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This is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons--living or dead--is entirely coincidental. Make Her Mine copyright 2016 by Ellen Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-One Chapter Twenty-Two Chapter Twenty-Three Chapter Twenty-Four FREE BONUS BOOK: HAVEN Sneak Preview of WANTED OTHER BOOKS BY ELLEN HARPER Ellen Harper Mailing List

Chapter One Valerie

My head felt ready to explode, and my rug was going to sport holes from all of the pacing I was doing. For days my anxiety and worry had been increasing, and now it was reaching a fever pitch. My cell dug into my palm as I turned the corner for another circuit of my pacing. I had called all of Savannah’s friends, all of my friends, everyone I could possibly think of. I had talked and asked questions and talked some more, enough to start losing my voice, but it didn’t matter. I hadn’t learned anything. Not even one lead. Savannah had disappeared without a trace, just upped and vanished. My Savanna. My beautiful daughter. My beautiful adopted daughter. Half the time, I didn’t bother with that distinction, but when I had to file the missing person’s report, I had to mention that tidbit. Blood or not, she was my daughter, and she was all I had. It had been five days—five long and trying days—since I last heard from Savannah. She hadn’t been here when I came back from work. The nineteen-year-old was nowhere to be found. Abruptly, I stopped my pacing and tried calling her best friend one more time, but Cassidy didn’t answer. Yet again. She hadn’t answered any of my calls. At first, I hoped that meant she was with Savannah, that the two of them had gone off somewhere together, that it wasn’t a big deal. A spur of the moment trip or girls’ getaway. But that hadn’t been the case. I became so desperate to get ahold of Cassidy that I called up her mom. Turned out Cassidy had gone on vacation with her boyfriend. Still, my hope refused to die. Maybe Savannah had gone with them. Nope. Cassidy’s mom said they’d left a week ago, but Savannah had still been around then so no dice. Out of desperation, I dialed Savannah for the hundredth, if not the thousandth, time. Like all the other times, it went straight to voicemail. She had a terrible habit of letting the battery run almost all the way down, and she had five or six chargers since she was always misplacing them, but if she didn’t have one, I’d never be able to get through to her unless she bought another one. Most likely, her phone was dead. But was she dead too? Of course my mind went straight to the worst scenario. I loved Savannah like she was my own child. Yeah, there were only eight years between us, but Savannah had been mine ever since she turned fourteen. For five years, it had been the two of us. I tended to think of my life as before Savannah and after. Before, my life had been nothing but quiet. With Savannah, there was so much laughter and talking and even arguing too. So much noise and music. Now, it was back to the quiet, and I never realized before just how unnerving the quiet could be.

For years, my life had been devoted to my job. I gradually worked my way up the ladder and owned a restaurant. Savannah’s mom used to work for me as a waitress until she ended up landing herself in jail. I knew she had been going down a dark path, and I’d hoped that she would do the right thing for her daughter by keeping her employed despite her lack of work ethic, but that hadn’t been the case. When she worked nights, she used to bring Savannah into work. When I realized they were living out of their car, I had Quinn, my main chef, cook up meals for the girl to enjoy. It was the least I could do. I even helped her out with her homework a few times in between running the show. We got along better than she did with her mom. The two of them hardly ever spoke. I thought Savannah was embarrassed by her, and honestly, I kind of was too. If you saw the way she draped herself over guys to try to get tips… On more than one occasion I had to remind her that she was serving customers who sat at a table, not dancing on top of the table, and if she didn’t stop, I would have to fire her because that was unacceptable. And then she would do better and behave for a little while until she wouldn’t. Once her mom got arrested, things got really rocky for Savannah, but it wasn’t until her mom wound up in jail serving her sentence that things really hit a low point. The idea of Savannah being tossed to the wolves—I mean the state—tore me up. Starting about a month before the arrest, Savannah came to the restaurant every day, even when her mom hadn’t been working. Her mom preferred her drugs too much to be much good at anything, whether being a waitress or being a mother. Just a few months prior to her mom’s sentencing, I had hired Savannah as a dishwasher, and she proved to be a more devoted employee than her mom had been, although Savannah did have a habit of talking too much instead of working. The two of us connected in a way she never had with her mom. Adopting her had been a no-brainer. My own father had been a deadbeat, and my mom did everything she could for me until she died of a heart attack a few months after I turned eighteen, so I knew what it was like to be alone. I knew what it was like to have no one to look out for me except for myself. Life had dealt her a terrible hand, but that didn’t mean that she should have limited options. Plus, I saw a lot of potential in her. I hadn’t let my trials prevent me from achieving my goals. I could be a business owner and a mom too. I had the funds, the drive, and the determination. I didn’t need a lot to make me happy, and I sure didn’t need a guy to make me happy. It was just Savannah and me. We were more like sisters, considering our age difference. For five years now, I was her mom. I hadn’t even gone out on a lot of dates because guys didn’t want a woman with a kid. Okay, so maybe I used her as an excuse sometimes. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to date, but it always became the same old song and dance. Each one loved the idea of dating a businesswoman…at first. But when it meant time away from them and then being too tired for them after I spent all day long arguing with vendors or advertisers or dealing with customers or employees, they never asked for a long-term commitment, which was fine by me. I wasn’t ready to commit, not to any of them at least. The number of guys calling me lately had diminished down to nothing, and it didn’t bother me any. It seriously didn’t. Or maybe they couldn’t accept dating a woman with more ambition than they had ever possessed. Maybe I intimidated them. I could be a little, well, intense at times. “A little overbearing,” Savannah

called me a few times, and she might be right about that. I liked things to be done correctly, properly. Was that too much to ask? Have set goals and plans made things run smoother. It just did. All of the guys who did have ambition were already taken. Of course. I had prioritized my career over having a family, but did that mean I had bypassed my chance at finding someone? If it had, oh well. I had a daughter. What more did I need? But while I hadn’t dated anyone recently, Savannah had. She was a gorgeous young lady, and she made guys’ heads turn. I tried to instill in her a sense of independence, to get her to see value in her own life so that she didn’t need to rely on anyone else, especially a guy, but that was one area where she and I didn’t see eye to eye. Ever since middle school, she had had one boyfriend and hopped from him to another and another and so on, with one guy in particular being her “go-to.” Maybe her real mom hadn’t given her enough attention so she craved it elsewhere. But it bothered me. She shouldn’t define herself based on a relationship. She had the potential for so much more than just settling for being some guy’s girlfriend. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if her disappearance had something to do with a guy. Her current boyfriend was Turner Young, a twenty-two-year-old who I hadn’t liked from the beginning, and he was the one she had dated longer than any of the others combined. He was a member of the motorcycle club Fate’s Talons. He was also bad news. Savannah couldn’t see it, though. He wasn’t just a bad apple; he was a rotten one. But she was blinded by love. It wasn’t love. Maybe it was lust, but whatever it was, it wasn’t healthy. I liked to think that if she had picked a good guy, one with a promising future, that I would have encouraged the relationship, but I couldn’t in good conscience sanction the one between her and Turner. Between the way Turner treated both Savannah and me, and also the way she treated me when she was around him, it wasn’t good. She became moody and sullen and disrespectful, a completely new person. Only once had Savannah talked to me about her father, and it sounded like he had been just like mine, a deadbeat who never spent even one second caring for or loving his daughter. While my mom had grown up and matured from the need to have a guy when she had been left to raise me all alone, Savannah’s mom had a string of bad relationships, one right after the other. It was no small wonder that Savannah had followed at least partially in her mother’s footsteps, and Turner was a bad relationship, that was for sure. The only major issue I had with Savannah—aside from her poor taste in guys—was her schooling. She had dropped out of high school and refused to go. Wouldn’t even bother to study and just get her GED. It had been a year after her mom went to jail that she dropped out. She told me she couldn’t stand the looks and the whispers about her mom, and I understood that. I really did. But when I suggested she go to a different school, she didn’t want to hear about it. That girl could argue with the best of them. “They’ll find out about my mom soon enough, and it’ll start all over again,” she had said.

“You could take my last name,” I had suggested. But she had shaken her head. “You’re young yet. You’ll have kids of your own. You’ll leave them the restaurant. As it should be. I appreciate you taking me in, but…” She never did finish that statement. Basically, she didn’t quite view me as her mom. And I guessed I was wearing a lot of hats considering that I wasn’t just her mother but I was also her boss at the restaurant, even if she wasn’t a waitress and only did the dishes. She only ever called me mom when she wanted something—a dress, a purse, shoes, some money—which hurt, but I could understand it to some extent. Her mom had scarred her, and she didn’t want to let me in, afraid of letting me get too close in case I hurt her too. Still, that in and of itself hurt me. She didn’t trust me. I gave her shelter and clothes and food, but that was basically all I was to her. In my mind, she was my daughter, but in her mind, there were times I was just a nag. For the most part, we got along though. It was only a month after she’d dropped out of high school that she got mixed up with a bad crowd, one that included Turner Young. They had been on and off ever since, and even though I inwardly cheered each time they went off, they always ended up getting back together again. I guessed Turner might’ve had someone else in between their stints, and I knew for certain Savannah did. What she saw in Turner that kept her going back to him I wasn’t sure. It was only because they had been together for so long that I had his phone number. Not all of her boyfriends—she had a quite a few during her “off” times with Turner—had she shared their number with me. Having nothing to lose, I called Turner next, but he didn’t answer his phone either. His voicemail greeting—Turner here. Too busy to talk. Leave a message and I might get back to ya.—grated on me. Wannabe tough guy. If he’s why Savannah’s gone, if he’s done anything to her, he’ll learn the definition of tough from me. I swear to God. My cell was almost dead. Great. I put my phone on the charger and was just beginning to pace in my crammed living room when my cell rang. Practically diving for it, I answered with a breathless, “Hello? Savannah?” “Valerie? It’s Cassidy.” “Cassidy!” My voice sounded strained. I cleared my throat. “Have you heard from Savannah?” My voice still sounded strained. Maybe it would until Savannah was found. Blood rushed to my ears, and my heart pounded hard in my chest as I awaited her answer. Please let her have seen Savannah or know where she is. Please!

“Not in a week,” Cassidy answered. “Sorry. I’ve been out of town. Jake and I went to the beach, and we found this cute little cove and—” “That’s all right,” I cut in. I really didn’t need to know what exactly happened in that “cute little cove.” Savannah’s best friend had no filter. Cassidy tended to go into great details about everything, and that included her sex life. I didn’t care to hear about that at all, and she wasn’t the best of influences on Savannah, but at least she had never broken a law—outside of sex in public places—and she had never been in jail, so she had that much going for her. Considering I hated her boyfriend, I figured it was one of those pick your battles type deals. I was all right with Cassidy if it meant that Savannah would stop being with Turner. Not that that had worked in my favor. “Did she tell you about where she would be going?” I asked in a rush. “Did she have a trip lined up and she forgot to tell me?” “Nah.” My heart sank, and my knees went weak. I sank to the floor, my phone still plugged into the charger. Cassidy had been the last person for me to get ahold of. She had been my last chance at finding them. Well, outside of Turner. I had really thought and hoped that Savannah had been with Cassidy, or that Cassidy would at least know where she was. So where the hell was Savannah? Where had she gone? Why hadn’t she told Cassidy? She shared every detail with her best friend. Why start to keep secrets from everyone now? Maybe it hadn’t been a planned trip. Savannah could be a little impulsive at times, just never to this extent before. She always left me a voicemail or a physical note to let me know where she was. Her mom had disappeared too many times on her so that was one thing that Savannah had almost prided herself on. Even if she was going to a party she knew I wouldn’t approve of, she would still let me know she was going. So maybe it hadn’t been planned. Maybe something serious had come up. Like what, though? What would keep her radio silent for five whole days? It just didn’t add up. Something was wrong. Call it mother’s instinct. My growing fear kept me silent, but that never bothered Cassidy. She just kept right on talking. “Savannah and Turner have no money. They planned on staying low key, far as I knew. Couldn’t even afford to go out to dinner or nothing. We, Jack and I, just got back, and I was about to call her, but then I got your messages and thought I’d call you first. You know, your voice goes kinda high-pitched when you’re upset. You sound like a—” “Try calling Savannah,” I urged, even though I figured her calls would go straight to voicemail too. I didn’t need to know what I sounded like. I needed Cassidy to stay focused. “Maybe she’ll call you back, and this will all just be a big misunderstanding. I mean, she didn’t tell you anything to make you

think that she’ll be leaving, right? She wasn’t home when I came back from work five days ago, and no one has heard or seen from her or Turner ever since.” Actually, I didn’t know for sure about the Turner bit. Maybe he was hanging around his place. Maybe he and she split, and Savannah needed some time by herself. But still, why hadn’t she called me? And I was rambling. Cassidy tended to ramble all the time. Who knew it would rub off on people. “Nope,” Cassidy said. “I’m sorry. I wish I could be of more help. I haven’t a clue where she might be. Which is kinda strange. I mean, she tells me everything, even told me before she told you that she had gotten back together with Turner this last time. Anyhow, I’m sure she’s fine—” “It’s been five days,” I growled, “with no phone calls or emails or anything. No communication at all. With technology making communication easier than ever, I’m freaking out and rightfully so. Savannah isn’t like this. She doesn’t check in all the time, but she’s never been gone this long before, and I’m worried.” “Chill, Valerie.” Cassidy laughed, but this was no laughing matter. Couldn’t she see that? “I’m sure she’s fine,” she repeated. “If you hear from her, will you call me?” I asked, almost pleading. “Of course. But seriously, stop being so uptight.” A strange smacking sound came over the line. Maybe she was chewing gum. “Get laid or something. You’ll feel better.” “Right,” I said dryly. Because that was going to happen. I didn’t need to spread my legs. I needed to find my daughter. “Can you call her and then call me right back please?” She blew out a breath. “Fine, but you’re making a mole hill out of nothing.” I frowned. “You mean a mountain out of a mole hill.” “Nope. A mole hill out of nothing. There’s nothing here. So Savannah isn’t answering your calls. Just means she’s busy, that’s all.” “Just call her,” I ordered, and hung up. I waited on pins and needs for Cassidy to call back. Which she did. Almost immediately. Which meant… “Voicemail?” I asked without even saying hello first. “You got it. Still doesn’t mean anything,” she said.

Sighing, I hung up again. This time, I called the police station, but they hadn’t gotten any further than I had. “We’ll let you know,” the officer said, the same one who I had been talking to all along, an Officer Stephen Jerkins. He was young and honestly didn’t seem to be that competent, or maybe I was being unfair. I couldn’t tell. “As soon as we make any headway, you’ll be the first to know.” “Are you sure I shouldn’t organize a search?” I asked, desperate to feel useful, desperate to do anything that might help speed up the process of finding Savannah and bringing her home safe and sound. Ever since I first realized she was gone, I had been plagued by terrible nightmares. I’d see images of her body cut into ribbons, of her being throw into the river, of her being involved in a fatal car crash, of her being cold and scared and alone and terrified. Hell, I was scared and alone and terrified. “I advise against it, ma’am,” he said calmly. How could he be so calm? “You don’t want to impede our investigation.” What investigation? I wanted to scream. Were they even doing anything? I knew our small town in the south didn’t have a lot going for it, and that there had been a suspected murder a month ago that they still hadn’t solved so they were more concerned with that, and rightfully so, but still. This was my daughter we were talking about. I basically hung up on the officer and sighed again, wearily rubbing a hand down my face. My stomach was all twisted into knots, and the heavy feeling in my chest wouldn’t go away. I had adopted her to give Savannah her best chance at life. I wouldn’t rest until I succeeded. Running off with Turner Young wasn’t her best option, if that had been what she’d done. Did she know that? Had she done it anyway? Did she not bother to tell me because she knew I wouldn’t approve? I knew she was nineteen, that she could technically do what she wanted, but she had always kept me in the loop. And she told Cassidy everything. If Cassidy didn’t know where she had run off too—and Cassidy, bless her, couldn’t lie if her life depended on it—that made me fear that she hadn’t gone off willingly. What if she tried to break things off with Turner and he hadn’t taken it well? What if he had kidnapped her? If he had hurt her at all, he’d better hope I never found him, because when I did, I would make him regret it. I had told the police about her relationship with Turner, how it was toxic, and they had taken down notes, but I didn’t know if they had followed up on that lead. Should I call back and press? Find out if Turner had been seen recently? Regardless of whether or not Savannah had gone willingly, I just wanted to make sure she was all right. I was bound and determined to get to the bottom of what happened to Savannah. One way or another, with or without the police’s help, I would find her.

Now that I had finally gotten ahold of Cassidy and she’d turned out to be a dead end, Turner Young and the Fate’s Talons were my best lead. Her disappearance most likely was because of the damned motorcycle club. Savannah often went to an apartment complex called The Shades to be with Turner. It was downtown and not at all in a good area, but that wasn’t going to stop me. I grabbed my cell—only about half charged—and my keys and purse and dashed out of the house and to my car. Traffic was brutal, and a car almost rear ended me. I swore my luck was at a serious low point right now. It took me almost an hour to reach The Shades. I had never been here before and my heart sunk at the sight of it. It was a terrible building, with peeling paint, broken windows, and graffiti. No lines marked the parking spots, and the cars already parked weren’t in the best of shape with dents or duct tape and plastic to cover up a busted window. Around the side, some of the cars were nicer, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they belonged to drug dealers, because, man, did I smell some strong marijuana and other druggie whiffs as soon as I left my car. I never touched drugs myself, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t recognize the scent of them. Savannah had come here how many times to be with Turner? The thought made my stomach churn even more. She deserved better. I’d never forget the first time she introduced Turner to me. He’d been wearing a wife beater and holey jeans, way down low over his hips. He had tattoos, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing—who doesn’t love a guy with some ink? Except his ink left a lot to be desired. If you couldn’t afford to have a decent tattoo artist, it was better to not bother to get inked at all, and Turner was walking proof of that. I was talking about a misspelling and mousy-looking lion instead of a fierce one. A fierce lion could be hot as hell. His made him look like a punk. But Savannah had been all smiles as she introduced him to me, and like a good mother, I held out my hand for him to shake. Not only did he ignore it, but he walked past me, into my house, and asked where the fridge was because he was hungry. Savannah had given me a sheepish grin and trailed after him. She ended up making him a sandwich, and then he ate it all just as she finished making herself one. He took one look at it, and Savannah wordlessly gave it to him, and he polished that one off too before she even could eat one herself. The man—he acted more like a kid than a man, but he was twenty-two so it felt weird to think of him as a boy—seemed like he should be back in the fifties. Wanted Savannah to wait on him. Acted like he was the important one and she had to do his bidding. Gave her just enough attention for her to not realize what an ass he was. That night, after he had left, Savannah had held up her hand. “I don’t want to hear it,” she said. “Hear what?” I had asked innocently. “Your opinion.” She’d crossed her arms. I had cocked my head to the side. “If you don’t want to hear it, it’s because you already know what I

think. And don’t you agree?” I’d so hoped she would agree, but of course she didn’t. “You don’t know him,” she’d protested weakly. “And I don’t want—” “He makes me happy,” she’d said quietly. And damn it all if there wasn’t something in her eye that suggested that she spoke the truth. But how? How could someone like that ass of a wannabe man make her happy? “Don’t you want me to be happy?” “Of course, but I—” “He takes care of me,” she’d added. I had wanted to argue that she could take care of herself, but she had been smiling, and her happiness did seem genuine, and he hadn’t done anything nasty or mean or abusive toward her, so I let it go. Now I was kicking myself for not speaking up more, for not giving her grief, for not doing everything in my power to open her eyes. Yeah, it might have only pushed her away from me and closer to him, but if she realized just how little he obviously cared for her outside of what she could do for him, she might be home right now. She might be with a man I approved of, one who saw what a treasure she was, one who enriched her life. The kind of guy she deserved. Maybe some of it was my fault. Since I didn’t bother to date a guy more than once or twice, she never had the chance to see a healthy relationship. Maybe her mother’s guys left Savannah thinking that terrible relationships were the only relationships you could have. Hollywood certainly reinforced that with so many movies about cheaters and broken marriages. Sure they would have a happily ever after at the end, but everyone knew those guys were perfect and complete fairy tales. Okay, so maybe I was a cynic myself, but I did know that there was more to a woman’s worth than what she could provide for a guy. I had been trying to reinforce that into her mind for years now, basically since I took her in. The problem was that Savannah didn’t see her own self-worth. One time, a few months after the adoption had been made official, I had found her crying in her bed late at night. It took her several minutes to calm down enough to tell me what was going on. Basically, she hated herself because her mother had picked drugs over her. And I wasn’t proud of my response, but I talked a lot of smack about her mom. Savannah had been damaged by her mother, and I did my best to try and heal her. Savannah refused to see a therapist, so I had to be mom and boss and therapist and friend all in one. I did the best I could, but now I was trying to figure out where I had failed her. There had been only so much I could do, though. After all, I couldn’t live her life for her. She would grow up and make mistakes and hopefully learn from them. God knew I made a lot of mistakes myself. Hopefully this was all just a mistake, and not one that would cost Savannah something dear. I parked, locked my car, and held my purse tight to me. I wasn’t the kind of woman to own a gun, but

right now, I wished I did have one. I’d feel safer if I did. I kept my eyes peeled, looking all around as I made my way to the front door of the apartment complex. The parking lot was almost full, but I didn’t see Turner’s car. That didn’t surprise me. I had a strong hunch that he hadn’t been around for as long as Savannah’s been gone. I wanted to confirm that, or, better yet, I wanted to find him, and Savannah too. The stench of garbage, drugs, and body odor could’ve knocked me over as soon as I opened the front door and stepped inside. A shiver ran down my spine. I did not want to be here. Something seemed off about this place, but that just had to be my imagination, right? Either way, this place was the pits. But what else could I do? What other option did I have? The police hadn’t even been sure that I needed to file a missing person’s report yet considering I contacted them as soon as I saw that Savannah wasn’t home and hadn’t answered her cell. They assured me they were doing everything they could, but they had to be busy with other pressing matters, and honestly, I wasn’t making any major headway myself, and this was my only pressing matter. Yeah, sure, I wasn’t an investigator, but I was the one most desperate to find her. Savannah and I hadn’t even fought recently. We had been on really good terms—mostly because I had kept my mouth shut this time around with her latest re-hook up with Turner. I had been trying to get her to prove herself at the restaurant. I desperately wanted to promote her to being a waitress, but I also didn’t want to play favorites, and honestly, she didn’t deserve it yet. She just wanted to be a girl, to not have a lot of responsibilities, and I understood that. She had to shoulder a lot and basically had to take care of herself for a long time before her mom ended up in jail. Her childhood hadn’t been ideal, and now she was trying to be a typical rebellious teen. She had never gotten into any real trouble, so I couldn’t complain too much. Or maybe I had given her too much of a leash because I wasn’t a fit mother. I had had a lot of sleepless nights when I first decided to adopt her. I had only babysat for one summer before I started at the restaurant as a waitress and started my way up the ladder almost immediately, making my way up to hostess at eighteen and then to manager by twenty. Two years later, I was the owner. I was a go getter. One day, Savannah would be one too. I hoped. I closed the door to the apartment complex behind me and appraised the long hallway lined with doors. Now the only question I had was how to figure out which apartment was Turner’s. Loud music blasted from the door on the right. I knocked, but no one answered. They probably couldn’t hear me, so I knocked again, harder and longer this time, but still no one answered. I wasn’t about to try the doorknob because who knew what kind of person or people might be on the other side, so I kept on walking down the hall, knocking on doors. Always the same result. No one answered.

To say I was getting frustrated would be an epic understatement. Not sure what else to do, I headed back toward the front door. Maybe I could learn who the landlord was and find out Turner’s apartment’s number from him. Maybe I could even convince him to use his key to open the door. He had to have a skeleton key, right? Hopefully the landlord was an okay guy. Given the state of the place, he allowed his tenants to trash the place, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were bugs creeping around. If he didn’t care about the building, he probably didn’t give a rat’s ass who he had living inside the walls, so long as he got his money. Well, if he wanted money, I had some squared away. I could give him a Benjamin and maybe then he would be willing to help me out. Through the window, I spied an old car rolling up. It took the driver a few times to squeeze into a spot and then climb out. It was an older woman. She was the first soul I’d seen since I arrived. Hopefully she would be willing to answer a few questions. Trying my best not to get my hopes up and failing, I opened the door and walked out to her. “Excuse me. Hi. I’m Valerie Klein. I’m looking for Savannah Farron. Do you know her? She’s—” “The girl of that Turner Young fellow.” The woman eyed me, tilting her head to the side. Her permed white hair didn’t budge. Her eyes were shrewd, and I found myself a little unnerved to be the subject of her scrutiny. “Yes. Have you seen her recently? Or him for that matter?” I held my breath as I waited for her answer. “Why you asking? They owe you money or something?” She sounded so disgusted I had to grimace. She didn’t care for Turner, or Savannah, and that made my heart hurt. “No. Nothing like that,” I said to reassure her. “Savannah’s my daughter.” Her light eyebrows shot up, and she looked me up and down. “You’re not old enough to be her mother.” The disapproval in her tone and her pursed lips that caused thousands of tiny wrinkles to appear left me agitated. She wasn’t the first to cast judgment on me once they learned I was Savannah’s mother. They figured I must’ve gotten knocked up at thirteen. I could see it in their eyes, and this woman clearly thought it too. I hated their judgment, resented their assumptions. Even if I had Savannah while really young, what business was it of theirs? But I couldn’t lash out at her. I swallowed my pride and offered her a tight smile. “Adopted mother,” I clarified, my cheeks flushing. “Please. She hasn’t come home, and I’m worried about her.” “You should be.” She wagged a gnarled finger at me. “That Turner boy. Didn’t you discourage that? He’s not good for her, not good for anyone.” The old woman shook her head, lips still pursed. I grimaced but tried to keep my cool. I really didn’t need her judgment, but I really did need her help. “I did discourage it, but there’s only so much I can do. Do you have children?”

The woman finally relaxed her pursed lips. After a long moment, she slowly nodded. “Yes. You’re right. Kids, daughters especially, tend to do whatever they want, which is often the opposite of what you want it to be. They’re trying little brats. Oh yes, there are those who claim their gifts, but honestly, they can try even a saint’s soul.” My impatience burst through. I didn’t need her to ramble on about kids. I needed to know about one kind in particular—my daughter. Tapping my foot and crossing my arms, I asked, “Have you seen either of them?” She rubbed her chin. She had a few whiskers. She had to be in her seventies. The woman kept squinting at me as if she couldn’t see me even though I was standing right in front of her. The idea of her driving did not sit well with me, but that she hadn’t answered my question yet sat even worse. The woman nodded again, the movement halting. “I think I saw them a week ago,” she said. “Yes. They were talking and laughing. Actually looked happy for once. Sometimes they would argue, quite loudly at that. Your girl can be headstrong.” “Don’t I know it.” I grinned despite myself. Savannah had showed determination and patience when she wanted to. Like the fancy blue gown she wanted for prom. I told her that if she saved up for half of it, I would pay for the rest. She ended up saving for all of it, so I bought her heels and a purse. She could be mature and responsible. If only she picked better friends. Cassidy wasn’t the best of influences, but I’d pick her over Turner any day of the week. She just needed to continue to set goals for herself because when she did, she shattered them. “A week ago,” I repeated glumly. A week meant that I had seen her after that point. Damn it. “Exactly a week?” I pressed. “You’re certain?” “Yes. I saw them walk into his apartment. I had come home from playing bingo. I didn’t win anything. Not that time. I swear it’s rigged. I won every week for the first month that I started going, but ever since, not once. Not one time! They just want my money. They rig it so you win at first, just enough to hook you in, and then they rig it so you lose and—” “Which apartment is his?” I interrupted, not wanting to be impolite but wanting answers badly enough to risk offending her. “Rude,” she huffed under her breath. “Interrupting like a no good… Number 352. That entire floor is dominated by his friends. Not any of them are any good. They’re so loud and obnoxious and just plain bad news. I’ve thought about calling the police on them a few times, but I’m too scared of them too. Maybe I should call anonymously. But if they did trace it back to me—” “Savannah isn’t like that,” I said, sliding toward the front door. “Maybe. Maybe not.” The woman shrugged. She coughed slightly into a trembling hand. Sounded deep and tight to me, like a smoker’s cough. “I’m Georgia Henderson. I live in 212.”

“Thank you, Georgia,” I said warmly. Overtalker or not, she had given me some help, and I was so appreciative for that. “If you could call me or the police if you see her, I would be so grateful.” I dug into my purse and removed a slip of paper. I jotted down my number and handed it to her. Georgia looked it over and nodded. “I will. I am sorry you can’t find her, and I do hope she’s all right.” “She probably is.” I forced a smile. “Maybe they went on a vacation and don’t have cell access. A spur of the moment type deal.” But I didn’t believe it. Savannah wasn’t the kind of girl to not check in. The longest she’d gone between checking in when she had gone away on vacation with Cassidy had been two days. Two days compared to five. And I knew there was no way she would deliberately not check in. I could’ve understood if we had fought and she rebelled to get away from me, but we had gone out for ice cream the night before she disappeared. Just the two of us. We had talked and laughed. It had been wonderful. I teased her about her ability to eat like a teenage boy. She teased me back about my slow metabolism and how I’d better watch how much ice cream I ate or else I’d blow up like a whale. A girls’ night. Savannah had wanted to watch a movie once we got home, but I had to get up early for work, had a meeting, so I declined, something I was now majorly regretting. Had she been reaching out to me and I hadn’t realized it? What if Turner had crossed the line and she needed me to help her push him away and move on for good this time? I thought Turner was bad for her, but I didn’t think he had ever been abusive toward her. If he had been, well, I would find out if I looked good in prison orange. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that Turner had played a role in her disappearance. This just wasn’t like her at all. Moving quickly, I turned the doorknob and reentered the apartment complex. I didn’t even say good bye to Georgia, and I didn’t bother to hold the door open for her either. I just ran up the stairs to the third floor and hurried down the hall until I found his apartment. Taking a deep breath, I screwed up my courage and knocked. No answer. I put my ear to the door. I couldn’t hear anything. Turner wasn’t here. Not a surprise, but I still felt let down. I knocked again. I pounded again and again until my fist started to hurt and even then I kept on knocking. “Turner. Turner Young!” I called, my voice loud and clear, echoing in the empty hallway. I swallowed hard. “I demand answers. I want to know—”

The door opened, and I grinned. Finally. Now I would learn where Savannah was. I didn’t necessarily need to take her back home with me. I just needed to know she was safe. That my fears had been for nothing. But the guy standing in front of me wasn’t Turner Young. It was a man I’d never seen before, a man who towered over me. His dark hair curled slightly on the ends. His tattoos were amazing. He should’ve given the name of his artist to Turner. One tattoo was of a raven on his shoulder. On the other arm, he had a fierce-looking wolf. Amazingly detailed, so detailed that I wanted to step forward and get a better look at them. Only because of his intense glare did I refrain. After all, I wasn’t here to gawk. I was here for a purpose, and no one, not even a hot guy, was going to make me forget it. I put my hands on my hips and glared right back at him. I wasn’t one to be cowed. “Where is Turner?” I demanded, trying to look around him even though he hadn’t opened the door wide enough for me to. He wasn’t a huge man, but he had a lot of muscles, and he filled up the space of the door opening. He wasn’t a man to be messed with, but he was going to find out that I was a woman who wasn’t to be messed with either. “Just leave.” His voice was impossibly deep. The man stepped back and started to close the door. I shoved my foot forward so he’d have to close it on me. “I’m not leaving until you answer my questions,” I said stubbornly. I had come too far to just be cast aside now. “I take it Turner isn’t here.” I raised my eyebrows. He stared at my foot and slowly looked upward, taking his time, giving me a once-over. It made me nervous, but in a good way, and I didn’t expect that at all. Focus, Valerie. I crossed my arms. “Well? Turner?” I demanded. “Not here,” he uttered in that deep voice of his. He went to close the door again. I didn’t move my foot. “Look. I’m not here for Turner. I’m looking for Savannah.” Damn it all if my voice wasn’t starting to show signs of apprehension. “Do you—” The man suddenly threw open the door, yanked on my arm, and pulled me inside. He closed the door behind us, holding me far closer than he should. His eyes pierced into me, as if seeing clear through to my soul as he asked, “What do you know about Savannah, and why are you here?” My breath caught in my throat. What kind of a mess had Savannah gotten herself into? And what kind of a mess had I gotten myself into as a result of looking for her?

Chapter Two Garrick

It had started out a pretty decent week, but now I was getting pretty pissed off. No one knew where the hell Turner Young was, and the kid wasn’t answering his cell. He hadn’t showed up last night like he was supposed to, and asking around made it clear that Turner hadn’t been around for days. As the leader of the Fate’s Talons, I didn’t have time for this. I had business plans to cement and an MC to worry about. I was a lot of things, but a babysitter sure as hell wasn’t one of them. Right now, I was annoyed, but if Turner really had gone legit missing, I knew I would switch over to worrying instead. “You sure he hasn’t been around?” I growled to Daryl. He, Bob, and I were in my office above the bar the motorcycle club owned. I sure as hell needed a drink myself. Daryl shook his head and shrugged. “I’m sorry, Garrick. I tried calling around, but no one’s seen him. Not since last week. He’s been keeping pretty tight to his bird lately.” His bird. His girl. Savannah. I didn’t know her last name. I couldn’t recall ever seeing her, though. “What do we know about his girl?” I asked. Maybe he was with her. “Savannah something-or-other. She’s cute. I’ve seen her a few times.” I grunted and rubbed my chin. “So he’s brought her around.” “Yeah. Lately, they’ve been doing well, I guess. They’ve had some bumps, I think. I don’t know.” Daryl shrugged again. “He used to be a lot more open.” “Yeah, he’s been closed off all right.” I grimaced. A missing MC member was never a good thing. I took a lot of pride in my MC. It had become rich and powerful, and that was because of me and my hard work and the effort of my men. All of my men, and that included Turner. At thirty-one, I had just about every damn thing that I could want out of life. I had money, power, and responsibilities. The ladies fell all over themselves for me, but I hadn’t found one lately who didn’t grate on my nerves. They wanted me for my power or my wealth. They wanted me for my talents in the sack. But they didn’t want me, the man behind all of that, only what they could get out of me. Truth be told, I used them too, but right now, a romp in the sheets wasn’t on my mind. I had a reputation of being arrogant, ruthless, and cocky. At least that was what Daisy told me two weeks ago. Despite my supposed personality flaws, she hated that I had no intention of settling down, but she hated me even more after I told her that if I changed my mind, she would be the last to know.

She’d stomped out, but only after trying to steal one of my rings. Yeah, she’d been one of the gold diggers. If I couldn’t find a real woman, so be it. I’d just sleep around to scratch my itch. I didn’t need to find a wife anyhow. I was happy with the way things were. Well, I would be if I knew where Turner was. “Savannah. Why is she with him?” I asked. Maybe she was a gold digger too. I guessed you could say Turner was good looking, but he had been through a lot before we crossed paths, and it screwed him up a little in the head. He wouldn’t know how to handle a serious relationship, I didn’t think, so it didn’t surprise me to hear that their relationship was a little rocky. “Not sure. He’s kinda an ass to her. Some women like that though. You know how they can be.” Daryl’s grin only lasted a few seconds before he was frowning. I sighed and wearily rubbed my forehead. A bad headache was beginning to brew. A man gone missing for days, and I was only realizing it now. Shit. Was I slipping? Business had been more demanding lately, and the club had grown to a decent size. Still, my stomach churned at the thought of Turner in trouble. Because his parents could’ve named him Turner Trouble and it would have been damned fitting. “Want me to try calling him again?” Bob offered. He was an eager beaver, one of my men who desperately wanted to climb the ranks. Honestly, I never cared for brown-nosing, but if word got out that I couldn’t keep track of my men, the MC would be in trouble. Plus, I had switched over to worry. In a lot of ways, Turner still acted like a punk kid, and I had been trying to straighten him out for a while now. Been failing to straighten him out. “Sure.” But I doubted it would do any good. I had been calling the kid for a few hours myself, and no one had been able to get him to answer. With another sigh, I stood and fished my keys out of my pocket. “I’ll be back. Think you can handle things here?” Bob grinned like a fool. “Sure thing, boss.” He knocked his shoulder into Daryl’s. Hoping I wasn’t making a mistake by leaving Bob in charge, I made my way outside and to my bike. My baby. The only one who had never let me down. Sometimes I dreamed about running away, about spreading my wings, about rediscovering myself. Don’t get me wrong, I loved being the leader of Fate’s Talons, but sometimes I needed time to just be me, away from the crowd. With so many people looking to me for answers about life and love and everything else, I often didn’t have time for myself and my wants and my needs. Maybe that was what had happened with Turner. Maybe he figured that he needed some time with his lady. Maybe they needed some alone time. There were always guys hanging around the office, and he lived by a bunch of them at his apartment. If Turner and Savannah were getting serious, maybe he thought he’d spring her with a surprise, and they had skipped town for a little.

It would’ve been nice if he had mentioned a getaway with me first, though. My stomach churned, and my agitation level soared sky high. Something about the whole situation just didn’t sit right with me. And if anyone could tell when danger was heading his way, it was me. My father, the great Gary Repton, had always said I knew when to fight and when to negotiate. He’d given me my first bike when I turned sixteen, although he made me wait two years until I proved myself worthy of it before he let me ride it. He’d been a hell of a man, and I tried to emanate him. Well, most of the time. He died ten years ago. Would he be proud of the man I’ve become? Probably only after I square, everything with Turner. “Surround yourself with loyal men,” he used to say, “and you’ll never want for anything.” “Except a piece of ass,” I had joked. My dad had roared with laughter. “An ass is just an ass. There’s more to a woman than her looks.” “But looks don’t hurt any.” “Maybe not, but you want a woman as loyal as your men. Loyalty, devotion, love…without them, you can’t build a future. And without a future, what do you really have?” I wanted a future all right, and not just for myself, but for my men. For Turner. I climbed onto my bike, but before I drove off, I pulled my cell out of my back pocket and texted Danny Boy. Has Savannah been around at all lately? Danny Boy was the bar’s bouncer. If anyone had seen her, it would’ve been him. He never missed a beat. He had a mind like an elephant. Never forgot a face or an order or anything else life could throw his way. My phone vibrated with his answer a few seconds later, and the response made my frown deepen. Haven’t seen that pretty little ass in eight days. I grimaced and shook my head. Nothing was adding up. How often did she come around? An immediate response this time. Every night that Turner would stop by. When they’re dating. Which they are right now. So they were one of those stupid couples who broke up and got back together again all the damn time. Probably weren’t right for each other at all, but something brought them back. Maybe the make-up sex. You told me Turner hasn’t been around in, what, six days? I typed as fast as I could, anxiety eating away at me. Another immediate response. Yeah. Guess the last anyone’s seen him is five days.

Maybe Savannah had dumped Turner. Maybe he was drinking it off somewhere. Or maybe they had gone off somewhere together. But why the fuck wasn’t he answering his cell? Why hadn’t he gotten ahold of any one of us? My legs still straddled over my idle bike, I quickly scrolled through the news on my cell and discovered that the police were looking for a Savannah Farron. So they had both disappeared, most likely together. The idea of having the police involved made my skin crawl. It made it seem like the two kids were in danger, and I hoped that wasn’t the case. What with Turner’s past, though, it remained a viable possibility. It was time to scope out Turner’s apartment. A bunch of my boys lived in a complex called The Shades, which was ideal only because it was a ten-minute drive from the bar. Traffic was bad, but it still only took me fifteen minutes to get there. I parked, jogged inside, took the stairs two at a time and knocked on the door marked 352. No answer. All of my boys gave me a key to their place—strictly for emergencies. If the boys in blue came calling, if things needed to be cleared away, if they needed anything at all, I would handle it. As the leader of the Fate’s Talons, that was my job. I looked out for my own. Mutual respect. I had their backs, and they had mine. We might not share blood, but we were blood just the same. It took me a few minutes to locate the right key, and my hand didn’t shake as I inserted it into the slot. The doorknob turned easily in my hand. I inhaled deeply and then again more easily. Thank fuck the place didn’t reek. It didn’t smell like a dead body. Yeah, my mind had gone there. Paranoid. Worried. Anxious. I wasn’t used to feeling these emotions, but something was wrong here. I had a sixth sense about this kind of thing. The apartment was fairly messy, but it looked like an organized mess, not like the place had been ransacked. It didn’t look like someone had left in a hurry, or maybe it did. The mess made it impossible for me to be sure either way. I closed the door behind me, locked it, and entered the apartment farther. There weren’t any clues as to where the couple might have gone, no ticket stubs or mailers or envelopes, so I examined the kitchen. There wasn’t a ton of food in the fridge or freezer. The cabinets were fairly empty too. Packed up and taken with? Or did Turner just need to go grocery shopping? The bedroom held no clues either, but in the bathroom, hidden all the way in the back beneath the tiny sink, I finally discovered something, hit the jackpot, but not the kind I would’ve preferred to find. There, obviously kept in secret, was drug paraphernalia. Interesting. And infuriating. So fucking frustrating. Just looking at this pissed me off. I had a feeling Turner may have been trying to trade drugs. Given that he was now missing, he most likely had gotten himself killed for it.

My hands curled into fists. What happened to loyalty? What happened to being a family? A lot of my guys had been forsaken from their birth families for one reason or another, and I had welcomed them into the MC. If one fell, we helped to pick him back up again. When one of us failed, we all failed, but we would work together to change it around and turn it into triumph. We all had our issues and our problems, but we were much stronger together than apart. Turner Young had been a part of the crew for years now. He’d come to me when he’d turned sixteen, and he was twenty-two now. His parents had kicked him out because they caught him doing drugs. I’d helped him get clean. I gave him a place to stay. He had done well. Thrived even. Turner earned himself a place in the ranks of the Fate’s Talons. But he had always copped a little bit of an attitude. He had a chip on his shoulder. It took two years for me to learn that Turner’s father had done drugs heavily himself, and when he came down from his high, he tended to turn into an abusive asshole. Turner had tried for years to convince his mom to run away. She refused. Turner had no other family members to turn to, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that he decided to experiment and see what exactly the appeal of drugs was, to try and understand why his father would take them. If Turner had gotten his own stash, maybe his father wouldn’t have thrown him out, but he claimed Turner stole from him. Turner hit rock bottom, chasing after a high, trying to make sense out of life. That was when I found him. I gave him meaning. I gave him a reason to fight. I gave him his life back. Shortly after he turned nineteen, or maybe twenty, he went back home and beat the living crap out of his father. When I heard about it, some of the boys and I came around to collect Turner. His father never said a word, never pressed charges. Maybe it was wrong, but I didn’t blame the kid for what he’d done. After all the abuse he’d suffered, he had upturned tables on his abuser. Sometime later, I heard Turner’s mom ran away, but he never went to see her. “She chose him over me,” he had said. The kid had trust issues. He had a big problem taking orders from authority figures. He was still trying to sort out where he belonged in the world. And I didn’t mind. He had been through a lot, so it was understandable. At first. But that the same old song and dance continued for years did grow tiresome, and some of the patience I geared toward him wore thin. Did he respect me? I wasn’t sure. Hell, he might even resent me because he didn’t want to rely on anyone. It had been a little while since we last had a talk, a real one, about his issues. I sure as hell wasn’t a psychiatrist, and maybe he needed one, but I was more than willing to be a sounding board and a listening ear. Some distance and a cool head and a different perspective were sometimes all the guys needed to figure out how to better their lives and fix their problems. Turner never did talk to me about his love life. Some of the guys went through women as fast as I did, so I didn’t bother to pay attention to their newest squeeze. Now that I thought about it, I thought I did meet his Savannah once or twice. I was sure of it. She was tall, thin, blond hair, blue-eyed. I remembered being proud that he had caught someone like her after the hell he’d been through. Savannah and I had never spoken, though. I didn’t know her story. And everyone had a story.

Did she know about his history with drugs? Maybe he wanted to make more money to impress her. Or maybe she pushed him into it. Maybe she had a connection to drugs herself. Who the hell knew? Okay. So, girl, drugs… That was a start, but what else? I was about to check out the bedroom when a loud knock sounded at the front door. Who the fuck was that? Not Turner. He wouldn’t knock. I doubted his girl would either. Someone else, then. The guy who gave Turner the drugs? There was more knocking, almost banging. Some yelling, but the voice was muffled, so I couldn’t make out the words. Whoever it was, he or she wasn’t going away. The last thing I wanted was to draw unnecessary attention to the apartment, especially because of the disappearances, and the drugs too. Fuck me. Grumbling to myself, muttering a curse, I opened the door. A gorgeous brunette stared at me with disbelief in her dark eyes. I glowered at her. I didn’t have time to deal with this shit. I had a mystery on my hands. If Turner hadn’t started to deal drugs, maybe he was back to taking them again. Either way—dealing or using— he would need my help to get him out of the mess he had caused. She put her hands on her curvy hips and glared right back at me. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it turned me on. Just the right amount of cocky attitude. “Where is Turner?” she demanded, her eyes narrowing. Who was she? An old girlfriend? She looked older than Turner, though. A few years younger than me. And hot as fuck. And pissed as fuck too. And I was only going to make her more pissed off. “Just leave.” I stepped back and started to close the door. I didn’t have time for her, even though I kind of wanted to make some time. The woman shoved her foot forward to stop me. “I’m not leaving until you answer my questions,” she said hotly. “I take it Turner isn’t here.” Really? She thought her tiny foot would stop me? I could pick her up and throw her over my shoulder easily. Which actually wouldn’t strike me as such a bad idea if I didn’t have to worry about Turner. At times, he felt like a younger brother, one who sometimes ignored me but generally followed my

advice and direction. But, yes, the idea of picking her up and carrying her to the bedroom wasn’t a terrible idea. I gave her a slow once-over, and oh yeah, I wouldn’t mind getting to know her once I sorted out everything with Turner. Long legs, supple arms, and a throat I’d love to suck on. If I weren’t careful, I’d get a massive hard-on. I wondered if she was as flexible as she looked. Not that I could really afford the time to find out, but I would love to go all kama sutra on her ass. She crossed her arms over her ample chest. “Well? Turner?” she asked, a slight edge creeping into her tone. “Not here.” I shouldn’t be wasting time with her, so I started to close the door again. She didn’t move aside. “Look,” she said, now a little desperate, “I’m not here for Turner. I’m looking for Savannah. Do you—” Wait. She knew both Turner and Savannah? Maybe she would have a lead. And her voice was rising. I couldn’t have everyone knowing that Turner was missing. People talked, and if word got out, well, I wanted this whole thing wrapped up as quickly as possible. I threw open the door, yanked on her arm, and pulled her inside. I closed the door behind us, holding her far closer than I should, just because I could, just because I wanted to. Her eyes grew wide. She was obviously freaked out, but she wasn’t about to crumple, I could tell. Despite myself, I was intrigued by her, this beautiful, mysterious woman. Trying to keep my distance from her and her amazing body, and also trying to keep myself from getting too excited, I asked, “What do you know about Savannah, and why are you here?”

Chapter Three I gestured for the woman to sit on the couch, but she took one look at it and shook her head. Yeah, actually I wouldn’t want to sit on it myself. It had a few questionable stains. “Who are you?” I asked when she neglected to answer my previous question. “Who are you?” she retorted, her brown eyes flashing. She jutted out her chin, as if trying to look down at me even though I was taller than she was. She had fire, I’d give her that, but did she have any answers? “You’re the one who came banging on the door.” I appraised her. Was she playing me? Why was she looking for Savannah? “You’re the one who’s in an apartment that doesn’t belong to him,” the woman replied coolly. Unflappable. I liked that. Most women caved beneath my smile and charm. Well, I hadn’t given her the charm yet, and I shouldn’t. I needed to be worried about Turner. I needed her to answer my questions. I leveled her a stare and waited for her to start talking. After a moment, she sighed and glanced away. “My name is Valerie.” “Valerie…” I prompted, waving my hand for her to continue. “Valerie Klein,” she said in a huff. “Your connection to Turner?” I asked. “To Savannah.” Her glower only added to her beauty. “I’m her mother,” she added after a long moment. “Adopted mother. I’m here because I want answers.” So she knew nothing. Of course. But to be sure, I asked, “You have no idea where Savannah is?” “I assume she’s with Turner. Who isn’t here.” She made a point of looking around me to the obviously empty apartment. “No, he isn’t.” I rubbed my chin, the stubble there prickly against my palm. Just what I needed. A hot mom who was going to try to stick her nose into the investigation and slow me down.

“Do you have an idea where he is?” She started to tap her foot, which made her boobs jiggle. Really? She was giving me attitude? “I’m gonna find out,” I told her. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it. I have it all under control.” Her eyes flashed. “She’s my daughter, and I will worry about it.” “Look. You can either stop your foolhardy search—because I can guarantee you that you won’t get anywhere on your own—or you can come with me.” What the fuck did I just say? I couldn’t be serious. That had to be my cock speaking. But if she really was dead set on finding her daughter, and drugs were involved, she would need to be careful, and she would need someone to keep an eye on her, whether or not she agreed with that sentiment. “Go with you? Where?” She shook her head and before I could give her more details, she added, “I can’t. I have a restaurant to run.” A restaurant? Was she the owner or the manager? Either way, that was impressive. My opinion of her went up a notch, but it wouldn’t stay there if she chose work over her daughter. Nothing should mean more than family. I shrugged. “No sweat off my back. Just know that the police won’t help you either. They don’t care about runaways.” “Savannah isn’t a runaway!” From the scowl on her face, I was certain the cops had mentioned the term to her. I sure hoped she gave them lip for it. “Well then? What’s your decision?” I was done here. Wasn’t about to waste any more time. I’d already confiscated the drugs, but there weren’t any other clues to the couple’s whereabouts here. The drugs were the way to go, and again, we couldn’t have the police down our backs if we were to explore that avenue. “I…” She took a deep breath. “Do you have any leads?” “One.” “Care to share it?” “Not here.” Her eyes narrowed. “I told you my name and my connection to them. Who the hell are you, and why do you think you can stand there and dictate what I do?”

“Garrick Repton.” She didn’t blink. “Haven’t you heard of me?” She shook her head. I blew out an exasperated breath. “Please tell me you at least know about Fate’s Talons.” “The stupid motorcycle club Turner’s involved in. Oh.” Her lips formed a perfect O. “You’re part of the club?” “I’m the leader of that stupid motorcycle club actually.” Her cheeks stained pink. “Oh,” she repeated faintly. “That change your mind about coming with me?” “How long has Turner been missing?” I grimaced. I didn’t appreciate that she answered my question with a question of her own, but I did appreciate that she hadn’t apologized for her remark about my MC. She had spunk and her own opinions. Spunk, fire, zeal—they all made for a wild time in the bedroom. “Turner’s been gone five days as far as I can tell.” “Savannah too,” she murmured. “They’ve got to be together.” She nodded decisively. “All right. I’ll go with you.” “Good.” “On one condition.” “Look, I’m not in the mood—” “I just want you to not keep any secrets from me. Deal?” She held out her hand. The drugs in my back pocket burned me as I shook her hand. “Deal.” We left the apartment, and I noticed that she watched as I locked up the joint. She followed me down the stairs and kept up my swift pace until we reached my bike. “My car is over there.” She jerked her thumb to the left.

“Ever rode on a bike before?” I asked as I put on my helmet. She shook her head. “Another time, maybe,” she said, but she sounded like the chances of that actually happening were poor. “I’ll follow you to…just where are we going?” “To Fate’s Talons headquarters. Follow me.” She started to walk away. “Not much of a daredevil,” I grumbled under my breath. She whirled around. “This isn’t fun and games. This is serious. If you just want to make jokes and flirt or fuck or any of that, I am not cool with it.” Fire enough to last lifetimes. Damn. “If I want to ride on a motorcycle, I will. Not right now. You got it?” “Got it.” She walked away. Her hips were swaying way too much for it to not be on purpose. I had to adjust myself in my seat before I could ride away. Valerie kept up with me easily. She even ran a red to keep behind me. I should’ve waited the light out with her, but I liked knowing that she wasn’t a stickler for the rules. She might need to bend the rules with me if we’re to find our people. Headquarters was located on the floor above my bar. Outside of my office, there was a general room, a meeting room, two bathrooms, and a small kitchen. Posters lined the walls, pictures of my guys goofing off. On one wall, there was a mural of a bike with a man on fire driving off into the sunset. Gray Beard—real name Alan—was a crazy artist. He’d done most of us up in tats. Valerie walked over to it. “Wow,” she said. “Nice, ain’t it?” She nodded. “But wouldn’t the gust created from riding make the fire go out?” I threw back my head and laughed. “Probably. It’s amazing, though. Riding. It’s powerful. Makes you feel alive.” “Sure it does,” she said doubtfully. “If you ever wanna find out,” I offered, “I’m your man.”

“First, I wanna find out about Savannah.” I grimaced. “First, you’re gonna meet some of the crew.” With a hand on the small of her back, I ushered her into the meeting room. Shortly before she’d knocked, I’d texted some of the guys to round everyone up for me. It was strange to walk through the general room without anyone else in it. There were always guys hanging out. The meeting room was packed, and I quickly introduced Valerie to everyone. She seemed a little stiff and uptight, and I guessed I couldn’t blame her. A few of the guys looked at her like wolves about to take a snack. I turned to her once everyone calmed down from the introduction. “Are you sure you don’t know anything, anything at all, that’ll help us find out what happened to Turner? And to Savannah?” “I won’t hold back anything,” she said coolly. “I don’t know where she is. That’s why I went to his place, to Turner’s. I was hoping that I might find him or find out something from one of his neighbors.” “Did you?” “No. No one else has seen him. It’s like they just disappeared.” She bit her lower lip. We all got into a big discussion as to who saw Turner last and where and tried to come up with a game plan. Did I mention the drugs? No. Not yet. I wanted to keep Valerie safe. She was doing her best for her daughter, and I respected that, but I wanted to also keep her memory of her daughter untarnished. I didn’t know if Savannah was involved with the drugs or not, and until I knew for certain, I didn’t want Valerie to freak out. Drugs meant money. Lots of money. And money meant guns. And danger. And murder. We might be looking for Turner and Savannah, but we might find their bodies instead. We grabbed pizza from the bar to eat for dinner, and I sent a few guys out to chase down some possibilities. Valerie yawning caught my attention. She stayed close to my side the entire time, but not too close. “Tired?” I asked her. She shook her head. “I’m too worried to be—” Another yawn cut her off. I smirked. “It’s all right to be tired.” “I should be out there, searching,” she murmured. “If I’m not working, I should be searching.”

She hadn’t eaten much. She’d been texting on her phone, and I assumed it either had to do with details for her restaurant or about trying to chase down some of her own leads, on Savannah’s end of it. I grabbed another slice and put it on her plate. “Eat.” “I’m not—” “You can’t stop living. You can’t survive on fear. Eat. Sleep. You need energy to keep up.” She glowered at me, but she did take a bite. “Good. Once you’ve finished eating, you’ll come with me to my loft.” Valerie had lifted the pizza to her mouth, but she lowered it without taking another bite. “To your loft? No. I don’t think so. I have my own place—” “Valerie, your daughter has disappeared, and we don’t know why. The circumstances, well, they might not be good ones.” “Because of Turner being in your motorcycle club?” she asked, eyes flashing. “Because of Turner being Turner,” I said sharply. She grunted, and I fought back a grin. Savannah might not be her blood, but she treated her like she was. That was how I was with my crew. I understood exactly where she was coming from. “A kidnapping is serious. I don’t know if that’s what happened here, but we have to take precautions, don’t you agree?” I asked. Valerie was rational. I’d appeal to her rational side. And once we learned what happened to the couple, I would love the chance to appeal to her wild side in the bedroom, if she’d let me. “Yes,” she said begrudgingly. “You can’t stay here.” There was a cot in my office, but that was only for me and only in emergencies. “And you won’t be safe at home.” “But your loft will be safe?” she countered. “Safer than your place.” “What if you came over?” Her cheeks flushed. “I could, but I think my loft is a better option. I’ll keep you safe. I swear.”

It was obvious she didn’t want to, and I understood that. I was a stranger, and I had whisked her away from the lead she was tracking down, hadn’t given her enough hope that we’d find her daughter, and now I was telling her it wasn’t safe for her to go home, that she should come to my place. If I were her, I’d be doubting whether or not to come too. “Call a girlfriend,” I urged. “Let her know where you’re going. I swear I don’t have a secret motive here.” Maybe that was the truth. Maybe that was a lie. I honestly wasn’t sure. She nodded and proceeded to call someone named Alice and made it clear that she was going with me back to my place and that she wanted someone to know in case anything happened. Her cheeks turned an even darker shade of pink, and I wished I could hear what Alice said back to her. If I had to guess, it was something about not wanting to know details, or something along those lines. Valerie ate that slice and a second one, and I ate another myself. Maybe she was stalling. Or maybe she hadn’t been taking care of herself since Savannah went missing and she was really hungry. I didn’t say anything when she reached for a third—albeit tiny—slice. But once she finished it, she wiped her hands on a napkin and threw away her trash. “All right. I’m ready to go.” “Good.” I put a hand to the small of her back and led her outside. She hesitated, glancing from my bike to her car. “I’ll follow you.” I nodded, but inwardly, I was smiling. Once everything was good and right in the world, I’d find a way to get her on the back of my bike. She’d hold on tight, and it would be the ride of her life. I’d make sure of it.

Chapter Four Valerie

I followed closely behind Garrick. I had to admit that he knew how to control his bike. He wasn’t one of those wild and reckless daredevils, although there were times when he would smirk or smile that he would get this glint in his eyes, and I knew he could be a daredevil if he wanted to be. It didn’t take us long to reach his loft, about ten minutes. It was a nice-looking place, a little more upscale than I would’ve thought. I didn’t know what to think about Garrick. I was determined to find my adopted daughter no matter the cost, even if it meant involving myself with the leader of Fate’s Talons. It just seemed so ironic, though. I had been trying to get Savannah away from the motorcycle club. What kind of a man was Garrick? He seemed controlling and dominating, but he also didn’t seem to be overly so. His men respected him. They listened to him. They wanted to find Turner as badly as I wanted to find Savannah. And that was my concern. They didn’t want to find Savannah. That wasn’t their main objective. And I understood that. I didn’t blame them for feeling that way. I wasn’t worried about finding Turner myself. I just wanted my girl back. I wanted her to be safe and happy. If something terrible had happened to her, if she were hurt, I’d never forgive myself. I turned off my car and reached for the door handle, but Garrick already opened the door. He held out his hand, but I ignored it and climbed out without his assistance. I wasn’t sure what to think about him, and it bothered me to realize I was attracted to the man. Now wasn’t the time or the place. A tragic situation—that hopefully would have a simple and easy ending—had brought us together. Adding anything else to the mix wasn’t smart. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied his crooked smile. I didn’t need his help getting out of a car. I didn’t want to have to stay at his place. What if Savannah had been kidnapped? What if her disappearance was unrelated to Turner’s? I realized that wasn’t likely, but what if she got away? Her first instinct would be to return home. How would she feel if she went home to find me gone? The thought that my home might not be safe for her or for me left a bad taste in my mouth. I swallowed hard as Garrick unlocked the front door. He held the door open for me and gestured for me to go to the right. I entered the clean and polished kitchen and took a seat at the island. “Want a drink?” he asked as he opened the fridge. “Yes, please.” God, I could use one. Or five.

He grabbed two beers, opened one, and handed it to me. Our fingers brushed as I took it, and the warmth of his skin felt almost too hot. Our gazes met, and he gave me a grim smile. He was anxious and worried too, but he was trying to hide it. Why? For my sake? Or because he wasn’t used to feeling anxious and worried? Garrick pulled out and sat on the stool next to mine. His leg pressed against mine, and I took several quick swallows of my beer. “We’ll find them.” I knocked my beer bottle against his. “I’ll drink to that.” We both drank, and silence fell over us. Again, my thoughts started to churn. My being here felt so wrong. I had no clothes but what I was wearing. Yes, I had made arrangements with Heather Franklin to keep the restaurant up and running with strict orders to not bother me unless it was an absolute emergency, but I felt like I was pausing my life to find Savannah. Which was fine. I had no problems with that. But sitting here, drinking a beer, feeling the power from his leg as it was pressed against mine, it felt so wrong. I drank from my beer only to discover it was empty. “Want another?” Garrick asked, already getting up. “Sure. Thanks.” He got out another two and opened them. After he reclaimed his seat—I swear he was sitting a little closer to me now—he said, “Tell me about Savannah.” So I told him. I told him about her appearance, about her kind heart and how she kind of always seemed to be at war with herself. How she wanted to be independent but knew she wasn’t ready for that yet. How she could be frustrating and even infuriating at times. How she could be kind and considerate. It wasn’t until I had two more beers that I added how she should find someone better than Turner. “Why is that?” he asked, his tone suddenly cool. “He’s not good for her.” “Why do you say that?” He had turned toward me to look at me as we talked, but now he shifted to face forward, his jaw tight, his back rigid. “You aren’t Turner,” I blurted out.

Garrick tilted his head, his cocky grin making a reappearance. “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Turner’s bad news.” I winced. “I’m sorry. He’s yours. He’s one of yours. He’s… I just don’t think he’s right for Savannah. You know?” I was rambling. Beer always made me ramble. “If I’m not Turner, and he’s bad news, does that make me good news?” His gaze shifted downward to focus on my lips. I refrained from licking them. Somehow. “I’m not sure yet.” He leaned closer, close enough for me to be able to see the flecks of gold in his eyes. “Do you want to find out?” Yes. No. I didn’t know. I reached for a beer bottle and knocked an empty one over. “Sorry.” I glanced away to pick it up, and when I turned back to Garrick, the moment was gone. Which was probably a good thing. This man was fine. Incredibly fine. And I couldn’t have a distraction. Too much was at stake. Later on, though, once Savannah was found, that would be a different story. “I understand,” he said quietly. Did he, though? Did he understand that when he touched and squeezed my shoulder, it sent a shot straight through me? That I was afraid it wasn’t just him that I was responding to, but that I would be feeling and reacting this way to any guy since it had been so long since I had been involved with one? Did he agree that now wasn’t the time? Was he one of those guys who screwed women and tossed them aside when he was bored of them? Honestly, I might have done that once or twice to a guy. A long-term relationship hadn’t been something I needed when I had been climbing the ladder to restaurant ownership, but now that I had accomplished my business goals, why couldn’t I find myself a guy if the right guy came along? Once Savannah was found, of course. And the right guy couldn’t possibly be from a motorcycle club. So maybe one more throwaway guy was in the cards. But as I stared at him, at his deep eyes, his strong lines, his bulging muscles, I knew he wouldn’t be

the kind of guy to settle for being a throwaway. He was the kind of guy to be the one to throwaway instead. Slowly, his lips curled into a teasing smile. “I wouldn’t mind if you took a picture.” I felt my cheeks flush. “I was just thinking that you’re dirty. I mean, I’m dirty. Not like that. I mean…a shower. Do you have a shower? Of course you do. Can I use it?” “Dirty body or dirty mind?” he asked, a wicked twinkle in his eyes. Like a fool, I just gave him a slight smile back. I did not want to keep talking and continue to make a fool of myself. What the heck was going on with me? Four beers was less than my limit, so it shouldn’t be the alcohol. Had to be stress. And Garrick was a hot guy. I was out of practice talking to one that made me feel all jittery inside. Some of the guys I interacted with at the restaurant were hot, but I didn’t view them as dating material. So was I viewing Garrick that way? Cool it, hormones. Garrick polished off the last of his beer. “I’ll grab you a towel. Follow me.” He led me down the hallway to a closet. After he removed a towel, he jerked his head to the right. “This way. Once you get out, I can give you a tour of the place. It’s not huge, but it’s got what I need.” What do you need? was on the tip of my tongue, but I swallowed it. There was no way a man who looked like he did—a god of sorts with his muscles, that perfect hair for running fingers through, those lips that begged to be kissed—would not take that question as sexual. “Use my shampoo, my soap. Whatever you need.” He opened a door in the long hallway that revealed a rather impressive bathroom. Its cleanliness struck me immediately. Did he not bring a lot of women here? Or maybe he hired a cleaning service. I didn’t think Garrick was the kind to get his hands dirty. Not with cleaning at least. “Thank you.” He handed me the towel, and I made sure our fingers didn’t touch. His smirk left me wondering if he realized I did that intentionally. I had to get him out of my mind. I needed to focus on Savannah and finding her. We’ll find her soon. I hoped. I stripped and adjusted the water to my liking before stepping in. The shower was huge, definitely large enough to fit two people. There was room enough for people to wash each other, to sud up their

bodies, making them all slick and wet and clean. There was room enough for sex in a few positions. Leg up in the air, from behind, facing each other, maybe sitting on the ledge too. As I washed up, I found myself daydreaming that I wasn’t alone, that Garrick was here, and I almost felt ashamed for it. It was obvious that he felt attracted to me too, but the timing was so wrong, and besides, it would never last anyhow. Our worlds were too different. Didn’t mean we couldn’t have a romp or two. No. Not now. Not until Savannah and Turner are found. Still, I was wet between my legs when I climbed out of the shower. I glanced at my pile of clothes and grimaced. I really didn’t want to have to put them back on. Maybe Garrick had a shirt I could borrow. A long shirt. I dried my body and wrapped myself in the towel. Maybe this would only make things worse. The sexual tension between us had started back at his headquarters, but it had only increased since we were in such close quarters. Little did I know just how high the sexual tension was about to get. The moment I exited the bathroom, I collided with Garrick. His strong arms wrapped around me, to keep me from falling, but then he didn’t let me go. His penetrating gaze shot straight through me, and I grew even more damp. My gaze shifted from his eyes to his lips, and I barely had time to close my eyes before he pressed those lips to mine. The kiss started out innocently enough, but when I wrapped my arms around his neck to draw him closer, he pressed against my back so there was no space between us but his clothes and my towel. My tongue pushed against his lips, and he parted them, and our tongues dueled as the kiss heated up. Before we could go any further, because that was definitely where that kind of a kiss was heading, his phone vibrated. Garrick broke off the kiss. “Damn it,” he growled. He didn’t step back as he grabbed his phone out of his pocket, one hand still on my back. I reveled in the feel of the length of his hard body against mine, but I tried to damper down my excitement. We needed to focus on Savannah and Turner, not each other. It was for the best that we had been interrupted. My hormones sure disagreed though. He stared at his phone. “A text. Someone spotted Savannah on the eastside of town.” “Let’s go.” I shrugged out of his grip and started toward the front door.

“As much as I love how you look in that towel, I think you might want to get changed before we go.” “Oh. Right.” I dashed back to the bathroom. Who cared if I wore the same clothes? If we could find Savannah already, everything would be perfect! I threw my clothes on and applied some of Garrick’s deodorant. It smelled strong, and it thrilled me to smell like him. To say I was pissed and annoyed to find Garrick’s bike gone and him not in sight in his loft would be an understatement. He had left me a note on the counter. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Make yourself comfy. Time is of the essence. He was right about that, but I had only taken three minutes to change. He couldn’t have waited three minutes? I paced around the table a few times before my stomach started to churn. I was both nauseous and hungry. By the time I decided that eating might be a good idea, I heard the roar of his bike and the flashing of his lights. Quick as a rabbit, I rushed to the door. Garrick’s grim face greeted me. “It was a false lead. I’m sorry. I went to the place and scoped it out, but I found nothing.” “Where was it?” I asked. My heart sank, but honestly, I wasn’t surprised. Something in my gut told me that Savannah was in trouble. We hadn’t gotten in a fight. She had no reason to run away. “A bar. Cowboy’s Lasso. You know the place?” I stilled. Savannah might only be nineteen and underage, but that was a place she frequented. “Cowboy’s Lasso. Savannah often went there with Turner. You sure that it was a false lead?” “She wasn’t there. Neither was Turner. Could they have been there earlier? Not today at least. I asked the bartender, and he said no. Turner never mentioned the bar to me himself, but I’ll go back tomorrow and ask more questions.” “I’ll come with.” He reached over and patted my hand. “You need to get some supplies and clothes. Maybe call around a few more friends or other places that the two would hang out.” “Why do you want me to lay low?” I demanded, pulling my hand back and putting it on my hip. “I want you to stay safe. I don’t want anyone else to go missing.”

“And you assume that because you’re a big, tough guy that you’ll be fine?” “Exactly.” He brushed his knuckles against my cheek. “I’ll go in the morning alone, but I’ll notify you the second I learn anything. Do we have a deal?” “I’m not gonna change your mind, am I?” I sighed. He laughed. “If I’m anything, I’m stubborn.” “I am too, but fine. Just this once.” “Just this once.”

Chapter Five Garrick

That night, I had a hard time sleeping, and it wasn’t because I was on my couch. It was because Valerie was in my bed, sleeping. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get her out of my mind. I kept trying to think about Turner and where we might be able to find him and Savannah, but my other head wanted attention. Maybe I was in denial. I didn’t want Valerie to be hurt, but I was afraid that was exactly what was going to happen. Because if Turner was mixed up with drugs, then Savannah might’ve been snatched specifically to keep Turner in line. Or, if Savannah was in on it, maybe Valerie was in danger, because then she could be the one snatched to keep Savannah in line. It was enough to make my head hurt. My other head, now that was throbbing. When Valerie had come out of the bathroom with beads of water on her soft skin, crashing into me, I hadn’t even thought about stopping myself. I just went for it and kissed her. It had been an incredible kiss, and I had had more than my fair share of kisses. Make no mistake about it—I wasn’t interested in settling down. I had no idea if I ever would. Didn’t mean I didn’t want Valerie any less, though, and from the way she responded, she definitely wanted me too. Her curves, those lips, her lithe body, I could just imagine how it would go, how she would respond. Maybe it was animalistic of me to be thinking about her like this when Turner might be in trouble. Hell, worst case scenario, Turner would be dead already. He deserved better than that. He could’ve been better than all of this. I thought I’d helped him, that drugs weren’t a part of his life anymore. I guessed I had failed him. I didn’t take failure well, but this wasn’t about me. Turner had always had his demons, and while I did my best for him, there had been only so much I could do for him. He had to want to get clean himself. It seemed to me that he hadn’t started using again, at least, but that he might be dealing it, selling it, when he knew first hand just how terrible the stuff could be, well, it just ate away at me. So maybe I wasn’t sleeping for a few reasons. With a groan, I got up and grabbed myself an apple from the kitchen. Maybe a snack would help me settle. Before going back to the couch, though, I made a detour and peeked in on Valerie. She looked so peaceful, but then she rolled over and back again. She was restless. Small wonder.

I could climb into bed with her. Hold her. Comfort her. Take both of our minds off our worries. The sound of a soft sigh came to me. Was she waking? No. It seemed to me that she was settling into a deeper sleep. Better to leave her alone. But that left me all the more frustrated when I returned to the couch. My cock was throbbing, long and hard. Maybe this was a nature reaction to fear and worry—to want to fuck, to crave something lifeaffirming. Because, man, did I want to fuck, to pound good and long, again and again. She was aggravated with me, though, and I didn’t blame her for that. I wanted to keep her safe, and I was keeping her in the dark. The possibility of there being a threat to her was real. She just didn’t realize how real. I’d keep her safe, even if it meant that I had to keep her at arm’s length. If she learned I was holding back, she’d be pissed, and she might understand, but probably not. If Savannah was in on drugs, Valerie obviously had no idea. She thought the world of Savannah. She loved her like she was her own. If she wanted to have kids of her own one day, she’d made a hell of a mom. Kids. Now that was something I hadn’t thought about. Did I want some? It would mean having a family. More like having another family. My men, my crew, they were my family. I wasn’t a praying kind of guy, but I kind of felt like I should be praying now. I wanted Turner and Savannah to be safe. I wanted the drugs to have been planted there. I wanted everything to work out. But I had a feeling that it was going to be a long time before anything would work out, and who knew how exactly it would all shape up.


I woke the next morning before Valerie did, although it might be more accurate to say that I hardly ever slept. I had gotten up after I finished an apple and wrote down every possible place that Turner had ever gone to since I had known him. I then looked up the numbers and left the list on the table. I wasn’t specifically asking Valerie to call the places for me, but if she wanted to do it while I was out investigating, I would appreciate it. I wanted to find Turner as badly as she wanted to find Savannah. Before I went back to Cowboy’s Lasso, I scoped out my place. None of the guys had any other new leads for me, although it took me some time to track them all down, since a few were out chasing down what turned out to be false leads. I figured it wouldn’t be best to return to the bar until it was at least dinnertime, so I tinkered some with my bike. Working with my hands, getting dirty and grimy, always helped to get my mind working. I came up with a few others places Turner liked to hang out at that I hadn’t thought up earlier, and I checked out the movie theater and the restaurant, but he hadn’t frequented either recently. Of course not. I’m starting to feel like we’re chasing ghosts.

By now, it was nearly five o’clock. I ate dinner with the guys, all the while wondering how Valerie was holding up. Maybe I should’ve gone to her, ate with her, kept her company. I had given her a few text updates but that was it. I wanted to try and put some distance between us. Distractions right now weren’t good. The couple had been gone for days now. The longer they went without being found, the less likely we were to find them. If they really wanted to disappear, we might not be able to find them. Again I considered the drugs. If Turner and Savannah were running—not from us but from drug dealers—they might very well be trying to disappear. If we never found them, what then? Valerie would never give up on finding her daughter, and I wouldn’t want to give up either. We would have to find them. One way or another. Figuring enough time had passed by now that a trip to the bar would hopefully prove worthwhile, I said goodbye to my boys and instructed them to keep on searching. It might take all of us to find them. It didn’t take me long to ride back to Cowboy’s Lasso. It was a dark little place, a little out of the way, tucked into a corner. I could see the appeal to it. The place had been really busy last night, which was some of the reason why I had to go back now to get more intel. Before she had gone to bed last night, Valerie had texted me a pic of Savannah and Turner, and I showed that around to everyone who walked into the place. The first few people I asked hadn’t heard anything, but I struck gold when I asked the guys sitting at the bar—the regular drunks who I wished hadn’t recognized Turner. “Oh yeah. Them. Yeah, we know them, don’t we, Bob?” a guy who had a stain on his shirt said. Bob, who was missing one of his front teeth, squinted at the pic, then nodded. “Sure do.” “Let me see.” The third guy, whose pants had some questionable holes in them, leaned over. Man, did he need a bath. Smelled like he hadn’t showed in years. “Yep. Trevor, right?” “No. Turner.” Stained-Shirt stared at me. “Right? That there is Turner.” “Yes,” I said. What were the chances these guys knew anything worthwhile? Still, I had to try and follow up every lead. “Turner and his girlfriend, Savannah. I got a call that Savannah was here last night.” Smelly stared at Bob and Stained-Shirt. “I didn’t see her.” “And you always notice her when she comes in,” Bob hooted. “She ain’t ever gonna let you buy her a drink.” Stained-Shirt grinned.

Smelly’s nostrils flared. “One day she will. She’ll dump that ass of a… She’ll want a real man.” And Smelly was a real man? “So I gather she wasn’t here last night, then,” I cut in. “Nope.” “When was the last time you tried buying her a drink?” I tried to smile at Smelly. I tried. I failed. “About a month ago.” He shook his head. “Can’t try to buy her one when dipshit is around, and she don’t come here alone too often. Pretty little thing. Doubt she’s legal. Such perfect ripe tits that—” “Right on,” I said to shut him up. The man had to be old enough to be her father. Hell, maybe even her grandfather. While I respected the desire to want a younger woman, there was a line. Savannah was legal, but I had a feeling this guy liked them as young as he could get them. So much for that question working out for me. I’d figured from what his friends said that he asked to get a drink every time she came in, but that obviously wasn’t the case. “When was the last time she came in with her boyfriend?” I asked. Smelly glowered at me. “With her dipshit of a boyfriend,” I amended for him. “Asshole.” Now I was the one to glower at him. “Not you,” he muttered, holding up his hands. “Hey.” He slapped his hand onto the counter. “Grab ’im one. On me.” The bartender looked over, nodded, and a few minutes later handed me an ice cold beer. Little early for drinking. Then again, these guys were already drinking, and it wasn’t like I was short on reasons for drinking anyhow. I took several long swallows. “As you were saying,” I growled. Smelly nodded. “The two of them were here a week ago.” Bob nodded too. “A week ago is right.”

“Yeah, the game was on.” Smelly smiled widely. “That’s right. My team scored, and she walked on in, and I thought I might score, but then he came in right behind her. He probably just wanted to stare at her tight ass.” He drained the last of his beer. I took a sip of mine. “A week, huh? That typical? Or do they come by more often than that usually?” “More like two to three times a week usually.” “Can always tell when they stop by.” Stained-Shirt jerked his thumb in Smelly’s direction. “The amount of beer he drinks that night is insane.” “Insane in the membrane,” Bob muttered. Smelly slapped him upside the head. The bartender cast them a glare. Smelly straightened for a second before hunching back over his glass. He cradled the empty glass in his hands. “I keep hoping she’ll turn up.” “Yeah. He’s been missing time at work for it.” Bob shook his head. “Got it bad. If he’s not careful, he’ll get himself another restraining order.” I snapped him a long stare. He seemed obsessed, yes, but would he have the drive to do anything about it? Had he taken Savannah as his own and offed Turner? Smelly hiccupped. “Whatever. I don’t need that job anyhow. My boss’s an asshole—” “You think everyone’s an asshole,” Stained-Shirt said. “That’s because they are.” I cleared my throat. I definitely planned on finding out more about him. “What’s your name again?” I asked. Smelly grimaced and didn’t answer. I flagged down the bartender and held up two fingers. Only after we got our beers did Smelly start talking. “Paul. Paul Jonstone.” He gave me a side glance. “Who are you, and why are you asking so many questions about Savannah?”

“She’s a friend of mine,” I said. No way did I want him to start thinking I was a cop. Cops made people nervous, which actually could work in my favor because nervous people tended to talk too much and give things away, but it could also work against me because nervous people tended to shoot first and ask questions later, and I did not want to get shot. “A friend?” Paul grimaced. He wasn’t the kind of guy to want competition. Not that he was competition. Turner had nothing to worry about from him. I was going to keep an eye on him, but I doubted he had anything to do with the disappearances. “Just a friend,” I assured him. “Been trying to call her and she won’t answer.” I drank some of my beer. “All right. Fine. She owes me. She wanted to buy a really expensive dress to impress her… dipshit. I’m talking really expensive.” I shook my head. “Women and their clothes. Anyhow, I need to collect. My girl’s starting to be suspicious about the missing money, and what kind of bird is gonna believe I’d loan that kind of money to a friend?” I shrugged. “Help a brother out, man. Got any idea where she is?” Paul nodded. “Yeah, actually. I was walking to the bathroom to take a piss—” “He wanted to try and sniff her hair,” Stained-Shirt cut in. “I do not do that!” Paul shouted, but I wouldn’t put it past him. “They were talking, the two of them. Kinda hushed tones, but you can only talk her so softly if you wanna be heard. Loud place at night here. Ton of good people, good food, good music, good—” “Everything’s good,” I interrupted, hoping he would get to the point soon, and that the point would turn into a reliable lead. “Did you hear what they were saying?” “You bet I did. They were talking about leaving town.” Hope grew in my chest, hot and warm. Or maybe that was my stomach and the beer. Could it be that the two were just lovebirds? That they just wanted to get away and make a break from their own lives, start over anew with a clean slate? Doubtful. There wasn’t a reason for Savannah to want to duck out of town without contacting her mom. And that didn’t explain the drugs. That was what had me worried. The drugs. What the hell was Turner messing around with? What had he gotten himself—and Savannah—into? “Leave town, huh. Typical. Wants to skip out on me.” I gave him more side-eye. “Any idea where?” “Some town. One hundred miles north. Can’t remember the name of it. Sorry, man. I doubt you’re getting your money back.”

I drained my beer. “Yeah, well. This broad wants a fair amount of money herself. Maybe I should just be done with both of them. Find someone else. Always more fish in the sea, right?” “Always.” Bob laughed. “Would be great to find one that didn’t smell like fish down there.” “Like you ever go down on your wife.” Stained-Shirt laughed. I refrained from recoiling. Bob with the missing tooth had a wife? “I do if I want her to give me head,” he grumbled. “And trust me, my wife gives good head. Worth it even if I have to hold my breath.” I joined in the laughter, but I needed more specifics than just some town one hundred miles north. Seemed to me that they were fleeing. The drugs. Had to be because of the drugs. Turner wasn’t the romantic type. He wouldn’t pick up Savannah and ride into the sunset. While it didn’t seem like Valerie approved of her daughter dating him, she hadn’t disallowed it either. They didn’t need to run away to be together. So, they’d left because of the drugs. If I thought time had been important before, it was even more important now. Who knew if Turner and Savannah would still be alive when we did find them? Because it was when we found them, not if we found them. I turned to Paul. “Do you think you might remember—” The activity in the bar racketed up a notch, suddenly so much louder that I had to stop and glance around. What was going on? A fist fight? There were so many people crowding around the bar, trying to get the bartenders’ attention to get more beer or liquor that I had to stand to see. And what did I see? Valerie. In the back. With two shady-as-hell-looking guys. And it looked like she might be the one to be lifting up fists.

