Prologue and Chapter 1 of The Perception by Adriana Locke
Well, well, well. What do we have here?
I spotted a woman standing in front of her car a few spots from mine in the parking lot.
Her head in her hands, she stared at the front of her vehicle. I just finished my meeting
and really wanted to go back home, but I couldn’t leave a woman stranded in the heat.
Not with a clear conscience.
And not with an ass like that.
“Somethin’ wrong?” I asked, shutting my truck door behind me and walking slowly
towards the brunette.
She turned her head and a smile slowly spread across her pretty face. She stood,
wiping her hands down the sides of her green workout shorts. Her body was lean and
tight and I wanted to run my hands all over it.
She was little as hell, probably a good foot shorter than my 6’2” frame. Her tight white
tank top showcased her breasts in the best way possible. Her hair was piled on top of
her head, strands sticking to the back of her neck.
Her smile grew wider as I made my way across the parking lot. Sweat dotted her
smooth, tanned skin and she wiped her brow with the back of one hand.
The beauty raised her eyebrows, her green eyes lighting up. “My car won’t start.” She
ran her gaze down my body, making little effort to conceal the fact that she liked what
That makes two of us.
I flashed her a smile and cleared my throat. I needed to focus, but that was easier said
than done. The last thing I wanted to do was come across like Cane, my friend with no
“What seems to be the problem?” I unlatched the hood and raised it open.
“I turned the key and got nothing but a buzzing sound,” she huffed, crossing her arms in
front of her.
I looked up, the movement catching my attention, and my gaze landed right on her
“What are you looking at?” she asked cheekily.
“Nothin’ you shouldn’t be proud of.” I blew out a breath and laughed.
She giggled and I immediately wanted to hear it again. I wanted to make her giggle, to
see that smile, over and over.
Trying to put some distance between us, I made my way to the side of the car. I felt her
eyes on me, the smell of her coconut perfume messing with my mind. I needed to focus
on the task at hand and not on the thing I wanted to be handling.
Damn, I’d love to handle that little body.
I checked the battery and saw the problem right away. I tightened the loose cable and
checked the other before standing back up. I leaned against the car and folded my
hands in front of me. I had to figure out how to play this to my advantage. My mind
raced through possibilities and I shot her a serious look.
“This is just my luck,” she said, reading way too much into my expression. “And I
thought this week couldn’t get any worse.”
“Wanna talk about it?” I grinned, watching her cute-as-hell act. I didn’t know what her
week had been like, but I knew I was more than willing to take her mind off of it for a
couple of hours.
“So you’re a mechanic and a counselor?”
“I can be whatever you want me to be.”
Her mouth twisted in amusement, her eyes lighting up. “Is that so? You’re a jack-of-all
trades then, Mr.—”
“I’m Max Quinn, the man that can service any and all of your needs.”
She laughed, her cheeks blushing. “Okay, Max. The first need I have is getting this car
“The first need, huh? Does that imply that there may be more needs that require my
She pressed her lips together, obviously enjoying the innuendos. “It’s a possibility. You
know how things go—you take care of one thing and then suddenly something else, you
know, pops up.”
“Pops up? Interesting choice of words...”
She laughed again, tossing her head back. Drops of sweat rolled down her neck and it
took everything I had to not leap across the car, throw her over my shoulder, and into
the back of my truck. I could imagine that little body wrapped around mine, that giggle
piercing the air as I had my way with her.
“If I can get this car running, and that’s a big ‘if’, what do you think is a fair price for my
time and effort?”
I figured I’d give her a chance to either play along or opt out. As much as I’d like to get
to know this little beauty, I wasn’t going to press myself. It wasn’t my style.
“I’m not sure,” she smiled. “What are you thinking?”
“Well, I don’t really have anything else to do today. But it could take hours.”
“Really?” She looked alarmed. “I don’t want you—”
“It might take minutes,” I cut her off, shrugging.
She tossed me a flirty smile, one hand on her narrow hip. “Are you sure you’re up for
“Ah, sweetheart. You have no idea.”
Biting her bottom lip, her eyes sparkling, she ran a hand down the side of her neck. She
knew exactly what she was doing to me. “Fair enough. What’s it going to cost me?”
“It’s going to cost you two things.” I tapped my fingers against the hood of the car and
waited for her response.
“Two things?” She sighed dramatically, rolling her eyes for effect. “Well, my options
seem pretty limited, so let’s hear it.”
“The first thing is your name. Only seems fair that I know whose car I’m fixin’.”
The gorgeous girl in front of me cocked her head to the side. She was smarter than I
gave her credit for. I knew she was attracted to me and I knew she’d give me her name,
but she was smart enough to consider it first.
“Kari Stanley,” she said finally.
“Alright, Kari Stanley. The second thing you need to do before I fix your car is say yes.”
