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This is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons--living or dead--is entirely coincidental. SPIKE 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.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Free Bonus Book: OVERDOSED Sneak Preview of STOLEN OTHER WORKS BY ZOEY PARKER Zoey Parker Mailing List

Chapter One Joe’s Bar was, as usual, a mess. The air was filled with smoke so thick visibility was restricted to about thirty-five feet. Not that it mattered—the room was only half-lit to begin with. The corners were a shrouded mystery of debauchery. The floor was packed with people surrounding the scattered pool tables, money changing hands every few seconds. In the middle of the hazy room was a large wooden table. Over a dozen people sat around it, all engaged in their own conversations, yet seemingly oriented towards an imposing man sitting at the center. Every person sitting at the table had a patch sewn somewhere on their leather clothing: flaming skulls chasing each other over a Welcome mat that sat at the entrance to the gates of Hell. Underneath it said Satan’s Disciples. The man at the center of the table was resting his arm on a motorcycle helmet that had the Satan’s Disciples patch drawn on the front with Leader stamped across the top. He was handsome, in a hard way, with tattoos and scars haphazardly strewn across his body and a crooked smile that said he knew a thing or two about a thing or two. He turned to his left and looked at the gorgeous, oliveskinned woman sitting next to him. The man opened his mouth, leaning forward to shout above the din, his auburn hair falling into his eyes, when the front door burst open, sending a cool draft of air across the room that parted the thick clouds of smoke clinging to the ceiling. “Spike!” A very tall, very heavy-set man stood in the entrance, gasping for air as he leaned his huge belly against the doorframe. His long blond hair was falling from its ponytail, matting against his sweaty face. The man at the table sat up, suddenly alert. “What is it, Tiny?” he demanded. Tiny did his best to explain what happened between huge gulps of air. “Vermin…selling out back… Ivan showed up…” Spike held up his hand. He didn’t need to hear any more to know what happened. “Thanks, Tiny. Take a breather, okay?” He needed Tiny with him out there, not passed out from exhaustion. Joe’s Bar had once upon a time been considered off limits, a home base of sorts, where none of the gangs were allowed to conduct business, or settle old scores. Joe’s was a cease-fire zone where leaders could meet peaceably. Then the Russian mob had moved in, taking the corner market on almost every territory with their foreign products and far-reaching fingers. Their leader, Ivan, was merciless, and his second-incommand, Yury, delighted in inflicting pain. They had no order, no code to keep them in line, which meant eventually they would burn themselves out. Spike just hoped the Russians wouldn’t take

everyone else out along with them. Spike stood up and looked at the people sitting before him. “Vince and Hector,” he said, pointing at an incredibly good-looking black man with a goatee, and a short, stocky Hispanic man who was wearing sunglasses even though he was indoors. Without any hesitation, they both immediately stood and followed Spike to the door. Tiny stepped back, holding the door open for the three men. He let the door swing shut on the smoky room, where the remaining patrons anxiously returned to their conversations, pretending they hadn’t overheard what had just transpired. Still panting a little, Tiny led the men around to the back of Joe’s, where five men stood in a pyramid formation, the man at the front holding another man by the back of his neck with one hand, and pointing a gun at his side with the other. The one holding the gun was massive, well over six feet tall with ice-blond hair. “Vermin,” Spike whispered to himself, recognizing the much smaller man being held at gunpoint. “What’s going on here?” he asked the group, his breath puffing small clouds in the cold night air. “I just found your boy selling on our territory, that’s what’s going on,” the man with the gun, Ivan, said. “Joe’s isn’t supposed to be anyone’s territory, Ivan. You know that,” Spike said patiently. “And if it were going to be anyone’s territory, it would be Satan’s Disciples.” Ivan sneered at him. “You know all of downtown Chicago belongs to the Russians. Don’t make me give you a reminder,” he threatened, stabbing the gun into Vermin’s side, causing him to grunt with pain. Spike sighed, annoyed. The Russians had their hands in a lot of cookie jars—trafficking, witness intimidation, hits—but their drug game was weak. They cut their coke with caffeine pills and their ecstasy was always laced. Ivan was too proud to admit it, but anyone who wanted good product came to Satan’s Disciples. “You should be happy Satan’s Disciples keeps to themselves and doesn’t infringe on your other areas of business.” Spike countered Ivan’s threat with his own. “What are you trying to say?” Ivan asked. “I’m saying you’re a shitty businessman, Ivan,” Spike said disgustedly. Goosebumps raced up and down his bare arms. “If you did good business, you wouldn’t need to resort to busting low-level gang members who are breaking meaningless rules.” Ivan looked at Spike like he was crazy. Who the fuck did this man think he was? Ivan raised his gun, cocking it as he pressed it to Vermin’s head. Vermin whimpered, staring at Spike, pleading with his

eyes for him to do something. “I’m going to kill this man if you don’t swear to me right now, in front of your own men, that you will stay out of Russian territory,” Ivan said flatly. “Didn’t I just say he was a nobody?” Spike said, chuckling. He pushed his shaggy auburn hair back with one hand. “I don’t care about him.” “Please…” Vermin sobbed, “Spike, help me—” Vermin’s voice was cut off by a loud gunshot and he fell from Ivan’s grip, crumpling to the gritty asphalt of the wet back alley. He let out a high-pitched scream that settled into a low wail and he sat up, gripping his leg where Spike had shot him. Spike lowered his gun and put it in the back of his waistband. “See?” he said. “Go ahead and shoot the dumb bastard for all I care.” The men flanking Ivan shifted, muttering to each other under their breath. Ivan looked at Spike, snarling. He pointed his gun down at Vermin and fired, shooting him in the opposite leg. Vermin screamed and then immediately passed out. “Don’t let me catch you interfering in our business again, Spike,” Ivan growled, his Russian accent finally making a subtle appearance. He turned and left, his men following him without a backwards glance. Spike didn’t move until they had rounded the corner. Once they were out of sight, Spike whipped around to face his own men and began barking out orders. “Vince, go tell Joe to call an ambulance. Tell them to prep for multiple gunshot wounds.” Vince took off at once at a run, his long legs silently carrying him back to the bar. “Hector, find Roxy and tell her to bring her kit around back.” The shorter man nodded, his sunglasses gone. “On it, boss,” he said, quickly following Vince’s path, his feet slapping against the ground in his haste. “Tiny, help me,” Spike said, pulling a bandana from his back pocket. Tiny’s hands shook as he removed the dark red bandana from around his head and passed it to Spike, who tied the two pieces of fabric together and wrapped them around Vermin’s leg, applying pressure to the wound. Vermin woke slowly, groaning in pain. “Wh-why’d you shoot me, Spike? Why’d you do it?” he asked, taking shallow breaths. “Because if I hadn’t shot you in the leg, Ivan would have shot you in the head,” Spike answered angrily. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing selling behind Joe’s, anyway?” he asked, tightening the tourniquet.

“Not so tight!” Vermin squealed. “Some college kids were down here looking for coke, enough for a party,” he explained. “What was I supposed to say to them? ‘Meet me five miles from here and it’s a deal’?” Spike sighed, but didn’t loosen the makeshift bandage. If he did, Vermin might bleed out. “How much did you get?” he asked out of curiosity. “A grand,” Vermin said, his eyelids beginning to flutter. Spike heard rapidly approaching footsteps. Roxy had arrived with her medical kit. She had spent a couple of years as an EMT before joining Satan’s Disciples, and was their resident doctor for sticky situations when the hospital wasn’t an option. “Hang in there, Vermin,” Spike said, stepping back to give Roxy access. An ambulance wailed in the distance. Spike had a feeling it was only the first of many he would be hearing. Things with the Russians had been tenser than ever. It wouldn’t be long before something happened that forced the two gangs to settle the matter between them once and for all.


The thin wail of an Enrique Iglesias song echoed from the depths of Georgia’s purse. She stopped in the middle of lobby of the office she worked at and dug through the contents of her bag until she found her phone. She pulled it out and looked at the screen. It was her best friend, Stacy. Georgia pressed the green button and answered. “Hey, Stacy. I’m just leaving the office now.” It had been a miserable day at work for Georgia, again. She had come into her new job with the title Administrative Assistant, fully expecting to spend the first couple of months doing all of the bitch work, but last week marked six months, and she was still just the gofer girl. She wasn’t even the gofer girl for the PR department either, which was where she eventually hoped to work. No, she was the designated bitch for the whole office. Step right up, everybody, and give Georgia an errand to do. Out of coffee? Georgia would get it. Need those papers sent out? Georgia would do it. How about your asshole wiped? “Georgia?” Stacy said in her ear. “I’m really sorry you had a bad day, but remember to breathe, okay?” Georgia realized she had been standing the parking lot next to her car, ranting for the last five minutes solid. “Sorry, Stacy,” she muttered, smoothing her thick brown hair. “I could just really use a vacation.”

“Couldn’t we all,” Stacy replied, drily. “Wanna have a girls’ night soon? Maybe we can have a staycation this weekend,” she suggested. “That sounds exactly like what the doctor ordered,” Georgia agreed, her blue eyes lighting up at the idea of homemade hair masks and a bottomless glass of merlot, though Stacy was probably envisioning a nightclub and enough vodka to put down a horse. Stacy Kwon had always been Georgia’s wild friend. She was incredibly beautiful, tall and lithe, a model’s figure, with long, straight black hair that hung to her waist. In college, it had been Stacy who had given Georgia her first beer, encouraged her to try her first one-night stand, and once upon a time —and perhaps once or twice since—had given Georgia her first experience with pot. Stacy was daring, promiscuous, and she took risks Georgia would never even consider. She was, in short, everything Georgia wasn’t. Georgia’s phone buzzed, bringing her back to Earth. “Hey, can I call you back?” Georgia asked. “Felix is calling.” “I wonder what he needs,” Stacy said cynically. Felix was Georgia’s younger brother and they were incredibly close. There was nothing Georgia wouldn’t do for Felix, and she knew the opposite was true, too, no matter what other people said. “He’s better now,” Georgia insisted. “He got off probation five months ago and he hasn’t been in trouble since.” Georgia and Felix’s childhood had been less than happy, with Georgia doing her best to shield Felix from the worst of it. Their father was a drunk, to the point that their mother had eventually abandoned him, leaving Georgia to pick up the pieces of their family at age fourteen. Felix had only been eight at the time, and now, eleven years later, he was still dealing with the aftermath in a variety of ways. When he was younger, it was just schoolyard fights. Someone would say something about their mother running off, or their father’s consistent unemployment, and it would set Felix off. As he got older, though, Felix began to turn to drugs, usually coke, but any kind of upper would do. Anything so he could feel good for once. Georgia felt sorry for him. He had been too young to remember when their family had been happy. She still had memories from before things got bad. Felix had no happy times to fall back on when he was struggling with life. But three months ago Felix said his friend Alex had gotten him a job, and that things were finally looking up. “I wish you would at least give him a shot,” Georgia said. “We’ve been down this road before, Georgia. Several times, in fact. He’s a drug addict.”

“I told you—not anymore!” she protested. “And if you would just go out with him the one time, then maybe he would stop bugging me to bug you and he could move on.” “Shouldn’t you answer your brother’s call?” Stacy asked, trying to change the subject. Georgia rolled her eyes. “Fine. I’ll talk to you later,” she said. She quickly hung up with Stacy and switched lines, managing to catch Felix just in time. “What’s up, little brother?” she said when she answered. “Just checking up on my Joja,” he replied, charmingly using his childhood nickname for her. Felix had struggled with forming the letter R as a baby, turning Georgia into Joja. “How do you feel about some brother-sister bonding time? Tonight? Your place?” he asked. Georgia’s gut turned. It wasn’t unusual for the two of them to spend lots of time together. Growing up, they had only ever had each other, with Georgia as the primary caretaker. Georgia had even selected a college nearby so she and Felix could stay close. They never went more than a week without seeing each other. And yet… Was Stacy right? Did Felix want something? More often than not, during their brothersister bonding time, Georgia paid for their dinners, the movie, and anything else that came up, even going so far as to buy him groceries on occasion. Georgia gave herself a mental shake. Felix wasn’t a bum, he was her brother, and he was just going through a rough patch. He was getting better, after all. “Sounds great, Felix,” she finally answered. “Awesome,” he said. She could hear the grin in his voice. “I’ll bring the booze!” “Felix, you’re nineteen,” she reminded him. “When has that ever stopped me before?” he said, chuckling. Georgia hung up after giving Felix a warning about underage drinking. She got into her car and resisted the urge to send Stacy a smug text about Felix paying for something for once. An hour later, Felix was at her front doorstep, brown paper bag in hand. Georgia brushed a chip of peeling paint from the doorframe as she answered. Her place was a piece of crap. “What’d you bring me?” she asked cheekily, putting her hands out. Felix reached into the bag and pulled out a box of wine. “Merlot, right?” he asked hesitantly. Georgia nodded, happy he remembered. Stacy would probably scoff at the fact that it was box wine,

but Stacy could stuff it. As far as Georgia was concerned, it was another point in her brother’s favor. “I have lasagna or empanadas,” she told him as she grabbed two wine glasses. “Speaking from my vast knowledge of wine pairings, I think lasagna would go better with this oaky merlot. Once it’s been properly aired out, of course,” Felix said, opening the plastic bag inside the box and pouring the glasses for them. Georgia laughed. Her brother was always cracking jokes. “So, how have you been?” he asked once they had sat down to eat. “Are you still seeing Whacko?” Georgia set down her fork and glared at Felix. “I told you not to call him that. He overheard you last time.” Rocco, referred to as Whacko by her brother, was a guy from the office a floor below hers. They had met in the building cafeteria one day two months ago and, from Georgia’s perspective, had been involved in a lukewarm, sporadic, half-formed relationship ever since. Rocco, however, had a tendency to be romantically aggressive, as Georgia liked to call it. Felix just called him Whacko. Rocco frequently dropped hints about bringing her over for dinner with his parents, despite her obvious reluctance, and he had even once suggested the two of them move in together, though he later claimed to be joking. “Why are you still with him?” Felix asked. “Is he really that good in bed?” “No, not really,” Georgia admitted. “But it’s better than nothing.” She wasn’t too sure about that last part, especially as of late. Georgia wouldn’t consider herself a kinky person, but she still liked to mix it up a little in the bedroom. She couldn’t remember the last time Rocco and she hadn’t had sex in the missionary position, if ever. She had tried to initiate sex with her on top once, but Rocco had stopped her and moved so she was beneath him again. She stopped trying after that. Maybe it’s my fault for not being open enough with him, she thought. “Whatever you’re thinking,” Felix said, interrupting her, “it’s not true.” “How do you know what I’m thinking?” Georgia said defensively, knowing the question was pointless even as she said it. Felix always knew when she was doubting herself. “I know there’s nothing you, or anyone else, can do to fix whatever problems that guy’s got,” he said with a snort of laughter.

“Well, if it isn’t the pot calling the kettle black!” Georgia exclaimed. She may have defended her brother to Stacy earlier, but Felix had enough of his own issues to focus on without making fun of someone else’s. “Hey now,” he protested, “play nice.” Georgia reached forward to poke the ticklish spot under his arm. “How’s that?” she teased, just like she used to when they were little. Georgia had always had a solid, athletic build, with a narrow waist and thick thighs that gave her a much lower center of gravity than her skinny younger brother. Once she got a hold of him, she almost always won their fights. Felix let out a satisfying yelp and Georgia reached to tickle the back of his neck. She spotted an opening and dug her finger into his side, expecting a girlish squeal. Instead, Felix grunted loudly and dropped to one knee, holding his ribs where Georgia had poked him. “Felix?” Georgia cried, alarmed. “What did I do?” Before he could stop her, she pulled up the hem of his shirt to take a look. Huge bruises, blue, black, and purple, spread across Felix’s chest and sides, their edges tinged with green. Felix had always been skinny, and even now his ribs were clearly visible beneath the bootshaped bruises. Georgia gasped. “What happened?” she demanded. “Did you get into a fight?” “Not exactly,” Felix said. “Then what happened?” she repeated. “And don’t even think of lying to me right now, Felix Sebastian Lewis!” Georgia said, using his full name. “I’m handling it, Georgia,” Felix said, glaring at her. “I don’t need your help, you know.” “Have you taken a good look at yourself recently? Or, better yet, been to a hospital? I’m willing to bet you’ve got at least one fractured rib, by the look of you.” Georgia went into the kitchen and returned with her purse, which she sat on the dining room table and began to sort through. “What are you doing?” Felix asked suspiciously as Georgia pulled out her phone. “Since you won’t tell me what happened to you, I’m calling you an ambulance to take you to the hospital,” she replied smartly, dialing. Felix lunged forward to knock the phone out of her hand. “I won’t let you. You can’t be getting

involved in this, Georgia! It’s too dangerous for you!” Georgia easily moved out of his way, holding the phone just out of reach. “Too dangerous for me?” she said. Felix crumpled as Georgia viciously stabbed a finger into his side. “You can’t even defend yourself against your sister right now. What hope do you have of defending yourself against these people again?” she asked, waving her arm towards his discolored midsection. Felix said nothing. He merely lay on the floor, clutching his stomach. He was furious with his sister, but only because she pointed out something he already knew to be true. He had no hope of standing up to the Russian mob. Not by himself, anyway. He certainly wasn’t going to ask his sister for help, but perhaps there was someone else who could help him. Someone who already had a vendetta against Ivan and his men. Georgia sank down to the ground next to her brother. “Please, Felix. Tell me what happened,” she begged. The longer Felix sat in silence, the more creative her imagination became. She closed her eyes. “How much money do you owe?” she asked resignedly. Georgia knew there was only one reason Felix wouldn’t want to tell her how he had gotten his bruises. He was ashamed of them. Which could only mean one thing: Felix was in trouble again.


Georgia went into the kitchen and pulled an icepack from the freezer, throwing it to Felix, who winced as he raised a lean arm to catch it. “Start from the beginning,” she ordered him, pouring herself another glass of wine. Felix sat back, tousling his cropped brown hair. “I don’t know…” he moaned. “Well, you’d better figure it the fuck out, Felix,” Georgia said, unconsciously falling into Mom-mode, with her fists squarely set on her wide hips, “because you getting killed by the Russian mob isn’t an option!” He rolled his eyes. “Right, because that’s what I want. To be murdered. Very helpful, Georgia. This is exactly why I didn’t plan on telling you about this.” “Yeah, and your cover lasted all of an hour and a half before I found out. Great job, Felix!” Georgia shot back. “I can tell you’ve really got a handle on the situation.” She saw the hurt flash in her brother’s eyes and she mentally cursed herself. Yelling wasn’t going to help anything now. If she freaked, Felix definitely wouldn’t come to her the next time something happened.

She sat down next to him, sighing deeply. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I just worry about you, and when I worry, I get angry. Will you please tell me what happened now?” “Are you going to get mad?” Felix asked testily. Georgia bit her lip at his tone. “I promise I won’t get mad.” Felix leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “You know my friend Alex who got me the job? Alex Vaskov?” She felt her heart sink and tried not to let the disappointment show on her face. It was something Georgia was well practiced at by now. “You said his cousin’s friend hired the two of you to work at a bar,” she said evenly. “That wasn’t true, was it?” Felix shook his head. “That part is true. His cousin Victor did hook us up with the guy we were working for, Petey, but…” He trailed off, too ashamed to continue. “But what?” Georgia pressed. Despite her promise, she was quickly losing patience with Felix’s reluctance. “It’s not like I said before. Not anymore, anyway,” Felix said, hanging his head. Georgia thought she was going to scream if her brother didn’t spill in the next thirty seconds. “About a month ago, Alex and I were bussing tables one night when this guy walks in. He’s a tall, snooty-looking guy, like how dare you breathe the same air as him, y’know? Anyway, as soon as he walks in, the bartender goes to the back and gets Petey, who shuts the place down. Like, kicks everyone out except the staff, it was crazy.” He paused to take a sip of his wine and Georgia mentally screamed at him to get to the point. Felix seemed to be in a much better mood now that he had an audience. “So after everyone leaves, in walks this other guy, biggest guy I’ve ever seen. His shoulders practically touched the door frame when he came in. Scary guy. He gave me the heebie-jeebies.” Felix shivered dramatically to make a point. “He and Petey went to the back and Alex and I went back to cleaning. Cut to an hour later, the guy comes back out. He spots Alex and me and comes over to us.” Felix paused. “This is where I start to get stupid,” he warned her. “He asked us if we wanted to make quick cash running an errand for him. Alex said yes before I could say anything, and I figured I could use the money.” He paused for a long time. “What was the errand?” Georgia asked hesitantly, unsure if she really wanted to know. “It was a drug run,” Felix blurted out finally. “Almost a pound of meth. Alex carried it and I was lookout.”

“Why did they beat you?” Georgia asked, trying to maintain her carefully constructed I’m not judging you face. “They didn’t,” Felix told her dully. “Ivan, the big guy who sent us on the run, he was so pleased that he gave us five hundred bucks each, and a bonus: some coke.” He laughed bitterly. “I’m sure you can imagine what happened next. I got hooked on the coke and the cash. So did Alex—for the cash, anyway.” “So then…” Georgia was still struggling to understand how Felix had gotten hurt in the situation. “Everything was good for a few weeks,” Felix continued, seeing her confused face. “We got bigger and bigger runs, for more and more money. Then a couple of days ago Alex and I got jumped. They stuck guns in our faces and told us to hand over everything we had. The drugs and the money.” “Felix!” Georgia gasped. “You refused to hand it over? They could’ve killed you!” she exclaimed. Felix laughed again, anger beginning to creep into his voice. “Oh, we handed it over. That’s what nearly got us killed. They didn’t do this to me, Georgia,” Felix said, gesturing to his stomach. “Ivan did. When we got back, and he found out what had happened…he lost it. Went fucking nuts. He grabbed a bat and started swinging, then kicking when I finally fell down.” “What about Alex?” Georgia asked timidly, terrified of the answer. “Ivan beat the shit out of him, too,” Felix said. “But he got off lucky,” he added. Georgia made a face, bewildered. “How is that? You said he got beat up as well.” Felix sighed. “Yeah, well, do you remember that cousin of his I told you about?” “Yeah, what about him?” “I guess he’s pretty rich,” Felix told her, explaining nothing. Georgia bit her lip until she tasted blood to keep from screaming at her brother. “Ivan expects us to pay him back for what we lost. Alex’s cousin Victor paid for his half,” he clarified, continuing. “I still have to come up with mine.” A long silence stretched between them. Georgia stood up, pacing the living room. “I guess asking what happens if you can’t come up with the money would be a stupid question,” she said, finally breaking the quiet. Her brother nodded. “I don’t think they would be quick about it, either.” Georgia turned green and her stomach did a flip. “So, how much?” she asked him again, continuing to pace. Georgia wasn’t stupid. She knew her brother had been purposely avoiding this particular fact

during his story hour. Felix bit his lower lip and said nothing. “Felix…” Georgia threatened, stopping in her tracks to glare at him. He mumbled something under his breath. “Felix!” “Ten grand!” he yelled back, snapping. “Fucking ten thousand dollars, okay?” Georgia sank back down to the couch, her eyes wide. “Yeah,” Felix said solemnly. “I’m fucked.” “Not necessarily,” Georgia said, optimistic. “He had to have given you some time to get the money together. How long do you have?” “One week,” he replied heavily, nearly crushing her hopes with his fatalistic tone. She jumped up from the couch and began to pace again. “Okay,” Georgia said, her mind going a mile a minute. “Okay, so I’ve got a couple grand in my savings account. I might be able to open a credit card and get a cash advance on it within a week, that should be at least another three thousand dollars right there, so that’s half of it taken care of…” Felix watched as his sister walked back and forth across her small townhome living room, muttering to herself about accounts and advances. A slimy pit of shame grew in his gut as he realized he had gone his entire life allowing his sister to clean up his messes for him. Every time he got into trouble, there she was to bail him out, no matter what he had done. And every time, the trouble he found himself in was worse and worse. Eventually, a time would come where Georgia wouldn’t be able to help him. Is this that time? he wondered, hating himself that he was so weak. He tuned back into his sister’s ramblings. The least he could do if she was going to save his sorry ass was pay attention. “…if I sell my car I could get another three, maybe four thousand, so that leaves a thousand…let’s say fifteen hundred dollars we need to come up with in a week,” she finished, looking at him expectantly. He stared back at her. “Yeah, uh, that sounds great.” “Do you have any ideas where you can get fifteen hundred dollars?” she asked, though what she really wanted to say was, “You had better start helping me save you or I’m going to let them murder your ass.”

“I might be able to borrow a couple hundred from Alex,” he suggested. “Okay, why don’t you give him a call and ask him while I go get more wine,” Georgia said, heading to the kitchen before Felix could respond. If she didn’t get a minute to herself, she was going to flip the fuck out. Her brother had really pushed the limits this time. She had to help him, though. If she didn’t, he would be dead within a week. There was no way he would be able to come up with ten grand on his own. Georgia poured herself another glass, reasoning that tonight had been incredibly stressful and that she was entitled to an extra glass of wine or three. Taking a deep breath, she reentered the living room and immediately saw Felix was white as a sheet. “What’s wrong?” she asked, alarmed. She rushed to his side. “Well, I’m glad we hung out at your house tonight. Alex said Ivan put someone on my place, to make sure I don’t run,” Felix explained, seemingly in shock. “He also said every day I don’t come up with the money, he’s going to add ten percent interest. I, uh, I guess it’s normally twenty percent, but, um, Alex said Ivan gave me the employee discount.” Felix broke into a crazed, uncontrollable laughter that quickly subsided into heaving sobs. “He wants me to fail, Joja!” he screamed. “He wants me to fail so he can kill me and pretend it was my own fault, that’s what he does!” Georgia flinched, more at his tone than his volume. She had never heard the sound of pure terror before. It was particularly horrifying knowing that its source was her little brother. “We’ll think of something,” she finally said, sounding more confident than she felt. “Like what?” Felix asked skeptically. Georgia stood up. “Let’s just figure out tonight first, okay? You can’t go back home obviously. You’ll stay here and we’ll work out a plan first thing tomorrow morning.” She forced a smile onto her face and went to grab a pillow and blanket for the couch. Felix caught sight of the look on Georgia’s face just before she plastered that awful “everything is fine” grin across it. It was a look that said for once, she had no idea what to do. Felix took the bedding from Georgia, setting it next to him on the couch. “Good night, Joja,” he said, flashing a quick smile at her. “I think I’m gonna watch some TV before I go to sleep. I’m feeling pretty wired, y’know?” Georgia didn’t move. Felix gave her a look. “I’d ask you if you wanted to watch with me, but at this hour it’s just going to be infomercials and I know you hate late night TV.”

“I’m really sorry, Felix,” Georgia said quietly. “But I need you to turn out your pockets.” Felix stared at his sister, a confused look artfully constructed on his face. “What? Why?” “You know why, Felix. Please don’t turn this into a thing,” Georgia said flatly, her blue eyes aimed squarely at his shoes. Felix began to puff his chest up, ready to stir up a dramatic outrage against his sister’s terrible insinuations, but one look at his big sister, a woman who had spent half of her childhood and all of her adult life taking care of him, and the tank of prideful hot air whooshed out of him in one big rush. He stuck his hand into the small watch pocket of his jeans and pulled out a small baggie of cocaine, carefully, almost lovingly, rolling it between his tan, bony fingers. “Can I trust you to do it?” Georgia asked quietly, interrupting his reverie. “Or do you need me to?” “No,” Felix said firmly, strength filling his voice. “I can do it.” He walked to the bathroom quickly, almost running, desperately trying to make it before he lost all the willpower his sister had imbued him with. The toilet flushed and Felix came back to the living room. He sat on the couch, rested his elbows on his knees, and then buried his head in his arms. “I love you, Felix. Good night.” Georgia kissed the top of her little brother’s head and turned out the light, as she had done a million times before. The next couple of days had the Lewis siblings in high spirits. Georgia had found a potential buyer for her car that was willing to pay three hundred over the asking price, and Alex had said his cousin would help kick in two grand in thanks for keeping Alex safe. Between the money Alex promised to bring by, and the cash Georgia had made from selling a few other things, they were only eight hundred dollars away from saving Felix’s life. Georgia woke up to the sounds of songbirds outside her window and the soft thud of the morning paper hitting her front door. She got up and went into the kitchen, passing her snoring brother on the couch. Starting the coffee machine, Georgia went about making breakfast, not caring to be quiet. Felix slept like a dead horse. The only way to wake him up was with an air horn or a cold bucket of water. Testing this theory, she gave him a sharp prod in the shoulder where she knew he was uninjured. Nothing. Shrugging, Georgia walked to the front door to retrieve the paper. Her neighbor, Mrs. Fitz, was walking by and waved hello. Georgia waved back as she bent down to grab the paper, not paying attention to what it was she was reaching for. At the last second, she looked down, and saw her fingertips inches from a dead, brutally dismembered dove. Georgia shrieked and fell back, scrambling on her hands to get away from the bloody creature.

Felix’s head popped up, his brown hair pointing in all directions. “What is it?” he cried, pulling himself over the couch as fast as his sleep-laden limbs would allow him. Georgia’s trembling fingers reached for the dove once again, using her thumb and forefinger to gingerly pluck a small, folded piece of paper from the bird’s beak. “A warning,” she said, the paper falling from her hands.


Chapter Two It was only once Georgia put on two pairs of kitchen gloves and a bandana around her nose and mouth that she was able to carefully place the dead bird into a shoebox. Felix was gagging too much to be any help at all, so Georgia put the box in the garage, resolving to bury it once she had some time. “What the fuck is a dead bird doing on my doorstep, Felix?” she demanded, washing her hands for the third time. “I thought you had another four days!” Felix sat on the couch, staring dully at his feet. “I guess Ivan doesn’t want to wait any longer. If I don’t pay him by tonight…that’s it. Game over.” Georgia stopped in the middle of the living room, hands on her hips. “Then I guess you won’t be here tonight,” she said finally. “What are you talking about?” Felix tiredly raised his head to give her a confused look. “We still need eight hundred dollars to pay him off, Felix,” she explained. “Can you guarantee that we’re going to be able to get that by tonight? Because I can’t.” “So, what?” Felix said blankly. “You want us to run?” “Not us,” Georgia said, looking down at her feet. She raised her head to look her little brother square in the eye. “Just you.” “If you think that I’m going to leave you behind, you’re fucking crazy,” Felix said with a small, disbelieving laugh. “Don’t argue with me, and don’t swear,” Georgia scolded him. “They’re only after you, Felix. You only have to leave for a couple of days, until I can manage to pull some more money together.” He scoffed. “Yeah? And how are you going to do that? Are you going to hit up the Tooth Fairy? We’ve tapped every resource available to us, Joja.” Georgia bit her lip. If she told Felix who she was planning on asking for the money, then he would really worry, and they didn’t have time for that right now. “Don’t worry about it. I have it under control.” “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me where you plan on getting almost a thousand dollars in a day’s notice,” Felix insisted, folding his arms. Georgia rolled her eyes. “You’re insufferable, you know that?” she said angrily. Her brother merely shrugged. “Fine,” she spat. “I was going to ask Dad. Happy now?”

Felix looked at her incredulously. “Dad? You were going to ask Dad?” “Well, we don’t exactly have a lot of options, Felix!” she cried. “It’s either ask Dad or a bunch of scary men come to the house, kidnap, and murder you!” He looked at the ceiling, shaking his head. “You know he’ll have the money,” Georgia quietly added. Their family had never been wealthy growing up, but their father, Cameron, had kept a decent paying job, despite his rampant alcoholism. A few years after Felix was born, Cameron’s two or three beers with dinner turned into a six-pack. And then into whiskey-Cokes. And then just whiskey. He had managed to keep up appearances at work, confining his abusive, drunken outbursts to his home, where he could direct them at his wife and children. Their mother had put up with it for five years before one day, she finally packed up all of her clothes and left while Georgia and Felix were at school, and Cameron at work. The thing that had bothered Georgia the most about their mother abandoning them was that there had been no letter, not even a note. She had simply left. Georgia tried very hard to understand what would make a mother desert her children like that, but it was difficult not to resent her for the way she had handled things. Once their mother left their father, he became withdrawn. He stopped yelling at his kids, and instead began to ignore them altogether. He would get up, go to work, come home, and drink until he passed out. Georgia would have to get up in the middle of the night to turn off whatever infomercial was playing on TV and throw a blanket over her unconscious father. Georgia had left home as soon as she could, but stuck close for Felix, who often spent the night at her dorm instead of at home. Cameron had plenty of money, and as far as Georgia was concerned, he owed them. “So it’s settled,” Georgia said, firmly closing the discussion. “You’ll take my car, and I’ll get the money from Dad. In a day or two I’ll let you know when it’s safe to come back.” It would take her the better part of a day to get to their father’s place in Des Moines, especially since she had to take a bus. Felix would need the freedom of a car if he was to have any hope of getting out of here alive. Felix hesitated, then shook his head. “I don’t like leaving you here by yourself! They know where you live, Georgia, obviously! What’s to stop them from hurting you to get at me?” he protested. “I’m not going to be in town for the majority of the time,” she reminded him. “Also, how are they going to get any money at all if they hurt me? If you’re gone, I’m the only one who will be able to pay.” “No, I’m not doing it,” he said stubbornly, folding his arms. “We’ll just have to figure out something else. You don’t understand what these people are like, Georgia!” Felix snapped suddenly, his eyes wild with fear. “This guy Ivan is seriously bad news. I don’t just mean ‘beat and murder me’ bad.

He’s got a black hole for a heart, Joja, and he and his boys hunt people down like wolves, methodically, without mercy. He buys himself a piece of ‘bling’ after every job he completes.” He shivered, staring dead ahead, not seeing anything around him. “Ivan’s not half as bad as some of his men, though. Yury’s a special treat. That rat bastard is a true psychopath, and he loves his work. He looks like a king, but he does all the dirty work behind the scenes.” “Well, Felix, if you have a suggestion, I’m all ears,” Georgia said, rapidly losing her patience as her heart began to fill with panic. “But as you told me not too long ago, we can’t call the police! Remind me why that is again?” When Georgia had first mentioned getting help, Felix had freaked and told her that calling the police was absolutely out of the question. “Ivan has a guy on the inside,” he told her, sighing. “Probably more than one.” “And you know this how?” Georgia asked. “There’s a guy—Nicholas. I’m not sure if he’s related to Ivan or what, but he comes around all the time. He’s on the force. He comes in wearing his uniform. Lets Ivan know when things are starting to get hot,” he told her. “If we breathe even a word about Ivan to the cops, Nicholas is going to hear about it, which means Ivan will hear about it, which means you, me, and everyone we know will be killed.” “Okay, no cops, I get it,” Georgia said, holding her hands up defensively. “I’m still not hearing you come up with a better plan than what we have.” Felix bit his lip and plucked at the hem of Alex’s t-shirt; when he dropped off the money, he had also given Felix some spare clothes to wear. Felix was a little taller, a little lankier than Alex’s stocky figure, so the shirt hung wide and short on him. Georgia carefully scrutinized her little brother’s face, but he wouldn’t look at her. He was hiding something. “Out with it,” she commanded. “Whatever it is that you’re holding back, now is the time to bring it to the table.” “It’s a long shot,” Felix began. “There’s literally no reason I can think of that he would help us, which is why I didn’t mention him before, but he’s the only person I know who Ivan is even a little bit scared of.” “So, who is it?” “His name is Spike Turner, but I don’t think that’s his real name. He’s the leader of one of the last motorcycle gangs around here, Satan’s Disciples.” Seeing Georgia’s confused face, he continued. “It used to be that the gangs ran things around here, with their own territories. When the Chicago branch of the Russian mob came to town, they made quick work of most of the gangs. There are a couple gangs still clinging to life, but Satan’s Disciples is the only one that’s managing to stay afloat. Mostly

because Spike seems to be able to outsmart Ivan at every turn.” “How do you figure Spike is going to even be able to help us?” Georgia asked skeptically. “I mean, if he can barely keep his own gang from getting destroyed, what hope do we have with him?” “He does more than keep Satan’s Disciples from getting destroyed. More than once Spike has sold drugs in Ivan’s territory and gotten away with it,” Felix pointed out. “He could be trying to draw Ivan out into an all-out gang war. If he is, maybe our situation could be the exact thing Spike needs to push Ivan over the edge.” “That’s what you’re going with? We just walk up and ask him?” Georgia said. “As you once said to me, I’m all ears for new ideas,” Felix replied drily. “I have an idea!” Georgia cried, frustrated. “You leave town. I leave town. I get the money. I come back. I give Ivan the money. You come back. We all live happily ever after.” “Where am I gonna go, Georgia? I can’t sleep in the car—I’m too out in the open. And I can’t stay in a hotel because all of our money is going to Ivan! I should stay here,” he insisted. Georgia thought quickly. “You can go stay with Uncle Lyle. He lives in Massachusetts. That should be far enough away.” “We haven’t seen Uncle Lyle in ten years, almost as long as mom’s been gone. He’s not going to let me stay at his place.” “Goddammit, Felix!” Georgia screamed, snapping. “I will fucking call Uncle Lyle, okay? I will figure out something to tell him and I will call him. Just promise me you won’t say anything if he calls you by mom’s maiden name, Diaz. You know how he feels about Dad.” Felix opened his mouth, but Georgia cut him off. “That’s the end of the conversation, Felix. Go pack. Now.” Almost the entire day had passed. The sun was just beginning to set, and her brother needed to be on his way. His shoulders dropped, and he knew he was beat. “I just think—” Felix was cut off once again by the sharp tinkling of broken glass. A harsh buzz flew by him, followed by a loud thud coming from the wall behind him. He and Georgia stared at each other for a second, then simultaneously turned to look at the wall they had heard the noise come from. There was a small, bullet-sized hole in it. Felix confusedly looked at the window, which was now broken. Georgia’s eyes grew wide as she realized what had happened, what was happening. She grabbed her brother by the collar and yanked him down right as another bullet pierced a second window pane, burying itself into the drywall right where Felix’s lungs had been.

They huddled behind the couch, hands over their heads as they listened to multiple shooters send what seemed like an endless hail of bullets, even though from the first to last shot it had probably only been ten seconds. A minute later, they heard someone yell at them from outside. “Felix!” the man shouted in a deep, strong voice. “Felix, get out here! It’s time to take your medicine!” “That’s Ivan,” Felix whispered, his own voice shaking. “I know you’re in there,” the voice called. “You have to get out somehow,” Georgia whispered back. “We need to create a diversion.” “When did you turn into fucking Rambo?” Felix hissed. “A diversion? What exactly would you suggest?” “One second.” Georgia took a quick peek over the couch and crawled on her belly to the kitchen, which had managed to avoid most of the damage. She stuck one hand up and grabbed a cupboard door. Felix heard the sound of glass and flinched, thinking the mob had begun shooting again. “How about this?” she asked when she came back, grinning wickedly. Georgia had grabbed every bottle she had in her booze cabinet. Even the non-alcoholic mixers. “Jesus, Georgia, there’s a lot of liquor here,” he muttered, looking at all of the alcohol. “You want to make Molotov cocktails? Who the fuck are you?” Felix said. “I’m your big sister, and I’m gonna take care of you,” Georgia said with a small smile. “And stop swearing,” she added. Despite the fact that it had been almost five minutes since they had heard anything from the mob outside, Georgia slid onto her stomach once more and army-crawled to her bathroom. She grabbed a stack of towels and the lighter from behind her scented candles, again making sure to stay low on her way back to the living room. She sat up against the back of the couch with Felix. He picked up one of the towels and looked at the thick, fluffy, light pink fabric. “How are we supposed to fit these into the bottles? They’re huge!” Georgia sighed and gave her brother a look. “Could you at least try to be helpful?” “I’m sorry, Georgia,” Felix said, shaking his head. “But there’s no way we’re going to be able to tear these by hand. Couldn’t you have grabbed some scissors?” She stared at him, wondering if handing him over to the Russians wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all. Georgia picked up a bottle of lime juice and poured out its contents into a nearby plant, wrapping it in one of the towels.

Felix barely had time to ask, “What are you doing?” when she smashed the bottle on the corner of a wall, the towel muffling the sound of breaking glass. Gently opening the towel, Georgia carefully selected a sharp piece of glass and used it to shred the other towels into more manageable strips of fabric. Felix, taking her cue, emptied any non-alcoholic bottles and filled them with liquor, creating more missiles. “Good idea,” Georgia said. He gave her a small smile and began stuffing the pieces of towel Georgia had cut into the bottle necks. “What do you think they’re doing out there?” he asked her. “Probably trying to decide how to get us out of here without being seen by the neighbors. One of them had to have called the cops by now; it’s been at least fifteen minutes since they stopped shooting.” Georgia frowned, realization falling across her face. “I just thought of something—I haven’t heard so much as a siren. Where are the cops?” “I told you,” Felix said as he finished putting the last towel strip into the last bottle, “they’ve got Nicholas. He probably told his captain he’d check it out and then reported it as fireworks. That’s the usual story they give,” he said bitterly. They arranged the bottles and took a look at their handiwork. “What now?” Felix asked, looking at his older sister expectantly. “Now, you get into my car and wait,” Georgia told him. “I wait…until you join me, right?” Felix said. Georgia looked at her brother with a sad smile. “Felix, the plan hasn’t changed. You have to go, and I have to stay so I can get the money—either from Dad, or that guy Spike. Don’t worry—they won’t hurt me if they want their money.” Felix very strongly doubted that. But he trusted his sister, and though he would never admit it, not even to himself, he was secretly grateful for the extra head start she was giving him, though she was probably going to suffer for it. Still, he was terrified for her. “Is it too late for me to tell you this is way too dangerous?” he asked, knowing it was futile. “About nineteen years too late,” she replied, kissing his cheek. “Now get going, before they decide to burst in and finish us off. Wait a few seconds after I throw the first one, alright?” Felix got into a crouch. “One last thing. If you can figure out how to convince him, Spike hangs out at

a bar downtown called Joe’s. It’s a biker bar, so be careful.” “Joe’s downtown. Check,” Georgia repeated, smiling. “Now, I thought I told you to get going.” He took one last look at his sister, then half-walked, half-crawled to the garage door where Georgia’s car was, stretching up to grab the car keys from the key hook. “Felix!” Georgia suddenly hissed. He looked back at her, nearly falling over she startled him so badly. “What?” he whispered angrily. “Don’t open the garage door,” she told him. “You can’t give them any warning where you’re coming from. The security deposit is pretty much fucked at this point anyway.” He grinned and gave a thumbs-up. Sneaking into the garage, he quietly shut the door behind him. Georgia waited for a moment, then lit one of the rags hanging from the bottle. She rotated the flame until it had grown strong enough to remain lit even while soaring through the air. Slowly pushing one of the couch cushions aside, she tried to get a proper look at the group of men standing outside her home. Two were talking near the walkway to her house, and three or four others hung back, waiting by their cars. Going by Felix’s descriptions, Georgia correctly assumed the whitehaired giant standing at the end of her drive with the obnoxiously large diamond earring studs was Ivan. That probably meant the tall, raven-haired man next to him was Yury. Silently thanking her high school guidance counselor for encouraging her to join the tennis team, Georgia carefully took the flaming projectile and hurled it through the window. Since the large front window had been completely shot to shit, she had the perfect opening available to her. The bottle lazily flipped end over end, casting a sharp, orange arc against the night sky. It exploded on the ground, blazing shrapnel flying in every direction. One man screamed, and Georgia peeked through the pillows to see one of his pant legs had caught fire. So far, none of them had reacted. They were confused by what had just happened, staring at the man on fire. Georgia took this opportunity to light another Molotov cocktail and send it flying, aiming for the cars. She wanted to remove their ability to chase Felix once he escaped. Georgia heard that strong voice ring out once more. Ivan was shouting for his men to hide behind the cars. They scrambled to obey, all except for the man who had caught fire. He was lying in the grass, motionless. If Felix was going to run, now was his best opportunity. As though on cue, she heard her car start in the garage, and barely a second later, tires screeching. There was a loud crunching noise, and Georgia watched, amazed, as Felix shot out into the street, the garage door covering the windshield of the car. He struck the front corner of one of the cars and it spun, knocking Yury to the ground, hard.

The large metal sheet obstructing Felix’s view slid off, and he cranked the wheel to peel out, speeding down the neighborhood road. Georgia hoped he knew where he was headed. Ivan raised his gun, having finally collected himself. Before he could fire, Georgia sent her fourth missile out. A piece of glass flew by, slicing Ivan’s arm, and he shot his gun high into the air. Snarling, he whirled around to face the house and pulled the trigger rapidly. Georgia ducked back behind the couch, covering her head with her hands and praying her cover would hold. Lighting another bottle, Georgia waited until there was a pause in the shooting, then quickly popped up to hurl the projectile out the window, immediately ducking back down afterwards. This time, no bullets came back at her. Instead, she heard another set of tires squealing. One of the men had jumped into the undamaged car and was racing after Felix. Georgia peered through a space in the cushions. She couldn’t see any of Ivan’s other men, which she thought was probably a bad sign. Georgia decided it was probably time for her to make her own exit. She began to make her way to the door, bringing a bottle and the lighter with her for insurance. As she crawled towards the back door of her townhome, Georgia saw that it had been jimmied and was slightly open. An enormous shadow fell across her, and she heard a deep voice from behind say, “Move, and I kill you.”


Georgia froze, one hand poised in the air. If she wasn’t very, very careful, Felix would end up an only child. “Hello, Georgia,” the voice said. It took every ounce of Georgia’s self-control not to turn her head in shock. “Yes, I know who you are, Georgia Isidora Lewis,” he continued in that cold, hard tone. “Do you know who I am?” Georgia didn’t move, terrified to disobey his earlier instructions. “Nod if you know who I am,” he told her. She nodded. “Do you want to live?” he asked her. Georgia nodded again. Her throat was dry with fear, and she knew if she tried to speak, her voice

would crack. “Then put your hands up slowly and turn to face me,” he ordered. Georgia did as he said, wobbling from one knee to the other as she turned around. If he had seemed like a giant outside, up close, on her knees, he was colossal. His massive, hulking shoulders loomed over her, and Georgia instinctively cowered a little, frightened by his emotionless expression. His gun, which was only a few inches away from Georgia’s face, took up the rest of her view. Suddenly, Georgia felt disastrously foolish in thinking she would be able to talk her way out of this without suffering dire consequences. “Wh-what do you want?” she finally managed to stammer out. “You know what I fucking want,” he said brusquely. “Where’s your brother going?” “I don’t know,” Georgia said, far too quickly. “What do you think, Yury? Do you believe her?” Ivan said, speaking to the man who had appeared in the doorway behind Georgia. Yury stepped forward to stand next to Ivan. Georgia noticed he had a bad patch of road rash on his cheekbone, marring his porcelain skin. She mentally cringed, knowing she was probably going to pay for that, despite the fact that it was technically Felix who had knocked him down. Georgia doubted the man would see the difference. Yury turned his black eyes to Georgia. He seemed to delight in seeing her on her knees. “I think she’s a lying little bitch. Tell us where he is,” he commanded her. Georgia said nothing. Yury let out an impatient sigh, softly tapping his shoes on the tile floor. Ivan reached one arm forward and, holding the gun in the other, grabbed Georgia by the wrist, physically dragging her to the living room as she vainly struggled against him. He dropped her, and Georgia pulled up her shirt to see several angry-looking scratches. Yury may have had road rash, but Georgia’s midsection was covered in carpet burns, which, to be fair, could also sting pretty badly. Georgia started to sit up, but Ivan kicked her arm out from under her, and she landed hard on her elbow, bruising the bone. “Tell me where Felix is going,” he repeated. “I told you, I don’t know,” Georgia said through gritted teeth, cradling her arm. The boot came out of nowhere, hitting Georgia squarely in the stomach. All of the air rushed out of her lungs, and she lay on her back on the floor, her breath hitching in small gasps. Tears welled in her eyes and slipped down her cheek to pool in her ears.

Ivan squatted down on his heels next to her. “Do you want to tell me now?” he asked, his cold voice settling on her chest, squeezing out what little breath she had. Even if she could speak, she would have said nothing. Ivan waited a minute for her to catch her breath, but he quickly realized she wasn’t going to talk no matter how much time he gave her. He stood up, circled around and kicked Georgia twice in the back. She cried out, pain racing down every nerve in her body. He pulled out his gun and shoved it in her face, but Georgia refused to flinch. She forced herself to raise her blue eyes to match his and stare him down. “This is foolish,” Yury suddenly said, his oily voice sliding over Georgia. Ivan stepped back to allow Yury to glide over to her, his long limbs making it appear as though he was almost floating. “Why are you protecting your brother?” Yury asked her. “He abandoned you here, all alone. He took your car and destroyed your home,” he said, gesturing imperiously to the garage door that lay in the street. “You’ve been cleaning up after him your whole life; don’t let him drag you down with him,” Yury said pleadingly. Georgia saw his black eyes gleam with something she very seriously doubted was concern for her well-being. Sizing him up, Georgia pursed her lips, took aim, and spit square in his face. Yury immediately transformed from a “caring, nurturing friend” to a rabid animal. He snarled and savagely backhanded her across the face, splitting her lip. Georgia spit again, this time spraying blood as well as spit. “Look out there,” Ivan said, grabbing her by her bicep and pointing out the window. Georgia saw the man who had been lying in the grass earlier—the man she had inadvertently set aflame—still lay there. He hadn’t moved. “You killed one of my men today. You don’t know where your brother is, or you’re not going to tell me. Either way, you have proven yourself to be completely useless. Give me a reason not to kill you now.” Georgia expected to feel sick when Ivan told her she had killed a man. She had envisioned herself throwing up in shock over the news, irreparably traumatized by what she had done. But what she felt now could be likened to perhaps a small glimmer of pride in having been able to protect her family. “Did you hear what I said?” Ivan asked, prodding her sharply in the side of the head with the muzzle of his gun. Georgia snapped out of her reverie. She took a deep, calming breath. She had practiced for this question. Doing her best to ignore the gun, which was still warm from all the recent firings, she answered. “Because right now you’re out at least thirteen thousand dollars, and I can get that for you.” Ivan watched her, his face unreadable. Yury was looking at her with a greasy smile that made Georgia want to shower.

“If you had thirteen grand, you would’ve given it to your brother and he would’ve handed it over to me,” Ivan said finally. “No, no, I have it,” Georgia insisted fervently, “I just need a couple of days to get it.” Ivan gave her a long look. His eyes flicked to Yury and he arched an eyebrow at him, flicking his gun in Georgia’s direction. Yury stepped forward. “Either women truly are the weaker sex when it comes to the sciences, or your brother failed to properly explain things to you. His debt has a daily interest charge of ten percent; a generous offer,” he explained condescendingly. “If, and that is a very hypothetical if, we were to allow you this extra time to get your money, your brother’s debt would be seventeen thousand dollars, not thirteen thousand.” “I can get it,” Georgia said without hesitation, trying her hardest to overlook Yury’s patronizing air and misogynistic undertones. “Why should we give you this extension? What makes you special?” Ivan said skeptically. “Well, it’s not really an extension if you told him he had a week to get the money together in the first place,” Georgia shot back, her temper getting the better of her. She was rewarded with a swift kick to the upper thigh. Georgia felt her leg go dead and she toppled onto her side, literally biting her tongue to keep herself from screaming out. “She’s a spicy little pepper, isn’t she?” Yury said, grinning wildly. He seemed excited by Georgia’s outburst. His constant mood shifts confused and terrified Georgia, but she supposed perhaps that was the aim. “You had better watch that attitude. At this point I’m nearly ready to shoot you dead and leave you here for your brother to come back to.” Ivan raised his gun to Georgia’s face once more. “I’m sorry,” Georgia immediately replied, panting as she tried to push her thick hair out of her eyes. “I’m sorry, okay?” Ivan gave her a long, hard look. “Not sorry enough,” he decided. As his fist flew towards her, his huge, platinum, diamond-encrusted watch filling her vision, Georgia wondered if she truly was going to die tonight. Ivan hit her in the side, and she thought she heard something crack. This time, there was no stifling her cries; she screamed in pain, and her vision instantly began to tunnel and darken. She was going to pass out. Ivan squatted down next to her again, Yury standing just behind him. “Bring Felix back in four days’ time with the seventeen thousand he owes. You do that, and maybe I don’t bring you back to the club as a new toy for the boys,” Ivan said before standing up to leave. He stopped abruptly and turned

back to her. “The money that you supposedly say you can get? I hope it’s not far. Because you’re not allowed to leave town, understand?” Yury bent down and gently brushed a lock of Georgia’s hair out of her face. She was fading fast. He leaned in close, whispering in her ear, “You’ve got a lot of fight in you, Georgia. It almost makes me hope Felix doesn’t return.” He smiled, and his black eyes were the last thing Georgia saw before she finally fell unconscious.


Georgia woke up with a gasp, letting out a soft cry. Her side was screaming in agony. She looked around the house. It was a little hard to tell, since the place had already suffered major damage, but it looked as though someone had trashed the place while she was passed out. The coffee table was smashed, and they had thrown all of the food from the kitchen onto the floor. She slowly tried to sit up. It took her the better part of a minute to get to her feet. She cringed as the night’s events came back to her. How was she going to get the money from their father if she wasn’t allowed to leave town? There was no way Cameron would ever make the trip out—Georgia might have been able to lie or guilt him into giving them the money if she were right in front of him, but getting him to care enough to make an eight-hour ride to Chicago? Never gonna happen. Even worse, now that Felix had taken off in her car, Georgia had to figure out how to make an extra four grand to replace the money she had been expecting to get from the car. She only had one option left, it seemed. The leader of Satan’s Disciples—Spike. How the hell am I supposed to get a gang leader to help me? One who is a complete stranger, to boot, Georgia wondered. They had no money, nothing of any value. Borrowing the money from Spike would most likely mean they would just end up in this same situation in six months’ time, except instead of being tortured and killed by a Russian mobster, she could be tortured and killed by a fat, unwashed biker. She needed to figure out something else, but nothing was coming to her. Her brain was completely tapped of ideas. It ran sluggishly, endlessly repeating one question: how was she going to convince Spike to take care of Ivan for her? Georgia kicked her leg out in frustration, striking a cupboard door. Pain shot up her leg where Ivan had kicked her, and bled into her side. She bit her lip against the hurt. Suddenly, Georgia’s eyes flew open. Stacy. If Georgia knew anyone who knew anything about bikers, it would be Stacy. Georgia scrambled over to her phone as fast as she could. Thankfully, it had withstood most of the damage Ivan and his men had done to the place, and there was only a small crack in the screen. Georgia quickly dialed Stacy’s number. “Hello?” Stacy said groggily, finally answering after what seemed like an eternity. “Stacy!” Georgia cried. “Thank god you answered. I need your help.”

Georgia heard Stacy fumbling around in the background. “It’s two in the fucking morning, Georgia. What could you possibly need my help with?” In a quieter voice, away from the phone, Stacy told someone to go back to sleep. “Please, Stacy, just know it’s important,” she pleaded. “Okay, okay,” Stacy grumbled. “I’ll be right over once I get rid of this guy.” Georgia hung up and looked around her place. Was there any point in trying to clean up before Stacy came over? She tried to bend over and put her standing plant upright, and her ribs felt like they were on fire, so she quickly stopped, dropping the plant back down to the ground. She fell onto the sofa, and a million little bits of fluff flew into the air, shooting out from the two or three dozen bullet holes that peppered the couch. Georgia dozed fitfully until she heard a car pull up. She sat up, ignoring the pain as best she could, then gently lay back down when she realized it was Stacy. “The door is open,” she called, hearing Stacy walk up the drive. It was pretty easy to hear everything due to all of the front windows being shot out. Stacy entered slowly, astonishment written all over her face. “What the goddamn fucking hell happened here, Georgia?” she cried. Seeing her friend on the couch, she rushed over, trembling when she saw Georgia’s bruises. “Oh my god! Are you okay?” “I’m fine,” Georgia told her, wincing as she sat up again. “You are clearly not fine,” Stacy said, watching Georgia struggle. “You need to go to the hospital.” Georgia shook her head furiously. “No. No hospitals. It’s okay. I got off light, relatively speaking.” She looked out the window and noticed the dead man in the street was now gone. Stacy looked at her. “Light? You’re telling me that whatever happened here,” she said, gesturing around her, “you got off light?” “That’s what I’m telling you,” Georgia said firmly. “Then you’d better fucking tell me what happened,” Stacy said. “Now. Or I’m calling you an ambulance.” “Please don’t do that,” Georgia begged her. “I’ll tell you, just…let me catch my breath for a minute.” Everything had happened so fast, it was difficult for Georgia to put it together chronologically. Finally, she cleared her throat and gave Stacy the long and short of it, trying to downplay her brother’s role in the situation as much as possible. She didn’t want another lecture from Stacy about

how Felix was bad news. “So, you want to walk into the home of the second baddest guy in town, empty-handed, and ask him to take out the first baddest guy in town as what? A favor to you and your idiot brother?” Stacy said sarcastically. “Is that it? Do I have the gist? Are you fucking crazy?” “Hey!” Georgia snapped, tired of being attacked for her risky plans. “If you have a few grand lying around that you’d like to donate to the cause, or an idea, you should have said something. Otherwise, maybe stop being so goddamn critical and help me!” Pain stabbed at Georgia’s ribs as she yelled. She winced, holding her side. Stacy sat next to her on the couch, quiet. “Okay, no,” she admitted. “I don’t have any better suggestions, and I’m broke as fuck. So how can I help?” Georgia bit her lip, thinking hard. “I don’t know,” she confessed, tears beginning to well in her eyes. “I don’t know what to do, Stacy! I can’t think of anything! How can I convince this guy to help me?” “It’s alright,” Stacy said soothingly, hugging Georgia gently, taking care of her injuries. “We’ll come up with something together, okay? If nothing else, I’ll be right there by your side when you walk into the lion’s den.” Georgia sobbed into her friend’s shoulder. “I’m so scared, Stacy. They’re going to kill us.” “Hey,” Stacy said, reaching down to pick up a towel scrap that was on the floor, using it to wipe Georgia’s tears. “That’s not going to happen. We are going to figure this out.” Stacy stood up, holding both of her hands out to Georgia to help her up. “Come on. I think I have an idea. But first, we need to clean you up.” Georgia took Stacy’s hands, gingerly pulling herself up. Stacy helped her to the bathroom and cleaned her cuts as best she could. Georgia had a split lip, and what looked like the beginnings of a black eye, as well as an impressive array of bruises that covered her midsection. The spot where Ivan had kicked her in the ribs was already turning black. “I’m really worried about you having internal bleeding,” Stacy said. “You’re wasting your breath,” Georgia told her as Stacy dabbed hydrogen peroxide on her cuts. “The hospital is going to ask too many questions. They’re going to get the police involved, and I already told you why that can’t happen.” “Okay, okay,” Stacy muttered. “No hospital. But if you pass out, I will call an ambulance. There,” she said, stepping away from Georgia, “you’re all patched up. Excluding your fractured rib and probable concussion, of course,” Stacy added mockingly. “Thanks, Stacy. I feel better already,” Georgia said, smiling gratefully at her friend. “So, what’s your

idea?” “It depends,” Stacy said, looking Georgia up and down. “How much leather do you own?”

Chapter Three Spike leaned back in the wooden chair and rested his cold beer on his thigh. Joe’s bar was packed tonight, and room seemed to practically vibrate with energy. The number of gangs in the area, and the number of members themselves, had dropped considerably since the Russians had come to town, but you wouldn’t know it looking at the place right now. The music thudded in his ears as he watched the Satan’s Disciples enjoy themselves. “Look at Tiny,” Cleo said next to him, nodding towards a large man with a long blond-gray ponytail. Tiny’s cheeks were ruddy; he was in a drinking race, his massive paw gripping the base of a pitcher of beer as he gulped down its contents, tiny rivulets running down his long, greying beard. He took his last swallow and won, laughing as he held the glass pitcher aloft. Tiny slammed the glass down on the table in victory, sending cracks all through the pitcher’s base. Tiny looked at the broken glass guiltily. Shoving himself away from the table, he picked his way through the crowd with his head hung low. He called over Joe, the bar’s owner, and rather abashedly handed over the pitcher, along with a twenty-dollar bill. Spike smiled a small smile to himself. Tiny was the biggest man in Satan’s Disciples, at a couple inches over six feet tall, and almost five feet around, yet he was one of the gentlest men he knew. Tiny had joined the gang to follow in his older brother’s—and idol’s—footsteps, and remained after his brother died in a tragic motorcycle accident to honor his memory. Though Tiny was only in his forties, the members Satan’s Disciples liked to joke that he was a dinosaur leftover from the heydays of biker gangs. “He’s having a good time,” Spike said, taking a pull from his beer. The dim light shone on his hand; his knuckles were tattooed, spelling out, Never 4give. Cleo snorted softly, shaking her head. Her long, black, wavy hair had thick blonde streaks in it and hung past her shoulders. She flicked it back, annoyed. “We should be planning right now, not playing silly drinking games.” Spike looked at her out of the corner of his eye. The first thing anyone would say when they saw Cleo was that she was incredibly gorgeous. Part Egyptian, Cleo had beautiful, regal features, with a prominent nose and golden-olive skin. Spike knew most people looking at her would notice her figure, which was soft and lean in all the right places, and fail to see her capabilities, which were many. Tiny was technically Spike’s second-in-command, but it was Cleo who often came up with most of the ideas that kept the gang alive. Spike would promote her, but he was fucking her, and that wouldn’t sit right with the gang. Cleo understood, though. She put the gang first, which was why she continued to help, even if she couldn’t have the title she deserved. She even refused the title of his old lady,

wanting to be seen as more than a back-warmer within the gang. “Did you hear me?” she said, poking his side. Spike sighed and sat up, scanning the bar. He saw Tiny, but if they were going to talk about the gang’s options, he needed the rest of the higher-ups as well. Spotting Vince and Hector, Spike let out a sharp whistle; they were next two in the chain of command, respectively. Vince, a handsome man with skin blacker than the dead of night, immediately stood up, leaving his pool game. Stopping suddenly, he turned back and grabbed a short Hispanic man wearing a wifebeater who was hitting on Jinx, another member of Satan’s Disciples, for the thousandth time. Hector had yet to have any luck with her, or any other woman, but from what Spike could tell, that didn’t seem to stop him from trying. Spike shook his head. Hector was always chasing women. It was his only weakness, if you didn’t count booze, drugs, cigarettes, or thrill-seeking. “Have a seat,” he said as the two men approached, kicking out a chair. “We need to talk.” Tiny lumbered over, settling into a wooden chair with a creak. “What are we talking about?” he asked, pulling out a cigarette. Hector nudged Tiny and bummed one off of him. “Ivan,” Vince said in a deep voice. “Right?” he looked at Spike. “We got lucky with Vermin,” Cleo said, confirming Vince’s guess. “But Spike isn’t going to be able to outmaneuver Ivan like that every time. Eventually he’s going to get tired of this little back-and-forth he has going on with Satan’s Disciples, and he’s going to come for us.” Her dark eyes snapped to each face at the table, commanding their attention. “Cleo’s right, guys,” Spike said, signaling Joe for another beer. “I figure we have about a month before Ivan decides to come at us with everything he has. Unless someone does something incredibly stupid to speed that along,” he said warningly, looking at Hector. He had a reputation for being a bit reckless. “I swear,” Hector crossed his heart, “you will see nada from me.” Cleo snorted disbelievingly and Hector put his hand to his heart again, this time as though wounded. “Mi amor, my love, why do you hurt me this way?” “Can we focus?” Cleo said, ignoring Hector. “Spike? A little help here?” She nudged their leader, who, judging by his face, had completely checked out of the conversation.


“This was a bad idea, Stacy,” Georgia said, panicking. “They’re going to know we’re lying!”

It hadn’t taken too long to find Joe’s bar—they just followed the deafening sound of motorcycles. Okay, not really. They had used Google Maps, but the closer they got to the establishment, Georgia had to resist covering her ears against the noise. Last night, after Stacy had come over to Georgia’s house, they had gone back to Stacy’s place, where Georgia promptly passed out for several hours. When she awoke, she worked with Stacy to come up with what Georgia was now realizing was a very, very stupid plan. Felix had mentioned that Satan’s Disciples weren’t the only gang having problems with Ivan. So, Stacy suggested they pretend to be members of another dwindling gang from the outskirts of Chicago. It wasn’t much, but perhaps if they could pass as fellow bikers, their plea might carry more weight. Stacy pulled out every piece of leather Georgia had in her closet, which turned out to be a single pair of boots. “Really?” Stacy had said to her, holding up the bright, yellow galoshes. “This is it?” “Oh, I’m sorry,” Georgia had replied to her sarcastically, “Had I known this was going to happen I would’ve asked Catwoman if I could borrow some of her clothes.” “Wrong kind of leather,” Stacy had corrected her. “It’s okay, though. I have some stuff you can wear.” Georgia had nervously tugged at the vest Stacy lent her the entire drive to the bar. Stacy was significantly smaller than Georgia, and the vest barely buttoned over her chest. At Stacy’s insistence, she left the remaining buttons on the top open, exposing her tan, toned stomach. Stacy had put on a pair of black shorts, thigh high leather boots, and a tight black tank top that stopped just below her navel. The idea was that hopefully if they looked the part, everyone would be too concerned about Ivan to ask too many questions. They’re just bikers, Georgia had reasoned with herself. How smart can they possibly be? They had decided to park the car a few blocks away as Stacy’s Prius might have blown their cover as old ladies from a motorcycle gang. Walking into the bar, Georgia had done her best to put on her game face as both her and her brother’s lives were on the line, but looking around at the kind of debauchery going on, she began to have serious doubts. “They’re not going to know unless you keep standing there, staring!” Stacy hissed. “Stop looking like you’ve never seen someone do heroin before and move!” She tugged on Georgia’s elbow sharply, almost sending her to the floor. Georgia tried to look as aloof as possible as the two women made their way to the bar. It was a little difficult considering she was terrified she was going to burst out of Stacy’s vest at any moment.

“What can I get you ladies?” the bartender asked, drying a beer mug with a stained rag. Stacy glanced back at Georgia, who froze, and said nothing. “Two specials, please,” Stacy ordered. Georgia took a quick look at the board hanging behind the bar. Underneath Tonight’s Special was a drink named Hawg Ear, which apparently consisted of a mixture of dark beer and rum. It was disgusting, but Georgia didn’t care. She gulped down a third of it, desperate for the false courage. Stacy arched a brow, but didn’t say anything, and took a liberal swallow from her own glass. Pulling out her wallet, Stacy paid the bartender. “Could you help us with one other thing?” she asked. “Depends,” the bartender replied, picking up another mug to dry. “We’re looking for someone named Spike, the leader of Satan’s Disciples.” The woman frowned, a lock of blonde hair falling into her face. “What do you want with him?” “My friend needs to talk to him,” Stacy replied evasively. The blonde woman shrugged, uncaring, and nodded towards a large wooden table in the center of the room. “Shaggy brown hair; in the black t-shirt and leather vest,” she told them. Georgia managed to mutter a thank you, and they stepped away from the bar to plan their approach. “So, you’ll go up to him, and—” “Wait,” Georgia interrupted. “Why do I have to go?” she protested. “Because it’s your brother,” Stacy said, rolling her eyes. “I’ve brought you this far; you have to do the rest.” Georgia sighed, defeated. She eyed the imposing man, and a chill ran down her body. His long, lean form seemed to take up far more room than was physically possibly. He was discussing something intensely with the people around him; Georgia couldn’t take her eyes off of him. Suddenly she realized Stacy had been talking to her this whole time. “What?” she said. Stacy stopped and stared at Georgia. “Seriously? Georgia, you have got to pull it together here! We need to figure out how you’re going to approach this guy.” “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” Georgia said, still staring. “What? Why not?” Stacy asked, surprised.

“Because he’s coming over here right now.”


After spending five years in prison, Spike had becoming incredibly in tune with his gut, and his gut was telling him he was being watched. It had taken all of four seconds for the gang meeting to derail, when Spike felt someone staring at him. He looked up slowly, not wanting to give himself away, and immediately locked eyes with a tan, curvy woman with curly brown hair and quite possibly the thickest ass Spike had ever seen. She watched him like one watched a shark: carefully, with a barely-controlled fear. Spike dimly heard Cleo talking to him, but he didn’t care. Whoever this woman and the friend she had with her were, it was painfully obvious they didn’t belong here. Even stranger, it was clear they didn’t want to be here. He stood up, the wooden legs of the chair scraping loudly against the floor. “What…where are you going?” Cleo asked as Spike simply got up and walked away from the meeting. “Hello?” she cried after him, but he ignored her. Georgia had the strong feeling of being stalked—no, worse, of being caught. Spike’s dark green eyes pinned her to the wall like a butterfly on display. She watched, terrified, as he pushed his chair back to stand, and began to walk towards her. “Oh shit,” Stacy muttered. There was still time for them to turn around and run away. She slowly reached forward to grab Georgia’s elbow and pull her back, to tell her they would find another way to help her brother, but she only touched thin air. Georgia had stepped forward to meet Spike, her head held high. Stacy quickly moved to stand next to her. “What are you doing?” she hissed to her friend. “I have to try this! I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t,” Georgia whispered back. They hastily stopped talking; Spike had come close enough to hear them, even over the din of the bar. “Ladies,” he said, approaching them. “Might I ask what you’re doing here?” Georgia was five feet five, wearing four-inch heels, and yet she still barely came to his chin. “We’re with The Black Scorpions from northern Chicago,” she said.

Stacy was surprised at how confident Georgia sounded, but she carefully kept her face blank. Spike smiled patronizingly. “That’s nice, but it doesn’t explain what you’re doing here, and looking for me, no less.” He turned to nod to the blonde woman behind the bar, who had been blatantly watching their interaction. Georgia looked around. She saw a lot of faces staring back at her, faces that quickly resumed drinking or talking when she looked at them. Maybe Stacy was right, she thought, panic once again rising in her chest, maybe we should bail. “We need to talk to you about Ivan,” Stacy blurted out. There goes that chance, Georgia sensed, judging by Spike’s face. He looked like he had just bit into a lemon. He wasn’t going to let them go anywhere anytime soon. An incredibly attractive, olive-skinned woman came up to stand behind Spike. “What do they want?” she asked, nodding towards Georgia and Stacy. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” he replied slowly, not taking his eyes off of Georgia. Cleo followed Spike’s gaze, her face hardening when she noticed where his focus was. “Bring ’em over to the table and we’ll get it out of ’em soon enough,” she said shortly, abruptly turning and striding away. Spike continued to stare at Georgia, who was becoming extremely uncomfortable with each passing second. “Well,” he said after a long moment, “you heard her.” Spike stepped to the side, gesturing for the two women to follow Cleo. Georgia turned to Stacy and gave her a look that was unreadable to Spike—a fact that strongly piqued his interest. Spike trailed behind the ladies, musing to himself. It was interesting enough that these two had come in to talk about Ivan of all things, but they had an air about them that Spike couldn’t figure out. The shorter one with the great ass, which he was able to openly appreciate as he walked behind her, looked like a biker babe, but her eyes…there was something about them he couldn’t place. Spike was pulled out of his reverie as they approached the table. “Who are they?” Tiny asked, his forehead wrinkled in confusion. “That is an excellent question,” Spike said, sitting down and turning to look at the two strangers expectantly. Georgia looked around the group and cleared her throat carefully. She had practiced what she was going to say here, repeating it to herself a hundred times over.

“My name is Georgia, and this is Stacy.” They had decided to go with their real names; their story was already thin enough without adding the difficulty of remembering what they were called. “We’re members of The Black Scorpions from up north. Our men dropped us off here to talk to the leader of Satan’s Disciples about a serious matter that affects us all.” “I’m sure whatever you señoritas need help with, the Satan’s Disciples can handle it, no problemo,” Hector said, grinning wickedly at Stacy, who suppressed a terrified whimper. “They’re here about Ivan,” Cleo said loudly, staring hard at Georgia, her hazel eyes boring into Georgia’s blue ones. “What do you two want to do with Ivan?” Tiny asked the girls worriedly. “They want our help getting rid of him,” Vince correctly guessed, finally speaking up. His deep voice reverberated across the table as he addressed Georgia and Stacy. “Don’t you?” Georgia tore her eyes from Cleo to look at the rest of the group. “Ivan has been slowly picking away at everyone’s territory. His reach is far, and strong. The Black Scorpions know the only gang left strong enough to take him out is Satan’s Disciples.” “You’re not wrong!” Hector cried, whooping loudly. “Hector,” Spike snapped, “shut up.” Hector glared at his leader, sipping his beer sullenly, but Spike ignored him. Instead, he carefully scrutinized Georgia, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Cleo. “I’ve never heard of The Black Scorpions before. Who did you say sent you?” he asked curiously. “Stinger is the highest ranking member we have left. He’s the one who brought us to come find you,” Stacy said casually, though she had rehearsed this line several times. “Why didn’t Stinger come in and speak to me himself?” “It’s not safe for our men to hang around so close to Ivan’s territory, so Stinger and another member dropped us off here,” Georgia answered. “Are you his ol’ lady?” Spike asked her, surprising himself. He didn’t know why he said that. He tried to ignore the fact that his gang was watching him very acutely, especially Cleo, and look as though the question was important. Georgia’s heart froze mid-beat. This was off-script; she didn’t know what to say. She didn’t want to wait too long to answer—that would be suspicious—so she blurted out the first thing she could think of. “Yes, I’m Stinger’s old lady.” Stacy shifted next to her. She thought they should be keeping things simple, not adding details. On the other hand, perhaps if Georgia pretended to be the leader’s girlfriend, it would offer them extra

protection. Spike couldn’t figure out why it was odd Georgia had claimed to be Stinger’s property, but something about the entire situation was bugging him. He sat back in his chair, once again ignoring the rest of the gang’s stare. He was trying to focus and work whatever was bothering him to the front of his mind. “Interestingly enough, we were just discussing Ivan ourselves,” Vince said, standing to offer one of the women his chair. Hector immediately jumped up to also offer his. Georgia and Stacy sat, much to Cleo’s displeasure. “They don’t need to know that, Vince,” Cleo said, glaring at him. She looked to Spike for help and got nothing. “They are right,” Vince pushed. “Ivan is a problem to us all. Weren’t you just saying that exact thing a few minutes ago, Cleo?” he calmly reminded her. “That doesn’t mean we start spilling our guts to strangers about Satan’s Disciples’ issues! Spike!” she cried, pulling him away just as the answer was on the tip of his tongue. “Some back-up here?” He bit his lip in anger—he almost had it! “Everyone knows Ivan is a problem, Cleo,” he said impatiently. “It’s not a secret people are looking for a way to push him out. Even Ivan knows it.” “So you have a plan?” Georgia asked, hope beginning to fill her chest. “You’re going after him? When?” she demanded. Spike sighed tiredly and turned back to Georgia, and was instantly struck by her clear blue eyes. The innocence in them—it was what he had felt earlier when he first saw her. It had been a long time since he had felt innocence, so long, in fact, he hadn’t even recognized it when it walked right in front of him with its tight leather vest that threatened to burst open any second. He realized uncomfortably that he was starting to get hard. He quickly picked up his beer and took a long sip to give himself a few seconds to collect himself. As a man who had done his share of sexual activity, her innocence was arousing, but something still bothered him. “We don’t, and…we’re not,” he said finally. Cleo’s body went rigid with anger. Spike ignored her. He knew she was furious with him for revealing more information about Satan’s Disciples business, but he also knew she respected the chain of command far too much to say anything. Until later, anyway. “What?” Georgia said in shock. She knew it might be difficult to convince Spike to go after Ivan in the next couple of days, but she had at least expected him to have a plan. Felix made Spike sound incredibly competent, but apparently he had overestimated him. Her shoulders drooped. “I’m sorry,” Spike began. “I understand all too well the difficulties The Black Scorpions are going

through, but Satan’s Disciples can’t get involved. We don’t have any kind of a plan, and I’m not willing to risk my neck over it,” he finished with a shrug. “You’re welcome to stay and have a drink on our tab while you wait for Stinger to come get you.” Georgia just wanted to leave, but Stacy quickly butted in to accept his offer, ordering another Hawg Ear. Figuring she might end up dead in a few days, Georgia ordered one as well, slamming the remainder of the one in front of her. Spike eyed her. She was obviously upset, and Spike genuinely felt bad. He knew what it was like to worry about your people. “Maybe you should talk to Joe, the owner,” he said to her quietly, nodding towards the bar where Joe was now replacing an empty keg. “If anyone knows anything, it’s Joe.” Spike looked fondly at the frizzy, blonde-haired woman he’d come to consider a surrogate mother. Georgia glanced up and took another sip of her drink. “When he comes back, I will.” She gave Spike a small smile. “Thanks.” Spike tipped his glass to her and drank deep, frowning. Something was bothering him again—what was it, dammit! Wait a second…Him? Realization slammed into him like a brick, and he choked on his beer, spraying it everywhere. Everyone scooted back quickly to avoid getting misted. “Jesus fucking Christ, Spike!” Cleo cried out, disgusted. “Drink much?” “Sorry!” he gasped. “Sorry…wrong tube.” Georgia looked at Spike concernedly. “Are you okay?” she asked. Spike took an enormous breath in, and let it out slowly. “Yeah, I’m fine, thanks.” Everyone settled back into their chairs and resumed their conversations. Georgia saw Hector was delighting Stacy with an endless stream of compliments, and Cleo was arguing with Tiny over riding tactics. “You know, I, uh, just remembered Joe is probably in back doing inventory,” Spike said, leaning in close to Georgia. “If you want, I can bring you back there to talk to him.” “Really?” Georgia exclaimed, her eyes brightening. “That would be great! Let me just get Stacy,” she said, turning to grab her friend. Spike reached out to stop her hand. “It’s a really small back office, and Joe doesn’t like lots of new people in his space. It would be better if it were just you. You are the leader’s ol’ lady…right?” he asked slyly. “Right,” Georgia said confidently.

“Then you’ll do just fine.” Spike grinned widely at her. Georgia didn’t know what to do. She felt uneasy about going anywhere without Stacy, but she had already come this far, and there was no turning back now. “Let’s go,” she said firmly, standing up and following Spike. They wound through scattered pool tables towards the back of the bar where a small door stood marked Office. Spike held the door open for Georgia, and she hesitantly entered. Georgia saw several rickety shelves filled with dusty liquor bottles and a rusty desk, but no Joe. She whirled around to see Spike closing the door behind him. Georgia rushed at him, hoping to catch him off balance, but he caught her easily and grabbed her arms to keep her from hitting him. “What are you doing?” Georgia panicked. “I’ll scream!” she threatened. Spike snorted. “Go ahead. No one is going to hear you over the noise out there,” he said, letting go of her. Georgia stepped as far away as possible from him, rubbing her wrists where he’d grabbed her. She opened her mouth to scream, watching him to see if he was going to try and stop her. But Spike did nothing except sit on the desk and look at her. Georgia closed her mouth slowly, confused. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he told her simply. Georgia thought her wrists might beg to differ. “Then why are you keeping me in here?” she demanded to know. “Why are you lying to me?” Spike countered. “I know you’re not from The Black Scorpions, if there is such a gang in northern Chicago.” Georgia opened her mouth heatedly, then faltered. She didn’t know what to say. She was clearly busted. “How did you know?” she blurted out. “There were a lot of clues; the leader didn’t come himself, no property patches, though you claimed to be the leader’s ol’ lady. The giveaway was when you called Joe a guy, though. Joe’s a girl.” Spike laughed. “You bought your drinks from her.” Georgia moaned. They had been so stupid. “Are you going to kill me?” she asked, suddenly terrified. “What?” Spike said, shocked. “No! I already told you I wasn’t going to hurt you. Though it is an exceedingly bad idea to come into a biker bar and pretend to be bikers just to get your rocks off. Someone else might not be so lenient with you. Surely you girls can find safer ways to have fun.” Georgia stared at him in total disbelief. “You think I did this for fun?”

“Well, now I don’t,” Spike muttered self-consciously. “So if not for kicks, then what?” he asked her. “Why did you come here asking about Ivan of all things?” His face hardened suddenly. “Are you with Ivan?” he asked dangerously. “No!” Georgia cried. “The opposite. Stacy and I, we really did come for your help with Ivan. Well, mostly me,” she admitted. “Stacy came for moral support.” Spike relaxed a little, but he was still confused. “What could a girl like you have done to cross paths with a man like Ivan? Who are you?” “My name really is Georgia,” she said desperately, “Georgia Lewis. And you’re right. Normally, I would never be in a situation like this. My little brother, Felix, got tangled with up with Ivan, and now that man is hunting him down as we speak. I just…” Georgia trailed off halfheartedly. “Felix said you were the only one around who would be able to give us a chance against Ivan. I know it was dangerous and stupid, but I had to try. I never would’ve been able to forgive myself if I didn’t try.” She seemed to be speaking to herself more than him, Spike noticed curiously, trying to convince herself this hadn’t been a complete waste of time. He also noticed, now that they were in better light, Georgia had several cuts and bruises. Her left eye looked puffy, like she had used make-up to cover a shiner. “Please,” she begged him, her blue eyes bright with tears. “Please help us. Ivan’s going to kill my brother, and he’s all I have.” Spike walked over to the door and put a hand on the knob. “I’m really sorry about your brother, but there’s nothing I can do.” He opened the door and took a step out. “Liar.” Spike looked back to see Georgia staring at him defiantly. “Excuse me?” he said with a disbelieving chuckle. “I called you a liar,” Georgia repeated challengingly. “You’re the one who came into a bar pretending to be someone else!” Spike cried. “You can do whatever you want,” Georgia continued, ignoring him. “You’re choosing not to help me.” Spike shrugged. “You’re right. I could help you, but like I said before, it’s not worth risking my neck over.” “What is, then?” Georgia said, seizing his words. “What would make it worth it? Money? How much?”

“Something tells me that if you had that kind of money, sweetie, Ivan wouldn’t be a problem for you,” Spike drawled. Georgia looked down, avoiding his gaze. “I could get money, a lot of money. I just need a few days to get it, and, well…” “Ivan’s not willing to wait,” Spike finished. “Where are you getting that kind of money that you can’t get it now?” he asked. “My dad,” she said simply. “Wait,” Spike said, confused again. “I thought you said your brother was all the family you had left.” Georgia sighed. “It’s…complicated. We don’t talk to our dad much.” Spike snorted. “If he’s still alive and willing to give you potentially thousands of dollars, how bad can he really be?” Georgia sank down on a rusted, metal folding chair. “He isn’t…or, he wasn’t. Something happened after Felix was born and Dad just started to lose it.” Georgia stared ahead, looking at a memory. “So slowly we didn’t even realize what was happening until one day he was yelling at Mom and he punched a hole in the wall right next to her head. He’d yelled and punched walls before, but he’d never come that close to hitting her.” Georgia shrugged, coming back to Earth. “Mom was gone the next morning. After that, Dad didn’t yell when he was drunk anymore, but he didn’t do anything else either. I left for college as soon as I could, but I had to stay close because of Felix. I couldn’t leave him.” “Sounds like you got lucky to me,” Spike said after a long moment, staring hard at the girl in front of him. “Your daddy never hit you, or worse. He still went to work, and you got to go to college.” “I’m sorry my family isn’t as fucked up as yours clearly was,” Georgia fired back, standing in her anger, “but that doesn’t make me lucky. Not by a long shot. If anything, you’re in a better position than I am right now. Does that make you lucky?” Spike stood up, towering over Georgia. His long, lean form cast a shadow across her, but she glared right back at him, refusing to look away. “My father didn’t punch the walls. He hit my mother and me. Sometimes so severely I couldn’t walk. Now do you feel lucky?” he asked her harshly. Georgia felt a pit of guilt forming in her stomach. “One day I came home from school and found that he had beaten her to death,” Spike said. “I was sixteen and there she was, lying in a pool of her own blood. I couldn’t even recognize her. But then I saw this, and I knew,” he held up a gold cross hanging from a thin matching chain necklace.

Georgia tried to look anywhere but at his dark green eyes, but Spike reached out and grabbed her chin, holding her still. “Do you know what my father was doing when I found her, Georgia?” he asked. “He was watching the game on TV. So what I did was I went and got his shotgun, and I killed him right back. They gave me five years for a crime of passion, and because I was a minor. Do you feel lucky now? Because you should, Georgia. You’re very lucky,” Spike said, lowering his voice to a whisper. Georgia took a step back, running into the liquor shelves behind her. “You’re lucky that I’m a nice guy who wouldn’t teach you and your friend a lesson for coming in here tonight.” He stepped forward to trap Georgia between the shelves and his hard stomach. Georgia panicked. She planted her hands squarely on his chest and gave a hard shove with all her might. Nothing happened. Spike stepped back a moment later, freeing Georgia. She eyed him suspiciously. “So?” she asked him hesitantly. “Will you loan us the money or perhaps help us with Ivan and I can pay you in a few days?” Spike shook his head. “We’re not banks, and we don’t work on promise of payment. I’m sorry about you and your brother, but you just don’t have anything of value to me.” It really was a shame, he thought, glancing her over. He opened the door once again; they had been in here far too long. Spike was sure to get an earful from Cleo. For someone who wasn’t his old lady, she sure acted like it sometimes. “Time for you and your friend to go,” he said, glancing at the table where Stacy had several empty glasses in front of her, and was laughing uproariously at something Hector had just said. Tears of frustration began to well up in Georgia’s eyes. She grabbed Spike’s hand and fell to her knees. “I will do anything for my brother. Anything you want, and I swear it’s yours.” Georgia wasn’t naïve. She knew the full implication of her words, and she didn’t care. If it would save Felix, it was worth it. Spike raised an eyebrow. He looked back at the crowd of people barely forty feet away, and back down to the gorgeous Latina woman on her knees before him. “Do you know what you—” he started to ask, but she cut him off. “When I said anything, I meant it,” she said quietly. Spike took one last look at the Satan’s Disciples, drinking and laughing, and shut the door, leaving him alone in the office with Georgia.

Chapter Four Georgia nervously stood as Spike slowly circled her. He looked her up and down appreciatively. He had already noticed her rear; he stopped now to stare at it in the light. It was round, full, and supple. Spike reached out and placed his palm against her ass, cupping it firmly. He squeezed, testing Georgia’s reaction as much as he was the firmness of her butt. Georgia, for her part, was expecting this, and didn’t resist. Spike rubbed his palm up and down for a minute, and then stepped away from her. He walked around to face her, taking stock of her front. The vest clearly wasn’t hers, or at least it wasn’t her size. Her breasts weren’t huge, but they strained against the leather, rising even higher with every breath she took. The bottom half of her top was open, revealing a tight tummy that seemed to come more from genetics than exercise. Spike dropped his gaze even farther, looking at the wide hips that came from her seemingly perfect ass, and her lean, tanned, powerful thighs. His eyes snapped up to meet hers, but they were no longer scrutinizing—they were filled with a dark, threatening lust. He pushed her up against the shelves, trapping her again. Georgia bit her lip to keep from crying out. Spike smiled. He knew he scared her, even though she was pretending he didn’t. She had never met a man like him, he was willing to bet, let alone offered herself to one. Spike ran his hands along her rigid body. She didn’t seem experienced, but to say she was unsexual would be a gross mistake. Her lips were an innocent, rosy pink, and Spike thought they begged to be tasted, to be bitten…to be wrapped around his cock. He began to stir down below as he flashed back to the image of her on her knees, with her big blue eyes staring up at him pleadingly. He instinctively flicked his tongue out, wetting his lips. He hadn’t been this hot in a long time. He and Cleo had great sex, there was no doubt about that, and Spike had a lay or two on the side when someone caught his eye. Cleo was usually a bit pissy about it for a day or two afterwards, but then she’d revenge fuck some other guy and come back to him, so it all worked out. The thing was, those women were a dime a dozen around Joe’s. They walked in and out of the bar every day. A girl like Georgia, however, wouldn’t look at him twice if she saw him in the street. In fact, she might go out of her way to make sure she didn’t look at him once. He pressed himself up against her, making sure she felt how hard he was. This time she gasped, closing her eyes. Spike paused, grinning—he wasn’t sure if that sound had come from a place of fear or something else entirely. He had a hunch that if Georgia were to let loose, she would be every bit as provocative as the girls out in the bar. “How do I know you’re going to do what you say?” she asked suddenly.

“What do you mean?” he asked, pulled out of the fog of his imagination. “How do I know you won’t just fuck me and then leave me and my brother out to dry?” Georgia clarified. Spike shrugged. “I guess you don’t,” he said. “I thought you said you were a nice guy,” Georgia panted, breaking the tense silence. “Am I being mean?” Spike asked mildly. “You’re abusing the situation for your own advantage,” she accused. “I beg to differ,” he countered, still running his hands up and down her narrow waist. “You offered yourself—I merely accepted.” “Asshole,” Georgia muttered. Spike grabbed both of her wrists, slamming them above her head, holding them there. Georgia let out a small scream, unable to hide her fear this time. He leaned in until his nose was inches from hers. “Feel free to back out at any time,” he said, letting go of her. “I’m not the one with everything to lose.” Spike stepped away from her and gestured to the door. Georgia didn’t move. She hated that she was in this situation—it was humiliating! Though perhaps the reason it was so embarrassing was because Georgia had actually begun to find herself genuinely attracted to this terrifying man. Spike scared her to the core, but nowhere near as much as the realization that she was enjoying being pinned against metal shelving in a dirty back office. He was trying to push her, frighten her away; then he would be off the hook helping her. But she wasn’t going to give up so easily. Georgia was willing to do whatever it took to save her brother. She looked Spike square in the eye and lifted her chin, all fear gone. She was daring him to do whatever he wished with her. Georgia’s sudden lack of aversion surprised Spike. She was more resilient than he gave her credit for. I’ll just have to push her a little harder, he thought smugly. Spike might have agreed to help her with Ivan in exchange for sex, but if he slept with her and then something happened that scared Georgia so much that she couldn’t continue with the deal, well, that was a different story. Gripping the back of Georgia’s head, her thick brown hair cushioning his hold on her, Spike pressed

his mouth to hers, slipping his tongue inside. He dropped his other hand to her back, cleaving his body to hers. Spike gathered Georgia into his arms, leaving her no escape. Escape was the furthest thing from Georgia’s mind. She met Spike’s force with her own, winding her tongue around his. She moaned quietly, closing her eyes against the heat she felt building within herself. Spike reached his hand down to slip between her legs, and he broke away from Georgia suddenly, shocked. She had been so incredibly hot and damp, he couldn’t believe it. Spike had wanted to scare her into running back home to Daddy and now he found himself with a raging hard-on that was pointing right at the girl—literally. “What the fuck was that,” Georgia whimpered softly, mostly to herself. Spike took a look at her, relieved to see that she seemed as shaken up as he was about what had just transpired between them. He quickly composed himself, discreetly adjusting his pants to obscure his throbbing hard cock. “Scared you might like it, or just plain scared?” Spike taunted Georgia, fighting to keep his voice from shaking. Georgia dropped her eyes to the front of Spike’s jeans that did nothing to obscure his erection. “Really?” she said, pointing at his crotch. Spike shrugged, trying to seem nonchalant. “I’m a guy—it doesn’t take much,” he scoffed. Georgia stared at him. Why does he insist on being such a fucking prick? she wondered. She rolled her eyes and caught a glimpse of the clock hanging above the door. “Forty-five minutes?” she cried. “We’ve been in here for almost forty-five minutes!” Stacy was surely scared shitless for Georgia, not to mention whatever she was dealing with out in the bar. “Your friend is fine,” Spike said, correctly guessing why Georgia was freaking out. “My boys will make sure she gets home safe. And alone,” he added, seeing her face. “I’ll make sure of that,” Georgia said firmly, pushing past Spike to open the door. He reached out to stop her, both of their hands gripping the doorknob. He loomed over her, and Georgia felt a heady sensation wash over her entire body. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked. “I’m going to get my friend.” Georgia yanked the knob, but it held fast under Spike strong fingers. “You’re not going anywhere,” he told her. “Not until you’ve finished, er, paying for our services.” Georgia looked around. In the moment, the dingy room had been sexy in its distastefulness, but now that her head was clear, it was downright offensive. “I’m not having sex with you here,” Georgia said

haughtily. “This place is disgusting.” “You didn’t seem to mind a minute ago,” he replied with a smirk. Georgia’s cheeks burned with embarrassment as she remembered the clear arousal in her reaction. “That was a minute ago,” she shot back. Spike laughed. “Alright, then where?” he asked. Georgia thought for a minute. “We can go back to my place.” “Didn’t you say Ivan was planning on killing you? Shouldn’t you stay somewhere else, like a hotel or something?” Spike pointed out. “Thanks, I hadn’t thought of that,” she said sarcastically. She grew serious, biting her lip. Spike wanted to do it for her. “I don’t want Ivan thinking he got to me,” Georgia said. “That, and I can’t afford it,” she added. “I need every penny for Felix.” Spike considered the fact that her bedroom would probably make Georgia feel more comfortable. That was against his plan; he wanted to push her as far out of her comfort zone as he could. He wanted her to admit that she was out of her depth, that she didn’t belong here. People like Georgia, good, innocent people, should stay on their side of the tracks. If her brother was in trouble, then Georgia needed to drop her brother, Spike thought. She had no clue what Ivan would do to her when the time came. Once he gave her a taste, however, he knew she would come to her senses and make a run for it.


