Five Second Rainbird (Underground Horsemen #1) Read Online Nashoda Rose

Categories Genre: Alpha Male, Contemporary, Romance, Suspense Tags Authors: Series: Underground Horsemen Series by Nashoda Rose
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Total pages in book: 1
Estimated words: 115070 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 575(@200wpm)___ 460(@250wpm)___ 384(@300wpm)
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Read Online Books/Novels:

(Underground Horsemen #1) Five Second Rainbird

Author/Writer of Book/Novel:

Nashoda Rose

Language:
English
ISBN/ ASIN:
1987953207 (ISBN13: 9781987953206)
Book Information:

"...if you count to five when something hurts really bad, the hurt can only get you for five seconds, and then you have to let it fly away. Just like a bird.”
Macayla
"He’s rude, abrupt, and doesn’t know how to smile."
My new landlord, ex-Special Forces Vic Gate, is intense, and even that’s too domesticated a way to describe him. Extreme raw power seems more appropriate. Or maybe godlike, except there isn’t anything forgiving or merciful in him. Then again, he gave me and my little boy Jackson a week to vacate his cabin instead of seven minutes.
But the dangerously quiet, six-foot-four muscled wall does something to me. And it’s way more than a sweet fluttering in my belly. This is an eagle-diving, bee-stinging, fire-breathing-dragon fluttering that causes all kinds of chaos inside me.
He’s everything I need to stay clear of. And it shouldn’t be hard, considering he wants nothing to do with us.
Until his protectiveness emerges, and I soon discover there is much more to the cold, gruff Vic Gate.
But falling for a highly trained killer with nightmares crammed into his dark, lethal eyes comes with consequences.
The question is whether I can survive them.
Books in Series:

Underground Horsemen Series by Nashoda Rose

Books by Author:

Nashoda Rose



Nineteen Years ago

Vic

“Did your mom get in trouble too?” a soft voice asked in a sort-of-loud whisper.

I didn’t bother glancing at the little girl sitting on the wooden bench three feet away from me. And I didn’t bother responding. Instead, I slouched farther down, kicking out my soaking wet jean-clad legs and pulling my black hoodie farther over my face.

“I’ve been here before, you know. The policeman always gives me a pop. We don’t get them at home because Dad says it’s too much sugar. Did you get one?”

I remained silent, hoping the kid would shut up.

Loud voices erupted from the other side of the precinct, and a door slammed shut. The two officers who had brought me in were hunched over a computer and talking with the odd glance thrown my way. I bet they were arguing over who should make the call to Officer Hank Gate, aka Dad, and tell him I was here. Hank wasn’t nice, and he’d be pissed I was picked up, which meant I’d fucked up because I didn’t get the stash of drugs like he’d asked.

I didn’t give a shit either way. Nothing mattered anymore. I deserved a beating. I deserved whatever I had coming to me. I fucked up. I fucked up, and he was dead because of it.

I heard a rustling beside me, and the little girl slouched down like me and stretched out her little legs, but she was too small for them to touch the linoleum floor, so they stuck straight out. From the corner of my eye, I saw a rainbow of colors on her running shoes that looked like they’d been painted on and the colors had bled together.

“We can share if you want.” She snapped the tab and a hiss echoed before I heard her shuffle closer to me. Then she set the can of pop between us on the bench. “Why are you all wet? Were you out in the rain?”

I ground my teeth together and stared at the toes of my boots. I wanted to take them off so I could remove my sopping-wet socks. My toes were cramped in the too-small boots. I’d had them for just over a year and had several growth spurts since then. But unless I stole new boots, I wasn’t getting any. I’d snagged a pair of runners from a local school for my little brother six months ago, along with a winter jacket. Of course, it hadn’t been from our school because someone might have recognized the items.

My gut twisted and the lump in my raw throat enlarged. I sucked in a breath, but there was no air. I couldn’t get any fucking air. My lungs were suffocating. I couldn’t breathe.

Jesus. Breathe.

“Are you okay?” The gentle voice cut through the pain, and I sucked in air. “Do you want to hold Yoda? He’s really soft, and sometimes when I squeeze him, it makes me feel better.”

I curled my hands into fists inside my hoodie pocket, feeling the trickle of warmth as the cuts on my hands reopened. “Didn’t anyone teach you not to talk to strangers?” I mumbled.

She giggled. “It’s okay. We’re at the police station.”

I grunted, sliding farther down on the bench.

Footsteps approached, and I lifted my head just enough to peer at the female officer. She crouched in front of the little girl and put her hand on her knee. “It won’t be too much longer. We’re just taking your mom’s statement. But we can’t get a hold of your dad.”

I saw the girl’s shoulders shrug as she clutched her stuffed Yoda to her chest. “He’s at a tourn-ment with my brother.”

She smiled. “Okay, then. Do you need anything?”

The little girl shook her head, and honey-blonde strands danced over her shoulders. “No. I’m good. But can he have a pop too?”

I stiffened, my sunglasses hiding the surprise in my red-rimmed eyes as I looked at the girl. She had huge, beautiful eyes. Ocean-blue eyes with tiny specks of green in them that glimmered under the flickering fluorescent lights.

The officer looked at me and nodded. “Yeah. Sure, he can. I’ll be right back.” She straightened and walked over to a vending machine. I heard the clink as she dropped coins into the slot, then the clonk as a can tumbled down the chute. The officer strode back and held the can out to me.

I hesitated, uncertain. Would she pull it away before I could reach it? Was it a trick? Hank did that all the time. It was a game, and I realized it was better to never take what he offered. Even when he opened the lid of the trunk, I’d stay inside until he left the room.

But I was so fuckin’ thirsty.

I pulled my hand from my hoodie and reached for the pop, expecting her to yank it out of my reach. But she didn’t, and my hand curled around the ice-cold tin. The officer smiled and walked away.

The little girl picked up her can of pop and sipped, although it was more of a slurp.

I pulled the tab on the can and it hissed, froth spilling up and over the rim.

I raised it to my lips and sipped the overflow.

The bubbles popped inside my mouth, and the carbonated sugary liquid burned my raw throat when I swallowed.

“I fell skating and hurt my knee. It was bleeding a lot, and it went all over the ice.” She bent forward and pushed the bright blue leggings on her right leg up to her knee. There was a bandage on it with a picture of a bear that was likely from some kids’ TV show or movie. The only things I watched were on the security cameras of the places Hank wanted us to break into.

“Does your hand hurt?” she asked, shifting a bit closer to me.

I shrugged. When I’d been punching, pulling, and yanking on the metal grate, I hadn’t felt any pain. Only terror. Fear. Desperation.

And now… what I felt was undecipherable. The rage was there. Teetering on the edge and ready to crack me open with the slightest push.

“Grandpa Jack used to say if you count to five when something hurts really bad, the hurt can only get you for five seconds, and then you have to let it fly away. Just like a bird.”

“That’s stupid,” I mumbled.

Her laughter bubbled, and it was like a rainbow of balloons released into the sky. Airy. Light. Gentle. “Grandpa Jack would like you. He says to always be honest ’cause it saves time and….” She scrunched her lips together as she thought about it. “Your time’s up.”

I scowled, wishing she’d shut up.

“How old are you? I’m five, but I turn six in—” She stopped and counted on her fingers. “—seven more days.”

“Twelve,” I said, wondering why I spoke.

“Want to come to my birthday? Sarah-Jane can’t ’cause her parents won’t let her, and my brother and Dad are going away again.”

Jesus. “No,” I replied, probably too abruptly, but I didn’t like that the pain was easing as she talked.

She inhaled a long breath. “It’s okay. We’re not going to Wonderland, anyway, ’cause I cried a lot when I went on the rollercoaster. I was only four, though, and it scared me, so I asked Mom if I could bake a gummy bear cake ’cause I like the green ones the best.”

For one millisecond, I wished I could say yes. But then it sank into the depths of the darkness I lived in. I’d never been to a birthday. Never celebrated one either, which meant I didn’t even know when mine was. When I was five or six, I’d asked Hank and Maureen, aka Mom, when my birthday was because a kid at school had asked me. Hank said, “How the fuck should I know?” and Maureen never said a word as she counted the stack of bills on the kitchen table.

I made one up, and if anyone asked it was September 4th. I picked that day because I liked the fall, and I also liked going back to school.

When my brother was born, I made sure I memorized the date so we could secretly celebrate his birthday. Last year, I’d taken him to the cinema, and we’d snuck in through the air ducts to watch Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Bile rose in my throat, and I swallowed several times. There’d be no more sneaking into theaters. No more birthdays.

The girl’s hand settled on my fist that was pressing into my thigh, and I jerked, pop spilling onto the floor. “Don’t touch me,” I growled.

She didn’t flinch at my words. Instead, her tiny fingers tucked in the white bandage that had come loose over my knuckles. “It’s okay. I won’t hurt you. I promise.” She inhaled a soft breath. “When I grow up, I’m going to be a singer just like my mom. What do you want to be?”

My grip tightened around the can, and the tin crinkled, because she didn’t stop touching me. She gently pried open my fingers and looked at the bloody bandage covering the cuts and abrasions on my palms. I have no idea why I let her, but I did. Maybe to try to scare her with the bloody bandage.

But she actually moved closer, her brows furrowed as her tiny hand cupped mine.

I didn’t move. Waiting for the burning. The pain. The sting that always came when anyone touched me. But there was nothing. Fuckin’ nothing.

The girl slid her tiny hand into mine, and I stiffened, glaring at her. “What are you doing?”

“Holding your hand.”

“Why?”

“Because you need it.”

She didn’t say anything more, and neither did I. She just sat there and held my hand, and I let her.

I’d never had anyone hold my hand. Not even my little brother.

It was ten minutes before she released my hand and hopped off the bench. “I have to go now.” I glanced up at a tall, thin woman approaching with the same honey-blonde hair as the little girl. She was pale with black circles under her eyes, and there was a slight unsteadiness in her steps.

The little girl skipped over to her mother. No. It wasn’t skipping. It was springing off her skinny legs like a little bird hopping puddles. She slipped her hand into her mom’s just like she’d done mine, and I noticed her mom give her hand a little squeeze as she peered down at her, smiling.

I suddenly didn’t want her to leave. I wanted to hear her soothing voice. I wanted her to ease the pain. The devastation. The guilt. The fear that sat like an anchor in the center of my chest.

But I deserved to feel all those things. I needed to feel them.

The little girl turned to me. “Don’t forget my birthday.”

I didn’t state the obvious that even if I wanted to come to her birthday, which I didn’t, I had no idea who she was or where she lived. Although it wouldn’t be hard to figure out considering we were in a police station.

But I wasn’t going to her birthday. And she was just a stupid girl who was oblivious to the cruel world we lived in.

She waved at me. “Bye.”

They were halfway down the stairs when I noticed the Yoda doll sitting on the bench beside me. I picked it up and thought about running after her to give it back. But I didn’t. Instead, I squeezed the thing.

Then I counted to five.

Present Day

Vic

My windshield wipers squeaked as they hastily swished back and forth, barely able to keep up with the torrential rain. The pelting on the roof of my truck sounded like volleys of gunshots. But the sound of gunshots didn’t bother me. No, it was the raindrops.

I hated the goddamn rain. And if I believed in divine intervention, I’d swear it was God’s tears as he laughed his ass off at me.

Since I wasn’t a believer, it meant the weather guy fucked up, because I sure as hell wouldn’t have left the city if I knew it was going to rain. Especially when the pounding in my head was like a bloody freight train roaring down the tracks. An out-of-control freight train that threatened to launch itself into the air, then plummet to the ground and explode into a fireball of burning metal.

I slowed to take the ramp off the highway, and the volleys eased for a second before picking back up as I pressed on the accelerator.

Two hours of this shit. Two hours listening to the constant pings hit the metal as if they were drilling through my skin and slowly filling up my lungs.

It was suffocating. Debilitating. And yeah, there was that familiar prickle of fear that ate away at my sanity.

Moving to Arica, Chile, where it hadn’t rained in the last fifty-nine years, just skyrocketed to the top of my list of things to do in life. Not that I had a list. Only people who thought about the future had those lists.

I wasn’t one of those people.

I only thought about the next target. The next extraction. The next motherfucker I was going to torture, and if they were lucky—kill.

Because there was nothing pretty in my world. But somehow it made sense to me.

Until Moldova. What a shit show. Sure, the mission was considered a success. We managed to extract the hostage, but not without damage.

Damage to my already screwed-up head.

I let them in. The demons.

And they didn’t just pop by to remind me that they were still there on the other side of the wall. No. They crashed through the wall riding a goddamn bulldozer.

Normally, I was fast enough to decapitate them before they did any serious damage, and they’d fall back into their cage.

But I wasn’t fast enough this time, and I nearly ended up in a body bag, which I would’ve if Deck, my ex-Special Forces buddy, hadn’t jumped me. We landed hard in a half foot of sewer water just as a barrage of gunshots flew over our heads.

Mistakes like that get you—or someone on your team—dead.

It was a complete clusterfuck. My clusterfuck.

Now I had downtime. An undetermined length of time off the grid to get my head straight. No, it was more than getting it straight. It was building back the stone wall that had been pulverized in one second flat.

I drove for another hour, and the rain finally eased to a stop when I reached the private road.

I slowed and turned left, passing the oversized metal “No Trespassing—Violators will be SHOT” sign nailed to a cedar post. The edges had rusted, and someone, likely kids with nothing better to do on summer break, had scratched out the “S” in shot, so it read “Violators will be HOT.” It didn’t matter; I had about a hundred more posted around the perimeter of the ten-acre property. You had to be blind not to see them, and really stupid to ignore them.

The tires bounced in numerous potholes overflowing with muddy rainwater and splattered the windows. The road wasn’t much of a road, more like a dirt path weaving through a forest of maple and pine trees with the odd birch thrown in.

The engine dropped into a lower gear as it climbed a steep hill. Stones spit from the tire treads, and low-hanging branches scraped the top of my roof like Freddy Krueger announcing his presence.

The road forked at the top of the hill, and to the left led down into a valley, across a wooden bridge, and over a river. I couldn’t see it from here, but nestled in the trees was a cabin. The previous owners had renovated it before I bought the property ten years ago, but I didn’t buy it for the cabin. I bought it for the privacy and seclusion.

I’d used the cabin a few times, but it had one huge fuckin’ issue—a tin roof.

Rain hitting tin sounded like a nail gun going off as the nails penetrated my skull.

How anyone thought rain sounded soothing was beyond me. I’d nearly burnt down the cabin the first time I’d heard it, and I would’ve if the rain hadn’t soaked the wood, so it refused to catch fire.

I hadn’t stayed in the cabin since, and decided to build a house on the property instead.

I turned right at the fork, veering away from the cabin, and relaxed my grip on the steering wheel as the house came into view.

The tension in my shoulders eased, and the burning in my chest subsided.

This was the one place where I didn’t have to worry about the shit that messed with my head.

One place where I couldn’t hear the rain and what it brought with it.

The demons could hold hands and jump off high-rise buildings screaming their heads off and I could deal with it here. And if I couldn’t deal with it, then at least no one was around to see how fucked up I was.

It was my sanctuary.

No Internet. No TV. No people.

Nothing except a shitload of squirrels foraging for nuts, and woodpeckers tapping into maple trees.

I pulled up to the front porch and stopped, shifting into Park.

I stared through the mud-streaked windshield at the house. It was a work in progress and had been for eight years. It would likely be another eight before it was finished, but I wasn’t in a hurry. Working on the house gave my head a chance to decompress. To rebuild the wall and shut out the rain and everything that came with it.

Cedar shingles covered the roof, but it was the layer beneath the shingles that mattered. I’d put a thick wool blanket of soundproofing underneath the sheeting that muffled the sounds. The sounds being the pissing rain.

I shut off the engine and unfolded out of the matte black Ford truck.

I opened the back door and reached in, pulling out my khaki duffel. I slung it over my shoulder, closed the door, and pressed the fob to lock the truck.

I strode up to the house, combat boots sinking into the thick gravel that was soupy from the rain. I hadn’t gotten around to building stairs up to the front porch. Instead, there were a couple of planks perched on cement blocks.

My gaze hit the yellow caution tape tied between the six wooden posts on the porch.

Goddamn Jaeg. What was he doing? Warning the squirrels not to fall off the porch?

I asked him to check on the place, not safety check it.

But then, Jaeg excelled at not listening and doing whatever the hell he wanted.

We’d met in our teens in the underground where wealthy pricks bet on derelict kids who needed two things: an outlet for their rage and money.

I’d told him he was going to end up in the hospital if he fought me. He ignored me, and the stupid asshole ended up in the hospital with a broken nose, a concussion, and two cracked ribs.

Eighteen years later, the asshole still didn’t listen. The only difference now was there was a good possibility he’d last a lot longer than five seconds if he threw a punch my way. Might even be a challenge since I’d taught him everything he knows, and he was no longer that tall, lanky kid with spaghetti arms and a penchant for pain.

I dug in my cargo pants pocket for the key. I stepped closer to the door, and my booted foot hit something. I glanced down at the sisal mat in front of the threshold. A mat I didn’t buy. A mat that read, “I’m an asshole. Go away.”

I grunted.

At least it was appropriate. I was an asshole, and I didn’t want guests, visitors, or drop-ins—period.

I slipped the key into the deadbolt and froze at the sound of a twig snapping in the distance.

My spine stiffened.

No way in hell was that a neighborhood squirrel.

I didn’t move.

My hand tightened around the key.

I hadn’t told anyone I was coming back because I didn’t want anyone to know.

And anyone who knew me also knew it was suicide to try to sneak up on me—even Jaeg wouldn’t risk it.

What I did have was a shitload of enemies who’d love to find me. The kind of enemies who took pleasure in ripping off fingernails one by one. The kind who spent years hunting their enemies just so they could enjoy hearing them scream before they gutted them.

And for that reason, I was careful to keep this place separate from my job with VUR—Vault’s Unyielding Riot—and my ex-military buddies. Our job entailed extracting hostages and taking down some of the worst motherfuckers in the world, so keeping that life separate was imperative.

No connection. Nothing that could link me here.

Even Deck, who owned VUR and who I’d trained with in Special Forces, didn’t know where I disappeared to when I went off the grid, and I trusted him as much as I could trust anyone. I’d never shared my past with him. I didn’t talk about it, period.

But there was always a chance someone I’d pissed off had found out about this place. And I’d pissed off a hell of lot of people in my life. People with infinite cash flow. People who would go to great lengths to find the man who tortured and killed some sick fuck who happened to be important to them.

And then there was the possibility the twig snapping was a starving coyote hunting rabbits. With only a couple hours of sleep in the past forty-eight hours, three hours of rain, and my head feeling as if it was being held together by a spiked vise, I was off my game.

There.

The low creak and rustling of leaves sounded as if a branch was being pushed aside.

No way that was a coyote. If it hunted like that, it would’ve starved to death a long time ago.

I turned my head in the direction of the sound, and I waited patiently, listening for any other footsteps that might indicate that my uninvited visitor wasn’t alone.

Patience was my specialty.

As a kid, I’d patiently waited in air ducts, sewers, pipes, and every other single sphincter-like place that bastard could fit me. Then as a teenager, I’d patiently waited for the right moment to knock out my opponent. In the military, I’d waited for hours in the scorching hot sun for intel to confirm our target was in some hidden bunker so we could take him out.

You learn to ignore the pain from the cramping, the thirst, and the hunger. To keep your breath controlled and remain motionless. If you were lying in the sand, you became the fuckin’ sand.

The sound of footsteps on the wooden bridge entwined with the squawk of a bird as it took flight from the top of a maple tree.

I was hoping I was wrong, because I didn’t need this shit. Not when I was holding on by a frayed thread threatening to snap at any moment. I needed sleep and silence.

My hand went to my waist, and I slowly slid my gun from the holster.

I moved silently along the porch to the far end and ducked under the caution tape. I leapt from the porch onto the spongy grass, keeping low as I made my way to the cover of the pine trees.

The footsteps trekked northwest, running parallel to the river.

I moved quick and soundless through the woods, avoiding the fallen twigs and ducking under low-hanging branches. Despite rarely being here, I knew every inch of this property. I’d made sure I did.

The soft steps slowed for a second, and I heard heavy breathing. Pathetic. Whoever hired this asshole was cheap and had obviously scraped the bottom of the barrel.

The steps suddenly quickened as if they’d heard me, but that was highly unlikely. I’d been trained to be undetectable since the age of five. Being silent meant not getting caught, and not getting caught led to easing the hunger pangs and avoiding welts across my back.

There were no mistakes. No second chances. If you screwed up, you were either dead or in for a shitload of pain. But the truth was, even if I didn’t fuck up, I never really won. No. I just lived. Whether that was a good thing or not was still up for debate. But I sure as hell wasn’t letting some pathetic asshole make that decision for me.

I drew closer and clicked off the safety.

The person stumbled as they tripped over the rotting log near the old “cannon” tree where the river curved. It was a pine tree that had a huge hole through the center of the trunk like a cannonball had blasted right through it.

I silently moved in.

Five.

Four.

Three.

Two.

One.

With two movements, I locked my hand around their throat and slammed their body face-first into a tree trunk. A whoosh of air escaped their lungs from the impact, then there was a sucking sound as they attempted to draw in air after having the wind knocked out of them.

I pressed the barrel of my gun to their skull and clicked off the safety. “Who sent you?” I growled.

The person was small, maybe five foot five, and was no match for my six-foot-four height, even if they had extensive combat skills, which I doubted, since they’d made the noise of an elephant. That alone should’ve tipped me off that whoever I had crushed against the tree wasn’t a hitman.

No. It wasn’t a man at all.

It was a woman who smelled like cloves and coconuts with a hint of pine.

With her spine pressed against me, I couldn’t see her face, but I saw her toned, graceful legs clad in black yoga shorts paired with white, mud-streaked running shoes and a light pink T-shirt.

Her blonde hair was pulled back in a low ponytail, and a few wisps had escaped and brushed against the back of my hand that held her throat.

My jaw flexed. Christ.

Probably some rich bitch weekender from Toronto thinking she could go wherever she pleased because it was the wilderness. I had signs posted all over the bloody place. Even if Captain Kirk beamed her down here, she had to have seen one.

I released her throat, and she turned her head to look toward the cabin. I kept my gun pressed to the back of her skull to prevent her from trying to make a run for it. Not that she’d get very far. Still, after a ten-hour flight on a cargo plane, and a three-hour drive in the rain, I wasn’t in the mood to go for a run.

But she obviously was. What the hell was she doing running in the woods—on my property?

I was about to ask her that when she struck, quickly shooting her elbow back toward my throat. I blocked it with my forearm and grabbed for her wrist, but she whirled in a flurry, and my fingers latched on to air instead.

She jerked her knee up, aiming for my balls. With a quick sidestep, I easily evaded her attempt to send me to my knees, and she hit my thigh instead.

It took me two seconds flat to spin her around and trap her arms to her sides with her body caged against me. If I’d been some nervous asshole with a twitchy finger, she’d be dead right now.

“Never. Ever. Attack someone with a gun to your head,” I growled into her ear. “Don’t do anything stupid, and we’ll both go our separate ways in thirty seconds.”

She swallowed.

And never swallow in front of your enemies, princess.

“What are you doing here?”

“Running. I… was… just running,” she said in a raspy, breathless voice. The shortness of breath was likely a combination of fear and her stupidity run. I wasn’t sure about the raspiness. It was either natural, or I’d damaged her vocal cords when I squeezed her throat.

Either way, I didn’t like it. And I didn’t like it because the sound vibrated inside me and sank deep into the pit of my stomach where it settled, threatening to make itself at home.

“No shit.” I slipped my gun into my holster. “What are you doing running on my property?”

Her body stiffened and a small gasp escaped her throat. “Your property?” she asked. I almost believed her act that she had no clue she was trespassing. Optimal word—almost.

I tightened my hold across her chest. “Yeah. Mine. And I have every right to shoot you for trespassing.” That was a lie. We were in Canada, where shooting anyone just for being on your land was illegal. But then, so was carrying a handgun.

She shifted her weight and turned her head toward the bridge as if she was considering making a run for it.

“Don’t even think about it,” I warned. But she’d done that twice now. It was enough for me to know something or someone else was there. If I had my head on straight and not overloaded with pirouetting demons, I would’ve acted on the first signal.

I hadn’t heard anyone else running, but she could’ve fallen behind some pathetic boyfriend who thought it was okay to leave his girl alone in the woods. I’d shoot him in the leg just for that.

I shoved her away from me and turned while reaching for my gun.

She curled her fingers around my forearm to stop me. “Wait.”

I froze, and every muscle contracted. My gaze landed on the hand gripping my forearm, her delicate fingers resting on the inked wings of a hawk entwined in battle with an eagle.

I waited for the unbearable pain. The burning. The ice shards. The urgency to tear off my skin.

But it didn’t come.

My eyes snapped to her face.

That’s when everything went to shit.

It was as if a backhoe dug into my brain and scooped out those buried memories and dumped them on top of me.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe.

I’d faced the most dangerous criminals in the world, but nothing could’ve prepared me for seeing her again.

Seeing her ocean-blue eyes.

Eyes with specks of green like lily pads floating on their glistening surfaces.

Eyes that haunted because they were embedded in me.

No. Something embedded could be dug out. It was more than that. They were scarred into me.

Turbulent waves flooded her glassy orbs. Waves of fear I’d no doubt put there. But something was different in them. The innocence was gone, and in its place was determination, as if she was fighting the fear.

But you can’t fight fear.

No, you open the door and let it the fuck in, then you consume it and spit it out.

Her fingers twitched on my forearm.

I jerked back. Her hand slid off of me, and she lowered it to her side.

Jesus. I had to get out of here.

“If I catch you on my property again, I will shoot first,” I said. It was a lie. Of course, it was a lie. But she didn’t know that. I just wanted her gone. She needed to be gone.

Before I had a chance to walk away and forget the seriously screwed-up anomaly that happened when she touched me, she blurted, “But I’m staying here. In the cabin.”

Her words hit me like a tsunami dragging me out to sea before it buried me under the sand.

I curled my hands into fists and ground out, “You mean my fuckin’ cabin.”

Macayla

I swear I’d peed a little. Okay, maybe a lot, because scary was too tame of a word to describe the towering, six-foot-four vandalized cement wall standing in front of me. The vandalized aspect being the tats covering both arms, and the cement being his rock-hard body clad in a snug navy T-shirt and black cargo pants.

And he was scowling at me as if I’d just killed his dog, then laughed in his face.

I was not laughing.

I wasn’t even smiling.

I had no idea what my facial expression was like at the moment because I couldn’t feel anything except my heart thumping madly in my chest like a musical score to a horror movie.

If he owned the cabin, that meant… this was Vic Gate.

The Vic Gate.

Ex-underground fighter. Ex-military. Ex-Special Forces.

And according to my brother, Ethan, he now worked for a company that hunted the “worst motherfuckers in the world.”

It also explained why I hadn’t heard him approach before he had me literally kissing bark. I still tasted bitter maple on my lips.

Not that I would’ve heard him, anyway, because I had Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” blaring in one ear. When he’d grabbed me, the earbud fell out and was now likely buried in the mud beneath his black combat boots.

“You’re squatting in my fuckin’ cabin?” Scary Cement-Wall Vic Gate grated out.

He had a distinct rumble to his voice, like gravel rolling over marble, and my belly quivered at the sound. And it wasn’t with beautiful soaring butterflies—more like butterflies plummeting into the pit of my stomach after having their wings ripped off.

Vic Gate was intimidating. Ominous. And he quite possibly had dead bodies buried all over the ten-acre property, which was why he had no trespassing signs plastered everywhere. At least that was one of the rumors I’d overheard at Zero Crow, the bar where I’d worked for the last three months.

What wasn’t a rumor—and was what every girl, woman, and person with a libido who had met Vic Gate said—is that he was striking. Not in a pretty boy way, or even a handsome way, but in a rough, hard, untouchable way. The kind of way that makes you stop and hold your breath, uncertain whether you should run for your life, or stand there to stare and take him all in.

I was currently doing the latter as my gaze trailed from his shaved head down to the distinct hard lines of his face and carved jaw. The morning sun peeking through the treetops illuminated his deep bronzed skin, softening it.

Muscled arms were littered with tattoos and scars, the most prominent being a jagged, six-inch scar that ran the length of his left forearm.

“You done?” His voice cut through the air and my gaze flew to his.

I opened my mouth to say something, but nothing emerged.

Okay, pull your shit together, Macayla. He’s just a man.

And a highly trained killer who, from his line of work, had seen things made of nightmares. Nightmares that were crammed into his lethal, dark gray eyes, each fighting to break free from the depths.

But he’d holstered his gun, so he wasn’t going to kill me.

At least not yet.

I cleared my throat and raised my chin, meeting his glare. “I’m not squatting. Jaeg and Addie said I could stay here,” I said, my words coming out stilted. God, I sounded constipated. What the hell was wrong with me?

I swallowed, or tried to swallow, but there was a fist lodged in my throat preventing me.

He didn’t nod or even acknowledge I’d spoken.

No, the cement wall glowered. Okay, cement couldn’t glower, but if it could, this guy was what it would look like.

Since he didn’t respond, I continued, “My brother is—”

“Don’t care,” he barked. His graveled voice was no longer rolling over marble. No, it crushed it.

Vic’s dark eyes narrowed, making him look scarier, and goose bumps didn’t just pop across my skin. They popped and took off running for their lives.

“I could’ve killed you,” he said, his tone softer. No, it wasn’t softer. It was smoother, like sandpaper instead of gravel slowly gliding over marble.

And yeah, I had no doubt he could’ve killed me with a twitch of his finger.

But there’d been no chance I was going down without a fight, and I’d taken self-defense classes while at university, so I knew to aim for the most vulnerable places: the throat and crotch. What I’d done a piss-poor job of was the first step—distract your assailant. Not that it would’ve mattered anyway. No way was an elite ex-Special Forces badass who now hunted the worst criminals in the world going to get distracted.

I inhaled a deep breath and rubbed my throat where his callused fingers had been. His eyes followed the gesture, and I dropped my hand.

I jutted out my chin. “Well, normal people ask questions first before they slam someone into a tree and put a gun to their head,” I retorted. Maybe it was stupid to piss him off, but he shouldn’t be lurking in the woods and attacking joggers, even if it was his property.

“Normal people don’t move into someone’s place without asking them.”

Jaeg and his sister Addie Mason had set me up in the cabin four months ago when I moved to the small town of Collingwood. Addie was my childhood friend from summer camp, and Jaeg was my brother’s friend from high school. They’d insisted I stay in the cabin, and that Vic no longer used it and hadn’t been back in five years.

And yet, he stood right in front of me, wearing a scowl that would send a panther running for his life with his tail tucked between his legs.

I shivered and crossed my arms over my chest, more to keep my heart from making a run for it alongside the goose bumps than because I was cold. “Jaeg—”

“Had no right to rent out my cabin,” he interrupted.

There was no chance I was telling him I wasn’t exactly renting it. “I, uh… assumed he asked you.”

He grunted. “Assumptions get you killed.”

Maybe in his world. Not in mine.

“I want you out. Now.”

Whoa. What? “I can’t just leave.”

“You have ten minutes.”

My mouth dropped open. Ten minutes? He had to be kidding. But from his fierce scowl and his flexed jaw, I knew he wasn’t. He could have all the hissy fits he wanted. There was no way I could pack up and leave in ten minutes. “That’s impossible.”

The hinges on the cabin screen door screeched in the distance.

I stiffened.

Vic’s hand went to his gun.

“You have a boyfriend living here too?”

Shit. “No. It’s just….”

My voice trailed off because Vic had already turned and was striding in the direction of the cabin. His long strides ate up the ground, and I had to half jog to keep up with him.

“It’s just Addie. Jaeg’s sister.” That was stupid. Of course, he knew her. Vic had lived with them in his teens after his dad went to prison for second-degree murder. I didn’t know what happened to his mother. And I only knew about his father because Addie had told me at camp one year, and a boy’s father going to jail was kind of big news to any kid.

Vic’s corded neck tensed, and his hands slowly curled into fists before relaxing again. If you could call anything about Vic Gate relaxed.

“Hey, Mac? Where you at?” I heard Addie yell from the cabin. Her sexy, scratchy voice broke on the word “where”, sounding as if she’d talked too much the night before, but it had always been that way.

Addie was my age, twenty-four, and a poster girl for sexy. You know, the kind teenage boys have pinned in their lockers of a tall, curvy goddess leaning over some fancy car.

I hadn’t seen her since I was twelve, our last year at horse camp, but as it turned out, Addie really did lean over cars, except she did it wearing baggie gray coveralls working at her brother’s auto shop. She still managed to look sexy, though, and I think it was because she didn’t play on the fact that she was beautiful.

We came into the clearing where the cabin sat, just west of the river. The place looked like something out of an Old West movie, with a rusted tin roof that sloped over a wide wooden porch.

The railing was made of crisscrossed cedar rails. There were two rocking chairs to the left of the front door with a tree stump between them used as a table.

A flagstone path led up to the cabin, the stones partially covered with decaying twigs and leaves, while overgrown weeds and moss fought for supremacy between them. The weeds were winning.

Addie stood on the front porch, coffee mug in hand and looking like Merida from Brave with her long, wild red corkscrews dancing over her shoulders in complete chaos. She wore midthigh cut-off jeans with flip-flops, and a plain, long-sleeved white shirt.

Addie grinned when her gaze landed on me. “Are there rules for—” Her voice abruptly cut off, her thin, dramatic brows shot up, and her mouth dropped open.

The coffee mug slipped from her grasp and crashed to the porch, shattering.

A screech emerged from her throat, sounding like a damaged foghorn. She flew off the front porch and ran across the flagstone path, losing one flip-flop in the process.

It didn’t slow her down as she launched herself at Vic.

A gruff grunt emerged from his chest when her body slammed into him.

She slung her arms around his neck, or tried to. Even being tall, and standing on her tiptoes, she wasn’t able to completely curl her arms around his neck, especially since he didn’t bend to reciprocate the hug. Actually, he didn’t touch her at all.

“You’re back,” she said, her voice muffled because her face was smashed into his chest.

Addie’s exuberant hug was intimate, at least on her part. Vic was a stone statue, although he didn’t shove her away either.

She dropped her arms from his neck and stepped back. “I know. I know. Five-second rule. But I should get twenty-five to make up for the years you’ve been gone.”

Vic’s head dipped. “Aderyn.”

She scrunched her nose. “Addie,” she corrected. “You and Saint are the only assholes who still call me that. And why didn’t you reply to any of my emails? And don’t you dare give me the bullshit that you didn’t get them or haven’t had time.”

It didn’t surprise me he didn’t respond to them. I barely knew him, and already had the impression he wasn’t the pen-pal type of guy. Or the texting kind. Or the talking kind.

Addie cocked her hip and placed her hand on it. “Does Jaeg or Saint know you’re back?”

“No.”

Her vivid green eyes narrowed. “Were you going to tell anyone?”

“No.”

She slapped his chest. “You’re an asshole, you know that? I can’t believe you were going to show up and disappear without telling us. When did you get back?”

“Ten minutes ago,” he replied.

Her attention shifted to me standing off to the side. “So, you met Macayla. Ethan’s little sister. We went to horse camp together.”

Met was an understatement. It was more of a hostile encounter.

Vic didn’t say anything.

I forced a smile. “Umm, yeah—he introduced himself.”

I decided mentioning the slamming into a tree and putting a gun to my head wouldn’t improve my chances of staying in his cabin.

Addie huffed, or I think she huffed. It was some kind of noise from her throat. I couldn’t tell because I made the mistake of looking at Vic. He was staring at me with his dark, magnetic eyes that threatened to suck me into their depths and never let go.

My heart slammed into my ribcage while my belly did some kind of daredevil dive. The question was what was it diving into? Black sludge? Or cotton candy?

I licked my upper lip, and the remnants of bitter bark hit the tip of my tongue. Vic’s eyes followed it, tapering and growing darker, if that was possible.

I snapped my tongue back inside my mouth and jerked my gaze from his, deciding it was much safer to stare at the black ant crawling over the toe of my running shoe.

“Vic doesn’t introduce himself to anyone,” Addie said, her gaze ping-ponging between us.

That didn’t surprise me.

“What’s she doing here, Aderyn?” Vic said.

Addie ignored his question and turned, heading for the cabin. “I’m calling Jaeg. He’s going to shit unicorns when he hears you’re back.”

Yeah. And it was going to be painful because he obviously hadn’t mentioned to Vic that I was staying in the cabin, and that conversation wasn’t going to go down well.

Addie’s brother was a six-foot-three, tatted mechanic who owned Mason Auto. He was sweet, funny, and overprotective, but he was also confident and cocky, and I couldn’t picture him backing down from anyone. Even Vic Gate.

I moved toward the cabin, my head spinning and stomach twisting. Crap. I didn’t want to have to find another place. Not only that, but my funds were limited, and Collingwood being a tourist town, places weren’t cheap.

“She can’t stay here, Aderyn.”

Addie stopped and bent to turn over her flip-flop before shoving her foot into it. “Why not? You’re not using it.” She said it casually, as if it was no big deal and she wasn’t in the least concerned.

I walked up the porch steps and crouched to pick up ceramic shards.

“Because I said so. Get her out.”

He spoke as if I wasn’t ten feet away and could hear everything he said. And as much as I wanted to tell him to take his cabin and shove it up his ass, I had to think of more than just myself.

She walked up the porch steps, then half bent to help me pick up the last few shards of the mug. “Don’t worry. Jaeg will talk to him,” she said to me.

Vic overheard. “I don’t need to talk to Jaeg because it’s my goddamn place. Help her pack. She has seven minutes left.” He didn’t even bother looking at me as he turned and walked away.

Addie straightened and yelled, “Oh my God, Vic Gate, you’re being a complete donkey ass.”

He ignored her and disappeared into the thicket of trees.

She cursed beneath her breath. “Jaeg will talk sense into that stubborn, pigheaded mule.”

But I had a feeling that no matter what Jaeg said, Vic Gate wasn’t going to change his mind.

Especially when he found out I wasn’t alone.

Vic

I didn’t go far.

I had no doubt Aderyn would call her brother, and Jaeg’s bike would be roaring up the drive in ten minutes flat. Eight if he was dressed and out of bed, which I doubted because Jaeg wasn’t a morning person and had likely been in his shop working all night.

From the cover of the leaves, I watched Aderyn and Macayla disappear inside the cabin.

Jesus Christ.

I’d learned to blanket my emotions. I survived by suffocating them. And suddenly that blanket had rips and tears—because of her. Because of an ocean-blue-eyed girl I’d met when I was twelve years old. And met was an exaggeration. That process had to involve both parties, and she didn’t even realize we’d met.

What the hell was she doing here? Not only here in my cabin, but here in town. She’d never lived here with her father and brother as a kid. When her parents split, she’d stayed with her mom in the city, and her brother had moved here to live with his dad and new stepmom.

I shouldn’t know that. I shouldn’t know anything about her. But I did, and that was a huge red warning flag for me to stay as far away from her as fuckin’ possible.

I circled around to the side of the house where two vehicles were parked. I wasn’t interested in Aderyn’s blue truck, but in Macayla’s black, two-door shitbox with rust around the rims of the tire wells and doors.

I peered through the windows. No empty coffee cups or fast-food bags. No clothing or scented cardboard thingamajig hanging from the rearview. Not even a pen sitting in the console. Not a single personal item, which meant she hadn’t had the piece of crap for long. It also meant I didn’t learn anything about her circumstances except that she obviously had money issues.

I glanced at Aderyn’s 1970’s Chevy truck she’d fixed up from a pile of scrap by the time she was eighteen. She and Jaeg had been raised by their grandmother Hettie, Henrietta Mason, who had a thing for old cars and drove a 1967 red Mustang convertible.

The entire town always knew when Hettie was going out as it sounded like a jet fighter plane when the engine roared to life. And when Hettie went out, she looked damn good doing it because she didn’t just drive the Mustang, she dressed to drive it, wearing her oversized sunglasses, lavender-and-white flowered scarf over her head to keep her coif from being ruined, and her staple flamingo-pink lipstick. You’d think she’d wear a fancy outfit to complete the look, but she always wore light gray cotton coveralls with the bottoms rolled up as if she was headed to the lake to put her feet in the water.

The woman was an enigma. If she wasn’t driving that car, she was under the hood fixing it. It had been inevitable that Aderyn and Jaeg would be involved with cars.

I didn’t have to look inside Aderyn’s truck to know it was filled with extra clothing and empty coffee cups. There’d also be some kind of weapon, likely pepper spray sitting in the console and close at hand. What I didn’t know was where she kept the gun I’d given her, because I hadn’t felt it on her when she’d hugged me.

Those five seconds had felt as if every nerve ending was being dipped in acid that had slowly disintegrated the hardwires keeping my shit together. But I’d known Aderyn since she was a sweet, yet willful, five-year-old with a love of animals who would become a seriously messed-up teenager with every single reason in the world to be messed up.

And for that reason, I’d given her those five seconds. I’d also read her emails. I just didn’t bother responding because every word she’d written was bullshit.

Why did people waste their time saying everything was sunshine and flowers when it wasn’t? But I got why she did it. She wanted me to think everything was great. That she was fine. Problem was that I knew better, because her scars were deep, and there was no way she was fine.

I moved around to the front of the cabin again and caught a glimpse of Macayla in the window. She reached up to hang what looked like a black rain jacket on one of the hooks near the front door. Her tousled honey-blonde strands slipped back over her shoulders, and my cock twitched.

I gritted my teeth and turned away from the window.

Fuckin’ Jaeg. Why the hell would he rent out my cabin to North’s sister?

There were two possible explanations. He was fucking her, or he needed the money.

And the latter was unlikely considering he’d made a shitload of cash in the underground fighting. We all had. And Saint, aka the Chief of Police, Gabriel St. Clair, told me Mason Auto was doing well, especially since Jaeg had taken on restoring old bikes.

So that left him fucking her.

He’d always had an aversion to anything resembling a relationship, so if he was, it was likely casual.

My chest tightened. I didn’t like the thought of him screwing her in my cabin. I didn’t like the thought of him screwing her, period.

Fuck that. I didn’t like the thought of anyone touching Macayla North.

Possessiveness grabbed hold like an iron anchor chaining me to the ground. This was one reason why I’d walked away from her. Why I never went back.

No attachments. No emotional connection.

I propped my shoulder against a maple tree, curling and uncurling my hands. My head felt as if someone was constantly stabbing it with a fork, and I needed two things: sleep and privacy.

Unfortunately, sleep wasn’t something that came easily even on good days, and it was going to take weeks to refocus and block out the nightmares again.

Which led to the second—privacy. Having anyone near my place was dangerous. I’d proven that by putting a gun to her head. My jaw tightened and my hands clenched.

Jesus. I put a gun to her head. Her. My goddamn Rainbird. The girl who gave me a reason to live. Who stopped the pain. Who breathed air into my lungs when I didn’t deserve it. When I should’ve been starved for air just like he’d been.

I flexed my jaw. I didn’t need this right now. And I sure as hell didn’t need the memories of her invading my already screwed-up head.

It was an impressive seven minutes before I heard tires skidding up the private road along with the low rumble of Jaeg’s bike. Guess he’d already been dressed or hadn’t been to bed yet.

I pushed off the tree and walked into the clearing in front of the cabin, anger percolating.

Jaeg pulled up on his classic Royal Enfield Bullet, a cruising bike that had been a pile of parts in the back of his garage the last time I’d seen him.

He slowed to a stop in front of me and planted his booted feet on the ground.

“You rented out my cabin,” I said before he killed the engine.

He unbuckled the snap under his chin and pulled off his skull cap. “Good to see you, too, Gate. It’s been what? Five… six years? How’ve you been? Oh, I’ve been pretty good, thanks for askin’.”

I ignored him. “I could’ve killed the girl.” No, she wasn’t a girl anymore. She was a woman.

He snorted and hooked his helmet on the handlebars before climbing off the bike. “You’re such a drama queen, Gate.”

Any other guy, I would’ve put him in the hospital for saying shit like that. “Why the hell did you rent her my cabin?” I accentuated the word my because he’d obviously forgotten that important fact.

He slid his fingers through his chin-length, walnut-colored hair to loosen the strands that were flattened from the helmet. “Because she’s Addie’s friend and North’s sister. And she’s not exactly renting it.”

This had to be some kind of joke. He was screwing with me.

He continued, “She needed a place, and I needed someone to check on your house so I didn’t have to. Win-win.”

Fuck. He wasn’t kidding.

“How was I supposed to know you’d suddenly show up? You haven’t been back in five years.”

Not true. I’d been here eleven months ago, but he didn’t know because I hadn’t told anyone.

I’d spent two weeks here without seeing a single person. It was good thing, too, because my head had been seriously messed up after the shit we’d dealt with in Columbia where kids were being used as drug mules and trained as killers.

“You have no right. It’s my fuckin’ place.”

He shrugged as if the fact that I owned the property had no bearing on whether he could rent it out or not. No. Not rent, because that required the exchange of money. References. A fuckin’ contract with the owner—me.

Not that I gave a shit about references when it came to Macayla North, and I had more money than I needed.

“I called. You didn’t answer.”

I didn’t answer because I was busy getting my ass shot off by sex-trafficking psychos.

There was a loud clang in the cabin as if a frying pan had fallen to the floor. Maybe she was packing after all.

Jaeg sighed. “Come on, man. Don’t be a dick. She’s harmless.”

But she wasn’t harmless, and it had nothing to do with her piss-poor attempt to elbow me in the throat and knee me in the balls.

No.

It was the fact that her touch messed with my head. Or rather, the fact that it didn’t mess with it.

It was the fact that her being near me was dangerous.

It was the fact that every single molecule inside me threatened to come alive when she was close. And I couldn’t let that happen.

There was no chance in hell she was staying in my cabin. None.

It was suicidal, not only because my head was reeling with bungee-jumping demons, but because despite my attempt to keep this place secure, the reality was, nothing was secure in my world. I may be the hunter, but I was constantly hunted.

Shit, she should be running for her life from a guy like me.

She could stay with Addie and Hettie in town, or rent a motel room, for all I cared.

Just not here. Not near me. Not where she could open the scars and watch me bleed.

“Find her another place, Jaeg.”

I should beat him to a bloody pulp for this. And I could. Despite Jaeg having become one hell of a fighter because he was quick and agile, I was better. I’d proven I was better numerous times in the underground.

He straightened and crossed his arms over his chest. “How long are you staying, anyway…? Couple days? A week? When you fuck off again, she can check on your house.” He kicked a stone to the side. “Did you know Davey Parker and his crew broke into your place to party a few weeks back? She called me, but by the time I got here she’d had those little shits scattering. It still cost me a shitload to clean the place up.”

I wasn’t focused on what Davey and his crew did to my house, or that Jaeg had to clean it up. What I was focused on was that Davey and his crew were eighteen-year-old scumbags who had likely been fucked up on the drug of the month, and she’d cleared them out. She’d confronted them—alone.

“Get her out, Jaeg. Today,” I repeated.

“Gate, she needs this.”

Why was he fighting me on this? “Don’t care. She’s not my problem. She’s yours.” I turned and headed for my house.

“Gate,” he called. “Don’t make me, man.” He didn’t raise his voice, but then, he didn’t need to. He could hold a gun on me and I’d still keep walking. There was no way in hell I was letting her stay on my property in my fuckin’ cabin.

“Zero Crow,” Jaeg said.

I stopped.

Jesus Christ.

No way did he just say that.

It was as if a hatchet had cracked open my ribcage and a fist slammed into my heart, yanked it out, and stomped it into the dirt.

It was a phrase we’d used, the five of us—the five Horsemen—Jaeg, Callum, Saint, North, and me. A marker you don’t say no to. No questions asked. The Zero Crow bar was named after it, and it became the one place where whatever had gone down in the past between us was left at the door.

I stared at the ground. I could keep walking. I could ignore it. I owed him fuck all.

But just for another kick in the gut, he didn’t stop there.

“She has a six-year-old kid.”

I stared at the indent on the toe of my combat boot. It was from a knife fight with some sick bastard selling girls—young girls—to the highest bidder. I killed him, but not before he endured a shitload of pain.

A kid. Macayla had a six-year-old kid.

What the hell was I supposed to do with that?

The screen door squeaked open, and I turned, raising my head, my gaze landing on Macayla standing on the front porch.

It was my first mistake.

Don’t look back. Never look back.

I knew that. And yet, I’d done it anyway.

