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

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Contents Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Free Bonus Book: LEFT FOR DEAD Sneak Preview of PINNED DOWN: A Triple Threat Sports Romance Other Books by Lexi Cross Lexi Cross Mailing List

Chapter 1 Pia Carelli flipped off the lights in her clothing store. The racks of clothing along the walls, the circles of shirts in the center of the room, all went dark. The lights that were perfectly placed, that so carefully showed off the colors and shapes of her precisely chosen designer lines, now highlighted nothing. She loved this store and everything it represented—her freedom, her good taste, her ability to hire and fire employees at will and order them around all day. It was fun, like her personal playground where she could do whatever she wanted. And her personal closet. If a piece didn’t look good on her, it wasn’t allowed to sit on her shelves. She was her own best advertising. She stepped outside. The evening air was cool, but not so cool that her sweater was too light. She’d dressed just right for the weather. The early spring air hadn’t turned warm enough yet, though her new spring lineup hung through her store. Had to stay ahead of the seasons. That was how it worked. If she waited until spring was upon them to stock spring lines, she’d be behind and out of date. Her spring lines had been in the store for a month now. A full week ahead of the shop down the street that she hoped to put out of business. She locked the glass door with a satisfying click and turned toward her car, a brand new Jaguar. She wasn’t sure she still liked this car, though. Maybe she’d have her father trade it in for a new Ferrari. That might be more fun. The Jag was boring her. She fished her keys out of her purse and clicked the button on the fob to unlock the doors. The lights flashed and the car beeped twice. She put her hand on the car’s handles and pulled. But then a hand clamped down over her mouth and a man was pulling her. She struggled against him, but her Versace heels didn’t give her much traction. She felt the heel of one shoe snap and wanted to scream even louder. It was the first time she’d worn them, and she adored those shoes. Now they’d be ruined forever. And they were so rare, she probably couldn’t even get another pair. The man pulled her farther and she managed to back away from his hand long enough to scream. The rough hand clamped down again. “Shut up, bitch,” he hissed in her ear. “I’ll cut your throat.” She tried to push against him. Now that her heel was broken, what did it matter if she scuffed the shoes? They were no good anymore. She kicked and dug her heels in the gravel. The man slapped her across the face. Her cheek stung, but her pride stung worse. Who was this man? Who did he think he was to lay his hands on her like this? Did he know who her father was? And what he’d do when he found out she’d been so mistreated? This man would be dead, and whoever he worked for would be dead, too. Idiots. Her father was far too powerful to let this crap go on. You didn’t mess with the daughter of the head of the Italian mob and live to tell the tale. Her attacker would pay for this. She’d make sure of it.

They were almost to his car now and the reality of the situation settled over her. This wasn’t just about her shoes and being mistreated. She was going to be put in this man’s car. What would he do then? Take her somewhere? Was this about money and kidnapping her to get it? Or was this something worse? Was he going to touch her and hurt her? Was he going to kill her? The fear bloomed in her chest and spread through her body. She started shaking with it. She tried to plead with him, to tell him she’d give him money, anything if he let her go, but she couldn’t say a word with his hand so tight on her mouth. The skin of his hand was dry and coarse. She felt little pieces poking at the delicate skin around her mouth. He smelled, too. Like sweat and grease. Probably just crawled out from under a truck somewhere. Gross. Who knew where this guy had been and what he’d been doing. He was probably ruining her new Marc Jacobs sweater, too. Pia pulled harder, still trying to get free of the man’s grasp. This time, she broke free. She pulled so hard that she fell to the ground, putting a rip in her Givenchy skinny jeans. She ignored it for now and scrambled to face the man. But he wasn’t coming for her like she expected. Wasn’t reaching to grab her again. Instead, he fought a man. Someone had come to her rescue. Pia sat on the ground, afraid to move for fear of drawing attention to herself. And besides, her purse was near their feet and she didn’t see her keys. They’d fallen from her hand and landed somewhere. She could see the fight in full view. Her attacker wore all black. Sweatpants, a long-sleeved shirt, a knit cap over his head. All cheap junk clothing. Probably got it from some big box store. Her savior was slightly better dressed. His jeans hung well, though they weren’t a brand she’d ever carry. Too low end. But his leather jacket looked somewhat expensive. Middle grade, at least. Still far too cheap for her tastes. But the leather moved with him so well. She would have expected his movement to be too restricted in it, but his arms moved freely as he swung at the attacker. He landed several punches, clearly the much better fighter. The attacker ducked and swung back, but only landed one punch for every four her savior landed. Whoever this man was, he knew what he was doing. She wished she could see his face better. It was growing darker every minute and he moved so fast, it was hard to make out any features. The baseball cap on his head didn’t help either. She would have to thank this man and make sure her father rewarded him. Who knew why he’d been in the area or who he was, but he’d taken the time to help her and was putting himself in physical harm to protect her, so he deserved something for that. In fact, her father should maybe think about hiring this guy. Of course, he hadn’t jumped in in time to save her outfit, and that would cost her almost a thousand dollars to replace the damaged pieces, but he’d stopped her from being put into the attacker’s car, and who knew what would have happened

next. He might have saved her life. He’d at least saved her dignity. A savior story was much better than a kidnapping story. All her friends would swoon over the fact that she’d been saved by a man in leather. They’d talk about it for weeks. Months maybe. They’d sympathize with her ruined outfit, then help her shop for a new one. She could hardly wait to text them all later. Her savior was definitely winning this fight. The attacker looked ready to crumble to the ground. His back was to her, but she bet he was a bloody mess. Maybe he even needed a hospital. As she watched, she thought he was starting to fall. His hand went to his back. But instead of landing on the ground, he pulled a gun from where it’d been tucked in a holster under his pants. He pointed the gun at the savior, who then put his hands up. The attacker took off, running past her toward his car. The car he had tried to get her in. He yanked open the door, hopped inside, and sped away. “No!” she shouted, unthinking. He couldn’t just get away like that. Where was the justice? That man needed to be taken to jail, then killed by her father’s men. He didn’t get to attack her like that and just drive away. No way. He needed to pay for what he’d done. But her savior came to her. He reached down to scoop her into his arms. God, he was so strong. She could feel his muscles bulging under her weight. He carried her like she weighed nothing, his arms easily holding her legs and back. “You’re safe now,” he said. She liked his deep, smooth voice. It was sexy and confident. She squinted up at him, trying to see more of his face. His jaw was visible in the light from the street. Darkness had fallen now and she could only make out a little of his face under the shadows from his hat. His jaw, though, was covered in a close-shaved beard. The kind she liked the most. Not too thick, but just enough hair to give definition to a sharp, strong jaw. His lower lip was thick and plump. The perfect kind of lips for kissing. He stepped into the light and for a moment, she could see his face. Her awe and appreciation faded. Whatever respect or desire she’d felt for him vanished when she recognized him. Ryder Saxon. He was one of her father’s men. So much for her thoughts that her father should recruit him. He already worked for him. Her earlier appreciation for his timing had turned to frustration. If he was hired to come save her, then why had that man even put his hands on her to begin with? Why had her expensive outfit been ruined? He should have gotten there sooner. Should have done his job better. Worthless. She should tell her father to fire him. Though, he had saved her in the end. She guessed that made up for it somehow. And she could at least have her father force the man to pay for what was ruined. That would make it better, too. She’d looked so cute today in the dark skinny jeans and oatmeal sweater. Her heels had been the perfect

addition. Who knew what she looked like now. All ruffled up probably. Hideous probably. Though, even as disappointed as she was, she’d never noticed before how good looking he was. Along with his strength and muscles, he had a good bone structure in his face. The strong jaw was offset with high cheek bones and his eyes sparkled from their place under his brow. He could be a model if he took better care of himself. He was muscular, sure, but he’d need to be buff to be a model. And a man like him would never bother. He was probably covered in scars and tattoos. Gross. And the very worst part was, she was pretty sure Ryder was a hitman. Not just a bodyguard or thug. He got paid to off people. He probably had tons of guns and knives. Wait a minute. Then why in the world hadn’t he pulled a gun right back on her attacker? What was this guy’s problem? Oh, she’d tell her father for sure. He clearly hadn’t done his job right, and he’d have to pay for that. For letting her attacker get away without paying for what he’d done to her. That was unacceptable and her father needed to know.

*** Earlier

Ryder Saxon looked down at his phone. The boss was calling. Must be another job for him. Good. He was bored today and needed something to occupy his time. “Ryder,” he said, answering the call. “I have a job for you,” Matteo said. “Go,” Ryder said, ready to commit any details to memory. Nothing would ever be written down. That would be careless and stupid. He didn’t roll like that. He was good at his job and the boss knew it. “It’s different.” “Okay. What is it?” This wasn’t good. He liked simple and direct. Take out this guy, find him here. Boom. Done. But now he wanted to make things more complicated? “It’s not a hit. It’s a protection.” “Who?” Some people were much easier to protect than others. And it would mean a fair amount of time spent with whoever he was guarding. He wouldn’t protect just anyone. “My daughter.”

Fuck. He couldn’t turn that down. But he hated that spoiled bitch. Hated everything about her from her whiny voice to her spoiled attitude. He could just see himself becoming her little gopher or lap dog if he took this assignment. If Matteo trusted Ryder with his daughter, then he trusted him big time. That was a good sign. He’d have to not only do this, but do it well. “Where is she? When?” “She’s at work now, in her store. But I have reason to suspect she’s in danger. The shop closes at eight.” “On it.” He hung up and looked at the time. Just enough time to get there by closing. He jumped in his car and sped off across town. He never hung out in the more expensive parts of the city, which were, of course, the only parts Pia hung out in. He wove through traffic, but it was more congested then he’d thought. He would still make it by eight, but only just. By the time he pulled into her parking lot, it was 7:45. Good. He’d made it and on time, too. He wanted to be early to case the place and see who else might be there, waiting for her. Ryder pulled in but stopped the car in a hurry. The store was dark and he saw figures in the parking lot. What the hell? She’d closed early? And it looked like someone was there already, with his arms around her. No, this couldn’t be happening. His ass was on the line if anything happened to her. He wouldn’t go down for this spoiled brat. No way, no how. He tore out of the car, thoroughly pissed off. Had she gotten bored and closed early? Poor little Pia couldn’t handle an extra fifteen minutes of work? Pathetic. He stormed over to them. Whoever this guy was already had his hands on her. Great. Ryder would probably pay for that somehow. Not that it was his fault, but surely, he’d be blamed. He reached out and grabbed the guy, pulling him off her. Pia had been pulling, too, and now fell to the ground. At least she was out of the way. He pulled back and decked the guy in the jaw. The guy stumbled back, shaken by the force of Ryder’s blow. He landed several more hits before the guy even got one in. Pathetic. He couldn’t even fight. Who in the world had sent this jackass to do such a delicate job like kidnapping? You sent your best guy for a task like that. If this was whoever’s best guy, then they had some issues. And they wouldn’t stand a chance against Matteo’s guys. Several hits to his face and Ryder expected the guy to go down. He still fought back, throwing punches wildly. Ryder kicked him, trying to get him to crumble. Just when he thought the guy was falling behind, dude reached back and pulled a gun. Ryder had never felt so screwed in all this life. In his hurry to get out of the car, he had left his gun in the car. Why the hell hadn’t he packed before he even got into the car? Rookie mistake. He’d pay for that for sure. Trying to pin it on Pia and her closing early would never work. He’d have to just take it and face

whatever consequence came of it. Hopefully the mistake wouldn’t get him killed. The guy pointed the gun at him. Not even at Pia, which would have made sense. If he’d pointed it at Pia, he could have taken her. Could have gotten her away and completed his job. But no. Idiot pointed the gun at Ryder. Ryder held up his hands. What else could he do? He waited for the guy to wise up and turn the gun to Pia. Then Ryder would tackle him, take the gun, and shoot him, and all would be well. He’d claim it was part of his plan all along. Part of his skill set and talent. Yeah, that would work. He inched closer to Pia. Okay, so he wanted to be in reach of her, sure. Made sense. Sort of. Keep the gun on the guy who just beat the crap out of you until you can get your hands on the girl. Right, sure, whatever. It wasn’t what he would do, but whatever. But then—and he could barely believe what he was seeing—the guy ran past her, got in his car, and sped off. He hadn’t tried to grab Pia, hadn’t fired a single shot. This totally screwed Ryder, though. Pia was okay, sure, but he had no reason for why he didn’t have his gun. Why he didn’t shoot the guy down. He’d gotten the license plate. That was better than nothing. And he’d track down the car for Matteo and kill the guy if that’s what he wanted. Maybe he’d be lucky and Matteo would be so concerned about Pia that he wouldn’t care. Wouldn’t notice that Ryder had messed up. How much of an expert in kidnapping and rescue was Matteo anyway? Could Ryder claim that pulling a gun would have endangered Pia further? Well, sure, Matteo wasn’t there, he hadn’t seen the situation. Ryder could probably make something up or tell it in a way that made him come out okay in the end. He had a way of doing that. For right now, though, his concern was Pia. He approached her. She looked okay. Not injured too badly. Her knee was scraped, but that seemed to be the worst of it. Her lipstick was smeared, her hair a bit messy, but she’d have to deal with that. No doubt she’d fix herself up the second they walked in the door. Her looks were always her primary concern. He bent down to pick her up, sliding one arm under her knees, the other behind her back. He stood with her, shocked at her weight. He’d expected her to be a little heavier, but she was like air. She was tiny and fragile, like if he dropped her, she’d shatter. Like she could blow away on a strong breeze. Did she ever eat anything? He noticed, also, that she was more gorgeous than he’d realized. She was overdone—hair, makeup, jewelry, the whole bit. But even with her hair tousled and her makeup messed up, she was beautiful. Maybe more so for the imperfections. They highlighted her perfect pouty heart-shaped mouth, her large bright eyes, and the gentle slope of her nose. Makeup might make her prettier, but she didn’t need it at all. She looked up at him. Her face, at first, showed confusion. Maybe she recognized him or couldn’t place him. Maybe she was in shock from all that happened. After a minute, her expression changed.

He’d stepped into the light. The streetlight made him squint slightly as it reached his eyes. Then her face changed. Turned somewhat hostile. Like she did recognize him and scorned him. Well, you’re welcome, princess. I only risked my life to save you, but whatever. Be like that. “I can walk,” she said sharply. “Not a chance,” he said. When he reached his car, he unlocked the door with the hand under her legs, then pulled it open. She was so light, her weight didn’t even hinder him. He set her in the backseat. She was probably used to the backseat, having been driven around her whole life. He snatched her purse and keys from the ground and tossed it back to her. “Hey.” She sat up as he slid into the driver’s seat. “Where are you taking me?” “Home.” “What about my car? I can’t just leave it here. I’ll drive.” She put her hand on the handle to get out, but he was faster. He hit lock and her arm jerked back as she tugged on the handle. “Let me out.” “Nope.” He started the car and drove off before she could try anything else to get out. “I’ve been directed to come here to get you and take you back to your father. So that’s what I’m going to do.” She sat back hard and crossed her arms over her chest. “Thug,” she muttered under her breath. He raised an eyebrow at her in the rearview mirror, but didn’t comment. He drove quickly to her house and when they arrived, opened the door for her. She stormed past him, limping. He saw that her shoe was broken, and walked up behind her, then picked her up again. “Put me down,” she demanded. “You’re limping. I can’t have you walk in like that.” “It’s from my shoe, idiot. I’m not hurt.” “I know.” She rolled her eyes and blew out a breath, then took out her phone and started tapping furiously. He got the door open and walked through it. He called out, “Matteo.” A moment later, Matteo came running into the room, a concerned look on his face when he saw Pia in Ryder’s arms. “What happened?”

Ryder spoke up first. “She was almost kidnapped, but I got there in time. He got away before I could take care of him, but I got the plate and I’ll track him down.” “That bastard!” Matteo’s face was instantly red and his voice stayed at shouting level. So this was something he was expecting. There was no surprise at all in his voice or expression. This must be bad. For someone to come after the daughter of a mob head? You just didn’t do that unless something was serious. Matteo must have screwed over the wrong guys or something for it to come to this. Pia jumped down from Ryder’s arms and shot her hips to one side in a total diva stance. Then, waving her hands to demonstrate, she launched into full detail of her version of the event. “That is so not what happened. I was there, just minding my own business, locking up my store, and some guy came and put his filthy hands all over me. He made me break my Versaces”—she paused to pop off the shoe and hold it up, pouting—“then he made me fall down and rip my jeans and get my sweater all dirty. These jeans are Givenchy! I don’t know where your little hireling was or why he couldn’t be bothered to show up before I was assaulted, but he finally did and managed to hit the guy or something, I don’t know. But I need him to pay for this outfit. If he would have done his job right, I wouldn’t have ruined my clothes.” She glared at Ryder, her hand on her hips. “Are you okay?” Matteo asked. He hugged her and looked over her carefully. “No! Didn’t you hear me? My shoes and my jeans—” “Are you physically injured?” he asked firmly. “Do you need a hospital or any other care, sweetheart?” “My knee is scraped up. It better not leave a scar, I swear, or I’ll—” “Okay.” Matteo turned to Ryder after putting his hand on her shoulder. “Ryder, you are now on fulltime bodyguard duty for Pia.” “What!” Pia exclaimed. “Oh, no, I don’t think so.” Ryder took in a breath and set his jaw. Couldn’t Matteo find someone else? Anyone else? The last thing he wanted to do was hang out with the spoiled bitch all day. He already couldn’t stand her. And if they had already tried to kidnap her, this might be a dangerous assignment. He didn’t mind that, exactly, but he would be furious if he was injured or had to give his life for this brat. Her attitude might actually hinder his ability to protect her well. How did you protect someone you wanted to strangle yourself? Maybe she’d whine enough that Matteo would change things. Ryder certainly couldn’t be the one to speak up against this situation. He’d get fired or worse, and he could afford neither. He’d have to suck it up, deal with her, try to put her in her place whenever he could, and collect his pay. Simple. Yet so difficult. He’d have to spend his days dreaming up ways to murder her in her sleep just to stay

sane. “I’m sorry. This is not up for discussion,” Matteo said. “You were almost kidnapped and I have reason to believe it may happen again. I will not have you out there unprotected. You will have Ryder for a bodyguard. I need to know you’re safe.”

Chapter 2 Pia crossed her arms and stomped her foot. Her father would have to do something. This was completely unacceptable. She was not going to be followed around by this oaf all day. “Isn’t there someone else? He’s just so—” She turned to look at him. She could not restrain her disgust. “So what?” Ryder demanded. “Come on, let’s hear it.” “So low class,” she said. There was no better explanation. He was not good enough to be that close to her. She deserved better. “There is another option,” Matteo said. “You could just never leave the house. I’d be fine with that.” She huffed and growled in frustration. “I have a business to run!” Never leave the house. Was he insane? Ryder tried to hold back a smirk. She wanted to reach over and smack it off his face. What an ass. She had to think of ways to lose him or keep him away from her. This would ruin everything if he was around all the time. Did that mean he would have to be in the car with her? Eww. He’d be there all day at work while she was trying to do business, he’d be there when she went out with her friends. He would be there all the time, just making her miserable. Unless…,maybe she could make him miserable enough that he’d quit. There had to be a way to do that. “I do have pepper spray, you know,” she said. “I don’t need a bodyguard.” “Then why didn’t you use it tonight?” Her father crossed his arms and waited. “Probably for the same reason Mr. Suxon didn’t bother to take out his gun to protect me.” There. She’d insult him with his name, which she thought was a rather clever idea. She could just call him Suxon instead of Saxon and refuse to use his first name. She would throw him under the bus and make him look bad every chance she got. It seemed to be working. Matteo raised an eyebrow at Ryder. Ahh, she’d won. She could always get her father to give in to her. Wasn’t hard to make him back down. He wanted to appease her, and if he didn’t, she made such a huge fuss that he’d eventually cave. “The situation didn’t call for it. It could have caused more harm than good,” Ryder said. “Daddy. The man pulled out a gun. He could have shot me! And what did this idiot do but just stand there with his hands up and let him get away. He didn’t even chase him down or anything. Just stood

there, practically waving as the man who attacked me got into his car and just drove away. I want that man to pay for what he did to me!” “He will, my Pia. He will. But I can’t have you out there in danger. Please understand. I’m not doing this to punish you. I only want to protect you.” “Fine.” She huffed again and turned from them. The large double front doors were still partially open from when Ryder had carried her in, and she pushed through them, storming outside into the night. Behind her, she heard her father say, “Go after her. You are on duty beginning now.” Great. All she wanted was to get away from them both and now the idiot was coming after her to bring her back inside. Pia kicked off her other heel. She took off running, but had to stop quickly. Her bare feet on the gravel of the driveway hurt too badly. She half hopped to the grass. Behind her, Ryder’s footsteps were heavy and fast. He was running after her. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of looking back. She hit the grass and when her feet had something softer to land on, she took off at a sprint. Maybe she could outrun him, the big oaf that he was. He was probably so out of shape that he couldn’t keep up. She ran toward the stables. The long brick building was partially hidden in shadow. There, she could escape in the darkness and get away from him. Maybe if she slipped him often enough, he’d lose his job since he couldn’t keep an eye on her. There had to be a way to get him fired. She would find it and do whatever she had to. But as she ran, she glanced over to a movement on her right. Ryder ran easily beside her, keeping her pace. He didn’t even seem as out of breath as she was. “Just curious,” he said. “How long will this run be? I usually run five or six miles a day, but I like to have an idea when I start. You know, it’s a mental thing.” She stopped. She had to bend over, panting. Clearly, he was in better shape than she was. And that really pissed her off. He shouldn’t be better than her at anything. “Oh, are we done already?” he asked. “I was just getting warmed up.” “Shut up.” She stood and walked away from him, continuing on toward the stables. So he could run. Fine. But

could he ride? She might be able to hop on a horse and take off. “Just go away,” she said. “I know my father sent you after me, but I do not need a babysitter. I’m going for a ride.” He walked close to her, his shoulder bumping into hers with every other step. She moved over to get farther away from him. “You think I don’t know what you’re doing?” he said. “Trying to run from me, telling your father that I messed up. It’s not going to work.” “Oh, you think you have me all figured out?” “Pretty much. Let’s see. Rich, spoiled brat who gets her daddy to do whatever she wants. Doesn’t want someone so ‘low class’ following her around, even if it is to protect her ass, so she does whatever she can to escape him or get him fired, just to have control because her life is so utterly boring that she needs to create drama so she doesn’t feel so lonely and unlovable.” She stopped walking and put her hands on her hips. Anger tore through her. Who was he to talk to her like this? Her father would certainly hear about it. But he was right about one thing. She’d rather be in danger than have him following her all the time. “How dare you.” She glared at him. “You will not talk to me like that. My father pays your salary and he will listen to me if I tell him you’re mistreating me. You know nothing about me. So you can wipe that smug little smile off your stupid face and shut your mouth.” He held up his hands in protest. “Oh, sorry. Guess I really hit a nerve there. Usually, women only freak out like that when a man is right about them and they don’t want to admit it.” “Shut up!” She growled and stormed off in the opposite direction. She could barely think straight, she was so pissed. Her blood felt hot in her body as it surged, making her shake with fury. Lonely. She wasn’t lonely, she had tons of friends. So many friends she could barely keep them straight sometimes. They were always texting her, wanting to hang out. And unlovable? People adored her. Wanted to be her. Took her photo wherever she went because she was practically a celebrity. She’d made the gossip mags once or twice. She got invited to the best events, wore the hottest styles, and always looked on fleek. She was more than lovable, she was desirable. Okay, so yeah her daddy did what she wanted. That was the whole point of being daddy’s little girl. Duh. Just because he was jealous over her wealth and relationship with her father didn’t mean there was anything wrong with it. Any good and loving parent would indulge their child as much as possible. That was just what parents did. Maybe his own parents ditched him or something and he didn’t know what it was like to have parents who actually gave a damn. And boring? Boring? Her life was so far from boring it wore her out sometimes. There was always

somewhere to go, something to buy, someone to see. And now she had the shop to keep her even busier. Boring. Ha. Well, if she was stuck with him, then he was about to see exactly how boring her life was and just how lonely and unlovable she was. What a jerk. A complete jerk. “So, can we go back inside now, or are we just going to wander around in the dark all night?” Ryder asked. “You do whatever you want. Go get lost, go jump in the river.” He sighed. “Pia. I’m not exactly happy about this arrangement either. I’d actually rather be out killing people than watch you all day. So, what does that tell you?” “That you’re a psychotic asshole?” “Whatever. Keep your princess attitude. At some point, you’ll break.” She stopped again. “You know what? That’s it. I’m done with you. I’m getting on my horse and riding off, and you won’t be able to stop me.” She turned and pushed against the stable door. He reached out and grabbed her wrist. She tried to pull free, but he was too strong. She yanked again to no avail. “Let go of me!” He spun her and pressed her back against the wall of the building. His body, thick and hot, pinned her there. She gulped. She didn’t know enough about him to know what he would do. Was he going to hurt her? Even though he was hired to protect her? Maybe he’d had enough and he would hit her. Or maybe he’d do worse. “Now listen,” he said, putting his mouth close to her ear. “You can make both of our lives easier by going along with this. Be agreeable and give it a few weeks. When nothing happens, Matteo will see that full-time protection is no longer required. If you fight it, you’ll make it more difficult for us both. I wouldn’t count on your father giving up on this. You have no idea what’s going right now.” She gulped. Her body trembled with fear. She still didn’t know what he might do next, but at the same time, she couldn’t help enjoying the pressure of his body against hers. Much as she loathed him, her body didn’t. She grew hot all over. He still held her wrist, pressing it against the building. She wanted to both knee him in the crotch and also press her hips against him. Was he hard? Did she turn him on at all? She said nothing, though. He looked back at her with a hard stare in his dark eyes. “Are we in agreement? Play nice and hope it’s over quickly?” “Fine,” she said softly. The fight had left her. Something in the way he talked to her and touched her.

He refused to obey her. Refused to give in. It infuriated her, but it also intrigued her. He was so much his own person that she wanted to know what made him do that. What him so sure of himself that he could have this attitude? That he didn’t want to bend over backwards to please her? She looked up at him and couldn’t help the longing she felt. She wanted to punch him. But she also wanted to kiss him. She studied his eyes, trying to read him. Was he intrigued like she was? Was he as aware of their bodies pressing together as she was? Or was she being a complete idiot? He looked down at her with an intense gaze, like he wanted to devour her where she stood.


Ryder looked down at Pia, his rock hard dick throbbing against his jeans. It was all he could do to not tear her clothes off right there. She was so tiny, so fragile. He wanted to break her apart from the inside out. Feel her crumble and tear around him as he had his way with her. God, he hated her. That smug little smile, that prissy attitude. Maybe he could fuck it out of her. Show her who really ran the show around here. She thought she had it all together, was so in control of everything and everyone around her. But no. She didn’t know how people did what she wanted to shut her up, then talked behind her back. How all the staff made fun of her and talked about her. How they all hated her. But there she was, quivering against him like a tiny, delicate animal that he could crush in an instant. He felt himself lean down. Her gaze drew him in like a magnet, and his lips drifted toward hers. There was a loud crash behind them. One of the horses kicking the wall by the sound of it. Pia let out a little scream and he came to his senses. Had he really just been about to kiss her? What was he thinking? That would get him fired for sure. He pushed off from the wall and let go of her. She rubbed her wrist and made a sour face at him. But under her fake glare, he saw it. The glimmer of attraction, of intrigue. She liked it. So that was it, then. She just needed to be put in her place once in a while. And apparently, he was the one to do it. Maybe this gig wouldn’t be so bad after all. Hell, maybe he could even break her in a bit for the next unlucky bastard. She’d certainly marry some rich asshole. But he could help the guy out a little. Do some of the work for him so he wouldn’t be tempted to backhand her every day. Though, he’d have to keep his hands off her. If he messed up like that, it wouldn’t just be his job on the line, it would be his ass. Matteo was highly protective of his daughter. And while he trusted Ryder and all the other men he employed, no doubt he believed like Pia did, that none of them were good enough to date his daughter, let alone have casual sex with her. He was good enough to take a bullet for her, or get into fights for her, but not to be in a relationship with her.

He would shoot Ryder so fast if he found out they’d been together. No. He’d have to control himself. Have to find a minute to be alone and jerk off to relieve the pressure. He could fantasize about her all he wanted. That would have to be enough. “We need to get back,” he said. “I’m not ready to go back,” she said. But her voice was much gentler now. She didn’t scream or wave her hands around at him. She actually looked somewhat sad. “Do you really want him to call the cops to come out here and find you?” She thought for a minute, then shook her head. “Fine.” Then he thought she could just text or call her father to tell him she was out here and was going to go for a ride or whatever it was she wanted to do. But she hadn’t thought of it, and now that he’d gotten her to comply, he certainly wasn’t going to suggest it. They walked back toward the house. He hadn’t realized how far they’d come. They’d been running for a while. Her bare feet kicked at the grass as she walked. The night was growing chilly. She might be cold. “Do you want me to carry you so your feet aren’t in the grass?” he asked. She glared at him and her attitude was back when she said, “No.” “Do you want my jacket? You look cold.” “I don’t need anything from you.” “Okay.” They walked for another few minutes in silence, then she started shivering. “Still rather freeze than forgo your pride?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m fine.” “Sure. Is it hard work?” “What?” she snapped at him. “Being such a brat all the time? Not giving in to anything or anyone ever? Always having to fight? Is it hard?” She walked faster and crossed her arms tighter over her chest. His stride easily matched hers. He needed to stay close and be within a few feet of her at all times. That was the job. If she kept trying to get away from him, he’d even drag her into the bathroom with him. She might love that.

“Is it hard being such a jerk all the time?” she asked after a long while. “Did it take you this whole time to come up with that?” “See what I mean? Jerk. All the time. How does anyone put up with you? Oh, right. They don’t, because you spend all your time chasing after me. You’re pathetic.” “Well, that answers my question, then.” He nodded to himself. He was getting to her. He could hear it in her voice. “What question?” “It’s exhausting trying to be so fake. It takes so much of your time and effort that it consumes you. It’s all you think about. How to be better and bigger than the next person so you don’t feel so small.” “I don’t feel small. I don’t think you even realize who I am in this world.” “Oh, I do. You’re a scared little girl who has to hide behind her name and her money to get people to like her. How many people have ever liked the real you?” The house was in view now. She broke into a run, her bare feet sending gravel flying out behind her. His mouth pulled into a half smile as he broke into a jog to catch up to her. He’d gotten to her. Definitely. Struck a chord loud and clear. It was just a matter of time before he cracked her wide open.

Chapter 3 After her stupid encounter with Ryder, she went back inside and tried to talk to her dad. “But he’s mean to me!” she shouted at him. Ryder had stood in the doorway, arms crossed, watching as he was being paid to do. Matteo looked at Ryder and raised an eyebrow. “I’m sure he’ll be nothing but nice from now on.” “Sure,” Ryder said. “Whatever you say, boss.” “There, see?” Matteo said. But that wasn’t enough. “Daddy, you don’t understand. He said horrible things. He called me rich and spoiled and said I was fake and had to hide behind my name and money.” “Well…” Matteo crossed his arms. “He’s entitled to his opinion, I suppose. Pia, just don’t talk to him. He’s there to protect you, and he’s the best I have. I’m not going to put you in danger or assign someone less skilled to you just because you got your feelings hurt. Do you understand that you were almost kidnapped today? Do you have any idea what could be happening to you right now if Ryder hadn’t jumped in to save you? Did you even thank him?” She shot a hateful look over at Ryder. Thank him? For being so late the guy almost took her? For letting him get away with it? “I’m not going to thank him. The guy got away and he almost had me. Besides, it wasn’t like I came out of it unharmed. My knee was bleeding and all my clothes are ruined, and do you know what kind of emotional damage I faced? This could take months of therapy to get over.” “Then we’ll get you the best therapist around,” Matteo said. He came to her and kissed her forehead. “You are too important to me to take any risks. I’m sorry. Just ignore him and I’m sure he’ll do the same. He’s there to protect you, not be your friend. You don’t have to talk to him.” It seemed like nothing she did was going to work. She’d need a more solid way to get him fired if she wanted to be rid of him for good. She stormed up to her room and slammed the door shut before locking it. A minute later, there was a knock. “What?” she said. “It’s Ryder. My room is right next door, so if something happens or you need me, just knock or

scream.” “Right.” She stood in her huge walk-in closet and carefully removed and put away her jewelry. She owned a massive collection of earrings, necklaces, rings, and bracelets, but she never seemed to have enough. Tonight, as she took off each piece, she inspected it more carefully than usual. She always checked her pieces for any signs of wear or damage. The instant a stone was scratched or went missing, or some of the finish faded, she’d get rid of it. Usually one of the maids or other servants would drool over it and she’d give it to them to keep them happy. They usually did an extra good job on her room because of it. Tonight, when she looked at her ring, she saw several scrapes in the metal band. The ring was a large, flat black stone surrounded by gold. The band that held it to her finger must have been damaged when she fell. She had put her hand on the ground on the pavement, and that must have been when the scratches happened. She set the ring aside. Tomorrow, she’d think about who would be best to receive this gift. Who would benefit her the most to have it? Luckily, the rest of her jewelry looked to be still in the perfect condition it had been in when she put it on that morning. She pouted at herself when she undressed in front of her mirror. The whole outfit, trash. She peeled off the sweater and looked at the dirt stains on the back and sleeves. Her jeans, of course, were shredded in one knee. Maybe some girls were into that look, but unless they were made to be that way, there was no way she was going out of the house wearing damaged Givenchy jeans. No way. She didn’t even know what had happened to the shoes she’d discarded. Someone had probably thrown them out already. She wanted to cry over the shoes and her jeans. It was over two thousand dollars' worth of clothing that she would never get to wear again. The sweater was a disappointment, but she adored those rare shoes. No one had them, and she’d made a lot of women jealous because they couldn’t get them. And those jeans. They fit so perfectly. It was only the second time she’d worn them. Her knee hurt. Once she was in just her underwear, she’d gone to her bathroom and taken a soft washcloth to her knee, dabbing the blood away. Then she’d put on her silk robe and gone to find one of the housekeepers who was good at medical stuff. “Francesca, I need you to fix my knee,” Pia said to her, pouting. Francesca was in the kitchen, peeling potatoes for tomorrow’s meals. She put down her peeler, wiped her hands, and bent down to look. “What happened, Miss Pia?” “A horrible man attacked me. I was almost kidnapped.” “Oh my, that’s terrible.” “Oh, yes,” Pia said dramatically. “It really was. I think I’m still in shock. I almost died tonight.”

“Oh no, I’m sorry.” Francesca went to the sink and washed her hands. “I’ll get the ointment and a Band-Aid.” “Do you think it will scar?” “No, no. It’s just a scrape.” Pia huffed. “Just a scrape? It ruined my jeans! I had to throw them out.” “Oh no, I’m so sorry, Miss Pia. I just meant that it’s not deep enough to leave a scar. And it won’t need stitches.” “Good.” “We’ll get you fixed right up. Want to come into the hall bathroom with me?” Pia followed Francesca into the hall bathroom and sat on the toilet seat while Francesca took items out of the cabinet. She first rubbed a cleaning pad over it. It stung a bit and Pia flinched, but Francesca blew on it and it felt a little better. Then she smeared some ointment on and covered it with a Band-Aid. “How long does it need to stay on?” Pia asked. “I won’t be able to leave the house with it like this.” “Oh, I think by tomorrow you might have a scab.” “A scab?” Pia groaned. “This is horrible.” “I think it will be healed up in a day or so. No need to worry. Get plenty of rest tonight.” “Thank you, Francesca.” Pia had walked back upstairs, feeling the Band-Aid move strangely against her knee with every bend and straighten. What an ass that guy was. And Ryder had just let him go. He was probably at home right now in his bed, sleeping away with no cares in the world. Here she was, injury on her knee, having to deal with a wardrobe decimation and now Ryder following her everywhere. Where was he anyway? Hadn’t he noticed that she’d come out of her room? Wasn’t he supposed to be following her every move? When she got back to her door, he opened his and stuck his head out. “Is your knee all better now?” She crossed her arms and glared. “Why do you ask?” “Francesca just fixed it up for you.”

“How did you know that?” He smirked. “Really? As much as you know, you don’t know there are camera all over this house?” She knew there were some, but she had to admit, she didn’t know the extent of them. When she’d found out they were being installed, all she’d cared about was that they weren’t in her room. “Great. So you just sit in your room watching me on camera?” “Would you rather I follow you around everywhere?” “Definitely not.” “Okay then.” He pulled his head back and closed his door. She walked into her room and went through her evening ritual. Brushing her teeth and her hair, washing her face, moisturizing, applying eye cream and pimple cream and wrinkle cream. Then she rubbed lotion all over her skin, gave her feet a thorough washing and exfoliating, then slipped on the yoga pants and t-shirt that she usually slept in. When she got into bed, her soothing eye mask over her eyes, she couldn’t make her head stop racing. It kept replaying the day. The feeling of the man grabbing her from behind, his rough hand on her mouth. Seeing Ryder jump in to save her. Then everything horrible he’d said to her all night. And everything horrible she’d said to him. It was like a crappy song stuck on repeat. She wanted to advance it or shut it off so she could go to sleep. She kept seeing Ryder’s face, remembering how his body had felt pressed against hers. How he’d almost kissed her. He had almost kissed her, right? She hadn’t just imagined that? Stranger, though, was that she wanted him to. Something about him turned her on. He was so far from her usual type. She liked clean cut, wealthy men from a decent upbringing. Someone with manners and class. Someone so far from what Ryder was that they weren’t even comparable. Ryder was broke, rude, dirty and scruffy looking, and who knew who his family were. Yet, the way he’d grabbed her and pressed her against the stables…she’d never been turned on like that before. The other men she’d slept with had been fine enough. It was a decent time. Nothing life shattering by any means. But nice enough. With Ryder, though, just the thought of him made her wet. She had never felt that way about anyone before. Usually, she got off more on how badly they wanted her, how they’d beg to be let inside her tight little body. But Ryder? He wouldn’t beg her. He’d probably almost force his way in. And that thought excited her even more. Her wired up brain jumped into fantasy mode. She imagined him pressing her against the stables, but this time ripping her shirt off. Or saw him driving her somewhere, then pulling over and jumping into the backseat where she was. Or following her into a room and bending her over a table. Or coming

into her room while she slept and surprising her. She’d gotten herself so excited, she did something she rarely found the need for. She touched herself. Once the rush of pleasure took over her, she got up and washed, then tried again to go to sleep after drinking some water. But she still tossed and turned. Maybe she needed something stronger than water. Usually, red wine made her sleepy. She preferred white for that reason and she had to be careful if the occasion called for red, not to drink too much. She’d almost fallen asleep at a boring dinner party once, years ago, and her father had scolded her for it. But tonight, it would be perfect. Just one glass. Enough to make her sleepy and shut up her mind. She padded softly down the hallway, pausing to look back at Ryder’s door before going downstairs. Was he asleep? Or was he watching her right now? She wished she still had her panties and bra on under her robe instead of this t-shirt and yoga pants. What was she thinking wearing this out of her room? She’d go shopping tomorrow for some cute nighties. Who cared if everyone said cotton sleepwear was better for your skin. She had to look cute at all times now. Especially if she wanted to trick herself into thinking any of her fantasies could come true. Her feet hit the tile floor of the kitchen. She looked up, shocked to find someone standing there, leaning against the island counter, looking at her. “Aren’t you missing out on your beauty sleep right now?” Ryder asked. He was shirtless. Her eyes traveled over the bulges of muscles on his chest and stomach without her even thinking about what she was doing. He wore only boxers, his legs thick and dark under them. He was like a solid piece of rock, and she wanted to dig her fingers into him. “It’s not sleep that makes me so beautiful,” she said. “Then what is it? Cosmetic surgery?” She glared and reached up to get a wine glass. She couldn’t reach easily and as she stretched on her tiptoes, Ryder came over and grabbed the glass to hand it to her. His body was so close when he did, that he brushed against her, sending heat rushing over her skin. She snatched the glass from his hand. “What are you doing down here anyway, in my kitchen?” “It’s your father’s kitchen, first of all. You’ve paid for nothing in this house. And second of all, I’m staying here for as long as I’m stuck watching you, so it’s my kitchen for now.” “Right.” She rolled her eyes, but couldn’t help remembering the way his body felt, strong and hot, pressed against hers outside by the stable. “Like you would even know what to do in a kitchen like this.”

“Kitchens are pretty much the same. It’s not rocket science.” Pia laughed. “Hardly. Have you ever even been in a kitchen this size?” He said nothing, but his expression fell into a glare and he crossed his arms. “That’s what I thought. Do you know what a double oven is or why it’s used?” He continued to glare, so she continued to push. “I bet your mama’s kitchen didn’t even have a dishwasher. We have two. And a smart refrigerator and a walk-in freezer. Oh, and the coffee makers. They practically make your coffee for you.” “Like you would know. Don’t you have people who do that for you?” “Well, yes. So, I guess the coffee makes itself for them. It does tea also, but I guess you don’t drink tea or wine or anything that would indicate any sliver of class. It’s all beer and sugary sodas for you, isn’t it?” “Don’t act like you know anything about me.” “Oh really? Okay, Mr. Hotshot. What’s the difference between French press and drip coffee? Or between green tea and black tea? Did you even know there was black tea or were you raised in a barn with the other pigs and nasty animals?” “Enough,” he growled. His eyebrows lowered and one of his eyes gave a slight twitch. She almost smiled at this. She’d managed to irritate him and she liked it. Good. He needed to be shaken up and agitated. He sure did a fair job of annoying her. What was a little payback? Pia suddenly had a burning desire to see what he was like angry. For real angry, like he was ready to fight. Would he hit her? That would get him fired real fast. But maybe, just maybe, he’d throw her against the wall again and press against her. Maybe he would kiss her and her fantasies would come true. Her mouth pulled into a crooked smile. What was the worst thing she could say to him? What would get him the maddest? She would push every one of his buttons until she hit it. Until he exploded. There was no losing for her. This could go one of two ways. One, he’d flip and hurt her, which would get him fired, probably even killed, but certainly out of her life forever. Which was fine. She still didn’t need him tagging around her all day. Or, he’d kiss her, maybe even force things farther. At that thought, she felt the wetness between her legs. It half disgusted her that she wanted him so badly. This trashy low class grunt. He’d taint her if he entered her, yet the idea of feeling his strong muscles around her and him inside her made her so hot, she couldn’t stand it. If he kissed her, she’d get what

she really wanted. And she could still get him fired by telling her father if he ever pissed her off and she needed more serious payback. There was no losing. She crossed her arms, cocked her hip to the side, dropped her head slightly, and took aim, focusing in on him with her cold stare. Then she fired. “I don’t know how a little white trash boy from the ghetto got a job with the mafia anyway. You don’t belong here. You belong in a trash heap. Why don’t you go back there and play with someone your own class?” The rage flickered in his eyes. He stepped toward her. She breathed in and her arms fell. Her heart jumped as he came closer. Part fear, part exhilaration, all desire. He reached out and grabbed her waist with both hands. He yanked her close, until his face was just inches from hers. Kiss me, she pleaded. But she held her glare and pushed against him to break free. “Let go of me,” she demanded. She put her hands on his hot forearms and pushed. He didn’t budge. She pushed against his chest with all her strength, but gained only an inch of freedom. He was so strong. His hands tightened on her waist. It was starting to hurt. She might even have bruises. “You need to learn when to shut your trap,” he said, hissing into her ear. “I will kill you in your sleep so your attacker doesn’t have to. I will slit you up and down and watch you bleed. Just for fun. Then, I’ll smear your blood over your father’s face as I kill him, too. Is that what you want? Would that make you happy?” She gulped. The fear was starting to overtake her. He was strong. Too strong. She wouldn’t be able to escape from him if he did try to hurt her. She’d gotten herself in too deep. Assumed she knew more about him than she did. If he really was as trashy as she said he was, then he probably didn’t care about things like going to jail or getting fired. He would kill her. He would kill her father. He was paid to kill people all the time. What were two more deaths on his hands? She struggled against him for real. She wanted him to let go now. She wanted to run back to her room and hide from him, where he couldn’t hurt her. “Let go,” she said, pleading to the point where her voice was almost a whine. Her throat went thick, like she was going to cry. No, she couldn’t do that. That would show too much weakness. She’d already given in too much by showing her fear, by letting down her guard and letting him see that she was afraid of him. It gave him too much power. And it seemed that now, he was going to use it against her.

He didn’t let go. He moved one hand to her back, pressing hard enough that she couldn’t move from him. He dug his other hand into her long blonde hair. Then, slowly, he pulled back. “Stop,” she whimpered. He laughed darkly and pulled harder. Her throat was exposed and her face was straight up in the air so she was forced to look at him. She could barely swallow. She blinked fast to keep the tears away, but it hurt now. She could feel the places in her scalp where his fingers held her head back. His eyes were cold and hard and so close to hers. “You will never talk to me like that again. Do you understand?” She couldn’t nod her head. She tried. She swallowed hard and looked up at him. “My father will hear all about this,” she whispered.


Ryder didn’t think he could contain himself. He was so hard, his dick throbbed. He should have worn something besides just boxers when he left his room, but he certainly hadn’t counted on this. What a pleasant surprise it was, to have her appear so suddenly, to walk down the stairs wearing what she was wearing. He’d assumed she would sleep in some cute little nighty. Some little lacy thing that made her look like a sex goddess. But, somehow, the t-shirt and pants made her look even hotter. Her hard nipples stuck out of her shirt, calling to him. Too much of her was covered. If she’d worn lace, he would see what he needed to see and that would be it. But like this, there was too much mystery. He needed to shred those pants and see all she had to offer him. Now, with his fingers tangled in her long hair, her neck exposed to him, her breasts pushed against him, her body hot and quivering under his touch. His cock was ready to explode. Could she feel him? There was so little fabric between her pussy and his dick. So little effort to tear it away and shove deep inside her. His head spun. He couldn’t take it. But she was such a bitch. All the things she said to him. He wanted to strangle her. He wasn’t kidding about slicing her up and watching her bleed. It would give him just as much pleasure as fucking her brains out would. Hell, maybe he’d do both and feed both sides of his twisted nature. He’d have her, then he’d make sure no one else ever would. When she looked up at him like that, all scared and fragile, he wanted to crush her. To take out all his anger on her and damage her forever. Her eyebrows pulled together in fear. Tears welled in her eyes, but didn’t overflow.

“I don’t know whether to kill you or fuck you,” he said through clenched teeth. She let out a small gasp and his mind was made up. He gripped the back of her head and forced her lips to his. She tried to pull away, tried to push him back, but he refused to let her. Then he didn’t need to. As his lips moved over hers, she moved hers back. She stopped trying to get away. She brought one leg up to wrap around his waist and pull her closer. She pressed her hips into his waist. He stepped forward until she was against the counter. He rubbed his hard dick against her pants and he swore she was already wet. He would just take her right here, right now. She slipped her tongue into his mouth and he sucked on it. She let out a small cry of pleasure when he released it. His hands found her breasts and he squeezed and pinched. She didn’t try to get away from him now. She wanted him, too. Just as badly as he wanted her. Maybe worse. She’d probably never been fucked properly in her life. All these little rich boys with their tiny limp dicks had no idea how to please a woman. Not like Ryder did. He would make her scream and forget her own name. He moved his hand from her back to her ass. It was perfect. Round and soft and fit nicely in his hand. He squeezed and pulled her hips against him, rubbing himself up and down her front. He might come right now, all over her. Why did she have to be so hot and such a pain in the ass? Maybe he’d be a pain in her ass right back. Literally. His head spun and he couldn’t see straight. The anger he’d felt transformed into pure lust. He slid his hand inside her pants to feel the bare skin of her ass. Her body was so perfect. How much money did it cost to get a body like that? To keep it so firm and tight and smooth? She probably went to the spa every week. He started to move his hand around to her front, to feel her wetness run over his fingers, but he stopped. She probably did go to the spa every week. And all the other things that rich girls did. He slid his hand out of her pants and pushed away from her. She stood against the counter, breathing heavy and looking at him, confused. Her lips were redder than normal, swollen slightly from his rough kissing. Everything about her said she wanted him. She leaned forward slightly, her lips parted, and she pulled half her lower lip into her mouth, held by her perfectly straight, crisp white teeth. One hand covered her stomach and the other fell to her chin, where she let a piece of her hair slip between her fingers.

No. She was too perfect. And that was because she was the mob boss’s daughter. He’d gone too far. He’d forgotten who she was and who he was. If Matteo knew what he’d just done, that he’d touched her and kissed her—even if he only knew what Ryder wanted to do, and imagined doing to her—he would have him killed. And no piece of ass was worth that. Especially not when it was her. When she’d be thrilled to see him killed for her sake. She’d probably grin at his funeral and smile over his grave, knowing that she’d won in the end. Upper class triumphed again. Who was he but a trashy kid from the streets? He wouldn’t be that stupid. Not over her. If he was going to screw up his life even worse, it would have to be worth it. It would have to be for someone who was worth it. Not this spoiled brat. “Get up to your room and stay there,” he commanded. “Do not come out until morning.” Her arms fell into a crossed position over her chest and she glowered at him. Was she going to challenge him on this? Didn’t she know how dangerous this game was? He could play all day. Love. Hate. They were the same to him. Just like lust and anger. Interchangeable. One was as good as the other. Not for her, though. She’d do something stupid like fall in love with him. Then it would get messy and emotional. He wanted none of that. He could go find a street girl, pay her a few bucks, and get his kicks that way. Most of them let him get rough. The good ones, anyway. He’d find a blonde one and fuck her good and pretend it was Pia and that would have to be enough. “Go.” There was no question, no wavering in his voice. He left no room for discussion or compromise. She huffed and pushed off from the counter. She tossed her hair over her shoulder and turned from him, walking with drama, throwing her hips out as she flounced up the stairs. His dick throbbed. He tucked it back inside his shorts, took a last chug of water from his glass, and put it in the sink. In his room, he checked the monitors. There wasn’t a camera in her room. Matteo had said she’d insisted on that, and it seemed fair when he explained it. But now, he wished desperately that there was one. What was she doing right now? Had she undressed? Was she lying naked in her bed, touching herself and thinking of him? After checking all the cameras to make sure she didn’t appear in any of them, he lay down in his bed. He was too hot and wired up to sleep. There was only one thing he could now after a kiss like that. He grabbed a tissue and closed his eyes. He pictured Pia naked, imagined what she would feel like, how he’d make her moan and scream. It took only a few long strokes before he shuddered in orgasm and filled the tissue.

He threw it away and lay back down. It wasn’t enough, though. He was still half hard and his mind was full of her. What was he going to do about this? Getting taken off the job wasn’t an option. He couldn’t very well go to Matteo and tell him he had a thing for his daughter, so he couldn’t be around her or he might have to screw her. That would get him killed. He couldn’t just quit. You didn’t quit the mob. Not alive anyway. He couldn’t mess up and get fired. Well, he could, but he wouldn’t live to tell the tale. And he certainly couldn’t give in and have his way with her. Matteo would probably chop off his dick, then kill him anyway. No matter how he looked at it, he had no choice. He had to do his job and do it well and keep his hands off her. It was the only way to make it through this with his organs still in his body. One misstep and he was done. He could fantasize, though. He’d just have to keep the tissues well stocked and find a moment of privacy as often as he needed to. She wasn’t worth it, he kept telling himself. She was a brat, anyway. The way she talked to him? She thought she was better than him by far. But even that…it somehow made it all the hotter that she wanted him, knowing that. She thought he was trash, she thought she was better than him, yet she wanted him. And he didn’t doubt for a second that, had he tried, he’d be in her bed right now. Or hell, they’d be downstairs in the kitchen and her bare ass would be on the counter while he thrust deep inside her. He groaned and rolled over, his dick hard again. This was ridiculous. How was this one chick driving him so mad? Never before had one girl gotten inside his head and under his skin. What was it about her that did this to him? He could not stop thinking about her. It wasn’t just her beauty. He’d banged plenty of hot chicks and forgotten them the next day. It definitely wasn’t her money. He hated that most about her because it put them in two separate worlds permanently. She was higher than him and that would never change. It certainly wasn’t her attitude. Or was it? Maybe the fact that she was the first woman to talk back to him, to not give in to him. She was the first one to stand up, to push back, to take control. To tell him what she really thought. Maybe her boldness was what did it. Maybe it was that she didn’t seem to want him like he wanted her. Well, her words said she didn’t, but her body said she did. She probably didn’t even know what she wanted. Had he made it even harder for himself by kissing her? Maybe it would have been better to never know how she kissed him back, how she pressed against him, how she looked at him longingly. If he could have convinced himself that she didn’t want him and never would, he could have gone on with his life and put her out of his mind whenever she threatened to break in. But knowing was too much. He kept seeing her huge brown eyes and the way they yearned for him. Now, he’d have to follow her around, not touching her, but knowing what it felt like to touch her. Knowing that she wanted him. Knowing that every harsh word was a move in the game. He loved these games. He couldn’t wait to see her next move. Would she grow colder, harsher? Would she ignore him? Would she turn and suddenly be nice to him? Fat chance of that. Would she tell her father that he’d kissed her?

That made his blood turn cold. She might. She might be vengeful enough, and if she wanted him and he didn’t fuck her, she might feel slighted. He scrambled out of bed and went to the videos. He brought up the footage on the laptop and scanned back through it to find their encounter. Watching it made him hot all over again. God, he’d have to jerk off again before going to sleep. He shook his head. He opened the video file and cut out the part where they’d kissed. When he watched again after cutting it, it looked like they’d had words and she stormed off. Perfect. As long as whoever watched didn’t pay too much attention to the time stamp. Fuck. There was no way to fix that. He’d have to take his chances. At least if someone knew part of the video was missing, they couldn’t prove what was missing. It was still safer. As much as he wanted to keep that clip to watch it over and over and see her leg swing up to hug his waist, he had to get rid of the evidence. He watched it one more time, then hit delete and emptied the recycle bin. He couldn’t afford to take any chances. Of all the hits he’d ever done. All the times he’d had to sneak into tricky places, to hunt someone down and wait for hours and hours for the perfect shot. For all the tight places he’d gotten himself into and out of, this was the trickiest. This job was, by far, the hardest job he’d ever had. Shooting people was far easier than keeping his hands off Pia.

Chapter 4 It had been two weeks since Ryder kissed her. After the kiss, which still felt unreal to her, she’d gone to bed and hadn’t slept at all that night. She kept thinking about sneaking into his room or finding some other way to see him. She was so exhausted by the next day that when she finally woke, it had all seemed like a dream. She wasn’t sure if it was a nightmare or not. She’d tried to pretend like it never happened. Like he was just her bodyguard and nothing more. She had nothing for him or against him. She only talked to him when she needed to and nothing more. She wasn’t nice or mean. She wasn’t really anything at all. That was on the outside. But inside, it was turmoil. Every time she saw him or he came near, her heart leapt. She would steal glances at him when she thought he wasn’t looking. She’d think about him all the time, even though she tried her hardest not to. He was always there. How could she not think of him? She had no choice but to be near him constantly. And it was driving her crazy. She clicked the fob of her car door and got in. A moment later, Ryder got into the backseat. She’d gotten good at ignoring him. Like he was nothing more than her shadow. She turned the music up and sang along as she drove to work. When they arrived, she unlocked the door and went through her morning routine. First, the lights went on. The inside of the store lit up suddenly as the lights flicked on one by one. She walked to the back where the office was. There, she opened the safe and pulled out the register till. Once it was in place in the register, she walked through the store. The long rack along the sides of the store held her priciest pieces. They had the prime spot and were the most visible. In the center were the slightly less expensive items. Those hung on circular racks or folded displays, depending on the item. Of course, she’d never dream of hanging sweaters or something with delicate fabric that might get stretched out. Her lingerie collection was in the back, in small wooden squares for different sizes and pieces. After her tour through the store, when everything looked in place, she checked the time. Close enough. She walked back to the front, turned the sign to say “open” and took her place behind the counter. The cashier she had scheduled for today showed up a short time later and Pia retreated to her office. She spent the morning doing paperwork—the boring stuff. Which mostly meant collecting receipts and invoices to give to her accountant. She couldn’t be bothered to do any of that stuff. Then she opened her computer and got to the fun part. The whole reason she opened this store to begin with. The shopping. She loved looking through exclusive collections and having access to items that only a few other boutiques had access to. It made her feel even more special than she already did. Sometimes she would order just one of an item, just for herself, and wear it in the store. When people asked if she had the item for sale, she’d smile and say, “Sorry. This is an exclusive piece.” Of course,

other shops could purchase the same item, but there were no shops like hers around. Someone would have to order online or travel far to find the outfits she owned. Her next step would be to have designers create an exclusive line that truly was all hers. That they wouldn’t sell anywhere else. She wasn’t quite big enough for that, but she’d get there. She glanced over at the edge of her office. Ryder sat there, picking his nails. Gross. She quickly looked away. She got up to stretch and headed back onto the floor for a while. She walked around, chatting with customers as she saw fit. She heard someone murmur something and turned toward the sound. It was two women, standing close to each other and leaning in to talk. They looked at Ryder and continued whispering, then hurried away to the other side of the store. She went over to the women. “Is everything okay?” “Oh…” One of the women glanced over her shoulder to look at Ryder, who was tagging along behind Pia, as always. “Everything is fine.” “Are you sure?” Pia asked. She gave Ryder a pointed look. “He’s just my security, no need to worry about him.” Ryder smiled at the women. Then he moved his jacket aside to reveal his gun, tucked under his arm in a leather holster. The women’s eyes grew wide and they rushed out of the store. “What the hell!” Pia stormed into the back room, then turned and waited for Ryder to follow her. When he did, she put her hands on her hips and gritted her teeth. “You just scared away two of my customers!” He shrugged. “Didn’t look like they were going to buy anything anyway.” “I don’t care! Don’t take out your gun, and stop looking all creepy when you’re in my store. I know you have to be here, but you don’t have to ruin my whole life.” “Ruin your life?” “You’re everywhere! I can’t get away from you. You’re just there, lurking all the time. It makes me very uncomfortable. I don’t like it.” “Well.” He shifted his weight and smirked. “That’s not my problem. I’m just doing my job.” “Well, I can’t do mine if that’s how you’re going to do yours. You don’t have to be so obnoxious about it!”

“You’ll find anything to complain about, won’t you?” “I’ll complain when someone scares my customers out of the building, yes. Who knows what sales I just lost and who they’ll tell. These things spread, you know. If word gets out that there’s some creepy man who stares at everyone and has a gun, no one will come in, and I’ll lose business.” “Oh no. And then what will you do? You’ll have to sit at home all day doing your makeup. I’m sure you don’t need the money from this place.” She tossed her hair over her shoulder. “That’s beside the point. I don’t even like you being in the store anyway. You’re not exactly my target clientele and it makes the whole place look bad. I think you’ll have to start waiting in the back.” “Nice try.” He crossed his arms and glowered. “If you have a problem with how I do my job, take it up with your father.” Why did he always argue with her? Couldn’t he see how unreasonable he was being? The women had left the store because of him. Of course she was going to be upset. She had every right to be. And her father would agree, that she was sure of. He was a businessman himself. If it weren’t for him, she wouldn’t have this store. He was the one who’d pushed her and helped her along the way. “You’re right. I will take this up with my father. Thank you for the suggestion.” She huffed and bumped into him when she walked past. But he didn’t let her pass. He grabbed her waist and spun her to face him, then held her close to him. “I know you think about,” he said. “Our kiss. You think about it all the time.” “I don’t even know what you’re talking about. What kiss?” She stepped, trying to get away from him. “Don’t play like that.” He bent down and breathed in her ear. Her body tingled with delight. Everything she’d felt that night when they’d kissed rushed back to her. Was he going to kiss her again? She wanted him to so desperately. But she couldn’t show it. Not for a second. He already thought he had her. “I said let go of me. Or do you want me to add sexual assault to the list of things I tell my father that you’ve done?” He licked her neck and she flinched away from him, but from willpower, not disgust. She wanted him to lick her all over. “I can’t stop thinking about that kiss. The way your breasts felt in my hand. The way your leg wrapped around me. The way my hard dick made you all wet.”

She gulped and tried feebly to push him away. “I know you have to pretend you don’t want me,” he said. “That’s fine. It makes it that much hotter.” “Ryder.” She meant it to be stronger and harder. A demand to let her go, but it came out with too much longing. She was no good at hiding her feelings. The desire was too strong. His name on her lips sounded like a request, like the longing she felt in every nerve in her body. “Pia,” he whispered. “You make me so hard. Every time I think about that kiss or your hot body. And right now, I’m like a rock.” He grabbed his crotch. “Want to feel?” “I have a store to run.” How badly she wanted to reach down and grab him. To make him moan, to feel just how big he was. He had to be huge, like the rest of him. But if she did that, she wouldn’t be able to stop, and neither would he. This wasn’t the time or place to do that. If she was going to touch him like that, it would be when she could really do something about it. He smacked her ass hard. “Get back to work, then. We can save this for later.” She turned from him and shook her head. She looked back over her shoulder. “Pig.” He grinned and followed her out of the back room. She didn’t want to admit that the sting on her ass felt good. She wanted him to smack her again. She pictured herself straddling him, feeling him deep inside her, and him slapping her ass while she rode him. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She had to calm this heat before facing customers. Luckily, no one was right around her. She went to the register to check on her employee. She had to carefully glance at the name tag to recall the woman’s name. She was terrible about that. “Everything going well, Cindy?” “Yup. We’ve been pretty busy today. Are you okay?” “Yes, why?” Pia looked down at herself. Nothing looked out of place in her outfit. “Your cheeks are all red and your face is flushed.” “Oh, is it?” She put a hand to her cheek. It did feel hot, even to her. Stupid Ryder getting her all worked up. “I am a little warm. Maybe I’ll change into something lighter.” She pulled a short sleeve top off the rack and took it to her office. She closed the door before Ryder could get in the room, then locked it.

“I’ll just be a second. You can’t be in here while I’m getting changed.” “I’ll be waiting.” Then, quieter, he said, “And imagining you naked while you’re in there.” She quickly yanked off her sweater and slipped the top on. She felt much cooler now, but knowing that Ryder was just outside the door made her feel hot all over again. What was she going to do about him? Just screw him and get it over with? But what if that made it even worse? What if she wanted him more and more? What if she couldn’t get enough of him and they ended up just having sex all the time? They’d get caught eventually. And then what? Well, he’d be fired. And maybe that was okay. Maybe that was what she needed. To be away from him. Then a great idea crossed her mind. She could tell her father. Tell him that she was into him, had feelings for him even. Her father would get rid of him fast. No way would he take the risk of his little Pia messing around with his hired help. But the thought of him gone made her sad like it never did before. If he was gone, she wouldn’t have him to lust over, but was that a good thing? She kind of enjoyed their rare exchanges, full of sexual tension. His words came back to her. “We can save this for later,” he’d said. Did he expect something to happen, then? Of course he did. He wanted her as much as she wanted him. No doubt about it. The way he kept grabbing her like that. The way he looked at her and talked to her. He had it bad for her. And that gave her power. If she did sleep with him, she’d have even more power. Though, would that even benefit her? What would she do if she could get him to do whatever she wanted? What did she want from him? Maybe nothing more than to know that someone was so hot for her. That he was following her around, watching her ass the whole time, wanting her. That he imagined her naked and imagined taking her right there and everywhere they went. She liked feeling desired like that. The boyfriends she’d had before never wanted her like that. Sure, they wanted sex, but anyone would do for them. But Ryder? He made her feel like the only woman on earth. Like he wanted only her and no one else. Like she was the last desirable thing on the planet. And that was a very good feeling.


Ryder thought he was doing a good job at avoiding and ignoring Pia. It made it easier that she was also not paying attention to him. But today had been different. After weeks of checking her out from a distance, watching her tiny body and imaging the way he’d put his hands all over her, they’d had that little…whatever it was in her back room.

He’d come close to kissing her again. But then he’d come close to doing a lot more, too. He felt so out of control. Why did she do this to him? He really needed this assignment to end so he could get on with his life. This whole not sleeping thing, not being able to think about anything but her, was getting really old. That night, as he kept replaying their encounter over and over, he ate quickly in the kitchen. The family ate in the dining room, of course. But the help ate out of sight. He wanted to get back upstairs to his room so he could watch her on the camera and maybe jerk off while looking at her. That had become his main staple lately. Watching her on video and masturbating to her fantasy. If he could never have her, then he’d do this at least. He had no other choice. He took a bite of his burger and chewed. As soon as he’d finished, he ran upstairs. He sat in front of the monitors. She was just finishing dinner. She took tiny bites of a large piece of chicken covered in some sauce. Half of her meal sat on her plate when she got up to leave the room. Was she done already? He watched as she walked up the stairs and went into her room, where he could no longer see her. He pulled up some other videos. Clips he’d copied from other times that he liked to rewatch. He turned to one of her talking with her father in the entryway. There was nothing particularly special about this clip. He’d taken the audio out because it was so boring and mundane. But in this clip, she was wearing a tight-fitting top. Cleavage stuck out from the top and the round curve of her breasts sat perfectly underneath. He could even see her nipples poking out. He remembered the feel of them in his hands. Soft and warm and how her nipples responded to his touch. He took his hard cock out and began stroking it. Just before he was ready to finish, a loud shriek came from her room. He jumped up, yanked his pants into place, and rushed out the door. He pulled her door open. She wasn’t in the room. But she hadn’t left. He’d been watching. The light was on in the bathroom. He ran toward the door, pushed it open, and dashed in the room, hands up, ready to fight. He looked around, but saw no attacker. Instead, there was Pia, standing in her tub. Water still sat in the tub, gentle steam curling up from it. The steam had frosted the large mirror over the sink. The tile floor looked slick with the residue. The rug beside her tub was soft and fluffy, waiting for her wet feet. She’d put a fluffy pink towel on the small silver stand beside the tub. Her long blonde locks were piled high on top of her head. And she wasn’t wearing a single thing. Her naked skin glimmered, the water catching the light. She faced away from him. He let his gaze fall down her. The gentle curve of her neck as it led into her shoulders. Her shoulder blades, perfectly shaped, surrounding her smooth back. Then her ass, round and full. He had to

quickly look away from that ass. Water ran down her legs and dripped into the tub. His eyes went back to the perfect circles of her butt. He was still hard from watching the video, but this was real life, right in front of him. Flesh, so close to his hand. He could just reach out and touch it. He wanted to smack it, to squeeze it, to bite it. To rub his dick all over it and between the soft folds of her cheeks. Was she into anal? If it was done right, girls went ape for that shit. And he knew how to do it just right. He could fill her completely. Front and back and mouth. He imagined the sensation of her wet mouth, her tight pussy, her tighter ass. He swallowed hard. He might pass out right there from lack of blood. It was all rushing to his groin, making his cock throb. He shifted his hips, and his stiffness rubbed against his shorts. It was almost enough to send him over the edge, he was that close just looking at her. He swallowed hard again. He’d taken too long to say anything and she had screamed. “Why did you scream?” he asked, his voice close to shaking. She turned her head over her shoulder to look at him. “Oh, umm, did you hear that?” “Yes. It is my job, you know. Just because I can’t follow you in here doesn’t mean I’m not always listening. What’s wrong?” “Well…” She looked down, sheepish. “I saw a spider.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “A spider.” “Yes. I’m sorry, it just startled me. I’m afraid of them.” “Where is it now?” “It went down the drain. It fell into the water and I jumped up and pulled the plug. It went right down, and I put the plug back in to make sure it stayed down. But now I can’t pull the plug to let the rest of the water out or it might come back out.” He sighed. “It won’t. The force of the water going down the drain will wash it farther away.” “You can’t know that.” “I do, actually. I know you think I’m stupid, but I did graduate from high school.” “Can you…?” She bit her lip and gave him a pleading look. No, she could not make that face at him. He’d do anything for her if she made that face, and he would not let her have that kind of power over him. No, no. He had to stay in control. Had to hold it together or he’d lose himself completely. He’d also lose his job, he reminded himself. He could never forget

who she was and that if he got anywhere near her with his dick, he’d lose his dick and his life. “Can you pull the plug and make sure?” she asked. His mouth pulled into a crooked smile. Walk over there, so close to her naked body, and pull the plug? Sure, why not. At least then he’d get a nice view of her front. That was what he really wanted to see anyway. Her full breasts, glistening, and her hard nipples at their center. Her damp bush between her thighs. It had to be the same blonde as her hair. That light, almost white blonde. Did she keep it trimmed, or was it thick and full? Either way, he’d love to stick his tongue in it and eat her out. He walked slowly to the tub. He didn’t look at first. He bent down, pulled the plug, watched the water go down for a minute, then turned as he stood up. Oh, what a mistake. Her breasts were even rounder and perkier than he’d imagined. Her nipples were so erect, the circles around them wrinkled dark against her ivory skin. Her flat stomach glittered at the belly button, where a small gem stone sat embedded in her skin. And there was the part of her he wanted most. She was trimmed. Not shaved bare, which he liked, too, but trimmed neat and close. Just a nice covering of light hair. The color was so light, he could see her lips beneath it. Waiting for his touch, his tongue, his cock. He met her eyes and couldn’t even bring himself to swallow.

Chapter 5 Pia watched Ryder watching her. His eyes traveled up and down her body and enjoyed what he saw. It was obvious in his expression. She glanced down at his crotch and saw that he was already hard. She didn’t move to cover herself or hide anything. She let him look as long as he liked. And she liked the look of him looking. It was wrong to let him see her like this, right there in the house. Had anyone else heard her scream? She was playing with fire now. By standing here, knowing he was seeing her and letting him, she was telling him that she wanted him. This was dangerous territory. If she didn’t want to sleep with him, this was a huge mistake. It felt like a turning point, like there was no going back. The water drained out of the tub, making a trickling sound as it went. Now that the spider was gone, she could concentrate on him. She pulled out the band holding her hair up. It probably looked ridiculous piled on her head like she had it. Her long waves spilled down her back and caressed her shoulders. She shook it out, keeping eye contact with him the whole time. Then she stepped out of the tub, turned her back to him, pausing to look back at him over her shoulder, and bent over to pick up her towel. She heard him make a moaning, growling sound and then felt his hands on her. He grabbed her hips and pressed her against his stiff crotch. She dropped the towel and spun to face him. He looked at her intensely for one long beat, then they came together, lips smashed against each other. It felt like ages since she’d kissed him or anyone. But now that she was, it felt like she never needed to do anything else in her life except kiss him. She could die right now and be okay with it. Oh, but she wanted more. She wanted him. All of him. His hands ran all over her. He didn’t hesitate, and he didn’t stop for permission. He cupped her breasts, rubbing and pinching her nipples. He ran his fingertips over her stomach and down between her thighs. He slid them in between her wet lips and slipped a finger inside her. She let out a cry and he pulled back his finger in a rush. She was in the air, over his shoulder. He smacked her ass as she flailed. Then she realized that she was looking at his ass. She paid him back, smacking him with all her might. He gave her a short moan before tossing her onto the bed. “I can’t take it any longer,” he said, climbing on top of her. “I must have you.” “My father will kill you.” “I’ll take the chance.”

He yanked his shirt over his head, wiggled off his shoes, and out of his pants in seconds. He shoved down his boxers and hopped into place on top of her. “I hope you like it rough,” he said. “Because I am going to give you the fucking of a lifetime.” She gulped. She’d never done it rough before. All her other lovers had been soft and gentle. She had no idea what to expect. He pressed her knees apart, rubbed his fingers over her clit, then lowered himself over her. “Wait, Ryder, I—” Before she could tell him to be careful and go slow, she felt him. His cock was huge, almost too big. He thrust inside her fully with one hard motion. She let out a gasp. The little shock of pain that came with his entrance eased as he moved in and out of her. She’d had no time to work up to this, no time to build up and settle in. He was already pounding in her. He was moving so fast. His cock went deeper and deeper inside her, like he was trying to rip through her from the inside. She cried out, partly in pain, but mostly in pleasure. “Tell me you love it,” he said. “Yes,” she said. Her cheeks felt warm and she felt silly saying anything. She wasn’t used to talking during sex. Or making any noise. He lifted her leg high in the air and set her foot on his shoulder. He slammed his body against her. In this position, he went even deeper. But she was so wet, he slid back and forth with no effort. She wasn’t used to this speed or hardness. Her head spun. She couldn’t stand the waves of pleasure flooding over her. She dug her fingers into his back, into her hair. She whimpered with it. “How much do you love my cock?” “A lot.” “Tell me.” She closed her eyes and gulped. “If you can’t say it, I’m going to have to punish you.” She looked at him, a little scared. What did he mean?

“Okay then.” He pulled out of her and flipped her over onto her stomach like she was a rag doll. He yanked her hips up in the air and he was inside her again. He smacked her ass and she cried out. Then he reached his hand into her hair and pulled until she whimpered in pain. He tugged her hair and thrust into her harder. Her ass slapped against his hips with loud smacking noises. “You’d better come for me,” he said. He reached around and rubbed her clit in tight circles, harder and harder until she felt it creeping in. “Are you going to come?” “Soon,” she said. He thrust into her harder and rubbed her clit until she thought it would come loose. But then, when she thought it was hurting too much and she almost told him to stop, the orgasm broke over her, making her tremble and tighten around his cock. He moaned loudly and went even faster. She came harder than she ever had before and when it ended, she collapsed to the bed, shaking. Tears streamed down her face. The emotion was too much for her. Ryder lay beside her, and looked over at her. “Are you crying?” he asked in horror. She wiped her eyes and nodded. “Why? Did I hurt you?” “A little, but it’s not that.” She curled into him, her head resting on his arm. She just wanted him to hold her, but he seemed distant or hesitant or both. He kept his other arm at his side. “What, then?” he asked. “I’ve never had it like that before. So hard and rough. I was scared, and it did hurt a little, but in a good way, you know? And I just…I never knew it could be like that. It never felt so good.” “Wait a sec.” He pushed her shoulder back gently to look her in the eye. “You’re crying because it felt so good?”

She covered her face with her hands. “Yes.” He laughed and kissed her shoulder. Then he wrapped his arm around her and pulled her close. His sticky body was hot against hers, comforting her. He kissed along her arm and back. The feeling of his strong arm around her, his lips on her, filled her with joy. “God, you freaked me out. I thought I hurt you or you regretted it or something.” “No, not at all. It was the best sex I’ve ever had.” He murmured appreciation. “You sure about that?” “Yes.” “I think you’re lying.” She looked up at him and shook her head. “No, I swear.” He shook his head slowly. “Nope. I don’t think you’ve even had the best sex of your life yet.” He reached between her legs and stroked her. She flinched at his touch. “Are you sore?” he asked. She nodded. He licked his fingers before touching her again, softly and slowly. He stroked her clit, making her wet again. The new wetness flooding her soothed her insides and made her hot again. Her back was to him and he took full advantage. He raised her leg and moved it backward, resting it over his. Now he had greater access to touch her. He slipped his finger in and out, then added a second finger. “You drive me mad,” he said. “I’m never going to stop wanting you.” He pressed his hard dick against her. It was like he’d never even come; he was still hard as a rock. He pinched her nipples, making her pussy tighten in anticipation. She wanted him again. But would it hurt worse? She’d never had sex more than once in a single night. He rubbed the tip of his cock against her, making it wet and slippery. He rubbed against her clit first, sending waves of pleasure through her, then he slipped just the tip inside her. “How does that feel?” “Good,” she said. He moved slowly, pushing in deeper and deeper with each thrust. But this was gentler, more like what

she was used to. He slipped in and out of her, rubbing her clit the whole time, slowly and less forceful. It felt good, but not like the first time. She wanted him to do it hard again. So what if it hurt a little? That only added to the pleasure. She made a decision, not knowing how this would turn out. She scooted her hips away, forcing him to slide out of her. “What are you doing?” he asked. She wasn’t strong enough to move him, but when she pushed on his shoulder, he understood what she wanted. He lay flat on his back, and she climbed on top of him. He grinned at her. “Even better.” She positioned herself over top of him, feeling somewhat awkward. She’d never done this position before, and she wasn’t too sure of herself. She hovered over him, took hold of his hard dick, and slid down onto it. This position took him deep inside her, like she wanted. She leaned down, moving her hips up and down on him, sending him deep then shallow. She moved faster. He grabbed her hips and slammed her down hard so he could go even deeper. “You feel so good,” he said. “I want to fuck you all night.” She leaned down and bit his ear. “Your cock feels good.” He moaned. “Yes. Talk like that to me.” “I love your cock.” It seemed to get easier to say things like that every time she did. “You’re going to make me explode.” He stuck his pinky in his mouth and pulled it out with a popping sound. “I’m guessing you never tried this.” “Tried what?” He winked at her, then she felt his finger pressing against her ass. She flinched, surprised by his touch. “Relax,” he said. “It’ll feel good, I swear.” Her heart raced faster in nervousness as he pressed his finger slowly inside her ass. When it was fully in, she had to admit, the sensation was unreal. Her head spun and with his next thrust into her, she came all over him. It was almost instantaneous when he slid his finger in deeper.

She cried out as she came, and her arms gave out. He slowly pulled out his finger and wrapped her tight. “Told you,” he said. “Yeah,” she breathed. He kissed her forehead. “Mind doing me a favor?” “What?” “Finish me off.” She smiled. Blow jobs were one thing she had experience with and she thought she was fairly decent at. She slid down until her mouth was at his cock. She tasted her own juices as she slid her mouth down over him. He moaned and put his hand on her head. She licked and sucked on him as she moved up and down his shaft, gripping the base of his dick in her hand. After a few minutes, he moaned again and dug his fingers into her hair. He pulled her head back just in time for her to see him explode. She got up and brought him a towel to wipe off. Then she climbed back into bed beside him and nestled into his arms. She felt wired up and charged like she’d been electrified. She was never going to sleep. And, the worst part was, she still wanted him. She could feel his seed from their first time dripping out of her and she liked the feeling, the proof that he’d been there. Somehow, it still wasn’t enough. She wanted more of him. Would she ever get enough? She faced him and twisted her legs around him. Her hips were against his. She stretched her leg up and over so that his dick fell onto her leg. He was limp now, and sticky with her juices. She reached down and squeezed him. He started to get stiff again in a few moments. “Still haven’t had enough?” he asked. She shook her head. “Damn.” He slipped his fingers into her hair and brought her mouth to his. He kissed her as he grew harder.

He was stiff in her hands now and she continued to stroke him as he moaned at her touch. He slid a finger down and pushed inside her. She gasped and flinched back. The pain of just his finger entering her was sharp. Maybe she couldn’t have him again. It might hurt too much. “Too sore?” She squeezed her eyes shut. “Maybe.” “I have an idea.” He lay her down on her stomach and gently pushed her legs apart. He rubbed her clit for a little while gently, until she was dripping wet again. Then he rubbed the tip of his cock against her. She didn’t see what difference this position would make. But once he was wet with her juices, he leaned down, pressing his chest to her back. He whispered in her ear, “Relax, okay?” She nodded. She felt the pressure of the tip of his dick pressing against her ass. Her heart raced again in anxiety, but she remembered how good it felt when he put his finger in her ass. She swallowed hard and tried to relax. He spread her ass cheeks and pushed harder. The tip of his cock slipped inside her. She gasped. The pressure felt unnatural and she didn’t like the sensation. “No, stop,” she said. “Give it one second.” He pushed in slowly. It still felt strange, but once he was fully in, it felt better. He moved back, not pulling out all the way. He pushed in again and this time, a sharp delight ran through her. Her pussy quivered and the pressure against her clit made her head swim. “How’s it now?” “Good,” she said. He sped up only slightly and each thrust sent shivers of pleasure through her. With only a few thrusts, she was on the cusp. “I’m going to come,” she said. “Damn, already?” He squeezed in deep, and pulled back slow. His next thrust was harder and deeper. He moaned loudly and pushed in as she came.

It was such a different orgasm, she didn’t expect the sensation. It made her shake all over. She never in a million years would have thought she would be the type of girl to have anal sex, let alone enjoy it. Ryder pulled out very slowly until he was free from her. She let out a long breath. “Holy fuck,” she said. He chuckled. “Yeah?” “Yeah. I had no idea.” He kissed her cheek, then disappeared into the bathroom. She heard the water running, and he returned shortly after. He slid into bed beside her and pulled her close to him, spooning against her. “What do you think?” he whispered. “Had enough for one night?” She nodded. She could barely keep her eyes open now. “I don’t think I’d make it through another orgasm that intense. It might actually make me go insane.” “Mmm.” He ran his hands along her arm. “That was so good.” “Was it?” she asked. “I know it was good for me, but I thought you’d have more experience.” “Maybe, but it was good for sure. You’re so damn hot. You make me hard just looking at you from across the room. I’m not sure what will happen now. Now that I know exactly how good of a fuck you really are, I may not be able to stop having you.” “I’m okay with that.” “We have to be careful, though. Your father will be mad at you if he finds out, but he’ll kill me.” “I know. I won’t tell anyone. It would really suck if you were killed now. I’d like to have sex with you for a while first.” He laughed. “Good. I’d like to have sex with you for a while, too.”


The morning light came in through the windows. Ryder opened his eyes and sat up. He couldn’t be

caught in her room. There were too many servants and other eyes to see him and report back to Matteo. Or Matteo himself could find him there. No matter which way it went down, if Matteo saw him, he’d be dead. He carefully untangled his legs from Pia’s. He slid his arm back from under her head and removed his arm from around her waist. He paused to make sure she hadn’t woken from his movements, then slid off the bed. He pulled on his clothing from where it’d been so carelessly tossed the night before, and he crept to the door. What he really needed right now was his surveillance equipment. He needed to see the hallway and know who might there to see him leave her room. But there was nothing like that in here. He turned the knob slowly, pushed the door open just a crack, and looked out. The hall looked clear from this side, but he couldn’t see the other way. He stuck his head out farther, looked the opposite way down the hall, and when he saw it, too, was clear, he dashed from her room and into his own. There, he checked over all the cameras to who was where. He didn’t see Matteo, which was a good sign. It was early, but Matteo tended to rise early. He might already be off for the day, doing mob business. The housekeeper was scrubbing one of the bathrooms, and her assistant dusted the den, the gardener and landscaper were both outside, the stable boy was with the horses, the pool guy at the pool, and the chef didn’t come in until later. Everyone seemed to be in their proper places. He showered and dressed, then headed downstairs to get something to eat. In the kitchen, he took out a bowl and a box of cereal. He’d down a quick breakfast before Pia would be up. Then he could sit and watch outside her room while she got ready for work. He sat at the table with his cereal, eating slowly and thinking about the previous night. Man, had she been incredible. He’d never have thought she could be like that. But the way she moaned and thrashed about under his touch, the way she kept wanting him. He’d wanted her before, and now that he’d had her, he couldn’t get enough. Just picturing her body, remembering the feel of her, had him hard already. He closed his eyes and tried to remember every moment. Every position, every moan, every orgasm. He was totally screwed. If he had trouble before wanting her and trying to keep his hands off her, what the hell was he going to do now? He’d never be able to stop touching her. He would have to stay on top of his game, be extra vigilant, especially in the house. No one could see or know anything about them being together. No one. They’d need to come up with a plan. Some sort of code to use to talk to each other. At least until they could be alone. Was he going to be able to sit in her car and be so close to her and so alone? What about in her store all day? How would he follow her around, watching her work, and not take her into the back room every hour? But maybe that was the best place. In the car on the way home, at the store. There it was much easier to control who saw them. But here in her house, where her father lived and there were often hired help or mafia guys, it was too dangerous. They could never do it here again. Far too risky.