Cleo looked at her phone. Spike had been gone with that girl for over a half an hour at this point. She narrowed her hazel, almond-shaped eyes and threw back a shot. Next to her, Hector was charming the shorts off of Stacy. She was giggling up a storm; her drunken laughter made Cleo’s teeth grate. Tiny leaned in on her other side, his massive stomach grazing her arm. “Is it a good idea for Hector to be hittin’ up a back-warmer from an unknown gang?” he muttered to her worriedly. “What if she’s someone’s old lady?” Cleo gave Tiny a look. “Do you see any property patches on her?” she asked blankly. Tiny frowned, half a dozen wrinkles appearing on his forehead. “Oh,” he said, squinting his eyes at Stacy. “I guess you’re right.”

“Besides, it’s not like she’s a real biker, anyway,” Cleo sighed. “Right,” Tiny said, automatically agreeing. “Wait, what?” he cried in a strangled whisper. “What d’you mean ‘not a real biker’?” “Tiny, seriously?” Cleo said, disheartened. “She’s got no patches of any kind, no colors, nothing. Her friend didn’t have anything on either.” “If they’re not from a gang, then why are they here?” Tiny asked. Cleo stared at the door to the back office. “I don’t know, Tiny.” “How do they know about Ivan?” Cleo sighed, exasperated. “I don’t know, Tiny!” she snapped. “But you can be damn sure I’m going to find out,” Cleo murmured to herself. At that moment, the door opened, and Cleo saw Spike about to step out. She breathed a sigh of relief; the two of them looked as though they had been arguing. Maybe now the girl and her friend would leave, and Satan’s Disciples could get back to more important things at hand, namely Ivan. Cleo wanted to confront Georgia about her and her friend’s disguise, but she accurately guessed that Spike had already noticed their fraud and that was why he had secluded her to the back. She made a move to stand up, but right as she did, she saw Georgia drop to her knees, grabbing Spike as she fell. Is this fucking whore going to blow him with the door wide open? Cleo wondered. Instead, Spike glanced out into the bar, his eyes completely passing over her, and he shut the door, leaving him once again alone in the room with Georgia. Cleo closed her eyes to regain control of herself. If she wasn’t careful, she might snap, go into that back office, and beat the shit out of them. It always bothered her when Spike picked up something on the side, but nothing a revenge fuck couldn’t ever cure. Watching Spike’s clear interest in the girl, however, brought out something much uglier in Cleo. Hot ropes of jealousy twisted in her gut, and she felt herself stand up, filled with anger. She managed to restrain herself from heading towards the back, and instead directed her long legs to bring her to the bar. Waving halfheartedly to Joe, Cleo ordered a top-shelf whiskey and took a liberal sip when it was handed to her. “Hey there!” a cheery voice said next to her.

Cleo turned to see Jinx smiling widely at her. “Hey, Jinx. How’s it going?” she muttered, sipping her drink again. “Better than you, by the looks of it,” Jinx said, picking the cashews out of the nut bowl. Joe glared at her and flapped a towel in her direction, where Jinx promptly stuck her tongue out in response. “Is this ’cause Spike brought that girl into Joe’s back office where you two usually sneak off to do it when you think we don’t notice?” Cleo stared at Jinx. Bikers were notorious for their bluntness, but Jinx was on another level. She was young, barely twenty-one, with a bubbly yet dry nature that made her cheeky on a good day and downright disrespectful on a bad one. Right now she was riding the line for Cleo. “Who is she?” Jinx asked, flipping her black and pink dip-dyed hair over her shoulder. Someone once asked her why she changed her hair so often. Jinx merely gave a secretive smile and said, “It keeps things interesting.” Cleo glanced at the back room where the door was still closed. “No one important,” she growled, finishing her drink. “She looks important,” Jinx said mildly. Cleo looked back—they were coming out of the office, Georgia in front and Spike close behind her. Instead of joining the gang at the bar, however, Cleo watched Spike usher Georgia out through the rear entrance. She put her hand up to order another one. “So, Cleo,” Roxy said, coming up to stand on the other side of her, “how drunk will we be getting tonight?” “Enough,” Cleo replied shortly. “Enough to bang Hector?” Roxy joked, both Jinx and she breaking into snorts of laughter. Hector was actually a nice guy who was incredibly respectful to the women of Satan’s Disciples, but he was a notorious tomcat who often picked up whatever was lying around at the end of the night. Cleo gave her friends a small smile. “No, not Hector. I don’t think I could be drunk enough for that and still be conscious.” “Well, then,” Jinx exclaimed brightly, turning Cleo on her stool to survey the bar, “let’s take a look at our options.” It was common tradition for the girls to help Cleo pick out who she would go home with on the nights Spike would go AWOL with other girls. “I know this is your favorite part, Roxy,” Jinx said drily. It was the worst kept secret in Satan’s Disciples that Roxy was a lesbian. Ever since she had joined three years back, there had been a quiet understanding that Roxy wasn’t ever going to be anyone’s

back-warmer. This, of course, prompted Hector to endlessly pursue her, in a lighthearted manner that Roxy found hilarious. “What about him?” Jinx pointed at a man who looked like Fabio with neck tattoos. Cleo made a face. “His hair is way too long. I don’t even like when I get my own in my mouth, let alone a stranger’s.” Jinx and Roxy exchanged confused looks. “Uh, okay…” Jinx said. Cleo wasn’t normally very picky. Usually the first attractive guy they pointed out was enough for her, and Fabio definitely fit the bill. “Mind if I hit it, then?” Jinx asked, looking the man up and down. “Because damn.” Cleo rolled her eyes. If Hector was a tomcat, Jinx was a man-eater. As she liked to put it, she was a hunter who only selected the finest prey. Roxy reached over to nudge Jinx, nodding towards Cleo. Jinx grimaced—she was being a bad friend. This was about Cleo. “How about that guy?” Jinx had spotted another hottie who just walked in. He had short, spiked hair with a generous amount of stubble framing his handsome square jaw. “Too pretty,” Cleo said, shooting him down. “I don’t like guys who look like they might be prettier than me.” Roxy sniggered. Cleo was one of the most gorgeous women she had ever seen. If there was a man prettier than her, he wasn’t from this Earth. “Stop being such a pity party,” she scolded Cleo. “This is usually fun for you.” “Well, if there were a halfway decent man here for me, maybe I would be having more fun, if you know what I mean,” Cleo said condescendingly. “Hey!” Jinx protested angrily. “It’s not our fault you suddenly developed a type!” “What about Vince?” Roxy quickly suggested, trying to prevent an argument from breaking out. “I bet he’d piss off Spike quite a bit.” She looked at Jinx to see her worriedly chewing at her bottom lip, looking from Cleo to Vince and back again. “On second thought,” Roxy said hastily, “maybe you should just avoid men tonight. Spike will never believe you went home alone. He’ll go nuts trying to figure out who you fucked.” Cleo smiled slowly. “You’re a crafty bitch, aren’t you, Roxy? I like that idea.” Roxy laughed uneasily, her heart slowly falling to her feet. Jinx had come into the gang less than a year ago, and while Roxy had never truly dared to hope, she could at least fantasize about the happy, colorful girl.

Who would have thought, Roxy mused, looking at the tall, dark man. Vince was a quiet guy, or an old soul, as Tiny once referred to him. Almost as though he could sense them talking about him, Vince raised his head and waved to the trio sitting at the bar. All three waved back with dopey grins on their faces, even Roxy. Where Hector tried too hard and often scared women away, Vince had a smoothness about him that made him popular with the ladies. Of all the men in Satan’s Disciples, Vince was the only one where Roxy understood Jinx’s attraction to him. “Alright, bitches. I’ll be over at the table. See you there,” Cleo said, grabbing her drink and taking a seat amongst the gang. Roxy sighed and put up her hand to order a double. “Thanks,” Jinx said quietly. Roxy nodded, her mouth tight. “How did you know?” she asked Roxy. “It’s just, we’ve tried to keep it a secret, and…” She trailed off. “I didn’t know until a minute ago,” Roxy replied. “I saw your face when I suggested Vince, and I pretty much filled in the blanks from there.” “Please don’t tell anyone, Rox,” Jinx begged her. Roxy frowned, taking a large gulp from her glass. “I won’t, but why not? No one would care.” “We really like each other,” Jinx explained. “Like, a lot. But we don’t want to ruin what we’ve got going on. I’m not Cleo, I can’t handle going back and forth like that.” “Cleo and Spike have their own issues that don’t have anything to do with you and Vince,” Roxy pointed out. Jinx shook her head, her long earrings jangling loudly. “Nuh-uh. Too risky.” She suddenly let out a dry laugh. “What is it?” Roxy asked curiously. “It’s just funny—not funny ha-ha, more like life is strange,” Jinx clarified. “But it’s like…if Cleo talked to Spike about how shitty she felt when he goes and fucks other girls, maybe she would be better off, just like maybe if Vince and I told everyone about our relationship, we might be better off. But nobody wants to do that, even if it’s better for them, it’s too risky.” Roxy gave Jinx a wide-eyed look. “Fucking hell, Jinx. I’m not drunk enough to go there yet,” she joked uncomfortably. Her heart was pounding as she wrestled internally with herself. Jinx was right; if she didn’t say anything, she was a coward. She opened her mouth, changed her mind at the last second, and brought her glass to her lips, drinking deep.

Coward it is, then, Roxy thought. She watched as Georgia’s friend Stacy fell off of her chair. Cleo and Tiny each grabbed an arm, helping her to her feet. Cleo adjusted the younger girl’s top so she was properly covered. Stuffing a wad of bills into Tiny’s hand, Cleo motioned to Stacy. She was telling him to take a cab and bring the girl home safely. “Cleo gets a bad rap sometimes, but she’s not so bad,” Roxy suddenly blurted out. It was Jinx’s turn to shoot her friend a surprised look. “How do you mean?” Roxy’s face turned a bright red. She didn’t know why she had said that. Maybe Jinx was rubbing off on her. “She’s got a lot going on, y’know. Stuff with Spike, stuff with the gang. But still, she looks out for others, even the people she doesn’t really like.” Roxy nodded to Cleo, who was now handing Stacy a cup of water. “When you say ‘stuff with the gang,’ you mean Ivan, don’t you?” Jinx asked quietly, watching Vince. Roxy didn’t say anything for a long time. “Yeah.” “You think it’s going to be bad,” she correctly assumed. Roxy swallowed a hard lump. “Yeah.” She nodded. She glanced over at the normally cheerful, happygo-lucky girl. Jinx didn’t look like her face even knew how to make a smile. “But not for us,” Roxy added, forcing a bit of joy into her voice. “Ivan’s never gonna know what hit him. Cleo said she talked to Spike about it and they came up with a plan.” “Really?” Jinx cried excitedly. “Yup!” Roxy said confidently. “Ivan’s gonna be dust by the time Satan’s Disciples is through with him. Then things will go back to the way they were.” Cleo had said no such thing, of course, but it was criminal for someone like Jinx to be sad, even if for only a moment. Roxy ordered a round of drinks for the table and brought it over, enjoying the happy night while it lasted.


Spike held the rear entrance door open for Georgia. He smugly noticed that she hesitated, frightened

to leave the bar and enter the dark back alley with him. “Getting scared?” he taunted, whispering in her ear. Georgia snapped her head back, immediately blushing at her reaction. “I’m fine,” she lied. Spike led her around to the side of the building where close to four dozen motorcycles were parked. The lot was a sea of chrome and leather. Georgia followed Spike, carefully winding her way around the bikes. She had visions of tripping over a kickstand and sending them all to the ground like dominoes. He approached a bike, pulling the helmet off of the back. Georgia looked it over. It was long, much longer than most of the normal motorcycles Georgia saw on the highway, ones Spike and his boys called “crotch-rockets”. The front wheel was huge, with red spokes. The rest of the bike was a matte black, with small red accents here and there. Spike swung a leg over, handing Georgia a second helmet that was strapped to the backseat. “Hop on,” he told her. Georgia took her time putting on the helmet, not wanting to ruin her hair. As she pulled it over her head, she caught a strong whiff of perfume that she recognized smelling earlier in the bar—Cleo’s. That might be a problem, Georgia worried. Spike was looking at her expectantly, so she hastily got on the bike, wiggling to find a comfortable spot. “You’re going to want to hold on,” Spike warned her. If she knew him, she would have heard the humor in his voice and perhaps would have been prepared. He started the bike, and it roared to life, filling Georgia’s body with pure energy and force. She screamed inside the helmet, but it was still loud enough for Spike to hear over the motor. “Relax,” he said, flipping up his visor so he could talk to her. “It’ll go easier if you move with the bike, okay? Just let your body do what’s natural.” Without waiting for a response, Spike turned around and revved the engine, causing another ripple of vibrations to spread through Georgia. She instinctively grabbed at his back, her fists tightly clenching his leather vest. She could feel his hard back underneath her hands, and she flashed back to the dingy office room they had been in only a few minutes ago. Georgia had felt a number of muscles through his thin black t-shirt, and couldn’t help but compare Spike to Rocco, finding the latter to fall seriously short in several categories— physically, anyway. Rocco was attractive enough, in a plain sort of way. Short brown hair, brown eyes, a slight build—he was a sketch artists’ worst nightmare. There was simply nothing remarkable about him, excluding his

overly-romantic tendencies, which, unfortunately, was not able to be conveyed through his appearance. Everywhere Rocco was average, Spike was improved, if not exceptionally better. Spike had auburn hair with reddish-streaks that caught the light, his eyes were green, with flecks of gold, and he towered over Georgia, making her feel small and delicate. Spike duck-walked the bike out to the street. He pulled up his feet, and, following Georgia’s slender, finger, peeled out in the direction she had pointed. As he drove, he began to plan how he would force Georgia out. The key, Spike reasoned, was to make her actually enjoy being with him. A girl like Georgia would hate herself for letting a man like Spike touch her, and if she liked him touching her, well, that would just send her running for the hills, he thought. You want her to hate herself? a voice said in Spike’s head. Why? Because you hate yourself? “I don’t hate myself,” Spike muttered to himself, grateful for the engine that prevented him from being overheard. If you don’t now, you will once you go through with this, the voice said. Spike ignored the voice and revved the motor again, drowning out all thoughts. They arrived at Georgia’s house twenty minutes later. It had been terrifying at first, but Georgia had eventually been able to relax and do as Spike suggested, and the adrenaline rush she got made it almost worth it. Spike checked out the damage as they rolled up. Her windows had been shot out and boarded up with some cheap plywood, and what appeared to be scorch marks on her sidewalk and the road in front of her house. Had Ivan tried to smoke her and her brother out? It probably wasn’t a good time to ask, he figured. Georgia unlocked the front door and let Spike in behind her. She looked around her place. She and Stacy had done their best to pick up the broken glass and debris, but there was only so much they could do. It was still a disaster zone. “Sorry, about…you know,” she said, gesturing around her. “Are you sure you feel safe staying here?” Spike asked. She shrugged. “I work hard to afford this place. It’s the only thing I know as home. I’m not leaving,” Georgia told him firmly. “If you’re scared, you’re welcome to leave,” she offered wickedly, challenging him.

Spike whipped his head around to look at her in shock. Where had that come from? He watched as she went into a cupboard and began to rummage around, eventually coming back with a bottle of vodka that was stoppered with…a towel? “What’s that?” he asked, chuckling. “It looks like a—” “It was a Molotov cocktail,” Georgia said, cutting him off. “Now it’s dinner.” She pulled two glasses out of the cabinet and poured them each a drink. She didn’t wait to cheers, she just swallowed the harsh liquor, waiting for it to bring her the courage she needed to deal with the situation. Spike raised an eyebrow at her. That explains the fire damage I saw outside, he thought, looking at the bottle. Georgia had defended her home with DIY explosives. He was maybe going to need to rethink his strategy, for she was clearly not as helpless as she seemed. He finished his drink in one long sip, setting the glass on the counter and watching Georgia intently. She had gulped down her drink, and was pouring herself another one. Spike reached out a hand to stop her. He didn’t want her unconscious. He wanted her to be clear of mind when she begged for him. Spike came to stand behind Georgia. He slid his hands down her arms, plucking the glass from her grip. Placing it on the table, Spike continued to put his hands all over Georgia’s body, feeling her skin grow hot under his touch. She was so incredibly responsive, it was amazing. Georgia quivered as she felt Spike’s rough fingers lightly graze her skin. Their path was meandering and unexpected; her breath hitched every time he passed over an especially sensitive spot, her lower stomach, the inside of her elbow, just behind her ears. She felt herself grow hot all over. It was the back office all over again. Georgia couldn’t control her body; her underwear was growing damp at his prolonged touch. She closed her eyes and her soft, rosy lips parted, letting a quiet moan escape. Her reaction was so evocative, Spike couldn’t help but give a lustful sigh in return. He shook his head. Spike was so hot for her he was losing focus. He had a plan and he needed to stick to it, not just toss it to the wind because he had no self-restraint. Spike told himself the reason he was so eager to take Georgia to bed was because she was so different than what he was used to, but then she instinctively began to move against him, and Spike utterly forgot what he had been thinking about. Slipping his hands around her waist, Spike guided her hips, loving the way his hands seemed to perfectly form around her. He brought his hands up, once again feeling her tight stomach. Spike gently pressed his thumb into her bellybutton, smiling at the way Georgia’s breath hitched. He brought his hands even higher, his fingers stealing beneath Georgia’s leather vest to tease the full, soft underside of her breasts, only the thin fabric of her bra separating their skin.

Spike was surprised—the women he normally liked had a handful and then some when it came to their bra size, but he found himself enchanted by Georgia’s smaller and thus perkier tits. They heaved underneath the too-small vest, and Spike watched his fingers begin to frantically pluck away at the buttons. The vest finally opened after what seemed like an eternity, and Spike immediately covered Georgia’s breasts with his hands, feeling her nipples poke into his palms through the gauzy material. His cock throbbed in his jeans, but Georgia felt it and pulled away, pressing herself even further into Spike’s grasp. He tweaked her left nipple through her bra, and Georgia fell back against him, her eyelids fluttering with pleasure. Delighting in her response, Spike quickly unhooked her bra clasps and came around to face her. He slid the straps over her shoulders and down her arms, kneeling to cup her tits together. He pushed his face into them, appreciating their warmth. Georgia stood there, frozen, as Spike began to lick and suckle her breasts. Slowly, as he toyed with her, she began to melt, running her fingers through his shaggy hair. Her knees almost buckled as he worked over one pink peak for several long moments and then moved on to the next, occasionally coming back to the first. He nipped at her with his teeth, and Georgia hissed, tightening her grip on his hair and pulling him away. Spike surged upwards, grabbing Georgia around the waist and pushing her against the counter. He wanted her to know he was in charge here, and that she was his whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, wherever he wanted. Forcibly ripping open the button on her pants, Spike roughly pulled them down, Georgia’s white thong almost coming down with them. Spike stayed down on his knees, looking at the virginal underwear. Never had he wanted to tear something off of a woman so badly. Squashing this impulse, Spike slowly stood up, and gently placed Georgia on the counter. Georgia was growing more and more confused with each passing second. Spike kept going back and forth between soft and hard, rushing and taking his time. It was like he was trying to make sure this lasted as long as possible. She’d had visions of Spike drunkenly panting on top of her while she prayed for him to hurry up, but never had she expected him to caress every square inch of her skin. Or for him to stare at the most inner part of her with such intense desire. His gaze was so deep it frightened Georgia a little. She self-consciously tried to close her legs, to block his view, but Spike put up his hands to stop her, tracing his fingers along the insides of her thighs. Georgia shivered with pleasure and Spike patiently eased her knees apart again, kissing them.

He slid his hands up Georgia’s legs, smoothing them over her hips, his thumbs dipping down to lightly brush against the top of her pussy through the silk fabric of her thong. Spike hesitated for only a second before firmly pressing upwards, right where he knew her clit would be. Georgia’s body went rigid, then immediately limp as he pulled his fingers away. Georgia panted heavily in shock. As suddenly as Spike’s fingers had left her, they were back, pulling her underwear to the side so that his tongue might join them in plying Georgia’s hot, wet pussy with such heady sensations she thought she was going to pass out. He dragged his tongue the full length of her in long, slow strokes, building Georgia up higher and higher. Any confusion she had previously felt was now forgotten, along with almost everything she had ever known in life. Nothing existed for Georgia except Spike’s hands and mouth. Spike stepped back, and Georgia whimpered at the loss of sensations that threatened to overwhelm her. Holding out a hand, he helped Georgia off of the counter and followed her to the bedroom. Georgia climbed onto the bed, feeling awkward. Spike had just made her feel good, like, really good. Now was usually the time when Rocco would say it was her turn to go down on him, but Georgia wasn’t sure if that was what Spike wanted. Maybe he just wanted to have sex now. She hesitantly reached for his belt buckle, but Spike stayed her hand once again. “Don’t you want to…” Georgia trailed off, feeling horribly inexperienced and embarrassed. “What I want to do right now, more than anything, Georgia,” Spike said seriously, “is to get an up close and personal look at that ass of yours.” Georgia smiled uncertainly. “What do you want me to do?” she asked. Part of her was enjoying being bossed around. Spike, sensing that, dropped his voice to a menacing whisper. “Lie face down,” he ordered. Georgia did as she was told, adrenaline flooding her body with anticipation. She felt Spike moving around on the bed behind her and then his hands on her hips again. He slid his fingers under the silk, lace waistband and tugged gently, slipping the thong down her legs. Spike leaned forward, cupping Georgia’s ass with both hands, admiring its perfect bubble shape. Spike had always considered himself to be a breast man, but Georgia had him wondering if all these years he’d been missing out. Settling between her legs, Spike lay down to get an intimate look at Georgia. He reached out with his fingers, lightly flicking her clitoris with his middle finger. Georgia ground her hips into the bed in response. Spike decided he liked that very much. He did it again.

Spike drew small circles around Georgia’s most sensitive part, noticing how her body mimicked the movement his hands made. He turned his face, licking the V where Georgia’s thigh and pussy met. Georgia groaned loudly. She was beginning to tremble, her body unable to handle the sensations Spike’s tongue was eliciting from her. A hot point in the pit of Georgia’s stomach pulsed, sending out little sparks to her every nerve ending. It wasn’t as though Georgia had never had an orgasm before, but certainly not one that seemed like it started at her fingertips and worked its way inward. Every stroke of Spike’s tongue, every finger he pressed inside her, every time he whispered her name, Georgia got closer and closer to that all-encompassing point. Her heart pounded, her blood surged, and Georgia thought she was going to explode, bigger and brighter than any Fourth of July fireworks. Spike sat up and wiped his face, smiling at Georgia’s limp, satisfied body. He guaranteed she’d never been eaten out like that before. Her reactions alone were enough to confirm that. Spike actually felt a little bad for her. She was obviously a good person; it was shitty she’d never been treated like it. Yeah, well, the world’s funny that way, isn’t it? Spike heard that same voice sarcastically say. He shook the thought clear as Georgia began to stir. She rolled over lazily, giving Spike the opportunity to leisurely gaze at her perfect body. He was still rock hard, and a large part of him ached to lay his body across hers, to plunge himself deep within her. Another part, however, was perfectly content just to look at her and know he gave her the easy smile that now crossed her face. The stress of the day combined with the absolute release Georgia had just experienced was a powerful sedative. Georgia was determined to follow through with her end of the bargain—partially for her brother, and partially to see what other wonders Spike would be able to perform on her body —but she was fading fast. Her eyelids were fluttering once more, but this time from exhaustion, Spike noted. Impulsively, he kicked off his boots and lay in the bed next to her. Georgia immediately rolled over, throwing an arm over his chest and a leg over his hip. He froze with his hands in the air, with no clue of where to put them or what to do next. Georgia took one of his palms and placed it so that Spike was firmly cupping one buttock. The other she moved so that it was resting in her thick, wild hair. Sighing happily, Georgia settled against Spike, and within minutes, was gently snoring. Spike, for his part, still had no idea what he was doing. Was he really going to spend the night here? In a house his mortal enemy had already shot up once before, with a woman he had just spent the last half hour eating out, only to end up with blue balls in return.

He looked at Georgia. After listening to her snap at him all night long, she was so peaceful now as she slept in his arms, but Spike needed to return to the gang and give them instructions to set up surveillance on Ivan. He moved slightly, trying to pull his arm out from under her, but she only held onto him tighter. “Spike…” Georgia sleepily whispered. “Stay, please.” Spike doubted Georgia even knew she was talking, let alone what she was saying, but for once in his life, Spike did as he was told. He carefully sat up, making sure not to wake Georgia as he stripped off his shirt. Lying back down, Spike gathered Georgia in his arms once more, smiling as he drifted off to join her in dreamland.

Chapter Five Spike awoke suddenly. He looked around wildly, searching for whatever had woken him so abruptly. He didn’t recognize where he was, but then that wasn’t uncommon for him. The beginnings of morning light filtered through the curtains, softly illuminating the room. Spike looked down next to him and saw a mass of brown hair that seemed to have exploded during the night. Last night! Spike remembered frantically. Memories came flooding back to him. Georgia and her friend walking into Joe’s; realizing Georgia was about as far from a biker babe as you could get; kissing her in the back office, feeling her kiss him back; feeling her wrap her arms tight around him as she rode on the back of his Harley; lapping at her sweet pussy from behind as he gripped her perfect ass. Spike felt his cock begin to stir once again as he remembered eating Georgia out. Never had he known a woman could taste so good. He thought he could have her breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and still be hungry for dessert. He started to slowly inch his way down the bed, thinking he could wake Georgia up by having some breakfast in bed. Spike gently slid the sheet down her naked body, growing harder by the second. Georgia shifted, murmuring in her sleep. Spike froze; after an entire night of eating the girl out, that was how he wanted to start his day? Spike was not what Cleo, or any of the other women he’d been with, would call a generous lover. Of course he was always willing to help get a lady going, but even Spike would agree: he was never overly concerned with who finished first, as long as he got to finish. So, spending that much time face-first in a vagina was more than a little odd for him. Why did I do that last night? Spike wondered, staring at the beige carpet on Georgia’s floor. She’s supposed to fuck me for help with Ivan, not use me as her personal vibrator! She manipulated me! Deep down, he knew that wasn’t true. He had been the one to initiate things with her. He had been the one to set her up on the counter, hell, he had practically thrown himself to his knees to get to her. If the gang had seen him, they would have said he was whipped, which he was most certainly not. Spike stood up angrily, not caring if he woke Georgia. He hurriedly put on his pants, quickly followed by his socks and shoes. He grabbed his shirt, throwing it on as he walked into the living room. Spike refused to look at the kitchen, secretly afraid that if he saw the countertop it would cause him to run back into Georgia’s bedroom and dive beneath the covers head first. He stormed to the door and ripped it open, slamming it behind him. A moment later, he had started his bike and was roaring down the street, headed for downtown, letting the wind blow his thoughts away.

He killed the engine as he pulled up; everyone in Satan’s Disciple was a heavy sleeper, usually passing out versus actually going to sleep, but Spike wanted to be especially careful of waking a certain someone. Satan’s Disciples—most of them, anyway—lived in a large, decrepit house that had about a million things on its to do list. Cleo slept in Spike’s bed more nights than not, but he doubted he would find her there now. Worse, he was surprised to find he wasn’t all that upset about it. He had been rocking at least a quarter-staff for the last twelve hours, yet he had zero desire to go upstairs and find Cleo and convince her to help him take care of it. He considered jerking off, but that felt incredibly juvenile. Plus, Spike had a strong suspicion that even if he did handle it himself, it was the sort of hard-on that could only be solved by burying it into the hot, sweet pussy of a fiery woman. He had complicated things for himself by leaving so abruptly, he realized. Georgia was most likely going to be more than a little upset that he had bailed on her. She had worried that he was going to fuck her and leave, and that was pretty much exactly what he had done. He cursed at himself. Fucking idiot! The whole point was to get Georgia to give herself up willingly to him; that was the only way this thing with Ivan was worth it. He seriously doubted she would be so willing when she woke up alone this morning. Spike adjusted the front of his pants and walked into the house. He went up the stairs, cringing at every squeak the wooden floorboards made. Taking a peek through the door crack, Spike saw his bed was empty. Good. He hurriedly kicked off his shoes and climbed into bed, sighing with relief. He needed sleep. Sleep would make things clearer. Spike was just a little confused right now, but a good night’s rest would put him right back on top, where he belonged. He was sure of it. Spike rolled onto his side, punching his pillow to flatten it out. This made his elbow uncomfortably dig into the bed, so he flipped onto his stomach. This wasn’t good either—now he felt like his airflow was restricted. He lay on his back again; it was how he usually slept. But no matter what he tried, he could not remember how he positioned his hands. Everything seemed awkward and wrong. Spike tiredly wondered if someone had stuck a green bean under his pillow, or whatever that old fairy tale was. He lay there, tossing and turning, waiting for the sleep that never came. He listened as the house began to slowly wake and move around him. Spike heard Tiny in the room next door get up, heading to spend his habitual twenty minutes in the bathroom before going downstairs to make a giant pan of hash browns and sausage. It was first come, first served, and Spike was always served first, but this morning he had no appetite. There was a loud knock on the door. “Go away!” Spike called as he stared at the ceiling, his hands behind his head.

The door opened anyway, and Spike mentally cursed never having gotten around to putting a lock on it. “Where the fuck have you been all night?” Cleo stood at the foot of his bed, one hand on her hip. Spike audibly groaned. “Can we not do this?” he begged her. “I got no sleep.” “Gee, I wonder fuckin’ why,” she said with a mocking innocence. “Could it be because you spent the whole night dick-deep in some cager?” Cager was a biker term for a person who drove a car. “You know, you sound like a real bitch when you’re jealous, Cleo,” Spike said, not bothering to ask Cleo how she knew Georgia and Stacy had been lying. He sat up on his elbows to glare at her. This was an old fight of theirs, and an exhausting one, in Spike’s opinion. It was getting worse and worse every time, and Spike was starting to have trouble justifying them. Is what I have with Cleo worth tiring myself out over and over again over a situation that will never be resolved? It obviously wasn’t worth enough to him that he was willing to give up other women, or he would have by now. Think of the gang, he reminded himself. Whatever he decided about Cleo, today wasn’t a good day for fighting. Today, he had to tell Satan’s Disciples that they would be going after Ivan. It wasn’t something he was looking forward to. Figuring he might as well get the worst of it over with, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood up to face Cleo. “I’ve decided we’re going after Ivan,” he told her as he pulled on his jeans. She went still, her beautiful face rigid with shock. Spike knew the shock would soon wear off and become anger. “You’re doing what?” she cried disbelievingly. There it is, Spike thought, amused. He carefully constructed a confused look on his face. “What?” he asked innocently. “I’m just doing what you suggested. Last night at Joe’s you said we needed to do something about Ivan. I decided you’re right.” Cleo stared at him. “I said we needed a plan! I didn’t say we get ourselves killed!” she hissed. “I got a plan,” Spike said distractedly, searching for a semi-clean shirt in the various piles of clothing on the floor. Finding one, he pulled it over his head. “We go after Ivan.” “That’s not a plan, Spike! What’s going on?” she accused, suddenly suspicious. “Last night you were preaching safety and precaution, and now you’re talking about…” Cleo stopped abruptly. “Does this have something to do with that girl? What were you two talking about the back office? If you were talking, that is,” she added derisively.

Spike gave Cleo a hard look. “Did you forget what fucking patch you were wearing?” he asked viciously. Striding over to her, Spike grabbed Cleo by the elbows, pushing her back until she was pressed up against the wall. He turned her around roughly, ripping her leather vest off one arm at a time. Ignoring her protests, he spun her back to face him, shoving the vest in her face. Cleo shoved her hair out of her eyes to see the Satan’s Disciples patch staring right at her. Spike’s finger was meaningfully pointed at the empty space near the top. Wrenching his own vest from the back of the door, Spike showed Cleo his patch. “Right fucking there, Cleo,” Spike said, pointing at the word Leader stamped across it. “I’m the leader, not you. That means I make the decisions, and I don’t have to tell you jack shit why, got it?” Spike crept close, his thrice broken nose inches away from Cleo’s proud, straight one. “You let me know next time you need a reminder,” he threatened. Thinking that was that, Spike stormed his way down the stairs, hoping he would be able to still get some sausage. He realized he was starving. So focused on the food was he, that he never noticed Jinx stealthily creeping out of Vince’s room. Spike walked into the kitchen. All of the pots and pans were empty, and everyone at the table looked well-fed. He pouted, thinking of the missed food, and his stomach grumbled. Someone tapped Spike on the shoulder and he turned around. It was Tiny, holding a plate full of sausage, hash browns, and scrambled eggs. Spike couldn’t help it; he hugged Tiny, his arms barely fitting around the large man’s middle. “Easy there, boss,” Tiny laughed, patting Spike on the back with a meaty paw. “I made sure to keep some on the side for ya.” Spike sat down, shoveling the food in his mouth. A shadow fell over him and he looked up. It was Cleo. “Can I eat first?” he asked her, irritated. “Absolutely,” Cleo said, patting him on the back. Spike eyed her, dubious, but went back to eating. “Hey, everyone,” Cleo called loudly. Spike swore, throwing down his fork. “Spike’s busy eating, but he wanted me to tell you all that we’re going to be attacking Ivan and the Russian mob. With no plan!” she added brightly. Immediately, the kitchen broke out into anarchy. Hector whooped loudly. “Dios mio, finally!” he cried.

“Is that a good idea?” Tiny asked fretfully. “Ivan and his men outnumber us almost two to one.” Spike glared at Cleo. “Was that really fucking necessary?” “Yes, Spike!” she exclaimed. “It’s necessary for your gang to know what’s going on! Especially if you’re counting on them to have your back!” He let out a half groan, half growl, and stood. “Alright!” Spike roared over the din, standing on his chair to silence the crowd. A dozen pairs of eyes turned to stare at him. “Yes,” Spike said with conviction. “Last night I decided that enough is enough! It’s time for Ivan and his mob to go back to Mother Russia.” He looked around, making sure to look each and every one of them in the eye. “They think that this is their territory, and I think it’s time to show them otherwise.” Cleo scoffed loudly, but no one heard her. They were too busy listening to Spike. “Some of you are scared. You’re worried that Ivan is too strong for us.” He glanced at Cleo, who scowled at him in return. “I’m here to tell you that when it came down to it, going after Ivan was an easy decision to make. That’s how much faith I have in us, in Satan’s Disciples,” Spike continued, his voice rising in both pitch and volume. He punched his palm with his fist, emphasizing his words. The members began to excitedly press closer to him. “We, who were born in hellfire! We walk through life with the Devil on our right, and Death on our left! We are Satan’s Disciples, and we will burn all those who stand in our way!” Spike was shouting with all his might; the crowd had worked itself into a frenzy. Despite the fact that it was ten in the morning, bottles of whiskey and cans of beer immediately began to get passed around, everyone cheering to Ivan’s imminent end, and the inevitable rise of Satan’s Disciples. Spike hopped off of the chair, shaking hands and clapping backs with his members, promising to celebrate with them soon. He tried to slip out, but Cleo caught him at the front door. “I couldn’t help but notice you didn’t mention any sort of plan, or the fact that the reason you changed your mind about Ivan is because of a cager,” she said matter-of-factly. “Why don’t you go tell them,” Spike said, shrugging on his leather jacket. “You seem to enjoy talking about shit you don’t understand.” He was rapidly losing patience with Cleo and her jealous attacks on him. How did she expect a man like him to be faithful to one woman? His father hadn’t been; in fact, the first time his father had ever beaten his mother was because his mother just wouldn’t leave his father alone about the other women he was seeing. Spike knew he wasn’t a good man, but Cleo was lucky he was a better one than his father had been—barely. Spike didn’t presume to think murderers ranked much higher than woman beaters in the eyes of God.

“If I don’t understand something, then why don’t you fucking explain it to me,” Cleo shot back.” Cleo could not for the life of her grasp why leaders always thought they were protecting people by keeping them in the dark. No matter what Spike had said in the kitchen, Cleo thought Spike didn’t have very much faith in them at all if he couldn’t tell them what was going on. “Look, Cleo. I don’t have time for this right now,” Spike said, pulling on his boots. “I’ll be back later.” “Oh, you don’t have time to hash out a real plan with us, but you have time to spend all night with some civilian?” Cleo asked bitingly. “Enough!” Spike bellowed. The party in the kitchen died down for a second, startled by the outburst, but then immediately resumed. “Not that you deserve to fucking know, but I’m going to get some intel on Ivan. We can’t make a plan without any information.” He threw open the door, pausing to look back at Cleo, who stood with her arms folded and her eyes pointed at the floor. Spike sighed, the anger rushing out of him. “I know you’re just trying to help, Cleo. But you are so far up my ass, I can’t even sit down to ride my bike. I’ll be back later and we can talk plans then.” Cleo stepped forward, and Spike unconsciously pulled away from her. He knew she wanted a kiss, but he was feeling less than affectionate right now. “I’ll be back later,” he repeated as he hurried out the door, slamming it firmly shut behind him.


As the morning came and went, the bright afternoon sun slowly began to make its way across the sky, filtering through the tiny crack in Georgia’s pale blue curtains, beaming straight through her eyelids. Georgia stirred, the shining light disrupting her sleep. She opened her eyes and immediately regretted it. It felt like her corneas had been burned away with a hot poker. Her head throbbed, and she groaned aloud. “Uhhh….” Arduously pushing herself into a sitting position, Georgia took stock of her surroundings. She was in a dark room. Georgia pushed her hair out of her face. The whole place instantly brightened and took shape. She was in her bedroom. Breathing a sigh of relief, Georgia carefully stood up, one hand to her aching head. She didn’t think she drank that much last night, but apparently the drink Hawg Ear was so named because your tongue felt like one the next morning.

“Spike?” Georgia called, wincing at the volume of her own voice. She reached behind her to grab the top sheet, wrapping it around her naked body as she shuffled over to the bathroom door. Georgia knocked gently, but the door wasn’t shut and swung open—no one was inside. He’s probably in the kitchen, Georgia figured. After a night like that, who wouldn’t be hungry? She was ravenous, which meant Spike was to the point of starvation. Unfortunately, if he was trying to scrounge up something to eat, he was going to find himself shit out of luck. Georgia’s fridge was practically empty. She hurried to the kitchen as fast as her hangover would allow. “Sorry, I don’t have anything,” she said as she rounded the corner. “I meant to go grocery shopping…” Georgia stopped, realizing she was speaking to an empty room. She turned in a circle, double checking to make sure she hadn’t somehow missed him in her sixhundred-square-foot apartment. “Spike?” she called once more. Georgia peered out one of the bullet holes in her front door—a new, custom peek-hole courtesy of Ivan. Spike’s motorcycle was gone. Must have taken one look at the kitchen and gone out to get breakfast for us, Georgia optimistically thought, even as her stomach sank. She hobbled back to her bedroom to put on some clothes. As she was pulling a tank top over her head, Georgia heard a loud pounding coming from the front of the house. Thinking it was Spike, Georgia hurriedly went to answer it. She slowed suddenly. What if it was Ivan? Georgia bent into a crouch, and cautiously snuck over to the door, peeking through one of the lower holes in it. It wasn’t Spike or Ivan; it was Stacy. Georgia watched as her friend raised her fist to hammer the door again. She quickly shot up to quickly to open it, almost getting punched in the face in the process. “Come in, come in.” Georgia ushered Stacy inside where it was safe. Stacy said she was okay taking the risk, but Georgia didn’t see the need to hang around on front steps chatting, completely open and vulnerable to a certain Russian mobster who might decide he was tired of waiting around, and that today was a good day to go for a ride his car with an AK-47 hanging out the window. Georgia shut the door and turned to look at Stacy. “Do you have any food?” was the first thing out of her mouth.

Stacy’s jaw dropped and she stared at Georgia. “Are you fucking kidding me?” Stacy asked. “After the shit you pulled last night, the first thing you do is ask me for food?” Georgia grimaced. “I’m sorry, but I’m really hungry.” She knew it wasn’t cool of her to be making requests from Stacy right now, especially when she was already doing so much to help Georgia. “Well, if we had gone home together like we had planned, I could have driven you to get breakfast this morning,” Stacy replied scathingly. Georgia felt bad, but she was in no mood to be yelled at right now. Her head and stomach felt like they were joining forces against her in an effort to make her life hell. “You’re pretty upset for someone who didn’t even seem to notice I was missing.” Stacy froze. “What’s that supposed to mean?” “It means,” Georgia began, growing angry, “I was gone for almost an hour, and when I get back, you were hooting and hollering, having a grand ol’ time with them! You had no idea where I was, and you were having too much fun to care—as usual.” Stacy was always trying to drag Georgia out to clubs and parties, saying Georgia worked too hard and needed to learn how to relax. However, these outings more often than not resulted in her abandoning Georgia to find a taxi home alone while Stacy caught a ride with a handsome stranger. “What did you want me to do, Georgia?” Stacy cried. “I’m in a biker bar, surrounded by people who wouldn’t think twice about murdering me, even if they didn’t know we were lying. Did you want me to completely freak out and demand you stay right there next to me?” Georgia looked at her feet. “I was terrified for you, Georgia,” Stacy said, putting her hand on Georgia’s shoulder. “You went into that back room all alone with that man, and then suddenly you were gone. I didn’t know what had happened to you, or what to do, so I stuck to our plan and I played the role of rowdy, partying biker babe.” Georgia hung her head. “I’m sorry, Stacy. I didn’t mean to leave you.” “Then why did you?” Stacy pushed. “What happened in there?” Georgia bit her lip, avoiding Stacy’s gaze. Suddenly, in the bright light of day, the harsh reality of what she was doing hit her full force. She burst into tears. Slowly, with many tissues and much coaxing from Stacy, Georgia told her how she had desperately pleaded with Spike for his help. “I told him I would do anything,” she said, sniffling. “He asked me if I meant…you know, anything, and I said yes.”

Once again Stacy found herself with no idea what to do or say, except this time she didn’t have a character role to fall back on. She didn’t want to be judgmental, but Georgia was being incredibly reckless, and Stacy didn’t think she fully understood the gravity of the situation. Georgia was a little more reclusive than most, having often experienced the negative effects of partying secondhand from her father and brother. While that withdrawn lifestyle had protected Georgia from a lot, Stacy wasn’t sure that was a good thing in this situation. She worried it wasn’t in Georgia’s nature to even consider the possibility Spike might just screw her and then screw her over. “I see why you felt this was your only option, Georgia,” Stacy began carefully. “I’m just not sure if you’ve entirely thought this through.” Georgia frowned, puzzled. “Why do you say that?” Stacy hesitated, unsure of how to proceed. Thankfully, she was rescued by the sound of Georgia’s phone ringing in the other room. Georgia gave Stacy a long look, then hurried into her bedroom to retrieve her phone. Walking back to the living room, Georgia looked at the number on the screen. It was an unknown caller. “What if it’s Felix?” Georgia said hopefully to Stacy. “What if it’s Ivan?” Stacy countered. Georgia bit her lip, then tapped the answer button. “Felix, is that you?” “Yeah, it’s me, Joja.” Relief swept through Georgia’s body at the sound of her little brother’s voice. She nodded, answering Stacy’s questioning stare. “Where are you? Are you okay?” she asked frantically. “Why didn’t you call me from your cell phone?” “I had to ditch my phone; Ivan has Nicholas trace them for him to find runners like me all the time,” he replied. “I got a burner phone so he can’t send anyone after me. You should probably get one too. He might have bugged your phone to listen in, so I probably shouldn’t say where I am.” “But you’re okay?” Georgia repeated. Her heart was racing and she knew she wouldn’t be able to calm down until Felix told her he was safe. “Yeah, I’m fine. I was able to shake Ivan’s guy right away, so they have no idea which direction I’m headed in. I’ll keep moving though, just in case,” Felix told her.

Georgia thought he sounded exhausted, but otherwise alright. She let out a breath she didn’t know she had been holding in. “Were you able to visit our friend?” Felix asked, carefully avoiding names in case Ivan did have someone eavesdropping on them. Spike wouldn’t be able to do much good if Ivan had a forewarning that he was coming. “Yes! I did. He promised he would help us, but he hasn’t said how yet,” Georgia told her brother, fervently hoping he wouldn’t ask how she managed to convince him to go after Ivan. “Really?” Felix exclaimed, shocked. “That’s awesome, Joja! What did you say to him?” he asked. Georgia froze, the word anything playing on a loop in her mind. She flashed back to Spike looming over her as she begged him from her knees and everything that followed. Images from last night kept creeping up on her, causing her to blush randomly throughout the day. At one point Stacy even asked her if she had a fever. Georgia blamed it on her hangover and hoped that excuse would suffice until she could control herself. “Don’t worry about it, Felix. Just focus on keeping yourself safe.” She sounded like a liar even to her own ears. “What did you promise him, Georgia?” Felix asked suspiciously. “I can take care of myself; don’t give him something you can’t give for my sake,” he told her determinedly. “It’s not like that at all, Felix. Relax,” Georgia fibbed. “I just don’t want to talk about it on the phone. Ivan could be listening, remember? We should keep this short.” Stacy gave her a look and Georgia glared at her, turning her back to Stacy. Truthfully, Georgia didn’t want to hang up; she was terrified this could be the last time she spoke to her little brother, but she didn’t want to have to explain how she convinced Spike and the Satan’s Disciples to help them. Felix would come back immediately, and then Georgia would lose everything she ever cared about. “You’re probably right,” Felix said. “Thanks, Joja. You think of everything. I don’t know what I would do without you.” Georgia bit back tears. “Get going—I don’t want you to get caught just because we’re being sappy.” She wasn’t lying now, but she also wanted to make sure her persuasion tactics didn’t come up again. She told Felix she loved him and hung up the phone. “Why didn’t you tell Felix about your arrangement with Spike?” she heard Stacy quietly ask from behind her. Georgia closed her eyes, begging the Lord for patience. “I know what I’m doing, Stacy,” she said, turning to look at her friend.

Stacy stepped forward, concern in her eyes. “I’m worried about you, Georgia.” “That makes sense,” Georgia said cynically. “There’s a high probability I’ll be murdered in the next few days.” Stacy rolled her eyes, frustrated with Georgia’s attitude. “That’s not what I meant and you know it. This guy Spike is bad news. For all we know, he could be worse than Ivan.” “Felix told me he would help us, and he’s helping us!” Georgia cried, conveniently forgetting she had accused Spike of taking advantage of her only last night. “How does that make him a bad guy?” Stacy narrowed her eyes at Georgia. “I’m trying to help you, so don’t pretend like he’s some romantic guy, dashing off to protect your honor, Georgia. Spike is an opportunist and he sees you as an opportunity, that’s all. When he’s done with you, he’ll move on.” “Please, Stacy,” Georgia scoffed. “You’re talking like I would want him to stick around. I know what he is.” After the way he abandoned her last night, how could she forget? She definitely wasn’t going to tell Stacy about that part—it would just add fuel to her fire. “I’m hoping he moves on. He and I made a deal, and the sooner it’s over, the better. Besides,” Georgia added, “you’re always after me to let loose, and this is a great opportunity for that!” She wasn’t ready to admit to herself how much she had liked what happened last night—or how upset she was Spike had left. Stacy shook her head. “From the second you met this guy, you’ve been acting totally different, Georgia. Ditching me, lying to your brother.” “That’s not because of Spike, Stacy. That’s because I’m doing whatever I have to, to keep my family alive,” Georgia said flatly. “Either way, it doesn’t matter. If I want Spike’s help, I have to have sex with him.” She was surprised to feel a rush of heat down below at the thought of Spike being fully inside of her. Georgia cleared her throat, hoping Stacy didn’t notice her sudden blush. “Since I can’t change anything, can we not talk about it? I don’t want to argue with you,” Georgia finished, offering a crooked smile. Stacy pouted for a few seconds, then eventually smiled back. “Okay, okay. You’re right. We need to stick together if we want to get out of this in one piece.” Georgia fixed the corners of her own smile in place as she remembered what Felix had told her about Ivan. She wasn’t sure any of them were going to make it out of this, let alone in one piece.


Despite the fact that it hadn’t rained in days, Alex kept feeling droplets fall on him from above, the cold wetness rolling down his neck and along his spine. No matter where he stood in the dark alley,

he got dripped on. “Come on, Nicholas, where are you?” Alex grumbled, wiping the back of his neck with his sleeve. Nicholas was Ivan’s pet rat at the local precinct. Privately, Alex thought it was a terrible idea to entrust someone who so very obviously looked like a rat to do their dirty work, but no one asked what he thought so he didn’t say anything. Maybe that’s the trick, he thought as Nicholas turned into the alleyway, his headlights dimmed for covertness. Hide in plain sight. It’s never the guy you first suspect. He waved to catch Nicholas’s attention, pointing to a large garage door that slowly began to open to allow the driver to enter. Another droplet fell as Alex waited for the car to pull in, the large, wet bead hitting his nose and splashing across his face. He scrubbed at his eyes furiously, wondering how tetanus was contracted. “C’mon,” he said as Nicholas got out of the car. “Ivan wants to talk to you right away.” Alex desperately wanted to ask Nicholas if he had found where Felix was hiding, but he knew that if he acted like he cared, Ivan would see it as a weakness. Ivan got rid of weaknesses. “Easy there, Alex,” Nicholas said, grinning. “I only just got here. I’ve been driving around for hours. Let a guy get a drink and a bite to eat first.” Alex didn’t say anything. He stared down at Nicholas for a moment, then turned, walking through the plastic flaps that separated the garage from the warehouse. Nicholas followed him into the other room, his little feet scraping against the concrete floor, echoing loudly. Huge shelves lined the walls, most filled with car parts, guns, and drugs. The shorter wall along the front had miscellaneous items; illegal plants and animals, and other valuable items the Russian mob had smuggled into the states. Half a dozen men milled about the room, taking inventory, removing or replacing merchandise. A set of metal stairs led up to a second floor where security oversaw both the inner workings and outside activity of the warehouse. Three men stood guard, two at the bottom of the stairs and one at the top. They wore heavy black body armor and held automatic rifles. In the center was a massive glass and metal coffee table resting on top of a large polar bearskin rug. Ivan was lounging in a white, plush leather armchair, toying with the four-carat diamond ring he wore on his thumb. Next to him, on a matching leather couch, sat Yury. He was talking to Ivan about the remaining gangs that were still causing them problems downtown. “…I don’t see why you continue to tolerate them,” he said. Noticing Alex and Nicholas, he waved lazily.

Ivan pointed to another couch for them to sit on as he replied to Yury. “We have a lot of power here, but not even we will be able to escape unscathed if we do as you suggest and kill everyone we see on a motorcycle.” Alex took a seat, resting his elbows on his knees. He folded his hands to keep them from shaking. “Not everyone,” Yury corrected. “Just enough to decimate them. They only threaten our business as long as they’re able to organize.” Ivan shook his hand dismissively. “We can finish this conversation in a minute. Nicholas,” he turned to address the man who still had not yet sat down, “what have you discovered?” “Have you got anything to eat around here? I’m fuckin’ famished,” he said, rubbing his stomach. Ivan held Nicholas’s eyes for a moment, then nodded to Yury, who pulled out his phone. “How about a steak, huh? Well done?” Nicholas asked. “Thanks,” he said, winking. Alex tried to pretend he didn’t notice Yury’s murderous stare. If he were Nicholas right now, he’d be wetting his pants. Yury wasn’t the kind of guy you ordered around. Yury was the kind of guy that if you pissed him off, he would lay under your bed for hours, waiting for you to go to sleep, then suffocate you with your childhood stuffed animal. Yury ordered the food, and Nicholas finally sat down. Ivan stared at him expectantly. “Well? Did you find Felix or not?” Alex felt Yury staring at him and he made sure to keep his face carefully blank. “It’s only been a day, relax,” Nicholas said, putting his arms behind his head, his badge reflecting the overhead light. “Now, I can report the car as stolen, but they’re gonna want to talk to the owner of the car, which, from what I understood, was undesirable.” “How are you unable to find him?” Yury asked coldly. “He’s a fucking junkie. Have you checked any abandoned houses lately?” “Hey,” Nicholas shot back, his voice thin and reedy, “it’s not my fault he left you in the dust after his sister damn near roasted all of you alive, and it’s not my fault he was smart enough to ditch his phone. If he’s just a fucking junkie, then you find him.” A knife appeared in Yury’s hand so fast, Alex wasn’t even sure if Nicholas saw it. Ivan reached over and put his massive hand on Yury’s shoulder, calming him. “Find something for us to use, Nicholas. Quickly,” Ivan ordered. “And get your steak to-go,

understand?” Nicholas’s face twisted sourly. “I’m doin’ the best I can with—” “Go,” Ivan repeated softly, staring Nicholas down. “Now. And don’t come back without new information. Useful information.” Nicholas stood up angrily, not looking at Yury as he stormed out of the room, his small fists tightly clenched. Ivan waited until Nicholas left, then turned to Yury. “I want that kid and his sister on their knees in front of me before the week is out.” “His sister, too?” Alex blurted out, instantly regretting it as Ivan and Yury looked at him. He wished his cousin, Victor, had never suggested working for Ivan to him. It had been wonderful at first. He got to work with one of his best friends and make a ton of money doing it. But then they got jumped, and Alex had been sure Ivan was going to kill him. Victor had paid Ivan off, but the appeal was gone. Alex was being forced to do things that made him more and more uncomfortable—like the bird he’d had to kill. Ivan ordered him to buy a bird from the pet store and leave it dismembered on Georgia’s front step. Alex had done as he was told, but he threw up after. “She killed Dmitri,” Ivan said evenly. “Do you think that’s something we can just forget?” “No. I only meant that our original problem is with Felix. His sister was just defending him,” Alex said slowly, carefully choosing his words. “So you think we should punish Felix for his sister’s actions? Interesting,” Yury said, thoughtfully tapping a long finger against his cheekbone. That wasn’t what Alex meant at all, but he thought he would live longer if he agreed with Yury, so he nodded. “They can both be punished for each other’s actions. Either way, I want both of them here.” Ivan said determinedly. “We get it.” Yury sighed, bored. He was always bored. “Now, can we please get back to talking about what we’re going to do with our little problem downtown? These bikers are like ants,” he said imperiously, flicking a speck of invisible dust from his knee. “You may only see one or two, but there are a hundred more waiting beneath the surface.” Ivan picked up his glass from the coffee table, swirling the vodka around as he thought on what Yury said.

Alex held his breath. If Ivan decided to make a hard push against the remaining bikers, what would he be asked to do next? He imagined it would be a lot more than killing and dismembering a bird. Suddenly throwing back his drink, Ivan swallowed quickly, slamming his glass on the table. “Fine. They all die. We start with Satan’s Disciples. They’re the strongest right now. Then we work our way from there.” Yury sat forward, his black eyes gleaming. “Yes!” he hissed, grinning with anticipation. Soon he would have more than enough to entertain himself with. Alex closed his eyes as he realized what Yury’s glee would mean for some poor soul. Could he do it? Could he kill someone? Someone who wasn’t even threatening him? In a few days’ time he was going to find out, and if the answer was no…Alex looked at Yury again, who seemed more enthusiastic than he had in a long time. He felt sick again. Quickly excusing himself to the bathroom, Alex hurriedly shut the door behind him, slamming the dingy toilet seat up just in time. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. What am I going to do? he desperately wondered.

Chapter Six Spike had told Cleo that he was going to collect intel on Ivan so Satan’s Disciples could set up a plan to get rid of him, however, that wasn’t exactly true. In reality, he was going to look for some kid named Alex. Georgia had mentioned her brother had a friend who worked for Ivan. Apparently that was how Felix and Ivan had ended up crossing paths. Alex was tied to Ivan, so Spike figured technically, he hadn’t actually lied to Cleo. Spike sighed. What am I going to do about you, Cleo? Her outburst today had been totally unacceptable. He used to think she was a firecracker when she would pop off like that, always setting him on his ass. Cleo would yell at him for being stupid, then he would fuck her brains out; that was their routine, and it was one he liked. Then why didn’t you fuck her this morning? You didn’t even kiss her when you headed out the door. It was like you couldn’t wait to get away, the voice in his head taunted. Spike pushed that part of his mind away. He revved the motor, accelerating down the highway as he mindlessly zipped through the lanes. His thoughts circled around back to last night again, and how nice it had been to have a woman do what he wanted her to do for once. Soon, she’ll want to do it too, Spike thought lasciviously as he headed towards Uptown. Once he told Georgia all the info he was about to dig up on her brother, she’d forget all about his early departure this morning. His plan was foolproof—as long as he found Alex. The only problem was Spike had no idea what Alex looked like. Pulling over into a narrow alley behind a row of shops, Spike killed the engine, silencing the echoing motor. He pulled off his leather vest that claimed the Satan’s Disciples title, leaving him in just a tight black tee. He carefully folded the vest and placed it in one of the side saddlebags on his bike, throwing his do-rag on top. Tousling his auburn hair, Spike stuck one hand in his pocket and casually slung his backpack over his shoulder. He walked out of the alley, heading down the street to the warehouse district where he knew the Russians did their business. Finding an abandoned warehouse, Spike climbed up the fire escape to stand on the roof. The building was tall, making a good vantage point. He unzipped his bag and pulled out a pair of binoculars. He didn’t know where Ivan’s place was, but Ivan wasn’t a very smart guy. Spike was confident he could figure it out. Sure enough, in less than thirty minutes Spike noticed a steady stream of fancy cars heading in and out

of one of the smaller buildings, as well as a suspicious number of men in graphic tees and leather pants that were far too snug. Twenty minutes after that, a young man exited one of the side doors and began to pace back and forth, looking extremely nervous. Spike had seen that look before—it was one of a man way out of his depth. He had found Alex. Spike quickly climbed back down the fire escape, taking the long way around to wind up on the same street as Alex. He didn’t want to walk too fast, or he would attract unwanted attention, but if he took too long, Alex would go back inside. Luck was with him today, and when Spike rounded the corner he spotted Alex, who was now agitatedly sucking down a cigarette. Staying in the shadow of the building, Spike pulled down his sunglasses to cover his eyes and began to casually wave at Alex, as if they were old pals, patiently waiting for him to notice. When he didn’t, Spike called to him from across the street, without a care in the world to who might be listening, apparently. Alex lit a cigarette, rapidly pacing back and forth as he tried to come up with a plan. Felix was going to die if he didn’t help him, and now his sister, too. But if he went against Ivan, it would most likely result in him only joining the two in a sudden, fiery car accident. He jerked his head up, hearing someone shout his name. Alex hastily looked around, spotting a darkhaired man in a black shirt on the street corner. He squinted, but couldn’t make out who the man was; he had a pair of over-sized sunglasses on that covered half of his face. The man waved again, and gestured that he would cross the street to come to Alex. Alex felt his body temperature drop five degrees. That would not fly with Ivan. He’d kill this man for trespassing on his property, and beat Alex half to death for letting him. Alex waved back to the man hurriedly, motioning for him to stay where he was. The last thing he wanted was another accidental death on his conscience. He looked around to double check no one else was around, then jogged across the street to figure out who this man was. The second Alex stepped into the shadow of the building, and outside any watchful eyes’ view, Spike grabbed his shirt and slammed him into the wall. “What the fu—” Alex started to exclaim, frantically trying to shove the stranger away. Spike shook him firmly to hold still, cutting him off. “Are you Alex Vaskov?” he asked, or perhaps threatened. “Yes, m-my name is Alex,” he stammered out. He had a feeling the man would be able to tell if he was lying. Miraculously, the giant fists holding him hostage relaxed and let go. Alex knew they would have him

again quick as lighting if he tried to run, though. “You friends with Felix Lewis?” the man asked suspiciously. Is this a trap? Alex wondered. Does this guy work for Ivan? Maybe Ivan’s testing me to see where my loyalties lie. He looked at the man in front of him again. Alex decided to play it straight. He took a deep breath. “Yes,” he said resolutely. “Felix is my friend.” There was no reaction from the man, which meant he didn’t work for Ivan, Alex gathered. His shoulders drooped, all the bravado rushing out of him. He had gotten himself all worked up over nothing. “Felix isn’t around, so if you’re looking for him, I can’t really…” Alex stopped midsentence once again, this time because the man had removed his sunglasses and Alex now finally knew who he was. “Holy shit, you’re Spike Turner,” Alex breathed, right before passing out from fear. Spike looked at the unconscious boy at his feet. “Goddammit,” he said, sighing. He nudged Alex with his boot. Nothing. He nudged harder. Still nothing. Taking a quick look around, Spike hooked his elbows under Alex’s armpits and hurriedly dragged him into the alley behind the warehouse. He propped Alex up against the brick wall, wincing as the kid’s head scraped along the rough stone. Spike stood up, panting a little. He was in good shape, especially for a man in his early thirties, but he had to admit, things were beginning to ache. Alex groaned and began to stir. “Please don’t hit me again,” he pleaded, looking up at Spike. “I swear, I have no idea where Felix is.” “I didn’t hit you the first time!” Spike said indignantly. “You fainted!” “Well, that’s embarrassing,” Alex muttered. Spike offered a hand and he took it, pulling himself up. “What do you want with Felix? If it’s to kill him, you’re wasting your time. Ivan’s already on it,” he said, gesturing to the building across the street with one hand while rubbing the back of his head with the other. “You sure you didn’t hit me?” he asked skeptically. “To be honest, I don’t want anything to do with Felix,” Spike said, ignoring Alex’s comment, “but his sister, Georgia, came around a tad pissed off about Ivan wanting to kill her brother and looking for help. Thing is, I like to be informed before I go sticking my nose where it might get shot off, and Georgia hasn’t been very forthcoming with the details, see?” If Spike were to be perfectly honest, he would have mentioned he hadn’t really asked Georgia for any details. There wasn’t any point to it, really. She was too close to him to see the truth about Felix. That

was why he needed Alex. “Why do you care what Georgia wants?” Alex blurted out. Spike scowled at Alex and grabbed him by the back of the neck. “Do you want to ask questions, or do you want to keep your tongue?” “Sorry!” Alex squeaked out. Spike glared at him for another minute to make sure he got the point, then let go. “Tell me what happened with Felix,” he ordered, folding his arms. “Well, I guess it all started out a while back when I met Felix, because, well, we were going to be heading to this place out in…the…” Alex’s voice faded as he noticed Spike’s menacing stare. He was nervous, and babbling because of it. “Sorry,” Alex repeated. “Um, Felix has a pretty bad drug problem, especially when it comes to the nose candy, if you know what I mean, and he was always short on cash. So when Ivan gave us the opportunity to run some drugs, well, we took it,” Alex admitted. Spike sighed. He could guess where this was headed. “Felix started tasting his own product, didn’t he?” Alex fervently shook his head. “No way, man. Felix might ride the white pony a little too often for me, but he was smarter than that,” he insisted. “Then what happened?” Alex looked at his shoes. “We got jumped. They took everything; our money and our stash. Ivan was pissed. Told us we were responsible for it.” Spike was nonplussed. “What happened to your guard?” “Our what?” Alex asked, equally confused. “Your guard,” Spike repeated. “You should have had a guard with you to make sure that exact thing didn’t happen to you…” He trailed off, seeing Alex wasn’t understanding anything he was saying. Come on, Ivan, Spike thought, aggravated. This is Drug-Running 101; where’s your head at? Unless… “Alex, did you know who jumped you?” Spike asked urgently. “Did they say anything?” Alex frowned as he thought back to that night. “No…” he said slowly. “Why?” Spike sighed. “Because Ivan rolled you two.”

“What do you mean?” Alex asked anxiously. “It’s a fucked up thing to do, but then, Ivan’s pretty fucked up,” Spike said. “You send out a runner with no guard so they’re defenseless, then you send someone out after the runner to rob them. It’s easy because you know exactly where they are on the route,” he explained. “They come back and you demand they come up with the money or you kill them. Then they have twice as much, see? The only thing I don’t understand is why Ivan would pull this on Felix. There’s nothing to suggest Felix would be able to pay up,” Spike wondered aloud. Alex’s shoulders suddenly drooped. “What?” Spike asked suspiciously. “My cousin, Victor,” Alex said miserably. “He’s rich—he paid for my share, and even some of Felix’s. Ivan must’ve been going after me,” he stuttered, clearly distressed. “Yeah, probably,” Spike agreed absentmindedly. This changed things considerably. It had been one thing to rile the gang up this morning, but as much as he hated to admit it, Cleo had been right—they weren’t going to be swayed for long by some sap who couldn’t pay his debts. But if Ivan was intentionally rolling his own runners, well, that was a different story. The gangs of Chicago often hastily formed alliances and broke them just as quickly, that is, when there were enough gangs for an alliance to be necessary. These cease-fires, which were fragile enough to begin with, were most frequently broken when one gang jumped another gang’s runner. Attacking your own runner could inadvertently end a truce. Plus, it was just bad business—if you can’t protect your employees, no one will want to work for you. I can take this back to Satan’s Disciples as a real issue. I can work this! Spike thought excitedly, purposely ignoring why he was so happy he was going to be able to help Georgia without putting too much strain on his role as the leader of the gang. “Ex-excuse me,” Alex stammered nervously, pulling Spike from his reverie. Spike snapped his head up to look at him. “What?” he demanded. “Can I help?” Alex asked timidly. “Felix was—is my friend, and if I didn’t have my cousin, Ivan would be hunting me down right now, too.” Spike didn’t think it was a good idea to bring someone of Ivan’s back to headquarters just yet, but he was glad to have a guy on the inside. He smirked, imagining Cleo’s face when he told her he had a double agent. That’ll show her, he thought smugly.

“What can you tell me?” Spike needed information, and quickly. “Uh, well, um.” Alex was struggling under the pressure to remember the conversation he’d overheard only an hour earlier. Spike took a deep breath, trying not to strangle the kid with his bare hands. “Yury’s pushing Ivan to kill all you guys, well, not all, but enough that you won’t be able to do business anymore.” “I know that already,” Spike said impatiently. “What did he say about Georgia? And Felix?” he added hurriedly. “Oh, that. Ivan wants both of them by the end of the week,” Alex said. “I said something about maybe getting them to leave Georgia alone, but they didn’t like that. I…I don’t think it’s about the money anymore.” Spike rolled his eyes. He could have guessed that much as well. Alex was essentially useless. But that didn’t mean he always would be. “Okay, Alex, that’s great,” Spike lied. “Can you keep doing this? Can you keep telling me what’s going on with Ivan? If you do, I promise I will help your friend, Felix.” “If it’ll help Felix—anything,” Alex said firmly. “Thank you, Mr. Turner.” “No problem.” Spike rubbed the back of his neck, hurrying to leave before the kid burst into tears or something. He needed to go to Georgia’s and talk to her about what he’d just found out, but he doubted she would want to see him right now. After he’d left so abruptly last night, he’d sort of been avoiding her. Spike angrily rolled his shoulders. What’d she fucking expect anyway? I’m not the kind of guy who brings a girl breakfast in bed, and if Georgia thought otherwise, that’s her own damn fault! He wanted to believe that was true, he really did, but deep down, Spike knew the reason he left last night was because of the weird, sick feeling in the pit of his stomach he couldn’t name. It was that feeling that made him run from Georgia’s bedroom last night, and it was what kept him from kissing Cleo earlier. Either not wanting or not ready to face whatever it was that was growing inside of him, Spike shoved his emotions all the way down to the bottom of his gut and put on his game face. He would be all business when he saw Georgia, that was for certain.


“Ugh, that was so good. I needed that,” Georgia said, patting her distended belly.

“I don’t know whether to be impressed or disgusted,” Stacy said in awe. She and Stacy had just returned from Denny’s, where Georgia had completely inhaled six strips of bacon, two biscuits with honey, three sausages, three sunny-side up eggs, two and a half glasses of orange juice, and four pancakes loaded with strawberries, syrup, and butter, courtesy of Stacy’s mom’s credit card. “Be jealous,” Georgia said, sighing contentedly. She wanted nothing more than to fall back on her couch and pass out, but her sofa was still shot to shit, and more importantly, she still had to find Spike again. She was growing more and more concerned that he hadn’t stopped by, or at least called her. What if Stacy’s right? Georgia thought worriedly. What if he played me—played on my situation? Oh, right, her cynical side replied, the leader of a motorcycle gang has nothing better to do with his time than to trick someone like you into letting him eat your pussy, sure. “What’s wrong?” Stacy asked, seeing her friend’s sour face. “Huh?” Georgia was startled out of her self-deprecating thoughts. “Oh, nothing. I just remembered that Spike is supposed to come over soon to tell me his plan for Ivan,” she lied. In reality, Georgia needed to figure out how she was going to get in touch with Spike, and since she wasn’t ready to admit to Stacy that she might have been conned, she was going to have to do it herself. “Do you want me to stay? Give you an excuse to avoid…anything?” Stacy offered kindly. “Um, I think he would probably see through that. You should just go,” Georgia said hurriedly. “But, thanks, really,” she added genuinely. Stacy was a better friend than she deserved right now. There was a knock at the door that startled both of them. Stacy let out a little scream. “He must be early!” she said, laughing at her own reaction. “Yeah…” Georgia said slowly, staring at the door, confused. “Must be.” She walked over to the door, a small wave of cool relief washing over her. She didn’t know why Spike would just randomly show up to her house without notice, but she didn’t care. Georgia was just glad he was here. She opened the door to see what could quite possibly be considered the very antithesis of Spike. “Georgia!” Rocco exclaimed, throwing his arms around her—a difficult feat considering one of his

hands held a massive bouquet of red and pink roses. “I’m so glad you’re okay! I pulled up and saw the house! What happened?” Georgia gently but firmly pushed Rocco away from her, taking a deep breath now that she wasn’t being suffocated to death by a floral arrangement. “Rocco, what are you doing here?” she asked. “You haven’t responded to any of my calls or texts for almost a week, so I thought I would pop by with a little surprise,” he waved the oversized bouquet, “and say hello!” Georgia sighed and turned back to look at her friend. “Stacy…” Stacy cut her off with a wave of her hand. “Got it,” she said, picking her bag up off of the floor. She gave Rocco a sympathetic little pat on the shoulder as she walked past him, shutting the front door behind her. Rocco looked at his shoulder as though Stacy had wiped rat shit on it. “I don’t know why you talk to her,” he said, glaring after Stacy. Georgia ignored him. She’d had that argument with him far too often for someone who wasn’t even her boyfriend. “Rocco, this isn’t a great time right now. I’m kind of in the middle of something,” she told him. “I can see that, Georgia!” he gestured to the destroyed living room. His dull brown eyes narrowed at her. “This has something to do with your deadbeat brother, doesn’t it?” Someone knocked on the door again, loudly this time. Figuring it was Stacy, Georgia went to answer it. Maybe she overheard Rocco and came back, she hoped. She opened the door and was met by a pair of dark green eyes. “Spike,” she breathed. It wasn’t until Georgia felt this rollercoaster of expectations that she grasped how attracted she was to this man. Shoving this realization far into the deep recesses of her mind, she stepped back to let Spike inside. “Who is he?” Rocco asked indignantly, a touch of fear in his voice. “He’s helping me with my deadbeat brother,” Georgia said contemptuously. Rocco’s face swiftly changed to one of regret. “Oh, Georgia, you know I didn’t mean that. I just worry about you.” “I think the lady would prefer if you left,” Spike interjected menacingly, his hands unconsciously tightening into fists.

He felt extremely territorial coming over to Georgia’s house and finding a man already there—one with clear romantic intent, judging by the rosebush sitting on the table. Spike wanted nothing more than to take those roses and shove them somewhere they would never see sunshine again. Deep down, he knew he had no right to this feeling. Obviously this…person had history with Georgia, one that predated all of the eighteen hours Spike had known her. That’s what makes it sting, though, he decided. His only claim to Georgia was the deal she was bound to. If it weren’t for that, she would probably be with what’s-his-face over there—the kid who couldn’t stop staring at Georgia with big, pleading puppy-dog eyes. Spike snorted softly to himself, rolling his shoulders. That’s the problem with getting attached to people—it’s never what you want it to be, but you’re so dependent on them you become weak, he thought, looking over at the two of them. The sap was holding Georgia by her bicep, whispering agitatedly to her and glancing at Spike as though to make sure he was keeping his distance. Even worse, you don’t even see how pathetic you’re being. He couldn’t think of anything more appalling. Spike strode over to the pair, clapping his hand on the sap’s narrow shoulders. “Sorry, but the lady and I have business to attend to, and you’ve overstayed your welcome.” Georgia tried not to giggle as she watched Spike steer a highly indignant and spluttering Rocco towards the front door, pushing him out rather unceremoniously. She felt a little guilty that she enjoyed seeing that so much. Spike slammed the door, a firm sense of satisfaction clicking into place as he locked the deadbolt. “Goddamn,” he cursed. “I don’t know how you can stand even to talk to that guy, let alone fuck him.” Georgia’s temper suddenly flared. “At least he’s there when I wake up in the morning,” she snapped. Should have seen that one coming. “So suddenly I’m boyfriend material? That wasn’t the deal, sweet cheeks.” He grinned lustily. “You are most certainly not boyfriend material,” Georgia vehemently agreed. “That’s the whole point with Rocco,” she explained. “I don’t have the time for a full-fledged relationship right now, but… something’s better than nothing,” she said, shrugging. “Is that why you’re still helping your brother, despite the fact that all he does is weigh you down?” Spike asked suddenly. “Because some family is better than no family?” “What?” Georgia said defensively. “No! Of course not! Felix is my brother and I love him. He does not weigh me down,” she informed. “Oh, okay,” Spike said casually. “I only ask because I talked to his friend Alex today, and he told me

that your brother is a drug addict who willingly got involved with Ivan and his gang,” he accused her. “I told you right away that my brother had problems!” Georgia fired back. “So you did know about him?” Spike said in disbelief. “You know all about the coke, and him running drugs? Everything?” Georgia nodded defiantly. “So?” “So I’m willing to bet this isn’t the first time you’ve had to bail out your brother, and because you refused to cut ties with him, now it’s about to be the last!” Spike said, letting out a small laugh. Georgia said nothing to dispute him, and he knew he was right. “I get you’re stuck on the family thing because of your dad, but let me be the first to tell you: families suck, and people suck, too. And if you rely too much on them, you’re just giving them more and more opportunities to let you down,” he told her regretfully. Georgia didn’t say anything for a long time after that. Spike began to wonder if his bluntness had triggered some kind of emotional breakdown, when she smiled brightly at him. “I know you had a really bad childhood—far worse than mine, not that mine was great either. But one thing I remember is that when I was sixteen, my dad promised that he would take me to The Shops at North Bridge to get new clothes, and I was so excited,” Georgia said, her blue eyes shining. “Not because of the clothes, although that was a bonus, but because I was going to get to spend the day with my dad. He was going to be my dad again.” She fell silent. “It didn’t happen like that, did it?” Spike said flatly. Georgia shook her head. “He was supposed to come home straight from work, but I guess he stopped at the bar first.” “Sounds about right. So what’s so great about that? Why would that make you want to cling to your brother?” Spike asked skeptically. “Because after about two hours of waiting for my dad, Felix, who was barely ten at the time, scraped together his savings to buy us two train tickets so we could go to The Shops and eat at the food court.” Georgia looked at her feet. “We spent the day window shopping, pretending to be a rich family. I know it sounds dumb now, but at the time…” Spike understood. He would have given anything for someone to do something like that for him. Instead, when he was sixteen, he’d walked in on his mother’s corpse and ended up killing his father. Not exactly the memories family photo albums are made of. Feeling terribly unsure about what he was doing, Spike felt himself walk over to Georgia and stiffly gather her into his arms.

“Listen to me,” he said, looking down at her soft, tanned skin. “Alex told me some other things. Ivan isn’t going to let you or your brother go.” “What do you mean?” Georgia said, confusion and worry clouding her pale blue eyes. “You said you were able to get rid of Ivan, so that won’t matter if you do what you said, right?” Spike could hear the panic growing in her voice. “Georgia, relax,” he said calmly. “It just means that we’re going to have to do a little more than simply run Ivan out of town. I know Ivan’s type; if he wants someone dead, there’s no stopping him. We’re going to have to kill him.” “I’m not seeing the problem,” Georgia said darkly. Spike chuckled. “Well, as long as we’re on the same page, then,” he said, kissing the top of her head, surprising them both. He pulled back, a yearning look in his eyes as he gazed at Georgia. She looked up at him, her mind a swirling mess of thoughts and emotions. The only thing she knew was that she was going to fly into a million pieces if Spike didn’t kiss her right this second. Thankfully, she was rescued just in time. Spike’s lips crashed down on her, wiping away everything except the sensations currently brewing down below. She brought her hands up to entwine her fingers through his shaggy hair, pulling him even closer to her. Spike groaned, loving her urgent mouth. He hugged her curves, sliding his hands up and down her body. “Holy fuck,” he moaned. It was incredible how hot she made him, just from making out. Spike thought he could survive on kisses alone for the rest of his life if they were all going to be like that. She probably kisses the sap like this all the time, that horrible, self-doubting voice said. Spike thought about Georgia and the younger man in bed together, and he gripped Georgia roughly. He pressed her up against the fridge, wanting nothing more than to be the only man she ever touched again. He knew, of course, that once Satan’s Disciples managed to kill Ivan and the rest of the Russians, Georgia would most likely go back to her sap, and he would return to Cleo. Until then, however… Spike slid his hands under Georgia’s ass and picked her up. Her long legs wound around his waist and he walked down the hallway to where he knew her bedroom lie.


Rocco stood on Georgia’s doorstep for a few moments, processing what had just happened. Eventually he realized that he had been kicked out of his own girlfriend’s home, and by a man he strongly suspected was a criminal, no less!

This is insane, Rocco said to himself. That man is most likely involved with her brother and holding her hostage! I need to save her, he decided imperiously. Hurrying back to his car, Rocco made sure he drove far enough away that he wouldn’t be spotted. Something told him that if the heavily tattooed man found out he was calling the cops, he wouldn’t be able to do much calling as he would have had his tongue removed. He punched in 911, anxiously waiting for the operator to answer. “9-1-1, what is your emergency?” a cool voice on the other line said. “Yes, hello, I think there’s someone inside my girlfriend’s house,” Rocco replied, agitated. “What is your girlfriend’s name?” The woman sounded calm, but Rocco could hear her typing furiously in the background. “Georgia Lewis. I went over to her house and there was a man inside.” “So there is someone inside the home threatening her?” she asked. “Yes. I mean, no. I mean…” Rocco slammed his fist against his steering wheel and took a deep breath. “I went over to her house and there was a man inside, and he didn’t look like the kind of guy she would hang around with. She seemed nervous and scared, and when I tried to ask who he was, he pushed me out of the house and locked the door,” he clarified, listening to the rapid tic-tac of keys as the woman typed. “There’s one other thing,” he added. “Her brother, Felix, has a habit of getting into trouble.” “And you think her brother might know this man, or have something to do with the man being at Ms. Lewis’s house?” “It’s possible,” Rocco said. “It looks like there is a record on file for Georgia Lewis, and her brother, Felix,” the operator told him. “What?” Rocco was stunned. Felix, of course, but Georgia? Rocco wondered. “Is it recent?” he asked. “I’m sorry, that’s confidential,” she said evenly. “There is an officer assigned to the case. If you would like, I can contact him and send him to Ms. Lewis’s home.” “Do that, please,” Rocco said. “Could I get your name as well, sir?”

Rocco hung up quickly; he didn’t want this to get traced back to him. Starting his car, Rocco drove away. If he was going to keep an eye on Georgia, he would need supplies.


Nicholas jumped at the screeching static of his CB radio. “Unit 41, please respond,” the operator crackled. He quickly zipped up his pants, pushing the prostitute off of him and grabbing the walkie. “This is Unit 41 responding. What do you need, Radio?” he asked, frustrated. He had been seconds away from coming. The girl in the passenger seat wiped her mouth. She flipped down the visor to check her make-up and fixed her smudged lipstick. “I got a call for you on one of your cases.” Nicholas frowned. “What case?” he asked. The girl had grown bored already and started to tug on his uniform, whining quietly. Nicholas gave an exasperated sigh and dug into one of his utility belt pouches, pulling out a small baggie of white powder. He tossed it to the girl, who immediately opened it and began to rub it on her gums. “Looks like Lewis, Georgia and Felix; siblings. Someone called 9-1-1 about a possible intruder in the sister’s house. Need me to send you the file?” the operator asked. “No, it’s fine. I’ll do a drive by,” Nicholas told her. “Any description?” “No, and no name on the caller either.” “Alright. Thanks, Radio,” he said, putting the walkie back in its holder. Nicholas looked at the girl next to him. She was already high; her pupils were huge. He reached across her lap to open the car door. “Time to get out,” he told her, giving her a rough push. The girl half-stepped, half-stumbled out of the car, grabbing onto a parking meter to stabilize herself. Nicholas shut the door and rolled down the window. “See you next week, Tiffani.” He smirked, turning on his lights and speeding away. As he drove to Georgia’s house, Nicholas reached into his glove compartment and pulled out a burner

phone. His eyes flicking from the road to the screen, he dialed Ivan as quickly as he could. “Ivan!” Nicholas exclaimed when he answered. “Did you send anyone to Georgia’s place today?” “No, why?” Ivan asked, confused. “What happened?” “There was an emergency call to her house, something about a possible intruder,” he told him. “I thought maybe you—” “No,” Ivan repeated, cutting Nicholas off. “I sent no one. Do you think our friend Felix has managed to piss off someone else besides us?” “I’m not sure. I’m about to drive by her house now and take a look. I’ll let you know what I see,” Nicholas said. He slowly cruised down Georgia’s road, the bright white floodlight on top of his hood illuminating the entire neighborhood. There it was—a distinctly matte black motorcycle with red accents—Spike Turner’s bike.

Chapter Seven Spike had Georgia’s arms pinned together at the wrists, holding her firmly but gently underneath him on the bed. Feeling very grateful Ivan hadn’t shot up the bedroom, Spike gazed down at her, amazed with the sheer mass of her hair. It curled around her head, creating a dark hazelnut cloud around her. He pressed his lips to her throat, then her collarbone, loving the way her soft skin felt to his mouth. Little goosebumps spread down her arms, and he kissed those too. Slipping his hands under her tank top, he began to slide it upwards, inch by inch, trying to memorize the sight of her taut stomach. Spike glanced up to see Georgia wickedly grinning down at him. He felt her shift beneath him and suddenly, his view was spinning. Georgia had used her powerful hips and thighs to roll Spike onto his back so that she was straddling him. She placed her hands on his shoulders, leaning forward so her breasts swayed tantalizing above him. Spike strained his head to reach, nearly crying out in frustration when he found he could not. Georgia giggled, a delightful sound that Spike couldn’t get enough of—he caught himself involuntarily grinning whenever he heard it. Georgia kissed him forcefully, her tongue entwining with his as he felt her hands delicately undo his belt buckle. This is exactly how I wanted this, Spike thought eagerly. She actually wants me—she wants to be with me. Any other way, and I don’t know if I actually could have gone through with it. He sat up to help Georgia slide his shirt off, revealing his muscular chest and stomach. Georgia traced her fingers across every crease and sinew of his upper body with a gentleness Spike had never encountered before. Georgia brought her hands lower, to the elastic edge of Spike’s boxer-briefs. Hesitating for only a moment, she carefully lifted them over the head of Spike’s fully engorged cock. Georgia’s fingers hovered millimeters away from touching it, and Spike could feel the warmth radiating from her hand. He bit his lip, anxiously waiting for her to do…something, anything. The anticipation was agony. “Please,” he begged her softly. Georgia snapped her head up to look at him, pulling her hand away as though caught doing something naughty. Spike moaned at the sheer innocence of the subconscious act. “Please, Georgia,” he repeated. “I’m dying to see you again,” he told her. Georgia looked down at herself—she was still fully clothed, whereas Spike was fully nude. Raising up on her knees, she swiftly pulled her shirt over her head, revealing a dark gray lace bra. Her nipples immediately perked up at the rush of cool air, and Spike reached up to tweak one through the

thin fabric. “Now the bottoms,” he ordered with a twinkle in his eyes. Trying, and failing, to hide her smile, Georgia stood up and undid the buttons on her pants, slowly slipping them down her legs. She stepped out of the bottoms to show matching lace panties that had a small bow on the front. Spike found he couldn’t get enough of Georgia surprising juxtaposition of inexperience and inherent sex appeal. He recalled the time Cleo had put on this virginal white number, trying to spice things up for them. Spike had struggled to finish; he got weirded out and had to pretend he’d jerked off earlier. It wasn’t just that Cleo is a shitty actress, Spike remembered, it was creepy, pretending to have sex with a virgin. Spike always had sex with experienced women because he didn’t want to be responsible for anyone’s hurt feelings the next morning. A person’s first time should be something they want to remember, not something they regret, he thought. As he watched Georgia climb back onto the bed to straddle him once more, his throbbing hard cock resting against the welcoming heat of her pussy, he thought the reason he was so attracted to her was because she was inexperienced, but she wasn’t a delicate flower either. After all the women Spike had been with, it was a powerful feeling to have the tables flipped, and him be the teacher for once. He reached behind her back to unhook her bra, sliding the straps down her shoulders. She sat on his lap, bare-chested and proud, looking down at Spike with those blue eyes, and suddenly he didn’t feel so powerful anymore. He gasped, feeling her wrap her hand around his cock, her thumb sensually caressing the head. Spike urged his hips upward instinctively. Georgia giggled again, loving Spike’s smile. She was enjoying herself immensely. With Rocco, he just wasn’t…enough, in all the many ways that could be interpreted. Just a few hours ago, she was upset, angry even, with Spike ditching her—but watching him toss Rocco out on his ass had Georgia hotter than Rocco had ever been able to make her. She raised herself up, grazing Spike’s aching member with her thigh. Spike was nearly whimpering, he wanted Georgia so badly. Right as she was about to remove her panties, Spike heard his phone ring somewhere deep within his jeans—wherever those were. Groaning, he rubbed his face with his hands, trying to telepathically murder whoever was on the other line. “Ignore it,” Georgia said. “I can’t,” Spike protested lamely.

Georgia bent over on all fours, her round ass sticking high into the air, teasing Spike with its closeness. She giggled at his obvious despair. “You’re the leader, aren’t you?” she asked, her eyes filled with all kind of mischievous thoughts. “You can do what you want.” Spike watched her crawl towards him, licking her lips as she did. She was clearly liking the effect she had on him. “I really can’t,” he said, not very convincingly. “What if it was your phone?” he asked. Georgia stopped—he had a point. If it were Felix, she would answer in a heartbeat; things were dangerous for everyone right now. It was important to stay in touch, no matter what else was going on around them. You allowed yourself to forget that, all because you couldn’t keep your hormones in check! Georgia scolded herself. You might as well have been a porn star for the way you were acting! Her cheeks burned from embarrassment; she couldn’t believe that she let herself get so out of control. Last night you were pissed as fuck that Spike wanted to trade sex for Felix’s safety, and here you are today, practically throwing yourself at him! She was so absorbed in her self-deprecation she didn’t even hear Spike’s conversation on the phone. He hung up and put a hand on Georgia’s shoulder. She jumped, startled. “Woah!” Spike said, chuckling. “Easy there.” “Everything okay?” she asked anxiously. “Yeah, they just want me back at the house,” Spike explained. “I told them I was going to do some recon today.” “And then you ended up staying here?” Georgia said with a small smile. Spike grinned at her. “Well, the temptation was difficult to resist. I do have to go now, though,” he added regretfully, “so we will have to finish this later.” He found his pants, and pulled them on. Georgia grabbed his shirt and vest, and passed them to him. Spike looked her over; wild hair, naked chest, full hips—he felt his cock strain against his pants and he dropped his gaze. If he didn’t hustle, he’d never make it out of here. “I’ll call you,” he promised with a wink, kissing Georgia swiftly and roughly on the mouth. Spike stepped outside, shrugging on his vest, breathing in the cool night air. He adjusted his pants a bit, then swung his leg over his bike and started the engine. He hadn’t said anything to Georgia, but it had been Cleo on the phone, and she sounded pissed. Spike didn’t care, though, because he knew the news about Ivan would put her square on her ass, where she belonged. He roared down the street, too focused to see the dark car parked under an overhanging tree across

the street. The window rolled down, and Ivan leaned out the window to watch the gang leader’s taillights disappear into the night.