Fuck. She looked like bloody Wonder Woman standing with her arms crossed and chin jutted out. Her skin was flushed as if she’d just got out of the shower, and she wore jeans with a scoop neck white T-shirt with the image of… Christ, I should’ve known—an Ewok.

No suitcase. No packed bags.

Just an attitude.

This was why you don’t expect anything from people. They’ll always disappoint.

Her tongue flicked out and she ran it over the half-inch scar above her upper lip that hadn’t been there the last time I’d seen her. I bet she didn’t even notice she did it. A nervous habit. Everyone had them, those telltale signs that gave away a person’s emotions. I didn’t have one because I didn’t get nervous. That feeling had been obliterated a long time ago.

“Mac. Hey.” Jaeg jogged up the porch steps and leaned in to talk to her. His voice was low, and I couldn’t hear what he said, but it didn’t matter to me how he let her down, as long as she left.

A kid.

It was dangerous enough to let her stay, not to mention a kid.

Because my skeletons weren’t neatly tucked away in the back of the closet.

No. They were relentless. Merciless. And piled so high they were bursting down the door, ready to destroy anything in their path.

And whenever a bone managed to break free, it was covered with the rotting flesh of memories.

The warm morning breeze drifted through her blonde strands, and a few shorter pieces wafted across her face. She raised her hand and tucked them behind her ear, but a few seconds later they fell forward again.

I didn’t like it.

And I sure as hell didn’t like that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from her.

As if she knew I was staring at her, she turned her head in my direction.

Everything in my body went on high alert, waiting for the moment when her ocean-blue eyes found mine.

One. Two. Three.

Our eyes locked.

I stared back at her, and it wasn’t friendly. Fuck, it wasn’t even polite.

Cold. Hard. Unbending.

You won’t survive me, Rainbird.

I waited for her to recoil under my assault.

To look away.

To cower under the suffocating weight of hundreds of femurs and skulls.

She did none of it.

No, she stared right back at me with her plush lips pressed together and her head held high.

Something had changed in her. As if the carefree innocence had been scraped away, leaving behind deep grooves overflowing with darkness.

I wanted to know where that darkness had come from, but it was none of my business. She wasn’t my business.

I shifted my weight to turn and walk away.

But I hesitated.

I fuckin’ hesitated.

I never hesitated, and I never second-guessed my actions or decisions.

Hesitating gets you killed.

Second-guessing gets you captured, tortured, and then killed.

But worse than both of those—regret.

It slowly fucks with your head, eats away at it for years before it finally decides it’s had enough and gets you killed. That was if you were lucky.

I hadn’t been lucky.

I heard the pitter-patter of footsteps inside the cabin before the screen door opened, and a little blond boy walked out, clutching some kind of action figure in his hand. “Can I come outside now?”

He was lanky, as if he’d either had a growth spurt, or wasn’t getting enough food. And from the lack of color in his face, I was guessing the latter.

Macayla uncrossed her arms and smiled down at him. She reached out as if to gently push aside a strand of hair dangling in front of his right eye, but suddenly changed her mind and dropped her arm to her side. “It’s a little late to be asking after you’re already out the door.”

He peered up at her with blue eyes that lacked the hint of greenish warmth Macayla’s had. “Yeah, but….” He stopped for a second, and I saw her nod with a smile. His shoulders straightened and he continued, “You’re out here. How can I ask if I don’t come outside?”

I grunted. Smart kid.

The kid’s head turned at the gruff sound, and his round eyes landed on me. His mouth formed a big “O” to match his eyes. “He’s bigger than Aquaman,” he said in a loud whisper as his eyes ping-ponged between his action figure and me. “Are you a superhero?”

I was the furthest thing from a superhero that you could get. More like Thanos, ready to destroy anyone who gets in his path.

Jaeg chuckled. “Yeah, he’s kinda like a superhero, isn’t he? And you know what?” The kid shook his head. “He catches the really, really bad guys. But he doesn’t wear a cape or Spandex. At least not in public.”

Bastard. And he was lying to the kid. I didn’t catch bad guys. I killed them. Sometimes tortured them first if I needed something from them—or simply because they deserved it.

Jaeg continued, “That’s Vic Gate. He’s a friend of mine.” He nodded up the hill to the right. “He lives in the house over there.”

Friends? I wouldn’t call us friends, exactly. Friends called. Kept in touch. I didn’t. Friends also didn’t use a bloody marker phrase we hadn’t used since our teens.

The kid’s gaze shifted back to me, and I recognized the dark shadows hidden beneath it. I knew them well, and I knew what they came with.

Shit.

“Do you really… catch bad men?” the kid asked.

I gritted my teeth and offered him a curt nod.

I glared at Jaeg, who tried to control his chuckle by clearing his throat and failed.

No way was my sanctuary going to be infiltrated by ocean eyes and her kid. A kid who looked at me like I was some kind of superhero.

I wasn’t. Far from it.

I was the monster in the closet.

The bogeyman under the bed.

I tortured and killed without thought.

They should be running for their lives.

Not living a hundred yards away from me.

And yet I found myself saying, “One week.”

I turned and walked away.

Macayla

Vic was intense, and even that was too domesticated of a way to describe him. Extreme raw power seemed more appropriate. Or maybe godlike, except there hadn’t been anything forgiving or merciful in him. Then again, he’d given us a week to vacate his cabin instead of the remaining seven minutes.

I watched him make his way to the tree line, his long, muscled legs, eating up the ground like a bulldozer. I was surprised when the saplings didn’t uproot and get out of his way.

“Are we going to go away again?” Jackson asked.

I jerked my gaze from Vic to Jackson, then I crouched in front of him. I went to take his hands in mine, but realized what I was about to do and lowered them to my lap. “No, Jack-o-bite. We’re staying. Just maybe not in the cabin.”

I’d nicknamed him that after I caught him watching Braveheart at one of the motels we’d stayed at on our drive here. I’d come out of the shower to see him standing two feet from the screen, mesmerized by Mel Gibson covered in blue war paint sitting on his black horse and giving his war speech.

The next morning, I woke to find Jackson standing on a wobbly chair in the bathroom and peering into the mirror while coloring his face with blue marker from the set I’d picked up at the dollar store the day before.

When he saw me, his body began to shake so badly, he nearly fell off the chair. I’d grabbed him before he fell and plopped him down on the edge of the counter, then picked up the marker he’d dropped in the sink. “What about if I help you?” He hesitated before he nodded. While I colored his face blue, I told him the story of the Scots’ fight for independence, and then about the Jacobite rebellion.

When I was done, he looked in the mirror, and for a second the dark shadows in his eyes muted. Okay, it wasn’t much, but my chest squeezed so tight I couldn’t breathe. That had been the first time I’d seen a flicker of life in them.

Jackson peered in the direction Vic had gone, then back at me. “Does he not like me?”

Shit. “No. God, no, Jacks. It’s not that at all.” He frowned, and the hand clutching his Aquaman tightened. “Mr. Gate has a really hard job and he needs to rest. That’s all.”

“I can be really quiet,” he whispered, as if practicing.

Double shit. “You sure can. But it has nothing to do with you. He just wants to be by himself.” I was doing a piss-poor job of explaining, but I also didn’t want to lie to him. I was going to earn his trust brick by brick, and then I’d mortar those bricks together so no one could tear them down ever again.

I smiled at Jackson. “Might be cool if we can find a place that has a television so you can watch movies, or maybe you have a favorite TV show.” He didn’t say anything. Okay, this wasn’t working. “How about you go inside and have the last cinn-a-bum?” Addie had run out to Mrs. Maple’s bakery before I went for my run and picked up a few. She’d crashed at the cabin last night because her Grandma Hettie, whom she lived with, had been hosting her girls’ monthly poker night, and that meant a bunch of women trying to set Addie up with their grandsons. Something Addie wasn’t having any part of.

There was the smallest twitch at the corner of his mouth, and my shoulders sagged in relief. It was miniscule, but I’d take it. “It’s not a cinn-a-bum.”

I frowned. “It’s not?”

He shook his head, relaxed blond locks falling in front of his eyes. “It’s a bun.”

I squished my lips together. “Hmmm, I don’t know about you, but I think bum is better. What do you think?”

He hesitated for a second, almost as if he was scared to admit that he liked the name. I smiled to offer him reassurance. He side-glanced at Jaeg, who grinned with a wink.

Jackson’s shoulders straightened and he stood a bit taller as he said, “And they have cracks on top.”

Oh boy. I laughed.

Jaeg chuckled.

Jackson grinned. Not a tentative grin, but a big grin, and my chest squeezed. I instinctively reached out to pull him into a hug, and his body went rigid. His grin vanished like a flipped switch as panic invaded his beautiful blue eyes.

Crap. Stupid me.

The truth was, I had no idea what I was doing, and it terrified me that I was screwing him up even more. My experience raising a child was nonexistent, let alone a child with serious issues. A child who woke up in the night because of night terrors. A child who saw me as a stranger.

I stepped back, giving him space to go inside without having to brush by me. “Ask Addie to cut it in half for you.”

He nodded and disappeared inside. I stared through the screen, watching as he walked over to Addie, who was talking on her cell. He didn’t interrupt. He just hitched up onto the bar stool and waited.

Jaeg’s motorcycle boots shuffled as he moved to lean up against the porch railing. “He’s a good kid.”

I nodded. He was. He really was. I didn’t know how it was possible after what he’d been through. I was pretty sure there were stages of emotions he’d go through. I just didn’t know what they’d be, or when it would happen, and if I’d know what to do.

Sometimes, I’d catch him holding his breath. I didn’t know why he did it, but it was as if he was cranking the handle of a jack-in-the-box, waiting for the clown to pop out and scare the shit out of him. Or waiting for the moment he was snatched away. Or maybe for his bedroom door to open.

Bile rose in my throat and I swallowed several times.

I may not be able to erase the bad in his life, but I’d do everything in my power to protect him and fill the rest of it with love and laughter.

Addie’s raspy laugh filtered through the screen, and I glanced inside. Jackson was now perched on the island, legs swinging and mouth full of cinn-a-bum. I had no idea what Addie was saying, but she threw her arms up in the air as if she was riding a rollercoaster and about to go down a big hill.

She was great with Jackson, but then I knew she would be.

She had this way about her with animals. Every summer, the camp would ship in new horses, and most of them were scared, skinny, and covered with old scars. We didn’t know it at the time, but the camp bought them off the meat trucks because they were cheap. They’d use them all summer, then ship them back if they weren’t worth stabling for the winter.

Addie had those horses eating peppermints out of her hand and following her around like puppy dogs within hours. She was like that with all animals. Maybe Jackson felt that in her.

Addie and I had lost touch since camp days, and I wasn’t sure how she’d react when I called and told her I was moving here. But from the moment I drove up to Mason Auto with steam hissing out from under the hood of the shitbox car I’d bought off some guy’s front lawn with the sign “As is” plastered on the front windshield, it was as if no time had passed between us.

The porch railing creaked as Jaeg shifted his weight. “Sorry about this mess.” He crossed his arms over his broad chest, and the tattoos running the length of his arms popped against his white T-shirt. “I didn’t expect Gate to come back, but he never lasts longer than a couple weeks.”

“Lasts?” I asked. It sounded as if he didn’t like it here. But then why have a house here?

“He never sticks around long. That’s why his damn house still isn’t finished.” The porch railing groaned as he leaned more of his weight on it. “A few days, a week, and he’ll be back hunting the bad guys.”

A chattering of squirrels erupted in the trees, and I turned, peering into the thicket.

A horde of goose bumps tap danced across my skin, and I crossed my arms over my chest. Why did I feel as if Vic was watching us? Was he? Did he regret giving us a week? Was it even safe to stay here with a man who held a gun to my head just for jogging on his property?

I shifted my gaze back to Jaeg. “Is Jackson safe here?” I asked.

He glanced toward the door as if making sure Jackson was out of earshot. “Yeah. But I’m not going to lie and say Gate’s harmless. He’s not. He’s spent his life hunting vile pieces of shit, and has seen things that would give the most hardened criminals nightmares.” His jaw flexed. “And yeah, he’s done things too. But he’d never hurt you or Jackson. Even if he thinks he would. Never a safer place than with Vic Gate.”

That didn’t exactly make me feel all warm and cuddly inside. It made me want to pack our bags and get out of his cabin as fast as I could.

But Jackson liked the cabin—a lot. He liked catching frogs and skipping stones in the river. He loved the tractor tire Jaeg hung on the massive maple tree behind the cabin. And I think he liked that no one heard him scream in the night.

I nodded, chewing my lower lip as my mind scrambled with what my options were. I didn’t have very many. Okay, more like only two. Stay in the cabin the week and hope Vic either changed his mind or left town. Or find another quiet, remote place to rent. Funds were an issue, but I’d managed to save a bit working at the bar and not having to pay rent.

My brother had offered to let us stay in his house in the city, or at his cottage in Muskoka, but there was no chance in hell I’d live in either place. Not when he had all kinds of people coming and going, including teammates.

A cold tremor went through me, and I rubbed my arms.

The screen door squeaked, and sent a grackle pecking at grubs on the soggy ground fluttering to a low-hanging branch in the distance.

Addie walked outside with Jackson, who had smears of white icing on his face. “Jacks wanted to know if Gate could breathe underwater. I told him that if it was humanly possible, then Vic would be the one to do it.”

Yeah. I imagined she was right. I bet the guy could eat fire, too, and pull a hundred-year-old oak tree out of the ground with his bare hands.

“And he wants to ask you something.” Addie gave Jackson a sort of wide-eyed look.

What was going on?

He looked at his feet and shifted his weight. “Can we….” He peered up at Addie and she offered a nod of encouragement. He inhaled a deep breath. “Can we ride the coaster down the mountain today?”

That must have been the throwing her arms up in the air thing. She’d been talking about the coaster at Blue Mountain. As much as I loved that he asked, because Jackson rarely asked for anything, I did not do coasters down mountains. I didn’t do rollercoasters, period. Give me a barrel spin ride, bumper cars, even spooky haunted houses, and I was game. But dropping off the face of the earth with my stomach in my throat—not my thing.

But there was no way in hell I’d say no. I couldn’t say no. I wouldn’t say no to Jackson. With my stomach already lodged in my throat just thinking about it, I said, “Umm, yeah, sure.” I swallowed. “Of course, we can. But first, you need to clean that icing off your face.”

He wiped the sleeve of his arm across his face.

I rolled my eyes skyward. “Go inside and wash your hands and face. Then make sure Waffles has food and water. I’m working tonight, and you’ll be at Hettie’s until late.”

He disappeared inside with a little bounce in his step. Okay, suffering from my stomach twisting down an entire mountain was worth it in order to see that bounce in his step.

“Oh, speaking of Hettie,” Addie said. “She called and invited you and Jackson for dinner the Sunday after next. She says Jaeg’s barbecuing ribs and she’s making her famous mac and cheese.”

“I am?” Jaeg asked, brows popping up.

The corner of Addie’s mouth curved up. “Yep. And it’s apple picking season, so you’re supposed to get there early.”

“Jesus,” he muttered. “She needs to hire someone. I can’t be pickin’ apples all bloody day.”

Addie laughed. “It’ll never happen. It’s penance for being a little shit-disturbing, donkey-butt teenager.”

Hettie had three apple trees in her backyard, and I remember Ethan telling me about them having to pick apples every year so Hettie could make jars of apple sauce to give to the shelter. Jaeg had been doing it since he was old enough to climb a ladder, and he’d supposedly been complaining about it every year since.

Addie looked at Jaeg, then at me. “Okay, spill it. What did Gate say?”

“Uh, well, he gave us a week,” I replied.

She snorted. “That’s such bull… ony. A week? He doesn’t even use the cabin.” She headed for the porch stairs, and her loose red curls springboarded off her back and shoulders. “He’s being a total butthead.”

Jaeg snagged her arm. “Oh no, you don’t. He needs time, and you need to give it to him.”

She yanked out of his grip. “He’s had five fu… udgin’ years. And he has no idea what that poor little boy has been through. Or Mac.”

“Aderyn,” Jaeg growled.

“Really. It’s fine, Addie,” I said. “I’m sure there are lots of places to rent.”

Addie shoved thick red curls behind her ear. “You guys can stay with me and Hettie. She loves you and Jacks.”

“No one is going anywhere,” Jaeg said, then looked at his sister. “He needs a few days to cool off, and then I’ll talk to him again.” His eyes narrowed. “You tell Hettie Vic was back?”

“Yep,” she replied.

Jaeg muttered something beneath his breath while shaking his head and pushing off the railing. “Who is the shit disturber now?”

She shrugged. “She’d have found out soon enough, and I don’t want to be picking apples with you for punishment because I didn’t tell her.”

“You’ll be picking up body parts when he finds out you told her,” Jaeg said, stepping off the porch and striding over to his bike. He threw his leg over and kick-started the engine. “Don’t be late, Ads. Mr. Grimsby is dropping off his truck at nine, and you know how he is.”

Addie groaned. Jaeg smirked before taking off down the driveway.

“Why would Vic care if Hettie knows he’s back?” I asked.

“He owes Hettie a favor, and she’ll be calling it in.”

“What’s the favor?”

Addie grinned. “She wants Vic to come for dinner.”

“Dinner? That’s it?” That didn’t seem like much of a favor to Hettie. More of a favor to Vic.

“Well, sort of. She wants a Sunday night dinner with Jaeg, Saint, Vic, Callum, and your brother. The others agreed to it already. Well, Callum hasn’t, exactly, but he won’t say no if Vic’s going.”

Callum James owned Zero Crow, but I hadn’t met him yet. Brin, the bartender, said he lived in Toronto and rarely came here.

What I didn’t like was the idea of Ethan coming here. But I knew one day I’d have to tell him. I just wasn’t ready yet.

“Why? Are Callum and Vic good friends?”

“Not exactly. Vic tried to kill him.”

Vic

She was one huge fuckin’ question mark, and I didn’t like question marks.

I stayed clear of question marks, and that was why I liked the military. One plan goes to shit, you have another. That one blows up, you have another. Every single possible outcome was dissected and resected.

And yeah, there were times we had to fly by the seat of our pants, but there were never any questions. We knew our mission. Our target. And we executed it. Period.

But there were no periods here. No semicolons.

It was a massacre of ellipsis, dashes, and question marks.

I didn’t need her and her kid living at my back door at any time, let alone when I had demons prancing across my mind while wearing spiked shoes.

Worse was the fact that my cock got rock hard when she stood on the porch looking like she was ready to take me on. Most women floundered like a fish in a shallow puddle of water when I glared at them.

But as tough as she pretended to be, she was still a damsel in distress, and I didn’t do damsels in distress.

I did hardened, nameless women.

Women who didn’t give a shit if I called.

Women who followed orders and didn’t touch me.

Women who liked to be paid for being nameless.

And I wanted Macayla to be nameless. Forget that she had a name. That she was fuckin’ real.

But I’d given up that idea years ago. Because no matter how hard I tried, I could never forget her name. I could never forget her.

And now she was living in my backyard, and I wanted to know every single thing about her. Except I played it off in my head that I needed to know because of the simple fact that I was careful. And being careful meant finding out everything I could about her so there were no surprises, like some ex-husband showing up with a shotgun.

My cell vibrated in my pocket, and I pulled it out, glancing at the screen. I swiped my finger across the device and placed it to my ear.

“It’s a girl,” Deck said, his voice breaking on girl.

I leaned up against the side of the truck. Fuck. “Congrats. Really, that’s great. Georgie good? Baby healthy? You agree on a name?”

“Yeah. Frankie. She looks like a Frankie. Tough as hell and refused to come out for fifteen hours. It was exhausting.”

“Oh, you’re exhausted?” I heard Georgie shout in the background.

Deck cleared his throat and his voice was muffled, sounding as if he was holding his finger over the speaker. “Babe, you were amazing. Beautiful. And our baby is fuckin’ beautiful.”

I heard Georgie’s hoarse voice in the background as she said, “She’s been out of my body for one hour and has already heard her first swear word.”

There was a rustling and what sounded like Deck briefly kissing his woman before he said, “Don’t wait until she’s walking before you get back here and meet her.”

“Can’t say when.”

“It’s all good. You need anything?”

Yeah, I needed a woman who has haunted me my entire life extricated from my cabin A.S.A.P.—and her kid with her. “No.”

“Nothing pressing here. Tyler is following up on a lead in Greece. Kai’s meeting him there in a few days.” There was a bustling sound in the background, and women’s voices overlapped it with a slew of “Ohhhs” and “Ahhhs.”

“Christ, all the women are here.”

The women were likely Alina, Georgie’s sister-in-law who was married to my teammate Connor, and Kai’s wife, London, as well as the wives of the rock band Tear Asunder, who were friends with Georgie. Kai I wouldn’t call a teammate. He was more of an associate.

The women’s voices grew louder. “Congrats again to you both,” I said. “I’ll be in touch.”

I pocketed my cell, pushed away from the truck, and walked to the back. I lifted the latch and dropped the tailgate. I leaned in, slid out my toolbox, and unlocked the two latches, then opened the lid.

The top tray held a serrated five-inch blade in a leather case, a switchblade, a small flashlight, and a lockpick. I took out the lockpick and slipped it into my front pocket. Jaeg had the only key to the cabin, and now Macayla had it, so I was going to have to break into my own goddamn place.

I slammed the lid closed, pushed the toolbox back, and shut the back hatch closed.

After Jaeg rode out, Aderyn had soon followed, and a half hour later, Macayla and the kid left as well. I had no idea where she was going or how long she’d be gone, but I’d grown up breaking into places, and I’d learned how not to get caught.

I strode through the trees and down the hill toward the cabin. I moved silently through the brush, avoiding twigs and bending under low-hanging branches. There was no one to hear me, but it had been grated into me to always be silent. Never let them hear you.

You stupid shit. Make a noise again, and next time you’ll both spend a week in there.

My stomach twisted and a cold tremor shot from the top of my head down to my toes. But it didn’t stop there. It was as if the ground was spongy and wet, threatening to suck me under the surface and suffocate my lungs with its ugliness.

I counted to five. That’s how long I’d let it have me.

Five seconds before I spit it out.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

I stepped onto the porch steps and inhaled a lungful of air, the tension easing from my shoulders.

I dug in my pocket, pulled out the lockpick, then propped open the screen door with my boot. I fiddled with the lock until it clicked. Three seconds. It was a shitty lock, and anyone with a bit of skill and persistence would be able to pick it. I’d never bothered replacing it because I hadn’t cared if anyone broke in.

That was until now. And she hadn’t broke in. She walked right in and made herself at home.

I opened the door and was instantly hit with the smell of coffee mixed with coconuts and cloves. The same coconut and cloves that had wafted from the wisps of her hair.

I never really thought about coconuts smelling good before. Fuck, I never thought about them period, but now I was thinking about how good they smelled.

I shook my head.

Christ.

Why the hell did I say a week? One week was too long. Shit, seven minutes was too long.

I moved into the kitchen and noticed a shampoo bottle perched on the edge of the sink of the butcher block island. Cheap shit. Generic. I peered at the label: Coconut Clove Infusion.

A yellow drying rack sat beside the farmhouse sink, holding a pot, frying pan, strainer, three dinner plates, and three glasses. I glanced in the sink and saw a mug with a chip on the rim and a couple small side plates smeared with remnants of icing and bread crumbs.

Three beeps sounded, and I glanced at the coffee maker sitting under the window with a carafe that had two inches of the black sludge sitting at the bottom.

I walked over and opened the cupboard above the coffee maker. I found a gold tin of cheap, generic coffee and a roll of paper towels. No filters.

I pulled out the basket on the coffee machine and frowned.

Why the hell was she using paper towels for a coffee filter? I may not drink coffee, but I worked with men who coveted the stuff. Shit, Deck’s woman Georgie owned two coffee shops. It would be a sin to use paper towels as a filter.

I looked through the rest of the cupboards that contained numerous canned foods like beans, fruit cocktail, and tuna. Stuff that lasted forever and was good on the run. But she wasn’t on the run now. The question was what or who had she and the kid been running from?

I strode across the hall to the kid’s bedroom. And I knew it was the kid’s bedroom because it had a Superman sticker on the doorknob.

I opened the door and stopped, my gaze fixed on the cage sitting on the floor under the window.

What the hell was that?

I walked across the room and peered down at an ugly rodent drinking from a water bottle hooked to the side of the cage. He wasn’t quiet about it either as he chewed on the stainless-steel tubing, causing bubbles to burp to the top of the glass bottle.

Christ. I hated rodents despite the fact I was highly educated on them. You couldn’t expect to hide in sewers, vents, and any other filthy damp place and not encounter them.

The worst were the sewer rats, fearless rodents that wouldn’t hesitate to take a bite out of you. They’d scurry across the subterranean pipes, bald tails sliding over the surface like snakes.

They’d been rampant in the underground where we fought, but ratters, little tenacious dogs, were sent into the tunnels before our fights to keep them away. Wealthy men didn’t like rats scurrying across their expensive loafers, but the blood-splattered fight ring always drew them back.

This thing wasn’t a rat or a mouse. It was a naked rodent with the pigmentation of a jersey cow and huge, elephant-like translucent ears.

Jesus, it was a mini hippo.

The thing stopped drinking and wiggled its nose, long white whiskers twitching as it put its pink feet on the bars of the cage. It stared at me with its bulging eyes as if it was checking me out.

My jaw flexed and my stomach tightened as I remembered the feel of those feet scuttling across my skin and the slither of their naked tails.

I abruptly turned away.

I opened each of the four drawers in the cheap dresser on the far wall and rifled through them. There was nothing inside except kids’ clothes, and most of them appeared new. I checked the nightstand next—three Dog Man books.

A Spiderman nightlight was plugged in beside the bed, the orange dollar-store sticker still plastered on the side. Batman pajamas were folded neatly at the foot of the bed, and there was a pair of Spiderman runners on the floor. The kid sure had a thing for superheroes, but I guessed most six-year-old boys did.

When I was six, I’d seen kids at school with action figures, but I’d never had one. I had a gun. Not a toy gun. A real gun. The first time I shot it, the kickback knocked me off my feet. That mistake landed me in the trunk for five hours.

I approached the closet. My heart thumped harder in my chest and every muscle flexed.

I placed my hand on the iron handle and froze.

I didn’t move. No, I couldn’t move.

This was why I took time off. Because of shit like this. Hesitating because memories were being uprooted and messing with me.

I gritted my teeth and jerked on the closet door.

The distinct thud and clank of the accordion door opening sent cold shards of ice through me. I tried to block it out. But I was back there again, the smell of alcohol and cigarettes suffocating me, just like the dark hood over my head. I wanted so bad to take it off, and at the same time, I didn’t want to because then I’d know what he’d do to me.

I slammed my fist into the closet door.

Jesus. Get your head straight.

I peered into the closet at the kid-sized jacket hanging up along with a few pairs of pants, and on the floor was a pair of winter boots. I picked one up and turned it over to look at the sole. A yellow size-five sticker was on it—new boots.

I put it back and pulled the accordion door closed.

I moved down the hallway to the bedroom at the back of the cabin. The door was open, and the morning sun beamed through the window, staining the hardwood floors a yellowy orange.

But that’s not what drew my attention. It was the view from the window that caught my eye.

Her window.

The umbrella of large maple leaves concealed my house except for one spot—the room upstairs. My bedroom.

And the window was as naked as that fuckin’ rodent.

Blinds had never even been on my radar, considering there were more important things to do, like put up drywall on the interior walls and plumbing in the downstairs bathroom.

Not only that, but I was rarely here, and when I was here, I rarely slept. And if I did, I was awake long before sunrise. Usually drenched in sweat and having to stand in a cold shower until the nightmares slid from skin and down the drain into the sewers where they belonged.

I looked away from the window and did a quick scan of her bedroom. Bed was made, but it wouldn’t pass any sort of military inspection. Shit, it wouldn’t pass Hettie’s inspection. And I knew that because I’d moved into Hettie’s when I was sixteen after my dad was arrested. Maureen, my mother, had left after my brother died, so it had been Hettie’s or a group home.

My gaze shifted to the mound of crumpled orange-and-red plaid cotton, likely pajamas, strewn at the foot of the bed, along with the light pink T-shirt with a unicorn on the front, and black yoga pants she’d been wearing on her jog through my woods. If we’d left our clothes out, Hettie would make us do laundry for a month. Jaeg had done a lot of laundry.

I turned to the closet. The doors were ajar, as if she’d half-assedly pushed them closed on her way out of the bedroom in a rush. I opened them the rest of the way. There were several jackets, jeans, an oversized sweater that looked like it could be a dress, and a few tops. My hand stilled as my gaze hit the little black dress. It was short, probably midthigh, with a deep V-neck. My brain immediately pictured the material hugging her hips and over her tight ass. My cock twitched.

Christ, I didn’t need that image plastered in my head for all eternity.

I glanced down and saw the guitar case sitting on the floor at the back of the closet.

I reached in to grab the case’s busted handle and pulled it out. It was worn and dusty and had several dents as if it had been through a beating.

I flipped the case on its side, then crouched and unlatched the top flap before tossing it open.

My gaze hit the familiar laser engraving on the bottom.

Fuck.

It was her mother’s guitar.

I remember on her twelfth birthday she’d sat with her mom on the front porch watching the rain. Her mom looked like shit and was wrapped in a quilt and wearing a wool hat. Macayla had run inside and grabbed the guitar and tried to pass it to her, but her mom shook her head.

Macayla sat on the swing beside her and put the guitar across her lap. Then she played.

I couldn’t hear over the pounding rain, but I’d imagined I did.

Not even the rain drops burning into my skin like acid could’ve torn me away.

And for however long she played, it was as if she was holding my hand again, and all the anger and pain disappeared. Comforting. Warm. And somehow protective. Like it was her keeping me from the being yanked into the darkness.

I slowly stroked the strings, and the chords vibrated beneath the pad of my thumb.

Not dusty. Not dull. Not worn. No. It was still a work of art.

I normally wouldn’t know shit about guitars, but I’d been around the famous rock band Tear Asunder. Deck was friends with the band, and we’d helped them out on a few occasions.

I picked it up out of the case and set it across my lap. I slid my fingers up the neck, then curled my hand around it to settle my fingertips on the strings. Had her fingers been here? Did she sit on the front porch in the rain and play?

I clamped my jaw shut and was about to place the guitar back in the case when I noticed the stack of napkins. The top one had writing scrawled on it, but the ink was smudged like it had gotten wet. Why would she write on napkins? I had the urge to flip through them to see if the others had been written on, but it felt too personal, as if I was reading her diary. I placed the guitar back in the case and flipped the lid closed. I fastened the latches and shoved it back into the closet.

I did a quick scan of the rest of her room, but there wasn’t much else. A few softcover books on the nightstand that looked as if they’d been read countless times, judging from the dog-eared pages and wrinkled covers. There were a couple pairs of shoes—black sandals and the muddy runners she’d been wearing on her jog.

I opened the top drawer of the dresser.

My eyes hit the blue lace panties first.

No. Not simply blue. They were the color of a robin’s egg. Colorful. And yet still soft—like her.

Silky red lace panties. Black ones. White ones.

My cock jerked, and I slammed the drawer shut so hard it went off its tracks. I fiddled around with it until it finally closed properly, then stalked from the bedroom.

I didn’t bother checking the bathroom. The last thing I wanted to see was her lace bra hanging from the shower rod.

What the hell was my problem? Women didn’t affect me like this. I didn’t think about the color of a woman’s panties, and I sure as hell didn’t imagine her in them.

Sex was hard. Fast. And detached.

No touching. No emotional connection.

Get the woman off, then look after myself. Nothing more.

But suddenly all I could think about was more.

I strode out of the cabin.

Seven days. Then I was having one hell of a bonfire.

Macayla

Three times. That’s how many times I rode the coaster down the mountain with Jackson. My stomach felt as if it was permanently lodged in my throat.

But I’d do it again in a second—because Jackson laughed. And it wasn’t a half-assed laugh. It was the kind that stemmed from deep in the guts. The kind that was real, and I don’t think he’d ever done that before, because he’d looked shocked when the sound emerged, and he abruptly cut it off the first time.

But he didn’t stop it the next time, and when the ride ended and I asked if he wanted to go again, he nodded with a huge, beaming grin that sent a lightning bolt of warmth through me. And I knew I’d ride the coaster all day if he wanted to.

Of course, I couldn’t because I had to work at the bar, so I’d dropped Jackson off at Hettie’s. It was an arrangement she’d insisted on and arguing with Hettie was futile. Besides, it saved me paying Mrs. Fisherton, who had a daycare and watched him when Hettie couldn’t.

Most importantly though, Jackson liked Hettie, but then there wasn’t anything not to like. I’d liked Hettie just from the stories Addie had told me at camp. Turning the house into a haunted mansion on Halloween for all the kids in the neighborhood. The theater extravaganzas where she’d take Jaeg and Addie to the cinema and they’d watch movies all day, eating unlimited buttery popcorn.

I drove into the parking lot and parked beside Brin’s Jeep and shut off the engine. Friday and Saturday nights were live music nights, which meant they were the busiest of the week. Good for tips. Not so good for my stomach that had been yo-yoed into a pretzel for the last three hours. Dealing with the smell of cologne, over-perfumed girls, and beer for the next six hours was going to suck.

Zero Crow was off the main road and a little out of town in an old building that had once been a winery. There’d been a fire a number of years ago and the vineyard had been destroyed. The owner decided to sell the property, and Callum James bought it and converted the winery into a bar.

The building had an old-world feel with its arched windows, chipped-paint corbels, and a rooftop lookout that had an iron fence around it.

Hanging off an iron rod above the medieval castle double doors was a gunmetal sign with “Zero Crow” embossed in a silvery blue and entwined around a horseshoe.

I climbed out of the car as my cell rang, and I glanced at the screen—Ethan’s name flashed.

Shit. I thought about ignoring it, but if I continued to put him off, I wouldn’t put it past him to jump on a plane. I slid my finger across the screen and placed it to my ear.

“Hey.”

Ethan’s deep, abrupt voice vibrated in the phone. “Macadamia. What the hell? I’ve been calling for three days. Jackson okay?”

“Yeah, sorry. Just really busy.”

“How’s Jacks?”

It was always his first question. “He’s fine. Loves his Aquaman.” Ethan had sent it to him when we first moved here.

“Need anything?”

“No. We’re good.”

“What did you do today?”

I tucked the phone between my shoulder and my ear as I reached inside the car for my purse. “We went on the coaster down the mountain.”

A rough snort emerged. “You went down the mountain on a sled?”

“Yeah.” I shut the car door and walked across the gravel drive toward the massive, wooden double doors that looked as though they’d been stolen from a Scottish castle.

“He like it?”

My chest warmed. “He laughed.”

“Guess he doesn’t take after you.”

I stiffened and my insides pretzeled. “Listen, I just got to work. Can we talk later this week?”

Silence, but I heard the rustle of clothing as if he was either changing out of his gear, or putting it on.

“Why won’t you tell me, Macayla?”

Because I’d never take the chance of losing Jackson again.

Because if he knew, he’d end up in jail.

Because I didn’t want anyone to know the truth, especially Jackson.

“I know you don’t want me to tell Dad where you are and about Jackson, but….” Rowdy voices erupted in the background along with what sounded like hockey sticks banging the floor, drowning him out. “Shit. One sec. Let me go—”

“Ethan, I’m walking into work. Gotta go.”

Before he had a chance to reply, I hung up and switched my cell to silent and shoved it into my back jean pocket. I knew it was only a matter of time before he’d show up here. I’d managed to delay him meeting Jackson for months, and now the season had kicked off, so he wouldn’t be able to get away. But eventually, I’d have to face him.

I put my hand on the brass doorknob and inhaled a ragged breath.

I pulled open the heavy door and stepped inside the dimly lit bar. My stomach lurched when the smell of cologne and cigarette smoke drifted over me.

Great. This was going to be a fun shift.

I wasn’t sure where the cologne was coming from, but I knew the cigarette smoke culprit because he was here every night, or at least every night I worked. It was illegal to smoke in here, but Zero Crow didn’t seem to be big on following anyone’s rules except their own. And Brin, the bartender who pretty much ran the place, told me Darius was Callum’s right-hand man and could do whatever he wanted.

I wasn’t exactly sure what right-hand man meant. I mean, I knew it meant he was important to Callum and was like an assistant or something, but the guy didn’t look like an assistant. He looked more like a hardened criminal who dressed nice.

Darius, no last name because he hadn’t shared it with me, sat in his usual booth wearing his usual attire, which was a white dress shirt with the top two buttons undone. His black suit jacket was slung over the back of the booth, and his cell phone sat on the table facedown next to the salt and pepper shakers. And like how he was wearing his usual attire, he was also doing his usual activity—playing cards. Not on a cell phone, but the old-fashioned way, with a deck of cards.

A cloud of smoke drifted into the air from his cigarette. He never touched the cigarettes he lit—at least, not that I’d seen. They remained perched on the edge of an overflowing ashtray. When one burned out, he lit another one and set it in the same spot.

It was ironic that there was a “No Smoking” sign on the wall beside him. I wondered if it was pinned there just for him. Or had he put it there as a reminder to himself not to actually smoke the cigarette?

He glanced up and our eyes met. He didn’t acknowledge me, but then, the only people he spoke to were Brin, Jaeg when he came in, and on the odd occasion Cali, short for Calico, who worked with me on the floor Friday and Saturday nights. I also worked Wednesdays and Thursdays, but the day shift.

I smiled at him anyway, like I always did, and he gathered his cards into a pile and shuffled. It wasn’t my kind of shuffling where I jammed the cards into one another. This was like you’d see in a high-stakes poker game in the back room of a restaurant.

I walked toward the bar and noticed Sam and his friends playing pool in the alcove to the left where there were a dozen wine barrels stacked on shelves along the back wall. Sam was my age and had just graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Business degree. He was staying here at his parents’ cottage, taking a few months off before he got locked into a job.

Sam had asked me out a couple months ago. I’d said no, to which he said, “I’m persistent.” To which I said, “I have a six-year-old.” But that didn’t deter him, and he’d grinned, saying, “I’m great with kids.” That got him a smile, but it was still a no.

A few other occupied tables were near the stage where the live music played later in the evening, and a couple regulars sat at the bar. One of them being Hunchback Dave, who worked on the mountain in the winter grooming the ski hills.

Zero Crow had an air of sophistication with a splash of rustic. The booths were tufted black leather, and the tables and chairs were a dark mahogany. The wall behind the bar was barnwood with glass shelves displaying the array of liquors. The white granite bar top ran the entire length of the back wall, giving it a modern feel.

I lifted the flap to go behind the bar, and a palm slapped the swinging door that led from the back room.

“Bollocks!” the smoky voice with a subtle English accent shouted. Brin. “Don’t need your fuckin’ excuses, you wanker.” She had her cell plastered to her ear. Tattoos were scrawled down her left arm to her wrist, and more peeked out from her black V-neck T-shirt, but she didn’t have any on her right arm. “You don’t show tonight, don’t bother showing your face in here again.”

She was silent a second before she said, “Yeah, well, he’s not here, and you’re not good enough for him to give a shit.”

She didn’t wait for a response and chucked her cell onto the back counter. “Tosser,” she mumbled.

I was pretty sure that was our live music gig just cancelling. I reached under the bar and pulled out a black apron and tied it around my waist. “Tommy?” I asked.

“Yep,” Brin replied as she tilted a pint glass under the beer tap and pulled the lever. “Wanker is too high to get his ass out of bed. Well, now I don’t have to listen to his pitchy voice anymore.”

Tommy had pitch issues, but only when he was fucked up, which was more times than not.

A few strands had escaped Brin’s low ponytail and curtained her face. She had graceful features that were soft, almost feathery, and they contradicted everything else about her. Her waist-length blonde hair was coiled in pieces like twisted ropes, and when I’d first met her, I thought they were dreads.

I didn’t know how old Brin was, and it was hard to tell. Sometimes she looked eighteen, and other times she looked twenty-five. I was guessing she was somewhere in between. She didn’t share much about herself except that she’d been bartending at Zero Crow for years and had never lost a game of pool. She could also make a killer margarita.

“What about Charlie?” Charlie’s band, the PeaPuffers, was a local cover band. They played covers of songs by bands like Maroon 5 and Coldplay. I’d heard them play a few times, and they reminded me of the band RyderEdge that played at the bar where I’d waitressed for a few years while attending Western University to obtain my Bachelor of Finance. I hated finance, but it had been a deal I’d made with my father.

But music was in my blood, and I’d wanted to be around it. Waitressing at the bar gave me that. It also gave me freedom by making my own money.

The lead singer of RyderEdge was Ryder, and he was good. Like a four-chair turn on The Voice good. He’d caught me writing lyrics on a napkin in the back one night and ripped it away from me. I’d never let anyone see the songs I’d written. Ryder read aloud while holding it out of my reach above his head as I jumped up and down, trying to get it back. When he handed it back, he’d looked at me and said, “Finish it. We’ll work out the sound and I’ll sing it.”

But we’d never had that chance.

It didn’t matter anymore. Nothing mattered except Jackson. I had Jackson, and he was safe.

“Later, Brin,” Sam called, raising his arm as he and his friends headed for the door.

I swallowed back the memories and shoved an invoice pad and a couple pens into the pocket of my apron.

Brin lifted her chin at him. “Sam.”

His gaze flicked to me and he grinned, dimples in full working order. “Mac.”

I smiled. Sam was definitely hot. Carved jaw, deep brown eyes that drooped in the outer corners, reminding me of a puppy dog. Tall, but not Vic tall. And muscled, but not Vic muscled. More agile and sleek.

Did I just compare Sam to Vic? God, I did.

Brin swung a rag over her left shoulder. “PeaPuffers are in Toronto this weekend playing at Avalanche, and Garret broke his leg biking down the mountain.” Garret was a country solo artist and was good. Too good to be playing in a bar. “Christ, the one night the boss is coming in. Probably why the wanker called in. Pussy was afraid he’d get shot if he went off pitch.”

I stiffened. Whoa. What? “Callum James is coming here tonight?” All I could think about was Addie’s words: “Vic tried to kill him.”

And I was living at Vic’s cabin. Crap. Okay, it’s not like Callum would be talking to me. And besides, I would likely be out of Vic’s cabin in a week, so it wouldn’t matter, right? I’d just keep my head down and he wouldn’t even notice me.

“Yeah, he should be here soon. He said six, and the boss is never late.”

I glanced at the clock above the bar. Two minutes to six. Shit. “Umm, so, does he know you hired me?” And did you tell him where I was living?

“He knows.”

He knows? That’s it?

She moved off down the bar, saying over her shoulder, “And don’t say ‘please’ in front of him. He’ll fire your ass.”

He’d fire me for saying “please”?

Brin slapped her palm on the counter in front of Hunchback Dave at the far end of the bar. He earned the nickname because he always hunched over his drink. “Another?”

Dave didn’t say anything or lift his head. He merely tapped his fingers on the bar top. She seemed to know what that meant, because she scooped ice into a tumbler, then grabbed a bottle from the glass shelf on the wall. She poured dark amber liquid into the glass, and the ice crackled and clanked.

She slid the glass down the mahogany bar top. Dave didn’t bother looking up at Brin, but I saw the almost indistinguishable nod of thanks.

I moved off to clean the high tops where Sam and his friends had been, my mind racing. It was fine. Vic and Callum had nothing to do with me. He wouldn’t care where I lived. He wouldn’t even know. How would he unless Brin mentioned it. Or Jaeg. Shit, had they mentioned it?

I passed Darius’ table and saw him flip over his cell to glance at the screen. He slid out from the booth, grabbed his suit jacket, and slipped it on before tucking the cell into the inside breast pocket. He left the cigarette burning in the ashtray and walked toward the front door.

What happened next was like an orchestra of movements as the door opened, and an entourage of five men wearing suits strode in. There were no words exchanged as two of them walked across the bar and disappeared into the back while two others moved in perfect succession toward the far corner of the bar and settled themselves in one of the booths.

It wasn’t hard to tell that the over-six-foot-four man left standing with Darius was Callum James. He might as well have had a billboard above his head flashing, I own this place because there was no question he did. And it was clear everyone in the place knew it because they all stopped talking and watched him.

Except for being tall, Callum was nothing like Vic. Clean-shaven. Sharp, angular jaw. Dark mahogany strands that were a little unruly, as if they refused to be tamed. While Vic was gritty, rugged, and handsome, Callum was beautiful. What they both had was undeniable confidence.

Callum’s eyes shifted from Darius to me as if he knew I was checking him out, and my heart skipped a beat.

Shit. Way to remain invisible, Macayla.

I quickly dipped my head, grabbed the empty pitcher and glasses off the table, and placed them on my tray before picking it up and hurrying to the bar.

I slid the tray onto the bar, and Brin walked over, but she wasn’t looking at me. She was looking past me, and I didn’t have to turn to know Callum was behind me.

I stiffened, hand tightening around the lip of the tray.

Callum’s cologne was subtle, almost indistinguishable, and there was also a faint whiff of horses. Addie had mentioned he owned a horse farm somewhere outside of town.

“Brin. What’s with Tommy?” Callum asked. I had no idea how Callum knew about Tommy so fast, unless Darius had overheard and texted him.

“He called in sick,” she replied while taking the glasses off my tray and placing them under the counter. “And no one else is available for tonight.”

I bit my lip and casually glanced over my shoulder at Callum.

“Deal with it,” Callum said, looking to his right at Darius.

Uh, what did “deal with it” mean?

Darius nodded and reached in his pocket and pulled out his cell. He tapped on the screen, placed it to his ear, and walked toward the front door.

“We need live music, Brin,” Callum said.

She inhaled a deep breath as if in resignation. “I don’t like it.”

“I know. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t necessary.”

I frowned, shifting my gaze from Callum to Brin and back again. It was like they spoke in code. What didn’t she like?

“I’ll keep searching. When do they arrive?”

“Two hours.”

“Okay.”

Callum’s head turned and his gaze landed on me before I had the chance to look away.

“North’s little sister. We finally meet.” His smooth drawl reminded me of expensive aged whiskey.

I raised my chin and turned to face him. “Mr. James,” I replied.

“I understand you are residing at Vic Gate’s cabin.”

I stiffened. Crap. What the hell? “Ah, yeah. Sort of. It’s temporary. We’re moving. Soon. In a week.”

His brows arched, and there was a subtle pull at the corners of his mouth as if he was amused by something. Maybe my inability to speak in full sentences. “Do you have another place to stay?”

He didn’t seem the type to have casual conversations, but then, I knew virtually nothing about him except that he’d hung out with my brother in his teens, owned the bar, and had an entourage of what looked like bodyguards. What I didn’t want was to end up being the one who had to tell Callum James that Vic was back in town. “Not yet. But I’m sure I’ll find something.” In a week.

“I have a guesthouse on my horse farm that is unoccupied at the moment. You’re welcome to use it.”

Okay, I wasn’t expecting that. I glanced at Brin, but her head was dipped down, and I couldn’t see her expression. “Oh, uh, thanks.” I think.

He offered a nod. “Speak to Darius. He’ll make arrangements.” His gaze shifted to Brin again. “When they arrive, show them to a table and give them whatever they want. I’ll have Darius bring them downstairs.”

Downstairs? All that was downstairs was an old wine cellar, and I’d never been down there because the iron gate at the top of the stairs was padlocked.

“Sure thing, boss,” Brin said.

Callum walked away and disappeared into the back. I sagged against the bar, my mind spinning. Why would he offer me his guesthouse? Did he even know about Jackson? “Does he always offer his guesthouse to his staff?”

“No,” Brin replied as she took the rest of the glasses off my tray.

“Then why would he?”

She shrugged. “Probably to stay in Hettie’s good books. He’d do anything for that woman.” Brin turned and snagged her cell off the back counter, then leaned her butt on it as she tapped on the screen. “Bloody hell, I hate filling in.”

I frowned. “Wait. You perform?” I’d never heard anything about Brin playing or singing.

She shrugged, but it was stiff, as if she either didn’t want to talk about it or didn’t care. “A little. Violin.”

My jaw dropped. Violin? Okay, I was pigeonholing violinists into a certain, well, look—but Brin did not look like she played the violin. The electric guitar, maybe. Or the drums. But not the violin.

“Wow. That’s great.” I’d never played guitar in front of anyone except my mom. But I’d always dreamed of one day being able to sing the songs I write. Songs that meant something to me. That were part of me.

Mom used to say make every song you write bleed fragments of you.

My chest squeezed. God, I missed her.

