Page 1

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. Monster copyright 2016 by Zoey Parker. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission.

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 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32

Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Chapter 36 Chapter 37 Now keep reading for your free teaser of my dark, sexy MC romance, TROUBLE! OTHER WORKS BY ZOEY PARKER Ravage Bounty Trouble A Broken Vow A Secret Vow A Sinful Vow

Chapter 1 Christina “Damn it!” It’s snowing so hard I can barely see beyond the windshield. The wipers are practically useless at this point. Where the hell did this snow come from? It was bright and sunny when I woke up this morning, and just a little cloudy when I left to make the trek to my parents’. I hadn’t heard a thing about snow. I might not have grown up here but I know a “snow sky” when I see one. There wasn’t an inkling. Now this. I’ve been struggling to so much as inch up the road for the past hour, and I know I’m not that far from town. It started snowing minutes after I left and before I knew it I was slipping and sliding. The snow was piling up fast, the winds whipping it around and nearly knocking me off the road more than once. I have to turn around. This is hopeless. I thought I might be able to drive through the storm and get to the other side, but no such luck. Holidays or no holidays, it’s just not happening today. I’ll have to try again tomorrow. But I can’t see. I can’t freaking see anything. I’d happily turn around if I could so much as see the road. I haven’t even been passed by another car for miles. They must have all caught the weather report I missed. I slow down, hoping to make a U-turn, but all I do is slide. I don’t have the traction. What the hell am I supposed to do? “Fuck!” I scream, pounding on the wheel. This is just my luck. Why are things like this always happening to me? I’m not a bad person. I have to pull over. That’s all there is to it. I’m not making any progress. I also realize, to my horror, that the car’s running out of gas. Fast. Shit! There had been half a tank when I left the house. I had been figuring on stopping once I was on the road, of course. Now there’s less than a quarter tank. And I have no idea where I am or where the next station might be. I slow down, hoping to slide far enough off the road so as to avoid passing cars and plow trucks. I can just imagine being plowed in on top of this. Damn, damn, damn! Now what? I’m completely unprepared for this. I know I’m supposed to have a winter survival kit in my car. I always hear about it on the news. Blankets, water, flashlight, batteries, a radio, flares. I’m not even wearing snow boots or a decent pair of gloves. Christina, you’re an idiot. I might as well curl up in the back seat and try to wait this out. There’s enough gas to get me to the next station once the storm passes over—I hope. But I don’t think I can make it while there’s a blizzard going on outside. But the snow can’t last forever, right?

I check my phone, realizing my parents will be flipping out before long. I’m only two hours away from them, so if they don’t hear from me soon, they’re going to lose their minds. Of course, in keeping with the rest of the day, my phone has no signal. Could this get any worse? Now I’m getting colder by the minute and worried about my parents. They’re going to be so upset when they don’t hear from me. But then, what about me? What happens if I’m snowed under? What happens if I can’t open the car doors by the time it stops? What if I freeze to death in this damned car? Okay, Christina. Deep breaths. I run my hands through my long, dark hair, smoothing it down to calm myself a bit. No need to lose my cool. This will be okay. Things like this happen all the time, I’m sure. It’s not like I’m naked. I’m wearing perfectly warm clothes and while my boots aren’t made for snow they’re warm enough. My coat’s warm, too. I’ll be okay. I lean back against the seat, thinking that maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to take a nap while I wait out the worst of the weather. At least then I won’t feel so cold anymore. I check the time. It’s a little after eleven in the morning. I set the alarm on the phone for one hour. That won’t be too long. I won’t freeze up. And hopefully by then the storm will have passed and I’ll be on my way. I close my eyes…only to have them fly open when I hear a heavy pounding on the windshield. What the hell is this? I sit up, groggy. How can I be groggy when I just fell asleep? Wait—it’s darker outside. And much snowier. What’s happening? I pick up my phone…which is now dead. Oh my fucking god, the battery died. How long have I been asleep, anyway? “Hey!” I call out to whoever it is outside the car. “Help!” I realize in the back of my mind that this person, whoever they are, could be a murderer. On the other hand, I might have slept my way into oblivion if it wasn’t for them. The inside of the car is beyond freezing, and my teeth are chattering. If only I didn’t feel so groggy. I see sheets of snow falling from the exterior of the car and realize I am nearly snowed in. Holy shit. This person is my new superhero, whoever they are. I see a dark figure looming outside the car, beside the driver’s side door. I lean forward to unlock it and watch as it opens. An absolutely immense figure in a black hooded parka slides behind the wheel. I can’t see their face; a heavy scarf covers most of it. “How long have you been here?” The voice is deep, resonant. Of course it’s a man; otherwise I’d be dealing with the biggest woman I’d ever known. “Since around eleven this morning. What time is it now?”

“Way after eleven,” he replies, his voice grim. “I don’t want to alarm you, but you wouldn’t have lasted much longer out here. It’s a miracle I even saw you from my window.” “Your window? Do you live around here?” “Not far. Less than a quarter mile off the road. The wind died down for a little while and your car stood out against the snow.” Thank God I went with red, I think. “You’re nearly out of gas.” “Yes, I know. I was going to stop to refuel along the way. I didn’t count on fighting my way down the road in this mess for hours.” “Do you even watch the news? They’ve been talking about this storm for days.” “They have?” I’ve been so busy at work, I completely missed the alerts. But I still don’t like the snotty tone in his voice. Whether or not he’d saved my life, he didn’t need to talk to me like I was some sort of idiot. I was doing a good enough job of talking to myself that way as it was. “Listen. If you stay out here, you’ll freeze to death. Do you even have a blanket?” I shake my head, feeling lame. He sighs, the exasperated sound of a put-upon parent with a willful child. “I’ll take you back to my house. It’s not far; you’ll be able to walk it. I can’t in good conscience leave you out here.” To his house? I don’t know who this guy is. He could be a serial killer or something. Maybe this is his thing, waiting for storms to roll through so he can lure young girls to his house for God only knows what. He sees me hesitating and naturally knows why. “We can’t spend too much time before you decide whether or not I’m a serial killer. It’s fucking cold as a witch’s tit in here, and getting worse. You’re not dressed for this. Either come with me or freeze to death. Keep in mind the roads are impassable, and the car was nearly buried when I found you.” I know I don’t have a choice. It really is a matter of following him to his house of potential horrors or dying out here. I tell myself that there’s at least a chance he’s not a murderer. I have no chance out here. “Okay,” I reply, throwing my useless phone into my purse. “Lead the way.” I only hope I don’t live to regret this.

Chapter 2

I’d been working at the coffee shop for less than a year when I first heard about the Angels of Chaos. It was a Sunday morning and the place was jumping, just as it always was after church let out. Amy and I were like a well-oiled machine, though, working together seamlessly to keep the line moving. I knew I’d hit the jackpot when I hired her. She needed next to no supervision, totally able to read a situation and go with it. When a shot of espresso was finished brewing, she’d start the next without asking. When a tray of muffins was running low, she’d go to the back to get a new one. She wiped down the tables as soon as customers left so new ones could sit down, kept the milk and creamers full, everything. I knew I could count on her. This left me free to take orders and chat up the customers. “Mrs. Stephens! That’s a large no-foam skim latte and a blueberry muffin, right?” I’d ring up the sale, getting things in order while asking whether her daughter had decided on a college yet. Mr. Brown was a small black coffee and a cheese danish. His wife had just gotten one of her knees replaced, so I asked after her and told him to give her my best. The Jenkinses always brought in their three-year-old, and I gave him a special little treat while I fixed their coffee. This was what I’d always seen myself doing: running a little place the townspeople could visit and feel as though they belonged somehow. Like I cared about them—because I did. When they walked in and heard their order being called out even before they spoke, they felt valued. That’s the sort of treatment that keeps customers coming back for more. “How do you manage to keep it all straight?” Mrs. Hauser asked, handing me a ten-dollar bill. “I’d go crazy trying to remember everything and everybody.” “You keep track of all those soap operas you watch,” Mr. Hauser pointed out with a chuckle. “All the characters and the storylines.” I laughed along with him. “That’s different. I’ve been watching them for years—she’s only been here six months!” They both looked at me, the picture of a cute little old couple if ever there was one. I shrugged. “I have a good memory, I guess. It comes naturally. Plus, I like you. It helps.” I winked at Mr. Hauser, and he chuckled again. “If I were thirty years younger…” he hinted. Mrs. Hauser gave him a playful smack on the shoulder. “Try fifty years,” she corrected. “Besides, a pretty young thing like Christina wouldn’t have the time for you.”

Mr. Hauser rubbed his shoulder in mock pain. “See how she abuses me?” They both laughed, and I joined them half-heartedly. “If you were young and single, Mr. Hauser, I’d give you my number for sure.” I handed them their pastries, thinking they would drop the subject now that they’d been served. “A pretty girl like you should be married, or at least going with somebody,” Mrs. Hauser insisted. I bit the side of my tongue to hide my distaste. One thing about living and working in a small town where you knew everybody: everybody knew you right back. At least they thought they did. “You’re such a sweet girl, too. Don’t worry,” she patted my hand reassuringly, “the right fella is out there for you.” “Chris, another gallon of whole milk!” Amy was working the espresso machine, steaming milk for lattes. I smiled at the Hausers and turned to help her. “Thanks,” I whispered. “That was getting awkward.” “Mrs. Hauser’s always trying to fix people up,” Amy explained. “She’s a sweetheart.” I didn’t disagree. I just wished she’d let my business be my business. There wasn’t much about me I didn’t share with others, except my love life. That was off-limits. Awkward conversations aside, I loved the work. I felt energized, accomplished, all because my customers were pleased. Once the rush died down, I went from table to table, saying hi to those I hadn’t gotten the chance to chat with, while Amy manned the register and coffee machines. All the while I reminded myself that I was making my mark on the town, which was a fantastic feeling. It was a great little shop, too. I’d only bought it a little over six months before, when the previous owner had to pull up stakes and move across the country to care for a sick parent. Everything was in working order. All I had to do was step in and take over. The best part was, since the move was taking place in such a hurry and he didn’t want to leave the shop abandoned, I managed to get it for next to nothing. I wiped down the tables that had just emptied, feeling proud of what we were building here. Sure, the customer base was already healthy when I took over, but now there was a feeling of family. I heard it time and again, how happy the customers were when they came in and I knew who they were. That’s what I wanted to set me apart—well, that and my baking. “Christina, this is the best carrot cake muffin I’ve ever had,” I heard one woman say over a mouth full of food. I smiled and reminded her that I could always box up a couple for her to take home. My recipes were my babies, and I guarded them with my life. I’d always wanted to go to culinary school. Well, this was the next best thing. Besides, what was the point of culinary school but to have my own bakery one day? I’d pretty much cut out the middle man.

Good thing, since I didn’t have the money for tuition anyway. A loud growl sounded outside, and every head turned toward the plate glass windows that looked out onto the street. It was a pretty little street, very all-American, with its shops, striped awnings and leafy trees. The sight of two dozen motorcycles traveling down the center seemed extremely out of place. Their engines roared as they passed by. “Damn it,” I heard one of the customers grumble. “I thought they were gone for good.” Amy came up beside me. “They’re back,” she murmured. “Who are they?” I had never seen them before. They all rode black bikes, all dressed in denim and leather. They were a fearsome-looking bunch. “The Angels of Chaos,” she said. I heard disgust in her voice. “Why haven’t I heard of them before? Where did they come from?” “Most of them were in jail, some big thing around a year ago. Destruction of property, suspected arson. They were all on probation for one reason or another, so they all got time for violation,” she explained quietly. “I never heard the specifics, but suffice it to say nobody was sorry to see them go. I guess they got out. Their clubhouse is right on the outskirts of town. They’re not allowed to do business inside.” A couple walked in just then, and Amy went back to the register to take their order. A motorcycle club? That didn’t fit the town at all. It was like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. That’s why I settled here in the first place, just before buying the shop. I heard several customers murmuring among themselves, and I inched my way closer to them. Now that I’d heard of the club’s existence, I wanted to know more. “She was such a sweet girl, too,” one of them was saying. “I never understood why she married him.” “Suspicious,” another one declared, shaking their head. “Never believed it was an accidental death.” “Of course not. Nobody mixed up with that club dies accidentally. Just because she wasn’t a member doesn’t mean she wasn’t part of it.” “I heard that he still hasn’t gotten over it.” “Would you? A dead wife and no answers? And the way she died…so awful.” They continued their gossip while I walked away to clear off another table. I thought back to the men I saw riding past. I wondered which one they were talking about. Or was he even riding with the club anymore, considering that he hadn’t gotten over his wife’s death? If somebody I loved died tragically, potentially because of what I was mixed up in, I wasn’t sure I’d

want to be part of it anymore. I hoped they stayed far away from Main Street from now on, and if they didn’t, then I hoped they weren’t in the mood for coffee when they visited. I could only imagine how quickly my customers would fly away to the big chain coffee shops if a motorcycle club started hanging around, no matter how delicious my baked goods were. I made it a point to busy myself and stop thinking about it. After all, no sense in worrying about something that hadn’t happened yet and probably would never happen. I didn’t need any more scary people in my life. I moved to this town to get away from scary people. Or rather, one scary person in particular.

Chapter 3

I’m being led through the snow by a tall man who looks like he could crush me if he decided to. But I don’t have a choice. It’s either this or freeze to death in the backseat of my car. We’re actually not far from where I pulled over, I realize. He wasn’t kidding when he said it was only a quarter mile or so. When the storm was at its peak, I couldn’t see a damn thing out the windows. I could have been driving down the middle of Main Street and never would have known, unable to see more than a foot in front of me. Now, I see the house more clearly as we approach. It sits by itself, green siding stark against the gray sky, smoke curling up from the chimney. I turn to check that my car is safe where it’s sitting. I can easily see it from here, even with the flakes that are still falling fast and heavy. I guess that’s how he spotted me. A hound dog runs alongside us, bounding through the snow. I can’t help but laugh at its absolute joy. To think I’d probably come close to dying in the same snow this dog finds so thrilling. I wonder if he lives alone, this man, or if he has a family. The idea of freezing isn’t appealing but neither is being raped and murdered in some farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere. I’m nearing exhaustion, slowing down even though he’s doing a good job of clearing a path for me through the deep snow. The hound trails behind him, nudging me. Sweet dog. This gets the man’s attention. He doubles back for me, taking my arm and pulling me along with him. I have no choice but to be dragged. I’m glad for it, though. I might have given up if left to my own devices. When’s the last time I ate? I don’t even remember now. “Come on,” I hear him shout, urging me to keep up. “It’s getting heavy again. Just a little more.” We finally reach the back porch and stumble up the steps, pushed from behind by the wind that has indeed strengthened once again. We make it just in the nick of time. He opens the door and ushers me inside along with the dog, then pushes it shut against the howling wind. I’m standing in a little farmhouse kitchen, complete with a fireplace along one wall. There’s a flight of stairs dividing the room in half, with the stove and other appliances on the opposite side of the hearth. The flames are blazing, which is a welcome sight to my half-frozen eyes. The whole room is quaint, cozy, and not at all what I would have expected. “Motherfucker,” he breathes, panting for air. “I can’t believe how hard it’s blowing out there.” “Tell me about it,” I say weakly, hardly able to speak. He must see me swaying on my feet because he rushes to me, sitting me in a chair by the fire. “Let me take your gloves,” he says in his deep voice. “They’re all wet and cold. Same with your boots, they’re probably soaked through now.” He is right. These aren’t snow boots. I am totally

unprepared for this. His rough hands rip the boots from my feet, along with the wet socks. “Do you feel this?” He pinches the sole of my foot, and I nod. “Good. They’re red, not white. White would be a problem. Keep them by the fire.” I do as I’m told, while stretching forward to warm my hands as well. If he wanted to rape me, I reason with myself, he wouldn’t be so concerned with whether I lose my toes or fingers. Minutes later he comes back, holding out a steaming mug. “Drink this,” he says, thrusting it toward me. “What is it?” “Tea with whiskey. It’ll get your blood flowing again.” I take it, feeling tentative. Is he drugging me? I take a sniff and reel backward, the smell of the whiskey hitting me hard. “I can’t guarantee how well I’ll handle this. I don’t know how long it’s been since I ate.” “We’ll deal with that later. Right now, you need to get your blood going and warm up, especially since you were asleep in the cold.” I see his point and take a tiny sip. It burns a warm trail down my throat and makes me wince, but there’s no denying how nice it feels to warm up inside. I smile a little, making him smile in return. “That’s better,” he says, taking off his heavy parka to reveal more of himself. I watch him through the steam coming off the tea. He’s just as big without the coat as he was with it. Tall, muscular, intimidating. He’s wearing a t-shirt in the middle of winter, stretched tight over his broad chest and around his thick biceps. I see tattoos on both arms. His hair is dark, cropped close. “I’ve seen you before,” I say, surprised. “You came into my shop one day around a week ago, didn’t you?” He grins. “I did. You have a good memory.” “I remember all my customers.” I take another sip of tea, choosing to leave out the part where he stuck out because of how gorgeous he was. He’d come in alone, right after I’d opened for the day. I’d sent Amy to the bank for change, leaving just me and him in the shop together. I’d felt a little overwhelmed by him, by his sheer size and presence, not to mention his smoldering good looks and big dark eyes. He’d been nothing but polite, though, and had left a big tip in the jar. “You’re probably the only person in town who was nice to me that day,” he says thoughtfully. “Why’s that?” “Long story. How’s the tea?” “I feel like I’m floating on a warm cloud.”

“That sounds about right.” He smiles, dazzling against his tanned skin. He must work outdoors or something, judging from the body and the tan. “So listen, I hate to tell you this, but it’s gonna take me forever to get your car out of that snow. It’s probably completely buried by now. Besides, there’s a second storm on its way tonight. Anything that’s cleared off will just be back by morning.” “Wait. What are you saying?” I’ve fallen off my cloud and back down to Earth with a thud. “I’m saying you’ll have to spend the night. There’s just no way for you to get out of here; besides, there’s not enough gas in the tank. Remember?” The warm, cozy feeling I had disappears in a flash. I’m sure I’ve seen at least one horror movie that started out like this. “Uh-uh. No way!” His expression changes. Now he looks dark, dangerous, the way I’d expect him to be if judging him by his tattoos alone. “Listen, sweetheart, you’re more than welcome to walk your ass back home in the middle of a freaking blizzard if you’re so dead set against it. Be my guest.” Damn it. He’s right, of course. I’m trapped here whether I like it or not. Even though the part of my brain still rational enough for thought reminds me I could easily be dead right now, frozen in the backseat of my car if it wasn’t for him, the rest of me is annoyed that I have to stay here instead of at home or, better yet, with my parents. Gorgeous or not, he’s a complete stranger. A stranger who saved my life, that is. “You’re right. I’m sorry, that was bitchy of me,” I mumble. “I wasn’t thinking. It’s just that I was so excited about getting home to see my parents for the holidays. It’s been a while, you know? They were looking forward to seeing me, too. This isn’t how I’d planned on things going.” “I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m sure they’d rather have you alive than frozen to death in the middle of the road.” “Yeah, yeah, you’re right. Okay. You’re right. You win. And it’s nice of you to let me stay. It was really great that you came to get me, too. Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” We sit in silence for a while, then I remember something. “Shit. Is your land line working? I didn’t have any service on my phone, then it went dead. I couldn’t call my parents, and they must be worried by now. Especially if they heard about the blizzard.” “Oh, yeah.” He gets up and fetches a handset mounted to the wall by the backdoor. I take it and dial,

hoping the lines are still up and I can get through to my mom. “Christina! We’ve been worried sick!” “I’m sorry, Mom, really. I got stranded in the snowstorm out here and…had to pull over at a motel for the night.” I glance at him and notice the way he grins when he hears my lie. I roll my eyes, assuring Mom that I’m safe and I’ll call her in the morning. I hang up, now at a total loss for words. For better or worse, I’m stuck in a secluded farmhouse with a total stranger. What do I do now?

Chapter 4 Jax The whiskey loosened up her tongue and now she won’t shut up. If I’d known she’d be a talker, I might have left her out in the snow. Okay. I wouldn’t have left her out in the snow, but maybe I’d have bought myself some earplugs before the storm. Something to help me deal with her incessant talking. I know it’s because she’s nervous. We’re strangers, and I’m sure that to Little Miss Coffee Shop I’m the Big Bad Wolf. I remember how she looked at me when I first walked into her place last week. Her eyes went round before she could stop herself. Her skin was already fair, but it turned so pale I could see the freckles standing out against her nose and cheeks. I’m used to getting that reaction when people first meet me, though. It’s nothing new. She’s not a bad person, of course. She was genuinely nice to me. But that was because she didn’t know me. She had no idea that I really am the Big Bad Wolf. Now she’s nervous, alone in the house with me. I notice the way she hesitates before taking off her coat, and I know it’s because she’s still slightly afraid of me. Even though I saved her damn life, she’s still afraid. This isn’t exactly an everyday thing for me either. I haven’t spent this much time alone with a woman, awake and with our clothes on, in years. Ever since… “Do you live here alone?” she asks, looking at me with those big green eyes. Innocent eyes. “Why? You think the house needs a woman’s touch or something?” “No.” I think I see a little bit of a blush on her cheeks. “I was going to say just the opposite. It’s a really nice house. Cozy.” “Thanks. It was decorated by, uh, a woman I knew.” I look down at my hands. It’s still hard to talk about her, even after all this time. The girl is smart enough to not ask any questions. “I just realized something,” she says, laughing. “I don’t even know your name!” “God, of course not.” I’m laughing now, too. “I’m Jax. Jax Fairbanks.” “Christina Reardon.”

“Christina Reardon, you make a mean blueberry muffin. I’ve been meaning to tell you that for a week. Really, it was excellent.” She definitely blushes this time. “Thanks.” “You’ve been there how long now?” “Six months.” “I bet the town considers you a pleasant change from Ricky.” “What do you mean?” “Well, Ricky was, you know, a guy. And not the handsomest guy either.” As a matter of fact, he looked like a troll. But I keep that to myself, not wanting to come off like too much of a prick. “The first thing I thought when I walked in was that it was a nice change of pace, seeing you behind the counter instead.” She scowls, and I wonder what the hell I said to piss her off. “So what you’re saying is that because I have tits, I have customers?” “That’s not what I said at all. I’m gonna chalk it up to the whiskey.” But there’s no backing down from her. She stands up, hands on hips. “No, that’s exactly what you meant. I’m a girl, so people come to my shop. If I was a guy—a plain, average-looking guy—they wouldn’t be as likely to come in.” “What the fuck difference does it make either way? Why are you getting so worked up over this? Either way, it works in your favor. You’re pretty. You’re nice. I’m sure people like visiting the shop and seeing a pretty, nice girl smiling at them. That’s all I meant.” I hold up my hands, surrendering. Christ, she’s tough. She’s still simmering, but she sits back down. “My pastries are good.” “I just said they are.” She folds her arms. “And I remember everybody’s name and what they usually order.” “I’m sure they appreciate it.” “They do.” “Good.” “Why do you always have to have the last word?”

“I don’t.” She turns her head toward the fire so I won’t see her smile in spite of herself. Now that she’s not looking at me, I can size her up. She’s tall, curvy, with wavy dark hair that hangs past her shoulders. She has that rash of freckles on her nose and cheeks, which I don’t normally like, but on her, they’re cute. She’s the opposite of Marissa. Even after two years, my heart clenches like it always does when I think of her. She was tiny, short and small framed, with golden blonde curls. She was always quiet, thoughtful, never really shared an opinion. Always going whatever way I wanted to go. Always stepping aside so I could stand in front of her. Smart as hell, but not overly opinionated. She’d been taught from an early age to keep her opinions to herself. The girl in front of me right now is nothing like that. I’d tried to give her a compliment and she practically jumped down my throat. So why am I so attracted to her? She’s nothing like the women I usually go for. Because even now, when I’m on the prowl for pussy I go for women who remind me of Marissa. Petite blondes without much to say outside of complimenting me. Women who don’t fit that profile might as well not exist. Even when I first saw Christina in the shop, I noticed that she was cute. But it didn’t go further than that. Because she’s not my type. So why do I want to take her upstairs and fuck her senseless? I don’t think she’d be the kind who’d go for just a one-time deal, though. And that’s all I’m interested in. No strings, no commitment. Not even a cuddle. Just sex. A basic human need. I won’t open myself up to anything deeper than that ever again. It’s not worth the pain. She’s fun, though. Now that I know it’s so easy to get her riled up, I wanna find new ways to do it. She’s pretty enough when she’s just sitting there across from me, looking at the fire. When she’s pissed off, she’s gorgeous. “What made you decide to buy the shop?” I ask her. “That’s a pretty big step for someone who’s practically new in town.” “How did you know I was?” She’s on edge and I have to wonder why. I just shrug, to show her it’s not a big deal. “You’re new here. I’ve lived here all my life, and I’d never met you before I walked in for a quick breakfast. You were nice to me, which, like I said, isn’t the norm. And you were totally unprepared for a freak storm, which we get around here at this time of year. There wasn’t even a blanket in your car.” Her eyes narrow. I guess she wasn’t expecting me to have a brain in my head. She doesn’t argue. “I’ve only lived here for eight months,” she admits. “I didn’t know winter was so

weird.” “Yeah, winter’s pretty weird.” I can’t help grinning. It’s just natural to tease her, though I don’t know why. “How come I’ve only seen you once in eight months? Like you said, you’ve lived here your whole life. Why did you never come in before?” “I was…away.” I wish I’d never asked in the first place. I don’t feel like getting into this with her. “And I’m not such a big fan of a lot of the town. I only go there every once in a while. Usually I’m out here, or working with my clients.” “Clients? What do you do?” “I’m a corporate attorney.” She smirks at me. “What? A corporate attorney can’t have ink?” “If you’re not going to answer me seriously, don’t bother answering at all. I’m only trying to make conversation.” “So you do judge books by their covers.” Now she’s scowling. “I’m a landscaper, actually. And you never answered my question. What made you decide to buy the shop?” She’s shy now. I watch thoughts go through her head. She’s wondering if she can open up to me. Can I be trusted? Will I judge her? Why does she care? She has absolutely no poker face at all. Finally, she settles on, “I’ve always loved baking. Since I was a little girl, I’ve dreamed of owning my own bakery. The coffee shop is the next best thing. I mean, it was like a sign, you know? I moved here because I thought it was nice, quiet. Peaceful. And then, bam! Coffee shop goes up for sale. Like it was meant to be. I couldn’t pass on the chance.” “And you like it?” “I love it. I really do.” She’s not only gorgeous when she’s pissed off, she’s also gorgeous when she’s talking about the things she loves. Her eyes light up. But she’s sexiest when she’s pissed. I look out the window, noticing the wind isn’t howling the way it was before. “It’s slowed down a little,” I say, standing and stretching. I feel my tee ride up when I do, and I see her glance over to take a look when she thinks I won’t notice. I manage to hide my grin and keep that little bit of information in the back of my mind. The way she looked at me. “I think it might not be a bad idea to go out and clear at least some of the snow,” I say. “It’s gonna keep snowing but I wanna get a jump on it. So there’s not so much to do all at once.”

“You trust me to stay in here all by myself?” I can’t help smirking. As if she was some sort of threat. “I think the house can handle it. Unless you’d rather come out and help me. Maybe those leather boots will keep your feet warm.” Even with a disgusted look on her face, she’s beautiful. And so easy to set off. I think saving her from the storm was a good move on my part. My eyes move down to her body before I turn away. Yeah. It was a very good move.

Chapter 5 Christina Who the hell is this guy? I watch him as he puts that massive parka back on, shoving his feet back into his thick boots, his hands back into heavy gloves that he left to dry on the radiator. I didn’t expect him to be witty. He’s not really funny or even extremely charming, but he’s smart. He makes me smile even when he’s pissing me off. “Try not to burn anything down while I’m out there,” he says, and I scowl at him in disgust. “Try not to get buried in a snow bank,” I snap. “If I did, you’d be good and fucked, wouldn’t you?” He laughs a little before disappearing outside, slamming the door shut against the wind. Ugh. He’s so sexy I can’t stand it. I don’t know what it is about him. Yeah, he’s hot. I knew he was handsome the minute I first saw him. Anyone with eyes could see that. But there’s something else. Something deeper. A magnetism. He has tons of it. I get up and walk to the window, still a little unsteady from the whiskey. At least I’m conscious, though. He didn’t drug me. I feel slightly bad for doubting him so much. He’s out there, shoveling away like a machine. The snow is nothing to him, the shovel like a toy in his massive hands. If I hadn’t already learned he worked outdoors, I would have guessed it once I watched him clear away the snow. He’s used to this kind of work. Before I know it, he already has a clear path to the driveway, where I can just barely make out the indents that used to be the path we cleared when walking up here from the main road. Has it really snowed so much since then that I can hardly see where our footsteps fell? I crane my neck, standing on tiptoe, trying to see my car. There’s nothing but snow as far as the eye can see, though. I’d have been buried alive for sure. I shiver at the thought. Imagine if he hadn’t noticed me. I still don’t know how he happened to see me in the first place. I just didn’t think to ask him. Maybe it would be better not to. Maybe not knowing how much of my life, at this moment, has to do with chance is for the best. Otherwise I might go crazy. I look around the room. It’s like a picture from a book, right down to the hound dog curled up in front

of the fire. Two rocking chairs, facing one another on either side of the hearth. A rug between them. Copper pots and pans hanging from a rack over an old stove. A small table with an old-fashioned lamp suspended above it. I would never in a million years see a man like Jax living here. A little old lady living on a pension? Sure. Not a heavily inked, muscular roughneck. I pace back and forth in front of the fire long enough to get the dog’s attention. He jumps up and wags his tail at me. “Sorry, old boy,” I say, scratching him behind the ears. “I didn’t mean to disturb you. Just wondering what to do with myself now. Any suggestions?” He walks over to his food bowl and noses around inside. “Feed me,” he’s saying. Well, that’s just about as good an idea as any. I open a few cabinets, looking for food. Finally, I find a stack of cans, one of which I empty into his bowl. Meanwhile, now that I’ve looked around some, I see that this kitchen is better stocked than I expected. Once again, Jax is surprising me. I impulsively start pulling out ingredients: butter, eggs, flour, sugar. I turn on the oven, checking to make sure the pilot is lit before mixing up a dough. There are no chocolate chips, but there’s peanut butter. Peanut butter cookies it is. Before long, I’m rolling balls of dough, coating them in sugar and making crisscross patterns in them with the tines of a fork. I put them in the oven and go back to the window, checking on Jax’s progress. He’s still working out there. I can’t believe he hasn’t collapsed yet, honestly. Nearly the entire driveway is cleared. He has to be ready to collapse at this point. The timer I set over the oven goes off, telling me the cookies are finished. I pull them out, then put on the kettle in case he wants something hot to drink when he comes in. It’s the least I can do, considering that he saved me from freezing and is giving me somewhere to spend the night. The door opens, a blast of cold air making me shiver. He leans against it to shut it, then takes off his coat and boots. I hear him sniffing the air. “Cookies?” That’s all he says, and the word is heavy, like he’s disgusted. “Mmmhmm,” I reply, trying to sound casual, as though I didn’t just invade this man’s kitchen. Jesus, what the hell was I thinking? It must be the whiskey. What else would have driven me to make myself at home like this? I wish I’d never gotten out of the chair by the fire. I glance at him, his face unreadable. There’s tension in the air. Is he going to flip out on me? Maybe he’s really sensitive about people going through his home and treating it like their own. I know I would be. God, how could I have been so stupid? The kettle whistles, breaking the moment. I turn to pull it off the burner. “I thought maybe you’d want something hot to drink, to warm yourself up,” I say, feeling insanely lame now. I wish I could sink into the floorboards and never come back. He moves for the first time since noticing the cookies, putting his gloves back on the radiator. Steam

rises up as they drip onto the hot metal. He hangs his coat over his boots, which sit on a pile of newspapers to catch the melted snow. Then he crosses the room, his large body moving smoothly. I tense up, waiting for his reaction. By the time he reaches me, standing directly beside me, I’m holding my breath. He reaches past me, taking a cookie from the sheet. He takes a bite. I steal a glance at him from the corner of my eye and see that he’s chewing with a thoughtful expression on his face. “You know,” he says, still chewing, “you’re gonna make some guy a terrific little housewife someday.” “Oh, screw you.” I lean against the sink, arms crossed. I’m relieved he’s not murderously pissed, naturally. But he doesn’t have to be a dick about it. “I mean it. Some guy out there is gonna be pretty damn lucky. I mean, homemade cookies after coming in from shoveling all that snow? The only thing better would be a blowjob.” “You’re disgusting.” I take a cookie and stomp over to the chair by the fire, slamming myself into it. I’d almost rather he be angry than disgusting, the pig. “Touchy, touchy,” he murmurs, fixing himself a cup of what looks like instant coffee. “You want a drink? Maybe some more of that spiked tea. I liked you better when you were buzzing.” “I liked you better when I was buzzing, too.” He has his back to me, and I can tell from the way it shakes that he’s laughing. This only enrages me further. “You know, just because you did something nice for me doesn’t mean you get to talk to me like this.” “What, like a normal human being?” I laugh harshly. “If that’s your idea of the way normal human beings talk to each other, I can see why you live out here alone.” I’m watching him, and I can tell from the way he freezes that I hit a nerve. But then his head drops, his chin to his chest. I’m flooded with guilt almost instantly. “Oh, hey. Hey, I’m sorry. That was a low blow.” I realize I don’t know the first thing about this person. I don’t know why he’s actually by himself. Maybe he has anxiety. Maybe he’s just a recluse. Maybe there’s some tragic backstory I’m unaware of. “Really. I mean it. That was a shitty thing to say. I’m sorry.” “I deserve it for picking at you,” he says quietly before coming back to his chair by the fire and holding his hands out toward the flames. “By the way, the cookies are really good.” I feel like something has broken now between us. How is that even possible, I ask myself, when there

was really nothing between us in the first place? The light from the fire dances over his face, lighting his troubled eyes. What’s he thinking? What ugly memory did I just stir up? I don’t know this guy at all, and I have to keep that in mind. I need to tread more carefully. “Thanks. I mean, thanks for saying the cookies are good,” I say, feeling lame but needing to repair whatever I just screwed up. Why do I care so much? He nods, staying quiet. “Did you mean it?” I ask, trying to draw him out of his silence. “Did I mean what?” “That they’re good?” This gets a smile from him, at least, and he turns his head toward me. “I would never lie about something as serious as cookies.” I can’t help noting to myself how handsome he is when he smiles.

Chapter 6

It’s getting late now, so dark outside that there’s no way to see whether the snow is still falling. But I’m sure it is. Because that’s just my luck. I try to stifle a yawn, unsuccessfully. “You must be tired. I know I’m beat.” He stands, stretching again. Again, I can’t help admiring his body, the way his shirt rides up to reveal his torso. His jeans sit low on his hips, and the two diagonal lines leading to his groin are so clearly defined I have to stop myself from trying to lick them. Wow. I must be exhausted. Either that or the cold and the whiskey got to me more than I thought. Why else would I be looking at him this way? A good night’s sleep would be the best thing for me. Alone. By myself. Would a cold shower be out of the question? “It’s been a long day,” I agree, forcing all these flustering thoughts out of my brain. That line of thinking has only gotten me into trouble in the past. “I’ll show you to your room,” he offers, and to my surprise he holds out a hand. A gentleman, even if he doesn’t always act like one. I stand close to him. He looks down at me, but I can’t bring myself to meet his eyes. Damn, damn, damn. “It just occurred to me that you don’t have anything to sleep in.” Oh? That just occurred to him? Why was he thinking about my clothes? “Um, yeah. You’re right.” I decide not to ask, choosing to avoid another fight. It’s not worth it, and besides, he has a point. A sweater and jeans aren’t the most comfortable pajamas. “I’m sure I have something that wouldn’t be too huge for you,” he says, finally moving away from me. I can breathe normally again. I can also stop tingling in my nether regions. He puts out the fire, which gets me thinking about the way his nearness makes me feel warm. Jeez. I need to snap out of this, fast. Otherwise this could be a really uncomfortable night. “You okay?” He looks up at me from where he’s bent over the hearth, and he looks amused. As though he can read my mind. I’m annoyed with him. He thinks I’m staring like I’m swooning over him. Asshole. “I’m fine. Are you okay?” “Uh, yeah. Sorry. Just thought you looked funny.” He turns back to the hearth, and I watch the way his muscles move underneath his shirt. He’s sure he has something that wouldn’t be too huge for me. Was that some sort of double entendre I missed? I blush, then feel angry with myself for blushing and with

him for being so crude. It would be different if he wasn’t so damn hot, but he is. I can’t deny it. I wish he wasn’t. I wish I could just ignore him, brush him off as being unimportant. But I can’t. He’s gorgeous and magnetic and I can’t stop thinking about what he would look like naked. A cold shower really is starting to sound like a good idea right now. Or a jump into a snow bank. The fire’s out now, and the room is dark. I sense the tension between us. If there was a spark somewhere nearby, we might explode. The dog comes up and nudges my hand. I jump, then laugh softly, grateful for a change of subject. “What’s his name?” I ask Jax, scratching the hound behind the ears. “Blue. After a dog I had when I was a kid.” Sweet. “A perfect name for a handsome boy. Yes, he is a handsome boy, yes he is.” I scratch harder. Blue obviously loves the attention, judging by the way he licks my hand. “He doesn’t like baby talk,” Jax informs me sourly. Even in the darkness, I can imagine what his face looks like, and I want to punch it. “Really? And he told you this? How articulate for a dog.” I hear him snort softly. “Come on. I’ll find you something to wear.” In the dim light I can just make out the stairs leading to the second floor. There are two bedrooms, I see, separated by a bathroom. I can just make out an old-fashioned claw foot tub and wonder if it would be gauche to request a soak. “You can, um, freshen up in there if you want,” Jax offers, flipping the light switch. “I’ll find you some clean pajamas.” There are two types of people in the world, my father used to tell me. Those who go through the medicine cabinets at their friends’ houses and those who lie and say they don’t. I couldn’t resist the temptation to look around the bathroom, but there was nothing very interesting outside of a small hutch filled with porno magazines. Classy. Besides, don’t they have that stuff on the internet now? I wash my face and rinse with mouthwash, hoping to at least be able to get my things out of the car in the morning if nothing else. I know the vehicle is buried by now, my toiletries and things locked up in the trunk. When I emerge, I find Jax in the smaller of the two bedrooms, laying a tee and boxers on the bed along with a pair of thick knee socks. “This was the best I could do,” he says, shrugging. “They’re old, and smaller than the stuff I wear now.” “I’m sure it’ll be fine for bed.” I can’t help but feel touched by how hard he’s trying. He’s just awkward, unused to having people here with him. That has to be it. Otherwise he’s not such a bad

guy. “I’ll leave Blue with you if you want someone to help warm the bed for you. I can’t say I’m up for the challenge.” Oh, wait. Now I remember: he’s a total asshole. “I don’t need you, or Blue, thank you very much. I’ll be just fine in here on my own. Good night.” I place my palms on his chest and firmly push him in the direction of the open doorway. Instead of moving him, however, I only manage to notice how firm his chest is. The boy is built, and utterly masculine. His strong, assertive energy fills the tiny bedroom. “I’ll go. You don’t need to shove.” He grins, backing into the hall and closing the door behind him. I fight the urge to scream at the closed door, knowing it would only make him happy to know he’d unnerved me. I sit on the bed with a heavy sigh. What the hell am I gonna do with this guy? One minute I want to punch him straight in the face, the next I want to tackle him to the ground and make out with him. If not more. I look down at my hands, which were just on his chest. Damn, he’s in fantastic shape. Like, supernaturally well-built. I can’t afford to think about this stuff now. I have to try to get to sleep and forget my hormones for a little while. The shirt, a faded old thing that looks like it might once have advertised a band whose name I can’t make out, hangs halfway to my knees. The boxers are enormous, too. The socks pretty much go most of the way up my calves. At least I’ll be comfortable. I crawl into bed, marveling at how soft and comfortable it is. Much better than the idea of sleeping in my car and freezing to death. No matter how much he pisses me off, I have to remind myself that he saved my life. I’d easily have died out there if he hadn’t come to drag me to this house, to sleep in this warm, comfy bed with its down comforter and feather pillows. Now if I can just manage to get some sleep and stop wondering what Jax looks like naked, I’ll be all set.

Chapter 7 Jax This is fucking ridiculous. Any other woman would be in my bed right now, either fucking me or recovering from being fucked. So what’s stopping me from taking this one, just like I take any woman I want? It’s not like I’ll ever see her again. Sleeping with her wouldn’t be a big deal. I’ve done it before—many times, more than I can count. My only rule has always been “one time only.” No attachments. No commitments. The last thing I need is to catch feelings, or have a woman catch feelings for me. I won’t go through that again. Not after Marissa. So what is it about this girl that’s stopping me from picking her up and carrying her to my bed? I don’t know her, and once the storm’s over she’ll be gone forever. It’s the perfect setup. Why am I alone in bed, then? I turn to the side, punching my pillow, desperate to get comfortable and fall asleep. Once I’m asleep I won’t have to think about her anymore. Why am I thinking about her anyway? Because she makes me think. The whole time I shoveled that snow, I thought about her. The entire reason I went outside in the first place was to get away from her for a minute and tire myself out. I thought that once I was physically tired out I wouldn’t be tempted by her anymore. I was wrong. I got inside the house and made that crack about the cookies, she got pissed off. And I was more turned on than ever. Something about her reached something in me I’d thought was dead. All I’d felt for women in the years since Marissa was physical want. I’d meet a sexy woman and want to sleep with her. It was never really hard for me to get one into bed once I set my mind to it. But once I got off, that was it. I didn’t want anything to do with her anymore. I’d probably feel that way about Christina, too. I’d fuck her and get tired of her as soon as I got off. The end. Why aren’t I convinced? Maybe it is the way she is so quick to challenge me and call me a dick when I am being one. Maybe it has to do with the way she took the trouble to bake cookies while I was outside. Who does that? Who bakes cookies just because? So what did I do? Did I thank her? No, I made that stupid housewife joke. No wonder she was pissed. What was I supposed to say? That something as simple as homemade cookies blew me away? That I felt something for the first time in forever? That I’ve never known a woman like her?

