A Woman’s Demons: A Mental Health Awareness Anthology

Hello everyone!

I have a very exciting announcement for you all!

I joined a Mental Health Awareness Anthology in 2020 with the hope to raise awareness about suicide and mental health in honor of my friend who lost his life at 23. At the time, I had a different story idea in mind, but life threw a hard and unexpected curve ball in my direction in 2021.

I started writing Color Me Gray after my dad’s death to spread awareness about cancer, grief, depression, and suicide while trying to find hope and love through it all. There are pieces of them and their battles in this fictional story about a woman coming to terms with her grief and struggles with depression.

I am hopeful you all enjoy the first 15k of Color Me Gray included in this anthology.

Here is the pre-order link:

We are donating 50% of the proceeds to the following charities: NAMI and Mind.

If you are intrigued and would like a sneak peak of chapter one of Color Me Gray, follow the link below:

https://hopecarterbooks11.medium.com/color-me-gray-preview-a-womans-demons-anthology-5b02016a8ad8


All love,
HC

Nowhere To Go

Chapter One


Gun powder and the metallic scent of blood lingered in the cold and late night air when Maddox Farnese stepped out of the SUV and into the abandoned warehouse. Anguished screams from further inside the building, past metal sliding doors currently shut, echoed around the iron beams and water-stained walls. Two other SUV’s with blacked out windows were parked right next to the one he had arrived in.

Unfazed by the blood-curdling sounds, Maddox slipped out of his Armani jacket and tossed it in the backseat, not willing to risk getting any blood on the fabric.

Calls from his uncle in the middle of the night always ended in blood and death.

He paid his staff enough to keep their mouths shut whenever they took his clothes to be cleaned, but he didn’t like leaving evidence for anyone to find. He was meticulous about avoiding messes because it led to fuck ups he didn’t have the patience to deal with.

The metal doors slid across the rusty tracks. Footsteps started across the wet concrete in Maddox’s direction. He shut the passenger door and turned to face one of the best hitmen and feared currently employed beneath the Farnese Empire.

“Who are you making scream in there?” Maddox leaned casually up against the side of the SUV and folded his arms over his chest. “Or are you letting my Uncle do all the dirty work?”

Dakota Jennings let out a dark laugh. “Your Uncle likes to get his hands dirty.”

“I know. Is Ryder here?”

“Not yet,” Dakota said. He leaned on a scarred palm against the side of the SUV. The black spade, an emblem of the Farnese Empire, flashed from the back of his hand. “He texted me a few minutes ago, so I imagine he’ll be here soon.”

Another scream tore through the warehouse followed by a string of choked curses.

“Who’s in there?” Maddox asked. He flipped his wrist over to undo his gold cuff links and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. “Where did you find him?”

“One of Kyzer Hawthorne’s men.”

Maddox didn’t bother fighting the pleased grin spreading across his face. Five years ago, a bloody war had erupted between prominent American Mafia families. Shipments of drugs and guns went missing with no explanation while business relationships fell apart. Assassinations of prominent members happened frequently on and off the streets.

Everything had descended into paranoid and violent chaos. Former alliances were gone. Shredded.

His uncle, John Farnese, suspected a new enemy rather than an older one. A ruthless and cunning one who trained his men to become spies and hide within the ranks of other Mafia families. To destruct them from the inside out.

And for the five past five years, Maddox and John had slowly weeded out Hawthorne’s men from within their inner circle.

“Has he squealed out any information yet?” Maddox asked, darkly.    

Dakota nodded. A hesitant expression flickered across his rugged and scarred features, but before he could say anything, an SUV pulled inside the warehouse through the same doors Maddox had come through.

The back passenger door opened. Ryder Hart stepped out, shedding his outer suit jacket as well. He scanned Dakota and Maddox’s face with a small grin when he heard another painful scream.

“I see you all started the fun without me.”

“I haven’t even joined in,” Maddox stated, eyeing him with a twinge of irritation. “I was waiting on your late ass to get here before I joined in.”

Ryder scowled at him. “Hey. I was balls deep in a woman when I got the call. Forgive me for wanting to finish before I came down here.” He waggled his eyebrows at Maddox. “Maybe you should try dipping into something. You’ve been a real dick the past few months.”

