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Sundays at the ranch are family day. Lucky for me, my family doesn’t give a fuck about visits, so I’m left to my own devices. While everyone else is having crappy picnics and doing group therapy sessions with their parents, I sneak down to the lake and play my guitar in peace. It’s the only time I can unravel the constant stream of tangled lyrics in my head.

I find the same worn-out spot beneath a tree and sit down, closing my eyes and singing the lines I’ve been working on all week. Every so often, I pause to tweak the tune and change up the words. I don’t know how I know when it’s right. It’s just a feeling. A spark of fire in my lungs. The taste of victory on my lips. I live for these moments, however fleeting they may be. Like everything else, the shine wears off in a flash, leaving the artist perpetually dissatisfied. The irony is that I live to create, but my creations keep me trapped in a hell of disappointment. I hate the whole fucking world, but once I finish my songs, they no longer belong to me. They’re for someone else. An audience I’ll never have because the thought of actually singing for anyone makes me want to puke.

Maybe it’s a lost cause, but I can’t stop the words from hijacking my brain. The urge to lay them down and organize the chaos is all I know. The lyrics keep me chained to this existence while the soundtrack of my life plays on in the background.

You’re a fuckup, Madden. A piece of shit. You’re never going to amount to anything, kid. Stay in your lane. Know your place. Keep your head down and shut the hell up.

Even from hundreds of miles away, Stefan’s voice lingers in my thoughts. So I fucking sing it again. This song. These lyrics. These feelings that live inside, buried beneath the fortress I’ve built around me. For a few moments, time is suspended as my words carry on the breeze, and I live for it. My blood electrifies, my pulse pounds, and I burn for more until nothing but the last verse remains. Then the haunting melody fades into blackness as numbness seeps into my veins.

I close my eyes and release a breath, content with the silence. The emptiness of this place contains familiarity. It keeps me sane. It gives me space for a few stolen seconds when all the bullshit is stripped away. But today, someone decides to ruin that for me.

“Did you write it yourself?”

My eyes snap open, colliding with a pair of brown eyes I wish I’d never seen. I’ve already given too many of my thoughts to this girl, and the last thing I need is her following me around like a stray kitten.

“Are you lost?” I stare her down like she’s the devil incarnate.

Discomfort tightens her features, but she recovers almost immediately. If I had blinked, I would have missed it, and that’s how I know I was right about her. She’s an actress. A fraud. Another fucking pretender in a world overflowing with them.

“You’re in my spot,” Her eyes move over my face as though she hasn’t been staring at me every goddamn day since she got here. “That’s my tree.”

What the hell is it with this girl? Can’t she feel the acidity rolling off me? She must be deranged to follow me out here. Maybe she secretly has a death wish, and she thinks I’m the danger she’s looking for.

“Your tree?” I arch a brow at her. “So that’s it, huh?”

“What?” She frowns.

“Entitlement. Is that your mysterious character wound? Mommy and Daddy can’t figure out how to tell you no, and now the world owes you.”

“Seriously?” Her eyes flash with fire. “Where do you get off?”

The moment the words are out of her mouth, a flush colors her cheeks.

“Wouldn’t you like to know, stalker.” I offer her a smug grin. “But I’m not into exhibitionism.”

“God,” she groans. “That isn’t… I didn’t mean it that way.”

I let her squirm beneath the weight of my stare for a full minute before I decide I’m done playing with her.

“You’ll have to find somewhere else to paint your nails, princess,” I tell her. “This spot’s taken.”

“Don’t you have something criminal you should be doing right about now?” she snaps.

“Cute.” I snort. “Real original.”

“Original like this whole wrong side of the tracks vibe you’ve got going on?” She gestures at me. “I have to give you credit, you really throw yourself into it. All the brooding and stomping around. The dark hoodies and busted-up knuckles. You might as well add a couple of gang tats while you’re at it.”

“I didn’t realize you were so obsessed with me, Bianca.” Her name rolls off my tongue like velvet. “Does it get you off laying in your cottage at night while you think of me?”

Despite all her bravado, her pretty blush spreads farther down her neck, and she jerks her head in disagreement. “You wish.”

“It would make sense.” I shrug. “You can’t stop staring at me. And now here you are… following me around like a creepy little fangirl.”

“I’m just trying to figure it out.” Her lip quirks, waiting for me to take the bait.

A moment passes, and I hate myself a little for indulging her, but I do.

“Figure what out?”

“Your big secret,” she says. “What’s locked up so tight in angry boy’s vault?”

Her words burrow under my skin and irritate the fuck out of me, but I don’t show it.

“There’s no mystery to solve here,” I tell her. “You seem to have missed the PSA. I’m not fit for public consumption, so if you know what’s good for you, you might want to scamper off while you still can.”