He pictured Pia’s office at her store and how he’d bend her right over the desk and take her. He adjusted his pants and looked up as Pia entered the room. “Morning,” he said. She rubbed her face and looked over at him, then smiled. “Morning.” She was wearing the same t-shirt and pants he’d seen her wear to bed before. The shirt was close fitting and hugged her breasts. The pants showed off the curves of her hips and her perfect ass. Her tight and hot little ass. He clenched his hand into a fist. He wanted her right now. She opened the refrigerator door. He watched as she bent over to pick up a container of yogurt from a lower shelf. Her ass rounded perfectly and called to him. In his pants, his already hard dick jumped at the sight. He was on his feet a moment later. He went to her and put his arms around her. She let out a small gasp, startled at his sudden closeness and unexpected touch. But then she relaxed in his arms and murmured contently. “You look too hot right now,” he whispered in her ear. She chuckled. “I’m wearing a t-shirt and yoga pants.” “And it’s the hottest outfit I’ve ever seen you wear.” He held her close and let his hands roam over her front. The cold air from the refrigerator made her nipples hard. When he slid his hand up under her shirt, he ran his palm over them, cupping her breasts and flicking her nipples back and forth against his fingers. She moaned and pressed her butt back, into his crotch. “Whoa.” She sounded genuinely surprised. “You’re so hard. But you’ve barely touched me.” “That’s just what you do to me. I can’t help it.” She let her hand fall down between them and grabbed his dick, squeezing it and rubbing it through his pants. And that was when he lost his mind. He spun her around to face him and kissed her hard. For some reason he’d thought just kissing her would make it better. Like that would be enough to appease his desire somehow. But it made it much worse. His head grew dizzy with wanting her. He put a palm on each of her ass cheeks. He had to be inside her. There was no way around it. This was too much. He didn’t care who saw or who might be around. He picked her up and set her on the counter.

The refrigerator door was still open, sending cold air to chill his burning skin. The cold just made the sweat breaking out all over his body feel icy and sweet. The contrast of the hot and cold made him tingle all over. Her legs wrapped around his waist. She pulled herself closer to him. He put his mouth to hers again, his kiss hard with the strength of his desire. His hands were all over her breasts, groping her like he was a high school boy getting to feel up a girl for the first time. She dug her fingers into the short hair at the back of his neck. Chills ran down his neck at her touch. He dug his fingers under the waistband of her pants and lifted her slightly as he yanked them down. They didn’t need to go far. Just far enough that her pussy and ass were exposed. He stood between her thighs, rubbing her softly in slow circles. She was practically dripping with wetness. But he also knew how hard he’d fucked her last night, and how many times. She was probably still sore today and he didn’t want to hurt her. He slid a finger in slowly, watching her reaction. Her face showed no sign of pain, but she did pull her eyebrows together and bite her lip in delight. And that face was what did it. He’d already lost his mind, now his cock took full control of his actions. He unzipped his jeans and pulled out his stiffness. He pushed into her slowly, sliding easily along in her juices. “Does it hurt?” he asked. “A little. So do me hard.” She bit his ear lobe and he moaned. “You sure?” Words were almost impossible now. The feel of her hot tight pussy clamping around him put any other bodily functions on hold. She wrapped her legs tighter, pulling her hips closer to him, sending him deeper. He gripped her ass and pulled her close with each thrust. He did her rough. She said do it hard, and he wasn’t the type to argue. Not about this. He slammed into her deep, moving faster and faster with each forceful thrust. She let out a moan that was too loud. His eyes went wide and he clamped a hand over her mouth. “Shhh,” he whispered. And that made him even hotter, holding her mouth like that. He’d have to tie her up one of these times. Have her in handcuffs and ropes, bound and wide open just for him. Oh yes. He had to make this fast, he reminded himself. Much as he wanted to stay there, screwing her all day, someone would come in the room eventually. He pounded her as hard as he could. “Come for me, baby,” he said.

She still couldn’t talk under his hand, but he felt her whole body tense, and her pussy clamped down around his cock. With a few more slams into her, he shot his juices, allowed himself a full minute to stay there, inside her, holding her close, then pulled out slowly. She slid off the counter and pulled up her pants, then tossed her hair to the side. She adjusted her pants and shirt, then went back to the refrigerator. He was about to step forward, just to hug her, when the housekeeper walked into the kitchen. He sat back down in front of his cereal bowl and picked up his spoon, like he’d just gotten up to get something. He nodded at the housekeeper, and she went to the sink to rinse out some washcloths. Pia sat down across from him at the table. He had to think for a moment. Would that seem weird? No, she’d eaten breakfast with him before. And probably since they spent so much time together, people would expect them to become somewhat friendly. Not as friendly as they’d gotten two minutes ago, but whatever. He couldn’t look at her. He was afraid that making eye contact while someone else was in the room would give something away. He ate his cereal and kept his eyes on his spoon until the housekeeper finally left the room. He let out a sigh and looked at Pia. Her eyes were wide, but she held in a laugh. “I guess that was close,” she whispered. “Yeah,” he whispered back. “Too close. I shouldn’t have done you right here.” “I’m so glad you did.” She put the spoon in her mouth and pulled it out slowly, seductively. “I can feel you dripping out of me.” His eyes darkened with desire. How was he going to function today with her so close? This was going to be one long disaster of throbbing for her and taking her wherever and whenever he could. “Do me a favor,” he said. “Wear something loose and bulky today. You won’t get any work done if I can see any part of your figure under your clothes.” She pulled her mouth into a half smile. Her yogurt container was empty, and she got up to dispose of it then drop her spoon in the sink. “I’m going to get ready. Think of me naked in my shower.” He shook his head. “You’re going to be the death of me.” She let her hand trail down his chest and bent to kiss his neck before disappearing upstairs. He went to his room and dressed, watching for her to appear in the hall outside of her room, ready for work. When her door opened, she stepped out wearing the worst possible outfit she could have worn. A form fitting dress that barely covered her ass, and showed off plenty of cleavage. That bitch, he

thought as he went hard again. She was going to make him nuts, and make him have to fuck her all day. Well, he’d warned her. If she was going to dress like that around him, then she’d just have to deal with his hard cock taking up semi-permanent residence in her pussy. He left his room to meet her in the hallway. Then he realized he’d forgotten his gun. He shook his head in disgust as he ran back into his room and grabbed it from his nightstand. It would do no one any good if he wasn’t sharp and paying attention enough to protect her. If she was hurt, it’d hurt him, too. When they got to the garage, she made a pleading face at him. “Do you think you could do me a little favor and drive today?” He shrugged. “Sure.” He took the keys from her hand, then slid into the driver’s seat. He pulled the car out and they’d barely turned out of the driveway before her hand was on his crotch. “What are you doing?” he asked, turning off her street. “There’s a reason I wanted you to drive.” She unzipped his jeans and pulled free his semi-hard dick. “Uh-oh.” She stuck out her lower lip and looked up at him. “I’ll need to fix that.” She put her mouth over him and she did fix it. Only took a few seconds of her hot mouth sucking on him and he was a rock again. He tried his best to concentrate on driving. He managed not to wreck the car and stopped when the light was red. He forced himself to keep his eyes open as she moved her mouth up and down his cock, stroking him as she went. He gripped the steering wheel and cried out loudly when she forced him over the edge into orgasm. She wiped her mouth and kissed him on the cheek before settling back into her seat. “Damn,” he said after he pushed his dick back into his pants. “You do that so well.” “That was my thanks for last night.” She winked at him. “Maybe you should thank me more often.” He wiggled his eyebrows at her. “I think I saved your life once. That deserves some serious thanks, doesn’t it?” “Sure does,” she said. “And that’s why I wore this. So I can thank you all day long.” He let out a long groan. He was giddy with desire and infatuation. This girl. It wasn’t even just her body anymore. Not just her tight pussy and ass that he wanted to shove inside. He was actually falling for her. Every day, she showed him how incredible she was. Every day he saw some new awesome thing about her that made her even more desirable.

How could this be happening to him? He was not the fall-in-love type. He didn’t do that. He banged chicks and then moved on. That was it. He didn’t settle down; he didn’t get into relationships. He’d never come anywhere near considering marriage or a family. Those things were totally foreign and undesirable to him. Yet, when he pictured Pia in a white dress, pictured waking up to her every morning, and saw her with a baby in her arms, he wanted it to be his baby. He’d never thought of anyone like that and it scared him. This wasn’t just dangerous because of who her father was. This was dangerous for him. He was a hitman. A well-paying job, sure, but not a stable or safe one. Not one for a family man or a husband. What if he ever got caught? He’d face jail time and there would be scandal. Usually other legal ramifications like the seizing of assets. That would ruin a family. If he ever wanted a life with her, he’d have to consider going straight. That alone was daunting. What in the world would he do? Armed security? Maybe. But what was he thinking? A life with Pia? He could never have that, no matter how badly either of them wanted it. She was not in his league. She was the daughter of a rich mob boss. That meant she’d end up with a rich mob guy probably. She would never be allowed to even date him, let alone marry him. Somehow Ryder had forgotten for a moment that even looking at her wrong could get him killed or fired. He had no chance with her long term. It could be fun for now, and God, was it fun. But there was no future with them. A heaviness fell in his heart as they parked and entered her shop. He couldn’t bring himself to smile or feel happy. He wanted a future with her like he’d never wanted with anyone. And she was the last one he could have it with. He’d touched the woman who was the most untouchable for him. He’d played with fire, and while he hadn’t yet managed to get himself burned, he’d had to realize that he was water. And fire and water could never exist together in the same place. All through the day, they exchanged glances. She would give him a seductive look from across the room and his dick would harden in response. He’d already jerked off once, and now it was close to lunchtime. She usually took her lunch in her office. He was already picturing sitting in her office chair and having her sit on his lap. But at lunchtime, the store exploded with customers. Pia didn’t even have time to sit and eat. By early afternoon, his dick was throbbing from watching her and not having release. He went into the bathroom again to make it through the rest of the day. By the time the day ended, she was exhausted. He walked outside to check their surroundings before they left the store. When he knew everything was clear, he walked back inside to get Pia. They got into the car and drove off. He’d thought maybe she would do something on the way home. Or at least he hoped. But she was so

worn out, she stared out the window and her eyes grew heavy. “You okay?” he asked. “Yeah.” She sighed and looked over at him. “Sorry. It’s been a long day and I was up kinda late last night.” She winked at him. “Plus, it was a heck of a workout.” She yawned and stretched. He smiled at her and turned into the driveway. Maybe, if he was lucky, he’d sneak into her room later and have her. “I’m going into my room for a while,” she said, standing in the entryway. “I need a long bath and I have some paperwork to do. I didn’t get a thing done today with all those customers.” “Okay. You know where to find me.” He watched her walk up the stairs, then followed shortly after. He sat in his room, staring at the monitors for a long while. Eventually, he took out the newspaper and started reading, glancing over the top of the paper every few minutes to make sure all was still quiet. His phone rang an hour later. Lorenzo, one of Matteo’s guys, was calling. “Yo,” Ryder said. “Got news,” Lorenzo said. “We got the guy who attacked Pia. We’re dealing with him, but we got some info from him so far. Have a new assignment for you. You’re done on guard duty. Need you to go after someone connected to all this.” “Done on guard duty?” His heart dropped. “Who will protect Pia?” “Well, you. You’re going after the guy responsible and you’re going to kill him.” “If I’m hunting him, that leaves her vulnerable.” Not that he wanted anyone else near her, but she had to be kept safe. “She’s fine, trust me. Pack your bags. Meet downstairs in fifteen.” The call ended. Ryder stared at the wall for a long minute. He had no choice. He had to go. Not like he could say, “Sorry Matteo, I like banging your daughter too much, so I’ll just stay here with her.” He’d have to leave her. To go off and find her attacker and kill him and the guys above him. Then she’d really be safe. Maybe then he could come back for her. But it could take a long time. Weeks, months. Would she still want him after that? Was there any way he could get back here to her while he was hunting? He’d have to just wait and see. He started packing up his things, but his soul felt heavy and dark. He didn’t want to be so far from her. Didn’t want to miss out on touching her. His cock, hard from the

thought of maybe having her soon, now grew limp. It would be a long time until he was inside her again.

Chapter 6 Pia stretched at her desk. She needed a little break. And she wanted to see Ryder. Maybe they could go for a ride and get some privacy. A little making love under the stars? It was almost dark and it was a warm night. It’d be nice to be out there together, alone. She got up and went to his room. She knocked. “Yeah?” She entered and froze in horror when she saw him throwing his clothes into a large duffel bag. “What are you doing?” He turned then, realized it was her, and his face fell. He turned back to his task. “We caught your attacker. I’m no longer needed here to follow you. You’re safe. You can get back to your life without having me tagging along.” “Not needed? So just like that, you’re leaving?” He nodded. “But I thought…that after last night…” He stopped and looked up, his gaze distant and cold. “You thought what? That we’d have something long term? Pia, this was never more than a fling. I don’t do relationships. What we had was great, believe me. I wouldn’t mind doing it again, but there can be nothing between us.” Her heart tightened in her chest. Why was he saying this? Did he just want to hurt her? Or had she been dead wrong? Wrong to think they had more than just sex, that there was some connection between them? Sure, it was new, but it was the start of something. And not just a fling. It was the start of something more real than that. She didn’t just want him in bed, she wanted him in her life. But now he was acting like she was just some piece of meat. Some cheap whore he could fuck and leave with no cares. Well, he was wrong. She wasn’t like that. She wouldn’t put up with it. “So, it meant nothing to you, what we had?” She managed to keep her voice from wavering somehow. She was proud of that. He zipped up the bag and came to her. He put a palm on both of her cheeks and kissed her. “Of course it wasn’t nothing. But I’ve been reassigned. That’s just the way this life goes for me. I don’t have a choice.”

He let his hands fall, then grabbed his duffel. He swung it over his shoulder and walked out of the room, not stopping to look back. Pia stood there for a long while, staring at the empty door. She looked around at his room. Now empty as well. Not that he’d had much in here. He hadn’t hung any art or done anything aside from fill the drawers, but she knew they were all empty now without even having to see them. And her heart felt just as hollow as this room. Whatever she’d started to feel for him became a rock in her chest. It was heavy and solid and stuck there, unmovable. She couldn’t swallow around it. She couldn’t move it. It burned and scorched her insides. She needed it to be gone. But all she could think was, Ryder is gone. He won’t be here tonight. He won’t be there tomorrow. Who knew if she’d ever see him again. What if he was going to do some dangerous job and something happened to him? Tears rushed to her eyes. She dashed from the room and threw herself onto her bed after locking the door. The tears flowed, breaking into heavy sobs that shook her whole body. She curled into a ball, grabbing a pillow tight to her body to cry into. But she breathed in and the pillow smelled like Ryder. Images of their night together flooded her. How he’d held her close, made her feel so special. How he’d made her think he felt something back. Maybe not something as strong as she felt, but something all the same. Then she recalled his recent words and how they seemed at complete odds with the previous night. There could be nothing between them? And what did he mean he didn’t do relationships? So, all along he planned to just fuck her and that was it? He never intended to even consider anything more? Pain shot through her at these thoughts and she threw the pillow across the room. How could he be like this? How could he do this to her? This wasn’t right. No one hurt her like this and got away with it. Wait. She sat up suddenly, the sobs halting. She didn’t have to let him get away with this. She had complete power. What an idiot he was to think he could do this to her. To be all hot and sexy and kiss her and touch her and make love to her, then just throw her aside. She wasn’t trash to be tossed out. She deserved more. And if he was unwilling to give it to her, if he was so casual with her feelings, then she would do something about it. She stood up and went to her bathroom. She splashed water over her face and patted with a towel to dry it. Her eyes still looked red and puffy in the mirror, but maybe that would add to the effect. It could only help her now. She left her room and stomped down the stairs. Her father was not in the den. Not in the kitchen or the living room. She did find Francesca in the entryway, sweeping the floor. “Francesca,” she demanded. “Where is my father?”

“I’m not sure, Miss Pia. Perhaps out front?” She tore open the front door and looked around. No one was there. As she continued to search, she planned out what she would say. In her mind, it went like this. She’d find her father. He’d look at her and say, “Pia what’s wrong?” She’d be looking at him with a terrified and pained face. She’d ask in a little voice, “Is he gone?” “Is who gone?” “Ryder?” He would roll his eyes. He would think she still hated Ryder, that she was just glad to see him go. He would say, “Yes, he’s gone. I sent him on a job. We’ve caught the man who attacked you, and now he’s going to pay.” That thought hit her for a moment. Ryder was going after the guy who attacked her. He was going to be the one to avenge her. It gave a twinge in her heart to think he was the one. He was still fighting to protect her. Even if he didn’t want her. The twinge darkened and turned to a sharp ache again. After her father explained, she’d whisper, “Daddy, I know you think I don’t like him, and I don’t, but I have to tell you something.” She would start crying then. She would sob until he took her into his arms and said, “My Pia, what’s wrong? What’s wrong?” And he would sound so worried. When he was sounding very worried and concerned, when she’d drawn it out nice and long, when maybe they’d even moved to a more private location, and when she had a fistful of tissues, she’d finally look up at him and say, “I think we need to call the police.” He’d get really concerned then and he’d ask why. She’d have to play this part carefully. She couldn’t just blurt it out. That wasn’t how this worked. She’d have to whimper a bit and try to speak without saying it. She’d take her time. She’d work up to it. She’d make sure he had to coax it out of her. Then, in a tearful whisper, she’d say, “He…he…made me have sex with him.” She wouldn’t say the “R” word. Not yet. He would get angry immediately. He would say, “What?” in his rage filled tone that was so forceful, yet so soft, it made it even scarier. She would nod and break into sobs again and lean against him and say, “He raped me, Daddy.”

And then she wouldn’t stop crying for a long, long time. It would be perfect. She could play the perfect victim. She’d tell him how she’d seen a spider and screamed. How Ryder had run in, of course, because of the scream. How he had accused her of teasing him, of doing it on purpose to mess with him. She’d tell her father in terrified words how she’d sworn to him she just saw a spider, that was it. Then how Ryder had come to her, had covered her mouth and pushed her to the ground. How he’d forced her legs open though she struggled so hard, then how he’d forced his way inside her. And, if she needed to, she’d take it further. “No, Daddy, that wasn’t enough for him.” Then he’d raped her in her ass, too. Her father would lose it. They would go to the hospital and what would they find? That she’d had forceful sex. She was still sore and everything. And the best part. They’d find his cum. Her tears were dried now. The feeling of revenge filled her chest with such a desperate determination that she couldn’t think straight. He would pay for what he’d done. And he would pay with his life. She would make sure of it. No one did this to her. No one. She flung open the door to the garage. Her breath caught in her throat. Ryder was there. He stood beside her father, talking, his duffel over his shoulder. They both looked at her. “Pia? Are you okay?” her father asked. The concern was in his voice already. She glanced at Ryder and he met her gaze. For just an instant, his expression turned to pain. He looked worried, too. For just a moment, he looked like he wanted her again, like he wanted to bring her into his arms and hold her. He looked like he had last night. All the hateful vengeful desire ran out of her. Her heart softened and the tears returned. The ache was there. The ache that wanted him so badly. The ache that took over every inch of her body, inside and out. She looked at her father again. She’d need to think fast. “Daddy!” She stomped her foot. “How could you leave me unprotected? After you said it was so dangerous?” She made her breath catch. She forced her expression to look terrified. She raised her voice. “Now I have to go to work alone and be scared all day? How will I get anything done? You convinced me that I needed to have Ryder around, and now you’re just going to leave me all alone where someone might hurt me?” He held up a hand to her. “No, sweetheart, it’s okay now. We caught the guy who came after you and we know who he’s working for. That’s why Ryder is going. He’s going to take care of them, okay?”

“No, it’s not okay!” She raised her voice to a shriek. “I won’t be able to sleep without him here to protect me.” She pointed to Ryder, but then, for an extra safe measure added, “Or someone to be my bodyguard. I need someone with me all the time, keeping me safe. What if someone else comes after me?” “Okay, calm down,” Matteo said. “We’ll talk about it in a minute, okay? I’m sure I can get someone —” “Why can’t Ryder just stay? I don’t want some new guy following me around. I’m used to him now.” She tried to wave Ryder off like he was unimportant. But he had to know why she was doing this, right? He had to know how she still wanted him around. Not just to have sex with, but to hold her and comfort her and talk to her and love her. “I need him to go after the people who attacked you so you’ll feel safe again. Give me a few minutes to talk to Ryder, and I’ll be right in and we’ll talk about it.” “Fine.” She crossed her arms and was about to huff and turn away, but she allowed herself one more look at Ryder. In that moment, she wanted so badly to run to him. He looked at her with all the longing he had for her. She memorized that expression. Memorized it and held it in the front of her mind as she ran back to her room. She returned to her bed, then jumped down to get the pillow that had smelled like him. Instead of tossing it aside, she held it close, took long inhales of his scent and continued to cry softly through the night, hoping that he’d call soon or find some other way—carefully of course—to contact her. She had to see him soon. They could just sneak it. If she wouldn’t have a bodyguard anymore—her father never had come to find her to talk about it—then she wouldn’t have a tail making it harder. She could drive anywhere to meet him. Get a hotel room, do it in her car. Her windows were tinted dark enough. It didn’t matter where they were. She needed to have him with her. And she would find a way to make it happen.

Chapter 7 Eight weeks later and Ryder could still picture that look on her face. When she’d stormed into the garage where he was talking with her father. At first, he thought she looked scared, then she tried so hard to get him to stay with her. Made his heart ache the way she tried to convince her father. For a moment, he thought they had him, too. After she’d stomped off, Matteo had turned to him for his opinion. Of all things. “I don’t know. Am I being naive? Should I have someone watch her?” Matteo asked. “I’ll be glad to stay if you’re worried.” “No, no, I need my best guy to hunt these assholes down. But I can get someone to protect her. Sergio, perhaps.” Ryder knew Sergio, though. Knew how attractive he was and how much of a ladies’ man. Sergio was also much more Pia’s style. He cared more about clothing and that junk than Ryder did. If Sergio was with Pia all day, she might start to like him. And she’d like him better than she liked Ryder. He couldn’t take the chance. Then, he’d done maybe the most selfish and asshole thing he possibly could have done. He put himself before her safety. “I think Sergio would be better suited coming with me,” Ryder said. “I’m sure she’ll be fine. We’ll be watching all the guys connected to her attacker, so who would come after her? She never had a bodyguard before. The more guys you give me, the quicker we can get this done.” Matteo nodded. “Take whoever you want, then. Take Sergio. And anyone else that would be helpful.” “Thank you, sir. I will. We’ll get these guys, fast.” Of course, now that it had been eight weeks, he was starting to rethink everything. What if she was in danger? What if her attacker—guy by the name of Dino—was working with guys Ryder didn’t know about? They might send someone else after her. He’d decided somewhere in week one, when their first lead went cold, that he would have to check on her himself. He went almost every day, missing only the days that he had other duties that couldn’t be put off. He went to her clothing shop and watched. He would circle through early in the day and look for suspicious cars or people. Anyone sitting in their car, watching. He wanted to go inside, but couldn’t. It was easier if he wasn’t around Pia.

If he’d talked to her, or had the chance to be alone with her, he wouldn’t be able to concentrate. He would get his head all full of her, even more than it was now, and he would lose focus. His dick would stiffen and he would let down his guard. He’d think only about fucking her and her perfect little body and he wouldn’t be able to do anything else. And that thought could get them both in trouble. No, he had to stay away from her for the sake of her safety and his job. His dick hated him for it, but he took out his frustration on him every night anyway. He killed himself at the gym, then he came home and beat off, and between the two, managed to work off most of his longing and stress. He needed to finish this job quick so he could find a way to get back to her. Being so close without talking to her or touching her was like torture. Ryder pulled into the parking lot of her shop, drove slowly through, and looked around. He saw no one suspicious. He hadn’t in all the weeks he’d been watching, but that didn’t stop him from checking to be sure. He parked in shadows under some trees. This was where he usually sat. She never looked over here, and he drove different vehicles anyway. He waited. It was almost closing time. She’d be in her office, going over the cash drawer and other paperwork. He thought of her alone in that little office and went hard. He could go in there. He could go in there and in minutes be inside of her. He adjusted his pants for his stiffness and waited. The lights went out and she opened the door. She wore tight jeans today. And her top was too low cut. God, was she trying to make men lust over her with her cleavage showing like that? She turned from the shop, flipping her hair as she flounced to her car. He waited until she got in safely and drove off. Then he pulled out, back toward the hotel room that was their makeshift headquarters for this mission. His phone rang. “Hey, Sergio.” “We got something new.” This was why Ryder liked Sergio so much. He didn’t waste time, didn’t mess around. Straight to the point. “Go.” “An apartment building. Fifty miles from here. It’s where Dino and one other guy are holed up.” “How sure are we?” “One hundred percent. It’s good intel.” Sergio gave him the address and Ryder drove straight there. How had these guys ended up so far away? Were they in hiding? Probably. Cowards. Or maybe they’d only been hired for the one job. The Pia job. Well, they were about to regret taking that job. Ryder would make sure of it.

He found the building at the address Sergio had given him. He circled it first, then drove around the area so he was somewhat familiar with what was where. He found a few good places to hide if necessary, and a few good places to run, should it come to that. Then he went back to the building to watch for a while. Who came in, who went out. This was a moderately sized apartment building. Many of the people coming and going would likely have nothing to do with the guys he was after. He knew what Dino looked like, but not the other guy who was with him. Watching the building would give him a better sense of what went on here, when the highest traffic times were, and that sort of thing. After watching the building for the day, Ryder decided he would go that night. Middle of the night, when most people would be sleeping or up to no good themselves. He had determined that this building wasn’t exactly in the nice end of town. He’d witnessed more than one drug deal, and he thought the woman hanging around outside the building was getting paid to give head. Likely, no one would report a thing should they see or hear something. When it was full dark, he waited another hour. He texted Sergio to let him know he was going in. That way, if he didn’t respond in a while, Sergio would know something went wrong. Ryder had gone into the building once earlier that day. Wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, he hoped he was unrecognizable. He wasn’t able to get much from going in. No one had come in or out of the apartment while he was inside, but at least he got a look at the place and was more familiar with it. He changed his clothing so he was now wearing all black. He left his car in an out-of-the-way place and approached the building. The apartment he needed, 4b, had a fire escape on side of the building. There was a gap of several feet between the ground and the lower part of the escape, but that wouldn’t stop Ryder. He jumped high, kicked off from the brick wall and got just enough height to grab the lower rung of the escape. He pulled himself up and onto the fire escape. From there, it was a matter of counting. One floor, two, three. When he reached the fourth floor, he paused to listen. No one outside below him to see him. No one around that he could see. Music came from another apartment, which would be good—it would help drown out any noise he made. He listened at the window to apartment 4b. He heard two men talking. There was a curtain in the way, but a small crack between the pieces of fabric let him get just a glimpse of the room. He couldn’t see much, but he did see the man he was looking for and another man. They were cleaning their guns. Ryder almost laughed. Of course, chances were they had more than those two guns that were sitting in pieces on the table, but still. The timing. Ryder himself had two guns on him and a knife. One at the small of his back, one at his ankle, and a knife on his forearm, hidden by his leather jacket. He took the gun from his back and cocked the slide to put a bullet in the chamber. He pressed his hands to the window and pushed against it as he pushed up. He hoped it was unlocked and he could make a sneakier entrance. But the window didn’t budge. Only one option left. Ryder

lifted his hand and came down hard, smashing the butt of his gun through the window. He watched for broken glass, knocked several large pieces out of the window’s frame with the end of his gun, and carefully climbed through the window into the room. He stared at two shocked men. For one second, no one moved. Then the men reached for their guns. Dino reached to his back, keeping his eyes fixed on Ryder, and the other man bent over to take a gun from his ankle holster. But Ryder was faster than them both, and he had the element of surprise on his side. He wanted to kill Dino the most. He was the one who’d put his hands on Pia, who’d tried to kidnap her. But the other man was an easy target. He’d had to bend over to get his gun out, and in doing so, took his eyes off Ryder. Big mistake. Before Dino could load his gun and point it at Ryder, he had already shot. The other man, who had been bent over, now fell back against the couch. Blood poured from his head. He didn’t move. Ryder knew the man was dead. He’d killed far too many people to not know what death looked like. There was no blinking, no change on his face. The man still wore the shock from Ryder’s sudden entrance. Poor guy didn’t even have a chance. Idiot. If they’d been smart, if it would have been Ryder and his guys, it would have been different. First, you always kept a gun at your back. Like Dino had done, it allowed you to reach for your weapon without taking your eyes off your attacker. If you did have to pull a gun from a place that required you to look away, you waited until your partner had a gun trained on him. Then it was safer to break your gaze to grab a weapon. But this told Ryder something about these men. They weren’t well trained, if at all. Though he could have guessed that after the way Dino bungled the kidnapping. This was just further proof. It was almost too easy, breaking in here and taking these guys out. Ryder would have to ask Matteo for a challenge next time. But then, in the back of his mind, he remembered that once these guys were taken out, he might be able to get back to Pia. His heart jumped, and it was just enough to break his focus. Stupid mistake. One he never made. Dino jumped at him. With his leg straight out, he aimed to kick. Ryder moved aside in time, but still caught the force of Dino falling into him, after not having landed the kick. Ryder punched the guy in the face. Dino stepped back, blood now pouring from his nose. “Who are you?” Dino spit. “Matteo sent me.” Ryder ducked a wild swing from the guy. In pain now and still shook up, Dino was clearly not on his game. He moved closer to Ryder, trying to hit him with his gun, but instead, Ryder elbowed him in the

throat. If Dino was wise, he would have just tried to shoot Ryder. Would have been much more effective than attempting to pistol whip him. What a moron. Dino grabbed at his throat, gasping for air. Ryder loved that move. It was fun to watch your victim choking just to breathe. He landed a fist straight at Dino’s nose, and he dropped to the ground. Ryder stood over him, smirked at him holding his face, and aimed his gun. “Next time you try to kidnap someone—oh wait, there’s not going to be a next time.” Ryder pulled the trigger and sent a bullet into Dino’s brain. His blank eyes stared back at him. Ryder did a quick sweep of the apartment, gun out, making sure no girlfriend or other thug was hiding in a back room. With the place clear, he ducked back through the opening in the window, tucked his gun in place, and grabbed hold of either side of the fire escape’s ladder so he could slide to the ground. His feet hit the gravel much faster than they would have if he’d tried to run down them. And much quieter as well. That fire escape was rickety and he’d had plenty of time to ease up the steps when he was going up, but now he needed a fast and silent getaway. He reached his car as someone came out of the building. “Hey!” a man in his robe and slippers shouted. Instead of looking up or turning his head, Ryder kept his head down, so his face was hidden by his hat. He dashed to his car and hopped behind the wheel. Just before coming here, he’d taken off the license plate of his car. Wasn’t safe to drive around like that, but for now, it was the best way to ensure he could make a clean break. Not that Matteo wouldn’t just get the charges dropped if he were caught. Matteo had guys all over the place, including the police force. But it would cost him money and time, and Matteo liked to spend neither. Ryder had gotten to be his best hit man precisely because he was so good at not getting caught. Matteo hadn’t once had to clean up after him. Ryder also made sure the cars he took on missions were carefully chosen. Tonight, he drove a black Honda Accord. It was one of the most common cars on the road and the color helped him hide. Even if the man running out of the building called the cops and told them to go after his car, the chances of them finding him were slim. Ryder pulled away from the apartment building, driving just at the speed limit. That was the other trick. Do nothing to draw attention to yourself. He pulled into a grocery store parking lot a few blocks

down the road, drove around to the back where the delivery dock was, and got out to put the license plate back on. Then he took off his hat and put on a blond wig. It was maybe a little over cautious. He likely didn’t need the extra disguise, but it never hurt. The long blond wig and his freshly shaved face gave him a somewhat feminine appearance, though only from a distance. Drive next to him and it was easier to see that he was a man wearing a woman’s wig. No matter, though. He wouldn’t get that close to being caught, anyway. He was much too good for that. He drove off, again at a normal speed, and headed for home. He’d go back to headquarters and call Matteo to report in. He picked up his phone and sent a quick text to Sergio. On my way. That way he’d know it was done and that everything had gone fine. They had all sorts of phrases that they used as codes. If he’d said he was running late, that meant Sergio would send in the backup that they had in the area. If he’d said he had to cancel their plans, that would mean he was hit and down. But Ryder had never had to use any phrase other than to say he was on his way. Done and out. That was what made him the best. A perfect track record, and Matteo knew it. He set his phone back down, but heard the alert for a text a moment later. He assumed it would be Sergio responding. He’d just say, Okay, to let Ryder know he got the message. But the text wasn’t from Sergio, it was from Pia. It said, I need to see you. That was it. Short and sweet. But the effect it had on him was immediate. Thank God she hadn’t sent that before he went in. It would have distracted him and messed with him big time. Would could she mean by this? That she missed him just as much as he missed her? That she wanted him as badly? And now the job was done. He could go to her. He stepped on the gas. He needed to get to her fast and find out what was going on. She hadn’t contacted him once since he left. He’d hoped maybe to hear from her, even if he knew beforehand that he couldn’t and wouldn’t respond. When he was on mission like this recent one, he had to focus. Even going to her shop to watch out for her was causing him too much distraction. If he’d allowed himself to text her or talk to her, he’d be finding ways to see her. And that would mean time off the mission. Time he couldn’t afford to take. Though he never thought it would take this long. Usually, the information Matteo got was spot on. They’d even caught Dino before and gotten the info out of him. They should have killed him rather than hold him for more info. Somehow, the idiot had managed to get away, just after Ryder was given the mission. If he had escaped even a few hours later, Ryder would have gotten to him first and put a bullet in his brain. They’d held him far too long.

It was one of the first things Ryder had told Matteo when he was given the mission details. Dino had been held too long. They needed to kill him. But Matteo insisted they keep him for more info, until they could kill the guys responsible. Well, only one guy it turned out. And when Dino got away, all the info he’d given them had been outdated. He’d gotten away and told the other guy that they had to leave immediately. And all that made the situation pointless anyway. Why had they held him, beaten him for info, if he was just going to get away and warn the guy anyway? If Ryder had been in charge from the start, it would have been done weeks ago. But Ryder had still been on Pia duty. He would always be grateful Matteo had assigned him to guard her. But now the mission was over and she needed to see him. Good, because he needed to see her just as badly. His speedometer already read ten over the limit. Anything higher would be pushing it, he knew. He waited until he was just out of town and sped faster. She was worth the risk.

Chapter 8 Pia thought about contacting Ryder almost every day. But after the way he’d left, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She didn’t want to be the weak one. She didn’t want to be the one reaching out, the one looking like she needed him more than he needed her. She didn’t want to make the first move or face the chance of rejection. What if she texted him and he didn’t respond? Then what? But, at the same time, she expected him to contact her. He’d call or text or stop by the store or something. She even thought that when he came to talk to her father, he would sneak up to her room or something. Anything to reach out. He had to want her, right? Hadn’t she been so irresistible he’d taken her right there in the kitchen? He had it bad. She knew it. But then, why wasn’t he calling? She found herself moping around, sad and lonely. And a bit horny, if she was being honest. After sleeping with him and knowing how good sex could actually be, she wanted it again. And again. She had even resorted to touching herself while thinking of him—something she never used to do. He had some kind of crazy effect on her. And she wanted him to either come and satisfy her needs, or disappear off the earth so she could move on and find someone else. It wasn’t fair that she was just here alone, wanting him. He should be miserable, too, if she was, and it didn’t seem like he was missing her at all. If he had been, then why had eight whole weeks gone by and not even a word? It wasn’t right. The only thing that gave her comfort was knowing that he was off trying to make her safe by taking out her kidnapper. He was hunting the man who’d tried to take her and had hurt her. That made her happy. She pictured Ryder being his tough self, beating the guy up. She wished she could see it. Just thinking of it made her hot all over. Last week, she’d been so desperate to hear something, that she’d gone to her father. “I need to know what’s going on,” she demanded when he came home one night. “With what, dear?” “With what?” She threw her hands in the air and let them fall dramatically to her sides. “With my kidnapper?” “Oh, right.” He’d hugged her and kissed her forehead. “Ryder is on it. He’s getting close, I think.” “So, he still hasn’t caught the guy?” “Not yet, but you have nothing to worry about.”

She hadn’t been worried about herself. She’d been worried that they had caught the guy and that Ryder still hadn’t contacted her now that he wasn’t on this mission anymore. “Oh sure,” she said. “It’s only my life in danger, but nothing to worry about.” She’d stormed off to her room, but smiled the whole way. That had to be it, then. Even if it was taking so long, it had to just be that he was concentrating so hard on finding the guy and taking him out. It had to be hard work, she was sure of it. It wouldn’t require her father’s best man, which Ryder certainly was, if it wasn’t a dangerous and tricky mission. Then she had nothing really to worry about. When he finished the job, she would hear from him. She kept telling herself that, even if a little part of her didn’t quite believe it. You might mean nothing to him, it said. Just a fling, right? Wasn’t that the word he used? He wasn’t into relationships. She could hardly sleep some nights, thinking of all this stuff. It’d gotten so bad, she turned to extreme measures to distract herself. She made sure that every night there was something going on. Either she’d go to dinner with a friend, find a party, go to a club. Every night was a new crowd of friends to hang with, something else to do. When no one was around, she went shopping by herself. She bought lingerie in hopes that Ryder would be the one seeing it. Maybe the one tearing it from her body in a fit of passion. The little stringy thongs she bought in black and white would be perfect for tearing. During the day, things were trickier. Her friends were off doing things like lunching or taking classes. Some of them worked, like she did, running a business or something else. So, she didn’t have much choice. She did text as much as possible, but she couldn’t just leave the store. So, instead, she threw herself into her business fully. She shopped far and wide for new lines, took time to discover and search for new designers. She sent out emails to request exclusive pieces. She even worked on posting more photos on Instagram to drum up business. When she got really desperate, she pulled out a business book her dad had recommended that she read years ago. When she got to the middle of the book, she knew things had taken a turn for the worst. Pretty soon, she’d have to start looking for a new hobby or a pet. Many of her friends had dogs, and she hadn’t wanted to deal with the hair and cleaning up after it and all that, but she might need something soon if it didn’t get better. She had to find a way to stop thinking about him. Of course, it didn’t help that she could swear on a few occasions she’d seen him. Once it was in the mall, once in her store, and more than a few times in the shop’s parking lot when she went out to her car. It helped to think maybe he was watching her from afar, keeping her safe without her even knowing it. That idea would send her on wild fantasies. She might go out to her car one night after work and feel a hand cover her mouth, like the kidnapper had. But this time it would be Ryder, and he would throw her into the back of his car and make love to her. Or someone would barge into her office while she did paperwork and it would be him, and he would take her right there on the desk. He’d sneak into

her room while everyone was sleeping, and she’d wake to the feeling of his hands on her, then feel his hard cock enter her. Once, she almost slept with a guy she met at a club. He was cute. The typical rich type like she usually dated. They’d started making out and it was getting hot. She pretended he was Ryder. But when he fingered her, it was obvious he was nowhere near as skilled. It had frustrated her so much she’d stormed away from him with no explanation. Ryder had ruined her. She knew what great sex was like now and she wanted nothing else. But this missing him had gotten ridiculous. It was getting to the point that she’d wake up with a stomach ache thinking about him. She felt tired and achy and sometimes, she canceled her plans to go out and instead sat with a tub of ice cream, consuming far too many calories. Nothing made her feel better. She was also more emotional. She went to the movies with some friends and had cried so much they had to ask her if she was okay. It made her think of Ryder, though, and that had sent a wave of longing through her chest. She thought she was getting through it. She thought she was dealing with it okay. Even if the stress had been so bad it made her miss a period. But then, the next month, she missed it again. The idea slowly came to her, taking its time to form in her brain. The sick stomach, the missed periods, the emotions, the fatigue. Could she possibly be pregnant? She’d never been, so she didn’t know what to expect, and had missed the signs until now. But when she slept with Ryder, they certainly hadn’t stopped to use protection, and she tended to be more lackadaisical with her birth control pill than she should be. For the first two days, she ignored the idea. She could not be pregnant. She simply wouldn’t allow it. But when she threw up again, she was having more and more trouble denying it. And now it seemed that her breasts were hurting and smells seemed to bother her more than usual. These were all things on the list when she dared to look up pregnancy symptoms. No matter how she tried to deny it, or wish it away, she couldn’t. All the signs pointed to pregnancy. There was only one thing left to do. She had to take a test and see. Maybe she was imagining it all. Maybe she was just that stressed. A few more massages, an extra glass of wine or two and she’d feel better. But she’d better take a test just to be safe. She drove to a convenience store out of town, where no one would recognize her. She went in wearing a sun hat and sunglasses to be extra careful. When she made it to the aisle, she quickly grabbed two tests, not stopping long enough to really read the packages. Two would make sure she didn’t screw one up or pick a bad test. She didn’t want to have to come back to buy more. With the bag of tests shoved in her purse, she went into her bedroom late at night. She read the instructions with a shaking hand and got up twice to make sure that both her bedroom door and the bathroom door were locked. She couldn’t afford for anyone to come in and see what she was doing.

She held the sticks awkwardly and peed on them, then set them down to wait. Why did it have to take so long? She watched the time tick by on her phone, trying to distract herself by looking at photos on Pinterest of new jewelry designs. When the timer went off, she glanced over at the tests and tried to pretend like it didn’t matter how many little blue lines there were. She picked them up, saw that they confirmed her suspicions, and wrapped them in toilet paper, then shoved them back into their boxes, wrapped them with more toilet paper, and stuck them in the plastic bag. She tied the bag in three knots and shoved it back in her purse, all the way to the bottom. Tomorrow, on her way to the shop, she would stop at a dumpster and dispose of the evidence. She couldn’t take any chances that someone would find the tests and figure out it was she who’d taken them. Once she’d concealed the evidence the best she could for now, she sat on the edge of her bed to think. The sobs started and she curled into a ball on her bed, wishing desperately that Ryder was there to hold her and comfort her. What would he say in that moment? Would he be happy? Maybe he’d not want a baby. Or not want one with her. He might tell her to get rid of it. He might ask her to marry him. He might not care either way. He might lie and say he’d be there to help her and be a part of the baby’s life, then disappear. All these things seemed like possibilities. She had no idea what to do or think. She tried to think about how this would change her life. One thing she knew for absolute surety was that her father could not know. If he knew she was pregnant, he’d be mad. This was not something rich girls did, go out and get pregnant. That was something for the lower class only. He’d be disappointed. He’d be mad. He’d call up the man who got her pregnant and make him do something about it. Make him marry her so her baby wasn’t born out of wedlock. She’d get to plan a huge extravagant wedding and would be married and have her baby with her husband and all would be well. But it would never go like that. Not unless she lied. She could try to pin this baby on some guy who her father would approve of. It might work. It’d been almost a month since she’d slept with anyone before Ryder and babies sometimes came late. She could fudge the number and lie and make it seem like the baby came later than planned. Or it could go the other way and she could go sleep with someone tonight and make it seem like the baby came early. It could work. So long as they didn’t ask for a DNA test. So long as the baby didn’t come out looking like Ryder. The problem was, she wanted the dream. She wanted to tell her father she carried Ryder’s baby and have him be thrilled and throw them an amazing wedding. She wanted to be Ryder’s wife and raise their child together while making crazy love every night. She wanted to be that bold and wild and have people look at her like she was crazy for marrying someone like him. But they didn’t know how hot he was, or how good in bed, or how strong, or how he made her feel more alive than any man ever had. But if her father knew the truth, if he knew it was Ryder’s baby, he wouldn’t be happy. He wouldn’t

be mad, either. He would be murderous. He would kill Ryder. He might take the baby. Give it away so she’d never see it again. He might punish her for being with Ryder. He might cut her off. Who knew how far he’d take it. Would he even kill her to save himself the disgrace? Maybe. When her father felt wronged, there was no telling what he would do. He scared her, the way he got angry sometimes. But he’d never had that level of anger directed at her before. When her father got mad at her, it was for things like going over her monthly allowance. Or for firing some hired help without his permission. Or even when she totaled her new car. That kind of stuff that didn’t really matter much in the end. It was all money. Sure, he cared about money. That was his whole business as a mafia man. But he cared more about his name and his pride. If someone did him wrong, he would never forget it and always made them pay. So, her options were limited. She couldn’t have the dream wedding and marriage without lying about who the father was. She couldn’t have Ryder without hiding the baby and their relationship. She would never have exactly what she wanted, so she needed to figure what she wanted in her limited options and go from there. First. Did she even want this baby? Everything would be simpler if she had an abortion. No lies, no hiding, nothing to fear. But when she considered it, considered going into one of those places and coming out empty, taking away the thing that her and Ryder had made, the thought brought fresh sobs to her throat every time. She couldn’t destroy something that was the both of them. Okay, so she could go away. Put the shop in capable hands and tell her father she wanted to go travel Europe for a year. She could have the baby and give it to a happy couple, and then think of him or her out in the world. This little life her and Ryder made, off living its life happy. But that, too, made her sad. She didn’t want to hand the baby over. She wanted to be the one raising it, to hand it to Ryder when he came home after work. To sit with him and watch their child grow. Maybe that was the answer, then. Maybe she did go away. But, instead of giving up the baby, she kept it and lived with Ryder and had a happy little family far away from her father where no one would ever find them. They could change their names, take a bunch of money, and live happily together. Ryder could make money somehow. Probably. Get a job or something. She’d even consider not having all the money she had now if it meant being with him and having a family. Pia could not shake that happy imagine. She would have this baby. She would keep this baby. And even if, somehow, Ryder wasn’t part of the picture, if her father did kill him in the most tragic version of this story possible, then she would keep the baby knowing it was part of him that lived on. But she couldn’t afford to think like that. Couldn’t spend the tears that came with the thought of losing him. She had to tell him before anyone else could know. They’d have to make plans and find a way out. They’d go away. They’d hide. They’d do it together. She took out her phone and sent him a text. I need to see you.

It didn’t give any information away. That text could mean anything. And since it was the first text she’d sent him since he left, it would have to get his attention. Did it sound urgent enough? She almost added that it was very important, but she would wait. If he didn’t respond, she could send that. He would respond, though, she was sure. Well, sort of sure. She hoped. But what if he didn’t, and she couldn’t get a hold of him? What then? Go back to her original plan of leaving the country? Hope she’d be able to find him later? It wasn’t like he was missing. Her father knew where he was. She could maybe get the information secretly and go to him if it came to that. But hopefully it wouldn’t. He would respond and say he was coming to her and that would be it. She paced her room, waiting for her text notification. She kept checking her phone. Had the message really sent? Yes, it showed delivered and the date. Maybe he hadn’t gotten it yet. Maybe his phone wasn’t charged. Maybe he was in the shower or in the middle of something and couldn’t respond right away? Her stomach tightened with every minute that passed. What if he let her down? What if he didn’t show after all? What if he didn’t respond and come to her and take her away? She fell to her knees, the tears flowing silently as she stared at her quiet phone.

Chapter 9 It took hours for him to get to her. Too many hours, much too long. The whole drive was agonizing. He was worried, imagining every scenario possible. In most of his visions, she was hurt or in danger in some way. Which meant he needed to get there fast. What if it had somehow all been a setup? What if they were just trying to get him out of the way so they could get to her. Though the “they” in that case would have to be Matteo because obviously the guys who tried to kidnap her wouldn’t have known when he was coming to kill them. Maybe the timing was a coincidence but she was hurt for some other reason, in some other way. Maybe her car had broken down and she was stranded on the side of the road. Maybe the guys he killed had somehow alerted their boss before he knew it and while they were dying, someone was being sent to hurt her. A little payback for taking his guys out? If he was lucky, she wasn’t in danger at all. She was just missing him and wanted him. But when was he ever lucky? She hadn’t texted him in all these weeks, so why would she now all of a sudden? That would be too good to be true. No. He tried to picture her in some sexy outfit, posing seductively on her bed, texting him because she was wet for him. But that image quickly vanished and was replaced with the sight of the fear in her eyes as her kidnapper tried to pull her away. He’d never forget that look. It haunted his waking and sleeping hours when he wasn’t with her. When he didn’t know for sure she was safe. He always pictured the worst. Even though he’d driven as fast as possible, as fast as was safe after just committing a double murder, it wasn’t fast enough. He thought about texting her back or calling, but without knowing the situation, he didn’t want to do that, or give anything away. If she was in danger, her phone might be compromised. Better her attacker think he wasn’t going to show up than to know that he was on the way. He hated to think she was sitting there with her phone, waiting for his response that wasn’t coming, but it was safer this way. He could explain everything when he had her in his arms. When she was safe. Finally, her house came into sight. This part, he needed to play carefully. He couldn’t just barge in there and up to her room. Luckily, he had the excuse of needing to talk to Matteo and report in anyway. He’d do a little reconnaissance before going in to make sure she was there. He turned into the driveway, but didn’t pull up to the house. He got just close enough to see that a dim light was on in her room. It was late, though. It could be some sort of night light left on. Didn’t really prove anything.

He’d planned to install a tracking app on her phone. While he was protecting her, it wasn’t necessary, and he hadn’t had the chance to do it before he left. But he would now. Next chance he got. That way, he’d at least always know where her phone was. Lateness was on his side, though. Matteo would be up, waiting for him to come and give his report, but the other staff would be sleeping. But that wouldn’t help him now. He parked and walked up to the garage, peaking in to see whose cars were there. Matteo’s day car was there. And so was Pia’s Jaguar. So she was most likely here. The only way to make sure was to text her or go to her room. He took a chance and sent a text. Where are you? That, at least, wouldn’t give anyone any information except that maybe he would be on his way soon after she sent the text. In my room, she said back quickly. Where are you? He ignored her question for now. Are you okay? I don’t know. Are you alone? Yes. Kinda. What the hell did that mean? How was someone kind of alone? Well, she was here and didn’t seem to be in any immediate danger. She’d know soon enough that he was here. He knocked on the front door and waited. Matteo greeted him and ushered him inside. “Is it done?” Matteo asked. “Yes. There were two men. One was her attacker. Both are dead.” Matteo nodded. “Any problems? Any worries?” “None.” He would leave out the man in the robe who may have seen him. It wasn’t a big enough deal, and he wasn’t sure enough to worry anyone. He really doubted that dude would do anything anyway. Matteo clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Knew I could count on you.” “Thank you.”

“I’ll let you know when I have your next mission.” Ryder nodded. “It’s late. Do you think I could grab a shower and crash in the guest room for a few hours?” “Of course.” “Appreciate it.” Ryder shook his hand and Matteo disappeared into his office as Ryder went upstairs. His heart pounded. He wanted to run right to her room, but he had to restrain himself. He went into the guest room, the room he’d stayed in for the weeks he was protecting Pia. He started the shower. Then he couldn’t resist taking just two minutes to get a quick rinse off. He was sweaty and dirty. And if she was here, she had to be okay. There was a decent chance, he thought, that he would be with her tonight and he didn’t want to be smelly. He got out and left the water running. He toweled off quickly, then opened his door as quietly as possible, and knocked softly on hers. She pulled the door open. Too fast. He cringed at the sound it made, but the shower should muffle it. She looked so relieved to see him, he wanted to pull her into his arms right then and kiss her. But he put his finger to his lips to tell her to be quiet, then returned to his room to shut the water off. He couldn’t just let it run all night. He went back into her room, and she was standing just inside the door. He went in and closed the door softly behind him. “What took you so long?” she hissed. “Good to see you, too,” he said. He stood a few feet from her, his arms crossed. He didn’t want to assume anything. He wanted to kiss her and feel her body in his arms so badly, though. “Hi,” she said, crossing her own arms. “What took you so long? It’s been hours since I texted you.” “I was off killing your kidnapper and his friend. I was fifty miles away when I got your text. I drove way too fast to get back here.” “Then why didn’t you text back? Or call?” “I had no idea what the situation was. If you’d been taken and I said I was on my way, that would allow plenty of time for an attacker to be ready and set up a trap. If it looked like I hadn’t gotten the message, they wouldn’t be expecting to see me.” “But if you killed the guy, who would be after me?”

“I don’t know, but I had to be careful just in case.” She dropped her arms and let out a shaky sigh. “I was worried. I thought…” She looked up at him with such concern in her face that he swept her into his arms and held her close. She trembled gently, like she was crying. He pulled back to look her in the eyes. That’s when he saw it. He hadn’t noticed before. She’d been too far away or he’d been too preoccupied, but now he saw. Her face looked pale and sunken in. Dark circles were under her eyes. She seemed all around weak. She seemed a shadow of her former self. “Are you sick?” he asked. “Umm.” She looked down. “Can we sit down for a minute?” “In a sec.” He lifted her chin so she faced him, then leaned down and kissed her. It’d been so long since he felt her soft lips on his. She kissed him back hard, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling herself closer to him. But then she broke the kiss and led him over to the bed. She sat on the edge and patted the spot beside her. “I’m not sick. Well, I sort of am, but not really.” “Pia, what’s going on? You have me worried now.” She took in a deep breath and let it out shakily. She looked at him, tears lying low in her eyes. “I’m pregnant. With your baby.” He couldn’t have heard her right. Pregnant? His little baby growing in her belly? No, that couldn’t be. “What?” “I’m pregnant. Must be about two months along. That’s how long it’s been since we were together. I haven’t been with anyone else since we met.” He took some tiny measure of comfort in knowing she hadn’t been sleeping with someone else while he was off trying to kill her attacker. That wasn’t nothing. He hadn’t slept with anyone either, but mostly because he was so focused. If he hadn’t been, he probably would have. They weren’t in a relationship or anything. “You’re sure?” “I took two tests. I haven’t been to a doctor or anything, but I have, like, every symptom.”

“Like what?” “Morning sickness, extreme tiredness, sore boobs, sensitivity to smells, missing periods. All of it.” He stared down at his hands for a long while. He’d never dreamed of having a baby. Never did the relationship thing at all, so he never pictured having a wife and kids. The whole concept seemed so foreign to him. He wouldn’t know what to do with a family. How to provide for them. How could you buy a house when your job was mafia hit man? He tried to imagine the whole white picket fence thing. Two kids and a dog and a minivan. That so was not him. He would not own a minivan. Not in a million years. But there wasn’t room for a car seat on a motorcycle. Would there be room in her Jaguar? The image shifted when he pictured Pia as a mother. The baby in the car seat beside her on the floor as she got her nails done. Having a nanny to do the messy stuff like change dirty diapers. He didn’t want to think of some baby sucking on her perfect boobs. Or, for that matter, what having a baby would do to her body. Her perfect little body. Well, it wasn’t going to be little for very much longer. How in the world would she handle motherhood? The waking up at night, the spit up and the feedings, the crying? Would she even do any of that, or would she hire someone to do it for her? She needed him, bad. He wouldn’t want his kid raised by some nanny. He wanted it raised by him and her. What was he saying? Raise a baby? With the mafia boss’s daughter? What, through a jail cell or a grave? Because Matteo would certainly not stand for this. His precious little Pia knocked up by a mafia thug instead of some rich boy? He’d go ballistic. Most likely, he’d have him killed. Who knew how he would take it out on Pia. Probably wouldn’t kill her, but would he let her keep the baby? Wait a minute, did Pia even want to keep the baby? Maybe she was planning to get rid of it, or to give it away. Maybe she didn’t want to have his baby at all. She could be just telling him out of courtesy. Or because she needed someone to take her to the clinic. “Are you going to keep it?” he asked, breaking the tense silence. “Yes,” she whispered. “I thought long and hard, but after considering all the options, this is the only thing that feels right. I can’t kill or give up our baby. He or she is something that was made by us. It’s part of us.” She put her hand on her stomach and suddenly the image in his mind changed. He saw her holding a little boy that looked like him when he was a kid. Saw her cuddle him close, comfort him when he was crying. Or maybe a little girl that looked just like her. A mini Pia with a big pink flower on her head like those goofy headbands he saw babies wear. She would look so good with a baby. With his baby. And she wanted it. She didn’t want to give it up because it was already special to her.

A strange sensation of pride welled up in his chest. He’d made a baby. And she wanted it. And that made him so rock hard, he couldn’t stand it. He wanted her. And not just to feel her wet pussy around his cock, but he wanted it all. To sleep beside her at night, to get up at 2 a.m. to feed and comfort their crying baby. To go to Little League games, and school events, and so what? If she wanted a minivan, if that would make life easier, he’d buy her a fucking minivan. He wanted every part of it. He pulled her close, scooping her onto his lap. He kissed her long and soft. Like she’d become fragile. In a way, she had. She was now carrying precious cargo. A tiny baby growing inside her. His baby. “Wait a minute, Ryder.” She pulled back. “How do you feel about this? You’ve said nothing.” “I feel so many things. It’s still a shock,” he said. “But I’m happy. I want to have a baby with you. I wasn’t even sure what I felt until you said you were keeping it and that it was something we made.” He pulled his mouth into a smile. “I’d be so proud to have a baby with you. To make a little miracle that came from you and me.” He chuckled. “I never thought I’d have kids. It’s a really nice surprise.” She closed her eyes and a slow smile spread across her face. When she looked at him, she had that glow that everyone talked about. He thought it was a dumb, made-up thing people said, but now he saw it. It was some kind of deep down joy that radiated out through her skin, making her look alive and happy. It warmed his chest. When they came together this time, neither of them pulled back. There’d be plenty of time for talking later. For now, they had to make up for lost time. Ryder ran his hands up and down her back. She felt thinner, which worried him, but they’d figure that out later. She melted against him, her body hot and ready in his arms. She felt so much more fragile than usual. He had the desire to handle her carefully, despite his desire to want to tear into her and ride her hard. It wouldn’t be like that this time. He scooped her up in his arms and lay her gently on the bed. He hovered above her, looking into her eyes and running his fingers through her hair. She looked back up at him like she was feeling the same adoration he was. He kissed her forehead, her nose, her lips, her chin. He kissed down her neck and across her collar bone, sliding the shoulder of her shirt down to kiss her chest and shoulders. He lifted her shirt over her head. When he returned to kissing her, making his way slowly down, he noticed how much fuller her breasts were. But she’d also said they were sore. He gently caressed them, kissing around them and flicking his tongue over her nipples. “Does it hurt?” he asked. She shook her head and closed her eyes with a deep sigh. He looked up at her and saw a tear trickle

down her cheek. “What’s wrong?” She smiled and looked at him. “Nothing. Everything is just right.” He continued his path, kissing down her stomach until he reached her pants. He pushed them down and pulled them from her long legs, then pushed her legs open. She let out a moan when his tongue reached her clit. He moved a finger slowly in and out of her, making her wetter than she already was. He slipped a second finger into her ass and she responded by rocking her hips at him and moaning louder. He couldn’t take it anymore. Her moaning, her shifting hips, the way she looked at him. His dick was going to explore if he didn’t get it inside her soon. But then he thought about the baby in there, so close to where he would be. He leaned down over her so he could kiss her again. After a long moment, she pulled back. “What are you doing?” she asked. “What do you mean?” “Why aren’t you inside me?” He’d rubbed his dick between her lower lips, sliding in her wetness. It wasn’t the same, but it was safer that way, he thought. “I just want to be careful,” he said. “The baby.” “You do know that sex can’t hurt the baby.” “I figured, but still.” She sighed and reached down to grab his cock, then pushed it inside her. They moaned together. She felt so good. But he was still hesitant. He moved slowly in and out of her, going gently like he never had before. It was like torture. He just wanted to pound her. It still felt amazing and he thought maybe there was something to the whole slow and gentle love making thing versus hard fucking. But Pia didn’t seem to agree. She sighed in frustration and said, “Get off me.” “What’s wrong?” He pulled out of her and moved over to lay beside her. She pushed his shoulder so that he was flat on his back. Then she climbed on top of him and slid him inside her again. She grinned down at him, and started bouncing in place on his dick, moving him much deeper and harder than he had.

“Is this a good idea?” he asked. It was still so early in the pregnancy and she looked so weak. She put her hand over his mouth. “Best idea yet.” She got on all fours over him and moved her body as fast as she could up and down on his cock. The speed and force of it felt so good. He tried to breathe through it, but in the end, he gave in. He grabbed her hips and took over, slamming her down on him as hard as he could. She let out a loud moan and sat up so she could rock forward and backward as he pounded her harder. “Yes! Yes!” “Shh,” he said. “Your father is in this house.” She bit her lip, but didn’t stop moaning. Finally, she dug her fingernails into his chest and moaned into his ear. He felt the rush of her juices and thrust her a few more times so he could finish, too. She lay down on his chest, his dick still inside her. “Ryder?” “Yes?” “Don’t ever try to be gentle again.” He laughed. “I won’t.” “Good.” She rolled over beside him and breathed hard. “That was so good. I didn’t realize how much I missed you.” “Me or my cock?” “Both.” He trailed his fingers over her breasts, appreciating their new size and roundness. “They don’t stay like this, do they?” “I wish. From what I’ve read, they’ll get all saggy after the baby is born.” “Bummer. Guess I’ll just have to enjoy them now.” He leaned over to put his mouth around her nipple, sucking in as much of her breast as he could. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she said.

“Me too.”

Chapter 10 It felt so good to have him here, to be this close to him again. And oh, the sex. She’d missed every part of him desperately. He made her feel good in every way. And the fact that he seemed to actually be excited about the baby warmed her heart. But it also gave her a new dilemma. When she’d thought of the different ways telling him might go, she didn’t think that he would be genuinely happy. That he would look at her like that. Like she was some kind of goddess to be worshiped. And then when they’d started to have sex and he was so gentle and concerned? Could he be any sweeter? Of course, she’d had to put an end to that. She needed him to go hard. That was what felt the best, but still. She didn’t think he could be so kind and caring. And now she realized the problem. Everything was going perfectly. He was happy, she was happy, and she was now sure. She was falling in love with him. It’d never happened before. And that was how she knew. She’d never felt this way before about anyone. She kind of regretted telling him at all about the baby. If she’d lied to her father, or gone with her other plan to go away for a year, she would never have known he could be like this. She could have gone away and had his baby and given it to a nice family and come home and the whole time, she could have convinced herself that not only would he not have been happy, he wouldn’t have wanted the baby, wouldn’t have wanted her like that, and wouldn’t have made a good father. But now, she knew. He would be a good father and a good husband. He was capable of being a caring guy. That tough act wasn’t an all the time thing. He was tough when he needed to be, when he was protecting her, but when he was alone with her, the tough guy was gone. That was, of course, until they got naked, but that tough guy was her favorite. The one who took her and pounded her so hard and made her come like she’d never come before. She loved that guy too. But now that he knew and wanted the whole package as much as she did, they’d have to fight. Her father would never be in favor of this. They’d have to fight to get away, and to stay alive. They’d have to fight to keep their baby safe. They’d have to fight to stay together. And she didn’t doubt for a minute that he’d do whatever it took to make that happen. She couldn’t deny that the simple act of telling him meant someone would die. Either they’d kill him, which she refused to think of, or whoever came after them would die. They might even have to kill her father if he wouldn’t let them go. How could she be okay with that? Be okay with Ryder killing her father who’d given her so much and been the only parent she knew? She had no memories of the mother who died when she was just one. It was always her and her father. Maybe, though. Maybe if they ran soon enough, it would be okay. If they snuck away before she was

showing, before anyone could know about the baby, maybe he would think they just wanted to be together. Which was true, but better than them wanting to be together with their baby. Maybe he would think she’d been kidnapped again. Maybe they could even fake that and make it look like that. Or fake her death. If they didn’t disappear at the same time, that might also eliminate suspicion. Ryder could get her out, then stick around for a while. Make it seem like he was looking for her while leading them off the trail. Then he could vanish, too. Yes, that sounded like a perfect plan. That had to be the best option. “There’s something we need to discuss,” she said. “What’s that?” He pulled her closer and rubbed his nose against her cheek. “We have to run. If my father finds out that we’re together and that you got me pregnant, he will kill you. And he’ll never let me keep the baby.” “I know.” “You do?” He raised an eyebrow at her. “Pia, I’ve worked for your father for years killing men for doing far less than I’ve done. You think I don’t know what sort of man he is?” “Okay, so what’s the plan? I thought if we run soon, before anyone knows, that would be best. We could even go at different times to throw them off.” Ryder shook his head. “If we run, he’ll track us down for sure.” “But maybe we could fake my death or something?” “Maybe.” “We have to figure this out. I’m really scared.” He squeezed his arms tighter around her. “You have nothing to be afraid of. I won’t let anything happen to you or the baby. We’ll be together. There’s nothing that can separate us now. We’re tied to each other for life.” “Promise?” “Of course. You’re the mother of my child.” He smiled and shook his head. “I never thought I’d say that to anyone. And of all the people on the planet, I certainly never thought I’d be saying it to you.” “But you are happy about this? I mean, you seem happy, but—”

“Yes.” He kissed her and looked at her with an intense gaze. “It’s unexpected, but so amazing. I’m more excited than I thought I could ever be. A little son or a daughter that looks like me and you? It’s going to be amazing.” “My father won’t agree, though.” “I know. We’ll figure it out. We have time. How long will it be until you’re showing?” “I’m not sure. Another month maybe?” “Then that’s plenty of time to get a plan in place and figure out what to do.” “What are you thinking?” He ran his fingers along her arm. “I’m thinking your skin is so soft and smooth.” “I mean about getting away. What have you thought of so far?” “Maybe you just move away. Tell your father you want to open another store somewhere far away. Like across the country or something. Then after a while, you just disappear. Your phone numbers are changed and no one has seen you.” “You think that would work?” she asked. “I’m still thinking through the details.” “It takes a while to get a store up and running, though. What about you?” “You wouldn’t need to actually open a store. It’s easy for me to vanish. I go out to do a job, say I’m hit, then they never find me or hear from me again. They assume I’m dead and that whoever killed me disposed of the body.” “Okay. That could work.” “Give me a day or two to work out the details, okay?” he said. “Okay. Just hurry. I’m afraid he’ll find out somehow.” “When did you find out?” “Earlier today. Though I suspected for about a week before that.” “And you texted me right away after you found out?” he asked. “Well, it might have been after an hour or so of me freaking out first.”

He smoothed back a piece of her hair. “I didn’t ask. I mean, I assumed since you said you were keeping it, but are you happy about this?” Her mouth spread into a wide grin and she nodded. “I am. And even happier knowing that you’re happy about it. We have lots to worry about, but it’s worth it.” “Definitely.”


Ryder held Pia close and tried not to let her see his face. He was worried that she might see just how worried he really was. Not for himself. He didn’t care much about what might happen to him. But he could not let anything to happen to Pia or the baby. And if it took his life to protect them, then that was what he would give. His mind was racing. How would he get her away from Matteo and do it in a way that didn’t lead him to come after them? He needed to find an answer fast. Maybe the ideas they already had would work, but he didn’t feel one hundred percent confident in any of them. He’d never tell Pia, but the only way they’d be safe for sure was if her father was dead. Matteo had too many connections, was owed too many favors by too many people. He would always track them down and come after them. There were only so many places to hide. Would she hate him if he killed her father? And how would he do it so that he didn’t end up with more people coming after him? There was so much to this. How he wished this was the type of situation where they could get their parents together for a nice dinner, tell them the news, and have everyone be thrilled. But of course that was Hollywood junk. When did life ever go like that? But his life was always a chaotic mess, wasn’t it? Having a baby was about the most normal thing he’d ever done. How would he do this? If they left, it would mean leaving his source of income. Not that it would be hard to get paid for hits somewhere else, but what kind of job was that for a father? He’d need a more stable, safer job. Something legal. But how in the world would he do that? Go straight? That was something only pansies did, and when you worked for the mob, you didn’t just quit. The only way out was death. Maybe they would have to hide forever. Hide from the mafia. Yeah. That would work. His stomach tightened. Was there any way he could pull this off? Any way they could live and be together and raise a family and be safe? There had to be, and he would find it.

He looked down and it seemed that Pia was already asleep. He couldn’t stay in here, much as he wanted to. They would be able to spend every night together one day, he told himself. He gently eased his arm out from under her, but she stirred. He leaned down to kiss her. “I’ll see you later.” “You’re leaving?” She sat up, now wide awake. “Too risky to sleep in here.” Her face fell. “Right. You’re right, I just…was hoping you could.” He put his palm to her cheek, then kissed her again. “Soon. Someday soon we’ll have every night together.” She pressed her lips together and nodded. Was she trying not to cry? He looked away and pulled on his clothes before she could convince him to do something stupid. “I’ll talk to you soon,” he said. She watched from her bed as he went to the door. He turned it slowly and peeked into the hall before giving her one final glance and shutting the door behind him. When he was back in the guest room, he relaxed some. No one had seen him. He lay down in the bed, but doubted he would sleep tonight. Too many things to consider and work through. He got up after a while and paced the room, looking outside to the dark sky to help draw his attention away from his problems. Really, when it came down to it, he could just keep killing people. If he killed all the guys who cared if Matteo died, then there would be no one left to chase after them. It was a family issue, after all. Matteo had only one brother. It was a small family for the mob. Not too many people around to avenge his death. He’d likely have to kill Matteo and his brother. Maybe one or two of the top guys. Not too bad. Five, maybe seven guys. That was only a month or two of work. Of course mafia guys like Matteo were harder to kill. Ryder had taught him too much about being careful. That also meant he knew all his tricks. He knew his weaknesses. And right now, he still had direct access to his home. He could sneak in while he was sleeping and put a bullet in his head, poison his food, cut his brake lines. So many ways to take someone out. And when you slept in the same house as them, it was just that much easier. This thought gave him a small measure of comfort. He’d simply kill anyone who got in their way. Easy as that. This didn’t have to be tricky. They wouldn’t have to hide. Now it was just a matter of when to do it.

He lay back down and forced himself to sleep.


When he woke in the morning, he went downstairs to the kitchen, helped himself to some coffee, and then sat at the kitchen table, hoping for Pia to show up. She must have been worn out though, because she didn’t show up after an hour or so, and he wanted to be out of there by the time Matteo got up. He finished his coffee and headed home. When he walked in his house, everything started to look different. He stood in the kitchen, eating an apple, and looked into the living room. He could imagine a play pen there, a scattering of toys. On the kitchen counter, a rack of bottles drying. In the extra bedroom, a crib, a changing table, more baby toys. He knew Pia and the baby would never actually live in this house, but surely whatever house they ended up living in would have all of those things. Baby gear everywhere. A friend of his had had a baby a few years back. Ryder went to help him load the gifts in his truck after the baby shower. At first he’d thought his friend was joking asking for his help, but when they got there and started loading up the gifts, he knew it was no joke. The crib, the rocker, the changing table, the playpen, the diaper pail, the clothes and toys and blankets. It was absurd how much a tiny human required. But he wanted all of that stuff all over his house. He laughed. “Ryder, you have gone absolutely soft over this chick.” Except it was only his outlook and attitude that had softened. His dick had been rock hard since the night before. He was already thinking about the next time he would see her. He changed into fresh clothes and his phone rang before he could sit down with his bowl of cereal. “Ryder,” he answered. “I need you to come and give the full report to everyone,” Matteo said. The full report? Hadn’t he given him that the night before? “When?” “As soon as possible.” “Give me thirty.”

“See you then.” He quickly ate his cereal, wondering what the hell this was about. Since when did Matteo make him give a full, detailed report to everyone? Any other time, his word that it was done was good enough. Other guys had to report in like that, but not him. Something was up. He drove over there, heart pounding with anxiety over whatever Matteo was up to and the possibility that he might see Pia. He knocked on the door, was greeted by the housekeeper, and led to the conference room. Matteo sat at the head of the table, two of his bosses on either side, plus a few lackeys. Ryder faced the room, glad he’d brought more than one gun. “What’s this about?” Ryder asked. “I gave you the details last night.” “This situation is a bit more complicated than we anticipated,” Matteo said. “How’s that?” “Have a seat.” He gestured to the empty chair at the end of the table, opposite him. “Why don’t you give us the rundown of the last eight weeks.” The last eight weeks? Why in the world would he need that? Ryder narrowed his eyes slightly and glanced around the room. They all seemed at ease. He knew what signs to look for. Fidgeting, sweating, general discomfort. Even mob guys had their tells. But they all seemed completely cool and collected. Ryder took in a breath and relaxed some. “When I started tracking Pia’s attackers, we had some false info. The guy who was caught gave up some intel, but then he got away and had time to move before we could go after them.” “Before that,” Matteo said. “Before?” “What were you doing before you started tracking them?” “You assigned me to guard Pia personally.” “And you did that?” Matteo pressed his pointer fingers together and they all watched him. “Yes.” “Did anything happen while you were guarding her?” “Her attacker did not show up and neither did anyone else. She was perfectly safe the entire time.”

Ryder tried like hell to stay cool. Something in the way Matteo asked about Pia had him on alert. “Did anything else happen to her while you were with her?” He laughed to ease the tension. “Sure. She broke a nail opening her car door, I think there was one bad hair day, she got ink on her pants at the shop, and the worst was when she ordered a skinny latte and they put whipped cream on top by accident.” A few of the guys chuckled, but Matteo glared. “You seem to know her pretty well.” “You get to know someone pretty good after following them around for eight weeks. I also know that red heels are all the rage this season.” Ryder sat back in his chair and picked his nails. “And during the time that you were tracking down her attackers, did you see her?” “Only in passing. Once, she was walking out to her car when I pulled up here. Once I drove by the shop when I was in the area. Did that a few times, actually, just to make sure no one showed back up without us hearing about it first.” Best to give him something to go on, he thought. Clearly, he had some piece of info he was trying to trick Ryder into saying. As much truth as possible, lie only where necessary. Worked most of the time. “And last night you killed her attacker?” “Yes. The man who tried to kidnap her and one other man working with him. Both are dead.” “And how many times did you talk to Pia between the time you were sent after her attackers and last night?” “Not once.” Technically, that wasn’t even a lie. So long as “between” didn’t include last night. Matteo stared at him for a long time. “Any other questions?” He looked around the room. So, all the info he needed originally, he now no longer needed? This was bizarre. He had to know something was up with him and Pia. Why else bring him here and ask him those types of questions. He didn’t even have him give a full report, which was why he was supposedly there in the first place. “You may go,” Matteo said. “Johnny will walk you out.” That, too, was highly odd. Ryder kept his eyes on Johnny the whole time. But surely, if they were going to kill him, they wouldn’t do it right at the house. No, he’d tried to get him in the car and take him somewhere. Ryder walked far enough away from Johnny that he’d be able to see when he made his move. But

Johnny stopped at the front door and let him walk through it. “Good work,” Johnny called after him. Ryder turned and gave him a nod of his head. Johnny smirked back at him. He got into his car, still waiting for something to go down. A bomb in his car? No, again, not at the house. He kept his eyes peeled as he drove home, slowly. He made several turns that were not part of his usual route. He circled back around a few times, but there was definitely no one following him. Were they waiting at his house, then? They planned to ambush him? Ryder went to his house and parked across the street. He sat and watched for a full half hour, but nothing happened. No one was there unless they were very, very good at hiding. He went inside without incident. Then he started to think he was going crazy. Had he imagined the whole thing? Was it just his guilt making him think the situation was strange? Either way, his paranoia was on overdrive. He checked all the windows, the lock and the deadbolt, and the back door. He slid a chair in front of it, tipped it under the knob so he’d hear it fall if someone came in. He rigged the front door, too, with a string of jingle bells he’d stuffed in a drawer at Christmas time. No one would come through a door without him knowing. Most of the windows were painted shut in this old house and the ones that weren’t stuck so bad, you’d have to make a racket opening it. He wasn’t worried about someone coming in through a window. But he was worried about Pia. He had to tell her to be more careful. She should be at the shop today. It would be safer than texting her phone or calling. Matteo paid her bill, so he had to have access to her phone records. He wouldn’t dare go to the shop, out in public, where someone could see him. He’d need to get her a prepaid phone. He waited until around lunchtime, when it was usually busy in the shop and she often answered the phone. The first time he called, it was one of her sales people who answered. He asked what time they closed. The next time, it was a different sales person. He was starting to think she hadn’t gone in today. But the third time, she answered. He sighed in relief. “Don’t say my name.” “Okay,” she said slowly. “We have to be extra careful. I think your father may be onto something.” “What do you mean?” “Well,” he said, “he’s been acting strange and asking a lot of questions. He may know something.”

“How could that happen?” “I don’t know. But don’t call or text me from your phone. Can you buy a prepaid phone today? With cash?” “Sure.” She sounded worried. “Hopefully it’s nothing. I’d rather be safe than sorry until we can figure out what we’re going to do.” “Right, no, I understand.” “Are you feeling okay?” he asked. “Yeah. Tired, but that’s usual these days.” “Right. Get the phone today and call me on your way home, okay?” “I will.”

Chapter 11 Pia did what Ryder said. She stopped at a convenience store, going out of her way to the next town over just to be safe. In her car, she opened the package and looked up his number on her real phone. “Hey, it’s me,” she said. “Oh, good. Hi, Pia.” “When can I see you again?” He sighed. “I don’t know. We shouldn’t see each other right now to be safe.” “Are you kidding me? I won’t get to see you at all?” “Just for right now. I need to make sure you’re safe.” “But if I’m with you, I will be safe.” She tried not to let her voice get hysterical, but after their night together and all that had happened, the last thing she wanted to do was spend more time away from him. She already missed him so desperately. “Believe me, I want to see you, too, but—” “We can go somewhere far. Get a hotel or something?” “We’ll see. I’m hoping it won’t take that long until we can get on the run.” “Is that what we’re doing?” She hadn’t been sure what the final plan was going to be. “I don’t know for sure yet. But whatever is going to happen needs to happen quickly. I don’t want you in a stressful situation, and I want to be there for you.” “And I want you here.” “Soon. I promise.” “Okay.” She let out a breath, her heart heavy. “I’ll talk to you soon. But keep the phone on silent, okay? We don’t want to give away the fact that you have this phone.” “I will.”


By the next day, she didn’t think she could make it. She felt so tried and had been crying all morning. She knew it was the emotions of the pregnancy and the stress of the situation, but still. All she wanted was him. She decided to call out sick from work, but left the house at the same time that she usually did so her father wouldn’t think anything was up. She drove away, then picked up the prepaid phone and called him. “Hey.” “So, I called out sick today.” “Why? Are you okay?” “Kind of.” “What’s wrong?” He sounded so concerned. She liked that. “I feel like I’m going to die if I don’t see you soon.” He sighed. “Is that all?” “Isn’t that enough? I called out sick, but I left the house at my usual time. When can we meet? I have all day.” “Really?” “Yes. I need to see you.” “Okay.” He gave her the address of a hotel about an hour away. “I’ll see you soon.” She hung up and a grin stretched across her face. She turned up the music and sang along, feeling happier than she had since the last time she saw him. When she pulled into the parking lot, she texted him. I’m here. Room 205.

She hurried to the room and knocked softly on the door. He pulled it open and took her into his arms. They kissed desperately, like they hadn’t seen each other in years. He pressed her against the wall, just beside the door. She hopped up to wrap her legs around his waist. His hands were all over her. He didn’t bother being careful today. He was slightly too rough in groping her breasts, but she didn’t say anything. She didn’t want him to go back to being too gentle. He reached to her back and yanked down her pants, still holding her up in the air, against the wall. She kicked her shoes off, then her pants hit the floor. “I want to devour you,” Ryder said, growling in her ear. “Yes. Do it, then.” She tugged at his earlobe with her teeth and ran her nails along his back. He hoisted her higher so that he could unzip his jeans and shove them to the ground. In seconds, he pushed inside her. She wasn’t quite wet yet and the feeling of him shoving in deeper stung, but she liked it. Just like she got pleasure off him pounding her hard and fast, she liked the tinge of pain. “Yes!” she cried out, for the first time not having to be quiet. He pounded her against the wall, gripping her hips and moving her up and down on his cock. She cried out again as she came. He moaned and thrust several more times, coming himself. They panted for a moment, until he set her down on the ground. “Damn, woman,” he said. “You do crazy things to me.” She went over to the bed and flopped down, half naked, still throbbing with the after effects of their sex. He crawled in beside her and held her close to him. “What is it about your cock that’s so amazing?” she asked, curling against his chest. “It’s not the tool, it’s how you use it,” he said. “Well, you use it good.” He kissed the top of her head. “You don’t do too bad yourself.” They lay there for a long while in each other’s arms. She dozed off, safe and warm. She awoke with a

start a short time later. Someone was banging on the door. She sat up and Ryder looked at her, then held a finger to his lips. He was up and dressed in seconds. He bent down to get his gun and the door slammed open. Pia let out a shriek and snatched the covers up to cover herself. She’d never bothered to get dressed after they had sex. Five men burst into the room, shouting at them and pointing guns. “Get down on the ground,” one screamed at Ryder. Ryder kicked him and hit the guy in the knee. He buckled, but didn’t fall. Before he could turn, though, another guy had punched Ryder in the jaw. Ryder stumbled back, and was kicked by the third guy. He landed on the ground and scrambled to his feet, trying to get closer to her. As Pia watched in horror, the last man came to her and barked, “Get dressed unless you want the whole world to see your skanky twat.” Her face reddened as his crude language, but she didn’t want to go anywhere half naked, and she didn’t want anyone in the room to see, either. She hurried to yank her pants on. She stood to zip them—they were snug already—and looked back over her shoulder to see Ryder on the ground, being kicked and beaten. “No!” she screamed. She dove forward, intending to jump in the middle of the fight. She hadn’t even stopped to think about it. She only knew she couldn’t lose him. But when the man’s arm came around her hard, knocking the wind out of her, she remembered that she should have been protecting her stomach. Tears sprang to her eyes. Both from the pain and not being able to breathe, but also from worrying that he may have just hurt the baby. Her father knew. Somehow he’d found out. She hadn’t been careful enough or something. He knew. And now that he knew, all three of them were in danger. Maybe he still didn’t know about the baby. That would have to make things easier. Would have to make it a little better. For all he knew, maybe they’d only slept together. That was bad enough, clearly, but not nearly as bad as her being pregnant and making plans to run away with him. Would that happen now? Would they get to go off alone and be together and have a family like they wanted to? Or would he be dead before the night was over? Would she be dead? Maybe there would be some poetry in that. They would all be dead together on the same day. At least

they’d be together, right? Or maybe Ryder’s crimes wouldn’t let him go to heaven. Well, fine. Wherever he was, she would go, too. She would be with him somehow, no matter what it took. The man grabbed her arm and shoved her toward the door. “Ryder!” she shouted as he yanked her forward. He looked up and raised his hand toward her, but then was punched again and fell back to the ground. She screamed one last time before the man covered her mouth and picked her up, carrying her while she kicked and flailed. Outside, another man waited in a car. He opened the door when he saw them approach. Pia was thrown into the backseat, the door slammed shut behind her. Both men jumped into the car and they sped off. She sat up to look out the back window, but didn’t see any sign of him. “Who are you?” she yelled at them through tears. She could barely breathe she was crying so hard. “All you need to know is we work for your father and he’s not too happy that you’ve been out whoring around.” She spat on him. “Shut up! You don’t know anything.” He held up a Taser and turned toward her. “I will use this if you don’t sit your little ass down and shut the hell up.” She didn’t care so much about herself, but she worried what it might do to the baby. She sat down, looked behind her again, but stayed quiet. What were they going to do with Ryder? Kill him? Take him somewhere? How badly would they beat him? And what would her father do now? If he sent five men after them, he had to be extremely pissed. How in the world had he even found out? What tipped him off? She thought she’d been careful. But apparently not careful enough. She felt wretched in more ways than one. She didn’t know how, but it had to have been her who’d given them away. Ryder was much too careful to mess up like that. Just minutes ago, she’d felt so safe and happy. Now the worst had happened. And it wasn’t over yet. They arrived back at her house some time later. It felt like it took hours, but that was likely just because she was so upset and her mind was racing. They pulled into the garage and she tried to open her door. “Nice try.” The man opened her door from the outside and each of them had a hand on her. “Let go of me. This is my house!”