“Finally,” Cleo grumbled, hearing Spike’s motorcycle pull into the yard. He’d been gone all day, and Cleo was more than a little suspicious all of that time had been spent gathering information. At this point, she wasn’t even as concerned about Spike cheating on her, per se, than she was his seemingly general disregard for the fate of Satan’s Disciples. She strode over to the front door, opening it as Spike’s heavy boots clomped up the porch steps. “Where have you been?” Cleo demanded when he walked into the house. “Uptown,” he answered shortly. “You went into Ivan’s territory?” she asked, surprised. “That’s where I said I was gonna go, isn’t it?” he retorted. “Get everyone together in the living room. I’ve got news,” he ordered her. Cleo gave him a harsh glare, her black hair whipping through the air as she turned on her heel and stomped out of the room. Spike looked after her guiltily. He hadn’t meant to be so short with her, but just seeing her face right now made him irritated. Spike threw himself down on the beaten up couch, waiting for the gang to gather around him. Once enough of them were in front of him, Spike stood up, getting up on the couch so he could see all of them and be seen. He spotted Cleo glowering at him from the doorway and he looked away, ignoring her. “Earlier today I told you all that I thought Ivan was too much of a problem to keep around any longer, and some of you,” he glanced at Cleo, “think I’m doing this for the wrong reasons.” He noticed a few people seemed to be muttering—mostly the girls, Cleo’s friends. Spike briefly wondered what she’d told them. “Well, today I went Uptown, and I found Ivan’s warehouse,” he continued, “and I discovered that he has been jumping his own runners.” Spike met Cleo’s eyes as he said this, enjoying how they widened in shock. The murmuring increased as people whispered agitatedly to each other. Just as Spike had expected, they were appalled at Ivan’s willingness to break one of the oldest codes. “Allowing him to stick around is too dangerous, as he’s shown he can’t be trusted—not even by his

own people. It’s time for Satan’s Disciples to rise up against him and take him down for good!” Spike cried aloud, reveling in the cheer rising up around him. “Tiny, Vince, Cleo, and Hector,” Spike shouted over the din, “meet me upstairs for a strategy meeting!” He hopped off of the sofa, shouldering his way through the crowd as he headed for his bedroom. Taking advantage of the fact that he was the first one there, he raked his hands through his hair, letting out a tense sigh. He was confident in his decision, but getting rid of Ivan was still a big job to take on. Tiny knocked lightly on the partially open door, sliding into the room at an angle due to his mass. “Hey boss,” he said, giving a little wave. Hector walked in next, followed by Vince, who had to duck under the doorway, and then finally Cleo, who sat on his dresser in the corner with her arms crossed. “Hey, guys,” Spike said, trying to keep his voice light. “Let’s hear it.” He sat in his plush, dark leather armchair, pulling the lever so the seat was upright. Tiny and Hector sat on the bed next to each other and Spike had to fight to keep a grin off of his face. Spike had a king-size mattress, so Tiny looked proportionate to the bed, but Hector, whose feet didn’t reach the floor, and whose head barely reached Tiny’s shoulder, looked comically small. Spike deliberately looked away, turning to Vince, who was leaning against the wall next to the door. “You first, Vince,” he said, listening carefully. It was important to him to hear these guys out. Spike had carefully selected his inner circle, wanting it to be as diverse as possible. None of them ever thought the same way, or came up with the same ideas, though half the time the meetings disbanded due to arguing and fights. Spike didn’t care; unlike most gangs, who limited their members based on specific criteria, Satan’s Disciples was as varied as they come, and it was their differences that made them so hard to predict. “Ivan has no regard for the effect his doings have on those around him. He acts without conscience or honor,” Vince said carefully after shutting the door. “I think he should be removed.” Spike glanced at Cleo—her face was unreadable. “Hector?” he asked. “You know my vote, ese,” Hector said, spreading his hands wide. “I’ve been wanting to go after that motherfucker since day one. I say we spread him across downtown.” Spike grinned, he knew he could count on Hector. “How about it, Tiny?” he said, turning to the older man. Tiny wrung his hands. “Oh, I dunno, Spike. I’ll do whatever you say, but it seems to me like Ivan’s already got his run of the place. I think…” he hesitated, then hurriedly rushed forward, as though

trying to get the words out before he lost his nerve, “I think we should relocate.” “No way!” Hector exclaimed, jumping down to stand up. “I run from no one, comprendes?” Tiny put up his hands defensively, and Vince reached over to put a calming hand on Hector’s shoulder. “Relax, we haven’t made a decision yet,” he told his friend. Spike looked at Vince gratefully, then turned to Cleo. “What d’you say, Cleo? You keep talking about plans—I think it’s time we make one.” Cleo glared at him. “If what you say is true, and Ivan is attacking his own runners, then the code says we have to run him out of town.” Spike held his breath; he had been worried about this. The gang might decide to banish Ivan and his mob from Chicago rather than risk too many of their own lives killing everyone. Banishment won’t be enough to stop him from killing Felix, or, more importantly, Georgia, Spike thought nervously, the memory of her straddling his hips causing an immediate reaction down below. He tried to subtly adjust himself, trying to focus. If he wanted Georgia safe, like he promised, he needed everyone to agree to eliminate Ivan for good. “But,” Cleo continued, “I don’t think he’ll go so easily.” She looked at Spike, her gaze level. “Any confrontation we start with him is going to be a battle to the death—I can feel it,” she said, stifling a shiver. “I think we should go for the kill if we’re going to go for it,” she finally said. There is it, Spike realized. We’re going to take out Ivan once and for all. He saw Tiny look at his shoes unhappily. Spike slapped one hand on his thigh forcefully. “Alright, then. Hector, grab some beers, and let’s hash out ideas.” A little less than two hours later, the group filed out of Spike’s room, excitedly talking about the plan in hushed whispers. Spike stood at the door, saying goodnight as people left. It was almost four in the morning, and he was exhausted. Thinking everyone was gone, Spike shut the door, intending to pass out on his bed, when he spotted Cleo sprawled across it. “You were right,” she said, the statement clearly costing her a great deal of effort. “Come claim your prize,” she added as she spread her legs, her face breaking into a sensual grin. Spike laughed uneasily. After the teasing he had endured by Georgia for the last day and a half, Spike’s cock was jumping at the bit to bury itself inside a hot pussy, but he couldn’t bring himself to walk over to her. What’s wrong with you? Spike mentally berated himself. Why won’t you just fuck her already? If

only to quiet this relentless urge. The constant stirring of his manly urges was starting to cloud his mind. His thoughts kept returning to Georgia; her giggle, her hips, her hair… He looked at Cleo, and all he saw was Georgia. Not knowing what to make of that, he shook his head. “Sorry, Cleo, I’m so fucking tired I’d just fall asleep on top of you.” It wasn’t a total lie—he was incredibly tired. Cleo pouted, shrugging. “It wouldn’t be the first time,” she said playfully. Spike rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “Really, Cleo. I can’t.” “What’s your deal lately?” Cleo said, sitting up crossly. “You’re not in the mood, and you’re barely around.” Her eyes narrowed. “Is this about that civilian again?” she asked suspiciously. “No!” Spike said defensively. “I’m just tired, Cleo. There’s a lot going on. I’m fucking stressed out, okay?” Why can’t she just cut me some slack? Spike thought angrily. Cleo got off the bed, pushing past him. “If you can’t hack the stress of leadership, then maybe you shouldn’t be the leader,” she hissed, slamming his door behind her. Spike sighed, tightening a fist as he fought the urge to go after Cleo. If she were a man, he would have beaten her senseless, but he refused to become his father. Throwing himself onto his bed, Spike punched his pillow and closed his eyes, trying to calm his mind so he could sleep. He dozed fitfully through the night, his dreams and nightmares intertwining with each other. One second he was fully inside Georgia’s tight pussy, the next, Ivan was standing over a pile of his friends’ bodies, with Georgia on top. Spike woke suddenly, early the next morning, the bright light filtering through the holes in his curtains. He was filled with the powerful idea that Georgia wasn’t safe. Logic told him that his dreams were making him paranoid, and that Georgia was probably safe and sound at home, but he had to be sure. He stealthily crept out of his room and down the stairs, waiting until he was out on the porch to put on his boots. He even duck-walked his bike all the way down the block before starting it, he was so concerned about getting busted by someone in the gang. Spike drove down Georgia’s street, killing the engine as he approached her house. He didn’t want to wake her unnecessarily—or give anyone else the head’s up that he was here. “I feel like a fucking creep,” Spike muttered to himself as he walked around to the back of Georgia’s house to where he knew her bedroom window was. Peering inside, he spotted her sleeping inside, still wearing only her panties, as far as Spike could

tell. Now I’m really being a creep! Spike thought ashamedly as he felt his dick grow hard. He hurriedly walked back to the front of the house, glad Georgia was unhurt. As he got on his bike, Spike noticed a black car parked across the street at the exact perfect angle to see the entrance to Georgia’s house. Its windows were heavily tinted, Spike noticed as he silently rolled his bike down her driveway. Once he was down the road a way, he started his bike and drove away, his heart pounding fast. He was certain he’d seen that same car driving in and out of Ivan’s warehouse yesterday. Ivan knew where Georgia lived, so he didn’t need to put a tail on her. That meant the car was most likely there to collect her. Spike couldn’t wait; he needed to act now. Circling around the block, Spike once again killed his engine, but this time, he was one street behind Georgia’s house. Grateful it was still fairly early in the morning, he pulled his bike up next to a line of hedges at one of the houses close to Georgia’s. He wanted it to be close so they could be ready for a fast getaway. He crept through the neighbor’s backyard, entering Georgia’s, once again approaching her bedroom window. She wasn’t in her bed anymore Spike noticed as he squinted through the glass. Fuck! She must be in the bathroom. Spike waited for a minute, but when she didn’t come out, he began to lightly tap on the window pane. A few seconds later, Georgia popped out of the bathroom, wearing a fluffy yellow robe with daisies on it and wielding a pair of scissors, looking for the sound. Spike raised an eyebrow, thinking, As long as I live, I will never be able to predict this woman. He tapped on the glass again to catch her attention and waved for her to come over. When she got a little closer, Spike motioned for her to open the window, putting a finger to his lips, telling her to be very quiet. Georgia looked confused, but did as she was told, noiselessly unlocking the window and pushing it open. Spike did his best to pull himself through the opening as silently as possible, but he knocked his head against the window frame, making a loud cracking sound. He instantly froze, listening for any movement from the front of the house. Hearing nothing, Spike stepped the rest of the way into the room, holding onto Georgia for support. “What’s going on?” she whispered. Spike shook his head, still too worried to speak. He walked over to her closet and opened the doors. Grabbing a small bag from the top shelf, he gestured for her to pack some clothes. He tapped his wrist —hurry. Georgia grabbed a couple of shirts from her closet, and a pair of pajamas from her dresser. She tiptoed into the bathroom, returning a few moments later after changing, holding a zipped bag in hand. Slipping on a pair of sneakers, Georgia nodded to Spike, telling him she was ready.

Spike eased himself out of the window first, turning around to offer Georgia a hand. However, she effortlessly folded herself through the small square and landed in a soft crouch. Grinning at her, Spike took Georgia’s hand, leading her through the yard to where his motorcycle was still partially hidden by the hedge. Spike mounted the bike, shaking his head and handing Georgia a helmet when she gave him a questioning look. She wanted to know if it was okay to talk yet, and he wasn’t willing to risk it—not without knowing who exactly was in the car. It was a little harder to gain momentum walking the bike with two people on it, but Spike managed to get them down the street without too much of a struggle. Starting the engine, Spike quickly threw it into gear, tearing down the road with complete disregard to both the speed limit and the neighbors’ morning schedules. The last thing he wanted was for the dark car to catch up to him because he was too busy obeying the traffic laws. Unsure of where else to go, Spike drove back to Satan’s Disciples headquarters. It was a little before nine in the morning—most of the gang wouldn’t be up for at least another hour. He snuck into the house and up the stairs, Georgia following silently behind him. Once they were in his room, Spike shut the door with a tiny click, and let out a sigh of relief. “Now can we talk?” Georgia whispered hesitantly. Spike nodded. “Yeah,” he said though not loudly. “We just gotta keep it down, okay?” “What’s going on?” she said, repeating herself from earlier. “There was a car parked outside your place this morning, watching you,” he told her. “Only it wasn’t there just to watch.” Georgia gaped at him. “How…how did you know that?” she asked. Spike shrugged. “You learn to pick up the signs after a while,” he said vaguely. In a situation like this, he didn’t think details would be very helpful. “So…what am I doing here, then?” Georgia looked around at Spike’s room, trying to keep her face void of judgement. It was right about now that Spike noticed a pair of boxers with some embarrassing stains on the floor about ten inches away from Georgia’s foot. He hurriedly reached down to grab them, tossing them in a pile of clothes in the corner that were equally clean or dirty. “Ivan has obviously decided to speed up the timeline here and go after you directly,” Spike explained. “You’re not safe at home anymore. You’re going to have to stay here where I can keep an eye on you.” “‘Keep an eye on me?’” Georgia said mockingly. “What, do you like me or something?”

“I still have yet to fully collect on my end of the bargain,” Spike teasingly reminded her. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt comfortable enough to simply joke around with someone, where he wasn’t concerned with someone taking something the wrong way and a fight possibly breaking out. He had to admit, he was impressed with her fortitude. Finding out a dangerous mob boss was hunting her down apparently hadn’t shaken her too much. Feeling bold, Spike took a step forward and kissed Georgia lightly. “Oh, you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me,” a voice exclaimed behind Spike and Georgia, causing them to spring apart. Cleo stood in the doorway; apparently they had been so absorbed in each other, neither of them had heard her enter. “I knew it,” Cleo hissed. “I knew this was about that fucking cager!” she screamed, stabbing a finger at Georgia. “Did you even really find Ivan?” “Of course I did!” Spike said indignantly. “After the meeting last night, how can you ask that?” “Cager?” Georgia whispered to Spike, hiding behind him. He glanced back at her. “Someone who drives a car,” he muttered under his breath. “Well, that doesn’t exactly seem fair considering I don’t really have a car anymore,” Georgia said belligerently, raising her eyebrow at Cleo. Cleo took a step forward. “I swear to god, if this bitch doesn’t—” “Relax, Cleo,” Spike said, putting his hands on her shoulders. Cleo violently shrugged him off of her. “Don’t!” she yelled, not caring if the entire house overheard her. “Don’t do that!” “Do what?” Spike asked, confused. “Talk to me like I’m the crazy one just because I refuse to let you continue lying to everyone here!” Cleo accused him. “You’re supposed to be our leader, Spike,” Cleo added, calming down now. “That means putting Satan’s Disciples first; over everything and everyone else.” She looked pointedly at Georgia. “Ivan’s after her, Cleo,” Spike explained. “She doesn’t have anywhere else to stay.” “So you fucking brought her here?” she asked rhetorically.

Spike’s phone rang and he didn’t know whether to curse or be grateful. He looked at the screen to see a restricted number. “Cleo, shut up,” Spike said in a calm voice that immediately silenced her. An unknown number probably wasn’t a good thing, he thought, his stomach sinking as he answered the phone. “Who is this?” he demanded. “Someone you should speak to a little more respectfully if you don’t want to watch your girlfriend die a bloody death,” a voice said imperiously. “Cut this shit, Yury,” Spike said, recognizing the slight Russian accent in the man’s voice. “Put Ivan on the phone.” “Unfortunately, Ivan is out picking up a few special items for when Georgia and Felix come to visit,” Yury replied, sounding magnificently bored. “He does wish to talk to you, though, so do you think you could pop on over sometime today?” “Sure,” Spike said evenly, refusing to be baited. “I look forward to it.” “Wonderful,” Yury replied. Spike could practically hear him grinning. “Stop by around six; I’ll call around then with directions.” “Don’t need ’em,” Spike said gruffly. “I know where you live.” He hung up the phone, looking between Georgia and Cleo. “We’ve got a problem.”


Ivan walked up and down the aisles of a dark basement in an abandoned building, looking at all of the tools and equipment hanging on the walls. After this morning, he had decided to come visit an old friend who dealt in specialty items. Last night, Nicholas had come barreling into the warehouse without a care in the world how a cop car might look to some of the clientele—many of whom were prone to violence when surprised. He had been ready to shoot Nicholas right then and there, when the little zadnitza began squeaking about the Satan’s Disciples and Spike Turner. Ivan had almost panicked, thinking they had planned some kind of ambush, but, apparently, he was somehow connected to the Lewis siblings. Ivan hadn’t believed him at first, but Nicholas had insisted that he’d seen Spike Turner’s motorcycle —a very distinct bike, Ivan granted him—parked at Georgia Lewis’s place. After a few minutes of convincing, Ivan returned with Nicholas to Georgia’s home to see it for himself. Sure enough, they parked the dark car across the street just in time to see Spike Turner exit the house,

get on his bike, and drive away. Ivan wasn’t sure, but it looked as though Spike was only partway dressed. Ivan had wondered what that meant as they drove back to the warehouse. He ordered a detail to stay with her until he decided what to do. Is Spike fucking Georgia? Did he know her before Felix and Alex came to work for me, or did she go to him for protection? No, he decided, it didn’t make sense that Georgia was paying Satan’s Disciples for protection if she couldn’t afford to pay off her brother’s debt. Alex! Ivan realized. That’s it! “Alex!” Ivan had roared when he entered the building that night. “I need to talk to you!” Alex poked his head out of the upper security office, and hurried past the guards and down the steps. “What do you need, boss?” he asked nervously. Ivan was standing at the base of the steps, tightly flanked by Yury and Nicholas. Alex began to feel trapped—and he was right. “You still haven’t heard from Felix, have you?” Ivan began interrogating him. Alex emphatically shook his head. “No, sir. I would have told you right away if he had.” “What about his sister? Have you spoken to her?” he asked, carefully scrutinizing him. “Uh, no,” Alex was genuinely confused now. “I didn’t talk to her much even before everything started to—uh, even before,” he replied, managing to stop himself before he said something too closely resembling a critique of Ivan’s management skills. “What about Spike Turner?” Ivan asked, his face uncomfortably close to Alex’s. Alex felt beads of perspiration form along his hairline. “S-Spike Turner? The guy in charge of Satan’s Disciples?” “Yes,” Ivan said shortly. “That Spike Turner. Unless you know another one?” he asked sarcastically. Alex fearfully looked at the floor, hearing Yury and Nicholas snigger like schoolboys. He shot them a sullen glance. “If I had seen him, do you think I would be alive right now?” “That’s true,” Yury drawled from behind Ivan. “Spike Turner would eat him for breakfast and shit him out before lunch.” Ivan looked him over closely, then shrugged and walked away, Yury and Nicholas trailing after him, both of them shooting him a smarmy grin. “You’re right.” Alex watched them leave, hating that it was so easy for them to believe that about him. Considering it had just saved his life, though, he didn’t think he should be too upset at the moment. Ivan settled into his white leather throne, his sycophantic followers fanning out around him. Alex sat

in the chair opposite from Ivan. “We need to know why Spike was at Georgia’s,” Ivan said. “That’s easy,” Yury said smoothly. “He’s fucking her.” “That is one theory, Yury, but I’m not as confident as you are,” Ivan said. “If we act upon that and we are wrong…” “I’m right, and here’s why,” Yury declared. “She’s into him because he’s the one last bad boy she can feel dangerous with before she goes off to marry Mr. Right, and after all the whores he’s had, he gets to see what fucking a putana is like,” he said, using a phrase for upscale prostitutes. “I don’t think the girl is exactly what you claim, but even if she were, how did they meet?” Ivan insisted. Yury shrugged. “Who cares? Tomorrow morning we will go and take her; you can ask her about their love story then.” Ivan shot a glance at Yury. “You need to take more care when you speak,” he said warningly. “For a moment there, it sounded like you were giving me an order.” “No, no,” Yury said quickly. “Just a suggestion.” Everyone looked at Ivan, tensely waiting his reaction. “It is a good one,” Ivan said, pretending not to notice the collective sigh of relief that came from the room. “Tomorrow, we collect the girl. Early—she’ll be disoriented.” The next morning, however, only a few minutes after they had parked across the street, they saw who else but Spike Turner walking up to Georgia’s house. Ivan was convinced now that the girl meant something more to him than just a high-end fuck. Why else would he be coming by this early in the morning? Spike went around to the back, however, and suddenly, Ivan wondered if maybe his original theory was correct—that Felix had pissed off Spike, and now Spike had also shown up to collect. The poor girl, Ivan thought, having to pay so much for her brother’s mistakes. Ivan watched curiously through the windshield as Spike returned quickly, but empty-handed. Is she not home? he briefly considered, then quickly dismissed the thought. His detail should have noticed if Georgia had left in the middle of the night. It doesn’t matter, he reassured himself, soon we will go in and know for sure. Nodding to Yury beside him, the two men stepped out of the car and walked up Georgia’s drive. The garage door had not been fixed yet, so Ivan motioned for Yury to take that entrance, while Ivan headed

for the front door. “Odin,” Ivan shouted, counting to three in Russian, “dva, tri!” He kicked in the front door and heard Yury do the same thing half a second later. They stormed from room to room, tearing the already heavily-damaged apartment to pieces. “Motherfucker!” Ivan cursed, kicking an ottoman. “He took her; he had to have.” “Not to worry,” Yury said. “We can still get her back.” “How? Tell me this,” Ivan demanded. “You have all the plans lately, don’t you?” “Whoever Georgia Lewis is to Spike Turner, she’s not a part of Satan’s Disciples, which means she can’t be that important to him,” Yury pointed out. “We tell Spike we will let him and all of his gang relocate without harm if he gives us the girl. We find her brother later,” he said, waving dismissively. “The boy does not have his sister’s intelligence; he can’t hide for long.” Ivan dug in his pocket. “Here,” he said gruffly, slapping his phone into Yury’s hand. “What do you want me to do with this?” he asked, confused. “Something you don’t know for once—good,” Ivan said shortly. “Your plan, you make the call. Get him here, and get him to bring her.” He turned abruptly on his heel and walked out the door.


A few hours later, Spike strolled into the warehouse. Ivan’s mouth tightened imperceptibly. When Yury told him Spike already knew the location of their office, he had hoped the biker would be bluffing. Though Ivan was still confident he had the numbers and the weaponry to outmatch Spike, he didn’t like that the man could stop by at any time. “Afternoon, gentlemen,” Spike said casually as he walked into the open room. “Nice shop you got here.” He gestured to the carefully organized and itemized shelves. “All alone?” Yury called softly. “Where are Satan’s Disciples?” he taunted. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it,” Spike said with a wink. “They’re around.” “Take a seat,” Ivan pointed at the open space on the couch near him, “and cut the shit, as you Americans like to say. I want the girl.” Spike sat down heavily. “No,” he replied simply, not bothering to pretend he didn’t know who Ivan

was talking about. “Let me repeat myself,” Ivan tried again. “Give me the girl, and I don’t kill off half your people.” “If you’re going to threaten me, why not threaten to kill all of my people?” Spike said mockingly. “Because it’s not a threat,” Yury interjected, quieting as Ivan held up a hand. “He’s right,” Ivan said evenly. “We had already decided it was too much of an effort to try to ferret out every one of you vermin, so we settled for killing most and letting the rest of you go to salvage whatever was left of your lives.” Spike couldn’t remember the last time someone had spoken to him like this, but whenever it had been, he was certain he had left the person bruised and broken. “Now, if you hand over the girl,” Ivan continued, “I will let you go—all of you—as long as you promise to relocate outside of the state. I’m not interested in spilling blood over her.” Ivan paused. “Unless you decide to stand in my way. I think we all know how that would go.” There wasn’t a single person in that room who didn’t know Ivan’s mob could crush Satan’s Disciples, though at what cost to Ivan, no one could say. Spike thought for a minute. “I’m willing to give her to you,” he began slowly, “but not for another day —a full day,” he clarified. Ivan frowned. “I am not a patient man,” he said, irritated. “Then we have something in common.” Spike chuckled. “But I’ve been waiting to fuck that girl for a couple days now, and I’d like to see that patience rewarded, get me?” A thin, knowing smile spread across Yury’s face, and the back of Spike’s hand itched to wipe it off. “You will bring her to me twenty-four hours from now?” Ivan asked. “I was thinking by midnight tomorrow,” Spike pushed. Ivan gazed at him. “I will give you twenty-five hours, and not a second longer.” Spike shrugged, giving him a crooked smile. “Twenty-five hours it is.” He could have cut it down to twenty hours and I would have agreed, Spike thought. I’m not giving him Georgia, so it doesn’t really matter. That wasn’t exactly true, any extra time he could buy before Ivan realized he wasn’t handing over Georgia was time the gang could use to set up their plan, but it was what Spike told himself.

Ivan put his hand out and Spike shook it firmly. Suddenly, Ivan seized him by the forearm, pulling him close. “If you do not bring her to me, I will kill everyone you love in front of you, ending with the girl. I promise you: it will not be swift,” he said quietly, giving Spike a meaningful glance towards Yury. “Well, then,” Spike said, returning the pressure that was being applied. “I guess it’s a good thing I’ll be dropping her off tomorrow.” Ivan released his hold, as did Spike. He nodded to the men in the room. “Gentlemen,” he said, turning to leave. Spike kept his stride slow and calm, smoothly starting his bike to cruise away. Once he hit the highway and he was sure he was not being watched, he opened up the throttle, tearing down the road back to headquarters. If they didn’t execute the plan soon, it would be too late for all of them.

Chapter Eight Spike returned from Ivan’s to find Cleo, Hector, Tiny, and Vince all sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for him. “We need to talk to you,” Cleo said, her voice tight. “What is this? A fucking intervention?” Spike joked as he sat down. “Some of us,” Tiny began hesitantly, “are concerned your focus isn’t exactly where it should be right now. But all I need is some reassurance that you’re looking after things,” he said, emphasizing the ‘I’ to let Spike know he didn’t agree with everything Cleo was saying. Spike let out a deep sigh. “Look, guys, I know you’re worried, but trust me—I have everything under control.” “You are not behaving like someone who has things under control,” Vince said. Everyone gave him their full attention. Vince didn’t speak often, but when he did, it was something to be carefully considered. “You walked into Ivan’s with no one behind you.” Spike realized Vince was scolding him. “The people in this gang rely on you. You have a responsibility to them as their leader to make them feel safe. When you make reckless choices and put yourself in danger, you weaken yourself, which frightens people and makes them weak in turn.” Vince gazed at Spike with heavy eyes. “Strong leader, strong group. Weak leader, weak group.” Spike didn’t say anything for a moment, absorbing what Vince had said. “What about you, Hector?” he asked. Hector shifted in his seat. “I’m all for going in guns blazing, pero going in by yourself is suicide. We need you around. This girl…” Hector started to say, immediately stopping when he saw Cleo’s death glare. Spike looked between the two of them. “Wait a minute, this is about Georgia?” he asked, looking directly at Cleo. “This is about the decisions you’ve made recently,” Cleo said, throwing her hair over her shoulder. “But if we’re going there, yes, you started making these kinds of decisions once she came around.” “Well, I’m taking her out of here, so you don’t have to be jealous anymore, Cleo,” Spike said drily. Vince, Hector, and Tiny all exchanged looks, slowly and quietly getting up out of their chairs to leave

the kitchen. The three of them all knew there was no longer any room for a rational discussion. When Spike and Cleo went at it, minimum safe distance was the far side of the moon. “I am not jealous!” Cleo screamed, and Spike rolled his eyes. “You are behaving like a complete ass, and you’re going to get us all killed!” “Are you listening?” Spike asked sarcastically. “I said I’m moving her out of here! So no more danger, alright?” “So you take her to some safe house, then what? What happens next? Because I’m still seeing us getting murdered.” “I don’t understand how you can still be so mad,” Spike exclaimed. “This morning you told me you didn’t want her staying here, and now she’s not staying here! How do you still have a problem?” “What I said was that you needed to put the gang first!” Cleo yelled back. “And right now, the gang agrees! They want to know that if we go through with this plan, that if some of us die, it’s for us—not her.” “How can you say that to me?” he asked her, pain clouding his dark green eyes. Cleo shrugged. “You haven’t been around lately…it makes some of us wonder.” You especially, Spike thought. “Satan’s Disciples happens to have a common interest with Georgia,” he said. “I make the choices I make for us, but she’s done a lot for her brother, and I think that kind of grit should be rewarded. She’s ballsy as fuck, you have to admit.” Spike gave Cleo a sidelong glance. “If you didn’t hate her so much, you might like her.” Cleo turned and gave Spike the coldest look he’d ever seen. “If you don’t get her the fuck out of this house in the next thirty minutes, I’ll do Ivan’s job for him,” she said, walking away without a backwards glance. Spike took the stairs to his room two at a time. Georgia brought barely anything with her, so getting her out would take less than ten minutes, but Spike didn’t trust Cleo to stick to her word. He burst into his room to find Georgia sitting in a chair with Roxy at her feet, a towel around her shoulders. Georgia was wearing yellow dish gloves and had a fistful of Roxy’s hair in one hand, and a small, goopy brush in the other. Jinx was sitting on his dresser, reading the back of a hair dye box. “What the fuck…” Spike said, looking around. “I leave for two…” He stopped and took a deep breath. “Georgia, whatever this is, we gotta go, okay?” “We can’t,” Georgia protested. “This has to set for at least twenty minutes.” Spike grabbed Georgia’s bag. “Dammit, Georgia! Did you not hear me downstairs?” He knew from

past experience sound traveled in this house. “Of course,” Georgia said, bewildered. “But Jinx said that there was nothing to…” She trailed off, seeing Jinx in the corner making a slashing motion near her throat. “Okay, then. Let’s get going.” She peeled off the gloves, gingerly passing them to Jinx, who put them on and resumed painting Roxy’s hair. Fifteen minutes later, they were on the back of Spike’s motorcycle. Georgia had no idea where they were going, but she found that she trusted Spike, whatever his plan was. He eventually began to slow, pulling into the parking lot of a mid-sized hotel. “No way,” Georgia said once he had stopped and she had taken off her helmet. “I’m not staying here.” “Goddammit, Georgia,” Spike said, exasperatedly rubbing his eyes with one hand. “Can we please at least argue inside? I’m feeling very exposed right now.” Georgia looked around, noticing there was a clear view of the parking lot from the highway. “Fine,” she muttered, following him inside and to their room. “If I’m going to run away, why can’t I stay wherever Felix is?” she asked once the door was closed, throwing her bag on the bed. “Do you know where he is?” Spike demanded. “Because I don’t. And strategy-wise, it’s a very bad idea to put the two of you together. I’m not an idiot, Georgia.” “I never said you were!” she replied hotly. “But I don’t exactly have the greatest idea of what’s going on, so excuse me if I have a few questions!” When was the last time I took a breath that wasn’t a tired sigh from repressing my frustration? Spike wondered. “Ask away, then,” he said, opening the mini-fridge and pulling out a beer. He fell back into a chair and took a long swallow. “Why can’t I stay and help you? Don’t you think I could be of use?” Spike flashed back to the Molotov cocktails in Georgia’s kitchen. “Of course I do, but the whole point of our deal was to keep you safe,” Spike pointed out. “No,” Georgia corrected him. “It was to keep my brother safe. I can be an asset to you, Spike,” she insisted firmly. “And here I used to think you were the obedient one,” Spike muttered under his breath. “It’s better for everyone if you stay out of the way, okay?” he said loudly. “Why?” Georgia cried. “If I can help, why wouldn’t you want me there?” “Christ!” Spike bellowed, shooting to his feet and flinging the beer bottle to the side. “Because if

you’re there, Georgia, I won’t be able to focus on anything else!” he was breathing heavily, the unsaid implication of his words hanging in the air. Georgia went over to him, taking his face in her hands. “What are you trying to say, Spike?” He opened his mouth, trying to push the words past his tongue, but he couldn’t. Instead, he simply grabbed Georgia’s wrists, holding her hands to his face as he leaned in to kiss her. There was still this intense urgency in the kiss, Georgia noticed, but it was different this time, gentler, more sensual. It’s like he’s trying to tell me through a kiss what he can’t say with words, she thought. The kiss deepened as Spike lowered his hands to Georgia’s back, lightly tracing her spine with his fingers. Georgia reached up on her tiptoes to try to pull Spike even closer to her. They broke apart, panting. Spike tugged on the hem of Georgia’s shirt. “Can I see you?” he asked quietly, desperately wanting her, but not wanting to push her. “Of course.” Georgia smiled softly, pressing a sweet kiss to Spike’s lips. He gently lifted the bottom over her head, his touch leaving a trail of goosebumps across Georgia’s tanned skin. Tossing the shirt to the side, Spike got down on his knees, the top of his head coming level with the underside of Georgia’s breasts. If he were two inches taller, he’d be able to bury his face between her luscious tits. Time for that later, he reminded himself as he began to undo the buttons of Georgia’s shorts. He slid them over her wide hips and down her firm, muscular thighs. As the bottoms fell to Georgia’s ankles, Spike gave her legs long, erotic kisses. Georgia didn’t know the back of her knee could make her feel so sexual. “Wh-what are you doing?” Georgia whispered, worried that if she spoke too loud, she would break whatever trance seemed to have come over Spike. Spike sat back on his heels and stared at Georgia, not saying a word, his eyes roaming over her body, which was now dressed in only a matching set of plain yellow cotton underwear. Georgia wished she had worn something sexier, but Spike thought he had never seen someone so beautiful. Finally, he leaned forward again, kissing her bellybutton. “Let me show you,” he said, his tongue slipping inside her navel. Spike pulled down her panties, his thumb brushing back and forth over the soft dusting of hair that grew between Georgia’s legs. Gently parting the dewy curls, Spike pressed against her clitoris, smiling with delight as she shivered above him. Georgia felt his other hand slide around to firmly cup her ass. He squeezed it tightly as his tongue

performed acrobatics on her rapidly moistening pussy. His fingers slid inside her, then quickly withdrew, eliciting a sharp gasp from Georgia. She looked down to see him licking his middle finger. “I swear, you taste as good as you smell,” he said, staring up at her before leaning in to lap at her sweet core like a man starved half to death. The force of his assault on her pressed Georgia back until her legs hit the edge of the bed and she fell, her legs spreading wide to grant Spike better access. Spike held nothing back, giving Georgia every trick he knew to try to get her to that point as many times as he could. He knew she was close when she started to whimper and tug on his hair. Instead of riding what Spike modestly thought could be the best orgasm of her life, Georgia sat up, pulling away from his tongue and fingers. Now it was Spike’s turn to ask Georgia, “What are you doing?” “Let me show you,” she repeated back to him, sitting up. Switching places so that Spike was the one on the bed with his legs resting over the edge, and Georgia was on her knees between his thighs, she pulled off his pants and boxers, while Spike removed his shirt. Grasping his cock gently in her hand, Georgia pursed her lips, wrapping them around his velvety head. Spike groaned loudly and Georgia flicked her tongue a few times to heighten his sensations. She had never been particularly adept at this part of foreplay, but Spike brought out the seductress in her. She felt powerful with Spike at her mercy beneath her. As Georgia worked him over with her beautiful mouth, Spike found himself reaching that most sought after point far too quickly. He sat up a little, brushing Georgia’s hair over her ear. “Hey,” he said, breathing hard, “that feels way too good right now.” Georgia bobbed her head down once more before coming up, and Spike’s eyes rolled into the back of his head. He grabbed her by the arm, pulling her to lay alongside him in the giant hotel bed. “Holy shit, girl,” he said, smiling at her. “That was amazing.” “Thank you,” Georgia said modestly. “It’s the least I could do for you when you make me feel so good.” “Oh, that’s nothing!” Spike said wickedly. “You just wait!” Georgia giggled happily as Spike dropped to his elbows, settling between her thighs once more. Her laughter quickly subsided as Spike’s tongue rapidly brought her higher and higher until she cried out with pleasure.

She opened her eyes, waiting to come back down to Earth so the feeling could return to her legs. “Talk about amazing,” she panted, looking down at Spike. He surged upwards, his hard body firmly pinning her beneath him. Looking deep into her crystal blue eyes, Spike had never felt more connected to another person. This is what people mean, he realized. When they talk about sex as a physical act of emotion, they’re talking about this. Spike always brushed off talk like that as hippie bullshit, but what he felt, what he was feeling right now…he had no words. The only way to express it was through this carnal, tender, act. “Georgia,” he whispered in her ear, his face buried in the mass of curls exploding from her head. “I need you.” Hearing his unspoken words, Georgia shifted her legs so that Spike lay between them. She could feel the tip of his head resting against her clit, its warmth mingling with her own. Spike slowly inched forward, his cock slowly sliding into Georgia’s tight, hot pussy as they finally consummated the deal. Spike groaned, Georgia echoing him a half-second later. “God, Georgia, I feel like I’ve waited my whole life for this,” Spike said, lost in the moment. “I never…never knew…” Of all the sex he’d had, Spike had never known what it was like to make love. Instinctively, Georgia began to move her hips, grinding against Spike in an attempt to pull him even deeper inside her. She hooked her heels together behind his back, crying out as Spike thrust into her. “Oh yes, Spike, just like that,” she moaned. Spike dug his toes into the bed, trying to gain extra leverage. Missionary was usually his least favorite position to have sex in, but this time he had to focus on not finishing too quickly. Missionary allowed him to watch Georgia’s gorgeous face as the pleasure he gave her rippled through her. If he tried looking down, he was faced with her perky tits, furiously jiggling as he pounded into her. Looking even further down, he could see himself thrusting into her slippery, hot core. It was enough that Spike had to close his eyes and list off all the different kind of bikes he could remember, or he was going to finish right then and there. Georgia wrapped her arms around Spike’s neck, kissing him as she felt him fill her up inside. She had expected sex with Spike to be like it had been fooling around in the back office that fateful day— rough and a little frightening. Instead, Spike was surprisingly gentle, yet somehow still performed as though the missionary position was the newest addition to the Kama Sutra. He pumped himself into her, loving the slick walls that hugged his cock. Her ankles were hooked around his waist, and Spike rolled to the side, holding Georgia aloft so that she was now on top and his hands were free to roam her supple body.

Squeezing her thighs, Georgia raised herself up, rocking her hips back and forth as she stirred above him. She leaned forward, her hands resting on Spike’s chest, her nails digging in as Spike thrust a little deeper. “Oh my god, oh my god,” Georgia repeated over and over as another wave began to crest within her. She brought her hand up, entwining her fingers with Spike’s, holding them to her breasts as she came. The sensations rippled through her, and she finally began to slow. She bent down to give Spike a passionate kiss, her nipples brushing sensitively against the light dusting of chest hair on Spike’s chest. “That’s never happened before,” she admitted, blushing as she sat up. “What?” Spike asked, very aware of his still rigid cock inside her. “I’ve never managed to come from just sex before,” Georgia said, tucking her hair behind her ears. “I didn’t even think I could.” She giggled. Her laugh drove Spike wild, and he rose up, gripping Georgia behind the neck, pulling her down to him again for another fiery kiss. “Why don’t we see what we can do about that?” he said, his tongue flicking her nipple. Georgia looked down at him. “You didn’t…?” He shook his head. “Nope. That was all you,” he said. “I’m sorry!” Georgia exclaimed. “I totally thought that you finished.” Spike shook his head again. “I didn’t. But if you don’t think you can go any longer, I understand.” Did I really just say that? Spike wondered, surprised at himself. When had he ever been okay not finishing? It didn’t matter, however, because Georgia was furiously shaking her head, her thick curls whipping back and forth. “Absolutely not,” she declared as she leaned over him, her deep blue eyes threatening to drown him. “I feel like the fucking energizer bunny right now,” she said, bouncing up and down on his cock a little to prove her point. Spike moaned, a wide grin spreading across his face. “I’ll have to try to keep up,” he teased. Winking at her, Spike gripped Georgia’s thighs and lifted her off of him, both groaning at the sudden loss of warmth between them. Georgia lay sprawled on the bed, Spike towering over her, his cock seeming to jut out from his hard body to point right at her. He stroked it lazily as he stared at her beautiful form. Spike didn’t think he’d ever met a person who could be so tough one moment, and so soft the next.

“Bend over,” he ordered her. “I’ve been envisioning that ass of yours ever since you walked into Joe’s.” Georgia did as she was told, giving him a naughty smile over her shoulder once she was on all fours. Spike reached out with one hand—the other was still busy with his cock—and lightly grazed Georgia’s gorgeous behind. He traced its bubble shape with his fingers, dipping down to slide the longest one inside Georgia to feel her pussy. Spike made a beckoning motion with his finger, and Georgia let out an involuntary, high-pitched whimper. He smiled to himself and slipped in a second finger, continuing to make the same gesture inside of her. “Oh shit, Spike,” Georgia cursed. “Oh shit, oh fuck, oh goddamn!” she cried. Georgia had never been much of a talker in bed, she thought it was awkward and uncomfortable, but right now she couldn’t control herself, or what she was saying. “That’s it, baby girl,” Spike encouraged her. “I wanna hear everything you got; let it out.” He wanted to make her scream—literally. His fingers pumped in and out, rapid fire as Georgia began to cry out, over and over. Finally, she turned around, panting as she looked at Spike. “If you’re not going to fuck me with that cock of yours, then what good is it for?” Spike stared at her in shock. He had never expected to hear such dirty talk come out of Georgia’s mouth. This woman was full of the strangest surprises—and he couldn’t get enough of it. Spike felt himself get even harder, if such a thing were even possible right now. He grabbed his dick, lining it up with Georgia’s dripping wet pussy. He grabbed her around the waist, gently pulling her back to bury himself inside of her. Both of them let out deep sighs of satisfaction. “Oh, Spike,” Georgia breathed. “Finally.” “Is this what you wanted?” He asked her as he started to pump in and out. “Did you want me to fuck your tight pussy?” “Yes!” Georgia hissed, her eyes closing in pleasure. “I’ve wanted you to fuck me since that night in the office.” “Tell me,” Spike ordered, slamming into her now. “Tell me what you wanted me to do.” “I wanted this,” she said, meeting his powerful thrusts with her own. “I wanted you to pound my pussy raw with that hard cock of yours. Oh god, Spike, yes! Fuck me, yes!” As Georgia felt her third orgasm of the night flow through her, she lost all self-restraint, screaming with no regard to who might

overhear. Hearing the filthy language pouring out of her mouth, Spike began to fuck her with wild abandon. Nothing existed anymore except Georgia and her amazing, beautiful, thick, wide ass that slapped his thighs as he rammed into her. “Oh fuck, here it comes,” Spike cried, heat rushing up from the base of his cock and spilling from the tip. His vision went dark for a minute, and he swayed erratically. For a second, he thought he was actually going to pass out, his orgasm had been so intense. Spike slipped out of Georgia, and the two lay next to each other, sweaty and satisfied. “That…was…” Georgia panted. She had no words for what she had just experienced. “Right?” Spike agreed as he tried to catch his breath. There was a knock on the hotel door and they looked at each other in a panic. “Who knows you brought me here?” Georgia asked, her heart now pounding from fear rather than excitement. Spike shook his head. “No one,” he whispered. Pulling on his pants as quietly as he could, Spike went to the door and peered through the peephole. It looked like a hotel worker, but he wouldn’t put it past Ivan to use a decoy. Spike reached into his jacket hanging on a nearby chair and pulled his gun from the inner pocket. Georgia anxiously hugged the sheets to her chest as she watched Spike open the door a crack, leaving the chain bolted. “Can I help you?” he asked aggressively. The man on the other side of the door was more of a boy, all acne and gangly limbs that barely filled out his hotel uniform. Seeing Spike’s menacing face and his towering figure, the boy took an involuntary step back. “I, uh,” he stammered, “there have been some, um, complaints,” he finally said. “And?” Spike said expectantly. “Well, the office asked me to, uh, to let you know that if-if you can’t keep your, um, ‘activities’”—he used air quotes—“down to a more reasonable volume, then, well, we’re going to have to, uh, ask you to, uh, leave,” the boy finished lamely, clearly terrified of Spike, who was a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than him.

“Look…Jimmy,” Spike said, squinting at the kid’s nametag. “I appreciate you got a job to do, but I’m not going anywhere tonight, and I’ll make as much noise as I goddamn please, understand?” Jimmy looked like he was going to faint. “Spike!” Georgia called from inside the room. “Don’t cuss at him,” she scolded, coming around the corner still wrapped in her sheet. “Ignore him,” she told Jimmy. “You can tell your boss that we’ll be quieter; I promise,” she said, smiling. Jimmy stared at the beautiful woman who was clearly incredibly naked underneath the white sheet. If he looked hard enough, he could see her nipples poking through the thin fabric. His hormones sprang to life and he instantly got hard. “Oh, uh, th-thank you, ma’am.” Jimmy was stumbling over his words pretty badly at this point, staring so hard at Georgia Spike thought his eyes were going to fall out of his head. The kid’s probably sixteen and never seen a set of tits in real life before. He chuckled to himself. “Sorry about the noise, kid,” Spike said as he reached into his back pocket to pull out a fifty-dollar bill. “We’ll keep it down.” He handed the cash to the awkward youngster, who reminded Spike of himself, back before everything had turned to shit. He stared at the fifty bucks in his hands, then at Georgia, then at Spike, apparently too dumb-struck to even say thank you. Spike shut the door and joined Georgia back in bed. Amazingly, within seconds, she had fallen asleep. He smiled to himself. They hadn’t even gotten the opportunity to talk about plans. Spike was going to tell her how Satan’s Disciples was planning to attack Ivan, but it looked like that would have to wait until morning. Morning… Spike thought to himself. What happens tomorrow morning? She stays here and I go back to headquarters to get things ready with the gang? What about after that? Let’s say this thing with Ivan miraculously turns out okay and we all live. What then? Georgia comes and lives with me at the house? He snorted skeptically. Yeah, right. I saw her face when she walked into the place —she thought it was a dump, and she’s right. Even if Cleo didn’t murder her within the week, Georgia deserves a better place than what I’ve got. So your plan is to, what? a second voice chimed in, mocking him. Go to her place instead? Yeah, right. If she deserves better than the house, then she definitely deserves better than you. She wouldn’t want you to come back with her, anyway. She might have enjoyed fucking you, but she doesn’t want to be with you. Come on, Spikey! You’re smarter than that. He stared at Georgia’s sleeping form, knowing the voice was right. She would never want to be with him. She wanted someone safe, someone she could count on—someone like Rocco, probably, he angrily assumed.

He slid down in the bed to lay next to Georgia. Tomorrow morning Spike would inject a little professionalism into their relationship, that was what he would do. If not for his own good, then for hers.


The next morning, Georgia awoke to an empty bed. “Oh, you gotta be fucking kidding me,” she muttered angrily. “Spike!” Georgia shouted. “Spike, you’d better be in here, goddammit!” Once, I can forgive, Georgia reasoned, but twice? If that motherfucker abandoned me again, I swear to god. The bathroom door flew open and Spike barreled out into the room, looking around frantically. “What?” he panicked. “Who’s here? Are you okay?” Georgia let out a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank god. I thought you…y’know, ran off again.” “Oh,” Spike said, relaxing. “Sorry about that other time. Something came up and I just had to run,” he lied. Yeah, run away from your feelings, the self-deprecating side of him added. “You’re getting dressed?” Georgia said questioningly, pointing at his outfit of a shirt and a pair of boxers. “We didn’t get much of a chance to talk about it last night—” Spike started to say. “Gee, I wonder why not?” Georgia said, cutting him off with a lustful grin. Spike laughed nervously. He stepped back, putting some distance between him and Georgia. “Well, anyway,” he continued, “Ivan thinks I’m handing you over to him today, so it’s important that you stay here and don’t answer the door for anyone, okay?” “Wait, where are you going to be?” Georgia asked. “I have to get things set up for when we launch our assault,” Spike explained. He wasn’t supposed to meet the gang for another two hours, but he didn’t want Georgia to know that. “What if I get hungry?” Georgia looked around the room. “There’s not really a mini fridge or anything in here.” Spike mentally cursed himself for his lack of foresight. Striding over to the room phone, he picked it

up out of the cradle and dialed the front desk. A minute later, he put the phone back, and started to pull on his pants. “Call room service for whatever you want and have them charge it to the room,” he said as he laced up his boots. “I told them to send Jimmy up with whatever you order.” “Uh-oh,” Georgia said, grinning wickedly at him. “You won’t be jealous of me and Jimmy here all alone?” she teased. Georgia hadn’t missed the way the boy looked at her last night. Spike raised an eyebrow at her. “I think my ego can handle it,” he said evenly. Georgia’s smile faltered a little. “Are you okay?” she asked. “Yeah,” he answered shortly. “I’m fine. I just…I’ve got a lot on my mind.” Spike grabbed his jacket quickly, putting it on as he walked out the door. “Don’t leave,” he repeated, giving Georgia a pointed stare before closing the door behind him. “Sit, Georgia! Stay!” she said to herself, falling back onto the bed. She rifled through the nightstand drawer until she found the hotel’s room service menu. Georgia dialed the kitchen and ordered a stack of waffles with strawberries and blueberries, as well as two orders of bacon, some yogurt, and an extra-large glass of orange juice. I sure have been hungry a lot lately. What could it be from? Georgia wondered. She got dressed just in time to hear a knock at the door. Looking through the peephole, she saw Jimmy standing next to a cart full of food, looking incredibly nervous. “Hey, Jimmy!” Georgia said, opening the door. “Come on in.” He wheeled the cart into the room, carefully looking around. Understanding his apprehension, Georgia told him, “He had to leave for the day. It’s just me.” She suppressed a giggle upon seeing Jimmy’s obvious relief. “You can just put the food over by the bed.” He pushed the trolley to the far side of the bed. “Is there anything else you need?” Jimmy asked. “Nope,” Georgia said, shaking her head. She thought about the long day ahead of her. “Do you have a lot of work today, Jimmy?” she asked. “Not really,” he said. “I was actually supposed to be off today, but your husband told my boss he’d give her a thousand dollars if she called me in to be a waiter today. So, here I am.” Georgia winced. Spike wasn’t her husband, but she didn’t see the point of correcting the boy. Besides, it was kind of fun to imagine Spike as a well-to-do husband, coming home at five sharp, just in time for the meatloaf to finish cooking in the oven.

“Well,” Georgia said, “since you’re not busy, would you like to keep me company? I have a lot of waffles here, and access to some decent pay-per-view,” she pointed out. Jimmy shuffled his feet. “Won’t your husband mind?” he asked. “Spike is not…” Georgia stopped herself. “It’ll be fine—as long as you don’t try to hit on me or anything,” she warned him jokingly. Jimmy laughed with her, and the two began to dig into the waffles, Georgia grateful for the distraction.


Spike opened up the throttle on his motorcycle, relishing in the engine’s powerful response. He wanted to be like that—a machine—with nothing to worry about except the fuel in its tank. If a machine broke, there was a way to fix it. It had a manual that came with it that told you what part to replace, or how to repair it. That’s the problem with people, Spike thought as he sped down the highway, there’s no manual. If something inside you is broken, you can’t replace it, and there’s no way to know how to fix it, or even if it can be fixed. Something inside him was broken, Spike knew that. And he knew it was that kind of broken that ended up breaking everything else around it. That was why he joined Satan’s Disciples. It was full of other broken people, people you didn’t have to worry about hurting because they were like him—too damaged to feel it anymore. I never should have made that deal with her! Spike berated himself. He could see it already, in how they acted together, in how light she made him feel. She’s gonna fall in love with me, and I’m going to ruin her, because that’s what I do. I can’t ever love her back the way she wants—the way she deserves—and it’s going to ruin her. He hoped it wasn’t too late. He hoped that maybe, if he never touched her like that again, she would be able to move on without too much pain. It would already be too late for him. He just didn’t know if he could make that promise to himself and keep it. The sex with Georgia hadn’t just been sex, Spike realized. He’d had sex before—lots of it—and none of it had ever been anything close to what he’d experienced last night. When he’d looked into her pale blue eyes, he felt a sense of peace he’d felt only once before, as a very young boy. When he was about six or seven, he’d stayed over at a friend’s house for the night. He was old enough

to know that his family was different from others, but he’d never had the opportunity to examine a family other than his own until then. It had been fairly similar to his own on a good day, until it was time for bed. His friend’s mom had helped them get ready, something his own mother did, but once they were all tucked it, something unusual happened. His friend’s dad walked in with a thick book called The Fellowship of the Ring, and sat down on the edge of the bed, while his friend’s mom squeezed in between the two young boys and wrapped one arm around each of them, pulling them close. “We’re already a little ways into the book, but it’s a good scene,” the father had said. And it was. Spike enjoyed the fantastic tale quite a bit, even to go so far as to imagine he, too, would one day embark on an epic quest to do what was right. But what Spike remembered most was this strange sort of calm that fell over him as he listened to the heartbeat of the mother in his left ear, and the cool, strong voice of the father in his right. It was love, of the unconditional variety. And he had felt that again last night when he had been with Georgia. So? Who cares if you think you might be in love? Spike asked himself angrily as he sped through traffic. You could never show her the right way—you’d just fuck it up. If you really love her, you’ll break her heart a little now so you don’t break it a lot later. He knew he should go back home to the Disciples, but right now, Spike just wanted a night to himself.


There were at least a dozen extra bikes outside of the house when Spike got home the next day. He turned off the engine and pulled off his do-rag as Cleo and Hector stepped outside, Tiny, Vince, and Jinx following them out quickly. “Hey, guys,” Spike said cautiously. “What’s going on?” he gestured to all the bikes around him. He noticed Jinx, Tiny, and, strangely enough, Hector all seemed to have been crying. “They blew up Joe’s,” Cleo said flatly. Spike dropped his helmet in the grass. “What?” he whispered. “Ivan and his guys,” Tiny said, his voice quavering. “They wired the place up and lit the spark.”

“Did anyone get hurt?” he asked. “Any of us?” “No,” Cleo said. “Everyone was here for our monthly meeting—which you also missed.” “The bar was closed anyway,” Vince said quietly. “Not many lives were lost.” “Joe’s was,” Jinx said with a small hiccup. Fresh tears began to stream down her face. “Joe lived at the bar, and now…” She broke into a sob and Vince wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her into a hug. “Joe’s dead?” Spike said. “Yeah,” Cleo said shortly. “And you would have found out about it along with the rest of us if you’d fucking been here.” “Where were you, Spike?” Hector finally spoke up. “We needed you. We needed our leader.” He turned around and went back inside, the rest of the gang following him. Spike hesitantly went in after them. There was an impromptu wake going on for Joe. She had been well liked by every gang in town. Most of the gangs were gone now, but the remaining members, all stragglers who’d managed to avoid Ivan’s wrath, were gathered in the living room to pay their respects. That explains the bikes outside, Spike thought miserably. If he thought that he had felt like shit before, it was nothing compared to now. Joe had been a friend of his for a long time. She had been a staple in the biker community. If there was no Joe’s to go to anymore…where would the gangs meet? What gangs are left, anyway. Spike slid a hand over his face. Was there even any point in sticking around here anymore? Everything he and Satan’s Disciples once loved was now gone. Maybe I should take Ivan’s offer to leave, figure out how to sneak Georgia away from him. I don’t think I could handle another death on my conscience. Cleo was right. I should have been here. Instead, I was with Georgia, or off by myself because of Georgia—because I think I love her or some bullshit. Spike knew he was never going to be able to have a future with Georgia, so why was he wasting time with her when the people in his life were in danger? This was why he didn’t get close to people—they made you weak. I’m no better than the sap right now. I’m worse. At least when he makes a fool of himself, no one gets hurt! Spike took one night to enjoy himself, to enjoy what he felt for Georgia, and look what happened. He lost focus, and now one of his closest friends was dead.

Smaller voices in Spike’s head told him that there was no way he could have possibly predicted this, that even if he had been at the meeting like he was supposed to have been, Joe would still be dead, but he didn’t care. He was too busy blaming himself for allowing Ivan to catch him off guard. Spike was convinced that if he hadn’t been distracted the last couple of days, he would have been able to see this coming. He stepped into the living room where Roxy and Jinx were setting up coolers full of beers for the mourners. There was a big board filled with pictures of Joe. Spike spotted himself in quite a few of the photos, and he hated himself more than ever. His chest felt like it was suddenly four sizes too small as he struggled for air. Black spots appeared in front of his eyes and he heard ringing in his ears. “Are you gonna get that?” Spike looked over, startled. His vision zoomed in on an older woman with heavy black eyeliner. “What?” “I said, are you gonna get that?” she repeated, annoyed. “Your phone? It’s only been ringing for the last five minutes.” Spike dazedly reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. Georgia. Not now. He ignored the call, muting the phone as he shoved it back where it came from. Looking around the room, he saw a dozen pairs of eyes all staring back at him. I have to get out of here, he panicked.

He turned abruptly and walked out of the house. A small voice reminded him that in a couple of hours, Ivan and his men would know Spike wasn’t planning on turning Georgia over to them. If they had blown up Joe’s with no provocation, there was no telling how Ivan’s mob would react to a direct insult like this. What Spike wanted to do right now was throw caution to the wind and storm Ivan’s all by himself, but he knew that would be a suicide mission, and he refused to abandon Satan’s Disciples in their hour of need…not again. He took a deep breath and turned to go back inside. Plunging his hand into the cooler of ice, Spike dug around until he surfaced with something suitable to drink. Part of him yearned for the stronger stuff to numb his pain, but he knew he needed to keep his head clear. “Glad to see you decided to stick around,” Cleo said from behind him. Spike closed his eyes in exasperation, pivoting to look at her. Surprisingly, Cleo’s face seemed

sincere. Her eyes were red, but Spike could tell she still had yet to shed a tear. That was to be expected. Cleo didn’t tolerate weakness, least of all in herself, and she wanted a man who would be just as tough as she was. Her attitude regarding what she considered to be weak was in no small measure why she and Spike fought so often. As the leader of Satan’s Disciples, Spike had to make some hard choices. Sometimes he wanted some validation that the choice he had made was the right one, and if he tried to seek this out from Cleo, more often than not, she would accuse him of being insecure and unstable. His phone buzzed in his pocket, and Spike pulled it out to look, though he already knew who it was. “Who is that?” Cleo asked accusingly, correctly imagining it to be Georgia. “No one,” he said, turning the phone off and shoving it back into his pocket. It tore Spike’s heart in half to say that, but he knew what the gang needed from him right now, and he was going to give it to them, no matter the cost to himself or his own personal happiness. He would send someone to guard Georgia instead. This is where you belong, he reminded himself as he looked at Cleo’s wavy black hair. What you had with Georgia, whatever it was, it wasn’t real. This is real. This is your life, now and forever.

Chapter Nine “How about a steak? Can I order that?” Georgia flashed a smile at Jimmy. “Of course! You can get whatever you want. In fact, why don’t you order me one too,” she said. “I’m just going to try Spike again really quick.” She turned back to the hotel phone, dialing the number Spike had left her. This was the fifth time she’d tried to call him in the last two hours and so far, there had been no answer. This time the call went straight to voicemail. Putting the phone back in its cradle, Georgia sat on the bed, wondering why he wouldn’t answer. The most obvious reason was that Spike couldn’t answer the phone because he was currently being murdered to death by Ivan and his mob, but Georgia didn’t want to think about that. He could just be busy, Georgia tried to reason with herself. Busy searching for Ivan. Maybe he just doesn’t want to talk to you, that horrible, self-critical side of her suggested. Maybe now that he’s had everything he can get from you, there’s no reason for him to stick around. He probably doesn’t give two shits about Ivan, Felix, or you. “Everything okay?” Jimmy asked, shaking her from her dark thoughts. Georgia flashed a smile, bigger and brighter than ever before. “Absolutely! Did you order that food?” she asked, filled with false cheer. “Uh, yep. Should be here soon,” he told her. “Did you get ahold of Mr. Turner?” Keeping her tone light, Georgia waved a dismissive hand. “No, but that’s fine. We’re having a good time without him, right?” she said. Jimmy smiled. “Totally!” Georgia tried calling Spike once every two hours for the rest of the night, but it continued to go to voicemail. Jimmy had fallen asleep at this point, and Georgia woke him so that he could get home before his parents worried. She slept fitfully that night. Georgia was plagued with nightmares, some where Ivan was torturing her brother, some where Ivan was torturing Spike, and some where all three of them were tied up and tortured together. She woke suddenly the next morning with the feeling that she hadn’t slept at all. She glanced at the clock. It was close to ten in the morning, but when she checked her phone, Spike still had yet to call

her back. A knock came from the door and Georgia ran to it, thinking it was Spike, but when she opened it, she came face to stomach with an incredibly tall, good-looking black man. “Vince?” Georgia said confusedly. “What are you doing here?” “I’ve come to guard you,” he answered. “You should not have answered the door so quickly. You did not ask me who I was, or check the peephole,” Vince said, pointing to the small security measure. Georgia’s blood ran cold. Vince was right. She had completely forgotten that she was also a target. “Please go back inside now, so you are not seen,” Vince instructed her. “Where’s Spike?” Georgia asked, ignoring him. “He is busy with the gang’s affairs—as he should be,” he added pointedly. Georgia took the hint that her question was not going to be answered and stepped back into the room. She wasn’t happy that Spike couldn’t at least call her, especially when he said he would, but she knew that after last night, there was no way Spike could be accused of using her. It had been everything she thought it would be—Spike had been so gentle at the beginning, so tender. And then they had flipped the script, and Spike had shown her exactly what she had been missing all these years. There was no doubt about it in Georgia’s mind—that was how people were supposed to have sex. Still, when several hours had passed, and she and Jimmy were well into the afternoon marathon of Law & Order: SVU, Spike still hadn’t contacted her. “Vince?” she hesitantly called through the door. “Could you call Spike for me? I haven’t been able to get a hold of him.” “Spike knows what he is doing. He will call you when the time is right,” Vince replied, his deep voice muffled. Georgia went and sat back down on the bed with a huff. She briefly wondered if perhaps Spike was avoiding her, but dismissed the idea quickly. She didn’t think many of the members of Satan’s Disciples particularly liked her; Vince might be the one blowing her off instead of Spike, not that she preferred that scenario by much. “Are you okay, Mrs. Turner?” Jimmy asked around a mouthful of ice cream. “Sure,” Georgia said, not bothering to fake any enthusiasm.

An hour later, while Olivia Benson was delivering her snarky one-liner to the arrested criminal, someone knocked on the door—pounded, actually. Georgia and Jimmy exchanged nervous glances, and Georgia hurried to the door, making sure to check the peephole this time. It was Vince, but he was accompanied by another man. She opened the door cautiously. “Something has happened and I must go,” Vince said hurriedly. “This is Andre; he’ll make sure no one comes near you, okay?” Georgia looked at the second man. He could have sat in the dictionary next to the word “biker.” He had an enormous chest that sloped into a respectable beer belly. His black shirt had the sleeves ripped off, displaying arms that were entirely covered with tattoos—many of which were naked ladies and skulls. “Nice to meet you, Andre,” Georgia said politely. Andre grunted in return. Vince took off without a word, leaving Georgia awkwardly looking at the man next to her, who did not seem to notice she was there. Unsure of what to do, Georgia stepped back into the room and slowly closed the door. Georgia rejoined Jimmy in watching Olivia and Elliot bust bad guys, but Georgia couldn’t get it out of her mind: Where is Spike? Two episodes later, right before the confession, Georgia decided she couldn’t wait around any longer. She picked up the remote and switched the TV off. “Hey!” Jimmy protested. “I’m sorry, Jimmy, but I need your help with something,” Georgia said solemnly. “Sure, Mrs. Turner, what’s up?” Jimmy had been calling Georgia that for the past two days, and she had let him, partly for simplicity’s sake, partly because it had been fun to pretend to be Spike’s wife. “I think Spike might be in trouble. Do you have a car?” she asked. “Well, yeah,” Jimmy said. He had a Toyota that was only a few years younger than he was, but it got him from A to B without too much trouble. “But how do you know where he is if he’s not picking up his phone?” he asked. “I have an idea,” Georgia said, “but you’re not going to like it.” Half an hour later, Stacy was knocking on the hotel door.

“’Sup,” she said to the giant biker beside her. Andre grunted. Georgia opened the door. “Come on in!” she said brightly. “Good talk,” Stacy said, waving to Andre as she stepped inside. “So, what am I doing here, and who’s the kid?” she asked, pointing to Jimmy. “That’s Jimmy, and I need your help getting out of here,” Georgia explained. “Oh, okay,” Stacy said. “So, you don’t call me for days, and now you need my help?” Georgia rolled her eyes. “Stacy, please. It’s not like I blew off plans for a slumber party, people’s lives are in danger. Let’s keep it in perspective, okay?” Stacy pouted for a minute. “Oh, fine. What do you need me to do?” “I need you to be me,” Georgia said. “Is that was this is for?” Stacy opened her bag and pulled out the long black wig and pair of heels Georgia had asked her to bring. “Are you going to be me? No offense, but I don’t think that’s gonna fly. What about you, kid?” Jimmy cleared his throat. “You’re not very…well, what I mean is, neither of you are…um…no,” he finally finished. It was true, Georgia and Stacy had completely opposing body types; Stacy was tall and lithe, Georgia was short and curvy. “I know,” Georgia said. “I’m not blind. But that guy might as well be.” She jerked her thumb towards the door behind her. “You saw him coming in. He barely even looked at you. All he saw was tall,” Georgia pointed at the heels, “and dark,” she said, pointing to the wig. “You have a point…” Stacy said slowly. “Okay, I’m in. What’s the plan? I pretend to be asleep when he checks on me or something?” “Pretty much,” Georgia shrugged. “Simple,” Stacy said. “I like it.” Twenty minutes later, Georgia was moving down the hallway as quickly as the heels would let her. If everything went to plan, Jimmy would join her outside in another twenty minutes to take her to Spike’s house.

Andre was just as oblivious as Georgia had hoped, and almost a half an hour later, Jimmy came out looking like he was trying very hard to keep himself from running. “Thanks, Jimmy. You’re a life saver,” Georgia told him. Jimmy slowly drove down the dark street as they made their way to Spike’s, nervously looking around. Almost all of the street lights were busted, and sirens constantly echoed in the distance. “Does anything look familiar?” Jimmy whispered to Georgia, despite the fact that the windows were rolled up and there was no one around to hear them. “Yep,” Georgia said grimly. Two houses ahead, Georgia saw a familiar red and matte black motorcycle parked in an overgrown yard. Dozens of bikes surrounded the place, but, for once, Georgia didn’t feel intimidated, she felt furious. Jimmy, on the other hand, was feeling very intimidated. He unconsciously slowed the car to a stop. “You want to go in there?” he said. Music and shouting could be heard even at this distance. There was obviously a major party happening, and who knew what that might entail. “You can wait in the car, Jimmy,” Georgia said dangerously. “This will only take a minute.” She got out, slamming the door behind her, stamping toward the thumping house with the vibrating windows. Jimmy stared after her miserably for a moment, then resignedly unbuckled his seatbelt and got out to follow her. He pressed the button to lock his car, listening to the sad, futile honk. Georgia threw open the door, her head whipping left to right as she searched for any sign of Spike. Jimmy cautiously entered after her, completely terrified, but determined to make sure Mrs. Turner was okay. With her limited knowledge of the house’s layout, Georgia began to work her way room to room as she looked for Spike. Suddenly her ears pricked up, hearing a bold, familiar laugh coming from the kitchen. Squeezing her way down a crowded hallway that seemed to be entirely made of leather and hair, Georgia finally popped out in what appeared to be more of a mess hall than a kitchen, with Jimmy close behind her. A long wooden slab about eight feet long served as a table to over a dozen people, all indifferently scattered around it. At the far end, Georgia saw Spike sitting on top, his boots resting on the bench, laughing uproariously with his friends—Cleo being one of them. She was sitting on the bench next to Spike’s legs, leaning against him as she raised her can to empty it of its contents.

Georgia’s face burned with anger and humiliation. She didn’t know whether she wanted to tear Spike apart or run away and hide. What was I thinking? He used me! Stacy was right. Everything he ever said was a lie. She remembered her fantasies of being “Mrs. Turner” and a sick shame washed over her. “Come on, Mrs. Turner,” Jimmy said softly, his hand gentle on her shoulder. “I’ll take you back to the hotel.” Closing her eyes against the embarrassing sting of the title Jimmy had given her, Georgia turned to go with him. Stopping at the doorway, she looked back and saw Cleo’s gaze boring a hole into her, a wild, victorious smile spreading across her face. Georgia stared at the other woman as she stood up to whisper something in Spike’s ear. Giving Georgia one last look over her shoulder, Cleo walked towards the back of the kitchen, Spike trailing obediently behind her. Georgia’s embarrassment disappeared, and a hot, territorial fury began to grow inside of her. Shaking Jimmy’s comforting hand off of her, Georgia tried to follow, but the crowd of people was too great, and before she could catch up to Spike and Cleo, they had disappeared. She whirled around angrily, searching for any sign of the man who had betrayed her, but there was nothing. Fine by me, Georgia determinedly thought to herself, I’ll search this place inch by inch if I have to. And with Jimmy still following her, that’s exactly what she did.


“Cleo, I know you want to go over the plan again, but please,” Spike begged as he walked up the back steps behind her, “can we just go back to the party?” Cleo looked back at Spike and smiled wickedly. Spike paused mid-step, realizing she was not bringing him upstairs to talk plans. Taking a deep breath, he followed her into her bedroom and carefully shut the door behind him. “So, er, what did you want to tell me that you couldn’t downstairs?” Spike asked, still trying to pretend that Cleo hadn’t lied to him to get him alone. Cleo responded by peeling off her tight black crop top. She wasn’t wearing a bra underneath, and Spike instinctively averted his eyes, even though Cleo’s breasts were something he had seen a hundred times before.

“What are you doing?” Cleo asked him curiously. She stepped closer and Spike turned away from her. “Come on,” she said, reaching out to wrap her long, slender fingers around his arm. “It’s been too long for us, that’s why we’ve been off lately.” Spike pulled away, still keeping his eyes down. “Cleo…” Spike didn’t know how to say what he needed to. Partly because he couldn’t believe he was about to say it, and partly because if he said the wrong thing, Cleo might very well pull out her gun and shoot him. But Cleo had been trying and trying with him over the last week, and he had kept pulling away. His mind hadn’t been ready to accept it until now, but things with Cleo were done. “Just spit it out, Spike,” she said coldly, folding her arms over her breasts. “Whatever it is, fucking spit it out already.” “I can’t do this with you anymore,” he finally said. “Us, this…” he gestured between them, still not looking at her, “…it’s over, Cleo. I’m sorry.” A long silence spread between them. “Is this because of her?” Cleo asked, and Spike knew she meant Georgia. “No,” he answered honestly, surprising himself. “Then what’s it about, Spike?” She sounded almost desperate. “It’s about me, and what I need,” he told her. “I can’t really explain it, Cleo.” Spike shrugged. “I wish I could, but I can’t.” Spike privately thought maybe he actually could, but not to Cleo, and that was the whole point of it. “So that’s it?” she said disgustedly. “We’ve been together for three years, and all you can give me is ‘I can’t explain it’?” “Technically, we were never really together,” Spike pointed out. “You were the one who didn’t want us to be official, but then you became enraged whenever I was with anyone else. What kind of game is that, Cleo?” “It’s not a game,” Cleo spat. “This gang is my life, Spike, and I accept the rules that go along with it. Gangs with female leaders are seen as weak, so I’ve never run for president because even though I know I could do the job better than anyone—even you—I don’t want to hinder Satan’s Disciples in any way. That’s why I don’t push to be your second-in-command either, so no one accuses our leader of favoritism.” Spike was stunned, he had never known Cleo wanted to be leader. “That’s why I’m so upset with you bringing her around. You did it without any regard to how it

affected the gang,” Cleo said. “You’re the one who’s treating it like a game. So just…get out,” Cleo said, her voice like stone. “Get the fuck out of my room, Spike.” She grabbed her top from the floor and turned her back to him. Spike went to the door, unsure of what to say, if anything, that could mend things between him and Cleo. Turning the knob, he opened the door to leave and came face to face with an angry-looking Georgia and…the hotel waiter behind her. *** Georgia had searched every inch of the lower level of the house, even though she already knew deep down that Cleo had brought Spike upstairs. Still, she had searched, hoping against hope that Spike had refused Cleo and had instead joined a game of beer pong somewhere. Finally heading up the stairs, Georgia first tried Spike’s room. It was empty, which, for a moment, filled Georgia with joy—until she realized there had to be at least five other bedrooms on this level. Three turned out to be empty as well, and the fourth had a couple in it, but it wasn’t Spike and Cleo. After apologizing for the interruption, Georgia went to the fifth door, praying that it would also be empty—or, if it had to have someone in it, let it be Spike, alone. “Are you sure about this, Mrs. Turner?” Jimmy asked as Georgia reached for the handle. He understood the need for truth, but even at his sixteen years, he didn’t think it was a good idea to intentionally walk into a room to see your husband cheating on you. “Why don’t you just wait until they come out? Then you can say what you need to—” The door flew open just then, removing anyone’s choice in the matter. Georgia barely even saw Spike. She was already zooming in on Cleo’s naked back. She swallowed hard. Jimmy was right, I should have just left. I didn’t want to see this. Without a word, Georgia turned on her heel and walked down the steps. She almost made it out the door before Spike caught up with her. “Hey, Georgia, wait…just let me…” He was stumbling over his words trying to explain what she had walked in on. She ignored him and he grabbed her arm to keep her from leaving. “Let go of me!” Georgia screamed, violently thrashing in her attempt to get away. She somehow managed to simultaneously knee Spike in the groin and punch him in the ear and he dropped like a hot stone. Having heard the yelling, Tiny, Roxy, and Vince all piled into the room to

see what was going on. “Go get her,” Spike ordered through gritted teeth. He was holding onto his junk like it was going to fall off. It felt like she burst something down there. A minute later Tiny and Vince returned with a thoroughly incensed, very vocal, Georgia between them, each firmly holding one of her arms. Next came Jimmy, who looked extremely put out at being led from behind by Roxy, her powerful hand clasping his shoulder. “You tell these assholes to get the fuck off of me, Spike! Right now! I mean it!” she shrieked as they half led, half carried her up the stairs to Spike’s room. Spike closed his eyes and took a deep breath, waiting for the ringing in his ear to subside. It eventually quieted, but the pain did not. He opened his eyes to see Cleo standing over him. Why, God? Why me and why today? Spike asked. “Well, I never thought I would ever say this, but I’m glad that she was here,” she said viciously, looking down at him. “Watching her kick your ass was a special treat.” Cleo stepped over him and walked into the kitchen, slinging her arm around a tall, handsome stranger Spike had never seen before. As he pulled himself to his feet, he watched her pluck the cigarette from the man’s lips and take a drag. She kissed the stranger, and when they separated, he blew smoke to the ceiling, a giant grin on his face. Spike shook his head. Cleo was upset, but he was willing to bet there were plenty of people around who would be willing to give her a shoulder to cry on. He took the steps slowly; he seemed to have a minor case of vertigo from Georgia’s blow to his ear. The girl could really pack a punch. He walked into his bedroom to see Georgia sitting on the bed, a furious glare on her face. Jimmy was sitting next to her looking considerably more frightened. “Guys, can you give us a minute?” Spike asked, meaning Georgia and himself. Tiny and Roxy looked at each other. Vince shifted imperceptibly. “What?” Spike asked, looking at each of them. “We are growing concerned over the impact this girl is having on the gang,” Vince said, nodding towards Georgia. “Cleo is not the only one with concerns. Even excluding the issues this has prompted with Ivan, which many of us feel would have come about anyway, events like tonight are not acceptable.” Spike stared at Vince. Embarrassment burned his face, but he refused to look away. “I believe my

patch still says Leader on it, and until it doesn’t, you’ll do what I say,” he said quietly. “Dammit, Spike!” Vince cried, flipping over his nightstand. A lamp shattered. The lightbulb popped loudly inside, causing Tiny, Roxy, and Jimmy to each let out a tiny scream. “Joe died today! People are mourning downstairs, and you’ve got two women at your throat all because you can’t keep your dick in your pants!” Spike was shocked. Never in all the years he had known Vince had he ever heard him raise his voice. “I know,” he said soothingly. “I know, and I’m sorry, Vince. You’re right.” Vince was breathing hard, sweat shining on his dark skin. “Hector was right downstairs; we need you, Spike. If you want to wear that patch,” he raised a long arm to point at Spike’s vest, “then you’d better do something to deserve it.” Vince walked out of the room, Tiny and Roxy behind him, Roxy stopping long enough to grab Jimmy by the front of his shirt. He glanced back at Georgia helplessly before Spike closed the door. He stood there for a long moment, leaning on the doorknob with one hand. “What the hell are you doing here, Georgia?” he asked tiredly. “You weren’t returning my phone calls,” she fired back hotly. “I thought something had happened! I guess I know what it was now.” “Nothing happened between Cleo and me tonight,” Spike told her. “If you don’t believe me, you can go ask her yourself. She’s your biggest fucking fan after seeing you take me down,” he added, seeing Georgia’s skeptical look. “Why is that?” “She’s pissed because I broke up with her,” Spike said, sitting next to her on the bed. “Was it because of me?” Georgia couldn’t help but blurt out. “Did you not hear Vince just then?” Spike asked. “Somebody fucking died, Georgia! Because I wasn’t there to do something about it! Because I was too busy with all your shit!” “Spike, that is such bullshit!” Georgia said. “How the hell were you supposed to predict that?” “Is it?” He laughed skeptically. “Maybe if I had been here, where I belonged, I could have…have…” Spike trailed off, throwing his hands into the air. “What?” Georgia asked. “Done what? What would you have done differently if you had been here?” Spike didn’t answer her.

“Exactly,” Georgia said softly. “Nothing. So stop blaming yourself, it’s only keeping you from blaming the person truly responsible for hurting your friends.” Spike looked at Georgia gratefully, and she leaned forward to kiss him. There was nothing more in the world that Spike wanted to do right now than kiss Georgia and show her his appreciation for her words, but her gentleness with him only further proved his point that she deserved more than he could give her. He pulled away. “What…?” Georgia said with a confused smile. “Spike, it’s okay if we mess around a little; I promise nothing bad will happen if you ‘shift your focus’ for an hour,” she teased, thinking he was worried about Ivan’s next move. “It’s not that,” Spike said, his voice suddenly cold. “Well, then what is it? Are you too drunk?” “No, I’m just not interested.” Georgia felt like a cement fist had just punched a hole in her stomach. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, back at the hotel was great, but…Georgia, come on. Did you really think I would want to hit it twice? I’ve moved on.” The fist uncurled and a thick concrete rope spread from each finger to every limb, filling it with a numbing sensation. “But…at the hotel, it seemed like…” she feebly protested as she lost the feeling in her lips. “Yeah, well, a lot can happen in a day,” Spike said shortly, hating himself more and more with every word, weakly holding on to the knowledge that this was what was best for Georgia. “I’ve moved on; you should too.” Spike stood up and headed to the door. “Wait!” Georgia cried, tears beginning to swim in her eyes. He stopped and looked back at her. “I love you,” she admitted, the tears now freely slipping down her cheek. Spike swallowed hard, trying to keep himself in check. “You don’t love me,” he said without a hint of emotion. “You just confused good sex for love. Now, Vince is going to keep an eye on you, since you can’t seem stay put like I told you. Ivan will know I’m not bringing you back to him by now, and he’ll be out looking for you. If you need me, I’ll be downstairs.”

“I don’t know why you’re lying to yourself,” Spike heard Georgia say from behind him. He paused and turned back to her. “You felt something at the hotel, and if you don’t want to admit that, then you’re a weak man, Spike, and you can go to hell,” she said.

Chapter Ten Ivan paced furiously back and forth. He picked up a very large, very expensive-looking vase and heaved it over his head, smashing it against the far wall. “Blyad'!” he cursed, his heavy voice echoing against the far metal walls. Alex winced as a ceramic shard whizzed by his scalp. “You’re surprised?” Yury drawled. “This is what happens when you give people options. They think they can do whatever they want.” “Might I remind you that you are the one who suggested I give him this option?” Ivan pointed out tersely. “True,” Yury admitted. “But I didn’t tell you to give him the extra time with the girl. You should have taken her immediately.” “You speak up now; where were you yesterday with your wisdom?” Ivan asked. Yury shrugged, sensing now was a good time to be quiet. “What about you?” Ivan suddenly asked Alex. “Any smart ideas?” Alex wasn’t sure how to answer that, so he took Yury’s lead and said nothing. “Come on,” Ivan said, waving his hand. “Speak up!” “Uh, are you sure he wasn’t at the bar when it blew up? Maybe he got hurt or something,” Alex suggested lamely. Ivan let out an ugly laugh. “That would be funny. He is preparing to go to war with us, and he dies in the first battle.” Alex laughed with him, secretly praying Spike was alive and was still going to go through with their plan. “Where is Nicholas?” Ivan asked, suddenly turning to Alex. “He’s late.” Alex stood up straight. “He should be here any minute.” As though on cue, the side door boomed open, slamming against the metal wall. Nicholas strolled through looking like the cat that had eaten the canary.

“Why do you look so happy?” Ivan asked suspiciously. “Because I found Felix,” he said with a nasty grin. “We finally got a bead on him somewhere in Massachusetts—he’s staying with an uncle on his mother’s side.” Ivan finally began to smile. So what if he didn’t have the whore, Georgia, today? He would have her soon enough, and he had the image of Spike Turner’s mangled, crispy corpse to keep him happy. “We need to grab him,” he ordered Nicholas. “We will use him to draw the girl out. If Spike is alive, he will follow her to us.” “What if it doesn’t work?” Alex blurted out. “How will you lure him here, then?” “Why wouldn’t it work?” Ivan asked, his brow furrowing. “Do you know something?” Alex bit his lip, shaking his head. “No, of course not. I’m just…trying to be thorough. Sorry if I seem nervous,” he said. Ivan stared at him suspiciously for a long moment, then broke into a grin. “Do not be nervous!” he said, throwing a friendly arm around Alex’s shoulders. “It’s very simple, trust me.” Releasing Alex, Ivan began to bark orders at the people standing around him. “Nicholas, contact our people in Boston and have them sit on the boy until we get there. Alex, I want you to look into our situation with Spike. Yury,” reaching into his pocket, Ivan pulled out his wallet and threw it to his second-in-command, “I want two first-class tickets leaving for Boston tonight, one way, and we’ll need a car to drive back in once we have picked up Felix.” Yury lazily snatched the wallet out of the air. “You got it, boss.” Six hours later they were touching down in Boston and picking up their rental car—something with a nice, large trunk for the way home. Using Nicholas’s connections, it hadn’t been difficult to find Uncle Lyle. Apparently the man worked for a big time law firm. Ivan wondered how someone so prestigious could be connected to someone like Felix, but he supposed that was the weakness of family. At the very least they could rob the man once they had collected Felix. “We’re here,” Yury said, pulling up alongside a three-story brownstone that was partially obscured by clinging ivy. Several lights, at least one on every floor, were on in the house, causing Ivan to worry that perhaps others lived with Lyle Diaz. He had not come prepared to execute an entire family, neither mentally nor materially. That kind of work required a serious clean-up crew, which he simply did not have.

Movement caught his eye—it was Felix! He was standing in the middle of the kitchen wearing only his boxers. Ivan glanced at his diamond encrusted watch. It was almost midnight. Why do they have so many lights on at this hour? And if everyone is awake, why is Felix the only one who is up? Watching Felix open the refrigerator and take a pull straight from the milk carton, Ivan realized that what he was looking at was the careless lifestyle of an adolescent man who had been left in an extravagant home with no supervision. He nudged Yury. “He’s alone. Let’s go.” They quietly stepped out of the car, carefully shutting the doors behind them. The last thing they wanted was to give him a head’s up. As they crept around to the back of the house, both Ivan and Yury darkly recalled the violent resourcefulness of the elder Lewis, thinking they didn’t want to find out if it ran in the family. It had been easy enough for Ivan to pick the lock of the back door. The hinges squeaked gently as the two men snuck inside, but muted footsteps from above told Ivan that Felix was upstairs now, too far away to hear such a small noise. Ivan pulled his gun from the back of his waistband, silently motioning for Yury to do the same. They circled around to the floating staircase, tiptoeing up the steps to maintain the surprise advantage. The top of Felix’s head came into view, and Ivan quickly ducked back down to avoid being seen. He looked at Yury, who gave a nasty grin in reply. Ivan smiled, too. Felix had evaded him for far too long, and now he was going to learn what it meant to pay your dues.


Vince was standing guard as Spike had ordered, making sure Georgia didn’t randomly decide to take off, when Jinx approached and asked to go in. “I don’t think Spike would like that,” he said, dubiously shaking his head. “Oh, come on,” she pleaded, prettily batting her eyelashes. “Spike only said Georgia couldn’t come out, he never said no one could go in.” Vince glanced down at her, raising his eyebrow. “I’m not going to make my judgement based on a technicality, Jinx. The answer is no.” “Yeah, but, the whole point is to keep her here, right? Is she more likely to stay put if she has someone to talk to, or if she’s bored off her ass?” Jinx pointed out. “Besides,” she continued quietly, “she’s obviously hurting, Vince. She needs a friend.”

Vince’s shoulders drooped as he gazed into his lover’s eyes. “You have a good heart,” he murmured, quickly glancing around before dipping his head to press his lips to hers. Jinx wrapped her arms tightly around him, her fingers digging into his back. Vince pulled away suddenly and she let out a small gasp of surprise. He smiled at her response, then nodded towards the door behind him, stepping to the side so she could knock. How dare he? Georgia fumed, throwing herself on the bed. He can open up to me about how he feels responsible for what happened, but apparently he needs to ‘move on.’ Of course he wants to move on, the self-doubting side of her started in, He’s probably bored of you. He’s been with scores of women, had sex hundreds of times. Why would he ever want a repeat of what he’s already had? Georgia had called Spike weak for not admitting his feelings for her, but what if he wasn’t weak and she was just some crazy, ranting girl who couldn’t see that she’d been dumped? What if she was imagining what she had felt between them at the hotel? A soft knock interrupted Georgia’s self-deprecating tirade. “What do you want?” Georgia called irritably. “Georgia?” she heard Jinx’s muted voice on the other side of the door. “Can I come in?” the younger girl asked. Frankly, Georgia wasn’t sure. Part of her wanted someone to vent to, the other wanted to shut everyone out. “Georgia?” Jinx repeated. “We don’t have to talk, I just thought you might need a friend.” Not hearing a response, Jinx reluctantly stepped back. “Okay, I’ll just go, then…” She gave Vince a miserable look. “No. You can come in,” she said, opening the door a moment later. Georgia stepped back to let Jinx enter, and the two women sat on the bed together. No one said anything for a long time. “Do you want to talk about it?” Jinx finally asked. “I mean, you don’t have to, I’m just asking.” She didn’t know the right thing to say. Georgia didn’t reply. “We could talk about something else, then,” Jinx tried again, still getting nothing in return. “Oh!” she said suddenly, her eyes wide. “I got it. Wanna hear about the time Spike literally broke his ass in front of everyone outside of Joe’s?” Jinx giggled, motioning for Georgia to lean in close. “He had to wear

a cast that looked like a pair of shorts for two months.” The image came to Georgia’s mind vividly, and she snorted loudly despite herself. “That sounds exactly like something I would want to hear right now,” she said. “Go on, what happened?” “Well, we were all pretty drunk,” Jinx said with the tone that this should be considered the precursor to all of her stories. “This was back when there were a lot of gangs, and Joe’s was sort of considered our Switzerland, or whatever.” Jinx waved a dismissive hand. “It was a place where the rivalry between us was friendly. So, we’re wasted, and someone suggests we do Biker Olympics. There were a bunch of categories: beer chug, best tits, you get the point. Well, we nominated Spike for the wheelie race, and—” Georgia’s phone, the burner cell she had picked up at Felix’s suggestion, began to ring, cutting Jinx off mid-sentence. She seized it and her heart froze—she and Felix had spoken almost every day to check in with each other, but each time that phone rang, Georgia was terrified it was going to be Ivan, or a police officer telling her they’d found Felix’s body washed up on a river bed somewhere. You’re being ridiculous, Georgia, she told herself. Felix is fine. Answer the phone and see for yourself. “Sorry,” she said, looking at Jinx. “It’s my brother, and if I don’t answer he’ll—” Jinx held up her hands. “Say no more.” She stood up from the bed. “I’ll give you guys some privacy.” Walking out of the room, the purple ends of Jinx’s platinum blonde hair bounced merrily from the bottoms of her pigtails, and Georgia smiled, wishing she felt as free. Shaking her head, Georgia pressed the answer button. “Hey, Felix,” she said warmly. “How’s it going?” “Georgia!” Felix cried in a strangled whisper. He was panting heavily. “Georgia, they found me!” Everything Georgia had feared, everything she had tried to push away, was now happening. “What do you mean?” she blurted out. “How are you calling me? Where are you? Can you get out?” She had a million questions. “I’m at Uncle Lyle’s,” Felix hurriedly explained. “He wasn’t home, so I was checking out the house, when I saw Ivan and Yury creeping up the stairs in the mirror behind me. They didn’t think I saw them, so I kept pretending that I didn’t see them until I thought I could make a run for it, but they cut me off. I managed to make it to the garage and now I’m hiding in the trunk of Uncle Lyle’s car. Georgia, they’re going to find me! I just know it! I know—” “Felix!” Georgia said firmly. “Stop! Take a deep breath before you pass out.” Felix had been ranting at top speed. “Now, I’m going to tell you what to do, okay? I’m going to get you out of this,” Georgia promised, deep down knowing how utterly powerless she truly was.

“What I need you to do is—” she began. “Georgia!” Felix whispered. “They’re coming…” In the background, Georgia heard a large boom, like someone had perhaps just knocked in a door, or perhaps somehow dented an expensive car. “What do I do?” Felix breathed. Footsteps echoed, sounding closer and closer, but Georgia had no idea what to tell her brother. She was terrified it would be the wrong thing. “Just stay quiet, and maybe they’ll—” Georgia heard the loud pop of two gunshots and the screech of metal on metal, then clear, raucous laughter. “Georgia!” Felix screamed, his voice piercingly high. “Georgia! They got me! Joja! Joja!” Georgia nearly began screaming herself, but she didn’t want Felix to think anything had happened to her. “Felix, I’m coming, okay? Okay?” she cried into the phone. Her brother’s screams faded into the distance and she knew someone was dragging him away. There was a rustling sound from the phone. Someone had picked it up—she could hear them breathing. “I’m looking forward to seeing you, Georgia,” Yury said. She shivered, the oil in his voice sliding down her skin. Georgia shut the phone. She wanted nothing more than to throw it across the room, but it was her only tie to Felix. Georgia fell to her knees. Laying her head on the bed, she began to sob. What am I going to do now? Even if Spike wasn’t the biggest asshole on the planet, he still wouldn’t be able to convince Satan’s Disciples to abandon whatever plan they have just because Felix is in danger!