Maybe it’s because she’s a challenge. Women have never been a challenge before. Back in the day, it had a lot to do with the sort of life I lived. It was exciting; people wanted to be part of it, women included, or at least a certain type of woman. And that was fine with me as long as they were willing. Now, even when things aren’t as exciting as they were back then, it’s still not hard to get a woman into bed. They see my face, my body, my ink, and they’re sold. They sure as hell don’t tell me off, hands on hips, eyes blazing. And they don’t make cookies and put on the tea kettle. What’s making this even harder is the way she was looking at me. I didn’t give her a hard time about it because I didn’t want to embarrass her, but I saw it. I’ve seen it before. Normally, I take advantage of it. It’s instinctive. What man wouldn’t? Knowing that she wants me—at least in weaker moments, maybe fueled by whiskey—means I have to go against every instinct and habit to avoid her. Damn it. Why couldn’t I have found a little old lady in the snow, or a guy? No, it had to be her. I turn over, punching my pillow again, wondering if I’ll ever be comfortable. I was sure that after all the exertion outside I’d be exhausted. Instead, I’m horny. Maybe I should take care of things myself. At least that would help me fall asleep. I think about her now and wonder what she’s doing. Is she asleep? I imagine how beautiful she must look when she’s sleeping. For once, she’d be peaceful, I’m guessing, and not constantly on the defensive. I remember how insulted she got when I made that crack about blowjobs. What was that all about? Had she been hurt somehow? Maybe she was just a prude. If she was a prude, that was a damn waste. She had a body made for sin. Big tits, tiny waist, firm ass. Her legs were long and slim and would fit perfectly around my waist while I fucked her. My dick is starting to get hard just thinking about it. I can’t stop this train of thought…and I don’t want to. Now that I’m turned on, I wanna see it through. It’s been at least a week since I’ve had sex, I realize. I lean over to take the bottle of lotion out of the nightstand drawer, along with a handful of tissues. Then my lubed-up hand reaches under the blankets to find my hard dick and starts stroking. I imagine her. The way she smells and tastes. The sounds she makes when I suck those huge tits, playing with them, pressing them together to slide my dick between them. In and out. She licks the head every time it comes into contact with her mouth, and I groan softly as my hand moves faster along my length. Then I take her, forcing her thighs apart with my knee. She gives in easily, begging me for it, rolling over onto her hands and knees so I can take her from behind. She moans when I slide into her, then starts panting the harder and faster I go. I ride her, making her mine. She whimpers and says my name over and over, her head swinging from side to side as she screams. I unlock all the passion in her and she tightens around me. My hand tightens as I imagine her coming all over me. I’m close, but not there yet. I imagine her riding me now, my body stretched out across the bed with

her straddling my hips. Bouncing up and down with her tits moving in time. I hold onto her waist, slamming her onto me. She begs me for more, her voice pleading and desperate. I start thrusting up into her, meeting her with each stroke faster and faster until we’re both grunting and moaning and sweating. I’m so close…so ready… The crash against the roof makes my eyes fly open, my hand instantly leaving my cock. Fuck! Perfect timing. I’m already softening, the surprise ripping me out of the moment. I’m also scared shitless, truth be told, wondering what the hell just hit the roof. I jump out of bed and rush to the hall. It’s dark out there, and I don’t see her coming in time to stop us from crashing into each other. “Shit!” I reach along the wall until my fingers make contact with the light switch. She’s leaning against the wall, rubbing the elbow that just jammed into my ribs. “You okay?” I’m looking around, seeing if there’s any damage to the ceiling. “I’m fine. What the hell was that noise?” I struggle to hold back the frustration I’m feeling. “If I knew, would I have come running out into the hall like I did? It sounds like a tree limb fell onto the roof. I guess it makes sense. The snow’s probably pretty heavy.” “It sounded so loud. I was just about to fall asleep.” “I guess it was even scarier, then,” I admit. “Honestly, I’m not getting my clothes back on just to go out there in the dark. If nothing came through the roof, it’ll wait ’til morning.” “Okay,” she says, biting her lip. She crosses her arms over herself, looking fretful. “Are you gonna be all right?” I ask, now extremely aware of her and the fact that she looks cute as hell in my t-shirt and boxers. They’re several sizes too big, and she’s swimming in them. She’s not wearing a bra either. Her nipples are standing out against the cotton tee, hard as bullets from the cold. “Sure,” she mutters, looking away from me. She won’t make eye contact. I glance down to make sure I got myself back into my boxers all the way before running out here and realize that it might have something to do with the way I’m dressed, in just the boxers and nothing else. It’s obvious that she’s avoiding looking at my chest and shoulders. Not just because they’re inked either. “Well, um, I guess I’d better let you get back to bed,” I say, wanting to let her off the hook. Her cheeks are getting red now and it’s obvious she’s embarrassed. “Yeah, okay. Thanks. Sorry if I hurt your ribs.” She takes a few backward steps and slips into the bedroom, closing the door behind her.

Damn it. Why does she have to be so…her? Could she possibly make it any harder for me to leave her alone? Plus, now that I’ve seen her in that shirt, I can’t get the image of her hard nipples out of my head. At least I have new material for my spank bank.

Chapter 8 Christina Last night was a close one. It was only by the grace of God and the fact that Jax suggested we go back to bed, separately, that I didn’t wind up with my legs wrapped around his waist. I was almost lost, wanting him. He would have needed only to make a move, one single move, and I’d have been in his bed. Or on the floor, right there in the hallway. I can’t remember ever feeling something so powerful. I have no idea what to do with it now, now that it’s morning and the storm has blown over. The storm inside me hasn’t blown over. It’s only hit a lull. Can I leave and never see him again? Sure. In fact, I know that’s the best course of action. I’m not a stupid person. I’ve just made bad decisions when it comes to the people in my life. I can’t afford to make another decision I end up regretting. But what if I only end up regretting leaving here without giving in to what’s obviously between us? What if I never see him again? What am I supposed to do, forget he’s out here all alone? Wait and hope to see him walk through the door of my shop again? Drive past the house late at night to see if he’s here, with my car radio playing songs that remind me of him? Ugh! This is all a mess. I lay in bed for a long time, a lot longer than I need to, trying to get a hold of my brain—and, frankly, my body. I feel an actual physical ache when I think back to how he looked last night. Before that moment, when we met in the hall, I’d only gotten a brief glimpse of him. Over the jeans, under the tee, just a wide strip of skin and the muscles beneath. When he flipped the lights, I got a view of the entire package, or at least eighty percent of it. My elbow had been hurting like hell until that moment, from where I jammed it into his ribs and then into the wall when I rebounded from him. Then I saw him and the pain was forgotten. Broad shoulders, bulging biceps. Defined pecs and an eight-pack leading down to his slim waist. Those “fuck me” lines were there, the ones leading diagonally toward his groin, so clearly etched. His strong, thick legs were clearly the result of a lot of bending, squatting, carrying heavy bags of mulch and soil. He was every woman’s fantasy come to life, plain and simple. I even caught a glimpse of what looked like a fairly substantial bulge in his shorts. I’d half-hoped the fly would be open so I could get a peek at it before I forced myself to avert my eyes. The more I looked at him, the more certain I was that I needed him. I had never, ever felt such a strong physical need for another person. I never had to tuck my own hands under my crossed arms to keep myself from touching someone or something. It was lust, straight-up, and I was completely lost in it I realized, at that time, that I was pretty much undressed. I felt my nipples harden from arousal and the cold and knew he could see them. Instead of being embarrassed, though, I was glad. I was

desperately, wildly praying that Jax would make a move on me so I could give in to everything I was experiencing without feeling like a slut later on. He didn’t, of course. He sent me to my room, like a child. That’s probably how he thinks of me. But wasn’t he maybe, just maybe, staring at my chest? I thought he might have been, just before I turned back toward the bedroom. Now, with the bright morning light streaming through the window, I’m a little cooler. A little calmer. More in control of myself. For now. It’s almost painfully bright, actually, the sun reflecting off the fresh snow. This is a cheerful bedroom, very country style. Again, nothing like I would expect a man like him to own. Especially now that I’d seen the extent of the ink on his body. There was a lot of it. That was one more aspect of him I found puzzling, especially since I’d never particularly been attracted to men with tattoos before. I always thought they were a little low class, a little common. Sometimes I’m a snob; I can admit it. On Jax, though, they looked natural. Defiant. Sexy. Not the sort of thing a guy would do after getting drunk and dared to by his friends. Not some stupid fake tribal symbol. Not a collection of Chinese characters the tattoo artist swears means “strength and honor” but which really translate to “chicken chow mein.” This was the sort of ink a man wears. The biggest piece of all, covering much of his chest, depicted an angel surrounded by flames. There was no color, yet the vividness with which it was drawn spoke volumes anyway. She looked afraid, in pain or defiant—I couldn’t decide which. It was around that time I forced myself to stop looking for fear of leaving a drool puddle on the floor. I roll over onto my side, away from the glare of the outside, holding a pillow close to me. A man like Jax probably has a lot of demons. I remember how pensive he looked when I pointed out the way he lives here alone. There might even have been sadness in him as he stared into the fire. There has to be a backstory to this man. He’s young and gorgeous, and I can’t help admitting that he’s pretty smart when he’s not acting like a prick. So why is he closed off from the world? Why shut down the way he has? Living with just a hound dog. I can’t have anything to do with a man like this. Why does it seem like I’m always attracted to the guys with the shitty demons? I punch the pillow, frustrated with myself and the way life always tends to go. I keep getting led down the path toward guys like Jax…and my ex. Tommy. Just the thought of his name sends a chill down my spine and leaves me feeling nauseated. At first, things with him had been great, wonderful, the way so many relationships start out. We were in the “puppy love” phase for a while, where nothing could convince me love was anything less than magical and beautiful. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, though. Looking back, I see now the little things I missed then. The way

he’d pout when I’d suggest spending time with people other than him. Back then, I told myself he loved me so much that he couldn’t stand being away from me. Then there’s the way he’d overreact, blowing up at the stupidest things. The car was running low on gas and we were running late. We’d go out to dinner and the waiter wasn’t attentive enough or the food took too long to get to us. Just stupid, little, everyday things like that were enough to send him into a tailspin. I told myself he was passionate, highly strung, used to having things his own way. I’d help him get past all that nonsense, I was sure. But I didn’t. And before long, the puppy love was over and reality slapped me right in the face. Literally. I was left on the floor, hand to my burning cheek, staring up at him. I was too shocked to cry, even though my face felt as though it was about to explode. All I could do was look at him and wonder how he could hurt me like that when he told me he loved me. That first time, the sight of me on the floor was enough to snap him out of it, and he helped me to my feet with tears in his eyes and a million excuses on his lips. He’d flown off the handle, he’d never hit a woman in his entire life, it would never happen again because he loved me so much and now he was so ashamed of himself. I’d ended up being the one to comfort him, come to think of it. Holding him in my arms while he cried, wishing I had an ice pack to put on my cheek. It had been six months before he hit me again, and the second time he wasn’t sorry as quickly as before. This time when I looked up at him, where he’d knocked me to the couch, he didn’t look ashamed and guilty. He looked angry. Disgusted. He made a move at me, as though he was about to hit me again. I flinched, drawing back. And I saw what I knew was satisfaction in his eyes. He’d made me afraid of him, but he wasn’t ashamed now. He was proud of himself. Things didn’t get much better from there. Finally, I left him, after much too much pain and too many nights spent in tears. I moved away and bought a coffee shop and I’ve been happy ever since. Happy for me, anyway. I don’t think I’ll ever truly be happy unless he disappears off the face of the Earth. Because he’s still out there, still wanting me. Every so often he’ll text or call, just to remind me how I broke his heart when I left. Once, he left a vicious, drunken voicemail in which he promised to make me pay for hurting him. It’s knowing that he can contact me at any moment that robs me of any real joy. He’s always lurking in the corner of my mind, waiting to spring. Tommy has his demons, and I have no desire to get to the bottom of them. That’s why I can’t get involved with somebody like him, somebody like Jax, though time and again I find myself drawn to broken men. Angry men. Hurt men. In the end, they always end up hurting somebody else. I won’t let it happen to me again. I hear a loud bang coming from downstairs and know Jax has gone outside, probably to clear more snow. He must think I’m asleep up here, though the way that door banged tells me that he wants me to wake up and get my butt out of bed. Maybe he’s tired of playing host. I can’t blame him. If he’s not used to being around people, it has to be a shock to the senses. I’m sure he’s tired of me already. Maybe he even wonders why he bothered saving me in the first place. I get out of bed and go to the window, peering through its white lacy curtains. There he is, plodding through the snow that had fallen overnight and covered the work he already did. It’s not terrible,

though, and he’s making quick work of the few inches left over. I see a great hulking white blob in the distance and realize it’s my car, parked by the side of the road. I could be in there right now. Dead. I know now that if I’d stayed asleep, I would definitely have frozen to death. I hadn’t even had a blanket in the car, as Jax had helpfully pointed out. The jackass. But I can’t call him that. Well, I can, but I don’t believe it in my heart. He saved my life. Even if I didn’t have a tiny crush on him, he’d always be special to me. He didn’t need to come and get me, bring me to his house, sit me by the fire, and make sure I wasn’t on the verge of losing a toe or a finger. He didn’t have to take care of me. Demons or not, he has a good heart. He just does his best to hide it. I move away from the window, shivering from the cold that leaks through the cracks in the frame. My nipples are painfully hard again, so hard they could have etched the glass. I brush my fingers over them, unable to help myself. Thinking about him. The way he looked last night. Before I know it I’m on the bed, hands inside the boxers I’m wearing. I’ve been aching for touch since last night, wishing I could find some sort of relief. The moment my fingers reach my aching clit I can’t help sighing, not bothering to stifle the sound since I know he’s out of earshot. But what would happen if he walked in, right now, and found me like this? My eyes are closed, my mouth open as I breathe heavily. I imagine him stripping down, lowering himself over me, sliding inside me without a word. I rub my clit, imagining the way he tastes, the sounds he makes as he slowly fucks me. He’s like an animal, rough, hard, pounding me mercilessly yet slowly so he can relish the helplessness I feel. He grunts every time he slams home, and before I know it I’m grunting too. “Do you like that?” he whispers, and I moan as my hand moves faster and faster. Soon my hips are swaying in circles as I imagine himself grinding into me. He throws his head back in triumph as he howls, exploding into me. Then I explode, too, biting my lip to hold back the cries while waves of pleasure roll over me. I can’t help but smile, relieved. Now, hopefully, I can keep myself under control. A while later, after washing up and getting dressed, I go downstairs. I explore a little, though there isn’t much to see. A living room with a wood burning stove in one corner. There’s a TV in here, fairly low-tech. A computer, also pretty simple compared to some I’ve seen. I guess he’s too busy working and keeping this place in one piece to spend a lot of time on technology. I’m the same way. By the time I get home from work, I’m exhausted—happy, but too tired to care what’s happening on whatever social media site people my age are spending their time on nowadays. There’s a dining room that looks as though it never really gets used. I can see why—Jax doesn’t seem like the type who entertains. I can’t imagine him throwing a dinner party, or even a holiday meal. I don’t even know if he has a family. I remind myself that it doesn’t matter. Then I’m back in the kitchen, which is clearly the heart of the home. The fire is blazing away, the dog curled up in front of it just as he was last night. I lean down to scratch him behind the ears. When I

straighten up, I notice how hungry I am. There’s a pot on the stove over a very low flame, and a bowl in the sink. He’s already eaten. I take a look inside the pot to find oatmeal waiting for me. How thoughtful. The good, hot food warms me from the inside. I eat standing by the counter, watching Jax all the while. He hasn’t tired yet. I wonder if he’s planning to dig the car out next. I remember something. My phone. Where did I leave it? I brought it in with me, I know that much, not wanting to leave it in the frozen car. I look around the room, in my coat pocket. Where is it? I see it sitting on the counter, plugged into a charger. Thank God he has a cord that works with it. I turn it on, wondering if I’ll have a signal this time. There’s nothing where I’m currently standing, so I unplug and start walking around the house in the hopes it will help. Once I get to the living room, it does help. The signal gets stronger, and suddenly my list of missed calls jumps to fifteen. I open the list to find that many of them were from my parents, before I called from Jax’s phone. They left several voicemails, too, increasingly frantic. There’s one voicemail from a number I don’t recognize. I assume it’s a telemarketer or something similar, and press the play button. “Hey, it’s me.” My heart skips a beat, and not in a good way. Immediately, my palms start sweating. Why the hell is he calling me now? I told Tommy I never wanted to hear from him again after the last time he called, begging me to take him back. That’s what he’s after this time, too. “I don’t understand why you won’t give me another chance. I know I messed up, but one of the things I loved most about you was your forgiving nature. You’re such a good, sweet person. How can you do this to me? What’s come over you? Is there somebody else? I won’t let anybody come in between us. All I want to do is love you and be good to you. I know we can make it work this time, but you have to be willing to give us a chance. Please, let me be the man I know I can be. I know you’ll never be sorry.” I’ve heard this all before, and I close my eyes. I’m trying to fight off the waves of nausea threatening to overtake me. “Actually, you know what? Fuck you, you bitch. If you won’t even answer your fucking phone, I don’t see why I bother with you anymore. You think you can just break my heart and walk away like it doesn’t matter. Are you with somebody else right now? Sleeping with some other man, you slut? When I’m here begging for you take me back, like I did something wrong? Fuck you, bitch.” He keeps rambling on. I take the phone from my ear and see that there’s another two minutes left in the message, so I delete it without listening to the rest. I don’t know why I started it in the first place. It’s always like this. He starts off loving and apologetic, but eventually begins spiraling. I don’t even have to be in the room for him to blame me. And he always blames me. I remember that last night together, the last time he hit me. The time I decided enough was enough. I

had made dinner, his favorite: chicken parmigiana with homemade pasta and fresh-baked bread. I had spent all day on it, pounding the cutlets, breading and frying them. Preparing the pasta dough in my food processor, rolling it out and cutting it into strips. Kneading the bread dough, letting it rise until it was time to bake off. I even made a fresh marinara sauce. All for him, all to make him happy. But the butter was cold. When he went to butter his bread, he couldn’t spread it because it was too cold. I’d forgotten to take it out to soften before setting it out on the table. Before I knew it, the food was on the floor and I was against the wall. “Why can’t you do anything right?” he screamed in my face, his nose inches from me. Then his palm was against my cheek, hard. A flash of light in front of my eyes. I saw stars. That was it. I’m still not sure exactly what about that experience was enough to prove once and for all that I had to leave. Maybe the way I’d tried so hard to please him. I’d worked my ass off all day. I’d even planned a special evening afterward, complete with lingerie in the hopes of getting him interested. He’d seemed to be less interested in me. Of course, that was my fault, too, just like everything else. If only I was sexier, thinner, thicker, whatever he felt was lacking in me that day. The cold butter and his reaction was enough to finally get through to me. Things were never going to get better. When he left my apartment, leaving me to clean up everything he’d thrown around the room, I knew I had to get out. So I packed what I absolutely needed into my car and drove away. I stare at my phone now, standing here in the middle of Jax’s living room. I can’t help thinking that, no matter how far I go, he’ll find me. But I can’t keep running away forever. It’s over an hour before Jax comes back into the house. I’m in a terrible mood now, wishing I could punch something hard. Why can’t Tommy leave me alone and let me get on with my life? Other women break up with boyfriends and are able to move on. Why can’t I? I have my shop, and my customers, and I’m a part of the town. I really feel like a part of something for the first time in my life, like I’m adding to the community. Why can’t I have this little victory for myself? I need something to do. Jax has plenty of books, more than I would have expected from him. But no, sitting still won’t do right now. I need to be on my feet. Before I know it, I’m back in the kitchen, not giving a shit anymore about whether or not Jax cares that I’ve taken over. It’s either busy myself cooking or rip his head off for no reason the second he comes back inside. It’s not his fault I spent so many years with a sick bastard who’s creepily obsessed with me. It’s not his fault my life is a fucking wreck. I must be masochistic or something because I decide to make a soufflé. It’s one of the most difficult dishes to get right. The slightest hint of motion and the entire thing will fall. The effort it takes to whip the eggs is exactly what I need right now, though. I need to beat the hell out of something, even if it is just a bowl of helpless ingredients. Just as I’m about the put it in the oven, Jax comes in—perfect timing, since if he’d come in and slammed the door while the soufflé was baking, it would have fallen. “What are you making now?” he asks, stomping the snow from his boots and pulling them off by the door.

“Soufflé,” I answer, “but I’ll wait until you’re finished. We have to be extremely quiet or else it won’t puff up.” “Soufflé? Who randomly makes a soufflé in the middle of nowhere, on a snow day?” he asks with a laugh. When I don’t answer, he decides to dig further. “Besides, soufflé is girly. Why not make something you think I might actually want to eat?” I slam my hands on the counter and turn to him. “Why don’t you go fuck yourself with the insults if you can’t stop being a jackass about my cooking?” He’s shocked, his eyes wide. I realize I’m snarling at him, and it’s not even really at him. Not entirely, anyway. I’m also snarling at Tommy. “Wow,” Jax says, his voice suddenly very quiet. “I didn’t know you’d flip out on me like that. I was just kidding around.” “I’m pretty sure I told you last night that I’m sick of your damned kidding around. You talk to me like I’m not even a human being. I don’t like being made fun of. I thought I could find some way to repay you for the nice things you’ve done for me, but I guess that’s not good enough. Maybe if you’d stop being so stupid and snide, I wouldn’t act this way!” Even as I’m saying it, I’m telling myself this isn’t the way to go. I can’t blame him for the way I’m feeling. Yeah, he’s being an ass, but he’s not the only person I’m mad at right now. I’m also scared, which is just coming out as even more anger. I sound like Tommy, blaming Jax for my behavior. That realization only makes me angrier. “Jesus! I’m sorry! I didn’t know you’d be so mad. Pretend I didn’t say anything.” “No, you know what? I’m sick of this shit.” I’m not yelling anymore. Instead, I’m very quiet and very determined. I push past him and get my coat. “What are you doing?” He sounds exasperated. “I’m leaving. You dug the car out, right?” “Yeah, but you obviously forget there’s hardly any gas in it.” Shit. “I’m sure there’s enough to get me to a gas station.” “If one is even open! Do you have any idea how deep the snow got? I’m sure everybody’s digging out right now.” I’m doing my best to ignore him, buttoning my coat despite his protestations. “I’ll figure it out. I’ll walk if I have to.” I open the door, which he promptly shuts. “Stop this. You’re being insane! You’ll freeze out there in no time. There’s no telling what the roads are like either. I don’t think that little car is your best bet right now.”

“I’ll do just fine. I’ll flag down a passing plow truck if I have to!” I push him out of my way. He’s surprised, easily thrown off balance, or else there’s no way I could have moved him. As soon as I step out onto the porch, I regret my decision. It’s below freezing, with a wind that makes it feel even colder. But there’s no going back now, not after the scene I just made. I raise my chin resolutely, as though this doesn’t matter one bit, and walk down the stairs. “Christina! Come back here!” I ignore him, marching toward the driveway. Damn, it’s cold. Already, my toes are protesting, and I haven’t stepped into actual snow yet, thanks to his expert shoveling. This was a bad, bad idea. But my pride is on the line. Moments later, I feel his hand on my arm, spinning me around. “Let go of me!” I scream, pounding on him with my fists. I might as well be pounding on granite for all the good it’s doing me. Before I know it, he bends, scooping me up over his shoulder and carrying me back to the house. I scream the entire way. “What the hell is this? Are you serious? Put me down, damn it! You fucking jerk!” I’m still pounding on his back, my feet kicking helplessly. He doesn’t say a word, just carries me through the door and slams it shut behind us. “Put me down!” Finally, he does as I ask, and when my feet are back on the floor, I come to the realization that he’s strong enough to do whatever he wants to my body. Instead of scaring me like it should, the thought only turns me on. Yeah, that caveman act was obnoxious as hell, but the way he overtook me? Damn. There’s something so intensely masculine about him that I can’t help but respond to. He’s staring down at me, breathing heavily. But it’s not from exertion, I’m thinking. I think his mind is heading in the direction mine is. I feel the tension rising between us, knowing he could overpower me in an instant and almost wishing he would try. Before I know it, he takes my head in his hands and pulls me to him roughly. His mouth covers mine and it’s like an explosion goes off between us. I try to fight him off for a moment, out of sheer instinct. But very soon, I’m falling into the kiss. I unbutton my coat, throwing it to the floor as he does the same with his. I wrap my arms around his broad shoulders, melting into him. He’s strong but sensual. He’s exactly what I need right now, what I’ve needed since last night. He picks me up, so easily it’s like I weigh nothing, and sits me on the counter. I wrap my legs around him, pulling him closer to me. I want him, all of him. His hands are still under my ass, which he pulls to the edge of the counter to grind himself against me

as we continue to kiss. The pressure from his already hard dick is like heaven, and I whimper into his mouth. He takes his hands from beneath me to roam up under my sweater. I moan, urging him on. I need him, everything he can give me. His calloused hands on my soft skin send shivers through my body, all directed to the center of my longing which is throbbing for him. We’re both panting for air, grunting, gasping, wanting more and more. One of his hands slides around to my chest, squeezing one of my breasts. I cry out, wrenching my mouth from his to moan my approval. He latches on to my neck, licking his way down while his hand continues kneading and fondling me. This isn’t right. I can’t stop the thought from bubbling up even as I’m imagining us going at it right here in the kitchen, my soufflé all but forgotten on the counter beside me. It’s hot; it’s sexy as hell. But it’s all wrong. He’s too dark, with too many issues. Controlling, brooding. I can’t have another man like Tommy in my life. I don’t want to stop, though. I don’t want this to ever stop. I take his face in my hands and pull him back up to my waiting mouth, wanting him to push all objections out of my mind with his tongue. He kisses me passionately. I greedily take everything he can give me, only wanting more of him with every passing moment. I want all of him. Right here, right now. There’s no going back. Just as I’m about to reach down and unbutton my jeans, my phone rings. I try to ignore it, kissing him even harder than before. But it continues to ring, ripping me out of the moment and thrusting me back to reality. “Damn it!” I whisper, allowing my forehead to drop against his shoulder. He’s leaning on the counter, one palm on either side of me, breathing heavily. I still feel him pressed ardently against my aching pussy, the pressure through my jeans nearly painful thanks to how aroused he’s made me. Why the hell can’t whoever is calling me just wait? I reach over to where the phone is sitting on the counter and freeze when I see who’s calling. Shit. What the hell is Tommy trying to do to me? And why of all people did he have to be the one to interrupt us? I don’t answer, sliding the phone away from me instead. I have no intention of speaking to him, now or ever. But just the reminder is enough to make me freeze up. “You okay?” I hear Jax whisper against my neck. I nod my head, struggling to control my emotions. “Sorry I got carried away,” he continues. I don’t reply verbally, choosing to shrug instead. It’s all I can do. I’m overwhelmed, being hit from all sides by conflicting sensations. The sheer pleasure Jax was bringing to me without so much as taking off a stitch of clothing, the heat between us still, the icecold reminder of what was waiting out there for me. Waiting for what, I didn’t know. With that came the reminder of what I’d told myself earlier: I can’t get involved with another man who’s battling

demons. I can’t put myself through that again. “I’m sorry,” I finally reply. “I got carried away, too. That shouldn’t have gone as far as it did.” “You bring out something in me,” he admits with a chuckle, then straightens up. He rearranges my sweater, fixing me up so I’m presentable again. I feel heat rising in my cheeks. How can he be so sweet and tender one minute, then so rough and forceful the next? It’s a double-edged sword, I remind myself. Tommy is the same way. Only he isn’t. Jax turns away now. “I’m gonna go watch some TV, check out the news. See how bad it really is out there. You’re welcome to join me.” “Thanks,” I mumble, looking at the floor. I know if I look into his eyes right now I’ll be lost for good. I have to get my thoughts straightened out first. I decide to turn my attention back to my soufflé and get it right this time. I whip more eggs. As I work, I think again about how similar Jax and Tommy are, and how very different. Yes, they’re both volatile. Both of them can turn on a dime. One minute Jax can be quiet, thoughtful, joking. But there’s something darker simmering under the surface. The instant he lets his guard down, that darker part of him comes out. Then he’s dominant, commanding. I get the feeling he could even be brutal if he needed to. Or if he simply wanted to. I shiver, remembering the way he overtook me outside. Yes, it’s funny now that I think about it. Where did I think I was going, anyway? I was being a stubborn little brat. He stopped me the only way he could. I bite my lip, remembering how easily he threw me over his shoulder. I feel a little breathless just thinking about it. Speaking of breathless, what about everything that had followed? I place my hand on the counter, where I sat minutes ago. I feel tingling between my legs, wetness spreading, remembering how it felt to be kissed that way. To be touched the way he was touching me. It was the way I’d always thought it was supposed to be. I never felt that before…the passion and burning, being swept up in something uncontrollable. Sure, sex is nice. I like it. But before today, I’ve never felt that sort of passion. That spark. As far as I was concerned, before today, sex was just another thing that took place. It was a fact of life. One thing led to another. But this? With Jax? I realize I’m holding my breath at the mere thought of what might have happened had we not been interrupted. I exhale slowly, shakily, holding onto the countertop for support. I laugh softly. I used to think something was wrong with me. Why else wasn’t I as into sex as other girls seemed to be? Why didn’t I orgasm every time, or even half the time? I can’t remember how many nights I ended up in the bathroom alone, getting myself off after Tommy had fallen asleep. I

thought it was my hang-ups, something missing inside me. Evidently not. Still, sex is just sex. There’s more to life than that. What about personality? He drives me freaking insane, Jax does. He’s snide, arrogant, mean. He teases me relentlessly like a bully. But he’s not really a bully. I can’t imagine him throwing me against a wall to scream in my face. I get the feeling that he just likes seeing if he can get a rise out of me. I’ve never been good at holding back my temper. Unless I’m scared of the consequence, that is. Then I’ll do just about anything to avoid showing how angry I can get. The biggest difference lies in the fact that Jax is a man. A real man. Masculine, strong, take-charge. I feel safe here, with him. I know if there was a threat from outside, he’d take care of it. Just like he saved me from freezing. He’ll put himself on the line if need be. That’s definitely a characteristic I’m not used to witnessing. Tommy pretends to be strong. But no strong man hurts a woman. That doesn’t mean Jax isn’t dangerous in his own way, however. I still sense some deep darkness in him. I can’t let myself get swept away in the idea of him being a nice guy, a good guy, misunderstood but with a heart of gold, just because he turns me on. There has to be a reason why he’s out here all alone. A young man doesn’t close himself off completely just for shits and giggles. I don’t need to be mixed up with someone like this. No matter how sexy he is. I hear the news reports from the living room, describing how the entire area was “literally buried” in snow. I can attest to that. The roads are still mainly impassable, and it seems as though we’re lucky to have power, considering that lines are down everywhere. I can’t imagine the added awkwardness if there was no electricity. I send up a silent prayer of thanks. The timer goes off, signaling the completion of the soufflé. It’s perfect, puffy, and golden. The smell of baked cheese and egg fills the room. It must waft out to the living room as well, seeing as how Jax walks into the kitchen with a hopeful look in his eye. “Oh, now you want some of my girly soufflé?” I cross my arms, standing between him and the counter. He pouts. I can’t help but laugh. “After the work I did out there, I need a little sustenance.” I can’t argue with him, so I dish up a serving. I can’t help smiling proudly when I see the look on his face after the first bite. “Okay, I apologize. This is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.” “So girly food isn’t so bad after all?” He grins. “I’d eat your food any time.” I turn away before he can see the way he makes me blush.

Chapter 9 Jax Something about this girl doesn’t add up. She’s been agitated, almost hostile, on and off all day. One minute she’s fine, we’re joking about something. The next she’s cold, short, jumping to the wrong conclusion every time I so much as open my mouth. I can’t win. I know what happened in the kitchen earlier in the day is getting to her. Hell, it’s getting to me, too. From the minute I woke up this morning, I told myself there was nothing between us, and there could be only nothing. I had to stay away from her. I jerked off to the thought of her last night, but that was it. No more. Nothing in real life. So why did I practically dry hump her to completion right there on the kitchen counter? Why are my balls aching now when I remember what happened? I know she wants to forget about it; but while I don’t disagree, I can’t help feeling a little irked. Like she’s so shocked at herself for being attracted to the Big Bad Wolf. I was stupid to think she was different from the other women I’ve known. All she’s done is confirm a secret I’ve learned over the years: all women want the Big Bad Wolf whether they admit it to themselves or not. No matter how dangerous he might be. And I am dangerous. There’s no doubt about it. I’d tell her to ask Marissa, but of course she can’t. Marissa isn’t talking anymore. Because of me. Christina needs to get used to me, though, at least to get us both through the night. If the news is telling the truth, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be, she’s not going anywhere until at least tomorrow—and even then, there is no guarantee when the road will be cleared. “You okay?” I ask for the hundredth time. I’m sitting by the fire in the kitchen, reading a book while she fixes dinner. She insisted, and I was too happy to accept. What she’s made so far has been nothing less than spectacular. I feel bad now for giving her shit over the soufflé this afternoon, especially since it was so good. I just can’t seem to stop picking at her. It’s too much fun to watch her explode. Especially since that explosion led to what it led to on the counter. I lick my lips at the memory. “I’m fine, just busy,” she says, her back to me. I hear tension in her voice. I think I also hear a buzzing sound coming from her back pocket. That’s another thing. Her phone has been going all day, from the time it interrupted us through now. It’s been five hours since that happened and it sounds like there’s a hive of bees in here from all the buzzing. I wonder if she has a boyfriend she doesn’t want to tell me about. Maybe that’s why she stopped earlier. He called and reminded her she’s not single. The more I think about it, the more I decide that must be it. She’s not being honest with me. God knows I’m used to women being dishonest by now. It’s nothing new.

“What smells so good?” I try to keep things light and easy, even though I know she’s lying to me. “Chicken and dumplings,” she says, her back still to me. I see her using a can to roll out what looks like dough on the counter. “Can I help you with something?” Even as I say the words, I wonder what the hell has come over me. Since when do I ask if a woman needs help in the kitchen? This gets a reaction from her at least, as she turns to me with one eyebrow cocked. “You? Working in the kitchen?” Instead of irritating me, her reaction makes me want to prove myself. “Yeah. I’m not totally helpless.” I get up, crossing the room to stand beside her. “I can do this, I bet.” “You’re right. It’s pretty basic. Even you could handle it.” At least she’s joking with me again. She shows me how to roll out the dough and cut it into squares. I make a mess of my hands and get flour everywhere, but she doesn’t seem to mind. “Did you ever see yourself helping in the kitchen like this?” she teases. “Honestly? No.” She laughs at this, and I’m glad to hear the sound. Then there’s that buzzing noise again, and she stops abruptly. She gets quiet, withdrawing into herself. I’ll hold my tongue for now, but I know I’m going to have to ask about it before the night’s over if it doesn’t stop. An hour later we’re sitting together at the kitchen table, Blue on the floor between us. Her instincts were on the money; this is the perfect dinner for a day like today. “When did you start cooking?” I ask, going back to the stove for seconds. “I really don’t know. It feels like I’ve always been doing it. I used to watch my mom as she prepared meals. Even the most basic things. Meatballs, meatloaf, chicken, spaghetti, steak. I’d watch and ask questions. Why was she drying off the chicken before she put salt and pepper on it? Why did she add this or that to the recipe? What was the difference in taste? Eventually it got to the point where I was making suggestions. Maybe some grated cheese in the meatballs, a little garlic in the jarred pasta sauce. Then I took over. Baking has always been my real passion, though.” “So it’s not like you had to do it.” “No, I wanted to. It was a natural interest of mine. I think every person is born with a natural interest, you know? Only some of us get lucky enough to pursue it, though.” “Not that I think you need the help, but why not look into culinary school? Even though you already have the coffee shop. If it’s what you really love to do?”

Her face gets stony. I hit a nerve. What is it about her? Why do I even care? And what the hell is she hiding from me? All I want to do is throw her over my shoulder and take her to bed with me, which is the most bizarre reaction to have at the moment but it’s how I feel. I want to take her, make her forget everything for a little while. Maybe I can forget, too. Then there goes that damned phone again. Finally, I have to ask, putting down my fork and looking her straight in the eye. “Do you wanna tell me who the fuck has been messaging you all day? Not once have I seen you take the phone from your pocket, even though it’s been buzzing literally all afternoon. What’s going on? Are you hiding from somebody?” She’s silent, staring down at her bowl. “Please let it go,” she murmurs. I think I hear a tremble in her voice. Now I know something’s wrong. “Why won’t you tell me what’s going on? Is it really that bad? Listen, I know we don’t know each other well, but I can tell it’s bothering you. I just wanna help, if I can.” “You can’t help.” There’s finality in her voice. Like she’s living with a death sentence. “Besides, it’s really not a big deal. If I ignore him, he’ll go away.” “Him?” She’s painting a pretty vivid picture for me without meaning to. Is she running away from some asshole? There’s only one reason why she would. She’s not dishonest. I don’t see her stealing from a man or cheating. She’s not a coward. She’s stood up to me a bunch of times already. She’s scared to death of this guy, though. “Let me see the phone,” I say as quietly as I possibly can. Already my blood’s boiling and I haven’t seen what he sent yet. “No.” A violent shake of the head. This only spurs me on. “Show me. Please.” Again, a shake. I decide to take it, my hand darting out to swipe it from her pocket before she can stop me. She’s leaning forward, making it easy to grab. I heard her crying out, trying to stop me, cursing at me. But her words aren’t registering because the blood is rushing through my ears as I read the sick shit this guy has been texting her. I hold up a hand, signaling her to stop talking. I hear what sounds like a whimper coming out of her as she puts her face in her hands. “Who is this guy? A boyfriend?” I look at the name. Tommy. “Ex. I left him.” “I don’t think I have to ask why after reading this.” My voice is tight. I’m barely keeping my rage

under control. Scrolling up, I see things started innocently enough this afternoon. Begging her to please at least let him know she’s alive by replying to him. Begging her to take him back. Give him one more chance. He’ll make it up to her. They can be happy again. Why doesn’t she want to be happy with him anymore? He knows there’s somebody else. Why is she doing this to him? How could she have cheated on him? How can she be such a bitch? He’ll make her see how much she’s hurt him. She’s a stupid cunt. He’ll make her pay for this. He’ll make her wish she’d never made a fool out of him. She’ll be sorry when he finds her. And she’s crazy if she thinks he won’t find her. She can’t hide from him. I look up at her but all I can see is red. I have to kill this son of a bitch. “I’m guessing you didn’t leave him because he’s such an awesome guy,” I say. “Please let it go,” she pleads. But I can’t. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s violence against women. It doesn’t help that I happen to like this woman in particular. “Just tell me what happened. Why did you leave him? Did this just start after you left?” A sad head shake. “He…hit me. Lots of times. I was a stupid bitch, a cunt, worthless. I finally got the nerve to leave, but he just started sending me these messages not long ago. A few weeks. I don’t even know how he got my new cell number, unless he called my mom and tricked her into giving it to him. I never told them…you know. How bad it was. I was too ashamed. They didn’t know any better.” I need to kill him. Or at least beat him within an inch of his life. “Look, I’m going to block his number.” She holds her hand out now, wanting the phone. I hand it over, my mind racing with plans for how I intend to find this son of a bitch and beat the shit out of him. I watch as she does just like she said she would. “I should have blocked him right away, but I didn’t. I don’t know why. I guess I was just afraid of how much angrier he’d be if I never responded to him.” She looks at me, and she doesn’t have to finish her thought because I can see what she’s trying to say. She feels safe with me. Like I’ll protect her. And the thing is I want to protect her. I want to be sure this guy doesn’t hurt her. At the same time, I almost feel sorry for her, for being so naïve as to think I’m her safe bet. But between me and the asshole sending those texts I guess I am. He’s not safe, though. Because I’m gonna find him, and I’m gonna make him hurt.