“We have orders.” “What orders? Let me go!” They dragged her through the house and to the stairs. They took her up to her room. For a moment, she thought they were just going to toss her in and leave. But they entered the room. One of them took out handcuffs and tightened one circle around her wrist, then the other one around the wooden leg of her headboard. She sat on the bed, somewhat awkwardly, twisting to face the door. “Just get some rest, now,” the man said. “Your father will be in to see you soon enough. I’m sure he has plenty to say.” They left the room, turning off the light behind them and shutting the door. Pia blinked in the dim light. Some light came in through the window, but the curtain was still closed, blocking the afternoon sun. She heard voices outside. The same men talking. They must be outside her door, keeping watch. Guarding her to make sure she didn’t get out of the room. And with handcuffs and no phone, it wasn’t like she could do much else. She lay back on the bed, curling into a ball with her other hand on her belly. “You’ll be okay, little one,” she whispered. “I’ll make sure of it. Nothing will ever hurt you.”

Chapter 12 Ryder opened his eyes and blinked. He rubbed them and squinted, but there was so little light in the room. He could barely make out anything, and his head throbbed with pain. He pushed himself up from the cement floor where he’d been sleeping and realized that his entire body ached, too. Pain shot from his chest, his stomach, his hips. His face felt swollen and just blinking too hard hurt. They’d beat him good. Assholes. Barge in on a man lying there naked with no protection and give him no chance to defend himself. Nice. Cowards. As soon as he had that thought, his next thought was Pia. Where was she? Had they hurt her in any way? And if they had, someone would pay. He’d make sure of it. That baby better be just fine, too. He’d already decided to kill these people. Now he had a reason. “Morning, sleeping beauty.” Ryder craned his neck slowly up and recognized Lorenzo. “You stupid idiot,” Lorenzo said, laughing. “How could you think getting involved with the boss’s daughter was a good idea?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Come on. We found you in the hotel room with her, naked. You’re really going to try to deny that you fucked her?” Ryder didn’t say anything. They had him cornered. He couldn’t lie his way out of this. They had caught him almost literally in the act. Lorenzo shook his head. “Man. I’ve never seen Matteo so pissed.” “That so?” Ryder tried to blow the whole thing off like it was no big deal. Didn’t want to show the fear building in his gut. “We had to talk him out of killing you. You’re lucky that so many of his guys look up to you. Don’t know why, but they seem to like you.” He’d done a lot for all of those guys, that was why. But Lorenzo didn’t need to know that. They were all like a team. Despite what Lorenzo said, he didn’t really believe Matteo wouldn’t kill him. He would always be looking for that, expecting that. “What’s the plan, then?” Ryder asked. Better to get it over with, right?

“The plan is you’re going to end things with Pia, then you’re going to stay very far away from her.” Ryder huffed, but his stomach dropped. That was not an option for him. But it did sound like maybe they didn’t know about the baby. That was a good thing. “Matteo has agreed to let you go and not kill you. But you’ll be out of work, I guess. Better than dead, right? Honestly, you should count yourself lucky. No one ever gets out of the mafia alive. But, you got to bang the boss’s daughter, then get away with it, and get out of the mob without being killed. Pretty lucky, indeed.” Lorenzo crossed his arms and looked down at Ryder. “Yup.” Lorenzo’s phone buzzed and he looked down at it. “Oh good,” he said to himself. Then, he turned to face Ryder head on. He reached down and yanked him hard to his feet. Ryder used the momentum to push up. Lorenzo was strong, but not strong enough to lift him if he didn’t help. “So, what’s it going to be?” Lorenzo asked. “If I take you in there to see her, are you going to end things and stay far away from her? You’d have to leave town, stay far away from all of us. Or else Matteo might cross your path and change his mind.” “Why in the world would I agree to that?” “If your life isn’t that important to you, you should know that Pia is promised to another man. The name Paolo Solano mean anything to you?” It did. Big time. Solano was a huge name in the mob world. Known for being a complete asshole, too. And Matteo was going to give his daughter to that beast? The man known for slapping women around, for sleeping around, for killing ruthlessly, and for being all around rude. The rage tore into his chest. Good thing Matteo hadn’t come to do this himself. Ryder might have ripped his limbs from his body. Maybe that was exactly why he wasn’t here. He knew Ryder could overpower him, could kill him easily if he tried. Even without his guns and knives. But Ryder didn’t react to Lorenzo’s words. “You know, the big mob boss?” Lorenzo asked. “So, let me paint this picture for you. If Solano finds out you’ve been banging his future wife, he’s not going to be too happy. Matteo might let you live, but no one’s going to convince Solano to do the same. Not only that, he might take out his anger on Pia. I don’t think she can handle much physical abuse, if you know what I mean.” Lorenzo patted him on the shoulder. “It’s really for her safety that you’re doing this. I’d hate to think little Pia would face the

wrath of Solano all because of you.” Ryder’s head was starting to spin. It wasn’t all from what Lorenzo was saying, though that was hard enough. His injuries were severe and standing too long hurt. He needed to sit down. Maybe put his head between his knees to stop his ears from ringing. “I might add, too.” Lorenzo leaned in to whisper. “If Matteo knows that you messed up this thing with Solano, he’s not going to be too happy with either of you. And he didn’t want me to tell you this, but he told me he’d take Pia out because he couldn’t have the shame of having a slutty daughter who was rejected by such a big mob name.” How could a father honestly do that to his own daughter? Something was seriously wrong with this man. Ryder didn’t even have a baby, just the promise of one, and he already felt so protective of this child that he was willing to risk his life. Yet, here was Matteo, ready to off his own daughter out of shame. What a monster. If he’d been wavering before, he was sure now. He would kill Matteo. No matter what happened with Pia, he would take him out for her sake. Her life would be better without such a horrible father who didn’t love her like he should. Ryder thought he was actually going to puke. He was going to have to make it look like he was ending things with Pia. Which meant it would have to be believable. If it wasn’t, Lorenzo would know. But this would keep her safe, he reminded himself. No matter how badly it hurt to say the words he was about to say, he had to do it and do it well. It would only be temporary. He didn’t know how temporary, but he would kill who he had to kill and come get her and they would be safe and be together. He just hoped that she would realize what he was doing. That she would know in her core that he wouldn’t leave her like this. That he would never end things. That he wouldn’t abandon her and their child. Never. But if she didn’t believe him, would Lorenzo? It was starting to make his brain hurt, and his stomach was so tight he wasn’t sure he could walk. He didn’t want to have to look in her eyes and say what needed to be said. But he also saw no way around it. It would be okay, he told himself. Even if she believed him, whatever pain it would cause her would only be for a short time. Then it would all be over. She’d be relieved to have him back and know he never meant it. And then they’d be happy. Lorenzo took out his gun and pointed it at Ryder’s head. “We’re going in there and there are two ways this is going to go down. Either you’re going to break up with her and everyone lives, or you decide to do something even stupider than what you’ve already done, and you end up dead. Got it?” Ryder nodded once. “Okay.” He nudged Ryder’s shoulder with his gun. “Walk.”

Chapter 13 Pia sat up when her room door opened, startled from the sudden movement and sound. She squinted in the new light when Lorenzo flipped the light switch on. Then she saw Ryder come into the room. He looked awful. Dried blood in multiple places on his face, swollen and bruised. They’d beat him good. Her immediate shock at seeing him enter the room was replaced with anger at her father and his men for doing this to him. But why was he here now? What could this possibly mean? Were they bringing him to beat him more, in front of her? What if they were bringing him here to kill him in front of her? No. Her father wouldn’t stoop that low, would he? Lorenzo closed the door and left him in there. Alone with her. Something about this wasn’t right. “Ryder?” she asked, her voice small. She tugged at the handcuffs still binding her wrists to the bed. He didn’t look at her and wouldn’t come near her. “What’s going on?” she asked. “Why did they bring you here and leave you here like this?” He finally looked at her. “They brought me in here because I asked them to.” “That doesn’t make any sense. They’re letting us be together?” He shook his head and looked away from her. “No. They’re not. I asked them to bring me here to talk to you so I could tell you that we have to end this.” “End this?” Her voice shot up several octaves and she suddenly felt hysterical. After all that happened, after all they’d been through together, was he seriously saying this? “I’m sorry. But it’s over between us.” “No, no.” She shook her head, tears flowing down her cheeks. “Why are you saying this? Did they make you say this?” “No.” But he still wouldn’t look at her. That had to mean something, right? Of course they were making him do this. Just hours ago, he’d held her tight and said they’d never be apart. They were making plans to be together forever, to raise their baby and have a family. He wouldn’t just turn his back on her and abandon her and their child. He wouldn’t, and she couldn’t believe it of him.

“I don’t believe you,” she said quietly. “If they told you to say that, fine. I know how you really feel. That’s all I need to know.” “No, you don’t.” His voice was suddenly harsh and his glare harsher. “I know all the pretty things I said to you to get in your pants. Don’t you think I’m a master at this game? I know how to charm. And I can do it whether I have real feelings or not. I’m sorry, Pia, I just don’t have real feelings for you. I never did.” “Stop it.” Her tears were breaking into sobs. “They made you break up with me, fine. You don’t have to convince them you hate me, too. You’re just being cruel.” “Apparently that’s what it takes to get through to you. I know it’s easier to go on believing that they’re making me say all of this. Who in the world would ever break up with Pia Carelli, right? How dare anyone mistreat daddy’s little princess? Well, I guess I proved you wrong. You can go back to all your little rich friends now and tell them how the bad boy broke your heart. How you were a victim, you were played. You can cry to them about how horrible I am. How horrible all men are.” Pia shook her head. “No,” she whispered. “It’s not about that. We were going to run away together. Did you just forget all that? Did you forget everything?” She looked down pointedly at her belly to indicate the baby. She wouldn’t say it or even hint at it. If her father didn’t know that, then he couldn’t know. And Ryder seemed to have the same assumption. He looked at her belly for a long moment, then met her eyes. “It’s not a matter of forgetting. It’s a matter of not caring. You have your problems to deal with”—he looked again at her stomach—“and I have mine.” “My problems?” Her lower lip quivered in disbelief. Was he really saying their baby was now her problem? That he didn’t care about it at all? If they didn’t know about the baby, they couldn’t be telling him to say that, though. So, did that mean he meant it? What if he meant all of it? “Look, Pia, I am not going to screw myself over and ruin my life for some spoiled rich girl brat. I’m just not. What we had was fun, but that’s it. I told you I wanted to run away with you, but really, I just wanted the chance to fuck you again. And when we didn’t have to be so careful. I wanted to take you away, have my fill of you and then, when I was through, I would have left you.” She didn’t say anything. She stared at him. At his cold eyes, his heartless stare. She had to close her eyes. The pain was too much. “Don’t do this.” “It was fun while it lasted,” he said. “But now it’s done.” “Come closer,” she whispered. He didn’t budge.

“If it’s really over,” she said, her voice so low no one would be able to hear. “Then kiss me goodbye.” He looked at her for a long while. She thought for a moment there was a glimmer of something there. Longing? Or could it just be lust? Everything he said in the last few minutes seemed at complete odds with everything he’d ever said to her when they were together. Sure, she believed the bad boy player persona. And no doubt he’d played plenty of women just like he was claiming to do now. But he was different with her. He was as different with her as she was with him. They were meant for each other. Were meant to be the one person in each other’s life who was the one to break through. To make the difference. To be the difference. To prove that life didn’t have to be how it was or how it was expected to be. This couldn’t be the end. She loved him. She hadn’t realized it until recently, and she’d never told him. Well, he’d never told her either, but she felt loved. She thought he was in love with her, or falling in love with her. And she was in love with him. The father of her child. She was already in love with her child, and when she thought of the innocent little baby, anger flared in her to think he or she would be abandoned by its father. She wouldn’t let that happen. Wouldn’t let her child grow up with just one parent. She would fight for him. When this was all over, she’d find him and she’d win him over. She’d get him back. She’d convince him that they should be together. That for the sake of their child, they had to be together. But for right now, she needed him to kiss her. She would know everything in his kiss. He wouldn’t be able to hide his true feelings from her. When he finally looked away, he turned from her and went to the door. “Ryder!” He didn’t glance back as he left the room. She collapsed onto the bed in sobs. No. She’d needed to kiss him to know for sure. How would she know now if he meant it or not? He might have some amazing plan to free her and get them out of there together. Or he might really be breaking up with her and she might really be on her own with this baby. How could she raise a baby on her own? And it would have to be completely on her own, without the help of her father or family, because her father would disown her. And the rest of her family would agree. You didn’t argue with the boss. She would have her friends. But none of them had babies. They wouldn’t understand what she was going through. If she had to do that, fine. She’d figure out a way. She still had her shop. Her father couldn’t take that

from her. It was all hers, and she made good money from it. If it came down to it and he really did cut her off, then she’d lose a lot. Her car, her phone, her credit cards. She would have to make some severe life changes, but what else could she do? At least she had a business that made money and she was her own boss. Lots of single moms didn’t have that. And, hard as it would be, there were lots of women out there who were single moms. They did it. She’d figure out a way, too. She didn’t doubt she could do it. The problem was she didn’t want to. Every time she thought of not having Ryder by her side to be there, raising this baby, a pain went through her chest. She wanted him. And not just for the baby, but for everything. She wanted him just to do life with. She refused to believe that she would be raising this baby alone. Her mind kept bringing back the way he’d held her, all the things he’d said. The look in his eyes when he found out he was going to be a father. She’d never forget that look, or how happy he’d been after it sunk in. He wanted this, too. No matter what he said now. She had no idea what had happened to him in the time since her father’s men broke into their hotel room and just a few minutes ago, but it couldn’t be good. They might have said anything to him, threatened him, threatened her. They might have beat him more. Sure, he’d say whatever he had to in order to convince them. But then, when she pictured the look in his eyes, her trust in him wavered. The look in his eyes had been so harsh. And the things he said? He didn’t have to go as far as he did. He’d been down right cruel. And she couldn’t deny that what he said about being a player was true. She knew that much about him. What if she was wrong about him? She’d asked him to kiss her goodbye and he hadn’t even been able to do that. She sat up suddenly, the tears coming to an abrupt halt. Wait a second. She’d asked him to kiss her goodbye and he hadn’t. He hadn’t said goodbye when he left the room either. That had to be a sign, right? He wouldn’t kiss her goodbye because it wasn’t goodbye. She lay back on her bed, her eyes still sore and puffy from all her crying. But now her heart felt more settled. Until she saw him again and all this was over, she was going to believe the best. That he had said what he’d said because they made him. That it wasn’t over. That he hadn’t kissed her goodbye because it wasn’t goodbye. It wasn’t over.

Chapter 14 Ryder closed Pia’s door behind him. He wanted to cry. That was a feeling he couldn’t recall ever having before. He wasn’t the crying type. He didn’t tear up at movies or books or sentimental crap. He was tough through and through. But seeing the look on her face when he said those things to her? It made his throat burn. He’d been so sure she wouldn’t believe him. And at first, sure enough, she didn’t. Good girl, he wanted to say. Except she kept saying that she didn’t. He almost growled in frustration. Didn’t she know they were listening? Watching? The cameras that had never been installed in her room before were there now. But she must not know that. So, he couldn’t give her any sort of sign or confirmation. They’d see whatever she saw. And that would obviously blow the whole thing. He wanted her to catch on. To realize what was happening. To play along. She could have blown him off like, “Yeah I never wanted you either.” She didn’t have to cry like that. She didn’t have to tear his insides out right in front of him. He felt awful for the things he’d said. He meant none of them, of course. God, how he wanted to go to her. To kiss her. When she’d asked him to kiss her, he almost did. He just wanted to feel her lips one more time. And maybe his kiss would tell her what he couldn’t. But then she’d said to kiss her goodbye. And he thought, okay, she finally caught on. And by not saying goodbye, that was a signal in itself. He hoped. He wanted to run right back in there and take it all back, though. Every mean thing. It had been so much the opposite of what he really felt for her. He should have told her before. Earlier in the day. The night they were together. Some time. Any time. He should have said the words he’d been dancing around. The words right there in his mind. The ones he’d never said to any woman before. Never felt about any woman before. I love you. Three little words that meant so much. If he had told her, she’d know. Love didn’t just vanish overnight. And if he said it, she would have known he meant it. And right now, she wouldn’t be in there crying and he wouldn’t want to do something very stupid to comfort her. She looked so delicate sitting there on the bed in her handcuffs. Handcuffs. Was that really necessary? They’d gone too far. What was she going to do? Run? With guards sitting outside her door? She’d get about two feet. She really didn’t need the cuffs. It was a control tactic, a mental game. Matteo wanted her afraid and vulnerable. And oh, was she ever. It went against everything he was as a man to walk away from the woman he loved, from his unborn baby. To walk away knowing they were in danger. That in saying it was over, those measly words were the only way to protect her now. It wasn’t enough. Words couldn’t be enough. He needed to be

there, to stop anyone from coming near her. A small part of him worried, though, that she did believe him. If she believed him and was hurt enough, maybe she wouldn’t be with him. Maybe he’d hurt her too badly and she would turn from him if he came to save her. Maybe she no longer wanted him. He pushed the thought from his mind. He couldn’t allow that to be true. Pia was his and he was hers and it was that simple. They would have a family and a happy life. One day. He stepped forward. Heard the door click shut. Lorenzo pushed off from the wall and handed the mobile monitor back to the guard. “Nice work,” Lorenzo said. “She’s in there bawling her eyes out over you. If Matteo had any doubt of her feelings before, he sure doesn’t now.” Lorenzo shoved him hard toward the stairs. He begged in his mind, Pia, stop crying. Don’t make it more obvious what we have or had. Don’t give them more than they need to know. But she didn’t know these games. Didn’t know how to play or when she was being played. She probably thought no one knew she was crying. Thought she was being quiet enough to hide it. But no. They were watching and listening to her every move. He hoped she’d figure it out soon. When they got to the bottom of the stairs, Johnny was waiting for them. Ryder’s feet hit the floor and Lorenzo and Johnny each took one of his arms. He still had trouble walking and moving, he hurt so badly. They made him walk faster than was comfortable and he gasped and wheezed in pain. They took him to the top of the cellar stairs. Johnny went first, then Lorenzo shoved Ryder forward and followed behind. When they got to the cellar floor, Johnny punched Ryder square in the face. He hadn’t been expecting it. Like an idiot, he’d thought the physical part was over. They already worked him over, so what was this? He’d cooperated and they had no reason to kill him. Unless it had been a cruel joke. No, no, no. He couldn’t die like this. Not with Pia thinking he didn’t care. Not with her not knowing that he loved her. He wouldn’t let it happen. He’d do everything possible to stay alive long enough to tell her. He would not leave this earth having her think so little of him, having those horrible things be the last words he spoke to her or anyone. He wouldn’t. Lorenzo grabbed his arms and held him while Johnny punched his stomach several times. Broken rib, to go with the three others from earlier. Just don’t let it puncture a lung. He’d heal from this eventually. He pulled his knees up as much as he could to tighten his abs to take the blows better. He didn’t dare fight back. That, too, was impossibly difficult. How do you stand there, letting someone beat you and not stop them? Everything in him screamed to fight or to run even. Whatever it took. But just to stand there and take it? This wasn’t him at all.

He dropped his head, trying to shield his nose some. He’d hate to have it broken again. That was always a bitch. He’d finally gotten it somewhat straight again after the last time. But Johnny didn’t care. He hit his face again and again. Had to be cutting up his knuckles something fierce. He’d fracture his hand if he kept it up. Johnny clocked him good right in the nose. He felt the gush of blood and the room spun. Black spotted his vision and he felt his body slump to the ground. Johnny leaned over and whispered in his ear. “You’re alive for now. But you won’t be if you go after her.” He kicked him a few more times before he passed out fully.


Ryder came to a few hours later. Whatever pain he was in before, it was multiplied now. He tried to push himself up to a seated position. His arm gave out and he collapsed back to the cold floor. He rested there, panting for a minute or two, then pushed up so he was sitting, fighting through the pain. He had to get out of there somehow. Who knew how long they planned to keep him there, or how many more times they planned to beat him. With this wedding coming, he had to act fast. They were probably going to keep him there until after Pia was married. That way he couldn’t interfere. Well, he’d do more than interfere. He was going to stop this wedding at all costs. There was only one person Pia would be marrying, and it wasn’t Solano. He looked around the cellar. This time, he took time to inspect it more closely. This must be a separate cellar. It wasn’t the main basement. Couldn’t be because it was much too small and dirty. He’d never been in the basement, but he knew that the clothes washing happened there and that it was used for extra food storage, among other things. Matteo would never let those things happen in a grungy basement like this. When he had taken a full view, he realized there were no doors. Okay, so clearly this was built specifically as a holding cell, or had been some kind of fruit cellar or other thing and had never been finished off like the rest of the basement had. That explained a lot. But if the only way out was up the stairs and into the house, that wouldn’t work. Surely they had someone either sitting there, or watching him on camera. No way would they put him down there and then just walk away. No matter how good the lock on the door might be. And there definitely was one. Ryder forced himself to stand. He had to use the dirty brick wall to lean against, and it took several minutes and deep breaths before he could stand up all the way, but he made it. He walked around the perimeter of the room, feeling the wall for any abnormality. Some place there might be a hidden door or a loose brick. Anything that could possibly help him. He shuffled against the wall, each step

sending new pain through his body. His ribs had to be the worst of it. Every time he breathed, it hurt. Every time he moved, it hurt. And this wasn’t some sort of dull ache. It was a burst of hot fire radiating through his body. His face throbbed and it was hard to see out of one eye because it was so swollen. He didn’t try to talk, but if he did, he guessed it wouldn’t come out sounding too clear. Making any sort of facial movement pulled at the bruises and swelling and ached. His abs hurt, his arms and legs were sore, and one hip. Likely where he’d landed once or twice. But besides all the physical pain, the emotional pain was there. This was something he wasn’t used to dealing with. He’d been in countless fights. Bruises and aches were nothing. Even broken ribs were something he’d faced before. But this longing for Pia, this stronger longing to protect her and the baby, was too much. He not only missed her, but worried about her. And worried, too, that he’d hurt her badly. Maybe even badly enough to do something stupid, like, oh, go and marry this Solano guy. That thought stopped him dead. Sure, the guy was known to be a complete jerk, but did Pia know that? Had she ever met him? What if he was exceptionally good looking? What if he charmed her into thinking he was a great guy? What if he wooed her and she fell for it? What if she willingly married this guy? She would never do that to him. Unless she actually believed he’d ended things. Unless he’d really hurt her that badly. He had to find a way out of there. Now. As he continued around the small room, when he neared one corner, he noticed a faint shift in the light. The whole room was very dark, but here, there seemed to be light coming from somewhere. That was a good sign. He craned his head back to look up toward it. He hadn’t seen it before because it was covered in a thick layer of the same grime that the bricks were. It blended in. But there was a window. High up in the wall. One of those small basement windows. So small, he might not even fit through it. But he would certainly try. It was his best option. His only real option, since breaking through the door and trying to take down whoever was up there was not a good solution. He’d likely get himself shot. And he was far from in good shape to do that as injured as he was. This was going to be tricky, though. He was tall enough to reach the window with a hand, but his fingers just barely touched the glass. The window had a ledge thick enough for him to grab, though. He took a deep breath, knowing this was going to be painful, and jumped. He pulled himself up to the ledge as he jumped and managed to get one elbow onto the ledge so he was suspended in the air. He’d been right about the pain. Landing like that had jarred his whole body and he’d slammed his chest with all his broken ribs right against the brick wall. He almost fell back down the pain was so bad. He almost cried out. But he managed to stay quiet, even if tears did come to his eyes from the agony. Now he could see better that the window had been painted over. They probably thought that either no

one would see the window or no one would be able to reach it. He rubbed his finger over one corner, then used his finger nail to scratch the paint off. He made a tiny hole to see through. He couldn’t see much, but he thought he was on the south side of the house. If that was true, that’d be perfect. Back there were plenty of trees and other cover to hide him. And all he could see through the little space on the window was grass and trees. With all the bad luck he’d been having lately, he was due some good luck. Maybe this was it. He pushed on the glass awkwardly with one hand while leaning hard on his elbow of the other arm to stay on the ledge. The window didn’t budge, and the harder he pushed, the more likely it was that he would fall back down. He had to break the glass. This would be tricky. If he punched it, he’d certainly break or cut up his hand. He could kick it—if he could get his leg up high enough. Normally, it wouldn’t be an issue, but in some much pain, he doubted if he could get enough speed or momentum. Either way, the glass breaking would be loud. He started to lose his grip and his elbow was burning in the pain of holding him up, digging into hard brick. He gathered his strength and swung his body to the side so that he could get his leg up on the edge of the thin window’s ledge. His foot brushed against it, but the pain was too much. Ryder fell to the floor, trying to land on his feet, and failing. He hit his hip again and landed on his shoulder. He had to stay there, unmoving for several minutes, breathing through the pain. How was he going to break this window? There was nothing else to do but to punch it. He’d never get his foot up there and there was nothing in the room to use. Unless he could manage to get a brick loose, which seemed very unlikely, all he had was himself. For a moment, he considered just using his boot, but with a soft rubber sole, it seemed more likely it would bounce off the glass than anything else. He shrugged out of his shirt, moving to avoid as much pain as possible and failing. He still wore an undershirt, luckily. That might give him some protection, though not much. Was still better than rubbing his bare skin against the brick, though. He wrapped his shirt tight around his fist, then stood shakily. He had to pause to gain his strength and set his mind to do this. It was hard to make any movement knowing how much it would hurt. But he kept Pia and the baby and that asshole Solano in mind. If he couldn’t do this, all would be lost. He leapt again, grabbing onto the ledge. His fingers started to slip, but he used the brick wall to get some grip on his boots and push himself up a little. When he had situated himself back on the ledge, leaning on his elbow, he pulled his hand back and punched the window as hard as he could. The shirt deadened the sound and lessened the impact on his hand, but it still hurt. His knuckles felt on fire and his whole arm refused to bend right. He’d hit it hard, but the glass only cracked. It hadn’t been too loud, though, which was good. But if anyone had heard, his time was limited. He punched again and this time, the glass broke. With his hand still wrapped in the shirt, he brushed

as much of the glass off the window’s frame as he could. He used the protected hand to grab the frame and pull himself up more. It was difficult and it took every bit of strength and determination he had, but he managed to pull himself high enough to stick his head through the window. It was a tight squeeze. Glass dug into his skin, cutting him as he dragged his body out of the hole. He rolled into a ball in the grass, shaking from the pain. But this was no time to stop. He forced himself to his knees and crawled to the closest bush. It blocked him from the house at least. He panted there for a moment, threw up from the sheer amount of pain taking over his mind and body, then stood on wobbly legs. He made them move forward. One step, then two. And he blocked out the pain so he could run. The run was more like a hobble, but it was faster than walking. He kept going until he was in the woods. He allowed himself a few minutes to lean against a tree and watch the house. He had to make sure no one was following him. There were no signs of movement coming his way. He pulled on the shirt that had been wrapped around his hand and continued through the woods, not entirely sure where it would lead him. But he came to a road. Cars passed, no one stopping for him. After trudging about a mile down the road, someone finally pulled over. “Hey, man, need some help?” the guy said, looking at him like he was the most disgusting thing he’d ever seen. “Can you give me a lift?” “Umm.” The man winced. “How about some cash and a call for a cab?” Ryder almost laughed, but didn’t have the strength. “That’d be great.” The guy got on his phone as he dug into his wallet. When he hung up, he turned back toward Ryder. “Cab’s on the way. How far you going?” “About ten miles.” The guy handed some cash through a half-open window and Ryder took it gratefully. “Thanks, man.” “Good luck,” the guy said, and drove off. Ryder sunk back a little toward the woods, but kept his eyes peeled for the cab. That had to be the most bizarre encounter he’d ever had, but the guy drove an expensive car by the looks of it, and it was obviously more important to keep his car nice than to help him. Well, whatever. The cab and the cash would do the trick. He wasn’t about to complain. He saw the yellow car approach and walked up to the road, holding his hand up to flag it down.

“Man, that guy wasn’t kidding,” the cabbie said, looking him up and down. “You’re in rough shape. You homeless or what?” “No, just been beat up and had to escape some people who might or might not want to kill me.” The cabbie nodded. “Gotcha. Well, hate to do this, but I gotta get paid up front. I’m sure you understand.” Ryder handed over the cash. “This is every penny I got.” He gave him address. “I can do that. Get in.” Ryder carefully slid into the backseat of the cab. Every bump in the road, every turn, had him in pain. By the time he got to his house, he could barely breathe. He stumbled out of the car, and held up a hand to wave to the cabbie. The guy waved back and drove off. Ryder went around to his backyard and found the rock that held his extra key. Who knew where his keys and wallet and everything was. Matteo had it, or his guys did, or it was still in the hotel room, or they’d tossed it on the side of the road somewhere. He plucked the key out of its spot and hobbled to the back door, then got it open and went inside. He went straight to the bathroom. He was dirty and bloody and aching and all he could think of was to get a nice hot shower. Then he’d try to do something else. Something productive that wasn’t just him trying to move through his agony. He stood in the shower, letting the hot water run over his body until it went cold. He patted himself dry, trying not to open the fresh scabs barely holding his cuts together, or to rub open the new wounds and send them bleeding all over again. He covered himself with ointment and bandages the best he could, then popped a handful of pain pills. He probably needed stitches or to go to the hospital for something, but he didn’t have time for that. He lay down on the couch after drinking a huge glass of water. He meant to lay there and think, but he’d been through too much and he dosed off to sleep. When he woke a few hours later, the day had darkened and it was closer to evening. He still needed to form a plan. In his mind, he listed all the things he knew. First, Matteo knew about him and Pia, but not the baby. Second, Matteo was going to marry Pia off to this Solano guy who was a complete ass. Third, there had to be some reason Matteo was doing this. It wasn’t to get her away from Ryder. Keeping Ryder out of the picture was part of his plan to get her married. So, why do it in the first place? And lastly, if Ryder didn’t do something fast, Pia would be married and when Solano found out about the baby, he’d either kill the baby or Pia, or both. This guy would never stand for something like that and she

was too far along to make it seem like it was his. If this had happened when she was just a month pregnant, maybe, but two and moving closer to three when they weren’t even married yet? Not going to work. Besides, having Pia marry that guy was the last thing he wanted anyway. Yes, of course, he wanted the baby safe. He couldn’t even breathe when he thought of someone hurting their child, but he wanted Pia more. She was the one he loved and needed more than anything. He wished she was here now to take care of him. No. She still needed him and he had to do something to stop this wedding. He also needed to figure out why Matteo was doing this in the first place. He got up slowly and grabbed a notebook. There was too much in his brain for him think through this. He had to write it out and find the connections.

Chapter 15 Pia curled into a ball on her bed, tears running silently down her face. It felt like she’d never stop crying. All she felt was pain. Missing Ryder and not knowing for absolute certainty that he still wanted her. Though she kept reminding herself of what he’d done and all the things he’d said to her before, her mind kept telling her he was gone for good. There was a constant war between her mind and heart, and it was making her feel sick. The nausea was as bad as ever today. She’d already thrown up once and she didn’t want to eat anything else. She sipped at water and that was all. She knew she had to eat and stay strong for the baby, but her stomach hurt so badly, she didn’t want to risk it. Later, when she felt a little better, then she’d eat. Later that day, after she’d tried to eat and managed to keep some food down, there was a knock at her door. She sat up, not knowing what to expect. When she saw her father’s face, she gasped in shock. She hadn’t seen her father in days. Not since she’d been brought here and held like a prisoner. He came into the room and closed the door behind him. Pia crossed her arms and looked away. He was the last person she wanted to see right now. He was responsible for all of this. “How are you?” he asked gently. She didn’t answer. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. “Did they hurt you at all?” Did they hurt her? Oh no, she only had to watch them beat Ryder. They only dragged her away from him, locked her up in here like a criminal, and made him break up with her. Oh no, Daddy, I wasn’t hurt at all. She felt him sit down on the edge of her bed. He put a hand on her leg and she moved it away from him so his hand fell to the bed. “I know you’re upset,” he said. “But, please understand that I did this for your own good.” He waited, and when she didn’t say anything, he continued. “You didn’t really think things could ever work out with Ryder, did you? The boy from the ghetto who gets paid to kill people? Pia, Pia, you deserve someone far better than that. Someone with the resources to give you the life you want. Someone with connections, who can protect you.” She was so mad, she wanted to smack him. What did he know about Ryder or them or anything? He

didn’t. He thought he knew what she wanted and needed, like always. He’d planned out her whole life for her. Like always. Not this time. This time she was going to stand up for herself and get what she wanted. “Ryder protects me,” she mumbled. To her surprise, her father laughed. “Oh sure. Protected you real well when we broke into your hotel room, didn’t he? He sure stopped them from taking you away from him.” Of course this was true. She couldn’t deny it. But they’d also been in bed. He hadn’t expected anything to go wrong. If his gun had been closer, it would have been a different story. He probably would have shot someone. Or all of them. They might even be gone right now, off somewhere alone. “No response to that?” he asked. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she hissed. “Just go away.” “Well, my Pia, that’s not possible. I’ve come to give you wonderful news.” Whatever it was, it was certainly going to be the opposite of wonderful. Wonderful news would be a shoe designed by Valentino exclusively for her store. But whatever he was about to say would not be wonderful. “I’ve found the perfect man for you. He’s got plenty of money, big name connections, and he’s very interested in you. He’s coming here in two days to marry you.” She sat up fast enough to make her head spin. “What! I am not getting married.” “Oh, yes, you are.” Her father smiled. “It’s already being planned. Paolo Solano is going to be your husband. He’s even good looking. I know how you like that. He’s got something of a reputation for being a little rough, so he should be just your style after that hoodlum you hooked up with.” His smile faded and he shook his head. “I had no idea you were capable of making such poor decisions. Honestly, Pia, what the hell were you thinking sleeping with Ryder? He’s so far beneath you, you’re not even on the same planet. But we’ve taken care of the Ryder issue. You’ll be happily married and off living in your new mansion by the end of the week.” “No! I am not going to marry Paolo or anyone you try to make me marry!” “Well”—he looked down to inspect his nails—“you actually don’t have a say in the matter.” “You can’t force me to get married! You can’t! I won’t do it. I won’t agree. The minister won’t be able to marry us if I don’t agree.” Her father dropped his head to the side slightly. “How have you made it this far in life and are still so blindly naive? Do you not think that just maybe I have a minister on my payroll? Someone who will

do whatever I need? Come on, now. You’re not thinking this through.” She shook her head. He was right, though. Of course. He always had someone on his side. Someone getting paid to do whatever he said. That’s just how life worked when you were a mob boss. “Please, Daddy. Please don’t make me marry him.” Anytime she wanted something, she was always able to beg and get him to change his mind. She was his little princess and he would do anything for her. She just had to play him right. “I’m sorry about Ryder. I’ll find someone else. Someone good. But I don’t know this Paolo guy at all. I at least need to get to know him and love him before I marry him. I don’t want to marry someone I don’t love. I know you don’t want that for me. You want me to be happy like you and Mom were happy. Have a wonderful marriage and a nice family. I can’t have that with someone I’m not in love with.” She pleaded with her eyes and tried to look agreeable and innocent. When it came to buying her something, this always worked. But this was much more than just a new car or purse. Her father’s face changed. He grew dark and mean. “Your mother?” He leaned closer and hissed his words. “I killed your mother. Strangled her with my own hands because she wouldn’t do what I wanted. I’ve painted a pretty picture for you your whole life because I needed you to stay innocent as long as possible. But now it’s time to grow up and face reality, Pia. You will marry Paolo. You will do what I say. You have no choice, and you have no say in the matter.” Pia blinked in shock. He killed her mother? And was he now threatening her? She gulped and felt the tears run down her cheeks. Who was this man? She suddenly felt like she didn’t know him at all. “Why?” she squeaked out. “Why are you doing this to me? It’s over with Ryder and me. You got what you wanted. Why make me marry this man I don’t even know?” Matteo shrugged and stood. “It’s business. Nothing personal.” “What do you mean?” “I owe Solano a lot of money. Luckily, he’s seen you and fancies you. It worked out perfectly for us both. He gets the hot young wife he wants, and I get to not only eliminate my debt, but also to make sure my slut daughter doesn’t end with some hood rat from across town. The only one who loses in this scenario is you, my dear.” He went to the door and turned to her before walking out. “Don’t worry, though. He’ll keep you nice and safe. He’s promised me that much.” He closed the door hard, making her jump.

She was stunned. He had said so many things to her that just didn’t add up. He’d killed her mother? Really? What about all the stories he’d told her? How much he loved her and how beautiful she was and what a great mother she’d been. He talked about them dancing and laughing together. Said how miserable he’d been when she died and how he was so heartbroken he’d never marry again. Was it all a lie? Had he made up those things about her mother to trick her? To make her think he was someone else? Because if he was capable of strangling his own wife and the mother of his child, then he was capable of nearly anything. And if he was going to force her to marry some horrible man to get rid of his debt, then what would stop him from killing her if she fought against him? She was afraid of this man now, who she’d called father her whole life. Who’d taken care of her and who, she thought, loved her more than anything. Was it all just a game? Make her think she was safe and loved when she was really just a pawn? Two days. This man, this Paolo person, was really going to be there in two days to marry her? Where was Ryder? Did he know about this? He had to figure something out to stop this from happening. They had to get out of there. She needed her phone and bad. But she’d already tried begging for it, and no use. They had everything. Her purse, both phones, her keys. She couldn’t go anywhere or do anything. Though they had removed the handcuffs finally. She got up and went into her bathroom. She was going to have to take matters into her own hands. She wished she knew where Ryder was. He could still be in the house. Could be in danger or hurting. Maybe he was a prisoner just like her. She knocked quietly on the wall of her bathroom. This wall was the shared wall between her room and the guest room where Ryder stayed when he was here. She waited, but there was no response. She knocked again, three times, then a pause, then three more times so that if someone heard it, they would know it wasn’t an accidental sound. She pressed her ear to the wall, but heard nothing. Next, she went to the window. Her room was on the upper level, but maybe it wasn’t too high to jump. She could even make some kind of rope from her sheets. She’d seen that on TV somewhere. Tie it off and climb down it. Then she could run and find Ryder. But she had no idea where he might be. She didn’t even know where he lived, which now seemed like a crazy thing. How had she never asked? Never gone to his place. That would have been a much better place to meet, right? Well, no matter. She couldn’t think about that now. She just had to get out. She’d find him somehow, or he’d find her. But whatever was going to happen, she had to be out of here before she could be married off. She opened the window and looked down. It didn’t seem too high. Especially if she had some kind of rope thing. “What are you doing?”

She jumped and turned to see the man who’d been guarding her room, Lu, come into the bathroom. “Just getting some air,” she said. “It’s so stuffy in here.” He walked over, shut the window, and locked it. “Nice try.” “What do you mean?” She blinked at him and put on her innocent face. “I haven’t been outside in days. Is it so wrong to want to see the sun? Can you take me outside? Go for a walk or something?” “Get back in there.” He pointed to her room. “Don’t make me lock the door and restrict your bathroom privileges. I can bring in a pot.” “Geez, okay. Didn’t know you were so against fresh air.” She flounced back into her room. “I’m against you trying to escape, and we both know that’s what you were doing.” “Escape? Why in the world would I do that?” He crossed his arms and glared at her. “Either to avoid marring Solano or to find Ryder or both. You think I don’t know you’ve been in here crying over him?” How would he know that? She’d been careful to be quiet so no one would hear her. She didn’t want them to know how upset she was over him. She looked quickly around her room. Then she saw what she hadn’t noticed before. In the corner of her room, there was a new painting hanging on the wall. She hadn’t even noticed it was there. She stormed over to it and ripped it from the wall. Behind it, a shiny lens stared back at her. “You put a camera in here?” She threw the painting down. Lu clapped slowly. “I can’t believe it took you this long to figure it out.” He shook his head. “Wow. You’re even dumber than they say you are.” She glared at him and let the comment go. There was no use arguing with him. If anything, she needed to try to get him on her side. Maybe he’d help her. “Are you the one who gets to watch me?” she asked. “Sometimes. Me or Sergio. Obviously Sergio is in there now.” “Good.” She smiled at him. “I kinda like the thought of being watched,” she said playfully. He didn’t respond. He walked past her with a straight face and didn’t look back as he said, “Don’t try

anything stupid. I don’t want to have to hurt you.” When the door closed and she was alone, she looked into the camera. She wished she knew who was watching right now. She had an idea, but could she really go through with it? She had to try something, though. She grinned into the camera and went back to her bed. She was going to take off her top, but she’d noticed that she had the slightest bump in her stomach. Rather than take the chance of someone wondering if she was pregnant, she left her top on, but slid out of her pants. She stood on her bed in her panties, dancing around seductively. She turned her ass to the camera, bent over, and slowly pulled down her panties. She turned back around and lay on her bed. Spreading her legs wide apart so they could see everything, she sucked on her finger, then ran it down her body until she reached her clit. She bit her lip and made a face like she was feeling the greatest pleasure imaginable as she rubbed herself. She moved farther down and slid her finger inside herself, then she looked up at the camera and licked her lips slowly. In seconds, the door flew open. Lu was there, his face red and angry. “Get your clothes on now and stop this.” She giggled and stuck her finger back inside her pussy. “Don’t you like the show?” He glared at her, stormed over, and threw her blankets over her body. He leaned down close to her and growled in her ear. “If you don’t stop this, I can make no promises about what might happen to you. But I’m sure whatever you get won’t be what you want.” He stormed out of the room and slammed the door. She felt embarrassed now. She’d thought they would like it. Maybe even come in the room and try to sleep with her and she could work that to her advantage. Use them somehow. But if he reacted like that, then it wouldn’t work. She couldn’t escape. It didn’t seem like she’d be able to get them on her side. She was stuck.

Chapter 16 Ryder took notes and thought until his brain hurt. His body still ached so badly, even after he’d gotten a few hours of sleep. He’d come no closer to figuring out what the deal was with Matteo. Why he could possibly be marrying his daughter off like this. But he did have a plan to get answers. He popped a handful of painkillers into his mouth. As soon as they started working, he’d be able to move without too much pain. Right now, just walking was a problem. He’d forced himself to sleep and eat, knowing that his body needed that to heal. Now, darkness had fallen and it was time to put his plan into action. He was going to Solano’s headquarters and would kill whoever he had to in order to get some answers. He had no time and was in no mood to mess around. Someone was going to start talking and now. He had far too much on the line. Every thought of Pia and the baby sent another wave of panic and pain through him. Were they okay? He wanted so badly to be able to call her, to hear her voice and make sure she was okay. And that the baby was okay. Soon enough. He kept telling himself that. Soon enough, he would take care of all of this and they would be together and everything would be fine. But right now, he had work to do. He dressed in all black, the pain pills starting to kick in and allow him to move without too much agony or restriction. Then he got in his car and drove to where Solano’s headquarters were. It didn’t take longer than a half hour, but every minute away from Pia was starting to feel like too long. As he sat across the street from the house, he patted himself on the back. Ryder had always been one to pay attention to the locations of people and know who was who and what was what. Years ago, when the name Paolo Solano first appeared on the scene, Matteo had mentioned where Solano headquarters were. At the time, he didn’t think much of it, but since this was another mob family, he’d made note of it. He’d never had reason to use the information until now. And no one would guess that he knew where Solano’s crew was holed up. They wouldn’t expect him. The house appeared to be dark, but Ryder knew better than to assume no one was home or awake. They probably had people all over the place at all times of the day. Matteo had people outside twenty-four seven. Someone was in there. It was just a matter of finding them and making them talk. He sat in the shadows, watching, for a long time. When he didn’t see any movement, he got out and approached the house. He crept along, staying hidden in case someone was outside keeping watch or was looking out from inside the house. When he got close enough to the house, he stalked around the perimeter, checking each of the windows that he could see in. On a lower floor, he was able to see one man sitting at a table. He watched for a long while, and after a few minutes, another man came into the room. Ryder circled the house again, getting an idea of the

lower floor layout. He also needed to find the best way in. After looking at each of the doors and windows, the back door looked like the easiest to break open. He walked slowly up to the back door and looked through the small window for several minutes. It seemed to lead into some sort of living room where no one was at the time. He turned the knob slowly, but it didn’t budge. Of course it was locked. Would be stupid to not have it locked. As he continued to watch through the window, one of the men got up and came right toward him. Crap. Had he made noise? He didn’t think so. He flattened himself against the wall beside the door and held his gun up, ready. The guy unlocked the door and stepped outside. He didn’t even bother to look around before he bent his head to light his cigarette. What an amateur. His cigarette lit as he closed the door behind him. Then Ryder’s gun came down hard on the guy’s head. He started to drop, but Ryder caught him with one arm before he could make a loud thud on the wooden porch. The cigarette fell and Ryder stepped on it to crush it. He dragged the guy, one arm under his armpit, one hand over his mouth in case he came to, into the woods. When they’d gone far enough—beyond shouting distance from headquarters—he let the guy fall to the ground. Ryder went through every pocket. He found a gun, a knife, his wallet. He took it all. The ID in the wallet said Rich. He waited a minute or two, then got bored and kicked Rich in the ribs. He didn’t wake on the first blow, but by the third, he grunted and curled into a ball on his side. Rich mumbled something unintelligible and Ryder pressed his gun to his forehead. “Sit up,” Ryder said. Rich blinked a few times, then seemed to finally realize what was going on. He pushed himself up to a seated position and reached back behind him, probably going for a gun. But Ryder was no amateur. He spun Rich’s gun on his finger. Rich saw it and glared. “Rich,” Ryder said, then tossed aside the wallet. “You should carry more cash.” He stuck the seventy dollars into his pocket and pressed harder with the gun. “Do you know who I am?” “No.” Rich made a disgusted face at him. “But you’re dead when I find out.” “Then I guess I have to kill you first. Easy enough. I just need some information from you before I shoot you.” Rich spit at him. “Screw you. I’m not telling you anything.” Ryder wiped the spit from his face with one hand, then reached to his back and pulled out the knife.

He swooped down and stabbed the knife into the meat at Rich’s calf. Rich screamed and grabbed at his leg. He reached for the knife. Ryder yanked the blade back out and held it at his side, ready to use it again if he had to. Rich whimpered and held his leg as blood poured from the wound. “Make no mistake,” Ryder said. “I am not here to play games or fuck around. You will give me the information I need.” “Okay, okay.” Rich held up his bloodied hands. “What do you want?” “Solano. What does he want with Pia Carelli and why is he marrying her?” Rich pressed on his leg, trying to stop the bleeding, but the blood still poured out between his fingers. “No idea what you’re talking about. You’re nuts, man.” Ryder kicked Rich’s injured leg. He screamed in pain. “I said I don’t know!” He swore under his breath. “You’ve never heard the name Pia Carelli?” “Nope.” “How about Matteo Carelli?” “I don’t know. Maybe.” Ryder raised his hand again, positioning the knife. “You want to try a different answer?” “I said I don’t know. That’s the truth.” Ryder brought his hand down again. This time the knife stabbed in between the thin bones in Rich’s hand, the point going straight through into his calf once more. Rich let out a scream so loud, Ryder worried it might alert someone back at headquarters, or if anyone happened to be closer than he knew. “Okay!” Rich held his wounded hand close to his chest, pressing it against his body, and pressed his uninjured hand to his calf. “Pia, yeah. I heard of her.” “Thought so. And?” “Paolo’s marrying her.” “Why?”

Rich was talking fast now, the pain likely overwhelming him. “He wants to jump her bones. I don’t know.” Ryder cracked him across the face with the butt of his gun. “There’s more to it than that.” Rich swore again. “Not really. Paolo’s wanted her for a long time, but she wasn’t interested, and Matteo wouldn’t sell her. Who knows why. Got a thing for her.” “How did he convince Matteo to play along?” “Paolo made a deal go bad so Matteo owed him a lot of money. Then he sent some guy to kidnap Pia. Was going to use her as bait, but the job got botched. So, he made a deal. Matteo got his debt erased, and Pia would be safe, so long as he made her marry him.” “Solano trashed a deal on purpose to get her and sent the guy to attack her?” Ryder was so pissed, he was seeing red. But it wasn’t totally unexpected. Everything he knew of Solano was that he was a shady, sneaky guy. This wasn’t beneath him. But it also meant that Ryder would die keeping her away from him. He’d never let her fall into the hands of such a ruthless and violent man. Never. “Where is Paolo now?” Ryder demanded. “I don’t know.” Rich held up his uninjured hand. “I really don’t, I swear!” He might have been telling the truth. Ryder didn’t care. He kicked him hard in the ribs. Rich doubled over, coughing and holding his chest. “Please,” Rich whimpered. “I don’t know. He left yesterday. Said he was going to prepare for the wedding. Whatever that means. I don’t know where he is. I might be able to find out, though.” “When is the wedding?” “Soon. A few days, I think. It’s not like he sent out invites, you know.” A few days. Of course he had to rush it so that nothing could happen. No one could interfere. Like Ryder was about to. “Who knows where Paolo is right now?” Rich groaned in pain and muttered, “Probably Tony. His second in command.” “And where is this Tony?” “Home. On Fairfield Street. He’ll be at headquarters by nine in the morning.” Ryder nodded to himself. That was still a few hours away. Too long to wait. “What’s the house

number on Fairfield?” “It’s 9349.” He thought through what he needed to know. Had Rich told him everything? There was nothing else Ryder could think of that he might know that would help. It was just a matter of getting to Solano now. Or to Pia. It might be easier to get to her than to get to Solano to kill him. But Matteo would be watching for him, while Solano wouldn’t be. The element of surprise would help him tremendously. “Anything else you think I should know?” Ryder asked. “You’re a jackass.” Ryder pulled the trigger and shot Rich in the head. “Already knew that.” His body slumped over. Ryder held a finger to his wrist to feel his pulse. His heart beat once, stuttered, beat once more, then stopped. Ryder took the towel from his pocket, wiped the body down and the blade, then dropped it on top of him. He took out his lighter and set the body on fire. Then he took off running, or hobbling quickly. The broken ribs still kept him from running normally. He ran back to his car, the pain creeping in again all over his body as he forced himself to move faster. His ribs ached with every breath. It was like sucking in fire, but he made it to his car. He pulled away, doing the speed limit as always, making it look like he was up to nothing more than a late-night drive. He needed to hit home to clean up, get more painkillers, and research Fairfield Street. He didn’t want to drive over there cold, and at least having a map and a satellite view would give him some idea of what to expect when he went to the place. He’d dig up this Tony guy and find out where Solano was. Then he’d hunt him down and take him out. When that was done, he could go back to Matteo’s, grab Pia, and go. He still wasn’t sure where, but at this point, it didn’t matter. He would kill Matteo first. And Lorenzo and anyone else who was around or in the way. Then they could go almost anywhere. Ryder smiled at the thought. He pictured Pia somewhere beautiful, walking along a sandy beach, white fabrics flowing from her body. Her stomach, round and shining in the moonlight. Their baby, tiny and sleeping in his arms. Pia holding him as Ryder looked on. When he got older, the child running to Daddy with his arms wide. Or maybe a little girl with pigtails and a pink dress. He’d never pictured these things before. Never wanted them. Now that he was so close, he couldn’t imagine not having wanted this all before. Maybe it was just Pia. Maybe he’d never wanted these things because he hadn’t met her yet. She was the one he wanted this with. Not just anyone. The sassy, tiny, mafia boss’s daughter, who’d been such a pain in his ass, who was now the love of his life, the

mother of his child. And hopefully many more children to come. He hadn’t wanted a family before because he only wanted a family with her. Until she came along, he was just a hitman. Killing for a living, trying not to be killed. Surviving until the next gig. Now, it wasn’t just about surviving. It was about living. She made him feel alive. Despite the pain radiating through his chest from his broken ribs and the pain of missing her and worrying about her, there was still warmth there. The thought of her name or face brought a grin to his lips and warmth through his whole body. How long would it be until he could hold her again, make love to her again? The thought made him hard, which helped the pain slightly. His blood was diverted for a moment to his raging hard on. But that longing was a pain all its own. He needed her. Simple as that. Ryder, who’d never needed anyone or anything in his whole life, needed this woman. He would get to her. And he would save her.

Chapter 17 “Here. Eat.” Lu came into her room and dropped a plate of food in front of her. Then he left, locking the door behind him. The plate was steaming, a nice big heap of chicken and spaghetti. It smelled okay, but the thought of food made her stomach turn. She could throw up right now from having the food so close to her. She pushed it to the door and went to her bed, pulling the covers up over her head to keep out the smell. She would have tried to get them to take it back out of the room, but it’d be no use. Ever since her little stunt trying to get him on her side, Lu had refused to even look at her. All of them did. They barely spoke to her. They barked commands. Eat. Sleep. But that was it. She felt so alone and missed Ryder desperately. She’d thought that by now he would have come for her. It had been more than thirty hours since she’d seen him. If he was going to rescue her, it probably would have happened by now. She knew he was no longer in the house. She spent as much time as possible being silent and not moving so she could hear the conversation in the hallway. They didn’t realize how loud they were. She’d heard one of them say that they needed to track Ryder down. Obviously, if he was still there, he wouldn’t need to be tracked down. She’d been so excited when she heard that, but it had been over eighteen hours ago. How long did it take to rescue someone? She expected him to be there within an hour or so. Had even gotten some things ready so she could grab her bag and go when he came for her. But now it had been so long, she started to think she was wrong. That he didn’t really love her, that she misinterpreted everything. Maybe he was far from here, on the road, escaping from Matteo and leaving her behind. Maybe he’d already forgotten all about her. Maybe she was really on her own. And if that was true, what could she do now? She already knew there was no way she could have Paolo find out about the baby. He’d kill her or the baby or both. But what else was she going to do? Could she really raise this baby alone? She’d thought she could, but she was less sure. It was easy to think she could do anything when she’d thought Ryder was coming for her. But now? Now she thought she was stuck. How in the world would she raise a baby alone? It was ludicrous for her to think she could do that. Hold down a job while raising a baby? Sure, she had the store and that brought in a lot of money, but she still had to be there to work. And she’d have to take care of this baby. Alone. She’d be the only one getting up for feedings, the only one changing diapers, the only one dealing with the spit up and deciding things like how long to let the baby cry. And she had no idea how long you should let a baby cry. If at all.

And all the emotions that came with pregnancy and motherhood? She’d seen one of her friends go through it. And all her non-pregnant, non-mother friends thought she’d gone nuts. Pia didn’t want to be nuts like that. She already cried over everything and that was too much. But she did not want to get into fights over how much formula was okay to give a baby. That seemed stupid. She wanted to go back to shopping and running her store and pretend like none of this ever happened. That was when it hit her. If she married Paolo, who was quite rich and powerful, she could have that life—her old life—back. She might have to give up the baby. That would be hard. Impossible almost. But if Ryder was gone, really gone, then what choice did she have? She could be married and safe and rich and go shopping all day and spend her time avoiding her horrible husband. That had to be better than having no husband and being broke and all alone with a baby. But, if she had Ryder, she wouldn’t have to hate her husband. They might not be rich or have the mafia connections her father or Paolo did, but he loved her. He would treat her well and protect her. And he loved their child already as much as she did. Or at least he had seemed to. But that was before he’d left and not come back. Still, she couldn’t shake the idea of having a happy family. She might not be able to go back to her old life now that she knew what it was like to have love. To have Ryder. He’d ruined her. How could she lie in bed beside Paolo, let him touch her and have sex with her, when her heart belonged to Ryder? And Paolo was not a good-looking man. That was why she’d rejected him years ago when he wanted to marry her. Of course, then she wasn’t ready to get married, but still. She was not at all attracted to him. So, she’d have money, sure, but she’d have to fake it with someone she didn’t love and was somewhat repulsed by. How could she do that? There was no choice between them. She loved Ryder and their baby so much that she would gladly give up money if it meant being with him and being together as a family. The tears rolled down her cheeks, silent but continuous. She was only kidding herself thinking she had any choice or say at all in this. Her father was far too powerful. He could make her do whatever he wanted. She knew it, and he knew that she knew it. It was only a matter of time until she caved anyway. She wasn’t strong enough to take on her father. She couldn’t stand up to him. This was why she needed Ryder. He was strong enough for them both. He could take care of her father and keep her far away from Paolo. But Ryder wasn’t here. And he wasn’t coming. All her strength was missing. She had only herself, and this little baby growing inside her. She felt so weak. In body and in spirit. She had nothing left. If she didn’t have Ryder, which meant she couldn’t have her idea of her dream life, and she couldn’t have this baby, then she had nothing. She might as well marry Paolo. Then she’d have money and status and maybe they’d have a baby of their own. Maybe she would get used to him. Maybe he wasn’t really that bad. It seemed like that was her best option. Give up her dreams of marrying Ryder and having a family. Give up and do what her father wanted. In the end, he would force her whether she chose it or not. Whether she wanted it or not. Didn’t matter how much she wanted Ryder and the baby. She was doomed to follow her father’s orders. Unless she wanted to die. At this point, even that didn’t seem

like a terrible choice. There was no way out, no good solution. She was trapped and nothing could free her from this situation. She tried to stop thinking, and cried until she fell asleep.


She was awoken by her stomach churning. She sat up, waited a moment, then threw back the covers and ran to the bathroom. She had barely made it to the toilet before she was sick. She fell to her knees, heaving into the toilet until her stomach, which hadn’t contained much to begin with, was empty. She sat there a few minutes, waiting, making sure it had passed. She got up and flushed, then went to the sink. But as she was washing her mouth out, she got a whiff of her lavender-scented hand soap, and it sent her right back to the toilet. At least this time her stomach was already empty. She dry heaved for a while before her stomach settled. She got up more slowly and went to the sink. She swished some water in her mouth and brushed her teeth, then crawled back into bed, her throat aching and raw. Her door opened a short time later. She stayed where she was. She figured it was just one of the guys bringing her breakfast. That she probably wouldn’t eat. “Pia? What’s wrong with you?” Her father’s voice. He was here to see her? She pushed back the covers and forced herself into a seated position. “Morning, Daddy.” “What’s wrong?” “Nothing, I was just sleeping.” “You just threw up twice. Are you ill?” Her face grew hot. He knew she’d thrown up? Crap. “I think so. The flu or something.” “The flu?” He harrumphed. He grabbed her arm and yanked her out of bed, her feet hitting the floor hard enough to hurt. Her knees

wobbled, but she stood up under her father’s grasp. “Ow!” She pulled her arm free and rubbed it. “What are you doing?” He inspected her carefully, looking at her stomach and breasts especially. He grabbed her arm to pull her closer and hissed in her ear, “Exactly how involved did you get with that scum, Ryder?” “It was nothing,” she muttered, pulling her arm away again. “Are you pregnant?” The look in his eyes was downright murderous. She was afraid to look at him, but if she didn’t, he would know she was lying. Her body was trembling and she felt like she might be sick again. But she couldn’t let her father see her throw up again. Not after he knew she just had twice. She forced herself to meet his eyes and said coldly, “No.” Even the lie tasted bitter in her mouth. “Then why do you look like this? Why aren’t you eating? Why are you throwing up?” “Maybe you don’t know how the flu works.” She put her hand on her hips, hoping the pose would both make her look thin and show her attitude. “You feel like puking and you puke. That makes you not want to eat. It makes you sweaty and pale and gross. Like I am right now.” She held her hand to her forehead. “I think I have a fever. I’m hot.” He pressed his own wrist to her forehead. “You don’t feel feverish to me.” “Well, I am.” She turned from him to get back under the covers. Before she could get into bed, he put his hands on both of her shoulders, turning her back to face him. She stumbled toward him. He pulled back his hand in a fist and swung it through the air, right toward her stomach. Everything moved like slow motion to her. She saw his fist, saw it coming for her. For her baby. She put her hands to her stomach and jumped back. Without thinking, she cried, “Don’t hurt the baby!” He dropped his fist and she gasped. Her hands flew to her mouth in shock. Tears filled her eyes. Her father looked at her with extreme disgust. “You little whore,” he whispered. “I never thought my daughter, whom I gave everything to, whom I gave the whole world to, would do something like this to me. Would stoop so low as to not only sleep with trash like Ryder, but to get pregnant by him. You disgust me.” “Daddy!” she whimpered. Tears flooded her eyes. “Don’t say that!” “If I could disown you, I would. I can’t get you married off fast enough, apparently. You went

spreading your legs for some low class ghetto boy. To lower yourself to that level. Don’t you have any self-respect at all?” She covered her face with her hands. She couldn’t stand to even look at him when he was being so cruel. Now that he knew, what would happen? She’d never been so afraid of her father. She’d never seen him so mad at her or heard him talk like this to her. She didn’t know what to do or what he would do. He’d already raised a hand to her once. Would he follow through with his punch? She wished Ryder would just burst through the door and rescue her. But as the seconds went by, he didn’t show. He was nowhere to be seen. “Only one thing left to do,” Matteo said. Pia forced her fingers to separate so she could see her father. She half expected to see him pointing a gun at her face. But he stood there, arms crossed over his chest. “We’re going to have to get this taken care of before Paolo arrives. I wouldn’t put it past him to kill you for this. I’d like to do him the favor of giving him a somewhat pure wife. At least your womb will be empty, even if your pussy is tainted.” She whimpered and stepped back from him. “We’ll get rid of it, then I’ll be able to get rid of you. I never want to see your tramp face again. I don’t even like you being in my house. Try to keep your legs closed for the next few days until Paolo gets here, will you? Can you manage that, you little slut?” She kept crying and didn’t say anything. “Can you?” He stepped closer to her and got a fistful of her hair in his hands. He pulled her closer to him, his spit flying from his mouth and landed on her cheeks. “Keep your legs closed. Got it?” She nodded and he let her go, hard. She tripped and fell onto the bed. He stormed from the room and slammed the door closed behind him. Pia lay there for a moment, stunned. She stared at the door, cowering into her bed, terrified he would return. She got up and went to the door, then turned the lock. The little metal piece that usually clicked into place when the door locked spun freely. They’d removed her lock. She should have expected this, but for some reason, this deeply upset her. She couldn’t get out; she couldn’t keep anyone from getting in. She sunk to the floor until her knees hit the carpet, and cried. She curled into a ball on her side and hugged her knees to her chest. Now what? What in the world should she do? Her father wanted to take care of it. For all her worry

and thinking she couldn’t be a single mother, the thought of actually going through with it and killing her child hurt like someone had shoved a hot poker into her chest. How could she do that? Her own flesh and blood. And for whatever he was doing now and whatever he’d decided, this baby had been conceived in love. Maybe that love had gone since, especially for him, but not her for. She loved him despite herself, and she wanted his baby. Maybe it was mostly to have a reason to see him again. Even if it took years, he might come find her later, to seek out his child. If she had his baby, she always had a reason to find him, to talk to him. He would always be in her life in some way, even if it was as the absent father of her baby. She would still be able to see him in their child’s face. And she loved this baby already. She’d never understood how women could say that. But for the last days thinking about having a baby with Ryder and picturing their family, it had become real to her, and she wanted any part of that she could get. Forget her old life. She didn’t need it. She wanted this baby no matter what it took. She’d be poor if she had to be. But she’d have her baby. She just had to find a way now to protect him or her long enough to be born. With so many people coming against her, Pia didn’t know how she would protect the baby. Her father’s power, and all of his hired hit men…she could be killed in her sleep. They could poison her, barge in and shoot her, strangle her, and she could do nothing about it. She wasn’t strong enough to fight back, and since she hadn’t been eating, she was even weaker than normal. She didn’t stand a chance against her father if he wanted her baby dead. What could she do? She was back to all her plans of trying to escape. But they seemed just as pointless now as they had before. And now her father probably suspected she’d try even harder to get away. Which might mean he would increase security around her. How many men were outside her door right now? How many men were in her house? Did she even have a car anymore, or had her father taken it? Had he cut her off and left her with nothing? He might have. She might be broke already. The temptation to marry Paolo and stay rich flickered in her mind again, but quickly died when she put her hand to her belly. That would be like selling her baby. Money or the baby. She could only have one. And she chose her baby. Ryder’s baby. Maybe the wedding would give her an opportunity for escape. She’d have to leave her bedroom. There would be some sort of ceremony, right? Maybe in all of that she could get away. Could escape somehow. Even if she could manage that, where would she go with no money? Well, she did have rich friends. Maybe she could go to them and get some money, then take a plane somewhere. Oh, but that would require her name to be given and her passport and driver’s license, and all of that had been taken from her. Maybe a train, then. Something. Maybe she could buy a cheap car. Maybe she could borrow one from her friends. How far could she get? She couldn’t leave the country without her identification. Maybe she would

just drive until she didn’t want to drive anymore. Keep going, making turns without thought until she got lost in some tiny little town in the middle of nowhere. Places like that were all over the country. Little country towns where everyone knew everyone and they would welcome a newcomer and hide her. Of course, the whole country living thing sounded awful, but what choice did she have? Going to a big city would be too easy to track. They could find her in New York or Chicago. Her father had too many big city connections. But in a little town in the middle of the country? He knew no one there. Would have no one waiting to find her. She just had to get there. And first, she just had to get out. She crawled back into bed. She would need all the rest she could get. Build up as much strength as she could. Maybe she could even risk eating. Somehow make Lu or someone taste it first so she knew it was safe? The might work. Might not. But she had to be able to run and get away. If she couldn’t, it was all over. Her father would do something to her baby and she’d end up having to marry Paolo. She needed a plan to escape fast if she wanted to save her baby, and she’d need a backup plan to escape at the wedding if something went wrong. Right now, her brain was so foggy and she was in so much emotional pain that she couldn’t fathom a plan. All she could think of was sleep. And maybe when she woke, it would all be better in the morning. Tired as she was, she lay there in her bed, not able to fall asleep. Her mind whirled and the tears kept coming. Her eyes burned with them. She missed Ryder. Missed her father even, and the way he used to call her sweet names and buy her things. She’d never thought he would do this to her. Never in a million years. Well, that wasn’t true. She expected him to flip out about the baby. She just hadn’t expected him to call her names and look at her like that. With such pure disgust. She felt hatred coming off of him in that glare. Pure hatred. And that, she hadn’t expected. She could deal with his anger, but not his hate. Anger meant you still loved the person, but hatred was different. Pia suddenly felt like an orphan. Like she’d been lied to about who her father was. They’d said he was a good man who loved her. Well, he wasn’t. He was a bad man—the very worst type of man, and he didn’t love her. He loathed her. And his grandbaby. Well, he didn’t deserve either of them, then. And if it was up to her, she’d never see him again. She pictured all the ways in which she might be able to kill him. To pay him back for how he made her feel. For threatening her baby and making her feel unloved. She wanted to rip out his heart and stomp on it. That was exactly what it felt like he’d done to her. With that picture in her mind of her suffering father, she finally was able to fall asleep.

Chapter 18 Ryder was feeling anxious by the time he got close to his house. He needed to make this stop quick and get over to Fairfield Street to see what was going on. There was little time left if he was going to stop this wedding. Taking out a mob boss wasn’t going to be easy, but he saw no better way out—no other way out at all—than to kill Solano. How many guys would he have around him? Ryder would kill as many as it took. All of them if he had to. He’d take out the entire mob family. Let them come after him. So what? What difference did it make? If he had Pia, he had everything. He turned into his driveway and shut the car door hard as he bolted for his house. He unlocked the door fast and threw it open, not even bothering to make sure it was closed all the way. He was headed straight for the bathroom when a man wearing a black mask jumped out of the bedroom, blocking his way. “What the hell?” Ryder said. “Now what?” The man lifted a crow bar and swung at Ryder, but he ducked easily. “What’s the deal?” Ryder asked. This had to be one of Matteo’s guys. They knew he’d gotten out of the basement and weren’t happy about it. But really, why should they care? If he was staying away from Pia like they wanted him to—and he was, for now—then why was this guy coming after him now? “You scumbag,” the man said, and Ryder recognized Lorenzo’s voice. “You think you can just knock up the boss’s daughter and get away with it? Matteo wants you dead.” Two words came to Ryder’s mind. Oh. Fuck. They knew. He didn’t have time to stop and think how they knew, but they knew. Lorenzo swung the crowbar at him again, and in Ryder’s momentary panic, he reacted a split second too slowly. The crow bar whacked hard into his already aching ribs. Ryder screamed in pain. He couldn’t help it. The broken ribs already burned like his chest was on fire when he was just trying to move or breathe. But to be hit there with a metal crow bar? He thought he was going to pass out, the pain was so sharp. It was like a searing white hot poker shoved into his side. If Lorenzo had stabbed him with a knife, it would have hurt less. Much less. Ryder actually saw stars, and the room started to blink in black dots. He fell to his knees. Before Lorenzo could strike again, Ryder fell forward and grabbed his legs in a tight hug. He pulled, sending fresh agony through his chest, but also knocking Lorenzo to the ground. He hit the ground hard, with a thump so loud and solid it sounded like he was going to crash through the floor. Ryder punched him in the gut and got a hit to his jaw before Lorenzo sat up.

“Let’s lose the mask, Lorenzo.” Ryder ripped it from his face. “Did you honestly think I wouldn’t recognize your voice?” “Did you honestly think you’d get away with this? No good piece of trash like you? You thought you’d what, marry Pia and have a baby with her?” Lorenzo laughed, putting his hand to his stomach to either mask his pain or to make the laughter seem more dramatic. But Ryder wasn’t laughing. Lorenzo had dropped the crowbar when he fell. Ryder snatched it up and held it, letting the rounded end hit his palm over and over as he glared at Lorenzo. “You know,” Ryder said, “you all act so high and mighty, but who does all your killing for you? Who does the dirty work you can’t handle? You’d be wise to remember what exactly my area of expertise is.” Ryder stood over Lorenzo, who looked up at him with shock. Ryder brought the bar down hard on his shin, using both hands and all his weight to create as much force as possible. Lorenzo screamed out in pain when the bar hit, and there was a satisfying crunch. Bones were just too easy to break. And with a metal bar? Like a hot knife through butter practically. Child’s play. And no matter what Lorenzo thought or said, it was clear, he was the one losing this game, not Ryder. “You’re dead,” Lorenzo whispered, his face white with pain. “Funny you say that,” Ryder said. He lifted the bar again and brought it down on Lorenzo’s head. Lorenzo fell back, unconscious. Blood streamed down his head. “You’re the one who looks dead.” Ryder stood up, pulled his gun from its holster at the small of his back, and pointed it right at Lorenzo’s forehead. He squeezed the trigger and sent a bullet straight into his brain. Ryder reached down and felt for his pulse. When it went still and silent, he stood up and went to his closet. He pulled out all his best guns. The rifle he used for distance killing with the perfect sight and scope, the handguns he used for closer shots. He checked them all, making sure they were fully loaded. He stuck one handgun at his back, another at his ankle. His knife was at his waist, like always. He paused in the bathroom to get more painkillers. He popped a few in his mouth, then shoved the bottle in his pocket. He picked up his rifle and was ready. He went to his car, full of determination and purpose, and tossed his gun in as he slid behind the driver’s seat. As soon as he sat, though, he leaned over, sticking his head out of the car to throw up. The pain was too much. Every step, every inhale, sent new agony through him. His mind whirled and if he moved too fast, the black spots came back, threatening to pull him under. He needed a shower

and to sleep. He needed more pills. But he had no time for any of that. If the physical pain wasn’t enough, the fear was making him sick as well. His mind whirled and the most prevalent thought was that Pia was in danger. Their baby was in danger. Or maybe they weren’t. Maybe Matteo had already done something. Maybe they were already both dead. The thought made him crazy. He started thinking of all the things Matteo might have done to her. Would he drag her off to some clinic and kill their baby? Would he throw her down the stairs to take care of it? Or would he just shoot her in the head and be done with her altogether? He spat on the ground several times, but it seemed that he was finally done throwing up. He needed to drive. Not another second could be wasted. He may be too late already. He sped off and any time a thought of how Pia might be on the floor bleeding at this very moment came into his mind, he replaced it with an image of what he wanted to do to Matteo. He could slit his throat and watch his blood pour from the wound until he was pale and lifeless. He could smash his skull, making him feel every blow until he felt nothing ever again. He could point his gun at his forehead and make him beg. That idea in particular was appealing. Make him pay for what he’d done to them with his pride. It didn’t really matter how Matteo died. Only that he did. Ryder had never wanted to kill someone so badly in all his life. He grabbed his phone and dialed Pia’s number. At this point, what did it matter? Everyone knew what they’d been trying to hide. Ryder was already on his way to save her and kill her father. But he wanted to know if she was okay. He wanted to tell her he was coming so she could be ready and waiting. But most of all, he wanted to hear her voice. That sweet lilt, that prissy tone. He wanted to see her cock her head and put her hand on her hip in some display of dramatic outrage. He wanted to feel her tiny body in his arms and her fingers running through his hair. The first chance he got, he was going to throw her down and take her. He needed to feel her tight body wrapped around his. The phone rang and rang. Her voice mail came on. “You’ve reached Pia, you lucky thing. Leave a message, and if I feel like it, I’ll call you back.” She ended her recording with a kissing sound. He called back just to listen to her voice mail greeting one more time. He called her other phone, the disposable one that might still be secret. She didn’t answer that one either, and this one didn’t have a voice recording. He threw his phone back down. He hadn’t really expected her to answer, but he’d been hoping for it. His heart, stomach, and mind needed to know that she was okay. Or that she was alive at least. Once he knew that, he could breathe again. Until then, he was existing in the space between knowing and not knowing, where only anxiety lived.


“Wake up.” Pia stirred at the sound of her father’s voice. He shook her shoulder roughly, making her head jump and flop until she sat up. “Stop it,” she said groggily. “I’m awake.” “Get up. The doctor’s here.” “The what?” She rubbed her eyes. Her mouth was sticky and tasted disgusting. She needed water and to brush her teeth. She needed a shower, too. She felt dirty all over. And now she was starving, not having eaten all day. “The doctor is here to see you.” “I’m fine,” she said, pushing the covers back and kicking her feet over the side. “I don’t need a doctor.” Her father reached out and yanked her to her feet. He shoved her forward, toward an older man standing there, watching with a stern look on his face. She’d never seen this man before. He wasn’t dressed like a doctor. No long white coat or anything. He wore jeans and a button-down shirt and didn’t look professional at all aside from the briefcase at his side. “He’s here to take care of your…situation.” “My what?” Her voice came out as a squeak. “Just get this over with, Pia. Then maybe I’ll be able to stand to look at you again.” Her father turned from her and shut the door hard behind him, leaving her alone with the doctor. “I feel okay,” Pia said. “I don’t know why he called you. It’s just morning sickness. No big deal.” The doctor set his leather briefcase on her dresser and opened it, then took out a small pill bottle. He pushed and turned to remove the lid, then poured out two round yellow pills. He put the bottle back, and stretched out his hand to her, presenting the pills to her as a gift. “What are those?” she asked. “This is what I came for. They will make you feel better.”

She took a step back. Something about this did not feel right. “I feel fine.” “You’ll feel even better after you take them.” She shook her head. “No, thanks.” The doctor gave her a frustrated look. “Your father sent me to you to take care of this. And I fully intend to.” “Take care of this?” She put her hand instinctively to her belly. “What are those pills?” “They will remedy your situation.” “Why does everyone keep saying that? You mean they’ll kill my baby, is that it?” “Yes.” “No.” She backed farther away. “I’m not going to do that.” “You don’t have a choice.” “You’re a doctor! You can’t force me to do this. I don’t want to kill my baby. Didn’t you take an oath to only help people?” He glared at her and his lip twitched up in a snarl. “That doesn’t apply when a mob boss asks you for a favor. And I’d rather not have to answer to him and tell him why I was unable to do it. Now take the pills.” “I won’t! You can’t make me.” “Now, that’s where you’re wrong.” She watched in horror as he opened the briefcase again. He set the pills carefully beside it on the dresser. Then he took out a syringe and a glass bottle. He filled the syringe with the liquid and closed the briefcase. Pia backed up to the door. She turned the knob, intending to run as fast and as far as she could before they caught her and brought her back. But the knob wouldn’t turn. She faced the door and used both hands. It wouldn’t budge. She banged on the door, tears now streaming down her face. “Let me out!” She screamed at the camera, “You can’t do this to me!” “Pia.” The doctor stood calmly across her room, holding the syringe in one hand and the pills in the

other. “You can make this much easier on yourself if you just take the pills. I don’t want to have to force you.” “Then don’t.” She forced herself to calm and made her voice softer, trying to be persuasive. “I know you may think my father is powerful, but he’s just a man. Do you really want to live the rest of your life with murder on your hands? Knowing that you forced an innocent girl to kill a baby she dearly loved and wanted more than anything? Do you really want to face the guilt from that?” “It’s nothing I haven’t done before,” he said coldly. She was sickened at his words and careless tone and expression. She had to think quickly. There had to be a way to convince him. She walked closer to him and dropped her voice to just above a whisper. “Look.” She glanced toward the camera in the wall and turned so that they couldn’t read her lips. “We can pretend like I took the pills. My father won’t blame you. You’ll get paid and whatever. He’ll think it’s done and that’ll be that. When nothing happens, I’ll just say the pills didn’t work. Or I’ll tell him I spit them out or something. Just don’t make me do this. My father is mean and crazy. He’s trying to marry me off to some mob guy I don’t even know. Help me. Please.” They looked at each other for a long time. This had to work. Had to. If she couldn’t convince him, it was all over. He’d overpower her easily. She wasn’t that strong and she was weak from throwing up and not eating. They hadn’t brought her food today yet. Were they now trying to make her weak? Was this just part of her father’s game? Starve her and torture her into doing what he wanted? When she had the thought, her chest went cold. That was probably exactly what he was doing. How long had it been since she ate? A day? More? She cursed herself for skipping meals when she had had the chance to eat. Who knew when she would be fed again? Maybe they’d just let her starve to death. Maybe he thought it would kill the baby. And it likely would do something awful to it. It couldn’t be a good thing, right? Growing babies needed nutrition. They were both in trouble if she didn’t eat something soon. But that was the least of her worries in this moment. If he made her take those pills, it wouldn’t matter what she ate or didn’t eat. The baby would be gone. Her throat burned and went thick. She couldn’t let that happen. She almost laughed at the idea that she’d considered even for a moment that she could give up the baby and marry Paolo. The second her baby was in danger, it was clear that she would never be able to do that. There was so much love in her for this baby and its father, and it ignited the motherly instincts she didn’t even know she had. Forget the money. There was no way that would be an option because giving up her baby was not an option. The only thing now was to survive. She would not go down without a fight. She may not have much, but she would give it all she had. Would do anything she could to protect her baby. She’d die trying if she had to. The doctor held up the syringe and took a step toward her.

Chapter 19 Ryder turned into Matteo’s neighborhood. His stomach still wouldn’t settle. The fear, the anxiety, the anger, all warred within him. Good thing he hadn’t eaten much. He already wasted too many pain pills by puking them back up. He parked his car several streets away and popped a few more pills before getting out. He pulled out his guns and climbed up the hill to his spot. This hill, he knew well. On many occasions, he perched up here, waiting to kill someone that Matteo had coming to the house. It was easier in some situations to do it that way. Invite them over for a meeting or to make a deal or whatever, then Ryder would pick them off from his hidden spot before they even reached the house. That’s why Ryder was shocked to find no one on the hill when he reached the top. Was Matteo that big of an idiot? Or did he just underestimate Ryder that much? He didn’t stop to consider how easy it would be for Ryder to sit up here and take them all out one by one? After all the training Matteo paid for Ryder to get, after all the years of practice and being in awe of Ryder’s impeccable record. He didn’t think that maybe Ryder would use that against him? Or maybe he was just that cocky to think they’d be able to outsmart him or avoid being killed by him. Ryder positioned himself at the top of the hill, lying on his stomach to take aim. From here, he could see the whole house, in all of its huge splendor. The grounds stretching out around it, the stables off to the side. He watched for a long time, hoping that Pia would come out just so he could see her. He thought he knew which windows were her bedroom, but wasn’t sure. Curtains covered most of the windows on the upper floor and from this distance, he couldn’t make out the differences in the fabric to be able to pick out her pink-flowered ones. He forced his gaze from where he thought Pia’s room was and put his mind into hitman mode. He assessed the people he saw. Two guards at the back of the house and two at the front, all pacing to cover the grounds all around the house. He watched them for several minutes, until he felt sure he knew their paths. He’d have to act fast. Once he shot the guards, everyone would be on alert. Then it was a matter of getting down the hill and over the fence so he could storm the mansion. Then straight to Pia. He could have her in his arms in minutes. His heart raced at the thought. But his stomach tightened. What condition would he find her in? What if she wasn’t okay? What if she wasn’t alive? He’d take out everyone in the house if she was dead. Even the staff. He would be ruthless. No one would survive and live to tell the tale. He’d make sure anyone and everyone associated with Matteo paid for that association with their lives. Even if she was alive, he’d still kill most of them. Maybe not the staff, though. They were innocent, after all. But Matteo’s guys would all be gone today. How sweet it would be if Solano were here

already. Ryder pictured himself charging in, interrupting the wedding ceremony to kill Solano and Matteo, then scooping Pia into his arms. Hell, maybe he’d even have the preacher marry them if he would. Do it right then and there. Why not? It was a great idea, but he had work to do first. A lot of blood had to be spilled before he could get to Pia. A lot more would have to spilled before they were safe. But there was no doubt about it. Ryder was going in there and coming out with all that was his. His woman and his child. And no one was going to stop him. Let them try. They’d face his gun if they did. He had no reason to hold back. He decided on his kill order. If he waited until the farthest back guard was making his way toward the center of the house, killing him wouldn’t alert the front guards. And as long as he did it before the other back guard turned to begin pacing back, it wouldn’t alert him immediately, either. He’d kill the farthest back guard, then the closest back guard. From there, it wouldn’t matter much which front guard he killed first. Either of them were too close to the house and someone inside would know when they were shot. They’d hear it and see them fall. But Ryder could kill all four of them in seconds if they didn’t start running. If they did, it might take a few minutes instead. Aiming was harder when you had a moving target, but unless they were skilled at outrunning a sniper, he would still get his shot in. He took careful aim and waited, watching the guard through his rifle’s scope. When he had the perfect shot, aimed right over his head, he squeezed the trigger and saw the man fall. He quickly moved down to the next guard. He hadn’t seen anything. Before he could turn and see that his fellow guard was on the ground, he was also on the ground. Ryder shifted his aim to the front guards now. They were conversing together. Maybe they’d heard the shots and were talking about it, decided who should go where to look. But they’d messed up. In the ten seconds they spent talking, they’d moved close together. Ryder almost laughed at how easy they’d made it for him. He shot one of the front guards in the head, moved his aim ever so slightly, and shot the second before he even had time to realize what had happened and to react. All four of them were shot and dead in under thirty seconds. Ryder glanced at the bodies at the back of the house to make sure neither was moving. He’d never missed a killing shot before, but now was not the time to overestimate his own skill. But none of the four bodies were moving, so it looked like his perfect record held. He could sit there longer and wait. Someone would come out of the house to see what was going on. Someone would try to get them medical attention, or at least check to see that they were dead. And eventually, someone would dispose of the bodies. He could take people out one by one as they left the house. But now that his guards were dead, Matteo would know that Ryder was here. He would eventually remember the hill where he was now perched, and he might send someone to take him out. It was too risky to wait. And Ryder didn’t have the patience anyway. Every thought of Pia made his gut wrench in fear. He had to get to her and know she was okay. He had to get her out of here. There would be no

waiting. He got to his feet, slung his rifle over his shoulder from its strap, and looked around. When he saw no one, he took off, running fast down the hill. He reached the fence, tall and wooden, and leapt. He jumped just high enough for his fingers to close over the top, then he pulled himself up and over, landing hard on his feet on the ground. He sprinted toward the house and toward Pia.


