Chapter 1


The Past - 13 Years Old.

“Winter,” Mom calls from the other side of the store, “what do you think of this one?”

Dropping the beanie I was looking at, I walk closer to Mom and stare at the jacket she’s holding up. “It’s pink.”

Her lips curve into a warm smile. “You love pink.”

“Not anymore.” I move past her to the rack of jackets and glance over the selection until I find a black one. “I like this one more.”

Mom’s eyes widen slightly. “Please tell me you’re not going to start wearing only black now that you’re a teenager.”

I shrug as I remove the jacket from the rack. “Pink is too girlie. Black will tell the other kids not to mess with me.”

Mom lets out a chuckle while shaking her head lightly. “Black it is then.”

We spend the next hour shopping for my winter wardrobe. I only choose blacks, grays, and whites, avoiding any other color, which Mom’s not too happy about.

Tomorrow I’ll leave for private school, and I want everything to be perfect. I might only be thirteen, but even I

know first impressions count a lot. Being smaller than most girls my age makes me an easy target for bullies, so I have to do everything I can to show the other girls attending the school I’m not to be messed with.

While one of our guards takes the bags to the car, Mom wraps an arm around my shoulders. “Do you want to stop for lunch or head home?”

Thinking of my father and brother, I reply, “We can get pizza to take home so Daddy and Sean can have some as well.”

“Good idea,” Mom agrees, steering me toward a Pizza Hut.

Mom chooses a vegetable supreme, while I select a Hawaiian for myself and a mega meaty for Dad and Sean.

Once our order is ready, one of the guards, Patrick, carries the boxes. As we leave the mall, I think about all the packing I have to do. Pushing my luck, I glance up at Mom and ask, “Will you help me pack?”

Mom grins down at me. “Of course.”

Walking toward the car, our guards fan out around us. It’s something I’ve gotten so used to. I hardly notice them.

“Down!” I hear Cillian shout, but before we’re able to move, gunfire erupts around us.

Patrick drops the pizza to the ground and yanks his gun out. He reaches for Mom’s arm, and as he begins to move in front of her, bullets spray over us. Three hit Patrick, and my eyes widen as my mouth drops open in a scream.

A piercing pain slices through my neck, and I hear Mom wail as she throws her body toward mine. Mom grabs hold of me and yanks me down to the ground.

My eyes dart in the direction the gunfire is coming from, and I watch as Cillian takes down the men shooting at us until they’re all dead. The sight should horrify me, but I’m too shocked to react.

Cillian runs toward me, and dropping down to his knees, he breathes, “Winter… Rose?”

Only then do I glance down to where Mom’s head is resting on my chest. Blood spirals across her forehead from a hole just beneath her hairline.

“Mom,” I groan. A merciless ache blossoms in my chest, and it threatens to strip me of my sanity. Even though I know she’s dead, I still struggle out from under her, and grabbing hold of her shoulders, I begin to shake her. “Mommy!” Panicked breaths explode over my lips as my body jerks. “Mommy!” I cry, devastating hopelessness seeping into my bones. I begin to scream as hysteria engulfs me.

She can’t be dead. Not my mom. No.

Gasping for air, I can’t think clearly anymore.

Cillian grabs hold of my arm, trying to pull me away from Mom.

“No!” I scream at him, trying to worm myself free from his hold so I can stay with Mom.

“We have to go, poppet. It’s not safe,” he snaps at me.

“No!” I scream again, refusing to leave Mom. I grip hold of her white shirt, curling my fingers into the fabric as my gaze locks on the blood staining her pale skin.

This isn’t real.

Then it sinks in like a lump of burning coal.

Mom’s dead.

Cries begin to tear through me as I drop my forehead to Mom’s chest. Sobs wrack through me as my tears fall to her shirt.

Minutes ago, I was Rose Hemsleys precious little girl. Minutes ago, she was smiling at me.

Minutes ago, I had a mom who loved me more than anything.

“Holy mother of saints,” Cillian suddenly hisses, and then he grabs hold of me. I’m yanked into the air as he climbs to his feet, and holding me tightly, he runs toward the car. My cries turn to whimpers as unbearable heartache swamps me.

I watch as the distance between Mom and me keeps growing. A breeze picks up, making some of her ginger hair blow over her face, sticking to the blood.

‘Mommy,’ my heart wails. My innocence is ripped from me, and my world is thrown into violent disarray.

Cillian bundles me into the passenger seat and straps on the seat belt before he slams the door shut. I watch him run around the front of the car. He climbs behind the steering wheel, and seconds later, tires squeal as we race away from the gruesome sight.

“We can’t leave Mom,” I cry.

Something slams into the car, and we jerk forward. My cries grow louder when Cillian curses, his hands tightening on the steering wheel.

Bullets hit my side of the car, and terrified, I scream. “Get down, Winter!” Cillian shouts at me.

With trembling fingers, I unbuckle the seat belt and slip off the seat. More bullets hit the car, and the windows shatter, raining glass down on me.

“Fucking bastards,” Cillian growls as he does his best to keep the car on the road. Something slams into us again, making the vehicle jerk forward.

“Almost there,” Cillian grinds the words out as he takes a sharp corner, making the tires screech as they struggle to stay on the road.

I glance up at Cillian, and the worry etched with deep lines on his face makes grave fear shudder through me. I’ve never seen Cillian scared before. He’s always been calm. He always looked at me with a lopsided grin. Being my personal guard Cillian was always just there, walking a couple of steps ahead of me. Now he’s the only thing standing between me and the monsters who killed my mom.