I missed sitting on the front porch together and watching a storm roll in. We’d count the seconds between the lightning and the thunder while listening to the rain trickle through the eaves’ troughs and watching it bounce off the puddles. She used to play her guitar on the porch all the time, even when it was freezing out. She said the sounds of nature inspired the music.

When she’d become too tired from all the treatments, she stopped playing. That’s when life slowly drained from her and the light in her eyes faded. That’s when I knew she wasn’t going to fight the cancer anymore.

The loud clang of Brin’s cell phone hitting the counter again jerked me from my thoughts, and I pushed them back to the far corners of my mind.

“Bugger. Yolanda can’t play tonight either. And now I have to find someone to take Tommy’s place Friday nights.” Brin was flustered, and she was never flustered. It was obvious she had some sort of anxiety about playing.

Brin placed two glasses of water with lemon on my tray. “For Callum’s guys.” She nodded at the booth in the far corner of the bar.

I picked up the tray and turned away, then paused. My father no longer controlled what I did or who I’d become. He didn’t have that power over me anymore.

I swung back around. “I’ve been playing guitar since I was ten, and I write my own songs.”

Brin’s head snapped up. “No shit. Are you any good?”

My mom used to say I was a natural and music was in my soul. That didn’t mean I could get up on stage and play in front of people and they’d like it. But I wanted Jackson to grow up believing in himself. To do whatever his heart told him to.

And that meant I did too. “Yes. I’m good,” I replied.

She smirked. “Next Friday. If you’re any good, you can take Tommy’s spot.”

Before I had a chance to respond, she moved off down the bar.

Vic

“Don’t… don’t leave me.” His voice crackled as he choked back sobs. Sobs contaminated with fear and desperation.

“I’m not leaving you,” I ground out. I’d never leave him. “I’ll get you out.”

His fingers were so small and fragile, like broken toothpicks gripping the rusted bars above his head.

I heaved on the bars again, the metal cutting into my already bleeding hands. I couldn’t feel the pain anymore. Not the cold, either. Or the agonizing cramps in every single muscle in my body.

Again and again, I pulled on the grate as the constant ping of rain pounding the pavement above me kept growing stronger. Harder. Relentless.

Stop. Just fuckin’ stop. It had to stop.

Everything would be okay if it just stopped.

“I don’t want to die,” he cried, the tears staining his dirty cheeks.

My bloody fingers slipped from the bars, and I fell back on my ass. I heard a gurgle and scrambled on my hands and knees to the grate, peering into the darkness.

No. No. Please. Don’t. I need to see him. Let me see him.

I can save him this time. I’m stronger now. I can do it.

I lay on my side and reached through the bars into the rising water. My muscles screamed in agony as I fished around for him.

My fingertips touched something, and I closed my fist around it and yanked.

His head popped above the surface.

No. It wasn’t his head. It wasn’t him.

It was her.

I darted upright in bed, sweat sliding down my skin and my body trembling as I sucked in suffocating breaths.

Jesus. It had felt so real. His eyes. His voice. The murky surface dragging him under.

Then her. Macayla.

I kicked off the sheet tangled around my ankles and threw my legs over the side of the bed. I half bent, resting my elbows on my thighs as I placed my head in my hands.

When did it end? But I already knew the answer. It didn’t. I had to live with the failure, and I deserved to be reminded of it every single day. What I didn’t like was the fact that she’d invaded it. It was her I’d yanked from the depths.

I inhaled a ragged breath. Moldova had brought everything back full force. The dank smell of the sewer. The sound of the rats parading along the walls of the tunnels.

I thought I could handle it. I did handle it, until the rain started.

Then I’d froze. I’d froze and nearly got us killed because of it.

I ran my hand back and forth over my head, then down my face.

I heard the car engine a split second before the beam of light arced through my bedroom like a fan.

It was instinctive as I dove for my gun under my pillow. I stayed low and crept across the room. When I reached the wall beside the window, I straightened, pressing my back against it.

I turned my head and glanced outside.

The full moon filtered through the treetops, leaving a dusting of speckled light over the ground. But I didn’t need the moonlight to see whose headlights they were.

I lowered the gun, but I didn’t move away from the window.

What the hell was she doing coming home at this time of night? It had to be after two in the morning.

Macayla pulled into the driveway and shut off the engine. The interior light went on as she opened her car door and climbed out. She slung what looked like the kid’s knapsack over her left shoulder along with her purse. She didn’t slam her door shut. Instead, she inched it closed, then lightly hip checked it a couple times until the interior light went off. She walked around the car and opened the back passenger door. She bent for a few seconds before I saw thin spaghetti arms loop around her neck and a pair of legs hook her waist. The kid.

I stiffened, my eyes narrowing as I watched her walk toward the cabin, stopping once to hitch the kid up as if he was sliding. She struggled a bit when she tried to unlock the door while holding the kid, who was obviously fast asleep. She opened the door and flicked on the outside lights before shutting the door behind her.

Even though I could no longer see her, I easily followed her movements as she turned on lights and lit up the cabin like a bloody Christmas tree. The only light she didn’t turn on was the one in the kid’s bedroom.

Jesus. Didn’t she realize that even with those flimsy curtains pulled closed, anyone would be able to track her movements?

What was she doing keeping a kid out this late? Had she been out partying? Had she been drinking and now driving with her kid in the car? I didn’t know why, but I knew that didn’t fit with her, and I was a good judge of character. I had to be, in my line of work, and Macayla didn’t seem the type to neglect her kid.

But I’d seen the dark shadows under his eyes. Where had they come from? His father? Her husband? Or maybe a boyfriend? Had she come here to get away from him?

It was none of my business. She’d be gone in six days.

I moved away from the window and tossed my gun onto the bed before grabbing a pair of charcoal joggers and a T-shirt out of my bag. I strode into the bathroom and placed the clothes onto the counter before stepping out of my cargo pants. I must have dozed off sometime after midnight while reading the latest Tom Clancy novel. I wasn’t a habitual reader, but I needed to distract the demons. And myself from the fact that I kept watching for her car to pull up the driveway.

I stepped into the shower and turned on the tap. The freezing cold water pelted my skin, and I gritted my teeth as I placed my palms on the tiled wall and tipped my head forward. The water pounded into the back of my neck and slid over my shoulders, the ice-cold stream warming slightly as it trailed down my heated skin.

I stared at the spiral of water pooling at my feet before it glided down the drain.

My jaw flexed and I closed my eyes, waiting for the cold water to do its job and numb the pain. The memories. The emotions.

I hadn’t had a hot shower since that night in the sewers when I was twelve. I wanted cold. Just like he’d been. His blue lips quivering while his teeth chattered so loud it echoed through the tunnel and scared the rats away.

It was the same nightmare I always had. Except this time, it had been Macayla I’d pulled from beneath the surface. Why? Why couldn’t I get her out of me?

My hands curled into fists on the wall.

Fuck, she needed to know what she was exposing her kid to by staying here with a man who tortures and kills for a living. A man stained with darkness. A man who could easily hurt her or her kid if those stains bled.

But she stupidly hadn’t run from me when she was a little five-year-old with huge, innocent eyes looking at me like I wasn’t a killer.

Would she now, if I told her what I’d done? If she knew what I’d become.

What I didn’t understand was why there was a piece of me that didn’t want her to know. I didn’t want her to look at me with disgust and fear.

I slammed my fist into the tiled wall. Damn it, she needed to leave. Get as far away from me as she could.

I shut off the tap and stepped out of the shower. I toweled off and tugged on the T-shirt and joggers, then walked out of the bathroom. I stopped for a second to peer out the window at the cabin again. I snorted, shaking my head at the lights blazing from every room. I’d have to replace those flimsy-ass curtains, she was announcing her every movement, and that was dangerous.

What the hell was I thinking? She’d be gone in one-hundred-and-forty-four hours.

I picked up my gun and shoved it back under the pillow before grabbing my knife off the wooden crate I used for a nightstand. I strapped it to my calf beneath my pant leg and straightened. My gaze flicked to the window again in time to see the light in her bedroom turn off. She’d gone to bed but left on the lights in the kitchen and living room. I’d always preferred the darkness, probably because I’d spent my childhood hiding in dark spaces. The darkness had been my friend. It was where I could breathe without pain or fear. Now it was more of a matter of survival.

Goose bumps prickled the back of my neck, and a cold shiver went through me. I needed to run. Running and hunting psychos were the only things that stamped out the nightmares, at least temporarily.

I jogged down the stairs and walked outside into the darkness.

Then I ran.

It was a good ten or eleven miles before exhaustion finally suffocated the images and emotions. I slowed to a light jog and made my way back through the woods toward the house.

As I drew closer, I heard the light ping of what sounded like guitar strings from across the river floating on the summer breeze.

I picked up the pace again and silently moved through the woods until I reached the clearing near the cabin.

That’s when I saw her. It was as if the ground shifted on an axis beneath my feet, and I reached out, placing my hand on the tree for balance.

Macayla sat on the top step of the porch with her head dipped and the guitar across her lap. Her hair was piled in a messy twist on top of her head with pieces sticking out in every direction. A few strands had escaped in the front and hung in soft waves to curtain her face.

She wore army-green pants with a white V-neck tank top, and there was a sweatshirt tied at her waist.

My fingers dug into the bark as I watched her. I knew I should walk away. Fuck, I needed to walk away.

But I didn’t, and instead I shifted to lean against the tree, crossing my arms over my chest.

She fiddled with the chords, repeating the same melody numerous times with slight changes. Then she stopped, shifted the guitar to the side, and leaned to the right.

That’s when I noticed the notebook and pen sitting on the porch. She picked up the pen and scratched something out on the page before writing something else.

She was a songwriter? Was that what had been on the napkins? Were they love songs? Did she write about whoever she’d left behind? Was she writing that she missed him?

She settled the guitar on her lap again, and her lips parted.

I held my breath. Watching. Waiting.

Her fingers began to float across the strings as if they were the wings of a firefly. It was effortless. Graceful. Almost shy, and yet at the same time, confident.

The melody was hypnotizing, the softness flirting with danger, and the tension building only to flutter to a light ping again.

I stared, unable to move as she played. My heart thumping to the rhythm.

She briefly paused, and I could see her lips moving as if she was counting. One. Two. Three.

Then her fingers danced lightly over the strings again, but this time I heard her lyrical tone as she hummed the melody. She fumbled a few times and then stopped, inhaled a deep breath, and closed her eyes.

What happened next was magical.

She sang. It was barely a whisper, and I had to strain to hear her, but it was as if each word she sang was a heartbeat, and every chord she strummed a breath of fresh air.

It was beautiful. She was fuckin’ beautiful.

I’d already known that. But now, seeing her play and hearing her whispered words just etched the scars deeper so they were carved into my bones.

Fuck. I had to get out of here. And not just here, but town entirely. I should pack my bag and drive away. Go back to what I was good at: hunting criminals. Killing. Torturing sick bastards.

I pushed off the tree and turned to jog back to the house. Tomorrow. Or rather, today. I’d stop by Hettie’s first, then drive back to Toronto. Deck and the guys wouldn’t question my sudden early return.

I’d gone two steps when a scream wrenched through the air. My body tensed and I spun around, my gaze shooting toward the cabin.

The kid.

I didn’t think as I tore across the yard. Macayla dropped her guitar and it tumbled down the steps. She lurched to her feet and scrambled toward the door.

Fuck. The last thing I needed was for her to run inside if some crazy ex-husband had broken in through the kid’s window and was after him. “No. Stay there,” I shouted.

Macayla stumbled. Her gaze swung to me as I ran across the yard. Her eyes widened in shock, and she hesitated a fraction of a second before yanking open the screen door and darting inside.

Christ.

There was another scream, muffled this time, as if someone had their hand over the kid’s mouth. My heart pounded and my legs burned as I sprinted up the porch steps.

I jerked open the screen door so hard the top hinge ripped from the wood frame.

I ran inside.

Macayla

I ran into Jackson’s bedroom and stopped. “Jackson?”

I quickly found him in his usual spot, cowering on the floor beside the Superman nightlight. My chest clenched and tears teetered on the rims of my eyes. I hated this for him, damn it. He should be having dreams about catching frogs, playing baseball, and skateboarding—not monsters.

I slowly approached. “Hey, Jacks.”

He had his fist shoved in his mouth, attempting to muffle the sobs. I didn’t know why he did that, but every time I found him like this, his fist was in his mouth.

He was still wearing the gray pants and green T-shirt he’d worn today. The pajamas I set out on the end of his bed every night were untouched. I hadn’t been able to convince him to wear pajamas yet, and I wasn’t going to force him or make a big deal out of it. If he wanted to wear a freakin’ snowsuit to bed, I’d let him.

I heard the screen door screech open, then the thump of Vic’s boots on the hardwood floors. I hadn’t had time to process the fact that Vic had run across the yard when Jackson screamed. Which meant he’d been close by. The question was why had he been so close to the cabin in the middle of the night? But I couldn’t think about Vic right now.

“Jackson, it’s okay, hon. You’re safe.” I crouched in front of him, and as much as I wanted to grab him and hug the shit out of him, I didn’t. Maybe one day he’d trust me enough to let me hold him, but until then, I wasn’t forcing it.

We’d made a lot of progress since getting out of the city and moving here. He’d let me carry him in from the car twice now. Sure, he had been half asleep, but he no longer jerked awake and scrambled from my arms.

The thud of Vic’s boots drew closer, then stopped. I didn’t have to look to know Vic stood in the doorway. His presence filled the room with an undeniable energy. I wasn’t sure whether it was protective or threatening.

But what I was sure of was that I wouldn’t have Jackson being scared of Vic looming over him. “You need to leave,” I said, glancing over my shoulder at him.

I didn’t wait for his response as I sat down a few feet from Jackson like I usually did. I pulled my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms around them. I’d discovered Jackson relaxed faster when I didn’t hover over him or crouch like a panther ready to dive on its prey.

“Monster?” I whispered.

He nodded.

“Was it a Wazowski?”

Jackson shook his head, and a few strands plastered to his damp forehead.

Shit. “Sully?”

He never talked about his dreams, but I figured out a way for him to let me know how bad his dream was. We’d watched Monsters University last month at Hettie’s, and I began comparing how scared the dream made him by which character it was.

He lowered his fist from his mouth. “Boggs,” he replied with a quiver in his voice.

Double shit. That meant it was a bad one. “A scary one,” I said.

He nodded.

The nightlight illuminated his wide, terror-filled eyes and tear-streaked face. It broke my heart, seeing him like this. It didn’t matter how many times he’d woken in the night—it broke me just as much as the first time had.

His gaze flicked past my right shoulder and his blue eyes widened. But it wasn’t with fear—it was with awe.

I peered over my shoulder to see Vic still standing in the doorway. He had completely ignored my request for him to leave.

Vic’s jaw was tight as his dark eyes focused on Jackson. What was baffling was that Jackson almost looked relieved to see him. It usually took him a while after a Boggs nightmare before he relaxed enough to realize no one was going to hurt him.

“He came,” Jackson murmured under his breath.

I frowned. “What do you mean, little man? Who came?” I was afraid he was talking about his dream, but as terrified as I was hearing what those monsters had done to him, I’d listen.

He bit his lower lip and leaned forward slightly. “He is a superhero and came to protect me from the bad man,” he loud-whispered.

My heart lodged in my throat. Oh God. He thought Vic had come to protect him. Well, I guess he had, but I knew Jackson was thinking more along the lines that Vic had flown across the sky from a far-off land. “Umm, yeah, I guess he did,” I replied. If Jackson saw Vic as being some kind of superhero who came to help him, I’d take it. And I wasn’t lying to him. Vic had come running to protect him.

Then it hit me. Vic ran to protect him.

My heart was still lodged in my throat, and it swelled. I glanced over my shoulder again to peer at Vic, but he was gone.

“Will he come every time I have a bad dream?”

I turned back to Jackson. I didn’t want to lie to him, but the truth was that in six more days, we had to move—and we’d probably never see Vic Gate again. “I don’t know, Jacks. But you know I’ll always protect you, right? And Jaeg and Addie and Hettie. We’ll all protect you.”

He looked toward the doorway again before he nodded.

“Okay. Read a book or silly dancing?”

The tension in his shoulders eased, and a smidgeon of light filled his eyes. “Book.”

“Okay, but you’re missing out on the silly dancing.” The dancing was something my mom did with me and Ethan when we were his age. Whenever we had a bad dream or were upset about something, we’d dance it away, often to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.” I had yet to convince Jackson to do it though.

Jackson crawled to his feet and climbed back into bed. I helped straighten the sheets, then I tucked them in around him before reaching in the nightstand for his book.

I flicked the nightstand lamp on and sat on the edge of his bed, leaning up against the wooden headboard. The book’s spine cracked as I opened it. I’d read the first book of the Dog Man series to him four times already, even though I’d bought the next three in the series. He always insisted on the first one. I think because it was familiar, and he knew what was going to happen before it happened.

Tonight was a good night, despite it being a Boggs dream. It only took ten minutes before he drifted off to sleep again. I continued to read to him for another ten minutes until he stopped shifting and the tension around his mouth eased.

I placed the book on the nightstand and flicked the lamp off. I peered down at him and placed two fingers to my lips and blew him a kiss. “’Night, Jack-o-bite.”

I crept from the room, leaving the door ajar, then stopped and inhaled a deep breath. I closed my eyes, finally able to let go of the bravery. Because I sure as hell didn’t feel brave. I felt helpless and alone and scared for him.

And the guilt had rooted itself in me like a giant hogweed, twisting around my insides with each and every scream. Because nothing could’ve prepared me for this. The trembling. The fear swimming in his eyes and the monsters eating away at his innocence.

The only good thing was that it was happening less often.

God, why had I waited so long? Why hadn’t I fought to see him sooner? I would’ve known. I would’ve known it was all a lie. That he’d never been safe.

I swallowed back the tears. He was out of my life, and he’d never be part of Jackson’s.

I walked toward the front door to grab my guitar and noticed the door was closed. Vic must have shut it on his way out. I usually left it open to let a breeze drift through the screen because the cabin didn’t have air conditioning.

I couldn’t figure out why Vic had been so close to the cabin. As much as Jackson saw him as some kind of superhero, there was no way he could’ve run from the house that quick. Had he been watching me play the guitar? Did he hear me sing?

Goose bumps rose on my arms at the thought of him watching me. What made it confusing was that I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.

I walked outside onto the porch, frowning when I noticed the screen door hanging on an angle. The top hinge was dangling where it had been ripped from the frame.

“I’ll fix it in the morning.”

My breath hitched and my heart skipped several beats at the sound of Vic’s deep voice in the darkness.

My gaze swung to the tall shadow standing at the far end of the porch where the light failed to illuminate. Vic was leaning against the porch railing, and next to him sat my guitar. His ankles were crossed, and he appeared to be completely relaxed. Except there was nothing relaxed in his rigid jaw and dark, penetrating eyes as he stared at me.

“You’re still here?” Did I just blurt that out loud? Shit, I did. But I was shocked to see him. Had he been standing out here the entire time I’d been reading to Jackson? Why would he wait around? To tell me he’d fix the screen door? “I mean, you didn’t have to wait.” Okay, that was stupid. There was no chance Vic had waited around because he was concerned. More like he waited around to tell me to pack my bags and get out of his cabin at the first sign of daylight.

“How often does it happen?” he asked.

There was no question he was referring to Jackson screaming in the night, but I didn’t know why he was asking.

“A couple times a week.” I was really worried that when we moved, it would worsen again.

Vic didn’t say anything, but his dark eyes remained on me as if he was reading every single one of my thoughts that were like bumper cars banging into one another in my head.

Thoughts of how he hadn’t hesitated when he heard Jackson’s screams.

The way he’d come running.

That he’d shouted at me to stay outside.

I shifted uncomfortably under his intense scrutiny. Yeah, he stood ten feet away, but Vic’s presence was like a vast ocean. What I didn’t know was whether it was an ocean of tidal waves or gentle swells.

He crossed his arms over his chest, tattoos expanding as his muscles flexed. That’s when I noticed his T-shirt was damp, and there was sweat glistening on his corded neck. My gaze trailed down his muscled length to his gray joggers and then to his running shoes. He’d been jogging. That’s why he’d been near the cabin.

Did he have trouble sleeping too? Did his dreams keep him awake? Jaeg had said he’d seen things…. Horrible things. He’d also said Vic had done them. I wasn’t sure what that entailed, and I’d rather not know.

“Do you always jog in the middle of the night?”

“It’s quiet,” he replied. Until Jackson screamed. “And I don’t jog. I run.”

Of course he did. It surprised me that he answered my question. I barely knew him, but Vic defined the term closed off, so answering my question seemed monumental.

“Yesterday morning when you….”

“Put a gun to your head,” he offered.

I half smiled. “Yeah. That was my first time back jogging. I used to jog a lot in high school.” Not that Vic cared if I jogged, ran, or hopped, skipped, and jumped all across the country, but as much as I wanted him gone, it was also comforting with him here.

God, was that crazy? He’d held a gun to my head. He was dangerous.

But there was something about him. Something… I don’t know. Familiar and comforting. Maybe even protective. God, that was crazy.

“I’ve always struggled to keep my weight down, and jogging was easiest. But it’s been kind of a yo-yo regime.”

Vic’s weight shifted and his eyes narrowed.

It had been ingrained in me since I could understand the inference to always watch my weight, listening to Dad constantly ask Mom if she should be eating that. Or he’d ask if she’d gained a few pounds. Or he’d make rude comments about other people if they were overweight. When they split up, Mom and I had a junk food picnic on the floor of the living room with pop, chips, and an array of candy.

I licked the scar above my lip. “I like the quiet too. It clears my head.”

A light sprinkling of rain stained the porch steps. I bent to pick up my notebook sitting on the top step before it got wet. I’d been working on a song about walls. Hiding behind them. Crashing through them. Stepping on the rubble left behind by broken promises.

Had he flipped through my notebook while I’d been reading to Jackson? I don’t know why, but it didn’t bother me if he had. Maybe because I didn’t think he’d care.

I glanced back at him, and he was already staring at me.

My belly twisted like a Rubik’s Cube and my breath stopped. The coldness was gone, and in the hard depths of his eyes lay something more. I didn’t know what it was exactly, but it made me feel as if I was dancing on a tightrope above a raging river. Vulnerable to the elements. Reckless. And at the same time, protected—like if I slipped and fell into the churning depths below, he’d be there to keep my head above water.

I tore my eyes from his. God, that was ridiculous. He’d be the one to push me under.

The rain strengthened. I smiled at the sound as it hit the metal roof of the cabin. It reminded me of an ensemble of instruments. Tambourine. Drums. The tapping of piano keys. And the light pick of guitar strings.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I said, glancing out across the yard. I didn’t need ambience apps with recordings of soothing rain to sleep. I had this.

When Vic didn’t say anything, I looked back at him.

He was tense. Brows furrowed and jaw tight. He’d uncrossed his arms and was now gripping the railing, looking as if he was going to crush it.

I frowned. “Are you okay?”

He remained silent, but his eyes flicked to the ceiling of the porch as if the sound of the rain on the metal roof bothered him.

I cleared my throat and moved toward the door. “I, uh, should go to bed.”

And I should tell Darius I’d take the guesthouse at Callum’s farm. It was silly to delay the inevitable. I didn’t want Jackson staying in a motel until I found another place, and the longer we stayed here, the harder it would be for Jackson, because I saw the way he gravitated toward Vic. What I didn’t want to admit was that there was a part of me that didn’t want to leave, and it wasn’t because of the cabin. It was because of him. Vic.

Vic straightened and reached for my guitar, his fingers wrapping around the neck. He strode toward me, and my heart felt as if it was going to bust through my rib cage. The question was whether it would run from him or toward him.

He stopped a couple feet from me and held out the guitar. “Thanks,” I managed to squeak past my dry throat as I took it from him.

He stared at me for a second, or maybe it was only a half a second. Okay, it was more of a millisecond before he said, “Make no mistake, I’m not a fuckin’ superhero.” Shit. He must have heard Jackson say that. “Lock the door.” He turned and walked down the porch steps, instantly getting wet.

“Vic?” I said before I could stop myself. I almost hoped he’d keep walking, but he didn’t. He turned to look at me, the moonlight bouncing off his hard jawline. I was going to say thanks, and then changed my mind. “Goodnight.”

He gave an abrupt nod, almost as if he was annoyed, then disappeared into the rain.

Vic

The woman was like a goddamn cowbell tied too tight around my neck.

Last night, or rather early this morning, after the shit with the kid and Macayla, I’d gone back to the house, packed my stuff, and then texted Jaeg to swing by and fix the cabin screen door in the morning. I’d even got so far as throwing my bag into the truck and starting the engine.

I ended up sitting in the bloody truck for an hour, listening to the fuckin’ rain as penance, my head jam-packed with images of her and the kid. Yeah, it wasn’t only her who haunted me; it was the kid too. Seeing him cowering on the floor with his fist in his mouth. And I knew why he did it. To suffocate the sounds so no one would hear him. What I didn’t know was who had scared him so badly that he was terrified to make a sound.

I didn’t leave though. The rain had stopped, and I’d gone back inside and stood under the cold shower again until the numbness took hold and I could breathe again without thinking of her or the kid.

My cell vibrated. I set my green smoothie on the counter and dug it out of my cargo pants pocket, glancing at the screen.

Jaeg: I’m not your personal handyman. Fix it yourself.

I huffed, tossing my cell down, and then chugged back the rest of the drink. It was just after seven, and I was hoping to get the screen door fixed before they even knew I’d been there. Thankfully, the rain had stopped.

I walked outside to my truck and dropped the tailgate. I reached in for my toolbox, unclipped the lid, and grabbed the drill. I cut through the trees and strode toward the cabin, the twigs that were snapping beneath my boots feeling as if it was happening in my insides. I’d come back for the solitude, and here I was, fixing the screen door of a cabin I’d rather burn to the ground.

I walked into the clearing and saw the kid sitting cross-legged on a patch of long grass. The one spot the morning sun managed to reach between the tree limbs.

Guess I wasn’t that fortunate, and they were already awake.

His head was dipped, and I could see his lips moving. It looked like he was talking to himself or whatever was in the grass beside him, likely that Aquaman action figure I’d seen him with.

When I drew closer, his head popped up. His eyes widened and his mouth dropped open.

I lifted my chin to say hey and was about to walk past when he threw his arms out in front of my path.

“Watch out for Waffles,” he shouted.

I stopped mid stride, one booted foot in the air. I scowled and looked down, expecting to see a plate of waffles I’d somehow missed laying in the grass. I didn’t. I missed the ugly bald rodent. A rodent that was wearing a bright green nylon harness attached to a matching leash.

I took a step back, and the kid picked up the rodent and held it under its armpits as he showed it to me. “This is Waffles.”

We’ve met.

“Addie gave him to me. His family left him in a box outside her work because they didn’t want him anymore.”

I really couldn’t blame them, and they left it there because everyone in town knew Addie would find it a home. She’d been rehoming strays and pets since she was a kid.

“Want to pet him?” the kid offered. “He likes when you scratch his belly.”

When I made no move to touch it, the kid put it back on the grass. The thing kicked its stubby back legs out and lay on its belly as if it was sunbathing.

“He’s a skinny pig,” the kid said with his chin raised, as if he was proud of the fact that he knew what it was called.

He could call it whatever he wanted. It was still a rodent.

“It’s like a guinea pig, except he doesn’t have hair. Well, he has a little right here.” He touched the rodent’s face where there was a mohawk of white hairs running down the bridge of his nose. “And on his paws.” He climbed to his feet and held out the leash. “Do you want to hold his leash?”

Jesus Christ. “No.” I didn’t want to hold a goddamn rodent’s leash.

I ignored his outstretched hand and was about to walk by him when I glanced up and saw Macayla standing on the porch eight feet away, her hands cupping a mug with steam billowing out of it.

Her lips were parted, and her lily-pad eyes were wide as she stared at me with shock. I wasn’t sure why she was shocked. I told her I’d come by to fix the screen this morning.

My eyes trailed down the length of her body, and a foreign reverberation echoed deep in my chest. What the hell was she wearing?

It was some kind of baggy army-green onesie. The crotch hung low and concealed her tight ass, toned thighs, and wide hips. Big, droopy side pockets, fitted ankle cuffs, and sleeves that stopped mid forearm completed the look. The only thing remotely normal about it was the deep V-neck.

And yet, somehow, she looked sexy as hell.

She tore her eyes from mine and her chest expanded as she inhaled a deep breath.

“Uh, Jacks, breakfast is ready,” she said.

Her voice was scratchy, as if she’d just rolled out of bed, and from the looks of her hair in that messy ponytail with wisps sticking out in every direction, she likely had.

“Okay.” He jumped to his feet, and before I could object, he shoved the leash into my hand and darted across the yard. “Make sure he doesn’t run away,” he called over his shoulder before he disappeared inside.

I stared down at the miniaturized hippo. I had a hard time imagining the thing could walk, let alone run.

How did this happen? How had any of this happened? I was here to fix the door of a cabin I hated. I was holding the leash of a rodent I also hated for a kid who had night terrors and looked at me like I was a superhero. That wasn’t even touching the fact that his mother had been scarred into my head since I was twelve years old. Or that she was the little sister of a guy who would likely be on a plane and knocking down my door if he knew I was anywhere near her. Let alone if he knew I was imagining her in robin’s-egg-blue lace panties.

Fuck, I’d deserve it too. Because there was nothing safe about me, and my life wasn’t meant for anything permanent. Let alone permanent with a woman and her kid. A damaged kid.

The familiar scent of coconuts invaded my nose, and I looked up to see Macayla approaching, her lips glistening as if she’d just licked them.

She was no longer holding her mug, and I saw it sitting on the tree stump used as a table on the porch. She stopped for a second and sharply inhaled while hopping on one foot, having obviously stepped on one of the numerous prickly weeds. Her head dipped as she brushed off her foot. When she looked up again, a few strands of hair had fallen in front of her face, and she casually tucked them behind her ear. She smiled at me.

My breath caught in my throat, and I stared, unable to move. It was as if a steel anchor was chained around my ankles and pinning me to the ground.

Christ, she was beautiful. No makeup, hair a mess, and wearing a ridiculous onesie that hid all her curves—and yet she was breathtaking.

My hand tightened on the drill, and the goddamn thing sparked to life with a low frequency whir that sent a nearby squirrel scampering up a tree.

I scowled and took my finger off the trigger.

She stopped a few feet from me. “Morning,” she said, a smile pulling at the corners of mouth.

I nodded because I didn’t trust myself to speak at the moment.

Macayla’s smile broadened as she held out her hand for the rodent’s leash. “You don’t look like you want to hold him. Here. I’ll take him.”

I passed her the leash, not saying anything. She bent and picked up the rodent, cradling it to her chest, and a low, purr-like chatter erupted. She laughed and scratched the thing affectionately on the head.

I stared at her for a half a second too long, and when she looked up, our eyes locked. Her smile faded and her lips parted as she inhaled a deep breath.

I didn’t like it. Any of it. How she didn’t look away when I glowered. How the sound of her laugh sent an unexplainable warmth through me. How her smile made my heart skip a beat. How I suddenly yearned for the smell of coffee and coconuts.

Six days. I’d fix the door and stay clear of her and the cabin for six days. It wouldn’t be hard. I had a shitload of work to do on the house and could easily avoid seeing her and the kid.

“I’ll fix the door.” I didn’t wait for a response. Shit, I’d rather she didn’t speak at all. Or smell so good. Or tuck her hair behind her ear. It would be better if she just disappeared.

I walked up to the porch, hearing her soft footfalls behind me as she followed.

I grabbed the screen, examining the top where the hinge had ripped from the doorframe. A doorframe that was now busted. Fuck. I’d been hoping it was a simple fix and that I would only need to drill in the screws, but the wood was splintered, and the door would need a new frame.

Macayla picked up her mug and sipped. “He never talks to anyone he just met like that.”

I didn’t look at her or respond. I crouched and set the drill bit into one of the hinge screws at the bottom of the screen door. I pressed the trigger, and the screw unwound and fell out into the palm of my hand. I repeated the process three more times until all the screws holding the hinge to the frame were out.

“He likes you,” she said.

I put the drill on the ground while still holding the door so it wouldn’t fall. I dropped the screws into my side pocket, then stood up. “The doorframe needs repairing. I’ll have to come back.”

She chewed her lower lip, glancing at the screen and back to me. “Oh, yeah. Sure.”

I picked up the screen and walked to the far end of the porch where the kid couldn’t knock it over while coming in and out of the house. I leaned it up against the wall and walked back to pick up my drill.

“You don’t have to fix it,” she said. “I mean, we’ll be gone soon anyway.”

“I said I would.”

She didn’t respond, and I was glad because I didn’t want to hear her sexy, scratchy voice again.

I strode down the steps, and I had no idea why I said what came out of my mouth next. “The onesie is ridiculous.”

Her bubble of laughter rang through the air, and for a split second I felt a foreign twitch pull the corners of my mouth upward.

Macayla

“Let’s go, little man,” I called over my shoulder while pouring coffee into my travel mug.

I needed a bucketful after last night’s sleep, or rather, lack of. I’d been on the porch until after midnight, fiddling with a verse of a song. And I’d been fiddling because my head hadn’t been on the song. It had been on Vic Gate.

I didn’t know how many times I’d scanned the darkness, wondering if he was there. If he was watching me. Then I’d felt silly because Vic had better things to do, and there was no chance he was lurking in the woods like some stalker and watching me play guitar every night.

Still, any little sound caused my breath to hitch, and my heart had skipped so many beats it felt as if it had run a marathon of hurdles.

Three days. That’s how long it had been since I’d seen him. He’d fixed the screen door at some point, but I hadn’t seen him do it.

I shut off the coffee maker and sipped my coffee. “Jacks, we’re going to be late.”

Again. And I’d have tight-ass Vice Principal Gruella Gorilla stomping down the school steps while pursing her puffer fish lips at me again. Then I’d have to listen to her high-pitched voice as she tried to make me feel like the most irresponsible parent in the world for not getting Jackson to school on time. But she didn’t have to say anything to make that happen. I felt irresponsible all by myself.

I’d never let her know that, and just to piss her off when we were late last Thursday, I drove in the “out” lane instead of the “in.” You’d have thought I’d committed a felony by the way she thundered down the steps, the pickle up her butt sinking deeper with each stride.

I offered her the sweetest smile I could muster and said, “Sorry. There was a bunch of cows blocking the road this morning. They must have escaped in the storm last night.” It had been Jackson’s turn to come up with an excuse for being late.

I had to bite the insides of my cheeks to keep from laughing. Okay, maybe it was wrong teaching him to fib to his Vice Principal, but being five minutes late wasn’t the end of the world.

“Jackson?” I said, knocking on his bedroom door. “Did you brush your teeth?”

No answer.

“Jacks?” I turned the handle and peeked inside to see him sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of Waffles’ cage. “You okay, buddy?”

I walked across the room, bent to pick up a pair of discarded socks on the floor, and placed them next to the folded pajamas at the end of his bed.

I crouched beside him. “Is everything okay with Waffles?” The skinny pig was noisily munching on green pellets out of a plastic bowl and appeared perfectly content, his long white whiskers and his upright, crooked ears wiggling in tandem as he chewed.

“I don’t think he wants me to leave him alone today.”

I frowned. “Really? Why not? He’s been alone before.”

He shrugged, his slim shoulders jerking up and down. “He’s scared.”

Shit. I wasn’t sure, but I had a feeling it was Jackson who was scared. He wasn’t thrilled about school, but he’d never complained about going before. “Why do you think he’s scared?”

He avoided looking at me and didn’t say anything as he bit his lower lip. Something was up.

“It’s okay, you know. If something is bothering you, you can tell me. I’ll never get mad.”

He remained quiet while staring at Waffles. “Maybe I can stay here with him today?”

I sighed. Shit. “As much as I know Waffles would love to hang with you all day, you already missed school last Friday, and it’s important you go.”

“But what if he gets hurt?”

Don’t cry. Don’t friggin’ cry in front of him.

I dug my fingernails into my palms. I hadn’t heard him last night, so I didn’t think he had a night terror that triggered this, but something obviously had. “No one is going to hurt him, Jacks. And I’ll be back after I go to the laundromat.” Addie was meeting me there. I’d told her yesterday about Callum offering his guesthouse, and she wanted to hear every detail.

Jackson’s brows lowered and he squished his lips together as he thought about it. “Maybe Mr. Gate can watch him while I’m at school?”

Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen. “Jacks, Mr. Gate is too busy to watch Waffles.” I still hadn’t told him we had to move by Saturday. I didn’t want to tell him until I knew for sure where we were going.

Jackson’s brows dipped even more, and his mouth tightened until his lips disappeared. “But I don’t want him to be all by himself.”

Had he been left alone by those monsters who’d had him? Was that where this was coming from? “Hmm, okay. What do you think will make him feel better?”

He scanned his bedroom for a minute, and then his eyes widened. “I can give him Aquaman,” he blurted.

Tears pooled in my eyes. Aquaman was his favorite toy, and I loved that Ethan had been the one to give it to him.

The superhero went everywhere with him. It slept with him. It lay on the kitchen table when we ate. And it travelled in his knapsack when he went to school, although he had to keep it hidden in his bag. The school’s policy was very clear that kids weren’t allowed to bring toys to school.

Screw that. They had no idea what Jackson had been through. Christ, I didn’t even know what he’d been through, but I knew it was bad. Really bad.

But now he was willing to give it to Waffles so he wouldn’t be alone. I smiled through my tears. “That’s really thoughtful of you, Jack-o-bite. But are you sure you want to leave Aquaman?”

“Yeah.” Jackson jumped to his feet and ran over to his knapsack on the floor beside the bed. He unzipped it and took out the toy that was already packed to go to school with him. He re-zipped his bag and ran back.

“This is Aquaman,” he told Waffles. He laid the action figure on top of the cage, making sure it was above where Waffles was sitting. “He’s going to stay here and protect you.”

I forced a smile, but it felt as if a spear went right through my chest. A six-year-old shouldn’t have to think about needing protection. “I think he feels better, don’t you?” Waffles was up on his haunches, smelling Aquaman through the bars.

Jackson nodded.

“How about I pick him up some of his own toys today? That way you won’t have to leave him Aquaman again. Would that be a good idea?”

Blond strands fell in front of his eyes, and I was tempted to push them back with my finger.

“Okay,” Jackson said.

“Maybe we can build him a playground or something, too, so he has a fresh start with a new home.” Like you.

That suggestion got me a full-out grin, and I bit the inside of my cheek to keep the tears from falling. I loved his grins, and I’d do anything to see more of them. Even if it meant attempting to build a playground for a skinny pig. The only thing I’d ever built were Jenga blocks with Mom after she had become too sick to get out of bed. We’d sit on her bed and put the tower of blocks on a cookie sheet.

“We can make him a castle with a drawbridge so no one can get in,” Jackson said, his voice brimming with excitement.

Oh boy. “How about we start with a play area. I’ll pick up some stuff at the hardware store this week and we can do it together.” We’d have to wait until after we moved to build something more permeant, but it would give him something to look forward to in our new place.

“Okay. Bye, Waffles. Bye, Aquaman.” He walked over to the bed, grabbed his knapsack, and hitched the straps onto his shoulders.

I double-checked that the door to Waffles’ enclosure was shut properly because Jackson hadn’t pushed the latch hard enough over the round bulb a few weeks ago, and I’d found Waffles under his bed with a clump of dust attached to his whiskers.

I followed Jackson out of the bedroom, grabbed my travel mug off the counter and the garbage bag of laundry, and headed out the door.

I tossed the laundry in the trunk, and Jackson hopped in the backseat. I shut the trunk and walked around to the driver’s side, putting my travel mug on the roof as I opened the door, and then dug through my purse for the keys.

My body stilled as a horde of goose bumps bounced across my skin like heated popcorn kernels. He was there. I knew he was there without even looking because I felt him all over me. No, through me. In me.

My fingers tangled around the keys at the bottom of my purse, and I should’ve yanked them out, climbed into my car, and driven away. But I didn’t.

Instead, I raised my head and flicked my gaze toward Vic’s house. That’s when my breath caught in my throat and untamed sparks ignited inside me.

Vic stood beside his black Ford Raptor truck with his cell to his ear. He wasn’t speaking into it. He wasn’t doing anything except staring at me.

He clipped out something to whoever was on the other end of the line, and then he lowered his phone. He dropped it in the side pocket of his cargo pants, his eyes still locked on me.

I stared back at him, a thrum of beats, pulses, and bumps hiccupping through me as if my body was having trouble deciding on how to react to him.

Until he lifted his chin at me.

Then it decided on a heated rush of nervousness with a spritz of anticipation as if I was jumping off a waterfall. My heart skipped beats and pixie-fairies cartwheeled in my belly.

Christ. What the hell was wrong with me? Pixie-fairies? When did I ever have pixies or fairies doing cartwheels? Even Kyle, a tech guy I’d dated for six months at university, didn’t cause cartwheeling pixie-fairies. It had been more of a gentle rolling quiver. A safe, gentle quiver. This was anything but safe.

Having Vic look at me was soul stealing. Or maybe it was soul crushing.

“There’s Mr. Gate! Can we go say hi?” Jackson unclipped his seatbelt and was about to dart out of the car.

I jerked, and the pixie-fairies tripped over themselves and then fell into the pit of my stomach in a sprinkle of dust.

“No.” I jumped into the car, slammed my door, and started the engine. “Put on your belt. We’re super late.”

I waited until I heard his seatbelt click, then pressed my foot on the gas. I was a little too forceful, and I heard the noise of stones spurting from the tire treads, along with the clank of my travel mug as it fell off the roof of the car.

Crap. But there was no chance I was stopping.

I cleared my throat and glanced in the rearview. “So, what excuse should we give Vice Principal Gruella Gorilla today?”

Vic

I watched Macayla’s car disappear around the bend, then folded into my truck and started the engine. I gripped the steering wheel, my hands tightening on the leather until it crackled under the pressure.

That’s what she did to me. She cracked my impenetrable outer shell and slipped inside the crevices like a goddamn seed slowly sprouting.

That couldn’t happen. I couldn’t let it.

And yet the truth was, it had already happened years ago. Now it was just re-emerging from the depths and planting its roots. Her roots. Roots I wanted to tear out—and at the same time nurture.

I’d avoided her, the kid, and the cabin for the last three days by running, and when I wasn’t running, I was working on the house. Whenever I heard the light ping of her guitar at night, I put on my headphones and ran harder. Farther. Faster.

I jerked the truck into gear and pulled out of the driveway, but I didn’t get far. I stopped at the fork in the road, the low purr vibrating through me as I stared toward the cabin. The travel mug that had fallen off the roof of her car was laying in the middle of the driveway.

I tightened my jaw before swinging the Raptor left and heading for the cabin.

I stopped beside the stainless-steel Thermos cup, climbed out, and pick it up. I strode up to the cabin and set it on the tree stump on the porch.

Then I folded myself back into my truck, did a three-point turn, and drove out.

It was a twenty-five-minute drive to Hettie’s house on Minnesota Street. I’d delayed visiting her long enough, and if I did it any longer, I wouldn’t put it past her to take out an announcement in the local paper that I was back. And I’d prefer it if I didn’t have Callum James knocking on my door.

Not that he’d knock. No, the bastard would likely bust it down and have a shitload of guns pointed at my head.

I pulled into the cobblestone driveway and parked behind Hettie’s Mustang. She lived in the same Queen Anne Revival house that she’d grown up in. It boasted stained glass windows and a grand porch, and there was an enormous oak tree with branches that canopied the house like an old man’s arms stretched out to protect it from nature’s fury.

Or protect us. Because that’s what this place had done.

But it was more the woman inside who had done that.

She’d never scolded us or lectured us for fighting in the underground, and she never told the cops where we were when they knocked on her door in the middle of the night, even if she knew damn well we were there. And if we took a beating, Hettie was the one who bandaged, cleaned, and stitched us up.

Her one request was that we show up for dinner on Sunday nights. That was it.

And we did. Well, three of us did religiously. North did if his father was in the city for work, which he often was, but otherwise he had to be at home, in the gym, or on the ice rink. Callum had to head back to boarding school on Sunday nights. But once he got his driver’s license, he stuck around for dinner, then drove back afterward.

The white sheer curtain over the front window parted, and Hettie glanced out. It was where her favorite blue velvet chair sat. She’d sit and read in that chair until all hours of the night while waiting for Jaeg and me to come home. She’d never admit she was worried, and she’d never give us shit. No, she’d just make sure we came home, and then head upstairs to bed.

I took my gun out of the holster and placed it in the console along with the knife strapped to my left calf.

I climbed out of the truck, feeling the neighbor’s eyes on me as I strode toward the house. I didn’t bother turning around to see which neighbor or if I knew them. I was accustomed to being watched and feared.

The door opened as I climbed the porch steps.

Hettie stood in the doorway wearing taupe, knee-length shorts with a white-and-lavender scarf-like apron tied around her waist. She had on a short turquoise linen jacket over a white shirt and red sneakers with black laces on her feet. The outfit was vintage. Artsy. And grunge.

She hadn’t changed, but then, I hadn’t expected her to. She didn’t conform to society, fashion rules, or the norms on how to raise kids—in Hettie’s case, her grandchildren and a fucked-up teenager. Hettie had her own policies and never judged. She accepted you the way you were, which was probably why, even though I had been a fucked-up teenager with a shitload of trust, control, and anger issues, she managed to get inside my head and make herself at home.

“Hettie,” I said with a nod.

“Don’t ‘Hettie’ me, young man.”

I inwardly smiled at the familiar sound of her raspy voice. Despite all the shit in my life, Hettie was the one good part, even if I’d been too fucked up to notice it at the time. “Needed a few days to get my head straight.”

“Was it on sideways and you couldn’t find your phone?”

“Something like that,” I replied.

She knew what I meant because Hettie was the only person I’d told about my past and what had happened in the sewer.

There were two things she didn’t know, and I’d never tell her either one, for very different reasons in each case. One of them was meeting Macayla when she was five, and subsequently showing up every year, except for one, on her birthday until she turned sixteen.

And the other was the situation with Callum’s older brother, Aiden. We’d all agreed never to tell her. She might be forgiving if she knew why the five of us had done it, but it would crush her to know what that bastard had done. She’d known Aiden had a cruel streak in him, and that was why he’d never been in her house. I suspected it was also why she’d always had a soft spot for Callum.

She didn’t attempt to pull me into a hug, even though it had been years, and I knew she was dying to. She respected my issues with being touched.

I nodded. “You look good.”

“Of course I do,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I look after myself.”

Hettie ate a lot of her own food as she had a vegetable garden out back, along with raspberries, blueberries, and the three apple trees. She’d preserve what she needed for the winter months, including several shelves of jams and applesauce, and the rest she took to the food bank.

Jaeg used to bitch and complain every fall when the apples began to ripen because he was the one out there doing the picking. I’d done it too. Shit, all of us had when we did something to warrant fruit-picking punishment.

But even if we saw it as a punishment back then, it wasn’t. It was cathartic, and I think that’s why she made us do it.

Her smile fell as her eyes locked on mine. “Can’t say the same of you. You look like you’ve been up all night, dancing with a herd of pink-tutu-wearing boars.” She paused. “It rained.”

I grunted.

Hettie was always brutally honest, and she was right. I did look like crap because I hadn’t slept since Moldova, thanks to the little rainbird perched in my bloody cabin.

Her gaze travelled the length of my body. “You’ve lost weight.”

I had, but only in the last three weeks. The mission in Moldova lasted twelve days longer than we intended, and instead of calling in the bird and regrouping, we decided to stay put and ration food.

She walked back inside the house. “Rules still apply,” she said over her shoulder.

No weapons in the house, which was why I’d off-loaded them in the truck.

I came into the house and followed her down the hallway, passing the staircase that led upstairs to the five bedrooms. The same red-and-black Persian carpet runner on the old hardwood floor greeted me, along with the familiar beige walls with the painting of a chestnut racehorse on one side, and framed family photos of Jaeg, Aderyn, and Arthur Mason, Hettie’s late husband, on the other. He’d drowned with Jaeg and Aderyn’s parents in a boating accident long before I moved to town.

She placed the stainless-steel kettle on the stove. “Addie says you’re kicking Mac and Jackson out of the cabin,” she said.

Jesus. Right to the guts of the matter. But I’d expect no less from Hettie, and that was why I’d delayed coming to see her.

I propped my shoulder against the archway that led into the kitchen and crossed my arms. “They can’t stay, Hettie.”