The doctor moved closer to Pia, the syringe in his hand like a knife, ready to stab her. She looked at the shining metal tip and all she could think was that if that got near her, it was done. Her baby was gone. It was over. If she couldn’t convince him, her plan now was to delay and find a way to overtake him. She wasn’t stronger than him, but maybe she was smart enough, or fast enough, or wanted this baby enough, that she could find a way to sneak by or trick him. Was there any way she could get the syringe from him and stab him with it? Then maybe she could escape. They’d have to open the door to get the doctor out, right? She stepped forward toward him, and that seemed to surprise him. His face changed and grew wary. “Are you really going to drug me and force those pills down my throat while I’m unconscious?” she asked. “You’ve given me no choice.” “How much is my father paying you?” “It’s not about the money.” She put her hand on her hip. “It’s always about the money.” “No. He’s doing me a favor.” “And what’s that?” “I’m not going to say.” His face was straight and he gave away no emotion. “Is he going to kill someone for you?”

The doctor pulled together his eyebrows. “No.” “Take care of someone in some other way, like have them beat up? Or is this more like you need something erased? Maybe a mistake on your doctor’s record or something?” He shook his head. “I’m not going to say.” “Well, you should know that my father lies. All the time. Whatever he said he’s going to do, he won’t. I hope you got at least half of your payment upfront, because he’s not going to pay you. Once it’s done, why should he? Once it’s done, it’s not like you can take it back or go to the police, right? No. He lied to you, got you to come and do this, and he’s going to give you nothing for it.” “You shouldn’t assume you know anything about adult matters, little girl.” Pia laughed. “You think I don’t know the inner workings of my father and his business? I’ve been watching and listening to him for years. I know a lot more than anyone likes to believe I know. More than my father thinks I know. And I can tell you this. I have friends and connections of my own. You think people won’t do things for the daughter of a mafia boss? They will.” “What’s your point?” He started to look agitated. It was working. She just needed to push a little harder. “Do you like being a doctor? I mean, you go to school for a lot of years to be one, don’t you? That can’t be cheap, and I wouldn’t imagine someone would do all that if it wasn’t something they loved. And you make your living as a doctor. So, if, say, one of my friends turned up with proof that you had done something unethical, which caused you to lose your license, that wouldn’t be a good thing for you, would it?” He narrowed his eyes slightly. “That wouldn’t work. There is an entire board who has to decide to take someone’s license.” “You do realize I have connections everywhere, right? And with a body like this, do you think it’s hard for me to get anyone to do what I want?” Her bedroom door slammed opened behind her. Lu stood in the doorway, hands wrapped around a gun, pointed at her head. “Pia, what are you trying to pull? You know we can hear you, as well as see you, right?” She shrugged. “You have kids. I’m sure you’d do anything to protect them if someone was threatening to kill them, wouldn’t you? This is the same thing. My father and this doctor want to kill my child. And I’m not going to let them.” “Stop playing games. Take the pills,” Lu said.

“You’re going to shoot me if I don’t?” “I’ll do whatever I have to,” Lu said. She changed her tactic. There was no way she could trick the doctor or talk him into or out of anything if Lu was there with a gun. Time for the next plan. “Lu,” she whimpered, acting like she was suddenly afraid. “You wouldn’t do that to me, would you? And to my baby? There are two lives you’d be ending.” “Take the pills, Pia.” She made herself start to cry. Wasn’t hard to do these days. But she had to seem like she was giving in. This wouldn’t work if they didn’t believe her. “Please, Lu.” He stepped closer, unwavering in his aim. “Okay,” she sobbed. “Okay, I’ll do it, just stop pointing that gun at me!” Lu didn’t drop the gun until she stepped forward and took the pills from the doctor. “I have to get water,” she said and walked into the bathroom. They came with her, watching. She turned on the bathroom faucet, cupped one hand like she was going to take a drink of the water, and threw the pills into the toilet. “You’ll have to kill me before you make me take those! I will not kill my baby!” “You’re a foolish and stupid girl,” the doctor said. “And if that’s how you want it, then I will kill you,” Lu said. Lu lifted the gun again and Pia heard a gunshot. At first, she was confused. Had he shot his gun? She didn’t feel hurt. But when she looked at Lu, he was just as confused. Another shot was fired and she dashed over to the window. The two guards who walked out there, back and forth across the property, now lay dead on the ground. Blood pooled around them. Each had a perfect hole in his head. Her heart leapt with joy. Which was strange since she was looking at two dead bodies. But she knew why this had happened. This could mean only one thing. Ryder was here. No one else had reason to kill the guards, and certainly no one else was as good of a shot as he was. He had come for her. Finally. A grin of deep joy and peace spread across her face. He hadn’t taken off, hadn’t left her. His plan had

just taken longer than she thought. But he was here now. He had come and he would take her away from here. Away from her father and these people trying to kill the baby and maybe her. And best of all, she wouldn’t have to marry Paolo now. She could be with Ryder and no one else. They could have the family she’d been dreaming of. She wanted to dance on the clouds and shout for joy. He had come. At last. She was about to turn from the window, to run out the door, which she noticed Lu had not locked when he came in, but she saw something. Ryder was coming over the fence. He looked injured. Dirty, bloody, covered in bruises. But he looked better than ever. A warm glow ran through her body at the sight of him. No matter what was going on, she wanted him. Her body cared little about the danger. It knew that seeing him meant safety and strength and, at some point, as soon as they were alone, pleasure. She thought of that moment, of kissing him, of feeling him inside her, and she wanted to jump from the window right there and then. She didn’t care who was around or who was watching. She needed him and she would have him. He was running toward the mansion. If she went to him, maybe that would make things easier. Easier or not, she had to get to him. Had to see him and feel him close. She turned, and Lu was watching out the window, too, shocked. It was just enough to distract him and kept his attention—and his gun—off her. She blew by him, out of the bathroom and into her bedroom. Lu called out, “Hey!” But she kept running. The door was unlocked as she thought. She chuckled to herself as she tore the door open and jumped into the hall. They weren’t as smart as they thought they were. Lu should have locked her in with them. Pia didn’t stop to see who was in the hall outside her room or how many of them there were. She bolted to the stairs. She held on the handrail for support so she wouldn’t trip. The last thing she needed as she was trying to escape and save her baby’s life was to fall down the stairs. That might accomplish exactly what her father wanted. But her feet were surer than she thought, even in her speed. She didn’t trip. She didn’t even stumble. Her bare feet hit the cold marble floor of the entry way. She looked up, expecting to see Ryder coming through the front door, but what she saw made her freeze and turned her blood to ice. Her father stood there, in front of the door. And right beside him was Paolo Solano. “There she is,” Matteo said. “Your bride.” Paolo leered at her. “Perfect. I like it when they’re all scruffy.” “She cleans up real nice, I assure you,” Matteo said.

“That’s okay.” Paolo winked at her. “I like a dirty girl.” “You’ll just have to excuse us while we take care of a little problem,” Matteo said calmly. “Seems our house is under attack. Don’t worry, my Pia. You’re safe as can be.” Pia didn’t trust him for a second. The way he was talking and looking at her meant something was up. He knew Ryder was here, clearly. He’d probably already sent people to go after him. Was that why he hadn’t come in the house yet? Or maybe he wasn’t planning to go through the front door. Her father opened his arms to her. “Come here to Daddy. Are you feeling better? Everything go okay with the doctor, I trust?” “Everything went as planned,” she said. Everything went as she planned. She stepped toward her father warily. She didn’t trust him, but Paolo didn’t know about the baby. He’d never tell him something like that and risk him not wanting to marry her. Matteo still wanted to get rid of her badly. This was all an act. If it was just an act, then he probably wouldn’t do anything to her in front of Paolo, like hurt her or say anything mean. He’d want to keep up the act and make them seem like the perfect father and daughter. Maybe he’d even convince Paolo that he loved his daughter, that she wanted to marry him, even. Wouldn’t that be something. How good of a liar and con artist was he? Her father grinned at her and it seemed like a genuine smile, but she knew better. She walked to him slowly and put her arms lightly around his waist in a limp hug. She didn’t want to be any closer to him than she had to be. He hugged her back, kissing her forehead like it was old times. She wanted to cry. For that moment, it felt so good. Like he was her father again who loved her. But she knew it wasn’t real. She remembered in vivid detail how he’d treated her and the names he’d called her and how he’d tried to have her baby—and her if she didn’t go along with it—killed. How many times over her life had he played that same game? Had he ever really, truly loved her? And then, she thought, Ryder is going to make such a fabulous father. He wouldn’t be capable of playing games and lying like that. Sure, he could lie when he needed to, but when it came to his own child, unless it was to keep him or her safe, like he’d done when he pretended to end things with her, then he wouldn’t treat them badly ever. Wouldn’t lie to them and make it seem like he loved them when he didn’t. He would just love them like a real parent should. Paolo smiled at them. “I love to see a father and daughter who love each other. Someday, we will have a daughter, Pia, and I will love her like that.” She smiled, but wanted to throw up. She’d never have his child. She might have a daughter of her own, but it would be Ryder’s daughter and he would hug her and love her and kiss her. He’d never turn on her like her father had. He’d cherish her forever. He was a real man. A good man. A man who’d killed and walked into the line of fire for them, for her and their baby. And that was before their child was even born. She loved him more than ever.

Chapter 20 Ryder ran for the door as fast as he could. He was no sprinter, but when his life was on the line, plus the life of the woman he loved and their child, there was nothing that was going to slow him down. Especially not his own body. He breathed through the pain, the pain pills he’d taken earlier barely having an effect on this level of exertion. When this was over, he was going to sleep for days and let his body heal. A man ran at him through the front door. He held a gun up, pointed at Ryder’s head. “Freeze!” Ryder didn’t hesitate. He raised his own gun and shot. While running, he was still a better shot than most men were when they had time to sit and aim. This guy stood no chance. Whoever he was. Ryder didn’t know him. And he never would. The man lay on the ground, unmoving. Ryder spun to look behind him. Surely more men were coming after him. But he saw no one else. They must be very slow. They must not have been ready for this at all. Did they not expect him to come? They had underestimated him, then. Fools. They’d pay for that mistake. Big time. But as he was about to reach the steps up to the house, someone tackled him from the side. He’d been hiding in the bushes. Damn. Ryder hadn’t looked that closely. Stupid move. He had underestimated them just as he was thinking they’d underestimated him. The guy managed to get him on the ground. Easy only because Ryder was still in so much pain that being hit from the tackle had caused him to go still to avoid more pain. Landing on the ground was like falling into a pit of glass. Everything hurt. He had to lie there for a second to catch his breath and to avoid passing out. He breathed deep and opened his eyes to see the guy’s gun pointed at him. “On your feet!” he shouted. Ryder still had his gun in his hand. Had he not noticed that? Ryder moved like he was going to get up, but shot the guy in the chest. He landed beside Ryder and he crawled over to make sure he was dead. He pushed himself shakily to his feet. Asshole. Now his whole body was in fresh agony. He stumbled and had to close his eyes a moment to regain his balance. He forced them open and checked around him to make sure no one else was coming. He took a moment to steady himself, then pushed the pain from his mind and moved forward. He didn’t have time to let the pain get to him. Ryder ran up the cement steps to the large wooden front door. It was covered in wrought iron swirls, the wood stained green. It was a beautiful door, and he had often admired it, but the only beauty Ryder was concerned about now was the one behind the door. Pia. He turned the knob and yanked the door open. It wasn’t even locked. He blinked and his eyes adjusted

to the indoor light quickly. He saw Matteo first, his arm tight around Pia’s throat, his gun pressed against her head. Then he saw Solano. He was closer to him, and he had his gun aimed right at him. Ryder stood very still. One wrong move and they could both be dead. Pia let out a small whimper. He allowed himself one glance at her. She was scared, but smiling. Clearly happy to see him. And he was so relieved to see her. She was alive and looked mostly well. A little pale maybe. A little dirty and messy, like she hadn’t showered recently, but she was the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen. He hoped the baby was okay. He had no way to tell just by looking at her. She did look like her eyes were red and puffy from crying, but that could have been over any number of things. He wouldn’t worry yet. He’d assume everything was fine and ask her about it when he could. Once they were away from all this and found a place to live, they would get her to a doctor to make sure things were good. Didn’t pregnant ladies see their doctors all the time anyway? She hadn’t been to one yet, so she probably needed to go. He gave her a small smile to tell her everything would be okay. But of course, everything wasn’t okay. Her own father was holding a gun to her head and this psycho Solano was pointing a gun at him. He sized up the situation fast. If he shot Solano, Matteo would shoot Pia. He couldn’t take the chance that he would be able to shoot both Solano and Matteo fast enough. Too risky. Same thing if he tried to shoot Matteo first. Solano would have time to shoot him. That would at least get Pia free. Except that shooting Matteo would be much harder since he was holding her in front of him, and even if he shot Matteo, if Solano shot him, then Pia would only be safe for a short time. If he couldn’t kill them both, there was no point. “Put the gun down,” Matteo said. “Or I will shoot Pia, and Solano will shoot you.” Ryder put his hands up in surrender, setting his gun down on the floor at his feet. Of course, he had others tucked away, but they didn’t know that. “Pia is mine, you fool,” Solano said, glaring at Ryder. “You really thought you could come in here and take her from me? You’re nothing. Why would she want you?” Ryder glanced at Pia, trying to convey in his expression that everything was going to be okay, even if it looked like he was giving in. Did she have any idea what was really going through his mind? Did she know that he wasn’t really surrendering, but only appearing to play along? He hoped she knew enough about these types of situations and about him that she would know better than to think he was doing what they wanted. Or that they would win. But he needed her to be brave and strong. To not give up or give in. To not do something stupid that could get them both hurt or killed. He needed her to read his mind. And, he thought, as soon as they were out of here, he would teach her. If they ever got into a situation like this again, she would know what to do. They would do it together, kind of like a Bonnie and Clyde type of team. Pia and Ryder, the outlaws. They’d get to that later. They’d have time for all sorts of things later. First, they had to

live through this and get away. Solano stepped toward Ryder cautiously, still pointing his gun at him. Ryder held his hands up with a bored expression on his face. Solano stepped behind him and put an arm around his throat, then pressed his gun to his head, mirroring the position Matteo held Pia in. It seemed like they were done for. Both of them had guns to their heads and if they tried anything, they would both be killed. Ryder had a plan. The gun at his ankle was locked and loaded. He just had to get it. Or the knife at his waist. He still had both of those weapons, and like a total fool, Solano hadn’t thought to pat him down. Amateur. If this guy didn’t have money and people around all the time to protect him, he’d never have survived this long. They wouldn’t just stand here all day. They would be taken somewhere. And as they were walking, it would be easy to suddenly trip Solano, to bend down and grab his gun and shoot him quick. He just had to time it right. He needed to be behind Matteo and Pia so that when he did this, it would give him a split second to kill Matteo before he could turn and see what happened and kill Pia. It would work, though. These guys had no clue what they were doing when compared with him, the trained and wellpracticed expert hitman. If Matteo had been smart, he would have killed Ryder already. Should have shot him the moment he walked in the door. As he was looking for angles and holes in their positions, waiting for someone to move, always watching for an opening or some opportunity that would give him the time he needed, Pia did something that shocked him. She reached out her arm suddenly and drew it back, elbowing her father right in the crotch. Her height, at almost a foot shorter than her tall father, gave her the perfect position. She only had to bend over the tiniest bit to hit the money spot. Matteo cried out in pain and bent over, clutching his groin. “Shoot him!” Pia yelled, jumping out of the way. Ryder dropped to his knees forcefully, breaking Solano’s grip on him. He tore his pant leg out of the way and grabbed his gun, then raised it, aimed, and shot Matteo in the chest before he even stood up. Then he stood quickly and elbowed Solano. When he bent over in involuntarily reaction to the pain, Ryder shot him at point blank. Solano dropped with a loud thud. Ryder walked over to Matteo and kicked him. He was dead. He knew he was dead. His perfect record still held. But he hated this man with a passion. He put one more bullet in his head for good measure. Matteo should consider himself lucky. Ryder never wasted two bullets on one man. But he needed the satisfaction of tearing his brain apart. Too bad Matteo’s heart had already stopped so there would be little blood. He wanted to see his blood pour from his head. More men were coming, though. Alerted by the gunshots and the commotion, no doubt. They had to get out of there fast. He turned and three men were coming through the front door, slowed by the bodies in the way. Two more were to his left. On his right, two more. So many guns were pointed at them in that moment. If they’d all shot simultaneously, a rain of bullets would fall around them, surely killing them both. He had to get them out of there now before they wised up and figured out that they had Ryder

and Pia completely surrounded.


Pia had never been so terrified in her life. When she let her father hug her, she’d been wary of him. But she never expected him to do what he did. When his arm tightened around her hard, she cried out for him to let her go, but he spun her around and tightened his arm over her throat. That was bad enough. The pressure hurt and she could barely breathe, let alone swallow. But then he pressed the end of his gun to her temple. Her father truly was an evil man. She’d been upset before, thinking he didn’t love her, but deep down inside, she figured he did and was just being mean to get his way. She did that sometimes, too. But this was different. Such a blatant and hard threat? There was no going back when someone acted like they would kill you at any second. Her heart turned cold to her father in that moment. She wanted him dead. She’d shoot him herself if she had a gun. Now she wished she had. She’d have to get Ryder to teach her to shoot and buy a gun so that she was never in this helpless situation again. She’d never play the victim or be someone’s pawn. She was going to learn to stand on her own, with Ryder by her side. When Ryder had come in the door, she’d been so relieved to see him, she almost forgot about everything going on around them. She wanted to run into his arms, to throw herself at him. To feel his arms around her, keeping her safe, to feel his lips on hers, hot and passionate. She lurched forward to get to him, but her father held her tight, choking her. When Matteo held his gun to her, Paolo pointed his at the door, under her father’s command. “That’ll be the man who thinks he can steal Pia away from you,” Matteo said. “We have to kill him. That’s the only way to stop him.” “No!” Pia shouted, but her father pressed his gun harder into her head. The look on Ryder’s face when he came in and saw her father holding her was something she’d never forget. He was horrified and shocked. Maybe he didn’t think Matteo would ever do something like that either. How long had it taken him to see Paolo and realize there was a gun pointed at him, too? Despite all that, the look in his eyes when he looked at her was of pure longing. It mirrored everything she felt. Love, desire, yearning. He must have wanted to hold her tight as badly as she wanted him to. In that one look, any residual hesitation was gone. If she hadn’t been one hundred percent sure of him before, she was one hundred and ten percent sure of him now. If she’d thought for a second he wouldn’t come or that he’d meant it when he ended things, all of those thoughts had vanished. They’d never return. She knew now. With him being here and killing the guards outside and looking at her like that, that it had all been part of the plan. He was playing their game and it looked to her like they

had been winning and her father and Paolo were losing. Except that now Matteo was holding her and pointing a gun at her, and within seconds of him being in the house, Paolo was holding Ryder and had a gun pointed at him. How would they get out of this? Ryder had to have some plan, she was sure of it. He wouldn’t come all this way, go through everything they’d been through, just to give up in the end. That was outrageous. But she couldn’t see what the plan was. That was probably a good thing because if she could see it, then her father and Paolo probably could, too. They were mob bosses and what was she? Just a woman with little experience at any of this. Despite what she’d said to the doctor upstairs, she knew little of this world, had almost no connections that would help her, and had zero training when it came to guns and self-defense. She should have taken a class or something after she was almost kidnapped at her store. That felt like years ago now. She hadn’t, though, which was stupid, but nothing she could do about that now. She waited. She kept her eyes on Ryder, waiting for him to make his move. It had to be soon, right? He couldn’t let them take them somewhere, or maybe they’d just shoot them anyway. Her father had said Ryder needed to be killed, so maybe he was only seconds from death. They met eyes and he smiled a little. She wanted him to give her some idea of the plan. Some little sign or something so she would know what to do. But as she waited and watched him, she could almost see him thinking. And he didn’t look like he had a plan. He looked like he was still figuring things out. Which was no good. She couldn’t wait any longer. There had been too much of this. Too much waiting and too much anxiety about what might happen and too many threats. She needed this to be over. Needed to just be with him and have him hold her close and kiss her. Enough of this. She didn’t want to put any more stress on the baby. She’d heard that stress was bad when you were pregnant and the level of stress she had faced in the last few days was likely far more than she should have faced in months. She needed to get to safety and have peace, and she should see a doctor. She didn’t even know when she was due and she wanted to know if the baby was a boy or a girl. Doctors could do all of that. Maybe not the one upstairs, clearly, but doctors who did that sort of thing could see inside her belly and assure her everything was just fine. Then she thought of something. Obviously, Ryder couldn’t shoot her father because Paolo would shoot him, and he couldn’t shoot Paolo because then Matteo would shoot her. But if she could cause some sort of distraction, then maybe Ryder would be able to kill them both. She was in the perfect place to hurt her father, too. He probably didn’t even realize it. She held Ryder’s gaze and went for it. She stuck out her arm and brought it back as hard as she could, sending her hard little elbow right into his crotch. That always hurt men. That was why you went for that spot first. It was the easiest and the surest. A guy was nearly incapacitated when you kneed him or elbowed him in the balls. And this time was no different. Her father bent over in pain. She smiled for an instant, but then shouted to Ryder to kill him. In case he’d thought maybe she wouldn’t want him to or something.

She ducked and moved out of the way. That worked out to be perfect because her moving drew Paolo’s attention. Then Ryder was able to get his gun and shoot. Only then did she stop to think. He’d set down his gun. What if that had been his only gun? She might have just gotten them killed. Seemed like Paolo should have checked him for other weapons or something. She knew that Ryder never had just one gun on him. Didn’t her father know that, too? He had to. So, wouldn’t Paolo? Oh well, better for them that he hadn’t, because if he had, she might have done a very bad thing. She hoped Ryder wasn’t mad at her for doing it. It had been kind of risky. But Ryder shot her father, then Paolo. When both of them were on the floor dead and her and Ryder were uninjured, it looked like it had been a good plan after all. Thank goodness. But there were more men coming for them. She heard footsteps all around them, and she was terrified all over again. There were so many guns, all aimed at them. But now she didn’t have to worry. Ryder was here. She dove for him, throwing herself into his arms like she’d wanted to so badly for days. He squeezed her back and the feeling sent liquid warmth and comfort running through her. This was where she was meant to be. Right here in his arms. There wasn’t time for a kiss. They had to get moving now or they’d be in trouble all over again. But the men were coming at them from every side. What could they do? Ryder took her hand and tugged her forward. They ran up the stairs two at a time. She was out of breath when they reached the top. She still needed desperately to eat something to get her strength. She’d have to find some energy from somewhere, though, because the men were on their heels. They went into her father’s room, the master bedroom. The door was locked, but with one hard kick, Ryder broke it down. As they ran, he would turn around every few seconds to shoot someone who was getting too close. How in the world did he aim like that as they were all running? He continued to amaze her. She dashed over to her father’s dresser and tore open the top drawer. She reached to the back, where she knew he kept extra money. She grabbed everything that was there. “What are you doing?” Ryder asked, exasperated. She held up the cash for a split second before shoving it in her pocket. “Come on,” he said. They pushed open the French doors that led to the balcony. She’d been so upset when they moved into this house years ago and he wouldn’t give her the room with the balcony. He said he’d have one built onto her room, but he never did. Jerk. It was a gorgeous view usually. But right now, all she could see were two dead bodies in the yard.

Ryder led her to the side of the balcony and up to the railing. “Climb carefully down the trellis. I’ll be right behind you.” “But they’ll be here before I can get down and you can follow. How will you get out?” “Don’t worry about me.” He leaned forward and gave her a quick kiss. “As soon as you hit the ground, run.” “But, Ryder—” “Go!” She swung her leg over the railing and grabbed onto the thin bars of the trellis. She looked over at him and met his eyes for a moment. “I love you,” she said. He pulled his mouth into a crooked smile. “I love you. Now go.” The trellis looked like it would barely hold her as she began her climb. How would it ever hold Ryder? She made her way down as quickly as she could. One foot, then a hand, then another foot and another hand. Her bare feet touched the grass, she let go, and looked back up at the balcony. He was standing there, alternating between watching her and looking behind him. He saw her reach the ground and as she watched him watching her, a man appeared behind him and put his arm around Ryder’s throat. Pia screamed and watched in horror. She reached for the trellis to climb back up, but she wouldn’t be able to do anything. She dropped her hand and as she continued to stare, saw Ryder clock the guy in the nose with his elbow. Then he turned around and she heard a gunshot. Ryder hopped over the edge of the railing and grabbed the trellis. He didn’t go one rung at a time, foot then hand, as she had. He swung his body down far, caught two rungs with his feet, grabbed the bars at his waist and let his body hang. He let go and hit the ground hard. He had dropped at least ten feet. He took her hand again and they were running. They ran right to the fence. She had thought maybe there was a broken piece or some sort of door that she didn’t know about. But when they got to it, Ryder bent down and laced his fingers together. “I’ll boost you up. Grab the top and pull yourself over.” “What?” she squeaked. Not only did she not think she was strong enough to do that, but what if she fell? “You’ll be fine, just jump into my hands and grab the top of the fence.” She took a deep breath and hopped into his hands. He pushed up, sending her up so high, she almost

flew over the fence without even trying. She grabbed the top and flipped her leg over, then held on for an instant to lower her body before letting go. She heard a loud bang on the fence, then Ryder’s hands appeared at the top. He must’ve jumped on the fence. His head showed, then his whole body flew over the top and he landed on the ground. He stood and took her hand again. They ran up a grassy hill, her feet slipping with the effort. He got behind her and picked her up, tossing her into his arms like she weighed nothing. He ran up the hill with her in his arms and all she could think was, He is so strong. She could fall asleep right now in his arms. She was that peaceful and comforted by him. He put her down gently on the gravel next to his car and opened the door to get her in. Then he dashed to the other side, jumped in, and they took off. The tires spit gravel behind him as he sped away. “We’re just going to make one stop, then we’re getting the hell out of this city.” He reached for her hand, took it, and kissed her knuckles.

Chapter 21 Ryder just had to get to his house. It would only take a minute or two, but everything he needed was there. This was risky, though. Matteo knew where he lived, knew Lorenzo had been sent and never came back. He might have people waiting for him here. If it was anything else, he wouldn’t bother. But Ryder had more than ten thousand dollars inside. They would need that. Pia had grabbed some money from her dad’s room, but they needed all they could get. He’d also grab his other guns, some ammo, and the bag of clothes he kept packed and ready to go at all times. Pia was clutching his hand so tight. It hurt like hell. Somewhere along the last few days, with all the beatings he’d taken and all the fights he’d been in, his hand had been smashed. It ached just to open and close it, and since that was his dominant hand, he’d been using it to hold a gun and pull the trigger. But after all they’d been through, and now that he finally had her with him, touching him, he’d take whatever pain there was in this world if it meant she was touching him. “How much money did you grab?” he asked. She mercifully released his hand to dig in her pockets. She pulled out wads of cash. Thick stacks of hundred-dollar bills. “Looks like twenty thousand dollars. Thought he kept more than that.” She looked upset at this. “Hey, babe, this is perfect. That’s a lot of money. Plenty for us to get away. And if we have to rob a bank on the way, we will.” Her eyes went wide and her mouth popped open in shock. “I’m kidding, Pia. We’re stopping at my house because I have some cash there, too, and some other things.” “Are we staying there long?” “No. I’m going to run in and out. It might not be safe.” “Oh.” “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Nothing really. I’m just starving and I need a shower.” “We’ll get a hotel as soon as it’s safe to stop. I’ll try to grab something when I run in, okay?” She nodded. He pulled up to his house. He wasn’t sure what to do. He was so used to looking out for

himself only. Taking care of someone else was new. Was it safer to leave her here? What if someone showed up and they took her again? No, she had to come in. But what if someone was in there, waiting? His stomach clenched and clenched again. Finally, he settled on something that seemed okay. “I’m giving you my gun. It’s already loaded and chambered. All you have to do it pull the trigger, okay?” She nodded and gingerly took the gun. He positioned her fingers on it properly. “Like this. Anyone comes and tries to hurt you, aim at their chest.” “Isn’t the head better?” “It’s much harder to hit.” He kissed her and got out of the car, then locked the doors. He ran into the house, dashing through the rooms with his other gun in his hand in case someone was there. Maybe they were all at Matteo’s? Or if someone was here, maybe they’d been called and sent back to Matteo’s when they knew Ryder was there instead. He hit the bedroom first. He grabbed the duffel bag from the closet and opened the zipper, then shoved the cash from the box in the back of the closet inside the bag. He tossed in his other bottle of pain pills, a few boxes of ammo, and went to the bathroom. He pulled out every Band-Aid and ointment he had that might help them. Then he went to the kitchen. He didn’t usually keep much food around, but he had some chips and Pop Tarts. He threw them in the bag and ran out the front door. He let the door slam behind him and bolted for the car. When he saw it, Pia wasn’t in it. His chest constricted and the sudden panic was there again. Had someone come for them? Had someone taken her? “Pia!” he shouted, and ripped the door open. She scooted up from where she had been hiding on the floor in front of the seat. He sat behind the wheel hard, putting his hand to his face, shaking. “Jesus,” he said. “I’m sorry. I thought it would be safer if no one saw me.” Then he saw that she was crying. “No, you’re right, it was,” he said. He closed the car door and made sure they were all locked. Then he reached for her. “Come here.” She awkwardly slid over the center console and leaned into him.

“You scared the fuck out of me,” he said. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I may not be able to let you out of my sight for a while.” “I’m okay with that.” He brushed the hair from her face and kissed her. It felt like it had been ages since their lips met. He wanted more. He wanted to devour her right there. But they had to get moving. “We need to go,” he said. She slid back into her seat. He started the car and took off. She was still crying, weeping silently and wiping at her eyes. “What’s going on?” he asked. She could barely talk through her tears, which seemed to worsen as she tried to explain. “It was just so awful. Ryder, he tried to make me kill our baby. He sent this doctor and he had these pills and he was just so mean and cruel to me.” “The doctor was?” “No, my father. He called me horrible names and said the worst things. But the worst part is, as much as I wanted him dead, I’m sad he’s gone. I can’t believe my father is really dead.” She was sobbing too hard to continue. “I’m sorry,” he said. “There was no other way, I—” “No, I’m not sad he’s dead,” she said. “I mean, I’m sad he’s dead, but my dad, not my father.” She shook her head and tried to calm herself. “I mean, the man I thought he was. The man I thought my father was. I miss that man, but he never existed. It was all a lie. I don’t miss the man you killed, who was going to kill me because I’m having your baby. Not at all.” “I understand.” Ryder took her hand and kissed it. She still breathed in jagged breaths, but calmed some eventually. “I’m so glad you came. I wasn’t sure what to think after I last saw you, but I thought, the way you wouldn’t kiss me? I don’t know if I was just reading too much into it, but I thought since I said, ‘Kiss me goodbye,’ and you didn’t, that it was your way of saying it wasn’t really goodbye. But then it took so long, I didn’t know.” He looked over at her and smiled. “I’m glad you got that. I didn’t know any other way to tell you the truth. That it was never over and I’d never end it. But they were listening and watching, so that was

all I could do.” “I’m glad you did it, because it was the thing that kept me going the last few days.” “You really doubted me that much? You really thought I would end things like that?” She hung her head. “I wasn’t sure,” she whispered. “At first, I thought there was no way you’d end things or that what you said about not caring was true. Not after all the time we’d had together. But then I thought, why would you want me? Just a spoiled little daddy’s girl and you’re so tough and strong and sexy that you could have anyone, so—” He started to laugh, but had to cut it off when the pain was too much. “You think I can have anyone I want?” She shrugged. “Have you looked in the mirror lately?” He gave her a crooked smile. “Well, you’re the only one I want.” “You’re the only one I want. You and some food.” “Look in the bag.” She unzipped the bag and took out the chips and Pop Tarts, then consumed the entire package of both. “Did he starve you?” Ryder asked, concerned, the flare of anger in his chest again. “No. I couldn’t eat. It was stupid, but I kept getting sick. Uh-oh.” He looked over at her and her face seemed to be green. She put her hand to her mouth. He immediately pulled over, slamming the breaks hard to stop the car. She pulled open the door and stuck her head out to puke. When she was done, she wiped her mouth with her hand. “Maybe eat a little slower,” he said. She nodded, sweat breaking out across her forehead as she lay back against the seat. They were in bad shape, both of them. He needed to find a place for them to crash and recover, but also needed to make sure they were far enough away. They’d only been driving a short time. “Hang in there a little while, okay, babe? I have to get us to some place safe. Then we’ll get food and take showers, and sleep for a few days.” “Sounds perfect.”

She sat back and closed her eyes. He drove as fast as he could and an hour later, decided they had gone far enough. He pulled into a little motel and left Pia sleeping in the car with the doors locked. He parked so he could see the car from the motel’s office. This place looked old enough and run down enough that they wouldn’t have much security, if at all. He didn’t see any cameras or anything. “I need a room for two. One night,” he said. Though they needed a few days to recover, they wouldn’t stay in one place. He handed the guy cash and gave him a fake name. He then moved the car, finding a spot in the shadows, and parking so that his license plate faced the building. They’d need to get a new car. He unlocked the motel room, then came back to get Pia. She stirred when he picked her up. “Are we there?” “We are,” he whispered. He set her on the bed before going back to retrieve his things from the car. They’d need to get her clothing and whatever she needed, too. She’d run out without so much as shoes on her feet. “You know,” she said softly. “I had a whole bag packed and everything. Clothes, makeup, jewelry, things I wanted to take with me. Wish I had grabbed it.” She yawned and stretched. “Oh well. It’s just stuff.” He slid into bed behind her and wrapped her tight in his arms. “Right. We’ll go buy all that stuff again. It’ll be okay. This is what’s important. This right here.” She turned in his arms so she could kiss him. He was raging hard in seconds, but he noticed her lips had stopped moving. “Pia,” he said. She murmured. “Did you just fall asleep kissing me?” “Hmm?” She didn’t open her eyes. She was too exhausted. He laughed softly and closed his eyes, letting his tired, aching body drift off to sleep.


Ryder blinked in the morning light. Pia was curled against his side and his body was stiff and achy. But in slightly less pain. He was on guard, though. Something had woken him up. He listened, his ears piqued. This was a motel. It likely had been someone in another room slamming a door or shouting or doing something loud. Or a car door. He heard voices outside their door. His heart raced and he slowly climbed out of bed, trying not to wake Pia. She stirred when he moved away from her and murmured his name. “Shh,” he whispered. “Sleep.” She nestled back into the covers and he picked up his gun. He went to the door and looked out the peephole. He saw Sergio and another guy out there, looking around his car. Shit. They’d found them. And he liked Sergio. He didn’t want to kill him. But now he had no choice. He had to kill them and they had to run. Get away from there as quickly as possible before more could come. He put his hand to the knob, but Sergio approached his door. “Ryder? Are you in there? I’m not armed. Just need to talk to you.” Right. Why in the world would he be unarmed and want to talk? Pia sat up in bed. “What’s going on?” She rubbed her eyes and squinted in the light. He held his finger to his lips to signal for her to be quiet. She took in the gun, his position, heard the voices outside. Her eyes widened and she looked afraid. She pulled the covers to her chin and starting shaking her head. He waved to get her attention. When she looked at him, he pointed to the bathroom and gestured for her to go, then put his finger back to his lips. He didn’t want there to be any sound coming from this room. “Ryder? It’s Sergio. I’m not here for the reason you think, man. I know this is your car.” Sergio was walking along the row of rooms. Maybe he thought Ryder hadn’t parked in front of his room. He had, only because he was carrying Pia in and he’d thought they were safe here. “I’m going to call your phone so we can talk.” Ryder glanced across the room to where his phone sat on the bedside table. It was on silent, but he saw the screen light up with Sergio’s name and number. It rang several times, then he heard Sergio’s voice. But after a second, he got into the car he came in and Ryder couldn’t hear what he was saying. His phone beeped with a voice mail. He walked over and picked up the phone. Returning so he could watch out the peephole again, he

listened to the message. “Ryder, it’s Sergio. I’m at this motel and your car is here, so I’m assuming you’re here. I put a tracker on your car. It’s behind the back tire. I’m telling you this because I want you to know we’re not here to kill you.” He chuckled. “Man, how do you convince a hitman that you haven’t come to kill him? Well, here’s the thing. A lot of people are dead. A lot of bosses are dead. In fact, I’m the temporary boss. Turns out, since you killed Matteo and Lorenzo, the current Carelli boss is…you. I know that sounds nuts, and we even checked the bylaws. When the boss and second and third in command are dead, the boss becomes the next male kin. But there isn’t any, since there’s only Pia. In that case it goes to her husband or to whoever killed the top guys, and, well, you killed them all and you’re with Pia, so it’s still you either way. So, congratulations? You’re now a mob boss. There’s quite a lot of chaos and disarray, so we could use some direction. Call me back or something.” Ryder hit end and put the phone down. Nothing in him had triggered the sense that Sergio was lying. He seemed to actually be telling the truth. But how could that be? Sergio was still sitting in his car, waiting. He went to the bathroom door. “Pia?” he whispered, then opened the door slowly. She was huddled in the corner of the tub, looking scared half to death. “They found us?” she asked. “Listen to this message.” He handed her his phone. He studied her carefully while her face went through several expressions. Horror, then shock, then something that looked like realization. She handed the phone back to him. “Does that sound right to you?” he asked. “Well, he’s right that there are no more male relatives if you killed everyone. And if we’re together, that would make you the new head of the family. I think what he’s saying is right. Not that I know much about mob stuff.” “You know plenty. You’ve grown up in this world.” He sat down, tapping his gun against his knee. “I don’t know if I can trust this.” “But, if you’re the boss, what does that mean?” “Everything. We wouldn’t have to run or hide, we could go home to your father’s house. It’s yours now, I guess. We take over and run everything your father did.” “And have all his money?” Ryder nodded, still in shock at this possibility. How in the world could a kid from the ghetto who

grew up selling drugs and playing with guns now run a mob family? He was barely even Italian. Would it now be the Saxon family instead of the Carelli family? He knew enough of the inner workings to know that he didn’t know everything. He was Matteo’s top guy, but top only as far as outside of the family went. He wasn’t blood, so there was only so far up the line he could go. And he’d gone all the way. Now that the family was dead, and Pia was with the only remaining heir, was it really up to them? And Pia couldn’t be the boss because she was a woman? That seemed like a mob thing to do. How could he know for sure that Sergio was telling the truth? “Stay in here, okay? I’m going to talk to Sergio.” He kissed her before closing the door behind him. He picked up his phone and sent Sergio a text. Get out of your car. Take off your shirt and pants and turn around. Both of you. He watched out the peephole as Sergio and the other guy did what he asked. They stood in the parking lot in their boxers, looking toward the motel. Ryder opened the door a crack and stuck his gun out enough for Sergio to see it. “Get over here,” Ryder said. They approached with their hands up. “Good to see you, man,” Sergio said. Ryder opened the door enough to let them in and kept his gun on them as he closed the door. “Who is this?” He pointed to the other guy with his gun. “He’s mine,” Sergio said. “Vinny.” Vinny nodded at Ryder. “Why are you here?” Ryder asked. “Did you get my message? You’re the new boss. We came to tell you and bring you home before you took off.” “Who all is dead?” “Well, you did a thorough job.” Sergio chuckled. “Matteo and Lorenzo, Tony, Carlo, Luca.” He continued naming guys who were less important, but he was right. Ryder hadn’t even thought about it, but he’d shot the entire family at one point or another during the last few days. Most of them and the lower guys had been killed when they chased after them before they climbed down the balcony. “Who’s left?”

Sergio gave another list, this one about equal to the list of the dead. He had wiped out half of them. “They’re trying to clear the bodies and clean and fix stuff.” “Any heat?” They were good at having the police on their side, but on occasion, someone would get arrested. Matteo always bailed them out, though. “Not from the cops. But you did kill the boss of another family. I’m sure there’ll be retaliation.” Ryder expected that. He knew little about Solano’s family. But he knew they wouldn’t just let their boss be killed and do nothing about it. “Where’s Pia?” Sergio asked. “Is she okay?” “She’s fine. Okay, here’s what I want you to do. Finish the cleanup. Make sure the house is perfect. You know where to take the bodies. Make sure they are all burned. Get our best guys on watch. I need you to do intel on the Solano family. Find out who’s in charge, and what they plan to do. Kill anyone you have to. We’re not going to make an appearance yet, but I will direct my orders to you, since you’re now my second in command. We’re going to go somewhere else to spend at least a few days away to get some rest and recover while you find out the Solano situation.” “You got it, boss.” Sergio pulled his mouth into a half smile. “I believe this is yours now.” He held out his hand. On it sat a large gold ring. Matteo’s ring. Ryder slipped it on his hand. Sergio reached out, took his hand, and kissed his ring. “That totally creeps me out,” Ryder said. Sergio shrugged. “Guess you’ll have to get used to it.” Ryder narrowed his eyes. “We’ll see. I’ll probably have you retrieve some things from the house to bring to us. No one knows our location, got it?” Sergio nodded. Vinny knelt in front of Ryder and kissed the ring. Ryder shook his head. “I may have to change the rule about the ring kissing thing,” Ryder said. “You can do whatever you want now, boss,” Sergio said. “Get to work. I’ll contact you when I need something.” Sergio and Vinny stood. Sergio clapped his hand on Ryder’s shoulder. “For what it’s worth, old friend, I’m glad you’re alive, and I’m happy to be working for you. I think a lot of guys feel the same. You’re one of us.” Sergio put a black device in Ryder’s hand. The tracking device on Ryder’s car. He’d been in such a hurry he hadn’t thought to check for anything like that in the last few days. He would need some serious rest and refocusing. Too many things were slipping.

“Thanks,” Ryder said. He watched them walk out to their car, get dressed, and take off. When they were gone, he went back to the bathroom. “We’re heading out.” “Are we going home?” she asked. “Not yet.” He helped her to her feet and took her into his arms. “We’re going to get the nicest hotel room around, spend a few days there resting and recovering, and then we’ll figure out what we’re going to do.” She breathed deep into his chest. “Can we sell the house?” “Why?” “Too many bad memories. I want to build a new house and start over.” “One with a balcony off the master bedroom?” he asked. “And a Jacuzzi tub. And maybe one of those body jet shower things. And a playroom for the kids. Oh! Maybe a bowling alley and a trampoline.” He kissed her forehead and smoothed back her hair. “Sure thing. We’ll make it whatever you want.”

Chapter 22 When Pia walked into the hotel room, a huge grin spread across her face. She’d wanted badly to shower at the motel since she hadn’t taken a shower in so long, but she decided to wait. And it was worth it. This hotel was more like what she was used to instead of that nasty motel. She walked through the rooms of their suite, appreciating all the amenities. Fresh flowers on the table, coffee maker with good coffee, a fruit basket, high quality shampoos and soaps and lotions. And the towels were so soft. She grabbed an apple from the basket and ate it, trying to eat slowly so that she didn’t get sick again. Ryder handed her a room service menu. “I’ll order while you take a shower.” “Just get me one of everything.” She chuckled, then told him what she wanted. She walked into the bathroom, peeled off her dirty, disgusting clothing, and stepped into the hot water. It was like heaven in there. She let the water run over her, cleaning and cleansing. The shampoo was so soapy in her hair and smelled wonderful, like vanilla and honey. When she finished, she dried off and slipped into the soft robe. Now she felt much more like herself. When she left the bathroom, the smell of breakfast hit her and her stomach snarled with hunger. Ryder was already eating some bacon and she sat at the table beside him, picking up the toast first. “Good shower?” he asked. “The best,” she mumbled with her mouth full. “Eat slow. I don’t want you to be sick again.” “I’m trying.” She stuck a forkful of eggs into her mouth, letting them melt over her tongue. “This is the best food ever.” When they finished devouring the meal, Ryder took a shower. She lay in the bed, flipping through TV channels until she heard the water stop. “Can you come in here a minute?” Ryder asked. Pia went into the bathroom, where he was sitting on the toilet, facing the wall. His back and sides were covered with bruises and dark marks. A wound on his back—maybe a scrape?—was oozing blood around the scabbed sections.

“Can you bandage me up?” He handed her a pack of bandages and ointment. She covered all the wounds she could, feeling almost sick at how badly hurt he was. “Are you okay?” she asked when she stuck a small Band-Aid on a cut on his cheek. “Do you need the hospital?” He shook his head. “I’m perfect now. I’ll heal.” He stood slowly, wearing only a towel around his waist. She looked over his dewy, mostly naked body. His muscles rippled under his tattoos and scars. She remembered how she used to hate them. But now the tattoos seemed to accentuate his body perfectly, and she saw the scars for what they really were—battle marks of his survival. It was either scars or death, and he’d survived. She traced the outline of an eagle covering his left chest. There was a round scar just above its head, toward his shoulder. “Is this a bullet wound?” She touched it, running her fingertip around its edges. “It is.” “It’s amazing that you’re still alive. So many scars.” When she looked back up at him, he was looking at her intensely. “It’s what I do. I stay alive, I protect people, I kill whoever gets in my way.” “Now, I guess you’ll have people killing for you.” “I can’t wrap my mind around this. I’m a mob boss now? I never thought this could happen. I think I’m still in shock.” “You’ll be amazing. You’re a much better man than my father.” Her fingertips reached his nipple. The skin hardened under her touch and she pinched it gently. He moaned and pulled her closer. “It’s been too long,” he whispered in her ear. “It has been.” “Can we fix that?” She gave him a seductive smile that he took for a yes. He picked her up and carried her to the bed. She lay among the fluffy white covers, her robe falling open to reveal her naked body. He put his hand on her stomach. There was a small bump there. Still tiny and no one would notice if they hadn’t seen her naked before. But she knew it was there. Her pants were just a tiny bit tighter than normal and when she looked in the mirror, she seemed to have gained a few pounds. But soon, her belly would extend out, round and full with their child.

Ryder bent down to kiss her stomach, caressing it tenderly with his hands. “I can’t wait,” he said. “I can’t either.” But she wasn’t only talking about the baby. She dug her fingers into his hair and tugged. He looked up at her as he lowered himself down. He pushed her robe the rest of the way open so that it fell around her. She opened her legs wide and he dove in. With his fingers, he rubbed her clit and flicked his tongue over and below, between the layers of her lips. She let her head fall back, enjoying the sensation of his tongue and fingers on her. She’d missed him so badly and now that they were together, it made every touch feel like the first touch and the best touch she’d ever had. He pushed one finger into her and she moaned with the feeling of his finger sliding in and out, then he added his pinky in her ass and as he slid it inside her, she came, almost screaming out in pleasure. When she lay there, panting, Ryder crept up to kiss her. “That felt so good,” she said. “I could tell.” She pushed on his shoulder. She was nowhere near strong enough to move him, but he didn’t resist. He knew what she wanted. He lay on his back and she paid him back for her orgasm. She straddled his legs and bent over, taking every inch of his hardness into her mouth. He groaned and gripped her shoulder, then moved to tugging on her hair. She pulled back to flick her tongue over his head, then plunged his cock deep into her mouth, sucking and gripping his base with her hand. “Oh God,” he said. “You are so good at that.” She continued to lick and suck another minute or two until he pulled his hips back. “Stop,” he said. She made her way back to his mouth, kissing him passionately for several minutes until he was no longer right on the edge. Then she slid down, grabbing his dick and sliding it in. When he was fully inside her, she had to pause. She loved the moment of penetration, when he filled her completely. She moved her hips in slow circles as she sat up straight, letting her pussy soak him up. She was teasing him, moving so slow, and she was teasing herself. It was only a matter of time before things sped up. He was more impatient than her today. He sat up and wrapped his arms around her, cradling her as she faced him, their bodies pressed fully together.

He took her hips and bounced her up and down on his stiffness. She bent her knees so that she could get a harder angle and slammed herself down on him, then rose up fast to repeat. Their bodies made slapping noises in the heat of their motion, mixing with the sounds of their moaning. She came again, digging her nails into his back when she did, before she recalled that he had multiple injuries. He took her waist and pounded her hard against him until he cried out, pulsing inside her with his orgasm. They sat there together for several long minutes, rocking gently back and forth. She kissed his neck and pulled lightly on his earlobe with her teeth. He dragged his nails softly across her back. He might need a few minutes to recover, but she was far from done with him. She crawled off of him and went to the couch against the wall. She lay back, letting one leg hang on the floor with the other bent on top so that he had a full view of her. As he watched, she sucked on her finger, then slowly moved it down her body until she was touching herself. She moved in slow circles over her clit, biting her lip in the pleasure of it. She spread her wetness around, getting her fingers sticky with it, then she plunged two fingers deep inside herself. She kept her eyes on him the whole time. His eyes widened slightly and he took in a deep breath. He looked down at his half-formed erection. It was only a matter of seconds now, she thought. She kept fingering herself until he came over to her. The couch was the perfect height for him to get on his knees in front of her. She wrapped her legs around his waist and he thrust deep into her without hesitation. He slammed into her hard, just how she liked it. He took one leg and pinned it up in the air, allowing himself to enter her even deeper. A few more hard thrusts and they came together in a series of loud cries. He slid out of her and picked her up to carry her back to the bed. “I need a nap after all that.” “Mmm,” she murmured, and curled up against him. His hot body formed a shell of warmth around her, protecting her. She pressed her back into him and he squeezed his arms tighter around her. “I love you,” he said, breathing into her ear. “I’ve never said that to anyone before. Except for my mother.” She giggled. “I’ve never been in love before either. But I am in love with you.” He kissed her neck and they drifted off to sleep. She woke to the feeling of him caressing her. It started with her breasts. He cupped them and

squeezed gently, teasing her nipple until each one grew stiff. Then he trailed down her stomach. He let his fingers separate her, making her heart race and bringing her fully awake. She moaned softly. He rubbed his hard cock against her, slipping between her legs, rubbing against her lips. When it was nice and wet, he parted her ass cheeks and pressed gently against her ass. She let out another moan as he slipped into her. She gripped the covers and swallowed hard. She still wasn’t used to this feeling, to the extreme pleasure of it. How could something feel so good that seemed like it should be so wrong? He moved slowly in and out of her, each time sending a wave of tingly heat over her body. He rubbed his fingers around her clit and when he shoved a finger into her pussy, she couldn’t hold back. She came hard, screaming out and gripping the covers tightly. “Why does that feel so good?” she breathed. “I can’t even think straight; my head is spinning.” He kissed along her shoulder and slid gently out of her. “I will do my best to continually blow your mind.” “Okay.” She lay back on the bed, trying to breathe to recover herself. She closed her eyes and felt the sensation of the air moving in and out of her lungs. Before she could open her eyes, she felt him spread her legs and his tongue was on her. “I can’t come anymore,” she said. “Give me just one more.” He went to work on her clit, flicking and sucking it while he slipped his finger in and out of her. She was so wet, she could barely feel it. She really doubted she would come again. But he kept at it, using more fingers, ramming them into her harder. It felt good, but she was far from orgasm. “Baby, it’s okay, really. You don’t have to,” she said. He pulled out his fingers and thrust his cock into her, plunging deep in her wetness. She cried out in surprise. He bent her legs up, folding her so he could get on his knees and pound her hard. It was as if her body suddenly woke up. She had been thinking it was too much, she’d come too many times to have another orgasm, but as he slammed her, he sent a wave of pleasure through her with each thrust. He reached up and put his hands on her shoulders to keep her from moving up as he pounded harder and faster. She moaned loudly as her body rejoiced in the feeling. He’d never done her so hard, and it’d never felt so good. The impossible happened and as he leaned down to change angles slightly, she felt the familiar rush

as she came. He thrust again once, twice, crying out himself before collapsing onto her. He mumbled into her stomach. “We might have a problem.” “Mmm?” “I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to stop fucking you.” “I sure hope not.” He came to cuddle her again. She turned to face him to kiss him and look deep into his eyes. “Thank you for coming for me,” she said. “You came for me, too.” “No.” She chuckled. “That’s not what I meant. Thank you for coming to get me from my dad’s. For rescuing me.” “I’m sorry it wasn’t sooner. I got held up getting attacked and being kept in your father’s fruit cellar.” She pulled her eyebrows together. “That’s where he had you?” “The rest of the basement isn’t much of a dungeon.” “I thought you were just locked in a room.” “Too easy to escape. Though, the fruit cellar didn’t prove to be too hard.” He made a face of pain as he turned his body. “Are you in pain?” “Only for a few days now. I have some broken ribs.” She gasped. “You need to get to a hospital.” “There’s nothing they can do for broken ribs. They just have to take time to heal. But they hurt like a bitch while they do. I’m okay. I’ve suffered through worse.” “I don’t like you hurting.” She ran her finger along the point of his nose. “It’ll be your turn in a few more months.” “Yeah.” She sighed. “I guess that will hurt pretty bad.”

“They have good drugs. Don’t worry about it.” He closed his eyes as she continued to trace the contours of his face. “We do need to get you to a doctor, though.” “If we’re staying in the area, I have one. I just need to make an appointment.” “Where do you want to go if we’re selling the house?” “I don’t know. A little house on the beach maybe? The kids can play in the sand and watch the ocean.” “All three or four of them.” She chuckled. “Yes.” He opened his eyes and met her gaze. “There’s something I’ve been thinking about over the last few days, and I want it pretty badly.” “We already did that. Many times.” He gave her a smirk. “Well, yes, that, but something else.” “What?” “Marry me.” She smiled. “Like you even have to ask.” “I do. Call it a technicality. But I wanted to make sure.” “Guess that makes me the mob boss’s wife after all. And here I thought I’d escaped that when you saved me from Paolo.” “Yeah, but now we’ll be running the family together. Our mob family and our own little family.” He put his hand to her stomach. “I’m so excited to meet this little baby. It seems like it’ll be forever until he’s here.” “I know. And after all went through to protect him, I don’t think I’ll sleep until he’s here. Or her. Do you think it’s a boy or girl?” “I’d love a little girl who looks just like you.” He leaned forward to kiss her nose. “But a little boy to run around after would be great, too.” “We’ll just have to have a few of each, I guess.” “The more the better.”

“We’ll have the perfect little family.” “So long as I have you.”

Chapter 23 Pia walked into the office of the house they were renting to find Ryder. Her father’s house had sold much faster than they expected, and they hadn’t found a new place yet. This was slightly upsetting to Pia because it meant they wouldn’t have their house by the time the baby came. Her image of bringing home her daughter and sitting in a pink nursery painted with flowers all over the walls was somewhat incomplete. The room that would be the nursery in this house was a boring tan with a few wall decorations on the wall. In the office sat the plans for what the nursery would look like when they found a new house. They had plans for many rooms, just no house to put them into action. “Can you look at this?” Ryder said from behind his laptop. “I think we need to go to the hospital.” His head snapped up. “Really?” She nodded, half bent over, her hand on her belly. She was due in two days, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but so many people said the first baby usually came late that she’d started to count on that. She’d thought if they found a house fast enough, maybe they would at least be in the process of closing when the baby came. But now, this child would come home to some stupid rental that meant nothing to them. Tears came to her eyes at the thought. Ryder came to her and helped her walk out of the room. “Are you in a lot of pain?” he asked. “Only when there’s a contraction.” “Is there one now?” She shook her head as a tear fell from her eye. “Why are you crying, then?” She burst into sobs and leaned against him, wrapping her arms around his neck. “Our baby doesn’t even have a home to come home to!” “Shh, it’s okay, really.” He rubbed her back and held her. “We are what makes it home, not the walls.” “I thought we’d have a place by now and have the nursery all painted and done.”

“I know.” He ran his fingers through her hair. “Soon. Soon.” Her attention was shifted to her stomach as a contraction started. She bent over and squeezed his shoulder hard with the pain. She panted through it and when it was over, she straightened back up, trying to breathe. “Let’s get you to the car.” Ryder put his arm around her for support and helped her to the garage. They had to pause before he got the car door open as she breathed through another contraction. When it was over, he helped her in, then dashed upstairs to get the bag she’d had packed for weeks. He slid into the driver’s seat and backed out. She reached over for his hand and squeezed every time the pain started. She tried to think through all the things she should be doing right now. Breathing, focusing. “We need to call the doctor,” she said through gritted teeth. He fumbled for his phone and made the call, telling them they were a few minutes from the hospital. It seemed to take hours to get there, but they finally pulled up. He helped her out of the car and into a wheelchair before he ran off to park the car. The few minutes she had to sit there waiting for him were like agony. She couldn’t bear to be away from him. Anytime they were separated, even if she went out with friends, or if he had work to take care of, or whatever it was, she got anxious. She thought he did, too, from the frequency that they texted when they were apart. He came rushing through the doors and ran to her. Every time she saw his face, a wave of peace flushed away the anxiety. She reached for his hand and he gave it to her as they were led to the elevator to get to the maternity ward. For hours, Pia was in pain, then had a brief rest, then more pain. In between, she was hooked up to machines, checked and rechecked by doctors and nurses. They gave her drugs eventually and she lay peacefully, waiting for things to move along. Ryder was less peaceful and paced, stepping out on occasion to make a phone call. Mob business couldn’t be put on hold while she was in labor. It couldn’t really be put on hold at all. But when it came time for her to push, he was right there by her side. He held her hand and encouraged her and when she gave the final push and brought their baby girl into the world, he looked down at her with tears in his eyes. Minutes later, the baby was handed to her and he stood with his arm stretched across them both, gazing at the perfect little baby with her. “She is as beautiful as you,” he said.

When Pia was taken to her room to settle in and rest and bond with her baby, she was shocked at the sight. The whole room was covered in huge Gerbera daisies in all shades of pink. From bright fuscia to pale pink. Tears sprung to her eyes. “Ryder…you did all this?” “Who else?” She chuckled and wiped at her eyes. “It’s so perfect. Thank you.” She got settled into bed and the nurse helped her feed the baby for the first time. While she lay there, peaceful and happy, Ryder was still pacing the room, an anxious look on his face. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Umm.” He looked at her and made a guilty face. “I did something. I’m not sure you’re going to be too happy about it. But you might be. I was going to surprise you, but I think maybe I overthought things and now I’m not too sure ab—” “What did you do?” He took a deep breath and forced it out. “I bought a house.” Her mouth hung open slightly. She didn’t know what to say. They’d been looking for months and hadn’t found anything, but they’d done every step of it together. Now he went and bought one and didn’t even have her see it first? “I know, I’m sorry, but I got a call from our guy and he only gave me a few hours to decide before it hit the market. It’s perfect, P, I swear.” “Okay… Do I at least get to see photos?” He took out his phone and tapped a few times, then handed it to her. She looked down at the screen and her heart gave a small little burst of joy at the first picture. It was a sandy-colored house with deep turquoise shutters. Might’ve sounded a bit odd aside from the fact that its backyard was all beach. She kept scrolling and her heart filled more and more with joy. The back had a huge porch that wrapped around the entire house. The living room was huge and bright with windows. A fireplace sat in one wall. The dining room and office were also big. The whole house was much bigger than they had been looking at. Beach houses many times were not this big. The kitchen was all white marble and gold accents, the bedrooms upstairs were all bright and inviting. There was even a large, empty room that would make a perfect playroom. Then she got to the master bedroom and gasped. It was huge, like the others. The bathroom had a large Jacuzzi tub, the shower had body jets, and the walk-in

closet was almost another room. And on one wall were French doors—that led out to a balcony overlooking the beach and ocean. Tears ran down her face. “You bought this house?” He nodded. “Do you hate me?” She laughed and wiped her eyes. “Are you kidding? You knew I would love it, why were you so nervous?” “It was a big decision and I did it without you. I had to move fast, though. It wouldn’t have lasted a day on the market.” “No, I can see why. When can we move in?” “Not sure yet, but I’m working on it.” “I love it,” she said. “Really.” They left the hospital a few days later, and even though they wouldn’t be able to move into their house for another month, she was okay with that. This house was worth the wait. After the closing, Pia was in the temporary nursery at the rental, packing up the final boxes, when Ryder came in. He picked up the baby and cooed at her. “Get your shoes on, I have to show you something,” he said. “Right now? I’m trying to pack.” “Take a break.” She blew out a sigh. “Okay.” They got into the car and he drove them over to their new house. People were coming and going. Bringing furniture and boxes in, doing other work that they wanted to be finished before they officially moved in. He walked around the car to open Pia’s door, then got the baby out and handed her to Pia. He took her hand and led her inside. They stopped just outside the door that would be the new nursery. “Close your eyes,” he said. She did, and heard the door open. The smell of fresh paint hit her and she opened her eyes. There before her was the room they had designed and planned for together. It had come out even better than the drawn-up plans.

She stood in the middle of the room in awe, taking in every inch of it. “It’s absolutely perfect.” “And there’s one more thing I want to show you.” He led her to the master bedroom, and this time when she opened her eyes, she faced the wall where the French doors and the gorgeous view of the ocean and beach were. Above the doors, in the space between the glass and the high, vaulted ceiling, was a huge framed photo. It was her and Ryder on their wedding day in a loving embrace. It was their favorite photo from the whole day. “I wanted to make everything perfect before we moved in,” he said. “You did. You really did.” She leaned into his arms. “With this house and the baby and our new life together, everything is perfect.” He kissed her, then kissed the baby sleeping in her arms. “I never dreamed of a life like this. I didn’t think it could be this good. Pia, you’ve made all the dreams I never had come true.”


Free Bonus Book: LEFT FOR DEAD

A taste of poison is deadly. A taste of me is a whole lot worse. She found me on the side of the road. I would've bled to death if it wasn't for her. The bastards who tried to kill me had come real damn close. But she picked me up, carried me home, nursed me back to health. Big mistake. How could she miss it? How didn't she see? I'm a walking virus, a natural disaster. Death and violence follow me like a second shadow. The right thing to do would have been to leave me where I was. To let me die a dog's death — hell, I probably deserved it. She didn't, though, and it's too late for regret. Already, my past has come roaring back with a vengeance. We don't have much time left.

I should send her packing. Run, silly girl! Get out while you still can. My enemies are coming‌ But something deep inside won't let me. I had a taste of Sophia, and now, I can't get enough. I want to claim her, ravage her until her cries shatter windowpanes. And I won't take no for an answer. I'm here, baby. I'm never leaving again. If you didn't want me — well, too bad. You should have left me for dead.

Chapter 1 Fiona Mackintosh moved across the gift shop, picking up items that were out of place and putting them back in their proper spots. She paused to straighten a stack of birthday cards that had gone askew. The overhead lights caught the crystal beads of a display of bracelets and glittered as she approached. She moved the bracelets, spreading them out evenly along the bar they hung from. The clock clicked over to 9 p.m. and it was officially closing time. She flipped over the sign on the door, locked it, then went behind the counter to take care of the cash register. After taking the drawer to the office, she counted and jotted numbers into the books, making sure everything came out perfectly. She took the time to sort the money just how she knew her manager, Sue, liked it, turning all the bills to face the same way, unfolding the dog eared corners so that the stacks sat as neat and flat as possible inside the safe. Next, Fiona made a note of several items that she noticed were running low and should be ordered soon. This wasn’t part of her job exactly, but she found ways whenever she could to go above and beyond, hoping to earn the position of assistant manager, which had been vacant for some time now. She thought Sue really liked her from the way she always took time to explain things and teach her. She always complimented Fiona’s displays and often noted how good her work was. She locked the office door with a hopeful glow in her heart. She could really use the pay raise that came with the assistant manager position. It hadn’t been easy moving here. She knew no one and had her daughter to think of. Who would watch Sophia while she worked all day? But Red Hills had been the picture of southern hospitality when she’d arrived, bruises still visible around her eye and on her cheek from her ex, Sam. It had been Sue who first helped her. Fiona had rushed into the gift shop to buy an umbrella in a sudden downpour. Sophia had found her way to the toys and was begging for a new doll when Sue came to ask them if they needed help. Fiona knew she couldn’t afford the doll and had to take it from her four-year-old with tears in her eyes. Sue had seen this and given her the doll. They’d chatted a bit and before she knew it, Fiona’s life story was poured out on this poor woman. Sue lived alone and insisted that they stay with her until they found their own place. For three weeks, Sue and Fiona got to know each other. Fiona started working at the gift shop, and a neighbor watched Sophia during the day. Life had finally started to come together. Now Fiona and Sophia had a tiny apartment. It wasn’t much, but it was theirs, and they had worked hard to make it home. As she walked back through the store, Fiona’s eyes fell on the display of dolls that Sophia had so loved, and she smiled, thinking of how Sophia hadn’t let the pink-dressed, yellow-haired doll go for days. She was likely sleeping with it right now, clutched tight to her chest on Jeanine’s couch, waiting for her mommy to come and take her home. Fiona flicked out the lights and set the alarm before locking the door behind her. In her car, she

blasted music and sang along, enjoying the cool evening air tossing her hair around. She turned left and onto a stretch of highway that was heavily wooded. She was on guard for animals on this street, glancing often at the sides of the roads for glowing eyes that might run in front of her. She glanced to the right and saw a mound on the ground. At first it looked like a dead animal. She couldn’t make out any part of it, but as she got closer and the object was washed for an instant in bright headlights, she saw a boot. It had happened so fast that she had already passed the spot before she realized it was a person lying there. She pulled into the gravel, stomping hard on her brakes. With her phone tight in her hand, she approached the person. It looked like a man from what she could see of his blond hair and jeans. But there was no movement, and she didn’t want to run up to a dead body in case it was a gruesome sight. Her stomach already felt queasy with the thought. “Hello?” she called out tentatively when she was about twenty feet away. No response. She tapped the flashlight feature on her phone and shined the light on him. It definitely was a him. Blood trickled from multiple places on his face. He’d been beaten badly. His eyes nearly swollen shut, his lip split and thick, purple splotches across his cheek bones. The sight gave her chills, thinking of how many times she’d had injuries like these after a night of Sam’s anger. She inched closer, trying to see if his chest was moving. He lay on his side, half curled into a ball. His black shirt was torn and shiny with blood. His jeans, also ripped in places, were dirty and bloody. A black leather jacket was hanging from him in shreds. “Can you hear me?” she asked. She knelt down beside him, afraid to touch him. His chest didn’t seem to be moving. With a shaking hand, she pressed her fingertips to his wrist. She found no heartbeat. But then a soft wheeze came from his mouth. “Oh my God, are you still alive?” He made a ragged coughing sound and moved his arm a few inches. “Just hang on, I’ll call 9-1-1.” He said something. She couldn’t make it out, but the sound was so insistent, that she paused. “What did you say?” She leaned closer to his mouth. “Don’t.”

“Don’t? Don’t what, call 9-1-1?” “Don’t call,” he wheezed. “But you look like you’re about to die. You need to get to a hospital.” He took a shuttering breath and pushed himself up with effort to a seated position. Blood gushed from his nose and he spit out more blood. Fiona put her hand to her mouth and had to look away. She had napkins and tissues in her car and got up to dash over and bring them to him. She handed him the napkins, but they were soaked through within seconds. “Please,” he said, half whispering. “Get me out of here.” She looked back to her car, which was about thirty feet ahead. He didn’t look like he’d able to walk that distance, and she wasn’t strong enough to help him much. “Hang on.” She returned to her car and backed it up slowly, craning her head around to see how close she was getting to him. He pushed himself onto all fours, pausing to breathe through the pain. He crawled over to the back door. Fiona opened it for him, pulled Sophia’s car seat from its place, and dashed to the trunk to get the blanket she kept there for times when Sophia got cold. She spread the blanket over the backseat and stood back awkwardly as he pulled himself up and into the car. “Can I help you somehow?” She wasn’t sure where he was injured and didn’t want to just grab him somewhere it might hurt. He didn’t answer. Shaking, he pulled himself up onto the seat and slumped over. She closed the door behind him and got into the driver’s seat. “You need a hospital badly.” He was still bleeding, pressing a dripping napkin to his nose. She handed him the rest of the napkins. The cluster of bright white turned red almost instantly when he held them to his face. “No.” He coughed, splattering blood all over her car’s seat. Fiona swallowed hard and tried not to let her stomach turn over. “They’ll kill me,” he said. At first, she thought this was ridiculous. If you were hurt that badly, you needed a hospital. That

simple. Whoever had done this surely wouldn’t kill him while he was there. But then she thought of the last time Sam had landed her in the hospital. Her friend had taken her to the hospital against her wishes. Sam had come into her room and almost suffocated her to death before a nurse happened to come in. Then Sam had quickly moved the pillow behind her head, making it look like he was the perfect husband, trying to make his clumsy wife more comfortable. If whoever had beaten him had left him for dead, then he was right. If they knew he was alive, if they drove by and found him gone, they would check the hospitals first. It wouldn’t take much in his condition to kill him. She wouldn’t do that to him. She remembered how terrified she had been to wake up in the hospital when she thought she was safe at her friend’s house, and how the terror had multiplied when Sam entered the room, his face full of rage. She would not do that to this man. With a deep breath, she pulled back onto the road and drove to her apartment building.


Fiona and Sophia’s apartment was what people called “shoe-box sized.” She was grateful to have two bedrooms, but there was hardly enough space for the bed and a dresser in each. The kitchen held only a small wooden table and four chairs across from the short counter. The counter space was filled with gadgets—a two-cup coffee maker, toaster, dish rack, microwave, and a small candle. There wasn’t much counter space left for anything else. But it had a window over the sink and the fridge was a decent size. And it was included when she moved in. The living room was the biggest room, though it was only big enough to hold her couch, a coffee table, and the stand that held the little TV. She’d managed to shove a tall plant in the corner to give the place some life, and a few photos hung on the wall. But the one free corner was full of Sophia’s toys, as was her bedroom. The bathroom had a full-size tub, luckily, with a shower head at the top, and just enough counter space for her to spread out her makeup while she got ready in the morning. Despite its size, she loved it because it was theirs and theirs alone. She lived on the second floor, and as she looked back at the man in her backseat, she wondered if he’d even be able to get up that many steps. Her parking space was forty feet from the door. “Are you going to be able to walk?” She turned in her seat to look at him. “I can try to pull closer.” He looked up at her and blinked, his eye a small split as he coughed again, wincing and holding his side. That was enough to make her decision. She backed out of her parking spot and pulled up as close as she could to the door. Fiona came around to the back door, opened it, and looked over him. What if her neighbors saw her helping this bloody man to her apartment? She didn’t have much of a choice at this point. He pushed

himself up to a sitting position and scooted to the edge of the seat until his feet touched the ground. He tried to stand, but groaned and clutched his stomach where the blood shone red through his shirt. She leaned in and put her arm around his shoulders, then pulled as he tried to push up. He got to his feet shakily and shuffled a step forward. Fiona positioned herself under his shoulder carefully and he leaned heavily on her to shuffle to the door. Once she got him inside the stairwell, she leaned him against the railing. “I’m sorry, I have to move my car. I’ll get in trouble if it’s there too long.” Not that her landlord would kick her out over it, and he seemed to like her just fine, but Fiona was somewhat paranoid about messing things up. Or about letting someone down. The years of Sam’s yelling, his control over her every move, living every second to appease him, had done its damage. She was working through it, Sue often playing therapist over coffee in the early mornings before the shop opened, but the instincts to please and the fear of failing were still rampant in her every thought. She dashed back outside, moved the car back to her spot, and took the blanket from the backseat. When she picked it up, she was horrified to see several blood stains on the tan car interior. How would she explain this to Sophia? For now, she moved the booster seat back over it and hurried back to the building. Fiona wrapped him in the blanket and took her place again under his shoulder as they went step by shaky step. After the first set of stairs, she wondered if he’d make it up another. But there was nothing else to do but try. “Almost there. Come on, just a few more steps, you can do it.” She tried to push him up as much as possible, but he was heavy and solid. Finally, his foot stepped on the landing and he shuffled to her door. She unlocked it, got him in, and relocked it, making sure the deadbolt was secure. Someday, she hoped, she would feel safe. But today, with the added possibility of people coming after this man, was not the day to leave the deadbolt unlocked for even a minute. “We need to get you cleaned up and bandaged so you don’t bleed to death.” She took him to the bathroom and he slumped to the floor, catching himself on the edge of the tub. She worried that he might have severe internal bleeding or other damage that she couldn’t do anything about. She didn’t even know if she’d be able to bandage him up well enough to help him. The chance that he would die in her apartment tonight seemed very likely. Maybe she would need to convince him to go to a hospital. She could drive him somewhere far away. She could stay with him and make sure no one came to attack him. But for now she had to at least try to see what the damage was and how bad. Now she wished she’d never given up her dream of becoming a nurse. But Sam didn’t want a working wife. He wanted someone to stay home and clean the house and cook. Once Sophia came, she’d been happy to do just that and hadn’t thought about her nursing dream since. But now it would have come in handy big time.

“I have to get this jacket off you, okay? Just tell me if I’m hurting you too much.” He nodded and straightened out his arm so she could pull at his sleeve. The leather was stiff with blood and stuck to his skin. But it was already so shredded. It looked like someone had taken a knife to it, slicing the back into thin pieces. “I’m just going to cut it off, okay? It’s already torn beyond repair.” She ran to the kitchen to get scissors and when she came back, knelt by him to cut the jacket from him. Many pieces did stick, requiring her careful hand to peel them away without tugging on his skin. Where the back of the jacket had been slashed, his back was also cut in several long wounds. Most of them had crusted over with blood and didn’t seem to be too deep. Since his shirt, too, was as damaged as his jacket, she kept going and cut it off. As she peeled away this layer, she could see the many stabs and bruises covering his skin. She had to clench her jaw and swallow hard. The anger welled in her mixing with her disgust of the bloody wounds. Maybe she wouldn’t have made a good nurse after all if she reacted like this to so much blood. She ran the water in the tub, making sure it wasn’t too hot or too cold. His boots and socks came off easily. Aside from the blood that dripped down his legs, he was unharmed from the waist down. His jeans would be a challenge, though. “Umm,” she said, standing over him. “Somehow, we have to get your pants off.” He tried to pull himself up, but as he heaved, he went even paler than he’d been, and he stumbled over to the toilet in time to fall back to his knees and throw up into it. He groaned in pain with every heave, and when he was through, he rested his arms on the toilet seat, his forehead covered in sweat and blood. “Well, I cut everything else off,” she said. “I guess that’s all we can do at this point.” She carefully took her scissors and cut along the seams of his pants until he was left in just his boxers. He slid over to the tub, and swung a leg up over the edge to fall into the water with a splash. Fiona quickly flushed the toilet, not daring to look at the bloodied water as it swooshed out of sight. “Is the water okay? Too hot or too cold?” He shook his head and leaned back in the tub. She picked up the wash cloth and started with his face, dabbing carefully around his eyes. He opened them to look at her, his right eye almost swollen shut, but his left eye a glittering green slit beneath thick eye lids. “Thank you,” he whispered, and let his eyes close.

Once she cleaned his face and scrubbed his short blond hair, she moved down his chest, noticing for the first time how incredibly muscular he was. His lower stomach was a cluster of round muscles, his chest protruding out above it. His arms, too, were thick and round, the lines of his veins bulging out under his skin. He couldn’t have an ounce of fat on him. She didn’t have to do much to his legs, since they soaked in the water, but she ran the wash cloth over them anyway, feeling his hard, wide thighs and calves. It looked like most of the damage was to his face and back. One leg had a welt on the side. Maybe someone had kicked him to drop him to his knees. In several places, his stomach and back were bruised and cut, with his back having the majority of the slashes across the skin. His face had several small cuts, was half purple with bruising, and the swelling seemed to be getting worse. She let the water out of the tub and grabbed a towel to dry him off. But she’d only gotten past his head and face before the blood from his cuts had made a small pool in the tub around him. “You’re bleeding too much,” she said. “I think you really should go to the hospital. We can go to one that’s far away if you want. I’ll drive you. But you might have internal bleeding.” He shook his head. “I have too many enemies. They’ll find me.” “You’d rather die here?” “They’ll kill me anyway.” Fiona rubbed at her face. What could she do? If he didn’t care if he died here, then she’d have to do her best to keep him alive. First, the wounds. All she had were pink and purple glittered bandages in her bathroom cabinet. Sophia loved them, but they’d be little help to this man. She went into her room and looked around. What could be used as a bandage? Her clean sheets sat in a pile in the corner. She’d come back from washing them at Sue’s yesterday and hadn’t had a chance to stuff them into the narrow hall closet yet. She picked up a pillow case and shook it out. This might be the perfect size. In the bathroom, she helped him sit up, then took a hand towel, folded it in half, and placed it over his back. It covered the area of the wounds. She wrapped the pillow case around him, tying the corners in the front to keep pressure on the wounds. He groaned when she pulled it tight. Most of the cuts on his face were smaller. She dabbed away the new blood, smeared some ointment on them and covered his face in pink and purple glitter bandages. “Sorry.” She almost chuckled at the sight. “These are all I have.” “Least they don’t have kittens on them,” he muttered, pulling the corner of his mouth up. “Ready to stand up?”

He gripped the sides of the tub and pushed himself up, pausing to tremble as he straightened his legs. His boxer shorts were now soaking wet and covered in blood. “Umm.” She pulled her mouth to the side. “Those should probably come off.” She pointed to his boxers. He nodded and she slid them down, trying not to look. But as she used the washcloth to remove the blood that had dripped from his back before she got the bandage in place, she snuck a peek at his front. She was not disappointed. His butt was firm and round. She set the blanket on the floor for him to step onto and supported his weight as he lifted each leg over the edge of the tub. They shuffled to her bedroom. He seemed to move even slower now, and she wondered if he was just getting tired and stiff, or if that meant his injuries were worse. She had no idea how internal bleeding worked, or what the signs would be if he were in danger of bleeding to death of unseen wounds. Please don’t let him die in my apartment, she thought. She pulled back her covers and he slid into her bed. Too bad it wasn’t under better circumstances that she had a sexy naked man in her bed. She brought him water and he sipped at it, then let his head fall back on the pillow. “Can I get you anything else?” “Ice,” he whispered. “To drink or for your head?” “Head.” She went to the kitchen and filled a bag with ice, then wrapped a paper towel around it. Maybe some pain killers would be good, too. She stopped in the bathroom and took her bottle of ibuprofen from the mirror cabinet. In her room, she carefully set the bag of ice over his worst spots of bruising and put the bottle of pills on the lid of her hamper, which doubled as her bedside table. “Here are some pain killers, but I don’t know that they’ll help much. Is there anyone I can call for you or anything else you need?” “No,” he whispered. “Thanks.” “Okay. I’m going to leave the door open and sleep in the other room, so just call if you need anything.”

He didn’t respond, so she turned out the light and went to the living room to make a call. She dialed the number for Jeanine. “Hey, hon, everything okay?” Jeanine said when she answered. “Yeah, sort of. Can you keep Sophia overnight?” “Sure thing. What’s going on?” “It’s nothing major.” How much should she tell her? “Just have a sick friend here, and I don’t want Sophia to get it.” “Oh, sure. No problem. She’s already asleep anyway.” “Oh, good.” She was relieved that Sophia was sleeping, even if it meant she didn’t get to say goodnight to her. Fiona didn’t think she could handle telling her she’d need to stay there away from her. It was the first night they’d spent apart since they left. But it’d be much worse for Sophia to wake up and find a strange man in her mom’s room, swollen and bloody. How would she ever explain that? “I’ll call in the morning, okay?” “Have a good night and don’t you go getting sick, either.” “No, I won’t, thanks.” She hung up and went to clean up the bathroom. The blanket was still on the floor. It was dark blue in color, but she could see the spots of blood, almost black-looking. Would the stains come out? She ran cool water in the tub and dropped in the blanket, trying to rinse out as much as she could before wringing it and hanging it up on the shower curtain rod. The floor had a few blood-tinged puddles, which she wiped up with the now pink washcloth. She tried to rinse it out, too, but it had been white and seemed like it would never be again. At least not without some strong bleach. Maybe Sue had some and she could try to soak it next time she went over to do laundry. She sat down in the living room, exhausted. She didn’t feel like watching TV, but was too keyed up to sleep. Her mind ran back through the night. The man lying there on the ground, how she’d thought he was dead. Getting him into the car, getting him here and cleaned up. He had enemies, he said. Was he just another bad boy like her ex had been? She thought it was hot in the beginning, the way Sam got into fights and always won. He was so strong and tough. But when those fists had turned toward her, it wasn’t so attractive anymore. She’d realized too late that his anger issues didn’t exclude her and that the way he led his motorcycle club with an iron first was the same way he’d rule her entire life. From the way she did laundry to the way she dressed, who she spent time with, where she went. And if she did something he didn’t like, she paid for it. Usually in bruises. Sometimes in blood.

