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This is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, places, events, 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. Taken by the Bad Boy copyright @ 2016 by Evelyn Glass. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embedded in critical articles or reviews.


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CHAPTER 1 “Erina? Are you even listening to me? Hello? Erina?” Robert’s voice seems to barge into my mind like a rude interruption by a spoiled child. He even tugs at the sleeve of my black leather jacket to get my attention. “What?” I demand, irritated. “I’m listening. I’m just trying to focus on getting the best angle for this shot. I really think that this should be our opening for the whole story. It needs a wide angle, panoramic viewpoint of the place while it’s all quiet.” My eyes are peering at the scene in front of us. It isn’t much to someone with an untrained eye or a person who isn’t skilled to look at life through a lens. But—besides the scummy alley with the puddles of muck and mud and the sleazy Chicago bar that rattles as the “L” passes above—it is something with potential: a setting. “Stop being so artsy about this, god dammit,” Robert screeches, his voice piercing through the air as if he doesn’t care whether or not our position stays secret. “C’mon, Erina. This is supposed to be gritty, you know. I say close-up shots of blood and scars. This is supposed to be about the guys who are in these motorcycle clubs, not about the bars where they hang out. What the fuck are we even doing?” We’ve been monitoring this bar for a good month now as we worked at story angles. Robert had approached me with this pitch he knew I couldn’t resist. He wanted to explore a part of our city that not just anyone got to experience, especially for us academic airheads living on the north side of the city. As I sat at my desk, staring at him ramble on, he had plopped down a pile of papers before me, as he said, like the expert former producer he is, “Everyone knew about the Chicago street gangs with thugs and drug dealers, but what about the other danger out there? What about motorcycle clubs?” Just the word motorcycle caught me off guard those days. It had been a few weeks since Will’s murder, and the pictures from the crime scene I had managed to take that night still played through my head in a miserable slideshow. His beloved pearl red Harley rested up against the pavement of the street, one wheel completely destroyed from a bullet hole that had cut through the entire tread. Next to it was his body, covered in a blue sheet, his hand slightly sticking out. It took me a moment to shake myself out of that thought as my partner, Robert, said, “This is going to be your big break! Just think of it: movie deals, red carpet premieres, Hollywood A-listers, Oscar nominations. Come on, kid. Tell me you’re in. I know you want this, and I know how to get it.” I had to give it to Robert…he was right. I had only been in the film industry for a short time. It was just enough to get my feet wet and get a couple of film documentaries made and shown in tiny little theaters on the lowest of low indie circuits. While I was in college, I even had a little festival run

with my film on homeless skateboarders. It got some viral attention, including from the Chicago College of the Arts. They offered me a teaching position on the spot as the associate director of the New American Film School. I would be teaching students just a few years younger than I how to tell stories with their camera lenses. It was a really hard offer to pass up, but—in the end—I did. I had dreams of being this amazing director who won tons of awards and had producers beating down my door to attach their names to my projects. I figured I would primarily shoot documentaries, but honestly, as a director, I wouldn’t mind stepping out and shooting a romance or a comedy here and there as long as the characters were right. I would move to Hollywood or New York, or maybe even London or Paris. As far as I was concerned, the sky would be the limit for me as the calls from the press kept coming in. But I never got past the gate. Instead, I somehow always ended up on the outside looking in. For a year, I said “no” to everything that wasn’t a million-dollar picture deal. And as my name faded into the oblivion with my resume, no one was interested in that girl who directed that documentary that was shown at Cannes. They wanted the next big thing, the next darling of film directing. I learned my first big lesson about Hollywood then and there. But luckily for me, as my star was rising, albeit temporarily, Robert’s was fading. Robert is about twenty years older than I am and has been working in Hollywood since I was in diapers. He took the long way to the top, working low-level producing jobs for years before getting the spot as an associate producer for Market Studios. But when they went bust, he took on odd director jobs here and there until his agent unceremoniously dropped him. The only person calling him was the HR department at the Chicago College of Arts, who offered him the job I turned down. When he went to hire more staff, he turned to their old call sheet and found me, completely desperate for some employment in the field, something that would keep me alive in the industry…and keep me alive generally. Part of our job wasn’t just to teach though, but also to direct and produce films that could have the college’s stamp on it. For the last year, we had been throwing back and forth these ideas. There was the story about old-school clowns, trying to revitalize kids’ interest and hobos that still traveled the rails, sleeping in train yards and eating whatever they could find in train cars, including rats. But we both had issues with each and every idea the other came up with—at least until Robert came into my office talking motorcycles with his stack of papers. On the very top of the heap of shot ideas and budget maps was a picture of my brother and a note written in bold, capitalized letters, “WHO KILLED WILL PETERSON? ” That was the hook for me, but I ultimately didn’t want it to be part of the story. Will’s death was tragic, an accident—at least, that’s what the police told my mother and me. We were the only family Will had, and aside from a few friends scattered around the country from his time in the Middle East with the military, we were the only ones who cared that he was gone—shot down in an alleyway just like the one I’m sitting in now. Robert begged me to talk about him on camera, to open up and be vulnerable, to give it a go and see

what story came out of it. But I refused. I simply couldn’t put my mom through that, and what I knew about his death was just the scant pieces of evidence that I had managed to seductively con a watch officer into telling me about. Of course, I had made the mistake of telling Robert that it was most likely a motorcycle club mistaking him for an enemy rider, but I didn’t know which club or who actually pulled the trigger. No one would tell me that, though I suspected the police knew and just looked away. Everyone here knows about Chicago police and bribes. Still, I realized what an opportunity this was. I could find out exactly what happened to Will—and exorcise some of those demons in the process. So, I said “yes” to the film—on the condition it would not be about him or me. This would be about the clubs no one knew about. And if it happened to expose those sons of bitches for who they really were and helped me find my brother’s killer in the process, it would just be a bonus to this exposé. I lean up against the wall, my head resting on the textured brick façade, as I remember all the things that brought me here to this muck-filled alley. My heart sinks a little bit as I realize what Robert was asking me to do. His philosophy was the antithesis of mine. I always believed in keeping a healthy, authorial distance from the action, to be an observer instead of a participant. Robert, on the other hand, wanted this to be as dramatic and “in your face” as possible, to merge a confrontational style with some sort of narrative structure. Of course, Robert was the veteran, so he may have been right. Besides, at this point, I couldn’t really tell my boss “no” now, given that I’d basically agreed to everything else. On the other hand… After a long pause, I exhale and say, “I don’t know, Robert. Honest to God, I’m not okay with going closer and giving ourselves away. This isn’t something I really want to be messed up in if we get caught.” I had not even taken my camera out of the bag yet. I had purposefully brought along a set of minis -- powerful handhelds that I could carry around and still get a good shot out of when the time came. Robert had pre-programed them to send all their footage to his computer back at the university. Hours and hours of film would eventually be erased for an hour and a half feature. Robert walks over to me and places a hand on my shoulder reassuringly. I stiffen at his touch as I remember the last time his hands came in contact with my bare skin. Too many drinks at our summer semester party led to a big mistake that I vowed I would never let happen again. Naturally, he doesn’t notice my recoil. Instead, he just smiles as he slips the camera bag off of my shoulder and places it on the damp ground. Silently, he sets both of them up and turns each on before handing the bag and the handheld back to me. “I need you to do this for me...erm… that is, for us, Erina. I need you to get that first shot of the guys up close. If something goes down tonight, I really don’t want this film to just be shots from a distance. That’s too… I don’t know, voyeuristic. It’ll make us look like amateurs, like we can’t get anything real on these gangs. But if you’re there and part of the action, it will be so much more authentic.” Something about the way he is speaking—as if he knows what this film will turn out to be—turns me instantly off. As a director for documentaries, you go in not knowing the plot of the story. That’s what editing and post-production is for. Our job is to get as many shots as possible while not getting ourselves killed. At least, that’s what my understanding is. What Robert is thinking, I’m not entirely sure—but I’m pretty sure it isn’t good.

“I don’t disagree with you, per say, Robert. But I am not comfortable setting up any closer than this. If you want that shot, then you’re going to have to do it yourself and I’ll stay back here manning the equipment.” I gesture towards the large black camera with the silk drape camouflaging it from the outside world. While I hated working with those monstrosities, I wouldn’t mind taking over the big rigs if that meant not risking my life for Robert’s dream shot. “Erina, look…” he says, sounding apologetic but not looking it, “I don’t want to pull rank on you, but this isn’t a suggestion anymore. As your boss, you need to get used to the fact that I am telling you -that I have the right to tell you -- what you need to be doing.” His beady black eyes bear into mine, as he tries to stare me down. But I remain unflinching. He may have the years and experience over me, as well as the job title, but I will always have the skill and eye between us. When I don’t move, he takes a few steps backwards, giving me my space. He looks extra nervous, his hands tensing and relaxing in tight curls under his black hooded sweatshirt. He runs a hand through his thinning blond hair as he sees the first motorcycle pull into the bar’s parking lot. We both retreat instinctively behind the camera where the shadow is just right. He lowers his voice as he whispers urgently, “You either do the shot or you get the hell out of here, Erina. I’m not joking.” “Hang on just a god damn minute, Robert,” I protest. “You’d rather put me in danger to get a shot tha —” He cuts me off before I can defend myself, but this time, his whole face softens, and his mouth twists into a sour frown as he adds, “You know, Erina, screw it. Don’t do it for me. Don’t do it for the audience. Do it for Will. One of these motherfuckers coming to this bar tonight might just be the bastard who killed Will, you know? Now tell me: do you really want to miss finding out for yourself just who’s in there?” I want to slit his throat right then and there. He has no right -- none -- to bring up Will or his murderer. That is my business and my business alone. I regret even telling him about his death and the suspicions I have. Now that I am part of this film, he can use that anytime he wants on me because he knows it will work. There is nothing in this world I want more than to figure out who killed Will and why they did it. I would even send myself into the underworld, camera in hand, if it meant exposing those bastards. I let out a long, tired sigh as I stand straight up. Robert looks at me, completely pleased with himself, as he begins explaining the exact shot that he wants. I hear bits and pieces of it as I find myself back in my own head, trying to build up my confidence and courage. If I am going to cross that street and shoot from behind the ivy fence, I am going to need every little bit of it I can get. When Robert’s done giving me my instructions almost too eagerly, I slip off my jacket and pull my hair up into a high ponytail. It’s a chilly October night, but it’s still warm enough that I can get away with wearing a knitted sleeveless blouse and my tight black jeans with boots. I pull the camera bag strap around my head and neck and leave Robert without another word. If I am going to do this, I have to get into position fast.

My heart pounds with each step I take. A few people eye me passively as they smoke their cigarettes on the bar’s long wooden porch. Another motorcycle pulls in, nearly hitting me as I cross over. The rider eyes me suspiciously. It is nearly midnight—and this is the south side. I have to look completely out of place, even amongst the girls inside that bar dressed in their jean skirts that just barely cover their asses and the bandana tops that reveal way more than I’d ever be comfortable revealing. The rider’s icy stare down makes me realize just how out of place and posh I look. I have to move faster. I practically sprint, as I spot more single headlights coming up over the small hill leading to the bar. I sink behind a chain-link fence, kneeling as I scuttle towards a row of untrimmed bushes and thick ivy. The rings in the chain-link fence are just wide enough to get my portable camera’s lens through for a clean shot. I would just have to expose the top of my head to do it if I wanted one free of the added greenery. I put myself into position, checking the angles as each motorcycle pulls in. Already, I can see two different factions forming. On one side is a group of younger men, all in their twenties and thirties. They seem totally at ease, as if they own the place. Their leather jackets are covered in navy blue patches. The ones who aren’t wearing the blue patches have the same black dog tattoos littering their muscular, tanned arms. These had to be the Northern Hounds Robert had found in his pre-shoot research. On the other side, just barely in the parking lot itself, is a smaller gang of riders. They don’t dare cross the sidewalk, let alone approach the girls smoking on the porch. They huddle together, still on their bikes, as if they were waiting for a signal. In the center is a bald man with scars creating creases in his forehead. My camera zooms up on him as he squints out towards the other club, standing just feet from where I was hiding. He licks his pink, dry lips, unknowingly showing his yellowed teeth for my camera lens. And then he speaks. I am not prepared for his voice to thunder over the sound of everything else. Even the train passing above on the elevated tracks doesn’t drown him out. “Where’s that bastard Rhys?” he thunders angrily. “Hey! Rhys! Get the fuck out here, you yellow-bellied son of a whore!” The men in blue turn towards the speaker slowly, each with their hands square on the pockets of their jeans. A man I hadn’t noticed yet steps down from the porch, out of the fog of smoke and cheap perfume. The way he walks tells me already that he’s a man in charge. It’s quick without being desperate and heavy without being dreadful. The rest of his crew form a half-circle around him as he approaches the caller. And suddenly, I’m blocked from the rest of my shot. There’s nothing else I can do but try to slither my way quietly towards the men. I round the gate slowly, watching my every step while still training the camera to just above the cut fence line. I can just only make out the two men as they talk about calling the other out. The balding man with the scars seems irritated as he asks, “Who the fuck do you think you are? You’re a young blood around here, and I’ve been more than my fair share of tolerable to your boys. But when you start crossing our lines, you’ve got a major problem on your hands, son.”

“Don’t call me ‘son,’ you lousy little shit,” he snarls. I pause in my steps. His voice is like thunder, deep and rich. It practically echoes off the other men around him. “We didn’t cross no borders of yours. The only ones we see creating a problem around here with not knowing their territories is your dumbass crew of rejects. They don’t seem to know the west side from the east side.” The men chuckle confidently. I don’t blame them. He’s imposing, at least six feet tall. His body practically rips through his jacket, yet he’s lean and sculpted. He even has a head of spice-colored curls that make him look much younger than I bet he is. It takes a second for me to find my breath after studying him. “Don’t you talk down to me, Rhys!” the first guy squawks. “I don’t normally mess with military men, but I wouldn’t be opposed to cutting your ass down right this very second.” I swing my camera around in time to get the yellow-teethed man spitting in Rhys’s face. His blue eyes don’t even blink. Only his jaw juts out slightly, as he listens to the shorter leader speak to him like that. There’s another shout. This time, it’s closer to me. I instinctively drop my camera to my side and swing it quickly back in the carrying bag, as I reel around towards the voice. A smaller man dressed in leather looks at me, his finger pointing at my position. He screams again, this time even stronger. “Who the fuck is this?” I try to run. I think I make it about twenty feet before I realize how trapped I am. The side parking lot I am huddled in is completely chained in on every side but the entrance, and there is no way I can hop the other sides. I hear more footsteps rush towards me. Forget about the commotion between the leaders, I’m now the main attraction as I further draw more attention to myself by looking completely out of it. There is a woman’s voice that says, “I saw her walking over here just fifteen minutes ago. She ain’t one of my girls.” She’s joined by the rest of the porch gang and a few bikers. No one is quite sure what to make of the blonde girl dressed in designer boots, watching what’s happening from her hidden spot in the bushes. Whatever they’re imagining is probably much better than the reasons I am trying to think of for being here. Everything goes quiet as I feel fifty grown men’s eyes square upon me. I completely stop breathing. I raise my hands to the air as I glance towards that man…Rhys. His eyes flicker as they get a better glance at me, but he’s icy, unmoving. Not one of these guys is going to save me. These men have no mercy in them, and I think to my brother dead and buried at the hands of a guy like that. The original man who spotted me disappears, a small satisfied smile crawls across his lips before I feel two, cold hands grab my arms and force them behind my back. My captor’s hot breath makes my skin crawl, as he whispers a warning into my ear, “Don’t you say a word and we may let you get out of here alright, spy.” He yanks my ponytail to cock my head back and then drags me towards the center of the two half circles of motorcycles and men. Everything in me shuts down as I look back towards the alley, half-expecting to see my partner, Robert, on the phone or attempting to create a distraction. But there’s nothing, just the blackness of an unassuming alleyway out of sight and out of mind. My knees fall to the cold ground with a bang, and I

look up at the leaders of the motorcycle club as they both look back at one another. Obviously, whatever is about to happen to me is going to be in their hands now.

CHAPTER 2 “Who the hell is that?” Mad Dog leans over to me and whispers in my ear, his hand covers his mouth as if it is some secret. However, the idiot says it loud enough that just about everyone in the circle hears it, including Joseph and his goons. “Don’t play dumb now, Rhys. I can spot a fucking spy when I see one. This girl is your little bitch of a narc, isn’t she? I should have known you weren’t man enough to face me on your own without getting the coppers involved.” He practically snarls at me, his deformed nostrils expanding wildly. His hands ball into giant, testosteroned-up fists. I hate to admit it, but I understand why this guy has been the leader of the Scarlet Knives for so long. He’s a freaking monster of a man. Still, I’m bigger…by at least five inches. And I’m smarter, too. If he thinks he can place blame on this girl for showing up at my club’s doorstep, he’s dead wrong. “Back the hell up there, Joseph. That chick has absolutely nothing to do with me. She looks like she belongs on the west side of town.” The lady they pulled from the bushes is pretty much hyperventilating. Her perky breasts are heaving wildly, and I can hear her swallow and huff back her tears. She knows better than to cry. Instead, she looks down at the gravel ground with her arms held behind her back. Her golden hair falls in front of her eyes. Even though I’ve got much bigger things to think about at this moment, part of me wouldn’t mind being behind that tight body of hers, my own long arms holding her in place… “Don’t fuck with me, Rhys! Don’t fuck with me! First your club dares step on the west side and now you send this decoy bitch out here! Who the fuck do you think you are, disrespecting me like that? You’re just a shit jarhead with a learning problem.” “Woah! Who the hell are you calling a jarhead, you piece of shit civilian!” Mad Dog steps out from behind me and in between Joseph and myself. Technically, we all were jarheads. All of us Northern Hounds came from the same unit of the United States Marines, but—despite that fact—we don’t take too kindly to anyone but our own kind calling us “jarheads.” That’s a name you earn the right to say. “You heard him, dipshit.” The man holding onto the girl’s arms slightly releases his grip as he pushes her forward, coming straight at Mad Dog. “When my man Joseph says something, he says what he means.” “And when I say that I’m going to kill you tonight, it’s a safe bet you’re going to end up bleeding out with that bitch you’re pretending ain’t yours. Am I right, Captain?” Mad Dog turns to look at me as I try to focus on the task at hand. This petty infighting means shit to me when there’s a girl here that clearly doesn’t belong. I turn back to him, barking my command, “Stand down, Dog. We still don’t know why the Scarlets think it’s okay to come on our territory and play their girly little games with us.” I look at Joseph in his sickly yellow eyes as I ask directly, “What are you playing at here? You think we won’t kill her? We’ll kill her.”

“I’m not playing at anything. I came here to deal with your territory breaching, not to mess around with some side chick you can’t handle. If you want us to take her back with us, we certainly will. She looks like she’d make a great night with an ass like that.” He takes a long, lusting look at her, and I suddenly find my stomach turning in knots. I can tell a liar when I face one. There’s tells that give them away almost instantly if you know what you’re looking for. For one, they can never look you in the eye. Joseph never looks anyone in the eye, so that one’s out. Then there’s their body heating up. Sometimes, especially when you got them hanging by a rope, they actually sweat. Other times, especially with ladies, they turn bright pink or red. But with guys who are really trying to hide it, their skin prickles slightly. Their hair stands on ends, they get twitchy. It’s a sudden movement of the lip, a flare of the nostrils, a lifting of an eyebrow that gives them away. Joseph is doing none of those things, nor are any of his guys. If this girl is part of any plan he may have, he certainly doesn’t know about it. So that leaves me with the burning, unanswered question: Who the hell is this girl, and why was she hiding behind the bushes of the Sunset Bar? I look around the area, scanning the cross streets, the few parked cars, the familiar faces hanging out on the porch, trying to figure out if I am missing something, something important. But nothing is giving anything away to me. There’s no hint she’s with someone else or that she belongs to anyone here. Her life is seconds away from being ended, or worse becoming Joseph’s sex slave, and if she is claimed, that person is running out of time to do so. As the guys blast and hurl insults back and forth amongst one another, I walk towards the Scarlet holding the girl down on the ground. He stares at me with wide eyes; his hand releases her slightly to grab at a knife. I hold my hands up in front of me, showing him I don’t mean him much harm -- at least yet. He yields and backs off, back towards the group of men escalating the fight. The girl on the ground doesn’t look up. She steadies herself on all fours and continues to shake and stutter. I grab her by the tight ponytail at the top of her head and force her to look up at me. Her giant blue cat eyes are sparkling in the light of the parking lot. Her face is flushed but pristine. She looks as if she is one of my mama’s painted porcelain dolls that has never seen the light of the day outside the curio cabinet. I even think about letting go of her, but I can’t. She stammers as she looks up at me and pleads, “I’m sorry. I—I--know I’m not supposed to be here. But Robert...“ She looks off in the distance, past the two clubs breaking rank and falling in on one another, and towards the street. I follow her eyes, not sure where she is getting with this but listening as closely as possible as her voice fades in the chaos exploding like a bomb around us. “I’m just-research--my brother--please don’t kill me.” The last part sticks with me. She still gives no clue to who she is, but she obviously knows that she’s a heartbeat away from meeting her maker. I’ve seen many guys and some girls at their ends, and they all plead using the same words. But she’s different. Her tone of voice, with the soft, sincere whispers, makes me think she’s more innocent than we think.

As I hold on even tighter to her hair, attempting to make her stand, Joseph catches me off-guard. I feel his hand on my shoulder, forcing me around. He’s screaming at me, spitting in my face. “What the fuck are you doing here? If she’s not with you, and hell if she’s with me, kill her and get it over with before shit gets messed!” He points towards my men who are practically snarling at the Scarlets like the attack dogs I’ve trained them to be. This is exactly what he wants, I think,

as I let go of the girl. She falls to the ground with a thud, a small whimper escaping her. She rolls slowly towards the side as I snap my fingers. Red Dog emerges from the fray as I call out to him, “Let’s get it going, boys.” With a clap, I hear the first hit. Peter lands a hit right in the mouth of some sniveling Scarlet. It’s a teeth-breaking, nose-crushing punch. But it’s the shot it needs to be as the rest of club takes off, practically pummeling Scarlet members to the ground. Those still on their bikes circle around the group ensuring there aren’t any escapes. Dust from the gravel fills the air along with shouts of pain and fury. This is my kind of atmosphere. Joseph stands in the middle of the whole mess completely untouched. A young gun member of the Hounds attempts to bum rush him only to be put to the ground by a guy with at least fifty pounds on him. Foolish kid. Everyone knows to leave the president for the president. I approach him quickly with my hands wrapped around the switchblade I save for special occasions like this. I lick my dry lips in anticipation and can feel the hair around my neck stand to attention. His back is turned to me, surveying his guys like a general of a failing army. This was my shot to take down one of my enemies, to claim vengeance for the territory scalping he’s been leading lately, and to get my name out there as the most notorious leader in all Chicago. I wasn’t going to let anything take this away from me. But then I hear it. It’s a horrible, desperate cry like a dog being beaten by its master. I’m not far off. To my side, I see a Scarlet throwing a fist into the unknown girl’s back. She falls flat to the ground, that untouched doll face of hers landing first. The man has blood on his face, but I can’t tell if it’s hers or not. Still, he looks like the devil ready to take his feast as he stands over her, a boot ready to make a mark in her tiny curve of a hip. She recoils almost instantly, protecting herself in a ball. I never had a sister of my own and dating hasn’t been a thing to do in a while. In fact, when it comes to women in my life, there ain’t any to blame this on. But something in me is telling me not to let that woman go unprotected. Something in me is boiling up with rage over seeing her treated like garbage in the midst of the little battle happening around me. So I let Joseph go. I turn towards the man ready to kick the mystery woman to death, and I charge at him with all the force I can. It’s a move they taught us in the Marines. I land hard at his knees with enough force so that he instantly hits the ground and is pinned under me. He tries to fight me off, to push me away, but I am way too strong for him. And that’s when he feels it—the sharp end of my knife jutting into him and the warm blood trickling down his side.

His face goes instantly white. I didn’t hit anything too serious, at least if he manages to get himself to a doctor in the next hour. But he looks as if I have done him in. His tattooed face goes from shock to anger to grief in seconds. I could twist this knife and be done with him. I could make his worst fears a reality. However, I feel hands on my shoulders. Their warmth radiates through my jacket and down to my skin. Shivers race up my spine, as I turn to see the woman’s doe eyes staring back at me. A small bit of blood is dried up at her nose, but she’s untouched besides that. One of her hands move to her side, the same place where this asshole had kicked her. She collapses a bit from the pain, her head sinking, her hand falling. I can tell that she isn’t used to physical violence like this. This is an entirely different monster than whatever world she calls home. “Please. Don’t…” I can make those two words out as her ruby-painted lips part slightly. She’s completely winded from the action, but I still understand what she’s saying. I release my grip on the knife as the man falls back in the gravel. I pull myself up to stand, with enough time to see what is going on around me. Joseph is gone, along with his bike and his second-in-command. The rest of his gang is falling in heaps, as my men destroy them. They were outnumbered three to one when they came in. What were they expecting? Still…there are a few outliers, some large guys who have managed to make it out still standing. Despite their president totally flying the coop on them, they are still there fighting away like wild barbarians. I could end this all now. None of them look as skilled in a knife fight as I am, but I’ve got the girl on my mind. I scoop her small frame up effortlessly. I always forget how light these girls can be. She grabs at her bag from the ground as I hold up my hand. The circling motorcycles stop in their place, letting us pass. Those still watching from afar hightail it back into the bar where the music has faded and chicken-shit faces are plastered up against the windows. Bystanders are the worst. Want all the details…but aren’t willing to fight. I kick in the doors to the Sunset and watch as at least ten people scatter back towards their seats, as if they could make it look natural. The bartender, one of our boys in training, eyes me with his dark eyebrows lifted. “Give me the key!” I shout at him. He retreats from his post and ducks under the bar. When he comes up, he places a large, faded-gold ring with a few rusted keys attached to it on the bar and slides it quickly to me. The girl doesn’t even bother looking around. Her eyes stay shut as she breathes in slowly. I can tell that I am her worst nightmare come true and that, even though I saved her from the beating, she isn’t sure where this blood-soaked man is leading her. Her grip around my neck tightens as I open one of the bar’s several back rooms and flick on the light. It’s our main meeting room, part of our unofficial headquarters. Chairs are still set up for tonight’s gathering, along with a table full of warm beer in plastic clear cups. I place her down on the ground, her feet wobbling to get steady as she uses my neck as a crutch. That

same burning sensation from her skin on my skin floods back to me for the second we touch and disappears almost immediately. When she’s on her feet, I walk over towards the table and grab an empty cup. Without looking back to her, I ask, “Who the fuck are you?” “I’m--I’m--Andi. Andi Cooper.” Her face turns an even redder pink, as she looks down and away. A liar. She isn’t redeeming herself to me. “No, you’re not.” I shoot back, not caring if I sound more and more menacing to her. The last thing I want to deal with is a phony. “You with Joseph?” “No.” She doesn’t have a tell this time. At least I know she isn’t fibbing about that one. “Then you’re with the cops?” “No.” Another truth. “Then the Black Devils? The Road Rage? Satan’s Curse? Who the fuck are you with if you’re not one of those two?” “None of them…” She hesitates, a hand shoots up to her neck, rubbing away at the dirty parts of her skin. “I’m—” “You know I could kill you right now. No one would know. No one would care.” It’s harsh, but I’m ready to try a new tact on this unknown spy. She seems to care about her life, so a little threat doesn’t seem like it would be ineffective. “I know you can.” “Then I want answers, or I won’t hesitate to place my hands around that thin little neck of yours.” I glance down to her body. She’s a twig, a tiny thing. There’s barely any meat on her, except in the places I’d love it to be. Her ass and tits are round and full, perfectly shaped like apples. Her thin waist is barely covered by the dirty black top she’s wearing. Her short legs cross suggestively in those tight jeans. I’m getting to her. She doesn’t answer; she just stands there, looking towards the doors and windows, as if she’s halfexpecting her rescue SWAT team to fly through the glass with guns pointing directly at my head. As I step forward, towards her, she steps back. It’s a dance, as I pin her up against the wooden panel walls. I can’t help myself, as I press my hips into hers, my hands find her arms and wrap around the slender wrists. I lower my head towards her ears as I ask her again, “Who the fuck are you?” She stares me directly in the eye, unblinking; her lips part with a hint of her white teeth showing. I can taste her sweet breath on mine as she lets out a puff of nervous air. “My name is Er—”

She’s cut off by the sound of my men barreling through the bar. They’re celebrating, calling out to one another. I can hear Billy scream, “And that enforcer you took down, what’s his name, Mick?” “I think they call him Killer Red! Ain’t nothing ‘killer’ about him tonight!” “That’s right man! That’s right! I saw the way you beat the shit out of him. He ain’t going to be riding in months. You had to have broken that leg and a few ribs, too!” “I’ll have a round for that! Pedro! Ring it up!” There are loud shouts and claps as the music seems to swell. I look towards the door, still open from when we entered. I let go of the girl with the half name and run towards it to shut and lock it closed. I growl at her, uncaring about my tone. “Get in the fucking closet.” “What?” She is still in position against the wall, her shaking coming back. She can tell that whatever’s coming isn’t something she wants to be a part of. “I don’t understand. Why can’t I leave? I’m not going to tell anyone where I am…” This is the most I’ve heard her speak since I’ve seen her. Yet, all I want is for her to shut up and listen to me. “I’ve got a meeting starting, and if you’re around, you’re not getting out of here alive. Not with my guys beefed up on juice and blood. Get in the damn closet and don’t say a word or make a sound. Hell, don’t even breathe. You understand me?” She blinks, her mouth opening to try to say something. I watch as her eyes again wander towards the few windows facing the outside parking lot. I don’t have time for this. When she doesn’t move, I don’t wait any longer. I run straight towards her, grabbing her at the waist. She has just enough time to squeal in terror, her hands lift at her head, as I hoist her over my shoulder. She struggles to keep balance, as I walk quickly towards one of the side closets near the corner of the room that no one ever seems to use. The small room smells like mildew and dust bunnies, and I wildly toss her onto the floor without much care. Her body falls to the ground in a heap, her arms barely catching herself up against the few discarded coats someone left in there at least ten years before. She looks up at me from the ground, looking more terrified than before. I sigh heavily, as I give her some parting advice: “Don’t try getting yourself killed, girl.” I shut the door behind her and place a metal folding chair up against the round handle. It isn’t exactly as good as a real lock, but it will keep her in for at least the duration of our club meeting. And while I planned on keeping her in there for as long as possible, the chair was there to also keep the storm that was coming from getting in, too.

CHAPTER 3 Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. What the hell just happened to me? And a better question, where am I? One minute I am just an innocent film documentarian and college professor with an eye on making it to the next step of her career, and the next I am thrown into some…coat closet belonging to one of the most notorious motorcycle gangs in all of Chicago. Everything is spinning out of control. My entire body hurts. I can’t seem to focus on anything that’s going on around me—despite knowing it was a must if I was going to make it out of here alive. At least, that’s what that guy told me. I’m not sure I can believe him. After all, minutes before he literally swept me off my feet, he was talking about killing me. What changed in the twenty seconds between then and my rescue? What was in it for him? I could probably think of a few things he had in mind for me, but I am trying to push it out of my mind. Guys like him want one thing—and one thing only—from the girls they are with. It was actually part of the research Robert had me do before we left. One of our angles was getting in with the girls they called “old maids.” Those were the ladies who managed to snag a club member. But more times than not, they were just “pussy chicks” or “easy riders” whose one purpose was the pleasure of the boys. I am not going to let that happen to me. I have to get out of here, and I have to do it now. There’s no other option for me. I rummage through my pockets, frustrated as I find nothing but a receipt from the takeout meal I had earlier today. No sign of my cell phone anywhere. I check my camera bag, but the blinking red light catches me off guard. I was still rolling, still live. That little light is my beacon, my savior. I know that if I recorded everything that has happened to me, Robert could see it back in the van. All of my film streams live to his computer. He has to have been worried about me when that whole fight broke out! I wonder anxiously at how long it will take him to send the cops my way. I take a seat on the cold, wooden floor, fidgeting with the camera. If I was stuck in here until Robert can get some armed, trained men to find me, then at least I was going to get some great video. The closet door has those slats where you can see out but you can’t see in. I place the camera on my knee, balancing it so that it can get the best light to pick up the scene outside. In my other hand, I place a tiny microphone that I usually use on interview subjects. It’s really not enough, but it will work on honing in on voices. I can listen in with a pair of headphones I keep for emergency equipment failures. I place the microphone receiver up near my neck, as I whisper as quietly as possible, “Test. Test. 1, 2, 3, 4. Test.” It comes back to me clear as day. I string it through one of the slats carefully, letting it hang out of the bottom of the closet where I hope no one outside will notice. As I hold the camera steady, a vision of outside the closet comes to life almost instantly. The room isn’t empty anymore. I knew that before. But now I can make out the distinct voices of men grumbling

to one another while others celebrate loudly, as if they are cheering for a wedding or their team winning the Cup. All this happiness over practically murdering one another? I could never understand this. The men scoot metal folding chairs along the floor as they take their places. Rhys had mentioned a meeting of some sort, and we knew that meetings were part of club life. It was a way to keep all the guys organized and to have some fellowship going on. Robert actually compared it to a fraternity or sorority meeting, but I don’t see any pristine guys in suits reading off complaints about who threw up in the bathroom at the last party. To my surprise, the entire room goes completely silent. A hushed excitement hangs over the air as they sit higher in their chairs and the back rows of the room lean forward to get a better glance. I can only get a partial shot of him, but Rhys is in the center, standing on a wooden platform someone built. He doesn’t have notes or a podium to lean on. There isn’t a microphone to amplify his voice or a formal introduction. He just starts speaking and the whole room is practically falling over themselves to hear him. His voice is tired but enthusiastic. It reminds me of old war generals talking about the battles they’ve been in with their fellow veterans. “Northern Hounds! I call this meeting on this first day of October to order.” There are a few claps from the room, but no one seems to join in with their excitement. In fact, an older man reaches over and grabs the wrist of one of the men clapping and slams it down. “Before I begin with the club’s official business and reports from our chairs, I just want to say a few words about tonight. When we got word and confirmed intel that the Scarlets—along with Joseph— were riding out here tonight to start shit, I hate to admit that I wasn’t too confident in us. We haven’t been along long at all, just enough time to do some recruitment and get our money flowing. But today, right here in this parking lot and on our turf, I think we made an impression that no one can deny.” An unseen man from my left side calls out eagerly, “Hear! Hear!” while another shouts, “Hell yeah! We got those pansies good!” Rhys holds up a large hand and the room goes silent again. “What happened in our parking lot will hopefully be spread to all the other pissants who think they can come messing with our men. Northern Hounds won’t be backed down. They won’t be moved. And they certainly won’t be intimidated by a few snot-nosed, entitled jerks. We’re the new force in town—and we will not cower to them!” The men are practically on their feet in celebration as Rhys steps back, allowing them to bask in his aura. I hate to admit it, but even I am impressed by the way this guy talks and the authority with which he speaks. It’s hard to find a guy who can really talk the talk, but he has skill. Part of me thinks that if I can get him aboard this motorcycle documentary project, I may have found a character everyone will get behind. The cheers dampen down as—one-by-one—they take their seats again. Rhys moves forward, giving me a full view of him through my lens. Instantly, I feel totally amassed by him, even from afar. He’s imposing, the kind of guy I wouldn’t ever approach if I was stranded on the side of the road for help.

But he also has a light about him that I didn’t notice before. It helps with those golden-red curls making a halo at the top of his head and the freckles along the bridge of his nose as I zoom in for a better look. “That’s all I have to say for tonight. I’m going to turn it over to my second-in-command, VP Andy.” My camera follows him as he steps down and to the side. He doesn’t sit, but flanks the guy replacing him. I catch myself missing the action and force the camera slightly upwards to the new speaker. “Thanks, boss.” He turns to Rhys and gives him a cool nod of his head. “Today, we need to discuss enforcers. Right now, we’re all doing the job of guarding the club’s interests, but we need to assign some real muscle to protect the younger guys coming up and to make sure we got control on some of the jobs that require a little bit more skill in the killings.” A man directly in front of me stands up quickly, his hand raised. “I nominate we make Red Dog the head of enforcement! After how he butchered that bastard in the lot, no one could do a better job at gunning down the enemies.” Woah .

The mood has totally shifted. This went from uplifting brotherhood and unity to killing? What the hell have I gotten into? Suddenly, my mind has refocused itself on the fact that it has been at least an hour since I was first captured and there has been not one sign of Robert. If he would have called the cops, they would have made it clear they were out there by now. Why am I alone in this closet, waiting for my fate at the hands of killers?! “Red Dog! Do you accept your nomination?” “I do. And I got this to say about it: I’ve been a murder-for-hire for about three years now. I got that job done in Memphis that no one wanted to touch, and I was there in St. Louis when Rhys got us our first project. No one, and I mean no one, has as much experience as me when it comes to it.” He applauds for himself, encouraging the rest of the guys around him to follow his lead. A good quarter does—while the others stay silent, including Rhys who stands with his arms crossed in front of his chest. His eyes are fixed at the closet I am hiding in. He knows that I should not have heard that bit of his past. “You don’t know one damn thing about control, Dog! And that’s what matters!” someone yells over the tepid clapping. “All you care about is who you get to kill next, and I personally don’t like that lack of restraint when you’re in charge of keeping us safe as well.” “Shut the fuck up, Murphy. You don’t know shit about what the job means.” The man at the podium, Andy, calls out over the two as they unleash insults on one another. “Quiet down. Quiet down! Murphy’s got a point Red. This isn’t just killing-for-hire. This is also about making sure our runners are safe and the trainers are safe when they’re riding with the less experienced guys. It would also mean doing some intel for the club and protecting Rhys when he’s out in public. Are you ready for that side too, or should I take another nomination?”

I swing the camera back around to Red Dog, who is standing with his arms square on his wide hips. His fingers tap impatiently on his torn up jeans. I listen to him breath heavily as he explains through gritted teeth, “Now I ain’t one to do no secret service detail, but if you put me in charge, I’ll only use the best of the best, the strongest guys we’ve got, to make sure no rider goes down on my watch. And if they do, I’ll get the vengeance we need. No matter what it takes.” Like Rhys before, most of the men stand and applaud, even more than when he was first nominated. Red Dog walks to the front of the room and I watch as he stumbles up to the podium and reaches out his hand towards Rhys below. Rhys whispers some explanation to another man that I can’t make out, but the man hands him a long, shining hunting knife. Without a second to pause, he slices into Red Dog’s chunky hand. Blood flows quickly out of the wide, rough slash and on to the floor. “You swear to protect the Northern Hounds to your best abilities? You swear to protect its leaders? You swear to follow command as given no matter the cost?” “I do.” “Then, with this blood oath, I name you as the leader of our enforcers.” Rhys drops Red Dog’s hand and walks back towards the side and out of view. All I can see is Red Dog’s raised hand, as the blood still trickles down. There are some murmurs and whispers as everyone gets resettled back in position. It’s just enough time for me to check in on myself. That whole scene has completely taken my breath away. Sweat is pooling at the top of my head, and my hands are shaking uncontrollably. I’ve met murderers before. I once visited a man convicted of killing his wife for a film I was making in college. But this was different. He was behind bars. I am behind a flimsy, wooden closet door. It is decision time for me. Now or never. I can sit here and just wait for my rescue to come, if it ever does, and trust what Rhys said about being safe with him. Or I can go out on my own terms and try to make a run for it. With business being discussed, all eyes would be at the front of the room. If I could make it out undetected, I could make a run towards the back door or to the bar where I could flag down a cop on the road. Rhys’s voice booms as he started talking about club money and getting paid for a job. Whatever they were saying is muffled by the sound of me grabbing a few of the jackets that were left in the closet probably years ago. There is one large leather jacket that reeks of weed, cigarettes, and sweat. I don’t have options to be picky as I place my arms through the sleeves and zip up the collar so that it conceals my face. I pull down a baseball cap from the top storage area and wrap my hair in it. It won’t pass me off as a Master of Disguise, but it will get me a little less attention than a blood stained, skintight sleeveless shirt. I place the camera and microphone in one of the pockets, leaving my bag behind. It was too bulky to worry about right now. But I still don’t dare turn off the recording. I figure that if my body is found somewhere, maybe a tape of my killers will be found. Naming Will’s killer was impossible without

witnesses, or at least witnesses who could be trusted to tell the truth. If I could prevent my mother from having to go through all that uncertainty with me, I am willing to record every single second of my attempted escape from this bar. Standing up straight, I take a few deep breathes in and listen closely to what is going on outside. A man shouts, “This ain’t right, Rhys! That asshole promised us our money tonight! I’ve got a kid I need to feed and an ex-wife to put designer shoes on. What am I supposed to tell her when I can’t make child support?” “Maybe you shouldn’t have fucked her sister!” “Shut up, Gabe! I want my money, Rhys! I want it now!” Perfect.

It sounds like the whole crowd is getting ready for a revolt against their leader over whatever is owed to them. They are distracted enough that I can begin opening this door as slowly as possible. Inch by inch, it creeks until I am totally free. I don’t bother shutting it behind me. I just step out of the crowd, scooting my back along the wall. The door out of here is only about twenty feet from me, and my head rotates back and forth from it to where Rhys is standing. And that’s when he sees me. He manages to catch my eye across the crowded room long enough that I step backwards, running directly into the side of the table where the beer is still sitting, half-poured. The table flies off its mark and shuffles noisily towards the wall where it hits with a bang. Goldencolored, frothy beer spills out, covering the floor and the feet of some of the men nearby. “What the fuck!” screams one of the guys closest to me. The younger man, dressed in a navy blue shirt and camo pants, charges at me, ripping my hat off. My ponytail comes flying down the back of my head. Another set of hands pulls off the jacket I have stolen from the closet, leaving me totally exposed to about fifty hungry-looking eyes. “It’s the girl from before! How the hell did she get in here?” I instantly recognize Red Dog from the rest of the men. His red beard gives him away, as he storms through the crowd with his arms spread open. “So she is a little dirty spy. You know what we do with girls like you that can’t obey, do you?” I feel my two arms being jerked backwards, the rush of my air pulled out of me like a weight pressing down. Someone pushes me down onto the hard, metal card table. My feet just barely touch the ground in my boots. Above me, Red Dog takes out a knife similar to the one he was cut with earlier in the knife. It gleams in the hard, industrial lighting as I struggle to make out faces. I try to cry out, but my voice is stuck deep in my throat. Someone adds loudly, “Don’t gut her, Dog! That’s a pretty piece of ass I wouldn’t mind destroying myself.” “Save some of that good pussy for me. She looks as clean as snow! I bet she’s never had a good dick in her life.” A brown and black hand grab at my arms, forcing them above my head, as a pair rubs itself against the

length of my neck and down to my chest. He grabs a large hold of my breast in his hand and kneads it viciously, showing it off to the rest of the guys watching. “I bet she came here just for it. Poor little rich girl wants to know what it’s like to be a motorcycle club bitch.” I close my eyes and count to ten as I feel more faces surrounding me, breathing on my skin. They’re so close I can taste their last meals and cigarettes. “Dude. What the fuck is this?” A kid’s voice breaks through, causing everyone to back up slightly and take a look. I can just see him hold up my camera to the group. Fifty pairs of eyes fall back on me, and this time, not for fun. “So she is a spy…” “This cunt is taking actual movies of our meetings.” “What an idiot.” I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say. When it was just me in the parking lot, I was able to hide my real reasons for being there. But now, with a camera as evidence, I was damning my own self to death. I was giving them reasons to kill me. They would never believe that I was just some filmmaker who got wrapped up into something much bigger than she could imagine. These guys don’t know how to let someone go. “Please.” I manage to squeak out. “Please don’t kill me. I’m not who you think I am. I’m just here filming. I’m not going to use it. Please. Please. You have to believe me.” Not that it surprises me, but not a single man lets go of his grip on me. This isn’t the group to have compassion when someone is begging for their life and asking for mercy. No one budges an inch until Rhys’s distinct voice breaks through, “Get off of her, you sons of bitches. No one is touching her. You hear me?” The crowd parts, a flash of light appears before it is covered up again by Rhys’s head. His brown and charcoal-colored eyes flicker with intensity as they stare down at me still being held in place against the long table. He clears his throat, as he asks lowly, “Then who the hell are you? And this time, you better tell the truth.” I feel myself getting lightheaded. The warm room closes in on me, as the faces overlooking my head distort and twist. Everything is hot, too hot. I can’t breathe. I can’t swallow. All I can do is say the one thing that comes to my mind first. “Where is Robert?” To my surprise, Rhys tilts his head as he says, “How the hell do you know Robert?”

CHAPTER 4 A girl spread wide on the table—now that’s a meal my appetite and I can’t refuse. This chick obviously doesn’t know what she’s working with. Those long, thin arms with the hint of a bicep, the bare shoulders that curve just right, her two perfect tits jiggling as my man Dave holds her in place… If this were a normal meeting and this girl just one of our side-chicks, then I wouldn’t hesitate to let the boys have at her (after I got my round first). It was just part of the perks of being a member. We passed along chicks at just about every bar stop in Chicago that catered to guys like me. And there were fan clubs of girls looking for military pensions if they could snag one of us down. Occasionally they did. More than likely, they’d get used and abused and move on when we grew tired of them. But I can’t let go of this one. I already know she isn’t a groupie. She’s made that obvious by the way she walks and talks and her being bold enough to attempt an escape. Not that we kidnap that many people, but no one has ever tried walking out like that. When I give an order to stay in place, I mean it. So why isn’t my blood boiling at that? Why am I not pissed enough to turn this table over and punish her for being such a stupid idiot? Why am I getting myself involved in the club’s right to claim her as their own? My mind is just not processing this stuff today. Maybe it’s because of the fight, or maybe it’s because she looks too clean to be with men like us…I don’t know. I don’t want to know either. She doesn’t answer me when I asked it the first time, so I repeat myself again, this time a bit slower and more deliberate. I take two steps forward, practically leaning over her body as it dangles on the floor. “How the fuck do you know Robert?” “He’s my, uh… well, he, uh…” She’s stuttering again, the same as she did when I tried asking her name. I still haven’t gotten an answer on that. This girl has obviously a lot to hide if she can’t answer basic questions on things like her name and why she dared cross my path. “Spit it out, girly! We don’t have all day!” Dave licks his lips devilishly as he looks down on her. The rest of the room feels as if it is closing in around her. Eyes dart to her body, teeth flare, knuckles and bones crack in anticipation. It doesn’t make it any easier on the girl, who just thrashes about a bit more, looking for some sympathetic face. I know I have to step in. This isn’t going anywhere good. And the longer I wait to make a decision on what to do with her, the faster my boys will grow discontent. After that meeting with the nomination of Red Dog and the floor fight on when we’re getting paid, I can’t stand another pissy dramafest that comes with a big group like this. Especially if it’s over some snot-nosed girl who can’t stick to her own kind. “I’m calling this meeting, boys!” I proclaim, my back turning to face the rest of the room. “I want the leaders to stick around. The rest of you go get a round of beer on me and we’ll meet again in a few days. Check your texts tonight about updates on job assignments.” It’s all business-like, but you can

hear the grumbling emerge almost immediately. It was shooing away a dog from his meal. Not even the promise of free drinks was going to make this situation easier. I look back down at the chick, as Dave releases her slowly and then turns to join the rest of the group making their way out the door. She doesn’t move but lies in the same position, her arms curled up above her head, her wrists still crossed as if frozen in place. Her eyes grow wide, and I can tell she thinks that she is closer to death than ever. Good. A little fear doesn’t hurt anyone these days. And maybe next time, she’ll learn to listen if I teach her enough of a lesson. It takes several minutes for the crowd to clear out. Some of them stand around, grabbing their jackets off of the back of their chairs. Others wait for their friends by the doorway. When they don’t move fast enough, I start calling each of them out individually, threatening them on warehouse duty if they didn’t take off in seconds. None of them stick around after that. When they’re gone, all that’s left is the girl, the new enforcer head Red Dog, Vice President Andy, and Jonas—our secretary. Jonas and Andy are my right-hand men. They’ve been by my side since I came up with the crazy idea to band us together with a motorcycle club. Andy took over logistics while Jonas figured out territory and business. Together, the three of us had managed to make the Northern Hounds the force it was today. It only took a few years, but we’re at the top of our game. I just hope a crazy, unpredictable force like Red Dog, with his tendency to break from command, will keep it together for us. Not to my surprise, it is Red Dog who speaks first, breaking the silence between the group and the girl. “What the hell should we do with her, boss? She had a camera on her. She could have seen way more than just the fight in the parking lot. What if she has been tailing us all along? Who knows what intel she’s bringing back to the police or the Feds....” He runs off on his tangent, pacing madly from one row of chairs to the next. I turn back to Andy and Jonas who have both flanked me in the chaos of the last few minutes. My voice lowered, I speak directly to them, “No one touches this girl. I am going to make this clear right now. She’s protected until we can get to the bottom of what is going on.” Red Dog, hearing what I’ve said, comes rushing back. “You can’t be serious, man. If we don’t kill her, she might try to escape.” “You’re our new enforcer, Dog. It’s your job to make sure she doesn’t pull a runner, am I right?” Andy asks him sarcastically, not checking his attitude. None of us have ever been fans of Red Dog. He joined on a recommendation from one of our other members. He’s a great rider and a tough hand, but there was something about him that never felt right with me. He sure wasn’t pleasing me today. “We’re not making any decisions until we figure out who this girl is,” I say stiffly. “She ain’t talking because she’s scared. So let me handle the talking. The rest of you hang out and keep a low profile. You understand me?” “We’re catering to this girl because we scare her? That makes no sense, boss.” Jonas rolls his eyes

towards her as she rolls to her side slowly. She’s looking a little less stunned and a little more curious now that that the rest of the group has left and she’s only left with a few men to contend with. I don’t answer Jonas’s question. Instead, I walk slowly back to her, my hands clasped behind my back. I pull up a metal chair and slide it over to the table she is sitting on. Beer is still pouring down the side of it and onto the floor. She brushes the liquid off of her hands as she waits for me to speak. “I need to know your name.” She opens her mouth, but I catch her, finishing what I wanted to say, “And don’t lie either. You see that guy behind me with the red beard?” She looks back to Red Dog, swallows hard, and nods her head as she focuses her attention back onto me. “He will kill you, and I promise you that I will help him out if you’re not honest with this.” She looks down at her knees, a long line of thread hangs out from her jeans. She fiddles with the string before tearing it off. Without looking back at me she says, “My name is Erina Peterson.” Although I can’t catch her eyes, I know she isn’t lying. “Okay, that’s a start. My name is Rhys O’Malley.” “I know that.” She uses a small finger to brush away her golden bangs. I get a glimpse of those sky blue eyes with the long, hay-colored eyelashes. Her face has little makeup on, but she looks as if she could be on the cover of a magazine. It takes every bit of my strength not to reach over and touch her just to make sure she was real. “You know that?” I ask, coming around to her matter-of-fact statement. “How the hell do you know anything about a guy like me? I can tell you don’t belong in these parts of Chicago.” “I’m a professor. I do my research. And I am from around here. I grew up in Harwood Heights, just a couple miles from here. I know this bar used to be a grocery store when I was a kid.” “Okay, but you sure as hell don’t live around here now. No one comes into this hood looking like you do. You’re just asking for trouble.” I make a bet with myself that those boots she’s wearing, the black leather pair that go up to her knees, cost more than anything I own outside my Harley. “No. That’s true. I live in The Rocks, along the lake. I teach at the art school.” She smiles slightly, a girl proud of her job. “And is that how you know Robert?” As I ask the question, I can feel the entire space between us go blank. She either didn’t realize she was saying his name as she became more desperate, or she was hoping and praying that I wouldn’t bring it up again. Her hands cross in her lap as she sighs deeply, her whole body sinking into itself. “Yeah,” she responds slowly. “That’s how I know him. We work together. We were working on this documentary on motorcycle clubs in Chicago, and we’ve been tailing you guys for a while since you have a big rivalry with the Scarlet Daggers.”

“Knives. They’re the Scarlet Knives.” “Okay, the Knives. Robert did some research and pitched me this idea of following you guys around undercover for a few nights to see what would happen. We’ve only been in your territory a few days. We didn’t catch anything, but you guys going in and out of this bar for meetings. We mainly filmed from the alley. And then tonight happened…” “So why were you so close if you say you’ve only been researching from a distance? Why tonight?” A small smile creeps upon my lips as I listen to her struggle to come up with reasons. “Well, uh, Robert wanted a shot of you guys. We were, uh, going to blur faces out. I swear. I really do. But he didn’t want to do long angle like I suggested. He wanted it to be like in your face and up close. And I think he knew the Scarlets were coming, too. I don’t know. I am just a director. I don’t know. I don’t know.” She begins to hyperventilate, her whole body sobbing as she realizes that she only has herself to blame for getting this far. I scoot my chair closer to her, well aware that the rest of the guys are watching like hawks from the other side of the room. After a second of hesitation, I reach over and place my hand on hers. That fire from before sparks back up as her head lifts and her red, tear-stained eyes hook onto mine. “I know why you were here. You don’t need to explain anything beyond that. I am not going to hurt you.” I can’t believe the words that flow out of me. I have never once comforted anyone in my life, and I was starting with this stranger? I take my hand off of hers almost immediately, as if it would solve the problem and bring me back to my real self. “How do you know Robert?” she asks, sniffling slightly. “He set this whole damn thing up.” Her face drains of color, as she hops dramatically off of the table and onto the floor. I stand in response while the rest of my men come barreling towards our end of the room. “He did what?!” “You didn’t know? Really?” I ask, unconvinced that she didn’t suspect or at least have an idea about all this. When she doesn’t respond, I see the picture unfolding. “That man of yours, Robert, paid us to get into it with the Scarlets tonight. We’ve been riding back into their streets just trying to provoke them, and today, he promised us a bonus if we could make it bloody.” “So you knew that I would be out there? Why the hell have you led me on like this? Trapped me in a closet? Let those brutes fondle me!?” “I sure as hell didn’t know about you.” I turn back to my crew. “Did you know Jonas? You’re the one who mainly talked to Robert about the deal in the first place. Did he say he was going to send in a girl to do the dirty work for him?”

“He didn’t mention anyone but himself. Are you sure she’s the one telling the truth? I think he would have warned us if he was going to put some chick’s life on the line by sending her over enemy lines.” I look back at her as she begins to run her hands through her pin-straight hair, tousling it nervously as she bounces her weight on her heels. “Sounds like Robert played you good. He wanted you to be part of the story. You’re the sacrificial lamb. I wonder how much he’d give if we killed you and made it look real.” Erina stops in her place and looks at me completely deadpan. “Do you know what that camera is? Do you know what it does? It transmits my film to every single computer I own, which is a ton and in places you’d never get to. If you tried to lay a finger on me, there’d be so much evidence. Enough to put each and every one of you assholes in prison!” I turn towards her once more, coming straight at her this time. She stops dead in her spot, unable to move as I thrust a finger straight into the center of her chest. The force pushes her back as I growl at her roughly, “You don’t seem so stupid to me, but you have to be out of your damn mind if you think you can come in here and try to threaten me with your prison bullshit. You know nothing if you think that would scare these men or me into letting you go. You have no idea who you are messing with, girly.” Erina’s lower lip whimpers slightly before she steadies herself in her place. Her eyes close for a long second before popping back open. “I am sorry if you think I am… threatening you. I am just trying to get the hell out of here alive.” “If you want to do that, you need to call your dear friend Robert, so he can vouch for you. Plus, I want to hear this brilliant explanation on why he sent you in for a shot he could have got himself. That’s going to be a real great number to hear.” I chuckle loudly, as I reach behind and yank out my small burner phone. I make all clients I work with buy one for me and one of the leaders. Keeps the cops off of my tracks and makes it impossible to reach me when everything’s settled up. I only give my real number out to repeat clients and the men I trust most. I quickly type in the passcode for the phone and then hit the only number in the contact list along with the speakerphone option so that everyone in the room can hear their conversation. I hear it instantly ring as I throw it straight into Erina’s hands. She fumbles with it, completely thrown by my instructions. But as I hear a man answer, I see her face turn from that terrified white to a red I can only guess is pure fury. “Hello? Rhys? You there?” Poor fool. Even I know better than to play an intelligent woman like Erina. Erina stares down at the phone, her eyes burning holes into the receiver and her mouth open agape as if she is sorting out the words to throw at him. I take the lead, yelling directly towards the phone in her hands. “Hey there, Robert. I’ve got Erina on the line here. You want to explain what the fuck is going on here to her?” There’s a long, awkward pause where you can practically feel the tension in the airspace. I wonder if

he ever thought Erina would still be alive it this far into the night. Sick asshole like him most likely thought she’d be gone in seconds. It would make a great snuff film, or an even better documentary if your heroine gets killed in the first scene. You can’t buy that kind of press. The worst part is watching Erina figure it out for herself. I can see the wheels practically turn in her head as she stares wordlessly at the phone. Her knuckles turn white as her grip grows firmer. At one point, she looks up at me, completely at a loss. But I’ve got nothing for her. This was hers to work out between her director friend and herself. Finally, she speaks, “How… how… how could you, Robert? What were you thinking?” There’s a heavy sigh, as Robert’s voice completely changes from that upbeat-self seconds ago to his concerned guy friend role. “Oh Erina. I had no idea. I really didn’t. I thought you would get that shot and be out of there. When I saw them take you, I left quickly and went back to the studio where I could get Rhys’s phone number. I’ve been looking everywhere for it. I figured he’d save you. He’s a good guy.” “He’s lying,” I say, as I take a seat next to her. “He didn’t think you had a chance in hell of getting out of here. And he certainly isn’t in his office.” Erina places her hand over the speaker and turns to me, “What do you mean, ‘He’s lying?’ How can you tell?” “Oh, girly. You might be a college professor, but you sure aren’t observant. That clown is out on the street. You can hear the cars behind him and the sound of the train. And why do you think his voice got all high like that when he was speaking to you? He’s lying straight through his teeth.” “Erina? Erina?” Her silence is getting to that bastard. “Are you there? Are you okay? What’s going on? Can I come get you?” Erina removes her hand off of the speaker and answers quickly, her eyes still studying mine. “Yeah. Robert. Come get me. I need to get out of here as soon as possible. Can you do that?” “Woah!” Red Dog appears at my side, his hands raised. “We can’t let the bitch go. She knows too much. And if you say that Robert is lying, who the hell knows what else he is lying about.” “He’s right, Rhys,” Jonas replies. “I don’t trust that guy. And until we get our money for the parking lot fight, I don’t want her going anywhere. She may still be in on this.” I look over towards Andy, who is leaning up against an old radiator. He stares at his feet as he nods solemnly in agreement. “Well, I guess I can come…” Robert sounds as hesitant as I am about letting her go. He’s practically made my decision for me. I grab the phone from Erina’s hand as she lets out a small shout in protest. “Listen, Robert Harding. You do me a favor and get that huge chunk of money you owe us together, and then we’ll talk about

letting your girl go. Until then, no more games if you really want her back in one piece.” Erina lunges at me, her arms grabbing at the phone as I click it off. “Robert! No!” she cries out, bitterly. She misses me completely, as I spin away from her. Her tiny body falls towards the ground, just barely catching herself with her outstretched hands. I place the phone back in my pocket and turn towards my boys. “Get the gunner van ready. I’m going home.”

CHAPTER 5 Growing up, I was always the smartest person in my class. But you wouldn’t have known it from looking in. I was constantly getting in trouble, avoiding paying attention to teachers, being dramatic just for fun. It wasn’t because I was bored or not challenged like my mom always suspected. It was because I always wanted to know how someone would react in a certain situation. I wanted to see what my friend Julie would do if I stole all of her purple crayons, or if our creepy teacher, Mr. Dalloway, would acknowledge me if I slipped him a glimpse of my thigh as I sat at my desk. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I didn’t want to cause more attention on me. I have just always been curious about how humans work. When I went to film school, I had a professor tell me that this skill was what would make me unique among other directors. I loved doing close-ups on an actor’s face, as he or she heard a relative had died or zooming in on a subject’s hands as they shook nervously while answering a prying question. It was all in the details. And as I sit across from Rhys in this large van, full of weapons in every corner of the expansive space, I feel that pull to cause some reaction, to see him surprise me. So far, he’s been exactly as I thought he would be: brutish and a pig through and through. He may have saved me from that fight, but he’s just like the other guys in the club that sat there and touched me as if I wasn’t a human being. My palms itch a bit as I lean over, resting my elbows on my knees and my head in my hands. Tired and worn out, I break the icy silence. “Where are you taking me?” “I told you. We’re going home.” He doesn’t even bother looking in my direction. He’s staring at that Harley strapped to some supports against the back of the van. It sways and rocks with the motion of the van. “To your home?” I ask, trying to get more out of this closed wall in front of me. “Yeah. There’s no way in hell I’m sending you back to yours tonight.” “Why not? I mean, you know who I am. You know that I’m with Robert. What is the point of keeping me close to you?” “Because I’m not an idiot, Erina, and I hate to get played. While I don’t think you’re lying, I still can’t tell if you were in on this whole thing with Robert or not. You look and sound much smarter than you’re acting, so there has to be some other reason why you decided to go take that close-up and risk getting caught. No one is that fucking dumb.” A part of me wants to confess right then and there. I am so tired of holding back about my brother Will being gunned down by a motorcycle club like his. But that’s the other point. I am not a hundred percent sure that his club wasn’t behind it—or at least knew about it. The evidence I have points to a

different club, a club with red, not blue, logos. Still, I want to keep it to myself that I may have some connection to him after all. “I guess you don’t know me then. I wanted to get that close-up just as much as Robert did.” He stares at me for a long moment, his eyes slowly canvassing my boots, up my thighs, lingering at my hips and waist, resting on my chest, and then settling on my face. I fidget as he does, uncomfortable at this kind of attention. It’s almost as if the van’s heat has turned up or someone’s put a laser directly on my skin. Every bit of me crawled at the thought of him. “No,” Rhys finally breaks through the silence. “I know you. I know girls like you. You want to act tough, act rough. Hell, you may even be getting your rocks off on these kinds of things with men like me holding you down, teasing you, threatening you. I see it a lot. Good girl gone bad. Wants a taste of the life her daddy never let her have…” “Excuse me,” I say loudly. My head is racing with his words. “I really don’t take kindly to you saying that shit about me. You know noth—” “I’m not done, Erina. See, the secret here is that girls like you, the really good girls, they get a taste of life with men like me, or they get themselves caught up in something they can’t control like you are now. And they’re gone, back to their old lives in seconds flat. They get a lick or two, and when it’s too much and they can’t stand it anymore, they go home to their girlfriends and they tell them about this motorcycle dude they fucked or the crazy shit they got caught up in when they were in college. It’s all the same. You’ll be married and fat within ten years with some guy you don’t particularly like… That is, if I let you live.” I don’t know what to say. Part of me knows he’s right. I’ve got friends just like he described. I’m only twenty-four and half my friends are married and unhappy. The rest are off experimenting, just waiting to be claimed. I’m the only one of our group who’s trying something new, dating around, and living independently. The other part wants to scream at him to leave me the hell alone. I’ve been nicer over the past few hours. I’ve done everything he has asked, and he has no right to treat me like a prisoner who he gets to psychoanalyze. If this was some form of torture, he was sure good at it. Instead of fighting back or agreeing with him, I do the only thing I know how. I ask questions, “You ever kidnap someone before?” “Kidnap? No. You only ‘kidnap’ someone when they’re actually a kid. I’ve taken hostages before.” He dips his long, sculpted neck backwards, revealing some tattoos I haven’t studied yet. Now that everything is still and we’re trapped together, I can take it all in, each and every scar, wound, needle mark, color. His reddish-tan skin looks good painted over, especially along the gape of his neck where a small, round globe is centered at his large Adam’s apple. My legs part slightly as I try to steady that deep, empty feeling growing inside the lower regions of my

stomach. My eyes dart to his hands with the finger tattoos that spell out “North Hound” in some oldtimey script. They lead up to those muscular arms that look as if some Greek sculptor imagined him up. Even his jaw, with its dramatic V and the slight dimple, make him look as if he belongs in a museum and not in this motorcycle club van leading us to who knows where. He’s been talking. I should be listening. But I’m focused on those heart-shaped pink lips of his that purse slightly as he talks. “Erina? Are you even listening to me? Erina?” Okay. Back to reality. I’ve got some deranged, super-hot psychopath staring me down. This is not a time to fantasize about something as idiotic as Rhys’s red lips on my hot skin. I fan myself, as I turn back to him, feigning irritation. “I’m hearing you. What do you want?” “We’re here.” He lifts a reddish brown eyebrow slightly, as the edges of his lips twist into a dark smile. I finally notice that the cargo van isn’t rocking anymore and the hanging guns on the wall have stopped rattling against the side storage. He stands to his feet and walks towards the door. There’s a slight hesitation before he swings the back open, his hand still placed on his thigh where his cargo pockets are. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to follow or wait for instruction, so I sit and watch as obediently as possible as the driver appears and unloads Rhys’s jet black and chrome Harley from the hooks holding it in place. He leers at me, murmuring something to himself as he passes on by. I follow him out, hopping out the side. Before my feet hit the ground, Rhys is there, scolding me with a hushed tone, “What the hell are you doing? Did I tell you to get out of that van?” He quickly takes off his leather jacket and throws it over my shoulder. There’s a small, cotton hood attached that he throws up over my head. Instantly, his smell floods my senses. It’s cheap cologne, cigarettes, wood, earth, and smoke. It’s intoxicating. I feel his arm wrap around mine, as he takes the lead through a small apartment complex I don’t recognize. We’re, by my calculations, so far from the bar that I’m not even sure what neighborhood we’re in now. And in the pitch black, the unlit building seems even more ominous than I let myself imagine. Through the opening of the hood, I see a woman cross our path, looking over Rhys and his bike like fresh meat for sale. Someone hollers at her from a porch above us, but she doesn’t turn back. I feel Rhys pushing me to move faster. His apartment is at the end of the row, hidden away behind large hedge bushes. Roses sprout from the weeds, a weird sight to see when you know who lives behind the giant, reinforced red door and the boarded-up windows with the black sheets slightly concealing the wooden planks. He fidgets with the many locks before taking his shoulder to the door and pushing it open. Air escapes quickly from the darkness. “This is the place,” he says, his arms outstretched to invite me in. “It’s not much, but who the hell cares about that.” He isn’t lying when he says that. The space is pretty bare. The living room only has

a couch and a television propped up on a small bistro table. There’s a table with one chair behind it where I’m guessing he eats his meals. I peak my head slightly to the left where I can see a hint of his bedroom. The bed itself is covered in a black, silk comforter…just what I could have pictured for a guy like him. “Where should I, uh, sleep?” He walks towards the bedroom and turns on the light. The white-walled room looks even more hollow and bare when lit up. “Hell if I’m going to let you sleep in the living room and make a run for it. I’m keeping you close to me.” “I’m not sleeping with you,” I answer, quickly and firmly. “Then you can sleep on the floor next to me, but don’t complain if it’s uncomfortable.” He walks into the room, stripping off his black t-shirt. It falls to a heap on the ground. I don’t see it fall though. I am completely and unabashedly fixed on the ripples of muscles before me. Seeing his arms is one thing, but taking his bare skin in up close is a whole other story. This man is stacks of muscles—with each defined perfectly, as if he never touched a donut in his life. I lick my lips as I remind myself that he’s the devil in disguise. Reaching out and touching those lines in his abs is just going to bring more pain. But then come his pants. His spine curves as he pushes the legs down his lean legs, his round ass flexing at the thighs. That hungry feeling rears its head as I stare, completely dumbstruck at him. In my head, I am screaming, Please don’t turn around. Please don’t turn around. I don’t know if I can handle the front side of this naked man. Of course, he does. He turns around with an even face, as if it’s nothing for him to stand in front of me completely nude from top to bottom. His package dangles at his thighs, long and thick. The sight of it takes my breath away. Every part of his body seems to fit neatly into the next. Each muscle flows, creating lines I’ve never seen on anyone else before. When I was dating seriously, guys made like this weren’t even in my wheelhouse. I’ve always been attracted to the mind, to guys who could justify a thin, needing body with an intellectual prowess. I would excuse my total turn-off for them in bed or their absolute inexperience because I thought this was how it was supposed to be. Now standing in this bedroom, my toes curling into my boots, I’m feeling a wanting I have never, ever experienced before. It’s primal and wild. I feel like a cavewoman looking upon a man for the first time, longing for his touch in the darkness. And that strange need to cause a reaction flows back to me. My fingers wrap around the bottom of my blouse as I catch his eyes. I want him to see me as I strip the scratchy polyester over my chest and above my head. I find a desk chair to lay it on as I turn around again. He’s still staring, his face completely unmoving. I unbuckle the button on my jeans, slowly. The zipper comes down bracket by bracket, my hands lingering around the “V” between my legs. The fingers spread and dip even lower, down to the recess between my thighs before moving back up and hooking on the belt loops.

Rhys takes a step closer to me, his mouth slightly open, giving him the look of a fish out of water. His dark, fiery eyes are impossibly larger, the jet-black pupils dilated. He watches at a distance as I shimmy my ass out of my pants, down past my thighs, and to my calves. I slip one leg and then the other out of my boots, taking the jeans with them. I’ve never been the most graceful person in my life, but I’m thanking every star in the sky for those dance classes I was forced to take in college. I try not to focus on my tight sports bra or the off-black panties I decided to wear for the stakeout. It’s not exactly stripping clothes, but I can tell he could care less what was under my clothes. They’re off now, and he has ample opportunity to catch the full curve of my breasts, the apple shape of my ass, and the silk of my legs. His stare has made all my imperfections disappear. The stuff I would have hidden is gone, as I focus on where his eyes are lingering, moving those regions slowly to my own internal rhythm. He takes another step towards me. And then another. My heart picks up a few beats at a time as he does. After what seems like a million years, he stands before me, looming over my body as neither of us move. Our breathing seems to link rapidly with the other. Then I feel it—his arm around my back, his fingers unbuckling my bra, his hands on my shoulders, pushing the thicker straps down the length of my arms until they rest on my hips along my panty line. My breasts seem to stand to attention for him. My back curves upwards. My nipples harden in anticipation. Touch me! Touch me now! My body screams for him to act, to spark that fire, to make a move. But he waits and takes a cue out of my playbook. He reacted to me undressing. Now it was my time to be bold again. I shake slightly as I lift a hand towards his face. I wrap it around the back of his neck, slightly massaging around the nape of his neck as he lets out a small moan of pleasure. My fingers travel upwards until I can pull his head down, leading them straight to my lips. We both stagger forward to the other, as our mouths meet first. My bare chest hits his abs, pressing suggestively into him, rubbing my tits directly onto his skin. The kiss is sensational. It sends my knees quivering and my arms tightening, as I try to figure out if I am struggling to hold onto him or if I’m just weak from his touch. Rhys too struggles to control me, the kiss knocking him forward with the waves of our motion. I am struggling for air, but I am not ready to come up yet. I want to hold on to this feeling as long as possible. I’m so transfixed that I don’t even notice that I am in the air. My feet dangle about three feet off of the ground as he tosses my open legs around his hips. He walks, our lips still linked, towards a vanity dresser about waist high. I feel the cold wood up against my skin, as he puts me down gently and then stands back. Both of us heave heavily, as we desperately seek the breaths we lost to the other. I think I hear him mutter “Damn” to himself, but the sound is lost as he falls to his knees before me, his hands grabbing at the fabric of my panties. When they’re out of his way, his rough hands crawl up my ankles, past my knees, and to my fleshy calves. They part the ways as they go, giving him space for his mouth to follow, planting kissing along

the trail to my waiting pussy. I have just enough time to grab the back edge of the dresser. His hot face, with the small stubble rubbing up against my thigh, causes me to nearly scream in shock, as he inhales and exhales onto my most sensitive parts. There is no sensation I have ever known like his hands on me. It’s unworldly, the feeling of his lips latching around the folds, a finger pressing up against my pubic bone to reveal the inner parts of my body. He rubs lightly at the small nub of my clit, circling and spiraling as he distracts me with his tongue pressed up and around the rim. He’s good at this. No, that’s wrong. He’s great at this. Each little flick of his tongue is like magic when combined with what his fingers are working with. I’m in some kind of trance as he dives straight into me, not caring about the animalistic sounds I’m releasing. My legs curl up onto his back, my toes dig into his skin, and my hands reach above my head to pull at my own hair. Every inch of me is alive and electric. “Oh God,” I cry out, reaching for the top of his head and pushing him even closer to me. I feel a flash of his teeth against my skin, nipping at my tender flesh. The tinge of pain sets me off, as I shout his name in excitement, “Fuck! Rhys!” The palm of his hand reaches under my ass and lowers me down even further so he can better make a dish of me. I know what’s coming, and I can’t control it. From the moment his wet lips overtook me, I was lost in his spell. But with each passing second, I am coming to and finding that light. My body has gone light. I’m practically a feather floating in the breeze but equally weighted down by wanting him. I hold onto him tighter, wanting to keep this moment and feeling right here forever. The world disappears as I climax, my body pulsating into his open mouth. There’s a long pause where I watch him swallow deeply. A small bit of hair has fallen in his eyes and is stuck to his hot, soaked face. I reach down and brush the strands away, laughing at the mess I’ve made. Rhys pulls away, his hands still wrapped under my thighs, as he says, “There’s more where that came from.” In an effortless move, he picks me up in a cradle and places me on the firm mattress. His body follows, flattening on me. I’ve got seconds to make my decision, but as he begins to kiss my neck, his impressive cock growing stronger against my thigh, I know I have to stop this. I place my hands on his bare chest and say as bravely as possible, “I’m sorry, but…” Rhys quits and lifts his head to meet my eyes. He looks completely wounded as he asks, “Sorry, what? Did I not just make you cum?” “Yeah,” I say nervously, my head turning to the side to avoid his glare. “But I just can’t.” “You’re not a virgin, are you? Your pussy doesn’t look like you’re a mid-twenties virgin.” He smiles a bit, easing my mind. “No. I’m not a virgin.” Inexperienced, yes. Virgin, no.

“Then what the hell is it?” He rolls off of me and to my side, again forcing me to look him in the eye. “It’s that I don’t do…this. I don’t strip naked with some guy I just met, especially not someone who technically has kidnapped me.” “Taken you hostage.” “Whatever. You know what I mean. I’m not the kind of girl that does it without having some emotional connection.” “You want to get emotional? We can get emotional.” His voice changes, lightening as he says jokingly, “My daddy used to—” “No! No! Come on, now. I’m sorry I’m leaving you hanging, but I just can’t do it. Thanks for the orgasm though.” “A ‘thanks’ is all I get? Seriously? You couldn’t at least pay me back in kind?” He gestures to the long shaft laying up against his thighs. I hate to admit that I do want to know what a man like him tastes like. My lips on his skin, the hint of his pre-cum filling my mouth… I have to shake my head to physically get out of that space. It’s not going to happen tonight. “No.” I finally manage to say as firmly as I possibly can. “I just can’t. I can go sleep on the couch, or put on some clothes…” I get up off of the side of the bed and walk back towards where I discarded my bra and panties. I pull one leg in before Rhys rushes to my side. “Don’t you do that. If you’re not going to sleep with me, you at least have to stay naked until we go out again. Hostage taker’s rules.” “Kidnapper,” I correct him slyly, as I walk back hand in hand with Rhys towards his bed. My panties are left behind along with my sports bra, the black boots, and his jeans. Somewhere in that pile, my camera is still on, still recording, constantly transmitting. But I push that out of my head. All I can think about now is Rhys and his hands gently stroking my skin as we attempt to finally fall asleep.

CHAPTER 6 Oh man. I have no idea what I have gotten myself into. Did I just go down on that chick? Did I just beg and plead for her to give it up to me? What the hell, Rhys? What the hell. Don’t get me wrong. I love me some pussy, especially when it’s presented to me in such a fine looking vessel as Erina. Before she even spread those legs for me, I knew that she was going to taste of honey and lavender. That’s how all those girls taste when they’re practically untouched, their folds still pristine and proper like they’ve been kept in glass boxes waiting to be busted open by guys like me. Still, there’s something wrong. First of all, I still know nothing of this girl lying beside me, her body curled up in a ball, her little round ass touching the side of my leg. She could be in on this with Robert, both of them playing me in some long con. She’s ambitious. I can tell that, and so is Robert. Something tells me she is braver than she lets on, and that she knows that she would have to risk herself to get ahead. I absolutely hate getting played. All my life, I listened to people scream and shout at me about how stupid I was, how much I didn’t matter. And when I became an adult, I swore up and down that I would never, ever let that happen again. I was going to prove to everyone who ever doubted me that I could be the smartest mind in the room, even if I didn’t look it. In military school, I studied psychology. I read every book I could find in the library on body language and motivations. I wanted to be a step ahead, to protect myself in case someone like Erina and Robert walked into my life and pretended to know way more than me. And then I joined the Marines because I knew that there was nothing more intimidating than a guy with a gun and an army behind him. The Marines were my whole life for a long time. They still are in some ways. The majority of the Northern Hounds are ex-Marines back, who served long sentences in countries we never knew of before being sent there. We don’t talk about those times much though. Old war wounds don’t die or fade. They just get pushed under tattoos and criminal records. Erina mentioned that Robert did research on the rest of the gang and me. She would probably know about my background. All this stuff was public record, and it really didn’t help that my name is plastered in tons of newspaper clippings about the “Hero of Baghdad” and the “Survivor of Hell.” She probably read about how I killed at least ten men with my bare hands in the midst of combat. I wonder if that turned her on like the rest of the girls who flocked to me when I returned. Erina’s a strange one. I don’t know much about her. I barely remember her last name. I thought she was like the other girls with her “not too close to the fire” attitude. But I was dead wrong about her. No girl like her would have stripped for me like that without provocation. They may have flirted with me, teased me a bit, but they wouldn’t have taken the lead without me inviting them to in the first place.

