Until I Break


by M. Leighton

CHAPTER ONE - Samantha

I sit at the desk in my hotel room, staring at the blinking cursor on the screen. In my head, I’m Daire Kirby, my main character, enthralled as she stares into the pale green eyes of Mason Strait, the man of my dreams. Literally.

Writing about him always consumes me. Although he’s nothing more than a product of my imagination, he’s both my wildest fantasy and my most terrifying nightmare.

“It’s my greatest passion,” he says in his husky voice, “the education of girls like you. Watching desire darken your eyes, tasting sweat as it beads on your skin, feeling your body squeeze mine like a tight fist.”

I feel lost in his eyes, hypnotized by his words. I know I should run. But I can’t. As crazy and stupid as it sounds, I have to see this through. This relationship, this endeavor, this…man will either make me or completely destroy me. The only thing I know for sure is that I have to take the chance.

The alarm sounds on my phone. I sigh. I’d much rather continue exploring Mason, but it’s time to log on for my therapy session.

“Let’s see what vague, intrusive questions you have for me today, Dr. Ruth,” I say to my keyboard as I log onto the encrypted network that my psychiatrist uses.

My sister, Chris, badgered me into doing this. She had already set up everything when she so graciously notified me of my first appointment.

Dr. Buraquinho, or Dr. B as I call her (when I don’t refer to her as Dr. Ruth, that is) practices psychotherapy in an unusual, very unorthodox manner—online. Normally, she meets her clients first and then they continue their sessions online for a period of time, meeting in person intermittently. But, with me, Dr. B agreed to start out online, partly in deference to our geographical separation (me in South Carolina and her in Washington) and partly in deference to my identity. She knows that she is treating my public persona, Laura Drake, and that I want to keep it that way for a while.

Laura Drake is an author. She writes paranormal romance novels, most notably about vampires. She’s had a moderate amount of success and has some loyal fans that keep her busy in her work. She is calm, cool, collected and bears little resemblance to me.

And that’s just the way I like it.

Samantha Jansen is withdrawn and insecure and very…well, she’s damaged. Deeply, deeply damaged.

I log onto the secure server and open the chat dated for today. The beginning question seems innocuous enough. But, then again, they always do. It’s later on that she’ll get into all sorts of grisly, personal questions.

(Buraquinho_Dr): You said you never knew your father, what was your mother like?

What a loaded question! I think as I tap out my answer on the keyboard.

(LauraDrake): She was a lot like a teenager. She was fun and liked to party.

Dr. B’s response is quick. As always. When it’s time to work, she’s always armed and ready to go.

(Buraquinho_Dr): Describe a typical day with her.

I think back to the years I spent with her, to how many days went on in exactly the same way.

(LauraDrake): Most of the time, I would get up early so I could fix us breakfast. I would sneak into her room and wake her up without disturbing whoever she was in bed with. Most of the time I could. She would come out and eat breakfast with me and wish me a good day at school and then go back to bed.

This is when the lags happen. As Dr. B digests my response, she formulates her next question. Sometimes that can take a while, which makes our sessions slow in the way of progress. But that’s fine with me since I’m only really doing this to get Chris off my back anyway.

My mind drifts back to Mason as I await the next question. When it comes, it irritates me. I’d much rather be writing than getting my head shrunk.

(Buraquinho_Dr): What about the evenings? After school? Did you take care of her then, too?

I would like to type a simple “yes,” but I know she’ll just ask me more questions if I do. She doesn’t like single word answers. I guess no psychiatrist really does.

(LauraDrake): For the most part, yes. She did some of the things that I couldn’t do, like grocery shopping and signing things, but otherwise, yes. I pretty much took care of everything else.

After a few minutes, the next question comes in. I know when I answer her where the conversation will go. It makes me very happy that I have to cut short today’s session in order to make it to a book signing. It signals the end of my “trip,” which really isn’t a trip at all. I’m still at home in Charleston, but the world at large thinks Laura Drake lives in Arizona.

The lengths I go to for you, Laura Drake, I tell my alter ego. I stay in hotels when I’m in the area, just so there’s no way to trace Laura Drake back to me.

(Buraquinho_Dr): Didn’t she work?

Oh yeah, she worked all right.

(LauraDrake): Yes, she worked.

(Buraquinho_Dr): What did she do?

(LauraDrake): She was an escort.

A long pause.

(Buraquinho_Dr): An escort? Or a prostitute?

(LauraDrake): Depends on who you ask.

Another pause.

(Buraquinho_Dr): How would you describe her work?

I think about that before answering. Some nights were better than others. On the good nights, I would’ve called her an escort. But there were some bad nights…

I can’t stop the shiver that quakes me to my soul.

(LauraDrake): I really don’t know.

It’s an honest answer, just not one Dr. B will like.

(Buraquinho_Dr): How much did you know about your mother’s occupation?

More than I should have. More than I ever wanted to.

But that’s not the answer I give.

(LauraDrake): Enough.

A hauntingly familiar and unwelcome tightness grips my chest, just like it always has when I think of how much I know about my mother’s work. And, even though it’s not technically time for me to put on Laura Drake, I end the conversation with Dr. B.