Fiona still felt ashamed that it had taken her seven years, three and a half of those with Sophia watching, before she got the courage to leave. And the money. She’d had to borrow from her parents, who had little, and had to leave almost everything she owned to get them out of there. But, they were here now, had been for six months. From what she heard from people back home, Sam already had a new girlfriend. She’d expected him to come looking for her. She did take his child, after all. But when she thought of all the nights he’d screamed at her to make “that baby” shut up, she thought maybe he was glad to be rid of them. Just as well. She sure was glad to be rid of him. She’d felt so free these last months, even if it had taken most of that time for her to stop looking over her shoulder. Now that this man was here, was she just inviting trouble back in? How badly did these enemies want him dead? What if they showed up at her door? Fiona went into Sophia’s room and climbed into her bed. She held her little purple bunny close and tried to sleep. But every little sound she heard, she jumped and had to listen carefully for several minutes to see if there was either someone at the door or if the man needed something. It was a good thing tomorrow was her day off. She would have been a zombie with such a late and restless night. Around 2 a.m. she decided to check on the man. She tip-toed into her room, using only the light of the moon shining through the curtains to see. He was on his side and looked peaceful enough. She watched him for a moment, saw his chest rising and falling slowly, and felt the relief wash over her. Hopefully in the morning, he’d still be breathing.

Chapter 2 The morning felt late when Fiona opened her eyes. Cuddles, Sophia’s bunny, was on the floor and the room was bright with light. She got up and immediately went to her room to check on him. The first thing she thought was that he looked too pale. She went to him and put her hand on his shoulder. He felt warm, but not alarmingly so. She shook him gently and whispered, “Hey.” He didn’t stir. She shook harder, starting to panic. Finally, he moved his head and his eyes opened as much as they could. The ice pack had fallen off in the night and sat on the bed beside him, a bag of water now. She waited for him to stir enough to look at her. “How are you doing? Are you okay?” He nodded slowly. “Do you want to try to sit up? Maybe eat something?” He slowly inched his way up until he was sitting with his back against the wall at the head of the bed. His right eye was now swollen fully shut, but his left looked a little better. She could see more of his vivid green eye. His bruises were brighter purple and his lip and cheek had puffed out more in the night. “More ice?” He nodded and groaned. “My head is pounding,” he muttered. “I bet. Here are the pills. I’ll get more water.” She went to kitchen and poured him fresh water, then refilled his bag of ice. She mixed up a quick protein shake. This had always been her go to after Sam had hit her. It was easy to drink through a straw if necessary, gave some needed nutrients, but wasn’t hard on the stomach like a lot of food would be. And it didn’t require chewing, which never seemed a problem until every part of your face hurt. Fiona brought the ice pack, water, and shake into the room, holding the ice under her arm. She quickly dropped the ice on the bed, then set the drinks on the hamper table. He picked up the ice and held it over his right eye. “I made you a protein shake. They always worked well for me when I was hurting.” She stuck a straw in the drink and held it out to him.

He took a few sips. “Thank you.” “So, can I ask, what’s your name?” “Jasper. Paulson. You?” “Fiona Mackintosh. Nice to officially meet you.” She gave him a thin smile. “Wish it was under better circumstances. Here, take some ibuprofen.” She opened the bottle and poured out a double dose, handing it to him with the water glass. He took a sip of the water and swallowed the pills, which seemed to cause him pain. “What else can I do for you?” she asked. He laughed once, then groaned. “Don’t you think you’ve done enough? I couldn’t ask for better care.” “Good. I’m just worried. All that bleeding. If you have any internal bleeding, that needs to be taken care of right away. You could die from it. And drink plenty of water. That’ll help flush out your system from all the adrenaline and from the extra work your body is doing right now to recover.” “You a nurse?” “No.” She hung her head and realized she’d maybe said too much already. “I wanted to be once. I work in a gift shop now.” “Sounds nice. Much easier.” “Yeah, I guess. Less blood at least. But more complaints about inventory.” His visible eye glimmered as he looked at her. Though his lip and part of his face were swollen, she could tell he was very good-looking. She wanted to run her hand along the soft-looking stubble on his chin and feel his smooth cheek. He probably had a girlfriend, though. He wasn’t wearing a ring, but maybe he was even married. “Are you sure there isn’t someone I should call for you? A wife or girlfriend? Mother or father or other family member?” He shook his head. “No girl, not much family, and the ones I do have won’t talk to me. Though they might be glad to hear I finally got what was coming to me.” “So, you deserved this? That doesn’t seem accurate. No one ever deserves to be beaten like this.” “You know a lot about it, do you?” He tilted his head at her and drank more of the protein shake. “I know enough, I guess.”

She tried not to be excited over the “no girl” thing, and instead focused on the fact that his family didn’t talk to him. Sam’s family hadn’t talked to him either. How similar were they really? Did she just attract abusive men? Maybe that was her type. Maybe she was destined to either end up in a good relationship with someone she wasn’t attracted to, which might be okay if he treated her well, or she’d end up with someone she was greatly attracted to, like Jasper, who would likely turn out to be just another wife beater. She was doomed. “You have a child?” he asked. Had she mentioned Sophia to him? “I do.” “I saw the pink car seat. And did you know there’s a stuffed cat under the driver’s seat in your car?” “Ahh. I did not know that, but I’m not surprised. Sophia has quite the stuffed animal collection.” “Sophia,” he repeated. “And does Sophia also know a lot about physical pain?” Fiona’s face grew warm. Sophia knew more than she wished she had. Sam had only hit her twice, both times were agony for Fiona, and the second time was what had urged her leave. It was one thing for her to take his anger, but she wouldn’t stand by and let that happen to her daughter. “She knows enough.” Fiona stood. “Are you feeling hungry at all?” “No, this is fine, thanks.” He held up the shake an inch. He still seemed to be in a lot of pain. “Let me see if I have any clothes that will fit you.” Fiona went to her closet and took out an oversized t-shirt. She had some sweatpants that were big on her. Those might work. “Do you want to try getting dressed, or will it hurt too much?” “Gotta get past the pain at some point.” He slowly turned and reached to set down the cup with effort. She held the shirt out to him, but it was quickly obvious he would need help. “Don’t worry, I’m a professional at helping people get dressed. Put your arms up.” He raised them, wincing in pain as he did. She bunched the shirt and slipped his arms through, then pulled the neck hole over his head. Her hand brushed the front of his stomach as she pulled down the shirt and she felt his heat and smooth muscles. She tried to ignore the flutter in her stomach. “Hmm. I should probably take off the bandage to check your back.” He leaned forward and she untied the pillow case corners. She gently peeled away the towel. It was crusted with blood, but it seemed like most of the wounds were doing better. “Hang on a sec.” She went to the bathroom, grabbed the washcloth, and wet it with warm water, then came back in the room. Gently, she dabbed and wiped to clear the fresh blood. Then, it was back to the bathroom for

the anti-bacterial ointment and a fresh hand towel. “It’s looking better. That’s a good sign.” She looked down at the sweatpants on the bed. “I guess you’ll need help with the pants, too.” He smirked and shrugged. Fiona pulled back the covers by his feet. She didn’t want to reveal too much and make him uncomfortable. She scrunched the pants and slipped the first leg over his foot, then the other. She pulled them up as far as she could go without seeing everything. “I can manage from there,” he said. “Okay.” She flipped the covers back over. He wiggled back and forth while tugging on the pants. When he seemed to have them high enough, he settled again. “How are you feeling?” she asked. “Sore, achy. Like my head is going to explode. But better, actually. In some ways. The aching is worse, but the cuts feel better and my head and jaw hurt less.” “They really did a number on you.” She checked over his face and applied fresh anti-bacterial ointment and bandages. “Well, they were trying to kill me.” “Why?” “Oh, you know. My dog pooped in their yard too many times.” “Must be a big dog.” He nodded. “The biggest.”


Jasper stirred after falling asleep for a few hours. He felt his eye and the swelling seemed to have gone down some. The bag of ice lay at his side, melted. He could see out of both eyes though, so that was something. He stretched in the bed, every muscle aching. He hadn’t felt this sore since he’d first started working out and lifting heavy weights. And this type of sore was not the good type where you felt like you’d worked hard for it. This felt like a razor slicing every part of his body.

The pain in his back was sharp. How many times had they cut him? Assholes. They thought it’d be funny to slice up his club’s logo, like that meant anything. If the fight hadn’t been seven on one, he’d have taken any of them down. And, now that he thought about it, it said a lot that Leo had brought seven guys. Like he knew it would take that many to take him down. And, ha. They still didn’t manage it. Should have shot him and been done with it. Idiots. That was what he would have done. Who needed fists and knives? If wanted to prove a point—shoot the guy in the leg and watch him hobble around for a while before putting him out of his misery. But, if you wanted to cause him real pain, you didn’t beat him and stab him. No. You shoot his family. His girl, his mama, and if he had kids, then you threatened them until he broke. Worked every time. Or at least every time he’d had to do it. And now there’d be several bullets with Leo’s name on them, and the other six who followed like lemmings. He had to get out of Fiona’s house. If somehow they found him, they might do something to her. Who knew how far they’d go; since they seemed to enjoy torture, Fiona and her daughter would make the perfect recipients. Though he was grateful she’d come along to help him, and she’d taken fabulous care of him, he’d bring trouble on her, and she didn’t deserve that. Seemed like someone in her past had caused her enough trouble as it was. He’d never understand guys like that. Weren’t there enough dumb ass men in the world to fight with? Why would you fight your girl like that? And to hit a child? Man, you had to be one lame ass dude to sink to that level. There were some things you just didn’t do. And if his mama had taught him anything, it was that you never hit a girl. Unless, of course, she was going ape shit crazy on you and kicking and punching your lights out, then you could slap her to keep her straight if you really had to. But only if you really had to. Most guys were decent enough to stick by that rule. His hand clenched into a fist thinking about anyone hitting that perfect woman. Fiona. Even her name was like an angel. But that face and body. He’d give anything to have a woman like her. Okay. Almost anything. Well. He’d give a lot, at least. She was gorgeous. Smooth skin, long dark hair that he wanted to wrap around his fingers and pull while he ran his hands all over her tight little body. He adjusted the sweatpants under the covers in case she came back in. At least he knew there were no issues with Little Jazz. But he needed to stay quiet for now. Nothing good would come of him being with someone like Fiona. She was too good and pure. Too innocent for his lifestyle. Even if he wanted her more than he could remember wanting anyone in a long, long time. Things settled below the belt just as Fiona came back into the room. “You’re awake,” she said. “Did I sleep long?” “A few hours. I think you needed it.”

“Yeah.” What he really needed was a bottle of Jack and some Vicodin, but the chances of her having either were slim. “Can I get you anything?” “No, thanks. I just need to use the bathroom.” He started by shoving the covers away, then turning so his feet hung over the edge of the bed. He scooted forward, pain shooting through him, and had to pause for a minute to breathe through it. They really had done a number on him, as Fiona had said. He’d live, obviously, but it was going to be a sucky few days. Jasper pushed forward until his feet hit the carpet. Fiona hovered, watching his every move. It made him nervous, but he liked it. Kinda like his mama had been, always looking out for him, always trying to take care of him or do something for him. He hadn’t appreciated it when he was still at home, or even when his mama was still talking to him, trying every day to get him to give up his ways. But when Fiona did it, he wanted to scoop her in his arms and never let her go. She must be a fabulous mom. Curse the jerk who messed that up. She deserved someone who’d treat her right. I would treat her right, he thought, but he pushed it from his mind. No. He could treat her okay, sure. He’d be nice or whatever. He’d never hit her and probably wouldn’t even yell much. But she needed a quiet life. Probably liked to sit around on the weekends drinking coffee and reading the newspaper before going for a little jog. And she deserved that kind of cute suburb life. But with him, it’d be all bikes and guns and knives and drinking. She likely sipped wine at tastings while he held weekly contests to see which of his boys could down the most shots and still ride in a straight line. Spoiler alert: none of them could drink as much as he could. He’d ruin her if he stayed. No doubt he could charm her into sleeping with him. Probably convince her to date him. He knew how to play the game, how to be sweet at just the right moments. But he wouldn’t live the quiet life, and he’d make hers too loud. She needed peace. Looked like she hadn’t had it in years. No, he had to get out of here as soon as possible and leave her be. And do something about her car. Would blood come out? Maybe he’d just buy her a whole new car. She worked at a gift shop? She could probably barely afford this place. Yeah, a new car. That would mean a lot to her. And he’d drop some cash to cover all these towels and blankets he was bleeding all over. A few hundred? A few thousand. As much as he could gather. Maybe he’d sell that old clunker of a bike sitting in the garage for parts. It’d fetch a few grand and he could rock Fiona’s world and show her there were good guys out there. For now, though, he had to be able to walk across the room at least. Or he wasn’t going anywhere. With a deep breath, he pushed up from the bed and stood. He took one step and the world spun around him. Black spots came into his sight. He’d experienced this before, plenty of times. He was going to pass out. Stood up too fast or something. He reached back for the bed, but missed. He landed hard on his knees and heard Fiona let out a cry. Then her hands were on him. On his shoulder, holding him up.

He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Jasper? Jasper?” He forced his eyes open and there she was, so close to him. Her brown eyes shone amber in the afternoon light, the highlights in her hair red brown. A chunk of wavy hair fell across her face and he reached out to brush it back. Her face registered shock and he realized what he’d done. He hadn’t even thought of it. Just knew that hair had to move because it was blocking his view of her face. He stared deep into her eyes. There was just one thing to do now. He leaned forward, with the full intention of kissing her, then stopped. She held his gaze. She hadn’t shrunk from his touch, hadn’t moved away, wasn’t even looking away. He could kiss her and she would kiss back. He looked down and pressed his palms into the floor to get to all fours. “That didn’t go as well as I hoped,” he said. She took in a shaky breath. “No, I guess not.” The way she looked at him, the hint of longing, the stronger sympathy. Man, she did want him to kiss her. He had her already. How would he ever resist that? Turn away this little angel who wanted nothing more than to help him? Who’d gone so far out of her way? No, no. She was too good. He’d only taint her. “Here, you can lean on me,” she said. “Let’s get you to your feet again.” She held out a hand and he took it. She tugged on him and tried to pull him up, but she didn’t have much strength. He pushed up from the ground and stood, still holding her hand. Then she moved under his arm as she had the night before. He shuffled along, trying not to lean too hard on her, but the walls were still twisting a bit. They made it to the bathroom and she turned her back toward him when he faced the toilet. He almost wished she would look. He’d caught her glance when she took off his boxers. He’d thought of that glance through the night. Wondered how much she’d liked what she saw. Now as he pulled down the sweatpants to pee, he thought he looked even more impressive. His blood was flowing properly again, even if he was still low from losing so much. He peed and flushed and pulled the pants back up. “Was there any blood?” she asked. “Nope.” “Oh, good. That’s a good sign.”

She was still so worried about him. Though anyone would be worried about some random dude dying in their bed. He knew his injuries and knew he was fine. Or would be. He liked that she worried. Made him feel like someone on this planet actually gave a damn if he lived. None of his boys had hunted him down and come knocking. Good for nothings. They hadn’t even come to him when he was bleeding out all over the road. No, a stranger had to save his life. He owed them all a good beat down when he was recovered. Whatever happened to looking out for your own? They’d make it up to him. They’d help him pay back Leo and every one of the guys who’d beaten him, and every one of the guys in his lame little motorcycle club. He wouldn’t try to recruit them for his club. They weren’t Crimson Hawk material. Not if they couldn’t even mange to take out an enemy who’d screwed them over. Fiona helped him back into bed. She pulled the covers over him, and even though they made him far too hot, he left them where she placed them. “Now what? What do you need?” “Just some sleep, I think.” He turned over to look at the glasses beside him. There was still water. He reached for the bottle of ibuprofen, but she got it first. She poured out four and handed them to him, then picked up the glass of water and handed it to him as well. “Thanks.” He set the water down and let his head sink into the pillow. He heard her soft footsteps as she left the room and closed the door. When she was gone, he pushed the blankets down and let the cool air cover his body. He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. As his consciousness sunk deeper, his body did one of those full-body shudders that happened while you were falling asleep. The pain shot through him in a burst, and light sparked his vision for an instant. But it was just enough to send a memory flashing through his mind. One image. Leo standing over him, shining the flashlight bright in his eyes before he brought his foot down on his face. It made his nose ache recalling it, and when he closed his eyes, his mind replayed the entire scene. Jasper had been there, in the dark at the side of the road, where they always met. Look for the cluster of trees and the picnic bench. That was what he told people. Just after mile marker 58. He’d been there, waiting. He should’ve brought a few of his guys. He always did for stuff like this, but he’d gotten the call on his way home from getting food and they wanted to meet right away. That was his first mistake. He’d been too eager for the sale and had broken his own rule. Never meet alone. And now that he thought about it, Leo probably had guys tracking him, watching to see when he was alone, then he’d had that guy John call to ask for a deal. Leo had planned this whole thing to make it as easy as possible for him. No one on one fighting like men. Not even club on club. Oh no, had to make it seven to one. Seven to one. What kind of an asshole did that? Jasper had sat in his car in the dark, ready to take off if anyone happened along who shouldn’t be

there. Then he saw the car flash its lights three times. This was the sign. The car pulled over and John got out. Jasper went to meet him behind the cover of his car. “This stuff is pure?” John asked. “Taste it.” Jasper waited while John peeled open the bag and stuck in a wet pinky to taste the cocaine. John nodded. “Where’d you get this? This stuff is good.” “Five hundred.” “You sure that’s all? How can you afford such low prices? You know that other guy charged me six.” “Yeah, well, I guess you found the better deal, then, didn’t you?” “Too bad you didn’t.” This voice had come from behind him and he recognized Leo. It took him a half second to realize this wasn’t just another drug deal. This was a set up. John, if that was even his real name—probably wasn’t—took off with the money and the coke. Then, a group of men piled out of a car and came at him. Jasper managed to get his gun out. He rarely went anywhere without it, especially when he was doing a deal, and he wouldn’t dream of not having it on him, loaded and ready to go. From behind, Leo tackled him to the ground. That, Jasper had not been expected. Guns, knives, fists, yes. But he’d had his eye on the guys approaching and though he hadn’t forgotten Leo was behind him —in fact, he was moving to get in a better position so that Leo wasn’t behind him—Leo had taken him by surprise. Jasper kicked himself for that repeatedly, but in the end, it likely wouldn’t have mattered. Seven men converged on him. They punched him and kicked him. One of them took a knife and slashed up the Crimson Hawks logo on the back of his jacket. They cut straight through the leather, into his skin, and every slash was a hot whip that made him arch his back in agony. Once he was on the ground, they’d gotten his gun from him quickly and he hadn’t been able to reach for the knife in his boot. One of them had found it, and to add further insult, had made a point of saying it was his own knife that had cut up his back. That was why he thought they would just shoot him. So it could be his own gun that killed him. But for whatever reason—sheer stupidity maybe—they hadn’t. And they’d pay for that mistake. He wondered about his car. They’d taken his keys, and when he came to, the car was gone, but surely they hadn’t taken it. It would lead the cops right to them if they thought they’d killed him. Being in possession of a dead man’s car would require quite an explanation, or quite the bribe. Maybe it was just pushed into the woods. More likely, it’d been stripped and sold off for parts. Good thing he hadn’t driven his bike. If they’d messed with his bike, they’d really pay.

Jasper leaned his head against the pillow and closed his eyes. But every time he did, he saw flashes of fists hitting his face, felt them kicking his sides and stomach, felt the stinging cuts across his back. And then the eerie silence. When he’d passed out, they’d stopped at some point. He woke up and the world around him was so still. He’d tried to sit up, but everything spun and he collapsed again, kissing the gravel. He’d lain there, hoping for salvation. For one of his boys to come along and see him. For someone to help him. And then Fiona was there. When he’d opened his eyes enough to see her, she seemed to glow. Of course, it might have been him half hallucinating from the pain, but he’d never forget that first sight of her. The concern on her face, the way she reached out to see if he had a pulse. And then how she’d helped him into the car, had listened when he said not to take him to the hospital. How many women would have done that? And then she’d cared for him ever since. If he didn’t know better, he’d think he was falling for her already. And then figure in her perfect face and body. She was the whole package. Despite whatever he tried to tell himself, he wanted her. Badly.

Chapter 3 Fiona looked up from her book at the flashes of red and blue light on the wall. She went into Sophia’s room and looked out the window. In the parking lot below was a cop car with its lights on. Immediately, she panicked and hurried into her bedroom. “Jasper, are you in any sort of trouble?” He’d been lying there with his eyes closed and now they opened to look at her. “What?” he mumbled, and pushed himself to sit up. “Are you in trouble?” “Usually. Can you be more specific?” “With the police? Is there any reason the cops would come looking for you?” He looked over toward the window at the red and blue light. “I don’t think so.” “You don’t think so?” She went to the window to look out again. She didn’t see anyone. “Have you done anything illegal lately?” He raised an eyebrow at her. “Maybe?” She sighed, then went to her front door. The peephole was grungy but she could see out of it. No cops in the hall. No cops coming to knock on her door. She went back to the bedroom and looked out again, hoping to gain some insight as to what was going on. “What are you into? Guns?” That was what Sam had been into. Buying and stealing and selling guns illegally to people who couldn’t buy them or didn’t want to buy them through legal channels. “I have guns,” he said. “Do you sell them? Illegally?” “No.” “Then what it is?” “Why do you assume I’m a criminal?” His voice gained a slight hard edge. She put her hand on her hip. “Well, you were beaten within an inch of your life and left for dead. You didn’t want me to take you to the hospital because they’d come to kill you. Usually people in those

situations want help from the police. So, if you don’t, it’s usually because you’re into something illegal.” “Guess you have a point.” “So, what is it, then? What illegal thing are you into?” “How many cops are out there?” She looked again. “Just one. Oh.” She saw him finally. He got out of his car and went to a car parked nearby to hand the man inside something. Then they both drove off. “Maybe he was just giving someone a ticket. He’s gone now.” “Then nothing to worry about.” “Were you worried? That the cops might show up here to arrest you?” “No.” She looked at him for a moment. “Look, you don’t have to worry,” he said. “As soon as I can get up and walk on my own, I’ll go. I appreciate all you’ve done for me, and I’d never want to overstay my welcome.” She thought of him going to the bathroom earlier and how he could nearly walk on his own. She’d helped him a little, but it wouldn’t be long before he could move without her help. He’d made significant improvements since last night. So, he wouldn’t be here much longer. The thought saddened her. But in the next thought, she knew that was ridiculous. Her first thought when she’d seen the lights was that Jasper was in trouble. She couldn’t be with someone like that. Someone who might get arrested and disappear at any time. There was a knock on the door. Jasper looked at her and she looked back, worried again. “Expecting someone?” he asked. She shook her head. At the front door, she looked out the peephole again and saw two people standing in front of her door. One, the shortest one, had on a bright pink sweatshirt and a t-shirt with a gray kitty underneath. She smiled and opened the door. “Mommy!” Sophia jumped into her arms. “I am so sorry, Fiona. I’ve just got a call that my mom was taken to the hospital. I’m sorry to just drop her like this with no warning. Is your friend still here?”

She said “friend” as if Fiona had been up to no good last night and that was the reason she wanted Sophia to stay. “No problem, Jeanine. Go to the hospital. See your mom. I appreciate you keeping her last night.” “Okay, then. Bye, Sophia.” Jeanine waved and walked away, and Sophia waved back as Fiona closed the door. Sophia wiggled free of Fiona’s arms and dashed into her bedroom, emerging a moment later with armfuls of stuffed animals. She turned toward Fiona’s bedroom and froze. “Mommy, there’s a man in your bed.” Fiona felt her face go warm. The way she’d said it made it sound so much less innocent that it was. “Yes. Come meet him.” She guided Sophia into the room. “Sophia, this is my friend, Jasper. He’s not feeling well, so he came here to get better.” “Oh,” Sophia said. “Hi, Sophia.” His eyes softened and the less swollen one crinkled in a half smile. Sophia dropped the animals on the bed. “These are all my friends.” She picked up a black and white cat. “This is Spot. And this is Cuddles.” She held up the purple bunny Fiona had slept with last night. Sophia went through several more animals. Jasper, to Fiona’s surprise, nodded and looked carefully at each one. “Okay, Sophia, let’s let Jasper rest and get some lunch, okay?” Sophia picked up her animals and dumped them on the couch in the living room before joining her mother in the kitchen. Fiona took out some bread and cheese. She started to make a grilled cheese, and by the time she was done, she noticed Sophia was no longer in the kitchen, sitting at the table with her stuffed cat. Fiona went to find her and she was sitting on the bed beside Jasper, a handful of cards in her hand. She was explaining, “You have to get all the same colors and then you win. See?” She showed him her hand of nothing but red cards. “I win.” “Oh, I see.” Jasper looked down at his own hand. “How do I get all the same color cards?” “Well, you just give me the red ones.” “And what about the black ones?”

“You keep those. Or put them here.” She patted a spot on the bed where a short stack of cards sat. “What if I want to collect red cards, too?” he asked. Sophia shrugged. “You can. But you have to have only red cards to win.” “Gotcha.” Sophia handed cards back and forth, and Jasper picked up the ones she dealt him to add them to his hand. “Are you teaching Jasper to play cards, Sophia?” Fiona asked, leaning in door frame. “Yup! I won!” She eagerly showed her mother her hand of all red cards. “Good job. Your lunch is ready. Come eat.” Sophia hopped down from the bed. “We can play again when I’m done.” Then she dashed from the room. “Sorry about that,” Fiona said. “I wasn’t expecting her back yet, but my babysitter had an emergency come up.” “It’s okay. Gives me something to do.” He smiled at her. “If you need a book or magazine or something—” “No, really, it’s okay. She’s fun.” Fiona raised an eyebrow at him. “Do you have kids? Or nieces or nephews or anything?” “No.” “Then it might not be fun for too long. Preschoolers take some getting used to.” “How old is she?” “Four.” He nodded. “Seems like a fun age.” “It is. Until she’s tired or mad or doesn’t get her way. Then it’s tantrum city. I made her a grilled cheese. Do you want one? Or something else? I can make you a sandwich or something.”

“I’m okay. I don’t know that I could eat yet.” Fiona pulled her mouth to the side in thought. “You should probably eat something soon, though. You need to keep your strength up. Maybe some soup?” He nodded. “Sounds perfect.” A few minutes later, once it was done heating and she was sure that Sophia was settled, Fiona took a steaming bowl of chicken soup to him. She grabbed another towel and folded it so he could set the bowl on his lap to eat. “Thank you,” he said, blowing on a spoonful. “I’m actually feeling hungry now that I smell food.” “Good.” She watched for a moment as he ate. He slurped a few spoonfuls after blowing on each one. “How does your stomach feel?” “Empty.” He laughed. “I needed this.” “Let me know if you want toast or something to go with it.” He swallowed another spoonful. “Actually, yes, if you don’t mind.” “Sure.” By the time she came back with two pieces of toast on a plate, he’d eaten half the bowl. She handed him the toast and checked his complexion. “You don’t feel like you’re going to throw up or anything?” she asked. He took a big bite of toast and shook his head. “I feel better. My head isn’t spinning as much.” “Maybe you got dehydrated. Drink more water.” He took a few long sips between bites of toast. “I think you should still take it a little slow.” She took the empty plate from him. “I’ll gladly bring you more food, but we should wait to make sure your stomach can take it.” He nodded and closed his eyes, leaning back against the pillow. “Let me know if you need anything. I’ll make sure to keep Sophia out while you’re resting.” “You can let her in. It’s okay.” “You sure?”

“Yeah. She’s fun.” Fiona left the room, closing the door behind her. He really thought her daughter was fun? Sophia’s own dad hadn’t even thought that.


When he woke the next morning, Jasper felt markedly better. The aching in his muscles had lessened, as had the swelling in his face. Good. Leo’s idiots could even manage a decent punch. He could open both eyes fully now. The stinging cuts on his back burned less, and, overall, he felt stronger. Less dizziness, less fatigue, less foggy mind. But that meant it was time to go. Time to leave her be. Yet his feet didn’t hit the floor. He didn’t try to get up to see if he could walk on his own, like he’d told Fiona he’d need to be able to do before he left. He watched the morning sun brighten through the sheer curtains and waited. He could wait a bit. That wouldn’t hurt anything. A while later, she came in the room. Fiona’s face was slightly puffy with sleep and her hair stuck out in all directions from her face. But if this was what she looked like in the mornings, he wanted to wake up to her every morning. “How are you feeling today?” she asked. “Getting there.” “Good. Do you want breakfast?” His stomach growled just thinking of it. He’d eaten a full dinner yesterday. An awesome dinner of meatloaf and mashed potatoes with gravy and green beans. Of course she was a good cook, too. Why wouldn’t she be good at everything? Like she was trying to torture him. “Breakfast would be great,” he said. “Or even just another protein shake. Don’t go to too much trouble or anything.” She dropped her head to the side. “Eggs? Pancakes? French toast?” “I’m a sucker for scrambled.” “Coming right up.” She left the room and minutes later, he smelled eggs cooking. How long had it been since someone

had cooked for him? He really needed to get a girl again. He wanted Fiona, but she was far too good. He needed someone like her who he didn’t have to worry about ruining. Especially now that this thing was going on with Leo. What he really needed was a girl who could take care of herself. Win a fight, carry a gun or a knife. That way he wouldn’t have to worry about her all the time. Fiona came in with a bowl of scrambled eggs and orange juice. She watched as he dug in the fork and put a bite into his mouth. It was perfect. Moist and flavorful, like his mama made them. “Are they okay?” “They’re perfect.” He stuck another bite in his mouth, tempted to just tilt the bowl and dump it all in his mouth. “Really? Not too dry or anything?” “No. They’re perfect. Really.” She smiled and seemed to relax. Then he realized what she was doing. She was waiting for him to say something was wrong. Her whole body had been tensed and waiting for it. And when he said they were good, and convinced her of it, she let go of the tension. Let go of the readiness for a fight. Man, what had the last guy done to her? Probably was one of those meat heads who liked to punch her every time she messed up dinner. Maybe that was even why she was such a good cook. Maybe it was a survival skill. Sickening. If the food wasn’t so good, he might have been unable to eat. “You don’t have to worry,” he said. “I think you’re a wonderful cook and an awesome mom. You’ll make a really great wife for someone one day.” She pulled her eyebrows together for a moment. “Thanks…” She didn’t even believe it. Sad. “There are good guys out there,” he said. “You might have to really search, but they’re there.” “Oh yeah? And I suppose you’re one of the good guys?” She pulled her mouth into a half smile. Say yes, say yes. Oh, how he wanted to convince her. She would believe him, too. He’d been a total gentleman the whole time he’d been here. Charm level ten. But this wasn’t the real him. This was him when no one was around to see his weakness. This was him with nothing to fight back against. As soon as he stepped out the door, he was back on the battleground. Leo’s club and life in general— everything was a fight for him. “Nah.” He shook his head. “I’m one of the ones you should avoid.” He gave her a sad smile. He’d never wanted to become a good guy so badly. But she deserved someone who didn’t have to force it. Who was naturally good. And that wasn’t him one bit. “Oh, that’s too bad. I was starting to think you were the rare exception.”

“The exception?” “You know, they’re like unicorns. The mythical beast that is the bad boy with a heart of gold. The one who defends his woman, then comes home and treats her sweetly and gently.” “Oh, that.” Were any of the “bad boy” types as she called him actually like that? None of the guys in his club were, even if they tried to be. Some were nice enough to their girls, but the things they did and said when they weren’t around…it wouldn’t seem so nice to any of them. “Maybe that guy is off riding a unicorn instead of a motorcycle.” She broke into laughter. Her whole face lit up and shone as her eyes glittered. He wanted to make her laugh like that forever. “Maybe.” “Was that it, then?” he asked. “Your ex was a bad boy type?” “I guess you could say that.” “And he, what, used to hit you? Yelled at you if you didn’t cook something exactly he wanted?” Fiona stared at him, her jaw hanging open. “Is he talking about Daddy?” Fiona whipped around at the sound of Sophia’s voice. Jasper hadn’t known she was there either, but she’d been standing just outside the door, listening. Now she peered around the edge, clutching a purple bunny to her chest. “No, honey,” Fiona said, and ushered the girl away. Even the kid knew about it. Must have seen her dad hit her mom and yell at her. Maybe he even hit her. Bastard. Who was this guy? If he was anywhere near the area, he’d hunt him down and shoot him. No kid should have to witness that. A little while later, Fiona came back in. The TV was playing now, so apparently Sophia was occupied. Still, Fiona closed the door behind her and stood closer to him to talk. “How did you know?” she asked. “You didn’t exactly hide it. When you made the shake you said you knew about getting beat, and I saw the way you tensed when you asked about the eggs.” She let out a sigh and seemed to deflate. “Is it that obvious? I’m just a walking victim.”

“What? No way. You’re here, aren’t you? You got away.” “Barely.” “Where is he? He nearby?” “No. He doesn’t know where we are, and hopefully it’ll stay that way.” “Fiona.” He waited for her to look back up at him. “You’re strong for getting out. A lot of women can’t.” Tears formed in her eyes and he wanted to reach over and wipe them away and pull her close. But he just kept looking at her, insisting on his point with his gaze. “You seem to know a lot about it.” “Yeah.” He nodded slowly. “I guess we have that in common. I watched my mama get hit by my dad for years.” Her face softened into sympathy. “I’m so sorry you had to see that. That’s what made me leave. When Sophia saw too much and then he…he—” “He didn’t hit her, did he?” She sniffed and let out a sob, nodding as she wiped her eyes. “Twice. After the first time, he swore it wouldn’t happen again, but you know how that goes. After the second time, we snuck out in the middle of the night and never went back.” “How long ago?” “A few months.” “Oh wow. So it’s all still pretty new. I’m sorry he did that.” His fist tightened unconsciously. “I can’t stand guys like that. I’d beat every one of them if I could.” She blinked at him, then shook her head. “So, more violence is the answer? He beats me, so you beat him? How will that solve anything?” He nearly growled his answer, the outrage was so strong. He pictured his father’s face, saw him punch his mama in the eye, and could have torn a hole in the bed cover. “Because then he’d know what it feels like before he dies.” Her eyes grew wide for an instant, then settled. No, no, no. Crap. He’d scared her. “I’m sorry.” He made his voice softer and his face relaxed. “I watched it happen for so long that it

really gets me mad. You’re right, though. More violence doesn’t solve anything. I guess since I grew up seeing my dad use his fists all the time, I tend to lean toward that, you know? Guess I never stood a chance at being a good guy who didn’t rely on working out problems in a physical way.” “How many of your girlfriends have you hit or slapped or yelled at?” He understood why she asked. It was natural for her to think that after what he’d just said, and when you just looked at the basic stats. How many times had his mama said, “Your daddy was a beater because his daddy was and his daddy was.” She’d told him again and again he better not turn out like that. That was why when he joined a motorcycle club, she’d stopped talking to him. Assumed it meant he’d be just like his daddy. In some ways he was, he supposed. He did use his fists when he was mad. He broke things, he punched walls, and when necessary, he punched people. But one thing he’d never done, no matter how mad he got or how far he pushed, was hit a woman. The fact that she asked, that she thought he was like that, made him both roil with rage and want to cry. He’d never convince her he was any good. And that was why he had to leave. That was why she needed to find someone else. He wasn’t good. And he sure wasn’t good enough for her. “I’ve hit a lot of people, Fiona. Broken a lot of things in anger, made a lot of holes in walls. But one thing I’ve never done, one thing I would rather kill myself than do, is raise a hand to a woman. I know you’d expect me to be like my dad. And maybe since my mama left, it gave me a perspective my daddy didn’t have. But I saw what she went through. Saw how she struggled and suffered and what it did to her. And I vowed when I was just thirteen that I would never be someone who’d make a woman cry and hurt like that.” She stared at him for a long minute. She pulled her lip into her mouth and chewed at it. Then, she simply said, “Okay.” “Okay?” He chuckled. “I believe you.” Later that morning, he needed to use the bathroom. This was time to test himself. Could he get there alone? He shoved the covers back and turned. With his feet on the floor, he pushed up from the bed, slowly this time. He stood there for a moment, ready to fall back on the bed if he got dizzy. He was a little lightheaded, but the feeling passed in a few seconds. He took a step. His ribs ached. Probably a few were broken, they hurt that badly. His back stung now that he was moving and every muscle screamed at him. But he made it to the door. When he stepped into the hallway, Fiona exclaimed and ran to him. “Why didn’t you call me to come help you?”

“That’s why. You would have come to help me and I wanted to see if I could do it on my own.” “Oh.” She stood back, watching him. How he wanted her to come to him so he could put his arm on her shoulders. To have her that close. If he stumbled at just the right moment… No, he wouldn’t do that. He needed to be strong now. He’d been weak enough. And he’d been weak in front of her enough. He opened the door to the bathroom and went in. She didn’t follow, and he closed the door. Just as well. He had to do more than pee, and he couldn’t take a crap if she was in there making sure he was okay. After he did his business and checked to make sure there was no blood—she had known something about the possibility of internal bleeding—he went back to the bedroom. She came in as he was settling back in the bed. “Everything okay?” “Yup. I’ll be back to myself in no time.” “Good.” He almost asked her then for her phone. He would call one of his boys to pick him up. He had no shoes, was wearing her clothes, and didn’t have his bike or car or cash to call a cab. They’d be glad to hear from him. Probably thought he was dead. But when he thought of leaving, his chest hurt in a way that had nothing to do with his ribs. Instead, he just smiled and said, “It must be because I’ve had such good care.” She blushed and the color made her even more beautiful. Yeah, he’d just stay here as long as he could. Enjoy every moment of her before she was gone like a figment, left as only a memory in his mind. At dinnertime, Fiona brought him a plate of pasta with a creamy red sauce and garlic bread. Sophia bounced in behind her, carrying a glass of soda. “Here you go, Jasper,” she said proudly, and set the glass beside him. “I didn’t pour it, though. Mommy has to do that.” “Well, thank you for bringing it in. You didn’t even spill it or anything.” He gave her a wide smile and she smiled back. God, even the kid was adorable. He’d never thought he was a kid guy. But after playing with Sophia and seeing how she was around the house, he was changing his mind. She was pretty chill most of the time, except for bath time. She hadn’t been a fan of that, but still. He’d thought kids were a lot more work. But he could hang with Sophia. He wouldn’t mind having a kid like that.

Fiona handed him the plate, setting a towel on his lap so it wouldn’t be too hot. She always thought of everything. “This smells good,” he said. “I hope it tastes as good.” He quickly took a bite so he could tell her how much he liked it. “Perfection.” He took another bite as she rolled her eyes. “Hardly.” “Do you have any idea how long it’s been since someone cooked for me? I’ve been stuck on microwave dinners for years. This is like heaven to my taste buds.” “Well, I guess compared to nasty microwave meals, I do okay.” She chuckled. “You do much better than okay.” Sophia was tugging on Fiona’s shirt. “What, honey?” “Are you going to stay home from work again tomorrow so I can play with Jasper?” “Oh…I don’t know.” She looked at him, seeming to consider whether he’d be able to leave or not. She’d missed work today to take care of him? Great. Now he owed her a day’s wages, too. He was already causing her too much trouble. First his blood all over the place, then he was eating all her food, and now she was missing work because of him? No, he had to leave tonight. Much as he wanted to stay for days. “Actually,” he said, setting his fork down. “I was going to ask to use your phone after dinner. I said I’d get out of your way as soon as I could walk on my own, mostly because I didn’t want to fall down the stairs of your building, and now I can walk. So I’ll have someone pick me up.” “Oh, well, I can drive you somewhere, that’s not a problem. I could even take you on my way to work in the morning if you’d rather stay tonight.” Oh sure, in that case. Stay the night. He wanted to keep her up all night making her moan. “Thanks, but I better not. And it’s fine. You have Sophia. I can get a ride. It’s not a problem.” When he’d finished eating and she came to take his plate, she left her phone. He called his boy, Aaron. He didn’t answer. Probably because he didn’t know the number. “Call me back at this number.” He hung up and waited. The phone rang in his hand a minute later.

“Jazz! Man, we thought you were dead. Where are you, where have you been?” It sounded loud behind him and Jasper guessed he was at the bar. That was usually where they were Thursday nights. “I’ve been recuperating. I need you to come get me.” “Sure thing, man. Where you at?” He gave him the address. “You leaving now?” “Yup. See you in a few.” Jasper got to his feet, feeling a weight in his chest at knowing in just a few minutes he’d be walking out the door. He walked carefully to the living room, where Fiona sat, brushing Sophia’s hair. She hopped up when she saw him and took the phone when he held it out. “My boy is coming to get me. He’ll be here soon.” “Oh, okay.” She stood there holding the phone awkwardly. “Do you think you could come down the stairs with me? I’d like to get down there before he gets here, and I want to talk to you for a second.” “Sure.” She turned to Sophia. “I’m going to help Jasper downstairs, okay? Stay here, and if you need me, just call down from the top of the stairs, okay?” She nodded and turned her attention back to the TV. Fiona unlocked the deadbolt and the door knob and held the door open for him. He walked out and took hold of the railing. She stood beside him, watching. He moved slowly, letting one foot drop down, then the other. It was much easier going down than it had been when he came up two days ago. They made it to the bottom without incident and she stood in front of him as he leaned against the door, standing near the window to see when Aaron pulled up. “I’ll get your clothes and towel and stuff back to you this week.” He still wore her makeshift bandage on his back. “And don’t worry, I’ll take care of the damage I did to your car and everything else. Might take me a few weeks, but I’m good for it.” “Oh, you don’t have to do all that. Don’t worry about it.” “I’m sure the blood stained.” She looked in the direction of her car. “I’m sure it’s fine.”

“I will make it up to you, okay?” She nodded at him and gave a thin smile. “Give me your number so I can call and set up a time to drop this stuff off.” She patted her jeans. “I don’t have a pen or anything.” “It’s okay. I’ll memorize it.” She gave him the number and he repeated it back. Aaron would have it in his phone if he forgot. “I’m so glad you drove down that highway when you did. It seems weak to only say thank you after all you did, but thank you. You saved my life.” “I’m glad I was there, too. I never knew I could be such a hero.” She chuckled. “You are. My angel hero.” Her cheeks blushed again and she looked down. Aaron’s car pulled into the parking lot and Jasper waved at him through the window. His stomach tightened as he said, “My ride is here.” She nodded. “Take care of yourself.” He looked into her eyes. Her eyes that looked almost as sad as he felt to be parting. There was a longing there. He hoped he wasn’t imagining it. Could she really want him like he wanted her? One way to find out. He stepped closer to her and hugged her. She squeezed back gently. Then he pulled back just enough. His face was so close to hers, inches separated their mouths. He leaned in partway and paused. She closed her eyes and tilted her head up to him. Yes. He closed in the distance and let his lips touch hers. At first, he kept the touch light. He’d meant it to be just a simple quick kiss, but he couldn’t get enough of her. He wove his fingers into her thick hair and pulled her closer as he smashed his lips to hers. He slipped his tongue in her mouth and hers was soft and smooth against his. He felt Little Jazz stiffen and reached down to adjust him. Then, he pressed his body to hers in a full embrace. He wanted to devour her right there in the stairwell. Strip her naked and slam her against the wall and make her feel better than she’d ever felt before. But Aaron was waiting. And in his condition, that sort of move wouldn’t be possible anyway. He let

the kiss end and pulled back to look in her eyes again. “Thank you,” he whispered. “For everything.” He walked away from her and the moment he was in Aaron’s car, everything changed. He was back with his boys, out of the dream of the last two days. “You look awful,” Aaron said, loud over the blasting music. “Who was it?” “Leo and his club.” Jasper closed his eyes. The fast speed made him feel woozy. He pictured Fiona walking back up the stairs, back to Sophia watching TV. But then Aaron spoke and the illusion shattered. “We gonna roll on them or what?” “No one’s had any trouble the last two days?” “Only that we all thought you were dead. Guess Leo and the Pansy Twisters are laying low for now.” Were they though? The Rose Blades—named after Leo Rose himself—were called the Pansy Twisters by Jasper’s crew because they often ducked out of fights and dangerous situations rather than stay and fight it out. They were wusses. Even when they attacked him, they did a poor job. But that didn’t mean they weren’t dangerous. When they realized he was still alive, they might try to fix that. They might come after his boys, too. “They might just be biding their time,” Jasper said. “Waiting to strike like they did with me.” “Well, we’re on to them. We had a feeling since no one heard from you that it was them.” “Yeah. They set up a bad deal. I need to find my car. No idea what they did to it.” “Where’d all this go down?” “Same spot I always do deals.” Aaron nodded. “Want to drive by there and see?” “Tomorrow. I don’t even have shoes, man. And these aren’t my clothes.” Aaron glanced at him. “I don’t know. That shade of blue looks nice on you.” Jasper shoved his shoulder. “Glad you’re not dead, man. The Hawks need you.” “Thanks. I want a club meeting tomorrow. Everyone needs to know what went down. For now, can you sound the chain and make sure they’re all on guard against Leo’s guys?”

“Will do.” Aaron pulled up to Jasper’s house. Jasper had called him since he had his spare key. He went inside and waved Aaron off. The first thing he did was take a shower and get dressed. Luckily, the cuts on his back had scabbed and healed that they weren’t still bleeding or weeping. He’d never be able to get any sort of bandage on his back by himself. In the mirror he almost kicked himself for forgetting about the pink and purple sparkle bandages on his cheek and jaw. Aaron hadn’t even commented. Good on him. Jasper would have if the tables were turned. He peeled them off and looked at them lying in his trash can. Weird how even trash was different with a child. What were they doing right now? Still watching TV? Having an after dinner snack? Getting ready for bed? He had an excuse to call her. Once he got a new phone—who knew where his ended up—he’d call her and meet her to take back the clothes. He’d pay her whatever he could until he sold his junk bike for parts. He’d definitely do that. No doubt about it. Especially if she’d taken the day off work to care for him. That kiss had to mean something, right? Something like maybe she had feelings for him, too? Maybe they could start something. He missed her already. He thought of his microwaved dinners sitting in his kitchen and how they’d taste even worse now. How he wouldn’t see her face in the different lights of the day. Though, morning was still his favorite. It had made her skin glow like sunlight. Maybe he could be what she needed. Maybe she could be his. But first, he had to get this thing with the Rose Blades settled. He wouldn’t endanger her or Sophia. Tomorrow, he’d talk to his club and they’d figure it out. Revenge was called for and that meant they needed a plan and a lot of weapons, and plenty of man power.

Chapter 4 Fiona drove to Jeanine’s with the morning sun light shining bright in her eyes. She’d been up a little late cleaning. Jasper had been right. The blood hadn’t come out of the car’s seats. Or the blanket, or her sheets, where he must have bled through his bandage. They’d all have to be trashed. The car’s interior she covered with Sophia’s car seat and hoped she wouldn’t notice. Maybe it would fade over the years by the time Sophia didn’t need the booster anymore. They knocked on Jeanine’s door, Sophia gripping her little pink bag of animals tight. “Mommy, when is Jasper coming over to play again?” “I don’t know. Now that he’s all better, we might not see him again.” “I liked playing with him,” she whined. “I know, sweetie.” Jeanine opened the door and Sophia ran inside to set her things down. “How’s your mom?” Fiona asked. “Doing okay. She’ll be home tomorrow. It was a close call, though.” “Glad she’s doing well. I should be done the usual time today.” “We’ll see you tonight, then.” Sophia ran to her and squeezed her legs before Fiona went to her car. Had Sophia gotten attached to Jasper that quickly? She’d asked plenty of question after he had gone, and Fiona had plenty of her own questions. Had she herself gotten too attached? What did the kiss mean? What did she want it to mean? Was he even the bad boy type if he was so kind and considerate and did so well with Sophia? Maybe he was into something bad and maybe he was a fighter, but did that make him instantly like her ex. And the biggest question of all—what now? He’d said he’d call and return her things. She was glad they had that excuse out there to talk again. She had no way to get a hold of him. No phone number, no address. Just his name. He could be halfway to California for all she knew. But he knew where she lived and had her number. He could get in contact with her anytime he wanted. Would he? She parked and entered the gift shop. After talking things over with Sue, she went about her work for the day, straightening displays and ringing up customers. After a few hours, Sue called her to the back,

where the office was. “Thanks for this note in the inventory items,” Sue said, pointing to the note Fiona had left when she’d closed the last time she worked. That felt so long ago now. Like part of another life, pre-Jasper. “Sure. I wasn’t sure if you planned to order them or not.” “I was thinking That maybe it’s time you learned to do the inventory and ordering. You’ve been doing so well and it would take a lot of work off me.” “I’d be glad to learn.” “I knew you would.” Sue smiled at her. “Is your friend doing better today?” “He is. Thank you for covering for me. I wouldn’t have done it if he wasn’t hurt so badly. But he couldn’t even walk by himself most of the day.” “It’s no problem. I think that was the first time you called off anyway. I appreciate your reliability.” Sue showed her the inventory form, then took her out into the store to show her how she liked to track the counts. After a few minutes of instruction, she watched as Fiona checked and tracked a display of mugs. “Perfect,” Sue said. “Well, I’ll let you get on that, then.” Fiona happily went through the store, checking item counts and marking them down. She’d worried that calling out to care for a sick friend would put her in a bad light, but now that Sue was giving her a new responsibility, and one an assistant manager would do, it seemed that she still had faith in her after all. Fiona looked up when the bell over the door rang, as was her habit. She watched for a moment to see where the man headed and if he looked like he needed help. He walked through the store, not pausing to look at the items. Something in the way he looked around with determination in his eyes put her on alert. Her heart jumped and she walked quickly to the back room. But from there, she couldn’t see into the store. She waited several minutes, waited for her heart to calm. This is silly. It’s just a customer. He probably knows what he wants is all. Sarah was at the cash register and she’d ring him up and it’d be fine. She listened to see if she could hear Sarah talking or the cash register printed a receipt. After several minutes, when she’d felt officially stupid for hiding from this customer, she took a breath and went back out to the floor. The man walked up beside her and Fiona almost jumped across the room. Her heart pounded as she kept walking. He leaned in and said quietly, “You need to be more aware of your surroundings.”

Then he brushed past her and left the store. She stood there for a minute, watching. She stood there so long that Sarah asked if she was okay. She shook it off and went back to her inventory. But her mind wouldn’t settle, even if the jolt of adrenaline had started to. Who was he and what did he mean be aware of her surroundings? What wasn’t she aware of? Well, it seemed she would listen to him whether she wanted to or not. For the rest of the day, every customer, every little sound, made her look around. She felt paranoid. This had to be connected to Jasper, right? Or could it be Sam hunting her down? Had he only been waiting? Had it taken him this long to find them? That night, she didn’t sleep well and she started to wonder if maybe she shouldn’t have her own gun and learn how to shoot.


Jasper stood at the head of his basement, looking out at his boys. They all wore their Crimson Hawks leather jackets, like they always did. He’d need a replacement as soon as possible. It wasn’t right for the leader to be the only one without it. Still couldn’t believe those bastards had trashed his. He’d had it for years. It was all broken and perfect and everything. “I don’t know how much you’ve heard or how much you’ve assumed,” he said, “but let me set the record straight. Leo was pissed when I started making cheaper deals and taking his coke business. He was pissed before that when we recruited so many new members and grew to have ten more than he does. And the other night, he took his anger out on me. Him and six of his guys set me up and beat me, leaving me for dead.” “We thought you were dead, man,” Alex said. “Why didn’t you call anyone?” “Couldn’t. Didn’t have my phone and I could barely move.” “So what’s our plan?” Derrick asked. “They won’t stop when they find out you’re alive. If they wanted revenge, they’ll just keep going until you’re dead.” “You need protection,” Aaron said. Jasper nodded. “We’ll need to hit them where it hurts. The Rose Blades aren’t like the Crimson Hawks. If we take out Leo, they’ll fall apart.”

“They’re barely together now,” Alex said. “Exactly. It’ll be easy to take down anyone else who comes at us if Leo is out of the picture,” Jasper said. “Who were the other six?” Aaron asked. “Not sure. I only saw two or three of them and I didn’t know them. I might recognize them, but at this point, I want Leo. We’ll worry about decimating the rest of the club once we get him.” “And I already decided I’m staying here for a while,” Aaron said. “You need one of us with you at all times. You should’ve had someone there that night.” “You’re right,” Jasper said. “I want you to all be in teams as much as possible until we get this settled. Who knows when he’ll attack next or where or who he’ll come after this time. I’ll be laying low for a while. Hopefully he won’t know I’m still alive until he sees my gun in his face.” “When are we doing this?” Derrick asked. “I see no point in waiting and drawing it out.” “No,” Jasper said. “But we do need a plan. Do we get him alone like he did to me, or just gang up on a few of them? Where do we do it? And where are we going to put the bodies? All this needs to be planned before we can act. When we just go off and kill someone, that’s when people get caught. I’m not drawing it out, Derrick, but it needs to be done right.” Derrick and several of the guys nodded. “So, let’s make a plan,” Aaron said. Jasper listened to them talk, but his mind kept drifting. Was Fiona still at work? She’d driven by him pretty late that night. Did she always work that late? Was there any way Leo knew about her? Maybe he should call just to see if she was okay. He should probably wash her clothes first, so he had that as an excuse. He didn’t want to scare her into thinking someone might come after her. “So, if one of them attacks first?” Alex asked. “Obviously you do what you gotta do,” Aaron said. “Let’s make a plan for that right now, too,” Jasper added. How quickly could he get the money to her for the car and his damages? If he sold his bike this week, which he would and had already talked to a guy about it, then if he pulled off a few more deals, he could hand her a stack of cash like he wanted to. He could wait a few days to call her. Her number was saved in his new phone and he’d almost texted her or dialed it when he entered it. But he hadn’t. Actually, maybe he should text her. She didn’t have his phone number and if something did go wrong,

she might need to contact him. He took out the phone and went to her name. He typed a quick and simple message. Hey, this is Jasper. Just wanted you to have my number in case you ever needed it. Her response came back much quicker than he expected. It was only a simple, Thanks! but knowing she’d typed it made him feel close to her again for that second. He put the phone back and saw Aaron giving him a questioning look. He listened to the conversation. He hadn’t missed anything. He must’ve been smiling. He really needed to get a hold of himself. This crap with Leo was too important to mess around with. His life was at stake here. He couldn’t be thinking of Fiona all the time. He had to be on guard and paying attention at all times. Hard as it would be, he had to try to keep her from his mind. And the sooner he got this cleared up, the sooner he could go chasing after her, hoping to make her his.


Fiona stared down at her phone, wondering if she should call him. Or text him back. Was the guy in the store that big of a deal? Was she overreacting or was this something he needed to know about? She paced in her living room for a few minutes, watching Sophia sleep through her open door. She really had no weapons in the house and the deadbolt might not be enough. If they wanted to come after her, couldn’t they kick down the door or shoot through it? Was there any way they could climb up and get in the windows? She yawned and felt the burn in her eyes. She hadn’t slept well last night and tonight might be a repeat, though now it was out of fear. After checking the deadbolt and the lock again, she slid the couch over in front of the door. She’d have to slide it back before Sophia saw it. Or maybe she could say she was just cleaning behind it and forgot to move it back. She scooped Sophia into her arms and set her down in her bed. That way she wouldn’t have to worry about her being in the next room. Sophia would be right there beside her all night. Before getting into bed, she swept the house, checking the locks on the windows, peeking out through the curtains to see if anyone was out there or if anything suspicious was happening. When she had checked all there was to check, she got into bed. But soon after she closed her eyes, she knew it wasn’t going to go well. She kept seeing the man from the store, following her, telling her to watch out. After an hour of lying there, worrying, she grabbed her phone. She could just text him. If he was asleep or busy, he wouldn’t have to be disturbed. He could get back to her when he could. She thought about what to say. Hey, there was a strange man in the store today and now I’m totally freaked out. No matter how she put the words together in her mind, they sounded lame and paranoid.

In the end, after typing out, then deleting an entire message, she set the phone back down without sending him anything. It would be fine. He’d only told her to watch her surroundings. Maybe he was even trying to help her. And she was watching her surroundings now. Watching them like someone was out to kill her.


She awoke tired, which was not a shock. All morning she dragged. Every step of getting Sophia ready and getting them out the door seemed to take twice as long. She was running late and rushed Sophia into Jeanine’s before speeding off to work. She was watching now, not only for cars that might be following her, but for cop cars hiding. The last thing she needed was a speeding ticket. But she also didn’t want to be late after Sue had increased her responsibilities at work. Finally, the gift shop came into view and she let out a sigh of relief. Her clock said she was only two minutes late and there had been no cops. She hurried inside and dropped her things in the backroom before settling to look over her task list for the day. Finish the inventory and start the ordering were at the top of the list. Fiona let out a big yawn and rubbed her eyes. Come on, coffee. She took a long sip from her travel mug and hoped the caffeine would kick in quickly. She needed to be able to focus today. She could not mess up her first inventory and order. Lunchtime came and went and Fiona was starting to feel even more sluggish. Of all days, why did she have to end up on the early shift today? But, tomorrow, she was closing so she could sleep in. Thank goodness. She desperately needed the extra hours of rest. She went to the backroom to get fresh coffee and nearly dropped her mug. Standing there, watching her approach, was the man from yesterday. Her hand shook as she went into the backroom and poured the coffee. She sat for a minute at the table they used for breaks and meals. Her whole body felt trembly. He was back. But she couldn’t just sit there all day until the end of her shift. She went right to the front counter, where Sarah was. She looked back and the man was still watching her from across the shop. “Has that man been here long?” she whispered to Sarah. “I’m not sure, why?” “He’s watching me and it’s starting to creep me out.”

Sarah looked at the man, who quickly looked away. “Maybe he just thinks you’re pretty?” “I think it’s more than that. Just keep an eye on him, okay?” Fiona picked up her clipboard and went to do the final item for inventory. She tried to ignore the man watching her. An hour he stayed there, hovering, watching. She thought about calling the cops, but he hadn’t actually done anything except watch her. Was that a crime? Finally, he left. She felt the relief wash over her and continued on, placing her first ever merchandise order with precision. At least one thing good had come of him showing up. She no longer felt tired or sluggish. The adrenaline had her wide awake and focused. By the time she left for the day, she was feeling much better. The exhaustion was starting to return, but she was heading home. She could even take a quick nap if she wanted to. As she walked to her car in, she saw him again. At first, she wasn’t sure. The day’s light had faded into evening, and he was in the shadows, but his eyes were on her as she moved across the parking lot. Her stomach plummeted and instantly she was shaking. She got into her car and drove off, checking her rearview mirror constantly to see if he was still there, standing at the edge of the parking lot, leaning against a black sedan. She did her best to memorize the car. Then, through her entire drive, she glanced in the mirror, panicking, expecting him to show up at any moment and attack her. Fiona pulled into Jeanine’s and there had been no one seeming to follow her. She didn’t see the black sedan or the man; she hadn’t felt followed at all. She got out and looked around before going to the door. Nothing unusual. Nothing out of place. She went to the door to get Sophia and hurried her into the car. Again while driving home, she watched, waiting for someone to appear. But she pulled into her apartment parking lot and there had been no strange cars. Maybe everything would be okay. She got out of the car and closed the door. She was about to walk around to the other side to get Sophia out when she felt a hand across her mouth and something hard press into her temple. A gun, she realized. Someone was holding a gun to her head. His hand was rough against her smooth lips and she smelled the leather of his jacket. But it was too dark to see him, even if he wasn’t behind her. Was it the man from the gift shop? She stayed surprisingly calm. She couldn’t scream, so she didn’t try. With Sophia so close, she didn’t dare do anything to attract attention to her. She went very still, her heart pounding so hard it felt like it would jump out of her chest. “Where is Jasper Paulson?” the man growled in her ear. He removed his hand from her mouth and she said in a wavering voice, “I don’t know. I don’t know where he lives.”

“I know he was here. Now tell me where he is!” “I don’t know!” The tears ran down her face and she tried to think. Did she know where he was? No, she really didn’t know his address, or where he worked. She had his phone number and that was it. She hardly knew anything about him. “I’m going to ask you one more time. Where. Is. Jasper Paulson?” He pressed the gun harder into her head. It throbbed where he pushed it. “I don’t know!” she sobbed. “I barely know him.” The man dropped the gun and grabbed her wrists, twisting them up behind her back and yanking her into him to hiss in her ear. “If I find out you’re involved with him in any way, you will see me again. And next time, I won’t let you go without a bullet in your head.” He pushed her head hard and she stumbled forward. When she turned around, he was gone. She paused for a moment to be sure, then nearly ripped Sophia from the car. “Mommy, look at what I did to Cuddles!” She held the bunny up, waving her around in her new dress. “Uh-huh, that looks great, sweetie.” She whipped her head around as she hugged Sophia tight and ran toward the building. She took the stairs two at a time, and turned to lock the door behind them. Sophia was staring at her, her little eyes wide with questions. “I think there was a bee chasing us.” “A bee?” Sophia squealed and looked around frantically. “Did it get in?” “I don’t think so. I think we’re safe.” She hoped. She glanced out the peephole, but saw no one. “What if we moved the couch over in front of the door so the bee can’t get it?” Sophia nodded her head, hard. “Good idea.” Fiona pressed her back against the end of the couch and shoved. Her mind spun. Sophia. She had to focus on Sophia so she could think. Were they safe here? If she’d already been attacked and the man didn’t come up and they knew where she worked, was there any point to leaving? And if they did leave, would they only bring trouble on whoever they went to? That wasn’t fair to Sue or Jeanine, and she really had nowhere else to go. Of course, the person she wanted to call was the person she probably shouldn’t call. What would happen if she called Jasper? Would they really come after her? Would they even know she’d contacted him?

“Mommy, I’m hungry.” Okay, dinner. Let’s focus on dinner and hold it together until we figure things out. She went to the kitchen and pulled packages from the refrigerator without much thought. She browned the meat on autopilot and mixed in the hamburger helper. She needed something easy to cook tonight, so a boxed mix was the way to go, something she’d never have gotten away with if she was still with Sam. Dinner was on the table and she sat across from Sophia, eating like a robot. It was now 7 p.m. Sophia went to bed at 8:30. Another hour and a half until she could sit down and figure this out. An hour and a half until she could totally lose it. She felt on the verge. Holding it all in was working somewhat because she was likely still in shock. But when she sat down to think this through, when she focused on it, there would be no turning back. And she could not do that in front of Sophia. After dinner, she gave Sophia a bath, then got her to watch TV for a little while. She paced the floor, trying to keep her mind on other things. Like what she had to do at work tomorrow. What new gift item could they add to bring in new customers? How would she set up the display? She watched the clock and when it was 8:20, she said, “Okay! Bed time!” Sophia groaned and yawned, then followed her mother to her bedroom. Fiona picked her up and hugged her tightly before lying her down and pulling the covers up to her chin. “Sleep tight.” She leaned over and nuzzled her nose against Sophia’s. “Love you, Mommy.” Sophia’s little voice, so innocent and sweet, almost pushed her over the edge. She smiled and kissed her forehead before getting up to turn out the light. She flipped on the night light, then closed the door. Fiona sat on the couch, now off center from the TV, and stared at her phone in her hand. If she called him, would she endanger herself? What about Sophia? Would she endanger him? Or was this like in the movies where the bad guy said don’t call the cops and all you want to do was yell at the person to call the cops and it would fix everything? She rubbed her finger over the place at her temple where the gun had been pressed. There would be a bruise. She looked at her wrists and noticed there was a bruise there, too. Then she thought of all the man said and how Sophia had been so close and the tears started. She was doubled over on the couch, sobbing, trying to breathe, trying to cry as quietly as possible so as to not wake Sophia. It took almost an hour for her to calm enough to breathe and think again. When it came down to it, the only person who could help her was Jasper. She had to risk it.

She picked up her phone, blew her nose, and dialed his number.

Chapter 5 Jasper’s phone rang and when he picked it up, he was both surprised and dismayed to see Fiona’s number. Why was she calling him so late at night? This couldn’t be good. “Hey there,” he said. “Jasper?” Her voice was raspy and quivered. “What’s wrong?” Her words tumbled out of her in a rush and she started crying somewhere in the middle of it, making it hard to understand her. “Wait, wait. Slow down,” he said. “Someone attacked you and held a gun to your head?” He was on his feet, his free hand clenched tight in a fist, his vision going red with rage. Had to be Leo’s guys. No one else would come after her like that. “He asked about me?” “Yes,” she sobbed, “and he said if he found out I had anything to do with you, he’d kill me. I almost didn’t call you because I didn’t want him to hurt you, too, but I didn’t know what else to do.” “No, you definitely needed to call me. Don’t worry about me. They already tried to kill me, remember? And they couldn’t. Where are you right now?” “In my living room.” “Is the door locked?” “Yes. And the deadbolt, and the couch is in front of the door.” “Good. I’m leaving now. I’ll call you when I get there so you know it’s me.” Jasper ran out the door, pausing only to grab his helmet and a second gun, both of which sat on the top shelf of the entryway closet. He hopped on his bike, moving so fast that his body screamed at him in pain. He took off down the street, ignoring the sharp stabs along his back and the aches. He wove between cars, dodging the slower vehicles to keep his speed up. When he saw her building, he slowed a bit, but only enough to avoid wiping out in the gravel parking lot. He stopped his bike and hopped off, then called her.

“I’m in the parking lot.” “Okay.” He heard a loud scraping sound. “What’s that?” “I’m moving the couch,” she said. He took the stairs as quickly as he could with his stiff legs. “I’m right outside your door.” The door opened and she peeked out. Her face was a mess of puffy eyes and splotchy red. He entered her apartment, closed the door, and leaned against it, then pulled her into his arms. She hugged him back for a second, then reached up to lock the door and turn the deadbolt. When she put her arms back around him, she was shaking. “It’s okay.” He ran his fingers through her hair and squeezed her tighter. “It’s just…” She started sniffling again, making her words broken. “Sophia was so close and… and…” “I know. But it’s okay now. It’s over. I’m here.” When she calmed a bit, he led her to the couch. He sat beside her, rubbing her back as she dabbed at her eyes. He wished he could reach inside her and take out her pain. Show her it’d be okay and that he wouldn’t let anything happen to her. “Can you tell me more?” he asked. “Did you know the man?” “No, I don’t think so.” “What did he look like?” “I’m not really sure. It was dark. He had rough hands. He was wearing a leather jacket. That’s really all I got. He was behind me most of the time.” Jasper took in a breath and tried to steady himself. Getting too angry wouldn’t help anything right now. There would be a time for that later. And oh, would this man pay. Whoever he was. He’d make him hurt so badly he’d beg to be killed. “I’m sorry. That’s not very helpful, I—” She started to sob again and he pulled her into his lap. “No, it’s not your fault. Don’t worry. I’m sure it was the same guys who attacked me. Those are the only enemies I have. And I already have a plan to pay them back.”

“There was this other guy…” She paused to sniff and catch her breath. “In the gift shop. He came in yesterday and followed me and when I went to the back room, he told me to be aware of my surroundings. Then he came back today, but he didn’t say anything. He just watched me. But I don’t think it was him, the voice—” “Wait a minute. There was a strange man following you at work and threatening you and you didn’t call me? Why?” “I don’t know; I didn’t want to bother you. I didn’t want to seem all paranoid or anything.” “Fiona.” He rubbed his face, forgetting about his cuts, then wincing in pain. “Please don’t do that. I can only protect you if you tell me what’s going on. Did you get a good look at that guy?” “Yeah. I’m sorry, I just…” She broke into sobs again. “Shh, it’s okay, really. I’m not mad or anything. It just upsets me that you were in danger and didn’t think you could tell me. Or should. You should always tell me stuff like that and I will protect you. And Sophia. I will do whatever I have to in order to make sure you’re safe.” For some reason, this made her cry even harder. He didn’t know what else to do but hold her and wait for it to stop. What had he said to make it worse? He handed her a fresh tissue and gently slid her from his lap. Then he went to the kitchen to get her some water. He opened the cabinets and looked around. What she needed was a stiff drink. But he found no alcohol. If he’d have known, he would have brought his flask at least. Or a Valium or something to help her calm down. He handed her the water. “You need to drink something. Try to calm down.” She gulped at the water and set the glass on the coffee table. Then she took in several shuddering breaths and looked at him through puffy, red eyes. “Thank you. I don’t deserve all this. For you to endanger yourself to protect us.” “Are you kidding me? Fiona, I’m the reason you’re in danger. If you hadn’t helped me, none of this would be happening. Repaying your kindness with my protection is the very least of what I can do. It’s not nearly enough. You have no idea how pissed I am that I brought this on you. You have a daughter to think about. You didn’t need any of this.” “Should we just leave town? Would that make it easier for you?” “No way. And where would you go?” He shook his head. “They could follow you and then I wouldn’t be able to protect you. Definitely don’t do that.” “What can I do, then? How can I make this better?”

“Tell me immediately when anything strange happens. Even if you’re not sure if it’s strange or not. I’d rather you tell me and have it be nothing than you think it’s nothing if it’s something.” She nodded and drank more water. “And,” he said, “if you can get a good glimpse of whoever, that’d be helpful, but I know that’s also not always possible. So don’t worry if you can’t.” “I will. I’m sorry I didn’t tonight.” “No.” He took her hand and kissed it. “Don’t apologize or feel bad if you can’t, okay? But you said you saw the guy who was in the gift shop?” “Yes. He had shoulder-length scraggly brown hair. Going thin on top. Kinda big nose. Wore a leather jacket and jeans. Had a messy-looking beard. Like he just stopped shaving one day. Wasn’t really fat, but wasn’t skinny either. Taller than me.” Jasper nodded, trying to picture who that might be and commit the details to memory. “Those are great details. I’m not sure who that is, but I’ll find out. You didn’t happen to see if he had any sort of logo on the back of his leather jacket?” “I didn’t.” “Okay.” He nodded slowly. Still had to be Leo’s guys. Who else could it be? But why warn her like that? Was he just trying to scare her? “Has anything else strange happened?” “No. Oh, I did see the guy’s car. It was a black sedan.” “Good. Any idea the make or model?” She shook her head. “That’s okay. That’s still helpful.” They sat for a few long minutes as she continued to breathe deeply and calm down. “How are you?” she asked, looking him over. “Are your cuts healing okay and everything?” “Yeah, I’m doing okay. I had someone really great take care of me.” He winked at her. “Oh, I forgot to bring back your towels and stuff. I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly when I ran out the door.” “Don’t worry about it.” She yawned and rubbed her eyes. “You need to get some sleep.”

“I don’t think I can. I haven’t slept well in days.” He put his arm around her shoulders. “Well, you can sleep easy tonight. I’ll be right here by the door and won’t let anything happen.” “Oh no, you can’t do that.” She looked at him with alarm in her eyes. “It’s the only way I can make sure you’re safe.” “What about your house? Don’t you need to be home to make sure it’s okay there?” “Why would I do that? There’s no one at my house. If anything happened, it would be just stuff. But you’re here, and you’re far more precious than any material item, so this is where I need to be. To protect you and Sophia.” “Oh.” She looked toward the closed bedroom door. “What will we tell Sophia in the morning when she sees that you’re here?” “Whatever you need to tell her.” “I’m not sure.” She scrunched her eyebrows, thinking. “I don’t want to scare her, but I don’t want to lie to her either.” “Can you just tell her we had a slumber party?” He gave her a playful smile. She chuckled a little. “Right. Maybe.” She stood up and picked up the glass and her tissues, then took them to the kitchen. When she returned, she said, “Are you sure you’ll be comfortable enough on the couch?” He gave her a seductive smile. “Well, if you’re offering your bed with you in it, I won’t turn you down.” Her face went pink. “I’ll just get you a pillow and blanket.” She went to a small closet in the hall and took out a blanket. Then she went to her bedroom and got a pillow. She pushed up her sleeves as she spread the blanket out. That was when he saw the purple marks on her wrists. “What’s that?” He took her arm gently and inspected her more closely. “Are those bruises?” “Yeah. From the guy tonight. He grabbed my wrists and twisted them behind me. I think I’ll have one on my temple, too.”

He put his finger to her chin to turn her head. Sure enough, there was a deep red mark there. The rage burst in his chest like an explosion. All he could see were flashbacks of the bruises on his mother’s wrists, the black eyes, the red cheeks from where she’d been slapped. They helplessly burned in him, making him want to rip the world to pieces. He wouldn’t only take out the man who’d done this. Oh no. That would be merciful. No. He’d make him suffer. “I promise you,” he said through clenched teeth, “that the man who did this will pay. He will regret the day he laid hands on you.” Her eyes widened a bit when she looked at him. “What are you going to do?” “Whatever it takes. No one will hurt you again.” Her eyes seemed to burn into him. He couldn’t tell if this upset her or not. Maybe she was a pacifist who didn’t want anyone to be hurt, even if they had hurt her. “What’s that look for?” he asked. She looked away for a brief moment, then met his gaze with tears lying low in her eyes. “I’ve never had anyone protect me like that. It seems like everyone just wants to hurt me. I wonder if I do something to bring it on.” “No, don’t say that.” He reached and put his palm to her cheek. “It’s not your fault. You deserve to be loved and cherished. And I’m going to do whatever it takes to make sure that happens.” She blinked and a thin line of tears ran down her cheeks. He brushed them away with his thumb. Then he slowly leaned forward and kissed the trail they’d left behind. “No more tears tonight.” He tilted her face toward him and she let her eyes close as he touched his lips to hers. The passion ignited in him. It tore up the rage and burned with the same heat. He would set the world on fire for her, and he’d set her on fire with pleasure if she let him. The kiss intensified. He pressed harder against her lips and his tongue found hers, slipping deep in her mouth. He was so hard he thought he’d burst. His hand pressed into her back, bringing her closer to him. He pressed his hips against her and she murmured against his mouth. The sound of it drove him wild. He brought his hand around slowly to her front. He had no idea what sort of damage her ex had done. Maybe he was rough in the bedroom. Maybe he’d forced her. There were plenty of heart wrenching nights he’d heard his mother screaming from their bedroom and he’d wanted to go in there and tear his father to shreds. So every move he made slowly, making sure she fully allowed it before moving on. He moved across her stomach and under her shirt inch by inch. When his fingers brushed the edge of her bra, he paused, giving her the chance to say no. When she didn’t, he let his fingers slip under and

pinched her nipple. She squirmed under his touch. “Does that hurt?” he whispered in her ear. “No. I like it.” “Stop me if you don’t.” She pressed her lips to him and ran her hands along his back. He tensed and arched at the pain. “Oh, I’m so sorry!” She dropped her arms and pulled back from him. “I wasn’t thinking.” “It’s okay.” He stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her. “What really hurts is how far away you are.” He pulled her closer and resumed kissing her. He picked her up in his arms and carried to the bedroom, kicking the door open with his foot, then using it to close it behind him. He laid her gently on the bed and yanked his shirt off. She looked up at him with such an angelic gaze that he had to pause just to look in her eyes for a moment. “I want you,” he said, kissing her neck. “Me too.” “Really? You’re sure?” She nodded and pulled her own shirt off. He reached behind her and took off her bra. He kissed her bare breasts, rubbing his thumb across her nipples and gently biting at them. She moaned in response and tugged at his hair. Every time she did, it shot a wave of bliss through him. He wanted to tear into her right then, but he’d learned how to take things slow. Really draw it out to make it even better. He kissed along her stomach and teased her, pressing his hand to her crotch over her pants. She moaned and moved against him. He unzipped her pants and tugged them slowly down. Then he rubbed his thumb over her panties, making her wet and soaking through the fabric. He pushed them to the side to slip a finger inside her. She cried out and he went so stiff, he thought Little Jazz would burst. He pulled her panties off and instead slipped his tongue in her, tasting her juices and feeling her warm softness. She gripped his hair again. He had to stop now or it’d be too late. He slid up to meet her face and slipped his tongue in her mouth. She dug her fingers into the muscles in his ass and tried to pull him closer. He gave her a menacing smile. “Oh, do you want my cock?”

“Yes.” She smiled. “Please?” “I love it when you beg.” He took her earlobe between his teeth and tugged, growling in her ear. She pulled on him again. He let his hips down enough so that his hard cock brushed against her lips, spreading her wetness around. She moaned and reached down grab him. He pulled back. She stroked his cock for a minute until he almost came. He quickly pulled out of her grip. He teased her more, putting just his head in, then taking it back out. He pressed in a little farther, then backed out again. “Jasper!” she cried out. The sound sent chills through him. He pushed in deep, filling her pussy. She cried out and slammed her hips against him, moving in slow circles as he pulled out and thrust in again. Every time he slid back, almost pulling out, then slammed into her, she moaned loudly and gripped his ass tighter, trying to force him to stay deep inside her. She wrapped her legs around his hips and he pumped until he got close. There was something he’d been dreaming of doing since the first time he saw her. He hoped she didn’t object. He pulled out, his dick wet and cold without her. He flipped her over and she raised her ass to him. He bent down to lick her up and down a few times, then he knelt behind her and entered her again. His cock was in her pussy so deep, he thought he felt her stomach. His fingers tangled in her long brown hair and he pulled back and slammed her again and again. He reached around to rub circles over her clit. When her moans came more frequently and intensely, he picked up his pace, banging her hips against his faster and faster until he felt her juices flow over him. Then he thrust in as hard and far as his dick would go, and felt the release. He shuddered in pleasure and wrapped his arms around her waist, holding her until he was fully finished. She fell to the bed, breathing heavily, and he fell into place beside her. “That was so good,” he said. He nestled in close, pulling her naked body against his like spoons. “Yes,” she said. “It’s been so long for me. And even longer that it was enjoyable.” “What do you mean?” He ran his nose back and forth across her neck, breathing in the scent of her. “Sam was never concerned with whether or not I enjoyed it. It was all about him. It was usually very fast.” “Oh wow. I was a bit worried.” He ran his fingers along her arm and down her hips. “I didn’t know if he got rough with you or anything. If you’d be scared or wouldn’t like certain positions.”

“I liked everything you did.” “Good. I’d never want to hurt you.” “You didn’t.” He cupped her breast, enjoying the feel of it in his hand. “I’m glad.” She stilled and he watched until she fell asleep. At least he’d been able to take her mind off the man who bruised her and held a gun to her head. Now she was sleeping and hopefully she’d stay asleep long enough to get the rest she needed. He kept his arms around her and stayed alert through most of the night. He would wake up, listen, make sure the heard nothing out of place, then squeeze her in a hug. Every second he had her in his arms, he would cherish. It couldn’t last. He was endangering her already. She’d been threatened and attacked because of him and was now living in fear of it happening again. He was afraid, too. But only because he couldn’t be with her every second of the day. What would he do when she went to work? He could go and sit in the shop or outside, watching. He could send someone as her body guard. But even as much as he trusted Aaron, he wouldn’t trust anyone to protect her like he would. As soon as she was safe, he’d have to stay away from her. He’d only end up bringing her and her daughter more pain and misery as time went on. Another bad deal, the next motorcycle club out to get him…how long would it be before someone else was after him? They always went for the things most precious to someone they wanted to hurt. Why fight a man when all you had to do was threaten his girl? It worked even better than beating him. He was the proof. They’d almost killed him. Yet, he sat and made casual plans with his club, taking time to build the perfect plan and put it into action. Now that Fiona had been hurt, though, it was all out the window. He would waste no time going after these guys. Even if it meant blowing the plan, he couldn’t allow them to keep walking on this planet if they’d bruised her. He still wanted to go back and find her ex and put a bullet in his head. Maybe he would one day. He almost hoped this Sam guy would find them. Let him come knocking. It would make things easy for Jasper. And then he could take out the years of rage on him like he hadn’t gotten to do with his own father. He’d wanted to torture him. Wanted him to pay for what he did to his mama. But Jasper’s brother had shot him. Idiot gave him a merciful death. He didn’t deserve that. At least, Jasper thought, he was rotting in hell. So there was that. But even an eternity of burning wasn’t enough. Jasper had wanted him to see his face as he beat him like he beat his mama all those years. Wanted his dad to quake in fear, to cower under his hand. He wanted him to see what it felt like. But Sam would do. He would be representative enough. And it would make Fiona and Sophia really, truly free of him. They’d never have to worry. Then he’d have her all to himself.

The thought brought sadness with it. No. No, he couldn’t have her like that. Hadn’t he just thought how he had to stay away from her because of his reckless lifestyle? Because even without Sam in the picture, he was the one who would put her in danger. And Sophia. And he didn’t want that. Couldn’t be the one to do that. If something happened to her, he’d never forgive himself for it. He had to leave her alone. But then she stirred. She turned toward him and pressed her face against his chest. His heart warmed. He squeezed her tight. How would he ever let her go? He wanted to hold her forever. Keep her this close. He closed his eyes. How would he ever stay away from her when he wanted her so badly?

Chapter 6 Waking up in Jasper’s arms was like a dream come true. She had slept well. So well. When she’d woken through the night, he was there, strong arms around her, keeping her close and safe. She felt so protected and so safe with him there. A warmness filled her heart that she hadn’t felt in years. It settled in, making her want him on the deepest level. He was good in bed, sure. Excellent even. But she wanted so much more than that. She wanted his thoughtfulness and caring, the way he seemed to want to do anything for her. The way he seemed to care about her, maybe even deeply liked her. It was far more affection than Sam had ever given her. But then, Jasper was so different from Sam. When Jasper got mad, he tightened his fists and clenched his jaw, but he didn’t hit anything. He didn’t threaten her. Instead, he dropped everything to come protect her when someone else had threatened her. Sam would never do that. He might’ve helped the guy take her out for all she knew. Jasper liked the things she did. He never complained about things like her cooking, or her messy hair at the end of the day, or the way the house looked. Even if it was a total disaster most of the time. Sam did nothing but yell at her and tell her what she did wrong. Jasper complimented her and made her feel special. Every thought of Jasper brought a fresh warmth to her chest. Yes, she thought. This is it. This is falling in love. She was falling in love with him. And it felt really, really good. She only hoped Sophia would like him just as much. Oh, but Sophia. She’d played with him and even when he was still recovering from horrible injuries he played with her, he listened to her. He’d spent more time with her already, given her more undivided attention than Sam probably ever had. She already seemed to like him. Already was asking when he could come play again. And the way Jasper wanted to protect her, too. No, she didn’t have to worry about that at all. Jasper would be the type of guy to provide for them and love them, to protect them and cherish them. How she loved that word and loved it even more when he used it to about her. She wanted to be cherished. What would that even feel like? It would feel like this, she thought, pressing her body against his warmth. It would feel good and safe and peaceful. Even if he was a little bit bad boy, it didn’t show. Not like it had for Sam. Sam was on all the time, always tough. But Jasper had this softer side that he gave her. Maybe he was tough around his friends, and at whatever his job was, but when he was here, he left the tough guy behind. She could deal with a small amount of criminal activity. It sounded like he just sold drugs. Illegal, yes. But violent, no. He wasn’t breaking into stores and robbing them. He wasn’t mugging people on the street. He wasn’t getting into fights for money. He wasn’t selling stolen guns. These were all the things that Sam and his motorcycle club had done. These were the things all motorcycle clubs did. But

Jasper proved you could ride a bike and not be part of a dangerous club. You could do illegal things without making them so violent. And, apparently, you could be a bad boy and be tough, but still be the protector and sweet as could be on the inside. Jasper was nothing like Sam. And that made her want to love him even more. She opened her eyes to look up at him. He looked back down at her. “Did you sleep well?’ he asked. “I haven’t slept that well in years.” She stretched out, pressing her still naked body against his. “Keep that up and you won’t have time for breakfast. I’ll have to have you again.” “I might be okay with that.” But then a door squeaked. Fiona recognized the sound. “It’s Sophia.” He hugged her tight and she kissed him. She sat up and found her clothes, then quickly dressed and left the room, closing the door behind her. Sophia stood in her room doorway, rubbing her eyes, her doll with the pink dress hanging from her hand. “Morning, sleepy head,” Fiona said. “Can we have waffles?” “Sure. Want to come help me?” Sophia followed Fiona into the kitchen, where they began the waffles. Fiona took out the waffle iron and the ingredients to make the mix. Sophia got out the measuring cup from the drawer and set it on the counter. “Hey, Sophia, do you remember my friend, Jasper?” “Yeah.” “Well, guess what?” “What?” “He’s here. He came over last night to help me and it got really late, so he just decided to spend the night. Kinda like a slumber party.” Maybe he hadn’t been too far off to suggest that. “Why didn’t you invite me?” Her little lip quivered. “I want to have a slumber party, too.”