She tsked, shaking her head. “Victor Gate, it’s a woman and child. She’s also North’s sister and Addie’s friend, which means family.”

She’s the only one who ever used my full name. And she only did it when she was disappointed. “North has money. He can buy them a house.”

“That’s not the point.”

“I gave them a week.” And I regretted giving them that long.

She scowled, and it was one of those lip-disappearing scowls, so I knew I was about to be pelted with a slew of admonishments.

I added, “It’s not safe for them to stay.” For a hell of a lot more reasons than the fact that I’d held a gun to Macayla’s head. Shit, if Hettie knew, I’d never hear the end of it.

Her scowl eased. “That’s why you’re home. They’re back.”

With a vengeance, but I didn’t tell her that. “Just need some downtime before I head out again.”

She was silent for a moment, her thin brows furrowed. “How long are you staying?”

I shrugged. I didn’t know. I hadn’t given Deck a timeline, and he didn’t ask. I rarely took time off, and he knew I wouldn’t take it unless I needed it.

The kettle whistled and steam billowed from the spout. She turned the dial on the gas stove and lifted the kettle off to the side. “The boy has night terrors too.”

I stiffened. “I know.”

She didn’t seem surprised that I knew this already. She plucked a tea bag out of a tin box and plunked it into her teacup. I didn’t drink tea, but for her sake I drank water with lemon. She poured steaming hot water into the two cups before picking them up and walking to the island.

“He must have talked about you for over an hour the other day.”

“Hettie,” I warned.

“You know what it’s like. Maybe knowing you’re close by will help him.”

I pushed off the doorway and walked to the island. I grabbed a lemon out of the flowered bowl. She wasn’t going to let this go easily.

“You won’t hurt them, Vic,” she said quietly.

She didn’t know that because I didn’t know that. “They can stay here with you and Addie.”

“Of course they can, but Macayla and Jackson need their space, and Jackson loves the cabin. It’s good for him there.”

I opened a drawer in the island and pulled out a knife. I cut the lemon in half, then squeezed the juice into a teacup.

She continued, “I know you think being alone is what you need, but it’s never done you any good. You need family around you.”

My hands closed into fists on the counter and my muscles tensed.

“Your real family, young man. The ones who matter. Addie, Jaeg, Gabriel, Callum, and Ethan.” She paused. “And I’m not blind. Callum’s still family, regardless of his choices and whatever happened between you.”

“My choices don’t include money laundering and dealing illegal contraband.”

She picked up her tea. “He calls.”

Of course he did. He was a coldhearted crime lord with a shitload of charm, and he used it to get what he wanted. Which included keeping on Hettie’s good side.

We moved out onto the front porch, and Hettie sat in her rocking chair. I leaned up against the railing and set the lemon water on the top rail.

Hettie talked. I listened. Or semi listened because my brain was still distracted by having seen Macayla this morning when she drove out. How she stopped and looked at me while I was talking to Jaeg, who happened to be bitching about me not letting Jackson and Macayla stay in the cabin. How she nervously licked her upper lip. How I could swear that even from that far away, I could see her cheeks turn pink.

“… and Caity Killington needs to put a sock in it. She just can’t keep her mouth shut and stay out of other people’s business.” She went on about the old grain terminals and how they wanted to tear them down.

Hettie’s voice stopped and she was quiet a minute as she sipped her tea. Another minute went by. Then another. Okay, something was brewing.

I waited.

She settled her teacup back on the saucer. “I heard from Gertrude that Hester saw Mac knock over a pyramid of kidney beans in Food Basics last week when Dale Richards walked past her. She said that Mac looked scared out of her wits.”

I didn’t know who Dale Richards was, but suddenly I wanted to know everything about him. I dipped my head, staring at the scuff mark on the toe of my boot. Don’t get involved. She’s safer if you stay clear.

But the reality was that I was already involved. I’d been involved since the second I looked into her eyes again.

Because everything inside me wanted to protect her. Protect them. And that included protecting them from me. From what I was capable of. It was why I needed them gone.

I picked up the teacup and sipped, not trusting myself to speak.

“She hasn’t said anything, and the boy hasn’t mentioned what’s happened, just like you didn’t. Addie told me not to meddle, but I’m concerned. I think she may be running from an abusive husband or boyfriend.”

I remained silent. I suspected the same thing.

“Maybe Jaeg knows and that’s why he’s been avoiding me.”

Oh, I had no doubt he knew something because he’d spoken to North, and Hettie had a bullshit radar, which was exactly why he was staying clear of her. He’d be picking apples for the next century.

“Addie and Jaeg don’t like to worry you.”

She flicked her hand dismissively. “I can look after myself and have for sixty-two years.”

Hettie was the strongest woman I knew. She’d also been my lifeline when I needed it the most. If it wasn’t for her, I’d likely be in prison right alongside Hank, or dead right now.

She continued, “If a man has hurt that sweet boy, I’ll rip off his hairy balls and shove them down his throat.”

My mouth twitched. I had no doubt she would if given the opportunity. But first he’d have to survive me, and that was unlikely to happen. Hurting a kid was something only bottom-of-the-barrel scum did, and it would be a slow, painful death.

She pinched the bridge of her nose, and her lips pursed together as her brows furrowed like she was in pain.

My body stiffened. “You good?”

She dropped her hand from her nose and blew air through her flamingo-pink stained lips. “Of course I am. Now, tell me all about the team. Any of them married yet? Kids? I wish you’d bring them here for a Sunday dinner.” I opened my mouth to object, and she rolled her eyes. “I know. I know. You don’t want your work brought to our doorstep.”

I set my teacup on the banister. “It’s safer that way.”

“Safer for who?” she asked quietly.

My cell vibrated in my back pocket, and I pulled it out, glancing at the text.

Saint: Heard you’re in town. Going to stick around long enough to say hi?

Obviously, word had already spread I was back, and although I suspected Saint knew the day I’d arrived, he’d given me time to get my head straight.

I shoved the cell into my pocket and headed for the steps. “Have stuff to do.” I’d drop in at Mason Auto and talk to Jaeg about Dale Richards on my way to the hardware store to pick up supplies for my porch railing and steps.

“Vic,” she called. I stopped and turned. “Welcome home.”

Home? There was no such thing as home.

This was just a small town I’d spent a few years in where I’d learned to block out the sounds with my fists.

The cries. The gurgles. The sound of the rain echoing in the sewer.

And with each fight, the pain had subsided until all that was left was a cold, numb stillness.

Macayla

“Okay, I want every detail. Don’t leave anything out,” Addie shouted as she strode across the bleach-stained linoleum floor of the laundromat. The smell of gasoline and oil wafted off her gray coveralls and mixed with the lavender detergent and the baby powder perfume the elderly lady on the other side of the laundromat was wearing.

“Hey, Mrs. Pitt,” Addie called to perfume lady, who was wearing a knitted turquoise shawl with an orange, calf-length dress.

She glanced up from folding her clothes at the counter along the far wall and smiled at Addie. “Hello, dear. How are you? And how is that darling brother of yours? I haven’t seen him in weeks.”

I smiled. I wouldn’t exactly call Jaeg a darling. More like a gritty, sexy-hot womanizer.

“I’m fine, thanks. Just got back from an auto show. And Jaeg….” Addie stopped and sighed, looking at her. “To be honest, Mrs. Pitt, I think he’s lonely.”

I frowned. Lonely? Jaeg? He was virtually a regular at Zero Crow on Saturday nights, and he never lacked women vying for his attention.

Addie peered over her shoulder and winked at me. “You know, come to think of it, he mentioned going on one of those dating sites.”

I almost burst out laughing and had to cover it up by coughing.

Mrs. Pitt clucked her tongue. “He’ll never find a good, proper lady on those things. You know, my granddaughter Heidi isn’t seeing anyone. She’s such a darling, and you know she was prom queen two years in a row. I’ll tell her to drop in at the shop.”

Addie grinned. “Oh, he’d like that.”

There was no chance Jaeg would like that. And he was going to kill Addie.

My chest tightened as I thought of Ethan.

We’d missed this. Even though Ethan was a lot older than me, we’d been close before he left to live with Dad and his whole focus became hockey.

He used to walk me to school every day, even though his was in the opposite direction. Once, he’d come to my school to ream out the principal for not having control over his students after I came home covered in mud from Jeremy Walter who had pushed me down in the playground. Ethan had only been thirteen, but he was fearless. Probably what made him such a great hockey player.

“Say hi to Mr. Pitt for me,” Addie said as she made her way toward me.

“Of course, dear.” Mrs. Pitt went back to folding her clothes as she chirped some kind of melody.

Addie hopped up on the counter beside my laundry bag, a good old trusty black garbage bag.

“Shit disturber,” I whispered.

She laughed. “He deserves it after making me deal with Harry Hamilton this morning. Harry spelt H.A.I. R.Y. He was lucky I hadn’t had breakfast, or I’d have puked all over him. When you have that much hair, you need to shave and shower religiously. He does neither.”

I had no idea who Harry Hamilton was.

“Besides, Heidi is hot.”

“So why wouldn’t Jaeg date her, then?”

“Jaeg doesn’t date. He doesn’t even like the word. I mention dating, and he actually winces. He needs a girl who doesn’t care if he calls, ’cause he won’t.” She glanced over at Mrs. Pitt, who was now humming what sounded like “Amazing Grace.” “And Heidi is…. How do I say this nicely? Yeah, I can’t. She’s a bitch. She deserves to get her hopes up, then crushed.”

Okay, obviously there was history there.

The washer buzzed and I opened the door. “Has he ever had a girlfriend?” My treacherous mind went right to Vic. Had he had a girlfriend? Did he have one now? He had a house here, but he hadn’t been here in five years, so there was a good chance he had a house somewhere else. God, maybe he was married?

And maybe you should stop thinking about him, Macayla.

But I couldn’t. I still felt unhinged after the Vic encounter this morning. It was more of a sighting, like if you spotted a rare, exquisite Madagascar fish eagle.

Vic did something to me. And it wasn’t a calm, sweet fluttering. This was an eagle-diving, fire-breathing-dragon fluttering that caused all kinds of chaos inside me.

I didn’t like it. It was dangerous getting distracted by an ex-Special Forces commando type who didn’t want Jackson or me anywhere near him.

And yet, I couldn’t get it out of my head that he’d come running when Jackson screamed. Or the flicker of concern in his cold, hard eyes as he stared at him cowering on the floor. Or maybe I’d imagined it was concern? Maybe it was annoyance?

It didn’t matter. None of it did. We were moving, and when we did, I’d never see him again.

“No,” Addie replied. “At least not that I know of.” She swung her legs back and forth like a pendulum while gripping the edge of the counter. “Enough about Jaeg. What’s the scoop with Callum James? Did he really offer you his guesthouse? I bet there’s a chandelier in the bathroom and gold-plated taps.”

I stopped dragging clothes from the washer and straightened. “You’ve never been there?”

She shook her head. “No. I was only an annoying little sister when he hung out with Jaeg and the others. And he went to boarding school, so he was only around on weekends. Once he graduated high school, his dad took him back to the city to help with the family business.”

“But he still has a farm here?”

She nodded. “I wouldn’t call it much of a farm. More of an estate. The James’ are stinking rich, and his father was big into racehorses. But I don’t think he has racehorses now. I saw a trailer pull in there a few months ago with two horses poking their heads out the windows, but it sure didn’t look like they were worth anything. More like they’d been pulled off the meat truck. Don’t know what happened to them.”

When I’d met Callum at the bar, there’d been a faint whiff of horses on him, so I guessed he either still had them or was involved with horses.

I dumped the rest of the wet clothes into the dryer and shut the door. “Where’s his father now?” I picked up two coins from the counter and plopped them in the slot before pressing the big green button. The wet clothes clambered over each other as they tumbled in the drum.

“Not sure. God, I’ve been dying to see that place for years, but it’s a bloody fortress.”

I’d been uneasy about taking Callum up on his offer because he didn’t seem the type to do something out of the goodness of his heart. But then, I was basing that off of what, exactly? Meeting him once. I hadn’t heard a single rumor circulating about him, and I’d Googled him before I took the job. But Callum James was a ghost. I couldn’t even find his name under the ownership of Zero Crow. But then, I was no expert on digging through the dark web of the Internet and finding those who didn’t want to be found. The question was why wouldn’t he want to be found?

The bell above the front door dinged, and an elderly woman with a cane struggled to get through the door with her laundry cart.

“Mrs. Franklin, wait.” Addie hopped off the washer and ran over to help her. “Here. Let me.” She held the door open with one hand while moving the elderly lady’s laundry cart inside so she could come in.

“Oh, honey. That’s so sweet of you.”

Addie smiled, but that smile faded when a police cruiser pulled into the parking lot.

The lady rambled on, “… last week her Muffin peed all over my roses, and when he came in the house, he lifted his leg on my new couch.”

The SUV stopped in front of the laundromat, and the driver’s door opened. An officer unfolded from the cruiser, looking like he was SWAT and had just busted a mafia drug ring.

He wore a dark blue uniform with a bulletproof vest that had the word “POLICE” across it in reflective lettering. He had on cargo pants paired with two thigh holsters, as well as one on his hip, all of them holding weapons.

His sleeves were pushed up to reveal the tattoos running the length of his left forearm. He didn’t have a police cap on, but his short walnut strands were messy, as if he had been wearing one.

His gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses shielded his eyes, but he looked about thirty and was tall—really tall—with a muscled, sculpted frame.

He shut his door and strode around the front of the SUV, heading toward the laundromat.

Addie stumbled back, crashing into the laundry cart and knocking it over.

I frowned. What was going on? She looked like she was terrified she was going to be arrested for murder.

The bell above the door dinged.

Addie ran over and grabbed her purse off the washer. “I gotta go.”

“Whoa, what’s going on? What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Mason,” a very deep masculine voice barked. “Don’t even think about it.”

Addie’s body twisted as she swung her gaze to the door. “Crap,” she mumbled. She inhaled a breath. “Hey, Saint. What are you doing here?” she replied with a tense smile as she tossed her purse back onto the washer.

He bent to right the laundry cart she’d toppled over and said something to Mrs. Franklin, who smiled at him. She responded, but I couldn’t hear what she said, and he politely nodded.

Then all niceties evaporated as he locked eyes on Addie again. He headed toward us, and his combat boots didn’t thump or clonk: they were completely soundless, just like him.

It was obvious he wasn’t interested in me. He didn’t even look at me. No, his radar was laser-focused on Addie.

“You meet Macayla yet? We went to camp together. Ethan North’s sister,” Addie said with a slight quiver in her tone as he stopped a few feet from her. “Macayla, this is Saint. Or Gabe. Or you can call him Chief. He likes that one.”

Saint’s head tilted with an almost undistinguishable nod in my direction.

“Hey,” I said.

He stepped closer to Addie. “You lose your phone, Mason?”

“No.” She sidestepped him. But Saint was having none of it. He moved, swift and agile, caging her between his muscled arms and one of the washing machines.

He didn’t touch her, but he didn’t have to. His pure, unadulterated magnitude was enough to keep anyone from escaping.

“I called,” he said. “Numerous times.”

She shrugged. “I’ve been busy.”

He removed his sunglasses and tossed them on top of the washing machine Addie had her butt pressed against. He had beautiful eyes, dark with long black lashes that any girl would kill for.

“I call, you need to answer.” His tone was laced with warning.

I stiffened. Addie had never mentioned dating anyone. Or maybe Saint was her ex? Either way, him demanding she answer his phone calls was asshole territory.

Addie fiddled with the cuffs of her sleeves, pulling them down so they covered the bulbs of her palms. She often did that. She also always wore long sleeves, even when it was scorching hot outside.

“I was out of town,” she said.

“I know. I got a call.”

She shifted her weight, and she gripped the edge of the washing machine so tight her knuckles turned white. She didn’t respond, and that wasn’t like her.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t want to get involved, especially when he was a cop. Not only a cop, but the Chief of Police, but I couldn’t just stand here and let him talk to her like that.

I opened my mouth to tell him to back off when his head dipped, and the tension in his body eased.

“Aderyn,” he whispered, almost as if it was painful.

Her shoulders slumped, and she stared at the floor between them.

He glanced back up at her and raised his hand as if he was going to touch her cheek, but then he curled it into a fist and abruptly dropped his arm to his side.

He scowled and pushed off the washing machine, stepping back. “I won’t always be able to smooth things over.”

Her body stiffened and her head snapped up as she glared at him. “So don’t. I never asked you to.”

He inhaled and watched her for a second. Then he snagged his sunglasses off the washing machine and put them on.

His focus shifted to me like the slow-moving gun on a tank. He nodded. “Macayla.”

He turned and walked away, pausing briefly to say a few words to Mrs. Pitt. She muttered something and reached out, tenderly patting his tatted forearm.

I walked over to Addie, who was staring at the floor but kept side-glancing over at Saint. “Are you okay?”

She nodded.

“I didn’t know what to do.”

“It’s fine. No big deal.”

But it was a big deal. I saw her white knuckles, the tension in her body, and I heard the quiver in her voice. I also witnessed that brief moment of pain and need in both of them.

The bell above the door dinged as Saint walked out. “What was that about? Is he your ex or something?”

She snorted. “No.”

“That’s good. I mean, he’s kind of an asshole.”

Her gaze shifted to me, and she blinked several times before looking away, then back again. She shrugged. “He hates when I don’t check in. He has this big brother overprotectiveness thing.”

There was nothing big brotherly about that. Okay, maybe him being overprotective, but that’s where it ended. Because that was an intense fireball of heat.

She rubbed her right wrist, then sighed and lowered her arms to her sides. “I better go before Jaeg fires me—again. I’ll call you later.”

She walked away, her steps unsteady as if her legs were shaking. She stopped at the door, placing her hand on the glass. The police SUV was still parked outside, and Saint was standing beside his open door with his forearms resting on the roof, watching her.

Addie raised her chin and pushed open the door. She walked right past him and climbed into her truck. He waited until she left before he folded his long length into his cruiser and slowly pulled out into the street.

Vic

I pulled into Mason Auto and parked beside a rusted red truck that needed a date with the wrecking yard.

I climbed out and saw Jaeg through the office window talking to a girl who was wearing a baseball cap and a yellow sundress with paddock boots. He was leaning against the front of his desk with his ankles crossed and arms at his sides as he lightly gripped the lip of the desk.

He wore that familiar lopsided smirk, the one he used to pick up chicks in high school. Few were immune to it, and that was probably why he never dated. His reasoning was, why date a girl when you could get her without taking her out?

I hadn’t dated either, but for different reasons. Most of the girls in school were scared of me anyway, and the only reason they were even in my scope was because I hung with Jaeg, North, and Saint. When word spread that we were fighting in the underground beneath the James’ stables, everyone started calling us the Underground Horsemen, and the fear of us intensified. But for some reason, the girls liked that even more.

I crossed my arms and leaned against the side of my truck, waiting for him to finish up. There were no sounds coming from the two bays in the garage, and I didn’t see Aderyn’s truck, so she was likely doing a house call or begging off work.

Jaeg reached behind himself to grab an invoice and passed it to the girl. She folded it up and shoved it into her small crossbody purse. She turned and headed for the door. I didn’t recognize her, but then I hadn’t been here in a long time. She looked young, maybe late teens, but it was hard to tell because she wore oversized sunglasses.

Jaeg straightened, pushing off his desk as he said something. The girl stopped and glanced over her shoulder at him.

I watched. This was where he drew them back in. Maybe make them giggle or smile, and then heat would invade their cheeks. He had it down to perfection.

But sundress-girl didn’t laugh or smile. Her body stiffened, and her lightly glossed lips tightened as she said something to him that caused Jaeg’s disarming grin to quickly drop.

The girl tugged open the door and walked out, heading straight for the rusted truck. There was a trailer hitch on the back and a sticker on the bumper that read, “Back Off” with an image of a horse kicking with both back legs. I had a feeling that’s exactly what she’d told Jaeg.

She didn’t even glance in my direction as she opened her car door, the hinges groaning in protest. She hopped in and slammed it. A large chunk of rust broke off and fell to the pavement. I expected the truck to protest when she started the engine, but it purred to life, and she reversed, then pulled out onto the street.

I pushed off the truck and headed for the office. The bell dinged when I opened the door, and Jaeg glanced up from his cell phone.

“Losing your touch,” I said.

Jaeg grunted. “She’ll warm up to me.”

“Since when do you need warming up time?”

“Fuck you. You hear from Addie?”

“No.”

“Jesus. If she wasn’t my sister, I’d fire her ass,” he said, moving toward the door that led into the garage. “She’s supposed to be at Caleb’s, and he just texted, wondering where she is.”

I was pretty sure Jaeg had already fired Addie numerous times, but as pissed as Jaeg got with her, he’d never really fire her.

“You come to tell me you’ve changed your mind and are letting them stay in the cabin?” he asked.

“No,” I replied, following him into the garage. “Why aren’t they living with North if they need a place?”

“North said Macayla doesn’t want Jackson around a bunch of strangers. He always has people around him. You know he hasn’t even met the kid?”

Of course, I didn’t know. I hadn’t talked to North since Macayla’s sixteenth birthday. I scowled. “You spoke to him.”

“Yeah, man. Just because you have your panties in a twist over him breaking our pact, doesn’t mean I do. He was seriously fucked up.” He glanced over at me. “And just for the record, I don’t wear panties.”

I snorted. Fuckin’ Jaeg. Despite, his parents dying and what went down with Aderyn, the guy had somehow kept his sense of humor.

What Jaeg didn’t know was that it had nothing to do with North violating Zero Crow, and had everything do with Macayla.

Jaeg walked over to an Audi Q7 and opened the driver’s door. He half bent, reaching inside and under the steering wheel. He popped the hood, then straightened and walked around to the front and slid his hand into the gap, fiddling for a second before he opened the hood.

“I’m going fishing this afternoon. Want to come? It’ll be the last time before I dock the boat for winter. The quiet might do your screwed-up head some good.”

I huffed. Jaeg wasn’t a quiet fisherman. He talked. And I had no doubt he’d spend it trying to convince me to let them stay in my cabin.

I leaned up against the wooden workbench along the back wall that had a black slate board above it to hold tools. “You still have that piece-of-shit fishing boat?”

“Sure do. The good old Master Baiter is looking good. Painted it this summer.”

“Paint isn’t going to stop that rust bucket from sinking—again.”

“Hey, the Master Baiter saved your ass. It has sentimental value.” Jaeg picked up a torque wrench off the black metal toolbox and ducked under the hood. The wrench must have slipped off whatever he was going to loosen or tighten because he swore beneath his breath.

That sentimental value was the memory of Jaeg, North, and me clinging to its hull in freezing cold water after the boat capsized in a storm. We should’ve died of hypothermia, and would’ve, if North hadn’t decided to try to make it to shore. It was a near impossible feat, but one thing about North—he’d die before he gave up.

“Hettie find out yet?”

“Shit no. Had a close call this summer when she came down to the docks. I fell in the water slapping that magnetic cover over Master before she saw it.”

The corner of my mouth twitched. “She knows.”

Jaeg smirked with a shrug. “Probably. Grandma Hettie is a freakin’ bullshit detector,” he said. “Remember when she found our stash under the garden shed?”

The stash had been a shitload of cash, weapons, alcohol, and the stupid garden gnome Jaeg stole from Mrs. Danbury’s front lawn.

He shook his head. “How the hell did she know it was there?”

She’d known it was there because we were teenagers and didn’t know how to keep our emotions in check. Every time any one of us saw her go out to the shed, we’d get tense. It only took one Sunday night dinner with all of us there and her banging around in the shed to have all our nerves shot. She came out of that shed, her eyes shifting to each of us sitting at the patio table, and that was it. She knew we were hiding something. Hettie never said anything about the gnome or the cash, but weapons and alcohol were on her shit list, which meant we were on her shit list.

“Just like she knows you’re hiding something about the girl and the kid,” I said.

“They have names, you know,” Jaeg said.

It was always easier to keep people at a distance if they were nameless. It was too late with Macayla. Her name became bone deep on her sixth birthday, but saying it out loud would only make it worse.

He shoved the rag back into his pocket. “So, is that why you’re here? She send the interrogator in?”

Jaeg didn’t know exactly what I did to the sick assholes I interrogated, but he’d have a good idea that I wasn’t coercing them with apple pie and the promise of freedom. I’d never promise something I wouldn’t follow through with, and giving one of those sick fucks freedom would never happen.

“If I was interrogating you, you’d know it. She thinks they’re on the run from an ex and is worried.”

He dragged his forearm across his forehead, wiping away a bead of sweat. “Don’t know.”

“Bullshit.” And I knew he was bullshitting because the finger on his right hand tapped his thigh.

“All North said was that she’d lost Jackson for a while and now has him back.” He walked over to the toolbox on wheels and opened the top drawer.

“Did the kid’s father have custody?” As I said the words, it didn’t make sense. From what I’d seen, Macayla was a great mother, and no way would the courts give full custody to the father. A father who had obviously hurt the kid.

“North doesn’t know who the father is.” He raised his head and looked at me with a grin. “What do you care, anyway? Unless you have the hots for her.”

My jaw flexed. “They’re in my cabin. I have the right to know if some crazy ex will be showing up with guns blazing, looking for his ex-wife and kid.”

“Fuck, man, you’ll be gone in a few days anyway. Stay out of it. She and the kid have obviously been through something, and they don’t need you being an asshole.”

“You put them in my cabin and now you tell me to stay the fuck out of it?”

“I didn’t expect you to come back.”

“But I did. And I’m here, and I’m not leaving.” The words were out of my mouth before I’d even processed what they implied. Shit—four days ago I was sitting in my truck ready to leave town, and now I was staying and getting involved. And this wasn’t because of Hettie being worried. This was because of Macayla. Because of the kid cowering on the floor of the bedroom. It was because she touched me, and it didn’t hurt. It had never hurt.

Jaeg ran his hand through his hair and propped his ass against the Audi with one leg crooked. “Mac wants to tell you anything, that’s for her to do.”

Even if Jaeg knew more than he was telling me, the guy was a vault. Always had been. When he was eighteen, he’d taken the beating of his life, and it wasn’t in the underground. He’d been chained to a fence in an abandoned industrial yard and used as a punching bag by some asshole and his crew. The guy was looking for his girl. A girl he’d also used as a punching bag, which was why Jaeg helped her get away from him.

They’d left him there after the beating. If Callum, Saint, North, and I hadn’t found him when we did, he’d be dead. Stubborn as fuck, but I couldn’t fault him for it. He’d never break. He’d die before he broke his word, and as much as I hated that at this moment, I respected him for it too.

I heard tires roll into the parking lot and glimpsed the police cruiser through the window. Great, a Horsemen reunion.

Saint climbed out, wearing full gear.

He’d been on SWAT for six years in the city until shit went wrong on a mission, and he’d been shot and nearly died. But he didn’t leave SWAT because of a gunshot wound. I wasn’t sure why he’d left because he’d been good at it. Maybe the best. He’d climbed the ranks faster than any other officer.

Saint glanced at my Raptor and tapped the hood with his fist as he passed. He walked into the garage and chin lifted toward me. “Gate.” He approached, then slapped me on the back of the shoulder. “Good to see you.”

“You too.” And it was. Saint had helped me out on a few occasions. But that wasn’t the reason we’d stayed in touch. It was because of Aderyn.

“How long you in town for?” he asked.

“Not sure yet.”

“He’s deciding on whether to kick North’s baby sis out of his cabin, or drag her into his bed.”

I grunted. I knew he was kidding, but he hit a nerve because he couldn’t have been more right, which was why it was even more imperative that she leave.

“I just met her. She was in the laundromat with Aderyn.”

Jaeg swore beneath his breath. “What the hell? Seriously? My sister is at the laundromat? Fuck. She’s supposed to be at Caleb’s doing an oil change on his Range Rover.”

“It seems that’s a habit of hers,” Saint said. “Not being where she’s supposed to be.”

Jaeg pulled his cell from his back pocket and tapped on the screen. “Never hire your sister.” He walked away and put his phone to his ear. “Ads, what the fuck?” The office door slammed shut.

“How are Deck and the team?” Saint asked.

He’d never met my team, but he knew about them and what we did, as well as the fact that a lot of it was illegal. But Saint had seen firsthand what these assholes we took down did to people, the worst being human trafficking. When he had the chance, Saint did what he could to help through his legal channels.

We chatted for a few minutes about Deck, Georgie, and the new baby, then a few other guys on the team—Tyler, Connor, and Kai. And he told me about his half-sister who was currently volunteering on a nature reserve in South Africa.

Then I got down to business. “Who is Dale Richards?”

Saint frowned. “The Caramel King?”

I shrugged. “Heard his name and was checking into something.”

Saint didn’t press like Jaeg would, and that was why I was asking him. “Retired guy. Got to be in his mid-eighties now and lives in a fuck of a nice place just outside of town. Owned a caramel company. Sold it for a fortune a while back.”

That didn’t sound like someone who would scare the shit out of Macayla. Maybe it had nothing to do with Dale Richards?

Saint’s radio crackled, and a woman’s voice echoed. “We have a ten-ten in progress at the high school. Northwest parking lot. It’s Oliver again, Chief.”

Saint’s brows arched. “Sounds like us.”

A ten-ten was a fight, and we’d had our fair share of them in high school.

He unclipped his radio and raised it to his mouth while pressing the side button. “Ten-four. On my way. Two minutes out.” He reclipped the radio. “Can you meet up Friday?”

“I’m working on the house.”

He moved toward his SUV and opened his door. “You’ve been working on it for nearly a decade. Friday. We’ll hit Zero Crow for old time’s sake.” His lip twitched. “Safest place for you.”

I grunted.

He jumped in his car and peeled out, the lights flashing and siren blaring.

Macayla

I half perched on the wooden stool, the guitar across my lap and one leg bent as my foot rested on a rung.

I cleared my throat and leaned forward, lightly grasping the microphone on the stand. “Umm, so for this last song, I’d like to sing something I started writing years ago and haven’t been able to finish until recently. It’s still a little raw, but I hope you guys will like it.”

There were whistles and claps with stomping feet from the audience. Addie was at the bar shouting, “Woohoo!” with her beer in the air.

Jaeg was next to her. A blonde girl was snuggled into him, although I wasn’t sure he even noticed her.

Sam sat with a couple friends in one of the booths and he whistled, then shouted, “Mac! Mac! Mac!” I smiled at him, and he winked at me.

It was Friday night, and I was on stage at Zero Crow. To my horror, Addie had told every single person she knew that I was singing tonight, and the bar was packed.

It had been absolutely nerve-wracking, and I’d run to the washroom and dry heaved over the toilet several times before I went onstage.

But once I had my guitar across my lap, the nerves eased. Yeah, I’d felt naked and vulnerable to judgement onstage, but as terrifying as that was, I’d also found it exhilarating.

I strummed the guitar and dipped my head, my hair curtaining my face. “One. Two. Three. Four,” I whispered into the microphone.

And then everything disappeared. The nervousness. The watching eyes. The sounds of glasses clinking and the low murmur of voices.

I closed my eyes as I sang, my throat raw as the words stripped away the walls. The emotions tearing me open for everyone to see.

In this moment, I was alone with my guitar and the feelings the song evoked in me.

Tears pooled in my eyes as I sang. Every word a memory pulled from the depths and released.

Like a ball of string unravelling.

Like a caged bird being set free.

I sang the words that had been trapped inside me for so long.

The air shifted and goose bumps bounced across my skin. My fingers briefly fumbled on the strings. Not enough for anyone else to notice. But I did.

I lifted my head and gazed out across the dimly lit bar.

My heart stopped.

Vic stood near the front door, watching me.

No. Not just watching. It was more than that.

Vic was good at eye contact. It was as if he was always assessing you. And as uncomfortable as it was being under his intense scrutiny, I got the feeling that he was listening. Really listening.

And as I sang, I knew he was taking in the words.

The crumbling walls.

The torn diary pages and bumper cars in cages.

No escape from the dream because he was in my bloodstream.

Just the hooded boy in the darkness.

So misunderstood.

So misunderstood.

Because you can’t fall standing in the rain.

You can only soar. Just soar.

Close your eyes. Just close your eyes and soar.

I broke away from his intensity and closed my eyes, the words hoarse and raspy as the emotions poured from me. I knew he was still watching. And his gaze consumed me, naked and raw. And yeah, it was erotic having his eyes on me like that.

I don’t know why, but I liked it. I liked him watching me. I liked that it felt as if his fingertips were sliding over my skin like a feather.

I sang the last word, the drawn-out tone barely passing my lips in a breathless quiver.

I stared at the floor for a second, the emotions from the song still flooding me with their rawness. The bar was quiet for a second, and then there was an eruption of cheers and stomps and whistles again.

I slowly glanced up with a smile, avoiding looking in Vic’s direction. “Thank you so much,” I said into the microphone as the cheers and shouts continued. “Thank you. You guys were incredible.” I stood up, and then like a magnet, my eyes found him again. My breath was sucked from my lungs like they were attached to a high-powered vacuum, and tingles erupted from the tips of my toes to the top of my head.

Because he didn’t just look at me. Vic crawled inside of me, and it felt heated, protective, and comforting.

And yet, his expression was guarded, and I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. Why was he here in Zero Crow? I would’ve thought this was the last place he’d ever show up.

A hand landed on Vic’s shoulder, and my eyes tore from his to see Saint standing beside him. He was here with the Chief of Police.

I stood there gripping my guitar, suddenly feeling more vulnerable than I had been when I was singing. My legs shook and my heart was doing all kinds of crazy beats as I walked to the edge of the platform.

“You were amazing.” I glanced up to see Sam with his hand outstretched to help me off the stage. He smirked. “Well, I already knew you were amazing, but fuck—that was incredible. Beautiful. How are you not famous and singing in front of millions?”

I laughed, but it was forced. “Thanks. I can’t imagine singing in front of millions. I still have to get past the terror of singing in front of fifty people.”

“You blew them away, Mac. You blew me away.” He didn’t release my hand, and instead drew me to the right of the stage where it was quieter. “Listen, I know you’ve already said no to dating me a zillion times, but what if it wasn’t a date? Just friends having dinner.”

“Sam…” I started, but he squeezed my hand.

“Or lunch, if you’d rather.” He shrugged, and it was almost shy, which wasn’t like Sam. “No pressure. Just friends having a meal.”

I liked Sam. He seemed like a good guy, but the last thing Jackson needed was a strange man hanging around. My brain went straight to Vic because he was around, and Jackson liked him—a lot.

I smiled, but the expression was swallowed up when I glanced past Sam’s left shoulder and saw Vic approaching. And it was a fast approach despite the packed bar because he didn’t have to weave through the throngs of people. No, they got out of his way.

He wore army-green cargos and a black T-shirt that clung to his muscled chest and broad shoulders like a second skin. He was scowling, but then there was nothing unusual about that. What was unusual was the scorching heat blazing in his dark eyes.

And it wasn’t a slow-burning heat like a crackling fire. This was a match being struck and then thrown into a barrel of gasoline. What I didn’t know was if it was anger or something else. But I wasn’t about to find out.

A hand squeezed mine. “Mac?”

My eyes darted back to Sam. “Sorry?”

“I’m leaving soon. To go back to the city.”

Vic was twenty feet away. His eyes were locked on me, but shifted to Sam, then to our linked hands. His jaw twitched.

“Can I call you some time?”

Shit, I had to get out of here. Whatever Vic’s issue was, I didn’t want a scene in the middle of a crowded bar.

“Huh? Sorry?” My eyes darted back to Sam, and I saw he had his cell phone out.

“Can I call you?”

“Oh, uh, Sam, I like you, but… listen, sorry, but I have to go.” I was already moving away from him. “Thanks for coming tonight.”

“Okay, I’ll….” Sam’s voice faded as I took off into the crowd.

I needed to find Addie. Facing Vic alone wasn’t a good idea. Not only because he was being scary Vic, but because of the belly fluttering that turned me into a big glob of goo at his feet.

I pushed through the crowd, making my way to the bar, but several people stopped me to tell me how much they loved my songs. I smiled, inching closer to the bar, when suddenly he was there.

He stood in front of me, and everyone else faded away. It was like being trapped in a tunnel where the only light was him.

But that didn’t make sense because he was all darkness.

Neither of us said anything for a moment, and then he reached out and grabbed my hand. “Let’s go.”

Macayla

It took me a second to yank my voice past my heart that had lodged itself in my throat because Vic didn’t just grab my hand. His fingers entwined with mine, and it was intimate—sending goose bumps skipping across my skin.

“Go? Go where?” I managed to get the strangled words out after stomping my heart back into my chest.

Vic tugged, drawing me closer into him as he headed through the crowd.

“Vic.” I tried to jerk free, but his grip only tightened. “Let me go, Neanderthal, before my knee meets your balls,” I hissed, trying to keep my voice low so the patrons around us didn’t hear me.

He glanced over his shoulder, his brows lifting. “We’ve been there already. You know the outcome.”

I did. It was me pressed up against him with a gun to my head. But this was different. We were in a bar. A jam-packed bar with the Chief of Police watching us intently from twenty feet away.

Vic dragged me through the crowd, using his body as a bulldozer to clear the path for me.

A couple people touched my arm and said something as I passed, but I couldn’t hear what, so I just smiled.

Where the hell did Addie go? I was scanning the bar, looking for her when my eyes landed on Darius. He was on his cell, standing under the “Exit” sign and staring right at me. Oh God, was he calling Callum? Darius had to know who Vic was. Was he calling in reinforcements? But Darius wouldn’t do anything with the Chief of Police here, right?

Why was I worried about Vic? I should be worried about my own self-preservation.

Vic stopped at the far end of the bar and threw up the flap. He pulled me behind the counter before closing it again.

“Babes? You good?” Brin called, moving down the length of the bar toward us, her brows knitted as her eyes shifted to Vic, then to his hand in mine. “Gate,” she said.

He nodded and placed his hand on the swinging door that led into the back of the bar.

“Mac?” Brin repeated.

Vic stopped.

I so didn’t want a scene, and I also didn’t want to lose my new gig, so I smiled at her. “Landlords. I’ll just be a minute.”

Brin looked at Vic again, and then I was being pulled into the back as Vic completely ignored the “Staff Only” sign. Not that a “Staff Only” sign would stop Vic. A “Danger. Keep Out. Explosives” sign wouldn’t stop him.

The door swung closed behind us, muting the sounds of the bar. I yanked my hand from his, although it was more likely he had simply let me go, and leaned my guitar against the wall.

I crossed my arms over my chest, and despite wanting to stand my ground, I found myself backing away.

“Don’t move,” he ordered.

I continued to back away. “You can’t just drag me wherever you want, whenever you want.” I tried to keep my voice steady, but it came out a raspy, quivering, pitchy mess. Because I was unhinged. Unsettled. And yeah, heated. Whether it was still from the exhilaration of being onstage, or that Vic did something to me, I didn’t know. Okay, I did know. Vic did something to me.

He stalked toward me, the sound of his combat boots on the floor matching the drum of my heart.

“Are you scared of me?” he asked, closing the distance between us.

Yes. “Of course not.” But I continued to back away from him until my spine hit the iron gates that led into the wine cellar.

“The throbbing in your throat says otherwise.”

It was throbbing and jumping all over the place, and yeah, maybe part of it was that he scared me, but it was a different kind of scared. It was me being scared of my reaction to him. Of the sweet pulsing between my legs when he was watching me onstage.

He stopped inches away from me. “Breathe, Rainbird.”

Shit. I sucked in a lungful of air, barely processing what he’d called me.

He leaned forward, closing his hands around the bars on either side of my head and caging me in. He wasn’t touching me, but it felt as if he was all over me. I wasn’t sure whether to shove him away or grab him and pull him closer.

“You were good.”

I licked my dry lips. “Oh, thanks.”

“Too good.” I didn’t know what to say to that, so I stayed silent. “I don’t want you working here.”

My spine stiffened. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me.”

“I did, but I’m a little stunned that those words actually came out of your mouth.” Okay, a lot stunned.

“You know who owns this place?”

“Yeah, I do. And who I work for is none of your business.”

“Now, that’s where you’re wrong. Until you’re off my property, every single thing about you is my business.”

“Good thing you kicked us out, then.”

His jaw clenched.

I met his eyes, refusing to flinch under their hardness. “Why do you care, Vic? What does it matter where I work?”

“Callum James is dangerous.”

My brows arched. “And you’re not?”

He remained silent.

“Is that all? Are we finished? I need to help Brin and Cali.” I put my hands on his chest and shoved, but it was like shoving a cement wall.

“Macayla.” His voice was softer, almost gentle.

My breath hitched when I heard my name pass his lips. He’d never said it before, and fireflies lit my entire body at the sound.

God, this man did things to me. Things that had my insides bouncing on a trampoline and made my head muddled.

“Why are you here?” he asked.

“Why are you back after five years?” I retorted.

“Because I fucked up on a mission. Needed to get my head straight.”

Whoa. I hadn’t expected that reply. I hadn’t expected him to answer me, let alone tell me something so… well, personal. At least personal for a man like Vic. “Oh.”

“Answer the question,” he said.

I licked the scar above my lip, and the iron bars groaned as if he was tightening his fingers around them. “Jackson and I needed a fresh start.”

“You running from an ex?”

I shook my head. “No.”

His jaw clenched and his brows furrowed like he was in pain. His eyes dipped to my hands that were still resting on his chest. No, not resting—my fingers were curled in his T-shirt.

I yanked them back and watched the rumpled material slowly flatten against his chest.

I looked up at him and saw that the hardness of his expression had evaporated, and desire burned instead in the depths of his eyes.

Hawks nose-dived in my belly. I couldn’t breathe. My body and mind were in complete chaos as they fought each another.

I was about to sway into him when, thankfully, the door swung open. The sounds from the bar leaked into the hallway, and then seconds later they were snuffed out when the door closed again.

I glanced over. Shit. Sam. He must have seen Vic pull me back here.

Sam’s eyes shifted from me to Vic and back again. “You okay, Mac?”

Was I? Not really. Yes. Maybe. My brain was mushy oatmeal, and I couldn’t think straight while my body was a fireball of heated tingles.

“She’s good,” Vic replied without even glancing at him.

Sam’s runners squeaked on the hardwood as he approached. His gaze shifted briefly to Vic, then slingshot back to me. “I’d like to hear it from her.”

Tension radiated off Vic, and as controlled as he was, there was always a breaking point. And I had a feeling Vic wouldn’t appreciate a guy getting in his space or his business. I put my hand on his forearm. “Don’t.”

His eyes snapped to mine and then to my hand on his arm. I thought he’d say something mean or shrug my hand off, but he didn’t.

I lowered my hand and peered at Sam, smiling. “Sam, really. I’m fine.”

He stopped his approach, but his eyes were narrowed as if he was deciding whether to believe me or not. And I got it. He was being thoughtful and concerned for my safety because some guy he’d probably never seen in the bar before had dragged me into the back room. It didn’t look good.

“Is he your boyfriend or something?”

Or something.

“You heard her, kid. She’s good. Leave.”

Kid? Sam was older than me, and there was nothing kidlike about him. But no matter how lean and muscled Sam was, I was pretty sure he was no match for Vic.

“Sam, thanks for checking on me. But I’m fine.”

He hesitated, and then he nodded before turning and walking out. But from his hurried steps and rigid back, there was no question he wasn’t letting this go. “He doesn’t believe me,” I said.

“I know.”

“He’ll get the bouncers.”

“Yes.”

“They’ll throw you out.”

“They can try.”

“Callum will hear about it.”

There was the smallest upward twitch at the corner of his mouth. “Concerned for my welfare, Rainbird?”

I decided to be honest because I really didn’t want to see what would happen if Callum heard that the man who tried to kill him was in his bar. “Yeah.”

“He already knows.” He nodded up and to the right. At first I couldn’t see anything, and then I noticed the tiny glass reflection in the ceiling. It was the size of a dime, and nearly impossible to see unless you knew about it.

My mouth gaped. A camera. I’d been working here for three months and never knew there were cameras, and Brin hadn’t said anything. “Aren’t you worried?”

A glimmer of amusement lit his eyes for a second. “Do I look worried?”

No, he definitely didn’t. Despite the tension in his tatted, flexed arms, he looked relaxed, as if there was nothing unusual about him leaning over me in the back hallway of a bar. A bar owned by a man who’d likely kill him if given the chance. Okay, I was way overexaggerating, but my head was spinning with Vic standing so close.

“But Addie said….” There was no way to put this delicately. “Addie said you tried to kill him.”

He nodded. “There’s that.”

I swallowed, my chest rising and falling as I stared at him. Every little sound beyond the door was causing my anxiety to heighten. I was worried the bouncers would bust through the door at any second and try to drag Vic out. And when I said try, I meant try—because there was no chance they’d be able to.

But my biggest fear was Darius because he’d been on the phone. Okay, there was no way Callum could drive here from the city in less than two hours. Shit, unless he had a helicopter…. Did he have a helicopter? Addie said he was stinking rich. Did that mean helicopter-worthy stinking rich?

“Relax,” Vic murmured.

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

Why? Because I was scared for him when I probably didn’t need to be. Because every single inhale was spiked with him. Because his heated breath wafting across my cheek sent shivers through me. Because despite everything, my body liked him. Wanted him. And there was nothing I could do about it.

Vic shifted closer. “As cute as I find it that you’re concerned for my welfare, he won’t touch me here.”

Oh my God, he found it cute? Even the word cute didn’t seem as if it would be part of Vic’s vocabulary. “Why not?”

“Zero Crow.” He lowered his voice. “It’s a pact between the five of us who fought in the underground. Callum, Jaeg, Saint, your brother, and me. Crow stands for a marker.”

The only marker I knew was for coloring. “A marker?”

“A favor, of sorts, that you can’t say no to.”

“Oh. And zero?”

“Zero tolerance for ratting on one another. Callum named the bar Zero Crow as a kind of safe place. Nothing goes down here, no matter what has happened in the past.”

He released one of the bars and lowered his hand, his fingertips grazing my hip.

My sex clenched and I swear my panties were soaked. Jesus. What the hell was wrong with me? He was telling me about some kind of pact that included my brother, and I was thinking about Vic’s hands on me and how much I wanted him to kiss me right now.

“I need to go.” And I needed him to back away. I had enough unsettling in my life and didn’t need some ex-military Special Forces badass messing with my head or my body. He was doing both.

“Macayla.” My name came out raspy and low, almost as if he’d tried to stop himself from saying it.

I stared at the small space of floor between us, not trusting myself to look at him.

He placed his crooked finger under my chin and forced me to look at him. “Macayla,” he whispered.

Was I breathing? I don’t think I’m breathing. I’m definitely not breathing. Because my head was spinning, and all I could think about was that if I inhaled, my breath would be all him, and I’d be lost.

“I don’t want to hurt you or the kid. That’s why you need to leave the cabin.”

I sucked air into my starving lungs. He’d kicked us out because he was afraid he’d hurt us? “Oh.”

His hand dropped from my chin. “You have no idea what I’m capable of, Rainbird.”

He was right. I didn’t. And I’d been hurt before by someone I should’ve been able to trust. I shouldn’t trust Vic, except I did. There was something in him. Comforting. Shielding. Protective.

Jackson saw it, too, and he’d be the last person to trust someone.

His body tightened when I placed my hand on his forearm, my fingers barely spanning the tattooed wings of the hawk. “Vic—”

I was about to tell him that a man who comes running to help a screaming kid isn’t someone who is going to hurt us, but I didn’t have the chance before the door burst open again.

I gasped, my gaze flying to the end of the hallway. I was expecting to see several bouncers, or even worse—Darius.

But it was neither. It was Saint, Jaeg, and Addie. Sam had obviously skipped the bouncers and gone right to the top to tell the Chief of Police.

“That hottie Sam told Saint you needed help,” Addie said, her gaze ping-ponging from me to Vic. A slow smile spread across her face, and her green eyes scintillated with laughter. “But it doesn’t look like she needs help to me.”

Heat blazed in my cheeks. Oh my God, she thought we were…. What? Making out?

“We’re not…. I was just….” Shit. “I mean, we were just talking.” My voice was hoarse and I stuttered, which only amplified Addie’s smile.

Jaeg propped his shoulder against the wall and crossed his arms as if he was getting primed to watch a show.

Saint was quiet, assessing the non-situation. Because that’s what it was. A non-situation. There was nothing going on.

“I… uh, was about to tell Vic that I found a place and we’re moving out of his cabin.” Then I added, “Tomorrow.”

I didn’t have to look at Vic to know his eyes were drilling into me. I already felt every inch of him all over me, but the temperature of his gaze had plummeted from the heat at the top of a volcano, to the icy depths of the Antarctic.

