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TAINTED TOUCH: Cover & First Chapter


posted by Lucy V Morgan

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I hope you're ready to meet Art Lyons, the younger brother of Aidan (from the Knives & Flowers books). He "releases" (ahem!) March 31st, and if you scroll down, you can read the first chapter too...

Available at Amazon, B&N & iTunes


GOODREADS


Twenty-year-old Caitlyn McCoe likes logic, cake and breaking a sweat. In that order. What she doesn't like is the fact that her manipulative ex, Dominic, has crawled out of the woodwork after their breakup last summer. She needs to concentrate on passing her business degree, not telling him to get lost. But fantasising about Fist Candy--the boxer she loves to watch at the gym, where she works--is excellent escapism. He's beautiful, untouchable...and safe.

Until he's her new co-worker. And then he's not safe at all.

Art Lyons was a rising star on the boxing circuit and a brilliant student. Then he dropped out, disappeared, and has just resurfaced as the new sports massage therapist at Caitlyn's gym. He doesn't want to talk about why he's no longer at uni; he doesn't want to explain the tattooed slashes across his hip.

But he's troubled by the connection he feels between the punch bag and the brush of a lover's fingers. He wants to use his hands to heal, not hurt. Caitlyn clams up when her friends go to hug her; after Dominic, something changed beneath her skin, twists the things she feels. If Art can find a way to reach beyond that, he could help her. She could heal him.

That's if they don't break each other first...