With each passing moment I lie besides her, feeling her body breathe in that deep sleep, I want her more and more. It would be so easy to just spin her around, pin her down, and place my warm dick in that pussy of hers. Her scent would fill the room even more than it did before as I made her cum over and over again with her calling out my name. Get it fucking together, Rhys. It ain’t going to happen. I am practically begging myself to

go to sleep. I don’t run on much of that anymore, so the few hours I can get are essential. No one wants to deal with a weakened, tired, grumpy leader, who can’t seem to get his shit together. This is especially true in motorcycle club world where acting on emotions happens, but it usually leads to someone dying on your watch. No one dies on my time. Not even Erina…if she turns out to be who says she is. However, I promise that when she wakes up in a few hours to continue quizzing her about what she knows her partner is up to. That reminds me of the boys casing her home. I don’t usually handle club business until six in the morning, but I give myself this one allowance for the special occasion. I turn over slightly, careful not to wake up Erina, and open the drawer of the black, wooden side table. Inside is my club phone, my real phone. It’s what I use when I’m not working with clients. But the only people who have my direct number are those in my immediate circle, the guys I trust the most and a few family members I still keep in touch with. It’s one of their jobs to contact me if something is going on internally in the club, and Jonas, as secretary, gives me full updates twice a day about the business side of things. It’s only five in the morning, so I’m not expecting much. But it’s the phone flashing with an incoming message that catches my eye. It must have vibrated while Erina and I were in the middle of foreplay. The message from Red Dog is short and to the point: “Found E’s home. No sign of Scarlets here. All clear as of 2 AM.” The message was only a few hours ago. Most likely, Red Dog and his crew are still there, watching and waiting like I had asked. I respond back, my fingers quietly pushing each key of my ancient phone carefully down so they don’t click too loudly: “Stay on watch until I give the all clear. In meantime, send one man to break in. Look for anything she’s got on Robert Harding.” I turn back over my shoulder to see Erina’s long blond hair cascading down her back as she flips from her side to her stomach. Her eyes never open, and she continues to softly breathe deeply and slowly. I finish my message to Red Dog with: “Start your search in the bedroom.” I place the phone back in the drawer and lay my head back onto the flat mattress. My eyes focus on the spot on the ceiling from when the upstairs neighbor’s bathtub leaked. I try to think of something, anything but the warm body next to me. But hearing her breathe, listening to her hands rustle into the pillow she stole out from under me, thinking of that smooth skin draped over my shoulder… I can’t fight it much longer. I roll back around towards her, carefully placing an arm around her hip. It’s a mistake. Her eyes flutter open quickly while she struggles to remember where the hell she fell asleep last night. I can practically trace the realizations and memories flooding back to her as her face

goes to that morning contentment to pure horror. And seeing my face looking straight back at her only makes it worse. Distressed, she sits up straight in bed, her voice letting out a small, frightened whimper. “I’m not going to eat you, Erina.” I try to joke with her. “You’ve been lying here for hours and I haven’t done anything to you.” She peers back at me, her white face turning back to her usual pink, the freckles along her jawline dancing as she smiles slightly. “Oh. Sorry about that. I just am not the best sleeper. I usually only get a few hours a night, if that. And when I don’t sleep, I don’t wake up so nicely.” “Well, you slept last night,” I remind her, as she floats back down to the pillows, her not daring to face me straight on. “I think I heard you snore.” “You did not.” She slaps a hand across my chest. “I don’t snore. Seriously.” “Well, you said you don’t sleep either so how do you know?” She’s practically beaming, her hands shoot up to her face and cover the wide smile she can’t hide. I like this version of Erina…Erina in the morning. Erina without fear. Erina…happy. “I guess I slept last night. Must have been that amazing orgasm work you put in. Should I tip you later for the services?” She winks, and it’s one of the cutest things I’ve seen a girl do in bed with me. Normally they’d be up and out of here before I could wake. But a girl like Erina…I could keep her around for as long as she wants to stay. I growl playfully as I flip to my hands and knees, my long leg straddles her tiny body and pulls her to the center of the bed so that she’s directly under me. She giggles, her hands in front of her face again, as I say, “How about you thank me now, and we can forget about the tip…” She screams out, as I lower my head towards her neck and being to kiss passionately at her collarbone and shoulder blades. Her bare skin is almost intoxicating to me as I lose control. Suddenly, as I’m just about to place a hand on her untouched tits, she scoots herself forward, a worried look on her face. “What the hell was that?” she asks me. “Was that my phone?” “Who knows, Erina? Who cares…?” I go back to kissing her, this time pushing her head back down to the pillows with my mouth leading the way. For a second, she’s mine again. Despite the morning breath, we’re totally in synch with our movements. Her tiny hand wraps around my head, signaling I am safe to continue… And then I hear it. This time, it’s my burner phone ringing loudly from my jeans pocket. It could be only one person: Robert. “Damn it!” I exclaim, as I force myself away from her. She wraps the black comforter around her body as she stands on the side of the bed, watching me go through my jeans until I find the flip phone. “What the fuck do you want, Robert?” I yell loudly into the receiver. “You do know that it’s only five

thirty in the fucking morning?!” Isn’t the old rule to never wake a sleeping giant? You especially don’t want to wake one who is in the middle of convincing a very hot chick to let him inside her. “Where is Erina?! I want to know what the hell you did with her, Rhys.” Maybe it’s the phone, but his outrage is sounding less sincere than the day before. In fact, it almost feels like he is, literally, phoning it in. While I’m great at calling a liar out in person, I can’t do it over the phone without facial cues to recognize. “She’s fine. She’s safe.” I turn my head over my shoulder to see Erina standing over me. Her thin bare legs within reach of my arms. I could hang up right now and slither my way up the length of her body… “Why the hell do you want to know? You have my money for the job we did, or are you just pretending to be concerned?” “I am outside her house right now and I know your crew is here. I saw them sneaking out the back door with a whole file of papers. What the hell do you think you’re doing, Rhys? And where is Erina?” He manages to build up to a yell at just the right time. His inflection, however, could use some work. “Careful, Robert. Those same guys you saw going into the house are still there and can hunt you down in seconds if I snap my fingers. If I were you, I’d get the hell out of there and only call me back when you have the money. Until then, stop fucking with me and get your shit together.” I go to press the red hang-up button when I hear him shout, “Let me speak to her! I’ve got your damn money! Just let me speak to her!” Erina heard it this time, her eyes go wide in fear and worry, and I can’t tell if she’s again scared for her own life, or if she’s actually worried about Robert thinking she’s dead. She wrestles the phone out of my hand until I let her have it. “Robert? It’s me, Erina. I’m okay…” She turns around and looks at me, a crooked, unsure smile on her face. Her top teeth bite down on the bottom lip, as she lets the comforter go and walks nude into the living room where I can only hear bits and pieces of what she’s saying and none of what Robert is telling her. “No Robert… I’m fine… He is okay. He’s not that bad… Come on… Please…. Be serious with this… Do you know what he could do to you and to me?... You’re risking my life because of a film?” Tired of getting the partial picture, I follow her into the living room. Her back is turned towards me, looking at a photobook sitting on the couch. I run over to her, grabbing the book out of her hand before she can turn a page. I throw it over towards the bedroom before seizing the phone. I press the speaker button and then yell, “Who the fuck do you think is in charge here? Either I hear whatever you got to fucking say to her, or you don’t say anything at all. Do you have my money or not?” “He has your money.” Erina sighs heavily. “He wants me to do the exchange. He doesn’t think that you’ll hurt me since you didn’t yesterday.” Those blue eyes go steely as she stares nervously, almost ashamedly, at the ground. I’m not sure how to even answer her at this point.

I bark into the phone, “You fucking coward. You have to have your chick do the dirty work for you? You can’t muster up some balls and meet me man-on-man? I should have known when I dealt with you that you would be as dirty as your greasy hair and fake Italian suits. Screw you, you bastard. You ain’t never seeing Erina again.” Damn it! I shouldn’t have used her first name. Words like “chick” and “bitch” were one thing. But giving her a name was basically giving away that I didn’t intend to hurt her. You don’t name the pet you’re going to eat for tonight’s supper. And you sure as hell don’t name the girl you might have to execute or sell off. Robert can tell he’s got leverage. His suspicions about me are totally correct. He’s back on top in seconds as he turns the conversation around and answers, “I have balls, Rhys. I’m willing to meet you and her at the alley on Peterson and Devon on the north side. When you see my car, let her go and I’ll give her the cash. She’ll walk it back and then get in my car and leave. We’ll destroy the tapes and the evidence we got against the Northern Hounds and you’ll have your money. Is that not fair?” Normally, when deals like this are done, I don’t say yes until I get in agreement with at least my second-in-command, Andy. But I don’t have the luxury of time here. If I didn’t get that money, I’d be out a huge chunk of change for my boys that upping our drug runs weren’t going to get back in months. Refusing to meet him also meant that I would have to deal with the Erina situation, and keeping her here for my own personal pleasure wasn’t exactly going to work when I’m trying to run one of the most successful motorcycle clubs in the state. “Rhys,” I hear Erina say as she places a hand up on my shoulder. “Please, just do this. I really want to get home and make this go away. My mom with my broth—. I mean, my mom. I can’t let her think that I’m in trouble. It would kill her. Please. You can trust him. I promise you that.” I close my eyes and consider all the scenarios once more. I can’t afford to let emotions get in my way. No matter how many times I replay her laugh in my head or the curve of her hips in my mind’s eye, it couldn’t be a deciding factor. If I was going to do this, it was because it was a good decision for my business. I couldn’t let my feelings destroy something that I loved again… “Fine, Robert. You have a deal. Peterson and Devon. What time do you want to meet?” I sit down on the couch, my hand holding my heavy head as I concede some more of my power to this asshole. I try to picture where Peterson and Devon are on the map inside my head, but I’m coming up empty. It’s not my usual territory, which poses another potential problem I would have to try to work around. “In an hour. You’ll be done and out of there before the morning rush traffic even begins. Cops will be distracted or changing shifts. I’m assuming that’s going to work best for you, right?” There’s too much explaining here. Sure, he’s right. No other club rides out in the early morning unless they pull allnighter runs to the drug distributors in other states. But those aren’t hunting rides. And the cops did change over shifts around six or six thirty, making it prime time to do something illegal without drawing attention. But how did he know this? Did he really do this much research?

“Great! Great! I knew you’d be okay with that time.” He thinks he can joke with me, like we’re on buddy-buddy terms now that I said “yes” to what he wants to do. This guy has so much coming to him when we’re done with the money drop. I was practically plotting my revenge already. This fucker has no idea what a man like me can do when he least expects it. “Fine. An hour.” I repeat as I hang up the phone. I lean back into the couch with my head dangling over the backside. Erina’s behind me, looking down at me with a look I can’t quite make out right now. It’s a cross between in awe and a little disappointed. I flip my vision of her over as I stand before her. My anger builds as she looks away from me again. She doesn’t even have it in her to look at me in my eye. Does she not get that I’m doing this for her, too? This is what she wanted. “Rhys…” She starts, her voice trailing off as she struggles to come up with something to say to me. She can obviously feel the heat of my temper building. “I’m sorry for all of this. I didn’t know. I really didn’t know. When he told me about this film, I thought it was just going to be a way for me to make a really good documentary and maybe get back into filmmaking. I had no idea what his plans were, or that he wanted to deal with you guys directly. Please believe me. I didn’t want to do this.” My voice raises as I shout, “Then you better fucking hope that your sleazebag partner does what he promised he would do and has the money like he said. If not, you’re both dead. I’m not going to hold back and save you just because I woke up with you this morning.” I storm off towards the bedroom, leaving Erina totally stunned and silenced in my living room. I gather up a fresh pair of underwear and pants, as I throw them on quickly. When I pass her going to the bathroom, she’s still standing there, a look of horror on her face. Part of me wants to go back, place my hands on her shoulder, and tell her it was going to be all right. But I had no idea what this was going to be. I had no idea if I was offering her up to the slaughter, or trusting my gut that Robert didn’t have it in him to put his and her life in danger over ten-thousand-unmarked bucks in a black bag. I shut the bathroom door behind me and place my back up against the wood. I can hear Erina let out a long sob, her breath escaping her in one long cry. She doesn’t know I’m listening to her. She doesn’t know that I, too, am trying my best to hold back something inside of me. But mine isn’t sadness or fear. I’m holding back the urge to leave Erina locked up in my own apartment and deal with Robert myself.

CHAPTER 7 When my brother Will bought his first motorcycle, I stared at him as if he was an absolute idiot. “Why in the hell would you buy one of those death traps? Do you even know how to ride it, or you just going to wing it?” “I got my license, sis. Don’t worry about me. All this thing takes is no fear and a little know-how.” “I get that you’re stupid enough to not fear driving that thing. It’s the know-how part I’m worried about.” He proved us wrong though. Minutes after our conversation, he zipped away in a flash on the back of that thing. We really never saw him without his ride again. He became obsessed. It was the only thing he talked about, and it was hard not to resent him for letting go of his relationships with everyone else. When I see Rhys getting on the back of his, patting it for me to join him, I want nothing more but to scream and cry. Who the hell thinks it’s safe to ride one of those things? Did they not know what it looks like when the driver is flung from the back and the wheels land off to the side completely flipped over? Rhys can sense my fear. He practically sniffs it out. “It’s not going to buck you off like a horse. I obviously know how to ride one of these. I’m a fucking motorcycle club president, you know.” That tension that was plaguing us from Robert’s phone call seems to fall away, at least for now, as he laughs and gets off the bike. He lifts the lid of a storage unit attached to the back and pulls out a glossy black helmet. “Here. I don’t wear it, but if it’ll make you feel better, you can wear it.” “Are you sure?” I ask timidly, as I take the helmet from his outstretched hands and place it over my face. He stares at me for one long, arduous second. His eyes go from the bottom of my black boots to the top of my head. “Yeah, I’m sure. That look is doing something for me. I could see you wear a cycle helmet any day.” Under the protection of the dark hood, I blush nervously. I was never one for attention like this, but it feels good to hear a man like Rhys say it. I could live off of compliments like that. I walk back towards the motorcycle and ask nervously, “So how do I get on one of these things? Do I just, like, throw my leg over it.” The bike looks so intimidatingly large. I know girls my size ride these things all the time, but looking at the bike up close, I just don’t understand how it happens. This thing was made for beasts. “Yeah, you just need to…” He grabs my hand and swings me up into his arms. He measures the spot before placing me slowly over the backseat and then lowering me down. As he lets me go, his face presses into my hair and I can feel the heat of his breath tickle up against my ear and neck. Our eyes hook until I let my hand slide down the length of his back and towards my own thighs. “You ready to

go?” he finally asks, a little winded. “I am. We better get going. It’s almost time.” I don’t want to say “time for goodbye,” but I think he feels that, too. It’s not that I am avoiding the thought of seeing Robert again and confronting him on potentially putting me in direct danger. It’s more that the uncertainty of not knowing when or if I will see Rhys again feels like a weight sinking into the sea without its rope. Without another word, he joins me at the driver’s position, his hands revving the engine to life. Everything fires up as I try to close my eyes and pretend that the next part isn’t coming. But there’s the jerk and the flash that sends me flying forward, directly into his shoulders. I can hear him call back to me, “Sorry. Forgot to tell you to hold on.” I try to shout over the cool morning wind, “Please don’t go fast! I don’t like motorcycles…” But it’s too late. He’s either ignoring me or totally deaf to my cries. In fact, the louder I seem to yell, the faster he pushes the bike. We get onto the highway, headed towards Lakeshore Drive. The Chicago skyline appears with the sun illuminated on the east side of the glass. The road is just barely picking up the sun now. As we get closer to the city and nearer to the glimmering lake, the more populated the streets get. Robert’s prediction that everyone would still be in bed was totally wrong. Since I don’t drive, I don’t really think of morning traffic, and I would think guys like Rhys are made for the night. Still, Rhys doesn’t seem to think it’s an issue. He rarely rides in a lane, instead preferring to ride along the yellow and white lines to my protests and that of the cars we pass by in flashes. The morning wind is fierce. Even with the helmet, I can feel the force up against my cheeks, trying to pull me backwards. I can’t imagine what it is like to be up in front with no one’s large back to nestle your head into. I try not to think about how easy it would be for a strong gust to knock us over and into the truck next to us. Something crazy happens though. As soon as we have gone a couple miles, I am totally at ease on the back of the bike. I settle in, scooting my butt higher up against Rhys’s legs to see the view he was seeing -- the long lines of cars, the sprays of water hitting from the lake hitting the trail, the downtown disappearing towards our side. There’s something so intense about this, something that really does feel freeing about it. Is this what it is always like? Is this what I’ve been missing out on this whole time? It was like fooling around with Rhys. You know it’s wrong, you even know it’s dangerous, but you never want to stop. You just want to go harder, faster, longer. Something deep inside of me wants to scream out in joy, pure joy—and no more so than when we pass the street leading to my home. It’s like saying goodbye to the old me and embracing that part of Erina I’ve never dared to let out. Eventually, it has to come to an end. He slows, passing through lines and lanes of cars towards the exit on the right. We curve off back west towards the cityscape until we are on the main street. I know we’re only a few miles from the meeting spot, and I find myself holding on to Rhys tighter than when I got on. He, too, seems to be slowing to an unusual crawl.

“Do you know where it is?” I shout towards his ear. “It should be over by the Golden Panda Chinese Restaurant.” Rhys nods and pushes forward. The street is practically empty when we finally pull into the alley. Rhys surveys the land, looking for a good parking spot. But there are no cars to be found, no cops, no one but a shop manager sweeping the fallen leaves off of his front door. Rhys picks the best spot he can find, right in front of the alley. I try to breathe, but I know I am on the verge of hyperventilating. Something is wrong about this, terribly wrong. Rhys’s warnings about trusting Robert is flooding back, as I think about him leaving me alone with a coworker I thought I knew. What was he capable of? Why was I willing to put my life in his hands again? The bike stops completely and then leans slightly as he parks it. Neither of us move; instead we look down the long alleyway towards the figure of the man standing in the back. The figure shouts my name and uses a long arm to call me. I can make out the camera next to him, ready to film. Why was this important? The hairs on my neck and arm stand straight up, but Rhys doesn’t seem to even notice. “Are you okay? Do you want me to park closer to where he is standing?” He gently pulls the helmet off of my head, watching me shake out the musty smell and the stuck hairs. “No,” I try to say as soundly as possible. “I will be okay. Just wait here and let me see what Robert has to say. Okay?” Rhys gets off first and then offers me his hand. I gladly take it, using him to balance. I feel shaky and as uneasy as ever. As I start to walk away, Rhys grabs my hand one more time and spins me around towards him. He pulls me close, so close that I can practically taste him. “Do me a favor, okay? Be safe. Don’t do anything stupid. Hell, don’t do anything I would do.” I nod, paralyzed by his touch and the concern creeping over his face. “Maybe I’ll see you around.” “Maybe.” I swallow, both of us knowing that isn’t true. This was the end as his hands slowly let me go. I turn back towards the alley and head directly towards Robert. My boots click against the old pavement, careful to avoid the dirty, greasy puddles forming in potholes. I just want to get this over with as I speed off even faster. When I finally am eye-to-eye with Robert, I am stuck. What do you say to a guy who may have attempted to kill you? I decide to just stare, my face speaking volumes for me. He breaks the ice first. “I’m glad to see you’re alive. I really wanted to tell you what my plans were, but I wanted to make it as real as possible.” Robert nervously laughs as he adds, “We both know that you’re not the greatest actress.” “Why would you think I would be okay with that, Robert? Do you know what you put me through?” The snake-like hands of the crowd of men reaching out at me triggers a hideous, violent feeling of anger and bile inside me. I want nothing more than to reach over there and strangle him, so he could feel what it was like to have his space violated.

“Erina,” he says, as he steps closer to me, reaching out to grab my shoulders. “Do you know how famous this is going to make us both? I’ve spent all night calling around to studios about our film. I’m selling it as a real documentary about what it is like to be in the belly of the motorcycle club world. And I’ve got three distributors interested already. We’re talking Cannes, Sundance, all the big festivals. Don’t you get it? Your film and my setups are going to put us on the map. We’re never going to have to teach those goddamn freshman Intro to Film classes ever again!” His enthusiasm is causing him to practically jump out of his skin as he pulls me in closer for a bear hug. I don’t return the embrace. Something seems wrong about this. And Robert hasn’t exactly done what he was supposed to. Suddenly, it dawns on me that we’re still missing the real issue here. “Robert,” I say tersely, pulling away from him, “I’m here for a reason. Where in the hell is Rhys’s money? I need to—” Robert looks down at his gold wristwatch and turns back to me. “Don’t worry about that right now. We need to get our asses out of view. There—over there—let’s duck behind those dumpsters.” I stare at him unconvinced. “Okay, yeah, it’s not the best position, but we’ll get a good long shot of the action.” “The action? What the hell does that mean?” I take a few steps backwards on my heel, feeling the blood drain from my face, as I realize he has something up his sleeve…and that never ends up being a good thing. “What the hell do you have planned now, Robert?” I ask, my voice barely above a whisper. “Tell me you aren’t arranging things. This is supposed to be organic, you dipshit!” He doesn’t answer, keeping his gaze fixed on whatever he’s doing with his camera. “Robert…” I begin again—and then I hear it, a thundering revving of engines. It sounds like at least a dozen or more motorcycles growling from the other side of the alley. Lights flash in my direction, as I turn back to Robert. “You son of a bitch! How could you?” I demand, my nostrils flaring angrily. “What have you done? What have you done?” “Come on, Erina…” he calls, his hand outstretched just as Rhys had done moments ago. I have a decision to make, one that will change my world forever. But unlike every other part of my life I can never be sure of, I make my choice almost instantly. I take off, running in the direction of where Rhys is still waiting. Robert screams something at me as the noise of the motorcycles only gets louder and louder. I begin to scream, “Rhys! Go! Run! Get the fuck out! It’s an ambush! They’re coming!” It’s not until I am in earshot that he hears me scream my warning. “They’re coming” that he turns his engine on. “Go! Go! Go!” “I’m not leaving you,” I hear him cry out right as the first shot is fired. It hits high, just at the side of the brick siding of the restaurant. Without a pause, he drives through the sporadic bullets to where I am. He parks the bike on the side and reaches his hand towards mine. Another shot fires. It hits its mark this time. Rhys falls forward on the bike as I get on the back.

This is how it happens, I think,

as the world swirls around me. This is how I die.

CHAPTER 8 This chick is absolutely nuts! I mean, seriously, what in the hell could she possibly be thinking, running back to me like that? Doesn’t she give a damn about her own life? A million questions like these run through my mind as I grab hold of my throbbing arm. Even through the dark black leather, I can see the ruby red of blood spurting from the spot where the bullet hit. “Rhys! No! Please! No!” Erina grabs her hands around my neck, apparently looking for my pulse. Her warm hands electrify me back to consciousness. “Woah, there,” I say, trying my best to sound reassuring through the pop pop pop of bullets -- though I know my voice sounds strained. “I’m not dead -- not yet, anyways.” I grit my teeth and yell back to her over the scream of motorcycles headed in our direction. “Get low and hold on tight.” I toss her the helmet she wore earlier. It wasn’t much protection, but if they hit high, it would probably save the both of us. We don’t have any time for me to wait for her to put the helmet on. I jerk the bike forward while she’s still matting down her hair and peel out towards the streets again. It’s still early in the morning, but besides the shopkeeper still sweeping, there are more people lining up for their bus stop or to make their walk to work. No way would Joseph be so stupid as to take this fight out to the public. They were already getting heat from their precinct’s police department. We’re only a few seconds onto the road, running every red light and stop sign we come across, before I realize just how wrong I am. I’ve been a wanted man before, and I’ve been chased down before by dozens of guys armed to the teeth. I know what a chase looks like. But this felt different. The men screeching their bikes out towards us wanted me dead right there and then, and they weren’t about to stop until I was a bloody heap on the side of some Chicago freeway. “Rhys!” I hear Erina sob into the back of my jacket, her body pressing even closer to me. “What are we going to do? They’re not stopping.” I don’t know how to answer her. The truth is, nothing I can say is going to reassure her. Do I tell her we just have to ride it out and hope to God a copper comes to our rescue? Or do I explain that they will stop when we get back into Hound territory. And even then, would that matter, considering we are at least ten miles from the border? As I swerve into an alleyway, praying that it isn’t a dead end, her sobbing continues. “I’m so sorry… I’m so sorry… I didn’t know. I promise that I didn’t know. This is all my fault.” Her crying is so loud that I can clearly make it out over the roar of my engine. Her grip loosens a bit as she loses herself in her grief and shame. Every bit of me wants to pull over and order her to get herself together, but instead, I turn my head slightly, my eyes still on the pack behind us, and say as calmly as possible, “Erina, listen -- I know.

But look, we have to get out of here before we do anything else, and then we will talk. For right now though, what I need you to do is take the gun in my back pocket.” She hesitates slightly, as I make another turn back into the light of the main streets, but then I feel a hand slide down the back of my jeans and the release of the handgun from the tight pocket. “Okay. Good. Do you know how to shoot?” “What?!” Erina screams her reply, instantly giving me my answer. “You can’t be serious. I can’t shoot another person.” “I’m not going to ask you to. Just aim somewhere off in the distance when we get into the alleyways. You don’t have to shoot when other people are around. All they need to do is to see you with the gun, to think you know what you’re doing. If they see you firing, maybe they’ll back off. We just need to hold them off until we can get past the divider for our territory. Do you read me? Can you do that for me?” She pulls herself into me and nods into my jacket, wiping her tears from her face. I feel her body tense up as she lets go of one arm from around my waist and then spins slightly to face the back. I keep my eyes focused on the traffic ahead of me, darting in and out through the cars and then towards an industrial parkway. Once we are finally away from the morning rush hour, I hear the first boom. Unlike the Scarlets, I’m not afraid to use a silencer on my gun, but while I’m used to the bang and pop, I feel Erina’s body lurch into mine as she cries out nervously. I don’t hear any commotion from behind us. No crashed cars or screams of terror. She didn’t kill anyone… at least, not yet, anyways. Still, I have absolutely no idea how, or if, she can keep this up. I need back up and I need it now. I grab the Bluetooth headset from my counsel and strap it to my ear. I shout a name, as it quickly dials and then rings. “Huh? Boss? Is that you? Do you know what fucking time it is, man?” Andy’s voice barely registers over the noise and chaos, as Erina fires off another shot. This time, it hits something. The sound of metal on metal clings and clamors, as I duck out of instinct. “Oh my God. Oh my God!” Erina is frantic as she turns back to me, placing the gun in my lap. “I can’t do this anymore, Rhys! I shot him -- I shot that guy! What the hell am I doing here! Oh my God! Holy shit, I k—” The words stick in her throat, but I have no time to pay them any mind, at least not right now. “Rhys?” comes Andy’s voice on the other end of the line. “Yo, Boss, what the hell was that? Was that the girl? The fuck? Who did she shoot? Where the hell are you?” Andy picks up Erina’s screams and instantly connects the dots without me even saying a word. At least that gets us past the pleasantries. Andy’s routine hangover doesn’t even seem to be bothering him now. “Yeah, listen, I was dropping Erina -- yes, the film girl -- off at an alley at Peterson and Devon when that son of a bitch Robert pulled a stunt. He must be working with the Scarlets because as soon as the girl was off the bike, they came out of the dark like some fucking wolf pack. They obviously knew where I was going to be and that I was going alone.” “Shit, man! You gotta be fucking kidding me. That slimy cock-suckin’ motherfucker. Swear to God,

man, that’s the last fucking time we work with snot-nosed, greasy-assed civilians like him. None of those bastards can be trusted…” New shots from around my side interrupt his rambling rant and bring him back to the present. “What do you need from me? You need some riders to meet you? I think we still have the night shift out.” “No,” I say, shaking my head. “I’m gonna need fresh riders and gunners -- ones with experience. Load up Red Dog and the enforcer trainees and get them out to Lake and Wood. I’m sending you my location. Pass it on to them and tell them to follow me. I want at least two flanking me while the rest pick up the rear. They have my permission to shoot, as long as there aren’t any bystanders or witnesses along the route. Still gotta keep this as much on the DL as possible.” “What about the safe house on Mozart Street? Can you get there without being seen?” I hadn’t thought of the house yet. We used it when we had to lie low, or if we had a guy getting heat from the law. No one ever expects a club like ours to have points set up past enemy lines, and the house is set up in cop territory, making it pretty goddamned dangerous to cross if you were planning on breaking the law. I’m only a few blocks away from Mozart. Over this bridge was cop-home central and looking down at the clock on my ride, I see it’s almost time for the cops to be coming home from night duty. The neighborhood will be swarming with them. “That’s a good idea, Andy,” I tell him. “I’m going to gun for it now, fast as possible. Tell Red I’m headed in that direction. Tell him to meet me there if he can - or track my GPS if he can’t. Capiche? “You got i—” “Rhys!” Erina’s cry interrupts my thoughts as Andy drops off the call. “Look out!” Her hand stretches out past my face, pointing towards a brick wall not five hundred feet from us. I pull hard on the handles, spinning the bike around. Erina’s arms circle me as tight as possible, as we slide to the side. A sharp, shooting pain from my arm burns against deep in the skin, as everything in my hands go numb and cold. Luckily, my other arm is there to pick up the job. The gun floats off of my legs and down to the ground where my foot balances the weight of the bike. I don’t even bother picking it up. We’ve managed to pick up speed on Joseph’s gang, but we’re still being tailed by at least three or four of his fastest gunners. The bridge to the safe house is just around the corner of the alley, but from here, I can see the mounting traffic and the lines of cars getting ready to get on to the highway. There would be no way in hell I would get through that without being seen or recorded. I had to get over there without being spotted. I straighten my bike to point straight towards the narrow underpass of the bridge as I remember an old passageway one of our guys pointed out when we identified the house. There’s a sewage tunnel just a few feet from the river that is usually only full in the spring and summer when the water swells. It wasn’t going to be pleasant, but it was what we were going to have to do. I yell back towards Erina, “I need you to hold on tight and duck. We’re going in!”

We both lower our bodies onto the handles of the bike and just barely escape inside the tunnel. Inside, the echo of the bikes chasing us appear even louder, though their lights never turn on. Instead, we hear the sloshing of footsteps in the ankle high water and then loud screams of laughter. A man’s voice shouts out towards us as we near the end, “Try running from this, Rhys!” I know what’s coming next. I should have been smarter and taken the path through the cars on the bridge above us. But I underestimated just how smart Joseph’s men were. I should have seen it. I should have planned for it. With not much space in this cement tube, a bullet had nowhere to go but in the back of the driver, or his passenger. All one had to do was just aim straight down the center and pull the trigger. There was no way on God’s green earth to outrun a bullet that was moving at seventeen hundred miles per hour. I close my eyes and pull down on the handlebars. Everything goes by in slow motion as I feel Erina’s lips brush up against my neck, the thick ponytail slosh up against my back, her nails dig into the opening of my jacket and into my t-shirt. I can smell her skin up against mine, the hint of yesterday’s perfume and last night’s orgasm still as strong as when I first smelled it. It overpowers every other sensation I think I should have in a moment like this. I’m lost, as the bike manages to run up the side of the tunnel. The wheels lift off of the ground and out of the water spraying it everywhere and up and down our legs. I haven’t done this stunt since I was a teenager learning to ride, but I manage to hold on as tightly as possible as I maneuver the bike up as high as it can go before it slides down the sides and out through the curved opening of the tunnel. We hit the ground hard. Too hard. The morning sun and already-scorching concrete smack us straight in the face as I struggle to land. Erina goes flying first, her grip letting go forcefully as she cries out. I fly the opposite way. The arm with the bullet in it lands on the ground first, sending shock waves up and down my spine. My head falls next, scraping the skin of my nose and forehead on a bunch of river rocks that line the underside of the bridge. The bike is still under my legs, pinning me down against the rocks. “Rhys! Rhys!” I turn my head to see Erina crawling to me on her hands and knees. Besides a scrape above her head that is just turning red and raw, she looks as perfect as the first moment I saw her. The light behind her glows against her straw-colored hair. “Are you all right? Are you hurt?” I take a moment to check myself. I’ve been in plenty of wrecks like this before. Really, crashing out is just part of life when you ride hard and fast -- or when motorcycle chases become part of your routine. Usually it’s the legs that take the most of the damage—followed by the spine and back. But I’m feeling fine. Only my shoulder and arm are throbbing. I look up at her as I say urgently, “Yeah. I’m all right. But we got to get going. We don’t know if they’re coming for us or not.” Everything around us is silent. I can hear the cars rush above us as they drive on the bridge. Yet, there isn’t even a hint of motorcycles. Either they think we’re dead and have gone home -- or they’re walking the length of the tunnel to finish the job. Quite frankly, I really don’t want to find out which one it is.

“I need you to lift with me so I can pull the bike off my legs. Can you turn the bike off? Be careful of the wheels. And then grab the handles and lift.” She follows my instructions and then pulls. It doesn’t budge, even with me using my one good arm to help her out. Without saying another word, she walks around to the top of the bike and rests her butt up against the seat. Erina grunts as she uses her weight to lift the bike up slowly up her back. When it’s high enough, I slither out and balance the rest. I only have to say, “We’ve got to go,” before she’s on the backseat like a pro rider. She doesn’t even hold on as I pull forward, back towards the street. It’s amazing what a brush with death will do to a girl like Erina. She could have fooled me for any backseat chick, the way her thighs hooked into mine as we pulled in closer to the house. When we arrive at the old Victorian home with the white pillars and the purple shutters, I can tell she is a bit shocked. She looks the house up and down with a discerning look on her face that tells me that this is not what she expected. “Where are we?” Erina finally asks, as I follow her slowly up the steps of the porch from the carport. My feet begin to feel the weight of my body, as I slump towards the ground. I fumble with the keys. My hand has turned an off-shade of white. I know that the gunshot wound has done enough damage. I can barely hold steady. Erina looks down at my trembling hands and grabs hold of the key to steady it. The door opens, and I collapse inside. It’s as if my entire body has waited for this moment -- this feeling of safety -- to finally give in. I lean up against the entry wall, not caring if the blood stains the old, musty wallpaper. We keep a ton of homes in the city for situations like this. All of them are houses you wouldn’t exactly peg for motorcycle club men. Some of them are so frilly and full of flowerbeds and statues of little angels that you’d think your grandmother lives there. However, inside is bare bones. No food. Sparse furniture. Lots of guns. Erina falls in the house after me, her voice tired but still strong. She presses a cool hand against my cheek as she asks again, “Are you all right? Tell me how I can help you.” I focus in on her eyes, those green orbs bouncing in a pool of white and black. She really is beautiful. When I don’t answer right away, she takes the lead by pulling me to stand. I instinctively lean up against her, as I point towards the living room. I can just barely get my feet to move now. It’s funny how fast adrenaline wears off and the real pain sets in. We pass the coat closet with the doors thrown open, revealing the arsenal of guns, knives, and other tactical gear we store here. This is just a small part of the stock. Erina pauses and then continues dragging me along. I make a mental note to avoid showing her the basement where the real shit happens. She places me down on the nearest sofa, a hunter green leather antique we got from a dumpster dive a few years back. It practically showers us in dust. “What can I do?” Erina asks, kneeling before me. “Should I call an ambulance or someone? I don’t know what to do.” Something in me turns at the thought of her worrying like this.

Erina reaches in my pocket and pulls out my club phone. I grab her wrist before she can dial. “No police. No club members. They are coming. But right now, I need you to get the bullet out.” “You can’t be serious,” she replies, her face going as white as my hand. “I am. If you don’t, it will get infected and I’ll die. And if I die, you die.” I know I shouldn’t threaten her like this, not after she shot someone on the chase and saved my life by running back. But I can’t risk her chickening out right now. Erina closes her eyes and bites her lip. The tip of her nose flares slightly as she finally responds, “What do I need to do?” I grit my teeth as I start barking orders. “Get the ice pack from the freezer, a knife from the kitchen, and some alcohol from the counter.” She runs back towards the main part of the home. I listen to her clamor around looking for everything, as I strip the jacket carefully off of my arm. When she returns, she stops dead in her tracks. The gaping wound in my arm must look like hell to a noob like her. “We need to wrap my arm. Use the knife and cut my shirt up.” She kneels back down in front of me, gulping hard as she lifts the shirt over my head slowly and carefully. It’s already blood soaked around the arm, but she just does her job, stripping it into two large pieces. Without me telling her, she wraps it tightly around the wound and the other piece just slightly above. “Okay. Now take the ice and put it on my arm. You have to hold it in place,” I say. “How long?” she asks, as she picks up the pack and places it against my inflamed skin. “Until I can’t feel anything.” Erina smiles slightly, as she looks up at me through her parted bangs. “Then I’m done. What’s next?” “Are you seriously making fun of a guy who was shot?” “Nah, I’m making fun of a guy who lives in an old Victorian home my grandma probably played bridge in back in the forties.” “I don’t live here. This is a house we use when we need to lay low for a bit. You know, when we got a guy who’s wanted for something or is in trouble with the law, we haul up in one of these places till we get it sorted out with our guys.” Erina places the ice pack under the loop of one of the shirt ties, stands up, and peers back down at me. Something in her face has changed from seconds ago. Her whole body seems to have tensed up at that last sentence. Her fists ball into knots, as she sucks in a deep breath. I shouldn’t care, but I ask

anyways, “What’s wrong with you?” She bites her pale lip, the color from yesterday all but faded, before she replies slowly, “Are you saying you guys work with the police? Like you bribe them?” “Yeah, of course we do. All clubs got an inside man or two. We have seven in our precinct, two in the city, and a couple state troopers for good measure. There’s an FBI agent that looks out for us too… routine stuff.” Her silence says everything and nothing all at the same time. Her large eyes seem only to grow with each passing second. “So you get away with things like…” Erina is baiting me. I know she is. But I never back down from a question, and I know nothing but truth. “Yeah. We get off on things we did. You should know that already. I mean, you’re the one secretly filming us.” She takes a few sturdy steps back towards me as her voice lowers. “So then,” she says deeply, her voice hanging like a cloud of smoke over our heads, “what about murder?”

CHAPTER 9 “Erina, you do the math,” Rhys snaps. He stares me down hard, still white as a sheet. His teeth grind together menacingly and the look in his eyes tells me he thinks I’m the crazy one. “Seriously,” he continues, his voice on edge. “Where the fuck do you think we are? You know who I am. You know what I do. For Christ’s sake, you know what’s in my goddamn back pocket! It’s part of the game. You have to have realized that by now.” I throw my camera bag off of my shoulder and onto the ground next to my feet. I can’t believe him. Am I am totally stupid to be asking a question like whether he has ever taken someone’s life before? Maybe. After all, the camera is getting all of this. I know I should be gentler, considering it’s still taping -- but I just can’t care anymore. Besides, I can always destroy any and all of the footage anyway -- right after I rat out that piece of shit Robert for everything he’s done. But for now, I’ve got bigger fish to fry -- mainly, this flounder in front of me. I narrow my eyes at him. “Don’t,” I try to say, but my voice catches in my throat. I clear it and try again. “Rhys, don’t you fucking dare talk to me like that. I am not just some naïve, skanky-ass ho you and your boys dragged in from the street. I fucking know things. I know a lot of things. And honestly, the only thing I want right now is the truth.” He takes a long, deep breath. “Well,” he says, a surprisingly honest look coming over his face. “The truth is that I’m -- I’m not the good guy you want me to be, or that you think I can be. I don’t have some deep, hidden angelic side that’s trying to break free. I’m not a rogue saint who’s here to save you.” He begins pacing and turns on me, his eyes glowing with menace that’s both expected and wholly unfamiliar. His voice lowers to almost a whisper. “You knew what you were signing up for when you decided to film me. You had to know. Just like you probably knew what you were getting into when you agreed to work with that son of a bitch Robert.” His words sting—more because they’re true than anything else. He’s right, of course. I knew from the get-go that he isn’t some kind of knight in shining armor. And I’m not a little girl searching for someone I can save—been there, done that. But even now, even after what sounded like an admission that he’s a murderer, I find myself wishing that the guy I am supposed to be siding with could ultimately have even an ounce of good in his heart. Still, I have to defend myself on one thing. “Don’t blame Robert on me, Rhys,” I say, matching his ferocity. “Did you forget that I didn’t know that he threw me to the wolves last night? I am just as shocked as you are.” “See. That’s where you’re wrong, Erina,” he responds forcefully. “I’m not shocked. Assholes like him always think they can pull one over on guys like me. But see, like all the shitheads I’ve ever known, he doesn’t have a goddamn clue what kind of pain -- what kind of hell -- I’ve got waiting for his ass when we get out of here.” He tries to sit up, but shoots straight back down, wincing in pain. Bright red blood cascades through the bandage I’ve applied to him and onto the little freezer pack I managed to find frosted over in the back of the icebox. For all the times this guy’s been in situations like this,

you’d think he’d have a proper first aid kit or something. “Plus,” he adds, not even giving me the chance to think up a reply, “you might have conveniently forgotten already -- chalk it up to PTSD or some shit -- but you’ve got blood on your hands, too.” I blanche. What is he—? And then it hits me. He doesn’t wait for me to reply. “Yeah, that’s right,” he says, seeing the dawning moment of realization come over my face. “Didn’t think about that, did you? That guy might be dead. And who knows? He could’ve had a girlfriend, a wife, kids. Hell, maybe he was just riding with the Scarlets to make a few bucks to keep his mom in a decent hospital. But you. Shot. Him.” Oh my God. I did. I shot him. My body collapses onto the dirty carpeted floor before Rhys, as he rattles on more potential descriptions of my victim. But in my head, every thought is a blur. The heaviness weighs down on me like a sack of bricks and I’m sinking… sinking… sinking…. “Erina? Come on. Erina?” I feel a hand on my shoulder and then another on my jaw. It forces me to look up at Rhys kneeling before me, wincing in pain. I didn’t even hear him get down -- I’m that far removed from reality. “Erina? Come back to me. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have said that shit. I know that’s not you. You were just doing what you had to do.” Was I? Did I really have to kill someone to escape? Looking back, it seems like Rhys had it under control with his slick motorcycle moves and his fast driving. What about the crew that was supposed to come get us? Couldn’t we have just waited a bit longer for them to do the dirty work? Now I’m a killer. I killed a man—just like how my brother died. I look straight into Rhys’s dark eyes, my mouth quivering as I say solemnly, “No, Rhys. Don’t be sorry. I killed a guy, and I’m going to Hell for that. I’m not even going to get to go where my brother went. I’m never going to see him on the other side. God, if he knew that I killed someone like he was killed—” “Wait, Erina,” he says, shaking my shoulders slightly to bring me back down to earth. “What did you just say? What about your brother?” I don’t want to tell him. I don’t want him to know about my pain. No one should know. I opened up to Robert that one night and now look what’s happened? He exploited it. “It’s nothing,” I mutter. Then seeing the look of genuine concern on his face, I look up and continue, “Seriously, Rhys. Just forget I said it. I’m okay. Really, I’m…I’m fine. Just tired. Can…can we just get that damn bullet out of your arm?” I place a hand on his shoulder, forgetting the pain. He pulls away quickly and scurries back to the couch like a wounded animal. “We’re not going to do anything until you tell me the truth. What is this shit about your brother?” He scowls at me suspiciously, and I can’t understand why this matters so much to him.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I say flatly. I place my arms around my chest like I would do when I was little. “Fine,” he says, almost smirking, “then I’ll die of blood poisoning. See if I care. We can just sit here in silence until you’re ready to talk.” He leans his head against the side of the couch so that all I can see is that long neck and the tip of his jaw. The red circle of his bandages just seems to grow and grow with each passing second. This was an ultimatum I couldn’t stand. “Jesus H. Christ, Rhys,” I yell. “You’re a son of a bitch, you know that? Fine. My brother Will died about a year ago. Someone shot him in the back when he was riding his motorcycle.” I don’t dare to look up at Rhys as I let my truth out, but his silence tells me he wants me to go on. “The cops, well, I don’t think they are telling my mom and me the entire truth. They didn’t even try to investigate it. We only know these little things.” “Like what?” he demands. “What evidence did they get?” From my view of the floor, I see his feet shuffle as he pulls himself upright. He’s curious, I think. Curious is good. At least he isn’t denying things right off of the bat. “Well, there wasn’t much information really. No witnesses that would come forward. I guess that’s a clue in and of itself. About a week after everything, someone did come forward, but some of the detectives doubted their story. They said it was an accident; that it was crossfire between two gangs, but the detective I talked to had a file open with a picture of Will’s body. He had a piece of red fabric, like a badge, in his hands.” There’s a slight pause as I try to think of what else I can tell him, but I am tapped out. Just saying all that out loud has made me more tired than I’ve ever been before. And frankly, not getting any sleep last night is not the only thing taking a toll on me. Luckily, Rhys breaks through. “Was he a member of a club?” he asks. “Do you know if he rode with any of us? None of my guys are dead, and I know we didn’t order a hit on a Will, or take a job on a younger guy.” “No,” I respond, shaking my head vaguely. “I mean, he had just gotten back from the Middle East. He did two tours with the Army. He didn’t have a ton of friends, and I know that was an issue. He had a hard time finding a job, too, so he was hard up on money. I was kind of shocked when he bought that bike. He didn’t talk about riding before then, and I thought it was weird that he used his savings to get it.” “Scarlets,” Rhys mutters, spitting off to the side. “It had to be. Motherfucker.” “Wait, what?” I respond. “I don’t understand. You’re saying you think the Scarlets were behind it?” He nods. I sigh absently. “That was my first thought,” I say, “y’know, when I saw their badges. But I wasn’t sure. Something just doesn’t add up to me.”

“Yeah,” he says, shifting in his seat. “Well, it shouldn’t come as any surprise. Those lousy pieces of shit prey on guys like your brother -- boys that get back from the service and need a place to go and some money to cover their bills. If he tried to do a double cross or disobeyed Joseph, I have no doubt they would have killed him in cold blood like that.” When Rhys talks, it’s cold. It’s like we’re discussing a case on the news or some crime show. While I know that he doesn’t know Will, it’s just like talking with the detective. So methodical. They don’t know Will. They don’t know the amazing brother he was or how he’d give his left hand to make sure that you were okay. They don’t know how he beat up my first boyfriend when he cheated on me, or how he spent his weekends fixing Mom’s car. I’m breaking down again. I can feel my body shake and shiver with the grief I’ve been holding back since starting this project. I can’t take this anymore as I whimper, “This is why I am here, Rhys. I just want to know who did this. I want to know the damn criminals who ruined my life! Do you understand that?” He crawls back towards me, his long, muscle-bound arms enveloping me, bringing me into his chest. His bare skin is moist but soft. I lean my head in for support, my tears trickling down the lines of his body as I shamelessly let out everything -- all the pain of Will’s death, all the anguish I felt afterwards, all the craziness that has happened today. He strokes my hair with his good arm, pulling the strands back from my tear-stained face. And it’s then I realize I’ve never had a man comfort me like this. “I’m sorry, Rhys,” I say, my voice trembling. “I’m so, so sorry. I don’t mean to do this. I -- I can usually talk about him without being a -- you know, a mess.” I pull away slightly, showing him that I can compose myself, and chuckle slightly. “I…I think it’s all the, uh, the adrenaline wearing off… from the chase. I’m going to go clean myself up.” As I rise to go, he grabs my arm and pulls me back down next to him. He doesn’t look at me. In fact, he stares out towards the closed window, as if another world is revolving around him. When he talks, he does it as if he is releasing part of himself. I know I shouldn’t do it. I know that what he is about to say is beyond personal, something sacred for a guy like him. But I still use my foot to slide the camera out of the bag and onto the carpet so that it is pointed at Rhys as he begins. “You know,” he says, almost consolingly, “I was like your brother a few years back. I spent three tours in Hell—Iraq and Afghanistan. I joined the Marines as an escape. I didn’t have much of a family and the ones that were didn’t show me much more than a hand to my face. I even had a girl, but she left me when I didn’t come home on her timeline. But the brothers I made were the only things that got me through. I became the perfect Marine, the guy on that poster that everyone looks up to.” I should have known. The tattoos, the attitude, the look of steel—those were all things I could recognize with my brother. War hardens you. War turns you into this good and bad, black and white person without a middle ground. It destroys the sense of love and makes you worship false idols. For my brother, it was money. It was all he could talk about when he got back. Not having a job was like taking away this dream from him. It destroyed this sense of who he was. Moments like him showing

off his new bike were so few and far between. Rhys continued over my soundless memories, “When I got out, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life. I mean, how do you move on from seeing your friends die before you? How do you just forget that you worked all those years to make a brotherhood and then have an enemy shoot them down, one by one?” I gulp as I ask, “Did you… did you ever get… shot at?” He nods. “Yeah,” he says, a look resembling exasperation coming over his face. “Yeah, I did. Many times actually. It’s always when you least expect it. There was this time when I was talking to my man, Credo. He was telling me about his wife back home and how she had moved back in with her mom—stupid stuff like that. We had lunch like an hour before so we were pretty full. It’s strange what you remember for those times, but the next thing we knew, we heard this bang like I’ve never heard before. There was an explosion to the side of us, a car bomb. But it was a distraction for the ambush. Twenty of those bastards popped out of nowhere. Credo didn’t have a chance to turn and run for cover. They got him in the neck as I grabbed his arm to go.” “Oh Rhys…” I bury my head back in his chest, listening to his heart thump fast under the steel muscles. “I am so, so… sorry. Will never talked about what it was like over there. He just didn’t discuss it.” “When you’re near death constantly, you don’t want to talk about it. You just keep moving. You keep living. If you stop, you die. That’s why I formed the Northern Hounds. I had to do something after I got back. I had to make a name for myself after figuring out that I was a nobody here again. If you want death to be kind to you, you got to get it to respect you first.” The two of us sit in silence, me cradled up against him as he sits firmly in his place on the floor. We both have so much more to say, I can feel that. But there’s this unspoken promise that, at least for right now, that’s all the other needs to know and hear. “Oh crap. Your arm.” I managed to forget about that whole ‘remove a bullet from a man’ in the drama of the past hour. I can’t imagine what kind of pain Rhys must be in. Then again, he did tell me that this isn’t his first brush of getting shot at. Maybe it’s like a shot at the doctor’s office to him… probably not. “Yeah. It’s numb. I’m not feeling much around the ice pack. That’s good. But I still need the alcohol. Can you grab it?” I crawl over to the bottle of straight vodka I found on one of the dirty countertops. The bottle was open but had managed to collect dust. Some part of that was comforting—that this hideout home wasn’t used too frequently. Rhys takes the bottle from me and unscrews the top. As I unwrap his bandages slowly, the smell of blood and flesh overcoming my nostrils, he swings back three huge gulps. The rest of the bottle is poured onto his arm. Rhys lets out a roar of a pain that is so inhumane, I stop in my place. He shakes as he turns back to me and commands, “Get the damn knife. We have to do this quick before the vodka wears off.”

“Yeah. Okay,” I reply nervously, as I shuffle for the silver knife I left on the couch when I tore his shirt in two. “What do I do now? Do I just…?” “Cut into me. Yeah. Be careful though. Go slow. Don’t freakin’ nick an artery or something. You don’t want me to bleed out on this carpet.” My stomach lurches at the mental picture of him dying in my arms. Everything about my body goes weak as I lose all the composure I worked back up. I struggle to focus back on the wound, but my eyes dart around it. That’s until he reaches across himself and grabs my hand in his. I look at him, truly look at him, for the first time since we got back from the chase. His eyes squint just a tad bit as he says to me, “You can do this, Erina. I know you can. You’re much stronger than you think you are.” I take three deep breaths and then grab the knife by the long, black handle, the blade pointing at the skin. The red wound, a little bigger than a quarter in size, has a black tip. It has to be the bullet. It’s pointed diagonally in the skin, as I wonder how close it was to hitting something much more vital. If it was straight in, he would had to have lost his arm, or worse. I can’t think about that now. I peel back the skin with my pointer and middle finger and then use the other hand to dip the knife slowly into the open flesh. Rhys squirms, but he resists making much sound. His hands dig into the floor’s fabrics, and I watch as his feet curl inwards. How he can manage to not scream as I open him up is beyond me. The knife scoots the bullet out of the skin. It trickles down onto the ground in the very small space between us. I clean the rest of the wound, looking for hints of his leather jacket that may still be stuck in there, but all I see is red and yellow muscle. I stand quickly and walk back towards the camera bag, not paying attention to the red light still turned on. I pull out my sewing kit and bring it back to my patient. “Black, red, or white?” I ask, jokingly, trying not to think about how I need to put the tip of the needle through his skin. “Black. It’ll match my tattoos.” He winks at me as I begin. After the first stitch, it becomes as familiar to me as if I’m sewing a costume for a character or a curtain for my mom. The last tie is the trickiest, his skin doesn’t want to stay fully closed and the red swelling make it even harder to tie it completely off. I pull slightly, careful not to rip the thread or his skin and then tie off the end in a neat bow. Without scissors and not wanting to use the bloody knife, I lean down towards his arm as close as I can get, my lips touching his salty skin, and use my teeth to cut the extra off. Both of us stare at the tied up wound for a long moment before I say quite proudly, “I did it.” Rhys lets out a long, almost tired laugh as he answers, “You did, kid. You did it.” His hand wraps around the back of my head and steadies me nearer to him. I can feel Rhys’s breath slow against my cheeks. The light in his eyes dances again, as if the gaping hole isn’t still there. Everything in the room disappears with his lips on my lips, his hand on my neck, and my heart dancing in my throat.

CHAPTER 10 What the hell am I thinking? This isn’t show and tell or sharing-is-caring time. She doesn’t need to know the details. Erina is just some chick who is tagging along. Once this crap is over with, she’ll be out of my life so fast that I’ll forget her name in a week or two. Then why the fuck am I kissing her like this? I don’t kiss. Honestly, I can’t remember the last girl I went lips to lips with outside of sex. This is just too…intimate…feeling her body leaning up against mine, her hands swiping softly against my cheek, her head tilting to the other side as she puts pressure against me. I don’t want to do this. My hand, the one not currently numb from a bullet wound in the shoulder, travels up the length of her thin body to push her off. I can feel the heat of her skin through that black blouse of hers. Her smell somehow gets stronger the more I touch her. I just can’t seem to get myself to brush her off. When I finally make it up to her shoulders, my hand wraps around her collar and pulls her even closer to me. I guess I do want this. I want this bad. Between my legs, something stirs. Everything wakes up from the smallest hair on my arm to the muscles in my thighs. Waves crest over me, pushing me further into her, as she lies back on the carpet, taking me with her. But as I go to hitch a leg over her hips, I can feel her hesitate. Maybe she knew this wasn’t right either. “Rhys,” she asks, her eyes darting between my arm and my face. “Are you sure you want to do this? Your arm…?” Her hand glides up my arm and stops about six inches from where the fabric is tied. She massages slightly into the muscle, careful not to pull or push too hard into my skin. A small little shot of pain rings through my bones, but I can barely feel it over the sensation of seeing her lie under me. Nothing in this world has ever made me feel more like a man than that. Damnit, I kiss her again. This time, it’s wild. There’s no softness to it, no comforting aspect, no surprise. I kiss her with every ounce of energy I have in me to just keep going. I want her to feel my power. I want her to experience what a night with Rhys O’Malley, even when he’s injured, can be like when he’s high on the chase. As I come up for air, her lacy, silk shirt sticks to my skin and catches me off guard. Why is she still dressed? I lower my face towards her neck, inhaling the space between her ear and chin, feeling her skin turn to bumps at the slightest release of my breath on her. She squirms slightly. I can feel her hips rising as my teeth gather around one of the straps of her shirt. Erina shrugs, as I bob my head slowly down her long, graceful arms until she can gently slide out of it. I repeat on the other side, even smoother. She plays modest—with her hands at the line of her shirt’s lowered neckline. In reality, I’ve just seen the whole package an hour ago, but that doesn’t mean I want to miss out on this again. I dip down and kiss the top of her hands, parting them with my head until she doesn’t protest anymore. They move to the side of her where I can put some weight on them. I don’t want her to stop me now.

Against my rough, bumpy skin, hers is smooth, and almost magically soft. She doesn’t have edges; her entire body is made up of soft curves and caverns that I swear I could just fall into. I could rest all night in the space between her tits. I force myself to move up towards the peaks of her mountains. Her milky white breasts give way to pink and brown tips that grow harder with each wet kiss I plant on her. My tongue wraps around the side of her nipple, curving as much as I can around that perfect, nickel-sized oval. She gasps audibly, releasing the breath she has been holding in since I tugged down her shirt. Her moans only get louder and more intense as I unleash my teeth. I don’t dare bite. Instead, I nibble softly, enjoying the taste of her. Erina’s body rocks softly, pushing her nipple fully into my mouth, forcing me to take her. It’s unintentional; she didn’t plan it and might not have even wanted it—but rather, it’s instinctual, as if her body needed to make it happen. I know that feeling all too well. My mouth is happy to oblige her as I suckle softly, putting a little suction at my pursed lips. Beneath our foreplay, at her rocking hips, her hands begin to move with the rhythm of her body. Underneath my weight, they float past my hips and belt until they find their mark along the zipper. My package is fair game. It’s almost full size now after all that time spent working her upper half. Still, I can practically feel her smile that self-satisfied grin, as she grabs hold of me tightly and begins to massage up and down the deep crease in my jeans. She has no idea how good it feels to be stroked like that. I cock my head backwards, releasing myself from her breasts. Something inside me lets out this long, drawn out moan. And she takes over. I feel her hand on my bare chest, pushing me down to the ground as the other slides down between my jean buckle and underwear. She holds onto my cock, as my head hits the carpet with a small smack. The fall doesn’t even register. I’m fixed onto the sensation of her undressing me, pulling down my pants, as she removes her own before me. A girl going down on me is nothing new. Chicks try to do it all the time to impress me or to lay claim on me. It’s part of club life. But every time I watch them do it, there’s this weird hesitation before they go in. They grit their teeth or move their jaw slightly as if they are forcing themselves to warm up for an Olympic event. That’s not true for Erina. Instead of tensing up, she softens. Her eyes grow heavy as they look upon my erect cock. A crooked, almost wicked smile passes over her face. And she actually licks her cherry red lips just before positioning them right above my cock. To my surprise, though, she doesn’t go in. She takes her time gliding her mouth up and down the length of me. Her pink, smooth tongue occasionally licks at a small spot she finds, and she uses her gently cupped hand to hold me to her so her lips can study me more. It’s a tease, and I can’t get over it. It’s so innocent, so precious. I’m not used to this kind of simple attention. I just want to grab her by that damn ponytail and launch her little head up and down my dick like that bobbing balancing bird toy. I grin and bear it. My hands find the carpet, and I grasp at the fibers, hanging onto them for dear life. The rest of me watches her as she finally opens that sweet mouth of hers to pass the tip of my waiting cock into her. She only takes about an inch of me, which is just enough to set my entire body on fire. Sparks shoot through me as I feel my way through the warm, wet spaces of her mouth. Another inch slips in. And then another. The entire head of my cock gets a moist bath, her mouth enveloping my

turgid cock like a pro, but her eyes tell a different story. She wants this, but she wants it on her terms. I’m not giving that to her. I can’t help myself anymore. My hips raise as I force the rest of myself into her mouth and towards the back of her throat. I don’t go too fast. I want to see how much Erina can take--and how much she is willing to take. To my surprise and utter delight, she puts nearly my entire length in that tiny mouth of hers. Her cheeks fill up and her eyes widen, but almost all of my ten inches have now found their way past her lips, through her mouth, and into her waiting throat. When she needs air, she slowly comes back up, pushing herself upwards with her hands, leaving a long trail of drool hanging from her tongue. “Damn, girl!” I shout involuntarily. “I said, god damn!” It’s all I can say, as I watch her slither that petite little frame between my thighs. Her naked tits press up against my balls and then slide in so that my cock nestles between them. She rests her arms up on my thighs and uses her palms to squeeze her breasts softly around the shaft. I let out another moan, as I watch this innocent little girl I managed to somehow get beneath me bounce up and down me. Who knew this girl would be into a good titty fuck? She was constantly surprising me. I’m already getting close. I’m so close that I can relate to a pent up volcano waiting centuries to explode. The sight of Erina doing the nastiest deeds to my cock has sent me flying from zero to ten in just a few minutes flat. But I don’t want this to be over with yet. I want to enjoy her. No, I want to feel her. It isn’t enough to get a blowjob on this carpet. I want to take her here and now—and finally experience what it is like inside that softened pussy of hers. I close my eyes, as I grasp onto her shoulders about as tightly as I can. Despite the pain, I manage to yank her upwards so that her body pushes up past my thighs and hovers onto my folded knees. She squats slightly, her face telling the story as she tries to figure out what is going on. I whisper to her, “I’m going to fuck you now. Hard.” With that promise, my arms push her down onto my waiting cock. Her legs part just in time, as she swerves slightly, letting my cock enter straight into her tender, waiting folds. For a moment, she pauses, letting us both enjoy the moment. For her, me filling her up with my thick cock. For me, it’s all about the soft, velvety touch of her tight little pussy. I can’t take it anymore. I move my hips upwards, bucking her up like a mechanical bull. She struggles to hold on, thrusting her hands down onto my chest with nails digging deep in my skin. The pain only makes me want her more, as I thrust as hard as possible into her. My throbbing, pulsating cock digs deeper into her cunt, burrowing as far into her as it can. She lets out a tribal scream, her head cocking backwards. Erina lowers herself into a squat, taking me willingly now. Her ass begins to take over some of the work by dancing and swirling on my pole. She moves counterclockwise, tracing my hips with hers. It’s deep and powerful as she presses down on me for leverage. I don’t stop though. I keep moving upwards while she picks up the pace. The girl taking the lead isn’t something I’m even remotely used to. I am usually the one in control;

girls are supposed to lay there submissively for me. But Erina is a sexual force unto herself. She knows what she wants, and she makes it known as she purrs deliciously above me. I plow into her, wanting her to cum more than I want myself. I want the satisfaction of feeling her juices flowing and mixing with my own. “Jesus, Rhys,” she cries out, her hands reaching up to her breasts and pulling them close to her. They bounce back and forth with my pulses. Her body leans back on my knees, and I know she’s ready. I feel her legs give out and slam onto the floor. “Rhys!” she yells out. “Fuck! Yes! Fuck me! Yes! Oh my God! Fuck me with your hard cock!” My cock slides in even further, and that’s it. She’s done. Her whole body shakes and explodes, and she cries out in syllables and a language I can’t define—but I know exactly what she’s saying. I give her a moment, taking it all in. This beautiful, powerful woman giving herself to me, opening her body for me to explode. This is new to me. With others, I would push them off or just keep going, not caring for her to catch her breath. But I want to see every moment of Erina, as she tenses and relaxes and does it all over again. When her eyes softly open, her mouth still agape, I know she’s ready for me. Her head curls into her chest, and she looks down at me with a smile that says it all. I sit myself up on my elbows, not caring about the searing pain. It only lasts a second as I spin her down onto the ground. She falls where I just was with a long laugh. She spreads her legs wide, waiting for me to enter, but I pick up her legs by her ankles, peeling her up so that her ass is lifted off of the ground and her legs are tight together. I cross her legs and place them on my good shoulder before leaning my hips into her. The space between her thighs is so compact that I need to wet my fingers and explore around her soaking wet folds. I finally feel that magical opening and guide my shaft into her. I love it this tight. Her legs curled into one another just makes the opening even smaller, even more challenging. But I am a deep digger, a plowman who doesn’t know when to stop. I may have stretched her out when she was on top, but she won’t know what hit her when my dick gets to her. In this position, it’s all me. I have to do every bit of the work, allowing me to control the flow of the movement. It’s delicious, her unfolding on me. I push harder, faster, stronger into her, my cock beating my way into her. I want to scream out and rip through her. The burning sensation inside my stomach and throat grow, filling me with this need to be even closer to her. And then she opens her mouth. “Rhys,” she says seductively, “I want you -- I need you -- to come in me.” I push her legs down towards her chest, her arms grasping around her knees. “Yes,” she continues, moving her hips into rhythm with mine, “that’s it. Yeah. Come for me, baby. Come in my wet pussy. I want it so bad. My pussy wants your cum. Give it to me baby. Come on! Fuck, yes! Come in my wet cunt!” Her words do almost as much for me as her pussy. I feel myself in almost an out-of-body experience, like a trance, and I give way to the feeling. My cock explodes inside her, cum shooting out of my cock and up into her. She screams out, “Yes!” as I thrust a few final times into her waiting cunt. She doesn’t move or squirm away. In fact, she seems to enjoy the sensation of my cock exploding inside her and

slowly winding down. After a few moments, I pull out and fall beside her, both of us breathing heavily. Her warm hand finds my chest and then moves up to my chin, pushing my attention on her. From this angle, I can see every freckle, every sunspot, every light line on her near perfect face. And I find myself completely shocked that I could bed a girl like this. Through her tired breath, she asks me, “Are you all right?” I laugh heartily, finding myself again, “Am I all right? Jesus, girl. Who do you think you’re talking to? A good fuck like that is like a recharge to my batteries. I’m ready to get the hell out here and take a man or two down.” I’m not lying. I’ve never felt more alive in my entire life. Even sleep deprived and exhausted from this morning’s run, I am raring to go, anxious to get my revenge for the both of us. Erina doesn’t laugh back. Something has caught her attention—the sound of motorcycles in the distance. They’re approaching slowly, giving me enough time to pull myself up to stand and walk towards the window. Moving the blinds slowly, cautiously, back, I look out towards the street to see my guys nearing the long driveway. “Don’t worry,” I say, as she gathers her clothes into her hands in a panic. “It’s my guys.” “That doesn’t make this much better. What should I do? Should I hide or get dressed?” She has a point. The boys know she is with me, but they certainly don’t know we’ve been fucking around. I grab my jeans off of the floor and toss them back over my legs. “You wanna clean up while I take care of business? There’s a shower down the hall. The water pressure sucks, but no one will bother you while you’re in there.” She nods at me before heading off towards a dark hallway. I watch that silky white back of hers go, her apple-round ass a deep pink and red from rubbing up against the carpet. Nothing like that view to bring you back. I listen as the door closes and the water turns on just in time for the knock on the door and Red Dog shouting, “Rhys! Come on man. It’s us. Let us the fuck in.” I walk slowly towards the door before bursting it open. He’s testing my patience already today. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? This is a fucking safe house, not goddamn party central. It’s almost nine o’clock. People are all around. Do you fucking understand that?” He doesn’t look the least bit upset at me scolding him. He just slides into the house with his gang of three enforcers trailing behind him, waiting for me to move aside. “What the hell happened out there, boss? Andy tells me you were shooting them up… or that girl was.” “Yeah. It was an ambush. Eri…the girl…had to take over while I drove. She took one out.” “At least she’s good for something.” He steps into the living room and sniffs loudly. I’m totally aware that the place reeks of salty, hard sex. Red Dog turns back to me as he adds, “Maybe not the only thing…” He slams a fist into my shoulder, as he sits on the green leather couch and waits for me.

I stand at the front of the house impatiently. The last thing I want to do is entertain the four of them and Erina at the same time. I need to think of a way to get them the hell out of here. “The Scarlets attacking out in the open is daring, even for those dumb assholes. And I don’t think it’s the end of it. I want you and your guys to be out there with the routes today, protecting the stashes and dealers. You collect the money and run it to the bank ASAP. Report each deposit to Jonas, so he can check them with the book.” “That’s it?” Red Dog says as he leans forward. “That’s all you want me to do?” Now this motherfucker is grating on my nerves. What I say goes, and no one ever questions me. “Yeah, that’s what I fucking want you to do. Not everything is blood and guts, dude. We’re not in the business of killing people without reason. Get me?” “Without reason? Fuck me, man! They fucking shot at you. You get that, right? And you’re tellin’ me that that isn’t a reason to slice the throat on that fucking kooz for bringing this shit on you?” I walk quickly over to him, grabbing him by the collar of his jacket before he can stop me. My voice thunders, thumping with each syllable: “Don’t -- you -- even -- think about laying your grubby little goddamn hands on that girl without my orders. We clear? She fucking saved my ass today. She gets our protection—all of our protection—unless I say so. Do you hear me?” “Woah, man,” he says, raising his hands in protest. “Chill the fuck out. I hear you. I hear you.” I let him down so he falls back into the couch. The rest of his men don’t even move. They’re stunned at what’s going on before them. “Good,” I say, still seething. “Now get the fuck out of here, and I don’t want to hear from you again before our afternoon check-in unless something happens with the Scarlets. Capiche?” Red Dog doesn’t respond. He just pushes past me, hitting my shoulder with his. As he walks out the door, he gives me a warning: “I know you don’t want to hear it, but I don’t care how sweet that pussy tastes -- it ain’t tasty enough to make up for the fact that we wouldn’t be in this fucking mess if it wasn’t for her and that punk-ass she was working for. I hope you know what you’re doing. Boss.” He says the last word with a little bow, and it takes all my self-restraint not to punch him in the face. I slam the door on him and his boys, not answering. In my head, I try to come to terms with what he’s saying. But there’s a tiny piece of me that knows he’s not wrong. It was only moments ago, as I walked towards the couch, that I noticed Erina’s camera still on and still recording.

CHAPTER 11 The water pounds down on the yellow tub as the bathroom fan hums loudly. I don’t mind the noise though. It’s nice, and it’s drowning out whatever is going on in the living room. I hate to admit that part of me is curious as to how Rhys is explaining my presence to the rest of the guys. But the other part of me, the smart part, knows better. Knowing too much, as I’ve learned, can be dangerous. Better to be naive and innocent. However, there are things I’ve learned and said that, quite simply, can’t be taken back. The cat is out of the bag now with my brother’s story. Rhys knows that the whole reason why I am here—with a camera in my bag—is because I have my mission to find his killer. And likewise, I know about the invisible wounds deep within a man so guarded that you’d never know the pain behind the walls. Stepping into the shower, Rhys’s eyes are what I see when I close mine. His fidgeting hands, the twitch of his full lips, those tattoos I really never noticed—they are part of a puzzle I haven’t quite figured out yet. The water beats down on my skin, and I wonder about what I have done. He’s darkness with hints of light, and I gave myself up to that darkness when I spread my legs like that for him. But as I use the bar of soap on my body, whipping it into a foamy lather, I can’t help but be a little bit satisfied. Okay, no, seriously, a lot satisfied. I’m not a virgin—haven’t been since Bobby Darcy back when I was fifteen—but I’m not one to go sleeping around either. With all my limited experience on the subject though, I can say that my time on top and under Rhys was probably the best lay I have ever had in my life. There was something so… raw, so primal about it—the way he let me take control, the look on his face when I came, the way he flipped me down to the ground and positioned me just how he wanted it… My hands float down to between my thighs…to the spots that are still tender and soft. I gently glide over the skin with the bar, cleaning as I remember—almost moment to moment—the reasons why they are so sore to the touch. No person has ever made me feel like this. That was a man’s job, a man’s purpose. And despite my misgivings about those prototypical gender roles, I can’t help but feel so feminine and untamed at the same time. I linger at these sacred places, exploring each crevice, and soothing that pleasurable pain. My eyes are still shut tight as I think about Rhys and his head upon my neck and his lips at my breasts and his cock throbbing so forcefully in my… Just the thought of him sends me spinning like a wound up top. All that guilt and uncertainty fades away at the hint of his fingertips grasping around my perked nipples. Wait. Those aren’t dreams. That touch… It’s his. I spin around, slipping on the porcelain tub and nearly stumbling directly into him. He’s completely nude again. That sturdy cock of his stands completely at attention, as I wonder how long he’s been watching me pleasure myself. I blush bright red, my face is flush with both excitement and embarrassment. I manage to whisper hurriedly, “Rhys! What the hell are you doing here?”

“You looked like you need… or, y’know, wanted… some company. I let myself in.” He doesn’t give me a moment to even attempt to protest. His body barrels into me, pushing me up against the broken tile of the outdated bathroom. My back slams, as I let out a small yelp, but as soon as my lips are parted, his are on mine, stealing my breath away and causing my knees to practically give out. This is a completely different side of Rhys—like an unleashed dog that escaped from a fenced yard. His hands grasp at me, feeling every bit of my body from my thigh, which he hooks up to his hip, to my hands, which he pins up above my head so that I am completely immobile. I can’t even thrash my way out of his tight grip. My body is his for the taking. “You want this?” he asks, taking a break from massaging harshly at my breasts and nipples. “Do you like it when I am rough? When I take control over you?” I don’t know how to answer him. I want to scream both yes and no, but at a loss, I kiss him back equally fierce and unrelenting. I want to show him that I am game, and that I can keep up with this. His large hand slaps my ass as beads of water fly off of my skin. The erection up against the folds of my pussy only grows harder as he hits me again, this time so hard that I jump in the air, landing furthering into him. He holds me in place even tighter as he repeats himself, “You didn’t answer me, Erina. Do you want this?” I’m shaking, as I look him dead in the eye and answer as slowly and firmly as possible, “Yes. I want this.” He doesn’t hesitate as he lets go of my hands with one arm and twists me so that I am facing the back of the shower. I have seconds to grab onto the cold, wet support bar and hitch my leg up onto the side of the tub. Rhys holds my hips, as he positions my ass so that it is right within the target. His cock plows into me, as I am pushed forward almost on top of that bar. A long, unhinged scream escapes me, as I feel him filling me once again. The gentle pain from before roars back, as he puts pressure on the aching spots he’s already created. But neither my scream nor the white knuckles compels him to slow down. Instead, it seems to awaken a beast in him, as he pounds into me stroke after stroke. His hips’ rough movements reverberate inside of me so that I feel as if every inch of me is getting fucked. The hot water pouring down my back and spine only make the sensation that much better. In between the hammering into my pussy, the hand wrapped around my waist floats down to the top of my kitten and spreads the skin apart. It exposes my clit to him as he begins to wickedly pinch and massage. The surprise of his hand working at my most sensitive spot forces me to cry out again; this time I let my body shoot up straight. Rhys doesn’t push me down. Instead, he takes my one arm and hitches his neck, pulling me that much closer. The slight curve of his penis keeps him in place as he continues thrashing into me.

He’s a master at teasing me. The rhythm of his body takes over, as I focus on those two fingers moving in a circle around my nub. My legs go numb as all I can do is just breath heavily and let him take me like this. Even with the small pinches between his forefingers, I still can’t help as the butterflies in my stomach grow and turn as they travel up my chest and through my throat. Outside the hot water trickling down my back and the spaces between us, another kind of warmth grows. My toes curl into the tub’s floor and my body tenses up. I feel my eyes travel backwards along with my head, as I will myself to just let go, to just explode all over him. And within seconds, it happens. Rhys’s hand moves, slapping at my clit—and it’s almost a signal, allowing me to come. I lean my weight back into him, humming tiredly into him as I recover. He slows his pushes into me, as he kisses my forehead. The damp hairs along the back of my neck stand to attention, as he whispers breathily into my ear, “Do you like when I fuck you like this, Erina?” My voice lowers to a decibel I’ve never heard. “Yes. Fuck. I love it. Don’t stop, Rhys. Don’t ever stop. I love the way you fuck my pussy. I fucking love it. Fuck me harder.” “That’s what I like to hear,” he croons into my other ear, spinning his head around my shoulder. “Because what’s coming up next—this is punishment.” That word sends shivers up my spine, as I frantically try to think what I did wrong and what he plans to do to me if this isn’t enough of a beating yet. “For what?” I manage to croak out, my voice stuck in my throat. “What did I do?” I don’t get a direct answer. Rhys pushes me back down again, this time pulling my hands downwards so that I am touching the bottom of the tub with my fingers spread wide apart. He pulls both my legs up and around his waist and then reenters again. The force of it knocks my breath away, as I realize, almost terrified, the lack of control I have now. He can do almost anything he wants to me when I’m in this position. My pussy in the air gives him the power to just drill into me. Over and over again, he pummels that stiff cock straight into me, like a jackhammer impaling me, making my legs quiver with excitement and longing. The friction between my thighs grows as I realize just how close I am to coming again. How is this possible? Is he that good? Is it just his ridiculously sized cock? Or am I that addicted to the things he can do to my cunt? The orgasm washes over me like cool waves vibrating against and inside my skin. I relax as much as I can in this position, letting him watch from his angle, as my own moisture drips from my hole. I hear him groan, his hands slipping from their grasp around my thigh. His assault into me slows, but the pushes are heavier, deeper. Rhys calls something—my name—as he lets go of me completely. I somehow manage to catch myself, as I turn in time to see him leaning over me with his bright red cock in hand. “Open,” he says quickly, and I oblige, tilting my head back while my eyes shine with lust and excitement. I stick out my tongue in anticipation as he grabs the back of my hair and pulls my head back. He rubs his cock quickly, jerking himself off excitedly, in an almost animal-like frenzy. He sets

his jaw, and I can tell he’s getting close. All at once, he shoots his warm, salty load straight into my wet, waiting mouth. I accept it eagerly and swallow, letting the taste of his cum linger only a moment in my mouth before it hits the back of my throat. I’ve never done it before—swallowed cum, I mean— but I take it willingly, with a hint of lust-filled passion that makes my pussy quiver yet again. I figure I owe him something special for those two delicious orgasms. He doesn’t smile down at me this time. There’s no nestling into me on the bottom of the tub. Instead, Rhys backs off and leans against the tiled wall. His hand turns off the water as I lay chilled in a small puddle before him. Pulling myself up to sitting, I say almost laughing, “Well, that was... “ Rhys leaves the tub before I can finish. He walks to a cabinet and pulls out a few brown towels that look to be about fifty years old themselves and smell of age and mildew. He hands me one, as he walks off without a word. I am completely stunned, as I rack my brain on what just happened. Just twenty minutes ago or so, he was putty in my hands. Now he’s back to treating me like some motorcycle club chick he could have picked up on the side of the road? That sure as hell doesn’t jive with me. I stand and throw the towel around my waist. With a quick squeeze of my hair, I walk as quickly as I can without slipping out of the bathroom and back towards the living room. Rhys is already fully dressed, him drying his auburn hair with the towel, his back towards the bathroom. I cough loudly, but when he doesn’t turn to look at me, I finally ask, “What the hell is wrong? I thought that—” Rhys reaches down towards the floor and picks up my camera bag, the camera lens sticking out just slightly. The red button flashes a few blinks before I realize what he knows. “What the fuck is this, Erina? You filming me? You filming us? I knew you were just in it for your own gain, but I didn’t know you were also recording fucking porn.” “Woah,” I reply, as I walk over towards him, grabbing the camera out of his hand. “I didn’t mean to record us having sex, and the camera hasn’t been on this entire time.” “So why do it? I thought you weren’t working with Robert anymore? Or are you double crossing him so you can still make your little movie?” He spits his words at me as he takes a step towards me. “No, no,” I stumble, trying to find an answer. “I’m not working with him. I’m—” “A selfish bitch.” “Don’t call me that.” I place a finger into his chest. “Don’t you dare call me that.” He grabs my arm and throws it down forcibly. “Then tell me what you are, Erina? Because you haven’t made it clear why the fuck you’re still here?” “I…I don’t know. I just want to find out who killed my brother. I want it on tape. I want to make sure whoever did it doesn’t get away with it. I want…I want revenge, Rhys.”