Georgia raised her head, roughly wiping away her tears with the palm of her hand. Think, Georgia! Think! This is no time to get weepy and fall apart. She already knew and had accepted that she was going to have to save her brother herself; debating whether Spike wouldn’t or couldn’t help her was beyond the point. Her current problem was how to get away from Spike without him noticing. If he knows I’ve gone after Felix, he’ll just come get me and bring me back. He doesn’t understand. He as much told me that if Felix were his brother, he would have let him go a long time ago. My best option is to go before Spike gets back, while Vince is still the one on guard. Georgia got up and examined all of the windows. There were only two, one of which was painted

shut. She stuck her head out of the other one. It was a twenty-foot drop straight to the ground—not a tree limb to climb out on or a gutter to drop from. She pulled her head back inside and sat on the bed with a sigh. There wasn’t a sheet so she couldn’t even try to make a rope. Spike’s negligent lifestyle had provided him with the perfect jail cell. But what about the jailer? Georgia thought, a smile spreading across her face. Georgia opened the door to see Jinx and Vince in the middle of what appeared to be an intense discussion. They immediately stopped talking and both turned to face her. “Did you need something?” Jinx asked. Georgia glanced at Vince, who calmly returned her look. “I finished talking to my brother, and I could use some company,” she said, looking back at Jinx. “Of course,” Jinx immediately replied. “I’ll talk to you later,” she said, turning so she could give Vince a discrete wink. Georgia closed the door once Jinx entered, making sure it was firmly closed. “Are you feeling better now that you talked to your brother?” Jinx asked, falling back onto the bed. Georgia grabbed Jinx’s wrist, pulling her up into a sitting position. “I need your help,” she demanded. “What do you mean?” Jinx said, confused. “Help with what? With Spike?” “No, not Spike,” Georgia said bitterly. Spike wasn’t any help at all right now. “I need help with my brother. He just called me to tell me that Ivan and Yury found where he was hiding out.” “Oh my gosh!” Jinx exclaimed. “Is he okay?” Georgia bit her lip, trying to keep the tears from overflowing. “I don’t know. He was talking, then I heard screams, then…then…there was a gunshot. Maybe more than one, I can’t remember,” she said, now openly crying. “We’d better tell Spike!” Jinx said, getting up from the bed. “No!” Georgia cried, grabbing Jinx’s arm to stop her. “He can’t do anything about it. He won’t do anything about it,” she said, correcting herself. “I’m the only one who can help my brother right now, and if we tell Spike, he’s just going to keep me locked in here while my brother is out there, dying.” “Spike’s just trying to keep you safe,” Jinx said.

“Why?” Georgia asked. “It’s obviously not because he cares about me. He made it very clear to me that he’s moved on. He even told me to do the same.” “Well, that’s just plain not true,” Jinx said, rolling her eyes and sitting back down on the bed. “Spike’s obviously crazy about you—that’s why the gang is so pissed off. He’s putting you over everyone else. Whatever he told you, it’s not true.” “I wish I could believe that,” Georgia muttered. “Either way, it doesn’t matter,” she added, louder. “I’m the only one who can help Felix. Will you help me?” Jinx looked around. “Who are you talking to? Because I know you don’t expect me to walk into the lion’s den next to your crazy ass.” “No, I don’t,” Georgia said. “I need your help busting out.” She nodded towards the door. “Well, that’s a different story, then. What’s the plan?” Jinx asked. “I feel skeezy asking, but do you think you could…y’know…distract Vince?” Georgia asked hesitantly. “I only ask because I thought I caught him looking at you that way when you came in earlier.” “Oh yeah?” Jinx said, a grin spreading across her face. She was absurdly pleased to find out that Vince was giving her looks behind her back. Georgia was giving her a look right now, but it was a very odd one. Jinx quickly stopped smiling. “Um, yeah, I could try to do that,” Jinx said in what she hoped was casual, but not too casual, manner. “He’s pretty quiet though, so who knows if it’ll work.” Yeah, right, she thought to herself. “Right,” Georgia said slowly, still staring at Jinx. “Anyway, if Ivan is driving Felix back from Boston —” “They will be,” Jinx interrupted, reassuring her. “Crowds, security—it’s too hard to fly with a hostage.” “Okay, that gives me some time,” Georgia said. “So, if you could distract Vince early tomorrow morning, maybe say you came to check on me or something?” she suggested. “Then I can sneak out and go rescue my brother.” “What if Spike wants to check in on you after you’re gone? You’ll need someone to keep him busy,” Jinx pointed out. Georgia scoffed. “I don’t think that will be a problem. He’d have to care to want to check in on me.”

Jinx rolled her eyes, ignoring Georgia’s comment. “You need a backup plan. Roxy could help.” “Are you sure? I don’t want to tell anyone that’s going to tell Spike.” “You can trust Roxy. I promise,” Jinx assured her. Georgia bit her bottom lip. “Okay, but no one else,” she warned. “It’ll get back to Spike and he’ll try to stop me. Ivan and Yury grabbed Felix from my uncle’s place, so I need at least thirteen hours, ten if they’re really pushing it.” “Okay,” Jinx said. “When I leave, I’ll mention to Vince that you’re tired and don’t want to be bothered. Maybe that’ll keep anyone else out who thinks of visiting you.” She stood to leave, then stopped suddenly. “Wait! How are you going to get to…wherever you’re going? Where are you going? Maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all…” Jinx was beginning to have second thoughts. “How are you going to do anything if you’re all by yourself?” “If you’re worried about me being on my own, don’t be,” Georgia said. “I’ve been taking care of my brother by myself half my life; I’m used to it. As for a ride, you guys aren’t going to hold Jimmy here the whole night, right?” “You’re going to ask that kid to come back here early tomorrow morning after the late night you just put him through?” Jinx said. “Don’t judge me,” Georgia said flatly, her temper rising. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to get my brother back home safe and sound, and don’t you dare tell me that if it were someone you cared about, you wouldn’t do the exact same thing.” Jinx thought about Vince, the man she loved, who stood only ten feet away on the other side of the door, and she knew Georgia was right. “Alright,” Jinx sighed. “I’m going to get in so much trouble,” she muttered to herself. “Thank you, Jinx,” Georgia said, giving the younger woman a warm hug. “I’ll never forget this.” Something tells me neither will I, Jinx thought. The next morning, Georgia woke early in anticipation. For the next half hour, she had her ear pressed up against the door, listening for Jinx’s approach. “Hey, hot-stuff,” Jinx said, strolling up to Vince. “How’s the hostage?” Vince raised an eyebrow at her. “I haven’t heard anything. She must still be asleep.” “It’s been an emotional couple of weeks for her. God knows I’d be sleeping hard after the time she’s had.”

Jinx was tensely aware that Georgia was listening in on her conversation with Vince. Therefore, she was tasked with the difficulty of getting Vince into bed without seeming like they had done it several dozen times before. “Standing here all night must have you feeling a bit stiff,” Jinx said, rubbing her fingers up and down Vince’s arm slowly. “No. I am fine,” Vince said, quickly catching Jinx’s meaning. He was resolutely determined not to fall victim to his desires. Spike had ordered him to stand guard, and Georgia had already given one of them the slip. Poor Andre, Vince thought, remembering the ridicule the huge man had faced upon returning to the house. He’s never going to live that one down. Spike had called Andre after discovering Georgia was at the house and reamed the man out. Andre had burst into the room, startling Stacy from what had been a very satisfying nap, and had come back to headquarters to a ruined reputation. “Come on, Vince, everyone’s still asleep,” Jinx whispered, stretching up on her tiptoes to whisper in his ear. “We can make it a quickie. She’ll be passed out until noon; you’ll be back in a half hour, tops.” Jinx slid her hand down Vince’s broad chest to the front of his jeans. Slipping her hand into his pocket, her fingers found the outline of his long shaft. At her touch, it immediately began to harden and swell. Jinx smiled. She knew she was only a few deft movements away from convincing Vince to join her in her room. Jinx reached up to press her lips to the hollow of Vince’s throat—a spot she knew he loved. His large hands came down to meet around her waist, drifting lower and lower until he could cup her ass. Jinx moaned into him, her hand gripping his cock through his pants. Vince tweaked her nipple in response, lightly flicking her nipple ring the way he knew she liked. Jinx moaned again, louder this time. Georgia, still listening in, blushed and stepped away from the door, embarrassed to be overhearing her friend in such an intimate setting. Jinx unbuckled Vince’s belt, tugging on one of the ends as she pulled him towards her room. “Let’s go,” she said, panting with desire, an eager grin on her face. At this point Vince didn’t even know who Georgia was, let alone that he was supposed to be guarding her. Plucking at the buttons on Jinx’s shirt, he followed her into the room, kicking the door shut behind him.

The second the door closed, Jinx jumped into his arms, wrapping her legs around his waist and pushing his jeans down with her feet. Vince met her enthusiasm by unhooking her bra and taking her breast into his mouth, his tongue encircling the metal piercing. “Oh fuck, Vince. You know just how I like it,” Jinx said, smiling sweetly down at him. Vince dumped her onto the bed, chuckling as he climbed on top of her. “Of course. I know everything you like,” he said, looking deep into her eyes. Jinx let out a soft, satisfied sigh as he entered her. She hooked her arms around his neck, letting him fill her body. They moved together, Vince murmuring in her ear as Jinx climbed higher and higher. She came, Vince following barely a moment later. They pressed their foreheads together, panting as they smiled at one another. Vince rolled over onto his back, pulling Jinx in close to his side. “That was amazing,” he said, kissing her forehead. He closed his eyes. After the stressful week everyone had been having, that was exactly what he needed. He let out a deep sigh, satisfaction sweeping through his body. He drifted off to sleep, feeling the pulse of his lover’s heartbeat against his chest.


Georgia cautiously opened the door, cringing when the hinges squeaked. Screamed, more like it, Georgia thought, glaring accusingly at the offending hardware. She paused outside one of the rooms, hearing the familiar noises of two people locked in the throes of a passionate tryst. Georgia’s stomach twisted, remembering how only a few days ago, Jimmy had been sent to tell her and Spike to keep the level down on their own rendezvous. Georgia began to carefully make her descent down the steps when the stair beneath her foot groaned loudly. She froze, holding her breath, waiting to see if anyone had heard the seemingly deafening sound. At the base of the steps, a face appeared around the corner. It was Roxy. She held up her hands, motioning for Georgia to stay where she was. Roxy looked into the room to her left, then waved her hand for Georgia to continue down the stairs, holding one finger to her lips. Georgia got to the first floor without any more problems, thankfully. She looked into the side room to see Spike sleeping on the couch and suddenly she was very, very grateful for Roxy’s help. “Thanks,” she breathed once Roxy had led her past the living room, to the back door of the house. “Don’t worry about it—it’s nothing none of us wouldn’t do for each other,” Roxy said, checking over

her shoulder to make sure Spike hadn’t suddenly materialized behind them. “Jimmy’s parked in the alley at the end of the block. I’ll do my best to keep Spike occupied when he wakes up, but there are no guarantees,” she warned Georgia. “I’ll take whatever I can get,” Georgia said. “Then take this,” Roxy said. She opened the top drawer of the kitchen cabinet. Inside were two guns, the smaller of which Roxy pulled out and handed to Georgia. “Do you know how to work it?” she asked. “Make sure the safety is off and pull the trigger?” Georgia said. “Basically,” Roxy agreed. She leaned back to glance out the window; everyone was still outside, but Georgia needed to hurry. “Keep the safety on until it’s time to use it, otherwise you’ll end up shooting your tits off.” “Thanks again, Roxy,” Georgia said, hugging her tightly. Roxy hugged her back until she heard movement from upstairs. Someone had woken up and was walking down the steps. “Go!” she whispered roughly, pushing Georgia out the front. Georgia stumbled across the back porch and down the steps, nearly falling flat on her face. Righting herself, she looked up the alley one way, then the other, trying to spot Jimmy’s car. The early morning sun blinded her, making it difficult to pick out the old Toyota. A car at the end of the road started its engine, tapping its brake lights and catching Georgia’s attention. She jogged down to the end of the block, double checked that it was in fact Jimmy behind the wheel, and hopped into the car. “Hey, Mrs. Turner,” Jimmy said, nervously checking his rearview mirror. “Just call me Georgia, Jimmy,” she tiredly replied. Georgia was terrified; she had no idea what she was going to do, or how she was going to do it, and the last thing she needed right now was to be constantly reminded of Spike and his betrayal. “Okay, Georgia,” Jimmy said, her name feeling awkward and uncomfortable in his mouth. “Where are we going?” Georgia didn’t reply for a long minute—she needed to think. Felix won’t even be inside the city limits for another three hours. How do I get Ivan to come to me before he can hurt Felix? Her plan was simple: get Ivan to come to her, then blow his brains out. Georgia knew that as long as Ivan was out of the picture, Felix would be safe. Anything that happened after that was just collateral.

“I need to go home,” Georgia said flatly. Jimmy stared at the townhome as he pulled into the driveway twenty minutes later. The garage was demolished, the windows were boarded up, and bullet holes were lodged in the siding? “You’re going to stay here?” Jimmy asked doubtfully. “I don’t know, Mrs. Turn—I mean, Georgia. I never thought I would say this, but Spike’s house seems like a safer place for you to be.” Georgia opened the car door and got out. “I’m not looking for safe, I’m looking for my brother.” She leaned onto the car door, peering at Jimmy through the open window. “Thanks for everything, Jimmy. I hope we see each other again.” Waving goodbye as he backed the car out of the drive, Georgia sighed and turned to go inside, carefully checking to make sure she still had the gun in her bag. Even though Ivan wasn’t supposed to be back for another couple of hours, Georgia wanted to search her home top to bottom for the man, just in case. Once she was satisfied that she was the only one in the house, Georgia began to scope out the best vantage point for her to carry out her plan. The problem was it all depended on which way Ivan decided to enter the house, and Georgia didn’t know how to predict that. She was sitting in her bedroom, trying to get inside the mind of a sociopathic Russian mobster, when she heard a car outside. Georgia panicked immediately, thinking it was Ivan come early. Calming herself, Georgia remembered that Ivan still didn’t know she was here. So who could it be? Not Spike, or I would have heard his bike instead of a car. Jimmy? Did he forget something? Holding the gun at her side in a tense grip, Georgia carefully tiptoed her way to the front entrance. There was a small window near the top of the door which allowed Georgia to see the top of someone’s head—someone who had very shiny, straight black hair. Georgia threw open the door, grabbing Stacy’s wrist and yanking her inside. “Hey!” she protested. “Watch it, I bruise easily.” “What are you doing here?” Georgia hissed. “You can’t be dropping by whenever you feel like it! It’s not safe!” Stacy abruptly stopped rubbing her pained wrist and gave Georgia a cold look. “Funny, that’s exactly what I came here to tell you.” “How did you even know I was home?” Georgia asked, peeking through the door window for overly observant neighbors.

“I didn’t,” Stacy said, annoyed. “When you didn’t call me, again, I made my rounds. I stopped by Spike’s, but when Roxy answered the door, she just slammed it in my face, the fucking bitch. I took that to mean you weren’t there.” Georgia sighed. “Sorry. It’s not Roxy’s fault. She probably just didn’t want Spike to see you.” “And why would that be a problem?” Stacy asked confusedly. “Because I sort of escaped this morning,” Georgia confessed. “Why are you escaping from your boyfriend’s house?” “He’s not my boyfriend!” Georgia snapped, her eyes flashing. Stacy raised an eyebrow, and Georgia’s lip began to tremble. “You were right, okay?” Georgia said. “Spike was just using me. He made that very clear last night. So, go ahead, say ‘I told you so.’” Stacy wrapped her arms around her friend. “I think you’ve had it bad enough that you don’t need me rubbing your face in it.” Georgia cried on Stacy’s shoulder for a few minutes; the stress of her brother, the confusion with Spike, everything was so overwhelming. Georgia didn’t know if she could handle it. Finally, her tears subsided, and Georgia surfaced, wiping her wet cheeks with her sleeve. “Thanks, Stacy,” she said. “Of course. That’s what friends are for.” Stacy smiled warmly at her. “So is that why you’re at home? You and Spike…?” She trailed off, not wanting to say something that might wound Georgia. When Georgia didn’t say anything for a long moment, Stacy thought perhaps she had managed to upset her anyway. “No,” she finally said. “That’s not why I’m here.” “Georgia,” Stacy said in a strained voice, “I’m a nervous fucking wreck over here. I need you to tell me everything, right now, all at once.” She loved Georgia dearly, but her friend had the annoying habit of telling a story bit by bit, and not always in the best order. “Ivan has Felix, and I’m the only one who can help him now,” Georgia told her. “That’s why I’m here. I’m setting up a trap for Ivan.” She walked over to her kitchen and pulled the gun out of the top drawer, setting it on the counter. “Why do you have a fucking gun?” Stacy asked, staring at the weapon. “I think you know why, Stacy.”

“You’re going to kill Ivan?” Stacy said disbelievingly. “What—you think you’re gonna just call him up and ask him to swing by before killing your brother?” “I’m going to tell him that I’ll tell him how to get to Spike in exchange for Felix,” Georgia replied. “Let me guess,” Stacy rubbed her eyes with one hand, “you don’t really have any information that will help Ivan with Spike. You’re just hoping he walks in here, into your trap, with no protection or backup of any kind, am I right?” she asked sarcastically. “Have you thought about what will happen when Ivan sees through your terribly obvious plan and kills you? Or, let’s say a miracle happens, and your plan does work—what then? Even if you manage to kill Ivan, one of his little cronies will just come right in after him and kill you himself,” Stacy pointed out. Georgia said nothing. “Oh my god.” Stacy slowly realized what Georgia was thinking. “You don’t even care, do you? You know there’s a high chance you won’t live through this, don’t you?” “There’s nothing else I can do,” Georgia said calmly. “I’ve tried everything I can, except for this one last thing.” “Ivan is going to know something’s up right away, Georgia,” Stacy said, trying a softer approach. “What good does this do if it’s basically suicide? That doesn’t help Felix.” “I have to try,” Georgia said stubbornly. Stacy shook her head. “How can I help?” she asked. Georgia smiled. “Thanks for the offer, but I don’t think you can. This is something I need to do alone. If you got hurt…I don’t know what I’d do.” Stacy opened her mouth to protest, but Georgia put up her hand, silencing her. “Please. If you feel like you have to do something, can you check on Jimmy? The poor kid seemed a little shaken up.” “Welcome to the club, Jimbo. We’re all a little shaken up,” Stacy muttered to herself. “Fine. I’ll go. But I’ll be back in a couple of hours to check on you,” she insisted. Stacy threw herself at Georgia and gave the smaller woman a giant hug, using more strength than anyone looking at Stacy would think she rightfully had. “You sure you know what you’re doing?” Stacy asked one more time before opening the door. “Yes,” Georgia said more confidently than she felt. The truth was she had no idea what she was doing, or if any of it would work, but like she had told Stacy earlier, she had to try. Stepping outside to walk Stacy to her car, Georgia made sure to wave to her neighbor, the one who

lived in the other half of the townhome. The woman stared at her, rightfully terrified, having heard gunfire and rampant property destruction on the other side of their shared wall no less than three times in the last two weeks. Georgia watched the woman hurry back into her side of the building; hopefully she was calling the police right now. Georgia wouldn’t know for a while, so she walked back inside and settled down to wait. She looked at her burner phone and made sure the volume was on high. Sure enough, less than a half an hour later, the phone rang loudly. Georgia knew that when her neighbor called the police, it meant that Nicholas would be notified, and he would call Ivan immediately to tell him Georgia was at home, alone. Taking a deep breath, Georgia answered. “Hello?” “Hello, Georgia,” Ivan said on the other end of the line. “Are you feeling homesick?” She ignored him. “I have information that you might want.” “What could you possibly have that I would care about? I have your brother.” Georgia heard rustling as Ivan pulled the phone away from his ear and passed it to someone. There was a dull thud, then a loud groan. “Joja…” Felix’s voice was muffled. “And soon, I will have you,” Ivan continued, bringing the phone back to his ear. “You have nothing I want.” “I have Spike,” she replied evenly. “I can get you Spike.” Ivan said nothing for a long moment. “You have him, or you can get him?” he asked. “Those are two very different claims.” “I can get him for you,” Georgia clarified. “Whenever you want, however you want. I can get him for you.” “How?” Ivan asked suspiciously. “He’s in love with me,” she said, lying her ass off. “He’ll do anything for me. If he wasn’t, he would have given me up to you when you gave him the chance, but he didn’t.” Georgia wished with all her heart that what she was saying was true, but she knew the only reason Spike didn’t give her up was because he wanted to fuck her first. That, and he had given his word. Spike has his own code of honor, but that doesn’t mean he’s in love with me—it just makes him obligated to me, Georgia thought bitterly.

“Let me guess: you want you and your brother to go free in exchange for Spike?” Ivan asked. “Can Felix hear this?” If Felix overheard what she was about to say, he would flip out and ruin everything. “No,” Ivan said slowly. “Only me.” “I’ll give you Spike, and…I’ll take Felix’s place,” Georgia said. She had absolutely no intention of giving up Spike, or herself for that matter, but Georgia needed to make a reasonable offer, or Ivan would know something was off. He might figure it out anyway, but if Georgia didn’t at least try, then Felix would never even have a chance. “Please, I’ll do anything,” she said, echoing the very words she had once directed at Spike only a week ago. “Very well,” Ivan agreed after a short pause. “I will come to you. And, Georgia? Don’t do anything stupid,” he coldly warned her before immediately hanging up. A chill ran down Georgia’s spine, and she tucked the phone into her back pocket. She arranged her demolished couch as best she could and sat down, looking at the gun in her lap. She flicked the safety off and raised the weapon, testing the weight of it. A good pick, Roxy, Georgia thought. Thanks for this, girl. She ran through her plan in her head repeatedly, checking her watch every ten minutes. Georgia didn’t know exactly when Ivan would arrive, which left her in a high state of alert. She took a deep breath to calm herself. All she could do right now was wait.

Chapter Eleven Spike woke the next morning, or perhaps afternoon, judging by how high the sun was already. He felt like he had spun out on the highway, but he knew it was just a massive hangover—quite possibly the worst he’d ever had. He sat up, wondering why he had been sleeping on the couch. Usually when he passed out anywhere other than his bed, Tiny would pick him up and tuck him in. Memories of last night came back to him in a slow trickle. The biggest and brightest of which was the one of Georgia telling Spike she loved him, and him telling her to move on. Spike rested his head in his hands and let out an exasperated sigh. The image of her face, filled with hurt, shocked disappointment, had followed Spike around last night, always swimming in the edges of his conscience. He had drunk beer after beer in an attempt to forget the look on her face, eventually switching to whiskey when the beer failed to help. After the whiskey…who knows what happened after the whiskey, Spike thought. He had a tendency to get pretty wild when he was drunk; he just hoped he hadn’t done anything stupid. Well, stupider than usual. He stood up from the couch, using the arm for support. The sudden rise in elevation made his head pound furiously. He squinted and raised a hand to keep the light out of his eyes. Sunlight really was just the worst. “Mornin’, Rox,” Spike said, passing Roxy in the hallway. Spike walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, pulling out a beer. He held it to his head for a few seconds, relishing the cool relief. Cracking it open, he gulped down half, hoping that would take the edge off of his crippling hangover. “I do anything stupid last night?” he asked, seeing Jinx and Vince walk down the stairs. “I was outside Georgia’s door all night,” Vince reminded him. “Right, right.” Spike nodded as much as his headache would allow. “Who’s with her right now?” “Hector,” Jinx answered. “Don’t leave him too long, or he’ll get distracted by a pretty girl and wander off to follow her home,” Cleo joked, walking into the kitchen to join them. “Where’s breakfast?” she asked, looking around for Tiny.

As though summoned, Tiny came hurrying into the kitchen. “Sorry,” he said, panting a little. “I was up late last night with Spike.” “Did I do anything stupid?” he repeated. “Besides how you treated Georgia?” Jinx muttered, low enough Spike couldn’t hear. “No, nothin’,” Tiny said, though Spike noticed he didn’t seem to want to look his leader in the eye. “I’ll have breakfast in a jiff, everyone,” Tiny said loudly, beginning to pull out everything he needed. “Okay, then,” Spike said slowly. He finished his beer and got up from the table. “I’ll be right back, so no one take all the hash browns before I get back.” He didn’t want to say it out loud, especially in front of Cleo, but he had been restraining himself from going to see Georgia since he woke up, and he couldn’t contain the urge any longer. “Wait!” Jinx cried, quickly moving to stand in front of him. “Where are you going?” She was supposed to keep Spike from finding out Georgia was missing for as long as she could, and she had a feeling Spike was going to go check on her now. Spike, as well as everyone else, gave Jinx an odd look. “To the bathroom…” he lied. “Oh, okay, then,” Jinx said lamely, stepping out of his way. She watched him walk up the steps, her stomach sinking. She knew he wasn’t going to the bathroom, but there was nothing more she could do without raising suspicion. She sat down in between Tiny and Vince at the table, waiting for the inevitable. “Where is she?” Spike roared, his voice reverberating through the house. Jinx winced, hearing Spike’s heavy footsteps clatter down the steps. “She’s gone!” he exclaimed. “Who?” Tiny asked, bewildered. “Georgia! Gone! How did this happen?” he asked when Hector came down the stairs. “Was she there when you checked on her when you two swapped?” Spike said, pointing at Vince and Hector. The two men looked at each other. Neither of them wanted to tell their leader the truth: that Hector had seen Vince was missing from his post and had covered for him, only to catch Vince coming out of Jinx’s room an hour later. “You didn’t check, did you?” Spike said flatly. “I can’t fucking believe this. Did you ever check on her?” he demanded, turning to Vince. “Through the whole night, did you ever open the door and see her?”

Vince shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Jinx spoke to her last night and said she was very tired. I did not want to disturb her.” Jinx scrunched up her nose. She knew it would eventually roll around to her. She looked up to see Spike staring at her. “Were you the last one to see her, then?” Spike asked. Jinx glanced at Roxy, who was standing in the doorway just behind Spike. Technically, Roxy had been the last to see Georgia, but Jinx didn’t think Spike was looking for technicalities right now. “Looks like,” Jinx said, a falsely bright smile on her face. Spike continued to stare at her expectantly. “Well? Did something happen? Did she say anything?” “Does it matter?” Cleo muttered. “What was that?” Spike said, turning to look at her. “I said, does it matter? Wherever she is, you’re just going to go run off and get her, so does it really matter what happened or what she said?” Cleo shrugged and flicked an invisible speck of lint off of her leg. “Sorry, for a second there I thought you had something important to say,” Spike shot back. He looked at Jinx. He could tell she was holding something back. “Did something happen, or did she leave on her own?” he asked. Jinx chewed her bottom lip. She figured enough time had passed that Georgia could have done what she needed to. “Both,” she admitted. Spike’s brow gathered in confusion. “Both? What does that mean?” “Georgia got a phone call from her brother, so she asked me to wait out in the hall, so I did, and then she came and got me and she told me that Ivan found her brother, and she was so scared,” Jinx blurted out, last night’s events spilling from her lips like a waterfall. “So I asked her what I could do and she…she wanted me to distract Vince so she could sneak out and go save her brother!” Tears began to form in Jinx’s eyes; she hated lying to everyone. “What the fuck, Jinx?” Spike cried. “Why didn’t you come get me?” “Well, after what you said to her, can you really blame her for thinking you didn’t want to get involved?” Jinx indignantly replied on Georgia’s behalf. “I tried to tell her that you would do something, but she didn’t believe me.”

“So you just let her leave? I can’t even…” Spike took a deep breath and closed his eyes, trying to calm his fury. “Okay, where did she go?” he asked once he had control of himself. “I don’t know,” Jinx said, biting her lip again. “Jimmy came and picked her up.” “What is this? The underground fuckin’ railroad?” Spike said exasperatedly. “Vince, go get the kid and bring him here.” Vince nodded once and left, the sound of his motorcycle roaring down the road could be heard a few minutes later. “If she’s gone to see Ivan, then I think it’s time we get our plan together,” Spike said. “We don’t have the manpower for it,” Cleo said. “We can get it,” Spike fired at her. “We are not going barreling into Ivan’s all because you’ve got a crush!” Cleo said, staring Spike down as she leaned forward to rest her palms on the table. “We decided; we go in when we’re ready, and not a minute before.” “Goddammit, Cleo,” Spike snarled. “Are you really that jealous that you’re willing to let the girl die?” Cleo laughed in his face. “My god, get over yourself.” “Enough!” Tiny shouted, standing up and flipping the long, heavy table on its side. Plates and silverware clattered sharply as they fell to the floor. “I have had it with the arguing in this gang! We’re supposed to be a family, for fuck’s sake! That’s why I joined,” Tiny said, emotion choking his voice. “I joined for my brother, and after he died, I stayed because this was his family, and now it’s mine. And you people are tearing it apart.” Tiny sniffled. He turned the table right side up and sat down, Hector gently patting his back. No one said anything for several minutes. Finally, Spike cleared his throat. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice raspy. “You’re right, Tiny. I haven’t been a good leader lately. But I gave Georgia my word, and I can’t go back on that—you deserve a leader whose word can be trusted.” Spike was speaking to more than Satan’s Disciples now. His words were also meant for Georgia. He had promised her that he would keep her safe, and what had he done? Broken her heart and, likely, gotten her kidnapped and killed. “But when I gave my word, I didn’t give it for all of us. I only gave it for me,” Spike continued, looking at his boots. “I can’t order you to help me with this as your leader, instead, I’m asking for your help as your friend.” He raised his head to look at the members of Satan’s Disciples.

“Of course we will help!” Tiny said passionately, several of the people in the kitchen nodding their agreement. Spike couldn’t help but notice Cleo was not among them. “But we want to be together on it!” “Sí,” Hector emphatically agreed. “Ivan killed Joe; he needs to pay. But we will be slaughtered if we cannot be together on this.” A chorus of agreement rose up from the group. “Cleo?” Spike said, turning to her. “We could really use you.” “Well, that much is obvious,” Cleo drawled. “And I already told you, I have no problem going against Ivan. I’ve been bugging you about him since day one. I just want us to be prepared when we go in. You get the men and the plan together, and I’m down.” Spike shot her a grateful smile. “Okay, then,” he said, clapping his hands together. “Jinx, when did Georgia leave?” “About three hours ago.” “And you have no idea where she went?” Jinx shook her head, her pigtails flapping side to side. Just then the back door opened, and Vince appeared, one hand weighing heavily on Jimmy’s shoulder. “I brought the boy,” Vince said. Jimmy shifted from one foot to the other as he nervously looked around. “Hey, Jim,” Spike said. Jimmy jerked his head up to look at Spike. “Look, I’m not mad, okay? I promise.” Jimmy didn’t look convinced. “I just want to know where you took her,” Spike said, trying to make his voice as soothing as possible. He liked Jimmy, but if he didn’t start talking of his own will, and soon, Spike was going to have to provide some motivation. Jinx stood up, jostling Spike out of the way. He had to take a step back to avoid falling and he wondered why everyone seemed so pushy lately. “It’s okay, honey. No one is going to hurt you here, I promise,” Jinx said, shooting a glare at Spike. She had sensed Spike’s irritation and felt the need to take matters into her own hands before he did. It was a good thing, too, because with Jinx’s arms around him, Jimmy suddenly felt much more at ease.

“She wanted to go home,” he said finally. “Home?” Spike echoed. “Why would she want to go there?” “If I was going to choose a place for my last stand, it’d be here,” Cleo said from the corner. “What? Why?” Spike asked. “You wouldn’t pick here?” Cleo said disbelievingly. “This is your home. You know it better than anyone else does. It’s where you belong. Why would you go anywhere else?” Spike thought he would choose a military bunker for his last stand, but he supposed that wasn’t the point. Cleo was right. Georgia had struggled her whole life to be able to afford a meager onebedroom townhome. It was her proudest achievement, to be making it on her own, in spite of her past. She hadn’t let her family drag her down—not like he had. Spike mentally cursed himself once again. He’d been no better than her family. She had come to him in her hour of need, and he had taken advantage of her. Now she’s in love with me, and I…I can’t give her what she needs, what she deserves, he brooded. “Alright, then we go to her house,” Spike said. “Vince, Roxy, you’re with me for the initial perimeter check. Tiny and Hector, I want eyes on Ivan. Head to his headquarters and—” Jinx cleared her throat and stepped forward. “Ivan won’t be there,” she told him, almost as nervous as Jimmy now. “Why wouldn’t he…” He stopped himself before he wasted more time on stupid questions. What else aren’t people telling me? “Where is he?” “Georgia said Felix was in Boston, so I guess headed back from there. She figured Ivan would be getting back around…now,” Jinx said, checking the time. It was almost one. Spike stared at her. “You should have told me this to begin with,” he said, his voice low and dangerous. “I promised Georgia I would buy her as much time as I could,” Jinx said, her eyes cold. “You’re not the only one who values their word.” Spike held her gaze until she looked away. “Okay, same idea,” he said, addressing everyone, “but I want one extra person in each group. Cleo? Wanna jump in on this?” he asked her. “I’ll head to Ivan’s with Tiny and Hector,” she offered. “Thanks,” Spike said. “That means Jinx, you’re with us.”

Jinx did a mock salute and walked out to go get her gear ready. They would all ride separately for this. “Alright, everyone, remember: we’re just doing recon,” Spike cautioned. “We’ll meet back here in an hour and talk options, so no one go doing anything heroic.” “No worries of that here,” Cleo muttered to herself. Ten minutes later, the two groups were starting their bikes. Tiny duck-walked up next to Spike. “How come you didn’t tell them?” he asked Spike as he fastened his helmet. “Tell them what?” Spike replied, pulling on his gloves. “Why you really want to save Georgia. That it’s about more than just your word.” Spike paused, confused. “What do you mean?” Tiny rolled his eyes. “You only spent half of last night going on and on about her to me. I’m a lover, not a fighter, but even I was like, ‘shut up, man! If you love her so much, go tell her! Not me.’ But you did tell me. So how come you didn’t tell them?” he asked, nodding to the other members. “I don’t remember any of that,” Spike finally said. “Not much of a surprise there. You were pretty hammered. From what it seemed like, though, you said some things to her you maybe regret?” Spike finished pulling on his gloves. “Yeah, maybe. So what?” “They can tell you’re not being real with them,” Tiny said with a bluntness that was unusual for his normally timid personality. Then again, Spike thought, it’s been an unusual day for all of us. “That’s why they’re so mad,” Tiny continued. “Maybe if you told them what was really going on in your head, y’know, how you feel about Georgia, maybe they wouldn’t be so reluctant to help.” “Tiny,” Spike said, starting his bike. “Whatever I said, I said when I was drunk. Listen to what I say when I’m sober.” Spike revved his engine and pulled away, cutting off Tiny’s reply. “Let’s go!” Spike shouted over the noise of the engines. He drove down the road, leading the way for the small group to Georgia’s house. He looked in his rearview mirror to see Tiny’s enormous back growing smaller and smaller.

It doesn’t matter what I said, or how I feel. That doesn’t change the fact that Georgia and I belong to separate worlds. Spike knew that Georgia could never join Satan’s Disciples, and he could never leave the gang without a leader. Whatever chemistry or feelings there were between them had to be set aside. Spike parked his bike on the street behind Georgia’s house, but this time he kept it on the road instead of in Georgia’s neighbor’s garden. Roxy, Jinx, and Vince all pulled in behind him a second later. Spike held his finger up to his lips and then waved for them to move forward. The four of them quickly scanned the surrounding area as they moved towards the house. Not seeing anyone, they came back to the rear entrance of the house, not wanting to be spotted by nosy neighbors. Spike walked up to knock on the door. That’s when he saw the blood. There were several smears of it near the already opened door. “No,” Spike whispered. “No!” He threw the door open and bolted inside. “Spike, don’t!” Vince yelled, running in after him. “They could still be inside!” Spike didn’t care. He needed to know if she was okay or not. “Georgia!” He cried her name repeatedly, ripping open door after door. Vince followed Spike as he ran from room to room. The place was small, but completely destroyed. There were blood spatters everywhere. Things didn’t look good for Georgia. “It’s all clear!” Vince called over his shoulder to the girls outside. “Yeah, we know,” Jinx said, her head popping out of the bedroom. “We came in, like, right after you.” The three members of Satan’s Disciples walked down the hallway and into Georgia’s living room, where Spike was kneeling in front of a large pool of blood. “Oh fuck,” Jinx whimpered. “That does not look good.” Vince put a comforting arm around her narrow shoulders and she turned her face into his chest. “Roxy,” Spike said, his voice ragged. “Can you tell me anything?” Roxy had been a paramedic at one point, so she was the gang’s resident expert on all things gory and gruesome. She took a deep breath, unsure how to say this to her leader. “It’s a lethal amount of blood. Whoever’s blood that is…there’s no way they could still be standing. But hey, for all we know,” she quickly added, seeing Spike’s face, “it might not even be her blood. What if it’s Ivan’s?” she optimistically suggested.

“Oh come on, Roxy,” Spike said dully. “It’s not Ivan’s. He has her. I can feel it.” Spike’s phone rang and he pulled it out of his pocket to look at the screen. “It’s Tiny.” He hurriedly pressed the green button and put the phone on speaker. “What do you got for me?” Tiny’s voice rang out thinly in the demolished room. “It’s her, Spike! She’s here!” “Are you sure?” Spike demanded. “Is she okay? Does she look hurt?” “She’s, uh, she’s banged up pretty bad, but she’s walking,” Tiny said. “Barely,” Spike heard Cleo mutter in the background. He clenched his fist so tight he heard his knuckles creak. Of course he didn’t kill Georgia, he realized, disgust twisting his stomach into knots. Where’s the fun in that? He took her because he knew it would hurt me. He knows whatever he does to Georgia…I’ll blame myself for it. And why not? It is my fault. “Tiny, there’s blood here at Georgia’s house—a lot of it. Is there anyone else there who’s badly hurt?” Spike asked. Georgia was a strong girl, and smart, too. It was possible she had taken out another one of Ivan’s men. “Hold on, there’s another car pulling up,” Tiny said. There was a long pause as Tiny watched the car pull into the alley from the rooftop of the same abandoned warehouse Spike had scaled a few days ago. “One of the guys is definitely bleeding, but he’s not—” Tiny broke off abruptly. “Tiny? Are you there? Tiny?” Spike said urgently, terrified that they had been made. “Yeah, I’m here,” Tiny replied. “The guys in the second car just pulled a giant suitcase from the trunk.” “A suitcase big enough to hold a body?” Spike asked. “Oh yeah, and what’s worse, its dripping blood.” Who could be in the suitcase? It’s not Georgia, it’s not Ivan’s men… The color drained from Spike’s face. “Thanks, Tiny,” he said into the phone. “Get back to headquarters, okay? I’ll see you there.” Spike shoved the phone into his pocket. The entire reason Georgia had come to Spike was for her brother, and he had promised her he would keep the kid safe. Now it looked like he might be getting buried in expensive luggage. Spike knew how close the two were; if Felix died, it would be like Georgia herself was the one who was killed.

“Come on,” he said gruffly. “We should head back.”


Georgia had patiently been waiting for Ivan’s arrival for over an hour when she finally heard footsteps creeping up the driveway. She quickly and silently moved into position, hiding just behind the front door so that when Ivan stepped in, there was no chance she could miss. Hopefully, I’ll be able to take out some of his bastard friends, too, she thought, remembering Yury’s eyes and the way they had caressed her body. They knocked, three loud booms on the door that made Georgia tense up so badly her muscles hurt. There was a long silence, then five shots blew past Georgia, shattering a vase, the last unbroken thing in her home, and filling her ears with a deafening ring. Light spilled onto the carpet from the holes in the door. “Did I get you?” Ivan called through the door. Georgia bit her lip to keep herself from whimpering in fear. “I hope I didn’t, because I want this to last a long time, Georgia,” he said, a mere foot away from her head through the door. “Is there anyone in there with you? Georgia?” he pushed when she didn’t respond. “Come out and it’ll go easy—you can even see your brother. He’s still alive! For the time being,” Ivan warned. Georgia still said nothing. They were toying with her, trying to shake her, trick her into doing something stupid. She kept her lips tightly pressed together as she held the gun up, ready to pull the trigger the second she saw Ivan’s idiotic, bleach-blond head. “Okay,” she heard Yury say in a sing-song voice, “we’re coming in!” Georgia had been ready for the shots that came through the door, and she thought she was ready for this—but she was tragically wrong. Ivan kicked open the door and it flew back, striking Georgia’s hand with such force it broke two of her fingers on her right hand and knocked her into the wall. She dropped the gun in pain and crumpled to the floor. No! Georgia’s mind screamed. Not again! She scrambled for the gun as Ivan and Yury burst through the entrance. Ivan swiftly kicked the gun, sending it skittering across the kitchen floor. Georgia made a desperate leap from her knees, just barely managing to catch the grip between her fingers. She swung back to face them, the gun in her left hand, awkward and heavy, intending to aim it right at Ivan’s giant chest. When she turned around, however, she saw her brother bound and gagged, standing right next to Ivan, who had one hand on the back of Felix’s neck, and the other pointing a gun right at

his head. “Drop it,” Ivan said, no longer playing games. “Now. Or I’ll blast his fucking face all over the floor.” Georgia hesitated, but when Ivan cocked the hammer she quickly set the gun aside. “Okay! Okay,” she said, putting her hands up. “So, I guess you just want to talk about Spike?” Ivan let go of Felix and strode over to Georgia. He drew his hand back, the one still holding the gun, and backhanded Georgia across the face. “Stupid girl,” he said, kicking her viciously. Georgia wheezed, desperately gasping for air. The bruises on her side had only just begun to fade, and now new ones were forming. Her vision went dark and she fought to stay conscious. “Get her up, Yury,’ Ivan ordered. She tried to crawl away, but Yury caught her before she went even five feet. His hands gripped her under her armpits, and he hauled her back. Her side wrenched in the most painful way, and Georgia shrieked in agony. Yury pulled her upright, supporting her with one arm wrapped around her waist. He clamped a hand over her mouth. “You’d better stop screaming right now, or I’m going to put a bullet in your brother.” Georgia quieted, but she didn’t stop trying to push Yury’s hands off of her. He was holding her tightly from behind, pressing himself into her as he brought one of his hands up to roughly squeeze Georgia’s breast. Felix’s eyes widened in horror as he watched Ivan take off his jacket. He began to frantically wriggle against his restraints as Ivan started to unbuckle his belt. Georgia shut her eyes, wishing she had tried one last time to convince Spike to help her. They were in worse trouble than ever now, and no one was coming to save them. “You’re going to learn what a terrible mistake it was to try to stop us,” Yury whispered in her ear as he smoothed her hair back. There was a loud knock at the door and Georgia’s heart leapt. Spike! He came! Ivan and Yury froze briefly, looking at each other. “Check the door,” Ivan ordered Yury, who was hurriedly redoing his pants and grabbing his gun off of the counter. Yury stood off to the side of the door, much like Georgia had. He reached forward to grab the handle, looking back at Ivan, who was positioning himself in the kitchen. Ivan nodded and Yury ripped open the door, ready and waiting.

The sunlight shone through the door, casting an outline around the person in the doorway and blackening their face. They stepped in, and Georgia groaned, feeling more destitute than she ever had in her life. Rocco looked around the room. After having called the police a few days ago and hearing nothing back, Rocco had attempted to contact Georgia. Her phone had been shut off, so he decided to stop by her house. When he had walked up, he hadn’t noticed that there were more bullet holes than before, nor did he notice the dark town car parked down the road. He only heard Georgia’s muffled voice, and he knew he wasn’t leaving until he got some answers. The first thing he saw when he walked through the wide open door was Felix. He was lying on his side in front of the sofa, with ropes around his wrists and feet, and duct tape across his mouth. His eyes were rolling wildly as he tried to speak, his words suppressed by the tape. Rocco immediately went to him, kneeling by his side. “Felix! What happened? Where’s Georgia??” Felix began to wriggle against his constraints furiously, but to no avail. Yury had quietly stepped up behind Rocco, placing the cold muzzle of the gun to the back of his neck. Rocco went still. “Get up,” Yury said softly. Rocco raised his hands and slowly got to his feet. He noticed Georgia on the floor, blood trickling from a split in her lip and cheek. He took a step towards her, but Yury held it up to his face and Rocco stopped in his tracks. “What are you, the boyfriend?” Ivan asked. “You sure seem to be protective over her.” He turned to look down at Georgia. “At least he showed up; Spike is nowhere to be seen.” “Spike?” Rocco echoed. “Georgia, who are these men? What is going on?” he asked worriedly. “You shouldn’t have come here,” Yury said. “Now you’re going to have to come back with us.” He was mocking Rocco, his face an exaggerated grimace. No! Georgia thought desperately. I can’t have any more deaths on my hands! She looked around her, frantically searching for something that could help them. She spotted something, and got an idea. “Oh, my side,” Georgia suddenly groaned loudly, as though in severe pain. She grabbed at her ribs and slowly sunk to the floor. Rocco started forward, but Yury grabbed him and held him back. “What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “I think I have internal bleeding,” Georgia said, rolling onto her side and curling up into the fetal

position. Ivan came to stand over her, his enormous shadow blocking out the sunlight that filtered through the holes in the boarded up windows. “Get up,” he ordered her, but she didn’t move. “Get up!” he repeated angrily, planting his boot into her lower back and shoving her. Georgia stayed where she was. Ivan strode over to her and bent down to haul her to her feet, grabbing her by her bicep. Suddenly, Georgia sprang up and stabbed Ivan in the muscle between his shoulder and neck with a long shard of the broken vase. He fell back with a roar and Georgia made a dive for the counter where Ivan had left his gun. Before she even had the chance to grab it, a shot rang out, quickly followed by two more. Georgia whipped her head around to see what happened. Rocco stood, swaying gently. Three blossoms opened on his chest, then ran down, soaking his shirt. He crumpled to the floor, blood seeping into the floor beneath him. As the life left his eyes, they never left Georgia’s. Georgia screamed, quickly silencing herself when Yury moved the gun to point at Felix. Georgia heard a loud grunt behind her and she saw Ivan slowly rise to his feet. One of his hands was wrapped around the long bit of glass Georgia had stabbed him with, and the other was using a dish towel to apply pressure to the wound. “That’s what happens when you do stupid things, you dolbo yeb,” Ivan angrily cursed, gesturing to Rocco’s body with the glass shard. “People get hurt. And what good did it do?” he asked, holding up Georgia’s ineffective weapon and tossing it aside. Georgia was shaking her head. “Why did you come here, Rocco?” she moaned. “Why couldn’t you have just left me alone!” “Look through the rooms,” Ivan ordered Yury. “Try to find something for us to take him out of here,” he said, meaning Rocco’s body. Yury headed into her bedroom and Georgia could hear him ripping open drawers and pulling things off of shelves. He came back a few minutes later with a large suitcase. “Think we can get him to fit in this?” Yury asked. Ivan nodded. “That’ll work. Call Nicholas, have him come pick it up. We need to get out of here.” He turned to Georgia. “Are you going to be good, or do I need to tie you up like your brother?” Georgia shook her head. “No, I’ll be good.” Ivan sighed. “Oh, how I wish I could believe that,” he said, just before his fist slammed into the side of her face, knocking her unconscious.

Chapter Twelve Spike looked around the table. “So, any questions? Comments? Concerns?” he asked everyone. They had just finished discussing their plan on how to rescue Georgia—and Felix, if he was still alive. Spike was terrified that every second they spent talking strategy was another grain of sand in the hourglass of Georgia’s life, but even he realized barging in with no organization was a good way for everyone to end up dead. “Let me just repeat how stupid of a reason this is,” Cleo said with a mocking smile on her face. Spike sighed. “Noted. Anyone else?” No one said anything, so Spike continued. “Well, then, let me just say how much I appreciate all of you for doing this for me. I know not everyone is fully on board, but the fact that you’re risking your lives anyway…” Spike broke off, glancing at Tiny, who gave him an imperceptible nod. “You deserve to know the truth. Everything everyone said before was right; I put this girl before the gang because, well, I care about her.” Spike coughed roughly. “I love her, actually, and I think I would legitimately go insane if she died. So, there it is,” he finished lamely, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. Jinx rolled her eyes. “Fuckin’ finally,” she muttered under her breath. “Thank you for telling us the truth about this. I am more than happy to help you,” Vince said solemnly. “All we ever wanted from you was your trust and respect as our leader.” Spike nodded. “There’s nothing you guys ever did to make me feel like I couldn’t share this with you. I just got tied up in my own shit for a while.” Spike saw Cleo out of the corner of his eye. She looked disappointed, but unsurprised. He wished he could tell her that she was enough, that she shouldn’t feel like she did anything wrong, but when he looked at her again, he saw she already knew. Cleo had never been someone who could be described as driven by her emotions. Tiny came over and clapped a large hand on his shoulder. “I’m proud of you for that,” he said quietly, a wide smile on his round face. “Thanks, Tiny,” Spike said, letting out a deep breath. “I just hope I get the chance to say it to her. The things I said last night…it’s no wonder she felt like she couldn’t ask me for help. I’ve done nothing but treat her like shit.” “You were trying to help in your own way,” Tiny finagled. “At least now you know how you fucked it up.” “And what good does that do me if she’s already…” Spike couldn’t say it. Saying it made it a real

possibility, maybe even a certainty. “She’s fine, okay?” Tiny reassured him. Spike looked into Tiny’s huge, clear eyes and began to calm down. “You’re right. Hey, Tiny, I got a special project, you up for it?” “I’ll do my best,” Tiny said, nervously shifting from one foot to the other. “You’re gonna have to be on your own for this one, so be careful, alright? If I go down, this gang needs you,” Spike warned him. Tiny cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Are you sure this is something you want to trust me with?” “Of course! We’re all about trust, right?” Spike said with a grin and a wink. “Of course,” Tiny agreed with an uneasy chuckle. “So, uh, what is it you want me to do, Spike?” Spike leaned in, his arm barely reaching around Tiny’s massive shoulders. “This is why you’re the one I want on this job…” *** A few minutes later, the seven of them were spilling out onto the front lawn, mounting their bikes and starting the engines. Jimmy came out and stood on the front step of Satan’s Disciples headquarters, staring at the bikers with an anxious face. “Hey there, Jim,” Spike said, coming to stand next to the young man. “What’s going on? You look a little worried.” A shadow seemed to pass over Jimmy’s face. He turned to Spike with a determined glint in his eye. “I want to help,” he said firmly. Spike admired his bravery, but he couldn’t help but notice that Jimmy’s bottom lip seemed to be quivering, and kind of a lot. “We would love to have you out there with us, but I think you and I both know it’s best for you if you went home,” Spike said, not unkindly. Jimmy hung his head, his shoulders drooping. “You’ll get Mrs. Turner—I mean, Georgia—back, won’t you, Mr. Turner?” he asked hopefully. “That’s the plan, Jim. But I need you to go home if you want that plan to work. Your parents are probably worried sick about you.”

Jimmy looked off in the distance, away from Spike’s gaze. “Nah, not really,” he said dully. Spike nodded. He understood all too well. “Well, if you really want to help, we could use someone to set up supplies for when we get back. People are probably going to get hurt, so if we had antiseptic and gauze and all that ready right away, that would be a great help, Jim.” “I’m on it!” Jimmy said with such conviction, Spike practically expected him to salute. “Go talk to Roxy, she’ll give you a list, okay?” Spike clapped a warm hand on Jimmy’s shoulder, then went to his bike and straddled it. He started the engine, tracing the Satan’s Disciples logo on the center of his tank. The grinning, flaming skulls seemed to mock him, and he thought the welcome mat in front of the gates of Hell looked particularly inviting today. Revving the engine, Spike took a small pleasure in the familiar feeling of the worn leather handlebar grips. It was perfectly molded to his palm and felt more like home than anything he’d ever known in his life. He looked back at the six people he’d come to call family. He had let them down a lot lately, but like a true family, they had rallied around him. His sacrifice was theirs, and he was determined to see this ride through with them, one last time. “Fire ’em up!” he shouted over the rumbling engines. All around him, motorcycles roared and snarled, jumping at the bit to be let loose. Spike peeled out, thick white smoke streaming from the back tire. Six more bikes followed suit, clouding the street in a hazy fog. Tearing down the road, the members of Satan’s Disciples hooted and hollered to each other loudly, screaming with delight at what some of them knew might be the last days of their lives. They were ready for it, though; this was how they lived their lives: ride or die.


Georgia slowly regained consciousness. There was a dull throbbing in her head that was persistently knocking on the inside of her skull. “Ohhh,” she groaned softly. She tried to raise a hand to her head, but found she could not. Something was binding her hands behind her back. Georgia bright blue eyes snapped open, wildly looking around at her surroundings.

Something moved behind her and she shrieked, startled. “It’s me!” Felix cried. “Stop, you’ll hurt yourself!” Georgia had been frantically attempting to get away, and she was painfully twisting the rough twine that tied the two siblings together. Hearing her brother’s voice, his living, real-life voice, Georgia calmed down and stopped trying to get away, though her heart still beat furiously inside her chest. “Hold still,” Felix said. “I’m gonna try to get us free.” “Where are we?” she asked, taking another look around the room as Felix pulled on the rope. It was incredibly ostentatious, with dozens of extremely expensive-looking pieces of what could be art, or maybe technology. Georgia wasn’t sure. Everything was chrome or white leather. One wall was decorated entirely with albino animal heads. “Dammit!” Felix cursed. All his struggles managed to accomplish was giving himself rope burn. “Ivan’s,” Felix answered dully, nodding towards the metal staircase that led to a trapdoor in the ceiling. “This is his private area in the basement. Not many people know this place even exists. I only know ’cause I was still awake when they brought us down.” Georgia tried to think back to the last thing she remembered—Yury, groping her as he pulled her to her feet, Ivan unbuckling his belt, Rocco… She gasped as she recalled how Rocco had randomly shown up and then met his untimely fate. The heavy thud of Rocco’s head striking the ground, never to rise again, echoed in Georgia’s mind. Ivan had said it was her fault—was he right? If she hadn’t attacked Ivan, would Yury have killed Rocco? She shook her head; that was a question she would never get the answer to. Now was not the time to be punishing herself. “Speaking of, where are they?” Georgia said, pushing the image of Rocco’s body out of her mind. She closed her eyes briefly. The ridiculous glass chandelier dangling overhead was giving her migraine a headache. “I’m not sure. They dumped us in here, tied us together, and left,” Felix said, shrugging. The movement tugged on the rope, biting into Georgia’s already tender wrists. “Oops, sorry,” Felix said, hearing Georgia’s painful gasp. He chuckled bitterly. “I’ve been saying that a lot lately. I guess at this point it probably doesn’t mean much to you. Probably hasn’t meant anything to you in a long time.” Georgia didn’t say anything. The truth was that Felix was right—Stacy and Spike, too. She had been bailing Felix out for far too long, and it had gotten old right around the time she had walked in on Felix using her apartment for a drug deal three years ago. She was thankfully saved from having to come up with a reply when the trapdoor opened and three pairs of feet came down the steps.

Ivan stood in front of Georgia and Felix, Yury and Alex just behind him. Alex stared shamefacedly at the floor, unable to look either of them in the eyes. “I told you I would have you here before the week was out,” Ivan said to his hostages, victoriously planting his fists on his hips. “Didn’t I say?” he turned to look at Yury and Alex. Yury nodded, a sick smile on his face. “I’m so glad you were able to come back with us, Georgia.” Georgia shuddered at the look he was giving her. It didn’t take a genius to guess what was on his mind. She knew this was a risk, and it was one she had knowingly involved herself in. She tried to take a deep breath to calm the panic that was threatening to overwhelm her. “A lot of the boys upstairs were excited to see you come through the doors, actually,” Ivan added. He had a look on his face that said he was going to have his own fun before anyone else. “I know you’re used to your pathetic boyfriend that oh so gallantly came to rescue you, and, of course, the disgusting biker, so I hope you’re ready for what is coming to you,” Ivan continued. “What’s he talking about, Georgia?” Felix asked. “Nothing,” she muttered. “Oh-ho!” Ivan cried, looking at Yury. He turned back to Felix. “Your sister is a slut!” he gleefully informed Felix. “She’s been screwing Spike Turner and he doesn’t even have the yáytsa to show up for her.” “He must not care for her at all,” Yury said. “I don’t even know if she’s worth it now. I mean, if she’s not good enough for the biker…” Felix twisted and turned trying to look at his sister. “You and Spike?” he asked confusedly. “He’s not really your type, Georgia.” “We needed his help, and that was the only way to convince him,” Georgia said flatly. “Fat lot of help he was,” she muttered. “Why didn’t you say anything?” Felix said, feeling hurt. “I don’t know, Felix!” she cried angrily. “I just didn’t, okay?” The truth was that Georgia had initially kept Spike a secret because she was ashamed—ashamed of her borderline prostitution, and then later, because she was ashamed of how much she liked it. She liked, even loved, Spike, and how he made her feel: incredibly powerful and touchingly safe, all at the same time. But he’s not here, Georgia bitterly thought, and he’s not going to be here anytime soon either. He

and his gang are probably halfway across the country by now. All I can do is hope they get bored with me fast and kill me quick. Deep down, however, Georgia knew that between Ivan and Yury, they would make it last. The two men stepped forward, Alex still hanging back, staring at the cement between his shoes. Yury pulled a knife from his pocket and started towards Georgia. “Hold still,” he said, giving her a mocking warning. “I wouldn’t want to cut you now.” Georgia briefly contemplated jerking her wrists towards the blade, thinking maybe she could cut an artery and bleed out before they had a change to violate her, when Felix let out a loud yell. “Wait!” he shouted frantically. “Wait, one second!” Yury looked at him skeptically. “What now?” “I-I have the money,” Felix blurted out. Georgia twisted back, shocked, to try and look at her brother. What the fuck is he talking about? Ivan didn’t bother asking any questions. He simply moved—quick as lightning and heavy as thunder— striking Felix across the face. Georgia felt the blow reverberate through her body, and she cried out for her brother. “Felix!” she screamed. “No! It’s true,” he stubbornly insisted. “I can get it for you.” Ivan raised his fist and punched the young man twice in the mouth. “Stop it! Please, just stop,” Georgia said, begging for Felix’s life. Ivan kicked her in the thigh and she moaned in pain. “Another word from you and we can go back to our earlier conversation—the one where it’s just you and the three of us,” Ivan offered darkly. Georgia quieted immediately, biting her bottom lip. “Now, then,” Ivan said, turning back to Felix, who was bleeding heavily from his mouth. “Felix, why do this to yourself?” he asked. “Why anger me with lies?” “It’s not a lie. I can get the money,” Felix said assuredly. Ivan gave him a skeptical look. “If you had this money, why didn’t you simply go get it before?” he wanted to know. “Why only now is this supposed money available?”

Felix glanced at Alex, who still had yet to look at anything except his feet. “I guess it always was, but my pride kept me from using it.” Ivan leaned forward, intrigued. He understood pride all too well, especially the kind that developed to the point where it hurt more than it helped. “It’s my dad,” Felix continued. “Otva`li!” Yury cursed, moving to strike Felix in the face with the butt of his gun. Ivan held up his hand as Felix winced, anticipating the strike. “Wait!” Ivan cried, halting Yury just in time. Yury whipped around, barely containing the fury coursing through his body. “What now?” Ivan arched a brow at his tone and waited until Yury took on a more respectful attitude before resuming. “Remember the first night we went to their house? The girl,” he gestured to Georgia with his gun, “she also mentioned her father. I didn’t believe her then either.” Yury recalled this now that Ivan mentioned it, but he was still suspicious. He also didn’t see why he couldn’t beat Felix—the boy was going to die, whether or not it would be fast or slow depended on if he was telling the truth about the money. “You said your father was out of town?” Ivan said, now addressing Georgia. “Why didn’t you go get the money from him before?” Georgia had to bite her tongue to keep from reminding Ivan that he had restricted the two of them from leaving the area. “We don’t exactly have the greatest relationship with our dad,” she explained. “We pretty much hate him.” Ivan and Yury looked at each other and laughed. “What is the phrase, Alex?” Ivan said, snapping his fingers. “Net der'ma.” He craned his neck to listen as Alex mumbled something under his breath. Ivan and Yury doubled over into peals of laughter once again. “Da! No shit, Sherlock,” Ivan said, once he got control of himself again. “We all hate our fathers, as our sons will hate us. But never mind this, tell us, where is your father?” Georgia shifted against her bindings nervously. She knew Felix despised their father more than she did, and with good reason, but was he really going to send these men after him? They would almost certainly murder him. “I’ll only tell you where to find him if you promise not to hurt my sister,” Felix said calmly. Ivan’s face grew hard. His large diamond earrings glinted in the chandelier’s light. “You will tell us

regardless,” he demanded. “You think so?” Felix said, challenging the much, much larger man. “Hit me and let’s find out.” Ivan and Yury looked at him uncertainly. Georgia held her breath, waiting to see what the two mobsters would decide. She had no idea what Felix was up to, but she tried to have faith in him. “Very well,” Ivan finally agreed. “She won’t be harmed.” Yury looked incredibly put out and swore under his breath. “Don’t worry, if the boy is lying, we will come back and then she will be for everyone,” Ivan assured him. “You are not lying, are you?” Felix shook his head emphatically. “No, I’m not. The house I was at in Boston, it’s my uncle’s. I went there because I knew it would be empty—my uncle went with my dad on a deep sea fishing expedition. They’ll be getting back late tonight or early tomorrow morning. If you leave now, you can get there just in time to—” “How do I know you’re telling me the truth?” Ivan interrupted. Felix stopped, nonplussed. “Why would I do that?” he asked. “You’d just come back, and then everything would be even worse for us.” Ivan looked to Yury, who shrugged. “He has a point,” Yury agreed. “Yes, but all the same…” Ivan walked over to a short, white dresser that held several jewelry boxes. He turned back, now wearing a large ring on every finger. “I think I would like some insurance…” Fifteen minutes later, Ivan was being helped out of blood-spattered clothing by an extremely palefaced Alex. A hot pit of anger began to boil in Georgia’s stomach. Deep down, she knew Alex was as much a prisoner as they were, but she shoved that thought aside. Here was one of Felix’s closest friends, and he has helping the man who had Felix’s blood all over him. She wanted him to do something—anything—but Ivan’s reach was too great. The only people who could help now were the police, and Georgia had seen firsthand how well that worked out. “Get together Boris, Dmitri, and Garry,” Ivan said, wiping his hands clean. “I’m taking them to check out Boston. You stay here and keep an eye on them until I fly back.” Yury nodded and pulled a walkie out of his jacket pocket, barking orders into it in Russian as Ivan climbed the steps to head back into the warehouse. “Alex, make sure Ivan gets out okay,” Yury said, smoothly slipping into his role as acting leader all too easily. “Then I want you to check the perimeters.” Alex reluctantly turned to walk upstairs, glancing back one last time at Felix’s limp and bloody form. It was the only time he had actually looked at either of them. His face was unreadable to Georgia, but the anger inside her quieted. Alex tore himself away, quickly shutting the door behind him, and

leaving Georgia and Felix alone with Yury. There was a long pause as Yury stared at Georgia. “Just you and me now?” Yury said, his voice a mocking surprise. “I can’t say I haven’t been waiting for this moment.” He stepped closer and closer to her. “Don’t,” Felix gasped. In order to beat him properly, Ivan had separated the siblings, tying Felix to a support pole in the basement, and Georgia to a desk leg. Georgia and Yury both turned to him, startled. It was difficult to believe someone could sustain such a beating and still be conscious. “Don’t touch her,” he repeated, his voice sticky with blood. “Ivan…promised.” Yury, annoyed at having been interrupted, chuckled nastily. “He did, but I don’t see him around. So if he shows up, you let me know and I’ll stop right away, okay?” Yury patted Felix sharply on the cheek, painfully hitting one of the deep gashes in his face. “Where were we?” he said, looking back at Georgia, who began to frantically pull on her ropes. Yury reached forward, trying to touch Georgia’s face, but she kicked at him and struck him in the shin. Angry now, Yury’s hand shot towards her and grabbed a fistful of her hair just behind her left ear. “That hurt,” he growled, twisting Georgia’s hair. “Yeah? Well, what about this?” Georgia asked just before sinking her teeth into Yury’s forearm. Yury began screaming in agony, trying to yank Georgia off of his arm by pulling her curls, but that only caused her to bite down even harder. Finally, Yury let go of his hold on Georgia’s hair, instead using the hand to punch her squarely in the face. Red exploded in front of Georgia’s eyes, and she fell back with a hard thump. Blood dripped from her nose into her mouth and she wiped her face on the shoulder of her shirt. Sneaking a peek at Yury, Georgia noticed with satisfaction that he seemed to be bleeding a lot more than she was. A small trail of blood drops led to the corner where Yury was hurriedly trying to bandage his arm with a scrap of torn, expensive-looking fabric. “You fucking bitch!” he hissed, keeping up a steady stream of what Georgia correctly assumed to be Russian insults. Yury practically sprinted over to Georgia. He grabbed her by the arm and hauled her up, ignoring the dangerous angle at which her elbow was bent. Georgia refused to give him the satisfaction of knowing he was hurting her.

He drew his fist back, ready to beat her until she and her brother looked like twins, when there was a low rumble. The chandelier tinkled gently as the noise reverberated through the room. “What the…” Yury said, slowly lowering his fist, staring at the ceiling. Urgent pounding came from the trap door. Yury looked at Georgia with a desperate, angry desire, then dropped her and went to the stairs. Georgia tried to listen in, but whomever Yury was talking to was speaking in Russian. Yury came back down the stairs to stand in front of Georgia. “There is a matter outside that requires my attention at the moment, but don’t think for one second that we won’t pick up right back where we left off.” He roughly pulled on her ropes, double checking they were secured. He didn’t bother with Felix—the boy was half dead, after all—and headed back up the stairs. Georgia immediately began yanking and twisting at her restraints. “Felix!” she whispered, keeping a close eye on the door. “Felix! Are you okay?” “Never…better,” Felix wheezed. “Can you move?” Georgia tried to pretend she see how terrible Felix looked right now. She watched his fingers close into a weak fist. “Barely,” he said. “Walking…doesn’t look good.” “If you can get free, and come to me, then I swear, I will carry you out of here, Felix,” Georgia said desperately. Felix’s already thin arms feebly struggled against the coarse twine. “I’m sorry, Georgia,” he whimpered. “I can’t. I’m not…not strong enough.” “That’s okay, Felix,” Georgia comforted her brother. “Hey, that’s okay. We’ll figure something out, we always do,” she said, turning back to her own bindings, trying to hide the tears streaming down her face. “I tried,” Felix continued between labored breaths. “I tried to buy us some time, in case Spike…I just wanted to take care of you for once.” “Spike’s not coming,” Georgia said after a moment. “It’s just us.” So fucking what he’s not here to save me, Georgia spitefully thought, now tearing at her restraints with her teeth. I’m here to save me.

Chapter Thirteen The bikers had all perched atop the same abandoned warehouse overlooking Ivan’s warehouse; it was there they had seen Ivan and three other men peel out of the garage. “If we go, we should go now,” Cleo urged. “We will never get another opportunity like this.” “You’re not worried about why he left, or when he’ll be back?” Spike asked. “I’m worried about why you sent one of our best members away when there are already so few of us,” Cleo said, glaring at him. “Look, I know you think it’s a useless risk, but it might very well save our lives, so do me a favor and shut the fuck up about it. If we die, you can say ‘I told you so’ in the afterlife.” Still, he gave a low whistle, indicating it was time for Satan’s Disciples to move out. They climbed down the warehouse and split up into groups of four and two, circling the block to come up behind Ivan’s warehouse where a couple of his men were patrolling outside, Nicholas being one of them. Spotting the dirty cop, Spike looked down the block where Jinx and Vince were hiding and gave them the signal. Jinx immediately ran out onto the sidewalk, crying for help. “Someone! Please! Oh, please, someone help me!” Nicholas whirled around to see who was yelling. Seeing the beautiful, chesty young woman, he instantly announced himself to be a police officer. “What seems to be the problem, miss?” he called, jogging across the street. “Oh, thank goodness!” Jinx cried dramatically. “Someone just stole my purse!” “Why don’t you come with me and I’ll see what I can…” Nicholas trailed off as a large shadow fell across him. He turned around to see an enormous, incredibly dark black man standing behind him. “I don’t think she’s going anywhere,” Vince said. Spike watched as Vince physically picked up Nicholas and took him down a dimly lit back alleyway. Confident they were going to be able to handle that part of the plan, Spike decided it was time for Step Two. Vince met up with the rest of the gang a few minutes later, holding the keys to Nicholas’s police cruiser aloft.

“Jinx?” Spike asked. “She’s getting the rest of the information we need from our friend,” Vince replied, grinning. “Car’s parked down the block,” he told them. The members of Satan’s Disciples walked down to Nicholas’s car. They drove it around to the abandoned warehouse they had been using, and, after a few short minutes, were piled inside of it, bandanas firmly wrapped around their noses and mouths. Spike gave a questioning thumbs-up and was met with four thumbs in return. Giving a silent prayer to whatever god there might be, Spike drove down the back passage to Ivan’s. He approached the garage door, the engine echoing loudly as he anxiously waited to see if his plan would work, or if they were all about to be massacred. The garage door rumbled upwards, and there was a collective sigh of relief in the car. Spike pulled forward, the tinted windows casting a grayish tinge over the inner warehouse. Spike took the time to spot the security office dead ahead, then gave Hector and Roxy in the backseat the signal. Spike pulled the trunk lever, and Hector and Roxy leaned against the small barrel, shoving it out of the car where it thudded heavily, its contents glugging across the cement floor. The two guards standing at the edge of the garage door craned their necks to look inside the trunk where the barrel had come from. There was just enough time for them to see Hector and Roxy waving merrily to them before Hector produced a match and threw it on the puddle in front of them. A wall of flames erupted between them, and the guards jumped back, running out the door. They remembered how the girl downstairs had barbecued their friend Sergei. Thick black smoke quickly began to fill the room. All five of them jumped out of the car, Spike and Vince providing cover for Hector, Roxy, and Cleo as they ran out into the room, each one of them holding a Molotov cocktail. “Hurry up!” Spike cried. The initial surprise of the explosion was beginning to fade, and the two men were starting to get shot at in return. He bent down to reload his gun and saw a man aiming at him from above. There was no time—Spike was considering his chances of dodging the bullet, when the man upstairs suddenly collapsed. Spike looked behind him to see Jinx, a literal smoking gun in her hand. “Careful there, boss,” she warned, winking. “What happened to Nicholas?” he called, finishing reloading his gun and shooting a woman creeping up on Vince’s left side. Jinx thought back to the alleyway where she had held the cop at gunpoint.

“What do you want my keys for?” Nicholas had asked, nodding to Vince’s rapidly shrinking form. Vince had taken Nicholas’s handcuffs, and handcuffed him so that he was hugging a large telephone pole. “None of your business,” Jinx had smartly replied, shoving the gun in his face. “Here’s the deal. I need to know some stuff, and you’re going to tell me, okay? And the more you know, the more blood you get to keep in your body. Let’s start with where all the entrances and exits are located.” Nicholas had chuckled. “I’m not scared of you,” he had said, spitting at her. “Well, then. We’ll just have to see what we can do to change that,” Jinx had said, firing the gun directly next to his ear, then pressing the searing hot muzzle to his forehead, burning his tender flesh. Nicholas had screamed, but a dull explosion prevented anyone nearby from hearing it. “How are you feeling now?” she had whispered in his good ear. “What if the next time I pull this trigger, I put that red-hot muzzle right here.” Jinx had lowered the gun and nudged between Nicholas’s legs suggestively. “Will you tell me what I want to know then?” A dark stain had spread down the small man’s jeans as he wet himself in fear. Jinx had laughed loudly at him. “I wanna know where Ivan went, I wanna know where they’re keeping Georgia, and I wanna know all the ways in and out of the warehouse,” she had demanded, “or I’ll shoot you right in the dick. It might take me a few tries—from my perspective it’s a pretty small target.” After that, Nicholas had told Jinx pretty much everything she needed to know, and a couple of things she didn’t. “Now what are you going to do with me?” Nicholas had asked sullenly once Jinx had called in all the info. His fear was quickly subsiding into a hot shame. “I’m supposed to just sit on you until things are pretty much over,” Jinx had said. She wasn’t looking forward to it, watching a pathetic loser ranked pretty low next to “set off an explosion inside your arch enemy’s home base,” but that was the gig sometimes. “So just don’t do anything stupid for the next hour, and we’ll all be just fine, okay?” Jinx had slapped a bright, false smile on her face. She had quickly dropped it, rolling her eyes. “I guess that makes you the flashy whore they send to distract a man from his job,” Nicholas had spat contemptuously. His shame was rapidly becoming anger—anger at Jinx. Jinx had sighed and looked at her nails. “Yup. That’s me. Jinx is actually short for Jezebel,” she had replied sarcastically. “You think it’s funny?” Nicholas had said, infuriated at Jinx’s lack of response. “People are going to die today and you’re, what, cracking jokes? Well, I’ve got a joke of my own: that bartending bitch you love, burning alive. You and the rest of your women, chained up, free for all to use.” He began to

laugh in Jinx’s face; a great, big mocking laugh that went on and on until spit drooled from his lip and onto his shirt. “You know what?” Jinx had said to the hysterical man. “You’re right. I don’t have time for this.” And with that, Jinx had pulled the trigger and fired a bullet directly into his brain, thereby freeing Jinx up to go and help the rest of her family in the warehouse now that she didn’t have to watch over that insufferable idiot. She had come in just in the nick of time as well, shooting a man that was aiming at Spike from the upstairs balcony while Spike attempted to reload. “What happened to Nicholas?” “I decided he was worth more dead than alive,” she replied with a twinkle in her eye. “Can’t argue with you there,” Spike said cheerfully. The three others returned, having used their Molotov cocktails to start fires in trashcans around the building. They set the fires over the vents in order to smoke out the whole warehouse—including anyone potentially hiding inside any secret back rooms. Between them, Satan’s Disciples had taken out at least five of the hired security guards and one of the mobsters. Now that the other members were back, the gang was able to start pinning some of the mobsters down. But Spike still didn’t see the secret entrance in the floor that would lead to Ivan’s private area that Nicholas had told them about after Jinx’s gentle urging. Even worse, they were beginning to sustain their own injuries. Hector’s arm had been grazed by a bullet, and Cleo had gotten into a scuffle with one of the mobsters. The man had managed to break her nose, and possibly even her eye socket, before Cleo finally got her gun out and shot him. A sound behind Spike made him freeze. He slowly turned around, ignoring the hail of gunfire surrounding him. There was a car in the alleyway. Ivan and his men had returned early. “Retreat!” Spike’s voice boomed across the floor, and instantly, every head turned to look at him. “I thought he wouldn’t be back for another few hours!” Cleo shouted to Spike. “Someone must have managed to get a message to him,” Spike said angrily as he pulled Cleo to hide down one of the long aisles of Ivan’s products. The gunfire from the Russians had temporarily stopped so as to avoid accidentally hitting their leader,

but Ivan jumped out, pointing wildly at where he had seen Spike disappear and shouted, “Shoot him!” The mobsters, now with reinforcements, began to hunt down the bikers, searching up the aisles, and under every table. The smoke from the trash cans had filled the room, casting man-shaped shadows around every corner that put mobster and biker alike on edge. Yury sneered, watching as one of the security guards heard a noise and began shooting in panic—only for the smoke to clear and realize he had just killed his partner. He stealthily crept along, trying to steer clear of the chaos and make his way into the basement along with Ivan. Just then, a shadow fell across his shoulder. Yury whirled around and saw Vince looming over him. He tried to raise his gun, but Vince slapped it out of the smaller man’s hands easily. Yury snarled in anger. “I’ll kill you!” he threatened. “Better men than you have failed,” Vince said, raising his own gun to Yury’s face. Taking a risk, Yury lunged forward, knocking Vince off-balance, but not off of his feet—he was far too large for that. But Yury didn’t need to knock Vince down, he just needed to buy himself some time. Yury reached behind himself for anything he could use as a weapon against the towering man. Coming up with a large bag of Adderall pills, Yury ripped them open and they scattered across the floor causing Vince to lose his balance once again. Vince grabbed onto a shelf as he slipped on several of the little tablets. He pulled out his gun, intent on shooting the man and ending this once and for all, when there was a loud bang. Vince felt a red-hot point start in his chest and spread rapidly. He sat down, hard, barely noticing the pills that dug into his thighs. He was too busy looking down at the blood on his shirt. “No!” Jinx screamed from across the room. She had been guarding Roxy, who was trying to clear the blood that was seeping into Cleo’s injured eye, when she saw her lover go down. “Vince! No!” Jinx sobbed, running over to him. She saw Yury bolt, and she gave chase, firing wildly after him. He was too quick, however, and he disappeared into the smoke. Jinx fell to her knees by Vince’s side. Hooking her elbows under his arms, Jinx pulled with everything she had, dragging Vince until he was sitting up against the wall, shielded from the gunfire that still whizzed by around them. Her hands trembled as she held his face. “Hey, baby,” she said. “How are you feeling? It…it doesn’t look so bad.” Jinx was lying, to both Vince and herself. Blood was pouring freely from the gaping wound in his chest. “It’s okay.” Vince nodded. “Barely hurts at all,” he said weakly. He knew that if he told Jinx the truth —that he was in agony—she would never leave his side. “You go help the others, okay? I’ll be here waiting for you when you get back,” Vince said, holding her hand as tightly as his failing strength would allow him.

Jinx let out an angry sob. She didn’t want to leave him—she couldn’t let him die alone—and yet, she knew no matter what she did, Vince would still die. But her other friends were still alive, and they needed her help. “I love you so much,” Jinx said, kissing Vince with everything she had to give. “I love you, too,” Vince said softly. “Now go.” Taking one last look at the best man she had ever known, Jinx stood up and tore herself away, determined to help end this once and for all. When she ran out into the fray, things didn’t look good for any of them. Spike was still shooting it out with the guards upstairs; Hector was hiding, unable to use one of his legs; and Cleo and Roxy were pinned down behind some large barrels. Jinx was frozen, terrified that she was about to watch all of her friends die, one by one.

Suddenly there was an enormous explosion from the far side of the building that took out the support beams to the upstairs security office. Smoke from the fire poured out of the building through the new opening in the wall. The last rays of the setting sun pierced Jinx’s eyes as she tried to see what had happened. The dark outline of a massively overweight man climbed atop the rubble. “Tiny!” Roxy’s voice rose up in a cheer, the other members of Satan’s Disciples echoing her cry. Behind Tiny came a veritable wave of people—all the leftover and remaining members of biker gangs Ivan had obliterated in the past. They swarmed into the building, taking down one guard after the next. One person stood to the side, only observing the chaos before him—it was Alex. Having spoken to Spike several days ago about the possibility of infiltrating Ivan’s warehouse, Alex had lain in wait for Tiny to approach him. Then, with the help of one of the more experienced bikers, and the C-4 Alex had lifted from Ivan’s stash, the group had blown the warehouse wide open, and in the best strategic spot. In a few short minutes, almost the entire building had been secured, and a few of the bikers had turned their aims to looting the place of its valuables. Cleo came up to Jinx, three girls in over-sized leather jackets following behind her. “I found them in the back,” she quietly told Jinx. “They were chained up in a cage…I’m taking them to get checked out by Roxy.” Jinx nodded absentmindedly. She had been walking around since the bikers had come in and wiped

the place out, but she still had yet to see Yury amongst the bodies—Vince’s was respectfully laid separate from the others and covered with a sheet. A small scuffle broke out in the corner as Tiny and another older biker from a lost gang pulled an incredibly angry-looking man out from under a cabinet. Jinx shouldered past everyone to get an up close look. It was Yury. “Po'shyol 'na hui!” he screamed, cussing out everyone within sight. Jinx didn’t wait a heartbeat. She walked up to him, pulling her gun out from her waistband. She was so swift, no one even had time to realize what was happening until Jinx pressed the muzzle up to Yury’s forehead. “Shut the fuck up,” she growled, pulling the trigger. Yury immediately went limp, Tiny dropping him in surprise. More than one person screamed, shocked. Jinx didn’t care. As quickly as she had forced her way in, Jinx walked out, dropping her gun behind her. “Hey! Wanna tell me what that was about?” Tiny said, catching up to Jinx. “He killed Vince,” Jinx coldly explained. She ignored Tiny’s curious look at her. No one knew about her and Vince, and she certainly didn’t want to go into it now. Tiny put a hand on her shoulder. “Spike will know what to say. Let’s go find him, okay?” Jinx looked up. “You haven’t seen Spike?” she asked, glancing around the room. “Oh, god!” she exclaimed, realization punching her straight in the gut. “Georgia!”


Spike was staring straight at Georgia. Ivan was standing directly behind her, holding a gun to her head. Felix lay unconscious on the floor just to the left of them, blood trickling from several cuts on Felix’s face. Spike grimaced. He looked back at Georgia. Tears were openly streaming down her cheeks, but she didn’t make a sound. “It’s okay, Georgia,” Spike said, trying to keep her calm. “Everything is going to be okay.” Ivan laughed boldly. “You shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep, Spike.” Spike ignored the mobster, keeping his eyes locked with Georgia’s bright blue ones. He took a step forward and Ivan twisted his grip on Georgia, causing her to yelp in pain.

“If you move a single muscle, I’ll blow her brains out,” Ivan threatened. Spike stopped dead in his tracks, taking Ivan at his word. He scanned the room, always coming back to Georgia, but he couldn’t see a way out of this for them. I guess this is it, then, that voice in Spike’s head said. And you never even got to tell her… Before Spike could acknowledge what it was, exactly, that he needed to tell Georgia, he saw Felix slowly rise from the corner of his eye. Keeping his gaze firmly on Georgia so as not to alert Ivan’s suspicion, Spike held his breath. Felix leapt forward, grabbing Ivan’s gun with both hands and shoving it upwards with all the strength he had. The gun went off, shooting a hole in the ceiling and narrowly missing the chandelier. “Run!” Spike shouted to Georgia, who had been knocked to the ground in the scuffle. Georgia needed no further urging and ran for the staircase, pushing the trapdoor open and practically leaping out of the hidden basement. Spike turned back. The element of surprise lost, Ivan now easily held the upper hand in the fight. He punched Felix square in the face, and the younger man dropped to the floor, where he was still. Ivan stepped over Felix’s body and held up his hands, making a “come here” gesture to Spike. It wasn’t often that Spike had to look up to a man, but Ivan was a mammoth. If Spike wanted to win this fight, it was going to be through brains, not brawn. Ivan took a swing; it was slow, testing almost. Spike dodged it easily, but he wasn’t fooled. He threw a blow of his own, and as he suspected, Ivan moved out of the way, almost lightning fast. Immediately, the two men broke into a flurry of punches, Ivan landing hits on Spike’s ribs, stomach, and ear. Spike pulled back, then darted in before Ivan could catch his breath. Doing his best to ignore Ivan’s massive hands beating him in the back of the dome, Spike kept his head down, trying to drive Ivan back by repeatedly punching him in the stomach and torso. It worked, and Spike dropped his left hand in pain—he felt like he might have broken it from punching Ivan’s abs so hard. Ivan took the opening and drove his fist into Spike’s jaw, knocking him down right next to Felix. Spike’s vision swirled as he fought to remain conscious. Ivan started to kick him in the side until there was an audible crack. Ivan came over and bent down to grab Spike by the shirt when he found a gun pointing dead at him. He held up his hands, retreating.

“Don’t you move a muscle,” Spike said weakly. He fired, and the shot went wide, striking the ceiling. Ivan looked at Spike curiously, wincing as Spike accidentally shot one of the crystals in the chandelier. He started to chuckle—Spike was too fucked up to be able to shoot straight. Ivan took a step forward. Spike took a deep breath and pulled the trigger again, feeling this time the shot had found its mark. He shot the chain holding the chandelier aloft and it came crashing down around Ivan, trapping him inside it. Ivan fell parallel to Spike, their faces barely a foot apart. “Gotcha, bitch,” Spike growled, emptying the last bullet in the gun into Ivan’s skull. The mobster went limp, Spike following suit immediately afterwards. The last thing he saw before he passed out was shadows filling the opening of the trapdoor in the ceiling.


Georgia worriedly chewed her lip, then cursed, having accidentally bitten the cut from where Ivan had hit her. Both Spike and Felix were currently in surgery—internal bleeding from being severely beaten. They had been brought in over an hour ago, and no one had been out yet to tell them anything. The doctors had taken one look at the group of people in the waiting room, all needing at least some minor medical attention, and decided it was better not to ask questions. All of Satan’s Disciples were crammed into the room, along with several of the other loner bikers. Even Alex was there. He waved awkwardly to her. “Sorry,” he apologized to Georgia. “About, y’know, doing nothing while Ivan beat the shit out of you guys. It’s just…Spike wanted my help with the plan, and, well, I’m a really bad liar. If I had said anything, or even looked at you, it would have been over for all of us,” Alex blurted out. Georgia smiled sadly. “I understand, Alex. We all did what we had to.” Suddenly the door flew open, and Stacy rushed through, frantically looking for Georgia. Spotting her almost immediately, Stacy ran over, her trembling hands hovering around Georgia’s bruised and beaten face. “Oh my god,” Stacy said, her voice shaking. “You’re…are you okay?” “It looks worse than it feels,” Georgia insisted, though she had been given a strong painkiller about twenty minutes ago that was just starting to kick in. “Thank you so much for coming.” Hector stood up to allow Stacy to take his seat next to Georgia. “Of course! Just never scare me like that again! I would suggest going home, but I know that’s pointless, so here—” Stacy shifted a little

lower in the chair, “—put your head on my shoulder and rest.” Georgia wanted to protest, but her body wouldn’t let her and she lay her head down. Rest would not come for her, however. She dozed fitfully, nightmares and reality mingling together into a jumbled mess. In one of her dreams, a doctor came into the room, but when he started talking his face melted and twisted until he looked like Yury. “Choose!” the Yury-Doctor barked. “Choose what?” Georgia whimpered, trying to get away. “Choose!” he simply repeated, grabbing Georgia’s arm and pointing with a gun that had at one point been a clipboard. Georgia looked where the Yury-Doctor was pointing and saw both Felix and Spike tied up on the floor. “I can’t!” Georgia cried. “I can’t choose!” She wrenched herself free and fell, hard. Georgia woke up suddenly and on the cold laminate floor of the hospital. She looked up, confused, and saw Stacy and all the members of Satan’s Disciples staring back at her concernedly. A doctor poked his head up from behind Tiny to get a better look. It had just been a nightmare; there had been no news on either of the injured men. “Is that her?” the doctor asked. Tiny nodded and the doctor made his way over to her. “Mrs. Turner?” Georgia suppressed the urge to correct him—only family would be allowed in to see Spike—but she couldn’t suppress a glance in Cleo’s direction. Surprisingly, the woman seemed strangely unaffected. She turned her attention back to the doctor. “How is my…husband? And my brother, is he okay?” “Mr. Turner has come out of surgery and is already conscious. His stamina is…admirable,” the doctor said, impressed. A cheer went up around the room, as well as a few hollers in Georgia’s direction. She smiled nervously back at them, and couldn’t help but notice Jinx stopped clapping long before anyone else. “That’s wonderful, Doctor. Really, excellent news. But, what about Felix? Is he going to be alright?” The doctor’s face fell a little. “Your brother’s injuries were extensive, Mrs. Turner. He won’t be out of surgery for at least another hour. In the meantime, you can join your husband in his room. I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you all. Especially you!” He winked at Georgia. “Me?” she couldn’t help but blurt out. The last time she and Spike had talked, he’d told her to move on.

“Oh, yes.” The doctor chuckled. “All while he was being put under he kept mumbling about Georgia and how important it was for him to see you. So, go on!” He hoped the joy from reuniting with her husband could help distract her from the precarious balance in which her brother’s life now hung. Georgia slowly crept into Spike’s room, where Satan’s Disciples were congratulating him on his epic battle with Ivan, as well as making it through the surgery. She hung back, letting Spike spend time with his family, wishing she had Felix to share the moment with. She caught Spike’s eye a few minutes later. “Uh, hey, guys, really, it’s so good to see you, but I need to rest for a little bit, okay?” he said. “Georgia, can I talk to you?” he asked, busting her trying to sneak out the door. Georgia turned back. “What’s up?” she asked in what she hoped was a light-hearted manner. “Come here.” Spike motioned with his hand. Georgia took a step forward and Spike rolled his eyes. “Will you please get over here?” he demanded. Reluctantly, Georgia came to stand at his bedside. Ignoring the stitches in his side, Spike grabbed Georgia’s arm and pulled her into bed with him and onto his lap. He gripped the back of her neck and planted a kiss square on her lips. Georgia, surprised for a moment, soon began to struggle. Pushing him away she cried, “What do you think you’re doing?” “Kissing the woman I love,” Spike said simply. “You can’t just go kissing girls—especially when you’ve spent all this time telling them how you’ve moved on. You killed Ivan, so our little deal is over!” Georgia froze as Spike’s words sunk in. “What?” she whispered, looking at him. “I know what I said before, and I can’t tell you how sorry I am, Georgia,” Spike said earnestly. He gripped her fingers tightly. “I thought I was keeping you safe, but I see now that was a futile attempt. You’re a strong woman and you do what you like—which is what I love about you.” Georgia didn’t think she would ever get used to hearing Spike Turner say he loved her. She shook her head. “I’m sorry, but…I think you were right.” Spike’s heart felt like it was being injected with liquid nitrogen. “What?” he croaked. “This…your lifestyle…I can’t do it.” Georgia shook her head sadly. “It’s all too much for me, and I could never take it away from you.” Spike chuckled, grabbing his side in pain. “Don’t worry about that,” he assured her. “Just do me a

favor and send Cleo in, would you?” Georgia hesitated briefly. What does he want with her? But she went out into the hallway and sent Cleo in as he asked. Cleo returned barely five minutes later, giving Georgia a peculiar, entirely unreadable look on her way out. “Georgia,” Spike called her name softly from inside the room. Taking one last look at Cleo, Georgia went in. “What was that about?” she asked curiously. “Take a seat,” Spike said, patting the bed next to him. When Georgia was comfortably snuggled inside his arms, he continued. “That was about me leaving Satan’s Disciples.” Georgia shot up and Spike groaned in pain again. “What? You can’t do that!” “Hey, it’s fine,” Spike reassured her. “Cleo is going to take over. She’ll do a much better job, based on all the nagging she did with me. You were right, Georgia. I can’t do this life anymore either. I want something simple, where I don’t have to shoot people to keep other people safe. Most of all, though, I want you,” he said, kissing her softly. Spike pulled off his Satan’s Disciples membership ring and held it in front of Georgia. “In fact, if I could have you for the rest of my life, I’d be the happiest man in the world.” Georgia let out a sob, nodding. Slipping the ring on her thumb, the only finger it would fit on, Georgia began kissing Spike all over his face. “I’ll get you a real one when we’re out of here, okay?” Spike promised. “What’s all this in here?” someone hollered from the doorway. It was Felix, and he was being wheeled in on a bed. Georgia could barely recognize him with all the bandages on his face. “Felix!” she gasped, jumping off of Spike’s bed and running over to her brother. “I’m so happy you’re okay!” “Never better,” he joked. “So, what? You think you’re gonna marry my sister or something?” Felix said to Spike. “Is that a problem?” Spike threatened teasingly. Everyone laughed. After everything Spike had done to save them, neither Georgia nor Felix could find him dangerous anymore. “Just tell them to put me in another room if you guys are gonna make out every ten minutes,” Felix shot back.

Georgia raised an eyebrow at him. “Well, you’d better go call the nurse in to come move you, because I think that’s unavoidable.” And with her brother making quiet gagging noises in the background, Georgia gave her future husband a passionate kiss. She had made a family at last.


Free Bonus Book: OVERDOSED

I'M ADDICTED TO HER, AND I WON'T STOP UNTIL I GET MY FIX. When a little girl shows up on the front stoop of the Fury's Storm HQ, I tell her the obvious truth: "You're at the wrong place, hon." But then she hands me a note that flips my world upside down. It says she's my daughter. I'm the last man on this earth who should be caring for a child. The only women in my life are the rotating cast of scantily clad groupies who keep my bed warm at night. So what the hell am I supposed to do with a daughter? I tell my men to find a way to get Gigi back to her mother. But they come back and tell me the girl's mom has disappeared without a trace. Now what? Just then, a woman knocks at the clubhouse door.