Maddox stiffened defensively at the comment. “I’ve been a bit busy these past few months.” It was a partial lie, and judging from the skeptical look on Ryder’s face, he knew it was, too. He changed the topic before Ryder could say otherwise. “Come on. Let’s get in there before all the fun is over with.”

They followed directly behind Maddox as they entered through the sliding doors.

The scene slowly unfolded beneath bright and flickering fluorescent lights. Tied to a chair in the middle of the room surrounded by piles of broken pallets, a sweat-drenched man thrashed wildly against the rope restraints. A red-tinged gag was tied tightly into his mouth. Welts protruded ugly from his forehead and both his cheeks were swollen and covered in blood. The pungent aroma of charred flesh filled the air along with sweat and blood.

His uncle towered over the man with his arms crossed over his broad chest, a picture of calm despite the violent scene in front of him. He was still dressed in an expensive suit, no doubt on his way out to dinner afterward. A splatter of blood covered his right cheekbone, smooth from a fresh shave. His silver hair was slicked back from his sharp and tanned features. All hard lines and emotionless.

Standing in John Farnese’s presence was unnerving. His reputation as “Dirty John” lived strongly in the underground world and even abroad. He was cold, devoid of emotion. The day after Maddox’s parents had been murdered was still ingrained in his memory like it was yesterday.

“You listen to me, Maddox.” His Uncle leaned down in a fresh wave of aftershave and cigar smoke to stare into his tear-stained and frightened face. “We don’t cry in this family. We don’t show love because that’s how we lose this war. Got it? I don’t want to see tears in your eyes ever again while you’re living with me.”

 Steely gray eyes glanced up from the moaning glob of flesh to rest on Maddox. He unfolded his arms with a smile. “Ah, my nephew. I’m glad you’re here.” He swiveled his attention to Ryder who was standing at Maddox’s right side. “I’m glad you’re here, too, son. This involves you more than anyone else.”

  Unease flashed in Ryder’s face. He curled his hands up into fists before forcing the tension out of them. “Me, sir?”

 “Yes,” John said, coolly. He gestured for both of them to come forward. “Both of you need to see this.”

Fear flashed in the man’s eyes when Maddox and Ryder approached. The muscles in his arms bulged against his tattered shirt when he tried to tug his arms free again.

“When is the last time you talked to your sister?” John asked Ryder.

A flash of fierce protectiveness and panic squeezed the inside of Maddox’s chest so tightly it forced the air out of his lungs. His blood pounded hot with the promise of pain if something happened to Livie Hart.

His eyes narrowed at the man who leaned back in the chair, shaking his head violently back and forth.

No one could get close to Livie— not without Maddox knowing about it.

A year ago, without Livie or Ryder’s knowledge, he had placed security to follow Livie and keep an eye on her at all times. He had cameras installed around her apartment at NYU to track every single person who came in and out of the building.

Protection. Maddox forced himself to believe it whenever he pulled up the cameras on his phone to watch. It had nothing to do with the longing ache in him to touch her, or to bury his fingers through those wild ashen blonde curls while he buried himself between her legs.

 He couldn’t pinpoint exactly when his feelings for Livie had shifted from a deep-rooted friendship built from childhood and trauma into something else entirely. All he knew was that his thoughts were consumed with her and that he wanted her for himself. His blood burned with a yearning to take her.

Maddox glanced over to see the murderous expression settling on Ryder’s face, a reminder of why he spent the past two years fucking random women in hope that it’d take the ache away.

In their world, friendship and loyalty were hard to come by. The only person who truly understood what it was like growing up with the weight of his parent’s murder and the Farnese Empire on his shoulders was Ryder. His right hand. His best friend who knew the bottomless and dark hole of grief just as intimately as he did.

Livie was unaware of the truth about the blood running through her veins. The Hart family had been destroyed alongside Maddox’s that night, too. The grandmotherly matriarch, Mary Hart, had left Ryder in John Farnese’s hands in good faith to keep the peace and alliance in place between their two families with one exception— to never tell Livie the truth about who their families are. 