“We can have one tonight. We can invite all your dolls and animals and have a big huge slumber party in my bed. How does that sound?” “Okay. Can Jasper come, too?” “Come to what?” Jasper appeared in the doorway, fully dressed, watching. “What are you making?” “Waffles,” Fiona said. “From scratch?” “Yes.” She chuckled and brushed the flour form the counter. “Do you think I would dare feed my child frozen waffles?” She said it as a joke, but he didn’t smile. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with frozen waffles. If you need to make her frozen waffles, then that’s what you do.” She stared at him for a moment, his gaze so strong and intent, it bore through her. “Okay,” she said, not sure what else to say. “You have no one to impress. No one else’s standards to live up to. Do what works for you and you only.” She nodded. Though she’d slept well, she was still tired from being up late and dealing with all she went through. Tears crept into her eyes. She blinked them away and focused on what she was doing. She stirred the mix, adding in the eggs and oil. “Sophia, can you set the table?” Fiona asked. Sophia took Jasper’s hand and dragged him to the cabinet where the dishes were. “I can’t reach,” she said, and pointed. He opened the cabinet and took out three plates. “What else do we need?” Sophia went to the silverware drawer and took out forks and knives and spoons—all of them. “Whoa,” he said. “We only need three of each, right?” “But what about my animals?” He looked to Fiona. She smiled and said, “They can eat later. Today, it’s just us, okay?” “Okay.” Sophia dumped all the silverware back in the drawer.

Jasper restored them into the proper slots and handed Sophia three knives, three forks, and three spoons. She took them to the table and tried to set them out. But one place had two spoons and no fork. Another had three forks. Fiona saw Jasper hold back a smile as he fixed the silverware. Sophia sat down, waiting. “Do we need glasses?” Jasper asked. Sophia pointed from her place at the table. Jasper took out three glasses and set them down. “What do you want to drink?” he asked. Sophia looked shocked and her face almost made Fiona laugh out loud. “Milk,” Sophia said with a duh-are-you-kidding-me face. Jasper took out the milk and poured three glasses. “Coffee?” he asked Fiona. She nodded with her head. “It’s above in the cabinet.” He made the coffee while she poured the batter into the iron, making waffle after waffle. She took out the whipped cream and strawberries and chocolate. In the center of each, she piled the strawberries, drizzled chocolate over, then added a dab of whipped cream. She put one in front of each of them, then made one for herself. “Your mommy is a master chef,” Jasper said. “You’re super lucky.” “Oh, I know,” Sophia said fervently. “She’s the bestest.” Finally, Fiona joined them at the table with her own waffle. “I still have some batter if you want more,” she said. “I think I could eat ten of these,” Jasper said. “They’re so good.” “And the strawberries make them healthy,” Sophia added. “And the chocolate makes them yummy,” Fiona said, sticking a forkful into her mouth. They were a little dry, she thought. But Jasper didn’t seem to notice. Maybe his had been better. “Are you going to school today?” Jasper asked. “I don’t go to school. Not until a few months.”

“Ah.” “She starts kindergarten in the fall,” Fiona said. “Do you work in a store like my mommy does?” Sophia asked. Jasper shook his head. “My job is a little different. Do you know what a motorcycle is?” Sophia nodded. “My daddy had one. They’re loud.” “They are,” he agreed. “Well, I have a lot of friends and we all have motorcycles and we like to ride them. I’m their leader. We do lots of different things to make money.” “Like what?” Sophia asked. Fiona almost dropped her fork. “Yeah, like what?” she said sharply. Would he just outright lie? “Well, we sell things mostly. People sell us stuff like TVs and computers for cheap and we sell them to other people. Kinda like how a store does it.” Fiona huffed and narrowed her eyes at him. “So, you’re the leader of a motorcycle club?” “Yeah. The Crimson Hawks.” “I didn’t know that.” “You knew I had a bike.” “But I didn’t know you had an MC.” “Can I be in the club?” Sophia asked. “If you have a motorcycle, sure,” Jasper said. He raised an eyebrow at Fiona, but she turned away. Now she was fighting back different tears. The hurt and betrayal she felt gripped her heart. He was an MC leader. He didn’t just dabble with drugs. He didn’t just get into occasional fights. All MCs were the same. They lied, cheated, stole, did whatever they had to for money. She’d never outright asked him, and she had just made assumptions, but still. She felt deceived by him. Whatever she had thought about him was wrong. He was just like Sam. He was violent and a criminal and dangerous. Maybe he wasn’t worth all the trouble she was in now with this guy following her. Maybe she should just take Sophia and get away from him. Away from here. The anger bubbled up in her. She’d just made a home for them. They were just settling in. She had a decent job. Sophia was going to school soon. She had friends. And now she’d have to leave for another biker bad boy who was just like Sam.

How could she be so stupid? How could she fall for him and believe his lies? Because she was stupid. She’d believed Sam’s lies, hadn’t she? Fallen into his trap. And how many times did she forgive him and believe him when he said he’d never hurt her again? Jasper was just the same. He’d wait until he had her, then he’d flip and turn on her. He’d get mean and he’d hit her, too. And now she’d slept with him. Her stomach turned and she couldn’t eat anymore. She got up to put her food away and cleaned up, thoroughly disgusted with herself.


The change in Fiona was sudden and obvious and left him reeling. Was it because he was an MC leader? He couldn’t think of anything else that he’d done that would cause her to turn on him like that. He’d been good to the kid, even helped out. They’d had a fabulous night, and now this. He felt the anger building. What else did he have to do for this woman? Or would he just never be good enough for her? What, so he didn’t have a traditional job. Who cared? He made plenty of money doing what he did and he was well respected. How was that not attractive to her? Wasn’t she used to biker guys anyway? She’d been married to one, so how could she be flipping out now? He’d never hurt her. He’d dropped everything to protect her. He was sitting here with her kid eating breakfast. He shoved another forkful of waffle into his mouth and tried to make eye contact with Fiona. He was pissed about the waffles, too. Stupid thing was so damn good he wanted to moan in pleasure right there, but that would be inappropriate. Still. She was such a good cook. And last night in bed…man. He would do anything for her. She was perfect and kept getting more and more perfect. The anger built more when he thought of her ex. How could dudes be so stupid? He’d always wanted someone like her and here she was. But now he’d done something to upset her. And he just had to figure out exactly what and how to undo it. “Hey, Sophia, want to help me clean up?” he asked. Sophia slid down from her chair, holding her plate proudly in her hands. He took it from her and put it in the sink. Then he put in his own plate. Fiona was cleaning the waffle maker, so he put anything else that looked dirty into the sink and filled it with hot water, adding in soap to make it bubbly. “You don’t have to do that,” Fiona said. “I want to.” He smiled at her, but she turned away again and resumed wiping all the batter from the little crevices in the waffle maker. “Sophia, why don’t you go and pick out an outfit?” Fiona said. “Okay.” Sophia skipped off to her room.

Now was his chance. He put down the plate he was washing and went to her. He stood behind her and slid his arms around her and bent down to kiss her neck. She smelled like strawberries and sugar and he wanted to lick her head to toe. She jerked her neck away and broke free of his grasp. “Okay.” He let his hands hit his thighs with an audible slap. “What did I do?” She walked over to the sink and put the rubber scraper into the soapy water, then picked up where he had left off with the dishes. He went back to the other side of the sink to finish. He didn’t want to leave the job half done. She needed to see that he could and would clean. He would never leave it all to her. He wouldn’t criticize her either. He’d praise her for everything she did, no matter how small. “I got these, it’s okay. Thanks,” she said. “Fiona.” She didn’t look up. She scrubbed a plate and rinsed it off, then placed it in the dish rack. “Fiona,” he said again, stronger this time. “Yeah?” She still didn’t look at him. “What gives?” “What do you mean? I just have to get these dishes done so I can get ready and get Sophia to the babysitter’s house.” “Why are you acting like this?” She put another plate in the rack and refused to look at him. “I’m sorry. This is the life of a single mother. I have a lot to do.” “That’s not what I mean.” He rinsed the plate he’d been cleaning and walked behind her to add it to the dish rack. He scrubbed faster so he’d get more done. “Why are you suddenly being so cold?” “I told you. I just have a lot to do, okay?” She set down another plate and left the room. He heard her talking to Sophia a minute later. He washed the remaining dishes as fast as he could, then wiped down the counter. He looked around and made sure everything looked neat and clean. He double checked to make sure he had everything he’d brought with him. Phone, wallet. Check. His helmet was by the front door, and he stood by it to wait for her.

She came out of Sophia’s room and went directly into hers, shutting the door behind her. He tapped his foot, trying to get the anger to fade. But when she came out and went into the bathroom, then started the shower, and she’d still refused to look at him or talk to him, he found it difficult to contain his irritation. Jasper considered storming in there to talk to her. But he knew better. If he went in there and she was all naked and soapy, it would be all over. He’d have to have her right there, and there was little chance she’d be up for that if she couldn’t even look at him. Just the thought of her in there—picturing her body, remembering the feel of her—got Little Jazz all worked up. He had to make an adjustment to keep him in place. Well, she wasn’t getting out this door without talking to him. Simple as that. Not that he’d force her physically, but this was ridiculous. You didn’t sleep with someone and have half a great morning, then stop talking in an instant and not say why. The water in the shower shut off. Several minutes later, she came out wrapped in a towel, hair dripping down her back. She glanced over and jumped at the sight of him. “You’re still here?” she asked. He nodded once. “We need to talk.” “I have to get ready.” She went into her bedroom and closed the door again behind her. Okay, enough was enough. He walked over and tried the knob. At least she hadn’t locked it. He opened the door slowly and stuck his head in. “I’ll be out in a minute,” she said. He stepped into the room and closed the door. “I figured it’d be better to talk while Sophia is in the other room, not listening.” She already had pants on and was fastening her bra. Her damp hair was now wrapped in a towel on top of her head. He wanted to grab that towel and her and bend her over right there at her dresser. She walked away and opened her closet door, then stuck her head in, looking for something. “You need to tell me why you’re ignoring me all of the sudden,” he said. “I think you should just go,” she said. “Fine. After you tell me what the hell is going on. Fiona. You called me sobbing. I came immediately over to make sure you were safe and stayed to protect you through the night. We had some damn

amazing sex, cuddled all morning, and even had a great half of breakfast. Then you flipped the switch. What gives?” Fiona pulled a shirt over her head and finally turned to look at him. She shook her head and turned back to her dresser to find jewelry. “You’re an MC leader.” “And?” “And that’s all I need to know about you.” “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” He crossed his arms in automatic defense. The anger was still right there, ready to burst free. He was good at controlling it. He’d need to hit the gym later, though. Had to punch the bag and lift weights to get the rage out. “Jasper, I was married to an MC leader for years, and I know what that life is all about. I’m not interested in getting back into that.” “And what exactly is it all about, then, Fiona? If you know so much.” She turned to him full on and glared. “I thought you sold drugs here and there. I was willing to make an exception for you, even though I’m done dating criminals. I figured it wasn’t a violent crime, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. But an MC? I’m sure you sell all sorts of stuff. I can’t believe you told Sophia you’re like a store. Yeah, you steal stuff off the store’s trucks. “Who knows what else you do. Guns? Extortion? Hookers? MCs do all that fun stuff. And the way you got yourself beat up the other day? Just another day in the life of an MC leader. Always fighting. Always. “Do you know Sam had a personal nurse? He never wanted to go to the hospital and one of his girls had left to get a real job. So he kept her on the books as his personal nurse whenever he or one of his guys got hurt in another fight. Kept her pretty darn busy. “I should have asked you straight out, and I’m sorry I didn’t. I thought you just had a bike and that was it. Not everyone who has a bike is in an MC. Or leads one. But there is no way I’m going back to that awful lifestyle and exposing my daughter to it. No way. Look what good it’s done me already. I’d rather you just go so I can be done with you and stop having creepy men, who, oh wait—they must be in a rival MC, right?” She laughed humorlessly. “God. How pathetic. Well, I don’t need them after me because of you. If they ask, I’m giving them whatever information I have so that I can keep myself and my daughter safe.” His jaw ached with the pressure of his teeth grinding together. He waited to speak. If he opened his mouth right now, he might jump across the room and chew her to bits. So he ground his jaw harder and glared at her. “I never would have called you if I knew,” she continued. “I wouldn’t have even picked you up that

night I found you on the road. I would have just called an ambulance or something. And you can be sure that what happened last night would never, ever have happened if I had known the truth about you. I feel sick to my stomach that you were around my daughter.” He took three long breaths in and released each slowly. He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them. He could see the fear in her eyes. She was likely used to being beat badly for speaking anything close to words like that to her ex. Maybe she was thinking of that right now. Thinking of all the times she’d dared to stand up to Sam and all the ways she’d paid for it. She probably thought if he was so much like Sam, he’d come over there and give her a black eye. But hitting her was the last thing he wanted to do. “Believe me,” he said through gritted teeth, “if I had known what a judgmental prude you are, I wouldn’t have touched you either.” He spat the words from his mouth like venom. She swallowed hard and took a step back. “Don’t do that,” he said. “Don’t step back, looking like you’re afraid of me. I know you think I’m just like that asshole, Sam, but I’m not. I’ve never hit a woman and I never would. But to you, we’re all the same, aren’t we? We’re just a bunch of low life bikers hanging out all day throwing fists and robbing stores. Probably think we steal children and put them on the streets, too. Hell, I hear there’s great money in that. Why not?” He shook his head. “You disgust me. How could you judge me like that? After the days we spent together? After last night? You don’t think you saw the real me in all that time? You’re going to stand there and think you’re so much better than me? You’re some perfect little mommy who has it all together and can’t do anything wrong? And I’m a no-good street rat who will bring Little Miss Perfect down. Well, I am so sorry that I tainted your perfect little life and your innocent little bed.” She glared and wiped tears from her eyes. “Get. Out.” He could hear her breath hitching in her chest. She was ready to lose it. He wondered if she got destructive when she was angry. With an ex like hers, probably not. Unless she was the type to act out in the same way she was acted out upon. Some people did things like that. They got beat at home by their dads, then turned around and beat up kids at school or guys at the bar or their wives at home. She didn’t seem like the violent type though. She was probably only a crier. She’d sit and sob for hours. Well, let her. Yeah, he’d thought she was perfect. And apparently that was the problem. So did she. All the years of abuse had made her righteous toward others. Oh, her husband was so awful, she must be amazing by comparison. No freaking thank you. How could he have fallen for this crap? Started to have serious feelings for someone who could act like this? Who would judge him like that? “You don’t know shit,” he hissed at her. “About me or my club.” He spun on his heel and left the room.

In the living room, he snatched his helmet from the ground and made a point of closing the door extra quietly behind him, just to prove he could. See how she judged that.

Chapter 7 By the time he got to his bike, his guts were aching. How stupid of him to let her get to him like that. To let her in and make him feel something. This was why he stayed single and liked it that way. No chick around to tangle him up and piss him off. He’d done nothing wrong. She hated him just for being who he was. And that pissed him off more than anything. He slammed his helmet on his head and jumped on his bike. He hit the gas hard, flying through the streets, weaving between cars. There would be no riding slow today. If he’d done something stupid, that would be fine. If he’d said something insensitive, dropped a curse word in front of the kid, or was mean to the kid. If he hadn’t come to protect her, if he had been too rough in bed. Anything. That would be okay. He’d fix it. But how could he fix who was? He’d always been this, and this was what he was meant to be. He had never been able to hold a traditional job and didn’t want one. Why work for some ass eight hours a day when he could work just a few hours and make more money? It made no sense. Legal jobs made no sense. Break one or two little laws and the money could pour in. He’d seen both ends of it, and no way was he ever going back to working for the man. A shame, too, because he could afford to give her a nice life. Get her out of that tiny apartment, let her quit her job and stay home with her kid and maybe make a few new kids with her. He’d always take care of her. He’d treat her special and make she sure knew how important she was to him. She’d be safe and respected. The guys in his club would worship her like his queen. But she didn’t give him the chance to show her any of that. She’d decided he was no good and that was that. Nothing he could do to change it, short of leaving the MC and getting a straight job. And there was no way either of those things were going to happen. She’d have to accept him as he was or not at all. And she’d chosen not at all. Fine. Let her stay in her shoebox being afraid for the rest of her life, judging all men like they were her ex. As hard as he shouted these thoughts in his mind, he couldn’t deny the ache. His chest, his guts, felt like they would implode. The heavy weight brought him down and he even thought if he sat down and let it happen, he could cry right now. How had she gotten to him so badly so fast? Little flashes kept coming to him. He’d see her smile and a sting would follow in his heart. Then he’d hear her say, “I feel sick to my stomach that you were around my daughter,” and the rage would tear through him again. And the kid? Sophia? He’d see her, too. The way she’d asked him to help her and to play. How she’d accepted him just fine. She was a cool kid and though he hadn’t thought much about kids in general, he liked her. He even missed her a little and the way she wanted to include him in everything already. He turned down an empty street, the one he’d been racing to through the twists and turns of traffic, and really opened his bike, the scenery flying by too fast to see. He loved this road. And it was like the cops wouldn’t go there because he never saw them. Never got pulled over or anything on this road. It

was exactly what he needed to clear his mind. But his mind wouldn’t clear. Fiona. God. He wanted to turn around. But he wouldn’t. She might have left for work anyway. Could he go there? Talk to her in the gift shop with people around so she couldn’t get mad? No, that would make her mad. And he didn’t want to discuss his business in public anyway. He could maybe call her. Though he’d rather see her face to face and know what expressions she was making. But maybe the phone would be better because he wouldn’t be in her presence to scare her. What could he even say to her, though? Was there a way to convince her he was better than she thought? Well, he was a criminal. He did steal and sell illegal things and stuff off trucks and the black market. That’s just how business went. No guns, though. Drugs were lucrative enough and guns were a hassle. Too hard to get, too hard to make sure they were clean, too hard to move. Drugs were easier to come by, took seconds to test for purity, and moved faster than they could supply it. He’d only been joking about the hooker thing. They’d never considered dealing in girls. Too much hassle again. You had to train them and hope they didn’t rat on you. Had to keep some level of control over them, and it wasn’t worth it. Plus, after seeing his mom be controlled by his dad all those years, he couldn’t do it. Leo did some of that, but not the Crimson Hawks. Leave that to the Pansy Twisters to deal with. They’d only kill him even faster if he stepped on that territory anyway. So, there would be no convincing her that he wasn’t a criminal. Though she had mentioned something about violent crimes. And really, his weren’t. He only killed people when he had to, only fought them when it was necessary. He didn’t rob at gun point, the Hawks were strongly forbidden from rape of any kind, and he didn’t do anything else violent. Maybe if he explained all that, she’d come around on the criminal activity. She’d said she was okay with the drug dealing. Then she’d mentioned the fighting. Well, okay, so they did a fair amount of that. But it was mostly bar fights. Nothing serious. And no one ever pressed charges because you’d only get beaten worse if you did. Besides, that was a pussy way out. Then there was the rival MC stuff. He’d have to take out Leo and his guys, but that was only going down because they’d tried to kill him and would again. That was self-defense. Even in a court of law, he’d be let off for that. In fact, he’d have to make sure it looked like that when they took care of the Rose Blades. That way, if any cops sniffed around, they’d come out okay if it came down to it. Maybe there was no way she’d be okay with that, but if he assured her that they mostly only fought casually for fun or seriously for self-defense, he could make it seem like they were less violent. Most of them didn’t hit their girls or wives or kids or anything, if he found out they did, he always made sure they knew that it was not okay. He’d send them home bloody and limping, and in one case, on the second warning, he hadn’t sent a guy home at all, but to the hospital. His wife had been awfully grateful. Maybe that story would mean something to her. That the Hawks didn’t stand for mistreating women. They didn’t pick fights often or without good reason. They didn’t do violent crimes usually. What else was there for her to complain about, then?

She’d probably find something. Some reason to hate him. Didn’t they always? The last one complained he wasn’t home enough. The one before said he wasn’t romantic enough. Whatever that even meant. Nothing was ever good enough. Well, the one who went totally crazy on him hadn’t complained. But then she’d gotten into more fights than he had. That was why he was so hooked on Fiona. She was normal, calm, gentle. She was a mom and had been an awesome wife—even if her ex was a total dip shit who couldn’t see that. She could cook and clean and wasn’t afraid to work hard to pay her bills or get up and leave the bad situation of her marriage. She was strong, like his mother. Crap. That was it, wasn’t it. She completely reminded him of his mother. No wonder he was already falling for her. And his mother would love her like she hadn’t liked any of his other girlfriends. And she came with a built-in grandkid? Practically a guarantee she’d go nuts. His whole family would love her. He pictured her there on holidays or Sunday dinners. How she’d help his mother in the kitchen, how she’d look so pretty sitting beside him at the table, how Sophia would play and make a mess and everyone would think she was so cute. The ache came back and ripped through him. He needed a plan. Either he’d talk to her, try to win her back, or he’d have to find a way to not think about her and to move on. Maybe he needed a booty call or something to take his mind off her. He heard the whoop of a siren and glanced behind him. No. Come on. Not today of all days. There were never cops on this road. Never. He pulled to the side of the road and put down the kickstand. Then he slid off his helmet and tucked it under his arm. He watched the cop approach. “Morning,” the officer said. He looked at him through dark sunglasses. “Morning,” Jasper grumbled back. He squinted at him, wishing he also had sunglasses. “You were going a bit fast there.” “Yeah, sorry about that. It’s been kind of a day.” “Well, let me see your license, insurance, and registration.” Jasper set his helmet down carefully, opened the zippered pouch on his bike, and took out his insurance and registration, then dug into his wallet for his license. As always, he ran through his recent activities, wondering if he could possibly have any warrants. Should he just hop back on his bike and take off? This was not a good time to have a warrant and go to jail. That’d ruin things for sure with Fiona. If they weren’t ruined already. He handed over his info to the cop and watched him walk away. Jasper pinched the bridge of his nose. How long was this going to take? The sun was already getting hot and beating down on him. After ages, the cop came back. Jasper’s stomach tightened, waiting. “Okay, just sign here,” the officer said.

He handed him a pink slip of paper attached to a metal clipboard and a pen. It was only a ticket. He signed on the line. “You have ten days to pay or dispute it,” the officer said. Jasper nodded. He had someone who would take care of this for him. “Any questions?” “Nope.” Jasper picked his helmet back up. “Have a good day and slow down. Be safe out there.” Jasper nodded and slid his helmet on. He started up his bike and drove off, keeping his speed down until the cop passed him. Then he turned around and zoomed off at the same speed he’d been pulled over at. Didn’t this just make a great day. Alex could probably take care of the ticket. He had family in the local police, but it was still a hassle. Was the whole world out to get him today? His mind drifted back to Fiona and again, the ache was there. Screw it. Why not make the day as awful as possible? He headed toward the gift shop where Fiona worked. If it went horribly, it would only fit everything else. As he got closer, he started to feel nervous. That was ridiculous. Why should he feel nervous? Several possible conversation starters went through his mind. Should he just outright try to convince her? Play it cool, like she hadn’t affected him at all? What would work on someone like Fiona? Did he need to do some grand romantic gesture like bring her flowers? Seemed like that would be sweet, but probably not enough. He zoomed by a flower shop and turned at the next block to circle around. Every little bit helped, right? He needed anything to give him extra brownie points right now. He went inside and looked at the flowers. Roses seemed like too…already in love or something. He spotted some flowers that were colorful and cheery-looking. The sign said chrysanthemums. Sure, whatever they were, they looked good. “Can I get a bunch of these?” he asked the woman, pointing. “Any certain arrangement?” “Uhh…just something bright and happy.” “Sure.” The woman selected several flowers and put them together in a bundle, then wrapped them with tissue paper. She handed it to him and he gave her cash.

He walked out and tucked the bunch onto the back of his bike, making sure it was secure in his bungees and wouldn’t be damaged. Then he drove slowly through town toward the shop. He turned into the parking lot and sat facing the store. Fiona was in the large window at the front of the store, setting up an arrangement. She wouldn’t be able to see him where he sat, so he watched her for a while. She placed half a dummy on the floor and turned it so it faced at just the right angle. Then she hung scarves and necklaces on it. At the base of the floor display, she set up other items. A lamp with a decorated shade, an arrangement of silk flowers in a tall vase. She looked peaceful. Happy. Serene. Some other woman came up behind her and she turned to talk to her, then broke into laughter. God, that smile. He wanted to be the one making her smile like that. He glanced back at the flowers. They seemed small and dull. A pointless gesture. What was he thinking? She didn’t want him. She wouldn’t find his gesture romantic. She’d never be convinced he wasn’t just another bad boy like her ex. He’d never have her. She’d never be his. The feeling in his stomach settled into a rock. It felt hard and heavy and weighed him down. He wouldn’t go in there. He wouldn’t make a fool of himself. He just needed to forget her. And she was right about one thing he’d refused to think about. He had brought danger to her and Sophia. That man who’d followed her and put a gun to her head was because of him. It wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t picked him up on the street and cared for him. She wouldn’t have felt that fear or had to do things like push her couch in front of her door at night to feel safer. He was bringing bad things into her life. He wasn’t making anything better and he was a fool to think she’d ever see something good in him or in them being together. He would only bring her more trouble. He needed to leave her alone. He needed to move on. Jasper unhooked the flowers from his bike’s seat. He walked over to her car, checked back to make sure she couldn’t see him, and set the flowers on her roof. Maybe they’d be there later, maybe they wouldn’t. He stepped back and looked at them sitting there, lonely. He closed his eyes for a moment, then walked back to his bike. Before he drove off, he took out his phone and called Aaron. If he was going to get Fiona off his mind, the best way to start was to focus on his guys and the club and getting the Leo junk taken care of. “Hey, man,” Jasper said to Aaron. “We need a meeting. Can you set one up for tomorrow?” “Sure thing.” “Thanks.” “Everything cool?” Aaron asked.

“Yeah. Just want to finalize the plan and get things moving.” “Gotcha.” Jasper hung up and drove home. He was there long enough to change and go right back out the door. He couldn’t just sit around, and he had far too much negative energy that had to be burned off. At the gym, every time a thought of Fiona came to his mind, he added more weight to the machine and pushed himself harder. He sweated and grunted through the exertion, forcing his muscles to work as hard as they could. At the end of an hour, his shirt was soaked through and he felt better. But in the locker room, as he changed to drive home, he wondered if Fiona had left work yet and if the flowers had still been there. What had she thought when she saw them? Would she have guessed they were from him? Did they make her happy or more upset? Would she throw them down on the ground and trample them or take them home and put them in a vase? As he was leaving to head home, he remembered that he’d never given her money for the towels and blankets and things he’d ruined while she was taking care of him. He hadn’t sold that old bike yet. Well, he did have a good bit of money saved up in his stash. That’d cover the damages and then some. He’d always planned to hand her a nice chunk of change, and now it was even more important that he followed through. He couldn’t have her thinking that on top of everything else he didn’t follow through on what he said. Or that he was ungrateful for all she’d done to care for him when he was near death. He stopped at home and went right to his bedroom. He bent down and pulled up the heating vent. Behind the wall, out of sight, was one of his stashes. He pulled out the wad of cash and counted it. Several thousands of dollars. This would be enough. He had hoped to buy her a car, but she could do whatever she wanted with the money. Pay bills, buy Sophia something nice. It would help her and that was all that mattered to him at this point. That he kept his word and helped her one last time. Jasper didn’t know what time she’d be done work. There was a possibility she was already home. He’d have to be careful about this. The money was tucked into an envelope with her name on the front. Inside, he’d a left a note that simply said, Fiona—for everything. Thanks, Jasper. At her house, he didn’t see her car, which was good, but he’d need to be quick so she didn’t turn up while he was there. He went to the block of mailboxes at the side of the apartment building and found hers. He opened the box, slipped in the envelope, and hopped right back on his bike. He took off, looking around as he did, and made sure no one had seen him. He’d wished he could be there to see her open the envelope. He’d almost wanted to hide in the woods and spy on her, watching until she got home and opened the mail. But that would be creepy, and he really didn’t want to hide for who knew how long. Could be hours. Would she be mad about the money? Feel like he was buying her off or giving her dirty money or something? She might. But being in such a hard position as a single mom, she’d probably not be able to turn it down. Wasn’t like she had a way to give it back anyhow. She didn’t know where he lived. She’d have to call him. Which

might be okay. Any excuse to talk to her would be fine. He’d never accept the money back, but she could try. If he hadn’t been worried about tracking, he’d have written her a check so he’d know if she cashed it or not. But that wasn’t an option for him. Most of his money remained in cash form. Hopefully she’d get the envelope and feel relieved or happy. Hopefully it would somehow make her think better of him for it, not worse. He got home feeling worse than he had before because now he was also tired and his muscles were started to get stiff and sore. Nothing left to do with this day but crawl into bed and hope it was better in the morning.


Jasper woke up and stared at the curtains, where the sunlight made the black and gray stripes lighter and faded. He felt sore, but it was a good sore. He’d worked hard yesterday. His mind jumped right to Fiona and he forced the thought away. He wasn’t going to ruin his day first thing. He’d put off thinking of her as long as possible. Today, he had the meeting with his club, and he had a pickup to do. First thing, he’d need a shower to wake up. He threw back the covers and got out of bed to stretch. The soreness rippled through his legs, then his arms as he bent and reached. The hot water of the shower felt like heaven and he stood there longer than he normally did, letting it wash away everything he didn’t want to carry around today. He pulled on jeans and a clean shirt from his closet. He turned to leave his room, and there she was. Sudden and vivid in his mind. He’d tried to ignore her too long. Fiona’s face, smiling and happy in the store window. He shook his head to clear it. But it was too late. The rock settled back into his stomach. He breathed deeply, trying to breathe out the dread. In his kitchen, he made coffee, extra strong. He pulled a protein bar from his pantry and stared blankly out the window as he ate it. His phone buzzed in his pocket and he pulled it out, hoping that it was Fiona. But it was Aaron, telling him the meeting was set for later today. He left the house, mainly for something to do so he wasn’t sitting around trying not to think of Fiona. He had to focus. He did need to scout some locations. If they were going to take out Leo and his guys, they’d need a solid place to put the bodies afterward. Maybe his guys had found a good spot, but it wouldn’t hurt to check himself. It’d give him something to do. What was the best way for this to go down? It was easiest just to shoot them, but there was one good reason not to go that route. The traceability. If the bullet was found, it could potentially be linked back to him if he wasn’t careful. He was good with a knife, though, and he’d have a gun as a backup if things were too complicated. He could always dig out the bullet, he guessed.

They’d have to track Leo’s movement for a few days. He wanted to get him as alone as possible. No reason to involve a bunch of extra guys from Leo’s club or his own. And the other guys who’d attacked him could wait until later. Really, he just wanted Leo. The Pansy Twisters would crumble without him. They were barely a club as it was. Little organization, little heart. Once they took out Leo, Jasper would inspect every remaining member, choose who he’d recruit and either kick the rest to the curb or take them out, depending upon whether or not they’d attacked him or had any other strike against them. How many could he add to his numbers? Two or three at least. Maybe not too many more, only because most of them were useless. But a few new guys would be cool. He pulled up to a spot where the road fell away on one side. There was a guardrail, leading him to believe whatever was over the edge was far down. He parked and walked around to see. Below was just rocks and grass. Too exposed. He got back on his bike and drove off. He still had a little while until the meeting, so he kept driving. A few more spots, a few more options and that’d be good. That way, if something went wrong when it all went down, they’d have a backup. There was a large cement pipe at the bottom of an overpass, near the river. This might be a good spot. He didn’t want to walk down there and leave his shoe prints, so he stopped on the overpass to see what could be seen from the road. Not too much. Only part of the cement pipe. One end was completely obscured from the street, and the end that could be seen was only visible from far away. If anyone saw, they would be far enough away to get little detail of anything. This was a good spot. The water would wash away evidence, though they’d need to be cautious of the mud. Too easy to leave behind perfect shoe prints. But other than that, it was a good spot. Perfect backup if the guys already had a better place for the drop. He glanced at his phone. Every time he did, he wished there’d be a message from Fiona. He went to his pictures and looked at the one photo he had of her. One he’d taken without either her or Sophia knowing. While they were making breakfast, Sophia and her mom were looking at one of Sophia’s stuffed animals and he’d caught a shot of Fiona smiling at the bunny while Sophia held it up proudly. It was a cute picture and he’d looked at it too many times. He put his phone away. The battery was already getting low and if she did call, he didn’t want it to run out mid-conversation. He thought of calling her or texting her, but reminded himself he’d decided to leave her alone. To get over her for good. He wouldn’t go back to the mental place he was in yesterday. He couldn’t survive there in that awful, lonely, cold place, missing her and wanting her like that. Feeling like he wasn’t good enough. He was more than good enough for some awesome lady out there; he just needed to find her. It was time to start heading back to his house, also the Crimson Hawks headquarters. The guys would probably be there already. He liked to come in later. It made him feel more in control somehow. He still needed to gather his thoughts and make a note of everything he wanted to cover with them. Mostly, it was the plan for Leo and his club. But he made a mental list of a few other little things to discuss. As he rode, Jasper tried to take note of his surroundings. He looked at the trees and the cars around him, felt the warm sun on his body as its heat seeped through his jacket and jeans. He still needed a

new Hawks jacket to replace his damaged one. He’d need to order that today. He hated riding around without it. The sun glinted off his deep gray bike, the light tinted by his helmet’s face shield. He wished he could feel the wind on his face, but he was going so fast the wind would make his eyes water, so he kept the shield down. He inhaled and smelled the flowers and plants around him. Connecting with nature usually made him feel better, but it wasn’t something he could manage to do easily. There was always so much going on that it was difficult to take time to just sit in the grass and watch the world go by. But maybe he needed that. Maybe tonight, after the guys left, he’d lay out in his backyard under the stars and stare for a while. Maybe work out some of these feelings about Fiona. He looked ahead at the road and noticed the air seemed thicker than normal. It was too late in the day to be fog, and it was also too high in the air and too restricted to one spot. Not fog. Smoke. And the thing that made him speed up was that it was in the direction of his house. Those asses wouldn’t go that far, would they? No one had called him or messaged him. His phone was in his pocket and he would have felt it vibrate. Maybe it was okay. Maybe it was just a house nearby and his place was fine. He turned onto his street and saw that the smoke was thick and filling the air quickly. He could see his house. And from its roof poured white streams of smoke. It was his house on fire. Leo and his gang had struck again.

Chapter 8 Fiona stared across the store, in somewhat of a daze. She’d been thinking far too much lately and had spent a lot of time tangling her thoughts and feelings together in a messy ball that was proving difficult to unravel. She didn’t know what to think or feel about Jasper anymore. The only thing she knew was that none of it felt good. She’d treated him badly. He’d done nothing wrong. He hadn’t acted out against her in any way. He hadn’t acted anything like Sam in any way, really. She was judging him, like he’d said. She heard the MC leader part and had changed everything she knew about him. In fact, she’d completely erased everything she knew about him and saw only Sam and his meanness and his criminal activity and his violence. But Jasper had been kind. He’d had nothing but patient with Sophia. He’d been a perfect house guest when she was helping him recuperate after his injuries. He’d even paid for the things he’d damaged as he said he would, which she hadn’t really counted on at all. But when she opened her mail yesterday and saw the envelope of cash, she’d been floored. It was far more than he needed to give her to pay for the damages, and it was like he was saying he wanted to make up for it all somehow. The money probably came from an illegal source. She knew this. But so had all of Sam’s money and she and Sophia had lived on that for years, so why not take this money now when she so badly needed it? Not that the towels and everything needed to be replaced, but the car needed new brakes and Sophia was growing out of her clothes. The car insurance was also going to be due soon and she hadn’t known how she was going to pay for it. Well, she did now. This money was a big help. And it proved that he kept his word. After their fight, she’d thought she’d never hear from him again. She thought she’d ruined things between them by turning cold like that and saying horrible things to him. But maybe he wasn’t so mad after all. Maybe he didn’t hate her. And then there were the flowers. Highly mysterious. She’d walked out to her car after work yesterday and seen a bunch of bright flowers sitting on her car’s roof. They had no note or anything. Just sat there, innocent and curious. They were gorgeous. Were they from Jasper? It wasn’t like she had a secret admirer that she knew of, and she’d wasn’t so delusional to think guys really did that anyway. There was no one else in her life who would give her flowers. There were only two possibilities. They were from Jasper. Or they were from someone malicious. She almost hadn’t wanted to pick them up. Her mind went wild. After having a gun pressed to her head, who knew what these flowers might mean? They could be poisoned for all she knew. She might put them in her car and drive home as the poison filled the air and killed her. The main thing that helped her avoid believing that theory was that they had been sitting outside. If something was airborne, it would surely have evaporated or dissipated by now. She was also aware that she was thinking in a slightly paranoid fashion. Which was only heightened by the fact that her first thought upon seeing them was that Sam had found them and brought her flowers to torture her.

She had no reason to think Sam had found them or was even trying to look for them. She figured that as long as she wasn’t trying to get him to pay child support, he had no reason to complain. But she still wondered. She’d been his for so long and she’d taken his child away. If for nothing else than the control factor, wouldn’t he come to find them? Just to show his dominance over her and to prove she couldn’t leave him? Wouldn’t he need to save face in front of his MC? Or maybe he’d told them he kicked her out. That’d be fine with her. She wished that she could contact one of the wives she’d been somewhat friends with. Just to see what Sam’s emotional state was and what he was saying about the whole thing. But that was far too dangerous. She’d never take that chance. After a few minutes of thinking, she’d shaken out the flowers a bit, decided not to sniff them just in case, and set them on her passenger seat, near the window. Then she put the window down when she got inside. Maybe she was paranoid, but better safe than sorry. And lately, with the strange man who luckily hadn’t shown up at the shop again, and then the frightening attack, she didn’t think there was such a thing as paranoia for someone in her case. In fact, she was quite fearful of going home. She’d even put a kitchen knife in her car. Though she had no idea how she’d keep Sophia from seeing it. She was still grateful that she’d had no idea what happened with the gunman. All Sophia needed was to see Mommy with a gun against her head. But somehow, she’d been spared. The poor kid had enough to deal with after being hit by her father twice, watching her mother be hit so many times, and all the yelling he’d done. All he did was yell. And then they’d up and left one day in the middle of the night. If Sophia turned out anything close to normal, Fiona would be relieved. When she’d gotten home, she looked around frantically. She’d sat in her car so long, waiting and watching, that Sophia had asked what was wrong. Fiona got out of the car and made Sophia stay in her seat. She checked around the building and made sure no one suspicious was around. She gripped the knife tight in her hand and when she got Sophia out of her seat, tucked the knife into her pocket. She kept her hand on the knife’s handle as they walked in the building. When they were inside, she locked the door and the deadbolt and moved the couch in front of the door again. She put the knife on the counter in the kitchen, back far enough that Sophia couldn’t reach it, but that she could grab it fast. She took another knife into her bedroom and put it under her pillow. She really needed to get a gun. She went through every room in the apartment, making sure the windows were secure. “Mommy, why is our couch always there now?” Sophia pointed and tilted her head to the side. “I just thought it gives us more room that way.” “Can we move the TV and table, too? Then we’d have lots of room!” “Let’s just leave it like this for a while, okay?”

“Okay.” Sophia plopped down on the couch and picked up her animals to play. Fiona couldn’t decide what to do with herself. She’d put the flowers in a drinking glass that would have to double as a vase since she didn’t own one. At first, she set them on the kitchen counter, but that felt too close to Sophia, so just in case, she moved them to her bedroom and put them by the window. They looked nice there and she made herself think they were from Jasper every time she looked at them. At least that made her feel good. Thinking they could be from Sam made her want to throw up. She felt unsettled and unsafe. She wished she could call Jasper and have him come over for a while. She’d felt safe when he was there. And that had made her feel even worse. She’d called him sobbing so late at night and he’d dropped everything to run to her. He had protected her through the night, like he’d said. And he’d made her feel like nothing could hurt them. But now, without his protection, anything could. She missed him. Which didn’t make much sense because she hadn’t known him that long, but she did. She wanted to call him or see him. Wanted to find out about the flowers and the money. She’d tucked the envelope behind her dresser, where she hoped no one would find it if her place was broken into. She’d have to take it to the bank in the morning to deposit it so it was safe and she could pay bills with it. Maybe she would use some of it to buy that gun finally. And to get some shooting lessons. But what to do about Jasper? She didn’t know where he lived, but she had his number. She could call or text him. But if he was really as mad as he’d seemed, maybe that wouldn’t be good. She still wasn’t sure what his breaking point was, though everyone had to have one. That point where no matter what, you had to hit something or break something or hurt someone. It was just a matter of finding out—or hopefully never finding out—what his was. If she called him or texted, that’d be safe enough, right? He wouldn’t be there in person. The worst he could do was yell, which would be bad enough, but she wouldn’t feel physically threatened by only yelling. And she couldn’t leave things as they were. It would haunt her forever if she did. She had to apologize and tell him she was wrong about him. She knew that. Had known it even as she was saying it, but still couldn’t stop herself. She wished she’d found out he was an MC leader some other way than when he was in her house having breakfast after they’d spent the night together. It was too big of a shock after such a horrible incident with the gunman and then such a wonderful time with him. Too much up and down and she’d gone into her default mode. To be scared and see him as she saw the only other MC leader she knew, Sam. But he was no Sam. And she had to tell him that. That night, she had gone into her bedroom and paced for a few minutes, thinking. She wanted to find out about the flowers and thank him for the money. Wanted to apologize and ask for forgiveness. She’d tell him she knew he wasn’t like that and hoped that he would still want to talk to her again. She practiced what she’d say several times. Then, with a racing heart, she scrolled to his name. But then she couldn’t do it. What if he did get mad? What if he did yell? He might need a day to cool off. The fight had only happened that morning, so maybe this was too soon. She’d set the phone back

down and decided to wait. But that hadn’t stopped her from keeping the phone at her side in case he was the one to call or text first.


But he hadn’t. She hadn’t heard from him at all last night or at all today. Now her work day was almost over. There had been no strange flowers or envelopes today. Nothing that seemed like it could be from him. “Fiona, could you help me?” Sue’s voice made her jump and broke her Jasper trance. “Oh, sure, Sue. What do you need? “I want to move around some of these shirts. The same ones have been in the front too long and they don’t seem to be selling as well as the others. Let’s make sure the sizes are all together, too.” Fiona went to the rack of t-shirts and began sorting them as Sue went to the other rack and did the same. “Everything okay?” Sue asked. “Yeah, I’m okay. Just have a lot going on, I guess.” Sue picked up a purple shirt and moved it to Fiona’s rack with the other purple shirts. “You just seem a little unfocused today. And yesterday.” Sue paused to look at her. “You know you can talk to me about anything, right?” “I know.” Fiona sighed. “It’s guy trouble, I guess. I kind of met someone, but I think I messed things up.” “Oh? What happened?” “Well, remember my sick friend I was taking care of last week? He was actually more like half dead, left on the side of the road, and I took him to my apartment to recover. But then I just found out that he’s maybe more of a bad boy than I thought. But he’s really nice and sweet, and not like most guys who are like that, you know?” Sue nodded. “It’s easy to make assumptions about people.” “Yeah. And I think I assumed wrong.”

“Well, there’s one way to fix that.” Fiona shuffled around a few shirts, putting them in order from smallest to largest on the rack. “I’m not sure it’s fixable. We got into a fight and I said some mean things. We haven’t known each other that long, so I don’t know what he’s thinking right now or anything.” “How long ago was this fight?” “Yesterday morning.” “You haven’t heard from him?” “Well…” Fiona made a quick glance around the store. She’d gotten in the habit of doing this. Looking for the man who’d come in to warn her, looking for anyone else who might be looking for her. Everyone seemed to be just regular customers today, though. “There were flowers on my car yesterday. But there was no note or anything, so I don’t know for sure that they’re from him.” “Hmm. If they are, that’s a good sign.” “I know. But I don’t want to act on that and assume they were from him and then find out they weren’t.” “Who else would they be from?” Sue raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Is there someone else you’ve been talking to?” “No. That’s the thing. I have no idea who else would have done that.” “Sounds like it’s your guy, then.” “Yeah. I hope so.” Sue moved another shirt to her rack. “Let’s move this shirt design to the front. People seem to like it.” She held up a green shirt with an image of a tree on the front. They started moving the shirts. “I’m sure they were from your guy. What’s his name?” “Jasper.” Sue smiled. “Maybe you should call him. You’re saying it was kind of your fault? The fight?” “No, it was definitely my fault. You’re right. I have to call him. Unless I want to let him go forever.” “Doesn’t sound like that’s what you want.”

“No. It’s just so hard for me to trust people. What if he turns out to be like Sam?” Sue put her hand on Fiona’s shoulder for a moment. “Of course you have trouble trusting people. That’s to be expected. And I’m sure that you know what signs to look for.” Signs. Like being in a motorcycle club? She reminded herself that Jasper hadn’t actually acted like Sam at all, and just because they did the same things didn’t mean they were the same type of person. What if they had both been accountants? She wouldn’t be having these thoughts then. Maybe Sue was right. Did she know the signs, though? Sam had been so charming and nice in the beginning. Kind of like Jasper was now. Though Sam had often lied and made big promises that he didn’t come through on. He’d make plans to take her out, then cancel at the last minute or not bother to show at all and swoop in the next day with an apology and a sparkly bracelet or some other romantic gesture to make up for it. Jasper had already made good on the one thing he’d said he would do—paying for the damages—and he’d been reliable, though there wasn’t much to go on. It was just so new. She didn’t have much to compare and time usually revealed things. Well, if time would reveal it, then she’d watch for it. She would know what to look for. Anything that felt or sounded like Sam would be a warning. Enough warnings and she’d end it. But so far, the only thing on that list was that they both happened to be MC leaders and have similar interests. Bikes, crime, fighting. Thinking of all that again made her stomach ache. Even if he was different, he did have a dangerous lifestyle. The gunman, the crime. Would she have to bail Jasper out of jail a bunch of times like she did for Sam? Did Jasper keep wads of cash hidden all over his house in case he was arrested? That way, she could pay to get him out on bond by just going in and grabbing a wad or two. Even if Jasper was different, did she want to be part of that life again? How much of that could affect Sophia? And the real question, if they got together and stayed together, would he ever give up that life? She’d tried to get Sam to, many times. Find a straight job and live on the up and up. He’d refused. Said he never wanted a normal job. Too little money, too much time, too exhausting. She couldn’t blame him. When she’d considered the ways their lives would change if he did, the money thing was significant. But wasn’t it worth it? How much money had they spent on bonds and lawyer fees and bribes over the years? They’d have none of that if he wasn’t running around breaking the law constantly. But if Jasper was so different, maybe he had other plans and aspirations. Maybe he already wanted to get out of the life of crime. It wasn’t something you could really talk someone into. Not really. He might do it. Leave and give up his club and everything if she begged him to. But then he’d hate her for it someday. That was never a good plan. Either he’d have to want to leave on his own, or she’d have to assume that he never would. And was she okay with that? None of these things could be decided here on her own. She’d need to talk to him first. If he wouldn’t talk to her, then there was no sense in worrying about anything else. So that was it. She would call him. She would talk to him. Apologize and hope he’d forgive her. Then they could go from there. She

could get to know him better and see what he was really like. How hard was his life really? And could she be part of it for the long-term? Though even at that thought, she had some hesitation. What if she got to know him, fell in love with him, and then discovered he would never give up his life of crime? She’d have to be okay with it. Or she better not fall in the first place if she wasn’t. Throughout the rest of her day, she changed her mind at least a dozen times. Yes, definitely call him and work things out. No, don’t call him because you aren’t going to be okay with his lifestyle. She finally settled on sending him a simple text. Hey. Can we talk about the other day? She held her phone in her hands for several minutes, hoping he’d respond quickly. But after five minutes, she put her phone back in her pocket. After thirty, she figured he was either busy and couldn’t answer, or the answer was no. She tried to focus on work and think about what she’d make for Sophia for dinner that night. She had some chicken and vegetables. Probably there was still some rice in the pantry. That would work. She had laundry to do, and Sophia’s room could stand a vacuuming. She made a mental list of everything she’d fill her time with. Hopefully it would be enough. Toward the end of her shift, her phone buzzed in her pocket. It wasn’t a text; it was a call. Her heart leapt. Maybe he’d decided to respond to her text by calling her. She pulled her phone from her pocket and her heart sank when she saw Jeanine’s name on the screen. Jasper still hadn’t responded. “Hi, Jeanine,” she said, making sure her voice still sounded cheerful. It wasn’t Jeanine’s fault that she hadn’t been who Fiona was hoping had called. “Fiona? Are you at work?” Her voice sounded frantic and panicked in a way Fiona had never heard before. Her whole body tensed instantly. “Yes. What’s wrong?” “It’s Sophia. She’s gone.”

Chapter 9 Jasper approached his house, his mind already spinning. Had any of his guys gotten there? Was anyone inside? How bad was the fire, and would his house be damaged beyond repair? Too many things to think about right now. This was a time for action, not thought. He sped up and raced to his house. When he was a few hundred away feet away, he saw the flames. Angry red and orange licked out of the windows. It was bad. The fire looked like an inferno already. The smoke turned black and even thicker. He stopped his bike at a safe distance away and ran toward the house. His helmet was still on, making the scene even darker. He yanked it off and carried it under his arm. He pulled his phone from his pocket as he ran, but the screen was dark and it wouldn’t turn on. Damn it. It must’ve died. Great timing on that. Hopefully a neighbor or someone would call the fire department. His house might already be destroyed, but someone would need to put out these flames. As he ran to the house, he saw a man standing out front. The smoke was thick enough on the ground to disguise his face, but he thought maybe it was Aaron. Another man was on the ground, on all fours. “Hey!” Jasper shouted. Their heads turned. The man on the ground coughed and tried to wave the smoke from in front of his face. The man standing had a bandana over his nose and mouth, but said, “Jazz? That you, man?” It was Aaron’s voice. Jasper reached them and clapped Aaron on the back. The roar of flames and crackling wood was so loud they had to shout to each other to be heard. “Let’s get you out of here,” Jasper said. “There’s too much smoke.” “Can’t.” Derrick, on the ground, broke into a coughing fit. Then he saw Alex run out the door. “I can’t find him!” Jasper’s heart sunk. Someone was inside still? In this blaze and heat and smoke? “Who?” “Daniel’s in there,” Aaron shouted, leaning close to Jasper to be heard. “Derrick and I made it out, but Alex was trying to find him. He was in the bathroom when we smelled the smoke. But by that time, smoke was already coming in the room and there were flames everywhere when we opened the door.” He coughed several times and bent over, his hand on his stomach. “All three of you, get across the street and make sure the fire department is on their way.” Jasper pointed and reached down to clasp Derrick’s hand. He pulled him to his feet and Aaron and Alex helped him walk. “Is anyone else here?” Jasper shouted after them.

Aaron turned back. “Just Daniel!” Jasper pulled his shirt up over his nose and mouth. He wished more than ever he had his Crimson Hawks leather jacket. It’d be much better protection than his riding jacket. He zipped the jacket up as he bent over to avoid the smoke as much as possible. He popped his helmet back on for protection, even if it made things darker. Better to keep his head safe. The front door was open and thick black smoke poured out. He dropped to his knees and crawled through the living room. It was hard to see anything. He didn’t have to worry about his face shield making things too dark. There was already too much smoke to see through. He felt his way around, careful not to put his hands on anything hot or burning. He listened carefully, too. If it sounded like the roof was going to collapse or the walls were going to fall in, he’d have to get out fast. It wouldn’t help anyone if he got trapped, too. He felt the opening that was the doorway from the kitchen down to the basement. They always met in the basement. He’d finished it off years ago to make it nice down there. Carpet, couches, the whole deal. He’d even had a bathroom put in. That was where Daniel was now, or nearby. Alex had known he was in the bathroom and couldn’t find him, so maybe he’d come out and got trapped trying to get out. He coughed, and his chest burned. The shirt covering his mouth and nose wasn’t doing much at all. His head spun already with dizziness. Just keep going, Jasper. Got to find Daniel and get him out. He couldn’t let one of his guys die in there. Especially not like this. He thought he heard the faint wail of sirens. Good. Help was on the way. He hoped. He felt the first step with his hand. “Daniel!” He listened for any sound of movement or a voice. But it was so loud with the flames. Who knew fire could make so much noise. And the heat was getting to him. He felt sick to his stomach. His head was spinning worse than before. And he was wet with sweat. But he had to keep going. Had to save Daniel. Help was on its way. He turned around and slid his knee back until he felt the floor disappear. He moved his knee down carefully, crawling down the steps backward. Going face first had seemed far more dangerous than going backward. Jasper tried to see down the stairs, but the smoke was coming up too thick and fast. He went as quickly as he could, keeping his throbbing head down as much as possible to get it out of the worst of the smoke. His helmet felt like it weighed fifty pounds, but he didn’t dare take it off. “Daniel!” No response again. If he’d been in this house the whole time, he was likely passed out already. Maybe he was even dead. No. He couldn’t think of that. He would save him. Had to. He could not die here like this.

Finally, his knee hit the harder basement floor. There was a small layer of air that was less smoky and he lay flat on his belly for a moment to breathe. Maybe he could just take a quick nap right here. That would give him more energy to move forward. To find Daniel. He closed his eyes. He was so tired. But then he heard shouting. Not in the house. Outside. It brought him back to awareness and he got to his knees. Had to find Daniel. “Daniel!” But he was turned around. Which way were the stairs? Which way was the bathroom? He felt around, but it was all the same carpet and empty space. No Daniel, no items in the room at all. Where were his couches? Where was the table? He crawled along the wall. If he kept going, he’d make it around the whole perimeter. That would take him to the bathroom and then the stairs if he just kept following the line of the wall. His hand reached to the wall again, and he almost fell when it landed on empty space. He’d found the door. The bathroom was so black, he didn’t want to go in, but he slid along the ground, feeling. The toilet, hot to the touch, the wooden vanity that almost burned his skin. He circled the room, but no Daniel. He kept following the line of the wall. It was the only way to stay on the right path. If he got turned around, it was all over. He crawled back out into the big room. He kept crawling and feeling around him. Now the sirens were getting louder. Definitely help was coming. Good thing because he didn’t think he could keep this up much longer. How long had it been? Felt like hours he’d been down here, breathing in the smoke and coughing and crawling along, but it was probably only a few minutes. A person couldn’t last very long in this smoke, so if he was still alive, it couldn’t have been as long as it felt. Then his hand hit something that wasn’t floor or wall. He felt in a circle. A leg. Definitely a leg. “Daniel?” No response. The leg didn’t move. Jasper crawled up the body to his head. It was Daniel, he was pretty sure. A brief thought ran through his mind—what if one of Leo’s guys who started the fire had gotten stuck and he was about to rescue him? But no, that was stupid, irrational thinking. His guys said Daniel was in here. Said he had gone to the bathroom and this body was very close to the bathroom. He wished he could see better just to be sure, but there was no time to worry about that now. If he rescued the wrong guy, then he’d just choke him when they got outside. No problem. Jasper tugged on Daniel’s body and managed to drag him to the wall. Beside the bathroom was a small room that held the water softener and furnace. Also some random boxes of old things that he

was storing. But in the room there was a window. A small one, but a window all the same, and it was big enough that they could fit out of it with some help. He crawled a foot, then tugged and slid Daniel’s body along behind him. It was slow progress, but they were moving. He found the door. Something about feeling the door in a fire before opening it came back to him. Probably learned it ages ago in high school. This door didn’t feel hot. In fact, it felt somewhat cool in comparison to the heat of the room. So this room should be safe. He reached up the door, and found the knob. He turned it quickly, but not quickly enough. He yanked his hand back, but it throbbed in pain. He couldn’t see it clearly, but it must be burned, the way it was hurting so badly. He had no choice but to press it against the floor to use as traction to pull Daniel into the room. Pain tore through his hand and up his arm. His head buzzed and he couldn’t tell if the black spots were smoke or he was about to pass out. He couldn’t hear anything now over the ringing in his ears. Some warning bell in the back of his mind said this was bad. He was about to pass out and they would die down here. But then Daniel’s body cleared the door. This room didn’t have carpet. It was still bare cement. Which made it easier to slide the body along. It also made it cooler by the tiniest fraction. Jasper stuck his foot out and kicked the door closed. Smoke still crept in under the door, but there was less in here than there had been in the main room. He collapsed to the ground for a moment, letting the slight cool seep into his body. He was so close now. But the window seemed so far away. Miles away from him. He had to stand. It was the only way to reach the window, and even then, it was still high. He pulled himself up, using his storage shelves. He inched his way along the shelves, his hand burning bright with pain every time he moved it. He stopped and pulled Daniel behind him every few steps. Was he getting heavier? The shelves ended and Jasper felt the brick wall. It was the coolest thing he’d felt in ages. This was the wall at the edge of the house, not an interior wall. On the other side of these bricks was dirt and cold earth, not flames and smoke. He reached up, but the spinning in his head made him stumble back. He fell on top of Daniel. And that was it. He couldn’t get back up. He wouldn’t be able to reach the window. All he could do now was lie here with his friend, his club member, and hope that the firemen got to them before the flames and smoke did. He closed his eyes and let images of Fiona flood him. His mouth pulled into a smile. Fiona. Where was she now? Was she home or at work still? Was she sitting in her apartment with Sophia? Were they doing something fun like coloring or playing with Sophia’s stuffed animals while he was lying here, dying? He’d never see her again. Would she cry for him? Would she come to his funeral?

That ass Leo had ruined everything. Had almost killed him. Though that led him to Fiona, so maybe that had been okay. But now it seemed his angel had only saved him to give him a few more days. A few days to be with her and to see what love might be like. To know what it felt like to be cared for. He could love her. He could have loved her forever. But he was going to die because of Leo. If only she would appear again and save him. Maybe they would just take turns saving each other. She had saved him when he was dying on the road from stab wounds, he had saved her when the gunman showed up and threatened her. Well, okay, he’d protected her. She’d gotten away herself that time. But he had been there in case they came back. His eyes flew open. If Leo had sent guys to come for him again, why wouldn’t he send guys to go after Fiona again? He found the energy to sit up. But the movement was too much. His head whirled and he leaned away, raising his helmet just in time to get it over his head before he threw up. Luckily, he’d not thrown up all over Daniel. He heaved and coughed and when he was done, wiped his mouth. The air felt cooler with his helmet off. It had protected him, but it had made things darker and his head heavier. Now he felt like maybe he could stand again. Maybe he could get them out. He forced himself to his knees, avoiding his puddle of puke, and crawled to the wall. The edge of the shelves was there. He reached out and grabbed them with both hands, forgetting all about his burned hand until the sharp agony shot through him. He cried out in pain and pressed the hand to the cooler wall. It did little to help. The window. It was close. He shuffled along the wall until he saw a square where the smoke was lighter. This had to be it. He reached up to the window and pushed. It didn’t move. Right. There was a lock. He couldn’t reach it, though. He had to turn around and get a box from the shelves. One on the floor would have to do. He couldn’t pick a box up in his current condition. He shoved one with his foot until it was under the window. Then he stepped onto it, his feet weighing a ton each as he forced his legs to move them. He stood and almost fell again. The room was spinning around him and the smoke was thicker up here. He hadn’t put his shirt back over his mouth and started coughing and could not get himself to stop. He fumbled and felt the lock. He barely had the strength to turn it, but he heard the click. Then the window popped open. He hadn’t even had to do anything. It just fell open. Was that right? He knew the glass tilted outward, but it’d never been that easy. He had to push it. “Jasper! Jasper!” He realized someone was calling his name. He blinked through the smoke and could make out figures.

Now that the window was open, the smoke was swooshing past him, going for the new hole. But it also gave him some fresh air. He coughed again, but could breathe now. Someone grabbed his hand. There was another hand on his other arm and he was being lifted. He landed on wet grass and lay on his back, a coughing fit taking over him. He coughed so hard he threw up again, turning his head just in time to avoid puking all over himself. He blinked through the smoke. He couldn’t see or hear anything. Someone grabbed him and pulled him. His back touched gravel and he stopped moving. The smoke had gone. He could see, but his eyes burned. He rubbed them and kept coughing. Cool water. Someone poured it on him. The cold was so shocking after the heat, he shivered. “Jasper?” He blinked at the voice. Who was there? “Daniel,” he coughed out. “Get him out.” “We got him. He’s right here.” Jasper couldn’t see. “It’s okay, man. Everyone is out.” Jasper fell back to the ground, the wet gravel sticking to his face. He closed his eyes. His work was done.

Chapter 10 Fiona’s heart stopped. She had to grab the edge of the counter to keep from falling. “What do you mean she’s gone?” Jeanine was sobbing. She could barely speak and Fiona was having a hard time understanding her. “Slow down, Jeanine. What happened?” Fiona realized she was getting looks from the two customers in the store. She hurried to the back and found her purse. “She was…backyard,” Jeanine choked out. “Then. Gone.” “Did you hear her scream or anything? You looked for her?” “No scream. Looked everywhere.” Jeanine was hysterical and Fiona could feel her own panic approaching that point. She had to think. “You’re home?” Fiona asked. “Yes.” “I’m on my way.” Fiona hung up and dashed into the office where Sue was doing paperwork. She looked up, startled. But the look in Fiona’s eyes must’ve told her something because her own eyes went wide. “What is it?” Sue asked. “Sophia…” She choked on the words. Somehow, if she said them they would be more real. She wanted this all to be a nightmare. Maybe she’d sat down on her lunch break and fallen asleep and this wall all just a dream. “Sophia’s missing,” she finally said. Sue gasped in shock. “Oh my gosh. What?” “I have to go.” “Yes, go.” Sue got to her feet, walking with Fiona to the door, both of them hurrying along. “I’ll call you,” Fiona said as she reached the door and pushed it open. Sue stood in the door way, watching her, shock still etched in her face.

Fiona didn’t know how she managed to get to Jeanine’s. She didn’t remember getting into her car, pulling out of the gift shop parking lot, or making several turns. She fumbled for her phone. It took three tries to enter the passcode. When she finally did, she scrolled to Jasper’s name with shaking hands, trying to drive and not hit anything. She called him and his voice mail picked up. She hung up and immediately called back. Nothing. She didn’t want to leave a message, so she let her phone fall to the seat beside her. It had to be the same men that had put a gun to her head. The men looking for Jasper. The men after Jasper, who’d nearly killed him. Oh God. What if they had Jasper, too? What if that was why he wasn’t answering? The thought made her cold. She tried to think about what was happening right now, but her mind kept jumping. What were they doing with her daughter? She pictured Sophia’s little face, how it must be terrified, and the tears flooded her vision. Did she have Cuddles with her? Was she clutching her little friend close for comfort? Was she wondering where her mommy was and why she wasn’t there to save her? She had to stop the sobs so she could drive, but she couldn’t breathe anymore. Her chest hitched and when she saw Jeanine’s house, she was so grateful that she’d made it. She slammed her car into park and ran from the car to find Jeanine. She was in the backyard, looking and calling out for Sophia through her tears. “Jeanine!” She turned and ran toward Fiona. They met in a hard embrace. “I’m so sorry, Fiona. I thought she was fine. She plays outside all the time and she’s fine. I just…I just…” “No, it’s not your fault.” Fiona rested her hand on Jeanine’s shoulder. “Did you call the police?” Jeanine nodded. “They’re on their way.” Fiona looked around the yard. There was no clear sign of struggle, but she didn’t really know what to look for. Trampled bushes? Damaged trees? Jeanine’s yard was lined with thin trees on one side, bushes on the two others. Through the line of bushes were her neighbors and through the trees was a creek and then the backyards of other houses. “Which way did they go?” she asked. “They?” “The people who took her.”

Jeanine blinked at her. “You think someone took her?” “Don’t you?” “I…I thought she just wandered off. Took her?” Could Fiona be wrong? Maybe Sophia had been playing and saw a butterfly or something and chased it? Could it be so simple? Maybe no one had her daughter at all. Maybe Jasper wasn’t answering his phone because he was busy. Or didn’t want to talk to her. Could life be so wonderful? “What happened exactly?” Fiona asked. “I don’t know. Sophia was out here playing. I went inside to get my phone and when I came back out, she was gone. I called for her. I thought she just wandered off.” “Maybe she did.” She was sure Jeanine had checked, but just to be certain, Fiona went to the trees and looked at the creek, up and down to make sure she didn’t see any sign of her. What had she been wearing that day? Think. Think. That morning they had cereal for breakfast. Sophia still had on her pajamas and she spilled milk on them when she tipped the bowl to drink the leftover milk. Her pink kitty cat pajamas. They’d gone into her room to change, put the pajamas in the hamper and picked up… Her mint green shirt with a glittery heart on the front. That was what she was wearing. And black leggings. With her silver sparkly flats. She loved those shoes and Fiona could barely manage to get her to take them off. “But they sparkle, Mommy!” she’d protested one night when Fiona was trying to get her to take them off to get in the bathtub. “They don’t need to be cleaned,” she’d protested, which didn’t make any sense. Fiona had pointed out that if they were sparkly and didn’t need to be cleaned, then she better leave them out of the tub, or the glitter might get cleaned off. That had been enough to make Sophia immediately kick them off. She’d let nothing take away her sparkle. Fiona looked up and down the creek again, making sure there wasn’t one of those sparkly shoes sitting on the shore. She walked back up the bank and crossed through into each neighboring yard. No sign of her anywhere. “I did look everywhere,” Jeanine said. “I know you did.” Fiona patted her shoulder. “When did the police say they were going to get here?” “They said right away, but it’s been several minutes.” Of course. To them, it was probably just a kid who wandered off. Not an extreme emergency. They’d

be here soon, but likely wouldn’t come with sirens wailing, flying down the street. “I’m going to drive around a little,” Fiona said. “Call me as soon as they get here.” “Okay.” In her car, Fiona called Jasper again. Maybe she should leave a message? She called back and this time when the voice mail recording came on, she said, “Jasper, please call me back. It’s Sophia and it’s an emergency.” She drove up and down the street slowly, pulling over when another car was behind her. She called out for her, but saw no signs of her. No a shoe, her stuffed bunny, nothing. She turned around again and drove back. Would Sophia even have wandered off? That seemed so unlike her. She liked Jeanine and always looked forward to going to her house. She wouldn’t just leave without some reason. She wasn’t the type to wander off. Even in stores, she clung to Fiona and would point and tug at her mother to go look at something rather than go over on her own. She was the type to cling, not to wander. So would she really have left Jeanine’s yard to go exploring? As much as she wanted to believe it could be true, Fiona had to admit that just didn’t sound like her child at all. Sophia wouldn’t wander off. Certainly not so far that she couldn’t be quickly found. Certainly not so far that looking for her by car wouldn’t locate her. No. Fiona had to face the truth. She’d been taken. And she’d most likely been taken by the men after Jasper. Though there was always the possibility that Sam had shown up and snatched her. At this point, Fiona didn’t know which would be worse. If Sam had taken her, he might hurt her, but that was less likely at this point. Sam only hurt people when they didn’t do what he wanted. Though if he’d tried to take Sophia and she’d resisted, he could easily have smacked her to get her to listen. But that would be the worst of it. Probably. He wouldn’t kill his own child, would he? Or hurt her worse? He might use her as bait to get Fiona back. And what would he do when Fiona refused him? The thought terrified her. But if Leo and his guys had her, wouldn’t that be worse? They’d beat up Jasper very badly. Almost killed him. Thought they’d killed him. So clearly they were violent people. But a child? She was only bait for them to get to Jasper, which had to be why they had her. If a man had held a gun to Fiona’s head to get info about Jasper, then surely this was about Jasper, too. They wouldn’t rest until he was dead. But they wouldn’t go so far as to kill a child over it, would they? She pulled back into Jeanine’s driveway and saw that a police car was there. An officer exited the car, closing the door behind him. He’d just arrived. He turned to her when she got out of her car and she said, “I’m the mother. It’s my daughter who’s missing.”

“Is this your home?” “No, this Jeanine’s house. She watches my daughter. She was here when she was taken.” The officer made notes in his notebook. “Taken?” “Sophia wouldn’t just wander off, and I have reason to believe that she was kidnapped.” “Let’s go inside and discuss this.” The officer gestured toward the door. They went in and Jeanine came to meet them. They sat at the dining room table and Jeanine first relayed what she’d told Fiona of how Sophia had just vanished. “But you said you believe she was taken,” the officer said to Fiona. She nodded. She had to be very careful about how she answered this. She knew enough from life with Sam to know that any police attention on the MC was bad news. If she told him that part of the story, it might get Jasper in trouble. But she still wasn’t sure who it was—Sam or someone after Jasper—so either reason should work. “My ex was abusive. We had to leave him abruptly and I think he may have found us and taken Sophia.” The officer scribbled down more notes. He asked about Sam. Name, last known address, etcetera. She gave him all the info she had. He’d radioed some of Sam’s physical appearance details to the car that was driving around the area. They’d look for Sophia and keep an eye out for someone who looked like Sam as well. When they finished talking with the officer, she sat with Jeanine, waiting. The police would be coming back in an hour with an update. They turned on the TV and tried to watch, but every time the phone rang, they jumped up, and Fiona couldn’t keep from checking out the window constantly. She walked to the back door, the front door, pausing in the middle to watch Jeanine talk on the phone and glance at the TV. Jeanine had the whole neighborhood looking for Sophia. Fiona hated that she had to stay there, waiting. But the officer said that was the best thing. She was in no state to drive around looking for her and they were well practiced in cases like this, they assured her. Still. She felt so helpless just sitting there. She tried to call Jasper a few more times. She’d left one more message, telling him that Sophia was missing and that she thought maybe it was Leo’s guys or her ex. He had to just be unavailable or had lost his phone or something. There was no way he wouldn’t call her back after messages like those, right? Could he be that heartless? She didn’t think so, but she kept checking her phone and calling his, wondering why in the world he wasn’t answering or calling her back.

An hour and a half later, the officer returned. He told them they had no solid leads, but that they were opening a full investigation and would continue searching for Sophia. While they were talking with the officer, her phone rang. She looked down and saw an unknown number. Maybe it was Jasper, though. “Excuse me, I have to take this,” Fiona said, and walked outside onto the porch where she’d have privacy. “Hello?” “Fiona Mackintosh?” She didn’t recognize the voice, but it certainly didn’t sound like a friendly sales call. Her heart raced as she listened. “Yes?” she said. “If you’d like to see your daughter alive, come to the farm at 494 Greenville Road in exactly three hours.” “494 Greenville Road,” she repeated. “And I’m sure it goes without saying, do not get the police involved. Unless, of course, you want to be rid of this kid. I’m sure they can be a pain in the ass and all. I’d understand.” “No, I won’t.” Her voice shook and she hoped the officer inside the house right now couldn’t hear. And that the guy on the phone had no idea the cop was there. “Oh, and that little pussy boyfriend of yours? Jasper? If you were smart, you wouldn’t bring him either. See you soon, doll.” The man laughed and hung up. Fiona stood on the porch and gripped her phone so tight it dug into her hand, shaking. Okay, well, at least she knew that this was about Jasper and it wasn’t Sam who’d taken Sophia. But she felt no relief at that. Had she expected to? Suddenly, the fact that Jasper wasn’t answering worried her far more than it had before. What if they had him? And what if they had his phone? They’d just told her not to call him. They’d know if she did. She couldn’t even try calling him again. But why say not to bring him if they had him? Unless they were testing her. If that was the case, she had to get away from this cop as soon as possible. She couldn’t risk being seen near him. She ducked back inside the house like she just needed to get something from her purse. She held the phone to her ear and when she was near Jeanine said, “One sec, Sue, let me find my notebook and I can tell you.” She walked back out to the porch with her purse and then put her phone in her pocket and dashed to the front of the house where her car was. She hopped in and quickly drove off.

But she had so much time to kill. She wanted to drive right to this farmhouse right now. But she wanted more not to mess up and endanger Sophia. She’d already caused her too much pain by not being there when she was taken. By getting mixed up with this guy in the first place. She was the worst mother in the world. Picked a horrible man to be her father, and now another man that brought them trouble. Maybe she deserved to have her daughter taken for all the better care she’d given her. How could she be so stupid? She turned into her apartment’s building. Where else could she possibly go right now? She paced for a while, then thought, what if they needed to make a getaway for some reason? She packed bags for her and Sophia and filled the car with her stuffed animals so that when she got Sophia back, she’d have all her favorite things. She had to believe she’d get her back. There was no other option than to keep believing that. And she had no other option right now but to sit and wait.

Chapter 11 Jasper sat on the edge of the ambulance, sipping water. He’d told the guy a thousand times he was fine, and he didn’t need to go to the hospital. But they were taking Daniel. “I’ll ride over with you,” he said to Aaron. All Jasper had was his bike, and he didn’t feel up to riding that right now. Maybe his car was okay. It’d been in the garage, but he couldn’t get to anything inside until after the police cleared the place. Guess it was a good thing any papers or drugs were burned up. Having the cops poke around wasn’t something he ever wanted to have happen. He was trying not to think of everything that was gone. His computer, TV, other electronics. His clothes, photos, furniture. And the money. He had so much money hidden in that house. Thousands and thousands of dollars. Of course, it wasn’t all hidden there, but a lot of it was. Good thing he’d taken out a chunk and given it to Fiona. It was far better off in her hands than up in smoke. Maybe some of his stuff was salvageable. The place hadn’t caved in or collapsed. The cops said once the fire was out for sure, and they’d had time to check the place to find the cause, then he’d be allowed in to look around and see if he could save anything. He didn’t have high hopes. Really, besides the money, everything was replaceable and didn’t matter much. Even his photos all existed in digital form in other places. No big deal. It would be a hassle, sure. But who knew, maybe he’d have Fiona to go shopping with. Right now, Fiona was his biggest worry. His phone wasn’t charged and he didn’t know her number. He wanted to make sure she was okay and that Leo and his guys hadn’t come after her. He was antsy sitting there, waiting for the medical guy to clear him. “You have a phone charger in your car?” Jasper asked. Aaron nodded. “Did your phone survive all that?” “It was shut off because the battery died before I even went in, so yeah, it should be fine.” But what if it wasn’t? He needed some way to get to her then. If he couldn’t call her, he’d have to go to her house or the gift shop. “Can you go plug it in now? I have to make sure Fiona is okay and her number is in my phone.” He took his phone from his pocket. It looked okay. Not cracked or anything. But maybe the heat had messed it up. Only one way to find out. “Sure thing.” Aaron took the phone and went to his car, not too many feet away.

They’d moved his bike into the driveway for him. He hated the thought of just leaving it there like that, but what choice did he have? Maybe he could get it later tonight. After they figured out what was going on with Daniel. He wasn’t doing well right now. The EMT finally walked over to Jasper. “Okay, we’re going to take Daniel to the hospital and I really think you should come, too. You’ve had a lot of smoke inhalation.” “I feel fine.” “I know that, but you don’t know what damage could be happening internally.” Jasper started to protest, but Aaron, who’d just returned from his car, spoke up. “We’re going to the hospital anyway. Might as well let them check you over or whatever they’re going to do.” Jasper sighed. “Fine. Do me a favor, though. Drive by Fiona’s on the way and see if her car is there.” Aaron nodded. “I’m going right to the hospital after.” “Don’t forget to bring my phone in. And your charger. I have to talk to her.” “Yup. See you over there.” Jasper spun his legs so that he was fully in the ambulance. “Do I have to lie down?” he asked the EMT. “No, sitting is fine. But I do want to run an IV and get some fluids in you, okay?” “Fine.” He buckled Jasper in and took a seat beside him. After he put in the IV line and had started the drip, he told the ambulance driver to go ahead. They drove off and Jasper looked out the back window at the smoking remains of his house. Now what would he do? He’d need a new house, or at least a place to stay while his house was being fixed—if it was fixable or worth fixing. It all seemed like such a hassle. He’d put a lot of work into that house. Finished the basement, repainted the rooms, redid the kitchen and bathrooms. It was kind of his project when he didn’t have other things going on. And now he’d either have to spend a lot of time fixing it up again, pay a lot of money to have someone else do it, or hope the insurance money was enough that he could buy a new place and start over. The thought of starting over was daunting, but his second thought—that maybe he could start over with Fiona—gave him hope and filled his chest with excitement. He had to keep reminding himself that he couldn’t get his hopes up. He hadn’t talked to her. He had no idea what she was thinking or if she’d ever even talk to him again. But the dream built up in his head. Picking out paint colors with her for

their bedroom, letting her choose the curtains, making Sophia’s room all pretty, like a little girl’s room should be. He’d let Fiona design the kitchen and bathrooms and whatever else she wanted to do in the place, and he’d make it happen. Didn’t she know he could make her dreams come true and give her an amazing life? She just had to let him. He really needed to get to his phone and call her. Nothing would feel right until he did. Too many horrible possibilities ran through his mind. What if they set her apartment building on fire, too? Or took her or beat her like they had him? Or something even worse. The anger rose in his chest just at the thought that someone could hurt her in any way. If they actually had touched her, they would pay. His burned hand clenched into a fist. When the pain hit him, he released it immediately and looked down at his bandage. This hand better heal up fast. What a pain this was to deal with. He couldn’t do much of anything with just one hand. Couldn’t even ride his bike right. How would he grip the handle bars? And he couldn’t ride with only one hand. Flashes of the fire and trying to get Daniel out of there kept coming to his mind. He could smell the smoke like it’d burned into his nostrils. It still burned his chest and he couldn’t breathe deeply. If he tried, he’d go into a coughing fit. Maybe the EMT guy was right. But what could they even do for him? Some sort of breathing treatment? And Daniel. He could barely stand to think of him. He hadn’t woken up yet and they said he was in bad shape. What if he never woke up? How would he look his wife and kids in the eye and tell them he hadn’t gotten Daniel out soon enough? That he’d only been there in the first place because he’d called a meeting. And that the meeting was because of things he’d done and revenge he needed to take. His death would be entirely on him. Any injury he faced would be, too. And he would pay for his damages where Daniel was concerned, too. He’d cover any doctor bills, any inconveniences. Whatever he could do to make up for it. Daniel just had to live. And until he was well enough to go home, he’d help out his wife and kids however he could. The ambulance turned into the hospital and when it stopped, the EMT opened the doors and hopped down. He took out the IV bag, then Jasper hopped down, too, and followed the EMT into the hospital. He was taken to a trauma room and immediately, nurses and doctors starting poking at him. They took his temperature, his blood pressure, drew blood, made him breathe into a tube device. It all seemed to take forever, and he had no idea where Aaron was. They hooked him up to some kind of breathing machine and told him to breathe in slow and deep. He had to admit, it made his lungs feel better and he was able to breathe better. But he wanted to be out of here. He needed to find Aaron and get his phone. His heart was racing with anxiety. Even the doctors said he was likely in shock. No, not shock, he just needed to check on Fiona. He couldn’t take not knowing. He kept picturing the worst and the horrible things that could be happening to her right now. Finally, Derrick showed up in the doorway of his room. He pulled back from the breathing machine to

talk to him. “How’s Daniel?” “Still hasn’t woken up. They’re working on him, though. He’s alive.” “Keep me updated. Where’s Aaron?” “Not sure.” Jasper growled in frustration. “Find him and get my phone. I have to call Fiona.” Derrick nodded. “I’ll try to track him down.” He took out his phone and sent him a text. “Oh, he’s here. I’ll be right back.” Jasper resumed breathing from the machine and kept an eye on the door. Every time someone walked by, he turned to look, hoping it was Aaron. When he appeared, Jasper held his hand out before he even got over to him. Aaron handed him the phone with wide eyes. “What?” Jasper asked. “You have a lot of missed calls and messages from Fiona.” Jasper looked down and already his stomach was twisting in knots. Eight missed calls, four texts, and three voice mails. He read through the texts quickly. Mostly they just asked him to call her. The voice mails were much the same, until the last one. She was crying and it was hard to make out what she said. “Jasper, I don’t know why you’re not answering, I hope you’re okay. They have her. They took Sophia. I think. I’m going to Jeanine’s now. I guess it could be Sam, I don’t know, but she’s missing. I don’t know what else to do. I hope you’re okay. Where are you? I’m sorry.” Her words were scattered throughout with sobs and sniffles. His heart lurched in his chest. The last voice mail had come over two hours ago. That seemed weird. And ominous. There’d been messages or calls every few minutes for two hours, then silence. Couldn’t be a good thing. Unless she’d gotten mad at him and given up. He actually hoped for that at this point. “Thanks, man,” he said to Aaron, and dialed. He held his breath, waiting for her to answer. “Hello?” Her voice sounded scratchy and weak and hesitant all at once. “Fiona, are you okay?”

“Oh, thank God it’s you. Are you okay?” The worry in her voice melted his heart. At least she cared about him still. “I’m at the hospital. Leo burned my house down, but I’m okay. Where are you and where’s Sophia?” “They called and told me to meet them at this farmhouse. I’m heading there now. They said not to call the cops or you. I thought maybe they had your phone and were testing me or something. That’s why I stopped calling. I didn’t want them to hurt you, too, and I couldn’t get a hold of you, and I didn’t know what else to do. They’ve had her for hours and she must be terrified.” “Okay, okay, hold on. Slow down. Who called you?” He was already fumbling around, trying to get his shoes back on. He held the phone with his injured hand—gingerly because closing it at all hurt— and yanked on his boots with his other hand. He put the phone down for a second and called toward the door, “Aaron!” “I don’t know who called. Some guy. I guess one of Leo’s guys? He said…” She broke into sobs again and he couldn’t understand her. “He said what?” “If I…wanted to see her…alive…” The anger that had settled in his stomach earlier burst through his body, lighting every nerve on fire. He was raging now inside. His teeth ached, he clenched them together so hard. How dare they do something like this. It would have been bad enough if they took Fiona, but the child? And that hurt Sophia and Fiona. Maybe hurt Fiona even worse. And that hurt him. He would stand for none of it. Leo and his guys were dead. Maybe he’d even torture Leo first. Just to let him know what it felt like to be hurt so badly. “Do you think they’d really kill her?” She sniffled through the words. Yes, absolutely. They were that evil. And stupid. But he’d never tell her that. Why make it worse? “Not a chance. They need her to alive to get to me. Where are you right now?” She let out a sigh. “Good. I’m almost at the farmhouse.” “No, no, no. Do not go there alone. Wait for me.” “Jasper, I have to. They said to go without you.” “Fiona, no.” Aaron finally showed up again in his room. “Hang on a sec.” He turned to Aaron. “I need your car. They took Fiona’s daughter.” Aaron’s jaw dropped open. “Are you effing kidding me?”