I open it and freeze. Jamie is a knockout to say the least. She's pretty, but she doesn't know it. Sexy, but she hasn't been made to feel it. Eager, if only the right man were there to stoke her fires. That's where I come in. Jamie is Gigi's teacher and she's desperate to keep her favorite student safe. But as clues to Gigi's mom's disappearance crop up in new and unexpected places, the two of us clash and mesh with wild intensity. I've never felt like this about a woman before. I want her. I need her. I crave her.

And I'm going to take her, again and again... Until I overdose.

Chapter One Jamie

“Miss Hollis?” One of my students raised her hand, then tried to wave me over to her desk. “I don’t understand this problem.” I went to her, bending over to check out her work. Erica was always a serious student, probably more serious than the average second grader, but math still wasn’t her strong suit. I talked her through until she seemed to get it, then patted her on the back and left her alone. It had been a long day. I stretched slightly, rolling my head on my shoulders to get the kinks out of my neck. It had been a long week, actually. The final bell couldn’t ring soon enough. Funny how as a kid it never occurred to me that my teachers might be just as eager for school to be over as I was. I cast a glance at the only empty desk in the classroom, frowning. Gigi missed the entire week of school—unheard of for her. She might have had a recovering drug addict for a mother, but she brought herself to school every day. I told myself, as I always did, not to be so hard on her. I didn’t know what it was like to struggle the way Rae did. I only knew the effect it had on her little girl. I resented that. Gigi wasn’t my only student, though, and the rest of them needed my help. I turned my attention to a couple who were getting in an argument and told myself to think about Gigi after the bell rang. I needed some answers. When the bell finally rang and I led two dozen excited seven-year-olds outside and I took a deep breath. It was chilly outside. I wondered if Gigi was warm wherever she was. Linda, the other second-grade teacher, approached me. “No Gigi today either.” I frowned, watching the kids run off to their parents, babysitters, school buses. “No. That’s a full week.” “Has she ever been out so long before?” “No.” I wrapped my sweater tighter around my waist. “There was that nasty stomach bug going around,” Linda reasoned. “It might have been that.” “For an entire week? Without a phone call, no less? I don’t think so.” I put a hand on Linda’s arm. “I appreciate you trying to make me feel better.” She knew how special Gigi was to me. Every teacher

had that one student, the kid who stood out for one reason or another. It wasn’t that Gigi was the most vocal, the showiest with her smarts. But she was easily the smartest in the class. She was also the sweetest, always concerned for the other kids. When she picked up a math problem somebody else didn’t understand, she would help them with it. She wouldn’t make the other kids feel bad for lagging behind her lightning-fast brain. For all that, she had a quiet sadness. She reminded me sometimes of a broken puppy, one who had been kicked one too many times. Not that I ever saw bruises on her. It was more a haunted quality about her eyes that touched my heart. She had a quiet, gentle way about her, and a wisdom far beyond her years. No kid should have been as wise to the world as she was, poor thing. “So, what are you going to do about it?” Linda walked with me back into the school. “What makes you think I’m going to do anything at all?” She laughed. “I’ve met you, that’s what makes me think it. Come on. This is me you’re talking to. I know how much you love that little girl. And I know you would go out of your way for any one of your students. So what’s the plan?” She sat on the edge of my desk while I cleaned up my classroom. “I can’t say that I have an actual plan,” I admitted. “I was hoping to find out something about her whereabouts. I want to call the hospitals, the police if I have to. I’m hoping somebody will have an answer for me, because I’m just about going out of my mind with worry for her.” “Do you think it’s really that bad?” Linda asked. “You know as well as I do that her mother’s a drug addict. It’s not a secret.” I flipped my long blonde ponytail from one shoulder to the other as I bent to gather toys. “So if I jump to the wrong conclusions, I don’t think it’s unwarranted.” “I never said it wasn’t. I’m wondering if you’re not getting a little too involved is all.” I stood, scowling. “Now you sound like Vickie.” Our principal warned me all the time about my closeness with Gigi, but I couldn’t help it. I went to her office to recommend we intervene on several occasions—whenever it seemed as though Gigi was looking a little thin, or was underdressed for the weather, for instance. One day she came in wearing nothing but a t-shirt, shorts, and sneakers in an inch of snow. Poor thing couldn’t reach the winter clothes packed away at the top of her closet. When I asked her why she didn’t even wear a coat, she told me she couldn’t get her mommy to wake up. I drew my own conclusions. The poor thing had dressed herself, then walked six blocks in a snowstorm. That afternoon, I took her out for a new coat and winter clothes. The following day, I received a reprimand—not because Rae had complained about her baby not coming home right after school, but because Vickie had seen me load Gigi into my car. The whole thing made no sense to me whatsoever. Why shouldn’t I do everything I could to help her? Her own mother didn’t care. I could see if the other kids in the class were also underprivileged and I ignored their plight, but that wasn’t the case.

They were all well-dressed, well-fed, well-loved. Gigi was the only one who needed the sort of help I wanted desperately to provide. I couldn’t do it if Vickie kept hamstringing me the way she did. “Please don’t say anything to her about this.” I nodded in the direction of the front office. “Cross my heart.” Linda made an X over her chest. “Thank you.” I grinned, then got my things together. “Did you try calling her home?” Linda asked as an afterthought as I locked up my room. “Of course. Every day. I never get an answer.” Linda frowned, deep in thought. “Did you ever think that maybe, well, they moved away? She might have packed up, taken the girl and left for one reason or another. She might be on the run from the law or something.” “God, I hope not.” I didn’t even like considering it. “Why not? It might work out for both of them. Might be just the thing Rae needs. She might have family somewhere, and they might be able to help her care for Gigi.” “Maybe.” I chewed my bottom lip, thinking about it as we walked out to the parking lot together. I couldn’t deny I didn’t want that to be the case. I didn’t want Gigi to be gone. I would miss the poor thing. I’d been caring for her for months, ever since she first walked into my classroom and I’d noticed the sad, ancient look in her eyes. “There’s nothing you can do about it if that’s the case,” Linda reminded me. I knew she was only trying to help me. She was trying to warn me away from getting too close, from having my heart broken. Any teacher who’s ever really given a damn about their kids knew how it felt to get too close to the one or two who needed special attention. “I have to try to find out. I’m going to check at her house first. I’ve been calling, but I never dropped by.” Not because I didn’t care, of course, but because I hated the idea of going there. It was a terrible neighborhood, though it was only six blocks from the school, and the run-down condition of the house only reminded me how bad Gigi had it. I hated the reminder when there was nothing I could do for her. Rae was trying to find work. I reminded myself of this as I got in the car. She was always looking for a job, it seemed. Four times during the school year, Gigi had come in with a big smile to tell me her mommy found a job. All four times she lost the job for missing a string of days. She never seemed to keep a job for more than a few weeks. Then it would be the same thing all over again—welfare money spent on booze. She stayed away from drugs—she’d told me that much herself, during our first parent-teacher conference. She made no attempt to hide the fact that she was a recovering addict. She didn’t touch heroin anymore, or any other drug. She did, however, drink. One crutch for another.

But she was trying. I told myself that again and again. She was trying. It couldn’t be easy trying to fight an addiction with a little girl. She couldn’t exactly go away to rehab when there was a sevenyear-old to worry about. Still, I’d think Gigi would be reason enough to do whatever it took. Again, I had never been in her shoes. I could only guess at how it felt. I pulled up in front of the tiny house with a shudder. The vinyl siding was peeling. One of the shutters on the front windows was crooked. The screen in one window had been slit—somebody might have tried to break in, maybe to steal drugs from Rae. Who knew? The front lawn was pockmarked with brown patches. It was pretty pathetic. There weren’t even any toys in the yard. Other kids had swing sets, a bike, that sort of thing. Gigi didn’t have anything like that. I’d thought of buying them for her, but knew word would eventually get back to Vickie. Somehow, it always did. There was no car in the driveway, but that wasn’t a surprise. Rae didn’t own one. I walked up the cracked, broken driveway and went to the front door. There were no lights inside, no TV. I pressed my ear to the door. No sound coming from inside either. I held my breath, straining to hear even the littlest thing. One of the windows had several broken slats in the blinds, so I cupped my hands around my eyes in order to get a better look inside. Darkness. My heart sank. Maybe Linda had the right idea when she guessed that Rae took Gigi away. The house looked deserted. Then again, from my memories of the place, it never looked exactly furnished. I looked around the street. Most of the houses were pretty depressed looking, but none as bad as Rae and Gigi’s. Two of the houses had cars outside, so I went to the closest house to see if I could find out anything. It was better than doing nothing. I got an answer after a minute or two. “Yeah?” The woman standing in the doorway wore a housedress, curlers in her hair and slippers. There was some overwrought soap opera playing on the TV just beyond the door. I didn’t know there were any soaps still on TV. “Sorry to bother you,” I said with what I hoped was a friendly smile. I didn’t want to come off condescending or panicky. “I’m Gigi’s teacher.” I pointed to the little house three doors down. “Oh, Rae’s kid?” “That’s right. She hasn’t been to school all week, and I was pretty worried about her. I wondered if you knew anything about her. Is she sick?” “Oh, Rae didn’t tell you anything?” “No, not at all.”

She smirked. “Not surprised, knowing her.” “Where are they?” “Rae dropped her off with her daddy earlier this week.” “Her father? I never heard anything about her father.” “That’s not a surprise either, considering.” “Considering what?” “Considering who he is.” She was so cryptic, so withholding, I thought I might scream. “And who would that be?” “He’s the leader of one of them whaddya call ’em, those motorcycle clubs.” My blood ran cold. “Gigi’s father is in a motorcycle club?” “Yup. I don’t think they exactly have what you’d call a relationship.” She shrugged. “But Rae said something about her little girl needing to know her daddy, and Rae didn’t look too happy when she said it. A little shaky, even. She was always getting into trouble, though. You know that, I bet.” “Yeah, I know that.” I shuddered a little. A motorcycle club? That precious little girl? What the hell had Rae been thinking? “Do you know which club he’s the head of? Gigi’s father?” “Oh yeah. She said the name. Oh, what was it.” The woman looked up at the sky, thinking. “Somethin’ about a storm. What was it…oh! Fury’s Storm. That was it. I remember, it made me think of my stories.” She jerked her head in the direction of the TV. “I won’t take you away from them anymore,” I said, thanking her for the information before hurrying back to my car. A club? Fury’s Storm? Who in their right mind would leave a little girl in a motorcycle club? Had Rae gotten herself into trouble somehow? Was she on the run? It was literally the only excuse I could think of that even came close to making sense. Otherwise it sounded like a clear-cut case of neglect. I looked up the club on my phone, hoping I could find some information on them. Where were they located? What was the name of the leader? Who was I looking for? It wouldn’t do to show up at their headquarters—if I managed to find it—without a name to reference. I had to show authority if I was going to convince him to give up his child to me. I didn’t know the first thing about those motorcycle people, but I had the impression from hearsay that they were very proud, very secretive. I didn’t want

to upset anything, didn’t want them to close ranks and shut me out. Gigi’s life was in the balance. Strangely enough, when I googled the name, an address to their headquarters came right up. I thought that was hilarious, but then again, maybe there was no reason for them to be secretive. Why hide who they were? I thought that was a good sign, that sort of transparency. It boded well. Still, it was no environment for a little girl. My blood boiled when I thought about Rae leaving her child there. I turned on the engine and headed straight for the address in my GPS. I had my sights set on the club’s leader: Lance Richmond.

Chapter Two Lance

When I woke up on Monday morning, I was still hung over from Saturday night. And I didn’t know the chick in bed beside me. I rubbed my eyes, taking a chance on sitting up quickly before my head fell off. I held it in my hands, feeling it throb. I hardly remembered there being a Sunday, but I did remember hooking up with whatshername, the woman in bed. She didn’t come home with me on Saturday night. Saturday’s hookup had been a redhead. This one was a blonde. My stomach felt like somebody had poured acid into it. I was getting too old to party the way I did, and I knew it. Still I did it because it was all I knew how to do. There were times when I would go all week long, drinking and screwing every night, hardly getting any sleep. Riding my bike, playing cards with my buddies, going to the bar or the strip club. Just an entire week of that, night after night, one day bleeding into the next day. I’d never feel the effect, ever. Once I hit the big three-oh, everything seemed to change. I couldn’t hang the way I used to. Plus, I inherited an MC. “Inherited” wasn’t the right word. It wasn’t passed down by blood or anything. But it was handed over to me just like I was the heir, anyway. It was expected. When Rico stepped down, I would take his place. He groomed me for five years—nothing could prepare me, though. No teaching in the world could get me ready for what I needed to do. I had dozens of men depending on me to make the right decisions, to lead them in the right direction. It would be enough to stress the hell out of anybody. Some nights, I even lost sleep. So if I wanted to party, getting a little drunk, have some fun…who could blame me? I heard groaning from the other side of the bed, and I froze. I didn’t want to wake her up. I wondered if I could get away with lying back down, pretending to be asleep. That was how much I wanted to avoid having to talk to her. I didn’t even know her name or remember what she looked like. She was on her stomach, face turned away from me. She didn’t move, so I guessed she was only having a bad dream or something. Good. Let her stay there until I’m ready to leave for the day. I felt shitty for event thinking it, but I couldn’t help myself. It was bad enough having to talk to a woman the day after screwing her, but when it was a stranger, there was nothing worse. It was awkward, uncomfortable, clumsy. I wasn’t the best at conversation even on a good day. No way I could get along without making an ass of myself. Better to get showered and dressed, and let her know I was leaving for the day. It was easier than kicking her out and looking like a douche for it. I didn’t wanna be the bad guy.

That was one thing about me my friends never understood. I was all about having fun with women, doing what I wanted with them, whatever. I couldn’t see the point in hurting them, too. Why make a woman feel like a whore just because she fucked you and you don’t feel like hanging out with her? The worst part was, I saw those same women hanging around the clubhouse all the time, wanting to get back into bed with the same assholes who hurt their feelings. It didn’t make any sense to me. I winced when the water hit my head—that was how much pain I was in, that even the shower hurt. I needed to stop drinking so damn much. Even so, when I found a half-drank beer sitting on the bathroom sink, I picked it up and drained it. The hair of a dog and all that. By the time I finished washing up, I felt a little better. The beer probably helped that. I went to the bedroom again—the girl was still asleep, which was fine with me—and dried off, then pulled on a set of clean clothes. T-shirt, jeans, socks and work boots. My leather kutte with the patch from my club on the back, the President patch sewn on the front, over my heart. When I was finished dressing and the blonde still wasn’t awake, I cleared my throat. It was getting ridiculous, her sleeping. I needed to get the hell outta there—I was running late enough. I didn’t wanna be an asshole, but she was making it tough for me not to. “Hey. Hey, are you okay?” I nudged her as gently as I could, wondering if she was even still alive. She was, and she moved a little. “Hmm?” She opened one eye, smudged makeup all around it. “I asked if you were okay. Are you?” “I think?” Her voice was thick with sleep. “I’ve gotta go. I have to get to the clubhouse. Do you, uh, need a ride somewhere?” She blinked once, twice. She didn’t understand what I was trying to say. Why did she have to make it so damned hard? “I’m gonna need you to leave,” I finally said. “I have to get to work.” Her face changed. I pissed her off. Of course I did. “You’re kicking me out?” “I’m sorry,” I muttered, still bending down. “If I didn’t have to go to the clubhouse, I wouldn’t. But I really do have to leave. We have a meeting this morning and I have to be there.” I wondered if she even knew who I was or what the hell I was talking about. There was a chance she had no idea. I didn’t remember anything about what we talked about. She might’ve thought I was talking Greek to her.

She didn’t. She sat up, rubbing her eyes. “Okay. I get it. You want me out.” She sighed, and I felt sorry for her. She looked tired, not just sleepy tired, but tired in general. The way I felt. “Can I drop you somewhere?” I stood in the doorway, waiting for her to get dressed. “Yeah, at home. That would be great. I got a ride here from you last night.” You did? I didn’t want to ask, but that was the question that came to mind. When she was dressed, she followed me downstairs and out the front door. “Thanks for last night,” I said as we climbed onto the bike. “You’re welcome,” she mumbled. I wanted to ask what her name was, but there was no way I could get away with it. I decided to ask where she lived, and rode there with her on the back of the bike. It was a relief when she was gone, up the front steps of her apartment building. I felt better on the ride to the clubhouse. The raw March air cleared my head. I had a lot more energy, and life looked a lot better in general. I had to stop complicating my life. Getting smashed and bringing a woman home wasn’t the way to do that. All I needed was to screw up and get one of them pregnant because I was too drunk to be careful. I shuddered to think. When I got to the clubhouse, I wasn’t the first person there. My second, Flash, was passed out on the sofa in the lounge. He didn’t flinch when I opened and closed the door. I did it again, just to see what he’d do, and he stayed still. The second time that morning I had a passed-out person to deal with. This was more fun, though. I thought about drawing shit on his face with permanent marker, but he’d probably shoot me if I did. I thought about taking pictures of him and sending them around to the rest of the club. Maybe I’d make a sign for his chest or something. Instead of that, I went to the kitchen and found two pans. Then I crept up to him and banged them together as loud as I could, right over his head. I couldn’t make out the words he screamed when he jumped up, but it was enough to see how freaked out he was. It took a while for me to stop laughing. “Fuck off,” he grumbled, rubbing his hands over his face. “Trying to give me a heart attack or something?” “Something like that.” I sat on the sofa, feet up. Flash went to the bar to pour himself a drink. He was feeling it, too. He looked like shit.

“What’d you do last night?” I asked. “Molly kick you out or something?” He shook his head, rolling his eyes. “She’s fucking crazy. Bitching to me about this and that. I don’t need that shit, so I came here.” “She didn’t kick you out, then? You came here on your own?” He shot me a warning look over his glass, and I knew I was right. Molly was too smart to let him stay around when he was being an ass. She kicked him out, told him to find someplace else to sleep for the night. It wouldn’t be the first time. “What about you?” he asked, leaning on the bar. “Where were you last night? I thought I was gonna see you.” “Nah,” I said, waving him off. “I did go out, but I went home early. Did my drinking at home.” “Alone?” “No.” “She stay the night?” “Yeah. She’s home now. Just dropped her off.” “You know who she is?” I shook my head, shrugging. “One of the club groupies.” We both made a snorting sound. The women who hung around our club, hoping to get in by hooking up with one of the members, always made us laugh a little. They would hook up with anybody just to be part of the action. It was good to feel so important. Just then, there was the sound of a honking horn and car tires squealing outside the door. We froze for a second, then rushed to the door. I drew my gun, edging along the wall. Who the hell knew what got dropped at the front door? “Cover me,” I muttered. Flash pulled his piece, too, then nodded to tell me he was ready. I was just at the doorframe, and turned quickly, gun pointed out the door. Into the face of a little girl on the other side of the glass. She shrieked, covering her face. “Shit!” I whispered, fumbling to put the gun out of sight. “It’s a little kid!” “A kid?” Flash slid his piece into his waistband. “What the fuck?” “Why are you asking me?” I turned back to her. She looked at me through open fingers.

“See? No more gun. I’m sorry I scared you.” I looked around. Nobody out there with her. I decided to take the chance and open the door, remembering stories of the way soldiers in Vietnam would rig kids and pregnant women with explosives. They knew American soldiers would take pity on them, go near them, try to help them. Then the explosives would go off. She wasn’t explosive. She was shaking with fear, though. I sank into a crouch until we were knee level. She only wore a t-shirt and jeans, and even I felt sorry for her. It was too chilly out for a little kid to be half dressed. “Where are your parents? Why are you here?” I didn’t want to sound pissed, but I wasn’t used to talking to kids. I wished one of the girls were around, the ones who took care of the clubhouse and the guys. They were better with kids than I was. The little girl shook her head. She had pigtails, and they bounced around on her shoulders. “No parents?” She looked at me with wide eyes. She didn’t look stupid or challenged. She was still afraid. She glanced up at Flash, standing behind me. I sighed. I was getting nowhere. I turned to Flash, who shrugged. I turned back to her. “Can’t you talk? I just wanna know who you are, why you’re here. Are you lost or something?” No, that couldn’t be it. I heard the car. Somebody in the car tried to get my attention before they drove off. Who, though? She sniffled, like she was about to cry. Then she reached into the pocket of her backpack to pull out a folded piece of paper. She handed it to me, slowly reaching out like she was still afraid I would hurt her. “For me?” She nodded. I looked around again. “Hey, come inside. It’s cold out here. Come on. We’ll get you something to drink.” I wondered if we had anything. The bar gun dispensed soda and water. Was soda okay for a kid so early in the morning? How the hell did I know? I turned to Flash again, and he caught my message. “Come on, kid. I’ll find something for you.” He held out a hand, and the girl took a step back. “Come on. I won’t hurt you. It’s warmer in here.” She looked inside, still not saying a word, but finally trusted Flash enough to step forward. He led her inside, sitting her on the sofa where he’d just been sleeping minutes earlier. I unfolded the paper, almost afraid to read what it said. Whose kid was she? I hadn’t ever met her, so she wasn’t one of the guys’ kids. I thought for a split second one of them was dead, and this was a message that they had been murdered. We had enough enemies out there that it could’ve been anyone. Only it wasn’t one of theirs. According to the note, which I read with wide eyes, she was mine.

I looked up at her, staring. My kid? I read the note again, and again. It was from Rae. Rae? I searched my memory. Jesus, it had been years since I saw her. Maybe seven? Eight? She was a junkie, or started to be. Before I dumped her— I didn’t deal with junkies—we had been sort of tight. I had liked her. She’s your daughter, the note said. My daughter? I didn’t even know Rae was pregnant. Shit, had she been using when she was pregnant? I looked at the kid again. She looked healthy enough. Maybe a little skinny. Her name is Gigi. Sort of a cute name. Sort of a cute kid. I looked at her again, this time looking a lot harder. Shit. I couldn’t miss how much we looked alike. It was obvious. Same dark hair, same eyes, same nose. I was all over her face. I motioned for Flash, handing him the note when he reached me. He read it, then stared at me. “Is this for real?” he asked, looking over at her. She sat alone, hands in lap, crying a little. I could tell she was trying to hold it back. Brave kid. “I don’t know. I gotta talk to her.” I walked to the sofa, and she went still. I thought she might be holding her breath, too. “Relax, kid. I won’t hurt you.” I sat down on the other side of the sofa, looking at her. She was shaking. “You cold?” She thought about it, then shook her head. “You’re scared of me, then. Right?” She thought about that, too, then shook her head again. “What are you scared of?” She opened her mouth, and I waited for her to speak. When she did, all she could say was, “I wanna go home. I have to go to school today.” It was a whisper, almost too quiet to hear. “You have school? Where’s your school?” I could leave her there. She thought about it, squeezing her eyes shut. Then, “I don’t know where it is.” She trembled, chin shaking. “Do you know what it’s called?” She shook her head. Of course she didn’t. She was a little kid. “How old are you?” “Seven.” I did the math. Yeah, that added up. Son of a bitch. Rae never even told me she was pregnant.

“Do you know where you live?” Again, a head shake. Hadn’t her mother even taught the kid their address? Weren’t all kids supposed to know that? What kind of mother was Rae? I looked at the skinny, underdressed kid and got a few ideas. She burst into tears. I didn’t know what the hell to do. I looked at Flash, desperate for help. He shrugged. He didn’t have any more experience with kids than I did. “It’s okay. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.” I reached toward her to pat her on the back, but she flinched away. Crawling to the corner of the sofa, she drew her knees up to her chest and held them in place, arms wrapped around them. I looked at Flash, then got up and crossed the room to him. I leaned toward him, whispering. “We need to find Rae, fast.” “Jesus, I haven’t seen her in years.” “Yeah, no shit.” I glanced over at Gigi. Still crying. “Any ideas?” “None. Kid doesn’t know, of course. Call up a few of the guys and hit the streets. Start asking questions. I hate to say it, but maybe start with the dealers. They might know.” Flash snickered in disgust. I couldn’t disagree with him. “You gonna be okay here with her? All alone?” “We won’t be alone for long.” The girls would be in soon, and they’d take care of her. Good thing, too, because I needed time to think. “Don’t waste time out there, either. I want her outta here as soon as possible. This is bullshit. A kid in the clubhouse.” “Got it.” Flash left, talking on his phone. Gathering some of the guys to hit the streets. When I got my hands on Rae, I would strangle the shit out of her for what she was doing to me. Leaving a kid on the doorstep. I watched as Flash rode away, the sound of Gigi crying filling my ears. It looked like I was a daddy.

Chapter Three Jamie

It was dinnertime by the time I pulled up in front of the clubhouse. The building was ominous, reminding me of a hulking warehouse. I wondered if anybody lived there, and what the conditions could possibly be like inside the building. A little girl was in there. Not just a little girl, but Gigi. I couldn’t imagine it. A row of bikes sat out front along the wall leading to the door. They were all roughly the same. I had never understood the appeal of motorcycles. I liked a little more metal between myself and the road. Maybe it was the crash I once witnessed as a kid. A man wiped out on his bike not fifty feet from where my dad had stopped our car at a red light. The man on the bike ran the light and was hit by a car in the intersection. After almost twenty years, I still hadn’t forgotten the way he flew through the air, and the sickening thud as he hit the ground. Something like that was enough to get a kid away from motorcycles for their entire life. My hands were shaking, I realized. What sort of men were inside the building? Who were they? What did they do besides ride their motorcycles? I was pretty sure I didn’t want to know. The club members were notorious for getting into trouble—bar fights, vandalism, disorderly conduct, plus rumors of other even less savory activities. I shivered, not wanting to go inside. They weren’t exactly my cup of tea. Then I thought about Gigi. None of it was about me. It was all about her. With that in mind, I got out of the car, my hands clenched into fists. I was ready to defend myself no matter what it took. As long as I got her out of there safe and sound. I knocked on the door. I saw light coming from inside and heard the sound of voices. A girl came to the door. She was probably barely legal, wearing more makeup at one time than I’d worn in my entire life. “Yeah?” She looked me up and down, sneering a little. I tried to hide my distaste. “I’m here for Gigi.” My voice was strong, demanding. I couldn’t be intimidated by her or any of them. My hands were still clenched in fists at my sides. Her face changed, softened. “Are you her mom?” “No. So she’s here?” “Yeah. Who are you?” Just then, the girl was brushed aside. A man took her place at the door, and he was much bigger and more intimidating than she was. I felt my resolve weaken, then reminded myself

again of why I was there. Holy hell, I realized. He was her father. There was no denying it. They had the same eyes, steel gray, and the same nose and cheeks. She was his. “Are you Gigi’s father?” “Like my friend here asked, who the hell are you?” He had a menacing growl to his voice. “I’m her teacher. I’m Jamie Hollis.” I raised my voice to be heard over the voices inside. “Miss Jamie!” The sound was music to my ears, and tears sprang to my eyes when I saw Gigi running toward me. I bent, scooping her up into a bear hug. “Oh, sweetie! We missed you so much in school this week!” I held her, breathing her in. She was safe. My heart was so full of relief I could hardly think straight. I stepped into the clubhouse, not caring whether or not I was welcome, and looked her over. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Fine.” “Nobody hurt you?” I heard her father scoffing, but I kept my eyes on her. I didn’t care what he thought of me, or what he thought of the way I thought of him. As far as I was concerned, he was scum. “No. They’re all pretty nice. Especially Traci and Erica.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I wanna go home.” “I know you do, sweetheart.” Only your mommy’s not at home, honey. My heart broke for her. She was safe, but where was Rae? I stood, facing Gigi’s father. “You know my name. Who are you?” “Gigi’s father. Or so they tell me.” He sneered, looking me up and down. I cringed a little under his gaze, then reminded myself who was the teacher and who was the criminal. I squared my shoulders and faced him down. “That’s great. Did you have a name before that, though?” He snorted. “Lance Richmond.” “Looks like you have a problem, Lance.” “You don’t know the half of it, Jamie.”

I didn’t like the way his eyes bored into me, like he was trying to see my thoughts. I turned my head away, breaking eye contact. Gigi tugged at my hand. “I’m playing a game with Erica and Traci.” “You go over there and play, then.” I smiled, patting her on the head. She hurried back to the coffee table, where a board game had been spread out. One of the two girls playing with her was the one who answered the door. I turned back to Lance. “What’s this all about?” He shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine, lady.” “Was this the first time you met Gigi?” “Honey, this is the first time I ever heard of Gigi.” “Don’t call me ‘honey,’ please.” The words fell out of my mouth without me thinking about them. “Sorry. Miss.” That was better. “So you didn’t even know she existed?” “Nope. I hadn’t seen Rae since I dumped her. She was starting with the needle. I don’t do drugs, none of my people do drugs.” He looked serious. I appreciated that, at least. “So, then what? Nothing from her for all these years? Not even a child support payment?” He shrugged again. “I can’t explain it either. I’ve been thinking about it all week, God knows.” “She’s been here all week?” My eyes went wide. “Yeah, and she’s still alive. Go figure.” He rolled his eyes at my shock. “I’m sorry. I didn’t expect you would have taken care of her all week is all.” He hardly looked the type. The only word that came to mind when I looked at him was “dangerous.” He was a dangerous man. His tall, broad body could inflict pain if he wanted it to. His mouth could easily curve into a smile or a snarl. His hands were big enough to squeeze a person’s throat until they stopped breathing. He had a coldness to him, an insolence. And he was the leader of the most dangerous bunch of people in town. How could I think otherwise? Then again, his daughter was happily playing Candy Land in the middle of the clubhouse. It was all too bizarre for words.

“What’s next, then? I guess you haven’t found Rae.” “Good guess. She’s a ghost.” I shivered at his use of the word—I had already wondered to myself if she wasn’t maybe dead. Who knew the sort of people she was mixed up with? They were likely capable of anything. “I went to the house today. Still empty and dark,” I said. “Yeah, we’ve been keeping an eye on the place, too. Otherwise, I’ve been asking her dealer friends to contact me if they find her.” I shook my head. “Rae’s been clean for ages. I don’t know that she relapsed.” He sneered. “Please.” “It’s true. She was proud of herself for it. She does drink, though.” “Once a junkie, always a junkie. Especially with heroin.” He sounded like he knew what he spoke of. I decided not to ask how he was so well-acquainted with it. “Well, none of them have seen her, I guess?” “Nobody has any idea where she is. Most of them act like they don’t even know who she is.” “They might not. I’m telling you, she’s trying.” “Sure.” He shook his head. “She’s doing a great job, isn’t she? Leaving her kid here.” “Your kid, too.” I watched as he winced. “Yeah. Mine, too.” She looked happy enough. I couldn’t help but smile, watching her laugh with the girls. I hadn’t seen her like that at school. She was always so serious. A funny thought crossed my mind. There, she only had to be a kid. She didn’t have to worry about her mommy, or how she would eat, or where her winter clothes were. She could relax for once and be a kid. “What are you going to do with her? I mean, let’s say you never find Rae. Let’s go worst-case scenario. She went off on a binge and OD’d. It happens when people relapse.” “Right.” “So what are you going to do? She can’t grow up here, obviously.”

He eyed me up and down. “You said you’re her teacher?” “Yes.” “And you care so much?” “She’s sort of my special student.” I couldn’t help admitting it. “I guess she’s lucky to have somebody who gives a shit about her.” He sounded grudging in his praise, but I would take it. I got the impression he didn’t give praise freely. “I do. I want what’s best for her.” “Well, I’ll tell you one thing. I’m not putting her in any foster home.” He sounded adamant. “What makes you say that?” “I grew up in one.” His grim tone told me everything I needed to know. I knew better than to press the subject. We stood side-by-side, watching Gigi play. It warmed my heart to see her looking happy. How bizarre, a little girl looking happy in a place like that. Beer signs on the walls in bright, glaring neon. A bar along one side of the room. A pool table, a pinball machine—all right, she might like a pinball machine. Dart boards. Sofas, chairs, a big-screen TV. I thought I saw a video game system on a shelf. All right, she’d like that, too. Still, it was a very adult place. The people I watched walking to and fro, from one room to another, were tough, scary-looking men. They weren’t the type to mess around with. They were dangerous. And a seven-year-old was in their midst. I couldn’t let things go on that way. I turned to Lance, reminding myself to be determined. “I want to take her home with me.” His eyes went wide when he turned to me. “What?” “I mean, come on. She doesn’t need to be here. I’m sure you don’t want her here—why would you? You have your…business to take care of. You need to let her go with me so that she can be in a more wholesome environment.” He blinked once, twice, then burst out laughing. “A wholesome environment? Where the hell did you come from? I didn’t know they made them like you anymore.” My cheeks burned. “I mean it, though,” I insisted. He wasn’t going to get me to back down. “She belongs in a home with somebody who cares about her. I know her, I care about her. We have a good

relationship. She’s comfortable with me—you saw the way she ran to me earlier. You have nothing to worry about.” He looked me up and down, like he was considering my offer. I had hope for a minute there. I stared intensely, hoping to convince him with the strength of my conviction. My heart sank when he shook his head. “No way. It won’t happen. She needs to stay here.” “But why? It makes no sense!” “She’s my daughter, and I’ll decide what makes sense for her.” I sighed in exasperation. It was like talking to a brick wall.

Chapter Four Lance

She was tough. I had to give her that. No way she was backing down so easily. I sort of admired her —she cared about the kid. People who cared about kids had my respect. I had known enough people who didn’t give a shit about kids to know good people from bad people. No way I’d give her the kid, though. She was mine. There were things a parent didn’t do. She put her hands on her hips, and her green eyes burned into me. She wasn’t just tough. She was gorgeous. “What do you plan to do with her, then?” she asked me, spitting the words out. “Oh, I don’t know. Virgin sacrifice?” Her eyes went even wider, then narrowed. I snorted. “Come on. Relax. She’s my kid. I’m not taking her around on the back of my bike; she’s not sitting on meetings. Hell, the guys are even watching their language around her.” I snickered, looking out over the room. “The toughest sons of bitches you’ll ever meet, but put a kid in the room and they don’t know what to do with themselves. It’s actually pretty funny. It’s worth having her around just to see what she does to them.” “Cute.” Jamie wrinkled her nose, sarcastic. “Keep her here as a science project. Great idea, Dad.” “Oh, relax, okay? Jesus. You’re not the one who had her dropped her off on the outside with a note telling you she was your kid. I didn’t know she existed until Monday morning. I had to find something funny. Otherwise I would have gone crazy before now.” I wasn’t lying. At first, I had no idea what the hell to do with the kid. It was Erica and Traci who really took care of things. They fixed up a room for her upstairs, with her own private bathroom. They were the ones who bought the board games and toys for her. They even went over her school work with her, since her books were in the backpack with a few bits of clothes and stuff—the girls took Gigi to the store to buy new clothes and everything. They were a lifesaver. It hadn’t been enough to make us all comfortable with having her there, though. Over four days, we had gradually warmed up. Even the toughest of my guys softened up when she was around. It was interesting. “You think she’s unhappy here?” I asked. “Go over there and play for a while. You’ll see. She’s fed well, she has fun. We’re even trying to help her keep up with her school work. You should be able to tell if we’re doing a good job…Teach.” She scowled at me, like she could have ripped my head off and been happy about it. I couldn’t help picking at her—it was too much fun watching her flip out. She always tried to hide it, like she couldn’t let go of what was inside her. I wondered how much fun it

would be to break down that icy wall around her. She took my advice and went over to the middle of the room, where Gigi was kicking Traci’s and Erica’s asses at Candy Land. They started talking, and I heard Jamie asking the girls questions. I knew she would be impressed with them. They didn’t look like the smartest girls in the world—because they weren’t—but they had a strong instinct when it came to kids. They liked taking care of Gigi, too. I even thought I saw a little shade getting thrown Jamie’s way. They were jealous of her tightness with Gigi. I grinned to myself, even though female drama usually got on my nerves. Who the hell had time for it? I left them to it, pouring myself a drink before I went back to my office. I had to think things over. Flash followed me. “Who the hell is that?” he asked, whispering until we were alone. “Gigi’s teacher.” “What, complaining that she missed school?” “Worried, more like.” I watched through the half-open door. Jamie and Gigi laughed together, and Jamie hugged the little girl. “I think she really cares about her. A relief. I didn’t think anybody did before she came here.” I knew what it felt like to have nobody care about me when I was a kid. I didn’t know my daughter, but I didn’t want her to feel that sort of pain. “And she came here for her? What, did Rae tell her where she was taking the kid?” “I don’t think so. I think she figured it out. She wanted to find her.” I heard the admiration in my voice. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t think people like her actually existed outside of movies and TV shows. People who cared about other people. She walked into the clubhouse like she belonged there. She wasn’t even afraid. I had to give her credit for that. “What’s she gonna do? Tell the police Gigi’s here?” “I should fucking hope not. I already told her I don’t want the kid in a foster home. You know that’s where they’ll throw her.” Then I thought about it and relaxed. “No, she won’t do that. Because she wants her.” “So why not give her over?” “I can’t do that.” I couldn’t explain it. It wasn’t that I loved the kid, that I felt an instant bond with her the minute we met or anything like that. She was mine. Nobody took what was mine. And I wanted what was best for her, too. Foster care wasn’t best. Being with her teacher wasn’t best. She needed her father. If we were her family, that was the way it was gonna be. She could do worse than us. “You’re always the one who says you don’t want any complications. Here you are, pulling one into your life. What’s up?”

“I can’t tell you why. You would understand if you were me.” I finished my drink. Gigi and Jamie were still at it out there, laughing, starting a new game with the girls. The girls still looked a little chilly toward Jamie. I grinned. “Traci and Erica don’t like her very much,” I muttered, nodding. Flash laughed. “Yeah, well, she’s a different kind of girl. They don’t know what to do with her.” That was the truth. She was as different from the girls who hung around the clubhouse as night and day. She was smart as hell, for one thing. A teacher had to be smart, I guessed. They probably thought she was a snob, like she thought she was too good for them. She dressed in nice clothes, didn’t wear a lot of makeup. There were earrings in her ears that I would have bet were real diamonds. “She’s hot,” Flash admitted. “Yeah, she is. I’m not blind.” I wanted to take her the second I laid eyes on her. It was just a basic need. I didn’t have to think about it. It was just there. She was fucking gorgeous, hot as hell, her body begged for me to touch it. My hands wanted to feel her curves. I shoved them in my pockets. “Are you gonna let her take the kid?” “Hell no.” “You know she’s not gonna leave without her.” That gave me an idea. “You’re right. She won’t leave without her.” A smile spread over my face. “What’s that mean?” “What’s what mean?” “I know that smile.” I glanced over at him, and I saw through his goatee that he was frowning. “Nothing. I just know what to do now.” I opened the door to the office, going back out to the lounge. The girls and Gigi still played their game, just about at the end of it by then. “Candy Land is a fun game, but it sure does take forever to play sometimes.” Erica rolled her eyes at me, still smiling like she was having fun. I laughed. “Yeah, I’m sure.” Gigi didn’t seem to care. She was having a great time. I couldn’t help smiling at her. She was a smart kid—I had the feeling she could handle games much harder than Candy Land. She had a sort of real wisdom, too. She rolled with the punches. Like when she met my guys, she didn’t flinch. Once she got over missing home and being scared, she treated life at the clubhouse like it was no big deal. I sort of admired her for that.

“Maybe when you’re finished, you can play a game with Miss Jamie. Give Traci and Erica a break.” The girls look grateful. “Yeah, Miss Jamie! You wanna play?” “Sure.” She smiled at Gigi, but glared at me. She was pissed that I wasn’t letting her take the kid home with her. Who did she think she was, trying to tell me what to do with my own kid? Okay, I thought. So she knows her better than I do. She was her teacher all year long. So what, though? I was her father. Nobody would listen to a teacher over a parent. Maybe if the parent was abusive or something, but I hadn’t put a hand on Gigi. No, she had nothing to go on. Traci and Erica jumped up when the game ended. “Okay, your turn!” Gigi smiled at Jamie. “You wanna play, too?” Jamie asked, looking up at me. Challenging me. “No, thanks. I’ll sit and watch, though.” I noticed the way Gigi tensed up a little when I sat down. She wasn’t comfortable with me yet. Jamie saw it, too. “You okay, kiddo?” “Yes, I’m okay.” She relaxed, and the game started. Jamie kept a closer eye on us after that. She was trying to find a way to get my kid out of there. No way I would let that happen. It was her versus me at that point. She would find I wasn’t easy to beat. “Where do you live, Miss Jamie?” Jamie looked at me, eyes narrow. I smiled. “Yeah, Miss Jamie. Where do you live?” Gigi asked. “Do you have a house? Do you have a dog?” She smiled at Gigi. “No, sweetie, I don’t have a dog. Or a cat, or anything. It’s just me.” “Just you? All alone?” I asked, innocent. “Yes.” She smiled through clenched teeth. “All alone. Just me.” “No roommates?” “No roommates.” “That’s interesting.” I left it at that for a while as they played. Good. She didn’t even have a pet to bitch about when I told her my idea.

“Do you live far away?” I asked. “Sort of,” she admitted. “Riverview Terrace.” I should have known—the nicest part of town. Even Gigi knew that. Her eyes went round. “I thought rich people lived there!” She looked shocked. I had to laugh a little, and so did Jamie. “I’m not rich, sweetie.” “But you can’t afford that on a teacher’s salary either,” I pointed out. “That’s none of your business,” she replied icily. “Rich parents?” “I said it’s none of your business.” She took a turn, then let Gigi take hers. “Rich parents,” I decided. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of. I mean, you want to take people to your house, it’s good to have a nice house to take them to.” She looked at me and I saw hope in her eyes. She thought I meant I was letting her take Gigi. She was wrong, of course. I would let her keep thinking it, though. “You don’t have one of those side jobs, do you? You know, the way some teachers do? Not if you live at Riverview Terrace.” She raised one eyebrow over her clear, sparkling eyes. “No. I don’t.” “Right, I forgot. Your parents are loaded.” “Were.” The word dropped like a bomb. Even Gigi looked at her, surprised at the way her tone of voice changed. I went quiet for a minute. “Sorry,” I muttered. I felt like an ass. Still, that explained a few things. So she inherited a shit ton of money when her parents died. She lived in a nice place. She could live on a teacher’s salary because she had a trust fund, probably. So she thought she was in good shape to take my kid away. Interesting. I let them play the game for a while, thinking about my plan. Yeah, it was the best way to go. I couldn’t let my daughter live with a stranger. She was mine. She was comfortable at the clubhouse. So, if Jamie wanted her, she’d have to agree with my rules. When the game finally finished—Gigi pulled a good card, sending her to the end of the board in record time—I motioned for Jamie to follow me to my office. Flash asked Gigi to teach him how to play the game, which I would have laughed my ass off at if it wasn’t kind of cute. Gigi was very

serious, explaining the rules. She sounded like a teacher herself. I closed the door. Jamie folded her arms. “What is it now?” I smirked. “You have a nasty attitude.” “Wouldn’t you? You’re sitting out there, playing games with me. What was that all about?” “I wanted to know what kind of person you are.” “Bullshit. You were digging for something.” I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “Fine. You’re right. I was.” “And? Did you find out what you wanted to know?” “Oh yeah. More than that. You’re perfect for my plan.” She looked like she didn’t believe me—or she didn’t believe I could come up with a plan. “What would that be?” “You wanna make sure my daughter is safe?” “More than anything.” I believed her, too. “Okay. If you wanna make sure she’s safe, then you can stay here and take care of her.”

Chapter Five Jamie

“What?” My eyes nearly popped out of my head, and my jaw nearly hit the floor. I could tell from the way he grinned that it was exactly the reaction he had hoped for. “You heard me. I want you to stay here.” He sat behind a desk, grinning still. He put his feet up on the surface, crossing his ankles. “You can’t be serious.” “As a heart attack.” I sat in one of the chairs across from him. “For how long?” “As long as it takes.” “As long as what takes?” He sighed. “As long as it takes to find Rae.” “So you really don’t want her, huh?” I felt a strange sort of disappointment for Gigi, and for him. He was missing out on so much by pushing her away. “Listen, I’m not an idiot. I know this isn’t the place for her.” I leaned forward, crossing my arms on his desk. “You know what else isn’t the place for her? Her home, with her mother.” He sat up, looking at me very closely. “It’s that bad?” “It’s not good.” I told him about the day she showed up in spring clothes during a snowstorm. The times I had to give her my lunch because she didn’t have any food of her own. The trouble I got into when I bought her new clothes. “You took her shopping?” he asked. I thought I heard admiration in his voice, but reminded myself that I didn’t care either way what he thought about me. He was lower than scum as far as I was concerned. “Yes, I did. She needed clothes for winter. I figured the previous year’s clothes wouldn’t fit her anymore. She’s a growing girl.”

“Smart.” He nodded his head, as though he had any idea how to raise a child. He would never have thought of something like that—he probably wouldn’t think to take her shopping until her old clothes were ready to fall apart. And he thought he could take care of her better than I could? “Yes, well, I have experience with children.” I let the words hang in the air. From the half smile on his face, I knew he understood what I was trying to say. “And I have experience with Rae,” he said. “I know how she thinks.” “So what is she doing, then?” I asked. “She’s either high somewhere, or on the run from something. I wanna find her. I can’t just take Gigi without knowing what happened to Rae first. What happens if she shows up one day, wanting her back?” He looked pensive, and I wondered how deep his feelings for his daughter actually ran. He wanted to play it cool, to pretend he didn’t care, but there were cracks in his façade. I wondered if she hadn’t already found a place in his heart when he wasn’t paying attention. I kept my cool. “I don’t think this is the right place for her. I just don’t.” “It’s where her father is. It’s the right place for her.” “Don’t you have a house?” “Yeah, but I’m not there all day, am I?” “So why don’t I stay there with her, then?” I couldn’t believe I was negotiating with a piece of scum like him. He acted like the whole thing was a joke. I wanted to slap the sneer off his face. “I don’t think so. This place, believe it or not, is better for her than my house.” I shuddered, imagining the absolute pig sty it probably was. I wouldn’t put anything past him. I felt myself losing ground. To think, I was so sure I could get him to let her come with me. I was sure he’d be sick of her, unsure what to do, desperate to get her off his hands. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Wasn’t that a good thing, though? Fury’s Storm aside, wasn’t it good for Gigi’s father to want her? I looked Lance up and down. He smiled a little, and I felt my cheeks flush. Why the heck was I blushing? I wished I could stop. I didn’t need him thinking I had a crush on him, or that I’d be a pushover for whatever he wanted from me. I didn’t plan on making things easy for him. Not one bit. “Okay. Listen.” I folded my hands, trying to get some control over the situation. “I can stay the weekend. Just the weekend, though. You have two days to find some way to make her life better, or I’ll take her myself.”

“You have no grounds to take her. What are you gonna do, kidnap her?” I narrowed my eyes, glaring at him. “No. You’re going to let me keep her until something better comes along. Let’s face it, I can’t stay here more than the weekend. I have to go to work, and Gigi absolutely has to go to school. She’s already missed an entire week. Didn’t it occur to you to find out where she goes to school?” “I asked her. She didn’t know where the school was, or what it was called. Do you know how many schools there are in town? For all I knew she was from two towns over. She didn’t know her own town. What the hell did Rae teach her?” Then he looked at me, smirking. “Or is it your fault that she didn’t know?” “Watch it,” I warned. “She was probably too scared to remember, that’s all. Wouldn’t you be scared, surrounded by scary strangers, only seven years old, if your mom abandoned you?” His face took on a strange look, and I remembered his reference to a foster home when he was a kid. I thought he might know how it felt all too well. “Anyway, that’s the deal. I’ll stay here and take care of her, keep her out of your hair, while you look for Rae. If you can’t find her, I have to take her with me. I won’t keep her, honestly. I won’t. But I need to be home if I’m going to work. And Gigi needs a place where she can get peace and quiet.” A bottle crashed to the floor elsewhere in the building. The timing couldn’t have been better. “She’s not going to get peace and quiet here.” He looked less than happy with the crashing bottle, even wincing a little. “Yeah, you might have a point there.” “So, what do you think? Are you with me?” “Is that the only way I can get you to stay and stop bothering me?” “Yes.” He shook his head ruefully. “I guess I don’t have a choice, then. All right. It’s a deal.” Lance extended a hand across his desk, and I shook it. I couldn’t ignore the way his hand engulfed mine, or the way I felt a little flutter when we touched. This was no time for my hormones to start acting up, and I told myself to knock it off. If he noticed, he didn’t show it. He stood, going out to the lounge. I followed him, wondering about the sort of person he was. He tried to play the big, tough guy. Underneath, I thought there might be a little something more than what he was letting on. After all, he cared enough about his daughter to fight with me over her. Or maybe he just liked to fight. Either way, he was the most exciting, challenging, infuriating man I’d ever met. I had the feeling he

wasn’t going to make life easy for me. That was fine with me. I had no intention of making it easy for him. He glanced at me, nodding toward her. Like I was supposed to give Gigi the good news. I bristled at the way he thought he could tell me what to do. I wasn’t his employee, for God’s sake. Still, Gigi noticed the funny way he was acting and turned to me with an inquisitive look. I had to tell her something. “Guess what?” I gave her a big smile. “I’m going to stay here with you this weekend.” “You are?” She immediately jumped up onto the couch, then jumped into my arms. I laughed, hugging her. She squeezed me tight around the neck. I understood how important it was for her to feel like she had a friend with her. “We’re gonna have so much fun!” she squealed. “We’re also going to get you caught up on the work you missed this week.” “Erica and Traci helped me with that already.” I smiled at the girls, who still gave me a funny feeling. I didn’t think they liked me very much. From the way they smirked, I got the feeling they thought I didn’t think they had it in them. “Thanks,” I said, still smiling. “You’ve made my life a lot easier, then.” Their faces softened a little, like they didn’t know what to make of me. I wouldn’t push them away or alienate them—on the contrary, I needed all the friends I could get in that place. Surrounded by men. “Do you have anything to sleep in?” one of them asked. The one who had opened the door to me. “I don’t. But it’ll be okay. Do you need me to get a room ready?” She smiled. “No, I can do that for you. We have lots of empty rooms. What about the one across from Gigi’s?” I was so grateful, I didn’t know what to say. I understood how Gigi felt, having a friend. “That sounds great.” I looked down at my charge. “Want to show me the way?” I picked up my purse, took Gigi’s outstretched hand and followed her up the stairs. As soon as we got to the top of the stairs, I bent to whisper in Gigi’s ear. “Which girl was that? The one who offered the room?” “Erica,” she whispered back. “Thanks.” I grinned at her as Erica followed us to the second floor.

“Here’s my room!” Gigi showed it off with a grand flourish, and I had to say I was impressed. “You bought all of this for her?” I asked Erica, looking over the toys and books. There was even special bedding for her, unless the members of the MC liked sleeping in Disney sheets. “Yeah, it was fun.” Erica ruffled Gigi’s hair. “We had a great time this week, didn’t we?” “We did! We went to Target.” She pronounced it “Tar-jay,” which made me laugh. “And you bought all these things? Erica and Traci are so nice, aren’t they?” “They’re my best friends. Plus you, Miss Jamie.” Erica and I grinned at each other. “You know something?” I sat on the edge of her bed, holding a hand out to Gigi. “Just for this weekend, while I’m staying here with you, you can call me Jamie. Just plain Jamie. No ‘Miss.’” Her gray eyes went round, and her mouth fell open. “Are you sure?” “Well, yeah. I mean, we’re gonna be together all weekend long. You don’t call Erica ‘Miss Erica,’ do you?” She looked at Erica. “Should I have? Was that dis-respeckful?” Erica giggled. “No, sweetie. That’s just fine.” “It’ll be our special secret this weekend. You can’t tell any of the other kids, though, when we go back to school. They might get jealous.” And if Vickie ever hears you calling me Jamie, she’ll have a cow. “Okay.” Gigi nodded solemnly. “Let’s show Jamie her room, okay?” Erica led us into the hall. My room was just like Gigi’s, without the toys and such. Erica turned to me. “There are clean sheets on the bed. Did you want to share Gigi’s bathroom, or do you want your own?” “I have to ask, how many rooms are in this place?” Erica smiled with obvious pride. “Two dozen. Plus a dozen bathrooms.” My face must have given away my complete surprise. The entire building seemed comfortable, modern. Not at all what I had expected. “It used to be a warehouse,” Erica explained, pulling towels out of a linen closet. “When the club bought it, they had it completely refurbished. They really went all-out. There’s plenty of room for the

club members—you know, if we ever have to stay here for some reason.” I glanced at Gigi, who was busy bouncing on the bed. “Would there ever be a reason? Have you ever been here when there was?” Erica nodded. “Back in the day, there was a lot of fighting with another club in the next town. I don’t even think they’re around anymore. There were a few weeks when the whole club was under lockdown. The guys, their families, everybody stayed here together.” “That sounds pretty interesting,” I said, chuckling. “You said ‘back in the day’—you can’t possibly have been here. You’re too young.” “I was a kid,” she explained. “My dad was a member. Me, my mom, we came here with him so we would be safe.” “Oh, wow. I had no idea.” Did this sort of life run in the family? I guessed so. I would never have imagined it. “It was a lot of fun, really. For the kids, I mean. The old ladies—wives, girlfriends, mothers—they worked hard to keep us kids happy. We did a puppet show, a play, they played games with us. It was great.” “Like a big family,” I mused. “That’s exactly what it is.” She smiled, like she appreciated my understanding. I didn’t understand, though. It didn’t make any sense to me. Why expose children to this lifestyle? Why would a child grow up wanting to be part of it when they were forced to live in lockdown? Then again, if they thought it was all fun and games… “It’s been quiet since then. Peaceful. There’s nothing like there used to be when my dad was in.” She caught my eye and mouthed the word “drugs.” “Selling? Buying?” “I don’t know exactly. But when Lance took over, he made sure that stuff stopped. All of it.” I remembered him telling me he had no time for drugs and made sure none of his men were involved with them. I wondered why it was so important to him, aside from the obvious reasons. It was like the way he was so opposed to a foster home for Gigi. What was that all about? He had a deep, dark history, I could tell. Maybe I’d get some answers as the weekend went on. “I’m starving,” Gigi said. “Yeah, I should get downstairs to get dinner started. It’s spaghetti night.”

“Spaghetti! Yum! That’s my favorite!” Erica pulled me aside. “Every night’s been spaghetti night this week since she loves it so much.” She laughed as she left the room, and I wondered at the way all those big, tough men were willing to spend a week eating spaghetti just to make a little girl happy. “Come on, pal. Let’s see if we can help the girls make dinner.” I held out my hand, and Gigi happily followed me down to the kitchen. It was actually sort of fun, making dinner. I lived alone and had a pretty quiet life. I didn’t want to work around somebody else’s schedule or habits. I didn’t know if I could stand living with somebody who kept odd hours or played loud music or watched TV all day. So I chose to stay on my own. I didn’t realize until I spent a half hour making dinner with two complete strangers, and a boisterous little girl, that I’d been missing out on anything. All throughout dinner, I felt Lance’s eyes on me. As much as he irritated me—and he did, in every way possible—he made me wonder what else I had been missing out on in my solitary life.

Chapter Six Lance

It was an interesting first night. I watched Jamie and Gigi together during dinner. Gigi lit up when she was with her teacher, and I could see how much Jamie cared about her. I felt good inside, as weird as it seemed. Gigi wasn’t alone. What the hell happened to me? On Monday morning, I was a single dude, nothing in my way. By Friday night, I was a dad who actually gave a shit about my kid and whether she was happy. Damn it. It wasn’t just that she was mine, that I wanted to be the one who took care of her because I owned her or something. I felt responsible for her. She needed me. It was new. My guys needed me. I was used to that. But they didn’t depend on me for, like, food. I made decisions and we worked together, but if I wasn’t around, they could probably make decisions without me. They might not have been the right decisions, but they would get along. Gigi couldn’t do that. Everything was new for her. And I wanted to make it as good as I could. That was what scared me the most. That I could make or break this kid’s entire life. Was I ready for that? I had to be. Any parent had to be. Then there was Jamie. Fuck, I wanted her. The more she pissed me off, the more I wanted her. The more she made me want to strangle her, the more I wanted her. I couldn’t explain it if I tried. I just knew she was different. Special. She wouldn’t put up with any shit. She was too smart for that. And she loved my kid. I had to respect that. It made me want her even more. I had to play it cool, which was new for me. Usually, women went after me. I didn’t have to try. I knew I wasn’t bad looking, but it was the power thing they were attracted to. And I knew how to talk to them, get them to smile. That sort of thing didn’t work with Jamie. I had to rethink a lot of things. She didn’t care about me being the head of a club—she hated me for it, I could tell. She would rather have been anywhere else in the world than with us. Even though she seemed to get along okay with the girls, which was good. I didn’t want any cat fights in the clubhouse. “How’s it going?” Flash muttered over a mouthful of food. I shrugged. “Is she staying?”

“Yeah, she’s staying.” “You gonna let her take Gigi?” “No way.” I didn’t take my eyes off the two of them. “What are you gonna do when she wants to leave?” “I don’t know. I have to find Rae. That’s it.” “How are you gonna do that?” I shrugged. “No idea.” *** After dinner, I got together with Flash and a couple of my most trusted guys. Jax and Slate sat around my office, waiting for me to give instructions. “We need to find Rae,” I said. “We’ve been trying all week,” Jax pointed out. “Yeah, she disappeared.” Slate shrugged. “Nobody just disappears.” I stood up, pacing back and forth. My fists were clenched in the pockets of my jeans. “She has to be around somewhere, and if not, somebody’s gotta know something about where she went or why she’s gone. If she’s dead, I wanna know. If she’s holed up somewhere, I wanna know. And we haven’t been looking as hard as we could.” I stared at my men, even Flash, and they all looked at the floor. “Right?” “There’s other stuff going on, too,” Slate reminded me. “Yeah, no shit. But here’s the thing. We’ve gotta get this kid outta here one way or another. I want it to be under my terms. That teacher out there thinks she’s taking her. I can’t let that happen. But the whole thing is pointless if Rae walks back in, wanting her back. See what I mean? Do you wanna hand her over to a junkie who deserts her like that?” “You know we don’t,” Jax muttered. “She’s a sweet kid.” “Yeah, she is. I had a junkie mother of my own. I know what a bitch it is growing up in a house like that.” I didn’t wanna think about it, but the memories flooded in anyway. The way she was always stoned, always far away. When she wasn’t stoned, she was sick, shaking, looking for the next fix. She stole my toys, sold them. Sold my school books. I never had clothes or food. Then, she OD’d. I was

sent to foster care. That was where the real fun started. “Where do we go, then? We already talked to all the dealers we know,” Flash explained. “Where next?” I thought about it. “What about the clubs? She used to like clubbing.” “There are a million clubs downtown,” Jax reminded me. “I think there are a few we can rule out. Like the gay clubs, the leather clubs. She wasn’t into that sorta thing.” “How do you know? You didn’t even know she had your kid.” Jax smirked. “That’s true. Maybe she went gay after she knew it would never get better than me.” We all snickered. “Seriously, though. I think if we all split up, we can find out something. Was she with anybody? Maybe he would know something. It’s a start.” Flash nodded. “Okay. Why don’t we split it up into blocks?” We decided to do that, and we each took a three-block radius. Somebody had to find something in that amount of space. Otherwise, I was screwed. We left the office, wanting to leave right away. It was only around eight o’clock, so we had plenty of time. The lounge was full, everybody gathering around the coffee table in the center. “What’s going on?” Then I saw what was happening in the middle of the room. A few of the guys were teaching Gigi how to play poker. “Seriously?” I looked around for Jamie, but she was nowhere. “Where’s Jamie?” “She went home to get some clothes. She said she’d be right back.” “So you teach my kid poker while she’s gone?” I couldn’t help but laugh. “Okay, as long as you don’t start betting.” “She’s doing really good,” I heard. “Yeah, she’s kicking…butt.” Erica blushed, but caught herself before she used the word she wanted to use. It was still funny to me, all of them keeping their language clean for a kid. “Don’t let Jamie see her doing this. She’ll have her outta here in a heartbeat.” I signaled for the guys to follow me, and we went out to our bikes before splitting up. As I rode, I thought about the mess I was in with Jamie. It was hard enough having Gigi around

without Jamie getting in the way. And it was all hard enough without Rae being a pain in the ass. I went from having no women in my life to having three. It was almost funny. I started going from club to club in the city, asking about Rae. I described her as last I remembered her. “She probably changed something by now,” I admitted. “But she’s short, and probably skinny.” I imagined she was, with the drugs and everything. “She has brown hair.” Gigi told me that much. Over and over, they told me they hadn’t seen her. A few of them knew who I was talking about, though. “Yeah, I know Rae,” one of them told me, a tall dude with a lot of metal in his face. “She was here not that long ago. Hang on.” He went to talk to one of the bouncers. I wondered at Rae being in a place like that. Was she into piercing? When did that happen? Metal Face came back. “Yeah, she was in here on Sunday night. I remember thinking it was weird since she’s not usually here on Sundays.” Sunday. And Gigi showed up on Monday. “Did she have a boyfriend or anything?” “Yeah, she was in here with Bobby D. every once in a while.” I remembered Bobby D. from when I used to hang out at the clubs. I couldn’t believe he was still alive—he was a hopeless crack head even back then. “Has he been around?” “He’s here, I think.” I couldn’t believe it—good luck, finally. It was about time something went my way. Metal Face looked around the club. It was still early enough that there weren’t that many people there. He waved me over once he found who he was looking for. I slipped him fifty bucks for his trouble, and took a seat next to Bobby. He looked like shit, but that wasn’t a surprise. He smelled like shit, too. I wondered when he last took a shower. What was his life that he sat there looking and smelling like that? And what the hell was Rae doing with him?” “Bobby?” I nudged him. He looked half asleep, slumped over the bar. He sat up, blinking hard. “Yeah?” “You don’t remember me, do you? Lance.” He squinted hard, trying to bring me into focus. “Lance? No shit?” “No shit. How’ve you been, Bob?” “Oh, ya know, the same.” He swayed a little, and I held him up by the arm without thinking about how

much I didn’t wanna touch him. I didn’t want the guy to fall off the stool, though—especially if he had information for me. “I heard you’ve been hanging out with Rae lately.” I stared at him so I wouldn’t miss anything in his face that might give him away. A look, a nervous tick, something. I spent enough years asking questions of both friends and enemies to know what to look for. “Yeah, so what?” At least he didn’t deny it. “So I was wondering where she is. And why she never told me I have a kid.” “Oh, so you met Gigi, huh?” He grinned. I felt sick to my stomach. “You know Gigi?” “Oh, sure. I been to the house a million times.” He shrugged. I felt even sicker. My kid, around this walking sack of shit. I hoped to God Rae never came back from wherever she was. “Okay, great. So you’re tight with Rae. Where is she, man?” He shrugged. “I ain’t seen her in days.” “Yeah, well, she left the kid with me, and I’m sorta worried about her. Gigi doesn’t know where she went. Nobody does.” “Whaddya want with her?” “I wanna be sure she’s okay. I wanna be sure Gigi is safe, that her mom didn’t get her into trouble. Maybe she saw something she shouldn’t have seen, you know? Maybe that’s why she’s hiding the kid with me.” “Nah, that wouldn’t happen.” “You seem pretty sure.” “I am sure, man. Rae never let Gigi be around when anything was going down.” “Like what?” “Like, ya know, when she had people over to use. Know what I mean?” I wanted to kill the bastard. Shooting up, smoking crack, whatever he was doing—right there in the house with my kid. “Yeah, she’s the mother of the year,” I snapped. “She wasn’t using, though. So I thought it was funny…” He trailed off, like somebody flipped a

switch and he was disappearing on me. “What? What’s funny? Come on, Bobby. Talk to me.” I pulled him toward me by the lapel of his dirty jean jacket. “Stay with it, man. Stay with me long enough to help me.” He focused on me again. “I thought it was funny she was going to get some heroin.” My stomach clenched. “She was using again?” “That’s the thing, man. Like I said, she wasn’t on it anymore. For a long time, even. I was proud of her. I wanted to stop, too…” I rolled my eyes. He was doing a great job of it. “Do you know where she went?” “She said something about…meetin’ with…crow…” “No.” I shook him. “Do you mean The Scarecrow?” My eyes searched his face, hoping I only heard him wrong. “Yeah, man. Scarecrow. She was gonna meet with him. He had the stuff for her. “Oh shit.” I let go of Bobby, panicked. She met with the deadliest, most dangerous drug dealer in town the night before my daughter showed up at my doorstep. It didn’t sound good at all.” “And you haven’t seen her since?” “No, man.” “Not even that night? Not even once? Please, think hard about it.” “I’m thinking hard, man. And I’m telling you, I ain’t seen her since then.” He shrugged, falling forward a little at a time. I left him there, getting up, going to the front door. I thanked Metal Face again before I left, then turned back. “Listen, if you see Rae in here, can you call me?” I wrote down my cell number. He promised to give me a call. I texted the guys to tell them I talked to Bobby and gave them the basic rundown. As soon as I mentioned The Scarecrow, all of them lost their shit the way I had. They knew, like I did, that he wasn’t somebody to fuck around with. What the hell was Rae doing with him, then? Especially when she was supposed to be clean. Wasn’t there anybody else she could have gone to? I thought it over when I got on my bike. There had to be something deeper going on. Something else was missing, some piece of the puzzle. No way she went from being clean one day to walking on the wild side the next day. If she was in trouble with The Scarecrow, no way I could help her. He was into some deep shit, and the stories I heard about him made even my skin crawl.

I remembered what Bobby said about Gigi. Rae always made sure she wasn’t around when people were shooting up at the house. Why would Rae let people do that in front of her when she wasn’t using anymore? Was she dealing? Maybe she was a go-between for The Scarecrow? Even if she wasn’t using, she might have been making money from it. Fuck. And she had my daughter in that house with her? I couldn’t jump to conclusions. She might have relapsed. Maybe she took a taste on Sunday and decided she needed more. I knew it was just that easy—I had seen my mother go through it enough times to know too well. I went back to the clubhouse, wanting to talk things over with the guys and maybe ask Gigi a couple of questions if she was still awake. I imagined she had kicked the shit out of most of the club at poker by then. I grinned thinking about it. Maybe there was something to be said for genetics after all. She played cards just like her old man.

Chapter Seven Jamie

I hated leaving Gigi alone for even a little while, but there was no way I could spend a weekend in the clubhouse without clothes and toiletries. I didn’t think Lance would be keen on me taking Gigi with me—he might have seen it as a ploy to kidnap her, or he might even have sent one of his goons with me to be sure nothing funny went on. I could just imagine one of the members of the MC riding up to my gated community on the back of a motorcycle, leather vest and everything. I might get kicked out. So I went through the packing process as quickly as possible, taking clothes and a toothbrush, a bathrobe, a towel—not that I didn’t trust the girls to do laundry, but I felt better using my own than one that had been used by God only knew who in the club. I thought twice and took an extra towel for Gigi. Then, I hurried back. I told myself there was no reason to hurry—they’d taken good care of her all week. I didn’t like to admit it, but it was true. She even looked happy, and they all adored her. When I arrived, there was something big happening in the lounge. I looked around, scanning the room for Gigi. She was nowhere to be found. Erica stood at the edge of the crowd, laughing over whatever was happening in the center. I stood beside her, then went up on my toes to get a look over the shoulders of the men in front of me. I wasn’t wearing mile-high shoes the way Erica was. I gasped when I saw Gigi sitting at the coffee table, playing what looked like poker with three of the club members. I opened my mouth to say something, but Erica stopped me before I got a chance. “Just watch,” she murmured. “She’s won every hand.” “What?” I had to admit, I was intrigued. “She bluffs like nobody I’ve ever seen.” She giggled. I turned my attention to the group around the table. Gigi sat alone on one side, the others on the other sides. She held her cards close to her chest so nobody could see them. They were playing with pretzel sticks, and damned if she didn’t have a bigger pile than anybody else. They had to be underestimating her—I could’ve told them she was a genius. I had already considered having her tested for it, and was thinking about broaching the subject with Rae. Gigi threw three sticks into the center of the table to ante up. The rest followed suit. It was her turn again. She peeked at her cards, then threw another three sticks into the pot. The rest of the room

murmured. I bit back a laugh. The man to her left tapped his cards on the table. “I’ll see your three and raise two,” he said. Another murmur. Gigi looked unimpressed, only turning to the man across from her. He glanced from Gigi to the second player, and folded immediately to a chorus of laughter. Gigi’s eyes shifted to the man to her right. “I’ll see that five,” he said, adding his sticks to the pot. He was the dealer, so he asked how many cards everybody needed. Gigi took another peek. “I’m fine,” she said. Another round of murmurs, and some laughter. She was cool as anything, that kid. The man to her left took two cards. The dealer took three. It was Gigi’s turn again. “I’ll see your five, and raise you five.” My eyes flew open wide. She had guts. I heard Erica giggle. The man to Gigi’s left tapped his cards to the table again. “Too rich for my blood,” he decided, folding. Gigi looked unimpressed, swinging her eyes around to the only other remaining player. He studied her, eyes narrowed. I could tell he was trying hard not to laugh. “Okay. I’ll see your ten.” “Are you sure about that?” The room went quiet. Gigi glanced at her cards, still tight against her chest. She looked pointedly at the other player’s sticks, which were dwindling rapidly. “I’m pretty sure, yeah.” He smiled at her. “Okay. I don’t want you to lose all your sticks is all. Then you can’t play anymore.” She was so innocent, so wide-eyed. “It’s fun to play with you.” He smiled again. “Your hand is that good, huh?” She shrugged. “Maybe.” I put my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing out loud. “Hmm. If I fold, I’ll still be able to play. If I don’t, I might lose.” “That’s right.”

He squinted at her, trying to size her up. “I’ve seen you bluffing all night. How do I know you’re not bluffing right now?” “Maybe I am. Maybe I’m not.” She shrugged. The room was so quiet, I was sure I could’ve heard a pin drop. I held my breath, as I was pretty sure everybody else was. I watched the other player, and the way he stared at her. Her face was totally blank, except for a tiny little smile. He nodded decisively, making up his mind. “I don’t believe you.” He put in ten sticks. “Call.” Gigi spread her cards out before her. I craned my neck to see. Three tens, two fives. A full house. “Damn it!” The other player laid down two pairs. The room went wild, everybody cheering Gigi, chanting her name. She beamed with delight, pulling the pot of pretzel sticks toward herself. I wanted to be annoyed, but I couldn’t. It was too funny, watching her wipe the floor with these seasoned players. I did let her know I was watching, though, catching her eye from across the room. She waved. “You wanna play, Jamie?” “No, thanks.” Everybody laughed. “Besides, it’s getting late for you, isn’t it? Almost ten o’clock.” Gigi frowned but got up from her seat. Everybody wished her a good night, and I took her upstairs to get her ready for bed. “Who taught you to play cards?” I murmured as we climbed the stairs. “One of mommy’s friends taught me a long time ago,” she said. “And I used to have a poker game, too. Like a battery game.” I remembered her bringing it in for show-and-tell once. “But you didn’t tell them you knew?” “Nah.” She looked up at me. “Was that wrong?” “Not technically, no. That means you’re a card shark.” “What’s that mean?” “We’ll talk about it some other time.” I gave her a hug, laughing to myself over the way she made fools of a bunch of grown men. *** It was only a few minutes after putting Gigi to bed that Lance came in. I was sitting at the bar, chatting with Erica and Traci. I let them in on Gigi’s secret and the three of us laughed until we cried.

“Where’s Gigi?” Lance looked nearly frantic. I stood, as did the girls. “She’s in bed. Safe and sound.” He grimaced, shaking his head. “I didn’t think she wasn’t safe. I need to talk to her, though.” “I’m sure it can wait until morning, can’t it?” He rolled his eyes at me. “Yeah, I’m sure it can. Christ.” He grabbed a beer bottle from the bar and stalked off into his office, slamming the door behind him. For some reason, that door slam infuriated me—maybe because I had just finished telling him his daughter was asleep. I followed him into the office, closing the door more softly. “I didn’t ask you to come in.” “Big deal. I’m here anyway. You need to learn how to be a little quieter when your daughter’s in bed,” I snapped. “Oh, would you give it a fucking rest? I don’t need you nagging me to death. You’re not her mother.” “And you only fertilized an egg one day. That’s it. You’re not her father.” He glared at me. “Don’t tell me who I am. You don’t have the right.” “Just like you don’t have the right to hold me hostage here just because I care about your daughter.” “Hostage?” He laughed. “You’re not a hostage. You wanna leave? The door’s open, baby. Be my guest.” He sat behind his desk, feet up, drinking his beer. “I’ve got more important things on my mind than you right now.” “Like what?” “Like none of your business, that’s what.” “Do you think it would be possible for you to be a little less mature? Because I don’t think so.” He rolled his eyes again and sighed. “Would you let it go, please? Relax for five fucking minutes and I’ll tell you what’s up. Okay? If that gets you to leave me the hell alone.” “Do you think it would be possible for you to watch your language? I appreciate you watching it when Gigi’s around, but I don’t feel like hearing it.” “Like I said,” he grinned, “you can leave any time you want. I don’t wanna offend your delicate ears.”

I sat with a huff. “What is it you wanted to say?” He took another long swig of his beer, making me wait. My blood pressure boiled steadily the longer he left me sitting there. “I talked to a friend of Rae’s,” he said. “A guy I used to know, too, so he trusted me. Total junkie. He told me Rae was on her way to meet up with a pretty scary dude on Sunday night. He’s called The Scarecrow.” I shrugged. He said the name like he expected me to know who he meant, but I had no idea. “He’s probably the most dangerous guy in town. I mean really, really bad shit.” My face went slack, my shoulders drooped. “Oh no.” “Yeah. Drugs, mostly. He’s probably killed a half dozen people personally, but maybe a lot more than that. There are rumors that he’s into human trafficking, too.” I gasped, hand over my mouth. “Selling people?” “Yeah.” Lance looked disgusted. “And this is the sort of person Rae was meeting with?” “That’s what Bobby told me.” “He’s a junkie, though. That’s what you said. Can he be trusted?” Lance pursed his lips. “Yeah, I don’t know for sure. He seemed like he really meant it. I mean, that’s a pretty notorious name in our world. You don’t go throwing it around unless you mean it.” “It just doesn’t make any sense to me. I’ve met Rae lots of times. She always told me she was clean, how important it was to stay clean for Gigi.” “That’s another thing.” Lance looked even more troubled than before. “I feel like I don’t want to hear this.” “I know you don’t wanna.” He looked at me. “Bobby said he went to Rae’s house to do drugs before. While Gigi was in the house—not watching, but in the house.” I jumped to my feet. “No.” “Yeah. That’s what he told me.” I noticed the knuckles of the hand holding the beer bottle were white. “How could she do that?” I sounded like I was whining, but I didn’t care. Poor Gigi. I thought of Rae, so adamant that she was doing her best. Having her friends over to get high while her daughter slept

upstairs. My skin crawled and I rubbed my hands over my arms to get rid of the goosebumps. Lance shrugged. “She’s a junkie. I told you. Once a junkie…” “Yeah. Right.” I thought back to Gigi telling me how she learned to play poker, and I wondered which one of them taught her. Was it this Scarecrow person? Or the junkie Lance talked to? Or one of who knew how many others? It boggled my mind. Poor Gigi. “What do we do now?” I asked. “We?” “You, me, we. I don’t know.” “You’re here to keep an eye on the kid. Which you’ll do. Right?” I nodded. “Right. Of course.” “It’s my job to find out what happened to Rae after she met up with The Scarecrow. Where is his normal hideout, did anybody see her around there, that sort of thing. I have to track her down, and I will. It’ll be all right.” I sank into the chair again, my knees weak. Rae. What the heck had she been doing all this time? And poor Gigi. How many close calls had she had? Her mother was involved with a guy who sold people. I shuddered to think how close Gigi might have come. “You okay?” Lance asked. His voice was gruff, his eyes staring intensely at me. “Of course.” “You seem a little shaken up. It’s okay to be shaken up.” “Is it? Thanks for the permission.” I turned my head away so he wouldn’t see the tears threatening to overwhelm me. “What is it? Come on. Listen, I was upset, too. Okay? You wanna hear that? I was upset. I was more than upset. I wanted to kill Bobby for doing drugs in that house while my daughter was upstairs. I wanted to fucking kill him for it. I wanted to kill Rae for letting him do it. I wanted to kill her for putting herself in danger when she was raising my fucking kid. She put Gigi in danger, too. And I know that’s why you’re upset, so don’t bother telling me you’re not.” I didn’t bother. He was right. “But Gigi’s okay. She’s here, with us. And we’re not gonna let anything happen to her.”

I looked at him, trying to read him. He was so different from one minute to the next. First, he’d been cold, distant. Now he was caring, for all the gruffness he tried to put out. He couldn’t fool me. “I believe you,” I admitted. “You do? I’m surprised.” “I can tell.” I grinned. “I see how everybody likes her, wants to protect her. That’s reassuring. And as ridiculous as it might sound…I feel better about her being here than I did about her being with her mother.” He nodded slowly. “That doesn’t sound ridiculous. I guess I understand what you mean, though. The outlaws versus the junkie.” “Yeah. The outlaws are the ones I’d rather have her with. I saw the way they treat her. It’s sort of sweet.” “Yeah, it’s weird.” He grinned. I grinned back. For a brief moment, it was just the two of us. Two people. Not a criminal and a “good person.” Two people who cared about the same person and wanted what was best for her. For a moment, we could put our feelings about each other aside.

Chapter Eight Lance

Once Gigi was in bed, it was time to relax a little. Everybody had been on their best behavior all day, so the drinks and swearing started flowing fast and heavy when she was upstairs with the door closed. “God damn, it’s been a long week.” Flash took a whiskey from Erica and tossed it down his throat. “You’re complaining about my little girl?” I asked, only joking. “Hey, I’ll be the first one to say she’s a great kid, but it’s a little exhausting being cheerful all the time.” “You don’t have to be,” Erica pointed out, pouring me a drink. “Just be your normal self.” “No, don’t do that,” I said, shaking my head. “We don’t wanna scar the kid for life.” Flash took a swipe at my head, but I ducked just in time. Everybody else loosened up, too, and on one of the side room a bunch of club members got an actual game of poker going. Once they had a beer or two in them, things usually got a little out of hand. They deserved it after everything they’d done for Gigi and me. I noticed movement on the stairs and watched as Jamie came down from Gigi’s room. She looked less than thrilled by the way things turned around while she was upstairs. “It didn’t take long for the party to start,” she observed. “Listen, I’m gonna give you a piece of advice. You’re welcome to take it or leave it.” She smirked. “Okay. Shoot.” “Take the stick outta your ass long enough to have a good time. You might actually surprise yourself when you do. Hell, you might actually laugh.” “Thanks for the advice. I feel so much better now.” She sat at the bar, asking for a club soda with lime. I rolled my eyes—she would deliberately be a pain in the ass just to irritate me. I decided to let her do whatever the hell she wanted, as long as she stayed clear of me. I went into the room where the poker game was starting up, telling myself to forget about her. She wasn’t worth the trouble, determined to be a bitch. It didn’t matter how hot a woman was if she had it

in her head to be a bitch no matter what. “How’s it goin’ with her?” Flash asked. “Don’t get me started.” “That good, huh?” He snickered. “She’s a fucking bitch, okay? There’s your answer.” “You’re just pissy she’s not already sucking your cock.” “Watch it, buddy. I can still kick your ass. It doesn’t matter if you’re my VP or not.” I glanced out the open door. She was still at the bar, sipping on her club soda. Stuck-up. “I’m just sayin’ you’re not used to working for a woman’s attention.” “Are you ever gonna finish talking?” I asked. He laughed. “Fine, be that way. Be angry because she doesn’t care that you’re the president of the club. Be pissed off because she won’t hang all over you or try to seduce you or whatever. Pretend all you want that it doesn’t bug you. I’ll believe you.” He snorted, taking a swig from his beer. I tapped the bottle, making him miss his mouth and spill it on his shirt. “Asshole,” he spat, running his hand down the front of the shirt. “Oh, sorry. Did I make you spill your beer?” He scowled…then grinned. “Yeah. You should go get me another one.” “Oh, no.” “Oh yeah. I think Lance should get me another beer because he made me spill mine. All those in favor?” Every hand in the room shot up. “Vice president doesn’t get to call votes,” I grumbled, but stood up anyway. They jeered as I left the room. There was Jamie, still sitting there. Still in a bitchy mood. “Do you think you guys could maybe be a little quieter in there? Gigi’s trying to sleep.” “Aye, aye, captain.” I saluted. “You don’t have to be a dick about it.”

“Oh, language.” I shook my head in disapproval. “Why are you being so nasty?” “Why are you being so stuck-up? Why can’t you relax a little bit? You’re not any better than any of us.” She frowned. “I never said I was.” “No, not out loud, but you’re acting like it. I thought you had maybe loosened up a little. But no. You’re gonna sit here all night and act like a mom, giving us dirty looks because we’re having a good time.” “I’m not giving you dirty looks. I’m not even looking at you.” “You don’t have to, believe me.” I walked away, taking the beer to Flash. “Maybe if you’d act more like a father…” she muttered. I heard every word, and after I had handed Flash his beer, I went straight back to her. “What the hell does that mean?” I stood in front of her, hands on my hips. I knew I could be intimidating when I wanted to, and I saw the way her eyes went wide when she took in my size. “What does what mean?” “I don’t act like a father.” She shrugged. “You don’t, do you?” “I guess your father was something out of a sitcom. Right? The perfect dad, the perfect mom, the perfect life.” “Something like that, yes. My father didn’t whore around, drinking and partying it up every night. He had a responsibility to me.” Her eyes flashed, and her creamy cheeks had a flush to them. I wanted to kiss her, even with the shitty things coming out of her mouth. “I’m glad you had the perfect experience, honey, but not everybody did. Wake up. You should know better than to think people have to act that way. Don’t you see lots of kids every year? Lots of parents? There are all types in the world.” “Yeah, including you.” “Damn straight, including me.”

She scoffed. “I’ve seen all I need to see.” “Then get the hell out.” I pointed at the door. “You’re the one who wanted to stay, to take care of Gigi.” “I didn’t want to stay. You made me stay.” “If you want to take care of my daughter, yeah.” “Your daughter. About time she was your daughter. You talk about her like she’s your possession, but you don’t even know her. Seven years of nothing, and now she’s your precious little girl.” “Listen. Get this through your head.” I leaned down until I could almost feel the fear coming off her in waves. “I never had a father—nothing. So I wouldn’t know, would I? How to be, I mean. And I didn’t know about her until Monday. So excuse me, Miss Perfect, if I’m doing the best I can and it’s not good enough for you. I’d hate to be in the shoes of any man who tried to be good enough for you.” I walked away then. I was afraid of what else I would say if I didn’t. I sat down at the poker table and didn’t get up for hours. By the time I left the game, she was gone. Probably in bed. Only she wasn’t. She was in my office, curled up on the sofa by the wall. I looked around, wondering what the hell was going on. I knew Erica already set her up with a room. I nudged her gently to get her to wake up. She sat up fast, shaking her head. “Shoot. I didn’t mean to fall asleep like that.” I shrugged it off. “It’s okay. I was just coming in to turn off the computer. What’s up? Something wrong with your room?” She shook her head, stretching. I couldn’t help looking at her body when she did, especially when she pulled her arms back behind her and showed off her tits. Even in a baggy t-shirt I saw that what she had going on was mouthwatering. “I wanted to apologize,” she murmured. Her eyes were on the floor. I knew it wasn’t easy for her to say it. “For what?” I couldn’t help it. I wanted her to admit what a bitch she was earlier. “For trying to make you feel bad. You’re right—there are all different ways to be a father. I can’t give you crap for it. You don’t know what you’re doing. By this time, most dads would have seven years of experience under their belts. You don’t have seven days.” “That’s true.” I leaned on my desk, facing her. “I’m only doing what I can. I’m guessing most of the

time.” “You’re doing well,” she said. “When I thought about it—the way she’s so happy here, or seems to be, the way she’s so comfortable in her room. The way you’ve eaten her favorite food every night to keep her satisfied?” She grinned. I grinned, too. “Yeah, I’m getting kinda sick of spaghetti. If she likes anything else, and you know about it, tell me. Please.” She laughed. “I’ll have to think about it. How do you feel about chicken nuggets, though?” I groaned. “We’ll have to make something separate for her.” Jamie laughed again. “I know you’re trying. This is all new to me, too. Your world.” She motioned with her arms to take in the whole building and everything in it. “I’m not used to the partying, the drinking and card playing, and all that stuff. I don’t feel comfortable, I guess. And I took it out on you. I’m sorry.” “What do you do for fun, then?” “Fun?” Her face was blank. “Yeah. Fun. You know.” “Nothing specific.” “Don’t you have friends?” “Oh, yeah. We hang out sometimes, drink wine, watch our favorite TV shows. Now that Downton Abbey is over, I don’t know what we’ll do. Though I like Game of Thrones, too.” “I love Game of Thrones.” “Really?” Her face lit up. “See? We have that in common.” “We have Gigi in common, too,” she said, softly. “And you have to forgive me, but I’ve been looking after her since late August. I started packing two lunches to make sure she always has something to eat. I keep snacks in my desk drawer for her. I keep an eye on her shoes to see when she needs a new pair. Rae doesn’t do those things. She’s sort of been my project for the year. So it’s hard for me to give that up.” “You don’t have to give it up. She needs all the help she can get.” “True.” Jamie smirked.

“Be nice.” Her face went blank again, and I went on. “We can work together. We don’t have to work against each other. I want her to be happy. You want her to be happy.” “Do you really? Want her to be happy, I mean?” She sounded sort of breathless. “You don’t believe me?” “No, I do. I do. I just wanted to be sure you felt that way, because I didn’t know how you felt. I thought maybe you…I don’t know…resented her a little bit.” “How could I? Shit, I know what it’s like to be resented by a parent. By foster parents, too. I could never do that to my kid.” “I don’t mean to pry.” Jamie leaned forward, arms crossed over her knees. “What happened there? You talk about foster care like it’s the worst thing in the world.” “Maybe it’s not for some kids. It was for me. I wasn’t treated well. We’ll leave it at that. Okay?” She didn’t look convinced, and I didn’t want to talk about it. Instead, I turned around. Lifting the back of my shirt, I asked her to come closer. “See the circle-shaped scars on my back?” There were over a dozen of them, all over. I could close my eyes and tell her where each one was. I heard her come closer. “Yeah, I see some.” “My foster father decided to put his cigarettes out on my back one night.” “What?” It came out as a whisper. I turned around to see her horrified face. Her hands crossed over her mouth, tears filled her eyes. She whimpered. “Yeah.” I leaned on the desk again. “That was the worst night. That was the last night he ever did anything like that, too. I didn’t go to school the next day—the pain was so bad, I couldn’t. I went the day after that, though. I tried to put a burn cream on my back, but I couldn’t reach all the burns. Anyway, the cream went through my shirt, and so did some blood and other stuff. My teacher saw it, pulled me aside, took me to the boys’ room to get a look. I never saw a man cry before that day.” “Oh God. I’m so sorry.” She touched my arm. Her hand was shaking. “Now you see why I can’t put her in one of those homes. There’s no way of telling how those people are, you know? They could look totally normal on the outside. My foster family did. On the inside, they were fucking evil.” “I get it. I do. I’m sorry.” She looked like she wanted to say more, but she couldn’t. She stood very close to me, though. Her eyes were still wide, shiny with tears. And very green.

“Not your fault. But now you know why I feel like I do. Why I wanna take care of her myself. It’s important to me. You know?” “I know.” She opened her mouth again to say something else, then closed it. She looked around. “I guess I’d better go to bed. Big weekend ahead, need lots of sleep.” “Sure.” I waved at her as she left the office, saying goodnight to a few stragglers having a last drink before going up themselves. We’d have a full house that night. I didn’t mind—being an only child, I liked having other people around me. “You okay, boss man?” Erica winked, leaning in through the open doorway. “I’m good.” “Goodnight, then.” She went upstairs. I was the last person down there, which was the way it should have been. I was the boss, like Erica said. I locked up, making sure everything was off and the burglar alarm was set. Then I went upstairs, exhausted all of a sudden. I couldn’t help poking my head into Gigi’s room, just to be sure she was okay. She was sound asleep, arms around a teddy bear. Her nightlight gave me just enough to see by, and I went quietly across the room to make sure her blankets were pulled up. I ran a hand over her dark head, just like my own. “Sleep tight,” I whispered. And silently I swore to her that I would make her life better than mine was. Even if it was the last thing I ever did.

Chapter Nine Jamie

“Miss Jamie?” “Jamie,” I corrected, mumbling as I rolled over in bed. I didn’t usually sleep well in strange beds, but this was different. Maybe I was just exhausted from being so worried about Gigi, meeting so many new people. Spending half the night thinking about Lance and the scars on his back. I had spent untold hours thinking about him, imagining what it must have been like to be that little boy. No wonder he turned out the way he did. “Jamie,” Gigi corrected herself. “Good morning.” I opened one eye, teasing her. She giggled, standing at the edge of the bed. I grabbed her, pulling her in with me. She giggled helplessly. “Good morning. How did you sleep?” She sat up. “Good. It was kinda noisy downstairs, though.” I nodded. “Yeah, it did get noisy sometimes. I’m sorry. I tried to keep everybody quiet. I’ll make sure to do a better job tonight.” “It’s okay.” She shrugged it off philosophically. “I’m used to it.” There was no hatred in her voice, no anger or pain. That was just the way it was for her. She was used to living with noise coming from downstairs. I took a chance, feeling my way into the conversation. “Did your mommy always have a lot of people over?” “Yeah. I mean, not every night. But a lot of nights.” “And you would always stay upstairs in your room when that happened?” “Yeah. I had my toys up there, and a TV and movies to watch. It wasn’t so bad. Then I would go to bed. Sometimes I would leave the TV on so I didn’t have to hear downstairs.” “That’s pretty smart,” I said mildly. “Did anybody ever come upstairs? I mean, did you hear people in the hallway, outside your door?”

“Sometimes.” She traced the floral pattern of the bedspread with one finger. Her hair was a mess, total bedhead. I smiled at her when she wasn’t looking. “Did anybody ever come into your room?” I said it as calmly as I could, like it was normal for it to happen. I didn’t want to scare her off. “No. I was always alone.” She shrugged. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief. “What do you think about Lance?” I asked, propping up on one elbow. “What do you mean?” “I mean, is he nice to you?” “Yeah. I guess so. I mean, he wasn’t always. When I first got here, he pointed a gun at me.” She linked her hands in the shape of a gun and pointed it at my face. “What?” I didn’t mean to shout it, but she’d shocked me. “Yeah. He didn’t mean it, though. He told me he thought somebody left something bad at the front door. It was just me.” She shrugged, laughing it off like it was nothing. “But I cried when he did it. It was scary.” “I bet it was!” I wondered how Lance would feel if I stuck a gun in his face, then reminded myself he’d probably already had that happen more than once in the past. “After that, it was okay. He asked me lots of questions about my mommy, and where I live. He asked me for my address, but I didn’t remember it.” She avoided my eyes when she said that. The kid who could bluff her way through how many hands of poker didn’t remember her address? “Why didn’t you remember it?” “I was too scared.” I looked at her in my best teacherly way. I had to assert authority again. “Gigi. I know you know your address. Why don’t you tell me the truth? Remember what I always say about the truth? It’s always better to be honest. Right?” She nodded, looking down at her hands. “Is it wrong that I lied?” “In this case, sweetie, I don’t think so. But why did you?” “Because Mommy told me not to tell him. She didn’t want him to go there.” I frowned. It made sense to an extent. “Did she say why?”