Chapter Six

That she showed up here had my blood boiling. I had sent her a few texts earlier, and she knew I was here, and she had agreed to not come too. She understood that I wanted to keep her safe. That this was dirty work. That I could handle it. She’d lied. And she obviously couldn’t handle it. I tossed some money onto the counter, said a quick goodbye to the guys, and had to fight my way toward her. The crowd wasn’t forgiving, and I knocked into more than a few shoulders, but finally I pushed through the group and made my way to the back. Two tall men accosted her, and from the shouts, loud talking, music, and cheers, I couldn’t hear what they were saying to her, but she looked both angry and frightened. I pushed through the middle of them to reach her and threw an arm across her shoulders. “What’s going on here?” I asked conversationally, but there was a slight edgy undercurrent to my tone. That plus my glower had the guy on the right retreating half a step. The guy on the right had a moustache and he wasn’t as easily intimidated. “We don’t want her here.” “Why not?” I asked smoothly. “She’s bothering us.” I refrained from glancing down at her. “How—” “You can’t refuse me service without a good reason,” Valerie demanded. “Actually, yes, we can.” Valerie jerked forward, and I had to restrain her. I actually had to hold her back. I wasn’t sure what she had been about to do, and who knew if she even knew. From experience, I’d learned that adrenaline could make you do crazy things. I’d been in a few fist fights myself before. Hadn’t always won, and two against one weren’t great odds, but I would take them both on if I had to. “You want her to leave,” I said smoothly, “she’ll leave. Right?” She pushed herself away from me. “Really?” “Come on.” I waved to the guys and followed her as she whipped around and marched out the back

exit. She paced up and down the sidewalk. Her car wasn’t in sight. “What were you thinking?” I fumed. “I was thinking that…” She glanced up and down the street. “Let’s not talk out here.” “How did you get here?” “Took a cab,” she muttered. She rubbed her arms. She was trembling. Her nerves had to be shot. My eyebrows rose. “A cab? Why didn’t you drive yourself?” “I… My hands were shaking too much.” She essentially hugged herself. “I’ll call one and go back to my place. I won’t—” “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re going back to mine.” “I will not!” “What happened back there?” I asked quietly. “It didn’t look good.” She hesitated. “I will take care of you. I promise you we’ll find them. It’s gonna take time.” “Time is the one thing we don’t have!” She stepped toward me, arm raised, her fingers in a fist. But she lowered her arm without hitting me. “Fine.” I walked her over to my bike. “Willing to ride?” I hadn’t wanted her first ride to be under this kind of a circumstance, but I didn’t have a choice in the matter. “Guess so,” she mumbled. I only had one helmet, so I gave it to her. Once she put it on, I mounted my bike. After a moment, she climbed on behind me. “Hold on tight,” I warned her. I rode away. I went slow and took my time. The last thing I wanted to do was scare her. As it was, she clung to me so tight whenever I had to make a turn. She was a quick learner, though, and she moved her body to the correct side when I turned without me having to tell her first. Normally I told new

riders what to expect, what to do. Guess she wasn’t the only one to be unnerved about everything. I was definitely on edge. The beers I’d had didn’t help to settle me any. The thought of her getting hurt made me so angry, but I was also pissed at her for endangering herself unnecessarily. What the hell had she been thinking? What the hell had she said or done that had set the guys off in the first place? What bothered me more—that she had lied to me, or that she had gotten herself in danger? Both bothered me, and honestly, I wasn’t sure which hurt me more. Me. Hurt. Over a woman. What was happening to me? I was going soft. Lies. Betrayal. Two things I couldn’t abide. Yet here I was, trying my best to find Turner even though the drugs at his place showed he had been lying to me, might even have been betraying me. And now Valerie lied to me. She had promised to leave the bar to me. She promised to trust me. Obviously that was another lie. She didn’t trust me. I had trusted her, but now I didn’t want to. But I still did, and that was just as frustrating at anything else. Because she was a worried mother, trying to find her daughter. Of course it would be hard for her to trust someone else to find her, especially when she knew about a lead that needed to be double checked. When we arrived, I killed my bike and waited for Valerie to climb off first. She was still squeezing me tight, and I had to tap her hands and pry them apart for her to let go. “Ready?” I asked. “For what?” she murmured as she finally climbed off. She unhooked the helmet, and I stashed it away. I didn’t bother to answer her, just took her by the elbow and marched her inside. Every ounce of me wanted to read her the riot act, to yell at her, to rage, to punch something, but I refrained. Barely. I was pacing right by the door—after I slammed it shut and locked it—but when I turned toward her and saw that she was trembling, my anger just vanished. Without thinking, I crossed over to her and enveloped her into my arms. “Do you want to talk about it?” I asked. She smelled like my shampoo. She felt so fragile, so small. She pulled away slightly and looked up at me. She might seem fragile, but there was strength in her eyes. There was determination too. She was determined to go to war if she had too. And she just might.

“I broke into the back entrance,” she said. I gaped at her. “Broke in?” “Yeah. It’s not supposed to open from the outside. Exit only.” She took a deep breath. She was still trembling, just not quite as violently as before. My arms were still around her, and maybe I was giving her some peace of mind by holding her, but I couldn’t help thinking that maybe she was drawing on some inner strength. “I was hoping… I thought… Maybe I hadn’t been thinking…” “What had you wanted to do?” “Snoop around,” she blurted. “If someone working there knew something or was involved, they might have gotten rid of all the evidence already, but I had to try and see.” “Huh?” “I was good. I called everyone on your list and my list too, and then the police called me to give me an update, which was basically to say that there wasn’t an update. I asked if they had gone over to Cowboy’s Lasso, and they had. ‘Nothing there,’ they said, so either they’re lying and never went in the first place—which I doubt because I know they went to another store Savannah loved because I went in to buy her something for when she comes home and the saleswoman told me about the police coming to question them—or else the bar employees lied to the police. And if they lied to the police, it had to mean there was a reason for it—like them having to do with Savannah’s disappearance!” She was back to shaking again, but this time it wasn’t from fear. It was from anger and rage. She had fire and drive and passion. One hell of a woman. I rubbed her back. “You’re sure the employees lied to the police?” “Yes. They claimed that Savannah and Turner haven’t been there in a month.” Okay, now that definitely was a lie. “We can’t jump to conclusions,” I started. She trembled some more, staring off into the distance. “I broke in, and I didn’t even get in very far— maybe two steps. Was just looking around when those guys came up to me. One grabbed my arm, but I threatened to kick him in the balls if he touched me. I tried to talk my way out of it, but considering they saw me come in through the door, they knew I was up to no good. I guess they were just doing their job, but—” “No. They never should’ve touched you or talked to you like that.” I pulled her close again.

“I just wanted to find some clues, some evidence. The trail can’t go cold, Garrick. We have to find her.” “Find them,” I corrected gently. “Right. Sorry.” Her cheeks flushed. “I tried to claim that I was just trying to get a beer, but they didn’t believe me. Called me some names. If you hadn’t come over…” Valerie started trembling all over again. “Hush,” I whispered. “You’re fine now. You’re here.” “Yes, I’m fine, but…” A tear streaked down her cheek. “Oh God. Damn it. Damn it all to Hell. I made everything worse, didn’t I? Now they know people are snooping. They might not realize why I was, but you saved me, so now they know both of us, will recognize our faces. Neither of us can go back there. We can’t find out anything about Savannah and Turner. I should’ve listened to you. I should’ve —” “It’s on me,” I said. “I should’ve gone in with one of the guys. Had him try to do some digging around the back while I worked the customers. I should’ve had my cell on, connected to you, so you could’ve listened in. That way, you wouldn’t have to worry, and—” “And if God forbid something happened, if you did pick up a lead, I could’ve had proof to give to the police.” A few more tears fell. “We really screwed this up, didn’t we?” “Not all hope is lost.” She shook her head. “My hope is dying.” No. I wouldn’t let that happen to her. “Things will look better in the morning,” I assured her. “In the morning.” She took a deep breath and shuddered. “Eight more hours. Eight more hours of Savannah being gone. Maybe… Maybe she’s… her…” I shifted so that one arm went around her waist and guided her to my bedroom. “Sleep. I can talk to my men and send them back in. We’ll be smart about it. No one will know they’re connected to us—” “Your bike,” she interrupted. “Huh?” “They can make a connection through your bikes.”

Through the club. She was smart, but I had already thought about that. “We do know how to drive cars too.” I smiled, hoping the joke would ease her mind slightly, but her frown remained firmly in place. “So one will do the talking and the other the snooping, like we should’ve done all along?” “Yep. And we’ll have a wire set up so we can both listen in. How does that sound?” “Good.” She sighed. I walked her over to the bed and picked her up to lay her down on it. She looked like an angel. She wasn’t supposed to have any exposure to the harshness the world has to offer. She was a successful businesswoman, worked her way to the top, adopted a girl. She was good and kind and loving. This kind of harshness, this kind of darkness, it was bound to change her, for better or for worse. “You should get some sleep.” I wanted to smile at her, but I couldn’t. Life was too shitty. There wasn’t time for smiles or happiness. Misery and depression. That was about it. Fuck, the world was a messed up place. Most everyone was miserable and depressed too. Without a word, I removed her shoes and then her socks. Now also wasn’t the time for anything sexual, but would it help if I undressed her slightly to make her more comfortable? I didn’t want to cross any lines. Honestly, I just wanted to help. Help Valerie. Help Turner. Help Savannah. Help myself. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Sure, as leader of a motorcycle club, I had seen some shit in my days, but nothing like this. That those guys had jumped all over Valerie told me we had to be on the right track. Or maybe not. If Turner and Savannah had gotten out of town and moved one hundred miles away, they were going to be involved with the bar in any fashion. So maybe the bar had some kind of dirty, illegal secret to it that was completely separate from the disappearance of the couple. Ugh. All of these questions and my lack of answers were given me a migraine. “What I really need is a drink,” she muttered wanly. Good idea. “I’ll get you one.” I patted her arm and left her room. Maybe she would already be conked out by the time I got back. Or maybe she wanted it as a nightcap. To help settle her down for sleep. Those guys had her really worked up. It might take her some time to be able to fall asleep.

She was half sitting up when I returned with two glasses of whiskey. Her arms were wrapped around her bent knees, her head resting on her arms. She was back to trembling again. I set the glasses on my nightstand and sat beside her on the bed. “Here. It’s all right,” I murmured, wrapping my arms around her. “Do you want your drink? What do you need?” “You know what I need,” she said softly. Her daughter. Of course. “What do you need that I can get for you right this second?” I clarified. “Nothing.” But she lifted her head from her arms and rested it against my shoulder. It was a simple gesture, sweet, but it got me hard as hell. Fuck. This so wasn’t the time. She was hurting. It would be taking advantage of her. I should get up and leave. But she was the one to kiss my cheek. She was the one to cup my face. She was the one to press her lips to mine, and suddenly she was in my arms, legs spread, straddled over me, humping me through our clothes as our kisses deepened. I felt like I had jumped off a cliff and landed in a pool of liquid pleasure. I nipped at her lips as I tugged on her shirt. We broke off the kiss only for a second, enough time for me to yank off her top, and then our tongues were back to dueling. Her hands bunched up my shirt, and we had to stop kissing again, this time for her to remove my shirt. But instead of kissing me more, she pressed her hands firmly against my back until I lay down, and she made quick work of my belt. I lifted my hips, and she peeled off my jeans. Her eyes widened as my cock sprang free. Yep. No boxers. I liked to free ball it. And I liked what she was doing to my balls, cupping them in one hand, her other hand slowly stroking my cock. It felt wrong, though, and I had to ask, “Are you sure you want this?” With fire in her eyes, she grabbed my hand and brought it to her pussy. Oh fuck. Fuck, was she wet. “You tell me,” she said, her eyes glazed over with lust. I tickled her folds before slipping a finger inside of her. She groaned when I immediately pulled it back out, but her eyes widened as I put that finger inside my mouth and licked her juices from it. “Oh yeah. You want this.” I sat up, grabbed her, twisted her around, and flung her onto the bed.

Now I straddled her. I slowly shifted backward and moved her legs so they were spread around me. My head dipped down, and I kissed up the sides of her inner thighs. She wiggled and squirmed, grabbing onto the sheet. “Come on,” she begged. “There’s no need to rush.” “Yes, please!” I traced lazy circles on her inner thighs, making her squirm even more. “Don’t you realize how much better it can be if you wait a little?” “I don’t want to wait. Don’t make me wait!” I smirked. “The other guys you’ve been with have been rushers, am I right? Just in and out a few times and done. And that satisfied you?” She grimaced. “I just want some relief.” I laughed. “You’ll get relief and then some,” I promised. A few more kisses on her legs, and then I kissed her lips. She jerked, gasping loudly, and I fought back a grin. I would make her scream before the night was over. I licked and sucked and teased and licked some more. God, she was so responsive. Every touch of my lips or tongue or teeth had her sighing or twisting. She kept bucking her hips, trying to get me to fuck her faster with my mouth. Not wanting to deny her but also wanting to give her more pleasure, I stopped sucking and waited for her to curse at me—only took a second to wait—and then I shoved a finger inside of her. Fuck was she wet. Tight too. Her walls closed around me, and they tightened even more when my tongue flicked against her clit. “What the… What are you doing to me?” She gasped, reaching down and grabbing onto my hair, pushing my face deeper between her legs, which she had long ago wrapped around the back of my head. To answer, I added another finger inside of her. I slowly finger-fucked her and lazily licked at her clit. She was screaming all right. “Oh, yes. Yes! Faster. Please! Oh!” Valerie was almost there. So close. I could hold off, let it simmer and build even more, or I could let

her have a taste and then keep on going and hope that this was only going to be the first course for her. I paused and glanced up at her. Sweat caused her hair to stick to her forehead. Her eyes were closed, her moist lips parted, and a drop of pre-cum eased out of the head of my cock. She was fucking beautiful. And I was going to fuck her all right. I was going to fuck her all night long.

Chapter Seven Valerie

He was driving me nuts, completely wild. I wasn’t a virgin, and I wasn’t a prude, but the way he was making me feel was beyond anything I had ever experienced before. My legs were shaking. Heck, my entire body was. His touch, his lips, his tongue… oh God, his tongue. If his goal was to keep my minds off things, he had achieved it in spades. For months, Savannah and I had been getting along fine. The last time we had an argument—over whether or not she could borrow money from me—she had said I needed to loosen up and get laid. Here I was, loosening up and about to get laid. He stopped licking me, and his fingers stopped fucking me. Garrick stared down at me. I couldn’t read the expression on his face, but, man, was it intense. I already couldn’t breathe, but that look was taking the rest of my breath away. “Do you have…” I couldn’t finish the question. “Have what?” His expression didn’t change at first, but then his lips curled into a slow and sexy grin. “Time? We already discussed that.” I shook my head, and I couldn’t help lifting my hips. I wanted to rub my legs together. The itch he’d started needed to be scratched. He’d promised me something with his lips and tongue and fingers, and he hadn’t delivered on it yet. “Do I have what, Valerie?” I closed my eyes. The way he said my name left me breathless. What the hell was I doing? I couldn’t dare read into this too much. This was just a one-time deal. Maybe two times. Three. Until we found Savannah and Turner. This wasn’t anything serious. Didn’t mean it couldn’t be seriously good. I opened my eyes. Garrick was still staring down at me, still grinning. “What do you want me to have?” he asked.

“A condom,” I said breathlessly. He threw back his head and roared with laughter. “Yes, I have condoms,” he said, emphasizing the s. “But I don’t need one.” My expression fell. He leaned forward, pressing his chest to mine, and kissed the tip of my nose. “I don’t need one yet.” “What are you going to do?” I whispered. “Whatever I feel like… if you have no objections.” I shook my head. Excitement washed over me like a tidal wave. “No objections.” He cupped my cheek, trailed his fingers down to my neck, and twisted my head to the side, away from him. “None?” “Not one.” He lowered his head, and I could feel his breath on my neck. Although it was hot, I shivered. “Good,” he murmured, and then he bit me. Not hard, and in a totally sexy way. I never had been bitten before. Never realized how wet it could make me. Garrick sucked my neck, and I grabbed his hair, pulling back and upward so that I could kiss him. I was torn between wanting to hold his head in place and rubbing hands all over his hard body, so I did both, one hand roving and scratching and caressing and rubbing, while the other kept him where I could kiss him: his lips, his cheeks, his nose. When I got to his neck, I returned the favor and bit him, careful not to nip him too hard. “Harder,” he growled, shoving an arm between me and the bed. He wiggled his way down and grabbed my ass, shoving his cock against me and making me gasp. “Always harder,” I moaned. I bit him harder. He grinded against me harder in response. I raked my nails down his back. He brought his other hand to my ass, kneading it. “You’re an ass man, huh?”

“Ass, tits. Lips, eyes. Anything and everything.” “Doesn’t take much to turn you on, then.” “Not when the woman in question looks like you.” “Charmer.” I licked my lips, and his gaze dropped from my eyes to my mouth. “You know what to say to get a girl in bed, and then you know how to pleasure her there.” “If you think I’ve pleasured you, you haven’t felt anything yet.” “A promise or a threat?” “Both wrapped up in one.” I shivered. “Cold?” “Perfect,” I whispered. He eased to one side and rolled me onto my back. His hands felt like magic as he massaged my shoulders, easing out the tension in my neck. His fingers skimmed down my sides, slipping beneath me to squeeze my breasts for a moment before returning to my back. His hands palmed my ass, and then he slapped it. Holy fuck. He slapped my ass. And I liked it. He slapped me again. I jerked, my clit rubbing into the sheets. God, did that feel amazing. Another slap. More rubbing. Another and oh, man, if this kept up, I was going to come. I lifted my ass slightly, waiting for the next slap. It didn’t come. “Please,” I whimpered. “What do you want?” “You.” “Me?” He leaned back down over me, his cock rubbing against my ass. “Am I torturing you?”

“Yes,” I groaned. “Good.” Good? Good? Torturing wasn’t good! I was about to say that when that slap came. Immediately after, he shoved two fingers inside of me, and I was done. The shockwaves of my orgasm almost had me blindly moving my hips in rhythm with his fingers. Oh my God, did it feel good, so good. I wanted more. I needed more. I had to have more. Somehow, I managed to lift one leg high enough to move above his hand so I could twist around to face him. His fingers remained inside of me as I sat up, and even though I wanted him to continue to pleasure me, I wanted to give back, so I gripped his wrist and pushed it away. “My turn,” I said. My heart beat wildly. I normally didn’t take charge during sex. Mostly because there hadn’t been time to. The guys I had been with weren’t exactly marathoners. They had been sprinters. A few times I had to use a toy to finish, otherwise I wouldn’t have orgasmed at all. I would wait until they were asleep—which only took them rolling over—and out came my vibrator. It was sad to say, but toward the end with each guy, I stopped bothering with foreplay in the hopes that they would last longer. It didn’t work. But with Garrick, I didn’t just want to be on the receiving end of the attention for the first time ever. I wanted to give back. I wanted him to feel as good as he was making me feel. I pushed him back until he was sitting and then back again so he was lying down on the bed. I rubbed his chest—God was he muscular—and the ripples of his abs. Man, was he impressive. I licked and kissed my way from his neck all the way down his torso. His cock was so big and long and hard. I leaned down, brushed my hair back, and pushed his legs open. “Ready?” I asked. His eyes were half lidded. “I can take anything you wanna give me.” “Good.” Pre-cum glistened on his cock, so I licked him from the bottom of his cock to the tip. I sucked off the pre-cum, enjoying the way he exhaled sharply, his cock twitching and jerking.

“You like?” I asked. “Very much.” He reached down and grabbed ahold of my hair. I pushed his hands away. “Do you trust me?” I asked. His eyes glittered like hard diamonds. “Yes.” “Then leave me be,” I ordered. His eyes widened, and he grinned recklessly. “I don’t think I wanna do that.” I narrowed my eyes. “You don’t want to trust me?” Why did I feel hurt? I shouldn’t. This was fucking. It wasn’t anything serious. I hardly knew the guy. But I was beginning to get to know him. I could tell he valued his motorcycle club like a family, and from the way he had stood up to me against those guys at the bar, he had to value me somewhat too. “I don’t want to leave you be,” he clarified. “Trust I can do. But I don’t think I can just sit back and— what are you doing?” I was grabbing his discarded shirt. “You’re gonna trust me, and you’re gonna listen, and you’re not gonna interfere.” Using the shirt, I tied his wrist to the headboard. My shirt bound his other wrist. Rubbing my chin, I glanced around. “No blindfold,” he pleaded. “Why?” I giggled. “Are you afraid of the dark?” His cock twitched. “I want to look at you,” he said softly. “I want to watch you.” Damn. He knew just what to say. Any more and I would be melting into a puddle. “Fine,” I said coolly, trying to play this off, as if I had tied other guys to their beds before. Spoiler alert: I hadn’t. Another spoiler alert: it was hot as hell. “Are you ready?” I asked him, although I was kind of asking myself too. And, yes, I was ready.

“Yes.” He all but groaned the word. I had given head before. Hadn’t really enjoyed it, though. It had been in the backseat of a car, cramped and tight, and he had wanted it first, and after he had finished, there wasn’t any time left for him to return the favor if I wanted any chance of getting home before curfew. My mom had been a wonderful and kind woman, but she had also been a slave driver, and it wasn’t worth incurring her wrath. But that the guy hadn’t even cared that he had all the fun meant I dumped his ass the next day. Garrick, I knew, wouldn’t be like that. He would return the favor. He wouldn’t disappoint. He closed his eyes, and I cupped his balls, teasing them, playing with them. My lips kissed the tip of his cock, and it twitched. I giggled again. I loved watching his cock move. I kissed down his length, marveling at his thickness. God, was he huge! He was trembling, the bed shaking, and I took that as a sign that he was beyond ready. Opening wide, I took the tip of his cock into my mouth. I swirled my tongue around it, and he jerked. I pulled away. “You like?” “Oh, fuck, you’re killing me.” His restraints were loosening already. I quickly tightened them. “Behave.” He winked. “I know you don’t mean that.” I shivered. No, I didn’t. I stroked his cock a few times, massaging the tip and gliding all the way down his shaft and up again. Slowly, I took him back into my mouth, the tip and then more and more. Up and down, I bobbed, one hand teasing his balls, the other rubbing the inside of his thighs. “Fuck,” he muttered. He started to gyrate his hips, fucking my mouth. With a grin, I glanced up at him, still sucking away. His eyes were closed, his expression one of peace. Not for long. I eased my fingers beneath his ass and pressed upward, taking even more of his cock into my mouth. I had to swallow around him, and hot pre-cum came out. “Stop.”

The simple word tore at me, and I hesitated. “If you continue…” I glanced up at him again. His eyes remained closed, but he looked more tortured than at peace. “If you continue, I’ll come and—” “Isn’t that the point of all of this?” “I wanna fuck your pussy,” he ground out, eyes flying open. I winked, feeling reckless and daring. I never felt more in control in the bedroom than I did right now. “Who says you’re only gonna come once?” I asked him. “Fuck me,” he groaned. He glared at one restraint and then the other. “I plan on it. With my mouth, with my pussy, with my hand, my breasts.” I shrugged one shoulder. “We’re gonna fuck all night, right?” He inhaled sharply. “Yes. Let me fuck you. Pussy first.” “Fine.” I straddled his chest and leaned over to untie him. He kissed me, his lips and tongue making contact with my sweaty skin. When he was free, he sat up and grabbed me, grinding me hard, our bodies pressed so close together that nothing separated us. My hands roved over his hot body, and he did the same. His hair was a mess, and he had a few hickies. He looked good and sexed and we weren’t even done yet. “Condoms,” he muttered after breaking off a kiss that had me curling my toes. He eased me away and reached over to his nightstand, sprawling out over half the bed. When he opened the drawer, I grabbed his cock and pumped it a few times. He stilled, and another drop of precum appeared. I bent down and licked it clean. “You’re gonna be the death of me,” he muttered. “Death by orgasm.” I giggled. “Not a bad way to go.” He yanked a roll of condoms out and ripped one open, but I grabbed it from him, pushing him to lie onto his back. Channel your inner porn star.

Everyone had an inner porn star, right? I opened my mouth, popped the condom in the O of my lips, and eased it onto his cock. Unrolling it with my mouth wasn’t easy, and it took some time, but from the way Garrick was moaning, he sure didn’t mind. The moment it was completely on him, he sat up again. “Ready to have your brains fucked out of you?” “Fuck away,” I breathed. And he did. He slammed into me without warning, and I cried out. He went fast and hard and deep, and I swore I could see stars. He sucked on my neck and pinched my nipples, and I clawed at his back, needing to claim him. This was about give and take, and I was going to take and give back. I rolled my hips in rhythm with his thrusts, and the buildup was incredible. A few more thrusts and I’d be gone. I didn’t want to come first, but, oh God, I was going to come soon. Remembering how much it had turned me on, I slapped his ass a few times. His growl and his biting my neck pushed me over the edge. I had just enough awareness to reach down and tickle the edge of his balls, and he was coming too. Fuck. That was amazing. He continued to thrust, and I rode that wave, bouncing up and down on his lap. I stopped rolling my hips first, and then he ceased thrusting. I brushed my sweaty hair back. “Ready for round two?” I asked. Garrick picked me up and laid me on the bed. The look in his eyes made me squirm and caused my muscles to tighten. “Are you sure you’re ready?” he asked, his voice low. “Fuck yes,” I whispered. Yeah, there was no sleeping to be had that night.

Chapter Eight Garrick

I woke up with my arms around a woman. It had been a long time since that had last happened. Normally I woke up first and dashed, or she did. I wasn’t the kind of guy to stick around. Have a good lay and walk away. That was what I did. But waking up to Valerie was something else. We had gone several rounds last night, and we didn’t fall asleep until around five in the morning. It was only ten now, and I wasn’t sure what had woken me. She shuddered in her sleep and clung to me closer. Her eyes were moving rapidly beneath her eyelids, and I couldn’t help myself. I kissed her forehead. Valerie sighed, settling against me. I chuckled softly, my chest rumbling. She didn’t stir. I didn’t know a lot about her. Fuck, there was too much I didn’t know about her. But I did know she was loyal and fierce and frightened. She was desperate and a fighter. She would do anything for Savannah, for her family. She reminded me of myself in some ways. “You weren’t meant for this,” I murmured, brushing her hair back so I could stroke her cheek. “Meant for what?” she asked groggily, her eyes still closed. “I didn’t mean to wake you.” Her eyes fluttered open. “It’s all right. Not meant for what?” she repeated. I grimaced. I hadn’t meant for her to hear that. “Meant for…” Her eyes widened with understanding. “Yeah, well, meant for or not, doesn’t matter. Savannah… I’ll admit that she went through a really rough patch right after her mom went to jail. She wasn’t suicidal or anything like that, but she did a lot of reckless, dangerous thing, pulled a lot of stunts, that kind of thing. Getting her to let me in, to trust me, to let herself have a real parent for once, took a long time. Her mom never was meant to be a parent, and then she found herself with an adopted mom who actually gave her rules and cared about what happened to her. She didn’t realize just how things would be when she agreed to my adopting her.”

“It’s not easy being a parent.” She jerked back slightly. “Are you speaking from experience?” I laughed long and loud. “No. Not yet. Maybe one day.” Valerie side-eyed me. “You sure?” I laughed some more. “Don’t trust me? I’m not lying. Well, I guess you could say that if I’m a father to anyone, it would be Turner.” Her lips pursed. “Prodigal son,” I muttered. And I gave her a few details about his past, but I did keep the detail about finding the drugs in his apartment from her. “I had no idea about the drugs.” Her lips pursed. “I’ll admit I don’t know much about his relationship with your daughter, so we kinda had been growing apart. I’ve been busy with other stuff, and he seemed to be doing fine. I’m sure I would’ve seen or been notified by one of the guys if anyone saw or suspected he was messing around again.” She stiffened. “You don’t think Savannah did any, do you?” “Like I said, I didn’t know much about her and him together, so I don’t know much about her at all. But lately it seemed to me that Turner was doing well, and maybe that was a reflection of their relationship.” She flushed. “I don’t think Savannah would ever do drugs. Not after her mom.” “Her mom?” “She loved her drugs too much, preferred them to her daughter. She was a waitress for me, and that was how I got to know Savannah in the first place. She was just a young girl then. She still is a young girl. Nineteen.” Valerie had a faraway look in her eyes. “I adopted her to try to give her a real shot at life. I want her to have it all. And I know she can be so much more than what her mom was. She can do so much with her life.” My stomach twisted sourly. “You didn’t like her with Turner, did you?” Valerie glanced away. “No,” she said after a long moment. “Do you blame me?” I wanted to argue, but I stopped and thought about it. She had a point to some extent. “Everyone makes mistakes, right?” I asked after a long while.

“Yes, but—” “Everyone deserves a second chance, right?” She said nothing. “I know that he doesn’t seem like the best of guys, especially now that you know about his dark past, his issues, but if she could turn him around, make him a better guy, doesn’t that mean he’s good for her?” A pang of guilt hit me. That damned bag of drugs. That wasn’t good. No doubt about it. Maybe I was just making excuses for him because I wanted him to be a decent guy. I wanted him to turn it around. Maybe I had a blind spot when it came to the guy. “You’re right. I gave Savannah a second chance at life by adopting her. And I haven’t seen Turner be overly chauvinistic toward her lately. Maybe she is helping him to not be such an…” She cleared her throat. “Ah…” “Chauvinistic? Maybe he’s been brainwashed by that book and movie about that rich guy who liked to spank his girls.” Valerie sat up and crossed her arms. “Books and movies aren’t a reason to be an asshole.” “No, but some guys like to be in charge.” “To be the alpha dog, huh?” I grinned and pulled back toward me. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing.” “I’m not sure I like that idea.” “Why not?” “If you’re some kind of alpha dog, what does that make me?” She flushed. “I’m not your bitch.” “Of course not. You don’t want me to be an alpha, fine. I won’t be. But I still like to be in charge sometimes.” Her cheeks turned an even brighter shade of pink. “So long as I get a chance to be in charge too.” I reached for her nipple and rolled into between my fingers. “I think I can live with that.” And we had another round right then and there.


After a late lunch, I checked in with the guys. So far, there was nothing to report, which didn’t surprise me, but Valerie was disappointed, and I couldn’t blame her. “We’ll find them,” I promised. “Not if we’re in bed all day long.” She glowered at me. I crossed my arms, flexing them. “You’re gonna pin that on me? If I remember correctly, you pinned me.” She flipped her hair back, a sexy move that didn’t look practice and made it all the more sultry. “If we’re gonna…you know…it can’t affect finding them.” I gripped her shoulders and stared her straight in the eyes. “I promise you. Our activities won’t affect anything.” Her eyebrows arched at my word choice, and I grimaced. “Activities” wasn’t the greatest term, but what could I call it? Fucking? Sex? Making love? Fucking amazing, that was what it was. “Good.” She sighed as she nodded, a slight curl to her lips. “I don’t want that to end.” Valerie flushed, and I could tell she didn’t know how I was going to take hearing that. Honestly, I didn’t know how to take it. She seemed like a great gal and all that, but I wasn’t really looking for a long-term thing. And we only crossed paths because of her daughter and Turner having gone missing. It seemed kind of random. Or maybe not. Maybe our paths would’ve crossed anyway because of Savannah and Turner. Maybe the universe wanted us together. I wasn’t the kind of guy to believe in coincidences. I had seen too much shit over the years to believe things were random. There was a reason to everything, even if we didn’t always know what it was. So, we were forced together. Maybe it was only to find our people. Maybe then we would split up and go our separate ways. Which was fine. We could enjoy the high stakes and enjoy each other at the same time, and then go back to our lives once Turner and Savannah were found. But what if they weren’t found alive? Could I just leave Valerie to her misery? And I would be crushed, too, if Turner didn’t make it. He could be a good guy; I know he could. He just had to want it. At some point, you had to cut the strings and let them fly or fall.

Looked to me like Turner was falling, but only time would tell if he was going to crash and burn. And if he was going to take Savannah down with him. “Someone’s thinking hard,” she remarked, drawing me out of my wonderings. “I don’t think hard. I work hard. I play hard.” I wiggled my eyebrows and grinned recklessly at her. “I fuck hard.” “Hm. Hard is right,” she said, smiling back, but her eyes were sad. She was slipping away from me, back into her misery. Our time was at night, when the lights were out, and we could cuddle together, taking away each other’s hurts and pains with caresses, kisses, and orgasms. Right now, the days belonged to the search. I cleared my throat. “I’ve arranged for two guys to go in tonight. We already have the wire set up.” “Would it be smarter to have three guys? Four?” She bit her lower lip. “Or would a large group draw too much attention?” Always a thinker. I liked that. “Probably draw too much attention.” “Even if they all came in by ones at scattered times and kept to themselves? Or one group of two, and two other groups of singles? I just didn’t have a good feeling there, Garrick. Something’s up.” “I agree. Something is definitely up there, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in conjunction with Turner and Savannah and their disappearance.” Her expression fell. “You’re right. I hadn’t thought about that. I just want them found, you know?” “So do I. Believe me. So do I.” Just then, her cell rang. She grabbed her phone, answered it, and left the room. Keeping a secret from me? I had to admit I was curious, and it burned me to think she might be keeping something from me. Not that that was something I should be feeling, considering I hadn’t mentioned the drugs to her. I wearily wiped a hand down my face. This whole thing was a mess, and maybe it wasn’t fair for me to keep the drugs from her. She knew about Turner’s past, but she didn’t know that drugs might not have remained in his life or made a reappearance. Would telling her make her go off and leave? That wouldn’t be safe for her. Maybe I shouldn’t risk telling her.

Chapter Nine Valerie

When I saw the call was from Cassidy I had to take it. Considering I had no idea what she would say, and that her voice could carry like crazy—there had been times when I would be in a different room from Savannah and still hear Cassidy’s responses when they were on the phone—I had to leave. I found an empty room that looked like an office and camped out there, sitting at a desk. “Cassidy. Have you heard from Savannah?” “What? No. Sorry. I needed—” “Have you tried calling her?” I interrupted her sharply. “Yeah. Course I did. You really think I was just gonna up and call you when I could call her? Well, I did try calling her, but she didn’t pick up. Not sure what’s going on with her lately.” That last bit of her rambling caught my attention. “What do you mean, not sure what’s going on with her lately.” I racked my brain. Had she been acting differently before she went missing? I didn’t think so, but she did spend as much time with Cassidy as she did with me. “Nothing major, really. She just didn’t want to hang as much. Which killed me. Believe me. I mean, Jake and I are tight. Super tight. And Jake and Turner don’t jive, ya know? So it had been a little weird. And with Savannah always wanting to spend time with Turner, it made inviting them to come with us to the beach a no-go. Which sucked! My last guy, Ned, he and Turner got along so great. No, wait, Ryan was between Ned and Jake. Anyhow, Ned and me, and Savannah and Turner all went to the beach together last summer, and it was such a freakin’ blast. But this time, Jake and I found that cove, and we had sex—” “That’s enough,” I said dryly. “So the whole ‘not sure what’s going on’ is just because she picked Turner over you?” “Yeah.” Cassidy, who always sounded so upbeat and bubbly, sounded down in the dumps. “We always swore we would never let a guy come between us. Blood sisters, and all that. And now she won’t answer her phone or her email. And I really need to talk to her.” “What about?” I asked, inwardly cringing that it might be able something I didn’t want to hear. “Jake. Ever since I told him that Ian had been able to make me orgasm three times in a row, he’s being pissy with me. And the thing is, I lied about Ian! I just wanted Jake to try a little harder. He always finishes. I wanna finish too. Is that too much to ask? No, right? But I guess I made him feel inadequate, and now I don’t know what to do.”

“Here’s an idea,” I said dryly. “Don’t lie to your boyfriend.” “It was the truth! Stretched out a bit, yes, but it wasn’t a complete lie!” “Omissions are lies too. You have to be honest. Would you want him to stretch the truth with you?” “If we’re talking about whether or not a dress makes my ass look huge, a stretch would be appreciated if it’s necessary. Which it’s not. My ass looks great in everything.” “Modesty,” I breathed, rolling my eyes. “What’s that?” I exhaled loudly. “If you really like Jake and want to be with him for a while…” Because no way was Cassidy gonna be settling down anytime soon. “You might want to start telling him the truth.” Movement at the doorway had me glancing up. Garrick stood there, leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed. He gave me a nod and smile when I mouthed, “Give me a sec,” but then his expression turned dour when he thought I wasn’t looking anymore. My stomach tightened. Bad news? “I hope things work out with Jake,” I said in an effort to wrap up the conversation. “If—” “He’s the only guy who ever gave me an O during sex!” she wailed. “Granted, it’s not every time, but is it too much to ask for multiple O’s? I just… I don’t know. And you’re not the person to ask, are you? I mean, when was the last time you spread your legs?” “Cassidy!” I admonished. My cheeks were burning, and they only grew hotter when I noticed Garrick was trying to hold back laughter. Of course he could hear her. The dead could hear her! “Not that I wanna know when you last had sex,” she continued. “Look, Cassidy, I’m gonna stop you right there. I don’t wanna know about your sex life either and—” “Sorry. Geez. Savannah told me once that you’re really understanding, and I totally didn’t believe her because, like, you’re her mom, right? Parents never really care. They claim to, but they don’t. It’s only because of blood, and I know you and her aren’t really related but…” Ouch, did that burn. She sure knew how to knife someone in the gut. “But she always said she could come to you, tell you anything. That you might get upset, but that you wouldn’t judge. My mom’s not much better than Savannah’s. She basically a… She goes from one sugar daddy to another. I can’t come to her with shit like this because she thinks I should find an older, wealthy guy and suck his dick and take his money. That’s not what I’m about. I might fuck a lot of guys, but I wanna find the right guy, ya know? One who is a good guy and a good lay, and I’m starting

to think that’s a fairy tale. I just thought…with Savannah not being around, that you could, you know, talk to me some. Help me work it out. But—” “Cassidy,” I said more quietly. “I didn’t know about your mom.” “Yeah, well, that’s not something I broadcast. Not exactly something I’m proud of. But she’s my mom, you know? I love her.” “I’m not judging you. I didn’t think it was appropriate to talk to you about this because I’m not your mom, but if you can’t talk to yours…” I blew out a breath. “Does Jake make you happy?” “Most of the time.” “Do you enjoy spending time with him?” “Heck yeah!” “Outside of the bedroom,” I clarified. “Oh. Sometimes.” “Is sometimes enough for you?” I asked softly. For once, there was silence on the other end of the line. “Maybe you should take a day and just do what you wanna do. Separate from him. And separate from other guys too,” I felt the need to add. “See who you are when it’s just you.” “Just be by myself? And do what?” “Do you have any hobbies?” “Guess sex doesn’t count.” “No.” “I…I kinda don’t know who I am without a guy,” she admitted. “How does that make you feel?” “I don’t know. I guess I can do that. One day can’t hurt, right?” “Sure!” “Watch Netflix, eat ice cream…”

“Or go out to the movies,” I suggested. Something to get her outside. “Do you like to paint? Maybe there’s an art class or something.” “You mean you want me to do stuff with random strangers?” She sounded horrified. “I mean do things that might help you connect with others on a non-sexual level. You know, what’s the word?” “Friendship?” “Yes!” “Okay. I’ll try. Not expecting much, but it can’t hurt any. Thanks, Savannah’s Mom.” I laughed. She always called me that. “Guess you aren’t too bad with the advice thing.” And she hung up. I rubbed my forehead. “You heard how much?” “Enough.” Garrick chuckled, the sound low and deep, and I found my gaze roving down his body, hesitating over his lips, over the swell of his crossed arms, down his shirt that covered his six-pack, to below his belt. “Savannah’s best friend,” I said by way to clarify. “Gotcha. She hasn’t heard from her I take it.” “Nope.” I exhaled. “She’s basically making me her substitute best friend.” I braced myself. “I take it you came here to talk about something other than Cassidy and her oversharing.” “Yeah.” He took a deep breath himself. “You have a new lead.” I jumped to my feet, my heart pounding. It couldn’t be a good one. “Don’t tell me. They’re alive, aren’t they? They have to be.” My hands flew to my throat. I can’t breathe. “I don’t know. I haven’t found them. No further lead than what we already have except…” He grimaced. I slapped my palms onto the table. “Just spit it out!” I snapped. “I found something in Turner’s apartment. I hoped that it wasn’t connected, but that might be—most likely is—wishful thinking.” He closed his eyes.

My blood ran cold as a guess came to mind based on everything Garrick had told me about Turner. I’d admit that I had a lot more sympathy for the guy after I learned what kind of upbringing he had, but becoming a user wasn’t the answer. It seemed like Garrick had done everything he could to help clean up Turner, and it seemed to me that Turner had cleaned himself up the rest of the way. I never once thought Turner had been high around me, but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t have gone drugs when he hadn’t been around me. That he might have introduced Savannah to drugs made me want to kill him. Savannah was impressionable. She constantly was looking for attention because her mother had never given her any. I tried to make up for it, but let’s be honest, a teenage girl wanted more attention from a guy than her adopted mom. And Turner did give her plenty of attention—not that all of it was positive. “Drugs. You found drugs in his place.” I stared at Garrick. He nodded. “I didn’t tell you right away because…” “You want to shield me, protect my memory of Savannah, in case anything should happen to her, in case we find her…” I couldn’t say it. “I should’ve told you.” “You did tell me.” I rubbed my jaw. Maybe this wasn’t a terrible thing if—and it was a big if—we could use it to find them safe and sound. “Do you know who his supplier used to be? Do they have a connection to the bar? We have another angle to work.” “Getting into the drug world isn’t simple.” I made a scoffing sound. “Even I could find access to drugs if I wanted them.” “Access is one thing. Intel into who is dealing what and the inner working details, that’s another thing. It’s why agents have to go deep undercover for years to be able to bust up huge drug circles.” “So what you’re saying is that we can’t use it to our advantage.” He shook his head. “I didn’t say that. I’ve had a few run-ins with his old crewmates. They know my face.” “So it is a dead end.” I winced. Terrible word choice. It was a horrible phrase overall. No one should use it ever. “They know my face,” he clarified, “but I do have someone in the loop. One of my guys is inside. Someone Turner doesn’t even know is a member of Fate’s Talons. It’s not that I don’t trust Turner. It’s just that I know how devastating drugs can be, how much of a hold they can have on people. Once a user, always a user isn’t always true. People can overcome addiction. It’s not easy, though, and relapses can and do happen. I just wanted to know if they ever came back around. It isn’t always easy

to walk away from drugs, from both ends of it.” “You also wanted to know if he ever came back around to it.” A muscle in his jaw jumped as he nodded. “I thought he was doing better. He sure had me fooled.” “Have you asked your guys if they thought he was using again?” He rubbed the back of his neck and glanced away. “They thought so, huh?” I assumed. Curiously, his right hand closed into a fist. “So they didn’t think so.” I furrowed my brows, confused, but then it hit me. “You don’t think he was using. You think he was dealing!” Oh fuck. That was worse, wasn’t it? Fuck! “If he is selling…” I swallowed hard. I felt lightheaded and had to try and focus on my breathing so I didn’t pass out. “Do you think they’re in trouble? That they might be dead already?” Garrick crossed over to me and embraced me tight against his chest. He rubbed my back, and I closed my eyes, trying to focus on the strong sound of his steady heartbeat. “I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to think poorly of Savannah. I didn’t want you to lose hope.” Tears burned my eyes. It would be easy to crumble, to burst into tears, to scream and rage against the injustice of it all. It would be so easy to just lie down and roll over and give up. It would be so difficult to fight through the pain, to ignore the worry, to turn my fear into fury, to dare to not give up on that hope. To try to find them, even if we only end up finding their bodies, or worse, finding out what had happened to them with their bodies being unable to be recovered. Blinking away my tears, I took a deep, body-shuddering breath. I never had been one to take the easy route. If I had, I would still be a waitress. No. I was a businesswoman. I was a go getter. I was determined. I was a mom. And I would do whatever the hell it took to get my daughter back.

Chapter Ten Garrick

I could almost see the gears churning in Valerie’s head, and I fought back a grin. She was no damsel in distress, and if that was the case, what was her daughter like? She had been through hell, just like Turner. In an ideal world, the two broken kids would’ve been able to work through their troubles together and come out stronger for it. They would be perfect together and end up married and have two point five kids and a house with a white picket fence. But this world was far from ideal, and they could be heading down a very different and dangerous path instead, one filled with vice and darkness and drugs. Maybe death too. Had Turner gotten Savannah into drugs? Doubtful. Valerie would’ve noticed a chance in her daughter’s behavior, and it also seemed unlikely that Turner was doing the drugs himself. Which did suggest that he was dealing. Was Savannah helping him? Were they partners? Or was Savannah innocent in all of this? Only involved because she was hung up on a bad boy? “I haven’t lost hope,” Valerie said, squeezing me tightly for a moment before stepping back slightly to look up at me. “Don’t worry. I won’t give up hope until we find out what happened to them.” The steely resolve in her eyes and the fire burning there all made for one very determined woman. A woman who looked hotter every second. She grinned slightly and pushed me away. “Calm down, tiger,” she murmured. “We have an undercover operation to finish setting up.” I adjusted myself—she had felt me digging into her, but could she really get upset that she had turned me on?—and I grabbed her hand and brought her outside. We got onto my bike, and we rode over to the bar. Holding her hand again, I had her follow me up to the office, where Daryl and Charlie were already there, waiting on us. I slapped the guys on their backs. “Guys, this is Valerie. Savannah’s mom.” “No way,” Daryl said, gaping at her and giving her a once-over. “This bird is the mom of Turner’s bird? She’s too young for that. You had her when you were two or something?” Valerie gave a tight smile. “Adopted mother,” she said. I smacked Daryl upside the head. “Knock it off.” “Sorry,” he muttered.

“This fool is Daryl, and I’m Charlie.” He held out his hand. “I’m sorry. Daryl should’ve been named Richard instead.” Daryl frowned. “What are you talkin’ ’bout?” “Dick. You should’ve been named Dick.” Charlie smirked. I sighed. “Dick’s a nickname for Richard. You both need to can it with the jokes and get serious.” “Yessir.” Charlie saluted me. He had been in the military, just for a stint to be able to pay for his college. He was a hacker, and a damned good one at that. He was a major asset to the team. “Got it, boss.” Daryl nodded. That was as serious as he could get. Valerie shook her head. “You guys don’t have to be serious on my account. If you need to joke around to whatever, go for it.” “Good.” Daryl winked and pretended to wipe sweat from his brow. “I can’t ever be serious for long.” I wagged a finger at him. “He’s a clown, all right, but that’ll work in our favor. His jokes make others feel comfortable, and when they’re comfortable, they start talking.” “I make people feel at ease and make ’em give me their secrets.” Daryl winked again. “And if my jokes don’t work, I can turn on the charm and crack ’em that way.” “So, here’s the drill. Daryl, you’re gonna go in and work the people. I want you talking to everyone. Customers, servers, the cook if you can. Don’t leave out anyone.” “Got it.” “Charlie, you’re gonna do the snooping. The back area seemed to be watched, so you might wanna start there. Be careful, and don’t get caught. If you can, see if you can hack into their system. See what they’re hiding. Because even if they aren’t involved with Turner and Savannah going missing, they’re messin’ in something, and it’s always a good idea to have dirt on people.” “Dirt on people.” Valerie blinked. “You often try to find skeletons in closets so you can squeeze people and businesses?” “We might’ve turned in a few businesses once or twice,” I admitted. “I might not like the police or being a snitch, but it’s good to have them on our side.” “Yet you don’t want the police to help find Turner.” She crossed her arms. “Care to explain that?” “Because of the drug connection. And because the police aren’t always loyal friends. Some are

corrupt, and some don’t give a shit about anyone. Some are all about the law. It’s complicated.” “Everything with you is complicated,” she muttered. “Do the police know that Turner did drugs? Was he ever arrested?” “Turner was a lot of things, but he was also smart. He never got caught. He hid it well, just not well enough from me.” My lips curled downward. “’Til now.” “I just can’t believe you would be in bed with the cops and—” “Do you know how many motorcycle clubs get a bad rap?” I demanded. “We show up and we get the blame for whatever shit is going down, even if we don’t have a damn thing to do with it. Besides, the only businesses we turned in are ones that screwed us over. One time, this place—” “I don’t need the details.” She held up a hand, and I found myself staring at her fingers. She knew just where to touch me to make me beg, to make me groan. I shook my head. Now was not the time to get all hot and bothered. “You guys clear on the plan?” “All set.” Charlie nodded. “Clear and ready.” Daryl grinned, but there was that glint in his eyes. I always could count on him. He knew when to cool it down. “If they’ve got anything on our guys, we’ll sniff it out.” “All right. Let’s eat dinner and then you should go. Don’t want you two poking around before the after dinner crowd gets there. You’ll stick out too much if there aren’t enough people there.” I ordered a bunch of sandwich platters and ate my fill. Valerie picked at her food at first, but the more she talked with some of the guys, the more she seemed to relax, and then she started to eat. While she was relaxing, though, I was getting more anxious. I was a man of action. I wanted to be the one out there snooping and asking question. I had no issue with delegating work, but this was different. Turner was part of the club, and everyone wanted him back, but none more so than me. Once Daryl and Charlie finished eating, they slipped out the back. They were going to take separate cars and different routes there so they wouldn’t arrive at the same time. Valerie excused herself to the bathroom. I helped the other guys clean up the room then grabbed Hank by the arm. “You’ve travelled a lot. I want you to write me down a list of towns one hundred miles north of here.” Hank nodded. “Can do.” “Supposedly Turner and Savannah might’ve gone to a town that way. Got the info from Cowboy’s

Lasso. Not sure it’s good info, but—” “Gotta chase down every lead.” Hank nodded. “I miss it,” he muttered. “Camping out every night. Hitchhiking. It’s a rush, man. You gotta do it someday.” “Someday,” I agreed. I would never hitchhike across the country, though. But with my bike? Maybe. Would be great to explore everywhere. Valerie walked past the room and continued on down the hall, her cell to her ear. Now I wouldn’t want to go on a trip across the US like that by myself. If I had the right woman to go along with me… Might be the best way to get over our grief. Because I had a feeling that things weren’t going well for Turner and Savannah. And if we found them dead instead of alive, it was going to take a lot for us all to get through it. Leaving on a trip might actually be a smart way to try to sort through things. But Valerie was picking hope, and maybe I should try to take a page out of her book. I’m the one being realistic though. Hank nodded again and walked off. Probably going to track down an atlas. He wasn’t one much for phones or computers. He really did like to rough it old school style, although the one piece of technology he did enjoy was a bike, of course. Daryl was supposed to arrive at the bar in ten minutes, so I left to find Valerie. She was pacing in the hallway, her cell in her hand. She had just hung up. “Everything all right?” Her eyes were stormy. “Of course not. I can’t trust anyone to handle anything without needing to be babysat.” She sighed and rubbed her forehead. “It’s the restaurant. Heather Franklin, the one I left in charge so I can help track down Savannah? Well, she just called me to say that she screwed up and didn’t place an order for the meat we used to make our homemade meatballs. And we run a special every Tuesday night on spaghetti and meatballs. If we don’t have the meat, no meatballs, no happy costumers, no money.” She yanked on her hair. “I have to try to deal with this. Not that I want to, but…” “You can trust me.” She blinked as if only realizing now that she was talking to me and not fuming to herself. “The boys and I have got this. You go handle things with your restaurant.” “But—”

“Would Savannah want you to lose the restaurant over her?” Valerie’s eyes clouded over. “I’m not gonna lose the restaurant over this!” “I didn’t mean…” I sighed and held out my hand. “I just don’t think she would want you to risk anything for her? Not the restaurant, not your life.” Her expression softened. “I don’t care about myself. Only about her.” “And that’s the mom in you. But you’re also a business owner. Think about your employees. Obviously you’re the engine that keeps that place running because it’s already falling apart without you. You’re also a woman with needs. And…do you have sisters, brothers? What about parents? You’re also a friend, and—” “And I get your point.” She took my hand and squeezed it. “I should be able to handle everything over the phone. Hopefully. Is there an office or a room I can use?” “Sure.” I had her follow me to a small room that was mostly used for storage since the office was ready for the wiretap. I released her hand to grab a chair from the dining area and brought in her for her. “Take as long as you need. I gotta get set up with the wire so I can listen in. You do your thing. I’ll do mine.” She grabbed my hand and yanked hard, forcing me to lower down to her. Her other hand wrapped around my neck, and she kissed me hard. Just a quick kiss, but it was enough to get my blood flowing. “I’m counting on you,” she whispered. “I don’t like to delegate. I don’t like relying on others. Don’t let me down.” The last words were almost a plea. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t. I promise.” She kissed me again and settled down in the chair, already dialing someone. I left her to her work and rushed back to the office. I was just putting the ear piece in when I could hear Daryl’s voice loud and clear, “You hear me, boss?” “Yeah. You might wanna keep your voice down.” “Calm yourself. I’m just parking now.” The whir of the engine died. “All right. Walking in now.” A few of the others guys came in, so I opted to switch over so they could all listen in too. Daryl mingled with the other customers first, laughing and joking around, paying for drinks and

accepting drinks in return. I sure hoped he was nursing them. When Daryl got drunk, he tended to get a little belligerent. He used the angle that he was hoping to split up Turner and Savannah because he “wants Savannie all to myself.” He painted Turner as a punk, as a lousy asshole, as someone not deserving. All of the ladies ate it up and gushed about how “Savannie” should open up her eyes and get with him, but none of them knew where she was. The guys didn’t understand why Daryl didn’t just get with her. Who cared if she was with another guy? I shook my head at that. If there was one thing I hated, it was cheating. Sure, I might only be with a woman for a night or two, but during that time, I was a one-woman man. Didn’t loyalty mean anything to anyone anymore? Next, Daryl started to flirt with a few of the waitresses. The night seemed to be hopping—at times it was so loud that I couldn’t catch every word Daryl was saying, let alone the person he was talking too—but the waitresses made time for him. One mentioned that Savannah did seem like she was too good for Turner. “I wouldn’t serve her any alcohol. Some of the others might but not me. Got a few kids back at home that need me to have this job so I can buy them food. Can’t risk doing anything shady. Anyhow, when they sat in my section one time, and Turner realized I wouldn’t get her a beer, he threw a fit. Tried to get me fired. This was two months ago. The owner actually came out and told him to leave, but Turner and Savannah came back the next night, and no one batted an eye or made him leave.” I grimaced. Even when Turner had been on drugs he hadn’t acted like that, not ever. Drugs could change someone’s personality, but he had tended to be more full of himself than anything. Not angry. Stress. Maybe that was the cause of his anger. And fear. Worry. If he was dealing for shady characters, if he had double-crossed them or was considering to pull a fast one, that could make him anxious. It could also explain why he felt the need to just drop off the face of the earth. “See? That’s why he shouldn’t be allowed ’round here. Or be with Savannah.” Daryl sounded plain disgusted. “He hasn’t been around lately at least,” the waitress said, sounding relieved. “She hasn’t either.” Daryl frowned. “I swear I’m not a stalker. It’s my first time being here. I heard Savannah came here, and I was hoping to see her, to be honest. Wanted to buy her food and… What’s the smile for?” “‘Buy her food’? Are you kidding me?” “Well, like you said, she’s underage… Legal, but no drinky drinky.” “Look. I wasn’t born yesterday. I know what goes on, and… What you wanna do is your business. Don’t involve me any.”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you, and I know you’re busy. It’s just… Savannie… Savannah… she’s a good girl. She deserves better than him, and I just wanna make sure she’s all right.” There was a slight pause, and then the waitress said, “She and I talked a few times, on the very rare occasions when she came without Turner. She’s a good kid, but she’s hung up on the guy. I don’t know if it’s because he was her first lay, or what, but she’s kinda stuck on him in a bad way. She’s not gonna dump him for you. If it makes you feel any better, she’s not gonna dump him for anyone else either. She reminds me a lot of my best friend actually. They’re both gone over a guy who is bad news and can’t see it.” “Why is it that assholes always end up with the girls?” Daryl grumbled. I had to smirk. As if Daryl wasn’t one of those assholes himself. And I meant that with love. A few of the others guys laughed too. “Nice guys always finish last,” Daryl complained. A strange sound filtered over the wire. A snort maybe? “Don’t kid yourself. You aren’t one of the good ones.” The waitress laughed. “Take some advice and find another girl.” “What about you?” Daryl asked smoothly. “Not gonna happen. I have kids, remember? Sure that does fit the kind of girl you’re looking for.” “Hey, I like kids,” he protested. “Here. Have a drink later on me.” “But why?” “You have kids, remember? Sure they drove you to wanna drink at some point. And I bet you don’t take a lot of time for yourself.” “I don’t.” She might have said something else, but there was a sudden cheer in the background that drowned out her words. “What’s going on?” I risked asking Daryl through the small earbud he had. “Shake that ass!” he yelled then whispered for me, “Girl dancing on table just took off her shirt.” Should’ve guessed. Daryl went and talked to a few other people who just entered the bar, but they didn’t know anything about Turner or Savannah.

“Gonna try the bartenders next,” Daryl whispered. It was quitter now, and I figured he was in the bathroom. The distinct sound of piss came over the wire. Yeah, bathroom all right. Gross. “Might have to wait, though,” he continued, “’til closer to closing. Too many people at the bar for me to even get near them right now.” Considering that he wouldn’t have anything of note to listen in on, I switched over to Charlie. “How’s it going?” “Security is tighter than an asshole,” Charlie mumbled. “Sorry. Is Valerie listening in?” “Not right this second.” “Yeah, tighter than an asshole. Too many guards. They aren’t typical bouncers. I think they’re packing. This place definitely has a secret.” “Be careful. If you can’t snoop, don’t worry about it. It’s not worth risking your life over.” “Copy that. I’m trying to hack into their system, but it’s taking me some time.” “Can’t you hack them from here?” one of my guys asked, and I repeated the question for Charlie. “Nope. Have to be on site.” I let him get back to work, not wanting to disrupt his concentration. The more we dug our claws into this place, the more I didn’t like it. The idea that their guards were packing heat at a place that served alcohol made my skin crawl. Drinking and guns should never coexist. What were those assholes up to? Did it have anything to do with Turner and Savannah? Did it have a connection to the drugs Turner had stashed away? If Turner had double-crossed someone, he might be dead. If he had run away from someone, he might’ve been found. If he gotten himself into trouble, why hadn’t he come to me and asked for help? He should’ve realized I would have his back. He was part of the Fate’s Talons. He was one of us. Maybe I had been too hard on him. Maybe I had pushed him too hard to get cleaned up. Maybe he should’ve gone to rehab instead of just using me as his sponsor. After all, I did weed a few times back in the day. I had never done any of the hard stuff. I hadn’t gone through what he had, not the drugs or the abusive bullshit he had to try to overcome. He hadn’t needed me as a mentor. He needed more help than I could’ve ever given him. He needed a real sponsor and maybe a shrink too.

I tried to do everything for my boys. My family meant everything to me. If someone screwed with us, we handled it as a team. That was the real reason why we would sometimes be police informants—to take down our enemies. It was the safest way to do it with minimal risk to my guys. But calling in the police here when we knew for a fact that guns were involved and with the innocents at the bar, it was just big of a threat. I wouldn’t gamble innocent lives. We were on our own. “Shit. I’m locked out. I can’t find a way in.” Charlie’s voice sounded in disbelief. “They got tighter security going on than the military. What the fuck?” “Get out of there,” I ordered. I switched back to Daryl. The bar still sounded loud and obnoxious in the background. “How’s it going?” “Going,” he muttered, then said louder, “You sure I can’t buy you a drink?” “I’m working.” “What about after you punch out?” “I don’t date customers.” “I haven’t bought anything here.” “Just because you haven’t had me ring you up—” “Oh, yeah, talk dirty to me.” I couldn’t hear her reaction. “Get outta there, Daryl,” I ordered. “But I only just started to talk to—” “You heard me.” He grumbled, taking his time saying good bye to practically everyone in the joint, before heeding my advice. Only after I could hear the sound of his car, and Charlie’s too, did I turn off the system. My mind was racing. We hadn’t learned much, but we also had learned something. That bar was definitely a front, but for what? A gang? Drugs? Weapons? Valerie came into the room, her frown tugging at me, causing my stomach to twist into knots. “Everything all right with your restaurant?” I asked, standing and walking over to her.

She glanced around me to the equipment. “They’re done already? What did they find out?” I stared at the guys then the door, and they nodded and left us in peace without my having to ask them to go. “Charlie couldn’t hack in, and he couldn’t do much snooping either.” “Too guarded.” She pursed her lips. “Wasn’t just me they wanted to keep out.” “Nope. Your daughter had a waitress for a friend, but we didn’t learn a whole lot.” “From the way you talked up Charlie, he should’ve been able to hack in. So they have someone really good on their side, and that they need someone that good says plenty.” “You got it. And, Valerie, before you even think about going back there,” I began. “Who me?” she asked innocently. “Their guards have guns.” Her face drained, making her look like a vampire. “That’s not good,” she whispered. “No.” I wrapped my arms around her and kissed the top of her head. “Don’t worry, though. I’ll keep you safe.” She pulled away. “I’m not worried about me.” “I know. Maybe I should’ve said one less worry for you.” A teensy smile appeared on her lips, so small I might’ve been imagining it. “I think I fixed everything with the restaurant. It’s amazing how much people rely on you to do things and how much things can fall apart if you aren’t there to do them yourself.” “That’s why you’re the boss. You can juggle everything.” “Yeah, well, it’s also why I haven’t taken a vacation ever.” “Ever? Not even when you were a waitress?” “I couldn’t afford to. I needed the money. And I’m kinda a workaholic so there’s that. I just wish Savannah shared my work ethic. She’s been the full-time dishwasher at the restaurant for years, ever since she dropped out of high school. I want to bump her up to being a waitress, but I don’t think I can trust her to do a good enough job. She has her head in the clouds. When she wants something, when she’s motivated, she’s the hardest worker there ever was, but when she’s unmotivated, forget about it.” Valerie rubbed the back of her neck. “Now what?” “We wait for the guys to return, and then I’m gonna take you back to my place.”

Valerie grimaced. “I feel like we failed.” “We haven’t, and we didn’t,” I said firmly, retaking her into my arms. She stared up at me, her hands on my shoulders. “Maybe I could go back and—” My grip on her tightened protectively. “And what, Valerie?” “I don’t know!” she exploded. “I feel like we’re not doing enough.” “Believe me. We’re doing everything we can.” I leveled her a frank stare. “Please promise me, Valerie, that you won’t go back to the bar alone.” Her lips twisted into a beautiful pout. I just wanted to kiss her senseless, but I refrained somehow. “If something should happen to you, I wouldn’t forgive myself.” Her pout deepened, and she wiggled in my arms. “You don’t even really know me.” “Maybe not as well as I would like to, but that doesn’t mean I want you to go missing too.” She wormed her way free. “I’m not a child,” she hissed. “I’m not treating you like one. For Christ’s sake, Valerie, they have guns!” She paled at that. “I know.” “And we don’t know for certain that they’re involved. We shouldn’t make a move until we know for certain. The last thing I want is for my guys to have their lives taken from them for no good reason.” She nodded and blinked rapidly. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m just anxious.” “Completely understandable.” “How soon until they’ll get back?” “Maybe ten minutes.” Valerie gave me a tiny smile. “I’ll get ready to go.” She left to gather her things, not that she had much. She passed by Hank as he strolled in. I held a finger to my lips and waited for her to be far enough away for him to talk.

He cleared his throat. “Only one place it could be. A small town. Called Douglastown. Nothing else it could be.” “You’ve been there before?” Hank shook his head. “Nope, but I did a little digging. It’s near a tourist trap.” “So there’s a lot of hotels and motels, then.” I rubbed my chin. He nodded. “I would think so. Shady places, most like. All tourist traps are like that. Wanna make you stop and then rob ya.” “Not all are like that.” “When they’re in the middle of nowhere they are.” I wasn’t gonna argue with him. “Might you fancy a look around?” Hank grinned. “I’ve been itching for a trip the past few weeks. Would love to. Thought you would never ask.” “Call me immediately if you see signs of either of them.” “Will do.” Hank saluted with his fingers and made off. Daryl and Charlie arrived just as Hank was pulling out. I greeted them, told them to have a few beers —although Daryl had sure acted like he had some there, his breath didn’t stink any. He had only pretended to drink there, and I appreciated that he managed to keep his mind clear without the haze of alcohol to influence it. Valerie silently came over to me, and we left. Once we arrived, I thought she would like to go right to sleep, but she took me by the hand and lead me to the bedroom. I wasn’t going to complain any, and soon, I wasn’t sure which of us was screaming louder. The way she cried out my name when she came did something to me. There was a connection between us. The only question was whether or not it would last. Because, the thing was, I was starting to think that maybe I did want it to last. It was something I hadn’t even considered with any other woman. And it terrified me almost as much as I was terrified for Turner and Savannah.

Chapter Eleven Valerie

I was a bundle of nerves. Working out the kinks with the restaurant made me feel like things were almost back to normal. I even went ahead and did some scheduling for items for next week just for a little peace of mind. Because I honestly felt like I was going out of my mind. All I wanted was my daughter back, safe and sound, without any injuries or drug addictions or anything else. Was that too much to ask? Seeing the extent to which Garrick’s guys were willing to go, the lengths they would take to try to find their boy and my daughter warmed me up to them. I never thought I would be here, in their headquarters. I always rolled my eyes whenever Turner had talked about Fate’s Talons. Now I understood why people joined motorcycle clubs. It really was like a second family. And in between my phone calls, a few came up to ask me if I needed anything—water, beer, food—if they could get me a chair—I was pacing, too anxious to sit down—and if I was all right. It made me feel welcome, like they thought I belonged. A few girlfriends or wives were over, so I wasn’t the only female around, and everything just helped to settle me down a little. After learning about the guards having guns, any sense of ease that I might’ve had was shattered. I had given those same guards lip. I had talked back to them. I hadn’t been threatened, but I had come close. If Garrick hadn’t showed up, what might have happened? I definitely dialed it back a bit when he came over. I might’ve gotten myself killed. I was trembling the whole ride back to Garrick’s place, and I needed him. Bringing him to the bedroom had been an impulse. My intention had only been for us to sleep together—as in sleep together, actually sleep—but then I wanted a good night kiss, and one turned to three, turned into a make-out session, turned into something more. Was it just sex? I wasn’t so sure anymore. It wasn’t fucking, that I knew. It was more than that. It set my soul on fire, made my body all tingly. It was amazing, mind blowing. It made me feel safe. Which I desperately needed. I so needed to feel safe. But it also made me feel guilty. What if Savannah was in danger? What if she was hurt? What if she was somewhere, right this moment, crying and calling out for me?

And here I was, having sex. In a way, the sex felt life affirming. After the danger I had unknowingly walked into—the armed guards—I wanted to do something that put my stamp on my life, that proved I was the one in charge. Because with the whole Savannah and Turner situation, I felt anything but in charge. We fell asleep in each other’s arms, and I woke up a few times during the night to find his arm still wrapped around me. And for those brief moments, when I first stirred and felt his embrace, I felt happy. Not just safe. Happy. The guilt kicked back in again. I liked this man. I wanted to know more about him. I wanted to see who exactly he was outside of the crazy frantic bustle to find our people. What did he want out of life? What were his hopes and dreams? Would he ever settle down? Somehow, for me, he had already come to be more than just a one-night stand. I had only fancied myself in love once. The guy had seemed like a keeper at first, but then, the closer we became, the more he relaxed around me until he finally let his true colors show, and, man, were they ugly colors. Love. What was I thinking? I was moving way too fast! I didn’t love Garrick, but the thing was, I could see myself falling for him if I wasn’t careful. Should I be careful, though? If Savannah’s disappearance showed anything, it was that life was short, and you should do what you could to be happy for as long as possible. Life was short. My cell buzzed, and I stirred, reaching for it. Garrick was still asleep, so I slipped out of the covers and left the room, not wanting to disturb him. It was early, very early. I blinked a few times to be able to see who was calling. Georgia Henderson.

“Hello?” I answered. “Valerie? You still looking for your girl?” “Yes, I am.” I gripped the cell phone until it dug into my palms. “Have you seen her?” “No, I haven’t, but there is a black car here.” “Okay…” I wasn’t sure what she was getting at. “I’ve seen it before a few times. Always late at night. I don’t sleep a lot. I have insomnia, and sometimes I like to look out my window at the stars. Well, like I said, I’ve seen that car before, and I

know I’ve seen Turner go on down and talk to whoever is in the car. I’ve never seen the people in the car, and they just pulled up now. Not sure what exactly they’re doing. Should I call the police?” “Can you see the license plate?” “The car is backed in. I can’t see the plate.” “Can you take a picture of the car? What year and make and model is it?” “Oh dear. Hold on.” There was fumbling. “Okay. I took a few pictures. Without the flash. I don’t want them to see me. And I can’t tell the year and everything just by looking at a car. Sorry. It is black though.” “Thanks.” I grimaced. Not a whole lot to go by. “Should I call the—oh, wait. They’re leaving. Strange. They didn’t get out of the car or anything. Just parked, took a look, and now they’re gone.” “Okay.” My mind raced. What could I do? What should I do with this information? “Do you feel safe?” “Oh, dear, no one is gonna bother little old me. If you don’t want me to call the police, I won’t. It won’t bother me none. I try to keep out of messes.” As long as she knew what the mess was. She was a gossip, that was for sure. “I’m gonna stop by,” I said, making up my mind on the spot. If they came back, I could tail them. At least it would give me something to do. I felt like I was going to go stir crazy if I had to have an unproductive day. As a restaurant owner, I never had a moment to myself, and even when it was off hours, there was still plenty to do. This sitting around, hoping, and waiting thing was wearing on me. “Are you—” I hung up. Garrick was still sleeping, and I glanced at the time on my cell. It was even earlier than I thought it was. Four in the morning. Ugh. After leaving a note for Garrick, I got in my car and hightailed it over to Turner’s apartment. I called Georgia the moment I parked to make sure the car in question hadn’t returned. “No. I honestly thought the car wouldn’t show up since Turner’s gone away, or else I would’ve mentioned it to you earlier,” she said. “No worries,” I assured her.

“I’m gonna call you right back if I see them.” “Thank you.” She hung up first this time. It only took me five minutes before I was bored already. Guess I wasn’t meant for a stakeout. Having nothing else better to do, I went to Turner’s apartment. Really, it was silly to, since I was pretty sure Garrick had locked it, and I didn’t know how to pick a lock. But the door was ajar. My mouth dry, my chest tight, I pushed open the door. The place was wrecked. Ransacked, clothes all over the place, table and chairs upturned. The bathroom was even worse. No one thing remained in the cabinet under the sink. The cabinet behind the mirror had also been emptied, the contents of both scattered all over the floor. A shampoo bottle had broken, and the soap drenched the floor. Someone had come here. Looking for the drugs? Or looking for money? Freaked out, I started to call Garrick as I left the apartment, but then Georgia was calling. “They’re out front again,” she hissed. I dashed back to my car, a hand up to help cover my face so they couldn’t see me. Before I could climb in, though, they were already driving away. They hadn’t parked this time—just a drive by. I did manage to get a look at the passenger, and I could’ve sworn he was one of the guards who gave me lip at the bar. I tried to tail them, but as soon as they slowly drove through the parking lot, they took off at a blazing speed. Traffic laws be damned, I tore after them, but the town was starting to wake up, and I got caught behind traffic, and soon their taillights disappeared from view. I tried to find them again, but I had lost them. Feeling defeated, I started back toward Garrick’s loft. I was still a few miles away when my phone dinged from a text. Probably about the restaurant. I pulled over just in case, and thank fuck that I did. Because the text was from Savannah! I’m safe, Mom, but I wanna come home.

Tears filled my eyes, blurring the words. I cried and cried and cried, the hardest I ever cried in my life. My girl was alive. She was safe. But why couldn’t she just come home if she wanted to? I wiped away my tears and did my best to compose myself, reading and rereading the text a hundred times. Only once I was sure that I had myself together did I call her. Maybe she couldn’t talk. Maybe she wouldn’t answer. Maybe she had texted instead of calling me for a reason. But she picked up. “Mom?” Hearing her call me that almost made me burst into tears again. “Savannah. Honey. Are you all right? Where are you?” My voice shook, but I sounded comforting, at least I thought and hoped I did. She burst into tears. Oh no. It took everything in me not to cry too. Was she hurt? Had Turner hit her? Had bad guys come after them? I had so many questions, but I bottled them all up inside. The last thing I wanted to do was to make her stressed out. I wanted her to feel safe while talking to me. I wanted her to take her time telling me what happened. I wasn’t going to demand answers. So I made comforting noises and whispered to her that it was all right, all while hoping I was helping her feel better and praying I wasn’t lying to her. “You’re all right,” I repeated for the twentieth time. “You’re all right.” “Mom…” She sniffled. “Take your time,” I said. “Take a deep breath.” She listened. “Another one,” I coached. She did. “Do you feel any better?” Fresh tears all over again. Damn it. Me and my big mouth.

It took me even longer to get her to calm down again, but that didn’t matter. I was just thrilled to hear her, even if she was crying. Savannah was alive! She might not be happy, but she was all right! When she seemed to be calming down once more, I ventured asking, “Where are you?” “Douglastown,” she said, still sniffling but not outright crying anymore. “Moonshine Motel. Mom, you can’t tell anyone where I am, though. It’s not safe. I…I have to go.” And she hung up. I immediately dialed her back, but she didn’t answer. I sent her text after text, but she didn’t reply. Douglastown, huh? Moonshine Motel. I sent Garrick a few texts. I’m all right. Then, Savannah texted me. She’s all right…for now. And then, She’s at Moonshine Motel in Douglastown. Going now. I was near the highway. There wasn’t a point in going back to his place to get him. He could meet me there. I couldn’t wait. I had to get to Savannah.

Chapter Twelve Garrick

When I woke to find my arms empty, I shot right up out of bed. Where was Valerie? My bed felt so cold without her. I checked the bathroom, calling out for her, feeling like a fool. I wasn’t the kind of guy to be whipped, but with Turner and Savannah being gone, maybe hurt or even killed, I wasn’t about to take any chances. I was just about to enter the kitchen when my phone rang. Hank. “What did you find?” Hell, did he work fast. Had to love that about him. “I went around to just about every fucking hotel and motel there was. Even scooped out a few shacks in case they were laying up in one of ’em.” “And?” I demanded. Was he only calling to say it had been a dead end? “The girl was seen at a motel called Moonshine Motel.” I exhaled a sigh of relief. “What about Turner?” “No one mentioned him.” “Stick around but lay low,” I ordered. “Don’t put your neck out on the line. We’ll be up quick as we can.” “Will do.” I hung up and continued into the kitchen. There was a note from Valerie. She’d gone over to Turner’s place. I tried calling her, but my phone was acting up, and the call wouldn’t go through. Texts wouldn’t either. Great. My cell did this every so often, and I always meant to get it looked at but never made time for it. I hightailed it over to Turner’s. I’d just tell her in person, only Valerie’s car wasn’t out front. Didn’t matter. I still ran up to Turner’s apartment anyway. The sight of the place being ransacked made my blood run like ice through my veins. Had Valerie been here when the fuckers who messed with the

place still been here? Had they taken her? Was she all right? As if by magic, a text came through form Valerie. I’m all right. Thank God. I kneeled down in all of the crap on the floor. She was all right. All of the worry and dread in my stomach just let go. I didn’t know how Savannah and Turner were doing, but at least Valerie was all right because if she hadn’t been, heads would roll. She had found a way beneath my defenses. She wasn’t just a one-night stand. She wasn’t just a woman I wanted to fuck a couple of times before sending her away. Valerie wasn’t meant for that. She was meant for something more. I wanted to be a part of her life—a major part. I tried calling her, but my phone began acting up again. That was all right. I’d get ahold of her. The rest of the apartment looked the same—like someone had unleashed a tornado inside of it. I had no idea if anything had been taken, but if someone had been looking for the drugs, they wouldn’t have found it. Unless Turner had stashes in other hiding places. Which wasn’t exactly smart. Honestly, the amount I had found hadn’t been as big as it could’ve been. A little more than for recreational use, but not enough to go out and sell. Just what was Turner’s endgame? The puzzle was missing way too many pieces. I had a feeling that Turner was just a pawn in someone else’s game, and if I could find the kingpin, I would have the complete picture. Fleetingly, I thought about calling the police and telling the police they might want to scoop out the bar, but if I was wrong and the bar was mixed up in something else altogether, it might just complicate things further, and if they were involved, I didn’t want to make them go underground. What if Turner had ditched Savannah, and that was why he hadn’t been seen at the motel? But why wouldn’t Savannah have come home? Then again, if he stranded her without money or a cell, she’d have no way to get back home outside of hitchhiking. Yet she was at a motel. If she was staying there, that meant money, right? Man, I was giving myself a headache. I walked over to the window and glanced out. A black car turned into the parking lot. I didn’t think much about it, honestly, not until I walked out of Turner’s apartment and spied a woman staring at the car outside a window. She turned toward me, eyes wide, her gaze shifting from me to the room I just left. “Who are you?” she demanded. “A friend of Turner’s.” Her eyes narrowed, and I could see her mind churning.

“And a friend of Savannah’s mom.” Her gaze relaxed ever so slightly. “What the girl’s mom’s name?” I had to suppress a laugh that she was quizzing me. “Valerie.” Just saying her name made me want to smile. She snorted and turned back to the window, nodding at the car. “Seen it a few times, like I told Valerie.” “Connected to Turner?” “Seems to me. They give me the creeps. Always coming at night.” “It’s not night now.” “No. Makes me even more nervous.” “You just go back to bed. I’ll take it from here.” The woman eyed me. “Might not wanna get involved,” she warned me. “I’m already involved.” She tilted her head and then nodded. “I see that. I didn’t know the girl that well, but her mom cares enough about her for me to start. I don’t want nothing to happen to either of them.” “Neither do I.” “I see that too, but sometimes biting off more than you can chew can lead to bullet holes.” I laughed. The car made one loop around so far, driving real slow. What were they looking for? Had they been the ones behind the ransacking? Were they hoping Turner would show up back here? “You should sew that quote. Knit it or whatever the term is.” “I would, but the people who need to read it won’t take it to heart. Might not even be able to read.” I grimaced. “Just don’t stick your neck too far out.” “You too,” she called as I raced down the steps. I darted out of the door just as the black car made another loop around. A Mercedes Benz. Not a badlooking car, actually. Kind of sleek.

I tried to make my nonchalant way back to my car, but the black car stopped right in front of me, blocking me. “Excuse me,” I said pleasantly, trying to avoid eye contact and yet scoop them out at the same time. “Who the hell are you?” the passenger asked. Since they were talking to me, I saw no reason not to look their way. They had already spotted me already. The driver was staring straight ahead, one hand on the wheel. Even though he didn’t seem to be paying me attention, I had the feeling he didn’t miss much. He had a red moustache, but the hair on top of his head was brown. The passenger had a hard look to him, added by the scar down the side of his face. Maybe from a knife fight. The passenger glared at me. “I asked you a question.” “I’m nobody,” I said easily. “You’d better start talking,” the passenger demanded. “You’re Garrick Repton, aren’t you?” the driver said, still not looking my way. “Maybe. Who’s asking?” “We have some questions for you. About your boy Turner.” I shook my head. “Can’t talk right now, fellas. I’m on my way—” “You’re gonna make time.” The passenger got out. I wasn’t the least bit intimidated. The guy might have that scar, but I had twenty pounds on him. I could take him. But then he flashed me something, and I got into the backseat of his car without another word. Fortunately, our talk didn’t last too long, and the moment I climbed out of their car, they sped away. I didn’t bother to watch them leave or see where they were heading. Instead, I rushed back to my loft. Valerie wasn’t there. Damn. I really hoped she was. Where was she? I’m all right, her last text had said.

My cell still wasn’t cooperating. Damn it. Too fucking bad on my part that I hadn’t memorized her number. I couldn’t call her from one of the guys’ cells. Maybe something was hope with her restaurant. I kind of hoped that was the case and that it wasn’t. She was dealing with enough shit that she didn’t need to have more piled on her. I left her a note that explained what I had learned and asked her to call me as soon as she could. Even when my phone was acting up like it was, it tended to still receive calls at least. Riding like the devil was at my back, I motored it toward my bar and the Fate’s Talons’ headquarters. But then I got a phone call, one that changed my life, and not for the better.

