Amber to Ashes (The Torn Heart #1)

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The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.

—MARK TWAIN

PROLOGUE

Amber

I
FELL FOR THE
two loves of my life when I was nineteen. Yes, two. Plural. More than one.

Immoral? Maybe. I say undeniable. Uncontained. Some say I’m wrong to feel this way about two men. Most call me a whore, a skank, or the town slut.

I don’t care.

Simply put . . . they each took a piece of what I wanted to give. No one will ever understand the addiction they pulled me into, both men the needle to my next hit. My dizzying high. They were as opposite as fire and ice, yet I ached for them equally.

Needed them the same way.

One was my rock. My strength. My first real . . . obsession.

The other was my passion, my burn.

They owned my mind and all its thoughts, every pulse that thrummed through my body, and every inch of my shattered soul.

A crack of lightning in my dark sky, they were a raging storm I never saw coming, an unforeseen heartbreak on the edge of a dangerous cliff.

Little did I know that by the time I turned twenty, the death of one of them was going to steal them both away from my life.

His murderer?

Me . . .

CHAPTER 1

Amber

Four Months E
arlie
r

A
WHIFF OF FAST
food hits me as I scan Hadley University’s student dining hall. Juiced-up jocks, bad boys, and uppity sorority girls to my left, creepy loners, hipsters, and random misfits to my right. Every type of personality is present and accounted for, each huddled at their socially segregated tables.

Cliques.

Whoever said college wasn’t filled with them must’ve been smoking crack.

I can do this. I can do this. I can do this
, I chant in my head, having not a speck of faith that I can. But what the hell is faith anyway? One huge misconception if you ask me. Either way, college has to be a better experience than the twelve years of mental tedium of public school.

At least I hope to God it is.

Inhaling, exhaling, right foot in front of the left, I start for an empty table—right before I feel myself . . . falling?

Kill. Me. Now.

Attention so focused on making it to that damned empty table,
I fail to notice a duffel bag in my path. Falling forward—momentum picking up—books and papers fly from my hands as my heart flies from my chest.

With nothing to grab, I face-plant onto something that feels like concrete, my knees buried between two jean-clad, muscular thighs. The chair Concrete’s sitting in screeches sideways across the laminate floor as laughter erupts, exploding in my ears like grenades. Mortified, I wrap my fingers around his firm shoulders, my nose inches from his.

My “savior” flashes me a heart-stopping smile as he curls his arms around my waist, absorbing our impact. My breath falters, catching like a snagged sweater on a rusty nail.

Embarrassment hijacks my body as my gaze falls upon a pair of tattoo-sleeved arms. Streaks of orange fire, shaded skulls, and what appears to be Chinese writing twine their way over every inch of thickly roped muscle, from his biceps down to his wrists. My attention travels back north. A blast of jet-black hair, spiked up messily above the most striking
I can fuck you into oblivion
blue eyes I’ve ever seen, nearly stops my heart.

In those eyes, I see amusement. I also see trouble, a healthy dose of rebellion, and pure, unadulterated sex. I tighten my grip around his shoulders as his smile widens. There’s a heavy air of arrogance in his smile, and something screams at me to run—that this dude’s going to be my undoing—but I can’t. I’m stuck, Super-Glued by my thoughts to his lap. His features are disarming, perfectly . . . imperfect. Lush, sculpted lips. Hard, chiseled jaw. He’s a perfect composite of every piece of gorgeous, drop-my-panties-now-and-hold-on-for-dear-life male specimen I’ve ever come across.

God help me.

A lone dimple dots his kissable cheek. “Have you decided to be my lunch? If so, I
fully
approve of the meal.”


Excuse
me?” I try to ignore his clean smell of soap and woodsy cologne.
Woodsy?
Did I just describe cologne as woodsy? Whatever it
is, it’s making me high.
He’s
making me high. “What’s
that
supposed to mean?”

He chuckles, and the realization of just how moronic my question was makes me want to crawl under the table and die.

“It means you’re in my lap and you look good enough to eat.” He runs his callused hands up and down my arms. I tremble, his touch lighting me up from head to toe. “Actually,” he continues, “ ‘eat’ is
nowhere
near the correct word. ‘Devour’ is more like it.”

An aggravated huff electrocutes the air, making me whip my head around. Some porcelain-looking blonde is clearly annoyed by our exchange. I narrow my eyes right back at her and bring my attention back to the dude whose lap is holding my body captive.

“Oh,
really
?” Though it comes out snarky, it’s the only thing I can think of.