Gigi shook her head, tousled hair bouncing on her shoulders. “No. Just that I shouldn’t tell him, no matter what.” Rae might have been afraid of Lance taking Gigi back to her. Or maybe something was scheduled to go down there that she didn’t want anybody else to be part of. Whatever it was, it was over by the end of the week. The house looked dark and deserted when I checked it out. Rae had most likely fled somewhere. “So if Mommy told me to lie, is it okay that I did?” “Yes, it’s okay. You did it because Mommy asked you to.” I patted her on the back, then hugged her when I saw how upset she looked. “Don’t you worry about it even one little bit. You’re a very good girl.” Then I pulled away. “Though you did trick everybody you played cards with last night.” She grinned. “That’s not lying. That’s bluffing.” *** When we went downstairs, teeth and hair brushed, both of us dressed, we were the only people there. I knew more than a few people had spent the night—I remembered watching them stumble upstairs. Lance was one of them. It was already past eight o’clock, but I guessed that was practically pre-dawn to the people sleeping it off in the upstairs rooms. “It’s so quiet down here right now,” Gigi whispered. “It’s always quiet like this in the morning.” “Are you always alone like this when you first wake up?” She shrugged. “It’s okay. I watch TV and play games until people get up. I don’t have to wait too long.” She was the most patient child I had ever known. I guessed a lifetime of waiting made a person more patient. “What do you say we make breakfast for everybody?” Her eyes lit up. “You know how?” “Are you kidding? I know how to do lots of things.” We went to the kitchen, which was fully stocked. I guessed once Gigi came along, it became important to be sure there was plenty of food available. I looked around. “What will we make?” Gigi tagged along behind me, watching as I pulled out ingredients. “I think this is a good day for pancakes. What do you think?” “Pancakes are my favorite!”

I smirked. “Have you been eating them every day this week?” “No. Yesterday we had eggs, and the day before that, we had cereal.” “Okay. Pancakes it is.” I didn’t want to serve something they’d been eating for days on end, like the spaghetti. “Gee,” I said, looking at the ingredients. “I’ve never cooked them for this many people at once before.” “You can do it.” Gigi smiled at me in that way only a totally trusting child could smile at an adult. “You’re right. I can do it.” I pulled up a recipe on my phone and multiplied the ingredients to make more servings. Flour, milk, eggs, sugar, salt, butter, baking soda. They even had vanilla extract. “What are you doing?” Gigi asked as I poured a splash of white vinegar in a measuring cup full of milk. “I’m making buttermilk. It’s science. See, when I add the vinegar, watch how the milk clumps up.” She watched closely as the milk separated. “It makes it very tangy. I’ll leave it there for a while, until it gets thick. When I mix it in with the baking soda, it’ll make the baking soda foam up a little bit, too. That makes the pancakes fluffy.” “I didn’t know cooking was science!” She giggled. “I feel like I’m in school with you and it’s only Saturday.” We laughed together over that. Then I went to the large griddle pan and turned it on. “I think I saw bacon in here somewhere…” I found a large package and laid the slices on sheet trays. “You’re cooking it in the oven?” She sounded amazed. “Yes, ma’am. It’s easy to do it that way when you’re cooking a lot at once. My mom used to do that when she made big breakfasts at home.” My heart clenched a little and tears squeezed my throat. How many Christmas mornings had I spent in the kitchen with her? I used to watch the milk turn to buttermilk, just the way Gigi did. “You had a mommy, too?” I smiled through the threatening tears. “Sure, I did. Everybody has a mommy.” “Not everybody. Some people have two daddies, the way Evan does.” Evan was one of Gigi’s classmates.

“That’s true. He has two daddies. Some people have two mommies, too. Some people only have their mommy or their daddy. You’re very right. I had a mommy and a daddy.” “Did your mommy teach you how to cook?” “She sure did, kiddo.” Again, it was tough to fight back the tears. I turned away, putting the bacon in the oven, then tested the griddle for readiness. “Okay! Let’s put some pancakes on the griddle.” Gigi watched in fascination as I poured batter onto the pan, and explained how the batter got hot and cooked. “This is science, too,” I explained. “It’s all science.” “And it’s yummy,” she added. “Yes. Science can be yummy.” I left her to watch the pancakes under strict orders not to touch the pan, and turned to the coffee machine. It didn’t take long before a large pot was brewing, and I flipped the pancakes when I finished getting it set up. We repeated this process through four batches, keeping the pancakes warm under foil. By that time, I heard noise coming from the lounge. “See who’s out there,” I whispered. “Tell them breakfast is almost ready.” She marched out proudly to announce that it was almost time to eat. I heard cheers, and chants of “Gigi! Gigi!” I smiled from ear to ear, admitting that it was extremely sweet to hear her treated that way. “I can’t believe you did all this!” Erica walked in, still in her pajamas. I waved a hand, showing it was nothing. She helped me finish up, getting the syrup, plates and such. By the time the last batch was finished, the bacon was also ready. I put it out on a big platter, and Erica called the troops in for breakfast. What I saw nearly stopped my heart, it was so sweet. Lance carried Gigi on his hip, and she told him all about the science of cooking. There was something incredibly adorable and natural about them, like he’d been carrying her that way all her life. I wondered if he even realized he was doing it, or if he did it without thinking. It was incredibly sexy, too. I couldn’t deny it even to myself that the sight of him taking care of her, listening very closely as she told him how buttermilk is made from milk and an acid, made my heart skip a beat. I smiled, turning my head away so he wouldn’t notice. I didn’t want to break the spell. After we sat down, picking seats at random throughout the clubhouse, Lance sat beside me. “What made you do this?” he asked, motioning to the food. “I was hungry.” I shrugged.

“But breakfast for everybody?” I shrugged again. “It seemed like the right thing to do.” He nodded thoughtfully before digging in. “Well, I’m glad you did,” he said before shoving in another mouthful of pancake. I had to chuckle at how eager he was. “I have to say, you and Gigi seem like you’re getting closer.” He looked at his plate, and I wondered if I’d gone too far. It was a risk, getting personal like that. He seemed to let it roll off his back, though, replying, “Yeah, we’re pretty good friends already. She’s an easy kid to like. I’m glad she’s not one of those whiney brats you see in stores and places like that. Begging for a toy or a treat.” “I have to admit, I can’t stand that either,” I murmured. We laughed together. “I once saw a kid begging his mom for a candy bar at the drugstore. He was a pudgy little guy, too. So Mom was like ‘No chocolate. You already had dessert.’ Something like that. The kid burst into tears —fake tears, of course. He kept begging, ‘Please, Mama. Please, can I have the chocolate? Please?’ I thought it was pretty funny, actually, the way he wouldn’t let it go. Finally, what does he do? He picks up the damn thing and tries to hide it behind his back.” “No!” I burst out laughing. “Yeah, right? And his mom didn’t notice, actually. She had a bunch of things to carry. The guy behind her in line gave her the heads up before they left the store. She didn’t say anything at first, just took it from him and put it on the counter. But you could hear her screaming from inside once she got to the parking lot.” “I bet. I don’t know, though. In that case, it sounds like the kid’s an addict or something. I’ve seen more spoiled kids in the five years I’ve been teaching…you have no idea. Kids who just come into school swinging their arms, trying to hit somebody. They don’t stop swinging until they leave. Then there are the kids who expect everything done for them. Or the ones who can’t be held responsible for anything, even if they lie or cheat. Their parents get up in arms if I dare call their snowflake out for being anything less than perfect. It’s really frustrating.” “It sounds that way,” Lance murmured. “I don’t know how you do it.” “I love kids. It sounds funny, maybe a little corny, but I do.” I smiled at him, and his smile lit up the room. “Thanks for loving mine.” It was so quiet, only I could hear it—and even then, barely. I did hear it, though, and my heart skipped another beat. If I spent much more time around him, I would need a pacemaker.

“And another thing,” I said, thinking things over while I ate, “there’s something we have to keep in mind. Both of us.” “What’s that?” I looked over at Gigi, who ate her pancakes with Erica and one of the guys she massacred at poker. “Kids like her aren’t just born. They’re raised.” I turned back to Lance. “We have to remember that Rae raised her with the respect she has, the patience, the kindness. She’s the sweetest kid I know. Always trying to help the other kids in class with their work, even when they’re all dressed better than she is. Even when she comes to school with no lunch. She doesn’t cower in the corner. She still puts herself out there. Rae did that. She raised a good kid.” We sat in silence, watching Gigi take over the room as she talked about the way science makes pancakes fluffy.

Chapter Ten

“I’m telling you, I could take a day off and let you be the teacher.” Gigi grinned, looking up from her notebook. “You’re still the best teacher,” she assured me. “Thank you. You’re too kind.” She giggled, then went back to the science lesson. We’d already had a science lesson that weekend, of course. I wondered what it would be like to homeschool a child. I guessed it would be like that, finding ways to bring science into everyday life, along with math and history and all the other subjects. It was an exhausting thought—home was home, work was work. I didn’t know how homeschooling parents did it. Once I was confident my little pupil was all caught up—it didn’t take long, not that I expected it to— we sat down to a game of checkers. “How long will I live here?” Gigi asked at one point. I had known something was on her mind—she was quieter than usual, though she’d sworn she was okay. I couldn’t lie to her. “I don’t know, sweetie. Are you unhappy here?” I kept my voice low, wanting to avoid attention. “No. I like it here. But it’s not the same as living in a house, is it?” “No, it’s not the same at all.” “And there are lots of people. They’re nice people, but sometimes I like to be alone.” “I know what you mean. I like being alone sometimes, too. You know, you could always go to your room if you’re tired of being around people.” “Yeah, but I can’t go out and play. There’s nowhere to play.” I hadn’t thought about that. There wasn’t even a park anywhere nearby. Meanwhile, at my house, I had a beautiful lawn, a big backyard and a park just a block away. Yet another reason why she would have been better off spending the weekend with me. “That stinks,” I commiserated. “Well, I’m sure it won’t be forever. You’ll be able to go to a new home soon.” She was so smart. “A new home? Not my house, with my mommy?” Her chin trembled. Crap. Leave it to me to be the one to drop the ball like that.

“What I meant was you and your mommy might get a new house. I think that’s what she might be doing right now, finding you a new house. Wouldn’t you like that?” I was such a bad liar. She saw right through me. But that was the thing about kids like her—she was used to being lied to, and pretending to believe the lies. She only smiled and nodded, then went back to the game. I stared at the top of her head while she considered her next move, white scalp making a straight line down the middle of two dark pigtails I’d made myself. She looked so much like her father, it was startling. I was beginning to notice that she even made the same facial expressions as he did. If anybody ever asked me my stance on nature versus nurture, I wouldn’t know what to say. While Rae raised her to be a good kid, so many of her father’s traits shone through in her, it took my breath away. As though he heard me, Lance entered the room. He saw us playing checkers and smiled, but there was no cheer in that smile. It was tight, distracted. He was glad his daughter was occupied but was too occupied himself to actually care, or come over to see how the game was going. She was a problem being taken care of at the moment. He could move on to the next problem for the time being. I wondered about him. He managed to make his life look pretty easy, but I was sure it took a lot of mental stamina and toughness to wrangle a group of rough guys like his crew. He always had to be “on,” always presenting a strong front no matter what was going on inside his head. Like Gigi. I knew the situation with her and Rae had to be tearing him apart. He looked worried, distracted. I wondered how much of it had to do with the ticking clock. He’d promised to let me take her by Sunday night if Rae wasn’t in the picture. I wished I’d gotten a certain time in writing—he might make me wait until one minute before midnight before I was allowed to leave with her. Not that I cared. Getting her out of there was all that mattered to me. Lost in thought, I hardly noticed when Gigi jumped four of my pieces. “King me!” she said, clapping. I could only shake my head at her, wondering where on Earth her brains came from when neither of her parents seemed exactly to be Nobel Prize winners. *** That was Sunday afternoon, when Lance was only mildly tense and difficult to be around. By Sunday evening, the tension was almost unbearable. I knew he felt it, too. He was snippy, irritable—not just with me, but with everybody in the clubhouse. The energy was high, volatile. Like a single spark could set off an inferno. I didn’t want to be around for it when it happened. I knew why he was acting that way. He remembered the deal we made. And Rae was nowhere to be found, which made Lance increasingly angrier. I thought I heard crashing noises coming from inside his office once or twice. Showing his temper, the big baby. I couldn’t wait. As pleasant as I’d tried to make it in the clubhouse for both Gigi and me, my efforts

were starting to fall flat. I had no desire to sit through another night of drinking and card games, and didn’t like feeling confined to “my” bedroom. I wondered if it was the way a caged animal felt, unable to control their destiny. Gigi was in the kitchen with Erica, fixing a treat after dinner, when I heard another loud crash from the office. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I barged into the room to find Lance breathing heavily, fists at his sides. I didn’t know what he’d slammed, though I thought it might have been a desk drawer. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I whispered fiercely. “Are you trying to make her afraid of you?” “I could really do without your lectures right now,” he spat, holding a hand up in my face. “Get your hand out of my face.” I moved away, incensed. “You don’t get to do that.” “I’ll do whatever I wanna do, because this is my clubhouse and my club. And she’s my daughter, not yours. Stop acting like you know what’s best for her.” “Are you insane? You don’t even know what’s best for yourself, much less for her.” “Don’t start with me. I’m not in the mood,” he warned. His nostrils flared when he got angry, and they were flaring hard as he stared at me. A quick glance down at his hands told me they were both still in fists at his sides. I kept a distance between us. He saw me look, though. “You really think I would hit you? Jesus Christ, you’ve been here all weekend and you don’t know the first goddamned thing about me or any of us. And you’re supposed to be the smart one.” “I’m smart enough to know that Gigi is going to be much better off in my house, sleeping in my guest bed, starting tonight. According to our agreement, of course.” He reeled slightly, like I’d hit him. “You’re crazy if you think I’m gonna let you take my kid away from me.” It was my turn to reel back. “You’re not serious.” “As a heart attack.” “There’s nothing you can do to stop me.” “Try me. There are dozens of us and only one of you.” I gasped. “They would do that? Even when it’s obvious she’d be better off with me? Even though that was part of our agreement? Part of the reason I’m here in the first place?”

“Why do you assume she’d be better off with you? What’s so fucking special about you? She has a lot of people here who care about her. You see how much they do. They’re good to her. They treat her like a princess, for Christ’s sake.” “How long can that go on? How long before she’s not a novelty anymore? The kid has to go to school. She needs her friends, structure. She needs a life. This isn’t a life. It’s a sideshow.” We faced each other, both of us breathing heavily. “She’s not going anywhere,” he warned menacingly. “And neither are you.” I gasped again. “You’re insane. That’s it. You’re insane.” “I’m not insane. And if you’d shut up for a minute, I’ll tell you why. I’ll tell you why I’ve been going fucking crazy all day. Not because you’re taking Gigi. It’s because I couldn’t let either of you go as long as I don’t know what happened to Rae.” I rolled my eyes. “Seriously? What does she even have to do with this anymore?” “Everything. It was one thing when I didn’t know she went to see The Scarecrow the night before Gigi came here. Now? I don’t know how much he knows. If she owed him money or fucked him over, who do you think he’s gonna come after if he hasn’t already gotten to her?” My eyes went wide as the weight of his words hit me like a ton of bricks. He smiled, seeing that I understood. “This is the only place she’s safe right now. I know you would do anything to protect her, but like I said, there’s only one of you. There are a lot more of us, and we’re locked and loaded. I’ll do anything to protect her, too.” He paused. “And you.” I didn’t know what to say. It was all so much to take in at once. When I found my voice, I said, “Me?” “Yeah, you. I don’t know how much he knows. He might have followed you from your place when you left and came back on Friday. I just don’t fucking know, and it’s making me crazy. I can’t let you go.” “I…I have to work tomorrow.” “Take a vacation day.” “I can’t just do that. It has to be approved in writing six weeks out…” “So tell them you have a family emergency or something. The kind of thing they can’t give you shit over. Leave a message, tell them. It’s Sunday night. Nobody will be at school right now.” It was like he’d already thought it through. How did that happen, this half-brained moron outthinking

me? It was convenient to think of him that way. It made life easier. The reality was he was anything but a moron. He had the savvy to lead a club the way he did. He had the charisma and wisdom to influence others. They followed him, trusted him. A moron couldn’t do that. “No! I can’t do that! Damn it, don’t tell me what to do. I’ve worked hard to make a life for myself, and you’re screwing it all up with these stupid head games. I don’t believe you. Nobody’s after me. I don’t have anything to do with anything. I’m leaving, and you can’t stop me!” He didn’t answer. He only took me by the shoulders, pulled me to him and crushed his lips against mine. My eyes flew open in surprise, and I instinctively tried to fight him off. I pounded my fists against his chest, but it was about as effective as pounding granite. It did nothing. He kept kissing me. After a few moments of that, his strong arms holding me close, his body pressed against me as his lips moved sensually against mine, I did the unthinkable. I stopped fighting and started kissing him back. I wrapped my arms around his neck, giving over to the sensations rushing through my body. The almost giddy feeling of his mouth on mine, his tongue darting out to lick my lips. I opened them, letting him invade me, touching my tongue to his. He licked me, then withdrew…licked, then withdrew…on and on, driving me crazy, making me press my mouth harder to his. Drawing little whimpers from my throat. My heart raced, my blood pounded in my ears, and the only thing in the world that mattered was the way he kissed me. I didn’t know it could be like that. He pulled away, and I followed for a brief moment. Wanting more. Then I got hold of my senses and pulled back. He was just as breathless as I was, and more than a little smug. “Call out,” he whispered. “Stay here.” I disentangled myself from his arms, straightening myself out before leaving the room without a word. I didn’t stop to speak to anybody, not even Gigi. I walked straight upstairs to my room and slammed the door. I leaned against it, catching my breath. Holy crap. What was that all about? It felt like my body was on fire. I put a hand to my chest, feeling the way my heart still beat against my ribs like a bird in a cage. I had never understood before how people got swept up in passion. It was the sort of thing that happened in the movies—man kisses woman, and in an instant they’re in bed, rolling around, clawing at each other. I never could understand how that happened. Until Lance kissed me. I could easily have sunk to the floor with him and let him take me then and

there. That was how passionate, how intensely erotic the kiss had been. I ached between my legs, and the wetness there was surprising. It was just a kiss, and it hardly lasted twenty seconds. But it might as well have lasted forever. And I wanted more. So much more. I looked at the bed, where I’d left my suitcase. I was ready to leave. I wanted to take Gigi with me. I didn’t want to leave. Not when I knew everything Lance told me. Not when Gigi was in danger. Not when I knew how he could kiss. Instead of picking up my things, then, I pulled the cell from my purse and dialed Vickie’s office line. “Hi, Vickie. It’s Jamie. I just got word of a family emergency. I need to take a plane out tonight. It should only be a few days. I’ll forward my lesson plans for the week, just in case, before I leave. I’ll give you a call to keep you updated. Thanks in advance for your understanding.” I hung up before I lost my nerve, then stared at my phone. I remembered Gigi asking me if it was okay to lie. I would have to tell her that it was also okay to lie when you thought you were protecting somebody you cared very much about. The way I cared about her. All I could do was hope to get out of there soon. I needed to get away from Lance—and my attraction to him—before it was too late.

Chapter Eleven Lance

I hardly had time to catch my breath after the kiss before Jamie ran away. She went up to her room, and I knew she was avoiding me. I also knew she would make the phone call to her boss. The look in her eye told me she would. I knew the way a woman looked when they decided to do what I asked them to do. I had seen it plenty of times. I practically hid out in the office until my hard-on went down. It was surprising how turned-on she made me. I only expected to kiss her to shut her up and get her to do what I wanted her to do to. That’s not true, a voice in my head said. You wanted her. That was the truth. There was something about her that brought out something in me I didn’t know was there before I met her. I never had that urge before, to grab a woman and kiss her, to make her mine. It was funny, too, since all we did was fight. But when we got along, we got along well. I liked being with her when she wasn't a bitch. And I wanted her around. I couldn’t pretend I didn’t like her being there at the clubhouse. She brought something to my life I didn’t know I was missing. When it was safe to leave the office, I went out to the lounge. Gigi was on the sofa, eating crackers and peanut butter. When she saw me, she handed one to me. “You want one?” “Thanks.” I grinned, taking it from her. She looked happy that I took it, happier when I ate it. It didn’t take much to make a kid happy. How come so many people were so shitty at it? “Will I go to school tomorrow?” Erica was sitting with her, and we looked at each other. “I don’t think so,” I said. “Why not?” She looked so damned innocent. “Just because. You’ll go back eventually. Jamie will help you keep up. You don’t have anything to worry about.” “I miss my friends, though.” “You have friends here.” “It’s not the same.” I couldn’t argue with that.

“Soon. I promise. Hopefully this week.” “Come on,” Erica said, smiling, trying to brighten things up. “We’ll finish cleaning up after our mess in the kitchen, and Jamie will read you a bedtime story when we go up.” “Good night,” Gigi said, climbing off the couch. She still didn’t call me anything, I noticed. I didn’t expect her to call me Dad. But not even Lance. Nothing. I watched her go to the kitchen and felt sort of sad. I wanted her to like being with me. It was the weirdest thing. I couldn’t have imagined I would ever feel that way. I went back to the office, waving Flash in with me. “What’s up?” He closed the door. “I need to find The Scarecrow.” I watched him wince. His tanned skin got a little pale, too. “You’re sure you wanna go looking around for him? That’s pretty dangerous stuff.” “Since when are you afraid of dangerous stuff?” I grinned. “Since I grew up and got a little common sense.” “Oh, so I don’t have common sense?” “Not right now. It sounds like you’re thinking with your dick, your heart, everything but your brain.” “I’m not thinking with my dick.” “You’re thinking about her.” He jerked his head upward, and I knew he meant Jamie. “Anything but her. She’s the least of my problems.” “Bull.” I shrugged. “Whatever you say. Fact is, I need to find him. I need to know where Rae is. I need to be sure Gigi’s safe. That’s all I care about.” “Are you sure about that?” “Isn’t that enough? I mean, Jesus.” “Oh, it’s enough. I wanna be sure the kid’s safe, too.” He sat down on the sofa, stretching out with his feet at the other end. “So what do you have in mind?”

“I don’t know yet. That’s why I’m talking to you about it.” I ran my hands through my hair, lacing my fingers behind my head. “We know the sorta people he hangs out with,” Flash said. “And they’re all bad news.” “Yeah, and we know where they hang out. And that’s bad news, too.” I shrugged. “What else can I do? I’ve gotta start somewhere.” “Don’t start there. Go to Rae’s. Jamie will tell you where she lives. She went there, right? She knows where it is.” I mulled it over. “Yeah. You’re right. I’ll start there. Maybe she’s been there lately and the neighbors saw her or something.” “It’s worth a shot.” I frowned. Yeah. It was worth a shot. I had the feeling I wouldn’t be lucky enough to find what I needed on the first try. I went upstairs, where Jamie was closing the door to Gigi’s room. She gasped when she turned and saw me standing there. I held up hands up in front of my chest. “I’m not gonna touch you or anything. Don’t worry.” She relaxed. “What do you want?” Her voice sounded a little shaky. “I just wanna know where Rae lives. I have to go to the house to look for her.” Even in the dark hallway, I saw her body language change. She crossed her arms, looking me up and down. “What good do you think that’s going to do?” “You went, didn’t you?” “Yeah, before I knew she ran off.” “How do you know she didn’t come back? You don’t know everything. It’s been a week since she left Gigi here. Maybe she finished what she was doing and went home. Or maybe I’ll find something there you didn’t think was important.” “How? The house is locked up, and I can’t believe I just said that because you’re obviously going to break in.” I pressed my lips together, trying to keep from laughing. “Are you gonna give me the address, or what?”

“Yes. I’ll text it to you.” She turned and went to her room, closing the door a little louder than she needed to. A few minutes later, she sent the text. *** The next morning, I went out before Jamie or Gigi came downstairs. I didn’t want to answer any questions, and I sure as hell didn’t wanna face Jamie after that kiss. I still got a little hard just thinking about it. I could imagine the shit Flash would give me when he found out I went looking for The Scarecrow on my own, which was why I didn’t tell him what I planned to do. If anybody saw more than one of us coming at a time, they’d be on guard. I didn’t need jumpy fingers on triggers. I didn’t trust many people, but junkies were the worst. Where I was going, there were plenty of them. Our town was divided into four parts. There were the ritzy houses, like the ones in Riverview Terrace. I imagined what Jamie’s house looked like. It probably had a nice view of the river, where she could see boats rolling past. Maybe she went out there sometimes. Maybe her boyfriends took her out on boats of their own. My chest tightened when I thought about it. Then there was the urban part of town, where the clubs sat, the office towers, the overpriced boutiques and stuff. That was a pretty popular area, and riding through on a Monday morning was always interesting. Watching the drones rush to the coffee shops on every corner, packing them, begging for the boost they needed to face their boring lives in their boring jobs. I was so glad that wasn’t me. I felt the wind in my hair as I rode. I had freedom. There was the middle-class section, which was bigger than all the others. Nice little houses up and down the tree-lined streets. Bikes in front yards. School buses. Crossing guards. Two-car driveways and garages. I rode down the street a little slower, keeping an eye out for kids going to school. I thought about Gigi when I looked at the faces of some of those kids. She should be on her way to school like the rest of them. She should feel happy and normal. I wanted to give that to her. She deserved it. Then there was the shitty part of town. I lived right on the edge, where the houses got smaller—still clean, still nice enough, but smaller. Smaller yards, smaller lawns, not as many trees. Then it went downhill fast. I crossed one wide boulevard and ended up in the ghetto. It was depressing. Everything seemed sort of dirty, sort of gray. I thought about Gigi growing up in a house like the ones up and down the street, and it bugged the shit outta me. She needed a better life. I hated Rae for never telling me about the baby. I had plenty of money put away—one thing about my life was the money it helped me make. Sure, the business wasn’t totally legal, but it was profitable. I could have set them up in a good place. I would’ve paid the bills directly, of course. No way I’d give cash to Rae. I couldn’t trust her. I got to the string of houses everybody knew was a drug den and parked my bike outside. There were

two strung-out-looking dudes in the doorway, sort of slumped over. They eyed the bike up like they just hit the lottery. I made sure my gun was ready, tightly tucked into the holster under my kutte, before climbing off. “Hey,” I said, walking to them. “I’m looking for The Scarecrow.” One of them looked up at me with bloodshot eyes. He grinned like I just said the funniest thing he ever heard. “Why you lookin’ for trouble, man?” “I’m not lookin’ for trouble, man. I’m just looking for him. I’m trying to find a woman.” “Ain’t we all?” The two junkies laughed together, falling over each other. I shook my head. “Listen,” I said, looking inside the dark house. “I’m gonna trust you two, okay? I need you to keep an eye on my bike while I go inside.” “I don’t know, man. Bike like that could go for a lotta money.” The second man fixed me with a cold stare. I wondered if he was half as high as he pretended to be. He seemed pretty savvy. “I’ll give you both a hundred bucks to make sure it stays safe.” “Bullshit.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out two fifty dollar bills. “Half now, half when I come out. Okay?” They both reached out to snatch the money from my hands. “Deal,” they muttered. “Don’t go off putting that in your arm before I get back, either.” I stepped around them and walked inside. I could almost hear their thoughts, knowing they had another high coming up. A big one, too. A hundred bucks could buy a lot. I didn’t know exactly who I was looking for, and I took my time as I went from room to room. I half hoped Rae was there. Maybe she spent an entire week getting high. Maybe she knew she was going to do it, and that was why she left Gigi with me. So she could. I had to believe something would go my way. It was disgusting in there. Bodies everywhere, either passed out, half awake, shooting up. In a couple rooms, I saw people fucking right out in the open. Nobody around them cared. They were all in their own worlds. I felt sorry for them for a minute. Nobody would choose a life like that. I didn’t know what The Scarecrow looked like, so I asked around. “You seen The Scarecrow around here?” The few people who were still alert shook their heads. One of them said, “Man, if he was here, I wouldn’t be here. Scary dude.”

“Yeah. Scary dude.” He looked at me like I was crazy for even asking. Why would anybody look for a person like him? I couldn’t explain that I wouldn’t if it didn’t have to do with a little girl and a woman who used to mean something to me. When I left, it was like walking out of hell. I took a deep breath of fresh air. It was amazing, the difference from inside to outside. There was actual light outside. It could’ve been any time of day or night inside, with the boarded windows. “You find what you need, man?” I looked down at one of the men who was outside when I went in. He was alone. “Where’d your friend go?” “In there. Couldn’t even wait for the rest of the cash.” He shook his head. I shook mine. “Here.” I handed him another fifty and went back to my bike. It was fine, so he did his job. I was even more depressed than before I went into the drug den. I thought about all the lost people inside, then told myself they were a lost cause. There were other people to think about, people with an actual future. Like my daughter. And Jamie. I tried not to think about her, but she kept pushing her way into my thoughts. The way she looked when she told me off, with those flashing green eyes and heaving tits. She made me catch my breath just thinking about it. I had wanted to do so much more to her than just kiss her. I still wanted to do it. Then I thought about Rae as I rode to her house. How the fuck did she get herself mixed up with a guy like The Scarecrow? He was a legend in our town. A scary legend, the kind you told kids when you wanted to scare them away from drugs. If you weren’t careful, The Scarecrow would eat your soul. Funny how he disappeared, and Rae was gone, too. Did they go somewhere together? I couldn’t imagine the two of them on a beach somewhere. I actually laughed a little at the thought, it was that crazy. No way they did that. So what, then? Where would they go? What could they do together? They didn’t go away together. He sent her away. He probably killed her. I couldn’t ignore the chance that he had. My daughter probably didn’t have a mother anymore. How would I tell her that? How could I break the news to a seven-year-old that her mommy got mixed up with the wrong guy and he killed her? How did the police tell me? They didn’t have to tell me. One thing Gigi and I had in common was a sort of sad understanding. It was the only way I could think to describe it. We both knew more than we should have from a young age. We understood how shitty life could be. I wished I could have protected her from that. When my mom OD’d, nobody had to explain it. I just knew she was dead and that was it. It felt like it had to happen sooner or later. What a shitty thing for a little kid to know without being told.

Obviously I couldn’t tell her the truth right away. She’d have to know someday, though. That day would come faster than I wanted it to. I would worry about it when it happened—I had more important things to worry about at that time. I turned my bike in the direction of Rae’s house and hoped I would find something, anything, to settle the mess she had gotten us all into. Otherwise, I didn’t know what I could do to keep my daughter safe.

Chapter Twelve Jamie

“Am I ever gonna go back to school?” I sighed. The poor thing looked more miserable than I had ever seen her, which was saying something, considering the fact that I’d seen her looking pretty miserable. I’d seen her half frozen, half starved, exhausted from staying up all night, listening to Rae’s parties. Despite the cheerful pink sweater and tutu she wore, she broke my heart. I did my best to stay positive for her sake, smiling and stroking her dark hair. She had a set of bangs that were just a little too long, and I brushed them away from her eyes. “Of course you will, sweetie. But aren’t you having a nice vacation?” “Is this what a vacation is?” She looked skeptical, then looked around the lounge. I opened my eyes wide, smiling. “Heck yes! That’s what a vacation is. You take time off, you relax, and you have fun. Aren’t we having fun?” “I guess so.” It was painful trying to draw her out that way. She wasn’t buying it. I felt sorry for her— my heart broke a little more, in fact. I knew how much she loved school, how much she cared about her friends. School was probably the only happy thing she had in her life, the only place she felt like she belonged—ironic, seeing as how she was so different from the other kids. It couldn’t be easy for her to be the only little person in a world full of grownups. I craned my neck, lowering my head until our eyes met. “Hey. Everything’s going to be okay. You believe me, right?” She nodded, frowning. She looked completely dejected, but she would do her best as long as she thought it would make me happy. I gave her a little half hug, but I was burning up with anger. I would have to have a little talk with her father whenever he decided to come back from running around. Erica and Traci came out, and the three of us sat down to play poker with Gigi. It was the only thing that seemed to cheer her up. I worried that she might end up being a hopeless gambler one day, but it amused her in the moment. I couldn’t deny her. I found myself watching the girls more closely than usual, mainly because they were so different from me. Both of them had long hair, which they curled down their backs. Both of them wore heavy makeup. Traci wore a tight tank top and skinny jeans. Erica wore a t-shirt she’d cut the neckband out of until it hung over one shoulder, and a pair of leather pants. They were buxom and sexy—if a little cheap. But nice girls.

Was that what Lance liked? Was that his type of girl? I would never be that girl. I would be a novelty to him for as long as we knew each other. He would never take me seriously. I was the bitch with the stick up her ass. He kissed me, but it didn’t mean anything. It was a heat of the moment type thing. I didn’t mean a thing. He wanted the type of girl Erica and Traci were. Nice, fun, sexy. And a little trashy. It reminded me of the end of Grease, which always annoyed me. Sandy changes herself to make Danny happy, so they can be together. What sort of message was that for a girl? I would never do something like that. If I wasn’t good enough for Lance as I was, I would never be good enough. Wait a minute. I completely messed up my hand of poker when it occurred to me that I was thinking about Lance as something more than Gigi’s father. When had that changed? When we first met, he was only a filthy criminal. I couldn’t stand being in the same room with him, much less the thought of killing him. Now I was wondering if he’d ever like me. How pathetic. I paid more attention to the way Gigi interacted with the girls, and that took my mind off my mixed feelings. I could enjoy myself when I wasn’t thinking too much. “So, Jamie,” Traci asked, glancing at me over her cards, “do you have a boyfriend?” I blushed and cut my eyes at Gigi. It wasn’t the sort of conversation to be had in front of a little girl. She was way too interested in the answer, too. “I don’t know if certain little people need to hear about this,” I joked, looking right at her. “I won’t tell. Promise. I won’t even listen.” She put her hands over her ears—after laying her cards face-down, of course. She was a sharp kid. “It’s okay.” I gently pried her hands from her ears. “The answer is no, anyway.” “No? A pretty girl like you?” Erica shook her head in disappointment. “You are pretty, Jamie. Everybody in class thinks so.” Gigi beamed. “Thank you, sweetie.” I bit my lip to hide a smile. “And I love how the two of you sound like old ladies giving me advice, when I’m older than you.” I looked at Traci and Erica. They both giggled. “You’re right. We sound like gossipy old ladies. My grandma was like that. Her friends would sit around the kitchen table, drinking coffee or whatever, and when I walked in the kitchen they’d start talking about me. How it was a shame a pretty girl like me didn’t have a boyfriend.” Erica laughed. “I’m turning into my grandma. It’s all over.” “You look young,” Gigi assured her, very seriously.

“Thank you, honey.” Erica winked at me. “So, how come?” Traci asked. She wasn’t going to let it go. “I just don’t. It’s a long story.” “We have lots of time.” “It’s a private story.” “We won’t tell.” I shook my head. “I just never met anybody I liked well enough.” “Wait. You’ve never had a boyfriend? Like, never ever?” All three of them put their cards down to stare at me. Even Gigi. “You shouldn’t be listening to talk like this,” I told her, shaking my finger. “I’m pretty grown up,” she said. “I know how things are. With boyfriends and stuff.” I wondered how true that was, and thought she probably knew a lot more than any child her age should. My heart ached a little. “Okay.” I put my cards down, giving in. They weren’t going to let me off the hook, so it was pointless to keep wiggling. “I had a boyfriend in college. He was nice. I liked him a lot. Only he…liked a lot of other girls, too.” Erica and Traci nodded their heads sagely. Gigi was transfixed. “He liked other girls better than he liked you? That’s impossible!” She was so serious, I didn’t want to laugh at her. I bit my tongue and managed to nod seriously. “I thought so, too,” I said once the urge to laugh had passed. “So we broke up—well, I broke up with him.” “And you never had a boyfriend since then?” Erica asked. “I’ve dated a little here and there. Mostly people I got fixed up with. You know how it is. It never worked out. It was fun, but there was nothing there. Nobody to get serious about.” “And you like living alone,” Gigi added. I smiled at her while wishing I had never told her that. “You can’t be alone all the time,” Traci pointed out. “Thanks for the advice,” I joked, wanting to change the subject. I had the feeling that wasn’t going to happen.

“It’s true. You’re young. You have it together. You have a lot to offer. Just because some creep hurt you…” “It’s not because of that,” I said, knowing it was. That was exactly why I steered away from commitment, because Steve was a jerk who walked all over my heart. When I found out he’d been cheating on me, I blamed myself. Hadn’t I seen the signs and dismissed them? Hadn’t I told myself I was paranoid for wondering why he’d drop off the face of the Earth sometimes? Hadn’t I accused myself of being too hard on him, of putting up blocks to my happiness? Yes, all that and more. And look where it got me. I couldn’t trust my judgment with men. I couldn’t trust my judgment. Which was why I had to steel myself against Lance. I couldn’t trust myself to be level-headed, especially when he did sweet things like carrying Gigi around and listening to her stories. Just because he decided to give the whole father thing a shot didn’t make him a good person, worthy of my affection. It didn’t change him into an upstanding citizen, either. I would never commit myself to a criminal. I was too smart for that, too focused on a solid future. I looked around. “Where’s Lance, anyway? I haven’t seen him all morning.” Erica shrugged. “I guess he had things to do. Who knows? He’s got a lot on his mind right now.” “How do you stand it when he gets that way? All tensed up, I mean. Is he always like that?” “No,” Traci said. “He’s usually pretty even and calm. There’s a lot going on.” She nodded her head toward Gigi, who was dealing a new hand. “Have you ever seen him like this before?” “Maybe when he first started as president,” Erica said. Traci nodded in agreement. “Yeah, he was pretty wound-up then, too. I guess it makes sense, though. He had a lot to take care of. He did a good job, though.” “Oh yeah. Everybody thinks he’s the best president the club ever had,” Erica added. “What’s the club do?” Gigi asked, all innocence. I looked at the girls, who looked at each other. Erica cleared her throat. “It started a long time ago, maybe fifty years.” Gigi’s eyes went wide. “That long?” Erica grinned. “Yeah. A long, long time. A bunch of friends liked to ride motorcycles, and they weren’t happy with the way the world was. Like, they fought in a war, and when they came home, they felt different about their jobs and their lives. Does that make sense?” “Not really,” Gigi said.

“It’s like this. They felt unhappy and didn’t understand why they had to fight in the war. It didn’t make sense to them. And nobody would give them any answers that made sense. It felt like all they did was make war and hurt people for no reason. So they decided to make up their own club, and sorta live together and make up the rules for how they would live.” “Did Lance do that? Is he that old? He looks young!” Erica giggled. “No, Lance wasn’t there back then. But my granddaddy was. He was one of the first members. And my daddy joined, too, when he got old enough. I used to hear stories about when they first started, all the time.” “Does everybody live here?” “No, sometimes we stay here. But we have our own houses and stuff, just like everybody else.” Gigi nodded, taking it all in. “I was wondering why everybody was always here. Don’t you have jobs?” Both Erica and Traci laughed softly. “That’s complicated. For us, this is our job. We cook and clean up and pour drinks and stuff. The guys do all sorts of things.” She left it at that. Gigi looked satisfied enough. I wasn’t satisfied—I was curious as to how the men made their money. They all seemed fairly well-off, for all their scruffiness. The clubhouse was beautiful. The money had to be coming from somewhere. Gigi fell silent, and I knew her well enough to see the wheels turning in her head. Her eyes drifted toward me more than once. What was on her mind? “Jamie?” “Yes, sweetie?” “Do you like Lance?” I was so flabbergasted, the only thing I could do was laugh. She was serious, though, waiting for me to answer. “What do you mean?” “Do you think he’s a nice person?” “Yes,” I said. “I think he’s nice.” “You fight with him a lot.”

I smiled. “Grownups do that sometimes.” “But you think he’s okay? A nice man?” “I really do. I think he likes you a lot.” I rubbed her back, but glanced at the girls with questions in my eyes. They shrugged, just as lost as I was. Her little voice was barely a whisper. “Maybe you guys could get married.” Traci sounded like she was choking. I ignored her and Erica, my eyes only on Gigi. “Uh, I think we can find something to do elsewhere. Traci…?” Erica got up, dragging her friend with her. I waited until Gigi and I were alone before I continued speaking. “Sweetie? Why would you want me and Lance to get married?” I asked as gently as I could. “That way, maybe you could be my other mommy. Other kids have other mommies when their daddy and mommy don’t live together anymore. Like Olivia and Spencer do.” I nodded. There were more than a few kids in class whose parents were divorced. Somehow, I never thought any of that filtered through Gigi’s consciousness—then again, she was a very smart, perceptive kid. I shouldn’t have been surprised that she’d picked up on it. “That’s true. Some people have more than one mommy and daddy. Step-parents, they’re called.” “Right. So maybe you could be my step-mommy. Since you like Lance. I know he’s my daddy, my real daddy.” “You do?” “Mommy told me that’s who I was going to live with.” I chose my words carefully. “Honey, people don’t get married just because they like each other. They do it because they love each other. I don’t love your daddy.” “Oh.” Her face was a mask. “Talk to me, please. What are you thinking about?” She shook her head. “I just thought you could be my step-mommy, that’s all.” “What about your real mommy? Don’t you love her anymore?” “I love her. But I don’t think she’s ever gonna come back.”

My blood ran cold. She sounded so sure. “Why do you say that?” “When she would walk me to school, she would always say, ‘See ya later.’ When she left me here, she said ‘Goodbye.’” “Oh, honey. That doesn’t mean you’ll never see her again. She’ll come back for you.” I didn’t believe myself, but it didn’t matter. From the look on Gigi’s face, she didn’t believe me either.

Chapter Thirteen Lance

My heart sank when I pulled up to Rae’s house. It was so tiny, dirty looking. It made me think of the house I grew up in with my mom. They could have been the same house, with the same dirty siding and the same broken shutters. The same dead lawn. No toys out front. I looked around. There wasn’t anybody outside, which worked for me. I needed to get inside the house, and I didn’t feel like getting caught doing it. Who would believe the criminal was breaking in to find out where his baby mama disappeared to? First, I looked around. I decided to go through the back door—less chance of getting caught that way. I stopped at the front window with the broken blinds first, looking in. The house was dark, just like Jamie said it was on Friday. “Where are you, Rae?” I muttered as I looked through the window. I walked around to the back door, hopping the chain link fence with no problem. The storm door didn’t have glass in it—just an aluminum frame. What was the point? I worked the lock on the wooden door and it opened with no problem. After one more look around to be sure nobody was watching, I went inside. I didn’t think anybody would call the cops even if they did see me breaking in—it wasn’t the sort of neighborhood where people looked out for each other. They knew better than to keep their eyes open. It was easier that way. The kitchen was tiny, dirty, and pretty much empty. I couldn’t help but look in the fridge to see what was inside, and I scowled when I saw mostly bare shelves. A tiny bit of sour milk. A splash or two of orange juice. Takeout containers, probably empty or moldy—I didn’t have it in me to look inside. The smell was bad enough. The cabinets were practically bare, too. How did either of them live? I remembered how Jamie told me about the two lunches she would make, one for her and one for Gigi. She probably kept my daughter alive. I would have to thank her for that. The only other room on the first floor was an open living room, with space for a dining room table. The table was old, scarred, covered in junk—magazines, ads, newspapers, empty cereal boxes. The living room was pretty empty except for the couch and a small TV. There were ashtrays around the place, all full. My stomach turned. I told myself to stop looking around, since all it did was piss me off. I couldn’t help myself, though. I needed to know how my daughter lived. I walked upstairs. Rae’s room was at the end of the hall. It was like I expected it to be—pretty much empty. Just the necessities. A bed, a small dresser. A bare overhead bulb. I shook my head in disgust. The only other bedroom on the floor had to be Gigi’s. The door was closed. I turned the knob, closing

my eyes. Preparing for what I would see on the other side. What I found was the biggest surprise I could imagine. It was beautiful. Pink walls, pink sheets and blankets. A TV and DVD player, with stacks of Disney movies on top. Toys, books. That much, she actually tried to give her daughter. Of course, the kid spent most of her time in her room, with mom getting high downstairs. I hardened myself against her again. I couldn’t let myself feel sorry for her or think she gave a damn about the kid. I thought back to the empty refrigerator. If she gave a shit, she should have made sure there was food in the house. That was more important than pink walls and stuffed animals. I went back to Rae’s room and opened the closet, the drawers. There was hardly anything in there, but was that the norm? Or did she pack up to leave? There was no way to tell, though I thought the room would be a little messier if she left in a hurry. It might have been empty, but it was tidy enough. Unlike the rest of the downstairs, which was a shithole. I went downstairs. It was obvious she hadn’t been back to the house. The place was dark, dusty. Cold —the heat was off. Was it ever on? I looked around, sad and angry at the same time. She never even told me she had a kid. Like I couldn’t have given Gigi a much better life than she had. It was insulting. The dining room table caught my eye. There was a stack of mail on it. I looked at the front door—a mail slot, but nothing on the floor. She was here. Otherwise, there’d be a pile on the floor. I went to the table, flipping through the stack. Some of it was postmarked as late as Friday. “Damn it!” I whispered. She had been there over the weekend. Or maybe even earlier in the day. Underneath the mail was an envelope with a picture of a bus on the front. Greyhound. I picked it up, opening it. It was empty except for a receipt. For a bus ticket. “Shit!” There wasn’t any information on the receipt except for a ticket number. I wondered if I could look up the information for the ticket using the number. I raced out of the house, back to my bike. I had to get to the clubhouse as soon as possible. When I got there, I didn’t stop to say hi to anyone—even Gigi and Jamie, who were playing cards around the coffee table. They both looked at me, but I kept walking. I went into the office and closed the door. My fingers were crossed as I went to Greyhound’s site and looked around. Where would I find what I needed? Manage Trips. I clicked on it and filled in the confirmation number from the receipt. Bingo. There it was, the information I needed. Fuck! She bought a bus ticket to New York just that morning. It was scheduled to leave in five hours. “I just missed her,” I whispered. She must have gone back to the house to pack a few things, picked up

the mail and left the sleeve for the ticket on the table. I would have completely missed her if I didn’t look at the mail. I sat back, wondering what to do. I had to go to the bus station to find her. That was the only choice. I went out to the lounge, looking for Flash. I had to come up with a plan to track and corner Rae. “Where’s Flash?” I asked. “He went out to get some sandwiches and stuff.” Jax looked me up and down from where he sat at the bar. “You look like shit, man.” I glanced at Gigi, then back at him. “Oh, sorry. You look bad.” He looked at Gigi. She smiled. He actually smiled back. “Yeah, well, I don’t feel so great.” I took a bottle of water out of the cooler behind the bar. I needed to get my head on straight. What would I do once I found Rae? What if she ran? What if she wasn’t alone? The Scarecrow might have bought a ticket for himself, too. No, that didn’t make sense. A ticket to New York told me she was on the run and wanted to disappear in a huge city. Why was she running? What the hell did she do? Jamie stood up, facing me. “What’s your plan, Lance?” I was not in the mood. I was not in the mood at all. “What’s the problem now, Jamie?” I faced her, hands on my hips, mocking the way she stood. Why did everything have to be a fight with her? “What did I just ask you? What’s the plan? Do you even have one?” “What do you think I’m working on? Do you think I’m going out to have fun?” I turned away, going back to the office. “Don’t walk away from me.” I heard snickering and laughing around the clubhouse as Jamie followed me into my office, slamming the door so loud that the walls shook. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I faced her, eyes wide. “You’re crazy.” “If I’m crazy, it’s your fault. You’re the one making me this way. I care a lot about that kid, and you’re keeping us both hostage here.” “You’re not a hostage.” “So what am I? What is she?” “You’re in danger. How many times do I have to tell you? The faster you get used to it, the better off

you’ll be. I can’t keep reminding you every fucking day that I’m only in this to keep you safe.” “Oh please.” She waved me off. “You only kept me here in the first place to screw around with me. You teased me and messed with my head. It was a big joke to you.” “And it’s a good thing I did that, isn’t it? If The Scarecrow is out there, looking for you or Gigi, this is the best place for you. I can’t tell you that enough.” “How do I even know this Scarecrow person exists?” I laughed. “Ask anybody here. They’ll tell you—unless you think we’re all in a big conspiracy to fuck with your head.” “How do I know that’s not exactly what you’re doing? Fucking with my head? You always go out alone when you’re looking for him or Rae.” “I took the guys with me on Friday.” “Yeah, but you split up. I know you did. Don’t lie to me.” “You’ve been reading too many mystery novels or something,” I muttered. I hoped she would let it go, but I could see she wasn’t in the mood to. I sighed. “I was just out today trying to find Rae. I was trying to find The Scarecrow. I toured a fucking heroin den, for Christ’s sake. It was awful. I don’t know how people fucking live that way, I really don’t. Then, I went to the house. And you were right —it’s the most goddamned depressing place I ever saw. No food, no nothing. I can’t imagine her living there. And now you’re in here, fucking with my head. I don’t have time for this right now, Jamie. I don’t. What do you want from me?” It took a little bit of her anger away, but not much. “I want you to tell me when your daughter will be free to be a kid again. She’s miserable. She can’t even go out and play. How would you feel? I rolled my eyes. “Do you think I give a shit about her going out to play right now?” I laughed harshly. “That’s the least of our problems.” “It’s a problem for her,” she insisted. “I can’t exactly tell her she should consider herself lucky because her junkie mother might get her killed. To her, it’s a big deal.” “You’re the one who wanted to take care of her. If you can’t keep her interested, that’s not my problem. You should work on that.” I brushed past her, which pissed her off even more. She huffed and puffed, but it didn’t mean anything. She was hell bent on getting herself into trouble, and I was only trying to make sure she was okay. I never thought I would regret trying to help somebody, but it was just another example of why sticking my neck out was never a good idea. She was totally wound up, not even making sense anymore. I watched as she ranted with a red face

and wide eyes, arms and hands waving. Finally, she stopped flipping out. “Are you finished?” Her chest heaved as she breathed. I couldn’t help watching. She looked incredible. So fucking hot. I wanted to take her, but held myself back. The last thing I needed was for her to lose her mind because I touched her. I talked instead. “I’m so close to finding out what happened to Rae. So close.” “Really?” Jamie folded her arms. It only pushed her tits together. I took a deep breath, clenching my jaw to get the urge to pass. “Yeah, really.” I leaned on my desk, breathing deeply. “I might be able to find her today. Okay?” “How? Where is she?” “The less you know, the better.” “That’s crap. I deserve to know. This concerns me, too.” “Bullshit. I’m not telling you, so stop trying. I’m trying to keep you safe, too, in case you forgot. You don’t wanna be mixed up in this.” I thought about the heroin den. “Those people I saw…you don’t wanna mess with them. You don’t wanna be anywhere around it. You’re better than that. Why don’t you understand I’m just trying to keep you safe?” “By withholding the truth from me?” “Be keeping you away from shit you don’t wanna be near. Shit I don’t want you even to know exists. The same thing with Gigi. I don’t want her to know people like that even breathe air. But she does. She shouldn’t. You’re right, she’s a little girl. She should be able to be just a little girl. I’m trying to make this right for her. I can’t have you standing in my face, challenging every fucking thing I do. I can’t get anywhere with you in the way. So you’re either gonna get out of my way, or help me keep her happy until this is over.” She stayed quiet, which was a miracle. I must’ve said the right thing. “I’m gonna go take a shower and try to sleep a little. I didn’t get much sleep last night—almost none at all.” I left her standing there and went upstairs. Before I did, I told Jax to give Flash the heads up that I was looking for him. “I’ll be up by three. We have to be at the bus station by four. I want you and a couple others with me. I’ll explain later.” “Okay,” he said, nodding. I ruffled Gigi’s hair and went to my room. I only had time to take off my kutte and my t-shirt when

there was a knock at the door. I opened it. Jamie was standing there. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m just really scared right now. I don’t know what to do about any of this. It’s all new to me. I’m taking it out on you.” I didn’t know what to say. There was nothing to say, anyway. Instead of talking, I took her by the hand and pulled her into the room with me, shutting the door. She came willingly. And when I took her in my arms and kissed her the way I did in the office, she didn’t fight back.

Chapter Fourteen Jamie

I couldn’t stop him. I didn’t want to stop him. I couldn’t even stop myself from wanting more. He pulled me further into the room, our mouths connected, until we stood next to the bed. Yes. This was happening. Just like I wanted it to. His mouth moved against mine, his tongue roughly parting my lips. I responded eagerly, kissing him back just as hard until it hurt. All the passion that built up between us flowed through us then, and my heart thudded dangerously hard in my chest as we went on. His hands were all over me, touching me, fondling me, sliding under my clothes, over my clothes. My skin burned at his touch, but I wanted it. I wanted more. I held onto his massive shoulders just to stay on my feet. I felt like I might faint. The blood rushed between my legs, leaving me aching, almost in pain with need. Warmth flooded me, and I groaned. He pulled his shirt over his head in one swift movement, and I took him in with my eyes. He was perfect—chiseled, toned, tanned. I ran my fingertips over his muscular frame, almost afraid to touch him. Like it was all a dream and I would wake up if I tried too hard. When I felt his heart pounding beneath my hand, though, I knew it was real. I dragged my fingers down his shoulders, his arms, as he leaned down to kiss me. He was real, and strong, and warm. Powerful. He could do whatever he wanted to me. The thought gave me a little thrill. I raised my arms over my head, allowing him to slide my sweater up and off my body. He drew me close, kissing my neck again, then moving down to my shoulder as he slid one bra strap down my arm. I closed my eyes, sighing as his mouth traveled over me. He did the same to the other shoulder, caressing me with his fingertips before his lips did the same. He reached behind me, unclasping the hooks, and I let the bra fall from me. He looked at me, and I saw hunger in his eyes as his hands explored my full breasts. I groaned in approval as he fondled me. His hands left me, but only for a second, because then he unbuttoned my jeans. I leaned into him, my hands running up his arms, my mouth trailing along his neck. He groaned when I sucked the skin between my teeth. I felt his pulse racing in his throat, matching mine. He surprised me when he pushed me back, onto the bed. I landed with a squeal, and he grinned as he stripped off his jeans. We were both in our underwear as he lowered himself over me. I took his face in my hands, kissing him deeply. His need pressed against me, and I rolled my hips in a slow circle. He groaned, thrusting his hips, rubbing himself on me as we kissed. He broke free, kissing my chin, my jaw, my throat. I closed my eyes, reveling in the delicious sensation of his mouth on me. Every nerve was on fire, and I writhed beneath him as he worked his way down to my chest. I knew what was next, and I waited to feel his mouth on my breasts. But he

waited, going even more slowly, inching down my chest. My heart beat faster and faster the closer he got. I arched my back, pressing myself against him—but he only went slower, grinning up at me. “Greedy,” he whispered, flicking his tongue over my skin. I groaned in frustration, my body already on fire. Finally, he ended the torture when his tongue circled one stiff nipple. I cried out in relief as he sucked, flicking it with his tongue, kneading the other breast. Then he switched sides, moaning, grunting, breathing just as heavily as I was. I could tell how much he loved it, which only made me love it more. It was bliss, the way he worshiped my body. I held his head close, running my fingers through his thick, dark hair, grinding my hips against him as he lavished attention on my breasts. The sensitive nipples seemed to come alive in his mouth, tingling, sending flashes of pleasure through my body every time he sucked and nibbled. My head rolled back and forth on the pillow as I gasped for breath and wished he would never stop. He moved down my body then, taking his time to explore me with his hands and mouth. His tongue swept over my skin, licking, sucking, even nibbling me. I groaned, holding his head tight to me, arching my back to meet him. Giving myself to him. He landed between my legs, licking along the waistband of my panties. His tongue trailed fire along my skin, making me burn and gasp and beg for more. Slowly he slid the panties down over my hips…thighs…calves. I held my breath in anticipation, my heart racing so fast I thought it would burst. What would he do? I was totally at his mercy. I watched as Lance kissed his way from my knee up my inner thigh, finally coming to the apex of my legs. The first swipe of his tongue along my aching flesh was incredible, and I cried out at his touch. He teased me for what felt like ages, licking just at the ridge where my swollen lips met. I thrust my hips into his face, hoping to drive him deeper. He laughed, holding me down, making me take even more punishment for my greediness. Didn’t he know I was going to die if he didn’t let me finish? It was agony, the aching, burning need. “Please…” I begged. “Please…” I could hardly breathe, but still he lingered just over my clit, licking all around but never finding the one spot that ached the most for him. Then, he found it. I almost jumped off the bed, shooting up into the next level of pleasure as he licked his way through my wet folds and found my clit. The relief was almost too much as he flicked at it, sucked it, played with me until I begged him to let me come. I couldn’t bear much more. It was already too much for me, more than I ever felt before. How was it so good with him? How did he know me so well? I couldn’t take time to think about it since his tongue was slowly driving me insane. He wouldn’t stop no matter how I bucked and ground. He held me as still as he could, lapping at me, rolling in circles around my clit. I couldn’t take it, gripping the sheets in my hands, pounding my fists against the pillow. It was too much to take, it would kill me, it would.

“Yes!” My hips shot up, my thighs closing around Lance’s head as I exploded like a firework. My body shook and shuddered, and I gasped for breath as I came. He slowed down, teasing me again, licking all around my mound. I groaned, stretching, smiling. He crawled back up the bed toward me, kissing his way along my body as I shook in the aftershocks of that first burst of pleasure. His need pressed against me, hot and hard, and my body responded even though it was just getting over the last climax. I wanted more. I held my arms out to him, sliding my legs along his body until he lowered himself over me. I locked them around his waist and sighed happily when I felt the pressure from his erect member along my folds. I whimpered with pleasure, and he took that as a sign to press forward. My eyes flew open in surprise as he filled me, slowly, one inch at a time. It was so much, too much, more than I had ever taken before. I finally understood how good it could be. My entire body shivered, then I relaxed into it. I couldn’t believe I never knew before then how amazing it could feel, how amazing I could feel. He found a steady rhythm, grinding his hips against me. Slow, steady, touching every inch of me with every inch of him. It was unreal, and I let out a steady stream of soft moans, struggling to contain the pleasure so the rest of the house didn’t hear. I pressed my lips together, whimpering, loving every moment, every thrust. His body was alive under my hands, muscles flexing and moving as he moved inside me. Giving me all of him, grunting softly as he worked, his mouth against my shoulder. Every thrust took me a little higher…and a little more…until my body tightened, I tensed, straining against him before one more hard, sharp thrust pushed me over the edge. “Oh, Lance!” I gasped, holding him close as another orgasm tore me apart from the inside out. My body trembled, my heart pounded like it might explode. I smiled, moaning one more time as the wave washed over me and left me feeling incredible. He held me for a brief moment, kissing me. He was still inside me. Still hard, pulsing, throbbing for me. It wasn’t over yet. “I want you from behind,” he grunted, rolling me over. I could have protested, but didn’t want to. It was new for me—I never did it that way before. I was so vanilla. I turned, bracing myself on my hands and knees. My heart raced. I didn’t know what was in store, but if it was as good as it had been so far… He waited until I was in position, then pressed against me. I closed my eyes, relishing the feeling of his length filling me again. I couldn’t help the soft groan that escaped my lips. It just felt so good, I couldn’t hold it in. I thought it was good before that. I had no idea it could get better. The angle he entered from, the way he hit the deepest parts of me, it was a totally new sensation. I closed my eyes, rolling my head on my shoulders. Going with it, letting him take me to a new level of pleasure. “That’s right,” Lance muttered. “Ride me, baby.” I spread my legs a little wider, moving back against him. He groaned, and it only made me push harder. Fire spread through me, a warm, strong blaze that didn’t quite consume me but burned me up

just the same. Every time his rigid dick slid home, I gasped. It felt so dirty, so nasty. I loved it, throwing my head back, gritting my teeth and taking all he could give me. “Yeah…yeah…take it…” He held my hips, driving himself into me even harder. Mercilessly he rode me, slamming our bodies together. His balls slapped against me in time with his thrusts, and I moaned as they tapped my throbbing button. One of his hands reached around me to fondle one of my breasts. I groaned, gasping when he pinched and rolled my nipple. “So good!” It was all I could say through gasps for air. I couldn’t believe how good it was, how much I loved it, how much more I wanted. My body was on fire, demanding more, pushing me to take more. I lost all control, and I didn’t care. All there was in the world was the feeling of his body slamming against mine, and the growing tension deep inside me. That core of pleasure, growing bigger and bigger, stronger, hotter, tighter. I moved against him, matching him thrust for thrust, doubling the sensation. I had to bury my face in the pillow to muffle my screams of pleasure. It wasn’t an orgasm—more like a plateau, almost unbearable, going on and on the longer we went. I never felt like that before, never thought it was possible. I thought it might kill me. Then the pleasure got even stronger, sharper. I started trembling from head to toe, my whole body shaking as the biggest orgasm of my life hit me like a tsunami. It crashed into me, leaving me screaming and writhing in its wake. “Shit…Jamie…!” Lance pounded into me once more, his own climax hitting him. I hardly noticed, though. I couldn’t even think. All I could do was feel, and wonder how it was possible to feel that way. The moment he slid from me, I rolled over onto my back with a heavy sigh. My muscles were like water, my insides still quivering from the force. Why had we waited days for that? If I had known it would be that good, I would have jumped him the first night instead of telling myself I shouldn’t want to. The room was silent except for the sound of the two of us trying to catch our breath. Every once in a while, I would sigh, or he would groan. Otherwise, there was nothing but breathing. What the heck was that? Once I started thinking clearly, I looked back to wonder who I became when I was with him. I was no virgin before then, but I never went long enough to have three orgasms in one session. He was like Superman or something. I couldn’t believe it. He was quiet, too. I waited for him to say something, anything, to break the awkwardness starting to descend between us. I was afraid if we waited much longer to speak, it would be painful. I had to break the ice. “I didn’t expect that.” I stared at the ceiling, breathing heavily. “I didn’t expect that at all.”

I heard him chuckle. “You didn’t?” “Don’t tell me you did.” I turned my head to find him smiling broadly. “No, I didn’t expect it. I wanted it, though.” “You did?” “You think I’m lying after that?” I couldn’t help but giggle. “No, I don’t think you’re lying after that.” “Well, then.” He sighed, putting one hand behind his head. “It was even better than I imagined. I can imagine a lot, too.” “Is this your idea of pillow talk? Because it sort of sucks. Just a little.” “Thanks. If you really wanna know, I don’t usually talk after sex.” “Oh, what, is the girl usually so out of it she just passes out from exhaustion?” I put a hand over my forehead, pretending to swoon. He snickered. “Yeah, something like that.” I thought the case might have been that the girl was too drunk to say anything, but I didn’t share my thought. The last thing I wanted to do was start a fight. The truth was, joking around was better than staring at the ceiling in silence, feeling like a fool. “Are you okay?” he asked. “I’m fine. Better than fine.” I blushed. “Yeah, you sounded like you were better than fine.” “Why are you asking, then?” I glared at him. “I just wanted to be sure. A gentleman asks things like that.” I laughed. “Who told you that?” I rolled over to face him. “I read it.” “In Playboy?” “Penthouse.” We both laughed. I couldn’t believe we could laugh together after acting like animals. That was what we were, too. A couple of rutting animals. We didn’t make love. We fucked, putting it bluntly. And I loved it. I wondered who I was turning into. It didn’t make sense that I would become a

new person just because I stayed with the club for a few days. Maybe I had always been the girl who liked it from behind. I just hadn’t known it until I met Lance. I sighed, stretching. My body was still in a state of bliss, still trembling every so often with delicious little aftershocks. All the stress I had felt seemed like a thing of the past. I didn’t usually feel so good even after a strenuous workout. “We both needed that,” he muttered, also stretching. “We were too tense.” “You were tense. I was just fine.” He squinted at me, mouth curled in a snide smile. “If that was you being relaxed, when you almost bit my head off, I’d hate to see you when you’re tense.” I had to chuckle to spite myself. “Okay. Maybe I was a little stressed.” “Yeah. That’s more like it.” He rolled onto his side. We were face-to-face. I could feel his breath on my face. He grinned. “You’ll have to let me know the next time you feel stressed. You know, stress is really bad for the body. It can make you sick, even.” “Oh, it can?” “Yeah. All kinds of bad shit. I heard it on the news once. It can give you heart disease and high blood pressure and make it tough to sleep. You can’t get anything done when you’re stressed either.” I felt his hand rest on my hip. That was all he did—at first. “That’s true. And when you can’t get anything done, you can get even more stressed out.” I moved a little closer to him. “You’re a pretty busy guy. You need to be able to do things.” “You, too. I don’t know how you do your job. You must get stressed out all the time.” His hand slid around my waist. I felt his growing erection against my belly. “I do. It’s very stressful. I get a little tense just thinking about it.” Crap, what was I doing? Was I really falling into his arms again? I couldn’t stop myself. It felt too good to give in. His hand danced over my skin, from the nape of my neck to the base of my spine. I sighed, closing my eyes, tilting my head back. His mouth found my throat, and his tongue licked a long, slow trail along my neck. “Yeah…I think we should both de-stress as much as possible. Every opportunity.” I gasped when he lifted one of my legs to wrap it around his hip, leaving me exposed to his fingers. They moved through my cleft, gliding through my slickness. Soft moans came from me, moans which I muffled by pressing my mouth to Lance’s shoulder. When he found my button, I gripped his arm with all my might. “Yes…yes…” I threw my head back again, resting it on the pillow. He turned me slightly, so I was on my back with him stretched out over me. My leg still wrapped around his hip, he played with me, driving me crazy with little flicks of his fingers, then pushing me higher when he rubbed his thumb

along my throbbing clit. “You like that?” he whispered, grinning. I answered with a kiss, my tongue sweeping across his lips before touching his. He groaned, sucking my bottom lip between his teeth, then biting gently. I gasped, but loved it. The pleasure only intensified. “Yes…I love it…” I was flying, soaring. Every touch was magic, making me burn with passion I didn’t know I could feel. It was like when he first kissed me, or when he kissed me earlier, beside the bed. All it took was that one bit of contact, and I was lost. I was his, to do with as he pleased. His thumb still circled my clit, and I felt pressure at my entrance. Then I gasped with new pleasure as his fingers slid inside me, two at a time. He pumped them in and out, and I rode his hand with abandon. I didn’t care how it looked or who it made me. I gave myself over to the sensation, letting it grow inside me until it overtook me and I was a gasping, shuddering wreck. He didn’t stop, though. Instead, he curled his fingers and massaged me from the inside, making me scream before I bit down on his shoulder to contain the sound. I couldn’t believe it—my body writhed and bucked. I lost control, drowning under wave after wave of unspeakable pleasure. Somewhere in there, I came again, then again. It was like one long, endless orgasm. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t speak. I could only feel. Finally, I convulsed once, twice, then collapsed against the bed. I couldn’t take anymore, and he sensed it. His fingers left me, and I whimpered as I felt them slide out. I was weak, trembling, unable to believe what had just happened. Still he wasn’t finished. He picked up my legs, one on either side of his head. His massive length slide back and forth in my slit, gliding along as his hand had just done. I whimpered and mewled like a kitten, torn between feeling like I couldn’t take anymore and wanting everything he could give me. “Do you want it?” he asked, teasing me. I opened my eyes to find him staring down at me, his eyes blazing. Something inside me responded to that, and there was nothing I could do except say yes. Yes, I wanted it. I wanted him. I wanted all of him, all over me, all at once. Always. He pushed forward, parting me, sinking into me. I gasped, fingers digging into his unyielding biceps. It was so good, so sweet. The way he filled me up. The way he rocked me, body and soul. I went with it, rocking with him, riding him as he rode me. I pushed my legs against his chest, using them for leverage as I worked along with him. He grunted, slamming hard and fast into me. No slow grinding now, no teasing, no building us both up. He wanted to take me. I wanted to be taken. “Yes…yes…Lance…do it…” I grunted with every thrust, our bodies slamming together. The pressure started to build, going from my core throughout the rest of my body. Faster, faster, until I shook all

over from the release. He still went, on and on, pounding himself into me until I didn’t think I could take more. Then he stopped suddenly, tensing, shuddering. I watched as he came, fascinated, knowing it was possible to make a man like him lose control. I felt powerful, almost. “Oh shit…” he groaned as he slipped from me and collapsed beside me. I ran my hand over his back, half dead myself. “No workout ever did that for me,” I murmured, chuckling. “I hope not,” he groaned into the pillow. “Then again, it could make gyms more popular.” I laughed, still trying to catch my breath for the second time that afternoon. Once we quieted down, he turned onto his back. His near-black hair was tangled, falling over his forehead. I brushed it back. He grinned, looking at me with half-closed eyes. He didn’t say a word, and he didn’t have to. He only needed to hold out his arms to me, and I sank into them. Before I knew it, I was sliding into sleep.

Chapter Fifteen Lance

I held her in my arms, staring at the ceiling. I never felt so torn between being glad something finally happened and wishing it had never happened. She was asleep, or else doing a really good job of pretending to be. She didn’t move at all, just breathed in and out slowly. Her head was on my chest. It was a good weight. It felt right. It was so wrong. I hated myself for it. She was a good person. She didn’t need to get mixed up in my bullshit. I couldn’t help myself. It seemed like we were supposed to do it. Ever since I first saw her, everything we did and said was leading up to it. Like breathing. I didn’t even have to think about it, just do it. That was what being with her was like. I wondered if she felt the same way. I hoped she wasn’t one of the types who would want to stick around just because we slept together. That was the last thing I needed. Just because I had a kid didn’t mean I wanted to sit around being a family man. That wasn’t me. Life had a funny way of changing fast. One day I was just me. Then I had a kid. Now there was a woman in my bed who I liked. I wouldn’t mind getting to know her better. Then I looked at what I was about to do, and any sort of smile left my face. I was going to go after the woman I thought I liked years ago. Rae was a good person back then. She was like me—a little broken from a shitty family life, but she was a sweet girl. I saw a lot of her in Gigi, actually. I hadn’t thought about it before. She was patient, a good listener. We used to spend a lot of time just talking about life. She had a good heart. She was always the first one to reach out to somebody when they were having a hard time, or when they needed something. What happened to her? The needle. Just one try, just to see if she liked it or not. I told her I didn’t want her to do it—I was younger then, and I thought I could tell my woman what to do. It only pissed her off and made her want to do it more. So she did. That was it. She was hooked from then on. She had tried to pretend like she wasn’t. She had tried to hide it from me. There was no way to hide it since she was a totally different person on it than she was before. She used to be sharp, funny, she had energy. After she used she was like a shadow of that person. She didn’t care about anything or anybody. She would sit and stare into space—or worse, she would pretend everything was fine. She would try to act straight, the way drunk people tried to act sober. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so fucking sad.

I couldn’t help her. I finally figured that out after around five or six months. I couldn’t make her stop. Only she could. She would be okay for a week or two, then go back to it. I couldn’t live like that. I guessed she must’ve stopped after she found out about Gigi—the kid seemed fine, which was something I would always be grateful for. She had done the right thing, at least. Jamie moved a little, and I stayed still to see whether she would wake up. She did. And she jumped up when she remembered where she was. “Oh crap.” She looked down at me. “Oh crap? What?” She blushed. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to freak out like that.” “I hope not.” I frowned. Was she gonna be weird like that from then on? She looked around the room, then back at me. “Uh, should I go?” “If you want to.” I shrugged. “Do you want me to?” I sighed. “If I wanted you to, I wouldn’t still be here with you. Would I?” “I guess not?” “Is that a question?” I grinned at the way she smirked at me. That was more like it. She lay down on her side, facing me. “Did you get any sleep?” “Nah. You were only asleep for a little while, anyway. It’s not that late.” “But you wanted to get some rest. I’m sorry.” I chuckled. “If it were that important for me to get some sleep, I wouldn’t have pulled you in here with me. Right?” I looked over at her, and she blushed again. “I guess not.” “You didn’t seem to mind that I did.” “If I minded, I wouldn’t have stayed. I would have kneed you in the balls, probably.” I winced. “Thank God, then. But, ya know, if you ever feel like you wanna do that…don’t. Okay?”

Jamie giggled. “Okay. Point taken.” She pulled the blankets tight around herself, tucked under her arm. “Would it be too painfully cliché if I asked what you were thinking about when I was asleep?” “Not too painful. Just a little.” “So? What were you thinking about?” I frowned and rolled over to face her. “It’ll sound corny.” “So what? I won’t laugh. I won’t even judge you.” “That doesn’t make me feel any better.” “Come on.” She smiled. “Tell me.” “I was thinking about Rae.” I watched as her face changed. “Not a good move, telling a woman you were thinking about another woman right after you had sex.” I put my face in my pillow so the rest of the house wouldn’t hear me laughing. “I’m sorry,” I said with chuckle. “I didn’t mean it that way. God, you always find some way to be pissed at me.” “Why were you thinking about her, then?” I got my thoughts together before saying anything. “I want you to know something about her, to be fair, you know? She used to be a different person. I was just thinking before you woke up that I can see how Gigi turned out the way she did. Rae was a lot like her.” “How long did you know her?” “Since we were sixteen, I think. I dropped out of school, but she graduated. She was a good student, too—not smart, really, but she tried hard. She went through a lot of shit growing up. Her dad split, her mom always had guys going in and out. I know at least one molested Rae.” “Oh jeez.” Jamie’s face darkened. “So yeah, she already had her issues. But she was a good person. Sweet. She cared about other people. She was a good friend. A good girlfriend. Honest. Faithful to me. She made me happy. I can admit that.” “It’s sweet that you can,” Jamie murmured. “A lot of people can’t after a breakup.” “Yeah, well, I was the one who broke up with her. I saw what the drugs did to her, and I knew she wouldn’t stop just because I asked her to. It wasn’t an easy choice. It took months for me to go through with it.” I thought back to the look on Rae’s face when I told her we had to end it. I wondered if she

knew then about Gigi. “This is gonna sound stupid, but do you know Gigi’s birthday?” She closed her eyes. “Um, she had it during the school year. In September. I don’t remember the exact date, but it was late in the month.” I thought about. I broke up with Rae just before Valentine’s—I couldn’t go through the motions. Eight months before Gigi’s birthday. “Do you think she could have known she was pregnant?” I asked Jamie. “If I broke it off in midFebruary?” She did some quick math. “She would have been around a month, maybe two. She might have known by then, yes.” “Shit.” I felt like the world’s biggest asshole. “You didn’t know. She didn’t tell you. What were you supposed to do? Hang around for the rest of your life in case she got pregnant? That doesn’t make sense. It was her choice not to tell you. I’m still not sure why she didn’t.” “I don’t know either. I guess I’ll never know. When I track her down, I’ll have a lot more questions to ask her. More important questions.” “So you’re going after her?” “Later today, like I said.” “What are you doing?” I sized her up. She wasn’t gonna let go of it unless I told her. “I went to the house today, like I told you.” “Right. A very nice place, huh? Like something out of Better Homes & Gardens.” I smirked. “Yeah. There was a receipt for a bus ticket. She’s leaving for New York at six o’clock. I’ll be waiting for her.” Jamie’s eyes went wide. They were so clear, so beautiful. I wanted to stare into them forever. “She’s running away?” “Looks like it.” “I can’t believe she waited an entire week to do it.”

I never thought about that before. “What do you think that means?” She rolled onto her back, a hand on her forehead. “Let me think. Let me think. What if, when she met up with this Scarecrow guy—nice name, by the way—he had her do things for him? What if she was working off a debt to him? I mean, let’s be honest. She didn’t have a lot of money. How was she paying for the drugs?” “It’s not that expensive,” I pointed out. “There’s a reason it’s so fucking popular nowadays. It’s easier to get your hands on than other drugs, and cheaper.” “That’s not reassuring,” Jamie muttered. “Okay, well, let’s stay with the debt theory. Maybe she was working something off all week, but there’s no way she could ever pay him back, so she’s running. Or maybe she was with him, doing whatever they were doing, but she stole from him. Do you think she would do that?” She looked at me. “How would I know? She’s a stranger now. If the heroin was thinking for her, yeah, she could have. Junkies will do anything, especially shit they wouldn’t do when they were straight.” “Okay, so we’ll go with that. Boy, she got in with the wrong person, didn’t she?” “Yeah, no shit. It scares the shit outta me that she might’ve had him at the house.” Jamie’s face went dark. “Don’t even say that to me, please. I can’t stand it.” “Okay. Either way, she’s safe.” Still, I thought about the way Rae’s mom brought men into the house. “If I stole from a scary guy like him, I would run, too. I’d want to disappear.” “I thought that, too. New York’s perfect for it.” “What are you going to ask her? I mean, when you find her—what’s the purpose?” “I need to know how pissed he is. I need to know what she did with him, if he knows about Gigi, if he knows where she is.” “Would you stop her from going? If it meant she would be safer when she got to New York?” That stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t know the answer. “If I hand her over to him—if it’s that kinda thing, where she’s running away from him—and he won’t stop until he gets his payback?” “Right.” She waited patiently while I thought about it. “Fuck.” I covered my face with my arm. It was too much. Jamie moved closer to me, putting an arm around my chest.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get you upset.” I shook my head. I couldn’t talk—there was a lump in my throat—but I needed her to understand it wasn’t her fault. It was just that I hadn’t thought about that yet. I could either turn her over to The Scarecrow so he could do whatever the hell he planned, or I could let her go and maybe put Gigi in danger. The answer was obvious. “Does it make me a bad person if I say I’ll hand her over to him?” “No. It makes you a father. You’ll do what you have to. I know you will.” I lifted my arm from my eyes and looked at her. She was so intense it almost scared me. “I’m not a father. You told me so yourself. I just fertilized an egg.” She blushed but didn’t back off. “I was angry with you when I said that. You should know I didn’t mean it. I was scared and angry and frustrated. You weren’t a father before this week. Now, you are. I know you care about her. I know you’ll do what’s best for her because you’re not a bad person.” I laughed a little before turning my face away. She had no idea the shit I did with my life. If she knew, she wouldn’t want to be in bed with me or anywhere near me. My list of crimes ran through my head. Setting fires. Beating men until they gave up secrets the club wanted to know. Scaring the shit out of people. Getting into fights and punching the shit out of people because it felt good—not to defend myself, but to hurt them. I’d wanted to hurt them. One of them died in the hospital later on. The club defended me, lied about where I was that night. Went after the owner of the bar until he lied and said I wasn’t there. Jamie took my chin, turning my face back to her. “Don’t look away,” she whispered. “I know you’re not as bad as you think you are if you care so much about her.” “You think I’m a bad guy. Admit it.” I smirked. “You’ve done bad things. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. I’m sure of it.” I wished I could believe that. She raised herself up until she hovered over me, then lowered her face to mine. I let her kiss me, getting harder every time her lips moved, when I felt her tongue sweep across my mouth. She sighed when my tongue touched hers. Her tits pressed against me, and I ran my hands over her smooth skin. Her ass was firm, ripe. I squeezed it, pulling her closer until she rubbed against my hard, aching cock. We both groaned. I didn’t take my time. I didn’t want to. I took her by the hips and lifted her until she was on top of me, then positioned myself at her entrance. She sighed, sinking down on my rigid length. It wasn’t sweet that time. It was fast, hard. I held her hips as she rocked on me, riding me like a cowgirl, grinding

herself against me. I watched her tits bounce up and down, heard the little sounds coming from her. She was what I needed, the release I needed. I lost myself in her, jerking my hips up to fuck her from below. She gasped every time we crashed into each other, faster and faster. We took each other just like that, hard and fast, until we both exploded. She leaned over me, face in the pillow, and screamed when she came. I was coming, too, pumping into her one more time before I finished. She was better than I imagined, better than anything I ever had before her—and I’d had a lot of women. There was something different about her. I couldn’t get enough. I knew I would want her again even before I finished coming. I wished we could lock the world outside and never stop, never even get out of bed. I wanted to forget everything but the way it felt inside her. It was a nice dream, but just a dream. When I caught my breath and opened my eyes, I knew it was time to get back to business.

Chapter Sixteen Jamie

“You don’t have to be here,” Lance said. Flash, Jax, and Slate looked at me out of the corners of their eyes. I knew they knew what I just did with Lance, and I didn’t care. We were all adults. I wouldn’t leave, even if I did feel a little bit of a flush in my cheeks when Jax smirked knowingly. “Sure I do,” I said, sitting with my arms folded. “Why?” “Because this concerns me. I need to know if I’m ever going to get out of here and whether Gigi will be safe when I do.” Lance sighed heavily. The sweet, gentle man I’d met upstairs was gone. He was all business again. “Do you promise to keep quiet?” “Absolutely not.” I grinned. “Fine, whatever. I don’t have time to screw around.” He turned his attention to his crew. “I know where Rae is.” “Where?” Flash asked. “She’ll be at the Greyhound bus station in two hours. Her bus leaves at six o’clock.” “Where does she think she’s going?” Jax sneered. “New York. She’s running.” “How do you know all this?” Slate asked. “I found a receipt for a bus ticket at her house this morning. She only bought it an hour or two before I got there.” “Holy shit,” Jax muttered. “So what? We’re gonna corner her there?” “That’s my plan. I wanna find her, ask her what the hell’s going on. Why would she run away like this? Who’s after her? And when they can’t find her, are they gonna come after Gigi?”

I bit my lip, holding back my own questions and protests. I wanted to claw Rae’s eyes out for putting her daughter in this situation. I could tell from the look on Lance’s face that he shared the sentiment— then, to my surprise, I saw that the others felt the same, too. They all had affection for Gigi and wanted to keep her safe. I felt more secure when I realized that. They were tough guys. For once, they were putting that toughness to good use. “So what do you want us to do?” “I need you to be my eyes and ears. Chances are, somebody will be with her. I need to know if they’re watching from a distance. When I go after her, I don’t want them coming after me. I need one of you at the front door, too, in case she tries to run away.” “Got it.” They looked ready for action. “What happens when she tells you why she’s running? That doesn’t change anything,” Flash pointed out. “She’ll still gonna run.” “Fuck, as far as I’m concerned, she can go with my blessing. I just need to know why. If The Scarecrow’s after her, I wanna know what he wants. Maybe we can work something out. I don’t know. I have to start somewhere, though.” “Gotcha.” The other men looked at each other, nodding. I realized they would have followed Lance to the gates of Hell if called to do so. They had that much respect for him, that much love for him. They wouldn’t have used the word “love,” I’d bet, but that’s what it was nonetheless. It was something to see. “When do we roll out?” “In an hour. Get something to eat, hang out, whatever. I wanna be outta here by five fifteen. It’ll only take fifteen minutes or so to get there. I wanna hang back, wait for her. I don’t want her to see us, or she’ll take off before I get a chance to talk to her.” The guys nodded and walked out, leaving me alone with Lance. “That good enough for you?” He wore a wry smile. “Yes, that’s good enough for me.” I smirked. “I was proud of you. You managed to keep your mouth shut.” “I can do it when I need to, thanks. I decided it was more important to hear what you were planning to do than to speak up.” “Smart girl.” He grinned, closing the door so we could be alone. He sat beside me, and I couldn’t control the urge to lean into him. He put an arm around my shoulders while I rested my head on his

chest. It felt nice, like there was somebody stronger than me who could take care of me. Not that I needed to be taken care of, of course. I could handle life on my own. Still, there was no denying how right it felt to put everything down for a little while and let somebody else support me…even if it was only my head they were supporting. “I’m worried about you,” I admitted. “You don’t have any reason to be,” he said, stroking my hair. “I’m flattered, though.” I smacked him lightly, playfully. “I mean it. This Scarecrow sounds like the real deal. It bothers me to think about you trying to make a deal with him. People like that, bad people? They don’t play by the rules. Even I know that much.” “He’s a businessman, that’s all. When he sees we can make a deal—probably with a lot of money in it —he’ll come around. Rae probably stole something from him or something stupid like that, like we said. She was never very smart when it came to the big things. He’ll be fine when I tell him he’ll get his money back.” “No, she was never very smart.” I didn’t have the highest opinion of her to begin with, but the more I heard about her, the worse it got. So what if she used to be a nice person, the way Lance described her? Drugs changed who she was. How could she be so blind? Why would she ever get mixed up with a bad person like The Scarecrow when she had a little girl to think about? I counted my blessings, grateful that I’d never been in such a desperate place that I had to make a deal with a man like that. Grateful I’d never had to speak to him, much less know he was alive before meeting Lance. “You all set for your adventure, then?” I grinned up at him. “Adventure. There’s a word I never used before.” He grinned back. “You’ll be safe, yes?” “Of course.” He pulled me up by the shoulders until we were face-to-face. “I’m always safe. I have a little girl to think about, too.” I hated the idea of him being her father, of raising her in his world…but it was nice hearing him talk about her as his little girl. Knowing he cared about her. He’d be the first person after me to really care about the kid. Her mother clearly didn’t. A knock sounded at the door. It was Traci. “Dinner.” “Dinner already?” Lance called out. “Yeah, we figured we’d eat early since you’re going out in a little while. We can’t send you out on an empty stomach.”

Lance smiled. “They’re always thinking,” he muttered, shaking his head. *** “Why aren’t you eating?” I looked at Gigi. “What, sweetie?” “Why aren’t you eating? Do you feel sick?” I looked down at my plate of untouched food. I usually liked meatloaf, too, and everybody else seemed to be enjoying it. There was nothing I wanted less than to eat it. “No, sweetie. I feel okay. I’m just not very hungry tonight.” “It’s good,” she assured me, going for another mouthful. I smiled, patting her on the head. She had no idea what was happening around her, and she didn’t need to know. I couldn’t believe I was so worried about Lance. He could take care of himself, after all. He’d been dealing with nasty people his entire life, and he managed to come out relatively unscathed. This situation didn’t have to be any different from any other. Only it was different. I didn’t know how I knew, but I did. There was something happening. Something bad. I wished I could tell him, wished he would take me seriously if I did. I knew he wouldn’t. He’d laugh me off, tell me I was acting like an idiot. If he didn’t say it out loud, his voice and the look on his face would say it all. I didn’t think I could handle that. There was nothing I could do. My hands were tied, while my stomach clenched in knots. I felt nauseated, though I hadn’t eaten anything in hours. Even the smell of the food made me sick. I had to get up, had to get away. I pushed back from the table and went to the office, trying to get a breath of air. I wanted nothing more than to leave, to get far away and never think about the club or anybody in it again. I didn’t want to be a part of what was going on. “Are you okay?” I turned to find Lance standing in the doorway. I was by the open window, breathing deeply despite the chill outside. “Yeah, I’m fine.” I didn’t turn around. I didn’t want him to see the look on my face. “What’s wrong with you? I can tell there’s something wrong. What is it?” He touched my shoulder, but I stubbornly kept my face turned away. “Nothing, I’m telling you. I don’t know. I felt a little sick to my stomach for a minute there. I thought I’d get some air, to see if it passed.” “Has it?”

No. “Yeah, a little.” “Are you worried about what’s gonna happen?” “Why should I worry? You’re in charge. You’ve got it all figured out, right?” I tried to make my voice light. Why did I care so darned much? Why was it bothering me so much? “Yeah, I do. I wish you believed in me.” I turned around. “It’s not that. Don’t think it’s that, please.” I couldn’t help the tears that sprang to my eyes when I looked at him. My chin trembled. “What is it, then?” “I’ve never been through anything like this before.” I left it at that. It was enough for him to know I was worried about everything happening around us—me, spending time with a motorcycle club. Wanting Gigi to be safe. Wanting to get back to everything I left behind, my life, my job. He didn’t need to know I was worried about the way I worried over him. I couldn’t tell him how I questioned my feelings. Why did I care so much? That was what bothered me the most. He seemed to accept my pathetic excuse, though. “I know. It’s tough when you first find out there’s a world you didn’t know about. I felt that way when I first joined the club.” He sat on his desk, facing the window. I turned, leaning against the wall. “When did you join?” “I was still a teenager, still in high school. Miserable, of course. I needed something else in my life. I was on my own, working nights, trying to get through school so I could graduate.” “No more foster care?” “Nah, I ran. They never found me. I don’t think they looked too hard—lots of kids drop outta the system without being found again.” He shrugged, and I wondered about all those kids. How many of them ended up like he did? How many ended up like Rae, or the junkies Lance told me about in the drug den? When looked at that way, Lance hadn’t turned out so badly. “When I first started showing up here, looking for someplace to belong, it was so exciting. They were a family. I needed a family. And they are my family—I would do anything for them, they would do anything for me. I would probably be dead if it weren’t for them.” “Don’t say that.” “It’s true. I couldn’t keep going to school and working at the same time. I bounced from one friend’s house to another, sleeping on their parents’ couches. I didn’t have a home of my own, or any security. I could’ve ended up on the streets. I didn’t because the club took me in. Look at me now. President of

the club with enough money to retire on, and I’m only thirty years old.” He gave me a small smile. “But it was hard, at first,” he continued. “I didn’t know how bad life could get. I thought I knew—with a foster family like mine, a mother like mine, I thought I knew the worst. No. It gets worse than that, even. I don’t wanna talk about it. But let’s just say I don’t think there’s anything that could shock me anymore.” I reached out to him. His words should have repulsed me. Instead, they made me want to comfort him. I wanted to hold him and make him forget all the bad things he’d ever seen. I wanted to make life good for him. I wanted to be the good thing he always seemed to miss out on. He took my hands, pulling me to him. Our faces were very close. “I always wanted a woman like you in my life,” he admitted. “I wanted somebody who didn’t know the things I know, who had something going on for themselves. You’re the closest thing I ever came to having that. Thank you for today.” “You don’t have to thank me,” I said, blushing. “I do. You don’t know what you did for me.” “I was there. I know what I did.” I grinned, and he chuckled. “Not what I mean.” “I know,” I whispered, running my hands up his arms until I linked them behind his neck. I had to be near him. He was like a magnet, attracting me. I pulled him closer, just close enough for our lips to brush against each other. “I don’t know if this is such a good idea right now,” he whispered, pulling away. I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. “What do you mean?” He grinned. “I need to be able to think. I can’t think when I’m with you. You have this effect on me.” I settled for a peck on the cheek, then leaned against him with my head on his chest. I felt the steady thud of his heart and closed my eyes. Let him be safe, I thought. “The night my parents died, I had a premonition that something would happen to them.” “What?” He pulled back, looking down at me. I nodded. “I knew something bad was going to happen. I felt it in my bones. I tried to warn them, but they laughed me off.” I shivered, remembering how they’d smiled and told me I was silly. I had watched them walk out the door.