(LauraDrake): I’m sure you’d like to further explore this, but I have to prepare for this afternoon’s appearance. Can we continue this at our next session?

I hope she forgets, but I know she won’t.

(Buraquinho_Dr): Of course. We can pick it up right here on Thursday.

Why did I ever agree to two days per week?

(LauraDrake): Great. See you then.

Without waiting for a response, I sign off and head for the hotel bedroom.

********

I fold my hands demurely in my lap and await the next question. This part of the signing is a Q&A for fans, which isn’t that unusual. There are five other authors present, so it turned out to be a fairly large affair. What makes this particular event more stressful is that it’s televised.

It’s odd, the comfort that I feel in the wig, glasses and heavy makeup. My Laura Drake get-up is much more than a disguise, it’s a shield—a protective barrier that keeps the world out and the tender Samantha Jansen (the real me) in.

As my eyes drift through the crowd again, they’re drawn to the back of the room, to a latecomer. I feel my jaw go slack and, slowly, the earth stops spinning, grinding to a halt. For a moment, it’s as though the entire world is as breathless and reverent as I am.

My first thought is that someone has managed to find the exact image I have of Mason Strait, the one that’s only ever been in my head and in my darkest dreams, and send him here as a publicity stunt.

Even from this distance, I can see that his eyes are a soft, pale green. They’re framed in thick, jet-black lashes that match his jet-black hair. It’s cut much like I imagined it would be—business short. It’s a little mussed at the moment, like he’s run his fingers through it a few times, but that just makes it look even more like Mason’s.

His lean face is tan and his cheeks are covered in a light dusting of five o’clock shadow even though it’s still early afternoon. His lips are perfectly sculpted and his jaw is square. He even has that engaging dimple in his strong chin.

As my stunned eyes travel away from his face, I’m astonished to find that he’s even dressed like Mason might be when he’s out prowling around—casual, non-threatening. Sexy.

His broad chest is covered in a white button-up shirt that looks like it’s made of expensive brushed cotton. His long, muscular legs are clad in faded blue jeans that look like they were cut and sewn with his body in mind. And on his feet? Nothing less than dusty cowboy boots.

This can’t be happening!

“Next question please.”

Temporarily, Ari’s voice distracts me from the breathtakingly handsome man at the back of the room. I feel a bit disoriented, like I’ve been in a daze. I look around at the small crowd of people, trying to focus. But just before my mind can snap back to attention, my gaze is drawn to him again, as if pulled by a magnet.

But now the doorway is empty.

My heart sinks, so keen is my disappointment. I suppress the urge to jump out of my seat and run through the crowd, out the rear door to see if I can get one more glimpse of him. I feel desperate for just one more look at my Mason.

Ari’s voice brings me back to my purpose here. “You, sir,” he says in his authoritative voice.

Ari Nelson is my friend as well as my publicist. He has strawberry blond hair and a no-nonsense way about him. He makes calm out of chaos, reason out of randomness, and he can wrangle a raucous bunch like nobody’s business. He’s a thousand kinds of wonderful and he prefers his men much like I do—strong and dark.

“Ms. Drake, does inspiration for your stories stem from personal experience?” The smooth voice causes chills to erupt down my arms. I search for the corresponding face among the primarily-female crowd.

My eyes stop on a familiar face. His lips aren’t moving, but I have no doubt whatsoever that the velvety voice belongs to this man—my real-life Mason.

There are a few other men present, but his tall frame makes him easy to spot. He stands inches above everyone around him. I had been so focused on the doorway that seemed to have swallowed him up that I didn’t see him hovering at the far edge of the crowd.

But now, I can’t see anything else, anyone else.

His eyes are locked on mine as he waits. They aren’t smiling or flirtatious, or even curious; they’re just…intense.

When I don’t answer immediately, he asks another question. “Are you Daire Kirby?”

As my mind spins over his words, he watches me. I get the feeling he’s trying to see inside me, trying to find the truth, to find the softest, most vulnerable part of me and expose it. Just like Mason would.

The physical similarities between this man and my fictional leading man leave me breathless. The similarities that seem to float just beneath the surface leave me terrified.

People are always curious about where I get my inspiration, about whether or not it comes from real life. And although I’ve answered his question dozens of times and have memorized a nice, pat spiel to address it, my mind goes blank. It’s as though the only thing I’m aware of is the invisible thread that this man has, within seconds, tied around some battered part of my soul and is using to pull me toward him like a puppet on a string.

It’s quiet around us as the others in the room await my answer. When I give none, “Mason” moves forward. I watch, completely immobilized, as he fluidly weaves his way through the bodies in the crowd until he’s within a couple of feet of me.

He looks up at me where I sit on the stage, his familiar green eyes stripping me bare in front of all these people, and he asks the one question that scares me more than anything else. “Are you looking for your Mason Strait?”

I’ve asked myself that same thing over and over and over again. Do I want to escape my past? To forget it and move on like it never happened, like it hasn’t affected me? Or do I secretly want someone to take me back to it, to explore it with me? To free me inside it?

“Your name, sir?”

I still haven’t said a word when Ari asks the question, bringing me back from…somewhere else.