To keep her safe.

 Up until now, they had done a damn good job of making sure she was safe.

“I talked to her a few days ago,” Ryder said. His eyes, ablaze with fury, fixated on the squirming man in front of them. “What does this have to do with my sister?”

“We found a few messages on his phone that you both might want to read.” John handed over a black iPhone to Maddox. “I think you should read it first, Maddox.”

Ryder’s eyes sliced into Maddox as he pulled up the last conversation in the man’s inbox. “I should read it first if it’s about Livie.”

 “Maddox first,” John ordered. His tone left no room for argument, but Ryder’s furious expression soured even more. He didn’t argue, and neither did Maddox. There was no arguing when it came to his Uncle.

The screen lit up with a picture of Livie when he powered it on. A far away and black picture of her petite figure emerging from one of the NYU buildings with a leather tote bag in hand. Her bountiful curls were pulled up in a messy bun secured by a black scrunchie, revealing her sharp cheekbones and full pouty red lips. She was dressed casually in a pair of tight black leggings and ankle-high brown boots with a baggy charcoal grey sweater to complete her look.

Beautiful. Pure. Livie rarely wore expensive clothes, or cover her perfectly freckled and smooth skin with makeup.

A cold fury rose inside of Maddox when he reached the text messages attached with the photo that had been sent by an unknown number.

Livie Hart—Ryder Hart’s sister. Take her.

You got it. When, boss?

Friday night. Bring her to me.

What about Maddox Farnese? He has security around her even though she has no idea.

 Don’t worry about that. One of the men following her belongs to me.

The phone nearly cracked in Maddox’s grip when the realization came swift. It was Friday night and one of Kyzer Hawthorne’s men was about to kidnap Livie Hart right out from beneath his nose.

“Did you take her?” he snarled, shoving the phone into Ryder’s outstretched and impatient hand. “Tell me the truth now!”

Maddox ripped the gag out of the man’s mouth. He sucked in a ragged breath before spitting blood out onto the ground. “I-I-I don’t know if it has happened yet.”

“I don’t fucking believe you.” Reaching to his right hip, Maddox curled his fingers around the hilt of his gun and pulled it free. He crouched down in front of the man, watching in pleasure as his chest heaved up and down with panic. “If you don’t tell me everything you know, then I’m going to put a bullet into your kneecap and then one into your dick.”

“You better tell us everything,” Ryder growled in warning. “Does Hawthorne have my sister?”

“I don’t know!” The man’s eyes bulged out when Maddox clicked the safety off. “I don’t know because I don’t know what time it is. What time is it? I can tell you if they have her if you tell me what time it is.”

Ryder flipped his wrist over to check the time. “It’s 10:15 pm.”

The man licked his cracked and bloody lip. “It hasn’t happened yet.”

“When is it going to happen?” Maddox demanded. His thoughts were a panicked mess while he tried to think of who was supposed to be watching Livie tonight. Then, again… who could he trust anymore? Kyzer Hawthorne had managed to penetrate so many circles, including the one Maddox trusted the most to guard someone he loved.

Blood roared in Maddox’s ears. He fought the urge to shift impatiently on the balls of his feet. One day, the Farnese Empire would land on his shoulders. He didn’t want to the room full of his Uncle’s men, the same men who would work for him, to see a crack in his armor. A weakness that could be exploited.

“In fifteen minutes,” the man replied, glancing nervously at the gun in Maddox’s hand. “All I know is that he planned to take her and use her as extortion. That’s it. That’s all I know.”

“We’re at least thirty minutes away from NYU,” Ryder said, pacing wildly behind Maddox while he scrolled through the man’s phone. “This number. Call it and tell them that it’s not happening tonight.”

The man shook his sweaty head. The fluorescent light above flickered, casting shadows across his bruised skin.

“I can’t. The number is attached to a burner phone—”

Ryder slammed the phone down into the concrete. Pieces of it went scattering across the concrete. “We need to go,” he snapped, panic lining his voice. “Maddox, just kill the fucker. We have to get to Livie before Hawthorne does.”