Chapter Thirteen Valerie

My stomach was churning like mad, so badly that I almost thought I would have to pull over to be sick. While I was thrilled that I would be seeing Savannah soon, the way our last conversation ended left me on edge. At a red light, I grabbed my phone. A few of my texts hadn’t gone through. Great. Before I could try to resend them, the car behind me honked, and I slammed down on the gas to jolt forward. I merged onto the highway and managed to call Savannah as I wove between traffic, driving a good fifteen to twenty above the posted speed limit. She didn’t answer. Was Turner holding her somewhere against her will? I wanna come home, she had texted, which suggested that she couldn’t come home, right? Or else she would’ve just come home. I want you to come home too. Or maybe Turner wasn’t the bad guy in all of this. Maybe someone was holding them both against their wills. I appreciated Garrick telling me Turner’s backstory. Even though I hadn’t liked him from the start, I was a firm believer that everyone deserved a second chance. Even Savannah’s birth mom? Okay…maybe I wasn’t as firm of a believer as I liked to think I was, but if Turner really did turn his life around, if he really did love Savannah, if he was trying to help her out of whatever situation they were in, I would change my mind on him so fast I would get whiplash. But the drugs in his apartment… Maybe they had been planted there. Maybe someone from Turner’s past didn’t like that he was clean. Maybe they hunted him down…but for what? Yeah right, Valerie. You know that’s not the case. Deep down, I had a hunch that this was all Turner’s fault, but was that just my hope for both Savannah and Garrick? He had such hopes in the boy, and I hated to think that they were misplaced, but that was exactly what I was thinking. Turner had struck me as bad news right from the start. I prided myself on being a good judge of character. One time, shortly after I acquired the restaurant, I had been on-site to work out an issue between the

cook and the meat packager when I spied two men enter the place. They were rough and tough looking, and they kept looking around. They asked for a table in the corner, and my hostess granted it to them. Now, honestly, I had no reason to take an interest in them, but I did, and I broke off my conversation to see to them personally. I asked if they needed something to drink. They brushed me off. No big deal. I always tried to see to every table when I was at the restaurant, to try to make sure everyone was having a good time, and I had learned when exactly was a good time to approach a table so that they weren’t in the middle of eating and could answer me. So I smiled and nodded and told them to feel free to flag me down if they needed anything. And I went rounds with the other tables but kept an eye on them. And it was a good thing I did because I witnessed a drug deal. No lie. I discretely told their waiter to purposely delay them—their food, their drinks, their bill—and called the police on them. I guess you could call me an informant too. No way was I going to allow drug deals to happen at my restaurant. The very next day, two more guys showed up, and they were just as rough and tough looking as the previous two guys, but for some reason, these ones didn’t send off any signals to me, and they soon became regulars. I wasn’t ageist, racist, sexist or anything like that. I would serve anyone, except for those who might pose a threat to my other customers, and yes, that included drugs. My gut warned me about Turner right from the start, but Savannah hadn’t listened, and I feared that if I went too hard at her against him, that she would cling to him all the more. Maybe I should’ve done more, said more, did something, anything to keep her away from him. Could all of this have been avoided if I had just been a better mother? Had I been clouded by my fears and worries that I wasn’t fit to be her mother because we were only eight years apart? All the time, people cast us sideway glances when they learned I was her daughter, and I knew she saw it too. I wanted to do right by her always, but I also knew that sometimes kids had to make mistakes so they could learn. Had I given her too long of a leash that it turned into a noose? When was it up to the child to step up and take responsibility for their actions? Yes, Savannah was nineteen, she technically wasn’t considered a child, but in my mind, she still needed to be protected. The world had taken so much from her and hadn’t given her nearly enough back. She was still trying to find her place in this world, and I wanted to give her a real shot at working at the restaurant, but I wasn’t sure if she was ready for it. I was babying her. I was holding her back. In some areas—like dating—I was giving her too much leeway for fear that she would just rebel and do what she wanted anyway, and in others—like work

—I was not letting her stand on her own two feet for fear she wouldn’t do right by me, by my business, and by her too. Maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a mom, but I had never been one before, and I knew when I took her in that it wouldn’t be easy. I was rolling with the punches as they came, but it was time to take off the kid gloves and to go for it. Go for broke. I would not rest until Savannah was safely home. Considering how fast I was going, it only took me about an hour to reach Douglastown, and another ten minutes to find the motel. So far, so good. I parked in the back of the parking lot. The motel was a dump. It looked like it hadn’t been renovated since the forties. It badly needed repairs and paint and to be fumigated. I almost stepped on a cockroach when I stepped out of my car. The shock of seeing the huge, swift bug had me sitting back down in my seat. Maybe I should find out what apartment she was in. I didn’t want to be seen snooping around and be caught and captured myself. This was a rescue mission. I couldn’t afford mistakes. But I also wanted to find Savannah as much as possible. I tried calling her again. No answer. I tried calling Garrick. No answer there either. So I texted Savannah. I’m here. At the motel. What room are you in? I held my breath and waited. What if she had been blindfolded and didn’t know? But she did know the city and the motel name. Please let her know the room number too. A minute passed. Two. Five. Forget this. I didn’t come all the way here to wait. I’d find the receptionist, ask if Savannah or Turner had come here, and— My phone vibrated. Room 268. I bolted out of my car. The rooms nearby were in the 90s, so I found stairs and climbed them two at a time and up another flight to reach the 200s. My fingers curled around the knob, and I braced for it to not turn, but it did. It opened, and Savannah was there, a little dirty and thinner than I last saw her, but alive and hugging me, and it felt so amazing.

“Mom,” she whispered in my ear. I tensed. Why was she whispering? She trembling in my arms and crying, and I couldn’t get another word out of her. I tried to pull her out of the room, so we could make it to my car and get the hell out of here, and she was slowly walking with me, dragging her feet—was she hurt? Limping? I couldn’t tell—but we were half out the door when Turner came. His face, oh God, his face. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. Terrifying and nasty and vindictive and evil. All twisted up. The handsome guy who had swept Savannah off her feet was gone. And even worse, he had a gun. He waved it aloft, and Savannah, still crying, began to whimper, released me, and slumped her way back inside the room. I rushed toward Turner, but he easily threw me back so hard that I stumbled and fell onto my ass. He kicked the door shut behind him and pointed the gun at me. What the fuck was going on? Had Turner lost his mind? I jumped to my feet. “Let us go, Turner,” I demanded. He laughed and waved the gun around. “I don’t think you understand how this works.” Turner leveled the gun at my forehead. “As long as I hold this, you do what I say.” “I don’t take orders from a wannabe gangster,” I spat. Maybe it was stupid to argue with him, to call him names, but I was livid. He had a gun. He had threatened my daughter. He was threatening me. I would not cower. I had come here to fight for my daughter, and fight I would. He brought his arm down, trying to hit me with the gun, but I ducked and jerked to the side. I tried to sweep my leg out so that he would fall, but he grabbed me. I kicked and screamed and punched and slapped, but it didn’t matter. He easily overpowered me, throwing me onto a chair and punching me in the temple so hard that my vision darkened. Before I could react, he was tying me to the chair. I fought him as best I could, but it made no difference, and soon I was bound hand and foot. The entire time, Savannah was crying, her words hardly comprehensibly. “Turner, Turner, please. Stop this. Don’t! Don’t hurt her!” He ignored her, tying another knot. I’d never get free.

“Just let us go. Please. Turner…” My heart broke, listening to her panic. “I’m fine,” I told her. Turner backhanded me. “Shut up.” I spat blood at him. “You shut up.” The next slap was so hard that my vision spotted again. “You listen here.” He held up the gun. “I’m the one in charge. You do what I say, and right now, I say that you should shut up.” He turned toward Savannah. “And that includes you.” “But, Turner—” “But nothing,” he snapped. “Why are you doing this?” I mumbled. My cheek hurt. My mouth was filling with blood, and my eye was swelling. He had no problem hitting a lady, and he sure did hit hard. “You think I’m gonna tell you everything?” He snorted, sounding like a pig. “I’m gonna solve all my problems.” Turner kneeled down in front of me. “Actually, you’re gonna solve all my problems.” I shifted to try to get away from him, and my cell dug into my thigh through my pocket. Garrick. Did he get my texts? Was he on his way? Maybe I should try to get Turner to keep on talking and force him to stay here until Garrick arrived. Then again, he was waving that gun around. “How can I solve your problems?” I asked. My heart was pounding so loudly that my chest ached almost as much as my face did. “I’ve seen you.” He sneered. “You’re nothing but a whore. Like mother, like daughter.” My jaw dropped. “Don’t you dare—” “Your daughter goes missing, and what do you do? Fuck Garrick multiple times.” My cheeks grew bright red, and I couldn’t look at Savannah. What must she think of me? “You thought so lowly of your own daughter for being with me, for being with a loser in a motorcycle club, and what do you do? You fuck the leader.” Turner stood, threw back his head, and roared with laughter. “Not so innocent, are you? Why are you still such a stuck-up bitch? Wasn’t Garrick good enough for you?” He leaned in real close, and I tried to squirm away from him, but the ties were too tight. “He doesn’t care about you, you know. He goes through women like he goes through beers. One

after the other. Pounds them down and calls for another round. Likes variety, he does.” “Leave her alone!” Savannah’s voice is so shrill I can hardly recognize it. I looked at her and tried to discretely shake my head to warn her, but she wasn’t paying me any attention. “I’ve heard you two fight.” Turner laughed some more and walked over to Savannah, touching her shoulder and running his hand down her arm. She jerked away from him, but he seized onto her wrist. “You told her a couple of times she needed to get laid. Doesn’t it bother you that she waited until you went missing to do it? She gave you shit for being with me, and now look at her.” “She’s tied to a chair because of you!” “After having fucked the leader of Fate’s Talons!” “You’re…” Savannah took a shaky breath and burst into tears all over again. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. “Yes, I fucked Garrick, and he’s gonna come and—” “Oh. Oh, ho, ho.” Turner released Savannah and walked back over to me. “Garrick’s gonna save the day, all right, but it’s not gonna be to save you.” He grabbed my phone out of my pocket. “Looks like someone didn’t realize that the drive here is one huge dead zone. Not all of your texts went through. Garrick doesn’t know you’re here.” My blood ran cold. Turner brought his face close toward mine. “I—” I leaned forward and bit him. He dropped my phone, brought up his hand, and lowered the gun. It hit the side of my head, and my world plunged into darkness.

Chapter Fourteen Garrick

My cell displayed Turner’s name. After all this fucking time, the fucking prick was calling me. Like it was just a regular day. Like he hadn’t dropped off the face of the earth. I careened over to the side of the road to park and answer. I was shaking way too badly to attempt riding and talking, not that I ever talked while riding my bike anyhow. Just wasn’t plain smart. “Hey, Garrick, how are you?” “What the fuck, man? What shit are you pulling?” I was pissed. So fucking pissed. Life wasn’t a game, and he had better get his head screwed on right or else. “I’ll tell you what I’m pulling,” he hissed, sounding a lot colder and meaner than I had ever heard him before. “I got her.” For a second, I couldn’t breathe. “Savannah?” I asked even though I knew he wasn’t talking about his girlfriend—or ex-girlfriend if he was pulling this crazy shit on her too. “No. Yes. Her too.” Valerie. I couldn’t say her name. I couldn’t say anything. I was so fucking livid I couldn’t even see straight. “That’s right. I got your little fuck buddy,” Turner said. That was when I found my tongue. “Listen, you little shit—” “Oh.” He laughed. “That hit a nerve, huh? Yeah, well, I’ve been keeping an eye on things. Not just you. You see, I need money, and now I know how I’m gonna get it. You.” “I’m not paying you one fucking cent—” “Either you pay me one million dollars, or else I’ll kill Valerie.” No. No way. This wasn’t Turner. This wasn’t him. “What the hell happened to you? What shit did you get messed up in?” I demanded.

He didn’t respond. “Put Valerie on,” I commanded. “No.” “Put her on!” “You got it bad for her, don’t you? I swear, Garrick, I’ll do it. I’ll shoot her right between the eyes.” “That’s fucking cold, boy.” “Don’t call me boy,” he snapped. “Then grow up and be a fucking man already. You’re better than this shit. I know you are.” “That’s what you wanted to believe. That’s what you wanted to think.” Turner laughed again, but it was a sad one, pathetic sounding. “I need the money. You need her. Even exchange, don’t you think?” I couldn’t believe it. How the hell could one of my own MC members threaten me? Threaten my woman? “You want the money?” I asked. “Damn straight I do.” “Then you have to tell me what’s going on.” He didn’t respond. “Turner.” “When you bring the money. Or are you gonna have one of your lackeys drop it off for you?” he asked mockingly. “You want the money, let me talk to her.” “Nope. Oh, and, Garrick? If you try to dare pull that informant shit on me, and I will light her up and go after the entire club. You want all that blood on your hands?” His voice was shaking. He had the right words, but his delivery was all wrong. Turner was scared shitless. He desperately needed the money. To make himself disappear? Or to pay someone off so that he wouldn’t be the one to disappear six feet under?

“Turner, we can work this out like adults. We can be reasonable. You need money. That’s clear. How much? To whom?” “Garrick, I’m not—” “There doesn’t have to be any deaths. Not Valerie’s. Not Savannah’s.” I paused, and Turner did inhale slightly. He did care for the girl. Good. Hopefully that meant she was all right despite this shit. “Not mine,” I added, “and not yours.” “I’m not dying,” Turner said desperately. “I don’t want you to.” The truth. For now. If he did anything to hurt Valerie, or Savannah for that matter, then all bets were off. “Who are you in deep with?” “Garrick. Stop playing games with me. I’m not a kid.” “Damn straight you are. You’re acting like a petulant—” “You think insulting me is gonna get me to open up to you? You think it’s gonna keep me from blowing your fuck buddy’s brains out? Keep it up, man. I swear I’ll do her in.” “A real man wouldn’t threaten a woman. A real man wouldn’t kidnap anyone. A real man would ask for help when he got in too deep.” He didn’t say anything for a little while. I strained to hear anything in the background, but I heard nothing. He must not be with the women right now because I knew Valerie would try to shout and let me know she was all right or what was going on if she could. I’m all right. Her last text to me. I’d do anything to make sure you’re all right. “You gonna man up and ask for help?” I asked. “I’m manning up by finding a way to get funds. Now are you gonna—” “Kidnapping and extortion. That’s how you’re gonna man up? Really, dude?” I shook my head. “Having a shitty upbringing does not mean that you should—” “You have no right to criticize me—” “Are you for real?” I couldn’t believe it. The kid had gone off the rails and jumped off at Loonyville. “You have two days,” Turner said. “Two days to get me the money. One million.”

“That’s a lot of cash. You can’t expect me to just go up to the bank and—” “I expect you to do whatever it takes,” he said coolly. “You always act like you’re big and bad and tough, but what are you? What have you ever really done? Sure, you’re the leader of a motorcycle club. So what. Big deal. You’re nothing but a loser.” What the hell? “I’m the loser?” I asked quietly. Keeping my damn cool was nearly impossible, but I couldn’t risk him going off. “Listen, I get that you’re in a bad way. You need money, and you need it now. Let me talk to whoever you owe money too. Maybe I can get them—” “Fancy yourself a white knight?” he asked. I could hear the sneer in his voice, his tone shocking me—not because of the harshness in it but because of the fear. He was terrified. Fear had led him to this. Just what had he gotten himself involved him that he was so afraid, afraid enough to kidnap and blackmail? “I tried to help you,” I started. “You’re not my father.” “No. I’m not.” For a measure, we were both quiet. Then he asked, “Will you have the money?” “I’ll bring it myself,” I said, “within twenty-four hours.” “Good. I’ll text you later with info about where to drop it off” “But first I want to talk to Valerie.” “Dude, how many times do I have to tell you no?” “You want my money? You let me talk to her. Otherwise, how the fuck do I even know you really have her?” “No dice.” “Then no money. Take it or leave it, Turner. You have her? Let her talk.” “She’s sleeping,” he muttered.

“So wake her. Wait. Sleeping or unconscious? Did you hurt her? I swear to God, if you touched her —” “Garrick.” He didn’t sound tough, not at all. He sounded like the young teen who knew he had done wrong and needed forgiveness, from me and from himself. “Just let me talk to her.” “Hold on.” The sound of rummaging went on, like he was covering up the phone. A few mumbled words, maybe some crying, and then… “Garrick.” A shot went straight through me. Valerie. She sounded out of it. Didn’t seem too frightened, though, but maybe that was just because, like I said, she was out of it. “There,” Turner said. A door slammed in the background. “You happy now?” No, and I wouldn’t be until Valerie and Savannah were out of his clutches and away from harm, but I didn’t want to stir the pot, so I just said, “Yeah.” “Thank you,” he had the balls to say, and he hung up. Thank you? Thank you? You said thank you when someone held the door for you so it wouldn’t slam into your face. You said thank you to a waiter or waitress. You said thank you if someone said bless you if you sneezed. You didn’t say thank you after someone agreed to pay you one fucking million dollars because you snatched their girlfriend. Where the hell did I go wrong with him? I knew deep down that he was responsible for his own actions, but fucking hell. I tried to help him, to get him straight. I even bought him a fucking bike— albeit one that he had to fix up, which I taught him how to do. I treated him like he was one of us, like a part of the family, and this was how the fucking guy repaid me? There was no doubt about it. Turner had turned his back on us. If he had gotten himself into trouble and asked me for help, I would’ve bent over backward for him. I would’ve given him the shirt off my back. I would’ve done everything in my power to set him back down the straight and narrow road. Because I considered him family. But to pull this shit, to choose himself and allow his fear to cause him to threaten me and to potentially harm innocents? He wasn’t family. He was on his own. “Hold on, Valerie,” I said as I turned my bike back on. “I’m coming for you.”

Chapter Fifteen Valerie

My head ached, but I didn’t bother to open my eyes. Savannah’s crying had stopped a little while ago. I hoped she was sleeping. Poor girl. She didn’t look like she had any bruises on her, but I also hadn’t gotten a good look at her before Turner showed up. Turner. The door opened, and I blinked. Turner covered a cell in his hands, and his eyes were wild and determined. Fearful too. “You say Garrick’s name and that it. You got it?” “Huh?” I hadn’t been conscious for long, and I didn’t understand why he was so urgent. “Say Garrick’s name. Nothing else.” I nodded. My throat was dry. He held out the cell. “Garrick,” I said dutifully. It came out more like a croak than anything, and Turner already had his back to me and closed the door behind him. I closed my eyes, and this time, the darkness was that of sleep instead of unconsciousness.


A cool washcloth to my face woke me up. I jerked back in surprise and then again when I realized the one tending to me was Turner and not Savannah. I glanced around wildly. “She’s sleeping,” he said quietly. He seemed calm, almost too calm, and reserved. Was he bipolar? How could he be so composed right now? I sure felt like a mess myself.

But the cool washcloth did feel nice against me, so I kept my questions to myself, not wanting to risk setting him off again. He pulled the washcloth away. “The swelling’s gone down. You… I…” Turner sat on the edge of the bed, head down. “Thank you.” He snorted. “Thank you,” he repeated glumly. “I don’t even know what the fuck I’m doing.” I gaped at him. Did he really think I was going to be his shrink? Or that I would forgive him for the shit he put me through? “Thirsty,” I managed, my dry throat killing me. He got up, grabbed a cup, filled it from the tap, and brought it over to me. Careful not to spill any, he gave me some to drink. I wasn’t about to thank him again, so I just nodded. “I’m glad you came here,” he said after a few moments. I couldn’t help myself. It might earn me a punch or a slap, but I couldn’t stop myself from saying, “Really? You mean to tell me that if I hadn’t showed up here, you would’ve gone back to town and kidnapped me anyhow?” His cheeks turned bright red. Fuck. That had been his plan. “What the hell did I ever do to you?” My jaw lowered. He had me say Garrick’s name. He’d been talking to Garrick. A ransom call? Was this all about money? “Look, the things I said, I shouldn’t’ve. I was outta line. I’m just under a lot of stress right now, and I lost my cool.” He sounded desperate, but I couldn’t tell if he was being genuine, or if he was terrified that Garrick would kick his ass for him touching me. Did it matter if he was genuine? The kid had not only crossed the line; he had run a full mile past it. There was no coming back from all the stunts he’d pulled, even if he did feel remorse now. His cell buzzed, and he put the cup on the nightstand and walked out. Savannah stirred. She had fallen asleep on the floor to my right, and she sat up, blinking and stretching. “He’s gone?”

“Yes.” “Oh, Mom! I’m so sorry. I thought…I thought… I was so afraid. I just…” She sniffed and looked ready to break down again. “Shh,” I said consolingly. “Don’t cry. I’m here. Just try and untie me.” Savannah shook her head. “I won’t be able to. I already tried.” I stared at the knots. It did look like she’s tried, but they weren’t ordinary knots. “What’s going on?” I asked. She shook her head. “It’s bad,” she whispered. “So bad.” “Has he hurt you?” “Not physically.” She patted my face. “I can’t believe he hit you. He’s just… No. I won’t make excuses for him.” “You thought you loved him, and he led you on. Love has made people stupid for years.” “That’s the thing.” She bit her lower lip and hugged herself, sitting on the bed where Turner just had a few moments ago. Her gaze focused on the damp washcloth. “I think he does love me, in his twisted way.” “After everything he’s done?” “He did it for me,” she said softly. “He’s lived a messed up life, and it’s made him a mess, and I’ve been trying to help him, and he’s been better, but he doesn’t know how to have happiness or joy. It’s like he thinks he doesn’t deserve it. So he does stupid stuff and sabotages himself.” My eyes widened. “Sabotages himself?” Where did she get this from? Her cheeks flushed, and she toyed with the washcloth in her lap. “I’ve been reading up about it. Psych books. Been taking them out of the library so I can understand him better.” I gaped at her. “You’re interested in psychology?” “I wanted to make him better,” she said defensively. “I’m not complaining,” I said to reassure her, “but some people have to help themselves. It’s not what you want. It’s what they want.”

“I know, but I thought I could get through to him. And it seemed like I was at first. I made progress. We were doing good.” “And what happened?” I asked. “We got serious. I mean, really serious.” The doorknob jiggled. “Listen,” I whispered. “You think he loves you? Use it, then. Sweet talk him.” Her eyes widened. “I can’t—” “No hysterics,” I warned. The door opened, and Turner came back in. His face was white. Savannah stood. She cast me a glance, and I nodded. She took a breath. “Turner—” “You hungry?” he asked. “I don’t want food. I want—” “Everything will work out,” he promised. Savannah blinked several times. She was going to start crying again. Not good. I wasn’t sure if her crying had contributed to him going off earlier or not. “My wrists are hurting me.” I hung my head and did my best to look sad and forlorn. Savannah latched onto my cue. “My mom. Can’t you free her? We won’t do anything. I swear we won’t.” She walked over to him and ran her fingers through his hair. “I’m not leaving,” she promised. “I’ll be good.” Turner grabbed her hand and kissed it. Tenderly. Did he really love her? Maybe in a way he did. But then he dropped her hand and shook his head. “I can’t. I can’t risk her leaving. I need her. Once everything is all sorted out, she can go. It’ll be fine. You’ll see.” She can go. Meaning me. He wants Savannah yet. What an idiot. Like that was going to happen. Savannah’s hand closed into a fist, and I could almost see a change come over her. She was done crying. She was done being the victim.

“You won’t untie her? Fine. The least you can do is apologize.” Turner winced. “Yeah. I said some really horrible things. I’m sorry.” “Don’t apologize to me. Apologize to my mom!” He kneeled down in front of me. A little over the top, but okay. “I’m sorry. I’m just under a lot of… You don’t need excuses.” Then he stood and walked over to Savannah, grabbing her hands. “It won’t be much longer. I promise. Everything will be fixed, and we can go and live our lives the way we want to. A fresh slate. It’ll be worth it. I swear.” He kissed her fingers then her lips and walked back out of the place. Savannah immediately set about trying to undo my bindings, but she made no headway and had to scramble away when Turner came back inside ten minutes later. “Lunch,” he announced cheerily, and he provided us with fast food like it was a feast. He stayed and ate with us—Savannah had to feed me because he refused to untie me—and talked about how great their future was going to be. Savannah did her best to sound excited, and she did a decent enough job at it. The poor girl wasn’t an actress, but Turner didn’t seem to notice. As for me, I didn’t say a damn thing. But when he left again, I called Savannah over. “My cell. It dropped on the floor after Turner hit me with the gun. Did he take it?” “In the aftermath, I put my foot on top of it and shoved it underneath the bed. I forgot all about it.” She was already on the floor, digging around. “There,” she said triumphantly, holding it up above her head after she climbed back out. “Good.” A lucky break for once. Watch. The battery will be dead. “Call Garrick.” She pushed buttons on it then hesitated. “You really…” “Yes. It’s not what you think.” My stomach twisted. Maybe it wasn’t what I thought either. Then again, what did I think? I had originally only slept with Garrick to feel good. I figured it out just be a onetime thing. Even then, I’d figured that Garrick probably slept around a lot, and Turner claimed that to. It wasn’t hard to believe it. Did Garrick care enough about me to come? Of course he did. He wanted to find Turner and Savannah too. If he found them, he’d find me. But first he had to learn where we were and that I had been taken. Savannah was staring at me, the phone in her lap.

“I swear,” I added, “we were just—” “I’m glad,” she said quietly. “You deserve to find someone. From what Turner said… Never mind. Can’t trust a damn thing out of his mouth.” She pressed one more button and held the phone up to her ear. Turner burst in. He spied the phone, and his face fell. He grabbed it out of Savannah’s hand. “Why do you have this? Who else do you need?” His eyes turned stormy. “You weren’t about to call the cops, were you?” “I was gonna call Cassidy,” she lied. “We’re gonna get married, right? I have to have a maid of honor. You know it’s gonna be Cassidy, and we have so much planning to do. Flowers and the reception and —” “You know we’re gonna have to elope. I might be getting some money, but it won’t be a lot. Not enough for a wedding and reception and for us to survive.” “Even if we elope, we still gotta have witnesses,” Savannah said. “Let me just call Cassidy and see when she’s free.” “You weren’t gonna call the cops?” His gaze shifted toward me. “Or Garrick?” “Do we really have to go through with this?” she asked quietly. “Do you really have to hold my mom for ransom? Can’t we just leave and—” “You know they’ll follow us.” “We can use different names,” she cried. Different names? My God, they were in a mess of trouble if she felt the need to suggest that! He stared down at the phone. “You called Cassidy.” His face was one of such hope and love that I had to blink. Wow. This guy really was off his rockers. He was nuts. But he was truly in love with Savannah, as twisted as that love was. “No. Wait. That’s a missed call. You dialed Garrick.” “My finger slipped.” “Babe, you’re starting to piss me off.” Turner began to pace in the room, clutching my cell so tightly in his hand I was afraid it was gonna break. “I let you have your phone because I knew you would call your mom and lead her here.” She flushed.

My eyes widened. Had she tried to steal her cell back from him? I hadn’t even thought about why she had waited so long to text me. Maybe Turner had taken her phone away, and then she “stole” it back to text me. But it seemed like it had been a test, and even though she had texted me and had led me here, it still seemed like she failed. “I wanted you to prove yourself, to show that you loved me and really wanted to be with me, but all you wanted to do was leave.” “No, Turner, that’s not true. I—” “Yes, it is. You were crying so much. Nothing I could say or do made you happy anymore. Don’t you still want to be with me? You said forever.” He looked so crestfallen. Was he playing her, playing us, even as we were trying to play him? I didn’t think he was acting. But even if he did love her, this was all so wrong. You didn’t get into drugs to make money if you wanted to have a long, lasting relationship with someone. No. You found a real job and paid the bills and paid the rest of your dues. You crawled your way up the ladder. That was how you made a name for yourself. That was how you lived. Love, that was a bonus, but that also needed work. Hard work. It wasn’t about being with just anybody. It was about being with someone who challenged you, who made you see the world in a different way. It was about give and take. It was about more than just fucking. Thinking about love made me think about Garrick. We hadn’t known each other for that long, but in a lot of ways, I felt like I had known him for a long, long time. We were different, but we weren’t too different. I wanted to spend more time with Garrick. I wanted to know all of his hopes and dreams. More than that, I wanted to help make his hopes and dreams come true. I wanted them to be aligned with my own hopes and dreams. I wanted him to help me out of this situation, but I also wanted him in my life. A terrible situation had thrown us together, but that situation would’ve been that much worse if we never would’ve crossed paths. A chance encounter…or maybe not. I didn’t really believe in coincidences. Maybe fate had brought Garrick and I together. I cast a sideways glance at Turner and Savannah. Maybe fate had brought them together too, but to what end? So that Turner could kill us? So that Turner could end up dead from the other drug dealers? Or so that Savannah could hit rock bottom and learn and grow and finally be the woman I had always

wanted her to be? Only time would tell. Too bad time might be the one thing we were running out of.

Chapter Sixteen My nerves were on fire. “Forever,” I said, my voice trembling with agitation. I took a calming breath. “Forever is a really long time.” “Yeah. So?” Turner grimaced. “You never wanted me with Savannah in the first place, let alone forever.” I cocked my head to the side and glanced at my tied wrists before looking at him again. He flushed. “I…” “Forever shouldn’t start out this way,” I said quietly. “Let me go and—” “No.” He shook his head. “I want to, but I can’t.” “Please.” Savannah threw her arms around his waist and laid her head on his chest. “Just let my mom go. I’ll stay. I swear. I said forever, and I mean it.” “Your finger didn’t slip. You wanted to call Garrick. You wanna leave.” He shook his head. “Garrick will come all right. He’ll bring the money, and then you can go.” Her gaze locked with mine. “You’ll allow my mom to come to the wedding, won’t you?” she asked. Turner flushed. “I don’t think—” “She’s my mom!” Her eyes brightened. She was really starting to get into this acting thing. Savannah clapped her hands. “I know! Let’s get married now!” What in the world? But you needed a wedding license. They didn’t have one, right? Please tell me that they didn’t have one. Turner shook his head. “We can’t—” “Sure, we can! I have a nice white dress back at the apartment. I can go and grab it. Take a long shower. My mom can do my hair. I’m sure we can find a worker at the courthouse to be our second witness.” “You’re not leaving,” he growled. “Right. It’ll save time if you go and get it while I shower.” Savannah giggled. “There’s no reason to wait.”

“You just want me to leave so you two can try to escape. I’m not stupid, Savannah.” He gently pushed her away. “Can you blame me?” She crossed her arms, and her eyes flashed. “Yes, I was crying. Yes, I was scared. You were scared too. You’re still scared. That’s why we’re still here! The money won’t change anything. Us…” She grabbed his hands. “We’re all that matters. Not Mom. Not Garrick. Not any of them. Let’s just go—” “Damn it, Savannah. You know we can’t.” “We can! We—” I cleared my throat. I’d heard enough. “I can write you a check for one hundred thousand. That enough for you to start over somewhere?” Turner gripped Savannah to his side. “We’d be followed, and we’d be killed. We gotta pay them off.” “We,” I repeated. “They know about Savannah?” I wasn’t quite sure who the they were, and I had a feeling I didn’t want to know. “Don’t worry about it. Just stop talking about money. Stop talking about leaving. We’re staying put, and that’s final.” He released Savannah and walked over to me, squeezing my chin so hard it hurt. “I would stop putting ideas into your daughter’s head if I were you.” “But—” “But nothing.” He released his hold on me so fast that my head jerked to the side. “Turner,” Savannah started. “Don’t Turner me. This will all work out. I swear it will. Just let me do what I gotta do, alright? Then we won’t have to worry about a thing. We won’t be followed, and we can get married, and we can be free to do whatever we want.” I swallowed hard. He wasn’t getting Savannah. He wasn’t going to get his way. He was desperate enough to kidnapping and ransom. What would he be capable of once he realized Savannah was playing him? “Let’s watch some—” His cell rang, cutting him off. Turner mumbled a curse and left the room, banging he door shut behind him. “Go to the window,” I instructed. “See if he’s out front or if you can make a break for it.”

Savannah shook her head. “Don’t you think I would’ve left earlier if I could’ve? This place is a dump. It’s so old that it doesn’t have electronic keycard access. He locks the door from the outside. He switched the lock around when we got here.” What a psycho. “Well, not right when we got here. Once he couldn’t handle my…” Savannah sniffed. “My crying. Oh God, Mom, I’m so sorry. I should’ve…I should’ve listened to you. I should’ve realized… I just thought he loved me, and I loved him and…” “It’s all right,” I murmured. “It’s all right.” It took me some time to console her. Once she finally stopped crying, I could hear footsteps outside and a mumbled voice. Turner wasn’t leaving anything to chance. He was right outside. “You don’t have your cell on you, right?” I asked. She shook her head. “He took it away once he realized I made contact with you. I thought he hadn’t realized I took it, but he knew. He knows. Mom, what are we gonna do?” Good question. Not that I had an answer for her. I glanced around the room, desperate for anything that might help, and my gaze fell onto the room phone. “Does that work?” “Nope.” “Of course not,” I mumbled. “Did he rig it?” “I think so.” We were locked in without a phone. No way to call for help. No way to warn Garrick that Turner was desperate, so desperate that he couldn’t be trusted. No way to let Garrick know Turner had a gun. No way for me to get free. No way to talk our way out of this mess. What were we gonna do? And would we survive whatever was to come next? Garrick, if you’re coming, be safe. Be smart. I don’t want anything to happen to you. Don’t you dare play the fucking hero and come here by yourself. We have to play our cards right. We have to be smart. We can’t become like Turner. We can’t be desperate. I cleared my throat. “We’ve gotta have a plan…”

Chapter Seventeen Garrick

There was one quick detour I had to take before I could go after Valerie and Savannah, and it wasn’t the bank. Turner wasn’t going to get one cent from me. It wasn’t that I wasn’t willing to pay up. I had the money, and I would pay double that to get Valerie back if that was the only way to get her back. But it wasn’t the only way. Courtesy of the men in the car, I now knew for a fact that Turner’s problem laid with the brutes at Cowboy’s Lasso. Turner was only a symptom. The root of the problem lay there. It was always best to go after the problem at its root. By now, my phone had died, but it wasn’t as if I needed to call Valerie again. I knew where she was. True, Turner might call back, but he could leave a message. I wasn’t too concerned about that right now. It was just after noon when I arrived at the bar. I strolled inside, and I couldn’t help feeling like I had walked into an old saloon, the kind where people would have shoot-outs. Well, I was carrying my gun, so if it came to it, I could draw. “We’re not open yet,” a waitress said as she buzzed around tables, fixing the salts and peppers. “I’m not here for food.” She gave me a second glance and slowly smiled. “What are you looking for?” she flirted. I grimaced. “Your boss.” Her lips tugged into a pout. “He’s not—” “He is.” I took a step toward her. She backed away, slamming into another table. “He’s not here,” she insisted. “Then where is he?” I growled. “I’m right here.”

I glanced over to see a man who looked like he had once weighed a decent amount but had lost it really fast so he had excess skin. He was short, with beady eyes, and he kept sniffing, his nose red. He’d come out from the back and walked around the bar to where the seating area began. “What do you want?” he asked. “You the owner?” I demanded. “So what if I am?” He lifted his chin. “Dolores, take five.” “You sure?” The waitress scampered out of there faster than a jack rabbit. “We gonna have a problem?” the owner asked. “Depends.” I glowered at him. “You gonna cooperate?” “Only with friends.” He crossed his arms. Despite the weight issue, he had some muscle on him, but I could take him. I spent an hour at the gym five days a week. “I’ll be your friend.” His lips twisted into a sneer. “It’ll cost ya.” What the fuck was it with him and Turner wanting my money? “I’ll buy you a beer.” That was all I would offer him. He laughed, the sound deep and echoing in the empty bar. “I prefer something else to be honest with ya.” “Oh, a fruity drink?” Again, the owner laughed, but this time it sounded a little cold. “A wise guy, huh?” “Or wise ass. Take your pick.” I shrugged. Now the laugh seemed more genuine. “You prefer the hard stuff,” I surmised. He nodded. “Cocaine or heroin?”

His eyes clouded over. “Get the fuck out of here before I—” “What? Call the cops?” I stalked around the tables and booths and only halted when I stood directly in front of him. “You and I both know that’s not gonna happen.” He reached for his side. I reached for mine. The owner slowly moved his hand, lifting it. “Now, now. Take it easy, there.” “I’ll take it easy once I got what I came for.” His eyes narrowed so much I could hardly see them. “What exactly is it you want?” “Not really.” I kept my hand on the handle of my gun but didn’t put it out. I didn’t want to fire it any more than he wanted to be shot. When it came to threats against myself, I tended to not react with violence, but if you came after my family, well, that was another story. I would use violence if pushed enough. I wasn’t quite pushed enough at the second, but that could change in an instant, and I would be ready if this guy crossed the line. “My stuff is the best there is, but if you think you can just come in here and threaten me and—” “I don’t want your shit,” I snapped. His eyes widened, and he backpedaled a step. “I don’t need a business partner trying to cut into my profits.” “I’m not a fucking dealer. I’m not a user either.” “So what the fuck do you want?” My hand released my gun, and I gripped his shirt into my tight fist. “You listen here, and you listen good. I want to know everything you know about Turner.” “Who?” I slammed my other hand on the back of a chair. “I’m not fucking around. Turner Young. You know him, I know you do.” The guy’s face twisted into disgust at the name, but he shook his head and shrugged. “I don’t—” “You do know.” “The name doesn’t ring a bell. Sorry.” He tried to loosen my hold on his shirt.

I kept my hand on his shirt while my other hand brought out my gun. I made a show of putting it on the table next to us. “You were saying?” “The fuck you want that shithead for?” the owner snapped. “He’s nothing but a shithead, a thorn in my side. If I catch him, I swear to God, I’d bury him myself. Bury him alive.” Just then, the guards who threatened Valerie came toward us from the back. “What’s going on here?” the one asked. “Nothing.” The owner grimaced at me. “Just leave us be.” “You sure?” the other asked. “Sure. Just two fellas talking.” The owner glanced over his shoulder and waited until they left. “I need a fucking drink,” he muttered. “You look like you could use one too.” My nostrils flared. “Fine, but only if it comes with—” “A side of info.” The owner nodded. “Yeah. For fuck’s sake,” he grumbled when I released him. I might’ve shoved him a little, but I made sure he saw that I put my gun away. He knew I meant business, and since I wasn’t going after his drugs or his money, he hopefully felt the need to tell me what I wanted to know. He poured two stout beers and drained his. I nursed mine, eyeing him. After he poured himself another one—a great pour, by the way, the bar must not just be a cover for him and his drug side business—he sighed. “What do ya wanna know?” “Let’s just say he crossed me, and I wanna know who else he crossed.” The man snarled a laugh, the sound dark and twisted. “That boy’s gonna end up dead twenty different ways, and I’m gonna spit on his grave.” “What did he do?” I grumbled. I wanted to know just how fucked up the situation was for Turner. I needed to know and understand his mindset. I didn’t think he would do anything to hurt the girls, but when a man crossed over into being a desperate animal, all bets were off. Just look at what Turner’s father had been capable of. “I saw the kid. He came in a lot. Him and his girl. He loved her. Wanted to do right by her.” The owner snorted. Mixing with this guy wasn’t the way to do right by anyone, not your girl and not yourself.

Why the fuck didn’t you come to me, Turner? Was it money? Was that why you got messed with this waste of life? “So I gave him a job. Thought I would help him out. He scratched my back, I scratched his, ya know?” “I know.” I drained my glass. The owner drank half of his and belched. “Gah. It burns.” He tapped his chest. “Anyway, he did good at first. Better than I expected. So I trusted him with more jobs.” “What exactly did he do for you?” “Sold my goods.” The guy flashed a smile that slowly died. “Up until he didn’t.” “What happened?” “The lousy fucking kid. He’d been working for me for months, so I trusted him. Fucking trusted him. Gave him a huge drug stash. Huge. I’m talking a lot.” The man drank the rest of his, filled it a third time, and drained it again before continuing with his story. He didn’t seem to notice that my glass was empty, not that I wanted a refill. “Well, the fucker couldn’t keep it. And I don’t mean he sold it. No. The fucking kid had it stolen. All of it. Every last gram.” So that was why Turner had kidnapped Valerie. He somehow figured out that Valerie meant something to me, and he expected me to solve all his problems. If I paid him, he would pay the owner. And then what? What did Turner think would come next? Savannah couldn’t be stupid enough to want to be with him after all this, right? And Valerie…she meant something to me. She was an amazing woman, and I didn’t just mean in the bedroom. Her drive and determination had gotten her so far in life, between her job and being able to adopt a girl as a single woman. Her family meant as much to her as my family meant to me. And the thing was, I considered her part of my family. Did I mean the same to her? I couldn’t be sure. I liked to think that, and honestly, it didn’t matter. I would do everything for her and for Savannah. That was all there was to it. We had plenty of time yet to sort everything out together. So long as nothing happened to either of us. So long as there was a together. I shook my thoughts away. “So he had the huge stash stolen, huh?”

“Yeah. That rat ass kid owes me the money for it. I don’t care who pays me, but someone’s gonna give me what I want.” I cleared my throat. “You threatening me?” “Nah, man. But I’m gonna get paid. One way or another.” He appraised me. “How do you know the kid anyhow? You said he crossed ya, right?” “Damn straight he did,” I growled. A sudden thought occurred to me. I swore I wasn’t trying to make an excuse for Turner and his deplorable actions, but I never would’ve thought him capable of kidnapping and ransom before, but if the idea had been planted… Someone’s gonna give me what I want. I leveled the owner a stare that had him grabbing my cup and filling it, not that I took it back or drank it. “Gonna get paid one way or another, huh? You tell Turner that?” “I made it clear he better pay up if he knew what was good for ’im, yeah. Why? What’s the big deal?” “You tell him a few ways to come up with the dough?” The man screwed up his brow. “Not sure I’m followin’ ya.” The guy wasn’t a moron, and that he was playing dumb aggravated more than I could say. “I’m talking about extortion,” I said through gritted teeth. “Kidnapping.” “Oh, hey, man. You got me all wrong.” The owner backed up a few steps, his hands raised in a defenseless manner. “I would never—” “Yeah, I doubt that. You made it quite clear that you want your money, and you know Turner doesn’t have it just sitting in a bank, waiting to be withdrawn.” “I never—” My gun made a reappearance. The guy’s face whitened. “Look. I might’ve said—” “You remember Valerie?” I demanded. “Valerie?” His confusion seemed genuine.

“Your goons stopped her when she wanted to find out about her daughter.” I gestured with my chin toward the back entrance. “Oh. Yeah. I might remember being told about an incidence. She was asking for trouble, snooping around and—” “And she knew her daughter frequented here with Turner.” “Daughter? Look, man—” He was sweating bullets. I lined up the gun so it was level with his chest. “Because of you and your threats, Turner nabbed Valerie and Savannah. If anything happens to them, you’re dead.” “Hey, man, I swear I have nothing to do with it!” I stalked toward him and tossed him against a wall. “That better stay the case. If you come near Valerie or Savannah, I’ll kill you myself.” The owner gulped nervously. His goons came back. Seriously, didn’t they listen to their boss? “Is something wrong?” the owner snapped. “We were gonna ask you that.” The taller one glared at me. If looks could kill, I’d be dead. “We’ve come to an understanding.” The owner adjusted his shirt and walked around me. “Everything is just fine. Just fine. Right?” He turned back to me. I snorted. For being a drug dealer, he’d been easy enough to scare. I knew I could be menacing when I wanted to be, but this had almost been too easy. But a scared kid like Turner wouldn’t have the guts or the drive or the intimidation necessary to stand up for himself. Fuck, if he had all that, he never would’ve had the drug stash stolen in the first place. I stared down the owner. “We’re fine,” I barked. I jerked around, stared down his boys, and rushed out of there. Turner was just a punk kid. He didn’t know the rules of the game, and he was afraid he was going to get burned. Too bad he didn’t realize he was already on fire. He had to be desperate. Beyond desperate. I knew that even before I went to the bar, but now that I knew the full extent of his situation, I realized just how dangerous he could be. Whether or not he was

using again himself, he was like a caged animal, and when caged animals were let loose, like he was, they tended to bite the hand that fed them. Which meant Savannah. And Valerie. I wasn’t much of a praying man, but I sure as hell was praying now. It was time to round up the boys. It was time to get my girl back. Hang in there, Valerie. It won’t be much longer now.

Chapter Eighteen Valerie

The desperation I felt was insurmountable. Turner wasn’t taking any chances. When I pleaded with him that I had to go to the bathroom—I had a feeling I was dehydrated considering I had been here for a long while by this point and I hadn’t had to go until now—he untied me and walked me into the bathroom. He brought along Savannah too, and they talked about nothing in particular, staying in the tiny bathroom with me as I went. No privacy. No chance for anything but actually taking care of my business. Ever since his phone call, Turner had been on edge. He was terrified. He was back to being snippy with both Savannah and me. He would apologize to her, which was more than I expected from him. In his own way, he did love her, as twisted as it was. He couldn’t see how self-destructive his behavior was, how he had ruined his one chance at happiness. Because if he had spent more time around Garrick, he might’ve been able to overcome his past and grow up and become a real man instead of this poser of one. Because if he had learned to accept love and thought himself worthy of it, he might’ve realized that Savannah really had loved him instead of pushing her away at times because he thought he was incapable of being loved. Because if he had actually gotten a real job instead of falling back into his destructive ways and returning to drugs, he might’ve been able to get a place and settle down with her, like he was still talking about wanting. Honestly, it was almost tragic. He hated himself—that was plain to see—and because of his selfloathing, he wasn’t able to love others as fully as he should. His sense of love and hate were too closely merged. That was why he treated Savannah like a goddess at times—when I hadn’t been around to see it—and like a misogynist jerk at other times. If you couldn’t love yourself, you couldn’t love others, and what good was a life without love? Yes, Savannah had told me many times I needed to get laid. I’d brushed it off as a teen wanting her mom to back off and let her do what she wanted, but maybe she had a point. I was so wrapped up in her and the restaurant that I had stopped doing anything for myself. I used to be a runner, even ran a few races. I hadn’t run in a long time though. Just stopped making the time for it. Outside of my roles as mom and restaurant owner, I didn’t know who I was. And now that I was in danger, I was second guessing myself on a lot of things. I told Garrick I never went on a vacation, and that was the truth. Sad. How pathetic was that? And all because work was my life. I lived and breathed for it, outside of Savannah.

Yes, she was nineteen and technically an adult, but look where her choices had led us. She needed me yet. I needed to be there for her, but I also needed to be there for myself. As it was, I was fretting over how the restaurant was going without me, especially now that I didn’t have my phone and couldn’t help with any complications that might arise in my absence. Maybe this could serve as a trial run, so that when I got free—God willing when and not if—I could finally go on that vacation. With Savannah? Or with Garrick? When Savannah and Turner were talking—like they were now—I tended to zone out. Honestly, there was no way for me to get free. Turner had tied me even tighter after my trek to the bathroom. Without a phone and with him making it a point to never leave the hotel room, we were stuck here. Savannah was doing all she could to try and keep Turner calm, but she was on edge herself, and sometimes they spat. But when they were just talking, I could let my mind wander, and as much as I worried about our situation and the restaurant, I often found my thoughts turning back to Garrick. I knew him. I knew he would come. If the whole phone call when Turner had me say his name really was a ransom call, I knew Garrick wouldn’t bother to pay. He’d show up, and I had no way to warn him that Turner had a gun. If anything were to happen to Garrick, I would be devastated. In the short amount of time we had together, he had come to mean a lot to me, more than I would’ve thought possible. Maybe it was the fear of not having a tomorrow talking, but I desperately wanted a tomorrow with Garrick. More than just a tomorrow. Maybe a whole lot more. I wanted to see if we could make our hot start last and turn into something even hotter and greater. I wanted to see if we could have a future together. Me—the woman who didn’t date, the woman who loved her work like it was her husband, the woman who thought romance was silly. I’d always thought of love as something I would never have. I just never planned on making time for it. I hadn’t dated a lot in high school, and I never went to college. I’d always been goal oriented. When I set my sights on something—like the restaurant or adopting Savannah—I did whatever it took to turn that goal into reality. But now I was realizing what I had been missing out on. Love wasn’t a waste of time. It wasn’t something to be brushed aside or ignored. It could be empowering in its own right, lift you up instead of drag you down or hold you back. I might be speaking from experience. But along with the knowledge that I had fallen for Garrick came fear, and, hell, could fear drag you down. If Garrick came in here with his own gun, would Turner shoot him? Turner reeked of desperation. This whole situation proved that. Just why was he so desperate anyhow?

Savannah was lying down, either sleeping or pretending to be. For the most part, she was trying to sweet talk Turner, to convince him she loved him despite everything. Turner, though, was paranoid and uptight and anxious, so at times he accepted her and others he lashed out, but that was mostly geared toward himself. Oh, honey. Savannah… I wish I could’ve saved you from this. I should’ve done more to convince you he wasn’t the guy for you. I let fear hold me back from being the mother I should’ve been. And I didn’t understand love. My dad had been a deadbeat, so I never saw a healthy, mature loving relationship growing up. I thought it was the stuff of fairy tales, that it was overrated. But I shouldn’t have thought less of you for wanting that, for craving more love than I could give you. I channeled my love into my work, but that isn’t for everyone, and maybe my being a workaholic isn’t healthy itself. I’ve always wanted to do what was best for you, and I’m sorry I failed you. Rest easy, Savannah. Don’t cry any more. We’ll find a way out of this. Turner cleared his throat softly. He had been lying on the bed beside Savannah, flipping through a magazine, but now he sat up. “You hungry? Could order some pizza.” Ugh. I was pizza-d out. My face must’ve given my thought away because he snorted a quiet laugh. “I know this isn’t ideal,” he started. “Not ideal?” I all but shrieked. I winced at my loud tone, but Savannah didn’t stir. Come on. If Savannah can try to reach him despite her fears, you can keep your cool and do your part. “That’s an understatement,” I added more quietly. “Yeah, well…” He ran a hand through his hair. In that moment, he looked both younger than his age but also older, like time had been unduly harsh to him. I thought I had pieced most of it together, but still, I had to ask, “Why are you doing this, Turner?” No matter what he said, no matter his reasoning, he was crazy. He might love Savannah in a way, but that wasn’t a healthy kind of love. Savannah deserved someone so much better than Turner. Turner needed help. He needed a shrink to work through his issues, and he needed jail to keep his sorry ass away from drugs. Maybe if he could completely cut ties to the drug life, he’d be able to start making a positive change in his life. But I wasn’t going to hold my breath on that.

He sighed, ran a hand through his hair again, stood, and began to pace in the crammed motel room. “I was trying to make a name for myself. I was trying to earn money. Savannah and I… We got into a fight. Savannah either wanted us to move forward, or she was threatening to break up with me. And Savannah… she’s the best thing that ever happened to me. My life… my dad…” Turner halted, shoulders slumped. I said nothing. I didn’t know if his knowing that Garrick had filled me in on details about his tragic past would set him off again. After a moment, he resumed his pacing and his story. “So I asked her to marry me. And she said maybe. Maybe! She wasn’t playin’ me. She wanted to make sure I could take care of her, provide for her. And I wanted to. I wanted to buy her a ring and a dress and a house and everything. Well, maybe an apartment at first, but I wanted—still want—to give her everything she wants.” He took a deep breath and exhaled it through his nose. That idea of Savannah getting engaged at her age made me wince, but the idea of marriage itself no longer filled me with disdain. Not that I wanted to rush things with Garrick, of course, but maybe one day. If one day comes. I inhaled deeply and blew it out slowly. “That’s what every woman wants,” I said with a hint of sarcasm, “for a man to give her everything she wants.” Instead of getting it for herself. Or instead of them getting what they both want together. My sarcasm must’ve gone over Turner’s head because he actually gave me a smile. He really was a handsome kid. It wasn’t hard to understand why Savannah had gravitated to him from the start. He walked over to me and sat in front of me. “I knew you wouldn’t be happy about it, about us moving forward, so that was another reason why I had to… Savannah thinks the world of you, and I knew that if I couldn’t get you on board with the idea of us getting married, that Savannah would hesitate to be with me.” Turner rubbed his throat and stopped talking. A few minutes passed. Wasn’t he going to go on? “What happened next?” “I went ring shopping. That it would make it more real to Savannah, ya know? But the prices… I couldn’t even afford a speck of a diamond. And a place of our own and utilities and food… I needed a job, one that could pay a lot.” I held my silence, but Turner didn’t pause for long this time. “I made a mistake,” he said bluntly. “I got into the game, and it played me.”

“What game?” “One night after Savannah brought me a bridal magazine and showed me a gown that cost two grand all excited about our future, I knew I had to go out and make it happen. But I had no idea how to. I had put out a ton of feelers for jobs, but they were all shitty positions with little pay. Dead end jobs with no way to advance or nothing.” I pursed my lips. If you wanted something badly enough, you took the time and the dedication to make it work the right way. Good things came to those who wait, but also to those who work their asses off. Of course I didn’t say any of this to Turner. “After she left for the night, I went to the bar.” Before I could help myself, I said, “Cowboy’s Lasso.” He nodded, dropping his gaze to the floor. “Stayed late until I was the last one there. Just the bartender and me. I told him I needed money bad, and I thought his eyes were gonna pop out of his head. Guess he thought I couldn’t pay my tab. I slapped my last twenty onto the bar. Not a good idea, spending the last of my money on alcohol, but…” I glanced over at Savannah. She was breathing way too rhythmically and evenly for her to be faking sleep. I’d no idea she and Turner had been contemplating marriage. We hadn’t been as close as I liked to think we had been. Maybe because you pushed her away, pushed her toward Turner even though you wanted the opposite. How many times had she asked me to go to the movies with her? Or to go out shopping? And I had always been busy with the restaurant. My stomach twisted into knots. “I could use a drink myself right now,” I muttered, more to myself than to him. “Haven’t had a drop to drink since that night.” Turner’s eyes were glazed. He was lost in remembering. His hands were tight fists in his lap. This wasn’t a happy memory for him. “Wish you could go back?” “I’d change things, yeah.” He blew air out of his nose. “But I can’t. I’m stuck.” I opened my mouth to argue that point, but he didn’t give me the chance to. “The bartender ignored my twenty, told me to wait, and went to the back. When he returned, he was with another man. The owner. Kyle Lawerson. He sat me down, bought me a beer, and we discussed terms of business.”

“What kind of business?” But I already knew. The drugs Garrick had found in Turner’s apartment told that story. “Drugs. Selling them,” he said bluntly. “I kept my job a secret from Savannah for a while, and things we starting to look up. I was making some money—although not as much as I wanted to yet because Lawerson started me out slow—and I did my best to save it, but now that I had money to spend…” “You spent it.” “Yeah. And Savannah started to ask questions about my job, especially when it started to cut into some of our time together, and I didn’t want to keep secrets from her. She knew all my past.” He grimaced, and I could see the scars his past still cut into him. “Your past?” I didn’t want to let on how much I already knew. Better to let him talk. Garrick had to be on his way, right? We just needed to bide our time until he could come here and save us. I hated being the damsel in distress, but with me being tied up and Turner still having that gun, the only way I could help myself was to keep him calm. He could be moody and irrational, but the fights lately had been kept to a minimum, and I desperately wanted to keep it that way. He was a ticking time bomb, and I was trying to put out the fire that was inching its way along the fuse. Then again, the idea of taking away that gun was intriguing, even if it was dangerous. I couldn’t wait for him to turn back to his asshole side to try to steal it away, but for right this moment, we would keep on talking. Maybe once he told me everything, then I could feign going to the bathroom to get untied. “My father was a piece of shit,” he said bluntly. “He did a bunch of drugs, all kinds. How he never ended up overdosing, I don’t know. He was fine when he was high and drugged up, but when he came crashing down, his fists came out, and his tongue was just as vicious. He was a fucking… He was a terrible man and worse father. He… He was even worse than her mom.” He gestured with his head toward the still sleeping Savannah. “He preferred drugs and being high over being there for me and my mom. I didn’t understand why. I grew up scared and angry. So bitter all of the time. Eventually, though, it got to the point that I was curious. So I did a little experimenting on my own to see what the hype was all about. I didn’t become addicted like my father,” he was quick to add. “Oh, no. Of course not,” I murmured, doing my best to sound sympathetic. And I was, to an extent. No one could deny that he had a horrific childhood. Some people couldn’t get over their upbringing, but Turner had made strides in that direction. Joining the motorcycle club could’ve and should’ve been all he needed. But he hadn’t turned toward them for help. And he had fallen back down into the rabbit hole. “When my father found out…” Turner shuddered, and he rubbed his arm as if it pained him. Had his father abused him? “He went through the roof. He was convinced that I had stolen from his stash. I hadn’t, but I didn’t even bother trying to tell him that. He wouldn’t listen to me. Never had. Never would. That’s when… You don’t need to hear all of that.” He stared into the distance, his eyes glazed

over, and I just knew he was lost in a sea of memories. The lines of worry and despair that forged along his features aged him. Life had been cruel to Turner. Very tragic. And I had a feeling it would end tragically, too. Tragically for just him or for us as well? Only time would tell. “I just wanted to make a name for myself,” he muttered, and I got the feeling he was more talking to himself than to me. “I just wanted to earn some money. I wanted to give Savannah the kind of life she deserved. She was the best thing that ever happened to me. Yeah, sure, we fight sometimes, but all couples do… and… I swear I would do anything for her. Savannah… What with her mom and all… Her life had been just as shitty.” He straightened slightly and fixed me a cold, hard stare. There was hatred burning in his eyes, and I fidgeted in the chair as much as my bindings would allow. “Even after you came into her life.” I swallowed hard. Did Savannah feel that way too? How had I made her life shitty? I tried to give her a good life! “You were always so demanding,” he said, wearing a nasty scowl. “Making her keep your place clean.” “A few chores—” I started, but he cut me off. “You treated her like a slave. You only cared about your stupid restaurant. What was adopting Savannah to you? A way to get sympathy from other people? Is that it?” “What?” I reeled back as much as I could, feeling like I had been slapped. This was a far worse way to attack me than physically. “No! I—” “I mean, seriously. She’s nineteen, and you still keep her on as a dishwasher.” He sneered. “What’s up with that? You were—are—fucking demeaning to her.” My cheeks flushed. They had to be bright red. “I was trying to teach—” “You and Garrick are both the same.” He turned his head to the side and spat. I winced. So disgusting. I didn’t see his point, but figured he would elaborate, and boy, did he. “Cut from the same cloth. You two deserve each other. No wonder he’s so stuck on you. He’s just as much a judgmental asshole as you are.” I opened my mouth to counter. Turner held up a hand. “Don’t deny it. I can see it in your eyes. You’re looking down on me.” “I would never,” I said quietly, truthfully. “Life’s a bitch. I—”

“Don’t give me that shit!” He glanced at Savannah’s sleeping form and hung his head, but while his tone lowered, his rage didn’t disappear. “You’re the owner of a fucking restaurant—” “My mom died years ago, and I had to either make it in the world or die,” I said hotly. “I chose to live. I chose to fight. I chose to make something out of my life. What did you choose, Turner? The easy way. And where did it get you?” I made a show of looking around as much as I could, given that I was still tied up to the chair. “Not a whole lot to show for it, huh.” He staggered back as if I had hit him. If he wanted a war with words, he would get one. Turner’s face went white, and he pointed to Savannah. “I did it all for her.” “Doesn’t make your choices any less crappy.” I winced inwardly. I really shouldn’t have been provoking him, but damn it all, if he didn’t bring out the mama bear in me. If he couldn’t see his own mistakes and admit to them, he would never change. If he continued to make excuses, he would never change. If he had the chance to continue down this path, he wouldn’t just not change; he would wind up dead. If he hadn’t been able to change for Savannah, the supposed love of his life, then I had my doubts that he would ever change. Didn’t they say that the road to Hell was paved with good intentions? He might’ve taken the drug dealing job for Savannah in order to provide for her, but it would’ve served him, and her, if he would’ve found a real job instead, not one that could get his ass locked up for a long time. “I did make crappy choices,” he muttered, “and you’re right. Life’s a bitch.” His harsh expression melted away, back to that look of remembrance. “I sold some drugs and did decent enough that he gave me a shit ton more to sell. Only…” He inhaled deeply and sank into himself as he sat there on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands. “The drugs I was supposed to sell were stolen.” Hence the need for ransom. I stiffened as a sudden thought occurred to me. If I hadn’t come along, if he hadn’t been able to find me alone and away from Garrick, would Turner have still resorted to kidnapping, but with Savannah as the victim and target instead of me? Would he have called me and demanded ransom for her? But he professed to love her. As long as he thought she loved him, she was safe, right? I swallowed hard. He had been complaining about her crying a lot before I got here. And with his mood swings, he just might’ve called me up soon. While I wasn’t happy about being tied up, I was happy that Savannah wasn’t here alone with him anymore. I’d suffer abuse for her sake. I wasn’t concerned about my own safety—only hers. “He, the drug lord, he’s demanding payment. Threatened me. Threatened…” Turner lowered his hands and glanced at Savannah.

I inhaled sharply. That fucker! Did you mean to tell me that even if we got away, that we would still have to look over our shoulders? That some big time drug dealer was gonna come after us potentially if he didn’t get his money from Turner? Would this nightmare ever end? It must’ve been about four hours that I’d been here. Maybe Garrick wasn’t coming. Maybe I really should try to get the gun. Turner met my gaze and nodded. “I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t have the money, and it wasn’t like I could go after the guys who stole the drugs. They had probably already sold it anyhow. I had to run. I had to. Savannah came along because she loves me.” He sighed, staring at her with a look of longing that would make any woman swoon. But his relationship with her was toxic. His relationship with anyone was toxic. He needed help. A lot of help. Maybe jail would help. Maybe he needed a shrink. All I knew for certain was that I couldn’t help him and neither could Savannah. As long as he doesn’t learn that Savannah’s seen the light. That just might be our saving grace. I leaned forward as much as my restraints would allow. “True love will find a way.” Which I did believe. Love always made things better. It had taken until now for me to risk opening up to someone, and yeah, maybe it was sad that it took tragedy for that to happen, but now that I had found Garrick, I didn’t want to let him go. Maybe time would prove that our love wasn’t the kind to last for years, but I desperately wanted to find that out. I wanted to find out what his favorite meals were, what he liked to do in his spare time. Hell, maybe he could teach me how to ride a motorcycle. I wanted to see what life could hold for us together, and even if we didn’t work out, I wanted to put myself out there again. I wanted love, the kind from fairy tales. “Love doesn’t equal money,” he said, scowling. “No, but I do have some money, like I said before. Let me help you.” He shook his head. “Not enough.” “But—” “I have to do this. I have to.” His gun made a reappearance, and he gripped the handle so tightly his knuckles turned white. “You better hope Garrick comes through with the money.” “Or else?” I asked, trying to play it cool. “This is loaded,” he said quietly. My blood turned to ice in my veins.

Chapter Nineteen Garrick

The drive back to my base took far longer than I would’ve liked. To send out some guys to get some heavier hitting ammo and guns took far longer than I would’ve liked. For us to get all squared away and ready for a showdown took far longer than I would’ve liked. But eventually we were all armed to the teeth, and we rolled out. Two large vans of us. As much as I wanted to be one of the drivers, I elected not to. My hands were shaking—I was hopped up on too much adrenaline. I was more of a liability than anything else at this point. We had to reach Valerie and Savannah in order to save them, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to drive us there safely. It had been over three hours since Turner had made the ransom call, and it was eating away at me that my prep work—all necessary—had taken so long. “Drive faster,” I urged Bob. “Any faster and she’d have to have wings,” Bob called back, sounded way too chipper. Grumbling, swallowing a curse, I sat back in my seat. I was the passenger, a position I wasn’t comfortable with. Behind me, the guys were going on and on about random stupid shit, and I did my best to ignore it until something inside of me snapped. I jerked around and leveled them such a glower that I didn’t have to say anything and they all still shut up immediately anyhow. How had things come to this—for Turner to hold women for ransom? How had I failed him? Maybe I had been too hard on him. Maybe I should’ve insisted he see a shrink and get real help. Or maybe this had nothing to do with me. Like fuck it didn’t. For him to realize how much Valerie meant to me had to mean he’d been keeping tabs on me despite his “running away.” Which meant it was personal. To some degree. All he wanted was money. Money was as impersonal as you could get. “Fuck me,” I mumbled to myself. Bob glanced over. “You all right, boss?” “Just fine,” I grumbled, not wanting to get into it.

“Liar, liar, pants on fire,” Bob sang under his breath. “Grow the fuck up.” I slammed my fist onto the dashboard. Bob jerked. “Sorry,” he said, sounding more sincere than he had since, well, ever. “Don’t worry about it.” I really didn’t want to talk. “Don’t you worry,” he said. “We’ll get him back.” “What the fuck? Don’t you know what’s going on?” “Yeah. Tuner’s got his head up his ass again, and he’s playin’ with us, and he has your bird up for ransom.” “First up, I don’t think he’s playin’,” I growled. “And second, I don’t have a bird.” Bob glanced at me real quick before focusing on the road. “You took her to your place, right?” “Yeah. So?” “You fucked her?” I was silent. I had fucked a lot of women, but the word fucking didn’t fit with what Valerie and I had shared. She wasn’t my bird. She wasn’t even really mine. We hadn’t known each other for long. We didn’t really know each other at all. Not yet. I wanted that to change. I wanted to give us a shot. At what exactly I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t the kind of man to settle down. Or maybe I was and I just needed to find the right woman. Was that Valerie? She had fired and drive and determination and everything else too. What she did for me in the bedroom was amazing. Almost icing on the fucking cake. “He really fucked up this time, hasn’t he?” Bob asked, his tone low. “You got that right.” “Drugs again?” “Yep.” “Using or…”

“Selling. He fucked that up too. Had it stolen.” I hadn’t given the guys all of the details, figuring they would ask if they wanted to know. They weren’t sheep, blindly following me, but I think it was something in my tone, my attitude, or maybe my eyes that made them fall in line without question. “Jesus.” Bob’s foot pressed down on the pedal, and the van sped up even faster with a jerk. We were silent for a time, and I watched the scenery roll on by, the colors blurring together. Bob cleared his throat. “Is all of this firepower necessary?” he asked quietly. I wasn’t used to this side of him. He normally clowned around. Maybe a few jokes were what I needed, but I also kinda appreciated that he was being more levelheaded at the moment. “I hope it isn’t,” I said honestly. Could I pull the trigger on Turner? I sure as hell didn’t want to find out. It sure as fuck better not come to that. He had to see the light before it reached that point. “But we gotta be prepared,” I continued. “For any shit that might hit the fan. I mean, if we were able to track him down, it’s possible that the drug lord he owes money to would be able to too, and if they show up…” “They’ll be packin’ too.” Bob nodded. After a moment, he pursed his lips. “This fucking sucks, though.” “Believe me. I know.” Another silence. Fuck it all, Turner. You just had to go and deal. Why the fuck would you do that? After drugs wrecked your childhood. There were a thousand different ways to make money. A thousand different ways that wouldn’t require you to be bullied into holding women for ransom. If he hurt Valerie or Savannah… Was he a victim, too? In a way, but fuck it, I did not feel compassion toward him right now. When I took him under my wing, I knew he was fucked up in the head. I thought I had helped. Maybe I had some, but obviously it hadn’t been enough. Savannah, if you are in on this… I squirmed in my seat. I didn’t know her except for what Valerie had told me, but somehow I doubted she would be into the drug scene. Not after everything with her mom. Which meant that this whole fucked up situation should hopefully open her eyes and make her end things with Turner for good. Even if Turner survived this and got the help he needed and started to walk the straight and narrow, I still didn’t think the two of them should get back together. Turner would need to move forward with his life and not look backward, and Savannah probably would need that too.

Valerie… There was so much I wanted to tell her. So many things I wanted to do with her. So many things I wanted to do to her. I’ll find you. I’ll save you. Just hang on. Be strong. Don’t break. And don’t piss Turner off. Who knows what the fuck he’s capable of right now. He probably feels like a caged rat right about now. A slight smile came to my lips as I recalled how Valerie had been when we first met. Her sharp tongue, her biting words, her fierce protectiveness of her daughter… I’d been drawn to her right from the start, but if she wanted to be able to snap witty retorts to me, she would need to hold her tongue around Turner. There was a chance that the pressure might get to him, that he might start using again, and if he did, the probability of someone getting shot would go sky high. Valerie might be impulsive—like when she went to the bar even though we’d agreed she wouldn’t— but she was also reasonable and smart. She would do everything she could to keep herself and Savannah alive. She wouldn’t provoke Turner. But if Turner was using, he might not need something to set him off. Fuck, we could not get there fast enough.

Chapter Twenty Valerie

Savannah was still sleeping, but I couldn’t focus on her. I kept eyeing Turner and his gun. Was it better or worse that he had taken it out? Probably worse. At least he seemed to have calm down a little since he announced that the gun was loaded. Maybe he felt like he was more in charge now. I didn’t know. But it was time for me to try and make a play, for better or for worse. “I have to go to the bathroom,” I announced. He had been staring at his gun, but now he lifted his gaze to me. “Go ahead and piss yourself.” “Seriously?” I snapped. “You really think Savannah’s gonna be happy with you letting her mom wet herself?” He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter.” “You let me go earlier!” “And you should be good. Wasn’t that long ago you went.” I glowered at him. Did he suspect? Maybe I was telegraphing my plans by looking at the gun too much. Damn it! Time to change tactics slightly. “Do you really want to smell my urine until Garrick arrives with the money?” He glowered right back at me. “The smell would dissipate.” Damn him! Fuck. My plan to get free had been thwarted. I just didn’t see how I could get my hands on his gun while tied up, and if he refused to untie me so I could pee, then how else could I convince? I doubted there was a way. Shit! If only he would leave the motel room. I wanted to talk to Savannah alone again. “Fine,” I bit out. “I guess I’ll do my best to hold it, but don’t you dare complain if the room starts to

smell.” He actually cracked a small smile. “I won’t complain.” I rolled my eyes, but at least he tucked his gun inside the back of his jeans. If I couldn’t get it away from him, it at least made me feel better to not have it in his hands. Just then, my phone went off. Throughout our conversation, someone or someones had been trying to get ahold of me, calling every few minutes. Turner’s face turned purple. He was starting to get majorly agitated about it as he once again rejected the call. Maybe he should just turn it off already and be done with it. “What the hell?” he grumbled a little loudly. “Did they put up a new tower or something now that you’re getting good reception?” I had no illusions that it was Garrick calling. He would’ve started calling a long time ago, hours ago. Maybe it was someone from the restaurant. Maybe a problem had come up. The mystery was too much for me, so I couldn’t help asking, “Who’s calling?” Turner’s gaze slid to Savannah. She was stirring. “Cassidy. Why the fuck is she calling you?” “Oh.” My racing heartbeat slowed. A part of me had hoped it was Garrick calling. Where the hell was he? He was coming for us, right? I wasn’t sure how long Turner had held us captive, but it sure felt like forever. He kept the curtains pulled tight, so I couldn’t tell if it was night or day, and he also unplugged the alarm clock. He’d mumbled something about having a migraine. Guessed the bright light from the numbers didn’t help. “Why the fuck is she calling you?” Turner repeated. “I’m not gonna ask you again.” “I called her a few times to see if she knew where Savannah was,” I said calmly. “We got to talking some about her and her boyfriend, and I gave her some advice. She probably wants more.” Savannah stretched and sat up. She snorted and rolled her eyes. “No one wants dating advice from you, Valerie.” I winced. Savannah had gotten so deep into her role of being on Turner’s side that she was back to talking down to me. Hell, she was so convincing that when she ganged up with him against me, it was almost impossible for me to not take it personally. And it was even worse to hear her call me by my first name again after she’d called me mom so many times after I found her. We haven’t been alone in forever—Turner won’t leave the room and hadn’t had any more phone conversations, and he hadn’t even close the door to the bathroom when he showered so we couldn’t even talk then since he took the world’s quickest showers—so we were

stuck using the plan from before with her trying to keep Turner calm. “Now, now,” Turner said condescendingly, “Cassidy knows to do the opposite of whatever she says.” “Cassidy probably wants to tell her just that. ‘I didn’t listen to your advice, and I’m so glad I didn’t!’” Savannah giggled, but she wouldn’t look at me. I swallowed hard. I could take the abuse—that was fine—but that didn’t mean that the words didn’t sting, even if I knew—hoped—that Savannah didn’t mean them. And wasn’t that sad? That I wasn’t completely certain that Savannah had truly seen the light about Turner. No. That was just my being paranoid. Savannah had changed. She had learned. Maybe, if something good could come out of all of this huge mess, it was this—that Savannah once and for all broke ties with Turner. God willing, she would avoid all kinds of guys who were Turner in disguise, and she’d hold out for a good guy, one who deserved her and who would make her happy and didn’t use and abuse her. A guy like Garrick. My cheeks grew warm, and Turner laughed cruelly. “I know you always said that your mom needed to get laid, but, hell, that doesn’t seem to have made her any less uptight.” “That guy must not be a good lay.” Savannah shrugged. “Are you hungry, babe?” “Yeah. Want me to order a pizza?” “Sure!” Yes! Go order pizza and go pick it up! But damn it all. He didn’t leave. He didn’t even have to make a phone call. He ordered straight from his phone, and it only took twenty minutes for the food to arrive. And before the delivery guy showed up, Turner fucking gagged me. He pushed me and the tied up chair away so that it wouldn’t be visible from the door. As soon as the delivery guy knocked, Turner grabbed the food and closed the door in the span of two seconds. Literally. Savannah didn’t even have time to yell for help. Did my level of hate for Turner have no bounds? As soon as Turner placed the pizza box on the bed, without having to be asked, Savannah grabbed a large slice from the pie. Turner sat on the bed, waiting expectantly, and Savannah delivered. She walked right on over to him, sat on his lap, and proceeded to feed him a bite. I had to look away. My stomach was churning. I was hungry, but I wasn’t about to ask for food.

Turner ate eagerly, licking and kissing Savannah’s fingers in between bites. She giggled and hugged him, and if he was anyone else, it might actually have been cute, but that was what Turner was best at —being two-faced. Cute and sweet and endearing for a few minutes and then the next, cruel and demanding. It stemmed from his insecurities, but that didn’t make it right. Just because you had a rough upbringing didn’t mean you couldn’t try to rise above it. Yeah, that was easier said than done, but Turner had gotten cleaned up a little. He’d started on the path that would make him a better man, and then he had regressed, and now he owed enough money to a drug lord that he was stooping to kidnapping. I hope you land your ass in jail. I shot daggers at him with my eyes. I hope you get straightened out one day. And I really did. Did I think that would ever happen, though? Nope. Turner finished the pizza, and Savannah stood to throw his paper plate away. He walked over to the sink and washed his hands when my cell rang again. He really should just turn it off. I opened my mouth to ask him to do just that, but he removed it from his pocket. Maybe he was gonna do it with my having to mention it. But he just stared down at it, scowling. “I don’t want her thinking you ran off too,” he said slowly. “Answer it, but I swear, if you try to give her a hint as to any of this…” He removed his gun from tucked behind his back and pointed it at my head. I nodded. “You gotta answer for me.” “You do it,” he snapped. I glanced at my bindings. He flushed. “Savannah, you gotta keep quiet, okay? Just for a little.” He threw me a wicked glance that made my skin crawl. “I know it’s not easy for you to stay quiet and all, babe, especially when we’re fucking, but…” I grimaced. If I could kick him in the balls right now, I wouldn’t hesitate. “I’ll be good,” Savannah promised, but she walked over to him and pinched his butt. Everything from the cocky tilt of her head to her lopsided grin oozed of sexual appeal. Actress is right. A damn good one, too. Maybe she should forget about going into psychology and just

head for Hollywood. Chuckling, Turner whispered something in her ear before swiping for me and then putting the call on speaker. “Valerie? Are you there?” Cassidy’s loud voice filled the room. “I’m here.” I cleared my throat. “What’s up?” “So I did what you said.” Turner snorted and covered his mouth. “What was that?” Cassidy asked. “The TV,” I lied smoothly. “So you…” What had I told her to do? Oh, yeah. “You went out and had a day to yourself. How did it go?” “Terribly!” she wailed. “I had never been more bored in my life. I am so not meant to be single!” “What did you do?” I asked. “I watched a few movies on Netflix, but then I remembered that you really wanted me to leave the house, so I went to the movies and watched a romantic comedy, and it was just so perfect and funny and sappy, and my life isn’t like that at all.” “No one’s is.” “But that’s what I want,” she said. “I need that. I need the happiness. I need a break.” “A break from…” “From everything!” she wailed. Turner rolled his eyes. Savannah bit her lower lip. She opened her mouth, closed it, and dropped her gaze to the ground. “Then take a break,” I suggested, staring at Savannah. “How did Jake take you having a day to yourself?” “He didn’t care for it.” “Why not?” I asked. I was only half paying attention to the conversation. Should I be trying to warn Savannah through my talk with Cassidy? Or should I be trying to relay a hint to Cassidy? But how? Turner was stilling pointing the gun to me with one hand, the cell in his other. While I didn’t think he

would actually shoot me, I also didn’t want to set him off. He had been disappearing into the bathroom a lot more often lately—never for long and he always kept the door open—but his personality would always change then. He’d laugh more, his eyes were glossy, and I had a feeling he had a stash of drugs hidden away. Whenever his high came down, he tended to be either sad or angry. “None of his friends were around, so he was forced to have a day to himself too,” she said. “Maybe that was a good thing,” I said. “You could both see how you were alone and—” “I’m not sure he was alone,” she said quietly. “What do you mean?” “I think he cheated on me.” Savannah made a low sound from her throat, and Turner shot her a warning glare. She clapped her hands over her mouth and walked into the bathroom, shutting the door behind her. “Do you have any proof?” I asked. Why had Savannah reacted that way? Just because she was upset that her best friend might have been cheated? Or because it struck a nerve closer to home? I couldn’t help myself. I glowered at Turner. Had he ever cheated on her? Savannah hadn’t always told me the reason for their many break ups. I had assumed they would just get into fights, but maybe cheating had been involved. Asshole. Turner leveled me a cool glare back. “I…I found…” Cassidy sniffed. “What did you find?” I asked gently. Forget trying to send a message. Cassidy was hurting. Even though I was tied up and kidnapped, I might still be able to help her. “A condom,” she wailed. I hesitated. While I didn’t want details, I kinda had to have them. “How do you know it wasn’t for you?” “Because it’s the kind with spermicide. I can’t use that kind. Allergic to it. Why would he have that kind of condom unless he was cheating on me?” “Might it have been from a previous relationship?” There was a slight pause. “I don’t think so.”

“Come on, Cassidy. You’ve…” I trailed off. Mentioning all the guys she’d been with over the years might not be the best way to go about making her feel better. “The condom was in his top dresser drawer. It hadn’t been there before.” “Does he have a roommate?” I suggested. I couldn’t remember. One thing I did have to give Cassidy credit for was that she didn’t move in with all the guys she dated. She kept her own apartment. She might not actually spend a lot of time there, but if she needed to, she did have a place she could go to. “No.” She sighed. “I know you’re trying to make me feel better, but shouldn’t you be telling me to dump his ass?” “I think you should talk to him. Ask him about the condom. Don’t confront him about it. See what he has to say about it. Then decide if you believe him or not and figure out what you wanna do after that.” There was another slight pause. Turner was tapping his foot. He gestured with his hand holding the gun for me to wrap it up. “I can’t just ask him—” “Why not?” I demanded. “A relationship is about trust. You need to trust him—to tell you the truth, to not be cheating on you. A relationship is also about communication. You have to talk to him. Don’t you want to know the truth?” “Maybe it’s better not to know.” She sounded torn. “No,” I said firmly. “Being in the dark isn’t ever good enough. You can’t have a real relationship if one side is keeping secrets. I get that you’re scared, that you don’t want to learn that he’s cheating on you, but—” “So you think he is cheating on me.” She blew out air. “Damn it. Where the hell is Savannah? I wanna talk to her. We need to go out and get drunk and—” “You wanna go out, go out.” I avoided looking at Turner, but I could still feel his irritation and anxiety rolling off him in waves. He was getting worried. Afraid I’d slip up. I wasn’t gonna slip up, but I might try and plant some seeds into Cassidy’s head. “I know you think I’m all dried up, that I don’t need sex like you do,” I started, “but that’s not true. I’ve been having some lately, and—” “You have?” Cassidy perked up for the first time since we started talking.

“Yes. And it’s actually with a friend of Turner’s. The guy in charge of the—” Turner shoved the gun’s barrel into the middle of my forehead. I gulped. “Anyhow, we’re not just fucking. We’re not just having sex. We’re making love. And there’s a difference.” “Yeah, yeah. I know—” “Do you?” I pressed. “Because sometimes it can be confusing. Find someone who loves you and that you love back. Find someone to make love with. Find someone you can talk to without fear about any topic. Find someone you can do more than just spend time underneath the sheets with.” Cassidy hmmed. “And you think I need to find myself first before I can find someone like that.” “I’m not saying you have to find someone new. For all we know, that condom means nothing. Or maybe it does. Maybe Jake isn’t the guy for you. You deserve a fairy tale, Cassidy. You deserve happiness. Don’t settle.” I sure hoped Savannah was listening despite being in the bathroom. She needed to hear this too. “Good advice. Savannah’s been right.” “About?” I felt shocked, and Turner looked shocked himself. “You needing to get laid. You’re actually giving really good advice. Huh. So you’re getting some. What’s his name again?” I can’t risk it, and Turner’s lifting the gun so it’s level with my forehead. “I gotta go,” I said in a rush. “My guy’s gonna be coming along soon, and—” “Say no more! Thanks, Savannah’s mom!” Turner disconnected the call. “Why the fuck did you—” “I didn’t mention his name,” I said calmly, doing my best to ignore the cool metal pressed against my forehead. “And it’s not like his name would cause an issue anyhow. Cassidy’s not gonna do any digging.” Actually, I was kinda hoping Cassidy would be nosy. That she’d find out Garrick. That she might try to find him and ask for details. Because if she can hunt him down, at least Garrick would know I’m all right. It was a stretch, but my options were so limited right now that I would take what I could get. Turner cocked back his arm. Was he gonna hit me with the gun again? Better that than him firing it.

“Turner,” Savannah called from the bathroom. Her voice sounded a little shaky. Uh oh. My stomach twisted nervously. She wasn’t gonna start deviating from the plan, was she? For the most part, it was going well. “What is it, babe?” Turner called, his arm upraised yet. “Can’t I go and see Cassidy?” she pleaded. She walked out of the bathroom, and Turner immediately lowered his arm, but he didn’t put the gun away. Her eyes were puffy, and her nose was red. She held a wad of toilet paper to her nose. “She needs me. Jake is—” “An ass. I hated that guy from the start. Tried to tell you both. If you would’ve listened to me, none of this would’ve happened.” Turner scowled. Savannah took a deep breath. She was trembling. Uh oh. I had a bad feeling about this. Really bad. Savannah, you don’t wanna provoke him. Not when he has his gun out. I tried to catch her gaze, but she was staring at the worn carpet. “You’re right. She should’ve taken your thoughts into account,” Savannah started. I winced. Yeah, because every girl cared about what her best friend’s guy thought. Somehow, I refrained from rolling my eyes. “Maybe,” I said, but before I could say more, Savannah cut me off. “I know you never cheated on me,” she continued, and I felt marginally better, “and I never cheated on you, but Cassidy… She’s been through so much. Let me go and—” “You aren’t leaving,” Turner said coldly. A muscle in his jaw jumped, and he was tapping his gun against his thigh, like he wanted to remind us that he had it. “Cassidy will be fine,” I said. I stared at Savannah, trying to give her some of my strength. She just needed to hold out a little longer. Just a little longer. Garrick had to be coming. He had to be. Traffic must’ve held him up, but he would make it through soon. I hoped. I prayed. “So will we,” I continued. “We’ll all be fine. We’ll walk away and—” “And what?” Turner snapped. “Go back to our happy lives? Don’t you see?” he hissed. “Nothing will be like it was.” My gaze shifted to the gun. “No it won’t,” I said a little coolly. Damn. Even I was losing my composure. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t all survive this.”