Jaeg’s brows furrowed as his gaze shifted from Vic to me and back again. “Are you serious. You’re really doing this? You’re kicking them out?”

“Guess where they’re moving?” Addie blurted.

I glared at her with a quick shake of my head. I didn’t want Vic to know we were moving into Callum’s guesthouse. He shouldn’t care, but after how he’d reacted to me working for Callum, I wasn’t about to find out if he’d be pissed or not.

“Where?” Jaeg asked.

“To a nice house just outside of town,” I said. Feeling Vic’s glacial eyes still on me.

“This will be interesting,” Saint said, a hint of amusement in his tone.

I glanced at him, and he winked at me.

It threw me because I didn’t expect it from the cold, hard-ass cop I’d witnessed at the laundromat the other morning.

A fist slammed into the swinging door and just missed hitting Jaeg in the head. “What do you guys think this place is? A freakin’ church?” Brin shouted. Her gaze landed on Jaeg, and there was a flicker of something in her eyes. It disappeared too quickly for me to distinguish what it was, but when Jaeg didn’t smirk or say anything like he usually did, I knew there was history there. What kind, I had no idea.

She peered past Saint, Addie, and Jaeg to glare at Vic. “You’re pushing it,” she told him, and then she looked at me. “Babes, you slammed it tonight. You’re officially our new Friday-night gig.”

I smiled, elation filling my chest. “That’s great, thanks.” I didn’t dare look at Vic, but then I didn’t have to. I felt the tension radiate off him like rays of steel. “I should go help Cali,” I said.

Vic pushed away from me, and I slid past him. But the instant I did, cold shivers swept through me. I hurried down the hall, feeling everyone’s eyes on me.

I grabbed my guitar, and Addie slung her arm over my shoulder. She leaned in, whispering, “Holy shit. What was that between you and Gate?”

I had no idea.

Vic

“Care to share why you had North’s little sister in the back room, looking like you were going to fuck her against the wall? Or just had?” Jaeg asked, brows arched with a curious smirk.

My jaw clenched. I didn’t like him talking about Macayla like that. She wasn’t some piece of ass, and that there was the issue. That she wasn’t.

She was everything. She was the light in the suffocating darkness, the fire in the frozen tundra, and the hand pulling me out of the rain.

“You let her work here?” I ground out.

Jaeg laughed, shaking his head and causing strands to dangle in front of his eyes. “You’re not serious right now, are you? You kick them out of your cabin, and now you’re concerned about where she’s working?”

“A bar owned by a crime lord,” I said.

Jaeg crossed his arms over his chest. “It’s legit. And you know it’s legit. Nothing goes down here. Callum agreed. Besides, it would be suicidal for anyone to start shit in his bar, and everyone knows it.”

“Then why is Darius in town?”

Jaeg shrugged. “How would I know? Maybe he’s on vacation.”

Saint didn’t say anything, which meant he didn’t know either.

I was trying to keep my shit together, but I was still vibrating from her touch. From her hands on my chest, her fingers curled into my shirt. Every second her hands had been on me, I’d counted. But it had nothing to do with pain. No, she took away the pain. This time, the counting was to stop myself from crushing my lips to hers.

Jesus, this was why I needed her gone, and yet I found myself asking, “Where’s she moving to?”

Jaeg pushed away from the wall. “No clue. And I told her to stay in the cabin. That you’d never really kick them out.”

I grunted. He was right. I wouldn’t have. I may have given them a week to get out, but there was no way I’d lock them out of the cabin. I’d leave town before I did that. But the idea of leaving town wasn’t an option anymore.

“Hey, you think Callum’s watching?” Jaeg asked, nodding toward the camera in the ceiling.

Saint shook his head. “I think he has better things to do and has his men doing the watching.”

Jaeg saluted the camera. “Hey, Cal.” Callum hated being called Cal. “Hettie says to get your ass here and help apple pick.”

“Shit, it’s apple-picking season,” Saint muttered.

The door opened. “He can’t hear you, dickwad,” Brin said as she peeked her head past the door. “Now get your asses out of here.”

Jaeg’s gaze paused on Brin, and then a slow smile spread across his face. “My lips are easy to read. Want lessons?”

Brin glared at him, then disappeared out into the bar again.

We followed. Jaeg was quickly corralled by some blonde with purple streaks in her hair who barely looked old enough to drive a car, and Saint scoured the bar, no doubt searching for Addie.

I strode straight for Darius.

I didn’t wait for an invitation as I slid into the booth, sitting across from him. He continued to shuffle the cards, not even acknowledging me. But then, Darius was stone-cold. Hated speaking. And pretty much hated everything except cigarettes and cards. And judging from the cigarette burning on the ashtray that I’d noticed he hadn’t touched once since I’d been at Zero Crow, it seemed like he was trying to give that one up.

I’d known him since we started fighting in the underground. He handled the bets and the money. He also handled anyone who got out of line, although at the time, I thought that meant he’d kicked them out. Later, I realized he did more than haul their asses out.

What I didn’t know was if Darius was still taking orders from Callum’s dad, or if he was loyal to Callum. Either way, he was here for a reason because no way would a man like him be sitting in Zero Crow without one.

“Why are you in town?” I didn’t waste my time with pleasantries because there was nothing pleasant to say.

He casually flipped over a card on the table. “Keeping an eye on things.”

“What things?” The smoke from the cigarette sitting in the ashtray wafted into my face. I picked up the glass of water and dumped it into the ashtray.

Darius didn’t react, but then, he rarely had a reaction to anything. Even when I jumped him when I was seventeen and broke his jaw for putting a gun to North’s head when North punched out a wealthy prick who called him a pussy after he lost his fight. The wealthy prick didn’t like losing money.

His cell lit up and vibrated on the table. Without even glancing at it, he slid it across the surface of the table toward me.

The screen read, “No Caller I.D”, but I knew who it was. I picked up the cell and slid my finger across the screen before placing it to my ear.

I didn’t wait for him to say anything and said, “Fire her.”

There was a low snort and then a chuckle. “Now, that wouldn’t be very nice of me,” Callum drawled.

“Since when did you acquire that attribute?”

He ignored the slight. “She’s very talented. I wish I’d known months ago she could sing like that.”

“And she’s too good to be singing in your bar.” If Logan and his band Tear Asunder heard her sing, they’d jump at the chance to help her record her songs.

“Perhaps, but that’s her call. Not yours.” My hand tightened around the phone. “Does North know you want to fuck his little sister? I imagine he’d be interested to see the recorded footage. It’s rather enlightening, even without the sound.”

I gritted my teeth. He’d been watching. Darius had likely called him the second I walked into Zero Crow. “Why is your lapdog here?”

Darius didn’t react to the insult and continued to shuffle his cards.

“Keeping an eye on things.”

I grunted. “Why?” He wouldn’t send one of his most loyal men to the James’ to keep an eye on things for no reason.

Callum chuckled. “Do I need a reason? It’s my bar. Does North know his little sister is living in your cabin?”

“They’re moving tomorrow.” The words scraped my throat. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like her hold on me, and now the kid had one on me too. How I wanted to lock them away in my cabin and throw away the key. And that was even more of a reason why they had to go.

There was a rustle over the phone as if he had shifted in his leather chair. “So they are. I’m sure more luxurious than your derelict cabin in the middle of the woods.”

His casual, cocky tone raised all kinds of red flags, and it was like an army of red ants were marching down my spine. He knew where they were moving? Yeah, she worked for him, so maybe she’d told Brin and Brin told Callum. But why did he care? Why was he interested in Macayla? Or was he trying to find out why I gave a shit about Macayla?

Callum wasn’t one to have idle conversation just for the hell of it. Especially with the man who nearly killed him, and would’ve if Saint hadn’t been there, so there was a reason he was asking. What I didn’t like was that Jaeg hadn’t known where she was moving either, and Macayla had tensed when Addie mentioned it.

“They’ll be much more comfortable. I’ve had Darius stock the fridge and…”

The rest of his words became a blur. It was as if the words had yanked the pin on a grenade, and my insides were going to explode with the slightest movement.

My hand tightened around the cell phone, and the rigid plastic groaned under the pressure. I didn’t lose my shit very often, but there was a tsunami in my bloodstream.

Callum’s. She and the kid were moving into Callum’s? His fuckin’ farm? Where they had illegal fights under the goddamn stables. Where his men often hid when they needed to lay low for a while. Men who had no morals except loyalty to the James’. Where his psycho brother had lived.

No way in hell were they moving into Callum’s farmhouse. Fuck no.

Jackson wasn’t going to be anywhere near that shit. I knew Callum would never touch Macayla, but I didn’t trust a single one of his men. No way were they living on a crime lord’s property while I was still breathing fuckin’ air.

“Does Macayla know what you do for a living? What she’s exposing her kid to?”

“Nothing illegal goes on at the farm, and her brother trusts me. Unlike you.”

North trusted him because Callum saved his life. “That’s not happening,” I managed to get past my constricted throat.

“She means something to you,” Callum said. “The question is why does a stone-cold killer care about a girl he just met? Unless, of course, you’ve met her before.”

I flexed my jaw. North obviously hadn’t told him. “She’s North’s sister.”

“No,” Callum drawled. He paused, and I heard the clink as if he was dropping ice into a crystal glass. “It’s more than that.”

It was. It was a fuck of a lot more.

“They’re staying in the cabin,” I ground out and tossed the cell onto the table.

Darius watched me, one forearm casually resting on the table as he leaned back, looking relaxed. But it was his other hand under the table that made me suspect a gun was taped to the underside.

“Nothing touches her.”

He gave a barely distinguishable nod. I might not like Darius, but he was just as dangerous as me, and nothing would deter him from ensuring that.

I abruptly rose to my feet, scanning the bar for Macayla. I found her standing at the bar with her back to me while Brin placed several pitchers of beer on the tray in front of her.

Christ, I had to get out of here. I tore my eyes away from her and walked out of the bar.

Macayla

“Did you check under the bed? That’s where he was last time,” I called from the kitchen. I grabbed the bag of carrots from the fridge drawer and tossed them into the box alongside the apples and bananas.

Waffles had escaped his playpen—again. A temporary playpen I’d built that could be considered rickety, at best, which was obviously how Waffles always managed to escape.

“He’s not there!” Jackson called.

Shit. The last thing he needed was to lose Waffles. Jackson was already upset about moving, even after I told him Callum’s guesthouse had a pool. His response had been that it didn’t have frogs.

“He can’t have gone far.”

I shut the fridge as my cell vibrated in my pocket. I pulled it out and glanced at the screen.

Addie: I know you’re reading my texts.

Addie had sent me a barrage of texts this morning, asking about Vic and what that was last night at Zero Crow. Texts I hadn’t responded to yet. Probably because I had no idea what to say since I didn’t know what the hell that was, and I was still trying to process it. That processing wasn’t working because I couldn’t think straight when it came to Vic Gate.

Mac: I’m packing. Call you later.

Addie: Fine. But at least tell me if he kissed you?

I sent a tongue out emoji, then a NO. Then I pocketed my cell and walked into Jackson’s bedroom. Jackson’s feet were peeking out from under his bed.

“Was he in his cage when you woke up this morning?”

“Yeah.”

I peered into the closet, then got on my hands and knees and checked under the dresser. No Waffles.

Crap. I straightened and placed my hands on my hips. How far would a skinny pig go?

My heart leapt. The door. Shit. I’d propped the screen door open while loading the car. God, would he go outside? What if he got out of the cabin?

Jackson crawled out from under the bed. I expected tears, but there weren’t any. I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.

“We’ll find him.”

“We won’t leave without him?” he asked.

“No. Of course not.”

He stared at the floor. “Promise?”

“I promise,” I said, but then I realized it was a promise I might not be able to keep. What if Waffles had wandered outside? What if a hawk had gotten him? Or a coyote? Okay, a coyote wouldn’t be around this time of day, but Waffles could be anywhere.

“Why don’t you go look in my bedroom while I check the living room?”

He nodded and ran out of the room. I quickly went and closed the screen door, then got down on my hands and knees to peer under the couch. “Waffles. Here, boy.”

I crawled over to the lounge chair and clucked my tongue. “Waffles? Here, Waffles.”

Jackson ran out of the bedroom and down the hall, and I glanced up, praying he’d found him.

“Mr. Gate is coming,” Jackson called back.

What? My heart did the usual Vic-induced hop, skip, and jump—and then escalated into a thrum of beats.

I jerked when I heard the thud of boots on the porch steps. Jackson threw open the screen door. “Can you help us find Waffles? He escaped and we can’t find him.”

Vic stood in the doorway, his gaze shifting from Jackson to me on my hands and knees beside the couch. I climbed to my feet, brushing off my jeans, even though there was nothing on them. “Umm, Jacks, why don’t you check the bathroom?”

I waited until Jackson was out of earshot, then said, “I had the screen door propped open when I was packing the car. I didn’t know he was out of his enclosure.” My voice was quivering. Why was my voice quivering?

The screen door bounced closed, and then Vic strode across the room toward me. He was wearing black cargos and a white T-shirt that clung to his broad shoulders and muscled chest. He also wore a scowl—not that a scowl was unusual for him, but this one was different. This wasn’t a pissed-off scowl. It was something else. Concern? No. Why would Vic be concerned? And what did it matter? We were leaving and I’d likely never see Vic again.

Vic stopped in front of me. “No way in hell are you and the kid moving to Callum’s.”

My heart lodged in my throat. He knew? Who told him? Not that it should matter, because Vic had no right to tell me what I could or couldn’t do. That was twice now. I glared at him. “I’ve escaped one man who told me what to do. I won’t be around another.”

His eyes narrowed. “Who?”

“What?”

“Jackson’s father?”

Oh my God. He wasn’t getting it. “I have to find Waffles.” I was moving to push by him when he slipped his hand into mine, stopping me from walking away.

My gaze flew to our linked hands and then to his face. “Vic, let me go.”

“What man?” he repeated.

“My father. Can I go find my son’s pet now?” I tried to pull my hand from his, but he closed his fingers and drew me in closer.

Shit, I couldn’t think straight when every inhale was spiked with him. I wanted to stay pissed, not melt into him like some weak, pathetic teenage girl who was in the arms of her first crush. Crush? Yeah, he was a crush because that’s what he’d do to me.

He tensed for a second and then took in a breath. “I’m asking you to stay.”

I swallowed. “What?”

“I want you both to stay in the cabin.”

I shook my head. “No.”

“Why not?” he demanded.

For so many reasons. Reasons I couldn’t even make sense of—especially when he was standing inches away from me, and all I could think about was him touching me.

“Because last night you said you were afraid you’d hurt us. And because the move will be better for Jackson.” That wasn’t exactly a lie. The last thing Jackson needed was to get too attached to Vic, only for Vic to leave. And the truth was, Jackson already liked Vic too much. “And because you’re being a bossy, overbearing… Darth Vader.”

His lip twitched. “If I’m Darth Vader, then Callum is Jabba the Hutt.”

I rolled my eyes, hating that he’d obviously watched Star Wars.

“I need you to stay.”

I jutted out my chin. “Why? Because you hate Callum and don’t trust him?”

“Yes.”

One thing about Vic was he was abruptly honest. I couldn’t, though. And I couldn’t because I liked Vic—a lot. And Jackson did too.

Vic had an unfinished house. Disappeared for years at a time and had a job hunting criminals. Bad criminals. The kind who were so bad you didn’t even hear about them on the news.

I stared at the chip in the pink nail polish on my big toe. “Vic, we can’t.”

He didn’t say anything for a second, and then he said, “Moving will make his nightmares worse.”

My eyes snapped to his.

Did he know what it was like to have night terrors? Did he have them too? Was that why he’d been running in the middle of the night—because he couldn’t sleep? Did he have nightmares about his job? About what he’d seen or done? Or did he know how Jackson felt because something had happened to Vic as a child?

“Don’t know what happened to him, not asking—yet. But moving to Callum’s farm isn’t happening,” he said quietly.

I turned away from him as tears teetered on the rims of my eyes. That’s how I felt. Like I was teetering. Ready to fall at any second.

I wouldn’t fall apart. I didn’t fall apart.

Then why did I suddenly feel like collapsing on the floor and bawling my eyes out? It felt as if all the emotions I’d kept contained for the last several months—no, for the last seven years—were erupting and I was about to disintegrate.

I could do this. I didn’t fall apart. I wasn’t that person. I survived. Jackson survived.

I didn’t break.

His warm breath wafted across the back of my neck, and sparks burst in its wake. It felt like little elastic bands were being snapped all over my skin.

And then he touched my hip, and I shuddered. Oh God. All I wanted to do was lean back into his arms and have them wrap around me. To feel his strength. His protective warmth. To feel him.

I hadn’t had that from any man. My father was as cold as the ice he coveted. And Jackson’s father—he was worse. Much worse.

I shivered and my stomach twisted as my mind searched through the heavy fog. But it was endless. There was nothing. Only the laughter somewhere in the distance, and the smell. The sweetness. God, that smell.

Vic cupped my chin, pulling me from the fog. “Stay, Rainbird,” he whispered.

This. This was why we couldn’t stay.

Because I couldn’t breathe.

Because I wanted him.

Because wanting him was dangerous.

Because nothing could ever come of it.

Because I’d break and let him in.

Most importantly, Jackson would, too, and then Vic would leave, and I wouldn’t do that to my son.

Footsteps ran down the hall. “He’s not there,” Jackson said.

Vic’s hand dropped from my chin, and he squeezed my hip once before he let it fall away too.

I sucked in a lungful of air and stepped away from him, my legs trembling. I swallowed. “Okay. We’ll check outside.”

Jackson staggered. His face paled and his eyes widened. “But how could he get outside?”

“The door was propped open earlier when I was packing the car.”

Tears spilled from his eyes. “But he wasn’t supposed to get outside. He was supposed to stay here and hide for a while.”

Oh shit. No. I ran over and crouched in front of him. “What do you mean, Jacks?”

He choked on a sob.

“Jacks, I promise I won’t get mad. Whatever it is, you can tell me. I’ll never ever hurt you.”

He bit his lower lip so hard the pink flesh whitened. “I didn’t want to go,” he sobbed. “If we couldn’t find him for a little while, we could stay here. But… he… wasn’t supposed to… go outside.”

Oh God. Oh God. He let him out. He let him out so we wouldn’t leave the cabin. I collapsed onto the backs of my heels, my chest feeling as if I had a thousand-ton bulldozer sitting on it.

Don’t break. Don’t friggin’ break.

Not in front of Jackson.

I looked up at Vic and found his eyes were already on me. “Come on, kid. We’ll look outside.”

He knew. He knew I was having trouble keeping my shit together, and Vic was giving me time.

Jackson wiped his tears with his sleeve and nodded. He ran out the door and yelled, “Waffles! Waffles!”

Vic followed. I waited until I heard the door shut before I cradled my head in my hands and cried.

Vic

“I don’t think he wants to go either. That’s why he went outside and ran away,” Jackson was saying as he carried Waffles into the cabin.

The rodent hadn’t gone far. He’d been at the far end of the porch behind a bunch of potted herbs and was chewing on a rosemary stem when we found him.

I followed Jackson inside, and the second I saw Macayla standing at the island, my insides curdled. Fuck. Her cheeks were stained with tears and her eyes were red and swollen.

She glanced up and cleared her throat. “You found him. That’s great,” she said, her voice unsteady.

There was nothing steady about her right now. Not in the way she held the back of the stool as if she needed it to stay on her feet. Or in how her chest rose and fell as she inhaled deep, ragged breaths and sniffled several times.

I didn’t like it. I didn’t like her fuckin’ tears. I didn’t like her trembling. And I sure as hell didn’t like that I couldn’t do anything about it.

This shit wasn’t continuing.

“Come on, Mr. Gate. I’ll show you his playpen. It’s temp-rare-ee ’cause you have a hard job and don’t want us here. But me and Mac built it,” Jackson said, and then disappeared into the bedroom.

I froze.

It was like a fuckin’ wrecking ball had slammed into my chest and all the air left me. Mac. He called her Mac. Not Mom. Or Mommy. Or Mama.

My brain did a replay of my conversations with Jaeg, Aderyn, and Hettie, and then the ones with Macayla and the kid. Jaeg said something about her getting him back. How long had she been away from him for the kid to not even call her Mom?

Because she was good with him—natural. And I saw the expression on her face when she looked at him. There was no question she loved the kid.

My gaze shot to Macayla. She opened her mouth to say something, but then shut it again.

“Why doesn’t he call you Mom?” I asked.

Her tongue flicked out and ran over the scar above her lip. “It’s complicated.”

“I can handle it.”

“Vic… why does it matter? We’re not your problem.”

Maybe I’d known it from the second I saw her again. Or maybe it was seeing the kid cowering on the floor. Or walking into Zero Crow and seeing her on stage and wanting to crush her against me.

Fuck, it was all of it. I didn’t care. I wasn’t fighting it any longer.

She was mine. She’d always been mine. And there was no chance in hell I was letting my Rainbird take flight.

I strode across the room toward her and stopped a foot away, inhaling the scent of coconuts and cloves. “Macayla. Look at me.”

I waited until her ocean eyes met mine before I continued. “If you’re in trouble, I’ll handle it. Nothing will touch you or the kid.”

Her shoulders sagged and a tear spilled down her cheek. I clenched my hands into fists to stop myself from touching her.

She shifted her gaze toward the bedroom. “We’re not in any trouble.”

Whoever hurt the kid was in for a shitload of trouble when I found them. But first I needed a name. “Who hurt the kid?”

Her tear-filled eyes met mine. Her lips parted, and then it was like a flicked switch as she shut me out.

Fuck. I was used to torturing people to get answers. And I got them. This situation wasn’t something I was accustomed to.

I stopped thinking about the consequences and found her hand, linking our fingers together. “The kid obviously hasn’t been living with you, and you said you’re not running from an ex. So who was he with?”

She inhaled a ragged breath. “He was in the foster system.”

My spine tightened and my gaze flicked to the bedroom. I’d been lucky to find Hettie or to have had Hettie find me. But I knew kids who had been in the system. Those who were old enough usually ran away and disappeared in the streets if the foster homes were bad. But Jackson, being so young, wouldn’t have had that option.

“You gave him up?” Even saying the words didn’t sit well with me. No matter what she’d faced, I couldn’t see her giving up her child.

She tried to pull away, but there was no way I was letting her. Her shoulders slumped. “Yes.”

“When?” I asked, keeping my voice calm and soft.

She licked the scar above her lip, but this time it was different. Hesitant. It wasn’t just a nervous habit. It was as if it was… a memory. A memory that made her nervous.

I squeezed her hand. “Babe, when did you give him up?”

Her head dipped and I hated not seeing her eyes. Those eyes that gave me a reason to breathe. That settled the turbulence in the dark depths of the water. Kept me from drowning with my brother.

And now she was drowning. “Macayla,” I urged.

“When he was born.” She glanced at the bedroom door and her expression hardened. “I’ll die before I’ll let him be taken away again.”

It was that last word that pummeled into my chest like a tank. Again. Fuck. “That won’t happen.”

Her chin jutted out and her eyes narrowed as she glared at me. “You don’t know that, Vic.”

“Yeah. I do. I don’t break my word—ever.”

“Some things you can’t control.”

“You know what I do for a living?”

She nodded. “Go after the worst criminals in the world.”

“And I don’t stop until they’re found. So when I say I won’t let him be taken from you, I mean I won’t let it happen.” A tear slipped out and trailed down her cheek. “Babe, I’m not saying I’m a good man. I’m not. But my word is solid.”

She swallowed and bit her lower lip, but refused to say anything. I let her have a minute while I listened for the kid to make sure he was still busy with Waffles.

She would’ve only been seventeen when she became pregnant. Still in high school. And living with her father by then.

She closed her eyes, her bottom lip quivering. “My dad thought…. He thought it was for the best, considering….” She stopped and her face paled. She ran her tongue over that damn scar again.

My stomach twisted. “Considering what?”

She swallowed and tipped her chin so her eyes lowered to the floor. “Considering I was still in high school and had no money.”

“Your father had money and your brother could’ve helped.”

She bit her lower lip so hard it turned white. Fuck. “Dad didn’t want Ethan to know. He’d been drafted and worked so hard to get there. If he knew…. It was just better that way.”

I scowled. Jesus Christ, her fuckin’ father. I’d never met him, even when Ethan lived here, but I knew how hard he pushed Ethan with the hockey.

But it didn’t make sense. Why would Ethan care if his sister was pregnant?

“Macayla,” I whispered, cupping her chin and grazing her lip with my thumb. “Did you want to give him up?”

Her head dipped as tears streamed down her cheeks. “I wanted what was best for Jackson. I had no way of caring for him. Not without his help. And he said Jackson would be going to a loving family that would give him everything I couldn’t.”

“Those are your father’s words, baby.”

She sighed, and a strand of hair escaped her messy knot to fall in front of her face. This time I didn’t stop myself, and my fingertips lightly grazed her cheek as I tucked the strand behind her ear.

“No.” She lifted her head and her eyes met mine. “I didn’t want to give him up, Vic.” Tears streamed down her cheeks. “They let me name him when I held him.” She choked back a sob. “And then my dad took him away. He promised… I never should’ve trusted him.”

The rage simmering inside me boiled over, and I wanted to fuckin’ hit something. Jesus. I didn’t know the laws surrounding underage parents, but I had a feeling that whatever he’d done, it couldn’t have been legal.

She shuddered, and I put my hands on her hips to keep her steady. “I should’ve fought harder, Vic. I should’ve done something more. I didn’t…. God, I didn’t know. It’s my fault he suffered. It’s my fault.”

Jesus. “Babe. Look at me.” She didn’t. “Babe.” She still didn’t. I softened my voice and crooked my finger under her chin, raising her face. “It’s not your fault.”

“Maybe if I—”

I scowled. “It’s not your fuckin’ fault. Even if it had been your choice to give him up, it wasn’t your fault what those people did to him.”

“He was supposed to be adopted. He was supposed to go to a loving home. My dad promised. He promised me.” She closed her eyes, and I saw her lips moving as if she was counting. She opened them again. “He told me I had to give up going to music school, and that I’d study finance instead. When I graduated, I’d work for him, and then in four years…” I stiffened. Fuck, don’t say it, baby. “… if I did everything he said, he’d tell me where Jackson went and I could check on him, make sure he was happy. That’s all I wanted. To be sure he was loved like my mom loved me, Vic.” She stopped, her head rising and her eyes meeting mine. “I did everything he said, but when I asked him, he refused to tell me. You know what he said?” Her eyes hardened. “He said he thought I’d have forgotten by then. Forgotten, Vic. How do you ever forget your child?”

Fuck. I’d kill the bastard. Her father was a selfish piece of shit who didn’t want anyone to know his seventeen-year-old daughter got pregnant. Who made her hide it in shame, even from her brother. Who refused to tell her where her son went.

She swallowed. “I begged him. I begged him to tell me. I even threatened to tell Ethan everything, but he said if I did that, he’d make sure Jackson disappeared forever.” She touched the scar above her lip with her tongue. “I guess now I know why he refused to tell me: it was because he didn’t know where Jackson went. There was never a loving home for him.”

“When did you find him, baby?”

“Seven months ago. When my dad refused to tell me anything, I cut myself off from him and Ethan. I was afraid Ethan might tell him, or that he’d somehow find out I was searching for Jackson. It took two years to find him. No one would tell me anything, so I hired someone to help, and found out he was never adopted because he had a congenital heart defect when he was born. He had to go through two surgeries by the time he was one, and then ended up in the foster system.”

Fuckin’ Christ. “Is he good now?”

She nodded. “Yeah.”

Why the hell did her father care whether she saw her kid or not? I shouldn’t need to ask that question because I had a messed-up, abusive, piece-of-shit father who used his kids to steal for him. But why the secrecy? Why would he care if she searched for him?

I eased her over to the kitchen and urged her to sit on a stool before she fell down. Then I grabbed a glass out of the cupboard, filled it with water, and set it in front of her. “Drink it.”

She picked up the glass, and her hand shook so bad some of the water spilled over the rim. She sipped, then set it down again. I had a hell of a lot of questions, like where the hell was Jackson’s father? Who was the father? He’d likely been seventeen, too, but old enough to take responsibility. And what did her brother know now? Was that why he hadn’t met Jackson yet? Did she not want him to?

But now wasn’t the time to drill her with questions when she was trembling, and with the kid in the next room.

“I need your number.”

“My number?”

“Yeah, baby.”

“Okay.” She pulled out her cell, tapped on the screen, and then handed it to me.

I quickly added her number, and then sent her a text so she had mine.

“Mr. Gate,” Jackson called from his bedroom. “Are you coming? Waffles is drinking from the bottle. I think he was really thirsty. Come see.”

I handed her cell back and then headed for the kid’s bedroom.

“Vic,” she called.

I stopped in the doorway.

“Jackson…. He’ll recover, right?”

I gave her a clipped nod. No matter how deep his scars were, he’d get through it with a mother like Macayla. The question was—would she? Would the guilt hanging over her for what happened to Jackson ever recede? I knew about guilt and how it fucked with you. The dark cloud filled every molecule, demanding to be heard. To control and bring you to your knees.

But if it was the last thing I ever did, I would pull her from the thick, dark cloud and bring her into the light.

The kid showed me every inch of the rodent’s playpen, if you could even call it that. It was more like a plywood monstrosity, and a rodent hazard, if you asked me, but the kid looked proud of it, and told me which screws he put in.

My brain wasn’t focused on screws or the rodent, though. It was reeling with the fact that her piece-of-shit father had forced her to give up her child. That Jackson had been taken away from her, and she blamed herself for what his foster pieces of shit had done to him.

I wanted to fuckin’ kill them, but first they’d suffer. It seemed appropriate for putting the nightmares in the kid’s eyes. Jesus, I’d like to crucify her father for forcing her to give him up. For not letting her make that choice, whether it ended up being the same one or not.

I ran my hand back and forth over my head. Christ. I didn’t like unanswered questions.

“Gotta go, kid.” I headed for the doorway.

“Mr. Gate?”

I turned to peer at him where he was sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the cage. “Call me Vic or Gate.”

“Okay.” He chewed his lower lip and avoided eye contact. “Is God mad at me ’cause I lied and let Waffles out? Will he punish me? ’Cause I can pray really hard.”

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I didn’t believe in God, but it wasn’t up to me to decide on what Macayla should want her kid’s beliefs to be.

“You won’t be punished, kid. And you don’t need to pray unless you want to. You did it because you wanted to stay and didn’t want to tell your mom. Might be easier next time to tell someone what you want. No one can be mad at you, even God, for asking for what you need. And if they do get mad, then they aren’t worth your time.”

His brows pulled together as if he was thinking about it. Then he nodded. “Okay.”

I walked out of the bedroom and saw Macayla standing in front of the kitchen sink, staring out the window with the water running. She had the glass in her hand but wasn’t filling it up.

She didn’t move for a second, and then she set the glass down, shut off the tap, and turned to look at me. “He let Waffles out on purpose,” she said, her voice scratchy and broken.

“Yeah.”

Her gaze shifted to Jackson’s bedroom, and a tear slipped over the rim of her eye and spilled down her cheek.

“Unpack the car, Rainbird.”

Macayla’s 8th birthday

Vic

The blow to the ribcage sent me flying across the room and crashing into the wall. I collapsed onto the floor, trying to suck in air, but his steel-toed boot knocked the wind out of me.

I gritted my teeth as I struggled to climb back to my feet.

Don’t show him weakness.

Don’t give him that.

I’d only made it to my knees before his fist slammed into my cheek and my head bounced off the steel bedframe.

My vision blurred and I squeezed my eyes shut, shaking my head before raising my chin and meeting his bloodshot eyes.

“It’s your fuckin’ fault,” he sneered, his bulbous nose red and flaring as he hovered over me. “You killed him.” Spit sprayed from his mouth as he slurred his words. “Shhhe’s gone ’cause of you.”

I was numb to his words. I’d heard them repeatedly for the last year, and I’d blocked them out. I’d blocked everything out.

The days and nights bled together into a black hole. I liked it there. Where he couldn’t reach me. Where no one could.

Except her. She did. And no matter how hard I tried to forget that stupid little girl, I couldn’t.

I gripped the bedframe and managed to climb to my feet. Didn’t last long. His fist plowed into my stomach, and I hunched over before my legs gave out, and I collapsed to my knees on the floor.

I couldn’t breathe. Breathe.

Her hand slid into mine and squeezed. I closed my eyes, hearing her lyrical, soothing voice.

Breathe, she said. Just breathe. I won’t hurt you.

The pain subsided and I took myself away. He couldn’t hurt me here. No one could. It was safe here.

“Fight me, damn it.” His words echoed somewhere above me. The kicks and blows faded away to nothing as I lay on the floor, the smell of blood overriding the booze.

“Pathetic,” he spit. “Y’ll n’ver amount to not’ing. Ushhlessss.” He grabbed the collar of my shirt to pick me up and hit me again, but he stumbled and fell into the wall.

A slew of unintelligible words dribbled from his mouth.

“Get up and fight me.”

I wasn’t fighting. Not today. He could beat me to a bloody pulp and there was no way I’d fight back. If I did, he’d lock me up. I was too big for the trunk now, and I’d broken the closet doors a few months ago when he’d gone to work, but there was no escape from the cold, mildew-ridden cellar.

I lay on my stomach on the floor, hearing his heavy breathing above me and the floor creaking under his weight as he swayed.

Something warm and wet dripped on the back of my neck. Spit. Blood. Sweat. Maybe all of it.

Her hand slipped into mine and squeezed.

Breathe through the pain.

He can’t hurt you here.

I heard his heavy, booted steps as he turned and walked out of my room. I placed my palms on the damaged drywall and slowly climbed to my feet.

Every breath felt as if someone was stabbing me in the fuckin’ ribs with a screwdriver. I was familiar with broken ribs, had them countless times before, and it was worse than welts or bruises. For weeks, every time I inhaled and exhaled was agony.

I walked over to the nightstand and half bent, blindly reaching behind it and feeling around until my fingers curled around the butt of the gun. The duct tape tore as I yanked it free, then peeled off the tape and shoved the gun into the back of my jeans.

I didn’t need a gun where I was going, but after Dad lost his badge because of his drinking, we’d had to move, and it wasn’t to the safest part of city. I walked across the room, grabbed my black hoodie off the bed, and inched partway out of my doorway, making sure he was gone. He was likely in his chair in front of the TV watching reruns of CSI, or some other cop show, with a cigarette dangling from his beefy lips and a glass of scotch in the hand perched on his thigh.

I slipped out into the hallway and made my way to the three steps that led to the back door.

The screen door squeaked, which was why I’d propped it open earlier. Not that he could stop me. But if he found out I’d snuck out, it would only be worse later.

I don’t know why he even bothered finding me the last time I’d run away. But Hank still had friends in the police force, and they always tracked me down.

But today was the one day of the year I’d risk everything.

I’d travel a million fuckin’ miles to get there.

Just today. One day where I could forget.

One day where I could breathe.

It took two buses, a short ride on the subway, and a mile walk to reach her house. I kept the hood low over my face so no one would see the bruises or my cut lip. The bouncing on the bus was torture, but it was worth it. I’d walk across the fuckin’ desert. Swim an ocean.

Because if I didn’t have this, I had nothing. I was nothing.

By the time I got to the house, I was sweating, and every muscle burned.

I gritted my teeth as I slowly climbed the old oak tree. I perched on the limb that faced the living room window, and took out the candy bar I’d stolen at the subway kiosk.

Then I waited for her.

And slowly, the tension in my body eased and the darkness filtered away.

Macayla

“Jack-o-bite, I have to run up to Vic’s. There’s no hot water. Will you be okay a couple minutes?”

“Yeah,” he said, not glancing up from his workbook. Jackson took after me and loved doing homework, and I never had to ask him if he had schoolwork to do because he just did it.

I dragged my sweatshirt over my head as I hurried to the door. “I’ll make you something to eat when I get back.”

He made a sort of grunting noise, which I’d learned meant he’d heard me, and was already scrunching his nose as he went back to his spelling.

I ran down the porch steps and cut around the back of the cabin, then through the trees and up the hill. I’d gone for a jog this morning while Jackson was at school, and I needed to shower before my afternoon shift. I’d picked Jackson up at noon because his class was going on a field trip to the fire station, and as cool as that sounded, he didn’t want to go, and I wasn’t going to make him.

The small pebbles from the gravel driveway embedded in the treads of my running shoes as I passed his black truck with Raptor embossed on the back.

I climbed up the new steps I’d seen him working on last week, my foot landing on the sisal mat in front of the door that read, “I’m an asshole. Go away.”

Vic was gruff and uncommunicative, and when communicative, abruptly honest. But I was fast discovering that those things didn’t make him an asshole.

I hadn’t seen or heard from Vic in a couple days. Not since I told him about Jackson. I don’t know why, but I was feeling more nervous than usual to see him. Maybe because a part of me was scared that I’d see condemnation in his eyes for giving up my son.

I raised my fist to knock on the door. But before it made contact, the door swung open.

Holy shit. My heart lodged in my throat and my belly didn’t just drop—it slingshot into the air, then plummeted and smashed through the floorboards.

Because Vic stood in the doorway half naked, his tatted, bronzed shoulders dripping with sweat or water—I wasn’t sure which, but it didn’t matter. A shirt was slung over his left shoulder as if he’d grabbed it before opening the door.

My eyes slid over the mountains and valleys of his chest, then to his eight-pack. There was a jagged scar that slashed diagonally from his mid ab to his right side and disappeared beneath the band of his jeans.

Not cargos, but jeans. Snug jeans hanging low on his hips with the top button of his fly undone as if he’d just tugged them on. And judging by the glistening wetness trickling down his naked chest, he probably had.

He pulled the charcoal-colored T-shirt off his shoulder and let the material dangle from his hand before casually tugging it over his head.

I swallowed as I watched him, trying hard not to stare, but failing miserably.

He propped his shoulder against the doorframe and crossed his arms over his chest as if waiting for me to say something.

Because I was mute. I was standing there staring at his magnificence, speechless and completely forgetting why I was here.

“Macayla.”

My breath caught in my throat. Shit. Every time Vic said my name in his graveled, marble-crushing voice, goose bumps bounced across my skin, and I wanted to stomp on each one of them, and at the same time, nurture them.

“The, uh, hot water. There isn’t any. In the cabin.” Gahh, speak in normal, full sentences, Mac. “I didn’t use it all. I mean, the tank is full or should be full. I haven’t used hot water since this morning and uh, now I have to go to work and need a shower, so do you think you could check it?” Jesus. It was verbal diarrhea, and it was spewing all over his beautiful, half-naked, towering body. “If you’re not busy,” I added.

“Shower’s upstairs.”

“Huh?”

“Haven’t finished the downstairs shower yet.”

“Upstairs?”

“Off the bedroom.”

His bedroom? He wanted me to shower here? In his shower? “You want me to shower here?”

His brows arched. It was subtle, but for him it was like a full-out expression. “You need a shower or not?”

I licked my dry lips. God, why was my throat so dry? “Well, yeah.”

He pushed away from the doorframe, and suddenly, his six-foot-four height seemed a hell of a lot taller. “I’ll check the tank. But it’s old and likely needs replaced. Might be a few days. Could be weeks if not in stock.”

“Oh. Uh. Right. But I don’t need to shower now…. Well, I do, but I can stop by Hettie’s and—”

He cut me off. “Macayla. Use the shower.”

It was no big deal. It was just a shower.

But it wasn’t just a shower. It was his shower, and it probably smelled like him, and suddenly I was having a hard time not imagining him standing in his shower, naked.

I almost groaned aloud. “Okay. I’ll just go get Jackson. I don’t want him to be alone.”

“I’ll check the tank and get the kid. Towels are under the sink. Soap and shampoo in the shower. Just need to do something first.” He went back inside and disappeared into the kitchen. I heard a squeaking, then he came back out and jogged down the steps.

He was gone before I could say anything more.

I showered in record time. Mostly because being in Vic Gate’s shower was overwhelming, and I couldn’t stop thinking about him.

I couldn’t stop thinking about his naked body up against mine. His hands gliding down my skin. His tree-trunk thighs pressed against me. Between me. On me.

By the time I jumped out of the shower, my body was a heated inferno ready to erupt.

I dried off, dressed, and opened the bathroom door into Vic’s bedroom. If you could call it a bedroom. Sure, there was a bed, but there were no personal items, no dresser, no pictures—not even a closet. Who didn’t have a closet in his bedroom?

His bag was on the floor beside the bed, still packed, with a black T-shirt spilling out of it as if he was ready to leave at any minute. His bed was made military style, with tight corners and not a single crinkle. I felt like going over and messing it up. Okay, I did pick up a pillow and smell it before tossing it carelessly back onto the bed.

I walked barefoot down the stairs and toward the kitchen, biting my lip and wondering if I should run back upstairs and straighten the pillow. Because he’d know that I’d touched it. He’d know that I was checking out his bed.

“What’s wrong with it?”

I stopped in the hallway leading into the kitchen when I heard Vic’s gruff bark.

“It has tomatoes.” Jackson never reacted to Vic’s abruptness. It was as if Vic’s superhero status negated any grumpiness.

“So?” Vic said.

“I don’t like them. They’re slimy and gross.”

I smiled. I’d asked Jackson to try everything at least once. If he didn’t like it, then he didn’t have to eat it. It was something my mom had always said. Tomatoes made the list of never ever eating again.

“Too bad. Eat it anyway.”

I rolled my eyes.

I was curious what Vic would do because there was no way Jackson would eat it anyway.

I peeked around the corner and saw them seated on blue plastic rain barrels. On my way upstairs to Vic’s shower, I’d noticed he had very little furniture. I guess it made sense, considering he was rarely here.

Vic had two sandwiches piled high on his plate, and Jackson had one. I couldn’t see the tomato, but it looked like there was kale and cucumber. Who made a kale, cucumber, and tomato sandwich for a six-year-old?

Vic picked up one of his sandwiches and took a huge bite. Jackson’s eyes widened as they travelled from Vic to his sandwich like it was some kind of monster.

I was about to walk out and tell Jackson I’d make him something else to eat at the cabin when he said, “Will I get big and strong like you?”

Vic bit into his sandwich again, nearly finishing it with two bites.

He glanced over at Jackson, his brows furrowed.

I waited for him to tell him to shut up and eat, but instead he said, “I hated tomatoes too.”

Jackson’s eyes widened as if it was the best thing he’d ever heard. “You did?”

Vic finished his first sandwich and picked up his second. “Ate them every day for fifteen days. That’s how long it took to like them.”

I didn’t think Jackson’s eyes could widen any farther, but they did. “And then you got big and strong?”

I laughed to myself. God, I wanted to squeeze him.

“No. I acquired a taste for them.”

Jackson frowned. “What’s acquire?”

“I learned to like them, kid.”

I leaned back against the wall and smiled. No matter how blunt Vic was, I liked that about him. He was honest. No bullshit, even with a six-year-old boy who looked at him like he was some kind of superhero.

But Vic Gate wasn’t a superhero. He’d made that perfectly clear.

He was a killer. But weren’t superheroes too? They killed the bad guys.

I straightened and walked into the kitchen.

The second I did, I felt Vic’s gaze swing to me, then slide down my heated skin. It had been heated because of the shower, but now it was heated because of him watching me.

My belly did that stupid flip-flop because you didn’t have Vic’s eyes on you and not feel something.

The question was what it meant exactly. And I wasn’t prepared to decipher that at the moment, or maybe ever.

My eyes shifted to Jackson sitting on the blue barrel eating his sandwich. He looked so small and frail next to Vic.

He looked up at me and grinned. That grin was like being handed the sun in the palm of your hand on a rainy day. “I’m going to like tomatoes in fourteen more days.”

I walked over, and it took everything not to pull Jackson into a hug. Instead, I did something I’d never done before and kissed the top of his head. “Wow, that’s great, little man.” I held my breath, waiting to see if he’d clam up, but it was like he didn’t even notice—or if he did, he was trusting me enough to break through the barrier.

“And I drank milk made of nuts,” he said, raising his glass that had a white film on the sides. “It was really good. Can we get some?”

“Uh, yeah, sure.”

My gaze shifted to Vic so I could ask what kind of nut milk, but the words were trapped in my throat. Because Vic was watching me.

No, not just watching.

It felt as if his piercing eyes burned right through my core and set it on fire. Like a match had been struck and was sizzling, and at any second it was going to drop to the ground and set fire to a warehouse full of fireworks.

I felt my cheeks scorch as my body burned in places it shouldn’t be burning.

My heart skipped beats, then pounded so hard against my ribcage, I was afraid he’d hear it.

He’d looked at me plenty of times, but this was different.

This was naked.

This was heated.

This was letting me in.

The question was what he’d do with me if I fell into those dark eyes.

Skewer me over an open flame, or bubble wrap me in his warm protective embrace?

I thought about what Addie had said when she’d thrown her arms around him. Five seconds. Did that mean he only let anyone embrace him for five seconds? Or had it meant something else?

My Grandpa Jack, whom I’d named Jackson after, had a five-second rule. You could let the pain or hurt in for five seconds and then you had to let it go. Was that why Vic only let her touch him for five seconds? Did something happen to him?

“Can I have strawberries now?” Jackson asked Vic, jerking me from my thoughts.

“Sure, kid.”

“I’ll get them,” I said and quickly moved past Vic to the fridge and opened the door. If I could’ve without looking like a psycho woman, I would’ve stuck my head inside right next to the cashew milk.

Cashew milk? I huffed. Who had cashew milk in their fridge? I didn’t even know there was such a thing. But then, when could I ever afford cashews, let alone cashew milk.

The cool air slowly eased the fire scorching my cheeks, and I grabbed the carton of strawberries and closed the fridge.

“Water heater is fixed but needs a new one,” Vic said.

I glanced over my shoulder at him as I set the carton in the sink and turned on the tap to wash them off. “Oh, that’s great. Thanks. I can pay for—”

He cut me off. “Jesus, you’re not paying for a new water heater.” He chin-lifted to the right. “Bowls are in the top right cupboard.”

I left the tap running over the strawberries while I reached up into the cupboard for a bowl. Despite the lack of furniture in the house, there were stacks of plates and bowls. I grabbed a bowl, lined it with a paper towel, and dumped the strawberries in.

I walked back to the island and set them down in the middle before taking one and plopping it into my mouth.

I chewed the strawberry, and the succulent juices exploded in my mouth and wet my lips. I ran my tongue over my lower lip to catch the stray droplets and heard Vic’s glass of green sludge clank down on the granite.

My gaze shot to him. But he wasn’t looking at me—not really. No, his heated eyes were on my lips.

I yanked my tongue back inside the safety of my mouth, and Vic’s eyes drifted to mine. There wasn’t a hint of desire in the depths, and yet having his eyes on my mouth felt like the most erotic thing ever.

“Can I stay with Vic today?”

“Hmm, sorry?” I swallowed the rest of the strawberry, not daring to look back at Vic again.

“Can I stay with Vic when you go to work?”

“Umm, well, Mrs. Fisherton is expecting you.” Hettie was bowling this afternoon.

“Pleeeease. Mrs. Fisherton makes me eat bananas, and her house smells like cow shit.”

“Jackson!” I admonished.

“But I wasn’t swearing. It really smells like shit, and Hettie said it was okay to use bad words in con…tape.”

I heard a snort from Vic, and the corners of his lips twitched.

That sounded exactly like something Hettie would say. “In context, little man. And I don’t want you using that word, period.” I placed my hands on the island and leaned my body against it because my legs were a little wobbly from having Vic’s eyes on me. “I don’t think Vic wants you hanging around here, Jack-o-bite. He has stuff to do.” I didn’t know what stuff, but there was no way he’d want Jackson hanging around for the next six hours.

“It’s good,” Vic stated. “Jaeg’s headed over to help with drywall.”

I looked at him, and I noticed his hand was centimeters from mine. If I twitched my pinkie finger, they’d touch. What would it be like to have his hands on my naked skin? To feel the rough and callused hands gliding across my belly. His fingertips between my legs.

And he’d touch me like he meant it. There’d be no hesitation. No uncertainty.

He’d push my limits. Bring me to my limits.

A jolt of tweaks pulsed between my legs, and I quickly yanked my hands off the counter.

Holy shit.

Vic pushed the barrel back and stood up. “You done, kid?” Jackson nodded, and Vic picked up his plate and walked over to the sink.

“You sure it’s okay if he stays with you?”