“You think you can get that with me? You think that I am just going to suddenly help you and risk everything I’ve built? Already my men are questioning why I am keeping you around. Damnit if I am going to put my reputation on the line for a decent piece of ass and a fuck.” He turns and sits on the couch, his head in his hands. “I’m sorry, Rhys. I really am. If you want me to turn it off, I’ll turn it off. I didn’t think that things would get this crazy. I thought that I would make this film, maybe get a few clues about my brother’s killer, and then sell the film and be done with it. I am sorry for screwing up your club or whatever. You just don’t know what it’s like to lose someone like this.” I instantly regret saying that as soon as the words leave my mouth. Of course he understands. He’s a soldier, and he’s already told me about the friend he watched die. I can see the purple and blue veins pop up against his skin, as his jaw juts out aggressively. “Don’t talk to me about loss, Erina. You don’t want to hear about that without that camera rolling. It would just ruin your storyline.” “You’re right, Rhys.” I walk slowly towards him, taking a seat next to him. I nervously grab the wet curls of my hair and toss the long ponytail over my shoulders. “I don’t know anything about you, and I was wrong to film you without telling you. That’s like the first rule of doing a documentary. I’ll delete it all, if it makes this better.” I take the camera and press the “on” button quickly. The camera fires up out of its auto mode and lights up blue and green. He leans over my shoulder as I go through the files that were automatically saved to my camera, deleting each one. Something feels freeing about erasing it. It’s almost as if Rhys and I have this fresh start. There’s no baggage we’re carrying around; there’s no background for us to fight through. This was me showing him that he could trust me, and I was meaning every single word of it. I was in this for both of us, no matter what that personally cost me. Rhys places a hand on my bare, moist thigh as I finish. I give him a little half smile before standing up and heading towards the bathroom where my clothes are still sitting in a heap on the toilet. I quickly change and finish drying the rest of my damp hair with the towel. In the other room, I hear Rhys banging around the kitchen area, searching for some food. My stomach growls just thinking about the missed dinner and breakfast—with the sun shining through the single glass window over the sink. Just as I am finished freshening up, I feel the familiar buzz up against my leg. My phone rings over and over again until I pull it out with a sense of dread coming over me. No one calls me in the morning unless something terrible has happened, and I have nothing on my teaching schedule to give my boss a reason to call me. I turn the phone over slowly and look at the screen. Robert’s name lights up in green and black. My hands begin to shake, and my stomach turns as I look around for Rhys. He’s nowhere I can see. I close the door behind me and walk back towards the bathtub. Whispering into the receiver, I say as quietly as possible, “What do you want, Robert?” “That was a great performance, Erina. I knew you’d go far to get a story, but I didn’t know you’d take your pants off for it. I do have to say I’m a little bit hurt you didn’t put out like that with me.”

Oh God. Oh God. Oh God! I may have

deleted the film off of my camera, but I have completely forgotten that my camera is linked to the computers in Robert’s office. I instantly want to throw up as I think of that balding, skinny asshole violating a moment so personal as what happened between Rhys and I. “Don’t worry, Erina.” Robert says assuredly. “I don’t plan on showing anyone how much of a whore you are, as long as you keep helping me out with the great film footage.”

CHAPTER 12 Damn! What do these people eat when they’re locked up in this house for weeks or months at a time? Do they do takeout or something? I don’t understand how this kitchen could be so bare besides the half-empty bottles of liquor. I’m going to have to check in with one of them when I finally get out of this mess. Erina’s been in the bathroom far too long. Even with my limited knowledge of how long it takes a girl to get ready, it feels like it’s been an eternity since she went in there to get dressed and dry her hair. And without makeup or even a toothbrush to freshen up, it’s not like she has much excuse to hanging around in there. My senses are tingling the more I think about it. I put down the bottle of tequila I’m drinking back in small sips and head towards the bathroom. I slow when I hear her voice through the thin wood door. She sounds stressed, totally not like the woman I had a discussion with on the couch. While I can’t make out her words exactly, I know this can’t be good. She could be giving our location away, or worse, ratting me out to the police. My heart races, as I lean against the door with my ear pressed. There’s a slight pause before I hear her reply to the other person, “I’m not going to say anything, okay. I just want to get out of here.” Red flashing alarm bells ring through me, as I don’t wait to hear anymore. I twist the handle dramatically and burst into the bathroom. Erina is sitting on the toilet, her head hanging low, as she struggles to throw the phone into the sink as if she isn’t talking to anyone. “Who the hell were you talking to, Erina?” I ask impatiently. She can’t lie to me. She has to know this by now. I am too good at spotting dirty liars like her. Erina’s hands twist in her lap, already a tell that she’s gearing up to deceive me. “My, uh, my mom. She was at my place, and she didn’t see me there. I wasn’t telling her anything but that I was stuck doing some work.” “Really?” I ask, my eyebrow raising dramatically. “So then what was that about ‘not saying anything’ or ‘wanting to get out of here?’” Her wide eyes dart from left to right, as she tries to think her way out of me catching her. I grab her phone from where she tossed it and hold it up high, pointing at it as I say, “Why the hell are you lying to me, Erina? I thought we were through with this.” “Rhys! Listen, I’m sorry. I just don’t know what to do with this. I’ve never, ever been in this situation before where my life is on the line and so is yours. I just want to make sure everyone is safe.” There are genuine tears in her eyes, as she looks down at her hands. I actually do feel something for her. This wasn’t exactly what she signed up for when she decided to make a movie. If she is being honest about not knowing Robert’s plans to double cross us, I’m sure she thought yesterday was just a normal day on the job. Now she’s here. With me. I cross my arms impatiently, as I try to brush down that strange, unsettling need to embrace her. “What

do you want to do here, Erina? What would be best for you?” I’m not sure why I am asking her this. I am the one who’s supposed to be making the decision. This was just another way this girl was getting under my skin and into my brain. To my surprise, she doesn’t answer right away. She looks about the room, still avoiding my glare as she thinks. I watch as her rounded back heaves slightly as she takes a deep breath in and out. “I think… I think I want to go home. Can we do that?” “What? You want to go home with Robert out there? I don’t understand what the hell you think that is going to do—especially since the Scarlets probably know who you are by now? You’re just going to come running back to me when you realize just how much danger you actually are in.” I am floored that this girl, who obviously had much more education than I did, can’t see this for herself. The Scarlets are working with the one person who knows her true identity. Does she really think that highly of Robert that she believes he’ll hold his tongue for the girl who shot one of their men down and ruined their plans? Erina’s face goes flush as I point this out. Her voice stammers as she answers back, “No… I didn’t… I didn’t think about that. But I just want to go home, Rhys. I’m not supposed to be here in the middle of all of this. I just want to get my life going again. I’ve got classes to teach tomorrow and meetings with students and my mom—” “Fine!” I answer swiftly, cutting her off before she goes on some random, long tangent. “I’ll get you home and get you some protection. I think you’re a damn fool, but I’m not going to stop you from leaving here if that’s what you need to do. Just know that there is no going back from here. I’m not putting my life on the line to save your ass.” Erina jumps to her feet and wraps her arms around me, holding on tightly as she dips her head into my chest. I can’t explain this outburst. There’s no reason why she should be hugging me like this. But then again, there is no reason why I should wrap my arms around her waist, but I do it anyways. “Thank you, Rhys. Thank you so much.” Her voice is a low whisper as she speaks into my chest. I ruffle her still damp hair slightly before pulling away. “I’ll go, uh, make us some food. I think I saw some pasta in one of the pantries. It’s about lunchtime anyways.” She scurries off and heads back towards the kitchen, leaving me alone in the bathroom with the wet towels and her phone. It dawns on me that she never answered me when I asked whom she was really talking to. I hit the “on” button on her phone, but the lock screen pops up, prompting me for a password I could never guess. I try to put it out of my mind. If she wants to go home, she can’t do much damage. My guys won’t let her do much more than go out to get her groceries if I tell them to. I’m going to have to trust her, at least for now. I take the phone, place it in my back pocket, and head back into the kitchen. She’s already got water boiling in a pot, as she dances around from counter to counter. She reaches up, her shirt lifting to reveal her tight little stomach, to grab a box of pasta from one of the drawers I hadn’t gotten around to checking. It’s just out of reach as she jumps a bit to try to grab it down.

I try not to laugh, as I sneak up behind her, pressing my hips into her ass. She spins towards me, leaning her back against the counter as she watches me reach above her to the top shelf. I rattle the box of pasta in front of her face as she snatches it away from me. Teasingly, she exclaims, “I could have gotten that, you know. I’m not some helpless little damsel.” “I certainly wouldn’t call you a damsel…not after what we did earlier.” One of my fingers wraps around her a strand of her loose blonde hair and spins it into loops. When I let it go, it cascades down her face and neck. “But I don’t like damsels. I prefer my girls to be tougher than that.” She smiles, flashing me a hint of her pearly white teeth and a hint of light in those green eyes. Erina certainly can take my breath away when she smiles like that. After a moment of us both paused in place, I break us apart. She smiles slightly as she goes back to the pot of water, pouring the pasta noisily into the pot and then dropping the silverware into the sink she has filled with hot water and soap. Her voice has changed when she answers. It’s no longer flirty or joyous. It’s like the mood has fallen in those seconds between me holding her in place and now. I can’t quite pinpoint why though. “This should only take me a few minutes to do if you want to go wait in the other room or something. I don’t know what you really can do in a safe house for entertainment.” I pull out my phone and check for messages. She has reminded me that if I am going to let her go; I am going to need to have my guys ready. I step outside to the back porch. Although it seems like it was just sunrise, the sun is already half way up in the crisp blue sky. The fresh fall wind whips through the brown and gold trees and chills me to the bone. Even the wound on my arm gets a little bit of a relief from the October air. I take a seat in one of the metal lawn chairs just out of view of the neighbors. The failing white picket fence is not a great barrier, but it’ll have to do. It’s a reminder to keep my voice down and my temper even while I make my call. “Hey, Andy. It’s me.” “Boss. Man, I’ve been wanting to call you. Things over here have been going crazy. Did you tell Red Dog and his boys to do the deposits? They’ve been bombarding Jonas with calls, and they say you’re the asshole to blame.” “Yeah, it’s going to be like that for a few days, at least until we know our stash is protected. I don’t want a dime to go unaccounted for, so if you get suspicious, I’m your first and only call.” I change the subject quickly, not wanting to think about Red Dog and his impertinence. “Listen, I need you to tell me everything you guys got out of those files from Erina’s house.” I had completely forgotten that I ordered my men out there to check out her story. Now, this was an opportunity to make sure I was trusting the right girl. “Well, there wasn’t much really. She’s a director and a teacher. All her papers were about her work and the films she worked on in the past. There was some stuff about motorcycle clubs in the area, but nothing you couldn’t find with a ten minute web search -- just crime reports from police.” I look over my shoulder towards the door, making sure I was completely alone as I ask, “What about

her brother. I think his name was Will. Did you guys see anything about that?” There’s a pause and the sound of him rummaging through papers. I wonder passively if he’s got all her stuff right there in front of him in the makeshift office we made for him back at the warehouse. “Yeah… there’s some stuff about him. There are some pictures of his body on the ground, and a little clip of a badge she must have gotten from an evidence file. Looks like he was gunned down bad. Bullet to the back of the neck and back. Someone wasn’t happy with him. Why are you interested, boss?” “No reason,” I say, carefully tiptoeing away from this. “I just want to make sure she isn’t bullshitting me.” “Well, I did a little background work on him and asked around since he was a vet, too. No one really heard of him—except for one of our new guys who overheard me asking. He said Will was looking for money and doing some drug running for a couple Northside gangs. He might have been playing two at one. Explains the bullets, but I can’t confirm the story.” “Can you send me a pic of those shots—the evidence she managed to get. I just want to take a look at them and see if anything rings to me.” I know I shouldn’t get involved with this crap, but I am curious to see what she was piecing together and if there was something that she was missing. “Yeah, Rhys. Is there anything else you need from me?” Andy asks over the sound of his office phone ringing incessantly. “Yeah. I need you to send the guys who went and got the files back to her house. Have them plant out there for the rest of the night. Tell them to set up shifts. I want at least two on her tail at all times. No breaks, no switches. They report directly to me.” “Is there a reason why?” “Because she needs protection. I just told Red Dog this, but I’m putting her on our order. She saved me and took out one of Joseph’s boys during the chase. She’s not getting civilian treatment anymore.” “Rhys, come on now…” “I don’t want to hear anything. Just get it done and text me when they’re there. I am dropping her off in about an hour or so, and I expect at least two of them there and ready to go.” “Got it, Rhys.” He hangs up the phone, and I am left to sit on the porch and think about the reluctance there. Red Dog was the same. I thought back to a guy from the club’s early days. He was a drug dealer who worked for us and brought us in bank in the beginning. But when the Feds found out, the other clubs he used to work for came looking for him. Even with us being organized, we couldn’t stop them from killing him in his own apartment. I am not going to let that happen to Erina. She was right when she was complaining that she didn’t

mean to get in this mess. Everything was confirming that. And even with the hesitation and suspicion in the back of my mind still telling me to slow down, I can’t deny her anything. She needs protection if I am going to set her free, and it can’t just be from me. The time I have with her is running out. It is too dangerous for the both of us to be together, and she has to know that as well. Maybe that is the reason for the strange mood shift back in the kitchen. Maybe that’s why I am trying to go over every single scenario in my head on how to make sure she is safe and coming up with nothing. I am sending her home to be slaughtered. “Hey! Rhys! It’s done. You wanna come inside?” She’s calling me from within the house, unsure of where I went off to. I scoot the lawn chair back and head inside towards the kitchen. At the small folding table, she’s managed to create a spread of stale crackers, some soda, and fresh pasta. “I’m not a great cook,” she admits as she sits down beside me. “But this was the best I could do. Figure if I’m going home, you better eat as well.” “This is fine, Erina. You really didn’t have to.” I assure her as I take a bite of my swirled up spaghetti. It was warm and tender, and even with the slightly stale pasta sauce, still tasty. “I don’t eat a lot of homemade meals. Actually, I don’t ever. I only get take out.” She places down her fork as she looks me over. “Really? And you manage to look like that?” Her flirty voice is back, as she reaches a hand over and touches my stomach. “Yeah. I work out more than I eat.” “That’s a shame. I’m surprised you guys don’t have gaggles of skanks lining up to make you baked goods or something. Sounds like something a groupie would do.” “You haven’t talk to many groupies then, have you? They're not exactly the home-ec kind of girls.” “I’ve interviewed a couple. Surprisingly, most of them are pretty normal—except for their kink for guys on motorcycles. It’s you guys who break that mold.” “I’m a pretty normal guy,” I answer. “I like baseball and football. I sometimes catch a movie. I went to the beach this summer.” “You’re lying,” she says as she laughs. There’s a bit of pasta sauce just on the side of her mouth. I reach out and touch her face gently, wiping it away. My hand lingers there a bit too long, cupping her cheek just a little too gently. I force myself to move, and I watch her face drop back down towards her food. “I’m going to go get the rest of my stuff, make sure my camera is packed and everything. Tell me when you’re done with the pasta and are ready to go, okay?” “Yeah…,” I whisper, unsure what to say. I want her to sit back down, to finish the conversation where when she called me a liar for going to the beach. I want to find the pictures on my phone and show her

the shot of me trying to learn how to surf or of the half-naked girls I scammed a picture out of. I want to prove to her that I have tickets to a Bears game in November, and that I own a jersey at home. I want to show her that I can be normal when I want to be. But she’s gone. After pausing in the kitchen to grab her camera bag from the counter, she walks off towards the living room and bathroom. I hear her scurry around from each room as I quickly finish. I needed to pull this bandage off for once and for all. I call her name, and she comes running back with her boots back on and her hair in a high bun on the top of her head. The drive back to her house isn’t very far from the safe house. I drive slow, actually obeying driving laws, as she points out which way to go. Occasionally, the hint of a motorcycle would make her jump, but she would calm down as I assured her each one was just a normal bike without a club. I didn’t blame her for being so cautious after the ride earlier. When we get to her house, she spots my men almost immediately, half recognizing them from last night. “What are they doing here? Are they supposed to be my protection?” “Yeah. I called them in. They took a few things from your house last night when I was checking on you, but they’re harmless—just papers and some files while we confirmed you were who you said you were.” From over my shoulder, I can see her give me a hesitant, if not annoyed look. “We’ll give them back later. I’ll have someone drop them off when they change shifts.” “Are you planning on taking a shift?” she asks, as she dismounts and hands me my helmet. “No, not with Joseph potentially after the both of us. It’s better for us to split up and just say our goodbyes.” Her eyes with the small pink bags and the golden lashes close tightly as she hears those words. Her lips fold in on the other and she bites it slowly. “So this is it?” she whispers—not wanting to hear my answer. “This is it, Erina. Thanks for saving me earlier. I can’t really repay you for that.” I ignore the phone buzzing away in my pocket. It’s probably just Red Dog calling with his midday update. “Stay safe and don’t do anything stupid like trying to find me.” She smiles slightly. It’s crooked and dark, but her face softens a bit. I don’t let her answer this time, knowing it will only make me want to stay that much longer. Instead, I pull off quickly, watching in my rearview mirrors as her shirt flies up somewhat and she is forced to pull back a few strands of those curls that always seems to get away from her. Finally, I round a corner, and she’s out of my view for good. There’s no going back from here. There’s no more sex in the shower or spaghetti sauce on the lips. There’s no bickering back and forth or talking about what’s normal and what isn’t. Erina is a memory that I know I should be happy to forget.

CHAPTER 13 “Hey,” I say slowly to the two men with the massive guns sticking out of their tight jean pockets. “I’m Erina.” I half reach out my hand but quickly pull it away. If I want to look cool to the guys that would probably be watching over me for a while, this was most likely not how to start a relationship. The one with the large nose ring sneers at me with a face that says it all. “We know. We got our orders to watch out for you.” The second one seems a little bit more humored by the situation. He’s covered in tattoos from his hands to his neck. The thin, white t-shirt he’s wearing shows even more on his chest and shoulders. When he gestures towards my porch, I can see a large “NH” on the underside of his trim bicep. “We’re going to hang one guy on your front yard and another on your backyard. Do you have any other entries we need to know about?” I think about my old Chicago-style home with the brick facade and the fading gutters. I bought this house only a year ago, and I have yet to do anything to it since working at the university. I actually felt a bit ashamed of myself as I look down at the pile of molding leaves sitting in a pile on the hardwood porch. “No. That’s the only two ways to get in besides the windows. I usually keep to the second floor where my office and bedroom are. I don’t use the front of the house much. If you all want to hang out in there, I can show you where the remote for the TV is and all that.” I go to open the door, finding it already unlocked. I have to remind myself that Rhys did tell me that his boys came in earlier in the day and rummaged through my papers. “That’s not how it works, girl,” barks the one with the nose ring as he towers over me. “You think this is some party or something? You think we want to come inside to your rich girl home and drink some tea with you? No. We sit outside and protect your common ass from someone trying to kill you. That’s how it works.” I nod at him silently and walk into the house, locking it behind me. They may be protecting me from someone coming in, but who was protecting me from those two? I watch from the small sunroom entryway, as they talk for a few seconds and then split. The tattooed man takes the front, and I see the shadow of the second man head around the corner towards the backdoor. At least I won’t have to see much of him if he’s doomed to backyard duty. Part of me wants to go throw a rake at them and tell them to at least pretend to be busy. Well, this guy is just a joy to deal with.

With my new armed guards sitting at their posts, I close the blinds tight and head towards my washer and dryer. It’s been two days since I’ve changed my clothes, and I am practically desperate to change into something fresher. I toss off my boots as I walk and then peel off the top and unbutton the jeans, throwing them into the open machine. As I am just about to unbuckle my bra, I hear it—the distinct sounds of footsteps inside my house. I don’t turn around as I call out, “Hello? Do you need anything? Can you wait inside the sunroom and I’ll be there in a second?”

“I’m afraid I’m a little late to wait in there. Plus, I don’t want to be seen by your new guards.” I jump and spin at the sound of his cold, dreary voice. There’s Robert standing in the doorway of my utility room. He’s wearing that same smug smile from when he tried to double cross Rhys and the Hounds. I back up against the wall, grabbing on to the wire shelf I use to store my cleaning supplies. “What the hell are you doing here, Robert? How did you get in here?” I really don’t want the answers to any of that. Instead, I want to scream so loud that the men outside come running, but I hold back. Despite fearing what Robert can and will do to get what he wants, he is still my coworker, and I can’t forget the history behind that. I owe him that until I can decide if he is truly evil or just a total narcissistic idiot who can’t see the limits. “Does it matter how I got in? I’m here, and like I said in the phone, I want to talk to you about your film.” He hasn’t moved from the door, but his eyes have been traveling over my near-naked body. I can’t help but shiver at the thought of him undressing me in his mind. He’s seen me undressed before, but this feels like a massive violation. That’s not even mentioning that he watched Rhys and I having sex and talking about our histories. “If you were watching or listening to the film, you heard it. He dropped me off here. That’s it. We are over. I’m not going to get anything else but the two guys who are planted outside my house.” A thought occurs to me as I finish my sentence. His silence only confirms it. “What do you know that I don’t know, Robert? What are you not telling me?” He moves out of the doorway and walks slowly towards me, kicking my boots out of his way. When he is less than two feet from me, he reaches out and touches the strap of my bra, his other hand wraps around the shelf where my hip is leaning up. It’s way too intimate, too close. That urge to cry out is creeping up again. “I don’t know anything, Erina. We’re documentary directors. We don’t make up the script, right?” The way he says that sends shivers down my spine. No way is he totally innocent. Something is going on, something that I should be picking up on. “All I want you to do is keep your camera on. And to help you out, I brought you this.” Robert pulls out a small black device from his pocket. I instantly recognize it as a body camera, a tiny little tech device we use when we don’t want our cameras to be visible or when we’re working undercover. I rarely use them. Just the thought of them seems so intrusive—and often, it’s illegal. But I guess what we are doing with this documentary is far past legal now. He takes the clip attached to the camera and places it on the strap he was holding onto right along the line of my cleavage. His face warps into a completely other person as he jokes, “Don’t bounce those things around much, Erina. As much as I love the look of them, I’d prefer the shot to be as crisp as possible.” “Screw you.” It’s all I can come back with. He has to think I am a damn fool to wear something like this when I am around motorcycle club guys. Doesn’t he even think about what they would do to me

with this spy-level shit on? A real camera in my hand is one thing. That made me legit. But this was beyond explaining. I try to yank it off of me, but Robert grabs my hand with such force that I let out a small yelp. My fingers twist in his palm as he pulls it back down to my side. As close to my face as he can get without swallowing me whole, he hisses, “Don’t you even think about taking this off for one second. If you do, I will send the video of you screwing the film subject to every single producer, professor, director, publicist, and media guy I can think of. And you know I don’t joke about these things.” “For how long?” I ask, my teeth grinding up against one another. I grab some clothes out of the dryer I had left there a few nights back. It’s just a tight hunter green tank and a black skirt, but it does the job hiding the camera. “Until I tell you it’s okay to take it off. But I have a feeling that you’ll know when that is.” He winks at me almost delightedly and then scurries back towards the door. Looking out into the kitchen and dining room, he adds, “I’m going to need a distraction to get me out of here. I’d say go flash them some of that… Erina charm, but I’d rather not have you expose us just yet.” I charge past him, my fists in tiny palms. I have no idea what I am going to say to get that burly asshole off of my back lawn so another asshole can escape without getting caught, but I’m going to have to do something. I feel Robert follow behind me. He’s practically skipping; he’s that gleeful about his plans coming together. He slips behind the open door as I stick my head outside. To my surprise, there’s no one there. I call out a “hello”—asking for help. Still, there’s nothing. Robert whispers from his hiding place, “What’s going on? What are you playing at?” “Nothing,” I say. “Let me go check the front. Maybe he’s talking to the other guy. You could always try to slip out there.” “Yeah, like I’m trusting you.” “You kind of have to trust me if you plan on leaving,” I say, as I head towards the front of the house again. Robert disappears again into the background. I think I hear the back door click again, but I don’t turn around to see. He’s on his own now. He’s made his mission clear, and I agreed to do what he said, but I’m not helping him any further than this. I am done being his pawn or chess piece to move around the board. Entering the sunroom, I hear both men’s voices. They’re arguing about something that I can’t quite make out. I hear my name a few times, but the inflection is wrong. That doesn’t exactly sound like the man with the nose ring. In fact, the tall, lean shadow doesn’t look like it would belong to him either. My heart races as I throw open the front door. “Rhys!” I call towards them, unable to hide the bubbling excitement. “What the hell are you doing here?” The man with the tattoos gives Rhys a glare before darting down the stairs and around the corner

towards the backyard. Over Rhys’s shoulders, I see the second man leaving slowly in an old beater sedan. He doesn’t look too pleased either. But Rhys, Rhys is different. His face is covered in a small coating of sweat, that red hair with the curls looks even more unruly and tousled than when he left me, and his lips lick slightly as he stumbles over a response. “Erina…,” he says, taking a step towards me. I am not sure if he’s about to yell at me to go back inside or run the other way towards his motorcycle. He does neither. The man I swore off takes me into his arms, pulling me close to his chest. He dips me back slightly, opening me up for a long, deep kiss that practically cuts through to my stomach. Everything goes hazy as I struggle to hold on to him. It’s the kiss I never knew I needed or wanted, but now that I have it, I never want it to stop. Our bodies stumble backwards into the entranceway. We collide up against walls and dressers until we eventually land on the kitchen table. He pulls me down, falling on top of me as I claw directionless at his jacket and shirt. His large, searching hands scan my own body, finding the hem of my skirt and the straps of my shirt. As he presses down into me, the camera attached to my bra rubs up against my skin, and Robert’s off-color joke about my breasts brings me back to attention. I have to stop this no matter how much my insides ache for him. “Rhys...” I mouth breathlessly into his skin until he finally pulls away. His dark eyes shoot up at me, as I manage to squeak out the only question that is important right now, “Why are you here? Why did you come back?” “I…I…don’t know. I really don’t know. I shouldn’t be here, but then something happened, and I had to see you.” He pulls out his phone from his back pocket and starts typing away. When he’s done, he turns the screen to me. It’s an image I’ve seen before, a picture of a piece of fabric torn apart. It’s lying next to my brother’s lifeless hand. His body is just out of the shot. I don’t understand why he would have this or why it would matter to him. He answers my questions immediately, “This patch…I think I can identify it. If you look over in the corners, there are some words and a bit of a symbol. You were right that a motorcycle club killed your brother, and I want to help you find out who.” He points to some indistinct lines I passed off as fabric, but with his explanation, I see it a bit clearer. There was writing on that fabric and a bit of color I hadn’t noticed. This was a bigger clue than I had ever known! Still, I was reluctant to trust him. I ask slowly, “I still don’t understand why you care about this? Why did this make you come back to see me when you made it clear it was more dangerous to be apart?” He was right then. I hated to admit it, but I see that now. We were better apart. We were less of a target and more difficult to find and pin down. Those men could have protected me, or at least I hope they could have. And he was fine on his own, going back to the life he knew so well. Abandoning that only put us both at risk. He backs off a bit, leaving me alone on the kitchen table. Maybe he thinks that I don’t want him here. That’s not the truth at all. In the short time we have been apart, even with Robert’s interruption, all I could think about was just how empty everything felt without him here. I want to break down those

walls that are keeping me from saying this, but I have to protect my heart and myself. His hands run through his hair and down to the back of his neck as he sighs heavily. His answer takes my breath away. “I don’t really know what the hell I am doing, Erina. But when I left you, this… feeling came over me. I can’t get past the fact that I owe you my life for what you did with Robert and then killing that guy. You didn’t have to do that. No one forced you to be loyal to me. And so I am going to be loyal to you.” “Rhys, you don’t have to be loyal to me. And you don’t owe me anything. We talked about this. We’re even. You saved my life when I was an idiot trying to get a good picture. And I saved yours in return. I don’t want you to come back here because you feel like you have to live up to an oath I never made you take.” He walks back to me and grabs my hand, forcing me up from my elbows. A hand runs across my hair and down my back. It sends chills down my spine as I listen to him calmly say, “This isn’t about me anymore, Erina. This is about us. We are in this together, and I am going to make sure you’re safe.” He pauses before he adds, “And I want to help you find out who killed your brother. He was a veteran, too. No one deserves to die like that if he was a civilian wrapped up in something way over his head.” I am completely stunned. It was one thing to want to protect me. It was another to risk his life to get an answer about a person he has never met. I go to place my hand upon his heart, the only gesture I can think appropriate, but he stops me in midair. Rhys turns to me, his head dipped low. Under his breath, he says one last thing, “But I need one thing from you in exchange. I need you to tell me everything you know about Robert.” My mind goes blank as I think about the camera rolling on my chest and the man I know is watching and listening—perhaps from inside this very house. He was the person who touched me inappropriately, who watched me having sex, who almost got me killed twice for his own personal satisfaction. The reasons for protecting him have totally gone out of the window. Robert would never promise to protect me like Rhys has. He would never come back and risk his life to make sure that I was safe. In fact, he had gone out of his way to do just the opposite. I was through with this. My answer is clear. I reach down and grab the tank top by the hem and toss my shirt up and over my head frantically, not caring about Rhys watching me. I feel around my chest and bra until I find it. I yank out the micro camera and toss it on the floor. I look up at Rhys with an expression I cannot control, as I yell, “Step on that!” Rhys doesn’t ask questions. He walks over towards where the camera has fallen and hovers his boot over the lens. He only looks up once for my nod with the go-ahead before stomping his boot firmly into the ground. In one crunch, it collapses into a heap of black and gray wires. The pieces scatter and slip under my buffet and chairs. It’s done. My allegiance to Robert, my career, and the reputation I built is over. There is no going back from here, but I don’t care.

All that matters to me is the way Rhys talked about those feelings when he left me. I understand exactly what he meant. Those emotions of loss and desperation to get back haven’t left me since he pulled away. And now that he is back and promising me to help me find my brother’s killer, nothing in this world can stop us. Not even Robert and his film.

CHAPTER 14 I was on my motorcycle when I got that text. It was, as I suspected, from Andy. I had told him to send me a shot of those evidence pictures Erina had managed to score. But I didn’t think it would make a difference. We were done. This was just for my curiosity. However, as I turned the corner and pulled into a gas station to fill up, I stared directly at the photo of the man I didn’t know. He had an Air Force tattoo on his blood stained arm, around his wrist was a bracelet honoring fallen servicemen. This guy was me. Whatever he had done to earn the bullets in his neck and back wasn’t justified. He was lost. I only wish he found the Northern Hounds to bring him in before it led to this. Another part of that picture caught me—his hoodie. It wasn’t club gear like the one I wore to bed on a cold night. It wasn’t even a cheap knockoff we sometimes gave to junior riders who weren’t fully club approved. The jacket was gray and had a movie poster on the back of two skateboards linked together. In large print above the image was the words: “DIRECTED BY ERINA PETERSON.” Even if he had gone to the dark side, he still loved and cared for his sister. When I met her, I thought she could never understand these invisible scars that being in a war had given me. She looked so pristine, so untouched. But seeing her brother lying in his own blood, I knew now that she was just as broken as I was—that her life was forever changed by a war she couldn’t control. The one person who loved her unconditionally was taken from her by a guy like me. When my tank was full, I had a decision to make. Erina needed me, and I needed her. She knew more about Robert than I ever could. Combine them together and we had the same enemy to fight against. We had to be together. There was no doubting this one simple fact. I called up Andy on my way back, explaining to him that I was calling off Erina’s guard crew. “What the hell, boss? Are you crazy? You know the Scarlets are gunning for both of you. You’re only making it easier for them to get to you by taking on that dead weight.” “Listen to me, man,” I protested, trying to come up with any way to get him on my side. “I know that she isn’t one of us, but she has a connection. Her brother was a vet, and we owe it to that brother to find out who his killer is. And if we cooperate with Erina, she could lead us to Robert, Joseph, and the rest of the Scarlets. We could use her as bait or something. Plus, she wasn’t afraid to kill a man when she had to. She’s much braver than we think when it comes to these things.” He doesn’t answer back right away. I don’t blame him. I’ve gone mad over this girl. I’m not only risking my life, but I am potentially putting the club in harm's way by being so cavalier by who we let in. This wasn’t my standard operating procedure, but I had to make them see that Erina was the key to everything. She was the one that was going to get us over the Scarlets once and for all. “I’ll go along with you, Rhys. You got my support. I’ll try talking down Red and the rest of the guys. They’re not going to be easy sells on this. After that meeting in the parking lot, no one thinks she can

be trusted.” He sounds defeated but convinced. That was pretty much all I could ask of a guy like him. I don’t say goodbye or even thank him. I’ve already hung up before I speed down the street back in the direction of Erina’s house. I tell Jazzy to go and have Tommy stay so that I can talk to her alone, unguarded. And that’s where I spill my heart out. I’m so close to telling her that I care about her, and that the reason why I am back is not just wanting to take those bastards down, but because I want to know that she’s all right and that together we are stronger than we ever are apart. But then there’s that camera. I think it’s a camera. It kind of reminds me of this James-Bond-type deal, but it also looks like these bugs we planted on guys in Iraq. We’d strap them to their naked bodies and then send them into meetings with little hope that they would survive. When they did come back, our translators and a guy with intelligence would sit in a tiny, bunkered room and watch the video over and over again for clues. This wasn’t Iraq, but I was sure that someone was using Erina as their plant, just as we used those guys in Iraq. “Robert,” I say slowly, as I turn back to Erina. She is cowered in a ball just off the table. Her head is hung so low I can barely see her face. But I can hear her crying. I kneel down next to her and grab at her shoulders so that she rolls into my chest. The smell of her perfume mixed with the sweet, natural smell of her hair fills my nostrils as I kiss the crown of her head. “Don’t worry, Erina. We’re going to get him, and this going to be all over. I promise you.” “It’s not that.” She sniffles. “It’s that I agreed to it. He told me that I was probably going to see you again, and he forced me to wear it. I should have known better. I should have trusted you and your club. But I am so stupid. I was only thinking about myself and my reputation—” I cut her off, as she alternates between weeping and talking. “Wait, Erina. What do you mean that he forced you to wear it?” “He has video of us… you know… having sex. I forgot that my camera uploads to his computer, and even though I erased all those files, he still has them. He has everything. So he called me when I was in the bathroom and you were in the kitchen and told me that I had to keep filming no matter what. When I got home, he gave me this camera—” “He gave you that camera? He was here?! How the fuck did he get past the guys out front? Why didn’t you say anything?!” I stand to my feet, exploding out the door. The only way that the fucker could have gotten in is if either one of my guys let him in, or he managed to sneak his way past them when they weren’t doing their job. I’m just about to open the door when I hear Erina shriek behind me, “No! Rhys! It wasn’t their fault. One of your guys left the door unlocked when they went through my stuff last night. I think he had been waiting for me for a while. He probably hid when your guys got here.” I turn back and face her slowly. Tears are still streaming down her face. She looks more exhausted than ever with her shoulders slumped her and her blonde hair flying everywhere. “That’s not an excuse, Erina. He still managed to get to you. It’s unacceptable. They should have gone

inside and done a check. I can’t let them get away with that amateur bullshit.” “Please, don’t. I don’t want those guys to lose their job, or whatever, because some jackass managed to hide in a closet or something. All that matters now is finding him, right? Now that I am not wearing the camera, he’s going to start destroying me. That film of us is going to go to every person I know and every industry person I should know. I have nothing left to lose, so just tell me what’s next. Please.” She walks over to me lightly and grabs my hand. She’s going to walk into hellfire with me, and there is nothing I can do to stop her. I have to think about this. If I was Joseph and the Scarlets, I would be still holding onto Robert’s plan, hoping that he could still get to me using Erina. And if I was Robert, finding out she destroyed my only way of getting intel would enrage me. I’d probably assume they were together and a place they assumed to be safe—this house. “Erina, we got to go. Go grab a bag of clothes and stuff real quick and then we’re out of here. Even with a guy out front, I don’t think we can trust sticking around this part of town for long. They’re coming for us.” I was never more certain of something in my entire life. Robert could be on the phone with them now, giving them our location. We had minutes to get out of here. Erina nods as she sprints towards the stairs. She grabs a bag at the foot of the stairs and disappears. I run towards the front of the house and grab my man, explaining what was going on. “We have to get out of here, Tommy, and back to the warehouse. I need you to have my back. You ride front with Erina. I’ll follow on the rear. Do you know the procedure?” Tommy looks put off. “Why do I need to take Erina?” he asks. “Don’t you think you should do it? She’s your goddamn piece of ass, man.” I grab hold of his collar and push him up towards the frame of the door, busting it from its hinges. “Don’t you fucking talk about her like that again. Ever. She’s part of this fucking club now, and she has our protection. We would almost certainly be dead by now if it wasn’t for her. Every last goddamn one of us. Plus, I don’t see you gunning down any Scarlets like she has. So do what I say, knock that fucking smile off of your face, and show me you can do your job. Capiche?” As he stumbles backwards, I let go of him. Erina catches his fall with her free hand. She looks between us nervously, obviously sensing a great deal of tension. I break the mood by explaining to her what’s going to happen now, but she looks like she isn’t sure whom to trust. That’s probably a good philosophy, but I need her to trust me. She looks up at me pleadingly, saying, “I thought I was going to stay with you?” “You are, Erina,” I say. “I am going to be right behind you the whole time. Let me do the shooting if they’re out there.” I try to flash her a half-assured smile, but she’s too far gone. A look of terror comes over her, as she looks over to her new partner, who is sitting there nonchalantly picking his nails with a long pocketknife.

Erina’s house is exactly seven miles from the warehouse. It’s a seven-mile spread that I count down in my head as we close in on our territory. Every flash of chrome, every roar or revving of an engine, every side-glance from a pedestrian clad in black or red sends shivers down my spine and my hand racing towards the gun hidden away in my pocket. Not even passing the police at an intersection is reassuring. I have no idea who these guys claim allegiance to. I try to focus on Erina as she avoids holding on to Tommy except for the turns and quick stops. Her hands rest on her thighs, the tight knit skirt riding up around her hips and legs. I should have told her to change, but hot damn, does she look good. The boys were going to make a meal out of her—and a damn fine one, too. Not to my surprise, I’m totally right about that. As soon as Tommy pulls into the parking lot of the old meat-packing warehouse we use to store our supplies and arms, a small crowd of men turn to stare. Some recognize her immediately and point her out to their friends. The others gawk, some whistle. The brave ones catcall. Her face goes blush as she takes off the helmet and shakes her hair out. She stands in front of the group with her grip around her other arm. She looks so demure and innocent, but it’s more that she knows her place. These weren’t the kind of guys that were going to treat her with respect unless she was walking in with me. I had to offer that kind of status. And as soon as I took her past the crowd, my hand placed firmly on the small of her back, I could feel her entire body release that initial tension. I lead her back towards the offices, sleeping quarters, and meeting spaces. To get there, we pass unmarked boxes of snuff and pot. Some of the boys don’t even glance up at us as they sort and mark for shipment. Along the wall are shelves holding guns and bullets…enough to make a small militia out of us. I could tell that she was dying to film this part of club life. This was background stuff not even the wives and kids of our guys ever got to see. I reel her around towards the meeting room, a large space full of chairs and tables. Normally, we don’t have sessions in here. Business is usually done at the bar where it’s easy to party afterwards. We used this place when something major was going down. I show her to a seat as I leave the room. “Stay in here. I’ve got a couple people I need to speak to.” “What if someone comes in?” she asks, looking a bit panicked and out of place. “What exactly am I supposed to say to them?” “You’re with me,” I tell her. “No one -- no one -- should touch you if you tell them that.” She doesn't look any more confident. I’m not sure if I should feel that way either. There really wasn’t anyone on our side. They saw Erina as the outsider girl who managed to weasel her way in. I don’t blame them there. First rule of motorcycle club was to trust no one but your brothers, and even then, be suspicious. After closing the door on her, I round the corner and head back towards the main area. I don’t have to go far before I run into a large group of guys gathered around talking angrily about the “situation” I

could only assume was the girl I hid away in the meeting room. “You gotta talk to him, man. You got to drag some reason into that fucked up brain of his. He isn’t thinking straight. I mean, with legs like that, I don’t blame him for being sprung, but this is getting out of hand.” “Fucking hell, guys. Do you really think Rhys is off the deep end because he’s bringing a girl into the fold? Did you hear what she did? She managed to shoot one of those red bastards down on a chase. I don’t see any of you pissant excuses for a rider taking shots like that.” Andy and Jonas are my two lone defenders, as they stand in the center of the ring. On the outside, leading the charge against me, is Red Dog. What Red says next knocks me straight to attention. “What we need now is new fucking leadership. Sure, he may have founded this club, but this is the last straw. He’s an emotional little pussy who let an outsider dictate what we should do. And I, for one, just can’t…” His words come out muddled in my head, as I try to focus on the fresh blood pulsating through my veins. The back of my hairs stand on my neck as his slurred insults and threats replay over and over again. I can’t help myself as I leap through the group, pushing my way towards Red. Jonas catches me and holds me back in place. “It’s not worth it, man! We’re standing with you. This fake ass can go fly if he thinks he can be a treasonous jackass.” Red looks me directly in the eye as he spits on the ground and squashes the remnants with his boot. “Hell, I’m just saying what we’re all thinking. You’re not fit to serve as our president, Rhys. Shit, none of you leaders deserve to be up there.” “All this over the girl? Red Dog, you know better than this. Rhys is smart, and if he thinks it’s wise to bring the girl here, he has a damn good reason to do it.” Andy’s always been the calm one. Even in Iraq, we nicknamed him “brother” for the way he managed to be on everyone’s side no matter what the argument was. Hell, we would have sent him over to the enemy’s side if he spoke Farsi. Red isn’t buying it though. He pushes past Andy and approaches me directly. A stubby, blistered finger jabs into my chest as he looks up and says forcibly, “You don’t know what it’s like to be a leader.” Instantly, ten beady eyes pop up on me—some I recognize, others I don’t. They wait for me to reply. They’re listening for a reply that’s not going to come, because all I can think to say is in my fist. My hand jabs into his face, landing square on his flat-sided nose. I feel the bones crunch under me as his head whips almost in slow motion towards his shoulder. Blood splatters across the room like a mad modern painting. Everything goes still while he recovers. No one, including me, knows what is going to happen next. Only Red is in control. Still, my hands go up above my face defensively. He doesn’t waste much time. I duck as he tries to hit high towards my own face. I’m nearly a foot taller than he is, but I still manage to duck low and fast enough to miss his fist. My being down gives

me the advantage to tackle him straight towards the hips. He falls hard against another man who backs away and out of the space quickly. The rest of the group parts, giving me space to throw down another punch to his gut. He cries out as the wind knocks out of him, but his legs continue to thrash out from under me. Andy and Jonas both shout my name over the man’s shouts, and I launch off him. As soon as I am on my feet, a pair of hands wraps around my shoulder and spins me around. Another fist loads up for a hit, but Andy catches him in mid-punch. He lunges at him so that he slams at my feet next to where Red was lying seconds ago. All hell breaks out as another three men fight one another, none really knowing which side the other is fighting for. I take a hit to my back as a young gun, a guy I just trained up, lands a cheap shot to my spine. It barely registers, but I still pay him back with a steel-toed boot to the knees. It’s unexpected as he falls before me. I reach down and grab the unruly mess of jet black hair, as I force him to look up at me. “Don’t you ever fucking try that again. Do you hear me, kid?” He nods and scurries off to the wall, where three or four other guys wait it out. I move my way to the center of the open space and grab a chair being held up by one of Red’s guys. He’s about to land it on another Hound, but I’m too fast for him. I slam the legs down and stand tall on the cushion. Towering over the boys, I see just how desperate and feeble we look from here. This wasn’t what my club was made of. With two fingers in my mouth, I whistle as loudly as I can. The first try barely registers over the scene. “Hey!” I shout as loudly as I can. “Listen up!” More men turn until the last one lets go of his grip around another. “What the fuck are we doing here? You want to question me. You can question me. But do you think I am going to tolerate this when our enemy is out there plotting against us? Do you fucking think they are tearing themselves apart over some petty shit?” No one moves as I continue, “Yeah. I brought a girl back to headquarters. Sue me. Was she a spy when we picked her up last night? Damn right she was. But she’s on our side now. She’s drawn blood for us. She’s protected us. When they were chasing me down, she didn’t hesitate to pull a trigger. And when the guy she was working with tried to double cross us for a second time, she let me in on his little plan before it even got started. That girl, Erina, she’s valuable. “You don’t have to like my decision, but you damn well better respect it. If you don’t want to protect a girl that’s done more for the club in one night than many of you have in years, there’s the door. No harm, no foul. You’re free to go. However, if you want to stay and get your revenge on the Scarlets and the guys who started this shit, you can join me AND Erina…” This is the part where I should get some claps, a few hoots, or at least some calls of “yes.” When I talk, my men show me the respect that I deserve. But while I have the room’s attention, this feels different. My head turns back to the offices, where most of the men are looking with confused, horrified faces. Everything stops as I hear the sound of screams…blood-curdling, long shouts of complete and utter

terror. “Rhys! Please! Help!” They repeat over and over before becoming muffled and distant. I dive off of the chair, pushing past the men, and run straight towards the sound of a body being tossed around. I only look back over my shoulder once to see my men, the men who just were fighting between themselves, in a mad dash to follow me. Missing among the crowd is one man…Red Dog.

CHAPTER 15 It’s a snap and a bang, a sound almost like a gunshot. The explosion of sound hits me as I sit in the center of the shadowy room with my arms crossed. For a while now, I’ve been resisting the urge to peek my head out and check to see what all that shouting is about, but I am, at least for once, following Rhys’s orders and staying put. That was until he came in. I recognize the hulking figure almost instantly. He’s the guy from before, the man who was elected as an enforcer. His name is on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t seem to get it out. And then, I see his scar. He’s balling his hands up into fists as his nostrils flare at the sight of me. It’s Red Dog. I don’t really know what to do—to be completely honest. I just remain as still as I humanly possible, not making eye contact, neither looking at him nor away from him. I focus my eyes on a small, rotted spot on the stained wooden door just above his head. My hands stay folded in their place, almost as if I’m praying. And my lips part slightly, so I am neither frowning nor smiling. If his nickname is true, I should treat him like a wild animal in the street and just avoid contact as much as possible. Acknowledging him first isn’t going to make this any better. When he finally speaks, it’s with a low, guttural growl that makes it sound like he’s doing his best to avoid someone else hearing him. It sends chills down my back, as I wonder if anyone out there knows that he’s alone with me. “What the fuck are you doing here, girlie?” he demands, a sneer on his lips. “Shouldn’t you and that tight little ass of yours be long gone by now?” I pause before I answer, thinking through my response. This is not the kind of guy you want to be a smartass to, and he certainly isn’t the person I should be trying to provoke any further. For whatever reason, he’s got it out for me—bad. “I’m here because Rhys brought me,” I begin slowly. “I am going to try to help you all find Robert and the—” The name of the club escapes my mind in all my nerves. The color red pops into my head, as I add quickly, “Scarlet Knives.” He takes a step closer to me. The noise behind him only seems to get louder as if his chunky body were holding it all in. There are shouts and screams, small thuds and calls for help. I have no idea what kind of chaos this man stepped out of, but I have a feeling that he is bringing it inside this room. My heart races and pounds fast across my chest, as I scoot back further into my chair as inconspicuously as possible. “That’s not true,” he snarls, “and we both know it.” He licks his lips, as he takes another step towards me. There is only about ten feet between us now, and I can smell the cheap malt liquor and stale cigarettes on his breath. His beady black eyes are bloodshot and hollow. Even I can tell that he is under the influence of something. “Be real with me,” he says, a slight smile coming over his face. “You’re here because you want to destroy my club.” “That’s not true,” I reply quickly, forgetting my plan to just lay low and hope that Rhys comes back for me. “I’m here because I am trying to help you guys. I want to catch Robert as much as the rest of you

do.” That much is true. The long ride over on Rhys’s motorcycle made me think of all the ways that man had betrayed me. His life is worth absolutely nothing to me, and I owe him absolutely zero of my time or effort. He is beyond saving, beyond repair. He brought Rhys’s wrath upon himself. Red Dog takes another step towards me, this time reaching his hand out into the space between us. He nearly touches my face, but then circles quickly around me, stumbling towards the ground. I watch him helplessly from my chair, as he cries out from the hard tile floor. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he roars. “No one, and I mean no one, puts their hands on me.” He stands back to his feet and explodes like a volcano. “DO YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE MESSING WITH, YOU FLIGHTY FUCKING CUNT? YOU’RE GONNA PAY FOR THAT!” Something -- maybe courage or fear -- comes flooding back to me as my legs find a way to work again. I shoot up from my chair and shout back at Red Dog, “I didn’t touch you! You fell on your own and you know it.” I feel like I’m back to being a child, defending myself against my brother, as he accuses me of breaking a vase. But at the same time, I know that my protests aren’t exactly winning me any points here. They are just going to anger the dumb beast. I force myself to move backwards, heading towards where I think the door must be behind me. My hands reach out, feeling for anything that I could use for protection or defense. But the room is sparse and barely furnished besides the folding chairs and meeting table before me. It becomes clear just how much a mistake it was to get up from my place. Sloppily, Red Dog stands. He grabs one of the metal brown folding chairs and hurls it in my direction. It flies through the air quicker than I anticipated, as I duck out of the way towards the side to avoid a direct hit. Red Dog isn’t satisfied with his miss. He kicks through another row of chairs until he finds another one to throw. This time, I can’t back away any further. I’m cornered against the wall with an armoire on my one side and a small set of stairs on the other. The chair slams into me, slamming hard against my stomach and knees as I collapse onto the ground. I know I am yelling. I know that I am calling out Rhys’s name, but I can barely hear myself over the sound of more chairs flying without direction towards where I am lying. “Stand up, you fucking bitch,” comes Red Dog’s voice, and then suddenly, he appears, as if out of nowhere. “Come on, get your ass up!” His boots are so close to my face that I can see the stitching and the faded parts on the black leather. I pull myself up to my hands and knees, ignoring the sharp pain around my sides. Even though I’m trying, I’m not quick enough for him, and before I can hold up my hands in defense, he pushes his boot into the small of my back. My skirt catches under me and my knees fly out towards their sides so that I land on my stomach and chin again. Everything around me starts looking much darker. The fizzy, metallic taste of blood and chemicals rushes through to my mouth as I spit slightly. I have never, ever been in this much pain in my entire life. Nothing could possibly prepare me for a son of a bitch like Red Dog taking his own kind of justice out on me. So, I do the only thing I can think to do: I reach out my hand towards his boot and wrap my fingers around his ankle.

Red Dog is too busy cackling to himself to notice my grip. I turn my hands as quickly as possible so that his foot has nowhere to go but up and over. His portly body follows, and he falls to the floor, head and back first, on the pile of discarded folding chairs. I crawl to my knees again and use the banister from the stairs for support. The adrenaline flows through me as I force myself to limp past where Red Dog is lying, withering angrily in pain. I count the steps towards the door, as if that will make the handle appear quicker. One…two…three…four…five…six… “And exactly where in the blue fuck do you think you’re going?” Red Dog whispers into my ear sinisterly. His hand grabs onto my ponytail and yanks me roughly backwards. I land right to his chest. The zipper of his jacket scrapes up against my arm while the safety pins he uses for decorations zig along my skin like barbed wire. “We’re just getting started here.” I try to wiggle my way out of his grip, but he’s too strong. If he’s like Rhys, all those years of military training have taught him how to keep a death lock on an enemy. I can practically feel the air escape by body—ounce by ounce—until I am gasping and desperately trying to get away. He lets me go momentarily to spin me around towards him. His face gives me a dark, twisted smile. His black and yellow teeth sneer and chomp down on one another before he takes me by the hips and lifts me into the air. It’s only for a second, but I can feel all one hundred ten pounds of my own frame flying through the still air of the meeting room and then landing on the ground again. The next few moments blend together in a blur of disparate images. Moments disappear. Seconds go unaccounted for. Nothingness becomes my own worst enemy. I can hear something. Footsteps. Shouts. I don’t know what it is. It fades into the background of my swirling, fuzzy head. I try to yell at myself to move a hand or a foot—anything to prove to myself that I can still fight back. But nothing happens. I am completely lost in myself. Red Dog appears above me again. I am looking up the line of his jeans, past the protruding belly, and to his upside-down face. He isn’t smiling anymore. In fact, he has a flush of panic that actually fills me with a bit of warmth. He reaches down and kneels right on top of me. His knee juts into my stomach, pressing out whatever wind I had left in me. Two fat and stubby hands wrap tight around my neck. His fingers press down. I will myself to close my eyes. I am not going to die here in this room with the last thing I see being this man trying to kill me. I am going to say goodbyes to my mom, my friends, my brother. I am going to die thinking about Rhys holding me, his arms protecting me from everything the world has tossed at us. I am going to die thinking about how much I may actually care about him. And then, with nothing else to do… I wait. There’s honestly not much more that you can do in these situations but wait. My time never comes though. As much as I pray for the pain to stop, it doesn’t. In fact, it gets worse.

Someone is moving me, crying out over me and into my ear. Someone is circling me, stepping on my foot in the process. Someone is barking a command at me. That someone is Rhys. “Come on, Erina. Wake up. It’s okay. It’s done with. You’re safe. Just wake up.” The voice whispers away from the crowd that I can feel assembling around me. “Please. Do it for me.” Rhys presses my limp body into his arms and yells out to someone beside him. “Get Doc on the phone and tell him he needs to see her ASAP. It’s my command.” I try to make a sound to tell him that I’m all right, but my voice is gone. Whatever that man did to me, he managed to knock my voice box totally out of whack. I can only hear the painful whispering of air flowing through my bruised throat and windpipe. “Rhys…” I try repeating. There’s nothing but my lips and tongue moving softly. I try my fingers next. I can feel the softness of his t-shirt, the warmth of his skin, the tiny bits of hair that dots his arm, the stubble of an unshaven face. His hand wraps around mine and brings it in for a quick kiss. My eyes slowly flutter open and dart over to his face. “Hey kid,” he says softly, “I almost thought I lost you there for a moment.” “Where’s Red—?” I try to ask, pointing at my neck. My voice is slowly returning, but I still sound as if someone has crushed my voice and burnt it to crisps. Rhys understands immediately though and cuts me off. His head gestures towards the man being tied to a chair. His head sunk low uncontrollably, but through the small hairs falling above his face, I see the unmistakable outline of black and blue fist marks. I don’t even have to ask whom those belong to. Rhys lifts me off of the ground and through the crowd of disheveled men. All of them look as if they have been through or seen hell. I try to push aside the thought that I am most likely the cause of that. They were fighting over me and my position in the club, and that had to be the reason why so many of them still look unnerved by my presence and Rhys’s attention towards me. They part themselves down the line as Rhys walks towards the end of the room and places me on the table. Someone hands him their jacket for me to lay my head back on. “Don’t move. The doctor will be here in a few minutes to look at you. I’ve got some club business to attend to.” I nod back at him, giving him permission to let go of my hand. He walks away, occasionally looking back over his shoulders to check on me. I manage to turn my head just enough to see him approach the men crowded around Red Dog’s chair. He lifts Red’s head by the hairs, causing him to tilt backwards. Someone hands him a water bottle, which he splashes on his face. In an instant, Red comes to, sputtering the water out of his mouth like a busted hose. “What the fuck are you doing, Rhys?” Red Dog manages to ask, though he sounds more tired than ever before. I can only guess what kind of punishment Rhys managed to lay out on him while I was unconscious. He looked worse than I felt. “Are you going to let that girl and her tight pussy dictate you?” “I don’t think you heard me the first time when I warned you about this, Red.” Rhys continues to hold Red Dog’s head so that he has to look out among the men. Some of the younger guys look away.

Others stare at him with eyes so laser focused on the traitor that I wonder if they are more upset than Rhys is. “This girl that you beat up is under my protection. She’s under Northern Hounds’ protection. And let me ask you a question since you are so invested in keeping this club going. What happens when you mess with someone under club’s protection? Huh?” Red Dog doesn’t answer. Instead, he swishes something in his mouth and then spits it onto the floor before Rhys’s feet. Even I know that’s a risky move. Rhys drops his head forcibly so that it slams his chin into his chest. He steps forward and grabs one of the more beat-up younger guys to join him. His hand on his chest and another on his back, Rhys asks the new guy, “Okay, Arlo. Since you’re so loyal to Red Dog that you think you could fight the goddamn club leaders, I’m gonna ask you the same question: what happens when you mess with someone under club’s protection?” The man, no more than twenty years old, looks wistfully down at his feet. His hands twist as he sighs heavily. “They get killed.” I hear myself gasp, as it dawns on me what all these men are gearing up for. This wasn’t the start of Red Dog’s punishment for putting his hands on me. This was only the beginning. The blood rushes from my face to my feet as I know that I can’t be a part of this. I swing my legs around and off the table and then slowly lift my torso up. My head carefully follows behind so I don’t increase the pain in my neck. “Rhys!” I try shouting, but I am already out of breath, and that pain in my side just won’t stop screaming at me to be still. I call out again. More eyes turn to me this time. Someone points, getting Rhys’s attention. I walk slowly over towards them until Rhys meets me halfway. “Please,” I beg of him as I grab on to his arm. “Don’t do this. Don’t kill him. I don’t want there to be anymore killing because of me.” “Erina… are you sure? Is this actually what you want? We let the victims decide, so I am not going to tell you to save him or not to save him. It’s up to you.” He holds me closer as I start to lose the strength to stand up on my own. I breathe in deeply before answering. The weight of my words feels like a million pounds crushing down on me. I look back towards Red Dog, but he doesn’t even acknowledge me. He looks up and away—at his potential executioner. After a long moment, I come up with the only answer I can. “I don’t want him killed. Do whatever else you think is right, but please don’t kill him.” I scan the room at the rest of the men listening closely to my orders. A hush falls over the crowd, as they stare me down in a weird wonderment. “He’s not the enemy. He may have tried to kill me, but he was doing it because he thought it was what was best for the club. The real enemies are the men who killed my brother and the men who tried to kill us this morning. I don’t want to focus on this guy or anyone who was with him anymore. Let’s move on to the more important targets.” A man claps slowly in the back of the room. It rings through the empty space till another joins him. And then another. Before I know it, almost half of the room is looking straight at me as they applaud me. Nothing I said was inspiring or really that important. But there’s a shift in some of the other’s faces. I don’t look like the enemy anymore. That’s all that I can ask. Rhys doesn’t budge his hold on me, as he turns me around and leads me back to the table. I slide

myself on the tabletop and face upwards towards the ceiling. Now that I saved a man’s life, I don’t need to see anything else. Still, out of the corner of my eye, I can’t help but watch as Rhys charges over towards Red Dog and grabs the sleeve of his jacket. With a tug, he yanks something off—a piece of fabric or a patch. It’s just like the one he wears on his jacket. The men in the room let out a long, shocked puff of air. Something tells me that, in motorcycle club world, having that badge taken off is probably worse than death. Their faces sink, as if Red Dog had contracted some contagious plague. It was clear to me that he was blackballed, untouchable, damaged goods. They all step away from Rhys, as he holds it up for everyone to see before ushering a familiarlooking man to take it from him. “You heard her, Red Dog. She saved you from a death I had personally looked forward to doing myself. But now I still get the satisfaction of making sure you will never, ever set foot in club territory again. You’re banished. Done. You will not ride with the Northern Hounds again. And if you so much as break your bond to the club by joining up with another, I promise you that I will personally be holding the knife to your throat when you take your last breath.” Rhys snaps his fingers and points his head towards the man with his badge. As he turns to face me once again, he barks his order, “Make sure that fucker is booted out of here for good. And if any of you assholes want to join him, feel free to follow. Leave your badges at the door.” No one but Rhys moves as he strides back to where I am. He kneels before me in a gesture that makes me feel as if I am the reigning queen of her land. They all remain still, staring hard at me, lying on my back, with a new kind of reverence. I was the woman who got to say who lived and died. I was the woman who will lead them to victory. Rhys had anointed me as such by bowing to my wants and needs. Finally, two arms grasp around Red Dog and his chair to lift him up and out of the room. He struggles a bit, I see him attempting to thrash his legs out and spin the tight white rope up and over his shoulders. But the men who have him seem to know exactly what they are doing as he relents and takes his walk of shame with a little bit of dignity. To my surprise, no one in this meeting room joins him. No one dares test Rhys or his authority. They all watch with bated breath, waiting cautiously for the next move.

CHAPTER 16 “Rhys, come on. Stop it. I am going to be fine.” Erina attempts to sit up as both the doctor and I run to her side and order her back down. We’ve moved her to one of the beds the boys use when they’re doing a night shift, but she still looks completely out of place and uncomfortable. I don’t blame her. Those things remind me of the camp beds we slept on in Iraq. They weren’t exactly made to nurse a solider back to health. “Please, ma’am,” the doctor says, “I am telling you that you need to rest. That means not moving. The more you try to exert yourself, the worse the pain is going to be.” Our doctor spins around towards a desk and pulls out a white notepad. He quickly writes a prescription and hands it to me. “It’s the good stuff. She’s going to need an ID to get it, but she looks like she isn’t the type that rings up red flags with pain killers.” “I don’t want to take anything. I need to be alert. Please.” Erina is in-between begging and attempting to assert some authority. It was cute watching her try to overpower me and a doctor by sheer will. It’s as if she forgot who is in charge. And if that doctor says she has to take the painkillers, damn it, she was going to do it. I step in for the doctor, who stares at her through his thin, metal-frame glasses. He isn’t used to working on females. I can tell that. His wrinkled skin actually managed to lose color when he stepped into the dorm room and saw her lying there in just a bra and panties. As our on-call club doctor, he is used to dealing with injuries like mine -- gunshots, stab wounds, road wear and tear. He had to tap into his pre-retirement experience to work on someone like her. “Erina,” I say, as soothingly as I possibly can, “he says you have at least two bruised ribs. Listen to the man and take the damn painkillers. Nothing you can do right now will change the situation. Just relax and let it go.” I want to knock some sense in her, but she is hell bent on testing her limits. Ever since we moved her out of the meeting room and away from the guys, she’s been more and more eager to get out there and catch Robert. I don’t know what she thinks she’s trying to compensate for. “I feel fine, though!” she protests, puffing out air to blow the strands of her pin-straight hair from her face. Her pink swollen eyes and the bruise mark on her arm tell a whole different story. Just seeing Red Dog’s damage sends me into flames. If I could get away with it, I’d be on the road right now…on the hunt with a loaded Glock in my hand. She has no idea how much this has affected me, how much I want to make this right for her. Erina didn’t deserve to be manhandled over someone thinking I was putting sex before my men. The doctor shoves the prescription into my hand and then moves to leave. But before he goes, he turns back to me and says almost amusedly, “Whoever did your arm wound did a good job. The stitches are totally clean, and there’s no sign of infection. I’m still going to have to charge you for the consult though. You’ll get my invoice for the work on Monday.” “Thanks, Sears,” I mutter, as I frown over at Erina. She looks more satisfied with herself than before.

If she thinks she’s going to use her sewing skills and the one-off chance there was a bottle of vodka in that safe house to weasel herself out of her resting orders, she has the wrong guy. When the doctor has shut the door behind him, I make my way to her bedside, sitting just beside her on a backless, rolling desk chair. We both exhale deeply. This was the first time we’ve been able to be alone since we got to headquarters. The men tending to her after Red Dog’s dismissal was pretty surprising. It seemed like just about all of them were willing to bend over backwards to prove that they were just as loyal to her as they were to me. Erina lifts her arm and finds my shoulder. She gives my bicep a squeeze while biting down slightly on her lip. “Come on, Rhys,” she says softly to me, “please let me just go back to normal. I don’t want to waste another second in this bed. We’ve got work to do if we’re going to find Robert and cut him off before he does any more damage.” “I thought you didn’t care if he sent around that video of us together.” I hate to admit, but the thought of a sex tape between us turns me on slightly. I’m not into voyeuristic or public sex, but there is no denying that the sexual tension between the two of us is like lightning. I’ve been with so many girls before, but nothing compares to Erina on top or with her legs high in the air up against my chest and shoulders… “I don’t…or, I mean, I do.” Her face becomes crestfallen as she pauses. Those beautiful doe eyes of hers roll up so that she avoids my stare. “It’s not that I regret going with you or smashing that damn hidden camera. It’s that I, well, I’ve been working towards that dream of being a director for almost all my life. And I’ve had good runs at it. I had a documentary out there a few years ago—” “About skateboarders?” I cut her off as I think out loud about her brother’s lifeless body wearing the sweatshirt with the logo of two boards. She looks shocked, and I instantly backtrack and explain, “It was that picture of your brother. He was wearing a sweatshirt when he died with your name on it.” “Oh. I didn’t notice that. I tried to avoid looking at the pictures of his body, and my mom told me the police took his clothes as evidence. But yeah, it was about homeless skateboarders. I went all over the country interviewing guys. I even spent the night in California in an underpass they converted to be a skate park. It did well on the documentary circuit. William got to see it at Teracho Screen Festival as my date when he got back from the war. I gave him that sweatshirt earlier that night. He was so proud of me.” “I’m sure he’s proud of you now,” I say, and I mean it. It’s not every chick that would risk their lives to find their brother’s killer, even if it means working with a sick asshole like me. “Seriously, Erina, that takes some kind of guts that I’ve never seen before.” “I know, I know,” she says, letting go of her grip on my arm to wipe away a river of tears that flows steadily down the side of her eyes. “It’s just that it kind of all fell apart from there. My career went nowhere. Will was killed. My mom basically went nuts. And now I’m here with nothing to show for it. After Robert’s video gets out, and especially if he tells people that you were a documentary subject, I will never be able to show my work again. I’ll be that girl who everyone knows what she

looks like naked and who has a fetish for incredibly handsome bad guys with tats and massive biceps.” I try to lighten the mood. “Thanks. I’ll take that as a compliment.” She lets out a choked off, exhausted laugh. Still, I can feel the pain in her words. I can understand losing a career. Leaving the Marines was hard enough for me. I couldn’t imagine if Red Dog had managed to stage that coupe against me and I was the one having my Northern Hounds crest taken off of my jacket. I’d lose my shit. Erina has every right to be upset. “Listen, Erina. We’re going to figure this out. We’re going to make this right for the both of us. You’re going to get your brother’s killer, and I’m going to take down those bastard Scarlets for once and for all. And then life is going to go back to normal. You’ll be that director-teacher-thing, and I’ll be the incredibly handsome bad guy with tats and massive biceps with a sick ass club to lead. We just have to get through it.” And then, I let myself do something that I haven’t done in a very long time. I reach out and grab Erina’s hand. I know it’s not the most innovative or romantic gesture anyone has ever come up with, but I haven’t done this since I walked to my airport’s gate with my old girlfriend Carrie after my first furlough was up years ago. When Carrie left me, her imprint was still seared onto the inside palm of my hand, and I vowed to never, ever do it again. But here I am, making it right with Erina. She places our clasped hands on her stomach and cups it with her other. I feel her stomach slightly cave in and exhale as she cries a bit more, releasing that pain and uncertainty. I know better than to talk right now. The best thing I can do is give her my hand and tell her that it is going to be okay, even though I know that it may not be. She is more wanted than I am. Her life isn’t going to be the same when this thing gets through. A sensation that I can only describe as ‘heartbreak’ crashes over me, surprising me. I didn’t know I could feel empathy for another person anymore. Minutes pass before she’s ready to talk again. When she’s ready, I don’t talk about her brother, her career, or our plans to get out of here. Instead, I ask her about a restaurant in her neighborhood I figure she’s gone to, and I tell her about a cop friend of mine that frequents there and has slept with every single one of the waitresses. She laughs as I describe how one of them managed to land a good hit on him when she found out. Story after story, the old Erina—the one with the glowing face and the lively eyes—comes back to me. I eventually let go of her hand and replace it with a gentle kiss on the forehead. “I’m going to go out and get you this prescription. Take it from a guy who’s actually broken more ribs than are currently in your body, you’re going to want to take something for it. I’m not going to force you, but I will guilt you.” Erina attempts to sit up in bed, but falls as quickly back down. Her hand shoots to her side where the doctor has wrapped a long, tight bandage around her black and purple skin. “You’re leaving me?” she asks—just as a kid would ask her parents. “Who’s going to be here?” I don’t blame her for being cautious. It’s not like it worked out well the last time I left her alone in this place.

“I’m just going down the hall to get a runner to go grab me this script.” I reach into her purse and take out her wallet. I fish through her credit and business cards until I find her driver's license. I then get out her phone and type my real cell number into the contacts list before handing it back to her. “If you need me, you press the number two. I’m on your speed dial after your mom.” “Ooh,” comes the sarcastic retort, “Speed dial. That must be a major step for a guy like you.” Erina teasing me is something I’ll never grow tired of. She manages to change the entire mood of the room just by letting go of that intellectual, I’m-better-than-you vibe. I wink playfully back at her and turn. Behind me, I can hear her shift around in the cot, trying to get comfortable. I resist the urge of going back and lying beside her. As I move to open the door, I hear voices coming from the outside. I can just make out who it is before they knock. I look over my shoulder towards Erina, who has managed to shoot up in bed despite her injury. She’s on pins and needles as her fingers wrap around the side of the faded yellow and white mattress. I open the door slowly so she can see that there’s nothing to worry about. I have this covered. “Hey, boss.” Andy and Jonas stand in the doorway with their hands crossed around their chests. They avoid looking in, thankfully, keeping their attention lasered in on me. “We were thinking about some plans to get ahold of Robert and the Scarlets, and we think we came up with something that will work out for us.” “Okay, that’s fine,” I reply to Jonas with my voice lowered so that Erina cannot hear. “But can we do it elsewhere. I don’t know why you think it’s okay to bring it to me here while the girl is around.” If I was going to protect her, I couldn’t get her involved in things that didn’t need her. She was still the integral key to catching Robert and possibly snagging the Scarlets in the process, but she could consult without knowing the bloody details of it all. “That’s the thing, Rhys,” Andy interrupts. “We think she should hear this, too. We actually need her to make it work.” He ducks his head, as if I am about to hit him. Good on him. I am about to. The fact that he thinks it’s okay to loop her back in after she practically gave her life because of this club is the most idiotic thing I’ve heard all day. He has a room to the mental institution waiting for him if he thinks I am going to let anyone in this club within feet of her. “Look, Rhys. We know that she’s, uh, important to you.” Andy rubs the back of his neck awkwardly. The dribbles of sweat practically roll down his tan, prickly skin as he tries to continue without stuttering. “But she’s our only chance of making a big move on the Scarlets. If we don’t risk it now, they’re just going to sit back and wait for us to make a mistake.” “Plus,” Jonas adds quickly, clearly trying to cover up for Andy’s insinuation about Erina and my relationship, “with Red Dog out there, we can’t trust anyone right now. He’s a loose cannon. Even though he knows he can’t talk about any of us or our business, his enforcers think differently. Jay and the boys were just in there talking about him probably running off to connections he’s got to poach on our territory. We got to do something, and we got to do it fast.”

“You boys know that I don’t like my hand being forced,” I say, as I think over my options. I let out a big, heaving sigh before continuing. It almost feels good. “Look, I am not going to make a decision because some wild asshole is out there threatening us. I’m just not going to do it. We do not make our plans that way; I’m not going to let him win like that.” The truth was, though, that they were absolutely right. This has been sitting in the back of my head since Erina pardoned him and I ripped off his patch. We should be worried about Red Dog. I don’t even have a clue what he might be up to at this point, given how he’s desperate, alone, and amped up. If he was bold enough to not only fight with me, but also explicitly go against my orders and rough up my girl, then he was stupid enough to take our club secrets out to the highest bidder. And I know exactly who that would be if he found out. I should have had him shot and buried while Erina was busy with the doctor. It’s not as if she would ever know—and none of my guys would ever dare tell her that I went against her call. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to break Erina’s trust. Her telling me about that camera Robert had planted on her was a sign that she was willing to open up to me. She trusted me. I had to show her the same kind of courtesy, even if it risked us. “We get that, Rhys. But just hear us out. We have a plan that has to work. We’ve gone over every single option—and this is the only thing that is really sticking. The rest of the leadership and elders agree, too. We have to do something, and we have to do it within the next few hours.” Jonas’s eyes suddenly dart behind me, looking inside the room towards Erina’s cot. I follow his stare over and around where I am standing to see Erina right there beside me. She places a hand on my shoulder as she scoots in between us. With a tired, reserved smile, she says as confidently as she can, “Whatever you need. I can do it.” Despite her protests, her voice is still gravely and pained, reminding me that just hours ago, she was being strangled to near death. “Erina, come on. Be serious. You don’t have to do this. We can figure out a way to get to Robert with just some information from you. That’s what we’re good at. We got guys who are the best at intel and tracking. They’ll find him without you having to do a damn thing. Plus, the doctor says you can’t be up and moving.” She’s grasping onto her side as if she’s holding herself together, and the small squint of her eyes shows me just how hard she is fighting back the pain. “I am serious, Rhys. This is my decision, and I want to help the club. Your guys saved me from Red Dog, and now it’s time I pay you back.” Andy and Jonas watch her with nodding heads. Of course they like her now that she’s practically giving up her safety to us. Shows of bravery and stupidity in the name of the club were what we made our recruits do. But Erina isn’t a brand new motorcycle rider looking for a leather jacket and some patches. Erina was better than this. I grit my teeth and take hold of her thin, bare shoulders as I command her, “Go back to bed, Erina. Let me handle this.” “No. I’m in this now, Rhys. You can’t stop me. If you guys won’t tell me what your plan is, I’ll contact Robert myself and get his location. There’s no way you could keep me from doing that.”

Like hell there wasn’t. I could think of at least three ways to keep her locked up, tied down, and constrained to that bed. Damn, if I wanted to, I could throw her up over my shoulders and bring her back to one of our safe houses where the doors and double-paned windows only lock from the outside. She may be feisty, but she had nothing on a man like me. “That’s the thing, Erina,” Andy interjects, as he avoids my death glare. “We need you to reach out to Robert, and then go meet him wherever you guys agree to. It’s the best chance we’ve got in pinpointing where he’s been over the last few hours.” My stomach sinks as I listen to Erina put the boys’ plan together in her mind. “So, you want me to be the bait?” “Yeah. We need you to go in there and talk to him. Distract him a bit, if you can. We think the Scarlets won’t be too far behind if they’ve got a warrant for your head.” I lift my hand, cutting him Andy and Jonas off. This is too insane. It will never work. I am not going to throw away Erina’s life because they are desperate to get their hands on Joseph and the Scarlets. I turn back towards Erina as I shout, “You can’t be serious. Are you really gonna put yo—?” She stops me. Her hand massages lightly at my arm. “I’ve got to do this, Rhys. Just trust me. I can handle this.”

CHAPTER 17 The plan isn’t exactly groundbreaking. It’s straight out of a detective mystery movie my dad would have loved; the shy chick, doe-eyed and seemingly opposite of any of the crap surrounding her, caught up in some major crime scheme she didn’t have anything to do with, getting roped into being the bait for a horrifying idea. Heroes back her up, catch bad guy, save her in the nick of time, and she rides off into the sunset without a scratch. What could go wrong? I keep asking myself that question. What could go wrong? Robert could kill me. That’s the easiest one. He’s surely pissed off at me for going back on my word that I would record everything that I could get on Rhys and the Northern Hounds. He’s probably feeling a bit juiced up too, having sent that video to everyone he knows. Killing me would just be icing on the cake for him. What could go wrong?

Well, for starters, the Scarlets could get to me first. And even if I trusted Robert to be the only one there, I know he’s unstable. He’s already tried to double-cross Rhys by luring him into the alley and then siccing his Scarlet Knives contacts on us. What’s to say they won’t do it again? And now that Robert knows that I have value to Rhys, I’m the perfect bargaining chip. I shudder when I think of what they would or could do to me. Then there’s Rhys. The man doesn’t know any limits. He’s like a superhero on steroids. He’d jump into a burning building for his club and me if he thought he had a chance. I can’t blame him for being pissed at me for wanting to take this on. After fighting so hard to keep me safe, I was basically slapping him in the face and telling him it wasn’t worth it. I was practically begging him to resort to some insane rescue mission where he comes storming in Rambo-style with guns cocked and loaded at Robert’s head. While I know he’s capable of doing some insane things with his military training and his bigger-than-life ego, the last thing I wanted to watch was for something to go wrong and him to die. I don’t want to pick up those pieces. I could, of course, get out of there alive. I play that scenario out in my head. Robert gets captured, and I end up knowing that I am responsible for his death. God, I hate to think about that. Did I use all my pardons up by twisting Rhys’s arm enough so he’d let Red Dog go? He had blood in his eyes when he was staring him down. With Robert, it’s going to be just as bad, if not worse. Would I be less of a person if I caused Robert’s death? I feel as if I’m back in my college ethics class where we would have to pick out of a group of students that we would want to save on our single lifeboat if the fake ship would start to sink. That class taught me that you should always save the doctor, the leader, the engineer, and maybe the innocent baby if there was space. But there wasn’t room for me on this lifeboat. When I’m looking through the scenarios and options, it’s clear that I have to do this, and I have to do this alone. The boys have been talking for a long time in that meeting room where I was attacked. I wasn’t invited in. Club rules. I’d have to be a full-fledge member to be let inside. So I’m waiting on a chair with a few other of the younger guys that don’t have privileges yet to sit in and vote. They think

they’re guarding me from whatever may be out roaming the streets outside headquarters. But in reality, I’m pretty sure they are guarding me from listening in on whatever is going on inside. Rhys told me to play it cool, that he and the boys were going to discuss it with the elders. About twenty of these massively burly guys have come in and out. Some with complete looks of disbelief on their faces. They see me and it’s like I set them off all over again. They storm out with hands in thick balls by their sides. But the majority of the guys look just as eager as Jonas and Andy to get the plan in action. Before the meeting, Jonas and Andy had told me that Rhys didn’t need approval from the big guys or leadership. He could veto whatever they want. It wasn’t exactly a democracy. He was a dictator who could make up his own agenda and order the men around to do whatever they want. “He won’t do that though,” Jonas said quietly while Rhys stepped out to make his calls. “Rhys is a good leader. He cares about his guys. I once saw him drop everything to go help a guy’s mother who got hit by a runaway truck on the highway. He tracked the truck down, beat the shit out of the driver, and delivered him to the police station within hours. He didn’t have to do that.” All I can respond to that story is, “Wow.” It is becoming clear to me that the guy I now am tied to is all combinations of fucked up. He can do something so amazing as find a friend’s mom’s assailant and turn him into the police. But then he’ll turn around and beat someone up to a bloody pulp for daring to be just as mad or as bad as he was. There is no black and white with Rhys. He is so many different shades, it is hard for me to keep my head straight. “It’ll be quick though,” Andy reassures me. “I don’t think there will be many trying to stop us from taking down the Scarlets. They’ve been a pain in our ass for so long now. They’re just mad they ain’t military like us. They don’t get the respect around the country like we do.” “You’re all military?” I ask, my interest piqued. I could have guessed it if I looked closely. All of them had similar tattoos and most wore worn out combat boots right out of a military museum. And then there was that walk. All soldiers seemed to have this gait about them that said they had crossed through hell and back to be here. “Yep,” Jonas replies, as he checks his watch. “All the elders on their way are veterans. Most of them fought beside Rhys. That’s how he recruited them. We all needed something to do and some place to go, and Rhys knew how to match our skills. Some of the younger guys aren’t though. Their dad’s fought. Rhys gives those guys a home.” “I guess I didn’t know that,” I admit, somewhat ashamed. “Yeah. It’s not as if we want to be running drugs or doing some business guy’s dirty work. I know my mama wouldn’t be too proud of that. But after the war, we’re damaged goods. At least being together in a club means we get shit done with the people who know what it’s like. We don’t have to go sit in a stuffy office with a suit and a tie because some admin civilian told us that’s all that we can do. We get to be with our brothers…doing what we do best.” Jonas looks up proudly at the painted on seal above the meeting room door.