She stares back at me, expressionless, and for a moment, I have serious doubts about her comprehension skills. Then, without warning, she bursts into a fit of laughter, leaving me to question her actual sanity for the first time since she arrived. I let her have that moment because, honestly, I don’t know what the fuck to think about it. She’s still smiling when she takes it upon herself to come sit beside me, clearly amused by my threats.

I side-eye her, unsure how to handle an actual lunatic. Everyone at the ranch wants to believe they have a whole load of shit wrong inside their head. They get off on it a little, I think. It’s the game they all play when they look at each other. Who’s more deranged, you or me? But this one… this one I didn’t see coming. The angelic, brown-eyed princess who respects all the rules is possibly the most screwed up of all. Because here she sits, plucking a piece of grass to twirl between her fingers like I didn’t just tell her to fuck off.

“I don’t believe the stories,” she says.

“What stories?” I glance at her and then immediately regret it because, up close, her eyes feel like a trap. They’re warm, deep, and magnetic. It bothers me that I don’t want to look away.

“The things they say about you. I don’t really believe you’re as bad as they make you out to be.”

Her words rattle me, and when I reply, my voice loses the well-crafted edge I’ve spent years perfecting to keep people away. “Well, you should.”

Her eyes search mine in that way she has like she’s trying to lure all my secrets out. I don’t like it, but I’m not telling her to stop, either.

“I’ve heard all the rumors.” She leans back and stares up at the sky. “So far, I’ve been told that you’ve killed a guy in a knife fight, stabbed your poor mother, and pushed an innocent old lady into the street.”

I snort at the ridiculous bullshit people come up with. I guess when they don’t know why I’m really here, they can fill in the gaps however they want. It works for me if it works for them and keeps them the hell out of my way.

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you,” I smirk at the idea. “It’s all true.”

She tosses me a smile, and I like it far more than I care to admit. “I’ve been here two weeks and haven’t seen you lose your shit once. I’m still waiting for one of these epic meltdowns.”

“How do you know today’s not your lucky day?” I shrug. “Not a soul in sight. You could be sitting next to a complete psychopath and not even know it.”

“Or maybe this is all for show.” Her eyes soften with something that looks suspiciously like sympathy. “Maybe it’s easier to lock everyone out so they can never hurt you.”

Any warmth I may have felt turns to ice in my veins.

“Nice try, doc. But you better save the psychoanalysis for the quacks back at the ranch. I’m not a fixer-upper, I’m just an asshole. And if you believe otherwise, you really do need help.”

She tosses the grass aside and turns her attention back to the clouds. “Just saying, I don’t think it will kill you to have one real friend here. And I’m not talking about your female fan club back at the ranch. We can just… hang out.”

“I don’t do friends.” I give her a dark look. “I fuck, then I move on. So unless that’s what you’re offering, you should save your energy for someone else.”

That idea seems to leave a sour taste in her mouth, but she still doesn’t leave.

“You can keep playing.” She gestures to the guitar. “I don’t mind.”

“I do.” I toss the guitar aside and stare off into the distance. It’s too early to go back to the ranch. Between Bianca and the visitors wandering around the property, she’s surprisingly the less annoying option.

“You’re really talented,” she says quietly. “Your vocals are powerful and dark and insanely hypnotic. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like them. It literally gave me chills.”

I don’t reply, but I can feel a flush creeping up my neck. She wasn’t supposed to hear me. Nobody was.

“Isn’t there a picnic you need to get to?” I bite out.

She doesn’t respond. For whatever reason, she seems to be immune to my usual tactics of barking and growling my way through life. But I have a feeling there’s one thing she’s not immune to. Like everyone else here, she has a vulnerability, and being the dick I am, I want to pour some salt into the wound.

“Okay, friend.” I draw out the word. “You want to sit here and talk? Let’s talk.”

She glances at me like she already knows what’s coming, but it doesn’t stop me.

“Let me take a stab at your crisis,” I muse. “How did Bianca brown eyes end up at the ranch?”

She narrows her gaze at me but doesn’t play along.

“I bet your parents must be brimming with disappointment over having to send you here,” I tell her. “I’m sure they’ve given you everything, yet you can’t quite seem to meet their expectations. They think if they just throw enough money at your imaginary problems, they’ll all go away.”

She stiffens beside me, and for a second, I almost regret the words because now I know I’m right. I’ve seen her parents here, and I’ve watched how Bianca acts as she parades them around and plays her part as the obedient daughter. She wants to please them, even as she’s dying to break free inside.

“That’s not how it is,” she murmurs.

“Really?” I answer in a bored tone. “It sure as fuck looks that way. It must be exhausting to be you. Always performing. Putting on a show. I wonder what we’d find if we cracked you open and looked inside. Is it just a robot at the controls, or do you actually have thoughts of your own?”

Her eyes cut to mine, and this time, the hurt doesn’t wash off her face. “I take back what I said before. You are an asshole.”

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