Chapter 10 Christina I can’t sleep now, not after sharing what I did earlier. There’s a storm inside me now. Even though I’m relieved, somewhat, to not be carrying this burden on my own anymore, I can’t stop my mind from racing. What’s Tommy going to do now that I blocked him? When he sees I have no intention of replying, he’s going to spiral out of control, I know it. I have to try to get in contact with my mom in the morning, to ask if she gave him my new address. I’m terrified that he’s going to show up out of the blue. Jax will keep me safe. That’s the thought that keeps popping into my head every time I get too worried. He’ll protect me. But I won’t always be with him, will I? What happens when I leave? And I do have to leave eventually, of course. I can’t be with him forever. Once I’m alone, I’ll be vulnerable. I’m even more attracted to him than ever. I saw the rage in his eyes and it turned me on. What’s wrong with me that I actually, legitimately got hot when I saw how badly he wanted to hurt Tom once he read those texts? What’s broken inside me? Whatever it is, it made me want Jax even more. I’m aching for him, as wrong as it is. I squeeze my legs together, noting how warm and tingling I am. He’s just what I need right now. Someone strong, powerful, commanding, even dangerous. But not to me. To the person who hurt me. It’s like an aphrodisiac, knowing there’s a person who’d be willing to hurt another person for my sake. And I know he would. I get the feeling he’s chomping at the bit. Yes, I want him. But for now, we’re back in bed. In separate rooms. And I’m struggling to finally fall asleep and forget this for a while. Sleep is elusive, though. I wonder if some warm milk wouldn’t help. Maybe with a little whiskey. Do the two even go together? Well, it’s worth a try. I’m desperate enough to try anything at this point. I pad downstairs, two pairs of knee socks quieting my footsteps. I stop short when I see Jax there, by the fire. He’s wearing boxers and nothing else, just as he did last night. I’m torn between wanting to turn away and slip back upstairs before he notices me and wanting to go to him. He’s like a magnet, drawing me closer against my will. It’s too late. He knows I’m standing here, his head moving ever so slightly in my direction. As though he can’t decide what he should do either. My feet are moving before I know what I’m doing, taking me to his side. I stand there, next to him, feeling the heat from both the fire and his body, burning into me. One strong, muscular arm slides around my waist before he looks up into my eyes. We don’t need to say a word. There’s nothing to say

now, anyway. I straddle his lap, pulling the oversize tee over my head and throwing it to the floor before wrapping my arms around his neck. He sighs, pulling me close for another soul-shattering kiss. I’ve never been kissed like this before, so completely. Like he’s trying to reach inside me and draw me out. We’re both searching for something as our tongues wrap around each other. But we’re not as frantic as we were this afternoon. We’re going slow, taking our time. His hands move slowly up, then down my back. Over and over. The warmth from the fire is nothing compared to the heat his hands unleash in me. He sucks my bottom lip between his own, pulling slightly, using his teeth to make me hiss. I rock my hips against him, reminding him of the power I have. My head falls back, his mouth now trailing my jaw, then down my throat. He’s going so painfully slow, licking every inch of my skin. I hear the whimpers coming out of my mouth and I don’t care. I have to find some way to tell him what he’s doing to me. His head dips lower, his tongue dancing over my chest to my tits. My nipples are already rock-hard, waiting for his mouth. When his lips close around one stiff peak I cry out, digging my nails into his back. I lean further away, giving him better access. He holds me up as though I weigh nothing, his arms around me. He moves to the other nipple and again I cry out, now moving my hips in slow circles against him. We’re so close to each other, only a few thin layers of cotton separating us. I feel his hard length against me, hear him groan as I make contact again and again. The pressure against my mound is driving me crazy, and I feel my panties getting soaked through. “So good,” I manage to moan between gasps for air. I’m breathless, my chest heaving. I need him so much it’s painful, my clit throbbing. I reach down to where I know he’s straining to get out of his shorts and slide my hand inside. It’s his turn to moan when my fingers make contact with him and wrap around his thick shaft. “Shit,” he whispers, his head falling back this time. I run my tongue along his throat, nibbling him as I stroke his cock. I’ve never been so brazen, but I’ve never felt any of this before. Like I want to devour him, and be devoured. “You like that?” I whisper breathlessly, gripping him. He moans again and I feel him throb in my hand. My own pussy clenches in reply. “Suck it,” he groans. “Please…suck it…” I climb from his lap and sink to my knees. I’ve never liked doing this, but with him it seems natural. I want to. I love the pleading sound of his voice and want him to beg for more. For once, I have power over him.

When my lips close over the head, he lets out a shuddering gasp. I take my time, not really confident in my skill, but the sound of his reactions leads me in the right direction. The way he gasps, groans, and urges me on builds my confidence and gets me even hotter than before. He takes a handful of my hair, massaging my scalp with his fingers. “That’s right, baby. Just like that. That’s so good.” I can’t take all of him into my mouth, gagging around three quarters of the way down, so instinctively I stroke the rest with my hand and use it as an extension of my mouth. I keep up my slow, deliberate pace, licking as I go since I can tell it drives him crazy. Soon, he’s thrusting into my mouth and I know he’s getting close. I suck harder, harder, now wanting him to come in mouth. I can’t believe this change in me. I want to feel dirty, do things I’ve never done. He tries to stop me, to pull out, but I won’t give up. He has no choice but to let go, shooting his load straight down my throat. He grunts once, twice as he spurts deep into me. I hold him in my mouth until I know he’s finished, then let him slip out. He’s breathing heavily, with a smile on his face. I feel good, knowing I’ve pleased him. “So that’s how it’s gonna be?” he asks once he catches his breath. I don’t have time to answer before he pulls me to my feet and rips off the boxers and panties. He kneels on the floor and pulls me down with him, then pushes me back until I’m stretched out in front of the hearth, the rug under my back. Without another word his head is between my legs, giving me all the pleasure I just gave him. He licks my smooth mound, which I know is slick with my juices by now. “Taste so good…” I hear him groan in between long laps of his tongue against my swollen lips. I’m in heaven, eyes closed, almost not breathing. Just focused on the sensations he’s causing. Soon, I’m begging him for more. “More what?” he asks, running his thumb over my mound, not yet dipping inside. “Please, eat me!” I nearly scream it, not caring how I sound. I just want to come and end this agony. I’m rewarded by the feeling of having my lips spread, then the indescribable bliss of the first touch of his tongue on my aching clit. I arch my back, crying out again and again. His tongue flicks back and forth, then up and down. He sucks my bud between his lips, then goes even lower to lick my dripping hole. I’m lost in sensation, my head rolling from side to side as a long series of moans flows from me. My whole body begins to tense as the pressure builds, my breathing quickens. I’m so close, so ready. He reads my reaction and attacks my clit with a furious series of flicks with the tip of his tongue. That does it—I’m screaming, my thighs gripping his head, my back arched as the day’s built-up tension explodes inside me, then flows over and through me. Still he doesn’t stop. Now he slides two fingers inside my sheath, still pulsing from my orgasm. I hardly know what he’s doing, only half-conscious in the afterglow. The beautiful waves are still rolling over me to crest higher and higher as Jax’s fingers begin pumping in and out of me. Instead of

the blissful feelings dying off, they get stronger. I start climbing again, screaming now, the pleasure almost too much to handle. I’ve never come twice like this before and I’m not sure I can handle it. “Fuck, Jax!” I scream, clawing at his shoulders as the second climax washes over me. I notice wetness on my cheeks and realize I’m crying. The whole thing is so surprising I don’t know what to think. My entire body is trembling from the force until it passes, and I’m left in wonder of what just happened. I didn’t think it was possible. I feel his fingers leave me and I moan softly. I reach for him, needing to be held. He takes me in his arms, but instead of staying beside me on the floor he stands. He carries me with him up the stairs, into his bedroom. I don’t fight him. I don’t want to.

Chapter 11 Jax She’s even better than I imagined. I lay her on the bed, already hard and ready to go again. The taste of her pussy, the sounds she made as she came, drove me crazy. I look down at her body, the moonlight coming through the window and painting her silver. The big, firm tits are heaving up and down, just like I’d imagined. The little waist and round, tight little ass. The long, smooth legs. She has a body that was made for this, and I’m overcome with the urge to own it. I want to ride her until she screams and begs me to stop. I lower myself over her, taking the time to appreciate every inch of skin I come into contact with. I start at her slim ankle, running my fingers over it, then moving slowly up until I reach her ass. She squirms, gasping when my fingers brush across her sensitive skin. I stay there, caressing softly, driving her crazy. “Oh my God, Jax,” she whispers, biting into my shoulder. She lets out a shuddery moan with every stroke along her soft skin, trembling. I realize she hasn’t really been touched before. This is all new to her. She doesn’t even know what her body is capable of. When my fingers slide between her ass cheeks, she gasps sharply. “Relax. Let go.” I stroke her there, back and forth over her most private place, while flicking my tongue over her nipples. They’re perfect, the kind that beg to be sucked. She writhes under me, eyes closed, mouth open. Her moans are deeper now, almost primal. I gently rake my teeth across one nipple and she arches her back. Meanwhile, my fingers are still exploring her ass. She whimpers a little every time I linger near her puckered hole, but I don’t go any further. Just teasing her is enough. Making her think I will. I rub it gently with my thumb and she nearly jumps off the bed. Her fingers are digging into my shoulder, and I wonder how badly I’ll be bruised tomorrow. But I don’t stop. Instead I go lower with my tongue, now licking her navel. She holds the back of my head close to her, moaning in approval. I kiss and lick across her flat stomach, then down to her hips. She rolls them in a circular motion, grinding them toward my face. I know what she wants, but I’m not going to give it to her just yet. Soon. I’m back at her pussy, the scent making me twitch painfully. I want to bury myself inside her, but first I want to give her all the pleasure she can handle. I find her pink button again and swipe my tongue over it. She’s ready for more, soaking wet and begging again for me to lick her pussy until she comes. Just the sound of the words coming out of her mouth makes my balls ache. She sounds so fucking sexy when she talks like this, her voice raw and

throaty. I lick faster, pressing harder against her clit. She moans louder, signaling that I’m on the right track. I start circling her wet hole with my thumb, teasing her as I lick. She sounds desperate, crying out almost pitifully. Like she’s going insane. When I slide two fingers deep inside she screams my name. I can’t wait to fuck her now, just to hear that again. I find the rough patch inside her tunnel and start rubbing it, never stopping the movement of my tongue on her button. She’s losing it, screaming hoarsely, writhing frantically. But I won’t stop, knowing how the pleasure is wracking her and how good she’ll feel when she comes. Soon she’s tightening around my fingers, coating them with even more wetness as the orgasm begins. I watch her face as she screams, the veins standing out on her neck when she tenses. Then she’s crying out, over and over, her muscles loosening their grip and pulsing gently. I withdraw my fingers, replacing them with my cock. She gasps sharply as I fill her, and I have to stay still until she relaxes or risk losing it. She’s so tight, so hot. I wait until the urge to come passes, watching her as she adjusts to me. “So big,” she whimpers, but the way she thrusts her hips toward me when she says it tells me there’s no problem. I slide out, slowly, still watching as her eyes close and a slow smile spreads over her face. I let her feel every inch of me leave until only the head is still inside. I tease her with a few shallow thrusts, and she moans. “Do you want more?” I ask, rolling my hips. I’m barely holding back, wanting to pound her until we’re both raw. But torturing her like this is so much fun. “Mmmhmm. I want all of it. Give it to me.” She’s mine now, I think as I slam home. Her eyes fly open in surprise when she feels me bottom out inside her. I take her wrists, pinning them above her head. “You want it? You want my cock?” I growl as I ride her. I feel every bit of her as I slam home, her tight sheath gripping me like a vice. She’s crying out, incoherent, lost. “Do you like that?” “Yes! Yes! I love it!” I respond by slamming home once, twice, hearing her scream softly. “Turn over,” I growl, letting go of her wrists and sliding out briefly. No sooner is she on her knees than I’m lining up with her pussy and thrusting again. I hold onto her hips, pulling them toward me to bring us together even harder. She loves it, gasping and moaning, begging for more. I feel her moving against me, slamming into me, fucking me as I’m fucking her. I slap her ass, first on one side, then the other. At first she sounds surprised, then she cries out, “Yes!

Slap my ass! Please!” I do it again and again, then reach down to pull her up against me so her back is to my chest. “Ride me,” I growl in her ear before biting the lobe. She shivers, but doesn’t stop rocking her hips against my cock, grinding sensually. My hands roam over her legs, her hips, up to her tits. I rub them, squeezing them, feeling the way they bounce in my hands with her movement. With one hand, I pull her head to the side to suck on her neck. I need all of her, everything I can feel or taste. She reaches behind me, holding onto the back of my neck, still fucking me. I cup her mound with my free hand, rubbing her. She’s nearly gone now, her voice nonexistent, hoarsely crying out my name. “Jax! Ohhh, ohhh, oh, Jax!” Her grinding has turned into a frantic bouncing and I know she’s ready to come again. My fingers find her clit and she gasps, riding harder and harder. I feel the way her pussy clamps down on my cock and grit my teeth, holding on as she comes all over me. “That’s right, baby, come on my cock. Come for me.” She whimpers, shaking, the muscles of her pussy squeezing me. I force myself to think of something else for a moment until the urge to come passes, glad she already got me off with her mouth so it’s easier to hold back. Finally, she’s finished, collapsing forward onto the bed. “We’re not finished yet,” I warn her. She looks up at me through half-lidded eyes. “Oh, please,” she whimpers. “I don’t think I can take any more.” “I’m gonna give it to you anyway. You can take just one more. My cock needs to be inside you one more time,” I say, picking up her legs and placing them against my chest. I gently strum my thumb over her clit, teasing her. “Don’t you want it? Don’t you want to feel good again?” “Mmmm. Jax…” That’s all the answer I need. She’s torn between pleasure and exhaustion, so I make up her mind for her by plunging into her again. I’m determined to make her come one more time before I do. Taking hold of her legs, I drive myself into her. She wants more, I can tell, moaning again. I grind into her slowly, taking my time, building us both up. I feel her pushing against me, using her legs against my chest for leverage. I won’t let her off that easy. I spread her thighs apart, placing one foot on either side of me. Then I kneel, lifting her hips as I go. Her pussy is open in front of me, my cock still thrusting into her. “Touch yourself for me,” I whisper. “I want to see you get yourself off while I fuck you.” She moans, too lost in pleasure to say no. My eyes are glued to her fingers as she first slowly strokes her clit, then speeds up. She uses the other hand to hold the lips apart, giving me an even better look.

“That’s right,” I growl, thrusting harder now, watching her pleasure herself. “You’re so fucking sexy. Make yourself come, baby. One more time.” She moans, my words driving her closer and closer. Her fingers are a blur now, flying over her clit. My cock is a blur, too, and I know I’m getting ready to explode. “Come on me,” she gasps, then I realize she’s tightening again, her cries getting louder and louder as she climaxes just once more. From the moment she starts, I let go. I slide out of her and rapidly stroke myself, crying out just before I start spurting over her tits just like she asked. I hear myself roaring, hear her encouraging me to keep going, as my cum splashes onto her. Then it’s over. I fall onto the bed, exhausted. I’ve been with a lot of women—a lot of women—but this was different. I never felt so compelled to bring a woman so much pleasure. I barely notice when she slips out of bed. I hear the water running in the bathroom and know she’s cleaning herself up. Soon she slips back into bed with me, beneath the blankets. I know I ought to keep her from falling asleep with me…but I can’t bring myself to say no.

Chapter 12 Christina I know we shouldn’t have. But I’m so glad we did. I’ve never felt like this before. I didn’t think I was capable of feeling so much pleasure. There were times when I didn’t think I could handle any more, but I’m glad he pushed me further. I feel sorry for any man who comes into my life after tonight. They’ll never measure up. We stay in bed together for a little while. I sense hesitation on his part at first, but there’s no way I’m going back to that solitary bed and sleeping alone after what just happened. I’m feeling vulnerable, more so than I ever have, and I need a little contact right now. I’m guessing this isn’t his usual routine. It doesn’t take long for him to warm up, though. I’m dozing gently, sort of in and out of consciousness, in that beautiful place between sleep and wakefulness. My head is on his shoulder, and I can hear the way his heart beats slow and strong in his chest. Everything about him is strong. I hear his breathing change, too. It slows, deepens. I glance up at his face without moving my head, wanting to avoid disturbing him. He’s so beautiful, if a man can be beautiful. The moonlight against the snow fills the room with an almost supernatural white glow, lighting his face. He’s angelic, just like the ink across his chest. Though I don’t think he was in an angelic mood when he got that done. I bite my lip to stifle a giggle. Then I remember something. “Oh, shit!” He stirs at my voice. “The fire! You lit the fire!” “Good call.” He hurries out of bed, not bothering to put on his boxers, and heads downstairs. I hear him putting out the flames, speaking to Blue in low, soothing tones. Poor dog. We probably scared the hell out of him. I giggle again, remembering how wild it was. He’s officially ruined me for all other men. How can I go back to plain, boring sex again after what just happened? Nothing else will come close, I’m sure. I look around the room, really seeing it for the first time. The dresser and bed are antiques, I can tell, the curtains that same pretty lacy fabric as the ones in the guest room. I wonder why he still has everything decorated this way. It doesn’t seem to suit his personality at all. He’s so masculine, hardly able to roll out a basic dough on the counter earlier tonight. This whole “farmhouse shabby chic” aesthetic clashes with what I know about him. I don’t think I would change a thing, though. Maybe get a nicer TV with a better picture. Maybe switch out his old computer with my newer one. The stove and oven are amazing, but the fridge is a

little small. Maybe a second one in the garage? Wait a minute. What the hell am I thinking? I’m going through this in my head as though I plan to move in. This is exactly the sort of complication I don’t need in my life right now, damn it. I can’t go from one fucked up relationship to another, no matter how good the sex is. And the sex was very, very good. Besides, Jax doesn’t exactly seem like the type who would want to settle down with me. He strikes me as a loner, through and through. I can only imagine the way he’d react if I showed up one day, bags in hand. He might act like he didn’t know me, or regret ever finding me in the snow. The idea is entirely too screwed up to consider. And yet… When he’s not being an ass, and I’m not flying off the handle at him, he’s sweet. Thoughtful. Tender. I’ll never forget how he took care of me when I was half-frozen. There’s a good heart in there, even if he doesn’t want to admit to it. Can I see us continuing this way on a permanent basis? I’m surprised to realize that the idea appeals to me. I wouldn’t mind staying here with him for longer than tonight. As long as he wants me, and I want him. Why not? Many successful relationships have been based on little more than great sex, right? Besides, there is more between us, as much as I didn’t want to admit it at first. There’s much more. The fact that he triggers me only means we’re alike. We’re too alike in some ways. And our differences, well, they make for some explosive fun, that’s for sure. I could live with sex even half as good as this for the rest of my life. I don’t even know anything about him. He could be a murderer, a deviant. I’ve been here for less than two days. We could get to know each other. Does any couple know everything about each other when they first get together? Of course not. It comes in time. Just like I didn’t know everything about Tommy. I shiver now. I can’t stop taking chances, no matter how terrible things were with him. I’ll be smarter this time. If I see warning signs, I won’t ignore them this time. Not like I did for years with that bastard. My eyes fall on the dresser, specifically on a framed picture on top of the dresser. It’s of a woman, petite, blonde. Pretty. She’s laughing. I wonder who she is. Not a sister, not with that tiny frame or blonde hair. Jax is dark, almost swarthy, and huge. A girlfriend? Shit. Does he have a girlfriend? I wouldn’t know, would I? I slap my forehead. He returns just as I do. “You okay?” he asks, hesitating.

I just nod and smile, my eyes unable to leave his body. He’s impressive, no doubt about it. He gets back into bed with me, his back against the headboard. I don’t cuddle up to him as quickly this time, now wary. “I hope it’s okay for me to stay here, I mean, in bed with you.” “Oh, yeah. No problem.” I roll onto my side, facing him. “How long have you lived in this house?” He shrugs, staring at the ceiling as he thinks. “It’s been, oh, maybe seven years? Eight?” “It’s so cozy. Perfect at this time of year, too. Makes me feel all warm inside.” He smiles, and I know he feels exactly the same way. I know there’s a good, sweet man in there. I wouldn’t care so much if there wasn’t. “Did you grow up around here? What made you move into this house specifically?” He shrugs again, the smile disappearing now. “I grew up not far from here, outside of town. Close enough to almost feel like a part of things, but I never really was. There was always a wall between me and the people who live there.” “How come?” “Ask them. I always guessed it was because I was sort of, well, white trash. Poor. You know those people, you see them. I bet they come in every Sunday after church, don’t they?” I nod. “Of course they do. But they’re the least Christian bunch of hypocrites in the world. Unaccepting of anybody not just like them.” He looks at me, his eyes narrowing. “You probably don’t see it, because you’re the sort of person they like. Sweet, pretty, friendly. You fit in…except you’re a good person. When I walked into your shop, you didn’t judge me or turn me away. You treated me like a person. Tattoos, dirty work clothes and all.” “Well, I have to admit you were a little intimidating. But you’re a big guy, too.” “True enough. But I wasn’t always. Not when I was a kid.” I mull this over. Maybe this is why he’s so cut off, because he feels rejected. I don’t blame him. My heart goes out to him now. He’s so wounded. I want to end that loneliness for him. Damn. One good round of sex and I’m feeling all types of things. What the hell happened to me?

“Can I ask you another question?” He hesitates. I can tell he already feels like he’s revealed too much. He can’t be used to talking about himself like this. He shifts beneath the blankets, his lips pursed. “Sure. Go ahead.” I point to the dresser, indicating the framed photo. “Who’s that?” His face drops. I’ve seen that look before, I realize. It’s the same look he had on his face when I referenced the way he lives alone. Shit. What did I just step in? I wish I could take it back. I especially wish it when he replies, “That’s my wife. My late wife.”

Chapter 13 Jax I knew it couldn’t last, the whole “let’s not ask personal questions” stage. Now that we’ve had sex, the floodgates are open. She doesn’t know there’s no future for us. I watch her now, as she sleeps. I know she wants more. It’s always obvious when a woman wants more. They start asking questions. How long have you lived here? Where did you grow up? Who’s that woman in the picture you haven’t been able to take off your dresser in the two years since she died? I shut down after telling Christina that the picture was of Marissa. I didn’t even give her the name, leaving it at “late wife.” I felt sorry for her; I still do. She was upset, I guess because she didn’t mean to pry. I hadn’t given her any idea that I used to be married. It’s not her fault. It was an honest question. After that, I sort of shut down. I didn’t want her to keep asking questions, which I knew would grow progressively painful and awkward. If she had, and if I’d answered honestly, Christina wouldn’t be asleep right now. She’d be out in the snow, running away from me. Even freezing to death would seem like a better fate. I didn’t tell her how Marissa died. And I didn’t tell her that the whole town thinks I did it. Or at least that I’m responsible for it. They’re right, of course. I’m responsible. She died thanks to me and my fucked up life. I joined the club when I was a kid, too stupid to realize what it was really all about. I remember how good it felt, the idea of having a family. A circle of brothers, people I could count on. They’d have my back. I’d spent my whole miserable childhood on the fringe. My parents a couple of alcoholics, Dad in and out of jail. No brothers or sisters at home, all of them only half-siblings anyway. There were four different fathers among the six of us, and I was the youngest. I was always alone. The club was going to save me, give me a new life. I’d always loved motorcycles, and when I saw the Angels of Chaos ride through town on their bikes, my imagination would race. They were the coolest thing I’d ever seen. The gossip about them, the way folks would wrinkle their noses and turn away, all of that just egged me on. They already felt that way about my white trash family and me, anyway. So I joined up. I met Marissa through them. She was one of the hangers-on, so to speak, always at the parties. Serving beer, sitting on members’ laps. But she wasn’t like the others. She was smart, and she wouldn’t do everything she was asked. A lot of the girls were so broken they’d suck any dick waved

in front of their face as long as it meant they got to hang around. Marissa was different. She wouldn’t stand for any of it. I knew she was the one for me. I don’t even remember how things went downhill, but they did. I was so busy with the club I didn’t notice the way we were falling apart until it was much, much too late. I stepped away after she died. I couldn’t be a part of it anymore. I didn’t need the club to survive either. I’d managed to stay away from any serious charges during my time in the club, so it wasn’t impossible for me to get a job. I started landscaping, needing the air and sun. Something good, something fresh. All I’d ever known was darkness and rot and stink. Now here’s this girl. She wants me. I can’t deny wanting her. She’s a pain in the ass, a sarcastic brat. She’s perfect right down to the freckles on her nose and arms. But I can’t bring her into all my shit. I’m too fucked up; I’ve done and seen too many things. I’m dirty, and I’ll never be clean. She deserves so much better than me. She’s a good woman. She has a future. I don’t. I always hurt people in the end. It was unfair of me to bring her closer, to give into the need I felt for her. She’s not the type to screw ’em and lose ’em. She’s the real deal. She has a good heart. Now, we’re more connected than before, and it’s going to be even more painful for her once she realizes who I am and what I’ve done. Because she will of course. She hasn’t been here long enough to hear the rumors. Or maybe she has, but she hasn’t put two and two together yet. She doesn’t know about Marissa, how she died. How I killed her. Once she finds out, it’ll break her heart. But how can I push her away when I want her so badly still? Even after fucking the hell out of her, I want her again. And I want to fight with her and watch her yell at me. I want to watch her cook, since that’s where she’s in her element. I don’t want to let go of her now that I’ve had her. And I don’t want to leave her open to that son of a bitch Tommy. She needs to be protected from him. I’ve seen what guys like him can do to a girl like her. My chest tightens at the thought of her being hurt that way. She’s mine now. I won’t let anyone hurt her. But what happens when I’m the one who winds up doing the hurting?

Chapter 14 Christina I know I should continue to my parents’ house, but I can’t. I don’t want to leave him. What the hell is wrong with me? When did I become a fawning fangirl? Maybe right around the time I had a screaming orgasm. Or the second time. Or the third time. I don’t remember. All I know is I’m hooked. It’s not just the sex. I remind myself of this while we’re tangled up together. He’s asleep, snoring slightly. I’m surfing the sweet spot between asleep and awake, everything hazy and comfortable. My head is on his chest, his heartbeat lulling me back to sleep. No, screw it all. I ought to get out of bed and roll on. I can’t stay here forever. The feeling of having somewhere else to be is putting a damper on the time we’re together, anyway. It was one thing while the snow was falling, another while waiting for the world to dig out. Now? I’m afraid of overstaying my welcome, no matter how good a cook I happen to be. Or how good a lay. Was I good? My eyes open, startled by this thought. I was thrilled by Jax’s prowess, shocked at the number of times he made me climax. I hardly ever did with my ex. Now I’m worried that I wasn’t good. All Tommy ever required was my presence in bed. I didn’t need to do anything, didn’t even get the chance to. Jeez, did I screw it up? I couldn’t have been too bad. Jax seemed to enjoy himself well enough. I remember the way he grunted and shouted, the way he twitched in my mouth. I get a little wet thinking about it, the sounds that came out of his mouth when I was sucking him. I must have done something right. Then he’d been weird. He’d been so weird. I’d asked the wrong question. I could kick myself now for it. Was that what good sex did to a person? Turn them into a total idiot? No, damn it. I won’t do this to myself. I had every right to ask. It was a totally innocent question. I did that all the time when I was with Tommy. All the nights I spent in bed, cowering in the dark, wondering what I’d done this time to upset him. I shouldn’t have made that remark, shouldn’t have looked at him that way. I should have known better than to set him off. It’s become a reflex, I guess, blaming myself for another person’s actions. Besides, it wasn’t as if Jax kicked me out of the house for it. He didn’t even ask me to go back to the spare bedroom. We spent the night right here, with me in his arms. It was bliss. The best sleep I’ve had in years, and I almost never liked sleeping close to Tommy. I was never comfortable. I’m wide awake now, thoughts of my miserable past driving sleep far away. I look at Jax’s body. God, he’s beautiful. An underwear model on a billboard is the first thing that comes to mind, every muscle

fully defined. Yet he’s not some preening, prissy boy, obsessed with his looks. There isn’t even a mirror anywhere in this room. He’s a man, truly and fully. Rugged, take charge. His body is the result of hard work, not hard workouts. That being said, there’s a certain part of him that is not the result of workouts. I glance up at his face, still peaceful in sleep. I still hear his snores. I take the opportunity to get a peek under the sheets, currently around his hips. Damn. The boy is blessed. I remember the way he felt inside me. So big. So thick. Filling me up. It’s all I can do to keep myself from jumping him right this minute. It’s best to let him sleep. He seems to be happy when he’s asleep, his face falling into much softer lines. Normally, he looks like he’s got a chip on his shoulder, like he’s always waiting for the other shoe to drop. His brow is almost permanently creased in thought. I wonder what happened to make him look that way. He’s had a lot of pain. I knew it the first time I watched him staring at the fire when I insulted him over living alone the way he does. There are demons aplenty in this man’s life. I wish I could help him, just as much as I wish I could stop myself from wanting to help him. It’s not my job. He’s not my responsibility. I don’t have to take care of anybody but myself. I can’t help the desire, though. Damn it. Am I falling for him? It’s like he hears my thoughts, stirring. One eye opens ever so slightly, then closes immediately. “So bright.” I giggle. “Yeah, that’s usually what happens in the morning.” “What time is it? I’m usually up when it’s still dark.” I roll over, checking my phone on the nightstand. “It’s after eight o’clock.” “Are you serious? I have to go down to let Blue out. I’m surprised he hasn’t been whining at the door yet.” I give him room to sit up, drinking in the sight of him, the way every muscle plays beneath his skin like a symphony. I hate myself for even thinking something so corny, but it’s true. Then he stands, and that magnificent ass is on display. Only for a moment, though, as he pulls on a pair of jeans. He’s so sexy. “You want some breakfast?” He looks back, smiling. “Yeah, sure. You want to cook?” “I’m not completely clueless. I did eat just fine when you weren’t here.”

I decide to leave it there and not challenge him on cooking being “girly.” A short time later I join him in the kitchen, my heart in my throat. I found an oversize sweatshirt of his in the closet and decided to wear it instead of my three-day-old sweater. He looks me up and down, not saying a word before turning back to the stove. “I hope you don’t mind. I just couldn’t bear the idea of putting that same sweater on again.” A moment’s hesitation. “No, no, I get it. I don’t mind at all.” Hmm. “Are you sure? I can take it off.” He looks back to where I’ve sat at the kitchen table, a grin on his face. “You can definitely take it off if you want to. I wouldn’t say no.” I scowl, making him laugh before he turns back to the stove. “I was just thinking how cute you look in it.” I smile, like a complete goon, from ear to ear. “Really?” “Really. You should wear my clothes more often.” I blush, wondering if he’s thinking along the same lines as I am. Wouldn’t that be something? A story we could tell our grandkids. How Grandpop rescued Grandmom from a blizzard, and they fell in love. Ugh. Again, so corny. What’s come over me? “How do you like your eggs?” “Oh, um, whatever’s easiest for you. Usually scrambled, but I like overeasy and sunny side, too.” “You’re in luck. Scrambled eggs are my specialty.” I watch as he cooks, not giving a damn about what’s on the stove. He’s still in just his jeans, looking more delicious than anything he could serve up. There’s something about the sight of a man in the kitchen, especially when he’s drop-dead gorgeous. “There’s fresh coffee over here, by the way.” I’m desperate for caffeine. I rush for the pot. “Is there anything I can do to help you?” “Please. I think you’ve done enough this weekend.” He chuckles softly. “I cooked a little bit. Big deal. It’s not enough.”

“Enough?” “To make up for what you did for me. It’ll never be enough.” He turns, seeing the dead-serious look on my face. “Hey.” He comes over to me. “I don’t need a payback, so don’t worry about it. I was in the right place at the right time. I’m just glad I was able to reach you before it was too late.” He strokes my cheek with his thumb. I’m mesmerized. “I’m glad I got to know you.” I feel like my heart is exploding into a million rays of light. “Me, too.” He leans in, just about to kiss me, before his eyes fly open. “The food. I’ll take a raincheck.” I laugh, then tingle all over at the thought of a raincheck. I wonder what that’s going to involve. Breakfast is delicious. Eggs, bacon, toast. Simple but filling. “You know, not everybody can get eggs right. Or bacon, for that matter. You have good instincts.” “What’s so hard about bacon?” “It’s easy to burn. There’s nothing so sad as burned bacon.” We toast to this, touching our coffee cups in mid-air. “Seriously, though. I think you’d make a good cook.” He laughs. “Cooking was never something the people in my life considered something a boy should be doing.” He winces, and laughs again. “They were stupid. No offense.” “None taken, because they were.” He shakes his head, remembering. “If they knew I was a landscaper now, they’d laugh their asses off at me.” “Why?” “Because I plant flowers and bushes. Trees. I mow grass and lay down mulch. It’s tough fucking work.” “I can imagine!” “But to them I’d be…a sissy. To put it nicely. They wouldn’t use the word ‘sissy.’” “I get it.” “I always loved it, though, when I was a kid. Being outside, watching things grow. It was like magic.

Sometimes I’d ride my bike through the nicer neighborhoods just to see the way people with money would have their landscaping done. It sounds stupid.” He ducks his head. “Not stupid at all. Really.” “I guess, growing up the way I did, there wasn’t much… I don’t know…beauty. The closest my mom came to a garden was plastic flowers and a pink flamingo. Otherwise, I lived in a trailer on cinder blocks.” I nod sympathetically, getting a much clearer picture of the man in front of me. No wonder he has so many walls built up in front of him. He was taught from an early age that cooking and enjoying nature were girly. I think about that kid, picturing him in my head. I wish I could give him a hug, the poor thing. “For the record, a man who cooks is just about the sexiest thing in the world.” “I’ve heard that. It’s really true?” I stand, sliding my panties to the floor. Then I take his hand, placing it between my legs. His eyes widen before his fingers begin moving through my wetness. “You tell me,” I breathe.

Chapter 15

“Wow,” he whispers, already breathing more heavily. “I guess I’d better brush up on my cooking skills, huh?” I giggle, then moan softly as his fingers begin massaging my clit. “I was thinking about getting washed up. What do you think?” He nods, his eyes wider, his breathing heavier still. I glance down to see the growing bulge in his pants. I have to tear myself away from the hand between my legs long enough to walk upstairs. I pull the sweatshirt over my head as I go. What’s come over me? I’ve never been so brazen, so forward. He’s unlocked something inside me for sure. I might never be the same. I reach the bathroom first, turning on the water in the big claw foot tub before turning to him. I run my hands down his chest and torso before stopping at his waistband, then unbutton his fly. I never break eye contact, staring up into his eyes. A small smile plays over his mouth. I slide the jeans down his legs, over his feet. Then I step into the tub, the water running hot now. Steam is already filling the room. He joins me, bringing the temperature up even higher. We soap each other up, taking our time. His hands are all over me, everywhere. My skin is on fire from his touch. He slowly, thoroughly soaps my breasts. His hands are moving in circles over them. I sigh, closing my eyes to soak in the sensation. When his fingers close in on my nipples, I groan, holding onto his shoulders to keep myself upright. “So slippery. Just like other places.” I can’t help laughing, which he cuts off when his mouth covers mine. He wraps one strong arm around me, holding my body close to him. I feel his cock against me, pressing into me. He’s so hard, so thick. I wiggle against him, my soapy skin sliding over his stiffness. He groans into my mouth. I reach down between us, my hand closing over his erection. I start stroking slowly. He thrusts into my hand as his tongue thrusts into my mouth. His free hand runs down my back to my ass. I gasp, pulling my mouth from his to moan. He takes my thigh in his hand, pulling my leg up and around his hip. He presses me to the wall, finding my heat and plunging into it. “Oh, Jax!” I grip his shoulders, holding on for dear life as he rocks against me. He fills me so completely, pushing into me again and again.

“Yes…yes…Christina…” The way he grunts my name as he thrusts into me drives me insane. Knowing I have this power over him, that I can control his pleasure, is more than enough to combine with the physical pleasure and send me over the edge. “Jax!” I scream his name, head thrown back. I shudder all over, my head now dropping to his shoulder. My grip on him relaxes, relief flooding my body. He’s not finished, however. He slides out of me, steadying me on my rather shaky legs. He washes quickly down there, still hard. I follow his lead, then follow him into the bedroom. We’re both wrapped in big, fluffy towels. Another touch of comfort I wouldn’t expect a hard, tough man like him to indulge in. Jax sits on the bed, towel around his waist, holding out a hand for me to stand in front of him. He unwraps me, my nipples instantly rock-hard from the cool air and excitement. Then he surprises me, tenderly drying my skin with the towel. I watch him, his face serious, involved in his job. Where does this come from, this sudden gentleness? I place a hand on the back of his neck, kneading it gently as he works. I think of the sweet boy he must have been, in contrast to the man he thought he needed to become. His mouth closes over one my breasts, drawing a sigh from me. He pulls me closer, his hands on my hips. It feels so good, his skilled tongue rolling in circles over my nipple, making my breath come faster and harder so soon after my last climax. He knows me so well, exactly what will turn me on and drive me insane. Then he stands in front of me, letting the towel fall from his waist. He holds the back of my head, then takes handfuls of my hair. He pulls my head back, tilting my face to his. I gasp, hissing through my teeth. It’s surprising, but arousing. “Do you like that?” He tugs my hair again, just enough to make me gasp. It hurts, but just a little. Mostly, it feels incredible, sending flashes of warmth straight to my core. “Yes,” I whisper, earning another slight tug in reply. I bite my lip, moaning again. He kisses me deeply, overtaking me. His hands are still in my hair, pulling, while his tongue sweeps through my mouth. I groan loudly, desperate for more. He sucks my bottom lip between his own. He takes it between his teeth, biting down. I gasp, but when he stops, I kiss him even harder. I’m wetter than I’ve ever been, wanting more. He pushes me to the bed, then lowers himself over me. His mouth touches every bit of my skin, setting me on fire. I can’t think, can hardly breathe, can only sink deeper into the pleasure he’s giving me. Before long, his mouth is on my mound, licking my lips. My hips leave the bed, sensation rocking me. His tongue laps at me, flicking against my clit. I never thought I liked oral sex until I was with him. Now I see what the big deal is about as Jax’s mouth drives me crazy with passion.

“Oh, God! Please!” My whole body tenses as I scream again and again, the tongue on my pussy sending me over the edge. I’m not even finished coming before Jax stretches out beside me, on his back. “Let me watch you,” he mutters, stroking himself. I get up on my hands and knees, then straddle him. I guide him into my wetness, then sink slowly down until he’s in up to the hilt. “You feel so good,” I whisper, grinding my hips against him. I find the best angle, the best rhythm for me. He holds onto my ass, watching me as I get myself off on him. His hands knead me, stroke me, even dip between my cheeks. It’s so wrong, so wicked. And it makes me even crazier. “That’s right. Make yourself come for me.” I look down at him, his gorgeous body, his face. His eyes, staring up at me with so much heat. I see myself in them, actually see myself as sexy. Sexual. Sensual. My thrusting picks up, gets faster, harder. “You’re so fucking sexy,” he groans. For the first time, I believe him. I lean down, stretching my body over his, still moving up and down. He takes my hips more firmly in his hands, forcing me down onto him harder. He starts thrusting up into me, and I moan into his neck. “Come for me,” he grunts in my ear. I moan again, his words pushing me closer to climax. He starts slamming me down, thrusting with all his might. I tighten around him, then my muscles twitch and jump as the pleasure washes over me. He’s still holding on, waiting for me to finish. Once my muscles relax around him, he lifts me up. “From behind,” he growls. Like an animal. I love it. No sooner am I on my hands and knees, he’s back inside me, slamming himself home. I shriek, the orgasm building so quickly. I realize I’m having another one, already. I don’t think I can take it. I feel Jax’s hand in my hair, pulling it again. I scream, the sensation too much to handle. “Fuck! Jax!” It’s like I’m exploding from the inside, into a million pieces. Then I dissolve, washed over with warmth. He’s still slamming, faster and faster, until his cries tell me he’s coming, too. “Oh, Jesus,” he breathes, sliding out of me before falling on his side. I can’t reply. I’m too lost, floating in a haze of pleasure. He keeps taking me to heights I didn’t think were possible. I never thought I’d be into pain—though it wasn’t pain, exactly. More like play. Still, he overwhelmed me. Conquered me. “Wow. Even after all that showering, I feel like I need another one…” he jokes. I laugh, smacking his arm lightly.

“You’re a pretty dirty guy. You need all the help you can get.” He rolls onto his side, grabbing me. I scream with laughter, trying to wrestle free of him. He’s too strong. Soon, we’re kissing again, but this time, it doesn’t go anywhere. Kissing is enough.

Chapter 16

We both shower again, needing to get cleaned up after all that playing around. “We have to conserve water,” Jax tells me before getting in with me. I don’t bother putting up a fight. I don’t want to. I laugh instead, pulling him close to me and offering to soap him up. By the time we’re finished, the water is nearly ice cold. This is bliss. Could every day be this way? I’m not naïve. I know it wouldn’t be this way forever. All relationships calm down eventually. We’re in the new phase. If Jax and I got together, we wouldn’t be hopping in and out of bed every day. Though I wouldn’t complain if we did. From the grin he can’t seem to keep off his face, I don’t think he’d mind, either. By noon, I feel the noose tightening around my neck. I know I should go. I don’t want to push too far or put him in a position where he feels it’s time to ask me to leave. That would be humiliating. There’s just one problem: I don’t want to leave. To his credit, Jax seems pretty laidback about me being here. This is a change from the man I first met two days ago. Back then, he was brusque, almost angry at times. Now he’s relaxed, joking with me. Maybe he needed to get laid as badly as I did. Nah. I can’t look at him and consider such a possibility. I’m sure panties hit the floor the minute he walks into a bar. To think, I’m the one who just had sex with him. I’ve never felt proud of myself for something like this before. I never had a reason to. “What do you wanna do now? I know you can’t want more sex. I think you’re set for months.” I scowl at him. “Full of yourself much?” “Am I wrong?” I consider it. “Weeks, maybe. Not months.” “I’ll take it.” He grins so sexily. When he’s dark, brooding, he’s hot. Something in me responds every time. But this version? The smiling, lighthearted Jax? It’s another thing entirely. My heart opens to him against my better judgement. “Whatever, like you could go again right now.” “Baby, you don’t even know what I could do right now. I can go all night.” “Oh?” I can’t help feeling intrigued. “I wish I’d have known that last night.”