Wordlessly, Maddox straightened up and pointed the gun right between the eyes. A quick and easy kill. His shadow stretched over the man who gazed up at him with pure terror in his eyes.

“You said if I told you everything that you wouldn’t—”

Bang. Bang.

Blood and pieces of bone splattered in the air. What remained of the man’s head slumped backward and his limbs twitched violently. The death twitch.

Maddox turned away from the scene to meet his Uncle’s eyes. Void of emotion, it was hard to find any trace of John’s thoughts, but deep down, Maddox knew a conversation was going to take place.

“Get to Livie,” John said, nodding his head. “Be clean about how you handle this. The both of you.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Bring her back to our headquarters in Manhattan. It’ll be safe there. Oh, and Maddox.” John grabbed ahold of Maddox’s elbow before he could follow Ryder out of the warehouse. “I want to speak with you privately later. Understand?”

“I understand.”

John dismissed him with another nod of his head. “Go on. I’ll have this cleaned up.”

Unease swept through Maddox. He brushed it aside for the time being and hurried out of the warehouse to the SUV’s where Ryder and Dakota were waiting for him.

“I can’t get ahold of her,” Ryder said when Maddox approached. Fear flickered in his eyes. “What if it happened? No one know knows where Hawthorne’s home turf is. He could take Livie out of the country for all we know.”

Fear grew rapidly inside of Maddox, too, at the thought. Women in their world were treated as objects to be used and played with. Sometimes, they were handed off to the highest bidders to inflict anguish on whoever they were taken from.

If Kyzer Hawthorne had Livie in his custody, it would be a long hard battle to get her back and worth a lot of resources. None of which his Uncle would be happy to spend.

“We have 15 minutes.” Maddox opened the passenger door. “Keep trying to get ahold of Livie. If you do, tell her to lock her apartment door and not come out until she hears us.”

The night was pitch black on the outskirts of the city when they peeled out of the warehouse and sped down the road back to the city. Endless acres of farm country was sprawled out with a few ranches. The warehouses they used had been abandoned a long time ago and were perfect because it was miles away from the closest neighbor.

Maddox bounced a leg anxiously while he watched Ryder continue to call Livie numerous times. A heaviness settled in the pit of Maddox’s stomach as the cold glitter of the city drew closer to the horizon. He braced himself for what was about to undoubtedly come.

After several attempts, Ryder lowered the phone and turned to look directly at Maddox with narrowed eyes. “Care to tell me why the fuck you had people watching my sister without telling me?”

Finding Sage

Chapter One


Sage Magnolia stood in front of the weathered sign that read, “Welcome To Wild Blue Springs, Colorado.” She lifted her camera and took a picture with the rugged landscape blurry in the distance. Up above the snow-capped mountains, dark gray storm clouds gathered around the peaks. The smell of rain penetrated the cool breeze whispering through the spruce and fir trees.

Sage adjusted the strap of her camera draped around her neck. Two days ago, her boss, Rick Mathison, had sent her an email asking if she would be interested in hiking into a remote mountain community in need of good press. She took the assignment without hesitation. She was grateful to spend a few days hiking and camping in the forest, anything to get away from the chaos her personal life was currently in.

She had accepted a job offer to become a traveling writer for the Outdoor Times for a variety of reasons. The position offered a salary that financially supported her on her own. The benefits, a retirement account and health insurance, were another bonus.

It also gave her the opportunity to travel all over the United States.

And it also made it that much harder for her ex-boyfriend to track her down after he came back to their apartment a few weeks ago to find all her things packed up and gone within a matter of hours.

The imprint of Rhett’s hands were still all over her body in old bruises. Her ribs, now finally on the mend, were no longer sore from the torn muscles and fractures from their last fight that ended with her in the emergency room.

 An entire year of her life had been wrapped up in a man who had worked his way into her heart through spoiling her with attention and affection, only to beat it senselessly anytime he felt it needed a reminder of who was in charge of it.

Thunder rolled through the steep valley. The hair on the back of Sage’s neck stood on edge from the static charge of a powerful storm filling the air.

She squatted down to unzip her camera bag and pulled the strap over the back of her neck. She clipped the lens cap in place before setting the camera inside the waterproof bag she had bought years ago to keep her camera protected from the weather.