The plates clattered as he put them in the stainless sink. He didn’t have a dishwasher, although there was an empty space for one to be installed. “You think I’d say it’s good if it wasn’t good?”

No. Definitely not. As closed off as Vic was, one thing I did know was that he always said what he meant. And if he didn’t want Jackson hanging around, he’d say so.

I turned to Jackson, who looked as if he was holding his breath. “Okay, but….” He was already sliding off the barrel, and I grabbed his arm to help him. “Do exactly as Vic says. And no more bad words.”

“I will.” He reached for his empty glass that had the residue of cashew milk clinging to its sides.

Jackson hurried over to the sink to stand beside Vic and passed him his glass. Vic took it and placed it in the sink.

God, Jackson looked like a flea standing beside him. But he also looked like a little six-year-old boy standing beside his father.

Vic leaned over and tugged the dry towel off the oven handle and tossed it to Jackson. Then he proceeded to squirt soap on the plates before picking up the sponge and washing them in the sudsy water.

I watched.

This was what Jackson should’ve had growing up. A man to wash dishes with. To eat tomatoes with. To spend time together doing things like catching frogs by the stream and kicking the ball around.

I inhaled a deep breath, tears threatening to fall as I watched them together.

God, why was I getting emotional? Vic had agreed to watch Jackson for one shift, that was all.

But seeing him stand beside Vic, doing something so mundane as washing and drying dishes…. Something Jackson always groaned about doing.

Vic handed Jackson a plate to dry. He didn’t say anything as Jackson rambled on about the tomatoes, and how maybe if he ate them again for dinner, he’d like them even faster.

He switched topics like a flick of a page and told Vic about the frog he saw down at the stream this morning.

Vic remained silent as he washed the glasses. It didn’t seem to matter to Jackson that he didn’t respond. He probably didn’t even notice.

The question was whether Vic was a man he could look up to. And as much as the man triggered goose bumps that bounced across my skin like heated embers and caused tweaks between my legs, Vic wasn’t a man to date.

Not that he would anyway.

I walked over to Jackson and lightly touched his shoulder. “Call if you need anything.”

He didn’t bother looking at me as he fit in “Bye” between telling Vic about catching the frog with his bare hand and how it jumped right into his lap.

I glanced at Vic, and he turned his head as if he knew I was looking at him. His eyes met mine and my heart slammed into my ribcage.

He didn’t say anything, and I didn’t expect him to, but there was something there. Something in his eyes I hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t a spark or glimmer; it was as if a thin layer of ice had melted. Yeah, it was still rock solid and impenetrable, and it hadn’t cracked. More like the ice had thinned.

There was no denying that I liked Vic, and I liked him with Jackson and liked him being around. A lot.

But the question was for how long that would be.

Vic

It was after two in the morning by the time I’d left the police station. I’d needed to use a secure computer, and the Chief of Police’s was as good as it got without travelling to the city to use VUR’s.

Saint had been looking into who Jackson’s foster parents had been, and I’d researched her father. I’d found every single detail I could about him, including the color of his fuckin’ goddamn swim trunks.

His biggest obsession—hockey. I couldn’t dig up a lot on his childhood, but as a teenager, he’d been headed for the NHL. Concussions and knee issues, along with a torn ACL, ended that dream. It explained why he’d pushed North so hard. He wanted his kid to live his failed fuckin’ dream.

He attended Western University for finance, like Macayla had. Ended up in the corporate world, financial investments, and started his own firm which, judging from his assets, was largely successful. There were countless photos of him in the box at North’s hockey games, schmoozing his wealthy friends and clients. I even recognized a few of those wealthy pricks from my fights.

By the time I’d finished, I’d been ready to drive to her fuckin’ father’s hydro-draining, oversized house in the city and string him up by his fingernails. He had money. The bastard had money and refused to help his daughter because of what? How it would look to his rich prick friends that his teenage daughter was pregnant. It still didn’t make sense why he didn’t want North to know. Or why Macayla never told him herself.

I shoved the chair back and stood up, tempted to slam my fist through the computer screen.

What stopped me was Saint. He’d never asked what I’d been researching, but he’d seen the murderous rage in my eyes. The bastard knew me too well. He’d tossed me his Blue Jays signed baseball he’d won in a bet in high school from Peter Dumbass. I didn’t know his last name. But he was a dumbass for betting Saint he could sink ten baskets in a row. Saint excelled at sports, including basketball.

I’d gripped the baseball so hard, I was surprised it didn’t crack and turn to dust at my booted feet.

But it was Saint’s words that cut that through the rage. “Whatever you’re thinking, don’t do it. Not like that. You’ll end up losing her.”

He’d known it was about Macayla. And he knew that look on my face and what it meant. I’d have beaten her father to a bloody pulp. But it wasn’t my decision whether or not to make him pay. It was hers. But she had to know that if she wanted him to pay, I’d make sure that happened.

I pulled into the driveway and slowed when I saw headlights blazing at the cabin. I hadn’t seen Macayla since her Thursday shift when she’d picked up Jackson with drywall mud all over him.

Had she just got home? She usually only worked until midnight on Saturdays.

I rolled to a stop at the fork in the road and heard music. I frowned, shifting into Park, and the music grew louder as I opened the door and climbed out.

What the hell? It sounded like it was coming from the car stereo. I leaned into my truck and turned off the ignition, then walked toward the cabin.

I wasn’t quiet about it because there was no way she’d hear me with the oldies tune blasting. Fuck, was that “Stayin’ Alive?”

I stopped fifty feet away.

My breath locked in my lungs and my heart pounded.

There, in the illumination of the headlights, Macayla and Jackson were dancing.

If you could call it dancing at all. Because it was silly dancing.

Utterly ridiculous dancing.

Jackson wore his red track pants with a gray hoodie and runners. Macayla had on her ridiculous onesie with paddock boots. She’d slipped out of the top half and tied the sleeves together around her waist. Underneath, she wore a white tank top and one spaghetti strap had slipped off her shoulder.

She grabbed Jackson’s hands, linking them with hers, and swung them back and forth like a pendulum three times before she released one of his hands and spun him around.

The kid’s broad smile beamed, and my chest tightened. I had no clue why they were out here in the middle of the night, listening to music and dancing, but whatever the reason, the kid was laughing. He was also letting her hold his hands.

There was no rhythm or grace to her movements. Shit, they weren’t even flowing, with the way she wiggled her butt from side to side and jerked her shoulders up and down as if she was riding a jackhammer.

My mouth twitched and the tightness in my chest eased. I propped my shoulder against the birch tree and crossed my arms over my chest as I watched them in the headlights.

As ridiculous as she looked, it was also natural. Unchained.

No filters. Just her and her son dancing.

She was still that little six-year-old girl who was unafraid to talk to the filthy, angry kid who had just let his brother die.

Something wet hit my arm, and I glanced up at the falling snowflakes. It was a bit early for snow, but with the elevation of the mountains and the lake nearby, we often had it early.

I shifted my gaze back to the Macayla.

She spread her arms out and tilted her head back. Snowflakes bounced off her face like handfuls of diamonds before melting.

She spun in a circle with her arms out like the wings of a bird, and Jackson did the same while sticking his tongue out to catch the snowflakes. She laughed at him, then did the same. Both of them spun in circles while sticking their tongues out.

She stopped, her chest rising and falling rapidly as she bent and placed her hands on her knees as if to catch her breath. Jackson moved closer to her and said something. She smiled and nodded, then lightly touched her hand on top of his head and smoothed his hair back. He looked up at her and grinned. Even if I couldn’t hear it, I sensed a choked sob wrenched from her throat as she gazed at her little boy.

Jackson ran inside, and I was about to turn away before I did something I regretted, when the radio switched to Brent Morgan’s “Kiss the Girl.” And I only knew the song because Deck’s wife, Georgie, had stolen my cell before our last mission and changed my ring tone to it.

Macayla tucked her honey-colored strands behind her ears as her hips began to sway from side to side in time to the music. She closed her eyes and raised her arms above her head, her movements light. Feathery. Almost as if she was floating.

My breath stopped.

It was fuckin’ beautiful. She was fuckin’ beautiful.

And I wished the song would play over and over again so I could stare at her for eternity.

But like every song, it ended.

Macayla walked over to the open driver’s door of the car and placed one knee on the seat as she leaned in. The car’s headlights flicked off.

She straightened and shut the door, then turned, about to head to the house, when something stopped her. She turned back around and looked in my direction.

Her chest rose as she sucked in air and our eyes locked.

I should’ve walked away, but like everything with her, I didn’t do what I should’ve, and my booted feet were planted in the ground as if anchored there.

I waited to see what she’d do. But I knew. This was the Macayla who wasn’t afraid of a damaged killer.

She walked toward me, pulling on the top of the onesie. “I didn’t think you were home. Was the music too loud?” she asked, her words breathless.

“I was awake.”

She half smiled. “Of course you were. The man who never sleeps.” She rubbed her arms as if to chase away the cold. “Jackson had a nightmare, so we were silly dancing.”

“Mmm,” I murmured. That was obvious.

She grinned. “I guess you saw how silly.”

“I did.”

Even in the darkness, I could see her cheeks redden. “It’s something my mom did whenever we had a bad dream. She’d get us out of bed, and we’d go into the backyard in our pajamas and dance until all the monsters were gone.”

My brows arched. “Did it work?”

She laughed and the sound sank deep into me like a bloody anchor. Who was I kidding? I was already anchored to her. “You saw me dance. No monster can survive that.”

I chuckled, the foreign sound vibrating from deep within my chest. Fuck, what this woman did to me. It had always been from afar because that had been all I needed. Until she grew up and things shifted. And now…. Fuck, now it was debilitating without her.

She stepped closer, and the scent of cloves, sweat, and coconut slammed into me.

My cock hardened. Fuck. My control was volatile, and for once in my life I was afraid of what I’d do if I lost it.

Because I wouldn’t be able to stop.

Because I’d taste her, and there’d be no going back.

I scowled. “Go inside before something happens that you don’t want,” I warned, shoving away from the tree and straightening.

She stepped closer. So close, I felt a wisp of her warm breath on my cheek. “How do you know what I want or don’t want?” she whispered, desire burning in her eyes.

Jesus. Walk away. Leave.

I didn’t. Instead, I glared at her. “My monsters can’t be danced away, Rainbird. They’ll devour anyone in their path.”

She raised her chin, meeting my hardened gaze head-on. “Monsters don’t scare me anymore, Vic.”

I didn’t like it. I didn’t like that she wasn’t running. That she wasn’t scared of me. That my control was faltering, and every single part of me wanted to claim her. To put my little bird in a cage and never let her fly away again.

My eyes narrowed. “They should.” I turned to walk back to my truck as I said over my shoulder, “Be ready by four tomorrow.”

“Ready? For what?” she called after me.

“To go to Hettie’s. I’m driving.”

I didn’t have to look at her to see her expression. I heard her intake of breath.

The corners of my lips curved up.

Macayla

Vic was going to Hettie’s for dinner—with us. There’d been no asking if we wanted to go together. And it hadn’t been a suggestion.

I thought about leaving early and avoiding the situation completely, especially after last night. God, had I really flirted with him? Pretty much dared him to kiss me. I was totally blaming the drunken effects of silly dancing.

I glanced at my cell on the kitchen counter as I held the blow-dryer over Jackson’s charcoal slacks. Shit, it was four. What were the chances of Vic being late?

Jackson had dropped his chocolate ice-cream cone on his pants and insisted on wearing them tonight, which meant I was running late.

I heard the low rumble of Vic’s truck pull up. “Jacks, Vic is here. Can you get the—” Jackson was already running for the door. “—door,” I mumbled beneath my breath.

I wasn’t prepared for Vic. I never was, but when Jackson threw open the door and he strode in, my jaw dropped, and all kinds of twinges erupted between my legs.

He wore dark jeans that hung low on his hips with a leather belt. His shirt was a white, button-down dress shirt, untucked and casual, with the cuffs undone and pushed partway up his forearms, revealing his ink.

The scent of soap wafted off him as he walked toward me, and I had to consciously stop myself from sucking it in.

“Babe,” he said, frowning.

Burning. I smelled burning. I screeched, yanking the blow-dryer cord from the outlet. Crap, I’d nearly set the pants on fire.

He looked me up and down. “You’re not ready.” It was a statement.

I wasn’t. I’d showered and put my hair up in a messy twist, but I had on a Darth Vader T-shirt and joggers because I’d been staring at my closet deciding what to wear when Jackson came in my room with chocolate ice-cream on his pants.

So I most definitely wasn’t ready.

“There was ice cream on his pants. Can you give me five minutes?” I asked, holding them up. There was a small dark spot on the right thigh, but they would do. “Jacks. Here,” I called, and tossed him his pants.

Vic moved into the kitchen and settled his ass against the counter. “You need ten. Take ten,” he said.

“No. I can hurry. I’ll be right back.” I ran into my bedroom and glanced at the outfits scattered over my bed. I’d never spent time debating about what to wear. I’d never worried about my clothes like other kids at school, but suddenly I couldn’t decide what to wear. Not that I had too many outfits to choose from.

When I cut off all ties with my father two years ago, I’d left everything. Clothes, car, my apartment at university. Cell phone. I didn’t want a single thing that he’d paid for.

Everything I had now, I’d bought with my own money. No reminders of him. And nothing he could take away.

I skimmed through the clothes on the hangers. Was a little sexy black dress too much? Yes, definitely too much. Maybe a sweater and jeans. Jeans were always a safe option. Or I could wear the jeans with a plain black V-neck. Simple and go-anywhere style.

I heard Jackson talking to Vic and saying something about Aquaman swimming in the river this afternoon. Then he asked if Vic wanted to catch frogs with him after school tomorrow. I didn’t hear his response, but I could guess what it had been.

Screw it. I grabbed a sweaterdress off the hanger and yanked it over my head. It was charcoal gray with an oversized hood and a wide band at the hem that was snug and clung to my thighs. It was a little shorter than I liked, but it was comfortable and a go-anywhere style that looked great with my brown lace-up paddock boots.

I hurried out of the bedroom. “One more minute,” I said and darted into the bathroom where I quickly applied mascara and watermelon-pink lip gloss. A few strands had escaped the hair twist from when I’d pulled the sweaterdress over my head, but I didn’t bother tucking them back up.

I came out of the bathroom and peered around the cabin for my boots. My gaze stopped on Vic still leaning against the counter with his arms crossed, and his dark eyes heated and locked on me.

He looked down at Jackson who was standing beside him. “Kid, you want to get in the truck. Need a minute with your mom.”

“Okay.” Jackson took off outside, leaving me alone with Vic.

Vic’s gaze slid from my face down the length of my body, then back up again. He said something beneath his breath, but I couldn’t hear what.

“What’s wrong?” I glanced down at myself. Did I somehow manage to get chocolate ice cream on the sweaterdress?

I was still checking the dress when I heard the rustle of denim and the thud of his combat boots as he approached. When I looked up again, he was a foot away.

“I like the T-shirts. I like you in the ridiculous onesie too. Sexy as hell. But you dressed like that, hair up and messy and your lips glossy and smelling like fuckin’ watermelon….” He placed his hands on the wall, bridging over me. “If shit was different, you’d be up against the wall, being kissed right now.”

Oh. My. God. This wasn’t pixie-fairies in my belly. This was a swooping, fire-breathing dragon.

Vic wanted to kiss me.

I licked my lips, tasting the sweetness of the watermelon and suddenly wishing I was tasting him instead. “You also look really good, and I want to kiss you too.”

His mouth twitched, and that sent the dragons to pillage between my legs. “Not going to kiss you, Rainbird.”

The dragons coughed on smoke. “Why not?”

“Because your kid’s fifty feet away, and I don’t need him walking in here to see me ravish his mother. It would scare the shit out of him.”

Oh. OH. Holy freakin’ crap. Vic wanted to kiss me and ravish me, but he wouldn’t because he didn’t want to scare Jackson. Jesus.

“Let’s go, baby.”

Side note: Vic calling me baby was orgasm worthy.

He slipped his hand into mine, which caused a chaos of swoops, flips, and heated tingles to tap dance across my skin.

My legs felt like jelly, and if he wasn’t holding my hand, I’d have probably fallen to the floor.

Vic led me outside to his kickass truck. He opened the door for me, and I slid onto the black leather bucket seat. I peered into the backseat to make sure Jackson had his belt on.

“Why is your face all red?” Jackson asked.

Shit. I put my hand to my cheek. “Oh, ah, I’m hot.” It wasn’t a lie. I was hot. I was burning up in places I shouldn’t be.

The driver’s door opened, and Vic slid into the driver’s seat. He pressed the button and the engine rumbled to life. He glanced back over his shoulder at Jackson. “You have your belt on, kid?”

“Yep. Does this truck turn into a machine when you need to fight bad guys?”

Vic’s gaze swung to me, and I mouthed, “Transformers.” He’d come home from school talking about them last week.

Vic’s brows arched. “No, kid. But the windows are bulletproof.”

My brows lifted at that. Was that true? The truck was bulletproof?

Then he slid it into gear, and we drove out.

Macayla

Jackson squealed with laughter.

I glanced across the yard toward the apple trees. Jaeg had picked him up and put him on his shoulders so he could reach for an apple up in the tree.

Vic was with them, a bottle of water in his hand and an apple in the other. He tossed the apple into the wicker basket and raised the water bottle to his mouth.

He tilted his head back and swallowed the liquid.

How the hell could anyone look sexy drinking water? But somehow Vic made it look sexy, and I was heated and covered in tingles as I stared at him. And as if he knew I was staring at him, his head turned and his eyes settled on me.

And that gaze settling was breath stealing.

My heart stuttered and my belly flipped as if I’d just bungee jumped off the CN Tower.

I tore my eyes from him and nearly had a head-on collision with Addie who was walking across the yard toward me. Shit.

“Oh. My. God. You like him,” Addie said as she gaped at me while holding a pile of plates. “Like, like him, like him. I knew it. I knew something happened at Zero Crow.”

I laughed, but it was high-pitched and wobbly. “Don’t be ridiculous. Nothing happened.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Then why is he suddenly letting you guys stay in the cabin?”

“Because he doesn’t like Callum, and Jackson loves the cabin.”

She walked toward me, shaking her head, which made red ringlets fall over her shoulder and settle on her chest. “No, it’s more than that.” She set the plates on the picnic table and met my gaze. “You’ve been here, what, over four months, and I’ve never seen you look at a guy like that. Not even Welland. And Welland is panty melting.”

Welland was an inked up, six-foot-five muscled biker who owned Black N Heart Ink. I’d met him a month ago at Mason Auto when he brought his bike in for Jaeg to look at. I’d also seen him last Friday night at Zero Crow when I’d been onstage.

Addie didn’t know the full story about Jackson’s sperm donor. No one did, except my father. And even though I’d dated and had sex with tech-guy Kyle, Vic was the first man I really felt something for. Okay, it was more than something. It was desire. Crazy, uncontrollable desire. Everything about him made me feel this raw need.

I shrugged. “He’s good-looking.” Pathetic, Mac.

“You were drooling.”

I barked out a laugh. “Oh my God, I wasn’t.” I totally was.

I leaned over the table and grabbed the forks, keeping my head lowered because my cheeks were burning. I was thinking of Vic Gate’s hands on me. His lips. His mouth on my—

“You’re thinking about what he’ll do to you.” Addie crossed her arms and cocked her hip. “You have the hots for Vic. I can’t believe it. Well, I can, but I can’t. I mean, it’s Vic and he’s hot, but the man is untouchable. Like, literally.”

I bit down hard on my lip, trying to think of the pain instead of Vic naked on top of me. It didn’t work.

I picked up one of the plates and set it on a placemat.

I didn’t say anything. Mostly because I wasn’t sure what to say. Because I did. I liked Vic—a lot. And he wanted to kiss me. That was crazy. I was crazy for even thinking about a man like him. A man that dangerous. Who would leave. Who had a job that was dangerous and kept him away for months. No, years.

Addie put her hand on my forearm. “Mac, I’ve known him since I was a snotty-nosed kid, and I’ve never seen him with a girl. Yeah, he’s been gone a while, but I’ve never heard about him being with a girl. And I sure as hell have never seen him look at a girl like he wants to strip off her clothes like he just looked at you.”

I glanced toward the house, making sure Hettie wasn’t within earshot. I caught a glimpse of her through the window, washing something in the sink. “He’s really good with Jackson. Protective. And Jackson really likes him.”

Addie put out the last placemat. “I love Vic more than anything. Well, I hate that he doesn’t visit more often, but I understand why.” She sighed, looking at me. “He will never make a promise he can’t keep, Mac. But that means when he leaves, he’ll never promise to come back.”

Why did I know that already? But it didn’t stop how I felt about him.

I grabbed another plate and went to set it on a placemat, then realized there weren’t enough. “I think we’re short one.” I counted them. “Wait, there’s an extra plate.”

The side gate clanked, and I heard a rustle of fall leaves as someone walked along the stone walkway.

Addie grinned. “Oh, that must be her.”

I frowned. “Her? Who else is coming?”

“I invited Heidi.”

My mouth dropped open. “You didn’t. Jaeg will kill you.”

Addie shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe they’ll hit it off.”

“Saint,” Jaeg shouted. “You made it.”

Addie’s smile dropped. “Shit,” she muttered beneath her breath, then picked up her beer and chugged it back.

Saint walked around the corner of the house, wearing snug dark jeans and a light blue, button-down dress shirt. His hair was ruffled and still damp, as if he’d been in a rush and had just jumped out of the shower.

Jaeg looked at his sister and grinned with a wink.

Addie glared. I laughed. Somehow, Jaeg had known about Addie inviting Heidi and was paying her back by inviting Saint.

Saint approached, and his eyes slid to Addie, where they settled. “Mason.”

Addie clanked her beer down on the table a little too hard. “Saint.”

He looked at me and nodded. “Macayla.”

I smiled with a “Hey.” I wasn’t sure what I thought about Saint yet. It was obvious he was close with Vic and Jaeg. Well, as close as one could get with Vic. And if he was here for Sunday dinner, then Hettie liked him. What I wasn’t sure about was what was going on between him and Addie. And despite what Addie said, or rather didn’t say, there was something between them. And that something was just like what was going on with Vic and me.

My gaze darted to Vic, who was already looking at me across the yard. His dark eyes were calm and impenetrable. I couldn’t guess what he was thinking. He chugged the rest of his water and headed toward me. Well, not me specifically. But us. Addie. Saint. The picnic table.

“Why are you here?” Addie asked, glaring at Saint.

“Hettie’s mac ’n’ cheese, of course.”

“Don’t you work tonight?” she said, then chugged back more beer.

“I’m Chief, Mason. You know what that means? It means I’m boss.”

She huffed.

Saint chuckled.

Vic came up beside me, and my heart skipped several beats as bumper cars crashed in my head.

The man didn’t even have to touch me, and it still felt as if he put a protective bubble around me. God, I was in serious trouble with him. It felt as if my emotions were riding a runaway train headed straight for a brick wall.

Even worse was that there was a part of me, a huge, ginormous part, that didn’t care and wanted him to fuck me regardless. Did I just think that?

Saint nodded and his gaze moved to Vic, his brows arching. “Hettie threaten you with apple picking to get you to come to dinner?”

“He came with Macayla and Jackson. Drove them, actually,” Addie blurted.

Saint’s interested eyes skimmed over me before shifting to Addie. “Heidi not here yet?”

Her jaw dropped. “How did you…. Oh my God, you hacked my phone?”

“Mason, you hate Heidi. You’ve hated her since grade school for putting your stuffed bear in the garbage can. And you hated her in high school for writing that nasty shit about you and Avalon on the gymnasium wall.”

Jaeg jogged over with Jackson on his shoulders. He lifted him off, then slapped Saint on the back. “And because Heidi stole Welland from Avalon.”

Addie rolled her eyes. “For, like, a month. And you guys weren’t even there when I was in high school. You know sh… nothing. And where is Heidi anyway? I told her five.”

“Beer? Or are you on call?” Jaeg asked Saint, walking over to the cooler beside the barbeque.

“Not on call, but I’ll take a water,” he replied, and looked at Jackson. He crouched and held out his hand. “You must be Jackson. I’m Gabriel St. Clair, but you can call me Saint like everyone else.”

Jackson stared at the offered hand and then looked at me before his eyes shifted to Vic.

My chest filled with air and froze. Jackson was looking to Vic to see if Saint could be trusted?

Vic peered at Jackson. “He’s like Iron Man, kid.”

Jackson’s spine straightened and his eyes widened, his head snapping back to Saint. My chest exploded. Literally exploded with an orchestra of fireworks. He knew what Jackson needed to hear in order to trust Saint. He knew, and he gave it to him.

“Good to meet you, Jackson,” Saint said, shaking his hand. “You like Iron Man?”

Jackson nodded. “But Aquaman is stronger because he doesn’t have to wear a machine to make him strong.”

Saint laughed and Jaeg chuckled.

But it wasn’t either of them who had my attention. It was Vic who did because the corner of his mouth twitched, and for a second a flash of amusement smothered the darkness in his eyes. It was beautiful.

Jaeg barbequed while Saint and Vic stood and chatted with him. Occasionally, I’d see Vic’s gaze skim the backyard and stop when they landed on Jackson, who was picking the bad apples off the ground and throwing them. It was as if he was checking on him.

I, of course, barely paid attention to Addie or Hettie as we finished making the rest of the meal in the kitchen because I was constantly looking out the window at Vic. I did see Hettie and Addie exchange glances as if they knew I was drooling over him. What I didn’t know was what it meant. Did they feel sorry for me because they knew he’d leave?

Heidi had texted Addie and cancelled, saying her car wouldn’t start. Addie had then punched her brother and accused him of doing something to the car.

Just after six, we all sat at the picnic table with the red-and-white plaid tablecloth, a heat lamp and a fire pit burning. Hettie sat on my left, and to my horror, Vic sat on my right.

When I told him Jackson needed help with his ribs so I needed him beside me, Vic said he’d deal with it. Which meant that for the next hour, Vic’s thigh brushed against mine.

He piled Jackson’s plate high with ribs and mac ’n’ cheese, but when he went to scoop the quinoa cranberry salad onto his plate, Jackson shook his head. That was until he saw that Vic had an entire tower of the stuff on his plate and then asked for some. I’d noticed Vic didn’t eat the ribs or the mac ’n’ cheese, only the salad with a baked potato.

A vibration against my leg nearly sent me flying into the bowl of mac ’n’ cheese. Vic glanced at me, eyes sparking with amusement. He reached into his side pocket and took out his cell, glancing at the screen.

“No phones at the table,” Hettie scolded.

He nodded respectfully and got up from the table. He slid his finger across the screen and placed it to his ear as he walked away.

His body tensed as he listened to whoever was on the other end. His other hand closed into a fist and he said something, but he was over by the fence, so I couldn’t hear what it was.

But I knew something was wrong. Really wrong.

He lowered his phone and shoved it into his pocket. He turned, and our eyes crashed and locked. I expected to see anger swirling in the dark gray depths. But this was wreckage. Confusion. Maybe sorrow. I wanted so badly to go over to him. And what? What would you do, Macayla?

“Saint,” Vic said, approaching the table. “Can you take them home later?”

Saint didn’t hesitate. “Yeah, of course.”

Vic gave him a clipped nod. “Hettie, thanks for dinner.” His gaze slid to Jackson and paused before shifting to me. My throat was tight, and I tried to swallow but couldn’t.

Was that his team on the phone? Did they call him back in? Was he going to leave and never come back?

“’Night,” he said, and everyone said it back. He walked away, his back stiff and his hands uncurling and curling.

I bit the insides of my cheeks and grabbed the edge of the picnic table to keep from running after him and asking where he was going. And yeah, if he’d come back.

Hettie waved her hands over the table. “Eat. Eat. I don’t want to be eating leftovers all week.” There was a clinking sound as Jaeg picked up the mac ’n’ cheese to refill his plate, and Saint stood, leaning over the table to top off Jackson’s glass of pink lemonade.

I jumped when I felt a hand gently pat my thigh. Hettie. “He can look after himself. Always has.”

God, was it that obvious that I was worried about him? I half smiled at Hettie who went back to telling the story about Mr. Mendelson throwing dog poo over his fence onto Mrs. Jefferson’s yappy little white poodle.

I peered at Addie, and she was laughing while cracking open another beer. My eyes landed on Saint, and I nearly peed my pants when I found him watching me intently. But it wasn’t how Vic watched me. This was more like curiosity.

He simply raised his glass of pink lemonade and nodded at me.

Past

Vic

“Shush, dickhead. You’ll wake up Addie,” Jaeg said, punching Saint in the arm as the five of us crept through the house toward the basement stairs. The lingering smell of peanut butter wafted toward me, and I was betting there were peanut butter cookies in the kitchen. Hettie baked. Not a lot, but some, and when she did, the smell always filled the house.

“I’ll get them,” Callum whispered, then turned left down the hall toward the kitchen to grab the cookies that were no doubt sitting on the blue-and-yellow flowered plate on top of the fridge.

Jaeg opened the basement door, and we crept down the steep wooden steps, being careful to duck under the support beam that hung low over the stairs. The basement was a massive open space with dark mahogany hardwood floors and a barnwood focal wall that held a big screen TV. Shelves filled with books and games stood on either side of it.

There was a rack for fishing rods on the opposite wall beside a cupboard for the tackle box and fishing gear. Large spots on the wall were whiter where pictures of boats had once hung. Hettie had taken them down after her husband, son, and daughter-in-law drowned.

Off to the right was a guest room containing two bunk beds that Callum, North, and Saint used if they crashed here.

Callum closed the basement door, then jogged down the stairs with the plate of cookies. He placed them on the coffee table in front of the black leather sectional where Jaeg, North, and Saint were sprawled out. Everyone reached for one.

Adrenaline still pumped through my veins from the fight tonight, and I didn’t feel like eating or sitting. Instead, I strode over to the dartboard and grabbed the darts.

I’d fought a wild-eyed redheaded kid from the city who looked twenty, but was likely sixteen, my age, and beefed up on steroids. He’d been like a bulldozer with his punches, but he also moved like one, which meant I easily avoided the punches.

My knuckles were bruised and scraped, but were no longer bleeding since I’d soaked my hands after the fight. They’d feel worse tomorrow, but I liked the pain. North took it a lot worse tonight, but he might like fighting more than I did. He’d also been doing it for years, only with padding, and not in a cage beneath a crime lord’s stables.

I heard the TV come on, then a late-night comedian’s voice that was cut off as the channels flicked past until they settled on something with gunshots.

“Fuck, Crank. Good movie,” Saint said.

“What was with your psycho brother tonight? You realize he has a hate on for us, and he’s seriously fucked up, right?” Jaeg asked as Callum dropped onto the couch after snagging another cookie and putting it in his mouth. “It had to be him who put those dead rats in Hettie’s shed last month. And tonight, with him dancing around the ring whistling. I thought Darius was going to take out his gun and pop him one between the eyes.”

“Too bad he didn’t,” Ethan muttered.

We all knew Aiden James was fucked up, and it had nothing to do with the drugs he was on. Callum’s older brother had been kicked out of numerous schools. In grade three he’d killed the rats in the science classroom by beheading one and setting fire to the other. He had a thing for watching things burn. We all suspected Aiden had tortured more than just animals, and that included Callum. We’d seen the scars on his back, but he never said anything about it.

“Aren’t we all fucked up?” Callum said.

I’d like to get Aiden James in the ring, and do some torturing of my own, but the crazy asshole never fought. No, he enjoyed watching from the sidelines with this disturbed gleam in his eyes. Psycho was an understatement.

I aimed, then tossed a dart. Bullseye.

“Not like your psycho brother,” Saint chimed in, kicking his feet up on the coffee table and crossing his ankles.

I glanced over at Callum and saw his jaw was rigid. I had no idea what his relationship was like with his brother, but he never spoke bad about him. He also didn’t defend him.

“You see Sarah tonight at fuck-face’s place?” Jaeg asked as he cracked the lid on the bottle of scotch he’d grabbed from our stash under the floorboards of the garden shed before we came inside. “She looked hot in that red dress.”

I tossed another dart.

North walked over to the dartboard, grabbed the yellow darts, then pulled mine from the board and walked back to me. “Best two out of three?” I offered.

He nodded, and from the way his lips pursed and his eyes were squinting, the movement was obviously painful. He’d taken a few hits to the head, and one blow to the jaw that put him on his ass. The pain poured gasoline on the rage that lived inside him. Didn’t know where that came from and didn’t ask.

We played darts while Jaeg, Saint, and Callum chugged back scotch and talked about the party at Brandan Harrison’s place. We’d gone there before the fights, but it wasn’t to party. Callum had to have a chat with a kid. None of us asked what it was about, but you could guess it had something to do with Callum’s father. Likely the kid’s father owed him money.

I stiffened when I heard the door creak open. None of the others heard it, or the soft footfalls on the stairs, probably because they were too focused on arguing about which chick had the best ass.

I peered up the stairs to see Addie in her pink pig slippers and kitty cat extravaganza PJs. She was clutching something to her chest, likely one of her stuffed animals or dolls.

“Heads up,” I said, warning the others.

Jaeg leapt to his feet, putting the scotch behind his back and probably shitting his pants that it was Hettie. His shoulders sagged when he saw it was his little sister. “Ads, hey. What are you doing up?”

She stopped partway down the steps. “There was a light in the backyard, and I saw you out there in Grandma Hettie’s shed.”

Fuck. Aderyn’s bedroom overlooked the backyard, and the light she saw had been our flashlight as we rifled through the garden shed.

Callum reached for the bottle of scotch from behind Jaeg’s back, not caring if Aderyn saw it or not. And why would he. His father was a fuckin’ crime lord who orchestrated illegal fights beneath his stables that were full of expensive thoroughbreds. Hettie was a grandmother who drove a Mustang convertible and had tea every day at four. I’d still place my bets on Hettie though. She had pull in this town, and nothing scared her. Not even a crime lord.

Jaeg walked over to the stairs. “Go back to bed, Ads.”

Aderyn peered at Saint, Callum, and then North before her gaze landed on me. She bit her lip, and I saw tears pool in her eyes. “I… I stole Yoda yesterday. I’m sorry, Vic. I didn’t mean to. I saw it under your bed when my ball went into your room, and I took it.”

I stiffened, eyes narrowing.

“Yoda?” Jaeg asked. “What Yoda?”

“This one,” Aderyn said, uncurling her arms from around what I now knew was the stuffed Yoda. My stuffed Yoda. No, it wasn’t mine. It belonged to the little girl with the ocean-blue eyes. Macayla North.

I felt four sets of eyes drilling into me. There was no way I could deny it, and I wouldn’t. It would make Aderyn look like she was lying, and she wasn’t.

“Since when have you been a Star Wars fan?” Saint asked.

Callum chuckled. “Or sleep with stuffed animals.”

Jaeg, Callum, and Saint laughed. North was silent, his piercing eyes glued on me.

I pushed off the wall and walked to the stairs. “Thanks, Aderyn. I thought I lost it months ago,” I lied.

Her eyes brightened, and she smiled as she passed it to me. “Really?”

I nodded. “Yeah, kid.”

Jaeg strode over to us. He pulled her into his arms and kissed the top of her head. “Go back to bed before Hettie sees you.”

“Okay.” She peered past me and glanced at Saint. He winked at her, and she smiled before she took off running up the stairs.

Jaeg snatched Yoda from my hand and tossed it to Callum. “So, Vic Gate sleeps with Yoda.”

I remained silent as the boys howled with laughter. Except North. He was still watching me.

I walked over and pulled the darts out of the board. Yoda flew through the air again, and Saint caught it. “He’s kind of cute. Are you jerking off to him?”

More howling.

I tossed a dart toward Jaeg, and it penetrated the drywall right beside his head.

“Hey, dickhead, you nearly hit me,” Jaeg said.

“If I wanted to hit you, I’d have hit you,” I replied.

Saint tossed Yoda across the room to North, but he didn’t catch it because he was still eyeing me. The stuffed Yoda hit his chest and fell to the floor at North’s feet. He bent and picked it up.

North’s fingers tightened around Yoda’s neck, and if the thing’s glass eyes weren’t already bulging, they would be now. He flipped it upside down and examined the tag.

Fuck.

His head slowly lifted, and his glaring eyes landed on me.

He didn’t have to say anything. I knew exactly what was going through his head. Why did I have his sister’s Yoda? A sister he didn’t even know I knew about. Let alone had met.

“You want one, too, North?” Jaeg asked, nudging Callum in the arm and laughing.

North ignored them. It was a standoff as we stared at each another while the others laughed at something, completely oblivious to the threatening storm.

A voice crackled through the air. “Which one of you brought scotch into my house?”

All gazes, including North’s, swung to Hettie who was standing at the top of the stairs, wearing her purple plush zippered robe with a pair of white slippers and her hair knotted into a bun.

Hettie had four rules. No cell phones at the table. And no weapons, drugs, or alcohol in her house. Period.

Saint lowered his head and stared at his lap, muttering something beneath his breath. Jaeg shifted his feet and stared at the chessboard sitting on the coffee table while Callum hid the scotch behind the couch cushions.

North threw a dart at the board.

Hettie wasn’t a mind reader, but she could read a whole goddamn story in your eyes, and that was why no one was looking at her.

I didn’t lower my eyes. I didn’t have to because I didn’t drink, and even if I did, the nightmares lingering in the depths were impossible to get past. Even for Hettie.

She walked down the stairs. “Well?” Hettie asked, turning to look at each of us. “Who is responsible?”

“What scotch?” Jaeg replied.

“Jaeger Mason, you’re a Fibber McGee!” she exclaimed. “I can smell it on the lie spurting from your mouth.”

I shook my head. Idiot. I leaned up against the wall, crossing my arms.

No one spoke. And Hettie knew we wouldn’t. We had a code between us—Zero Crow. Didn’t matter what we’d done or what the consequences were, we took the consequences together.

She held out her hand. “The bottle, please.”

Callum stiffened.

Jaeg sighed, then bent over the couch and pushed the cushion aside to grab the bottle. He straightened and walked over to Hettie and passed it over.

“Thank you. I expect everyone is staying here tonight?” Hettie asked.

There were nods around the room. “Great,” she said, smiling.

Jaeg swore beneath his breath because Hettie smiling after finding alcohol in her house wasn’t a good sign.

“Don’t be up too late. Have a good night, boys.” Hettie walked up the stairs with the bottle of scotch dangling from her hand.

She stopped at the top, her hand on the doorknob. “Oh, and by the way, the driveway will need shoveling in the morning. We’re expecting fifteen centimeters tonight, and I have to drive Mr. Oliver to the hospital for his MRI.” Her lip twitched. “By six.”

The driveway was the size of a basketball court, and even with all of us shoveling, it would take us a couple hours in the freezing cold.

Jaeg’s mouth dropped open. “But Carl plows the driveway with his truck.”

“Not tomorrow, he isn’t,” Hettie replied as she waltzed out, softly shutting the door behind her.

Macayla

Three weeks. That’s how long Vic had been gone, and as much as I tried to ignore that fact, it was like a flashing billboard blaring in my head.

I wrote songs at night, but it was too cold now to sit outside, so I sat in the living room in front of the window, trying not to admit that I sat there because I was waiting for his headlights.

I’d spent a week going through all the napkins with stray lyrics written on them that I’d kept in my mother’s guitar case. Mom used to say if a lyric or phrase pops into your head, never wait to write it down. Find whatever you can and cement it in writing. Because if you don’t, it’ll be gone by the time you do.

After I cut myself off from my dad and was searching for Jackson, I’d moved back to Toronto and worked at two different bars, waitressing and taking every shift I could get in order to save money. Which meant I had a lot of cocktail napkins to sift through.

Jackson asked a few times when Vic was coming back, but when I told him I didn’t know, he shrugged and said it was okay because Vic was saving people who needed him.

I must have checked my cell a zillion times, hoping he’d text. And when someone else texted, my heart crashed against my rib cage, thinking it was Vic. It never was, but then he could be in Siberia right now, or in Columbia going after some drug lord.

“Hello?” A shrill voice echoed. “Are you going to just stand there, or give us our drinks?” I turned back to the table of thirty-something-year-old women.

“Sorry,” I said, sliding the tray of margaritas onto the bar table as the women snickered. Well, all except one who looked at me curiously. “Hey, aren’t you the girl who sings Friday nights?”

I nodded while I finished placing the drinks on the table.

She plucked the yellow umbrella from her drink. “She’s amazing. We have to come back on Friday,” she said to the other women, but they weren’t paying attention to her. No, they were looking over my left shoulder.

Goose bumps scattered across my skin, and the fine hairs on the back of my neck quivered. My hands tightened on the tray and my knees weakened.

I closed my eyes briefly, relief washing over me. He was alive.

He was alive, and he was back.

“Oh, who is that hottie?” said the woman who had an inch of foundation plastered on her face. “God, he’s like The Rock and the guy from—oh, what’s the cop show? SWAT. Who’s the smokin’ hot leader guy?”

“Hondo,” the other girl said.

“He’s coming over,” yellow umbrella girl whispered.

I couldn’t move. And I couldn’t turn around to look at him because I was afraid if I did, I’d find out he wasn’t real. That I was imagining he was here.

He didn’t have to touch me for me to know he was right beside me. He was real. He was back.

“And who might you be?” Cake-face asked, her gaze travelling up his tatted forearms to his broad shoulders and across his chest before it settled on his face.

It was as if a rod was being shoved up her ass as her back arched and she pushed out her breasts. The three buttons at the top of her shirt strained, threatening to pop.

Cake-face smiled, showing off her bright white teeth. “I haven’t seen you around town.” Her voice was laced with a syrupy sweetness that hadn’t been there two minutes ago.

She slithered one butt cheek off her bar stool to move closer to him, her arm “accidentally” brushing his as she placed her margarita on the table. “I’m Larissa Worthington, as in Worthington Real Estate.”

His eyes weren’t on her. He hadn’t even glanced in her direction. No, his gaze was still locked on me.

“If you’re looking to move here, I can help you find the most sublime place.” Her manicured hand settled on Vic’s forearm. “And I give the most thorough tours.”

Everything in him changed, but it wasn’t like a flicked switch. This was a slow, threatening boil.

His jaw tightened.

His brows dipped.

And then his gaze unlocked from mine and moved. It was like a sniper rifle about to find its target. The question was whether he’d pull the trigger or not.

Oh boy. This wasn’t going to be pretty. And I should probably say something, but she was a bitch, and I wasn’t feeling up to giving her a pass.

“I think you should get your hand off me before I snap off those fake-ass nails and shove them down your throat.”

Cake-face sucked in a breath and her mouth dropped open.

I laughed inwardly. He really had no people skills, and I liked that about him. He told it like it was.

She slammed her jaw shut, and if it were at all possible to see her brain working, it would be a giant hamster wheel churning at full speed, because I was pretty sure she wasn’t accustomed to anyone speaking to her like that.

Her head jerked from Vic to me, her lips pursed and her neck elongated like a turkey as she jutted out her chin. She humphed and grabbed her margarita, then swung around to face her friends, some of the liquid sloshing onto the table.

Vic didn’t waste time and linked his hand with mine. Then we weaved through the tables and down the hallway toward the washrooms.

He slammed his palm on the girls’ washroom door to open it and tugged me inside.

“Get out,” he ordered the three girls standing at the counter who were touching up their makeup in the mirror. Red-lipstick blondie opened her mouth to object until her eyes landed on Vic.

She slammed her mouth shut, picked up her stuff, and hurried out, the other two girls following close behind.

He released my hand and strode to the door, turning the deadbolt.

“You really don’t like people, do you?” I asked.

Or being touched. I remember Addie saying, “Five-second rule,” when she’d hugged him.

But he’d touched me. He’d wanted to kiss me. And then he left for three weeks, and I didn’t hear from him once.

“No,” he said. His predatory approach had me backing into the counter and my belly quivering.

“The girls’ bathroom?” I said, brows arching. It didn’t really seem like Vic’s style.

“No cameras.”

Right. Callum’s security system. Vic didn’t want him watching us. “When did you get back?”

“Fifty seconds ago,” he replied, still approaching.

My heart pounded and jittered so hard, I was afraid it was going to break out and slam into him.

He came here first. He came here to find me first.

He stopped in front of me, and he was so close I had to crank my neck in order to look up at him. “Was everything okay? I mean, you’re okay? You look okay, but even if you were hurt, I don’t think you’d show it. I guess if you were shot or broke your leg or something, you would, but….” His lips twitched and I clamped my mouth shut. Okay, Macayla. You sound like a rambling hyena.

“Wasn’t on a mission.”

“Oh.”

His hands settled on my waist, and tingles spread across my skin like embers of heat. “What are you….” My voice trailed off as he picked me up and set me on the countertop.

“So you don’t have to look up at me.”

Oh. My God. This man. He was such a contradiction. Or, at least, that had been my first impression. Now I wasn’t so sure.

“The kid good?” he asked.

He never called him Jackson. Not that Jackson noticed or cared. “Yeah. He’s good.”

“Nightmares?”

I nodded. “A few.” I didn’t mention that they’d increased since he’d been gone. “He’s going to a birthday party in a few weeks. A friend from school.” It was his first one ever, and we were going to pick out a present tomorrow.

Vic’s gaze shifted from my eyes to my lips where they lingered a few seconds before slowly coming back to my eyes. “One of the guys on the team was shot. Tyler. He was in Greece with Kai, another man on the team. They flew him back last week when he was stable enough.”

“Oh God.” I placed my hand on his forearm. “Will he be okay?”

His jaw flexed. “He’s in a coma.”

Oh God. No.

There was a loud pounding on the door. “Hey, unlock the door,” demanded a girl with a high-pitched whine that sounded a lot like Cake-face. “You having sex in there?”

I stiffened. “Toilet overflowed. Share with the boys,” I shouted.

There was a shuffling of feet and drunken curses.

I squeezed his arm. “Vic, I’m so sorry. What have the doctors said about his chances?”

He stared down at the stone floor between us. “Not much. Just wait and see if he wakes up.” He inhaled a breath and raised his head. “Fifty-fifty.”

“Did they catch the person who shot him?”

A glacial shield lowered over his eyes. “Yeah. Kai dealt with it.”

I didn’t ask if the man was dead. I was under no misconceptions as to what they did, and that it was hardly legal. So, it was unlikely they’d let the law deal with a man who shot one of their own.

His finger and thumb cupped my chin. “I’m not used to keeping in touch, Rainbird.” His voice was husky and low, almost as if he didn’t want to say the words. “It’s easier. No attachments. If there’s nothing to come back for, there is nothing to lose. Nothing anyone can use against me.”

Oh God. I couldn’t help myself, and placed my hands on his chest, feeling his heart beating a steady thrum.

His thumb stroked back and forth over my chin. “Every second I was gone, I thought about you. I thought about Jackson.” His jaw flexed. “Didn’t want to. Tried not to, but it’s too late, baby.” His thumb grazed my bottom lip, and it took everything not to take it in my mouth. “I won’t make a promise I can’t keep. That means I’ll never promise you I’ll come back from a mission. But I don’t want to go another day with breath still in my lungs without knowing you’re mine.”

Oh God.

Toilets flushed next door in the boys’ washroom, and the girls’ was inundated with flowery perfumes mixed with bleach. And yet, I wouldn’t trade this moment for anything. This is what I’d remember. No matter where it led.

My fingers curled in his T-shirt, and his brows furrowed for a second before he shifted closer between my legs. “I need time to do this right,” he murmured. “Don’t want to fuck it up. It means I need to talk to your brother.”

My heart skidded to a stop. “What? Why?”

His hand dropped from my chin. “Because he means something to you.”

I shook my head. “My brother and I aren’t close anymore. Haven’t been for years. He won’t care if I’m with you, Vic.”

He shoved away from me. “He’ll care, Macayla.”

I reached for his arm, fingers curling around it. “Vic. I don’t understand. Ethan has never cared about who I’ve dated. All he cares about is hockey. I never even told him about Jackson. Not until I got him back.”

“But you would’ve if your father hadn’t convinced you that Ethan would’ve hurt his career if he had had known.”

I stiffened, releasing his arm and staring at the square of toilet paper on the floor.

“What aren’t you telling me, Macayla? Why was your father so adamant that Ethan not know?”

A cold tremor trickled through me. The pounding music. The muffled laughter.

The sweet, sugary smell.

I trembled, and Vic was instantly there, sending the thoughts sinking back into the deep caverns of my mind. His arm hooked my waist, and his fingers curled around the back of my neck. Tears pooled in my eyes.

“Baby, look at me.” I didn’t. His fingers tightened. “Christ, look at me.”