“Say yes to having dinner with me tonight. I think that’s totally fair. If I get this fixed, the
least you can do is share a meal with me.”
She pretended to consider my proposal, her tongue darting out to lick her bottom lip.
“How do I know you’re not a serial killer?” she asked playfully.
I grinned mischievously. “I never said I didn’t bite.”
Her jaw dropped. She started to speak but nothing came out but another laugh.
“But I promise you’d like it if I did.” I narrowed my eyes, fighting the grin on my face, too.
She looked shocked for a split second and then regained her composure, trying to play
it cool. “Okay. If you can get this started, I’ll go to dinner with you. But I have to say—I’m
a little disappointed in your creativity. For some reason, I expected you to want more
than a meal.”
I tossed her the keys and a wink. “Don’t be. You don’t know what all dinner entails.”
She caught her key ring with a grin. “Fair enough.”
“It’ll be better than fair, I promise. Now quit wastin’ time and use those,” I said, nodding
to the keys in the palm of her hand.
“What do you want me to do with them?”
“I want you to start the car.”
She stared at me blankly. “What part of ‘this car doesn’t start’ don’t you understand?”
“What part of ‘start the damn car’ don’t you understand?”
She eyed me curiously before climbing into the driver’s seat. A look of disbelief crossed
her face as the engine roared to life. “What the...”
I shut the hood of her car.
“Meet me at Maisano’s on Scottsdale Road at six, sweetheart.”
“Wait. How did you...”
I laughed, starting towards my truck. “Maisano’s at six—be there.”
Approximately one and a half years later
The box Jada handed me felt light in my hands. It jingled as I turned it over, the contents
clamoring inside. It was the size of a shoebox but held enough memories to fill a Mack
A sharp pain tore through my chest at the realization that my secrets had been in
someone else’s hands.
I looked up at my sister. Jada’s long brown hair was in a knot at the top of her head, her
round cheeks pink. She looked a lot like me, only my hair was a lighter shade of brown
and falling across my shoulders. Our noses were identical, our eyes a bright shade of
green. We had our mother’s dark complexion, although Jada was much more like her
My eyes settled on her growing belly.
And, right now, she’s a lot more like Mom than I’ll ever be.
“Did you look inside?” I tried to keep my voice even. The thought of her possibly
knowing the items buried at the bottom of the box made me queasy.
At one time in our lives, I would have told her my secrets. I needed to tell her. But she
was dealing with her then-husband Decker at that point and didn’t need any more
stress. When I called her that day to tell her what was going on and she was already
crying, I choked. I masked the pain from my voice and worked her through her problem.
Sadly, even to me, that was something I was pretty good at. It was a coping mechanism
I’d learned at a young age. Things were sometimes easier to deal with if you just kept
them to yourself.
Our mom died when I was eleven, Jada fourteen. Mom was pregnant and died from an
ectopic pregnancy. It was hard on all of us, but Jada seemed to pick up the pieces
faster than I did.
Dad had done his best to keep things from falling apart. His secretary at his realtor
office, Alice, came to the house a few days a week to help out. Alice was great and did
our laundry, made cookies, and tried to talk to us the best she could. But our mom was
perfect and, as much as I loved Alice, she always seemed like a fill-in. I remember
watching her mill around Mom’s kitchen one afternoon a few months after the funeral,
Jada sitting at the table peeling an orange. Alice was making plans to take her to a play
she wanted to see.
I sat and sketched on a notepad, drawing little doodles of arrows, and felt so utterly
alone. I just wanted to scream that everything was wrong, pound my fists on the table
and yell at Alice to get out! To stop touching all my mom’s things. Every item she moved
made things a bit farther from the way Mom had left them. It destroyed me, but I felt
trapped. I didn’t know what to say.
When I tried to bring it up to Jada later, she shushed me. She told me that I didn’t need
to be so hateful and that we were all doing the best we could. That we were in it
Over the next few years, I mastered the art of being “in it together,” yet being absolutely
I realized that saying how miserable I was only made Jada more miserable, too. So I
learned to keep my mouth shut and deal, to not spread the pain. Let happy people be
happy—why ruin that?
It was a life lesson I learned way too early. Pick your heart up off the floor when it was
smashed, put it back together as best you could, and paste on a smile. You could be a
mess on the inside but still look put together on the outside. As long as things looked
okay, everything was fine. Smoke and mirrors wasn’t just acceptable, it was preferred.
Sad but true.
The sunlight streamed through the windows of Jada’s bedroom and I turned to look at
my sister. The light made her even more radiant.
“I didn’t go through it or anything,” she said. “As soon as I saw the cassette tapes, I
knew it was yours so I closed it back up.”
I released a heavy breath and walked to the window looking over the base of the
mountain. Cane Alexander, Jada’s husband, had positioned their bedroom for optimum
viewing pleasure. They could literally lie in bed and watch the lights twinkle below. He
hadn’t missed a single detail, which was a testament to how much he loved my sister.
