she had been trying earnestly, week after week, month after month. Still, he had to give her points for her determination to get him into her bed. Under any other circumstances, he would have been flattered. But not this. Call him crazy, but he had a few standards when it came to women. Not many, but a few. And number one on that list: he didn’t do married women. Period.
“Have you thought about the private lessons I mentioned last week, Max?” Her tone slipped from determined to sultry.
Did I just yawn? I probably did.
Huh? Ah, yes. The lessons. “We have an adult beginners class starting next week. Maybe—”
“Max, you know that won’t work for me.” Her hand with red painted fingernails reached across the space between them and covered his forearm, just as her pump-covered foot nudged his left inner thigh, making her point clear. Crap!
Max surged to his feet as if his ass was on fire and stared at the woman’s unapologetic gaze. He lost his last shred of patience in a hurry, waves of anger slithering through his armor, coating his mind. His hands balled into fists. “Mrs. Coleman, let’s—let’s talk about this later. The classes are about to start, and I’ve to go.” Before I do or say something really stupid.
Letitia gave him a knowing smile. Then slowly unfolded her body from the chair and sashayed away, giving him a very fine view of her ass in a tight pink sheath. Jesus Christ. This was not the first time she had hit on him and it wouldn’t be the last. But this was the first time she had made such a bold move. What was with this woman? When would she get it through her thick head that he was not interested?
“Problem?” Jake, his second-in-command, said with a chuckle from behind as Max contemplated his options.
Exasperated, Max shrugged. “Nothing I can’t handle.”
Jake snorted. This thing with Mrs. Coleman was a standing joke between them. “What is it this week?”
Swiping a hand across the back of his neck, Max forced out a grin. “Private lessons.”
Jake cocked a brow. “For the kid?”
“Nope. For the mom.”
Jake looked over his shoulder at Letitia’s retreating backside before turning back to face Max. “You know, if it ever gets too much, you can always send her my way. I don’t mind giving her some private lessons.”
No shit. Max shook his head. “Not happening, mate. Company policy number one: Don’t mess around with the client.”
Max cut in before Jake could finish his sentence. “Or in this case, the client’s mom.”
Jake sighed as he dragged a hand through his messy blond hair. “Man, we must have been drunk as skunks when we made that stupid-ass policy.”
Now it was Max’s turn to chuckle. “That’s entirely possible, considering how we were at Paddy’s Place.”
Jake wasn’t too far off the mark with his “‘drunk as skunks”‘ crack. They had been drunk. Plastered. They had been out celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in a small pub out in Northbridge, owned by a mutual friend. It was there—with the crazy crowd milling around the converted church’s floor space, wearing green top hats and glittery green T-shirts, with the smell of Guinness thick in the air—that they made the decision to buy the old warehouse out in the burbs and turn it into a dojo. Man, for two guys who’d started off their friendship at the Outreach shelter in the inner-city neighborhood, that had been some kick-ass move on their parts.
Max whipped his phone out from where he had tucked it inside his gi jacket and checked the time. Another minute and they were good to go. He turned to Jake. “Do you want to take this one? I will do the next two sessions. I got some paperwork to catch up.”
Jake nodded, although his expression told Max he would rather be anywhere else in the world than at the dojo. Now was not the time, but Max couldn’t help but wonder if Jake was ever going to change. He loved Jake like a bro. Scratch that. Jake was his family. But the guy had no sense of responsibility. He was one of those guys who always came up with brilliant plans, but fell short when it came to execution. If it was left to Jake, the dojo would have shut down a month after they opened for business. Max could, if he wanted to, dump all the fault for Jake’s behavior at Sarah’s feet, Jake’s ex-wife. A bad break-up often did that to a person. But that was not all of it. Max knew this. And Jake knew it too. But unless Jake was ready to see the error of his ways and pull his head out of the fucking sand, Max knew he would have to step in and pick up the slack.
“It’s the accent right? It has to be,” Jake said as they walked toward the group of six-year-olds gathered at the center of the rectangular room, all clad in their white uniforms, their expressions ranging from curious to hopeful to downright bored. “I mean—we are both black belts. Same height. Same blond hair. Hell, I’ve been told I’m way hotter than you. Still when you’re around, the chicks dig you more than me. It has to be that damned Irish accent of yours.”