He’d know. The second I looked at him he’d know. He’d see it in my eyes, and I couldn’t risk that.

“Fuck,” he muttered.

A tear trailed down my cheek and dripped off my jaw to land on my thigh and soaked into the denim. There were so many emotions tearing through me at the same time. I couldn’t latch on to just one.

Vic cupped my face in his hands. “Baby,” he whispered.

This wasn’t the time or the place. His teammate was lying in a hospital in a coma and might never wake up. What happened to me was the last thing Vic needed to hear right now.

I inhaled a ragged breath and raised my chin. “Promise me you won’t call my brother.”

He scowled. “Why?”

“Promise me, Vic. Please. I’ll tell you—just not right now. Not here.” And not until I had my shit together.

He stared at me for a few seconds, then nodded. “You nearly done your shift?”

I nodded. “Another hour.”

“I’ll pick up Jackson from Hettie’s.”

I had opened my mouth to tell him he didn’t have to do that when his hands moved to my hips and he helped me off the counter.

He linked his fingers in mine and led me to the door. He flicked the deadbolt and opened it.

Leaning against the wall with his arms crossed was Darius.

Vic gave a clipped nod. “Darius.”

Darius’ gaze slid to me, and he looked me up and down as if to make sure I still had all my limbs. Satisfied, he looked back at Vic and said, “Gate.”

Vic’s hand dropped from mine, and his arm hooked my waist, drawing me against him. Then we walked down the hallway into the bar.

Macayla

Vic: Cabin needs a deadbolt.

This was the text I received Sunday morning. A text that was five words long, lacked a single emoji, and still sent an eruption of tingles between my legs. Not that Vic was an emoji type of guy. I used to think he wasn’t the texting kind of guy either, but ever since he’d come back and we had our conversation in the girls’ bathroom, he’d texted—daily.

And my feelings for him had only intensified all week because he’d texted, installed blackout blinds on all the windows, and installed the new water heater. He’d also shown up Friday night to hear me sing, and then when I was done, he was right there next to me and whispering in my ear, telling me how good I sounded. Then he told me how much he hated all the men staring at me.

What he hadn’t done was mention anything more about why I didn’t want him to call my brother.

I swiped across my screen and typed in the passcode, then pressed the thumbs-up emoji reaction on his text because I was an emoji type of girl, especially when it was eight in the morning and I barely had my eyes peeled open. I tossed my cell onto the mattress, then threw the covers over my head to block out the sun peeking through the partially opened drapes.

I had barely slept. And the reason I hadn’t was that I’d been up until the wee hours of the morning, working on a new song. To compound the lack of sleep, my head was spinning with all things Vic.

My cell vibrated again, and I blindly reached out, patting the mattress with my palm. My hand landed on it, and I raised it to my face with one eye inched open.

Vic: Be there in five.

I darted upright. What?

Crap. I scrambled out of bed and ran into the hallway, pausing to glance in Jackson’s bedroom, but he wasn’t there. I hurried into the living room to see him tucked in the corner of the black leather couch with his coloring book on his lap, and a box of colored pencils beside him.

He was wearing his Spiderman pajamas. I said a silent “Yay.” He’d been wearing them to bed for a month now. I thought maybe it was because he was finally realizing that he wasn’t leaving. That I was permanent.

“Morning, little man,” I called.

He peered over his shoulder, and blond strands fell in front of his eyes. Definitely time for a haircut.

“Morning,” he replied.

Quietly coloring was his weekend morning ritual. He used to do it in his bedroom because he was afraid he’d make too much noise and wake me up.

“You sleep okay?”

He nodded.

There’d been no night terrors this week, and I knew I had Vic to thank for that.

I went into the washroom, peed, brushed my teeth, gargled, and then ran a brush through my hair. I was twisting the strands into a knot when I heard the thud of boots on the porch.

I emerged from the bathroom just as Jackson threw open the front door. “Jackson, what did I tell you about….” Opening the door without looking to see who it was first.

I wasn’t an awestruck kind of girl. Yeah, I’d seen my share of handsome, rugged, beautiful men, but Vic was on a whole other level.

It wasn’t just his looks though. It was the total package. His untouchable air of confidence. His unwavering protectiveness. His honesty.

Vic’s eyes shifted from Jackson to lock on me.

“Morning,” I said in a scratchy morning voice.

He nodded.

He held tools and a drill in one hand, and what appeared to be a new deadbolt in the other. I was uncertain why Vic thought a new deadbolt was suddenly necessary when the lock worked perfectly fine, but it was his cabin and we were staying in it, so I wasn’t going to argue. He stepped inside and set his tools on the little table beside the coatrack.

“Are you having breakfast with us?” Jackson asked.

“No. Putting a deadbolt on the door, kid,” he said.

“Oh.” Jackson’s shoulders sagged with disappointment.

“Umm, you can stay if you want. For breakfast. Sundays are pancakes, so if you like pancakes, you can have them with us.”

Vic’s eyes met mine, and even though it was from across the room, I felt as if he was standing right in front of me. Or behind me. Okay, all around me.

His gaze slid down the front of my body, and I detected a slight upward pull at the corners of his mouth.

I looked down at myself, and realized I was wearing my midthigh-length red T-shirt that was three sizes too big and had “Too Cute” written at the top over a huge image of Baby Yoda.

“I like pancakes,” he said.

Jackson grinned and excitedly said something too fast to even be decipherable. Not that I was listening anyway. I was thinking about Vic having pancakes with us.

It shouldn’t be a big deal, but it was, because as much as he’d been around this week and had been texting, there’d been an undeniable distance.

And I knew it had something to do with the fact I hadn’t told him everything yet.

“Great,” I managed to squeak out. “Umm, do you want coffee?”

“Don’t drink it,” he replied.

Huh, he didn’t drink coffee. I didn’t know why, but learning these tidbits about Vic seemed big. Maybe because it was personal. Like he was handing me small slivers of himself.

That was ridiculous. He liked pancakes and he didn’t drink coffee. It wasn’t as if he was divulging his deepest, darkest secrets—like the ones I was going to have to spew all over him.

I walked into the kitchen and opened the cupboard to pull out the tin of ground coffee. I filled the glass carafe with water and poured it into the percolator. I tried not to look at him, but I couldn’t help it because while Jackson was talking, Vic was handing him tools, which made Jackson grin.

I flicked the switch on the coffee maker, then went about making the pancake batter, trying not to look at them and failing miserably. Because seeing my son and Vic together made my heart swell for so many reasons. Reasons I didn’t want to contemplate right now.

Vic was kneeling on the floor while he measured a spot above the door handle, and Jackson stood beside him holding the drill with a big round attachment. Vic didn’t need Jackson’s help, and he probably didn’t want it, but he was letting him help anyway. Did Vic know how much Jackson needed this? To feel important. Worthy. Like he mattered.

Had Vic been abused or neglected as a child, and that was why he was being so good to Jackson? Or maybe it was because of his job and what he’d witnessed.

Vic said something too low for me to hear, but Jackson reached for a pair of safety glasses on the table. He passed them to Vic, and he slid them on.

I bit my lip and my belly flip-flopped. Safety glasses shouldn’t look sexy, but on Vic, they did.

Jackson passed him the drill, and a loud whir erupted, and then there was a sound of splintering as Vic drilled through the wood door, leaving a large, circular hole.

“Look, I’m helping, Mom,” Jackson said.

The bowl of batter crashed to the floor. I grabbed the edge of the counter to keep myself from falling. My heart shattered. It shattered, then melted back together.

Tears pooled in my eyes, and I tried to inhale a deep breath and failed. I wanted to sob and curl up in a little ball, and at the same time hop up and down and scream with joy.

I did neither. Mostly because I was still stunned and was unable to do anything except stare at my little boy who had called me Mom.

I quickly wiped the tears away and forced myself to speak. “Nice job, Jack-o-bite.”

I felt Vic’s eyes on me and looked at him. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t need to because it was there in his nod, and that warmth radiating from the depths of his eyes.

Jackson called me Mom for the first time. Mom. I was his mom.

I grabbed the dishcloth and bent to clean up the batter spilled all over the floor, then began mixing a new batch.

I stirred the batter with the wooden spoon, my eyes constantly flicking to Vic and Jackson.

“Phillips,” Vic said, holding out his palm while keeping the deadbolt in place.

Jackson squished his lips together as he looked at the red- and yellow-handled screwdrivers sitting on the little table.

“Yellow handle,” Vic said.

Jackson picked it up and passed it to him.

Vic held it up. “See the cross?”

Jackson stepped closer and leaned forward to peer at the tip.

“That’s a Phillips.” Vic nodded at the table. “The other one is a square. Robertson.”

Jackson pointed at Vic’s forearm. “Why do you always wear the same tattoos? Don’t you like other ones?”

I stopped stirring the batter and smiled. God, I loved him. I loved that he was no longer afraid to ask questions, and that he let me silly dance him and tuck him into bed at night. I loved that he had finally called me Mom.

I looked at Vic as he tightened the screws in the new deadbolt. “Tats are permanent.”

Jackson stepped closer to him, locking his eyes on a tattoo of a bird in flight scrawled on Vic’s left arm. “Like the big black per-men-in marker? My teacher says it stays forever and ever. But Mom drawed all over my face with the blue per-men-in marker and she got it off.”

Vic’s hand stilled and he glanced over at me.

I smiled with a shrug. “Braveheart.”

“Tats don’t come off, kid,” Vic said as he turned the handle of the screwdriver.

“Even with soap?”

“No.”

“So, never?” Jackson asked, his eyes wide with curiosity.

“Permanent means forever, kid,” he replied.

Jackson formed a huge grin, like this was the best news in the world.

I dipped my head so he couldn’t see me smiling, then turned on the burner and placed the frying pan on it.

“Can I get one too?”

My head snapped up. “No!” I blurted at the same time Vic grunted, “No.”

I don’t know why Vic saying “No” too made me all warm and cozy inside, but it did.

“But pleeese.”

As much as I loved that Jackson was asking for something, there was no chance I’d ever let him get a tattoo.

“Vic has lots of them, and he said I should ask for what I want,” he argued.

Oh boy. My gaze flicked to Vic, and his eyes were already locked on me. There was an inferno of intense heat in his gaze, laced with a hint of amusement.

His eyes shifted to my mouth, and I realized I was biting my lip. I released it and swallowed.

“I want to get one like Vic, right here,” Jackson said, pointing at his left forearm.

“I’m really glad you’re asking, Jacks. But a tattoo is out of the question. What happens when you reach my age and don’t like it anymore?” I asked.

“But you’re really old.”

I laughed and Vic grunted. I guess to a six-year-old, I was pretty old.

“But you can go get one, Mom,” he said.

“Yes, but a tattoo should be meaningful to you. Something that is part of you and that you know you’ll want forever ever. And I’m not sure what I’d get.”

“You really love music. You can get a guitar.”

My heart squeezed so tight, it was painful. He knew. My son knew how much I loved music. I mean, he’d seen me play a few times. Not often, though, because I did it at night when he was sleeping. But somehow he’d noticed my passion for music.

Jackson scrunched his nose as he thought about something. He had no awareness of how his words affected me. “I want a dragon. Because I want to be strong and breathe fire and fly whenever I want.”

Vic turned the deadbolt several times to test it, then opened it again. “A dragon is good,” Vic said.

“How about this. If you still want a tattoo when you’re sixteen, I’ll take you to get one.”

Sixteen. It was hard to imagine Jackson being sixteen. “Now, can you set the table, please?” I asked while pouring batter into the hot pan sizzling with butter.

“Okay.”

Vic tested the deadbolt with the key, then picked up his tools and set them outside on the top step. He strode into the kitchen. “Broom still in the hall closet?”

“Yeah.”

Vic got the broom, then swept up the wood shavings by the front door while Jackson set the table and I flipped pancakes. It was domestic. Normal.

Vic came up behind me. My breath hitched and my hand stilled on the spatula I had tucked under a pancake.

“How do you take your coffee?” Vic asked.

I licked my lips. “Black, thanks.”

He moved away, and I heard him open the cupboard above the coffee machine, and then the clink as he set the mug down before the soothing sound of coffee pouring into the mug.

He set the mug beside me. “Thanks,” I barely managed to get past my dry, constricted throat. God, why did I feel like I was burning up inside? Like there were a million tingles shooting through me. Like I was going to fracture if he didn’t touch me. Or was it that I’d fracture if he did?

It had been too long since he was this close.

His warm breath wafted across the back of my neck. “It’s burning.”

“Huh?”

His arm came around me, and I stiffened, sucking in a lungful of air. Oh God.

“Baby.”

My insides splintered at the sound of his low voice vibrating next to my ear. Baby. With that one word, it was as if he was touching me all over.

His fingers wrapped around the handle of the frying pan. “It’s burning.”

Huh? I glanced down and saw smoke billowing from underneath the pancake. “Crap.” It was obvious it was dangerous to be handling hot things around Vic.

He slid the pan off the element. “You finish getting whatever else you need ready. I’ll cook another batch.”

I peered over my shoulder at him, which was a mistake because his plush lips were mere inches away. “Oh, okay. Yeah, sure.” I handed him the spatula and sashayed out from between him and the stove. “Do you cook?”

He nodded. “I live alone and I like to eat, so yeah.”

He shoveled the three burnt pancakes from the pan and tossed them into the compost bin.

I opened the fridge and took out the blueberries and the chunks of honeydew melon. “What about when you’re working?” And hunting the worst motherfuckers in the world.

Vic dropped a dollop of butter into the pan and it sizzled. “MREs.”

“MREs?”

“Meals, ready to eat. Processed. Canned. Doesn’t go bad.”

I laughed. “Sounds appetizing.” I grabbed the syrup from the pantry and set it on the table alongside the bowl of fruit. “Do you like what you do, Vic?”

“I’m good at it.”

“I was really good in statistics class, but I hated it.”

His mouth twitched. “I like it, babe.”

“Did you always know that’s what you’d do?”

He flipped a pancake. “Don’t believe in fate or destiny or God. But if any of those existed, yeah, I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to do.” He looked up at me. “And I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

I bit my lip and smiled. “I like where you’re supposed to be too.”

There was a clatter, and I glanced over at Vic as he picked up the disposable compost bin. “Hey, kid, can you put this outside in the bin?”

Jackson dropped the handful of cutlery onto the table. “Okay,” he said, and eagerly ran over to grab the bin from Vic. Jackson darted outside, the screen door bouncing closed behind him. I was walking over to the fridge to grab the orange juice when Vic’s arm shot out, hooked my waist, and slingshot me into his rock-hard body.

“Vic,” I squealed with raspy breathlessness.

His fingers dug into my side as he spun me around, then settled me between the counter and his body. “Fuck, I want to kiss you. I want to have you in my fuckin’ bed naked so I can taste every single inch of you.”

Oh. My. God. “Umm, yeah, okay. I’d like that too.”

He shook his head. “No, baby. I told you. Nothing happens until I know everything—and I’ve talked to your brother. I’ve waited a week for you to come to me. To tell me whatever secret you’re hiding, and babe, I’ve given you plenty of opportunities, but you haven’t.” He lowered his voice. “Your kid is going to be back here in two minutes, maybe three. You want to tell me now or when he’s here? Either way, I’m getting an answer today.”

He sent Jackson outside so he wouldn’t hear, and as much as I didn’t like how Vic was bulldozing me for an answer, I liked that he thought of Jackson before he did it.

I swallowed. “I was raped.”

He didn’t move. Not a twitch. Not a blink. Nothing. I don’t know if he’d even heard me because he didn’t react at all. After what seemed like a minute, but was probably ten seconds, maybe twenty, he closed his eyes and tilted his head down as if he didn’t want to look at me.

Bile rose in my throat. “Vic?”

He squeezed my hips. “Baby, I need a sec.”

“Oh. Umm, yeah. Of course. Sure.”

He scowled. “Look at me.”

I did, biting my lip, uncertain of what he was thinking. Did he think I was lying? That somehow it was my fault? Did he think I asked for—

“Jesus, baby.” His hands cupped my face. “Get out of your head. I need a sec because some fuckin’ piece-of-shit bastard put his hands on you. He fuckin’ raped you. I need to pull my shit together before I rip this place apart and scare the shit out of you and your kid.” His voice softened. “Okay?”

I nodded. “Okay.”

The screen door squeaked open, then bounced shut. “Can I skip rocks after breakfast?” Jackson asked.

Vic pushed away from me, and without saying a word, he stalked from the cabin.

“Can I?” Jackson asked again.

“Oh, yeah, sure, Jacks.” I picked up the spatula and flipped pancakes while staring out the screen door. I couldn’t see him, but I could hear his combat boots on the porch, which meant he hadn’t left.

He was pacing. Not something I’d ever seen him do or could have imagined him doing.

I left the pancakes for a minute and walked on trembling legs over to the fridge. I took out the orange juice, then reached for three glasses in the upper cupboard and placed all of them on the table. I was trying not to care whether he walked away or not. But it was an impossible feat.

Jackson hopped up on one of the bar stools. He perched his elbows on the counter and rested his chin between his hands.

“I like pancakes ’cause they make me really full,” Jackson said. He paused and his teeth snagged his upper lip as if he was debating something. “I never eaten pancakes before I lived with you.”

“Really?” I managed to force from my constricted throat.

He shrugged. “We didn’t have them ever. Sometimes if I was really good, I got a peanut-butter-and-jam sandwich. But mostly just bread, except at school.”

Oh God. No. My chest squeezed, and it took everything not to run over and pull him into a bear hug. It was the first time Jackson had mentioned anything about the abuse. I’d like to think I wasn’t capable of killing anyone, but after hearing Jackson’s screams, and witnessing him flinch or cringe when anyone went to touch him, and then finding out that he’d been hungry. I just didn’t know what I’d do to those monsters who fostered him.

It had taken two years to find him, and then several months to get through all the red tape and legal bullshit to get Jackson back, and when I saw the bruises and how skinny and pale he was, I wanted to kill them.

Why hadn’t social services done anything? Why hadn’t they noticed the abuse? When I showed them Jackson’s bruises, all the social worker said was that he’s a kid and they get hurt. If it wouldn’t have risked having Jackson taken away, I’d have punched the woman. I ended up filing a police report, so they’d at least look into the foster home because I never wanted another kid to experience what Jackson had.

I shovelled three pancakes onto a plate, then moved to put them in the toaster oven to keep them warm. I put more butter in the pan, then poured batter in. “Well, you can eat as many pancakes as you want. Have you ever eaten waffles?”

He scrunched his nose and said, “Uhhhhh. Grooooosssss.”

I laughed, and some of the tension in my shoulders released. “No, silly. Not your pet Waffles. I mean waffles. They are like pancakes but have these big holes in them everywhere so that the butter and syrup pool in them.”

His mouth formed a big “O.” “Can we have waffles next Sunday?”

“Sure.” I’d have to go buy a waffle maker.

I heard Vic say into his cell, “Thirty minutes,” just before the screen door opened and he strode in.

My hand shook, making the spatula tap the side of the frying pan. I was nervous. I was afraid he’d leave. That he’d be disgusted.

He glanced at me, and it wasn’t anger swimming in the depths of his eyes. It was calm. He was calm, and in that look he was telling me to be calm.

I inhaled a deep breath and loosened my hold on the spatula.

Vic walked over and took the pan off the burner. “You good if Addie and Jaeg pick Jackson up and take him indoor rock climbing?”

Jackson overheard. “Rock climbing? Really?” He looked at me with pleading eyes. “Can I?”

I smiled. “Yeah, sure. That sounds like fun.”

“Can you and Mom come too?” Jackson asked Vic.

“Not this time, kid,” Vic replied before I had a chance to. His gaze met mine. “Need some time alone with your mom.”

My heart slammed so hard into my chest, I was afraid it was going to bust through my ribcage and take off running into my bedroom to hide under the covers. He needed time alone to talk, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to like the discussion. No, I knew I wasn’t.

Vic took the plate out of the toaster oven and put the last three pancakes from the pan on top of the pile. “Pancakes are up.”

I touched Jackson’s shoulder. “Go wash your hands, and then you can eat as many pancakes as your tummy can squish in.”

He slid off the stool and wandered into the bathroom. I heard the plastic stool scrape on the ceramic tiles as he pulled it over to the sink, then the sound of water rushing through the taps.

Vic carried the plate over to the table and set it in the center. “Is he in prison?”

I knew exactly the “he” Vic was referring to. I shook my head. “No.”

“Dead?”

I shook my head. “No.” But the truth was, I didn’t know. And I didn’t want to know.

Vic didn’t say anything for a second. “Need to do something about that.”

I frowned. “What does that mean exactly?”

He looked at me, and the calm was gone. In the dark depths was the cold hard killer. “It means whoever put his filthy hands on you will be dealt with.”

Oh. I wasn’t sure what his definition of “dealt with” meant, but I suspected he wasn’t the type of guy to do a citizen’s arrest. Not even a back alley beating.

My tongue traced the scar above my lip. “You can’t,” I whispered.

His jaw tensed and brows furrowed. “No man is walking away from that, Macayla. Not in my world.”

I glanced at the bathroom to make sure the door was still closed, then said, “You can’t because I don’t know who it is.”

Macayla’s Sixteenth Birthday

Vic

I stood with my shoulder propped up against the oak tree, watching her swing on the front porch while she wrote in a journal of some kind. She wore jeans and a pink T-shirt, and I couldn’t see what was on the shirt, but I guessed there was something. Maybe a horse or a character from Star Wars.

The ropes of the swing creaked a soothing rhythm back and forth, back and forth, her toes pushing off the wooden porch every so often to keep it swinging.

Slowly, the jagged webs snapped with each inhale, and the tightness in my chest eased. Pain trickled down my skin and pooled at my feet, then soaked into the soil.

Every year felt like a thousand.

Waiting for this one day to cut open the scars and let them bleed.

Bleed the pain and let in the quietness. The warmth. The lightness.

It was always this way. I didn’t know why, and I no longer questioned it. Or denied it.

There’d only been one time I didn’t come to her birthday. It was when I was sixteen, and North had found out about the stuffed Yoda and confronted me about it. I never told him how I ended up with it. All he knew was that I’d found it and I was keeping it.

The only reason North dropped it at the time was because he had his own demons, and had been fucked up on something. That something being painkillers, or some other kind of drug. Anything he could get his hands on.

But the year I’d stayed away, it had been like her hand had slowly slipped from mine. Every day I sank further beneath the murky surface into the cold depths of nothingness.

I wanted to kill. Destroy. Suffer. And cause suffering. Pain.

I was so fucked up I didn’t trust myself not to blindly hurt Addie or Hettie or anyone else. That’s when I joined the military and left everything and everyone.

The swing stopped when she placed her foot flat on the porch. She set her notebook aside and rose, tucking strands of her honey-blonde hair behind her ear. She looked across the yard in my direction, but I knew she couldn’t see me. I’d made sure of it.

There was a sadness in her I had never seen before. Her shoulders sagged, and even from a distance, I could see her red-rimmed eyes as if she’d been crying.

Her head dipped and her hair curtained her face as she gripped the handrail as if she was in pain.

I didn’t like it.

I frowned at the unsettling need inside me. It was different than any need I’d ever felt before. This was a need to hold her. To protect her. To kiss away the sadness.

A car door slammed on the street, then I heard footsteps, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

Fuck. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like this unknown need growing. Building. Changing.

A twig snapped behind me at the same time that she opened the squeaky screen door and disappeared inside the house.

I turned.

A fist slammed into my cheek. My head jerked to the right from the impact, and I staggered back a step.

“You fuckin’ bastard. I knew something was off with you and that fuckin’ Yoda.” He swung again, but I ducked left, and his fist plowed into the tree trunk.

Blood dripped from his knuckles, but rage feels no pain, and he kept coming. I still had on my combat gear because I’d come straight from the airport, and his punches were muted against my tactical vest.

I blocked his kick with my forearm and shoved him back. “North. It’s not what you think.”

She was my breath. The light in the darkness. The warmth in the cold. And that little girl who held my hand and kept me from drowning with my brother.

“Why?” he hissed. “Why are you watching her?” He landed a blow to the side of my head, and I gritted my teeth as my vision blurred.

Fuck this. I reacted.

North knew how to fight. And he was good. But I had combat experience, and that meant it was about living or dying.

I blocked his next blow to my side with a kick to his abdomen. Then with two movements, I flipped him onto his stomach and pinned him to the ground with his arm twisted behind his back.

There was no way out of the hold unless he wanted a broken arm. His breathing was ragged as I held him immobile. “I’ll kill you,” he ground out.

“I’ve never touched her. Never. It’s not like that.”

He jerked on his arm and winced in pain when I didn’t ease up. “Why? Why are you stalking my sister?”

“You going to listen?”

He didn’t say anything for a minute, and I refused to let up. “Fine.”

I released his arm and stepped back. “Once a year. On her birthday. That’s it.”

North jumped to his feet, blood dripping from his knuckles and onto the lush green grass. “Why?”

I didn’t want to tell him. But North never gave up on something once he got it in his head. And having found out I’d been watching his sister, he wouldn’t let go of it easily.

“I met her before I knew you. She was in the police station with your mom the day my brother drowned.” His eyes narrowed. He didn’t know I’d had a brother. I’d never told him, or any of the guys. “She was five.”

He swore beneath his breath and his hands curled into fists.

I crossed my arms over my chest and leaned against the tree, flicking my eyes to the house to make sure she was still inside. I had no intention of telling him everything. That was mine and mine alone.

“She talked to me for a while, and it meant something to me. She wasn’t scared of me and didn’t look at me… differently.”

“She was fuckin’ five. She didn’t know better.”

“That may be true, but I was a kid too. She invited me to her birthday, and I never intended on going, but after losing my brother, I don’t know, I just went and watched her celebrate from a distance.” She’d stuck green gummy bears all over the sides and top of her frosted vanilla birthday cake.

His weight shifted and I was ready for him to jump me again, but he didn’t.

“The Yoda?” he asked.

I shrugged. “She’d left at the station by accident.”

He didn’t say anything for a minute, and as good as I was at reading people, North was just as good at concealing his emotions when he wanted to. Something you learn in the fight ring.

He glanced back at the house and then at me again. “Zero Crow.”

My insides coiled.

“You know what that means, asshole. It means I don’t want you to ever go near her again. No fuckin’ birthdays. I won’t have my sister stalked and polluted with your fuckin’ demons.”

Then he walked away and headed for the house.

Vic

After Addie and Jaeg picked up Jackson, Macayla escaped into the shower. And I knew it was an escape because she wouldn’t look at me.

I wasn’t in any hurry to have this conversation. Fuck, I didn’t want to have it at all, but there was no chance in hell it wasn’t happening. She could shower all day and I’d still be here waiting. I also informed Jaeg not to bring Jackson home until he heard from me.

As soon as she’d said raped, my mind went dead. No anger. No disbelief. Nothing. It was a large black hole of emptiness, and I was spinning around inside like a black cloud unable to stop the falling. The sinking further and further into the void.

It was her voice that pulled me back. Just like it had always done.

And then it churned and ripped and scraped the walls of my insides.

There was no slow-burning anger. It had been an out-of-control wildfire as everything inside me detonated.

I’d done shit to people. I’d put scars on people. I’d fucked them up so bad they begged for death.

But when it came to her…. Knowing what that sick motherfucker did to her. It raged through me and shredded the shield, leaving me raw and vulnerable.

Vulnerable. Fuck.

She’d been vulnerable. Her.

The kitchen counter creaked under my grip.

I didn’t think of the girls I rescued with my ex-military brothers and what they’d been through. I thought about what I’d do to the disgusting bastards. I thought about the pain I’d inflict on them for what they did. About the moment the light would be snuffed from their eyes.

But looking into her eyes… my mind became a cesspool of images.

Yeah, I wanted to slice and dice the motherfucker who did that to her. I wanted to hear him scream like she must have done. I wanted to make him suffer for days, weeks, months. No, I’d hang him by his fuckin’ fingernails for years.

I heard the shower shut off, and a few minutes later, the door opened.

Macayla walked out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her. Her hair was wet and water droplets slid down her naked, heated, flushed skin.

“Vic,” she whispered.

A gentleman would’ve looked away. Maybe even apologized.

I didn’t.

I stared at her, trying to erase the dark images wreaking havoc in my mind. She nervously ran her tongue over that goddamn scar, and my eyes narrowed.

“Did he do that?” I formed it as a question, but I already knew the answer.

She snapped her tongue back into her mouth and her hand tightened on the towel.

There was no question I was finding whoever raped her and going after the sick bastard. But I had time to think about what I’d do to him before I killed him. It would be inventive. Begging would go down. Crying. And finally, silence. His silence.

“Was. It. Him,” I repeated.

She nodded. “But I don’t know how it happened. I don’t remember any of it.”

The images roaring through my head were debilitating. My Rainbird tied up with chains to a bed. Or in some basement on a filthy mattress. Or in some dungeon chained to a moldy, damp stone wall.

Christ. My mind had detonated, and I couldn’t stop the fragments from piercing my skull.

Pull your crap together.

As much as I wanted to lose it, she needed me to be calm. To give calm. And no matter what it took, I’d give her what she needed.

“Put some clothes on. I’ll be here, baby.”

Her tongue flicked out and wet her lower lip. “Vic.” Her voice was ragged and sexy and sank into my bones.

Her fingers tightened on the towel, and she walked across the room toward me.

My breath stopped. But my heart thumped in my chest like I was standing on the edge of a building about to jump without any gear. Not knowing if I was going to survive the fall, but wanting to jump anyway.

She stopped inches from me. So close her bare toes touched the tips of my combat boots.

I didn’t move. No, I couldn’t move.

What was it about her?

But I knew what it was—Everything. It was fuckin’ everything. It had always been everything.

It may have started with offering to share her pop with me. Holding my hand because I needed it. Inviting me, a damaged piece-of-shit-kid to her birthday. But it was the raspy sweetness of her voice when she sang. The stupid T-shirts. The silly dancing to scare off monsters.

It was how she saw past the ugly and damaged.

Macayla had changed my path into darkness. She’d kept the damage from ruining me. Kept me from suffocating in guilt. From drowning in the grief.

My five second Rainbird.

I scowled. “Damn it. Put some clothes on,” I repeated. The last thing she needed was for me to rip off her towel and crush her lips to mine.

“Five seconds,” she whispered, looking up at me, her thick eyelashes glistening with wetness. “I want five seconds to touch you, Vic.”

Jesus. I wanted to tell her she could have ten. Twenty. A bloody century.

The girl who made the rain bearable. Made breathing bearable.

I didn’t nod, but I didn’t not nod either. I just stood there staring down at her.

Her palm settled on my chest right over my heart, and it took everything I had not to grab her and throw her against the wall and kiss her.

“One,” she murmured as she slid her hand up my chest to my neck.

“Two.” Her fingers curled around the back of my neck and my cock hardened.

“Three.” They tightened and tugged at the same time, drawing me downward and into her.

“Four,” she whispered.

She stood up on her tiptoes, her lips a breath away.

And then like a quivering feather, her lips brushed mine, and a groan escaped me. Christ.

Her fingers caressed the back of my neck and her body pressed into me.

“Five.” The word barely passed her lips as if she struggled to say it. And fuck, I didn’t want her to say it. I wanted more.

I felt her pull back, and everything inside me revolted.

I couldn’t. Fuck. I couldn’t let her go.

It was like I was reaching beneath the blackened surface of the water again. I needed her to breathe. For the pain to ease. For the constant coldness to melt with her touch.

But it was no longer my pain. It was ours.

I grabbed her by the hips, fingers sinking into her flesh, bruising, unforgiving. I jerked her back into me—hard.

Then I slammed my mouth down on hers. It wasn’t soft and gentle. I didn’t know how to be soft and gentle.

This was hard, raw, and uncontrollable.

I controlled everything in my life. I was always prepared. I planned.

Strategized.

But this…. There was nothing that could have prepared me for the taste of her lips. The feel of her mouth. Her touch.

She catered to every single need my body craved, and it was selfish as fuck.

But I’d let her fly away and she’d come back.

Now she was mine.

Macayla

Nothing could have prepared me for Vic kissing me. It was fire-breathing dragons igniting the pixie-fairies and sending my body into a firestorm.

Boundaries charred to ashes. Walls shattered as our mouths entwined in an inferno of heat.

It was a kiss that branded. Scarred. Singed.

His mouth was hard and demanding. Insisting I cater to his every command.

And I did. I surrendered to Vic Gate. My mind. My body. Every part of me.

From the second his mouth found mine, he was seared into me, and I knew there was no going back.

“Fuck, baby.” He groaned, the vibration against my lips sending quivers to erupt between my legs.

I dug my fingers into the back of his neck as my sex pulsed, and the sweet cavern of need swelled.

There was no uncertainty in his kiss. It was just like he was. Confident. Unwavering. And somehow protective. Like his kiss was a promise that he’d always take care of me.

Our need had been denied for too long. Teased. Provoked.

This was surrender.

I was surrendering to him. Wherever that led in Vic’s dark web.

“Legs,” he demanded as he cupped my butt.

He lifted me into his arms at the same time that I wrapped my legs around his hips. He groaned as his hard cock pressed into my pelvis. His mouth slammed into mine again.

He backed us up against the wall, the rough pads of his fingers digging into my ass cheeks, and I suddenly wished I hadn’t put on my panties. That we didn’t have a towel between us. That he’d carry me to my bed and drive his cock into my tight, throbbing warmth. That he’d slide his fingers through my wetness as he sucked and tugged at my nipples.

“Oh God, Vic,” I whispered, breathless.

His mouth abruptly broke from mine and he released me, slamming his palms into the wall above my head. My legs slipped from his hips, and my body slid down his, taking the towel with it. It fell to the floor at our feet.

His eyes blazed. “Fuck, Rainbird. We need to stop.” He stared down at me, his chest rising and falling rapidly.

I curled my fingers into his shirt, my body pulsing and writhing with need. “Why?” I breathed.

His jaw was tight, and fierce desire swirled in his eyes. “I told you, baby. We’re doing this right.”

He pushed away from me and bent, picking up the towel. I noticed he avoided looking at my naked body, but there was a slight hesitation when his eyes landed on my yellow lace panties.

His jaw clenched and he straightened again. He held the towel up, almost like a shield to stop himself from looking at me. “Babe,” he urged.

I sighed and moved into the outstretched towel. Vic slowly wrapped it around me, tucking the corner in at my breasts.

Vic pulled me back into his arms, one arm hooking my waist, and the other around the nape of my neck. He kissed the top of my head. It was lingering and careful, and nothing like the uncontrollable wildfire that just happened.

“You going to do what I say now and put some clothes on?”

I chewed my lip. “We can talk naked.”

He grunted. “As much as I’d love you to stay naked, I’d have you underneath me and sinking my cock into you.” He pulled back and peered down at me. “We need to have a conversation, Macayla.”

We did. “I know.”

I inhaled a breath and slid from his arms, instantly shivering without his warmth. “I’ll just be a minute.” I walked down the hallway toward the bedroom, but I did it slowly, letting my hips sway from side to side.

Five feet from the doorway, I released the towel, letting it slip to the floor.

I heard his gruff groan and a low curse beneath his breath.

I smiled.

“I think I was drugged,” I said. “I had to have been because I can’t remember, no matter how hard I try. There are only pieces. Fragments. Like muddy memories.”

We were sitting on the couch in the living room. When I’d sat on the opposite end, he’d instantly dragged me onto his lap so my butt was tucked into his crotch and my spine against his chest. He’d wrapped his arms around me like a protective cocoon, as if he knew it would be easier to talk about this without facing him. I talked and he listened without interrupting.

I’d told him that it had happened at my father’s house on my seventeenth birthday. That my brother had a pool party for me and invited a couple of my friends from school, but mostly they were his hockey buddies.

“I know he did it because I was still having a really hard time with Mom dying. So, even though I didn’t want to be there, I did because he’d organized it. I drank a little, a couple beers, maybe.” His hand stopped caressing. I looked up at him. “I can’t remember much after my friends left.”

He tucked strands of hair behind my ear, and as gentle as his touch was, there was an underlying rage burning in him.

“I went to my room because I didn’t feel so well. Dizzy. And disoriented. Everyone was outside by the pool, and they were laughing, and the music was really loud.” I looked at him. “I don’t remember how I got to my room, but… it was in the beer, wasn’t it?” I didn’t wait for a response. “I didn’t drink or eat anything else and…. One of his friends offered to get me another a beer and I didn’t even think about it. I just said sure.”

I shuddered and stared down at our linked fingers in my lap. “I know it’s not my fault, Vic. But sometimes…. Sometimes I think that if I hadn’t gone swimming earlier with the guys around. That maybe because I’d—”

“No.” He squeezed me to him. “Baby, fuck. No. Even if you walked around naked, no guy has the right to touch you unless you give him permission.” He inhaled a breath. “You were drugged. In your own fuckin’ house. He took away all your choices.”

I nodded, the heavy fog surrounding me like a suffocating blanket. “I remember laughter. Not just one person, but like…. I don’t know, it was a bunch of people far away. Like it was on the other side of the door or outside or something. And there was this sugary smell. It reminded me of caramels.”

Vic stiffened, his hand stilling on my back. “Caramels.”

I nodded. “Or toffee. Something like that. The smell makes me nauseous now, and I get this sensation….” I stopped and looked at him, tears pooling in the rims of my eyes. “Doom. It’s like impending doom in the pit of my stomach, and all I want to do is run. But I can’t. It’s like I’m standing in quicksand. Sinking. I can’t move and everything is heavy. Even my screams. All I want to do is get away from the smell. But I can’t.”

“The cans of kidney beans in the grocery store.”

I turned my head to look up at him. “You know about that?”

“Small town, baby. The caramel smell was from Dale Richards. He owned a caramel factory.”

“Oh.”

He shifted, and with one movement had me turned and straddling his lap with his hands on my hips. I placed my palms on his chest, feeling the erratic thump of his heart.

“Vic, if my brother knew, he’d have beaten every single one of those guys to a pulp to find out who did it.”

His jaw clenched.

“He’d have gone to jail. He’d have ruined his career.”

His fingers tightened. “All of that is true, baby. But what about you? What about what you went through? Having to hide what happened. Living with that hanging over you. That a man drugged and raped you. Jesus, you were seventeen, and your dad did nothing. The bastard responsible walked away, Macayla. No punishment or consequences for what he’d done. That doesn’t go down with me.”

My dad had told me that it happens, that it was just one of the guys who got too drunk, and I wasn’t to cause issues for Ethan or the team. I didn’t tell Vic that. As strong as Vic was, I didn’t think he could handle it without losing it. Because underneath his strength, determination, and coldness was a deep vulnerability. I think that was why he tried to keep everyone from getting too close—so he didn’t feel too much.

“When I realized I was pregnant, I was five months already. My period was never regular, and I just… ignored the signs, maybe. I just wanted to forget it happened. I know that sounds stupid because I couldn’t remember the night anyway, but that’s what I did, Vic. And when I couldn’t deny it any longer, I had no choice but to tell my dad I was pregnant. He told me to get rid of it, but it was too late and… I wouldn’t… I couldn’t do that anyway.” I heard Vic’s teeth as he clenched his jaw. I inhaled a ragged breath. “Ethan was gone by then because the hockey season had started, so it was easy to keep my pregnancy from him. Dad took me out of school so no one would know, and I finished school online.”

I chewed my lip and shrugged. “And you know the rest,” I whispered.

Vic didn’t say anything for a long time, maybe digesting everything. I was still digesting it myself because I’d never told anyone everything out loud before. And as hard as it was to talk about it, to remember, it was also cathartic.

He ran his hand up my side and back down again. “Baby, Ethan needs to know. He’ll know who was there that night, and I can—”

“No!” I shook my head. “No. I don’t want him to know. Ever. And I don’t want to know who did it, Vic. I don’t want to see his face every time I look at Jackson. And Jackson is never to know. I’ll never put that on him. He already thinks he was unwanted.”

Vic’s jawbone pulsed, and his brows dipped low over his darkening eyes. I could see he was trying to stop himself from arguing. Insisting that he find the sick bastard. It was what he did. He protected.

I cupped his cheek and stared up at his hard gray eyes. “I know you want to find him. You’ve made it your mission to save the world from scum like him.”

He grunted and was about to say something when I scooted closer so I could kiss his lips.

“You may not see it like that, Vic. But I do, and so does Jackson.”

“I’m not a superhero, Macayla,” he ground out, almost annoyed.

“You know what Jackson said when you left. He said it was okay you were gone because you were out saving people who needed you.”

He cupped my chin. “I don’t do it to save them from the scumbags, Rainbird. I do it because I enjoy torturing and killing the scumbags.”

I frowned, wishing he could see himself like I do. Like I was sure his team did. And Hettie. His friends too. “And you make it a safer world for all of us.”

His voice was tight. “This world will never be safe, baby. Fuck, I’m not safe.”

That’s what he’d convinced himself of, but it wasn’t true. “I’ve never felt safer than with you, Vic.” I kissed the corner of his mouth. “And I don’t need you going after him. I have Jackson, Vic. The most beautiful, precious little boy in the world. Let it go.”

I could see the struggle in him. How his brow twitched, and his fingers kept curling and uncurling on my hips. He sighed. “I still have to talk to your brother about us.”

“I know you think it’s important because you were friends, but not yet, okay?” I pulled back. “So, we are an us.”

He scowled. “Yeah, Rainbird. There’s always been an us. There will always be an us.”

He put a finger under my chin and tipped my head. Then he kissed me.

Macayla

The bell above the door dinged as I walked into Black N Heart Ink, and I was immediately inundated with the smell of campfire with a hint of antiseptic. I guessed the campfire smell came from the burning candles on the black marble front desk. The music thumping in the background sounded like electronic trance beat, and there was a subtle vibration in the floor.

There were four stations that were set up almost like at a salon, except they were spread farther apart with luxurious, black leather, dental-type chairs. A tatted girl, late teens, maybe early twenties, sat on a swivel stool at the station closest to me. The middle two were empty, and in the last was a guy leaning over a girl, pressing his tattoo gun to her collarbone.

Tat girl bobbed her head to the music, and the fifty-something-year-old man sitting in her chair had his eyes glued to her breasts that were bouncing with her movements.

She didn’t seem to mind.

The voices coming through the stereo chanted something about turning it up, and I recognized the Armin van Buuren song.

Tat girl lurched to her feet and ran over to the stereo and blasted the music. She pumped her arm in the air as she chanted the words.

The tattoo artist at the end didn’t even flinch, as if this was a usual occurrence. I peered around the rest of the place. Dark hardwood floors. White walls with large, black-and-white photos that depicted close-ups of tattoos on body parts.

Above the black, L-shaped couch was a close-up, side profile photo of a woman’s face. Her head was tilted down, and her eye was closed so you could only see her long, thick eyelashes. Beneath her lashes on her cheekbone was a beautiful tattoo of a teardrop. The photo was as haunting as it was stunning.

Her story floated across my mind like glowing embers waiting to be woven into lyrics. Teardrops. Undying love. Kiss the tears. Reaching for the stars. A tattoo of scars. Fighting the pain. A window in the rain.

“Everyone loves that one,” a girl’s silvery voice said behind me.

I swung around to look at a young girl, maybe late teens, with freckles scattered across her nose and cheeks. “It’s sad and beautiful.” And what songs are sang about.

She nodded with a sigh, her eyes still on the photo. “Yeah. That was Avalon. My boss’ girl.”

Avalon. I’d heard her name before. She was friends with Addie.

“Do you have an appointment?” she asked politely, walking over to the high-top desk to glance at the computer screen.

“Yes. With Welland.” I quickly pulled my cell from my back jean pocket and typed out a few lyrics, then pocketed it again.

“Mac North,” the girl said, turning away from the computer to look at me again.

“Yes.” Addie was supposed to meet me here for moral support, but she’d texted and said she was running five minutes late, finishing up a brake job.

“Welland will be a few minutes yet. Make yourself comfortable. There is coffee and tea over there.” She gestured to a coffee bar along the far wall. She went to turn away, then stopped and peered at me.

“You look familiar.”

“I work at Zero Crow.”

The girl scrunched her nose. “No. I’ve never been. Not old enough.” She gasped. “North. Oh my God, you’re related to Ethan Northern Blast.”

In the four months I’d been here, she was the first person who realized who my brother was. “Hockey fan?”

She nodded. “Huge. Oh my God, is he here? I heard he went to school here.” She put her hand on my arm. “Are you his sister? I read he had a sister…. Macayla. Mac. Right? Is he coming here? Well, I guess he can’t right now. But when the season’s over?” She inhaled a breath and continued, “Did you see the game the other night? He scored five goals and two assists.”

I didn’t watch any of his games. I didn’t like hockey, period, and Ethan wasn’t coming here if I could help it. And Vic agreed not to tell him about us yet. But I couldn’t stop him forever, and I was worried about next summer when he would have time off.

The front door burst open, bringing with it a brisk breeze of cool November air.

“I’m here. I’m here,” Addie said. She wore her coveralls but had taken off the top part and hitched it around her waist like she always did to reveal a white long-sleeved V-neck.

“Hey, Wells!” Addie shouted over the music that tat girl had thankfully turned down.

The guy at the far end crooked his head and glanced at us. He said something to his customer and set his tool in a stainless-steel tray. He rose from the swivel chair to stand at his full six-foot-something height.

There was nothing flowery or sweet about Welland. He was a magnificent iron sculpture molded into a work of art.

Ink was scrawled from his wrists up his forearms and disappeared under the sleeves of his black T-shirt. Intricate tattoos. Not the kind that are done impulsively in some guy’s shoddy basement and regretted the next day.

His eyes drooped slightly in the outer corners, offering a hint of casual playfulness in the hazel, sun-streaked depths. Mid-twenties. Stubbled jaw. Pierced left brow.

“Red,” he said, striding across the marble floor toward us. “I got this, babe.”

“Sure thing, boss.” Freckles smiled at us and flitted away, her black heels clinking on the hardwood as she disappeared into the back room.

Addie kissed Welland’s cheek. “Welland, you remember Macayla. She’s my friend from summer camp.”

“Right, the all-girls’ horsey camp,” he said.

“Ah, Wells, I’m flattered you remember me going to camp,” Addie said.

“Hard to forget when you came home smelling like manure,” he replied. He chin-lifted to me. “Good to see you again, Macayla. I saw your gig at Zero Crow a few weeks back. You rocked it. Do you write your own music?”

I smiled. “Thanks. And yeah, I do.”

“It’s great stuff.”

“It’s amazing stuff. How’s business?” Addie asked. “You get the town’s approval yet?” She turned to me. “He wants to expand the place and add on a coffee shop.”

He nodded. “Yesterday.” His brows lifted. “And I’m guessing I have you and Hettie to thank for the quick approval.”

Addie shrugged. “I may have mentioned something to Hettie about you beating the crap out of Darren Templeton when he cut my hair.”

He chuckled. “In grade five.”

“Payback doesn’t have an expiration date,” Addie said.

“Thanks,” he said, a slight twitch in his jaw. “Means a lot. I’ll drop by Hettie’s to thank her.”

“She’d love to see you. But a word of warning: she still bitches about that tattoo you did.”

My brows lifted. Hettie had a tattoo?

The tension left his jaw and the lines around his eyes disappeared. “I told her I’d fix it up.”

Addie looked at me. “One of the first tattoos he ever did was on Hettie. You were about what? Fifteen?”

“Fourteen,” Welland corrected.

“Fourteen. It sucked ass.”

Welland snorted. “It wasn’t that bad.”

“It was bad.”

I raised my brows with a smile. “I hope you’re better at it now.” Otherwise, I was walking back out that door.

Welland smirked. “Yeah. A bit. Tattoo virgin?”

I nodded.

Addie snorted. “On the tattoo awards site, he won ‘Artist of the Year Leaderboard’. That’s like getting crowned king of the world.” She nodded at the photos. “That’s all his work.”

Welland shifted his weight as he glanced up at the oversized, black-framed photo of the girl with the teardrop tattoo. His jaw flexed and he cleared his throat. “Let me just finish up on my customer. You know what you want?”

I nodded.

“Okay, give me ten. Help yourself to tea, coffee.” Welland walked back to the blonde girl sitting in his leather dental chair.

“I’m grabbing a coffee. Want anything?”

I shook my head. “No, thanks. I’m already too jittery from the amount of coffee I’ve had.” I’d been up working on a song until three in the morning. And Vic had been with me. He’d sat quietly in the chair across from the couch and listened. I’d asked him to sit with me, but he wouldn’t. Said he wouldn’t be able to keep his hands off me. I’d been okay with that, but he wasn’t. Not with Jackson in the next room.