The trail was steep and rocky as it curved down the mountainside in the direction of Wild Blue Springs. She spent the entire flight from Miami to Denver researching the various trails and recreational activities around the small town that had started during the gold rush. It was a popular tourist attraction and a place outdoor enthusiasts flocked to during the summer, or when the ever-changing weather permitted.

Two years ago, the mountains had seen a continuous season of heavy snowfall followed by over 200 avalanches that had wiped out parts of the forest and clouded the trails with debris. Then, the year before, a tourist had arrived with a contagious virus that spread through the entire town of 1,000 full-time residents. Which prompted a series of emergency health orders and banned entrance to anyone who didn’t live in the town.

The town was hurting to attract tourism again now that the emergency health orders were set to expire at the end of the month.  

Sage shouldered her camera bag along with her hiking pack. She started down the trail and let her thoughts wander to how blissful it would feel to rent a room followed by a steamy hot—

 “Excuse me!”

The deep baritone of a male voice from the trail above startled her. The rubber heel of her hiking boot slipped on a rock, a twinge of pain shooting through her ankle and up her leg.

She glanced up at the trail in annoyance while shaking out the pain in her leg. A tall and handsomely rugged man dressed in charcoal gray khakis, thick black boots, and a long-sleeved black shirt strode down the trail in her direction.

A fluttering sensation filled the center of Sage’s chest as he approached with an air of authority and purpose. His hair was a rich black color and buzzed short with the faint scruff of a beard along his strong jawline. Beneath dark eyebrows, his eyes were guarded and the color of rich honey. A stony and determined expression filled the hard lines around his sharp face.

“What are you doing?” He demanded when he reached her. “Did you not see the sign back there?”

“I—”

Words knotted in the center of Sage’s throat. The man stood in front of her, muscles straining against the shirt clinging to his broad chest and shoulder, towering easily over her. A handgun sat at his right hip and a rifle was strapped to his back. All easy to grab in a split second if needed. She took a step back with a pang of uneasiness.

“The sign,” he repeated with an air of impatience. “Did you not see it up there?”

She managed to find her voice. “What sign are you talking about?”

“The sign at the trailhead above here. The bright orange one that says, “No Hikers Allowed.”

She did see it while coming down from the forest. Rick had assured her that the town would welcome her in despite the tourist ban that was set to expire in a month. The fines from what Sage had read online were hefty and meant to dissuade traffic in and out of town unless for essential reasons.  

Sage gripped the straps of her backpack. She fought back the urge to shrivel beneath the hard weight of this man’s stare. His presence wasn’t threatening, but it demanded attention and respect. Her eyes landed on the gold star stitched into the fabric of his shirt.

Sheriff Stone.

“You’re one of the Sheriff’s in Wild Blue Springs?” she asked, tentatively.

“Yes.” His eyes flicked down to the same spot her eyes had been. “I’m one of the Sheriffs.”

“Okay. I know that—”

“There is a ban on non-essential travel into Wild Blue Springs,” he finished for her. “It doesn’t expire until the end of the month.”

“I realize that but—”

“Do you have your license on you?”

Her irritation levels ratcheted up a few notches at being interrupted again. There had been a few grumblings on a couple of internet forums about the Wild Blue Springs Sheriff’s Department being a bit coarse with visitors coming to town, but she never expected it to be true, let alone experience it for herself.

His eyes narrowed when a few seconds ticked by. “Do you have a drivers license?”

“Yes,” Sage muttered, shrugging the straps of her backpack down her arms. “It’s in my backpack.”

He took a step closer to watch her crouch and yank the zipper of her backpack open. The faint smell of clean soap clung to the air around him. Mindful of the extra set of clothes had packed and his eyes focused on the contents she was digging through, including clean underwear and a bra, she managed to find her wallet at the bottom of her backpack.

Sage pulled her license from the front slot of her wallet and handed it over. His fingers grazed over the top of hers. Enough of touch for her to feel the warmth of his calloused skin.

She curled her fingers up into a fist, willing the tingling heat away. Thunder cracked again in the distance. Unperturbed by the gathering storm clouds, his eyes scanned the front of her license. A disapproving frown settled along his face.