“Yes, really,” he answers, his voice a low rasp. He flicks his pale blue eyes to my mouth, dragging his bottom lip between his teeth. “ ‘Devour’ is a better term for what I’d do to you.”

Although we’re surrounded by laughing spectators, an unexpected urge to taste his lips tickles deep within my belly.

Wait. What the hell am I thinking?

Control. He’s stripped it from me, and I need to take it back.

Despite my inner whore’s protest at not becoming a permanent fixture in his lap, I attempt to compose myself as I get to my feet. I smooth my hands through my wavy black hair, and with steely resolve I straighten my spine with every intention of walking away without further handicapping my brain.

My efforts mean shit when he stands, his smile spreading into a crooked grin. His eyes hold steady on mine, and the sexual intent behind them not only sends a hard punch of desire crackling through my body but also vacuums the air right out of my lungs.

At this, I mentally berate myself.

I’m so not one of
those
girls. A guy’s good looks have never left me
a gooey puddle of idiotic hormones. Well, with the exception of right now. But either way, Christ, my traitor body does a flip-flop as I take in the whole length of him.

This guy’s a beast, standing a good foot taller than my five-foot-three frame. I feel like a speck—a tiny, little speck. To make matters worse, while I thought his lickable tattoos only graced his arms, I find I’m so very wrong. On the right side of his neck, peeking up from his plain black T-shirt, are the delicious horns of what appears to be the devil himself.

I was right. It’s an omen. He’s the devil, and I’m in
a heavenish hell.

In an attempt to yank myself from my absurd reaction to him, I decide now is the perfect time to pick up my belongings and get the hell out of . . . well, get the hell out of hell.

“So, what time should I pick you up tonight?” he asks as I drop to my knees and reach for my English Lit book. “I’m thinking somewhere around seven. Go home and take a nap. You’ll need your energy. I’m
definitely
keeping you up late.”

I glare at him, my jaw nearly hitting the floor. I’m no stranger to one-night stands, and usually a guy this arrogant would have me on my back in a nanosecond, but for some strange reason, one I may never understand, all this one’s doing is pissing me off. “Are you for real?”

A smirk hits his face. “When I looked in the mirror this morning, I was as real as they come.”

He kneels and hands me my sociology book. I yank it from his grip. Great. Another smirk that has my resolve coming close to taking a hike.

We both rise, and amusement once again flashes in his eyes. His unfairly gorgeous face is way too close to mine. Close enough that I can feel his minty breath feathering over my cheek.

“Were you born conceited or did you just morph into an asshole over time?”

He cups his chin, his brows dipped in mock thought. “I
think
I was born this way, but I could be wrong. You’d have to ask my mother about
that if ya want the honest story behind how I turned out this way.” He smiles, clearly getting off on my reaction to his straightforwardness. “Any more questions for me? I’m finding your curiosity cute as all hell.”

I snort, amazed that I’m still a willing participant in this conversation. “Figures. Honestly, I don’t give a shit that you find
anything
I do cute.” I pause, tilting my head. “Thanks for catching me, but seriously, can you just go away?”

Laughter riots from his chest. “Whoa, killer, I’m simply trying to lend you my services. And what’s happening between us is sexual tension at its finest. It’s good—healthier than a cold glass of milk. Just go with it.”

Oh. My. God. This is getting worse by the minute.


Services?
Do you take pride in being a male whore? Oh, wait.” I bounce my palm against my forehead, feigning stupidity. “How could you not? You have a dick that shoots orgasmic flames into a girl. Am I right?”

Laughter sounds from the group around the table as he smirks again, this one cockier than its predecessor. “Yeah. You’re definitely in need of my . . .
services
. A good lay will brighten your pretty little ass right up.” He tosses me a wink, offering me his hand. “Oh, I’m Ryder Ashcroft, by the way.”

Exasperated, I don’t take Ryder Ashcroft’s hand. Nope. The only thing I take is an unsteady breath right before I smack him clear across his pretty face, the pain searing my hand worth every bit as I watch Pretty Boy’s eyes go wide. An atom bomb of laughter explodes from all directions, adding to my absolute enjoyment of the payback’s-a-bitch moment.

I barely have time to catalogue the look on Ryder’s face when I hear him mumble, “Fuck. That was brilliant,” half a heartbeat before his mouth is
devouring
mine.

Stunned, I gasp, my traitor lips parting as his sinfully delicious kiss absorbs the uninvited moan that jumps from my throat.

Some douche yells, “Go for it, dude!”