“Your loss. So sex is out, for now. Anything else?” I look around. There’s not much to do. I’m desperate to think of something to do. I don’t want to leave. Jax answers his own question. “Board games?” I can’t help laughing. “You have board games here? For real?” He frowns. “Why wouldn’t I? Who do you think I am?” “Not the type of guy who sits around playing board games in front of the fireplace.” “I’m a pretty deep guy.” He gets up from where we’ve been sitting on the floor, playing with the dog. “What do you wanna play? I have a bunch.” Whatever takes the longest. “Monopoly?” “Sure.” I can’t help grinning in triumph. I hate Monopoly, usually, because it takes so damn long to play. Now? That extra time is like a gift from heaven.


“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” he asks me. We’re both on our stomachs on opposite sides of the board. “No, I’m an only child.” “Ahh. I guess your parents were really looking forward to having you come home, then.” “They were. I was looking forward to seeing them, too. I’ll have to plan another time soon.” “You’re still close with them?” “Very. Almost too close with my mom.” I’ll never be able to tell her about this weekend, though. Jax knows I gave her a story about the roads leading from the motel being in no condition for driving. It wasn’t a complete lie; the roads really were crap. I just wasn’t at a motel.

“How about you?” I ask quietly. I know better than to expect him to be forthcoming. “They’re all older. Much older. Half-siblings, a different father. They were all grown by the time I was born.” “Oh, really? Like a second marriage, second family situation?” He chuckles, moving his piece along the board. “Yeah. Something like that.” Got it. I went too far. “I didn’t have a lot of friends. I was alone a lot of the time. I did a lot of reading, which was considered just as lame as cooking and tending lawns. Good thing my old man was hardly ever around or else he probably would have burned my books.” I don’t know what to say. I feel awful for him, and more grateful than ever for my own parents. The picture he’s painting for me…I know better than ever how he wound up the way he is: alone. “I needed something when I was growing up. By the time I was old enough, I got into some trouble. I didn’t make good choices. I regret them.” He looks at me, hard. “I regret them with all my heart. I need you to believe that.” “I do,” I whisper. I don’t know what mistakes he’s talking about, but I know what it means to have regret. The look on his face is heartbreaking. “We all make stupid mistakes when we’re young. Especially when we’re running away from something. Know what I mean? I was running away from being alone, feeling like an outsider in town. An outsider in my own family. All my brothers and sisters were from the ‘good’ dad, the one my mom loved. He died in a work accident. My dad, though, was a bum, an asshole. She took it out on me, even if she didn’t know she was doing it. I needed to belong somewhere.” “That makes sense. We all need to feel like we belong.” I’m trying to piece together the clues he’s giving me. I’m only more confused than ever. What’s he trying to tell me? I keep going, wanting to make him feel better. “I was running away from something when I got together with Tommy.” “Running away from what? Another guy?” “No.” I laugh. “Just the opposite. There were no other guys before him.” He’s silent, looking at me like he’s waiting for me to laugh. When I don’t, he says, “Seriously? Only him?” “Well, now it’s only him and you. Oh God, I hope that doesn’t freak you out. I don’t know why I said it.” “No, no. It’s sort of an honor, in a way. That probably sounds stupid.”

I smile. “It doesn’t.” He smiles back. “So yeah, I was running away from being alone. I always felt different from the other girls. I used to be heavier, and I had no self-esteem. I thought losing weight would make me feel better about myself. All it did was make me look different. I still hated the person I was inside, so there were still no guys around. I didn’t exactly try to attract them, you know? Then, along came Tommy.” “Shithead.” “Yes. He liked me. He paid attention to me. It was totally new, and at first, really, he seemed like a nice guy.” It’s my turn to look at Jax the way he just looked at me: hard, like I need him to believe what I’m telling him. “He was. He treated me well. Just long enough for me to fall in love with him. Otherwise, I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten together with him. I mean, what sort of person does that? Gets involved right off the bat with somebody who hurts them?” “It happens. It does. But you’re smarter than that, I think.” “Thank you. So yeah, I say all this to tell you I believe you. I understand what you’re saying. We all make poor decisions when we’re running away. Both of us were running away from being alone. We just took different ways out of it.” He reaches across the board, taking my hand. “Thank you for that.” Then his arm sweeps across the board, knocking over all my hotels. “Oh, damn. I messed up the game. Shit.” I burst out laughing. “Jackass! I was this close to winning! Sore loser.” “I’m not a sore loser if I didn’t actually lose. I could have won. I could have turned it around.” “Right.” I roll my eyes, unable to keep from laughing again. My eyes happen to land on the window. I’m shocked to see how dark it’s already getting. “Shit! I can’t believe how late it got. Time flies when you’re getting your ass beat, doesn’t it?” “Careful, or I’ll take you upstairs and beat your ass for real.” I blush, wishing he’d throw me over his shoulder and take me upstairs right now. That energy is back, the electricity between us. It shows up so quickly, out of nowhere. One minute we’re joking, the next I want him to fuck me until I scream. We shouldn’t. Not again. I’ll stay here for the rest of my life if one of us doesn’t break the cycle. “I guess I should get going.” My heart is heavy. I hate myself for feeling this way. Why can’t I walk away with no strings attached? I don’t know that he shares my feelings, that this meant anything to him. Could be he’s just being nice. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt we’ve been sleeping together.

“Oh.” Is he disappointed? Relieved? Does it matter? I don’t want it to matter. “Is that okay? I don’t want to keep imposing on you. You’ve done much more than enough.” “Please, go ahead. You have your own life.” He watches as I get to my feet, stretching after spending so long on the floor. “Where are you going, anyway? To your parents’?” Crap. I hadn’t thought about that. It seems like a waste now. I was just going to drive home in two days anyway. By the time I got there tonight, it would be bedtime. “I don’t think so. It’s sort of a long drive. I should go back to my house. Maybe I’ll stop by the shop, make sure it’s been shoveled out. I probably have to shovel my sidewalk.” “I hope one of your neighbors had a heart and did it for you.” “Uh, between you and me, I hope the same thing.” I laugh. It sounds hollow even to me. “If you need any help, you know you can call me, right?” He moves closer to me, making my heart beat faster as he always does. Where does that power come from? “I appreciate it. I might take you up on it, too, if I have two feet of snow and no parking spot. I might even end up coming back here.” “I wouldn’t mind if you did.” Oh. My heart is pounding like an express train. My mouth is dry. He couldn’t be clearer if he said the actual words, Christina, I like you and want to be with you. So why won’t he say the actual words already? Maybe he could end my agony by giving me an answer to my questions. But I don’t have the guts to make the first move, that’s for sure. “So, um, do you wanna give me your number? And I’ll give you mine, in case you need to call me?” “Yes, for sure.” I put my number in his phone and he does the same in mine. This is so awkward I can hardly stand it. We’re suddenly like two teenagers after their first date. “Okay. So, I guess I’ll go now.” I look up at him, unsure what to do now. Should we hug? Shake hands? Wave? I’m so relieved when he holds his arms out. I walk into them, close my eyes when they circle around me. It feels so good. It shouldn’t feel this good, but it does. I wish I knew how he feels. “Thank you for staying here with me.” I have to laugh. “You’re thanking me? Thank you for letting me stay. It’s been a real experience.” I

smile, hoping he can somehow see through my words to what’s in my heart. Instead of replying with words, he kisses me gently.

Chapter 17

“Chris! What are you doing here?” Amy’s standing behind the counter, hands on hips. I look around, pleased to see a few tables filled with customers. Afternoons are always a slow time, so the business is welcome. “Surprise! This was all part of a plan to lull you into slacking off so I can catch you in the act,” I tease. She laughs. “Darn it, I knew I should have brought the strippers in earlier today. Now what will I tell the ladies who expect a show tonight?” I’m a little disturbed by how quickly she came up with that comeback, but I know she’s kidding. At least, I hope she is. I take off my coat, then start an espresso for myself at one of the machines. Losing sleep for the sake of sex never seems like a bad idea at the time. It’s a different story when a person has to function later on. Amy is watching me closely, sees me trying to stifle a yawn. To her credit, she holds back from peppering me with questions, though I’m sure it’s all she wants to do. I'm deliberately withholding, wanting to have a little fun with her. “How’s it been here?” “Thank God for kind neighbors, that’s all I have to say. The guys from the hardware store dug us out yesterday. I wasn’t able to get in here until today though.” “Understandable. No worries.” I sip my latte, leaving it at that. “Okay, you are way too calm right now. No more questions? Nothing?” I shrug. “When did I give you the idea I’m some ogre? I always thought I was a pretty fair boss.” “It’s just, I know you. You would have found a way to make it in.” “Amy, I wasn’t far away from here during the storm. I know how bad it was. Believe me. There’s no reason to risk your life on untreated roads when, let’s face it, there’s little chance anybody in town would have made it out here. You’d have broken your neck to open the shop for nobody.” “Wait, you weren’t far away? You didn’t go to your parents’ house?” I shake my head, glancing in the direction of the few customers still left in the shop. She takes the hint and lets it drop for now. While I’m here, I review inventory and place orders for deliveries to be

made later in the week, all in the hopes of getting a head start on the week ahead. Finally, the shop empties out. It’s nearly closing time for a Sunday. Amy runs to the door, flipping the sign to Closed before pulling down the shade and locking up. “Jeez, I thought they’d never leave! Now you’d better spill, or I’ll burst!” “What makes you think there’s anything to be spilled?” I’m playing it cool, coy. “Um, maybe because you wouldn’t say anything while the Morgans were drinking their tea. If it were innocent, you would have explained already.” “Okay, okay, fine.” I take a seat at one of the tables, Amy diving into the chair across from mine. She’s like a kid waiting to open presents on Christmas morning. I guess this speaks to the fact I never have anything interesting to talk about besides work. “I was on my way to my parents’ house when the storm hit. I’m such an idiot. I had no idea it was supposed to snow the way it did. I was completely unprepared.” “Oh, no! I was hoping you beat it, too. What happened?” “I’m telling you! So I didn’t get very far away from town before I had to pull over. I couldn’t see a thing, the road was a mess, and I was running low on gas.” “Oh, my God. That is, like, one of my worst fears. Being stranded like that.” “I didn’t even have a blanket. No water, no signal on my phone. I was fucked.” “Holy shit! How did you get out of it? Don’t tell me you spent two whole days in your car with no water!” I shake my head, pressing my lips together to keep from smiling like a lunatic. “Well? What did you do? Drink melted snow?” “No! I was…rescued.” “Rescued? By the police?” I shake my head. “Firemen?” Still shaking. “Then who?” I hesitate, wanting to draw the suspense out a little further. “By a man.” “A man…a man? Like…a man?” Her eyes are wide and round, her mouth hanging open. “Yup. A man. A really amazing man.” “Wait, what? Amazing? How? Where did you go?”

“He took me back to his house. He lived not far from the road. Thank God he saw me. I’m not exaggerating; I could have frozen to death out there. As it was, I fell asleep not long after I pulled over. Without him, I’d be dead right now.” “Oh, Chris.” Amy’s eyes fill with tears as she takes my hand. “That’s horrible. I don’t even wanna think about it.” “It didn’t happen, though. He found me. And he took me home.” “Wow,” she breathes. “What a miracle. So you were at this guy’s house the past two days?” “Yeah, I just left a little while ago and came straight here to find out how things were going.” “Okay.” She looks at me, hard. “What did you do with this guy for the last two days? Don’t tell me you played board games this whole time.” I shrug. She slaps my arm. “Oh, come on! Tell me! I tell you things like that!” Yeah, and I don’t need to hear about it. “Let’s just say, I’m a lot more relaxed than I’ve been in a long time.” “What? You slept with him?” “So what?” “Oh, I’m not trying to make you feel bad!” She laughs merrily. “It just doesn’t seem like something you would do! Little Goody Two-Shoes. Believe me, I’m happy for you!” Then her voice drops to a whisper. “How was he?” I feel my skin burning, and I know I’m as red as a tomato. “He was ridiculously good. I mean, like, whoa…” I trail off, lost in my memories. “It was more than that. He’s hard, brusque, blunt. He drove me insane. We kept bickering for the first day or so.” “Ooh, that’s always the best. All that passion builds up and finally explodes.” “I guess you could say that’s what happened. We definitely exploded.” Amy claps her hands wildly. “I’m so excited for you!” I can’t help giggling, all pretense of playing it cool over. “It wasn’t just the sex either. I really like him. He’s got a good heart. He just tries to hide it. Like he’s some hard ass, you know?”

“Ooh, like a bad boy?” She giggles, and I nod. That’s the closest description I can think of. “Do you see this going anywhere? Will you see him again?” “I hope so. I want to. I was wondering earlier, before I left him, whether…whether I was starting to have feelings for him.” “Ohhh…” Amy sighs, hands over her heart. “This is probably the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard! Like something out of a movie. A dashing bad boy saves your life, then steals your heart!” She closes her eyes, sighing again. “Wow, now that you put it that way…” I laugh, and she joins me. She’s right. It sounds too good to be true. But I remember Jax’s smile, his touch, the way it feels when he’s inside me. He’s the real deal. “Do you think he feels the same way?” This is the sticking point for me. I bite my lip, thinking it over. “I’m not sure. Like I said, he tries to hold back. Hide his heart, know what I mean? I know it’s in there, I know he’s a sweet person. He was so thoughtful, in so many little ways. Something happened to him, something bad. He mentioned his late wife. I wonder if there’s not still a lot of pain there, you know? Maybe he’s wary of getting involved.” “Sounds like a touchy situation.” “A little bit.” I sigh, shrugging. “All I can do is try. He sure seemed happy enough to spend the morning in bed today. We even played board games in the afternoon, just like you said. It felt nice. Natural. I just hope he recognized it, too.” “I hope so. Ack, I’m so excited you found a good guy! And, um, I’m assuming he’s seriously hot?” I can’t help laughing again, my face burning. “Super seriously. Gorgeous. Built like a brick house. The whole package.” We high-five over the table, giggling together. “What’s his name?” “Jax. Different, right?” I see a look pass over her face. A millisecond of uncertainty that she tries too late to hide. “Jax? Do you mean…Jax Fairbanks?” I feel the smile slipping from my face. She doesn’t sound happy about this.

“Yeah. His last name is Fairbanks. How did you know? Do you know him?” She sits back, hard, against her chair. As though the wind got knocked out of her. Her mouth is open again, but not in surprise. In shock. “Oh, Chris. You don’t know who he is, do you?” “Amy, don’t. Don’t screw with me right now.” I laugh nervously. She doesn’t. “I’m not. Chris…he’s one of those guys from the Angels of Chaos. Remember when they rode through a while back, and everybody was talking about them? He’s one of the members.” It feels like a hand is squeezing my heart. My chest literally hurts like I’ve been hit. “What does that mean, though? Okay, he’s in a motorcycle club. He’s also a landscaper. He reads a lot. There are plenty of things to him.” I’m desperate, searching for excuses. “Chris, I’m sorry, but there’s more to it than that.” Amy leans over the table, taking my hands in her own. “Jax did have a wife, and she did die. Just like you mentioned. Only, she died suspiciously. And…” her head slumps forward on her neck, her eyes focused on the table, “…and most people thought he was the one who killed her.”

Chapter 18

I’m driving home in a daze. It can’t be true. How can it be true? Thank God I don’t live far from the shop, or else I’m not sure I could make it. I’m just that devastated. How can this be? I look back on everything I can remember from the last few days. How did I miss this? He never once mentioned a club. Never. I didn’t even see a motorcycle anywhere. It would have been in the garage, stupid. But…wouldn’t there have been a clue? Something, somewhere? Oh, God. Of course there was. The tattoo. The angel in the flames. Angels of Chaos. I can’t be blamed for missing that. I don’t know anything about the club, only hearing about them that one time at the shop when they rode through. By the time we closed up for the day, I had dismissed them from my mind completely. They meant nothing to me. At least, they hadn’t at the time. I manage to keep from crying until I pull into the driveway of my little house. Then I sit for a while, arms crossed on the wheel, my forehead resting against them as I sob. How long has it taken me to find a man to care about the way I care about Jax? And what sort of man is he? The sort I’m clearly attracted to whether I want to be or not. There has to be something wrong with me. What else can the explanation be? First Tommy, now Jax. I should become a nun. Shut myself away in a cave somewhere. Anything to avoid this shit. Tommy. His hand flashing out toward my face. The way it felt like an explosion went off when he made contact. Bam! Seeing stars, hitting the floor before I knew I’d been knocked off my feet. Crawling away from him on my butt, hands and feet scrambling until I hit a corner and had nowhere else to go. The way he looked down at me. Like he hated me. Was Jax that kind of man? He had to be violent if he was a member of the club. The way Amy made it sound, they were little more than a gang. Just because they rode bikes and wore leather jackets didn’t mean they were any different from run-of-the-mill thugs. That meant violence, vandalism, and all sorts of criminal activity I didn’t want to imagine. And murder. He might have murdered his wife. I have to find out more about this. Once the tears slow and I can breathe calmly again, I get out of the car. I take my bags into the house, leaving them just inside the front door. I don’t care about them right now. I need to find out more about Jax.

My laptop is open in an instant, my fingers flying over the keys. My first keyword search is “ax Fairbanks murder.” I need to pull the bandage off all at once, get the worst out of the way first. My curiosity is too great. There she is. Jax’s wife. Marissa Fairbanks. She was twenty-five when she died. A tiny thing, bleach blonde. She had a big smile, a twinkle in her eye. She was only twenty-five. I can’t stop thinking about that. She was found dead in the woods one day, a gunshot wound to her chest. I unconsciously raise my hand to my own chest, feeling my heart beating wildly under my skin. There were never any charges filed. They never even found the gun used in the crime. Still, the court of public opinion had its say. Many people in Marissa’s life, her friends and family, reported that she and Jax had been on the outs before her death. In fact, she may or may not have been on the verge of leaving him. It didn’t look good for Jax. I can see why people assumed he was the one who did it. How many times have I seen stories like this on the news and assumed the husband did it? If I’d seen this story on my six o’clock newscast — the pretty young wife murdered on the eve of leaving her criminal husband — wouldn’t I have leapt to that conclusion before moving on with my life? I can’t help leaping to that conclusion now. Even though I know him. I don’t really know him, though, do I? I spent nearly three days with him. I’ve slept with him. He’s shown me what he’s wanted me to see. Any idea of a connection between us, an understanding, is what I want to believe. It’s not the truth. I’ve let myself be fooled again. While I’m online, I do a little looking into the Angels of Chaos. Boy, they’re an attractive bunch. Rough-looking guys, long-haired, inked, normally with black eyes or busted lips in their mugshots— probably from whatever dust-up they got into before getting arrested. I remind myself never to judge a book by its cover, but the fact is these are legitimately bad guys. They just happen to look bad, too. It looks as though they’re always causing trouble. News item upon news item, going back years, report on the fights they’ve caused. Outside of bars, inside of bars. At community events. In stores. One clerk refused to serve them and got a broken jaw. One group beating they participated in allegedly started when a stranger slapped his girlfriend in public while three members of the club happened to be nearby. They put him in the hospital, in critical condition. Was Jax one of those men? I have no idea. No witnesses agreed to identify any of the club members. Nobody saw anything, evidently. They only knew the men wore leather jackets with the club name and logo—an angel in flames—on the back. Various members of the club have been arrested for destruction of property, too. One rival’s car had been destroyed while the rival sat in it at a red light. A few businesses in the area were busted up. There was even a mention of arson at one point, which sent two club members to prison for years.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more. I don’t even want to know. My heart can’t take any more of this. I’m hurting badly enough. Who is Jax? Is he the man I met, or a man like those I’ve been reading about? Maybe a mix of the two? I can’t afford to let myself get involved with a man like this. Even if those days are behind him —and I pray they are—organizations such as this don’t just let their members walk away, no questions asked. Even if he got away from them, that wouldn’t change anything he’d done. He would still be a violent criminal, end of story. Leave it to me to fall for a guy like this. This is what he was trying to tell me earlier. Oh, my God. It was right there. He didn’t want to come out and speak the plain truth, so he spoke in half-veiled hints. Making bad choices because he was young. Wanting more than anything to feel like he was part of something after his lonely, neglected childhood. Regretting the choices he made when he was running away. He wanted me to know how much he regretted being part of the club. Or he wanted to make me to think he regrets it, to spare me from losing my mind after finding out the truth. I’m not the kind of girl who would sleep with a motorcycle gang member and not care either way about it. He figured that out at least. He wanted to soften the blow, because of course I’d find out. How many times did he try to tell me how the town has rejected him? I thought he was exaggerating. Now I see he was understating the severity. I close my eyes, exhaling a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. I remember the look on his face, the intensity with which he stared at me. He couldn’t have been pretending. Could he? A bigger question now looms. Was he only talking about the club…or about Marissa’s death? Does he regret the choice he made in killing her? Was it something he just had to do, something he got caught up in, thanks to his association with the club? I don’t know anything about the real lives of guys like Jax, but I know weak links don’t last long. Was Marissa a weak link? Or maybe Jax was, and he had to be brought into line? How would I know? I’m sure as hell not going to go back to his house to ask him. Even if I did, would I get the full truth? What can I do? Here I was, dreaming of life with him. Stupid, silly me. A happy little life together in his house, away from the rest of the world. I could go to work in town; he could do his landscaping. He has land. I could start a big garden. Maybe raise chickens. I laugh out loud, remembering some of the visions that had danced through my head before Amy stuck a pin in my dreams. My phone buzzes from inside my purse. Funny—I used to be afraid of seeing Tommy’s name on the ID. Now, there’s a second name I dread.

There it is. Jax. He texted me. Hey, gorgeous, get home okay? Who could have imagined how sick I’d feel just seeing those words? Had I come straight home instead of stopping at the shop, this wouldn’t be an issue. I’d have just replied, maybe said something a little naughty. We’d go back and forth. I might even invite him over. At the very least, I’d think about him when I went to bed, as my hands revisited the places he just explored earlier in the day. Now, though, I couldn’t drop my phone faster if it were on fire. I feel dirty now. The way he touched me, the things he did to me…it all meshes together in my mind with a third image: Jax holding a gun to his wife’s chest and pulling the trigger. I run upstairs, pulling my clothes off as I do. I crank the water to scalding, and I jump under the spray, my skin turning deep red on contact. I scrub myself thoroughly, wanting to remove every trace of him from my body. I remember the way we showered together earlier today and scrub even harder, struggling to keep from throwing up in the tub. I can’t possibly be clean enough. I’ll never feel clean again. Eventually, the water starts to run cold. Another reminder of the way we showered together earlier. Only then I was happy—joyful, even. We used up the hot water because we didn’t want the moment to end. Could that really have been less than twelve hours ago? It feels like a lifetime. The walls drip with condensation from the steam that’s been billowing up from the tub for endless minutes. My skin hurts from the unforgiving treatment I gave it. It’s nearly bleeding in spots. Still I feel dirty. I sit on the floor of the tub, arms around the legs I’ve drawn up to my chest. I’m trembling, not from the now-cool water, but from the complete heartbreak I feel. I thought I loved him. How many times have I taken showers like this? Maybe not scalding ones, but ones that ended with me sitting like this? Crying, struggling to hold back the sound so Tommy wouldn’t hear me. I could never let him know how badly he hurt with his words and hands. The shower was my only refuge, the bathroom the only place where I was left completely alone. I’d take three or four showers a day sometimes, just to have the time to myself. To get away from his eyes on me, to have time to recover after he screamed in my face, or hit me, or taunted me. I would sit in the tub, under the shower, and quietly cry. Hoping the sound of the water would drown me out. Will there ever be a time in my life when I don’t feel this way? Soon, the water is icy, stinging my raw skin like tiny knives. I can’t stay here any longer. I get up, sore all over, to turn off the shower and climb from the tub. I wrap myself in a fluffy robe, hoping for even a little comfort. All it does it hurt on contact. Maybe the pain is what I’m secretly craving. I’m tearing myself apart from the inside out.

I return to the first floor, putting on the kettle for a cup of tea. Just like I did for him. My hand lingers on the handle of the kettle for a moment when I remember. The phone buzzes again, still sitting on the coffee table. This time, it keeps buzzing beyond the two that signal a text. He’s calling me now. How long do I imagine I’ll be able to avoid him? I’m sure he could find out where I live if he tries hard enough. Besides, he knows where I work. I can’t stay away forever. I can’t help but wonder if he’s left other messages while I was upstairs, so I pick up the phone against my better judgment. There are a half dozen texts, each one sexier and more suggestive than the last. He already misses being inside me. His cock hurts when he thinks of me. He needs me again, soon. He wants to pull my hair again, and maybe beat my ass the way he promised just before I left. Imagine. It had sounded like a good idea at the time. I drop the phone again before putting my head in my hands and curling up in a ball on the sofa. What am I going to do? Spend the rest of my life being sexted by a murderer?

Chapter 19

I didn’t sleep well last night. Nightmares kept me tossing and turning until I gave up entirely. I decide to go to the shop, rather than wasting time in bed. I’m only going crazy here. My brain won’t leave me alone. I might as well be productive if I can’t sleep. I can get some baking done before customers start coming in. There’s something about the perfect silence of the shop in the early hours. Totally dark, empty except for the display case and coffee machines, tables and chairs. It sits quietly, waiting for people to come in and make it bustle again. The back rooms are even better. This is my church. Back here is where I do much of my thinking, planning, dreaming. While I’m measuring ingredients into the stand mixer, rolling dough on a floured table, pouring batter into muffin tins, I might as well be meditating. Sometimes I’m so deep in thought, I don’t notice Amy trying to get my attention. That’s why it’s best for me to work at times like this, when there’s no one around to bother me. I preheat the ovens, then take stock of what needs to be baked. Chocolate chip cookies, chocolate muffins, carrot cake muffins, banana bread…I have my work cut out for me. It’s joy, though. I’m so lucky to enjoy my work. I turn on the radio, then sink deep into measuring and mixing. Jax hasn’t called since I went to sleep last night—or at least, when I tried to go to sleep. I’m almost dreading the sound of the phone ringing now. I thought once I blocked Tommy I wouldn’t have to be so frightened anymore. The thing is, I’m not frightened, exactly. More like confused, mistrusting, wishing I knew the whole truth. Wishing Jax had the balls to tell me about his past. I asked him about her, for God’s sake! I flatout asked him who she was. He didn’t lie, but he wasn’t completely truthful. Of course, would I have been completely truthful if it were me? I can’t say for sure. I can only imagine the pain Jax must feel when he thinks about his wife. Not to mention the way people have talked about him. I think back to the way he treated me while we were together. There wasn’t a single hint of harshness, roughness—not toward me, that is. He wanted to kill Tommy. He still might. But not me. He was sarcastic, argumentative, rough around the edges. But not violent. I can’t believe he’d kill his own wife.

That being said, I can’t help but think about the way he threw me over his shoulder, carrying me into the house. He was strong enough to do just about anything to me. Marissa was a tiny little thing. Imagine what he might have done to her when his temper was up. It’s clear to me he has a fearsome temper that he hardly manages to keep under control sometimes. Yes, but Marissa was shot in the chest. I might buy into the “he didn’t know his own strength” excuse if she was beaten to death. That’s not the case. I can’t imagine Jax holding a gun to Marissa’s chest, pulling the trigger. I try to conjure up the image, but it doesn’t come. It’s too far-fetched. It doesn’t fit with the man I know. There’s no doubt about him being part of the club, however. The ink on his chest is all the proof I need. I can’t overlook that. What sort of things has he done? Even if he didn’t murder Marissa, has he ever murdered another person? Beaten them? Stolen from them? The odds aren’t in favor of him having a clean record. Can I handle that? Right now, no, even though I’m in a better mental place than I was last night. I don’t have the urge to scrub my skin until it nearly bleeds. Still, I can’t pretend I’m happy that he’s in a club like the Angels of Chaos. If we were together, would I have to get to know those people? I don’t know. I’m jumping the gun. I need to take a breather. I need to steer clear of Jax, too, no matter how many times he calls or leaves sexy messages. I can’t imagine that that will go on for much longer before he gets frustrated. He knows where I work. Will he come to town to find me? I shudder to think of the scene we might cause. The big, bad biker and the quiet coffee shop owner. That’ll get tongues wagging. How do I manage to find these guys? I shake my head at myself while scooping batter into muffin tins. It’s as though I have an attraction to all the wrong men. I need to develop better instincts. “Hey!” I hear Amy calling out from inside the front door and call out in reply. Have two hours really passed so quickly? I fell into baking meditation once again. “How long have you been here?” she asks, hanging up her coat. She looks cute today, as always, in her festive sweater. I try to keep my heart from aching when I think about the time I could be spending with my parents. I think on how different my life would be right now if that damned snowstorm hadn’t blown in. “A couple of hours. I couldn’t sleep.” I slide muffin plans into the oven, deliberately avoiding Amy’s eyes. “Oh, honey. I could tell you were upset yesterday before you left. I’m sorry.” I manage a smile. “It’s okay. I appreciate you setting me straight.”

“So did I? Like, have you decided to give him up?” I shrug. “I’d like to say I did, but I can’t. Not entirely.” “Oh, Christina…” “You don’t know. I feel like the world’s biggest idiot, standing here saying this to you, but it’s true. You don’t know him. All anybody knows is the rumors about him, who he’s connected to. Remember, he saved my life.” “So I’m guessing you don’t believe he killed his wife?” “My gut keeps telling me he didn’t. I can’t help it. Yeah, I freaked out big time last night.” I shift uncomfortably, the skin of my arms still a little raw beneath the sleeves of my sweater. “Now that I’ve had time to think it over critically, though, it doesn’t add up.” “You’re sure your hormones aren’t steering you wrong?” I scowl. “I’m sure. That’s the last thing on my mind right now. I’m not a horny teenager, Amy.” She holds up her hands. “I know, I know. But it’s hard sometimes, separating fact from feelings. That’s all I’m saying.” God, she’s so right. I can’t tell her how right she is or else I’ll wind up telling her my entire sordid history. I’m not sure I can handle that level of emotion today. Lord knows I’ve had trouble separating the facts of my relationship with Tommy from the way I felt for him. If I hadn’t let a misplaced sense of duty, guilt, and shame overwhelm me for so long, I would have walked out after the first time he laid a hand on me. It wasn’t even love, I realize now. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, so it’s easy to see how little love was left between us, especially for me toward him. He needed me. I was his everything. This was the price of a long-term relationship. I can’t believe I fed myself that garbage for so long. I know if I’d let anyone else in my life see inside my relationship they’d have ordered me to get away from him. That’s how bad it was, especially in the last year or so, which is why I hid everything. I slowly and methodically disconnected myself from my friends just so I wouldn’t have to face their scrutiny or deal with the exhausting task of keeping my misery under wraps. I couldn’t admit to myself how bad it was, but I instinctively put on a happy face for the rest of the world while never once mentioning Tommy to anyone. How messed up is that? Am I making that same mistake now? Lying to myself when it’s so obvious I’m being a fool? Would it be smarter to write Jax Fairbanks off as a weekend fling, something anybody would have gotten into under the circumstances? I mean, two young people snowed into together over three days, one of them being a gorgeous, uber-masculine hunk. I’m only human.

There’s no time to think about it any longer, because the sun’s coming up and the customers will be piling in before I know it. I fill the coffee machines with water and turn on the lights in the display case before filling them with trays of goodies. Amy takes the chairs from the tables while chattering away about some little drama she’s having with her boyfriend. I can’t help smiling, knowing how hard she’s working to keep my spirits up. They don’t stay up for long, though. One of the first things I hear from a customer has to do with the club. “Mr. Hauser! You shouldn’t be walking down the sidewalks in this weather!” It’s been cold in the aftermath of the blizzard, and while streets and sidewalks are clear, any snow that melts during the day freezes over at night. I’m sure he must have encountered ice on the way in. “What can I say? We were jonesing for some of your muffins and a little coffee. I just can’t get by on that regular stuff anymore. You’ve turned me into a latte convert, young lady!” “I’m flattered, but I wish you’d take it easy. I’ll box up a few more muffins to tide you over until things clear up out there. Okay?” I wink at him and turn away to make the coffee. “Say, Jim!” I hear Mr. Hauser call out to one of the other customers, a retired cop. “You hear the club’s back in town?” The hair stands up on the back of my neck. Amy, who’s pouring plain coffee, clears her throat. “Yeah, I did.” Jim’s voice is tight, tired. “Don’t envy the boys dealing with them now. That was a helluva pain in the ass—oh, excuse my language, ladies.” “Don’t mention it!” Amy’s cheerful voice cuts through my haze of turbulent thoughts. “I heard a warehouse a few miles down the road was torched last night. Can’t say it was them; can’t say it wasn’t. Rumor has it another club owns the land.” I close my eyes. Will this torture ever end? I’m sure Jax wasn’t involved in that. Was he? Did he text me sexy things while standing off to the side as the warehouse went up in flames? I turn back to Mr. Hauser, coffee cups in a cardboard holder, begging him to be careful out there. Jim offers to drive him home. I’m glad for it—not to mention being glad they’re taking their conversation elsewhere. The club’s back in town, and back in business. What does that mean for Jax?

Chapter 20

All I can think about is getting home and getting some sleep. My early morning started catching up with me after the lunch crowd passed through. I’ve been dragging my feet ever since. Still, the smile hasn’t left my face all day. It’s a busy day, too, which helps the time pass. There’s no mistaking the relief I feel when I finally walk through my front door. The house might not be big—I don’t need much space—but it’s cozy. One thing I have in common with Marissa is my fondness for homey décor. Well, that and Jax. The sight of a big, overstuffed sofa is just what my tired eyes need. I sink into it, stretching out once my shoes are off. Oh, sweet relief. I’m not even hungry, just exhausted. I can’t spend all night here, though. I’ll wake up in the morning with a stiff back, wearing the clothes I wore to work. Yuck. I force myself up, rubbing my eyes, running my hands through my thick hair in an attempt to wake up. I decide to get online for a while, distracting myself from thoughts of sleep until a more reasonable bedtime rolls around. Maybe I’ll order a pizza or something while I’m at it. The first thing my eyes fall upon when I open my social media is an inbox full of messages. This is weird. I usually get my messages via email, not like this. Maybe I was added to a conversation with a bunch of other people and I’m getting all their responses. Ugh. I hate that. But no. The truth is much worse. I have an inbox full of Tommy. I put my hands over my mouth, staring at the screen. There are dozens of messages. It’s like he was holding a one-sided conversation all day long. I’m glad I don’t get notifications on my phone, or I would have been going crazy at the shop. I shouldn’t look at them. I should ignore them, delete them. Get on with my life. But I can’t. Who could? I start reading, my heart sinking lower with each awful message. Who do you think you are, ignoring me? Do you think you can just walk away? You can’t hide from me. I’ll find you anywhere. I told you, I’ll never let you go, bitch. Who are you fucking now, you slut? I hope they’re as bored with you as I was. You’re nothing without me.

It goes on, but I’ve had enough. I move the cursor over his screenname, my hand shaking on the mouse, and block his account. At least he’s not online at the moment. I’m not sure I could handle live chat. It’s the same everywhere, on every account. Nasty comments on my photos, which I delete—I hope none of my friends saw them. Nasty messages, which I save in case I ever need to use them. Nasty everything. He’s even gone so far as to create several fake accounts. I block them all, then tighten my security options. Nobody outside my contacts or friends can leave a comment or message, nor can they see any of my activity. I hope this does the trick. The words are no longer on the screen, but they’re burned into my brain. Slut. Bitch. You got fat since you left your boyfriend. You look like shit in this picture. You’re a disgusting pig. Words can’t hurt me. He’s crazy. It doesn’t mean anything. But it does. He’ll go to any lengths to stalk me. He’ll spend endless hours terrorizing me. I don’t have a lot of experience with the police, so I don’t pretend to know more than I know. But thanks to what I’ve seen on TV and in movies, one word keeps coming to mind: escalating. He’s escalating. He’s not begging me to take him back anymore, not telling me he loves me. What will he do next? Later on, in bed, all I can do is stare at the ceiling.


I’m a total mess at the shop. This makes two nights in a row in which sleep was nearly nonexistent. It’s showing, too. Yesterday I was able to play it off. One sleepless night is bearable. Today I’m screwing up right and left. “I asked for a mocha with three shots, no whipped cream.” “Oh, you did?” I look at Mrs. Schwartz, her face slightly blurry. Damn. I screwed up again. “Are you feeling all right, Christina? You normally know my order before it even comes out of my mouth.” I sigh, frustrated. She’s not upset. I am, though. I throw the drink down the drain behind the counter. That’s three drinks I’ve screwed up this morning. I start on a new one, apologizing even as I curse

myself silently. Get it together, girl. I can’t let my customers see me falling apart. Once the morning rush is over, I nearly crumple to the floor in relief. I go to one of the tables, not bothering to clean it off before sinking into a chair. I fold my arms on the table and rest my head there. I hear Amy walking around, cleaning up, humming to herself. She’s stayed miraculously quiet all morning, not commenting on my short temper or inability to keep an order straight. I know this means I’m in for it now. I wait. It doesn’t take long. “I guess I don’t need to point out that this isn’t like you.” “You’re right. You don’t.” I can’t even pick my head up from my arms. “Chris…” I sigh, unwilling to meet her eyes. I can’t handle a lecture right now. I’m too tired, my nerves too frayed. I don’t trust myself to take it well, and I don’t want to alienate the only true friend I have in town, not to mention a fabulous employee. “I’ve just been having trouble sleeping. That’s all. I’m really tired. A good night’s sleep will get me back in the game, coach.” “I’m sure it will.” She doesn’t sound convinced. “I have some sleeping pills at home. I’d gladly get them for you.” I pat her arm. “No, thanks. I’ve tried them, but they always leave me feeling hungover until at least noon. I’d still be a zombie either way.” She bites her lip, watching me. “Okay. I just want you to be all right, you know? I’m always here for anything you need. I mean anything.” “I appreciate it—and you.” I give her a hug, wishing I could be totally honest. I know she thinks I’m so wiped out because of Jax and the club. I want so much to tell her the truth, to clear Jax’s name, at least a little bit in her eyes if no one else’s. But that would mean sharing the Tommy history. I can’t bring myself to do that. There’s still too much shame wrapped up in it. Mostly shame toward myself that I let myself be his victim for so long.


I stumble into the house, wanting nothing more than to collapse into bed and never come out. It’s only

a little after four o’clock—Amy ordered me to go home while she cleaned up and close the place down. I was in no position to argue. I wondered at the time whether I’d make the drive home without falling asleep. I can’t go to bed yet, or else my entire sleep schedule will be messed up. I can’t keep waking up at two in the morning. It’s not sustainable. I need to make it at least a few more hours. I kick off my shoes, wondering vaguely about an early dinner. I dropped the mail on the kitchen counter, sorting through it without really paying attention to anything. My brain is mush. Among the usual junk mail and a few bills is a plain white envelope. My name and address are written on it in big, block letters. There’s no return address. The postmark is Texas. My hands start shaking so hard I drop the envelope. I highly doubt one of my friends back in Texas suddenly decided to send me a letter. Besides, none of them knew where I’d moved. This was a deliberate choice. I didn’t want to give Tommy a chance to find me. So who had? I deliberate over whether to open the envelope in the first place. It could hold anything. Well, not anything, since it’s only a letter-sized envelope. But any number of things can fit into a small space. I chew my thumbnail distractedly. Should I just throw it away? I can’t stand not knowing if it’s from him, and what it says. To be careful, I put on a pair of kitchen gloves. I’m sure Tommy didn’t get his hands on toxic chemicals. But I wouldn’t put anything past him. I tear open the envelope, my heart pounding. I’m terrified, nauseated. Holding my breath, I peer inside the envelope. The only thing in there is a newspaper clipping. I carefully pull it out, immediately recognizing it as the article which appeared in the local paper when I took over ownership of the coffee shop. There was a picture of me featured there, smiling in front of the shop, a platter of baked goods in my hand. I’d clipped the article myself, actually, feeling intensely proud. It’s hanging in a frame behind the counter at the shop right now. But the one in the shop doesn’t have the words DIE, WHORE scrawled across my face. I lunge for the sink, the contents of my stomach coming up through my mouth before I can think twice. When I finish heaving, I run the water, rinsing my mouth. He found me. I should have known. He always told me I could never get away from him. And now he wants me to die.

I scream out loud, the sound startling me. I sound like an animal. A cornered animal. Is he outside, right now, waiting for me? Watching me through the kitchen window? “I hate you!” I scream. “I hate you! Fucking die and leave me alone!” I sink into a chair by the kitchen table, wracked with sobs. He found me; he found me. He wants me to die. Somewhere in the midst of my sobs, I hear my phone ringing. Oh, my God. Is it him? Was he waiting for me to open his sick little message? I should have known I couldn’t run away. Blocking him wasn’t enough. I go to the living room, picking up the phone. I expect to see his name there somehow. But it’s not him. It’s Jax. “Jax! Oh, thank God!” “Whoa. Finally answering your phone? And happy to hear my voice?” “Jax, please…!” “Wait.” He’s serious now. “Are you all right? Jesus, I never thought you might be in trouble.” “There’s trouble! Yes!” I dissolve into tears again. “What’s wrong? Where are you?” “I’m at home. Only…oh, Jax…I got a clipping in the mail just now. Somebody sent it…I don’t know who but I’m pretty sure it was him.” “What’s the clipping of?” There’s danger in his voice. “Me. An announcement that I took over the shop. I don’t know how the hell he got his hands on it.” “Anything else?” “It says…over my picture, it says…die, whore.” I’m nearly hysterical now. “Don’t you see? He knows where I live now! How did he find me? What can I do?” I’m doubled over on the couch, rocking back and forth. “Are your doors locked?” “Yes, I’m sure of it.” “Double check for me. Lock the windows, too. I’ll be there as fast as I can. Don’t let anybody in, don’t investigate any noises, don’t do anything until I get there. Okay?”