Fuck. My voice cracked a little. If I couldn’t remain strong, how could I expect Savannah to be? “Baby,” Savannah said, coming over to Turner and holding onto his arm. Good. She needed to calm him down. His face was red, and if he were a cartoon, smoke would be coming out of his ears. She had worked magic on him earlier. She could do it again. He jerked away from her. “Don’t touch me,” he growled. “Two hours,” she begged. “That’s all I need.” Oh, Savannah. Stop. He won’t let you go. Stop asking for it. He’s just gonna get more pissed off! “No.” He sat down on the edge of the bed, his hands on his head, the gun pointing toward the wall. As long as he had that out, I couldn’t breathe right. “Then the phone,” Savannah pleaded. “Let me call her and—” “No!” Turner jerked to his feet so suddenly, so swiftly, that Savannah stumbled backward. “Why not?” Savannah caught herself, straightened, and narrowed her eyes. Her tears had dried up, and now she was pissed. Fuck. Fighting fire with fire wasn’t going to go over well at all. “You let her talk to Cassidy.” She gestured violently toward me. “Why can’t I?” “Just do what I say, and it’ll all work out,” Turner growled, his voice low and menacing. “Work out? You’ll pay off the drug lord and then what? You’d have to skip town, get a new place, find a job… What do you wanna bet that there won’t be any jobs? Then what? Gonna go back to selling drugs?” Savanah was fuming mad. I had to try and stop this. “I’m sure he’ll be able to find a job doing…” But they both ignored me, not that I could think up of a job. “What do you mean?” he asked slowly. “What do I mean? Come on, Turner! You can’t expect—” “A mechanic!” I shouted. “Turner, you could be a mechanic. Just think about the amount of money you could charge per hour! It would be perfect! You like motorcycles, right? You have to be handy with them.”

He didn’t even glance my way. The look on his face as he stalked toward Savannah left me terrified. “What do you mean I’ll have to skip town?” he asked, his voice terribly cold. I tried to jerk my wrists, twisting and yanking, trying to loosen the impossibly tight restraints, but I was bound too tightly. I couldn’t get free. Savannah backed up. “You… You don’t listen to me,” she said, her voice quivering. He advanced more. “You don’t listen to me half the time.” She bumped into the TV as she kept backing up. “You don’t care about my friends.” “You never cared for mine.” He narrowed the distance between them. By now, Savannah was as far away from him as she could get, trapped in a corner. He stood in front of her, arms up, pining her there in place. “You aren’t planning on leaving me, are you?” There was a raw edge of pain in his voice. Despite his loudness, despite his threats, despite his anger, he cared, almost too much. He had made Savannah his whole world, pinned all of his faith and trust in her. Too bad he didn’t know how to treat her right so that she’s stay by his side. “Turner,” she said desperately. I had to say something, anything to get them to stop. “I have to pee!” I shouted even though that tactic hadn’t worked earlier. Neither looked at me. “Well?” Turner demanded. “I… I don’t…” “Don’t what?” His grip on the gun tightened. It wasn’t pointed at her, but how long would that remain the case? “Fire!” I shrieked, desperate enough to try screaming again. “Help! Someone call the police! We’re being—” Something hard slammed against my head. For a second, my vision darkened to total blackness, but then I blinked and lifted my head.

Turner was staring down at me. “You pull that shit again, and I swear I’ll kill you.” My head was pounding, and my ears were ringing. I knew I mouthed the word, “Fire,” but whether or not I actually said it, I didn’t know. He brought up his arm again. Savannah grabbed his arm and pulled back. “Don’t you hit her!” she shrieked. “You stupid fuck. Don’t you see that you ruined everything? I thought I loved you. I wanted to live with you, to marry you, to have our lives be one. I didn’t need money. I needed you! But you had to go and get sucked back up into the darkness. You had to go and fuck it all up.” She took a deep breath, and I thought she was going to burst into tears, but she just narrowed her eyes and slammed her fists onto his chest. “You—” He grabbed both of her wrists with one hand. “‘Loved,’ huh? You mean to tell me you don’t love me anymore?” Her eyes went wide, and she twisted around to look at me. Tell him you love him still, I tried to tell her with my eyes. “I…” She hesitated. “Don’t look at her!” Turner shook Savannah. She shrieked. “You’re hurting me!” “Do you love me?” Turner demanded. “Do you love me?” Savannah countered. Good. That might work. “Or do you love your drugs or money more?” she continued. Fuck. Turner went to strike her. I lunged forward, and the chair tipped over, clattering to the ground with me still tied to it. Turner, cursing under his breath, put me back upright. He kept his face inches from mine. “You did this. You twisted her against me.” A sudden wave of lethargy washed over me. “No,” I said, my speech slurring slightly. “You did that yourself.”

Savannah was back to crying again, like she had when I first came. Had he broken her? Damn it. This wasn’t good. What the fuck could I do to get us out of this mess? “Turner,” I said desperately. “Shut up,” he directed toward Savannah. He turned back to me. “That goes for you, too.” I glowered at him. Who the fuck did he think he was? The sympathy I might’ve felt for him was swiftly disappearing. At some point, you had to stop using your upbringing as an excuse and start taking responsibility for your actions. And his actions weren’t of a man in love. More like a man who desperately wanted some measure of control. “Turner, you have one last chance,” I said. “Let us go. I’ll give you some money. You can create an alias and start over fresh, away from the drugs and all of that crap. Or you can wait for Garrick to come. Because you know he’s coming. And it won’t be with the money.” “You think Garrick’s gonna save you, honey?” He laughed long and loud and obnoxiously. “Garrick doesn’t give a damn about anyone.” A shiver ran down my spine. I didn’t believe what he was saying. I couldn’t. Garrick did give a damn —about me, about Turner even. “If you thought he doesn’t give a damn about me,” I said slowly. He started to nod. “Then why the whole ransom bit? Just in case. I’m running out of options, and that makes me desperate.” The guy actually stroked his gun, petting it. I swallowed hard. Turner had crossed the line into madness. Whether or not it was drug-induced or full blown, I didn’t know and it didn’t matter. Think, Valerie! How can you calm him down? Talking about the past was out. That would only get him to remember bad memories. Talking about the future was out too. Money issues would only cause him more stress. What about right now? Thinking about Cassidy made me think about the beach, and I blurted out, “What about a destination wedding?” Savannah burst into a fresh round of tears, and I did my best not to grimace. Yeah, dangling her before him might not be for the best, but Turner wasn’t the only one running out of options. “You could pick an island. Get married on the beach. Start a new life. Turner, you don’t have to do this!”

He kneeled down in front of me. “Oh, but, Valerie, here’s the thing: I already am. And aren’t parents supposed to encourage kids to see things through until the bitter end?” “The end doesn’t have to be bitter,” I said softly. Turner glowered at Savannah over his shoulder. “It already is.” Fuck. If he thought things between him and Savannah were really over, it would only make him that much more desperate, that much more unpredictable. “Yes, it is,” Savannah said. She’s continuing to cry, but she seemed angrier now. “How can you expect me to want to be with you when you would tie up my mom? Threaten us with a gun?” “I was doing this all for you! Can’t you see that?” he asked, almost pleading, although his tone was getting edgier and angrier, too. “I think—” I started, but neither of them were paying me any attention. “You’ve always been so demanding,” Savannah said. “Me? What about you? You always wanted me to buy you shit like that stupid dress that made your ass look huge.” “There’s no need for—” Again, they ignored me. “Maybe if you had been truthful about how the dress looked on me—” Savannah started. “It’s not about the fucking dress!” he shouted. “Damn straight it’s not. It’s about how you couldn’t be completely truthful ever. I liked you right from the start because you were mysterious, you were a bad ass, and you had charm. But you took forever to open up to me to shed the mystery, you could be just a plain ass, and you were charming only when you wanted to be.” “I opened up to you,” he protested, his voice not quite so loud this time. Savannah was breathing heavily, but she also seemed to be calming down a little. “Yes, but even that was like getting you to pull teeth. You only give me little bits here and there, and honestly, Turner, I’m not sure I still have the whole story.” “You do,” he said, but he lowered his head, no longer looking at her. At least he put his gun away— that made me breathe easier, although I still didn’t have a good feeling about things.

“You know my whole story.” Savannah sniffled some. “I do.” Turner nodded. He reached toward her, but then he lowered his hand. Good. He better not touch her. Because Savannah slid me a glance. She was back to acting again, I could tell, but if he touched her, that spell she was weaving might crumble. How in the world had she gotten so strong? “So how could you have done this?” Savannah asked quietly. “How could you have turned to drugs when you know my mom did that? She picked drugs over me, Turner.” Her voice was low, but intense. “I didn’t—” “You did. You’re using again. Damn it, Turner! You said the last time would be the last, and I believed you!” What the hell? Savannah knew he’d used drugs recently? Why hadn’t she told me? Why hadn’t I been a better mom that she would come to me with that kind of info? “I was clean for—” “What, five months? Turner, we’ve been together how long? Why—” “You’ve never done drugs,” he said, snarling. “You don’t know what it’s like.” “And I don’t want to know! I’ve never wanted to know! Drugs ruined my mom’s life. She’s in jail because of it, and I’m glad!” “Is that what you want for me? Is it? Huh?” He stalked toward her. Savannah didn’t back down. “I think you need help.” “Help?” He moved so quickly Savannah didn’t have time to react—he backhanded her. She gasped, and her hand went to her cheek. “Don’t you dare hit her!” I yelped. The gun came back out, and, eyes wild, he stared me down. “Don’t you dare tell me what to do!” “Turner!” Savannah shrieked. She didn’t back away yet, and she visibly tried to gather her bearings. “Sometimes… Sometimes you have to let someone g-go…” He said nothing, his gaze shifting back and forth between us, the gun somewhat gestured in my

direction. Better me than Savannah. “Sometimes you have to let someone go when you love them,” she said, her voice trembling. “That’s bull shit,” Turner said. “You never loved me, did you?” “Of course I did!” Tears streamed down Savannah’s face, but silently. She wasn’t sobbing. “You never cared about me. You’re all the same. No one…” Turner shook his head, crossed over to me, and pressed the gun to the middle of my forehead. “Do it,” I taunted him. “Do it and you’ll never be with Savannah again.” He pressed harder, and I did my best not to wince. Hell, did that hurt! “I’ll do it. I’ll off you. Off her. Off myself. We can be together,” he breathed. “You and me, baby. Together forever.” “In life, Turner,” Savannah said, sounding the scariest she had yet. “In life, Turner, not death!” “What kind of life will we have, Savannah? Tell me that. I’ve fucked it up. I’ve fucked it all up. I know that.” His hand was shaking, but the gun was always facing me. “We can’t have a life together.” “You… You don’t know that…” Savannah dashed forward and yanked on his arm. “If Garrick comes with the money,” I said. “I don’t think he will.” “Why not? You’re a part of Fate’s Talons, right? You’re a part of his family. He would never hurt—” “He cares about you,” Turner interrupted me. “You’re his family now. And I crossed the line. I know I did, and I did it anyway. I’m screwed. Either Garrick will come for me or the drug lord will, and I’m gonna end up dead either way. I’m a dead man.” He turned toward Savannah, but I could still see his face. There was love there and fear—so much fear. “We don’t all have to die,” Savannah whispered. Just like that, the love in his eyes died. Desperation rolled over me, and my stomach was so twisted and knotted that I thought I was going to throw up. “Garrick doesn’t think of me as family,” I argued. “We fucked a few times, yeah, but that’s it. We’re nothing serious.”

Turner wasn’t even looking at me. “You would rather live without me than with me.” “Because of the stunts you pulled lately, well, yeah! I know people make mistakes, Turner, but this…” Savannah started to sniff. Back to the angry crying. “This is bullshit, Turner! Let my mom and I go!” “I can’t. I can’t. You… Savannah, I know I screwed up—” “Shut it, Turner. This isn’t something you can fix with words or money or sex. We’re…” “Don’t you dare say it,” he growled. “We’re done!” she shouted. Turner lunged toward Savannah. She darted to the left, but he grabbed ahold of her hair and yanked her backward. Fuck. He still had the gun! I jerked and twisted and jerked some more, and my chair moved slightly toward them. Savannah was clawing at Turner’s face and arms, and he yelped and threw her away from him and onto the floor. He didn’t point the gun at her, though. It was pointed back to me. Savannah’s eyes went wide. “You wouldn’t dare!” “Wouldn’t I?” His eyes were wild. “I have nothing to live for if I don’t have you. There’s no going back now.” “There…” Tears streamed down her face, and I could barely make out what she was saying. “There won’t be if you kill my mom. If you ever want a chance for us… If I ever meant anything to you…” Turner’s hand began to shake. “I can’t handle this,” he muttered. Sweat appeared on his forehead, and he was shivering. “Savannah…” He had pinned all of his hopes and dreams and happiness on her, but she hadn’t been enough for him. He was too damaged. No girl would’ve been enough. That was the thing. One person can’t equal your happiness. You had to create happiness within yourself and without, too. You needed someone to balance you out, someone who challenged you, someone who opened your eyes to new horizons. You needed someone who made you a better person. Turner sure as hell didn’t do that for Savannah considering how many fights she and I would get into after she spent some time with him. Turner had no respect for authority, not after the stunts his parents pulled. Garrick had tried to straighten him out, and Savannah had done some, obviously. I never would’ve thought that Turner would have talked to me like he did earlier. Then again, those other sides of him, like when he hit me with the gun, that was the asshole who needed to get the hell out of our lives pronto.

These thoughts flew through my head in seconds. Savannah lunged forward toward Turner. Turner jerked away. I tried to move my chair more, but it was caught. The gun when off. Savannah screamed. I did, too.

Chapter Twenty-One Garrick

The miles trickled by, far slower than I would’ve liked. Why couldn’t we be there already? While I hoped Turner wasn’t doing anything stupid, I was growing sick with worry. Damn traffic. There was an accident, and we were at a crawl. It had been more than four hours now since Turner had called, and I couldn’t handle it. We had to get the fuck out of this fucking traffic, and we had to do it the fuck right now. “Drive along the shoulder.” “There’s a cop not far back,” Bob protested. “So?” “We can’t afford to be pulled over.” “So don’t pull over.” Bob glanced over at me, raised his eyebrows, and gave me a hell of a devilish grin. He would have to find a way to merge over to reach the shoulder, but it would be worth it. While he worked on that, I checked my gun over. Everything appeared in working order. The fuck was Turner thinking, pulling this shit. Obviously the punk wasn’t thinking. A part of me absolutely hated that we were doing this—that we were readying to take up arms against one of our own. But, honestly, a lot of the guys had always viewed Turner as more of a comrade than as a full-fledged member. Some of that was because of his age, but some of it was also because of the stunts he pulled. Turner had always been a little immature, and he didn’t understand that you couldn’t just take, take, take. Everything should be give and take, and the ones who abused others were not tolerated for long, not in my world. Valerie was a taker, too, but there was a difference. She took and built on it and made something of herself. She didn’t step on others to do it. Her restaurant was a testament to what a working woman could accomplish. And in the bedroom—there she was give and take. Damn, could she give and take. The things we did to each other was amazing, and the things I wanted to do to her yet… But more than just sex, I wanted to take Valerie away from all of this hell. Sweep her off her feet. Maybe go on a long vacation. A cruise somewhere. Just the two of us. Hell if she wanted to bring

Savannah along, too, that would be fine with me. And then once we came back, then what? I wanted to go to her restaurant. I wanted to talk with her all hours of the night. I wanted to spend time with her horizontal. I wanted it all. And I wanted it now. I had never been this obsessed with a woman before, and in such a short amount of time, too. Would we have staying power as a couple? I didn’t know. I sure as hell hoped we did, but only time would tell. And if we didn’t get the fuck to that motel soon, there might not be enough time for us to find out. “Damn it, Bob! Do you need me to—” “Sit back,” Bob snapped. “If I can’t see, I sure as hell can’t merge. Come on, asshole.” I glowered at him. “Who you callin’ an asshole?” Bob honked and then jerked the wheel. “That dipshit I just cut in front of.” He glanced in his rearview mirror. “You really want me to?” “Yes!” I growled. He nodded. “Looks like the cop’s pointed the other way. Hold on. We’re gonna fly!” The tires squealed, and we peeled out, flying down the thin shoulder. A few cars honked, and I saw a lot of mouths flapping and middle fingers flashing, but I didn’t care. We took the next exit, and we had to figure out a new route, but at least we were moving again. And even better, that cop didn’t tail us. We were in the clear! But who knew if our luck would hold. Especially since the other van hadn’t gotten over when we had. “Bob, pull over,” I dictated. We would wait for a few minutes, and if the other van didn’t appear by then, we would just continue on without them. I wasn’t gonna wait forever. Serious honking sounded behind us. The van flew up, and Bob gunned it, and we were back to caravanning it. Good. Although I didn’t want it to come down to a shootout, I felt much better having both numbers of men and guns on my side. Especially because… oh, fuck…what if we weren’t the first ones to reach Turner? Yeah, I had talked to that stupid, pompous drug lord, and threatened him even, but what if he decided he didn’t want to

wait to collect his money? If I could track down Turner, and especially since my main lead had been from regulars at the fucker’s bar, then he could track down Turner, too, and once you had the town, it wouldn’t be that hard to figure out where exactly Turner was staying… Turner really was a dipshit. Maybe I had failed him, but at some point, he had to be held accountable for his actions, and his actions had led him to this point, where his own friends, his own family, had turned against him. He had no one. And when he realized he was truly alone—because I had to believe that Savannah saw the light by now, I mean, come on, Turner was holding her mother for ransom!—he’d be incredibly desperate. Caged animals tended to attack, even if they knew they couldn’t win. And there was no way in hell that Turner was gonna win. “How much farther?” I all but growled. “Ten minutes, give or take.” “Make it five,” I ordered. Bob flashed me a quick grin and floored it. I checked my side mirror. The other van was keeping close to our tail. Good. Power in numbers. Power in gunfire. But I sure hoped and prayed that we wouldn’t have to fire a single shot. What if one of us missed and hit Valerie or Savannah? And, despite everything, I didn’t want to shoot Turner either. Messed up kid might not be able to turn his life around. I’d tried. Maybe jail could straight him out. Or maybe he just needed a final out. I didn’t want to be the one to end his life, but if it came down to him or one of the women, it killed me to say it, but I would pick the women. Never ever did I think I would ever think such a thing. My men were my family, and I would bend over backward for them. I would give them the shirt off my back, given the housing, pay their rent if they were between jobs… anything and everything. What was mine was theirs. For so many years, I had taken that adage “bros before hoes” to heart. Maybe that was why I had so many one-night stands and short relationships. Maybe I hadn’t met the right woman yet. I mean, I cared for Valerie despite not knowing her for a long time. I could easily see myself falling in love with her. I desperately wanted to give us a chance at something huge. We might work, we might not, but I wanted that chance. Turner would not take that away from us. And I had a feeling that Valerie wouldn’t turn into one of those clingy women that would want me to ditch the Fate’s Talons. That would be the only deal breaker for me. I would not turn my back on my men, on my family.

One might argue that that was exactly what I was doing with Turner, but that wasn’t the case. If anything, he had turned his back on us. He’d chosen drugs over us. He’d chosen to not ask for help. My stomach twisted. I should’ve realized that he needed help, though. How had I missed the signs? There had been one other time that I’d noticed that he seemed to be slipping into bad habits. He’d just lost his part time job, and he might’ve been on a break from Savannah or another girl at the time. I’d caught him lying, and he hadn’t been at events he’d said he would go to, and I’d pulled him aside and asked him if he needed anything. “Nothing,” he had said without looking at me. “Nothing, huh?” I poured some whiskey from my personal stash and handed it to him. This had been a few months after he turned twenty-one. In two months, he’d be twenty-three. He’d stared at it and then gulped it down, draining all of the amber liquid. I had shaken my head. “Whiskey is meant to be savored.” He’d eyed the bottle, and I poured him more but then held the glass away. “Can you handle this?” I had asked him. “Yeah.” I lowered the glass onto the table but didn’t slid it over to him. “Can you handle whatever it is that makes you want to drink?” Turner drummed his fingers onto the table. Then he reached over and clutched the glass, taking it out of my hands, but he didn’t drink it. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “You know you can always come to me, right?” “I hate living with Steven. He snores. He never cleans up after himself and makes me wash his dishes. His taste in music is terrible—” “What’s wrong with eighties music?” I demanded with a smile. Turned rolled his eyes. “If you want to move in with me,” I started to offer. He shook his head. “I don’t wanna live with you or one of the other Fate’s Talon’s guys.” “So find your own place,” I suggested.

“I need a job first,” he muttered. So I had helped him with resumes and helped him go job hunting, and he found a new job, and he started to laugh and smile more. He had seemed happy. He seemed to be doing well. Or maybe I just hadn’t seen the signs, or he got better at hiding them. Maybe he hadn’t started using and only sold the drugs. That would’ve made it easier for me to be duped. Considering how much he’d hated his father for using drugs and his attempts to stay clean, I never would’ve thought Turner would be the kind to sell drugs, to get others hooked on it. I was disappointed, but who was I more disappointed in—him or me? I wasn’t sure. The tires squealed, and the van jerked to a halt. “We’re here,” Bob said unnecessarily. The other van was still parking as I jumped out of the van. With little patience, I waited for everyone to get out. Moonshine Motel. We were parked around back. Good. Hopefully Turner hadn’t seen us pull up. The place was a fucking dump. A place that a rat would hide in and grow to be the size of a tiger. There were probably roaches and other bugs. Just thinking about it made my skin crawl. You wanted a place of your own, Turner, but I didn’t think you would want a place like this. Damn it. He hadn’t wanted me as a father figure, and I never laid out any demands on him, but maybe I should’ve insisted he moved in with me. It would’ve cramped my style, but I had offered him to crash at my place. I hadn’t forced him to. He could make his own decision. He wasn’t a kid. The guys hovered around me, and I held up a finger. “Listen to me,” I said quietly. “We’re gonna surround the room, but first, we have to figure out which room they’re in.” I pulled out my cell and was about to call Hank, when the guy strolled over to us. He’d been waiting for us to arrive. “Have you seen signs of any of them? Turner or Valerie or Savannah?” “I saw Turner. He came out a few times. He was on the phone, and he also left to get them some food.” So at least he wasn’t starving the women. Small favor? “What room number?” I demanded. Time to get this done and over with. Hank pointed. “Right over… What the hell?”

I jerked around in the direction he was pointing. A young woman was racing out of an apartment. Damn it all, if it wasn’t Savannah.

Chapter Twenty-Two Garrick

The woman didn’t get very far before Turner burst out of the motel room. He raced after Savannah, and I sprang into action. I shoved the other guys out of the way and dashed over to them. “Leave her alone, Turner,” I warned as I approached. Turner didn’t even look at me. He just went to grab Savannah. Nope. Not on my watch. My fist cocked back, and I punched Turner square in the jaw. He had some size to him, but I was stronger, taller. This wasn’t a fight he could win. He did land two swift punches to my stomach, and I wheezed out a grunt. I motioned for the other guys to hang back, and I noticed that Valerie hadn’t come out of the motel room. I swore if he hurt her… If he killed her… We traded a few more punches, and his knee ended up in my gut. Damn. My next punch went over his head, and he grabbed me around my waist, trying to knock me down. I returned the knee to the gut, grabbed one of his arms, and yanked it up and out, to the side, at an awkward angle. Turner groaned, muttering a curse, and he backed off, jerking his arm free. He circled me warily. There were dark circles beneath his eyes, his face looked a little too thin, and his gaze kept darting everywhere, like he was afraid of shadows. “You’re really doing this?” he asked between gulps of air. “You’re the one doing this,” I retorted. Turner shook his head. “I had no choice.” “There’s always a choice. There are always options. There—” “There weren’t,” he said flatly, feigning a punch. I jerked away and then circled back. “You could’ve come to me.” “You and your self-righteous bullshit.” Turner’s grin made my skin crawl. “You think you can walk

the line, that you can do whatever the hell you want. Sleep with whoever you want. Screw over anyone who looks at you wrong. You’re an asshole.” I kept silent. Turner could say what he wanted, but I knew the kind of man I was. Maybe I was a little selfish and self-centered at times, but I would give my all for my men, and at one time, Turner had been included in that. Not anymore, and that was on him, not me. He lunged for my legs, and I tumbled to the ground with Turner on top of me. He was fighting like he was a wild man. Like he was possessed. Like he had nothing to live for. “Val…” I managed to get out as I batted his hands away. He was trying to go for my neck to suffocate me No way would my guys allow that, but I didn’t call them over. I could handle this. Turner’s sick grin grew even more. “I killed her,” he said. What? No! Blind fury gave me strength, and I threw him off of me. I stood up and stared down at him as he scrambled to his feet. He was laughing until I stalked toward him. With shaking hands, he pulled out his gun, but I was quicker on the draw and a faster shot. Accurate, too. A long wail burst out of him as he crumbled to the ground. I had shot him in the leg. I hadn’t wanted to shoot him, not during the ride over, but now that he had killed Valerie… well… I was willing to shoot him. Still wasn’t willing to kill him, though. I just couldn’t do it. I walked over to where Turner was rolling around in agony. Tears streamed down his face, and he was bawling. I had to admit, I felt badly for shooting him. If he hadn’t pulled out the gun, if he hadn’t shot Valerie, if he hadn’t pulled any of this shit… Turner grabbed his left leg, still crying hard. Through it all, he stared at me. “Kill me,” he said. What? “Kill me,” he repeated. “I have nothing to live for.” I glanced over at Savannah. She was standing off to the side, a little bit away from the guys, watching us. She was crying herself.

“Savannah…” Turner reached out toward her with an outstretched bloody hand. She turned away from him without saying a word. “She left me. She’s leaving me.” Turner never stopped crying. It was hard to see him like this. He was so utterly broken. Between the drugs, the money, and losing Savannah, he was just broken. The saddest part of all was that it hadn’t had to come to this. “Just kill me!” Turner screamed. “You don’t deserve death,” I said coldly, staring down at him. How could he? How could Turner have killed Valerie? All she had wanted to do was save her daughter, to bring her home. Valerie was a kind and good person. She was a bright and cheery woman. She was a hell of a businesswoman, a go getter. She was the kind of person who got what she wanted out of life. And now her life had been cut tragically short. We wouldn’t have that time I wanted to see if we could work out long term. Because, here was the thing, I already suspected we could work out long term. I had fallen for her. Hard. Despite the whole mess with Turner and Savannah. Despite not knowing her for long. Despite my never being in love before. In lust? So many times I lost count, but in love? Never. Not until now. Not until Valerie. “Savannah,” Turner whimpered. She completely turned away from him. Good. I might’ve failed Turner, but I would help the girl out. Get her a place. Buy her food, clothes. Whatever she needed. She was family now. No way would I let Valerie’s daughter fall through the cracks. She’d been held hostage by her boyfriend. She might need to see a psychiatrist after all this shit, especially after seeing her boyfriend—ex-boyfriend— shoot her mom. “There’s no point to living,” Turner wailed. “Just kill me.” “Boys,” I commanded, “deal with him.” Savannah peeked over her shoulder, and I nodded at her. I held up one finger, hoping she would wait, and I had to do it. I had to go inside the motel room. I had to see… her. It took me a moment to collect myself, to take few deep breaths, for me to be able to walk inside.

Valerie was on the floor, tied to a chair, facing away from me. There were marks on her wrist near the binding. She had put up a fight. Of course she had. Steeling my nerve, I walked around to face her, and then I almost began to cry myself. Turner had lied. He hadn’t shot Valerie. She lifted her head. “Garrick?” she whispered. She blinked a few times. “I’m here. I’m here, babe.” I picked her and the chair up and set about untying her. “Savannah?” she asked as I freed one hand. “She’s safe.” “And Turner?” I paused in the middle of untying her other hand. That she cared about the kid still said so much about her. Her heart had no limits. “He’s being taken care of.” I freed her hand. Before I could untie her legs, Valerie leaned forward and embraced me. I stroked her back. “It’s all right,” I murmured in her ear. “I’m here. You’re safe now.” Valerie pulled back and stared up at me through teary eyes. “I love you, Garrick.” My heart swelled, and I hugged her so tightly she squealed. When I pulled away, I kissed her thoroughly. Again and again. The moment I had to come up for air, I pressed my forehead to hers and looked down at her. “I love you, too.” Tears streamed down her face, and I kissed them away. I hated that she had gone through this horrible ordeal, but I would be damned before I’d let this affect her long-term. I was going to replace this with so many happy memories that she’d never have to think about this ever again. “I love you,” she repeated breathlessly. “Love you back.” I grinned. “I’ve never told a woman that before, and I intended to say it to you all the time.” Her eyes widened, and she laughed. Then she glanced around. “Can we get out of here?” “I thought you’d never ask.”

It took me no time to be able to untie her legs, and she tumbled into my arms. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t grow hard, and I wanted nothing more than to make a new memory right here, right now, but I could hear the guys talking Turner down. It sounded to me that Turner had stopped asking to be killed, though. Good. With ease, I picked Valerie up. She laughed and slapped my shoulder. “I can walk!” “I know.” I nestled her to my chest. “But is it so wrong that I want to be your knight.” “You’re more than just a knight.” She rubbed my chest. “Oh, yeah? What am I then?” She stared up at me, and I was blown away by the love shining in her eyes. “You’re mine.” Well, I just had to give her a long, deep, passionate kiss after that, and then I carried her out of there because if we stayed there much longer, I was gonna make love to her. Savannah rushed over, hugging her mom, and it was kinda awkward until I was able to stand Valerie up. The two were crying and embracing, and I just stood there, next to them. It wasn’t awkward, and I didn’t feel like I had no right to be there. After a long moment, Savannah stared at me, one hand on her hip, the other hand still hugging her mom. “So you’re Garrick, huh? I’ve heard a lot about you.” I glanced over my shoulder at Turner. The guys had bandaged him up, and I heard Hank say that it was a clean shot, that the bullet had gone straight through. I had a doctor friend who could look him over so that there wouldn’t be any paperwork or questions asked concerning the gunshot. Yeah, I might sometimes be a snitch to the police, but I didn’t want them asking any questions about my shooting Turner. If they found him in conjunction to the drugs, that was one thing, but I wasn’t gonna broadcast to the police about the kidnapping and ransom attempt or press charges or anything like that. Unless Valerie and Savannah wanted to. Savannah cleared her throat. “Not all of it was good,” she added. I turned back to face her and gave her a slight grin. “I’m a good guy once you get to know me.” She crossed her arms. “I heard you’re a take ‘em, leave ‘em kind of guy.” I shifted my gaze to Valerie. “I’m a one-woman man. Just took finding the right one.” Valerie’s grin was breathtaking. Savannah rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah.”

I glanced around. “Someone might have called the cops. We can’t stick around here.” I grimaced. “I’ll clean up the blood—” “Got it handled already,” Daryl called. Sure enough, he was scrubbing away. Most of the guys had loaded back up into the vans, and that included Turner. He wasn’t saying anything. Maybe he’d passed out. I turned back to the women. “If you want, we can call the police once we get back to my place…” That I still didn’t hear sirens going off told me plenty about this neck of the neighborhood. Shots must be a regular occurrence. Valerie grabbed Savannah’s hand. “It’s up to you.” “He tied you up and—” I brushed my hand on her cheek. I had been so relieved to find her alive and not dead that I didn’t see the bruising until now. “He hit you.” “I’m fine,” Valerie insisted, holding my hand that still cupped her cheek. “What do you want to do, Savannah?” Her daughter slowly shook her head. “I wasted enough of my time and life with him. I’m done.” Daryl just finished cleaning up and was loading the bucket and sponge into the van. Yeah, we came prepared. “Ready to go?” I asked the women. They nodded. “Where are we going?” Savannah asked. “We’re going to Garrick’s,” Valerie said. I shook my head and grinned at them. “We’re going home.”

Chapter Twenty-Three Valerie

As soon as we got back to Garrick’s, he insisted that a doctor look us over. We were both fine, but despite our repeated attempts to tell him that, he wouldn’t hear of it. The doctor, a beautiful, tall woman who I was sure had slept with Garrick at one point, gave us a clear bill of health. “Just feed them,” she said as she draped her stethoscope around her neck. She had been all smiles when she walked in, joking around despite having just stitched up Turner or whatever she had to do for him. But Garrick, without looking at me or needing me to say anything, made it immediately clear that we were a couple. That we were together. And, boy, did I like the sound of that. The doctor left, and Savannah rubbed her stomach. “I am starving.” “How about we order some food in?” Garrick suggested. “Any preference?” “Just not pizza!” Savannah and I said at the same time. We looked at each other and burst out laughing. Garrick shook his head. “You two could be sisters instead of mom and daughter.” Savannah shook her head right back at him. “Nope. I need my mom.” Garrick mumbled about finding take out menus and walked toward the kitchen, leaving me alone with Savannah in the living room. She sat beside me on the couch. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, her eyes filling with tears. “No,” I said firmly. “If you really need to, we can talk about what happened tonight, but that’s it. We need to move on. We both made mistakes, and neither of us are to blame, and—” “And we should probably get counseling, Mom. We went through a traumatic experience, and, yeah, we can rely on each other…” Her gaze shifted toward the kitchen. “…and you on Garrick, but it’s probably smart.” “You’re really serious in psychology, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.” She shrugged. “I’m interested in it. I mean, I started to read up so I could help make Turner better, and I failed him. Maybe if I had training and knew what to actually say and do, I could’ve actually helped him. I don’t think I ever did help him, not in all the time we were together.” She blew out a deep breath. “But I do still want to help. Not Turner,” she rushed to add, “but someone else. Other people. Is that completely insane of me? I mean, I don’t even have my GED yet.” “Honey.” I patted her hand. “All you have to do is take it one step at a time. That’s how I worked my way up to becoming a restaurant owner. You can do it too. I’ll help you in any way I can.” Savannah took a deep breath. “Mom, I really am—” “You don’t have to keep apologizing. People misjudge others. It’s not always easy to leave someone that you spent so much time with, even if they abuse you. If anyone should be apologizing, it’s me.” I wrapped my arms around her. She tucked her head on my shoulder like she did when she first started to open up to me after I first adopted her. “Maybe we should both stop apologizing. I mean, really, Mom, it’s not your fault at all! If you had tried to ground me or tried to keep me from seeing him, I would’ve been all the more determined to see him. It probably would’ve made things worse, and who knows? I might’ve run away with him, like we’d talked about from time to time.” My eyes felt ready to bulge out of their sockets. “Come again? You talked about what?” “We didn’t, so…” And Savannah laughed. She laughed. I started to laugh, too, and then the laughter turned into tears for both of us, but I liked to think it was more therapeutic than anything. Garrick halted in the doorway, holding up takeout menus. He raised his eyebrows. Savannah’s tears slowed, and so did her breathing. She had fallen asleep. I shook my head at Garrick, and he laid the menus down on the coffee table. He sat beside me and draped an arm across my shoulder, as if protecting both me and Savannah. It felt good. It felt right. It felt amazing. And I fell asleep feeling content.


The next morning, I woke to the sound of sizzling bacon and smelled pancake batter heating up.

Neither Garrick or Savannah were on the couch with me. I stretched, rubbed my eyes, stood, and leisurely made my way to the kitchen. Garrick was manning the griddle on the counter and cooking bacon on the stovetop at the same time. Savannah was sitting on a bar stool at the island, grilling him. “So what makes you so sure that my mom is the one for you considering how many other women you’ve dated?” I hung back, listening. Garrick currently had his back to me, and so did Savannah, so neither of them saw me yet. I couldn’t help smiling at how possessive Savannah was being. “What’s the saying? Sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince? Well, I had to kiss a lot of toads to find my queen.” I covered my mouth to suppress my giggle. But Savannah wasn’t as impressed. “Queen is right. She’s not a princess, but you didn’t just kiss the toads.” “Okay, I really don’t think this is appropriate—” “I’m not a minor, and I’m not a virgin, so…” Even though she wasn’t facing me, I could still see her crossing her arms. “But, fine, we’ll get back to that. How do you know that you really want to be with her? Maybe it was just the whole crazy rush and excitement of having to look for me and then the thrill of the rescue. What if, in a few days or weeks, when the craziness settles and it’s back to everyday life, you decide that you have nothing in common, that you don’t really fit together? That it was all just heat and fire and nothing is keeping the spark going?” Garrick laughed. “The spark is still burning.” “For now,” she said hotly, “but in a few months? In a year? Five years? Are you sure you’ll still want to be with her?” Before he had a chance to respond, she added, “Turner told me about you. He’s a lot of things, but he never once lied to me. Might’ve omitted a few, but… You fucked a lot of women. What makes you think that you won’t wake up one day and regret that you’re tied down to a single woman for the rest of your life? Because I know my mom. If you two are serious, she’s gonna want a ring one day, and she’s gonna marry you, and there’s no way she’ll get a divorce. If you cheat on her, she’ll kill you and go to jail for it. So…” Garrick half turned toward her, and I stepped back slightly so there was no way he could see me. Maybe I should just let them know I was here, but I really did want to hear his answer. Savannah had a good point. Being in love was one thing, but I had to assume it would take work to make it last. What if he did get bored of me one day? “I understand where you’re coming from,” he said quietly. “You want to protect your mom. So do I. I

would never do anything to hurt her. And, yeah, I’m not denying that I went from woman to woman.” He turned back to the bacon and started to remove the strips one at a time, placing them onto a plate covered in paper towels to soak up the grease. “But I learned what I wanted and what I didn’t want from a woman. I don’t want someone fickle. I don’t want someone who will say anything she thinks I want to hear. I don’t want someone who is clingy or someone who won’t understand my commitment to the club.” He faced her completely. “You mom is an incredible woman. She loves you very much, and if she loves me half as much as she loves you, I’d be set for the rest of my life.” That was it. I couldn’t stand here hiding any longer. I entered the room, and Garrick’s face just lit up. A huge cocky grin. Wide eyes. He was wearing a wife beater, and his arms looked especially huge today. Savannah sighed dreamily. “If only I could get a guy to look at me like that. I guess I approve, Mom.” I walked over to her and ruffle her hair. “Thanks, kiddo.” I walked around the island and kissed Garrick. Just a peck, really, since we were in front of Savannah, but the look I gave him told him to just wait until we were alone. “Breakfast. How sweet.” I grabbed the spatula and flipped some of the pancakes. I sniffed. “Do I smell cinnamon?” “And apples,” Savannah said. “Her idea to add them. I hope they turn out.” Garrick removed the last of the bacon and patted some of the grease off. In no time, breakfast was ready, and we were sitting at the breakfast nook, eating and laughing. While I agreed that getting some counseling was probably a good idea, this was therapeutic in its own right. We almost felt, well, like a family.

Chapter Twenty-Four Valerie

A few months had passed, and honestly, life was better than ever. Garrick and I were still going strong. Savannah’s fear that we didn’t know each other well enough, that the novelty would wear off once we settled back to our daily lives—a fear that I shared, too, to be honest—proved unfounded. We made a great team, we made each other happy both in the bedroom and outside of it, and we were more in love with each other with every passing day. The day that we learned the verdict—that Turner was going to jail for drug trafficking, and so was the drug lord who had threatened him—was a day full of celebration. Garrick took Savannah and I out to dinner that night at a super fancy place. He grinned once the waiter left to fill our drink orders. “I’m here with the two most beautiful women in the room.” Savannah rolled her eyes. She loved teasing him every chance she got. “We’re only the most beautiful women in the room? Not in the whole world?” “Well, I haven’t seen all of the women in the whole world, so if I had said that, you would’ve pointed out that fact, and you know it.” He loved teasing her right back. We all burst out laughing. “I haven’t been seeing you as much lately. Haven’t found a new guy, have you?” he asked her. Savannah shook her head. “Are you kidding me?” she just about shrieked. A woman at a nearby table glanced over. Savannah blushed and lowered her voice. “I’ve sworn off bad boys, and since I haven’t met a good one yet, I’m comfortable staying single for a long, long time.” “Speaking of being single, how’s Cassidy doing?” I asked. We hadn’t talked much since Savannah resurfaced in Cassidy’s life, and to be honest, I missed our talks. Maybe I should give her a call. It couldn’t hurt any. “She hasn’t been with a guy since Jake. I think he scarred her. She started to take an art class, and there’s one guy taking it who she won’t stop talking about, but I think she’s scared to take the plunge.” “Cassidy? Scared?” Garrick shook his head. “That doesn’t sound like her.”

Cassidy came over for dinner a few times in the past few months, and when she met my boyfriend, she spent the entire time throwing me winks and nudging me. She approved. We had talked about life in general, not specifics. “I know, right?” Savannah shrugged. “Normally, if a guy caught her eye, she would have no problem being the one to ask him out without waiting around for him to do it, but she hasn’t.” “Maybe she will.” “I think someone got it into her head that she needs to be happy with who she is by herself before she should date a guy.” Savannah grinned at me. “I wonder who put that idea there?” I grinned back. “Someone very wise.” The two of us laughed, and Garrick had to chuckle, too. She turned back to Garrick. “On a more serious note, I haven’t been around lately because I’ve been so busy. Since I’m now a waitress, I’m trying to save up as much as I can. Any day now, I should be hearing back about whether or not I passed my GED. I’ve already done a lot of research on different schools, and I’ve narrowed down my choices. It won’t be easy, getting into a program. I know that. It won’t look good that I took a break from schooling, but I plan on being honest with my admission letters about my mom. About my moms.” She smiled brightly at me before her grin became more ironic. “Psychiatrists should eat that up, hopefully.” “You can do anything you want,” I assured her, reaching over to pat her hand. “Yeah, yeah. You’re my mom. You have to say that.” “True,” I conceded, “I have to say it, but I also believe it.” The waiter came with our drinks and left once he had our food order. Garrick told us to order whatever we liked. Counseling had transformed Savannah. She had blossomed under it, and she had a good rapport with the counselor. By the end of the first week, they were talking more about psychology than the issues at hand, but that in and of itself was therapeutic because Savannah was looking forward to the future, a future that wouldn’t involve Turner. Two weeks after our rescue, I hired Savannah as a waitress, and she hadn’t once showed up late. She hadn’t disappointed me. Sure, there were a few minor mishaps here and there, but nothing unlike all new waitresses had to deal with. When she confided in the counselor that the kidnapping had actually been a good thing because it gave her the kick in the ass she needed, the counselor pronounced her ready to move on from counseling. I think they still talked from time to time. Savannah needed all the strong female role models she could get.

“Have you asked Mrs. Franklin for help with schools?” “Yeah. She’s been a great help. She said she would write me a letter for schools if it weren’t for it being a conflict of interest, even though I’m not her patient anymore.” I grinned. Everything was looking up—for Savannah, for Cassidy, for me and Garrick. Dinner came, and we didn’t talk much because the food was that delicious. I excused myself to the rest room, and Savannah came with. “He really makes you happy, huh?” she asked. “You have to ask?” “I see. I do.” She washed her hands and stared at me through the mirror. “It’s good,” she said quietly. “What is?” “To see a healthy relationship for once. My birth mom never had one, and I don’t think any of the relationships I had been in were either. A lot of the other guys, I just used them to make Turner jealous, and that wasn’t right to them or to me.” I hugged her. “When did you get so insightful?” She laughed. “I really am happy for you.” We walked back to the table to find desserts waiting for us—a huge slice of cheesecake for Garrick, an even larger slice of chocolate fudge cake for Savannah, and a small dish of crème brulee for me. Complete with a ring on top of the burned sugar. Tears glistened in my eyes as I looked up to Garrick. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Savannah grinning smugly. She had been in on this. Garrick slid out of his seat and got down on one knee. A slight hush fell over the restaurant. “Valerie,” Garrick said, and my name on his lips was said like a sigh. I felt like sighing myself. I had told Cassidy she deserved a fairy tale. Although our story had started out more like a tragedy, Garrick and I had sure turned it around to make it a proper fairy tale. “You are a rock. You’re steadfast and loyal and everything I could want in a woman.” Garrick’s eyes were smoldering, and I knew he meant a lot more than what he was saying, but considering that a crowd had formed, and my daughter was right beside us, he couldn’t go into every sensual and dirty detail. “You already make me the happiest man in the world, but I want to ensure I have that the rest of

my life. I want to make you my wife. I want to serve you and you me. I want us to be each other’s best friends. I want us to be husband and wife, partners for life. Will you—” “Yes!” I squealed, and I leaned forward to kiss him and tumbled out of my seat and into his waiting arms. Savannah rolled her eyes but laughed. “You should let him finish the question before answering!” I laughed, too, and looked up into Garrick’s beautiful eyes. He grinned. “Will you marry me?” “Yes,” I repeated, just as firmly as before. “Yes, of course!” A chorus of cheers sounded from all around us. We had had an audience, but the only ones I cared about where my boyfriend—correction fiancé—and my daughter. Several people came over to congratulate us, and when Garrick asked for the bill, the waiter told us someone had taken care of it. He stood, glanced around, singled out a couple with a very young baby, and offered to pay their bill for them. Just like that, I fell in love with him all over again. Garrick drove us back to his place, and the entire drive there, Savannah kept pestering us with questions from the backseat. I had my hand on his thigh, and if it weren’t for her, I would’ve been sorely tempted to release Garrick’s cock from his pants and stroke it until he came… or maybe I would’ve just taken it into my mouth and given him head. Garrick was a safe driver, a little reckless at times sure, but safe for the most part. He would be able to handle the distraction, or if he couldn’t, I was sure we could find a secluded spot and make our way to the backseat and have some fun… If it weren’t for Savannah. God, I loved her, and I did think it was perfect that he had included her with the proposal, but, man, did I just want some alone time with Garrick right now! “Any idea when you’ll get married?” Savannah asked. I glanced at Garrick. He shrugged. “We’ll need to get a license.” “I don’t want to be too rushed with planning everything,” I said, biting my lower lip. “We can have as big or as small of a wedding as you like.” He gave me a quick smile before refocusing on the road.

“Small,” I said immediately. I didn’t want to wait long at all to be Mrs. Repton. “You think we could be ready by next month?” “Anything for you, babe.” I grinned. I’d move heaven and earth to get everything ready by then. “What colors? Savannah asked. “What theme? Are you gonna do a theme? It’ll be May so indoor or outdoor wedding? Or do you wanna do a destination wedding? Get married on an island or Hawaii! I’ve always wanted to go there! Or…” Savannah never once stopped talking or asking questions, and her enthusiasm was refreshing and contagious. When we arrived at Garrick’s loft, Savannah hopped out of Garrick’s car and ran over to mine. “Mom, can I borrow your car? I wanna run over to Cassidy’s.” I couldn’t grab my keys out of my purse fast enough. I practically ran over to her. She took them from me with a sly grin and a wink. “I’ll stay over,” she announced. Don’t worry. I’ll make it into work tomorrow on time.” She pulled me close for a tight hug and whispered, “Maybe forgo the condom this time. I wouldn’t mind having a brother or sister.” I gaped at her. She waved, climbed in, and took off. Garrick walked over and draped an arm over my shoulders. “What did she say to you?” My cheeks had to be bright red. “Oh, ah.” I cleared my throat. “We never discussed this.” “What? Does she want to move out?” My chest grew tight at the thought. Yes, Savannah would have to move out, sooner or later. “I won’t kick her out,” I said slowly, “but maybe she should start looking at places.” “Oh.” He shrugged. “I didn’t mean to kick her out, and I figured that she’ll be staying on campus when she gets accepted into school, anyhow. I just thought she might’ve said something about that because you look a little flustered. What’s up, Val?” I stared up at him. “We haven’t talked about whether or not we want kids.” A slow grin crossed his face. “Do you want one?” “I love Savannah,” I said slowly, “but it might be nice to have a baby. I never had to worry about diapers or teething or potty training or any of that. It would mean taking a step back from the

restaurant, at least for a little while.” “I know things were rocky at first with the whole ordeal,” he said, “but everything turned out all right.” When the dust settled after “the whole ordeal” and I had been able to spare some moments to check out my phone, I found a ton of messages waiting for me. I listened to Heather Franklin freak out about one thing and another, her messages growing more and more frantic, until she figured out how to handle things on her own without having to rely on me, and then her last message was to let me know that everything was just fine. I knew I had picked the right woman for the job—she just needed to realize she could do it and handle the pressure. And if I had more time to train her so I could take a maternity leave, work shouldn’t be an issue. But did Garrick want one? “Do you want a baby?” I asked, and held my breath. I hadn’t even thought about this before, but now I wanted it, badly. “I only want one with you.” He lowered his arm to be around my waist and pulled me close for a tight embrace. Together, we walked into the loft, and Garrick kicked the door shut behind him. My hands hooked around his neck, and I pulled him down toward me to give him a kiss that tasted of love and lust and passion and zest. Garrick ignited a fire inside of me that would never ever extinguish. He pulled me even closer to him, so there was no space between us, the entire length of our bodies touching. But there were far too many clothes on, and I could touch enough of his body. My hands were already pulling his shirt free from his pants, and I ran my nails up and down his back, loving the feel of his tight, taunt muscles. I always felt so safe in his arms. Immediately after the ordeal, I had been prone to taking naps to try and recover both mentally and physically, but each time, I had horrific nightmares. It was only when I slept with Garrick that I slept peacefully. Even during sleep, I needed him. I made quick work unbuttoning his shirt and ran my hands over his broad chest and his sculpted abs. “You’re killing me,” he murmured. “Just you wait.”

He tried to reach for my clothes, but I moved even closer to him to remove his shirt and kissed him soundly, so deeply that I felt it all the way down to my curling toes. As we kissed, my fingers went to work on his belt, and I managed to undo his pants and shoved them and his boxer briefs down to his ankles. My nails raked against his chest, paying careful attention to his nipples and then down along the ridges of his six-pack abs and even lower to his waiting cock. His cock throbbed in my hand, and I hadn’t even started to stroke it. I gently squeezed and looked up at Garrick. His head was tipped back, slack-jawed, and he looked the picture of masculine erotic euphoria. I could stare at him forever. He was so hot. And he’s all mine. I would be the one to kiss his body, to touch and feel his muscles, to ride his cock. Everything—his smiles, his laughs, his mind, his body, his soul—were mine. It gave me a heady sense of raw joy to recognize this, and I kissed the tip of his cock. Pre-cum leaked out, and I licked it. Garrick gripped my hair, guiding his cock into my mouth, and I took as much of him in as I could. He was long, eight inches at least, and My hands cupped his balls as I bobbed up and down his length. “You’re… You’re killing me,” he groaned. “Good,” I mumbled around him, and his cock jumped in my mouth. For some reason, Garrick pushed me away. I glanced up in surprise, but he lifted me up. I started to wrap my legs around him, but he had something else in mind. He flips me in his arms so that my legs are pointed toward the ceiling, and he started to lick my pussy. Oh my God. All the blood rushed to my head, but this felt so unbelievable that I can’t handle it. I gripped his ass to keep my head from swinging, and the tingling building deep within me grew and grew. His cock was right there, and I put it in my mouth. Sixty-nine standing up… the most incredible sixty-nine ever! It didn’t take me long at all to come. I would’ve screamed his name if I could’ve, but I wanted so badly to make him feel as good as I did that the more pleasure I felt, the more I sucked and kissed and sucked his cock. Until he jerked back, loosening the hold of my mouth around his cock.

“I don’t want to come yet,” he growled. He flipped me around, and I clung to him as blood rushed down from my head. With ease, he settled me into his arms, and he carried me off into the bedroom. We made magic that night, unforgettable magic. And no, we didn’t use a condom. And we went at it again and again, in bed, in the shower, on the table… We had a lifetime to explore the world around us and each other, and I couldn’t wait to get started. Savannah might have sworn off bad boys, but I knew how good bad boys could be.




In my world, there's no such thing as a safe haven. I wasn’t always like this. I used to be a good guy – well, a better guy, at least. I didn’t always hurt people. But things change. After my fiancé died, I put the nice parts of me away. I traded in the good knight’s shining armor for a leather jacket, black as sin. And I swore to myself I’d never try to save a girl again. Years later, I haven’t looked back once. I’ve just accepted the presidency of the Renegade Saints MC. It ain’t exactly an easy gig, and some might say my life expectancy just got a fair bit shorter. But I like this living thing. I intend to stick around. That means I need to keep my head in the game.

At first, I do just that. But then comes Victoria, daughter of the former president, with bruises on her wrists and an abusive boyfriend hot on her trail. Nothing gets my blood boiling like a man who lays his hands on a woman. Those old, dormant instincts flare up, and before I know it, I’m saying things I never expected to say again. Things like: I’ll take care of you. You’re safe here. And, craziest of all… Marry me. I brought her into my world to protect her. But as things get bloodier, it looks like I’ve done just the opposite. I might have damned us both.

Chapter One Victoria “Tori,” my best friend, Kitty, purred. “You have got to come out with me tonight.” She relaxed on my bed and looked up at me through her sheaf of blonde fringe. “I met the hottest guy last week!” I swallowed hard. This was Kitty’s game; she always tried to con me into being her wingwoman. It had happened before, and I knew it would happen again, but I didn’t think tonight would be the night. Even though I’d had my share of boyfriends, I couldn’t compete when I stood next to Kitty. Her blonde hair and killer figure made her stand out like a sore thumb. “I don’t know, Kit,” I said. “Silas is still following me around.” I frowned, looking down at my thin knees pressed together. “I’m worried he’s going to try to break in here.” Kitty shook her head. “Don’t worry about him,” she said, waving her hand dismissively in the air. “After all, he’s a loser.” She pouted at me. “Come out and meet a real man, you know, someone who can scare him off.” I frowned again. “I’m not ready to date anyone yet.” Kitty stuck her tongue out at me. “You’re ridiculous,” she said mildly. I watched as she leapt up from the bed and twirled around in a circle. “You know what,” I said suddenly. “I think I’ll go with you.” Kitty stopped twirling around and stared. “Are you sure? I mean, aren’t you worried about Silas?” “You just told me not to be,” I said, staring into my closet. “I’m sick of moping,” I added. “It doesn’t really even feel like me.” Kitty nodded. “You have been acting strangely,” she added. “I thought you were just down about Silas.” I grimaced. “He kind of put a harsh on my buzz for a long time, I guess,” I said. Silas and I had been together for almost five years. We’d met in college, and I’d fallen hard for him at first. He was the cool, dark-haired intellectual guy in all of my classes. It didn’t matter that later on I found out his hair had been dyed, that he was naturally blond. I loved how the way that he’d question the professors, like he knew more than all of them put together. I loved his intense stare. I loved the way he wore a military surplus jacket all through winter, even though it had been freezing cold. Most importantly, I loved the way he made me feel flushed and breathless, like I had just sprinted uphill. Before I’d met Silas, I’d been what you could have called impulsive. I always did what I wanted, when I wanted to do it, and I hated people ordering me around and telling me what to do. The more

someone told me I couldn’t do something, the more I desperately would want to prove them wrong. With Silas, it was no exception. At first, whenever he ordered me to do something, we’d have a fight afterwards followed by a night of hot sex. I loved it. I got off on the energy, on the passion we had between us. I remembered one night in particular. There was a dance at the school and Silas and I had plans to sneak in some vodka with our friends and get drunk. I wore this red silky dress I’d bought from a thrift shop earlier in the day. I’d always been slim, but in college I was practically a toothpick. In that dress, I felt about as good as naked. The material hugged my flat chest perfectly, making it look like I had some cleavage. I felt amazing in that dress, and I couldn’t wait to show it off to Silas. But when he saw me, his mouth twisted and contorted into an angry scowl. Before I even knew what was happening, Silas had grabbed my arm and yanked me over to a side corridor. “You look like a slut in that dress, Victoria,” he’d told me. “Everyone’s going to see you and think you’re some kind of cheap hooker! Do you want to embarrass me like that?” It was the first time I’d ever seen him angry, the first time I’d felt compelled to shut up and listen to him. Silas no longer seemed like my equal, he seemed like something horrible that I had to run away from as quickly as possible. But the oddest reaction happened just then, and even now, I don’t think I’ll be able to explain it. It was like my whole personality, the brashness, the way I always acted without thinking first just disappeared. Unfortunately, it was just the first of a long series of incidents that involved Silas treating me like garbage. I hated him for doing this to me, but I still loved him. After all, I’d had a crush on him for a year before he’d finally asked me out. Didn’t I deserve to have this? And everyone got angry sometimes. It wasn’t worth telling my friends about because then they would just give me weird looks. So I stopped sharing with people. And after all of my friends stopped calling me, sick of their calls going unanswered and unreturned, I felt really alone. Silas was all I had. The only friend who had stuck by my side was Kitty. I hated to admit it, because I didn’t want to be right, but sometimes I thought she was just using me to make herself feel better. After all, before Silas, we’d both been popular together. But after things started to get bad, I never turned down plans with Kitty or broke a promise to her. I was Old Faithful. Now, I was starting to get tired of it. The past year had brought a lot of drama on me, including my father’s death. Kitty and I had grown up on the bad side of town, across the tracks. My father was the leader of an MC, the Renegade Saints. I know it sounds kind of macabre, and if I had a daughter, I wouldn’t have let her associate with men like that, but my upbringing had been pretty damn safe and rosy. Nothing bad or weird had ever really happened. I loved being around the guys; they made me feel safe and well taken care of.

Then my father died. My father, Kristoff, had been the leader of the Renegade Saints for a long time. His death was suspicious, and everyone thought the new leader had something to do with it. He was shot in his own home, after negotiating some kind of deal. I hadn’t been around at the time. I’d been fighting with Silas. Even though I’d had a nagging feeling that whole day, I hadn’t exactly listened to myself. Paying attention to my boyfriend had been more important. I regretted that night fiercely. It was like something that would haunt me forever. After my dad died, Silas didn’t seem like nearly as big of a threat. Sure, he was an asshole, but that didn’t matter now. I didn’t get around to breaking up with Silas for nearly a year until after my dad had been in the ground. It was ridiculous, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. On the upside, his abuse didn’t seem to frighten me much anymore. He didn’t stop hitting me—he’d been hitting me for years—but I somehow didn’t seem to feel it as much anymore. It was like it didn’t even bother me. So going out with Kitty tonight seemed like a good idea, if only to get this shit off my mind. “Thanks for asking me,” I said halfheartedly. “But if I see Silas, you know I’m turning around and going home.” Kitty laughed. “Tori, don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “He wouldn’t dare show up to a club like this.” I shivered. Kitty didn’t know the worst of it. After I’d broken up with Silas, he’d continued acting like he was my boyfriend. Then, when I called him on it, he started stalking me. I was afraid that he was outside my apartment right now, but I didn’t want to scare her. “I have to go to the store,” I announced. “I need to get some snacks and stuff for later. You wanna come?” Kitty nodded. “I need smokes,” she said. “Thanks for the lift.” She grinned at me and I rolled my eyes. There it was again: our uneven friendship coming to light. As we walked outside and got into my little compact car, Kitty lit a cigarette and stared out the window. She’d been so moody lately, it was like hanging out with a different person entirely. “Are you okay?” Kitty nodded. “Yeah, I’m gonna stay in the car,” she said, throwing me a guilty grin. “I just wanted to get some fresh air. I’m good on smokes for now.” I rolled my eyes. When we pulled into the parking lot, I hopped out of the car and walked into the store. I didn’t have a ton of money on hand, but I needed to pick up some of the basics: bread, milk, maybe some late-night snacks. The store was crawling with people. I let out a long sigh and darted behind a long checkout queue,

managing to grab the last gallon of skim milk from the shelf. “Hello, Victoria.” The voice was both cold and familiar and I jumped out of my skin. “Silas, I don’t want to talk to you,” I said as calmly as I could manage. I closed my eyes and counted to ten, praying that when I turned around, he’d be gone. But he wasn’t gone. He was standing right there in front of me, like a bad dream. Or a nightmare. “Victoria,” Silas said in a pleading voice. “Come on, baby. I wanna talk to you! Don’t you know that?” I wished more than anything that Kitty had come with me into the store. Maybe Silas wouldn’t have approached if I was with my best friend, hell, maybe she would have even seen him first and given me a proper warning! “Silas, please go away,” I said under my breath. “I really can’t do this right now. I can’t…I can’t talk to you! It hurts!” Anger flashed in Silas’s blue eyes. His skinny frame looked even more narrow than it had before, and I had a feeling he’d probably gotten into drugs or something even worse. His blond hair hung down in front of his face and he pushed it away with a bony hand, leaning down in my face. He was so close that I could smell the stale booze wafting off his breath. “You can’t leave me, Victoria,” Silas said in a deep, intense voice. He grabbed me by the wrist and I shrieked and twisted away. The noise I made must have startled Silas, because his eyes bugged out and he looked like he was going to faint. Taking the opportunity, I dashed off in the opposite direction. My heart was slamming against my ribs and I had a bad feeling that today was going to be the start of a whole new attack campaign against me. I shuddered. I couldn’t believe that I’d wasted years of my life with Silas, with someone who treated me like dirt. “I hate you,” I mumbled under my breath as hot tears filled my eyes. I couldn’t stand him. All of the things that had attracted me to him in the first place only repulsed me now. I couldn’t believe that I’d ever found him sophisticated or intelligent. Now, I only saw a whiny baby who was hell-bent on his own destruction. I realized I’d forgotten to grab the bread. Abandoning my corner, I hunted for the row of baguettes and chose one that didn’t seem too stale. Even though I’d only been inside for five minutes, I was already stressed and I wanted to leave. It’ll be okay, I told myself. You’ll go out with Kitty and have fun, and pretend like Silas never existed.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was still there, watching me. As I nervously went through the checkout line and paid for my things, I was barely paying attention to the cashier. He was some skinny, reedy, slip of a boy, no doubt eager to end his day and move on. He barely even looked at my face as he rung up the purchases. I swallowed hard. “Do y’all have security cameras in this store?” The boy laughed. When he realized I was talking to him, he blushed. “We do,” he said, swallowing and making his Adam’s apple bob up and down. “But they don’t work, ma’am,” he added. “I mean, they’re just for show.” He pointed to a dinky-looking white plastic camera mounted on the wall behind him. “Do you have a problem, ma’am?” I rolled my eyes. “I have more of a problem with you calling me ma’am than anything else,” I snapped. “I’m not that old.” The boy blushed harder than ever. Part of me felt guilty, but the other part of me felt more indignant than ever before. I wasn’t a ma’am, damn it! I was only twenty-six! When he’d finished ringing up my groceries, he shoved them into a paper sack and thrust it at me with little grace. I sighed and hefted it up, carrying it out to the parking lot. Silas stepped directly in front of me. “Hi, Victoria,” he said with a sneer twisting on his face. “I thought we could talk a little bit more.” I shook my head. “Fuck off, Silas,” I said under my breath. “I don’t have fucking time for you right now.” Silas reached forward and wrapped his fingers around my wrist, yanking my arm forward and making me spill my bag of groceries. The milk crashed to the ground and the plastic container cracked open, bleeding white all over my shoes. “Fuck,” I mumbled. Silas tightened his grip on me. “You’re not going anywhere, Victoria,” he said under his breath. “You’re coming with me.” “No,” I hissed. “Leave me alone!” “You’d better come back to me, Victoria,” Silas said, his voice low and heavy with warning. “You’d better. This is your final warning.” Finally, I managed to yank my wrist free of his grasp. Stumbling backwards, I turned on my heel and ran towards the car. My heart was pounding in my chest and I thought Silas was right on my heels until I finally turned around.

No one was there. “What was that?” Kitty climbed out of the car and stared at me like I’d lost my mind. “Tori, what the hell happened?” “Silas,” I said in a shaky voice. “I need to get out of here, Kit. Let’s go.” Kitty got behind the wheel and gunned the car to life. I jumped in the passenger seat, gazing down at my wrists. Angry red bruises were starting to form right below the surface, and I knew that Silas would have done a lot worse if we hadn’t been in a public place. “I hate him,” I mumbled. “I hate him so fucking much.” “Tori, it’s over,” Kitty said in a soothing voice. She reached over to stroke my shoulder and I flinched. “I promise, he’s gone. He’s not going to bother you anymore.” Right as Kitty spoke, I felt my phone vibrate against my thigh. Pulling it out, I saw that I had a message from Silas. Dread flashed through me and I closed my eyes, leaning my head back and letting out a long breath. It’s okay, he can’t hurt you. You’re with a friend, he’s not here, you’re going to be okay. Forcing myself to open my eyes, I read his message: I’ll gut you like a fish and toss your body in a drainage ditch unless you come back to me, Victoria. I shuddered. It was like he’d somehow managed to break into my head, to make everything even more chaotic and awful than it had been before. For the longest time I thought I could do this by myself. I didn’t think Silas was really capable of hurting me. That was rich, considering the amount of times he’d put me in the hospital while we were still together. I shouldn’t have been so stupid; I should have known better. But at least now I was starting to come around. “Kit, I can’t go out with you tonight,” I said in an even, calm voice. “I have some things to take care of, okay?” Kitty looked at me and frowned. Her blonde hair was swept over one shoulder and despite the scene in the parking lot, she looked as calm and collected as ever. She shrugged. “Fine,” she said. “Suit yourself.” I knew she was sore because she thought I was ditching her, but there was no way I could let her know the real truth: my life was in danger, and if I didn’t find someone to take care of me, I’d be dead before too much longer.

My stomach twisted into knots as I thought about my only viable options. Growing up with a father who led an MC had put me in contact with a lot of tough guys. In fact, I’d been around men who were bodyguard material since I was a little kid. But there was only one guy I knew who was capable of beating Silas at his own game. And that man was Max Adams, the new president of the Renegade Saints. Max was a few years older than me. He had shiny blue-black hair and dark eyes full of trouble. I could tell he was naturally pale, but all that time riding in the sun had given him an unlikely tan. Oh, and there was one other little thing that I hadn’t thought about. Max may have killed my father in order to become leader of the Renegade Saints. But now I didn’t have a choice. Killer or not, this man was still my best bet at protection from Silas and his evil plans.

Chapter Two Max Yawning, I rolled over in bed until I hit a warm, unfamiliar lump. Shit. She’s still here. “Good morning, baby,” an unfamiliar raspy female voice greeted me. I opened my eyes at the last possible second before a pair of wide red lips came at me. As gently as I could, I pushed her away. “I don’t kiss in the mornings,” I said drily as I climbed out of bed and surveyed the mess I’d gotten myself into. “What are you still doing here?” The woman pouted at me. She had crumbs of mascara in the corners of her eyes and her short black hair was tangled and standing on end. “You said something about making me breakfast,” she said, pouting. “And I want eggs and toast.” I laughed. “Sorry, I must have been hammered,” I said with a grin. “I don’t have any food here. There’s a McDonald’s down the road, though.” The woman stared at me. “Are you serious? Like I would eat that shit!” I laughed again. “Honey, I don’t care what you eat, as long as you don’t eat it in my house,” I said. “Come on, get up. I can’t believe I even let you sleep here.” “You didn’t want to,” the woman purred. She pulled her top off, exposing ripe, melon-like breasts with perfect brown nipples at the center. My mouth went dry and for a second I entertained the notion of fucking her again. Then, I remembered that I had business to attend to that day. “Well, it’s time for you to leave now,” I said as business-like as I could manage it. “I have to get in the shower You can show yourself out.” I yanked the briefs down from my hips and tossed them on the floor. The whole bedroom smelled like smoke and red wine, and my head was pounding. I didn’t even remember coming home last night, much less with a babe like this. Turning on the spray of hot water, I climbed into the shower and moaned as I dipped my head under the showerhead. A good hot shower almost always helped me clear my head in the morning, even during the worst of hangovers. I laughed when I thought about last night. I’d gone out drinking with some of my buddies. It was supposed to be a low-key night, but as soon as we wore our colors into a local bar, the girls started swarming around us like bees. I remembered doing body shots, licking tequila out of some girl’s belly button, and making her squeal. Even though my head was aching, my cock started to harden when I thought about all the little hard bodies who had been pressed against me last night. Oh, yeah, I thought, remembering how the girls had plastered themselves to me in various stages of undress. I could really get used to this whole

president thing. “Hey, Max,” a voice said. I whirled around and saw my companion from last night. She was standing naked in front of the shower and pouting at me. “Can I join?” I shook my head. “Sorry, no co-showers,” I said with a smirk. “I don’t let women in my shower.” She pouted again and pressed her naked body against the glass, sending me into a spasm of lust. “I need to get clean,” she said in a teasing voice. “Come on, please.” I grinned. “Oh, what the hell,” I said. “Get your ass in here.” Half an hour later, I was spent again and ready for a nap. The girl got dressed and left after I fucked her brains out in the shower. It was a Saturday, and I didn’t have plans until later. The guys and I were having a meeting at our headquarters. The Renegade Saints had a clubhouse that was outside of town, and I was supposed to meet the guys there for a drink and a chat about where we were going. When Kristoff had been the president, he’d tried to turn the club around. In the not-so-distant past, we had kind of a sketchy reputation: guns and drugs. But now that Kristoff was dead, I was worried some of the guys were going to backslide in that direction. Personally, I wanted to keep my club legit. Bodyguarding and even opening a strip club or two were on the agenda for me. But some of the guys had been around for a long time, and I wasn’t sure how they would react to change. I grinned as I climbed on the back of my hog. It was a perfect day outside—sunny with no clouds— and I loved feeling the fresh air on my bare arms as I drove outside of town. Marquette was a small suburb of Boston; not too far from the big city, but far enough to have its own little culture. It wasn’t the kind of place that I thought I’d always want to hang around in, but I didn’t mind it so much. Part of me felt like a failure for not moving on and going somewhere else with my life, but most of me was pretty fucking content to stick around Marquette, be a big fish in a small pond. Yeah, a big fish in a small pond full of hot female fish, I thought with a grin. Marquette may have been small, but there was a lot of pussy floating around. “Yo,” I said, greeting Danny and Paul as I pulled up. Danny and Paul were both around my age; we’d grown up together. Their fathers had both been patched Renegade Saints, along with mine. That was how I’d been introduced to the club. My old man was Kristoff’s VP. When he died, I became Kristoff’s new right hand man. Yeah, and everyone still thinks you killed him, I realized. Everyone still thinks you had something to do with his death. The notion made me uneasy. Kristoff had died during a drug deal gone bad. It was a black mark on the club; everyone who had wanted to stay in shady business had convinced Kristoff that we needed to make some ties on the black market. He’d done that and wound up dead. I figured that if anything, that was good incentive for staying on the legal side of shit. “Yo, prez,” Danny greeted me, slapping my back heartily when I climbed off my hog. “You look like a man who’s just been well-laid.”

I grinned. “Matter of fact, I had a little fun in the shower,” I teased. “What’s yo’ deal? You sore about somethin’?” Danny shook his head. “Just on guard, man,” he said with a grin. “We got company.” He pointed across the lot and my mouth went dry as I watched a gorgeous redhead climb out of a car. She was tall and leggy, with long flaming hair and a wide, red mouth. I wanted to grab her in my arms and crush her to me with a powerful kiss before slipping my hand between her thighs and making her squeal. “So, you said you had a good night?” Danny grinned up at me. I’d already forgotten about the brunette in my bed. “It was alright,” I said with a wink as I loped over to the girl. “I’ll be right back.” As I approached her, she pinked and stopped dead in her tracks. When I got closer, I was shocked. I recognized this girl. I’d practically grown up with her, too. She was Victoria, Kristoff’s daughter. “Hi, Max,” she said softly. Her eyes were staring at the ground. I frowned. I remembered Victoria as being a real spitfire. She wasn’t the kind of girl to just stay quiet and take whatever was coming her way. “What’s got you down?” She looked up at me with her liquid green eyes and I felt something like lust uncoil in my lower belly. “I want to talk to you,” she replied, louder this time. She took her sunglasses off and perched them on her head, stretching and exposing a tiny strip of taut skin under her shirt. “Okay, shoot,” I said, rubbing my hands together in front of me. “What’s the deal, Vic?” She shook her head. “No one calls me that anymore,” she said, blushing. “It’s Tori now.” I rolled my eyes. “That makes you sound like some dumb sitcom character,” I told her. “But Tori it is.” Victoria followed me inside. She didn’t speak until I seated her down at the bar and slid a cold glass of beer into her head. Even in the dim light of our HQ, I could tell she was shaky and scared. Like something real bad had happened. She lifted the frosted mug to her lips and drank deeply, like the liquid was nourishing and she needed as much of it as she could get. The guys followed me inside. “Yo, Max, you got yourself a looker!” one of them yelled. He was obviously a newcomer. “Fuck off, man,” I said with irritation. “This is Victoria, she’s Kristoff’s daughter.”

The guys stared. “Holy shit,” one of them breathed. “Sorry, lady.” Victoria had the grace to laugh. “It’s Tori, actually,” she said, tossing her long hair. I caught a whiff of cinnamon and vanilla and that same powerful bolt of lust coursed through my body. I wanted her like nobody’s business, and I wanted to make her mine. Despite that, something was holding me back. I could tell that Tori was really shaken, like something bad had happened. Her forehead was gleaming with sweat and she looked disoriented. “Gotcha,” I said. “Hey, guys, give us a minute, alright?” The men all grumbled but acquiesced, getting up and strolling outside, beers in hand. When the last one of my guys had walked off, I turned to Tori. “You know you can come to me with anything,” I told her firmly. Her green eyes stared directly into mine. “You can always talk to me, Tori.” She blushed slightly and I was struck with the powerful urge to wrap my arm around her and bring her close for a kiss. “My ex won’t leave me alone,” she started. Oh, great, I thought. She didn’t break up with a guy who keeps calling her, and now she’s off crying wolf. This kind of thing had happened before a couple of times. A few girls who hung out with the club got a little sick of their boyfriends. But usually, it was a misunderstanding. People need to learn how to fuckin’ talk to each other, I thought. “Okay,” I said with a smile. “You want me to talk to him?” Tori licked her lips nervously. “No,” she said immediately. “No, and I know what you’re thinking, Max. But it’s worse than that.” She put her wrists on the table and I immediately saw the rash of grey and red bruises on her delicate skin. “We broke up a month ago and he’s stalking me,” she explained. “I kicked him out and he stays around my apartment all the time, taking pictures and threatening me whenever I leave. I had my friend, Kitty, staying with me, but I finally told her to go home because she didn’t understand how dangerous Silas could be. I didn’t want her to get hurt, too.” “Fuck,” I said softly, pulling Tori’s wrists closer and examining the bruises. “This is some bad shit, Tori. How long has this been going on?” She shrugged. “A long time,” she finally answered, averting my eyes. “I…I don’t feel safe, Max.” “No shit,” I said, letting out a low whistle. Just then, Tori reached a hand up and swept her red mane from one shoulder to the other. I could see the mottled imprint of fingers around her throat. Rage filled my body, replacing every other emotion inside of me. I couldn’t believe that someone would throw the daughter of a former Renegade Saints leader around. He was practically asking for a death

sentence. “I’m afraid he’s really going to hurt me,” Tori continued, oblivious to my rage. “He…he’s following me all the time, and I don’t feel safe.” Before Kristoff died, I promised him that I’d always protect his Victoria. Now, I was angry that I hadn’t seen the signs sooner than this. It was my fault, my responsibility that she’d been hurt. I knew that Silas must have done worse than the bruises. Abuse didn’t just randomly start. They’d been together for years; who knew how badly he could have hurt her already? “Can you tell me more about Silas?” I took Tori’s hands in my own and looked into her face. She was beautiful, with a perfect bone structure. Her lips were slightly too full, but they had a sexy, bee-stung look that made me want to suck on them. Her green eyes were like jeweled orbs in her skull, and there was a look of fierce determination and intelligence about her. To my alarm, Tori started to cry.

Chapter Three Victoria The tears surprised me as much as they surprised Max. His face went white when I started bawling, and I dipped my head to my lap, trying to shield my eyes. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know where this came from. I hate talking about him,” I added, biting my lower lip. “I want to know everything I can,” Max said in a calm voice. “Is that okay?” I looked at him. Max’s dark eyes were serious and I could tell there was no laughter in them now. Whenever I’d seen Max before, he’d alternated between intense and off the deep end. My father had trusted him with his life, and the other guys seemed to love him. But I could tell Max had a dark edge that he didn’t readily expose to just anyone. “Okay,” I said softly. Max nodded, eager for me to begin. “We met in college,” I said. “I, um, had a class with him. I had a crush on him almost immediately, but he didn’t ask me out for a long time.” “When did he start becoming abusive?” I cringed. When I thought about it now, I was embarrassed that I’d wasted so many years of my life on someone who had treated me like garbage. He’d distanced me from all of my friends, except for Kitty, and he’d made me question almost every single moment of my existence. “About a month in,” I said softly as I told Max about the “incident” with the red dress. “He…it really surprised me, you know? I knew he was weird, but I never thought he was the kind of guy who would jerk me around and yank me by the arm just because he was unhappy with me.” Max shrugged. I could tell he was angry, but somehow managing to hold everything in. “That’s how it starts,” he said, looking away. “The abuser always wants to make sure you’re isolated before trying anything too bad. He wants to make sure you don’t have anywhere to go.” “I lost all of my friends,” I admitted. “The only friend I still have is Kitty. You remember her? That blonde girl who used to live across the street from me.” Max nodded again. “What kind of shit has he been doing lately?” When I didn’t respond, Max licked his lips and stared at me. “Tell me about the breakup, Tori,” he added, this time in a gentler voice. “Tell me what you said to him, and the things he’s threatened you with.” I winced. These wounds were more recent, and I hated thinking about them. “Okay,” I said softly. “I broke up with him about a month ago. The…the violence had gotten really bad,” I added, feeling my voice shake. In my chest, my heart was beating but it felt hollow, devoid of love. “There was one really bad night where we were going to go out. I did something to piss him off, I don’t even

remember what it was now. It was probably something really stupid. But either way, he was furious with me. He told me that he was leaving and that I wouldn’t ever see him again.” I looked away, ashamed of what came next. “I’m not proud of it, but I begged him to stay. I grabbed him by the arm when he tried to leave. And then he took off his belt…” My voice faltered. “It’s okay, Tori,” Max said. “I’m here. You can talk to me. You can trust me, remember?” I nodded. “I just hate talking about this,” I said as a hot tear squeezed out of my eye. “It makes me feel so stupid.” “You’re not stupid,” Max said in an even voice. “You’re really brave, and I promise this will get easier.” Taking a deep breath, I made myself continue. “He took his belt off and he beat me with it,” I said. My voice sounded wooden, clinical, almost dull. “And when he was done with that, he started using his fists. My face was so swollen that I couldn’t leave the house.” Max let out a deep breath and I saw that he was shaking. “I’m sorry,” he said, giving me an odd, tight little smile. “I don’t know how to hear this stuff without getting furious,” he added. “It sickens me that someone would have treated you like that.” I looked away. “I don’t even feel like it happened to me,” I said softly. “I feel like it happened to someone else, some other girl.” I didn’t exactly know what to think about Max. I liked him, against my better judgment, but there was some tiny voice in the back of my head that was telling me not to trust him. After all, this was the man who was supposedly involved with my father’s death. This was the man who was possibly a killer. He was a good listener though, and I realized that I was starting to feel more calm than I had in ages. “You can’t stay at your place anymore, Tori,” Max said. I gaped. “Are you kidding me?” My mind started racing. Right now, I didn’t have the money to move out. My dad had left me an inheritance, but I wouldn’t be able to touch it until I turned thirty. “I’m dead serious,” Max replied. “It’s obviously not safe for you. Has he broken in before?” I bit my lip. “I had the locks changed when I broke up with him,” I replied. “But he’s tried to get in all the same.” Max shook his head. “That’s not going to change,” he said gruffly. “A guy like Silas won’t be satisfied until you’re in the hospital, or dead.” A strange wave of emotion came over me. I couldn’t begin to explain it, but somewhere, deep down, I felt like I was starting to have an anxiety attack.

“I don’t feel good,” I said slowly. “I mean, this is a lot for me to take in.” “I know,” Max replied. “But it’s for your own safety.” I laughed. “And just where do you think I should go? I can’t go live with Kitty, she has roommates and they wouldn’t allow it. And it’s not like I have a couple thousand lying around for a security deposit and rent in a new place.” Max looked at me. “You have to move in with me,” he said. “That’ll keep Silas away from you. He’s too stupid to fuck with me, and if he’s not, I’ll take him down in an instant. Plus, the other guys from the MC can stand guard if I have to leave the house.” I frowned. “You mean I’m supposed to stay locked up in your house?” “Well, you’re a blogger, aren’t you?” I let out a long sigh. I was a food blogger, and despite what had happened with Silas, things had actually been going pretty well for me. I’d been invited to judge a couple of cooking competitions, one of them was even in California. But I didn’t see a way for that to happen now. “I work from home,” I said in an icy tone. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t ever need to leave. I can’t stay inside all day,” I whined. “Come on, Max. That’s ridiculous.” Max glared at me. “Tori, this is your life we’re talking about,” he said sternly. “Don’t you place more value on yourself than that?” I glanced down. “I just…” I sighed. “Fine, I’ll move in with you.” “That’s not all,” Max said. “We should get married. That way you have my protection and the full protection of the club. I don’t think anything will happen to me, but if it does…but if it does, you’ll be taken care of.” I gaped at him. “You can’t be serious,” I said with a little laugh. “You’re joking, right?” Max stared back at me. “I’m not kidding,” he said. “This isn’t a joke, Victoria.” I winced. “Please don’t call me that,” I replied. “It’s Tori now.” “I’m sorry,” Max said. He shook his head. For a moment, I had the urge to tell him how much I loved hearing my real name. Or rather, I used to love hearing my full name. Until Silas ruined it for me. “I know,” I said. “I’m asking a lot of you…” “Not so much,” Max said. He grinned at me. “I have to protect you, you deserve the protection of the MC. Your dad would have wanted that.”

