Playing for Keeps Playing for Keeps (Hope Valley #10) - Jessica Prince

Chapter One

Charlotte

Sunlight shone through the open blinds of my window, illuminating my figure in a warm, golden glow as I stood in front of the full-length mirror and stared at my reflection.

Happiness and sunshine were a contradiction to the emotions swirling inside of me as I took stock of the litany of scars that peppered my face and body. Wounds that had healed but left reminders behind in the form of physical imperfections. Most specifically, the pink puckered scar on my abdomen a couple inches above and to the right of my belly button. There was another that cut right through the arch of my left eyebrow that I could fortunately cover up whenever I filled my brows in, and another that slashed across my right cheekbone. Then there was the thin silvery line that angled across the bridge of my nose—a bridge that was no longer straight as an arrow thanks to having been broken.

The scars might have been months old, but if I paid them close enough attention like I was doing right then, I could still feel the burn of the skin opening up when each of the wounds had been created.

As it usually did whenever I started to really study myself, my vision began to grow fuzzy, and I found myself getting lost inside my own head.

There were some people in the world who led charmed lives. Most others were happy to live ordinary lives, filled with ups and downs, happy times and sad.

Then there are those like me.

I wasn’t one of the fortunate few who led a charmed life. Hell, I wasn’t even lucky enough to be one of the majority. More times than not, I’d have given anything to be blissfully ordinary.

The downs I lived through were nearly constant. Each day felt like a tumble even lower than the one before. Ugliness followed me around like a putrid black cloud everywhere I went. For every good day I experienced, there were countless bad ones that followed. For every happy moment, guaranteed sadness would follow in its wake.

It was a crushing weight I couldn’t get out from under no matter how hard I tried, but I must have been a glutton for punishment because no matter how many times I got knocked down, I always forced myself back up. No matter how many bad days I experienced, I couldn’t let go of that microscopic glimmer of hope that things might get better. Even though they never did.

Most people would have learned their lesson and given up hope for a turnaround, accepting the bad and learning to live with it, letting it taint them and turn them into something or someone else altogether. But despite my hard exterior, at my center I was still a soft, gooey optimist.

And it was that optimism that had gotten me into so much damn trouble.

In my attempt to pull myself out of the gutter, I’d blinded myself to the wolf in sheep’s clothing. I’d hitched my wagon to a man I thought was a knight in shining armor. Turned out, just like every single man who’d come in and out of my life, he was a monster.

Malachi Black had the looks and the smooth charm that made me believe he was something he wasn’t: namely, a good and moral person. I was far from the first woman he’d fooled, but I should have known better. I’d had more than my fair share of scumbags and users and criminals filter in and out of my life; I should have been able to spot the threat he was from miles away. But I’d been seduced by a set of dimples, an easy smile, and firm, hot muscles.

If only all criminals were as ugly on the outside as they were on the inside. However, that wasn’t the case with Malachi. He had the sexy looks that belonged on the cover of a magazine.

By the time I realized the man didn’t have a single decent bone in his body, it was too late. I wasn’t just stuck, I was trapped, held prisoner in a life I’d willingly walked into with rose-colored glasses affixed to my face.

He might have been arrested a while back and locked up for a very long time, but the black mark he’d left on my soul remained, and by letting him into my life, I’d let in another monster as well. One that was arguably worse because he hid his evil behind a shiny badge and a uniform.

If Malachi Black was

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