“I wish.” Aaron handed over his keys. “Need anything else?” “Nope. I just gotta go get them and kill Leo.” “Whoa. Wait a second. You can’t go alone.” He took out his phone and started making calls. “Where are you?” Jasper demanded into the phone. “Almost there.” “Where? Fiona, do not go in there alone! Do you hear me?” She responded with sobs. “I have to. I’m sorry.” His phone beeped, telling him the call ended. What the hell? She hadn’t hung up, had she? He called back and it went right to voice mail. She’d shut her phone off. No, no. Was she nuts? He was on his feet and took two steps toward the door before the IV yanked on his arm. Pain shot through him and he cursed loudly. What a nightmare this whole thing was. They must’ve planned this. Have him distracted with his house fire so he couldn’t protect Fiona and Sophia. Keep him busy so he couldn’t go to her. Bullshit. He peeled the tape back on his arm. “Dude, what are you doing?” Aaron asked. He put his phone down. “I got five guys so far. They’re on their way.” “I have to go now. Fiona is going to some farmhouse where Sophia is and she shut off her phone. She’s going in there alone.” Aaron sucked in a breath. “Where’s it at? We’ll get there fast.” “That’s the best part.” Jasper clenched his uninjured hand into a fist. “I have no fucking clue.” Aaron picked up his phone again. “Small change of plans. I need you to go to Leo’s HQ and beat someone to find out what farmhouse Sophia is being held in where they told Fiona to go.” Aaron ended the call and looked at him. “On it. What else?” Jasper slid the needle from his arm and pressed the tape to the hole that was now spouting blood. “Tell me Daniel woke up and is just fine.” Aaron scratched the back of his neck. “Daniel woke up and is just fine.”

Jasper knew in his tone he was only repeating what he’d said because he’d told him to. Daniel wasn’t fine. Probably hadn’t woken up. “Dammit.” He punched the bed. “Someone call his wife?” “I did myself.” “Good on you. Let’s get out of here.” “Don’t you need to check out or something?” Jasper glared at him. “You think we have time for that?” Aaron turned and left the room, pausing to see that Jasper was behind him. They hurried through the halls, making sure no one had noticed they were gone. Jasper pressed his good hand to the IV spot, which was still bleeding. At least it had tape over it so he wouldn’t bleed all over the place. They dashed to Aaron’s car, stuck on the top row of the large parking garage. “Come on, come on.” Jasper banged his good fist on the dash as they made their way out. “I’m doing my best.” Aaron took the turns as fast as he could, but now he was behind a car that seemed terrified of the bends and was crawling along. Jasper almost ripped his hair from his head. He picked up his phone and called Fiona again. She didn’t answer, but in case she checked her messages, he said, “Listen to me, please. I know what they said, but they’re just going to take you, too, to get to me. Do not go in there alone, I’m begging you. We’re on our way. Please wait for us.” “Crazy chick,” Aaron said. “I guess when they have your kid, you do whatever they say.” “Well, they ain’t going be saying anything at all when we’re through with them. Assuming the original plan is out the window.” Jasper looked at him with the rage and anguish raw on his face. “My only plan is for them to die. Painfully, if possible.” Aaron nodded once. “Consider it done.” Aaron’s phone rang and he answered, “Tell me good news, man.” He paused to listen, then said, “494 Greenville Road. Head right there. Yup. Take them all out.” He set his phone down. “You get that? That’s where the farmhouse is. GPS it.” He tossed the phone to Jasper.

Jasper typed in the address. Fifteen minutes away. That was an eternity. He set the phone in the holder attached to the window. “We’ll get there in half the time,” Aaron said, and pressed the gas pedal harder. When the road cleared, he flew at twice the speed limit. It still wasn’t fast enough for Jasper. Nothing could be. He called Fiona again. No answer. She was probably there already. What could be happening right now? “I need a gun. I only have my knife on me,” Jasper said. “Take the one in the glove compartment. It’s unregistered.” Jasper opened the compartment and took out the gun, checked the rounds. Full magazine. He had ten rounds to sink into those assholes. He tucked the gun into the back of his jeans and watched the progress on the GPS. They still had a few minutes to go. He looked ahead on the empty road. In the distance, he saw a tall building. It grew closer. Tall and wood, the red paint chipping and the wood splintered. It looked abandoned. It looked like the perfect place to kill some people. That was probably what Leo had thought, but little did he know he’d be the one getting killed today. Him and all his guys. Forget recruiting. Anyone affiliated with the Rose Blades in any way was going to die today. Hell, maybe he’d even take out their girls and kids. He was in that kind of a mood. He saw a few bikes on the road up ahead. Aaron had called anyone who wasn’t involved in the fire at headquarters and it looked like five of his guys were there already, waiting. Aaron pulled the car over near them. Jasper got out of the car and looked at the farmhouse. Sitting off to the side was Fiona’s car. She was here. She was inside of the building. They had her. He wanted to charge in right now, but they had to be smart about it. They slid off their bikes and gathered around him, looking for instructions from their leader. “Alright, here’s the plan. All Blades die today. We’ll torch the place when we’re done. Scrap recruiting. I don’t want any of them. I want them all dead, and if you can make it painful, even better.” One by one, they nodded. Alex punched his fist into his other hand. “Let’s get a move on, then.”

Chapter 12 Fiona could barely drive, she was crying so hard. She had been so relieved to hear from Jasper and to know he was mostly okay. She felt bad that she hadn’t asked more about his house and what had happened, but they’d have time to discuss that later. She hoped. His house wasn’t totally destroyed, was it? Had anyone been hurt? As long as he was okay enough to talk to her and say he was coming. Even if he wasn’t coming. All that mattered was that he was okay. They didn’t have him and they wouldn’t get him if she was able to prevent it somehow. She’d do whatever she could to get Sophia and keep Jasper out of it. No reason for more people to get involved in this mess. She had to hang up on him though. As badly as she wanted to keep hearing his voice, and she wanted to wait for him even more badly, she had no choice. The guy had been clear. No cops, no Jasper. She already worried that being near the cop when she got the call had somehow messed things up. What if they had someone watching and they had seen there was a cop there? Would they rush things and kill Sophia faster? Or hurt her somehow? The thought of her being hurt made her want to throw up. The emotional damage was done. There was nothing Fiona could do about that now. They’d deal with it later. Maybe Sophia would need some therapy or something. She might deal with anything from nightmares to shock. Who knew what they had done when they took her and how they were handling her now. Was it too much to hope that the person who was in charge of watching her was nice? Maybe he had kids, too? Maybe Sophia thought it was all a game. Maybe somehow they’d told her that Mommy was coming and it’d all be okay. That made her cry even harder because she knew it was so far from the truth. And the truth was too much to imagine. She tried to focus on driving. She was getting close to the farmhouse. Just a few more minutes. What should she do when she got there? Just walk in? Would someone be outside waiting for her? How soon would she see Sophia? Then she saw it. It was a big building. An old farm. The farmhouse was wooden and red and looked like it was in disrepair. It looked abandoned or haunted or both. It was probably full of spiders and critters. Not that anything like that should be her concern at this moment, but she hated spiders and mice. All she’d need was to be in there, trying to get Sophia, and have a mouse run across her path and scatter her thoughts. How perfect would that be. She pulled her car up beside the building. There was no one out front. No welcoming party ready to snatch her from her car. This was the right place, right? She could barely think straight, her mind raced, and her hands were sweaty from her panic. She had to take in many breaths to steady herself. This was madness, what she was about to do. Walk into an empty building where her daughter was being held captive by some dangerous men. Who knew what they’d do to her. She wasn’t trained to fight or protect herself in any way. She had the knife in her car, but she wasn’t going to take it in with

her. Why should she? She didn’t know how to use it properly. She’d likely end up hurting herself worse than she’d hurt anyone else. So she really had nothing. No means to save Sophia, no means to save herself. Maybe she should wait for Jasper. How soon would he be there? She hadn’t told him the address. At the time, it was more important for her to be there without him, but now she regretted it. Maybe she should call back and tell him? But then he’d come for sure, and he might get himself hurt. No. Enough people were involved in this already. She didn’t need to drag him into it again. Just get in there and get Sophia and do it alone. She looked up and down the street, hopeful despite herself that someone would show up and come to her rescue. There were no cars, no motorcycles that she could see. With a trembling hand, she opened her car door. She had her purse and figured there was no benefit in taking it in with her. What was the etiquette for going to rescue your child from kidnappers? She slid her phone into her pocket and tucked her purse under her seat. Her car keys were in her other pocket. She stepped one foot out, hitting dirt and sending a small puff of dust into the air. She turned and stepped her other foot down. She could do this. Sophia needed her. Sophia was right there, just on the other side of this wooden wall. She might be crying for her mommy right now. Fiona stood and closed the car door quietly. If she could somehow catch them off guard, that had to be to her benefit, right? She walked slowly to the building. She listened hard, hoping to hear a motorcycle off in the distance, giving her a reason to wait. Something. Anything. A car? A truck? Someone happening to be passing by that she could call out to help her? As slowly as she walked, it wasn’t slow enough. No one came. She heard no one approaching. The porch was low and looked like she would step right through it if she stomped or jumped on it. She stepped up carefully and slowly. When she got to the top and stood before the door, she turned and paused again. Nothing but stillness and a gentle breeze. It would be a nice, peaceful day if she wasn’t about to walk into chaos. Was she about to walk into her death? Or into some sort of kidnapping situation? This probably was a very stupid thing. She was an idiot for going in alone. Jasper would be mad. She should have told him where she was. At least then she could hope that he was on his way. She could have rescue fantasies of him busting in, his eyes blazing, his muscles popping, and he’d fight off the bad guys one by one, then scoop her into his arms and kiss her hard before turning to shoot another guy who came out of nowhere to attack them. But that was the movies and this was real life, and he wasn’t coming. He had no idea where she was. It gave her some comfort to know that if he did know where she was, he’d already be on his way. He would always come for her, always protect her. How could she ever have doubted him? Now all she wanted was to have him close and to keep him close forever. How could she have sent him away and treated him so coldly? How could she have thought he was anything like these men who’d taken her daughter? He wasn’t. He’d never do a thing like this. Not for money or for revenge. But for her, he’d

do anything. If only she got the chance to see him again, she’d kiss him and tell him she was sorry and she’d fall into his arms and be his forever. And then they’d make passionate love and she’d never have to be scared again. He’d always be there for them, to protect them and comfort them. To wrap his strong arms around her and keep her safe. Tears came to her eyes picturing all this. She had to let the image go. She wouldn’t see him again. He couldn’t get to her; she’d made sure of that. He couldn’t protect her, no matter how badly he wanted to. She’d go in there alone and she probably wouldn’t come back out. At least she’d be with Sophia. At least they’d die together. With one last deep breath, she turned the knob and pushed open the door. She stepped inside a room. The bright light of the day blinded her and she squinted, trying to see anything in the room. The door slammed shut. She hadn’t touched it. Her heart leapt to her throat and she tried to swallow. A hand clamped around her mouth and something hard pressed against her head. She knew this feeling. She’d just gone through this days ago. Someone was pressing a gun to her head. “Do not scream,” a voice said. Another man rose from a chair in the next room. “Hell, let her scream. Ain’t no one around to hear her. Might be kinda fun.” The man holding her dropped his hand from her mouth. She didn’t scream, though. She blinked faster to see in the dim room. The only piece of furniture was the chair the man had been sitting in. An old armchair covered in a large cloth and a layer of dirt. When he stood, a cloud of dust followed him. The rest of the place was one large series of rooms, with wide doorways connecting them. A staircase leading upstairs in front of her had several steps missing. The steps that were still there were warped and looked like they wouldn’t hold much weight. In the light coming in through the windows, she saw beams of dancing dust and layers of grime on every surface. It smelled musty and old, like the doors hadn’t been opened in years. Maybe they hadn’t been before this. It was cooler inside than it had been in the hot sun, but it was sticky and the air didn’t move. The dirt in the air already seemed to be clinging to her skin and clothing. She looked left and right through the rooms. Where was Sophia? The only people here besides her were the man holding her and the other man who had been sitting on the chair. Did they lie? Was she really somewhere else? “Where is she?” she whispered. “I’ll take you to her,” the man who now faced her said. “Oh, forgive me. I should introduce myself. I’m Leo. You may have heard of me.”

She wanted to spit on him. This was the man who’d hurt Jasper. Who’d tried to kill him. Who sent a man to attack her. Who’d ordered Sophia to be taken. Who’d brought her here. He was the reason all of this was happening. If she had a knife, she would stab him and kill him. But she was still glad she hadn’t brought it in. She wouldn’t be able to reach it and she probably wouldn’t be able to stab him anyway. She wasn’t good enough to pull that off. “Come on, doll, let’s go see your darling little princess, shall we?” Leo said. She recognized his voice. He was the one who’d called her and told her to come here. He grabbed her arm roughly and yanked her forward. The gun fell away from her head, but the gunman pushed her from behind. She stumbled and Leo caught her. “Wait until I tell Jasper how you came willingly and fell right into my arms.” “Jasper?” He laughed. “Why do you think you’re here? I tried to kill him once already, but I guess you know how that went. So, I figured, why not make it a little more fun? Send him on a chase to get you. Let him walk right into my trap.” “He’s not coming,” she said through clenched teeth. “You said not to bring him and I didn’t.” Leo laughed again and shoved her toward a door. “He’s coming, don’t you worry, doll. He wouldn’t dream of letting you rot away here all alone. He loves you too much to let that happen.” He said the words mockingly, but they made her heart jump. Of course, she hadn’t known him long enough for him to fall for her like that, but maybe one day he would. He could fall in love with her and she could fall in love with him, and they could live happily ever after. Was he really on his way? It frightened and excited her to think of him rushing in the house, gun aimed, ready to shoot. She shook the fantasy away again. He pushed her through the door and into the kitchen. There, on the floor, handcuffed to a pipe under an old ceramic sink, was Sophia. Fiona leapt forward to get to her, but Leo reached out and grabbed her. Sophia cried out. “Mommy!” She reached for her, the handcuffs holding her little arms back stopped her. Her bunny, Cuddles, was in her lap, dirty and damp, probably from her tears. Her little face had tear trails running from her eyes down her cheeks. She looked dirty and exhausted, like she’d been crying and struggling for hours. Fiona could burst right now. She lifted her leg and kicked at Leo, struggling to break free from him. He wrapped a leg around hers and forced her legs apart, into an uncomfortable wide straddle. She couldn’t move the way he held her. One arm wrapped around her throat, the other arm wove between

her back and arms, his two legs twisted around hers. He released the arm at her throat and threaded it instead through her hair, pulling back hard so that her head tilted up. He licked her neck and whispered in her ear. “I can’t wait until Jasper gets here. I’m going to tie him up and make him watch. You know what I’m going to do then?” He made a groaning noise in her ear. He hand released her hair and he reached around to grab her breast. He squeezed hard, until she cried out. “Oh, I like that. Do that again.” She shook her head and felt the tears welling in her eyes. Not that. He wouldn’t. Would Jasper really let him do that to her? Would he be able to stop him? “I’m going to do you so hard, right in front of Jasper and your little brat. Then, I’m going to kill you real slow. Then, I’m going to kill that asshole boyfriend of yours. Don’t worry, though. When I kill Sophia, I’ll make it quick, I promise. Though I can’t promise I won’t let one of my guys have her first. Some of them are kind of perverted, I have to admit. Gross the things they do to little kids.” He shook his head as if he was disgusted. He had to be just saying this to upset her. She couldn’t allow this possibility to exist. The whole world was turning red now. She clamped her mouth shut. Don’t respond, don’t respond. Don’t let him know he got to you. That’s what he wants. He wants to unravel you. And it’s working. Don’t let him see it. “Let go of me,” she hissed. She made the words as harsh as she could. If she sounded mad, maybe she wouldn’t sound so distraught. “Sure.” He laughed again. “Enjoy what little time you have left.” He let go of her and she almost fell, but slid to her knees and grabbed Sophia into her arms. She pulled her onto her lap, her little hands still reaching back because of the handcuffs. Sophia buried her face into her chest and cried. “Mommy, they just took me!” “I know, baby, but it’s okay now.” She ran her fingers down her hair to comfort her. She picked up Cuddles and snuggled her against Sophia’s chest. “See, Cuddles and Mommy are both here. It’s going to be okay.” “Why did that man do that to you?” Fiona dropped her voice. “He’s a bad man, sweetie. It’ll be okay. Jasper and some good men are on their way and they’ll save us.” Leo stood there, watching them with his arms crossed. He had a gun in his hand now and held it casually but threateningly.

“Can we go home?” Sophia asked. “I don’t want to be here anymore.” “Soon, baby. Soon. Just hang in there a little longer and it’ll be over.” “I’m scared, Mommy. I want to go home right now.” “Me too. Me too.” “Aww, why don’t you just tell her the truth?” Leo asked. “Tell her you’re both going to die and these are your last minutes together.” Sophia pressed her face harder into Fiona, rubbing dirt and tears all over her shirt. Fiona glared at Leo and stroked Sophia’s head again. “It’s okay. Don’t listen to him,” she whispered. They sat there for a while, rocking. Fiona tried to calm her and comfort her in whatever way she could. She kept Sophia’s face hidden so she didn’t have to see the gun pointed at her. If Jasper was really on his way, where was he already? She strained her ears to listen, hoping the sound of his bike would come to her. She heard the front door slam and she jumped. Was it him? Was he here? She sat up straighter, listening and waiting. “Leo, come here!” She didn’t recognize the voice that called out to Leo. Maybe it was the man who’d grabbed her when she walked in. Leo left the room. “Shh,” she said to Sophia. “Someone is here.” “Who is it?” Sophia asked. “I don’t know. I’m trying to hear. Shhh.” “Are they here to save us?” “I don’t know. Shh.” Fiona hugged her tighter, hoping to keep her from making noise so she could hear. Someone was talking, but it was too muffled to be able to tell who it was. She didn’t hear any bikes. That didn’t mean anything necessarily, but she’d feel better if she had heard some. Then she’d know it was him. Footsteps came toward the room. Someone was coming, but walking slowly. It was probably just

Leo. She looked up as he stepped into the room and her heart stopped. “Well, well, well, if it isn’t my little wife and child.” Sam glared down at her with a menacing smile. She couldn’t speak. Sophia whipped her head around at the sound of his voice. “Daddy?” she asked. Sophia cringed and started to shake. Her fear of him was evident in the way she looked up at her mommy, as if asking to be taken away from him. Fiona wrapped her arms around her tighter and pressed her face into her again. How in the world was Sam here? How had he found them? What would happen now? Where was Jasper? Terror turned to liquid and rushed through her veins. She’d been afraid of the guns and afraid to die, but she was more afraid that somehow she’d have to go home with Sam. Be his wife again. Go back to living with him and doing as he said. Go back to that life where nothing was ever right and she was never good enough and every time she fell short of his idea of perfection, she was beaten for it. Where Sophia, too, was hit for being a child. For being herself. She’d rather die than go back to that life. She would die if it came to that. She’d gladly give her life for Sophia to be free that. She’d take Sam out and go to prison for the rest of her life if she had to. She would not go back. Not for a second. She would do anything to avoid that. Anything. “Did you think you could just leave me and I would do nothing about it? You think I’d let you take my child from me like that?” Fiona looked up at him. She had nothing to say to that. How could she get out of this? Get away from him? Keep him from taking Sophia? Keep him from dragging her back to that hell hole she’d tried to make a home? “Oh, come on. Say something, Fifi. Didn’t you miss me?” She hated when he called her that. Always had. And he did it all the time, on purpose, just to drive her nuts. She moved her hand to cover Sophia’s ears. She didn’t need to hear any of this. “No,” she said. “Why would I miss someone hitting me all the time?” “Don’t act like it didn’t turn you on. I bet you’re so hot for me right now, you’re about to burst. Maybe we can find an empty room and have a little makeup sex. I hear that’s the best kind. I miss your sweet ass being wrapped tight around my dick.” Her face flushed. Why was he always so crude? And in front of Sophia? He really didn’t think at all. And he really didn’t care. How had she ever loved this man? Her heart ached for Jasper. Seeing Sam

again brought the two of them into clear focus, highlighting the vast differences between them. Jasper was nothing like him and she’d been crazy to ever think he was. “Lucky for me, when you left, it didn’t take long to find you. I’ve been watching you for months now. The Blades have been a huge help keeping an eye on you.” Her eyes narrowed slightly. Months? He’d been watching her that long? He’d known where she was almost the whole time, then. She hadn’t been careful enough. Or sneaky enough. She really had thought she’d outsmarted him. She’d never been so wrong in all her life. God, she was stupid. How could she be so stupid? Of course he’d found her. Of course she’d never be able to escape living with him. Never escape that horrible life. She deserved nothing better than to be pushed around by him. “I have to admit, you kinda threw things off when you picked up Jasper on the side of the road. That was a strange coincidence. Who knew you were so compassionate? It was sweet, really. But then you had to go and keep him alive and bang him. And I’m sorry, but no one bangs my wife. Unless I’m getting paid for it. Oh, and Jasper will pay, that’s for sure.” He punched his fist into his empty hand. “And you’ll pay for that, too, don’t worry. For being a little slut and opening your legs for the first guy who came along. I always knew you were a little whore, but I never expected this from you.” He shook his head. “You’ll need to be taught a lesson. Seems you forgot who you belong to. And that pussy is all mine and mine alone.” She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her hand harder over Sophia’s ear. She hoped she wasn’t hearing any of this. Not that she hadn’t heard things like this a hundred times before. She didn’t need to hear it another time though. Jasper would never talk this way. He’d be pissed if he heard Sam talking like that in front of Sophia. Where was he? She should have given him the address. She should have begged him to come and waited for him. She’d listen to him from now. She wouldn’t go off and try to be brave and strong and do things on her own. Obviously, she needed him. She couldn’t do this on her own. She only got herself into more trouble. And now what? Even if she got out of this with Sophia, what would they do? They’d have to leave again. They’d have to go on the run, changes their names and their looks and hide forever. They’d have to always be watching their backs, afraid Sam would show up again at any time. And that was the way he wanted it, wasn’t it? Wanted to keep her afraid forever. It was just another way to control her. Maybe Jasper would go somewhere with them. Could he leave his club, though? She didn’t care what he had to do for money if it meant they could leave and Sam would never find them. All the crime seemed necessary now. Convenient even. He was less trackable if he was dealing in all cash. If he didn’t have a job with a paper trail. Maybe she could start selling drugs, too. Something to earn fast cash so they could keep moving. Keep running from him. Or maybe she could just kill him. A life in jail or a life on the run? At least if she went to jail, Sophia could have peace. Could have a nice, settled life free of fear. And she’d get to see her sometimes. That was better, wasn’t it? It was

better for Sophia, for sure. Who cared if it was better for her or not? Prison couldn’t be that bad. Maybe she could somehow get a lesser sentence because of the abuse, and maybe her crime would be considered self-defense. No way would she be able to kill him and have him not hit her or choke her or something in the process. So it would be self-defense, right? And that had to be a lesser sentence. Yes. That was her only way out for sure. Kill him. “How many other men did you screw?” he barked. “Who else do I need to take out?” She looked down at the ground. She wanted him to stop talking. She wished the ceiling would fall on him and take him out. Even being in the same room with him made her want to puke. “Well, I guess it won’t matter much,” he said. “Leo will kill this Jasper guy and you’ll come home with me and I’ll bang you until you forget all about those other guys. I’ll bleed them out of you. You really made it easy on the Rose Blades, you know. On all of us. They needed to get to Jasper. I needed to get to you. What better way than to take the kid, use her to get you, and use you to get him. Funny how life works. Seems that fate is on my side.” Fate. Where was fate when she needed it? Where was fate now? And if fate was going to do this, then forget it. She didn’t need fate. She did need Jasper though. Maybe he wasn’t coming after all. What if something had gone wrong? What if he didn’t know where to go? What if he never came? What would she do then? How would she get out of this? “Come here, Fifi.” He held out his arms to her. She shook her head. “Leave me alone.” He laughed. “I don’t think so. You are my wife. Or did you forget the vow you made before God to love me forever?” He stomped over to her and slapped her across the face. He yanked her arm, hard. Sophia slipped from her lap and Fiona fell on her side, crashing into the ground. He reached around her middle and pulled her to her feet. Then he crushed her to him. Tears spilled down her cheeks. Her cheek burned and her hip ached where she’d hit the floor. Her stomach turned and her whole body revolted against his closeness. She tried to push him back, but he held her tighter. “What a lovely little family reunion,” he said. He grabbed her jaw and tilted her face toward him, then kissed her hard. His hands roamed all over her body, squeezing her butt and her breasts like he had so many times. He’s probably going to have sex with me right here in front of Sophia, she thought. Not like he hadn’t done that before. She stood still and didn’t kiss him back or touch him. Her arms hung at her side. The best thing was always just to let him do whatever he was going to do. Hopefully he’d be fast. Many times he was.

He’d come into the room where she was folding laundry and he’d yank down her pants, bend her over, and shove inside her dry and hard. In a few minutes, he’d be done and he’d leave her alone. She’d cry and go to the bathroom and try to relieve the burning pain, and then she’d go back to the laundry. That was just how things were for. For years, that was how they were. And when Sophia came along, he certainly didn’t stop to make sure she was occupied or wasn’t watching. Several times, Sophia had come to her after, asking too many questions. Fiona had gotten very good at having things ready to distract her, should Sam decide he was in the mood. This time, though, there were several other men here. It was one thing when her husband had sex with her whenever he wanted, but it would be much worse if all the others did, too. And Sam might like that. Might like to watch her suffering and hurting like that. Would probably get a kick out of it. Where was Jasper? She felt the tears running down her face. Why wasn’t he here? Sam stuck his fingers in her hair and forced her to kiss him again. His slimy tongue found its way into her mouth. She wanted to bite it. She wanted to throw up. He made her feel so wretched. He disgusted her beyond disgust. He nearly choked her shoving his tongue in her mouth so far. She tried to back away, but he held her tight. She hoped Sophia wasn’t watching. Hoped she was covering her eyes or clinging to Cuddles and not seeing what her daddy was doing to her mommy. Finally, he dropped his arms and released his hold on her. “You hear that?” He smiled menacingly. She listened and at first, heard nothing. Then. Then, there was a faint sound in the distance, growing louder. A motorcycle engine. No. Not one. Many. They grew louder quickly, then stopped abruptly. “I think it’s show time,” he said. “That must be your little boy toy and his MC.” He rubbed his hands together and licked his lips. “Time for action.” He grabbed her one more time and kissed her, slapped her again across the opposite cheek, then let her go. She fell to the ground and scooped Sophia back up. Sam turned and grabbed his crotch. “Soon, Fifi. Soon.” She closed her eyes to listen better. He was here. Finally. Jasper had come to rescue her. Everything would be fine soon.

Chapter 13 From where they stood outside the farmhouse, Jasper heard shouting inside. Men calling out instructions to each other. They knew the Hawks were here. They were getting ready. Well, his guys were ready, too. “Okay, let’s move. Weapons ready,” Jasper said. His guys took out knives and guns. He heard the sound of several slides being pulled back, loading bullets. They walked to the house, ears and eyes open. “Alex and Aaron, circle around first.” Jasper pointed to the side of the house. “Make sure no one is coming up behind us. We’ll keep lookout here while you sweep.” Aaron and Alex inched to the side of the house, peeked around the corner, then walked out of sight. Jasper kept his eyes peeled, watching the house for any movement, and listened carefully for his guys. They’d call out if something went wrong. Minutes later, Aaron and Alex appeared around the other side of the house. “All clear,” Aaron said. They approached the porch with Jasper and Aaron at the front, the rest of the guys right behind him. Jasper lifted his leg and kicked the door, hard. It might not be locked, but busting the lock would make sure it didn’t get in their way later. The door crashed open to the sound of splintering wood. Two of the Rose Blades ran at them, their guns pointing back at the Hawks’ guns. They stopped when they were feet apart and glared at each other. “Where’s Leo?” Jasper demanded. “With your girl, having a good time,” one of the men sneered at him. Jasper clenched his teeth and tried to ignore the comment. He was likely just trying to get him mad anyway. Giving in to that would only make things harder and get him tripped up. This was not the time to get tangled in too much emotion and let it cloud his thinking. He had two jobs to do. Save Fiona and Sophia. Kill Leo and his guys. Didn’t matter much what order they happened in, as long as they both happened. Jasper assessed the situation. Two of the Blades, five of the Hawks. Obviously they outnumbered them right now, but there were several more men in this house somewhere. He didn’t need them sneaking up behind them and catching them off guard. How many more could there be?

They stood in some sort of entryway. From this angle he could see a staircase and two adjoining rooms. Another room, the kitchen probably, was visible far down the hallway in front of them. The stairs leading upstairs looked unused. Thick layers of dust and many boards broken or splintered. No one would be upstairs. Were all the other men with Fiona and Sophia, or were they spread out? The two adjoining rooms were empty. No people, not even any furniture besides an old dusty chair in the room to the right. There was likely a basement to the house, but if those steps were in as rough of a shape as the ones leading upstairs, then likely no one was in the basement either. So, that probably meant everyone was on the first floor. He listened again, but nothing gave away the location of anyone else in the house. Not that he wanted her to be upset, but he wished he could hear Sophia or Fiona crying or something. Anything to tell him where they were. He and his guys needed to go through the house to search, but first, they’d have to deal with these two guys. Five on two wouldn’t be too hard, though who knew how long it would be before the rest jumped in to help. If they rushed them, they could take them down easily. Jasper took a small step to the right. He glanced over at his guys, lifted both eyebrows, which was the signal, and rushed forward. Gun shots rang in the room, but the Hawks moved at them too fast to be hit. Jasper dove at the man closest to him. The man landed on his side, Jasper straddling his waist. He put his gun to his temple, then hesitated. He didn’t kill people often and hated to do it now. But there was no way around this. He reminded himself that they’d taken Fiona and Sophia, they’d held a gun to her head, and they’d tried to kill him. They’d burned down his house and the MC headquarters, they may have killed Daniel. The Blades wanted him dead and if he didn’t kill them first, they’d be coming after him soon. Kill or be killed. It was that simple. The man was struggling to get free, reaching for his gun that had fallen just out of reach when he landed on the floor. He gave up and tried to reach his foot, where Jasper guessed he had a knife. Jasper took in a short breath, blew it out in a huff, and pulled the trigger. With a loud bang, the man went still and a puddle of blood formed under his head. Jasper stood up and looked around. The other Rose Blade member lay on the ground, dead. Jasper wasn’t sure who had taken him down, but his guys were on their feet, ready. Two more men rushed into the room. Jasper nudged Aaron’s shoulder and they snuck around the corner while his guys and the new guys were occupied. They were now in the room to the right. It was empty except for the chair. There was no place for anyone to hide and no one had come into the room since he’d first checked it. A lot of shouting came from the entryway they’d just left. Jasper didn’t want to leave his guys hanging, so he peeked around the corner to get a view of the entryway. One of the Blades held Alex at gun point. He couldn’t see the other Blade or his other guys. But, from where he stood, he had a perfect shot. And no one realized he was there. He aimed and shot

the Blade in the shoulder. Trying for his head would have put his aim too close to Alex. Better not to take chances. The shoulder would do enough damage and give his guys time to finish him off. The man dropped his hold on Alex, who immediately kicked him and kneed him in the gut, dropping him to the ground. Then he shot him in the chest. Alex nodded at Jasper in thanks. Jasper turned back to Aaron, who motioned that they should go to the doorway that led to the next room. They inched closer, stopping to listen and peer around the corner. The next room was a dining room, also empty. But through the dining room, he thought he saw someone in the kitchen. He wanted to barge through the room, but he knew better. He stepped into the room. There was so much commotion in the front rooms that it made it hard to hear anything else. A gun shot rang out now and then, echoing off the walls, making his ears ring. He edged to the wall where the doorway leading into the kitchen was. Not much of the room could be seen without him giving away his position, but what he did see stopped him cold. Three legs. Two were on the floor—a child’s purple leggings and foot in a bright pink sneaker, and an adult leg in black pants beside it wearing flats. And a man’s jeans and boot standing across from them. The woman and child were sitting on the floor together. It had to be Fiona and Sophia, but who was in the room with them? Leo most likely, since he hadn’t made an appearance yet. Jasper turned to Aaron and nodded toward the kitchen. “They’re in there,” he whispered. But then something happened that he didn’t expect. Smoke curled in the air. Someone had started a fire. He’d mentioned burning the place down when he talked with his guys outside, but they wouldn’t start one now. Not without his command, and not before everyone got out. Had Leo’s guys set this place on fire, too? Man, they were just a bunch of pyromaniacs, weren’t they? He didn’t see any flames, however, and it was more the smell of smoke and something burning than the smoke itself in the room, so it couldn’t be too close to them or too bad yet. Jasper held his gun up, ready. He looked at Aaron, who nodded. “Let me go in first,” Jasper whispered. “I might need you to take him out if it’s a standoff.” Aaron nodded again and watched as Jasper took a step forward. Jasper stood in the doorway, gun pointed at the man in the room. It was Leo after all. Sophia cried out, “Mommy!” and pointed at him. Jasper allowed himself one instant to look at them. Fiona had Sophia sitting between her legs, holding her tight, rocking her back and forth. Her eyes were red and raw, her cheek bruised. Someone would pay for that. Her hair was a mess and her makeup was smeared, but she looked otherwise okay. They

hadn’t hurt her much. But that bruise on her cheek. He had to swallow his anger. Fiona met his eyes and her gaze said she was both afraid and glad to see him. Sophia looked surprised and hopeful. Her bunny sat on her lap, much dirtier than the last time he’d seen it. She looked overall dirty, too, like she’d been playing in the dust that was so thick through the house. Or maybe they’d just had her sitting here in the grime. Her little eyes were bright red, too, and swollen. Tear trails lined her cheeks and from her nose, a thin line of clear mucus ran to her mouth. Leo leaned casually against the counter, eying him up. “About time you showed up.” His gun was in his hand, hanging at his side. Jasper had his gun trained on Leo’s head. Then Leo raised his gun and pointed it at Fiona. “I wonder who can shoot faster.” Leo grinned at Jasper. “Wanna find out?” Jasper glared at him. “Drop it.” Leo laughed. “Drop yours.” They glared at each other, neither moving. But Leo didn’t know Jasper had backup. All he had to do was wait a minute. He saw Leo move before he heard the gunshot. Leo fell to the ground, blood pouring from his arm. Aaron had missed, but it was enough. Jasper kicked the gun from Leo’s hand and turned to Fiona. “Run!” She shook her head. He couldn’t understand what was going on. Why wouldn’t she get up and leave immediately the instant she could? Smoke was coming into the room now and he coughed. Not more of this shit. He’d been coughing for days it felt like. His lungs needed more than a few hours to heal. The air felt like fire when he breathed in. He covered his mouth, but he was already bent over, coughing hard. He was dizzy and tried to shake it off. Aaron put a hand on his back and shouted something but the fight was too loud in the next room, and the fire was getting louder, and now the ringing in his ears was too loud. He fell to his knees, coughing. Fiona looked at him, wild with fear. Why didn’t she get up and run? What was the problem? “Run!” he croaked. She held up Sophia’s hand. There was a silver handcuff around it. How had he not seen that before? What an idiot he was not to notice. Of course she wasn’t going to leave without her daughter and he’d still need to get Sophia out anyway.

Jasper crawled over to them and inspected the handcuff. He saw the pipe Sophia was chained to. Couldn’t be too strong of a structure if the rest of the house was falling apart like it appeared to be. He scooted around Fiona and slid under the sink. The pipe she was cuffed to was the pipe that ran from the wall to the underside of the sink. He put a foot against the wall on either side of the pipe and yanked. The pipe broke free from the wall with some effort. It’d taken several tries, but eventually the plaster gave way and the pipe was corroded enough to snap apart. He broke out into another coughing fit, but Fiona was able to slid the handcuff over the pipe to get Sophia free. They’d need some bolt cutters later or to pick the lock, but for now, they could run, and since the handcuff was only on one hand, it shouldn’t get too much in her way. Jasper turned to face Fiona, put his hand at the back of her neck, and brought her mouth to his. He stopped coughing long enough to kiss her hard. The world melted for just a second, and it was enough to flood him with emotion. The adrenaline made his mind spin. His body grew warm with desire and he wanted nothing more than to rip her clothes off right there and take her. Kissing her was the best feeling in the world. He never wanted it to end. He would make her his when this was all over. He’d do whatever it took and would stop at nothing to win her heart and keep it forever. She kissed him back just as hard. She pulled herself to him, dug her fingers into his hair. She’d forgiven him, it seemed, at least for now, for being who he was. Maybe she’d see how his dangerous lifestyle could lead to him getting her out of anything. Maybe him saving her was just enough to make everything else okay. He pulled back from the kiss to cough, and she whispered his name. Just once. “Jasper.” But there was so much longing in it that he kissed her again, quickly this time. He got to his feet, and pulled her up. “Run,” he said. “Go into the woods and stay there until I come for you. Or one of my guys.” She nodded, fresh tears running down her cheeks. He coughed again and had to turn from her. She put her hand on his shoulder, then was gone. Aaron stood beside Leo, his foot on his hand. Leo’s gun was tucked in the back of Aaron’s jeans and he periodically leaned around the corner and fired a shot. The other fight had to be over soon. How many of the Rose Blades had shown up? Were any of his guys injured? Jasper glanced out the window in time to see Fiona run into the woods. Then he turned his attention back to the kitchen floor. Leo laughed from his place on the ground. “You idiot.” “Shut it.” Jasper kicked him in the ribs. He was glad Aaron hadn’t killed him. Gave him time to beat him, make it hurt a little. And this way he could be the one to take him out and have his revenge on the man who tried to kill him. “They’re going to die anyway,” Leo said. “You think we won’t find them? You think I won’t have fun

torturing them and making their deaths painful?” Jasper kicked him again. Leo curled around his ribs and coughed up blood. “Go ahead,” Leo spit. “They’ll die anyway, and so will you. I’m not the only one who wants them dead.” What was he talking about? Who else could possibly want them dead? The only person who came to mind was Sam, but what did he have to do with any of this? Who even knew where Sam was. And he wasn’t affiliated with the Rose Blades in any way that he knew of. But there was no one else Leo could mean. Maybe San had hired them to kidnap Fiona and Sophia. Or was working with them somehow. If that was the case, then this fight was far from over. The smoke was getting thick. How was it possible Jasper was in a burning building twice in one day? His lungs burned so badly; he wanted nothing more than to run out of here and follow Fiona and Sophia into the woods and clean air. But his guys were still here and Leo needed to die first. He took out his gun and pointed it at Leo’s head. “Then I guess it won’t matter if I kill you.” “Fuck you,” Leo said, and spit blood at him. “Why didn’t you just keep to your own territory? We could have worked together. But no, you had to be a greedy bitch and move in on my sales.” “You think I’d work with you and your dumbass crew? I made that money fair and square. Not my fault you lost out because you charged too much. Business is business, and apparently I’m just better at it than you. But then, I’m better at a lot of things.” “You stole from me!” Leo pushed himself up with his other arm. Aaron still stood on his hand, though, so he didn’t get far. He tried to pull his hand free, but Aaron glanced down at him and shifted his weight to put more pressure on him. “I stole nothing!” Jasper said. “I beg to differ.” A voice from behind came through the din. Before he could turn to see who it was, Jasper felt his knees give out and he crashed to the floor. He’d been hit hard on the back. A fist right to his kidneys, forcing pain through him so excruciating, he had no choice but to crumble under it. “Where are they?” the man demanded. “Who?” Jasper asked. The man pressed a gun to the back of his head and used it to push Jasper’s head down. “My wife and kid.”

Jasper’s stomach lurched. This was Sam, then. Fiona’s ex and Sophia’s dad. The one who’d beaten Fiona and yelled at her and treated her horribly. The one who’d hit his own kid. They’d been so desperate to get away from him that they left everything behind, and now he’d found them. And Jasper had sent Fiona and Sophia off into the woods alone, unprotected. The panic rose in his chest, weaving around the rage, and it made him start coughing again. He got onto all fours and tried to find clear air. “Drop it.” Aaron’s voice. Jasper couldn’t even turn his head to see what was happening. “They ran into the woods,” Leo said. “Out that door.” He pointed to the back door, the one Fiona and Sophia had run through to get out. Sam turned and bolted out the door. Jasper tried to get to his feet to chase him. Flames had broken into the room. “We need to get out.” Aaron reached down and took his hand to pull him to his feet. Jasper coughed and looked back at Leo. Flames crept along the doorway opposite the one Jasper and Aaron had come in. It was now lined with orange and yellow flames, reaching toward the ceiling. The heat made sweat run down all their faces. Leo looked at the flames and sat up, now that his hand was free from Aaron’s weight. He put his hands down and slowly pulled himself up until he was standing. Jasper held out his gun and shot Leo in the leg. He cried out and grabbed his leg, falling back to the ground. Leo looked to the doorway again, this time fear clear on his face. “Come on, man,” he pleaded with them. He got to a crawling position to drag his leg behind him, but Jasper kicked him in the ribs, hard enough to break a few. Leo fell to his side, clutching the ribs and groaning in pain. “Get out!” Jasper said to Aaron. Leo had no gun and two gunshot wounds. Jasper wouldn’t need back-up now. “Make sure everyone is out.” Aaron took off at a run out the door and around the building. “Don’t let me die here like this,” Leo said. “At least shoot me in the head or something. Anything but burning alive.” Jasper shook his head and smiled. “You tried to kill me. You threatened my girl, then took her and her kid. You deserve far worse pain than this.” Jasper kicked him in the face. Leo’s nose cracked and blood gushed down his mouth and chin. He slumped back for a moment, then started coughing. Jasper shot his other leg for good measure. He needed to make sure he wouldn’t escape. Leo wasn’t moving, but sat against the cabinets, going pale,

coughing, and groaning in pain. Jasper ran out the door and looked for his guys and for Fiona. He saw his four Hawks off to the side of the house, several hundred feet away, near the woods. Alex had a shirt tied around his arm, blood seeping through. There were some bruises and cuts among them, plenty of coughing from the smoke, and a few blood smears. But all in all, they looked okay. Alive, mostly unhurt. He didn’t see Fiona, Sophia, or Sam. He took off running into the woods. “Jasper!” Aaron called after him. “I have to get Fiona!” He heard footsteps behind him. They were coming to help. But he was several hundred feet ahead and not stopping. His lungs were in agony with every breath. He couldn’t breathe deeply and if he tried, he ended up coughing. He took fast, shallow breaths, panting as he ran. But running was difficult, too. His legs felt heavy and the trees tilted slightly around him. He shook his head to clear it. He had to keep going, even if his ears still rang and he wanted to collapse. If Sam had Fiona and Sophia, who knew what was happening. Were they still in the woods? What if he’d taken them and run off? Jasper may have lost her again. That idea was too much to consider. He’d just gotten her back. They were supposed to be safe now. Supposed to get away and be in the woods waiting for him and be safe. Then they could leave and go home and he could protect them. And they’d be together. If Sam was here, did that mean he’d been working with Leo for a while? Leo had certainly helped him back in the house when he told him where Fiona and Sophia were. How in the world did that happen? Now he wished he’d talked to Fiona more about Sam. Where had they lived exactly? How violent was he? And what would he do if he ever found them? He reached back and made sure his gun was still secure in the back of his jeans. If he got the chance, he’d take the guy down. Then she wouldn’t have to worry about him. There would be no more fear of him showing up. He wondered for a minute, though, if Fiona would be mad if he killed Sam. He was Sophia’s dad after all. Maybe she wanted Sophia to get to know him later, when she was older. Or maybe Fiona was hoping Sam would change and they’d get back together some day. For now, he just had to find them. Then he’d worry about the rest. He was so outraged at all Sam had done to his family and those he claimed to love, it might be worth angering Fiona just to get the chance to kill a man like that. The world was much better off without him. Jasper glanced behind him. He could see two of his guys running after him. They were far back, but they’d be a big help when they caught up to him, assuming he’d found Sam by then. He picked up his pace, forcing his lungs to work harder, until they screamed at him stop. He forced them to work anyway, ignoring the pain. Then he heard a faint shouting.

Fiona. She was shouting something that he couldn’t make out. A deep man’s voice answered her, low and steady. She sounded upset, hysterical maybe. Jasper ran toward the sound. He saw something in the woods ahead. Something white and blue and purple amongst all the green and brown. It had to be them. When he grew closer, he saw Sam first. Then Fiona a few feet from him. Sam turned and Jasper saw Sophia. Sam had a gun pointed at her head. Rage ripped through him again, fresh and raw. What kind of a low life father held their own kid at gunpoint? No wonder Fiona sounded hysterical. Even his own worthless father had never stooped that low. Whatever hesitation he’d had before about killing Sam, it was completely gone now. Even if Fiona never talked to him again, he would kill Sam. He wanted to rip Sam to shreds and set the pieces on fire. He wanted to beat his face until it was mush. He wanted to twist a knife deep into his chest and pull out his stone heart to crush it in his fist. He wanted to make him suffer like he’d made Fiona and Sophia suffer.

Chapter 14 Fiona’s head snapped to the right at the sound of footsteps in the woods. Jasper was running right for them. She almost fell to the ground in relief. He was here. He would save Sophia. He would find a way to get them away from Sam. The hot panic that made her heart race started to fade slightly. The tears dried from her eyes. He was here to save them. Now that she knew there was a way out, her fear became determination. Sam looked over, too, and saw Jasper. He pressed the gun harder into Sophia’s head and she whimpered. Tears continued to stream down her face. She looked at Fiona, desperate and terrified. How could Sam do this? Hadn’t he done enough damage to them already? Now to put Sophia through this. Just when they thought they were safe. Just when they thought everything was going to be fine. When Jasper had shown up in the farmhouse, she’d felt the same relief she felt now. Her gratitude washed over her like a wave coming to sweep away all the anxiety and tension. When he tore the pipe from the wall, she wanted to tell him right then that she loved him. That she’d love him forever and would give herself to him fully. Any man who would do that—that would risk himself and his guys and go to such effort to save her, had to be worth it. Had to be good. There could be nothing bad in this man. But then Sam had shown up, just when they thought they were rescued and all was well. They’d been running, so happy to be free. Sophia gripped her neck tight with her little arms and cried happy tears. The loose handcuff, its other end still tight around Sophia’s wrist, had banged against Fiona’s back as they ran, but she barely noticed. She could still hear Sophia saying, “Mommy, Jasper saved us. Can he be my new daddy? I like him much better.” Now she wanted to say, “Yes, Sophia. He will be and he will take care of us forever. He will always come for us, always protect us. Always make sure we’re safe.” She would do anything for him. She could never repay him, of course. But she could spend a lifetime trying. They’d slowed their run to a walk after a while. They didn’t want to get too far into the woods so that Jasper could find them easily. When they’d heard footsteps approaching, someone coming to get them, Fiona had turned around toward the farmhouse, her face beaming and her heart full of joy. She’d taken two steps to run toward Jasper, to fling herself into his arms and never leave. But then she’d seen his face. It wasn’t Jasper coming to find them and take them home. It was Sam coming after them, a gun pointed at them as he ran. The terror was so sudden, the shift from joy to horror so abrupt that she froze for too long. Sophia had to say, “Mommy? Is that Daddy coming after us?” before her feet loosened and she bolted farther into the woods. But she couldn’t run fast enough, especially not while carrying Sophia, and he’d caught up to them.

She’d felt the kick to her back and she’d fallen and sent Sophia flying, landing hard on the ground. Sophia was crying several feet away, and Sam was right here, on top of her. He punched her in the jaw, then pulled her to her feet by her hair. He’d let go of her for a brief moment to yank Sophia to her feet by her arm, and that was when Fiona had fought back for the first time in her life. She kicked him as hard as she could in the knee. It had sent him to the ground, but not for long enough. She’d grabbed Sophia and run, but he caught them quickly. This time when he reached them, he tore Sophia from her arms, and held the gun to her head. “Freeze,” Sam said. “Or I will shoot her.” “That’s your daughter, you monster!” Fiona had shouted, hot tears filling her eyes and spilling over. “Then I guess now’s a real good time for you to start apologizing.” Fiona shook her head. “Let me hear it!” he screamed. “Sam, I’m so sorry I left you, I didn’t know how good I had it. Sam, I’ll never leave you again. I love you and I can’t wait to get home and suck your dick all night long. Sam, I just want to please you for the rest of my life.” Fiona clenched her jaw. Sam pressed the gun harder against Sophia. “It’d be a real shame if Sophia had to die for your pride, don’t you think?” She’d forced out the words and each one tasted like acid. “I’m sorry for leaving. I just want to please you.” “How? Say it.” Her face was hot with shame. “I want to suck your dick all night long.” She squeezed her eyes closed. “Oh, you do?” Sam laughed. “Well, that’s mighty nice of you. That’s how a wife should be, now shouldn’t she? You’ll come home with me, you’ll do whatever I say, and you will make this up to me. Right?” She nodded, eyes still closed. “You will fuck me all day and all night and clean up the mess of a house and cook me a nice dinner. You’ll tell me how much you love me and how much you missed me and how stupid you were to ever think of leaving.” “Okay!” Fiona couldn’t look at her daughter. She didn’t want to see the fear there in her little eyes. But she could see Cuddles still clutched tightly in one hand. At least she had her bunny to comfort her.

“Let go of my daughter.” “Not a chance. Start walking.” Sam nodded with his head toward the farmhouse. “Take the gun away from her head first and I’ll go with you.” “You think I’m that stupid? Walk!” She’d turn to walk and that was when she’d seen Jasper. Running right to them. Now here he was, coming to save them from Sam. And coughing. Why did he keep coughing like that? It worried her. This wasn’t a cough from a cold. He’d been in the smoky house, sure, but there hadn’t been enough smoke to make him cough like that. What if he had asthma? He might be in danger physically of collapsing or passing out. She would watch him carefully and make sure he was okay. She didn’t like how deep the cough sounded, and she needed him now more than ever. If something happened to him, if he couldn’t save them and protect them, she had nothing. It was all over. She’d have to go back with Sam because she’d have no choice. They’d all stopped walking when they saw him approaching. Sam still held the gun to Sophia’s head. Fiona’s eyes met Jasper’s and she tried her best to show her love and appreciation in her gaze. He was all determination, running as fast as he could, sweat bubbling on his forehead, soot smeared across his face. And he looked so amazing in that moment. So perfect and beautiful. Her heart burst with thankfulness and peace. Jasper didn’t pause or hesitate. Sam turned to face him, still holding the gun to Sophia’s head. Before he could decide what to do, Jasper tackled Sam. He dove into the air, his hands grabbing Sam’s arm to pull the gun away. Sam landed hard on his back. Fiona dashed over and snatched Sophia away from him. She turned and crouched down. “Go hide in the woods. Mommy or Jasper will come find you.” “No!” Sophia shook her head, tears glittering on her cheek. “I’m not leaving.” “Sophia, baby, I know you’re scared, but I need to keep you safe.” Fiona looked up. More footsteps. But these belonged to two men wearing Crimson Hawk jackets. Jasper’s men. She pointed to them. “Those men are Jasper’s friends. They’ll help you. Go to them.” Sophia looked, but shook her head again. “Go, and I’ll be right behind you.” She nudged her forward. Sophia ran off, sobbing and looking back at her mom every few feet. Fiona made eye contact with the

men and pointed at Sophia. She watched one run to her and scoop her up. Now that she knew Sophia was safe, Fiona turned her attention back to Sam and Jasper. Sam was still on the ground and Jasper sat on his chest. Their hands were locked together in struggle. Jasper held a gun and Sam was trying to wrestle it away from him. She watched just long enough to realize that it wasn’t Sam’s gun they fought over. It must be Jasper’s. So where was Sam’s gun? Fiona looked around. He must’ve dropped it when Jasper tackled him. She searched near them, but not close enough for Sam to be able to reach her. Then she saw it. A few feet away in the grass. Sam’s gun. She inched over to it, keeping her eye on the men to make sure they didn’t see what she was doing. She snatched the gun up. Neither had seen. They were still wrestling, Jasper gaining the upper hand. He almost had the gun pointed at Sam. Fiona wasn’t entirely sure what to do. Sam would never dream of allowing her to learn how to use a gun. That might mean she could fight back. She could kill him in his sleep. And why hadn’t she? All those years he’d hit her and abused her. She should have fought back much sooner. Should have found a way to learn how to shoot or fight. Should have done something, anything, to get away from him. She shouldn’t have waited this long. She looked down at the gun. It had to be loaded. Sam wouldn’t bother with pretending. Was there some sort of safety? She inspected it more closely, but couldn’t find anything that seemed like it would move or slide to turn off the safety. Maybe this gun didn’t have one, then. She had seen Sam and people in movies pull back the top part of the gun before they shot. She tried to think. Had Sam done that already? And if he did, would it mess things up if she did it again? Well, only one way to know for sure. Fiona pulled back on the top of the gun. Part of it slid and she heard something click into place. It seemed like something had been gotten ready. She’d have to take the chance. If it didn’t work, it wasn’t like things could get much worse. She looked over toward the direction she’d sent Sophia in. One of the men was running back to the farmhouse, carrying her. The other was still coming to them. Good. More back up. She could just wait. She didn’t have to try to shoot Sam. With him and Jasper all tangled up, she might hit Jasper instead. But she wanted to. She needed to. There had to be some way for her to feel like she’d finally fought back against him. When she’d kicked him earlier, the rush she got from it was so strong, she wanted to keep kicking him. And hitting him. She’d let her fists fly all over him. Except then he had put the gun to Sophia’s head. But now Sophia was safe. She was away from here where he couldn’t get her. Couldn’t hurt her anymore. Fiona looked carefully at the men, trying to find the best place to shoot. She didn’t think her aim would be good at all, so she’d need to be very close. Sam was on his back, legs stretched out. Jasper sitting on his chest, his feet at either side of Sam’s rib cage. There was no way she could get to Sam’s

chest or head. Not even his hands or arm, since they were intertwined with Jasper’s. But his legs were free. And shooting his leg would keep him from getting away, right? It would at least slow him down. Sam and Jasper were so focused on their struggle that they still didn’t see her. Whatever progress Jasper had made toward getting the gun to face Sam, he started to lose now. The gun pointed sideways, into the trees. She had to do it now, before Sam won. If he shot Jasper…well, she couldn’t even consider that possibility. Fiona stepped closer, held the gun just an inch from Sam’s knee, and pulled the trigger. It was harder to pull that she thought and when she squeezed it, her hand had moved slightly. The shot didn’t hit his knee, but right under, at his shin. The recoil of the gun made her arm fly back and she stumbled. She tripped over her own feet and her butt hit the ground. Her ears rang from the shot, but she could hear Sam clearly. He screamed in pain, grabbing toward his leg. Jasper had climbed off him, the gun in his hand, pointed at Sam’s face. Jasper looked at her, a crooked smile on his face. He nodded at her and pulled back the slide on his gun. “No!” she cried out, and scrambled to her feet. Jasper gave her a confused look. “Please. I want to do it.” She still had the other gun in her hand and she went to stand beside Jasper. Sam squirmed on the ground, writhing in pain. “You bitch,” he spat. “I will never stop hunting you. You’ll pay for this.” The other Crimson Hawks got to them and stood back, guns ready, watching and waiting. Fiona glanced at him and looked back to Sam. She gripped the gun tightly and lifted it to point at Sam’s head. Jasper came over to stand behind her. He tucked his gun into the back of his jeans. His body was so close and so hot, it filled her with heat. He reached down, his arms sliding along hers, and pulled back the slide on her gun. Whoops. She’d forgotten to reload. He kissed her neck, then moved her hands over slightly, taking a better aim. He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight. He whispered, “Shoot, baby,” in her ear. She took a moment to look down at Sam, to glare into his pleading eyes. “Fiona,” he said, “You wouldn’t kill your daughter’s father, would you? Don’t be silly. I love you. I love Sophia and I just want to have a happy family with you.”

“Shut up,” she growled. “I’ve heard enough of your talking for a lifetime. You don’t love me or her or anyone but yourself. I hate you!” She started to cry and her hands were shaking. She tried to hold the gun steady, but couldn’t. Jasper reached up again and put his hands around hers. He pointed the gun at Sam’s head and held her steady. She took in several breaths, trying to make her sobs stop. “Take you time,” Jasper said. “He’s not going anywhere.” “I know you still love me, Fifi,” Sam said. “Think of our life together, our beautiful house. Didn’t I give you a nice life? We’ll make it even better now. We can have another baby, and we’ll be so happy.” She slowed her breathing and the tears stopped. His words built the rage in her. Still, after all this, he thought he could manipulate her. He thought he could talk her into coming back to him. He thought he still had control over her. Idiot. She took another breath and pulled the trigger. This time, since Jasper was holding her, the gun didn’t recoil back as much. It was still loud, though, and her ears rang again for several seconds. She looked down at Sam. He didn’t move. She had hit him. She had hit him right in the head like she meant to. She looked only for a second. Long enough to see the hole in his forehead, bleeding. But the sight was too much. All the blood and gore. It was too much. She turned and bent over and threw up. Jasper had still been holding her tight, and now he made sure her hair was out of her way and he rubbed her back soothingly. When she stopped, he brushed the hair from her eyes and wiped the sweat from her forehead. “Are you okay?” he asked. She nodded and leaned into him. He wrapped his arms back around her. “Sorry I don’t have any water or anything,” he said. “It’s okay.” She spat several times on the ground. “Nice shot,” the other Hawk said. He held out a stick of gum and she gratefully took it and put it in her mouth to get out the nasty taste. “I had a little help,” she said. “You did it, though,” Jasper said, rubbing her back again. “You fought back and you won.” “He is dead, right?” Fiona looked at his still body.

“Double check, Aaron,” Jasper said. Aaron walked over to Sam, picked up his wrist and held it for a moment, then let it fall. “Dead.” Fiona turned to Jasper and the emotions crashed over her until she sobbed into his chest. He held her and comforted her until she was able to stop crying. “Jasper, thank you,” she said. “Thank you for coming and saving us.” He tilted her chin up so her face met his, and kissed her. “Anytime.”

Chapter 15 “What about the body?” Fiona asked. Jasper looked past her to Sam’s dead body lying on the ground. He still couldn’t believe she’d done it. She’d killed her ex-husband point blank. And after shooting him in the leg to incapacitate him. Much as he’d wanted to kill Sam himself, watching Fiona do it was even better. And apparently, Little Jazz loved it, too, because he had such a raging hard on, it felt like he’d burst any minute. He almost needed to move Fiona away from him so he could think straight. With her body pressed against his, there was only one thing he wanted. Right here in the woods, he didn’t care who was around. He would take her right now if he could. Might have to if she kept kissing him and looking at him like that. The way she’d gazed up at him when she knew Sam was dead, and when he’d come running into the woods…like he was her savior and she’d come to worship him. Like she wanted him more than anything. Like she’d never leave him again. Like she loved him. His heart was a puddle and he wanted to pour himself into her hands. And now that Sam was dead, she could be his free and clear. No looking behind their backs. No worrying about Sam or Leo coming after them. Anyone who’d attacked them and anyone who wanted them dead or to hurt them were all dead. They’d survived. They’d come out on top. And they’d done it together. “You are amazing,” he said to her, pulling her close again. She kissed him and rubbed her nose against his. “But you didn’t answer me. What about the body?” Jasper glanced to Aaron. “Drag him back to the fire?” “I think that’s our best option,” Aaron said. “Eliminate evidence. We’ll need to toss the guns, too.” Jasper nodded and turned back to Fiona. “I loved seeing you hold a gun and shoot. So hot.” She giggled. “Thanks. You’ll have to teach me. I had no idea what I was doing.” “I will.” He put his hand on the back of her head and kissed her forehead. “I’ll take care of you forever.” “Can we go back to the farmhouse? I want to make sure Sophia is okay.” Jasper nodded. “Of course. Alex has her, though. She’s safe.”

He put his arm around her and they turned back toward the farmhouse. Aaron tugged on Sam’s feet and pulled him along. “Want some help?” Jasper asked. “Nope. Got it.” As they walked, Jasper started coughing again. He’d been doing okay. Being out in the fresh air and running like that had cleared his lungs, but now they were acting up and burning again. “Why are you coughing so much?” Fiona asked. She paused to make him stop walking for a moment while he coughed. “Are you okay?” “I’m fine.” “Whoa.” She grabbed his hand and held it out, looking closely at the blisters and burned places. The bandage from his injured hand had come lose long ago, somewhere in the fighting. He hadn’t even noticed until now. All the adrenaline and being focused on the fights had taken his mind off it. Now that he looked at his hand, now that he had time to think about it and wasn’t distracted, it hurt badly. Without the bandage, he’d managed to open several of the blisters. They oozed and stung. “What happened?” Fiona looked up at him with concern. “Well, I had a little mishap earlier.” He put his arm back around her and they continued walking. “Leo and his guys burned my house down.” “What!” He nodded. “One of my guys was trapped inside, so I went in to save him and burned my hand. That’s why I’ve been coughing so much. Smoke inhalation. They wanted me to stay at the hospital and get treated.” “Then why didn’t you?” “Well, my phone had died, but I charged it at the hospital. I was sitting in a trauma room, waiting to be seen, when I got your message. I couldn’t exactly just sit there and do nothing.” Fiona hung her head. “I’m sorry.” Jasper stopped. He turned her to face him. “No. Don’t you dare apologize for this. None of this is your fault.” She shook her head. “I should have listened to you. I should have waited for you to get here before going inside.”

“It wouldn’t have made that much of a difference. I got there in time. I got you out. We’re all safe, we’re all okay. Sam’s dead and Leo’s dead. I think all of his guys are dead, too. We won, Fiona. It’s over.” “I should have never yelled at you in the first place. I’m so sorry, Jasper.” He hugged her and let her cry. He hated that she was upset, but her tears brought him so much comfort. She did still want him. They would be together. And he wouldn’t let anything keep them apart. “Let’s go get Sophia,” he said, gently picking up her head to kiss her. “She must be afraid and worried.” Fiona nodded and they trudged on. The farmhouse finally came into sight. Flames poured out of the windows, smoke rushed from the roof. The whole house looked ready to collapse. He looked back to Aaron. He wasn’t too far behind. But what if the house went down before they got Sam back inside? He saw his guys standing at the edge of the woods and Sophia standing beside Alex. Fiona dashed forward and ran to her, then grabbed her into her arms. Sophia cried out to her and Fiona held her tight. “Mommy, the house!” “I know. It’s burning.” “Alex said it was going to fall down.” Awe filled Sophia’s voice. “All the bad men are inside.” “They can’t hurt us now,” Fiona said. Sophia shook her head, then craned her neck around until she saw him. She broke into a smile. “Jasper!” He went over and put an arm around her, giving her a sideways hug while she was still in her mother’s arms. “Hi, Sophia.” “Cuddles made it, too!” Sophia held up the dirty bunny triumphantly. “Daddy wanted to take her, but I wouldn’t let him.” “Good job,” Fiona said. Then Sophia seemed to recall what happened in the woods with her father. “Where is Daddy?” she asked, the fear obvious on her face.

“He’ll never ever be able to hurt us again,” Fiona said. “Why?” “Well…” Fiona looked over at Jasper, then took a deep breath. “He’s dead, honey.” “Oh.” Sophia looked straight ahead, then turned back to her mom. “And he won’t wake up?” “Nope.” “So, we don’t have to go back to live with him?” Fiona smiled and shook her head. “No, we don’t. We’ll never see him again.” At this, Jasper remembered that Sam’s body was, in fact, rather close. Sophia might easily see him, bloody and dead. He turned and saw Aaron dragging him along. Derrick went to help him. As long as Sophia didn’t turn around, it would be okay. They weren’t too close to them. Jasper made eye contact with Fiona to make sure she saw what was happening. She kept her hand at the back of Sophia’s head so she couldn’t turn and see by accident. Derrick and Aaron pulled Sam’s body to the house, then they picked him up. Aaron held his feet, Derrick held his arms. They swung him back and forth, then let go and sent his body flying into the house. Jasper took out his gun and the one Fiona had shot Sam with. He wiped them both clean of fingerprints and walked closer to the house. When he was close enough, he tossed them both inside. This fire was nice and hot. It should burn away any evidence they’d left behind. He could see Sam’s body, slumped over just inside the back door. It was already consumed by flames and charred black. He started to cough and had to walk away. But he wanted to stand there and watch the bastard burn. That last image, the one of Sam’s body blackened, the bullet hole from Fiona’s shot still subtly visible in his forehead, would replace the image of him holding the gun to Sophia’s head. Jasper walked back to Fiona and Sophia. “All clear.” “Can we go home?” Fiona asked. “I was just thinking the same thing.” “Oh, you need to go to the hospital, though.” Jasper shook his head. “No, I’ll be fine.”

“Is your car here?” she asked. “My car is a heap of ash in my garage.” “Oh.” Her face fell. “Well, mine is here.” “You feel okay to drive? I can if you don’t want to.” “No, I’m okay,” she said. “And your hand. I don’t want you to make it worse.” They all walked around the side of the house, back to where the cars and bikes were. He thought sirens should be wailing through the air, but there was nothing. Maybe they were far enough out in the country that no one had seen the fire yet. Certainly none of his guys would call the fire department. They needed the house to burn as long as possible. There wasn’t much to save anyway. The fire would be contained enough. Not like it’d get into the woods and start a huge forest fire or anything. It wasn’t spreading along the grass, and the closest houses were so far away, he couldn’t see any in either direction. The fire department would probably come eventually. Someone would see the smoke and call. But they needed to get out now. Long before anyone came along. With so many dead bodies and bullets and so much blood, this incident could mean a lot of trouble for the Hawks if they weren’t careful. No sirens were a good thing. “Alright, Hawks,” Jasper said. They stopped and turned to him. “Good work today, guys. Good work.” Each of them took their turn giving him a fist bump and one-armed hug. “We’ll find a new headquarters and meet soon,” he said. “Make sure you get to the hospital if you have injuries. Keep me updated. I’m going home to rest for a while.” But then he remembered he didn’t have a home. He turned to Fiona, but she had already thought ahead. “He’ll be at my apartment,” she said, and smiled at him. He smiled back. “After we go to the hospital and get his hand cared for,” she added. Jasper dropped his head, but smiled. “I’ll see you guys over there. I want to check on Daniel anyway. Anyone heard any news since we got here?” They checked their phones, but no one had anything new. “Okay, well, let’s hope that’s good news, then.” Jasper turned and walked to Fiona’s car.

She pulled her keys from her pocket and unlocked the door, then slid Sophia into her booster seat. Jasper stood and watched the care she took in buckling her in and making sure she was comfortable. Sophia had Cuddles and hugged her close. Fiona kissed her forehead and shut the door. Then she leaned against the car and covered her face with her hands as she cried. He brought her close and spoke softly into her ear. “What is it?” “She’s going to be so messed up.” “Sophia?” She nodded against his shoulder. “All that’s happened. It’s too much for a four-year-old. It’s going to scar her for life.” “No.” Jasper stroked her head. “How much do you remember from when you were four? She’ll forget over time. And she has you. You give her so much love and affection that it’ll be okay. She’ll be fine. She knows she’s loved and safe. That’s what matters. She won’t keep being abused. It’s over now.” Not like when he was a kid. How badly had his father’s abuse messed him up? Maybe worse than he thought. But that had gone on for years. And he hadn’t just watched his mother get hit and ordered around. His dad hit him and his brother for years before anyone did anything about it. Most of his life. And he’d turned out okay, hadn’t he? Maybe. Maybe not. But Sophia would be okay. He’d make sure of it. If Fiona let him, he’d be the best father to her that anyone could be. He’d make sure she always was safe and always felt safe. He’d slay monsters under the bed and in the closet if he had to. Whatever it took to make sure she felt safe, he would do. And the same thing for Fiona. He’d teach her to shoot, get her a gun. Make sure she knew without a doubt that he’d always come for her and Sophia. He’d give his life to protect them. He’d do anything for them. He didn’t want her to have any reason to be afraid, ever. “Let’s get out of here,” Jasper said. He didn’t want to worry her, but the sooner they left the better. All of his guys who came on bikes had left. But Aaron sat in his car, making sure they were okay. “You’re right.” Fiona straightened up and wiped her eyes. “Getting her back to something normal is the best thing. We’ll go to the hospital, make sure your hand is okay, then get her home.” “We can skip the hospital. Let’s just get her home.” Fiona walked around to the driver’s side and they both got in the car. She looked back at Sophia. “All set?”

In his mirror, Jasper saw Sophia nod and squeeze Cuddles tight. Fiona started the car and drove off, Aaron following behind them.


Fiona didn’t care what Jasper said. He was going to the hospital. With all they’d been through, the last thing anyone needed was for his hand to get infected or something. It wouldn’t take long. She couldn’t wait to get home, to stand in the hot shower and let the water burn away the stress and dirt of the day. What a long day it’d been. No wonder she was so tired. It was hours after the time she normally went to sleep. She yawned and glanced back at Sophia. Fast asleep. She looked over at Jasper and smiled. He took her right hand and kissed it, then held it in his. It felt so good to have him touching her. Even if it only was her hand. Any contact with him was like heaven. She fast forwarded through the next hours in her mind. They’d go to the hospital, get him fixed up. Then they’d go home and get cleaned up. Maybe they’d even shower together. And then, they’d climb into her bed together, naked and clean. Her body started to tingle all over at the thought. When they’d slept together before it’d been the best sex of her life. And she wouldn’t mind having it again. And again. And again. Maybe even for the rest of her life. Hopefully it would take a long time for him to get another house or fix his, which meant he’d have to stay with them for a good long while. She couldn’t believe Leo had burned his place down. Who did something like that? Was it bad? Jasper had said someone had been trapped inside. That meant it had to be pretty bad, right? You didn’t get smoke inhalation and get trapped inside the building and burn your hand if it was just a little kitchen fire. He’d said his car was ash. So that meant it had to be really bad. Was there anything left? Had he lost everything? She considered that for a moment. She had left behind most things when she left Sam. Some things were just too big or impractical. Important things like baby photos were easy to carry because they were all digital. They were saved online anyway. Important papers were small and easy, too, but Sophia had had to leave most of her favorite toys. They had Cuddles, who’d been her bunny since she was a baby. A few other stuffed animals came along, but her bigger toys had to stay. Her bike, puzzles, most of her books and DVDs. Fiona had been slowly rebuying a lot of things, but didn’t have much budget for all that. For Jasper, he might have lost everything. It wasn’t like he’d gotten the chance to pick out his favorite clothing, like she had. If it was gone, it was all gone. Everything from bedding to dishes to books and

movies to even his car. Where was his bike? He must’ve been on it if his car was there. So his bike should be okay. But what had he lost? What was valuable to him? She couldn’t imagine having nothing at all except the clothes on your back. How was he handling this all so well? Shouldn’t he be freaking out or losing it right about now? Maybe he was just in shock. She looked over at him. He stared out the window, still holding her hand tight. “You doing okay?” she asked. He looked over and gave her a smile. “I’m perfect.” “You sure?” “As long as you’re safe and Sophia is safe, yup.” “But your house burned down today. Is anything salvageable?” He shook his head. “Highly doubtful.” “That doesn’t upset you?” He shrugged. “It sucks, yeah. But the things that are most important to me weren’t inside the house, so it doesn’t matter that much. It’s just stuff. It can all be replaced.” “But you lost everything you own?” “Nah,” he said. “I have my bike. And this shirt and these pants.” He chuckled. “I have insurance. It’ll be fine. You can help me go shopping if you want.” “I do like to go shopping.” “See. It’ll be a fun time.” She let this sink in. Was he really so okay with all this? “Maybe you’re still in shock.” “Fiona, I’m fine.” He kissed her hand again. “Everything I care most about in the world is right here in this car or heading to the hospital.”


Fiona turned into the hospital and Jasper gave her a look. “What are you doing?”

“You have to get your hand checked out,” she insisted. “And don’t you want to check on your friends?” “What about Sophia?” He looked back at her. “She’s sleeping now and she’ll probably stay asleep. She’ll be fine.” They climbed out of the car and Fiona scooped Sophia into her arms, wrapping her little legs around her to hold her so she could stay asleep. They went right to the ER. Aaron had been behind them, so wasn’t inside yet, but Derrick and Alex were there. Derrick was talking to the nurse at the window and pointed to Alex, who was sitting in a chair in the waiting area. The nurse came around the corner to him with a wheelchair and they helped Alex get into it. “Hey,” Jasper said, and hurried over to Alex. “I’ll come check on you in a bit. Make sure that arm stays attached.” Jasper lightly punched the shoulder opposite of the arm that’d been shot. Alex nodded. “I’ll do my best.” Derrick and Jasper bumped fists and Jasper came back to where Fiona stood near the admittance window. When the nurse came back, he went over to talk to her. “Hi, I was here earlier for smoke inhalation and a burn, but I had an emergency and had to leave.” She looked up at him with an unamused expression. “Your name?” “Jasper Paulson.” She turned and rifled through a stack of folders. She pulled one out and flipped it open. “Right. You were the one who left without being discharged.” “Yeah, sorry. I had an emergency.” “Have a seat. We’ll give you a call.” Jasper walked to the closest seat, Fiona right behind him with Sophia in her arms. They sat and waited. Aaron arrived and walked over to them. “Hey, man. Where is everyone?” “Alex is being looked at. Derrick is with him. Haven’t seen anyone else yet. I’m waiting to be seen. Again.”

Aaron nodded. “I’m going to the room Daniel was in.” “Send me an update.” “Will do.” Aaron left and Jasper slumped back in the chair and closed his eyes. Fiona ran her fingers through his hair and kissed his cheek. Warmth spread through him, drawing a smile from his lips. “Jasper Paulson.” He opened his eyes and saw a doctor looking around the waiting room. They all stood and followed him to a small trauma room. Jasper sat on the edge of the hospital bed, his feet dangling causally from the end. Fiona sat by his side in one of the padded chairs, still holding Sophia tight in her arms, as the doctor cleaned his burn. First he sprayed some sort of antiseptic. It was cold and soothed the hot skin, but then he dabbed at the burn with a gaze pad, which took the coolness away. Next, the doctor took out some sort of wipe. Like a wet wipe, but smelling much stronger of medicine and chemicals. He wiped it across Jasper’s hand. Jasper tried not to react to the pressure and friction as the doctor worked, but it hurt. He gritted his teeth and tightened his other hand into a fist. Finally, it was done. The doctor smeared some ointment on the damaged skin that cooled it and made it feel a little bit better. He relaxed some. The doctor wrapped a bandage around his hand and stood up, finished and satisfied with his work. “Okay,” the doctor said while making notes on his clipboard. “Keep it dry and clean. You’ll need to change the bandage once a day, and use this ointment.” He handed Jasper a small white tube, which Jasper stuck in his pocket. “Come back to see me in a week.” Jasper nodded. “Sounds good. Thanks.” The doctor nodded at him and left the room. “Guess we’re all set,” Jasper said, sliding down from the edge of the exam bed. “I want to check on Daniel and Alex real quick, then we can go home.” Fiona yawned, but smiled at him. “Sure.” “Want me to take her? She must be getting heavy.” “No, your hand. It’s okay. I’m used to carrying her.” In the hall, Jasper took out his phone and called Aaron. “Where are you guys?” “With Daniel. Room 109. Man. It’s not looking good.”

Jasper swallowed hard. “We’ll be right there.” “How is he?” Fiona asked. Jasper looked at her and the despair must’ve been obvious on his face before he even said anything. Her eyes grew wide. He shook his head tightly. “Not good.” They hurried over to room 109 and went inside. Aaron was there watching and Daniel’s girlfriend, Angie, sat close to his bed. Tubes and wires ran from Daniel, who lay in the bed, far too still. It looked like a machine was breathing for him. “What’s going on?” Jasper asked. Aaron and Angie both looked at him, but Angie turned her attention back to Daniel. Aaron moved to stand closer to Jasper so he could keep his voice down. “They said his heart stopped a few times. They were able to resuscitate him, but that’s apparently a very bad sign. They don’t think they’ll be able to bring him back a third time if his heart fails again.” “Okay.” He tried to let this sink in. “What are his injuries?” “The burns are really bad and it’s making his body go into shock. And that can cause organ failure. So they’re watching for all that now. To make sure everything keeps working.” Jasper pulled up the other chair in the room. “Sit down, babe,” he said to Fiona. She sat and arranged Sophia into a more comfortable position on her lap. Sophia was fast asleep and Fiona looked exhausted. He was tired, too. The day had gone on far too long and held too much pain and drama. They’d leave soon, but not until he knew his guys were going to be okay. Jasper walked over to Angie and put a hand on her shoulder. She gripped Daniel’s hand tight. “If you need anything, let us know, okay?” She nodded. “I just need him to wake up.” “We all do.” Jasper walked to the opposite side of the bed to squeeze Daniel’s other hand. “Come on, man. Hang in there. Wake up real soon.” He stood and watched him for a long while, the machines beeping and whirling in rhythm, moving his chest up and down. Daniel looked both pale and too red and black. The parts of his skin that were undamaged were pasty white. But he was covered in patches of bright red, some edged with black. They shined like they’d been smeared with some kind of ointment. Large sections of him were covered in soft, white bandages. Most of his face and arms. The rest of him couldn’t be seen under the blanket, but there were thick lumps there, like something was wrapped around his legs and feet.

Little tufts of Daniel’s black hair stuck out from under and between the loops of bandage. But one side of his head didn’t seem to have any hair at all. It was raw and red with blisters. He hadn’t seemed like he was in such bad shape when he’d pulled him from the basement. He couldn’t recall seeing any burns on him at all. But then, there had been plenty of thick, black smoke, and it wasn’t like Jasper was interested in a full body inspection of him at the time. He only wanted to get him out. Now it looked like he’d been too late. Daniel was in rough shape and even if he woke up, he must have a long recovery ahead of him. And who knew what he’d look like. He had been a good-looking guy. And his girl, Angie, was nice-looking herself. They would have made some cute babies. Would have. But now? How long would Angie stay with him if he was disfigured? He hoped she loved him, but they hadn’t been together for years. Months, sure, but was that long to commit to someone through this? He didn’t know. “Were you the one?” Angie asked. “One what?” Jasper said. “Who went in to save him?” “I went in and pulled him out,” Jasper said. “But it doesn’t look like I saved him.” “You did.” She kissed Daniel’s hand and held it tight while tears ran down her face. “Thank you. You risked your life to save him. I’ll always be grateful for that, no matter what happens.” Jasper nodded. “He’s my friend. I wasn’t going to just let him die.” “You’re a good man,” Angie said. She looked over at Fiona and gave her a weak smile. “You’re lucky to have a guy like that.” “I know.” Fiona smiled across the room at him. He didn’t deserve this praise, though. Not when Daniel was lying here like this. So close to death. If he would have gotten there sooner, would have found him and gotten them out faster, maybe things wouldn’t be so bad. “Hey, man.” Aaron clapped him on the shoulder. “I can see you beating yourself up from across the room. Give it up. You did what you could. You ran into a burning building to pull him out. Plenty of people wouldn’t have done that. You didn’t set the fire. This is on Leo and the Rose Blades. And we made them pay today.” Angie looked up at this. “You did? How?” “We took them out,” Aaron said simply. “Good.” Angie stroked part of Daniel’s cheek that was visible through the bandages and burned

patches. “Hear that, baby? The Hawks got them. They took revenge on those assholes for you.” “Yeah,” Jasper said. “But revenge won’t make him get better faster.” Nothing would, except a lot of time and hoping for the best. Jasper turned to Aaron. “You hear from Derrick or Alex?” He nodded. “They’re taking Alex into surgery to remove the bullet. He’ll be okay, though. They said it was a clean shot. No shattered bones or anything like that.” “Good. Do you know how it happened?” “Not sure, but it was during the fight when you were dealing with Leo. A lot of shots back and forth. We got lucky.” Jasper nodded and dropped his voice. “Did we leave any alive? Any get away?” “Not that I know of. Unless some of them weren’t there at all. We took them all down. It’s amazing how unskilled those guys were. They must not have gone to the range very often.” “That’s why weekly is my minimum requirement,” Jasper said, glad more than ever that he’d made that rule. It had seemed a little strong at first. Making every one of his guys practice shooting every single week. Some had complained at first. But they did it. And now they’d all seen why. It kept them sharp and practiced. He’d also made them try out different guns and get varied practice. You never knew when you’d be shooting a gun that wasn’t your own, and they needed to be skilled in all types and ready for anything. “I don’t think anyone will ever question that again,” Aaron said. “Not that I ever did.” Jasper laughed. “Surprised you don’t own a range by now.” “If I had more land, I would.” A text came in from Derrick. Alex just got out of surgery. Everything’s looking good. Heading to see Daniel. Me and Aaron are here now, Jasper sent back. A few minutes later, Derrick walked in. He took one look at Daniel and dropped his head. “So, no improvement?” “Afraid not,” Aaron said. Derrick came to stand beside them. “I don’t know what happened. We were all in the basement when the smoke started. He was in the bathroom, but the bathroom is right there. How did he not get out in time? It doesn’t make any sense.” Derrick shook his head. “He looks bad.”