Minutes later, the elders start streaming in one by one. The ones that weren’t around during the fight don’t even take notice of me sitting there anxiously. They head straight to their business, closing the door behind them. A good hour passes before the first one goes—and then the others. Rhys leaves the room last. He stands there, shaking a hand of an older man with a long, gray beard straight out of a 1970s rock band. “You ride smart, Rhys. I’m not picking your body up off the side of the road,” the older man says, as he frowns under the straggly hairs. “I will, Hoss. I’ll be seeing you before you know it.” Rhys waits until the man is out of sight before turning around to face me. The young guys scatter, leaving us alone again. “Club rules, or I would let you in,” he says, breaking the odd frostiness between us. “It’s fine. Andy and Jonas explained it to me. I get it now.” I stand up slowly, careful not to strain my back or torso. The pain felt like someone was slowly pulling me apart with an old-fashioned torture device. “What was the verdict, or are you going to make me wait on that?” I blurt out impatiently. I need to know what kind of danger I was putting myself in. “We’re going with the guys’ plans to make you the bait.” I exhale loudly, so much so that Rhys has to pause. “But you’re not going to be alone. I am going to do it with you.” He hands me my phone and says, “We need you to tell Robert that you have more footage. Tell him that what you did back at your house with the camera smashing was just an act so that I would trust you and bring you to headquarters. Tell him you’ve been videotaping us on your phone this whole time and you’ve got some good stuff, including one of them beating you up.” “I don’t understand. Why would I tell him that?” I ask quietly. “Because if Red Dog is out there telling his side of the story to whoever will listen to him, it’s probably gotten back to Joseph and maybe even to Robert. If you say that you wanted to get beat up to get more of the story, then there is no way Robert’s going to be able to resist that kind of action, and you can prove to him that you’ve been following his orders all along. After all, you’d do anything to get your brother’s killer. Tell him you think it’s me.” “Rhys… I can’t do that. I can’t.” My hands shake as I thrust the phone back into his hands. There is no way that this plan is going to work. It was so much easier when it was just me telling Robert I needed to meet with him while some of Rhys’s men stood outside the perimeter, waiting to strike. This was too complicated for me to wrap my head around. And complicated means death if something went wrong. “Erina, I know. It’s not ideal. But you lost Robert’s trust. He’s not going to listen to you unless you give him something to prove you’re on his side.”

“And then what?” I ask, feeling like there has got to be more to this story than what Rhys is telling me. “Just make the call, Erina.” He hands me back the phone, this time wrapping his hands around mine so I can’t let go. He finally takes a few long steps backwards and sits on the folding chair as I retreat to a quiet, shadowy area by the offices. If I was going to do this, I didn’t want him to be watching me this entire time. The phone rings three times. I count each one, praying he won’t pick up. But his slithering, sickly voice greets me right before it hits voicemail. “Well, Erina. I thought I would never hear from you again… not after that show you put on with ripping off your shirt and having Rhys step on my camera. That was pretty hot, I had to admit.” “Robert,” I interrupt, whispering urgently into the phone. I need to make this sound as realistic as possible. If I was with Rhys and double-crossing him, I wouldn’t necessarily want to be heard. “Please. You have to listen to me. I’m at Northern Hound headquarters right now. I’ve been filming everything on my cell phone. I’ve got hours of footage. And it’s good. It’s really good.” “Stop bullshitting me, Erina. I saw everything that happened in your dining room. No way in hell you’re going to fool me with that. You’re working with Rhys O’Malley now. You picked him over your career. Pretty bad choice, if you ask me.” I pause for a second and then turn my phone around so that the camera is facing me. Quickly, I snap a picture of my face and neck with the still fresh bruises. In a few spots, you can actually make out thumb and fingerprints from Red Dog’s attack. I find Robert’s name in my contacts and hit send. Seconds later, on the side of the phone, I hear the alert pop up on his cell. “That picture’s from me. You’re going to want to look at it. It’s from the fight I got into with one of Rhys’s guys. Someone named Something Dog. I don’t know. But he roughed me up good. I got it all on my phone though, including when he tried to strangle me to death. If you want that footage for the documentary, you’re going to have to help me out here.” Robert doesn’t respond right away. He’s either studying the picture or thinking through my plea. Either way, I can feel his resistance fade away as he is tempted by the present I am bribing him with. I try to sweeten the deal a little bit more for him. “Please, Robert. I need your help. I’m getting in way over my head here. You’re the only one that can save me now. Rhys is—” Suddenly, Rhys appears right behind me, causing me to scream loudly. He grabs the phone from my hand and shouts into the receiver. “Who the fuck are you talking to, bitch! Did I tell you could be on the phone!? WHO IS THIS?!” I look up at him, totally in shock. But his face hasn’t changed at all. In fact, he’s smiling. The corners of his lips are upturned, as he grins widely. Was this part of the plan he had all along? “Robert. It’s, um, Robert. Sir.” I add the ‘sir’ for effect, still trying to wrap my head around what he has planned. Rhys walks over to the chair, the phone still in his hands, and slams the chair on the

ground so the metal hitting the tile rattles loudly. “That son of a bitch...” He turns his attention back to the phone, screaming even louder into the receiver. “Where the fuck is my money, you punk-ass pansy? You think I am going to let you get away with taking my money and trying to screw me over with the Scarlets? You have another thing coming to you.” He quickly presses a button, the speaker option, so I can hear Robert’s response. “Rhys? Is that you?” Robert asks, totally feigning innocence. “Where’s Erina? I want to talk to Erina.” There’s some hint of concern in his voice, but he’s been such a good actor that I can’t tell what’s genuine or not. He is almost as good of an actor as Rhys is. “Robert! Please!” I shout into the speaker while Rhys rattles the chair with his foot. “Please! Just do whatever he wants.” “What I want is for you to meet Erina at Forty-first and Clearmont. It’s an old warehouse by the train tracks. You come alone and bring me my money. Hand it over to Erina and leave. If it’s there when I pick her up at midnight, then I’ll let her go. If it isn’t, I’m coming after you next.” He adds quickly, “And don’t even try touching Erina. If you, or your friends the Scarlets show their faces, I’ll know. Erina’s under my watch now.” “Robert! Please! Do what he says. I am asking you as a friend. I can’t do this anymore… I don’t want to be part of this…” I unleash a long, slow sob, letting it echo through the room. Rhys screams incoherently over me as he swings the phone around and roughs it up in his hands. I can just imagine the picture Robert was getting on the other end of that line. “Do we have a deal, Robert? Or should I send my guys out there now for you?” It feels like an eternity before Robert answers. “I’ll be there with your money. Midnight.” Rhys clicks the phone off and tosses it back to me. He picks up the chair and places it inside the meeting room, and then takes my hand and leads me back towards the bedroom where I saw the doctor. I take a seat on the edge of the bed, totally exhausted and worn out. Everything that has happened in the last thirty-six hours is catching up to me like waves, and the worst part is knowing that it’s not even over yet. There is more to come. This is just the beginning. We have to get through Robert, and then Rhys has to make his peace with the Scarlet situation. It finally dawns on me that my life, as I knew it, is never going to go back to normal. Not after this. There is no turning around and forgetting someone like Rhys, or your co-worker’s betrayal. There is no salvaging a career from a sex scandal, or returning home without looking over your shoulder. My life is going to forever be like that phone call -- fake, chaotic, a game. I lay my head back on the thin pillow and look up at the white stucco ceiling. Before I know it, tears are streaming down my face. But I’ve cried so many times that I’m numb to their touch. They’re just following old marks from hours before. Rhys sits down next to me and gently wipes away each one, one by one. And then, he slides into the small bed next to me, his forehead touching mine and his

leather jacket studs scratching up against my skin. “I just want this to be over with,” I explain. “Don’t you ever get tired of this? I mean, is it always like this for you?” I couldn’t imagine the stress that came with managing the lives of so many of your friends and even family. One misstep, one emotional outburst and his friends would be gone, his business destroyed, him put in jail. A guy like Rhys had to always be a step ahead everyone else. Even just trying to outsmart Robert was incredibly exhausting. “It gets that way, sure. I mean, there’s always something, but I try to not let it get me too riled up. When I was in the Marines, they taught us to do these breathing exercises before we’d go into the front lines. You know, so we wouldn’t be too trigger-happy and fire on some villagers accidentally. Take your hands and press them together.” He takes my hands from my sides and places them in a prayer formation. “Now look at your thumbs and slowly inhale and exhale ten times.” With his hands forming mine, we do it together. His breaths are longer and deeper than mine, but we sync up together near the end so that our chests are lifting and falling at the same time. When we’re done, he closes his eyes and turns back to me and says as slowly as possible, “Nothing is going to happen to you, Erina…not as long as I’m alive.” I don’t know why he says it. I don’t know if he even believes it. But I look at him with his wild hair, the scruff on his face, the thick lips, and I know that he’s right. When I’m with him, nothing is wrong. Nothing is ever wrong. I place my hand upon his cheek and move my thumb up and down the line of his jawbone, up around his chin, and down his neck until it reaches his chest. We take ten more breaths together, this time with our eyes locked on the other person’s. With each inhale and exhale, I feel myself moving closer to him or him moving closer to me. It’s hard to tell. We eventually find the other, our lips parting to let the other person in. Our mouths turning with each locked breath. He grabs me around the waist and pulls me up so that I am straddling him with my thighs pressed against his side. I can’t even feel the pain in my ribs over the fluid motion of our bodies dancing with the other. Now wasn’t the time to do this. I know that. I should be focusing on Robert or getting home to my mother. I should be planning with Rhys’s team. I should be teaching my class on modern film stories. I should be anywhere but here in bed with Rhys. We both know this. Still…I’m not moving.

CHAPTER 18 Her mouth on mine is like some kind of advanced poison coursing its way through my body. It starts in my bloodstream and flows to my hands and fingers. It forces them to reach out to her, to feel her warm body in my palms, to trace my long fingers down the small of her back and up the fabric of her tiny tank top until I grab hold of her hair to pull her neck up for me to nuzzle in. It then moves to my legs. My long legs have at least a foot on her petite frame, but I still carefully part her thighs and knees with my own until she is closer to me than ever and our legs are hooked. Finally, my cock loses control. The last thing I want to do at a time like this is to let my burning lust for her take over, but it’s impossible to pull myself away. Her silky skin, the smell of her against my nostrils, the curve of her fitting me like a glove… my cock has absolutely no way to resist this kind of temptation. Erina manages to pull herself off of me. With one long, anguished look, her eyes grow dark and heavy. A girl like her has a mind that races a mile a minute, but she isn’t following what is in her head. She is following her deep desires. Erina slowly inches her way down my chest, kissing at the fabric of my t-shirt, her hand trailing behind her. She stops when she reaches my silver buckle. With her hands grasped around the buckle, she slides herself off of me and onto the floor. It forces me to sit straight up for the perfect view of her, as she peels that shirt off of her slim little body. Her strapless bra bounces from the weight and the light hits the tops of her perky, round tits just right. I’m practically salivating at the sight of her sitting on the floor before me, her hands resting on her knees. Breathlessly, she pulls her hands up, commanding me. “Stand up, Rhys,” she breathes. I practically float up. She readjusts herself just a bit so that she is high up on her knees. She can just reach the inside hook of the buckle and the silver stud holding my jeans together. Erina unfastens me quickly and then stops to survey. I watch her wicked grin widen, as she leans in towards the seam of my pants. Her mouth finds the zipper and slowly pulls the metal clasp down the length without once using her hands. It is incredible. With a few tugs, my pants, shoes, socks, and boxer briefs rolls down my legs and onto a pile on the floor at my feet. She pushes herself up on the clothes for a little extra comfort before spreading her hands out for balance on the top of my frigid, tattoo-covered thighs. Her fingers trace the outline of black flame artwork I designed myself until her hands become part of the artwork. They move upwards towards my erect and sturdy shaft. Without hesitation, she grabs hold of the base of it in one of her hands and gently kneads. The fire in my legs becomes more than ink on the skin, as it rises up to my stomach and through my throat. I exhale harshly. “Do you like this?” she murmurs, not taking her eyes off of my cock. “Do you like when I tease you?” This is a totally different Erina than the girl who I was just comforting moments ago. When she’s with me, really with me, she’s brave and bold -- and sexy as all fuck. It’s the Erina that turns me on more

than any woman I’ve ever been with has ever been able to. I can’t even get out the words to tell her how much I do love her warm hands on my cock, her breasts bouncing up against my thighs, her lips oh-so close to the top of my shaft and balls. Erina doesn’t need an answer though. With a long, moist lick of her lips, she makes it clear what she has in mind for me. And I’m all game for this. She opens her mouth just wide enough for me to force my way in. It’s not violent, but I am needing her to take action. I can’t stand the tease anymore. She steadies herself from the thrusting motion by placing her hands back up on my hips, and I hold her in place by wrapping the remains of her messy ponytail in my hands. With my hold on her in place, I rock her back, sliding her mouth up and down about half of the length—just to warm her up. After a few short strokes from what feels like the back of her mouth to the top of my cock, she pushes me back and takes control of the rhythm herself. It is as if she is wanting to show me just what she is made of as she shoots down the length as far as she can go and then slowly creeps up the rest of the way. I grab hold of the bedpost behind me, as she repeats it, this time going slow on the downward stroke, lapping at every centimeter of me, and then springing back up like a spinning top. Traces of her lipstick leave their mark as she goes, showing the territory she claims as her own. When her mouth grows tired, her tongue does the work instead by swirling around and around like ribbon enveloping a present. I can’t control myself any longer. I shout out loud without any abandon, “Fuck! Erina! This feels so good.” My eyes close, and my head dips back towards my back, as I let her take the reins. Even in the dark, I can feel her staring up at me with this satisfied expression you can only get when you serve another person. She wasn’t over though. Her head dips to the side of my erection with her tongue out and ready. Erina goes straight for my balls, unleashing her sweet mouth on my sensitive skin. I let out another unearthly shout that grumbles from the very depth of me. She takes one entirely into her mouth while pumping softly at the other. I’m gone. Totally gone. My grip on her hair tightens, and I know that I can’t last any longer. I pull her away and swing her down towards the ground. Towering over her heaving body, I give her a quick warning, “You’re going to come with me, Erina. I promise you that.” My arm shoots out from under her to lift her hips into the air. With one smooth swipe, I manage to pull off her knit skirt and lacey underwear. When she’s nude before me, I lift her up off of the ground and place her on the seat of one of the large leather desk chairs with the high back. I reach over her to pull the crank so that she flies upwards towards me. With the palms of my hand, I split her legs at her feet, and her flower reveals itself to me almost as perfectly as the first time we fucked. There’s a slight pause as I try to think through my next move. I’d give anything to dive my cock into her, splitting her open. But I don’t. Instead, I drop to my knees just like she did for me. I place each of her legs on my shoulders and press my head up against the neatly shaven skin of her inner thighs. The sticky sweet smell of her overcomes me, and I close my eyes again so that I can enjoy this moment even more. She gasps loudly as my tongue and mouth press into her. Her hands run through the curls of

my hair, forcing me deeper against her clit and slit. I have to wrap my hands around the legs of the chair just to keep it in place from all of my movement. She was hot, so hot…in every sense of those words. In seconds, I thought she would melt into a puddle of liquid from the tip of my tongue sliding in and out of her cavern. Her legs push harder into my shoulders and her toes curl so that they circle up against my back. I try my hardest just to focus on making deep circles with my tongue while my fingers sweep around her exposed clit. I could practically feel the blood rush to her parts, pumping hard from the artery near her pussy. It is ecstasy. Pure and simple. The rush of fluid, the hit of her hands on the leather chair, the crying out of my name. “Rhys! Oh. My. God! Rhys!” She tries to push my head away, but I stay put. The gush of her fluids flows from her and into my mouth. I lap it up, cleaning her pussy lips with my tongue. Pulling away, I look directly at her as I say with as much authority as I can muster up, “What did I say earlier?” She looks at me blankly. The pink flush rushes to her cheeks. “You’re going to come with me. I promised you that.” I pick her up again, this time flipping her upside down so her hands rest on the ground and her legs continue to rest up on my shoulders and chest. I squat with her locked up against my body. The wheelbarrow is the perfect angle to get right back in there, licking even deeper at her soaking wet pussy. This time though, I get a full on view spread open wide just for me. As my hands massage at her clit from upside down, I lean in and alternate blowing hot and cold puffs of air. Even in this position, I can feel her shiver and shake and not just from the weight she’s holding up. I can sense she’s getting tired, so I let her slither on down to the ground. She flips on to her back with her hands behind her, looking up at me with eyes completely lit up and ready to go. Everything just fades away as we lock our stares on the other, neither of us ready to let go just yet. I reach down and scoop her light frame into my arms, her thin arms dangle around my neck while her pussy grinds up just against the top of my cock. I find the small desk and gently place her on the edge. My arm reaches over her and pushes the few pieces of paper and pens out of the way. Nothing was going to stand in my way of fully enjoying Erina. Kissing the crown of her head, I ask her, “Are you ready for me?” I can feel her nod slowly and surely. And then, her nails…they dig in hard against the sweaty skin of my back. She needs me just as much as I need her. I push her closer to me so that she lines up directly with the aim of my cock into her pussy. It’s a bullseye that I don’t plan on missing. Both of us look down as my cock inches into her smooth, moist barrier. The folds of her pussy expand for me as I fill her up with my long, thick cock. My muscles flex with hers as she somehow squeezes that grip even tighter along the shaft. The pressure feels so intense, as if she plans on never letting me go. And as I start pushing my hips into her hips, Erina takes her hips and lifts them just slightly up and off the side of the desk so we bounce together. Her luscious tits sway with the sound of her ass slapping up against my thighs and balls. And when she is secure, her hands massage at her tits and twist her own nipples, giving me a private show of what she must do at home when she is alone in bed.

I take a few steps so I dig even deeper into her, my hands grab onto her sweet, apple-shaped ass for support. I press my nails into her near perfect skin, digging little track marks as they go. It’s all a workup to what I really want to do to an ass as perfect as hers. While she eases up on her movements, I spring her back to life with a white-hot slap on the ass. She pauses as she cries out, and I catch her again on the fleshiest part of her body. Instantly, she goes back to work harder and faster than before. As we speed towards orgasm, she leans forward towards my chest and flings herself up and on to me. Her curvy legs wrap up against me at my hips, and she forces herself up. In this position, I have no choice but to take charge. I hit her ass with another flick of my palm. It slams on her exposed butt with a whack that echoes through the room. I throw her up the nearest wall so that she can lean back, her hands high above her head, her lips gasping with each thrust. Her inner thighs turn a pinkish red from the friction, but she doesn’t seem to notice. She’s in heaven, and I’m just about there with her. Erina whispers over the sound of our bodies colliding, “Don’t stop, Rhys! Fuck me hard! Please!” Whatever it was about her words or how she pleaded with me to make her darkest, most inner desires come true, it set me into a frenzy. I speed up, pushing up and into her even deeper. My thrusts become harder and unrelenting. I am exploring places inside of her I know that no man has ever been. Each glide into her is as new and as exciting as the first time I took her. She is powerless against me, the look on her face with her dry lips slightly parted so a pleased hum escapes her mouth says it all. She wants me to lose control. My body heats up with hers, and I feel myself giving in. The muscles in and around my hips tighten and flex as the blood drains from my head and flows straight towards my cock. I’ve never wanted to come so much as I do in this moment. I force myself to watch her. I want to time this just right. Her hands ball up next to her head as she bites down on her lips. I kiss her lips, as I shout an order she can’t refuse, “Come with me, Erina!” We both cry out with our orgasm. It gives me just enough time to burst out of her and spill myself onto her stomach and leg. She slides up and off the wall so she’s cradled up against me, still floating in mid-air. As the last bits of me fall onto her, I brush away the wet and wild hair from her eyes with open hands. We kiss wildly as if it’s our last, as I navigate our way towards the bed we started this trip on. She lets go for a quick second, just enough time to push herself to the other end of the small cot and pull me in next to her. Again, our arms and legs wrap up around the other. Our foreheads touch, and she sighs heavily, trying to find her breath again. After a long moment of just lying there, she finally speaks. Her words are long and spaced out. “That. Was. Amazing. Rhys. I feel like I should, I don’t know… thank you?” “Why would you thank me,” I ask, as I laugh deeply. “I didn’t do all the work you know.” Quick flashbacks to her body pounding up against mine on that little worker’s desk will probably haunt me for the rest of my life. I’ve had some quick, down and dirty fucks before, but that was on a whole different level. She has no idea what a show of force that was to me. “I guess I feel better now. I was worried that I was going to have to lay here in pain and just think

through this horrible plan until I second-guess myself. Whatever magic is in your pants, it actually makes me feel stronger, like I can do this.” I had completely forgotten about her injury or the still tender marks on her neck. It made me admire her even more. I don’t know if I would have been able to screw like that with a battered body. But she has a point. The world outside these doors managed to fade away when we connected. Part of me feels guilty for completely ignoring the fact that in just a few minutes, she will be taking one of our cars to an abandoned building to put herself out there for the slaughter. I won’t be far behind. My original plan was to just use her as bait and wait for Robert to show to ambush her. Now, after talking to him, I know he is as unstable as ever. Something about his slimy voice managed to sound even more unhinged than before. No way am I sending Erina into that alone. A few minutes pass with both of us caught up in our own thoughts. I feel her shiver as I throw a blanket around her body. Her shoulders ease up, and she turns so that her back is facing me. With her sleeping, I take this chance to slide out of bed and quickly throw my clothing on. I close the door behind me, careful not to wake her up. She needs the sleep. Tonight is going to be a long one, and I don’t want to risk her not being at her best because of what we just did back there. The rest of headquarters sounds just as it always does. There’s the beeping of trucks backing up. Shipments are in from all over the United States. Some of the younger guys and the old fogies run through the boxes, cutting open teddy bears or necklaces for baggies of dope and coke. I can hear them talking about life in general: girls they’re sleeping with, dinner back home, motorcycle shoptalk. Shit like that. They have no idea what’s about to go down…that this whole world as they know it may be over as of tonight. I step into my office and collapse onto the chair. I’ve got reports to run through and schedules to make for next week, but I can’t concentrate on any of that crap. All I can think of is Erina. Why can’t I get her out of my head? She’s just another girl. There’s no denying that I have some kind of attachment to her. Believe it or not, but I’ve been in relationships before. After my last one, Carrie, I swore off getting involved again. And now I’m back to square one. Even worse, I’m doing things I would never have done for Carrie for a girl I’ve known not more than forty-eight hours. I can’t explain that to myself. My thoughts are interrupted as Andy and Jonas come into the office. They’re looking more tired than I am. I don’t blame them. This is their plan, and they know that they’ll be taking the blame if I end up dead or this place gets attacked. Dead men walking never look like they woke up on the right side of the bed. Andy slides a chair across from me and sits on it backwards. Jonas leans up against the wall as he asks, “How you feeling, boss?” “What the fuck kind of question is that?” I reply irritated. “I’m just asking. Trying to see if you still think this plan is the best, or if you’re having second thoughts. That’s it.” Jonas looks away as he explains himself. Maybe he wants me to veto the whole mess.

Andy, sensing that I don’t want to answer him, fills in the details. “The car’s waiting for you in the lot. Unmarked white van. We loaded it up for you. A couple of guys will drive you and park around the block to case the place for trouble. We figure that if you’re gonna be the one to hide out, you need to get there way before he or the Scarlets have a chance to stake it out.” “Yeah,” I say, as I stand. “That’s a good idea. You know who’s going with me? Are they ready to go now?” Andy stands as well and walks with me to the door of the office. “I think Ro is going to drive. He looks pretty normal. No face tats. No recognition. He’s a good getaway on reaction time, too. Jazzy and Tommy volunteered to back you up. We figure they’re good options since we know they ain’t with Red Dog, and they know Erina already. We’ll have another four guys planted and on call about three blocks away at a diner called Tick Tock. All in cars. No cycles. But Jonas and I will take the third ring, looking out for Scarlet riders. If they’re coming in from their territory, they have to come via I59. We’ll plant ourselves and some boys at the exits.” I’m not sure how to respond. The plan seems pretty watertight, but it is unnecessarily risking so many people’s lives in the process. And even if I manage to get Erina in, being a block, three blocks, a mile away isn’t going to help when a gun hits its target in milliseconds. There is no doubt that keeping Erina alive is going to be totally on me. I walk past the boys, out again to the hallway, and back to Erina’s room. She hasn’t moved an inch from when I left her. Her naked, pink back shines in the light from the desk lamp. I creep over to her and kneel down to plant a kiss against her neck. In her ear, I whisper as softly as possible, “Don’t worry, Erina. Everything’s going to be all right. I promise you that.” My breath on her skin makes her shuffle a bit, but she doesn’t wake. I back out of the room and into the hallway where Ro, Jazzy, and Tommy are waiting for me to leave.

CHAPTER 19 I cannot believe Rhys left me here alone. I mean, I understand what the guys are telling me about wanting him to get there earlier, but what about what he promised me? He is supposed to be with me, protecting me, walking me through these things. Instead, he’s forcing me to trust these guys I’ve only known for a hot second to not throw me out the backseat of this car as we ride out towards the far south side of the city. I try not to focus on him though. This isn’t the time to get pissed off about him failing to at least say goodbye. I have to remember my story. Rhys is mistreating me. He doesn’t care about me. All he wants is his money from Robert, and then I can be on my way. When the exchange is done, or if Robert dares to bring in the Scarlets, Rhys and his boys will come in and save me. Easy. Right? No. No, I’m not that stupid. I can see that there is danger lurking in just about every corner of this plan. And as I stare up at the building they are dropping me off at, that turning, twisting knot in my stomach grows even larger. The unlit street makes the building look as black as smoke. Three floors, at least, it looms over me like a gateway to who knows where. If I’m not walking slowly to my death, I don’t know what I was doing. “Hey, Erina. Don’t worry about anything. We got your back.” Jonas sits in the backseat next to me. I’m sure he can sense my fear—just by how much my hands are rattling and shaking. I place them in the pocket of the gray sweatshirt they gave me and try to muster a smile. Show no fear. Rule number one of documentary filmmaking. Never show your fear when going into a situation you are unsure of. A part of me does wish I still had a camera on me. After being woken up by one of the men—thank goodness I had a blanket covering me and my clothes were tucked under the bed—I was escorted to a back room where I listened to a few of them tell their stories. I didn’t really push my questions, but I made sure to ask how long they’ve been with the club or what kind of bike they rode. Most of the guys wanted to share about how they picked up riding from their dad or how they met Rhys in the Marines. I heard about their war stories, bike crashes, women they crushed on. I learned early in my career that it was always the easiest, most basic questions that got closed off people to talk. That whole opening up was key to my plan with Robert, too. Rhys needed time, especially since navigating the old building was going to be rough, and if the Scarlets were there, it would involve somehow getting past possibly tons of armed men on the hunt for him. Jonas explained that if I talked long enough, or got Robert to ramble a bit, it would give Rhys enough time. Just keep talking. Just keep asking questions. They’ll do the rest. “Here. Take this.” Andy reaches back from behind the driver’s seat and hands me a quarter-full water bottle. “We need to make you look like you’ve been messed up a bit. You got the bruises, so you’re in luck there. We’re not big on hitting a girl. But you have to look like you’ve been crying and sweating, too.” That’s right. In this alternative universe, Rhys and Red Dog were supposed to have backfired on me. Of course I would have cried and sobbed.

I pour a bit of the cold water onto my hand and smear it around my face. It actually feels refreshing considering my poor body feels as if I’ve been carrying the weight of the world for the last two nights. I dab a bit my along my neck and then in my hair, using my fingers to tangle and tease at it till it was ratty and wild. Jonas sits back in his seat as he says half-heartedly, “I have to admit, that’s not a bad look on you.” The men pull their car up to the curve of the building under one small traffic light. The building and the lot next to it look as empty as the other side. There is only one little red van I instantly recognized as Robert’s. Maybe he is smart enough to come alone this time. Or maybe he is getting smarter at fooling us. I’m hoping that it is the first option. Andy and Jonas wish me luck as they quickly force me out of the car. Hanging around here will be too dangerous, and they have watch to do out by the highway. They pointed in the direction of where Rhys’s getaway van is supposed to be hiding (though I saw no hints of it) and to the west towards the one open restaurant. More of the guys were hanging there, too. Even knowing that I’m not exactly by myself, I can’t help but feel more alone than ever as I stand— abandoned—in the parking lot. I place my hands together in a prayer formation and focus on my thumbs touching one another, and then I count to ten, practicing Rhys’s breathing exercises. One second at a time, I remind myself. One step. I just have to get my Jell-O legs to move first. When I’m ready to move, I walk towards the edge of the building where Andy pointed out the metal door. As promised, all I need to do is to push hard up against the handle and it would slide open. The only problem is that handle isn’t exactly like a regular door. The large metal crank is the size of my own arm. Without a concrete step, the very top of it is at my head. I have no choice but to jump up, grab hold, and use my weight to pull down while shimmying my way to the side. I miss two times, but on the third, I manage to land just right. The door creeks quickly open, and I fall inside, landing into the arms of a person I don’t instantly recognize. “R--Robert?” I stammer, trying my best to compose myself. I can just barely make out the pale color of the man and the weird bald patterns of his receding hairline. The figure who holds me is skeleton bones skinny and dressed in a thick angora knit sweater. No way that this is a Scarlett in disguise or Rhys coming out from his hiding spot. “I was wondering when you were coming. You’re late.” Robert places me down, as he turns his phone on. He flashes the time to me: 12:04 AM. He was always so anal about punctuality. I guess he wouldn’t bother changing now despite the circumstances. I follow him, as he leads me through what most likely was an office storefront or a reception area. Old, ratty chairs covered in dust lie tossed and turned to the side while a metal desk covered in red and yellow graffiti looks over the scene. Robert leads me past this and into the next room. It’s large and cavernous. On the floor are permanent shadows of machines and tables that once were here. The whole room smells of smoke, even with the cold breeze blowing through the broken green tinted windows. I stand firmly behind a long metal table while Robert walks to the other end of the room. I can’t make out anything but his body against a flood light he most likely brought for this. He sits down in an old, vintage rolling chair while I try not

to visibly shake. “Where’s your man?” he asks, as he crosses one of his legs over on the other. “I thought for sure he would be here with you. I looked all over the building before I came with a few friends of mine. We didn’t see a sign of him either. But I’ve been researching the man for a long time now. I have a feeling that he’s out there, waiting.” “I -- I don’t know where he is. After the guy beat me up and I talked to you on the phone, he left me. Some of his guys drove me here and left me in the parking lot.” At least I could be honest about that timeline. It is probably the last truth I am going to be able to tell tonight. “Really?” He snorts loudly. “Why in the hell should I believe you, Erina? You don’t think I reviewed my video and watched you tell him to smash the camera? I saw it all. You’ve been working with him from the beginning.” He leans back in his chair and looks up at the ceiling. I wonder if he’s actually hurt that I betrayed him, or if this is all part of the show he is putting on. He has to know he has the power here. “It’s the truth, Robert. I’m not lying. Rhys’s guys… they beat me up. One of them choked me till I passed out on the ground. I think the only reason why I am alive right now is because they want their money.” It suddenly dawns on me that Robert doesn’t have anything on him, at least not in this room. All I can see with the limited light is a jacket on the floor and an outline of a handgun resting on the table. “Please, Robert. Did you bring the money?” He laughs again, unleashing cries that echo through the walls. When he calms down, he stands up and walks towards me slowly, grabbing the gun on his way. “Did you really think I ever had that money, Erina? You can’t be that stupid. The money was just a way to get in. If I wanted in, I had to play their game. You won’t believe some of the footage I shot, even without you. There are cameras everywhere here, too. They’ll catch all the action.” Goosebumps creep up my spine, as I force myself to ask, “What action, Robert? What do you have planned?” “I think it’s time for us to stop playing games now, Erina. Let’s just cut to the chase.” I don’t have enough time to react. I duck down as he fires the gun. Either he’s a terrible shot, or I am quicker than I think because the bullet lands high up in the air, almost at the ceiling. He doesn’t seem to mind though. He just roars loudly as if missing gave him even more power. He shoots again, still missing me by a mile. “Come out, come out wherever you are, Rhys! Show your fucking face, or I won’t miss this time!” My stomach drops out from me and feels as if it is falling straight to the floor. Only seconds later, I hear the pounding of boots that I pray won’t come after me. From around the corner, I see Rhys’s large, shadowy figure. His hands pump in and out of fists as he stands into the light before opening his palms and exclaiming, “I’m right fucking here, Robert. Where the hell is my money?” “I know you just heard me. You’ve been hiding in the shadows this entire time, haven’t you? There is

no money, you idiot. Not a dime of it.” He holds the gun straight at Robert’s head. Another hand gestures out to me, as if he is holding me in place by his own magic. It doesn’t matter either way. I am completely glued to my place behind the table. “Then what do you want. Why did you agree to come here if you didn’t have the money? Is this another set up? You got Joseph and the Scarlet Knives somewhere in this building ready to do your bidding? Seems a little weak, doesn’t it? You don’t think I’m prepared for that either?” “Ah, Rhys. You must think I’m insane to try to play the same card. That would have been too obvious —just like it was too obvious that you would beat up Erina after she killed for you.” He turns his head over his shoulder and says, “I didn’t think you had it in you, Erina. Then again, this whole documentary is opening up my eyes to the nasty things you are willing to do. I just wish that I knew you had it in you. I would have loved to put you in some of those positions when we were together.” “Together?” Rhys asks, distracted. “Yeah. Together… Oh, Erina didn’t tell you about us did she? We fucked a few times. I got a taste of her well before you did. Her pussy wasn’t as good as you make it out to be. I have had much, much better sluts. Too bad I have to kill you.” Robert steps towards me quickly, the gun pointed at my head now. He fingers around the safety in the dark, trying to find the tiny little lever in the dark. It’s just enough time for Rhys to get a running charge on him. Before he can turn back around, Rhys is on him, pulling him down by the waist. The dark pile of their bodies wrestle and spin on the ground, and I cannot make out who is on top without the light. I run over towards them, unsure what to do other than to call for help. But without Rhys’s phone, I have no way to call the backup in. I start to scream. “Rhys! Rhys!” I know it’s not going to stop him or Robert, but it’s the only option I have. In the midst of the chaos and the shouting, I can make out that Rhys is on top of Robert, pummeling him with a flurry of fists. He’s an animal tearing into his prey, and while I’d give anything to see that man suffer after all he has put us through, it can’t be this way. I have to somehow pull the two off of one another. I take another half step towards them. My boot slides out from underneath me so I do a half-split onto the ground. I feel around with my feet to see what I stepped on. Hard and oddly shaped, I know it within seconds of kicking it. The gun. The shock of finding it makes me kick back just enough to push it away from me. On the hard linoleum floor, it goes sliding off in the direction of the boys, and I watch helplessly and hopelessly as Robert takes a hit that spins his head straight towards where the gun moves in slow motion. Again, I call out Rhys’s name. “The gun, Rhys! Get out of there!” Rhys pulls away and off of Robert just as Robert lifts the gun towards Rhys’s chest. I watch in completely horror as Rhys tries to pull his own weapon out of the back of his pants, but it’s too late. Robert finds his way to standing with both of us making a ring of about six feet away from him in the

center. Bloodied and battered, he flings the barrel back in my direction. “Don’t you even fucking think about it, Rhys O’Malley…or I will kill her. While you may be attached to the whore, I certainly have no problem seeing her dead. Luckily for me, she’s got a bounty out on her head even higher than yours.” “What the hell are you talking about?” Rhys growls, as he picks himself up off of his knees. His hands are out in front of him. I’ve never seen him so vulnerable, yet so angry in the short time I’ve known him. “You haven’t heard, have you? Your man Red Dog was working for Joseph since last night. Word is he heard of the contest going on. Whoever managed to either kill her or capture her got a prize big enough to make their wildest dreams come true. From the looks of it, he was pretty close. But there’s an even bigger prize for me. I’ll get to record her death for my movie. Erina knows that nothing pays more than having a live death being filmed throughout movie theaters worldwide.” He snickers to himself as his words set in on both Rhys and me. “I always knew you were going to get my career back. I didn’t know it would be like this!” Robert runs to my side and grabs me by the arm, forcing it behind me. He points the gun straight at my head and whispers. “Say goodbye to Rhys, because this is the last time you’re going to see him.” He pushes me ahead slightly and then marches me down and out of the workroom, back to the front receiving area. Rhys follows behind, a phone in his hand. I spot it the same time Robert does. “Put it down, Rhys. It’s over. If your men even get within a mile of me before I hit Scarlet territory, I will kill her—movie or no movie.” Rhys lets the phone slide out of his hand and fall to the ground with a thud. The face of it lights up bright from the impact, but it stays silent. He didn’t get to give his backup crew the heads up. No one was coming for me now. I call out his name again, “Rhys…please. Find a way.” I know he’s powerless. I can read the desperation on his face. He takes another step and we’re both likely dead. He gets his men on the phone and I’m dead in Robert’s van. He attempts to find me and I’m certain he’s a goner. There is no hope as soon as I step outside this building and away from him. Still, his promise of making sure nothing happened to me as long as we were together rings in my head. He was right, but now, it’s time to part. Reality has caught up to us. This is how Rhys and Erina end. Robert pushes hard into my back so that I lunge forward out the door. My feet feel like lead as I take the hop out of the sliding industrial door and out to the pavement parking lot. He clicks his van on with his remote control, and I listen to his horrible music fill up the empty silence of the night. For the first time, I pray for the roar of motorcycles or a hail of bullets. But it’s nothing but crappy music from the 1990s that annoyed me just a few days ago. Now it is my death march. I hold back the tears that aren’t coming, the pain in my side that doesn’t shoot through me, the hopes that I know I have to stay positive. I close my eyes again and imagine my hand touching my other hand, just as I did nearly an hour ago, and take ten deep breaths.

Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Just get through this moment, and the next, and the next‌ until it is your last.

CHAPTER 20 Shit! Shit! Shit! I cannot believe

what just happened. He took her. That motherfucking coward, he fucking took her. And what did I do? I just stood there motionless like a little weakling who knows nothing about combat. Robert knows nothing about firing that gun. Even at close range, he probably wouldn’t have shot her or at least managed to make a kill shot. I could have ran at him, tackled him to the ground, and had him fire at me. But no, I did the stupidest thing ever and let Robert walk away with Erina as hostage. I grab hold of my phone and run straight in the direction they came from. Maybe she struggled and fought. Maybe they were lingering outside while he worked out where he was taking her. I had to give it a chance. I pull out the gun from my back pocket and charge out the entryway and through the open door. The parking lot is completely dark and empty. Not even tire marks to follow. Something overtakes me as I drop hard to my knees onto the sharp, jagged pebbles. My mouth opens, and I release one of the loudest, most wild, most blood-curdling screams I have ever mustered. It comes from some place deep within me that’s been longing to escape. It goes way, way beyond losing Erina to Robert. This is everything—from my time in the war to losing my brothers on the streets of Chicago. Every single solitary bit of loss and pain hits me all at once in this horrible moment. I’m just about to force myself to my feet when I see the light beams turn the corner coming at me in high speed. I don’t know whether to stay put or tuck and roll out of the way. But just as I am about to run back into the building with my gun in hand, I hear Jonas calling to me from the backseat of one of the cars. “Rhys! Fuck! What the hell happened in there? Did we miss him?” I look down at the phone in my hand. It’s still lit up from when I hit it earlier. I had pressed a few numbers hoping it would trigger my speed dial contacts. Even though they’re late, I must have managed to get the backup I need. I get to my feet quickly and run towards the cars. The four men form a small circle around me. Each of them bombards me with questions over what they managed to make out from the muffled struggle on the other line. “We heard a gun. Did you get hit again? Is Erina dead?” I’m actually shocked at how Andy seems to care about her safety. Just hours ago, each and every one of these guys were giving me grief about bringing her around. Now they’re treating her like any other member of the club who is in danger. “She’s not dead,” I reply. “Robert managed to get his gun during the fight and took her as hostage. It was too dangerous to sniper shoot him.” I’m totally breathless, as Erina’s startled, desperate scream replays in my head like a broken record. “Where did he take her? Do we need to call in some surveillance favors? Inform the cop contacts to put out a patrol alert? What do you think, boss?” “No!” I shoot back quickly. “We don’t tell anyone a goddamn thing about this. This situation is on a need-to-know basis only. Got me? Not even our members are told unless I approve of them. I’m

absolutely convinced Red Dog was involved in this, and we can’t afford for any information to get out past this group, or the whole club will come tumbling down.” The men nod silently, understanding how precious loyalty is in a situation like this. One slip of the lips not only could mean Erina’s premature death, but ours as well. I continue, giving them the whole picture of what’s going on. “Robert’s in his red Chevy van taking Erina to Joseph over at their headquarters. I didn’t get a chance to get a license plate so we’re going to have to do this blind. Problem is that there’s a hit out for her with money on the line. Even if Robert manages to fuck this up and not get to Scarlet Knives territory, we still have to worry about other clubs finding and killing her.” “There’s another problem, sir,” Ro chimes in. “We don’t know where Scarlet Knives actually meet. No one in the club does.” I didn’t think about this major sticking point. We are chasing after a man with an unknown destination, driving in a car we don’t know the license plate for. This isn’t going to be as easy as just driving to their favorite bar and demanding her back. We have to get creative. After a long moment, I come to a realization. Erina’s been leading us to Scarlet Knives headquarters this whole time. She was the key! I spin towards Jonas who is leaning on the hood of the car I drove here in. “Jonas, we need to get those evidence pictures of Erina’s brother as soon as possible. If I’m going off my hunch, I’m thinking Joseph and the Scarlets were involved in his death. If he was dealing for the club, then they probably have a guy out there on the same street position tonight. We follow that guy back, and we have Scarlet headquarters.” “That’s fucking genius, boss!” Jonas exclaims, as he runs to the driver’s side of the car. “I brought them with me so I could keep looking at that patch for you while we waited. I think the location is written on somewhere on the police info.” He ducks down and pulls out a thin, olive green file. A few photos stick out from the edges. He pulls out a few of them and holds them up to the car’s light while Tommy, Ro, and Jazzy look over his shoulder. “Nothing,” Jonas says, a frustrated note sounding in his voice. “There’s absolutely nothing at all.” “No! Shit! Wait!” Jazzy snatches the photo from his hand and runs towards me. With his finger pointed at the corner of a neon sign he says excitedly. “I know that sign. Some of the VA boys meet at the bar on Quincy and Jackson. It’s called the… uh … the Market Place Tavern. Real shady place. No doubt there are some deals going on there with all the vets going in and out for their daily fix.” “Are you absolutely sure? I can’t fucking waste my time going off of a blind guess.” My hands are practically itching to get on the road and the hell out of this place. Each ticking second is another I lose from finding her. I can’t risk Jazzy being wrong and having to go back to square one. “No. I’m certain, boss.” He pulls his phone out of his back pocket and scrolls through his photos. Showing me a shot of him with a woman hanging all over him, her breasts puffed out and exposed while Jazzy’s head is hung low with his tongue out, he points straight at a little neon sign hanging on the front of the window. “This was from last week. You see that red light with the man’s foot? It’s the barefoot butcher. It’s on the front window facing Quincy Street. I would know it anywhere.”

I take the phone out of Jazzy’s hand and study it carefully compared to police image. There are not many neon signs of a barefoot man in this city. I’m actually surprised I hadn’t caught that on the first glance. Quincy and Jackson are right outside Scarlett territory—in the neutral zone. Of course Joseph placed inexperienced dealers there. It was coming together. I snap my fingers and point towards the cars. “Guys, we need to get out of here. We’ve got some dealers to follow before they switch shifts.” I take a run toward the alleyway where I had hidden my bike behind one of the large green trashcans. Behind me, the boys start the cars and vans and get into position. We have my girl to save…and a club to demolish. *** My heart pounds. My head aches. I have no idea how long I’ve been sitting tied down in this chair. I try to count the seconds that pass, dividing them into minutes and hours, but they seem to get away from me in my mind’s haze. My eyes grow heavier and heavier until everything goes dark again. And then I wake up. More time has passed. I know this. Wherever I’m being held at least has one small window I can just lift up my heavy head to see. I know that the light is different. It was as dark as the night’s sky when Robert brought me in, two men carrying me by the arms down to this dungeon while I kicked and screamed. Now, through the legs of different men standing guard, I can see the hint of red and orange. Sunrise. It has to be. Then that brings me to another, seemingly more important question: what happened to me? I do a quick body check, worried that I would fall asleep before I could finish and would need to start all over again in an hour or two. My lungs are burning. That could be from my earlier injury. The doctor did say that sitting up too long, especially in uncomfortable chairs would only make it hurt more. I’m sure that applies to being tied down so tight I can’t feel my own arms and legs. But besides being restrained, my arms, legs, and chest feel fine. It’s my face that’s killing me. My jaw is stiff and rigid, and my nose feels crooked. There’s something cool and cakey smeared down the side of my cheek. It has to be blood. My eyes can see fine, but it’s sore to open them all the way. And my head. Oh my God. My head is pounding like a million drummers smacking me with their mallets over and over again. I try to lift my neck up, but it’s tense as well. I keep it pointed towards my chest so I don’t draw too much attention to me. Whoever did this to my face is not exactly someone I want to test. The person decided to keep me alive for the last three or four hours, maybe that meant something significant. Maybe Rhys is here or on his way. Maybe he’ll save me after all. I force myself to lift my head just a little bit so that I can survey the place a bit more. Around the corner are two very large men—dressed completely in black—playing cards at a round table. They have stocking hats on their heads and leather gloves on their hands. One man’s gloves have tiny, sharp spikes at the knuckles that have a tint of red on the tip. My head rings danger as I try not to dwell.

They’re too busy arguing about rules to whatever version poker they’re playing to notice me turning my head towards an old, worn, wooden door that’s painted in jet black. There’s a small sign hanging in the center that shows the logo of a bar. Squinting, I can just barely read the name under the picture of a nearly naked woman sitting on top of a broomstick: “The Witch Hazel.” Great. Now I have a location, though it does me no good if I can never leave this place. The door itself is just open a crack. Light and pounding rock music burst through the space. And even though it is muffled, I can make out a familiar voice standing just outside that door. “I thought I was going to get some money here, Joseph. I brought you the girl, screwed over Rhys, and did everything else that you asked me to do. Now pay up!” Robert sounded like a child demanding he get his way. I almost feel sorry for him. Though I’ve only been around for the last two days, even I know not to bark orders at men like these. “Who the fuck is going to make me, Robert?” A huge black figure steps in front of the light beams, blocking the limited view I have of Robert’s arm. “I believe the bulk of our deal was that you help me kill Rhys O’Malley. Yet I don’t see his dead body ‘round these parts, do I?” His voice is almost as bad as I remember. Booming and snake-like, he emphasizes almost every first syllable of a word. It is as if his voice is the motor of his own cycle revving up to start. “Woah man,” Robert replies. “It’s not my fault your men couldn’t catch up to him. I gave him to you on a silver platter.” Woah. Robert is in way over his head and is only digging that tunnel further down. Part of me is eager to see him get the smack down that is coming, but the other is desperate for him to just shut his mouth. He is talking about how Rhys and I both got away while I killed one of the Scarlet riders. Bringing that back up surely isn’t good for me. I see Joseph’s hand reach for something in the back of his pocket—a hunting knife. With a quick flick of his wrist, it comes out of its sheath and into the light. Robert screams viciously, and there’s the sound of feet and arms thrashing up against a wall as they try to escape. Joseph steps forward—just enough so that I can see him push Robert up the wall by his shoulders, pinning him in place. The glitter of his knife sends little light beams up and down Robert’s visible hand. I hear a scream, blood curdling and then gargled. The feet and hands smacking into the walls behind him flail a bit before stopping limply. A few drops of red, thick blood roll down Robert’s dead hands into a pool underneath him. Every sense of me leaves my body as I stare open mouthed at Robert’s body dropping to the floor. Joseph stands before it for a few moments before murmuring something that sounds like, “I don’t keep deals with weak motherfuckers like you.” He doesn’t clean or put away the knife. Instead, he turns towards the black door with the open crack that I’m staring through. In a flash, I close my eyes and drop my head. Showing that I’m conscious isn’t going to do me any good right now, especially if they’re waiting for me to be awake for what they have planned for me. My breathing slows, and I ease my muscles so I won’t fidget. Playing dead isn’t as easy as they pretend it to be in movies.

“She awake yet?” Joseph asks, as he passes my chair. He grabs hold of a wad of my hair and pulls it towards him forcefully. I cock my head back while biting my tongue. It’s the only thing I can do to keep in the scream of pain. “No, Joe. Hasn’t moved since we got through with her. She’ll be up soon enough though. Creto didn’t hit her too hard.” “Fucking watch your mouth, boy.” Creto stands up, lifting the table with him. The other man stands too, moving his wood chair across the concrete floor. “You don’t think I can knock the lights right out of that cheating face of yours?” “I’d like to see you try, you pussy!” “Shut the fuck up… both of you!” Joseph interjects before the real fighting begins. “Hand me that milk jug of water. Let’s see if we can get Sleeping Beauty here to wake up.” I hear Joseph set the knife down on the table next to me before pulling my head even further back. Seconds later, a rush of water fill my nose, my mouth, my lungs. It feels as if I’m drowning without even being underwater. Seconds pass and I can’t take this any longer! My lips sputter and spit as I cough everything that managed to fall into my lungs. And then I make the worst mistake of my life…I open my eyes. “Well…look who decided to join us, boys! The guest of the hour. We thought you’d never come to after my boy Creto here did a real work up on that pretty little face of yours.” He circles around and hovers before me. A hand reaches out and touches my face, my neck, my chest. “Don’t worry, princess. O’Malley won’t see you all bruised up like you are now. I know you think you were hot before with this little tight body of yours. I mean, you managed to somehow seduce Rhys into sticking up for you. Must be good pussy, I guess. Too bad he won’t be able to see what you look like when my knife gets through slicing and dicing you.” I don’t know what to say to someone as obviously sadistic as he is. If I run my mouth, he’s going to do me in just as he did Robert. A man like Joseph Tutoni doesn’t take crap, especially from captives like me. But if I remain silent, I will be speeding up his excuse to go on ahead and kill me. At least talking distracts him. “Please, don’t. I didn’t mean to kill one of your guys. I didn’t know. You have to believe me. I’ll do… anything if you just let me go.” “Anything, huh?” He kneels before me and looks up the line of my body from foot to head, lingering his icy glare on the space between my legs and my tits. A sneer forms across his face, as he turns back to the boys still standing near their card table. He begins to laugh loudly, “Did you hear this bitch? Anything. She’d do anything if I don’t kill her. She doesn’t know who the fuck I am! When I want pussy, I take pussy. I don’t need some stuck-up, Gold Coast bitch offering it for me like it’ll make up for her killing one of my best riders.” “I didn’t--I didn’t mean that!” I stammer. “I just don’t want to die… like my brother. Please. I’m

begging you. My mom’s already lost one of us because of your club.” I have no idea where that came. Maybe it was just me stalling, trying to drum up some interest in me. But another part is saying it out of truth. My suspicion for a long time has been that Joseph and the Scarlets are behind my brother’s killing. After all the research I did into the club’s history and news, they were the ones recruiting at the time my brother got back from Iraq. And the Scarlets are notorious for not caring about their own little men on the totem pole if it means the big dogs stay in place. “My club?” Joseph erupts. “Are you accusing me of killing your brother?” I pause for a second to think my options through before firmly answering, “Yeah. William, I mean Will Peterson. He was a veteran dealing for you. Someone shot him in the back outside a bar. Cops won’t help me, but the evidence is pretty clear. But the whole reason why I was working with Robert was to find out who did it.” “Will Peterson?” The unknown man steps forward. “I know that fucking prick. He was double dealing. He took a big chunk of the profits and told us that it didn’t sell. Gave us back baggies full of drywall shavings. Alfonso took him out back of the Market Place Tavern a while ago and told him to get the hell out of here. Probably shot him when he thought he was free.” The blood drains from my face. Here it was…the answer that I’ve been searching for all along. My brother’s last moments were laid out in front of me, and they were just, if not more, gruesome than I had imagined. He was shot thinking he was getting away. He was shot for making stupid fucking decisions. And his actions led me straight here to my own death. I was going to die because I needed to hear the name of my brother’s killer. I look up at Joseph and spit. The moisture lands in a ball on his face, splattering on his nose and cheeks as he laughs maniacally with the rest of his brothers. He turns and faces me, his ashy, full face transforming into a completely different monster. He reaches out his hand, gesturing towards the men who hand him a black and silver handgun with a silencer attached to the nuzzle. “Killing two Petersons? This I’m going to enjoy.” I stare down the barrel and shut my eyes. Out loud, I count my breaths: One… Two…. Three… Four… Five… Six…

CHAPTER 21 I don’t know why I shout. Is it something you do when someone’s pointing a gun straight at you? Is it just a natural reaction to being this close to death? Or did I have a plan somewhere buried within me that I couldn’t quite sort out yet? Whatever the reason, I scream. I scream so loud that I think my vocal cords are about to rupture and the window will burst into a million pieces. I scream loud enough that the two guards jump up into their table and knock down the cards onto the floor. Joseph startles, too, the gun pulling up and away as he takes a step back. When I’m out of breath, when I can’t make any more noise come out of me, I sit back in my chair, panting uncontrollably from the pain in my battered ribs. My head rests on the backing, and I only look up to say, “Just kill me. You already killed my brother and ruined my life. I got nothing left. Just kill me.” It wasn’t true. There was Rhys, who has stayed with me in the back of my mind since I left him. A life with Rhys wasn’t exactly possible, but it was something to hope for. The thought of us going on midnight bike rides through the streets, him lifting me up into bed at night, our hands touching one another… I couldn’t think of any happier thought than that to leave this earth with, even if it was just fantasy. “Just kill you?” Joseph spits back at me. “Where’s the fun in that?” He puts down the gun and begins to laugh. The other two join in awkwardly though it’s clear to me they’re not seeing what’s so funny about Joseph not killing me where I sit. “What? You’re too scared to do it? You can’t kill a woman?” I know I’m playing with fire here. Robert just got murdered for questioning his ability to lead. It was almost a guarantee that I was going to get the same answer for daring to mock his killing abilities. Still, with each second I talked and he laughed, I was giving the time back to Rhys and whatever rescue plan he may be thinking of. “Joe, did you hear that? She thinks you don’t kill ladies! Maybe we should tell her about that street walker Elena on the corner of Avalor and Hidalgo last week.” He walks towards me slowly, as he gestures towards his neck. A long finger slices horizontally against the skin. “She got what we called the Scarlet Knives treatment for not putting out for our boys.” “Too bad though,” Creto adds as he joins his friend by his side. “A girl like you, all princessy and shit, would have gone for a pretty high mark up. I bet that pussy of yours is just as pristine too. Buyers like ours love it when we can find girls like you to serve them.” He attempts to reach out and touch my arm, but, to my surprise, Joseph swats him away, throwing his arm by his side. “This chick wants to die. You heard her. She made a request, and I’m a pretty open guy when it comes to giving the people what they want.” I watch in the reflection of the window as he shuffles with the gun behind his back. The silver shines off of the one light in the center of the room. A finger on the

trigger lingers a little bit too long. Despite what he says, he’s thinking through something. More time goes by—seconds, minutes. Who knows? I have to say something else to keep the conversation going. “Is that what you had my brother do? Be your pimp? I bet you couldn’t handle keeping track of girls like me. Women are too smart, too savvy to be controlled by you or your pathetic little henchmen minions.” I look over my shoulder towards Creto, as he licks his lips. “What? Do you have to ask him before you wipe your own ass?” There’s no hesitation from Creto there. His hand reaches across me and slaps my cheek with the back of his hand so hard that my head slams into the back of the chair. The spikes on his gloves scratch into my skin and cut my lip. I can taste the salty, bland taste fill around my mouth near my teeth. When I’m ready to look back at him, I make sure he can see me slowly lick one of the open wounds with the best “Fuck You” look I can muster. I’m not going to give them an inch of satisfaction. “Let us torture her, boss. We can do it real good. So slow that she won’t know where her toes begin and her hair ends. She’ll be screaming so loudly we’ll have to cut out her tongue.” Creto’s eyes burn with vengeance, as he takes out a knife similar to the one beside me on the table. Each has a ruby red handle intricately carved with the initials of the club. It’s their calling card, I assume. “No,” Joseph says quietly. “Don’t touch her until I tell you. I want to have some fun with this one. Break her spirit a bit. Make her wish that she never was born. And who knows…? When I’m done with her, she may just be ready to be on the streets with the rest of those zombie bitches turning tricks.” He kneels before me, his hands cupping my bare knees. “What do you say, Erina? You want to have a little fun with me before I throw you to the boys?” My face darkens as I steady my words. I wasn’t going to let him win by showing even a bit of fear. I was Rhys’s girl—a badass woman. I have a man’s blood on my hands. And no one messes with me and gets the satisfaction from it. With my teeth gritted and showing, I smile and answer, “I’d love to see you try and break me.” Joseph stands and snaps his fingers at the men. “Cut her out of that chair. She’s too weak to do anything to us.” He turns his back to the window. Outside, the sun is starting to rise and the day is beginning. Several black boots pass quickly by while men whisper incoherently to each other. Joseph steps closer to the window and opens it. A burst of fresh, cool air seeps in the steamy room. As the two clowns cut away at the rope holding in my chest, I am able to actually take it all in. It’s like breathing my first breath all over again. The men work at my legs next. They use their knives to saw around my ankles and then to my calves. As they get to the ropes holding in my thighs, I feel the slip of a hand travel up the inside of my skirt. I look down at Creto, who smiles over toward his friend, and says with closed lips, “I’m going to enjoy watching our man Joe rip you to tiny shreds today.” “Shut up!” Joseph suddenly turns back to us with his hand raised to his face. “Quiet!” Everything goes still as all four of us look towards the black-painted door still open just a crack. There’s loud, frantic shouting from across the long hallway, past Robert’s cold body. Men seem to be pouring out of the

rooms next to us while women shout and scream. “What the fuck is going on?” Joseph yells towards no one in particular. “Should we go check it out, boss?” The two boys stop cutting at the ropes holding in my arms and chest and stand to attention. I can see the dark, bushy hair on Creto’s arms and neck stand on its ends. Whatever is happening has got them all spooked. Footsteps grow closer, pounding on the cement floor. I watch in horror as each man pulls a gun and aims it straight at the door. The person on the other side knocks before storming in. All four of the men shout and scream until Joseph recognizes the intruder. “What the fuck is going on, Frank? Do you know how close I was to killing you?” The younger boy, maybe in his late teens, is breathless as he grabs hold of the doorway and shouts, “It’s one of the dealers… Alfonso. They killed him, boss! Mateo got his body in the bar!” Before Joseph can even ask the question, I already know the answer. “Who did it?” “The Northern Hounds.” *** “It’s that guy,” Andy says, as he looks through a pair of binoculars I keep in this car. “It has to be. He’s got that knife in his back pocket, and he’s dealing coke out of red bags. It’s their sign. I’d know it anywhere.” He looks over his shoulder, as he asks me eagerly, “What should we do, Rhys?” “We follow him,” I reply, sitting up higher in the backseat. “It’s ten after five, man. They’re probably getting ready to switch out shifts, and he’ll need to drop those bags off at their headquarters.” The dealer isn’t that great. For one, he looks more nervous and agitated than any of his buyers. His hands twitch, his mouth waters, and he keeps looking around suspiciously though there’s no one here at the bar this hour except for us hidden away in the unmarked van. Putting druggies in charge of dealing is a business mistake I’m not that foolish to mistake. I am right about the switch change. Almost exactly on time, another cycle pulls up and a man dressed in a red shirt and black hoodie pulls out. He looks much more experienced than the boy, much more self-assured. It doesn’t surprise me. Young guns trying to prove their worth take the long graveyard shifts while white hairs looking to make a buck get first pick at morning hours where there’s less danger but more to sell to commuters on their way to work. We crank down the window to the driver’s side and listen in as the old man shakes the younger one’s hand and asks, “All quiet?” “Yeah. Yeah. No sales. No sales. Joseph ain’t going to ever let me in, is he, Alfonso?” “You keep tweaking like you are, I’m sure he’ll kill you first. This spot hasn’t be too kind to boys like you in the past who don’t manage to push the merchandise.” He pats the boy on the back half-

heartedly while looking over towards our van. “Get on out and go home.” The boy shuffles his way back towards the bar and out of sight. “Shit! We lost him Rhys! If we move the van now, that dealer’s gonna get suspicious.” I had to make a decision. As we ducked down huddled in the back, I say the words I know I may end up regretting. “We’re driving. Andy take the wheel. Jonas grab a shotgun just in case. The rest of us will load up by the side windows.” In a blink of the eye, everyone is in position and waiting to go— everyone except for Andy. “What the hell man, drive?” I shout. But then I watch as Jonas puts down his gun and raises his hands. Standing right before the van is the white-haired man with a rifle in his hand. We can’t make out his muffled screams from inside the van, but we know he’s caught us. I kneel as I continue to point my weapon out there. In Andy’s ear I whisper, “You drive, kid. I got this.” Andy turns the van on and places the gear into drive. As it roars to a humming start, he slams his foot on the pedal and rams his way over the parking block and through the parking lot, headed straight at the man with the gun. The white-haired man’s first shot hits high and ricochets off of the van’s roof with a cartoon-like ping. I don’t hesitate to fire back. It shoots through the glass, leaving a hole the size of a softball in its wake. I know I’ve hit him by the sound the bullet made when it hit his body. It’s a noise you never forget, and I struggle to not be triggered back to the days in Iraq, sitting in the outposts, waiting for the firing to begin. But he remains still in place, his gun still held to his eyes as he aims it straight at us. “Gun it!” I shout at Andy, but it’s too late. The glass breaks this time. Large and small bits of glass go flying everywhere from the force. Jonas manages to duck in front of me, guarding my body. Red splatters everywhere inside the van, covering my clothes and hair while Jonas’s lifeless body falls between the driver seat and me. Andy looks down at his best friend huddled in my lap. Something boils up in him, turning him from shocked to outraged in seconds flat. He grabs the gun from under my arm and points it at the man. Even though the white-haired Scarlet continues to fire, Andy manages to shoot him down in one, perfect shot. It’s enough. Nothing is said as Andy pulls forward. I close Jonas’s dark blue eyes and slide him back to where Jazzy sits against the wall of the van, stunned and overwhelmed. Andy manages to catch up with him, slowing down as the boy appears from around the corner on an old, beat up Apache. He doesn’t even seem to know or care that his brother was just gunned down minutes after he left. He just swerves in and out of the traffic lanes and heads off towards Scarlet territory, unknowing and unafraid. I’m shocked when we pull up to the Witch Hazel Tavern and Boarding House. It’s one of those places that is so obviously shady that you wouldn’t expect actual crimes to happen there. It’s almost like a bad joke come true. There are hookers hanging out of the third-story windows while drug users score fixes right out in the open from men clad entirely in leather. All around, bikes are lined up— something I never allowed at our headquarters. My guys came in cars only in order to look as

unsuspicious as possible. Andy, still pale in the face, looks back at me as he asks, “How are you planning on getting in, Rhys? This place is loaded with Scarlets.” “We’re gonna wait. In an hour or less, one of the Scarlets is going to find that motherfucker’s body and bring it back here. And that’s when we’ll go in. Until then, we’re hanging out in street clothes and asking to score some dope. Play it cool. Give nothing away. Hide your face if you can.” I notice the bloodstains all over my shirt, and I turn back to Jazzy, who has yet to move. “I need you to give me your shirt. I can’t go out like this.” He quickly pulls the shirt off of his back with glossy eyes struggling to focus. “What about me? What am I supposed to do, Rhys?” “You stay here. Guard the van. Get ready to move when we get back. Don’t leave.” I slide in the front seat, careful not to step in the red patches of blood. With a nod to Andy, we both open our doors and head out into the morning light. Andy plays the part of an addict well. His experience working on the street probably taught him to itch constantly at his nose and slosh his head from side to side like he couldn’t hold it up. I mimic him slightly, though my eyes are square on the windows. I count each one, marking off in my head if I see someone that doesn’t belong. In almost every window, I peer in, feeling like a Peeping Tom as I watch two strippers dance, a man jumping around doing his morning exercises, and a handful of twenty-something stoners lounging on a couch and passing a joint between them. Every room is occupied except for the basement. Erina had to be there. My map of the building was coming together. Now I just needed a way in. I focus on a room with a small light still on—and it’s then that I hear the shouts. A man in a car comes running towards the building, dragging back with him some of the larger men. “Grab his legs!” he shouts. “Bring him inside and get Joseph!” I pull on Andy’s collar as we follow behind him towards the car where the man with the white hair lies. We play along, lifting his legs high while dragging him out. Another two men don’t even bother to look at us, as they go for the arms. A team of us bring him inside and down a flight of stairs towards the basement. As we go, men stream out of the rooms while women shriek in terror at the sight of the body. We place him in a room near the back and stand back, letting the rest of the guys flood the room with their shouts. Joseph steps in in front of us, still not closely examining us. He shouts loudly, “Who the fuck did this? Did anyone see it? Was it that motherfucker Rhys O’Malley?” No one answers right away, but we use it as a sign to slip out, me dragging Andy with me. Together we slither down the hallways, opening each door slightly enough to peek in. That’s when I see Robert—or at least what’s left of him. His open neck gash looks too fresh and his eyes staring straight up at the sky tells me that this was only done hours ago. My heart races. If he did this to Robert, what the fuck would he do to Erina! Andy doesn’t even process the body. He points

towards the door where we can hear the strange sound of someone sawing into threads while whimpering. I take the lead, slowly opening the black door with my foot. The figure of someone strapped down to a chair comes into view. The hunched over body struggles to hold onto the knife as she cuts into the ropes. The door creaks, and her head turns. Bloodied and cut, her eyes light up and her misshapen lips curl. “Rhys!” she whispers desperately towards me. “It’s you.” Andy takes my place at the doorway as look out, as I run towards her, sliding on my hands and knees. I take the knife out of her constrained hands and begin tearing away at the rope while she continues to repeat, “It’s you… it’s you… you came… you’re here.” When she’s free, I take hold of those soft, thin shoulders and pull her into me. Despite the injuries, despite everything she’s seen, the smell of her hair is as fresh as ever, and the softness of her body relieves every bit of tension in me. For a moment, it’s just Rhys and Erina…together like it was meant to be. “Shit! Come on, Rhys! We have to go! Now!” Andy grabs hold of the shoulder of my shirt and pulls me towards the window. “Joseph is heading back in here. We got to run.” We both look around completely hopeless. There are no doors leading outside or even a way back without being spotted. With Erina limping, there isn’t any way we’re going to be able to run for it either. But it’s Erina who’s thought it out. She lifts a small wooden table and drags it as quietly as she can over to where we stand. “The window! It’s the only way.” I immediately comprehend the gravity of the situation. I take a deep breath, counting to ten, and then, with a running start, ram it into the glass. The smash sets alarm sirens blaring all around us as the building erupts in chaos. It sounds as if every man and woman in the building is screaming. I reach over and grab Erina, practically throwing her through. Andy goes next, leaving me in the room alone when Joseph walks in. Frantically, I claw at the window and Andy’s outstretched arm while Erina shouts my name. I manage to get the majority of my body outside before I feel two large hands dragging me in. “Where the fuck do you think you’re going, O’Malley!” Joseph calls. “I was just about to have some fun with your girl when you brought that body to me. Now I think I’ll just get it over with.” I look up at Erina as more of me falls back into the basement room. Her eyes grow ten times their size, and her mouth opens up to a scream. Joseph manages to grab onto my shirt and back, and I feel myself tumbling back and away from Andy. “Nooooooo!” Erina calls as she jumps out in front of Andy and onto my back. In her hand is the knife I used to cut her out. It looks longer in the light of day than it did in the basement. And when it sinks into Joseph’s wrist, crushing the bones and the veins, I know just how strong it is as well. Joseph tumbles back, screeching in horrified pain. I pull myself the rest of the way out just in time to see him spin back at us with an old revolver in his blood-soaked hands. He aims towards the window

while Erina closes her eyes. Everything is still and in slow motion as I hear her count, “One… Two… Three…” And then, it all changes. My hand finds its way to the gun in my back pocket faster than I think I have ever moved. I line it up towards Joseph’s heart. The trigger pulls, and the weight of the shot pushes us both back as Andy tugs at us. He’s pointing towards the van with Jazzy in the driver’s side. Everywhere around us more Scarlets are realizing what just happened. That bullet, shot by the man they didn’t recognize, hits their leader square in the kill zone. His body lies in a heap near the chair where Erina sat. We don’t talk on the long drive back home. Neither of us want to break Jazzy’s concentration as he weaves in and out of traffic, racing for the neutral zone where the cops are squarely on our side. Erina stares out the broken window as she leans into me. Her back rests up against my chest as she struggles to breathe. Finally, as we pull up to headquarters, she turns and says quietly, “You were right. Nothing bad will happen when I’m with you.” She shuts her eyes and finally sleeps.


When I was younger, I loved going to the movie theater with my brother. He would hold my hand as we watched scary movies our mom specifically banned us from seeing, or agree to go with me to the latest chick flick if I promised not to tell any of his friends he took me. Theaters were just plain exciting, like a place where I could just let go of the real world. Not today, however. Today, the screen was showing reality—vivid, horrifying reality. Shots of war zones I managed to film play over the sound of men speaking tiredly into the camera about what it was like to be a veteran, the struggles they faced, the world they came home to. It’s hard for me to watch, knowing that this was my brother’s life until he died. It was Rhys’s as well. He was the one who gave me this idea to get permission to go to Iraq for a few weeks and record soldiers as they were about to come home and then months after so that viewers could see that war never leaves them. It becomes a part of them for good and for bad. What gets me the most every single time I go to one of these premiers is the video of Rhys. It’s actually Robert’s tape, but the university gave me permission after it came out that he was killed undercover filming. The sex tape of me never got out. The idiot never pressed send. Maybe he never intended to. I’ll never know now. But at least I walked away with Rhys sitting on the floor of the safe house talking about his fallen brothers and the mistakes he’s made. We don’t talk about the motorcycle club full of Marines. All of that’s been cut out. As an honorary Northern Hound, I know better than to betray my new brothers—men just like Will who have my best interest in mind. While they could never replace the real one lost forever, they were a good substitute. Almost everyone paid their respects at the hospital for the two weeks it took for me to recover after Joseph’s assault. And when Red Dog was found drunk and ranting Hound secrets at a bar, I was the first one to know—though I choose not to know what his fate was this time around. The end credits roll. The face of my brother and Jonas pop onto the screen with the dates of their lives. I don’t explain how either were killed. This is my private tribute to two men who put their lives on the line for both club and country. The gesture even stunned Rhys, who took my hand and held me closer during my private screening for the club the night I finished editing. Lights turn on and the magic of the theater slowly fades away as the score I picked out myself plays over the speakers. A few men and women wipe their eyes—while others sit motionless in their seats. I stay behind up in the rafters, trying my best not to focus in on the talk of Oscars. I didn’t care about that. When the theater is empty, I sit back further into my seat and close my eyes. This was my fourth showing at a film festival in the last month, and all I wanted to do was to go back to Chicago. Rhys had managed to convince the guys to restore the safe house for me so no remaining Scarlett could find me, and each night, Rhys spent more and more time there. Fooling around became making love until one day, as we sat up naked in bed, he turned to me, placed his hand on my chin and led my lips to

his. As we kissed, his lips made the words I had prayed he would say. “I love you, Erina.” That was the first time I managed to sleep through the night since the incident, and each night with me wrapped in his arms with his legs draped over my hips only got better. I look around the theater suddenly, trying to guess how long I’ve been sitting here. The lights have suddenly dimmed, and behind me, the projector turns back on. In my head, I go through the showing schedule. I can’t remember another film after mine. I stand, as I see Rhys’s face shining on the screen. It’s not scenes from my documentary. In the background, I can see the couch he bought for me weeks ago to replace the old, musty one I hated so much. His voice fills the empty theater, as he addresses me, “Erina. I know you’re sitting there thinking ‘What the hell is going on?’ I don’t blame you. You know I’m not the kind of guy that makes things romantic. Shit if I can remember to put the toilet seat down most days. But that’s not the point.” On-screen Rhys looks down at his hands, unraveling his fingers to reveal a black box with a shiny silver ring inside. “What I have to ask you isn’t that romantic. I want to know if you will stand by my side forever? If you will be the girl that rides on the backseat of my Harley? If you will promise to be there when I wake up every single morning? “I know I’m not perfect, and that our lives won’t be Hollywood, but I want to be there with you along the way. I want to be part of the amazing life you’re making out there. I want to be there every step of the way—including today.” The lights flash on, and through my tear-filled eyes, I see him. He’s wearing all black and walking up the steps slowly. The box from the film is still in his hands, as he goes to get down on one knee. Before it can touch the ground, I’m in his arms, holding him as close as possible, promising to never let him go. THE END


CHAPTER ONE As she danced around the pole, Gabby kept her mind blank. She didn’t see anything, she didn’t feel anything. Men stared at her, their mouths salivating at the sight of her nubile, sexy curves. But she didn’t even glance at them. It was all mechanical: move in, thrust forward, bend down, swing, and do it all over again. As she took off her clingy, satin bra and tossed it aside, whistles greeted her. At twenty-two years of age, Gabby was in her prime. Her firm breasts complemented her narrow, taut stomach, and shapely legs. Her blond hair whipped in the air, framing her delicate, heart-shaped face. Men wanted her, desired her, and she was willing to oblige – as long as the pay was good. When her turn came to an end, she sauntered over, and allowed the ogling men to tuck money in her thong. It was a job. And it was the only one she’d ever known. She strolled off the stage into the back area. No fancy changing rooms in the place where she worked. Instead, torn curtains hung over the cubicles. Walking into an empty stall, she sat on the stool, waiting for her next turn. Joseph walked in. A tall, bulky man, he elicited fear whenever he marched into a room. The long, thin scar that ran down one cheek gave him a sinister appearance, one that matched his actions. “I’ve got a hot one. He asked specifically for you,” he announced. She stood, disinterested and resigned to her fate. Joseph was her pimp, and she doubled as the hooker and a stripper in his club. “What’s his name?” “Lyle.” His voice vibrated with impatience. “Come on. He is waiting.” Without making a comment, she followed. Conversing with Joseph might earn her a slap or two, and she’d learned to be careful over the years. When she reached the room, Gabby entered. Lyle sat,

already half-naked, his muscled abs gleaming in the dim light. His shaggy brown hair fell over his forehead. His eyes twinkled at the sight of her. “Hey, Gabby. How are you doing?” Most of the men didn’t like to talk. But Lyle was one of her oldest and kindest clients. He’d often helped her out by giving her some time to sleep after they had sex. And more often than not, he left a generous tip which she pocketed without telling Joseph. She smiled, happy to see him. In this grim life, he was the only hope she ever had. She stripped off her clothes. “I’m doing well,” she said. Someone who was forced into prostitution at twelve years of age could never do well. Gabby’s only sin was to run away from home when she was ten. She never met her mother, as she had died during childbirth, and her father beat her on a daily basis. For a ten year old child, running away implied freedom from the constant abuse. But she never got a chance to see a better life. Joseph got hold of her, made her clean his club for two years, and put her on the official payroll when she reached maturity. Rather than lying on the bed, she stood in front of the mirror. Lyle liked to watch when they made out. As he took off his pants, his gaze settled on her body. She didn’t give any indication that she knew he was watching. He was a little shy. She was the only one he ever hired at the club, and when they made out, he was actually gentle and sweet. Sex was just sex, but with Lyle, it was a little more than that. He cared. And that was enough in her world. In the mirror, she saw him walk over until he stood right behind her. Her gaze traveled to his cock that jutted outward from the dark hair that tangled around its base. She felt the stirring of excitement. Making love with Lyle was actually one of the few pleasures of her life. When he pressed his body against her, his penis nudged her hips. Tossing back her blond hair, she ran her fingers down her throat and cupped her perky, smooth breasts. He liked it when she did this. As expected, his tongue darted out to skim his bottom lip. Lyle’s hands covered hers. He squeezed her twin mounds. It was exciting in a strange sort of way. Gabby felt moisture gather at the lips of her pussy and tingles of desire spread out into the rest of her body. She leaned back and rested her head on his shoulder, enjoying the sensations that enveloped her. His skin rubbed against her. When her arms dropped to her side, his fingers plucked at her rosy-red nipples. A low moan escaped her lips. Her breath hitched in her throat. “You should leave this all,” he muttered. “Come away with me.”

He’d said it often enough, but Lyle was married. And Joseph would never let her go. Thinking about it was useless, stupid, and in all probability dangerous too. “It wouldn’t work.” “You can take up a job.” She smiled. He was so naive. “Who is going to hire a girl who doesn’t know anything other than how to earn money on her back?” The hard muscles on his arms bulged as his clever fingers kneaded her breasts. Coils of desire wrapped around her like tight bands. “You could do something. Give yourself a chance.” Could she take the risk? If Joseph even knew that she imagined such a thing, he would beat the hell out of her. But how long could she continue like this? It was time to take a hard decision. If she was successful, her life would be hers. “I don’t know...” His hands slipped down her narrow waist and glided over her lush hips. His fingers slipped down to touch the curls that guarded her moist pussy. Raising her arms, she put them around his neck, his body supported hers. He inserted one finger in between her velvety lips and she let out a loud gasp. “You should do it, baby! I will help you. There is a Motorcycle club in another city. I know one of the guys. They would take you in and keep you safe until you figured out what you wanted to do,” he promised. “I hate to see you here, you know that.” His mouth nibbled up her shoulders to the nape of her neck. She shivered as much with the need that twisted deep inside her as with the prospect of having another life. Was it possible? Or was he jerking her around? But Lyle wasn’t the sort to make promises he couldn’t keep. She trusted him. His teeth nipped into her delicate skin as he stroked his finger in and out of her pussy. Need and heat built in equal measure. A wild, lusty craving for release began to form deep inside her. Her blood boiled, her skin hummed, as the rollercoaster ride took her higher and higher. An eclectic current zinged it way up her spine. He knew just how to please her. And he made an effort to do so. That was more than what anyone else ever did for her. Gabby allowed herself to be swept along the current that pulled her into its frothy, foamy waves. Knowing that she was close, he pressed his thumb in strong, sensuous strokes over her hard nub. The orgasm was swift and strong. Her body jerked and shuddered as she gripped him harder to maintain control. Pulling out his finger, he put it in his mouth, licking off her juices. “You’re sweet, baby! I want to do something for you. Take a chance. It will be worth it.”

