C H A P T E R 1
ASHLEY GAVE HERSELF one last smile in the mirror before peeking out of the store’s dressing room at her boyfriend.
Shane, looking out of place in his dark, buttoned-up shirt and cropped wool pants, didn’t glance up from his phone. He’d only had it a week and was still obsessed with it.
Maybe this outfit will capture his attention , she thought. With a deep breath, she pulled the door all the way open and noisily cleared her throat.
Frowning in concentration, Shane rubbed his finger along the screen, still not looking up. “It says it’s a drought back home. The elders will be blaming us for bringing God’s wrath upon the community.”
Ashley pushed aside her guilt. It was a lot easier to do that now than it had been six months ago, when she’d first left home and still had all the restrictive beliefs of their upbringing fresh in her mind.
“Well, what do you think?” she asked. Her pounding heart was probably visible under her pale, exposed chest that had never seen the light of day. It was highly improper for her to be so scantily dressed, but she needed to show him she was a grown woman now, not the child he’d known all his life.
When Shane finally looked up, her throat tightened; she felt it difficult to breathe. Then, to her immense relief, she saw the desire flare in his eyes. Jaw slackening, he stared first at her chest, then lower at her belly, her hips, her thighs.
She forced herself to stand still under his gaze, keeping her arms loose at her sides instead of wrapped protectively in front of her, as a truly modest woman would do.
“What are you wearing?” he asked roughly.
She looked down at the tight, scoop-necked T-shirt and cut-off denim shorts. She’d hidden them in the pile of long dresses and men’s shirts she’d carried into the dressing room. “It’s what people wear here,” she said, putting a hand on her hip the way the mannequin had been arranged in the store window.
“Not the men,” Shane said. His voice sounded as if he’d been yelling into the wind all day, low and hoarse.
“No,” she said, feeling bolder, “not the men.” She lifted her chin and took a step towards him. She’d wanted him so long. Last spring the elders had decreed that her role in life was to remain at home with her parents, unmarried and untouched, and Shane was betrothed to another.
So she’d run away, unable—unwilling—to face living her entire life without ever knowing pleasure.
When Shane had followed her, joining her in exile, she knew it was a sign from God. He wanted her to feel good. He wanted her to live .
She reached out and stroked Shane’s strong, freshly-shaven jaw, tunneled her fingers through his light brown hair, letting the familiar desire for him wash over her. At last she was seeing a matching hunger in his own eyes, the familiar hazel eyes she’d gazed into so many years, not just the protective affection of a close male acquaintance. She’d waited so long.
The slap, when it came, was so unexpected she didn’t know what it was. A light fixture falling from the ceiling, perhaps. Or a door slamming shut. Even an explosion from a terrorist bomb. Any one of those things was a more reasonable explanation for why the side of her face was burning with pain.
“You whore,” Shane said, and lifted his hand to strike her again.
She flung up her arms to protect her head. The next blow landed on her wrists. “No!”
“I came all this way for a whore .” He grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her.
“Stop saying that!” She tried to pull away, but she was small, and Shane was built like an oak. His fingers were digging into tendon and bone. “You’re hurting me!”
He didn’t release her. “They were right. They told me and I didn’t believe them. You’re not whom I thought you were.”
Where were the other people who were working and shopping in the store? They wouldn’t let him hurt her, would they? Violence was so