I’m flooded with relief. He’s coming. He’ll protect me. Thank God. “Christina? Do you hear me?” “Yes, I hear you. I’ll do what you say.” “It shouldn’t take more than ten minutes. I’ll be there soon. Call me if anything else happens.” I heave a sigh of relief. He’s coming. I can’t even bother to wonder right now whether I’m really safe with him.

Chapter 21

I pace the house, frantic with worry. I don’t have a single fingernail left at this point, having chewed all of them down to the quick. Still, I’m chewing on what little there is left, hardly noticing the taste of blood in my mouth. What’s taking Jax so long? I can’t stand being here alone any longer. This is torture. What did I do to deserve this shit? Every little noise, every sound makes me jump. My house is old; everything creaks. It’s terrifying. Finally, after what feels like forever, I see lights sweep over the front windows of the living room. I run to the door, flinging it open to him. Jax hurriedly parks the bike, then walks up the steps to meet me. He’s sweeping the area with his eyes. I manage to wait until he gets through the door before I fall into his arms. “Oh, thank God you’re here.” I’m shaking so hard I can hardly speak, my teeth chattering. I wonder if I’m going into some sort of shock. “You’re safe. Don’t worry. I’m here.” He wraps his arms around me, squeezing me tight. “He knows where I live. He could be here, anywhere. Oh, my God, Jax…” “Would it make you feel better if I take a look around?” “Would you?” I pull away just enough to look up into his eyes. His dark eyes. I’ve missed him so much. I didn’t even realize how much. “I will.” He’s still holding me, his hand stroking the back of my head soothingly. What was I thinking? He would never hurt me. He never has. He’s so gentle, so sweet. So safe. I melt into him, more grateful than I’ve ever felt in my life. “Do you want to come with me? Or would you rather stay here on the couch?” “Please, please, let me go with you. Don’t leave me alone.” “Okay. Let’s go.” He takes me by the hand, leading me from room to room. There isn’t much ground to cover, just a living room, dining room and kitchen on the first floor, then two bedrooms and a bathroom on the second. He checks every closet, every corner, tests every window and door for sturdiness. He even looks in the crawlspace above the upstairs hall, even though I assure him there’s no way a person could hide there. I can’t help smiling shakily when he climbs the ladder to poke his head around up there.

We end our search in the master bedroom, my bedroom. He looks under the bed, in the closet. “Is this it? No other rooms? No basement?” I shake my head. “Then it looks like you’re here alone. Well, with me. But you know what I mean. I’d like to come back at some point, maybe tomorrow if that’s okay, to tighten up the locks on the downstairs windows.” “I don’t know what to say, except to thank you.” My voice is a whisper. I’m ashamed of myself now, thinking back to how afraid I was of him. Why? How could I have thought he was a danger to me? “You’re welcome. Christina, I’m here for you. I only want to be here for you. I want to protect you. Why won’t you let me?” I can’t answer him right away. I’m overwhelmed. Instead, I cross the short distance between us and wrap my arms around his waist. He takes my chin in his hand, tilting my head back for a kiss. Soon things heat up, as they seem to always do between us. Now it’s the way I missed him that fuels the fire I feel the moment our lips touch. I’ve missed what he does to my body. To my heart. Before I know it we’re falling into bed together, all thoughts of Tommy and Marissa and the Angels of Chaos pushed aside for one sweet night.


When I open my eyes, it’s morning. The light filtering through the curtains over the bedroom windows is soft, gentle. It must be early, just after dawn. I close my eyes again, snuggling back under Jax’s arm. I don’t want the rest of the world anywhere near us right now. Things are perfect just as they are. It seems like our only issues crop up when the outside world sneaks in. I haven’t felt this good since I left his house, I realize. And definitely not since Tommy first reached out to me online. I shiver at the thought, which makes Jax stir. “Mmm…good morning.” I squeeze him in reply. “Can’t we stay this way forever?” I murmur, my face against his broad chest. My finger traces a line down his torso over that infamous angel surrounded by flames. I wish this thing didn’t exist. “I know,” he replies, “believe me.” His arm tightens around me, reinforcing his words. I feel strangely happy, even in the midst of the mess I’m in. “Can I ask you something?” I dread his question, knowing what he has in mind. He takes my silence as an invitation to continue. “Why have you been

avoiding me?” I have to sit up, put a little distance between us. Besides, I want to look him in the eye. I need to know if I can get the truth from him. “This is hard for me to say.” “I probably know what it is.” He sits up, back to the headboard. “You do?” “We couldn’t go on forever without you knowing who I really am. You were bound to figure out sometime. My name’s not exactly unknown. And it’s not a favorite.” “I’m sorry. I was so scared. I mean, look at it from my point of view. I don’t know you—not really, I mean. All I find online about you is the sort of stuff the club’s been involved in. And then…well, yes. People talk. There are a lot of rumors. I know you know what they are.” I’m trying to be delicate, wanting to avoid hurting him. He’s been so good to me. “I feel like such an ass,” I admit. “Especially after everything you did for me last night. Coming here when I was so, so afraid. I can’t believe I even considered the rumors were true. But can you blame me? All the shit with Tommy? It’s practically reflexive now, believing men are out to hurt me.” “I’m sure it was a shock to you,” Jax acknowledges. “And you can probably imagine why I didn’t tell you my full name and life history when we were together.” “I guess.” “Christina, you tried to storm out just because I insulted your baking.” “Point taken.” “Either way, there was one thing you could have done to clear up all the shit you were worried about. You could have asked me. Where’s the girl who gave me a raft of shit over the stupidest things back at my house? I imagined you tearing me a new one over this.” “Jax. This is bigger than you being a jerk.” We both fall silent. I’m fidgeting, playing with the blanket, trying to avoid his eyes. “I have to ask you.” “No, you don’t.” “Jax, please.” “No. That will have to be enough for you.”

I sigh, exasperated. “It’s not that I don’t trust you. But if we’re going to go anywhere, you and I, I have to ask for at least a little honesty.” “You want honesty?” I look up at him, his eyes are even darker than usual. Like a shark. He’s fuming. “I want to know you trust me. How’s that sound? I want you to trust me enough to know that no matter what the story is, I’m on your side.” His jaw is clenching and unclenching as he decides what to say. Finally, he sighs and lets loose. “I didn’t have anything to do with Marissa’s death.” Thank God. I release my breath in a sigh of relief. “Who did?” “You’ll have to leave it at that. I won’t say any more about it. Just drop it now, okay?” I’m sure it’s painful for him to talk about, especially when so many people think he did it. That probably makes it even worse. “Okay. No more questions.” “Thank you.” His expression and tone change. “Now, about this asshole who’s stalking you.” I flinch visibly, practically jumping off the bed. He takes my hand. “I’m sorry. That was stupid of me. I just want to be sure you’re taken care of, that’s all. I won’t let anything happen to you. I swear.” I want to believe him. I do believe him, at least for the most part. But that belief comes with curiosity. “What would you do to him?” His eyes go nearly black. “A lot of things.” “Jax…I don’t want to believe you’re that kind of man.” He nearly sneers at me. “I told you I didn’t kill my wife. I never said I’m not that kind of man.” I shiver, pulling the blankets tight around my naked body. “You’re freaking me out a little bit.”

A frown. “I didn’t mean to. But I am serious about this. I’ll do what needs to be done. Maybe it’s best to leave that alone, too.” I can’t lie to myself. Part of me is secretly thrilled at the thought of a man wanting to do anything, absolutely anything, to protect me. It’s a turn-on. Maybe there’s something wrong with me for liking it.

Maybe I’ve been hurt for too long and am too afraid. Either way, I don’t completely hate what he’s hinting at. What will it take for his hints to become reality?

Chapter 22

“Your feed is a total mess.” “What?” I’m walking down the stairs, just having gotten out of the shower. I told Jax to feel free to look through the messages Tommy sent via Facebook while I did. I don’t have anything to hide from him. “Your social media feed. Do you click on every ad that comes your way?” I sit down beside him, drawing my feet up beneath me. “I don’t know. Maybe.” “That would explain all the sponsored posts and crappy surveys.” He points to the screen. “Who’s your ideal movie boyfriend? For real?” I blush, laughing at myself. “Whatever. It’s all for fun. Besides, when I see so many of them, I can’t help but be pulled in every once in a while.” “Exactly, which is why so many show up in your feed. Because you click on them.” “Jeez—and I thought Tommy was the one stalking me. Turns out it’s an algorithm.” I shoot Jax a dirty look. “Why are you always so critical of the things I do? Your way isn’t always the best way, you know. Some people rest easier knowing who their boyfriend would be in a movie.” “I guess when your actual boyfriend was a piece of shit…” He sees me wince. “Sorry. That was low.” “Not untrue, though.” I lean forward, toward the computer. “I guess you’ve read through everything?” “Yeah, and I’ve counted to ten around a dozen times just to keep my temper under control.” He scrolls through the messages. “Who the fuck does this? I wish he’d get on right now and try some shit like this.” “That wouldn’t be a good idea, and you know it. Besides, I blocked his ass.” “Good girl. You’re learning.” “Yeah, at the time I thought that was the only way left for him to reach me. Stupid me.” I think back to the clipping, the sick feeling in my stomach when I pulled it from the envelope and the truth hit me all at once. He knows where I live. He wants me dead. “You got this in the mail?” Jax is holding the clipping in his hands. I can’t help but notice how they’re

shaking. It’s not fear, though. “Yeah, in this envelope.” I hand it to him. He inspects the postmark. “Texas. Is he from Texas?” “We went to school there. We were living there together before I left.” “I guess he stuck around, then. And that’s all that was in the envelope? Just this clipping?” I nod. “But it’s obviously from him.” “Sure, unless you know somebody else in Texas who would send something like this.” I shake my head. I’m biting my nonexistent nail again. He moves closer to wrap his arms around me. “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine how you must have felt when you opened that.” “I thought I’d die. I really did. He knows where I live. Not just the town. The address. All of it rushed at me all at once. He found me. And he wants me dead now.” Jax’s arms tighten. “I shouldn’t have brought it up. If he was in front of me right now…” “Don’t.” “I’m sorry. And I know you don’t want to hear this.” He pulls away from me, looking down at me with great seriousness. “In my world, the world I lived in for a long time, one of the worst things a man can do is be violent toward a woman. Only cowards do that. It’s part of our code. Never hurt women.” I can’t help but think of Marissa as he’s saying this, though I stay mum. “After all that conditioning you can imagine how hard it is for me to hear the things he’s done to you. And to see the evidence of how batshit crazy he is. Jesus.” His arms tighten ever so slightly. “On top of it all, you’re not just any woman. You’re you. He’s doing this to you. You deserve better than that. He won’t ruin your life any more than he already has. That I promise you.” I snuggle against him again. “Thank you.” I need to believe him.


I call out of work, giving Amy an excuse about feeling under the weather. It’s a weekday morning, which, aside from the pre-nine o’clock rush, is generally dull. I have complete faith in her. Not for the first time do I count my blessings for Amy, knowing I owe her so much. The fact is there’s no way I could go to the shop today. My mind wouldn’t be on the work. I would most likely cost myself a lot of money, burning everything I tried to bake, giving customers the wrong change, throwing away mixed-up drink orders. Besides, I’m scared. Screw Tommy for taking away my life. I feel like a prisoner in my own home, but the idea of going out is too much to handle right now. Which is exactly what I know he wants me to feel. I decide to do a little baking for Jax instead. It’s the least I can do for him after everything he’s done for me in the last twelve hours alone. He’s enthusiastic, to say the least. “What are you making?” He’s craning his neck from his spot at the kitchen table, trying to get a look. I’ve already had to ask twice for him to sit down and stop crowding me. “Muffins, okay? Blueberry muffins with a streusel topping. Sheesh.” “God, I can’t remember the last time I had a fresh blueberry muffin. Or if I’ve ever had one, come to think of it.” He laughs, drinking more of his coffee. He was impressed to find me grinding the beans fresh for him. Even if I can’t afford a fancy coffee maker yet, I can at least drink the best coffee available. I slide the muffin pan into the oven, then turn to him with a smile. “I remember my grandma making blueberry muffins when I was a kid. She’d ask me to help her. All I was doing was pouring the berries into the batter, of course, but she made it seem like the most important part of the recipe.” “It is, when you think about it. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be blueberry muffins, would they?” I grin. “That’s exactly what she used to say.” “I’ve never been very good at cooking for myself. I do a few things pretty well, but the little luxuries like fresh muffins? Cookies? No way.” I’m laughing now. “You didn’t do too badly with the dumplings! I think we can make a cook of you yet.” “Great, and I’ll let you do the landscaping work. We’ll make a great team.” I go to him, still chuckling, and wrap my arms around his neck. His arms circle my waist, his head against my stomach.

A team. Is he thinking along the same lines I am? Here he is, spending time with me because he knows how terrified I am. Joking with me, leading me into conversation to take my mind off Tommy and the clipping he sent. I can’t forget the way he already saved me from freezing to death either. He puts the angel tattooed on his chest in a different light. “What are you planning to do today?” I look down at him. “First, I’m gonna eat at least three muffins. Then I’m going to find some tools in this place so I can fix up the locks on the windows like I said I would. I might even install a new lock on your front door if you wouldn’t mind.” I feel warm all over. “Thanks, that would be great.” “After that, maybe we’ll spend a little time doing…other things…” He grins at me, making it impossible for me not to kiss him. Lucky thing I set a timer for the muffins, or else we’d have been humping like rabbits while they burnt to a crisp.


“Are you sure you want to come with me?” “Completely sure. I’m not going to stay here alone. I know it sounds insane, and you’re not going to move in with me or anything, but for right now I don’t want to be here by myself. Besides, it’s just the hardware store. I think I can handle a trip there.” “It’s not that.” He’s standing there by the front door, arms crossed over his flat stomach. “I wonder if it’s the best idea for you to be seen with me.” Oh. I hadn’t thought of that. “Well, so what? Let somebody ask me why I’m with you. I’ll tell them the whole story. About how you saved me, and how you’re keeping me safe now. I’ll tell the whole world!” I watch as a slow smile spreads across his face. “That’s pretty risky for you, though. You realize that, right? People might not understand. I don’t want to see you lose your customers because they don’t approve of the people you spend time with.” “Would they do that?” Another thing I hadn’t considered until now. “Are you kidding? I wasn’t joking when I told you stories about how they act around me. They treat

me like a leper. You haven’t lived here for very long. I’m not trying to ruin your image of the town, I’m really not. I hate anybody who pisses on other people’s parades. But these folks aren’t as nice as you think they are. You’re in a bubble now. In their favor. If only for your business, I want you to stay that way.” We might have stood there all day, arguing about this, were it not for the sound of a motorcycle pulling up in the driveway. “Who could that be?” I’m instantly terrified. Did Tommy get a motorcycle? Or maybe it’s one of Jax’s buddies. I don’t know which would be worse. I peer outside from behind the closed blinds. “It’s a man. I’ve never seen him before.” I sigh with relief. At least it’s not Tommy. Jax stands behind me, looking out the window. “Holy shit.” He doesn’t sound happy. “Who is that?” He’s already walking to the front door. “Trouble.”

Chapter 23

“Trouble? What’s that mean? Jax!” He doesn’t hear me, or else doesn’t listen. Jax is already out the door and on his way down the steps to confront the man in the driveway. I follow, pulling on my coat. As always, I can’t just have one person to worry about at a time. “Christina, stay back.” Jax holds up a hand in my direction, willing me to stop. Immediately, I rankle at his command, needing to bite back a retort. As much as I hate being spoken to like a child, I can’t miss the danger in his voice. He’s deadly serious. I hang back on the little porch, close enough to hear what’s being said. The stranger is handsome in a rough sort of way. Jax might come from a tough background, might be covered in ink, but there’s a nobility about him. He’s a born leader, I realize, charismatic without even trying to be. The other man looks like he could have been a football star in high school but let himself go in the years after that. There’s a nice body in there somewhere, hidden beneath an extra twenty pounds. He’s soft. Too much beer, I think. The man runs a hand through his dark blond hair instead of shaking Jax’s hand. So he’s not a friend. Fantastic. The last thing I need is a fight on my property. I look up and down the street, hoping my neighbors are already out for the day. It’s a working class neighborhood, nothing fancy, but now that I’m seeing things through Jax’s eyes, I realize the people here are a little on the exclusive side. Snobby, wary of “outsiders.” Even the ones on my street, the ones at the bottom of the economic scale. For all my tough talk inside the house, I know I don’t need a scandal. They’re arguing quietly. I strain to hear. Jax is keeping his voice low, tight. He holds up a hand now and then to remind the other man to keep his voice down. Every once in a while, his head turns so he can get a look at me. The other man’s eyes shift toward me, too. “So this is your new girl, huh? Cute. You always had good taste.” The way his watery eyes run up and down my body makes me feel extremely uncomfortable. I pull my coat tighter around myself, making him laugh. “Man, seriously. Listen. This isn’t the time or place. If you wanna talk, meet me out at the house. I’ll be happy to talk about anything you want. We can go right now.” He stares hard at Jax. “You act like you don’t know what I want to talk to you about. That’s hilarious.”

Jax sighs deeply. “Fine. We’ll talk about her. Just not here.” “No, I think here is the perfect place, and this is the perfect time.” He turns back toward me. “I want her to hear this.” “This is my property,” I point out, trying to sound stronger than I feel. “I think it might be best for you to leave.” In my head, all I see is visions of a brawl on my front lawn. “Fair enough. But don’t you wanna know about your boy here? Don’t you wanna know what he’s really capable of doing?” “Adam, stop.” Jax’s voice is so low, I can hardly hear him. I barely make out the other man’s name. “Don’t tell me to stop. Don’t you ever tell me what to do.” “I don’t mean any disrespect.” “Bullshit! Since when do you care about respect or disrespect?” Adam laughs bitterly, a little too loudly. “If you gave a shit about respect you wouldn’t show your face in this town ever again. You made a deal, which you’re breaking right now.” “I know how you feel, man. But she needed me.” Jax motions toward me. I’m stunned. Has he been banished or something? Is that why people are so nasty toward him? How much did he risk by coming to me last night? Another bitter laugh. “I’m sure she did, buddy. Lots of women have needed you, haven’t they? Especially since Marissa.” “Don’t talk that way in front of her.” Jax nods his head in my direction. “Don’t tell me how to talk! You wanna settle this right now?” Adam’s aching for a fight. I grip the porch railing so hard in my hands that I can feel the splinters in the wood. “Please, don’t. Stop this!” I might as well be shouting into the wind, they’re paying so little attention to me. Adam tries to work his hooded sweatshirt over his head, but he’s off-balance, staggering. His shirt, and the tee beneath it, ride up on his abdomen. I can see ink on his torso…then I realize he has the same angel in flames I’ve seen on Jax’s torso. He’s one of them! I watch even more closely. There’s so much animosity here. What happened between Jax and the club to cause this? A glimmer of hope flickers in my brain. If Jax is on the outs with the club, that would mean he’d have

nothing to do with them. Maybe he’s not involved with them anymore. Maybe he did something to alienate himself. Better yet, maybe he left the club of his own accord. Oh, I can hope, can’t I? “Adam, stop this. I don’t want to fight you.” Jax is relaxed, hands at his sides. I know he could easily tear this stumbling, flabby man apart. He probably knows it, too. Adam finally gives up trying to remove the sweatshirt. He’s out of breath. “Why do you keep showing your face around here? Why do you keep starting shit?” “I told you before. I wasn’t trying to start anything.” “Oh, right, right. This girl needed you. Does she know who she slept with last night?” I pull my coat around me again. I don’t like his intimate tone, the way he talks like he knows me. I especially don’t like the implication that Jax is a monster. I’ve already done enough second-guessing. “I’m begging you, man. I don’t beg anybody, but I’m begging you. Don’t do this.” Adam stares daggers at Jax. “You’re begging? Did she beg at the last minute, too? Did she ask you not to do it?” “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’ve never known.” Adam scoffs, then turns his head to me. I feel sick. “You’re pretty good friends with this guy, huh?” I shrug. “I guess so. We’re friends, yes.” I glance desperately at Jax. “So you know everything about him, huh?” I can tell from his tone of voice this isn’t going anywhere nice. “I know who he is. I know where he’s from. If that’s what you mean.” I’m becoming distinctly uncomfortable now. “Did he tell you how he killed my sister?” My eyes widen, making him smirk. “Yeah. My sister. His wife.”

Chapter 24

“Adam, I’ve told you.” Jax’s voice cuts through the silence like a knife. But Adam’s not paying attention to Jax. He’s staring at me. “Right, right. You didn’t kill her. Okay.” “Your sister?” I look at Jax, desperate to make sense of this. Wishing he’d step in somehow and make it all go away. Adam laughs. “Yeah. I’m the prodigal brother-in-law. Or, seeing as how he’s the guy who killed her, maybe he’s the prodigal one. Not sure. It’s been a long time since I read the story.” He’s swaying on his feet, I notice. Already a little tipsy and it’s not even noon. “I’m sorry for your loss.” I feel like a jackass for saying it, but it’s the only thing I can come up with. This situation isn’t exactly indicative of my everyday life. He seems to appreciate the thought, though. “Thank you. That’s very sweet of you.” He turns his head toward Jax. “A nice girl like this, a sweet girl. What the hell are you doing with her? Trying to ruin her life, too?” “Adam.” Jax’s hands are in fists, hanging down by his sides. He’s beyond furious. I get the impression he’s only holding back for my sake. Or maybe he feels bad for this poor, drunk man. “It’s true, though, isn’t it?” Adam turns back to me. “Isn’t it?” “Isn’t what? He’s not ruining my life.” “Oh, really? Do you know how long it took for word to get around that Jax Fairbanks’s bike was sitting out in front of your house? How do you think I found him here in the first place?” I’m not sure what to say now. My eyes find Jax’s. He looks like a man who’s being proven right, but isn’t happy about it. Hadn’t he predicted this just minutes ago? “People are talking?” “You’re damn right they are. The Angels aren’t exactly loved around here. And they’re the only people in the area who ride motorcycles. A few people saw him riding through town last night. One of them saw him pull in here and run up the steps. Come on, guys.” He looks from me to Jax, then back to me again. I square my shoulders. “I don’t give a shit what people say.”

Adam nods his head. “Very noble. Very brave.” “I don’t appreciate the sarcasm. If that’s all you’ve come to say, you can leave now.” “So you don’t care about your reputation. Fine.” He’s completely ignored me, continuing with his diatribe. “What about your life? What’s that mean to you?” “Adam, stop this.” Jax moves a step closer to him. “Do you know how she died? You never did answer me.” “Yes. I know how your sister died. I read all about it. It was very sad.” “Mmmhmm. A gunshot wound, right to the chest. Point-blank range. Cold. Deliberate. Whoever killed her had to be looking her right in the eye. And then they left her there in the woods. Eyes open, looking up at the sky. I wonder how long she lived, if she had a moment or two when she knew she was dying. But at least she got a chance to look at the clouds one more time. We used to spread picnic blankets on the ground and spend hours on our backs, looking at the clouds. You know, when we were kids.” I nod my head, struggling not to cry for this broken man. He’s so tormented. “Either way, she died. And her body was left right there on the ground, for anything to get at her. At least they found her before the animals started eating her.” His voice breaks a little. “She might as well have been a piece of garbage, or a toy a kid got tired of and threw away. My sister. My fucking sister.” His voice breaks. “I’m so sorry.” “You’re not the one who has to be sorry. He is.” Adam jerks a thumb in Jax’s direction. “Adam, come on. Let’s at least go inside. We can talk about this.” “I’m fine out here. Don’t start thinking about this nice girl’s reputation now. You’ve already fucked her life up enough, man. It’s too late.” He looks at me again. “Did he tell you they matched the bullet they found in my sister’s body?” “What?” I’d only read they’d found no weapon. I glance at Jax. “Oh, yeah. They didn’t find the actual gun, but they know the sort of weapon it came from. A Glock 19. Guess who carries a Glock 19? Or at least he used to, before he killed my sister with it.” I look at Jax again, my eyes searching his. This can’t be true. The look on his face tells me it is.

“Did I forget to tell you the best part?” “Best part?” “Okay, bad choice of words, maybe. My sister didn’t die in just any woods. She died in the woods behind Jax’s house.” All the air leaves my lungs in one big whooshing noise, as though I’ve been punched in the stomach. All I can do is stare at Jax. The last bit of the story has finally been revealed, and there’s nothing he can do about it. He’s been taken apart by this sad, drunk man on my lawn. “No. You didn’t know that, did you? I’m not surprised.” He turns to Jax. “I hope you haven’t done too much damage to this poor girl already. I’m sure she doesn’t deserve it. Just like Marissa didn’t.” “Adam, you need to leave. You’re drunk. You don’t know what you’re saying.” Jax places his hand on Adam’s arm, only to have the arm yanked away as though his touch burned. “Don’t ever touch me again. Not if you wanna live another day.” The tension could be cut with a knife. They stand there, staring at each other. “Is this true, Jax? Is it all true?” He breaks the staring contest he’s having with Adam, looking over at me. He won’t say a word. “Please. Jax. Please, I know it’s not true. Or if what he’s saying is true there’s a good explanation. Why don’t you just tell him the whole story? I believe in you.” “Oh, this has to be a joke!” Adam laughs at me. “You’re worse than I thought. Like one of those women who writes to convicts because you feel sorry for them. Will you have a jailhouse wedding with him, too? Once he’s thrown inside a cell for everything he’s done?” I ignore him. “Jax, all you have to do is tell the truth. I don’t see why you won’t explain all of this.” “I shouldn’t have to.” Stubborn, pigheaded brat. “Not for me. For yourself. For him.” I nod my head in Adam’s direction. “Give him a little peace, at least.” “I shouldn’t have to do that either. I’ve told him I had nothing to do with it, same as I told you. That’s not good enough for him. I’m starting to wonder if it’s not good enough for you either.” “Don’t say that. Stop assuming I think the worst of you.” “Oh, forget this shit.” Adam throws his hands into the air. “I didn’t come here to watch some bullshit domestic drama.” He turns toward his bike, climbing on. Before he pulls away, he looks at me once

more. “What did you come here for, then, man? To make things even worse?” Jax follows Adam to the bike, trying to confront him. “Jax, don’t. Please. Let him go.” I’m desperate for him to leave now. I’ve heard enough. “I hope you get your head screwed on straight. Before it’s too late.” Adam pulls away, revving his engine before speeding out of sight. It’s just Jax and me again. The silence between us is deafening. I’m at a loss, torn between embarrassment for him and confusion. “Jax.” I walk toward him, starting down the short flight of stairs leading to the lawn. “Don’t. Just don’t.” He stalks away toward his bike without another word. I can only watch helplessly as he backs out of the driveway, then pulls down the street. Now I’m alone. Again. I look around, wondering how many pairs of eyes are watching from behind closed doors and pulled curtains. They sure got an eyeful out here, didn’t they? I also remember Tommy. For a minute there I’d forgotten all about him. I guess I can thank Adam for that much. I wonder if he’s here somewhere. Am I becoming completely paranoid? No matter what the answer, I turn to head back into the house. Only after the door is locked behind me do I give myself the luxury of trying to think things over. It’s useless, however. I can’t make sense of the jumbled mess in my head. All I know is I’m terrified —only now it’s not Tommy I’m afraid of. It’s the idea of losing Jax forever.

Chapter 25

I sit down in front of my open laptop again, doing another search. This time, I’m looking for any available information on Marissa Fairbanks. Who was she? What sort of things was she into? Was she wrapped up in the club, or just an outsider? I remember the tattoo I saw on Adam’s chest, just like the one on Jax’s. He’s a member of the club, too—or at the very least, he was at one time. Odds are she had something to do with the club, too, outside of being married to Jax. Maybe it ran in the family. Maybe her father was a member, or an uncle. Or maybe she got involved with the guys in the club after her brother joined. Maybe she was never involved at all. Just an innocent party. Like me. I can’t think about that now. There’s not much on Marissa, or her murder. I was sure there would be a million articles about it, especially seeing as how the town hates the club. From what I’d already read, one of the guys could sneeze and it would make the news. I was certain I’d find all sorts of salacious details on the murder of the wife of a club member—a prominent one, if what Adam said was true. Marissa is a mystery, it seems. I think about the way she decorated the house in which Jax still lives. She was a simple, sweet person, I think. Not fancy. Homey, cozy. She wanted to create a refuge for her man. I can understand the impulse, having had it myself. Why else would I have been driven to bake cookies for Jax when I hardly knew him? She didn’t deserve to die the way she did, alone in the woods, left there to rot, going by the way Adam had described. I remember the pain in his voice when he talked about her. Now that I’ve met him, I get the idea he only let himself go after she died. He’s drinking himself into an early grave. I understand what pain like that can do to a person. He’s desperate for an answer to how his sister’s life ended. He wants to pin the crime on any convenient person. Jax is just the most convenient. It doesn’t help the bullet matched the gun he carried. I can understand why Adam would jump to conclusions when that’s the case. I can’t believe it, though. I won’t believe it. Jax is innocent. No, he’s not. He’s not innocent. Maybe of his wife’s murder. But not of other things. I accept that. A person can make mistakes. They can also move on from them. They deserve the chance to.

I have to talk this out with somebody. If I hang around the house like this, I’ll go crazy. Just going over and over it in my head until I lose it. I’m still nervous about leaving the house, but I need to take the chance. Minutes later, I’m at the coffee shop. It’s lunchtime as a handful of employees of the little shops up and down Main Street coming in for a cup of coffee or dessert on their break. I walk in, saying hi to everyone. “I thought you were sick!” Amy’s behind the counter, busy as a bee. I notice her voice sounds higherpitched than usual. Unnatural. Shit. Everybody knows Jax was at my house, and I conveniently happened to call out sick. I’m sure people have been jumping to conclusions all morning. How much whispering has been going on right here in my own shop? “I’m feeling better, so I thought I’d come in for a while. You know how it is, you wake up feeling lousy, but once you get moving, it’s not so bad anymore.” I wash my hands and tie on an apron, diving in alongside my friend as though there’s nothing out of the ordinary. Anything to take my mind off the mess for a while. If Tommy’s out there somewhere, he wouldn’t dare try something now. Not while I’m surrounded by people. Would he? Once things quiet down, I lean against the counter, facing Amy. “I have to ask you something.” “Sure. What’s up?” I take her by the elbow, leading her to a quiet corner where I can still keep an eye on things in the shop. “Do you know anything else about the murder of Jax’s wife? You know, something you heard people gossiping about, maybe?” “What happened? Why are you asking me this?” I wonder if I can trust her. I love her and she’s become my closest friend even though she started out as an employee. But she’s a talker, very social and bubbly. No, I need to trust my gut. At the end of the day, she’s also reliable. “I know I can trust you. I have to tell you what happened earlier today.” I give her the brief rundown, explaining what went on with Adam. I’ve been glancing over at the customers every once in a while as I speak, and I can’t miss their eyes on me. I remember now what Adam said, about people talking when Jax’s motorcycle was seen outside my house. Are they whispering about me now? “Wow, Chris. I can’t believe it.” I nod my head. “I wanted to see if there was anything else online about Marissa’s murder, but there’s nothing. I mean not a single thing! Don’t you think that’s odd?”

“We’re still a small town. News flares up, but it dies down quickly.” “Not gossip, though. That’s why I was wondering if you knew anything I wouldn’t otherwise be able to find.” She looks uncomfortable. “You can tell me, Amy. It won’t hurt me. Not knowing the truth hurts more than anything else, I think.” “I guess you’re right.” She looks around—there are only two people still drinking coffee and reading their papers. “Well, I’ll tell you this first: people try to make Marissa out to be a saint now that she’s dead. I don’t think that was the case, not really.” “No? I remember hearing people talking about what a nice girl she was, how they didn’t know why she would have married Jax in the first place.” “She might have started out like that. Who’s to say? I didn’t know her back then, or very well after they were married. But from what I hear…” she looks around again, “…she was into drugs. Both before and after they were married.” “Drugs? Oh, no.” Adam hadn’t said anything about that, but then why would he? No family member wants to admit things like that about a deceased loved one, especially if the death tore them up inside the way Marissa’s clearly had. “Yeah, lightweight stuff at first. Kid stuff. Pot, pills. She stopped for a while when they were first married—I heard he insisted—but she started up again at some point. The word heroin was used.” “No way. I guess people blame Jax for it.” “Are you kidding? She could have been hit by lightning and they’d blame him.” I imagine how awful it must have been for Jax, watching his wife fall deeper into drugs. I’ve never personally known a heroin addict, but I know how increasingly common it’s becoming. “Then there was the whole scandal that went on with the Angels around that time.” “What scandal?” “Illegal weapons. Gun running, specifically. They were under suspicion. The cops were watching their every move. It was a crazy time. Every day, the rest of the town wondered when the club would be taken down, and whether there would be some big shoot-out when they were. We held our breath every day. It felt like living in a war zone just waiting for the first shot to be fired.” She shivers, rubbing her arms. “Did anything ever happen?”

“No. There was never enough evidence to arrest them. Those guys are smart. Imagine what they could have done with their lives if they hadn’t turned to crime. Anyway, another theory around that time was that a rival gun runner was responsible for Marissa’s murder.” “I guess that makes sense. Like a message, or payback or something?” “Right.” She shrugs. “That’s all the news that’s fit to print, my love. I don’t know anything else.” “Believe me, you’ve told me plenty. I needed a little bit of context. It’s hard knowing what to believe sometimes.” Amy’s hand touches my arm. “Listen. No matter what the real, full story is, there’s one thing that applies no matter what version you’re listening to.” “What’s that?” “The club had something to do with it. Either Jax did it, or somebody related to the club business. And let’s be honest, if she was on drugs, where do you think they came from?” She’s right. I can’t deny it. “I say this to warn you, is all. Don’t get too involved with the club, especially now that they’re back in town. Nothing good comes from it. These are not good people. You’re a good person. You deserve better.” I know she cares, which is why I give her a hug. I can’t take her advice, though. Maybe I’m being naïve, but it’s not the club I’m getting involved with. It’s Jax. It’s clear to me he wants to put space between himself and the rest of them. I’m not afraid. At least, not of the Angels of Chaos. Or their enemies. The shop is empty now, save for Amy and me. She starts cleaning up the tables while I take my phone from my purse to call Jax. I have to get through to him somehow. Before I go to the back for a little privacy, I turn to where Amy’s wiping down tabletops. “Hey, was there any talk about me in here? This morning, I mean?” She doesn’t know what to say, which is all the answer I need. I nod, understanding, then go through the door leading to the pantry. I’ll have to tackle the gossip issue somehow, but now’s not the time. The town deserves to know what a good man Jax is, and Jax deserves to be treated better. I call him, hoping he’s home and in a better mood. The phone rings five…six…seven times before the voicemail picks up.

“Hi, this is Jax. Leave a message.” Short, to the point. So typical. “Jax, it’s me. I wish you’d answer your phone. Now I know how you felt when I wouldn’t answer for you. Anyway…I want to talk to you. I want you to understand I wasn’t blaming you for anything today. I’m on your side, always. I swear it. I know you didn’t kill her. Nothing Adam said made a difference in what I think or how I feel about you. Please call me back.” I hang up, leaning my back against the rack and the phone pressed to my forehead. He has to call me back. I can’t imagine living without him now.

Chapter 26

I stand outside the shop, in the back, catching a breath of fresh air. Jax hasn’t called me back, though in my heart of hearts I don’t expect him to. Not right away, that is. What bothers me the most is the feeling that I hurt him. I tried to explain as best I could via voicemail, telling him I’m on his side. That I don’t believe the terrible things people have said or thought about him. I’m on his side. I remember Adam. The way he looked when he stood on the lawn. The way I though he reminded me of a broken man. That’s what he is. A broken man, looking for answers. Why was his sister killed? Could he have done anything to stop it? I know that’s how I’d feel. I’d want to know those things, too. I might even turn to drinking, which he clearly has done. He looked terrible. People who are grieving don’t think clearly. They don’t reason. He’s not reasoning, that’s all there is to it. He wants to blame his sister’s death on Jax, as everyone else has. Pin it on the person closest to the victim. That’s fairly typical. After all, don’t police always look for the person closest? Usually the spouse or significant other? It didn’t help when the gun used to kill the victim is the same type carried by the spouse. I run my hands through my hair, leaving traces of flour. Okay. I know I’m rationalizing. I know it looks bad for him. I have to keep reminding myself of the person I know. They person I see inside him. That person wouldn’t do something so horrible. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. Why am I shaking, then? Because he won’t call me back, that’s all. I don’t know how he feels right now, whether he’s angry with me or just sad because he thinks I didn’t believe him. Has he even listened to his voicemail? Amy calls to me from inside. I go in, needing to warm up. It’s freezing outside. I had to clear my head. “You okay? I thought you froze to death out there.” She’s smiling at me, accepting me. She’s the only person I know at the moment who isn’t full of judgment. She cares, but she knows I can make my own choices. “Just needed to think, is all,” I say. I pour myself a cup of coffee if only to warm my cold hands. “We’ve got plenty of room to think in here, sister,” she says with a smirk. “I like fresh air with my thinking,” I reply quietly. But with a smile. “I thought maybe…”

“Maybe what?” “Maybe he came, and you met him out there.” I sigh. “He wouldn’t come. Especially after the raft of shit he got from his brother-in-law earlier today about being in town. He wouldn’t come again so soon.” “Brother-in-law? Not anymore, right?” Implying since Marissa is dead, there’s no relation. “I guess so? What do you call a brother-in-law once the spouse dies?” We both shrug. It seems as good a name as any. “So what kind of things was he saying? Why can’t Jax come to town?” Amy sits in one of the chairs. The place is empty, night falling. Not many people are interested in coffee at this time of day, but we stay open for the occasional straggler in need of a jolt, or maybe a cup of hot chocolate. I lean on the counter, facing her. “You should know why he can’t. I mean, you’ve lived here your whole life.” “Yeah, but I never heard of any rules which state members can’t be here. Just the opposite, really. They show their faces much more often than we’d like.” I notice how she uses the word “we.” I never thought of her as being part of the town, not in that way. She’s young, vibrant, hip. I thought she was more open-minded than this. I guess I was naïve about a lot of things. But I know she’s my friend, and I can trust her. I need that right now. “You wouldn’t know if there was any, you know, club rule stating they could only come to town so often.” “I don’t think so,” Amy says, sipping a cup of tea. “Honestly, when you first said Jax couldn’t come in, I assumed it had something to do with Marissa. There was an awful lot of drama when she died. I mean a lot of it. We thought it was crazy when the police were looking to close in on the gun trade. Oh, brother. That was nothing compared to what went down after Marissa’s murder.” “Such as what?” “They were all under suspicion. The police used it as an opportunity to get a closer look at the club. Bad publicity. Very bad. It was probably exactly what the cops needed, when you think about it.” “You mean they needed a reason to get close, because they weren’t getting anywhere waiting for evidence of illegal guns being bought and sold.” “Exactly.” Amy nods emphatically. “Marissa was just the thing. It gave them a chance to question everyone involved, right down to the most random fangirl. Everyone. Rumors flew for months.”

“It all came down to Jax at the end of the day, though. Right?” Amy nods again. “Right. As soon as they announced the caliber bullet used? Forget it. Case closed, as far as the court of public opinion was concerned.” I shake my head. “Maybe it’s a matter of Jax not coming to town because he brought so much bad publicity to the club, then.” “That was my assumption, yeah. I’ve always had the impression he’s not closely affiliated with the club anymore, too. Maybe if he were, they’d be more willing to have his back.” I think about this. That makes sense, doesn’t it? They’re shunning him, just as much as the town is. Oh, he’s so alone. I wish he would call back. I hear a noise outside. My head turns automatically. Amy smiles, a little sadly. “You’re waiting for him, aren’t you?” I nod, miserable. I can’t deny it. “Why don’t you go to see him instead of waiting for him to call you? Take matters into your own hands. You have the right. I mean, it’s your life. Isn’t it?” She has a point. Why can’t I go to him? What’s the worst that could happen? He could throw me off his land. Big deal. I’d leave if he wanted me to. I know he wouldn’t hurt me. I know more than ever he’s not capable of that. “I guess I will,” I agree. “Once we close up. I refuse to leave you holding the bag. I’ve done enough of that lately.” “It’s okay,” she says, waving a hand. “What else would I be doing? Nothing. I love coming here.” I smile. She’s such a rare treasure. “Then maybe you should leave early. You handled the entire rush by yourself today.” “That wasn’t such a big deal either. Customers know when I’m here by myself, they need to calm the hell down and wait their turn. I don’t go for impatience. I’ll deliberately go slower if you give me a hard time.” I laugh. She can get away with that. She’s known them her entire life. “So you’re staying? That’s what you’re telling me?” She nods. “Why do I feel like you’re guarding me somehow?” “I’m not!”