“I just…I don’t know if I can go through with this,” I said. “This…seems extreme.” “Tori, Silas isn’t going to stop until he’s really hurt you,” Max said. “This isn’t extreme. What would be extreme is you winding up in the hospital.” I bit my lip. “You’re vulnerable as a single woman,” Max said. “If you marry me, that’s automatic, guaranteed protection.” I blinked at him. I didn’t know what I’d been expecting when I went to Max for help, but this definitely wasn’t it. I thought that maybe he and his guys could ride by Silas’s house and scare him, maybe threaten to kick his ass or something until he left me alone. But move in with Max? Move in and get married to someone I barely knew? It seemed ridiculous. “I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, what’s in this for you?” Max hesitated. “I have to protect you,” he said simply. “You’re vulnerable, and you need protection, and you have a shithead of an ex-boyfriend who thinks that beating women is acceptable.” My head was spinning. I didn’t even know what to say, I was so shocked. At first, when he’d suggested getting married, it sounded like a joke, like something he would have said to get rid of the lingering tension in the room. But now that I knew he was serious, I felt flustered. My whole body was shaking and it was scary, like having to make a serious decision on the spot. “This will affect the rest of our lives,” I said softly. “Are you sure? Are you sure you can do this?” Max nodded. “I’m damn positive,” he said. I sat back in my seat and blinked. Remembering my beer, I reached forward and drank the rest of the glass in one gulp. “Silas is going to keep chasing you until you’re dead,” Max said in a low, serious voice. “Tori, you wouldn’t have come to me for help if you didn’t think it was serious. Now that you know it is, what are you going to do? And you realize I can’t let you just leave,” he added. “I’ll have to watch you, no matter what we do. But it’s going to be even worse for you if you don’t listen to me and take me up on the offer.” I closed my eyes. Behind my lids, colors were swirling around in a frenzy, a frantic pattern of reds and light greys. It looked like the color of a bruise, like my wrists. Like my face will look if Silas can get to me, I thought with a shiver. I knew something had to be done, but goddamn if I was going to like doing it.

Chapter Four Max I watched as a swirling pattern of emotions took over Tori’s face. First, she was shocked. Her lips hung open and her eyes were white and wide. Then, when she realized I was being serious, she seemed amazed. And surprised, and maybe a little disbelieving. “I don’t know,” Tori kept saying. “I just…I just don’t know. It doesn’t seem like a good idea, Max.” “It’s the only idea I have,” I said gruffly. “And just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean you have to shit on it.” Part of me was angry. I’d promised Kristoff that I’d always care for his daughter, no matter what. And if that meant marrying her, then so be it. Honestly, deep down, I didn’t mind so much. Tori was smoking hot, and ever since she’d grown up, I’d wanted to take her for my own. Even if only for a night. Even if only for the shortest amount of time possible. I wanted those long legs wrapped around me, I wanted to feel the heat from her petalsoft lips. I wanted her musky, sweet smell to wash over me and take me over until I was drowning in Tori. “It won’t be so bad,” I said with a grin. “I have a big house, you know?” The mention of marriage brought up an unexpected memory. Talia. Talia was the woman I’d actually fallen in love with years ago. Talia was a woman who had broken my world apart, a woman who had come in and destroyed everything. Back in my early twenties, I thought I was set to be an outlaw for the rest of my life. I’d just become a patched member of the Renegade Saints, and I was riding high on pride and hormones. Lust and the urge to get myself into trouble were around every corner. The guys and I would go out every night, carousing and fucking our way around Marquette. It wasn’t long before I had a line of credit at every strip club in town, and even some outside of town. Those days had been some of the best of my life. Now, looking back was painful, almost like looking through a broken mirror. But back then, I’d loved being alive. I was young and powerful, and nothing could touch me. I thought I was immortal. I fucked a different girl every night and vowed to never fall in love. There were some women who I appreciated, but that wasn’t the same kind of thing as love. And then I met Talia. She changed everything. She threw my world upside down, and before I knew it, I was head over heels in love with her. She was crazy, she was loud, she was brash. And then when I least expected it, she was shy. She was ladylike. She knew how to eat pasta with a spoon. She was basically a man’s dream come true. The kind of woman who wanted to be fucked hard every night and then delicately taken out to breakfast in the morning. The kind of woman who would make you laugh by mouthing curse words in public places. Talia had wild black hair and dark eyes. A couple of the other guys in the MC always used to joke that she looked like my sister, but I knew she was more than that. We were soulmates.

I’d asked her marry me six months after we met. She was eager to put the ring on her finger, and she couldn’t wait to be my wife. But then she died, and it fucking crushed me. The circumstances of Talia’s death were mysterious, and although I had my suspicions, I never figured out who had been involved. After Talia died, nothing was the same. I couldn’t go back to the way I’d lived before. It felt empty, false. My guys always told me, “Fake it ’til you make it,” so I kept at it. I kept going out, fucking and drinking and drinking and fucking until everything was one big blur of pussy and beer and whiskey in front of my face, twenty-four hours a day. I’d only recently started to enjoy living again. This had been almost ten years ago, but I’d thought about Talia every day after she died. Even though her face started to blur in my mind, I couldn’t get the sharpness of emotion out of my head: how it felt to fall in love. What it felt like to have a soulcrushing argument with the woman I loved, how good it felt to make up afterwards. But there was no danger of that ever happening again. Tori was gorgeous, but she was the same woman I’d known growing up. She was Kristoff’s daughter, a fiery redhead with a spitfire personality. Right now, she needed my help. I wanted to help her. There wasn’t a chance that I’d fall in love with Tori like I’d fallen in love with Talia. With Talia, we’d been equals. Two wild people running free, trying to break the bonds of society and rule together as outlaws. But Tori needed my help; she was dependent on me for everything. “Just marry me,” I said. “Come on, Tor. It’s not something you need to keep thinking about. If you want to stay safe, this is the only option.” Tori looked up at me with her gorgeous green eyes. There was a blush on her pale cheeks and I could feel my cock stiffening in my pants. For all the talk I made about not being able to fall in love with her, I knew I’d be able to fuck her just fine. She was hot, maybe one of the hottest women I’d ever seen. And she’s gonna be yours, I thought to myself with a grin. So maybe I wasn’t the biggest gentleman in the world. Sure, I was offering Tori lifetime protection. But I was also guaranteeing that I’d get laid with a hot piece whenever I wanted. I grinned; I couldn’t help it. A deal this nice hadn’t ever fallen in my lap before. Since I’d fallen so hard for Talia, I knew there wasn’t a chance I’d get my heart broken with Tori. And judging from her attitude—the kind of coy way she was holding back from me—I didn’t think it would be a problem for her. Deep down, I felt really bad for her. After all, her biggest relationship had been with an abusive asshole. But that meant her head had to be all kinds of fucked up, that there wouldn’t even be room for her to love me. Maybe it was a good thing she was so preoccupied with Silas. I had a feeling that Tori was the kind of woman who could let her emotions take the best of her, and that maybe she’d always think before acting.

“Tori, come on,” I said. “You know this is the right idea.” I reached out, intending to grab her arm, but she twisted away and my hand fell on her knee. Her skin was bare; she was wearing a skirt and a blouse, and she jumped but didn’t push me away. I could feel her pulse racing under her skin. My cock chafed against my pants. Suddenly, I wanted her more than I’d ever wanted anyone. She was right there, so close, right in front of me. Mine for the taking. “We can divorce later, if you want,” I said, massaging her thigh with my thumb. Tori bit her lip and blushed bright red. “I mean, if you think that would be better for both of us. If you want me to agree to it now, I’ll even put it in writing,” I added, knowing that I’d rip up the piece of paper immediately after signing. Now that Tori was going to be mine, I wasn’t going to let her go. At least not without a few rounds of hot sex, I thought wickedly. She’s going to be mine, even if only temporarily. “I can’t marry a man who might have killed my father,” Tori blurted out. She shoved my hand off her leg at the same time and stood up on wobbly ankles. A red flush was covering her face and I found myself feeling both aroused and incredibly angry. Anger flared up in me so sharply that I saw red. What the fuck was this broad talking about? I was loyal to her father! I loved her father! He was like a father to me, and ever since he made me promise to protect his daughter, I knew I had to obey him. Even if it was his dying wish, I wouldn’t be able to back down. I was so mad at her! “You’re being an ignorant bitch,” I said, my voice low and warning. Tori stared at me. The air changed between us, became more tense. I could feel lust crackling between our bodies. Tori sighed, and her sweet, musky scent washed over me like an ocean. Without even thinking about what I was doing, I reached forward and tangled my hand in her long red hair, pulling her close to me. Tori was breathing hard, and her lips were slightly parted. Her green eyes were wide open and I could see the pulse of her heartbeat in her delicate, long throat. Tori’s legs went on for days, and I felt a lick of desire shoot through me as I imagined what she would look like without any panties on. I imagined soft curls between her legs, leaking moisture. God damn, I thought. I couldn’t ever remember being this turned on in my entire life. It was like an arrow straight to the crotch, filled with a hormone that made me want to bend her over and fuck her raw. Tori stretched. I misinterpreted her movement as trying to get away from me, and for a brief moment, we tussled. Then, before I knew it, my lips were pressing down on hers. Tori let out a small gasp as I kissed her, but she didn’t pull away. She tasted like beer and strawberries, and I closed my eyes, sucking on her full lower lip and sliding my tongue into her mouth. Tori’s body was stiff against mine. For a moment, I thought she was going to slap me. Then she pushed herself closer and wrapped her arms around my neck, pulling me hungrily towards her. I realized that she’d debated pushing me away and decided it against it. Her little nipples were stiff and hard—I could tell she wasn’t wearing a bra—and they brushed against my chest, making me feel like I was going to come in my pants. She was an amazing kisser; Tori knew how to deliver light

pecks and bites, mixed with generous tongue. My cock was aching by the time we parted. Tori gazed up at me. She was panting, and she wiped her mouth with the back of her hands. “I don’t know what that was,” she said softly. “I’m sorry if I did something wrong.” I grinned and winked at her. “Baby, you didn’t do nothin’ wrong,” I replied. “Come here,” I added. Tori looked up at me. Her eyes had that big, scared look again, and I could tell she was hesitating. She was so sweet, just that little inkling that she was thinking about something naughty. “And what you said about me,” I added shortly. “You have to know that shit isn’t true. I never would have laid a finger on Kristoff. He was like a father to me. I loved him, and I want to find out who murdered him.” Tori shifted her eyes down. I could tell she didn’t believe me, but she didn’t say anything. “I wouldn’t lie to you,” I said under my breath. Tori still didn’t reply. “Tori, don’t be a bitch about this,” I said. “You come to me, asking me for help, and this is what you get. If you do this with me, you have to trust me. You got that?” Tori shook her head. “I know…” Her voice trailed off. “I’m just…I’m scared,” she added. The arousal still hung thick in the air between us but I could tell that her body was filled with tension and she was still frightened. I grinned to myself. This had been one hell of an interesting day. I woke up with one woman and then decided to start a life together with another, I thought with a grin. Max, you’re a player! But something in Tori’s eyes made me stop right in my tracks. I had the uneasy feeling that she was going to be a lot to handle, even though she was clearly attracted to me. Furthermore, I had a feeling that a lot of other shit had gone down between her and Silas that she hadn’t told me about. After all, they’d been together for years. He’d had ample opportunities to hurt her or damage her in ways that I couldn’t even begin to think of. “I won’t hurt you like Silas did,” I promised. “But you have to trust me, okay?” Tori looked up at me with wet eyes. I thought she was going to protest. Instead, she stepped forward and kissed me again. I was hard almost instantly as her soft lips pressed against mine. Tori sighed and moaned softly, leaning against my body. When I slid my hands down her soft curves, she arched her back. I could tell how much she wanted it, how badly she was dying to give it to me. And I’m just the man for that, baby. I am just the man you need

Chapter Five Victoria Max was kissing my fiercely, his tongue moving around in my mouth. My whole body felt like it was on fire. Every nerve ending, every cell was excited by what was happening. His touch was electric; when his hands slid down my bare arms, I could barely stop from squealing. His touch was both ticklish and tender, and I wanted him to put his hands all over my body, everywhere, to make me his, to take me. Breathlessly, I pulled away. Tori, you’re being crazy, I told myself. Get a grip on things. Just because he’s cute does not mean he’ll be good to you. But I couldn’t stop myself from kissing again, from pushing myself against his body and planting my lips firmly on his. It was like I’d never been kissed before, like I was starving for Max’s love and affection. My lips were wet with our shared saliva and I could taste him—like musk and smoke—in my mouth. Between my legs, I could feel that I was getting wet, and I shifted around, feeling the moisture leak down my inner thighs. Under my skirt, I was only wearing thin panties and I could feel the material was soaked through with my arousal. I moaned into Max’s mouth as our kiss deepened. I’d never been kissed like this. Not ever. Not with Silas, not with anyone. I remembered the first time Silas had kissed me… We’d been dating for a week, and I’d been dying to make out with him. When I was in college, I was pretty horny, and I was jealous of all my friends who were constantly getting to hook up with new guys. I’d never had a boyfriend before, and I’d only been kissed a couple of times in high school. My father had been so protective of me that he’d never wanted to let me out of his sight, and unfortunately that included dating. When I got to college, I was virgin. It was practically unheard of. My roommate was laughing at me before I’d even known her a week. It was one of the most embarrassing times in my life. Back in high school, most of my friends had been virgins, too. The only exception had been Kitty, but she didn’t go to college. She stayed home and worked odd jobs for her dad, earning her all of my envy and a lot of my respect. When I met Silas, in Freshman Comp, he intrigued me from the beginning. He wasn’t skinny, but he was thin, and he had a mass of dyed black hair that hung over his forehead. I loved the way he’d start drawing on his oversized jacket when he got bored, yet somehow he was still able to answer all of the questions that teachers lobbed at him every time. The day he asked me out, I obsessed over it. I was walking out of the classroom and Silas came up to me.

“Hey,” he said. “Victoria, right?” I blushed. I liked it when people used my full name Most of my friends called me Tori, or Vicky, which I hated. “Yeah,” I said. Witty repartee, Tori. Way to go! “I’m Silas,” he replied. I fought the urge to tell him that I knew. “That’s cool,” I said. It was the typical mundane teenage chatter, and I didn’t expect it to go on. But then Silas said, “Victoria, we both have weird names.” And he smiled at me. In that moment, I thought my heart was going to fall out of my butt. “I guess,” I said. “I was named after my grandmother.” Silas nodded. “Wanna get some food with me sometime?” “Yes,” I said, immediately. My heart started skipping and fluttering in my chest. “Call me, okay?” Silas waited patiently while I scribbled down my number on a small slip of paper. He stuffed it in his pocket and walked away. For three days, I didn’t hear anything from him. I was so disappointed; I’d liked him so much that I wanted him to call me that night. I figured it was a joke; when I told my roommate, she laughed. “That guy is a loser, Vicky,” she said. “Don’t go out with him.” “I like him,” I whined. “I want him to call me.” “No you don’t,” she said quickly. “You only think you like him because he asked you out.” But that wasn’t it; she wasn’t right. I liked him a lot, and I’d liked him before he’d ever laid eyes on me. I even liked his weird name. It was like, a name from another century. It made him seem cool, more sophisticated than the sweaty boys who populated the rest of my class. Finally, four days later, Silas called me. “I hope I didn’t make you wait,” he said in a teasing voice. In retrospect, I should have put a red flag up. Silas obviously had wanted to make me sweat; he’d been sitting and watching me squirm over two days of class. But I hadn’t wanted to say anything, I hadn’t wanted to be that uncool, frazzled girl. “I was fine,” I lied. “So are we going out to eat?”

“Wherever you want,” Silas said. Later that night, he showed up at my dorm. I’d decided on an Italian restaurant in the nicer part of downtown, but Silas hadn’t dressed up. He was still wearing his baggy jeans and oversized jacket. He looked scruffy but sexy, and suddenly I felt overdressed in my black shimmery cocktail dress and heels. “Hi,” I said shyly. Silas didn’t talk as he drove me downtown. When he did talk, it was about himself. He talked all about what he wanted to do in college, and how he eventually wanted to work with people who had gone through domestic abuse. He wasn’t the kind of guy who seemed like that type, but I was impressed. “Like a counselor?” I asked, trying to make sure I understood. “No,” Silas said firmly. He kept his eyes on the wheel. “You don’t get it. Like, I want to help them train for new jobs or whatever.” It still sounded like counseling to me, but I kept my mouth shut. I figured that I didn’t know anything, and that I should be lucky Silas was even hanging out with me. The rest of dinner didn’t go very well. Silas talked about himself the whole time. He never asked me any questions, and when I volunteered information, he’d start looking bored and then he’d change the subject. When I got back to my dorm room that night, I cried. I cried because I thought I was interesting and pretty, and I didn’t know why Silas didn’t like me. I cried because I’d wanted everything to go so well and it hadn’t. And most importantly, I cried because if someone like Silas didn’t like me, I didn’t think anyone would. He hadn’t kissed me good night. All of my friends, even in high school, had told me that it wasn’t a real date until we kissed. So I hadn’t even gone on a real date! When I whined about it to my roommate, she told me I was overreacting. “Prudish girls don’t like to kiss on the first date,” she said archly, like I should have known better. “You should have made the first move.” I balked at that. Even though I didn’t consider myself conservative, there was still a part of me that wanted Silas to want me. I wanted him to be so taken with me that he couldn’t help but kiss me. Over the weekend, he called me again. He was warmer this time, a little more cordial. I figured that whatever had gone down between us was likely an accident, and that maybe he’d been just as

nervous as I had been. After all, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibilities. Our next date was on a Tuesday, at a coffee shop downtown. I met Silas there after class. He was having an espresso, and he ordered one for me, making fun of the way I pronounced the word. It was like all of the intimacy that had built up between us over the phone evaporated. I felt like a stranger with him. “I wanna kiss you,” Silas told me. “But we can’t do it in here.” I frowned. I didn’t want to go outside—it was pouring, and I’d just washed my hair. “Come on,” Silas urged. “Don’t be one of those fussy bitches who doesn’t want to get her hair wet. Come outside with me.” I bit my lip. My hair looked great that day, and it normally took over an hour to fix. I’d taken special care of how I looked because I was going out with Silas. But I didn’t want to disappoint him, and I desperately wanted him to kiss me. So I followed him outside. We were instantly drenched. Silas grabbed my wrist and pulled me towards him with a surprising amount of strength for someone so slight. His breath smelled like coffee and his lips were thin, like anchovies. When we kissed, it wasn’t the magic moment I’d been hoping for. There were no sparks, no fireworks. Just the odd feeling of a warm, wriggling tongue forcing itself in my mouth and going down my throat. I shuddered and tried not to gag. I’d always thought kissing would be romantic, something intimate and sexy to share. But kissing wasn’t like that; it was almost like work. Kissing Silas felt like I was auditioning for a part I wasn’t even sure if I wanted. Even though I got over my nervousness when it came to kissing, Silas never warmed up to kissing me. He wound up just giving me small pecks on the face or the lips, usually when we had sex. I never again experienced that surge of romance, that thrill that made me want to keep kissing him. It was like a bad dream that kept going for years. I blinked, waking back to reality. Max was standing in front of me, looking like a Greek god in comparison with the flashback I’d just had of Silas. “Come here,” I murmured. Before I could think about what I was doing, or make any more feeble attempts to stop myself, our lips were together. Max was a great kisser. Hell, he was more than a great kisser. He was the best kisser I’d ever been with. You mean the only good kisser, I thought sourly. Silas was terrible. Max’s lips met mine and I felt my knees go weak. My stomach clenched and knotted itself into a tangle. As Max’s tongue slipped between my lips and found my own, I moaned softly. He pressed his body against mine. When I realized that I could feel his hard cock pressing against me, I blushed and

shivered. You’re going to get more than you bargained for, I thought. He’s going to fuck you all night long. I could tell that Max was amazing in bed. Just looking at his muscular frame made my mouth go dry. His black hair was pushed back from his forehead, and his dark eyes focused intently on me. “So?” Max grinned at me. “You make a decision yet?” I bit my lip. “I’ll marry you,” I said softly. Oh my god, Tori, what are you doing? “And I’ll move in with you,” I added. Max nodded. He was businesslike again, all removed from the situation. “Good,” he said firmly. “I’m glad you came to your senses about this.” I blinked at him. “I didn’t really have a choice,” I said, cringing at how weak my voice made me sound. “I mean, you’re right. This is for my protection, right?” Max nodded. As much as I didn’t want to own up to it, part of me was thrilled at the idea of being Max’s lover. I shivered when I looked down at his veiny, muscular hands. Compared to him, Silas seemed so puny and weak. It made me wonder how he had the strength to beat me all of those times. But Max…Max would be different. The two men in my life were like night and day, and I had a feeling that Max was going to be an incredible lover. You’re also going to be his wife. His wife. Can you believe that, Tori? I couldn’t. I couldn’t believe anything that was happening to me right now, much less getting married. Part of me was almost sad. I’d always pictured having a real wedding, the kind of wedding where I could wear white and having flowers in my hair and a big bouquet. And now, that wasn’t going to happen. There wouldn’t be a reception with bad, mealy cake and a cooling buffet. There would be no chicken dance, no limbo. No electric slide. Max looked at me and I felt a flare of lust between my legs. No, you’re not going to have a real wedding, I thought. But it’s going to be one hell of a time nonetheless.

Chapter Six Max As much as I wanted to focus on Tori, I knew that I had some bigger fish to fry at the moment. I was dying to fuck her—to pull her into my arms and make that sweet body cry out with pleasure—but there was some urgent club business that had been on my mind since Kristoff died. Way to go, champ, I thought sourly. Way to get in the mood. When Tori and I kissed, I’d seen stars. She was incredible. And I had the feeling that she’d be incredible in bed, too. That hungry body, her little tongue flickering back and forth. The soft way that her skin felt in my hand. When we’d kissed, a musky, warm scent had filled my nostrils. I’d realized that it was the scent of her arousal. That had been almost enough to make me go crazy, but I knew I couldn’t get carried away in the clubhouse. Sure, it wouldn’t be the first time I’d fucked a girl on club property. But with Kristoff’s murder still unsolved and Tori looking for a safe haven, I had a feeling that I was going to have to get some work out of the way before I could have any fun. Tori had been looking at me with clear hunger in her eyes, the kind of hunger that wouldn’t be sated just from a kiss. I couldn’t keep from smirking. An hour ago, she’d called me a murderer. Now, I had a feeling I could tell her to get on her knees and suck my cock until I came and she’d do it. “You gonna be alright?” I looked into Tori’s green eyes. “I’m gonna have Danny, one of the guys, take you to my place. You make yourself comfortable, okay? Take a shower, relax. There’s a bedroom made up with a lot of empty space. If you feel comfortable staying there, you can.” Tori blushed. I knew then she’d been thinking about fucking me, too. “You aren’t coming?” She looked scared again. “Danny is tough,” I assured her. “No one is going to fuck with you if you’re with him.” Tori still didn’t look convinced. “I want to go home,” she said softly. “I want to get my things, and I have to tell my best friend that I’ll be safe.” I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll tell Danny. You listen to him, though. If he tells you that you need to go, don’t fight him. He’s not a dumb shit, and he wants to keep you safe, just like I do.” When I called Danny in to meet with Tori, he was practically drooling. I laughed. Danny was my age, but he acted like a big kid. I could tell he was thrilled to have Tori in his company, like she was some movie starlet or something. “Y’all be good now,” I said with a wink. Danny burst out laughing and Tori shot me a dirty look. I shrugged. “I’ll see you later,” I said curtly, strutting outside and climbing on top of my hog. My chest locked up as soon as I hit the road. It had been months since Kristoff died, but I hadn’t

actually been over to his house to check things out. The idea had been painful, and there had been a lot of club drama to sort through. When he first died, everyone wanted some time to themselves. The club wasn’t active for a month or two. He’d been the leader for a long time, and I didn’t think most people would wanna stick around in his absence. But luckily, I’d been wrong. It felt good to be out in the open air. I loved the clubhouse, but after a while, I’d started feeling kind of cooped up. Especially once Tori got so damn emotional. I wasn’t used to being around women who cried all the time, and I hoped she wouldn’t be like that after everything was said and done. It was one thing to be scared, it was another to be dramatic. I shivered. Talia always used to say that I was being dramatic, that I was doing something wrong, that I needed to “take a chill pill and relax.” It was one of her favorite things to say. She was one of those women who couldn’t stand the idea of letting things get out of hand, one of those women who had to feel like she was taking charge at all times. It got tiring at times, but I liked how she seemed to lack the natural penchant for drama that a lot of women had instinctively. Kristoff had lived in a big, ramshackle house outside of Marquette. The MC brought in a decent amount of cash flow, but lately things had been dry—that was why Kristoff had started the drugs up again. I’d hated it at the time, and I hated it now; if it hadn’t been for the drugs, Kristoff might still be alive. His house looked normal in the sun, almost like a family still lived there. The yard was trimmed—one of the guys in the club came by every other week—but the flowers had died, and I could tell the driveway needed some patching. “We’re gonna have to put you up for sale,” I said under my breath as I parked my bike in the driveway and climbed off. “After all, someone’s gonna wanna buy you and maybe put a family in you again.” It felt weird, knowing that I was digging through Tori’s childhood home. Part of me wanted to call her and ask her if there were any secret hiding places. But then I realized that it would probably frighten her if she knew where I was. Nah, I decided. Better to just keep her in the dark for now. Better not to say anything. I let myself in with the key shared by the club and looked around. Despite a fine layer of dust on everything, it looked pretty normal inside. It definitely didn’t look like the scene of a crime. I swallowed hard. Kristoff had been in the middle of a deal that had gone south. When he died, he was shot with a pistol. It was a pistol familiar to the MC, a pistol that every member got when he patched in. The bullet had been lodged in his brain; whoever had shot him had left him bleeding and then escaped. I hadn’t known until the next morning, when I’d come over for a routine meeting and found him dead. I shivered. The house seemed chilly. Even though it was a warm spring day outside, there was still a weird atmosphere inside. The house knows, I thought to myself. The house knows what happened here.

Brushing off the creepy feeling, I climbed the stairs one by one. My boots creaked on the wooden steps and the sounds echoed off the walls. The interior hadn’t been painted in a long time; it was clear that before it went on the market the guys would have to come over and do some light touchups. But aside from that, everything looked pretty good. The furniture was draped in sheets, and the scene of the crime had been cleared up. Kristoff had been shot in his bedroom. I shuddered, trying to visualize the scene. The blood had been cleaned up off the hardwood floor, but the memory of seeing Kristoff’s prone body wouldn’t ever leave my mind. It was an image that I was glad Tori hadn’t seen, an image that haunted my nightmares. “Old man, what kind of secrets were you hiding?” I mumbled as I dug through the bureau. Not much was left; after Kristoff had been shot, the MC had sent a cleaning crew over to the house. They’d boxed up most of his things for disposal, including his clothes, which went off to the local Salvation Army. Now the bureau was empty, save for a couple of old photographs. I picked them up, expecting to see baby photos of Tori. But instead, they were all club members: Kristoff with my boys, Kristoff on his bike, Kristoff with his arm around a couple of strippers. Laughing, I shook my head. The men in the Renegade Saints were all the same. Give us a bottle and a warm girl to spend the night with, give us an open road and a black hog. That was all we needed to be happy. Except, not quite, a small voice said from the back of my head. Not quite. You thought you needed something else for a long time. “Fuck off,” I mumbled. I didn’t feel like thinking of Talia again, not now, not ever. She was dead and gone, and there was no use dwelling on the past. It was true that while we were together, I’d thought about leaving the MC. Talia wanted to challenge me, to inspire me to do new things. She came in because of the guys, but once we were together, it was like she didn’t approve of my staying in the club. I remembered fighting with her over it all the time. I told her that I had goals in life, and in order to reach those goals, I had to stay a Renegade Saint. Talia didn’t share my opinion. Now, I wondered if there had been anything behind her push to get me away from the guys. Maybe she was like other women, worried about infidelity during the good years and money during the bad ones. Reaching forward, I yanked open the drawer from Kristoff’s nightstand. It was empty, but I heard something rustle when it was open. “What was that?” My voice echoed in the empty room. Getting to my feet, I yanked the nightstand to the side and peeked behind. My gaze landed on a piece of paper that was awkwardly folded into thirds. It looked like Kristoff had maybe stuck it inside the nightstand, then slammed the door and forgotten about it, sending it flying to the back of the drawer.

I bit my lip as I unfolded the paper. When I’d come here, I wasn’t sure what I’d been looking for. But the atmosphere around me seemed to have changed instantly, from relatively friendly to ominous. “Call off the deal or you’ll face the consequences.” I shuddered after I’d read it. It was straight and to the point, alright. I wondered who had been blackmailing Kristoff. I dropped the paper onto the bed and gazed around, looking for something made out of plastic. Finally, I spotted a tiny wastebasket that hadn’t yet been emptied. I dumped the trash on the floor, then folded the trash bag over itself and picked up the piece of paper. I didn’t know who had written this —the handwriting was stark and unfamiliar—but maybe there were prints or something that I could check. Maybe some DNA or some other science shit, maybe some kind of technology that would lead me straight to the killer. Anything was possible. I left Kristoff’s house whistling, feeling better than I had in ages. I’d never seen this note before, and hopefully with a little more digging, I’d be able to find out who wrote it. After all, I was only looking to clear my name and find the killer. It couldn’t be that hard, right? Part of me was almost nervous to go home. I wanted to see Tori again, but she’d locked herself in one of the bedrooms. I lived in a ranch house on the other side of Marquette from Kristoff’s place. It was a house I’d bought when Talia and I were engaged, and I didn’t have the heart to sell it. It was a real home, the kind of home she said she wanted to raise kids in. While I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a parent or not, the idea of Talia wanting to bear my children had always made me feel proud, warm, and fuzzy. I had no idea whether or not I’d be a good father, but it had made me happy to picture coming home to my gorgeous wife and a baby or two. Talia had always been honest with me about what she’d wanted. I only hoped Tori would do the same. “Tor?” I knocked on the closed door. “Feel like getting some food?” There was a pause. “Do you cook?” I burst out laughing. “Uh, yeah, if you call ordering a pizza cooking,” I said playfully. Silence. “No, thanks,” Tori called back after a moment. “I’m really tired, Max. I think I’m just going to lie down.” I swallowed hard. “Nervous about tomorrow?” There was no answer.

“Tori?” “I’m fine,” she called back. The exasperation in her voice was clear. “I’ll be fine, I mean.” “Suit yourself,” I called back. “I’m going to order an extra-large, with pepperoni and mushroom. You can help yourself to the leftovers if you want.” There was no reply. A small surge of anger rushed through my body. Part of me was tempted to break down the door and drag Tori out into the living room. And then what? I thought. Make her eat pizza? Take her clothes off? Shaking my head, I laughed. Women were crazy alright. And now I was starting to think that maybe I’d gotten stuck with the craziest one of all.

Chapter Seven Victoria I barely slept that night. Danny had taken me to Max’s place—it was cleaner and nicer than I’d expected—and I’d settled into a bedroom on one side of the house. Even though I was dying to know what he got up to when no one else was around, I didn’t snoop. The room I picked had a queen-size bed and an empty bureau. When Danny took me by the apartment, I was surprised to realize I didn’t actually care about most of my stuff. I didn’t really want to take it with me. The memories of those clothes that I had reminded me of Silas, and I wanted to get rid of them. When I called Kitty and told her what I was doing, she’d flipped out. “You can’t be serious, Tor,” she said, snapping her gum. “I mean, you barely know this guy!” I winced. I hadn’t even told her about the marriage plan yet, just about the “temporary” living arrangement. Even though I wasn’t sure what would happen in the future, I doubted Max would let me move out of his house. If there was any chance that Silas was still out looking for me, I had a feeling I wouldn’t even want to leave. After all, I’d turned to Max for protection; I didn’t even think I’d had any other options. “You can’t do this,” Kitty whined. “I mean, he could be a psycho!” “I have to do this,” I argued, already feeling worn down from Max’s arguments. I felt irritated with Kitty, too. She knew how badly Silas had treated me, and yet she still never insisted that I stay with her or anything like that. “I don’t have any other choice.” “Victoria, that makes you sound like a hooker,” Kitty snapped. “Whatever,” I said. “I have to go.” Danny had been a perfect gentleman the whole time, even if I’d caught him checking out my ass every time I bent over. He carried my bags into the room I chose and then parked himself in the living room, in front of the television. Before Max got home, I went to the kitchen and made myself a snack—a glass of water and a ham sandwich. Then I went back to “my” room and tried to sleep. By the time Max got home, I was in bed, halfway there. He knocked on my door and asked if I wanted pizza. I should have given him some snappy comeback about how no self-respecting woman would eat pizza the day before her wedding, but I winced when I remembered no self-respecting woman would marry someone she didn’t love.

That whole night I had nightmares about Silas. They were awful. Silas breaking into Max’s house and kidnapping me, Silas ruining our wedding, Silas showing up with a gun and putting a bullet in Max’s skull. The last one kept me awake for a long time. It made me think of how my dad, Kristoff, died. He was found with a bullet in the brain. Someone had just shot him and then left him to die like an animal. The sun was coming up by the time I fell asleep again. In the morning, someone knocked on my door. I tensed, thinking it was Max, but a few seconds later, I heard a soft voice, lightly accented in Spanish. “Hello, Miss Victoria?” “It’s Tori,” I called back through the door. “What is it?” “I am here to help you get ready, ma’am.” Puzzled, I got to my feet and opened the door. Standing in front of me was an aging Hispanic woman, wearing a crisp white uniform and orthopedic shoes. She had a friendly smile and she was carrying some bags. “Mr. Max thought you might want to wear one of these,” she said softly as she slipped the bags into my hands. I frowned. “What are these?” The woman smiled at me. “I don’t know, ma’am,” she said softly. “Would you like some breakfast? Toast? Eggs? A croissant?” I wasn’t hungry, but my stomach rumbled. The woman must have taken that as a yes, because when I looked up, she’d completely disappeared. Frowning, I put the bags down on the bed and opened them up. There, in front of me, I saw a couple of white and cream dresses. They were all informal, and looked like they might fit me if I sucked in my stomach and had someone else zip me up. But I didn’t like the idea of wearing something borrowed; after all, I didn’t exactly know where they came from. Maybe Max had a stash of female clothes in his closet? I giggled loudly. I knew I was nervous, but this was a little too much. The maid returned with a breakfast tray just as I was getting dressed. I chose an old outfit of mine, something Silas had hated. It wasn’t the infamous red dress, but it was close: a navy lace dress with a pencil skirt and a bodice that nipped in my waist and made my breasts look bigger than they really were. It was one of the only things I owned that gave me actual cleavage. If I was being completely honest, part of me wanted to look really nice for Max. After all, he was doing me a huge favor here.

Part of me wanted to run. Tori, don’t be ridiculous, I thought. Max isn’t going to hurt you. Even though he’d argued with me yesterday about my father, I wondered if he knew something that he wasn’t spilling. After all, he was a secretive man with a past. He had to have something. But I knew I couldn’t run. I’d agreed to marry him, and that’s what I was going to have to do. The maid waited patiently for me to finish dressing, then she looked at me. “Ma’am, would you like me to do your hair?” She held out her hands. “I’m used to doing hair,” she added. “I can do it up, if you’d like.” I sighed. I wasn’t particularly in the mood to argue, and I hated having someone’s hands prickling my scalp. But I could tell she was already going out on a limb just from offering her services to me, and I didn’t want to be rude. “Sure,” I said, trying to force a smile on my face. “That would be great.” An hour later, I barely recognized myself. The maid had pinned up my hair in an elegant, sweeping updo held by thousands of pins that I could feel pricking my scalp, but none of them were visible. I was astounded at how I looked. “Thank you,” I said softly. “This is really lovely.” She nodded. “I got practice from my daughter,” she said, failing to conceal a smile. “For her quinceañera. She was so picky!” “Your practice paid off,” I replied, admiring the back of my hair in the mirrored glass. “Thank you again.” “Of course.” She nodded. “Will there be anything else?” I bit my lip. Part of me was dying to ask her if Max was there, if I would be able to run away without getting caught. It would be so easy. Just slip out the door, run down the driveway, go back to my old life. I closed my eyes and thought about it. For a moment, it was incredibly tempting. But then I remembered Silas, and all the other kinds of trouble that were waiting for me back at my apartment. I was trading my freedom for protection, and part of me still wasn’t sure that it was a good idea. But before I had time to speak, Max burst into the room, deflating my bubble. The maid smiled with a knowing look on her face as she bowed to Max and showed herself out of the room. “Hey,” Max said shortly. He was wearing a clean button-down shirt and dark jeans. “You ready?” The vision of my running away burst like a balloon in my head. No matter what I thought when he wasn’t around, I knew that I couldn’t lie to Max. And I couldn’t hide from him, and I most certainly

couldn’t run from him. “Yeah,” I said softly. “I’m ready.” To my surprise, Max looked me up and down. “You’re gorgeous,” he said after a moment. My heart melted a little. “Thanks,” I replied. “You don’t look so bad yourself.” Max grinned. It was a grin that didn’t exactly suit him—both boyish and charming. It intrigued me; I started wondering just what other qualities Max had that I’d never laid eyes on. As Max herded me out of the room and into his car, I felt myself sinking into a warm place of surprising contentment. Despite whatever happened with my father’s death, part of me wanted to trust Max. Part of me wanted to stick around, even though I had no idea what was going to happen between us. Part of me wanted to find out. “You nervous?” Max winked at me and I felt my heart flutter in my chest. It had never been like this with Silas. I had a feeling that if Max caught me on a hormonal day, I’d start crying at his niceties just because. He was so nice to me, and he didn’t have to be nice to me at all. After all, he was the leader of the Renegade Saints. Bikers aren’t exactly known for their kindness and goodwill towards others. But Max was really proving himself, and I couldn’t wait to see what the future would hold. “A little,” I said. A blush came over my face. Max looked deep into my eyes before he started the car. I giggled. “What’s so funny?” I shrugged. “Nothing,” I said after a beat. “I just realized I’ve never seen you behind the wheel of a car before. You’re always on a bike.” Max laughed. “That’s true,” he said, nodding his head. We didn’t talk for the rest of the ride downtown. The Marquette City Hall building was nicer than I’d expected, done up in marble with gold trim. It looked like it was trying too hard to be Boston, but I didn’t mind. I didn’t always like living in Marquette, but I appreciated that we weren’t stuck out in the country. At least there was always something going on, at least there was always life. “Check out the crowd,” Max said under his breath. We parked the car in a garage across the street and I gaped. There was a line of couples stretching outside the door. It was funny to realize that all of these people were getting married, too, that all of them would have the same wedding anniversary date as Max and me. That is, if you stay married, I thought to myself. You might wind up getting divorced. He did offer. That thought troubled me. I hadn’t really taken into consideration just what Max and I were doing

together. We were both giving up a measure of freedom. This meant that neither one of us would be able to date other people, or have serious relationships. This wasn’t the natural way to get married. It was shocking to me to realize that everyone else was there because they loved each other. “You’re being quiet,” Max observed. “What happened to Tori the Chatterbox?” I blushed. When I was little, my dad always called me a chatterbox because I couldn’t ever stop talking. I’d never been self-conscious about it until I grew up and went to college. Silas told me that he thought it was unattractive when women babbled all the time without actually saying anything. Now, I wondered if he’d changed me for good. “It’s just weird,” I said finally. “All of these people are getting married, too, but they’re doing it the real way.” Max shook his head. “You don’t know that,” he said. “Some of these women could be pregnant, and the guy’s just trying to do the right thing. Or maybe they’re in a situation more like ours.” He winked at me. I was dying to ask him just exactly what that meant, but I didn’t get the chance. A stern-looking female guard with close-cropped hair stepped in front of us. “Get in the back of the line,” she ordered brusquely. “I don’t have time for people who cut today.” I giggled again. It sounded absurdly loud, but to my pleasure, Max joined in. By the time we were at the back of the line, I realized we were probably going to be there for a while. An hour later, the same woman, looking even more irritable, was pulling us into a small, windowless room. No matter how nice the Marquette City Hall looked from the outside, the inside looked like a Soviet-era bunker. Everything was painted cinder block and utilitarian wood furniture. A large judge in black robes stood up. He smiled at me. “That’s a nice looking couple,” he said to the guard. She rolled her eyes and left. “Thanks,” Max said to the judge. He reached into his pocket and handed over a slip of paper. “This is our license.” I frowned. I didn’t know how he’d managed to get that taken care of without me, but I wasn’t going to ask any questions now. “Good,” the judge replied. He looked from Max to me and back again. “Y’all ready to do this?” “Ready as ever,” I said under my breath. The judge had us move to the center of the room and hold hands. When I touched Max’s skin, sparks jumped between us. I looked into his eyes, which were wide with surprise, and found myself blushing. The skin of his hands was rough but calming to the touch, and I realized that finally, I was starting to relax.

I wished I could have remembered anything the judge said. He kept telling us not to let anything come between us, and then finally he asked Max if Max had the rings. Max nodded and handed over two yellow gold bands. I raised my eyebrows, but I knew I couldn’t ask. What the hell was Max Adams doing with a couple of wedding bands? We’d just decided on this yesterday. Had he gone out somehow and bought them? Were they heirlooms? I didn’t have time to think about it anymore; Max was slipping the ring onto my left hand. It fit perfectly, and I looked down, staring at the band of gold. “Wow,” I said softly. “It’s a big deal, honey,” the judge said with a grin, misinterpreting my shock. “Congratulations, y’all.” “Thanks,” Max and I echoed. The guard came to show us out. “We’re married,” I said softly as soon as we’d left City Hall. We were standing on the grand front steps. The line had disappeared; marriage court hours were almost over for the day. “I can’t believe it.” Max grinned at me. “So, what do you wanna do?” “What do you mean?” “Let’s just go home,” Max said. “Come on.” In the car back to his house, the atmosphere was different between us. It felt changed somehow, like getting married had somehow put another spark there. Or maybe it’s not that, I thought. Maybe you’re just not nervous anymore, and you’re actually able to enjoy his company. I shook my head. I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but I was determined not to keep any preconceived notions in my head. If this was married life, I knew that I had to try to adjust. My life was going to be completely different than it had been before, and it wasn’t going to return to normal. No matter what I did, this was how things were now. “How are you feeling?” Max reached across the seat and slid his hand between my thighs. It sent an unexpected shock of pleasure through my body and I fought a blush. “I’m fine,” I said. My voice sounded strange and husky. When I swallowed, I realized that I could feel myself getting wet between the legs. All of the feelings from the day before suddenly came rushing back to me in an instant: the lust, the passion, the desire for Max to grab me and make me his. I shuddered.

“You okay?” Max raised his eyebrows. “You’re squirming a little.” I bit my lip. “Yeah,” I said. “I’m nervous.” “Don’t be nervous,” Max said. He slid his hand higher on my leg and I felt another chill of lust. “Everything’s going to be fine, Tori.” When we pulled into the driveway, I kept waiting for Max to lean over and kiss me. For a second, I thought he was going to do just that: he twisted in his seat, leaned over, and put a hand close to my face. But then I realized he was just unhooking my seatbelt. “Come inside,” Max said with a twinkle in his eye. The tension between us was mounting, and I could feel my breath coming faster and faster. “Okay,” I managed to say in a small voice. In the foyer, Max grabbed me and pulled me close to his muscular body. He leaned down and held his lips mere inches away from mine. I struggled upwards in vain, desperate to kiss him. Max grinned at me. “You want this?” I nodded. Before I could reply, Max savagely pressed his lips to mine. Tension flooded my body and I moaned softly into his mouth as Max parted my lips with his tongue. Arousal flared in my lower belly as Max wrapped his arms around me and pulled me close in his muscular arms. Shivering at his touch, I managed to arch my back and press my breasts against Max’s chest. “You wanna go upstairs?” Max broke the kiss and looked down at me with a playful, lustful expression on his face. All I could do was nod.

Chapter Eight Max When I got Tori in my bedroom, I was amazed at what happened next. She came at me like a lustcrazed animal, like a cat in heat, like someone dying to be satisfied. It was like my kisses were water and her throat was parched, like she was a dying woman, needing a drink. Tori’s mouth covered mine and her hot little tongue slipped into my mouth. I groaned as I felt her wrap her slim thighs around my waist. Tori hung her arms around my neck and used them to hold herself up in the air, grinding her body against mine in a furious display of passion. “Oh god, Max,” Tori groaned. “I’ve never felt like this before.” Neither had I, but I wasn’t about to tell her that. As we moved closer to the bed, Tori lowered her face into my neck and began sucking and licking at the exposed skin. Lust shot through me and I could feel my cock, hard as anything, twitching in my pants. Tori smelled like cinnamon and a woman’s arousal, and I was dying to bury my head between her legs and make her come over and over again. We flopped down together in a tangle of skin and limbs. Tori was already reaching her hands under my shirt and slipping it over my head. When she saw my chest, she gasped. “I know, baby,” I said in a teasing voice. “I work out.” Tori shook her head. She ran her fingers along a couple of ragged scars. “What are these?” She looked up at me, her green eyes wide with concern. “What happened to you?” I shook my head. Now wasn’t the time to talk about my old battle wounds. “Nothing, baby,” I said. “Come here.” Tori looked at me with lust shining in her eyes. Her lips were parted and her breath was coming in soft, damp bursts. She licked her gorgeous red lips and tossed her hair over one shoulder, keeping her eyes locked with mine as she reached behind herself and started unzipping her dress. My eyes practically bulged out of my head as Tori wiggled out of the dark blue lace. Her tits popped out, showing massive cleavage, and I let out a low moan as she peeled the fabric off of her taut body. Tori was pale, but her toned muscles bulged as she stretched on the bed. When she was done, she was clad only in a strapless bra and a pair of pale blue panties. “These are nice,” I said with a smirk as I pointed towards her crotch. Tori blushed furiously. She crossed her arms over her chest, making her tits pop out. My eyes practically bulged out of my head. I unzipped my pants and yanked them down until I was clad only in briefs. My erection was straining the front and Tori gaped when she saw me.

“You like?” Tori blushed even harder. I crawled on the bed and got in between her legs, slapping the insides of her thighs so she’d spread further apart. When Tori’s legs were almost in the splits, I could smell her delicious pussy wafting up towards me. The scent made me want to tear the fabric away from her and fuck her right then and there, but I knew I wanted to tease her a little bit first. “What are you doing?” I didn’t answer. Tori gasped as I nuzzled her pussy through the wet crotch of her panties. She smelled delicious and musky, and I closed my eyes, deeply inhaling the scent. Tori gasped as I slid the crotch to the side and slipped a finger inside of her. She was incredibly tight and soaked with moisture; I felt my cock spasm just from touching her pussy. As I leaned down and fastened my lips around Tori’s clit, she let out a low, liquid moan that turned into a wail. The nub of flesh was hard in my mouth and I knew I was pleasing her. Tori was bucking and gasping on the bed, arching her back and tossing her red mane around in the air. “That feels so good, Max, oh my god!” Tori shrieked. She buried her hands in my hair and vigorously humped my face, covering me in her juices. I closed my eyes and sucked and licked her clit in slow circles until I felt her muscles start to convulse. Tori let out a cry that sounded almost pained. Every muscle in her body clenched tightly underneath of me and she strained her hips until I could see the sweat shining on her pale skin. Getting to my knees, I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. “I like the way you taste, baby,” I told her as I tugged my briefs off. Tori watched me with gaping eyes. She reached behind herself and snapped her bra, slowly pulling it away from her perfect, rounded breasts. My cock stiffened and twitched when I saw her pink nipples were perfectly erect. I decided that I had to taste them, and rather than allowing her up, I pushed Tori back down on the bed. Fastening my mouth over one of her perfect nipples, I sucked and sucked until Tori was screaming with pleasure. I could feel her body shaking and shivering underneath mine, and I knew that the time to fuck her was rapidly approaching. “Oh, baby,” I moaned as I pulled my head away from her chest. “I wanna fuck you so badly.” Tori grinned at me. Before I knew what she was doing, she was already sitting up and pushing me away from her chest. Tori traced her nails down my chest, making me shiver with lust. She gave me a coy grin as she hooked her fingers in the elastic of my briefs and tugged them down. My cock bobbed free and I groaned as Tori wrapped a soft hand around the base and slowly started to pump up and down. Tori gave me a wicked grin as she got down on all fours and crawled towards me. I was mesmerized by the sight of her ass bobbing in the air, the two perfect globes separated by a dark crack of intrigue. I wanted to grab her and run my tongue from the end of her ass to her clit, but Tori had other ideas. Before I could move, I felt her hot breath on my erection. “I wanna taste you, too,” Tori mumbled. She grabbed my cock and moved her mouth on top, gently

taking me inside her wet velvet heaven. Tori sucked and licked at the head of my cock as her hand pumped the base. I felt so good that I gasped sharply before digging my fingers into Tori’s hair and pulling hard. She was an expert at pleasuring me, and I loved feeling the way her tongue licked the gentle area under the head. “Oh, god,” I moaned, steadying myself on Tori’s warm head. Tori took my whole cock into her throat, sucking and moving her hand down to cup my balls. Pleasure exploded in my body, and for a moment I was sure that I was going to come. Pushing Tori down on her back, I crawled between her legs and steadied myself with a hand on her knee. There was no talking now, no laughter. We knew what was going to happen, and I knew she wanted it as much as I did. Finally, I pushed my cock inside Tori’s sopping wet pussy. She was even tighter than she had been when I was eating her, and the pressure around my cock felt amazingly good. I let out a long, low groan as Tori gasped, shifting her hips on the bed to accommodate my weight. With a grin, I reached down and grabbed Tori’s ankles, flinging them over my shoulder to allow me greater access. She moaned as I thrust all the way inside of her, sending shockwaves of pleasure through us both. Desire practically lit me on fire as I began pumping in and out, fucking her to the best of my ability. Tori closed her eyes and stretched her arms high above her head, moaning. She started moving her hips to the rhythm of my thrusts, and before I knew it, we were moving together, fucking each other. Reaching down, I rubbed my thumb over one of Tori’s erect nipples and pinched until she cried out. I closed my eyes and arched my back as I slammed into Tori with more force than ever before. Beneath me, she was moaning and writhing on the bed, completely given up to the pleasure flooding her body. I grinned as I felt the pleasure building in my body to a passionate, heated climax. “Oh, god,” I moaned as I fucked Tori harder than ever. “I’m gonna come!” Tori squirmed and groaned underneath of me. She starting grinding her hips against me and rubbing her clit against my pubic bone, giving me a level of previously unknown pleasure. As she screamed, I felt my cock spasm and twitch, then gush ropes of cum inside her body. When it was over, I collapsed on top of Tori. She looked up at me with her green eyes and let out a little sigh. “That’s what I’ve been missing?” “That’s what you’ve been missing,” I replied, pulling out of her and flopping down on the bed. Tori tried to pull a sheet over her breasts but I tugged it back down. “You’re not depriving me of those glorious tits,” I told her firmly. “And you better be prepared to fuck

me again later.” Tori’s eyes flashed with lust. “Oh, I am,” she said softly. “Trust me.” I lay on my back, thinking that I was the luckiest son of a bitch who’d ever been born. Tori was a fantastic lay. Part of me had always known she would be, but there was obviously no way of telling. She wasn’t my usual type: she was softer, more innocent, but she’d been amazingly responsive and her body just wouldn’t quit. I loved the way she’d moaned in my arms, the way she’d stretched and taken every inch of my cock with pride. “That was fantastic,” I muttered under my breath. Tori crawled on my chest and draped an arm over me. I was tempted to push her off; I almost never cuddled after a fuck, but something told me that she needed this, so I was willing to let it slide. I wasn’t going to turn into Mr. Perfect just because I had a wife now, but this was our marriage night; I figured a little affection wouldn’t kill me. Tori got up from the bed and stalked over to the bathroom, swinging her hips in the most alluring manner I’d ever seen. She peed, then flushed and washed her hands. When she came back to bed, breasts swinging in the air, she had a little secret smile on her face. “What are you thinking about?” Tori grinned and shrugged. “Nothing too important,” she said softly. “Just…oh, I don’t know. Just that today has been different from what I expected.” Her tone was serious, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from her naked body. “Today was pretty fuckin’ incredible,” I said. “I’ll give that to you.” Tori sat down on the bed. I was hit with a powerful wave of her scent: musky and womanly, mixed with a little of my sweat. My cock twitched and before I knew it, I was hard again. Tori smiled at me. She slipped a hand under the sheet and wrapped her fingers around my cock. It felt so good that I groaned—I was still sensitive, but getting back to the point where I knew I could fuck her again soon. As Tori slowly pumped her hand up and down, she crawled closer. Her breasts were hanging in front of my face, and I wrapped an arm around her, shoving her tits in my face. I took one of Tori’s glorious pink nipples in my mouth and sucked eagerly, until she was moaning and her pale face was red with arousal. “Do you want me again?” I took her breast out of my mouth and looked into her eyes. Tori looked away. “Look at me,” I commanded in a low voice. “Tell me you want me again.” Tori’s breath was coming hard and fast and I knew she was aroused. A flush spread down from her

face and neck to her chest and covered most of her tits. I felt a sharp spike of arousal hit me as Tori crawled closer. “I want you again,” she said softly, staring deeply into my eyes. “Max, I want you again.”

Chapter Nine Victoria I didn’t think that I’d ever been so sore in my life. Max and I made love almost all night long—four times! I couldn’t believe it. I always thought that was the kind of thing that happened in movies or TV, but never real life. Max had been the most thorough lover that I’d ever had, and I couldn’t believe he was mine. “He’s your husband,” I said softly to myself. Next to me in bed, Max was snoring away. I was too excited to sleep, even though I was completely and utterly spent. Finally, I managed to drift off to sleep. When I woke up a couple of hours later, I was foggy and confused. Max’s bedroom was still pitch black. Max was soundly snoring next to me, and I couldn’t figure out why I’d woken up at first. Suddenly, I realized my cell phone was buzzing away on the nightstand. My body was filled with dread, and for a moment I hoped that I was still asleep. I even reached down and pinched my arm, hoping that I could wake up. No luck. I was already awake. My heart started pounding in my chest as I reached for my phone. The number wasn’t listed, but I already knew who it was. “Leave me alone,” I whispered into the receiver as soon as I’d answered. “I don’t know how you got this number! I’ve changed it so many times since we broke up!” I winced, expecting the reply to be angry and powerful. But instead, Silas’s voice was meek, almost chastened. There was no trace of the angry man who had threatened me at the grocery store, no trace of the man who had hurt me so badly that my wrists were still bruised. “Victoria,” Silas said in a pleading voice. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry for what I’ve done, okay? I know I can’t begin to make it up to you, but please come back to me, please, Vicky!” “Don’t call me that,” I said shortly. My breath was coming hard and fast. “I don’t know what you want from me, Silas, but I can’t help you.” “Please give me another chance,” Silas begged. “I promise it won’t be like before.” Max shifted next to me. The snoring stopped, and before I knew it he was sitting up in bed and flicking the light switch on. He grabbed the phone out of my hand and held it up to his face, looking tired and pissed off. “Hello, is this Silas?” There was a pause. “Hi, Silas, I’m glad I got you. I just wanted to tell you to leave my wife alone, or else I’ll kill you myself. You got that, Si?”

Max hung up before Silas could answer. He tossed the phone on the floor and glared at me. “You wanna tell me how he keeps getting your number, Tori?” I shook my head. “I don’t know,” I replied. My heart was still pounding and I felt more shaken up than ever before. “I keep changing it! I’ve probably changed it six times since we broke up!” Fear was making my skin clammy and I started to shake. Max looked at me. “You need to change it again,” he said sternly. “I’m scared, Max” I said. “He’s really going to hurt me now; he’s not fucking around.” Max shook his head. I couldn’t make out his features too clearly in the dark, but I could see that he wasn’t as angry as he had been while he was on the phone. “He won’t try anything,” Max said confidently. “Trust me, Tori. I have this under wraps. He’s afraid of me.” “Why aren’t you taking me seriously?” I looked at Max with my eyes wide open. “He’s hurt me before, Max, why wouldn’t he do this again?” Max sighed. “Because he knows I’ll rip his dick off if he tries anything,” Max said. “Come on, Tori. Relax. Get some sleep.” He threw an arm around me and lay back down in bed, snuggling up to my ass. But I couldn’t sleep after that. My mind was running wild with horrible thoughts of Silas. Max didn’t know Silas; he didn’t know him at all. Max didn’t know what kind of horrible things Silas was capable of doing, how evil and manipulative Silas could be. I had horrible vision of Silas breaking into Max’s house and sneaking upstairs, kidnapping me and torturing me all while Max slept on, oblivious to whatever was happening around him. I shivered as I thought about how Silas could lie and charm his way into just about anywhere, maybe even the neighbor’s house. There was a noise downstairs and I about jumped out of my skin. Every time I started trying to relax, Silas would pop back up in my mind. I thought he was everywhere; sneaking around outside, downstairs, even in the hallway. Maybe we can get a dog, I thought to myself. A good guard dog that would bite Silas and keep me safe at home on long nights. I didn’t know just how much late-night business Max had with the Renegade Saints, but I knew that it couldn’t be a small amount. If I was going to be home alone at night, I wanted some real protection, not just a gun. I shivered. There was one other thing that I knew would kill Silas: the marriage. Silas always talked about how he held marriage up to a high standard, how he didn’t think marriage should ever be broken or changed. Silas looked down on people who got divorced, saying they didn’t know how to work out their problems. I knew that he even thought similar things about his parents. He’d often called his mother a coward for not wanting to stay with his father, even though he ran around on her all the time. It had made me shudder at the time, it was almost like Silas was gripped by some kind of religious fervor when it came to marriage. He’d always told me that we’d get married, and that we’d

be man and wife, and nothing would ever be able to tear us apart. That was one of the scariest things he’d ever said to me. He’d been able to make me shudder just by bringing it up. But fervor or not, I knew he was going to go ballistic knowing that I was married to someone else. I stayed awake almost all night, turning over possible situations in my mind. I decided that in the morning, I had to talk to Max again. I had to make him understand the severity of this situation, I had to make him understand that Silas would hurt me if he was alone with me. Silas was sneaky, and he could be watching the house right now, waiting to see when Max left. He could be watching the windows for movements, staking a place out, biding his time. I shivered as I realized it wouldn’t take much more than a small rock to break the bedroom windows. Max’s house was all on the ground floor, and someone could easily crawl in from outside. He had a security system, but I couldn’t imagine that would help me out too much if Silas was already in the house. All night, I twisted and turned in bed, getting progressively sweatier and more anxious as time went on. I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing Silas’s horrible face, his demonic eyes, his reedy figure. I remembered what I’d thought after the first time he’d ever hit me: How could a man like that have punched me? He’s so slender! Doesn’t he realize that I’m stronger than him? Now, that thought was enough to make me laugh. I’d done enough research about abuse to realize that Silas didn’t care if he was small or not. It didn’t matter; from almost the beginning, I’d belonged to him, and he’d known it every second of every day. From the day I’d become Silas’s girlfriend, I’d ceased to be Tori. I’d become Victoria, Silas’s property. When Max woke up, I was dressed and sitting in a chair at the end of the bed. He frowned at me. “Couldn’t sleep?” “Not after that phone call,” I said softly. “Max, I really need to talk to you about Silas. He’s a lot more dangerous than you think.” Max sat up in bed and ran a hand through his dark hair, making it stand on end. “Tori, I know you’re freaked about this, but you have to relax, okay? I don’t mean to sound condescending, but I think you’re only afraid of him because you never had protection before now.” He smiled at me and I felt anger seize my throat. “Know that I’ll always take care of you, okay?” I shook my head. “It’s not that, Max. Silas is really dangerous. He’s threatened my friends before!” “Threatened,” Max said lightly. “He hasn’t actually ever done anything to them, right?” “No, but—” “Then it’ll be okay, Tor, I promise.” Max got out of bed and pulled on yesterday’s pants and shirt. “Listen, I got some shit to take care of, but you’ll see me later, okay?” I sighed. “Please listen to me,” I begged. “I know you think I’m overreacting, but I’m really afraid! Silas knows that we’re married now, and he’s going to try to hurt both of us!”

Max came over to where I was sitting and kneeled down. “Tori, you can’t let fear control your life,” he said, reaching up and stroking my cheek. I was surprised at the tender gesture, but part of me was still angry with him for not listening to me. “It can’t be all about Silas anymore. Your life is about you now, okay? You’re my wife, and I promise nothing will ever happen to you again.” Max glanced down at the floor where he’d thrown my phone from last night. “And see about getting that number changed, okay?” I rolled my eyes. “I’ve changed it six times in a month, I’m not sure what one more would do,” I grumbled. “Please?” Max looked up at me. “Don’t go,” I said suddenly, throwing myself off the chair and into Max’s arms. He was clearly surprised, but he held me close for a minute. I closed my eyes and breathed in his scent of smoke and masculinity. “Tori, everything will be okay,” Max said in a soothing voice. He stroked my back with one of his hands and I felt my skin start to slowly warm up. “Can one of the guys come over and watch me?” Max looked at me. “Okay,” he said. “If that will really help you feel better,” he added cautiously. “I’ll call Danny.” Relief went through me like a wave. “Thank you,” I murmured. A blush came over my face and I realized I was still embarrassed about asking for help, especially now that Max didn’t believe me about Silas doing anything too awful. While Max called Danny, I paced around the bedroom. “When are you coming home?” I asked after he hung up. Max shrugged. “I got some errands to take care of,” he said in a businesslike tone. “Do you need anything? A credit card? Some money?” I shook my head. I couldn’t explain it, but now I suddenly felt miserable. It was like the magic had completely gone away from our interactions. Now that we were married, I was going to have to rely on Max for protection every day for the rest of my life. At least until Silas is taken care of. After Max left, I got back in bed and tried to close my eyes. Sleep wouldn’t come, but a new, troubling thought started to plague me. Just why exactly had Max married me? What was in it for him?

Chapter Ten Max I had to get out of the house. Tori and I hadn’t even been married for twenty-four hours yet and she was already getting on my nerves. I knew she was nervous about the Silas thing, but she was driving me up the fucking wall. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her and tell her that things would be fine, but I didn’t think that would be very effective. Tori had every reason to be scared of that pissant before I came on the scene, but now that she was with me, she had absolutely nothing to worry about. Especially not with Danny guarding her back at my place. I knew Danny well enough to know he was a big softie, but to strangers, he cut a pretty mean figure. That letter I’d found at Kristoff’s was bothering me. I knew that time was running out—if I wanted to get any prints or anything from it, I’d have to act fast. And that meant only one person could help me. Maria. Maria D’nola was a girl I’d banged a couple of years back on the regular. She was a computer whiz who’d helped the club out with some business, and she had a smokin’ hot curvy body, too. Now, we were just friends, but I hadn’t seen her in some time. I wondered if there was going to be tension between us like always. “You couldn’t have called?” Maria gave me a flirtatious smile that told me she didn’t mind one bit. I climbed out of my car as she started walking down the path of her home office. “I haven’t see you in ages, Max.” “I know,” I said, flashing her a guilty grin. “I know it’s been a long time, girly.” Maria laughed. She threw her head back, exposing pearly white teeth. “Too long, I’d say,” she said with a little giggle. “How have you been?” As I got out of the car, I studied her. Even though she was only wearing dark jeans and a black top, she looked incredible. Maria had a body that wouldn’t quit. Her dark hair and tan complexion made her look like she’d just come from a day at the beach, even though I knew that more likely than not, she’d been up all night on her computer. “You look good,” I told her. We embraced briefly—a small flare of lust went through my body as I imagined Maria flat on her back in my bed—and then pulled away. There was a smile on the sensual curve of her lips as she stared at me. “You do, too, Max. What can I do for you today?” I sighed and shrugged, pulling the letter out of my pocket. When I’d gotten home the other night, I’d wrapped it up in plastic to prevent further contamination.

Maria laughed. “I’m not in the CIA, boy,” she said with a little giggle. “I’m not sure what you think I can do with that.” “Hold up,” I said defensively. “I didn’t ask you to do anything, not just yet.” Maria smiled. “Come on inside,” she said. “Let’s have a cup of tea.” She walked in front of me, swinging her tantalizing ass from side to side. Normally, I would have been all over her like a dog in heat. But today, I just wasn’t feeling it. Maria was still one of the most beautiful women that I’d ever seen, but I had a feeling that things were over between us. We’d always flirt, sure, but I couldn’t imagine ever bedding her again. Maria led me inside her quaint little house. She gazed around before turning to me with her hands on her hips and grinning. “This isn’t what you are used to, I know,” she said. “But maybe you can relax here for a little while.” For about half an hour, we sat down and talked. Maria told me what was new in her life. She was a computer programmer who had recently started doing some work for a startup. She said it was going well, but I could tell she was feeling nervous about the whole thing. Maria and the Renegade Saints met a few years back—one of the guys paid her to do some hacking work when we suspected that the member who was keeping our books wasn’t doing a fair job. Maria put in a camera and a keystroke counter, and within a few days, we realized we were being scammed. It had been about two years after Talia had died, and I was heavily in need of some comfort. Maria was perpetually single. I couldn’t believe it; she was gorgeous, but she said that her intelligence intimidated men. After spending a couple of hours with her, I didn’t exactly think she was lying. She’d been a great lay: very attentive, very loud, perfect body. But it had never gotten serious between us, and whenever Maria hinted at something more, I shut her down immediately. Deep down, I didn’t think she wanted a relationship, at least not with someone like me. But I knew that sometimes she had to be lonely. “So, that’s what you’ve been doing?” I grinned at her. “Maybe this’ll be a break for you, then,” I said, reaching forward and plucking the plastic bag with the letter from her jacket. “I need some help analyzing this.” Maria grinned at me. “And just what do you want me to do about that, Max?” She had a great smile and dazzling brown eyes, and for a moment, I found myself lost in their depths. “Whatever you can do,” I said. “I guess.” I grinned at her. “You got any cop friends?” Maria licked her lips. “I know some people,” she said after a pause. “What are you looking for?” I shrugged. “Fingerprints, if they’re there,” I said. “If there aren’t any there, then I guess whatever DNA you can get from the paper.” Maria threw her head back and laughed. “DNA? Seriously? This isn’t a cop show, honey,” she said,

in her lightly accented English. “I’ll have them check for prints, though,” she added when she saw the look on my face. “Thanks,” I said sourly. “I know I’m not science whiz, but you might be able to find something. Oh, and I touched the letter. So my prints are gonna be there, but hopefully you can find some other ones.” Maria nodded. “I’ll tell my friends,” she said. She took a sip of her tea and looked at me with a smirk on her face. “You look good,” she said. “Not just nice. Good.” I had to look away. I wasn’t used to taking compliments, especially not from a woman like Maria. I didn’t like talking too personally with anyone, but there was something about her that inspired me to feel more comfortable. “I’ve been good,” I said with a smirk. I stretched my arms over my head. Maria gasped. “Oh, wow,” she said, reaching forward and grabbing my left hand. “Are congratulations in order?” “Ha,” I said with a smirk. “Not hardly. It was a business deal.” Maria shook her head. “If it was just business, you wouldn’t be wearing that ring,” she said with a catty smile. “I know men like you. Men like you don’t wear rings unless they want to.” I glanced down, suddenly more conscious than ever of the feel of gold encircling my finger. “Seriously,” I said. “It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just an arrangement.” Maria raised her eyebrows at me. “I’ll be right back,” she said. “Don’t you go anywhere.” Maria stood up from the table and sashayed off into the kitchen. I heard the sound of her low heels tapping around on the floor. I frowned to myself. I didn’t see what the big fucking deal was about. Maria knew my ways, hell, she’d been one of my ways quite a few times. She knew what my deal was. But she also knows about Talia, I thought. I let out a sigh. When I’d first met Maria, the wounds from Talia’s death were still pretty raw. It had been a couple of years, but she hit me hard. Plus, I’d been so young when we were together. Talia had been my first real relationship, the only adult relationship I’d ever had. I was sure that we were going to spend the rest of our lives together. I’d told Maria about her one night after we’d fucked. Maria and I were lying in bed, and she’d asked me if I’d ever been in love. “I could tell you,” I said, rolling over onto my side, “but then I’d have to kill you.” I grinned at her. Maria didn’t take the joke. “I don’t think that’s true,” she said softly. “I think you have been in love, and you just don’t want to admit it.”

I flopped onto my back and stared hard at the ceiling. “You don’t know that, though,” I said. Maria laughed shortly. “You men are all the same,” she said, turning to face me. “You think you’re impossible to read, like no woman could ever figure out your secrets.” I shook my head. “That ain’t true,” I replied, even though she was more on the nose than I would have liked to admit. “I just went through a breakup, but I was a kid. I didn’t know shit.” Maria laughed. “It’s not that. It’s just, I can tell. You’re removed when you’re with me. I can tell you loved someone once, that you opened up and gave someone everything.” Her words were a little too close to the truth. I got out of bed and yanked my pants on, looking in the dim light for my shirt. “I gotta run,” I said. “Come on,” Maria said. She rolled on her belly. “Tell me. I don’t care about your past, Max, and it won’t make me run away. But sometimes you need to get things off your chest.” I sat back down on the edge of the bed. Not looking at her, I told her everything. How we met at a bar, how our first kiss was magical. How she tasted like sugar, and how I wanted to carry her away and never let anyone else have her. “She died,” I finished. “She died, and there was nothing I could do to save her.” Maria’s warm hand on my shoulder was comforting, but suddenly I had the feeling things were about to become uncomfortable and emotional. I stood up and grabbed my jacket, tossing it over my shoulder. “Thanks for talking,” Maria said when I was almost out of the room. “I can tell it helped you.” Maria shook me out of my daydream when she sat down at the table and pushed a flute of champagne towards me. “What’s this?” I squinted down. “Nothing too expensive, I hope.” Maria laughed. “I had to toast the new groom,” she said. We clinked glasses together and drank. “Thanks.” The champagne was good: not too sweet, perfectly dry and crisp on the tongue. I downed my glass in two swallows, then I stood up. “You gonna be okay?” Maria eyed me. “I don’t know when I’ll have results on this,” she added, tapping the letter, “but it shouldn’t be too long. I’d say a couple of days. That alright with you?” “I’ll be fine,” I said. I didn’t want to tell her that I’d just remembered our talk about Talia, but I had a feeling that Maria knew.

As I walked out the front door and climbed behind the wheel of my car, I realized that she was likely right. It wasn’t just that I’d married Tori for protection. No, I’d wanted something from her, too. Turning the ring around on my finger, I stared off into the horizon. I just don’t know what it is that I want. What a fuckin’ mystery.

Chapter Eleven Victoria When Danny got there, he plopped down in front of the television and grabbed a beer from the fridge. I stood there, watching him, feeling nervous. “Are you going to get drunk?” I cringed; my voice came out sounding much more harshly than I meant it to. Danny turned towards me. “Nah,” he said with a grin. “I’d have to drink, like, fifteen of these to even get a buzz.” I swallowed hard, glad that he hadn’t noticed, or at least, acknowledged, my rudeness. “I’m going to my room,” I said finally. Danny nodded. “Yell if you need anything. I dunno when Max is coming home.” I stomped to the other side of the house, feeling more pissed off than I had any right to be. I didn’t know why I was so mad. It wasn’t like a real marriage, where Max would have to tell me where and when he was going someplace, or when he’d be coming back home. I didn’t have a right to know this stuff at all, so it bothered me that I was taking it so personally. It wasn’t like Max was doing this to hurt me deliberately. I knew that; I wasn’t being stupid. But not being able to get to the bottom of my own emotions was always frustrating to me. When I was with Silas, any time I got mad, he acted like my emotions had no place being where they were. He gaslit me, and every time I was upset, he’d spin it to make it seem like I was being crazy. It sounded stupid, but I fell for it every single time. After all, he was my first real adult relationship. He was the one I trusted, the one I thought I loved. I shook my head. Tori, you have a lot to learn about relationships, I thought to myself. You really do. But the funny thing was I didn’t know how I was going to learn any of that with Max. Max was great, but he wasn’t the warm, cuddly kind of guy I normally would have wanted. He was a lot like my father. Sitting down on the bed, I pouted. My dad had been a good guy, but he’d been a strict father. I wasn’t allowed to date, and I wasn’t allowed to hang out with my friends late on school nights. Dad always suspected that I was trying to sneak around with boys, but the truth was nothing so shady as that. Normally, I was interested in hanging out with my girlfriends and listening to them talk about their experiences. Even though I desperately wanted a boyfriend, to be in love, I was too shy. And I was too tall; most of the guys at school barely came up to my chin. Frowning, I stood up and walked over to the closet. The room I’d slept in the first night at Max’s was

pretty sparse, but I wondered what he had locked away. At first, I was disappointed. The closet had a clear plastic bag with another duvet cover and some things that looked like old textbooks. I sighed in frustration and went to close the door. Somehow, something got knocked off balance, and then suddenly the floor at my feet was littered with photographs. Bingo. Satisfied, I sat down and started digging through them. There were a lot of typical shots—Max with his guys at strip clubs, Max with his guys at bike shows. I rolled my eyes at a series of photos that looked like someone’s bachelor party; Max was reading something off a piece of paper to a guy with a cake-covered stripper in his lap. But after a moment, I laughed. The guys were just having fun, and nothing looked particularly dangerous, just a bit sexist. Finding the photos in the spare closet made me wonder what else Max was hiding. I slipped into the hallway, careful not to disturb Danny, who some show, another beer in his hand, and padded down to the closet outside of Max’s bedroom. This closet was much better organized, with old clothes in boxes and some photo albums that looked like they were falling apart. Hope rose inside of me as I grabbed one of them and tiptoed into Max’s bedroom. It’s your bedroom too. But it didn’t feel like my bedroom. It felt like a boyfriend’s bedroom. Blushing at the memory of last night, I curled up on the bed and dragged the album onto my lap. Renegade Saints: 1982-1992 was printed on the inside cover. I grinned. There was my dad in the middle of the first page. He was standing with his arms crossed over his chest, giving the middle finger to the camera. Whoever had snapped the shot had caught him laughing, and I was astounded to see how young my father looked. Even though the photos were taken before I was born, there was a strong resemblance between us. We both had the same piercing green eyes and straight nose. Kristoff had dark brown hair, but even so, we looked related all the same. “Dad,” I murmured, running my hand over the page. “It’s you. I can’t believe it.” I turned the page and scanned through the photos with a grin on my face. The photos, even though they were old, looked like they’d been taken yesterday. The sky was blue and the trees were green and the leather on their jackets was shining black. “Dad, you were awesome,” I said under my breath. My eyes filled with tears as I stared at the pictures. Something deep inside of me felt touched. Dad and I hadn’t exactly been that close growing up, but I appreciated him so much more as an adult. He hadn’t approved of Silas, though, and that had made visits difficult. My blood curdled in anger as I remembered how Silas had tried over and over again to manipulate me away from spending time with my own damn family. I hated him. As much as I wanted to forgive him for treating me like shit, I couldn’t forgive him for squandering my life left with my father. My eyes filled with tears and I closed my lids, letting hot tears leak down my face. I’m sorry, Dad. I’m so sorry I didn’t have the strength to break up with him before you died. Silas had even kept me from going to the funeral. We’d had a fight the night before over what I was

planning to wear—a black dress that he deemed too revealing—and I’d stayed up crying for hours, locked in the bathroom. When Silas told me that he didn’t have the energy to go the funeral, I’d known what was coming next. “So that means you’re not going,” Silas had said with a smirk. “I don’t want men looking at you and trying to take advantage of you right now. You’re my girl,” he’d added. It hadn’t made me feel any better. I remembered that day vividly: I’d dried my tears, then made Silas a sandwich. Later that night, after Silas had fallen asleep, I snuck out to see Dad’s grave. The soil was still fresh and all of the bikers had set down bouquets of roses and trinkets and mementos that made them think of Kristoff. I hadn’t had anything to bring, so I left one of my earrings at the grave site. When I got home, Silas had been raging and angry. He’d woken up to find me gone, and he was mad at me for leaving. He accused me of being with someone else. In desperation, I told him that I’d been to see my father’s grave. He said that he didn’t believe me at first, until I told him about the earring. We drove back out to the cemetery and Silas made me dig around in the grass until my knees were bleeding, looking for the earring. “I hope you feel good about yourself,” Silas had sneered afterwards. “You ruined my sleep for the second night in a row, you cunt.” Thinking about it now made me sad and angry. I wanted Silas to hurt, I wanted him to pay for everything he’d done to me. It wasn’t just the abuse that bothered me; the thing that hurt most now was knowing that he’d effectively kept me from my father for years at a time. We could have had a good relationship. I punched the bed. As tears streamed down my face, I reached over and slapped the album cover shut. Someday, another day, a day when I was feeling better about myself, maybe I’d be able to look at the pictures again. But right now, I had to find a way to distract myself as quickly as possible. Standing up, I wiped my hands on my jeans and looked around the room. Max’s bedroom was neatly kept, but I knew that a man like Max had a lot of secrets. As I gazed around, looking for a way to distract myself, I was aware of my heart beating faster and faster in my chest. “Calm down, it’s just like when you were looking for photos,” I said under my breath. “It’s nothing worse than that.” But I knew I was wrong. It wasn’t like that, not at all. This was Max’s bedroom, and I was actually snooping. “Shit,” I mumbled. But I couldn’t make myself stop. There was a moment where I wanted to walk out of the room, down the hall, and join Danny in front of the TV. But I couldn’t do it. I got on my hands and knees and cautiously tugged open the bottom drawer of Max’s dresser. It was stuck, and I had to wiggle the wooden drawer in the frame to get it to pull out.

“Come on,” I mumbled, my tongue poking out of my lips. “Come on, that’s it.” When it was open, I frowned. There wasn’t anything sordid in here, no love notes, no bloodstained clothing. There were some heavy metal objects wrapped in tissue paper. Narrowing my eyes, I reached down and pulled them out, gently unwrapping them and setting them on the carpet. I stared at the objects. It was a tarnished silver-backed brush and mirror, both engraved with the name Talia. I bit my lip. Who did these belong to? Suddenly, it seemed like a bad idea to go digging around in Max’s room. I’d effectively distracted myself from Silas, but I wasn’t feeling much better than I had before. After looking around, I had more questions than answers, and my head was starting to hurt. Who was Talia? What was she doing in Max’s room? Picking up the brush, I noticed that a lot of tarnish had accumulated on the back. They’d been wrapped in tissue paper, which was supposed to stop that. That meant these things had been here for a long time. I frowned. Was Talia Max’s mother? Or maybe some dead aunt who had left heirlooms? The strangest thing was that even though the brush and mirror had clearly been packed up ages ago, they both looked almost new aside from the tarnishing. All of the bristles in the brush were there, and there were no hairs trapped inside. “What exactly is going on here?” I asked to myself. Closing my eyes, I tried to imagine Talia, whoever she was. Was she a family member? An old girlfriend? A chill passed over my body and I shuddered, like someone had walked across my grave. “Who are you?” I asked, holding the mirror up and staring at my reflection. “And what are these doing here?”

Chapter Twelve Max I left Maria’s feeling even worse than when I’d arrived. Even though I knew she was trying to help me feel better, the champagne and pity didn’t really do it for me. I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t like that with Tori, that my emotions no longer ruled me. But I had a feeling she wouldn’t have listened. Maria was one of those infuriating, smart women who always thought she knew best. Trying to argue with her was no better than trying to argue with a damned crocodile. I couldn’t go home and face Tori like this. She’d know something was up, for better or worse. I called some of the guys and asked if they wanted to go out for a drink or ten. “I don’t know, man,” Paul said. “I got some shit to take care of later. I can’t get too hammered.” “Don’t be a pussy,” I said. “Come on, come out and get drunk with me. I’m your president, damn it, I can tell you what to do!” “I don’t know,” Paul repeated. “Can’t you call Danny?” I growled. Danny was at home, watching over Tori, but I couldn’t really tell Paul that. I knew that I’d have to tell the guys about my choice sooner or later, but right now didn’t seem like the best time. After all, Tori was a business deal. But she was also a liability, and I didn’t want to spook the guys so soon after Kristoff’s death. Thinking about Kristoff put me in an even blacker mood. I had no idea how I was supposed to concentrate on everything that was going on, not with Tori hanging around and needing protection. She was something else, alright. I wondered how many people in the club thought I was really responsible for Kristoff’s death. Shit. “Come on, Paul,” I said. “I mean it. I won’t keep you out all night. I just need some company.” “You’re so fuckin’ needy, Max,” Paul grumbled. He hung up the phone after telling me that he’d meet me in downtown Marquette in about an hour. I swallowed hard. It was only a little after noon, and there was no fucking way I was going home, not for a few hours. Last night had been one of the most incredible fucks of my life, but being around Tori was really stressing me out. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe her when she’d told me about changing her number so many times, but it seemed unlikely that Silas was really as smart as she made him out to be. In the few times I’d seen him around town, he always seemed so fucking slow and dull-witted. I’d never thought of him as really dangerous before. When he and Tori were together, I barely saw her. Kristoff always took it real personally, but I knew now that Silas had likely worked hard to keep her

away from the only family she had. Thinking about that made me want to hunt him down like a dog and punch the shit out of him. He was such an asshole, thinking he could get away with treating Tori the way he had. I need a fuckin’ drink, I thought sourly. I need to stop fuckin’ thinking about this shit over and over. I pointed my car in the direction of The Rusty Bucket and pressed hard on the gas. Ever since I’d patched in with the Renegade Saints, I didn’t have much use for bars. After all, we had a killer setup in our clubhouse. But sometimes, times like today, I couldn’t stand the idea of being around everyone. The Rusty Bucket was good for days like these. The people who staffed the bar were old, the kind of people who didn’t pay attention to anything, and the whole bar smelled like mildew and stale beer. I’d heard it was a good place to pick up coke once, and I wouldn’t have exactly disbelieved it. My drug days were long behind me, but still, it was the kind of bar where one could feel truly anonymous. “Give me a lager and a shot of whiskey,” I said to the aging bartender who took my order. She grinned at me with yellowing teeth. She was attractive for being in her mid-fifties, but she still dressed like a young bar wench, and I wondered when she’d last looked in a mirror. “Got it, handsome,” she said, batting her eyelashes at me. When she was out of sight, I rolled my eyes. At least I wouldn’t be tempted to pick up any girls tonight. Something was really bothering me, and I was starting to figure out that it didn’t have anything to do with Kristoff, or Tori. It had to do with Silas. I didn’t know much about him, aside from what Tori had told me, but he didn’t seem like the type of asshole who made a habit out of bothering women. In fact, he seemed like a fucking outcast from society in general. He and Tori had been together for years— what exactly had he been trying to do with her? “Yo.” Paul’s familiar voice made me whirl around. “What’s up, man?” I stood up and we hugged, clapping a hand on each other’s back. “Not a thing,” I lied. “Just been to see Maria.” “Oh yeah?” Paul raised his eyebrows. “She still as fine as ever?” I laughed. “It ain’t like that anymore,” I told him flatly. “That ship sailed a long time ago.” Paul nodded. “I gotcha,” he said. “So…what was the deal?” I sighed. I didn’t want to tell him about the note that I’d found at Kristoff’s house, not until I knew who was behind it. This whole thing was such a mess that I couldn’t really make heads or tails of it. I had no idea how much the other guys knew, if anything. “Nothing,” I replied. “Just a social visit.”