***

 CHAPTER ONE



Sweat.
It drips on my grey foam exercise mat as I push out another hard breath. I will master the push-up. I will make it my bitch. It's not like Hans, the instructor from hell, is giving me a lot of choice about the matter. From my spot near the back of the studio, I can see him demonstrating the push-up by balancing on one tanned, ripped forearm. Damp blond hair sticks to his fine cheekbones, and a purple ClimaCool t-shirt gapes just a little to reveal his pecs. Dubstep pounds in my ears.
Each drop of sweat that falls on my mat is proof of my dizzying effort, and Hans has promised me results. Whenever we reach the last five minutes of his Combat Blitz class and I'm struggling through the conditioning work, I comfort myself with his honesty: Work for what you want. Earn the body, and it will come. God, I'm working. My obliques would scream if they were able, and my abs wouldn't be far behind. I'll ache for days.
If only Hans didn't bat for the other team, hmm? The only guy who never lies to me, and he's gay. That said, unless Hans is into red-faced brunettes who look constipated when they do jumping jacks, I'd be out of luck anyway. Even though my yoga pants fit a lot better since I started his class.
"Last round," Hans bellows over the grinding static of the music. "Finish this!"
Last round means another twelve push-ups. I ignore the pain in my neck and glance sideways at Vicky, my best friend. Beneath her freckles, she's almost as flushed as me she balances over her own mat. Dark blond waves tumble from her loose ponytail and into her face.
"Sadist," Vicky hisses in Hans' direction.
He grins like a Cheshire cat, throwing her a sly wink as he pumps up and down on his thick arms. As usual, he makes the workout from Hades look effortless.
She blows wavy hair out of her eyes. I hate him, she mouths.
I nod in sympathy, gritting my teeth. Five...four...three...two...
"And we're done!" Hans rolls back on to his knees and then come to stand. Even he's out of breath. "Ace work. Okay...stretches. Child's pose, people."
The dubstep fades, and soothing piano music spills from the speakers. I take a moment to pull back into child's pose, my hands stretched forward, my sticky forehead meeting the cool mat. A sense of pride floods my poor, adrenaline-wasted brain; I survived another hour of torture. I even feel good for it. Exercise being awesome--I'm still getting used to that, even though I've been doing this for over a year now. Thank you, body. I think.
As we stretch, I float off into thoughts of the upcoming spa session. Vicky and I have a routine now--we allow Hans to beast us twice a week. Then we head straight to the gym pool to swim off the trauma, followed by a long, aromatic soak in the steam room and Jacuzzi. Finally, we take leisurely showers, taking turns to bring in new products that leave our hair shiny and our skin smelling like cinnamon and pomegranates (or whatever smug crap we're into that week). If we're feeling especially virtuous then we'll cook something healthy; if we're too tired to think, we go to the pub. Rock and roll, my friends. And they told me college would be crazy.
Hans leads us through some combat blocking to finish. We bring our hands together in a final bow, and then I lunge for the air conditioning unit, draping myself over it with a groan of relief. Cool air blasts against my hot muscles and makes me realise just how damp with sweat my clothes are.
"Anyone would think the unit was a dude," Vicky says, one pale eyebrow lifting in dismay. "Stop grinding on it."
"I'm not grinding. I'm just..." I pant. "It's how I'm breathing!"
"Come on." She brandishes her water bottle. "I need a refill."
I peel myself off the unit to swipe my bottle, mat and towel. Then we head down to the drinks machine and fountain, both of which are inconveniently stuffed at the end of the corridor. We have to weave through a hoard of Hans's next victims just to get into the hall.
"I propose a pub night," Vicky declares. "Unless you want to cook, that is. All I can think about are nachos covered in chilli and ludicrous amounts of cheese."
"What happened to that diet thing you were doing?"
"After that class? It can go fuck itself." She mops her brow with the corner of her blue towel.
Vicky's on a mission to lose twenty pounds, despite the fact that she has one of those figures that suits extra curves. If I could eat more cake and wear it the way she does, I totally would.
"Although there's always the Cupboard of Shame," she adds.
Said cupboard is in the top left corner of our tiny kitchen, and is where we keep the Nutella. And the Haribo. And the vodka. In the spirit of guilty pleasures, we also have a tacky naked firemen calendar hanging on the door. My mood lifts immediately, and not because we're walking past the boxing gym.
"What kind of choice is that to offer me? Pub or shame?" I complain.
"We could hit the cupboard after the pub," she says pragmatically. "That would be time-efficient."
"Time-efficient binging is the best kind, true."
"Then we're agreed." She feeds a couple of coins into the vending machine and stabs the keys.
Beside the machine, the boxing gym door is propped open by a plastic chair. Two guys in nothing but track pants are huddled in the middle of the room, deep in discussion as they swing fat red gloves on strings.
Then, my eyes are drawn elsewhere.
In the far corner, a tall shape is smacking the living shit out of a black punch bag. He drives in one fist after the other, and each hit echoes loudly as the bag creaks on its chain. Slap, slap, slap, slapslapslap. There's almost something dirty about that rhythm. I find myself zeroing on the way the muscles in his broad back rove beneath his skin; how the sweat glistens in pleasing evidence of his hard work. Dark hair, cut short enough to be tidy but long enough to form cute peaks when damp, licks the nape of his neck.
And I find myself wondering how the punch bag feels. How it gives like flesh beneath his fingers.
"Caitlin?" Vicky pokes me in the ribs, but I don't flinch. "Are you getting anything?"
The boxer glances back just for a moment, allowing me a glimpse of his profile. I can't tell the colour of his eyes from here, but I notice how they widen briefly. How they flare. I swear white teeth play along his full bottom lip. As he twists, a flash of colour at his hip becomes apparent; ink, rough slashes.
Then he's lost to the punch bag again, all thrusting fists and flushed skin and breath spewing in soft grunts. A stranger showing more than he ought to in public--things I couldn't touch if I wanted to. Undercurrents. Prickles that needle the back of my neck. He's angry, but it's more than that.
"Cat? Are you getting a drink, or what?"
I glance around at Vicky, whose brow is creased in annoyance. "Yeah, sorry." I fumble about, trying to position my bottle beneath the fountain. At least I'm too red for her to notice my blushing. "Should probably put some water into my Pepsi stream."
I can't help it--I peer back through the gym doors, where he's moved on from beating living shit and appears to be going for the firmly deceased. The flush has spread to his shoulder blades, and they glide up and down like knives in the hands of an astute butcher. Cold water gushes over my fist as the bottle overflows; I do nothing about it. How embarrassingly Freudian.
Vicky mock-huffs beside me. "When you've finished perving, I'll be in the locker room," she announces.
I don't even bother to answer; I just mirror her good-natured, crooked grin, and bring my wet hand to my forehead. It's cold enough to make me sigh.
In a minute, I'll have to follow Vicky, if I want to make it in time to swim. But I let my gaze linger over the boxer's back one last time. I gulp down cold water and drink in the sight of him--punch after punch, slap after slap, and the water cools my belly as his punches warm me, lower down. He is Fist Candy, and deserving of proper nouns.
The heat of my pulse is opiate and delirious. More, more, says the quiver in my blood. I've become a junkie in the space of two minutes and I can't find it in me to be embarrassed for a single blink.
Shame lifts like a shadow, easing its stiff fingers one at a time.
                       