A girl squeaks, “He’s officially lost his mind!”

I also catch several whistling catcalls.

A split second before I slam my hands against Ryder’s chest, I feel his soft tongue—which I now know has a piercing in it, a barbell to be exact—languidly caress over mine. Oh Jesus. It sends a full, down-to-the-bone shiver up my spine. I unclog my brain from its temporary high and push Ryder back a few feet, leaving us both panting.

His eyes, intense with lust and shock, darken and lock on mine, another one of his infamous smirks twitching the corners of his lips as he studies me.

With a huff and a flip of the bird in his direction, I swipe the back of my hand across my lips, gather the rest of my books, and head toward the stupid table I’d originally tried to sit at before I’d fallen into his lap. As soon as I take my first step, I feel a large hand touch my shoulder. With every intention of knocking homeboy out, I spin around, my gaze snagging wide green eyes that do
not
belong to the previous offender.

What the? Is every male in this building on growth hormones? This guy’s just as big as Ryder Ass-Croft, if not bigger.

Hands held up in surrender, my schedule in their possession, he flashes me a cautious yet impish smile. “You forgot this.” He places the paper on top of my books, and throws his thumb over his shoulder, motioning to Ryder. “Don’t mind him.”

“Don’t
mind
him?” I parrot, flicking my eyes in Ryder’s direction, who’s now sitting at his rowdy table.

Blondie, who
seemed
annoyed earlier, is in his lap, consoling him, her arm wrapped around his neck as she whispers some shit in his ear. Ryder glances at me, a megawatt smile splitting his conceited lips.

Annoyed, embarrassed, and beyond sexually frustrated, I grit my teeth and turn on my heel. “He’s an asshole.”

“That
asshole’s
my best friend.”

I whip around, but Asshole’s buddy chucks his two cents into the tension-wired air before I can.

“Still, there’s
no
disputing his assholeness. It defines brutal, some of the worst shit out there.” His emerald eyes light up in amusement, a grin hugging his lips as he rests a forearm on a metal post. “I also think his mother breast-fed him longer than what’s deemed socially appropriate, so that
could
be the culprit to his problem.”

I raise a brow, watching as the dude before me chuckles at his joke.

“My name’s Brock Cunningham. I was bottle-fed, so I’m
nothing
like my friend, and I might be wrong, but you
look
like you could use some help.” Somewhat cautiously, Brock reaches for the mountainous stack of books and papers that are slipping from my grasp.

With little resistance, I allow him to take half the pile.

“Cunningham, huh?” Anger waning some, I make my way toward a table and decide that sitting with a group of geeky debate team members suits me. “As in Richie Cunningham?”

“Richie?” Confusion peppers his voice.

“Yeah, Richie Cunningham from
Happy Days
.” I claim a seat next to a freak wearing Coke-bottle eyeglasses, drop my half of the stack of books on the table, and watch Brock pull out a chair across from me. “It’s only the best sitcom from the seventies,” I continue. “You have to have seen it.”

Expression bewildered, he scratches his jaw. The sun dripping in through the windows catches his eyes, their flecks of gold shimmering like diamonds. I see a twinkle of mischievousness in their mossy green depths that feels familiar, but I can’t quite place it.

I freeze, only just now realizing how sickeningly good-looking Asshole’s best friend is.

To be honest, he’s equally as good-looking as Asshole, but in a different way. The angles of his face aren’t as hard and defined; they’re softer, less intimidating. His hair’s lighter, its blond-caramel blend reminding me of cream soda. I lick my lips, my fingers tingling to test
if the wavy strands feel as soft as they look. His boyish smile makes my heart thump erratically, and I find myself getting lost in the cute, confused look planted on his face.

“Now you have me curious,” he says. “I have no idea who Richie Cunningham is, or
Happy Days
.” He shrugs, his smile broadening. “You gotta give me
something
.”

I can’t believe I’m about to go there.

I clear my throat, gather my nerve, and do just that.

I go there.

I sing the show’s theme song, trying to hit the notes without shattering the windows. Forget about the nomads sitting at the table, who are now looking at me like
I’m
the freak; a chuckle escapes Brock’s throat, and I want to find the nearest bridge and jump right off it.

“Although you have a beautiful voice,” Brock points out, “I can’t say I’ve ever heard that song before.”

“You’re seriously deprived, Cunningham. You are aware of this, right?”

I adamantly believe this. It’s my generation’s loss that they didn’t grow up watching Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham raise the perfect family.
Happy Days
was exactly that.

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