“Yes, you are. What’s up? Do you think I’m in trouble or something?” Her eyes cloud over. “Not in trouble. Just…you need a little time to recover from the stuff that people were saying in here earlier today.” We haven’t gone into this yet—in fact, I’d forgotten entirely. “Right. What were they saying?” “Oh, come on…” “You can tell me!” “People always say that, until they hear.” “Wow. Is it that bad?” She shakes her head. “Not terrible,” she says, “but not very nice.” “Please. I think I have the right to know what they were saying.” “Chris…you can’t un-hear things like this. I don’t want it to color your opinion of the people here. They’re genuinely great people. You’ve said it yourself a million times. It’s just they’ve been living with this club hanging over their heads for a long time. They tend to jump to conclusions because, let’s face it, there’s not much you can put past those guys. There’s literal proof of the things they’ve done.” “I get it,” I tell her. “I’ll take it with a grain of salt.” “Okay.” She takes a deep breath, looks at the ceiling. “The main thing I heard was a ‘still waters run deep’ joke. You know. This whole time, everyone’s been wondering about you. Why you don’t date, why you’re so quiet. Such a pretty girl, why doesn’t she have a boyfriend? Now it’s, oh, because she likes bad boys. Who’d have imagined that from her? Still waters run deep. You know, with the wink and the nudge. The rolled eyes. It was kind of stupid, especially after the first or second time I heard it.” “That’s it?” This seems tame considering the way she built it up. “Yeah, I mean, with different variations every time. See, one version of the story was he spent the night. Another is you two have been shacking up together since you moved here. There are a dozen shades of gray in between. Get it?” “I get it,” I say, my voice grim. “Well, let them say anything to me. I’ll very firmly but politely put them in their place.” “Chris…” Amy looks concerned.

I hold up a hand to stop her protests. “Listen. They need to know the sort of person he is. I’m not just talking out of my ass here either. I’m not some lovesick schoolgirl. Facts are facts. He saved my life. He saved me more than once, honestly.” My face clouds over as I remember the way it felt last night. I was so scared. Jax came and made it all better. “What’s wrong?” Amy stands, walking around the counter. My memories are clouding my mind at this point. “What are you talking about? More than once—what does that mean?” I look at her, sizing her up. I’ve trusted her before. Can I trust her again? Then I remember how good it felt to finally get my past off my chest when I confessed everything to Jax. There’s shame in secrets. Once those secrets are out in the open, the shame is gone. You might even wonder why you were ashamed in the first place. “Sit down,” I tell her. “I’ll pour you another tea. I have a story to tell you.”

Chapter 27

Amy has tears in her eyes. I’ve told her everything, every last detail. Most of the time, my eyes have been on my coffee cup. Some of the memories are still pretty raw, pretty painful. Like that last night. The last time he hit me. The time I decided was the last time. “I can’t believe you’ve been carrying this around inside you for so long,” Amy says quietly. “I can’t believe you’ve been walking around with this in your heart. You poor thing.” She reaches across the table, squeezing my hand. “It’s okay,” I tell her. “It’s not! You went through hell. Now…now I guess I understand a little more. Why you weren’t dating. Honestly? I used to question that myself. Why such a nice, pretty person didn’t have a boyfriend. Or a girlfriend, whatever. Why you were alone.” “Now you know.” I shrugged. “It happened. It happens to a lot of people. We just don’t talk about it. Jax was the first person I told.” “Why did you tell him?” “Because…he found me. Tommy.” Amy’s rocked to her core. She covers her mouth with both hands. “Oh, no! I can’t believe it!” “He was texting me, sending me messages on social media. He’s insane, point-blank.” “Uh, yeah. He sounds that way. When’s the last time he reached out to you?” I look over at the wall behind the coffee machines. There’s that article, framed. Right where I hung it the day I opened the place. I point to it, explaining what I got in the mail yesterday. Why I called Jax, why I didn’t come in this morning. “Jesus. You should have called the police, too!” “I wasn’t thinking clearly. Honestly, he just happened to call me a few minutes after I opened the mail. I was desperate. I needed him to protect me.” “And he did.” “He did. He came running.”

“Oh…” Amy’s eyes light up. “Even though he’s not supposed to be in town?” I nod. Now she gets it. “You can see, then, can’t you? Why I feel the way I feel? I can’t turn my back on him. Within minutes, he was at my door. In the house. Inspecting every last inch, just so I would feel safe. Even the crawlspace.” We giggle. It’s so nice to have a girlfriend to talk these things out with. “I was too afraid to come in to work today,” I explain. “It was too raw, too fresh.” “Why did you come at all?” “I had to talk to you. More importantly, I can’t let Tommy rule my life. I can’t. He wins if I let him do that.” I shake my head, pointing to it as I do. “He’s in here. So deep. I have to get him out. He could be hundreds, thousands of miles away. But he’s planted seeds, you know? He might as well be right up in my face all over again, screaming about the butter being too cold to spread on his bread. That’s what he wants, too. I can’t let him have it.” Amy gets up, gives me a hug. “You’re good people,” she says with a smile once she releases me. “So are you,” I say. “And so is Jax,” she adds. My eyes fill with tears. At least she gets it. One down, the rest of the town to go.


We finally close up shop. It’s much later than we have to, I realize. We sat talking for hours, long after closing time normally occurs. It felt so good to get everything off my chest, I completely lost track of time. We stand outside the shop together, Amy and I. “Thank you for listening to me,” I say, hugging her again. “It means the world.” “I’ve got your back. Just let anybody try to say anything against you. I’ll set them straight,” she promises. “That means the world, too, but I don’t want you getting yourself into hot water on my account. Just steer the gossip mongers my way. I’ll be the one to set them straight. You don’t have to fight my battles.” I give her a smile and another hug. She’s such a good friend. I don’t know what I’d do without her right now.

“Are you going to Jax’s?” she asks just before we part ways. “I think I’ll take your advice and go over, yeah. First I want to go home to change.” There’s flour all over my clothes. She smiles. “Maybe you should pack an overnight bag?” She giggles, and I swat at her with my gloves. We walk to our cars, laughing. I drive home feeling oddly buoyant. I should write a book, I decide. All about the lies we tell ourselves. We have ourselves convinced no one will ever understand us. We can’t share our story with others. People will judge us, shun us. We’ll feel ashamed. That’s nonsense! I laugh at myself, out loud, at the thought. It’s total nonsense. We can’t live in our hearts all the time. When we’re hurting, we have to reach out and share our stories. Who knows? Maybe another person can relate, and our bravery will help them, too. I’m feeling extremely confident as I climb the stairs, digging my keys out of my bad. I’m even humming, I realize. Something I haven’t done in ages. I can’t wait to get to Jax’s. I know I can make him understand where I was coming from earlier today. Even if he’s listened to my message and is still brooding, I can get through to him somehow. I just need the chance. I walk into the house, flipping the light switch as I do. When the lights don’t go on, I feel sick. In a split second, everything becomes clear. Then I’m hit over the head, and it all goes black.


Where am I? I wake up, and everything’s dark. I’m moving, aren’t I? Being bounced back and forth, gently. Like being in a cradle. I’m rocking in a cradle. It’s actually kind of nice. I close my eyes again, wanting nothing more than to sink into the darkness around me. It’s so sweet, so good, just relaxing like this. Not having to be worried, not having to defend myself or work my way through dark, confusing rumors. Just…being. Wait. No.

I can’t go back to sleep. I open my eyes again. I stretch out my legs…only they don’t stretch all the way. Not even a lot of the way. They’re folded, my knees close to my chest. I try to stretch out my arms, but they, too, are only going so far. There’s a wall in front of me. I try to roll onto my back. There’s a ceiling right above my head, so low I brush my shoulder against it as I turn. God, it’s so small. So closed in. I feel panic overtaking me. My heart is racing. I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe. No. Calm down. Breathe. In. Out. You’ll be okay. Where am I? I’m moving. That’s one of the first things I realized, right? I’m moving. Where? How? What’s that smell? Exhaust? And the sounds. Traffic? Are those cars passing by? Oh, my God. The trunk of a car. This isn’t a ceiling. It’s the lid of the trunk. “Hey!” I scream, pounding my fists on the roof. “Hey! Help me! Let me out! Please!” The car keeps moving, as though I hadn’t said a word. I turn as best I can, trying to kick out the tail light. I’ve always read you can be found in the trunk of a car by kicking out the tail light and waving your arm. Only there isn’t enough room in the trunk for me to get up enough force. I can’t kick my legs hard enough because I can’t pull back far enough. I struggle, getting sweaty, crying with frustration. What’s going to happen to me? I try pounding on the lid again. “Please! Let me out! I can’t breathe in here!” Whoever it is, they don’t care. I can tell from the hum of the engine the car doesn’t so much as slow down. Who’s done this to me? There are bits of clothing in here. I can tell them from touch. I might have to wrap them around my hands if I want to do any more punching on the trunk lid, so close to my head. It’s a blessing I’m not claustrophobic. I laugh harshly at the idea of a blessing in this situation. There are no blessings here. I’m in the trunk of a car, being taken God only knows where, and I’m counting my blessings. Amazing. I raise one of the pieces, a shirt, to my nose. I know this cologne. Of course, I knew what was happening the split second I flipped the light switch. It’s Tommy. He found me. I think back to that idea of writing a book. I’ll have to include a chapter on the moment you realize your abusive ex has finally come for you. You try to turn on the lights inside your house, and they don’t work for the first time. You know, in that instant, that it’s all come to pass. Your worst nightmare has come true. He’s here. Somewhere. And he’s been waiting for you. It’s all been for nothing, all your hiding and dreaming of something better. He’ll never let you go. He wasn’t joking when he said he’d never let you go.

And then he hits you and knocks you unconscious. My head throbs painfully, as in response to my thoughts. He hit me hard. Now I’m glad I didn’t go to sleep when I wanted to, for fear of a concussion. I touch my fingertips to the sore spot on my head. It stings, and my fingers feel wet. I’m bleeding. What’s he going to do to me? I could try screaming to him from the trunk, but that won’t do any good. He’s probably in a frenzy by now. He might even kill me. I think about my parents. I wish I could have spoken to them one more time. I think about Amy. For the rest of her life, she’ll remember hugging me and laughing with me as we left the store. It’ll be one of those memories that plays in her head for years, over and over. Laughing and joking about taking an overnight back to Jax’s, just before Tommy kidnapped me. Jax. Oh, God. What will he do? Why didn’t I go straight to his house? None of this would be happening. I have to keep breathing or else I’ll pass out. Panic threatens to overtake me. I hang on by the thinnest of threads. All I can do is lie here and think. About what might happen. What I can do about it. And whether anyone will come to help me before it’s too late.

Chapter 28 Jax I spend the day doing a lot of thinking. At first I was pissed, especially when I first left Christina’s. Beyond pissed. Wishing I’d punched Adam out the second I saw him pull into her driveway. Who the hell did he think he was, anyway? Showing up like that, acting superior. Putting the spotlight on Christina, even more than it already was. All out of some sort of grudge against me. I know why he hates me. It’s had to be that way for a long time. If he knew the full story of what happened the day Marissa died…I don’t know what it would do to him. It’s bigger than me, bigger than her. It was club-level stuff. I don’t know how involved he still is with the club, but I guess he must be close. I would have heard something through the grapevine otherwise. Come to think of it, he wasn’t wearing his kutte. That’s something to consider. In the Angels, when you ride your bike, you wear your kutte. Maybe he left it at home since he was coming through town. One of the unspoken rules is club members don’t wear them when riding through town. God forbid the townspeople have to be reminded the club exists. Regardless, Adam was being an ass. Stumbling around. Pathetic. Was he really pathetic, though? I pace my living room, punching my palm. No. Not pathetic. In pain. I could have stopped him from feeling that pain, but I didn’t. Maybe I’m the pathetic one. So I was pissed at first. Now I’m desperate. I need her to believe me. I don’t know why. I just do. I have to talk to Christina, even if it means going back to town. I’ve been thinking about her when I’m not thinking about Adam. I can’t help it. I keep remembering the way she looked when I was fighting with him. The way she looked when he said those awful things. About Marissa. I was sure she didn’t believe me. She was going to turn her back on me, just like everyone else already has. Why not? I’m poison. I kill everything I touch. Before Adam showed up, she was ready to walk through town with me. Face down anything with me. Stand by my side and defend me, no matter what it meant to her. All it took was Adam’s mouth to set off her doubt. I saw it in her face. She didn’t know what to believe anymore. Me, or the drunk standing out on her lawn. He wasn’t always like that. I used to think of Adam as a big brother. He was so cool, so in control. I worshiped him, I guess. The brother I’d never had. Then, when I married Marissa, he became my brother. It seemed too good to be true.

Now? He’s a mess. A shadow of who he used to be. Sloppy, drunk, angry. I know it’s my fault. Just not for the reason he thinks. Nothing I’ve ever said has been good enough. Not for him, not for anybody else in the town. For a minute there, I thought it might be enough for Christina. I was wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong about something. There’s so much she doesn’t know. There are things about the day Marissa died I’ve never told anyone. I did it to protect her. Maybe that was a mistake. Maybe guarding her memory isn’t the way to go. Look what it’s doing to my life. “What do you think, Blue?” He looks at me from his spot in front of the fire. “You’ve got the life, buddy. You don’t have to worry about shit like this. All you have to do is eat and sleep and run around outside. I wish I were you right now.” He comes over to me, nuzzling my hand. He’s been my only friend for a long time. After I had split off from the club, I had nobody. It was like being a kid all over again. No friends, no family. I wouldn’t visit my mother for a million dollars. She might be dead, for all I know. I can’t go back to that world. Even riding past a trailer park sends a chill up my spine. Blue knows all my shit. He’s a good listener. “What should I do, Blue? Should I go to her?” He stares at me. What does he know? He just wants food. Shit. I stand, pacing. Can I trust her? I feel like she deserves to know everything, but I can’t shake this feeling of betrayal. If I tell the whole story, I’ll be betraying Marissa. She was a good wife until things got bad. She couldn’t help herself in the end. The addiction was too strong by then. Will she even believe me? Or will she assume I’m lying, just like everyone else always has? I listen to her voicemail again. She’s on my side. She believes in me. Maybe I should give her a chance to prove it. What if she lets me down, just like everyone else has? It’s fine for a person to say they’ll believe you, until they hear the truth. I can’t help myself. I call her back. Voicemail. “Hey, it’s Jax. I got your message. I’ve, uh, needed time to think. I want to talk to you. Give me a call, we can meet up someplace.” After an hour of waiting, I start to worry. Why hasn’t she called? Did she change her mind? Maybe somebody else got to her before I did and tried to turn her against me. It sounds paranoid even to me, but I know anything’s possible in this fucking town. I get my coat and climb on my bike. I know I could catch shit for going back into town like this. I made an agreement with the club, years ago, that I wouldn’t come around. They’ve never strictly held me to it—after all, a person has to go to town from time to time. Supplies and whatnot. Otherwise, I’ve been banished. And that’s okay with me. There’s no love lost here.

I guess parking overnight at Christina’s was their idea of going outside the rules. What was I supposed to do? I had to make a choice, and I chose her. I knew the consequences, and I walked right into it. I didn’t care. I still don’t. But she does. I wonder how many people will see me as I ride through this time. The town looks quiet, nearly deserted. It’s freezing outside, keeping everyone inside their warm homes. But there are eyes everywhere. I swear it’s like some of these people stand at their window just waiting for something to happen. Pretty soon word will start to spread that I’m riding through. Like I’m the fucking grim reaper or something. It doesn’t matter. I have to talk to her. I drive down Main Street in the hopes her shop is still open. No, it’s dark now. Maybe that’s for the best—it wouldn’t do her any good if I were seen at the shop. The townspeople might come out with the pitchforks and burning torches. I go on to her house, hoping this ride wasn’t for nothing. I don’t think she’s got much of a social life. If I’ll find her anywhere besides the shop, her house is probably the place. Her car’s in the driveway. I breathe a sigh of relief. Now all I have to do is hope she wants to talk to me. It’s been over an hour since I called her, with no reply. This is unlike her. I wonder who got to her in the time since she called. If she went to the shop at all, the possibilities are endless. I go to the front door, knocking. It opens at the slightest touch. “Hello?” I call out, thinking she forgot to close it all the way. Silence. I reach over to the light switch, flipping it. The house remains in darkness. Shit. Why did I stop carrying a gun? “Christina?” I open the door wider until it rests against the wall. There’s no sign of movement anywhere in the living room or the kitchen. I take a step inside, and that’s when I see it. The porch light is on, showing me a dark stain on the carpet just inside the front door. Along with a purse. Christina’s purse, on the floor, contents spilled everywhere. My heart immediately starts racing. My focus narrows. She’s gone. I know who took her. Why wasn’t I with her? I forgot how much she needed me. Too busy thinking about myself. I have to find her.

Chapter 29

“I’ve told you all this already,” I say, sitting on the sofa in Christina’s living room. The lights are on, now, the cops having flipped the breaker. He didn’t cut the wires at least. “Tell us again,” the cop asks. He’s sitting in front of me, on one of the chairs from Christina’s kitchen. I want to tell him to get his fat, snide ass off that chair. He doesn’t deserve to sit in one of her chairs. He doesn’t want to help her. He only wants to pin this on me. “Don’t you get it? While you’re questioning me, that fucking maniac has her! He could be raping her, killing her, right now! And you’re not doing anything about it!” “Maybe if you’d comply,” another cop says. A female this time. She hates me just as much as the rest of them do. She’s not even trying to hide it. I take a deep breath, struggling to control my temper. “Like I said. I was coming here to talk to her. She called me earlier, wanting to make up after an argument we had—you’ve listened to the voicemail. I called her back. When she didn’t reply after an hour, I came here. I wasn’t worried about her safety so much as I was worried why she wouldn’t call when she sounded so ready to talk when she left that message. It seemed out of character.” “And what did you find when you got here?” I want to tell them to look the fuck around. “The door was almost closed, but not totally. I went to knock, but it swung open a little. I opened it all the way. I saw the bloodstain, the purse on the floor. So I called you.” I hadn’t wanted to. It was the last thing I wanted to do. But I remembered this wasn’t about me. It was about her. Finding her. A big fucking lot of good that did me, seeing as how they haven’t started looking yet. “You say you two had an argument earlier today?” Oh, no. Not this. “Yeah, a little disagreement.” “What was it about?” “It’s personal.” “I thought you wanted to help your girlfriend.” “She’s not…Anyway, how would this help you? What we talked about has nothing to do with this. I’m telling you, her ex is a goddamned lunatic. Did you find that clipping? It has to be around here

somewhere. I just looked at it this morning.” I point to the coffee table. “It was right here.” “We didn’t see any type of clipping anywhere,” the female officer tells me. “Great. He probably took it!” “You’re saying Miss Reardon has a stalker?” “That’s exactly what I’m saying. Her boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend, was abusive. He was stalking her. She just recently blocked his number and blocked him on social media. Check it out—her laptop’s right here. You can probably log in and see for yourself. He’s insane. I know he has her.” “We’ll take the laptop as evidence, and have our forensic team go through it.” “You don’t need a fucking forensic team for this!” I’m shaking with rage. It’s like talking to a wall. “I’m telling you, I looked at her messages today! Just this morning. He said sick things. All you have to do is look, and you’ll see what I mean. You should be looking for this guy!” “What’s his name again?” One of the cops takes out a notepad. “Tommy.” “Tommy what?” “I don’t know. If you look at the account with the messages, you’ll be able to see.” “Mr. Fairbanks, we can’t just log in to a person’s accounts without permission.” I must be losing my mind. It’s the only explanation. “Even when you think there’s been a kidnapping? Are you kidding me? She’s not a suspect here. It’s not like you have to watch yourself. She’s the victim. She needs your help. Please. Help her. He took her. I know he did.” “Mr. Fairbanks…” The woman cop looks at me, hands on hips. “How do we know you’re not just making this up?” “The proof is right there.” I point to the computer. “How do we know this isn’t some convenient excuse?” “What? You mean you think I did something to her because I saw these messages and thought it was a good excuse? Like, oh, great, now I can kill this girl because I have somebody to pin it on? What the fuck is wrong with you people?” “Don’t use that language with us, Mr. Fairbanks.”

“Or what? You’ll take me in?” This is a nightmare. A living nightmare. It’s all I can do not to explode in front of these people. I take a few deep breaths, screaming internally, telling myself to get a grip on my emotions. “Listen. Please. I care about this girl. She’s very special. She’s in trouble. Please. I know…I know I don’t have a good reputation in this town. That’s all my fault. I get it. I did some bad things. Don’t make her pay for it. You’re looking at the wrong person in all of this. Just…do her the favor of looking into this Tommy guy. You’ll find his last name on those messages—I honestly don’t remember what it was, but I remember seeing it.” I look from one cop to the other, then back again. I might as well be talking to a wall. “Yeah. We’ll do that. In the meantime, don’t go anywhere.” Both officers move to the kitchen, leaving me alone. I don’t believe it. I’ve never felt so completely helpless in my life. Not even when Marissa died. This is a new level of hell. I thought I’d been through it all. I had no idea how bad things could get. “Christina…” I whisper. I close my eyes. Where are you? Are you still alive? I open my eyes, and immediately they fall on the blood stain. My fists clench. I’ll kill that son of a bitch. I just have to find him. The cops aren’t doing anything. It’s up to me. I take a look in the kitchen, where the two assholes who questioned me are talking with their heads close together. I know I’m their prime suspect. I know they’re trying to cook up a reason to take me in for further questioning. I can’t let them do that. There are a few cops outside, looking for footprints in the back yard. There’s another one upstairs, checking to see if the attacker left anything behind. I’m alone for the moment. I see something sticking out of Christina’s purse, half spilled out onto the floor. Her phone. Shit. Maybe he called her? I glance back to the kitchen, making sure they’re not watching me, then slide off the sofa into a crouch and swipe the phone. I sit back on the couch, phone at my side. It’s been turned off. No wonder she didn’t know I called—if she was even able to take a call that that point. I have no idea when Tommy took her. I turn it on, waiting for what seems like years for it to start up. Then the home screen comes up. Thank God she doesn’t lock it. There’s a message—mine, I assume. And a handful of texts. I look again at the cops in the kitchen. They’re oblivious. I open the texts. They’re from an unknown number, but they’re clearly from him. I’ll make you love me again. You’ll see. We can be happy.

I’ll take you back to the tower. That’s where we fell in love. That’s where we’ll start fresh. The tower? What the hell was this guy on? What tower? I have to find out what this means, but I can’t do it while I’m stuck here. They’re still deep in conversation in the kitchen, their backs to me. Good. Let them stay there. I put the phone back, only this time I leave it on the floor by the purse instead of halfway inside. These idiots need all the help they can get. I have no idea where they learned to be cops, but they’re fucking terrible at it. Then I slide off the couch again and duck low enough to go unseen as I leave through the open front door. I don’t hear any noise behind me, so I know they don’t hear me go. There’s no one out front. It’s like they don’t want to find her at all! Like they’re convinced I killed her. I swallow the bile in my throat. My bike’s still in the driveway, behind her car. I run for it, jumping on and wheeling it backward with my feet. Only when I hit the street do I turn over the ignition, then ride as fast I can away from that house. I have to go home and get myself ready. I don’t know where to go or what to expect, but I have to find some way to get to her. There has to be some clue somewhere. I hope I can find it before the cops find me.

Chapter 30

I make it home in record time, especially considering the way I looked behind me almost constantly. Waiting to see those flashing blue lights. They’ll be coming for me at any minute. I can’t help remembering all the times I’ve had to outrun the cops in the past. All the shit we used to get into, me and Adam and Frankie and all the rest of the guys. Nine times out of ten it seemed like we were outrunning somebody. I’d thought it was fun at the time. Anything to belong somewhere. Frankie, especially, was a god to me. He could do no wrong. He was the guy we all wanted to be. Always getting laid by the most gorgeous women, always commanding respect. We adored him. Especially me, with no father figure in my life or even a big brother to look up to. He took me under his wing, made me feel special. Like I belonged. I remember the first time he ever sent me on a job. I was barely eighteen, trying to pretend to be strong and badass. It’s easy to be a badass when you don’t have to back your words up. Then Frankie asked me to go along with a couple of guys to rough up a rival gang. Just shake things up, nothing major. Maybe destroy a few bikes, shoot out a few windows at their clubhouse. Nothing major. I was scared to death. My heart was beating a mile a minute the whole way to the clubhouse. I knew I shouldn’t be scared, considering this wasn’t that major. There were actual club members, not just prospects like me, who’d killed people at Frankie’s order. All I had to do was fire a few shots. At least I’d fired a gun before. What if they fired back, though? Every time I thought about, I wanted to throw up. The only thing stopping me was the presence of my friends. One surefire way to miss out on getting patched in: puking on your first job. I did well on that first job, wrecking three bikes before a handful of guys ran out of the clubhouse, firing. The van started to take off, and I ran after it. My guys reached out to me through the open back doors, pulling me in before we sped off. I was elated, on top of the world. They slapped me on the back, told me what a great job I’d done. It was a high. I’d never felt so accepted before. When we got back to the clubhouse, Frankie was proud of me. It was my first show of faithfulness to the club, and I’d done them proud. I was hooked. I was never sent on such an easy job again, but I didn’t care. I wanted to patch in as quickly as possible. I was such an idiot. Now, no matter what I do, I can’t live it down. I could leave town completely,

move across the country, start a new life for myself. But that would be like running away. I can’t do that either. My pride stops me every time I so much as consider it. Besides, it would feel like leaving Marissa. I can’t deny the attachment I still feel toward her, even though she hasn’t been with me for a long time. That was her house, hers and mine. Leaving that would mean leaving her. If I had left before now, I wouldn’t have met Christina. Would anybody else have found her in the snow? Who’s to say? She could be dead now if it weren’t for me. She could be dead now. He could have killed her. The thought makes me gun the engine. I know they can’t take me in without some proof I did something. That’s probably what they were trying to come up with when they were standing in the kitchen. Some trumped-up reason to bring me in. I have to outsmart them. It shouldn’t be too hard. I run into the house, then straight upstairs to the box I keep under my bed. I haven’t opened this box in two years, ever since Marissa. I told myself I wouldn’t open it ever again. I only kept it here to remind myself of the man I used to be. How guilty I am of so many things. Punishment for my sins. I pull out the key, inserting it into the lock. There’s the Glock, along with several clips. I load one clip into the pistol, then take two more. They go into my pocket while the pistol goes into the waistband of my jeans. I haven’t felt a gun in the back of my jeans in years. It rests against my skin, so familiar. Now I have to figure out where to go. Damn it! I close my eyes, trying to remember where she told me they met. Was it at school? Yes. They met in college. In Texas somewhere. Christ, how many fucking colleges are there in Texas? Blue senses my mood, jumping up and down, trying to get my attention. I’m beyond agitated, nearly panicked. I remind myself to stay calm. She needs me to stay calm. I stand, glancing over at the photo of Marissa before I turn to go. I can’t let another woman I care about down this way. I can’t. I have to save Christina. I run downstairs, then immediately sit in front of the computer. If there’s anything worth finding, it’s gonna be online. I log in to Facebook, hoping she’s the type of girl to post lots of pictures. She is, thank God. I breathe a sigh of relief as I go through her photos. There are a million albums. This might take longer than I thought, and I don’t have the time. All I can do is think of her. How terrified she must be. Does she know I’m looking for her? I should hope so. I hope she has something to hold on to while she’s going through this. I hope she knows I’d never desert her. One photo album looks the same to me as any other, so I open one and start looking through the

photos. She had a lot of friends in school—I look at the dates on the photos, do the math, and figure this had to be around freshman year of college. Here she is, on a boat with a fish. At a club. On the beach. Those freckles, that smile. She was so pretty, in a fresher, younger sort of way. Now she’s a beautiful woman. There’s nothing here to tell me anything, so I go to the next album. This is the holidays. Christina and her parents. They look like a nice couple. I can see they love her like crazy. There’s a lot of laughter in these photos. Big smiles. Corny Christmas sweaters. I always wanted a family like this. Still no clues. The next album is a birthday party. Again, there’s Christina, the center of attention. There are even pics of her baking her own birthday cake. It’s beautiful. For a young girl, she did a great job, even piping the icing in swirls. Photos of people with slices on plates, giving a thumbs-up. I’m getting a clearer picture of this woman. Someone with a lot of love in her life. Then something changed. There’s another album of her. Just her. No friends. Just a bunch of photos somebody took of her. She looks thinner. Tired. In a few photos, she’s holding her hand up like she wants to shield herself. She doesn’t want her photo taken. But the person behind the camera insisted. It had to be him. This was after she met him. I look back at the albums, knowing there have to be photos of him in here somewhere. I have to see him. I need to look at him, know who I’m after. Hopefully I can find something that will tell me where he might take her. There they are. It has to be him—she told me he was her only boyfriend, didn’t she? He has his arms around her, hers around him. They’re young, fresh-looking. Big smiles on their faces. Was this before or after he hit her the first time? Is she full of hope? I wish I could go back to that girl and warn her about him. And him. He just looks like somebody I’d fucking hate if I met him in person. I’ve known enough bullies in my day to recognize one when I see them. Thick, burly. He has a smile that’s more like a half-sneer. Blond, curly hair in a tight cut. Beady gray eyes. He likes to hit women. And they’re standing in front of a tower. Just like he talked about in his text. I go through more photos, realizing these are pictures of them at college. Where is it? I look at the name, plug it into another browser tab. It’s about five or six miles from here. I go to the website. Sure enough, here are photos of a tower on campus. That’s where they “fell in love.” That’s where he’s taking her. So that’s where I need to be. How much of a head start has he gotten? I look at the time. Hopefully not more than a couple of hours. If I move fast enough, I can hopefully catch up with them in time to stop him from doing anything crazy. I stop to put some food in Blue’s bowl. “Be back soon, buddy. I hope. And I’ll bring her with me.”

There’s no other way this can end. I have to bring her back. I open the door. Flashing lights off in the distance. Shit. Here they come. I run to my bike, deciding to ride through the woods instead of taking the main road. They can’t follow me there. I have to dump the bike. How else can I get to Texas? Steal a car? Right, and give them another reason to chase me down. What, then? Adam. He’s my only shot. Nobody else will speak to me or even see me. Why would any of them care, anyway? They don’t know her, they’ve never met her. Adam at least has. I hope I can appeal to him, remind him of her. Tell him she’s in danger. He’s the only one I can turn to. I turn the bike in the direction of his house, hoping he’s not too drunk to listen to reason. Otherwise, there’s no way I’ll make it to Christina.

Chapter 31

I ride to Adam’s, taking the back way through the woods. I can’t risk being caught by the police. It’s not easy navigating through the trees in the dark. It’s better than the alternative of being taken into the station, though, leaving Christina to fend for herself. I try not to visit these woods unless I have to. It’s hard enough living on the outskirts of them, waking up every morning to see them outside my window. The woods where my wife died. I remember the first time I met her. It was at a party. I’d only started hanging around with the club, looking for a way in. Adam had noticed me sort of hanging around the fringes, had pulled me aside to ask me what I was doing there. I told him I wanted to part of the club. He’d laughed, throwing his head back. I’d been embarrassed, but I hadn’t backed down. When he saw I was serious, he got serious, too. “You know what you’re getting yourself into when you join this club?” he’d asked, looking me straight in the eye. “Once you get in, you can’t leave. Not ever. It’s like a mafia, kid.” I’d been impressed by him, though he was only a few years older than me. He was confident, cocky. He struck me as a guy who had seen things. I’d wanted to be just like him. He had decided to sponsor me, so to speak, vouching for me with Frankie. He brought me into the party, introducing me around. “This is my kid sister, Marissa.” She was so pretty. Like an angel. A halo of golden curls, an easy smile. She was funny, too, and tough. We spent a long time talking. I was hooked from that first night. The way they lived. Hot girls, plenty of booze, dancing. Living it up. The image was too tempting to resist. Nobody told me that was just a good night, a celebration. Life wasn’t always that way. Normally it was gritty, rough, even a little scary sometimes. A member never admitted to being afraid, of course. Once I met Marissa, though, there was no question of whether or not I wanted to join. I only wanted to know how to get on the fast track to a patch. If she wanted to be part of this world, so did I. I’d go anywhere she went. Look where it got me. I finally reach the clearing. Adam’s house is only a mile or so up the narrow dirt road. The area back here is considerably less built-up than even where I live. I wouldn’t be surprised to find a few shacks back here. God only knows what went on in the places nice people didn’t like to talk about. Adam’s house is mostly dark, only one light on. The kitchen light. I know he’s sitting in there, probably drinking himself into a stupor at the table. He was always a heavy drinker, but back in the day, he could handle his liquor. That time has come and gone. Now he’s gained at least twenty, maybe

thirty pounds. He looks flabby, fleshy. Not the man I used to know. Then again, I came close to falling into a dark hole after Marissa died. I know how easy it would have been to crawl into a bottle and never come out. I spent weeks nearly unconscious once the questioning was over and it was agreed there was no evidence that could make charges against me stick. After that was over, I started drinking and didn’t stop for an entire season. I missed a whole summer, either drinking, passed out drunk or hungover before getting drunk again. I’m not sure what stopped me. I sure didn’t have anybody in my life to offer me support. A parent, a sibling, a friend—one of them might have helped me. They could have shown me a better way, sent me to a doctor. Anything. I was all alone. It’s all hazy, the day I decided to stop drinking. I woke up in a whorehouse on the other side of the town’s outskirts. The shady area, near where I grew up. A dirty, windowless place where girls with track marks on their arms would do just about anything for money. I hadn’t gone for sex—even though I’d hit rock bottom, I still had a shred of common sense. I just wanted to drink and be left alone. They’d serve me there. The bars wouldn’t once I got past a certain point. I woke up one morning in a puddle of my vomit. There were girls on the floor, girls on couches. One girl was sleeping on the sticky bar. And me. The place reeked. A few girls were moaning, having just shot up. What the fuck was I doing with my life? That was enough to turn me around. I find it hard to believe Adam hasn’t hit rock bottom yet. Maybe he has and doesn’t know it. Regardless, I need his help and hope he’s in the right shape to give it to me. I knock on his door. Almost a minute passes before I hear him shuffling toward it. His face appears in the window. “Hey, man. Please. Open up. I have to talk to you.” He shakes his head. “Please, I’m begging you. It’s an emergency. I’ll tell you about it but please, open the door. I’m on the run. I can’t let them find me. They can’t see me standing here.” “What do I care? As long as I don’t open the door, they’ll leave me alone. Get off my property!” “Please, Adam. I need you. We can have this out tonight, but after that I need you. It’s life-or-death.” It looks like he’s thinking this over. Finally, I add. “I’ll tell you everything you want to know.” It’s the last thing I want to do, but I know it’s the only thing that will make him trust me. “Everything?” His voice just barely makes it to my ears. “Yeah. Please, Adam. I need your help. I’ll tell you everything, anything.” The lock flips, the door opens. “Come in.” I hurry inside, shutting the door behind me as fast as I can.

“Where’s your bike?” Adam slurs, turning on one of the lamps in the living room before flopping onto to the couch. The room is dark even with the light. Dank. Dirty. Bare walls, secondhand furniture. What happened to him? “In the woods, maybe five minutes’ walk from here,” I explain. “I don’t want them to see it here. And I don’t want to get you in trouble.” “Wow, thanks,” he says, sarcastic. “Adam, please.” “Listen, I only let you in here because if you’re on the run, I don’t want cops seeing you outside. I don’t want to hear anything you have to say, though. Your words don’t mean anything to me.” “Adam, come on! I told you, I’m ready to admit everything that happened. I need you to trust me.” “Like my sister did? The way she trusted you to love her when you married her? That was a joke, just like this is.” There’s a bottle of whiskey sitting beside him on the end table. He uncaps it, raising it to his mouth. Damn it. The drunker he is, the less likely he is to listen to me. “I did love her. I still do. Why do you think I stay in this shitty place? In that house? With reminders of her everywhere I look?” “Because you need to, so you look innocent. Hey, I’ve thought this all out before. I’ve wondered what the hell you’re trying to prove, staying there. You’re right. You could go anywhere. You have no ties. No parents, no kids. The club wants nothing to do with you. Nobody here wants anything to do with you. You only stayed so you’d look like the good guy. And to piss the rest of us off.” I sigh. He’s not far from the truth. “You’re right, partly. I did want to piss you off at first. I wanted to prove I had nothing to run from. If I had left town, it would have been enough to make people’s minds up for good that I’d killed Marissa. I couldn’t do that. Because I didn’t kill her.” He laughs. “I didn’t. I loved her. I haven’t wanted to let go of her in all this time. I swear it.” “You swear?” “Yes. I do.” “On a stack of bibles?” He laughs again, taking another swig. “Look, damn it.” I sit on his coffee table, facing him. Cigarette ash covers it, the ashtrays overflowing. It feels vaguely sticky. “I don’t know any other way to tell you this. I didn’t kill your sister. I loved her. Everybody assumed it was this bullshit crime of passion, or whatever. The truth was way deeper than that, man.” “Oh, really? How long did it take you to come up with some big story? Two years? Why couldn’t you

have just told the truth back then, if it was so deep?” I look at the floor. “Because it would have hurt you too much.” I hear his hysterical laughter. “It would have hurt me? Are you fucking serious?” He laughs again, and I hear the tears threatening. He’s on the edge of a breakdown. “Because this doesn’t already hurt? My sister’s dead either way, man. Don’t pretend you were trying to spare my feelings but not telling me this big truth, this deep story. That’s the biggest load of crap you’ve laid on me yet.” I look up at him, sitting there. He’s practically falling over. I have to get this out before he loses all control. “I told you I’d tell the truth. I will. But you have to listen. Okay? Stay with me. You keep drinking, you’re gonna pass the fuck out before I get the chance. And I can’t be here long.” “What’s the big hurry? Why are they after you?” “I’ll tell you in a minute. First I have to tell you the story. I need to get this off my chest, man. And I don’t know…if I’ll make it back. You deserve to know the truth before I go.” “Fine.” He waits for me to continue. I take a deep, shuddering breath. I’m sorry, Marissa. “I didn’t kill Marissa in the woods that day. I followed her there when I realized she took my gun. I was trying to keep her from killing herself.”

Chapter 32

Adam doesn’t look impressed by the bombshell I just dropped. “What are you talking about? I expected something lame, but I never expected it to be this pathetic.” I knew he’d feel this way. “It sounds like a convenient excuse. I understand.” “Yeah. Convenient. Exactly.” “But it’s true.” I stare at him, needing him to believe me. “Marissa didn’t have it in her it to kill herself.” “Adam, when a person’s in as deep as she was…they’re capable of anything. Heroin changes a person. She wasn’t the person you knew, the kid sister. She wasn’t even the girl I met that first night. Remember? When you introduced us at the party?” His eyes get hazy, a far-away expression. “Yeah. She was, what, fifteen?” I nod. “I was only sixteen. I’d been dying to get into the club for years, no matter what it took. You found me hanging around outside that party.” “I wish I hadn’t.” “You know what? Sometimes I wish the same damn thing. But that’s what happened. If it hadn’t been you, it would have been somebody else. I remember the way she was that night. So beautiful. And a lot older than just fifteen. She was worldly, she knew things. She could tell me the names of everybody there, all the guys in the club and their girlfriends, all the girls who hung out to service the members or just party. She knew them all, knew their stories. Knew the entire world. I wanted to be part of that world, so I drank it up. It was fascinating. I remember how perfect she was.” “She was perfect.” “She wasn’t anymore by the time she died, man. This is what I’m trying to remind you. You remember her as that little girl. A lot of shit went down between that night and the day she died. She wasn’t even smoking pot when I met her—nothing. She was totally clean. All that stuff came after. I watched her decline. Every day, she got a little worse. I know you know it. I know you saw it. You told me at the time how worried you were about her. How you wanted her to go to rehab. Remember?” After a long time, he nods. I continue. “Believe me. I’m not trying to bring this up to hurt you, or ruin your memory of her. I have a lot of memories of Marissa that nothing can touch. I loved her so damn

much. What happened to her, what she became? That was a different person, man. I would never have believed she was capable of half the shit she did. Suicide is the least of it.” “Why would she do that? I mean, if I believed you—which I don’t—why would my sister try to kill herself? Or did she not get the chance to tell you?” “She told me. She told me everything. She’d been keeping secrets from me for a long time.” “And?” This is the part I knew would hurt him the most. The main reason I never wanted to tell him in the first place. “Remember that big blow-up we had, around three months before she died? With the cartel? And the guns?” “Who could forget that? It was a bloodbath.” I nod. “Yeah. It was. We lost five men. Including Frankie.” “It was Frankie’s baby, that deal. He’d been in with the cartel for years. That was our biggest moneymaker.” “Yeah, it was. He was a good leader. He wanted what was best for the club.” I look at Adam, stressing what’s coming next. “Until he got greedy.” “Greedy? What’s that mean?” “Why do you think they killed him that night at the warehouse? Seriously, man. Does it make any sense? He was good friends with the head of the cartel. They’d been working together for years, went way back. What went down? We never got the slightest word there was a problem. No complaints, no threats. Nothing. How does that work?” Adam shrugs. “Bad blood. It happens.” “Right. And that’s what they wanted everyone to think, the cartel members. They’d had a falling out. Well, they did, only it wasn’t over the actual business deal. On paper, everybody should have been happy. It was over Frankie skimming off the top.” “What? No. Frankie wouldn’t do that.” “Get real, man. He did. He saw how much more money he could make if he sold the guns for more than he told the cartel he was getting. He’d been doing it for about a year before they caught on.” “No! How could he get away with something like that without any of us knowing?”