Max laughed at his logic, turned to greet the kids, then froze.
A woman hurried in from the entrance to his left. Not any woman, the bane of his existence: Elena Martin. Max noticed she was wearing her signature black sweatpants and an oversized white gi top with the dojo emblem hand embroidered against her left shoulder, and then he looked up at her face. He wasn’t sure if she stopped first, or it was him. All he knew was his feet were suddenly rooted to the floor. He felt Jake walk past him, heard him clap his hands twice to get the routine warm-ups started. Max couldn’t move. It felt like an eternity, but it was probably only a few seconds. Six seconds tops. A gnawing, hungry feeling started off as a flicker and grew to a roaring blaze in his stomach.
Jake yelled out again, ordering the group to do ten ab crunches. Elena’s eyes, he couldn’t help but notice, again, were a startling gray. He’d always had a thing for gray eyes, especially those that had witnessed the worst the world had to offer. Okay, yes, it wasn’t just her eyes that always screwed up the control of his emotions. If he were to step closer to her, she would smell good too. Sweet and spicy.
Hauntingly beautiful. Unbelievably sexy.
Case to the point: Totally off-limits.
The moment the point registered, he cursed. Keep walking, moron.
He started walking across the room again, and so did she. And as they passed each other, inches away, their gazes locked. The urge to touch her bombarded him, and he had to grit his teeth against it. He hated that she was the one to sever the connection first. It should have been him. He should have had the guts to look her straight into her eyes and dismiss her as if she was a fucking nobody. When he reached the small table where he had left the attendance register, he took a glance back. She was gone. Probably settled into one of the plastic chairs they had set up for parents who preferred to stay and watch the session. He didn’t check.
His fingers were trembling as he reached for the register and flipped the pages one after the another. He hated that his breath was coming in little ragged gasps, and he couldn’t fucking do anything about it.
Find your calming center. Feel nothing. Want nothing.
One of these days, he said to himself. One of these days he would convince himself that she meant nothing to him.
Elena stood outside the dojo, waiting for the six-year-olds to stream out after their session. She liked watching them. Their expressions and boundless energy fascinated her. She had sketched them a few times, stampeding out in their white uniforms, their smiles bright. The work had always been quick, as she didn’t want the parents to notice what she was doing and cause trouble.
She froze, her smile fading.
Pasting a fake smile, she turned to greet Jonathan, with his Pantene ad glossy black hair and uptilted dark eyes. His gaze slid down her. “You look good. As always.” He had a faint accent—Asian, she assumed. His expression as usual was openly gawking.
“Want to get a quick bite after lessons? I know a place next door,” he said, touching her elbow.
This was his regular MO. No matter how many times she had turned him down in the past, he just kept on trying. She had to give him points for his determination. But she had no intention of taking him up on his offer.
“I can’t. I’m busy.” It sounded lame to her own ears.
“Come on, Elena.” Jonathan flashed his brilliant smile at her again. He moved closer to her, his fingertips now covering her elbow. “One quick drink. That’s all I’m asking.”
Scowling, she moved her arm away from his touch. Sadly, the guy wasn’t astute enough to know he was making her uncomfortable. He touched her again, her waist to be precise. Her thin layer of tolerance, for Jonathan, was worn through. But before she could knee him in the junk, over her head, a deep voice said, “Ms. Martin, could you please step into my office?”
Startled, both she and Jonathan turned. A tall body was suddenly right next to her, and white-clad arm shot out to herd her away from Jonathan the Casanova. To be honest, it wasn’t just Max’s sudden appearance that startled her, but his touch. All those damned butterflies she had read about, they took flight inside her stomach. She forced herself to nod at Jonathan out of politeness.
Max let the door close behind them. His office, she noticed, wasn’t really an office. Just a cramped space with a wooden desk and two mismatched chairs. The lighting was poor and the red carpet underfoot threadbare. Ensconced in the silence of the small space, she didn’t know what to say. Then he stepped around her, his movement bringing him so close that the quiet scent she had always associated with him drifted to her nose. She rubbed a fisted hand over her heart. Why now?