“What are you trying to say?” “I have a bad feeling. That’s all. That’s what’s really bothering me.” He smiled, brushing my hair back from my face. “You’re just upset. It’s stress. That’s all.” I closed my eyes as he kissed my forehead. That didn’t feel like all it was, not by a long shot. “Hey, Lance!” I recognized Flash’s voice. Lance checked the time. “Shit. We have to go.” I wanted to hold him back, wanted to beg him to stay. But he needed to go. If he didn’t, he’d never know what happened with Rae, why she left Gigi with him. What it meant. “I’ll be okay. I’ll call you when I’m leaving to come back here. Okay?” He kissed me once, then walked out of the office. I couldn’t bear to watch him go. I stayed away from the window, not wanting to watch as he rode away. I had the funny feeling I’d never see him again.

Chapter Seventeen Lance

I wished she hadn’t told me about her premonition. Not that I believed in premonitions or superstitions. It was all a bunch of bullshit to get people to give money or whatever they were supposed to do. Psychics and fortune tellers, shit like that. It wasn’t real. Still. I shivered a little when Jamie told me she had a feeling about her parents before they died. I couldn’t shake it as I walked out of the clubhouse. “You all right, man?” Flash clapped me on the shoulder. “Just fine,” I said, grinning. “Let’s go find my ex.” “You sure you’re not a little worn out from all the exercise you got today?” Slate and Jax laughed together. I glared at them as we climbed on our bikes. “What’s that supposed to mean?” “You know what it means.” Flash winked. “You, too? Ugh. I thought you were a little more mature.” I shook my head, putting on my helmet. “Hey, man, whatever. Get it while you can. She’s smokin’ hot,” Jax growled, looking back toward the clubhouse doors. I could imagine what he was thinking about, and I wanted to slap the shit out of him for it. “Yeah, well, that’s my business. But if you think I’m an old man who can’t handle fucking and taking care of business on the same day, you’re sadly mistaken.” I turned on the bike, revving the engine before pulling out from my spot. The guys followed me. I heard them laughing, even over the roar of our engines. I put them behind me, trying to ignore it. I was glad they couldn’t screw around with me while we rode. I didn’t need them to laugh and make fun. I didn’t even know how the hell I felt about Jamie. They weren’t making it any easier on me. She was hot, yeah. Jax was right about that. Anybody with eyes could see it. She was more than that, though. She wasn’t just a body. She had a heart, a good heart. She loved my kid. She was smart. She didn’t take bullshit. I admired her for that.

And she was phenomenal in bed. I couldn’t forget that either. My cock was still getting over her. Any other woman and I wouldn’t have cared about the jokes. I probably would’ve joked along with the guys. She wasn’t like the other women. Not like any woman we knew or would know in our world. Women like Erica and Traci. The no-name women we slept around with. I wasn’t comfortable with the way I felt. It was new to me. She was new. What could I bring to her life except more of the same shit I’d been bringing to it since we met? The fighting and the fear and the bad shit she had no idea how to deal with. That was all I had. It was who I was. If I couldn’t bring anything to her life…what the hell could I bring to Gigi’s life? I didn’t like thinking about it, but it was a long ride to the bus station, and I didn’t have anything else to think about. There was a reason Rae didn’t want me being a part of Gigi’s life, and it wasn’t the way we broke up. Even though she was a junkie, she thought she could give our daughter a better life than I could. That was a sad, sobering thought. She didn’t want Gigi to be part of the club—she could’ve hit me up for money at any time, and she never did. She was that much against me being part of the kid’s life. Even when she shot up. She wasn’t wrong, though. Neither of us deserved to be parents, especially to a kid like Gigi. Jamie said Rae raised her the way she was. I believed that, but not all the way. There was something special about her. She was like an old person in a kid’s body. She was smart, and wise. A great kid. She’d grow up to be a great woman if she had the chance. I wasn’t sure I could give her that chance. That was the problem. I didn’t know how to be a good father. It wasn’t enough to do the opposite of what had been done to me. Not being abusive wasn’t all there was to it. There were late nights, and helping with homework, and going to meetings and games and practices and recitals and shit like that. I didn’t even know if she liked to play sports, or if she had any special talents. Her mother probably didn’t know either. Would she ever grow up to be the person she could be with me in her life? I couldn’t just hand her over, though. Not even to Jamie. I still wondered if she was only getting close to me so she could trick me into letting her have the kid. I didn’t want to believe she could be so cold, but I knew how much she cared about Gigi. Maybe Jamie would make a better parent than I would. I hated myself for thinking it. It felt like the coward’s way out, and I wasn’t a coward. If one of the guys in the club was going through something like I was, and they told me they thought about letting somebody else take care of their kid, I would think they were a coward. I wouldn’t know the whole story, though. I wouldn’t know how it felt to wonder if I had what it took to raise a daughter. I wouldn’t know how it felt to wonder if exposing my kid to my lifestyle would fuck them up for life. I wouldn’t know the feeling of wanting them to have something better. My life

was good enough for me. It was all I knew. She was better than that. She deserved more. I wouldn’t be like Hal, Erica’s dad. He was proud when she started hanging out with the club, working in the clubhouse after school. He loved it. She was following in his footsteps the way he followed in his old man’s footsteps. Even when he died, shot to death, she stayed around because she knew he would be proud of her. How fucked up could one family be? Gigi wouldn’t turn out like her. She would know good people, have good things, get a good education. Jamie was the sort of person who could give her that, with my help. Was I really thinking about sharing custody with a stranger? The thought made me sick, but I couldn’t stop thinking it over as we got to the bus station. I had to get my mind on business. I couldn’t keep distracting myself. It was all fantasy until I got my hands on Rae. “Jax, see if there’s a back door you can guard. Slate, I want you at the front door, but hang back a little for now in case she’s not here yet. I don’t want her to see you. Flash, you come in with me.” We parked away from the entrance so Rae wouldn’t see the bikes if she showed up after we did. Jax went around back. I slid in my Bluetooth earpiece and started a conference call on my cell. In a minute, I had all three of my guys on the phone with me. “Okay, guys. Keep your eyes open.” I looked around the inside of the bus terminal. The first thing I noticed was the way it smelled. Fuel. It was enough to give me a headache. The next thing was the size of the building. It was fucking huge. Would I find her in such a huge place? When I did, would I catch her if she ran? I couldn’t let those worries get in the way of what I had to do. I needed to catch her. I needed to know what she got herself into. It was all I could focus on. I had to imagine catching her, having her with me. “Flash, hang back by the ticket booth, just in case. I’ll wait by the buses. I see the one she’ll be looking for.” The bus to New York sat in the middle of a row of buses. The door was shut, so nobody had boarded yet. I checked the time. Still twenty-five minutes until it left. “Jax, you in position?” I muttered, looking around. “Yeah. I’m by the back door.” “Good. Just keep your eyes open. I’ll let you know if I see her, and if she’s coming your way.” I swept the space with my eyes. There were rows of benches, all clumped together. Some of them had people on them, but a lot were empty. I wished I had thought to put on something else before I left the clubhouse. If she saw the patch on my kutte, she’d run right away. “Everybody, take off your kuttes. I just thought about it. I don’t wanna spook her.” “You think she’ll freak out as soon as she sees us?” Flash asked.

“I think she’ll figure it out pretty quickly. Rae’s a lot of things, but she’s not totally stupid. She has to know I’m looking for her.” There were so many people walking around. That surprised me the most. I didn’t think a lot of people still took the bus. I would rather fly. It was cheaper, though, and you didn’t need ID to get on a bus. If she were running, that would work in her favor. She could hide easier that way. I was glad for the crowds and annoyed with them at the same time. I didn’t want them getting in the way, and I didn’t wanna miss her. But they kept me out of sight, too. She might not be able to recognize me in the middle of all those people. I hoped that was the case. “Let me know if you see her,” I said. “Of course we will.” That was Slate. “Sorry. I’m a little nervous right now.” “We’ve got your back,” Jax murmured. “Thanks.” I watched and waited. Every minute that passed felt more like a year. When would she get there? I checked the time. Ten minutes. “Still nothing,” I muttered, getting pissed. “I swear, if she doesn’t fucking show up…” “She will,” Flash said. “If she bought a ticket, she’ll show. She wants to get far away.” “What if he found her, first?” I didn’t need to say who I meant. They knew. What if he had? Up to that point, I hadn’t thought about it. With only ten minutes until the bus left, it looked like a good possibility. Shit. Just then, Flash cleared his throat. “She’s coming.” Every sense went into overdrive. I was completely focused. I slid behind a pillar, watching as the door between the ticket area and the waiting area opened. There she was. “Fuck, she looks like hell,” I muttered. I hadn’t seen her in almost eight years, but it could have been twenty. She looked that much older. “I almost didn’t recognize her,” Flash admitted. “Yeah, I’m not sure I would have. Good looking out.” I stared at her. It was hard to believe I ever thought she was cute. I did, though, and she was. Before the needle fucked everything up. “Come out here, Flash. Slowly. I want you guarding that door.” I stayed where I was, watching as Rae

looked for the bus. She was jumpy, fidgety. Looking around like she was afraid. “Stay back, though,” I added. “She’s jumpy as hell. She’s looking for somebody.” “Probably afraid he followed her,” Flash muttered. I saw him come out, maybe twenty feet behind Rae. He stood off to the side, where a bus blocked some of him. She wouldn’t notice him if she ran by. “Yeah, she’s on alert. I have to be cool about this.” Her clothes were clean looking, at least, but old. Faded. Like they had been washed a hundred, two hundred times. Holes in her jeans. Her hair was dirty, tangled. Circles under her eyes. She looked sick. I wondered when she shot up last. “Okay. I’m going after her. Cover me, guys.” I stepped out from behind the pillar and walked toward the bus. She was standing in front of it with a backpack over her shoulders. It was almost as big as she was. “Rae?” I was ten, maybe fifteen feet away from her. She turned, eyes wide.

Chapter Eighteen Jamie

“Where did Lance and everybody else go?” The girls and I exchanged a look. The kid didn’t miss anything, that was for sure. The four of us were in the kitchen, washing dishes. We did our best to keep Gigi occupied and happy, but it wasn’t enough. She was the sharpest kid I ever knew, definitely my smartest student in all the years I’d been teaching. “They had to go take care of some things. You know how you asked me earlier whether they have jobs? This is something for their job.” Erica shrugged behind Gigi’s back, and I nodded. It was as good an excuse as any. “What, though? What do they do?” “Why do you ask, sweetie?” I watched her closely. “I don’t know. You’re sad. I can tell.” “I’m not sad,” I assured her. “You have a sad face.” “I’ll fix my face, then.” I grinned. She smiled, but she didn’t look any happier than I was. “Your dad’s a pretty neat guy,” Traci said. Gigi perked up. “Is he?” “Oh yeah. He tells everybody what to do, and they have to do it. That means he’s pretty powerful around here.” “You have to do anything he asks you to do?” Her eyes were very round, and she stopped tapping a wooden spoon against the bottom of a pot. What a relief. “Well, not anything. If he asked us to do something silly, like jumping off the roof, we wouldn’t have to do it.” “But he would never do that,” Erica added. “He’s a very good president. He’s smart and wise. He

makes good decisions.” “Solomon was wise,” Gigi said, tapping again. I closed my eyes, gritting my teeth. I wondered if there was aspirin anywhere nearby. “Solomon? Is that one of your mommy’s friends?” Traci asked. “No, silly.” Gigi giggled. “Solomon was a king, a long time ago. Like, a thousand years.” “More than that.” I grinned. I then gently took the spoon from her hand. She gave it up agreeably enough. “What did Solomon do?” Traci asked. She and Erica had such a good way with Gigi. They seemed to understand exactly what she needed. At that time, she needed a distraction. If she was telling stories, she was distracted. “He was the best king in the world. He did lots of good things. People used to come from all over the place to ask him questions.” She spoke with great reverence, and I turned away so she wouldn’t see the smile on my face. Traci stopped what she was doing, sitting on the prep table beside Gigi. “Then what?” I wondered if she wouldn’t make a good teacher if she went to college. I knew neither she nor Erica had. “Then, one day, two ladies came in. They were both so upset. One of them had a baby in her arms. They both said the baby was their baby.” I stopped working, and felt Erica’s eyes on me as Gigi went on. “They wanted Solomon to decide whose baby it really was.” “Did he ask the ladies why they both said it was their baby?” “One lady—the one who didn’t carry the baby—said the other lady killed her baby by accident. She rolled over on him when he was sleeping. So she took the first lady’s baby and pretended it was hers.” “That’s awful,” Traci said, putting the right emotion in her voice. “I know. It was so sad. So Solomon thought and thought about. It was just a baby. Babies all look the same.” “Yes, they do.” Traci giggled. “So he came up with an idea. He said, ‘Bring me a sword!’ And somebody did.” “What would he do with a sword?” “He said he was gonna cut the baby in half so both ladies could have half of it.”

“No! Did he do it?” “Well, he was gonna, but the one lady—the one who didn’t have the baby in her arms—she said, ‘No! Don’t do it! Let the other lady keep the baby!’” “And did the other lady tell him not to do it?” “No. She said she didn’t care.” There was smugness in Gigi’s voice. “That’s how Solomon knew the first lady was the baby’s mommy. Because she would give up the baby if that meant the baby would be safe.” “Wow. He was really very wise.” The two of them kept talking about whatever came to mind, but I couldn’t join them. I held onto the side of the sink with white knuckles, closing my eyes. “You okay?” Erica whispered. “Yeah. I’m fine.” “From the mouths of babes, huh?” Erica chuckled, shaking her head. I shook my head, too. From the mouths of babes, indeed. What if Rae refused to give Gigi up? What if she came back for her one day? I’d kill her first. She had to have some self-awareness. She was an unfit mother—all it would take would be a walk-through of the house to prove it. There were plenty of witnesses, too. Like the other teachers at the school, and Vickie. She had to play it cool, obey by the school board’s rules. But if given the chance, she’d testify against Rae in a heartbeat. Still, that would only matter if Rae went about it legally. What if she kidnapped Gigi? There would be nothing we could do. She was her mother, Gigi had lived with her for her entire life. The police might not even try to help us. I hoped if the time ever came, Rae would be like the mother in the story, willing to give up her child if it meant giving her a better life. “What else about my dad?” Gigi asked. It was sweet, hearing her call him her dad. I wondered what he would think of it, and had the feeling he would grin when he didn’t think anybody else could see him do it. “He’s the best. Really. Probably as wise as Solomon.” Traci hopped off the table and came back to the sink to help us. “One time, he helped me when I was very sad,” Erica said. “Why were you sad? What did he do?”

“I was sad because my daddy had to go away. I missed him a lot. See, my daddy was one of the guys in the club—you know, like Flash or Jax. And he knew your dad really well. They were friends. So when he went away, I was very sad, and so was Lance. I thought that if my daddy wasn’t here anymore, Lance wouldn’t want me to be here anymore, either. But he let me stay. He gave me a job. It was really nice of him.” “That’s pretty nice,” Gigi agreed. “And he’s always nice to everybody,” Traci added. “He makes people laugh, and that’s important when you’re trying to do a business deal with somebody. You want them to like you, so you can get what you want. Sorta like Solomon would do. He knows just how to talk to people.” “So how come he always fights with Jamie?” I turned back to find Gigi grinning like a little imp. I thought she knew more than she was letting on. “Oh, well, that’s different,” Erica joked. “How is it different?” “Can we not talk about this, maybe?” I asked, keeping my tone light and happy. “Miss Jamie is right here in the room.” “Oh, you’re Miss Jamie, now?” Traci snorted. “Cut it out.” “What’s wrong, Jamie?” Gigi sounded genuinely distressed. I turned to her with a smile. “You want to know why we fight?” I asked, folding my arms. “Yeah. Why do you fight if he’s so nice?” “Because sometimes he makes me mad. Remember earlier, when we were talking? Like I said, sometimes grownups just fight about things. That’s all. It doesn’t mean he’s not nice, or I’m not nice. We just don’t get along all the time. Don’t you sometimes have fights with your friends?” “Yeah. Sometimes.” “That’s what it is. Sometimes. That’s all.” I hoped and prayed she’d leave it there. I wondered if there wasn’t a little bit of talk about Lance and me when we were upstairs. “So it’s not because you’re hot?”

“What?” I glared at the girls, who looked horrified. “Gigi, we already talked about that.” Erica put her hands on her hips. “What did you talk about?” I asked. Erica sighed, glancing at Traci. “One of the guys made a comment when you went upstairs to fight with Lance.” She glared at me, sending a message. Oh. So that’s what they told Gigi we were doing up there. I blushed. “Okay. Which one?” “It doesn’t matter.” “It was Jax,” Gigi piped up. Erica and Traci scowled. “Oh, it was? Jax is lucky he’s not here right now.” “Would you fight with him, too?” Gigi asked. Traci snorted. I shot her a withering look before turning to Gigi. “No, honey, I wouldn’t fight with him. I might give him this, though.” I clenched my fist, waving it in front of my face. “A knuckle sandwich.” “All joking aside, I would pay good money to see you do that,” Erica said. Traci nodded in agreement.

Chapter Nineteen Lance

Our eyes met. At least her eyes were still blue. That was one of the only things that didn’t change about her. I hadn’t seen her in so long. Seeing her again was almost like coming home. Everything else went away, faded into the background. It was just the two of us. I felt a sharp sting of sadness when I saw what she turned into. I wished I had known so many things. I could have helped her somehow. I could’ve paid for rehab, moved her to a new city where she wouldn’t be around her old friends. Her life could’ve been better if she had told me she had a baby. I would have made things as good as I could. “Rae,” I whispered. I held out a hand to her. She only waited a split second before running. “No!” I took off after her. She dodged between two buses. I followed her, knocking straight into a group of people waiting to board. “Stop her!” I called out to a pair of guys by the back of the bus, but it was too late. She was already past them. I fought through the crowd, then sprinted after her. There were so many buses waiting to leave, dozens of them. She could have hidden behind any of them—but not for long. She had ten minutes until her bus left for New York. Still, small and fast as she was, she could keep me looking for that long. I looked around, my head swiveling, my heart racing. I heard a woman cry out three buses down and went in that direction. “Where is she?” The woman was on her ass—Rae must’ve knocked her down. She pointed, and I followed the direction of her finger. Some of the buses had opened their doors. Shit. She could have climbed inside one. I would never find her. I had to think fast. “Flash, are you looking?” “Yeah, I’m looking.” “Okay. Jax, bring it in through the back door. Slate, come in through the front. Keep an eye out for her. I want one of you at each end of the terminal. I want you to watch, see if she runs out anywhere. She’s wearing a blue backpack, purple t-shirt.”

I stood in the center of the room, turning in a slow circle. She couldn’t get far. No driver would leave with her on the bus if she didn’t have a valid ticket. I kept circling. “Third row!” I hardly had time to register Flash’s warning before Rae darted out from between two buses around twenty feet down the row. I went from zero to a sprint in no time, following her. I didn’t take my eyes off her. “I’m following!” I yelled, waving people out of my way as I went. “Move! Move!” They jumped aside, cursing at me. I didn’t care. All I wanted to do was stop her. I had to stop her. She hung a quick right, and I kept yelling for everybody to get out of the way before I even rounded the corner. There, I found a beautiful sight. She ran straight into Flash, who took her by the arms. “Hey, Rae,” he said, grinning. She screamed and squirmed, but the bus’s engine drowned her out. “I have to get on a bus, you fucker! Let me go! Don’t touch me! Help!” She fought against Flash’s hands as I bent at the waist, huffing and puffing. I needed to get in better shape if I was gonna chase crazy junkies through bus stations. Jax and Slate caught up to us. Rae’s eyes went wide when she figured out it was four against one. “You’re not going anywhere, Rae, so you might as well start talking. Tell me why you’re running.” She stared hatefully at me. I didn’t think she could hate me so much, especially since we hadn’t seen each other in so long. “Why should I tell you anything? You don’t know my life. You don’t know shit about me.” “I know you had my daughter all these years without telling me. What was that all about? Why didn’t you tell me about her?” She shrugged. “What did you care? You left me.” “It didn’t matter. I should have known. You should’ve told me.” I looked her in the eye, wondering where the Rae I used to know went. She looked like a stranger. Like a caged animal. I half expected her to start clawing at Flash. “I gotta go! I’m gonna miss my bus, damn it!” “Tell me what I wanna know, then. We’ll let you go. Shit, I want you to go if it means Gigi never has to see you again. She’ll be better off without you.” I saw how my words stung her, and kept going. “You can get on the bus, but you have to tell me what I wanna know.” I got close to her and glanced up at Flash to let her go. He let go of her, but there was nowhere for her to run. I had her pinned against the bus, with Jax and Slate on either side. We boxed her in.

Her eyes darted back and forth, looking at one of us, then the other. Over and over. It was nauseating, watching her freak out like that. Her chest rose and fell like she was panting for breath. “I’m going to New York, okay?” I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, I know. How do you think I found you? Do you think I just hang out at the bus station every day?” “How did you know?” She looked terrified. “Who told you?” “Nobody had to tell me. I found the receipt at your house.” “You broke into my house? You fucker!” She swung at me, but I blocked it easily. It was like swatting a fly. “Come on, Rae. You’re stalling. Your bus is gonna leave any minute. Who are you running from? Why are you so scared?” She trembled, looking from one of us to the other again. I sighed. “Rae, it doesn’t have to be this way. I don’t wanna hurt you. I wanna know who’s trying to. I wouldn’t be treating you like this if you didn’t run from me. Don’t tell me you’re not running away, when you ran from me like that as soon as you saw me.” She bit her lip, eyes wide. “I thought you were coming for me to punish me for leaving Gigi with you.” “I wouldn’t punish you for that, Rae. Christ.” “You’re not pissed at me?” “For leaving Gigi with me? No, not for that.” I looked at the clock on the wall. “You only have a few minutes. Talk to me.” Her chin wobbled. For a second, I felt sorry for her. She was still the girl I used to love. I saw her in there. I wondered if she was clean. Her eyes looked clear enough. “I have to get away from him.” We were finally getting somewhere. “Who?” “The Scarecrow.” I heard sighs from my crew. They were just waiting for her to say it. “What did you do? Why do you need to get away from him?” “I tried really hard, Lance. You have to know I tried real, real hard. I did everything I could to stay

clean for Gigi. I wanted to be a good mom.” She started shaking, crying. I didn’t have the patience for it. I didn’t have the time for it, either, and neither did she. “Why do I feel like you’re stalling, Rae? Are you really in a hurry to get on that bus, or what?” “Yes! I have to get away from him! He’s gonna kill me!” “For what, damn it? Why did you do?” “I owe him so much money.” “How much.” “Ten thousand dollars.” Tears streamed down her face, mixed with snot. She ran a hand under her nose, and I felt sick. “You tried to stay clean, huh? You don’t shoot ten thousand bucks into your arm on the first relapse, babe.” “I know, I know. I’m so ashamed. You don’t know what it’s like. I was working it off in other ways…” “Oh God, I don’t wanna hear about this.” She turned my stomach. “Just with him. Only with him. He made it sound like that would make us even. Only it didn’t. He changed his mind all of a sudden. The last time I went to see him, the night before I left Gigi with you. He told me it wasn’t enough. I owed him all this money. I didn’t understand why, what he meant. So I packed Gigi’s stuff and took her to you. I borrowed the neighbor’s car and honked the horn so you would come out.” “Yeah, I know you did.” “I’ve been hiding from him all week. But he found me. I’ve gotta go!” She made a move like she wanted to bolt again, but we stopped her. She cried out, a weak, broken cry. “Please, he probably already knows I’m here. You’ve gotta let me go. You’ve gotta get back to the clubhouse.” Her words stopped me. I glanced at Flash, who looked as surprised as I did. “What do you mean, I’ve gotta get back? Why?” “Because…” She started crying again, harder than before. I lost all patience. I took her by the arms and shook her until her head rocked back and forth. She was like a rag doll. “Lance, chill.” I didn’t care what Flash or anybody said, or whether anybody else saw me shaking her. I wanted to kill her.

“Why do I have to get back? What did you do? What happened when he found you? Why did he let you go?” I shook her again. “Why did he let you go after he found you? Why did he let you live? What did you do, damn it?” “I had to tell him something to settle the debt. I had to give him something!” She sobbed. “What did you give him? What?” My voice rose over the bus engines. “I’m sorry.” She broke free from my hands and fell onto the floor. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I was so scared.” She rocked back and forth. I looked at Jax, who looked just as stunned as I felt. “Call the clubhouse.” I knelt down, shaking her again. I needed her to look at me. “What did you do? What did you give him? I don’t understand. Help me, damn it. Help me, Rae. Tell me what I need to know.” Nothing I said got through to her. “Lance!” I looked up. Jax was as white as a sheet, phone in his hand.

Chapter Twenty Jamie

After a half hour of waiting once the kitchen was clean, I knew I was about to lose my mind. I needed to be away from there for a little while, if only to clear my head. I couldn’t pace back and forth all night in Lance’s office like a deranged person. Erica stuck her head in through the open door. “Are you okay?” My head snapped up. “No. I need to get out of here for a minute.” Erica looked like she was about to protest. I held up a hand to stop her. “Lance doesn’t need to know. I just have to go back to my house, check on things, get some more clothes together. Stuff like that. When I packed, I thought I was only packing through Sunday night. Now, who knows?” She looked suspicious, though she didn’t have any reason to be. I was telling the truth, and Lance’s absence was the perfect opportunity to get out of there for a little while. “Really, what am I going to do? I’m not even asking to take Gigi with me. Just switching out clothes, picking up the mail. That’s it.” “I guess so,” she said, chewing her lip. “I don’t want anything to happen to you, though.” “What would happen to me?” I shrugged, honestly unsure why any of them seemed to think I was in danger. I was the last person on anybody’s radar. I wasn’t even part of the MC world, the way they rest of them were. Heck, Erica was probably at greater risk than I was…though I wouldn’t tell her that. “Okay. I’ll cover for you with Gigi.” “Thanks.” I gave her a quick hug, then grabbed my coat and purse before slipping out the front door. The first deep breath of fresh air was like heaven after breathing the stale air in the clubhouse for days. I didn’t know how any of them survived during lockdown, I really didn’t. I’d never considered myself an outdoor person—I was more of a homebody. I had just never spent that much time cooped up before, without being sick. It was nice to get behind the wheel of my car again, to feel in control of my life. Amazing how little time it took to feel like I’d lost control. Only a couple of days. On Friday evening, before showing up at the MC’s front door, I was one person. By Monday afternoon, I felt like somebody else. A different

girl. One who had to get permission to go home and pick up a few things. I said a silent prayer as I drove, hoping Lance was able to find Rae and put an end to the madness. What then? What would happen to Gigi? She’d be totally in his hands. I didn’t like the idea at all. I might have slept with him, but I didn’t trust his parenting skills. What would he do, lock her away in her room? She was already going crazy, and it had only been a week. He couldn’t make her stay there forever. It was too far from school, too, unless he planned to transfer to another school. My heart ached at the thought. I couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t say goodbye to Gigi. There had to be a middle ground, something I could work out with him. I might not have been a blood relation, but I cared too much about that little girl to be pushed out of her life. I wouldn’t let him do that to me. I had to be smart, work with him, around him—anything necessary to get what I wanted: Gigi’s happiness. But who was I to assume I knew what would make her happy? A degree in early childhood education didn’t make a parent, or even an expert on development. Loving her didn’t make me an expert either. Still, I was convinced I knew her better than he did. I knew what was best for her, best for any child. And it wasn’t spending night and day in an MC clubhouse, surrounded by trashy women and criminals —even if they were nice people, that was still who they were. The closer I got to home, the calmer I felt. The tension of the past few days slipped away until I felt rather Zen-like as I pulled into my driveway. I even had an appetite, in stark contrast to the way I felt while sitting down to dinner. It was like stepping into a different world, entering my house. Everything was just the way I left it. I breathed a sigh of relief and, for a split second, considered staying. I didn’t have to go back to the clubhouse. I didn’t ever have to go back to that world. It would be easier if I stayed away—after all, it would mean never having to see Lance again. It would be better if I didn’t. Better for whom? I asked myself the question as I puttered around, running my hands over my TV, my couch, the photos on the end tables. Photos of my parents in happier days, before I lost them to a drunk driver. It would be better for me, of course. I didn’t need the complication of falling for a criminal. I hated that world, hated everything about it. It went against everything I believed in. I’d spent my life walking the straight and narrow, being a good citizen, doing the right thing. That was the way my parents brought me up. I looked at their smiling faces, frozen in time, and wondered what they would think of me sleeping with a man who had most certainly hurt a lot of people in his short life. He was a thief, a violent man. He might even have killed people. I was too afraid to ask. He was also the little boy whose mother couldn’t take care of him. Whose foster father abused him, put out lit cigarettes on his bare skin. Who was so badly burned, his teacher cried when he saw the result. He was that person, too. If he’d never been that person, he might not have been the man he grew into. He might have had a chance. He was smart enough. He had charm, charisma. He was a natural leader. He could have grown up to be a CEO instead of the president of an outlaw motorcycle

club. Life turned on a dime. I picked up my favorite picture with my parents, the one taken on the day I graduated college. They had thrown me a party at their house on Long Island, and all their friends had come. Many of my friends had, too. In the picture, Mom stood on my right, Dad on my left. The three of us wore huge, cheesy smiles. For all their money and social standing, they were still two regular people. Just enjoying their daughter’s graduation party. They were dead a week later. They had just left the driveway, on their way to a movie, when a drunk kid on his way home from the beach broadsided them. Dad died right away, as the collision was on his side of the car. The force sent the car slamming into a tree, which killed Mom. Just like that, it was all over. And Lance could have been different if anything in his life was different. Hell, I could have been different, too. What if I wasn’t born to my parents? What if they died when I was little? What if, what if, what if? It was enough to drive a person crazy, and it tore me apart inside. As much as I knew he was bad news, I wanted him. That was the worst thing of all. I couldn’t explain why I wanted him, but I had from the minute we met. It had been easier to scream at him, fight with him, challenge him. It was easier to hate him, to see him as my captor. Nothing but a nasty criminal. That way, I didn’t have to think about how handsome he was, or how funny he was without trying to be. I didn’t have to think about how much I wanted him to touch me, kiss me, make me his. It was so much easier that way. I couldn’t go back, not when I knew how good it could feel to be with him. How incredible it felt to be in his arms, kissing him, feeling him inside me. I closed my eyes at the memory. It had been blissful. I’d wanted it never to end. But it had, because real life did that. It crowded in when we didn’t want it to. I wondered what my mom would say if I told her about him. I stared at her photo, almost willing her to answer me. “What would you think about him?” I whispered. “What would you think of me if you knew what I was doing with him?” That bothered me a lot, too, I realized. My self-image was crumbling before my eyes. I was a good girl, a nice girl, a people pleaser. Sleeping with a criminal. I shook my head, telling myself to get a grip. I couldn’t let my thoughts run away with me. We’d slept together—big deal. It hardly meant we were in a relationship. It didn’t have to mean anything. Men and women slept together all the time without it meaning anything. It wasn’t like every other man I’d ever slept with had meant something to me. We were dating, I liked them. I moved on afterward. No big deal. It could be that way with Lance, too. I took the opportunity to grab a shower while I was at home, reveling in the feeling of using my own bathroom again. Not that the shower at the clubhouse wasn’t nice, but there was something about being at home which soothed me. Amazing, seeing as how I’d only stayed there for four days. I’d gone

on longer vacations that hadn’t left me longing for home the way my adventure with the MC had. I dried off, going to my bedroom. I had to pack another several days’ worth of clothes. Before I did, I threw the clothes I’d worn into the washing machine for a quick cycle. While I waited, I fixed myself a snack and sat down to catch up on a little TV. It was so good to be home. Once again, I dreaded going back. I had to, though. For Gigi’s sake. Why couldn’t I bring her to the house with me? I hated Lance just then for taking me away from my home. My couch, my living room, my kitchen. My TV. My bathrobe, which I could feel free to wear while I ate a bowl of cereal and watched TV with my feet up on the coffee table. I was the mistress of my domain. Why did he have to take that away from me? I wouldn’t leave Gigi there alone. I couldn’t. The only reason I felt comfortable taking my time was that I knew she would be safe with Erica and Traci for a little while. I trusted them. I just didn’t trust the rest of them—they weren’t bad people, but who knew what Gigi could be exposed to? I didn’t want to leave her vulnerable to that. Besides, I needed to know what happened with Rae. It would drive me crazy not knowing. With that in mind, I got up from the couch to put my clothes in the dryer. I washed out my bowl and spoon, dried my hair and got dressed in record time. I had to be at the clubhouse by the time Lance showed up. I didn’t want him to get angry when he found out about me leaving. Besides, it would get Erica into trouble, too, and I didn’t want that. I gave myself a little pep talk as I drove back. My heart was heavy. I wanted to be with Gigi, and I couldn’t deny wanting to see Lance, but I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be back in my own world. Getting a taste of it only made me miss it more. I hardly noticed when my phone rang, and remembered turning it to silent when Lance and I napped. I fished it out of my purse, sitting beside me in the passenger seat. An unknown number. I would normally have ignored it, but with the state my life was in I didn’t think it wise to ignore any phone call. It might have been Lance, for all I knew. “Hello?” I heard breathing on the other end of the line. Then, “Is this Jamie Hollis?” “Yes. Who is this?” I pulled over to the side of the road, my heart racing. I didn’t know the voice, but I couldn’t miss the menace in it. Whoever it was, they weren’t just calling to say hello. “We have the girl.” I clamped a hand over my mouth to keep from screaming. I looked around, my first instinct to get help. There wasn’t anyone around, of course. “What are you talking about?” I asked, digging my nails into my palm to keep myself calm. I couldn’t

lose it. If they did have Gigi, I had to be calm for her. “We have the little girl. The one you’re so close with.” “Who’s we? And if you have her, what’s her name?” My mind raced. A chuckle. “Gigi.” I closed my eyes, slamming my hand against the steering wheel. I had to think. I couldn’t panic. I had to keep it together for her sake. I took a deep, shaky breath, willing myself to stay conscious and calm. “Why did you take her? Who are you? What do you want?” “It’s pretty simple. You have to come and get her.” “I don’t understand. Do you want money? I don’t have any money.” “We both know that’s not true, don’t we? Not with the kind of house you live in.” I shuddered. Who followed me? I looked around again, wondering if someone watched even then. “Bullshit. You’re a fucking coward. Why don’t you show your face?” “Now, no need to get excited. And stop with the words. I can tell how scared you are—you can’t fool me.” A laugh. “You’re so smart, is that it? You think you know me? You don’t know anything about me, or what I would do to protect that girl.” “Oh, I know exactly what you would do.” A man. His voice was raspy, but I couldn’t tell if it was because he whispered or if that was his actual voice. The blood froze in my veins. “Is this The Scarecrow?” A pause, then another laugh. “You’re a pretty smart girl, aren’t you? If you’re so smart, you know what I’ll do with the kid if you don’t get here soon. I know you’ve heard about me.” I thought about everything Lance had told me, and when I remembered him talking about trafficking, I wanted to scream in fury and panic. “What is it you want? Do you want money? I’ll bring it with me, everything I have.” “We’ll talk about that when you get here. But you do have to get here, and soon. Otherwise, you’ll never see her again—alive, anyway.” I thought I might pass out. I dug my nails into my palm again, desperate to keep it together. “Where are

you?” “I’ll give you the address. I want you here as soon as possible, too. No detours. Don’t stop off anywhere. Especially not at the clubhouse. I don’t want Lance hearing anything about this. Understood?” “Understood.” I thought hard. How the hell would somebody get their hands on her in the first place? I left her at the clubhouse, with a dozen people. How could anybody have gotten her out? Was this some trap for me? “How do I know you have her?” I asked. “How do I know this isn’t all a trap?” Silence. Then, “Jamie!” I closed my eyes, gasping. That was her. No doubt about it. “Convincing enough?” “Yes. I’m convinced.” “Then you’ll hurry over here. I’ll give you the address. Ready?” It was a random motel in the middle of the highway going north. I entered the information into my phone as The Scarecrow rattled it off. “Got it,” I muttered. “Get here quick. I wouldn’t want you to miss the fun.” “No way. Not unless you plan to let her go.” “I’ll let her go.” He chuckled. “I promise.” With that, the line went dead. I shivered uncontrollably. Gigi. I couldn’t let him hurt her, but I didn’t know how I could possibly save her. I could tell Lance, but what would happen if The Scarecrow found out I did? He’d already followed me, or had me followed. I couldn’t go back to the clubhouse, or else risk being found out. I punched the ceiling of the car, crying, screaming in frustration. I didn’t have a choice. I had to find Gigi. I entered the address into my GPS and pointed the car in the direction it instructed. There was no time to waste.

Chapter Twenty-One Lance

Jax dropped his phone on the floor, then knelt down next to me. I searched his pale face for an answer. He didn’t say anything at first. I never saw him look like that. “What is it?” I asked. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out. I turned back to Rae. “What did you do? What did you give The Scarecrow?” She looked at me, at Jax. His face went red. “How could you do that?” he screamed. “What did she do? What?” I let go of her and shook him instead. He lunged at her, but I held him back. I honestly thought he would hurt her, but I didn’t know why. “Stop! What’s wrong! Tell me!” He wouldn’t say anything. He shook, and looked at her. “I had to pay off my debt,” she sobbed. “I’m sorry. I had to give him something!” It hit me. Everything came together. I looked at her, shaking my head. I could hardly talk. “Gigi, right? You gave him your daughter.” I heard Flash gasp. “No,” he said. I didn’t look at him. I didn’t look at Jax or Slate. I looked at her. “You did. Right? You gave her to him.” She put her hands over her face. “I had to!” I thought the world was crashing all around me. I was sure of it. How was everything still happening? How was I still breathing? How was it possible? What the hell was I supposed to do? “Lance, come on, man. We have to go.” Flash pulled me up. “You fucking bitch,” I snarled. It took everything I had in me not to kick her again and again while she sat on the floor of the terminal. She didn’t deserve to live.

She held up her hands. “Please! I had to! He was gonna kill me!” “You should’ve let him kill you. You should have died before you gave her to him. You disgust me.” I spat on the ground in front of her. She was gone. There was no hope for her. “Please, please don’t hate me, Lance.” I turned away. I couldn’t look at her anymore. “Do you know what he’s gonna do with her? What’s the plan?” “He’s gonna sell her…” “Fuck!” I roared it, throwing my head back to scream. By that time, we had a few dozen people watching. They jumped back when I screamed. “Back off,” Slate said, pushing people out of the way as the four of us ran for the door. “Where are we going?” Flash asked. “To the clubhouse. What did they say on the phone?” I asked Jax. “Somebody came in, hit Erica—she was with Gigi. He took her away. That’s all they told me.” “Damn it. Damn that bitch.” I climbed on the back of my bike and was just about to pull away when Jax added something else. “Jamie’s not there either.” “What?” I stared at him. “He took Jamie, too?” “She wasn’t there when it happened. Erica said she went home to pick up a few things, I don’t know. They can’t get a hold of her.” Nothing made sense. So many things were happening in my head at once, I didn’t know what to do first. I wanted to rush somewhere, but I didn’t know where anymore. I had to find them. I had to figure out how to get them. I had to save them before it was too late. I pulled out my phone, and my fingers shook so badly I almost couldn’t get Jamie’s number to come up. I dial it, though, and it rang. And rang. And rang. “Shit.” I hung up, starting the engine. “We’ve gotta get back to the clubhouse, now.” The other three nodded, and we raced out of the parking lot. It was a fifteen-minute ride before I would even get back to headquarters. Then what?

How would I find them? I was sure he had Jamie, too. I didn’t know how I knew it. I felt it in my bones. He found a way to get to her. Maybe he followed her, or had somebody do it for him. No way she would just disappear without telling me. I didn’t even know where she lived, or else I would have sent somebody to check on the house. I never felt so useless in my life. I knew we had no time. None. He wouldn’t waste time getting rid of them. My daughter. A fucking child prostitute. The thought made me want to throw up. I held it back as I rode. I had to get to the clubhouse. That was the only thing that stopped me from being sick. Gigi. Jamie. Gigi. Jamie. Did he have them together? It was the only comforting thing I could think of. Gigi didn’t have to be alone if she had Jamie with her. I knew Jamie would do whatever she had to do to keep Gigi safe. I shuddered to think what The Scarecrow might do if she fought back, though. And she would fight back if I knew her. I never wanted to kill somebody I never even met before that day. The bike couldn’t go fast enough for me. A jet plane wouldn’t have gone fast enough. I revved the engine, weaving in and out of traffic, slipping between cars, running red lights. I didn’t even care that the others fell behind—they weren’t as determined as me. It wasn’t their daughter. Their woman. Jamie was my woman. And all I could think of was never seeing her or Gigi again. I got to the clubhouse in record time and ran through the door. The first thing I saw was Erica, sitting on the couch with an ice pack on the back of her head. Traci washed the blood off the side of her face. “Holy shit.” I sat down with her. “What happened?” She was hysterical. “I tried. I swear. I tried so hard. I screamed and fought him.” I took her hand. “I know you did.” “I’m sorry. It’s all my fault. I shouldn’t have let him do it.” She was babbling. Her eyes looked unfocused. She might have been in shock. “It’s not your fault.” I held her hand, rubbing my thumb over the back of her knuckles. Traci washed her face. “You should go to the hospital. Get your head checked out.” “I’ll never forgive myself. Never.” She stared straight ahead. Her hand shook. “Take her,” I said to Traci. She needed to get help, and I didn’t have the time to make her feel better. I wanted the girls out of the clubhouse anyway. I didn’t need them around when we did what we had to do. Only I didn’t know where to start. What could I do? By that time, Flash and the others came in. “Get everybody in here now.” I tried to call Jamie again. Still no answer. I knew he had her. My gut told

me so. I explained what happened, and everybody looked as shaken up as I was. I looked out over their faces, two dozen guys. My crew. I knew they would do anything for me if I asked. “We have to find them, but I don’t know where to go. I don’t know where The Scarecrow hides out. I need you to hit the streets, ask everywhere. Anywhere. Go to the clubs, drug dens, whatever. I don’t care. Just find out where he holds people when he’s gonna sell them.” “You think he’ll sell them both?” I thought about Jamie. She was beautiful, blonde, young. She had a great body. “Yeah. He’ll sell her, too, if he can.” “Shit.” Everybody looked at each other. “Keep your phones close by in case I call. If you hear anything, call me right away.” I watched them leave. Flash stayed with me. “We only have a couple of hours, tops,” I muttered. I was sure I would throw up. “After that, who knows. They might ship them outta the country. I don’t know who he sells to. Jesus Christ, I don’t know anything about how this works. I never wanted to be anywhere near it.” “Who would?” Lance asked. “I don’t either. Just rumors. I heard the same ones you did, that he sells kids and young women. That’s it. I don’t know about any buyers around here, whatever they’re called.” “I can’t believe I was so stupid.” “How could you know? What were you supposed to do?” “I should’ve protected her better. I should have.” Flash took me by the shoulders. “That’s what you were trying to do. Remember? That’s why we went to the station. To find Rae. To find out what The Scarecrow wanted. Only…now we know.” “Yeah. Now we know.” My chest was so tight, I wondered if I was having a heart attack. I punched a wall, needing to release some of the anger inside me. It didn’t do any good. “What about the cops? They might know somethin’ about where he hides.” I frowned. I was almost desperate enough to try that, but it didn’t take much thinking to know it wouldn’t work. “If I call them, they’ll find out about Gigi. They might take her away. Besides, we’re dealing with a pro. Do you really think The Scarecrow would let the cops know where he does his shit?”

Flash thought about it. “Yeah, you’re right. He’s too smart for that.” “He wouldn’t be as big as he is if he wasn’t.” I walked back and forth in the lounge. He had my daughter. He had my woman. Gigi. Jamie. Every beat of my heart had their names on it. I couldn’t stand not knowing where to go. I grabbed my keys from the bar. “Come on. I have to do something.” Flash followed me. “What if he calls here?” I thought about it. “He could get my cell number from Jamie. If he wants to find me, he’ll figure something out.” We climbed on our bikes. Headlights filled the parking lot, and I turned around. There was a cab pulling up. I reached behind me, feeling for my gun just in case. Who knew what sort of games The Scarecrow played? The door opened. Rae stepped out. I didn’t relax when I saw it was her and not some enforcer. “Get outta here!” I roared. My hand was still on the gun. “Please, please. I gotta talk to you.” She sent the cab away. I laughed bitterly. “I don’t know why the fuck you just sent him away, because I don’t wanna have anything to do with you.” She looked dejected. Good. I wanted her to. She should have. “What the fuck is wrong with you? Huh? Why would you come here?” “Man, relax. She might have some info for you.” Flash put a hand on my arm, the one behind me. “Steady.” I let go of the gun, and he dropped his hand. He was right. She was the only person who might be able to tell me something that could help. Otherwise, I was totally screwed. “What do you want?” I asked. My voice was quieter. “I wanna help find her.” “Them. You wanna help find them.” “Them?” She looked at me, then Flash. “Jamie. Gigi’s teacher. He took her, too.”

“What?” Rae covered her mouth with her hands. “Oh no. Jesus.” “Yeah. You know her, huh? Anyway, they’re both gone. Because of you.” “Lance, please. Come on. I came here to help.” “How can you help?” Flash asked. Rae opened her mouth like she was about to say something, then closed it. I shook my head. “She can’t. She doesn’t know shit. She only came here so we would protect her.” I got on the bike, ready to ride away. “She already did enough damage.” “I can help, I swear!” I could hear her over the engine. “Lance, wait.” Flash stopped me again. He asked Rae, “What do you know?” “I know where Scarecrow does all his deals.” That was enough to stop me. I turned off the engine. “Where?”

She paused again. “Will…will you help me? Like, if you find him…will you help protect me from him?” I knew it. I laughed, shaking my head. She was fucking insane. “Rae, if I find him, there won’t be anything to worry about by the time I’m finished. You better start talkin’.” She nodded. That was good enough for her. “There’s a motel on the highway. North of here. Almost nobody ever goes there.” I thought I knew which one she meant. “The one that looks abandoned? The sign is broken?” “Yeah, that’s the one.” I saw it all the time. It used to have a big sign you could see from miles away. All that was left was a metal frame—the glass and light bulbs were gone. “You know which room he uses?” “Yeah. Room two thirteen. I’ve been there.” “I’m sure you have.” She still made my skin crawl. “You said he makes his deals there?”

She nodded. “Yeah. Drop offs, sales.” “Sales of people, you mean?” She looked at the ground. Who the hell was she? She knew about this shit, and she never did anything about it. I stared at her. She wouldn’t look at me. At least she still knew she should be ashamed of herself. “And this is where he’ll be now? You know it?” “He doesn’t use any other place. That’s it. Out of the way, not a lotta people there. He can do what he wants.” Flash and I looked at each other. “It’s as good a shot as any,” he said. I didn’t need to think about it. It was about a half hour up the interstate. I was sure I could make it in less time than that. “Get everybody together, I want them all there.” Flash nodded, and I took off. I didn’t look at Rae when I did—I might have run her down. She wasn’t even a person to me anymore.

Chapter Twenty-Two Jamie

The ride to the motel was the longest half hour of my life. I was terrified that I wouldn’t get there in time to help Gigi. God, if he let anybody hurt her…! How many people were there? What were they doing to her? I felt sick just thinking about it. I couldn’t think that way. I told myself not to. She would be just fine. I would get to her in time, and she would be all right. I would find a way. How, though? How would I get her away? What did I have that he would take? Money? Sure, I would give him money. Every last cent I had, and that was saying something. My parents had left me fairly well-off. I’d hand over the keys to my house, even. Anything it took to get her away from him. But even then, was that a guarantee that he’d let her go? No. It was a sobering reality to come to. I couldn’t be sure he’d keep his word. Then what? I glanced at my bag, wondering if I should call Lance. I wanted to, but was afraid he’d go to the motel and cause an even bigger problem. What if The Scarecrow saw him coming and killed Gigi because I went against his orders? What if he killed us both? Me, I wouldn’t care about, but I couldn’t put Gigi’s life in danger. She was already in enough trouble. Calling Lance was out, then. I couldn’t worry too much about it. The man probably only wanted money. He was a businessman, just like Lance had said earlier. Why did I leave her? Why? Who was stupid enough to let her go? I would have died before I let anybody take her. It didn’t make sense, all those people at the clubhouse and not one of them could stop a little girl from being kidnapped? I doubted he’d come in with an army—I didn’t think drug dealers exactly traveled in packs. So who was it? Which member of the club let her go? I didn’t want to consider that any of them could be part of it. No way. The guys loved Lance, and I saw the way they acted around Gigi. They treated her like gold. There had to be something else happening. Maybe he’d been watching, waiting for the right moment. He’d seen Lance leave, I guessed. He knew she would be less heavily guarded. Heck, he might even have seen me leave, too. The right moment wouldn’t have come for him if I hadn’t been sitting around my house in my bathrobe. I screamed in frustration, wishing I could take it all back. That I could turn back time and not make such a huge, selfish mistake. To think, I wanted to take care of that little girl. I told myself I was best

for her. Had I made the best decision in the moment? No. I’d only thought about myself. I wasn’t fit to take care of anyone. I had to make it up to her. My foot lowered nearly to the floor as I sped up, racing for the motel. Praying I’d get there before anybody hurt Gigi. I turned into the parking lot, relieved at finally arriving. The asphalt was cracked, filled with potholes and weeds. It didn’t look like anybody used the place, but there were a few cars here and there in the parking lot, and a few lights. Still, out of the dozens of rooms, only three or four were taken. I wondered at the seediness of it, trying not to imagine the sort of things that went on there. A whole other world, like Lance had talked about in his office. What did you do when you learned there was another world out there, one you didn’t even know about? Had I been driving past the motel at any other time, I wouldn’t have glanced in its direction, much less considered the lives of the people staying there. Or just passing through. How many stories like mine were playing out at that moment? I shivered at the thought. Room two thirteen, he’d said. I looked for it in the dim light coming from the only working fixture in the parking lot. It was also the only room with a light in the window on the first level. I parked the car, my heart pounding. I felt sick to my stomach, the cereal I’d eaten threatening to come back up. I couldn’t sit staring at the room forever, but I dreaded going in. I dreaded what I would see. There was no avoiding it. I pulled my purse out with me and slammed the car door shut. Might as well announce my presence. I couldn’t help thinking about something similar. When I’d approached the door to the clubhouse, looking for Gigi. Had that really only been four days earlier? To think, I thought they were the threat to her. I’d had no idea. How naïve could a person be? It seemed unthinkable that I didn’t know how much evil there was in my town. “You can do this,” I whispered, raising my hand to knock on the door. I pounded with the side of my fist, acting braver than I felt. Movement behind the door. I held my breath. Please let her be okay. Please don’t let him hurt her. Please let her be okay. The door swung open. “So. You’re the great Jamie.” His voice dripped condescension. “Yeah, that’s me.” I couldn’t get a good look at him, backlit as he was by the lamp inside the room. “And you’re The Scarecrow.” “You got it.” We stood there for a moment, looking at each other. I saw his eyes. His dark, angry eyes. Then my eyes shifted, and over his shoulder, I saw a bed. And Gigi. She was dressed, thank God. “Let me have her,” I muttered, fists at my sides. “I’ll give you what you want, but I want her first.”

“You don’t make the rules,” he said. He almost whispered the words. “So, what, you do? I don’t think so.” “Think what you want,” he whispered. “I’m not here to bargain with you. Do you want her? You’re gonna do as I say.” In a flash, he took my arm and pulled me into the room, slamming the door. Locking it. With his other hand, he wrenched the purse from over my shoulder. “You won’t need this,” he said, tossing the bag aside. “Hey!” I shoved him, and he took me by the arms. My heart pounded, blood rushing in my ears. His hands were like vices, squeezing me with no mercy. I could feel his fingers digging into me, and I yelped before I could stop myself. “Stop! Stop! Don’t hurt her!” Gigi cried out from the bed. I shook and fought against him until he let go, laughing at me. “Sweetie.” I rushed to her before The Scarecrow could reach for me again, throwing my arms around her. I could have wept with joy. She didn’t look hurt, but there was no way of knowing just by looking. “Did he hurt you?” I whispered, looking her over. “He grabbed my arm, and that hurt.” “Anything else?” I searched her face, willing her to tell me the truth. “I don’t touch the merchandise, if that’s what you’re asking her,” he snarled from behind me. “What’s that mean?” she asked. “Never mind, sweetie.” I turned her until she faced me. I didn’t want her even to see him if she didn’t have to. “Just look at me, okay?” “Okay.” Her chin wobbled. I wrapped my arms around her, holding her tight against me. I glared up at our captor. He looked just like I would imagine a drug dealer to look. Scratch that—he was worse than a dealer. He peddled human beings. I wondered what else he was capable of, with his grungy clothes and dirty hands. His nails were filthy. What the heck did he do with himself? “Don’t you ever bathe?” I shot him a withering look. “Sometimes you gotta blend in, bitch. When I’m doing business, I gotta look like other people in the

business. I don’t wanna stand out.” “Right.” I rolled my eyes, patting Gigi’s head. She shivered, and I heard her crying softly. “It’s okay, sweetheart. I’m here with you. You don’t have to be afraid anymore.” I didn’t believe a word coming out of my mouth, but I had to comfort her in any way I could. When she looked up at me, her eyes were huge, haunted. “He killed Erica,” she whimpered. “What?” I brushed her hair back from her face. “What are you saying?” I looked at him, then back at her. “Shut up,” he commanded. His voice reminded me of a snake’s hiss. I glared at him. “Don’t tell us what to do.” “I’ll tell you whatever I wanna tell you, bitch. And you’ll do it.” I held Gigi closer. “No, I won’t. We’re going to leave.” He stared at me, then started laughing. He closed his eyes, head thrown back, and roared like he’d heard the funniest joke ever. “You’re hilarious,” he said, wiping his eyes. “You really think it’s that easy. Like this is some kind of movie where you’re the hero. Right? You’re the hero teacher, and now you’re gonna be the hero who saves the little girl from the big, bad man. Right?” He crouched down beside me, and I felt his sour breath on my face. He repulsed me with his nasty, jagged teeth and pitted skin. His eyes burned into me as he glared. I held Gigi away from him, putting myself between them. When he spoke, his words were clear, sharp. “You don’t leave. Not now. Not until I tell you it’s time to leave.” “What are you holding us for? I’ve told you already, I’ll give you whatever you want.” “Yeah, you will.” He reached for me with one hand, gently stroking my hair. I shuddered and flinched away, still shielding Gigi with my body. “You’ll give me everything I want. You’ll be worth a lot of money.” I swallowed back the bile that threatened to bubble up out of my mouth. “Right. Like I said, whatever you want.” The Scarecrow snickered. “You don’t get it, bitch. The money’s not coming from the ATM— although,” he glanced at my purse, “I want your cards and PINs. That’s a good idea. But you won’t be using them. I will. You’ll be long gone.”

My insides froze. “Where am I going?” “Wherever my man wants to take you. Once I hand you over, you’re his. And trust me.” He leaned even closer. I willed myself not to flinch away again. “He’s not gonna be as nice to you as I am.” I gulped, doing everything in my power to avoid showing him how terrified I was. I stared willfully into his eyes, telling myself he couldn’t break me down. He had to know he wasn’t dealing with the average woman. I wouldn’t break down in front of him. He chuckled nastily, glancing at Gigi before standing. “That’s your plan for her, too?” I gasped, squeezing her in my arms. I would let him kill me before I’d let him take her away for some pervert. “Yeah. That’s the plan. Now I know why you’re a teacher. It’s ’cause you’re so smart.” I looked down at her. There was no way for her to understand what we were talking about. She was too young. But she’d understand all too soon if I didn’t do something about it. “What are they gonna do to me, Jamie?” she whispered. “Don’t worry about it, sweetie.” I kissed the top of her head, then climbed up onto the bed with her in my arms. “He won’t touch you.” It was a promise I didn’t think I could keep, and it terrified me. The Scarecrow left the room, stepping outside. I heard him talking on the phone and strained my ears to hear what he said. Nothing was clear. He watched us through the window, so there was no way to get to my phone. I was afraid to make a move. I looked around for a weapon. Something, anything. There wasn’t even an antenna on the ancient TV. I leaned over Gigi, one eye on the door, to open the nightstand drawer. A Bible—ironic, but nothing that could help me fight him. I had nothing. Only my fists and my feet. I would use them. Gigi was shaking, crying. “Honey, it’s gonna be okay. Don’t you worry about it. You have to be brave now.” “But Erica. He killed her.” She laid her head on my shoulder and wept. “Why do you say that, sweetie?” “He hit her. She had blood all over.” I closed my eyes, gritting my teeth. “What happened?” I whispered.

“We were playing checkers, just her and me, and he came in.” “Nobody else was around?” “No. Traci went home. Everybody else was playing cards in the other room, with the door closed. Erica told them to close the door ’cause they were using bad words.” “Then what happened?” “She jumped up and screamed, and he hit her. She punched him and kicked at him, and she told me to run away and get help. He hit her again, and she was bleeding. I didn’t wanna leave her.” She wept, almost convulsing with the strain of her grief. “It’s okay. It’s okay.” I rocked her, trying to soothe her. “She might have been knocked out, you know? That’s all. I don’t think she was killed.” “Then he took me. I tried to scream, but he had his hand over my mouth. He put me in his car and I screamed and screamed, but nobody heard me.” “Oh, honey. I’m so sorry. I should’ve been there with you.” And what had I been doing? Eating cereal with my feet on the coffee table. Wondering if I ever had to go back there at all. Meanwhile, Erica was fighting tooth and nail to keep Gigi safe, and it still didn’t matter. He might very well have killed her for all I knew. And I was watching TV. I’d never forgive myself for not being there. I fought the tears that threatened to overwhelm me, telling myself she couldn’t see me cry. I didn’t want her to see me fall apart like that. I had to be strong for her. “What’s he gonna do?” she whispered. “I don’t know,” I answered, lying. I thought she could tell I was lying, but she was too good a kid to call me on it. She always thought of other people’s feelings, the poor thing. I couldn’t let it all go down like it was. I had to think of a way out. She needed a chance in life. I couldn’t let her become just another lost little girl. The door opened, and The Scarecrow leered at us. His nearly yellow hair stuck up in all directions, reminding me of straw. I wondered if that was where he got his name, or if he styled himself to fit his branding. I almost laughed, it was all so surreal. “I wouldn’t smile if I was you,” he sneered. I scowled instead. “Better?” “Yeah, better, wiseass bitch.” “Could you not use language like that in front of her, please.” I held her tighter still, my hand over her

ear. He laughed. “She’s gonna hear a lot worse than that soon.” I shuddered. Her little heart raced so fast. Her body trembled. “My man is an hour away, maybe more. Held up on some other job. He’s on his way, though.” My heart leaped, a spark of hope kindling there. More than an hour. That was more than enough time for Lance to find us. He would. He had to. That was the only solution. I eyed The Scarecrow up. He was a big man—not as big as Lance, but big enough to overpower me in an instant. I didn’t have to think hard to remember the strength of his hands, seeing as how I could feel the soreness in my muscles. I was sure there would be bruises left behind. I would have to try to fight him if I could, if it came down to that. Otherwise, Lance was our only hope.

Chapter Twenty-Three Lance

It was the longest half hour of my life. More like twenty minutes at the speed I was keeping. It could have been a year for all I knew. It stretched out forever. Every minute that passed was one more minute when Gigi could’ve been taken away. When Jamie could’ve been taken away. I couldn’t go fast enough. I had to go faster. For some reason, the face I thought of when I rode wasn’t Jamie’s, or Gigi’s. It was my foster mother’s. Shit, when was the last time I thought about her? Years. Probably not since right after I left that terrible place. She was a religious woman. She always wore a cross around her neck, always went to church. I remembered walking past her bedroom door sometimes at night, before bed. It would be open, and she’d be kneeling at the side of it. Saying prayers. That was after she knelt next to me at my bed. She taught me all the prayers and even talked about getting me baptized since I never was. She would always pray for her husband. I remembered that especially clearly. She’d pray for his soul. At first I wondered why she did it. Then he hit me for the first time, after beating her. Then I would wonder why she prayed for him instead of leaving him. She would never leave him. She wasn’t the kind of woman who did that. All she did was kneel by the side of her bed or go to church. She didn’t do anything to stop him from hurting her or me. I never prayed again after I left that house. I didn’t see the point—it didn’t do any good. God and I weren’t on tight terms after that. I thought there couldn’t be a God since he let something like what happened to me happen in the first place. On my way to the motel, I said the first prayer in a long time. God, please don’t let anything happen to them. They never hurt anybody. Do it to me. I would deserve it, not them. Just let me get to them in time. Don’t punish them to punish me. It’s not their fault. I just found them. Don’t take them away. I was sure it wouldn’t do any good, but it couldn’t hurt. I was desperate enough to try anything that might have helped them. I loved my little girl. And I loved Jamie. I wasn’t sure which of those two feelings surprised me more. I never thought I would love either of them, or anybody. I loved my club, but that was different. I used to love Rae, but that feeling was getting smaller every minute. The person I used to love was dead. She died years before. Even so, I never loved Rae more than I loved myself. I never loved her more than I loved the club.

She was third—a shitty thing to admit to myself, but it was true. She never came first. I knew when I rode to the motel that if Jamie and Gigi were the only two people left in the world, I would be all right. I’d find a way. That was how I knew it was real love. I was about to lose it. No! The thought was as clear in my head as if I screamed it out loud. I wouldn’t lose either of them. I would search until the day I died for them if I had to. I’d kill anybody who got in my way, too. I thought about Gigi. Her little face was clear in my head. The day she came to the clubhouse. The way she looked when she saw the gun in her face. The way she cried. The way she grinned when she kicked ass in poker. The way she looked when she slept, with her arms around a stuffed animal. How it felt to hold her in my arms, so light, when she told me about cooking with Jamie. She was always ready to laugh, or sing a song, or play a game. She was the bravest kid I knew. Abandoned by her mom, but she made the best of life with me. She tried so fucking hard to be a good kid. It ripped my chest, thinking of her. I thought my heart would break. She was mine. She needed me. And Jamie. I would’ve closed my eyes if I wasn’t on the back of my bike. I thought back to earlier that day—had it only been hours earlier? In bed together, just the two of us. The way I felt when I was inside her. Like a king. Like I could do anything. Breaking her, making her scream, making her mine. She was mine, nobody else’s. I remembered touching her, tasting her, the sounds she made. How hot and tight she was, how she clawed at my back when I drove myself into her. How she rode me, so hard, so fast. The prim, sweet girl who didn’t like using bad words, bucking like a cowgirl on my cock. I needed more of that, more of her. I couldn’t have her taken away so soon, not when I knew how good it could be. I winced when I remembered laughing off her premonition. I didn’t want to admit at the time how freaked she made me when she told me how scared she was. She should’ve been scared. Hell, I should’ve been scared. I should’ve said goodbye to Gigi before I left, too. I had just walked out without thinking about it. What the fuck was wrong with me? I might never see her again, and I had been so fucking thoughtless. That’s not true. I’ll see her again. We’ll be together again, in a little while, and she’ll be safe. I got to the motel, cutting my lights when I pulled in. What a shithole. I couldn’t believe it was still open, and wondered if maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the power was still on, but nobody stayed there who wasn’t whoring or shooting up. My stomach turned at the thought of my daughter in there. She was too young to see things like that. Hadn’t I seen things like that at her age? Yeah, and she didn’t need to turn out like me. So fucked up, all I did was push people away for most of my life. I could see so many things in ways I never did before. It all made sense. All it took was meeting the perfect woman for me. Too late, though. Just in time to get her into trouble, and lose her. Lucky me. Lucky her.

I pulled to the far side of the lot, waiting for the rest of the guys to join me. I saw Jamie’s car parked in front of one of the rooms—the only ground-level room with a light on. Were they still in there? I was just about to leave my bike and go to the door, just to listen, when my phone rang. It was Flash. “I’m almost there,” he said. “And everybody else is, too. Just hold on, okay?” “I have to know if they’re still in there,” I said. “I’ve gotta know.” “We’ll find out when we get there. I’ll be not even five minutes, okay? Just wait. Be smart about this.” “What do you mean?” My eyes never left the door to the room. “I mean if they’re in there with him, I don’t want you going in alone. And if they’re not there, five minutes won’t be enough time for them to get far. If you’re gonna ask The Scarecrow questions, you better damn well believe I wanna be there to help. Got it?” I clenched my teeth, gritting them hard. It was the toughest thing I ever had to do. “Got it,” I spat. “Good.” He hung up. I had to stand there, waiting. All alone. What would happen if The Scarecrow tried to get them out of there before the club showed up? I’d do what I had to do. I’d blow his fucking brains out if it came to that. Same thing for anybody who came to take Gigi or Jamie away. I would do what needed to be done and think about it later. But I wouldn’t think too hard, as long as my girls were both safe. I wasn’t alone for long. Sure enough, not three minutes passed before I saw Flash turn into the parking lot with four bikes behind him. They all came in the way I did—lights off, slowly, not attracting attention. I had to admit to myself that it felt better having my crew with me.

Chapter Twenty-Four Jamie

Gigi relaxed in my arms. It felt like she might even be sleeping. I was glad—as long as she was asleep, she wasn’t living in the nightmare her life had become. It had all gone downhill so quickly. Just hours had passed since we sat together at dinner. She asked me why I didn’t have an appetite. I told her I wasn’t hungry, but didn’t say why. How could I have told her I had a feeling something terrible was about to happen? How could I have known the terrible thing was going to happen to the two of us, not to her daddy? I shivered—there was no heat in the room, and it was a chilly night. I held Gigi tighter, trying to keep her warm with my body. No way I would peel the crusty bedspread back to warm us up. I could only imagine how many diseases were living in that bed. The room was a mess. I was surprised the place was even open with the condition it was in. Besides the fact that the paper peeled off the walls, the carpet was so worn down it looked like a bare floor, and the furniture was falling apart, it was filthy. I wondered if he did the majority of his living in that very room. It suited him. The Scarecrow sat at the foot of the bed, his back to us. He was watching TV. It was nearly impossible to see what was on the screen thanks to the heavy static, but he laughed just the same. Even the sound of his laugh sent shivers down my spine. He made me sick. Just looking at him turned my stomach. What did it take for a person to become who he was? I remembered Lance’s story, the way his foster father abused him. His junkie mother. He didn’t turn out to be some soulless monster. What level of depravity did a person have to be exposed to for them to become so evil? There was a time when I didn’t think actual evil existed. I thought everybody basically did their best as they saw it at the moment. There was always a reason for weakness. Even Rae, though I hadn’t liked her, was sympathetic. She wasn’t trying to make the wrong decisions. She couldn’t help herself. I had reminded myself of that so many times over the months, hadn’t I? Yet there I was, staring at the back of The Scarecrow’s head, looking at pure evil. Only an evil, heartless person could consider selling a child. I didn’t care about what he wanted to do to me nearly as much as I cared about her. Who would ruin a child’s life like that? A sweet, innocent little girl like Gigi? And he didn’t care! That was the worst part. He didn’t even flinch. How disconnected, how totally cold did a person have to be? “What happened to you?” The words came out in a near whisper. I spat them at him.

“Are you talking to me?” he muttered. “Yes. What happened to you?” He turned. I saw his profile highlighted by the TV screen—the crooked nose, the pointed chin. “What the fuck are you talking about?” “How could you do something like this? She’s a person. I’m a person. We’re not things. How can you sell people to other people?” “What are you trying to do? Get inside my head so I’ll feel sorry for you? Gimme a break. Go to sleep, shut the fuck up. I can’t wait ’til you’re outta here.” “You could get me outta here much quicker if you let me go.” “No way. Stop trying. You’re worth too much money.” I was curious. “How much?” He snickered. “You really wanna know?” “Yes. I should know how much money I’m making for you, shouldn’t I?” He shrugged. “Fair enough. I’m asking for twenty grand.” “Twenty thousand dollars? Not bad. You realize I could give you thirty, right?” “Yeah, but I could get the money outta your account either way. So really, that’s fifty.” He chuckled nastily. “This is a pretty good day for me. Not so good for you.” “You can’t get that kind of money. Only I can. It’s not like you’re going to take thirty thousand dollars out of an ATM. It’s not even in my checking or savings. It’s in my trust fund, from my parents. There’s more than that, actually. Much more. But I have to be there personally to take out such a large sum. They’re not going to give it to you.” I had his attention, I could tell. He tried to pretend like he was only half interested, but I sensed there was much more. It was the change in the way he held his body. He sat up straighter, cocked his head in my direction. Listened more closely. “Keep talking,” he murmured. This is it. You have to be cool. It was my only shot to get through to him—I couldn’t push too hard or too fast. “If you wait until tomorrow, when the bank is open, I can go in and get the money. They’ll give me a cashier’s check for it. I can take it anywhere and get the money. Or I can put it in my checking account so you’ll have access to it. You can keep my ATM card. I don’t care. All that money

can be yours.” He made a noise like he was considering it but also wanted to be cool, just as I was. “How much? And don’t lie to me.” “A hundred thousand.” “Bullshit.” “Give me my phone and I’ll access the account right now.” “No way.” “Then you’ll have to take my word for it.” He went silent, mulling it over. I knew I had him on the hook. “Think about it. Are you going to sell both of us for that much? I doubt it. You’re not getting eighty thousand for her.” “Mind your business on that,” he spat. “You’re not getting her.” Ease up. His temper was flaring. I kept my voice low, but was serious. “What? Yes, I am. That’s part of the deal. Both of us for my money. It can all be yours. This can all be over real quick.” He stood, pacing the room with a thumbnail in his mouth. My stomach churned at the sight of his dirty hands. I didn’t want to imagine the germs he was sucking on. How did people live that way and actually survive it? How did he not have a dozen deadly diseases? Then again, for all I knew, he did. He glanced at me. Sizing me up. Still wanting to pretend he didn’t care as much as he did. “You’re not bullshitting me?” “You say you saw my house, right? You know I’m not making this up.” I didn’t usually brag about money, but it seemed like a good time to start. “My parents were rich, and they died years ago. I was an only child. You do the math.” If you can, I wanted to add, but I bit my tongue. It was no time to be insulting, not when he was so close to giving me what I wanted. So, so close. I could almost taste my freedom, and Gigi’s. I could also almost see the wheels turning in his head. Imagining what he would do with a hundred thousand dollars. What would somebody like him do with that kind of money anyway? I couldn’t begin to imagine. I saw his excitement, though. Just under the surface. He was wondering what to do with us overnight. Should we stay there? Go somewhere else? He had to stay in control, didn’t he? Where could he keep us under his control? Just like that, his eyes clouded over. He went from excited to flat in the blink of an eye “No. It’s not gonna happen.” He sat back down, facing away from me. My heart sank. “What? No, you can’t do that. What’s wrong?”

He didn’t turn around. “It’s not just up to me. I made promises to people. I can’t take them back.” “Promises? To what people?” “The people you’re going to, dumb bitch. Who do you think I’m talkin’ about? They’re not gonna be happy if I tell ’em they’re gonna lose out on the money you would make.” I hadn’t thought about that. “I could give them money, too.” “You don’t know how much you would make for them. They wouldn’t go for it. Sorry.” He shook his head. “I could’ve used that money, too.” Then he shrugged like it was just another day at the office. Our lives hung in the balance and he didn’t care. Why should he? Once we’re gone, we’re gone. He never has to think about us again. I clenched my teeth, commanding myself not to cry. “How can you do this?” I whispered. “Selling people. How?” “It’s just business.” He didn’t turn to face me again. The tone of his voice told me there was nothing else to say, and that I’d better stay quiet for the rest of the time we were together. I looked down at Gigi, still sleeping in my arms. Her thumb in her mouth. I didn’t know she sucked her thumb—maybe it was an unconscious comfort thing. She needed to soothe herself, even when she slept. The poor little thing. The sight of her gave me strength. I wouldn’t give up. I couldn’t. Not when she hung in the balance. Where are you, Lance? Damn it, why hadn’t I called him? Or at least texted him the information for the motel? Something, anything. How could I be so blind, so stubborn? What did I think I was going to do, rush in and save her single-handedly? I questioned myself just as I had while I was in the car. How could I think I could save her? How could I think I was good enough even to take care of her when I showed such poor judgment? The Scarecrow might have been the most repulsive creature I’d ever seen, but he had a point. I thought I was a hero. I had a complex. I wanted to save Gigi’s life from the minute I met her and realized she was so broken and sad. I took her under my wing, determined to protect her. A lot of good I had done. If anything, I’d made her life even worse. If it wasn’t for me being selfish, she might still be safe. My bag was still on the floor, in the corner by the door. I looked at it, and at him. I’d heard it buzzing over and over since getting to the motel. Every time it made a sound, I jumped. Lance was trying to find us, I knew he was. Only how would he know where to go? If he was going to talk with Rae, she might have told him something. Maybe she knew where The Scarecrow hid out?

At the thought of her name, my eyes went wide. I gasped so loudly, I woke Gigi. She stirred, looking up at me with sleepy eyes. I smiled as reassuringly as I could, stroking her hair, trying to get her to go back to sleep. All the while, I knew how The Scarecrow had found her. I knew how he got my phone number, too. That had been bothering me on and off ever since he called. How did he know how to reach me? Rae knew my number. Rae gave it to him. I wanted to scream. How could she do it? How could she be so cold, so cruel? So thoughtless? What was the price? What did he threaten her with? Death? Nothing would have made me tell him where my daughter was. Did she know when she told him what he planned to do? Did she tell him anyway? I squeezed my eyes shut, determined not to cry. How could a person have a sweet little girl and care so little about them? I would never understand it, and I’d never forgive her. Gigi stirred fretfully. She opened her eyes, looking up at me. “Oh. I thought this was a dream.” She sounded so unhappy, it made me ache for her. “I’m sorry. No dream.” “When do we get to leave this place?” The Scarecrow snorted. I cut my eyes in his direction—I didn’t need his snide laughter or remarks— and looked down at her again. “Soon.” I mouthed the word. She nodded. “How?” So she knew we were in trouble. She knew this wasn’t a social call. Well, why wouldn’t she? When he pulled her out of the clubhouse, threw her into a car and locked her up in the motel? I bent very close to her ear and whispered as quietly as I could. “Just be brave. Your dad’s going to come for us.” She pulled away, eyes lighting up. She nodded enthusiastically. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, her face fell again. “How?” I didn’t know the answer, just like I didn’t know if he would really come. I could only hope and pray. “He has his ways. He knows things. Remember when Traci told you how wise he is?” “Yes. Like Solomon.”

“Right. He’s very wise, and very brave. And you know something else? I know he loves you. He’ll come for you. I’m sure he will.” I held her close, hoping I hadn’t just lied to her. All I could do was count the minutes and pray he somehow found us. Rae. She came to mind again. Would she have told him? If he caught her? A little spark of hope flickered to life in my heart. It was our only chance. Maybe Rae had an attack of conscience. I closed my eyes and willed him to hurry, just as I willed The Scarecrow’s buyer to take his time. We needed all the time we could get, and all the help we could get. I pictured Fury’s Storm overtaking the motel, sweeping in on their bikes to carry us off to safety. I pictured it as clearly as possible—their faces, their voices. Lance pulling Gigi and me to safety. The way it would feel when he held me in his arms again—his strong, powerful arms. Arms that could crush a pitiful little toad like that Scarecrow person with no effort. And then he would kiss me. I would close my eyes, tilt my head back until it rested in the crook of Lance’s elbow, and let him kiss me until nothing else mattered but us, and his lips, and the warmth of his breath and his body, so close to mine. He would be my hero. I had to picture it. I had to get it down to every last detail. There was nothing else I could do to keep from sliding into a black hole of despair as minute after minute ticked by.

Chapter Twenty-Five Lance

I was never a patient person. On my reports cards, my teachers used to make comments about how impatient I was. I could never wait my turn for things. I never wanted to stand in line. I was always the first one out the door when the bell rang—sometimes I would stand with one foot outside the classroom door, in the hallway, ready to take off the second I heard it ring. They always thought this was a bad sign, that I would grow up to be an impatient man. They used to give me those stupid writing assignments, too. I will learn to have more patience. Five hundred times in my notebook. I could have filled a whole notebook with the assignments I had before I dropped out of school. Patience wasn’t something I developed when I got older either. I didn’t like waiting for things. I couldn’t even be in the kitchen when there was water on the stove. I had to distract myself with something else until the water boiled. Otherwise I would go crazy and wonder why I was trying to boil water when I could just call the pizza place to get pasta delivered. One of the first things I wondered after Gigi showed up at the clubhouse was how I would learn to be patient with her. Kids needed patience. It seemed like she was already a good reader. She obviously knew how to tie her shoes at the age of seven. She was potty trained, and I was glad I missed out on that. She had all her bases covered. Still, there were things to be patient about. Listening to a story that could have taken twenty seconds but turned into five minutes. Hearing the same jokes over and over. Listening to her read slowly, slowly. I knew some kids liked to watch the same things over and over, too. I remembered the stack of movies I saw in her room—it wasn’t a big stack. She would be in the habit of watching them over and over. I would have to deal with all that. I would have to learn how to be patient. It scared me at first. After thirty years, how would I all of a sudden learn how to be patient? Then I figured out that it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I didn’t mind being patient, because I wanted to be good to her. It came naturally, I guessed. When it came to waiting for Fury’s Storm to show up at the motel so we could ambush The Scarecrow, I went back to square one. Just as impatient as ever. It was torture waiting for the entire club to show. I understood why Flash wanted me to wait, but I didn’t want to listen. I wanted to go in there, gun in hand, to blow that son of a bitch’s head off his shoulders. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait too long. We waited close to the interstate. It was dark by then, so even if The Scarecrow stuck his head out the door, he wouldn’t notice the line of motorcycles in the

darkness. The lights in the parking lot were broken, after all. Something was finally going my way. Once he was sure we were all together, Flash came over to me. “What’ve you seen so far?” “Nothing. It’s quiet. The light’s on in the room, but that’s it. He hasn’t come out, and nobody’s in there.” Jax agreed to go to the door to check it out. I hung back—I wanted to go in his place, but Flash didn’t think that was the best idea. “If you hear anything you don’t wanna hear…” “Don’t even say that to me. Don’t even think it, actually. It’s not happening. It’s not gonna happen.” I clenched my fists, waiting. Practically holding my breath. If only it wasn’t so fucking dark—it was good for hiding, but I couldn’t see what was happening at the door to the room. It felt like forever before Jax ran back to us. “Nothing. I hear a TV in there, and voices.” “What voices?” “Jamie’s, definitely.” I closed my eyes. “Gigi?” “No, nothing from her. It sounds like Jamie’s giving The Scarecrow shit.” I had to smile. “Of course she is. That’s what she does. And she’s staying strong for Gigi—that’s what she does, too.” I knew I could trust her. If she drove The Scarecrow half as crazy as she drove me, he might just kick them both out of the room and tell them to never come back. The smile left my face. “Okay, so they’re in there. What are they waiting for?” “Don’t you wanna go in now and find out?” I thought about it. “They’re waiting for somebody, or a few somebodies. It might be better to wait for them, too. I don’t wanna be ambushed at the last minute, just when we think we got them and we can go. Know what I mean? I would rather know what we’re up against.” “But…there’s only one of him in there. And dozens of us.” “I don’t know that there’s only one guy in there, though,” Jax pointed out. “I heard a man’s voice, but then I heard the TV, too. So there could be more than one, and it just got mixed up with whatever they were watching.” “Shit.” I looked at Flash, and he knew I was right. It was better to wait.

“Do you think he’ll hurt Jamie? Or Gigi?” I thought about it for a minute, then shook my head. “Not if he wants to get any money for them. That’s what it’s all about for him, right? The price. If they’re marked up or worse, he’ll get less. He wants them in good condition.” “All the same, I hope his temper can hold out long enough. You know how tough Jamie can be when she gets on a roll.” “I sure do.” That worried me. I remembered the way I felt when she pissed me off, when she wouldn’t let something go. Especially when it had to do with Gigi. And nothing had ever been more important than what was going on at that moment. What if she pushed him too far? The two sides of my brain fought back and forth over what to do. I couldn’t come up with an answer that satisfied me. It was either go in and take a chance or hang back and take a chance. Either way, we were taking a chance. “I’d feel a lot better if we were closer,” I decided. Let’s split up into two groups. One group on that side.” I pointed to the far end of the string of rooms. “One group on the other.” I pointed to the other side. “I want Flash at the head of one group, Slate at the head of the other. I’ll call you both so we can communicate on our earpieces.” “Where will you be?” “Behind Jamie’s car.” “What? Alone?” Flash didn’t look impressed. “Whaddya think? I wanna be able to be close to the room in case something happens. I’ll wait there, listening. If I hear anything I don’t like, I’ll go in. If it all seems okay, I’ll hang back. When whoever they’re waiting for shows up, we’ll wait ’til they’re inside.” Flash and Slate looked at each other. I could see them talking without opening their mouths. They both shrugged. “It’s as good an idea as any,” Flash said. “Thanks for the confidence.” I rolled my eyes as I called them. They put in their earpieces as I put in mine. When we knew we had a connection, we took off. Slate took a dozen guys in one direction, Flash took the rest in the other. I hid behind the car like I said I would. I could just see inside the room, too, through a gap in the curtains. There wasn’t anything to see, really. I saw Jamie’s legs, stretched out across the bed. I saw light from a lamp and the TV. The inside of the room looked like shit. I hated thinking about the two of them in there. “What do you see?” Flash asked.

“Nothing much. They’re sitting on the bed. That’s all I can tell you. And it looks like hell in there.” “Yeah, this place is a shithole. Literally. You should see what I almost just stepped in at the side of the building.” “Oh, fucking gross,” Slate muttered. “Guys. Seriously.” I crouched behind the car, listening to the stupid conversation. “This isn’t the time. Compare notes later on.” “Sorry.” They shut up, and we waited. I looked for any movement, any sign of anything going on. Blood pounded in my ears, my hands twitched. I wanted to get in there. I wanted to get them out. I wished I knew the right thing to do—if I didn’t love them both so much, it wouldn’t have mattered so much. I could’ve gone in and it wouldn’t have made such a big difference. If one of them got hurt, oh well. It was the price they’d have to pay. But not anymore. I wanted to save them without them getting hurt. I just had no idea how to be sure that would happen. They got up. I saw Jamie for just a flash, then she was gone. They were going to the bathroom. I couldn’t imagine how disgusting it would be. “They’re in the bathroom. Shit. I wish we could’ve been back there. We could’ve gotten them out a window or something.” “Negative,” Slate whispered. “The windows are too small. Gigi, maybe, but not Jamie.” “Right, and when he found out we took her, what would he do with Jamie?” We still could’ve gotten one of them. I could’ve gone in while they were in there. We missed an opportunity. I felt them slipping through my fingers, even though they were right in front of me. They came back. I heard their voices, very faintly. He was pissed. She was pissing him off. “Don’t do it, Jamie,” I warned. “Don’t fuck with him.” “What’s she doing?” Flash asked. “I don’t know. But he doesn’t like it.” My heart was in my throat as I watched and waited. He moved in front of the window. “Fuck, I can’t see what’s happening. He’s in the way.” It didn’t take long for him to go back to where he started. I saw Gigi. She looked upset. We couldn’t wait much longer. We’d have to go in soon, even if it meant risking an ambush from The Scarecrow’s guys. I knew it would be risky, but so was leaving the two of them in the room with him. I’m right here. We’re all here. You’re not alone. I wished they knew. All I could do was stare at the

window and think it over and over.

Chapter Twenty-Six Jamie

I must have drifted off to sleep at some point, strange as it seemed. The last thing my body wanted to do was relax, but my brain must have needed to shut down for a little while. Maybe it tried to escape the horror all around it. I didn’t know. I dreamed I was with my parents. It was natural, too. I didn’t think anything of it. In the dream, they were still alive, so it wasn’t a big deal. We ate dinner together like we used to, laughing and talking. Gigi was there, too, and Lance. We sat around the table, just like a normal family. It felt so good, so right. I didn’t understand why it felt significant, too, but it did. Like it shouldn’t have been happening. Like there was some reason this was strange or odd. Mom smiled at me. “Honey, Daddy and I are going to a movie tonight. Do you want to go with us?” I stopped smiling. I looked around the table. Why didn’t anybody understand why this wasn’t a good idea? I was horrified. Why weren’t they? Gigi was still telling a story about how acid makes pancakes fluffy. Daddy and Lance were listening, asking questions. “You can’t go,” I said. “Don’t go. Stay here, with us.” “Honey, there’s nothing to worry about. You always worry when there’s nothing to worry over. Doesn’t she?” She looked at my dad, who nodded. “You always did. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Why do you think we shouldn’t go?” “Because I know you shouldn’t. I know it. I don’t know how I know.” I was so important to stop them, but I couldn’t tell them why. I wasn’t sure myself. All I knew was they couldn’t go. They laughed. Gigi and Lance laughed with them. I looked at Lance, panicking. His gray eyes gleamed at me. “Why are you so upset? You always think the worst. You can’t save everybody, you know.” “I can! I can, and I will! I have to save you! You can’t go! Please!” “Come on,” Dad said, pushing his chair away from the table. “We’ll be late if we don’t leave now.” “Can I go, too?” “Sure you can, dumpling!” That was what Dad used to call me. But she couldn’t go! They were…they would…

“You’re going to die!” My eyes flew open, my words still echoing off the walls of the motel room. The Scarecrow was staring at me from the foot of the bed. “What?” He laughed. “What did I say?” “You’re going to die.” “Oh. I was dreaming.” I sat up slightly. “Some dream.” He chuckled, still focused on the TV. I made a face at the back of his head. Gigi was waking up, too. She was sleeping a lot. I thought it had to be the stress. She couldn’t handle it, just like I evidently couldn’t. Why else would I fall asleep when I needed to be on alert, keeping her safe from him? “I’ve gotta go to the bathroom,” she whispered. My heart sank, and my nose wrinkled at the thought of what the bathroom had to be like. The room itself was bad enough. “She’s got to go,” I said, louder. He shrugged without turning around. “Hey. Unless you want her to pee all over the bed, you’re gonna let her go to the bathroom.” “Go, if you want to. But I’m gonna count to thirty. If you’re not outta there by the time I’m finished…” I snorted. “You’ll what? Didn’t you already say you won’t touch the merchandise?” He swiveled, glaring at me. I told myself it might not be the wisest idea to laugh at him. He didn’t look like the type to let it roll off his back. “Come on.” I stood, stretching. My back ached from the position I’d been in, wedged up against the headboard. My arms ached from holding Gigi so tight, though I wouldn’t have let go for anything in the world. I took her by the hand, leading her to the bathroom. It was just as disgusting as I’d imagined. “Oh gosh,” Gigi moaned, holding her nose. “You gotta go, you’d better go.” I closed the door behind us, cutting off The Scarecrow’s words. He was worse than a wild animal. There went any attempt at an escape—I could hardly breathe in the filthy bathroom, much less take the time to plot. I couldn’t let her sit on the seat, so I held her up over the bowl while she squatted with her feet on the seat. I heard him counting outside the door, loudly. I urged Gigi to hurry as she went. “I’m trying,” she

whispered. I felt so sorry for her. She was panicked, but trying to keep it together. I knew how she felt. We were out of the bathroom by the time he hit twenty-nine. “Good thing,” he muttered as we climbed onto the bed. “I would’ve had to come in after you.” “You’re a pig. A filthy pig.” I didn’t care how he glared at me, or how angry he was. It didn’t matter anymore. He wanted to play head games with me, intimidate us both. I had to show Gigi I wasn’t afraid so she would take a little strength from me. It was all I could do for her since I was such a helpless failure at rescuing her. I sat beside her on the bed, running my fingers through her tangled hair. I hummed a song my mom used to hum while she brushed my hair after a bath. I never knew the name of it, but it had a pretty, lilting melody. “Stop humming,” he muttered, face to the TV. I stared at his back and hummed louder. “I said stop.” I didn’t stop. I kept going, even louder than before. “What the fuck is your problem?” He wheeled around, glaring. I held his stare. “Nothing. I wanted to hum, that’s all. I thought I would make Gigi a little more comfortable.” “Yeah? It’s making me uncomfortable.” “Sorry. You can let us go if it’s such a problem.” “You know it ain’t gonna happen, so stop talking about it.” “Then I’m going to have to keep on humming.” I went back to my business of getting the snarls out of Gigi’s dark, wavy hair, humming as I worked. “Bitch.” In an explosion of movement, The Scarecrow lunged at me. I pushed Gigi away while he took me by the throat. “I’ll make her watch me snap your neck. You want her to see me do it?” “No.” I shook my head. He wasn’t strangling me, only holding tight enough for me to know he meant it. “You.” He looked at Gigi. “You wanna see me snap her neck?” “No!” She wept. “It’s okay, honey.” He had my arms pinned between our bodies. If only they were free, I could hit him, claw him, get us out of there. His weight made it impossible for me to pull them out.

Then I felt something even more menacing than his hand at my throat. His dick started getting hard, pressing against my thigh. I turned my head in disgust, my stomach roiling. He snickered. “What, you like that? You want it? Huh? I opened my eyes to find Gigi staring at us in complete terror, tears streaming down her face. The thought of getting raped while she watched was a very real threat for a split second. I couldn’t let that happen. I owed it to her to stay calm, to protect her as I protected myself. I made eye contact with her and smiled. “It’s okay,” I said. “What?” He pulled back. “I said, it’s okay.” I sat up, disentangling myself from him. “Thanks for the offer, but no thanks.” I held out my arms and Gigi tumbled into them. I focused on calming her, ignoring him. I could tell it made him crazy that I wouldn’t crumble in front of him. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of looking shaken up, even as my insides quaked. *** Headlights outside the window. I froze, staring at them. In my heart, I prayed it was Lance coming to save us. Something told me my prayers weren’t going to be answered so easily. Gigi had drifted off again, and my arms tightened around her. Like hell would I let anybody take her from me. They’d have to kill me first. I would protect her to my last breath. I looked down at her, kissing her head, holding her as tight as I could without scaring her. I gathered her in my arms until I was nearly on top of her, my back to the door. That woke her up. “What’s happening?” she whispered, her voice thick with sleep. “It’s okay, sweetheart. It’s okay.” I didn’t know who I was trying to convince, her or me. “I’m gonna hold you really tight, okay? Don’t let go of me no matter what. I’m gonna try as hard as I can to keep you with me.” “Okay.” Her voice was strangely calm. She trusted me. Poor thing. I didn’t even trust myself anymore. “But listen to me. If they get you away from me, I want you to fight as hard as you can. Got it? Kick, scream, punch, do whatever you have to do. Hurt them. Kick them between the legs if you can. I mean it. Hard, baby.” “Okay.” She looked up at me. “Are they going to take me?” “Not if I can help it.” The door opened, and I flinched at the sound. Gigi gasped. I pressed her head to my chest. It was only The Scarecrow going outside to greet his guest. I heard their voices.