I shrug. “Maybe because we all loved him so much, none of us wanted to see it. I mean, I’m sitting here telling you about it, and you still don’t want to.” “Because it’s easy for you to say years after the man was killed!” “I understand that. But what I’m telling you is true, man. When they walked into that sale at the warehouse, Frankie and the guys, the cartel was lying in wait. Took out all the other guys—they had no idea what was happening, they were just going along because Frankie was our president. Trusting him blindly, the way we all did. Then they killed Frankie. I imagine they saved him for last, but maybe they took him quick. Who knows?” Adam takes this in. “If this is true—and I still think you’re lying—but if it’s true, how the hell do you know?” I sigh, folding my hands between my spread knees. “I know because Marissa told me. Out in the woods that day.” “What? Marissa? How would she know about this?” “Marissa knew a lot more than she let on. More than I knew, for sure.” “She was your old lady! She wasn’t in on anything!” “Right. Just an old lady. Who was having an affair with Frankie.” Adam gasps. His eyes are wide, like saucers. I know my words have hit home. “You okay?” I ask. “I don’t believe it.” Something about the look on his face tells me he’s lying, though. He does believe it. He just doesn’t want to. “She told me herself. Confessed it all. That day in the woods.” “I mean…” Adam looks off into the distance. “Here’s the thing, right? I knew Frankie was always screwing around.” “We all did. His dick was never dry. Girls loved him,” I agree. Frankie was a leader for a reason. He had that special something that set him apart. Magnetism. Then, once he took his place at the head of the club, that power was even more reason for women to hang off him. Power’s a turn-on. “I noticed he got real secretive about his women toward the end. I even wondered, more than once, if there was a piece on the side he wasn’t telling anybody about.” He looks at me, his eyes big and sad. “It was Marissa?”

I nod. “Yeah. For around a year.” “What? A year? How didn’t I know?” I laugh. “You? I didn’t even know! Not until she told me. Yeah, I suspected something was going on. But I blamed it on…” “…the drugs,” Adam finishes. I nod. “You knew about that?” “Jax, I tried like hell to get her to stop that shit. I really did.” “I know, man. So did I. It was stronger than us.” “So they were together for a year, and none of us knew?” He still has trouble believing it. I don’t blame him. Aside from ratting, sleeping with the old lady of another member—wife or otherwise—is the ultimate treachery. You’re pretty much telling a guy he’s not man enough for his woman, and you’re gonna take her instead. “So she told me.” “I always thought you two were so happy together. I did.” “Yeah?” I can’t help snapping. “That’s not what you told the police, is it?” He winces. I can’t help feeling smug. I want him to feel like shit over the things he told them about me. “I meant you weren’t happy in the end. Don’t pretend you were. There was a lot of shit going on between you two.” I nod. “That’s fair. But it was all over the drugs. And Frankie. Once she started up with him, I looked…less appealing.” It stings, admitting that. No man wants to admit he wasn’t enough. Especially not me. Then I add, “Plus, he didn’t care about the drugs. Whether or not she used. That was one of our biggest problems, the way I gave her hell over the H. I couldn’t let her do it without saying something. I loved her. Frankie? He didn’t care. She was a piece of ass.” Adam stirs defensively. I hold up a hand to stop him. “Come on, man. You know how he talked about women. They were bitches, whores, skanks. Pieces of ass. Think about it. If he loved her the way we did, would he have let her keep shooting up?” That stops him. He shakes his head. “We were fine until she started up with that shit again. Hell, for all I know, Frankie gave it to her.” My voice is bitter. “I never saw the hypocrisy until it was too late. All that ‘love your brother’ shit.

He was a backstabbing son of a bitch. Always was.” “I have such a hard time believing this.” I nod my head. “I know, man. If she hadn’t told me herself, I wouldn’t believe it either.” “I don’t get it. How did she know anything about the skimming?” I hesitate. This part’s going to be the toughest of all for him to swallow, but I need him to believe it, because it’s what ties the other pieces together. “Because she was helping him do it.”

Chapter 33

“What?” His voice is deathly quiet. All I can do is nod my head while he processes this. “How could she do that? Like, how would she even be capable of it?” “She might have been a dropout, but she was a smart girl in her own way. She had street smarts. She was wise. She understood people.” Adam nods, agreeing with me. “She knew nobody would suspect her.” “What did she do?” “She helped him cook the books, first of all. Remember when he had her in the back office? I never thought anything about it—if anything, I was glad she had something to occupy her time. I was naïve enough to think it was a good thing, her having a job. She wouldn’t be sitting around the house all day with the temptation to shoot up. I didn’t think to question why Frankie would take a high school dropout and put her in charge of something so important. He showed her just how to do it. She estimated he skimmed at least a half million before the cartel got wise.” “Holy shit! What do you do with that kind of money?” “Launder it. Put it into different club funds nobody ever touched. The rest would be stashed away. She’d hide money all over the place. Sometimes even in the house.” “But you could have been caught! Everyone would have blamed you.” “I know. Believe me, I’ve thought this all over a lot of times. More than I can say.” She cared more about Frankie, about the money he’d give her for her drugs, than me. Or our marriage. Just like all Frankie cared about was keeping the money hidden. I used to think he looked at me like a son, or a kid brother. He didn’t give a shit that I’d take the heat if the money were found in my house, as long as nobody found it in his. It took me a long time and a lot of drinking to come to terms with that. “You didn’t know anything about this while it was going on?” “Not until the day in the woods. I didn’t know a damn thing. After the ambush, when Frankie and the others were killed, you remember how she was.” He nods, eyes wide again. “She was a mess. Crying all the time. Sometimes she’d call me in the middle of the night, just babbling. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I remember coming out to the house to see her. I couldn’t get her out of bed.” He shakes his head, going back to that time. “I remember thinking, she’s falling apart right in front of me. I thought it had to do with you. Sometimes I would even ask if you did something, and she wouldn’t give me an answer. I assumed I was right.”

“I get it. She couldn’t be honest with you.” I sigh, running a hand over my head. “That went on for weeks afterward. At first I thought it was just the shock of losing so many friends. She grew up with all of them, just like you did. But after a little while, I started to get a little suspicious. I wondered if she wasn’t maybe fooling around with one of those guys on the side. It made sense. We hadn’t been together, not like that, in a long time. She wanted nothing to do with me. I always made her feel guilty about the drugs, she’d say. She couldn’t stand being around me when I judged her.” I sigh, rubbing my temples. “Maybe I did. It’s always easy for a person who doesn’t understand the addiction to judge the people in it. I loved her, though. In the end, it was all a matter of wanting her to be healthy. I wanted my wife back, for God’s sake.” I feel a catch in my throat, like I’m about to cry. I push it away. I continue. The words are just pouring out of me now. I locked them up for so long. “That day…that last day, before she went to the woods…she was desolate. She sat for a long time at the fire, just staring at it. I knew better than to get in her way when she was like that. I gave her room. I didn’t ask her questions, except to find out whether there was something I could do for her. I went out to get some firewood together, and when I got back, she wasn’t there. Her coat was still hanging by the door. I looked around and found the box for my gun on the bed. Empty. “I ran out the door. I followed her footprints to the woods. She had the gun. She was going to kill herself. I begged her to stop, to think about it. She had her mind made up. Told me the whole story. All those deaths—Frankie and the others, especially the others—were her fault. She couldn’t live with herself.” “Oh, my God.” His face is white as a sheet of paper. I know I’m getting through to him. “She pointed the gun at me at first. To get me to stay back when she was confessing everything. Then she turned it to herself. She was going to shoot herself in the heart. I lunged at her, just desperate to get her to stop. I thought I could overtake her. She was so tiny. But I was too late. She pulled the trigger just as I got to her. She died right there.” I’m crying. Remembering the look on her face when she told me everything, the way she’d sobbed. She hated herself. She hated who she’d become. She was tired of being an addict, tired of lying. She had killed her friends by lying to them. All because Frankie let her shoot up and do whatever she wanted when I wouldn’t. She would have done anything for him, she said, because he let her be who she was. But she didn’t want to be that person anymore. And she couldn’t live with the guilt. Let me go, Jax. Those were her last words to me, before turning the gun on herself. “I took the gun and left her there. I knew if I called the police, they’d immediately think it was me. So I went to town, to one of the payphones. Called them anonymously, told them about a body in the woods. She was only there for a little while, man. I didn’t leave her out there. It was so cold outside, they had no idea how long it had been since she died because her body temperature went down so fast. She wasn’t even wearing a coat.”

Adam is sobbing. “My sister…” His head is in his hands, the bottle forgotten on the floor. I move to the couch, beside him, and put my arm around his shoulders. He leans into me, crying. He doesn’t push me away. I know he believes me. “My baby sister.” “I know. I know.” “Wasn’t she pretty?” he asks, sobbing. “She was. She was beautiful.” “She always wanted everything to be nice, didn’t she?” “Yeah. She decorated the house like something out of a magazine. She’d always have fresh flowers everywhere. She wanted it to be special. She was funny and sweet and kind. She rescued Blue, you remember? Found him on the side of the road after a truck hit him. Insisted we take him to the vet, nursed him back to health. She had a big heart.” I don’t want to think about the lying, thieving person she became. Like I told Adam, that wasn’t her. That miserable, scheming person wasn’t my wife. She might have been my wife again by the time she pressed the muzzle of my Glock to her chest, clearheaded at last. But it had been a long time since she’d had clarity. “Why didn’t you just tell me? Years ago?” He’s finally calm enough to speak clearly. “I knew it would hurt. I mean, not only did she kill herself, but she was stealing from the club. Sleeping with Frankie. I didn’t know you knew about the H. I wanted to keep it from you.” “You’ve been living with this all this time. I can’t believe it.” “I blamed myself. I still do.” “Jax…it wasn’t your fault.” “It was. If I could have kept her away from the drugs…or let her know I loved her anyway…maybe she wouldn’t have ended up with Frankie. If I’d been fast enough to stop her, she wouldn’t have shot herself. There were things I could have done.” “Listen. Marissa was a beautiful girl. I loved her so much. I still do.” Adam looks at me. “But she also had mental health issues, outside the drugs. I know you had to think there was something wrong with her. She’d have her happy moods, her upswings. Then she’d crash. Remember?” “Yeah, I do remember that. She’d be on a buzz for, like, days. Then she wouldn’t get out bed for two days straight.” “Exactly. Our mom and dad…they weren’t what you’d call attentive.”

I snort. That’s an understatement. He nods. “Yeah, you remember. They wouldn’t take her to a doctor when she was young. They didn’t get her the help she needed. She probably hit a low swing at the same time she was guilty over Frankie and the rest. It was a combination of things. That’s what killed her. Not you.” “You believe me,” I say. “I do.” I can’t describe the relief that floods me when he says those words. I’ve just wanted him to believe me all this time. I didn’t care about anybody else, since Adam was the one I was closest with. “I’m sorry for everything…” he mumbles. “I know. I don’t blame you.” Now that he trusts me again, I have to move on. “There’s a reason I came here. I needed you to believe me, that I’m not the person you thought I was, before I could ask for your help.” “What’s going on, Jax? Why are you hiding?” “It’s Christina. I was with her last night because her ex was stalking her. He sent her a threatening letter in the mail. She ran away from him a long time ago, but once she got it, she knew he found her.” “Oh, shit. Poor kid.” “She’s gone. He took her.” Adam’s eyes fly open, wide. “I got to her house, there was blood on the floor. It had to be him. I have to get to her.” “Shit, Jax! What do you need?” He jumps from the couch much faster than I’d think he would, drunk as he is. It’s like he as a purpose right now. “Your bike. They’ll find me in a minute if I’m on mine. They wanna pin this on me, man. They haven’t even tried to look for her.” “Oh, hell.” Adam gets out his keys. “Man, if I have anything to do with this—the way I accused you to them—I’m so sorry.” “I know.” I go to the door. “Where are they, do you think?” “Somewhere in Texas. Maybe five, six hours away. Their college. I think he took her there.”

“She’s a nice girl. Be safe, brother.” He hugs me for the first time in years. As I run down the front steps, he calls out to me. “I’ll hide in here so they think I’m just out somewhere!” “Thank you!” I wave once before pulling away. He’s right. They’re going to hit his house soon enough. All my old friends. Why not head for my brother-in-law’s house first? I’m honestly surprised they haven’t shown up already. I take off into the night, heading south. I haven’t prayed in years, and even then I was never exactly a regular at it. But I pray now. Please let me get to her in time. I’ve already lost another twenty minutes talking with Adam. I had to convince him to protect me if the cops came, along with convincing him to give me his bike. Now I know he’s back on my side. As I ride, images of Marissa and Christina fill my mind. I can’t lose them both.

Chapter 34 Christina How long have I been in this trunk? I have no idea. There’s no way to keep track of time. At first I started counting, keeping the seconds straight in my head. By the time I reached ten thousand seconds, I got tired and gave up. I did the math in my head the best I could. Almost three hours. Jesus. How much longer were we driving? Maybe while he’s driving, he’ll change his mind. Come to his senses. Yeah, right. My nostrils are full of the smell of his cologne, on the clothes all around me. I’d hoped never to smell it again. The scent brings me back to so many moments I wanted to forget. I can’t believe I used to like smelling it on me after a date. That feels like a lifetime ago. In some ways, it was. I especially loved when he left traces of it on my pillow after we slept together. Now I gag from the smell. They say smell is the strongest memory sense. Even more than sound. We smell something, like a perfume or cologne, and it takes us right back to a moment. I know the smell of baking muffins will always remind me of my grandmother. I wonder if that smell will remind Amy of me after I’m dead. I can’t entertain that thought. But the longer Tommy drives without stopping, the more likely it seems. He’s going to kill me. I don’t know how, or exactly when. But that’s the plan. Either that or he wants to keep me as a sex slave. I’d rather he killed me and got it over with, frankly. I’m actually to the point where I’d rather die than be touched by him in that way again. At first, my legs were sore, being stuck in the same position for such a long time. Now I don’t feel them anymore. I’m numb, physically and emotionally. What does that mean? The fact that I just don’t care anymore. Once the panic passes, and the tears, I give in to the finality of it. Nobody knows where I was. I felt around for my purse at one point but didn’t feel anything in the trunk but those damned clothes. So there wouldn’t even be ID on my body when they found me. There was no way to track me —my cell would at least have allowed for that. I’m sure it’s on my living room floor. Who will find it first? Amy? She’s bound to be upset tomorrow when I don’t come into the shop or answer her calls. I hope she doesn’t blame Jax. God, please don’t let people blame him. This is no fault of his. But damned if I didn’t tell Amy I was going to see him. How could the police not take a clue like that and run with it? I punch the metal above my head, frustrated. He doesn’t deserve this. Neither of us does. I only hope he doesn’t blame himself. There was nothing he could have done to protect me. Tommy was determined to get to me.

The car slows, then stops. My heart begins to race. Oh, no, this is it. I thought I was okay with this, but now I’m not. I don’t want to die. Oh, God, please don’t let me die. The slam of the door. Footsteps. Keys. A beeping noise—the lock releases. The trunk opening. If my legs weren’t so stiff, I’d kick out at him and run. I wish I’d thought of that before. I’d have tried to move them. Now I’m useless. Laying here, shielding my eyes from the bright neon light above Tommy’s head. “Hi there,” he says brightly. Is he actually happy right now? Oh, right. Of course he is. He has what he always wanted. “Where are we? Why are you doing this?” “So many questions.” Like he’s talking to a willful child. He takes me by the shoulders, his hands rough. I forgot how big his hands were. The way they hurt when they curled into fists. He pulls me to a sitting position. I look around. “Where are we?” I ask, and I hate myself for the pleading note in my voice. There are cars whizzing past, maybe a few hundred yards away. The trunk of the car is facing the road. I couldn’t run for it if I tried. I’d fall, cramped up. He might kill me then and there. “A diner. A very special diner.” Now he’s the benevolent parent, or even the happy child. With a big surprise for me. He helps me from the trunk, almost careful with me now. Strangely so, considering the way he hit me over the head to get me to go with him. I stand and instantly crumple to the ground. “What’s with you?” he asks, laughter in his voice. “My legs are all cramped,” I say, rubbing them. “Oh. Didn’t think about that.” He gets down on one knee, rubbing my legs along with me. His face is so close to mine. His curly, blond hair is shorter than I remember it when I last saw him. It smells like product, a menthol smell. He’s overwhelming my senses. I feel torn between wanting to be sick and wanting to drive my knee into his nose. I’m afraid he has a gun. It’s the only thing stopping me. “Thank you,” I murmur, sensing politeness will get me a lot further than rudeness. Soon I’m on my feet again. “Hmm…” Tommy looks me over. “I can’t take you in there with…this.” He motions to my head, where I was bleeding earlier. Am I still? I reached up, but he smacks my hand away. Like it’s nothing, like he wasn’t the one who did it to me. “Don’t worry about it. Here.” He reaches into the trunk, pulling out a wool hat. “See? I thought of everything.” Jesus. He foresaw this being a problem? He shoves the hat over my head roughly. It hurts. I wince. “Stop being such a baby,” he mutters.

My eyes sting with tears of frustration and futile rage. It’s so cold out here, very cold for Texas. I’m glad I’m still wearing my coat at least. “Let’s go inside,” he says, taking my arm in his. Like some chivalrous prince, instead of my kidnapper. I look away from him, my eyes taking note of the diner for the first time. Oh, no. Not this place. “Remember when we met here?” he asks, leaning conspiratorially toward me, squeezing my arm in his. “It was the best day of my life.” Yes, I remembered it very well. I was with a group of friends, on a road trip to Austin for a music festival. He was on his way to the same event. The fact he was alone should have raised a red flag. It didn’t. I thought he was cute. We happened to cross paths at this diner along the way. Promised to meet up again when we made it to Austin. How different would my life be if we’d never stopped for something to eat that day? If I hadn’t decided to go to Austin in the first place? My mind is racing. What can I do to attract attention? He’s going to be watching me closely. What if I start screaming, just shouting at the top of my lungs? He hasn’t threatened me with a weapon yet, aside from whatever he used to hit me over the head. What would happen? “I know I don’t need to warn you about this,” he murmurs, as though reading my thoughts, “but I thought you should know I wouldn’t want to have to use the gun in my coat pocket. On you, or on any stupid Good Samaritan. Get it?” I nod, miserable. So much for that. He requests a table for two. The waitress leads us to a booth. There are only three other tables with customers at this point. I look at the clock on the wall. It’s already two in the morning. We’ve been in the car for over three hours. No wonder I was so stiff. He sits me down in the booth, then sits opposite me. I open the menu, not seeing the words in front of me. Trying to think of a way to get help. I look at the other patrons over the top of the menu. They’re all tired, minding their own business. I guess that’s how it goes at this time of the morning. “See anything you like here?” Tommy asks, now the indulgent parent. He’s so pleased with himself for remembering this place. I’ve been trying to forget it for years. “Oh, I don’t know…I don’t usually eat at this time of night. I’m not very hungry.” “Come on. If I know you, you love your French toast. Right?” At least he remembers that. “Yeah. French toast. That’s usually my favorite.”

He claps his hands. He literally claps his hands like a little boy. If I didn’t feel so dead inside, I’d laugh. “See? I know you. I’ll order you some of that.” “Okay, sure. Thanks.” No sooner do I put down the menu than he takes my hands in his. I use every bit of self-control to keep from screaming. I do flinch, but only slightly. He doesn’t seem to notice. “I’ve missed you so much. I bet you didn’t think I’d come for you, did you?” “No, Tommy. I knew you’d come eventually.” He smiles, not hearing what I’m actually trying to say. Only hearing the words. “You did? You knew I’d rescue you?” “Yes. I knew you would come. No matter how hard I tried to run away from our relationship, you’d never let me get away. You don’t give up that easily.” “You’re damn right, I don’t.” The waitress comes over, looking bored. “What can I get for y’all?” Tommy grins at her. “This little lady will have French toast and sausage. I’ll have buttermilk pancakes and bacon, please. Oh, and coffee for both of us.” He smiles at me. “I know you like your coffee, too.” “Yes. I run a coffee shop.” The waitress doesn’t care either way, and walks to the kitchen. His face changes. “You did run a coffee shop. That’s all in the past, now.” “Oh? Why? Where are we going?” “You don’t think I’d ever let you go back there, do you?” “I guess I should know better than to think that.” “You should. No, we’re going to the place I told you about in the last messages I sent you. Didn’t you get them?” I search my memory, but come up empty. He frowns. “You mean to tell me you’re here with me, and you don’t even know where we’re going? God, how rude of me! You must be completely confused.” He laughs like this is all a joke. I crack a tiny smile.

“So where are we going?” “We’re going back to the tower. Remember? Where we first fell in love?” “Oh, right. That’s very romantic.” I can’t bear to squeeze even a bit of emotion into my voice, but he couldn’t care less. He’s on cloud nine, thinking how impressed I am. “Remember? When we went up there together and could see the entire campus and then out in the distance for miles and miles? And you said you felt like a princess in a tower, and I was your prince? How I’d come to rescue you? Don’t you remember?” I do remember that. I’d believed it at the time, too. How could I have been so naïve? He wasn’t a prince. He was a demon. “I remember,” I say, my voice still flat. Like a robot. He doesn’t notice. “I thought it would be fitting for us to go back there. See, that’s where I first knew I loved you. When we stood in that tower together. You were my beautiful princess. I was your galant prince. Rescuing you from a life of loneliness. And I’m rescuing you again. Taking you away from that awful place. That town you ran away to. What made you do that?” “I don’t know, Tommy. I wasn’t thinking clearly.” “To put it mildly.” Has he always been this completely insane, or did it just happen? Did my leaving throw him off the deep end? Maybe he needs medication. This isn’t the man I used to know. He wasn’t this delusional. I guess time spent alone, brooding, might do this to a person. Maybe he was always sick, and it didn’t start showing until now. Either way, he’s unnerving. The food comes quickly. I was secretly hoping it would take a while, not because I wanted to spend so much as an extra second with this insane person who I once thought I loved but because I know he plans to kill me. All he wants to do is get me to the tower. Not live happily ever after. I notice he says nothing about the future. I put the sausage off to the side. “What are you doing?” Tommy asks. “I don’t like sausage,” I say. “I never have.” “Yes, you do.” “No, I don’t.” I have no idea why it’s so important to have my way in this. Maybe I need to be myself, for only a minute. He doesn’t know me anywhere near as well as he thinks he does.

“You are so ungrateful!” His fist hits the table, causing heads to turn our way. “This is so like you. Throwing my generosity back in my face. Being a little bitch.” Good. Throw a fit. Let everyone see how insane you are. “I don’t see what the big deal is. I just don’t like sausage. I’ve never eaten sausage in your presence.” “No, but I bet if some biker trash gave you his sausage, you’d put that in your mouth fast enough. Wouldn’t you?” I’m shocked, not only that he’d say something like that so loudly, but that he just referenced Jax. “Excuse me.” The waitress has come over to our table. “Do you need assistance?” She looks at me. I look up, desperately trying to send her a message with my eyes. “We’re fine. Thank you.” Tommy’s tone is cold. The waitress shoots me another look before turning away. “Don’t look at her again,” he whispers in a warning tone as she walks back to the counter. “Remember what I have in my pocket.” I turn my attention to my plate, half-heartedly picking at the food. Shifting it around on the plate so he won’t bug me about it again. “Why do you make me do things like that?” he whispers urgently. “Why?” “I don’t know, Tommy,” I say. I’m so tired now. He takes a big mouthful of pancakes. “Bet you didn’t think I knew all about your little boyfriend.” He smirks. I’m too overwhelmed to care. I shrug. “Well, I do. I know all about him.” I know he wants me to ask how he knows. “How did you manage that?” “The internet. It’s not hard.” “How long have you been watching me?” Let’s cut to the chase. I’m sick of playing games. “Two days. I sent the clipping, then drove to your town. My car was sitting right outside your house, and you didn’t even notice.” He sounds gleeful. “You got a new car. I didn’t recognize it.” “I thought you’d feel me. You know what I mean? I felt you. The moment you drove up, it was like

your energy called to me. Tried to pull me toward you. It’s a force of nature.” He stares at me, hard. I feel his steel-gray eyes boring holes into the top of my head as I stare down at my plate. “You can’t fight a force of nature. Don’t you know that by now?” I shake my head, tears falling onto my plate. I swipe my hand over my face, wiping the tears and my running nose. He hands me a napkin without a word. I blow my nose. “Aren’t you hungry?” “Not very. Like I said, I don’t eat at this time of night often. I’ll try some.” I make a half-hearted attempt at eating a few bites, swallowing down some coffee. I take deep breaths to keep from having it come back up. He’s finishing up. Shit. I have to find a way to send a message. I look around, not moving my head. What can I do? The waitress has been watching us on and off, I’ve seen her from the corner of my eye. Can I get through to her? Somehow? “I have to use the bathroom.” It comes to me out of nowhere. The funny thing is, I actually do have to pee. I’ve been in a car for hours, after drinking a bunch of coffee at the shop. I’ll leave a note on the bathroom mirror in soap. Something. Anything. “Okay. I’ll take you in a minute. As soon as I pay.” My heart sinks. “What?” “I said I’ll take you to the bathroom.” “I don’t need you to do that. I’m a big girl. I know how to pee.” He looks at me, a hard glint in his eyes. The benevolent parent has left the building, along with the joyful child. “If you think I’m going to leave you alone, you underestimate me.” “I would rather not go if you’re going to go in with me.” “Tough. You’re going to. Don’t tell me you suddenly don’t have to go.” I fight back the tears. I won’t cry in front of him again. Not ever. He puts money down on the table, then stands. He takes my elbow, making me stand beside him. “Walk in front of me. Don’t you dare attract attention.” We go to the restrooms, which consist of a male and female facility. He pushes me into the ladies’ room, following me inside and locking the door. I’ve never felt so humiliated in my life. I sit there trembling while he watches. There’s a soap dispenser and a big mirror. I could have left a note. I could have. We walk back out to the car after Tommy orders me to make no eye contact with anyone. In the

parking lot, he berates me in a menacing whisper the entire way back to the car. “I wasn’t going to make you get back into the trunk, but you leave me with no choice. If you didn’t have to try to be smart, to trick me, I would have let you ride in the front seat. But no. I can’t trust you. I have to put you in the trunk. You did this to yourself.” “Please don’t make me ride in there. It’s so cramped and uncomfortable. There’s no fresh air. Besides, don’t you want to talk some more? We can’t talk when I’m in the trunk.” The car is getting closer all the time. I could make a break for it now. My legs don’t feel cramped up anymore. His hand tightens on my elbow. “I don’t think so. You need to learn your lesson. Good girls get to ride in the front seat.” He pushes the button on his car key, popping the trunk. I look around. Surely, somebody has to see this. But we’ve parked far from the diner. We’re out of sight. He shoves me inside with a word, then slams it shut. I wait until he starts the engine before bursting into tears, one fist in my mouth to muffle the sound.

Chapter 35 Jax I ride for hours, nothing much to do but think. Opening up to Adam was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I buried that shit so far down inside myself, it was almost like reliving the moment when I talked about it. There was still something about that day I didn’t tell him…but he didn’t need to know. It might have been too much. I didn’t tell him how Marissa tried to shoot me. I told him I was too slow to stop her from shooting herself. That was true. But it was because I’d just ducked to avoid getting hit by the shot she aimed at me. It hit a tree behind me. Then she pointed the gun at herself. I lunged. Too slow from an awkward position. Why did she do it? Because she wanted to stop me from stopping her. She didn’t care if she hit me or not—maybe she wanted to kill me, maybe she wanted to scare me. Since I took the gun, there was no way for the police to know she’d fired an extra shot. I don’t even know where it hit, exactly. She was that desperate in the end. That determined to die. She couldn’t live with herself. I can only imagine how her mind was twisted up. Feeling like she’d killed our friends. She hadn’t. I tried to tell her it wasn’t her fault. Frankie used her. I loved him once, I said, but not for a long time before that final ambush. He’d become a monster. Not just by skimming. By ruling with an iron fist. All he cared about was money. He had rules once. Never hurt women, never hurt children, don’t bring the innocent into our business. Then a series of row homes had burned to the ground, all owned by a rival of the club and rented out to low-income families. A mother and her three kids died in that fire. Frankie always denied involvement, but I’d known better. That was the beginning of the end for me. Once he was gone, and Marissa, I’d had enough. Right after Frankie’s murder it was rumored I’d be the one to step into his shoes. I didn’t want them. I saw what power did to him, and I wanted nothing to do with it. I wanted to get my wife far away from the noise. It was too late for her, though. The addiction had taken her too far away from the person she really was. Then she killed herself, which brought heat onto the club. The police were looking for any excuse to bring everybody in. By the time the dust settled, none of them had wanted anything to do with me anymore. Especially with Adam going around, poisoning the other members against me. Saying I’d killed my wife, his sister. The woman the rest of the guys also saw as a sister, knowing her most of her life. I was asked to leave. No punishment but that. I could no longer wear the kutte, couldn’t associate myself with the club. I was more than happy to get out. It seemed like a lifetime had passed since I stood outside that party, wishing I could find a way to get inside and be a part of things. The only other rule I was given was staying out of town as much as possible. They didn’t want me going around bad-mouthing the club. I had no problem with that, either, seeing as how there was no

love lost there. They could go fuck themselves, all of them. It was just my dog and me. Marissa’s dog, that is. I didn’t need anyone else. Then came Christina. My chest tightens when I think of her. Where is she? Am I close? Did they maybe stop off somewhere? They’ve only been on a road a few hours—no way he’s made it to the campus yet. There’s a chance she’s still alive. And probably terrified. My chest tightens further. I scream into the wind. There’s no one to hear me, not at this time of night. I’m virtually alone on the road except for a trucker here or there. Every car I approach, I wonder if I’ll see him. What would I do if I did? I can’t run him off the road, not when she’s in the car. And if he’s been watching her at all, he probably knows about me. I see her in front of me, replacing the road. That thick, dark hair. The freckles on her nose and cheeks. The way she looked when she yelled at me, when I made fun of her soufflé. How it felt when we first kissed. I thought I’d burn up. It was never like that with any other woman. Intense. Passionate. Wild. Her body. I can almost feel it under my hands. She’s a good person. A caring person. She told me she had my back, she supported me no matter what. I can’t think back to a time in my life when I had that. I thought I had it with the club. I was wrong about that. I believe her, though. Just when I wanted to open up to another woman, this happened. I should have been with her. I shouldn’t have run away, pissed or not. I lost sight of what mattered. Her safety. Now I’m facing the possibility of losing her the way I lost Marissa. I pass a diner, my stomach rumbling. I can’t even stop, no matter how hungry I am. I can eat after I find her.


By the time I arrive at the campus, it’s nearly daylight. It’s been the longest night of my life. I see the tower in the distance. Before getting any closer, I pull out my phone to dial 911. I tell the operator where I am, and why. “Please, send all the cars you can to the tower. I hope I’m not too late. This man is crazy.” Then I continue, hoping to head them off. I park my bike several hundred yards away from the tower. There are no other cars in sight, so maybe I beat them here. He might have stopped at some point to get food. I hope I wasn’t completely off-

base with my theory. I might be leading the police on a wild goose chase. They won’t be my biggest fans if that happens. After a few minutes, a car pulls up. Since it’s winter break, the campus is almost empty. The presence of a car breaks up the near-silence all around me. I watch from my position behind a dumpster as a man gets out from behind the wheel. He looks slightly older, a little paunchier. But there’s no mistaking that face. I’ve seen it in front of me for the past six hours, along with Christina and Marissa. Tommy. He looks around, then walks to the trunk. My heart clenches. He opens it, bends down. I can’t see at first, but when he closes the trunk there’s no mistaking Christina. Jesus, he had her in there all this time? She can hardly walk. He has to nearly carry her. Her legs must feel cramped and stiff after being curled up in that tight space all this time. I want to kill him for doing this. He’s babbling something to her, his mouth moving a mile a minute. Completely insane. I crouch, running toward them. Using hedges to hide me somewhat. The closer I get the more I can hear of what he’s saying. “I told you we’d be together, didn’t I? Didn’t I always say you could never hide from me? There’s no way. I love you too much to lose you to any man, especially not a scumbag like that bastard you were with. I don’t know if I can forgive you for that, but if I do it’ll take a long time. I can’t believe you’d go from me to a man like him. What’s happened to you?” On and on he goes, unable to stop babbling. He’s dragging her to the tower, overlooking campus. I realize he wants to take her up into it, maybe to the very top. There’s no telling what he’ll do once he gets her up there. I can only imagine he’ll throw her from the top. “Stop!” I run toward them. They both freeze. Christina turns in my direction, frightened at first. Then she sees it’s me, and I watch her face crumple in tears. “Jax!” she cries, reaching for me. Trying to break free of his grasp. He’s too strong for her. “Shut up, bitch!” Tommy pulls her toward himself. “I should have known you were lying. You had your boyfriend come after us.” “I didn’t! I didn’t know! How could I know?” I hold up a hand—the one not holding the gun in my pocket. “No, Tommy. She didn’t know I was coming. It’s just me. It was my idea.” “Really? What did you think you were going to get out of coming after us?” “I just wanted to be sure she was safe, man. That’s all.” I glance at her, taking her in with my eyes. I want to see if she’s actually okay. She was wearing a knit hat when he first pulled her from the trunk, which fell off as she struggled. There’s dried blood in her hair. She’s not bleeding anywhere else I

can see. No marks on her wrists. She’s been crying, her face red. “You want to make sure she’s safe?” He throws back his head, laughing. He sounds crazier than I thought he was. “That’s hilarious! You should have been a comedian!” “What do you mean?” I have to stall. I don’t want to try to take this guy alone, though I know I could if it was just the two of us. I could break him in half with no problem. I want to. But Christina’s in between us. I can’t risk her getting hurt. “You think I’m the one who’s a threat to Chrissie?” He strokes her hair. She closes her eyes, squeezing them tight, grimacing at his touch. I want to rip his hand off. “Well, I mean, come on. You took her. There was blood on the floor.” “Only because you’re the one who convinced her she shouldn’t be with me anymore!” He’s shouting, out of control. “Tommy, I only met her a few days ago. I didn’t convince her of anything. She made her own decision.” I watch as his hands tighten around her arms. Okay. That was a mistake. I have to be the bad guy so that he won’t hurt her. My shoulders slump. “Okay. You’re right. I’m the one who turned her against you.” I let my eyes flicker over toward her, hoping to keep her quiet. “I was jealous of the relationship you two had when you were together. I knew from the way she talked about you that she’d never feel that way about me. I’m not the sort of man you are. I didn’t go to college. I don’t have any friends. I’m just…a white trash biker. I have nothing to offer her.” “You’re right. You have nothing. Hear that, Chrissie? He said he has nothing. I told you so, didn’t I?” He jerks her by the arms, pulling her to him. I see the pain in her eyes. “But, Tommy…you have to understand how this looks. Hurting her to get her to come with you. The police aren’t very happy about that. Did you think about what might happen if they catch up to you?” He shrugs. “Why should they? They’ll just blame it on you, right?” I frown, squinting at him. “Why would they do that?” “Because you’re already on their shit list. Aren’t you? Or am I thinking of a different Jax Fairbanks? The one whose wife didn’t die mysteriously in the woods one day?” My stomach is ice. How does he know this? How much homework has he done on me? “That’s right,” he says, reading my reaction. “I know everything about you. Your criminal record, your history with the club. Everything there is to know. And I know the cops are just dying for a reason to put you in jail for good. So, I’m giving them their reason.” He strokes Christina’s hair again. “Don’t

worry. I have no intention of actually hurting her. Just making it look like she was hurt.” He laughs. “What’s so funny?” I ask, glancing at her again before looking back at the insane man in front of me. “It’s just…I win. I get back the girl I love while putting you in jail. The man who took her from me. It doesn’t get much better than this.” “You’re right, Tommy. You win.” I hold up my hands, the gun pointing to the sky. “I lose.” “Jax! Be careful! He has a gun!” He grips her so hard, she screams. “Don’t you hurt her!” I make a move toward them, then stop myself. I don’t want to take chances if he’s armed. Tommy only laughs. “I don’t have a gun, you stupid bitch.” “What?” “I only told you that to scare you. Jesus. You’re so dumb. You could at least have asked to see it.” If he calls her stupid or a bitch one more time, I don’t know if I can be held responsible for what I do. I take another step toward them. “Not another inch, Jax. Not if you don’t want to see her get hurt. I don’t need a gun to hurt her. Do I, sweetheart?” He twists her arm. She cries out. He looks at me, sneering. “Besides, I think you should drop the gun and kick it away if you don’t want to be in even bigger trouble.” “I can’t do that,” I say, gun still pointing up. “Why?” “Because Christina looks afraid.” “She’s afraid of you!” He jerks her by the arm. “Tell him. Tell him you’re afraid of him.” “I’m—I’m afraid,” she says, her voice a tiny squeak. “You’re afraid of him! Tell him!” “I’m afraid of you!” She cries, tears flowing down her face. “Please. I’m afraid.” “I’m sorry,” I say, staring at her. “I’m sorry you’re afraid. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it so you felt safer.” “Looks like you can’t keep a woman, Jax.” Tommy sneers.

I glance at him, then back at Christina. “I have a story to tell you.” I keep my eyes on her, ignoring Tommy except to ensure he doesn’t pull any quick moves. “What is it?” “I’ve never told anybody the full story. Not even Adam. Marissa tried to kill herself that day. She went to the woods to kill herself.” She’s staring at me, eyes full of tears. “Why?” “Because she was a sick, mixed-up person. She was into drugs, stealing from the cartel the club was working with. She had an affair with the man who was president of the club at the time. Only the stealing wound up getting him and a bunch of our guys killed. She couldn’t handle it. So she took my gun into the woods. I ran after her as soon as I knew what she was doing.” I take a deep breath, getting to the part I didn’t tell Adam. “She pointed the gun at me first, to keep me away from her while she told me the story…then to shoot me. She was going to kill me, rather than let me stop her. She wanted to die that badly.” I watch Christina tremble. I see Tommy’s hands tighten on her arms. “She fired a shot. I ducked, it hit a tree. Then she turned the gun on herself, pressed it against her chest. I jumped at her, wanting to stop her. But I couldn’t. She pulled the trigger. She died in my arms —I think she might have gone almost instantly. I couldn’t stop her, and I’ve blamed myself all this time. I didn’t want anyone to know she’d been in that much trouble—especially not that she was stealing from the cartel and the club. I couldn’t put her family through that pain.” “Why are you telling this story?” Tommy asks, sounding bored and irritated. I look at him. “Because I need her to know the truth.” I hear sirens approaching from the distance. Thank God. I couldn’t have kept this up much longer. “What difference does it make?” Tommy asks, oblivious to the approaching cop cars. “I wanted her to hear it before this happened.” I lunge at them, pushing Christina roughly out of the way. I take Tommy by the shoulders before hitting him across the nose with the butt of my gun, drawing blood. I hear Christina cry out, but I can’t look back. He fights back, head butting me, knocking us both to the ground. We wrestle, rolling over and over. His hands are on the gun as he tries to pry it from me. I throw myself on top of him, hoping to knock the wind out of him and stun him into letting go. I drive my knees into his sides, our faces inches from each other. “Please! Stop!” Christina’s screaming.

I can’t listen. I can only make this bastard pay for what he’s done. “Jax, please!” The gun is somewhere between the two of us, jammed between our bodies. I know he’s still hold on, just as I am. I hear the sirens getting louder. Then the gun goes off.

Chapter 36 Christina It’s like a horrible nightmare has finally ended. “We’re going to be together forever,” he kept saying, stroking my hair when he pulled me from the car. I’ll never forget how terrified I was. Looking at the tower, knowing what it meant that we were going there. Knowing he was going to kill me. I wanted to vomit, just feeling his hand on me. I knew exactly what he meant. We would be together. Just not alive. He wanted to throw us both from that tower. We’d die together. Tragically. When he pulled me from the trunk, all I could do was pray. Please let somebody save me. Please let me survive this. I don’t want to die. I want my mommy. I want Jax. Please don’t let me die. Now, I’m sitting in the hospital room. Jax’s hospital room. He’s been sleeping for hours, ever since he got out of surgery. The nurse told me he probably wouldn’t wake up for a while. It’s a nice hospital, and a private room. I made sure everyone in earshot knew they were taking care of a hero. “He saved my life,” I said over and over. “Please, take care of him. I would be dead if it wasn’t for him.” I sit looking at him. He’s peaceful, his face smooth. And now that he’s saved my life, more handsome to me than ever. I can’t believe he came all this way to find me. The fact that he put it all together in the first place is remarkable. I knew he had to be smart under all that bravado. I’m pretty much okay, for the most part. I might need to see a doctor closer to home now that it’s all over. There are a lot of things I’m going to need to work out. Feeling safe again in my home, knowing I’m not in danger. Flashbacks of Tommy stuffing me in a trunk. I shiver just thinking about it. If seeing a doctor will help me get my life back on track, I’m more than willing to do so. I’ll take any steps to put this far behind me. He stirs. I lean toward him, putting a hand over his. He rolls his head in my direction when he feels my touch. “You’re okay?” His first words after waking up. I didn’t think my heart could swell any bigger. “I’m just fine, Jax. Thanks to you.” “Where are we?” “In the hospital. You and Tommy were fighting over the gun. It went off, hitting you. Do you remember

any of it?” He closes his eyes, swallowing hard. I think he remembers. Instead of answering my question, he says, “Why am I not handcuffed?” “Why would you be handcuffed?” “Wasn’t I arrested? Or won’t I be, once I’m out of the hospital? I thought they’d want to keep me cuffed.” “Jax.” I touch his face, rough with stubble. “You weren’t arrested. Nobody is going to arrest you.” “No?” His eyes are wide. He’s still somewhat foggy from the anesthesia, reminding me of a little boy. “No. I told the police everything. Once they saw the wound on my head, it was pretty clear I wasn’t making anything up. And once they get a look at Tommy’s phone they’ll see the messages he sent me. You’re in the clear.” He drifts back to sleep, a smile on his face. Now he can rest.