Paul nodded. He looked down at my hands. “Did I miss something?” He pointed to the ring. “What happened?” Shit. There goes that one. “I got married,” I said with a grin. “You remember Kristoff’s daughter, Victoria?” Paul nodded. A look of wonder came over his face. “Hell yes, I remember her,” he said. “She’s fuckin’ hot to trot. I’ve never seen anyone who looks as fine as she does!” “I know,” I said drily. “She’s fuckin’ gorgeous. She came to me, asking for help, and this is the best way I can protect her.” Paul nodded. “That happens a lot,” he said. For a moment, I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. “Her old boyfriend used to hit her,” he added. “What the hell, man? How did you know that?” Paul shrugged. “Common knowledge, man. Everyone knows that. I mean, they used to get into it in public sometimes. The few times I saw her, she was always with him, and always wearing sunglasses to cover some shiner on her eye.” I blinked. Maybe the guys weren’t as oblivious as I’d first taken them to be. “I can’t believe you knew that,” I said. “I had no idea until she told me.” “Come on,” Paul said sarcastically. “You really never paid attention? She didn’t even go to her own father’s funeral.” I nodded. I had remembered that. It was one of the things I’d been meaning to ask Tori about, some time when we were alone. I knew that she and Kristoff hadn’t exactly been close, but I always wondered why. When he was leading the Renegade Saints, Kristoff had been a good man. Stern but solid, the kind of man you’d follow into battle. “Yeah,” I said after a pause. “I guess I do remember that.” “Yeah,” Paul echoed. The waitress brought over my beer and shot and Paul ordered the same. I waited until he was served, then we clinked together and knocked our drinks back. “I’m feeling really weird about all of this,” I confessed. “Silas, that asshole, he keeps bugging her. She’s real afraid of him, too. She acts like he’s gonna break in and try to kill her while she’s in my house.” Paul frowned. “He’s a crazy motherfucker, you know? She might not really be exaggerating, man.” “Really? He’s gonna try to do shit to her even after she married me?”

Paul glanced away. “Did I ever tell you about what happened to my mom?” I shook my head. “No,” I said. “What was it?” Paul let out a long sigh. “My dad used to beat the shit out of her,” he said after a moment. “Like, every day. For no reason. He’d just get in that mood, and get that look in his eye, and go after her. She couldn’t even defend herself most of the time. She didn’t know how.” He took a long swallow of his beer and stared down at the dirty wooden bar. “She was just shocked.” “And what happened?” Paul held up a hand. “I ain’t done yet,” he snapped. “Shut up and listen.” I nodded. “Sorry. Go on.” “Well, when I was in high school, I asked her why she’d stuck around for so damn long. Like, if Pa beats you, why didn’t you just leave? Hell, why did you marry someone like that in the first place? And you know what? She said she didn’t know. She said she never had a reason for sticking with him.” Paul paused for another drink. When he continued, his voice was harsher than before. “I did some diggin’ around after she died. He beat her to death, you know. He beat her with a tire iron in the backyard and left her to die. She drowned in her own blood.” Paul sucked his teeth. “My uncle killed him,” he said. “He showed up with a shotgun and about blew his head off.” I nodded. Somewhere, I remembered Paul telling me this story before. It was unusual for us to be talking this openly without being completely shitfaced; I was sure that before when I’d heard the story, I’d been so drunk that I couldn’t even stand up. Paul was one of the most reticent guys in the Saints, and he wasn’t prone to talking just to hear his own voice. “Yeah, so I got to doin’ some research,” Paul said. “Started looking around for old shit that Mom had written. I didn’t find much, she met Pa when she was real young. But he pulled her away from everything she cared about, and her family. Her brother was the only damn person who bothered keeping in touch.” He swallowed hard. “That’s what assholes like my Pa do, Max. They cut a woman off from her support network. My mom knew exactly why she didn’t leave; she lied to me. She never left because she didn’t think she had anywhere to go.” “What about your uncle? Wouldn’t he have taken you in?” Paul shrugged. “She probably didn’t want to be a burden,” he said. “That was Mom’s way; always worried what other people were gonna say about her when she was gone.” I nodded. “That’s a hell of a story. Damn, man.” “Anyway,” Paul said. “There’s one more thing. Before he killed her, I think she knew she was gonna die. I think she knew that deep down, there was some connection, some thread that bound the two of

them together. She hated him, sure, but part of her loved him because it was all she knew. She probably thought it was her destiny or some shit. She probably thought that it was the only way she’d ever die.” I blinked. “What are you sayin’?” “That if Silas got into Victoria’s head the same way my daddy did to Mom, no wonder she’s fuckin’ scared,” Paul said darkly. He threw his head back and poured the rest of his beer down his throat. “If I were her, I’d probably spend every minute of the day workin’ it over in my mind.” “I hadn’t really thought about it like that,” I said. It frightened me to think of Tori not being able to leave Silas. It scared me to think that he might have killed her before she got the chance to run. I knew that Tori was a strong, impulsive woman. But even the strongest of people got beat down every now and then, and maybe it was only a matter of time before Silas really would have done something awful. “She’s mine now,” I said suddenly, staring down at the ring on my hand. The ring gave me a chill, and for a second, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. The rings I’d used when Tori and I got married were the rings I’d had on hand when Talia died. Tori’s ring had been fitted to Talia. I was just glad that I hadn’t had them engraved. But still, it felt pretty fucking weird. I hadn’t worn the ring since Talia and I went to the jeweler and tried them on that day. Now, it felt like a part of her ghost was clinging on to me with every step that I took. “She is,” Paul said in an appraising kind of voice. “Is that where Danny is? Watching her?” “Yeah. She didn’t want me to leave her alone unless one of the guys was in the house with her. I thought she was being silly at the time, but now I’m fuckin’ glad that she insisted.” Paul nodded. He had a dark look on his face. I wondered if he was thinking about his mother again. “Yeah,” he agreed. The waitress stopped by in front of us and we each ordered two more pints and shots. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” I said. “I told this fuck to leave her alone, but it obviously didn’t convince her.” “You think he listened to you?” Paul raised his eyebrows. “Seriously?” “Fuck you,” I said in a joking tone as we clinked shot glasses together. “I’m fucking Max Adams, of course he listened to me.” “Whatever, man,” Paul said. He gulped some of his beer and changed the subject to an upcoming weekend ride. Every summer, the Renegade Saints drove up to New Hampshire for a week on the lakes with other

bikers. It was a hell of a time, and we usually made the paper at least once because some dumbshits got into a fight. I’d always gone as a single man, except for when I’d been with Talia, and now I wasn’t sure what was going to go on. There was a lot of fucking that went down over that week, but oddly, the prospect didn’t excite me the way it had a year or two ago. “I can’t wait,” Paul said. He grinned at me. “So many girls, so little time.” “Wear a rubber,” I advised. “You don’t want some bitch calling you and telling you that you knocked her up.” Paul pretended to shudder. It was like our serious chat of a few minutes ago had already disappeared. I could tell he was relieved that the subject had changed; he didn’t want to dwell on his dead mother any more than I wanted to dwell on Silas beating the shit out of my wife. But I couldn’t not dwell on it. Even though I’d been feeling cocksure and confident earlier, now I wasn’t sure that I’d been right. After all, if Silas was as deranged as Tori said and Paul implied, he wasn’t going to stop until she was dead. A cold chill ran through me. “What’s wrong?” Paul asked when I stopped laughing. I shook my head. “I got a bad feeling,” I said, turning the words over in my head. “I dunno, I can’t put a finger on it. But I feel like Tori might have been right about something.” Paul looked at me. “We gotta get you out of here,” he said. “Come on, man. Come have a smoke with me.” I rolled my eyes. Draining the rest of my beer, I strode into the men’s to take a piss, then joined Paul outside. It was the middle of the afternoon, hot and muggy, and I realized that I was a little drunk on my feet. “Hey, do you see that guy?” Paul punched me on the shoulder and pointed towards the street. He sniggered. A skinny, tall blond guy was walking along the sidewalk, glaring down at his feet. To my surprise, he turned on a dime and started towards us. “Yo, I don’t think we know you,” I said as he got closer. His expression changed from one of simple malice to pure hatred, and before I knew it, I saw him balling his hands into fists at his side. “Do we know you, man?” Paul asked. The blond man kept advancing. Holy shit. “I know who that fucker is,” I said under my breath as he got closer. “It’s Silas.”

“That’s right, asshole,” Silas replied. He turned to me and glared. He was a reedy, thin man with a skinny, long face that looked like a rat. “You fucker,” he said, leaning to the side and spitting on the ground. “You really married to Victoria?” I sniggered, holding my left hand up in the air. “I got a ring on it and everything,” I said with a smirk. “Watch out,” Paul muttered behind me. “That asshole looks dangerous.” “He looks like a fuckin’ pussy,” I announced loudly. Silas’s face twisted with rage, and he sprung at me like an animal released from a cage. Laughing, I reached up and grabbed his fist, twisting his arm down and making him howl. “Fuck you,” Silas spat. “Fight me like a fuckin’ man!” “Okay,” I said, grinning. Balling my hand into a fist, I swung it behind my body and cracked Silas hard on the face. Blood streamed down out of his thin nostrils and he spat on the ground, leaving a tooth in a pile of gore. “That good enough for you?” Paul taunted. Silas lowered his head and tried to charge me like a bull. As quickly as I could, I yanked my knee upward and right into Silas’s face. I could feel cartilage and bone cracking. Silas crumped to the ground with his arms wrapped around his knees, moaning. “You’re a pathetic little shit,” I mumbled down at his body. “You need to stay the fuck away from Tori, got it?” Silas opened his eyes and stared at me. Despite his mauled face, I saw real hatred in his eyes. “I’ll do what I want,” he said in a raspy voice, spitting blood into the air. “Don’t fucking tell me what to do, you piece of white trash shit.” I reached down and grabbed Silas by his shirt collar, yanking him to his feet. I was surprised at how light he was: he was like a feather, or a little kid. “We need to get one thing straight,” I said loudly. “One thing, you got that? If you go near my wife again, I will personally take the time from my day to put a bullet in your brain.” Silas stared at me. He opened his mouth and I swung my fist back again, preparing to punch the hell out of him. But then he closed his lips. I saw a brief look of defeat flash over his face. “You got that?” I asked again, my breath coming heavier than before. My heart was pounding in my chest and my blood was gushing hotly through my veins. It was almost the exact same feeling that I’d had the night before, when Tori and I had been fucking each other’s brains out. It was pure energy,

exhilaration. Silas laughed. I almost dropped him when I heard the weird sound bubbling up from this skinny, reedy slip of a man. But instead I held onto his collar and pressed my forehead up against his. “You gonna kill me like you killed Kristoff, you asshole?” His words were soft and slight and they lit a fire filled with rage in me that spread throughout all of my limbs. I wanted to kill him, rip him limb from limb in the parking lot of this shitty bar. But before I could do anything, I felt Paul’s hand on my shoulder. “Don’t do it, man,” he said, casting a pathetic look at Silas. “He ain’t worth it.” I curled my lips into a sneer. “That’s damn right he ain’t worth it,” I muttered, dropping Silas to the ground like a sack of flour. He cried out as his body hit the pavement and he curled up around himself in the fetal position, moaning loudly. He was throwing himself from side to side and wailing, like someone would show up and rescue him. It made me sick. “You treated Tori like shit, you hurt her much worse than this while you were together,” I snarled under my breath. “And now you just act like a huge pussy when someone your own size beats you up?” “Max, come on,” Paul said. He clapped a hand on my shoulder and led me back towards The Rusty Bucket. “He ain’t worth it right now. You really beat the hell out of him. I doubt he’ll bother Tori after that.” I shook my head. “I know better,” I said. “I don’t think he’ll try anything, but I’m not sure. Who knows?” Paul glanced at me, then down to Silas’s prone, bleeding body. I could tell that I’d broken his nose and possibly a few teeth. His face was already swelling out of proportion; he was going to have one hell of a black eye in the morning. “Tori’s worth all of this,” I muttered to myself. “She is. I gotta go home, Paul. I gotta check on her and make sure she’s okay.” “You shouldn’t be driving right now,” Paul replied. He clamped a hand down on my arm and tried to lead me back inside the bar. “Come on, have another drink and calm down. Then we’ll go see Tori together, okay?” Something flared inside of me. I couldn’t explain exactly what it was but it felt like lust, or rage, or something foreign that I’d never felt before. But suddenly I wanted nothing to do with Paul. I didn’t want to hear any more stories about his father beating up his mom, I didn’t want to keep sipping cheap whiskey and thinking about how to rip the man who’d hurt my wife apart. I wanted to go home and see Tori, right now. The urge scared me a little bit. Even with Talia, I wasn’t

comfortable admitting how much I wanted her around all the time. I felt like I had to act cool, act like she didn’t really mean that much to me. I had a feeling that Talia always knew how obsessed with her I was, even if I never said anything to that effect. But Tori was different. Despite having known her for my whole life, I barely knew her. I knew she was wild, impulsive, loud. I knew she was a fucking fantastic lay. And I knew she was my wife. That was about it. Why was I feeling so pulled towards her? It was ridiculous, and I found myself feeling incredibly irritated by how badly I wanted her. Her scent of cinnamon and honey, the way she tossed her hair over her shoulder. The way she spreads her legs for you, with that knowing little grin, I thought to myself. I could feel myself getting rock hard in the parking lot, and I reached down to adjust my package before my erection could show. Scowling, I turned towards Paul. “No, I’m going home,” I said firmly. “I want to be alone,” I added, when he held up his hand, presumably to offer to join me. I want to be with my wife. I want to go fuck my wife until she’s screaming, until her pussy is sore and red and swollen. I want to make her say my name over and over. I want to fill her mind with me until she can’t think of Silas ever again. I want her to be mine, all mine. “Whatever you say, man,” Paul said with a grin. “You tell Tori I said hello.” I didn’t reply. Jumping behind the wheel of my car, I shoved the key into the ignition and turned it on. The engine roared powerfully to life and I slammed my foot down on the gas pedal, gunning out of the parking lot before I could even exhale. I’m coming home, I thought, as if talking to Tori. I’m coming home to take you, right now.

Chapter Thirteen Victoria I swallowed nervously as I paced around in the kitchen. Danny was still watching TV—true to his word, he hadn’t gotten too drunk or passed out. He was keeping a close eye on the front door, and one of the times I’d checked on him, I saw him toying with a shiny gun that lay in his lap. “Protection, Mrs. Adams,” Danny had said, holding the gun up. “I won’t hurt you, but we need to make sure that asshole can’t get in here.” He’d smiled at me. I couldn’t help but smile back; I liked Danny. He was the kind of guy who reminded me of a younger version of my father, before he got too stern and old. “Thanks for staying here,” I said softly. “I’m sure you’ve got other things you want to be doing.” Danny shook his head. “Protecting Max’s wife is exactly what I want to be doing,” he said with a grin. “That’s what being a Renegade Saint really means to me.” He’d turned his attention back to the television before I could reply. Part of me was stunned; I knew there were accusations that Max had killed my father. Just how many members of the MC believed that? “Would you like some dinner?” I asked, clearing my throat. “I was thinking of making a chicken.” Danny turned to me. “Hey, yeah,” he replied. “That would be awesome, thank you.” I nodded and turned back towards the kitchen. Since Max had left in the morning, I’d found myself struggling to find a purpose to my day. I’d done all that hunting and looked at photographs, but after I found the silver brush and mirror engraved Talia, I didn’t want to keep snooping. Since then, my stomach had twisted into knots every time I heard a car pass by the house. What if Max came home and he could tell what I’d been doing? I swallowed hard as I dug through Max’s fridge. He had only the barest of bachelor essentials: condiments and no real food. There was one pack of chicken thighs frozen in the freezer that I set in a cool bowl of water to defrost, and not much else. With a sigh, I perched on top of the kitchen island and watched the frosty chicken slowly turn into recognizable shapes. It seemed like a good metaphor for my time here: sit and think about everything while something melted in front of my eyes. I shuddered. I didn’t like being this alone. I wished that Max would come back soon. As nice as Danny was, he wasn’t the most intimidating of Max’s guys. He wasn’t the kind of man who could inspire fear with a single glance, like Max could do. When the chicken was thawed, I put it in the oven with some olive oil and herbs. After a while, it started to smell mouthwateringly good. I hadn’t eaten since the day before and I was surprised to discover how hungry I was. You need to keep up your strength, I thought to myself. In case Silas

breaks in and you have to run. “Stop thinking about him,” I mumbled under my breath. “You know Max won’t let him anywhere near you.” But my mind stayed glued to Silas. I wondered where he was, what he was doing. It wasn’t because I missed him or wanted to be with him; it was more a defense mechanism I’d come up with over the years. At first, when Silas and I had gotten together, I’d always missed him when we were apart. Even after the abuse started. But then, after a while, I’d started wondering about him when we were apart, so I knew where he was. So I knew which places to avoid if I didn’t want to wind up with a massive bruise on my face. I knew that if Silas was out at the bar, that meant trouble. He was an angry drunk, and he’d never go to sleep until he’d managed to beat me into a pulp first. If he was out at the store, that was bad, too. I knew that he’d come home and lecture me on the slutty way women dressed nowadays, followed by a raid of my closet that left all of my clothes in rips and tatters. “I hate you,” I said under my breath. “I hate you for controlling me even when I want nothing to do with you. I hate for you ruling my life, even now!” The timer dinged and I went to grab the chicken. By now, I was positively starving. I’d made the whole bag, and I wanted to set some aside for Max when he got home. I didn’t know much about what Max liked to eat, but part of me took pride in being a good wife. As crazy and unrealistic as the situation was between us, part of me was starting to think that we really had a connection. I’d never been with someone who could read my mind as easily as Max could, someone who could thrill every inch of my body. Whenever Max looked at me, I felt like my insides were melting and turning into molten lava. He had an incredible effect on me—it was so strong that it almost frightened me. It was different than being with Silas, more primal. With Silas, I’d been overjoyed when he finally noticed me, and some of that excitement and anxiety carried over into actually dating him. But with Max, it was like we had to be together, we had to be touching, we had to be wrapped up around each other, in bed. With Max, it was like the rest of the world vanished around me. “It’s just different,” I said softly, blushing when I realized I’d spoken the words aloud. Smiling to myself, I looked over the dinner that I’d made and I could feel my mouth watering. I made two plates of food and carried one into the living room. Danny’s gaze was fixed to the television. He barely nodded at me when I set the plate down and padded off into the other room. “Hey,” I called absentmindedly behind me. “When is Max coming home?” Danny shrugged. “No idea,” he called back. “I don’t keep tabs on the guy.” I laughed aloud. “So you’re just here until…whenever?” I didn’t see Danny, but I could have imagined him shrugging. “He’s the boss,” Danny called back

loudly. “I do what he says, when he says.” “Dedicated,” I muttered under my breath. I still wasn’t used to this, this level of attention that was being paid to me. It was completely new, and almost kind of embarrassing. It reminded me when I’d been in my cousin’s wedding and we’d all gone to the salon together for manicures and pedicures. The salon attendants had fussed over us to the extreme degree, and I’d been uncomfortable with the attention. I wasn’t used to someone hovering over me and asking what I wanted to drink. But my cousin lapped it up, and after a while, she even started acting entitled, like she deserved everything they were doing for us. It had been embarrassing. Now I wondered if I was acting the same way. Making dinner for Danny had been a nice gesture, but I wondered if he felt patronized. I shook my head. “Doesn’t matter,” I said, trying to make myself feel better. “He’d be here whether or not you cooked.” When I was done eating, I rinsed my plate and put the leftovers away. I would have left some out for Max, but the grease was already starting to congeal in the bottom of the pan. I had no idea when he was coming home, but I wanted him to have something appetizing. He’ll be home by the time I’m done with the dishes, I thought. And he’ll laugh at me for wearing an apron and doing them all myself. I hummed to myself as I slipped into the apron and found a pair of yellow rubber gloves under the sink. Max had a dishwasher, but it looked brand new, and I didn’t want to risk breaking it. I washed the dishes one by one, methodically soaping and wiping each dish until it was gleaming. When I turned around, I expected Max to be standing right behind me. But no one was there. I pouted for a moment as I pulled off the apron and tucked it back into the pantry. It was getting dark; Max had been gone all day. I wondered what he’d gotten up to. A small pulse of jealousy ran through me, and part of me wondered if he’d been out with another woman. “Haven’t even been married for a week and he’s already stepping out on me,” I said under my breath. But as much as I tried to believe it, as much as I tried to sensationalize the events, I couldn’t make myself panic. Deep down I knew that Max cared about me, and that he was going to protect me. Sure I might get on his nerves sometimes, but that wouldn’t be enough to break every promise he’d made me. It struck me as almost hysterical that I was already counting on Max for so much when we’d known each other for so little. I decided to go lay down in bed for a while, maybe take a nap. Max would probably wake me up when he came in, and I was feeling tired after a long day of doing nothing. My lids were surprisingly heavy, and I found myself yawning as I closed the door to Max’s room and slipped out of my jeans. The sheets were cool and crisp, and before long, my eyes were closed and I was slipping off into a quiet, thin sleep. A thought jolted me awake. What if Max comes home and he’s pissed off that you’re in his bed?

Frowning, I bolted up and wiped the crumbs of sleep from my eyes. I knew it was ridiculous, but I couldn’t help feeling paranoid—nighttime was always when my anxiety acted up. I turned on the lights, then got out of bed and straightened the covers up. When I was satisfied that the room looked untouched, I crept down the hall into “my” room, the room I’d slept in the night before we got married. After being in Max’s room, my room seemed Spartan and unimaginative. I shivered at an imaginary breeze before crawling into bed and turning out the lights. In the dark, I was able to finally relax. I did deep breathing exercises as I pulled the sheets over my body and crawled onto my side, snuggling my head under a pillow. For the first time in hours, I finally felt safe again. There was no way Silas could find me here. I was almost asleep when I heard something soft, like footsteps in the room. Even though part of my brain was barking at me to wake up, I stayed snuggled under the covers. I was barely aware of strong hands grabbing me and pulling me out of bed. I opened my eyes and realized it was Max. His strong chest felt warm against my body even though I was cold from being taken out of bed, and he smelled absolutely delicious. I yawned as Max carried me down the hallway. “Where have you been?” I asked groggily. There was no answer. Max slammed his bedroom door closed behind us and dropped me on the bed. Before I could move, he reached down and grabbed my panties, yanking them down my legs and tossing them away. Max growled as he grabbed both of my wrists with one hand and pinned my arms over my head. “Victoria,” Max whispered in a ragged voice. “I need you.” I closed my eyes as Max trailed his face down my body. His rough stubble scratched my neck and I shivered as his hands slipped up my shirt and pulled it over my head. The air felt cool on my skin and I shivered again, moaning softly as Max pinched and caressed both of my nipples. The room was mostly dark, but I was glad so that Max couldn’t see my blushing. His features blended together, aside from the two black holes where his eyes were. I couldn’t see his expression, couldn’t tell if he was pleased or pissed off. He growled as he slipped a hand between my legs and slapped my thighs. “Keep these apart,” Max growled. I shivered at his commanding voice and strained my muscles, trying to keep my legs spread. Max got down on his knees and nuzzled my chest. I gasped when he took one of my swollen nipples in his mouth, licking and sucking until I was practically crying with pleasure. My whole body felt electrified, like Max had hooked me up to a power outlet and turned me on. In his skilled, capable hands I felt more pleasured than I ever had in my entire life. I closed my eyes as Max’s warm, wet tongue slid around on my belly. The feeling made me shiver all around, and I moaned softly as his fingers played with the delicate skin on the insides of my thighs. Every time he touched me was as exciting as the first, and I couldn’t wait to see where this would

lead. Max made me so hot, so excited, that I could barely think about anything other than fucking him. I wanted him all the time, I wanted him as deep and intimate as I could have him. “Victoria,” Max grunted as he slid a finger inside my soaking pussy. “Victoria, I need you!” I gasped as he wriggled his finger inside of me. I could feel how wet I was; soaking the sheet underneath me, coating Max’s hand with my juices. As he rubbed gently on the tender spot of the front wall of my pussy, I felt my whole body convulse with amazing pleasure. “Max,” I moaned softly. “Max, please!” I could have sworn I saw Max grinning then. He slipped another finger inside of me and lowered his head to my breast, kissing and licking at my nipples. The feeling was raw, exquisite, and I wanted to keep going forever. I never wanted Max to stop pleasuring me, I wanted to stay in bed with him forever. As his third finger inched inside of me, I gasped. I felt stretched open and exposed, like Max could see everything inside of me at once. I felt like he could read my mind. Max’s thumb brushed against my clit and I jumped at the electric shock of pleasure that radiated through my body. As he gently rubbed my clit while moving his fingers inside of me, I felt my lower belly clench and tighten with an absurd amount of pleasure. I felt like I was going to come harder than ever before. My hands started to ache and I was amazed to discover them tangled in Max’s hair, pulling and yanking. Suddenly, he stopped. I started whimpering out loud, desperate for Max’s touch, but he only let out an amused little chuckle. “I wanna see how badly you want me,” Max said in a teasing voice. “I want you to show me how much you want me, Victoria.” I shivered at the way he said my name. It occurred to me, just barely, that he was using my full name instead of Tori, but I didn’t mind. It was the first time that anyone besides Silas had called me that in a long time; it felt better than I would have expected. Max leaned back on his haunches and stared me down. “Show me, Victoria,” Max repeated in a husky voice that sent shivers down my spine. “I want to know how badly you want me.” I swallowed hard and grabbed Max’s shoulders, pushing him down on the bed. He was shirtless and clad only in a thin pair of athletic shorts, which I pulled down his hips. His cock was massively stiff, and pressing against his briefs. I smiled at the sight of it before reaching down and gently stroking it with one hand. At my touch, Max arched his back and moaned. I grabbed the waistband of his briefs and tugged them down, letting his cock bob free. It sprang upwards almost immediately, and I realized how beautiful his body was. Max looked like a classic Greek statue, or a piece of art. He was one of the sexiest guys I’d ever seen; I couldn’t believe that he was my husband. All mine. Slowly, I lowered my head down to the head of Max’s cock and took the first inch in my mouth. I wasn’t sucking, just gently blowing and licking on the skin, letting my lips touch his most sensitive

areas. Max groaned and reached down, tangling his fingers in my head. Closing my eyes, I took more of his cock inside my wet mouth, wrapping a hand around the stiff base and slowly pumping. Max’s cock twitched and pulsed in my mouth. He tasted like musk and clean skin and I inhaled deeply with pleasure as I moved my tongue against the base of his cock. Max jerked his hips up and forced his whole cock in my mouth. I could feel drool sliding down the sides of his erection and I gently worked some in my hand to simulate lube. Max moaned at the new development and I smiled to myself as I crawled between his legs. Using my free hand to stroke Max’s bare chest, I felt his skin warm and begin to perspire under my touch. Max was writhing on the bed and moaning loudly with his eyes screwed closed. As I sucked his cock, I slowly pulled my hand away from Max’s chest and slipped it between my thighs. I was amazed to find myself wetter than ever; it was dripping down my legs and I shivered as my hand made contact with my swollen clit. Max had already aroused me to the point of no return, and I licked my lips as I pulled back from his cock. I straddled Max and ground my hips against him, rubbing my wet pussy on his hard erection. Max moaned loudly and put his hands on my hips. For a second I thought he was going to grab me and force me down on his erection but instead, he flipped me on my back. In a second he was on top of me, pushing the head of his cock inside me and pressing his forehead against mine. “You don’t fuck me,” Max whispered hotly. “I fuck you. Understood?” I squeaked out a reply as Max slid all the way inside of me. It felt so good that I cried out, wrapping my arms around his neck and pulling him down close. Max’s hard body against mine felt incredible and I closed my eyes as his chest rubbed against my stiff nipples. The friction was deliciously intense, just like Max’s cock. He was filling me, stretching me, bringing me to the edge and back and he hadn’t even started moving yet. “You feel so good,” I murmured into Max’s ear. He shivered as I raked my nails down his spine, pulling him close and wrapping my legs around his surprisingly narrow waist. Max was muscular but he didn’t feel heavy against me. His strong arms braced him on either side of my head, and I turned my head to the side and gently licked his forearm. Max shivered and slammed his hips against me, harder than ever before. I moaned as his cock filled every inch of my pussy, making me feel complete. Shockwaves of pleasure shot through every inch of my body and I realized that I’d started to move my hips along with Max’s, until our bodies were in a frantic rhythm. “Victoria,” Max moaned in my ear. “Victoria, you feel so fuckin’ good,” he repeated, nuzzling me with his damp face. Sweat was building and breaking out all over my body and our limbs were slick with it. The air in the bedroom smelled like sex and heat and pure, raw lust. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, breathing in the delicious scent of Max mixed with my own musk and sweat. I’d never had an experience like this, I’d never thought that sex could be so good. Max slipped his hands between our bodies and grabbed onto my hips, using them as handlebars as he thrust against me. His cock was almost painfully hard. Every time he filled me, I could feel him jabbing against my cervix. I moaned and wrapped my arms around his neck, pulling him closer. Max’s fingers dug into my hips and I could feel his thrusts growing more intense by the minute. My clit was

aching and swollen and Max’s pubic bone was rubbing me so hard that I thought I was going to explode. It was getting harder and harder to breathe and I buried my nose in Max’s neck. Max groaned and arched his back. His eyes were closed and his face was covered in a damp mask of perspiration. I could feel his body shuddering and bucking against mine, and as we moved together, I felt a powerful orgasm start to rip through me. First, my fingers and toes curled and I felt an explosion of something amazing in my lower belly. My skin was heated and damp and as the waves grew stronger, I let out a loud moan that reached a crescendo with the power of my climax. Max’s whole body started shaking and I could feel that he was about to come. He dug his fingers into my skin, grabbing my hips and forcing his body against mine until I was aching with the force of his thrusts. As he let out a groan and collapsed against me, I felt his cock twitch and pulse inside of my pussy, gushing cum. “That was amazing,” I said in a shaky, hoarse voice. The bed underneath of us was soaked with sweat. “I missed you today.” Max rolled off of me and onto the other side of the bed. He lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. “What did you get up to today?” I shrugged. “Not much,” I said. I wasn’t going to tell him about the brush and mirror I’d found. Not yet, anyway. “What did you do?” Max rolled onto his side and gazed into my face. “I had some errands to take care of,” he said. “Then I got a drink with Paul.” I nodded. I thought I’d smelled beer when he’d kissed me. “I made dinner,” I said. “Chicken, in the oven. You want some?” “Nah,” Max said. His stomach growled loudly and I started laughing. “Are you sure?” “You got me,” Max said. He rolled out of bed and pulled a tank top on over his bare torso. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go to the kitchen.” “Is Danny still here?” “No, why?” I didn’t reply, but I shot Max a flirtatious gaze as I pulled on one of his t-shirts. It was huge on me, almost like a dress, but I still felt sexy and playful. Max grinned at me; I could see the reflection of his teeth in the semi-dark room. We walked into the kitchen without speaking. The air between us was tense, kind of awkward. My body felt incredible from the sex, but in the harsh light of the kitchen, I could feel my good mood

deflating. Max was back to ignoring me again. He went rummaging through the fridge with his back turned to me. “Is this the chicken?” He pulled out a covered plate. I nodded. “This looks good,” Max added, crumpling the foil into a ball and tossing it into the bin labeled Recycling. “When did you make this?” I shrugged. “Earlier tonight,” I replied. “I wanted you to have something to eat when you came home.” Max grinned and my heart fluttered in my chest. In the light, his face looked different. I stepped closer and gasped when I saw two tiny scratches on his cheek. “Oh my god, Max, did I do that?” I leaned in close. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to cut you?” Max laughed. He self-consciously reached up and put the tips of his fingers against the cuts. “They’re not a big deal,” he said. “You didn’t do this.” I frowned. My stomach did a flip-flop. “Who did?” Max shrugged. “Your cunt of an ex tried to fight me,” he said nonchalantly. “He came up to me and Paul when we were outside of the bar.” I blinked, then stared. “Oh my god,” I said in a breathy voice. “I had no idea he would do that, Max. I’m so sorry.” Max shook his head. “Victoria, it’s not a big deal.” I shuddered involuntarily. For some reason, the name thing was bothering me again, but I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. “Okay,” I said softly. “I really wish you had told me.” “Victoria, I just did tell you,” Max said. He put a half-eaten piece of chicken back down on the plate. “Seriously, you want me to call you whenever shit like this happens? Shit like this is gonna happen, you know, you can’t run away from it.” I sighed. “Forget it,” I said softly. “I just don’t feel safe. Not…not with him running around out there.” Max grinned again as he polished off another piece of chicken. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, waving his free hand in the air. “You know he’s a piece of shit. I cleaned his clock pretty good. I don’t think we’ll be hearing from him any time soon.” I bit my lip and looked away. I liked knowing that Max had beaten the shit out of Silas, but somehow that didn’t seem good enough. “I’m sorry,” I said suddenly. “I’m sorry that he did that to you. I’m really horrified that he’d try dragging you into all of this, Max.”

Max shook his head. “I told you,” he said, sounding exasperated. “Ain’t a big deal. I don’t care, I’m used to worse.” I shook my head. “No, it’s worse than that,” I said softly. “I just don’t want you getting hurt.” Max rolled his eyes. “I ain’t worried about me. Look, I made an oath to your father.” He paused and my blood ran cold. “I made a promise to Kristoff that I’d always protect you, no matter what. And I can’t go back on that promise now.” My mouth went dry and my stomach plummeted. “You made an oath?” My voice sounded dry and brittle. My eyes flooded with tears and I blinked, looking up at the ceiling and willing them to evaporate back into my body. “Yeah,” Max said. He grabbed another piece of chicken and took a savage bite. “What’s the big deal?” What’s the big deal? What’s the big deal? Seriously? I wanted to grab Max and shake him by the shoulders. An oath changed everything, this changed everything. At first I’d thought that Max and I were actually getting along, that we actually worked as a couple. That we had chemistry and maybe, someday, would wind up loving each other. But finding out that Mad had only married me because of some dumb promise he’d made to my father made me feel horrible. I felt like a burden, like I was something in the way of Max’s true happiness. “Tori?” Max was staring at me and blinking. “What’s wrong?” I looked away. I couldn’t tell him what I was thinking—that he’d only married me out of loyalty to my father. And what if it’s not just that? a dark little voice said in the back of my brain. What if it’s not loyalty, exactly, but guilt? What if Max did something and he feels bad about it? No. I couldn’t start thinking like that. I couldn’t start thinking that my husband was really responsible for my father’s death. After all, if Max had only married me out of guilty feelings or loyalty or whatever, I had no idea how we would stay together. It seemed improbable; he didn’t really want to be with me, anyway. I was just a toy to him, I was just a temporary distraction. “Nothing,” I said softly, trying to force a smile. “Is the chicken good?” Max had finished his second piece and started on a third. He grinned up at me, his face smeared with grease. “It’s great,” he said, holding out a drumstick. “You want some?”

Chapter Fourteen Max Tori was just incredible. She was amazing, she was beautiful. She was one of the most incredible women that I’d ever known, and now she was mine. I still couldn’t believe it. I kept going off in a daze as we were standing in the kitchen, eating the leftover chicken. I couldn’t believe what I’d done to deserve this goddess of a wife. “Tori, are you okay?” I glanced up at her. We’d been sitting at the table for over twenty minutes and she’d gotten quiet. “What’s wrong?” Tori yawned. “I think I’m just tired,” she said in a dull, wooden voice. “I don’t feel well. I’m gonna go lay down.” She stood up before I could reach out for her. “Do you want me to sleep in the other room?” I shook my head. “Definitely not. You’re staying with me.” A ghost of a smile flitted across Tori’s lips. She glanced down at the floor, her cheeks reddening. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry about everything.” I rolled my eyes. “Forget it, Tori,” I told her. “That asshole didn’t even hurt me. I can barely feel these,” I added, rubbing the scratches with my fingers. “He’s about as strong as a newborn kitten.” Tori bit her lip. She looked like she was going to say something else, but instead she stood up and walked away. I stared at her, the way her ass swung from side to side as she walked. My mouth went dry and I felt my hand forming a fist at my side. Lust raged in my body, even though I’d just come harder than ever. I wanted to run after Tori, grab her and throw her over my shoulder for another round of intense lovemaking. Shaking my head, I put the rest of the chicken away and went into the living room. Danny had left a few bottles of beer on the table, and I rolled my eyes and grabbed the empties to throw them away. I felt safe with him looking after Tori, but I was looking forward to the day when my house became just mine again. Having to chase someone out all the time felt pretty fucking old. I flipped through the channels, looking for something, anything that held my interest. Even though it was late and I still had the effects of the earlier alcohol swimming through my bloodstream, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I lay down. My mind was heavy with thoughts of everything that was happening: Kristoff’s death, that note, Silas, Tori….it was all a huge mess, waiting to be unpacked. I felt powerless not being able to do anything, I felt almost impotent. I wound up spacing out and leaving the TV on a news channel. The local reporter was covering some break-ins, and I narrowed my eyes, wondering if anyone I knew was behind the attacks. When the reporter announced that it was just a local gang of thugs, I rolled my eyes and kicked my feet up on the couch. Everything nowadays, even the news, was tough to watch. Too many guys I knew getting

busted for drugs or petty theft. The MC had seen its fair share of hard times, but this had to be the worst yet. And if I didn’t get Kristoff’s death figured out ASAP, that was going to reflect pretty poorly on the club. I closed my eyes, suddenly wishing that Maria would call me with news. Something buzzed in my pocket and I frowned, slipping my hand inside and grabbing my phone. A number that I didn’t recognize was flashing across the screen. “Hello?” “Hey, Max, it’s Maria,” the familiar voice said. Even though five seconds ago I’d been hoping to hear from her, the tone of her voice sent shivers down my spine. She sounded reticent, cautious, like something was really the matter. “What is it?” “I found something that you may be interested in,” Maria replied. “Would you come out to my place tomorrow?” “Why can’t I come now?” Maria chuckled softly into the receiver. “Because it’s late, dummy,” she said. “I’m going to sleep. I’ve had one hell of a day. I’m guessing that you have, too.” “Kind of,” I said, shaking my head. “Seriously, though, I can just hop in the car now. I’ll be over there in ten.” “No,” Maria said firmly. She responded so quickly that I felt cut off. “Tomorrow is better,” she said, this time in a kinder tone. “Good night, Max.” Maria hung up before I could reply. Frowning, I stood up and walked down the hall, into my room. Tori was laying on her back, snoring gently. I said her name and touched her shoulder but she didn’t stir, only wrinkled her face for a moment and then rolled onto her side. I stripped out of my clothes and pulled the sheet over my hip. The room felt cool and relaxing, but something in my heart was clanging. Chill out, Max, I told myself. This isn’t a huge deal. Everything is fine, everything is going to continue to be fine. Finally, I realized what was bothering me: Maria’s voice. The tone of her voice had been so different. Maria had always been gracious, sweet, even joking. She was a nice girl, much too nice for the likes of me. She hadn’t even loved the MC, but she did a lot of favors for us now—part of me suspected she was only complicit because of how kind she was. But on the phone, she’d sounded distracted, like something was really wrong. And for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why she’d insisted on tomorrow. Maria was a night owl, just like me. When we’d been sleeping together, it hadn’t ever been during daylight hours. She was the kind of woman who haunted coffeehouses and late night bars, looking for others like her.

So why was it so important for her to wait until the morning to talk to me? Frowning, I rolled over on my side and stared at Tori’s profile. There was just enough moonlight in the room to see the delicate curve of her hip, her thin waist, her curvy breasts. I felt my mouth water as I remembered how her delicious, musky scent had coated my fingers, and the hungry way she’d pulled me down on top of her, like all she wanted to do was fuck. My cock started twitching and I flopped back on my back, staring up at the ceiling. I closed my eyes and tried to count sheep, but nothing was working to make me drowsy. Even breathing exercises didn’t help, although I would have rather cut off a finger than admitted to someone like Tori that I sometimes tried to meditate when I couldn’t sleep. Finally, I got up out of bed and shuffled into the bathroom. There was a little white bottle of pills on the counter. Frowning, I picked them up and stared at the label: E-Z Doze, it said, in big blue letters. “Oh, so that’s how you got to sleep,” I muttered, glancing back in the bedroom at Tori. She still hadn’t moved since I’d come to bed. “Well, two can play at that game.” Taking the cap off the bottle, I tossed a couple of pills into the palm of my hand and knocked them back with a big glass of water. Walking back to bed, I crashed down and pulled the sheet over my hips. Tori snored on, oblivious to me. I closed my eyes and tried to relax. Already I was starting to feel woozy and kind of distant, like I was slipping away from the rest of my body. These pills are nice, I thought to myself. I was standing in the Renegade Saints clubhouse, near the bar, with a beer in one hand and Tori standing close by. We were having a party and the guys were going wild, splashing beer everywhere and pouring it down their throats. Tori looked at me with a flirtatious grin on her face. She winked and turned to the side, showing off her amazing figure. Her red hair was gleaming in the low light; she looked absolutely stunning. “You look great,” I told her as I pulled her close and nuzzled her neck. “You’re so sexy, Tori.” Tori grinned at me. “I knew you’d say that,” she said. “I love being with you so much.” She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. Before I could move, she walked away, swishing her hips. I felt my cock twitch in my pants and reached down to grab it. Some of the guys started walking towards me with weird expressions on their faces. “Hey guys, what’s up?” I threw my arms up in the air. “Long time, no hang.” Danny looked at me sternly. “What are you doing here?” I frowned. “Yo, what the fuck are you talking about? This is my club,” I said defensively, reaching down in my pocket for the knife I knew was there. Something felt wrong—this was Danny, not a stranger, and I didn’t know why I suddenly felt like attacking him. But before I knew what was happening, I started hearing chants of “Fight!” coming from the other guys.

“Danny, I don’t wanna do this, man,” I said, backing away and holding up my hands. “I told you, I wasn’t responsible for Kristoff ’s death. I had nothing to do with it!” Danny didn’t reply. His eyes flashed dark fire and he looked as menacing as ever as he crawled slowly towards me, hand reaching for the back of his waistband. I closed my eyes and shuddered as Danny pulled out a gun. “You wanna talk now, asshole?” Danny said. He stepped so close that I could smell his musk and odor of cigarettes. “You wanna talk now?” I glanced around, looking for Tori. I didn’t want her to see this, but the clubhouse wasn’t that big. When I spotted her, she was still smiling. She waved to me with one hand bent in a sexy little curve. “Yo,” I said to Danny, in a warning tone. Panic was boiling in my stomach and a cold trickle of fear was making its way down my back. “Yo, don’t do this. Not here, not in front of the girl.” Danny’s lips curved into an evil smile. I felt my heart pounding against my chest as we squared off, staring at each other. “Come on,” I pleaded. “Let’s go outside, at least.” “How did you even get in here?” Danny’s tone was cruel and mocking. “How did you get inside, huh, you punk?” “This is my clubhouse,” I said. “We’re the Renegade Saints, and this is where I belong.” Danny shook his head. “You got a fuckin’ mistake there, boy,” he said in a low voice, pulling a knife out of nowhere and waving it front of my body. “Now you wanna go home before we carve you up?” Paul jumped down from where he’d been sitting on the bar and strode cockily over to me. I thought he was going to grab Danny and tell him that there had been some kind of mistake, but instead he glanced up at me. “What’s this asshole doing here?” Paul asked Danny. “I haven’t seen this dickwad in ages.” “Guys, enough,” I snapped. “Stop fucking with me! It’s me, Max! Max Adams!” “What?” Paul squinted at me. “What the fuck are you talking about, you fucking weasel?” He grabbed me by the collar and yanked me over to the mirror. When I saw my reflection, I gasped. I didn’t look like me at all, I looked like Silas. My face was skinny and pale and blond hair tumbled over my brow. My expression, even though I was horrified, was a combination of a sneer and a scowl. My blood ran cold as I moved in the same way that mirror-Silas moved.

“Guys, it’s not who you think,” I said loudly. Danny grabbed me and yanked me back towards the middle of the room. “I’m not Silas! It’s not me! It’s Max!” Danny and Paul threw their heads back and laughed uproariously. “That’s a fucking good one, man,” Danny said. “Come on, outside, like a dog.” I shook my head and backed away in panic, waving my hands in front of me. Paul and Danny advanced, looking more evil by the second. When I looked for Tori back over in the corner of the room, I didn’t see her. “Where’s Tori?” Anger and fear flashed through my body. “You guys better not have her! You’d better not have hurt Tori!” Danny scowled. “You cunt,” he said solemnly. “You killed her, you asshole. Don’t fuck with me,” he added. “She’s dead.” My eyes opened wide and I felt my jaw drop to the floor. I gasped. “No, I couldn’t have…I wouldn’t have hurt her. She was right there!” Spinning around, I pointed towards where Tori had been standing not five minutes prior. “I saw her! She came over and kissed me!” Danny and Paul obediently looked in the direction I was pointing. When I followed them with my eyes, I gasped. Tori was lying on the floor, motionless. Her slim torso was covered in blood and stab wounds. “What the hell?” I gasped as I ran over to Tori’s prone body. She wasn’t breathing, but blood was still gurgling and gushing out of her wounds. When I held my hands up to cradle her head, I was shocked to realize that they were covered in blood. It was me; I’d done it. I’d killed her. “Silas, you deserve to die,” Danny said. I heard his footsteps close in behind me. “You deserve to die, and we’re going to kill you” It was the last thing I heard before I blacked out. I woke up with a scream, bolting up in bed and covering my face with my hands. My heart was pounding so hard that I thought it was going to burst out of my chest and my palms were itchy with sweat. I could feel that I’d perspired all over the sheets, leaving an almost cut-out shape of a man. The room was flooded with daylight, and the other side of the bed was empty. “Tori!” I yelled in a strangled cry. By now, some of the most vicious images of the dream were fading. I was starting to realize that it had been absolutely ridiculous, but I couldn’t stop the fear and anxiety in my heart. “What is it?” Tori ran out of the bathroom, her red hair thrown over one shoulder. She gazed at me with clear concern on her pretty face. “Max, what happened?”

I forced myself to laugh. “Bad dream,” I said, waving my hand. “Were those pills in the bathroom yours?” Tori bit her lip. “I’ve had a lot of trouble sleeping lately,” she said. “I went to the doctor after Silas and I broke up and he wouldn’t leave me alone. I kept thinking he was going to break in and try to hurt me.” He probably would have, too. I was starting to take Tori’s claims a lot more seriously now, and I felt bad for having doubted her initially. Silas was a horrible person, a really bad dude, and I didn’t want him anywhere near my wife. Not even in the same line of sight, or the same air to breathe. “I gotta go,” I said, getting out of bed and yanking on a pair of pants. I hadn’t showered in over a day and my skin felt greasy but I knew that I had to go see Maria as soon as possible. “What’s wrong?” Tori furrowed her brow. “Is Danny coming back over?” I shivered at the memory of the dream again. It had been really gnarly, and I could tell some of the images were going to stay with me for a long time. “Yeah,” I admitted. “I’m going to call him now. I won’t leave until he gets here.” Tori nodded. She sat down on the bed. “Okay,” she said quietly. “I’ll stay here all day.” “I’ve got some books and movies and stuff in the living room,” I told her. “You might wanna check some of those out.” Tori didn’t look cheered. “Are you going to be out all day?” I shrugged. “I have to go meet a friend about something,” I lied. “I shouldn’t be gone for too long. You want me to grab you anything on the way back?” Tori wrinkled her nose. “I’ll be fine,” she said. “What do you want for dinner?” An improbable smile crept onto my face. Here we were, the picture of domesticity. My wife asking me what I wanted for dinner as I was getting ready for the day. And some people told me that I’d never be normal! “What is it?” Tori frowned. “What’s so funny?” I bit my lip. Somehow, I didn’t think she’d find the image as amusing as I did. After all, she was only out for comfort. “Nothing,” I said after a moment. “And anything’s fine. That chicken was great. Maybe tacos or something?” Tori nodded. “I’ll have Danny take me to the store.”

We stood facing each other. I felt an awkward tension in the room that I suddenly wanted to be away from desperately. Leaning forward, I kissed Tori briefly on the lips. Her lips were warm and soft and tangy; she hadn’t yet brushed her teeth. When I pulled away, she looked both surprised and pleased. Her cheeks were pinking and her lips were slightly parted. “See you tonight,” I said before I could do anything else. “I’ll be home later.” Tori looked away as I let myself out of the room and closed the door behind me. The weather outside looked shitty, like it was about to start raining, but I climbed on my bike anyway. I wanted to feel the wind on my face and running through my hair. Sometimes, driving my bike felt more relaxing then getting laid. And right now I could use some relaxing. When I got to Maria’s house, I had to knock three times before she came to the door. She answered looking distressed, worse than she had yesterday. I frowned. “What’s going on? You look like you haven’t slept in a few days,” I said, trying to poke her in the ribs and make her laugh. Maria twisted away before I could touch her. “Come in,” she said. She was staring at the ground with her hands in a knot in front of her. I walked behind Maria. Unlike our last visit, there were no smiles, no laughter, nothing to make me realize I was with an old friend who I trusted more than most. “So, what did you find?” Maria sat down. “I didn’t find anything,” she said delicately. “You know my job isn’t to do a DNA search on that letter.” I rolled my eyes. “Cut the shit, Maria,” I told her flatly. She tossed her dark hair. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “And besides, there was only one result.” There was a folder on the table in front of her that I tried to grab but Maria was quicker. She snatched it up and held it firmly in her lap. “You have to promise that you’re going to take me seriously,” she added. “Of course I will.” I narrowed my eyes at her. “You think I’m some kind of hothead loser?” “Of course not,” Maria said. Her tone was fiery. “Sorry,” she added. “I’m just feeling really tense today.” She glanced away. “Work has been stressful lately.” “I won’t keep you long, I promise. I just want to know about what you found.” Maria swallowed hard. I stared into her face. Her pupils were wide and scared, and her skin was slightly paler than usual. Sweat was beading on her forehead.

“You really don’t look well,” I chided. “Not getting enough sleep? Too many drugs?” I meant the last line as a jest; Maria was straighter than an arrow. She drank, but no more than the recommended amount. She was one of the most reliable, boring people I’d ever come across. “I’m fine,” Maria replied carefully. She swallowed again. “Come on,” I said. “You’re making me tense as fuck over here!” “I have something important to tell you,” Maria said softly, repeating her words from the previous night. “And at first, I didn’t want to tell you…” her voice trailed off. “I wanted to give it some time, to let myself do some research…” “Tell me,” I growled. “You’re driving me fucking crazy! Did you find any prints? Any evidence?” Maria didn’t answer. “Anything?” Maria nodded. “We found something,” she said softly. “We found prints that were a match in the state police database.” I narrowed my eyes. “That could be any one of the guys,” I said in dismay. It was true; at some point or another, every Renegade Saint had been arrested, even for something minor, like possession. “It wasn’t one of your guys,” Maria said softly. She took a deep breath and looked deeply into my eyes. I saw there was no hint of humor, no laughter, nothing warm there. “It was someone else.” I groaned. “Maria, you’re killing me,” I told her with a long sigh. “Who?” Maria swallowed hard. She blinked at me and finally said, “The prints belong to Talia.” I blinked at her. A wave of confusion passed over my head and I felt like I was spinning in the air, like I was going to fall flat on my ass and crash at any given moment. “What?” I blinked. “Are you fucking kidding me? That’s impossible,” I added before Maria could reply. “She’s been dead for years.” Maria licked her lips. “I know,” she said in a quavering voice. “I…I thought that too. I had them double check, overnight, just to make sure they weren’t wrong.” “There’s still a chance it could be someone else,” I argued. “Maybe someone with prints similar to Talia?” Maria shook her head. “I know you’re not a scientist, Max, but the likelihood is very slim. You know that, don’t you?” My vision was cloudy and blurred and I felt like I was going to pass out. I held my hand up and gazed hard at the floor. Talia. No. It couldn’t be, there was no way. Talia. Talia’s dead, remember? Anxiety

was roaring like a wild animal in my chest, like a bear waking up from hibernation and remembering that it hasn’t eaten all winter. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack, or like all of my blood was going to rush to my heart at once and kill me. I couldn’t believe it. This was the moment that I’d dreamed of so many times, that I’d wanted desperately. I’d missed Talia so much. But it never felt like this in the dream, it never felt like a betrayal. It never hurt, it never made me feel like I was about to collapse on the ground. “She’s dead,” I said in a shaky voice. “It…it can’t be her.” “Max, I’m sorry,” Maria said gently. She reached across the table and tried to take my elbow but I twisted violently away and stood up, shaking. “Is this a fucking joke?” I twisted my face into a sneer and glared down at Maria. “Are you fucking with me? Are you mad about something?” Maria shook her head. Her eyes were big and scared, and suddenly I knew with absolute certainty that she was telling the truth. “Max, I don’t know how her prints would have gotten on that letter,” Maria said softly. “But they were definitely hers.”

Chapter Fifteen Victoria When Max was gone, I was feeling at a loss again. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know how I was supposed to occupy myself with him gone for the day. Danny had shown up and he was perched in the living room, watching TV again like usual. “Hey, Danny,” I said as casually as I could muster. “I think I’m going to the store.” “Okay,” Danny replied. “Give me two minutes and I’ll be right with you.” He was glued to some reality show and I had to suppress a laugh. “This show is really good so far.” I shook my head. “No,” I said. “That’s okay, you don’t have to come. I’ll just be a few minutes, why don’t you stay here and watch TV?” “Ha, nice try,” Danny said. He got to his feet and clicked the television off. “Max said I’m not supposed to let you out of my sight.” I sighed and stamped my foot on the ground, aware of how childish I was acting. “I don’t need a bodyguard,” I said. “I think I was just being hyperbolic when I told Max I wanted someone over here with me. I don’t have anything to be afraid of,” I said, trying to be convincing. “I’m totally fine, Danny.” Danny rolled his eyes. “You’re not fine,” he said. “I mean, you are here,” he added. “But you’re not leaving, not without me.” He crossed his arms over his chest and looked at me sternly. “Sorry,” he added in the most non-apologetic voice that I could imagine. “Boss’s orders.” I felt an irrational anger towards Max boiling up inside of me. Why did he even care, anyway? He didn’t love me, he only married me because of some dumb promise he made to my father! I was just some woman to him, some plaything to fuck and toy with until he’d had enough of me! “Max doesn’t really care whether I get hurt or not,” I mumbled. “Come on, you know that.” Danny frowned, marring his handsome features. “Max cares a lot,” he said, looking awkward. “Trust me, I know him pretty damn well.” “So you know he doesn’t really love me?” Danny turned away. “I’m not going to talk about him like this behind his back,” he added. “And if you try to go anywhere without me, you have to know that I’m going to stop you.” “You’re being so melodramatic,” I said. “I just want to go to the store! Or a walk, even. It doesn’t have to be that far!”

Danny shook his head. “Sorry, no can do,” he said. He didn’t sound sorry. Not at all. Pouting, I turned on my heel and stamped down the hallway to Max’s bedroom. The bed was still a mess from last night, and it smelled like our musk mixed together. I frowned as I pulled the sheets off the bed and crumpled them up before tossing them in the wash. Max didn’t love me. I knew that. He just wanted someone to take care of him, to cook and clean and make his house nice and neat while he went out doing…whatever he did that was too important to tell me about. The whole thing made me sick. It was no better than Silas trying to keep me locked down so I wouldn’t have any friends outside of him. Just then, I remembered that I hadn’t talked to Kitty in a while. “Hey, Danny!” I yelled into the hallway. “What is it?” Danny came running, looking breathless. When he saw that I wasn’t hurt or in clear danger, relief flashed across his face. “What happened, Tori? What can I do?” “I’m calling my friend Kitty and having her over for lunch,” I said. “You’re not going to flip over that, I assume?” Danny looked sour. “No,” he said. “No one else, though. Just her, you got that?” I knew it was diabolical, but part of me wanted to see if I could get Kitty to flirt with Danny. That way, maybe he’d leave me alone for a little while. When I called her, she answered on the first ring. “Hello?” “It’s me,” I said automatically. “Who?” I sighed. “Don’t be a bitch. It’s me, Tori.” “God, I was beginning to think you were dead,” Kitty said sarcastically. “What’s up?” “Want to come over?” Her tone brightened. “Yeah,” Kitty replied. “I’m bored as shit. I’ll be there in five.” “Wait,” I said quickly. “I’m living somewhere else now.” I gave her Max’s address and we hung up. I could tell by the tone of her voice that she was dying to ask questions, but to her credit she hadn’t said anything untoward while we were on the phone. I rolled my eyes. That was Kitty’s style; she was definitely going to save the skepticism and snarky comments for when she was here in the flesh. The doorbell rang almost minutes later. I laughed; she must have dashed out of her apartment and

gotten in the car as soon as I called. “Hi,” Kitty said, breathless, when I opened the door. “Oh my god, Tori,” she added. “You look great.” Danny came up behind me; I could hear his footsteps on the wooden floor. “Who is this?” “This is my friend Kitty,” I informed him. “She’s coming inside for a while.” Danny narrowed his eyes but he didn’t say anything. When he’d retreated back to the living room, Kitty turned to me and gaped. “He is gorgeous!” she gushed loudly. “How did you manage to get him as your boyfriend?” “He’s not my boyfriend,” I said lightly. “I was sort of hoping you’d take a liking to him, actually.” Kitty rolled her eyes. “Nice try,” she said. “He’s cute, though. You know I don’t like bikers, Tori. What are you doing here? This is a nice house. Oh my god,” she continued, without pause. “Are you, like, on house arrest? Is that dude a cop? Is he, like, watching you?” I laughed. Kitty got on my nerves sometimes, but I realized now just how much I’d missed my best friend. Aside from Max, I hadn’t talked to anyone in days and I was starting to feel really alone. “We have some wine,” I told Kitty. “Come into the kitchen with me.” An hour later, Kitty and I had gone through a bottle of the merlot that had been tucked in Max’s fridge. My face was red and it hurt from laughing so much. Kitty was catching me up on an old story about one of her boyfriends. She tended to date the weirdest people, and she was keeping me in stitches. I realized that I hadn’t said anything about Max, and now it didn’t feel right to bring up. I was keeping my hands tucked safely in my lap, twirling my wedding band on my left hand with the fingers of my right. “So, what have you been up to?” Kitty looked at me sharply. “Anything exciting? Anything I should know about?” I shook my head. “Definitely not,” I told her, lying through my teeth. “Come on,” Kitty said. “What’s the deal with this house? This place is great, Tori. It looks absolutely incredible.” “I know,” I said as I glanced around. Even though I didn’t share Max’s tastes in the hyper masculine decorations, I couldn’t deny that it was a stylish and comfortable place to live. It never would have been the kind of thing I assumed about Max, but now I was glad that he had such a nice place. It made him seem more stable, more like someone who would be a good husband. “So, what happened? How did you wind up here?”

I blushed and glanced away. “It’s a long story,” I told her. “I mean, I had to do something to get away from Silas, and…well…this guy is an old friend of the family.” “And he has someone guarding you?” Kitty lowered her voice to a hush. “I mean, what’s up with that? Is Silas really that dangerous?” “You know he is,” I said, feeling wounded. Kitty had been on speed dial during the worst of Silas’s abuse. I couldn’t count the number of times where I’d come to her with a broken rib or a bloody and bruised eye. It hurt to think that she was being so dismissive of my claims. It was just like Max when he didn’t believe me that Silas would hurt me. And then Silas showed up at the bar, I thought. Great. “Sorry,” Kitty said casually. “I just don’t understand how you went from living in your apartment to staying here.” I shrugged. “I needed help,” I said, trying to match her tone in lightness. “And Max was willing to help me.” I thought back to his words from the night before. “He promised my father that he’d look out for me.” I left out the part about how I didn’t exactly know that. “Max is a good guy, he’s solid.” “He’s in a motorcycle club, though,” Kitty replied with an air of disdain. “Where did he get all the money for this stuff? Is it stolen? Is everything okay?” I bit my lip and sighed, feeling more than a trace of irritation with my best friend. I drained the last of the wine in my glass, went for more, and saw that the bottle was empty. “I’m going to get us more,” I told Kitty. “You want?” She held up her glass like I was a waiter. “Yeah, duh,” she said. When I moved, she saw the flash of my ring in the light. “Oh my god,” Kitty said, grabbing my hand and yanking me backwards. “No way, Tori. What is this?” “It’s a ring,” I said lightly, pulling my hand free of her clutches. “What does it look like?” Kitty rolled her eyes. “Don’t be so boring,” she snapped. “I mean, I can tell it’s a ring…but that finger…did you…?” She looked up at me, the kitchen light reflecting in her eyes. I sighed dramatically. “Yes,” I said. “We got married.” Kitty’s eyes bulged. “Oh my god, Tori, that’s like something from a movie! How come you didn’t tell me?” She narrowed her eyes and glared. “I wanted to be maid of honor!” I shook my head and grabbed a fresh bottle of wine from the fridge. The alcohol was sloshing around in my stomach and making my skin warm, but in a pleasant way. It was the most relaxed that I’d felt in days, and I was happy that I was reconnecting with Kitty, even though she got on my nerves.

“It was a courthouse wedding,” I told her, plopping back into my seat with the grace of a seal. “You wouldn’t have liked it.” I closed my eyes and thought back to that day. It seemed like forever ago, even though it had only been a few days. “I barely even remember it, to be honest,” I added. “I mean, the ceremony. It was quick. It only took a few minutes.” Kitty gaped. I thought for some reason she thought I was lying. “What about the…guy?” she asked softly. “I mean, do you really act married?” She smirked at me and I felt my whole face heat up with a hot blush. “What does he look like?” I let out a sigh. “Do you remember Max Adams? He was in the MC with my dad.” Kitty blushed. “I’m sorry, Tor,” she said. “I forgot your dad was in that club. I didn’t mean anything, you know, what I said earlier.” “It’s fine,” I said, waving my hand in the air. Kitty thought about what I’d asked. Finally, she nodded. “The name sounds familiar,” she said. “But I don’t think I’ve ever met that guy before. Does he go to any bars around here?” I shook my head. “I don’t think so,” I replied. “I think he’s mostly a loner.” Kitty pursed her lips and stared. “So…you know this guy pretty well?” I cringed. I didn’t, not really. Even though I’d basically grown up around Max, it wasn’t like we were friends or had any kind of history to speak of. Max and I were like two planets who had orbited very, very close to each other—we were always in sight, but never exactly touching. Maybe we would have touched more if Silas hadn’t kept me locked away. Silas. Just thinking about him threatened to ruin my mood. I swore that I’d keep my mind off Silas for the rest of the night. “Kind of,” I lied. “I mean, I grew up around him. He’s been in the Renegade Saints since he turned eighteen. He was around my father a lot,” I added, like that would somehow make up for my lack of not knowing Max. “And my father always trusted him.” Kitty was still staring. She blushed and shook her head in disbelief. “It’s just crazy that things worked out like this for you,” she said in a soft voice. “I hope you’re happy, Tori.” I licked my lips. “I’m happier than I was.” Kitty frowned. “Are you guys, like…you know, doing it? Having sex?” She turned to me with a lascivious expression on her face. “I mean, you are married.” I blushed. “I’m not telling you that,” I protested. “That’s not fair. You don’t tell me about your sex life, I don’t have to tell you about mine.” Kitty stared at me with an even expression on her pretty face. “You’re not doing it, then,” she said

confidently. I tossed my hair over my shoulder and stood up, draining the last of my glass. I was starting to feel actually drunk, but I hadn’t noticed until I’d stood up. I hadn’t had very much to eat that day, and here I was, getting drunk on my husband’s wine stash. “You don’t know anything,” I said before I could think about it. Kitty stared at me, clearly shocked. I couldn’t believe what I’d said. Clapping a hand over my mouth, I turned away. “What was that?” Her tone was accusing, and not exactly friendly. “I don’t know,” I mumbled. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…I’m just, I’m sorry, Kitty. I’m under so much pressure and stress right now.” Kitty rolled her eyes. “Yeah, like staying home all day and drinking wine is really hard, Tori.” I sat down with a hard thump that hurt my tailbone. Wincing, I turned to my best friend. “Look, I know you’re mad at me. I should have told you more about this, I’m sorry. But Silas is really dangerous, and Max is trying to keep me safe. That’s why that other guy is here, and that’s why I can’t leave the house without him.” Kitty softened, but she still looked pretty angry. “You’re just so different,” she said. “You used to be so impulsive, so headstrong. And now this? You’re basically letting someone control you?” “It’s not about control,” I argued back. “It’s about staying safe. Silas is dangerous, and he’s out there.” Kitty threw her head back and laughed. “You really think your evil ex is so dead-set on getting you that he’s spending all of his time creeping around outside with a knife or something?” She rolled her eyes and I felt a painful sting in my heart. “You need to get over yourself, Tori. Silas was an asshole; I’ll grant you that. But he wasn’t nearly as bad as you’ve said.” She stared at me until I felt my cheeks growing hot and tears forming in my eyes. “If he was as bad as you said, you’d be dead or traumatized or something right now. You just wanted attention, Tori. You were jealous because I always had new boyfriends and fun and you just let Silas control your life all the time, even though he’s too weak to really do anything.” I could feel myself getting angrier and angrier and I knew that soon I was going to say something that I’d regret. “Kitty, I am fucking traumatized!” I yelled back. “You don’t see it, but I can barely sleep! I have nightmares every time I close my eyes that Silas is coming back to kill me, or that I’m already dead, or that Max has turned into him! He ruined my life for years!” I balled my hand into a fist and slammed it down on the table. “He wouldn’t even let me go to my own father’s funeral! He thought I’d be out there, flirting with guys!” Tears spilled from my lids and down my cheeks. I wiped them hastily away and glared at Kitty. Her face was unreadable but angry. I felt betrayed, like she didn’t really understand me or care about me. I felt like she didn’t give a fuck. “You can leave,” I said in a shaky voice, pointing towards the door. “If you’re just going to be a huge bitch, I don’t want to be your friend anymore.”

“Why are you acting like a little kid?” Kitty stood up with her hands grabbing onto her hips, like wings. “I’m just telling you the truth, Tori, and it’s not my fault if you’re too fucked up to hear it.” “Get out,” I repeated, in the same dull, wooden voice. “I don’t want to see you again.” Kitty let out a huff of breath. “Fine,” she snapped. “But the next time you get bored, don’t think of calling me. I’m sick of having lame friends,” she added. I winced again. She stalked out of the room and slammed the door behind her. As I listened to her heels fade away on the sidewalk, I lowered my head to the table and started sobbing. I’d never felt so alone in my life. I wondered if the rest of my life would be like this, waiting at home for Max, bored out of my skull. I’d just lost my last best friend and now I didn’t even know what I was going to do until he got home. And I hated how Kitty hadn’t believed me about Silas! It was like no one did. Not Max, not Kitty, not anyone. He was the worst thing that had ever happened to me and I couldn’t even tell people about it without their expressing skepticism. “Hey, there,” Danny said in a low voice. He knocked against the open doorframe. “Mind if I sit?” “No,” I said, my cheeks reddening. I was a mess of snot and tears and I didn’t want anyone to see me like this, but I didn’t want to risk alienating yet another person who could be a friend. “I’m sorry,” I added. “I’m just not feeling very well today.” Danny nodded. He cleared his throat. “Is there anything I can do?” He walked closer and I saw real concern in his eyes. I shook my head. “No, thanks,” I said softly. “I’ll be fine.” Danny nodded. Unlike Kitty, he actually seemed to understand the transformative power of silence. He lowered himself into the chair that she’d been sitting in and poured himself a glass of wine, keeping his eyes down on the table while he drank it. He let out a long sigh. “I know this is hard on you,” Danny said. “Max told me you were real independent, like not the kind of girl who would like being cooped up.” I nodded. “It’s not exactly that,” I mumbled. “It’s everything, it’s more than—” Right then, at that exact moment, we both heard the front door open and close. Danny nodded at me, as if to say “alright, then,” and got up and walked back into the living room. I heard he and Max exchange a few words and then Max’s large frame walked into the kitchen. For once, he didn’t smile at me, and for once, he didn’t seem overly attentive to how I was feeling. “I’m hungry,” Max muttered. “Did you make anything for dinner?” My cheeks burned all over again. “I didn’t,” I said softly. “Um, my friend Kitty came over for some wine and we got in a fight.”

Max swallowed. I expected him to chastise me, for what, I didn’t know, but he didn’t. Instead he let out a long sigh. “I’ll go to the store,” he said roughly. “I’ll be back soon.” “Wait,” I said, a hint of desperation creeping into my voice. “Can I come with you?” Max shook his head. “I’ll be right back,” he said. He sounded tired. “Do you want anything?” “Please don’t go,” I said suddenly. “I’ve been really feeling lonely all day and I don’t want to be left alone again. Please let me come with you, okay?” Max sighed. “Fine,” he snapped. “You’ve got five minutes to get ready.” I was so elated at being allowed to leave the house that I almost didn’t notice the shitty mood he was in. Max was acting a lot shorter than usual with me, and he seemed tense. Even though he’d been asleep next to me all night, he looked like he’d spent the night walking the floor and drinking. He looked terrible. I ran down the hall and put a brush through my hair, then tugged on a fresh pair of jeans and moccasins. Max and I met in the hallway; he was swinging his keys around on a short chain. “Come on,” Max said gruffly. “We’re taking my bike.” There was something exhilarating about riding behind Max, about wrapping my arms around his muscular torso and holding on for dear life. He drove fast, seemingly too fast, but I felt safe when I was with him. I knew that Max would never endanger me, or do anything to hurt me. In fact, the faster he drove, the safer I felt. With Max to break the wind in front of me, I even felt warm and cozy on the back of his bike. Max’s leather jacket smelled heavenly, like man, like the way I remembered my father’s jacking smelling when we’d hug. It made me sad in a whole new way, and even though I was starting to feel better from earlier, I still felt pretty alone. I liked Max, a lot, but I was reticent of sharing too much with him now. After all, he only married me because of that promise he’d made to my father. Maybe there would be a chance that someday, he could fall in love with me and not regret his decision. Or maybe he’ll tell you that he wants a divorce, I thought sullenly as Max steered the bike around a sharp curve. He was driving faster than ever but I didn’t even mind. In a way, I could sort of tell why he liked riding on a bike so much. It was much different than riding in a car. You were exposed to air, exposed to nature, not encased in a safe little fiberglass bubble. When we got to the store, I trailed behind Max as he grabbed a few things. Rice, refried beans, tortillas, cheese, sour cream. “What are you getting?” Max turned to me. “This is my comfort food,” he said sullenly, giving me no explanation for why he

suddenly needed comfort food. “Oh,” I said in a small voice. We didn’t talk for the rest of the trip. The safe feeling that had welled up within me on the back of the bike dissipated rapidly and I was left feeling more awkward around Max than ever before. When we got home, I sat in the kitchen and watched as Max silently made a mess of the food. He set down a couple of plates on the table and slid one over to me. It smelled good. When I took a bite, I was surprised to find it delicious. “This is good,” I said. Max didn’t look up. “My mom made this for me as a kid,” he said. “She was from Texas, and even people who didn’t know how to cook knew how to make Tex-Mex.” I didn’t know what to say to that. Everything felt different between us, awkward somehow. Like things had changed. “Oh,” I said softly. Taking a deep breath, I looked at Max. I was sick of staying at home by myself, and if he didn’t really care about me, well, I wanted to know it. “Max, would it be okay if I went out tomorrow for a little while? By myself, I mean.” Max narrowed his eyes and glared at me. “Whatever would make you ask that, Tori?” My heart twisted inside my chest and I looked down. “Because if Silas knows I’m married, then maybe he won’t bother me,” I replied. “And because I’m sick of being cooped up here all day with a bodyguard.” Max shook his head firmly. “No, Tori,” he said in a low voice, almost like a growl. “And don’t ask me that again.” “But, Max,” I wheedled. “Please!” Max stood up from the table, sending a ripple of fear and anticipation through my body. “I told you not to ask me again,” he growled. “Don’t ever do that.” Grabbing his plate, he walked over to the sink and dumped everything. I heard the shatter of ceramic and glass as he dropped the plate down with a heavy thud before turning on his heel and walking out of the kitchen. I could have cried. It just wasn’t fair! I didn’t know why Max was treating me like this, and worse, now he was acting like he was angry with me! Sighing, I shook my head and gazed down bitterly. This was my life now. I had to get used to it.

Chapter Sixteen Max I knew it was wrong to snap at Tori the way I did, but I couldn’t stand another second in that house with her accusations. I hated the way that she was making me feel—like I was responsible for her happiness. I hated the way that I did feel, which was actually pretty damn close. Everything was happening too fast, too soon, and I wanted to pull back. Talking about Talia with Tori wasn’t something that I’d ever wanted to do, but unfortunately it looked like I was going to have to share the news soon. I didn’t know how she’d take it; hell, I didn’t even know if Tori was going to be upset that someone else had been in my life before her. Oddly, part of me felt guilty, like it was my fault for keeping it secret for so long. Deep down, I knew that I probably should have handled it better, but the truth was, I just had no idea what to do. Maria’s revelation had thrown me like nothing else had ever done before, and I just needed to be alone and think for a while. I tried to remember the last time Talia and I had seen each other. It was harder than it should have been; somehow, her memories were starting to take on a cloudy haze in my mind, the kind of thing that made me feel like maybe she was starting to disappear. It scared me; Talia had been my first love, the only girl I played hero to. Without her, I wasn’t sure what I’d have left. I remembered one night, a little before she died. “Max,” Talia said in a teasing voice. “I want to go out tonight. Can you take me out, baby?” She batted her long eyelashes at me and winked, tossing her mane of dark hair behind her. I was stunned, as usual, by her lovely appearance. Every time I was with Talia, I found myself wondering just what she was doing with me. She was so beautiful, so exotic in a way that made my stomach hurt and my balls ache. Every time we kissed, every time we touched, I was entranced. She was my fiancée, and I still couldn’t believe that she was mine. “Yeah, baby,” I said as I leaned over and kissed her luscious, full lips. “Of course we can go out. What do you wanna do?” Talia pouted. She rolled over on her back and gazed up at me with smoldering eyes. “Max, I want you to surprise me,” she said. “Take me someplace nice.” I knew what she meant— “Take me someplace that isn’t in Marquette.” Talia was sophisticated; she didn’t like being in what she called a small town. Even though Marquette was a decently sized suburb of Boston, she never felt at home. She always complained about how she knew everyone, or how nothing surprised her. Talia’s biggest problem in life seemed to be constant boredom, and sometimes I tore my hair out with frustration on how to help her. “You got it,” I told her with a grin. Talia purred and sat up, reaching over and tangling her fingers

in my hair. We had such similar complexions. When we’d first started dating, we had to endure a lot of comments about how we were likely related, or stupid shit like that. It hadn’t bothered me, but I knew it bugged Talia. She didn’t like any jokes that made her out to be the butt. She never wanted to be laughed at. I thought it was a little ridiculous; she had such a rigid sense of humor! But at the same time, I loved her so much that I didn’t really mind catering to her every whim. In the end, I picked a fancy Italian restaurant in the heart of Boston. Talia dressed to kill, in a short black silk dress with stockings and heels that looked straight from the set of a porno. I was drooling when I first laid eyes on her. She had the knack of making me feel like the luckiest guy in the world. Dinner was amazing. We ordered every dish on the menu and fed each other. We ordered five bottles of wine until I was bleary-eyed and so bloated that I could barely stand. It was an incredible night, and I knew that when Talia got me home, she’d want me so badly that she wouldn’t be able to keep that dress on for another second. Talia had been groping my leg the entire time we’d been at the restaurant, and I knew she was dying for some of my cock. “You wanna get out of here?” I eyed Talia. She giggled and looked away, pretending to be modest. “Max, I didn’t ask you to bring me all the way out here,” she said, feigning surprise. “But this has been such a nice evening. I wish we could eat like this all the time.” “If we did this all the time, we’d both get too fat,” I said, expecting Talia to laugh. But she didn’t laugh; instead, she frowned. “I don’t know,” Talia said. “You wouldn’t mind, would you? After all, I’d be your wife. Nothing would change that.” “You’re right,” I said. “Sorry, I made a shitty joke.” When we got in the car to go home, I expected Talia to be all over me. Normally, in the car, she’d keep her hand between my thighs or rub my chest. Sometimes, she even put her legs up on the dash and rubbed her pussy, like she was getting hot just from sitting next to me. It turned me on so much, and I was desperately hoping she’d do it, or anything. Something to get me aroused. But Talia just sat there, staring out the window. “I feel weird,” she said after a while, with no provocation. “Like, I’m bored.” I frowned. “What are you talking about? We just had a great meal, and we’re going home now.” “I know,” Talia said. She turned to me and suddenly, there was light in her dark eyes, a spark of life on her foxlike face. “Let me drive,” she said. “I want to drive home!” I laughed. “Okay,” I said. I pulled over onto the shoulder of the road. Talia climbed over the seat

and wriggled into my lap. The pert cheeks of her ass rubbed my cock to life and I moaned as she squirmed around. “Move,” Talia commanded in a stern voice. “I can’t drive on your lap like this.” She wriggled around again, sending a delicious spike of arousal through my body. “Come on, Max,” she added, her tone insistent and sharp. “Listen to me.” I laughed. I never thought that I’d let myself be bossed around by a woman, but here I was. “Okay, okay,” I said, raising my hands in a show of defeat and climbing out of the car. “I’m getting out. You happy now?” Talia grinned at me, looking smugger than usual. She barely even waited for me to climb in the passenger side before gunning straight ahead and slamming her foot down on the gas pedal. The force of her driving slammed me back against the seat and I had to catch my breath. Talia laughed as she maniacally drove around a hairpin turn, not even bothering to slow down. I cringed as I could feel the wheels lifting off the ground and the car hovering in air. “Talia,” I said in a low voice. “What are you doing? You’re driving like a maniac!” Talia laughed, throwing her head back and showing white teeth. “Don’t be a loser, Max,” she said with a glittering grin. “I’m just having fun, that’s all!” I gripped the seat as Talia piloted us around another tight curve in the road. She veered into the lane of oncoming traffic and I saw the panic reflected on the faces of the other drivers. I saw the whites of their eyes grow large with fear and sweat bead on their foreheads. Reaching across the interior of the car, I grabbed Talia’s arm. “Talia, fucking listen to me!” I growled. “Do you have a fucking death wish? Are you trying to kill us?” “I’m just having fun,” Talia said. She pushed my hand away and sped off towards Marquette. “Why are you being so boring?” She turned to me and winked, a trace of the old affection on her face. “What’s wrong, loser?” “Don’t talk to me like that,” I growled. Part of me was used to letting Talia get away with everything, but I didn’t want her to think she could control me so easily. Not now, not like this. Finally, I reached over and slapped her cheek. I didn’t do it too roughly, but Talia still recoiled and looked at me in horror. “What did you do that for?” The car skidded to a stop and instantly, fumes of burning rubber filled my nose. My heart was racing in my chest and I sucked in a few deep gulps of air. Talia looked indignant. Her nostrils were flared and her eyes were glaring at me with angry black fire. “Talia, you’re going to kill us,” I said in an even, measured voice. “I want you to be safe, okay?”

Talia’s glare grew even fiercer. A trucker passed us, going in the opposite direction, and the light from his headlights flashed over Talia’s diamond. It sparkled and glistened on her left hand, and I was overcome with remorse for what I’d done. “Talia, baby, I’m sorry,” I said. But it was too late. Talia had climbed out of the car and she was walking ahead, not looking back. When I yelled her name, she didn’t even flinch. Desperate, I leapt out of the passenger side and chased after her, trying to grab her shoulders and arms. “Leave me the fuck alone,” Talia hissed when I grabbed her arm. “You don’t love me, asshole. You don’t know anything about me!” She looked as angry as a wild cat, and before I could do anything she’d raised an arm and raked her nails across my face. I could feel beads of blood welling up in the small scratches before she’d lowered her hand. “Talia, come on,” I pleaded. “I’m sorry, you know I’d never hurt you, but you were being so reckless! I didn’t know how to get you to stop.” Talia stood there like an angry, sexy dragon. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared at me. “You’ll let me drive again,” she said in a low, serious voice. “You’d better, Max, or I’m leaving. I don’t like being told what to do,” she added, raising her chin in the air. “So don’t start with me.” Then, a week later, she’d died. I remembered where I was when I got the call like it had been yesterday: I’d been in the clubhouse, hanging out with Danny and Paul. I’d been getting a little nervous because I hadn’t heard from Talia in hours, and they were ribbing me about it, calling me pussywhipped, telling me that I was acting like a real girl about the whole situation. Then I got the call saying that she’d been killed, and could I please come and identify the body? Years later, even though it was sometimes hard for me to remember what I’d loved about Talia, I still remembered how it felt. It felt like my guts were being yanked out with a sharp tool, like someone had their hand stuffed in my belly and twisted through my intestines. It was the worst pain I’d ever felt, and the worst part about it was knowing that I’d never get over it, that I’d always feel this bad. Talia. Even just her name was enough to make me feel traumatized. And now, her fingerprints had been found on a letter in Kristoff’s house. None of it made sense; Talia had known Kristoff, sure, but only in passing. To her, he was just the leader of the MC, the guy I rode behind. She never expressed an opinion about him one way or the other, only that she wanted to control me and the direction that I was going to take the club in. Part of me was dying to ask Tori if she’d ever seen Talia before, if she knew of any connection between my ex-fiancée and my deceased father-in-law. But Tori didn’t even know much about Talia, and I couldn’t risk opening that can of worms right now. It was a real quandary. I reached into my pocket and grabbed my cell, calling Paul.