Would it be? Would it be the beginning of a new, exciting life? When her body sagged into his arms, he carried her over to the bed. Easing down, he settled in between her legs. Bending his head, he swept his mouth over her nipple. Taking the rosy bud in between his lips, he sucked with fervor. His cock brushed over her clit, slowly and gently. As she rocked her hips in tune with his, she thought about what he said. It was crazy to even contemplate this, but it was terribly enticing. The mere thought of making good her escape excited her again. Putting his elbows on the bed, he rose up a little, careful not to put his weight on her. “If Joseph got wind of it...” she said. “He won’t. I will make the arrangements. Just meet me somewhere, and I will buy the train tickets for you. Someone will meet you at the station, and they will take you to their clubhouse. You could work there, clean up, cook and stuff. They always need girls to do that. And when you’re ready to go out, you could do it on your own.” Gabby didn’t have much experience with Motorcycle clubs, or MC’s. She met a few bikers during her work or in the club. Most of them weren’t as threatening or violent as they looked. In fact, some of them were actually kind. Perhaps it might not be a bad idea. Anything would be better than serving out this lifetime imprisonment sentence that Joseph thrust on her. If she didn’t take a risk, she would never know if she could make it in the outside world. “But I would need money, and I don’t have anything,” she worried. “I’ll give you some to start off.” Knowing that he was willing to do this much for her brought tears to her eyes. If he’d offered her the moon, it wouldn’t have been sweeter. “Are you sure, Lyle?” She gripped his arms. Her fingers curled around her muscles and she spread her legs under him. Beads of fresh lubrication gathered in her curls. The excitement of what he offered made her horny. Maybe it was time to take the plunge and do something rather than constantly hope and pray for salvation. She could make it happen. Sure, she could! His cock slipped inside as easily as a knife carves through soft butter. Her pussy lips stretched to accommodate his hard shaft. The momentum built fast and strong. She heard him pant over her as need

overtook him. Her nails dug into his shoulders as she urged him to pick up pace. Careening towards the peak of the precipice, she felt the need bundle into her nerves. With a loud cry, she exploded under him – and he emptied himself inside her. For a long, quiet moment, they lay still. Sex with Lyle was always good. It was because he actually gave a shit about her. And this offer he made really made her think. She ran her fingers down his back. He was a nice guy and a good lover. And what he proposed had the potential to change her life forever. “What are you thinking?” “It’s very tempting,” she whispered, not sure if she dared to even hope that she could get out of this cesspool of a life. “Do it. I’ll organize everything.” He talked for a bit, refining his idea, giving her tips of how she could escape from Joseph. It wouldn’t be so hard to slip away, but staying away was the problem. There wasn’t a doubt that Joseph would move heaven and earth to find her. She’d seen girls who left their pimps to venture out on their own – and their end was not pleasant. In order to keep the rest of the girls pliant, the pimps made examples of runaways. Most often than not, the girls ended up dead at the bottom of a river or a ravine. She didn’t want the same fate. But death might be better than the pitiful life that she led. At least, she needed to try. If she didn’t even make an effort, how would she ever get another chance? No other client had ever offered any help. And Lyle was willing to do so much. “If Joseph knew that you said all this, he would kill you.” Lyle nodded, knowing that it wasn’t an empty threat. Joseph was known for his foul temper and his firm hold on his girls. “Who is going to tell him? The only two people who know are you and me. So what do you want? In or out?” She licked her bottom lip. Fear skidded along her nerves. It was a scary concept, a foreign one, but somehow the little ray of hope that Lyle offered made her yearn for freedom. She wanted it. It was time to make a try. “I will do it,” she said. “Great.” Lyle stood. He wore his clothes. “Two days from now. Just make your way to the train station at sharp five o’clock and leave the rest up to me.”

Taking out his wallet, he handed her the money along with a tip. “You could do so much better than this, Gabby.” Yes, she could! And she wanted to try. For the second time in her life, Gabby was going to run away – and this time, she hoped that she would end up at a much better place. It was time to bid goodbye to this hovel and start all over again. And perhaps this time, she would find a slice of heaven. It was all that she hoped for: freedom and choices.

CHAPTER TWO As she wiped the counter, Gabby’s head nodded to the music that blared out of the speakers. Three weeks ago, she escaped from Joseph’s clutches and ended up at Hell Brigade MC, the motorcycle club that offered her sanctuary. Bikers sat around table and the women served them. This was a good life, much better than what she lived ever since she was a child. And perhaps things would change for the better when she found a job. “Hey! Ronald wants a beer,” said Ronald’s Old Lady, Willow. It didn’t take her long to learn the lingo of the club. An old lady was the exclusive properties of one biker, while sweet butts were the women who were available for the entire club. Hell Brigade was an organized, successful club with fifty-two members. Not all of them lived in the clubhouse, which was mostly used by singles. Gabby did the cooking and the cleaning with three other women – and of course, they all serviced the men whenever they were needed. But soon, she would be out of this and on to fresh beginnings. After she delivered the beer, Gabby came back to the bar. “So what time are you leaving tomorrow?” asked Willow. “Nine in the morning,” she replied. “I have three interviews.” Willow’s smile was kind. Her caramel, dark skin glowed as she gazed at Gabby. “Good luck, girl. You’ll need it. And I hope you can find someone.” “I am keeping my fingers crossed.” Without education, Gabby couldn’t get any jobs that required complicated skills, but she would settle for waitressing or other cleaning work. As long as she made a living honestly, she didn’t much care what she did. Quickly, she served the bikers. When they all staggered off, she crawled into her own warm bed, alone for the night. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, it was a blessing. Since she was pretty and new, she didn’t lack male attention – but there was never any forced sex. If she said no, it was taken well. Although Gabby felt so grateful to them for giving her a chance that she never felt like refusing anyone’s advances. It was the least she could do after they gave her protection, shelter, food, and even some weekly cash for her basic needs. In return, she could warm their beds. But that didn’t mean that she wasn’t going to look for other opportunities. The next day, at eight sharp, she left the clubhouse. For the first two weeks, Gabby rarely left the clubhouse for fear that Joseph might be looking for her. But now she felt a little safer. The clubhouse was a clean, clapboard

building on the fringes of the town. The common areas and kitchen were all located downstairs while there were six bedrooms on the first floor. She was assigned a room which she often shared with a man who wanted company for the night. In return for sex and cleaning, she got a lot in exchange. And she was free to go anytime she chose. No one kept her on the clock, locked her in the room, or accompanied her outside. Freedom was sweet – but it would be sweeter when she got a good job and shifted to her own place. The first interview was at a small Mom and Pop style restaurant. There were two people ahead of her and more walked in as she waited. How difficult could waitressing be? She would learn soon enough. With bated breath, she waited to be called in. When she was summoned inside to face the matronly woman who was interviewing everyone, she felt a little more confident. The woman, part-owner of the restaurant, had soft, hazel eyes. She looked kind. “Good morning.” “Sit down, dear. Did you bring a resume?” Embarrassment flooded through her. “Huh? I didn’t know...sorry...I...” “Never mind, dear. Most people forget to bring one. It’s not really necessary for this job. So what waitressing experience do you have?” Gabby blinked her eyes. This wasn’t going as well as she expected. “I cook and clean at a clubhouse right now. And I serve too.” “Club house?” “It’s...a biker’s club.” She wasn’t supposed to give a lot of information. The club indulged in activities that weren’t strictly legal, and one of their only rules was that any person who sought their protection not divulge anything related to their work. The woman raised an eyebrow. Clearly, she wasn’t impressed with Gabby’s place of work. “Any other relevant experiences?” “I...” Stripping in a club wasn’t something she wanted to disclose. “I would learn really fast. If you want, I could do free work for a few days so you can see how I do things.” The lady’s smile was a little strained. “Alright, dear. Why don’t you leave your number here, and if I need, I will give you a call.” Knowing that she was dismissed, Gabby stood. No way was she ever getting that call. Tears pricked at the back of her eyes. But she didn’t have any reason to complain. They were clearly looking for someone with more experience, and she didn’t have it. It was a major setback, but all was not lost.

Perhaps the next interview would be better. She shuffled out of the restaurant and walked towards the next place. Taking out a piece of paper from her purse, she looked down at the next address. The second place was a bookshop in the mall and they needed a sales assistant. She could do that easily enough. Surely, there weren’t many requirements to point people in the right direction of a book. Although she never finished school, Gabby was an avid reader and often bought secondhand books to pass time. Feeling slightly better about her future prospects, Gabby marched along the pavement. She could have taken a bus but it was only three blocks, and it wouldn’t hurt to save her money. When she reached the mall, Gabby stepped gratefully into the cool air-conditioned environment. Her jaw gaped open at the sight of the fancy shops and the fine clothing that were worn by the mannequins. This was a world she didn’t know all that well. When she worked for Joseph, she never had the chance to spend time at such places. She was always working, and whenever she wanted to buy something, she wasn’t allowed to go out of his territory. But now, if she got a job here, she could work in such a nice place. It would be so pleasant to come here each day. She wanted the job with a desperation that clawed at her insides. Gabby entered the bookshop. Walking over to the counter, she fixed her long, black skirt, and adjusted the collar of her white blouse. These were the only nice pieces of clothing she owed. But if she got this job, she would be able to afford other things. Hope flared through her, bright and sharp. “Hi. I am here for the job interview.” The man who manned the counter barely glanced at her. “The door to your right. Go in.” She gulped, took a deep breath, and marched towards the door. It was a small, cramped office and a man sat behind a desk. “Yes?” “I was told to come in for the interview.” “Sit down.” He gestured and continued typing on the laptop. “Just give me five minutes. I’ve got to fill these forms or else I will miss the deadline.” “Sure.” Would she be required to work on a laptop? She didn’t know anything about computers. Gabby hadn’t even finished school. Pimps didn’t give education that much importance, and of course, there was always the threat of pesky social workers and teachers who could make reports. Any young girl who was caught in the net of prostitution never set foot in an educational facility again. This life was so different than the one she saw for the past fourteen years. He closed the laptop. “Here we go. Ok. May I see your resume?”

Shit! She should have thought this through. It was silly of her assume that she wouldn’t need any paperwork. “Sorry, I didn’t bring it.” Looking a bit flustered, he picked up a paper and pen. “No problem. You can email it to me later today. What’s your name?” Email? What the hell was that? “Gabby Ward.” “And how old are you?” “Twenty-two.” He beamed. “That’s a good age for the job. You will be required to do stacking and filing, and older women get tired. Our last sales assistant was very efficient but she had to leave because her husband got transferred elsewhere. So what’s your level of your education?” “Huh?” He waved his hand. “High school? Diploma? Undergrad?” Gabby shook her head. She resisted the urge to chew her bottom lip. “No! I...I dropped out of school at a really young age.” He put the pen down, looking a little irritated. “Oh, dear. I am afraid you’re not the ideal candidate. We are looking for someone who is a bit...knowledgeable. Our customers expect the sales assistant to know about books, to have read some of them, and to be generally more...” Upmarket? Gabby pressed her lips together. It wasn’t his fault. She shouldn’t have assumed that it would be so easy to get a job. “Thank you.” She stood. When she marched out, Gabby couldn’t help but admire the cool, swanky places she saw in the mall. If she’d worked here, her life would have been so much better. But she simply didn’t have the right qualifications. Taking out the paper again, she checked the third address. It was only two blocks away. Once again, she marched in her high heels, in the sweltering hot and humid air, towards the last interview. When she reached the neon-green board on the upscale building, Gabby paused. It was a strip club. Sure, it was a classy place. The money would be good. But sooner or later, she would be expected to earn on her back, and then she would get ensnared into the vicious cycle of pimps and prostitutes again. She dared not risk it. After making her escape, she preferred to work in a place where at least she had the option to say no. Here, she would have to do the work that she was good at, but in which she could never open her mouth to speak. The bikers also expected her to lie down on her back and service them, but if she ever said no, there were no repercussions, no fights. She was a free person.

And her freedom was more important than quick cash. Gabby turned away. Feeling more than desperate and gloomy, she went back to the clubhouse. After walking into her room, she changed into her old jeans and a green, plain t-shirt. Was there no hope for someone like her? Would she never get an opportunity to right the wrong that was done to her? Was she destined to spend her life, giving men a slice of heaven, while they humped over her? All the hope that sparkled in her heart ever since she started reading the newspapers to get some information about her job prospects faded. She didn’t have anything else to do. Sure, she could keep reading newspapers, go for interviews, but without an education and relevant experiences, her chances were zero. And that was just plain fact. It was better to accept it and move on. After walking downstairs, she began to wash the dishes that were lined up in the sink. “Hey, it’s not your turn.” Willow marched over. “What happened at the interviews?” “Nothing much.” Her voice was dull, listless. “They all wanted someone who had either a college degree or a relevant experience in a decent place. And you know me, I am just a loser.” “Don’t put yourself down, dear. You’re a gem.” Willow ran a hand over her hair. “You will get your chance.” Would she? Gabby doubted it. She washed her hands and dried them on the towel. There was no point clinging to hope. “No, I won’t. I am a lost cause, Willow. No one is ever going to give me a job. I am good for nothing.” “No, you are not.” Willow hugged her. “And don’t you dare say something about my best girl, do you hear?” Best girl? She wasn’t anyone’s best girl. And never would be. Her life was a mess, and it would never be happy and bright. “You listen to Willow, girl. She always gives the right advice,” said a low, throaty voice. Gabby turned to look at the speaker. Hunky, handsome Nick Parker sat on the stool. His keen, green eyes were fixed on her. She’d seen him often enough in the clubhouse. He was their treasurer and

carried much authority. Easy on the eyes, and of a pleasant demeanor, he caught her attention but she didn’t act on her impulses. Her other work kept her busy enough, and she didn’t have any intention of hankering after a guy only to see him reject her. She didn’t see the need to reply, but being rude to the treasurer wouldn’t be a wise thing. “Sure,” she said. He raised an eyebrow. “You don’t believe me? Willow turned my life around. I was a hotshot, cocky boy looking to pick a fight. She was the one who encouraged me to join the club.” “You’re still the best fighter,” murmured Willow, but she said it in an affectionate, easy way that indicated that she was joking. “But now I pick and choose my battles.” He laughed. “Heard you didn’t get a job?” Gabby wasn’t surprised. There were few secrets in the clubhouse. “Yeah. Didn’t have the right background, the correct education, or experience.” “You could always stay here. We pay you well and if you stay long enough, I will make sure we increase the money you get.” Did she have another choice? Not really! “Yeah, thanks.” He cocked his head. His eyes bored into hers with an intensity that indicated that he understood her thoughts more than she wanted him to. Nick wasn’t much of a talker. She was surprised that he was taking the trouble to single her out for some attention. What did he want in exchange? Immediately, Gabby felt bad for her ungrateful thought. The members of Hell Brigade were more than fair to her. Not one of them ever made her feel as if she was a bonded servant or a hooker. Instead, she was given respect and encouragement. And right now, they were the only friends she had. “If you want, you could study. Do home schooling. I am sure some of the men would be happy to assist you. If you complete your high school diploma, your chances of a job would increase.” Surprised by his suggestion, she stared at him. “Home schooling? But I wouldn’t know how to go about it.” “I could guide you.” He lifted a powerful shoulder. His blond hair gleamed in the bright light. “It’s not a big deal. Another girl did it two years ago, didn’t she, Willow? Now, she is working in the

canteen of one of those big hospitals.” “Yeah!” Willow nodded. “And you earn enough to pay for books and other such things that you would need. Nick could enroll you in one of those support programs. There is an organization that helps with paperwork and exams and stuff, and they don’t charge anything.” Hope bloomed in her heart. Dare she take the offer? How long would it take for her to complete her degree? And would it serve any purpose? She wasn’t sure. Gabby bit her bottom lip. “I don’t know. It seems like a lot of hard work.” His laughter echoed in the room. “Nothing worth gaining is ever simple, girl. If you are looking for the easy way out, you are going to be disappointed. But if you are ready to buckle down and do your part, you may make something good out of your life. Anyway, it was just a thought. Let me know if you are interested. I will set you up.” He sauntered off. Gabby stared at his retreating back. What the hell was that about? Was he serious? Could she rely on him to see her through? It was a decision that she would have to make – and the sooner the better.

CHAPTER THREE Nick listened to the men bicker. It wasn’t just another day at the club. Something was terribly wrong. Although the bikers weren’t involved in any hardcore illegal activities, their primary means of income was transportation of stolen materials from the town into other part of the state. It was a lucrative business and a risky one. But with careful coordination and planning, they managed to stay a step ahead of the police. But someone in their club was a snitch. Two of their men were arrested with a truck full of stolen goods. Given their track records, bail was not an option. The men would have to serve time in jail. It was a punch in their collective faces. “It must have been bad luck,” said Ronald, the president of the club. “I told Miles to check the coast before easing out of the garage. They ran into a police cruiser.” “The police were waiting for them,” contradicted Nick. He didn’t buy that lame theory. For years, they scammed the police and now suddenly two of their best operators were out of business. This couldn’t just be a coincidence. He intended to investigate this matter further, with or without the help of the rest of the committee. “It could have leaked through,” offered Ronald. “I told Willow to keep a tight lid on the new girls, but maybe one of them went over to the police. We do have a fresh recruit. She might be a plant.” Nick thought about Gabby and her innocent, hazel eyes. No! She couldn’t have done it. He wouldn’t believe it. “She has been through shit, and the police never helped her. She has no reason to dump on us,” he growled. Unease fluttered in his heart. Not because he thought that she was the culprit, but because it was easy for the men to mistrust the newest recruits into the club. And Gabby wasn’t officially their member, none of the women were. Those that stayed and became Old Ladies were trusted, but the rest of them were kept on the fringes of club activities. They were never involved in the dealings because they weren’t expected to shoulder the responsibility if a job went south. “What about the other two girls? Suzy and Mala? They are both relatively new also.” Those two girls joined the clubhouse three to four months ago, and they weren’t expected to stay long. Suzy had already found a job and would soon move out. Mala didn’t appear to have the temperament to get along with so many people. If she didn’t leave soon, someone or the other would tell her to do so. Although it was a norm to point at the girls if there was ever a leak, Nick didn’t think it was one of them.

It had to be one of the men. The thought was appalling. The men in the clubhouse were soul brothers. Each one of them was ready to die for another. The possibility that they would snitch on each other was unthinkable. Hence the reason to push the blame on the girls. But Nick knew better. Only a handful of people were privy to the date and time on which the goods were supposed to be transported out of the city. How did the police arrive at that exact time? There was definitely something fishy going on in this club, and he intended to get to the bottom of that mystery. “I think we should keep an eye on the girls,” Ronald insisted. “I will do it,” Nick offered. His plan was different. Of course, he would make sure that he checked out the girls, but also he wanted to give the culprit the indication that he was off the hook. Next time the man made a wrong move, Nick would be breathing fast down his back. But he needed a master strategy that would lure out the snitch. As they moved on to other topics, Nick allowed his thoughts to simmer at the back of his mind. Once the committee meeting was finished, he strode down to join the others as they milled around the bar. Loud music blared from the speakers and the men were eyeing the two girls who were dancing in one corner: Mala and Gabby. The harsh scent of weed hit his nostrils. It was the most common drug used by the bikers. None of them were hardcore into illegal substances, but the boys liked to blow off steam with one thing or another. And today, someone must have passed on a little something extra because the girls were all in high spirits. Nick took a stool on the bar. “A beer, please,” he asked Willow. Once she passed it to him and wrote it in his account page, Nick turned his attention to the women who were slow dancing with the men. Gabby was dancing with Price, a dark-haired, bearded man who gripped her ass with both hands as he swung her to the music. She was definitely stoned. The glazed look in her eyes and the loose manner in which her limbs moved proved that she was high as a kite. He smiled. She needed the break. The girl was all but raw bundles of nerves. Ever since she got rejected at the workplace, he saw that her confidence went down quite a few notches. He didn’t like the downtrodden look on her face. She needed a pick-me-up. It appeared that Price had the same idea because he turned her around and drew her back into his arms as she let out a sudden laugh. Someone jacked up the volume on the speakers. Once more, Price

pinched her ass. She giggled and stepped away. Nick watched as she sashayed her way over to the bar. “Hey, Willow. A glass of water please.” Nick watched her guzzle down the water as if it was nectar. The muscles on her throat clenched and unclenched as she drank. When she put the glass down, her eyes met his. “Hi,” he said. She smiled and leaned on the counter. The t-shirt she wore stretched over her breasts, giving him an excellent idea about her sexy curves. Her jeans rode low on her hips, and he could see her belly button as it played peek-a-boo as her t-shirt shifted. His fingers itched to glide over her taut stomach and feel her smooth creamy skin, but he resisted the urge. Nick didn’t flit from woman to woman, and whenever he chose one, it was with care and thought. But he did have his eyes on Gabby. And she was such a pretty little thing. Her blond hair was silky and soft, and her eyes glowed when she was in a carefree mood. It was so rare to see her look so happy. He enjoyed watching the play of emotions on her face as she watched the others dance around. One day, he would enjoy running his hands all over her compact and lean body. It would be sheer pleasure to claim her lips, to taste the sweet crevices of her mouth, and to thrust his cock deep inside her while she writhed under him. The image made him hard, and his penis lengthened and thickened in his jeans. As if sensing the thoughts that flashed through his mind, she glanced his way. Her tongue darted out to moisten her bottom lip. Something shifted and twisted in her eyes. It was lust, plain and simple. She wanted him as badly as he wanted her. But Nick was determined to draw out their sexual tension. The game was on. He looked away. If he so wanted, he could draw her away for a quick fuck. But she was meant for better things. Despite the harsh and terrible life that she lived, there was an innocence in her. And she had a sharp mind. He wanted to explore it before he tumbled into the sack with her. A quickie would be over all too soon, but she was meant for better things. “Did you give another thought to my idea?” “About finishing high school?” She laughed. “I don’t know…sounds crazy. I am in my twenties…” “You want to be in your thirties or forties or fifties and still be without a high school degree?” He cut down to the chase. “Think about it. It would require hard work and effort, but it would pay rich dividends in the long run.” Willow walked over to give her comments. “You listen to him, girl. Nick was seventeen when he finished high school, plunged straight into college, and finished it in three years. He has got a razorsharp mind, this boy. Did some hocus pocus with the stocks and ended up with his own digs. This boy

is rich,” said Willow as she clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t give away all my secrets, Willow.” “If you are doing so well, what are you doing with the club?” Her suspicious eyes bored into his. Nick grinned. Most people asked him the same question, and he often told them that it was because he craved excitement. But as Willow moved away to serve someone, he found himself telling her something that he hardly shared with anyone. “My parents died when I was two in a car accident. I was raised in a series of foster homes. Education was the only escape from the mental and physical drudgery that I was often subjected to. Some of the people who took me in actually cared, but others just did to get some money out of the state. The only thing that belonged to me was my education, and I decided early on that I wouldn’t become a victim.” “So you studied?” He took a swig. Why was he telling her this? It’s because she had the ability to draw him out; a rare quality in most women he came across. She was genuinely interested. “I studied hard and won a scholarship. And while I was in college, I began dealing with stocks. The amount was little at first but then I gained enough confidence to invest in bigger stuff. I was lucky to buy shares of a software company before it hit pay dirt. And then…I bought my own house, put away some in long-term investments to get steady income, and kept playing at the stock market.” “So why did you leave it?” He shrugged. “I got bored. It wasn’t exciting enough anymore. And I started riding with these guys. It was fun at first, and then I realized that they were the family I never had. These men would die for me, and I would do the same. We belong together, we help each other, and we support one another. It’s the only family that I have ever had.” She nodded. He could see that she really understood what he meant. Most people assumed that since he had the brains to become rich, he should continue in the same vein. But he was done with that life. This was his chosen path. And sure, there was danger as they flitted with the police and the law, but they never crossed the line into something serious. And he fucking loved it. “I would’ve done the same,” she stated. “Family is most important, isn’t it?” The realization that she could understand his sentiments so easily baffled him. “Yeah, it is. Do you have any?” A snort escaped her lips. “I escaped from my father when I was ten and fell into the clutches of a damned pimp, Joseph. My life has always been controlled by the men in my life.”

“Maybe it’s time to change that,” he said. Her gaze shifted to him, moved away to rest on the dancing couples. “I don’t know if I have it in me. It’s been so long since I studied. Lying down on my back and letting a man hump me is so much easier, even if it’s the lowest of low jobs.” “There is no shame in what you do.” He covered her hand with his. “You’re not killing someone or defrauding people. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel bad about what you do. Hold your head high and be proud of who you are. What you have faced and survived is more than what most of these men can claim.” Much to his surprise, tears filled her eyes. “No one has ever said something so sweet to me. Thank you.” Nick pulled his hand away. He meant what he said. He’d seen many girls who got trapped into prostitution and most of them didn’t have the desire or the will to make their escape from that life. But she wanted something different. Despite the abuse she suffered, Gabby still had fire in her heart. He saw it. And he wanted to nourish that flame so that she could do better. If he could help her fight her way out of this muck, it would be a privilege. She was a flower who could bloom if given the right nourishment. And he wanted to be the man to do so. This had nothing to do with his desire to have her squirm under him (although of course, he did want that), but he genuinely wanted to support her. Price came over. “Another dance, princess?” She swung her silky hair. “Sure.” As they moved on to the dance floor, Nick got back to his beer. Willow sauntered over. “You got your eyes on the girl, haven’t you?” She knew him too well. “I do.” “Then make a move before someone else does.” “This is different, Willow. I need to take it slow.” She leaned forward. “A turtle moves at a faster speed than you, boy. This one is a keeper. She is hardworking, honest, and gutsy, and that’s more than I can say for most of the girls who come through here.” He agreed with her. She was right. But still he didn’t want to take a hard plunge just yet. He wasn’t ready for it. And something told him that when he hopped into the sack with Gabby, sparks would fly. “Yeah!” he nursed the beer as he watched her dance with Price.

She had some good moves, that girl! He admired the way her body swung and shook. He longed to take her into his arms and make wild, passionate love to her. But not right now. There were other matters that needed his considerable attention and he wanted to focus on one thing at a time. But yeah, Gabby was on his mind. And soon, he would move with her in the right direction. But his first priority was to find the snitch that dared to mess with their club, and when he got his hands on the traitor, the culprit would scream for mercy and Nick wouldn’t grant it. No one messed with his family and got away with it. He didn’t care who it was. Whoever it was would pay the price for putting two of their men in jail. Nick was gunning for a fight. And he hoped that soon he would have the chance to vent the temper that simmered deep in his heart. Soon! Very soon! But until then, he could be patient. Revenge was a dish served cold, or so he heard. And Nick was going to discover if there was any truth in that old saying.

CHAPTER FOUR Price was a good-looking man. As he swung her about on the dance floor, Gabby felt giddy with laughter. She was high, no doubt about it. The weed was too strong, and the little pill she popped made her feel as if she was tingling with liquid joy. She didn’t do drugs often even though in her line of work she got plenty of opportunities. If she wasn’t so dejected about the rejections she got, she wouldn’t have done it even now. But if this was her life, she wanted to suck all the happiness out of any light moment. And this was the best way to go about it. Sure, Nick could talk about education, but it was only a distant hope. Who the hell would give a job to a former hooker even if she let go of that life? And as he said, there was no shame in what she did. The shame belonged to those who thrust her in this situation. Joseph was the culprit, and if he felt no guilt or remorse, why should she harbor any? As the crowd thinned, Price pulled her into a corner. Holding her against the pinball machine that didn’t work, he nuzzled her neck. “You’re hot, baby!” She smiled. Through the thin strip of mirrored glass that hung on the wall at her eye level, she could see part of the bar. Nick was talking to Willow. She cast her gaze away. He offered too much hope, and she was afraid to take it. If things didn’t pan out as he said, she would be severely disappointed. Price’s lips claimed hers. Vaguely, she was aware that a couple danced behind them, but the narrow, rectangular machine afforded them some privacy. And there weren’t that many people left in the clubhouse. It was late, probably close to midnight. She kissed him, feeling the familiar urges of desire careen through her system. The drugs made it more potent than ever before. When Price’s hands fiddled with the buttons on her shirt, she allowed him to feast his eyes on her braclad breasts. His rough and greedy hands cupped her globules and squeezed them. “Damn it! You’re the best, baby!” He probably said this to all the women he screwed. But Gabby was in the mood to listen to his words and take them at face value. She needed this small bit of happiness as much as she required the air that filled her lungs. Even though she was a hooker, she was a damn fine one. The drugs that burned and sizzled through her senses made her feel invincible, beautiful. His tongue thrust inside to taste her mouth, and she engaged him with hers. The erotic dance appeared to heighten Price’s need because he pushed his hips against hers, his penis poking hard into her abdomen.

He wanted her. And she wanted a taste of heaven. Why did it always have to be the way the man wanted? Sometimes, she could also express her own desires. She shoved her hand inside his shirt and felt his muscles ripple under her fingertips. His skin was warm and smooth and when she rested her hand on his chest, she felt the beat of his heart. It was fast and steady. As if sensing her longing, he stepped away and took off his shirt. Her eyes feasted on his ripped abs and the hard lines and angles of his body. When his fingers fiddled with the button of his jeans, she should’ve put a stop to it, maybe urged him to join her upstairs, but the drugs made her feel reckless. This was an adventure. For the first time, she controlled how and when they had sex. For a hooker, there could be no bigger freedom than that. Gabby’s tongue pierced out to lick her bottom lip. Her loins ached with a strange need. Moisture pooled in the juncture between her thighs. She shrugged out of her shirt as he dropped his jeans and boxers and stepped away from them. His cock thrust out from between the curls that guarded it. Was someone watching them? Of course, those who were present knew what was going on although they couldn’t see anything much due to the machine that blocked the view. The way she felt, everyone could have stood around them, and she wouldn’t have cared. Price ran his hands up her narrow waist to cup her breasts. His fingers slipped back and unhooked her bra. He lowered it down over one shoulder, his eyes fixed on the firm, smooth mound that popped out of the satiny confines. Bending his head, he took the hard bud between his lips. Gabby got rid of the bra and speared her fingers through his thick hair as she leaned back. It felt so right. His fingers captured the nub and he rolled it hard. A tingle of pain coupled with waves of desire. Coils of red-hot need twisted through her nerves and veins and set her on fire. She gasped. Gabby closed her eyes as he sucked and caressed her nipples. His penis poked into her stomach and she reached down to grab it. He moaned.

Gabby laughed with happiness. He was hers. For the first time, she actually felt as if she was in control. He was doing whatever she wanted. It felt fucking unbelievable. When she bent between his legs, he muttered a protest – but she wanted it her way. No one could stand between her and what she desired right now. Gabby’s tongue flicked out to touch the tip of his cock. Even though he’d been hesitant before, the simple gesture was enough to entice him. While she put her hands on his hips to steady herself, he opened his legs so that she could have better access. Gabby took her time. She inhaled, taking in the strong, sweet odor that enveloped him. Gently, she cupped his balls. First, she played with them. His fingers clutched her hair, pulled, but she refused to move. This was what she wanted. And for once, she was going to do it her way. Her tongue slipped over his blood-engorged balls. He gasped. She nibbled her way up to the tip of his cock and felt the organ push against her mouth. Opening her lips, she took in the hard shaft deep inside her throat. Gabby sucked at his cock with gusto while he sweated over her. His hands tugged her hair, but she held on, enjoying the erotic moment. His cock throbbed in her mouth. She fondled his dick, taking pleasure in his deep grunts and the way his muscles jerked under her fingers. He was close. She could feel it. But she didn’t want this to end so soon. Gabby straightened. She cupped his butt and arched her body against him. His eyes were glazed and each breath panted out of his mouth. Her skin sizzled and burned everywhere he touched her. She wanted to feel him inside her and satisfy this ache that griped her in its furious grasp. When his penis brushed against her velvety, moist opening, she squealed. Gabby gripped his shoulders, enjoying the way his muscles bunched under her palms. Her nails dug into his skin, urging him on. They were both too far gone to see if anyone was looking at them. She didn’t give a shit – and from the look of it, he couldn't care less if they had audience. With one sharp thrust, he dove inside her. Her pussy lips parted and accepted his offering. She could feel her muscles stretching over his long shaft, accommodating, aching with need. She couldn’t wait anymore. The craving, the yearning for that precious release, whipped and swelled inside her belly and tingled through every nerve and vein. Her breath hitched in her throat. The momentum built with fierce intensity and she rode the wave. Higher and higher, she swung and swayed on the crest of passion. Gabby’s gaze settled on the mirror, and she locked glances with Nick who was watching them. There was no judgment on his face. She’d expected it – and wouldn’t have cared if she saw it but the understanding that gleamed in his eyes took her by surprise. It was as if he could reach deep inside

her soul and feel the need that was sharpened to the point of insanity. Her gaze remained locked on him as she moved in time to the rhythm that Price dictated. With each stroke, she felt the fountain of desire careen higher and higher inside her body until she was engulfed with need. She couldn’t take the excruciating pleasure anymore. Gabby closed her eyes. She didn’t want to see the wealth of understanding in Nick’s eyes. Her body arched and buckled as Price pounded into her. Every cell, every fiber of her being, was inundated with passion. Finally, she uttered a loud cry as she erupted. The orgasm that ripped through her was hot and blind. She felt her toes curl and her legs jerked. Moments later, Price came inside her. His semen dripped down her thighs. Resting his head on her shoulder, he took big, shuddering breasts as if he just finished running a marathon. “That was fucking awesome, baby!” He stepped away. “You’re amazing.” It was probably something he said to each woman, but somehow, she felt as if he meant it. The storm that crashed and swelled through her slowed. Gabby wore her clothes. His semen stuck to her skin, and she wanted a shower badly. He staggered a bit, picked up his clothes, and slipped into his jeans. Picking up his shirt, he walked off. She took her time. Gabby straightened her hair, shrugged into her shirt, and closed the buttons. Even though the dregs of the drugs she’d inhaled still rushed through her system, their effect was wearing off. She could think again, breathe again. Gabby sucked in a deep breath of air and walked out from behind the pinball machine. Nick sat exactly where he was the whole time. Seeing her, he picked up an unopened beer bottle and offered. For some strange reason, she felt tears prick at the back of her mind. Was he human? Didn’t he feel any revulsion for what he witnessed? Or maybe that’s what turned him on? Perhaps he liked the show? Was that what he wanted from her? Feeling defiant, she walked over, picked up the beer, and took a large swallow. “Did you like what you saw?” He took his time. “I saw a man and a woman doing what we’ve all done from time to time. Do you expect me to judge you?” She didn’t say anything. No words escaped her mouth. Didn’t he feel

disgusted? Why was he still here, having this insane conversation? “Well, I am not going to. Believe me, I have seen it all. Sex is just sex...but love...” “I’ve never loved anyone.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Then you don’t know what you’ve missed. When it grips you by the throat, something twists and turns inside you. I loved a woman once. It was a long time ago.” He took another sip from his bottle. She couldn’t bear the suspense. “Where is she now?” Pain swept across his eyes. “She died in a freak accident. While she walked on the pavement, a truck’s brakes failed and it crashed into her.” “I am sorry to hear that,” she said. His shoulder lifted and dropped. “As I said it was a long time ago. But she was young, only nineteen. Maybe if she wasn’t coked out of her head, she might have reacted better and gotten out of the way.” “You loved her a lot?” She couldn’t help but ask. It was none of her business. If he told her to back off, she would do so. But he didn’t appear to mind the question. “Yes, she was my first love.” Gabby sipped her beer. He really was an extraordinary man. No one she ever knew would’ve sat and drank with her while she oozed the scent of another man with whom she had sex. But Nick genuinely appeared not to care. Somehow she felt that he could understand the reasons why she did what she did. And it didn’t bother him. Instead, he sympathized with her. Maybe because he saw so much loss at a young age that he could empathize with those who were in anguish. And Gabby’s pain was as real as it would have been if someone had slashed her wrists. She wanted to escape this life with a desperation that choked her. And yet, there was no way out. No one offered any hope before. Nick was the only one who did so. Was it stupid of her to doubt him? Since she never saw much good, it was hard for her to recognize it even when it knocked her on the face. “I will study,” she said, deciding on the spot. “It would be fantastic to do something different than what I am used to.” His lips stretched in a smile that reached his eyes. Seeing his excitement, she felt good. “Great! I will make the arrangements. You will get some free books and guidance, but other than that, it would depend on how hard you are willing to work. Trust me, it would be worth it.”

Of course, it would be. As long as he supported her, she could do anything. Gabby felt a new confidence, and this time it wasn’t based on her body or on her skills in the bed, but rather it was a pride that she felt in her will to survive. There was another world out there in which she wouldn’t be required to lie down on her back and service men – and she wanted a piece of that life. It was nice of him to nudge her in the right direction, but it was up to her to make the correct moves. She held the controls of her life, and no one else could change it for her. “Thank you,” she said. “You are the only one who has given me some hope.” “That’s all I can offer. The rest is up to you.” He clicked his bottle against hers and then stood. “Good luck, Gabby. You’re going to need it as much as the hard work that would get you through it.” She watched him walk off. For the first time in her life, Gabby liked a man. It was something more than desire and need that stirred in her heart. She actually, genuinely, respected and admired him. Perhaps in time, this would develop into something more, but for now she was happy and content. There was a man who believed in her – and she would do everything possible to make him proud of her achievements.

CHAPTER FIVE As she cleaned the bar the next day, Willow came to join Gabby. Willow wore a red gown that glittered and shimmered in the dim lights. Her hair was tied in a bun, silver earrings dangled from her ears, and she wore a big grin that announced her happiness. Gabby paused. It was so rare to see of the girls dress up so finely. “Hey! What’s going on?” “It’s our third anniversary.” Willow and Ronald weren’t married, but for them, the commitment they shared for just as good and enduring as a marriage certificate. “That’s great. So you guys are headed out?” “Yeah! As soon as Ronald stops huddling with Nick.” She pointed at the two men who were in deep conversation in one corner. Gabby was aware that ever since the two bikers were jailed, everyone was tense. The club members looked out for each other, and seeing two of their brothers in jail was something that made them unhappy. “So girl, what happened last night?” Gabby flushed a deep shade of red. If only the floor would open and swallow her whole. She couldn’t believe that she openly indulged with Price in the clubhouse. “Shit! I don’t know...I was so high...” “You sure did give Price a night that he would remember forever,” said Willow with a loud giggle. “I remember once I had sex with a guy on the beach in rhythm to loud music.” Her eyes glazed over as she recalled the tantalizing details. “What was his name? Oh yeah!” She snapped her fingers. “Frederick Blaze. He was a good-looking guy. Gave me quite a ride. But I didn’t step on the beach for a week after that. Too embarrassed by the public performance. Glad you’re not hiding.” Gabby would’ve liked to do the same. But of course, she didn’t have another place to go. What the hell was she supposed to do? She had duties in the clubhouse and it wouldn’t do to ignore them just because she was too mortified to show her face. “Yeah, I know how you must have felt.” Willow checked her reflection in the mirror. “Price is a good guy. But he isn’t the most dependable man if you’re looking for something serious.” “I am not,” she was quick to deny. Honestly, she didn’t even give the man another thought except that it would be awkward to face him now. But did she expect some sort of commitment from him? No way! Gabby wasn’t looking for a relationship. A hooker learned to keep her heart intact, and Gabby had learnt it the hard way years ago. Once, there was a customer who showed up every three days. He showered her with gifts and praise. She actually began to develop feelings for him. He took her out a

few times and dinner was of course followed by dynamite sex in a hotel room. Six months into this routine, she had actually begun to think of him as her boyfriend when he told her that he got transferred to another city and was moving there with his wife and two kids. Two kids? She didn’t even know he’d a wife. That was the first and last time that she actually harbored such strong feelings for a man. Why would someone opt for her when she was available for mind-blowing sex without any emotional hassles? Gabby wasn’t a starry eyed teenager who hoped for romance and love. A quiet life was all that she sought, but of course, it was a distant dream. She would never get it. But it was good to have a goal and to work towards it. “So where are you going?” “Cinema,” said Willow, “Followed by dinner at my favorite place, and then on home to have hot, dirty, fucking unbelievable sex...if he is lucky.” Gabby laughed. It must be amazing to have a man one could depend on, who cared, and showed interest beyond the basic desires. “Well, go on then, have fun. Looks like Ronald and Nick are done.” The men walked over. Willow got out from behind the bar and sauntered over to join Ronald. He put an arm around her. “See you guys. Me and my lovely have a hot date tonight,” he said with a wink. Gabby watched them leave. What must it feel like to have a man who actually cared enough to take you out for dinner? She would never experience it. And well, it was just as good. She didn’t want her heart broken. “What’s wrong?” said Nick as he leaned on the bar. “Nothing.” She brought the shutters down on the emotions that must have spilled out. Nick was observant, no doubt about it. “They make a great couple.” “Yeah! Willow has seen a lot of hardship. She was twenty-three when her husband beat her black and blue. He broke her collar bone and shattered her leg. She thrust a knife through his stomach and he died.” “What?” Aghast, she stared at him. He didn’t bat an eyelid at her reaction. “She was in and out of hospitals and then in and out of court rooms. Lucky for her, the lawyer who took her case actually cared enough to get her out. She got away with six months in jail because it was a clear case of self-defense,” he said.

Gabby couldn’t imagine such a horror. She’d seen enough in her short life. Some of the prostitutes were slapped around. She was often enough at the receiving end herself when she worked with Joseph. But she never witnessed something so sinister. “That’s terrible.” “Yeah, well, as I said, she was lucky to have a good lawyer. But you know what happens to someone who has been charged with second degree manslaughter. No one would hire her, and she came to work here, and then met Ronald. It was meant to be, I suppose. Destiny and all,” his voice was deep, gravelly. She put her elbows on the table and rocked back and forth. “You believe in destiny?” “Oh, yes. Big time. You don’t?” Gabby considered her thoughts. Was it fate that took her into Joseph’s clutches? Or was it her stupidity? Or perhaps the sinful attitude of her father who abused her and forced her to run away? “I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Seems like if everything is written in the stars, we don’t really need to make an effort for anything.” “Or if you make an effort, it would come sooner than if you just sat and did nothing,” he countered. Gabby ran a hand through her hair. She should’ve felt embarrassed talking with Nick after what he witnessed but somehow he didn’t even give her a hint that he was thinking about last night. No man made her feel as comfortable in her own skin than he did, but at the same time when she talked to him, Gabby was acutely aware of his close presence. The way he smiled, and the manner in which his muscles bugled under the black, plain t-shirts that he appeared to favor, and the quiet, contemplative look in his eyes sent tingles up his spine. It wasn’t just his looks that impressed her, it was also the way he made her feel. With him, she felt as if she was smart, beautiful, and articulate. He made her believe that she was special, that she deserved respect, that she was worthy of someone’s attention. No one ever made her feel this way before. Plus, he was so fucking hot with a capital H. But she wasn’t going to spoil this burgeoning friendship with idiotic thoughts. So what if she was attracted to him? She wasn’t going to act on that. “That’s a theory,” she said. “Whatever!” Nick grabbed his bag pack and zipped it open. He pulled out a folder and handed it over. “I got these from the NGO I was talking about. You will have to go there and register and get their books, but this

will give you a fair amount of idea regarding the costs you will have to bear and the books and support the NGO can provide. Twice a year, you will be required to appear for some tests. They will guide you.” Overwhelmed, she stared at the folder. He actually went to the trouble of getting it for her? No one ever did something so unselfish for her before. “Thank you.” She cleared her throat. “I will visit them tomorrow.” “If you need help with coursework, I could sit with you. And I think some of the other guys might also pitch in. Sure, they look as if they never saw the inside of a high school, but many of them have degrees under their belt,” he added. “That would be awesome.” She fingers the folder, not sure if she could adequately express all that simmered in her heart. “Nick...” “You don’t need to say anything, Gabby. It would please me if you succeeded and did this. Everyone should get a chance to make something of themselves. This is your opportunity and you need to grab it.” “I will,” she said in a fervent tone. “I will.” “Good. I look forward to seeing the day when you graduate.” His smile took her breath away. He meant every word. She could see the sincerity in his eyes. “You’re a great guy, Nick.” “Yeah, I am.” He laughed. “And don’t you forget it.” His laughter was infectious. Having never experienced a friendship that existed on the basis of mutual respect and trust, she didn’t know if she could accept it. But he didn’t want anything from her, not at least for the help he was giving her. He was attracted to her, no doubt about that. But then, he could just as easily ask her to sleep with him, and she would oblige as she would to all the other guys. He didn’t need to do this. But the fact that he did so made her heart flutter with hope. Gabby had never known that a man could be interested in her in any other way than just for her body. Nick Parker was just another man, someone she thought she would have to cross off her list at some point or another, but he was giving her a tantalizing glimpse of something that was so much better than the life she experienced on a daily basis. Sure, he was no saint. But he was pretty damn remarkable.

“I guess I will see you around,” she said. He didn’t make a move to leave. The clubhouse was empty expect for the two of them. Around this time, people usually thronged the place but last night’s party probably drained the lot of them. They would be back, looking for a good time or just a normal chitchat tomorrow, but for now this place was hers and his. Gabby wondered if she should make a move and ask him to join her upstairs. Maybe he was waiting for her to show interest. Or perhaps she should leave things as they were. She didn’t need complications in her life, and Nick Parker certainly constituted as one. “Would you like to go to the harbor with me tomorrow?” “Huh?” He raised an eyebrow. “It’s not such a difficult question. We could stroll around. I don’t think you have seen it at night. It’s pretty amazing. We get these ships that stay out in the ocean but at night you can see their lights all the way in. And there are some good restaurants over there. We could grab a bite to eat.” He wanted to take her out for a walk and dinner? Gabby couldn’t believe it. Was he actually asking her out on a date? A date? She didn’t recall a single instant when someone asked her out on a garden-variety, ordinary date. “Dinner?” “You got to eat. So do I. We could do it together.” His tone was causal, easy, but he was serious. What the hell was one supposed to say when she was asked out? She’d skipped all this. Gabby never got a chance to be a normal teenager, to be just a girl who waited for a boy who would take her to someplace fancy just so that he could make her feel special. Her lungs felt air-deprived. She’d forgotten how to breathe. She needed to say no. Of course, she did. This was crazy, stupid. “Sure.” The word came out of her mouth without her realizing that she meant to say it.

His eyes lit and a smile broke over his lips. “Great. About six in the evening should be ok. I will pick you up.” “On the bike?” “Of course.” He smiled. “Don’t worry. You’ll be safe. See you.” He walked off. She stared at his retreating back, not sure if she imagined the entire encounter. Did he just ask her out? It was fucking unbelievable. And she didn’t know how she was going to pass the time until then.

CHAPTER SIX Gabby picked out her black skirt that she wore for her interviews. It was decent enough for a date, wasn’t it? Sure, it was. She wore it, saw herself in the mirror, and then took it off. Damn it! She didn’t know how the hell to behave when she was asked to go out for something so ordinary. Someone knocked on her door. She opened it a tiny bit and took a quick peek. If it was one of the young girls, she didn’t want to talk to them. Gabby had hugged the secret of her impending date with Nick like a beautiful secret that she guarded with all her heart. She didn’t want anyone to know. They might snigger at her and laugh at her excitement. She ushered in Willow. “Hi, come in.” The older woman was becoming something like a mentor to Gabby. She was about ten years older and way kinder than any other woman that she ever knew. “What’s going on? I heard you are taking off for half a day. Mala was grumbling as she got stuck with kitchen duty.” She wrung her hands. “Yeah, I am sorry. I should’ve planned better. But I...” “Relax! You have hardly taken off since you came. And these girls are disappearing for days on end. It wouldn’t hurt her to take on the responsibility.” Willow sat on the bed. “Why are all your clothes out of the cupboard?” “I can’t decide what to wear,” she whined. Walking over to her black skirt, she picked it and held it up. “What do you think? Is this ok for” Surely Willow wouldn’t make fun of her. And true to her assessment, Willow’s only reaction was a slight tilt of her eyebrow. “Who is the lucky guy? Price?” Gabby moistened her lips with her tongue. She wasn’t sure if she was ready to share this with anyone, even someone as awesome as Willow. “It’s...” “If you don’t want to tell me, it’s fine.” “No!” She sat on the bed next to Willow. “It’s Nick.” Willow’s mouth gaped open. “Nick Parker is taking you out for a date? He said that specifically...a date?” She felt conscious. Had she assumed that it was a date? Maybe he meant to take her with a large group, or perhaps just as friend. “Not really. He just said we could take a stroll along the harbor and have dinner.”

“That’s a date.” Willow pumped her hand in the air. “I knew that boy could move when he set his mind on it.” Gabby was glad that she was sitting down. Her legs were suddenly too weak. “He said...something to you about me?” “No, he didn’t.” Willow snorted. “It’s easier to pry teeth out of a cougar than to get information from that boy. But I’ve got eyes, don’t I? I can see what’s happening.” Her heart might falter and stop from the excitement and curiosity that Willow was generating. “What’s happening?” “You’ve got a thing for him, and he has got a thing for you. It’s simple enough to see and understand.” Was it? It made no sense to Gabby. Did girls talk like this? Did they discuss their boyfriends and lovers in such an intimate manner with another person? Were you supposed to analyze each move of the guy who asked you out? Gabby could be in a room full of men and not feel the slightest bit of shyness or doubt. She knew how to work men. But this...this was unchartered territory. What the hell was she supposed to do when a man liked her...just for herself? Frazzled, she ran a hand through her hair. “I don’t think I can do this.” “What are you talking about?” “It’s…a date. I mean…what am I supposed to do with him?” She glanced at Willow. Much to her own shock, tears popped into her eyes. What was wrong with her? A twelve year old could handle this situation better than her. But then most young girls didn’t have to worry about anything other than school, friends, and clothes, whereas she never had the opportunity to deal with such simple matters. As if understanding her dilemma, Willow put an arm around her waist and hugged her. “Listen, honey, all you have to do is be yourself.” That was such a foreign concept. A hooker was whoever the client wanted her to be. She didn’t know who she was and what she wanted. “How?” Willow put her hand under Gabby’s chin and forced her to look into her eyes. “Listen, girl. You’re a sweet, independent, and strong woman. Don’t worry about pleasing Nick. Concentrate on having a good time.” “But what if he doesn’t like who I am?” “Then that would be his loss. But I know that boy, and he is not an idiot. And trust me, he has never asked another girl out.”

“What do you mean?” “Well, sure he has gone out on dates, but ever since this one serious relationship that happened much before he entered the club, he has never even looked at any of the girls who have worked here. Oh, sure, he might have taken them upstairs to spend a night or two, but that was as far as he went.” Gabby sucked in a deep breath of air. “Yeah, he told me about that girl who died.” Willow’s expression was incredulous. “He told you? He never tells anyone. So that is further proof of the fact that he really likes you.” “But he hasn’t even slept with me. How does he know if I am good or not?” Willow ran her hand over Gabby’s hair as if she couldn’t bear the pain of what she heard. “Gabby, he is not taking you out because he wants to sleep with you. That, he could have done here. He wants to spend time with you and get to know you better.” She gulped. What did people do when they spent time together just for the heck of it? What the hell was she supposed to talk about? She didn’t know much. But there was no point telling this to Willow. “What should I wear?” “Now that I can help you with!” Willow grinned. She stood and walked over to the pile of clothes that were heaped on the chair. “Let me take a look. This skirt should only be worn when someone is dead.” She hung back the black skirt. Picking up Gabby’s ripped jeans, she inspected them. “These have potential. And if you team them up with that navy blue top, that would look quite good on you.” Gabby was willing to put herself in Willow’s expert hands. “Are you sure?” “Yes, honey I am.” Willow handed the clothes over. “Now go on, wear these. Show me what you got.” Once Gabby wore the clothes and strode out into the room, Willow inspected her. She whistled. “Looking good! Let me do your makeup. It’s got to be subtle, not too over the top.” As she played around with Gabby’s hair and face, Willow made small talk. Unable to pay attention to all that the other woman said, Gabby nodded or merely grunted. “I don’t have a daughter so never got a chance to do this. There you’re done.” She held up the mirror. Gabby gasped. She looked different, softer, and mellower. “Thanks.” “Now go on, have fun.” Gabby hugged Willow. “You’re so kind.” She went downstairs. Nick was already at the bar, waiting for her. Seeing her, his eyebrows rose up a little bit. “You look beautiful,” he announced. She fiddled with her hair, feeling self-conscious. “Thank you.”

They walked out and she sat behind him on the motorcycle. Although she had never ridden bike before, Gabby didn’t feel scared as she held Nick and leaned against him. It felt like the most wonderful and natural thing to do. The swift wind, the speed, and the ease with which he swept through traffic impressed her. Gabby discovered that she loved riding. When they parked the bike, she handed him the helmet which he strapped to the bike. “How was your first ride?” “How did you know it was the first time I rode a bike?” He laughed in that winsome way which never failed to make her heart accelerate. “I could tell by the way you gripped me. You were a little scared” She blushed. It wasn’t because she was scared. She enjoyed pressing her body against his hard, muscled back. The thrill of it was enough to make her pussy wet. As he held her hand and led her towards the harbor, Gabby fought the desire that spiraled inside her. Damn it! Couldn’t she control her hormones? But it seemed that his mere presence was enough to arouse her, and she found it difficult to keep a sane thought in her head when he stared at her with that penetrating gaze. Talk about being horny! Rather than answer him, she flipped her hair and gazed at the view that met her eyes. Even though it was daylight yet, she could see the ships out in the ocean. People milled about on the docks, and sat on chairs outside restaurants, or walked about. A light breeze blew. It was a beautiful day. And she was determined to soak in all the fun that came her way. Tomorrow would take care of itself. “Do you want to eat now or a while later?” She could spend her life with this man; the thought came unbidden. Gabby pushed it out. “We could walk around a bit.” “Sure.” He shrugged. “Let me show you my favorite gallery.” “Gallery?” He led her straight towards the shops. “They showcase some of my favorite local artists.” “Ah!” Gabby didn’t know what he was talking about, but she enjoyed listening to him. His voice, low and soft, was soothing, and his hand on hers was firm. When they entered the gallery, Gabby was

mesmerized by the sheer beauty she saw on canvas. Some of the art work really took her breath away. She was enraptured by color and texture, by the play of eccentric patterns, and hauntingly realistic landscapes. “That’s just gorgeous.” She stood in front of a painting that showed a woman who stood on the edge of a cliff. The sheer vibrancy of the ocean, the kaleidoscope of colors on the sky, and the timid beauty of the woman was enough to make her feel that she could stand forever and gaze at the scene. Who was that woman? Why did she stand there? Did she mean to fall down? And if yes, why? “Like it?” A new voice startled her. The tall man who stood next to her wore outlandishly red trousers and a bright green shirt. “Yes, it’s beautiful. I wonder what the artist was thinking when he created it. Could it be something he saw?” “Maybe he dreamed it and wanted to capture it for all eternity.” Gabby narrowed her eyes. “Do you know the artist?” He grinned and nodded. His floppy brown hair fell forward on his forehead. “I painted it.” “You’re the artist?” She was at a loss for words. How could this man who didn’t seem to have any ideas about colors (judging by his clothes) paint such a gorgeous scene? “Do you have any doubt?” She slanted her head and took a good look at him. He might have been simple in his choice of clothes, but there was infinite wisdom in his eyes. “No. You’re a genius.” “Ah! A woman who knows my true worth! You are a real gem. May I take you out for dinner?” “She is with me,” said Nick who was watching them both with amusement in his eyes. He didn’t look pissed to see that guy hit on her. “And dude, I don’t share.” “Oh sorry! My bad! Maybe another time.” He grinned, not looking perturbed by Nick’s looming presence. “But I must admit that you’ve got discerning taste. Do you paint?” She couldn’t help the giggle that slipped through her lips. “I’ve never held a brush in my life” “In that case, you are a true connoisseur. And I salute you.” He executed a perfect salute and walked off.

“Who is he?” “The resident artist and owner of this gallery, Miles Ruben,” said Nick. “His work sells for thousands of dollars in exhibitions and other galleries. He only keeps a few pieces for his own gallery.” “His work is amazing.” She couldn’t get the picture out of her head. Gabby walked along Nick as he told her about the local shops and even introduced her to a few people he knew. Whereas most of clients who took her out never bothered to make her meet any of their friends, in fact, they did their best to keep her separate from that life, Nick didn’t seem to mind that he met others with her. He truly didn’t care about her past or even what she did now. Maybe she’d finally found a man who could accept her for who she was and didn’t much care about anything else. If yes, she would be foolish to let him go. But then, she wasn’t sure what his intentions were regarding her. Did he bring her out because he felt sorry for her? Or because he was genuinely interested in her as a woman? Or did he merely think of her as a friend? It was confusing to ponder over so many things at the same time. But the most important out of all of them was whether she was falling fast for a man who was still quite a mystery.

CHAPTER SEVEN It was one of the best days of his life. As the sunlight began to wane, Nick took her to his favorite restaurant. Being with Gabby was intoxicating. She was an interesting mix of contrasts; wild and timid, caring and reticent, smart and naïve. As he held the door open for her, Nick sucked in a deep breath of air as she walked by. His head spun as the heady fragrance that always enveloped her hit his nostrils. The scent of her ignited his passion. Ever since he met her, he was unable to concentrate on other things. Her effect on him was devastating. All he could think about was her. All he saw was the sight of her luscious, curry, sexy body, and all he could smell was her delicious scent. He was truly besotted – and that bothered him. Not because who or what she was, but because he wasn’t sure if he was ready to fall so fast and so deep. He’d loved once and that ended with a death. If he lost someone else that he cared about, he didn’t know if he would be able to survive. When they were seated, the waiter handed over the menus. “What would you like to eat?” He ordered a while later and the waiter whisked the menus away. Nick sat and stared her. She was so innocent, so beautiful, and so calm. Her large, blue eyes beckoned him. “What do you think of this town?” “It’s a nice place. Not so big that you could get lost in it, but not so small that you know everybody. From what little I have seen, it’s a nice place to grow old.” “That’s probably the best compliment this town has ever received. I grew up here.” “Oh!” She blinked her gleaming eyes. “Didn’t you ever feel the desire to move away, to experience a new life?” He was quite content to sit and stare at her. Get a grip, man! She is just a girl! But she wasn’t just a girl, and he knew it damn well. Gabby was more fascinating than any other woman he ever met. “I did. When I was eighteen, I went away to college in San Francisco. Loved the city! That’s where I learnt to ride a bike. There was a biker’s club there. They were innocent, friendly people. All they did was meet every Sunday and ride around town. I was with them for three years, but then I quit and moved to New York. That’s where I made the big bucks.” “But in the end you came home?” “Home is where the heart is. And I grew up in these alleys and streets. This is my place.”

“I’ve never felt at home anywhere,” she admitted ruefully. “When I was young, Joseph moved us around a lot. Me and the other girls who were with him, we never stayed in one place for long.” He knew about her story. The club demanded to know the history of the person whom they gave sanctuary to, and Gabby was no exception. But her tale was so heart-wrenching that he felt rage on her behalf. How could someone kidnap a child and then force her into slavery? Nick couldn’t help the emotions that welled through his heart. He covered her hand in his. “You should file a case against that bastard for child abuse. He shouldn’t get away it.” Gabby stared down at their linked hands. “You’re right, maybe. Yes. But I am just so happy to get away from him that the mere thought of facing him again gives me the chill. I would be happy if I never saw him again.” “If you ever decide to nail that bastard, don’t forget to ask my help. We can trap him. There are a few lawyers who are indebted to me. I made millions for them back when I was working on the stock market. They wouldn’t hesitate to put him behind bars.” She shook her head. “And I would have to sit in court day in and day out and listen to everything that I have left behind… No, I don’t think I can do it.” He could understand her reasons. But still the fact that the bastard was out free and doing the same to other girls pricked at Nick’s conscious. He couldn’t allow him to target young girls. Something needed to be done – but Gabby had to be ready for it. Without her, he wouldn’t be able to do anything. He needed her to feel confident enough to pursue this further. But for now, Nick decided to table this conversation. This was their first date, and he didn’t anything to mar it. The waiter brought their appetizers. As he watched her eat, Nick was struck by her simplicity and candor. She was truly a delight as opposed to the women he usually hung out with. “So what is your favorite color?” Her spoon halted in mid-air. “You want to know my favorite color?” “Sure. It’s as good a topic as any.” She cocked her head. “Green.” “Why?” “Because it’s the color of grass and it just seems so fresh and natural.” “Mine is purple,” he said. “And there is no damn reason for it.”

She laughed. The sound of her musical laughter took his breath away. He had never seen her express her joy so openly before. In the club, she was always a bit reticent, a little closed off, as if she wanted to protect a part of her and keep it safe. But right now, in this moment, he felt as if he could see the real Gabby. This is what she would’ve been if she wasn’t sucked into the ugly world from which there was hardly any escape. She was very brave to take the steps that got her out of the clutches of her pimp. Most women didn’t even attempt to break out, and sure, most of whom that took the leap ended up dead. But Gabby was safe, and she was here. And he was determined to protect her. “Is something wrong?” “No!” He smiled. “What movies do you like?” “The usual...fairytales, romances, comedies. And I am sure you dig action flicks.” “Blood, gore, high speed chases,” he said. “You’re right. But I can sit through a few comedies if push comes to shove. But fairytales...” He shook his head. “That’s just not my cup of tea.” “It’s hard to believe in fairytales when you know that reality is far different.” Her voice was soft. He could barely hear her. “As we both well know.” He reached forward to take her hand in his. The brief contact was enough to send a lance of desire straight through his heart. Damn it! He was gone for good. He wanted her, and although it was physical, it was also emotional. Lust coiled in his gut every time he glanced at her, but there was something else that stirred whenever he gazed into her innocent eyes. It was fuzzy warmth that simmered under his skin. “I am sorry that you had to go through so much shit in life. But it’s time to put it back and start all over again.” She gazed down at their entwined fingers. Surely, she could feel the fizz and burn of the desire that leapt and coursed his veins? Her eyes were wary as she lifted her lids to meet his gaze. “What are you doing, Nick? Why are you making this effort? If you want, we could just tumble into bed and it will be all over.” He smiled, squeezed her hand, and let go. The confusion in her voice was all too evident. In time, he would tell her all that he felt, but this wasn’t that moment. “I could, yes. But what if I don’t want it to be all over? What if I want more than just a tumble in bed?” “I don’t have anything else to offer.” He allowed the waiter to whisk his empty bowl away. She was scared, sure. As was he. It wouldn’t hurt to take it slow, but if he went any slower, he would probably die from regret and frustration. “If

you dig deep down in your heart, Gabby, you will find that you have so much more to offer a man than quick, lusty sex.” “You’re wrong.” Smiling, he said nothing. Did she have so little confidence in herself? He would love to peel back the layers of her personality and show her all that she got. She wasn’t just a pretty face and a sexy body; she was so much more than that. And he wanted to prove that to her. The waiter brought their main course. While he’d ordered grilled chicken, she got pasta. They shared a little with each other and ate. It was a long time since he brought a woman to a restaurant. Much to his surprise, he had a much better time than expected. Gabby might not have traveled or gone to a formal school, but she was knowledgeable because she read a lot and watched documentaries on TV whenever she got the chance. “What kind of books do you like to read?” “Biographies,” she said. “And old history books.” He was surprised. Most women read romance novels or mysteries and thrillers, but she had different tastes. “Why?” “They teach a lot, and I like to learn. Couldn’t go to school, so I guess that was one way to make up for the lack of formal education. Libraries were my favorite places. Every time we shifted to a new town, I would find out the location of the library and somehow get there. Joseph didn’t like it. Even got a berating for it a few times, but I persisted. Finally, he allowed me to go seeing that I wasn’t going to stop anyway.” In such a short time, she explained so much. He didn’t think she realized that she’d revealed so many details of her life. Her pimp beat her? If he ever got his hands around that man’s neck, Nick would squeeze until his tongue bulged out. How could he treat her in such an inhumane manner? Nick believed that he had seen every dirty angle that this world had to offer, but what she went through was new to him. Once they finished dinner, he paid the bill. As they strolled out, Nick couldn’t believe how quickly time flew. They walked back to his motorcycle. She was so bubbly and chirpy that Nick felt the need to take it slow. He didn’t want to take her back to the same place where she would be reminded of her life. His heart longed to take her to a place where she would be safe from what she faced every day. But he had to be sure why he felt this way. Was this love? The mere thought of that sent fear skidding over his skin. Shit! He was scared to fall so fast for someone he barely knew. But it was happening at such rapid speed that he couldn’t make sense of it.

It was dark outside. Night descended while they sat in the restaurant. The lights of the ships could be seen twinkling even from this distance. As Gabby paused at the edge of the harbor to take a closer look, Nick tried to figure out why he was liked her so much. She was easy-going and yet so complicated, beautiful and so unabashedly unaware of her own sex appeal, a curious mixture of wise woman and a joyful child who took delight in little things. She was a dichotomy. She was a puzzle. And he wanted to solve her. On one hand, he didn’t want this night to end. And on the other hand, he wanted to take her back to the clubhouse and make wild love to her. She probably wasn’t averse to the idea. Their sexual chemistry was way off the charts. Each time he touched her, something happened in the pit of his stomach. But was this the right time? He wanted her to be confident and to feel secure with him. Nick decided that he wouldn’t make the first move even if it killed him. Unless she wanted so, he wouldn’t touch her. Because once he did so, he wouldn’t be able to stop. So the ball was in her court. But the real question was; did she know that?

CHAPTER EIGHT Something shifted and changed between them. It was so subtle, the feeling so delicate, that Gabby wasn’t sure if she actually felt it or if it was her imagination. While her date was fantastic, she was acutely aware that every brief contact with Nick sent her in a tizzy. He was the ultimate man – and she was wildly, crazily, madly in lust with him. It was nothing more than plain old lust. How could it be something else? Once she got him out of her system, things would cool down between them. She’d spent too long on the bed, on her back, not to recognize the classic symptoms of sexual frustration. Maybe it was best to get it over with, and then hopefully she would be able to rid herself of these silly romantic notions that plagued her. She was going to have incredible sex with Nick – and once they were done, they could both share a smoke and be normal with each other. When his motorcycle came to a stop outside the clubhouse, she got out, took off her helmet, and handed it to him. “Thank you for a lovely meal!” Now that she decided on her next course of action, Gabby was feeling supremely confident again. After all, she made a living out of seducing men. This was her job, and she was damn good at it. He took off his helmet and hung it on the bar. “You’re welcome.” She ran a hand through her hair and watched as his pupils dilated. Good! It was working. Gabby put a hand on his arm. He tensed, but didn’t say anything. Leaning forward, she claimed his lips. The touch was brief, soft, but the sensations that careened through her veins were unpredictably tumultuous. Need and heat mingled in equal quantities and stormed through her senses. She sucked in a deep breath of air and inhaled the scent of him; spicy and strong. It hit her nostrils and doubled the desire that simmered in her belly. Her tongue licked his lips, and he granted her access. She explored the crevices of his mouth, enjoying the feel of his mouth against hers. His breath was hot. She gripped his shoulders as she clung to him as a drowning man does to anything that can keep him afloat. It felt fucking wonderful. When she raised her head, Gabby stared into his piercing eyes. The time for inaction was long gone. “Why don’t you come upstairs with me?”

She could see the struggle on his face, but then he got off the bike, and hand in hand, they walked inside. This time of the night, the clubhouse was deserted. Quietly, they went upstairs. She unlocked her room and went inside, pulling him with her hand on his collar. The fire that burned inside her was hot and unrelenting and she needed to sate it. Once again, his lips claimed hers. But this time he was the one who made the move. Their clothes came off. Soon, they were lying in bed, naked and reveling in the glory of each other’s body. While she had longed to feast her eyes on his hard, muscled body, now she didn’t want take the time to simply look. That wasn’t enough. She needed to devour him with her mouth, her hands, and fingers. And he appeared to feel the same way. When his mouth rubbed on her nipple, she arched her back and surrendered herself to the feelings that rose steeply like a volcano that found it was way out of the earth after years of continuous and hard struggle. He sucked at the hard nub, teasing and fondling, caressing and pulling, until every muscle and vein in her body vibrated with red-hot need. She wanted him inside her. Gabby reached between his legs to grab his penis. His long, hard cock filled her fingers and throbbed with a painful intensity. But he moved away. She moaned, feeling bereft. “Patience, my lovely,” he muttered against her mouth. “But...” “Shush! Let me do it my way.” Gabby tried to still the ripples of passion that undulated in each cell of her body but it was impossible to slow the force of the tsunami that hurried through her. His fingers glided over her taut, hard stomach until he touched the curls that guarded the entrance of her velvety center. Moisture leaked out, betraying her arousal. With a gentle motion, his finger slipped inside. Without giving it another thought, Gabby opened her legs, giving him access. She was too far gone to care about what he was doing. All she wanted was release from this torturous pleasure that ate her alive. He stroked his finger in and out of her pussy while his eyes remained fixed on her face. Gabby thrust forward her hips in an unconscious gesture as she sought to find the release that eluded her. Sensations, powerful and strong, spiraled in her veins.

When his finger rubbed her swollen clitoris, she clenched the sheets in her hands and released a scream. He massaged the sweet spot, exerting just enough pressure to make her shiver with delight. Each circular rub of his thumb took her higher and higher until she was a quivering, shivering mass of muscles. Heat, bright as a fire, hot as lava, spun through her nerves. Her breath hitched in her throat. Damn him to hell! What was he doing to her? Before she realized what he planned, he slid down her body without easing the pressure on her nub. His head bent between her thighs and his tongue replaced his fingers. Gabby grabbed his hair and yanked hard. She didn’t want this. No way was she losing control, but Nick didn’t budge. Instead, his tongue swirled between the lips of her pussy and whatever little tendrils of restraint she’d clung to vanished in an instant. He lapped up her juices with fervor. And Gabby felt the ripples of orgasm swamp through her senses. Her muscles trembled and shuddered and she let out a squeal. Nick glided up her body. He lay there with his hand on her stomach. Her breaths heaved out, one after another, as she struggled to bring her racing heart back to a normal speed. What the hell just happened? She was meant to seduce him, not the other way around. But what transpired was more potent than anything she ever experienced before. What did he want from her? From the first time, Gabby was scared not because the man she was with might hurt her physically, but because he might harm her emotionally. Gabby learnt to protect her heart a long time ago, and Nick was pulling down those barriers without a thought to her sanity. If he continued, she would surely go mad. But she was too scared to say anything. The turmoil that ran through her was impossible to put in words. If she said it out loud, it would become all too important. This was just sex, nothing more than that. Gabby sat. As she gazed down at his magnificent body, her mouth watered with desire. His penis, long and glistening, rose up straight. His eyes traced her movements as she slipped down the bed until her face was on level with his cock. Gabby touched his hard balls. Her fingers slid over them,

rubbing and caressing. He parted his legs, giving her permission. She stroked his penis, enjoying the way it vibrated in her hand. When she took position over his pelvic bone, he let out a gasp. Gently, with care, she took the tip of his cock in her mouth. As her tongue danced with his long, hard, blood-engorged penis, she heard him moan. His fingers rested on her shoulders and squeezed as if he was urging her to go faster. Gabby took her time. She wanted to prolong the glory of this moment for as long as she could. Gently, slowly, she nibbled her way down his shaft, taking more and more of it inside her warm mouth. Under her, he writhed as his nerves pumped full of desire. When he was all the way in, she began to move her head up and down, enjoying the way his organ quivered in her throat. Her own arousal was instantaneous. She wanted him again – but before that she wanted him to taste that slice of heaven. “Gabby,” he whispered. His fingers speared through her hair, pulled a little. The pain was exquisitely sweet. She let go. Her passion was as ignited as his. In one sharp flow, he managed to move her under him. His hands settled on her hips and ran down the smooth flesh of her thighs. He pulled up her legs and exposed her velvety pussy. Gabby squirmed, but he took position, his cock inches away from her center. With one hard thrust, he stroked deep inside her. Her muscles clenched around his organ, greedily, eagerly, and she let out a moan. Sliding forward over her body, he held the headrest of the bed with both hands. And then he picked up pace. The momentum increased in intensity until she was caught into the throes of the wave that swelled in her nerves. She matched him stroke for stroke. They were joined as intimately as a woman and man could be. Her body ached with the need to possess him. Each bold stroke fired the need inside her until it was a fountain of red-hot lava that burned and sizzled in her veins. Her orgasm spiraled within her, careening through with the speed of lightning. She squealed and he came inside her, his semen spilling with a quick spurt. They both lay still, exhausted. Sex was never more potent before. It was the first time in her life that she actually thought of it as making love. He’d cherished her body, revered it, and not merely used it as a means to an end. She could tell the difference in the way his hands touched her. Tears spilled in her eyes and despite her best effort, a few of them ran down her cheeks. “What’s wrong?” With a gentle flick of his fingers, he wiped them. “Did I hurt you?” She couldn’t take the loving concern that echoed in his words. “No, of course not.” She sat and wore her t-shirt. After tugging it down, she stood. “Nick, I am way in over my head.” He settled in her bed, his arms behind his head. “Gabby, you and me both.”

“But you don’t understand...” With one hard yank, he drew her down and she lay sprawled over him, her pelvic bone brushing against his penis that still throbbed with spent passion. “What don’t I understand? Tell me.” “I can’t.” She couldn’t quite meet his eyes. “I just can’t say the words.” He put a hand under her chin and forced her to meet his gaze. “Try me.” “This is easy for you, but for me, it’s hard. I’ve never...been with a man who actually wanted to spend time with me outside the bedroom. And it’s scary and hard.” “Love is scary and hard.” Her gaze must have shown the horror she felt. “Don’t look like that. It’s not a death sentence.” “Love?” she muttered the word as if it was an alien concept. “You don’t mean that.” “Don’t I?” “Nick, let’s not go there,” she pleaded. He ran a hand down her hair, his gaze intent on hers. There was understanding in his eyes, and something more. It was an emotion she didn’t recognize. In her life, Gabby never saw it before. Did he actually feel something more than plain, old lust? And if yes, what the hell was she supposed to do with that? She never thought about having a relationship with anyone before. No one ever encouraged her or showed any interest. Lyle was the only who cared, but he made it abundantly clear that he only wanted her sexually. And yet, the kindness with which he treated her often brought tears to her eyes. Nick was talking about something more than that. Love? Such a strange word, and so powerful! Was she ready for something like that? Did he mean it? Maybe was joking with her. She opened her mouth, ready to ask him that. Was he toying with her emotions? But then his fingers caressed down her cheek, and she closed her mouth again. He didn’t need to say anything. His eyes spoke volumes. The silly man was serious. A shudder ran through her spine. He rubbed her back. “We have to deal with our feelings, Gabby. And

I will be honest...what I feel for you scares the hell out of me.” She let out a laugh. At least, he was honest. If he could bare his soul, so could she. “Same here.” “But I want to explore this further, see where it takes us. You and me, we could have a bright future together. And if not that, then at least a beautiful friendship. But it depends on you. Do you want to see how far we can go together?” he said in a voice that sounded so reasonable, so wise. He offered her the world – but she was scared to accept it. She considered his words, pondered over the implications and potential consequences. At worst, she risked hurting herself. If she began to spun castles around him and he up and left, she would be devastated. Gabby didn’t harbor desires to settle down with a man and have a kid. Such innocent dreams were for those who weren’t marred by the harsh realities of life. She never saw anything good in her young existence, and that was the reason why her dreams were plain and simple. Get a job. Become independent. Leave the filth of her past behind. And that was the most that she hoped for. But he was showing her a glimpse of another world. And this was alien territory. She didn’t know if she wanted to take the plunge. What if she landed face first on the hard floor? She wouldn’t be able to survive the fall. “I need time to think about it.” “Take all the time you want.” His arms banded around her middle and he pulled her next to him. Her body, smooth and soft, fit perfectly against his hard planes and angles. “I’m not going anywhere.” It was a while later that she realized he meant it. He didn’t intend to move away from her room. His soft snores were like music to her ears, and his heart beat against her, loud and rhythm tic. Listening to it, enjoying the banality of the whole situation, she finally fell asleep. When she woke up, he was still there. Gabby blinked in surprise. This never happened before. She’d never woken up with a man before. For a few minutes, she lay still, not sure if she was imagining it or if it was real. But then he stirred and she sat. He was right there. And it was the first time in her life that Gabby could see a man wake as he fought the cobwebs of sleep that clung to his eyes. He stretched, yawned, and then smiled when his gaze found hers. “Never saw a more beautiful sight,” he said. “Good morning!”

“Morning!” She jumped out of bed. Gabby felt filled with energy. “I’ll go down and get us some breakfast.” “Coffee first, black and strong,” he said as he sat. Gabby wore her clothes at a hurried speed, went into the bathroom to brush her teeth, and pull her hair in some kind of an organized mess, and then went downstairs to secure some breakfast. It was early yet. Mala was fiddling with the coffee machine. Even though he didn’t want it, she still toasted some bread, put in butter on a side dish, and fried a couple of eggs. Mala moved way. Gabby poured coffee, set the cups in the tray, and took it upstairs. Somehow she had a feeling that if she didn’t hurry, he would disappear. But much to her delight, he was seated on the chair, reading messages on his phone. “Had to use your toothbrush. Hope you don’t mind.” “No, of course not.” She put the tray down. “I got some toast.” He glanced down and his eyes widened. “That’s a feast. A man could get used to this five star treatment all too easily.” Her heart beat with excitement as she took a seat on the bed. The room was really too small for two people, and with his close proximity, it felt even tinier. But right now, it was a mansion. Gabby never shared breakfast with a man. This was a day for first; the first time a man made love to her, the first time he mentioned the L word, and the first time she slept with him. And the first time she shared breakfast. Gabby thought her heart would burst with happiness. She could get used to it all too easily. Easy, dear! Caution is your best friend. A voice spoke in her mind. Gabby ignored it. Just for this one moment, she wanted to savor and relish these delights that other women took for granted. What did people converse about when they shared breakfast? Maybe they talked about their relatives or the current news or perhaps they discussed their schedule for the day. “What are you doing today?” He glanced up from the phone and then set it down. Picking up the toast, he bit into it. “We’re transporting some goods. Hopefully all should go well.”

“Oh!” She remembered the last job that went bad. “Will you be behind the driver’s seat?” “No! It is someone else’s turn. And what about you? Are you going over to check out the curriculum today?” She remembered her plans to go to the NGO. “Yes, I think I will. I should start soon. Wonder how long it will take me to finish high school.” “It won’t take long, not if you study hard,” he assured her. “We’re there to help you.” And with ease, they slipped into other topics. One of the men was due to visit a doctor today. They needed to buy a new oven. The clubhouse required a new coat of pain. The banal talk warmed her heart. It was more interesting that anything she ever experienced before. When he stood, she put down her cup of coffee. “I guess I will see you around.” She stood and faced him. Much to her surprise, he yanked her in his arms and slammed his mouth down on her. His tongue brushed over her lips and then slipped inside. He smelt of hot, dark coffee and warm butter. It was the most delicious kiss she ever experienced. Her body plastered against his, willing and plaint. She could do this forever. Gabby wanted to lose herself in this moment and never face reality again. But like all good things, it didn’t last. With an obvious effort, he pulled away. “You’re too tempting.” He brushed his finger down her nose. “I will see you at night.” When he left, Gabby dropped on the bed. Who was she kidding? This was love, bright and strong. She didn’t know if Nick was only toying with the idea or if he felt the same way, but for her, this was the real deal. She loved Nick. And scary and petrifying as that idea was, she felt hope bubble in her heart. For better or worse, she was stuck on Nick.