Cane typically did things with wider brush strokes. But when it came to Jada, his
attention to detail was relentless.
The thought of Cane being so caring and considerate to Jada was endearing. When I
met him originally, he was the ultimate bad boy. I had been at Max’s house one night
and Cane had swung by. He had given me a smirk and made more vulgar comments
about his evening than I cared to remember. He was the opposite of Max in so many
ways. Although Max’s moves in the sheets outdid the tales Cane was telling, Max would
never say that. Not in front of me, anyway. He was too thoughtful, too sweet. Cane, on
the other hand, was giving us a play-by-play.
Max really liked Cane and there was something about their interaction that night that cut
through Cane’s vulgarity, something that gave me a clue that there was more to Cane
Alexander than the man whore he portrayed himself to be. That’s the only reason I
didn’t object to him meeting my sister when she returned to Arizona after her divorce. If
Max trusted him, I trusted him, and obviously it was the right choice. Cane had become
the best husband I could ever imagine for my sister.
“Thanks for not throwing this out,” I laughed nervously, tucking the box under my arm.
I turned to watch Jada struggle to get off the bed. Her belly had begun to pop, swelling
with the growing baby inside. She put a hand on the bed and the other on her stomach
and slowly got to her feet.
“You okay?” Jada asked me, rubbing her belly.
I smiled, walking to her and rubbing it, too. “I am. I’m excited to meet the little jellybean.”
“I’m so excited, Kari,” she confessed. “I mean, I have quite a bit of time left, but I’m
already sad thinking about it being over. It’s just that once you find out you’re pregnant,
everything changes. Silly, I know, but it’s true.”
“It’s not silly,” I said weakly, feeling a lump form in my throat. “You were made to be a
“Well, I don’t know about that.”
“I do.” I heard Max and Cane in the other room and figured Max was about ready to
leave. I knew he had to work the next day and he’d want to get home before it got too
late. “I think we should probably get going, but I’ll be by later this week. I found some of
your things when I was cleaning your old room yesterday. I’ll bring them with me.”
She gave me a puzzled look. “I don’t remember leaving anything. What was it?”
“Just random stuff. A phone charger under the bed and a pair of boots. Oh! And a tube
of red lipstick called Ruby Woo by MAC.” I furrowed my brow as I recalled the fiery
color. Jada and I were both a darker complexion and I couldn’t imagine her wearing it.
“Red? That must be yours because I don’t wear that color. You know that.”
“Well, it isn’t mine. Maybe it’s Lara’s,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. Lara hadn’t been
over for months, but the tube was dusty when I pulled it from behind the plant by the
I let out a sigh and turned back to the glass. My house felt so empty without Jada. She
had lived with me after her divorce from Decker and I missed having her around. I found
myself spending less and less time there...and more time with Max.
But the more time I spend with Max, the messier things get.
“I’m not prying, but is everything okay? You just seem...off. I know I’m married and
having a baby, but I’m still your sister. And I also know that I’ve not always been there
for you like I should have been, but I want to be now.”
“Everything’s fine. I’m not going to burden you with my stuff.” I turned to face her.
“You are never a burden to me.”
I blew out a breath. “I just think all this marrying and baby making from you and Cane is
putting ideas in Max’s head.”
Jada laughed. “And the problem with that is what again?”
“Things with Max were never supposed to get to this point.” I let out a sigh. “It’s not that
I don’t want to live with Max, I just don’t want him to get the wrong idea. But it’s Max, so
he would. He’d have a nursery painted before I got my boxes unpacked.”
“I don’t get it. Why in the world would you not want to settle down with Max Quinn? He’s
gorgeous and charming and successful and adjusted-”
“He’s perfect. I get it. I know.”
“So? What’s the problem, Kari?”
“Max comes from this big family. He wants a wife in the kitchen, babies at his feet,
Sunday family dinners. It’s just,” I swallowed and looked away, “not something I see for
Jada touched my shoulder. “You might not want that right now and that’s perfectly okay.
“But you need to figure out what you want. If you’re sure you don’t want Max for the
long-term and he does, then you have to consider that.” A frown touched her lips and I
could see she was torn. She was trying to be honest with me, but knew it wasn’t the
easy answer I wanted to hear. “Have you talked to him about this?”
“Constantly. He asks me to move in nearly every day. And I would, Jada, I really would.
But then that leads to the next step and that’s the one I don’t want to take.”
She tilted her head and frowned deeper. “You don’t want to get married?”
I looked at my sister’s hand on her tummy. “I don’t think I’d mind getting married.” I took
a deep breath. “But I don’t want to have a family.” The words came out softer than I
would’ve liked, but saying it too loudly would’ve given my voice too much room to crack.