I wake up with a stiff neck, curled up in the chair at Jax’s bedside. This time, he’s the one who’s been watching me. “Good morning,” he whispers, smiling softly. “Wow. Morning already?” I sit up, stretching. “You slept through two visits from the nurse. They were going to bring a cot in for you, but didn’t want to wake you. You were out cold.” “I guess I was.” I remember the hours I spent awake, cold, terrified. Yes. Sleep was what I needed. I take stock of him. He already looks better than he did when he first woke after being wheeled up from surgery. His color is better. He’s more alert. “How’s your wound?” I ask, motioning toward his abdomen. When the EMTs said the bullet hit him in the stomach, I nearly fainted. I know how dangerous that can be, even if I’ve only seen it on TV. “The nurse says it looks good. Stitches are holding fine.”

“The doctor told me you made it through surgery like a champ.” “Would you expect any less?” He grins. I lean down to kiss him softly. There’s no mistaking the way the beeping of his heart monitor speeds up. I laugh. “Guess we can’t be doing much of that for a little while. I wouldn’t want to tax your system while you’re healing.” I wink, and he groans. Then he becomes serious. “I don’t remember anything after being shot.” “I’m sure you don’t. You were barely conscious.” “I hate to ask you this…but…did he…?” “Rape me, you mean?” Jax’s face hardens, but he nods. I shake my head, smiling. “No, nothing like that. He never even got close to it. I don’t think it was on his mind at all.” “What did he say to you? Did you ever speak with him, besides when you got to campus?” I nod. I’ll never forget that surreal breakfast. “We stopped at a diner. It’s where we first met. I had to sit there and force food down my throat. I had to pretend to be happy he’d finally come to get me. He talked the entire time. I’m sure even the waitress thought he was nuts. He wouldn’t let me out of his sight.” I leave out the part where he came to the bathroom with me. I don’t want to relive that humiliation just yet. “I guess that’s how I was able to catch up to you.” “I’m glad he got hungry.” I smile, but it’s a shaky smile. Soon I’m crying. I lay my head on the side of Jax’s bed, letting it all out. I feel his hand stroke my hair, so different from Tommy’s rough touch. I cry for a long time. Once it’s all over, I feel better. Not one hundred percent, but better. After splashing my face, I return to Jax’s bedside. “Where is he now?” I don’t have to ask who he means. “Jail. They have him on a bunch of different charges.” Jax closes his eyes, relieved. “You said something when I first woke up,” he reminds me. “About telling the police everything.” I nod. “Yeah, every bit of it. I can’t believe you thought they would arrest you for saving my life.” A shrug. “I guess it’s a habit, assuming I’ll be blamed for things.”

“Believe me. Nobody could blame you for this. You’re the only reason I’m here right now. Sincerely.” “And when we get home?” “What about it?” I’m confused. He tells me everything he went through, just trying to get the cops to pay attention to my kidnapping. I can’t pretend I have any faith in our police force if they were so quick to blame Jax for my disappearance without listening to what he tried to tell them. I smile, though. “I can’t wait to get back to town and throw it all in their faces. How wrong they were about you. By the time I finish, they’ll be throwing a parade in your honor.” He chuckles, then winces in pain. “Don’t make me laugh,” he groans. “I wasn’t trying to. I mean it. They’re going to eat their words, every one of them.” “Wow.” He looks me up and down. “Who’s this assertive girl in my hospital room? Where did she come from?” “She was always assertive. Remember how we butted heads when we first met? How crazy I drove you?” He smiles. “Yeah, I do.” “It wasn’t just you, though you did bring it out in me. You have a talent for that. I can be just as pigheaded with others, too. They’re all on my shit list until they apologize. I’ll take out a full-page ad just so the whole town knows what you did. You took a bullet for me, Jax. They need to know.” He shrugs. “Maybe they don’t need to know. Maybe they’ll always believe what they want to believe. What difference does it make in my life?” Here I was thinking he wanted to be with me. Maybe he’s not ready for that yet. “What’s wrong?” My face must give away my emotions. “Nothing.” “Don’t say that. What is it?” It’s time to be brave. If I can face down Tommy, I can do this, too. “Maybe you’re not ready for this yet. If you’re not, I completely understand. After everything you told

me, I get why you wouldn’t be in this place. It’s just…I love you.” I say it all in one big breath. Now it’s out there. I can’t take it back. “I love you, too, you idiot.” A huge smile breaks over his face. “You do?” “You can’t be seriously asking me this! Christina, why would I go through all this for you if I didn’t love you? If anything, I didn’t think you loved me. I couldn’t imagine why you would.” “But you did it all? Not knowing how I felt?” “Of course I did. That wouldn’t change how I felt for you. Just because I didn’t know how you felt. That’s crazy.” He reaches for me, taking my hands in his. “I love you. I want to be with you. If you’ll have me.” “Now who’s being an idiot?” I can’t say anything else. I have to kiss him. The heart monitor goes crazy again.

Chapter 37

It’s been a week since Jax entered the hospital. An entire week since he saved me once again. He’s healing beautifully, as well as anyone could expect. Now he’s climbing the walls, aching to be out of here. “Why did they have to keep me for so long, anyway?” He’s only asked me this question roughly two dozen times today. “Because,” I repeat, as I have so many times, “they had to be sure you weren’t infected. Infection’s a pretty big deal, you know.” “Sure, sure. I didn’t have a fever. The bullet hardly grazed me. It was superficial.” “Hardly superficial. There was muscle damage. You got very lucky.” My mom smiles at him. He calms down. Mom has been here for four days, taking care of both of us. It seems like she has the magic touch. One word from her and he’s a different person. “You’re right,” he admits. “I just can’t wait to get out of this bed.” “You’ll have to take it easy for a while,” Mom reminds him. “No lifting heavy things. You could hurt yourself even worse.” Jax nods. I feel like I’m witnessing a miracle. “Are you sure you don’t want to come back with us?” I say, making her laugh. “I’m serious. You’re the only person he listens to.” “He’s a lot of bluster. Inside he’s just a little boy. All men are—no matter how big they are on the outside.” We snicker together quietly. “I hear you over there. I’m not deaf.” I laugh, crossing the room to kiss him. He’s half smiling, so I know he’s not that upset. Mom and I have done a lot of catching up over the past several days. I owed her an explanation. I’d been kidnapped, after all, when she didn’t even know Tommy was stalking me. Then I was rescued by a man of whose existence she was unaware. She only came to make sure we were taken care of. The two of us have been sharing a room at a hotel near the hospital. I’ve spent nearly every minute of visiting hours right here, at Jax’s side.

Adam came two days into Jax’s stay to pick up his bike. Jax probably wouldn’t be able to ride it home, so Adam had a friend drive him to meet us. I noticed how much better he already looked since I first saw him only a few days prior. He gave me a big hug on entering the room. “I’m so glad you’re okay,” he said. The sincerity in his voice touched me. I left the two of them alone for a while so they could catch up. When I got back they were laughing. My heart soared. Jax had told me of their conversation, how he’d confessed everything. How Adam gave him his bike. I owed him a lot, too. More than anything, I was happy to see Jax laughing. He’d missed Adam’s friendship after Marissa’s death. I hoped this meant they could rebuild their bond. Jax needed people, as much as he pretended he didn’t. We promised to get together after Jax was released. He looked hopeful after Adam left. Mom heads down to the nurse’s station to see if there’s any chance of getting his discharge papers some time before next week. I’d think with such an obstinate, frustrating patient they’d be happy to get him out of their hair. It feels like they’re dragging their feet. “You know,” Jax says, now that we’re alone, “for such a long time, I thought I was protecting Adam and his family by not telling the truth about how Marissa died. I thought I was being…I don’t know… noble or something. Sparing them the pain, protecting her name. Now…I’m thinking about how Adam looked when he came to visit. Didn’t he look better already?” I nod. “He looked great. Sober, for starters.” “Yeah. I wonder if a lot of pain he was going through had to do with never being really sure. Not wanting to believe I could do it, especially since we were so close and I was Marissa’s husband. Maybe keeping secrets only hurts people.” “It’s like you’re reading my mind,” I tell him, sitting beside his bed. “I’ve been wondering the same thing. If I’d been honest about Tommy, everything I was going through with him, I wouldn’t have needed to suffer the way I did. I could have been honest with my parents, for starters. I never did tell them the reason I left him. Thinking, I don’t know, I was sparing them something. All I was doing was driving myself crazy, and letting him get even more crazy the longer I stayed away. I should have told the police. I should have told somebody. But I was ashamed. And for what? Because he’s a nut? That’s not my fault.” Jax takes my hand. “I think it’s easy to say that now,” he says, stroking my knuckles with his thumb. “When you’re in the middle of something like that, you don’t want anybody to know. I didn’t want anybody to know Marissa was shooting up again. I’m sure the coroner figured that out, but had I said something at the time I could have helped avoid a lot of pain.” “We never know, do we?” He shakes his head. “There’s one thing I do know, though. No secrets between us. Ever. Don’t ever think you need to spare me something. Just say it. I’ve lived with secrets for too long.”

I have to smile. I love when he talks about our future together. “Deal.”


Amy raises her coffee cup in a toast. “To the two of you. Especially you,” she says to me and Jax, then throws her arms around him. “You saved her. I don’t know what I’d do without her.” “Oh, Amy.” I chuckle, tears in my eyes. “I mean it. God, when I think…we were just laughing together…” I nod, a shiver running up my spine. Isn’t that what I thought about while I was in the trunk? How she would feel, knowing we were just together outside the shop before Tommy took me? She insisted we have a little party at the shop to celebrate my homecoming. Adam’s here, drinking from a coffee cup instead of a flask. He’s agreed to go to AA. Jax told me he’s finally able to put it all behind him, now that he has a sense of closure. He knows why Marissa did what she did. He can process it now. It’s time to move on. He’s a young man, not much older than Jax, with plenty of life left. I’m glad to see Jax looking so happy, here in my world. When we were in Texas, he decided he didn’t give a damn about riding into town. He wasn’t going to separate himself from the world anymore. If people had a problem with it, let them. It was their problem. I told him I stood fully behind him. The best part is, the first day he came in for coffee and a muffin during the morning rush, he was mobbed by people shaking his hand and congratulating him for being so brave and saving me from my stalker. It took me by surprise just as much as it did him. He kept shooting me looks, to which I kept shrugging. I had no idea where they got their information from…until I looked over at Amy, who had a mile-wide grin on her face. “You told them?”

“I had to. They need to get down off their high horses and find out what a good guy he is. He deserves a little respect, wouldn’t you say?” I agreed wholeheartedly, and I still do. I know it’s not going to happen overnight, but I get the feeling Jax is going to start putting his own past behind him. Maybe he and Adam can work together on that. I know from conversations with him that the club isn’t where he wants to be, and he hasn’t been part of it for quite some time. Jax had no way of knowing that, though, since they never spoke. I baked a little cake for our party, and I’m doling out pieces to our little group. There is only a handful of us, but for right now, this is all I need. I have my business. I have Jax. I have friends. My life is pretty perfect.


“Should we flip a coin?” “What, heads my house, tails your house?” “Sure. Why not?” I shrug. “It seems a pretty crazy way to make such a big decision.” We’ve been going back and forth on this for days. Whose house we should live in. It only makes sense for us to move in together. Neither of us feels like keeping an entire second set of toiletries at the other’s house. And it makes no sense for me to keep paying rent on my house if I spend half my time at Jax’s. It would be one thing if we lived far apart, but it’s a fifteen-minute drive from door-to-door on a good day. There are excellent arguments on both sides. Jax’s house holds a lot of memories. Maybe it would be better for him to move on, leave that part of his life behind. My house is in the middle of town, or practically. Does he want to live his life among the people he’s been trying so hard to avoid? Yes, he’s made progress. He comes into town on a regular basis with no blowback from either the residents or the club. But moving there is a lot to ask all at once. Meanwhile, my house is closer to my shop. I could walk there if I needed to. “Fine,” I say. “We’ll flip a coin. Heads my house. Tails, yours.” He pulls out a quarter. “You sure about this?” I hesitate, then nod. “No matter where I am, I’ll be with you. It’s just as well, either way.” “Okay.” He grins, then flips the quarter high into the air. He catches it, then slaps it on the back of his hand. I place my hand over his.

“What’s the matter?” he asks. “I just realized. I don’t care what the quarter says. I want to move in here.” We’re sitting in front of his fireplace, a Monopoly board between us. “What? Since when?” “Since…this is where I want to be. That’s the only way I can put it. That house, my rental? It doesn’t mean anything to me. There’s no attachment to it. It’s just…convenient. That’s all. This house?” I look around. “It’s already full of memories for me. Good memories.” He smiles. “It is. I know what you mean.” “But! If there’s too much here you want to move away from, I totally understand. I don’t want to force you to keep living here with all the old memories.” He thinks about that, now looking around. “We can redecorate. I think I’ve been too stuck in the past. It’s time for me to move forward, but that doesn’t have to mean moving to another house. I can start here.” He smiles at me. “You really want to live here?” “I really do.” I kiss him. “Can we still see what the coin says?” I shrug, removing my hand. We look. Heads. I fall back on the floor, laughing. “Oh, well. What’s a coin toss? Arbitrary.” He leans down, covering my mouth with his own. The laughter dies, replaced by a low moan as his tongue swirls around the inside of my mouth. As always, my body responds to his almost instantly. “You’re pushing it, little boy,” I whisper while his hand roams up and down my torso. “How so? And who are you calling little?” I giggle, then whimper when his fingers brush my sensitive nipples. “You know you’re supposed to be taking it easy. You can’t flex those abs too much. We don’t want to hurt you.” “That’s true.” He kisses my jaw, my chin, down my throat. His mouth sends a tingle straight to my core. “Maybe you should do all the work, in that case.” I laugh. “I think that’s a possibility. Only if you ask nicely.” My hand caresses his cock, already at half-mast. He growls.

I enjoy making love in front of a roaring fire as much as the next girl, but I don’t love being watched by a hound dog. I scramble to my feet, dashing up the stairs. Jax follows. As soon as we reach the bedroom, he closes the door. We fall onto the bed together, kissing and touching. He claws at my clothes, unbuttoning my jeans, running his hands beneath my t-shirt to touch my skin. I feel the clasps on my bra pop open. “Somebody’s in a hurry,” I murmur, taking his bottom lip between my teeth. I suck it, then bite gently. “Mmm…” he growls, returning the favor. I get on my knees on the mattress, pulling the shirt over my head, discarding the bra. His hands are immediately on my breasts, kneading them. I sigh, closing my eyes to enjoy the feeling. Then I move his hands away. “Just lay back and enjoy,” I whisper. He smiles, placing his hands behind his head to watch me. I straddle him, kissing my way down his inked torso. Swiping my tongue over his nipples before moving down to his navel. He hisses through clenched teeth, abs tensing. Still so tender. I unbutton his jeans, tongue moving playfully along the waistband before I slide the pants over his hips and down his legs. I rub his erect cock through the cotton of his shorts, teasing him. There’s a wet spot at the tip, betraying his excitement. “Put it in your mouth,” he whispers urgently. I comply, sliding the shorts down until he’s exposed. His solid, erect length lying against his stomach. Starting from the base, I drag my tongue slowly up his length until I reach the head. I open my mouth, allowing him to slide past my lips. His groan seems to reach my pussy, which twitches in response. I’m already wet, ready for more. First, I’ll please him. I go excruciatingly slow, sliding my mouth down his shaft one inch at a time. He holds his breath, waiting for me to take him completely in. Finally my lips go as far as they will, my mouth unable to hold all of him. I move back up, then down again. My hand strokes the now wet shaft while I gently suck the head. “Oh, God…” Jax’s eyes are closed, his beautiful body stretched out before me. He’s totally in my control. I take advantage, rolling my tongue in circles around him while I suck. Flicking the sensitive spot just below the head every so often, pulling a groan from his throat. “Please…” The torture is almost too much. I start bobbing up and down, easing the pressure. He sighs, holding onto the back of my head. Guiding me, trying to regain control. I pick my head up, letting him slide from me. He looks up, surprised. “You’re not in control,” I growl. “I am.” “Oh? We’ll see about that.” He takes me in his strong arms, flipping me onto my back. Every time I

forget how powerful he is, he’s happy to remind me. I don’t mind. I love the way he takes over, doing what he wants to me. My jeans are off in a flash, then my panties. His mouth is on me, teasing me. Licking my lips, the insides of my thighs. My most sensitive places…all except one, that is. “Oh, Jax…” I hold his head to me, trying to guide him to my clit. He fights me, making me laugh in spite of the frustration he’s putting me through. “I’m in control,” he says before going back to his torture. I can’t take it. My hands grip the pillow beneath my head. My eyes are closed, my entire body tensed. “Please lick me. Please!” I’m aching, almost ready to touch myself to ease the tension. He groans against my mound, driving me even crazier. I let out a noise somewhere between a groan and a scream. I’m rewarded by the feeling of his tongue flicking against my clit. “Yes!” I cry out, riding his face. He licks my folds, lapping up my wetness, before sliding two thick fingers into my waiting hole. My muscles clench around them. I cry out again. He begins moving them in and out, rapidly pumping as his tongue lashes back and forth over my button. My back arches. I hold my tits, rubbing my hands over them. I hear him groan and know he sees me playing with myself. I pinch my nipples, flicking my fingers over them while he sucks my clit. I’m so close. “Oh! Jax!” My hips rise off the bed, the pressure in my core exploding into pure bliss. It rocks me, leaving me gasping and shaking. He’s still kissing me down there. Softly, sensually. His tongue runs slowly over my skin. I could stay like this all day…but I know he wants more. So do I. “On your back,” I gasp, still catching my breath. He rolls over immediately, reaching for me. I position myself over him, guiding him inside me. We both groan when I slide down, his thickness filling me. “Fuck…” he gasps when I start riding. Gently, slowly, rocking my hips as I grind against him. I lean down, one hand on either side of his head, giving his mouth access to my tits. “Suck them,” I beg, still thrusting down on him. He groans, eyes wide, surprised at my forwardness. One, then the other nipple meets his tongue, his lips. He sucks hard, biting gently. Making me gasp and groan, whispering to him, urging him on. “That’s right. Suck my tits. Oh, yes…” It’s not my imagination when I feel him thrust upward, into me. Unable to contain himself. He loves hearing me talk dirty, so I keep it up. Telling him what he does to

me, how much I love fucking him. How his huge cock makes me want to scream when I come. His breath comes faster, more uneven. He reaches up behind me, taking a handful of my hair. Pulling gently. I moan, the sensation almost too much now. I feel myself building again, higher this time. His thickness inside me drives me wild. I bear down on him, clenching all around him as another orgasm tears through me. This time I scream, every muscle pulsing as I ride it out. Moments later, his urgent thrusts signal his climax. I encourage him, tell him to come for me. He groans, then explodes inside me. Once he’s finished, I roll onto my side. After catching my breath, I lay my head on his chest. His heart beats, strong and steady, against my ear. “Where did that come from?” he asks, still slightly breathless. “What?” “The assertiveness. Playing with your tits, telling me to suck them. You know what I mean.” “Oh.” I blush. “I guess you bring it out in me.” “I’m not complaining.” “I could tell,” I remark. Then something occurs to me. “You know something?” “Hmm?” He sounds half-asleep already. Typical man. “I don’t think the sex could ever be as good at my house. I think I made the right choice, deciding to move in here.” He laughs. “The two of us could have awesome sex on a beach, in a camper, in the yard, in a car, on the side of a mountain. Anywhere.” “Well, now.” I raise myself up, looking him in the eye. “It sounds like you and I are going to keep each other pretty busy.”


Now keep reading for your free teaser of my dark, sexy MC romance, TROUBLE!

Chapter 1 Kat “How was that, Miss Edwards?” “What?” I shook myself. Great, I zoned out on another lesson. Ivy, one of my violin students, was looking at me expectantly. She was so eager to please. “How was it? I practiced really hard this week.” Sweet little Ivy was looking at me with big, round eyes. I knew how hard her parents pushed her, even requiring weekly progress reports from me. She was so earnest, only wanting to make me and everyone around her happy. “You did great. I can tell how hard you’ve been working.” I patted her on the back, watching as she packed up her violin. She reminded me so much of Sabrina at that age. Working hard, wanting to make me proud of her. We both gave up on our parents at an early age, knowing there was no pleasing them. One was gone, and the other was too tired to care. “Do me a favor this week,” I whispered conspiratorially to Ivy after writing up another glowing progress report. “Take a little bit of time to go outside and play.” “Play my violin outside?” “No,” I said with a smile. “Play outside. Have fun. Playing music is supposed to make us happy. It’s a beautiful part of life, but it isn’t all of life. Do you understand what I mean?” She nodded, but of course she didn’t get it. She was nine years old. She only wanted to make me happy by agreeing. I hoped she had a little fun sometimes. I waved to her mom, who waited in her car outside my house during every lesson. Why did I care so much about Ivy? I cared about all of my students, but Ivy especially. Maybe it was the way she reminded me of my sister. Sabrina. I’d been thinking about her during Ivy’s playing, just like I’d been thinking about her for weeks. Every day, she sat in the back of my mind, pulling at my thoughts. It had been five weeks, three days and two hours since the last time I spoke with her. She’d disappeared off the face of the Earth sometime after that. It had to be later that day, since we made it a point to speak every day and she didn’t call me the next afternoon. When she didn’t call, right on time as always, I knew something was wrong. I closed my eyes, still standing in the front doorway. I pictured her in front of me. Blonde hair, like

mine, but with a natural wave that I’d always envied. Eyes a shade bluer than mine. A little shorter, more petite. She looked like a little china doll, with her porcelain skin. Always smiling, always happy. Not so much recently, I reminded myself. In the last six months, Sabrina had been caught up in things I didn’t understand. Why a beautiful, sweet girl like my sister would want to be hooked up with some of the people she’d been running around with I couldn’t understand. With every passing day, I’d become more desperate. The police didn’t seem to care very much, not after the first week or two. I knew they assumed she was dead, her body in a ditch or a lake somewhere. Once they found out who she’d been dating, or sleeping with or whatever they’d been doing, the police chalked my sister’s disappearance up to just another piece of club activity. They were satisfied leaving it at that and moving on with their lives, shaking their heads in sadness at the loss of another bright young person at the hands of that wretched club. I was not. If anyone was going to find my sister, it would have to be me. I had visited the sheriff at least ten times before he sat me down and leveled with me. “You know, Miss Edwards, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but I think you need to hear it. The more time that passes in a case like this, the less likely it is that we find the victim alive and well. I couldn’t believe he could be so cruel. I shook my head resolutely. “No. If my sister were dead, I would know. Don’t you get it? I would feel it.” He’d looked sympathetic, but his tone was not. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard those very words come from the mouths of distraught mothers, fathers, spouses. I would know if my loved one was gone. I hate to break it to you, miss, but there’s no such thing as a sixth sense. You know how every one of those cases ended up? I don’t think I need to tell you that every one of those victims was long since deceased.” I’d put my hands over my ears, refusing to believe it. How could he be so cruel? He didn’t know me, or Sabrina. He had no idea what we’d been through together. “I’m not telling you this to hurt you, Miss Edwards. Believe me. I only want to help you get accustomed to the idea. It may come time for you to move on with your life. You’re a young woman. I’ve seen too many grow old before their time because they refused to move on. The sooner you get used to an idea like this, the better for you.” I hadn’t cared what he’d said then, and I still didn’t care. Forget him, and the entire jaded police force in my crappy little town. I’d always believed I lived in a nice place, full of good people. Now I’d started to see the underbelly, and I couldn’t go back to being as naïve as I was before. There were

nice people, but they were willing to look the other way as long as what was happening didn’t directly affect them. I left the doorway of my house, finally, going to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea. I’d barely been holding it together, just going through the motions of daily life. I had to see my students if I wanted to make any money. It wouldn’t do any good for me to lose my house on top of everything else. It had long since been paid off, one of the few things my parents actually managed to get right in their short, pathetic lives, but the taxes were brutal. If Sabrina was sick somewhere, needing help, she’d have to have a home to come back to. I’d already cleared out her little apartment, her landlord threatening to throw her things out onto the street if I didn’t come to get them. So much for compassion. Her things were now boxed up in her childhood room. I’d locked the door after bringing them home, telling myself the time to unlock the room would be when Sabrina came back to me. That room was heavy, always calling to me. Reminding me it was still locked up, as it had been for weeks since Sabrina missed her rent payment not long after disappearing. It taunted me, an ever-present reminder of my sister’s absence. I sat alone in my quiet little kitchen. How many meals had we prepared here, together? I’d taught my sister to cook in this room. I’d washed her skinned knees and kissed them after putting Band-Aids over her boo-boos. We’d shared cup after cup of tea, talking about boys long into the night. Then she’d moved away. I knew the time would come though I’d always dreaded it. Her sweetness was still firmly intact, but there was a headstrong streak in her that made me worry for her safety. I had that same streak of course, so I knew how tough life would be for her if she didn’t learn to listen to reason. I wanted to spare her the same mistakes I’d made, the pain that resulted from them. She was determined to live her life on her terms. Never was this truer than when I’d gotten word that Sabrina had been in the company of one of the members of the Crooked Souls Motorcycle Club when a few passersby saw her. That was the last confirmed sighting the police had. She had vanished sometime after that. I’d refused to believe it when she first told me she’d been hanging out with the club. Not my sister. She was too smart to be caught up in that mess. The club had been in our town for as long as I could remember. Always hanging around the fringes, like a family secret nobody wanted to bring into the open. There had been rumors about them for years, and whenever something bad happened—a disappearance, an accident, a burglary—the club was immediately suspected. “How could you associate yourself with them?” I’d asked. We’d been right here, in this very kitchen. “I’m not with them. I’m with him,” she’d insisted. “Don’t play word games. You know what I mean. He’s part of them, for life. A man doesn’t devote his

life to a club like that on a whim. It’s a full commitment. He can’t walk away.” “He’ll leave if I want him to. I know he cares about me.” Sabrina’s blue eyes had been full of hope. I’d been too scared to pity her, though. I always knew her lack of a father figure would be trouble someday. The little she’d known of our father had been of a reckless, selfish man whose love never came for free. My baby sister would spend the rest of her life trying to earn the love of a man like him. “Sweetie.” I’d been almost desperate by then, struggling to make her see my point. “There are so many good, honest, hardworking men out there. Why not find one of them instead? Or take a break from men for a while. You’re only eighteen, you have your whole life ahead of you.” “You’re right, I’m eighteen. And I can do what I want.” She’d pushed her chair back from the table, storming toward the front door without another word. I’d called out to her, going so far as to follow her out to her car. She’d driven away without a backward glance. Still, she had called me the next day. Just as always. I knew better than to address the subject so directly after that. We had still exchanged tense words over her involvement with the club, but I always backed down. I was afraid she’d do something to really show me who was the boss, like marrying that loser. And then where would we be? Maybe I should have pushed harder. I stared into my tea, blaming myself again. So what if I’d pissed her off? I could have gotten through. I should have tried to get through. Now she was gone, and I knew the club must have had something to do with it. In that way, I was no better than the police, who had assumed from the get-go that the club was the culprit. There was a difference, though. I wasn’t going to let them get away with it. I took a deep breath, reminding myself this was what needed to be done, as much as I dreaded the thought of it. I knew where the club hung out. I planned to go there and confront their leader. As I got ready to leave, showering and dressing, I thought about the few times I’d ever laid eyes on Gabriel Hunt. I’d heard stories about him for years, and what I’d seen confirmed the rumors. He was a big, brutal-looking man. The type who made a person want to cross to the other side of the street when they saw him coming. An arrogant scowl on his face, like he knew the effect he had on people and didn’t care. It might even have pleased him for all I knew. His violence was legendary. He’d sent many men to the hospital, and those were just the ones who had the guts to admit it was Hunt who had put them there. Who knew how many more bloody, broken bodies were his doing? He was also a notorious womanizer, handsome in a rough sort of way. Some of the girls I went to school with had slept with him. Even back then, more than ten years earlier, he’d been feared for his temper and lack of conscience. Still, these otherwise smart girls had fallen for him—at least for one night. All of them had sworn he was the best they’d ever had. They were only teenagers, though. What did they know?

I had seen his smirking face in town a few times. Once, he’d been coming out of the gas station as I was walking in. He’d looked me up and down, sizing me up, then grinned. Like I’d passed muster or something. He’d disgusted me. I shuddered just remembering the nasty look on his face. I needed to face him. I wanted him to try to lie to me about being the last person seen with her, because that’s exactly what witnesses had claimed. They had seen my sister with the leader of the Crooked Souls just before she vanished. I wanted to watch his eyes when he made up a story, so I could catch him in a lie. I needed him to be honest with me. Somebody had to finally be honest with me. I gripped the edge of the bathroom sink, forcing myself to calm down. The doctor had recommended I start on an anti-depressant, or, at least, something for anxiety. At the time, I’d turned him down, but in moments like this when I felt like the walls were closing in and my heart was about to burst from my chest I wondered if meds wouldn’t be helpful. Otherwise, I’d give myself a heart attack. She’s out there. Only I can find her. I’m going to get the truth one way or another. I’m going to start with Gabriel Hunt. This was what I told myself, again and again, as I finished drying my hair. I was Sabrina’s only hope. I couldn’t let my anxiety get in the way now. The bar was seedy, dirty, a dive which sat at the edge of town. I wondered how many fistfights, or worse, had taken place in the gravel parking lot. There was raucous music coming from inside, and the sounds of men whooping it up. I steeled myself, remembering why I was there. Then I squared my shoulders and marched into the bar. It didn’t take long for me to find who I was looking for. Even in the dim light, made even dimmer by the thick cloud of cigarette smoke, there was no missing him. Gabriel sat at one of the tables near a makeshift stage, where a girl was dancing while men in leather kuttes with the Crooked Souls patch on the back cheered her on. Another girl was sitting in Gabriel’s lap, her hand massaging his crotch. What the hell went on in this place? It didn’t matter at the moment. I walked straight up to the table, standing between Gabriel and the stage. “Get the fuck out of the way!” one of the men seated behind him called out. I ignored him, my eyes focused squarely on the club’s leader. “Where the hell is my sister, Gabriel?” The noise in the immediate vicinity cut off like somebody had flipped a switch. No more cheering, no more catcalling. Silence. All eyes were on me, and him. “What are you talking about?” He was sitting back in his chair, his legs splayed. He was a big man, massive, all thick arms and long legs. A thin t-shirt was stretched to its limits over his broad chest and shoulders. The smirk on his face made me wish I had the nerve to slap him. What right did he

have to look at me like this? The redhead on his lap had stopped massaging his dick, so he pushed her off him. Then it was just the two of us, staring each other down. “You know what I’m talking about. My sister, Sabrina Edwards. I know you were the last person to see her alive, and I want to know what you did with her.” His mouth curved into a wicked smile. My mouth went dry as I wondered how much trouble I’d just gotten myself into.

Chapter 2 Gabriel

Who the hell was this girl and where had she been hiding? She made the girl who was just on my lap look like yesterday’s leftovers. She was fucking stunning. Blonde, with blazing eyes that might have been green or might have been hazel—I couldn’t tell because of the dim light in the bar. Her skin was smooth and perfect. She didn’t need a lot of makeup, not like the other women in the bar who practically painted theirs on. She was classy, high-quality and gorgeous. And she was pissed as hell. “Sabrina? I don’t know any Sabrina.” I smiled at her, totally calm even though my dick was getting hard just looking at her. God, she was smoking hot. Maybe because of the way she was staring at me, like she wanted to kill me. Not like she could. “You’re a liar!” She yelled so loud the rest of the bar went quiet for a second. I shifted in my seat, letting them know it was okay to go back to what they were doing. “Nobody talks to me that way,” I said, keeping my voice down. People usually responded pretty fast to me when I spoke that way, quieting down because they were afraid of my temper. Not this girl. “Am I supposed to be afraid of you? You’re pathetic.” She spat the words at me. “I’m pathetic? You’re the one who’s way outnumbered right now, sweetheart. Maybe you should go home.” The other guys at my table laughed. I wasn’t laughing. I was staring at her, wondering how she’d like it if I took her in the back and fucked her right now. She’d be a great fuck, all that passion and fierceness with a hot little body. “So you’re sitting there trying to tell me you have no idea who my sister is? Even though I know she was hanging around here with you guys? Even though there are witnesses willing to testify to seeing you with her?” Her voice got louder and shriller with every word. I waved my hand. Witnesses could be shut up. “Who the fuck are these witnesses? They don’t know what they’re talking about, and neither do you. Get out of my face.” “My sister is missing!” Her voice got even louder. “She’s been missing for over five weeks! At least two people gave signed statements saying they saw her with you the same day I last spoke with her!

What did you do to her? I won’t leave this place until I get some answers, I swear to God! I don’t care who I need to talk to, I’m going to get my answers! You’re going to tell me where my sister is!” I looked at her. She was serious. I couldn’t believe it. “I’m telling you. I don’t know who you’re talking about.” The name only vaguely rang a bell. Five weeks? Who had I been with five weeks ago? Who the hell was saying they had seen me with a missing girl? “Yes, you do.” She’d tired herself out already. Her voice was quieter. Now she just looked sad, and wiped out. I got up, fast, and took her by the arm. I pulled her with me to the back room of the bar. I heard the guys behind me cheering. I knew what they thought I was gonna to do her. Sometimes I wondered what kind of animals they were. I liked to fuck, but not this way. “Let go of me!” I heard her yelling over the cheers, and I knew from the way she was moving that she was trying to get away from me, but she was so small I hardly felt it. It was like pulling a little kid around. I had her by at least a foot, and at least a hundred pounds of mostly muscle. She didn’t have a chance. I pushed her into a corner, blocking her way. “Listen,” I said quietly. “If she’s a girl who looks like you, and her name is Sabrina, yeah. I sorta remember her. She was around here sometimes, but not for very long. Right?” “Yes.” The girl was panting, still getting over fighting me. I saw her chest rising and falling with her breathing, and I got hard again. I wondered what happened when she got excited in other ways. “I haven’t seen her in weeks. The last time I did, she was alive and well. I don’t think I ever even said two words to her. That’s the honest-to-God truth, honey. Take it or leave it.” “Then somebody else did! You’re not the only person here. Somebody has to know something, dammit.” “That’s not my business.” I shrugged. I was trying to be as honest as I could with her. “I’m not in charge of everything my guys do after hours, if you know what I mean. They don’t have to report everything to me. If she was with one of them, whatever. But I don’t know which one, and, honestly, it would be best if you just let it go.” “Are you kidding?” Her eyes were wide. “How can you say that?” “Because if you keep poking around like this, showing up to places nobody invited you to and where there are a lot of big, bad men who wouldn’t care if you got hurt…” I shrugged again, smirking. “You

see what I mean? Not everybody here’s as nice as me.” I kept smirking, staring at her. She stared right back at me. I saw now that her eyes were hazel, and she had a few freckles across her nose. She was beautiful, and she had balls. I had to give her that. The women I was used to were in another class. The makeup thing wasn’t the only difference. She seemed smart, like she’d been to school and actually paid attention in class. The women who hung around here at the bar, with the club…they would never have stood up to me like that. They didn’t have spines. Either it had been beaten out of them a long time ago by their daddies and boyfriends or they’d talked back to one of the guys sometime and had learned the hard way never to do it again. She wasn’t one of those girls. She wasn’t afraid. Or she was, actually, but she was standing up to me anyway. That took even more courage. I moved closer to her, smelling her hair and perfume. She smelled clean, fresh. Her breath picked up again. She was either terrified or turned on. I got even harder. “I can’t help you with your sister,” I whispered. My mouth was close to her ear. I could feel her hot breath on my neck, fast and hard. “But I can help you with the way you’re aching for me.” I pulled back, just a little, to see her face. “What?” Her eyes flew open, wide. “You’re insane.” “Am I?” I laughed a little, staring at her mouth. I could imagine all the things I wanted her to do with that mouth. “Yes! You’re sick. Leave me alone. Let me go.” She tried to push past me, but she couldn’t move me. I laughed again, tilting my head so my face was in front of hers. “Come on. Admit it. Your panties are wet, aren’t they?” “You’re fucking disgusting, you pig.” She stopped fighting long enough to glare at me. Her mouth was just next to mine, so it wasn’t much work to lean in and kiss her. At first, she fought it, growling and groaning like she wanted to scream her head off. I wouldn’t let up, though, smothering her screams. I kissed her hard, rough, pushing her lips apart with my tongue and shoving it into her mouth. I bet she’d never been kissed like this before. She bit my lip. She punched at my chest with her little fists. I wouldn’t stop. I pressed myself against her, letting her feel how hard she’d gotten me. I pushed my tongue in and out, thrusting my hips against her at the same time. Then she relaxed, like I flipped a switch. She stopped screaming and sighed, stopped punching and took my kutte in her hands instead. She pulled me closer, groaning into my mouth. I ran one hand down her side until I reached her ass, and squeezed hard. She groaned again, louder,

pulling me closer. She could hardly breathe. I pulled away, looking down at her. I was smiling, watching her lean against the wall to catch her breath. Then she leaned toward me, wanting more. But I pulled further away, stepping back to give her room. I patted her on the ass. “Go home, little girl. Before you get yourself killed.” The look on her face was priceless. It was a shame I had to let her go, because that was the hottest kiss I’d had in a long time.

Enjoying your free sample of TROUBLE? Find out what happens next! Click here or follow the link below to get the full book for yourself! AMAZON US:

OTHER WORKS BY ZOEY PARKER Click any of the covers below to go straight to the book page!


I’m a man of few words. The ones I use are violent: Brawl. Claim. Ravage. It was lust at first sight. She looked too damn nice up on that stage to pass up. A body that curved in all the right places. Skin demanding that I seize it and squeeze it. And those eyes… Eyes I’d never forget. What would you have done? I know what I did: I bought her. Then I took her home and let her know who she belonged to now. She screamed my name until the rafters shook. Don’t act like you would have done anything different. That should have been the end of it. But if she was just an expensive lay,

you wouldn’t be reading this story. There was a whole lot more I had yet to find out. Only one thing I knew for certain: I hadn’t had my fill of Michelle. Not. Even. Close.


A picture is worth a thousand words, but I only need three: You. Are. Mine.

The life I lead isn't for the faint of heart. A man like me has to say what he means. Take what he wants. And fight to keep what he has. Erica thought she would be safe behind her camera. Little did she know she was teetering on the edge of the rabbit hole. When she sees something she shouldn't have, she falls in. She's lucky I showed up when I did. Without me, she'd be thrown to the wolves. Torn apart. Devoured.

But it doesn't take long before she starts to wonder. Is she better off on her own‌ ‌or at the mercy of the beast inside me? At the end of the day, it doesn't matter. I tell her how it is: "Moan as loud as you want, babe. You aren't going anywhere."


He took my sister. I’m next. My baby sister went missing over a month ago, and I’d give anything to find her. After countless hours of searching, the trail of clues leads me to Gabriel Hunt, leader of the Crooked Souls MC. He’s sexy, strong… …and the last man to see my sister alive. Before I know it, I’m tumbling down the rabbit hole. I’m being chased, threatened, and almost killed. There’s only one place to turn: right into Gabriel’s arms. He is a danger unto himself, but I can’t stop myself from craving his touch. Only time will tell whether he’ll be the key to solving my sister’s disappearance, or the last stop before my downfall. I thought I was doing the hunting. But I'm coming to find out that I'm the one being hunted.

A Broken Vow

She’s a fragile little thing. I just might break her.

I thought I’d seen the last of her. Rose had run from danger, right into my bed. It didn’t take long before she was moaning my name. But you can’t outrun your shadow. When the devils of my past catch up, they take her away from me. I’d hunt them down, but there’s a war going on, and my club needs me home. Back in Texas, I follow the thread of betrayal that threatens to shatter my world. I should’ve known it would lead me back to her. This time, though, she’s on an auction block.

I may be the one doing the bidding, but the bastards who stole her will pay the ultimate price. There’s no other girl I’d fight through hell for. This one’s different — She’s carrying my baby.

A Secret Vow

I wanted safety. He wanted a baby. An abusive fiancé had me trapped in a life I hated. He hit me often. Hurt me plenty. I knew one thing: I had to get away. I took the first chance I had to escape: With a mysterious biker I hardly knew. He promised to protect me. But when I hear what he wants in return, I freak. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. I’m just praying I don’t get burned.

Growing up on the streets taught me one thing: when you want something, take it.

I play fast and loose, not nice. My job running street races for the Inked Angels MC isn’t for the lighthearted. The women are just a perk. I’m with them for one night only — then they’re in my rearview mirror, never to be seen again. Until Kendra. There’s something about her. Something fragile. Royal. Worth protecting. Lucky for me, that’s just what she wants. I make her a deal: protection for a baby. I’ve spent my whole life untamed and racing time. But when it comes to Kendra, I’m ready to do things slowly…

One f*ck at a time.

A Sinful Vow

I'm about to marry a monster – and there's not a thing I can do to stop it.

Olivia I don't deserve this. All I wanted was to escape my past. But when my brother needed me to get him out of trouble, I didn't have a choice. Now I'm standing at the altar with an animal... A handsome, rugged animal. He's going to bend me over. Break me. Swallow me whole.

And I'm about to be his... 'til death do us part. Blaze I don't chase girls – I replace them. And I thought I'd seen the last of Olivia. But when the survival of the club depends on it, I didn't have a choice. But now that I'm about to marry her, there's only one thing on my mind: Finish what I started. She might hate me, but I don't give a damn. I'm going to make her MINE.

Zoey parker monster, angels of chaos mc  
Zoey parker monster, angels of chaos mc