CHAPTER NINE Nick strode down the stairs. He felt damn good. It was a long time since he woke up with a woman beside him. And it felt fantastic. Sooner or later, he would have to admit the truth to Gabby. He was completely, madly, irrevocably in love with her. But how could you say that to a woman who shuddered whenever he mentioned the word? It would take some time and effort to convince her that he actually cared. She saw too many bad things in her life, and he needed to allow the wounds to heal at their own speed. But he wanted to ease her burden, and he wanted to wipe away that wrinkle of worry that always played on her face. Soon! He promised himself. As he sat on the bike and wore his helmet, Ronald and Matt rode their bikes in the yard. He waited as they came to a stop and parked the bikes. “Good morning,” he said. Ronald’s gaze wandered to the door of the clubhouse and came back to settle on him. “Looks like someone is in a chirpy mood today.” Nick grinned. “Don’t be jealous, man. You’re like this every single day.” “It’s nice what a good woman can do to you.” Ronald flexed his muscles as he came towards him. “Everything set for the afternoon?” “We’ve got the truck,” said Nick. “And I’ve contacted the distributors. They will be at the unloading area on time. But I have got this nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach.” “Why?” said Matt. “Did you eat something you shouldn’t have?” Nick ignored the jibe. “Something might go wrong today.” “That was just a bad day, dude,” said Matt. “Nothing like that would happen again.” Nick considered Matt. Did he actually feel confident that they didn’t have a traitor in their midst or was he just ignoring the threat? What if someone was out to betray them? It was quite a possibility – and one they certainly couldn’t ignore. “I am going to scout out that area before the delivery takes place.” “Be my guest,” said Ronald. “But I am sure Matt is right. That was just plain bad luck.” Nick drove off. He didn’t believe in bad luck. Life offered few coincidences, and each one of them made him suspicious. He wanted to be sure that they weren’t sending more of their men into danger.

After losing two, he felt that it wouldn’t hurt to be a bit more careful than they usually were. First he went home as there was time before the men drove the stolen goods out of the warehouse they rented to stock it. Closer to the appointed hour, he went to the place. Nick drove around carefully through each street that surrounded the warehouse. Before setting the date, he took the time to scout the area so that he was aware of each entry and exit into the warehouse and the best route to take to avoid traffic and trouble. This knowledge came in handy as he could check each alley and street he’d marked in his mind. It didn’t take him long to figure out that something was royally screwed over. He called Ronald from a pub. “Call off the transportation plan.” “Why?” “They are on to us. I found two unmarked police cars in the vicinity.” “They might be doing something.” Nick didn’t usually argue with Ronald who was his mentor into the club, but just this once, irritation crept through his voice. “Call it off unless you want to send two more of them in jail. We will figure out another date to move the stuff.” He broke off and then sped back towards the clubhouse. By the time he reached, the committee members were already pouring in. “Are you sure?” asked Ronald as soon as Nick entered. Nick pulled back a chair and sat. He was simmering with rage. “Of course, I am sure. And if you think I am wrong, you can drive the bloody truck there yourself and see where you land up.” Silence reigned in the room. “What does this mean?” asked James. “It means we have a bloody traitor in our midst. Someone is snitching on us, and we need to find that bastard,” announced Nick. Everyone stared at each other. It was so unprecedented for the members not to have unflinching faith in each other. Although many of them were from different walks of life, they were brothers from heart. Anyone of them would die for the others. Harboring the idea that one was working with police was unthinkable, horrifying. “That’s a very serious accusation, Nick. You don’t have any proof.” “I don’t need proof. At least not now. But when I have that bastard’s neck in my hands, trust me, I will get enough proof to hang him.” “It doesn’t have to be one of us,” said Matt.

Nick dismissed him with a wave of his hand. He and Matt never saw eye to eye on many matters. Their personalities rubbed against each other, and although Nick owed him his loyalty because they were club brothers, he didn’t particularly like the man. “An outsider wouldn’t know about our dealings.” Matt picked up his bottle of beer and took a healthy swig. “It could be one of the others who hang about in the club. Without us knowing about it, they pick up a lot of information.” Nick’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?” “It’s obvious enough, man! It could be the girls.” Mala, Suzy, Willow, and Gabby who were all working in the bar stiffened. Nick saw them lean forward on the counter as they listened to the discussion. True, they girls knew far more than they needed to. Technically, they weren’t members of the club but in reality, they ran the clubhouse and were privy to a lot of information. “Willow is my Old Lady. She wouldn’t do something like that,” Ronald defended her. “Don’t even think about it.” “I wasn’t referring to Willow.” Matt’s gaze met Nick. Sparks flew between the two men. “There is someone who is relatively new. She is practically an outsider.” “Gabby?” Nick said, his teeth clenched so hard that there was a danger his jaw might break. “It’s not her.” “And how do you know that? She has only been here for a month. We’ve never had trouble with the police before. The rest of the girls have lived with us for a considerable more time. If they planned to sell us out, it would’ve happened before.” “It’s not Gabby,” Nick insisted. Although he didn’t even glance in her direction, he was quite aware that she listened to the entire discussion with unwavering attention. “It’s not her.” “She goes out on her own. Hey, Gabby, come here,” Matt beckoned her. She came forward. “Yes?” “Did you go out in the morning today?” “Yes. I went to the NGO to collect stuff.” Matt pointed at her. “See, she went out. It’s possible that she made a call to the police from outside.” “I didn’t do any such thing,” she protested.

Ronald tapped his fingers on the table. “She didn’t know about the delivery, man! How could she snitch about it? Not many people knew the date and time.” “Nick knew.” Matt’s eyes glowed with fervor. “Did she know about the delivery, Nick?” Although he was tempted to lie to protect Gabby, he’d a duty to the club. They came first and he couldn’t, in good conscious, tell a blatant untruth. “She knew we’d a delivery today but she didn’t know the place and time.” Ronald leaned forward. Technically, the men weren’t allowed to divulge any significant information to the woman. “Why the fuck did she know about the delivery?” “Pillow talk, Ronald. Nick spent the night with her,” said Matt with a lascivious grin. Some men stirred. Although most of them chose to stay out of this discussion, all of them appeared interested in this new development. Nick never showed any lasting interest in a woman. “She didn’t know anything important,” Nick said. Matt stood and circled around the table towards Gabby. “She could’ve picked up tidbits from here and there. Men drink...and when they drink, they talk. And she is always at the bar, listening, eavesdropping on private conversations, cozying up to everyone. I bet she is an informant, a plant by the police.” “That’s a fucking lie.” Nick stood. Defending Gabby so vehemently wasn’t part of his plan, but when Matt targeted her, he couldn't just sit idle. “She works at the bar. Of course, she hears stuff, just like other girls do. That doesn’t make her a snitch.” Matt stopped a few feet away from Gabby. Her expression conveyed fear. But she didn’t take a step back. Instead, her gaze bored into Matt’s. “I didn’t do it.” Her voice was loud, firm. “You guys offered me sanctuary. I would never do anything like that.” “Why the fuck should I believe you?” he snarled into her face. “I don’t know you, but I know my men, and they wouldn’t do anything like this.” “Leave her alone.” Nick leapt forward. His hand settled on Matt’s arm and he drew the other man back. When Matt shrugged out of his embrace, Nick placed himself between Gabby and Matt. “She didn’t do anything.” “How the fuck do we know, man? Let me have a few minutes alone with her, and she will confess.” Nick could imagine what would happen if he allowed Matt to take her into a separate room. Although violence was frowned upon in the clubhouse and among the members, the women were often fair game. And since they weren’t officially members of the club, their protection was rudimentary. If a man claimed a woman as his Old Lady, she was sheltered from the worst. But the rest of them were

up for grabs. Gabby wasn’t due any defense because she didn’t have a protector. But he was there! And he would see to it that Matt didn’t bully her. “You’re not taking her anywhere,” he growled. “I thought you wanted to get to the bottom of this mystery?” Matt snarled. “Is she more important than the safety of your brothers?” “She is not a threat. If she was, I wouldn’t protect her.” No one dared say anything as the two men glowered at each other. It was rare for one of them to go against the other. Such a thing was unheard of. Even if there were differences, they were sorted through words and not fists. But for the first time since he joined the club, Nick felt the urge to smash his fist in another’s face. If Matt wasn’t careful, there would be a brawl. And he didn’t mind beating the shit out of the other if he didn’t lay off Gabby. “She is the only one who could’ve done it,” Matt insisted. His hands clenched into fists, and Nick could see the struggle on his face. He was trying to resist throwing in the first punch. Well, bring it on. Nick was ready for anything. “Ronald, back me up here. We need to question her.” Ronald scratched his head in an absent-minded gesture. “Until this matter is sorted out, it might be a good idea for Gabby to go away from the clubhouse.” “She is not going anywhere.” “And why the hell not? She is not a member of our club and as such doesn’t deserve our protection.” “She is my Old Lady, and she isn't going anywhere,” Nick said in a voice that vibrated with rage. He heard Gabby’s gasp loud and clear. Shit! He didn’t intend to lay it down like this. Cut a long story short, he didn’t even know he was considering the idea. But he couldn’t leave her alone to face the wolves, not when she got into this mess because he decided to spend the night with her. And damn it to hell! He bloody wanted her. Not only sexually but emotionally only. She was the only woman who won his heart in a long time. Every other woman paled in comparison. And he wasn’t going to lose her just because Matt was the world’s biggest dickhead. Matt’s eyes narrowed. “She is your...what?”

“You heard me. She is my Old Lady so back the hell off!” Ronald came forward to put a hand on Matt’s shoulder. “Matt, leave her alone. You know the rules. She is under Nick’s protection.” “And if she screws up...” Ronald’s gaze met Nick’s. Fear swirled in their murky depths. “If she screws up, he pays the price. We all know that. But right now, she is innocent until you have some proof.” Matt bristled. He flexed the muscles of his arms but then he strode off to take his place on the table. Picking up his beer bottle, he drained it in one swig. “I will get it.” Ronald turned his attention to Nick. “You’re the one who opened this Pandora’s Box, Nick. And now you have to see it through. Prove that someone is a snitch and find out who it is. Until then we’re not going to commit to any more hauls.” James ran his hand through his hair. “How the hell would we get all that stuff out of the warehouse if the police are sitting there?” “We leave it for now.” “And if that raid it, we lose stuff worth thousands of dollars. That’s more a hundred grad of load sitting in there,” he growled. “The police can’t raid without warrant, and they won’t get it because they have no way to prove beforehand that those are stolen goods stocked in there. Let’s just sit tight, and we will figure out a way later,” said Nick. He didn’t have any intention of letting the stuff sit in that warehouse but he didn’t want to provide the snitch with more information than what was necessary. He would personally remove the goods and move them to a more secure location once the police vigilance stopped. But for now, he wanted to keep that idea to himself. “The meeting is over,” said Ronald. “If anyone of you has any idea as to how the information could be leaking to the police, you can come forward and talk to me in private. But until we figure out this situation, no one puts a toe over the line. We’re going to protect each other.” The men strode off one by one. A few of them stayed in the bar to speculate and gossip. “You come with me,” said Ronald to Nick. “Go on in your room,” Nick told Gabby before he followed Ronald. In his office, Ronald closed the door. “Take a fucking seat.” Ronald was pissed, and this was one of the few times that Nick saw him like this. “You stirred up a hornet’s nest by announcing that girl as your Old Lady.”

“Matt was gunning for her without any reason. It irritated the shit out of me,” said Nick. “But she is innocent. I know it in my gut.” Ronald leaned back to study Nick. “If she is innocent, you are safe enough but if she is not, you’re going to get dumped on your head with a barrel of mud.” “I can handle it.” Nick rolled his shoulder. “It’s my head.” “Fine,” Ronald huffed. “Do you have any ideas who it could be?” Nick rolled his tongue in his mouth. “Not a clue,” he admitted. “But I’ve got plans to smoke the guy out.” “If you get it wrong, there is a good chance I won’t have another option but to throw you out of the club.” Fear licked over his skin like scalding flames. Without the club, he didn’t have an identity. And if he was kicked out, he wouldn’t know what to do. His friends were here, this was his life, and he fucking loved it. “I won’t get it wrong.” Ronald ran his hand over the smooth surface of his desk. “Have you looked closely at Matt? He is only a year old in the club and he has a temper. And there have been a number of times he has picked fights with others. It could be revenge.” Tempted as he was to point towards Matt, he couldn’t afford to be wrong. “He is clean.” “How do you know?” “The only two people who knew that I was going to scout the area before the pickup call were you and him. If he’d stationed the police there, he would have called and told them to move away. It would have been easy for them to drive away and come back later at the time when the truck showed up,” he assessed. Ronald nodded. “So he is on the level?” Damn it! He didn’t want it to be so but Matt was only one of the few people he could afford to eliminate. “Yes.” “What’s the plan of action?” “I will have to think of one.” Nick didn’t have a clue as to how he would find the snitch. It wasn’t going to be easy, especially because the person knew that they were looking in all directions. He would be careful. Any plan they made would have to be smart. “Give me some time.”

“This is important, Nick. Don’t screw it up,” cautioned Ronald. “And if you need my help, let me know.” “Thanks.” Nick walked off. Matt was still sitting downstairs at the bar, talking to Willow in a low voice. He debated walking up to him and clearing the air, but damn it, he was still pissed. And if there was ever a need for talk, it would have to be with Gabby who was clueless about his motives. This was one talk that both thrilled and scared him. By the time he reaching her room, Nick was shitting bricks. Do or die! This was his moment – and he wasn’t sure if would be able to utilize it the way he wanted.

CHAPTER TEN Gabby took deep, steadying breaths as she lay on the bed in her room. Nick’s announcement took her by surprise. No! It bloody shocked the hell out of her. What the hell did he mean when he declared her as his Old Lady? Touched as she was by his attempt to save her from Matt’s accusations, she didn’t appreciate being made a fool of. What would everyone say when they found out later that it was not true? Just because they spent a night together didn’t mean they were committed to each other. He was a great guy, but it wasn’t as if they were officially going out. Going out? Such a strange concept. Old Lady? Even more foreign and scary. When he knocked on the door, her heart thundered in her chest. Without hearing his voice, she knew it was him. Gabby opened the door and allowed him to step inside. Rather than open the conversation, she took a seat on the bed, waiting for him to give some explanation. What the hell were they supposed to tell people tomorrow? It wasn’t fair that he put her in this awkward position. Surrounded by a world that was replete with lies and deceit, the only thing she clung to with active determination was honesty. Gabby didn’t lie – but now, in order to give weight to his statement, she would have to. Nick cleared his throat. His gaze strayed to the lone chair but then he remained standing. “I realize I shouldn’t have said anything to anyone being my Old Lady.” “You meant to protect me.” Relief flooded over his face. He didn’t mean it, she could see that. Just as well! The idea of a long-term commitment was as scary to Gabby as was the fear of being caught by Joseph again. She wasn’t ready for such a big step. And of course, he didn’t mean it so there was no point worrying about it. “Matt made me angry,” he said and took the seat. She shrugged. “I am the newcomer. There is trouble in the clubhouse and naturally the one who falls under suspicion is the newest person on the block. But I didn’t do it. You guys gave me sanctuary when I needed it the most. How can I ever thank you all? Never in my life would I ever betray you

and everyone else.” His tongue darted out to moisten his bottom lip. “I never thought you did it.” It was extremely gratifying to know that he believed in her so intently. No other man would have taken such a firm stand. She should be grateful – and she was. “Thank you. It means a lot to me.” She didn’t shift or move. Now what? “We’re going to investigate this matter further, but until I get to know the identity of the real culprit, it might be better for you to stay out of Matt’s way.” That would be difficult given that she lived here and Matt spent more than half his day in the clubhouse. “It might be a good idea for you to move in with me. In any case, we should do it. Old Ladies don’t stay at the clubhouse.” She blinked her eyes, fighting the confusion that overwhelmed her. “So you want me to keep telling people that what you said was true?” Now it was his turn to look bewildered. “What do you mean?” Gabby ran her hand on the bed sheet. “Do you want to pretend that I am your Old Lady until you find the real culprit?” His gaze settled on her. A strange expression flitted over his eyes. Moving over, he sat beside her. “Gabby, I meant it. I want you to be my Old Lady. I should’ve asked you first, of course. And I would have...if that fiasco didn’t happen.” She couldn’t understand what he was saying. Surely this was a joke? But the sincerity in his eyes was real. What did she feel about this? He was asking her to be his Old Lady. Did she want it? If he’d hit her with a bat, she wouldn’t have been more shocked. “But...” “I’m making a mess of this. Let’s just do it right this time.” He held her hand in his. “Gabby, will please do me the honor of becoming my Old Lady?” Her lips trembled. An Old Lady was as good as a wife. Sure, maybe she didn’t have the legal status but as far as the clubhouse and the bikers’ world was concerned, she got the same rights. And he wanted her to be his forever. The idea terrified her. And yet, she wanted it with a desperation that was hard to deny. Nick was an amazing guy. Gabby saw too much shit in her life not to recognize a diamond when she came across it. And he was truly caring. Maybe...if she allowed herself, she would actually fall in love with him. But the idea scared the hell out of her.

And Goddamn it, she liked him much more than she cared to admit. Their sexual chemistry was outstanding and she enjoyed his company. What more did a woman want? But a voice in her heart told her to tread with care. What if he changed his mind in a few days? What if he decided that he didn’t want to pick a fight with a fellow biker over her? If he did any of those things, it would break her heart forever – and she might not be able to survive the crash back to reality. The thought of failure made her afraid to try. “Say something,” he urged. “I know this is difficult for you, but I am hundred percent committed, Gabby. I love you.” Love? Gabby thought she might faint. “But we’ve just met weeks ago.” “The heart knows what it wants better than the mind.” His grin was infectious. “And I want you with all my heart and soul. With me, you will be safe. And I will cherish each day that we spend together. Sure, we will have to face ups and down as all couples do, but other than that, it’s going to be pretty damn good.” She sucked in a deep breath of air to fortify her mind that was a nest of swirling, twirling emotions. Did she want him? Did she want the commitment? Even though she longed to avoid the pain of such a decision, Gabby wanted to belong. And who better than Nick? He was the perfect man, her man. Her eyes filled with tears. “Yes.” “Yes?” She threw her arms around his neck. “Yes, yes, yes. I’ll be your Old Lady.” Delight spread over his face and his lips swooped down on her. The kiss was hot and demanding, passionate and wild. While he was tender and gentle the night before, she could sense his desire to plunder and possess. Tangles and coils of liquid hot desire whipped and lashed in her belly as she devoured his mouth.

Passion and need stirred inside her like a tornado. When he tugged off her shirt, she didn’t resist. Instead, her fingers pulled his shirt out of his jeans so that she spread her fingers over his smooth, warm skin. His muscles bunched under the tips of her finger. With a quick swipe, he unhooked her bra and glided it off her shoulder. Her firm, twin globes escaped the tight confines and filled his willing hands. Pushing her on the bed, he tugged off her pants. Naked, she spread before him. Nick stood and took off his clothes. She watched as he dropped his clothes on the chair. It was easy to see the powerful stance of his shoulders as he flexed his arms. The play of muscles on his chest was riveting. His narrow wrist sat atop long, lean legs and when her gaze took in the sight of his cock that jutted out with pride from the tangle of curls, she felt a red-hot haze envelop her brain. He stalked towards the bed, and she resisted the urge to run. She wanted him. And yet, she knew that this would the most defining moment of their relationship. They had entered a new phase – and she was scared as hell. But the warm caress of his gaze assured her. When he leaned over her, his cock sliding over her taut belly, she felt the urge to arch her back and take him deep inside her. But it was obvious that he wanted to take his time. His demanding fingers encircled her breasts and squeezed gently. Her nipples, hard and ruby-red, stiffened and she smelt the musky scent of her arousal. His heavy lashes came down to cover his eyes as he bent his head and took a hard nipple in his mouth. His tongue swirled over the sensitive bud. The gently sucking motion made her blood boil. Moisture leaked down the swollen lips of her pussy and she rubbed her thighs against the hard muscles of his legs to alleviate the lure of desire that tugged in her belly. Her fingers speared through his hair and tugged. He lifted his head a little, his eyes watching her with measured intensity. The look in his eyes was wicked, naughty. Not only did he know the effect he had on her but he enjoyed it shamelessly. Overwhelmed with sensations, inundated by passion, she couldn’t resist what he offered. Arching her back, she rubbed her pussy on his cock. “Hurry, hurry,” she pleaded. But he laughed. His head bent to capture her other nipple and he suckled at her breast. Making love to

a man was so different than just plain, old sex. Her heart was involved while her mind shut off. Gabby couldn’t think, couldn’t decide what she wanted to do. He held her at his mercy, a willing victim – and she allowed him to do unspeakable things as he looted and plundered her body. His lips traced a line down her belly until they centered on her belly button. His tongue dipped inside the round curve and she moaned as tingles of desire coursed through her veins and nerves. Rather than move down, he concentrated on the smooth, creamy skin of her stomach, nibbling his way to her hips. When his mouth reached her pussy, his hands settled on her hips and he pushed back her legs, exposing her naked sex for close observation. His tongue dove inside, smearing her wet juices around her clit, sucking and lapping them as if they were the sweetest he ever had. Her head thrashed from side to side as she moaned under the assault. She wanted to grab him, turn him over, and mount him. She needed to feel his hot throbbing organ slide into her moist insides. Her body longed to get release from the myriad sensations that licked her skin with a scorching heart – but she couldn’t move. He had his way with her, and she enjoyed every fucking second of it. Her clit throbbed with a wild intensity, and as if understanding the unspoken need, he pressed his tongue hard against the sensitive nub. And she felt the wild rush of the orgasm as it speared through her insides. Her body arched and buckled and a loud scream escaped her lips. Without giving her time to recover, he crawled up her body and shoved his hard, needy cock inside her. Dutifully, she opened her legs to ease him in. His smooth lips swept over hers and their lips fused together. She felt his need and her heart swelled with love. Joined together, hip to hip, toe to toes, mouth to mouth, she felt truly complete. This wasn’t just sex, this was something special, unique – and she was lucky that she experienced it her life. If she died now, Gabby would be happy. But if this was death, she wanted more and more of it. Her hips moved in rhythm with his as her fingernails dug into his back, urging him to pick up speed. He complied. His pelvic bone slapped against hers as he stroked in and out. With each hard thrust, something inside her shifted and melted until her insides turned to wobbling jelly. Every cell of her body was focused on getting release from the swirling current that gained momentum in her nerves. The exquisite pleasure was unbearable. Gabby’s arms banded around his back as she slapped her hips up and down to meet him stroke for stroke. The orgasm, blissful and strong, swept through her muscles. “Nick,” she murmured his name as if it was a prayer.

In response, he emptied himself inside her. His semen pooled in her pussy, dripped out, as she lay quaking under him. Gabby felt the tears escape her eyes. For the first time in her life, she cried because she was happy. Gabby had truly come home. And from now on her life would be so much better, happier. That was all she wanted – to be happy, to be with a man who loved her. And Nick offered all that and more.

CHAPTER ELEVEN It was an ordinary, normal day, and yet for Gabby it was special. As she slid the papers out of the envelope, Gabby closed her eyes for a few minutes. She wanted something good so desperately that her own need surprised her. After taking a deep breath, she took a quick look at the sheet. “Damn this to hell!” “What?” “I passed…and look at this, I got all As.” She handed over the grade sheet and jumped up and down like a school girl. “It’s done, it’s done, and I am on top of the world.” “What’s wrong with you, girl?” Willow came out of the kitchen and watched with amusement as Gabby took Nick’s hands in hers and did a quick jig. “What happened?” She snatched the sheet out of Nick’s hands and ran over to show it. Her heart damn near burst with happiness. “I passed all my tests. Moving on now to the next level. Isn’t that amazing?” Willow studied the results. “Pretty good for a girl who was crying buckets that she would fail at least one subject.” Nick came over to hug her. “See, I told you.” “Yeah, yeah, you were right.” Happiness bubbled inside her. It wasn’t easy. For the last six months, she was breaking her back trying to fit in her studies along the chores she was required to do at the clubhouse. Sometimes she ended up staying up late – but it was all worth it. This sheet of paper made her day. “You’re amazing, babe!” He kissed her. Even after all these months, the desire that overcame her every time she locked lips with him was as demanding as ever. It didn’t even dim. She could feel her heart pound as his arms closed around her. Passion, need, and want careened through her nerves in a cocktail of heady feelings and her mouth salivated at the thought of getting her hands on his beautiful, naked body. What a way to celebrate that would be. Willow banged her head on the counter. “Hey, you two. Get a room.” She laughed and pushed Nick away. This handsome hunk of a man was all hers. Sometimes she couldn’t believe her luck. At ten years of age, she ran from home to get away from her abusive father. Rather than make it to safety, she was caught in the net of a pimp, Joseph, who forced her into slavery

at his club. For two years, she cleaned the club, unable to get out. At twelve years of age, he turned her into a prostitute and for more than a decade, she earned money on her back. When a client gave her the chance to slip away, she took it, and ended up at the Hell Brigade’s clubhouse. And then when she thought that she would end up doing the same thing here, Nick gave her something she never dreamt was possible: love and acceptance. He asked her to be his Old Lady, a term for women who were the exclusive property of a man. Perhaps to some it sounded weird, but for Gabby, it was the best thing that happened in her life. He loved her, cared, and took responsibility – and even more than that, he encouraged her to pursue her dream of finishing her education. “We should celebrate!” She danced some more. It was pretty exciting to finish her first year of schooling in six months. Now she could start another year’s syllabus, and this time she was determined to finish it even quicker. “What should we do?” Nick ran his hand over her cheek. “How about we go to the theater and dinner?” “That sounds like a plan. Willow, you want to come?” “I don’t want to be third wheel in between you two lovebirds. Go on now, have fun.” Gabby checked her watch. It was already six o’clock. “Will we get theater tickets?” “I know a man who knows a man…” Nick waved a hand. “Get your coat, we will go see.” Gabby jogged her way up the stairs. Although she was Nick’s Old Lady, she hadn’t moved into his place. He asked her once, but Gabby was so unsure, so afraid of getting hurt, that she didn’t give an immediate response. Perhaps sensing her need, he backed off. Nick was definitely one of the world’s most sensitive and caring men, and she was lucky to have him in her life. As she reached her room, the door next to hers opened and Matt emerged. Seeing her, his expression froze. “You?” he said with enough distaste to make her blood run cold. Matt believed she snitched on their club to the police. Despite Gabby’s protest and Nick’s defense, he wasn’t budging from his stand. It created a lot of tension between the two men. Gabby hated to be the source of a fight between two club members, but she couldn’t do much. “We’re going out.” Shut up! What’s the point of talking to him? “Hmmm…” He snorted. His good-looking face contorted into a sneer. “Enjoy while it lasts, doll. Your days are short-numbered.” Rather than answer him, she went inside her room. It wouldn’t pay to get worked up over Matt’s unwarranted comments. He was hell bent on blaming her for something that wasn’t her fault. After picking up her coat, she took some time to check her reflection in the mirror. Ever since Nick came into her life, her blue eyes sparkled with vibrancy. Her long, blond hair swished down her back but

she took a moment to run a comb through them. After putting on lipstick, she smiled. There, all set to go out with her man. Once again, she was hit by the ecstasy that engulfed her whenever she thought of Nick. He was the best thing to have happened to her. Being with him was pure pleasure. He made her feel as if she deserved love, that she was worthy of it, and she could do nothing wrong. It was a heady feeling, a marvelous one. As she wore her coat, her cell phone rang. What now? She glanced at the number but it was new. “Hello.” “Hi, baby! Missed me?” The cold voice sent a chill of fear straight through her spine. Gabby was rooted to the spot. She couldn’t move, couldn’t put down the phone. For twelve years of her life, she heard this voice daily. It haunted her night and day with demands and accusations. For as long as she lived, she would never forget who it belonged to and what he would do to her if he ever got his hands on her. “Cat got your tongue, baby?” He laughed. “I’ve got you now. Told you that you couldn’t run away.” Gabby cut the call, turned off her phone, and threw it on the bed. How the hell did he get her number? She had moved away to another town and started another life, but it appeared that nowhere was far enough to rid herself of her pimp. Joseph was a dangerous man. He kept an iron fist around his girls, and she must be the only one who ever got away. He wouldn’t forget the insult. She’d known that he would try to find her, and for the first few weeks, she was petrified of going out. But soon, she began to live her life. And once Nick started dating her, she became more relaxed. Maybe she’d gotten clean away. Perhaps she was one of those lucky one who could manage to leave their murky past behind. But Joseph’s call made her realize that she would never be out of danger. He wanted her back, if only so that he could teach her a lesson and make an example out of her. If he ever got his hands on her, he would break her legs, smash her face, and throw her in the river. Terror and dread snaked over her skin. She broke into a cold sweat. “Hey, what’s going on?” When Nick walked into the room, she jumped as if scalded. “Are you alright?” “Yeah, I am…” Thoughts ran through her mind. She didn’t want to tell him. Not yet. Maybe Joseph didn’t know where she was. If she changed her cell number, he might not be able to track her exact location. She didn’t want Nick to worry. “Just…” “Too excited about the result, huh?” He drew her into his arms. “But don’t forget that you’ve got a long way to go. There are years of study ahead of you.” “Yeah!” She nodded. Words got stuck in her throat. Resting her head on his shoulder, she took deep,

shuddering breaths. The scent of him, the sight of him, soothed her. “I know. Let’s go.” Together, they walked out. Matt was nowhere to be seen. Good thing too, or else the men would have given each other dirty looks. They were barely talking to each other. Although the two bikers who got sent to jail due to the snitch were now out, the atmosphere at the club was tense. After briefly suspending their business of transporting illegal goods out of the town, Nick and Ronald, the president of the club, resumed work. But it was done with a great deal of secrecy, locations were changed at the last minute, and the entire situation was distrustful. “Where do you want to eat after the theater?” She mounted his bike and wore the helmet. Gabby gripped him around the waist and leaned forward. “Wherever you want.” With Nick, she felt safe. With Nick, she was whole, complete. With Nick, she felt free. But now the fear that Joseph awakened gripped her. The joy she experienced in her achievement with home schooling was gone even before she had to chance to relish it fully. Lost in thought, she remained a little distant as Nick talked to the guy at the ticket counter. “See! That was easy.” He flashed the tickets at the guard on the gate and swept her inside. “What do you think?” “Huh? What?” “Where are you?” He snapped his fingers in front of her face. “I, like, got us two seats even though this whole place is jam-packed, and I get no reaction.” “Sorry. I am just…” She wasn’t going to let Joseph spoil this night for her. “Thanks. You’re amazing.” He led her to the seats. “I don’t know why you have got this urge to see plays. I mean, live performances are well and good, but I prefer movies any day.” She smiled and ran her hand over his arm. He actually hated sitting in the theatre but for the past few weeks, he accompanied her every time she mentioned a desire to see a play. There was a production company that was doing rendition of every Shakespeare’s play. She wasn’t cultured or educated, but Gabby wanted to learn some new things, and she was required to read this stuff for her high school graduation. She may as well experience it fully. And plus, she just loved the ambiance and excitement of watching a live play. “It’s starting.” Gabby watched intently as the actors came on stage and began the play. But try as she

might, she couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm or the concentration to enjoy the drama. Her thoughts were centered on Joseph who had sounded sinister when he talked to her. Did he know where she was? Was he monitoring her even now? Joseph was a mean and sadistic bastard. Even when she was in his service, he often made a point of teasing her until she became mad with rage. But of course, she never could do anything. Sometimes he allowed his prostitutes some freedom only to yank it back when he felt like it. He liked to toy with people. Was he doing that with her? Gabby felt as if someone was staring at her from the back of the theater. She dared not glance back to see if she was right. If he was sitting in the audience, she didn’t want a confrontation between Nick and him. For the first time since she started watching the dramas, Gabby didn’t enjoy herself. In fact, she could hardly pay any attention. When the play came to an end, she walked out Nick, her hand in his. She felt as if she might run into Joseph anytime. If she saw his scarred face, she might faint. But much to her relief, he was nowhere in sight. “So what is your opinion on the play?” “It was good.” Nick stared at her as if she spouted nonsense. “No elaborate commentary, no opinions on the depth and technique used by the actors or the differences from the books…what’s gotten into you, Gabby? I am getting off scot-free.” She managed a laugh although her heart was in her stomach. “You’re a lucky man, I guess. Let’s go eat. How about we try that new Mexican place?” “Sure. Your wish is my command.” She sat behind him and they drove off. Maybe she was reading too much in this situation. One call didn’t mean that he knew where she was. It was quite likely that he tracked down her cell. Even though Gabby was careful not to talk to any of the girls who worked under him ever since she disappeared, but yeah, she did call her bank once to transfer some of her money. And then she called that girl at the parlor once to chat. Maybe he got through due to any one of them. She just needed to be more careful from now on. Tomorrow, she would change her cell number and then she would be safe.

He couldn’t get her when she was so far away. She’d gotten rid of that life, and Gabby wasn’t willing to go back, no matter what the cost. This was her new home, and she was happy with Nick. No one was going to snatch her away from the life that truly made her happy. Not even Joseph. She wouldn’t allow him. Gabby was determined, strong, and independent – and she was done with men who controlled her. Everything she did was a choice and not a compulsion – and there was no one who could make her a slave once more.

CHAPTER TWELVE Sometimes Nick found it difficult to believe that he found someone like Gabby. She was perfect for him…perfect in every way. Her smile, her intelligence, and her sexy, hot body that drove him crazy were all that he ever wanted. For too long, he was alone, without someone whom he could love. A long time ago, he lost a girlfriend, someone he really cared about, to a bad accident. For years afterwards, he was devastated, broken down – but Gabby brought him back to life. With her, he felt as if his life was back on track. He didn’t want anything more than to grow old with her. But it was too soon to spring that idea on her. She saw hard times, and Nick knew that it was really hard for her to trust a man and to love someone with an open heart. But she tried for him, and he appreciated that she made an effort. She already loved him. He didn’t have a doubt in his head about that, but she still struggled with the ways she could express her love. It was the fear of losing him that forced her to slow down. She didn’t want to get in too deep and then find out that he didn’t care. But he was a patient man. It didn’t matter how long it would take to win her over, he would do so eventually. He loved her with all his heart and soul. And soon enough, she would realize that. After dinner, they ended up at his house. Although the Old Ladies traditionally didn’t stay at the clubhouse, Gabby resisted the move to his place. She liked her independence, she claimed. And she would get bored on her own when he was away. And also, she said, she liked to work at the clubhouse and be with other people. All that she could have done even if she moved in with him, but what she didn’t say was that she was scared he would change his mind a few months after she moved in with him and then she would have to go back. He would never do such a thing to her. As always, Nick waited for her to realize it on her own. She shifted restlessly on the couch as he made coffee in the open kitchen. Something was up today. She wasn’t her usual bubbly, chirpy self. He assumed that she would be over the moon when she got her stupendous results – and she was back in the club – but ever since they reached the theatre, she was a little off, a tad bit distant.

Prying information out of her wasn’t an easy task. It took her some time to open up. Picking up the coffee, he carried it back to his living room. The leather couch gleamed, as did the forty inch TV on the wall. He didn’t have many ornaments or picture frames because Nick was a foster home child and didn’t have many childhood memories. Perhaps that was the reason why they both got along so well – they knew what it was like to grow up without a family. And the loss of it, the absence of it, never went away. The pain enjoined them in a way that happiness couldn’t. “What’s wrong?” he said finally when she didn’t pick up her cup of coffee while he nearly finished his. Startled, she glanced at him. “Nothing, nothing at all. I am just tired.” He raised a brow. “Do you want me to take you back to the club house?” “No, of course not.” She picked up her cup and took a sip. “Do you want to watch a movie?” “Sure, what did you have in mind? I bet there is something on TV.” “Ah, no! Never mind. I don’t think I could concentrate on a movie just now,” she confessed. “It’s just…I feel a bit restless.” “I can think of something to burn off that extra energy,” he offered with a naughty grin. She got the hint fast enough. Her lips lifted in a smile. “Actually, that might be the best idea you’ve had all day.” “Really, what?” He put the cup down. Great! He never could resist getting his hands on her. She was a marvel in bed – and out of it too, of course. But just now his mind was running on one particularly track. Quick and fast, she tugged off her shirt and threw it on the couch. His eyes glazed at the sight of her sexy curves and the twin globules that were tucked away in a white, satin bra. As he leapt off the bed, she lunged away. Nick growled as she wriggled her hips and took off her jeans. Now, dressed only in her matching panties and bra, she danced out of his reach, swaying and swinging in time to music that only she could hear. Some of the excitement that lacked during the evening was back on her face. He loved seeing her like this; happy and carefree. All he wanted was to make her feel like this every single day of her life. If only she would give him a chance to do so. Nick grabbed her hand but she yanked it away. Laughing, she stepped back, pushed her fingers under

the straps of her bra and took them off her shoulders. Reaching behind, she unclasped the bra and swung it over her head one time before dropping it on the floor. The sight of her naked breasts, swinging free, made her mouth salivate. He wanted her with a desperation that was hard to describe. As he lunged forward, she allowed him to sweep her in his arms. He stopped her laughter with a demanding, hot kiss that sent lances of desire deep in his bones. The more he had, the more he wanted. His greed for her knew no bounds. His hands ran over her luscious, curvy body and he felt his penis lengthen in his jeans. It was time to tug off his clothes. He wanted to feel her naked skin against his, and he wanted to press his hard body into her soft curves – only then would he receive some satisfaction. With an efficiency of movement, he took off all his clothes. Once he was naked, she pressed her hand on his throbbing, quivering cock and held it between her fingers as if she was cherishing a long lost baby. He squirmed, intending to brush away her hand and drop her on the living room rug but then she dropped on her knees. A gasp escaped his lips as her tongue darted out to kiss his balls. All the blood in his body rushed to his penis and he felt as if was he burning down there. Her tongue flicked over the tip of his cock, and then she slid forward and took it in her mouth. His legs trembled as he struggled to remain still. Damn it! But she sure knew how to make his blood boil. Gently she sucked and caressed until he was a quivering, shivering mass of muscles without bone. Nick found it hard to stand. He needed to get his breath back. Slowly, he pushed her away and forced her to glide his dick out of her mouth. She appeared reluctant, but he persevered. Dropping her on the rug, Nick claimed her mouth once more. The sweet crevices of her mouth were as hot and delightful as he remembered. He nibbled his way down the creamy, smooth skin of her throat until he found her hard nipple. It was as stiff as his cock. He swirled his tongue over the bud and enjoyed the way she writhed under him. For a long time, he savored the wonders of her breasts, sucking and tugging, kissing and caressing – until her aroma filled his senses. Sweat lined his torso as he paid homage to her wonderful beauty. The more he had, the greater his yearning. A storm of desire swept through him. Hurry, hurry! Someone yelled in his mind, but he was determined to take pleasure in each nibble and kiss. Passion. Heat and need. Everything jumbled into a dynamite cocktail, swelled, and burst through his frazzled nerves. Suddenly, she slipped out from under him. Before he realized what she was up, she mounted him, her pussy sitting tight on his cock. But she didn’t take him in. Instead, leaning forward, she thrust one hard nipple in his mouth. Eagerly, he swallowed it. His mouth sucked the bud until she took it out and offered him another. Delirious with desire, mad with passion, he followed her lead, happy to allow her to set the pace.

The sweet torture was as mind-blowing as it was painful. The more they stretched out time, the greater their need to posses each other. And yet there was a delicious bit of pleasure in prolonging the inevitable. As she stroked her breasts in and out of his mouth, the need for release mushroomed inside his body. With each passing second, it took on greater heights until it set his whole body on fire. Every cell, every fiber, every inch of his skin sizzled with the need to possess her. As if they had a mind of their own, his hands glided down her back, slipped around her waist and settled on his hips. Her eyes were closed as she rocked over him, rubbing her hot, wet pussy over his vibrating cock. Raising her slightly, he brought her down on his hard penis. She slipped him inside as if taking in the offering. Moving up and down, she ignited a new fire. Her skin was clammy and hot. As she rocked over him, their rhythm fell into place. Nick controlled his need for as long as he could – and soon he was rewarded when she uttered a loud scream and shuddered from the orgasm that rippled through her. Her muscles trembled. He felt her pussy clench around his penis, and Nick allowed his own desperate need to follow her. His orgasm was quick but brutal. His toes curled as he shook under her. “One day, I am going to die from this,” he whispered as she lay over him, resting her head on his shoulders. “But you will die a happy man,” she declared as she kissed him on his throat. Her hands rested on her shoulders as she took deep, shuddering breaths. It was one of those perfect moments when everything felt as if it was alright with the world. He could imagine spending his days and nights like this, with her, making love, waking up to find her beside him, living out his life knowing that she was there to support him. What more could a man want? Nick was always a content man – and now that he had her, he was even happier than he was ever before. He slid his hand down her back and felt her tremble. “Why don’t you stay the night?” He could practically see the wheels turn in her mind as she considered his offer. Sometimes she stayed over. At times, he went and spent the night in her room. But just now, he wanted her in his bed. Maybe tomorrow, he would wake her up with a kiss and they could do the tango in bed before sauntering over to the clubhouse. A big meeting was due to take place tomorrow in the morning and his presence was required. “Alright, sure.” “Your clothes are in my closet.”

“Ok.” She had left some last time she came. He was delighted to host her. If she was willing, he would have encouraged her to stay over more often but it was obvious that she still wasn’t ready. Baby steps, he reminded himself. Baby steps. That’s what she needed. “Maybe we should go away together?” He rubbed his fingers on her back, enjoying the way her skin felt against his. “What do you mean? We could go away for a weekend. Sure, why not.” She sucked in a deep breath of air and raised her head. “No, I meant…we could go away, the two of us, away from this town, away from the club.” He didn’t understand her words, couldn't figure out the raw emotion that coiled and twisted in her eyes. “What? Go away? Why?” She didn’t quite meet his gaze as she rested her head back on his shoulder. “Just like that. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was just the two of us, without any threat, any danger, or anyone’s presence around us?” “Danger Threat?” He didn’t quite comprehend the meaning of her strange words. “What are you talking about, honey? Has anyone said anything to you over at the clubhouse? It is Matt? Did he corner you again?” “No, no one said anything.” Her hand coiled around his arm. “I was just wondering what it would feel like if it was just the two of us and there wasn’t anyone else around to bother us.” “We could do that here, if you moved in with me,” he said. Nick didn’t have any intention of bringing up that topic. He wanted to give her the time to do what she wanted. Sooner or later, they would head in the right direction – but he didn’t want to force her down that road. But she was the one who brought up it up – and she couldn’t fault a guy for trying. He braced himself, ready to hear her denial. She didn’t want it. It was ok. He would get her here in due time. “Ok,” she said. For a few seconds, he lay still, unable to grasp the meaning of the word she said. “Ok?” “Yes, I will move in with you.” He sat so fast that she slipped down on the rug. “You will come and live here with me. Is that what you’re saying?” “I am.” Her smile was easy. “Why not? It would be great. We could be together all the time, day and

night. I will go with you to the clubhouse and study over there, and when you are free…we could come back here. This is a nice place, a safe house.” Nick couldn’t believe his good luck. For too long, he fought the disappointment whenever she said no. He stopped asking her. If she didn’t want it, he vowed to accept her decision – but just like that, his luck turned. “That’s great news, baby!” He yanked her in his arms and kissed her, delirious with happiness. “I wanted it for a long time.” “And now you’re going to get it. So remember that it was your idea when I nag you about cleaning up the place and switching off all the lights before you venture out. Or when you forget to collect the laundry from the washing machine, or when…” He rubbed his lips over hers to stop the flow of words. She could nag him all the way to hell, and still nothing would mar the happiness that he got from her consent. She was going to live with him. Wonderful! Amazing! He was ecstatic. It was the first step in the right direction. Gabby didn’t know it, but he harbored great plans for their future and this was just one of them. “We should celebrate.” He finally lifted his head. “Let’s do it in a big way.” “I thought we already did.” She patted the rug on which they made wild love. “You want to go another round?” “I meant a celebration, like a party. We haven’t had one in a long time. Let’s do it in the clubhouse. We will invite everyone.” Swept away by his plans, he explained. He could just imagine it all, and happiness bubbled inside him like a volcano. “It would be the party of the year.” She raised a brow. “Sure, if that’s what you want. When?” “Soon! Next week, maybe!” He promised as he bent his head to claim yet another kiss. His life was wonderful. Everything was exactly as he planned – and Nick envisioned no more troubles on the horizon.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN Gabby believed in counting her blessings. She’d a wonderful life. Nick cared for her genuinely, without any reservations. When she was working with Joseph, she never thought that one day she would find a man who would accept and love her for who she was. This was like a dream come true for her. And she was so happy that it was hard to put her feelings in words. But now her joy at these blessing was marred with this new threat that loomed over head. Joseph called two days ago. Since then, she didn’t receive any more communication from him. Perhaps he’d only called to rattle her. Certainly, he couldn’t trace her location from the phone. There was a good chance that he didn’t know where the hell she was but managed to get her number. She was still debating about changing her number. Nick would want to know why she did it, and she had no clue as to what she would tell him. Maybe she should just not pick up if she received any more calls from Joseph. That would be the best move. A knock on her door startled her. Gabby realized that she’d been standing against the window for quite some time, lost in thought. She opened the door and let Tasha and Willow in. While Willow was the Old Lady of the President of Hell Brigade, the biker’s club to which Nick belonged to, Tasha was a new girl who was working in the kitchen. Hell’s Brigade’s clubhouse was a safe haven for a lot of girls who drifted in from various situations and wanted a place where they could hole up for a while. Gabby found a sanctuary here when she ran away from her pimp, Joseph, and now Tasha was enjoying their protection after she escaped from an abusive husband. “What’s going on?” “You tell us, girl,” said Willow as she sat on the bed. “Nick is organizing a party, we heard.” “Ah!” He was actually quite deliriously happy. Sometimes it was hard for her to believe that anyone could be as excited simply because she decided to move in with him. But perhaps she needed to imbue some of his exhilaration. It was a big change in their relationship. Gabby relished her independence because she got it after a hard struggle. She avoided moving in up until this point because she didn’t want to risk moving out if their relationship didn’t work out. It was hard for her to take this happiness for granted and assume that it would last forever. What if it didn’t? What would she do now? But now she was ready for this. And even though it was partly because she knew it would make Nick very happy but also because she would feel safer around him. The clubhouse was a good place, but she felt the most comfortable when Nick was with her. And sure, ever since they started dating, they were together more because he spent more than half of his day in the clubhouse, but now she could be with him even at nights.

“Hey, are you alright?” said Tasha as she peered at Gabby’s face. She’d spent the last minute contemplating on her own thoughts. Shit! What was wrong with her? “Sorry, guys. I was just…thinking about something else.” “It’s not easy planning a moving-in party. Lucky for you, we’re gung-ho about helping you.” Willow pumped her hand in the air. “Have you decided on a theme yet?” “A theme?” She shook her head, baffled by the question. “What kind of a theme?” Willow rubbed a hand on her forehead. “Oh, Tasha! This girl needs a lot of help. Poor thing, she is. We’ll have to rescue her from the pit of ignorance.” Tasha grinned at the horrified expression on Gabby’s face. Her red hair was the exact color of a carrot, and her blue eyes were vibrant and bright. “Have you ever thrown a party before?” Gabby’s heart sank. What had she gotten herself into? She’d thoughts drinks and food, but nothing else beyond that. The girls, it appeared, were looking for something more elegant, and she wasn’t sure if she was up for the task. “Nick is supposed to take care of all the details. He said he would arrange the music, and invitations, and all. We just have to take care of food here. I can do that easily enough.” “Oh my God, girl!” Willow rolled her eyes. “A party is not about food and drinks. Sure, a man can take care of that. Your job is to create an ambiance that will invite people to sit and relax and make merry.” Panic licked her skin. She’d no clue what Willow was talking about. “How do I do that?” “The dress, girl.” Willow slapped one hand on another. “You’ve to get the right dress.” Surely, she misunderstood. “The dress?” “Yes, the dress. It’s the linchpin on which the whole party revolves,” insisted Willow. “You’ve to pick the dress, and then you plan a theme around it. Oh, gypsies!” She clapped her hands and glanced at Tasha. “What do you think?” Tasha pulled a face. “I was thinking Hawaiian?” “No! That’s been done to death. Let’s do something different.” Willow pursed her lips as she vetoed the idea. “Gypsies is wonderfully liberating and…plus, I have the perfect dress for it already.” Tasha laughed. “It’s not your party. Gabby gets to decide.” Gabby didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. Planning a party suddenly looked like a nightmare. What was she going to do? She didn’t have any idea regarding these things. “Gypsy theme sounds good. But…I don’t have a dress.”

“You have to buy a new one.” The thought of trying on various dresses until she found the perfect one made her dizzy. “Do I have to? I could wear jeans…and throw on layered t-shirts and maybe beads around my neck. That’s easy enough to do.” Willow slapped a hand on her mouth. “Oh, no, no, no! You’re not wearing jeans to this party. We’re going to find the perfect dress and shoes and accessories…” She was sure that she suffered a mini-stroke. Gabby gulped. Her head was pounding now. “That’s going to take a lot of time.” “The more, the better,” insisted Willow. “Tasha, are you free tomorrow afternoon?” “Yes, I could clear my kitchen duties.” Willow stood. “Good! We will meet here at three and go for a shopping expedition. It will be a lot of fun. And I think we should buy some candles also, jazz up this place a bit, and some ornaments to hang around.” Gabby lay down on the bed. She sucked in a deep breath of air, released it, and sucked it in again. “I am going to be sick.” Tasha patted her on the head. “Gather up your courage. I’ll bring some coffee for you and then we can discuss the menu.” Pizza and burgers, she’d thought. But now that Willow was on this mission, they would have to think of something more exotic. “Fine,” she managed to croak out the word. Gabby closed her eyes as the women walked out. This party was going to suck all energy out of her body. And knowing Willow, she wouldn’t do things halfway, she would go all out and make it a night to remember. Intimidating as that thought was, perhaps it wasn’t such a bad idea. It would take her mind off her other troubles. As she tried to get a handle on the list of things to do that Willow’s discussion conjured in her head, her cell phone rang. For a second, her heart stopped, but it was Nick. “Hey, you!” His voice was throaty and low. A shiver of delight careened through her senses. His voice had enough power to bring her back to life. Suddenly, nothing seemed troublesome. “What are you doing?” Gabby took a deep breath. “Willow and Tasha came over. Apparently we need a theme and the right dress for the party or else it would be a complete disaster.” His rumbling laughter filled her ears. “Willow loves an occasion. She will drive you crazy.”

“You brought this on me,” she accused. “Yeah, babe! And I am ready to pay the penalty, whenever you want. I am yours to command.” She shook her head. “I’ll have to think of an appropriate punishment. But right now, Tasha is coming back up and we’re planning the menu. It’s going to be a gypsy theme, so the menu has to reflect that.” “Good luck then,” he said. “So when should I come pick you up?” “For what?” She didn’t know they were going out. Did he say something and she forgot? Gabby raked her mind but she couldn’t recall making any plans with him. “For moving to my place, of course. Are you packed already?” Shit! She hadn’t even begun. Gabby’s eyes darted to her cupboard that contained all her worldly possessions. It wouldn’t take her all that long to dump everything in a bag. But she just wasn’t ready for the big change right now. Although she committed to the move, she wasn’t sure if it was the right decision. What if Nick got bored with her and told her to move back? Once more, all her fears rumbled through her mind. “Ah…there is so much party planning to do,” she said. “Maybe I should stay here for a while so that I can discuss things with the girls. We’re going shopping tomorrow, and then the food will be made here. It will take a lot of organizing.” “Oh!” He sounded a little disappointed. She hated to do this to him, but her doubts were relentless. “Alright, if you’re sure. When would you move in then?” “How about the day after the party?” she suggested. Her hand clenched on the bed sheet. She hated to make him feel bad but she just needed a little bit more time. From her heart and soul, she was committed to Nick, but the fear of losing him made her wary about making the ultimatum pledge. “I mean…we’re going to be together for a long, long time so a few more days won’t make such a big difference.” “We’re going to be together forever, babe,” he corrected her. “So yeah, take your few days. Do you want me to rein in Willow? She can be a bit flamboyant with her ideas.” Gabby recalled the excited expression on Willow’s face. It was a long time since they all had a fun night. Lately, the mood in the club was a little down. Ever since two of their members got arrested, everyone was a little tense. This party might be a good way to bring everyone back together. “No, it’s fine. I will survive.” “That’s the spirit,” he said.

She laughed. “Will you drop by in the morning?” “No, actually, I’m going with Matt to figure out a new warehouse location for the goods that need to be stocked so I’m not sure when I will come back. How about we meet for dinner tomorrow around seven? Matt and I should be done by then,” he said. “OK.” Gabby was aware that there was a lot of tension between Matt and Nick, mainly because of her. Matt thought she could be the snitch, and Nick was protecting her. Until they found the person who landed two of their men in jail, this battle would continue. Nick was conducting secret investigations to figure out who it was. And until he did that, the only two men he trusted were Matt and Ronald. And that is why he was hunting for a new location with Matt. At least, Matt wasn’t a police informant. But then so wasn’t Gabby. Sooner or later, Matt would realize that and this war would come to a natural end. “Bye, babe.” Nick hung up. Gabby felt terrible about continuously making excuses to not shift into his house, but she would make it up to him when she finally shifted. Nick was a great guy, and she intended to make him happy. And they would be, she was sure of it. Just a week, and then they would be together. Nothing could wrong in seven days.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN Gabby was miserable beyond measure. As she tried on the fifth dress, she peered at her reflection in the mirror. “This looks good enough,” she muttered. The dark blue dress hugged her figure and brought out the glow in her eyes. “What do you think?” “Good enough won’t do,” said Willow as she walked around Gabby, inspecting her from all angles. “When you wear the right dress, you will know.” Gabby sighed as she went inside to change it. “I’ve already tried out everything here.” “You should buy that red dress anyway. If you wear it on a date with Nick, his eyes are going to pop out,” suggested Tasha when Gabby emerged. “There is another cute little shop right down the block. We should go there.” Gabby groaned. Her gaze fell on the red dress she wore first. Sure, it did look great on her, but she didn’t need it. Of course, she had enough money saved up. For the housekeeping and kitchen duty at the clubhouse, she was paid a decent amount. Some of it was spent on her books and fees for the home school high school program that she was enrolled in, but the rest of it was put in a savings account. She had not bought anything ever since she came to her new life. But then she didn’t need two new dresses. It wasn’t a good idea to waste money. “You want it,” whispered Willow in her ear. “I can see it in your eyes. Take it.” Gabby laughed as she stepped away. “You’re evil.” “Hey, let go, girl. Learn to have some fun.” Gabby shook her head but she picked up the dress and brought it to the counter. “I’ll take this.” “Atta girl,” said Willow. “Where did you say the shop was, Tasha?” After she paid for the dress, Gabby followed them down the block to the new shop. Once more, the process started. Luckily enough, the second dress she wore was perfect. It was a full length gown with small flowers patterned in it. When she glanced at herself in the mirror, Gabby actually felt a thrill of excitement slide up her spine. “I think this is it,” said Willow as she joined Gabby. “It’s perfect.”

“You can wear a belt with it and put on some beaded necklaces, and you’re the gypsy. Take them off and wear this dress alone, and you’re a goddess,” said Tasha as she stared at Gabby. “It’s the one.” Now she could understand what it felt to wear something that felt just right for an occasion. In it, she would feel like a gypsy. “I would have to buy necklaces.” “I have some,” said Willow. “You can borrow them.” “And I have a bandana that would go with this. What you need are shoes?” said Tasha. Gabby groaned. “Ah! This is never going to end.” “Just the shoes, darling, and then we’re done,” muttered Willow as she patted Gabby on the shoulder. “We’re almost there. Be brave.” Two hours later, Gabby staggered into the clubhouse. She was laden with packages. Two dresses, a pair of shoes, and a new handbag. She’d never bought so many things for herself in one shopping spree. Never again! She dumped stuff on the bed and sighed with relief. Wonderful as that experience was, she was exhausted. The girls drained the energy out of her, but sure as hell, it was one of the most exciting shopping trips of her life. More than the clothes and shoes, she enjoyed spending time with the two women. Willow was already close to her, and she respected and admired the woman for all that she’d made for her life after the hardships that she suffered. Willow was once incarcerated for the murder of her husband when she killed him in self-defense. But she didn’t let that ruin her life. She emerged stronger than ever – and Gabby intended to do the same. So what if she got sucked into prostitution at a young age? She was now a free and strong woman who was willing to carve out a new life with sweat and blood and Tasha was equally independent. It was amazing for her to have friends who cared and did things purely for enjoyment. They were bound by love, and not by the rules of a pimp. Her cell phone rang. The number was unknown. She picked it up, thinking that it could be Tasha who just purchased her first phone. “Hello?” His laugh was wicked, malevolent. “Gabby, Gabby, Gabby! Haven’t you learnt by now that you can’t escape me? I’m going to get you, and once I am done with you, the rest of the girls are going to shudder with fear even if the thought of escape crosses their mind.” She wanted to throw the phone against the wall and cut this link. She didn’t want to hear his voice or to talk to him, but Gabby held on the last reserves of strength. “Leave me alone, Joseph. I’ve left that life behind. That was my past. I don’t want it anymore.” “It doesn’t matter what you want. The only thing that matters is what I want. And I need you back, Gabby. Not because my business is in ruins because of you, but because it’s important for you to learn a lesson. No one can leave this life behind. It’s a part of you, a part of me. And there is never any escape for a girl who comes under my protection,” his voice was cold, eerily so.

“I am not in your protection anymore.” Was that how he saw it? Was she protected when she sold her body to many men in one night so as to increase his profits? It was slavery, plain and simple. And he wanted her back in it. “Come back, Gabby, and maybe it won’t be that bad. No promises, darling, but I would keep a lenient hand if you were to saunter back on your own.” “I am not coming back.” “You think all those punks can keep you safe. It’s not happening. They can’t do a thing if I walk in to claim you, and you can take my word for it.” With a hand that trembled, she cut off the call, and switched off the phone. She flopped on the bed as rivers of ice flooded through her veins. She was cold, so cold. And she was scared. Fear careened through her nerves, unrelenting and strong. His words made her tremble. It was obvious that he knew where she was. How did he find her? She wasn’t sure. Maybe someone saw her and told him. Perhaps he followed her trail and finally succeeded against all odds. Whatever his method, he had found her, and now he wasn’t willing to let go. She could never escape from his clutches. To think that she could do so was foolishness on her part. Perhaps if she went back and apologized, he would spare her the pain and humiliation that he was sure to heap on her when he got his dirty hands on her. Maybe if she went back willingly, she would be killed quickly. For sure, he would make an example out of her if she didn’t comply with his wishes. No way was she ever going back. Hell would freeze over before she went back to that sordid life. She’d left it behind and she wasn’t going back. Once, she escaped – and now, she could do it again. Only one option remained and that was for her to run away. Sure, she would have to leave this life behind. Everything would change, but she would be more cautious. It was stupid of her to maintain in contact with those she deserted. Next time, she wouldn’t call any girls. She wouldn’t even keep up with the Hell Brigade. Tasha, Willow, and Nick, she would forget about them all. Nick! How could she leave him? Gabby never loved another man before, but Nick was her life. It was his confidence, his grace, and attitude that imbued a will to live and survive in her. She was who she was today because he accepted and loved her. She would never find another like him, and she didn’t want to even make the effort. The mere thought of never seeing his handsome face again sent waves of anguish coursing through her shattered nerves. If she never saw him again, she wouldn’t be able to live. Sure, she might breathe and walk, but she

wouldn’t be complete without Nick. He mattered. And he loved her too. How could she do this to him? What if she told him what happened and asked him to accompany her? But doing so would put his life in danger. If Joseph chased her, he would know about Nick and he might harm her lover just because he was in her life. And she couldn’t even ask Nick to discard his life, his friends, his house, and come away with her. It wouldn’t be fair to him. No! She needed to think of another solution. But for the life of her, Gabby couldn’t figure it out. Nothing came to her mind as she struggled with her fears and apprehensions. On one hand was her life with Nick, her studies, and her friends, and on the other hand was her sole chance of survival. If she stayed, she might forfeit her life and independence. What was the right decision? She couldn’t move, couldn’t think, and could pull her thoughts in any comprehensive form. The knock on her door startled her. She jumped out of bed. Was it Joseph? Had he come here to take her away? How did he get inside? Her mouth was dry. She moistened her lips with her tongue. “Who is it?” “It’s me, Nick. What the hell is going on?” With a leap, she opened the door and threw herself in his arms. “Oh, Nick!” His arms tightened around her like bands. She could feel his body tense as he stared into her room as if he expected to find an intruder. “What happened? Are you alright?” “It’s…I…” She wiped a hand over her brow. Of course, she couldn’t tell him about Joseph. He would want to confront the pimp, and she dared not risk that. What if something happened to him? “Yes, I am fine. I overslept.” “Overslept? Shit! I was worried.” She couldn’t shake away the cobwebs of confusion from her head fast enough. Thoughts of Joseph’s threat still clung to her mind. Would he actually come and take her away from the clubhouse? “Why?” Nick held her arm. “Gabby, you were supposed to meet me for dinner? Don’t you remember?” Shit! She forgot. Joseph’s call drove everything away. She spent all that time thinking and analyzing the situation. “Sorry.” She forced a smile on her smile. There was no way she could tell Nick about the phone calls. He would go berserk, and he might even go to confront Joseph. And she couldn’t let him do that. “I…got so tired shopping that I lay down. Didn’t realize that I fell asleep.”

Drawing her in his arms, he rested his chin on her head. “I tried to call you but your phone was coming off. Scared the shit out of me.” She inhaled the strong, musky scent of his. Somehow it brought back some normalcy in her mind. “I guess the battery must have died. Sorry, Nick.” “It’s ok, darling. You’re ok. That’s all matters. What did you buy?” Eager to change the subject, she showed him the dresses she bought. After he admired them, she followed him out of the room. “We could eat something here,” she suggested. “No, let’s just go out. There is a burger with my name on it,” he said. Downstairs, they met Matt. He was drinking beer at the bar. Seeing her, his nostrils flared but he didn’t say anything. Instead, his fingers tapped the bottle that was held in his hand. “Going out?” “Yeah!” said Nick as he tugged Gabby along. They stepped out in the fresh air and marched over to his bike. She loved to ride with him. He drove fast, but Nick was careful when she was with him. She strapped on the helmet he offered. “Did you guys find the new warehouse?” “Yeah, it’s a good location. We should be able to get back in the thick of things soon enough.” “But the police might still be on to you guys.” “For sure, they must be.” He sat. “But we’re going to keep the information to ourselves. The fewer people who know about the locations and timings, the better it would be.” She didn’t ask anything else. Gabby didn’t care about their business. She was, of course, concerned about his safety but Nick was cautious. And he knew these things better than her. The drive was quick and smooth, and although she tried to keep her mind free from worrying thoughts, they still simmered inside her. What the hell was she going to do about this situation? Should she get away? Maybe she needed to discuss it with someone, but there was no one she could trust. If she discussed it with the girls, they would immediately tell everything to Nick, and she wanted to keep him out of it. Nick held her hand as they strolled along the harbor. It was a beautiful evening. A nice breeze flew around them, and she felt her spirits lift as the hustle and bustle of the town made her feel a little better. The sense of danger that she felt ever since she received the call faded a bit. Maybe she needed some more time to ponder over this matter.

“I’ve been thinking about something,” said Nick. “Hmmm…” Lost as she was in her thoughts, she didn’t pay much attention. Gabby waved to the artist who owned the gallery. He was a lively character and they often stopped by to have a conversation with him whenever they were in the area. “We need to do something about Joseph.” All the breath whooshed out of her lungs. How did he know? Who could have told him? Did Joseph call him? “What?” she squeaked out the word, not sure if she’d heard him right. He squeezed her hand. “Listen, it’s been a while since you got away from that guy. But he is still out there, enslaving other young girls. We need to hand him over to the police.” This was so out of the blue, so unexpected, that Gabby remained silent. Did Nick know that Joseph had called her? Did he suspect something? Or was he just saying it because he’d been giving this matter some thought. “I don’t know…what do you mean?” “I know that you’ve been working hard to push these memories away. I’ve been thinking about this ever since we met. We need to stop that man. I didn’t want to say anything because it would bring back bad memories. But you’ve moved on now. And you’re safe.” He waved to someone he knew. Hell Brigade enjoyed a strong loyalty among some of the town’s residents. Although they were involved in transportation of stolen goods, they often helped out others in time of need. “It’s time to deal with this matter once and for.” This was just Nick talking about something he felt fiercely about, but unknowingly, he gave her another food for thought. If she gave Joseph over to the police, they would start to chase him, and he might not have time to harass her. It was a good idea, but a risky one. Joseph wouldn’t like it if the police hounded him. He was a man of considerable resources. It wouldn’t be that easy to put him behind bars. He was always careful to steer clear of the police. Over the years, he had perfected a few techniques and tricks that kept him out of trouble. But if she gave evidence against him, that would make a strong case. “He wouldn’t like it,” she muttered. Nick stopped. He turned to face her. Lifting her hand, he held it to his hips. “Of course, he wouldn’t like it. But you can put him behind bars once and for all, and when you do that, he wouldn’t be able to hurt other girls.” “It’s a big business,” she said. “He is not alone. Putting him away wouldn’t bring an end to the entire racket.” “Sure, that’s true. But it’s a start. Seeing you, some other girls may come forward, and many of them would benefit. Don’t you want others who are suffering in the hands of their pimps to become more

empowered?” He paused, rubbed his lips over her knuckles, and let go. “I think it’s time you did that. I’ve talked to a lawyer who works pro bono for girls who have been sucked in prostitution. And he is willing to help us.” “You have already talked to him?” Her eyes flashed with ire. “Without discussing with me first?” “I didn’t give him your name or any other information, but I wanted to get handle on this situation before I got your involved.” He stood tall and proud. Determination shone in his eyes. If she knew one thing, it was that once Nick set his mind on something, he didn’t change it. For some reason, he’d focused on this issue, and he was going to bring it to a satisfying end, with or without her. Without her, he didn’t have a chance. And if she helped him, it would kill two birds with one stone. Not only would she be able to get rid of Joseph once and for all, but also she would be able to help other girls who were still enslaved in his prostitution ring. An hour ago, she was contemplating running away. Now, suddenly, there was another option that was so much better. Once more, she indebted to Nick for presenting it to her out of nowhere. He didn’t know the hell he was going through, but somehow he managed to give a solution that was much better than the one she envisioned. “You’re right,” she said. Gabby couldn’t miss the look of surprise he bestowed on her. “We should do something about Joseph. Let’s go meet this lawyer friend of yours.” He drew her in a hug. “Baby, you won’t regret it. It will be fine.” As she breathed in the masculine scent of him, Gabby felt relaxed, vindicated. She would survive – and Nick was right there to hold her when she needed help. Her life wasn’t on the best track, but it was surely on the right one.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN Something was amiss with Gabby. Nick knew it with certainty even though she didn’t say anything. Over the months, he had gotten to know her moods. She wasn’t her usual bubbly, chirpy self. At first, he thought it might be because of the situation with Matt. He wasn’t being openly hostile, but he was certainly a little abrupt with her. But then, he figured it might also be because of the imminent move to his house. She wasn’t looking forward to the move. He sensed it. Nick realized that it had nothing to do with him, but was more because of her own insecurities. Gabby found it difficult to accept the love he offered. Given her background, he could comprehend how that would be so. It hurt him, but he convinced himself to give her more time. Slowly, she was coming around. But still, there was a part of her that she hugged close to her chest. It irked him that she didn’t fully trust him, but he forced himself to be patient. Everything would fall into place sooner or later. After they had dinner, he went over to the clubhouse to drop her off. Ronald and Matt were conferring outside. “Why don’t you go inside, babe? I’ll just talk to the guys.” She strode in without casting a glance at Matt. Nick joined the two men. “What’s going on?” “I brought Ronald up to speed with the new warehouse we’ve selected,” said Matt. “Did you tell her?” Anger flashed in Nick’s eyes. He didn’t like Matt’s open mistrust of Gabby. Not only was he convinced that she was the snitch, but also he was sure that Nick was so besotted that he couldn’t see what was staring him right in the face. “I haven’t told her the location. She doesn’t know anything.” Matt snorted. “Let’s just keep it that way.” “I intend to.” Nick’s gaze traveled to Ronald and veered off. The message was given. “At the moment, the only two men we can trust are Bear and Martin. They have been to the jail once, and I don’t think they snitched to the police and put themselves in that mess, so they are clean as a whistle.” Matt rubbed his hand on his jaw. “When do you intend to make the delivery?” “Two days from now,” said Nick. “A day before the party.” Matt sneered. “So the party is on?” “Why wouldn’t it be?” said Nick. He shrugged. “We sure can use an excuse to have fun. It’s been a

while.” “If you want, I can make the delivery,” said Matt. Even though he was a jerk, Matt was loyal and he wasn’t afraid of work. “I’ll need you to keep a lookout,” Nick instructed. He raised his arms and stretched. “It should be ok. Our plan is perfect. No one will know and the work will be done.” “Have you talked to Ringo’s gang?” “They will deposit the goods tonight,” Nick assured him. “I’ll go over to check later.” Once the discussion was over, he went upstairs to meet Gabby. Much to his surprise, she was staring at the cell phone as if it was a snake. Seeing him, she picked it up and dumped it in her purse. “The battery is dead.” “Plug it in for charge.” Nick sat on the chair, felt restless, and stood. There was so much planning to be done for the work, and even though he had taken care of the details, it felt as if something would go wrong. What if he was mistaken about some things? He wouldn’t know until it all took place. “I’ll do it tomorrow,” she said. Her gaze strayed to the door and came back to meet his. “Are you going to stay the night?” “You know, babe, I really think you’re delaying the move to my house,” he said as he bent to take off his shoes. “It’s so much more comfortable at my place.” She smiled, locked the door, and yanked off her shirt. “Sure, it is. But these are my last days of freedom.” He looked up, not happy with her choice of words. She didn’t mean it. Sometimes she didn’t realize the things she said. He couldn’t hold it against her. “You’re going to be free.” A look of consternation flitted over her face. “I’m sorry. Didn’t mean it. It just slipped out.” Plopping in his lap, she rubbed her cheek against his. “It was stupid of me to say it.” His arms encircled her waist, squeezed. “It sure was. I’m not going to tell you what to do, whom to meet, when to go out. If you stay with me, we’ve more opportunities to spend time together. It’s a step in the right direction. Better things will follow.” Her body shuddered. The future scared her. Shit! When would she learn to go with the flow? Sometimes he wondered how much psychological damage had already been done. Would she ever recover from it? He sure hoped so. Nick envisioned a lifetime of happiness with her. He loved her, unconditionally, without reservations or fears. She was his heart and soul, and he could no longer imagine a life in which she wasn’t a part of it, whereas she waited for things to end. It was in her nature to anticipate the worst. Even though she loved him, she was scared of commitment because to

her, the worst would be if he stepped away. And she kept anticipating that he would do something like that. When her lips found his, he removed all negative thoughts from his mind. She was who she was, and he couldn’t harbor any resentment in his heart against her. Desire coursed through his veins as she put her arms around his neck. Her tongue dove in to taste the sweet recesses of his mouth. His fingers snapped behind her back to unhook the black, satin bra. He threw it aside and felt her nipples brush against his t-shirt. His hands strayed down to cup her heavy, smooth breasts. Lust coiled in his gut, hit like a punch through his nerves. Their lips remained fused together as she removed his shirt and ran her fingers all over his bare back. When they sprang apart to take a breath, he could see the need on her face. It enhanced his arousal. His gaze traveled down the beautiful column of her throat to her nipples that were as hard as cherries. She bent back a little and his lips traced the same path until he flicked his fingers over her nipples. The gasp that escaped his lips was involuntary. Her eyes closed and her lips parted. Seeing her in that state of arousal, his penis lengthened in his trousers. He couldn’t wait anymore. His greedy hands kneaded her breasts while coils of desire looped and twisted through his stomach. Carrying her, he took her to the bed. After opening the button on her jeans, he tugged them down along with panties. Naked, she spread before like a wild flower. His mind, every nerve in his body, was focused on one thing only and that that was tumultuous cords of desire that careened through his system. Every cell in his body ignited and fired. As he took off his clothes, his gaze traveled down the length of her body until he could see her warm, moist velvety center. Her thighs parted and her hand crept down to massage the sensitive nub as she waited for him to join her. Lust spiraled through in a cacophony of sensations. This was crazy. Only she could draw him to such heights of absolute madness. He loved it. As he feasted his eyes on her nubile, young body, he felt her gaze travel from his broad, strong shoulders, his wide chest, the narrow waist, and the lean legs. She halted her observation when she saw his penis that jutted out proudly from between thick curls. Vibrations, low and wild, ran through his cock as he noticed her reaction. When he stood naked in front of her, she sat. Her hand captured his hard balls and before he could think or shift, she bent her head and her tongue flicked to touch the tip of his penis. He quivered and opened his legs. She inhaled sharply as if enjoying the musky scent of his arousal. His fingers cleaved through her hair and held on with a tight grip as she nibbled her way up to the tip of his bloodengorged organ. He pushed his cock deep inside her mouth as her lips closed around his shaft. Her tongue sucked and caressed, stroked and rubbed as he throbbed with need. As he stood with his feet apart, Nick felt the wild waves of passion that ripped through his body.

No woman ever pleased him this much. It wasn’t just that she knew what to do, but he could feel her hunger that matched his, and he could sense the love that she hid so well behind her words and deeds. As her tongue danced with his cock, he felt the outpouring of her need. He was going to come. In an instant, he pulled away. “No,” she shrieked. But he wasn’t in the mood to listen. With a quick tug of his hands on her shoulders, he forced her to lie on the mattress. He mounted her. Bending his head, he closed his mouth over her nipple and sucked with greed. Her back arched as she tried to push her breast deeper in his mouth. His hand squeezed over the other mound as the tip of his penis hovered over her moist pussy. Desire, hot as fire, exploded inside his stomach and a lava of need rushed through. He simply couldn’t hold on any longer. Removing his hands from her breasts, he put them under her butt and squeezed her flesh. His cock pushed deep inside before she had a chance to shift. Her pussy, lubricated with juices, stretched to take him in. He could feel her muscles clench and unclench as she wrapped her legs around his hips. Putting his elbows on the bed, he kept his weight off her. Pulling back her arms over her head, he thrust inside her. His pelvic bone ground against hers and sensations, wild and raw, careened through his flustered nerves. As big and hard he was, she was soft and pliable. Her sexy curves fit perfectly against his stocky body. Her head shook from side to side as she was swept along the current of desire. Stroke for stroke, they moved in rhythm. The need for release build inside him, strong and powerful, and still he held on. He wanted to take his sweet time and give her a ride of her life. As her hips shifted in unison with his, he could feel her spiraling higher and higher until finally her body shuddered under his. The orgasm ripped through her with the force of a hurricane, and she let out a scream. Only when he was sure that she got her due that he allowed himself to fall through. His seed spilled inside her, and he muttered a loud oath as he collapsed on top. As always, their lovemaking was wild and fast. Nick rolled off her and drew her against him. He could feel her heart thump in her chest as she lay quietly. “I love you, babe!” he said the words quietly. She heard them but her lips didn’t move. Something shriveled in his chest. Why couldn’t she return his feelings with ease? As they straightened on the bed and lay down to sleep, Nick kept a hand on her back as she spooned into his body. He loved her with a passion that was hard to describe, and yet he felt that she wasn’t ready to accept such an offering. She was scared, still. He could accept it, live with it – but what if

she didn’t love back? At times, he knew that she felt as strongly as he did, but there were instances when insecurity crept through him. What if he was wrong? What if she didn’t feel the same way about him? If that happened, he didn’t know what he would do. For now, he was willing to be a patient man, but for how long could he continue like this? It wasn’t fair. And yet, he wasn’t prepared to force her to make a decision. Love needed to be felt, it couldn’t be wormed out of a person on demand. And surely, she would understand the depths of his feelings sooner or later. He sure hoped the time came before his patience ran out. He didn’t want to lose Gabby, but he also didn’t wish to be with someone who wasn’t prepared to commit the way he wanted. This was important to him, and he wanted the whole nine yards. He desired a lifetime, not a few snatched moments here and there. Was Gabby prepared for such a change? Did she want the same things as him? What if she wasn’t? Fear skidded through his heart as he drifted into a restless sleep. Gabby was the love of his life, but if she didn’t feel the same way, he would rather end things now than to linger on and increase his pain. Only time would tell as to how this would work out.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN She’d heard him say the words. Her heart nearly stopped when he uttered them, but Gabby couldn’t bring herself to repeat the sentiments. Of course, she felt it. She was plain crazy about the man. He was the love of her life. No other man meant as much. No other person invoked the same feelings that he did. But saying them out aloud might jinx everything. Was it easy for Nick to say the words? She didn’t know. But she was scared that he might realize that he made a mistake and declared his feelings too early. Perhaps it was pessimistic of her, but she still couldn’t fully believe that this happiness she enjoyed wouldn’t be snatched away in one way or the other. Maybe Nick would fall out of love, or he would realize that she wasn’t worthy of his attention, or perhaps she would be forced to run away if Joseph didn’t leave her alone. Anything could happen in the future, and if she made a commitment and he decided to go in another direction, she would be left naked emotionally. She couldn’t handle a betrayal like that. As she sat in the police station with her lawyer and Nick, Gabby nervously wrung her hands together. Ever since she was forced to join Joseph’s gaggle of girls, the fear of police was drummed into her. She never approached one, even when he beat her black and blue. Some policemen were on the take and since she didn’t exactly know who they were, she steered clear. If she’d ever approached the police and he got to know, he would have killed her. And even now, if he ever got his hands on her, he would make rue the day she hatched up this scheme along with Nick. When they were summoned inside the office, she sucked in a deep breath of air. It was about to start, and she’d no idea how this would end. Nick gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “I can’t come with you, love. You’ve to go with James.” He was the lawyer, and although Gabby liked him, she would have much preferred if Nick was inside. He made her feel safe. No one else had the power to quiet her frazzled never, but this wasn’t the time to make a fuss. She nodded, as she attempted to be brave. “I’ll be fine.” Gabby had expected a great deal of questions and doubtful glances. She expected to be treated like a criminal, or perhaps a liar. But much to her amazement, the police were respectful, kind even. After the first few basic questions were over, they began to probe into her background. “How old were you when Joseph snatched you off the streets?” “He didn’t exactly snatch me. I ran away from home. And when I ran out of money, I sat at a bus station where I waited for someone to take me back home, or perhaps…I don’t know why I sat there, except that there were people there and it felt safe.” She moistened her lips with her tongue, hating the

flood of memories that threatened to choke her. “He offered to give me food and said he would call my father. I went with him. It was stupid. I should’ve been wary.” “You were ten,” said one of the officers. “He was an adult. The burden of responsibility was on him.” Gabby blinked. It was so unexpected to hear a police officer utter something that made her feel as if this wasn’t her fault. All her life she’d struggled with the guilt that she did something wrong. If she hadn’t run away, if she was more careful, if she didn’t trust Joseph, none of it would have happened. His words touched her heart, eased the burden of guilt she carried for so long. “I…went to his house, or the safe house where he kept the girls.” As she described the initial days, the first few months, and then the long years in which she humped one man after another, Gabby felt the tears well in her eyes. The grief was ever-present; the pain of saying goodbye to her childhood too young, the anguish of living in such demeaning environment, and the constant agony of knowing that she wasn’t loved ate her alive, but this was the first time that she spoke about it. Much to her surprise, they halted the interview to give her time to collect her thoughts. One of them bought coffee and cake. They were kind, attentive, and caring. Most of all, they believed. It was more than what she’d hoped for. The interview lasted for four hours. She gave all the basic information. As they were wrapping up, one question startled her. “Have you had any contact with Joseph ever since you came here?” What was she supposed to say? Gabby dared not even breathe as she thought furiously about the answer. If she told them that he called her, it would open a Pandora’s Box. She would be forced to tell them about the threat he delivered. Her lawyer, James, might tell Nick. She couldn’t bear the idea of involving Nick in this sordid affair. As it was, he was in it knee deep. If he discovered that Joseph was hounding her, he might take action himself and it would put his life to risk. She couldn’t take that chance. “No, I never called him…and he doesn’t know where,” she lied. They didn’t ask any more questions. Evidently, they trusted her. The concept was alien, strange, but it was very much real. Once she stood, Gabby half expected them to shout that she was a liar and made up the whole story. But instead, they smiled politely, assured her that they would begin their investigation soon, and led her out. Nick was still waiting outside. Seeing her, his lips lifted in a smile. She melted into his arms without a thought. It felt good to be held by a man who loved her. It felt amazing to be surrounded by people who believed in her. It was such a heady feeling that she actually felt dizzy with the sheer joy of it. “Are you alright?”