***

The thing about the boxer is that he's an unfamiliar face.
I spend my weekends working on the gym reception, so I usually recognise customers. But not him, and not because I mostly just stared at his back. I'll probably never see him again--even if I did, I doubt he'd look twice at me--but there's always a sliver of possibility in the unknown, and tingles of hope flood my veins when I remember him, stirring nerves long-neglected and muscles unstretched. He's like my own personal Cupboard of Shame.
So of course, now there's only one way to survive a lecture on the European Working Time Directive: close my eyes, let the drone of my tutor fade away, and conjure the filthy look on Fist Candy's face when he took out his frustration on the punch bag.
Only I'm yanked from my revelry by a firm hand grasping my knee.
"If you don't stop tapping your bloody foot," Rich mutters as he pushes my knee down, "I'm going to--to--"
"To what?" I hiss.
He scowls at me from beneath his mad explosion of chestnut curls. "I dunno. But...something. Be afraid."
"I'm terrified. No, really."
"You should be," Drew, his twin brother, warns from my other side. "In fact, don't let him use your bathroom. No good can come from that."
"You're both disgusting," I whisper back, weary of other students' eyes as they twist in their seats to glare. "I don't know why I put up with you."
Drew grins, wide and white. "Because we're clever shits?"
"Photogenic clever shits. I bet you were never as popular on Instagram before you met us," Rich adds.
I snort. I'm hardly "popular on Instagram," but Drew and Rich are Gods of the Selfie and insist on recording our study sessions in pixels, usually between ordering cheap pizzas from the Iranian place around the corner, and trying to outdo each other on Candy Crush. Ah, how grateful I am that they fell into my life--literally. On the second night of Fresher's Week, around about two a.m., a monumentally drunk Drew crashed clean through my dorm room door with his trousers around his ankles. Apparently, he got lost on the way back from the bathroom. We've been friends ever since--they came as a package deal-- but not a friends-with-benefits kind of thing, you understand, despite Drew's initial lack of trousers. They're both awfully photogenic; all caramel skin and glossy black eyes, and Drew wears his curls longer, tied back in a ponytail. But they're also not afraid to fart in front of me or tell me that I have lipstick on my teeth.
Our lecture finishes with a bunch of graphs suggesting that the EU directive has boosted employment figures, and thus benefited the economy. We have to write an essay on its political implications; deep joy. I chose a business degree because, as Drew once put it, I like to manipulate logic for my own personal gain. Ahem. Politics, however, is the manipulation of lies, so politics and I do not get on. Finishing this essay will be like the last five minutes of a Hans beasting. Not funny.
I'm escorted from the new-build lecture theatre--and back into the old building--in a Rich and Drew sandwich. People have no choice but to walk around us, even if it means holding their iPads aloft. The School of Law, Business and Economics is, for the most part, a sixteenth century behemoth that Foxfield University calls Earl Waverley. We call it Hogwarts due to its hilltop position, mess of staircases and eerie stone spires. On bright February afternoons like this, the sun spills down through high windows in arched rafters and turns the halls milky gold. We all look drizzled in syrup.
"So." Rich yanks a bottle of Sprite from his leather satchel. "Plans for tonight?"
Drew groans. "He's got the handbag again. I told him, I can't be seen with a bloke who has a handbag, but--"
"It's a satchel. And it's fucking fashionable." Rich throws me a pout. "Isn't it?"
"It is. I think." I nod. "It's very metrosexual."
"See?" Drew holds up an accusatory finger. "Handbag."
"You talk as if metro's an insult," Rich goes on, completely unaffected. "It's not. In fact it's not even a sexuality--it's a state of self-awareness that suggests one values their appearance over the opposite sex."
"It's like talking to Wikipedia," Drew complains. "I haven't even got a brother anymore, you know that? I've got a SatNav that thinks it's a black David Beckham."
Rich rolls his eyes. "Ignore him and answer my question, Cait. Out tonight?"
We duck out of the huge doors and stalk down the stone steps to the car park. A light breeze ruffles my hair, and exhaust fumes mingle with the scent of fresh greenery.
"Why? You angling for an invite?" I ask.
He looks shifty, clasping the strap of his bag. "Maybe."
"What Becks here is getting at," Drew announces, "is whether Vicky is going with you. And if so, will you please let him tag along on the off chance she decides to grace him with her vagina?" He smirks. "Again."
Rich withers back into himself, blushing.
