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Damaged Like Us (Like Us #1)
Author:Krista Ritchie & Becca Ritchie

Damaged Like Us (Like Us #1)

Krista Ritchie & Becca Ritchie





1




MAXIMOFF HALE


“YOU CAN’T TELL me one thing about him?” I ask for probably the millionth time. I haven’t actually been counting. But from Akara’s annoyed bite into his blueberry bagel, I’m guessing my question died a bitter death five minutes ago.

Today is doomsday.

The day where my unconventional, strange life becomes colossally more complicated. I can handle shit storms while propping up the Earth with one goddamn hand—but I like to be semi-prepared for situations. I have a real switchblade in my fucking pocket, but I want a metaphorical one too.

Akara swallows his bagel. “You want one thing?”

“Just one,” I affirm.

“He’s your new bodyguard.”


I slowly blink into a glare. “Thank you for offering the one thing that I already fucking know.” It’s the one thing that’s been driving me up the wall like a possessed Spider-Man. I’ve had the same bodyguard for my entire life, and he decided to retire recently.

Just yesterday, I said goodbye to Declan. It’s bittersweet. He wants to spend more time with his wife and two kids, not be the 24/7 bodyguard to an internationally famous human being. I get that. Selfishly, I wish he could stay longer.

And when I mean longer, I mean forever.

Personal bodyguards are like spouses. All of my immediate and extended family have one. They follow us everywhere, eat with us, guard our rooms if we bring home strangers—or in my case, “uncomplicated” hookups. Mind-blowing fucks. One-night stands. All of that is being passed to a new someone.

I’ve never had to introduce a new bodyguard to the ins-and-outs of my life. It’s not just going to be a Day In The Life of Maximoff Hale. It’s a permanent position that’ll last decades unless he turns out to be an incompetent prick.

This pivotal moment has put me on edge because Akara—the lead bodyguard in Security Force Omega—refuses to share more information about him.

“Like I said an hour ago,” Akara tells me, “it’s better if you meet in person.” Before I can reply, his cellphone pings.

I hope it’s my new bodyguard. I check my canvas wristwatch.

He’s twenty minutes late, and Akara already assured me that he received the invite.

Location: Superheroes & Scones

Time: 6 a.m. (before the store opens at 8 a.m.)

The homey but massive store is empty. I only turned on a few lights since no employees are here yet, the place quiet. Dimly lit. While I wait, I stand behind the bar counter and pour myself an orange juice.

I’m not stealing.

My family owns the two-story hybrid comic book store and coffee shop. With red and blue vinyl booths, stools, and then rows and rows of shelved comics and merch, Superheroes & Scones resembles a retro diner and modern comic store. Eighty-five of them exist throughout the globe, but this one in Philadelphia is the very original.

Since its creation, it’s had a few major renovations. The second floor used to be offices for a comics publishing company, which has since moved next door.

Capping the jug of juice, I look to my right. Bright blue stairs twist towards a second-floor loft area. Littered with colorful beanbags, sofas, coffee tables, and mounted televisions that play superhero films nonstop.

If I could rank my favorite places in the world, Superheroes & Scones would be number two. Right behind a pool.

Any pool.

I take a large swig of my OJ, and Akara’s phone starts buzzing in quick succession.

I wipe my mouth on my carved bicep and notice the text message boxes lighting up his screen. “Someone’s popular.” That better be my tardy bodyguard.

Akara wipes his fingers on a flimsy napkin. “It’s only one person.”

I crane my neck to try and see if I can spot a name.

Akara angles the phone towards his chest and scrolls through the messages. “Chill. Eat. Try not to overthink, if that’s at all possible for you.”

“It’s not.” I can fucking admit this.

Akara smiles but concentrates on his phone. Pieces of his straight black hair touch his dark eyelashes. His cut muscles could tear through his blue Studio 9 shirt. There’s no uniform for security detail. Bodyguards just typically dress for the occasion.

Like when I attend formal charity events, they’ll wear suits and tuxes.

I roll my shoulders backwards, muscles tight. I need to stretch, swim several laps. I check the time on my phone. Then I take another swig of orange juice and watch Akara text.

“You know,” I tell him, “I’m not asking for the meaning of life or a planetary map of undiscovered galaxies. You could give me his hair color. Zodiac sign. Maybe a last name—”

“Nice try.” Akara’s brown eyes lift to mine just to say you can’t bullshit me before he returns to his cell. “Why don’t you finish making your list for him?”

“I already printed it out.” It’s in the pocket of my jeans. Akara suggested I bullet-point the “rules of my life” for the unknown person.

Like #32: I take pictures with fans in real time and let them post the pics. Not all of my cousins or siblings allow this. It gives the public and media a timestamp of where I am. And it’s considered dangerous.

A safety threat.

But I’ve lived my life beneath a spotlight since I was in the womb. I don’t give a shit if someone knows where I am at so-and-so time. Chances are, paparazzi will find me anyway.

After placing my glass down on the bar, I rake a hand through my disheveled, light brown hair. The strands are dyed from their natural dark-brown hue.

I know that you know what I look like. You’ve seen my face on the front page of tabloids. All while you were checking out two-percent milk, maybe a Kit-Kat bar, hopefully a can of Fizz.

I have forest-green eyes that dagger the souls of those who fuck with my family. Sharp cheekbones that look like knives, and a lean-cut swimmer’s build from my competitive swimming days. You may not know that Burberry and Calvin Klein scouted me when I was eighteen.

I turned them down.

Akara texts. And texts.

For the past five years, he’s been a central part of my life. Even if he isn’t my personal bodyguard. As the lead of Security Force Omega, he’s in charge of hires, transfers, terminations, and keeping the whole system running. He’s the glue.

The constant.

He’s twenty-five, Thai-American, MMA-trained but specialized in Muay Thai, and he owns the Studio 9 Boxing & MMA gym down the street. People pack Studio 9 every morning, and evenings are impossible to get into without a referral.

He glances up from his phone. Eyeing me. “You need to relax.”

I’m impatient. And I’m overly self-aware. Firmly, I tell him, “If he doesn’t show by eight, we have to leave.” I can’t be here when the store opens. I’ll be stuck signing autographs and taking photos for hours on end, and I have a long, long list of things I need to get done.