She smiled. Her heart burst with love for this man who made it possible for her to overcome her past and sail past the pain of it. “Never better, love.” His eyes widened almost as if he sensed her exhilaration. His hug was comforting, loving. She rested her head on his chest for a few seconds and then she stepped away. “Let’s go.” Outside, James shook hands with them. “They have promised to make this a priority. It’s rare that someone offers them so much information on a prostitution ring. The girls who get sucked into this business are too frightened and wary to approach police. I’ve a feeling that they would want to make the most of this opportunity. Since Joseph is based elsewhere, they would now contact the relevant authorities in that area and pass this information alone. I think they will work on it with top speed to make sure that everything falls into place,” he assured them. “I’ll keep you posted as things unravel.” After James left, Gabby wore the helmet that Nick offered. She rode behind him as they drove in and out of the traffic and made their way to the clubhouse. Hope coursed through her veins like molten joy. Soon, she would get rid of Joseph once and for all, and from then on, she would never have to worry about anything. For too long, she lived a life of fear. Gabby was ready to throw away the shackles of dread that bound her for years and live a free life once more. When Joseph was behind bars, she wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore. She couldn’t wait for that moment to arrive. When they reached the clubhouse, Gabby was startled to find Matt and Ronald waiting outside. Seeing them the two men straightened. Something was amiss; their stiff posture told her that her joy was going to be short-lived. She wasn’t too far off the mark. As soon as they parked the bike, Matt barreled towards them. “You bastard!” He swung at Nick. “How dare you?” The punch would have landed on his face if Nick didn’t side step. He grabbed the younger man’s arm and pushed him away. “What the hell has gotten into you?” Matt’s face contorted into a fierce expression. “You gave us away. I’m going to kill you.” The two men scuffled outside the clubhouse. Gabby saw Willow as she stood in the doorway, her mouth gaping open at the sight. Gabby didn’t know what to do. Should she attempt to stop Matt? Nick didn’t really need any help. He was more than a match for the man who tried to hit him. Nick kicked Matt on his leg and the younger man sprawled on the ground. “Stay away from me,” ordered Nick. “Have you lost your mind?” Matt stood. He would’ve charged again but Ronald’s booming voice halted him in his tracks. “Stop it right now! Let’s take this inside.”

“They don’t deserve to come inside,” growled Matt. His lips were peeled back and malevolence twisted in his eyes. “Shit! Let me have a go at the bastard. He tried to play us.” “Stop it!” said Ronald. He held Matt’s arm in a firm grip. Gabby expected him to give hell to the younger man for starting a brawl, but instead his gaze focused on Nick. “Did you go to the police station with her?” What the hell was going on? How did they know? And why was Matt upset? “We did,” huffed Nick. “But that has nothing to do with you or him.” Matt growled. “Nothing to do with us? Your asshole. Let me go, Ronald. You’ve protected him for too long.” Gabby was sure that she was missing some crucial aspect of this situation. Why would Matt and Ronald be upset that they talked to the police? This had nothing to do with them. Did they know that she was trying to put her pimp behind bars? And if yes, how? Did Nick tell them? She sure hoped not. It was supposed to be a secret endeavor. Of course, these men were not likely to inform Joseph but James had told them to be wary of discussing this with anyone. “Is it true? Have you and Gabby given away our new location and plans to the police?” asked Ronald. She was sure that she didn’t hear him right. How could he think that Nick and she would snitch on them? This had nothing to do with them. “We went to the police, and it was something personal. It has no bearing on our dealings,” said Nick. “No bearing…I…” “Shut up, Matt,” ordered Ronald. “Wait! I need to know more. So you admit that you were at the police station? Matt saw you go in. I didn’t believe him.” Nick took a deep breath. “Listen, we went to the station. But as I said, that is something personal that I am dealing with. It’s got nothing to do with Hell Brigade.” “I don’t believe you, bastard!” said Matt. He shook his arm in an attempt to break free from Ronald’s grip, but the older man hung on. “What did you tell them?” “Ronald, man, you need to trust me. I’ve never done anything that would put the club in harm’s way. You’ve got to have faith.” Ronald shook his head. His eyes, usually so calm, were full of anger. “If you want me to listen to you,

then you need to tell me the truth. What were you guys doing at the police station?” Gabby held Nick’s arm. She didn’t want to disclose her personal secrets to anyone. Sure, they all knew about her past but they didn’t need to understand this. It had nothing to do with Hell Brigade. Matt misunderstood the situation. He must have followed Nick and thought they were going in to snitch on hell Brigade. How could they convince them that this was another matter altogether? Nick pulled himself to his full height. Anger simmered in his coiled muscles. His integrity was never questioned. It was terrible that he got into this mess because of her. “Maybe we should…” she began to say. “Quiet!” he ordered. Startled by the rebuke in his voice, she pressed her lips. Perhaps it was best to let him deal with the men. After all, she wasn’t officially a member of the biker’s club. He would know how to calm the men down. Nick turned his attention to Ronald. “As I said, this has nothing to do with Hell Brigade. Stay out of it.” Matt shifted on his feet. “You expect us to believe you?” “Yes, I do. I am telling the truth. The plan is as it was before. Nothing has changed.” “So who are you going to send to prison this time? It’s all because of this girl. Ever since she has come in, things have changed. He has changed.” Matt pointed a finger at her and then at Nick. “She has corrupted your mind. What did you tell the police?” “I told them nothing about Hell Brigade,” Nick’s voice was full of ire. The muscles in his shoulder bunched. “Stay out of this, Matt.” Ronald’s face looked as if it was cast in stone. “It’s time you confessed everything, Nick. If you can’t tell us the truth, we have to assume the worst and that means we can’t trust you anymore.” She couldn’t believe this was happening. Gabby longed to explain. Although she wanted to keep this matter private, it looked as if she didn’t have a choice. She should tell them everything, but a furious glance from Nick told her to keep her mouth shut. “If that’s the way, I quit this club.” “About time,” said Matt. “You’re no longer welcome.” “That’s not your decision,” said Ronald. Hope flared in Gabby’s heart. Would he give Nick a chance to explain? Ronald and Nick shared a good relationship. If Ronald talked nicely, Nick would probably come clean. Of course, he was doing this to protect Gabby. But she didn’t want him to be kicked out of the club due to her issues. It was better to tell them everything. Sure, they wouldn’t be happy that Nick and Gabby contacted the police, but as long as they knew that it had nothing to do with Hell Brigade, things would quiet down. She didn’t want Nick to be out of the club because of her.

If that happened, Nick would die. These were his men, his friends. He wouldn’t be able to live without them. His whole life revolved around the club and its activities. He’d put himself in danger many times because of them. How could they accuse him of being a snitch? Surely, this was a mistake. And Nick would sort it out. But Nick picked up his helmet and wore it. “Let’s get out of here, Gabby.” “But…” she started to say, flabbergasted by the speed with which everything was happening. “If that’s the way you want it, you’re going to get your wish,” said Ronald. “I don’t want to see either of you here again. Matt, we need to change the plan and the location. This asshole has already told the police everything.” Matt cracked his knuckles. The sound was ominous. “I’ll manage everything. And if I ever see you again…” he pointed his finger at Nick again. “I will bash the life out of you.” Nick’s laughter was mirthless. The rage that coiled and looped through his veins was almost palpable. “You can try, but it might not go the way you’ve planned. Gabby, get on the bike. Tell Willow to pack her stuff. We’ll collect it later.” Gabby didn’t know what to say or do. Should she try to dissuade him from making such a radical move? Maybe she should tell them why they went to the police station. She opened her mouth, but seeing Nick’s furious gaze, she closed it again. He never ever behaved in such an abrupt manner before. Matt’s rude accusations really must have pissed him off. But he was making a terrible mistake. Hell Brigade’s clubhouse was his real home. It was the one place, the one set of friends, who were a constant in his life. Without them, he wouldn’t be able to survive. He needed them as much as he required air to breathe. She longed to say all those things to him, but Gabby didn’t want to embarrass him in front of Ronald and Matt. It might be a better idea to calm him down at home and then get him to talk to Ronald. Quietly, she sat on the bike. As Nick took his place and they veered off towards his home, Gabby cast one last glance back at the clubhouse. Was this the last time she would ever see the place? It was as much her home as Nick’s, and she couldn’t bear the idea of not being a part of the wonderful lives of all these people. Dread filled her as she turned her head, rested it on Nick’s back, and waited for the next scene to unfold.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN A day after the incident, Nick and Gabby still hadn’t recovered from it. Nick’s hand caressed Gabby’s back as he contemplated all that transpired. Being kicked out of Hell Brigade was a novel experience. And even though he wasn’t as bent out of shape about it as Gabby was, his heart ached with pain. Without his buddies, he felt like half a man. “Everything will be ok,” he assured her. “But…” “Listen Gabby, I know you’re upset, but it’s not what it looks like,” he said. “What does this look like to you? To me, it seems the end of a life,” she muttered as she stood and walked towards the kitchen. “And we still haven’t picked up my stuff from there. Maybe I should go down and talk to Willow. She will explain to Ronald.” He sighed as he picked up the paper. Shit! Maybe he should’ve thought through this when he involved Gabby in it. But she was the lynch pin of this mess. Matt’s hatred for her was known to all. He’d been waiting for an opportunity like this for months and Nick basically handed it to him on a platter. The doorbell rang. Gabby opened it even as she muttered under her breath. Her mouth gaped as Ronald and Matt sauntered in. “Looking cozy, dude!” said Matt. Nick sighed. Now he was in for a world of pain. “What happened?” “It went exactly as you envisioned?” said Ronald with a satisfied grin. “Gabby dear, you look a little flustered.” Nick wasn’t in the mood to exchange pleasantries. “Who was it?” “Bryan,” said Matt. Nick ground his teeth together. Anger simmered in his stomach. “What the hell? He is Martin’s cousin. Why the hell did he snitch?” “Apparently, he was pissed off with Martin over a poker game. He set them up, and then seeing that he got a healthy reward, he got greedy.” “Shit!” Nick banged his hand on the table. “I’m going to kill that guy.” “You and me both,” said Matt as he cracked his knuckles. “Wasted so much time and effort chasing him all over the town. If you hadn’t come up with this scheme, we might have been in the dark

forever.” He was going right now to pound over the man who cost two of their men to stay in jail for three months and forced them to stop their business for weeks. It was Nick’s idea to give Ronald an excuse to throw out Nick. He suspected three men, but wasn’t sure which one of them was the snitch. This was the only plan he could come up with to ferret out the weasel. Once Nick was out, Ronald recruited the same three men that he suspected and put loyal men over their trails. The game was over in a matter of hours. He wanted the details. “How did it play out?” “As you instructed, I let the men follow each of them. Mike was on Bryan, and he saw him go to a public booth to call the police.” Ronald sneered. “He must’ve thought that he was in the clear since you were hung out to dry and that’s why he set up a meeting at a bar. He gave them the time, date, and location that we fed him and of course, they got there today afternoon and waited like idiots for something that wasn’t going to happen.” He couldn’t wait to give the guy a good whack. “Where is he now?” “If he listened to me, he would be running out of the town right now,” said Ronald as he picked up an apple from the basket that sat on the counter. “May I?” Gabby was listening to the whole conversation with disbelief. She nodded. “Sure, go ahead. You guys planned this? So it was a…fake fight?” “Of course it was,” said Ronald. He turned to Nick. “You didn’t tell her?” He didn’t tell her because he didn’t want Matt to come up with more excuses to threaten Gabby in case anything went wrong with this plan, but that wasn’t what concerned him right now. “What? You told him to go away. Why?” “Because I didn’t want you two to bang him over and then end up in jail,” said Ronald in a calm voice. “Violence is never an answer. Now, this is over. We’ve ferreted out the snitch. Things are back to normal. Take a day off tomorrow and we’ll begin operations later. And Matt, I don’t want to hear any more bickering in the clubhouse or out of it. If you’re a part of us, you accept the whole lot, or else you go take a hike.” Matt bit his bottom lip. “I suppose I owe you an apology, Gabby.” “What?” She sputtered. “I…” “It was easy to suspect you than to think that one of us betrayed us. I apologize.” Gabby looked as if a truck had hit her. She swallowed, gazed from Nick’s face to Matt’s, and then sighed. “It’s alright.”

Matt thrust out his hand. “Friends?” She took his hand, shook it. “Friends.” When Matt swept her in a hug, the look of surprise on her face was priceless. She squirmed and he let her go. “Alright, dude! See you.” Nick waved them off. Gabby closed the door behind them. She turned towards him, slowly. “So that fight was not real?” He cleared his throat. Maybe not telling her wasn’t the best move but he didn’t have a choice. Once and for all, he wanted her to get out of Matt’s radar of suspicion. Now, everyone knew that she didn’t have anything to do with the police and no one would look at her as if she were guilty. He hated to put her in that position, but it worked exactly as he envisioned. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Even though I wanted to tell you, I couldn’t. It was a secret.” “You?” She pointed a finger at him. Rage flowed over her usually calm face. “You allowed me to think that you were thrown out of the club because of me?” “It was only for one day.” He jumped to dodge the apple she threw at him. “Hey! Violence is not the answer. Didn’t you hear Ronald spout that nonsense?” “I’m going to kill you.” She stalked him, picked up a cushion from the couch and lobbed it at him. “You’re a dead man.” Nick laughed as she tried to catch him. He didn’t have a clue as to what she planned to do once she got hold of him, but it was amusing to see the look on her face. For the first time, she wasn’t the controlled and calm Gabby who always presented a tranquil façade. This was the real her; the person who wasn’t afraid to show her emotions. And he fucking loved it. When the shoe she threw at him hit him square on the head, he stopped laughing. “Hey!” he protested. The second shoe hit him on the leg. “I’ve had enough.” He lunged across, caught her around the middle, and spun her in the air. “You devil!” “You’re the devil,” she announced as she tried to get out of his hold. He spun her harder until she started to laugh. “Alright, alright. I’m sorry. Let me go.” Gently, he put her down and kissed her. It was soft and slow, easy and passionate. As his lips devoured hers, she allowed him to deepen the kiss. When his tongue dove inside her mouth, tasting and exploring with a wild abandon, nothing else seemed to exist except for the taste and scent of her. Her body fit right next to his, perfect and comfortable. He wanted this moment to last forever. Her fingers slipped through his silky hair and she held on as he swept his tongue over her gums. Their lips

were fused together for a long time and then they broke apart. “I should’ve told you, but I wanted to wipe the slate clean. Now, no one will ever suspect you. I would be pissed if you held something back from me.” His hand caressed her back. “So I know how you feel but there wasn’t another way to do this.” He felt her shoulder stiffen and then she relaxed. Resting her head on his shoulder, she gripped his arm. “It’s ok. You did the right thing. Hell Brigade is your home, my home, and we shouldn’t betray them even for each other.” “As always, your words of wisdom humble me,” he muttered. She punched him on the arm. “Stop making a joke out of this.” “Sorry.” He snatched another kiss before she could move away. “Now come on, let’s plan the hell out of that party. It’s day after tomorrow.” She sighed. There was no end to the preparation that needed to be done. After the fight, she expected that it all came to an end, but now it was obvious that the party was still on. “Let me call Willow and tell her that we’re still having that party.” She picked up her call and was about to make a call when another number flashed on the screen. “Who is it?” “I…” Her heart raced. Surely, this was the same number from which Joseph called her last time. “It’s Tasha.” The doorbell rang and as he went to answer it, she hurried into the bedroom and picked up the call. “Who is this?” “You bitch,” he said in a nasty voice. “I’m going to kill you.” Her heart stopped. Fear careened through her veins as she struggled to take a breath. “What are you talking about?” “You talked to the police. Did you think I wouldn’t know?” How the hell did he find out so quickly? Maybe the police officer who was on his take found out about the investigation and informed him? Damn them to hell. She’d thought that the police would protect her, but instead, they were the ones who gave her away. “I didn’t…” “You’re a dead girl,” he announced in a voice that was mired in rage. “When I get my hands on you, I will make your end so painful that you will be begging me to kill you.” “No, I…”

He hung up before she could say anything. Gabby stared at the phone as she sat on the bed. What the hell was she supposed to do now? Her life was in danger before. She’d thought that with the police’s aid, she would be safer, but now she was in bigger mess. Joseph was a vengeful man. He would never forgive her. His determination to capture her must have doubled. Now, if he caught her, he would make her life a living hell and her death a painful torture. She couldn’t afford to be at his mercy. “What did Tasha say?” said Nick as he came in, carrying a box. “I got the delivery today.” “What delivery?” She tried to wipe her face clean of all emotions. He mustn’t know. If he found out, Nick would be determined to protect her, and he may get hurt. She didn’t want to involve him in this cesspool that was her life. There was only one option left, and that was to make good her escape before Joseph came over to claim her life. She would have to run away. There was simply no other solution. Her heart swelled with the pain of her decision, and yet, she couldn’t afford to change her mind. “I ordered a new phone, remember? Actually, this is a gift for you.” She accepted the box that he thrust towards her. Yes, he’d been talking about a new phone, a smart phone. “What? For me? Why?” “It’s a coming home present.” He laughed but she could see that he really wanted her to like this present. “I know that you’re anxious about moving in. I thought about getting you something that would be useful in the house, but my mother always said that a man who gifted a woman a kitchen appliance deserved to be whacked on the head with it. A phone is personal, and it would make it easier for you to connect with the girls on Facebook and whatever else you guys do.” Touched as she was by his generosity, Gabby felt horrible about accepting the gift moments after she’d made the decision to move away. He didn’t deserve that but the truth was that if she stayed, he would get involved in her mess, and it might not be safe for him. Joseph was now pissed. He would kill anyone who tried to stand between her and him, and Nick would certainly try to do that. There was no other option. She had to do it, to save her own life, and to protect him also. “I…” She cleared her throat as tried to think about the right words. “This is too much. You shouldn’t have.” He sat beside her. “Open it. You’ll like it, I think. It’s got a lot of features. The camera is supposed to

be very good, and they have got a lot of other apps. I remember you talking about it with Willow. You both seemed to love this model.” It was her dream phone. She’d thought that she would get it when she saved enough money together. It was so sweet of him to not only remember but act on something that he overheard. She didn’t deserve a man like him. He was simply too good for her. “Thank you. Yes, I love it.” She hugged the box closer. “It’s exactly what I wanted.” “Well, open it.” He raised his brow. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing. “ She shook her head as she attempted to keep all thoughts out of her head. If he found even a hint that she was upset, he would wriggle the truth out of her, and she couldn’t afford it. “I’m just overwhelmed. Ah! Nick, I think I should open it after I move in.” His face showed his astonishment. “Why?” “It’s…I don’t feel good about opening a present before it’s due, you know.” It made no sense, but she couldn’t tell him that she didn’t intend to shift in here with him. That dream of his was never going to come true. Although she felt terrible about the whole situation, but the phone call from Joseph forced her to change her mind. She didn’t have a choice but to run away. It would break Nick’s heart. Gabby hated to do that to him, but she didn’t know what else to do. All other options were exhausted. If she didn’t do this, Joseph would kill her and he would hurt or injure anyone who stood in his way. She didn’t want Nick to get into trouble, and for that, she had to take measures to ensure that he never met Joseph. This was the only way, the right thing to do, and Gabby was determined to do it.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN Nick sauntered into the clubhouse, feeling happy and relieved that all the mess was behind them. From now on, they could really look forward to a brighter future. Even though he was disappointed with Bryan and would have liked a chance to teach him a lesson, he appeared to have taken Ronald’s warning to heart and disappeared for good from the city. Good riddance! As his gaze took in the festive ribbons Willow and Tasha tied to the ceiling, his billowing rage at Bryan waned. He wouldn’t allow the man to spoil his mood. “Wow! That looks good,” he commented as he stopped at the bar. Willow was neatly lining the bottles he’d delivered earlier. For this party, Nick went all out to make sure that all arrangements were perfect. The women were doing the decorations and preparing the food, but he personally selected each item and handed it over. This was the beginning of his new life with Gabby, and he wanted it to be a spectacular start into a golden life. He was extremely happy with Gabby. She was the love of his life, and he wanted her to feel special and important. This party was only the beginning of great things to come. “Thank you, dear, but this is nothing compared to the way your girl is looking,” said Willow. “I must admit that I’d something to do with that. If Tasha and I didn’t insist that she pick the right dress, she might have attended this party in jeans.” “And she would’ve rocked in it,” he said with a cheeky grin. “But I appreciate your effort.” She wriggled her eyebrows as she stood and leaned against the counter. “You’re besotted, aren’t you?” Nick laughed. “I guess I am.” “She is a rare find, that girl. But her heart’s delicate. The bruises on it are fading fast but I can still feel the pain that she felt all these years,” said Willow. “Treat her gently.” He lifted her hand and pressed it to his lips. “Oh, I intend to, and I am grateful that you’re also looking out for her. It means a lot to me, and to her.” She tugged free her hand. “Go on now, you’re going to make me cry.” Nick went upstairs. As he was going up, his gaze was drawn to the kitchen where preparations were on in full swing. He stopped by to say hello and also to check if everything was alright. Although he came to the clubhouse for a meeting with Ronald, he wanted to ask Gabby if she wanted him to take

her luggage back to his house. That way, she could leave after the party with him and they wouldn’t have to wait for another night. He was well aware that she was dragging her feet about this. Initially, he’d tried his best to be patient, but now he was becoming a little irritated. It wasn’t just that she appeared reluctant to move in, but also the fact that she wasn’t being herself. Could it be that she said yes to him in a moment of enthusiasm and was now regretting her decision? If that was the case, he would prefer if she flat out told him. Gabby wasn’t the sort of girl who played games. She was straightforward and upright, and he loved that about her. It was one of the qualities that attracted him to her, but now she was being evasive and secretive. And he hated to see her like that. Was she so averse to commitment that she didn’t even want to live under one roof? She loved him, even though she never said the words. Damn it! He knew it in his heart. No woman could make love to him the way she did and not feel anything genuine. But lately, he was having serious misgivings about her behavior. If she didn’t straighten out, he might have to confront her. But not today! It was their celebration dinner and he didn’t want anything to spoil it. As he raised his hand to knock on her door, he heard her talking to someone. Tasha? Or the new girl who just arrived yesterday? Nick knocked on the door and opened it. He strode inside. The room was empty. Gabby was shoving her phone in the purse. Her smile was bright, overly so. “Hi.” “Hello, babe! All packed up.” He noticed the bags that lay in the corner. It still amazed him that a person could pack their entire belonging in such small suitcases. When she arrived, she had only one, and now at least, there was another. It was progress. Slowly and steadily, she was becoming a normal person. “Who were you talking to?” “It’s…I…it was Tasha.” He couldn’t believe her audacity. On another day, he might not have given this another thought. He wouldn’t have even bothered to read anything on her face. But today, he could see the lies that swirled in her eyes. He hated the whole damned thing. Why would she feel the need to tell him untruths? Whom was she talking to? Was it someone he didn’t approve of? But then he never told her how to live her life. She was free to be friends with anyone she chose. He never dictated his will on her, and he didn’t intend to start now. So why would she hide stuff from him? Nick folded his arms over his chest as he tried to think. Frankly, he was tired of tiptoeing around her. It was time to make things clear. “It couldn’t be Tasha. I just saw her in the kitchen on my way over, and she gave me her phone because it was broken and needed to be fixed.”

Gabby opened her mouth and closed it. “I don’t have to tell you everything.” His eyebrow rose at the bold statement. Anger swept through his nerves, but he stomped on it viciously. He wouldn’t give in to his basic impulses. All through his life, whatever tough times he had, Nick always made it a point to behave like a gentleman with women. Perhaps it was a lofty ideal given the environment he lived in but he clung to it because it made him feel good. It didn’t matter how much she annoyed him, he wouldn’t raise a hand. “You’re right, but your lies raise suspicions in my heart. Do you want that?” Her tongue darted out to moisten her lips. Tears pooled in her eyes. That was such a surprising sight that his anger fizzled fast. He’d never seen her cry. She tried her best to hide her emotions. Gabby wasn’t the kind of girl who dissolved into tears at the slightest insult or rebuke. She was made of sterner stuff, but right now, she looked vulnerable, scared. He hated to see her like that. For now, Nick decided to back off. If she wanted to spin lies and feed him garbage, he would accept that. Perhaps it was important to her to keep this thing a secret. He didn’t understand, but he would do his best to do so. “Please give me a little time,” she pleaded. “Everything will become clear.” Having already decided to not ask more questions, he simply nodded. “Do you want me to take your bags?” Fresh fear exploded over her face. “No, I…I’ve got some things in the cupboard. Tomorrow, we can take them.” She was lying again. With an effort, nick curbed his temper. Not now! Not this way! Sooner or later, she would’ve to come clean. “Do you want me to do something about the party?” She sucked in a deep breath. “No! It’s all done. The food is ready. Willow has everything under control. I’m going to get dressed and go down in a little while.” “I’ll go home and change then,” he said. “See you in a while.” For the first time since he met Gabby, Nick was disappointed as he walked out and strode downstairs. This wasn’t the woman he fell in love with. The woman he cared for and admired wasn’t a liar. What would make her spin these tales that he couldn’t believe? Only one possibility sprang to his mind. She was having an affair. The thought even as it ran in his mind froze his inside. He couldn't move, couldn’t even take another step. All the breath whooshed out of his lungs and Nick felt lightheaded. No way. That couldn't be true. But if that was true, it explained her behavior. If she was interested in another man, she wouldn’t want to shift with him. That would curb her freedom and wouldn’t give her the chance to meet the man she liked. If that was true, it explained her shady behavior such as talking on the phone.

Shit! Was he blind? How could this possibility not occur to him before? “Hey man, what’s up?” said Matt in a loud voice as he climbed up the stairs. Startled, Nick shifted. “Alright. What are you doing here?” Matt raised his eyebrow at Nick’s abrupt tone. “I’ve recruited to deliver this to Gabby.” He held up the packet in his hand. “It’s some beads or necklaces or some such thing that Tasha lent to her.” Nick resisted the urge to snatch the package from his hand. In his current state of mind, he didn’t want to barge into her room again. And also, he didn’t think Matt was the one having an affair with Gabby. And perhaps, he was wrong. It could probably be his imagination that as going wild. “Go right ahead. I will see you at the party.” “Yeah, sure, man.” Nick must have detected something in Nick’s voice because he didn’t immediately start to climb up. Ignoring him, Nick wound his way down. He didn’t talk to anyone else. Instead, he walked out of the clubhouse. Surely, he was wrong. He couldn’t possibly be right. Gabby wasn’t the sort of woman who juggled two men at the same time. She was honest and decent. If she didn’t love it, she would have told him straight out. Why would she lie to him and sleep with another man? But nothing else fit her behavior as well as this theory. Ronald was waiting outside with Willow. They were also headed back home to get dressed. The two of them were together for more than fifteen years now. Sometimes he looked at them and his heart swelled with an ache. He wanted the same love that they shared with each other. For years, they were with each other through thick and thin. When he found Gabby, Nick had naively assumed that he’d found something similar. Given time, he expected to grow old with Gabby. Now, it looked as his dreams would never come to fruition. “Hey, how is the man of the moment?” Ronald’s grin damn near broke his head. “Ready to tie the old yolk around your neck, boy? She is moving in. That’s a huge deal.” Willow poked him in his tummy. “Don’t scare the boy. You love living with me, and he is going to cherish this too. Gabby is a great girl.”

Ronald winked at Nick. “Sure, that is true. But there is no end to the nagging, I tell you that. Pick up the towel. Don’t leave the dirty dishes in the sink. Fold the laundry and put it in. I may be boss in this clubhouse, but she works me like a slave in the house.” “Me? Nag?” Willow put her hands on her hips. Another time, her indignant expression might have amused Nick, but now he couldn’t think straight. “You just wait till we get home, Ronald James Mathew!” “See, this is exactly what I am talking about.” Ronald gripped her arm and marched her towards the bike. “Nag! Nag! Nag!” They bickered all the way to the bike, but he helped her strap on the helmet, and when she rode behind him, her arms went around his waist in a loving manner. Willow waved to him before they sped off. Nick didn’t bother to wave back. He was feeling too depressed, but maybe he was blowing this whole thing out of proportion. Surely, his sweet, loving Gabby couldn’t be cheating on him with another man. She loved him. Maybe she hadn’t said the right words back, but that didn’t mean anything. They shared a perfect relationship, and soon she would fall into his rhythm. Life was good, and he should read too much into minor incidents. Nothing could deter him from his goal of taking her home tomorrow, and once she lived with him, their lives would settle down and they would be happy forever.

CHAPTER NINETEEN Gabby hated lying to Nick. She abhorred the idea of deserting him, but it was the only way she could keep him out of harm’s way. Perhaps one day, he would understand. Or most likely, he would curse her till his last breath. She could leave him a note to explain things, but she knew that if she did so, he would try to come after her and attempt to bring her back. It was important to sever all ties so that he could remain happy in his world. Joseph would track her to the end of the world, and she didn’t want even his shadow to fall on Nick. Soon, after she was gone, Nick would get over the heartbreak. He would find someone else and be happy forever. The mere idea sent a lance of pain through her heart. She couldn’t bear seeing him with another woman, and the thought that she would never see him again was devastating. She would never be able to get over him. Never. He was the love she’d never imagined she would get, and yet, now she didn’t have a choice but to leave him. After she dressed, Gabby carried her bags to the pantry where she left them for the time being. Once the party was over, she would slip out of the backdoor. She couldn’t risk carrying the bags down the stairs at that time. This was the perfect plan. It didn’t give her much time. A few hours, at most. She checked her watch. It was already six in the evening. Soon, people would start trickling in. Once she finished her preparations, she went into the kitchen. “Hey, you look fabulous,” said Tasha as she cast an appreciative glance at Gabby. “But what are you doing here? Your dress will get spoilt. Go out, shoo!” “I just came to see if you need help.” “I’ve got everything covered,” said Tasha as she tugged Gabby’s hand and led her out of the kitchen. “You don’t need to worry over a thing. It’s your party and I want you to have fun. Tomorrow, you can be back in this kitchen and do all the work and I will sit and relax in a corner.” Gabby’s heart swelled with pain. She would never see her friend again. Would Tasha wonder what made Gabby do such a miserable thing? Would they all sit and speculate over her reasons? She would never find such good friends ever again. She clasped Tasha’s hand in hers. “Tasha, you’re amazing. Don’t ever change.” Her grin split her lips. “And you’re amazing too, girl.” “What is this? A mutual admiration club?” said Willow as she sashayed towards them. She wore a black shirt, a while off-the-shoulder blouse, and wore a bandana from which a feather jutted upward. “How do I look?” Tasha clapped. “Fantastic. I love it. Guess I should go and change.”

“You think? Yeah, go run, girl. People would start coming in. This party is happening, and don’t worry about anything in the kitchen, I will handle it.” Willow cast her gaze over Gabby’s outfit. Reaching with her hand, she fiddled with the necklaces until she was satisfied. “You do look beautiful, like an angel who has come in the guise of gypsy. When Nick sees you, he will be floored.” Her heart squeezed with the pain of the knowledge that only she was privy to. Gabby fought the tears that sprang to her life. “Your dress will get spoilt if you work here. Let me help you.” “Oh no, you don’t.” Willow put her arm around Gabby’s waist and led her to the main room, away from the kitchen. “Tonight, you relax and enjoy. We want you to have fun.” “I’ve had nothing but fun ever since I came here, and you’ve been a delight, Willow. I don’t know what I would have done without you.” Willow caressed Gabby’s cheek. “You would’ve managed just fine, girl. It’s you who have made this life. It’s all your doing, and I am so proud of you. Nick is a great guy, and I just know that you guys will be happy together.” She swallowed the lump that rose in her throat. No way was she making a fool of herself. Gabby couldn’t afford to raise any suspicion. If these girls even suspected that she was contemplating such a move, they would run to Nick and tell him everything. No one would let her go easily. That was their love, the extent of their loyalty. For their sakes, she would’ve to be stealthy and cunning. Even as she was thinking all these thoughts, Nick strode in. She stiffened, suddenly scared that she might have spoken aloud. For a moment, his gaze was cold, icily so, as if he knew but then his expression softened. “You look absolutely gorgeous.” She moistened her lips with her tongue as her gaze feasted on his handsome face. She would never see the devilish twinkle in his eyes, never ever be able to curl into his arms, and she would never know the gentle love he showered on her so unselfishly. “Thank you, kind sir. You clean up pretty good, too.” “Ah!” He kissed her cheek, drew her in his arms, and rested his chin on her head. “Nothing compared to you, babe! You look hot!” She laughed at the obvious honesty in his words, but before she could say anything, Willow marched out from the kitchen. “You two love birds better break it up before the guests start pouring in. Nick, I want you to bring the plates that I have set in the kitchen. Put them on the bar.” “Slave labor,” he muttered in her ear as he walked off. “Anything else, ma’am?” Willow winked at Gabby who was still staring at Nick. “Oh yeah, you can also serve behind the bar tonight until someone else takes over. Although, I think, they will all be having too much fun to help

you much tonight.” Muttering under his breath, Nick went into the kitchen. After he came out and set the plates, he began setting the chairs according to Willow’s firm instructions. Gabby had to admit that the girls did a fabulous job with the decorations. Festive balloons and ribbons hung down. Flowers, fresh and colorful, were put in round jars on the tables that were covered with red tablecloths. Soon, people began to come in, and rather than sit and talk, Gabby began to serve the drinks along with Nick. It was a fabulous party, made even more so because everyone knew each other. The atmosphere was relaxed and genial. In comparison, she felt as if she strung as tight as a bow. Soon, she would be out of this place, away from these people, and in some other city where she wouldn’t know anyone. She would miss them all, but her life would be barren because Nick wouldn’t be in it. The music blared out of the speakers, and soon people began to dance. Nick tugged her hand. “Let’s take a breather.” “The bar?” “Hey, Peter, you mind the bar for a few minutes, man. I’m going to dance with my lady love.” Peter took over without protest. Their last dance! Their last party! Gabby moved willingly in Nick’s arms as he led her to the floor. The music pounded inside her head, took over every thought and worry. For just a few minutes, she wanted to enjoy herself. She wanted to have fun and carry the memory of this glorious day with her forever. Tilting her head up, she glanced at him. His green eyes sparkled in the dim light. The long column of his throat was smooth and enticing. She resisted the urge to swipe her tongue over his creamy skin. Desire licked her insides as she danced with him. The whiff of his strong cologne hit her nostrils and she inhaled the familiar scent, relishing it, cherishing it. As the music shifted beats, he swung her around. People around them clapped as they began swaying to a fast, salsa number. With Nick, it was always easy to match steps. Turning and swaying, they moved in unison. She’d always loved to dance. It was so heady and intoxicating to give over to the music that pumped in the room. Soon, he began to guide her by giving claves. She followed the little tugs and pushes that told her when he wanted her to turn or dip. She was perfectly in tune with him, and he with her. Together, they were liquid, molten dynamite on the dance floor. When the song came to an end, she took a moment to rest her head on his shoulders. Their bodies fit together, almost perfectly. She could feel the bulge under his trousers through the thin material of her dress. He was hot for her. There was nothing more that she wanted than to pull him away from the crowd, take him to her room, and make wild love to her. But this wasn’t the time or place. She would never again get the opportunity to run her fingers over his warm skin, to run her hips on his, and to feel him pound into her. They would never lie down together or take a stroll down by the harbor. She would never sit across a table and have a nice conversation with him again. Nothing in

her life would ever be right. Nick guided her back to the bar. “Duty calls, babe!” As they reached the bar, Peter threw an empty carton of juice in the bin. “Hey, we are out of orange juice.” “I’ll get some from the pantry next to the kitchen,” said Nick. She clutched his arm so hard that her fingernails might have left marks on it. “No, wait, I will get it. I know where it is.” She left before he could say a word. If Nick went inside and saw her bags, he would know in an instant as to what she planned, and then she would have to explain everything. She would have to disclose the phone calls she received and the threats that Joseph planned, and he wouldn’t let her go. Marching into the tiny pantry, she took a deep breath. Her bags were right under the bottom shelf, but they were clearly visible. Maybe she should put them outside in the alley. No one ever came to this place, so there was hardly any chance that they would be stolen, but perhaps someone might step outside to smoke and see them. As she debated over the next move, Gabby took out two cartons of orange juice. The sound of the ringing cell phone was loud and insistent. She’d put it in her bag. Who could be calling her at this time? Everyone she knew was at the party, except perhaps one person. She didn’t want to pick up the phone, but Gabby took it out of the bag. She glanced at the number. He always called her from a different number, perhaps to confuse her, or maybe because he was cautious by nature. Even though she didn’t want to talk to him, Gabby picked up the call. “Hello?” “A party, is it?” said his mocking, hard voice. “Enjoy because it might be your last.” The knowledge that he knew exactly what she was doing filled her with such a dread that the cartons of orange juice slipped from her hands. They fell on the floor. One of them sprang a leak. She couldn’t bend to pick them. Her breath hitched in her throat and there was a sharp ringing noise in her ears. “You? How do you know?” With an effort, she wrenched the words out of her mouth. “Where are you?” As she tried to get back her breath, his manic laughter filled her ears. Gabby felt dizzy. Someone opened the door and stepped inside. Vaguely, she was aware that it was Nick. She wanted to cut the call and shove the phone back in the bag. The spilled juice ran under her shoes, and she couldn’t even muster the courage to step away. Nick took the phone out of her hand and pressed it to his ear. Gabby

collapsed against the shelf, barely holding on as she tried to stay upright. She was going to faint. Dizziness overcame her. All she could see were Nick’s glittering eyes that gleamed with rage. Slowly, the emotions that swirled in their clear depths solidified and the rage turned to molten, hot wrath. His shoulders stiffened and his hand clutched around the phone so hard that she thought he might break it. On some level, she was aware of all this, but her body was frozen in place. She couldn’t move, couldn’t shift. “You’ll never get your dirty hands on her. Never. Don’t ever call her again, you bastard. If I ever see you, I will break apart all your limbs one by one. Do you hear me?” Joseph must have cut the line after hearing the unfamiliar voice because Nick shoved the phone in his pocket. “Why didn’t you tell me?” “I…” She opened her mouth to say something but then Gabby actually fell in his arms. She fainted. Blissful oblivion took over. When she opened her eyes again, she was in her room. Nick was sitting in a chair by her bed and Willow, Ronald, and Tasha stood against the wall. Her small crowd never hosted so many people before. It was crowded, but for some reason, she took comfort in their presence. If they were there, Joseph wouldn’t be able to touch her. He wouldn’t be able to get it. She was safe for now. Safe. Safe. The word was a mantra that she repeated over and over again as she tried to get a hold on her emotions. Nick smoothed a hand down her hair. “Are you alright?” “Maybe I should get some juice,” muttered Tasha. “She should eat or drink something.” “Should we take her to the doctor?” said Willow in a worried voice. “What happened?” Gabby attempted to sit up. “I am fine.” Nick put his hand on her shoulder. “Relax. You need to rest for a while. Scared the life out of me when you fainted.” Gabby felt immensely guilty about the party. “What about everyone else?” “We’ve served the food so people are digging in, but of course, they are concerned about you. What happened, Nick?” So he didn’t tell them. Gabby’s eyes sought his. For some strange reason, tears welled into them. She pushed them back, but stubbornly they slipped down her cheeks. “I’m sorry. It’s all my fault.” “It’s not your fault. The man who is threatening you is at fault. He should be arrested and put behind bars,” said Nick. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me that he was threatening you?”

“Who is threatening her?” said willow. Ronald cracked his knuckles. “Who is the bastard? We’ll beat the hell out of him.” They didn’t have a clue what the situation was, but the lot of them would fight for her in a moment if the need arose. This was love. This was loyalty. And she didn’t deserve a bit of it. More tears poured out of her eyes. She swiped them away with the back of her hands. “It’s nothing. You shouldn’t concern yourself. I’ve got it all worked out.” “So what’s the grand plan? You were going to run away so that he would never get you. Is that why your bags were packed? You were going to leave us?” Nick’s voice was calm, friendly even, but his eyes shot accusations at her. “Were you going to leave me, Gabby?” “Of course, she wasn’t planning such a silly thing,” Willow spoke in protest. Grateful as she was for the support, Gabby nodded. “Yes, I was. It’s the only way. He knows where I am.” Her hand crept on his, squeezed, as she tried to draw comfort from his touch. “He knows where I am,” she repeated. “And he said that he wouldn’t leave me alone. He would kill me, and if you’re there with me, he would kill you too. Please, Nick. It’s the only way. I’ve to leave, go somewhere, and start all over again.” He held her hand to his lips. “Gabby, nothing is going to happen to you. I will protect you. We all will.” Panic licked her insides like a flaming fire. “You don’t understand. He knows where I am. He can come here anytime he wants, and if he finds me, he will kill me. And if you stand in his way, he will hurt you too.” He grasped her hands and squeezed them. His eyes bored into hers, making promises that she wasn’t sure he could keep. He didn’t understand the depth of her fear because he didn’t know what Joseph was capable of. Nick never saw the man hit her. She’d once seen him whack a prostitute until she started bleeding from her nose, and she heard tales of his cruelty. He wasn’t just a pimp, he also took on occasional hits for the mafia. She wasn’t sure if that was true, or if it was merely gossip, but she was astute enough to realize that the man had a cruel streak that was a mile wide. Whatever happened, she didn’t want Nick to get into the line of fire. She would protect him at all costs – and the only sure way of doing so was to get as far away as possible. “Gabby,” said Nick in a voice that brooked no argument. “You’re not going anywhere, not now, and not ever. If you try to get away, I will come after you and if I don’t find you, I will go and find that bastard Joseph and kill him.” She clutched his shoulder in a hard grip. “No! You can’t go to him.”

“If you ever go away, that’s exactly what I am going to do and it’s a promise. So think about it before you make up your mind.” Gabby couldn’t stop the tears that flooded down her cheeks. She didn’t want to appear like a wimp. Oh, God no! But it was impossible to stem the flow that wet her face. If something happened to Nick, she would never be able to forgive herself. “Please don’t do this.” “Promise me that you’ll never try to get away.” She didn’t want to say the words. Once she said them, she would be bound, but Gabby was absolutely certain that he meant every word, and she couldn’t take the risk that he would do what he said. She stared at him, beseeching him with her eyes to not make her do this, but he didn’t budge. “I promise.” With those two words, her fate was sealed. For better or worse, she was staying at Hell Brigade – and only time would unfold her future.

CHAPTER TWENTY They lay in bed together as silence reigned in the room. With much effort, she pulled herself into a sane state of mind. After Willow and everyone left them alone, Nick went down to tell everyone that she wasn’t feeling well. He came back up soon enough and told her that Willow was serving the food. Although she felt terrible about ruining the party, Gabby was glad that it was just the two of them. Nick held her hand while her head was cushioned on his arm. “Why didn’t you tell me?” It hurt him that she didn’t inform about this sooner. Although she felt terrible, she wished that he didn’t know at all. She could have been far away by now, and he would have been safe. But now everything was changed. They were in this together, and she wasn’t as yet sure as to how she felt. “I didn’t want you to stop me, and look what happened…the very thing that I feared. You managed to stop me from putting my plan in action.” If he didn’t come in, she would have gone away. Her life would be miserable without him, but she would have done the deed to save her life, and also to keep him away from this mess. But now he was in it, and they would have to deal with it in one way or another. He sighed. “I should confess one thing…I thought you were having an affair.” She shot up. In all the commotion and excitement, she had forgotten that he followed her into the pantry for another reason. Gabby wasn’t sure if she was amused or insulted. Or another day, she might have taken offense, but tonight, she was just grateful that she was still in the same room as him. “How can you think like that?” He winced. “All those phone calls, and you hiding stuff from me…I knew something was up, and that was the logical conclusion.” “You’re a pig,” she said. “Why do men have to jump to the wrong conclusion?” “And why do women have to think that they know best?” She caressed his cheek. Perhaps she should be enraged that he suspected her, but damn it, she simply couldn’t muster up the strength to get angry. “You’re crazy.” “About you, yes.” Gabby bent to kiss his soft lips. As always, desire awakened with the speed of lightning. “I would never cheat on you. Never. That’s my promise. Do you believe me?” His arms tightened around her like bands. “I do.”

Emotions, wild and stormy, twisted in his eyes and a desire to run her hands all over his hot, sexy body spiraled inside her. Need and lust exploded in her gut and the vibrations of it careened down to her moist, warm pussy. Moisture leaked down her thighs and she pressed her legs in an attempt to stem the flow but it was a useless endeavor. Sensations, wild and raw, gripped her in their fiery grasp. As if recognizing the signals she gave, his lips lifted in a tiny smile. She didn’t know which one of them made the first move, but within a few seconds, their clothes came off and were thrown on the floor in a large heap. Gabby’s tongue darted out to moisten her lips as her gaze traveled down from the gorgeous beauty of his face to the rippling muscles on his chest and down to the dark hair that enveloped his hard, proud cock. All she desired was to feel his hard body pressed against her and to have him pound into her with a vicious, hungry need that matched hers. It was obvious that he thought along the same lines because his gaze traveled over her face, down to the smooth column of her throat, and settled on her creamy, firm breasts. A sigh of pleasure escaped her lips at the sweet, gentle touch. When he lay down beside her, she turned to face him. It was so good to stare into his eyes and see love reflected back. Nothing was more precious, more wanted. When his lips claimed hers once more, her arms tightened around his back. His tongue swept over her lips, dove in to stake a claim, and he nipped her with his teeth. Slowly, almost reverently, his mouth nibbled down her throat and his tongue swirled over her engorged nipple. The waves of desire that rippled through her were intense, unrelenting. As he paid homage to one breast after another, she squirmed underneath him. The exquisite torture slowly drove her mad. It banished all thoughts from her mind until all she was a bundle of frayed nerves. His tongue invoked a fire with each stroke and she writhed under him. This wasn’t enough. She wanted more. While he played with her body, she ran her hands all over his back. When he shifted away, she slipped her fingers around his cock that nearly vibrated with sheer need. Enjoying the way his pulse beat at the base of his throat, she ran her hand up and down the hard shaft. Slithering down, she kissed the tip of it. Her fingers caressed his balls that were hard with need. Her tongue licked over his cock, and she opened her mouth to take it in. She rubbed and fondled the blood-engorged organ until he began to moan. The scent of his arousal was strong and served to enhance her pleasure. His hands settled on her hips and squeezed as if he was urging her to move harder, faster. She increased the rhythm. Just as she thought he was about to come, he pulled his penis out. “No!” she groaned, secretly marveling at the way he controlled everything. He knew exactly what he was doing.

Pulling her up, he rolled her on the bed and straddled her. The tip of his cock pushed against her velvety center, and she opened her legs, willing and welcoming him in her scented depths. Need burned in her blood. He took his time, rubbing his shaft up and down her moist opening until she clenched the bed sheets in desperation. Hurry, hurry, hurry! She wanted to scream, but nothing escaped her lips except for low moans. The yearning for precious release burnt in her veins, and when he thrust in his cock, she arched her hips in a bid to receive him. His pelvis ground into hers, and she could feel the muscles in her sheath expanding, stretching, to accommodate him. She wrapped her legs around him and moved. Over and over, he pounded into her. The ride was wild and fast. Coils of desire and passion looped all over her body and held her prisoner. For a long, long time, they rocked in unison. Higher and higher, she spiraled upwards until she swung on the edge of the deep precipice. Just as she thought she couldn’t take it anymore, release, blessed and stormy, crashed through her veins. A short, loud scream burst out of her mouth as she skidded far below. The orgasm made her toes curl. As she shuddered in the aftermath of the storm that rocked her body, he spilled his seed inside her. For some time, they lay still, each of them lost in the glory of the moment. She pressed her face into his shoulder. “I love you,” she said so quietly that Gabby wasn’t sure if he heard. He didn’t respond. She wasn’t sure, but then he shifted away. His hand caressed back her hair from her face and his lips hovered over hers. “I love you, too, Gabby. A lot. More than a lot, actually. Don’t ever leave me.” She closed her eyes as his lips closed over hers. What a beautiful moment this was, what a glorious day. She couldn’t wait to live the rest of her life with Nick. He was the man she never expected to find, and now that he was hers, she didn’t want to ever let him go – but Gabby wasn’t sure if her troubles were over yet. But tonight was theirs – and for now, it was enough.

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE Her life certainly couldn’t be any better. It was an ordinary, normal day. Gabby set the chicken in the oven and switched on the timer. Nick was due to come home soon, and she wanted to present him with a lovely meal. It was hard to believe that she’d been with him for a month already. Although she had moved a bit reluctantly to his house, now it felt like home. She loved being the queen of the house, doing chores, and waiting for him at times when he was away doing club work. In all her years of slavery as one of Joseph’s prostitutes, Gabby never imagined that one day she would live a quiet, mundane life. It was one of the biggest blessings in her life. Now that the investigation against her former pimp, Joseph, was in full swing, she was a little more relaxed. She’d contemplated running away, but when Nick discovered her plans by accident and forbade her to make any such move, she discarded the idea. He assured her that if she did any such rash thing, he would come after her and failing that, he would confront her ex-pimp and fight the man. She didn’t want him to get into trouble on her behalf. If he fought with Joseph, he might end up going to jail or else getting hurt. Nick meant the world to her and she couldn’t bear it if anything bad happened to him, so she put her plans on the backburner. Already, things were getting better. It was more than a month ago that she received her last threatening call from Joseph. Maybe he was too busy hiding from the police to put his plans regarding her into action. Or perhaps, he’d given up the idea knowing that she was well protected. Nick hardly ever left her alone, and even when he did, the house contained enough security measures to prevent any intruder from walking in. Nick and the Hell Brigade, the motorcycle club to which he belonged, weren’t taking any chances with her safety. With each passing day, she felt more secure, a little freer. And soon, when the police officially filed a case against Joseph, she wouldn’t have to worry about anything. The doorbell rang. Even though she knew it was Nick, Gabby checked the peephole and then the video feed that came from the camera mounted over the front door before she opened the lock. The handsome man who stood at the doorstep was all hers. Joy coursed through her veins as she greeted him with a smile. “Hey, darling!” His kiss on her mouth was friendly, and yet she felt the fission of desire that always overtook her whenever he was around. “You look good enough to eat,” he said. “In that case, I will take the chicken out of the oven.” When he picked up the large carton he’d put on the floor, she raised an eyebrow and moved aside to let him in. “What’s that?” “Patience is a virtue,” he said.

She wrinkled her brow as she followed him to the study. Nick was once a financial guru. He made adequate money to buy a house and set aside enough investments to not worry about making a living. The work he did for the club was mostly pro bono even though all the club members got a good cut from the profits that came in from their various borderline-illegal activities. Nick was slowly converting the club’s policies and setting up their cash flow streams to come from legal work. He didn’t want any more of their people to end up in jail. It was a noble venture, and yet it was taking time as there were some members who were resisting the shift, despite the obvious benefits. The kitchen timer went off, and rather than see what he was up to, she got busy with dinner preparations. After lighting a candle, she dimmed the lights in the dining room and set things up on the table. The white and yellow roses she’d set in the vase added the perfect, sweet touch. For tonight, she’d even baked a cake, one of her first attempts. It didn’t turn out as well as she hoped, but with practice, she would become better. “Wow!” said Nick as he entered. “What’s the occasion, babe?” A little disappointed that he didn’t remember that it was their first month anniversary of her official move into his house, she pouted. Unreasonable expectations were the bane of every relationship. She shouldn’t hold him to such high standards. “It’s our one month anniversary. Not a big deal, but I thought we should celebrate in a special way.” He wrinkled his brow, looking a little flustered. “Ah! You should’ve reminded me. I would’ve gotten a gift.” Gabby tried to keep the petulance out of her voice. She didn’t want to be one of those women who expected the man to read their minds and then got enraged when he failed to do so. Nick was the most loving, generous man, and there was nothing else that she wanted other than what he was already giving her. “Don’t worry about it. Why don’t you sit? I will bring the food.” “Wait a minute.” He grabbed her arm. “I’ve got something to show you in the study.” She rolled her eyes as she marched along. “Can’t it wait until after dinner? I am starving.” “This won’t take long.” When she entered the study, Gabby couldn’t tell what he referred to. The empty carton stood on one side against the wall. “What?” He pointed at a sleek, white laptop that sat on the desk. Gabby’s eyes widened. “No!” “Oh, yes. Happy Anniversary, babe! You didn’t think I’d actually forgotten, did you?” He laughed, took her in his arms, and deposited a kiss on her mouth. “It’s yours.” “Oh no, I can’t accept that.”

He nuzzled against her neck. “Yes, you can and you will, and I don’t want to hear another word about it.” She’d mentioned once that it would be so much easier if she could do her assignments on computer, and he’d offered to her that she could use his. She did so occasionally, but secretly, Gabby was saving to buy one of her own, but it would have taken her years to get enough cash to buy the beautiful machine that stood on his desk. Sometimes, he was way too generous, and she didn’t know how to respond when he showered her with gifts. Since Gabby wasn’t the sort who took pleasure in too many clothes and jewels, he indulged her love for sleek gadgets. “It is way too expensive, Nick. I really can’t accept it.” “In that case, I will have to throw it in the garbage.” He moved towards the laptop. “What a waste of money that would be.” “Wait!” She held his hand. “You’re just saying it to make me take it.” “You want to see me throw it?” he questioned. The man was obstinate right down to his bone. She knew him too well. If she didn’t accept it, he would probably do what he threatened. She tugged him back. “Fine, fine. Oh my God, Nick. That’s just too fantastic a gift. I could do all my research on it and write papers, and I will have to learn to use all these programs.” Overwhelmed by joy, she hugged him. Raising her chin, she glanced at him. Her sweet, handsome man, he just knew how to push her buttons and how to make her happy beyond her ability to express it. He hadn’t forgotten after all, he was merely toying with her. “Thank you. I love you.” “And I love you.” He hugged her close. “And don’t you forget it, ever.” Resting her head on his shoulders, she gazed at her laptop. Although she was dying to try it out, there were other things she’d planned. “Let’s eat,” she said. Together, they moved into the dining hall. She brought out the food and he served. For tonight, she opened a bottle of wine and soon conversation flowed, as it always did so easily when he was with her. “The meeting was a fiasco,” he declared. She cut the chicken. It was delicious and juicy. “Why? Did Matt create some other problems?” The animosity between Matt and Nick lessened to a large degree, but that was only after Matt became sure that she wasn’t the snitch who gave away their details to the police. Even now, though, he kept his distance from her. Whereas Nick was cool minded and organized, Matt boasted a fierce temper, but he was loyal to the club, a quality that couldn’t be ignored. “He doesn’t want to take on steady work,” complained Nick. “I’ve assured him and others that if we run our own warehouses, legally, we wouldn’t have to deal with the police ever. Sure, it would take

some time to set up the project, but once it’s done, we can all sit back and relax and reap the rewards from our labor.” “They don’t understand your vision.” “Ronald comprehends the general idea, but none of them have ever started anything from the ground up, and of course, it’s not easy to set up something in the club’s name. We’ve to get licenses, registration, and there are mounds of paperwork.” “I could help,” she offered. Although Gabby was not an official member of the club that only accepted men, she was just as good as. Whereas Hell Brigade was once a group of punks who rode fast bikes and dated hot girls, they were slowly and steadily settling into a more staid pace under Nick’s guidance. Their first love always would be a penchant for fast driving, but they sure could start a few legal businesses and become more respectable. It wouldn’t change the way they operated, but it would give them legitimacy and keep their members out of trouble. That was Nick’s vision. Not everyone agreed with it – and yet he worked hard to make them see what he planned. “Thanks, babe, but for now we’re all set.” The conversation moved to other topics. Gabby was nearly finishing her second year of high school. Since she was working from home, she could finish the curriculum at her pace, and with Nick’s help, she was doing it faster than anyone ever before. In fact, she was already harboring dreams of joining a college. She’d wasted ten years of her life confided under Joseph’s rule and now wanted to make the most of these opportunities. Nick finished his dinner and set the fork on the plate. “Tomorrow is Sunday. Maybe we could do something interesting?” “Define interesting,” she said. “We could take a boat out for sail,” he said. “Miles, the artist and gallery owner, whose paintings you like has his own boat, and he wants us to come along for fishing.” She pouted. Although she liked Miles and was quite a fan of his work, this little idea didn’t appeal to her all that much. “Fishing? That sounds like a man’s endeavor.” He opened his eyes wide. “You don’t like fishing?” “The idea of catching innocent fish and reeling them in doesn’t appeal to me.” “But it’s alright if you cook and eat them, right.” He laughed as she squirmed. “That’s hypocritical.” She stuck out her tongue at him. “Fine, maybe it is but I also don’t want to sit in a boat in hot weather while you guys swap fishing stories. I could just stay at home and you can do this with him, and perhaps you can invite him later for dinner.” Nick picked up their plates and took them in the kitchen.

She followed behind to get the cake. “I’ve made chocolate fudge cake, and I’ll be honest enough to admit that it didn’t come out exactly as I planned, but I think the taste should be ok.” She showed him the cake that was a little lopsided. “What do you think?” “It looks good enough to me.” Loyal to a fault, he didn’t bat an eye at the weird shape. “Let’s just cut it and see. Now that you’re cooking every day, I think I’ve put on five kilos of weight. Maybe it’s time to join a gym.” It was true that she was trying out new recipes. Although Gabby went to the clubhouse during the day to cook and clean, she came back after lunch and had enough time on her hands to indulge in all the things that she never got to do before. Despite her school work, she was learning not only how to cook and bake but was also taking gardening classes once a week. “We should start running together in the morning,” she suggested as she carried the cake to the dining room. He picked up the dessert plates and followed her. “That’s a good plan,” he agreed. She served him and sat. He took a bite and swallowed. “So how is it?” “It’s delicious.” Narrowing her eyes, she took a bite. Gabby spat out the cake. Looking at her, he took another bite. She snatched away his plate. “Have you gone nuts? It’s salty.” “Doesn’t taste all that bad. It could be a new invention.” Laughter sputtered out of her. Getting up, she strode over, and plopped on his lap. “Don’t tell me that you love me so much that you can eat a salty cake and pretend that it’s yummy.” “I love you all that much and more.” He rubbed his nose with hers. “But I suppose the cake could have been better.” “You can take it to feed to the fish tomorrow.” He tucked away a lock of her hair behind her ear. The brief contact was enough to make her sizzle. The slow burn of desire skidded up her skin. “Actually, I think it might be better to stick around. We could take a walk down the harbor in the evening. Fishing doesn’t sound that exciting anymore and knowing Miles, he is going to bore me with his stories.” Since Miles was far from boring, Gabby caught on quickly. She knew what he was doing. He didn’t want to leave her alone the whole day. She didn’t relish the idea of sitting in a boat all day long, but Gabby was game for it if was something he desired. As long as she was with him, nothing else mattered.

“In fact, I was thinking that it might be a good idea to go for a sail. I’ll take along a book to read while you guys fish. And it would be nice to get some fresh air,” she said. “But…” She put a finger on her lips. Could she get any luckier? He would change his plans in a heartbeat to suit her so why couldn’t she do the same? “No buts. We’re doing it.” He kissed her, slow and soft. Desire undulated in gentle waves. Putting her arms around his beck, she deepened the kiss. It felt good to have their tongues entangled in an exotic, erotic dance that made all other thoughts fled from her mind. As their lips fused together, only one thought remained and that was the idea that she couldn’t have found a better man. All she wanted was to spend her life with him, and for that, she was willing to pay any price.

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO The boat ride was a disaster. Not a single fish was caught. Nick blamed it on Miles’s constant chatter that kept the prey at bay. Disgruntled, he dismounted from the boat and took out his gear. “It was a pleasure, man.” Miles shook hands with him, a beaming smile fixed on his face. “Gabby, next time you need to try.” “Yeah, maybe, you could catch a fish,” muttered Nick as he turned away. Gabby pinched his arm as she exchanged a conversation with Miles. After securing the boat, they headed back towards Miles’s gallery that boasted many of his paintings. He was a renowned painter and was known far and wide for his talent, but it was now obvious that he didn’t have the skills to catch fish. Still, she was quite fond of the man who had been trying to convince her for weeks to sit for a painting with him. “You’re my muse,” he insisted as they walked back, empty-handed. “I don’t know if I would be comfortable sitting for so long and I just don’t have that much time also.” He clapped his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “I’m sure he can stay without you for a couple of hours each day.” She frowned. “That’s way too long. I’ve got my studies and work at the clubhouse.” “How about if we sit twice a week for two hours? That would suit you?” Fond as she was of Miles, she didn’t like being cornered. “Let me think about it.” “I’ll get you one of these days,” he promised. When they reached his gallery, he waved his hand and sauntered off. “I’m going to kill that guy,” muttered Nick as he grabbed her hand and marched her along. “Ruined the whole day with his nonstop talking. I should’ve put a masking tape on his mouth.” A giggle escaped her lips. “You can’t possibly be that rude, and it wasn’t really his fault. It was just a bad day.” “The fish could probably hear him from a mile off,” he grumbled. “I’m never going with him again. The man all but single-handedly destroying any prospect of catching fish, and the ones that we did catch were so small that we had to throw them back in. Why did he even bother to tell us to join him for fishing if all he wanted to do was talk?”

She rubbed her hand over his back, a little amused at his consternation. Men seemed to take fishing a bit too seriously. As far as she was concerned, it was a perfectly pleasant day. They had a lovely time together, shared a wonderful picnic lunch, and enjoyed the brisk breeze. Of course, it would have been nice if they had actually caught something, but that didn’t sting her as much as it hurt Nick who appeared to take it as a personal affront. “He is lonely and wants to have friends.” Gabby could see into a person’s heart far more clearly than Nick. The hardships she faced during her childhood and well into her adulthood made her more sympathetic and attuned to judging others. “Of course, he has friends.” “Hardly,” she said. “The people he hangs out with are all artist types and he likes them, but they are not his buddies. Maybe we should invite him over for dinner one day.” He shrugged. “Alright, if that’s what you want. He is harmless enough.” The normalcy of her conversation with Nick, the sheer joy of doing something as ordinary as being able to invite a friend over for dinner, overwhelmed Gabby at the oddest of times. She just couldn’t get over the freedom she enjoyed and the simple life that she lived. For years, she believed that she didn’t deserve it, that she would never have it, and now it was a gift that she cherished with all her heart. When they reached the door of their house, Nick opened the door and they strode in. Home sweet home. This was also another long cherished dream that somehow came true. During her years of enslavement, she never dared to imagine that one day she would share a house with another person. Whenever she entered this place, Gabby was filled with a sense of happiness that lifted her spirit. If she ever had to leave this life and Nick, she would be devastated. The thought was enough to make her tremble, but she pushed it away. Gabby was determined to live in the moment. Nothing else mattered except her happiness with Nick, and she wouldn’t let her doubts ruin it. After stowing the gear in his shed outside, Nick came back in. She was fiddling with the pots and pans in the kitchen. “I’d planned to cook the fish, but since we don’t have any, I’m going to make chicken.” She ignored his groan as he sauntered forward. “And maybe we could have pecan pie with it.” Encircling her waist with his arms, he nuzzled against her neck. She bathed in the glory of his love. It felt wonderful. It felt divine. When she turned in his arms, and their lips fused together, her fingers speared through his silky hair. This felt good. Their tongues twisted in an erotic dance that lasted for a long time. She tasted the recesses of his mouth as if she explored them for the first time. Passion stirred in her nerves.

He raised his head and glanced at her. His green eyes glittered like jewels. “Bedroom first.” She laughed. “And who is going to cook?” He swept her off her feet and strode towards the bedroom. “We’ll order in.” Even after all this time, their passion for each other hadn’t dimmed. It felt glorious to be so wanted, so needed. What else could she ask for? Gabby put her arms around his neck as he marched on. He playfully tossed her onto the bed. As he stood staring at her, sweat dampened her palms as she tried to fight the desire that undulated inside her body. After all this time, the need should’ve dulled, but instead each time, she felt it was stronger than ever before. Passion, untamed and powerful, coiled in his eyes. She remained rooted to her bed as he yanked off his shirt and threw it on the floor. She’d seen the sight many times, but it never failed to elicit a response. The hard muscles on his chest rippled, and she longed to run her hands over his sleek, sexy body. Lust, wild and explosive, careened through her veins as she drank in the sight of his gorgeous body. Her arousal was instantaneous. Moisture leaked down her thighs as her pussy, warm and soft, opened like a flower in anticipation of what was to come. Through the thin material of her shirt, she felt her nipples stiffen. They ached for his touch. It was almost as if she’d never had him. This was just like the first time they made love. The desire, the need, and the yearning were all the same. Her gaze remained fixed on his as she took off her shirt and threw it as his feet. He unbuttoned his trousers and allowed them to drop on the rug along with his boxers. Gabby’s tongue darted out to moisten her lips as she enjoyed the view with an unabashed enthusiasm. His face was beautiful but so was his body. Her gaze feasted on the muscles that rippled on his chest and on his stomach and then traveled to his cock that stood proud and hard, a testament to his burning need. When he strode forward, she didn’t have the energy to shift away. Instead, she lay down on the bed and waited for him to join. She longed to feel his skin scrape over his, and to have his arms encircle her waist, and his hard angles press against her soft curves. When he joined her on the bed, his gaze took in her flushed face and her breasts that heaved with each breath. His mouth descended on a swollen nipple and took it in his mouth. A moan of pleasure escaped her lips as she arched her body, overwhelmed with the sea of sensations that undulated inside her. His tongue flicked and swirled over her engorged nipple, and Gabby buckled under the sweet assault. It felt as if her whole body was on fire. She writhed under him as he shifted from one breast to another, his attention fixed and focused on her twin mounds. His tongue invoked a burning need to have him pound into her with each stroke. But he appeared determined to take his time. Everything Nick did was deliberate and powerful. He didn’t believe in half-measures. Knowing that she was in for a long, hard ride, Gabby trailed a line down his torso until she found his throbbing shaft. Her fingers curled around it and experimentally, she pumped. The result of it was that he doubled his efforts on her breasts. His tongue stroked and fondled, caressed and rubbed, until she was a twisting, squirming mass of frayed nerves. Her hand slipped off his cock and she clenched the

sheets in a bid to control her movements, but it was of no avail. His fingers glided down her taut, hard stomach while his lips remained fused on her nipple. When he parted the curls that guarded her velvety, moist center, her legs shifted to grant him better access. She clutched his shoulders as he inserted one finger inside the lips of her pussy. Lust enveloped her mind and all sane thoughts escaped. He stroked in and out and she thrust her hips forward in an unconscious gesture to find blessed release. For a long time, he continued to pleasure her, and each gentle stroke brought her closer and closer to the steep cliff that waited for her to slip down. Gabby wanted to wait for him to join her, but the thirst for release was so great, so terrible, that she couldn’t pause to think. When his thumb pressed down on her clit, the orgasm that rippled through her was unrelenting. A loud scream burst out of her mouth as her body jerked. He removed his finger and waited for her to bring her shuddering muscles back in control. It took a while for her to pull herself together. His leg covered hers as he kissed her. While the first kiss was slow and gentle, this one was a crescendo of sensations. Their tongues danced in a vicious, desperate dance that invoked the fire within her once more. Desire began to glide in her veins. She ran her hands over the smooth skin of his back, enjoying the way his ripples under her fingers. When their mouth parted, she nibbled her way down the smooth column of his throat to the place where a pulse beat with a frantic urgency. Suddenly, Gabby pulled away. She wanted more. As he moaned in protest, she glided down his body until she found his quivering cock. Gabby inhaled deeply to take in the musky scent of his arousal. When he parted his legs, she rubbed her tongue over his balls and felt them tremble. She licked the tip of his penis and felt him shudder. For a while, she enjoyed making him quiver under her as she ran her tongue all over his organ. Opening her mouth, she took the shaft deep inside. It felt good to feel him throb deep inside her throat. She rubbed and fondled his cock, stroking in and out, feeling the pressure build inside him. It felt good to hold the reins of control even if it was for a little while. But just as she thought he was about to come, he pulled his penis out. “No!” she groaned. “There is more, babe,” he muttered. Quickly, he turned her around and straddled her. As he positioned his cock over her wet pussy, she sucked in a deep breath of air. Once more, a yearning built in her gut. She craved the release that would free her from this exquisite torture. As she thrust up her hips to receive him, he cleaved right through her. In an instant, they were joined in the most intimate manner possible. He rammed into her with force and his pelvic bone ground into hers. She relished each thrust and stroke as he brought her closer and closer to the end. She wrapped her legs around his hips and made him a prisoner of her own desire. Her hands

clenched on his shoulders. On some level she was aware that moans and groans escaped her lips as she matched his rhythm, but Gabby couldn’t stop the flow of noises that came out of her mouth. She was too far gone to care. Every nerve and vein in her body was a mass of raw sensations. It was impossible to think. All she needed was freedom from this desperate, racing need that ate her alive. As he pounded into her over and over again, fountain of passion and wild need rippled and coiled through her body. They rocked in unison as her hips moved in a piston-like movement to match his speed. Perhaps she had died and gone to heaven and this was her reward. Whatever it was, she wanted this to go on forever – and yet she wanted it to end soon. When the release sizzled through her veins, she cried out from the sheer pleasure of it. Her toes curled and her legs shuddered and trembled. As if he’d been waiting for this moment, he spilled his seed inside her and for a long time, they lay still, quiet and happy. If there was a heaven on earth, she’d found it. Gabby didn’t want anything in her life to be different. All the heartache that she suffered and every pain that she endured led her to this magnificent man and to this beautiful moment. She didn’t want anything else. All her wishes were fulfilled. If she died now, she would drift into happy oblivion. Nick’s mouth nibbled over her throat. “I love you, babe,” he muttered. Her heart pounded with the delicious pleasure of hearing those words. He said it often, and he meant them. That was all that mattered to her. How could she ever desire anything else? Her fingers stroked through his soft hair. “I love you too.” A while ago, she couldn’t have said the words because she didn’t know if she had the power to commit to anyone, but Nick made her see that she was worth loving and it was alright to risk her heart. He taught her to take chances. For him, she would do anything. And yet the beauty of it was that he didn’t desire anything from her. All he wanted was to make her happy, and with time and patience, he achieved that goal. As they rested together, Gabby’s thought stilled and settled. No woman was as lucky as her. Whatever happened next, she would have the courage to face it because she was bathed in the beauty of his love and it gave her the strength to deal with all the pain that might come her way. Gabby was prepared for everything – but little did she know that what headed her way was worse than death, worse than anything she ever experienced before – and there was no guarantee that she would survive the impact of it.

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE Nick carried the basket down to the bank of the river where Gabby was lying on the picnic mat that she spread under the willow tree. It was a nice, secluded spot, and the branches of the tree bent to touch the rushing water of the river. As she watched him, her heart swelled with love. This was just one of those ordinary, perfect moments when everything looked fresh and cool. The decision to come for a picnic was made on the spot of a moment on a lazy Sunday. Before Nick came to her life, she got few chances to experience such delights, but now they were a regular part of her life. She could imagine spending her life with him, taking pleasure in these extraordinary mundane events. A picnic was a feast and watching a movie a momentous event, just because she was with him. As he put the basket down, she smiled. Her heart clenched with pleasure. “Hey, you look like a Greek Goddess, or perhaps one of those mythical fairies that one reads about.” “You’re a romantic.” “I wasn’t before I met you.” He joined her on the mat. Digging into the basket, he drew out a bottle of white wine. “You’ve changed me, Gabby.” “All in good ways, I hope.” He poured her a glass and handed it over. “Of course, my love.” As she took the glass from his hand, she saw his gaze sweep over the river. She was still uncomfortable with the idea of love. For her, it was a big deal. For him, perhaps, it was just a normal admission of the way he felt. Even though she said the words, apprehension clenched her with each utterance. In her heart, she expected their relationship to end one day. It was her greatest fear. Even after all this time, she wasn’t quite ready to believe in happy endings. Perhaps, given enough time, she would lose all the fear that gripped her. He lay down beside her. “How did your meeting go?” She’d set up an appointment to meet her study counselor the day before. Gabby was really proud of the way she was taking charge of her education. Initially, she was hesitant about the idea of finishing her high school but now she was excited about joining college eventually. “He was very supportive. After talking to the board, he is going to put me on an accelerated advance course and I might be able to finish my high school diploma by the end of next year,” she said in a voice that was enthusiastic. “He is already talking about college and wanted to know if I had anything special in mind.”

“Do you?” She sat and drank some wine. A gentle breeze speared through his hair. Desire undulated in her stomach at the heady sight. Anything and everything he did aroused her. It wasn’t just lust, of course, but she enjoyed the fact that he could reduce her to such a state with his presence alone. “I’m not sure. But maybe…hotel management,” she admitted. Sometimes she couldn’t believe that she had the nerve to make such plans. A year ago, she wouldn’t have harbored such dreams, but Nick gave her the confidence to believe in her abilities. “Really? I can see you sitting behind a desk, ordering people about, or perhaps bustling through the lobby of a hotel, taking notes, and setting things right. You can do anything you set your mind on, babe. The world is your oyster,” he said. As always, he boosted her confidence. “It seems very daunting at times. I don’t know if I would have the courage or the stamina to pursue another four years of college.” “You can do it. I want you to try and accomplish the goals that you dream about. Life is too short to let things slide. Take charge,” he said in a lazy manner. “It seems like such an indulgence.” “It’s a necessity, not because you need to earn the money but because you deserve to fulfill all your desires. Being independent, doing something on your own, that’s important for any person, and you know, sure as hell, I will support you in whatever you want to do.” She held his hand, squeezed it. “When I was young and swept the floor in the clubhouse, sometimes I used to dream about having my own club. Since I never saw anything else, that was the extent of my ambition. It was kind of cool to imagine myself running a place like that.” She sighed. “I didn’t want to order people about, like Joseph did, but I thought it would be nice to do something on my own.” She didn’t talk much about her past. It was painful but slowly, she was willing to open up and discuss her fears with him. “You can do that still. Not a club, but perhaps a store or a boutique,” he suggested. She waved her hand. “Nah! I think it would be satisfying enough to get a managerial position in a hotel. I could probably start at the lowest level and work my way up. That’s a good learning experience. Perhaps I could do a part-time job along with my college courses,” she mused. Suddenly she laughed. “Sometimes I hear these words that come out of my mouth and I can’t believe that I am even considering these possibilities. It can’t possibly happen.” “Why not?”

“It’s…I suppose it’s scary to think about the future. Right now, I am just living from day to day. Sure, I am planning ahead but I don’t know if things would work out.” “They would work out. You will make this your reality. Gabby, you are smart and hardworking. Nothing should stop you from achieving your dreams.” He tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear. “Believe in yourself and you can achieve anything. That’s how I started out and I can tell you with experience that we all have the potential to achieve our dreams if we so desire. What lacks in people is the will to stick with something until it happens. Persistence pays.” She turned to face him. Her fingers stroked his cheek. “You’re awfully sweet. Sometimes I can’t believe that I ended up with you. This life also seems like a dream, and I am often scared that I will open my eyes and find that I’m in some crummy room alone and all this has been a figment of my overactive imagination.” He gripped her hand and kissed it. “It’s real, babe. Trust me.” “I trust you.” Holding hands, they sat for a while. Gabby took out the sandwiches that she made and they ate while they talked about other things. The weather was lovely. Overhead, a bird twittered as it guarded a nest of young. A squirrel scampered down an elm tree that grew a few feet away, cocked its head and stared at them. Gabby laughed, and startled by the sound of her voice, it bounced away on quick feet. “Maybe we should throw a party at the house,” he said. She groaned. “Another one?” He squeezed her hand. “Not as big as the last one. We should just call a few people at home, do a barbeque outdoors. It will be fun. Also, I have actually never invited anyone in the house and it’s a good start. We’ll keep it causal.” “Not if Willow and Tasha take over. They will want a theme, a dress, and decorations.” She nearly shuddered. “I enjoyed the experience of organizing that party. It was pretty awesome, but I don’t think I can do something similar so soon.” “We won’t make it that big, and I will take care of all the details.” he promised as he ran a hand down her back. “I know that you are hesitant to do something elaborate but we will keep it simple. You’ll have a good time,” he encouraged. Sometimes she felt as if he was the gardener and she a delicate flower. Under his loving care, she blossomed with each passing day. A few months, his idea would have scared the hell out of her but now she was intrigued. It would be fun. She sighed. “Alright, fine.” Nick pulled her down on the rug. “Babe, try to be a little more enthusiastic.”