"Oh. I see. I see what's happening here." We reach the boys' red Volkswagon and I lean against it, folding my arms. "I'm flattered you're so desperate for my company, Rich."
"It's just--I mean...." He shrugs helplessly. "She hasn't texted or anything."
"And she said she would?"
"She gave me her number."
"When he asked for it," Drew adds, shaking his head. His ponytail bobs from side to side.
"Hey. She took my number, too," Rich protests. "Wasn't like it was one-sided, or anything."
I give him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. "If you were worrying about it all, you only had to ask me."
"Maybe he asked Wikipedia first," Drew muses, "and panicked when it didn't know."
"You can sod off," Rich mutters. "I just wondered if she'd be around tonight, is all."
"She's at the theatre, I think. They're practising loads for this big production."
"Oh." He looks crestfallen. "I s'pose I'll leave you alone, then."
"I'm going to make a start on that stupid essay," I say forlornly. "You're more than welcome to do that with me, if you like?"
Drew glances over, his eyes wide with hope. "Is there cake?"
"Haven't baked any."
"And why the fuck not?"
"Because I'm not your slave?" I end up talking into his armpit as he grabs me for a playful squeeze. I have to spit out a mouthful of check shirt.  It sets my teeth on edge. "Suffocating me won't help, by the way."
"Sorry. I'm not allowed to release you until I have a confirmed date for cake."
Rich brandishes his phone, where an image of last week's amaretto apple muffins lights the screen in all its Instagram filter glory. "Actually, it's been eight days since you baked anything, Cait. You feeling okay?"
"I've been busy having a life," I protest, trying to step out of Drew's grasp as casually as possible.
He releases me, looking wounded. "It saddens me that it doesn't include looking after your menfolk."
I scrunch my face at him. "Ew."
"I meant in the kitchen!"
"Keep digging." I tuck handfuls of hair behind my ears, trying to control the wind-teased frizz. I'm absolutely not going to admit that I've had too many Fist Candy butterflies this week to think about baking anything, but I feel exposed, as if they can tell.
"I'll come and help with the essay. Because I'm a clever shit," Drew says, his expression perfectly stoic. "But if cake doesn't happen in, like, three days, I'm calling the authorities."
Rich titters to himself. "Cake happens."
"I mean, I'll let you coast for a bit, since I'm nice like that. I'll settle for pancakes or something. Those blueberry ones you do with the syrup and yoghurt, or maybe those truffles you make by bashing up digestive biscuits--"
"You've been thinking about this too much," I scold.
Drew cocks his head. "A man's gotta eat."
"Man's gotta cook it, then." I scoop my white canvas tote bag up on to my shoulder. "I need to make a move."
"Want a lift?" Drew offers.
"Cheers, but no. I need to stop by the shops and stuff." I must acquire Pepsi, and some of that amazing popcorn with sugar and salt. A night by myself in the flat is not complete without snack fodder. "Rich--you want me to text if Vicky ends up home early? You can conveniently drop in with a research article, or something."
"Nah." He sighs. "I'll figure it out."
"Okay." I stand on tiptoe to accept the usual hugs. They're warm, solid boys, and their friendly embraces should be comforting. I wish I could find that in them; that I could feel something beyond the incredulity flesh inspires.  Instead I wince, and pray that they never notice. "Catch you later."
After a browse around the supermarket, I head home through the old main town, past the library and the majestic crash of the water mill. Our block sits four storeys high on a new-build estate not far outside the Saxon town gates. We picked our flat for the size of the bedrooms, and subsequently, the built-in wardrobes; it meant we ended up with a tiny kitchen-slash-sitting room, but for overall space, it's worth it.
I keep everything white in my room, from the shiny Ikea furniture to the bed linen I launder  each weekend with fabric softener more expensive than wine. Colours litter my windowsill in the form of my Yankee graveyard; as Vicky says, it's where good candles go to die. My current favourite is a sweet pea one that smells like my late grandma's garden.
White is my logic. My safeword, of a sort. When I decorated this room at the beginning of last term, it felt like a clean slate--I was finally free of Dominic. I replaced photos of us with my candles, and the bright sheets he soiled with fresh, pure white. Dominic was the politics to my business; he was the last push-up, but without the adrenaline to cheer me up after. And when we--he--decided it was over, I needed to remind myself that I wasn't transparent without him, though it felt like all the colour had been drained from me. I was just a clean slate, just white. I was still beautiful.
Even when he said I wasn't beautiful at all.


 



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