“Hey, man,” I told him. “Can you meet me somewhere?” “I don’t know,” Paul said. “You got pretty hammered last night. I have plans later,” he added in a low voice. “I don’t know if I can be out running around again.” “Come on, man,” I whined. “I found something out that I want you to know.” Paul didn’t reply. He hung up the phone and instinctively, I knew I’d hooked him. I drove to the Renegade Saints clubhouse and spotted his bike out front. “Yo,” Paul said when I let myself inside. We were the only two Saints in the clubhouse that day, and it seemed too large and empty for my tastes. “What’s going on?” I sat down and thought about what I was going to say. “Paul, do you ever think about Talia?” He looked surprised. Then it occurred to me that Paul was probably thinking I’d pump him for more information on his parents. No wonder he hadn’t wanted to meet up with me again, not so soon. “Sometimes,” Paul said. He cleared his throat. “Are you having some problems?” “Worse than that,” I admitted. “You remember Maria? That foxy scientist I used to bang?” Paul furrowed his brow. “Yeah, I remember her,” he said. “I haven’t seen her around in a while. Did you run into her?” “I called her for help,” I admitted. I sighed. This whole thing was harder to explain than I thought. I didn’t know what the guys would think of when they’d discover that I’d been digging around Kristoff’s house again. The whole thing just sounded shady, and I was well aware of how criminal I looked. “Why?” “I asked her to help me analyze something,” I lied. “Something I found. I wanted to see if there were prints on it, you know, some kind of DNA shit or something.” Paul nodded. “And she can do that?” “She has friends who can,” I said, desperate to get the subject off Maria. “And she called me yesterday and said she had news for me. So I went over there this morning, and either she’s pulling one hell of a prank on me or something weird is going on.” I ran a hand through my hair and looked away. “She said she found Talia’s prints.” Paul frowned. “And just what did you bring her, exactly?” “A letter I found,” I lied. “Not really anything important. I thought it was a mistake, but Maria said she

double checked, and the prints were Talia’s.” “Huh,” Paul said. He rubbed his chin with a couple of grease-stained fingers. Paul was a mechanic, and a pretty damn good one at that. He always looked like he’d just walked in from a garage, even if he’d just gotten out of the shower. “Well, what do you think about that?” I narrowed my eyes at him. “Doesn’t it seem weird to you?” Paul nodded. “It could be a dupe,” he replied. “You know, those scientists make mistakes. They make them all the time.” He coughed. “Once, a doctor told my mom that she had strep throat. She got all the meds and everything, but she never got better. Then we got a call a week later saying he’d mixed up his results with someone else.” Paul stretched. “We shoulda sued them,” he said bitterly. I walked around behind the bar and grabbed two icy cans of beer, tossing one to Paul. I thought that his podunk doctor fucking up was a lot different than those brains that Maria knew, but I didn’t want to make any trouble. After all, I was already in too deep. I had no idea what Paul or the others would say when they found out about Kristoff’s house, but I wanted to be sure of what to tell them before it ever came up. “It’s not her,” I said darkly. “She died. She was in a car accident, remember? The accident was so bad that it ripped her limb from limb.” I shuddered. When I’d gone to the hospital to identify the body, it had been covered with a sheet. Only a tangle of her dark hair had been poking out. I’d known the body on the table was hers without even looking at it. That was the day that I knew my heart would stay broken forever. “Whatever, man,” Paul replied. “You seriously can’t think that, that’s fucked up.” “What?” I glared at him. “That she’s dead? Or that she’s coming back to life?” Paul stared at me. “I don’t know why you wanted to talk,” he said in a gruff voice. “I don’t really think I can do anything to help you right now.” I cracked open my beer and poured half of it down my throat. “Look, I know this sounds crazy,” I said. “But what if she didn’t really die? What if something happened and she…I don’t know, stayed alive, somehow?” “Like, she faked her own death?” “No,” I almost exploded. “Talia would never have done that.” My mind was running wild with paranoid thoughts and I couldn’t stop them, no matter how hard I tried. “Like, what if she got kidnapped? Or someone threatened her and she felt like she had to do that? Just to fuck with me? What if someone’s been trying to get at us the whole time?” Paul shook his head. “You’re reading way too much into this, man,” he said softly. “Why not try to relax a little? You’re fuckin’ freaking me out,” he added. “Go home to your wife. Fuck her, have a

nice dinner. Then relax, okay?” I put my face in my hands and leaned down over the bar. Everything was crashing and swimming around in my head, and I didn’t think I could take it anymore. Talia. Tori. Silas. Kristoff. I couldn’t believe this, that everything was happening at once and threatening to ruin my life. “I don’t know what to do,” I moaned. “This is just so much to deal with.” “You gotta get your shit together.” He stood up and narrowed his eyes at me. “You really gotta work on this, man,” he said in a low voice. “You can’t lead the Renegade Saints like this. And you can’t keep expecting us to cover for your shit.” I could have punched him. All of the brotherly loyalty and goodwill that I’d felt towards Paul yesterday was rapidly disappearing and soon I’d be left with nothing. “Fuck it,” I said, standing up and walking out of the clubhouse. “I’m done here.” I climbed on my bike and strapped my helmet on my head before driving off into the darkness. Night rides usually helped calm me down, but tonight was apparently the exception of the year. Talia’s face haunted me as I drove, taunted me for all of our past arguments and fights, made me feel like a shit for ever believing that she could love me. I couldn’t get past what Maria had said. If it had been anyone else—anyone!—I would have believed Paul in a heartbeat. The results had been fucked, sure. But not with Maria. Maria was whip-sharp, and her friends were all as brainy as she was. I knew that one of them couldn’t have made a mistake. Plus, not all of them had legit jobs; no one would have risked breaking into the police database just to throw me off. None of it made sense. I felt like I was reliving the same nightmare that had begun the night of Talia’s death, the night that I first knew I’d be alone forever. And no matter what I did, I couldn’t get it to stop. Talia’s face floated above me as I drove into the dark night. I closed my eyes and imagined her with a playful expression on her fine features, her dark hair wild and streaming around her hair. Talia’s dark eyes winked and spoke to me, volumes louder than her voice ever could. The ache in my chest was like a stab wound. I raised a hand over my heart and tried to listen to my pulse, just for comfort, just for anything. But no matter what I did, she haunted me. “Why didn’t you come to me, Talia?” I asked out loud. I knew it was a mistake. It had to be a mistake. There was no way Talia, my love, could still be alive. The anger and hurt within me felt as fresh as it had all those years ago, and even though I tried to close the bitter and weather valves of my heart, I couldn’t make her disappear from my mind. Over and over again, in my head, I heard Maria’s voice. Maria’s voice telling me that the prints had

been Talia’s. I saw the confused expression on her face, felt the same blind rage that had welled up inside of me. Talia wasn’t alive. She’d died that day, years ago, and nothing would ever be the same again. I knew it with absolute certainty, knew it with an absoluteness that haunted my bones. Talia was dead, and she wasn’t ever coming back. Talia was dead, and something very bad was haunting me.

Chapter Seventeen Victoria I cleaned up the mess that Max had made in the sink and then sat down in the living room with Danny, desperate to distract myself. I could tell he was curious about Kitty, but to his credit, he stayed silent the whole time. “I bet you’ve seen a lot of really interesting shit, haven’t you?” I raised my eyebrows to Danny. “Enough,” he said shortly, glancing away. “I don’t really talk about it, you know?” “I get that secrecy is part of the job,” I replied. “But don’t you get sick of keeping everything to yourself?” Danny shrugged. “The only guys I talk to are the Renegade Saints,” he said, sounding like an ad for privacy. “And they all see the same shit I do. It doesn’t matter if something looks whack, it’s probably not that big of a deal. And anyone who hangs around long enough is going to see some dark shit.” I closed my lips and thought about that. I bet I could have probably competed with some of the guys as to who had seen the most fucked up stuff, but I didn’t exactly want to start that kind of competition. After all, Silas had put me through a whole world of horror. But I didn’t exactly think that was the kind of thing that Danny and I would bond over. I was betting all of the Renegade Saints had their own little stories, but maybe Danny was right, maybe they didn’t like to talk. “I’m going to lie down.” Danny didn’t say anything as I left the room. I didn’t go into Max’s room, but rather into the bedroom I’d used a couple of times, the bedroom with the old photos. Frowning, I opened the closet and pulled out the photo albums. Even though I’d tried to disguise the fact that I’d been digging around, I knew Max would be able to tell almost instantly; there was a ton of dust everywhere and the albums had clearly been disturbed. I pulled down one book with a photo of the vintage Renegade Saints on the cover—my dad and his cronies. A tear came to my eye as I stroked the photograph, suddenly wishing that I could go back in time and erase everything bad that had ever happened between my father and me. I wished that I could have grown up with a real dad, a dad who loved me, not just the distant relationship that we’d enjoyed. Now that I was an adult, I was starting to see some things from my father’s point of view. Sure, he’d been ridiculous not allowing me to date when I was in high school. But I felt an odd sort of kinship with him when I thought about my young childhood. Before I’d hit puberty, Dad and I had almost been close. We’d talked every day when I came home from school. He’d always asked me what I’d learned, and what I’d liked best about the day I’d had. I know it sounded corny, but losing him really made me appreciate that.

Some parents, like Kitty’s, never inquired about their child. Even though I felt sorry for her now, at the time I’d been envious. I always thought it had been too awkward to talk to my dad about school, like he was just asking because that was what he thought he had to do. Now I realized that it was like when he tucked me in at night. He wasn’t doing it to irritate me, he was just doing it because he wanted me to feel like he’d cared. The thought was almost enough to make me cry again. I looked down at the photo, studying my dad’s expression. The sun was in his face and he was shielding his eyes, looking down and away from the camera. The photo had been taken at dusk, and all of the men were standing in front of their bikes, in front of a giant lake. Everyone looked dusty and sore but happy, too, like they’d all reached some kind of inner peace. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what my father had been thinking about when the photo had been taken. Had he known that someday he’d be murdered and that his friends would all suspect his future son-in-law? I shivered. Even though I wanted to believe Max, I still had some doubts when it came to what had happened when my father died. Max had only told me the briefest of details: Kristoff was working a drug deal, it went badly, he was shot in the head and left to die. I hadn’t wanted to believe the drugs, but Max said my father hadn’t ever used, just sold. Personally, I thought that was almost worse. Drugs caused so much pain and suffering, I didn’t like that my father had perpetuated that cycle. But now he was dead, and there was nothing I could do about it. The realization hit me like a ton of bricks. I wasn’t sure that in the past months I’d ever really dealt with my father’s death. The fighting with Silas had eclipsed that importance in my life, and suddenly I’d been too concerned with my own survival to worry about whether or not I’d been a good daughter. But now, all of those feelings came rushing back tenfold. I missed my dad so much that it felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I wanted Max. I wanted him to come in and hold me and tell me that everything was going to be okay. I knew that was unrealistic, and fucked up, but suddenly I was missing him so badly. “Dad, I’m sorry,” I said to the photograph. Dad’s smile didn’t waver, but I felt more separated from him than ever. I decided that even if things didn’t work out with Max, even if we got divorced, that I’d do my best and try to find out some things about what the Renegade Saints had been like when my dad was a member. Maybe I could even call up some of his old buddies who had left the MC and ask them questions about him. Kristoff had been a popular leader; I was hoping they’d be more than willing to share stories with his daughter. “Tori!” I heard a voice yell from the hallway. “Where are you?” It was Max. Blushing, I got to my knees and tried to stack all of the albums back in the hallway. Dust flew everywhere and I felt my face break out in a mass of itching. A hard sneeze came over me before I could move, and I started gagging and coughing loudly. The door burst open. Max was standing there with a pained expression on his face. “Doing some research?”

My face turned bright red. “I wanted to see some old pictures of my dad,” I said softly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make a mess.” Max opened his mouth, like he was going to reply. Then he looked away and made a funny sound. “It’s fine,” he said. “I mean, this is your house now, too.” He was carrying a few bags. “I brought food,” he said. “If you want to eat, that is.” My stomach rumbled and I nodded. I was still feeling weird—that awkward energy between us hadn’t dissipated—but I was feeling much better than I had earlier in the day. I didn’t know, maybe some of it was just because I’d managed to channel some feelings for my father, and therefore the rest of the Renegade Saints. Maybe it was because seeing Max always made me feel better, even though I was unsure of how to feel about him right at that exact second. “Yeah,” I said, brushing my hands off on my jeans. I was glad that Max hadn’t caught me snooping in his room again, with Talia’s things. I was dying to ask him who Talia was, and I decided that no matter what happened tonight, I’d ask him later. “Come on,” Max said. He slung an arm around my waist and pulled me close. His touch was unexpectedly erotic but also ticklish, and I burst out laughing. Max pulled me closer and wrapped his arms around my waist. A trickle of lust went through me and I felt myself shiver as I caught Max’s delicious, masculine scent. There was a hint of beer on his breath. “Have you been drinking?” I asked softly. We were still standing in the hallway with Max’s hands all over my body, like we were in the middle of tussling. “Only a little,” Max said darkly. Before I could respond, he pressed his lips against my mouth and kissed me passionately. As Max’s tongue slipped between my lips, I felt myself start to grow aroused and wet. Moaning softly into Max’s mouth, I wrapped my arms around his neck and pulled his body close to mine. I wasn’t wearing a bra and when my stiff nipples connected with Max’s strong torso, it felt heavenly. My breasts were swollen and tender but suddenly my level of desire was through the roof, like someone had reached out and given me a shot of miracle Viagra. “Come back to bed, Tori,” Max whispered. He nibbled on my earlobe and I felt my knees go weak. Max stroked a finger down my back and slipped it under my top, caressing my bare skin with his nails. I shivered when he made contact with the base of my spine. Max leaned in and licked my neck before pressing his teeth into my delicate skin. I cried out and shook as Max slowly teased me. My heart started to thud in my chest and I was aware of my breath coming hard. Reaching a hand under Max’s chin, I tilted his face towards mine and leaned in for a delicious kiss. He tasted like beer, but also like strong determination, like power. Max’s powerful jaw muscles clenched and I could feel his own heart pounding through his chest. I was barely aware of Max lifting me into his arms and wrapping my legs around his strong waist. As he walked towards the bedroom, we started kissing so hard that I thought our heads would merge. Desire and lust tangoed in my belly and I could feel my

face flushed and hot with the immediate urge to fuck Max. “You’re so sexy,” Max whispered. He unfastened my jeans and tugged the snap down, exposing the white triangle of my panties. Locking eyes with me, Max set me down on the bed and slowly slipped one of his hands down my pants. When I felt his strong thumb stroking my clit over and over, I let out a loud gasp and threw my head back. Max was grinning when I looked at him again. “That feels so good,” I murmured in a low voice. Max gave me a wicked grin. “Keep your legs spread,” he ordered me softly. I shivered; beneath the cuddly exterior that I’d grown to know, Max was a man of power and strength. I had no doubts that he could tie me up and spend hours making me succumb to his will. The worst part was he wouldn’t even have to. I already knew Max was better in bed than any other lover I could imagine, and the prospect of spending even one more night as his wife was more thrilling than I could say. Tugging down my jeans and tossing them to the side, I spread my legs. Max crawled on the bed so he was mere inches away from my pussy. I blushed hotly; I knew from his vantage point that he was capable of smelling my arousal. Every time I moved, the wet crotch of my panties slid against me, causing the most exquisite friction. As Max gently blew on my soaked crotch, a bolt of hot pleasure shot up my spine. “I’m going to tease you until you can’t take it anymore,” Max said softly. He reached out and gently rubbed my clit in circles with the tip of his finger. The pressure was just enough to make me feel delicious, but it made me want more and before I knew what I was doing, I was crying out and bucking my hips along with Max’s hand. Max grinned and pulled his hand away. When the sensation of his touch disappeared, I cried out in frustration. Max unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it on the floor before stepping out of his pants. I saw that he was rock hard, that his cock was straining the front of his briefs and I felt the sudden urge to push him over and suck him dry. Before I could move, Max got back down on the bed and crawled close. He reached up towards my breasts. Taking one of my nipples in his hand, Max caressed and pinched it until I was crying out in pleasure. Bolts and sparks of the most delicious feeling were shooting through me, and soon I realized I was grinding my pelvis on the bed, desperate for Max’s touch. I’m acting like such a slut, I thought. The thought made me blush even harder, but I didn’t care. So what if I was acting like a slut? I was with my husband, in our bedroom, and he was making me feel a way that I never even dreamed of feeling before we’d met. Max reached out with his other hand and began stroking and gently slapping my other breast. It didn’t hurt, rather the slight pain only intensified the pleasure from my nipples. I was acutely aware that I was so wet, I was dripping out of my panties and onto the bed. When I looked down at my crotch, I saw a wet stain spreading out. “I know, it looks good,” Max murmured, following my gaze. I blushed hard as he pulled one of his hands away from my breasts and started rubbing my crotch through the thin fabric. I shivered and

moaned, arching my back and throwing my head back. I could feel the ends of my hair tickling my bare back and I gasped. Every sensation felt raw, every sensation felt amplified. I didn’t know if it was a product of being stressed, but this was already the most intimate and exquisite sexual encounter that Max and I had ever had. Max tugged my panties to the side and slid a bare finger down my slit. I shivered at his touch, crying and begging for him to touch my clit. Max yanked his hands away immediately and left me swollen and wanting. “You beg me for anything again and I’m not touching you for the rest of the night,” Max warned. “Sometimes I like it when you beg, but tonight’s not going to be one of those nights. Tonight, you’re mine and I’ll touch whatever part of you I want to touch. Understood?” A little thrill went through me and I made eye contact with Max, nodding and silently vowing to keep my mouth shut, no matter what. After a few seconds, Max resumed lightly stroking me with a finger. He used his other hand to alternate between my breasts, pinching and stroking and rolling my nipples between his fingers until they were engorged with blood. My whole body was at attention, like every cell inside of me belonged to Max. Every hair was standing on end, every nerve ending was directed towards Max and the pleasure he was giving me. When he reached into his pocket and pulled out a knife, fear hit me square in the gut. Max looked at me as he whipped out the blade. “Do you trust me, Tori?” I nodded slowly. I did. Even if I didn’t, there was no way I’d be able to escape. Max could run faster than I could, and I doubted that Danny was still here. I held my breath as I watched Max lower the knife to my thighs. The cold metal made me jump and shiver but Max was careful not to cut me. He dragged the dull edge of the knife against my skin. With one hand, he pulled my panties away from my hips until he could look down and see my wet pussy. I shuddered as he slipped the blade of the knife inside the fabric and jerked up. I felt the material rise against my ass, then split in two and tear away. Max grinned. He slid the knife back into his pocket and pulled my shredded panties to the side, tossing them to the floor. He got down on his hands and knees and slowly crawled towards me, nuzzling the inside of my thigh with his face. The combination of the rough stubble on his chin and his hot breath was enough to set me off, and soon I was moaning and rolling my hips, desperate for him to come closer to my clit. Max pushed me down so I was lying on my back. He gently slapped the inside of my thighs, getting me to spread even wider, and stuck his tongue inside of my pussy. The feel of something warm and wet fucking me was incredible, and I moaned softly, thrusting my hips against Max’s face. His nose was bumping my clit and I felt little shocks of heaven every time we made contact. “God, yeah,” Max moaned. He slipped two fingers inside of me and began to wriggle them around as he fastened his mouth on my swollen clit and began to suck. I gasped—the pleasure was so sharp, so intense, that I felt like I was going to come instantly. Max kept up a slow, deliberate rhythm. He’d bring me close to the edge until I was squirming and sweating, then slow down and gently lick me like

a cat lapping milk. My whole body was on fire, and I knew that I was about to explode when he finally pulled away. Max wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and grinned at me. With one hand, he yanked down his briefs. With the other, he grabbed my ankles and dragged me towards the edge of the bed so my ass was almost hanging off. Before I could respond, Max put his hands on my waist and flipped me over onto my belly. My stiff nipples rubbed against the duvet, sending illicit pleasure through my body and I blushed when Max spread my legs, knowing that he was looking directly at my asshole. “Someday,” Max said in a low voice as he caressed the back of my thigh with a hand. “Someday, Tori, I’m gonna take you in the ass.” I shivered. Max stepped closer—I felt the bed vibrate and shake with his movement—and a moment later I felt his hard cock teasing the entrance to my pussy. I squirmed and moaned into the duvet, wriggling my hips and pushing back, desperate to have him inside of me. Max grabbed a generous handful of my ass. Without warning, he slid all the way inside of me, until his cock was buried to the hilt. I was so wet that it felt absolutely amazing, and I cried out. Max let out a groan. He placed his hands on my hips and began to pull me back and forth, rubbing me on the bed. The pressure on my nipples felt incredible and I cried out in a hoarse voice as Max increased the speed. I could feel his hard cock pulsing and throbbing inside of me. As Max slammed against me, spasms of pleasure rocketed through my body. I closed my eyes and let out a full-throated moan into the duvet. Max grabbed a handful of my ass and squeezed hard, thrusting hard and groaning loudly. I could feel that his muscles were tensed and stretched out, but I was unprepared for the gale of force that landed on me. Max was fucking me harder than I’d ever been fucked, almost raw enough to hurt. He slowed down and gently slipped a hand under my body, rubbing my clit in time with his thrusts. It was just what I needed, and soon I found myself holding my breath and crying out with my eyes screwed closed, grabbing fistfuls of the duvet as I came hard. Max’s own orgasm was just as rough, and followed a few seconds later. I felt his cum gush into my body and I gasped as the shockwaves of feeling subsided. My legs were shaky and weak and every inch of my skin was covered with a damp sweat. Max pulled away and flopped down on the bed next to me. “That was great,” he said with a grin. “How about some food?” After we had dinner, we came back into the bedroom and lay down. I was still feeling kind of shaky from the sex, and drowsy, and like I wanted to be closer to Max. When he flopped down on his back, I snuggled up to his chest. Max didn’t put his arm around me, but he didn’t exactly move to push me away either. I could feel that we were at a comfortable silence. Finally, I took a deep breath and worked up my courage. “Max, who is Talia?” “What?” Max’s voice was sharp and clear. He sat up, knocking me off of his chest. “What did you just

ask me?” “I found a brush and a mirror, in your room,” I said, swallowing nervously. “They were engraved with her name. Who is she?” Max didn’t answer for a moment. The silence had a crisp, full sound to it. The room was so dark that I couldn’t tell whether or not Max was looking at me, and the warning bells sounding in my chest were already making my regret asking. “She was my fiancée,” Max said slowly. “She died in a car crash years ago.” Oh my god. I couldn’t help it, I gasped. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I had no idea…I…well, I’m actually not sure what I was thinking.” Max didn’t reply. “Can you tell me more about her?” Max still didn’t say anything. Finally, I rolled onto my side, so I was facing him. “Max, please,” I begged. “Please tell me. I really want to know!” “Go to sleep, Tori,” Max said. “I’m tired, okay? I’m really fucking tired right now.” He rolled over. I felt pinpricks of anger and shame flood my body. How dare he. Just who the hell did he think he was, anyway? A thousand thoughts were storming around in my brain and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to relax. Max had a fiancée? And that was who Talia was? Suddenly, I felt angry and embarrassed that he’d never mentioned anything about her to me before. I felt like a fool for believing that Max could have loved me, or really even liked me. Tears of shame pricked my eyes and I had to reach up hastily and wipe them away. I hated myself. I felt like the world’s biggest fool, like a huge moron. I felt so dumb for believing that this could work, that it wasn’t just because Max felt sorry for me. No. It was just like he said; he married me because of the promise he’d made to my father. This wasn’t romance for Max, this was just repaying a debt, or a favor, or whatever you wanted to call it. I could feel my heart hardening in my chest, like it was icing over. Stupid Tori, I cursed myself in my head. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I scowled. Something told me that no matter how many pills I took tonight, I wouldn’t be able to sleep.

Chapter Eighteen Max The next morning, while Tori was asleep next to me, I crept out of bed and took my laptop into the kitchen. I was irritated with Tori for bringing that shit up right before she wanted to fall asleep, but I almost felt guilty after having listened to her toss and turn all night. I knew she was pissed off at me, but I couldn’t tell her about Talia now. Not with all of this shit going on, and especially not with the discovery of Talia’s fingerprints on that letter from Kristoff’s house. I knew that keeping secrets from my wife wasn’t a good thing, but basically I didn’t see another way around it. At least not for the time being. I made myself some coffee, then hunkered down in the corner seat of my big kitchen table. With shaking fingers, I typed Talia’s name into the search bar at the top of my screen. Pain flashed through my head and I had to close my eyes and look away for a moment; ever since Talia died, I’d always dreamed of finding out that she was still alive. Now that I knew for sure, it was almost like a nightmare had come true instead of a dream. If Talia was really alive, if she’d really faked her own death and disappeared… I swallowed hard. Talia would never have done that. My Talia would have always found a way back to me. We loved each other; we were engaged for crissakes! We were going to spend the rest of our lives together. I decided that if Talia was still alive, she must have been blackmailed or guilted into “dying” somehow. She never would have done this to hurt me, hell, she never would have done anything to hurt me. She was my fiancée, my love. I made myself open my eyes and look at the search results. They were just as bad as I’d feared. Horrific Accident Claims Life of Local Beauty! proclaimed one headline. Another was Local Girl Dismembered in Vicious Car Accident! I let out a sigh and raked my hand through my hair. This was going to be harder than I thought, but I wouldn’t let that get to me. I had to nut up and figure out what was really going on, or else I knew that Tori and I would be in danger. Someone was out to get me, and they were using Talia’s death as a way to fuck with me all the more. I couldn’t believe what was going on; I hated thinking about this. I’ve always been a little weird about death. I didn’t get funerals, because they weren’t for the dead. They were for the people left alive, and the ritual always seemed like a fucking strange one: oh, yeah, let’s dance around this coffin and sing hymns and then lower it into the ground while we’re all wearing black. It didn’t seem like a good way to honor someone’s life, especially Talia’s. Talia would have wanted a party for her funeral; she would have wanted everyone to get drunk and have fun. I could barely even remember her funeral; I’d been in a haze of alcohol. Danny and Paul had practically had to drag me there, and I barely remembered what the priest said or what people sang. I

didn’t even remember what I’d worn. But Talia’s headstone was something I could see in my mind as soon as I closed my eyes. We’d picked it out for her; it read Beloved Fiancée and Faithful Friend. In that first year after she died, I went to visit her and her grave all the time. I got so used to sitting in that spot in the cemetery, under the trees, and reading aloud that it felt like second nature. After a while, it even felt like Talia was sitting there with me, except the atmosphere of the cemetery was much quieter than anything that she would have really loved. It was peaceful, and it made me feel better. But then some of the guys started telling me that I needed to move on, to do something, anything—fuck a girl, go on a trip— and instead of telling them to fuck off, I stopped visiting the cemetery. I forced myself to read the first article. “Talia McCullough, 23, passed away as the result of a vicious automobile crash that happened last night. Authorities say they think she must have lost control of her car and wrapped it around a tree. She was pronounced dead on the scene, her…” I couldn’t read anymore. I knew what came next: “her body was dismembered by the violent impact of the crash.” I shuddered. I hated thinking about Talia’s broken, bloody body cut out of car like she was a piece of meat. I wondered if the cops had draped a blanket over her, if anyone had closed her eyes. The night that she died, I hadn’t found out for several hours. When they told me, her body was already at the hospital, in the morgue. I had to identify her, but I started sobbing so hard when I saw her covered up on the table that they didn’t ask me to actually look at the body. Now was I thinking that had probably been a mistake. “Damnit, Talia, why did you have to die?” I muttered under my breath as I stared at the ceiling. “This isn’t fair, baby, you know I’m not good at being alone.” “Max?” I heard Tori’s voice coming from the hallway. “Are you out here? Who are you talking to?” I sighed. “No one,” I said. “Just myself. What’s up? Can’t you sleep?” Tori slid into the seat across from me. “I’m bored, Max,” she complained. “I want to go on a walk today.” I shook my head. “No dice, sorry,” I told her. “Not unless Danny goes with you.” Tori frowned. “I don’t want him coming with me,” she said. “Don’t you think that would just draw more attention to me?” “Your ex is a twisted fuck, Tori,” I told her sternly. “You’re not leaving.”

Tori pouted. Then she seemed to change tactics, rolling her hips in the chair and making a sexy face at me. “Well, can you take me out?” “Sorry,” I said quickly, slamming my laptop shut. “I have some shit to do. I’m calling Danny; he’ll be over here in a couple of minutes.” I didn’t wait for Tori to respond as I got up from the table with my computer and headed into the bedroom to change. She didn’t follow me; I heard her footfall pacing around the kitchen and making tea. Tossing my laptop in a bag, I pulled on yesterday’s jeans and a clean button-down shirt. I took a deep breath and walked out of the house, throwing my laptop in the backseat of my car and climbing behind the wheel. It only took twenty minutes before I reached Marquette Memorial Hospital, on the outskirts of town. I swallowed hard. I’d avoided this place for almost ten years, since that fateful night where I sat in the morgue and sobbed on Danny’s shoulder. This was the place that had truly broken my heart, this was the place that had truly ruined me forever. “Hi,” a smiling secretary chirped at me. She was young, which was good, and cute, which was even better. I winked at her. “What’s a pretty girl like you doin’ inside here today, sweetheart?” She blushed and looked down. Bingo. “I don’t know,” she said with a giggle. “I’m working, I guess.” I leaned over the counter and glanced down at the antiseptic piles of paperwork and meaningless corporate kitsch. “Do you think you’d be able to help me out with something that’s real important?” She blinked. “I don’t know,” she said. There was a trace of fear and nervousness in her voice. “What is it?” “Relax,” I told her. “I promise I won’t ask anything that could get you in trouble. How long have you been working here?” The girl bit her lip and glanced at the wall. She was definitely young—younger than Tori, to be sure, maybe even twenty-one or twenty-two. She had blonde hair tied back in a long braid and big green eyes with high cheekbones. “Um, about a year,” she said softly. “Why? Is that important?” I grinned at her, my most heartbreaking smile. I saved it for instances like this, and rarely got a chance to use it anywhere else.

“It’s not that important,” I assured her. “I’m just looking for someone.” I let out a long sigh and allowed myself to look sad once again. “Someone who died a few years ago.” The girl gasped. Her nametag read Trina. “Oh my god. That’s horrible!” I nodded sagely. “I know it is, Trina,” I replied. A quick glance up told me that the girl was blushing. Excellent. “What can I do to help?” “Well, just being here with you is making me feel a little better,” I lied. “But I’m really trying to find out what happened to this girl I loved,” I added. “Her name was Talia McCullough.” The girl shook her head slowly. “I’m afraid I don’t understand,” she said in the same soft lilt. “What is it that you need?” I put my hands on the counter and looked deeply into Trina’s eyes. “Look, Trina, I’m gonna level with you,” I said softly. “I was deeply, deeply in love with Talia. She was my moon and my stars, and I loved her more than life itself.” Trina’s eyes went wide and her jaw dropped slightly open. I could practically read her mind: Wow, I wish I had a guy who loved me like that. “And I can’t find out what happened to her,” I said softly. “She was in a car accident that dismembered her,” I added. “And I think she was taken here, or rather, her remains were taken here. Is there any way you could possibly look her up in the system and let me know what you find?” Trina sighed. “I’m afraid I can’t do that,” she said. She reached over and put a small, pale hand over of mine. “Would you like me to call the chaplain for you? Father Rosen is on duty, he’s a very good listener.” I shook my head. “No, Trina, I’m afraid I can’t confess my heart to more than one person today,” I added, giving her a sad half smile. “And you’re sure there’s no way?” Without waiting for Trina to answer, I let out another sigh. “Talia was just so perfect,” I added. “So beautiful, you know she actually looked a little bit like you?” I blinked and wiped at my dry eyes. I wasn’t really going to cry today—I’d done all my crying years ago—but I knew that I had to be convincing. Trina seemed to hesitate. “Maybe I could look,” she said softly. “Give me one second.” I watched her intent face as she typed something into the keyboard, then frowned. “Sometimes our older records archive,” she said softly. “I’m not finding Talia’s name.” “McCullough,” I repeated, spelling it out for her. “And her first name is Talia, with an ‘ia.’” There was a long silence, punctuated by the clatter of keys, and finally Trina gazed up at me. “There’s no record, sir, I’m sorry.”

I clapped a hand over my face and swallowed hard. “Please,” I said again, my voice breaking with the strain of emotion. “Please look, just one more time. Please!” Trina reached out and patted my head; I wanted to slap her away but I made myself resist the urge. Panic and anxiety were building in my head and I couldn’t make sense of what was happening. Why was there no record of Talia’s body in the hospital? I’d been here! I’d fucking seen her under that sheet. “I’ve looked in the archives,” Trina said softly. She met my eyes with her own green orbs. “And I can’t find any record of a Talia, not even just by the first name and last initial. It’s not a very common name, so I think she would have come up by now…” I curled my hands into fists and shoved them in my pockets. Before, I’d been faking emotion but now I was feeling all too much like I was going to have a panic attack. I couldn’t believe this. What exactly was going on? “Please look again,” I begged. “Please, just one more time.” There was silence while Trina typed in the required letters slowly. I watched her fingers move across the keys—she spelled Talia’s name perfectly. I was all too afraid of her sympathetic gaze meeting my own once it was over. “Sir, I’m sorry,” Trina said in her same soft voice. “I didn’t find any record of a Talia.” She glanced up into my eyes. “Are you sure it was this hospital?” When I left the hospital, I kicked open the doors and stormed out to my car. People were glancing at me in confusion, like it was unusual for angry men dressed in black to storm out of a county hospital. I wanted to scream at them to fuck off, to scream at the fucking universe itself. This wasn’t just an ordinary day for me, this was a day that was threatening to pull my world apart. No record of Talia’s body, no record of Talia’s death. What the fuck did all of that mean? Sitting behind the wheel, I laid my forehead down on the smooth leather. “God damn it,” I mumbled to myself. “What the fuck am I supposed to do now?”

Chapter Nineteen Victoria Max didn’t tell me where he was going. He just took off with his laptop and sped out of the driveway. I sat at the kitchen table for a long time, listening to the sounds of his car speed off. Part of me wished that I hadn’t fought with Kitty. Now that things with Max were looking bleak again, I wanted her around, if only for comfort. But somehow, deep down, I knew that everything had changed. Nothing would go back to the way that it had been before—I could tell that Kitty and I wouldn’t ever be best friends again, at least not like we had been. But now I was feeling almost totally alone. Even with Danny hanging out at the house, I still didn’t feel that secure. What I really wanted was some time alone. It’s funny, when I used to be alone, I’d dream about going on vacation with someone I really loved. I’d close my eyes and dream of Europe—Italy was always my favorite—and think about what a Roman Holiday-esque trip would really feel like. I saw myself in big skirts with tiny cinched waists and crisp white blouses, prancing around ancient, dusty cobblestoned streets, laughing in Italian with some gorgeous man. These had been some of my most cherished daydreams, and while it wasn’t likely that I’d admit to them any time soon, they’d been replaced by something even more embarrassing: solitude. While I used to dream of roaming foreign cities with the perfect mate, now I dreamed of going to the grocery store by myself. I closed my eyes and imagined the luxury of being allowed to walk up and down each air-conditioned aisle, choosing food that I wanted and not caring if it was something that Max would eat. There would be no guard, no Danny, no Max, nothing to make me come home. No Silas either, I decided—he would be banished to a faraway planet. Just me, alone, wandering. I glanced at the window. It was a beautiful day outside—sunny, cloudless, and it seemed warm. As usual, Danny was parked in front of the television, sipping a soda. Would it really kill me if I could just go outside for a little bit? “Better not risk it,” I mumbled. Max had been really angry with me the last time I’d asked, and despite telling me not to ask again, I’d done it anyway. But suddenly, I was angry with him. It wasn’t fair that Max could keep secrets from me, his wife. Like all of that stuff about Talia! Why hadn’t he told me that before we’d decided to get married? I rolled my eyes. I was fucking sick of Max and his bullshit. I didn’t like being controlled. Silas had controlled me for years and I’d chafed under his rule every time. But now I didn’t see a reason why I still had to submit to someone else’s laws. I was a free woman, god damn it. I should be able to do what I want. “Hey, Danny,” I said innocently as I slipped into the living room. “Did Max say where he was going?”

Danny shook his head without turning away from the TV. He was watching a wrestling match. “Nope,” Danny said a few seconds later, like I hadn’t seen his head. “That’s funny,” I said. “Max told me he’d be back really soon.” I raised my eyebrows. “I wonder if something happened?” Danny shook his head again. “Nah,” he said. “If something happened, I’d find out about it before you would. Trust me.” Anger and frustration bristled under my surface and I wanted to hit him. Where did he get off being so cocky like that? Max was my husband, for fuck’s sake! I should have heard about anything relating to him first! “Well, maybe he’ll be back within the hour and then you can go home,” I said as sweetly as I could manage. “Wouldn’t that be nice?” Danny finally glanced over at me and I saw his face was filled with irritation. “What are you playing at, Tori?” I shook my head. “Nothing,” I said innocently. “It just…well, it just seems weird that you’ve had to give up so much of your time to protect me,” I said slowly. “I mean, I’m sure you have lots of other things you could be doing right now.” Danny shook his head. “Nah,” he said. “This was boss’s orders. I gotta listen to him. It’s all part of being a Renegade Saint.” I leaned down and rested my elbows on the insides of my knees. “Danny, what did you think you were going to do in life before you patched into the MC?” Danny frowned. “I dunno,” he replied. “I never really thought about it. I got kicked out of school and then almost picked up for truancy, but I ran into your dad, and he told me about the club. He said there was a spot for a good mechanic, so I joined up.” “See, you could have been a mechanic,” I said. The gears in my head were spinning fast and I tried as hard as I could to distract Danny. “I mean, you could be making a lot of money, Danny. Did you know that some mechanics make almost seventy thousand a year?” Danny blinked. “Are you fuckin’ kidding me?” “Definitely not,” I lied. I had no idea what I was talking about, but Danny wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. “I mean, I had a friend, Kitty, the girl who was over here the other day. Her father was a mechanic and he retired when he was fifty-five. Can you believe that?” I didn’t know what Kitty’s father had actually done, I think he might have been a pilot or something. But this seemed like as good of a lie as any.

Danny frowned again. “You serious?” I nodded. “Oh yeah,” I said. “So you might want to think about getting out of the club and, you know, trying to have your own life. You might like that better.” Danny shook his head. “No one would fuckin’ take me now,” he said, pointing to the tattoo of a skeleton with a halo on his arm. It was the insignia of the Renegade Saints and I knew all members had to get it inked when they patched in. “I’m property of this MC.” I rolled my eyes. “But you’d be happier if you weren’t in the MC anymore, wouldn’t you?” Danny looked at me with confusion. “Tori, are you trying to start some shit with me?” “God, no,” I said innocently, climbing off the couch. “I’m going to lie down. Enjoy your TV.” Danny grunted in response as I sauntered down the hallway and let myself into my bedroom. With a pout, I threw myself across the bed. Suddenly, my breath caught in my throat. The window in this room was over the backyard, and Danny wouldn’t be able to see me if I slipped outside. Without thinking about it, I threw open the window, grabbed my shoes and purse, and shimmied outside. My shirt got stuck on the clasp and I wound up ripping the fabric as I dropped to the ground. Outside smelled like fresh air and sunshine and I was immediately filled with an intense sensation of relief. I felt like a criminal allowed out of jail for the first time in years, like I’d managed to escape from something truly horrible. Pulling my phone out of my back pocket, I called a cab and waited by the side of the house in the shade. It was hot outside, but the hot air felt good; even the sheen of perspiration on my forehead was a welcome change. I couldn’t believe that Max and Danny had kept me inside for so long. I knew that if I’d had to stay inside for just a few more hours, I probably would have gone crazy. As the cab pulled up the street, I ran down to the road before he could pull into Max’s driveway. The cabbie gave me an alarmed look but I held my finger over my lips. “Can you take me to Baker Park?” I asked softly. “Here, I have money. I’m the one who called you.” The cabbie frowned at me in the rearview mirror. For a second, I had a horrible thought that he was in on the whole thing, that he somehow knew Max and the others in the Renegade Saints. Finally, he chuckled. “You runnin’ away?” “No,” I said, giggling a little too much. “Just want to get some fresh air.” I yawned and stretched out in the backseat, rolling the windows down. As the cab drove through Marquette, I glued my face to the window as if seeing all of the sights for the first time ever. This can’t hurt, I thought. I’ll just be gone for a little while. No one’s even gonna know. I’ll be back before Max is home. No harm, no

foul. “Here we are,” the cabbie said about ten minutes later. He’d pulled into a parking slot and he was totaling up the meter. “Baker Park.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Ever since I was a little girl, the park was one of my favorite places in the world. I loved the fresh cut grass scent, I loved the sound of children playing on the playground. Today it was surprisingly empty, and then I remembered that it was the middle of a weekday—all of the kids would be in school. “Here you go,” I said as I passed some bills up to the front. “Thanks for picking me up.” “You need a ride home?” I thought about it. “No,” I said. “I can walk. Thanks, though.” “You be safe,” the cabbie advised as he pulled away. I wanted to roll my eyes. Now that I was on my own, I felt safer than ever. I knew it sounds ridiculous, but being out in public felt much better than being confined in Max’s house. Even though Max had a great home, lately it had felt like more of a prison than anything else. After the cab drove off, I ran into the center of the park and spun around with my arms in a circle. I felt like I was in some movie or a TV show about a girl who has just broken free of her captors. Looking down at the wedding band on my finger, I felt guilty. Max offered to protect you, and you ran away, I thought uncomfortably as I twisted the ring around in a circle. You basically just threw that in his face. “But I was feeling so trapped!” I whined aloud. “And he won’t find out! What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.” I spent a few minutes walking through the grass. A few runners jogged by, one of them walking a dog that was larger than she was. I smiled; it was nice to see people again, even if they were just strangers. This was the kind of time that I’d missed more than anything. Even though I didn’t really love being alone, sometimes I absolutely craved it. There was a playground to one side of the park, and I decided that I’d go play by myself for a little bit and then start the walk back to Max’s house. Judging on the cab ride, I thought it would take me about an hour. That was just enough time for me to get home, clean up, then look normal again by the time Max returned home from…wherever he’d been hiding. Smiling to myself, I sat down on the swings and pulled a book out of my purse. It was something I’d grabbed from Max’s house—Joy in the Morning—and it looked old, like maybe it had belonged to his grandparents. With a happy sigh, I opened the cover and began to read. The story was pretty dated; it was about a college co-ed in the 1920s, but I found myself enraptured by the story. I didn’t even

notice when a slight cloud cover came over the sky. “Victoria.” The sound chilled my blood. When I looked up from the book, Silas was walking towards me. “Leave me alone,” I said in a shaky voice as I tucked the book back into my bag and walked away from the swing set. “I have to leave now.” “I bet you do,” Silas said. His lips curved in a thin smile. “Please, Victoria, I really want to talk to you.” I shook my head. “I’m married,” I said smugly, holding up my left hand so Silas could see the ring. “I’m someone else’s wife now.” Silas approached with an angry, desperate gleam in his eye. “Vicky, I need to talk to you,” he said. I cringed at the use of my most dreaded nickname. “Please, Victoria. Please take me back. Please, I need you.” I shook my head. “Silas, you abused me for too long,” I said. I was starting to shake. Whatever protection I thought I’d had against him because of the wedding band obviously wasn’t working, and I was starting to realize that Max had been absolutely right. Silas got to his knees and looked up at me through a sheaf of greasy blond hair. “Victoria, please,” he begged again. “Please come back, I promise I’ll be better. I swear!” “No,” I said softly. “It’s over. I’m married.” Silas stood up, the grin sneaking back onto his face. “I waited for you to leave the house,” he said slowly. “I was watching you, Victoria. And now I’m going to take you and make you mine, all over again.” He stepped forward and grabbed my arm before I could twist out of his grasp. Suddenly, I saw Max running towards us.

Chapter Twenty Max I had left the hospital just as I got the call from Danny. I almost hadn’t answered as I’d be home shortly. But he called again when I didn’t pick up, and then I started to realize that something had gone horribly wrong. “Hello?” “Tori’s gone,” Danny said instantly. “She came into the living room and we had this weird talk, and then she went to her room. When I went to check on her about half an hour later, the window was open and she was gone.” “Fuck!” I cursed, hanging up the phone and sliding it into my pocket. As quickly as I could, I drove home. Where could she be? I panicked as the car sped along the streets. If Tori had left, I knew it was only a matter of time before Silas found her. Why would she do that? Why? After everything we’d talked about, after she promised me that she wouldn’t try to escape! Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of red hair in the center of Baker Park. When I whipped my head around, I saw that it was Tori. She was standing in front of Silas, who was down on his knees. I couldn’t see her expression from where I was, but I could tell that the moment was heated and tense. Silas’s body language made it clear that he was up to one of his old moods, and I could see that Tori was trying to back away from him. I yanked the key out of the ignition and ran into the park, cracking my fist back and punching Silas hard in the face before he even saw me. As Silas’s body flew to the ground, Tori wrapped her arms around my waist and tried to drag me down. “Max! He’s not worth it!” she yelled loudly. “He’s not worth the trouble!” I stood over Silas’s groaning body with my hands on my hips. “The fuck he ain’t,” I sneered down at him. Silas was rolling around on the ground with his hands covering his face. Blood was pouring out of his nose and mouth and I could tell that I’d probably broken a few teeth. My hand already ached, but that wasn’t even the start of what I wanted to do to this asshole. “You leave her alone,” I hissed as I stood up and kicked Silas hard the gut. Victoria cried out as she stepped forward and grabbed my hand, attempting to drag me away. “Max, please,” Tori begged. “He’s really not worth the trouble!” I couldn’t even look at her, that was how angry I was. I couldn’t believe that my wife would disrespect me so blatantly! She didn’t have any idea what was going on, but she couldn’t have picked a worse time to decide to assert her freedom. I could have tied her up and left her in the house for hours. That probably would have been the better idea, I realized with a groan. At least that way she

wouldn’t have gotten out. And all of this, just to see Silas! That bitch wanted to sneak out and meet up with her ex, who I was trying to protect her from! I couldn’t believe it—it was like Tori had thrown all of my kindness right back in my face. “Come on,” I snarled. “We’re leaving.” Tori had to jog to keep up with me as I ran across the park. She kept looking over her shoulder, glancing at Silas, who was still bleeding on the ground. “Get in the car,” I ordered. “Now!” Tori flushed as I grabbed her by the wrist and tugged her towards my car. I could tell she was about to cry but I didn’t care, I was so angry that I just wanted to get home and be done with the whole thing. I never wanted to think about Silas again; hell, I never even wanted to hear his fucking name. This was too goddamn much. “Why did you do that?” Tori sobbed once we got in the car. “Why did you hurt him like that?” I couldn’t fucking believe her! I was so mad that I was seeing red. “Tori, tell me the fucking truth,” I hissed under my breath. “Why did you go out to meet him? Why did you do that?” I tried to keep my voice low but I was so enraged that it was impossible. Tori trembled. “What the hell? I would never ask him to meet me!” “Tell me,” I demanded harshly. “Tell me whether or not you planned to meet up with him!” “I just told you that I didn’t!” Tori roared. “I told you! I fucking told you, Max! I didn’t plan to meet up with Silas, and I’d never do that!” “Are you sure?” I stared into her wild green eyes. “Are you sure you wouldn’t do it, just to get back at me?” I felt the hard, stinging slap of Tori’s palm across my face before I even saw her lift her hand. She hit me so hard that for a moment, I saw stars flash across my field of vision. “You are such an asshole!” Tori cried. Her sobs were louder than ever. “I hate you! I wish I’d never married you!” She turned her body away from mine and slunk down far in the seat. “I hate you so much, Max. I never want to see you again!” “And I never want to see you again, messing around with that shitbag of an ex,” I growled under my breath. “You come to me for help! You tell me that you’re done with Silas, that you never want to see him again! And I fucking believed you, Tori! You lied to my fucking face!” I knew I shouldn’t be

yelling like this but I was too angry to even think about calming down. “You lied to my fucking face! You’re my goddamn wife!” I spat the last word out with as much venom as I could muster. “And you lied like a dog!” Tori looked at me with tears beading on her long lashes. “I didn’t mean to lie, Max,” she said softly. “I swear, I didn’t mean to hurt you.” “I don’t give a fuck,” I muttered. “I can’t believe you fucking snuck out like that! What’s the fucking point of even trying to take care of you if you’re just going to throw it in my face? Why do I even bother?” Tori didn’t answer, but I knew what she was thinking: You bother because you made a promise to my father. That’s why you’re taking care of me. I know you don’t love me. An odd feeling welled up in my chest, something like jealousy and anger combined. It wasn’t a sensation I was used to feeling, especially now, and it caught me off guard. I tried to take a deep breath and relax but my muscles were clenched too tightly. I looked at Tori. She looked the same as ever: sexy, foxlike face, long red hair, stunning green eyes. She was beautiful, but I wasn’t going to let some hot chick boss me around and sneak around behind my back. But something else kept me glancing at Tori for longer than I should have. I couldn’t admit to what it was because I didn’t even know. But it was like I felt some draw, some pull towards Tori that I shouldn’t ever have felt. It was dangerous, and it was the kind of thing that could ruin a man. The last time I’d felt it…ah, fuck it. No use going into that now. “Come on,” I muttered under my breath. “We’re going home. And if you try to leave again, you’ll face serious consequences.” Tori swore and scowled in the passenger seat. She hunkered down so the top of her flaming head was barely visible to other cars, and I could hear her muttering about how angry she was. Good. I was glad that she was angry; I was glad that she had been acting so defensive. My heart was pounding in my chest and I could still feel the hot, blind rage coursing through each and every vein in my body. The shock I’d just experienced was immense—not because I wasn’t expecting it, but because I wasn’t exactly expecting Tori to elicit that reaction from me. When we pulled into the driveway, Tori ran out of the car and ran sobbing into the house like a little girl. I rolled my eyes; she was going to have to grow the fuck up and stop trying to solicit my sympathy every time she did something wrong. I wasn’t that kind of man anymore, the kind of man who could be swayed by a smile or a sweet caress. No, I was a tough man, the leader of the Renegade Saints. And some people even think I’m a murderer, I thought to myself. Danny was sitting in the living room, staring at the wall. When I let myself in the house, he stood up and his face darkened with blood. “Man, I am so fucking sorry,” Danny said. He twined his hands together in front of his lean, muscular

torso. “I am so fucking sorry,” he repeated. “I should have kept a better eye on her, I should have known she was up to something when she kept talking about mechanics.” “What?” I frowned. “Who the fuck is a mechanic?” Danny sighed. “I dunno, man. She comes in here all high-minded and sits down and starts telling me how much more bank I’d be making if I wasn’t in the MC anymore, how I’d be fuckin’ rolling in dough if I set up my own mechanic business.” “What the fuck?” I glared at him. “And you fucking believed her?” “No,” Danny snapped. “I didn’t fucking believe her, boss. I just thought it was fucking weird, and I thought she was acting strangely. Then she went off to her room, which wasn’t a big deal because that’s usually where she hides when you’re gone.” He rolled his eyes and took a long pull from the bottle of beer clutched in his hand. “I don’t fucking get it, man.” I shook my head. “She’s in fucking trouble,” I snarled. “I saw her at the park with that asshole ex of hers. She says she didn’t meet him on purpose, but…” I trailed off. “I can’t believe that. She fucking lied to me. My own wife lied to me.” Danny shook his head. “Women,” he said with a sigh. “They’re all untrustworthy bitches.” My heart aches as I thought of poor, dead Talia. Talia never would have done this to me. She never would have lied. Sure, we fought but she’d never have run off and met up with her abusive exboyfriend and then slapped me when I tried to rescue her. Some of the hot anger was coming back as I remembered the way Tori had slapped me in the car, like she hated me. Well right now, I hated her too. “Talia never would have done that,” I said aloud. “She was a good girl, a good fiancée. She would have been a good wife, too.” Danny nodded. “She was a hell of a woman, boss,” he replied. “I miss having her around sometimes. Do you think about her a lot?” I bit my lip. I’d talked about this with Paul a few days ago, and part of me didn’t feel like circling back to the subject so quickly. But then I realized I couldn’t keep it in any longer, had to confess to someone how I was feeling. “I think about her every goddamn day,” I said softly. Closing my eyes, I could almost see Talia’s wild smile, her long dark hair whipping over her shoulder as she rode behind me on my bike. “I miss her so much.” “I know,” Danny said. He reached out and clapped a hand hard on my shoulder. “It’ll get easier, man, you know. With some time.”

“I don’t think it ever will,” I said sadly. “For a moment, I thought Tori and I were gonna have something real special. I know we didn’t exactly get hitched under the most ideal of circumstances, but I thought we were really gonna be important to each other.” To my surprise, my sinuses started to burn and I realized tears were welling up in my eyes. I felt like the world’s biggest pussy, but I knew that at least Danny wouldn’t judge me. “Things can still change, man,” Danny said. “This is a rough time, you know that. Once you get shit taken care of with her, maybe things’ll calm down.” “Maybe,” I said darkly. “But it’s not the same, you know? I miss Talia. I miss her scent, I miss her hair, I miss the way we’d fuckin’ scream at each other until two in the morning. She was a woman who knew how to keep up, she was someone really special.” “Tori is, too,” Danny replied. “She’s just messed up right now.” I let out a long sigh. “You can say that again,” I muttered. “Do you know she actually tried to pull me away from beating her ex to a pulp? It’s like she wanted him to survive!” Danny shook his head. “It’s hard to see your abused gettin’ beat on,” he replied. “Sometimes you feel obligated to them somehow.” I shook my head and laughed humorlessly. “Then she’s a fucking moron,” I said slowly. “She’s a fucking imbecile if she doesn’t want that motherfucker dead and rotting in the ground.” “Give her time,” Danny replied. “You don’t know, man. Maybe she’ll come around after all.” “I fuckin’ doubt it,” I sneered as I got up from the couch. “I fuckin’ doubt it.” Walking into the kitchen, I pulled a glass out of the cabinet and poured myself two fingers’ worth of whiskey. When I drained the glass, I barely even felt the burn in my throat. My heart was aching, like physically aching, and I just wanted to numb the pain.

Chapter Twenty-One Victoria I sat in my room crying for hours. I couldn’t believe the day had unfolded like that—it had been a complete disaster. If I’d have known that Max and I were going to have even a fraction of the fight we’d had in his car, I never would have snuck out. I would have decided that it wasn’t worth it. “Yeah, right,” I muttered under my breath. “I still would have gone.” I was so angry at Max that I couldn’t believe myself. I’d never been this angry, not even when Silas made me miss my father’s funeral. Max had treated me in the worst, most humiliating way that I could think of. As if I’d want to meet up with Silas! As if I’d ever have anything to say to that scumbag of a human being ever again. I shuddered as I remembered the way Silas’s face looked when he’d dropped down to his knees in front of me. It had been filled with disgust and desire, and the combination was truly horrifying. My body was shaking as I tried to clear the horrible image from my mind. I never wanted to see him again! He’d hurt me so badly, that I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to go back to him. I knew a lot of women returned to their abusers but Silas was more than my abuser, he had been the very definition of hell for me. I was so angry at Max but I wanted him to apologize first. So I waited in my room for him to come. I knew that sooner or later, he’d come and tell me that he was sorry for screaming at me, sorry for dragging me out of the park like an unruly kid. I crossed my arms over my chest and pouted at the door for what felt like hours. When I heard Max and Danny’s voices rising from the hall, my heartbeat quickened. Now, he’s coming now, I thought. He has to be coming soon. He just has to be! But hours passed with no apology. My anger slowly started to disappear and more than anything else, I felt humiliated. Part of me was still angry that Max would have suspected me of meeting up with Silas. What kind of slut did he think that I was? Did he think I was so desperate for attention that I’d escape from his house and go meet up with my abuser in a public park? Was that really what my husband thought of me? Steeling my nerves, I yanked the door open and strode down the hall. Max and Danny were watching TV together, both drinking beer and reclining on the couch, looking as comfy as you please. They didn’t hear me enter the room for a few awkward seconds I stood there, staring at the television and waiting for Max to acknowledge my presence. “Ahem,” I coughed after what felt like an hour. “Hello, I’m standing right here.” “Yeah, I see you,” Max replied. He didn’t even turn his head towards me. I stared at his elegant profile and felt my body fill with anger once more. “What do you want?” “I want to talk to you,” I whined, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. “Come on, Max.”

Max let out a long sigh and turned to me. “What?” He glanced at Danny. “We can talk here.” “Yeah, I won’t listen,” Danny said, holding his hands up in the air. “I’m totally into this show.” I balled my hands into fists and clenched them at my sides. “No,” I hissed. “I want to talk privately.” Max rolled his eyes. “You’re not capable of doing anything privately,” he sneered. “Why do you have to be such a fucking drama queen?” I blushed hard with shame and anger. “Come on, please,” I begged. “Come on, Max. Just a few minutes.” Max sighed. He stood up very slowly, taking his time to stretch and hold his arms over his head. “Well, I guess I’m off to the slaughter,” he said to Danny with a grin and a wink. Danny laughed and Max joined in until he was clutching his sides. Whatever little sorrow had built up inside of me was rapidly disappearing. “Max, come on,” I ordered. My voice was shaking with rage. “I want to talk to you now.” “Yeah, princess, I got that,” Max snapped. “Hold your fucking horses. It ain’t like you got anything else to do.” His words stung and I felt myself gasp. Danny shook his head and laughed again. “You gotta calm down,” Danny advised. “Y’all better not start fighting again.” I swallowed hard and turned to the wall, flouncing back towards my bedroom. It was a matter of seconds before Max’s heavy footsteps were following me. “What?” Max’s voice was dull and heavy. He was leaning against the doorframe of the room as I sat primly on the bed. “I’m sorry for sneaking out,” I mumbled. “But you didn’t have to treat me so badly!” Max squinted at me. It took a moment to realize that his face was still angry, that he was still incredibly mad at me. “Are you fucking kidding? Tori, you are the most manipulative little bitch I’ve ever known,” he said. “You drag me in here because you want to apologize, and then you turn it around and accuse me of doing something wrong?” I blushed scarlet red. “Well, you were an asshole to me!” I yelled hotly. “And I don’t deserve to be treated like that!” Max stared at me for a long, horrible moment. “You don’t deserve to be treated like that?”

Improbably, he smiled and shook his head. “You’re right, Tori. You don’t deserve to be treated like that. You come to me for help, begging for help, saying you think that Silas asshole is going to kill you. You remember that?” He looked at me with his eyes wide. “You remember how you came crawling to me for help?” I nodded. “But, it’s not—” “Shut up, Tori,” Max said. “I’m not fucking finished with you yet. So, let’s get back to the story, shall we? So, you come to me for help. I repeat, you tell me that you think Silas is going to kill you. You said those exact fucking words to me,” Max snarled. “And don’t you forget it. You said, ‘Silas is going to kill me.’ Remember that?” I nodded. “I did, but that’s—” “Shut up,” Max snarled. His voice was low and deadly serious. For the first time, a trickle of fear wormed its way down my spine and I realized just how angry Max actually was. “Shut up,” he repeated, even though I hadn’t attempted to say anything else. “So, you tell me that you think he’s going to try to kill you. And I, out of the goodness of my fucking heart, offer to marry you and help protect you.” He shook his head in disgust. “I helped you, Tori,” he snarled. “I fucking helped you. And this is how you repay me!” “Max, I—” “I’m not fucking finished talking yet,” Max snarled again. “You sneak out of my fucking house, after I have one of my own men guarding you. Danny could have been killed! What if Silas snuck in here after you left and shot him? You ever fucking think about that, bitch?” “No,” I stammered. Tears rolled down my cheeks and I raised my hand to cover my eyes. My heart was slamming against my ribs and suddenly I was more afraid than ever of losing Max. “Max, I’m really sorry, I really am. I shouldn’t have snuck out! I know that now!” Max sighed. “And, Tori, let me fucking remind you that this isn’t the first time we’ve had this talk. You asked me twice—twice!—if you could leave without a bodyguard. And what did I tell you both times?” “I don’t remember exactly.” “The fuck you don’t,” Max snarled. “The fuck you don’t remember, Tori. You remember exactly what I fucking said to you, don’t you?” I took a deep breath. I was so upset that I was starting to feel nauseous and I was worried that I’d throw up. “You told me no,” I said, my voice shaking with fear. “You told me not to go, that I wasn’t allowed to go.” “Bingo,” Max said, nodding. “Do you remember what else I told you?”

I blinked. “No,” I said softly. “What?” Max leaned down in my face, so close that I could see the small pores on his nose. “I told you never to ask again, Tori,” he replied. “Don’t you fucking remember that?” Shit. I did remember, I’d just forgotten until now. “Um,” I said softly. “I don’t remember. I’m sorry.” Max slapped his hands down on his thighs and turned around, facing the wall. “You get your shit together,” he said under his breath. “I don’t want to deal with you anymore right now.” “Max, wait!” I yelped, reaching out for his hand as he walked out of the room. But Max was quicker and he pulled his arms close before I could touch him. He turned around and gave me one last venomous glance before slamming the door shut behind him. I heard his heavy boots clunking on the floor and eventually, Danny’s laughter that carried all the way from the living room. I hated him. I hated Max Adams so passionately at that moment that I could have run away again and stayed away forever. For a moment, I had the smallest desire to call the police station and say I was being held against my will. Then I remembered the gold band on my finger—I wasn’t a captive, I was a wife. The cops would laugh at me. I could just now see their sneers in my mind as I explained that yes, Max and I had slept together, more than once, but I wanted to leave. I shuddered as I imagined the cops promising to help me and then calling Max behind my back. “Uh, sir, we have your wife here…” My phone buzzed in my pocket. Shit, Silas, I thought. But when I pulled it out, I realized that I didn’t recognize the number. I didn’t even recognize the area code. “Hello?” There was the slight sound of female laughter. “Hi, is this Victoria?” “Tori,” I corrected automatically, assuming it was a bill collector or someone who didn’t have any reason to be calling me. “What do you want?” The laughter sounded again, small and slightly cold, like snow. “Well, Tori, I have some news for you,” the unknown female said. “And I want to meet you in the Grand Best Hotel downtown,” she added. “Room 714. I have some information you may be interested in hearing about.” I blinked. “Like what?” “Are you this stupid all the time?” The sound of high laughter reached my ears and I cringed. “No,” I said softly, beginning to feel offended. “I’m not stupid, I’m just confused.”

“Right, well, I want to help you clear some of that confusion up,” the voice replied softly. “I want to tell you some information about your father’s death. You up for that?” I almost dropped the phone. “What?” “You heard me,” the voice said, not so softly this time. “I have information about what happened to Kristoff, and who was responsible for it.” I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, and right now I could read everything you’re telling me in the paper,” I said. “Did you know he was warned against the drug deal?” My jaw dropped. “Um…” “Yeah, that’s what I said,” the female voice said smugly. “So meet me tomorrow morning, downtown. Grand Best Hotel. Don’t forget.” “Room 714,” I replied, feeling dazed. “Bingo,” the voice said. Then there was a small laugh, and she hung up. I felt dazed as I slipped the phone into my pocket. Grand Best Hotel, room 714, I repeated to myself over and over. It became a mantra. Despite my anger and feelings towards Max, part of me felt elated. Finally, after all this time, I was going to discover who was responsible for my father’s death. Finally, I was going to learn who had killed him. I felt a shiver of fear when I realized that sneaking out again meant risking Max’s wrath. But I knew what I had to do, and that meant finding out the truth about my father.

Chapter Twenty-Two Max When I left Tori’s room, I was so angry that I could have spit. I knew that I had to get over it, that I had to just act like it wasn’t a big deal. I’d always thought Tori was kind of a pushover but after our incredibly bitter argument, I was starting to realize what a spitfire she actually was. Part of me was proud of her—in a way, I liked that she was standing up to me. The other part of me wanted to slap some sense into her, but I figured that after a while she’d calm down and things would be fine. After all, I didn’t want to stay angry with my wife. But she was acting like an ignorant bitch, and I wasn’t going to reward her bad behavior. “Women,” Danny mumbled as I sat back down on the couch with a stony face. “Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.” “More like can’t live with ’em.” I smirked, reaching forward and grabbing an ice-cold beer. The feel of the chill bottle in my hand was soothing, like an old friend that I’d missed desperately. “What happened?” I shot Danny a dirty look. “I ain’t getting into that shit right now,” I said. “I’ve got some errands to take care of.” Danny nodded. “I’ll keep an ear on her door,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about her trying to sneak off again.” Just thinking about Tori sneaking out of the house again made my blood pressure skyrocket. “You’d better not let her go,” I warned with a snarl. “Or you’re gonna find out about what it takes to be a mechanic outside of the MC real quick.” Danny held up his hands in the air. “Hey, trust me, she ain’t going anywhere,” I clapped him on the back. “Good man.” Heading to my bedroom, I pulled on my leather jacket and a fresh pair of jeans. I had business to take care of it, and damned if I was going to do it looking like a slob. The shirt I was wearing had a streak of blood on the front from Silas and I was covered in grass stains and dirt from where I’d wrestled him down on the ground. Remembering the fight made the whole incident seem fresh again, like it had only happened a few seconds ago. As I walked down the hallway, I thought about knocking on Tori’s door and telling her that I was leaving. No, better not do that, I thought to myself. Better not get her riled up again. To my surprise, she was being very quiet—I’d half expected to hear her sobs filtering out into the hallway. But she was silent.

The drive to Maria’s house took almost no time at all. I was nervous—half because I didn’t want to find out the truth about Talia, and half because I actually did. If Talia was still alive, that would change everything. My whole life would be different. I was dying to ask her why she’d faked her own death, what had happened to make her do that? I would have made you happy forever, I thought, Talia’s face floating in my mind. If only you would have allowed me to do that, I would have always loved you. None of this fighting shit, none of this awful arguing. “Hey, Max,” Maria said when I pulled into her driveway. “What can I do for you?” I shook my head. “Hey,” I greeted her, leaning in for a hug and kiss on the cheek. Maria smelled good, like yeast and honey, almost like she’d been baking bread. I took a deep breath as she showed me into her slightly messy kitchen. “What can I do you for?” Maria winked at me and I felt my body flood with familiarity and comfort. The longer I was away from Tori, the more my anger started to fade. “I need you to help me find Talia’s death certificate,” I said slowly. “I did some recon work the other day, went to the hospital where her body was taken. And you know, they didn’t have any record of her body?” Maria shook her head. “I can’t say I’m surprised,” she said softly. “Yeah, give me a few minutes. I’ll look.” I watched as she bustled around the kitchen, pulling out her laptop and clicking away frantically on the keyboard. Watching Maria work was like nothing else I’d ever seen. To an outsider, she could have been doing writing a letter, updating a blog, anything that wasn’t of real importance, but I knew how sharp her mind was, how laser-like, how precise. She could have been hacking into a world bank or transferring hundreds of thousands of dollars into my account with the blink of an eye. Maria was a true master, someone who was really useful. I made a mental note to make sure that we stayed close. “So it says here that Talia’s certificate was signed by a Dr. Lance Young,” Maria said softly. She turned her laptop towards me and pointed at the screen. “You see? He’s an older doctor,” she added, pulling up a browser and showing me a photo of a classy-looking private practice just outside of Marquette. Maria gave me an odd look and I couldn’t tell if it was a smile or a frown. “And it looks like he recently came back from the brink of financial ruin,” she added softly. “It looks like he declared bankruptcy but then had it reversed, and then bought this swanky new office.” My mouth went dry. “Oh my god,” I said. “So you think he forged it?” Maria let out a long sigh. “Max, I know this is painful for you—” “What do you think?” I commanded in a low voice. “Tell me, Maria. I need to know that I’m not

crazy. I need to know that I’m not alone here.” “You’re not crazy,” Maria said slowly. “But I don’t think you should jump to any conclusions, Max.” I rolled my eyes. “That time passed a long time ago,” I muttered. “Give me his address.” Maria blinked. “Who’s?” “Dr. Young’s,” I said through gritted teeth. “I need to pay him a little visit.” Maria looked at me with soft eyes and a sad smile on her face. “Max, you need to know that this isn’t going to change anything. I didn’t know Talia, and I can’t speak to why she did all of this, but you have to know that something is very wrong here.” She reached out and touched my hand. Her touch didn’t inspire any lust or desire in me, but there was something comforting about the feel of her skin. “You have to know that Talia didn’t do this just to get you to chase her,” Maria said. “Something else, something bad must have happened.” “I know,” I replied. “I know something bad must have happened, and I’m fuckin’ sick with worry over it. What if Talia was blackmailed into faking her own death? What if she was in danger?” My mind went spinning to all those bad places, all those foreign places where I’d lurked in the immediate days after her death. “What if someone was threatening her? What if someone hurt her?” Maria let out a soft sigh. “Max, please don’t be angry with me,” she said slowly. “But I think it’s possible that Talia knew more than she let on. I think it’s possible that she orchestrated everything, you know? I mean, what reason would anyone have had to blackmail her?” I shrugged. “That’s the hard part,” I admitted. “I don’t actually know that.” Maria nodded. “You’re the head of a really powerful MC,” she added. “But that doesn’t mean that Talia would be able to get any leverage out of your position.” Her comment left my head spinning. I was starting to feel like this whole situation was a prank, a joke meant to confuse me and ruin my life. “I don’t get it,” I said again, raking a hand through my dark hair. “Talia loved me. She agreed to marry me. And then this? Why? Someone must have put her up to it.” Maria shrugged. “People change, Max,” she said softly. “People change for no reason, and sometimes they give you no warning. Talia could have had her eye on anything, and maybe she saw this as a chance to get out.” I felt like my heart was breaking all over again. “But she didn’t have anything to get away from,” I protested hotly. “I loved her! She was happy with me!” Maria pursed her full lips. “I know,” she said sadly. “That’s why I’m hoping you’ll get the answers you deserve.”

She got up and printed a copy of Talia’s death certificate for me—I could barely look at it without feeling like I was going to cry all over again—and then made us some tea spiked with whiskey. I closed my eyes and knocked the whole mug back in one gulp. The alcohol felt good, soothing, almost like an old friend coming back to greet me. “Good luck,” Maria said. She leaned in for a tight hug and I took a deep breath of her delicious, yeasty smell. “I know everything will work out in the end.” She gazed up at me and for a moment, I could see a flicker of something in her eyes. Attraction? Love? Desire? Whatever it was, I couldn’t tell. But I knew that Maria would always be a faithful, helping friend. “Thank you,” I said into her hair, holding her tightly. “I needed that. Thank you so much.” Maria kissed me on the cheek. “You be safe,” she said softly. “I know everything’s going to be okay.” I went home that night and got blackout drunk, passing out alone in my bedroom. Tori didn’t try to come in and I didn’t try to go see her. Danny stayed in the living room all night, keeping watch like a faithful friend. In the morning, I got ready and left to go see Dr. Young. His office was even bigger than it had looked in the photos, just outside of Marquette. It was in a brick building that had been painted white with a glass and metal awning—kind of futuristic but also classic. In the lobby, everything was white—the furniture, the walls, the carpet, even the secretary was wearing a white dress. “Hi,” she chirped, a girl no older than Trina, the hospital clerk. “Do you have an appointment?” “Here’s the thing, Amelia,” I said, leaning down to look at the nameplate on her desk. “I don’t have one, but it’s very important that I see Dr. Young right now. How do you feel about that?” I winked at her, trying to work my charm. I could feel Talia’s death certificate in my pocket, burning a brand on my skin. “Um,” Amelia said. “I don’t exactly know.” She pressed a button on the intercom. “Hello, Dr. Young?” A deep, sonorous voice came back at us. “I’m with a patient right now, Amelia,” he said in a tiredsounding voice. “I don’t have time for any walk-ins today.” Amelia looked at me with an apologetic smile. “Stay right there,” she told me, pointing to a couch in the waiting room. “I’ll go check on him. He gets a little cranky in the afternoons.” I rolled my eyes; it sounded like she was talking about a baby instead of a full grown man. But I sat my ass down and flipped through a magazine. My whole body was tense and I wasn’t even looking down at the pages. My leg kept shaking and I realized I was making the whole couch lift off the ground with my tension. “Sir?” Amelia’s voice called. “Um, what was your name again? I don’t exactly remember it…”

“That’s because I didn’t tell you,” I said, standing up off the couch and walking back into the hallway. Amelia was standing in the doorway of an office with the door open. “Is this Dr. Young?” Amelia swallowed hard. “Yes,” she said softly. I placed my hands on her shoulders and gently moved her out of the way. “This won’t take long,” I said. “I promise.” I winked at her—she was flushed and stammering—before slamming the door shut and taking my first look at the man who had helped my fiancée fake her death. Dr. Young was an older man, with a bald head and a crisp white coat. He looked panicked, but I could tell he was trying not to show me that. His desk was covered with bonsai plants and soothing sand gardens, but his face was splotchy and red with unease. “What can I do for you, young man?” I licked my lips and pulled Talia’s death certificate out of my pocket. “We need to talk about this,” I said as I smoothed it over his desk. “You faked this woman’s death. Why?” Dr. Young shook his head. “I’d never do that,” he said, backing away from me and gazing up with fearful eyes. “What do you want? Why are you here?” “I’m here to find out what happened,” I said in a deadly soft voice, advancing on the old man. I had a good two feet on him and I could tell that it wouldn’t be much of a fight; even though he wasn’t feeble, he was definitely too elderly to put up too much trouble. “She died,” Dr. Young said. “That’s all there is to it.” He almost looked relieved and proud of himself. I flopped down into the white wicker chair in front of his desk. “No, she didn’t,” I said in the same low tone. “She didn’t die. I went to the hospital where her body was supposedly taken and they had no record of Talia McCullough.” The old man licked his lips. “I don’t know,” he said. He shrugged. “Mistakes happen, maybe it was a different hospital. You know papers get those details incorrect all the time,” he added. “I don’t think that’s it,” I said softly. “I don’t think the paper fucked up at all. I think you were bribed.” “I wasn’t,” the old man argued. “I wasn’t bribed. That young lady was the victim of a stabbing.” “Ha!” I crowed. “She wasn’t. She was in a fucking car accident, asshole. That’s how she died. Or rather, that’s how she faked her death. I know she’s still alive. I know she is. Now tell me the fucking truth,” I added in a dark tone as I pulled a gun out of my pocket and cocked the trigger, pointing it at Dr. Young’s head. “Tell me or I’ll fucking kill you right now.”

“Alright, alright,” Dr. Young said in a shaky voice. He eased himself back down into his desk chair and looked up at me. “Alright. That young woman, you’re right, she didn’t die. At least not then. There was a woman who paid me…a lot of money, you see, to forge this.” I blinked. “You’re sure it was a woman?” Dr. Young nodded. “Positive,” he said in a shaky voice. “She was alone.” “That’s not possible,” I scoffed. “I think you’re lying!” I shoved the barrel of the gun against Dr. Young’s temple. “I think you’re full of shit, old man.” “I’m not lying,” Dr. Young said. He was sweating and shaking in his chair. “I swear it! She was alone.” I let the gun drop. My phone was buzzing in my pocket. “Excuse me for a moment,” I said nastily as I reached for it and answered. “Hello?” “Hello, is this Max?” Talia’s voice sounded just like it always had—clear and scratchy, but full of bells all the same. I almost dropped the phone. There were so many things I wanted to ask her, so many things I wanted to say. “Hello, Max, we have Victoria,” Talia said before I could say anything else. “She’s at the Grand Best Hotel. Room 714.” And then she hung up before I could reply.

Chapter Twenty-Three Victoria – Three Hours Earlier I didn’t leave my room for almost the whole night. Max and Danny stayed in the living room, drinking and carousing for hours. When I heard the front door slam, I had to assume that Max had left again and that he wouldn’t be coming back for quite some time. But I was still too nervous to leave my room. What if Danny wouldn’t let me back inside? What if I wouldn’t be able to shake him again? I shuddered. I didn’t know exactly who wanted me at that hotel downtown, but I knew that I had to go. Max be damned, if someone knew something about my father’s death, I wanted to know. I hadn’t been to downtown Marquette in a long time, not since the day that Max and I were married in the courthouse. Even though it was less than two weeks ago, part of me couldn’t believe that it had happened at all—it was like a little slice from someone else’s life. That morning, I dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt with a leather jacket that I’d borrowed from Max. I didn’t know who I was meeting with, or how they’d treat me, but I wanted to look tough. I put on some makeup and actually did my hair. When I was done, the girl staring back at me from the mirror didn’t even look like the Tori I knew. Sneaking out again wasn’t hard. I even did it the same way. Part of me was afraid that Max would have installed a lock on the window, but he hadn’t gotten around to it yet. This time, I called for a cab before I dropped to the ground. I didn’t know how fast Danny could run but I didn’t want to find out, and I had a feeling he was watching the windows more vigilantly than ever before. It was the same cabbie I’d had the day before. I shuddered—a feeling stronger than déjà vu came over me. “Where to, miss? Baker Park again?” I shook my head. “No, thank you,” I said softly. “The Grand Best Hotel, it’s downtown on Royal street.” The cabbie nodded and whistled. “Nice place,” he said with a smirk. “You meetin’ a date?” I felt a shiver of revulsion come over me and I held up my left hand. “Sorry,” I murmured. “I’m married.” The cabbie frowned at me in the rearview mirror. “What kind of married lady leaps out the window to go to a hotel?” “You don’t know anything about me,” I said smoothly. “You have no right to ask those questions.” The cabbie took the hint and shut up. I was glad; I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about my father since I’d gotten the phone call the night before. I wondered who had called me; the voice sounded

like it should have been familiar, but I hadn’t recognized it at all. It was both deep, amused, scratchy, and a bit melodic, like some famous singer from the ’90s. “I wonder what she knows about my father,” I wondered aloud as the cabbie pulled up in front of the hotel. Glancing around nervously, I saw that he’d been right: it was a nice place. Columns and palm trees filled the carport, and a bellboy in a red jacket came forward and opened the back door. I glanced down at my outfit, suddenly feeling self-conscious. I’d felt great when I’d left the house, but suddenly I was feeling way underdressed. I felt like I was really standing out as I walked calmly into the lobby. “Ma’am, can I help you?” Another bellboy grinned at me and I blushed. There was something about being called ma’am that never sat well with me, even though I knew it was always meant in respect. “Not really,” I said with a nervous smile. “I’m meeting a friend of mine in one of the rooms.” “Right,” the bellboy said. He glanced around and I wondered if I was posing some kind of security risk. A horrible thought struck me: what if this woman didn’t know anything about my father? What if Silas had somehow recruited her and paid her to get me to the hotel? What was he going to do to me? “Actually,” I said softly. “There is one thing you can do. Would you mind escorting me up to the room?” The bellboy looked relieved; I wondered if he had been about to call for security when I’d suggested that he accompany me. He led me through a twisting maze of lobby, through marble statues and giant fountains until we stood in front of a bank of elevators, all done in red and gold. It was the swankiestlooking place I’d ever been in my life. For a moment, I thought about surprising Max with a night there, until I remembered that I was currently angry with him. “Which room is it?” I was relieved he hadn’t called me ma’am again. “It’s room 714,” I said softly. “Would you mind taking me upstairs?” The bellboy shifted a lever to one side and the elevator jumped up, making me cry out with surprise. It was an old elevator with a metal grate to the front and I felt my stomach doing nervous twists and flops as we rose higher and higher. “The ceilings here are so high that each floor really feels like two,” the bellboy explained. “Some people say it’s part of the charm of the hotel.” I nodded nervously. “We seem so high up in the air,” I said softly. The bellboy nodded. “The Grand Best is known for that,” he said mechanically, as if he were reading from a guidebook.

The elevator screeched to a stop and I saw that we’d arrived on the seventh floor. I followed the bellboy out into the hallway and down a winding, narrow corridor. Eventually, we stood in front of room 714. “Here we are,” said the bellboy in a nasally voice. “Want me to knock?” I nodded. He knocked on the door and it was opened by a very gorgeous woman with dark hair. She was shorter than me with bright eyes and sparkling skin. She looked radiant, like she’d just won the lottery or discovered something amazing. “Hello, Victoria,” she said. I recognized the voice from the phone. The bellboy glanced at me. “Is this your friend?” “Of course I am,” the woman answered. She reached forward and grabbed my arm with surprising strength. When her fingers wrapped around my wrist, I had a flash of panic. Then I scanned the room: no Silas. I let out a sigh of relief. “Thanks,” I said to the bellboy. “I’m good now.” He left and the woman closed the door with a soft click. “So, you don’t recognize me?” “I don’t,” I said. The woman smiled at me and I felt another shock of fright. “Should I?” The woman licked her sensual, full lips. “You should,” she said softly. “Unless Max doesn’t talk about me anymore.” Oh my god. It’s Talia. Max’s dead ex-fiancée. “I think there’s been a mistake,” I said, backing towards the door. Blood was pounding in my veins and I felt more frightened than ever before. I desperately wanted to leave, but Talia sensed that and she moved quickly towards the door, barring my exit. “There hasn’t been a mistake,” Talia said softly. She glanced at me in a way that sent shivers of fear down my spine. “And you won’t be leaving.” “You know, I didn’t tell Max where I was going,” I said in a rush. “And I think I ought to leave, you know, just to tell him where I am.” Talia shook her gorgeous head. She was incredibly beautiful, like a model come to life off the pages. I felt ugly, small, like something rejected onto the floor. Still, Talia’s beauty was frightening, almost supernatural. I shuddered as she stepped in front of me once again. “You’re not leaving,” Talia said softly. She looked me up and down and twisted her full lips into a cruel smile. “Max has an interesting sense of humor,” she said softly, glancing at my chest. I felt a hot,

irate blush break out over my cheeks. “I didn’t even think he’d be with someone like you.” Before I could ask her what that even meant, a strange man came out of the bathroom. He was incredibly muscular, even bigger than Max, with biceps bigger than his head. He was bald and grinning nastily at me as he stepped towards me with alarming speed. I couldn’t even move before he’d grabbed my wrists and tied them behind my back, yanking me painfully away from the door. “Hey,” I cried out. “That hurts!” “Good,” Talia said with a menacing smile. “I hope it hurts. I hope it hurts a lot, you bitch.” “What the hell?” I asked, staring straight at her. The big man shoved me back on the bed and grabbed my ankles. From his pocket he produced a length of plastic ties and began trussing me up like a hog. “Why are you doing this?” Talia smiled again. She walked closer and stroked a long, black-painted nail down the side of my face. “For revenge,” she said softly. I frowned. “What the hell, Talia? I didn’t do anything to you! Max didn’t even marry me because he loved me, Max married me because—” “I don’t care about what Max did,” Talia said in an even tone. She raked a hand through her long hair and flashed me a gleaming, evil smile. “I don’t care what he did, or who he did it with. That’s not why you’re here.” “I don’t understand,” I said softly, wincing as the man tied my hands behind my back and shoved me hard on the bed. “I don’t understand what I have to do with this.” Talia cocked her beautiful head to one side. “It’s not really a question of you,” she said slowly. “More like a question of your father.” She pouted at me. “You know, I had to get revenge.” “Revenge for what?” I squinted at her. Already, I could feel the plastic cutting off my circulation and my hands going painfully numb. “Revenge for what, Talia?” Talia laughed again. The sound was beginning to grate on my nerves. For the first time, I realized that she was crazy, like actually crazy. Not the kind of crazy that Max said I was, but really, legitimately crazy. “Revenge for everything your father did to my family,” she said softly. “Revenge for everything Kristoff did, everything the Renegade Saints did…” Her voice trailed off and she met my gaze. Her eyes were like dark liquid pools, and I felt hypnotized. “Revenge for that,” she added. “You understand now?” I shook my head. “No,” I said. In truth, I was feeling more confused than ever before. “What are you talking about?”