She turned to face him. Putting her elbow on the rug, she rose to gaze into his eyes. “You’re not the one who would have to try on fifty dresses to find the perfect outfit for the barbecue. You aren’t the one who would have to try on a hundred pair of shoes and…” Her words were stilled as his lips caught hers in a warm kiss. The fountain of lust that exploded in her nerves made her dizzy. The slow and passionate kiss had all the makings of a storm. Her heart pounded so loud that she was sure he could hear it. His tongue swept inside and tasted every nook and cranny in her mouth. His hands crept over his waist and she could feel the warmth of his palm through the thin cotton shirt that she wore. Their lips remained fused together for a long time as they explored and relished each other. When she lay down, he bent over her. Lifting her shirt, his fingers slid inside and touched her warm skin. A shiver of delight coursed through her veins. “Here, now?” she said when he lifted his head. The stormy passion in his eyes gave her answer. His smile was slow, wicked. “Babe, any time for love is the right time.” “But anyone could walk here and see us.” He was amused by her concerns. “We’re far away from the main road, and I doubt anyone will come here,” he whispered as he tugged off his shirt and threw it aside. “And what if they do?” she worried. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said. The laughter that sputtered out of her mouth died when his hand cupped her breast. The mere touch was enough to send her over the edge of insanity. A hot haze enveloped her mind and all thoughts fled out. She wanted him as if it was their first time. Quickly, he tugged off her shirt and slipped his fingers under the straps of her bra. When he took it off, the breeze hit her nipples that were already swollen with desire. She gasped when his mouth closed on a hard nub that was yearning for his touch. Need, heat and passion; everything jumbled into a waterfall that swelled inside her veins and left her breathless. With a wild abandon, he feasted on her nipples, shifting from one to another as she squirmed under him. This was amazing. This was heaven. When his fingers played with the zipper of her skirt and slipped it off, she let out a gasp of surprise. But she was now too far gone to control the storm that crested and peaked in her veins. He stood and took off his jeans. Her gaze traveled down the length of his hard, sleek torso as it settled on his penis that stood at attention.

When she raised her arms, he joined her willingly on the mat. His cock pressed into her taut stomach as he kissed her once more. From toe to toe, chest to chest, and mouth to mouth, they were joined and soon it would become even more intimate. As she parted her legs, he fit his leg in between to keep them open. His mouth feasted on her nipple once more while his fingers trailed down her creamy skin as he sought her velvety center. She muttered a protest as he paused. She needed the release but he seemed hell bent on taking his time. His finger found her hard, sensitive nub and he brushed it slightly. The gasp of delight that sputtered out of her mouth echoed in the silence of the woods. He delighted her with quick strokes and then thrust his finger inside her pussy. Sensations, wild and strong, rushed through her senses. When his thumb pressed on her nub, the orgasm that ripped through her was violently pleasurable. Her toes curled as she struggled to get her body back in control. As she shuddered and squirmed under him, he slid up her body to kiss her once more. Once was never enough. She wanted more. His lips brushed over hers and his tongue dove in to taste. She enjoyed and relished the scent and feel of his tongue as it clashed with hers. When he slid up her torso, and offered her his penis, she opened her mouth to receive it. Her tongue licked his balls. The scent of his arousal hit her nostrils. Wrapping her tongue around his long, hard shaft, she sucked and fondled. Delirious with desire, he pushed it deep inside and she opened her mouth to accommodate. It throbbed in her throat as she worked her tongue over and around it. In and out, his hips moved in a piston-like movement as he stroked in and out. The pressure built quickly, and she didn’t fight the waves of pleasure that coursed through her veins, intensifying with each caress. He was close, breathlessly so. His need urged her to pick up pace. His semen spilled down her throat and she gulped quickly to take it in. His short scream of pleasure broke the quiet. When he lay down beside her, she put her hand on his back. It felt great and wonderful. Everything was perfect. Perhaps they needed to get up and wear their clothes, but the woods were so still and peaceful that she didn’t feel like making a move. “What if someone comes here?” she muttered again. “They will get jealous,” he said as he rested his head on her breasts. She laughed. Quietly, they lay together. Beside her, Nick drifted in a deep sleep. Perhaps, she also drifted away because the flicker of his tongue on her nipple felt like a dream at first. The sweet, slow strokes brought her out of slumber. She moaned and opened her eyes. His lips slowly roamed over her breasts, removing the last cobwebs of sleep from her mind. Her fingers speared through his hair and stilled. His knee nudged apart her legs and before she could understand as to what was going on, his cock, already hard, dove inside her moist center. The last remnants of sleep tore away from her eyes as she gasped loudly. Seeing the emotions that twirled in his eyes, pleasure and passion rose steeply inside her, turning her insides into molten jelly in an

instant. As he pounded into her, she wrapped her legs around him. Once more, she was eager to find the release that already her body craved. Her wet pussy stretched and clenched around his cock as he stroked in and out. Each time he pressed hard into her, his pelvic bone ground into his. The ride was hard and fast. Her fingers grasped his shoulders as she clung on while he thrust in and out. Quickly, without warning, the momentum built and he spiraled higher and higher with each bold stroke until she teetered on the edge of the high cliff that beckoned her to take the fall. The yearning for precious release was now a full blown need. It spread through her limbs until he was a bundle of quivering muscles. She wanted – no, needed – the escape from this wondrous torture that engulfed them both. And yet, she wanted him to take the plunge with her. He was catching up fast. Her nails dug into his flesh, demanding and craving more. His lips captured hers once more, and she kissed him with the fervor of a starved woman. Her breath was hot as his greedy lips roamed over her. She wriggled and squirmed as her hips pumped to keep pace with him. Together, they rose and fell, each one of them desperate to reach the end of this road. Wobbling on the high cliff, she fought the storm that crashed and swelled through her veins. He was close, she could feel it. Gabby allowed herself the luxury of pure pleasure. When the orgasm careened through her muscles, she screamed out his name in a burst of ecstasy. “Nick!” An instant later, he erupted inside her. For a long moment, he remained still in her. With a sigh, he rolled off her. “Babe, you’re going to kill me one day.” Putting her hand on his chest, she snuggled into him. “I could say the same thing about you. This is crazy.” “It sure was.” They pulled on their clothes and settled down to eat the food. She was now famished. For some strange reason, everything appeared brighter, better, and tastier. It was love, surely it was. Nothing else could have put that bubble of happiness in her heart and the smile that refused to leave her lips. She needed Nick in his life as she needed air to breathe. He was a part of her life, and if he ever left her, she wouldn’t just be devastated, she would probably die of heartbreak. If he didn’t remain with her, she would never be happy again. It was a scary thought – and yet, even it wasn’t enough to mar her joy at the glory of this beautiful moment. Gabby loved her life and wanted nothing to change. That was her only wish.

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR Nick surveyed the warehouse that he selected. It was a drab, gray building but it would suit the plan he had in mind. Soon, he planned to convert it into a storeroom for the goods he’d already agreed to buy. Although Hell Brigade traditionally made their money from distributing stolen goods across the state, he wanted the club to move into a cleaner, legal arena. It had been devastating to see two of their friends in the jail a few months ago. He didn’t want such a repeat ever again. After catching the traitor who gave them away, Nick decided to steer the club into safer zone. He wanted the best for them, and it was important to make them fall in line. “I don’t like it,” growled Matt as he studied the place. “It’s very old.” “Right now, it’s all we can afford but as the money starts to flow in, we will be able to afford a better place. It’s got potential and that’s all that matters now.” “Why do we need to do this?” said Matt as he ran his fingers over one of the walls and then stared in disgust when they were covered in grime. “Our business is doing so well, and we don’t have any more threats from traitors.” “It’s never safe to indulge in illegal activities, and I just don’t want a repeat of the last episode that we had to suffer through. It’s important to be legal,” said Nick in a patient voice. Although he was the club’s treasurer, if he didn’t get the support of the other men, they wouldn’t be able to move ahead with this plan. “Pah!” snorted Matt as he moved away. Nick struggled to control his temper. Couldn’t they all see that he wanted something that was better for all of them? How long would it take before they agreed to his proposal? His gaze strayed to Ronald who was inspecting the place with an intrigued expression on his face. “I don’t know about this, Nick. It’s too complicated.” “It’s easy as a pie.” “The profit that we get from buying goods from other states and then distributing them here is so much leaner than what we earn now. It won’t even cover a quarter of our expenses,” he grumbled. “That’s just the beginning,” said Nick. “I’ve charted out our cash flows for the next two years. Things will pick up. Trust me. Once we started pulling in great volumes, profits will increase exponentially. It’s going to work out well, but of course, we’ve to put in hard work. Everyone who agrees to become a part of the regular workforce will get paid, and all of us will get a cut from the profit.” “That we do already, man, and we don’t even have to work too hard for it,” said Matt.

“That’s risky, dude. Every time you drive a truck of stolen goods, you risk going to jail and I don’t want that to happen to anyone of us ever again. We need to move into legal trade,” he insisted. Nick could see that they weren’t convinced by the glances they exchanged with each other. Frustration swirled in his gut, but he curbed it. He didn’t want to get into an argument with them. If he intended to convert them to his way of thinking, it would take patience and time. After they finished inspecting the place, they all left the venue. Nick went to the clubhouse to pick up Gabby whom he’d left in Willow’s care. Sure, she was a grown girl and didn’t need babysitting but ever since she received those threatening calls and since he learnt of her plan to run away to escape Joseph’s unwanted attention, he was all the more careful. He didn’t want to give her an opportunity to abscond, but more than that, he wanted to make sure that she was safe. In the clubhouse, with other people around who were aware of the danger she was in, he felt moderately comfortable with the idea of leaving her. When he walked in the kitchen, she was washing the dishes along with Willow. Seeing her, his heart slammed into his chest. She was so beautiful, so vulnerable, and gorgeous. Soon, when she was free of Joseph’s negative influence, they would be able to live a normal life once more but until that moment came, he couldn’t afford to take any chances with her safety. “Hey, handsome,” she said when he slipped his arms around her waist and deposited a kiss on the nape of her neck. “How was your day?” “It’s much better now,” he muttered as she turned in his arms. Since he didn’t want to give too many details in front of Willow who was eyeing him with a speculative gleam in her eyes, he didn’t say much. “Are you finished?” She sensed his moon. “Sure. We could go home if you want.” “Why don’t we grab a bite to eat at the pizzeria around the corner?” “Ok,” she agreed. As she picked up her purse, he smiled at Willow. “Tough day?” she asked. “I’ve had better.” He sighed. She was going to get the news from Ronald anyway so he didn’t feel the need to add more. “Did Gabby invite you for the barbeque on Sunday?” “Yes, she did. I’ll be there. Do you want me to bring something from home? My potato salad is divine.” “I can vouch for that,” said Gabby. “But I’ve the recipe so I will make it myself. I just need you to turn up for moral support. It’s the first time we’re opening the house for an informal meal, so I am a little bit nervous.”

“You’ve got it in the bag, darling,” said Willow. Thankfully, she didn’t ask any more questions about his meeting with Ronald and Matt. “I guess I will see you guys there. Tomorrow, I am off for a two day trip to visit my sister but I will be back Saturday night and will see you guys. Take care.” Gabby hugged Willow. It was easy to see that the women were fond of each other. Gabby had such a winning, easy personality that whoever she met and befriended loved her. Nick was glad that she was settling into this new routine with ease. He liked to see her happy and with each passing day, this dream of his was becoming a reality. Soon, when Joseph was in jail, they would all be ready to breathe easier. As they stepped out, Gabby raised her chin and took a deep breath. “I feel like something amazing is going to happen.” He didn’t quite feel so optimistic. This struggle with Ronald and others was sapping him of all energy, but the sooner they found a common meeting ground, the better it was for the club. Living on the edge of danger by transporting stolen goods was certainly exciting, but he wanted them all to move on to better things. They entered the pizzeria and he raised a hand in greeting to the boys who worked behind the counter. This was one of their usual hangout places, and he knew each person who worked here well. “Hey, boys. How is it going?” One of them came forward with a menu, but they didn’t really need it. Quickly, Nick dictated their usual order. Gabby leaned back and ran her hand over the edge of the table. “I take it from that mournful expression on your face that Ronald and Matt still haven’t fully agreed?” He sucked in a deep breath of air as he tried to expel the disappointment from his mind. It was going to be an uphill battle. He’d known it and was prepared to deal with their resistance. If he wanted something good to happen, he needed to put in the extra effort. When the club began to earn its money through legal means, they would all settle down. “It’s not working as well as I hoped, but I am confident and of course, I’ve you for support.” “Always.” She caught her hand in his and squeezed. “Forever and ever.” Hope filled his heart. As long as he had her, nothing could faze him for long. Nick dispelled the gloom that threatened to envelop him. As he stared into her eyes, Nick felt as if he was standing at the edge of something momentous. Soon, their lives would be on track. These were just minor hiccups and they would work out well. “How was your day? Did you finish the book report that you were working on?” As she began to give him an enthusiastic recount of the work that she finished and sent in via email to her counselor, Nick forced himself to enjoy the enthusiasm that surrounded her. She was so eager to experience life and to enjoy herself that he couldn’t hold on to the faint sense of unease that clung to

him. It wasn’t just his setbacks with his biker friends that played on his mind, but lately he felt as if there a storm headed his way. He couldn’t tell what it was that made him feel that trouble chased him on mighty feet, but something, an instinct born of years of experience, cautioned him to be careful. If trouble was indeed headed their way, he wanted to be prepared, but he also didn’t want to let go of these blissful moments of joy that he so relished with Gabby. Perhaps he should’ve devoted more time to think about the feelings of dread that refused to let go of his heart, but instead Nick focused on Gabby’s words and didn’t pay attention to the tempest that was fast approaching them. If he was more careful, more insightful, he would have run straight home with Gabby, locked her inside, and guarded the key – but he wasn’t aware of the danger that pursued her and perhaps it was just as well because if he had known, Nick probably wouldn’t have been able to function during the last few days that they had together.

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE It was just another ordinary day at the clubhouse. Gabby worked with the girls in the kitchen of Hell Brigade. As always, the women speculated about the work that the men were doing. Even though they were not privy to the details, it didn’t stop them from trying to figure out as to what was going on. “Nick is having a hard time,” said Tasha as she rolled dough for a pie. She’d come to Hell Brigade a few months ago after escaping from an abusive husband. Much to her surprise, Gabby found herself warming to the girl faster than anyone she met before. It was perhaps because they were the same age, and both girls had seen hard times. “Most of the men don’t like the ideas he is presenting.” “He will convince them, given enough time,” said Gabby. She had full faith in Nick. He could charm anyone if he chose to do so. Roger might be giving him a hard time but it would all fall into place soon enough. “But he is tense about this whole situation. Once the warehouses are up and running and everyone is more comfortable with the idea of it, he would relax.” “How was your one month’s anniversary?” “Awesome,” Gabby gave all the details about the meal she cooked and the gift she received amidst giggles and laughter. “I should come over and take a look at this laptop of yours. Maybe we could do some online shopping. It’s been a while since we all went together, and there are these fabulous boots that I want to buy.” “Where did you see them?” “In that shop two blocks down. What’s its name? Blossom. I’ve been eyeing them for weeks now, but somehow can’t muster up the courage to take the plunge.” She put in the filling for the pie. “They are easily the best boots at this really cheap price.” “Cheap?” Tasha grimaced at the questioning note in Gabby’s voice. “Well, not cheap, but surely at a bargain.” Gabby put the beef casserole in the oven and set the timer. She checked the watch. An idea struck her; it was crazy and stupid but it would be so nice to do so. “Why don’t we pop down now and see them?” Tasha placed her hand on the hip as she surveyed Gabby with a speculative gleam in her eye. “Now? As in now?” “Yeah, yeah, everything is done here. The salad is cut, and the pie has to be popped in the oven after

the casserole is ready. We could come back before the timer goes off.” Tasha scratched her scalp as she thought about it. “I don’t know…” “Don’t be silly. Let’s just do something impulsive and crazy.” Gabby grabbed her hand. “It won’t take long, I promise. We will just take a look at the boots and if I think that they are ugly and will make your feet look terrible, I will give you my honest, unbiased opinion and you can stop agonizing over this decision.” Tasha giggled as she stacked the pots in the sink. Gabby really wanted her to agree. For some strange reason, she felt impulsive, reckless. Perhaps it was because she didn’t plan anything on the spur of the moment for so long. It was tiring to be always cautious. This was her life. Surely, she could live it the way she chose. “Nick said that you’re supposed to go out alone.” “I won’t be alone. You’ll be with me. Relax! Nothing will happen.” It was crazy to do it, of course. There was no need to go down to the shop right now, but she was feeling a little restless and the walk would cheer her up. What’s more, she hadn’t bought anything for Nick and right next to Blossom was a men’s shop, and she wanted to pick up some t-shirts for him, and perhaps a new wallet also. “You need to buy something?” Tasha was nothing if not astute. “I can’t believe you’re dragging me there just to look at my boots.” Gabby giggled as she picked up her purse. “Alright, fine, I admit it. I need to buy something for Nick. Haven’t given him a present for the anniversary.” Tasha raised an eyebrow. Gabby smacked her on the arm. She hadn’t given details of their love life to Tasha but her friend was quite smart and knew how to read between the lines. “That wasn’t a present, silly.” Tasha checked her reflection in the mirror, fluffed her hair a bit, and picked up her purse. “So what was that?” “It was none of your business.” “Oh, don’t be like that, dear.” “You’re not getting anything out of me.” Gabby halted as they stepped into the room. Nick was in a meeting with the men upstairs in Ronald’s office. Maybe she should go in and tell him that she was leaving the place for half an hour, but knowing him, he would either tell her to wait until he could take her or else he would send someone to go with her. Ether of those options didn’t appeal to her. She wanted to buy his present without him being aware of it. Once in a while, it would be nice to surprise him. “What’s wrong?”

Gabby shrugged. “Nothing. Let’s go.” They marched out the door. It felt wonderful to be out in the open air after being coped inside the clubhouse for hours. Gabby enjoyed long walks. Sometimes she went with Nick for an aimless stroll, but lately he’d been avoiding stepping out of house without an express purpose ever since she started receiving threats from Joseph. Of course, she needed to be careful. Generally, Gabby didn’t go out unless he accompanied her. It was a security measure that they undertook only until Joseph went into jail. But surely, they were overestimating the danger. Joseph was far away. He was probably hiding from the police and not at all interested in increasing his chances of getting caught. The weather was lovely, and Gabby enjoyed the brisk pace they set. When they got to the store, she eyed the boots that Tasha selected. No doubt, it was a fine choice. “Don’t you have boots already?” Tasha cupped her cheeks with both hands. “I do, yes, but I love these. Look at those frills. Wouldn’t they look awesome when I wear them with jeans?” Gabby cocked her head. A grin split her lips. She could almost see the wheels turning in Tasha’s head. “You’re right. It’s vital that you buy them. I can imagine you wearing them and see the men who would fall all over you just because you are wearing them.” Tasha smacked her on the arm. “Stop it!” “I’m serious. They are an absolute must-buy.” Tasha rubbed the glass on the window as if she was caressing the boots. That look of longing in her eyes couldn’t be mistaken. “You really think so? They are a bit over my budget. Really, I shouldn’t buy them.” Gabby grimaced. It was her duty to guide her friend well. Hadn’t Tasha and Willow supported her when she went to buy the perfect dress for the party that Nick threw? Weren’t they present when Joseph last phone call gave her such a fright that she nearly fainted? “Why don’t you try them? Maybe it would help us decide.” They walked in. Tasha got them and sat to try the boots. As she’d predicted, the boots did look amazing with her jeans. “What do you think?” “They’re a perfect fit,” said the sales assistant in a helpful voice. Gabby couldn’t agree more. Even though she wasn’t much of a shopper herself, over the past few weeks, Tasha and other friends guided her to the right shops. They gave her lessons on what to wear and things to buy. Now, it was time to return the favor. “Alright, let’s weigh the options. You’ve another pair of boots and these are a bit over budget but on the upside, these boots are way better than the ones you already own. Right?”

“Yeah, and those are brown while these are black,” said Tasha. Gabby considered everything. A man might not understand the effort that went into making such a decision, but a woman certainly could. She obviously had to give the right suggestions to Tasha. Her loyalty couldn’t be questioned. Once more, she gazed down at the boots. “You’ve to buy them.” Tasha sagged against the couch as if Gabby declared something momentous. “Are you sure?” Gabby picked up the boots and examined them from each angle. She was tempter to buy a similar pair, but that would be catastrophic. Two of them couldn’t own the same thing, plus she was fairly sure that they wouldn’t look as good on her as they did on Tasha. “Positive. If you don’t buy them, you will regret it always. At this price, they are a bargain, and they would last for more than five years… easy.” Tasha nodded her head as vigorously as she could manage. “I am glad you came with me. Good. I am going to buy those.” “That’s a wise decision, ma'am,” said the sales assistant. “Should I pack them for you?” “Please do,” said Tasha. As she picked up the boots and handed them to the sales assistant to be packed, Gabby got a call on her phone. Wincing, she picked it up. “Yes, Nick?” His voice was cool. “Where are you?” Damn it! Busted! She’d thought they would be back before he realized that they weren’t in the house. “Ah! Tasha and I just stepped out for a while. We’re coming back in ten minutes.” “You know quite well that you’re not supposed to take chances, Gabby.” Even though he kept his voice calm, she could read the fear between his words. “I would’ve taken you once the meeting came to an end. What was the hurry?” “We had free time on our hands.” She felt terrible about putting him through unnecessary dread. “Sorry, Nick. We’re turning right back,” she promised. “We already got everything that we came for.” “Where are you?” He sighed. “I’ll meet you there.” “At Blossom.” “I’ll be there in ten minutes,” he said. Dissuading him wouldn’t work. “OK,” she agreed readily, already feeling guilty about not telling him before she ventured out. Of course, now that she was here, she might as well get the work done before he arrived. Tasha was already at the counter. It would Gabby maybe five minutes to buy what she

needed for Nick. Something was better than nothing, and she’d never given him anything personal ever whereas he was always showering her with gifts. Now that she was here, she might as well make the most of this opportunity. She made up her mind. “Tasha, I am just going to that men’s shop across town. It will take five minutes. Nick is on his way here. When he comes, you bring him there.” Tasha took out her credit card. She winced as she saw the bill for her boots. “Ok. Why don’t you wait a minute and I will come with you?” Gabby was now in a desperate hurry to get it done before Nick spoilt the surprise she planned. “Can’t wait. Nick will be here soon and I don’t want him to see the things before I buy them.” She sprinted over to the other shop. If she managed to buy the clothes before he came, she would just present them to him here. It wasn’t necessary for her to wrap them. It would’ve been better if she could have done that, but since he wasn’t giving her the opportunity to do so, she would have to make do without all the finery. She quickly rushed into the shop and viewed the merchandise on display. Yeah, she was right. They had various things that Nick would like. Picking up a t-shirt, she put it aside. He always favored striped shirts so perhaps she should buy something similar. She didn’t want him to discard her gift. She picked up four t-shirts and a tie. As an afterthought, she also chose a formal shirt. Feeling happy at the prospect of presenting him with a gift, she marched to the counter and paid for everything. It was a good thing that she’d enough cash in her wallet. Gabby didn’t bother getting a new Visa card or opening a bank account. She didn’t want to give Joseph many avenues to find her, but now she was aware that he knew where she was. Picking up her bags, she strode out, feeling delighted at the idea of giving Nick something from the money she earned with her hard work. It was her first gift to Nick. Perhaps, seeing it, he would forgive her for deceiving him and walking away from the clubhouse without telling him about it. As she stood on the pavement, ready to march across and join Tasha who got out of the store at the same time, a black van screeched across the corner and raced towards her. Rather than cross the street, Gabby halted. Who was this mad man? Was he drunk? She edged a little away from the pavement and waited for the van to pass. Much to her astonishment, the vehicle halted right in front of her. The door opened and a man jumped out. His face was so familiar that she froze. Not running away was the last mistake that she made. The first was to venture out without Nick. She shouldn’t have done it. Now she would have to pay the price for her stupidity. If she wasn’t so shocked, Gabby might have made more of an effort to escape the consequences of her decision but before she could comprehend the situation, turn, or run, he caught her around the middle. A loud scream burst out of her mouth, but in an instant, he put a white cloth over her face, and the

strong scent of chloroform hit her nostrils. The bags dropped out of her hands and she slipped on the pavement. Sagging against him, she still tried to fight but she was too woozy to make much of an effort. Her eyes opened and closed. Vaguely, she was aware that Tasha ran towards her. She was screaming, but before she could reach them, he flung Gabby inside the vehicle and jumped in after her. Tasha screamed again and Gabby lost consciousness. Her last coherent thought before she finally caved in to the medicine that swam in her system was that she never got to present the gift to Nick. Now, she may never get the chance to do so.

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX Nick blamed himself for the catastrophe. It was his job to keep her safe. He should’ve been more careful. He should’ve made sure that she was never alone. If he’d taken extra precautions, she would be safe now. He’d made promises that he couldn’t keep. Not too long ago, he told her that nothing would happen to her, but now she was far away, in the grasp of a man who probably was doing vile things to her even as Nick paced the room in the clubhouse. Without realizing it, he threw the glass he held against the wall and it smashed into a million, tiny pieces. “Shit! Sorry, guys,” he managed to mutter an apology for his rude behavior, but the rage and misery that measured in his heart in equal quantities made him nearly dizzy. He didn’t know what to do, how to help Gabby, and how to get his tumultuous thoughts back in some kind of a cohesive whole. Ronald’s hand settled on his shoulder. “We’ll get her back.” Nick didn’t know if that was possible. He had no idea where the pimp took her. Did they go back to the town from which she’d escaped, or was he in another place altogether? Was Gabby even alive or did he…? Nick couldn’t finish the thought. If something happened to Gabby, he would never be able to forgive himself. He turned to face Tasha. Her eyes were puffy and red. She’d been crying for the past two hours ever since Nick found her standing on the pavement after the man kidnapped Gabby. Five minutes; that was all it took for him to lose Gabby. If he had arrived a few minutes early, he might have been able to save her. “Did you get a look at the face of the man who caught her?” he asked the same question which he’d already uttered a number of times, but every time he hoped that her answer would be different. Perhaps she might recall some detail or some clue that would give him an idea as to where Joseph took her. Of course, it was Joseph that kidnapped her. He didn’t have a doubt about it, but he needed some more information to figure out where he hurtled her off to. “I couldn’t,” she sobbed. “By the time I came over to the other side of the van, he was already inside with her. There were two of them, the one who drove had a black beard, dark hair, and he wore sunglasses.” It wasn’t much of a description. There was a real possibility that the beard wasn’t real. Nick had seen a picture of Joseph in the police files after Gabby officially complained against him. “How the hell will we find her?”

His question was rhetoric. They went over this many times in the past hour. He’d already been to the police station and filed charges of kidnapping. Given that Tasha saw the whole thing made the police take quick action, but of course, they weren’t sure if the police search would yield result. As far as Tasha could recall, the van didn’t have any identifying marks, and it was quite possible that the number plates weren’t original. This whole thing was organized. It wasn’t an impulsive plan, so naturally the kidnapper must have made sure that everything was strategized in advance. “What did the police say?” said Ronald. “They have put in a bulletin. All roads are being watched, but it wouldn’t be possible to do anything until they found the van. Do you know how many black vans would be on the road this very instant?” he said. Ronald ran a hand through his hair. Even though he knew that he wasn’t alone, that all these people were as concerned about Gabby as he was, it didn’t make Nick feel any better. All he wanted was for her to come back safe and sound. It was all he desired, but the possibility of getting what he wanted didn’t seem that great. Nick wanted to bang his hands on the wall until they were bloody and black. He couldn’t bear the anguish, the pain, and the desolation that enveloped his mind and heart. Without Gabby, he was nothing. Without Gabby, he was no one. He wanted her back with an intensity that scared him. Nick couldn’t bear the thought of going back to his empty house. Without her, it was just a building. It wasn’t a home. If she didn’t return soon, he didn’t know what he would do. “I should’ve stayed with her,” Tasha echoed the same thought that rolled over and over in his mind. “You couldn’t have done anything else,” said Nick. “It wasn’t your fault.” Much to his horror, she broke into fresh sobs. “Not my fault? If I hadn’t agreed to her idea of walking down to get my awful boots, if I went with her to that shop, if only I…” Walking over, he enveloped her in a hug. When she cried against his chest, Nick ran a hand over her hair. “It’s not your fault,” he repeated. “If there is someone to blame, it’s the man who kidnapped her. He is the real criminal. We need to get him and punish him.” Once Tasha felt a little better, he handed her over to Ronald. “We’ll find her,” he said in a voice that brooked no argument. “Somehow, through some means, we will find out where she is and get her back. This is where she belongs, and I want her here.” “Why don’t we ask the police to track her phone?” said Matt. “They are doing that,” he said. If the kidnapper made a little mistake, the police would catch him.

That was Nick’s hope. “Let’s spread the word to everyone we know. If there is any lead, any sighting, they will tell us,” said Matt. “They can’t keep driving with her. Somewhere, they will stop and rest, and then we will get them.” “What if they take her back to the town from which she came?” said Ronald. “We can ask other bikers’ clubs over there to keep a lookout for her.” Those were all good ideas, and Nick appreciated the effort they were making. It sounded like a plan, and doing all this made them feel that they were doing something. He also wanted to do something, but for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what to do. “Let’s do that,” he agreed. What if Joseph, if it was indeed her pimp who kidnapped her, killed her and dumped her body somewhere in the wilderness? The thought sent him reeling against the nearest wall. He didn’t want to harbor the possibility but the truth was that it was probable. Joseph had been sending her threatening calls for a while. What if he kidnapped her with the sole intent of killing her? Shit! He couldn’t bear such a horrific thought. “Let’s do all we can to get Gabby back.” Matt broke into his thoughts. “We’re going to put all our resources and all our people to take her out of the clutches of this man. She might not be an official member of our club, but she is a part of our lives and we can’t let anything happen to her.” Astounded as he was by Matt’s passionate statement, Nick was also grateful. There was a time, not too far in the past, when he and Matt didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. Matt accused Gabby of snitching on the club with the police, and he wasn’t too enthusiastic about Nick’s plans for the club, but he did look determined to recover Gabby. Nick put a hand on Matt’s shoulder and squeezed. “Thank you.” “You don’t need to worry, man! If the police call you with a lead, let us know. We will do everything possible. If there is need, we will go there ourselves to find her,” said Matt in a voice that indicated that he was sincere and honest. Nick leaned against the wall, feeling weak. “Thanks, man.” “You don’t need to worry, Nick, we are all with you and with Gabby also. She is going to come out of it unscathed,” said Ronald. Nick certainly hoped so but right now this discussion was making him depressed. The more they tried to find avenues to seek her, the more he was convinced that it was going to be a far more daunting task

that it seemed. It wasn’t going to be easy to figure out where she was. If only they knew the location of where that man took her, they would be able to do so much to help her. Right now, he was helpless. Nick hated the feeling of helplessness more than anything else. “I’m going home. If there is any development, I will call you,” he told them as he marched out of the door. Getting on his bike, he rode off. Although his intention had been to go home, Nick suddenly realized that if he did so, he would become distressed beyond his ability to handle it. Rather than go to his home, he instead rode to the harbor. It was one of Gabby’s most favorite places. She used to love coming here, not only to meet people but also to stare at the crashing waves and ships that swayed on the sea. He missed her already. Over the past few months, he got so used to her presence in his life that Nick couldn’t imagine a life without her. It was difficult for him to even spend this much time without her. What would happen if he didn’t find her in the coming days and weeks? A lifetime without Gabby was a terrible prospect. He loved her. Nick had always known that, but now he realized thus survival depended on her reappearance. He only had one purpose in life and that was to find her and bring her back into this life that they carved out for themselves. He needed her. Her friends needed her. This was her home, and she deserved to come back. As he looked out and tried to figure out a way to find her, a hand squeezed his shoulder. He turned around to see Miles. “I heard what happened.” Nick didn’t quite know what to say. Miles wasn’t from the club, but thanks to Gabby’s winning personality, they had all become friends. “Is there anything I can do?” Nick turned back towards the ocean. “I’m just waiting from a word from the police. Perhaps, they might have stopped the van somewhere or sighted them on a road. If only we knew where he took her, we can go and rescue her.” “We’ll find her,” said Miles with a confidence that Nick didn’t quite feel. “We will.” Nick sighed and stared at the distant horizon. He felt as if Gabby was calling him for help, and he wasn’t around to hear her call. What must be happening to her right now? What was she going through? Did the man feed her? Did he tie her? Was he hitting her? Anger coiled in his body, but all he could do was flex his muscles in chagrin at the thought. She’d told him some tales of her pimp’s vicious behavior when she lived with him. Joseph was a man who was prone to bursts of anger, and Gabby did something that riled him up really good. He hated the idea of losing control over one of his girls. She defied him, challenged his authority, and made him look like a fool. It was the extent of his obsession that he found her despite all the odds stacked against him. Once he discovered her location, he must have followed her for weeks to figure out her routine. The only thing that probably kept her safe all these months was the fact that Nick stuck to her during all hours of night

and day. One mistake cost him dearly. Once more, he cursed himself for not being there. What the hell was he supposed to do now? “If you find out where she is, tell me also. I would like to come with you,” said Miles. Nick was touched by his concern for Gabby. She had a knack for making friends wherever she went. Nick barely knew Miles before she arrived, and now the man was determined to go to any lengths to find her. This was true loyalty. This was the epitome of friendship. “Thank you, Miles. As soon as I get some news, I will let you know.” After bidding a farewell to the man, Nick came home. He didn’t want to stay here until Gabby was brought back, but there were no other options. All her memories were here. As he sat in the living room, Nick felt the prickle of tears behind his eyes. He forced them away. He wouldn’t allow himself the weakness because it would make him feel as if he was giving in to the fear that ate him alive. For Gabby’s sake, he needed to be strong. If he wasn’t brave, he might miss the opportunity to save her. As he tried to gather his courage and think of positive things, his cell phone rang. “Yes?” “It’s Officer Liam, sir. You’d come in with a kidnapping charge not too long ago. We’ve got some news.” He sat upright. Hope surged in his veins. “What?” “We’ve found Ms. Gabby’s phone.” She couldn’t be far from it. Surely, she was somewhere near where they found the phone. “Where?” The man gave her a location. “It was smashed into pieces.” Nick’s heart stopped. If Joseph took the time to stop the car and demolish the phone, what did he do to Gabby? “Did you find the van?” “No sir, it was sighted on a road but by the time someone reached there, it was gone. We’ve not been able to get a lock on it anywhere else. It’s unfortunate, really but we’re hopeful that we would get some news on it sooner or later. We’ll keep you posted on all developments.” “Thank you,” said Nick in a dull voice. Later may be too late for Gabby. What if the man hurt her? What if he killed her? There must be something that he can do to save her, but for the life of him, he couldn’t figure what he should do. His hopes were all anchored on the police, but when they said that they didn’t have any leads, he was heartbroken. If the police couldn’t find her with all the resources that they had at their disposal, how the hell was he supposed to do it on his own?

Suddenly, the possibility that he might never see Gabby again became very real. Despondency settled in his heart. Images of her flashed in his mind: her sweet smile, her gorgeous face, her honest eyes, and her charming and caring nature. He couldn’t live with her. She was the purpose of his life – and now that she was gone, he was lost and alone. Would his life ever take the right turn back to what he wanted? Would he ever see Gabby again? Nick wasn’t sure – and it was a terrible, terrible feeling.

CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN Gabby opened her eyes in the dark. For a few moments, she feared as if she’d gone blind. The world was a black void where she couldn’t see anything nor could she hear any sound. As she tried to move her hands, she found that they were tied. Panic rose like bile inside her throat, but she pushed it down and concentrated on her breathing. Once she was sure that she was more in control of her emotions, she made another attempt to move her hands and legs. She was tied up like a chicken, so much so that she couldn’t even turn on her side. Gabby knew the place she was in. It was the cellar in Joseph’s club. Once, he had forced her down there when she refused to service three men at the same time. This was much worse than that; at least then she had been able to move around a bit. This was one of Joseph’s power plays. He wanted to reduce her to the state of a blubbering, crying girl who would agree to whatever the hell he wanted her to do. As always, it worked. The fear that skidded across her nerves was devastatingly crushing. She could feel her will and her mind slowly crumbling as she fought the terror that careened through her veins. If only he got her out of this mess, she would fall in line. The months of freedom that she enjoyed were far more than what she expected when she ran away. Gabby never imagined that she would be able to enjoy the normal things that other people took for granted. When she got away from Joseph, she feared that he would find her at some point and make her regret her move. It happened exactly as she thought. But she would forever relish the memories of the wonderful time that she had in Hell Brigade. The images that flashed through her mind were myriad; Ronald’s handsome face, Willow’s encouraging smile, Tasha’s bright eyes, but the face that haunted her the most was Nick’s. What must he be going through in her absence? What did he do when he reached the store and found that she was gone? He would surely blame himself. Rather than curse her for being so irresponsible, he would beat himself that he didn’t do enough. She knew him well. He loved her, and his vow to protect her was sincere. She’d betrayed him by not abiding by his advice. If only she didn’t step out with Tasha. Why did she lull herself into this feeling of false security? If she stayed in the clubhouse, she would still be there, safe and well. Now, she was trapped in this cellar, tied like an animal that was about to be sacrificed. Joseph would do his best to break her spirit. He would unleash upon her a storm of horrible deeds that would force her to cower in front of him. If Nick saw her now, he would be ashamed of her. The thought sent a tingle up her spine. She never wanted him to cast his gaze on her when she was so helpless and vulnerable. She’d seen the love that shone in his eyes for her, and she didn’t want to see

disgust that was directed at her. No. She wouldn’t break down. She would be damned if he killed her, but she wouldn’t allow Joseph the satisfaction of knowing that he broke her mind. He could do his worst, and she might not smile through it, but she sure as hell would survive it for as long as she could. Nick had said that he would protect her. If she did as he’d said, she would be safe now, but she failed him – not the other way around. Gabby believed him when he said that he loved her. When she was with him, the words got stuck in her throat, and she didn’t say them often enough, but if she saw him now, she would tell him that she adored him. He was her life. Without him, she was nothing. But in order to say all those things, she needed to live. Joseph might try his best to crush her before he killed her, but this time, she wasn’t going to comply with his rules. Maybe she couldn’t free herself, but she sure as hell could defy him. If she wanted to survive, she needed a plan. Right now, she didn’t have anything that she could use to her advantage, but Joseph wouldn’t keep her inside this place forever. He would do his best to humiliate her. In order to do so, he would let her out – and when he did so, she would grab a chance whenever she could. Rather than cry and moan over her life, she stiffened her resolve. Gabby was going to survive this catastrophe no matter what happened. He kept her in that cellar for at least eight or nine hours. Maybe she was wrong. Perhaps it was less or more than that, but by the time he came down, her bladder was close to bursting. She could relieve herself in that situation, but her pride didn’t allow her to do so. The light that flooded inside when he opened the door made her eyes tingle. She closed them as she heard his footsteps descend the stairs. Once, the sound would have sent a lance of fear straight through her heart, but now it only served to remind her that he was no longer her master. She was a free woman – and that was the way she was going to die. With a knife, he cut open her ropes in one clean swipe after another. She sat up, her muscles cramping and hurting. His gloating face floated into view. The scar on his cheek gleamed in the light. “You bitch! Did you really think I would allow you to roam around when you defied me so openly?” Wisely, she kept her mouth shut. “Get up!” She stood. Gripping her arm, he forced her up the stairs. She climbed up with a great deal of effort. After being tied for so long, her legs were hurting too much. He shoved her inside the bathroom. Gladly, she relieved herself. Gabby looked in the mirror once she was done. Her face was streaked with dirt, and her clothes were rumpled and creased. She washed herself, cleaned her face and arms as best as she could. Even before she was done, he was pounding on the door. Gabby opened the door with dignity. She stepped out. He grabbed her arm and forced her to sit on the couch. She was familiar with this back room. It was the place where she and the other girls waited before they went on the stage. She’d

spent many years of her life in this same room. Was she a fool when she imagined that she would never get back? Perhaps, that was true. Or maybe she just needed to bide her time before she could leave once more. Gabby sucked in a deep breath of air as she waited for the first punch to hit her. Joseph didn’t want too long before unleashing his anger. Much to her surprise, he began with a question. “What do you have to say for yourself?” Maybe he wanted her to apologize or grovel, but she was determined to not give him the satisfaction. “I deserve to live my life the way I desire to, and I don’t want to do this anymore.” This time she earned a sharp, stinging slap. “You ungrateful bitch. How dare you tell me that you don’t want to do this now? I saved you from a worse fate. You were just a child with no place to go, and I took you in. I gave you food and shelter, paid for your clothes, and took care of you. And this is what you give me in return.” Foam formed in the corners of his lips, a sure sign of his mounting temper. Years of abuse had taught her to keep her mouth shut in such circumstances, but now she wasn’t the same cowering girl who got frightened by everything and anything. She’d learned courage with great difficulty and didn’t want to lose it now. “What you gave me was nothing in exchange for what you took from me. You forced me to clean this place, and you shoved me into years of depraved living by serving the men you chose for me. I gave you twelve years of my life in exchange for the food you put in front of me. Now, the rest of my life is mine.” He raised his hand. She jerked a little in anticipation. Seeing her reaction, he smiled and lowered his arm. “You may think that you’ve regained your rights but nothing has changed. I will not allow it. Once a girl comes under my protection, she remains here until I no longer have any use for her. You were one of my special girls. Clients came to see you specifically. You could have charged any price that you wanted, but instead, you threw it all away to scrub dishes and serve men in a silly biker’s club.” “I was free there to do what I wanted.” He laughed. “You were a fool to defy me. What did you earn in exchange for this stupid act?” He clearly didn’t expect an answer. “Do you think that pansy boy who rides on fancy bikes and lives in that pretty house is going to come looking for you? What’s his name?” He snapped his finger. “Ah, yes. Nick. Do you think he will come here like an avenging angel and rescue you? Do you really think he cares enough?” “He will come,” she said with a certainly that she felt in the center of her being. Nick wouldn’t leave her at this mercy of this miserable man. “And when he does, you’re going to wish that you weren’t

born.” That threat earned her three sharp slaps one after another. “You useless, spineless bitch. This is just a delusion. No one is going to risk their lives to rescue you. You’re no one. You’re nothing. No one cares about you except me, and you’ve ruined the only good thing you had going. I might have been able to forgive you for trying to run away but what you did with the police is unforgivable. For that, you’ve earned death.” She gulped. Tears sprang to her eyes but she forced them with a vicious sniff. She wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of knowing that he’d reduced her to this most pathetic state. From the moment he grabbed her, she expected this end. She’d known that he wouldn’t tolerate her presence for long. He’d said as much when he called her while she was with Nick. It was her fault that she didn’t take his threats seriously enough. Gabby sniffed as she tried to get a grip on her feelings. Blaming herself wasn’t going to solve any problem. The only thing it did was to absolve him of all guilt, and it wasn’t fair to her own self when she did that. He enslaved her and when she ran away, he brought her back. He was the monster. He was the one who needed to be locked up for good. She was only sorry that she didn’t start the proceedings against him sooner. Had she done that, this might not have happened. Nick told her from the beginning to do it, even before they became deeply involved with each other. She should have listened to him. If she’d done as he wanted right from the start, she wouldn’t be in this mess right now. But the time for regrets was long gone. It was time to take charge, and she was doing it despite the consequences. In a defiant gesture, she lifted her chin. “Do your worst. I don’t care.” His lips peeled back to reveal his yellow teeth. He growled, deep in his throat as his hand twitched. He ached to hurt her. She could see the need for violence coil in his eyes. Gabby prepared for the worst. No matter what she said or did, he was going to hurt her anyway. Instead of saying anything, he stared at her, a speculative gleam in his eyes. “Death might be too easy for you.” She licked her bottom lip with her tongue. What the hell was he talking about? Gabby didn’t mind death. If that’s what he wanted, she welcomed it. All she could hope was that it was swift and painless, but of course, he wouldn’t grant her that small mercy. The man was a vicious, brutal monster who would want to hurt her in the worst possible manner. She imagined the various ways in which he could torture her; beatings with a belt, with a chain, perhaps blows to her body with a baseball bat, and maybe a knife plunged in the heart to finish her off. She could deal with it all. Adversity didn’t make her as strong as freedom did. If she couldn’t have it, she didn’t want anything else. It was better to die. Perhaps in death lay her

salvation. He surely expected her to ask as to what he planned, but when she didn’t say anything, he walked over to the window that looked out in the backyard. Even from this angle, she could see the large, wooden fence that surrounded the small, unkempt yard. “I’ve made a lot of investment on you, Gabby. Your clothes, your food, and your monthly hair appointments and the makeup you wore. Even your medical bills were paid by me.” “You paid them with my earnings.” He turned to face her. “It’s only fair that you pay me some more.” Fear coursed through her heart. Whenever she imagined Joseph getting his dirty hands on her, she’d thought that he would want to kill her. She never expected him to keep her alive. Death was much preferred to the fate that he appeared to have in mind for her. “No!” She breathed out the word as if it was a prayer. “I wouldn’t cooperate. Never.” A bone-chilling smile crept over his lips. “Your cooperation is not necessary. It’s not needed. I’ve got clients who would pay a great price for you, and it wouldn’t matter to them whether you wanted the same or not.” The tears that swam in her eyes couldn’t be forced back with an act of will. What he planned for her was beyond horrific. “You can’t do this.” “Oh yes, I can.” She sprang out of the chair and lunged for the door. She didn’t want to do this because any attempt at escape would earn her nothing more than good beating, but still, she tried because if she didn’t do so, she would be trapped in an endless nightmare. Just as she reached the door, he grabbed her hair and spun her around with enough force to make her knock against the wall. A scream shot out of her lips as blood flew from a cut on her forehead. As she screamed again, he kicked her in the stomach and when she fell down, he kicked her once more to make sure that she stayed down. “Stupid girl,” he snarled. “Haven’t you realized that there is no escape from this place?” “Please let me go,” she sobbed out the words. “I will pay you whatever you want. Nick will give you the money.” He bent down and thrust his face close to hers. His breath stank. “It’s not about the money anymore, silly girl. It’s about my ego, my pride. You’ve stamped on it and now you’re going to pay the price for it.” Nick, where are you? She screamed in her mind. If only he knew where she was, he would have moved heaven and earth to help her, but she was too far away. No one knew where he kept her. They might suspect that he kept her in the same club from which he operated, but they couldn’t come inside

to search for her. In any case, he didn’t intend for her to remain here for long. What he planned for her was horrendous beyond words. Tears ran down her cheeks. “No, please no.” “Oh yes, baby. You’re going to serve me until your last dying breath and when I am done with you, then I am going to put you out of your misery.” Gabby wished she was dead already.

CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT Days blended into night as Gabby was shuttled from one client to another. Trussed up, tied with a rope that dug into her arms and legs, she was thrown in the back of a van and shifted from one man to another. She’d thought that all faces of evil were known to her, but she realized that there were other levels of depravity that she hadn’t been exposed to before. There were men who liked to have sex with her when she was tied to the bed, helpless and vulnerable. Some of them liked to hit her when she couldn’t lift her hands to protect herself. Her life became an endless nightmare from which there was no escape. Gabby prayed for salvation, but knowing that it wasn’t close, she longed for death. It didn’t come. Battered and bruised, she lay spread on one bed and then another as Joseph drove her from one place to another. He wanted her to suffer, and this was the worst that he could do. Her pride, her self-worth, all evaporated as she was forced to do unspeakable acts to men who enjoyed her humiliation as much as they relished her body. She wanted to die, but death eluded her. But only for a short time. When he was done, when she couldn’t serve him anymore, he would kill her. She yearned for that moment to come, but he kept her alive by force feeding her in between her time on the bed. One man after another subjugated her to his will. She cried, she pleaded them to stop, but no one cared enough to listen to her. Broken in spirit, devastated and depressed, she finally stopped groveling. Quietly, she lay down while they did what they had to. One man blended into another. “Gabby?” said a gentle voice she could recognize but Gabby refused to open her eyes. She couldn’t bear to look into the gloating face of the man whom she was brought to. How long had she been shifted from one house to another? She didn’t quite know. Was it days or weeks? Or perhaps hours? Time had lost all meaning. “Gabby,” said the man in a persistent voice. “Look at me.” What the hell did he want? Wasn’t it enough that she didn’t protest, didn’t scream, or pleaded? What did he desire more than what he was already going to take? “Gabby, it’s me. Lyle. Open your eyes. I want to talk to you.” In some corner of her mind in which sanity prevailed, she saw figments of her past life. Lyle? The man who helped her escape. Had she been brought to him? She opened her eyes. His face swam into view. She was tied to the bed by Joseph and stripped of all clothes. She squirmed as she tried to sit. To her surprise, he opened the bonds that held her. He sat on the bed. “Lyle?” His eyes traveled down her bruised body that was nearly black and blue. “What have they done to you?”

Tears poured down her cheeks. She couldn’t stop. Gabby didn’t want sympathy. He would do what he always did so there was no point asking for mercy. What was the use anyway? If he didn’t rape her, the next man would. “Kill me, please.” Much to her surprise, he took her in his arms and patted her back. “Gabby? I want to help you.” “There is nothing you can do,” she said. “Is there anyone you can call for help? He told me to surrender my phone before I came in, but I have got another phone. He didn’t know.” Her confused mind couldn’t process the request. “Should I call the police?” What if she reached someone who was on Joseph’s take? She couldn’t afford that risk. If he knew that she had called the police, he would kill her this instance and throw her body in the river. Joseph was bent on exacting his revenge but he wouldn’t keep her alive if it meant being caught. For him, selfpreservation was everything. “No,” she said. “I need to…call someone else.” Would Lyle actually help her? Was he joking? Perhaps this was part of Joseph’s plan? Maybe he told Lyle to ask her to see if she still had any courage left? But he put the phone in her hand. “You can use this.” She stared at the phone as if it was a foreign object. “I can call someone. No! Wait!” What the hell would she tell Nick? She couldn’t speak of the horrors that were inflicted on her. “Where are we?” He gave her the address. “Whom do you want to call?” With fingers that trembled, she typed out the message and sent Nick a text. She gave him the address of Joseph’s club and this place. Joseph wasn’t too discreet when he called her old clients to see if anyone was interested. She’d heard him talking to a few more of them in half daze while he drove the car. She could take a guess as to where he intended to take her next. Of course, she could be wrong, but she sent Nick the addresses of two other places where he could possibly take her. Would he come? How long would it take him if he set off now? By the time he arrived in town, she would be elsewhere. He wouldn’t be able to track her. But at least he would know that she tried. At least, that was enough for now. “Thank you.” She returned the phone to Lyle. He glanced at her as if he was trying to memories her features. “I am sorry for what he has done.” Her lips lifted in a wry smile. “It would be better if I was dead. I am as good as. He is not going to let me live.” “When he called and said that you were available, I couldn’t believe it. You’d left. So I told him yes, that I was interested. My wife has gone out of town, otherwise I would have had to say no. He

insisted that you weren’t available in his club. I wondered what that was all about,” he explained. “He doesn’t want a police raid. I think he is keeping all the girls somewhere else right now because there is an investigation going on against him,” she said. Even from this much talk, her throat began to hurt. Slowly but surely, her body was giving up. Lyle ran a hand over her cheek. If he’d touched her in a sexual manner, she would have cringed, but the way he rubbed his hand over her clearly showed his affection. She could tell that he was genuinely sorry about her state. “I just wanted to make sure that you were doing this out of your own will, but it’s obvious that he is forcing you into this. How did you get caught?” She told him the whole sordid tale. Once more, guilt hit her. If only she hadn’t left that day with Tasha to go to the damned store. “He is very angry. I don’t even remember how many days it has been since…he kidnapped me. What day is it?” “It’s Sunday, October 25.” Only two days had elapsed since she was snatched off the street and brought into this filth again, but for Gabby it felt as if she had been doing this for a lifetime. Her body had already been battered beyond recognition in forty-eight hours. What would happen if he continued this treatment for a week or months? She wouldn’t survive. She didn’t want to live like this anyway. If this was the way she was going to spend the rest of her existence, she preferred to embrace a quick end rather than prolonged agony. Lyle tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear. Emotions coiled in his eyes. She could see pity and sympathy. “I could ask him to keep you here for the day. My wife won’t come back before a week has passed. Let me tell him that I would be willing to pay double price. You could just rest and recuperate.” She couldn’t believe that he was so helpful. What did he want? Or perhaps she was being so paranoid that she couldn’t accept anyone’s help without being suspicious. “He wouldn’t agree to it.” “Let me just talk to him. He wants money so he will get it from me.” Lyle walked out of the door. Gabby took that moment to pull the sheet forward. She could perhaps rest for a few minutes. All she’d done in the past days – surely, it was days, and not weeks – was to either travel in the van or service men. Whatever sleep she’d snatched was in the back of the van while she was tied up tightly. Her mind was exhausted, and her body was almost near-death. She could feel her energy draining with each passing moment. Soon, she wouldn’t be able to move at all, and then the end would come. But would it be quick, or would Joseph drag it out for as long as he could? Nick would never be able to reach in time to save her. The distance from this town to his was a ten hour journey by bus. She’d thought it was enough to keep her save, but apparently it wasn’t, and now the same distance would get her killed. But she hoped that he would be able to make Joseph suffer for what the way he tortured her. Even though she wouldn’t live to see it, it gladdened her heart to know

that Nick would do his best to get Joseph sent to jail. Perhaps she would, in death, be able to protect the other girls he enslaved. It would be an accomplishment, perhaps a minor one, but still she would be able to leave her mark on this earth in some positive manner. The door opened with a bang. She jumped up, knowing that her brief respite was over. Lyle was trying to pull Joseph back from the door, but the pimp swiped his hand and threw the younger man on the floor. “Stay away,” he yelled as he strode forward to yank the sheet off Gabby. “You bitch! You managed to turn him over, didn’t you?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “I do.” Grabbing her hair, he pulled her off the bed. She landed on the floor with a loud thump. “We’re leaving right now.” Gabby could guess what must have happened. Lyle’s overeager desire to keep her here must have convinced Joseph that something was amiss. He was an extremely paranoid man, and these days his paranoia was even more fueled by the police investigation that was going on against him. Since it was initiated by Gabby, he was all the more mistrustful of anything to do with her. “I’ve paid for an hour,” Lyle protested. Digging into his picket, Joseph drew out Lyle’s money and threw it on the floor. “Take it back. I don’t need it. You bastard! I shouldn’t have brought her to you.” Keep his grip on her arm intact, he dragged her towards the door. Lyle refused to budge. “If you leave, I will call the police.” Gabby was frightened for Lyle. He didn’t realize it but in this kind of a mood, Joseph was ready to kill. “No!” she breathed out the word so softly that no one heard it. If she spoke any louder, she would earn another few kicks and slaps. Joseph bared his teeth. “You do that, pretty boy, and they would like to know as to why you felt the need to pay for a prostitute. Your wife would know, and so would your family. You want to do that for her? You want to risk everything you hold dear for this woman who means nothing to you? She is a whore who moves from man to man to earn her keep.” Lyle opened and closed his mouth. “I…” Gabby could well understand the thoughts that crossed Lyle’s mind. He wanted to do the right thing for her, but he also couldn’t risk harming himself in the process. His self-interest conflicted with his concern for her welfare. She couldn’t really blame him. What he’d done was more than what anyone else offered. She was already grateful for him for offering a chance to contact Nick. Also, at least, he tried to keep her safe. Apart from Nick and the friends she met in Hell Brigade’s clubhouse, no one did even this much.

“Thank you,” she muttered as he stepped aside and allowed Joseph to drag her away. Joseph tugged her towards the van. Resistance would earn slaps and beating. She didn’t want that. Her body wouldn’t be able to tolerate any more abuse. Lately, she was feeling as if all her bones would shatter at the slightest impact. She was too weak to fight, too broken down to protest. As he shoved her in the car, Joseph took a moment to survey her. “I know what you’ve done. He must have helped you call a friend or someone. Don’t think that this has changed anything. I’m not going to let you escape no matter what happens. I’ve got two more appointments booked for you tonight, and once we’re done with those, you’re going to die,” he told her in a flat, cold voice. She gulped as she stared at him. He bent to pick up the ropes and slide them around her. For a moment, Gabby considered the thought of making a lunge for freedom, but it would earn her nothing but another beating. She wouldn’t survive it. If she was going to die, she preferred to meet her end with dignity. Would he grant her that? She licked her bottom lip. “I didn’t do anything.” He tightened the ropes and stepped away. Picking up a handkerchief, he tied it around her mouth. “Two hours. That’s all you got. Don’t worry. I will make it quick. One blow to the head and down you will go in the river, weighed down by rocks. You will not open your eyes again.” He closed the door of the van and she heard him move towards the driver’s side. He sat inside and started the van. The countdown was on. Gabby held no hope for rescue. Even if Nick read her message, he wouldn’t be able to come in time to save her. She wouldn’t survive through the night. Joseph would kill her as he promised. All she could pray for was a quick end – and only time would tell if she would get that.

CHAPTER TWENTY NINE Time was of paramount importance. Nick rushed out the door, followed closely by Ronald and Matt. “I’m leaving right now,” he yelled to them as he shoved the phone inside his pocked. “We’re coming with you,” said Miles as he rushed after him. He reached his bike and straddled it. “It might be dangerous.” “We knew that when we came along, man,” said Matt as he sat on his bike. Miles sat behind him. Another two men joined them. “Let’s not waste any time arguing. We came to this town just so we could help you if we located Gabby.” They drove here the day after Nick managed to get the details out from the lawyer who was helping Gabby fight the case against Joseph. Although she didn’t give details regarding Joseph’s current business to Nick, the lawyer knew, as did the police. The local police was keeping an eye on the clubhouse, but Nick wasn’t sure if Joseph would take the risk of bringing her to the same town in which there was an investigation going on. But where else could he take Gabby? He needed a place to hide her, and logically it made sense for him to yank her back into the same system from which she ran away. Last night, they surveyed the place but there was no indication that he was anywhere inside it. Two of them men even went inside to check out the place but they didn’t see Joseph or Gabby. Nick was disappointed, but since he didn’t have another avenue to pursue, he decided to stay put until another lead presented itself. Much to his surprise, Gabby messaged from an unknown number. She gave the location. He intended to see if she was there. Rather than run the risk of calling the number and seeing if he could get any information, he preferred to visit the place. If she’d stolen someone’s phone to send him a message, he didn’t want to alert the person about it. Ten minutes later, he was pounding on the door. A tall man opened the door. Seeing them, he blanched. “What do you guys want?” It wasn’t Joseph. Nick barged his way in. “Where is she?” “She?” He grabbed the man’s collar and pushed him against the door. If he’d to go to jail for this, he would do so willingly as long as he was able to find out where this vile man was hiding her. Was he one of Joseph’s accomplice? “Gabby. Where is she?” The man bit his lip so hard that a drop of blood oozed out. “Are you the man to whom she sent the

message?” Nick eased the grip on his collar. Did this guy willingly help her? “Yes. Where is she?” “Joseph dragged her off in the van after I offered to pay double the price to keep her here. He suspected that I allowed her to use my phone to contact someone, and he didn’t want to take the risk,” he said. “Tell me everything.” What he heard made him blanch. Bile rose inside his throat, but he pushed it back with a violent shake of his head. Until he rescued Gabby, he couldn’t afford to be sick. She underwent a terrible ordeal in the last two days. It was worse than what he’d imagined, but at least she was alive. That was the only silver lining in the entire macabre scenario. “Where has he taken her?” he demanded. The man shrugged. “I am sorry but I don’t know. Didn’t she send you more details?” She gave him two more addresses. Should he try them? There was little option left. “Search the place,” he ordered his people. Matt, Ronald, and the others fanned out to look into each room. He expected the man to resist their attempt, but he stood quietly as they studied each nook and cranny. “She is not here,” said Matt as he came back. “He is telling the truth.” “Why the hell didn’t you stop that asshole?” The man shrugged. His face contorted into a wild grimace. “I should’ve…but he threatened tell the police about me. I couldn’t afford it. It’s…my marriage…” He gulped. “Joseph will kill her. He will do it before the night is over. Now that he knows that you guys are hot on his trail, he wouldn’t take a chance. Please save her.” With a snort of disgust, Nick walked out. He sat on his bike and drove off towards the next address. Ever since she disappeared, he thought that the man might try to kill her. He would definitely torture and humiliate her, but he didn’t expect that Joseph would attempt to make money out of her helplessness. How many times was she raped since she came into Joseph’s clutches? How many times did he force her to do his bidding? The mere image sent him into a spasm of pain, but Nick drove the thought out of his mind. He wanted one thing only, and that was to rescue her before she lost her sanity. The only question that remained was; would they be in time to find her before Joseph murdered her? What if Nick was too late? He couldn’t bear to think about it. It was too reprehensible and frightening to consider for long. As he drove through the silent streets, Nick prayed as he never did before. He wanted her back in his life,

and in order to achieve that end, he would have to hurry. If he didn’t make it in time, what would happen? Nick couldn’t finish the thought. He didn’t want to. His hope was focused on one thing only, and that was to find Gabby before it was too late. Soon, they reached the second address. Much to his disgust, it proved to be an empty house that was put up for sale. No one lived there any longer. She must have given him the two addresses where she thought Joseph was likely to take her, but this one was a dead end. Now, there was only one last place to consider, and if that proved to be false, he didn’t know what else he could do. Did he come so far only to lose her in the end? What if he never saw her again? What if Joseph killed her before he reached that place? Frustrated and scared beyond belief, he finally reached the last house. Quietly, they parked their bikes a little distance off and reached the place on foot. The black van that was parked next to the driveway made him pause. “That looks like the same van that Tasha described,” whispered Matt. “Do you think he could have brought her here in this?” “I’ll check the license plates.” Ronald walked over and studied the van. No one appeared to ask him any questions. If Joseph was in the vicinity, he was probably inside. He strode back. “I think the license plate is fake,” he whispered. “It’s quite possible that he used a different one when he went out of town.” “We should call the police,” said Miles. Nick wanted to be sure that they had their query. If Gabby was inside, he wanted to get her first. It was quite likely that if Joseph heard the police sirens, he might harm her. “Let me go inside and scoop the place first.” “It’s a private residence. You could get into trouble this way if they find you trespassing,” Matt worried. “I don’t give a rat’s ass,” Nick growled as he surveyed the place. “There has to be a back entrance. I’m going to try that first.” He bounded into the property and ran towards the back. When he reached the back door, Nick tried to open it. Much to his relief, the handle twisted all the way down. Soundlessly, he slipped inside. He’d expected to scout the place, but much to his astonishment, Joseph was sitting on the kitchen table, drinking beer. The sight of his unshaved, unkempt appearance made Nick’s blood boil. This man dared to take his woman. He kidnapped her in board daylight and subjected her to all sort of vile things. Seeing him,

Joseph stood but even before he had a chance to step away from his chair or scream for help, Nick leapt across the room and punched him in the face. The man swayed on his feet, straightened, and rushed towards Nick. A growl escaped his lips. Nick met him head on. They clashed with each other and grappled. A chair overturned and fell on the floor with a loud crash. Joseph was a big, heavy man but he was no match for Nick’s agility and rage. Anger swam in Joseph’s veins as if it was molten lava. This man ruined his life and Gabby’s. He wanted to kill the bastard – and he would do so. Grabbing the other man’s hair, he punched him in the gut and pushed him against the wall. Nick received a blow on his face and torso, but pain didn’t exist anymore. His goal was clear; he wanted to hurt the man as much as he hurt Gabby. His fists pounded into the man with enough force to break bones. In return, he was hit on his face and chest. Joseph bit him on his arm, but soon Nick made the man fall, straddled him, and delivered blows to his face. Someone grabbed him around the waist and pulled him off the man. “Leave me alone,” he ordered, struggling to free himself. “Get a grip on yourself,” said Ronald’s fierce voice. “We need to find Gabby first.” Only her name could have returned sanity to his mind. Nick stopped fighting Matt who held him in a death grip. “Fine. I’m OK. You better keep the bastard here while I go and look for her. He shouldn’t escape.” Matt eased his grip. “He won’t, bro. You’ve got my word.” Nick wasn’t sure if Gabby was in the house. If she was, why didn’t she come forward? Surely, she heard the noise. He ran through the ground floor, looking into the two empty bedrooms but she wasn’t around. Feeling a little flustered and scared, he ran back up. The pounding music that hit his ear told him the reason as to why the person who was upstairs didn’t hear them. He barged into one of the rooms. The sight that met his eyes flabbergasted him. Gabby was tied naked to the bed while a man danced in front of her. At first he couldn’t understand what the hell was going on. Seeing him, the man halted. His glassy eyes told Nick that he was as high as a kite. “Hey man, my hour is not up. I haven’t even started on her yet.” Gabby was half asleep. He took a step forward, not sure if she was awake. Was she participating in this macabre drama willingly? He walked closer. The bruises on his body, black and blue, and the gaping wounds told him another story. Fresh anger roiled in his gut. “Gabby,” his voice was gentle. Ignoring the man, he strode over to the bed and opened her ropes. He ran a hand over her forehead. She wasn’t sleeping. Instead, she was half-unconscious. “Gabby?” he said again. Her eyelids fluttered. She opened her eyes and gazed at him. He could tell that she wasn’t really seeing him. The blank expression on her face indicated that she wasn’t able to think clearly. “Nick,” she whispered so softly that he could barely hear her.

Putting his arms around her, he lifted her and drew her in his arms. “Gabby, oh Gabby!” He ran his hands up and down under her back, carefully so that he didn’t hurt her. Already, she was hurt beyond measure. How could a person be so evil as to reduce a human being to this state? The man put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, dude!” Nick jabbed an elbow in his stomach. “You asshole. Stay away or I will kill you.” Wisely, the man backed off. Nick pulled the bed sheet away from the mattress and wrapped Gabby in it. “We’re leaving, babe. I’m here now and no one will hurt you anymore.” Tears ran down her eyes. “Nick. How did you reach so quickly?” He kissed her on the forehead as he picked her up. “I was looking for you, babe and now that I’ve found you, I am never letting go.” “Nick, I’ve something to say.” “What, babe?” She gazed into his eyes. Even though half of her face was swollen and her jaw was bruised, she was the most beautiful woman that he ever saw. “I love you.” Joy welled in his heart and poured all over his body. “I love you too, babe. Forever and ever.” She rested her head on his shoulder as he carried her down. Matt was standing watch over Joseph who was bleeding from his nose. Seeing Gabby, Matt’s lips split into a smile but then he saw the bruises on her face. Without warning, he suddenly kicked Joseph in the stomach. “You asshole.” Miles held the wall for support as he gazed at her battered face. He didn’t say anything. “Call the police and an ambulance. We’re done here,” said Nick. “I’ve already done it,” said Ronald. “They should be here any minute now.” “You can’t do this,” muttered Joseph. “I won’t let you take her away. She is mine, not yours.” Nick bent down, holding Gabby close against his chest. “Listen to me, you bastard. I’m going to send you to jail, and you’re not going to get out quickly. We’ll make sure of that. For hurting Gabby, and for enslaving other women, you’re going to spend the rest of your miserable life in jail. If it was up to me, I would put you out of your misery now, but frankly, you deserve to be locked up and never enjoy freedom again.” Without waiting for reply, he walked out. The ambulance was just turning into the driveway. He carried her over and set her down into the ambulance. As the medics converged around her, he stepped back.

She leaned forward, resisting their efforts to make her lie down. “Nick?” “I’m right here, babe. Never again am I going to be anywhere else but by your side,” he promised. He could hear her audible sigh as she allowed the medics to treat her wounds. Nick couldn’t believe that this nightmare was finally over. He meant every word he said. Now that he found Gabby, he would never let her go. She was the reason for his happiness, and he couldn’t afford to lose her anymore. For as long as he lived, he would protect and cherish her – and nothing would ever mar their bliss ever again.

CHAPTER THIRTY A year later, Gabby woke up in a massive four-post bed in a strange room. For a few moments, she couldn’t figure out where she was and fear coursed through her heart. When the cobwebs of sleep crept away from her mind, she remembered that she’d come for a vacation to this beautiful, tropical island for two weeks with Nick. She turned and saw the man who slept beside her. In his sleep, he looked so beautiful. It wasn’t just that he was handsome but also that he was so caring and generous with her. Every moment of his life was devoted to her. With him, she felt complete, whole. Gabby bent to deliver a kiss to his forehead. His arm snaked over her waist and held her captive. Giggling, she tried to free herself. “Leave me alone.” “Not before I get my due.” When she fell in beside him, the musky, strong scent of him hit her nostrils. Within an instant, desire slid into her veins, quick and fast. It hit her like a punch and she gasped in delight as his hand cupped her heavy, warm breast. His fingers kneaded her soft flesh and she relished the waves of need that coursed through her nerves. Arousal was instantaneous. “Do you ever think about anything else?” “Oh yes, babe.” He nuzzled her neck, his mouth doing things to her that made her heart flutter. “I think about your lovely hair, your beautiful, naked body, your sexy curves, and your upturned cute mouth.” A smile spread over her lips as he yanked off her t-shirt and threw it on the side. His gaze traveled down the length of her body as he took note of the way her breasts heaved and the telltale flush of color that glowed over her cheeks. No man made her feel this gorgeous before. “Is there anything else that occupies your thoughts?” “Oh yes.” His hands cupped her breasts and kneaded. “I dream about making wild love to you, and now I am going to make that particular dream come true.” She laughed as he kissed her throat but when his lips traveled down her breast and found her nipple, her breath was caught in her throat. His lips sucked and caressed her hard bud as she squirmed under him. Her body was a bundle of nerves that frizzled and sparkled as he lavished his attention on her warm, creamy breast and her sensitive, swollen nipple. His fingers slid down her torso and rested on her taut stomach as he paid homage to her twin globules. She arched and buckled under him, feeling lost and confused.

So easily he could reduce her to this state of needy wantonness. Her fingers inched along his skin as she enjoyed the way his hard muscles rippled under her finger pads. The light that filtered in from the folds in the curtains played on his body, highlighting his sleek angles. The man was nothing if not thorough. He took his time until her blood began to boil. As his mouth moved her nipples, desire careened through her overloaded system. Sensations, hot and greedy, exploded in her veins as his tongue swept over her nubs. He fondled and caressed as she speared her fingers through his soft hair and held on for dear life. Unable to move, to shift away, she was a willing victim to this wonderful assault. Naked and helpless, she spread under him, unable to do anything to stop the torture that drove her nearly mad. Need. Passion. Heat. Everything jumbled inside her like a cocktail of heady desires that overtook all other senses. Moisture slipped down her thighs as her pussy lips opened in the anticipation of what was to come. She couldn’t wait for him to enter and pound into her. Only if he took what she offered from her and gave back in return would she be able to feel normal once more. But he appeared intent to take his time. As he lifted his head, his gaze feasted on her soft curves and her creamy skin. In turn, she feasted on the sight of his narrow waist and his hard, thick shaft that protruded from between his thighs. It was a delight to gaze at it. She reached forward to grasp his cock in her hands, but he grabbed her hand and pinned it to the bed. “Nick,” she protested. His mouth settled on her navel and his tongue dove inside. She arched as a need unlike any burst into her veins. He took his time, paying attention to the curve of her waist and the creamy quality of her skin, but when he moved his head down, a murmur of protest sputtered out of her lips. It changed into a gasp of pleasure as his tongue swept over the curls that guarded her pussy and then brushed over the wet lips. He held her hands in a fierce grip and all she could do was lift her hips as she attempted to squirm away. He didn’t allow her to do so. Instead, he settled between legs and took delight in her moans and gasps as she melted under his relentless attention. His tongue swept into her velvety center and waves of desire coursed through her nerves. She stopped existing as a person. Instead, she was a mass of quivering, shuddering muscles. She didn’t care what he did and how he did it. Her entire existence was focused on the delicious yearning for release that built inside her. She breathed out soft gasps in her struggle to maintain her composure, but it was a losing battle. Gently, he picked up pace and when the orgasm rippled through her, she cried out. He allowed her a few moments to take a brief respite. Letting go of her hands, he joined her on the bed and lay down beside her. She put her arms around his smooth back as she attempted to get her breath back. It was one of the most fantastic experiences of her life. He sure knew how to make her tingle with fulfillment and contentment. As he rested his head on her breasts, she felt complete, whole.

Suddenly, he straddled her. Surprised, she gazed into his eyes. When she detected the desperation on his face, heat, and wild and fiery, spiraled in her gut. She was ready to do his bidding. His cock brushed against her lips and willingly she opened her mouth, eager to return the pleasure he’d so generously bestowed on her. As his penis slid into her throat, she wrapped her tongue around it, taking delight in the way his muscles shuddered under her hands that rested on his hips. She enjoyed the musky, strong smell that assailed her senses. His penis throbbed and vibrated, and just as she thought he was about to come, he pulled out. She cried in disbelief, but he quickly slipped down her body. His cock rubbed against her pussy that was wet with her juices. She wanted him to shove it inside her but he took his time to swipe his penis against her until it was slick and wet. As she moaned and groaned in frustration, he smiled. Suddenly, without warning, he plunged into her. Her sheath opened to accommodate him while her muscles clenched and unclenched around him. Putting his hands on the back of her thighs, he forced her to open more as he pounded into her with a viciousness that delighted her. Finally, she could have what she longed for. Desire, passion, and need spiraled into her with the force of a tsunami. As he picked up the pace, she was caught in the throes of the crashing waves that swelled and slammed into her. Her body craved released. Each bold stroke fired a volley of desire within her frazzled nerves. Higher and higher, he made her spiral as she reached towards the sharp precipice that waited down below. It was a daring, delicious moment. She longed for that moment of joy and happiness that would catapult her out of this sweet misery, but he kept her hanging on the lip of desire far longer than ever before. His muscles were sleek with sweat as he thrust into her again and again. His pelvic bone ground into hers and each time it pressed against her clit, she felt a burst of pleasure sweep through her senses. Finally, when the orgasm spiraled through her, she screamed loudly with the pleasure of it. Moments later, he spilled his semen into her and collapsed on top of. If this wasn’t love, she didn’t know what was. It wasn’t just a meeting of their bodies but also of their minds and souls. She felt totally in tune with Nick. He was the only man who made her feel that life was worth living. With him, everything looked beautiful, special. A few hours later, she walked with Nick along the beach. The crashing sounds of the waves, the flight of the seagulls as they flew overhead, and the tall, and the swaying trees on the beach made her feel as if she was in paradise. She’d recovered from the nightmare easily enough once she was back among her friends and with Nick. They made her feel whole again. “What are you thinking?” She clutched his hand tightly. “If there is heaven on earth, this might be it.”

“Then surely you must be an angel.” She laughed, raised his hand to her lips, and dropped a kiss on it. “Only you could say such a thing.” “I only state the truth.” From the moment he found her again, Nick didn’t make her feel sad or guilty for a single second. She’d thought he might be angry at her for putting herself in that vulnerable potion, but instead, he was the soul of generosity and care. After being raped and beaten, she felt used, but slowly, over time he made her realize that it wasn’t her fault. She was the victim, not the perpetrator of the crime. Joseph was behind bars and he would remain like that for a long, long time. Seeing Gabby’s courage, other women he enslaved came forward and testified against him. It made the case stronger, and now Gabby didn’t have to worry about him. Her life with Nick was just perfect. She couldn’t have envisioned a better ending to that whole mess. Now they could really live without any fears. This vacation with Nick was the ultimate icing on the cake. She was surprised when he sprang this idea on her, but Gabby quickly warmed to the idea of getting away from the routine for two weeks and having a lazy vacation on an island. This was the first time in her life when she didn’t have to work. It felt divine. As she strolled on the beach on bare feet, she could feel every bone and muscle in her body relax. “We should take souvenirs for everyone.” “Who all?” “Ronald, Willow, Tasha, and Matt. Miles, too.” He laughed. “Matt also.” “Of course. Now that we’ve gotten over our mutual pique, I find him to be an intriguing guy. And I can never forget the fact that he came to rescue me along with you.” “They all love you, Gabby.” “And I love them.” She stopped and turned. “I love you, Nick, more than I can explain, more than I can express.” She never got tired of saying it. Now that she saw death so up, close, and personal, Gabby didn’t fear to voice the emotions that swirled in her heart. Why had she withheld these feelings for so long? If it wasn’t for him, she wouldn’t be alive. If it wasn’t for him, she wouldn’t know what love was. He taught her to trust others, to love freely, and to believe in the goodness of people. Not only was he her savior but also her lover. No other woman was as lucky. She loved him – and he felt the same way.

This was her truth and reality and she wasn’t scared to shy away from it anymore. “I have something to ask you,” he said. Digging his hand in his pocket, he pulled out a black, square box. Opening it, he presented a ring. She gasped when her gaze feasted on the sparkling diamond ring that glittered in the sunlight. Tears sprang into her eyes. “Nick?” “Marry me, Gabby. Make me the happiest man on this earth. Without you, I have nothing to live you. I don’t want anything else more than I want you. I’ll do my best to make you happy, and together, we can be a real family,” he pleaded. Words were trapped in her throat. She couldn’t say them out loud. The silence was deafening. She couldn’t believe this was happening. Was he actually asking her to marry him? She raised her eyes and met his. The love that glowed in their depths was all for her. There was no denying the fact that he was crazy about her, and she felt pretty much the same way. Gabby didn’t want to wait anymore. “Yes, oh yes.” Putting her arms around his neck, she kissed him while the ring was crushed between them. When they parted, he took it out and slid it on her finger. “You’ve made me the happiest man, Gabby. We are good together.” “Yes, we are.” She gazed at the shiny ring. Once, she believed that she would never get this. Now that she had it, Gabby was scared of losing it. Nick was the ultimate man. He was hers, and she was his for as long as they both lived. “I love you,” she repeated the words that meant so much. Hand in hand, they walked back towards their hotel. It was the perfect beginning for their new life – and from now on, they would be happy forever. THE END

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Evelyn Glass is a native of northern California who currently lives in New England with her wonderful husband and their two rambunctious Corgis. Her favorite past times include hiking and reading near the fireplace. If you liked this book, it would mean the world to me if you can help others enjoy it as you have. Feel free to LEND it, RECOMMEND it, or REVIEW it. The lending feature has been enabled for this version of the book and you can lend it to your friend if you want. You can also help others discover the book by recommending it personally to friends and family or through social media like Twitter and Facebook. If you have suggestions or just want to drop me a line, you can reach me via email at writerevelynglass@gmail.comor tweet me via @EvelynGlass9. Be sure to let me know if you've left me a review! I'll personally thank you for your support. Those interested in updates from me can subscribe to the newsletter at to stay in the loop!

Evelyn glass taken by the bad boy, northem hounds mc  
Evelyn glass taken by the bad boy, northem hounds mc