”I never knew you didn’t want kids,” she breathed, looking at me like I was a stranger.
Whether she realized it or not, she was right. There were things about me she had no
“Yeah, well...” I moved the box from one arm to the other, looking everywhere but at her.
It was so much easier keeping things from her when she lived in Boston. “It’s just...
“Joe Montana was the greatest quarterback that ever played football. Now that,” Cane
said, tipping his Corona towards me, “is a fact.”
“I’m still going with Tom Brady. He has four Super Bowl rings and we both know the
Patriots should’ve beaten the Giants in the other one. That was a loss I’ll never believe.”
I sat my red plastic cup down on the end table.
“I’m sorry. I can’t handle you liking the Patriots.”
“Jada likes them, too,” I pointed out, watching his face twist in disgust.
“Fuck that. She only likes Julian Edelman and I think that has very little to do with
I busted out laughing, glancing at my watch. “You’re probably right about that. Hey, it’s
getting late and we should probably get going. I’m sure Jada needs to rest and I need to
look over a few things for work tomorrow.”
Cane ran his hands through his short blond hair. “I got a letter from the court yesterday.
Simon plead guilty to the drug charges against him and conspiracy to commit murder.”
“That makes it easier, right?” I asked, watching him try to keep his shit together. Simon
Powers and Cane had a long, twisted history that had ended with a kidnapping and
enough drama to write a book. I told Cane a number of times that there was no way
Simon would get out of jail, not after everything that happened. I hoped this would settle
him down a bit.
“Yeah,” he muttered, cracking his knuckles. “I guess.”
“What else is going on?” I asked, knowing something else was bothering him. Cane
had been jittery all night and I wasn’t sure why. If Powers was going to be locked up for
the foreseeable future, he should be calm.
“This pregnancy thing is making me fucking crazy,” Cane said. “It’s the only time I can
remember not knowing what to do. I want her to eat so the baby gets vitamins, but it’s a
double-edged sword. She’ll just puke it up, then I have to worry about that. It’s a fucking
I chuckled. Seeing Cane worry about someone other than himself still caught me off
“And now she has these hormones going through her and she just starts crying. And I
have no idea why. I left the toilet seat up this morning. She cried.” He looked at me
wide-eyed. “For fuck’s sake! I’m screwed anyway I go.”
“Has she told you to put the seat down before?”
“Yeah, but it’s hard to remember in the middle of the night.”
I laughed a little louder. “Maybe it’s not about the seat. Maybe it’s about you not listening
“This isn’t funny, Max.”
“I never said it was. I don’t envy you.”
He leaned back and then stood slowly, smirking. “Yes, you do. You’d give your right nut
for Kari to be pregnant right now.”
Standing and stretching out my long legs, I spun my Saints hat around on my head. “I’m
not sayin’ I wish things with Kari weren’t more serious.”
“So why not make them that way?”
“It’s not that simple.”
Cane didn’t say a word, just watched me, waiting on me to explain. I rapid-fired through
memories, trying to condense everything into a few words.
“If Kari is anything, it ain’t simple,” I muttered. “I just don’t know what to do with her. If I
act like I’m not paying attention, not pressuring her for anything, she relaxes. She allows
herself to get into a routine with me. She’ll stay at the house, talk about things, be a
normal human being. But as soon as she thinks I’m pushing, she backtracks. Reminds
me we are just about sex.”
He tilted his head, chewing his bottom lip. “There was a time when I loved those words
—‘we are just about sex.’ Now we’re sitting here talking about how to make things more
fucking complicated. What the hell is wrong with us?”
I laughed at the appalled look on his face.
“We’re turning into women. Those women,” he said, glancing down the hallway, “are
“I’m not a woman. I still have my freedom. Now you, on the other hand, are fucked.”
“You’re fucked, too, asshole. It’s not like you’re out getting strange pussy. Just marry her
and get it over with.”
I shook my head in frustration. “I ask her all the time. And she always says, ‘Not today.’”
“Want me to talk to her for ya?”
“I’ve always said you’d need me one day. Maybe now’s the time.” Cane’s trademark
cockiness was written all over his face. “Yeah. Let the guy that knows what he’s doing
I rolled my eyes and walked to the kitchen, tossing my cup in the trash. “I don’t know
what I need to fix this shit, but it’s not you.” I watch Cane toss his bottle in the trash.
“She’s it for me, Alexander. She’s the one. I just need her to see it.”
Cane grabbed my shoulder as he walked towards the island. He leaned against it,
crossing his arms in front of him. “She sees it or she wouldn’t still be with you. Maybe
she wants you to get on one knee and all that bullshit.”
“If I go doin’ that, she’s gone. There’s no way she won’t run. I just...” I looked out the
window at the leaves swaying with the breeze. “I need to figure out what she’s so
scared of. That’s the key. And then change her perception.”