Talia shrugged. “Your father, used my mother as a pawn and left her for dead,” she said softly. “I used Max to get close to the group. I never loved him. That’s why I don’t care that he married some piece of trash.” A horrible feeling was sinking over me, going into my bones, making me feel like I was melting in a pool of agony. “Talia,” I said nervously. “Did you kill my father?” Talia just smiled.

Chapter Twenty-Four Max After I got off the phone with Talia, my mind and my heart were racing. I knew that I had to get to the hotel as soon as possible, but first I’d have to arm up. I drove straight from Dr. Young’s office to the Renegade Saints clubhouse. It was busy for a weekday—I saw Paul’s truck in the parking lot and about seven bikes. “Shit,” I muttered under my breath. My original plan of grabbing a lot of guns and ammo wasn’t going to be easily managed if I had to sneak it by the guys. They’d all want to know why. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to tell them, but I wanted to figure shit out on my own first. After all, I was the president. It was my job to protect my guys, not put them in danger at the slightest whiff of trouble. Except this ain’t a slight whiff, I thought to myself. This is a hell of a lot more than that, and you’re fucking well aware of that. I shuddered. I couldn’t believe everything that was happening, but I had to stop feeling so fucking bewildered and start getting down to business. If I didn’t nut up and save Tori, I couldn’t even begin to think of what would happen. And I was dying to speak to Talia, too, to ask why she’d gone away and faked her death. I loved you, Tals. I loved you so fucking much. “Hey, man,” Paul greeted me as I slipped inside the clubhouse. “You want a drink?” I shook my head. “No time for that,” I said. “I gotta hurry. Bad shit going down.” Paul stepped closer and I saw the concern in his eyes. “Did something happen with that abusive asshole, Silas?” I shook my head, then remembered the previous day. “Well, yeah,” I said after a moment. “But that ain’t why I’m here.” Paul nodded. “Talia?” “Bingo,” I said darkly, pushing past him and letting myself out back. The Renegade Saints had a warehouse stocked with guns and ammo and all kinds of things for situations like this; it was better than going to a black market gun sale. I let my gaze wander all over our wares before finally selecting a sniper rifle and an AK-47. Even though I preferred handguns for this type of close-in work, but I knew that the sight of an AK was one of the more intimidating sights on this planet. Even Talia, fearless Talia, would have to back down when she saw her ex-fiancé toting a giant gun. “Anything I can help with?” Paul slipped up behind me and stared. “What the hell is going on, anyway?” “I’ll tell you later,” I said grimly. “People coming back from the dead isn’t a thing that happens every

day.” Paul threw his head back and laughed. “Ain’t that the truth,” he muttered. “Oh, yeah, some guy called for you a while back. Wanted to know if you’d be around today.” I frowned. “Who? I didn’t get a call from anyone,” I said in accusing tone. Whenever calls for me reached the clubhouse, the guys were supposed to contact me immediately. Paul shook his head. “It ain’t worth your time, I could tell the guy didn’t know anything about you,” he said. “It was a fucking scammer, or someone who just wanted weird info about you,” he added. I frowned. “Still, though,” I said. “With all of this shit going on, I would’ve liked to know.” “Sorry, boss,” Paul replied. He helped me carry a few boxes of ammo out of the warehouse and load up the back of my car. “Oh shit,” he muttered. “Here comes trouble.” I whirled around to see that blond pussy, Silas, walking towards me with a weird look on his face. My hands balled into fists and I was just swinging my arm back to hit him when he held his hands up in the air. “Wait,” Silas said. “I’m not here to fight you, man.” I stepped closer and swung my arm back, holding it inches away from his face. “I don’t give a shit what you’re here to do, pussy,” I said in a menacing growl. Silas shook his head and stepped away. “I’m here about Victoria,” he said quickly. “I want to help you, I know where she is and why Talia has her.” I blinked and slowly lowered my arm to my side. “What?” “I want to help you,” Silas insisted. “I know I’ve been a shitty person but I want to help. I don’t want anything bad to happen to her,” he said in a scared, nervous voice. “And now I’m fucking freaked out.” I shook my head. “You’re fucking disgusting, you know that? You spend years abusing this chick and now you want to save her life? Why, so you can just go and keep doing the same thing?” Silas shook his head. “I know that’s what it looks like,” he said hurriedly. “But I know that Talia took her, and Talia’s responsible for Kristoff’s death.” “I already know that, asshole,” I said. “She called me not twenty minutes ago.” I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. Time was ticking, and my wife was in trouble. I had to go help her, I had to save her—it was a visceral need in my bones, my blood, that I’d never felt before. “I gave Talia information about Victoria,” Silas said. “I know her hotel room is a direct shot from the

hotel next door,” he added. He glanced down at the sniper rifle that I was still clutching in my hand. “And you can use that to shoot.” I shook my head. I couldn’t believe that I was accepting help from Silas, of all the people I wanted to see dead and buried. He was a disgusting weasel; he wasn’t even a real man. He couldn’t even bring himself to defend Victoria himself. I wondered how long he’d been sitting on the information about the hotel room. “I’m telling you the truth,” Silas said as if reading my mind. “I know you want me dead, and I understand why, but just let me help you with this first, okay?” I sagged my shoulders. My life was crumbling around my feet, and I didn’t know who I could trust anymore. Talia, my ex-fiancée, my love, wasn’t really dead. She’d faked her own death and lied to me for years. Tori, my wife, was keeping secrets from me. And now Silas, this ratfuck of a human being, was trying to act like he was a decent guy, like he was my friend. “You should listen to him,” Paul said in a low voice. He stepped closer. “I wouldn’t normally tell you this, but I think he’s telling the truth,” he added. “And you have to do something, Max.” I nodded. “I know,” I said. “You know it was Talia who killed Kristoff, right?” Paul looked into my eyes. “I always knew that,” he said. “I mean, I didn’t know it was her specifically. But, man, I always knew that it wasn’t you. You believe me, right?” We embraced in a rough, brotherly hug. “Thanks,” I muttered as we pulled away. “That means a lot, man.” Paul nodded. “Of course,” he said. Silas looked at me. “So, you ready to go?” I nodded, feeling heavy and depressed and like nothing was ever going to make sense again. “Ready as I’ll ever be,” I mumbled. “Come on.” Silas climbed in the passenger seat of my car and stared straight ahead. He was silent on the drive downtown, towards The Grand Best Hotel. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking, and frankly, I didn’t much care. I just wanted this shit to be over so I could put a bullet in his head and forget about him. It occurred to me that he could have been bullshitting me. According to Tori, Silas was a master manipulator. While this little piece of shit didn’t look like much, I knew that he had pressured Tori into doing lots of things she didn’t want to do, and had kept her from doing things that she actually cared about. “Why did you treat her so badly?”

“What?” Silas turned in his seat and glanced at me. “What are you talking about?” “Don’t be a dumb shit,” I told him. “If I wasn’t driving right now, I’d hit you. Why did you treat Tori so badly?” Silas didn’t say anything. He looked out the window; when I glanced down to his lap, I saw that his hands were twitching and fidgeting. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “It wasn’t like I wanted to do it at the time. But I was so unhappy, and she seemed so unhappy…I guess it was like a way of controlling her, of trying to make our relationship better.” I snorted. “You are a Grade A bullshitter,” I said, whistling low. “And don’t forget that you’re still on my shit list,” I added. “You ain’t getting away with this just because you’re helping me right now. In fact, half the reason why you’re in the car is so I can make sure you’re not lying.” Silas swallowed hard. “Talia had been out to get out her for a long time,” he said. He glanced over and I saw that he didn’t look nervous anymore. There was a manipulative gleam in his eye. “She’s been biding her time and waiting for the perfect moment.” Silas looked at me. “And everything finally fell into place.” I shook my head. “That doesn’t make any fucking sense,” I snorted. “Talia loved me. She’d never do anything to try to hurt me. She must have faked her death because someone was pressuring her, or because she was in trouble. I only wish that she could have told me!” The very thought filled me with anguish and pain, the kind of pain that radiated out from my heart and made my limbs pulse. “Don’t think that way,” Silas said. He gave me a nasty grin and I felt my stomach flipping over. It was an unpleasant feeling. “Talia knows exactly what she’s doing.” “Kidnapping my wife and holding her for ransom?” I glared at him. “Talia isn’t crazy. Someone is putting her up to this. There’s no way she’d do that, not to me, not to Tori!” I paused. “Unless she’s jealous…” Silas shook his head. “She ain’t jealous,” he said in a nasty, thin voice. “She ain’t jealous at all. She’s getting her dues, that’s all.” I frowned. Silas wasn’t making any sense. He was like one of those dolls with a string in the back and when you pull the string, the doll talked to you. He was so deluded, so hurt by Tori’s actions that I could tell he’d do anything. “So,” I said as casually as I could muster. “You going to kill me when this is all over?” Silas looked at me in surprise. I couldn’t tell whether I’d guessed his plan or guessed the exact opposite. “You won’t keep me around,” he said, swallowing hard. “You’ll get rid of me the first chance you have.”

I paused, letting his words sink in. It was true that I planned to kill him as soon as Tori and I were both safe. Even though she’d rushed to his defense in the park, I knew that I couldn’t let him live. Silas had abused my wife for far too long, and he wasn’t going to get away with it. I had no way of knowing that he wouldn’t do the same to another woman in the future, and I didn’t think I’d be able to rescue her. “I’m not talking about that now, not with you,” I said. “We have to find Talia and Tori first.” Silas leaned back against the head and let his forehead rest against the window. I stared at him once I pulled up to a stoplight: he didn’t look well. His pale skin was greasy and full of acne, and his face was bloodless, like he hadn’t been sleeping well. His blond hair was plastered across his forehead and his eyes, though evil, mostly just looked tired. I couldn’t believe how someone like him could have manipulated Tori for years, but I was starting to realize there were a lot of things in the world that I didn’t know. “It’s over here,” Silas said. He pointed towards two buildings. “On the right.” “Thanks, genius,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I can tell.” My heart started to pound as we pulled into the parking lot of the hotel. With as much subtlety as I could, I readied the guns and ammo in a duffel bag, hoisting it over my shoulder. “You ready?” Silas looked at me. I nodded and swallowed hard. “Let’s do it.”

Chapter Twenty-Five Victoria Talia and her man were huddled in the doorway, talking. I was laying on the bed on top of my hands, twisting and moaning in pain. My wrists and hands hurt so badly that I worried they’d have to be amputated by the time someone came for me. I hoped desperately that Max would come, but part of me knew that was impossible. After the way he’d treated me for sneaking out to Baker Park before, I could just see him nodding to himself in satisfaction and telling me that I deserved whatever awful thing was going to happen to me. Then I realized that he’d definitely come, but not for me. He’d come for Talia, his first love, who was still alive. Miraculously. Max had thought this woman was dead for almost ten years, and here she was, in the flesh. Her black hair and dark eyes made her much more beautiful than I could have imagined, and I felt like an ugly little shrew in comparison. When Max finds out that she’s still alive, he won’t want you anymore, I realized sadly. You’re going to get a divorce and then I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before Silas comes sniffing around once again. I knew Talia would kill me if Max didn’t show. While I desperately wanted to live, I didn’t feel as though I deserved it. I’d gotten myself into this mess—I’d risked my own life and Max’s, time and time again, and here I was. I’d snuck out and I deserved to be caught like this. I shuddered, hoping that Talia would make it quick. She didn’t seem like the sadistic type, but I knew that appearances could be deceiving. Obviously she was more than content to sit there and watch me writhe around in pain. “Stop whining,” Talia called over to me as if reading my mind. “I can hear you all the way over here.” She gestured to her man, I’d heard her call him Rocky in little snippets of conversation. “Do something about her,” Talia said, waving her arm in the air. “I don’t care, just make it quick.” Rocky walked over to me, a menacing look on his bulky face. As I winced and shut my eyes, preparing for the blow, he struck me across the face so hard that I saw stars explode in front of my eyes. The pain was delayed for a moment and then it sunk in, so strong that tears came to my eyes. I could feel blood gushing from my nose and I sniffled, trying to breathe. “Bitch,” Talia said under her breath. “You need to learn how to be quiet.” She walked over to me and glanced down, like I was some pathetic species of bug. “Do you really want to know why I’m doing this?” “Please,” I begged. “Please don’t kill me.” “Too late for that,” Talia said, her eyes flashing. “There’s a bomb in this hotel room, and it’s going to explode in two hours. That means the end of you, honey.” She winked at me and I felt a sickening feeling in my stomach. “And the end of whoever else is here, too,” she added, grinning. “I don’t give a shit about the people in this town.” Talia stretched and began to pick at her elegantly long nails. “Marquette is fed by drugs and the Renegade Saints, so I have no qualms about wiping it out.”

The blood was still flowing freely from my nose and I felt myself gagging on it as I tried to sit up. “Please,” I croaked. “Please, Talia.” Talia shook her beautiful head. “No,” she said in a sad little voice. “I’m not finished with making you suffer yet.” Rocky paced the hotel room with his hands shoved in his pockets. He glanced over at Talia. “Boss,” he said in a hushed voice. “Come over here.” Talia got up glanced down at me again, the same pathetic, pitying look. “Don’t go anywhere,” she said nastily. “I’ll be listening.” I watched as Talia’s perfect figure sashayed across the room. She leaned her ear close to Rocky’s big mouth and he whispered something I couldn’t hear. A crease of worry appeared on Talia’s forehead. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Talia glanced back towards me. “I’m going to tell you a story,” she began slowly. “Listen up.” Her voice was sharp and harsh and not like I was used to hearing it. “This is why I hate you so much.” She glared down at me and I shivered; just the force of Talia’s gaze was enough to make me regret sneaking out of Max’s house. “Why?” I stared up at her, suddenly feeling brave. Talia slapped me so hard that all of the air gushed out of my lungs. “Shut up, bitch,” she said softly. She sat down on the edge of the bed and crossed her legs primly at the ankle. “When I was a little girl, my father died,” Talia began softly. Her eyes took on a new cast of light, like she was staring at a fireplace. “My mother and I were alone. We were poor, Victoria. Really, really poor. Do you know what it’s like to be poor?” I shook my head. “No,” I said softly. Talia grinned. “I didn’t think so, cunt,” she said, tangling her hand in my hair and yanking my head back painfully. I let out a yelp of pain and Talia laughed evilly. “Back to my story,” she said primly. “We were very, very poor. My mother was really beautiful.” Talia sighed. “I always wanted to look like her. She was tall and thin with long black hair, dark eyes, and tan skin.” Talia looked down at her own hands. “Even though we never had a lot of money, Mommy always looked beautiful.” A shiver went through my body. “Mommy dated a lot.” She reclined on her back and propped herself up on her elbow, staring at the ceiling. “Mommy dated a lot of men, she always had a new boyfriend. These men weren’t serious— they loved her beauty and her youth, but they didn’t even mind she had a little daughter. I think I was two when my father died. And after he died, she began dating about six months later.” Talia cackled. “I could give you a string of names from all of the men who paraded around. There was always a new one. Mommy liked younger men, and I always thought they were handsome. But she never fell in love with any of them, she just didn’t want to be alone. Do you know what that’s like, Victoria?”

I shook my head. “No,” I said softly. “I don’t.” Talia smiled at me, catlike. “I know,” she said softly. “I know you don’t.” Her eyes took on that faraway dreamy quality once again. “Anyway, Mommy loved having boyfriends. There was always one man who pursued her, but she wouldn’t go out with him because he’d been married. Mommy was pretty strict—she only wanted to date men who would be devoted to her.” Talia grinned. “She loved the thrill of making them fall in love with her and then dumping them without thinking twice about it,” Talia added. The sick feeling in my stomach got progressively worse as Talia continued talking. “Can you imagine what that was like for me, Victoria? I idolized my mother, but she didn’t seem to want to spend a lot of time with me. She was always too busy doing her own thing, and she didn’t really care for being a mother.” Talia sighed. “She never should have had me, really, but I can’t think about that now. It’s so very painful.” Talia reached up and wiped a tear from her eye. I looked at her. “Are you okay?” Talia blinked. “I’m fine,” she said. She smiled. “I’m exactly where I need to be right now, and I’ve got you with me.” “So what happened?” Against my will, Talia’s story had begun to suck me in. I could just imagine what it had felt like to grow up with a mother who ignored you—not that my father had done the same thing, but he hadn’t really known how to be a father and a mother, which is what I’d needed as a little kid. Talia sighed. “You really want to hear the end?” I nodded. “Well, Mommy started dating someone who she actually liked this time. They started spending all of this time together—he even slept over at our house a few nights a week. Mommy would skip work and go to the beach with him and she said he made her laugh. His name was Kristoff.” My blood ran cold. “What?” Talia smiled at me. “And we’re almost the same age, aren’t we?” She cocked her head to the side. “Don’t you think that’s funny, that your father would have stepped out like that?” I couldn’t reply. I only swallowed instead. My heart was pounding fast and I was suddenly all too aware of the bomb in the room that Talia had mentioned. How much time had gone by? She was such a drawn-out storyteller that I didn’t even know how much time I had left. Talia laughed. “You’re thinking about the bomb, aren’t you?” My face blushed beet red. My hands were completely numb and I could tell that they were swollen to an incredible size. My feet were aching and tingling and I could see that they were swelling, too. The

man, Rocky, glanced at me. “Talia, she’s losing feeling in her hands,” he said gruffly. “Don’t you think we should cut her loose?” Talia raised her hand and slapped me so hard that I couldn’t breathe. I was gasping and choking for air when I heard the sound of her high, cold laughter. “I don’t give a shit if this cunt is suffering,” she said in a placid tone. “In fact, that makes it all the better.” She reached a hand down and stroked it roughly through my hair, making me cry out as she tugged at my scalp. “I want you to suffer,” she said, looking deeply into my eyes. “Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that I want you dead, little girl?” I blinked back tears and prayed hard for Max to come. “Anyway,” Talia said, shifting on the bed and rearranging her long legs. “I wasn’t finished yet.” She flashed me a grin. “Mommy fell deeply in love with Kristoff. And Kristoff fell deeply in love with Mommy. The three of us were like a little perfect family. He used to take us on weekend trips and he absolutely spoiled me. He brought me candy and toys and he brought Mommy flowers and jewelry all the time.” Talia’s idyllic smile turned cruel. “That’s when the problems began. Mommy kept saying that she thought she was losing money; she’d pull out cash and it would disappear somewhere. She didn’t know what was going on. Kristoff was worried, too. But after a few weeks of that, Kristoff confessed to Mommy that he was in bad financial shape, that he needed a lot of help. By this time, Mommy was so deeply in love with him that she gave him everything he asked for, and more. She bought him a car,” Talia said with a smirk. “A red Corvette. You remember that, Victoria?” Chills ran down my spine. I did remember that car. My father had loved it—he’d driven it everywhere and treated it like a prize possession. One of my earlier memories was sitting behind the wheel, on his lap, while he steered my hands around the wheel. “I remember,” I said softly. Talia smiled. “Good,” she said indulgently. “It’s nice to know that I’m not crazy. Mommy did everything for her new boyfriend. He promised that he would marry her, that he wanted to be a family with her and me forever. He promised her that he loved her, that he’d move the earth for her.” Talia licked her lips and smiled. “Kristoff made Mommy the sweetest promises of love that I could imagine, the nicest, kindest things in the world.” Talia’s face changed, became stormier and troubled. “And then he disappeared,” Talia said flatly. “Mommy looked everywhere for Kristoff. She hired a private investigator to find him. She was worried that he had died, but the reality was in fact much worse.” “What happened?” I didn’t want to know, but I was eager for Talia to hurry up with her grisly tale. If there was a chance I could bribe her with money, offer to send money to her mother… “I think you know what happened, Victoria,” Talia said sweetly. “Kristoff took Mommy for every penny that she had. We were poor again, destitute. All of the money that Mommy’s other boyfriends

had given us, all of the money for our future, that was gone.” I let out a shaky sigh. “What happened to your mother?” My arms started to go numb and I started rolling around on the bed, trying to massage them with the weight of my body. Talia watched me struggle with an odd look on her face. Her smiles had disappeared and now she looked stormy, like she was about to unleash a massive amount of rage. “Mommy killed herself,” Talia said simply. A tear ran down her cheek and she didn’t wipe it away. “Mommy killed herself because of your father. And now, I’m going to kill you.”

Chapter Twenty-Six Max I walked into the lobby of the Hotel Azure and dropped the duffel bag on the floor with a loud bang. It was a swanky hotel—lots of marble and dark wood everywhere—and no one noticed as Silas and I made our way through the lobby. “What room?” I barked at Silas under my breath. “What?” He turned to me with a confused look on his pale, sweaty face. “What are you talking about?” I grabbed his throat and slammed him against a wall. “The room that we need to get into, dipshit,” I hissed. “Tell me, you asshole! You better not have dragged me out all the way here for nothing!” Silas stammered and flushed. “Um, room 1082,” he said under his breath. “This hotel has shorter ceilings than the Grand Best.” “Thanks for that little lesson,” I growled, dropping him to the ground. “You better keep your fucking mouth shut now, you hear?” Silas shivered and groaned. He rolled his eyes and started off in the direction of the elevator banks. Somehow, we managed to pass by the front desk unseen. I’d always had a gift for blending in, but this was the ultimate need for stealth. There was no way I was letting this asshole ruin my chances of catching Talia and finding Tori safe and sound. No fucking way. “Do you have the key?” “What?” Silas looked at me with a dopey expression. “What key?” I could have fucking killed him right then and there. “The key to the room, moron,” I hissed. “Room 1082.” Silas shook his head. “I thought you would pay for it,” he said, laughing nervously and twitching to one side. He looked like an evil version of a chicken hopping around on one leg, and I shook my head in disgust. “You’re fucking useless,” I snarled. “Do you know that?” Silas glanced down at the floor. “That’s what people tell me,” he replied. I sighed. “We’re not getting anywhere by doing this,” I said. “Come on.” Silas followed me into the elevator as I dropped the bag on the floor and punched the button labeled

10. As the elevator jerked and ground to a start, I felt my heartbeat start to flutter in my chest. I was mere feet away from Talia, but it didn’t feel like I thought it would. Instead of being excited, I was actually dreading the moment I laid eyes on her. I couldn’t believe it; I thought after years of being parted with the only woman I’d ever loved, I’d be more ecstatic than this. But right now Talia was filing me with thoughts of dread. I couldn’t even get excited about what it would feel like to fuck her again—my mind was too clouded with what was going on. Floor ten was almost empty. Some of the rooms were open and Hispanic maids were bustling around in crisp, starched uniforms looking both overworked and underpaid. I tried to stop one of them but she made a little ‘psst’ sound with her teeth and scooted around me like I’d merely been in her way the whole time. “Maybe one of them can give us the key?” Silas whispered as he sidled up beside me. “I’m sure they have access to all of the rooms.” “It doesn’t matter,” I snapped. “They’re not going to give us shit. I bet they don’t even speak English.” Silas sniffed, like I’d offended him by turning him down. Now that he didn’t have anything more useful to offer me, I couldn’t wait until it was time for him to go. I could barely stand next to him without wanting to rip him limb from limb and get revenge for all of the horrible, hateful things he’d done to Tori. Maybe that was why I was having such a hard time relaxing, maybe that was why I couldn’t get excited about seeing Talia again. I’d pined over her for so long, I’d spent most of my twenties crying over her. And now that she was so close, I couldn’t feel anything but dread. Maybe you love Tori, a voice inside my head said. I shook my head furiously. There was no way I loved Tori, no way I loved someone who disrespected me and the help I’d offered her so blatantly. But if I didn’t love Tori, then I didn’t know where my ambivalence was coming from. Silas and I milled around in the hallway, watching as the maids bustled back and forth. One of them was pulling a huge cart, loaded with clean towels, linens, and amenities for the bathroom. I saw a giant ring of keys looped on one end and mentally cheered. Bingo! I jabbed Silas in the gut and pointed towards the cart. “We need to get those keys,” I hissed. “Distract the maid.” “What?” Silas looked at me, clueless as ever. I kicked him hard in the shin. “Distract the fucking maids,” I hissed under my breath. “Now! Do it, you cunt!” Silas coughed and fell on his side, gasping like a dying man. He moaned and howled, clutching his stomach and moaning loudly. One of the maids poked her head out of the room. I watched carefully, hidden behind a large potted plant in the corner.

“Dios mio!” the maid exclaimed. She leapt into the hallway with surprising speed for her short, squat frame. As she ran over to Silas’s prone figure, I slowly inched my way out from behind the plant and moved towards the cart. The keys were bolted down but I saw they were labeled. “Shit!” I cursed under my breath. They were labeled alright, but the labels were in Spanish. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my knife, aware that time was slipping through my fingers with every passing second. Silas was still rolling around on the floor like an idiot but the maid seemed intent and focused. She kept putting her hand on his forehead and then on his stomach. Silas would groan loudly, then whimper at her touch. I rolled my eyes. As much of a bad guy as he was, he wasn’t a half bad actor. With my knife, I pried the ring off the loop. There were too many keys for me to fit it in my pocket so I stuffed it under my shirt and clutched my gut like I was having a stomach ache. Finally, I sprinted down the hallway, past Silas and the maid. Silas jumped up to his feet and followed me. We rounded a corner and I skidded to a stop in front of room 1082. “Try the keys, try the keys,” Silas said frantically. I shushed him with a single look as I fumbled with the giant cold ring. My fingers felt like overstuffed sausages and I felt myself shaking with nervousness as I fumbled for the right one. The first key didn’t even fit in the lock, the second wouldn’t turn, but the third made the room door burst open. Silas and I had just managed to bolt inside before the squat maid turned the corner of the hallway. “Thank god,” I said, breathing hard and leaning flat against the door. I latched it with the bolt and then walked over to the window. Sure enough, I had a clear view right at The Grand Best hotel. “Damn,” Silas said. He looked down at the ground. “I didn’t think we’d be up so high.” I rolled my eyes and pulled the duffle bag towards me, setting up the sniper rifle and opening the window of the room. When I zoomed in, I could see into the room on the seventh floor. I spotted a flash of red—Tori!—and my heart leapt and fluttered in my chest. She was lying down on her back and her ankles were cinched tight. My lungs swelled and for a moment, I wanted nothing more than to stroke her red hair. “Tori’s there,” I said quietly, not taking my eyes away from the sniper sight. “You were right. You didn’t lie.” “Nope,” Silas said. He sat down on one of the bed with his hands in his lap, looking useless. “What’s going on over there?” I struggled to see. There was a giant, hulking man who was walking around the room; he looked out of place indoors, like he’d be more at home in the circus. I wondered where Talia had found them. Then, suddenly, I saw her. Talia. Talia McCullough, my long lost love. She stepped right into my range and I saw everything: her long dark hair, her exquisite body, her perfect face with the coal-

black eyes. Something inside of me snapped. I almost squeezed the trigger. Talia darted off to the side. I watched as she sat down next to Tori on the bed, laughing about something. Tori’s face was red and streaked with tears and I watched as Talia slapped her hard, three times in a row. Rage and anger built up inside my belly. This was it, this was the moment I’d been waiting for. This was what my whole life had come to. Suddenly, I knew that there was no way I could be with Talia again. There was no way I could ever trust her, not after what she’d done. Not after she’d lied about Kristoff and her own death and everything. I started to wonder if Talia had ever told me the truth about anything. Had she ever really loved me? What was the whole point? My hands were shaking; I took them off of the gun and put them safely in my lap. Talia. Her name kept flashing in my mind. For years, I’d thought that she would come back miraculously, and that we’d be just as in love and happy as ever. But now everything was starting to make sense, everything was starting to fall into place. “Talia never loved me,” I said aloud. “She was using me to get close to Kristoff.” Silas nodded. “That’s what I told you back at the clubhouse,” he said solemnly. For a moment he looked completely serious and respectable. “She never loved you,” he said and then he snorted. Anger bubbled up within me like a fountain. Silas sneered. “She never loved you, and you probably disgusted her. She only used you,” he added. I reached into the waistband of my jeans and pulled out a handgun. Cocking it and pointing it at Silas’s forehead, I stared deeply into his eyes. “You need to apologize,” I said slowly. Silas stammered and shook. He lost whatever measure of composure that he’d just had and he began to look like a wreck once again. “I’m sorry,” Silas sputtered. “I’m sorry I said that about Talia, I really am.” I shook my head. “I don’t care about Talia,” I said truthfully. Hearing the words leave my mouth was a little surreal, but in that moment I knew it was the truth. “I care about Tori,” I said. “And you hurt her. I want you to apologize.” A look of panic and horror came over Silas’s face. “I’m sorry,” he said slowly. “I’m sorry I hurt Victoria. I won’t ever do it again; I know better now.” I fired the gun before he had a chance to say anything else. It went off with a loud bang and I felt my hand sting with the shock of the recoil. Silas’s mouth gaped and his eyes were still open. Blood was trickling down his face from a small wound on his forehead. I felt both disgusted and satisfied. Killing him hadn’t felt as good as I wanted it to—it almost felt like

I’d done a civic duty rather than defending my wife’s honor. But now, Silas was dead and I had bigger fish to fry. Shoving his body out of the way, I hunkered down in front of the sniper shot and took aim. Talia kept moving in and out of focus and I felt the sweat beading hot on my forehead as I tried to keep her in my line of sight. But she was too crafty—it was almost as if she knew that she was being watched. “Come on, come on,” I muttered under my breath. “Come on, Talia.” But she didn’t stay put for long. The giant man kept walking around the room and finally, he moved in front of my line of sight. Bingo, again. I pulled the trigger and shot. The sniper rifle sounded much louder than my handgun had when I’d shot Silas, and I watched as the glass shattered in the room across the way. I could hear screams—they sounded oddly distant, as if they were coming up from under water—and I saw that the man had dropped dead. Instantly, I got to my feet and bolted out of the room. I knew that I only had a limited amount of time before I could get to Talia and Tori, and I’d have to rush as quickly as I could.

Chapter Twenty-Seven Victoria There was a sound that sounded like a loud pop! and I glanced up to see the glass window of the room shatter. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion—Rocky collapsed to the ground and blood trickled out of his forehead. Talia screamed and reached into her handbag, pulling out a gun. She glared at me. “You cunt,” she spat. “What the fuck did you do? What did you do?” When she was angry, she didn’t look beautiful. Instead, she looked intimidating, scary, the kind of person I’d run away from in a dark alley. Talia’s black eyes were blazing fire and I could tell she was really worked up. Her pretty face seemed drained of blood and her hair was frizzing wildly around her head, making her look like some kind of sexy demon. Suddenly, Max was in the room. I blinked, almost unable to believe that it was actually him. “Oh my god,” I mumbled. “Max!” “I’m here,” Max barked quickly to me. He tackled Talia and for a moment, it looked like the two of them were embracing. I could see him holding onto her and gripping her arms tightly. Talia swore and scowled in his grasp. “There’s a bomb in the room,” Talia said with a devilish smirk on her face. “I took care of this before you could even think it through, asshole!” “Max!” I screamed, suddenly afraid for his safety. But neither Talia nor Max turned towards me, and I was left alone on the bed. Sweat was pooling on my back and I was terrified that the bomb was going to explode. “Max, look out!” Max yelped in surprise as Talia swung her arm through the air, aiming for his face. Her hands were balled up in fists and she looked angry enough to murder him. As they tussled and fought, Max raised his head back and slammed his forehead against hers. An audible crack! sounded in the room and Talia closed her eyes, gracefully sinking to the ground. For a moment, I thought she was dead. Then Talia seemed to rise up off the ground. She stared at Max with a mixture of horror and contempt. “You’ll never kill me,” Talia hissed. Max shook his head. “No,” he said, almost sadly. Then he lunged for her. The two of them began to wrestle—it was dirtier this time, Talia kept trying to bite and kick Max as they struggled on the ground. Max clipped her sharply on the jaw and I saw her head fly backwards. When she was knocked out, Max hauled her over his shoulder and dragged her over to the bed. I watched in horror as he tied her to the bedpost. “Max,” I said weakly. “There’s a bomb, Max.”

Max shook his head. “Talia wouldn’t bomb a hotel,” he said disdainfully. “She was doing that to make you sweat.” When I realized that he was probably still angry with me, I had to look away. Max was at my side in an instant, clipping the bonds that held my hands and feet and massaging them roughly to get the blood flowing again. The pain in my hands was intense, but at least I could feel them again. In a matter of seconds, they went from blue to red to purple and I shivered, feeling my whole body shake. “Come on,” Max said roughly. He picked me up and threw me over his shoulder, taking me out of the room. I closed my eyes and let Max’s rough gait lull me to some quiet place of rest and relaxation. I heard the sirens in the distance before I saw them. When I opened my eyes, I saw police cars and fire trucks swarming the hotel. An alarm was ringing and patrons were pouring out, their eyes wide. “Is there a fire?” People kept asking. “Is there a fire? What happened?” “No,” Max said gruffly. He pulled me onto his lap and stroked my hair. “Talia won’t ever hurt you again,” he said softly. “I was such an idiot,” I said. The tears started flowing and before I knew it, I was full-on sobbing. “I was such a moron!” A group of paramedics jogged over, looking serious. One of them pulled me away from Max and set me up in the back of an ambulance with an IV in my arm and a bottle of water in my hand. He started asking me question after question but when I couldn’t answer, he flashed an annoyed look to one of his coworkers. “I think she’s fine,” he muttered. “She seems totally okay.” I didn’t feel okay. I felt despondent, like everything was my fault. If I hadn’t been so stupid, if I hadn’t listened to Talia! I wrung my still-sore hands in my lap and cursed my stupid impulsive personality. If you wouldn’t have snuck out, this wouldn’t have happened, I thought sadly. It’s all your fault. You did this. I knew it was all my fault. Max wouldn’t look at me in the car on the way home. He was silent and brooding. Part of me wanted to reach out and touch him, but I knew that he probably didn’t want to be bothered. I couldn’t stop crying. The whole past couple of days felt like a nightmare that had come true. Every time I managed to forget about it for a moment, the memories came rushing back, even more painful in the next second. “Tori,” Max said in a heavy voice when we pulled into the driveway. “It’s all over now, you know that?” He looked at me with dark eyes that were full of sorrow. “I know,” I said softly. “I understand.”

That night, we sat around the living room with Danny. I got the feeling that he didn’t have to stay any longer, but he stayed out of solidarity with Max. We ordered a pizza and sat around watching the news without talking. When they brought up Talia, Max got a pained look on his face and left the room. “Danny, I’m sorry about everything,” I said as soon as we were alone. “I know it wasn’t your fault that I snuck out. Please don’t blame yourself.” Danny made an odd look and took a long pull of beer. “I know it’s not my fault,” he said. “But that don’t mean I don’t feel bad for you.” I sighed. “Do you think things will ever go back to normal?” Danny shrugged. “I don’t know what normal is,” he said with a sad smile. “Violence is the norm around here. Maybe things will calm down now that Max figured out who killed Kristoff.” My stomach turned. “She did it because Kristoff ruined her life,” I said softly. Danny glanced at me. “You ain’t responsible for what your father did,” he said sharply. “And don’t let it change your opinion of him either. Kristoff was a good man. The men in the club knew that. Bitch’s mother was probably as crazy as she was.” I frowned. I didn’t necessarily think that was right, or even fair. I didn’t think Talia was necessarily crazy, just wronged, and I understood why. After all, if it had been me, maybe I would have done the same thing. “I don’t know,” I said softly. “I can’t help but feel differently towards my father now, knowing he caused so much pain and suffering in someone else’s life.” Danny shook his head. “Don’t think of that,” he advised. “Just try to move on.” But I wasn’t satisfied. I went out and sat in the front yard, feeling the heat baking off the asphalt driveway. It was hot and muggy—almost a hundred degrees outside—but it felt like a welcome respite. I shivered again, remembering the chill air of the hotel room. I’d thought I was going to die in that room. Hell, I’d even come close to making peace with it. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to have nightmares. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw Talia’s face lurking in my mind. She was a real villain, someone who was so possessed by evil and the desire for revenge that it had ruined her. Now, I wondered if it wasn’t partially my fault. Maybe if I’d made an effort to know my father as a man, and not just a dad, I would have seen what he was up to. I still didn’t like thinking about what my father had done to Talia’s mother, even though I’d almost perished as a result. Right then and there, I got an idea. I went inside and got Max’s laptop, ready to do some digging. When I found out where Talia’s mother was buried, I had flowers delivered to the

cemetery and picked out a large bouquet as a monument. “Someone didn’t appreciate you while you were still alive,” I said softly to the online photo of the woman who looked almost exactly like Talia, but with sadder eyes. “And I want to make sure you know how appreciated you are now that you’re dead and gone.” I felt a little better after I’d made the flower arrangements. And then there was Silas. When I found out what Max had done, part of me was horrified. I couldn’t deny it, part of me was a little sad. But the other part of me was relieved. Deep down, I thought Silas was a pretty bad guy. Even though he helped Max rescue me by telling him where Talia had taken me, I wasn’t sure that he’d done it out of purely good motives. I wasn’t sure that Silas had any purely good motives. When I thought about Silas and Talia working together, I shuddered. It was disgusting to think about, but they’d probably teamed up as soon as Max and I had gotten married. And I’d been so wrapped up in my own little world that I had no idea. But now that he was dead, I felt better. I knew that I owed my life to Max, but I wasn’t sure how to thank him. After all, he was busy mourning the death of his first love. I didn’t exactly think that he’d have time to talk about where we stood.

Chapter Twenty-Eight Max I couldn’t stop thinking about Talia, and the look on her face as she’d laughed. It sent shivers down my spine and chills through my whole body. It was like she’d reached right into my chest, pulled out my heart and ripped it in two. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to get over her. The first night that we were home, I stayed in my room. Alone. Tori seemed to sense that I wasn’t feeling well, and she left me alone. I wanted to talk to her, I wanted to explain everything to her, but I knew that now wasn’t the right time. Now was a time for healing, and now was going to be my time to relax and recover from everything that had happened. It was only a matter of time before Danny knocked on my door. “Come in,” I said in a low voice. Danny handed me a beer and we clinked. “I talked to the guys, and they’re all really sorry for suspecting you,” Danny said darkly. He took a long pull on his beer and glanced out the window. “Everyone feels like a real fucker for thinking that you killed Kristoff.” I shrugged. I barely even felt that pain anymore. The shock with Talia had eclipsed everything else I felt about Kristoff and the MC. Dealing with the fallout from the Renegade Saints wasn’t a priority now that I felt like my whole life had been ripped apart. Everything I’d ever known had been a lie. Even the shock of finding out how Kristoff had ruined Talia’s mother didn’t hit home the way it should have. I wondered how Tori was taking it. “She’s alright,” Danny said. I glanced at him. “I mean Tori,” he added. “She’ll be fine. She’s real shaken up over learning that shit about her dad, but she’ll be alright in the end.” I nodded. “I can hardly believe it myself,” I said in a low voice. “I can’t believe that Kristoff would have done that. He always seemed like such a solid guy.” “Maybe Talia’s mother wasn’t, you know, right in the head,” Danny said. He tapped himself on the temple and took a drink of beer. “It happens, you know. Men lie to women. Things like this get out of control.” I swallowed hard. “That’s one fuckin’ word for it,” I said slowly. “Thanks for sticking around, man.” Danny nodded. “That’s what I’m here for,” he said. “You know that, man. I got your back. You’re my brother, my only family.” I clapped him on the shoulder. “So, I guess you’re not thinking about leaving the MC anymore to start

your own garage?” Danny laughed. “I was never really thinking of doing that,” he said, rolling his eyes. “It’s that witchy woman who told me it would be a good idea.” I chuckled. “Tori’s persuasive,” I said. “I can’t believe I married her, you know? She came to me, asking for help…and this is how it turned out.” Danny shrugged. “Don’t matter,” he said blackly. “My parents only knew each other for about twentyfour hours before they were standing in front of a judge.” He winked. “Mom always said she got pregnant that first night. I just think she didn’t wanna let my dad get away.” For a moment, we sat in silence like that. It felt different, like all of the tension had been resolved. I was almost able to believe that things would be good again, that there would come a day when I wouldn’t think of Talia. But then, her face would float into my mind and I’d be left feeling even more unsure. “I don’t know that I can ever get over her,” I confessed. “She broke every rule in the book and part of me will always love her.” Danny looked at me with a weird expression on his face. “She did,” he said slowly. “And she’s a real snake, Max. You know that, right?” I nodded. “I know,” I said sadly. “I didn’t mean that I still love her, I just meant…well, I meant that moving on wouldn’t be so fuckin’ easy.” I swallowed hard, feeling tears come to my eyes. A few years ago, I would have wanted to kill myself and give in my man card for crying so much. But now it was second nature, even it was embarrassing as hell. Danny glanced at me. “You alright, man?” “I just don’t know,” I said with a sigh. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.” Danny shrugged. He pulled out a cigarette and lit it. “You can’t have any way of knowing that,” he said, taking a deep drag. “You just can’t know.” I took one of his cigarettes and lit up. “Thanks,” I said softly. “I appreciate it, man.” Danny left me alone for the rest of the night. Occasionally I’d go into the kitchen for some bourbon, but other than that I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house. I didn’t even feel like going for a long ride on my bike; it would have felt wrong, celebratory almost. Tori was acting weird. I could tell she was avoiding me, and I didn’t want to pry. But the next morning, I knocked on the door of her room. When Tori answered, I was shocked to see that she was fully dressed. “What are you doing?”

Tori shrugged. “I thought I could find an apartment somewhere,” she said softly. “You know, get a job. Maybe take some of my inheritance money and do something good with it.” I glanced at the ceiling. “Why? What makes you want to leave?” Tori reached out and touched my hand. A spark leapt between us. “I don’t want to leave, really,” Tori said. Her green eyes were filling with tears and I could tell that she was deeply upset. “I don’t want to go, Max, but I have to go.” She reached up and wiped her cheek. “I mean, you don’t love me.” She sniffed again. “You love Talia, and Talia’s alive. And the most important thing for you to is to be back with her.” She tried to pull the ring off her finger but it was stuck. I was shocked. “Tori, what the fuck are you talking about?” She took a few steps backwards and sat down on the bed. “I know you love her, Max,” Tori said again. “I can see it in your eyes. I could see it in your eyes when you first told me about her, after I’d found the brush and mirror in your closet. I know that you two were engaged, and meant to be together forever.” I swallowed hard. “Tori, that’s—” “Wait,” Tori said. “Please,” she added, flushing deeply. “I mean, I’m not through yet.” She glanced down and finally took her hand away from me. “I want to let you pursue a divorce, Max. You were kind enough to protect me when I needed protecting, and I think that time has passed.” She looked in my eyes and I felt my heart breaking all over again. It wasn’t possible that Tori would try to leave me now! Not after all that had happened, not after everything that we’d worked on together. “Tori, please.” “No,” she said firmly. “Please, Max. I also wanted to apologize.” She glanced at the floor. “I wanted to tell you how sorry I am for breaking out of the house and making you chase me, twice. If I hadn’t been stupid enough to go, this never would have happened.” She swallowed hard and more tears came streaming down her cheeks. “If I’d just come to you when I got the phone call yesterday, we would have avoided this whole thing. You never would have had to kill Silas, and the police wouldn’t have had to come.” Her voice broke and she started sobbing. I could tell that Tori was really broken up about this. I felt helpless watching her, like there was nothing I could do. “Tori, I had to kill Silas,” I said, taking her hands and looking deeply into her eyes. “I had to, you know that, right? He was dangerous, and he was a menace, and he would have begun abusing other women if I hadn’t taken care of him. I think the only goodness in him was that part of him that helped me at the end. I don’t feel bad about it, and neither do you.” “But I shouldn’t have caused someone to die.” Tori sobbed. She bent over her lap and started crying more intensely than ever before. “I don’t care how bad he was! I hate knowing that I’m responsible for someone’s death!”

“Tori, listen to me,” I said firmly, moving closer to her. “Listen to me, okay? You did nothing wrong! Talia was the one who did this, she was the one who manipulated Silas and forced him to help her. She was bad, so was he. She’s gone and he’s dead. What more do you want?” Tori blinked at me. A single tear rolled down her cheek. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I want to go away, and give you your divorce.” As she stood up from the bed, I pulled her into my arms and held her tightly. At first, Tori tried to pull away but after a few seconds she wrapped her arms around my neck and squeezed me hard. “I love you,” I told her, pulling away and pressing my lips against hers. “I love you so much.” Tori melted in my arms. She closed her eyes and for a moment, I thought she was totally going to swoon. She gazed at me and I swear that for a second, I was falling deeply into her eyes. “I love you, too,” Tori said. She pressed her face against mine and slipped her tongue into my mouth. As her hands tangled in my hair, I felt her give a soft little sigh of happiness. “Do you really love me?” I laughed. “Yes,” I told her. “Yes, I really love you. I love you so fucking much, Tori. I’ve loved you for so long and I just now realized it, because I’m a giant fucking slow moron. I don’t want to get a divorce. I want you to stay my wife, and I want to love you forever.” Tori smiled. She was crying again, but I could tell they were happy tears. As she reached up to wipe her eyes, she stroked my face tenderly. Love filled my heart and hurt my chest. It may be true that Talia and I had been in love. Hell, it may even be true that part of me felt like I’d never get over her. But now, with Tori, that was my future. I could tell that she’d always be a faithful wife, and that was exactly what I wanted. Tori may not be exciting or dangerous like Talia, but she was the woman I loved from the bottom of my heart. “I want to spend my whole life with you,” I whispered in Tori’s ear. “I never thought it would work out like this, but I’m so glad that it did.” Tori nodded happily. “Me, too,” she said in a soft, husky voice. I grinned at her. “You know what we need to do now?” Tori shook her head. A slight look of confusion came over her gorgeous face. “No, what?” “Plan a honeymoon,” I said with a grin. “It’ll be perfect.”

Epilogue – One Year Later Victoria “This doesn’t fit!” I whined loudly. “None of my clothes fit!” Max laughed. “You look great, baby,” he said, leaning in to kiss my cheek. “You look stunning.” My eyes welled up with tears of frustration as I tried to yank the zipper up my last—and most forgiving—dress. Max and I were on honeymoon in Spain, and I was pregnant. Six months, to be precise. “Second trimester is an excellent time for a honeymoon,” the doctor had praised me. “You’re past feeling tired all the time and your energy should be close to normal levels. Plus, you won’t have a giant belly yet!” Stupid me. I’d believed her, and then we’d booked this trip. When we first got to the airport, they didn’t even want to let me on the plane because the gate agent thought I was a few more months pregnant than I actually was. Max had to get my doctor on the phone, much to my embarrassment. After that, I thought it would be smooth sailing all the way. But my clothes weren’t fitting, and we had tickets to the opera. “Max, I’m so upset,” I whined, sniffling hard. “This sucks! And everything makes me want to cry!” Max pulled me into his arms and nuzzled my neck tenderly. “You’re beautiful,” he said slowly. “And I won’t ever let you forget it.” I blushed hotly. “You’d better let me forget it when I’m on the delivery table and pooping because I’m trying to push so hard,” I said softly, glancing down. Max laughed out loud and I blushed even harder. “I won’t look,” Max promised. “And you’ll be just as beautiful as ever. I know you will.” Frowning, I tried once more to tug the zipper up my back. It wouldn’t bulge—the fabric split away from my sides like I’d grown a mountain in only a few months. “I hate this,” I muttered, flopping down on the bed. “Our last night in Spain and I can’t even get my dress on! What am I supposed to wear to the airport?” Max chuckled. “Baby, we’ll find you some new clothes,” he said tenderly. “I promise.” I sighed and stared out the window. We had a gorgeous view of the heart of historic Seville and I felt my breath catch and my heart jump every time we looked outdoors. In the year since the incident,

things had finally calmed down to a normal that didn’t include bloodshed and stalking. Max, Danny, and the other guys opened up a garage run by the Renegade Saints. It was only a matter of time before they had a ton of loyal customers, and Max was doing better financially than ever before. I’d tried to insist on getting a job but Max wouldn’t allow me to, especially not in my condition. “It’s unseemly,” Max had said when I was starting to show. “I don’t want people thinking that my wife is struggling and has to work for her own money.” Part of me loved how protective Max was. Now that I was used to living with him and we were happy, I couldn’t imagine how I’d ever chafed under him. But that was back when things were different, when I was unhappy and scared all of the time. I’d come to terms with Silas’s death. After a few months, the nightmares subsided and I started dreaming again like normal. I believed that Max had truly done the right thing—if he hadn’t killed Silas, Silas would abuse other women for sure. It was in his blood, his DNA, like something that he couldn’t ever get away from. Part of me still felt sad. I would have liked for Silas to be able to turn his life around, but I wasn’t sure that it ever would have happened. Talia was in a federal prison. She’d been sentenced to life for killing my father. I hadn’t gone to the trial; fortunately, I hadn’t had to testify against her. Max had, though, and I knew that it had been one of the hardest days of his life. When he’d gotten home, I’d cooked dinner and given him the most intense blowjob that he’d ever had in his life. That was the first night that I really felt like everything was going to be okay for us. I didn’t like to think about the possibility of her getting parole—what if she came after me, or worse, our baby? But Max promised that he would always protect me, and I knew he was telling the truth. “Baby, I hate to rush you,” Max began. “But we’re running late if we want to make that show.” I pouted and tugged my dress off. “It won’t fit,” I said softly. “I can’t go. The only thing that fits me right now are these,” I added, pointing towards my jeans. Max laughed. “I have another idea,” he said. “What about we just stay in the room and get tons of room service? Wouldn’t you like that?” I nodded happily. “Yeah,” I admitted. My stomach rumbled. “I’m starving.” Max grinned. “It’s because you’re eating for two,” he said happily. A proud light shone in his eyes. “I can’t wait to be a father,” he added. “You’re going to be a great mom.” “There’s one thing I wanted to run by you,” I said softly, wrapping my arms around Max’s waist and pulling him close. “I want to name the baby Christoff if it’s a boy, and Kristina if it’s a girl.” Max grinned. “I love it,” he said. “And I love you.” I melted. “I love you, too,” I replied. Finally, I was home.


Sneak Preview of WANTED


I’M EVERYTHING SHE NEVER WANTED. Growing up, I had a soft spot for Anna Nielsen. When her old man laid a hand on her, I did what I had to do and put an end to him. It cost me my freedom. After I got out of jail, I decided to leave the hard life behind me. Nothing dangerous, nothing illegal, just my car shop and my sanity. But when Anna comes crashing back into my life, she brings with her everything I’m trying to avoid. Before I know it, I’m balls deep in drugs, hitmen, and my old MC. I didn’t ask for any of this. I certainly didn’t want it. But when I find out that Anna’s been lying to me, there’s only one thing I truly want to do:

Punish her, like only I know how.

PROLOGUE Jackson He was at it again. Anna’s stepfather stumbled up the stairs. I could smell the whiskey from her bedroom, just down the hall from where he fell on his face. The yelling started soon after that. Screaming for someone to get him to bed, to pull off his goddamn boots. No one went, though. Everyone stayed in their rooms, too nervous to move. It was the one time of day they were safe from his flying fists and his careless words. Her mom didn’t get him either. She knew better. Trying to pick him up after he face-planted would only make him pissed. He’d blame her for making him such a pissy man. Accuse her for having no faith in him. Faith was lost a long time ago. The first time he raised his hand to Anna, the only thing I trusted was that he’d do it again. And again. “He’ll be asleep in a minute.” Anna tiptoed to the door and shut it, holding it steady until the silent click assured her it was closed. “You need to get the fuck out of here, Anna.” I clenched my fists, wanting badly to get to that fucker and kick his ass down the steps and out of the house. Anna’s mom traded one asshole for another when she married that clown. Better to have an abusive man than no man, I supposed she felt. But Anna deserved better than that. She deserved a warm house to go home to after school. Somewhere she didn’t need to deadbolt her bedroom to keep her step-father from wandering in during the night, thinking he was climbing into bed with his wife. “Graduation is only a year away.” Anna shrugged and climbed back into bed with me. I yanked her up against me, holding her close. She smelled like baby soft perfume, and I loved that shit. The way she always smelled like a girl, so damn soft and feminine. Not like most girls I would hang out with, who smoked and cursed. Anna was innocent, far removed from all the bad shit in the world. Even with her drunk ass step-father snoring from the hallway floor she saw the positive side. Graduation wasn’t just a year away; it was forever away. A whole summer and a full year of school stood in our way. Then we’d get the fuck out of there. My old man wasn’t much better than hers, my mom split when I was a kid. But until Anna agreed to run with me, I decided to stay put. She needed me. “Julie asked me when you were gonna get around to asking her out,” Anna whispered into the stillness of the room. “When she gets some tits.” I moaned and slid down, getting more comfortable in her bed. I wanted to spend the night naked in her bed, with her soft body pressed up against me, but Anna wouldn’t allow it. Friends, fuck that, we were more than that, but I think she was scared her step-father would find out and really lay into her for being a whore. He said it often enough when she put on a little lipstick. “I think he’s out good now, Jackson. You gotta get home. You stayed here last night; your dad’s gonna think you ran away.” She gave me a shove and I rolled off the bed, hitting the floor. She giggled and leaned over the edge of the bed to look at me. I tried to give her a surprised look, like I didn’t know

she could be so fucking strong, but ended up pulling her down off the bed on top of me. I rolled with her until I was on top of her and kissed her. Our lips smashed together, and when I pulled back she looked at me with shock. I laughed and hopped to my feet. I didn’t have to look back to know she was watching me from her window as I climbed down the roof and hopped onto my bike, revving the engine just before peeling down the road. That was the last peaceful night I had for years to come. The next morning when I picked her up for school, her step-brother, who was a few years older than us, was on her front lawn, pulling at her jacket. She struggled to get free of his grip, but the asshat held his liquor as well as his old man and just pushed her flailing hands away. I jumped off my bike to get to her, to save her. His hand pulled back, she flinched even before it made contact. The resounding sound of his palm connecting with her face nearly knocked me off my feet. All reasoning flew from me. That fucker put his hand on Anna. My Anna. He grunted when his head hit the grass as I tackled him. Straddling his chest, I laid into him, closed fists met his face, his nose, his cheek. From the distance I heard Anna calling my name. She may have been pulling on my shirt, but it didn’t budge me. That fuck and his father had done nothing but bring hell to Anna’s life, and it was time for it to end. My knuckles split, but that didn’t stop me. Jackass passed out, but I continued to wail on him. It wasn’t until the sirens blared in my ears did I ease up and sit back. Blood covered my fists, my shirt. Todd lay silent beneath me. He wasn’t dead. I could still feel his chest moving under me. The police officers didn’t wait to hear my side, didn’t wait to hear what Anna was yelling at them. I was hauled up to my feet, cuffs slapped tightly on my wrists. “Wait. No. It wasn’t his fault!” I heard Anna screaming as they shoved me into the back of the car. I saw her standing in her front lawn, holding her backpack in both hands, tears streaming down her face. Her step-father loomed on the front porch, looking as though he just woke up. One cop stayed behind to wait for the ambulance. That fucker was fine. That fucker was also dating the police chief’s daughter, who had seen my last name cross his desk more times than he could count. That was the last time I saw Anna Nielsen, and it was the last time she saw me. Because after they threw me in juvenile detention, any sweet thoughts I had about being with that innocent were crushed. After seven years of being in and out of lock ups, that girl deserved a fuck of a lot better than me. She deserved heaven on earth, and all I could offer was hell.


“I know, Mom. I can hear him just fine behind you.” I flapped open the paper bag that would hold my delicious lunch made up of celery sticks, peanut butter, and a ham sandwich. Lunch of every adult headed to their first day of their last semester of grad school. Or just me. Mostly just me. Unlike the majority of my classmates, I didn’t make it into the elite program, nor was I on the list for the most sought after internship in the architectural program at ICU because Daddy made an extra donation to the school’s architecture wing. No, I worked my butt of for every grade and every opportunity they gave me. Getting the assignment at Perkins & Will didn’t come to me on silver platter. I earned it. Just like I did everything in my life. I learned early on things didn’t just come to you because you wanted them. Praying didn’t make things happen. It didn’t make my mom divorce her second husband, or her third, and it sure as hell didn’t help bring back the person I needed most in my life. “Well, he’s excited for you is all.” My mother held the phone too close to her mouth when she talked, I could hear her breathing like she was Darth Vader. Joey, the son of her newest boyfriend, squealed loudly behind her. “Amma! Amma! Go Amma!” “You know, you should have him see the speech lady again.” I picked at my lunch while listening to her shoo the six-year-old away. I met the new boyfriend a year before, at Christmas. Among the long list of losers my mom dated and married over the years, Charlie was a shining star. Even if he did come with a six-year-old. He treated mom with respect, and she began to think the world rose and set with him. “Yeah, Charlie’s got a meeting with the counselor today about it. He was doing so well for a while, not sure why he’s slipping.” The concern I heard in her voice was real. Over the previous six months that Charlie and his son had moved into my childhood home, she’d fallen back into her mom mode. Joe’s mom died in a car crash when he was only a year old, he’d never had a mom before. “Well, let me know how it goes. I gotta run, Ma. Traffic is gonna suck enough as it is.” “Go get ‘em kiddo!” The upbeat cheer did little to elevate my nerves, but did plenty to bring a smile to my lips. It was good seeing my mom happy. She deserved it after all the horrible men she fell for; having someone care about her, and seeing her blossom beneath it, almost made the bad memories go away. Almost.

It would be easy to blame my mom for the crap we went through while I was growing up. After all, she picked the jerks she married. There were plenty of fish in the sea, because most of them were jerks and had been thrown back. My dad, my real dad, ran off a week after I was born. Mom never told me exactly why, but I knew it had more to do with my unplanned arrival than any excuse she might have cooked up if she hadn’t avoided the subject all together. Working odd jobs, she did the best she could to put a roof over our heads. Apparently, not finishing high school because you got knocked up wasn’t exactly a life skill. Even when the deadbeats she dated moved in and out of our lives, I knew I could still count on her. For the big stuff anyway. Working all the time and trying to find the love of her life left not so much time to hang out with the scrawny kid who ate up most of the income she brought in. I was okay with it, though. I had a thick skin and friends. Well, friend. Remembering every day of my childhood, watching my mom struggle to make ends meet, that was what drove me to get through school with high marks. Getting as far away from that place as I could manage gave me the fuel to work the extra hours, study longer, and get my butt to college on a scholarship and grants. I was no stranger to hard work, even outside of school. Those odd jobs I watched my mom slave away at, those were the sort I looked out for. Waiting tables, delivering newspapers, dog walking between classes. All of it was worth it when I saw my name on this list for the fall internship. I just needed to get through the summer session, and I was done with my class work. The internship would hopefully blossom into a sweet job offer, and I could finally afford to move out of the twobedroom closet I shared with Maris. After hanging up with my mom I ran down to my car. At eight in the morning, already the heat index had climbed to ninety. Chicago summers sucked; having no air conditioning in my beat up ten-yearold Honda sucked even worse. Hopefully traffic wouldn’t be terrible, and I wouldn’t be in a stand still. What little breeze moving in rush hour provided would be welcomed and help keep me from smelling like a locker room by the time I made it to class. The sun blared into the car, bouncing off the light dashboard and right into my face. I hated sun; my fair skin wouldn’t tolerate too much of it before it turned to a soft pink, then straight to lobster red. Once settled, I turned the ignition. Nothing. Taking a deep breath, I tried again. Nothing. Growling, I sat back in the seat and closed my eyes. When was the last time I took it in for an oil change? Was the battery dead? Moments like that made me want to rethink my decision to stay away from men until after graduation. Having a boyfriend at that moment would have been much easier. I didn’t know the last thing about cars. Even after having spent countless hours watching the neighborhood boys fixing up their engines in their back yards and garages, I couldn’t tell the difference between a spark plug and an oil cap. Back then I didn’t need to—Jackson took me where I needed to go in his car. Mom couldn’t afford two cars, and what little money I made at my part time jobs went to help keep the heat on in the winters.

Jackson. Just remembering him brought a dull ache to my chest. Still, after seven years, when I thought of him I worried and missed him. He’d just disappeared on me. Of all the people in my life who let me down, Jackson was the first to blindside me with it. The beeping of my phone reminded me how short on time I was for class. Not knowing anyone in my or the neighboring buildings building who could help me, I caved and called for a tow. The AAA membership my ex had given me seemed like a crappy birthday gift at the time, but was proving to be a decent present. Although, I was pretty sure Rodney had planned on using it more for himself than me, but he gave up that privilege when he dipped his stick into my friend. The tow truck arrived faster than expected, which gave me hope of actually making it to class on time if he could get my car to start. “Sorry, this thing is dead. It’s not the battery, although you need a new one. It will need to be looked at.” The driver unhooked the battery from his charging unit. “I can take it in for you now, if you want. There’s a place over on Albany and Lexington. Brought a few people in there last month, they all seemed happy enough with the place.” “Can you tow it there, and I’ll pick it up later?” I already had my phone out, calling an Uber to take me to school. I’d miss the first ten minutes or so, but I needed to get there. I gave him my information and took down the address and number for that garage. His eyes wandered over my body as I pulled out my bags from the front seat of the Honda. I pretended not to notice him glancing over at me every few seconds as he started hooking up my car to his truck. Thankfully the Uber showed before he had a chance to pass me a line, or ask me out. The last thing I needed was to get involved with another guy.


Ever since I took over the garage, business doubled. Buying the run down station from that old man Nickels had been the smartest decision I made in years. Working for other assholes and letting them reap all the reward for my hard work didn’t work for me, especially when most of them wanted me to bow down and kiss their feet for even giving an ex-con like me a shot. Fuck that, and fuck them. “Jackson! Got another one for you,” Tony called from the front seat of his truck. I waved him in and he pulled around the back. Most tow truck drivers worked for a single garage, going on a call when one came in. Not Tony. He liked being a “freelancer.” Whatever the fuck that meant in the mechanics world. I took a quick look at the run down Honda he pulled behind his truck and shook my head. Whoever drove that car had run the poor thing into the ground. Rust spots on the back hood, the door to the gas tank wasn’t original, it had been pieced back together. Who knew what I would find under the hood once I got her up on the lift. “Where’d you get this piece of shit?” I tapped on the hood as Tony hopped out of his truck. “Some hot chick a few blocks away. Called in a dead battery. I tried jumping it, but still wouldn’t turn.” “Ah, damsel in distress?” I looked over at the cab of his truck. “Where is she? You have her tied up in your truck?” Tony shook his head. If the chick wasn’t with him, it wasn’t by his choice. “That’s more your game anyway.” He winked and started unhooking the car. “Said she had to run to school or something.” I laughed. “Going for them young now?” “UIC, you prick,” he called from behind the car. “Her info’s on the dash. Said she’d be here this afternoon. Real tight, that one, wound up good.” Every woman who turned Tony down had something wrong with them, according to Tony. “Thanks.” I reached in the front window and pulled out the paper with her contact info on it. I read the name on the invoice and my heart squealed to a stop. Anna Neilsen. No way it was her. After all those years of staying clear of her, no way her car ended up in my shop. Just a coincidence. My Anna would have been done with college two years ago. No way this was my Anna. I dragged my hand through my short cropped hair. Fuck. She wasn’t mine anymore. Hadn’t been for

seven years. I walked away from her, from that place. Nothing had ever been harder to do than decide not to go back after juvie finally released me. I could have. My dad would have let me go home, had even asked me to move in with him, but I couldn’t. I needed space between that past and my future. By the time I was released, Anna’s mom had gotten rid of that asshole drunk of a husband. She was safe enough. My going back would only bring trouble with me, and Anna needed to get clear of trouble. She had had enough of that shit growing up. I kept tabs on her for a few years, made sure she wasn’t getting into shit like her mom did. Once I heard she’d gotten a scholarship to college, I had made my decision to let her be. Last I heard she had moved into the city somewhere. Like me, she didn’t keep up with the old neighborhood. No, this Anna had to be a different one. “You okay, man?” Tony waved an oil stained hand in front of my face. “You look like you just saw a ghost.” “This chick. What did she look like?” I couldn’t help myself. I needed to be sure. “I dunno. Hot. Tight ass, nice tits.” “Fuckin’ perv. What color hair?” I almost laughed at his description. If Tony ever had to be a key witness to any crime the only thing he would ever be able to give the prosecution would be the cup size of the girl involved. “Oh.” His eyes squinted as though thinking was that hard for him to do. I did laugh then. “Never mind. Your eyes never left her ass.” “If you had seen it, yours wouldn’t have either.” He gave me a light shove then headed back to his truck. “See you at Vinny’s on Saturday. Poker, ten o’clock. His girl’s gonna make snacks.” Vinny’s wife owned a food truck, the kind that sat in a parking lot all day feeding the machine workers at the factories. Her tamales couldn’t be beat. “Yeah, see you then.” I headed back into the shop, determined to forget the name Anna Neilsen. I’d spent the last seven years trying to forget her.


Sure fire way to get a woman off your mind, get another woman. Tracy, an old flame that never quite fizzled out all the way, walked into my office sometime after lunch. Her car needed an oil change, no problem. Jerry would have it done in no time.

“Since when do I have to sit in the waiting room?” She smiled at me from my office doorway. I raised an eyebrow at her and took my time taking in her body. Her tits overflowed my hands, and took a lot of punishment from me when I found myself in the mood. The low cut tank top didn’t even try to hide them, and the too short tennis skirt gave me more than a little wood looking at her ass when she turned around to shut my door. “Maybe I’m busy.” I leaned back in my chair, rolling away from desk to give her room to slide in. Her red hair had been pulled up into some tight bun thing on top of her head, but being the good girl she could be when she wanted to be, she pulled it down for me, letting it flow over her shoulders. Hopping on my desk, she planted her feet on the arms of my chair. Both capturing me and giving me a sweet view of her pussy. “No panties?” “Figured why waste the time.” She moved her hands down her legs, smoothing down her skirt just until she reached the hem and pulled it up, exposing herself completely. “Smart thinking.” I gave her a wink and leaned forward. Not moving her feet from my chair, I grabbed her waist and pulled her hard to the edge of my desk. Bringing her pussy right to my mouth, I dove in. Licking her, tasting her. Her hands wove into my hair, but I pushed them away. She knew better than that, and didn’t try again to control my movements. Spreading her pussy lips, her clit come into view from its hiding place. I’d get her off in a just a few seconds, sucking that clit would drive Tracy wild. Always did. I’d let her come, then I’d fuck her hard. I needed the release. The fast and hard fuck would clear my head. “Fuck, Jackson.” Her hands gripped the side of my desk, her hips pushed up at me, a silent plea for more. “Goddamn. Fuck.” Her thighs started to tremble, she was close. Pushing three fingers into her wet pussy she came unleashed. Each breath accompanied another curse, another plea. “Cock. I want your cock, please, Jackson.” Standing up, I kicked my chair away and grabbed a condom from the top drawer of my desk. Tracy wasn’t the only girl who hated waiting in the public room. She licked her swollen lips watching me roll the condom down my cock. “Goddamn, I love that thing.” Her hand reached out to wrap around my dick, but I slapped her hand away. “Not today.” Without another word, I wrapped my arms around her thighs, yanking them apart and up as I drove into her hard. She gasped, but wasn’t put out, she knew what kind of fucking she’d get when she walked into my office, it was that kind that she came looking for. “Show me those tits.” She pulled her tank up, letting her bare tits bounce freely. No bra. This girl wanted it bad. Letting go of one leg, I grabbed her tit, squeezing it hard until she arched her back up at me and squealed. That sound…that fucking beautiful sound. My cock plunged into her harder. Taking her nipple between my fingers, I twisted it this way and that until she was writhing beneath my grip. “Please. Please,” she begged, but not for me to release her. No, she wanted to fucking come. “Dammit, please.”

The desk scrapped against the floor of the office. I released her tit and moved to her clit. If she thought she was close before, she would be surprised. I pressed the pad of my thumb down on her swollen clit and she nearly bucked off the desk, taking my cock deeper into her pussy. “That’s it. There it is. You wanna come?” I continued to stroke her, letting her lead me to my own release. “Fuck yes. Jackson. Please. No more teasing.” She gripped my forearms hard. I pushed her legs over my shoulders, making her pussy even tighter around my cock. “Come for me, then.” I watched her face as she tried to scream out her orgasm. Not a sound. Just an open mouth ready to belt out her pleasure, frozen. I could feel her pussy pulsating around my dick and plowed into her even harder, not giving a fuck that the desk had worked its way a few feet away from where we started. The harder I pounded her, the harder she gripped my arms. The slight mixture of pain from her nails mingling with the tightness of her pussy threw me over the edge. I pumped two more times into her, then froze. Letting the waves of my orgasm carry me away. “Fuck, Jackson.” Her heavy breathing started to slow while she lay on my desk, crushing my papers beneath her. I pulled away from her, yanking the condom off and tossing it into the trash can. Once she hopped off my desk, I turned back to her, dick already put away, and sat back down in my chair. Trying to catch my breath. She righted her shirt and smoothed down her skirt. “I heard Tony’s gonna bring a girl to the poker game on Saturday.” I hadn’t heard that, but he probably was. That guy couldn’t go a day without a new chick to bone, not that I had a problem with that. I supported his ruling on keeping women on his dick then letting them go free. I didn’t run as quick of a turnstile as he did, but fast enough to keep my cock well serviced and the rest of my life free of drama. “Maybe she could use some company.” I checked my phone for messages, and ignored Tracy’s comment. Fishing for an invite wasn’t going to get her anything but a world of disappointment. “Watching you guys play poker all night maybe would spark some other fun.” Going for the balls, the only way she knew how to get what she wanted. “Maybe. I’m sure Tony could use a second girl for his arm. Just give him a call.” I tossed the phone on my desk and pretended not to see the flash of anger in her eyes. It wasn’t my fault. I never gave her a line. I didn’t do long term, fuck, I barely did short term. A few dates, maybe, several fucks, hell yeah, but never would I stick around long enough to get invested in a woman. That spelled trouble. And I’d had enough of that shit already. My office door swung open and Jerry popped his head through the opening. He noticed Tracy, but ignored her. “That Honda’s ready for you.”

“Thanks.” I waved him off and retied my boot that had come loose. When I walked past Tracy, still looking more like slapping me than kissing me, I gave her a peck on the cheek. “Didn’t think to lock the door when you came looking for your fuck?” Pleased with the proper caliber of humility in her expression, I left her in my office to finish the Honda.


The summer heat wouldn’t let up. Even with the industrial fans and garage air conditioners, the shop acted more like a furnace then a work place. The Honda had proven to have more than just a quick fix. The alternator had blown and the AC was completely out. Jerry had called the owner to get her okay on getting the repairs underway. I wanted to call, to see if that voice would strum a memory for me, but I forced myself not to. I had to forget her. I had to remember why staying away was best for her. The sort of life I found after getting out of juvie for beating that prick of a step-brother of hers didn’t include her. It was too rough, too hard for a soft girl like Anna. If the Honda belonged to her, I didn’t want to know. The plan was to fix the car and hide myself in the back office until it was picked up. No need to put eyes on something I couldn’t have. In case it was her. “Jackson!” Jerry called from the doorway of the office. I tightened the last bolt and stood up, shooting him a glare first. I hated being beckoned like some fucking dog. I owned the fucking place. Jerry wised up. “Sorry,” he mumbled, and walked over to me. “The Honda ready? She’s here.” Somewhere in the pit of my stomach a sour twisting started. My eyes instinctively went to the large window, searching her out. If I had thought myself prepared, I had been a fucking idiot. She was older. Not just in years, but in looks. The stringy blonde hair I remembered always being pulled back in a ponytail hung around her shoulders with a gentle wave from the humidity. Still the same silvery blonde, but there was nothing stringy about the woman standing at my front desk. A backpack hung from one slender shoulder, accentuating her toned muscles. When she glanced my way, not seeing me yet, I could make out the subtle beauty that had captivated me so damn hard when we were in high school. Piercing blue eyes narrowed as she waited to hear back from Jerry about her car. Her t-shirt had pinched tight around her chest from holding her bag, showing me exactly how much more woman she was now than the last time I saw her. Full breasts filled out her shirt. Had they always been so beautiful, or had the years of telling myself she was an innocent kid warped my memory of her? “Jackson!” Jerry waved a hand in my face, breaking my stare. She still hadn’t seen me, but she was walking to the window, peering into the garage.

“Yeah. It’s done. Discount her. Parts only.” I shoved my way around him, heading to the sink to clean off the grease before shuffling into my office to hide. “Jackson?” A soft voice froze me as I took a step. “Jackson.” A firmer voice now. Insistent. Fuck. I looked over my shoulder, just to verify what I already knew. Anna stood in the doorway of my garage, holding the door and searching me with her eyes. When I turned around completely, I couldn’t help the smile that started to tug at my lips. Fuck, she was gorgeous. Tears sprung to her eyes, and I shook my head. That’s why I needed to hide. She didn’t need my sort of complicated in her life. “Anna.” I forced a neutral tone, and made no move to close the gap between us. I didn’t need to, she walked into the garage, ignoring Jake calling her from the front desk to stay out of the restricted work space. “You’re here.” She shook her head and grinned. “Of course you’re here. I see you. When did you get back to town?” Her standing in full view now, I could take in the curves of her hips, the tightness of her thighs. The capris yoga pants she wore hid nothing from me. “A while ago. Your car is ready. Jake will check you out, and Jerry will bring it around front for you. You should still get a full tune up, but you can bring it back another day for that. Or to another shop closer to home.” I turned back to the sink, needing to busy myself and get away from her before I wrapped her in my arms. The urge to touch her, to just feel her under my fingers became too much. I needed the distraction. “Oh. Uh. Well, I’m only about a half a mile away. So I guess I could bring it back. Maybe next month.” I heard the waver in her voice and knew it for what it was—her shield. She wanted to get to the heart of it all, she wanted to ask me where the fuck I’d been for the past seven years. Why the hell I didn’t call her from juvie, or return any of her letters, but she wouldn’t. Not yet. “Okay.” I nodded, not looking over at her. I knew what I would see. I would see disappointment, hurt, and I wasn’t ready for that yet. I needed to steel myself against her first. To remind myself that it was for her benefit. “Like I said, Jake will get you all set up.” I yanked a paper towel from the holder and nodded toward the door she had just walked through. “I heard you.” A little more heat in her words, maybe she was recovering quicker than I thought she would. “Jackson. Where have you been all this time?” “Around.” I looked over at Jerry. “Can you get the Honda pulled up front? She’s in a hurry.” “No, I’m not,” she countered, her eyes burned into me. “I’m free the rest of the afternoon.” Her chin went up an inch, and her shoulders rolled back, but she sucked in the left corner of her lower lip. “Liar.” I tried not to grin and it damn near killed me. “Well, I could be free,” she mumbled, casting her glance down.

“Anna, you should go.” “Jackson, I’ve tried finding you for years.” “Well, you found me. Now you should go.” Her feet shifted uncomfortably, and that damn lip trembled. “I don’t understand. After you…when you went away, you just disappeared.” The engine of her car started, and we both ignored Jerry as he pulled out of the garage. “It was better that way. Now go, Anna.” If she took another step toward me, I wouldn’t be able to keep my hands at my sides. I knew I would pull her in for hug, and then I’d never fucking let her go. And she needed to go. “Anna, I never contacted you because I didn’t want to. I didn’t answer your fucking letters because I didn’t want to. Don’t you get that?” I forced the harshness into my voice, ignoring how much the words grated against my conscience. She blinked a few times. “You blame me for what happened.” I almost didn’t hear her; she spoke so softly. “It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t—” “No. I told you how many times to stay clear of that fucking asshole if he came home. Didn’t I? I said if you see him, wait in the house. Lock yourself in your room until I got there. But you didn’t. You stayed on the fucking porch.” Everything I said was true, but I never once in all the years of my going in and out of the system did I blame her for what happened. She had been too innocent. Had given too much credit to the wrong people. “Your car’s out front. Forget the bill. Just go.” Walking away from her at that moment had to be the right thing to do. I needed to put distance between us, even if I had just torn open wounds for her. It was best she knew what sort of man I had become since we’d last seen each other. I wasn’t that loving, caring little boy she loved. I didn’t need that shit. I heard the soft sob escape her as I walked by, but ignored it. I walked into my empty office and slammed the door. Fuck. Once I was sure she had left the garage, I looked through the blinds of my office to check, I went out to let Jerry know to write off the parts for her job. I saw her pull out into the street, her wheels squealing as she took the turn too damn fast. A loud roar of an engine caught my attention, and I ran out into the front of the garage. She drove through the green light, but the engine I’d heard belonged to a Challenger, going too fucking fast and not even trying to stop at the red light. I screamed out to Anna to stop, but my words were lost in the sounds of metal crunching, a high pitched scream from within her car. The Challenger plowed right into her passenger side, pushing her several feet into the intersection. My lungs burned as I sprinted to her. Please let her be okay…

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LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP, DEAR AUDREY. IT HURTS WHEN YOU HIT ROCK BOTTOM. Damien I’m not the guy you take home to meet your parents. I’m the guy they warned you about. But the day I meet Audrey—my new mousy secretary—I can’t get her out of my head. I want to strip her of her frumpy clothes and discover what’s underneath. Audrey tries to resist me. She knows I’m no good.

Too bad I’ve already decided that she’s mine to take. Audrey He’s my boss. He’s not a guy I should ever get involved with. I know his reputation. He sleeps with his secretaries until he gets bored and moves on to the next without one looking back. But I can't say no when he starts to seduce me. When he takes me on his desk and against the door of his office. When he guides me into his home, his bed, his heart. Before I know what's happening, I'm falling for him. The only question is… …Will he catch me?


She should have stayed far, far away. Beth was a beautiful little thing. A nurse, a mother — so tough and yet so fragile. She should have known better than to come near a monster like me. But she wandered too close, and I made her mine. For a night, at least. Then she slipped away. That might've been the end of things… …Until I wound up on her operating room table, gushing blood from a bullet in my arm, courtesy of my rival Gray, the man determined to lead our club back into the underworld. I want another taste of Beth, but it'll have to wait. Revenge is the first thing on my mind. I start to hunt down my attacker.

But before I know it, Beth and her daughter get dragged into the crossfire. She'll have to decide: Does she trust me to protect her? Or does she run screaming for the hills? "I can't promise you perfection. I'm an imperfect man. But I can promise that I will make you scream my name‌ Rafe. Rafe. Rafe."

Bad Boy Dom

He left me broken. But now he’s back. The last time I saw Dom, I was moaning his name. I haven’t said it since. Once upon a time, he was my best friend. The star of the high school baseball team, Dom lived next door and made me feel like I was the luckiest teacher’s pet who ever lived. I was quiet, normal, and studious — completely the opposite of the bad boy with a smile that could drop a thousand panties. But for some reason, we clicked. And the sex was on another level. I was sure we’d be together forever. Dom and Michelle, sitting in a tree…you know how that goes. I was wrong, though. He left me without so much as a goodbye. But just when I thought he was gone for good, he comes hurtling back into my life like a ninety-milean-hour fastball, bent on wrecking everything. It shouldn’t matter. I plan on never talking to the S.O.B. again. But when I hear the latest news, my

heart drops. Dear old Dom is going to be living much closer than I expected.


I ran as fast as I could. But you can’t outrun the devil when he’s on a motorcycle. Charlotte I was born into the club life. My dad, the leader of the Unholys, always kept me safe. He had morals, a code of ethics. But when he committed suicide, all that went with him. I wanted to escape the bloodshed, to start fresh. Johnny was the only reason I hadn’t left yet. After all, how could I leave without the man who made me moan until my throat hurt? He said this was the last deal. As soon as it was done, we’d take off together.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this world, it’s this: There’s always one more twist in the road.

Johnny Charlotte is my girl. She’s got the face of an angel and a body like sin. I fought for her the first time we met, And I’d fight the whole world if it meant keeping her safe. When her daddy died, I took up his mantle. I should’ve known better than to bargain with the devil. But this was my ticket out. One more deal, and I’d hit the road with my old lady, leaving this violent life be-hind. But I didn’t count on being betrayed. When my best friend stabs me in the back and leads Charlotte into my enemy’s hands, There’s only one thing left to do: Wade into hell and get her back. After all, not even Satan can take what’s MINE.

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Ellen harper make her mine, fate's talons mc  
Ellen harper make her mine, fate's talons mc