Max stood with his hip propped against his desk. Elena held his gaze, noting that his eyes were really the color of moss, not the sea green she had imagined. He was beautiful, in a totally masculine way. And intense. Maybe too intense.
This wouldn’t do. She had to get out of here. She reached for the door handle and froze when his hand settled over hers. A shiver of awareness slid down her spine. Her insides started a slow waltz. He was hot. Literally. And when he stepped closer, his heat seeped into her pores. The boy she had known and teased were long gone. This was a man. Max Logan was a sleek weapon honed to perfection by years of training. And he would never be hers.
Desire shattering as if it had been hit with a sledgehammer, she angled her face up to stare at him. He knew. Goddammit. He knew.
She managed to extricate her hand. “You never said anything before.”
He shrugged and stepped back, taking his heat with him. “What’s the point? I figured you didn’t want anyone to know.”
She saw from his expression that he meant that, as if he really understood why she refused to acknowledge their connection. “I—it’s difficult for me, Max.” He didn’t know how difficult. He would never know how happy she had been to find him here. After so many years of dreaming about him. But he wouldn’t know.
“Hey, it’s no big deal.” Max’s voice sliced through the nightmare of her memories. She looked up and saw a flicker of regret in eyes that never expressed much of anything. “I would probably have done the same thing in your situation.”
Elena paused. She saw it on his face. The pain. The disappointment. It was at that moment she realized just how much his opinion mattered. And yet, she couldn’t offer him an explanation. She met Max’s gaze, tried to make him understand. But words were necessary for an explanation, and she didn’t have any. So, she settled for what she had.
“Sorry,” she said into the heavy silence.
His face softened for a second. Then the mask fell back in place. His eyes scanned her face. “Should I talk to Jonathan? I know he’s bothering you. Mostly, he’s harmless. But if—”
“What? No.” She blinked away the burning in her eyes. “Thank you. But I can handle him.”
His lips curved in a wry smile. “Oh, I know you can. I’ve seen you move. It’s him I’m worried about.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Well, we don’t call you Pocket Xena for no reason.”
There it was—a glimpse of her old Max. Playful, funny, Max.
“Hey, I’m not that small.”
His gaze skimmed over her. “You’re not very big either.”
“I—” She stopped and snapped her mouth shut.
A sad expression, one that seemed totally at odds with his confident personality, flickered on his face.
They stared at each other for the longest time.
Back away. Leave, her conscience sat up and screamed. She stayed exactly where she was, her body a carnival of hormone rides, her head tilted up to meet him in the eyes.
He dragged a hand through his hair. “All right, then. I’ll…I’ll see you around?”
Something twisted in her heart. Pain? Regret? “It was good to…you know…talk to you,” she murmured. Honestly, what else could she say?
A nod. “Like wise.”
The words were chosen with care, as if he’d weighed them very carefully. The expression on his face damn near destroyed her, they carried such regret.
Elena stared at him, wishing she had the ability to read him. Deep in the back of her mind, she had a feeling that she had hurt him. Again. But it was better off this way. Her eyes dropped to the tip of the scar peeking out from under her sleeve. That was an outward reminder of who she was.
Once again, she glanced up. The sound of her resigned sigh made his eyes lock on hers, and she swallowed hard before she could help herself. For a painfully intense moment, he didn’t move. Then his hand reached out as if to touch her face. She stared up at him, at the raw intensity of his eyes. Fingers hovered, not making contact. The world reduced to just the two of them: the chatter of kids, the whir of the air conditioner, the burden of her past—it all disappeared, along with her common sense.
Touch me, Max, just this once. Touch me as if I matter.
For once, she wanted the heat and strength of him. Dark embers low down in her gut flared to life as he shifted closer. She had no idea what they were doing, enclosed in his office, with his staff and students one wall away. But her body was coming alive in ways unknown to her. But she didn’t rush him, she just waited. She was, she realized with a burst of shame, hoping he would do much more than just touch her. Her brain flipped into fifth gear at the heel of that thought, ordering her not to be stupid. Her hormones, however, had other ideas.
He lowered his eyelids and shook his head a fraction. A moment later, he dropped his arm.
Stepping away from her so suddenly that she gasped, he wrenched open the door and walked away from her.
Oh, this was bad.
© 2017 Elvi Joy