Lance, Lance, where are you? The two men came in, The Scarecrow and the buyer. Gigi started to shake. I reminded myself to be strong for her. “Let’s go,” the other man said. His voice was deep, resonant. I had hope, though. If it was only one person, Gigi might be able to claw at him. Or me. One of us. “Remember,” I whispered. “Do whatever you have to.” I felt her head nodding against my chest, and kissed it. “I love you.” “Come on!” The Scarecrow pulled at my arms, but I wouldn’t let go so easily. He rolled me over onto my back, Gigi in my arms. I screamed, kicked out, but kept my arms locked around her. “No! No! You won’t! Get off me!” I did whatever I could, while Gigi screamed in my arms. I felt like a wild animal, adrenaline pumping through me. The other man, a short, squat little person, pulled at my feet until I fell off the bed, landing on my tailbone. I had the brief flash of knowledge that it would hurt like hell once all was said and done, but I didn’t feel it in the moment. Nothing mattered but fighting. I kicked at him, losing a shoe but making contact with his arm, then his head. He reeled back, cursing and sputtering. I saw murder in his eyes when he came for me again. “Let her go,” The Scarecrow growled, working at my arms again. He took one, the buyer took the other. Gigi clung to me, still screaming. “No! No!” I screamed, twisting, kicking still, trying to bite their arms, their hands. I didn’t think about what I was doing—it was all instinct. I tried to roll away, on top of Gigi, but they held me down. “Let go!” The buyer finally pulled back and punched me across the jaw. I saw stars. It was just enough to stun me, just enough to get me to loosen my grip for a split second. It was all they needed to pull my arms away from Gigi. “No!” She shrieked as the buyer took her in his arms. I came to in an instant. “Fight him!” I screamed, struggling to get to my feet. The Scarecrow tried to stop me, leaning down, pushing me to the floor. I took a piece of my own advice and punched him in the balls. He cried out, falling back onto the bed. I jumped to my feet to find the buyer opening the door. Gigi screamed and kicked, clawing at him. It made no difference. She was too small. I lunged for him, pulling him back by the greasy collar of his jacket. “Fuck!” He choked, falling back a step or two. It was enough for me to grab for Gigi, sliding my hand between her body and his. With my other hand, I clawed at his face in desperation.

“Let go of me, you bitch!” His scream mingled with ours, the three of us struggling. Gigi kicked, pummeling him, but it didn’t seem to matter. I had one arm around her, pulling her to me. He wouldn’t let go, his arms like steel. “Let her go! Give her to me!” I shrieked, going for his eyes with my nails. He roared in fury. I had her. He loosened his grip to reach for his eyes. For a split second, I was victorious. I felt her moving toward me as he let go. Then, everything went black.

Chapter Twenty-Seven Lance

“What are we doing?” Flash asked, waiting for my word. He sounded tense. I knew how he felt—I thought my heart might explode from the tension. I was stiff from waiting behind the car, too. I looked from one side to the other to be sure everybody was in place. They waited for my word to charge the room. Slate gave me the thumbs-up from his position. I could hear him breathing in my ear. He was excited, ready for action, just like everybody else. I wondered if any of them felt as desperate as I did. “We can’t wait anymore,” I said. “This is crazy. We have to go in.” “What about the people he’s waiting for?” “I want at least three people on both sides watching out for anybody coming in. I want you to fire off a single shot when you see anybody, and I mean anybody, approaching. It shouldn’t take long to get the girls from him if he’s alone. I think he is. I haven’t seen anybody else.” “Okay.” “I’m going in first, though.” “I don’t want you going in there alone,” Flash warned. “It doesn’t matter. I go in first.” “You need backup.” “Then you’ll need to be fast, won’t you? I’m gonna kick the door in and hope I take him by surprise. That’s all we have right now. Surprise. Okay?” Silence. “I said, okay?” “Okay,” Flash said. He didn’t want to agree, but he didn’t have a choice. “Good. I’m going in.” I took two, maybe three steps toward the room when a car pulled into the parking lot. Its headlights lit up the lot as it got closer.

“Shit!” I scrambled off to the side of Jamie’s car, leaving it between the new car and me. I hoped the driver pulled up on the other side, or I was fucked. “We waited too long,” I muttered. “No, we didn’t. Now we know who we’re dealing with. Just wait for them to come outta the car.” I waited, and was relieved when the new car pulled up on the other side of Jamie’s. I ducked, going to the back of the car again. Waiting for the driver to get out. “Who is that?” Slate muttered. “I don’t know,” I whispered. “But it’s just him. He’s the only person in the car.” We watched as a short little guy got out of the car, looking like he just rolled in a pile of shit. My nose wrinkled. He’d better not try to touch either of them. “He looks like the type who would sell women, doesn’t he? Probably couldn’t pay a woman to touch him,” Slate muttered under his breath. “What are we doing?” Flash asked again. He sounded more panicked this time. The short guy waited outside the room after knocking on the door. “We’re waiting to see what he does,” I said. “We know what he’s gonna do, damn it. He’s gonna take them.” “Right, and The Scarecrow probably has a gun. We gotta be careful.” That wasn’t like me. The old me wouldn’t have waited. If it was somebody else’s kid, somebody else’s woman, I wouldn’t have stood there, watching. I would’ve rushed the room, gun in hand, ready to blow somebody’s brains out. My priority was making sure neither of them got hurt. We could take that little shit with no problem, but I didn’t want The Scarecrow holed up with the two of them and a gun. If he knew we were waiting, he’d keep them both, if he didn’t shoot them right away. The door opened, and a man stepped outside. “That’s him,” Slate muttered in my earpiece. “That’s The Scarecrow.” “You’re sure?” I asked. “Yeah. I’ve seen him before.” The two of them talked, and I watched the little guy hand a stack of bills to The Scarecrow. I wondered which one of them the money was for. It might have been for both of them. My stomach turned.

They went inside. “Lance! We’ve gotta to!” Flash’s voice rang in my ear. “I don’t want to put them in any more danger,” I insisted. I heard screaming. That was all I needed. “Let’s go!” They didn’t need me to say it twice. We all took off at a run from all directions, guns drawn. The door flew open, and the little guy came out. He was holding a kicking, screaming thing. Gigi. I screamed, too, and that got his attention. He stopped, then looked at me running at him from behind his car. He looked left, looked right, saw my crew coming for him. He lunged for the driver’s side door. “Don’t you fucking dare!” I went for him, gun to his head. “Let her go!” “Get off! She’s mine! I paid for her!” He yanked his arm out of my hand. He still thought he could get inside the car. I pulled the gun away from his head just long enough to fire a shot into the air, then pressed it harder against his skull. I looked at Gigi for a second—she was fighting still. Kicking, punching. That was my girl, all right. “Let her go,” I growled. “Or I’ll put a bullet in your fucking head so fast you won’t know what happened. Put her down.” He dropped her. She landed on her stomach. My instinct was to go for her, to pick her up. I stopped myself. I had to hold onto him. No way I’d let him drive out of there. “Run!” I tried not to scream at her. I didn’t wanna scare her. “Go to the guys! Go!” She scrambled to her feet and took off. I breathed a sigh of relief, but it wasn’t over yet. I held the buyer against me with an arm around his neck. “Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you right now,” I growled. “It’s not personal!” He trembled. It sounded like he was gonna cry. “You worthless piece of shit.” I didn’t shoot him, but I did bring the butt of the gun down hard on his head. He fell at my feet like a pile of bricks. The rest of the club was at the door, standing at either side. “Lance!” Flash waved me over. I wondered why nobody went inside, then I saw what he was so careful of when I looked through the door to the inside of the room. The Scarecrow. He stood there with a gun in his hand, pressed against Jamie’s head. He held her up —I could tell she was barely conscious, knees loose, feet dragging on the floor. Her head lolled from

side to side. When it did, I saw blood on the front of his shirt. From her. Something screamed inside me. I glared at him, gun in my hand. My finger itched to pull the trigger. “I’m coming out with her,” The Scarecrow hissed. “I’m gonna get in my car, and I’m gonna drive the fuck away. You’re not gonna stop me, or I’ll blow her head off. I swear to God I will. She doesn’t mean shit to me.” “Let her go,” I said. “No way. Give it up. Say goodbye. She’s gone.” He sneered and walked to the door. I didn’t have a choice—I had to back up, let him come out. I walked slowly, talking to him as I did. “You don’t need her. You can have all the money you want. I’ll pay Rae’s debt.” “Oh, you know about that?” He laughed. “She’s a lying bitch. So she’s still in town? I’ll deal with her, too. I don’t like people getting in my way.” “Leave her alone. You did enough to her.” “Oh yeah? Like what?” “Like making her fuck you, telling her it paid off her debt. You’re slime.” “Don’t tell me what to do. She was okay for a while, but I got tired of her bullshit. Bored with her, too. So I told her I want my money. She was smart, trying to keep the kid away from me as long as she did. I got through to her, though. I always do.” He snarled at me, still walking. “Let her go now, and we can forget about this.” “Don’t tell me what to do.” His hand moved, pushing the gun against Jamie’s head. She groaned, but her eyes stayed shut. I looked from her to him. He sneered at me. “I’ll give you anything,” I said. “You don’t have enough money to give me what I want. You don’t have shit. Besides, she already said she’d pay me a hundred grand to let the kid go.” He looked at the ground, where his partner was slumped over. “He’s out. He won’t know. Come on. Hand her to me. You’ll still get your money.” “Fuck you.” He sneered again. His eyes moved back and forth, looking at the rest of Fury’s Storm. We circled around the open door. “There’s nowhere to go.”

“Sure there is. You’re all gonna back off and let me through with her. I’m gonna drive away.” He sounded panicky. I couldn’t trust that he wouldn’t shoot her out of panic and run. He was that desperate. “Last chance, man. You can get away with this if you let her go.” “No way.” “Fine.” I held up my right hand, two fingers pointed to the sky. A gunshot. A scream of pain. The Scarecrow dropped the gun after Slate shot him in the hand. I rushed him, pushing him off Jamie. I caught her in my arms as she collapsed. “Oh, baby,” I whispered. She was still bleeding from the back of her head. Off to my left, inside the motel room, Scarecrow was getting worked over by a couple of my guys. A couple more took care of the dealer, then carried him into the room. They laid him on the bed and tied him up. Scarecrow was tied up, too. Both of them were unconscious. Jamie moved in my arms. She opened her eyes, looked up at me. Then she jumped, fighting me, trying to get up. “Gigi! Gigi!” She screamed in a hoarse voice. “Shh. She’s fine, she’s fine! We have her.” It took me saying it over and over for her to understand. She relaxed, then closed her eyes. I brushed the hair from her forehead and looked around. Flash came over to me. “How is she?” “I don’t know. In shock, maybe. What’s that look like?” He shrugged. “No idea. If he hurt her, she might be. Do you think she should go to the hospital?” I looked at her. She was muttering something. “Yeah. I think so. Shit.” I looked up at him. “First, we’ve gotta get outta here before the cops show up.” “I don’t think this is the kind of place where people call the cops when there’s trouble,” he pointed out. “Yeah, well, I don’t wanna take any chances.” Jamie came to, sitting up. She shook her head, looking around. “What happened?” “You’re fine. Everything’s okay now. You were sorta unconscious.”

“Gigi?” She looked around. I heard a cry, and Gigi came running from the middle of the group of guys. She threw herself into Jamie’s arms. “You were so brave! You were so, so brave, sweetheart.” Jamie cried, tears running down her face. As much as I loved seeing them together, safe, we couldn’t hang out forever. “Come on. Let’s do this back at the clubhouse.” “My car…” She pointed. I didn’t know if I should let her drive with the hit she took. I didn’t wanna leave evidence there, though. “Are you okay?” I asked. She stood up, shaking her hands out, her legs. “I’m fine. Really. I want to get out of here.” She stared at me. Her eyes were focused, she sounded clear. “Come on. You’re right. We have to leave. The cops can’t know this happened to Gigi. They’ll try to take her away.” She was right. I let her get her back from the room to get her bag, while I held Gigi’s hand. “You’ll have to take her,” I said. Jamie nodded. “I’m fine. It’s not even a long drive. Come on.” She held out a hand for Gigi, and they walked to the car together. The rest of us went for our bikes. Before I pulled away, I placed a call to the cops about two known criminals in room two thirteen. *** Riding back to the clubhouse was much better than riding to the motel. I kept a close eye on Jamie’s car, staying close behind. She waved once or twice to let me know she was okay. I saw Gigi turn around and wave. They were my life. End of story. I would never let either of them go again. Flash opened up a few bottles of whiskey when we got back, but I wasn’t interested in drinking. I watched Jamie and Gigi from the other side of the room—I wanted to give them space, since I didn’t know how they felt, but I couldn’t let them out of my sight either. Once or twice, guys walked by with a shot for me. I waved them off with a smile. I didn’t need to drink. And I didn’t wanna dull my reactions by drinking either. Even though they were safe, we were all safe, I didn’t feel that way. I still worried. I almost felt like I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. It couldn’t be this good. I couldn’t have a happy ending. Could I? Flash saw me standing there and stood next to me.

“It’s okay,” he said. “Everything’s okay.” “I don’t know if I’m ever gonna feel like it’s okay again.” I looked at him. “Would you? If that was your kid, your woman?” He shook his head. “I don’t know, man. That’s why I don’t have either.” We both chuckled a little. He got serious, though, looking at them. “This is our life. You have to decide if it’s worth it.” “If what is? Them?” “No, this.” He looked around. “This is it. Our world. She has her own world. Gigi could be part of either world—she’s young enough. What do you want for her? What do you want for you? Do you wanna worry about them all the time because some other club from outta town wants to take your turf? Or because you pissed somebody off?” “It’s not like that anymore. It’s peace time.” “Will it always be?” I looked at Gigi. She was holding on to Jamie for dear life. Jamie was bruised, bleeding. “I’ll keep it that way for them. That’s how this will work.” Flash slapped me on the back with a smile, walking off to drink with a couple of the guys. I felt better than I had before. That was the answer. If she wanted me, I would do everything I could to make it so I never had to worry about her. I walked into my office so I could be alone for a minute. As I did, I said another prayer. My second in twenty years. Thank you, God. I’ll do whatever needs to get done to deserve them. “Hey, Lance.” I looked up, surprised to hear Rae’s voice. She sat on the sofa by the wall. I looked around—what did she take? She chuckled. “It’s cool. I didn’t take nothin’. I didn’t even look around. Check me out if you wanna be sure.” She opened her backpack, taking things out to show me she didn’t have anything that belonged to me. “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.” I didn’t have anything there of any value except the computer, and she couldn’t fit that into her shitty backpack. “You got them back.” “You wanna see her?” I asked. Not that I would let her within twenty feet of the kid, but I had to ask. She looked toward the closed door. “Nah. It’ll just confuse her. But she’s okay?” “Physically, yeah. She’s fine. They didn’t do anything to her.”

“Oh, thank God. I was so scared.” She swiped a hand across her face, and I really looked at her for the first time since I walked in. Her eyes were bloodshot. Her face was blotchy and swollen. She was crying—a lot. Maybe since we left her there. I forgot all about her. “Why’d you hang around?” I sat across from her, on the edge of my desk. “I had to know. I could’ve exchanged my ticket, but I had to know she was safe. After you left…I thought about killing myself. I’m not tryin’ to get your pity or nothin’. I really thought about it.” “What stopped you?” She shrugged. “I didn’t want her to know I went out like that.” I nodded. It was fair. I didn’t believe it—I didn’t believe a word she said, ever, but it was a good excuse. I wondered what she really wanted. Why would she hang around there when she knew I hated her? What if I never found Gigi—if I got back and saw Rae there, I would’ve killed her. It was a risk, sticking around. She had to want something. She looked at me, and the way her eyes went narrow told me she had something on her mind. I knew it. “I think you and me have some talkin’ to do,” she said. I only nodded. “I think you’re right.”

Chapter Twenty-Eight Jamie

“Ouch.” I couldn’t help but wince when I felt the sting of alcohol on my scalp. “Sorry,” Traci murmured. “I’ll have you cleaned up soon. It’s not deep. Hardly anything.” “Head wounds always bleed more,” I said. Erica snorted from her seat across from me. “Yeah, no kidding.” She’d needed stitches, though. My cut wasn’t anything a few butterfly bandages couldn’t handle. I ached all over—the sting of my scalp was nothing compared to my bruised tailbone, aching arms and legs. My jaw hurt so much that it was tough to speak. Even my throat hurt from screaming. Still, I wouldn’t let go of Gigi. She was curled up in my lap, a warm, limp body in the middle of sleep. I wasn’t sure I would ever let go of her. Not after we came so close to losing her. When I pulled up at the clubhouse with her, Erica had come running out. Gigi’s scream of total joy was ear-splitting but understandable. She’d thrown herself into Erica’s arms, overjoyed that she was still alive. Erica had felt the same about Gigi. We sat together in the lounge with Traci making sure I was okay. Gigi was unharmed—physically, anyway. I didn’t know about emotional damage. She was young enough that it would subside over time, but she would need our help to get over it. I wouldn’t let the experience stick with her, no matter what I had to do. “I’m going to need a handful of ibuprofen,” I murmured, shifting uncomfortably. I was sitting on a pillow, but it still didn’t help. Once the adrenaline wore off, the pain came crashing into me. “We’ll get you fixed up,” Erica promised. “You should’ve gone to the hospital, like I did. Stubborn.” “No way. I didn’t want the police to know what happened. You could get away with saying you fell and hit your head. What was I going to say? They would’ve seen the bruises.” I had a bruised jaw from the hit the buyer laid on me, and bruises circled my biceps thanks to The Scarecrow’s hands. The cops would’ve been brought straight to me. “I know Lance would feel better if he was sure you don’t have a concussion. You could get painkillers at the hospital, too.” “I’m sure Lance would feel better without having the police at his door.” I smiled at Erica, who nodded. “Besides, I feel fine. I’ll stay up all night it if makes you feel better. I won’t sleep. Just to be

on the safe side.” “After what you’ve been through?” She looked skeptical. “Sweetie, I couldn’t sleep right now if you paid me.” I shivered a little at the word “paid,” memories of bargaining with The Scarecrow coming back. No, sleep wasn’t an option. I didn’t feel like dealing with the nightmares. Some of the club members walked in and out, checking on us from time to time. One of them got my ibuprofen at Erica’s request, another brought ice for my jaw. I held the pack with one hand, with Gigi under the other arm. Nobody could take her away from me. “You were so brave,” Traci murmured, sitting beside me. She held the ice in place for me for a while, giving my arm a break. “Everybody said how loud you screamed. Gigi told us how you fought them off. I mean, this bruise…” I shrugged it off. “Either of you would have done it to protect her. Trust me, you don’t know what you’re capable of until you’re in the situation. I would never have imagined fighting the two of them off like that. In the moment, it was all I could do. And it’s not like I fought them off, I only held them back.” “Long enough for the guys to come in and get you.” I shook my head. I still felt like a failure—there was no way to describe it. I shouldn’t have let it happen in the first place. I should have fought harder when it did happen. I should have killed them both. I would have, if I could. I still would even after the fact. It took a lot of self-control not to take The Scarecrow’s gun and shoot them both when I saw them tied up on the bed. It was better for them to go to prison for a long, long time. They would suffer the way they made other people suffer. Tears came to my eyes. “What is it?” Traci slid an arm around my shoulders. “I can’t imagine how many other women weren’t so lucky is all.” Traci squeezed gently, and the three of us sat in silence for a long time. *** “I’d better put her to bed.” I looked up to find Lance standing over me. It was the first time I’d seen him since we got back to the clubhouse. He’d been in his office, door closed, for hours. “She’s fine with me,” I whispered. Traci and Erica were both asleep—they’d decided to sit up with

me, but it hadn’t taken long before they nodded off. I was the only one still awake. I’d thought there were voices coming from Lance’s office, but didn’t know who was inside. “Let me take her upstairs,” he said, scooping her up. “You need to rest—but before that, we have to talk. I’ll be right back.” He carried her upstairs before I could protest. I waited for him, looking around the room from my seat. I never thought I’d be grateful to see the inside of the clubhouse again, but when we got back I’d almost kissed the floor in relief. Anything was better than that motel room and whatever waited for me after that. How would I ever repay any of them for what they did for me? For Gigi? I wasn’t clear on the details, being unconscious for most of it, but I’d heard Slate shot the gun out of The Scarecrow’s hand. So close to my head, too. He was a sharpshooter in the Army, I found out. Lucky for me he was still so accurate. I felt much the same as I had while I sat at my house earlier. My image of myself was changing. My image of them was changing, too. They did the right thing. They might have been criminals, capable of any number of shady things, but they weren’t bad people. They weren’t evil, like The Scarecrow and his buyer. They fought for what was right. It was never clearer to me, the difference between them and the really bad people in the world. Lance came back downstairs. I couldn’t read the look on his face. Relief? Tension? Discomfort? All three? He came to me, holding out his hands. “What is it?” I asked. I wished he would talk to me. It felt almost like there was a wall between us. Did he hate me for letting Gigi get kidnapped? Did he think I should’ve tried harder to protect her? “Come with me. There’s something we have to talk over.” I got up slowly, wincing at the pain in my lower back. I’d be sleeping on my stomach whenever I next slept. Good thing, too, since the back of my head was off-limits until the pain there went down. He led me to the office, with me limping the whole way. It wasn’t until we stepped inside and the door closed behind us that I realized who Lance had been with all night. “You.” I nearly growled when I saw Rae sitting on the sofa by the wall. She wouldn’t meet my eyes. “How could you?” “So you know, then?” Lance murmured. “I figured it out. How else would he know where she was?” I shook Lance’s hands off and walked to her, pain forgotten. “How can you call yourself a mother?” I asked. She sat still, looking at the floor. “Look at me.” I waited until she lifted her head. Her eyes met mine. I let all the hatred I felt for her

show in my face. She shrank in front of me. “Okay. Enough for now. Come on.” Lance led me to a chair beside his desk. He sat next to me with a sigh. “I’ve been talking some things over with Rae,” he said. “How can you talk to her about anything? She doesn’t deserve the time!” “Can you please wait a minute? Please. Just listen.” I glared at him. How could he talk to me that way after what I had been through? But I held my tongue, if only because my throat was raw and my jaw ached. Rae cleared her throat. “I’ll never forgive myself for what I did. Ever. You don’t need to tell me it was wrong. I panicked when he told me he would kill me.” “She owed him money,” Lance explained, his voice quiet. “So you were clean, huh? Just like you always told me?” I scoffed. She winced. “Yeah, I know. I hate myself for that, too. You don’t have to remind me.” “I do have to remind you,” I said. Lance reached out to stop me from speaking, but I brushed him off. “You let a man take your daughter. You knew he was going to sell her. Sell. Her.” “Enough, Jamie. She knows. That’s not why we’re here together.” I looked at him, waiting for an explanation. “We’re talking about custody of Gigi.” “I want Lance to take her,” Rae said. I scoffed. “I would hope so.” No way I would let her have Gigi after what she did. I would have paid whatever it took to take her to court and wipe the floor with her. “Rae’s gonna sign custody over to me. I’m gonna send her to rehab so she can clean up her act.” I glanced at Rae. “What, you think you can get back into her good graces when you’re sober?” She shook her head. “No. I need to get outta here. Away from everything. I’m not coming back.” She smiled sadly. “I was never cut out to be a mother. I did my best.” She looked me in the eye again, without me telling her to. “I did my best. You’ve gotta believe that. You don’t know how it is, living with something like I do. It’s hell.” I didn’t have anything to say in response. “You’re sure you want this?” I asked Lance. “Of course I do. I want my daughter.” Something inside me glowed with pride. He was the man I hoped he was. He would stand up and do what was right for his little girl. “I want my daughter’s

mother to be okay, too. She didn’t do as bad a job as she could have. Believe me, I know.” His eyes went a little unfocused, a little distant. I was a little shocked at how well he was taking everything, though. He wasn’t angry, but maybe resentful. I wondered if he was really the best answer for Gigi. Would he be there for her, twenty-four seven? Would he clean up his act? Would he have the patience and free time for her? His club had been the focus of his life for so long—would the switch be easy on him? I doubted it. I didn’t love the idea of Gigi having to deal with his growing pains. She had been through enough already, more than any kid her age should ever go through. Rae stood up. “I’m gonna go now.” She walked out of the room without another word. Without even a backward glance. I listened as the front door opened and closed. I didn’t know how she’d get home, and I didn’t care. Lance stood, too. “She won’t go to rehab,” he murmured. “She only said that so she wouldn’t look like the piece of shit person she is.” “You think she’ll stay around?” He shrugged. “I don’t much care anymore. As long as she hands Gigi over to me, she can do whatever she wants.” I looked up at him, wondering. “You’re sure you’re ready for this?” “Who is when they have a kid? The only difference is I don’t have to change diapers. I’m okay with that.” He gave me a tired smile. “It’s a huge lifestyle change, though.” “You think I don’t know that?” He narrowed his eyes. “You’re still trying to get me to give her to you. Is that it?” I shook my head, totally serious. “Not at all.” “You’re serious?” I nodded. “Deadly. I don’t have what it takes to be a mother to her.” Lance crouched in front of me, no longer joking. “What the hell are you talking about? You sound nuts. Maybe you do have a concussion.” He held my chin, looking into my eyes like he was checking to see if they were focused. I pushed his hand away gently. “I’m fine. I mean what I’m saying. I don’t have what it takes. I’m too selfish. This whole time I thought I knew better than anybody else how to take care of her. It wasn’t about her. It was about my ego. I had to be the hero, you know? I had to save the day. I knew it all, I

could save her. What a joke.” “Where’s this coming from? The way I heard it, you just about got yourself killed trying to stop them from taking my kid. That sounds like something a mother would do, doesn’t it?” I shook my head. “You don’t understand. I should have been here with her instead of at my house. I didn’t take you seriously when you said we were in danger—that she was in danger. I sat around, hanging out, while that pig was kidnapping her. He might have killed Erica. She fought back at least. She did what she had to do.” “Right, and it didn’t matter either way. You can’t see things that didn’t happen—I mean, you can’t sit there and say you would have fought him off. He would’ve hurt you. He hurt you in that room, didn’t he?” He touched the back of his head, referencing my injury. “Yes, that’s true.” “You did what you could when it counted. You went there to protect her.” “I should’ve called you.” That stopped him. He frowned, thinking it over. “Maybe you should have. Yeah. Now we know.” “What? We know I should call you the next time your daughter is kidnapped?” He cocked his head to the side, smirking. “We know we’re a team. You can’t take everything on by yourself. I can’t take everything on alone either. We have to work together. Especially if we’re gonna be raising a little girl.” It took a moment for his words to sink in. My face went slack, my jaw hung open. He smiled, closing my mouth with a finger under my chin. Then he caressed my jaw—gently, hardly touching me, his brow furrowed. “What are you saying?” I asked in a whisper. “It’s a lot to ask. I know that. But I was thinking…you’re right. I can’t do it alone. And yeah, I have a lot of people here.” He nodded toward the lounge outside the office, and I knew he meant the club. “It’s not the same as having a mom, though. I know you love her. She loves you. I know you would lay it all down for her, too. I don’t hafta to be a genius to know the right thing here.” I was speechless. When I finally stopped screaming in my head long enough to think straight, I whispered, “How? How would we do this?” He looked at my hands. “I thought…you would stay. Maybe. If you wanted to.” I could hardly breathe. It felt like my chest would explode from the size of my heart as it grew and

grew. “You mean it? Like…what, as a nanny or something?” I hoped it wasn’t what he meant, but I couldn’t take any chances. I didn’t want my heart broken when I assumed the wrong thing. “No.” He looked at me, frowning. “That wasn’t what I meant at all. I want you. You. I want you to stay.” “Oh,” I breathed. It was all I could do. “You’re not gonna make this easy on me. Okay, fine.” He took a deep breath. “I love you.” The tears in my eyes made his face blur in front of me, but it looked like he was smiling. “You’re not just saying that after tonight?” I asked. “Why can’t you ever make anything easy? I love you. Isn’t that enough?” “Of course it is. I just want to be sure. I don’t want you to feel like you should say it after everything that happened tonight.” “No way. I love you. I fucking love you. That’s it. Even if you don’t wanna stay with me, I’ll still fucking love you.” I laughed, my hand shooting up to my jaw when pain zipped through it. He frowned. “I could kill that bastard for touching you,” he growled. “It’s okay. He’ll get what’s coming to him.” I could hardly believe how happy that thought made me. “So? What do you think? I mean, no pressure. Don’t feel like you have to just because I love you and would probably die if you left me.” I shook my head, grinning. “No pressure at all.” “None.” He grinned, too. “You know I love you.” I took his face in my hands, marveling at the way life worked out sometimes, before his lips met mine in a gentle, sweet kiss I wished could last forever.

Chapter Twenty-Nine Lance

The next morning, I woke up with the sun in my eyes. I never closed the blinds before falling into bed. I was probably asleep before my head hit the pillow. I slept so deeply, in fact, that it was a surprise when I woke up and found Gigi in bed with Jamie and me. It made sense. I wouldn’t want to sleep alone if I were her. They didn’t look anything alike, but I had never seen two people remind me more of a mother and daughter. Jamie was on her stomach—her tailbone and head wouldn’t let her sleep on her back—with one arm over Gigi. Gigi looked comfortable, relaxed. Even with her dark hair and face that looked just like mine, she could have been blonde-haired Jamie’s little girl. I closed my eyes and said another prayer. I was getting big on the whole praying thing, but I had a lot of time to make up for, too. I thanked whoever was listening for the chance to be with Jamie and Gigi again. I was never so thankful in my life as I was then. I wondered what Gigi dreamed about after the night she had. Jamie, too. I hadn’t dreamed at all. I was out cold. I hoped they were the same. I didn’t want my daughter to have nightmares after what happened. I would do everything in my power to make sure she never had to go through anything like that again—or anything like she went through living with Rae. She said she would see the lawyer with me the next day. He’d have the papers ready. I couldn’t wait for her to sign them. I never thought I would be so excited about being a father. Was this me? Really? The same Lance who used to kick women out of bed when he woke up with them? Who didn’t know their name or remember anything about what they did together? I liked myself more than I did then. That was a big deal. Gigi moved, rubbing her face on the pillow. I watched and waited, wondering if she would wake up. She opened her eyes. I smiled. “Good morning,” I mouthed. “Good morning.” “How are you?” “Okay.” Then she mouthed, “Bathroom.”

I nodded, lifting Jamie’s arm so she could slide out from under it. We slowly, carefully, slid out of bed. She went to her bathroom; I went to mine. We met in the hallway. I didn’t know what to say to her. We hadn’t said anything to each other since the night before, really, when I screamed at her to run away. She was a good girl, too. She did just what I told her to do without asking questions. I looked down at her. She looked up at me. Then she wrapped her arms around my legs and squeezed. I did one better—I picked her up, holding her to me. It felt right. “I’m starving,” I whispered. We went downstairs together and fixed cereal. She surprised me when she had no problem talking about the night before. “It was scary,” she said. We sat together on the prep table, side by side. “I didn’t know what was gonna happen.” “He was a bad guy,” I agreed. “But Jamie told me I should be brave, so I did my best.” “She told you that, huh?” “Yeah. She was brave, too. Braver than I was. She wouldn’t let me go. They fought and fought and screamed and hit her, but she wouldn’t let me go.” I was too choked up to eat. I couldn’t imagine it. Gigi seemed strangely calm. Maybe it wasn’t real for her yet. It seemed like talking helped, though. “Did anybody hurt you?” “No. And I know what you mean, too.” She took a mouthful of cereal. I almost spit mine out. “You do?” “Mm-hmm. Mommy told me about it a long time ago. She said I should tell her if a man ever hurt me.” I didn’t know whether to thank Rae for that or to kill her for putting my daughter in a place where she had to think about that kind of thing at her age. “So nobody did?” “No. He just pulled my arm.” She shrugged. “It doesn’t even hurt. It’s not like what happened to Erica or Jamie.” “I guess they love you, huh? They fought for you and all. You’re a lucky kid.”

She thought about it for a minute with a serious look on her face. “Yeah. I guess I am.” I didn’t laugh, but I wanted to. She was such a grown up kid. “Jamie told me you would come, too. And you did.” That stunned me. “She told you that?” “Yeah. She was right. You came. Everybody came. It was a lot of people.” “It was a lot of people. Everybody wanted to make sure you were safe.” “I couldn’t believe it. She was right.” My daughter smiled up and me, and my heart just about shattered. “I’ll always come for you, when you need me. I promise.” *** Two hours later, after everybody else in the clubhouse got up or showed up, and Gigi took the time to hug every one of them and thank them for coming to get her, we went upstairs to wake Jamie up. I carried a tray with food and pain meds, since I figured she would need them. She was already awake, but not up yet. I helped her sit up, but it was too much, so she stayed on her side while she ate. “How are you today?” “I’m doing great.” She smiled at me. “Really great.” She looked at Gigi. “And you?” “Excellent.” They smiled at each other. I hoped it would always be that way, but wasn’t sure. All we could do was wait to see how she dealt with it. “I’ve been thinking.” Jamie took a bite of her toast. “About where to live.” “What do you mean?” Jamie glanced at Gigi, then back at me. “You didn’t tell her yet?” “No.” Gigi looked confused, of course. “What’s happening? Where am I going?” Her chin trembled. Just like she was two seconds away from crying. She wasn’t so excellent. I put an arm around her. “You’re not going anywhere you don’t wanna go. I mean it. It’s your choice, okay?”

“Okay.” She didn’t look convinced. I looked at Jamie for help, but I could read the look on her face. She’s your kid. You’ve gotta do this yourself. I cleared my throat. “What do you think about living with me from now on?” She looked up at me, surprised. “I thought I was gonna already.” I had to laugh. “Oh, you did?” “Yeah. I thought Mommy left me with you.” Her words stung. She already knew. “Well, I talked to Mommy. She’s gonna go get better. You know what I mean? Get better?” “Yeah. She was sick.” Gigi nodded. Oh, kid, you don’t even know. “Right. So we talked about it, and even when she gets better…she’s not sure she’s the right mommy for you. She has a lot of stuff to fix. Like, inside. Does that make sense?” “Sometimes she would forget to get food for me. Or she would put summer clothes on me in winter.” That was all the answer I needed. “Right. Stuff like that. She has to fix the reason she’s like that. So when we talked about it, she said it was okay for you to live with me from now on. But like I said, it’s up to you.” She thought about it, but not for very long. “I wanna live with you. If you want me to.” “Of course I want you to.” I squeezed her, and she leaned into me with a giggle. “Here, though?” She looked skeptical. Jamie cleared her throat. “This is where I come in. This is what I was thinking about.” It was news to me. “What were you thinking?” “I was wondering if it was a good idea for Gigi to live at your house. It’s probably pretty small. Not ready for a little girl to live in it. Far away from school.” “Yeah. All those things.” I watched her. She had something she was dying to say. “Well, maybe you could…I don’t know…come live with me.” Her voice was very small, almost a whisper.

“What?” Gigi’s eyes got very big. “Only if you wanted to, like your dad said. It’s up to you.” She looked at me. “You too, Dad.” I smirked. “Nothing like being put on the spot, you know?” “Jeez, Lance. I didn’t mean to do that. I thought we talked about things last night.” “Yeah, well, we didn’t talk about moving in together.” “So you don’t want to?” “I didn’t say I didn’t want to, but it would’ve been good if we could talk about this alone before we talked about it with other people.” She cracked a smile, and looked at Gigi. “I think that’s a yes,” she said. “I want to! I want to! Can we?” My daughter looked up at me. So did Jamie. Fuck. I was screwed for the rest of my life between the two of them. “Yeah. We can. We’ll live in Jamie’s house.”

Epilogue I Jamie

“Mom! I can’t find my other shoe!” “Gigi, I swear. I keep asking you to keep them together.” I ran up the stairs, ready to give my little girl a good talking-to. Only she wasn’t looking for her shoe. She and Lance stood in front of me with a little cake—how they sneaked a cake into her bedroom, I had no idea. If there was anything I’d learned in the year we’d been together, it was how crafty he could be when needed. “Happy anniversary!” they both cried out, beaming. “Anniversary?” I looked from one of them to the other. Gosh, they looked so much alike. It was still startling. “It’s the one-year anniversary of when you said we could all live together. Remember?” Gigi grinned. “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe it’s been a year already! Where does the time go?” I shook my head. “I’m usually so good at things like this, too. I always keep dates in mind.” They didn’t know I remembered. Lance didn’t know I had my own surprise for him either. “Come on! Cake for breakfast.” Lance winked at Gigi, who clapped her hands. “Hang on,” I said warningly. They looked at me with such an identical expression of disappointment, I had to give in. “Okay, fine. A small piece. Then we have to go—we’re going to be late as it is.” “There’s plenty of time before school starts.” Lance hurried Gigi downstairs, the two of them whispering about how great it was that they’d surprised me. I smiled at their retreating figures. They were so alike in so many ways. We enjoyed our cake—small slices, at my request—before Gigi took a piece of fruit to the car with her in an attempt to balance things out. I kissed Lance goodbye for the day before driving to school with Gigi. “Did we really surprise you?” she asked from the back seat. “Totally. I have no idea how you sneaked a cake in on me. You’re sneaky people, you and your father.” We pulled out of the driveway, leaving Riverview Terrace. It was a beautiful day—far

different from the day one year before, when I’d come close to losing her. There was a sort of perverse feeling to celebrating that day. Yes, I told Lance later that night that I wanted him and Gigi to move in with me, but it still felt like we celebrated a near-tragedy. I guessed it was better than being solemn and wondering “what if.” I’d done enough wondering in the past year to carry me through the rest of my life. She didn’t seem to care, or even to remember that it was also a year since the kidnapping. We’d had our rough patches in the weeks after that. Nightmares, crying for seemingly no reason. But she’d bounced back in time, and we’d lived happily together. It had been more of an adjustment for Lance than it had been for her. I laughed quietly to myself when I remembered how out-of-place he’d looked on his bike, cruising around the community. How my neighbors had looked at him in surprise when he’d walked Gigi to the park and played with her. They hadn’t expected a tough-looking guy like him to be so silly with his little girl, or so committed to her happiness. Once they figured out he was the real deal, they’d been much more accepting. He’d managed to come around on them, too, and by the time a year passed, they were all pretty good friends. His priority after Gigi and me was the club, and he spent most of his time there when we weren’t together. Still, he always came home for dinner. He’d found a way to balance his work and the rest of his life, though it took a little practice at first. Erica and Traci had shoved him out the door those first few months, ordering him to go home to be with his little family. Eventually, he hadn’t needed the help. Not that we never visited. I wasn’t keen on Gigi spending too much time there, but we stopped in from time to time after school or on the weekends. I chatted with the girls while Gigi fleeced the guys in poker. They were her guardian angels, and I had no fear of them being a bad influence…so long as we left after an hour or two. The biggest joy of my life, aside from being with Lance, was watching Gigi blossom. She’d always been smart, articulate, curious. The year without her mother had also given her confidence, new interests in learning piano and guitar, singing, dancing. She was a leader, too, like her father. When she ran for secretary of student council, she’d won—at only eight years old. The other kids were ten or eleven. We weren’t married, Lance and I. We weren’t even engaged. Still, Gigi had been calling me “Mom” since somewhere around mid-summer. It just happened one day. Just came out of her mouth. She’d looked surprised at herself when she said it, and worried that I wouldn’t react well. All I did was smile to encourage her. I loved the way it sounded, even if it wasn’t technically true. I thought about it as she climbed out of the car in front of the school to meet up with some friends. “See ya later, Mom!” She ran over to them, chatting excitedly, while I drove around to the parking lot. I might not have technically been her mother, but what was a mother? Rae was her mother—she’d borne her, anyway—but she’d handed her over to pay off a drug debt. I’d thrown myself over her to

protect her. Which one of us was actually her mom? I’d done more than that since moving her in with me. I’d taught her to cook, helped her with piano lessons, helped her with homework. Introduced her to my favorite old movies. Taught her to roller skate and ride a bike. Taken her to doctor’s appointments, dentist appointments, practices. I’d sat up with her the night she had that twenty-four-hour stomach bug, and again when she caught a bad cold over the winter. I thought about her the minute I woke up in the morning and just before I closed my eyes at night. If that wasn’t a mother, what was? The one person who I’d thought would have the most difficulty with that adjustment was Lance, but he was every inch the father I’d dreamed he would be. He taught her other things. How to fix a motorcycle. How to fight back if anybody ever picked a fistfight—but only if they started it, he always reminded her. He let her read stories to him. He’d even let her fix his hair once, though I wasn’t supposed to be home from the store for an hour so he didn’t think I’d ever find out. I’d been sworn to secrecy. We made a good team, balancing each other out, filling in for each other when one or the other just didn’t have it in them to read another story or listen to another poorly-played song on the piano. At the end of the day, we collapsed into bed together. And it had only been a year. I couldn’t wait to see what the future held.

Epilogue II Lance

“She’s gonna love it!” Erica and Traci were in awe. Erica held the box, tilting it from side to side, watching the way the diamonds caught the light. “Are you sure?” “Am I sure?” Erica glanced at me. “I’d cut a bitch for a ring like this. She’s lucky we all love her.” I chuckled, and she handed the box back with a sigh. “She’s gonna be so surprised, too. She has no idea this is coming.” “You’re sure? I mean, you talked to her yesterday, and she didn’t give you a clue she knew?” “Nada,” Traci said, patting me on the back. “You’ll get the surprise you want.” “Yeah, but will I get the answer I want?” They looked at me like I had three heads. “You can’t be serious,” Erica muttered, glaring at me with her arms crossed. “Hell yeah! I’m serious. You don’t know what it’s like for a guy, trying to ask a woman to marry him. I’m sick to my stomach over it.” I put the box in the pocket of my kutte. It felt a lot heavier than it really was. “She loves you. She loves Gigi. Of course she’s gonna marry you. Shoot, she might marry you just so she can adopt Gigi.” Traci winked. I groaned. “Don’t fuck with me right now, okay?” “Okay, okay. I’m only teasing. Jeez.” She held up her hands and walked out of the office. “Really, though,” Erica said, winking. “She’ll say yes. It’s a sure thing.” She left, too, closing the door. I sighed, leaning back in my chair. I crossed my ankles on top of the desk and thought about what I was going to do in a few hours. I had wanted to ask her to marry me for a year, but I wanted the timing to be right. I wanted to be sure she wanted my kid and me, that she wouldn’t change her mind when she figured out it wasn’t all gonna be fun and games.

I should’ve known better, knowing her. She wasn’t the type who would cut ties and run just because something was hard. She doubled down and worked even harder to get through it. She was the best mother any kid could ask for, and the best girlfriend I could imagine. I still didn’t think I deserved her, and used to ask myself sometimes what the hell she saw in a guy like me. She could’ve had anybody she wanted, anybody in the world. The sort of guy who lived in her neighborhood, the rich guys with their nice clothes and nice cars. I would never be one of them—she never asked me to be, either. I remembered how uncomfortable I used to feel when I first moved in. I used to feel the stares from the neighbors when I rode my bike down the street. I was used to people staring—I never cared before then whether people liked me or not. I’d never cared about fitting in. Hell, I didn’t want to fit in. I loved making people uncomfortable when I was younger. Before I met Jamie. I didn’t want her to be ashamed of me, but I wasn’t going to change who I was. I still took Gigi to the park and walked around with her. We even got a dog when she begged us to—she had always wanted one, but Rae would never let her get one. Probably a good thing for the dog. Neighbors used to watch us walk by. Sometimes I would hear them muttering to each other. It was then I figured out I might make Gigi ashamed of me one day, too. After a while, everybody accepted me, and I found out they weren’t so bad either. I helped the lady across the street when she had problems with her kitchen sink, and she baked us a cake. I helped the neighbor two doors down to put in his deck, and he had us over for a cookout when it was finished. It was a good feeling, knowing they liked me. I could tell it made Jamie happy, too. The box was still in my pocket, burning a hole. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What would she look like when I took it out? What would she say? Yes, I hoped. What else, though? Would she cry? Would she tell me she never thought about us getting married? Was she happier the way things were? Did she still wanna be able to escape one day if she felt like it? No. She wasn’t the type. Just like she wasn’t the type to leave when she figured out being a mom wasn’t just baking cookies and braiding hair. It didn’t keep me from worrying, though. *** A few hours later, everything was perfect. Traci and Erica set up candles all over the bar, which I lit when the time came for Jamie and Gigi to show up. There were flowers everywhere, and a bottle of champagne waited behind the bar. I made everybody clear out. The girls hugged me before they left. “Have her call us when it’s over!” Erica said, waving from her car. I waved back, then hoped she would have something good to say when she called. Just as Erica pulled out, Jamie pulled in. I went inside to wait for them. This was it. The door opened. Gigi came in first, giggling. She ran to me. I shushed her, and we waited for Jamie.

“I thought you said you would help me carry this bag inside,” Jamie called out. Then she looked up and saw the room. “What is this?” “Another surprise for you!” Gigi laughed, clapping. “We got you again!” I didn’t laugh. My palms were sweaty, my heart raced. I didn’t know what to say. “Another surprise? I don’t think my heart can take much more of this today.” She smiled at Gigi, but when she looked at me, something in her eyes changed. Her smile changed, too. Softer, warmer. “You did this?” “I can’t take credit. Erica and Traci.” “I have to thank them, then.” She kissed me. “What a nice anniversary surprise!” “This isn’t everything.” I glanced down at Gigi, and she nodded. Just like we planned, she moved off to the side so I could have a little space. I took a deep breath and hoped everybody was right when they said she’d say yes. Then I went on one knee. Jamie gasped, hands over her mouth. “You know what I’m gonna say,” I mumbled. I cleared my throat, feeling like the world’s biggest jackass. “And you know why I’m gonna say it. I love you. I don’t want anything but you for the rest of my life. I want us to be a family for real, officially. I talked it over with Gigi, and she feels the same way.” I pulled out the box, opening it. “Will you marry me?” It wasn’t poetry. Not even close. Even so, she cried, and when she gave me her hand, she was smiling wide. “Of course I’ll marry you.” I slid the ring on her finger, and she gasped when she got a look at it. There was only one other time when I felt so much relief—when I knew she and Gigi were safe that night at the motel. Gigi cheered and clapped. When I finished kissing Jamie, we held out our arms to include our daughter. “In my heart, we’ve been married all this time,” Jamie murmured to me. “But it’s nice, knowing you want it to be official.” “I do. I want you to know I’m your man, always.”

“Champagne time!” Gigi went behind the bar. When she found the bottle, she held it up. “Okay, okay. Chill. You can’t have any, anyway.” I went around to take the bottle from her. “Actually, she’s not the only one who can’t.” “What?” I was too busy pouring, I didn’t hear what she said. “I said I can’t have any champagne.” I stopped pouring. Her words started to make sense. She couldn’t…I looked up. “You’re serious?” “Yes.” She wiped a tear from her eye. “I hope you’re glad.” “Glad?” I went back over to her and held her as tight as I thought I could get away with. “Glad? I’m fucking thrilled!” I laughed. “Dad! Language.” Gigi stood next to us. “What’s happening?” Jamie crouched down. “I’m going to have a baby.” I never thought I would hear my daughter scream like that. She threw her arms around Jamie’s neck and even cried a little. “I’m so happy!” We both hugged her. I was happy, too. I couldn’t believe my family grew so fast. “That was my surprise for you two. You’re not the only ones who know how to surprise people.” Jamie laughed, wiping her eyes, then wiping Gigi’s. “Hey,” Gigi whispered. She giggled, pulling Jamie’s ear to her mouth. Jamie listened, then laughed. “I forgot all about that! You were right!” “What’s so funny?” I looked at the two of them. Jamie smiled up at me. “A year ago, your daughter asked me a question. At the time, I said no.” “What was the question?” “She asked if I would be her step-mommy. I guess you could say she proposed before you did.” ***

After dinner, once Gigi was in bed and the house was locked up, I pulled Jamie by the hand into our room. My fiancée. Mother of my children. I couldn’t wait to be with her. “My wife. I’ll have to get used to that,” I whispered, nibbling her neck. She giggled, then sighed as I licked a slow trail up to her earlobe, biting just a little. “You don’t have to get used to it yet,” she teased. “We could have a long engagement.” “I don’t care.” I took her ass in my hands, gripping it, pulling her to me. She gasped, moaning, tilting her head back. “As long as I’m with you.” I started from her neck again, this time going from the bottom to her chin, to her mouth. We had been together for a year, and it still felt just as hot when we kissed as it did the first time. There was more to it than just that. There was love, and history. On that night, there was a lot of hope for the future, too. “Are you sure it’s okay to do this?” I asked, even while I pulled the sweater over her head and took her tits in my hands. She sighed, closing her eyes while I played with them. I pulled the cups down just enough to flick my thumbs over her nipples, making them stand up before my tongue found them. “Yes. I’m sure. And I need you.” I growled, pulling her to me for another kiss. She bit my lip, and I hissed through my teeth. All she did was make me harder. I pressed myself against her, grinding my growing erection against her hip. She moaned into my mouth, then slid her hand between us to rub it against my bulge. That wasn’t good enough, so she unzipped me and slid her hand inside. I gasped when she made contact with my aching cock, already hard and desperate to be inside her. She stroked slowly, teasing me. Building me up. “Keep that up and I’ll come before I’m inside,” I muttered, eyes closed. She giggled. “You’re a young man. I think you can handle it twice in one night.” She was right, but I pulled her hand away anyway. I wanted it to be with her, inside her. It was never the same any other way. We fell onto the bed. I ran my hands over her body—it would change soon. I could tell she was thinking the same thing as she unhooked her bra, and she sighed deeply when I buried my face between her tits. “They’ll get bigger,” she whispered. My cock jumped—they were already so full and firm. I couldn’t wait, and I licked my way over them before I moved further down her body. The flat stomach, but not for much longer. The hips, the thighs. I worked her pants down, caressing her soft curves. The lean, smooth legs. I parted them, licking further and further up the inside of one thigh until I was at her center.

I didn’t waste any time, pulling the panties to the side and tasting her. She groaned, holding my head in place. I watched her move on the bed, hips rocking, head rolling from side to side. Her back arched when I sucked her tight little button, and it didn’t take much longer before she came with a shuddering gasp. I knew just how to get her off fast, or to take my time with it. One of the nice things about being together for so long. “Roll over,” I grunted. I didn’t care how it sounded. I needed her then and there. I wasn’t in the mood for a leisurely fuck. I wanted to be inside her, to make her whole body scream before she came all over me. “Mmm…I think we’ll make good use of this position in the coming months.” She winked at me, and I twitched when I thought about taking her from behind. It was my favorite position, and hers, too. She got ready like she always did, on all fours. Her pussy waited for me, glistening, and my cock throbbed when I got closer to her. I guided the head up and down her cleft. She moaned, moving her hips around, wanting me to touch more of her. “Greedy,” I muttered, and she laughed. Then I slid inside and the laugh turned into a moan. We both moaned, trying to keep it quiet for the kid’s sake but not able to be totally quiet. It was impossible. I slid back, then forward. Again. Again. The way she moaned, rolling her head in a circle, arching her back, was worth taking my time for. I watched and listened, thrusting slowly. Loving the way she loved it when I took her. She was totally in the moment, totally aware of her body and what she liked —and sex was never boring because of that. I couldn’t stay at that slow, sensual pace for long. My body took over. It wanted more, fast, hard. I sped up, going deeper. Hitting her at just the right angle. I reached for her tits, playing with them as I fucked her. She moaned even louder, the combination of pleasure taking her higher. I loved the way she got into it when we had sex. She forgot the “nice girl” she was to everybody else and turned into a wild animal, wanting to get off. She didn’t have a problem telling me what she liked and how she liked it, and when she covered my hand with hers and squeezed, I knew she wanted me to be a little rougher. I pinched her nipple, and she let out a high-pitched squeal. I held her hips, holding on as I pumped faster. Harder. Deeper. I needed to take her and remind myself she was mine. She was all mine, body and soul. Forever. I felt like a king, the way I always did when I was inside her. Like I could do anything. She grunted, whispering how much she loved it. I slapped her ass, hard, with the flat of my hand. She gasped, going stiff for a second with her back arched. Then she groaned, and I knew she loved it the way she always did. We had learned a lot about each other in a year, and she wasn’t the girl I first met. She found out she liked being spanked, having her hair pulled, having her wrists tied to the bed. She pushed back against me, more excited. I spanked again and again, and she shook each time my hand made contact. “Yeah…I love it…” she gasped. I pulled her hair back and she shuddered, pushing even harder. Riding me like I rode her.

She went faster, and I matched her. Her grunts were louder, higher pitched, and I knew she was getting ready to come. I was ready, too, holding on for her. Just another few seconds. Everything in me screamed, wanting to be let go. My cock throbbed with each thrust as she got tighter…tighter. Finally, she shrieked, her body tensing. “Yes! Lance! Oh, yes!” She shuddered, gasping. Her muscles clenched around me, bearing down on me, and I lost it. I exploded inside her, groaning, my body going rigid while I came. I couldn’t think of anything for the first few seconds, just like always. It was enough to feel. When it was over, I immediately thought of her. Was she okay? I left her, and she fell on her side with a sigh. “Holy cow,” she whispered. “Are you sure that was all right?” I stretched out next to her, looking at her closely. Wondering if there was any way to tell if I had hurt the baby. She stroked my hair. “Relax. I already asked the doctor about it. He said we’ll be fine. As long as we don’t get too crazy, like weird Kama Sutra stuff. And even then, it should be okay.” “Good.” What a relief. I rolled onto my back, still trying to catch my breath. “Wow. If I had known how good it would be while you were pregnant, I would’ve knocked you up sooner.” “Hush.” She smacked my shoulder. “Your pillow talk hasn’t improved in the last year, you know.” “Come on. That wasn’t romantic? I was complimenting your performance.” She shot me a warning look, and I stopped. “What do you think—wedding before or after the baby comes?” “I don’t need anything big. We can do it before, so the baby’s parents are married and all that. I don’t feel like trying to nurse a baby and stand at the altar all at the same time.” “You’re sure? You don’t want the big wedding with the dress and the flowers and all that?” “Eh, we’ll work something out. You know the girls will go crazy.” “Erica’s dying for you to call her.” “I bet. She doesn’t know about the baby yet. She might have a stroke.” I chuckled. Life was too perfect. I had a family, my club, friends. How did everything change so fast in just a year?

No. Quicker than that. The minute Gigi showed up at my door. I guessed I had Rae to thank for that. I hadn’t seen or spoken to her since the day she signed the custody papers, but I thought of her sometimes. She was still her daughter’s mother, and Gigi had all her good qualities. Jamie snuggled against me, and we talked about the wedding and the baby and getting a room ready for him or her. We even talked about moving to a bigger house. The sky was the limit. I held her in my arms long into the night, sure I would never want anything else for the rest of my life. I had it all.


Sneak Preview of STOLEN

He's a ruthless biker with a kingdom to run. She's a talented thief with a nose for trouble. Things are about to get messy. Sasha I knew going in that this would be dangerous. But what choice did I have? None, that's how much. You don't say "No" to a man like Fang, the mob boss I work for. Not if you want to live to tell the tale. So I swallowed my fear and I took the mission: stealing drugs from the Hell's Overlords MC. The first time was smooth. In and out like a flash. The second time was just as easy. But the third time‌that's when everything went wrong. Now, I'm trapped in a basement, staring into the stormy eyes of a man who doesn't like being robbed. Everything I feared is present in those eyes. There's anger, and strength, and brutality. But there's something else, too.

Something I didn't expect, and it's scaring me more than anything else. He's hungry. Hungry for me. HER BODY ISN'T THE ONLY THING I'M TAKING AS MY OWN. Cole The first time I lay eyes on her, it feels like I got struck by lightning. You've probably heard that before, but trust me – this is different. This isn't the "struck by lightning" you see in friendly little rom-coms with happy endings. It doesn't come with warm fuzzies. It's not cute. No, the kind of lightning I'm talking about makes me want to do things, things that you might not always like. It makes me want to bite her lip like a feral dog, to squeeze her hips in my hands and rid her of every scrap of clothing. The lightning surging through my veins makes me harder than carved marble. There's only one release: to own her, again and again, until the thirst is quenched. I don't know how long that will take. But I'm willing to find out.

Prologue Sasha

At 3 a.m. the city streets were finally mostly quiet. I stood in the alleyway between the two supposedly vacant warehouse buildings underneath a light that hadn’t worked in decades. I listened to the sound of the occasional car or truck passing by. This was the lull between night and morning, when the people going home were settling in and the people going to work were just getting up. This was also when the guard stepped away from the door to the room where the stash was kept. It was my chance to climb in through one of the broken windows of the old building and grab my prize. I proceeded carefully, without a sound. I was just another shadow in the darkness. I was taking from the Hell’s Overlords MC, and I was shocked at the lack of security around their drugs. They kept separate stashes in several old buildings throughout the city, usually behind unlocked doors with one or two guards on duty at all times. The problem with live guards, though, was that they took piss breaks and naps. It wasn’t a problem for me, but I was pretty sure Cole Masterson, the president of the MC, wasn’t too thrilled about how much heroin I’d lifted over the last six months from his essentially unguarded stashes. There wasn’t much light inside the building. Despite the stories that the Overlords had paid off law enforcement to turn the other cheek, they still maintained almost complete darkness and secrecy around their safe havens. That tactic, however, only drew more attention from those of us sharing the streets with them. I saw the interior clearly in the yellow-orange light spilling in from the streetlamps outside. I took a back stairwell to the third floor, where the drugs were held in a small room, probably once an office. The heroin sat in densely packed bags taped closed on top of an old metal desk. My pulse quickened at this point in the job, when I was confronted with the stash and had to force myself to take much less than I could have carried. I could have stuffed several bags in my black cargo pants and backpack, but if that big of an amount were missing, it would have been readily noticeable. Instead, I only grabbed two bags, taking them in my gloved hands and stuffing them in my pack before anyone had a chance to notice I was even there. My take wouldn’t be missed until it was time to deliver. Only then would Cole realize he was short, usually leading to the guard taking the fall for the missing drugs. I faded back into the night and made my way to Fang’s office. “You asked me to bring it to you directly this time. Is everything okay?” I unzipped my bag and placed the two bags of white powder on the desk in front of him before sitting down. “Everything’s fine,” he answered in his composed voice. He patted the bags and nodded to the larger gentleman standing by the door to his office.

His bodyguard walked over and picked the bags up off of the desk. “Go ahead and deliver those,” Fang told him, waving him off with perfectly manicured fingers. After the big guy left the room, Fang turned to face me in his desk chair. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on the desk. He laced his fingers together. I stared into his dark eyes. His black hair was slicked back. His tanned, chiseled face stared intently. His jaw muscles worked as he clenched his mouth shut. I looked at the black suit he wore over a deep red shirt with a black tie. A necklace hung from his neck with a long tooth, a fang, dangling from it. “Sasha,” he said, and paused to look me over. “Yes, sir?” I was used to his eyes taking in the sight of me. I wasn’t used to being called to deliver drugs directly to his office. In the five years I’d been working for him, he’d only asked me to deliver anything directly to him the first few times, to make sure I could handle the job ahead of me. “You came straight here from the warehouse,” he said, sitting back in his chair. “Were you followed?” “No. No one even saw me. You know that,” I told him. “I guess I do. I just get paranoid sometimes. You are stealing from the most notorious MC in the city. I’d hate to think what they’d do if they caught you,” he explained. “Well, they won’t catch me,” I argued defiantly. “I know,” Fang admitted, taking a sharp breath between his teeth. “That’s why I’m giving you this next job.” “But we’ve barely put a dent in the Overlords’ supply,” I argued. “What gives?” It wasn’t like Fang to pull me off a job before it was completed. Usually, anyone pulled from work for him wound up in a dumpster or in the river somewhere. “What gives is we’re about to put a huge dent in their supply. I’ve got intel that they have a massive stash sitting in the basement underneath their HQ. Of course, this stash is heavily guarded, unlike what you’ve told me about the smaller stashes hidden throughout the city,” he explained. “Wait, you expect me to break into the headquarters of the most notorious MC in the city and sneak down past their state-of-the-art security system to get to their basement and raid their supply? Then, I’m supposed to get out without getting caught, or worse?” I asked for clarification. Fang nodded with a sly grin on his face. “Are you crazy?” “Maybe, but I’m also very confident in your abilities,” he told me.

“Another thing, why do they have all these stashes in satellite locations if they have their main stash at HQ? Why don’t they have it all at HQ?” Something didn’t sound right here. “The story is they’ve started consolidating since the thefts. Apparently, you’re cutting into their profits and their business. They’ve got to pull it all in to make sure it’s safe,” he explained. “I don’t know, Fang. It smells fishy to me. If they are moving their drugs into safer places, it seems to me that HQ would be the last place they’d want to put it. That would just lead rivals like us to their location. It would be suicide for everyone,” I argued. “I mean, if you don’t think you can do it…” he said with a shrug. “I didn’t say that.” I chuckled. He was just bluffing anyway. I knew he was as likely to hand that job over to someone else as he knew I was to turn it down. “I agree with you, though,” he said out of the blue. “It seems unlikely that Cole would actually pull his drugs in like that. I could see him shuffling things around into other safe havens, different locations, in an attempt to throw us off track. I don’t see him drawing attention to HQ like that.” “Unless it’s a trap,” I suggested. “Yeah, I guess, but the intel comes from reliable sources, which is why I’m inclined to trust it. First, I want you to get in there, find the heroin, and bring back a sample so that we can verify that it’s there before we send folks in. If he’s going to make a bold move like this, I want all of his drugs. Let’s go ahead and take him down instead of fucking with him the way we have been for the last few months.” I was shocked by the bold change in approach. “I like the sound of that,” I told him. It meant I didn’t have to deal with Hell’s Overlords anymore. “I thought you would.” His eyes sparkled while he spoke. “Is that all?” I asked with a yawn. “Yeah, that’s it. Good job tonight, Sasha.” “Thanks.” I started to get up from the chair, but he stopped me. “In fact, I’m really proud of how far you’ve come,” he said. “I’m impressed with the work you’ve done against the Overlords. Their president has a pretty nasty reputation, and a lot of people wouldn’t want to go up against them.” “I’m not going up against them. I’m sneaking behind their backs,” I said with a grin. “Goodnight, Fang.” I walked through the door to his office and started making my way back to my apartment.

On the way home, as the color of the sky began to lighten, ahead of the sun, I thought about what Fang had said about how far I’d come. He’d found me on the street, barely more than a kid. I was at the city market, a set of farmer’s market style stands set up just on the outskirts of downtown. It operated daily, with vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables as well as countless handmade crafts. It had its own crowd, mostly throwbacks to the ’60s and ’70s, young adults born decades late. It was a great place for street kids to buy or work for their own food. I hadn’t been interested in working at the time. I knew if I wanted anything, my lack of skills left me with one real option. I had to take what I wanted or needed. I reached for an orange with my dirty fingers, and a perfectly clean, tanned hand clasped my wrist. “What are you doing?” a stern voice asked me. My first instinct had been to run, but when he didn’t let go, I looked up into his dark, sparkling eyes. He grabbed a bag of oranges, paid for them, and handed them to me. I simply stared at them and blinked. Then, I tried pulling away again. He’d given me what I wanted, and it was time to make an exit, but he wouldn’t let me go. “No, dear, these come with a price,” he said with a wide grin. “I don’t have any money,” I told him. “Keep them.” “No, it’s not money I’m after,” he added. “What, then? Sex? You’re not getting that either,” I snapped, and tried to pull away again, but he just would not let go of me. Then, it occurred to me that the people walking by could see what was going on, and I did not want to draw attention to myself. “Let me tell you what I want,” he said, walking me out of the market and away from the people bustling by us. He’d been wearing that same black suit, dark red shirt, and black tie. Over the years, I wondered if he didn’t just have a closet full of the same outfit somewhere. “What do you want?” I snapped. “I want you to work for me,” he told me calmly. “I’m sorry?” He let go of my wrist, but I didn’t run. Instead, I stood in front of him rubbing my aching wrist.

“You heard correctly,” he answered. “I want you to work for me. I want to teach you how to do that very same thing you did in the market, but I want you to be the best at it.” I glanced back at the market and back at him. “You want me to steal for you?” I asked. Up until that point, I’d never considered that anyone would want to hire a thief. “I do,” he answered with a smile. I narrowed my eyes suspiciously at him. “Listen, I can teach you how to do it professionally,” he explained. His eyes looked deep into mine. I couldn’t look away. Before he said anything else, I could already feel in my bones that he was offering me something bigger than just a job. “You’ll be provided for while you work for me. You won’t have to worry about anything. You want oranges? You can have all the oranges you want while you’re in my care,” he explained. Care? At the time, I couldn’t remember the last time someone had used that word in relation to me. He hadn’t been made to force my hand since. The sun had just started to crack the horizon when I made it home from Fang’s office. I had my newest assignment, though I didn’t trust his intel. I knew I could do it, but I didn’t expect to find anything. Since that day at the market five years ago, our relationship had reached the point where I didn’t have to wait for instructions before I went to work. I figured I’d sleep off the daylight and go after the Overlords that night.

Chapter 1 Cole

“I’m putting everyone on high alert status,” I announced to the members sitting around the boardroom table at HQ. I looked around at the stern faces staring back at me. We all came from different backgrounds. Some of the guys grew up on the streets. Others had run from the quiet, sterile suburban life to find something with more meaning. And we had members who hit every point in between, including military vets who hadn’t been able to find a place among the normals after returning home from war. “We’ve lost a lot of money because of this thief. We were hit on the south side again last night,” I explained. “Whoever it is, they’re good. No one sees or hears anything. They strike in the blink of an eye, when you turn to investigate a noise, when you step away for one moment to take a piss.” “I’m sorry about that, Cole,” Andre said, raising a hand. “But at least I checked the bags when I returned. Something told me to.” “That’s good,” I complimented him. “That’s more than we’ve been doing. See, we don’t know when they’re hitting us. Most of the time, we don’t realize it until we’re delivering the drugs. I’m surprised no one has been shot over this yet. For that, you can thank the reputation I’ve built for this MC. But it won’t be long before they start asking for more concessions than just a lower rate.” I leaned on the table, hoping they all got my meaning without having to have it spelled out. I’d worked too hard since taking over as president of Hell’s Overlords to start losing customers because some little punk ass thief thought they could pull some bullshit on us and steal our drugs. So far, though, it felt like everyone else was just dragging their feet on this matter. They were all waiting on me to figure something out, instead of just trying to keep a better watch over our satellite stashes. “What do we do to stop it?” Dante asked, giving me a knowing look. That was why he was my right hand man. He already knew I had something in mind. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have called a meeting. “I’ve already put the word out that we’re moving the drugs back to HQ.” A murmur rushed through the room as all of my senior members looked at each other. Dante smiled and nodded. We were on the same page. “Why weren’t we made aware of this?” Gage asked. “For security purposes, I reached out to the community myself to spread the word,” I told them. “You paid a crackhead, didn’t you?” Dante asked, laughing at me.

“I may have,” I answered with a smile. “This isn’t some joke, Cole,” Gage said, standing angrily, planting a hard finger down on the table. “I never said it was, Gage.” I rolled my shoulders and cocked an eyebrow. “But let me ask you something. Whose ass is on the line here? If shit goes sideways, who do you think has to answer for it?” “Each and every one of us,” he snapped back. “I don’t think so. When your mouth gets you shot because the dope isn’t there, who has to answer to your family, Gage? Who was supposed to have your back in that situation? Who was supposed to make sure that we delivered what I promised to deliver? Who?” I slammed my fist down on the table. Dante put an arm on Gage’s shoulder and pushed him back down into his chair. He shook his head when Gage looked back to see who it was, letting him know it would have been a bad idea to try to resist or start anything with him. I sighed and shook my head at what I was about to tell them. If they didn’t like the idea that I’d gone behind their backs to put the intel on the street, they really wouldn’t like the next piece of information I had to share with them. “Also, in the name of security, I have had our heroin stashes shuffled around to other locations. Only the men guarding them know where they are, and they’ve been paid nicely to keep their mouths shut, even if asked by any Overlords. The only people who have access are myself and Dante.” A wave of protests rippled through the room. I held a hand up to get everyone’s attention. “I know what I’m doing is unorthodox. I know it’s not a popular choice. Once we solve this problem, I’ll loosen my grip, and we’ll start doing things the way we always have, but don’t think I won’t do anything I have to do in order to protect the MC. And that’s what I’m doing right now,” I explained. “Where are the drugs, Cole?” Gage asked. “Safe under lock and key,” I replied. “Guys, we haven’t even heard the plan,” Dante announced. “You all want to fight, and we don’t even know what the hell Cole is doing.” “Fuck, he doesn’t even know,” Gage chimed in. Dante grabbed Gage by his salt and pepper mane and slammed his face into the table. “Watch your mouth, old man,” Dante threatened.

“Dante. Gage. Are you two finished?” I asked sternly. “I am if he is,” Dante said. “You’re the boss, Cole.” Gage held up his hands in submission before wiping his bloody face on his old t-shirt. Sometimes it felt like I was in charge of a bunch of children. Everyone else, of course, simply sat and watched the spectacle unfold as Gage decided to test me once again. If he hadn’t been around since the early days of the MC, I would have booted him first thing upon taking the president’s seat; but he had contacts that we needed if we were going to continue to prosper. “Alright, guys, if we’re done showing our asses, I’d like to tell you the rest of my plan. The reason I put it out there that we’re moving our drugs to HQ is so that our thief will come to us.” “So, we’re planning a trap?” Andre asked. “We are. Whoever is doing this is good, Andre. They get in and out without making a sound, and they leave absolutely no trace of their presence. They don’t want us to know who they are. As both Dante and Gage have found from talking to some of the other organizations out there, no one even knows about the operation,” I explained for everyone’s benefit. Dante and Gage have gone out for me at different times to track down our rivals and see what information they could find. They were pretty persuasive when they wanted to be; they just couldn’t work together. I’d spoken with some of our partners, and I believed them when they told me that all they’d heard were rumors that some of our deliveries had been short. No one knew anything about a thief hitting us, which also led me to believe it could have been an inside job. “Either that, or they’re all in on it and lying to our faces,” Gage growled. “Way to stay positive, old man,” Dante added. “No, for once, Gage is right, Dante. There’s always a possibility that some of the folks you’ve talked to were lying to us about this. I can’t believe that everyone’s working together on this, but I would be surprised if it turned out that everyone was being completely honest with us. That would be a first.” I looked from Dante’s face to Gage’s. Dante’s expression went sour as soon as I said Gage could have been right. Gage looked like he was fighting the urge to turn around and stick his tongue out at Dante. “While we wait for the thief to show their face here at HQ, I want you all on high alert, like I said at the beginning of the meeting. We need eyes on all of our safe havens. I’ve got guards posted at every single one to make it look like we might have drugs there. If you hear or see anything suspicious, here, at a haven, or anywhere on the street, you call me immediately and let me know. We’ve got to catch

this person before we start losing buyers because of their bullshit.” I slammed a fist on the table to let everyone know we were done. As the seven other senior members got up to leave, Dante hung back. We watched the suspicious eyes of the MC’s leadership cut towards us with suspicion as they left the room. We listened to the murmurs. “You’d better hope we find something soon,” Dante told me. “I don’t know how long they’re going to put up with this.” “Well, if my suspicions are correct, it won’t be long before our little thief tries to hit us,” I said, sitting down in my chair for the first time since the meeting began. “What are your suspicions?” Dante asked. He leaned over the table, his inked arms flexing, his dark brown beard hanging down. He tilted his shaved head, showing off the tribal ink wrapping around his bald skull. My right hand man was a badass, and he knew it. “I’m pretty sure our thief is working on their own,” I started. When he scoffed at the idea, I continued. “If they are working for someone, it’s someone in the shadows, someone who’s been hiding out for a while, but I’m almost willing to put money on the lone wolf here.” “If you’re right, that would explain why no one knows about it,” Dante agreed. “Exactly, and wouldn’t it be some shit if this person was able to get by all of the watching eyes we have in the city?” I marveled. The thought of an independent rival, working only for themselves without a boss to answer to, was pretty thrilling. But it was also terrifying to think that we were being had by someone who didn’t have to answer to anybody. That meant we would probably never find them. “It’s highly unlikely, Cole, and you know that. I’m willing to bet that at least one person has lied to us. We’re going to find out that this thief is working for someone, and we’ve already talked to someone in their organization. It’s not going to be a new boss. I can almost guarantee that,” Dante said. I knew he was probably right, but I wanted to believe. There was something really fascinating about the idea of a rogue agent out there doing their own work. Unfortunately, we weren’t living in a movie. This was the real world, and more often than not, people able to pull off what this thief was doing had the backing of one or more of the major crime lords. “Oh well, a fellow can dream, can’t he?” I laughed. “Too bad the days of the great lone outlaw are gone.” “You’re still a little kid sitting in front of the TV playing cowboys and Indians, aren’t you?” Dante joked with me. “I guess so. But tell me, which side are we?” I asked him.

“We’re the outlaws. We’re neither the good guys nor the bad guys,” Dante answered. “I like that.” I leaned my chair back. “So, what’s the next step, boss?” Dante asked, still leaning on the table. “Well, now that everyone’s gone, I guess I’ll get my things and go sit downstairs while I wait for our guest of honor to show up for the drugs that aren’t here,” I told him. “You’re going to catch them yourself?” Dante asked, astonished that I wasn’t sending a group of guys downstairs to wait. “Of course I am. I want to be the first one to set eyes on our little thief. And if they don’t work for anyone, I’m going to offer them a job working for us,” I told him. While he stared at me with his jaw on the floor, I got up and walked out of the room.

Chapter 2 Sasha

The Hell’s Overlords MC was headquartered in an old building they’d bought and converted into their HQ and clubhouse. At one point, the building had housed either another warehouse or some type of manufacturing plant. Unlike so many other buildings in the old industrial section of town, the Overlords had renovated the building. The three-story brick structure was clean and well-lit. New windows had been placed in the arches in the brick façade. The garage doors in the old delivery bays were new as well. There was a flag out front with the Hell’s Overlords’ back patch on it. It was the Grim Reaper riding an old motorcycle. The blade of his scythe arching overhead with Hell’s written in what was supposed to be blood. Underneath the reaper and his bike was a frayed banner with Overlords burned into it. Even at night, there were lights on inside. The Overlords never slept. I figured they had a use for each floor of the building, but I wasn’t sure what to expect once I got inside. Working for Fang, I wasn’t exactly on speaking terms with other local bosses. No one really liked Fang, and since I’d probably stolen from everyone, no one wanted to talk. So I had to resort to what I did best. I had to wing it. The key to my success was avoiding the light and staying in the shadows. As far as I was concerned, I was a shadow. I dressed all in black. I wore shoes with smooth soles that didn’t leave prints. I wore gloves and a ski mask at all times. Even my backpack was black. One thing I didn’t carry was a weapon. I didn’t want to give myself the option of getting caught and fighting my way out. I cased the joint first. I had to know where the entrances were, where the light fell around the building, and where the cameras and other security features were, among other things. I watched members come and go all night, starting with what looked like a meeting. A bunch of guys rode up on their motorcycles, riding into the building through the bay doors, which were then closed to hide and protect the bikes. I waited until they left a little while later. Then, I approached to get closer to the building. A few guys came and went all throughout the night. I figured there was still someone inside to act as security, along with whoever was keeping the lights on upstairs. There were cameras outside on the corners of the building, but after looking them over again and again, I realized there were no cameras facing the rear of the building. I moved to the rear door and found it unlocked. As I opened it, I checked to see if there were any wires or sensors, anything. The door was completely unguarded and unwatched. This must be where deals are made or where certain guests are accepted, I thought as I quietly

stepped into the building. It still seemed odd to me that a door like that wouldn’t be locked. Regardless, I was in. The ground floor was open from wall to wall. There were thick columns that looked like they were supporting the upper floors, but there were no inside walls. A few bikes were parked on the concrete pad just behind the bay doors, so I could count and guess how many people were at HQ overnight. I crept around the room, looking for stairs or a door that would lead me downstairs. There were pool tables, dart boards, and TVs in the room. There was a bar along the opposite wall, and it looked well stocked. It was late enough that there was no one downstairs when I entered. I didn’t see any internal security measures either. They probably felt like they were their own security, I figured. I eventually made my way around the room and found an open stairwell next to the bar. I walked carefully, trying to keep the hardwood floor from creaking beneath my footsteps. I crept down the concrete stairs, my padded feet not making a sound, until I reached a large sliding door set back in the wall. My heart raced with adrenaline. My pulse echoed in my ears, and it felt loud enough to give me away. I put my hand on the handle to pull the door open and waited to listen for anyone who might have been waiting behind it. All I could hear was my breath. I waited for my breathing and my pulse to calm down before doing anything else. I slid the door back, slowly at first, trying to be quiet, but the door could not be quiet as it slid into the wall. “Fuck it,” I said under my breath, and shoved the door the rest of the way open. I stepped into the concrete room underneath Hell’s Overlords’ HQ. In the brief moment before the door rolled back into place behind me, I clearly saw that there were no drugs waiting for me. The floor was bare, and darkness shrouded most of the room. “Shit.” I jumped as the door slammed behind me, leaving me in complete darkness. I knew at that moment that I’d been caught in a trap. I knew Fang and I had been set up by his faulty intel. Then, out of the darkness came a voice. “Seems to me you were expecting to find something down here,” he said. “Well, you did find something, just not what you were looking for.” Light suddenly filled the basement, and I could see that the square concrete room was empty except for a chair and myself, and a stranger. The stranger was a broad man with thick, muscular shoulders and arms. His wavy golden brown hair was brushed back away from his clean-shaven, chiseled face. He stared at me with intense green eyes. He kept his arms crossed in front of his chest as he leaned against the wall.

“Have a seat,” he said, nodding toward the chair in the center of the room. I didn’t budge. I needed to find a way out of the room. I needed to get away from the gorgeous man in front of me with the entrancing green eyes. “So, you’re the one who’s been stealing from me.” He pushed himself off the wall and started walking towards me. My heart raced. My mind screamed at me to move and to find a way out, but I was frozen with shock. I’d never been caught. In fact, I’d spent the last six months stealing drugs from Hell’s Overlords without anyone ever seeing me. Yet my boss and I fell for the oldest trick in the book, faulty information planted on the street in order to catch someone. He grabbed my thin arm in his firm hand and held me still as he circled around behind me. I wondered if he’d noticed I was a woman yet, because I definitely noticed he was a man. His touch through my long black sleeves was electric. I felt my body quiver with desire for him almost immediately. “Sit down,” he barked, shoving me down against the chair. If he’d only known how much I liked to play rough! I grinned under my ski mask and considered getting up to fight back, but I thought it best to go ahead and take a seat as he’d insisted. I turned and sat with my back straight, staring up at the man with the beautiful green eyes. He didn’t look like just another lackey. He looked like a top member of the MC. He had a confidence about his expression and posture that wouldn’t have been present in someone beneath him. “Let me see who’s behind that mask,” he said, leaning over to remove it from my head. As the cloth revealed my face and let my blonde hair spill down from atop my head, I watched surprise register itself on his face. His jaw grew slack, and his eyes grew wide. “You’re a woman?” His voice roared in the small room. “You expected a man to be able to do what I do?” I asked him with a cocked eyebrow. He looked at the ski mask in his hand and back at my face. His shock slowly turned into anger. “Are you embarrassed?” I asked him. “You’ve caused a lot of problems for me,” he said lowly, fighting back a growl. I watched as his arms and fists flexed in an attempt to contain all the rage that was flowing through his body. I wished I could have offered him a better way to release all that pent up rage and frustration. It had been too long for me, and I was pretty sure it had been a while for him, too, judging by just how angry

he was. “You’ve been shown up by a girl,” I teased, “but you caught me, so that’s something.” “I haven’t been shown up by anyone,” he barked in my face. I shrugged. He was close enough to kiss, and I thought I could see the desire shared in his face. I had to look away from him to keep from indulging in my little schoolgirl fantasy. It just would have made things worse to try to kiss the man I’d stolen so much from over the last six months. “You know, you’re the first person to catch me, so you should be proud of yourself.” It wasn’t entirely true. I’d allowed myself to get caught a few times before, but this was the first time that it hadn’t been part of my original plan. “I’m honored,” he said sarcastically. “Now, look, I’ve got a few questions,” he said, starting to pace around me. “People usually do when they meet me. I guess you can fire away. I’ll tell you what I’ll tell you, and the rest, well, we’ll see.” “What’s your name?” he asked. I sighed. Was he trying to establish a dating profile for me? “My name is Sasha Winters. I’m a Sagittarius. My favorite color, despite my profession and attire, is green. When I’m not at work, I enjoy long walks, lounging around in my pajamas, and listening to music while I clean my apartment. I’m currently single, you know, since my lifestyle isn’t all that compatible to relationships. I barely graduated high school and never made it to college. Is there anything else you need to know?” I watched for his reaction, hoping my little outburst would piss him off enough to leave me alone. “Are you crazy? Who do you work for?” he asked. “My boss.” He levelled his eyes on me. They were a beautiful emerald green, and it was hard not to just spill everything out. “Who’s your boss?” he asked. I bit my lower lip. I wanted to tell him, “the guy I work for,” but I figured I was already pressing my luck. If he was who I thought he was, I’d heard stories about him, and pressing my luck with him wasn’t the wisest idea. But it was so much fun! “Who’s your boss?” he asked again, forcing his words out of his mouth. He grabbed my shoulders and

gave me a good shake against the back of the metal chair I sat in. “Who’s your boss?” he asked a third time. “I’m not going to tell you, so you can stop asking me.” “You bitch,” he said as he let go of me and stood back up. “So, can I go now?” I asked him. “No, you can’t go now.” He chuckled and shook his head. He placed his hands on the arms of the chair and leaned back in my face. “You know, I have ways of making people talk,” he threatened before standing up and walking way.

Chapter 3

I let the man tie me down to the chair. I waited while he rummaged around on a work bench for tape and rope. I didn’t get up. I didn’t make for the door. I waited for my captor to return. I figured that since I wasn’t able to find any drugs, allowing myself to be captured and tied to a chair would give me the opportunity to gather more information from whoever was questioning me. Part of why I didn’t run while he was getting ready to tie me up was because it wouldn’t have done any good. Where would I have gone? I couldn’t go back to Fang and tell him I was empty-handed because I’d been caught by Cole’s Overlords. That wouldn’t have worked out very well for me. “Do you know who I am?” the man asked as he wrapped the rope around my wrists and waist. I almost missed the question as I watched him. He wasn’t rough with me. He didn’t wrap the rope too tightly around my wrists or my chest. He was almost tender in the way he strapped me into the chair. The way he knelt down in front of me seemed so trusting and submissive, I almost forgot I was really his prisoner. It felt more like some sort of roleplay. “My name is Cole Masterson,” he said, looking up at me with his green eyes and hardened face. I sighed. I should have known. He didn’t seem like the type who would have taken orders from anyone. “I wanted to catch you myself,” he explained as he stood back up. “Of course. I don’t blame you for that,” I told him. “I feel honored that the president of Hell’s Overlords was waiting for me himself,” I admitted with a grin. The fact that he’d waited for me himself meant I’d gotten under his skin as a thief. Now, it had become my job to do so as a woman if I wanted to defeat his reputation and get out of here with any intel that would help Fang take him down. “I must say, I’m impressed,” he added, beginning to pace around me. “I didn’t think anyone could have done what you did. But a woman? It never occurred to me that a woman, an attractive woman, could get away with stealing from Hell’s Overlords. I almost want to applaud you, but you’ve cost me a lot of money and caused a lot of trouble for me.” I knew I was in deep shit now. I could hear the tension in his voice. He was holding back his urge to beat me the way he’d beaten so many others. I wondered how long he could hold back. I knew the only thing keeping me safe in the short term was probably the same thing putting me in more danger in the long run—the fact that I was a woman. He didn’t want to rough me up because I was just a girl, but that probably meant there were other perils down the road if I didn’t do something. “So, who would hire a female thief to steal from Hell’s Overlords? The question of our thief’s

identity has been plaguing me since the first time we noticed some of our product was missing. We couldn’t figure out who would be bold enough to send anyone to steal from us like that. But now? Now, I really don’t know who would be behind it.” He walked around me while he talked himself up to the question. He put his hands on my tied wrists, pressing them hard against the metal arms of the chair. It wasn’t painful, but I winced anyway, giving him what he wanted to see. I could play along with the best of them. “So, who sent you?” he asked me again. I closed my mouth tightly and smiled at him. I wasn’t about to tell him so easily. He was going to have to work for that answer. “No more smart-ass answers, huh?” “Not at the moment,” I told him. I couldn’t help myself. “I see. So, what? If I let go of your arms and stand up, maybe step away from you, you’ll start with the smart mouth again?” he asked, stepping away. “No,” I said, shaking my head, taunting him. He didn’t know what to do with someone who wasn’t afraid of him, and I was loving it. He probably didn’t realize it, but he had given himself away with the tenderness he’d shown while tying me up. “What’s it going to take, then?” he asked. “You obviously want something out of me in return for that information. What do you want? Do you want me to promise I’ll keep you safe from your boss when they learn that you were caught and that you gave them up? Sure, I can do that. I can help you get far away from them, where you won’t be able to bother either one of us anymore.” I cocked an eyebrow. Was he really bargaining with me? I really must have gotten under this man’s skin for him to trade in his usual brutal methods for trying to talk information out of me. I decided to throw him a bone. I took a deep breath so I could keep a straight face. “I don’t want immunity or protection,” I told him. “What I want to know is when you’re going to start torturing me for information. If you’re really Cole Masterson, known for beating the shit out of anyone who crosses your path, why haven’t you done the same to me? I’m waiting for the sting of your hand across my cheek, the taste of my own blood in my mouth from where you busted my lip. I’m waiting on cuts and bruises from where you try to force information out of me,” I taunted him. I’d never thought of torture as something that might have been sexually gratifying, but as I listened to my own words, I started to get turned on by the possibility of such close physical contact with Cole. It wasn’t that I wanted him to hit me or beat me, but I craved his touch again. “I won’t be torturing you,” he answered me. He stepped closer to me as a smile crept across his face,

and he ran a hand gently along my cheek. I turned my face and let his skin pass in front of my lips. I thought about nipping him with my teeth lightly, just enough to get his attention and let him know what kind of physical contact I did want from him. “I can take it,” I told him, looking up at him, letting my voice grow heavy with desire. “I’m sure you can. You seem to be able to handle yourself very well, Sasha. I’m impressed you can run with the big boys out here like you do,” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was paying me a compliment or just being patronizing. I wanted to take it as a compliment. It was definitely a boys’ club, this whole business of dealing with crime bosses. I hadn’t run into many women while I’d been working for Fang. Most of them had been on the sidelines, performing supporting roles instead of trying to make any progress of their own. I didn’t really mind the lack of women in my line of work. It made my job easier. There was no real competition, and I was able to slip under the radar because most of the other bosses didn’t expect to find a woman stealing from them. As a woman, when I was “caught,” some of the guys even went so far as to assume I was just a decoy. Of course, until running into Cole for the first time, I’d only ever been caught when I allowed myself to be. Being legitimately caught and tied to a chair was new to me. I wasn’t quite sure how to handle myself, but I could see the desire in his eyes, and I knew I’d found my way out of trouble, my way into his bed, and my way into his confidence. “There are other ways to get me to talk, you know,” I teased him, loading my words with a suggestive tone. “How would that be?” he asked me, raising a playful eyebrow. “I’m sure you know how to make a woman do anything you want, Cole Masterson,” I taunted him. Most men, even if they were smart enough to see that someone was stroking their ego, were dumb enough to fall for it. “And I’m sure you know how to make men do the same,” he said to me, proving that he could see straight through me. We were clearly at an impasse. We sat in silence, staring at each other, seeing who would break the silence first. My mind raced to find something else I could use to unnerve my captor. I still wasn’t a hundred percent convinced he wouldn’t give in to his instincts and torture me before it was all said and done. Torture would have been preferable to this gridlocked silence. “You know, I could just let you go,” he said finally, breaking the silence first. I wanted to laugh at him and taunt him, but I was also curious where this latest threat was going.

“So, if you don’t start talking,” he continued, “I think that’s what I’ll do. I’ll let you go and put the word out that you were captured. I’m sure it’ll get back to your boss just like the news I planted about moving my heroin to our HQ did. What do you think will happen then?” He knelt down in front of me again, this time with his face looking up into mine. I didn’t respond. I knew what would happen. I knew Fang would find out before I could either get in touch with him or get out of town, and I knew he would have someone on the way to pick me up right away. “Your boss will probably want to know how you got caught, why you allowed yourself to walk into a trap the way you did. Now, chances are, he didn’t know it was a trap. Chances are, he told you about the news that we were pulling everything back in because of how much you’d already stolen from our stashes. And he sent you to check it out. You were supposed to grab a little heroin and take it back to show him that the news was true. Then, you were going to be out of it. He was going to send some muscle to take it all, wasn’t he?” I blinked. Fang had fallen for it hook, line, and sinker. Everything had gone according to Cole’s plan. It was like he was recounting my conversation with Fang. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I’d been working for the wrong man all along. Fang might have been a smooth talker, but he wasn’t nearly as cunning as Cole seemed to be. “What I’m saying, Sasha, is that it’s not your fault.” He patted my leg. “So, you tell me who sent you, and my guys go punish him for his stupidity. I get my right hand man in there to put a little extra pain on him for sending someone so beautiful into harm’s way so recklessly, and we handle it. You’re good to go after that. You take your cut of whatever he’s got laying around, and hit the road. Start a new life, Sasha. How does that sound?” I narrowed my eyes. It sounded too good to be true, honestly. No one walked away from shit like this that easily. I opted for silence again, waiting to hear what else he had to say. “Fair enough.” He nodded, patted my knee again, and stood up. “If you don’t talk, I’ll just let you go, and you can face him yourself, no drugs, no intel. I’m sure that your boss will just be happy to have you back safe and sound, realizing how careless he’d been to send you right into the clutches of the most notorious, most feared men on these streets.” He walked away while he was talking, but when he finished, he turned around and gave me a smile that sent chills up and down my spine. My blood turned to ice in my veins, and my stomach froze into a ball of solid ice. I was about to see the real Cole Masterson, the man I’d heard so many horror stories about. Play time was over.

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

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.


I thought he was my savior. If only I’d known he was a murderer, too. Getting trapped in the snow was my own fault. For a moment, I thought I would die out there. So when the sexiest man I’ve ever seen pulls me back from the brink of death, I suppose I should be grateful. He takes me home, warms me up… …and lights a fire inside me that only his touch can heal. Now I’m burning with desire for Jax — his hands, his mouth, his body. I know he’s no good for me, but nothing can stop me from craving him. That is, until his past rears its ugly head.

But by the time I learn he’s truly a monster, it might already be too late. At first, she wanted no part of me. But some kinds of darkness are hard to resist… I know I’m not a good guy. Ever since my wife died, I’ve had a single rule when it comes to women: One night only. In all these years, I’ve never broken it. That is, until I met Christina. She’s got a body like sin and a sassy mouth to boot. I want to f**k her until she’s hoarse from screaming my name. She doesn’t know I have secrets. She doesn’t know what I’ve done. And even after she discovers who I really am, it won’t matter anymore. She’ll have to find out the hard way: once you come home with me, there’s no going back.

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.

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Zoey parker spike, satan's disciples mc  
Zoey parker spike, satan's disciples mc