Another wave of bullets sprays the car. Cillian lets out a string of curses as he pushes his foot down on the peddle.

“Stay down, poppet,” he says, his breaths rushing over his lips.

“Cillian,” I whisper, too afraid to speak louder.

“Stay down,” he repeats, and then the car slams into something before it comes to a skidding stop.

The noise of gunfire is so loud, it fills my ears until all that’s left is a ringing noise.

Cillian grabs hold of his gun and opens the door. He rushes out of the car and begins to shoot at the men attacking us.

Unable to stay down, I crawl from the foot space and over the console onto the driver’s seat. “Cillian,” I whisper again, and it makes his eyes dart to me.

Instead of his usual lopsided grin, a dark grimace distorts his face as he rushes back to me.

“You’re safe now.” Slipping his hands under my arms, he pulls me out of the car, and then he begins to run with me. “I’ve got you, poppet. You’re going to be okay.”

From over his shoulder, I take in the scenery that looks like a war zone. “Cillian,” I whisper, terrified and heartbrokenly.

Tears flood my eyes, blurring my sight. “Winter!” I hear Dad shout.

“She’s been shot,” Cillian yells. “Get me a first aid kit.”

It’s only then I become aware of the blood dampening my shirt.

My eyes begin to grow heavy as my body jerks with every step Cillian runs. My tongue becomes heavy, and I’m unable to tell him I’ll be okay.

It feels as if my heartbeat is slowing down as if the sorrow engulfing me is drowning it. I’m being sucked into a nightmare there’s no waking from.

My ears still ring, and I feel wet as if I’ve been bathed in blood. My mother’s. My own.

Cillian lies me down, and then he begins to work on my neck. For a moment, his eyes lock with mine. “I’ll fix you, poppet.”

Tears warm my icy skin, and the last thing I’m aware of before I pass out is Dad letting out a heartbreaking cry while Cillian works to stop the blood seeping from my neck.

The Past - 14 Years Old.

Since the attack, we’ve been stuck on a lake island in Finland. There’s no more private school. No shopping trips. No interacting with other kids my age.

Since Mom was killed, there’s only the island, the guards, and private tutors.

It feels like I’m stuck in a bubble that can pop at any moment.

I’m sitting on the shore, throwing pebbles into the water while I stare at the land in the distance. It harbors the nearest town to us. I’ve never been there, though.

Letting out a miserable sigh, my thoughts turn to the past. It’s been a year since Mom was killed. I got shot in the neck but was lucky. The bullet didn’t hit anything vital.

I hear movement behind me, and without glancing over my shoulder, I know it’s Cillian. A couple of seconds later, his

shadow falls over me, and he grumbles, “You know you shouldn’t be out here. Let’s head back.”

Another heavy sigh escapes me as I throw the last pebble into the water before climbing to my feet.

When I turn around, Cillian tilts his head and lifts his hand to the side of my neck. Caringly, his palm covers the scar. “What can I do to make you smile again?”

He’s asked the question many times before, and once again, I can only shrug.

It doesn’t feel like I’ll ever smile again. Not with Mom gone. She was the heart of our family, and since her death, we’ve all become zombies, just getting through every day as best we can.

Cillian pulls me into a hug and murmurs, “I wish I could make you feel better, poppet.”

Since the shooting, Cillian’s become more than just my guard. He’s the only friend I have now. Because he was there, he’s also the only one I can talk to about my fears and sorrow.

Dad and Sean suffered their own losses, and I don’t want to saddle Dad with my miserable feelings whenever he’s home from his business trips. Sean’s four years younger than me, so I have to be a strong big sister for him.

The thought makes me pull back from Cillian so I can look up at him. He looks like a scary version of Colin Farrell, tall, dark, and always dressed in a suit.

But instead of being afraid of him, he’s the only person I feel safe with.

“There is something you can do for me,” I whisper, hoping he won’t say no.

The creases around his eyes deepen as the corner of his mouth lifts slightly. “Just name it, poppet.”

“Teach me how to shoot a gun and how to fight.”

A frown forms between Cillian’s blue eyes, but after a couple of seconds of thinking about my request, he nods. “If that’s what you want.”

“I need to be able to protect Sean,” I give him my reason, and it makes the lopsided smile I’ve grown fond of over the years, stretch over his face.

“You’re right,” he agrees as he slips his arm around my shoulders. We begin to walk, then Cillian says, “First, I’ll teach you how to fight. We’ll leave learning how to shoot a gun for when you’re a little older.”

I know it won’t be of any use to argue with Cillian. He never says anything he doesn’t mean, and there’s no changing his mind. With Cillian, what you see, is what you get.

“Okay.” I feel a flicker of excitement for the first time since the shooting and ask, “What will you show me first?”

“How to throw a decent punch.”

The corner of my mouth lifts slightly, and Cillian notices it. He tugs me closer to his side, then whispers, “I’ve missed that smile.”

Glancing up at the man who saved my life, my smile grows. “Thank you for always being here for me.”

For a moment, he gives me a sideways hug. “There’s nowhere else I’d rather be, poppet.” Cillian’s the only one who calls me poppet, and honestly, in some ways, he’s the most important person in my life. I love my father and brother, but Cillian’s the only one I can lean on.

It’s like he filled the empty space in my heart Mom left behind.

“Love you, Cillian,” the words fall easily over my lips. “Ditto, poppet. Ditto.”

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