“You shouldn’t be out here on your own,” he stated. “You’re a young and unarmed woman hiking alone.”

Sage bristled at his condescending tone. “I’m twenty-three years old, so I’m not that young. My boss sent me out here to write about your town.”

She waited for a trickle of recognition, but his face remained blank and stony.

“Your boss doesn’t care about your safety if he sent you out here alone and to a town where there is a ban against tourism at the moment.”

“I was assured that I could be here,” Sage said in exasperation. “Look, if you’re that concerned about it, then you can call my boss and talk to him.”

“I’m not writing your boss a ticket. I’m writing you a ticket.”

Her jaw dropped open in shock as he reached into the back pocket of his pants and pulled out a pad.

“You’re seriously writing me a ticket?!”

“You violated a public health order,” he said, calmly clicking a pen. “And if you were telling the truth, I would know about you coming into this town. It’s that small.”

Hot anger flooded through Sage in hypersonic speed. Maybe it was the past few months stewing inside of her and the ache in her ribcage from her healing ribs, but she wanted to strangle this man despite how strong and armed he appeared to be.

 “I can’t believe this you pr—”

 “What is going on, Sheriff Stone?”

 Sage tore her furious gaze away from him at the sound of approaching footsteps. A woman dressed in jeans, hiking boots, and a flannel shirt came up the trail. Her curly brown hair was streaked gray and pulled up high in a messy bun. 

 “Go along, Maisie,” he said, flatly. “This doesn’t concern you.”

 Maisie. As in Maisie Rae.

 Relief filled Sage to see the woman who had sent her an email with directions to hike down into town. She owned the only small lodge in a town called Maisie’s House and was in charge of the tourism in the town.

“I assure you it does, Sheriff,” Maisie said, ignoring his attempt to brush her off. “This is the woman coming to write a feature article about our town to help bring back all the tourism you’ve effectively scared off.”

 He didn’t stop scribbling on the pad with Sage’s driver’s license in his hand.

“I took an oath to keep our town safe until the order expires at the end of the month.” He shifted his gaze to Sage who glared at him. “No special treatment of any kind. It sets a bad example, Maisie.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. The mayor invited her to come into town. I booked her a special room even.”

  “The mayor didn’t mention anything to me.”

  “Maybe you should talk to him about it,” Maisie countered. “Don’t waste a piece of paper on something you know Judge Billing will throw out when she fights it.”

A scowl tugged at his lips at Maisie’s words. With visible reluctance, he handed Sage her license back and then tore the ticket free from the pad. He folded it, tucking the paper inside of his pant pocket.

 “I’ll be sure to talk to the mayor about this,” he said through clenched teeth. “If I find out you’re lying, Maisie…”

 Maisie folded her arms over her chest. “Or what? I’m not lying.”

The wind ripped through the swaying spruce trees while a long and tense moment passed. He strode past Sage without a second glance. The crunch of rocks beneath his boots echoed in the late evening air as he left them behind on the trail.

 “Forgive Sheriff Stone,” Maisie said, rolling her eyes. “He hasn’t dropped the tough city cop attitude quite yet and adapted a friendlier one.”

 Sage willed the adrenaline pumping in her veins to slow back down to a normal pace.

 “Is that normal?” she asked. “For the Sheriff’s to walk along the trails like that?”

 The smile on Maisie’s faltered a bit. She opened her mouth to reply, but the boom of thunder stopped her.

“We should go before it downpours. You don’t want to be caught out here when lightning starts and hail. Plus, I can imagine that you’d like to have a hot shower and a good meal.” 

  Sage nodded. Food, a hot shower, and an actual bed to sleep in sounded like pure bliss. “More than anything at the moment.”

  “I’ll fill you in about everything as we walk,” Maisie said, cheerfully. “I promise you will enjoy your time here in Wild Blue Springs.”

Only if I avoid Sheriff Stone, Sage thought sourly as she followed the other woman down the same trail he had disappeared down. Her time in Wild Blue Springs would be enjoyable then.


Copyright @ Hope Carter 2020