“We all thought he was right behind us,” Aaron said. “Maybe he tripped or something? I’ve been trying to figure it out myself.” “Alex even went back in. He said the bathroom was empty.” Derrick shook his head. “That smoke was nuts,” Jasper said. “If I didn’t know my own house so well, I’d have gotten turned around. I almost did. I walk down there in the dark so often, though, I was able to figure out where I was. Maybe the smoke just got too much and he couldn’t see. They say that happens.” Aaron and Derrick nodded and looked at Daniel’s lifeless body. “He’s gotta wake up,” Derrick said. Jasper’s phone buzzed with a text from Alex. I’ll be okay. How’s Daniel? He answered, Hanging in there for now. As they stood together, watching, there was a sudden loud and steady beep. It came from one of the machines hooked up to Daniel. On the heart monitor there was only a flat line. Jasper looked at Aaron and Derrick in horror and his heart leapt to his throat. Seconds later, several nurses and doctors rushed in. They shoved them out of the way. The guys went to the other side of the room to stand with the women, since that side was closer to the door and had slightly more room. They stood close together, huddled in a watchful dismay, to give the medical staff space to work. A nurse took out paddles, rubbed some goo on them, and pushed them against Daniel’s chest to shock him. His whole body jumped with the electricity. Jasper had to look away. He looked instead at Fiona. Her eyes were wild with fear. He heard the sounds of the machine booting up and they shocked him again. Several times, they tried. They worked and shouted commands back and forth. But after several minutes, they stopped. The room fell eerily quiet. He heard someone say, “Call it,” and he refused to think about what that meant. It had all happened too fast. Just a minute ago, they were standing around his body. His still, but still alive body. Could they be done working on him already? They’d given up far too soon. There had to be more they could do. He looked from Aaron to Derrick. Did they agree? Did they think this was outrageous that the medical staff was done working already? How long had it been? A minute or two? They should give it at least a half hour. An hour even. This was his friend. Didn’t they know how important he was to them? One of the doctors walked over to the group of onlookers. His face was tight, and sweat glistened on his forehead. “I’m sorry,” he said. “He’s passed.” “What?” Jasper said. “You’re done working on him already? You gave up too soon!” Jasper wanted to clock the guy. As if Aaron sensed this, he stepped closer to Jasper, to put himself

between him and the doctor. “I’m sorry. We did everything we could,” the doctor said. “But after forty minutes, there’s really nothing else we can do.” Forty minutes? It hadn’t been anywhere near that long, had it? He looked at his phone. The text he’d sent to Alex, the one telling him Daniel was still hanging in there, said it was sent forty-five minutes ago. And that had been a very short time before Daniel’s heart had stopped. So that was it. Daniel was really gone. They had worked on him for a long time. They’d done everything they could, but there was just so saving him. He heard Angie screaming. Someone—Derrick, maybe?—went to her and caught her before she fell to the ground. Jasper saw nothing except Daniel’s body, lying still on the bed, hooked up to tubes and wires and not breathing at all. The flat line still ran across the heart rate monitor. A nurse pulled a sheet up over his face. Jasper kept watching. Waiting for Daniel to sit up and throw the sheet back. Waiting for him to wake up and walk out of there. Derrick got Angie out of the room. Fiona fell back into the chair, silent tears running down her face as she rocked Sophia back and forth. Aaron and Jasper looked at each other, both full of shock. They stared at each other for a long time, not saying anything. Not knowing what to say. Daniel was really dead? Gone forever? It seemed impossible. Jasper had gone into the house to save him. He’d pulled him out of the fire. He couldn’t be dead. After all he’d gone through to make sure he lived. He had to wake up. There was no other option. He looked at Daniel’s body again. The form under the sheet didn’t move. One of the nurses remained, unhooking things from him discreetly. When she was done, she went to them and said gently, “Why don’t you all go home and try to rest? There’ll be a lot to do in the next few days.” Jasper nodded absently. But they couldn’t just leave. Just leave and Daniel would stay there? He’d never come home. He’d never get up and walk out of there. Rage flared up in him for an instant, but it was quickly extinguished. They’d killed the guys responsible for this. They were all dead. They’d gotten their revenge already. Daniel’s death was avenged. But knowing that did nothing to ease the pain he felt. Like he’d said before, their death wouldn’t undo Daniel’s, much as he wished it could. To think he’d never see Daniel again, sitting there in his Hawks jacket during one of their meetings. Beating the pants off everyone at darts. Drinking everyone under the table. Then puking his guts out later. He’d never see him zoom off on his obnoxious yellow bike. Never see him kiss Angie again. Had they planned to get married? Maybe they’d talked about it. Maybe Daniel was going to propose.

He tried to imagine what Angie was feeling right now. Probably the same way he’d feel if something had happened to Fiona. She was standing by his side. Her shoulder brushed against his. She leaned over and kissed his cheek. He closed his eyes and felt a tear splash down his face. Daniel was really gone. And there was nothing else they could do for him now. Jasper looked at Aaron. “Tell Alex. Tell the guys.” Aaron nodded. Jasper hugged him. A full-on hug, unlike their usual one-armed bro hug. It lasted several seconds longer, too. Then, when they’d separated, Jasper put his hand on Fiona’s back and guided her toward the door. Angie and Derrick were in the hall. Angie was slumped against Derrick, sobbing. Jasper bent and hugged her and Derrick. “We’ll talk tomorrow,” Jasper said to them. “Angie, we’ll help you take care of everything. Try to get some rest tonight. Call me if you need anything.” He and Fiona, who still held the sleeping Sophia, walked out of the hospital and to her car.

Chapter 16 The drive to her apartment was silent. Fiona didn’t know what to say to him. “Sorry” felt cheap and worthless. She hadn’t known Daniel, but he was Jasper’s friend. One of the guys in his MC. And they had obviously been fairly close. He meant something to Jasper. She reached over after a while and turned on the radio, keeping the volume very low. He’d never said it, but Daniel must’ve been the guy he went in to save. Jasper had run into a burning building and suffered smoke inhalation and burns to save him. She could not imagine what he was feeling now. At least they’d taken care of Leo’s guys who were responsible. But that had to be little consolation. She’d never had a friend or anyone close to her die, but the pain she felt imagining Jasper’s pain was strong, and it was only a hint, a mere ghost of the pain that must be raging inside him right now. All she wanted to do was find a way to make Jasper feel better. It likely wouldn’t even be possible, but she’d give it her best shot. She would comfort him any way she could, take care of him however she could. Help him however she could. Anything to lessen his pain. And really, in the end, all that she could do for him was give him time and space to grieve. And to just be there for him. She reached over and took his hand, squeezing it as if to remind him that was still here. Was still grateful for him and wanted him and loved him. She would tell him soon. She’d thought at first that it was too soon. Who fell in love that quickly? But after all they’d been through, she had no other word to describe how she felt. Gratitude wasn’t enough. Longing and joy didn’t even cover it. There was only love. She loved him and she would spend her life loving him and giving him everything she could. If she could take his pain now, take it and absorb it and make it her own, she would. She guessed she should be feeling something about Sam. She had married him. Been his wife for years. Had a child with him. But she didn’t feel loss. Every time she pictured his dead body, there was only relief. She didn’t have to run. Didn’t have to be afraid that he’d show up. Didn’t have to worry about him coming after her and dragging her back and making her be his again. She would never have to go back to that horrible life. Never. And her life with Jasper could start free and clear with no worry of retribution. No wondering what would happen if Sam showed up and found out she was with him. If that had happened, no doubt he would have tried to kill Jasper. But she didn’t have to think about that anymore. Sam was gone. Gone forever. Dead. Burned up in that house. He couldn’t hurt her or Sophia or anyone else. Would Sophia be sad about it ever? Would she ever wonder about her dad and miss the chance to get to know him? She had asked that Jasper be her new daddy. Would that relationship be enough to erase what Sam had done? Could Jasper feel like a real father to her? Or would there always be something missing? Fiona’s mind spun, but the thoughts were getting stuck together. She was so tired. She concentrated on staying awake to drive. Finally, they turned onto her street. Her apartment building had never looked so good. She parked and shut off the car. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. Her limbs

were heavy and hard to move. But she pulled herself from the car and went around to open Sophia’s door. Jasper was already there, though. He had unbuckled her and lifted Sophia out. Holding Sophia in his arm with his uninjured hand, he followed her to the building’s door and up the stairs and waited while she unlocked the door. Then he carried Sophia to her room. Fiona pulled back the covers, and he laid her gently down. Fiona pulled off her shoes and made sure Cuddles was tucked tight to her chest. Then she kissed her forehead and pulled up the blanket before leaving the room. When they were alone in the hallway, Jasper drew her close. He held her for a long time, saying nothing. Then he kissed her for a long time. “Fiona.” He looked into her eyes, his glimmering with tears. “I love you.” Her eyes widened and she opened her mouth to speak. He put a finger to her lips, keeping her quiet while he talked. “I know it seems fast, but I’ve never felt like this about anyone. I want to be with you always. You bring me comfort and joy. Nothing feels as good as just being in your presence. I’m sorry about everything that happed the other day. That feels like months ago. But I’m sorry for the things I said to you. I know you think I’m violent and I guess this whole day didn’t help at all, but I just want to love you and protect you. Leo’s gone now and his MC is gone. I’m not normally this violent. Let me show you that I’m not like Sam. Let me prove it to you.” He caressed her cheek with his good hand, his injured hand resting gently at her back. His eyes were wild with emotion. She closed her eyes for moment, then took a breath and opened them. “It’s kind of funny, actually, that you would say that.” She paused to kiss him. “I was just thinking earlier that I wanted to tell you that I love you, but I thought you’d think it was too soon. I do, though. I love you. I never should have assumed you were like Sam just because you have an MC. You’re nothing like him. I know that now. I’m sorry we had to go through all this before I could see it.” Jasper’s mouth stretched into a slow smile. “Really? You really love me?” “I really do.” She giggled and kissed him again. “You make me so happy.” He wrapped her in a tight hug. “I never want to let you get out of these arms again.” “Then don’t. Please don’t.” “But what about everything you said? I want to make sure this isn’t just the high after the fight, you

know?” He pulled back so he could look her in the eye. “Is my lifestyle too violent and too illegal for you?” Fiona let out a long sigh. “Well, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. Obviously, I’m not happy that you steal and do unethical and illegal things for money. But, Sophia and I lived off Sam’s money for years and nothing he did was legal, so I guess I figure, how can I complain when clearly it didn’t matter to me before?” “Wait a second. If it bothers you, I want to know. Don’t just say you don’t have a right to complain and brush it off. You have a right to be bothered by it.” “Okay.” She looked away from him for a moment, then looked back once she had gathered her thoughts. “I guess it does bother me. But if it’s not something you can change, I can live with it.” Jasper pulled his mouth to the side in thought. “I wouldn’t say that it couldn’t be changed. I just don’t know how easily. And it would likely mean a lot less money.” “I know. And I think that’s part of the reason I was okay with Sam doing it. When I figured out the difference he would make, we couldn’t afford to live our lifestyle. I hate to say that, though, and it feels really wrong to say it. Sophia and I don’t need a ton of money. We had that and it wasn’t worth it. I’d rather have less than have to worry about you going to jail all the time. And that’s really the biggest problem. What if you get caught? What am I going to do if you go to jail for a long time?” He wove his fingers between hers and let their hands swing back and forth. “I never had a reason to worry about that before. When it was just me, it didn’t matter much if I got locked up. I’d make bail, get a lawyer, and be done with it. But if we have a family…it would kill me to leave you alone like that. With no income and no one to protect you.” “And not to mention no you. The worst part would be being without you every day.” He smiled and kissed her. “You make me want to go straight. And no one has ever made me want that before. It might not be fast, and I might not cut all activity right away, but I’ll work on it. I want to be able to provide for you and keep you safe. And I can’t do either if I’m locked up.” “I want you to be happy, though. I’d hate to see you get a job you can’t stand and be miserable all the time and hate me for it.” “No.” He shook his head. “If I’m with you, it’ll all be worth it. And I’d be doing it for our family. How could I ever regret that?” “Our family,” she repeated, and smiled. Was he really so ready to take care of her and Sophia like that? Really ready to be a father to Sophia? She didn’t have one at all now. The thought made Fiona a tiny bit sad, despite knowing how terrible of a father Sam had been and how desperately Fiona had worked to get her away from him. Sophia’s

father was dead. He had no chance now to change and become a better man. He couldn’t come back into her life at a later time and get to know her. She would forget him. She would never really know her father. But, for whatever bitterness that brought, the sweetness was in knowing that he couldn’t hurt her. Having a father who hit you and put a gun to your head wasn’t worth having at all. Sophia didn’t need someone who would endanger her. Who might have come into her life later and destroyed it. Who might have caused problems or made moves to take her from her mother somehow. They never had to worry about him getting in the way and messing up their happy life. And that made it all worth it. She didn’t regret it all. Killing Sam hadn’t been easy, but she’d wanted to do it for so long, it felt natural when she pulled the trigger. She’d finally fought back. For all the years she took his crap—his harsh words, his controlling nature, his physical violence, his roughness in bed—she’d finally stepped up and said “no” once and for all. He could never hurt her or anyone else. If Fiona had found out he had a new wife, she would be devastated. Certainly not out of any sort of jealousy. But in knowing that he was doing it again. Treating someone else like he’d treated her. Knowing that maybe she could have done something to stop it. Called the police on him, stood up to him, anything to keep him from repeating his pattern. Well, now she had. He would never be able to do another person damage in any way. “I think I get it now,” she said. Jasper had been holding her close, rubbing her back and swaying side to side gently. Just enjoying each other’s closeness. Now he straightened up to look at her again. “Get what?” “Why you fight. I guess I always thought it was just a macho thing. You or anyone who gets into a fight has to show their power, prove they’re the bigger man. But it’s so much more than that. That whole fight today was so mixed up in so many things. Leo attacking you, Leo getting mad that you stole business from him in the first place, then them taking Sophia and me and the whole Sam thing. You don’t just fight to win; you fight for a purpose. To set the wrong thing right again.” She nodded slowly. “I never saw it like that. I guess because with Sam, I always tried to be right and do everything right that it felt like he only threw his weight and power around because he could—” “He did. That’s a totally different thing than a street fight or an MC fight.” “Exactly. That’s my point. You’re not like that. I might have said I didn’t like that you fought all the time because MCs tend to do that, but it’s not like you just fight for no reason. You were standing up for yourself and your guys, and you were getting back at them for the kidnappings and the fire and for trying to kill you. You were trying to set the wrongs right. And I get it now.” “So, what does that mean?” “It means that it doesn’t bother me like it did before. I want to learn. I want to be able to shoot and know how to use a gun. I want to be able to fight and defend myself. Maybe if I could fight, something

would have been different. Maybe I would have gotten Sophia away from them and maybe I could have turned the gun on the gunman who came after me in the parking lot of my apartment the other day. I don’t know. Maybe not. Maybe it wouldn’t change anything, but I’ll feel a lot better knowing that I have the ability to defend myself and Sophia in case I ever have to.” “I sure hope you don’t ever have to. I never want anything like that to happen again. But, I’d love to teach you to shoot and fight. There’s nothing wrong with being able to defend yourself and not needing to. But if you need it and don’t have the training, that’s when you get into trouble.” “Right.” She sighed and rested her head on his shoulder. “Everything feels so perfect right now.” “It does. It is.” Her mind drifted to Daniel, though. And she knew Jasper still had to be hurting badly. It was so fresh and new. He hadn’t even started grieving yet. He could be in shock and maybe he didn’t even start to process his feelings about it. But, wherever he was, that was one thing in their lives that was far from perfect. “Almost,” she said. He looked down and drew his eyebrows together in confusion. “What else is there?” “I just meant Daniel.” He swallowed hard. “Yeah. I guess it could have been worse, though. I guess I should feel lucky to have only lost one guy and only had one get injured badly.” His voice broke as he said it. “No, that’s crazy. You don’t have to feel like that. I mean, yes, be grateful it wasn’t worse, but that doesn’t take away the pain of your loss. And you have every right to feel that pain. You lost a good friend today. It’s going to take a lot of time to heal from that. I’m sure part of you never will. You’ll always miss him.” “I’ll always feel like I should have done more. Like I could have saved him if only I’d done things differently.” “You can’t go around carrying that. You didn’t kill him. Jasper, you ran into a burning building to save him. How many guys would do that? Not many at all. You risked your life for him. There’s nothing else you could have done.” He pulled her close again, running his hand into her hair and pressing his cheek against hers. “Thank you. I’m so lucky to have you. And I’m so glad you’re okay and Sophia is okay. I almost lost my mind so many times today. I don’t know what was worse—seeing you on the floor with Sophia handcuffed to the sink with Leo pointing a gun at you or seeing you face Sam and him having Sophia at gunpoint. So many things could have gone wrong and I’m happy that they didn’t. It feels good just to hold you, knowing that if something had been different, I might not have been able to. Daniel’s not holding his

girl tight tonight.” “I might have been in danger, but I could also be Angie right now. If something had happened to you, I might be alone in my bed, crying for you like she’s crying for Daniel. I’m so relieved and thankful that you’re okay, too. Even if you do have some injuries. You’ll recover from them fully, and I’ve seen you in much worse condition. We were both lucky today.” He nodded his agreement. “I just have one question.” “What?” “Do you think we could get luckier?” “What do you mean?” “Well…” He let his fingers trail down her cheek to her chin, then her neck. He paused and lowered his hand to cup her breast. “I mean, can we go get lucky right now?” She giggled and pressed her lips against his. “I would love that.” “Perfect.” He picked her up and wrapped her legs around his waist. Then he carried her into the bedroom and laid her down on the bed. He closed the door behind them, sending the room into complete darkness until she reached over and turned on the lamp on the bedside table. “I have been looking forward to this moment since the last time I was here,” he said. She smiled up at him as he hovered over her. He kissed all along her jaw and down her neck. Then he slid down and raised her shirt just an inch. He kissed across her stomach before lifting her shirt another inch. He made his way up slowly, until her shirt was over her bra. She reached down to pull the shirt over her head. He slid down one bra strap, then the other, kissing her shoulder and chest down toward her breasts. She unhooked her bra and tossed it to the ground. He took one nipple into his mouth, clamping it gently between his teeth while rolling her other nipple between the thumb and forefinger of his uninjured hand. She moaned in response and ran her fingers through his hair. He flicked his tongue back and forth over her nipple, caressing her breasts gently. He was already hard. Fiona could feel his hard on through his pants and she pressed her hips up and toward him, the stiffness rubbing against her clit. He slid his hands down and pressed her hips to the bed so she couldn’t move. “You’re in an awful hurry tonight.” He kissed down her stomach to her belly button and looked up at her.

“You’re driving me mad.” She tugged her own hair and tried to thrust her hips up again. His face fell into a sly smile. “That’s my job.” “Then do it already.” She half giggled and reached down to unzip her pants. He took her wrists before she got very far with the zipper, and pressed them into the bed. “Do I have to tie you down?” “That could be fun.” He raised an eyebrow. “Really?” She shrugged. “I’ve never actually done it before.” Sam had always threatened to tie her up and keep screwing her repeatedly, but he never had. He’d held her wrists a few times, pulled her hair, even pressed a pillow over her face, but he’d never used handcuffs or rope. Jasper gasped suddenly and slipped off the bed in a hurry. “What?” She sat up, his abrupt motion sending a wave of panic through her. “We never got the handcuffs off Sophia’s hand.” “Oh.” She laid back down. “I know. But how can we? We don’t have a key or anything. I figured we’d take her somewhere tomorrow. It’s not too tight or anything. She’ll be okay.” He left the room and she heard him open Sophia’s door slowly. What was he doing? She got up and yanked her t-shirt back on, leaving the bra on the ground. They would get back to this later. No way was she going to sleep tonight without having him inside her first. She crept down the hall and peeked into Sophia’s room. Jasper was bent over her, the light from his cell phone by his side. She was still fast asleep, but he held the handcuff and was using something to pick at the lock. “Can you get it open?” she asked. He nodded, then the handcuff clicked open. He gently laid Sophia’s hand back down and picked up his phone. He put whatever he’d been using to open the handcuff into his pocket. “And now, conveniently, we have handcuffs.” He winked. “Two birds, one stone.” “But there are no keys for those.”

He came to her and they left the room. He pulled the door shut behind them as they stepped into the hallway. “Even better that way,” he said. “Jasper…” “Don’t you trust me?” He wrapped an arm around her and kissed her neck. “Yes, but what if you can’t get them open?” “I won’t close it too tight. And I’ll be able to get them open. They’re not difficult. People don’t get out of cuffs because the lock is so great. They don’t get out of them because you can’t pick the lock with your hands in cuffs. I’ve spent hours practicing.” He put the cold metal cuff to her wrist. She wasn’t too sure of this. She did trust him, though. With her life and with Sophia’s. He wouldn’t put her in cuffs if he wasn’t sure he could get her out of them. That gave her some comfort. “You can say no,” he said. “It’s okay. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.” “Oh.” She bit his earlobe and tugged on it with her teeth. “That’s a shame. I was kinda hoping you’d make me just a little uncomfortable. In the hot and bothered sort of way.” He moaned into her ear and closed the cuff around her wrist. He walked her backward into her bedroom, pulling her shirt back off as she stepped inside the room. He threw it down, then closed the cuff around her other wrist. “Now let’s see if you get impatient,” he said. He tossed her onto the bed and climbed over her. He pulled off his shirt and teased her with his tongue. All over her stomach and breasts and nipples, he kissed and pinched and bit. “This is really unfair,” she said. “I can’t touch you at all?” He shook his head. “Maybe I’ll let you touch me later. If you’re good.” “Oh, well, forget it, then.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “Being good is no fun,” she said. “I prefer being bad.” “In that case.” He flipped her over and smacked her ass. “I’ll have to punish you.”

He lay down on top of her, his hand in her hair, kissing along her neck. From this angle she could reach him, though. She dug her fingers into the hard muscles of his stomach. Then he got off and turned her back over with a sigh. “You just can’t keep your hands to yourself, can you?” She shook her head. “Not when you’re that hot.” “You think I’m hot?” He kneeled on the bed and flexed his arms, making the muscles jump and bulge. She bit her lip and nodded. “How hot?” “So hot, I want to rip off all your clothes right now.” “Let’s not. These are the only pants I own at the moment.” He winked at her. He slowly unzipped her pants. Too slowly. Why was he torturing her like this? He tugged on her pants, sliding them down an inch at a time. With each new patch of skin visible, he danced his fingertips and flicked his tongue over her skin. He moved down her thighs to her knees and her calves. He sucked on her toes and she let out a moan. “You like that?” He slipped his tongue between her toes. “Yes. I like every way you touch me.” He pulled down his own pants, but kept his underwear on. He left her panties in place, too, and crawled back on top of her. He pushed his hips down, pressing his hard cock against her until she moaned. “Jasper…” “Yes?” he whispered in her ear. “Please.” “Please what?” “Please get inside me right now.” He rubbed his nose against hers and moved away from her. She cried out in frustration. “Why are you doing this to me?”

“I like seeing you squirm.” “Next time, I’m cuffing you.” “That could be fun. But tonight is my turn. You’ll just have to deal with it. I have to say, though, you’re not making me want to let you out of those cuffs.” “I just want to touch you.” “Oh yeah?” She nodded. “Yes.” “You want to suck my dick?” “Yes.” “I might be able to allow that.” He scooted up on the bed and pulled down his boxer briefs. His hard cock broke free and pointed straight at her. She opened her mouth and he slid in. She sucked and moved her mouth up and down. This would be better with hands, she thought, but she would have to do her best with only her mouth. She moved up and down his shaft, taking him in as far as she could. She wanted to drive him mad like he was doing to her. He twisted his fingers through her hair and moaned. “You are so good at that.” After a few minutes, he pulled out and winked at her. “Almost too good.” “Good enough for you to give me what I want?” He raised his eyebrows. “And what’s that?” “You know what I want. I want you deep inside me.” “Oh no. Not yet.” She growled at him and thrust her hips toward him. He ripped her panties down and off her in one fluid movement. Then he pushed her legs apart slowly. He dragged her panties over her clit. She wiggled against them, wanting more. He smacked her with them gently, like he would have done with a whip, just hard enough to make it sting the tiniest bit. She cried out in pleasure each time. He tossed the panties aside and took his place between her legs. He lowered his mouth to her, looking up to watch her face. She pleaded with him and lifted up, but he pressed her hips back down. Then he used his fingers to spread her lips apart and flick his tongue all around her. He pressed inside her as far as his tongue would go. He rubbed small, fast circles over her clit and she almost lost her mind

with the pleasure of it. She cried out to him. “Please!” He slipped his finger inside and moved it in and out while he flicked his tongue over her clit. He moved too slowly and she wanted more of him. And then, when he finally pulled out his finger and came to meet her, he took his dick in his hand. “Is this what you’ve been waiting for?” “Yes.” “Is this what you want?” “Yes!” He kissed along her neck, still refusing to give in to her. He rubbed the tip of his cock around her clit and between her lips, spreading her juices around. He pressed in just the tip. When she moaned and pushed against him, he pulled out. “Jasper!” She tried to slide her hand out of the cuffs. She wanted to reach down to his ass and pull him in deeper and be done with this playing around. She needed to feel all of him, now. He pushed in again, a little more this time. She wanted to press against him to force him deeper, but she held back. If she stayed still, maybe he’d give her more. It worked. She didn’t move and he slid in a tiny bit farther. She forced her hips to stay down and not move and he slid in farther still. Then, with one final shove, he filled her completely. She cried out and he did, too. But then he stopped. He didn’t move. He stayed there, still inside her. She held her breath and didn’t move either, afraid he’d pull out again. “Okay, I can’t do this anymore,” he said. And then he pulled back and thrust into her, fast and hard. Whatever game he’d been playing with himself seemed to be over. Instead of the slow, careful movements, he thrust in again and again, faster, harder. He reached down and pulled her leg up, putting his arm behind her knee to bring it up higher so he could go deeper into her. “Harder!” she said. He listened this time. When she brought her hips up to meet him, he brought his down to her, the force sending him in again and again.

“I’m gonna come,” she said. He abruptly pulled out. She whimpered in response. “No.” “Not yet,” he said. He turned her over and brought her ass up to meet his hips. He slid into her from behind, tugging on the handcuffs and using his other hand to rub her clit. It was no use, though. Whatever he’d hope to stop, he’d only brought on harder. She pushed her ass back into him and almost screamed in pleasure as she came all over him. “You bad girl,” he said, leaning over her to bite her neck, then straightening back up to smack her ass twice. “I said not yet.” “I couldn’t help it.” “You’ll have to pay now.” He turned over, so he was on his back. He grabbed her and pulled her on top of him. She straddled him, and he held his dick so she could slide onto it. She rocked her hips forward and back, massaging him. She rode him hard, up and down, slamming into him until he cried out and gripped her legs. He made a few hard thrusts into her and then lay still, panting. “I love your pussy,” he said. She chuckled and slid off him to lay by his side. It was slightly awkward, still being cuffed, but she nuzzled against him, resting her cheek on his shoulder. “Just give me a second,” he said, breathing slowly. “I’ll get the cuffs off.” After a minute of resting, he got up and dug into his pants, pulling out a bobby pin from his pocket. She turned on her side and held her hands out to him. It didn’t take long. In just a minute, he had the first one unlocked, then the second one. He kissed her wrists and set the handcuffs on her dresser. “We’ll have to keep those for next time,” he said. “You are really good at that,” she said. “What, that handcuffs?” “Well, all of it, but yes, I meant the handcuffs this time.”

He smiled and slid back into bed beside her. Fiona shivered. The air was cool on her sweaty body. They never had taken showers after coming home, but she was too exhausted now. She’d just have to change the sheets tomorrow. She pulled the blankets up and slid under them, then Jasper did the same. With their naked bodies pressed together, she rested on his shoulder and he put his arm around her. “You’re going to stay here until you have a house to go to, right?” she asked. She hadn’t thought much about it earlier, but maybe he’d go to stay with one of his guys for a while. Of course she wanted him here. She didn’t want to be without him for one minute. But part of her wondered if that would be the best thing for Sophia. She liked Jasper, but to have another man move in so soon? And was their relationship ready for that? They’d fallen in love so quickly. Did they really know each other well enough? She kept thinking back to Sam and how different everything had been at the beginning. What if Jasper did something like that? What if he changed on her suddenly? He didn’t seem like that type, but then, neither had Sam. If she ever wanted any relationship to work out, she’d have to let go and trust. Sure, she might get hurt again or end up in a bad relationship, but if she didn’t ever trust, then she’d never be married to anyone again. Was that what she wanted? No, she enjoyed the married life, just not the person she had been married to. But a nice house with Jasper, and Sophia, and maybe a few kids of their own—it sounded like a dream. Her dream. And maybe, for once, all her dreams would come true. “If you’re okay with it, I’d love to stay here,” he said. She nodded. “Absolutely.” “Good. I might go a little crazy over your safety for a while. It’ll make it much easier for me to feel like you’re safe if I’m with you. I don’t want to be overprotective or anything, but I want to make sure you’re okay and Sophia is okay.” “Thank you.” She leaned forward to kiss him. “Thank you for always protecting us. It means so much to me.” “You mean so much to me. And Sophia. It kills me to think of anyone hurting you. If you hadn’t killed Sam, I was going to.” “I’m glad I got to, though.” “Are you?” He tilted his head to raise an eyebrow at her. “I wasn’t sure how that would affect you. Was that the first time you ever shot a gun? The first time you killed someone?”

“Yes.” She chuckled. “Who else would I have killed?” “Who knows. You could have been mugged some other time or something. I’m glad he’s the only one. It can really weigh on you when you kill someone and the more kills, the more weight.” “I think I feel okay about it because of the circumstances. I feel like I finally fought back, and that’s a good feeling. And I feel like I was the one to save Sophia and myself from him, you know? Obviously, you were a big part of it, and the Hawks, and I couldn’t have gotten to that point without you, but I was the one to pull the trigger and make sure he was out of our lives forever.” “I get that. Totally. I wanted to be the one to kill my dad so badly. My brother did it, though. I guess that’s something. He’s older so he got it worse and he probably needed to kill him just as badly as I did. I wanted to be the one to get revenge, though. I wanted to make him suffer like he made me suffer.” “That’s how I felt about Sam. Like he should have to feel some of the pain he put on me.” She looked up at him and traced his nose and jaw with her fingers. “I’m sorry your dad hurt you like that. No one should be treated that way, especially not by a parent.” “I guess we went through almost the same thing. Dad, husband; I don’t see how it’s much different, really.” “It’s horrible no matter who’s doing the hurting.” Something he said earlier came back to her and she needed an answer, even if she really didn’t want to know. “Can I ask you something?” “Anything.” “How many people have you killed?” He sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. “You sure you want to know the answer to that?” “Nope. But I need to.” “Okay. Well, if we’re counting indirect kills, where I was a part of it, or had someone killed on my behalf, then I don’t have an exact number. You could count every one of the Blades as mine if you wanted to because I ordered my guys to kill them.” “How many people did you personally kill?” “Adding Leo and one of his guys today, eight.” She didn’t say anything for a long time. Then, “How did you not get caught for any of them?” “It’s kinda like with gangs. Police try not to get too involved with MC crimes against each other. I

think they figure they’ll let us take each other out. Saves them from having to deal with us. So, a lot of them weren’t investigated too closely. Like everything that happened today. When they realize who’s inside that house, it’ll be listed as arson and accidental deaths most likely. And the others? I was just smart about them, I guess.” “So, you’ve literally gotten away with murder.” “You could say that. Eight times.” He waited for her to say something else, and when she didn’t, he asked, “Does that bother you?” “I’m sure you had good reasons to kill them all, but it does a little. I mean, it’s murder. That’s a serous thing.” “I know. And I take it very seriously.” “I know you do.” She trailed her fingers along his bulging bicep. “That’s why it’s not a deal breaker.” “What are you deal breakers?” “Not sure, really. Obviously, abuse. I thought the MC thing was, but if that’s not, then I guess I don’t really have many. What about you?” “I doubt there’s anything that could make me not want to be with you. Maybe cheating. That’s not cool. But, I don’t know. You’re so hot, I might still take you back.” “I’ve never done that anyway.” “I was thinking about something.” He played with the ends of her hair, twisting pieces around his fingers and weaving through the long strands. “What if my new house is… our new house? What if you and Sophia came to live with me? We could pick it out together and everything.” “I would love that. Having a house again. And to have it with you? It’s a dream come true.” “We’d have a lot more space. And a yard. We could get a dog or a cat, or whatever Sophia wanted.” “Oh, don’t tell her that.” She laughed. “She’ll want a small zoo.” “I might be able to be talked into that. If that’s what she wanted.” “She is going to have you wrapped around her little finger.” Jasper squeezed her closer. “I hope so.” “You know. I didn’t tell you this. She asked me if you could be her new daddy.”

“She did? Seriously?” “Yes. She wanted you to live here.” “Wow. I wasn’t sure how all this was going to go. If she’d need time to adjust or anything.” “I’m sure she still will, but at least that means she’s comfortable with you. She likes you and she wants you around.” “She really said that?” The awe was clear in his voice. “She really did.” “I love that little girl,” he said. “Me too.” She laughed. “Can we make another one? A little girl or boy who’s ours?” “Right now?” “Maybe we already did. Unless you’re on the pill or something.” “I’m not. Guess we should have taken more precaution.” “Too late now.” He let his hand fall to her stomach. “A Jasper Junior could be growing in there right now. It’s crazy to think that.” Fiona put her hand over his and smiled contently. “I would love nothing more.”

Chapter 17 Six Months Later “Hey, babe, can you come down here a minute?” Jasper called up the stairs. “Coming!” Fiona answered a moment later. When she appeared at the top of the stairs, joy flooded him. The way the light came in through the entryway chandelier hit her a certain way. Her hair shone and the light glittered over her eyes and skin. She looked all lit up. Maybe it was partly the glow of pregnancy, but whatever it was, he loved it when she came to the top of the stairs. She put her hand on her growing stomach and the other hand on the railing as she stepped down the hardwood stairs. “Sorry, were you resting?” he asked. He couldn’t resist kissing her and pulling her in for a quick hug when she reached the bottom of the stairs and was near him. “No, I was folding laundry.” “Why? We have a housekeeper to do that now. I told you to stop cleaning.” “I can’t just do nothing. And I don’t mind. Folding laundry can be very soothing. Gives me time to think.” He sighed. “You have all the time to think that you want. Sit by the pool, read a book in the living room, anything. I don’t want you exerting yourself too hard.” “I’m really not.” She put her hand to his cheek. “But thank you. I can’t get used to all this pampering.” “It’s only been a few months. You will.” “Sir?” A man called to Jasper from the den. Jasper had forgotten all about the men in the other room. He had a habit of doing that when Fiona was near. He could think of nothing but her. Could look at nothing but her. Every time he saw her, he wanted to wrap his arms around her, feel her growing belly. Feel the child that was his and hers growing there, healthy and strong. When they’d found out they were having another girl, he’d almost done cartwheels. Another little girl like Sophia to love and cherish. “Is that what you needed me for?” Fiona pointed into the den.

“Yes.” He took her hand and led her to the room. “I know I let you pick all the furniture, but I’m just not sure about this one.” They stood in the den, looking at the couch. The two men from the furniture company waited impatiently. The couch sat in the middle of the room. It was three cushions long. A basic couch. Fabric covered padding with two arms and a high back. But the problem was the fabric itself. It didn’t match anything in the room. The den was all hardwood and dark furniture. Gold fixtures on the desk and hard chairs. Even the pull chain on the ceiling fan matched the dark colors in the room. He’d thought maybe a leather couch would look nice. And he thought he’d mentioned that to Fiona and she’d agreed. But the couch that sat in the middle of the room—the one just delivered, the one with a slip he was supposed to sign with his name on it and a price far too high for something that looked like that—this couch looked hideous. It was light pink and cream and covered in large flowers. The flowers were blue and purple. Jasper had taken one look and his stomach dropped. He didn’t even know a couch this ugly existed, let alone was about to be dropped off in his house. And he had enough confidence in Fiona to know she had great taste. She wouldn’t have chosen something like that, would she? “What is that?” she asked, pointing to the couch with a disgusted look on her face. Good. That look said this wasn’t what she was expecting. He let out a sigh of relief. “That’s the couch they said you ordered. They’re delivering it.” “Oh no.” She shook her head. “This is not the couch I ordered. It’s so ugly! I would never pick out something like that. There must have been a mix up.” One of the delivery men looked over his paperwork. “Everything looks to be in order to me.” “Well, clearly something got messed up,” Jasper said. “Who do we need to call to straighten it out?” “The store. So, you don’t want this couch?” “No,” they said together emphatically. “I’ll just need a signature saying you’re refusing delivery.” He walked over to Jasper and pointed to a check box and a line that he should sign on. “Thanks,” Fiona said. The man tucked the papers back into his pocket. “Sorry about the mix up. I’m sure they’ll get it straightened out.” The men took either side of the couch and carried it out of the room, then out of the house and back onto the truck. When they left, Jasper turned to Fiona. “Thank God. For a minute there, I thought this baby had stolen

your good taste.” He put his hand on her stomach and kissed her. “Nope. Little Mia will be quite the interior designer if I have any say.” “Mommy, where is our couch going?” Sophia came running from the living room. “The truck’s leaving!” “I know. It’s okay.” She put her arm around Sophia. “They brought the wrong couch by accident.” “But it had flowers on it! I liked that couch.” Fiona and Jasper exchanged a worried look. “We’ll teach her,” Jasper whispered. Fiona nodded. “What does the couch you did order look like?” he asked. “I got the leather one we looked at in the store that one day.” “Oh good. That’s perfect. I’ll call and get it straightened out.” “Did any packages come today?” she asked. “Not that I saw.” She frowned. “I guess it could still come.” “What are you expecting?” “New curtains. For the nursery. It felt too bare in there and I’ve been doing a lot with all the clothing and everything. Wish I still had some of Sophia’s old clothes.” “For the baby?” Sophia asked. “Yes. She could have worn your old clothes, but we don’t have any.” “That’s okay,” Jasper said. “New is better and this way you can get a fresh start. Who needs those old memories?” “True,” Fiona said. After Sam’s death had been ruled officially, Fiona had been able to get back into their house and get anything she wanted. It was all hers now. She took a few items. A few articles of clothing, some jewelry, a book or two, some more of Sophia’s stuffed animals. But most of it had gone to be donated or gone into the trash. She wanted little of it around her, she’d said. Too much bad mojo.

She’d wanted to sell the house, too, to get rid of it and everything that had been tied to Sam. They liked where they lived and with Jasper’s MC being located here, it would have been impossible to move so far away anyway. But she didn’t want to live in that house again, even if they had been in the area. That house where so many nightmares had taken place. They’d put it up for sale and it’d sold quickly. Then, there had been the surprise check. Fiona didn’t think Sam had any sort of life insurance policy. Maybe he hadn’t told her about it because he thought she might wise up and kill him. Which was, ironically, what had happened anyway. But, a large check had come in the mail with Fiona’s name on it. Between the house sale and the insurance money, it was more than enough to buy their new house and furnish it completely. They’d been able to buy a nice big place, with plenty of room for them and the baby and whatever kids they decided to have in the future. He’d have ten more with her if he could. But, he also had to be more careful now. He wasn’t living the life of crime that he had been. He’d decided before when he moved in with Fiona and Sophia right after the fire that he didn’t want to take the chance of getting put away for a long time. Then, when they’d found out she was pregnant, it changed everything much more quickly. He’d gone out that day and applied for jobs. But getting a straight job wasn’t as easy as he thought it would be. He had no experience and no schooling. He’d been out of work so long that it was difficult to come up with a reason why he hadn’t worked in years. He’d made up excuses that made him sound good. Taking care of his sick mother. Looking after his younger siblings. He wasn’t sure if any of the people he interviewed with bought it, but it wasn’t like he could tell them the truth. That he was running around the streets selling drugs and selling black market merchandise. He’d looked at higher paying jobs first. Things like electronics store manager or even a sales position. He technically had experience in sales and retail, even if he couldn’t list it on a resume. But those jobs required years of experience. He’d had to look farther down the line. He couldn’t manage the electronics store, but maybe he could just work there. He could get a sales job, but it wouldn’t be selling high end pharmaceuticals or insurance policies, it might be selling newspaper ads or cell phones. Then he’d gotten a little lucky. Aaron’s uncle’s friend owned a bike shop. And he happened to be part of an MC in his younger days. Aaron told him that Jasper was looking to go straight and needed a job. Rob was happy to take him on. Jasper sold bikes during the day, taking a hefty commission when he made a sale, and when things were slow or he needed extra help, he’d work on bikes. But though Fiona assured him that his paycheck was decent for a normal job, it felt like a huge pay cut. He still sold some dope on the side for now. At least until things could get settled in their place and he was making a steadier commission. The work felt good, though. Honest. He hadn’t expected that, but he got his first check—after freaking

out over how much money the government took out—he’d held it and felt proud. Even if they’d taken a huge chunk, he’d paid taxes and the money was clean. He’d earned it fair and square. It felt better than he thought it would. And he did like the work a lot. He got to talk motors and bike styles all day, help guys find their new ride. On occasion he’d come across someone who was Hawks material and he’d recruit them. On the sly, of course. Rob didn’t want him doing that sort of stuff in the shop. When he wasn’t selling, he was fixing and working on bikes, which had always been something he was both good at and enjoyed. It brought him peace to take something broken and make it run again. When he came home at the end of the day, Fiona and Sophia were there, waiting for him. Usually, Fiona already dinner ready. Some amazing concoction of chicken and vegetables or cheesy pasta. It was always delicious and he’d never eaten so well. Though, Mama didn’t have to know he felt that way. Wasn’t that the dream, though? Find a woman who can cook even better than Mama can? Well, he had. And if dinner wasn’t enough, she got up with him every morning, made the coffee while he was in the shower, then got Sophia up and got her dressed before making them all breakfast. And no, there were still no frozen waffles in their freezer. It was all eggs and bacon or waffles and pancakes from scratch. Then, she’d have his lunch waiting for him to take to work. Sometimes it was leftovers, sometimes a sandwich. But even the basic turkey on rye she managed to make taste incredible. He felt like he lived with a personal chef. And he felt spoiled to no end. She took such good care of him. Fiona had wanted to keep working at the gift shop. She had for a few weeks. But then, one week she said she felt tired and sick, and after several days of that, he’d tried to make her see a doctor. But she had sat up suddenly in bed one night. “Oh, my God, I’m an idiot.” “What?” He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and turned on his side to look up at her. “I can’t believe I didn’t realize it.” “Can you give me a hint, babe? I have no idea what you’re talking about.” “I’ve been extra tired at night, eating more food than ever, and feeling sick in the mornings.” She shook her head. “I’m probably pregnant.” That had woken him up. He sat up in bed in a rush and turned to face her. “Are you serious?” “It makes sense. And it’s not like we ever bothered to use protection or stop it in any way.” His heart raced and the excitement filled his chest. “How can we know for sure?” “Take a pregnancy test.”

“Okay.” He nodded. “Like the ones from a convenient store or something?” “Sure. They work just fine.” He was out of bed in a flash. It was growing late, but most of those places were open all night. “What are you doing?” she asked. “Going to get a test.” “Right now?” “Right now.” He pulled up his jeans and zipped them. “I want to know, don’t you?” “Yes, but—” He came to the bed and kissed her before pulling on his boots. “I hope you are. I really do.” She smiled at him as he stuck his wallet and keys in his pocket. “Could you maybe get some ice cream while you’re there?” He turned back to her with a crooked smile. “The cravings start already?” She shrugged one shoulder. “Chocolate.” He’d hopped on his bike and rushed to the nearest store. With a pint of ice cream and a pregnancy test in hand, he checked out and rushed back home to her apartment. It had only been six weeks since the fire and they were still looking for the perfect house. There were a few they had their eye on, but they hadn’t decided yet, and that was before the insurance check showed up and bumped them into a higher price range. He’d hopped up the stairs two at a time, and barely stopped to lock the door and put the ice cream in the freezer before taking the test in to her. They’d gone into the bathroom, she peed on the little stick, then they stood in the kitchen, eating ice cream from the carton while they waited. Jasper kept looking at the time on the microwave. When it hit five minutes, he hurried into the bathroom. She didn’t have to ask what it said. From where she stood, spoon still in hand, she heard him hooting. “Yes!” He came back to the kitchen with the test and showed it to her. “We’re going to have a baby!” He’d grabbed her into a tight hug and kissed her. “You’re really happy about this?” she asked, looking at him somewhat hesitantly.

“Absolutely. Aren’t you? You don’t seem too excited.” “I am, it’s just…” She put the ice cream carton back in the freezer and set the spoon in the sink. “Let’s get back to bed.” They went back in the bedroom, turned off the light after he’d gotten undressed again, and slipped into their bed. “What is it?” he asked her after pulling her close. “I’m sorry, it’s nothing. I’m very happy.” “Well, I think it’s clear that you’re not going to win any awards for your acting skills. You seem very much not happy about this.” She looked up at him with tears in her eyes. “I guess part of me is still waiting for things to fall apart. Sam had been perfect until after we got back from the honeymoon. Then, all of a sudden, he was freaking out that we weren’t unpacked and that wedding stuff was all over the place. He started to get really mean and yelled at me all the time. But it wasn’t until I told him I was pregnant that he started hitting me. I don’t know why that did it. But I remember being so excited. He came home from work and I ran to show him the test. He’d taken one look at it, handed it back to me, and asked me where dinner was. When I said it wasn’t ready yet, he slapped me across the face.” Jasper reached up and stroked her cheek with his fingertips, then kissed her jaw. “I know you’re nothing like that,” she said, “and you would never do that, but the fear is still there. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to admit I was pregnant. I think I’ve known for a few days, but didn’t want to admit it to myself. I was too scared.” Jasper pulled her tighter. “It’s okay. I understand, but you have nothing to fear. I’d never raise a hand to you like that and I am truly happy to be having a baby with you. My family will be thrilled. They were already excited to get Sophia, but now a new baby? They’ll go nuts.” She giggled and wiped her tears. “Thank you. I know you wouldn’t hurt me. I’m sorry. It’s stupid.” “No, it’s not. You went through some really difficult times and it left a mark. We all have our scars.” He’d thought of Daniel in that moment, and a pang of pain followed by a pang of regret shot through his chest. He missed him and every time the Hawks got together, it was a reminder of all he’d done wrong or had failed to do. But then Fiona had snuggled in close and he had let his mind drift to their future. To a new baby and all that they would have together. She would be his forever now. No matter what happened, they’d always be tied together through this little miracle. “How should we tell Sophia?” she asked, yawning.

“We’ll need something good.” “We can get her one of those big sister shirts.” “Maybe a little baby doll to take care of,” he added. “She’ll be excited, right?” “Are you kidding me? She’s been begging for a sister or brother for years. She just won’t want to wait.” “Well, neither do I.” They laughed together. “Let’s go tomorrow,” he said. “You have off anyway. We can go shopping, get something for Sophia, get something for the baby. It’ll be fun.” “Sounds good.” But her words were soft and heavy. She was exhausted. He brushed her hair and kissed her forehead. “Sleep, my princess.” The next day they had found a big sister shirt and a little onesie that was gray and yellow stripped, for either a boy or a girl. They’d also found a doll that looked very much like a real baby. They’d wrapped it all up and given it to Sophia. First the doll, then the onesie. Of course, she’d thought the onesie was for the doll, but soon discovered it was far too big. “Well, it’s not for that baby,” Fiona had said with a smile huge on her face. “You have to open this one next.” Sophia tore out the tissue paper and pulled out the shirt. She studied the words for a while. “What does it say?” “It says, ‘Big Sister,’” Fiona said. Sophia looked up at them, pulled her eyebrows together and held the shirt over the doll. “This one is too big, too.” “That’s because it’s not for your doll,” Jasper said. He took the shirt from her and held it up to her, showing that it was just the right size. “It’s for you.” “But, I’m not a sister.” “No, but you will be,” Fiona said.

Sophia’s eyes had grown huge. “You mean you’re having a baby?” Fiona nodded and smiled. “Where is it?” she asked. “Right here.” Fiona patted her stomach. “Just like you were once. It takes a long time for the baby to grow big enough to come out and be born.” Sophia nodded in awe. “Like a whole week?” “A little longer than that. Nine months,” Fiona said. Sophia looked confused by this. “Think of it this way,” Jasper said. “You know when Christmas is, right?” She nodded. “Long time away.” “Well, right after Christmas, the baby will come.” Sophia’s face fell. “Can’t the baby come sooner?” “Sorry, honey. That’s just how long it takes.” Fiona pulled her into a hug. “But that will give us time to get a new house and make a room for the baby and for you to get ready to be the best big sister ever.” “I’m ready now,” she said with confidence. “If you tell the baby I’m ready, will it come sooner?” “Maybe we can make some sort of count down,” Jasper said. “That way we can see how much longer.” “Okay.” Sophia picked up her doll and rocked it like a baby. Then she ran off to her room and shouted, “Best big sister ever!” They’d found their perfect house a month later, after getting the insurance check. They’d packed up Fiona’s small apartment and Jasper’s new things, and moved into the big, empty house. They’d worked quickly to fill it with furniture and to decorate. Jasper loved seeing what Fiona did with each space. He’d never lived in a house so beautiful or felt so happy in all his life. And soon after they moved in, they hired a housekeeper and he’d convinced her that it was okay to quit her job and focus on the baby and Sophia. The new house had a nice, big basement. This would become the new Crimson Hawks headquarters. They’d been meeting in Aaron’s basement, but it wasn’t quite big enough and it was full of Christmas decorations and storage items. Now they had a permanent place.

The basement was filled with comfortable couches and chairs, a big TV so they could just hang out, and most importantly, a large portrait of Daniel on one wall. After the funeral, they’d all taken time to grieve. They’d come together to have a memorial ride and went to all of his favorite places, scattering his ashes. Angie rode along on Derrick’s bike and helped. At the end, they’d taken turns talking about him and sharing their favorite memories over a bonfire. But it still felt empty when they all got together. Like there was clearly something missing. And he’d never tell anyone except Fiona, but sometimes, he avoided looking at the picture because it made it so much more real that he wasn’t there in person. But, they’d started to heal, slowly. They’d helped Angie go through his things and take care of all the little pieces that make up an ended life. Jasper had one of his t-shirts, one that had “Badass” across the front. He’d never wear the shirt, but when he looked in the back of his closet, it was there. A little piece of Daniel close by. When Jasper looked at his life now, things looked so close to perfect. There was only one little tiny piece of the puzzle missing. And he was going to fix that today. He should have done it months ago, but everything hadn’t been in place until now. “Are we all ready?” Jasper asked, watching as Fiona helped Sophia into her jacket. Sophia nodded and clapped her hands together. “This will be so fun!” Fiona nodded. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been for a ride.” Jasper handed over her helmet, the one he’d bought especially for her with his new discount at the bike shop. She hadn’t used it much, but a few times they’d gone for an early morning ride. Jasper fastened Sophia’s helmet on, also a new purchase. He helped her into the sidecar, which he’d borrowed from Rob for this special occasion. Sophia had never ridden on the bike before in any way. Fiona popped on her helmet and climbed onto the back of the bike after Jasper did. She wrapped her arms around him, and he looked over at Sophia. “Ready?” he asked her. She nodded, the helmet flopping forward and back. He started up the bike and they drove off. It was early evening. The sun was setting and the sky was pink and orange over the horizon. He took them on the most scenic roads he knew of. Then, he headed onto the highway. He slowed down and pulled the bike over on the shoulder of the road, in a seemingly random place. He got off the bike, helped Fiona down, and got Sophia out. “What are we doing?” Fiona asked.

She looked around at the trees, the gravel shoulder, the highway. Her face changed and she seemed to realize where they were. “I know it’s not the most romantic location, but this is where we first met,” Jasper said. He took the items he’d brought from his saddlebag. A thick blanket, some sandwiches and chips and sparkling grape juice. He spread out the blanket and Sophia immediately sat and looked up at him expectantly. “Want to help me set the food out?” he asked her. She pulled the remaining items out carelessly and set them on the blanket. Somehow, the mini bag of chips never made it to the blanket, but was opened and half devoured by the time Jasper helped Fiona sat down. She rubbed her growing belly and picked up a sandwich. “So, this is what you were doing in the kitchen all morning.” “Yup. I hope they’re okay.” She took a bite of the turkey sandwich, and he took a bite of his own. He’d tried to make it like she did, but something was missing, and he hadn’t been able to figure out what. It still tasted okay, though. “What’s different?” he asked. “What do you do that I don’t?” She thought for a moment. “Probably the mustard. I mix Dijon and spicy.” And he’d only used spicy. Maybe that was it. “It’s very good, though,” she said. After they’d eaten, he took out the bottle of sparkling grape juice. “I have a special toast to make.” He ripped off the foil and poured the juice into three glasses. He handed one to Sophia, and one to Fiona. Sophia held up the glass, acting like she was a princess with her pinky sticking out. “I have been living the perfect life,” Jasper said. “A new job that I enjoy, a beautiful new house, a gorgeous woman by my side, an adorable little daughter”—he gestured to Sophia—“and even another little princess on the way. But something still feels like it’s missing.” Fiona pulled her eyebrows together and tilted her head slightly at him. “It was this.” Jasper set down his glass and reached into his pocket. He held one ring out to Fiona and another, smaller ring out to Sophia. “I love you both. I want to continue to build our happy family

together. Fiona, will you marry me? Sophia, will you let me join your family?” Sophia looked at her mother with an amazed smile. “I get a ring, too!” She reached over and tried to grab it from Jasper, but he took her hand and slid it into place, then kissed her hand. She giggled and moved her hand back and forth to make the small pink stone glitter in the sun. Then, he turned to Fiona and picked up her hand. “I love you so much. Since the first moment you showed up, you were like an angel to me. Come to save me from death, then from a life of loneliness. I want to keep saving each other for the rest of our lives.” She wiped tears from her eyes and leaned forward to kiss him. “Will you marry me?” he asked again. She nodded and squeezed her eyes shut. He kissed her forehead and picked up her hand to slide the diamond ring on. “It’s perfect,” she said. “It looks exactly like the one I’ve always wanted.” “Told you,” Sophia said, taking a big gulp of her juice. “You did?” Fiona asked. Jasper nodded. “I asked Sophia if she knew what kind of ring you would want. She picked that one out.” Fiona looked at Sophia with wide eyes. It had been months since they’d had that conversation. It was one day after they left Sam and before she’d met Jasper. They were in their apartment and Sophia had noticed that Fiona wasn’t wearing her engagement ring and wedding ring anymore. “Where did your rings go, Mommy?” she asked. “Well, those rings were from Daddy and since I’m not married to Daddy anymore, I don’t wear them.” “Will I have rings when I get married?” “Of course you will. There’s an engagement ring first, that’s when he asks you to marry him, then you get a wedding ring later when you get married.” Sophia had been so entranced by this idea that they’d looked on Fiona’s phone and she’d shown her the different ring styles. She asked Sophia which one she would want if she was getting married. She chose a square diamond with channel set diamonds beside it. Then Sophia asked which one Fiona liked. She’d pointed to a round cut ring with a halo of smaller diamonds around the edge. A ring just like the one now on her finger. How in the world had Sophia remembered that?

“Does this mean you’ll be my daddy now?” Sophia asked Jasper. “Do you want me to be?” “Yes.” She nodded her head enthusiastically. “Then, I guess we’ll just be one big happy family,” he said. “Mommy, Daddy, Sophia, and Mia.” “That’s a good idea,” Sophia said. She crawled into her mother’s lap and Jasper put his arms around them. Everything he loved most was right here, close to his heart.


Sneak Preview of PINNED DOWN: A Triple Threat Sports Romance

HE’S GOT ME PINNED DOWN – AND I NEVER WANT TO LEAVE. Cade “Lucky” Hendrix does things his own way. He’s a winner on the field and a

sinner in the

bedroom. There’s only one catch: he'll never have the same girl twice. Kendra Boles has no time for arrogant jocks trying to get in her "end zone." She’s got her hands full after the director of the charity where she works is arrested on charges of embezzlement. Besides, even if she was interested in dating, a playboy like Lucky Hendrix would be far from the top of her list. When the new team owner throws a fit over his players' love-'em-and-leave-'em ways, Lucky is put in a tough position. He couldn’t care less about actually changing his lifestyle – he just wants someone to provide a little cover until this storm blows over.

He strikes a deal with Kendra. If she pretends to be charity and look after one of their “Younger Brothers.”

his girlfriend, he’ll donate to her

At first, it’s strictly business. But the longer Lucky and Kendra hang out, the harder it is to deny what they’re both feeling. Kendra is scared of the possibilities, but Lucky is determined not to let her become the

one that got away. If there’s one thing in his life that’s always true, it’s this:

Lucky Hendrix doesn’t lose.

Prologue Lucky

“Do you know why I called you in here?” Coach asked me as I sat down in the small metal chair in front of his desk. His office wasn’t much more than a utility closet with a desk in it. He had a few pictures on the walls of himself as a college quarterback, over a lifetime ago. There were a couple of plaques hanging up as well. His desk had a defunct computer monitor and a phone connected to a landline he rarely used. Whenever he relied on technology, he always used a cell phone and a tablet that had been provided by the team’s owners. He rarely even used his office, except for meetings like these, where he would sit one of us down and chew us out for screwing up. These come-to-Jesus meetings were pretty much routine for me. I’d screw up, take my lecture and ass-chewing, wait a while, and screw up again. I had repeated this process several times since I’d joined the team. “I’m guessing I’m in trouble,” I told him, using my normal tone—sarcastic and defiant as hell. I always challenged him to do his worst when I came into the office. I wasn’t worried about the consequences. I was the team’s kicker, and they all called me Lucky. I made the kicks no one else could make, got the girls no one else could get, and got away with more shit than anyone else could. Jake, Harley, and I made big plays on and off the field. We had earned the reputation of being notorious playboys. Women didn’t stand a chance with us. Jake had been a running back before being taken off the field due to an injury and getting married. He usually just referred to himself as the receiver. He caught the passes that no one else could. He ran more yards than anyone else on the team. If we were in a tight spot and needed to score, he was the man to turn to. On and off the field. Harley was our quarterback. He was the star of the show, like the lead singer in a rock band. I didn’t get the same women those two got. Harley and Jake always got the groupie types who would hang around after the game to get autographs, phone numbers, whatever they could get. They got the women who sought out football players and wanted to be seen with them. They got the supermodels who didn’t mind showing a little skin to get what they wanted. Jake, of course, wound up marrying an old flame, Brooke, after running back into her. No one had expected him to settle down like that, but he did, leaving just two of us to carry on what had become a tradition for us. Our triple threat had been knocked down to a dynamic duo, and I couldn’t have imagined two people with more different taste in women.

I got the quiet, more reserved ones. Women didn’t seek out the kicker. I had to seek them out. I’d target the pretty little thing who wore long sleeves to the bar and kept herself mostly covered up because she didn’t think she was anything special. I’d always find those women and make them feel better about themselves by giving them attention and showing them just how damn sexy they were. It was great watching someone who was closed off in a little shell come out for the world to see. I always thought about what I did as a kind of public service. I helped beautiful women realize their true potential, and then I would leave them to go after men like Jake and Harley once I got my fill of them. “This is why I called you here,” Coach said, snapping me out of my head and back to his desk. He threw a tabloid magazine down in front of me. Raven, the beautiful brunette I’d been seeing for a while, adorned the cover with her dark hair and green eyes. According to the tabloid headline, she’d gotten herself in some kind of legal trouble, and I was being linked to it because they had all known about us being together. “Now, you know we broke it off,” I reminded coach. “I don’t care, Cade. The problem is you’re still being linked to her. You’ve got to learn to keep it in your pants, or at least keep it out of the papers, son,” Coach snapped. “So, what, am I going to be responsible for every move she makes now?” I asked him. “That seems to be the case, doesn’t it?” “Coach, I don’t even know what she’s in trouble for,” I argued. “That doesn’t help, Cade.” He only called me Cade when I was in trouble, but I was usually able to laugh about it with him. He didn’t seem to be in a laughing mood. “Alright, what do I do?” I asked, giving in. He sat down and sighed. “There’s nothing you can do this time, kid.” “What do you mean?” I didn’t like his tone. Mr. Clark, the team’s new owner, had threatened to trade anyone who couldn’t maintain the proper professional image he wanted for the team. Of course, no one thought he would actually do it. I had a feeling that I was about to be the first one to get traded for poor behavior off the field. “Mr. Clark is not going to settle for this kind of behavior,” Coach Hawkins said. “Yeah, I know. I’ve heard it plenty of times,” I replied, laughing. I had hoped that my laughter would have been met with some in return, but Coach looked at me with serious, harsh eyes.

“You’re going to be traded, Lucky,” he said. “I tried to warn you guys about Mr. Clark and this reckless ass behavior of yours.” “Wait, what?” “You heard me. We’ve had too much trouble from you with this behavior, even after being told, when Mr. Clark took over, that this kind of behavior would no longer be tolerated. You just can’t seem to stop, so he’s not going to put up with it anymore. You’re out of here as soon as we can find a team willing to take you,” Coach told me. “No way.” I couldn’t imagine leaving Jake and Harley behind, leaving the practice facility, my new hometown. “Don’t worry about it too much. With your record on the field, I’m sure it won’t be hard to find someone willing to put you in the game,” he assured me. “What the hell did she get herself into?” I asked absently. “It had to be pretty bad if I’m being traded away for being associated with her.” “I don’t know what it was that she did, and I really don’t care. You know I don’t give a shit what you guys do off the field as long as we keep winning games, but it has more to do with the amount of crap we have to put up with, Cade.” “We’re not even together anymore, Coach. Doesn’t that count for something?” I asked. “Hopefully it does with your next team,” he said, letting me down with his tone. He placed a hand on my shoulder as he walked past me, leaving me in his office to mull over my fate. I wondered how long I had with the team before the trade was situated and finalized. While I thought about it, it occurred to me that being traded wasn’t the worst that could have happened. I was going to get a chance to start over. I wasn’t going to be weighed down with the things I’d done here in this town, with this team. I smiled and nodded to myself alone in Coach’s office. I was going to get the chance to get mixed up in a whole new world of shit. I got up and left the closet-office. I was going to skip out on the rest of the day’s practice. I stopped by Jake’s desk on the way out. Jake had been moved to the head of PR and marketing. He represented us to the public at large. “Hey, Jake,” I said, poking my head in his door, “I need to see you and Harley this evening after practice. Meet me at the bar for a few drinks.” I didn’t wait for a response. I just tapped the doorframe and walked away. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be returning to the practice facility or not. I left the building, hopped in my car, and drove to the bar. I figured I’d just wait for the guys to get there later.

“So, how’d the talk go?” Jake asked, clapping a hand to my shoulder as he and Harley came in and sat on either side of me at the bar later that evening. “It must have been pretty serious if you left practice early,” Harley added. “I’m being traded, guys,” I said. “Bullshit,” Harley said. He nodded at the bartender and ordered a beer. “I’m not buying it,” Jake chimed in. “Guys, it’s for real,” I insisted, nursing my latest bottle of beer. I was drinking slowly, not trying to drown myself in my disappointment, but just trying to take the edge off. Harley laughed and shook his head. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Mr. Clark finally found someone to axe because of a girl.” “It’s more than that, man. She’s a nightmare. Letting him trade me is actually going to help me get away from her,” I told him. “It’s still bullshit.” “I’m with Harley on this one,” Jake added, giving in and ordering a beer, too. The three of us hadn’t gone out together to drink in a long time. Jake had been the first to fold under the new owner’s pressure. He’d gone out to find someone to pose as his girlfriend and ended up getting himself into trouble with her over a planned marriage. I still wasn’t completely sure what all had happened, because he had distanced himself from us when it all started. It was pretty cool to have him back, even if it was just for a night. “I get a new town, a new start. I don’t have to deal with my past mistakes physically tracking me down like they regularly do here. I get a whole new pool of women to choose from. Plus, this allows me to position myself closer to some of the other guys in the league that we’re already working with. You know what I’m saying?” My impending trade had some benefits for the three of us, businesswise. “You make a good point,” Jake said. “Well, hell, here’s to the future,” Harley toasted us, raising his bottle. We tapped our bottles together and drank. It was the end of an era for the three of us, but it had been coming for quite some time. When Coach Hawkins came into the training room and told us the new owner wasn’t going to let us continue screwing up the way we were, I should have known then that I was on my way out the door.

It was good, though. Leaving was a good thing. It gave me new opportunities. There were networking opportunities, new women, and new fans to reach. There was new trouble to seek out. When I found out where I was going, I packed up and put my house on the market. I went and found a new house in my new hometown. I moved ahead of my start date with the new team, giving myself plenty of time to get across state lines and get settled in my new place. I tried to keep my head down, out of the tabloids, but there was only so much I could do. Everyone knew where I was going and which team had accepted me as their new kicker. Luckily, I was only the kicker, so I didn’t have to worry about women and fans flocking to meet me as I arrived in my new city to start practice with my new team at the beginning of the new season. I had to seek my women out, which gave me a better chance to pick and choose, and in a new city, surrounded by beautiful women, I felt pretty damn lucky indeed.

Chapter One Kendra

My first fundraiser event with the local charity organization Older Brothers was a media circus, and it really made the local non-profit look like a joke. When I arrived, I saw that the local pro football team was swamped by photographers and self-styled reporters keeping the players from being able to interact with the kids we were all supposed to be there to help. Not cool. Also, my staff wasn’t helping matters at all. A couple of them were glued to their phones, probably following the tabloids online and getting updates as the interviews and impromptu photo sessions were taking place. A couple of others were talking to reporters. I hoped they were at least talking about what Older Brothers was doing there. We were trying to connect local at-risk youth with positive role models in fields that would catch their interest. I had my reservations about pairing at-risk kids with the standard go-to answer of sports, but it was better than letting them hang with the local drug dealers and street thugs. Unfortunately, with the tabloids and sports papers hogging the spotlight, the kids were pretty much just getting ignored. Not cool. I wasn’t helping either by being late. It was my first event as the new director of the program, and I was showing up after the event was already supposed to have started. I had spent the morning fighting with my clothes, with my hair, and with my purse. Then, I had spent an immeasurable amount of time searching for my keys. I felt like a train wreck walking onto the field at the state-of-the-art practice facility the city had installed just a few years ago. Lucky for me, the whole thing looked like a train wreck. I probably looked like I had it together compared to the Older Brothers staff playing on their phones and sneaking bites of food from the refreshment tables. My first order of business was to gather my team and organize them so we could show the local businesses and private investors, who had agreed to help us make this happen, that we were professionals and that the program had some merit. I pulled everyone away from the food, away from the reporters, and certainly away from the kids. “Look,” I leveled my eyes with each of my staff members, “we’ve been given grants. We’ve been

given donations. We’ve been given an opportunity today to show the community at large that despite the past problems Older Brothers has faced, we’re serious about helping our children. I take this very seriously, and I’m counting on each of you to help me show that dedication to our investors.” There was some hemming and hawing. There were a few rolled eyes and smacked lips. I saw the kind of ship the previous director had run before she had been taken away in handcuffs by the authorities on abuse and embezzlement charges. Something told me she hadn’t been the only one treating the charity as some sort of joke. Well, I wasn’t going to allow it. Older Brothers was my last chance. I’d failed at my previous charity position, though it was nothing as epic as what had happened here. I just hadn’t been able to overcome the apathy that had settled over the community. “If any of you think you won’t be able to help out properly, or don’t feel like you can take this charity seriously, you can leave today. If you are still here after I grab a cup of coffee, I’m going to assume it’s because you want to be, and I’m going to expect you to act accordingly. But remember, I’m not afraid to clean this organization out if I have to,” I warned them before walking over to the refreshment table to pour a cup of coffee. While I was there, I watched the jocks getting their egos stroked by the reporters and cameras in their faces. They weren’t here for the kids. They were here for the publicity. I wondered if we would be seen the same way by aligning ourselves with pro-football. Over the years, it seemed that professional athletes had begun lowering themselves to the levels of other celebrities. They were known for parties, sex, and drugs. It seemed like there was always one or another among them in the news for their poor decisions. I wasn’t sure we needed to line up behind them, but it was the best I could come up with right away. When I returned to my crowd, everyone was still there. Phones had been put away, and they were talking when I walked back up. I didn’t mind interrupting their conversation and establishing my authority. “Good. I’m glad to see everyone is still here. That means it’s time to get down to business. Look at what we’ve got in front of us.” I turned around and nodded back over to where the players stood around in their uniforms, surrounded by reporters. The kids were just sort of hanging around, watching the spectacle, and waiting for their opportunity to talk to the athletes. “It’s just a circus, like everything else,” one of the women standing behind me said in a disgusted tone. “Exactly, and that’s not okay. Why are we here?” I asked the group. “We’re supposed to be here for the kids,” another of them said. “Exactly. Now, does this look like we’re here for the kids, or does it look like we’re feeding the tabloids and sports papers?” I continued leading them with my questions.

I heard the revelation dawn on my team as I sipped my coffee. Their eyes were finally open, and it sounded like they were getting on board. “The first order of business is to at least shove the reporters back so we can get the kids in to talk to these guys. This is where our grants and other donations are supposed to be going,” I told them, issuing my first real orders to my staff. We descended upon the kids first, apologizing that they were being ignored. We led a few of them with us as we positioned them in front of the reporters, trying to get them to where they could actually spend time with the athletes and talk with them. That was when I started to meet the athletes for the first time. They seemed just as happy to see the atrisk teens as the kids were to meet them. As we moved the kids in, the reporters naturally started to sink back. Then, I met Lucky. I didn’t have a kid with me. We had sort of handed them all over to the other guys when the tall, muscular body appeared before me. He wasn’t as thick and wide as the others, which still wasn’t saying a whole lot. He was scrappy by comparison to the thicker, musclebound jocks who made up the rest of his team. I froze when I caught his gentle puppy-dog brown eyes staring into mine. He wore his hair a little longer than everyone else and kept it brushed back so that it looked short and neatly kept. He gave me a warm smile and stretched out his hand. I wasn’t exactly sure whether to take it or not. “Cade Hendrix,” he said, introducing himself. “But everyone calls me Lucky. I’m the new kicker. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss…?” “Kendra,” I told him, letting him take my hand in his. His grip was intense. There was something more in it than just taking my hand to give it a shake or squeeze. I felt desire channeling itself through his grip. It made my knees weak. The skin between my thighs trembled slightly at his touch. I thought it was an odd reaction to have to someone taking my hand, but it was there. No one had ever awoken my desire as swiftly and effortlessly as Lucky had. I figured that was why they called him Lucky. Cameras went off as we shook hands and started to talk. Lucky was all charm. “I’m new to the area,” he told me at one point, following up his statement with, “Is there anywhere you would recommend for lunch once we get out of here today?” I wished I had been local at that moment, but I had nothing. “We have catering here for the event,” I suggested. “Oh, I definitely intend on grabbing a snack while we’re here, but maybe you could show me a local

diner or café for lunch?” He cocked an eyebrow. I tried as hard as I could not to blush, but there really wasn’t anything I could do to stop it. I smiled politely. It was such a shame to have to turn him down. His charm was working, despite how misplaced it was. “I’m not from around here either,” I finally gave in and told him. “I just moved in from out of town to help get Older Brothers back up and running. I haven’t really had a chance to get out and check out the local scene.” “Well, maybe we can explore together sometime, but I’ll let you get back to work. I’ve taken up enough of your time,” he said before walking off to join the rest of the guys and their potential Younger Brothers. I didn’t think much of the interaction. It was cute and endearing, and that was really all I thought about it. I was glad someone had reached out the way he had. Lucky had broken the ice for me a little and made me more comfortable talking to people, especially the athletes. That was before I saw the tabloids the next morning. Each front cover showed pictures of us shaking hands and smiling at each other. The looks on our faces were obvious. The papers put us together, not just meeting for the first time as business people. The headlines said things like, New Older Brothers Director Gets Lucky. It was all very tongue-incheek, but I was still a little put-off at first. After looking through several of them, though, I realized I could use Lucky’s reputation to draw attention to the organization. Granted, his reputation wasn’t exactly what we wanted to associate ourselves with. He was a womanizer who had apparently been traded off by his last team to avoid embarrassing them and doing irreparable damage to the team’s reputation. If I wasn’t careful with him, I knew he would do the same to us, but if we were supposed to be together, I figured I could possibly show a different side of him. It was obvious he needed an image makeover before he was traded off to another team for his behavior. And I needed a local celebrity to attach to the program. It was the perfect plan. Plus, he was gorgeous. He had charm for days. If he used it responsibly instead of just trying to get women into bed with him, he would be unstoppable. Hell, I would be unstoppable with him at my side. I just needed to get ahold of him and get him approved for the program. The board of directors was so hung up on using athletes as positive role models, it would have been easy to get him approved to be a Big Brother. I figured I would spin it as a way to show the program’s positive impact on the Older Brothers as well as on the Younger Brothers. Everyone had seen results in the program’s Younger Brothers so far, but no one had mentioned how our role models and mentors were affected by it. No one seemed to care very much.

I was determined to show them that the Younger Brothers could help us turn some Older Brothers around to make them positive role models for everyone in the community. I just needed the right pairing between the two, and the approval of the board of directors in order to get started. I looked down at the tabloid cover on my desk at the headquarters of the local chapter, and I couldn’t help but answer everyone’s question. Yes, I was feeling lucky.

Chapter Two Lucky

The tabloids were in. They got their first taste of Lucky by putting me on the cover with the director of Older Brothers. I was rather amused by it all, but the owner of my new team wasn’t. A couple of quick photos and cheeky headlines landed me right in the owner’s office. It had apparently become an ordeal overnight. “Relax, Cade. You’re not in trouble yet. We’re just trying to take some proactive steps to make sure we don’t have the same issues you experienced before with your last team,” he said. Mr. Stevens was the owner of my new team. He wore loose slacks and a polo shirt that fit him pretty well across his chest and shoulders. He was a fit man. He looked like he could have gone out on the field with the team at any time. He had a little salt-and-pepper action going on in his hair, just enough to set him aside from all the young bucks who worked underneath him. Coach Anglin was there as well. The office was large, with dark cherry bookshelves built into the walls and a large, shiny dark cherry desk positioned in the middle of the room. When I entered, Coach was already seated in one of the deep red leather armchairs in front of the desk, leaving the other chair for me. I didn’t feel like sitting. I felt like making my usual promises and going out to find that cute little piece of ass they had me next to in all of the papers. I figured they were on to something by pairing us up. I had singled her out when I saw her because she was a little shorter than I was. She had that freshout-of-bed look in her eyes. Her suit and skirt revealed more of her body than she realized. She had all the right curves in all the right places. She underestimated her beauty. That much was obvious with the modest clothes and the lack of attention she paid to her hair and makeup. And that put her right in my sights. I was going to turn her around and show her how beautiful she could be, how beautiful she could feel. She had gorgeous golden brown curls and hazel eyes. She had a beautiful, modest smile. She tried to hide it from me when I met her, but it was in the papers and on the covers of all the tabloids just the same. To top it off, her lips begged to be kissed or used in other ways. “Cade, are you listening?” Mr. Stevens snapped, bringing me back from meeting Kendra at the fundraiser. “Sorry, sir, I was just distracted by the beautiful smile they caught in that picture,” I joked. There was

no denying that I’d spaced out for a minute. He’d caught me. I was used to these meetings. They had been the norm under Coach Hawkins and Mr. Clark. “Look, I’m taking a big chance with you, Cade,” Mr. Stevens said, leaning onto his elbows across the desk from me. “I understand,” I told him. His insistence on calling me Cade was beginning to make me feel a little less lucky, if I had to be honest about it. “No, Cade, I don’t think you do. Sure, you get the words. You understand the concept, but do you really understand what I’m trying to tell you? No, I don’t think you get it at all. No one else would take you because of your reputation. You’re reckless. You’re careless. You are a liability. Now, get you on the field, and you’re amazing. I’ve watched you score off of kicks when we wouldn’t have even imagined someone running the ball that distance. That saved your ass this time around, kid.” He was right. I really wasn’t following what he was trying to tell me. I didn’t see how any of what he was saying had anything to do with Kendra from Older Brothers. And he must have seen it, because he sighed and took a different approach. “Listen, what I’m trying to tell you here, Cade, is that you need to straighten up if you want to stay with this team. I can’t have you coming in here and disrupting what we’ve got going on. We aren’t flashy. I don’t have a bunch of playboys playing football for me. My guys understand they are professionals, and I expect them to behave as such,” he explained to me. “Yes, sir,” I said quietly. I was starting to get the picture. This was the last stop on my way out of my career. I had to shape up, but I had no idea how to do that. I only knew the life I had been living since day one. “If you have to have girls around you, keep just one steady girl, okay? Can you do that for me, Cade?” I took a deep breath. “I think I can,” I told him, looking down at the tabloid cover in front of me. I understood why Jake had decided to go after a staged relationship after Mr. Clark had told us to settle down. If I had listened, I probably still would have been there with the guys instead of here with a new team, new girls, new hometown. “Good. You will not turn this team into a spectacle. Do you understand me?” he added. “Crystal clear, Mr. Stevens,” I said. “Alright. You’re dismissed. Get back to practice,” he told me, waving me off as I got up from my chair and started towards the door to his office. I hated the idea that somehow we were supposed to maintain the image of being positive role models for the communities in which we played. We were celebrities, and we were wealthy. We had money and star power. Girls wanted us. We were positive, successful role models for guys who wanted to

be hot and successful. If there was money in being quiet and humble, we would have taken humble desk jobs. I was a competitor. I wanted to win at everything. I wanted to be the best on the field, in the club, and even in bed. I hadn’t toned my body just for the game alone. My body was a gift to women everywhere, and I wanted to share that gift with as many of them as I could. I had swiped the paper from Mr. Stevens’ desk, the tabloid with me on the cover with the beautiful Kendra Boles. If anyone could help me straighten up my image, it was Kendra. That was her job. She worked directly with role models, pairing young guys up with successful adults who could show them the right way to do things. I wondered if her program could help turn me into the positive role model I needed to be for the team. It was definitely worth a shot, I decided. It would get me close to her, and I could probably get her in bed with minimal effort. She was the perfect candidate. I needed a positive image, and she needed a boost in her confidence. I decided to call her office. We had all received information on how to get involved with Older Brothers at the fundraising event. I wasn’t sure if anyone else had called yet, but I needed a girlfriend, and it would have been easier just to use someone I’d already been seen with. I pulled out my phone and punched in the number that was on the pamphlet. The receptionist answered and directed my call to Kendra. “This is Kendra,” she answered, and I was immediately reminded of the big beautiful hazel eyes staring into mine at the fundraiser. I wanted her to pose as my girlfriend, but I also really wanted her to let me take her to bed. “Kendra, hey, it’s Cade Hendrix, from the fundraiser?” I phrased it as a question, asking if she remembered me. “Yeah, Lucky! Hey, it’s a pleasure to hear from you. So, are you interested in joining up with Older Brothers as a positive role model?” she asked, going immediately into sales mode. “Not exactly. Actually, I have some business I want to talk to you about, and it may include that, I guess. I was calling to see if there would be a good time for us to get together and go over a couple of things that could be beneficial to both of us,” I said, hoping I wasn’t so vague that my proposal sounded creepy. “I’m not sure,” she said hesitantly. “What did you have in mind?” “I was thinking maybe I could show you a nice, quick little lunch spot I’ve discovered,” I told her, taking it back to our previous, flirtatious conversation. “I thought you didn’t know anything,” she said, playing along. I could hear that bashful smile in her

voice. I could think of some other quick lunch options besides just taking her to a diner or café. Like taking her back to my place and feeding her myself. But it was a bit soon for that, and I had other needs besides sexual ones. “Well, I asked around,” I told her. “Did you do that just for me?” Those eyes twinkled. Those cheeks blushed. I could imagine it perfectly, summoning my memory of her from the short time we’d spent talking. “Guilty as charged. I simply could not pass up the opportunity to help you out after you gave me that look yesterday,” I told her. “Okay, then. It looks like I’m free for lunch today. Where do you want to meet?” Her tone switched again as she regained her composure and returned to her professional voice. “Well, there’s Daily Grind, which is not far from your office,” I suggested. “It started off as a newsstand, and now it’s a little not-so-greasy spoon diner. It’s a nice place, very public, but also quiet and reserved like a coffee shop.” “You sound like you’ve done some research,” she teased. “Hey, I’m just telling you what I was told. Apparently, it’s a pretty popular place, especially with the professional crowd, like yourself.” I was already working my charm to get her to agree to meet for lunch. “Okay, that sounds good,” she said. “See you around noon?” “I’ll be there.” We hung up. I wasn’t really sure where Daily Grind was, and I wasn’t sure what to expect once we got there. All I knew was the description that I’d found when I looked up local favorites for lunch on Google. Lunch wasn’t that far away. I caught up with Coach Anglin as he was leaving the owner’s office. “Hey, Coach, I just got off the phone with Kendra at Older Brothers. She wants to meet me for lunch.” I told him just enough to let him hear what he wanted to hear. “That’s great, kid. Older Brothers will definitely help you present a cleaner, more professional image.” He clapped a hand on my back. “Well, we haven’t decided anything yet. This meeting is to see if I’m a good fit for the program, I think. Plus, I want to know what all she’s bringing to the table, so to speak.” He shot me a stern look. “Don’t let this turn into one of your conquests, Cade. You’re running out of

luck here.” That much went without saying. I could feel the luck leaving. So far, the only person still calling me Lucky, besides myself, was Kendra. I was going to run with that for now. She seemed the best bet. I figured if I followed my luck, I’d be able to regain some ground and get back on top of my game, even if that meant having to change it a little. I hurried to the diner in time to see her arriving. She got out of a small hatchback sedan. It didn’t look ratty, it wasn’t old, but it was still a hatchback. Those cars were good for moving, and I felt like she’d probably done her share of that in the past. She wore modest business clothes, trading the skirt from the fundraiser for a pair of very professional-looking slacks. Try as she might, she couldn’t hide her beauty from me. Her hair was pulled back in a bun, and she wore a light blue blouse under her navy blue coat. She almost looked like a cop instead of the director of a non-profit charity. It was a shame I was there to talk business with her. All I wanted was pleasure.

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Other Books by Lexi Cross Click on any cover below to check out the book! Wrapped Up

In Brooke Scott's world, business comes before pleasure. Brooke has been running her father's company for almost ten years. She's itching to take the reins for herself, but her father refuses to let her fully take charge until she's found herself a husband. She hates the idea, but he's as stubborn as they come, and she doesn't stand a chance of changing his mind. The problem is, there's no one who fits the bill‌ until she runs across her old flame, now a famous football star. Maybe, just maybe, he's the one.

All-American heartthrob Jake Hall is too busy enjoying the limelight to care about anything else.

But with a new owner determined to clean up the football team's bad boy image, Jake is under a lot of pressure to find a steady girl. He never wanted to be a role model, but it's the only way to stay in the owner's good graces. If he doesn't, he risks getting shipped right out of town. He's never been too picky when it comes to his girls – blond or brunette, curvy or slim – but when it comes to a life partner, he wants to make sure it's the perfect match.

But love doesn't follow the rules of the game. A random encounter between Brooke and Jake sends them both hurtling down memory lane. They had a thing, once upon a time, but when it didn't work out, they went their separate ways. Now that the world has brought them back together, they might each be just what the other one is looking for. What starts as a business arrangement quickly becomes a whole lot more, as Jake and Brooke rediscover the electricity dancing between them. But just when it seems like there is hope for a future together, tragedy strikes.

The question is, will they survive it?

Never Enough

NO MATTER HOW MUCH OF HER I CLAIM, IT'S NEVER ENOUGH. She betrayed me, abandoned me, ran away. The only thing I had left was a letter she wrote me, saying she had to go. That, and my burning rage. With Jess gone, I make myself an oath: no woman will ever be more than an object for me. A tool for my pleasure. Nothing less and nothing more. But fate is a fickle bitch, and when I rescue a damsel in distress seven years later, It turns out to be none other than my ex-wife. She's just as gorgeous as I remember her: all curves and dark brown hair. Lips like sin and skin like a cloud. The old urges are still there. And time has only made them stronger.

But Jess has acquired some enemies since she left. And before I know it, there's a target on both of our backs. As much as I want to let her sink or swim on her own, I know one thing and one thing only: I've got her back.

And she's never leaving me again.

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