Her brows lifted and she tilted her head with a smile. “When are you going to admit you’re fucking him.”

My mouth dropped open. “Oh my God, we’re not sleeping together.”

Addie flitted her hand in the air as she walked away, saying over her shoulder, “You will be.”

I hoped so, but Vic was careful in everything he did, and he was adamant that we keep it cool until he talked to my brother about us. I knew they’d been friends, so it was probably out of respect, but as far as I knew, they hadn’t spoken in years.

I sauntered over to the waiting area and snagged a glossy magazine off the coffee table. It had a hot, tatted biker-type guy plastered on the front that looked a lot like Welland. I looked closer. Yeah, definitely Welland. Huh.

I sat on the leather couch and flicked through, amazed at the incredible tattoos these artists did. It was one thing to paint on a flat canvas, but these artists worked on the body where there was all kinds of hills and valleys and movement. Not only that, but every canvas they worked on was different.

Addie plopped down beside me with a steaming cup of coffee in her hand. I showed her the cover of the magazine and she laughed.

“Yeah, Welland’s pretty famous in the ink world.”

“You ever date him?”

“No,” she said, glancing over at him. “Just friends. We’ve gone to school together since kindergarten. Avalon too.” Addie set her coffee on the table. “Welland and Avalon had been a thing since they were in diapers.” She nodded at the black-and-white photo above us. “She begged him for that tattoo, but he refused to do it. Never does tats on faces. His rule. He gave in when she threatened to go to another tattoo artist if he didn’t.” She peered over at Welland where he was leaning over the girl with the tattoo gun on her collarbone. “He’d never let another guy touch his girl, let alone permanently ink her.” Addie rubbed her wrist. “She’s gone now.”

I looked over at Welland. He held a mirror in front of the girl’s collarbone as she admired her new tattoo.

There was a coldness in him. Something untouchable, as if you were only scratching the surface of who he was. Black N Heart. Was that why he chose that name?

She sipped her coffee and told me about Jackson rock climbing the other day. And how he talked about Vic showing him how to put a hole in the door. Which led to…

“So, why did Vic ask Jaeg to take Jackson for the day and not to come back until he texted if it wasn’t to have sex?”

“We kissed.”

Addie’s jaw dropped. “I knew it!” she yelled, drawing the attention of everyone in the shop. “I can’t believe it. I mean, I can, because I’ve seen the crazy attraction between you guys, but this is Vic. Oh my God—Hettie. Wait until Hettie hears.”

I put my hand on her forearm. “No. Don’t tell her. Or Jaeg. Or anyone. Not yet. Vic wants to talk to my brother first, and I…. Well, I just need a bit more time.”

Addie frowned. “Why? Time for what?”

I didn’t have time to answer before Welland approached. “You ready to lose your tat virginity?”

I nodded with a smile and stood up.

“Where do you want it?”

I stroked the inside of my left wrist. “Right here. I want it to say ‘Jackson’.”

Macayla

Vic was cooking dinner for us at his place. Jackson was already there because Vic had picked him up at school early because of potential lake-effect snow warnings.

Over the last two weeks, it had become routine for Vic to watch Jackson while I was at work. He’d driven to the city to visit his teammate Tyler in the hospital a couple of times. But he never stayed overnight, and as soon as he arrived home, I was the first person he found. I’d asked last time if he wanted me to come with him, but from the tension in his body and the darkening in his eyes, I knew he wasn’t ready for me to meet his team. Maybe he never would be.

Addie told me that none of them had met them, although Saint knew of them from being in SWAT. It was like Vic wanted to keep the two halves of his life separate. Contained.

We hadn’t told anyone about us yet, but a few days ago, we’d run into Saint at the hardware store while we were picking up supplies to rebuild Waffles’ playpen. Vic had hooked my waist to drag me into him to steal a kiss beside the shelf of duct tape when Saint walked around the corner.

Vic didn’t see him, and Saint didn’t say anything. He just smirked and winked at me. Okay, maybe I was warming up to him.

I walked up the porch step, wiping my boots on the new mat that read, “Did you call first?” I bought it as housewarming present last week when he’d made us dinner for the first time.

We’d been here for dinner almost every night since, and when Vic said he could cook, it was an understatement. Even Jackson was eating chickpea stew, carrot ginger soup, and veggie Bolognese.

I opened the door and walked in. I was hit with the aroma of lemongrass and basil.

“Mom! Look what we built,” Jackson shouted, running from the living room and plowing into my legs. “It’s a fort.” He tugged on my winter coat, and I laughed.

“Okay, let me get my boots off,” I said and placed my hand on the wall for support as I heeled them off, then peeled off my coat and hooked it on the newel post, as Vic didn’t have closets in his house. I’d asked if he was planning on putting them in, and he’d said the only doors he’d have were the ones on the bathrooms.

Jackson slipped his hand into mine and dragged me into the living room. I stopped. Staring. Mouth agape and probably sucking in copious amounts of cardboard dust fibers.

Because the living room had become a cardboard castle. There were four towers, a drawbridge, and a tunnel that led from tower to tower. And over the front entrance, a stick was stuck into the carboard with my Ewok T-shirt hanging from it like a flag.

I was learning that when Vic did something, it wasn’t half-assed. He went full throttle. Jackson was talking about how he cut out the turrets, although he called them “turts,” and he did all the duct taping, except Vic cut the pieces for him. He crawled through the tunnel and popped up out of the tower.

“And he said I can keep it here for a while, so I can play in it whenever I want.”

Just as I was wondering where Vic was, his arms wrapped around me from behind. I leaned back into his embrace, curling my arms over his. “Hey,” I murmured. “You were busy.”

“Mmm,” he drawled. He lowered his head, his lips next to my ear as he breathed, “Have you ever been fucked in a fort, baby?”

Shivers waterfalled. Goose bumps bounced. Tweaks erupted.

I swallowed.

“Is that a no?” he growled low and nipped the lobe of my ear, sending a shot of fireworks to explode between my legs.

I’d discovered that Vic was teasing and flirty. And he touched me a lot. It was as if he always wanted a part of himself touching me.

“Need to finish dinner, babe.” He kissed the top of my head and disappeared into the kitchen.

I played with Jackson for a bit, crawling through the cardboard castle, but all I could think about was Vic fucking me in here. But that wouldn’t happen. Vic wouldn’t until I agreed to tell my brother about us. I knew that conversation was inevitable. And it shouldn’t be a big deal, but Vic had been Ethan’s friend, and I didn’t want him coming here. It terrified me that he’d see something in Jackson. That Jackson would have recognizable eyes, or a gesture that was familiar to my brother, or something that would trigger the snowball of truth to avalanche.

Just after seven, there was a knock on the door and Vic’s body tensed, his eyes darkening, and in the space of one second, the casual Vic had been snapped away as he went into commando mode. “Away from the window,” he ordered.

It was second nature to him. There wasn’t any fear or hesitation in his movements. He knew exactly where to be and what to do. And as terrifying as that was, it was also comforting.

“Jacks, let’s put the dishes in the cupboard.” He hopped off the bar stool and we moved to the far side of the kitchen, out of the range of the window.

Only then did Vic move out of the kitchen to the front door. I heard a creak and scrape as if he had opened something, and then Addie shouted, “Jesus, Vic. Open up! It’s freakin’ freezing out here.”

Vic grunted, and I heard the bolt turn and the door open. Jackson and I walked out into the foyer to see Addie covered from head to toe in snow.

“You’re an hour early,” Vic said.

I frowned. Early?

She shrugged. “It’s snowing. And your road sucks in the snow, so I got here early.” She crouched in front of Jackson. “Hey, I heard you built a wicked fort.”

I’d taken a picture and texted it to Addie a couple hours ago. He nodded. “Want to see?”

“Sure do. Give me a sec to talk to Vic and your mom?”

He nodded again and ran into the living room.

She straightened and looked at me, grinning. “So, big night.”

Big night? What was she talking about? “Are we doing something tonight?” I peered past her at the blowing snow. If we were, it didn’t involve driving anywhere.

She shook the snow off her aviator hat and laughed, peering at Vic. “You didn’t tell her?”

“Tell me what?” I looked from Vic to Addie and back again.

“Addie’s staying in the cabin tonight,” he said. “With Jackson. She’ll take him to school in the morning.”

My chest tightened and heart pounded. “She is? She will?”

Vic moved into me, his arm looping my waist. “Yeah, baby, I want you to myself tonight,” he whispered.

Holy shit.

Addie kicked off her boots, coat, and gloves. “I told you. Only a matter of time.” She followed Jackson into the living, saying over her shoulder, “Oh, and Hettie knows.”

Macayla

“Be good, Jacks. I’ll see you tomorrow,” I called as he and Addie trudged through the snow toward the cabin. He shouted a “Bye, Mom” with a wave over his shoulder and was gone.

Vic shut the door and turned the deadbolt.

I bit my lip and backed into the wall beside the door.

His eyes locked on me, and my belly flipped. Tweaks erupted between my legs.

I licked my lips as he approached, his dark eyes blazing with need.

My heart pounded and my body quivered with anticipation. It felt as if all the seconds since we’d met were finally merging into this heated coil within me.

He stopped inches from me and leaned forward, his arms bridging over my head with his palms against the wall.

He stared down at me, the corner of his mouth curving up. “You scared, Rainbird?” he asked, lowering one hand to trace his fingers from my chin down the curve of my throat to the pulse at its base.

He’d asked me that once before, but this time there was no fear. Not of him, and not of my body’s need. Because I wasn’t fighting it anymore. No matter where it led us.

I placed my hands on his chest, then slowly slid them lower to his abdomen. “No,” I whispered. I bit my lip as I took hold of his belt.

He sucked in air and his eyes flared.

I thought he was going to yank my hands away, but instead his fingers curved around the back of my neck.

“I’ve never felt safer than I do when I’m with you, Vic,” I said. He didn’t move, but I felt his fingers twitch. I unsnapped the buckle and dragged the leather through the loops, then let it drop to the floor.

I licked my lips, watching him as I popped the top button on his cargos. His jaw flexed. I slowly dragged down his zipper, my knuckles grazing over his bulging cock.

“Fuck,” he ground out. “Baby, I can’t.”

His control shattered and he grabbed me, his mouth slamming down on mine.

It was untamed and gritty, almost painful, as if we couldn’t get enough of each other.

There were no more secrets. Nothing left to expose.

Only us.

His hands were rough as he ran them down my spine and back up it, into my hair. He closed his fingers in the strands and pulled my head back.

His kiss deepened and I arched into him. “Vic,” I moaned against his mouth.

My hands slipped under his shirt, and I pushed it up, wanting it off. I needed to feel his naked skin. He broke the kiss for a second to rip the T-shirt off over his head and toss it to the floor.

I stared at him, sliding my hands over the hills and valleys of his rock-hard muscles. “God, you’re beautiful.” I traced the scars on his abdomen and the one across his chest. He didn’t move, didn’t touch me. His chest rose and fell rapidly, and his breathing was ragged.

I looked up at him and stilled. The fire scorching in the depths of his eyes was threatening, and at the same time, there was a hint of uncertainty and shock.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, afraid that he didn’t like me touching him. Or maybe it was that I was touching his scars. I went to take my hands off him when he latched onto my wrists and put them back on his chest, holding them there.

“No woman has ever touched me like this,” he said, his voice graveled.

My breath locked in my throat. “Because you don’t like being touched.”

“Yeah. Not until you,” he said, then leaned in to kiss my nose. Then my cheek. Then the corner of my mouth. “Touch has always led to pain, but with you… you erase the pain. Only you, Rainbird.”

He cupped my face with both his hands, his thumbs slowly stroking back and forth over my cheeks. “Just you.”

Like something inside of him snapped, he groaned, and the sound was raw and primal. He tilted his head and claimed my mouth again.

This time, the kiss was slow. Hard. Deep. As if he was savoring and memorizing every single second.

“Upstairs,” he said against my mouth. “I want you in bed the first time I sink my cock inside you.”

Before I could say anything, he lifted me into his arms, and I wrapped my legs around his waist. I trailed kisses along his jaw, then down his neck as he took the stairs two at a time.

He tossed me onto the bed, and I bounced twice. He didn’t waste time and yanked his cargos and briefs off, leaving him standing completely naked beside the bed.

My breath caught in my throat. Jesus.

He was magnificent.

Hard. Solid.

Beautifully scarred.

His body was a storyboard of his past, and I wanted to kiss, taste, and discover every single scar. I wanted to know how he got each one. I wanted to know everything about this man.

Battle scars entwined with tattoos across his body. His cock thick and hard, pulsing.

I swallowed, sliding my tongue across my lower lip.

A low growl emerged from his throat, and my gaze flew from his cock to clash with his eyes. Raw, untamed hunger raged.

The deep ache between my legs throbbed. God, I needed this man more than I needed breath itself. It was like I’d been starved for him my entire life.

“Vic,” I said, his name coming out hoarse.

He knelt on the bed, grabbed my ankles, and spread my legs wider. Then he slowly crawled over top of me.

He gripped the hem of my shirt. “Shirt, baby.” I half lifted, and he pulled it up and over my head, then tossed it. I didn’t wait for him as I undid the clasps on the back of my black lace bra and yanked it off.

He didn’t move for a second, his eyes trailing an inferno of heat down my body.

“Fuck,” he groaned and lowered himself over me.

I gasped, arching as he closed his mouth around my nipple. Teeth scraping. Tongue rolling over the erect sensitive nub. He playfully bit down, and it sent shockwaves of desire through me. I dug my fingernails into his shoulders and I moaned, my eyes closing as he soothed my nipple with his tongue again before he sucked.

He kissed a path to my other breast. “These are mine,” he murmured before he took the other nipple into his mouth.

Teasing. Biting. Sucking.

“Oh God, Vic. Vic, please. I need you.” I needed him inside me. Needed to feel his cock. I didn’t want to wait anymore. We’d waited long enough.

He lifted his head. “You wet for me, baby?”

I nodded, fumbling with the buttons of my jeans. “Vic, get them off.”

He grabbed my wrist, stopping me, and my eyes flew to his. “Tell me,” he demanded.

“Soaked. I’m soaked,” I said, my breath coming in short, rapid gasps.

His eyes flared. “Good. Because I’m going to taste you before I sink my cock inside you.” He released my wrists and undid the last two buttons before dragging the suffocating denim down my thighs and off.

I hooked my fingers in my panties to take them off, but he latched onto my wrists and pulled my hands away.

“Fuck no.” He stared at my robin’s-egg-blue panties. “I’ve dreamed about these.”

I sucked in air as he lowered himself between my legs, his fingers slowly tracing a path until he stopped on the lace trim of my panties.

“Never thought I’d get this.” He kissed my belly button and sent a parade of quivers through me. “Never, baby.” He kissed lower. “And I’m going to take my time.” He kissed the center of my panties. “Tasting. Sucking.”

He moved down lower and kissed the inside of my thigh. I arched, my fingers curling into the bed sheet. Wanting him to tear my panties off. “Vic,” I whispered.

He raised his head and his eyes locked with mine. “And when you come for the first time, I’m going to feel you shudder around my cock.” The corner of his mouth curved up. “And make no mistake, that will only be the first time tonight you’ll be quivering and screaming my name, Rainbird.”

He hooked his fingers in my panties and slowly dragged them downward. “You good with that?”

Oh God. My fingers tangled the bed sheet. “Yes,” I breathed.

“Lift, baby.”

I lifted my ass, and he slid my panties down my thighs and off my legs.

He stared at me. “Jesus. So fuckin’ beautiful.”

Our eyes locked. Sparks tap danced across my skin.

He moved his fingertips, gliding them from my abdomen down to my clit where he paused and pressed. A wave of pleasure shot through me. “Vic. Oh God.”

He spread the folds and slid his fingers through the wetness. Up. Down. Up. Down.

I panted and shifted my body, trying to get him to touch my clit again. But he moved away, sliding his fingers farther down to circle my opening. “So wet for me, baby.”

“Please,” I begged.

“Bend your knees,” he ordered. “Nice and wide for me, baby.”

I opened my legs wider.

He lowered his head. “That’s it,” he whispered, warm breath wafting across my clit. He squeezed my thighs in his hands, then shifted them under me to cup my butt.

I closed my eyes, gasping when he sucked on my clit. I sank my nails into the mattress and jerked. Oh God. Oh God. Feeling Vic’s mouth on me sent a flood of tremors, quivers, and jolts through me.

The pressure in my lower belly built as his tongue circled my clit. Slowly.

He played and teased my opening with his fingers. And then he pressed three inside me. I screamed, rising to meet his thrust.

“That’s it, baby.” The vibration of his voice against me sent an erupting tidal wave of pleasure through me. “Fuck, you taste good. Made for me, Rainbird.”

He pushed his fingers in and out of me while he sucked, and then his tongue teased. “Vic, I’m going to…. Oh my God.” I tilted my hips up, nearly falling over the edge.

Everything stopped.

He lifted his head. “Want my cock inside you the first time I make you scream and quiver around me.”

“Okay,” I breathed.

I watched as he sucked each finger that glistened with my wetness. I stared, unable to take my eyes off him. God, I never imagined it would be like this. That this deadly, dangerous man who had once held a gun to my head would be between my legs, sucking on me.

But he was everything. His honesty. His gentleness. His protectiveness, and yeah—the damaged vulnerability that he kept imprisoned deep inside him.

He crawled up my body, and his mouth found mine. I tasted myself on his lips. It was erotic, and a flood of warmth sank deep.

“Condom, baby.” He got up and rifled through his bag on the floor. I heard the rustle of the package and the sound of it tearing open. I watched him roll the condom over his throbbing cock.

He settled back over me and trailed kisses along my collarbone, then found my mouth again. I curled my hand into the back of his neck, pulling him closer. Our mouths sparring. Tongues delving. There was an urgency in our kiss. A need that felt as if it would never be sated.

I wrapped my legs around his hips and pressed upward. His cock nudged my opening and I tried to push farther, but he wouldn’t let me.

He broke our kiss and stared down at me. The stormy depths of his eyes were dark, almost lethal.

He cupped my chin. “You’re mine, Rainbird,” he said. “You’ve always been mine. But now, you’ll know it.”

Then he drove his cock inside me.

Macayla

His mouth smothered my scream as he shoved his cock inside me, sinking deep. He didn’t move at first, waiting for my body to adjust to his thick length.

“Christ, you’re tight.” His eyes found mine. “You good?”

I didn’t respond. Instead, I curled my hand around his neck again and dragged his mouth to mine. He groaned and rotated his hips as he kissed me.

He pulled out, then thrust his cock back inside me, and I moaned against his mouth, my hips rising to meet his.

“Oh God.” I closed my eyes, raking my nails over his shoulders.

“Need your hands, baby.”

I lifted my arms above my head, and he locked his fingers with mine, pressing them into the bed.

“Please. Vic. Fuck me. Now.”

He stared down at me. “You have everything I am, Rainbird. Always. Don’t ever forget, baby.”

“Vic. God, please.”

“Say it,” he ordered, his fingers tightening with mine.

“Everything. Always.”

He shoved hard into me. It wasn’t gentle and slow. This was hard, unrelenting, determined, just like he was.

And I met his every movement.

The smack of heated skin echoed in the room as he pumped harder into me. My thighs trembled, and he thrust faster and faster.

“Oh God. Oh God. Vic. Vic,” I gasped, and every single muscle cramped and tightened. The eruption of pleasure gripped me, and I screamed with pleasure.

Vic slammed his lips onto mine, silencing me as he thrust several more times before he groaned into my mouth, his body flexing and shaking.

I closed my eyes and sagged into the mattress. Vic released my hands, and he lifted his body for a moment as he pulled out. He then got up, and padded across the room to the bathroom, where he likely got rid of the condom.

When he came back, he lay down on his back beside me and pulled me into his arms. I rested my head on his chest, hearing the steady beat of his heart. He kissed the top of my head and slowly ran his fingertips up and down my arm as I traced the scar across his abdomen.

“What’s this from?” I asked.

“Knife.” His hand slid down my back, and over my butt, and back up again.

I tilted my head to peer up at him, but his eyes were closed. I kissed the circular scar on his chest. Before I could ask, he said, “Gunshot.”

My heart skipped a beat and my stomach plummeted. This was the reality of his life, and I couldn’t forget that. Every time he left, there was always the possibility that the knife wound or gunshot would be the last one.

He cupped my chin, thumb grazing my lower lip. “Macayla,” he said in a deep, raspy voice. I met his eyes. “I can’t promise you I’ll walk away from a mission unharmed. But if there is still breath in me, I swear to you that I’ll always come back to you and Jackson.”

Tears pooled in my eyes and spilled over the rims.

Tonight, Vic had made me his. But somehow, lying in his arms, it felt as if I’d always belonged to him.

Macayla

I rolled over, expecting to find Vic, but I was met with ruffled sheets and a cold, empty mattress. I sat up, bringing the sheet with me. I had no idea what time it was, but it was still dark outside. I quickly checked my cell to make sure there were no messages from Addie and that Jackson was okay.

My muscles were sore, and they were sore because Vic hadn’t always been gentle. He was rough and intense, and I was feeling the aftereffects. And I liked it. I liked that all day I’d walk around with my muscles aching, a reminder of what he did to me.

The wind roared and snow hit the windowpane like pellets. I scooted out of bed, taking the sheet with me. I could hear the shower going, and padded across the room to knock on the bathroom door.

When there was no answer, I opened it and peeked inside.

I didn’t care how sore or achy my body was, I wanted sex in the shower with Vic. Shit, I wanted sex with him on the kitchen counter. And against the wall. And anywhere else he’d take me.

Because sex with Vic was gentle and sweet—and rough and intense.

It was everything.

I dropped the sheet at the door and walked to the shower. I opened the shower door and stopped.

I should’ve noticed that there was no steam in the air. That the mirror wasn’t fogged, nor was the glass shower.

But I didn’t. It wasn’t until I opened the shower door and saw him shivering that I realized.

A sob wrenched from my throat, and I charged into the shower. The cold blast of pellets hit my skin and I sucked in air. Oh my God. How long had he been standing in here?

“Vic. What are you doing?” I tried to reach the taps, but his body blocked me.

His head was bowed and his hands were pressed against the wall on either side of the taps. The water was pounding down on him, and his lips were blue, and his skin ice-cold.

Oh my God. “Vic.” He didn’t move. He didn’t acknowledge I was there, and I wasn’t even sure he was aware that I was.

I put my hand on his back to try to duck under his arm, but as soon as I touched him, he reacted.

With one movement, he had me by the throat and pressed up against the tile. My heart slammed into my chest and my stomach dropped. He stared at me, but his eyes were dark and glazed, and it was as if he was looking right through me.

His fingers didn’t squeeze my throat. He just held me there.

I placed my hand on his forearm. “Vic,” I managed to claw from my throat. “Vic.”

The cold water continued to pound on us, and I shuddered. “Vic!”

His brows furrowed and he looked away from me, then back again as if he was trying to distinguish what he was seeing.

My teeth chattered. “Vic. Please.” His fingers twitched. “It’s me. Let me go, Vic,” I whispered, slowly lowering my hand from his forearm so I wasn’t touching him.

His hand dropped from me. I inhaled several deep breaths, rubbing my throat with my fingers. I reached for the taps and turned the dial to the right for hot water.

“Vic. You’re freezing. You need to warm up,” I said.

He didn’t say anything.

I expected the stream to turn warm, but it didn’t. There was no hot water. Why wasn’t the hot water working? How long had he been in here?

He shook his head, staring down at the drain in the shower. “It was cold. It was so fuckin’ cold. He was shivering.”

What was he talking about? I moved into him, wrapping my arms around his neck and pulling him close, letting the cold water hit my back instead of him.

“He was cold. He was so cold.”

“Vic, let’s get out of the shower.”

He didn’t move.

“I couldn’t save him. I couldn’t save him. I wasn’t strong enough. The rain. It wouldn’t stop raining, and the sewers kept filling up.”

My body was frozen as the water continued to pierce my skin.

“He didn’t want to die. He told me he didn’t want to die. He begged me to save him.” A ravaged sound emerged from his throat. “My brother. My fuckin’ brother.”

Oh God. I pulled his head down, so it was cradled into the crook of my shoulder.

I don’t know how long we stood there. The ice-cold water pounded into my back until I was numb and could no longer feel anything anymore. I shivered, and my teeth chattered so hard that my jaw ached. But there was no way I was leaving him here.

His spine stiffened and he shook his head as if to clear it. “Macayla?” He scowled, looking at me as if I wasn’t real.

“Can… we get… out now?” I managed to get past my quivering lips.

“Jesus Christ, baby.” He moved fast, hooking his arm around my waist and yanking me out of the shower, nearly sending us both tumbling to the floor. “What the hell are you doing?”

He ripped a towel from the rack so hard, it tore off the wall. He wrapped the towel around me before grabbing another one and wrapping it around his waist. Then he picked me up in his arms and carried me over to bed, but it was only to grab the black-and-white wool blanket at its foot.

My teeth were chattering so badly, I couldn’t say anything. And my body was numb.

He carried me down the stairs to the living room and sat me on the white faux fur rug in front of the wood-burning stove. He tucked the wool blanket around me before straightening and opening the door to the stove. He grabbed several logs and tossed them into the glowing bed of coals that almost immediately ignited them, sending flames into a frenzy and heat to pour out.

My body trembled and shook, but the sudden intense heat felt good on my face.

“Baby,” Vic whispered as he came up behind me and sat with his legs on either side of me so we were spooned together. He wrapped the wool blanket around us and pulled me even closer.

His body was already warm, and the heat seeped into my back and thighs. The fire sparked and crackled as we sat in silence, his naked body against mine.

He kissed the top of my head and murmured, “Don’t do that again, Rainbird.”

I tilted my head back against his shoulder and raised my chin to look up at him. “I won’t as long as you don’t.” His jaw flexed, and his eyes darkened for a second, as if he was going to object. Instead, he remained silent. I was getting that was Vic’s go-to response when he didn’t want to argue.

My skin tingled, and it was almost painful as the circulation returned and warmth invaded. “Why wasn’t the hot water working?” I’d showered here before and there’d been hot water.

“I keep it turned off.”

“Why?”

He inhaled a ragged breath. “So I don’t forget.”

“Your brother?”

He kissed the top of my head again, his lips lingering this time. “Yeah. Noah.”

“How old was he?”

I may not understand what it was like to watch a brother die and not be able to do anything about it, but I did know what it was like to feel responsible for someone else’s suffering. I hadn’t watched what Jackson had gone through, but the guilt was there. The constant feeling that I’d been the one to do that to him. To put those nightmares in his eyes.

Vic carried the guilt of not being able to save his brother. Of failing.

“Eight. He was only eight. We’d stolen some jewelry from a house and were hiding in the sewers because we set the alarm off.” His arms tightened around me. “Hank, my dad, was a corrupt cop and a bastard. He’d give us the layout on places, and we’d go in and steal the goods. Drugs, jewels, whatever. That one, he fucked up on. There wasn’t supposed to be an alarm.”

Oh my God. That was horrible. How could a father do that to his own kids? They were his mules.

“It started raining, and the sewers filled up fast. I climbed out, but Noah was hiding in a different one, and the grate had latched. He couldn’t get it open.”

Tears pooled in my eyes and my throat constricted.

“I couldn’t get it open,” he whispered.

The fire crackled and sparked. “It’s why you risk your life to save others.”

“No, baby. I don’t do it to save people. I do it to kill them.”

I half turned in his arms to look at him. “The bad guys. But maybe it’s because you couldn’t save him, so you have to save others.”

His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t say anything. I snuggled back into his arms, and he squeezed me to him. Maybe he already knew that, or maybe he was just placating me so he didn’t have to talk about it.

I wiggled my butt, shifting closer to him, and his cock hardened.

His fingers trailed across the side of my neck, pushing the wet strands aside. He curled his body around me and trailed kisses down my neck. My body instantly awakened to his touch, and my sex tweaked.

I dragged his palm down my belly and pressed it between my legs, a groan escaping me the second his callused fingers touched the pulsing nub.

“Show me,” he growled next to my ear. “Show me how you get yourself off while I fuck you with my fingers.”

Oh my God. I’d never done anything like that. Yeah, I got myself off, and I had a vibrator, but I was alone when I did it. I didn’t have a guy watching me pleasure myself.

His fingers slid lower, parting my lips and slipping through the wetness, up and down. “So fuckin’ wet for me, baby.”

I was. I was soaked whenever he touched me. His cock pressed into the small of my back, and I wanted him inside me.

“I won’t ask again, Rainbird,” he murmured before plunging two fingers inside me.

I gasped, eyes closing, throwing my head against his shoulder in pure pleasure. His other hand grabbed mine, and he linked our fingers together, placing them over the sensitive nub.

“Show me how you like it,” he growled.

I licked my lips, my sex throbbing around his fingers that were sunk deep inside me. But he was no longer moving them in and out. I shifted my hips, hoping he’d move them again, but he didn’t.

“Vic, please.”

“Do what I ask.”

Fuck. I didn’t know why, but I felt my cheeks flame as I touched myself with his hand covering mine. I slowly began to gently rub the sensitive nub in a circular motion.

“Fuck,” he groaned. “My little Rainbird likes it slow and gentle too.”

He slid his fingers in and out, causing my legs to fall apart wider and my muscles to tighten. My movements grew quicker as his did.

“Jesus, baby,” he said, pumping harder, faster. My back arched and my butt lifted off the ground.

“Oh God,” I cried, my fingers circling faster, harder. The sensations tightening. Building. My thighs trembling.

Vic grabbed my wrist and he stopped me. “No. I want my cock inside you. I want to feel you quiver around me.” His fingers withdrew from my wetness, and he pushed me flat on my back. “Fuck, one sec—need a condom.”

I laughed as he threw the blankets aside and leapt to his feet. He disappeared upstairs and was back within seconds. He ripped open the package and rolled the condom onto his hard cock.

He picked me up and flipped me over. “Up. Hands and knees, baby.” He spanked my ass and I laughed.

I did as he said and wiggled my ass, peering over my shoulder at him. He groaned, and without warning, he shoved inside me.

Then Vic fucked me hard until my body trembled and quaked and I screamed his name.

Afterward, I lay in his arms in front of the sparking fire, the glow illuminating his bronzed skin.

“You’re leaving, aren’t you?” I don’t know how I knew. Maybe it was because he’d planned this night so we’d have time alone before he left. Or how he watched me when I got myself off, as if he wanted to embed it in his memory. Or how he kissed me as if it might be the last time.

“Yeah, baby. With Tyler down, I need to go.”

I swallowed back the tears. “Can you tell me where you’re going? How long you’ll be gone?”

“No.”

I closed my eyes and pulled his arms tighter around me, then linked our fingers and held his hand like it might be the last time. I wouldn’t ask him to stay, even though everything inside me wanted to. I wanted to beg him. Get on my hands and knees and plead with him to stay with Jackson and me.

But I wouldn’t. His demons lived and breathed in him. Tonight, I’d seen for myself what they did to him. He needed this.

I squeezed his hand. “Promise you’ll never leave me while I sleep, Vic?”

“Yeah.”

“Say it. I need to hear you say it.”

He turned me over on my back and leaned over me, his hand sliding up my body to my throat then farther to cup my chin. “I promise to never leave you while you sleep, Rainbird.”

Only then did I close my eyes and fall asleep wrapped in his arms.

Macayla

I woke to what sounded like a baseball bat pounding on the front door.

Vic’s body was a missile. He darted upright, tossing the covers over me and vaulting out of bed.

All softness had vanished.

This was the killer. The man who took down the deadliest criminals in the world.

He yanked on his cargos, strapped a knife to his thigh, then bent and reached between the mattress and box spring. He pulled out a handgun, and there was a click as he checked the chamber.

We were fucking on top of a gun? I sat up, clutching the sheets to my chest. He moved toward the door in his bare feet.

“Get in the bathroom and lock the door,” he ordered.

“It’s probably just Addie, Vic.”

“I don’t live on probables, Macayla. Get in the bathroom and lock the door. Don’t come out. Understand? No matter what you hear.”

I nodded and quickly scrambled off the bed. I grabbed my panties and pulled them on, then the first piece of clothing I could find. It was one of Vic’s T-shirts on top of his bag, and it hung to midthigh and was so huge, it looked as if I was wearing a black garbage bag.

More pounding.

“Open the fuckin’ door, Gate,” a voice boomed. It was ragged and raspy sounding, as if it had been damaged by a hockey stick to the throat.

My body froze and my eyes widened. Vic lowered his gun and shoved it into the back of his cargos.

“Where the fuck is my sister?” my brother yelled.

Oh my God. Ethan.

“Stay here,” Vic ordered. He grabbed another T-shirt from his bag and tugged it on before making his way to the bedroom doorway.

I ignored him and followed. He stopped and turned, grabbing my forearm. “Babe, let me deal with him.”

I jerked my arm from his grip. “It’s my brother.”

“Yeah, who’s raging mad. Let me talk to him first.”

“Why is he so mad?”

Vic didn’t say anything, but there was uncertainty in the depths of his eyes. And that scared me. Because Vic was never uncertain. “Vic,” I whispered.

More pounding. “Open the door or I’ll break it the fuck down.”

He released me and went down the stairs toward the front door. I followed, but stopped halfway, my hand tightening around the handrail to keep myself steady.

Vic clicked the deadbolt and opened the door.

Ethan’s fist plowed into Vic’s cheek. It was hard enough to send Vic staggering back a few steps.

Ethan charged. His body slammed into Vic’s, and they both crashed into the wall.

I flew down the stairs. “Ethan. No,” I shouted. “Stop.”

Ethan either didn’t hear me, or didn’t care, as he continued to pound into Vic. Fear grabbed hold as he continued to pummel Vic, shot after shot.

Vic never once returned the blows. He let Ethan hit him over and over again. Why wasn’t he fighting back or protecting himself?

There was no question Vic could take Ethan down in seconds. Ethan may be a fighter in the rink, but Vic was military. Special Forces. He could easily knock out my brother.

So, why wasn’t he fighting back?

I ran over to them, the smell of blood pungent.

“Damn it, Macayla. Stay back,” Vic barked, just before Ethan’s fist slammed into his cheek again.

I ignored him and grabbed my brother’s arm, yanking on him. “No. Ethan. Stop. Get off him,” I shouted.

Murderous rage burned in my brother’s piercing green eyes. “Was it you? Was it fuckin’ you who raped her? I’ll kill you.”

What? What the hell? What was going on? “Ethan, no.”

He ignored me as he continued to hit Vic repeatedly. Blood dripped down Vic’s brow, and his lip was cut and swollen.

“Damn it, Ethan. Stop,” I screamed, my voice crackling on a choking sob. I didn’t think and jumped on Ethan’s back. He reacted instantly, shooting his elbow back into my collarbone and sending me flying across the foyer. My lower back slammed into the stairs, and I fell to the floor.

A low, animalistic roar erupted. With two moves, Vic had Ethan by the throat and up against the wall. “That’s your sister. Your sister. Touch her again and I won’t hesitate to put you in the ground. Brother or not.”

I crawled to my feet, wincing at the pain in my lower back and my collarbone. “Vic, please, let him go. He didn’t know.”

The wild rage in Ethan’s eyes calmed as I spoke, and his eyes snapped to me. “Macayla.”

He hadn’t even realized I’d been here. Vic released him and stepped away, instantly striding over to me, his dark eyes assessing me as they trailed down my body.

I touched his chest. “I’m fine.”

Vic didn’t move.

“I’m fine,” I repeated.

“Shit, I’m so sorry, sis.” Ethan inhaled ragged, deep breaths as he stared at me. “I didn’t know. Are you okay?”

I nodded. “Yeah. What’s going on? Why are you here?” What I didn’t say hung in the air like a dark cloud. How did he know I’d been raped? Why did he think it was Vic? I didn’t even know Vic back then, and I’d have remembered him if he’d been at the house.

Ethan stepped closer, but he stopped when Vic turned to face him, blocking him from approaching me.

I pushed in front of him, putting my hand on Vic’s arm. “He’s my brother,” I whispered.

Vic peered down at me, blood dripping off his jaw and soaking into his T-shirt. “Who just elbowed you in the throat and tossed you into the fuckin’ stairs. Not a chance, baby.”

I heard a spitting growl from my brother, and I spun, holding up my hand as I glared at him. “I don’t know what your problem is, but this isn’t a hockey rink. What if Jackson had been here? Did you think about that?”

No. His control had been fractured. Just like it had been as a teenager. I hadn’t seen it back then, but I’d heard about it. The one thing that gave him focus, and why he wasn’t in jail or in an early grave, was hockey.

He tightened his jaw, but he stayed where he was, bloody and bruised, fists curling and uncurling.

The tension between them was volatile, and I was afraid Ethan would lose it if Vic said anything that might set him off again. And talking about what happened was explosive territory, so that was highly probable. “Give me a few minutes to talk to him.”

“Not leaving you alone with him, Macayla,” Vic replied.

“Me?” Ethan blurted with a cruel laugh. “You’re worried about me? Is this some kind of sick joke? You fuckin’ stalked her for years, then raped her.”

I gasped, the cement block in the pit of my stomach dropping. “Ethan. No. What are you talking about?”

“Were you drugged? Is that why you’re with him now? You don’t remember what he did to you.”

I felt as if I was falling face-first through a black hole. “No. Ethan, no.” I yanked myself from Vic’s grasp and staggered toward him. “Stop it. Stop it.”

Ethan glared at Vic, ignoring me. “You’re just like your corrupt father. You’re going to prison to rot with him.”

Vic’s body was strung tight, and his voice threatening. “Watch what you say, North.”

“Ethan. Look at me. Me!” Who told him what happened? Why did he think Vic raped me? Stalked me?

His eyes snapped from Vic to me, where I had stopped a foot away from him. “Get your shit, Macayla. We’re leaving.”

I shook my head. “No. Ethan. Vic didn’t rape or stalk me. It wasn’t him.”

Ethan stepped toward me, towering over me from his six-foot-four height. “You want proof? Look under his bed. I guarantee it’s still there.”

My heart staggered when I heard Vic swear beneath his breath, and my knees nearly gave out. The cement block in my belly shifted, the nodules slicing open my insides.

I slowly turned to look at Vic. I shouldn’t have. I shouldn’t have looked at him. I should’ve just walked out and not faced my world blowing up before my eyes.

“Vic?” I choked on his name. When he didn’t say anything, I tore up the stairs as fast as my trembling legs could take me.

No one came after me. No one shouted for me to stop.

I fell to my knees on the hardwood floor, ignoring the shooting pain. I swung my arm back and forth under the bed while I crawled on my hands and knees—searching. Hoping. No, praying my fingers wouldn’t touch anything.

That nothing was there. It was all a mistake.

I’d almost circled around the entire bed when the tips of my fingers brushed something soft.

No. No. Please. No.

I didn’t feel the tears streaming down my face. I felt numb and cold as my fingers closed around the softness, and I dragged it out from under the bed.

I sat on my butt and stared at the Yoda plushy.

I couldn’t move.

I felt as if I was sitting in the front car of a rollercoaster, hearing the slow click as it climbed the hill. The fear of knowing that in moments the clicking would stop, and the cart would teeter over the top and plunge to the ground.

Cold tremors racked my body as I stared but wasn’t really seeing anymore.

I don’t know how long it was before I turned the Yoda doll over and looked at the tag. My stomach clenched and my heart dropped.

No. It couldn’t be true. I’d know. My body would know.

But why did Vic have my Yoda under his bed? I’d left it…. It was like a jolt of lightning tearing through my body. I staggered to my feet.

The boy.

I clutched Yoda in my fist as I stormed out of the bedroom and halfway down the stairs.

Neither of them had moved.

I glowered at Vic, then threw Yoda at him. He didn’t reach out to catch it, and it hit his chest and fell to the floor at his feet. “You were the boy. The boy in the police station.”

His jaw flexed. “Yes.”

A gasp wrenched from my constricted throat, and I grabbed the handrail before I fell down the rest of the stairs. Vic made a move toward me, and I quickly shot him a glare. “Don’t you dare.”

He stopped.

“Macayla—” Ethan began.

I cut him off. “No. I get to speak,” I shouted. My gaze flew back to Vic. “You stalked me?”

“Not exactly.”

It was like a spear through my chest. “You either did or didn’t.”

He inhaled a breath, his eyes locked on me. “You invited me to your sixth birthday. I was there.”

“No, you weren’t.” My mind raced, but it was as if it was spinning through quicksand as I tried to grasp pieces of the puzzle.

“You made a green gummy bear cake.”

My breath caught in my throat, and I shook my head back and forth as my world slipped into a black abyss. Ethan was telling the truth. He’d stalked me. He’d watched me. “Tell me it isn’t true.” Please. God, please tell me it’s all a lie. That this is a dream and I’ll wake up any second and be lying in Vic’s arms.

“On your seventh birthday, you rode your new purple bike up and down the sidewalk. On your tenth, it was raining, and you played your mom’s guitar out on the front porch.”

Oh my God. Oh my God. He’d watched me. He’d watched me all those years, and he hadn’t said anything. Why hadn’t he said anything? Why? Why, damn it?

“Did you rape me?” I regretted the words instantly. Because no matter what he’d lied to me about, I knew it wasn’t him.

But I saw what my words did to him. It was like I’d stabbed him through the heart as his face paled, and his eyes widened with shock. It took him a second to recover, and then everything changed. It was like this ice shield lowered over him, and he radiated pure, unadulterated coldness. “If you have to ask me that, then you don’t know me at all.”

“But I don’t, Vic. I don’t know you. You lied to me. You knew me and you never said anything. You had my goddamn Yoda from when I was five years old under your bed while you had your cock inside me.”

Ethan lowered his head and swore beneath his breath.

I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t look at him anymore. I had to get out of here. Get him out of me.

I tore at Vic’s T-shirt, then ripped it over my head.

I need it off. I need him off of me.

“Jesus, sis.” Ethan mumbled, turning his back as I stripped.

But I didn’t give a shit. Vic had watched me for years and never told me. He’d lied to me. To my little boy. I grabbed my knee-length winter parka off the newel post and yanked it on. I didn’t bother doing up the zipper, and pulled it close around my shivering body.

“Out of my way,” I said as Vic stood blocking the stairs.

“I stopped. On your sixteenth birthday,” he said.

“Eleven years. Eleven years you watched me!” I shoved his chest, but he didn’t move. “You didn’t tell me,” I shouted. “You didn’t fuckin’ tell me. I told you I was raped. I let you around my son. I let you fuck me. And you didn’t tell me.”

His shoulders sagged and his head dipped. I pushed past him and shoved my feet into my boots, then walked to Ethan, who was holding the door open.

“I need to pack.”

I felt Ethan behind me, his hand on the small of my back as I walked on trembling legs to the limo SUV. A driver stood in the blustery wind, holding the back door open for us.

I slid onto the plush leather seat and Ethan followed.

The door shut.

The SUV pulled out, the snow crunching beneath its tires. I didn’t look back. And I didn’t see Vic standing in the open doorway gripping the Yoda doll.

Macayla

I was on autopilot. I didn’t even remember packing up everything at the cabin, or the treacherous drive up the winding, snow-covered road up the mountain.

There were no tears. No tremors. Nothing. It felt as if I was outside myself staring in at the wreckage. I heard Ethan talk to me numerous times, but his voice was like an echo in the distance. And I couldn’t—or didn’t care to—decipher the words.

I heard Ethan on his phone, his gaze continuously shifting to me. “Yeah, if you could. A couple days, maybe. I don’t know, but Jackson shouldn’t see her like this.” He paused, then his voice hardened. “He isn’t my problem.” He tossed the cell onto the seat.

“Is Jackson okay?” I asked while keeping my eyes on the endless rows of pine trees we passed.

“Yeah,” he replied. “He’s at school, but Hettie will pick him up later, and he’ll stay there until… until things settle down.”

I nodded. “That’s good.” Like Ethan had said, it would scare him if he saw me like this. I rubbed my finger back and forth over the tattoo on my wrist. I just needed a couple days. A couple days to forget.

The betrayal. The pain. The devastation.

Vic was leaving on a mission tomorrow, and he’d be gone for weeks, maybe months or years. It was good. It was better that way.

The thought sent a sharp pain through my chest, and I bit down hard on the insides of my cheeks. He’d be gone. He might never come back.

“Drink this.” Ethan held out a tumbler of amber liquid.

I grasped it and tipped it back, chugging it in one swallow. The liquid burned all the way down my throat and into my chest, and I wanted it to singe the memories.

I handed the glass back, and heard the clink as he reached for the decanter. I heard a steady stream, and the scent of the scotch filled the air. He handed the glass back, having filled it to the rim this time.

I’d never been a drinker, but I quickly tipped it back and swallowed, barely feeling anything as I emptied the glass.

“Another,” I said, passing it back.

Ethan took the glass. “Mac…,” he began and then decided against it and shut up, filling the glass for a third time.

I repeated the process, then dropped the glass on the floor before leaning my forehead against the windowpane and closing my eyes.

I wanted the numbness to take me away. To stop the hurt. The betrayal. The emptiness.

The tires skidded, and the engine groaned as the back of the SUV fishtailed, struggling to make it up the incline. I shut everything out. The snow. The sound of the engine. The smell of scotch and leather.

I just wanted everything to fade away.

The SUV rolled to a stop, and the tinted window slowly lowered between the front and the back.

“Boss, is there a code?”

Ethan rambled off five numbers, and the window closed again. After a few seconds, we were moving again. I kept my eyes closed, my head fuzzy and heavy from the alcohol.

The car rolled to a stop again, and the door opened.

I didn’t move. I had no idea where we were. And I didn’t care.

The leather seats creaked as Ethan climbed out. There were muffled voices, and then the crunch of snow.

“I’ll go around the other side.” The car door shut, and I was surrounded in silence again. I liked the silence.

But it didn’t last long. The door I had my forehead plastered to slowly opened, and I was forced to sit up.

“Mac, let’s get inside and warmed up. You’re shivering.”

I was? I didn’t feel like I was shivering.

“You have to help me, sis.” Ethan grasped my arms and gently tried to urge me from the car.

But I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to move. I wanted to stay here and sleep for a while.

“Sir, if I may.”

“Carter, it’s fine. I’ll do it. Can you grab a bag of her clothes? And bring it in with that rodent.” I felt an arm slide under my butt, and another around my back, and then I was being lifted.

My head bobbed against his shoulder as he carried me somewhere. There were so many sounds intermingling, doors opening and closing, strange voices and numerous footsteps. The scent was strange though. It was earthy with something else I recognized but couldn’t place. At least not when my head was swimming in a murky fog.

We went through another door, and then I was being lowered onto something soft that smelled like lavender and chocolate peppermints. I sighed, curling into a ball on my side and tucking my hands under my cheek.

I just wanted everyone to leave me alone… to sleep and forget.

I heard the rustle of denim, and the gentle caress as Ethan’s finger pushed back strands of hair. “I’m sorry, sis. Fuck, I’m sorry for everything.”

“Sir, is there anything else?”

“No. That’s all, Carter. I’ll stay here. In case she needs me,” Ethan replied.

“Very good.” The door opened and closed again.

Leather creaked, and there was a thump on the floor like shoes were being dropped onto it.

Then nothing as I drifted off to sleep.

Macayla

I woke to the door clicking open and footsteps entering the bedroom. The leather chair I’d seen my brother dozing in groaned as he stood up.

I didn’t bother turning over to see who it was, and kept my eyes closed, not wanting to face reality yet. Not yet.

I needed to face it for Jackson, and I’d done it before. I’d pulled myself from the depths of despair when Jackson had been taken away. I climbed back up and breathed again, and that’s what I would do now.

Just not yet.

“You made it.” Ethan’s voice was low and raspy from sleep. “I didn’t think you’d have clearance in this snow.”

“I didn’t.” Footsteps approached the bed, and the faint, exotic smell of men’s cologne wafted over me. It was familiar, but I couldn’t place where I’d smelled it before.

“Thanks for this,” Ethan said.

There was no response, or none that was verbal.

“He’ll come for her,” he drawled.

“Why do you think I brought her here. It’s the only place he won’t come.”

“Never underestimate what a man will do for the woman he loves. And he’s a dangerous man.”

Ethan snorted. “Love? More of an obsession. Eleven years he fuckin’ watched her on her birthday. What the fuck is that? I told him. I warned him to stay away from her, and he didn’t.”

“Would you?”

I didn’t hear Ethan’s response, or maybe there wasn’t one.

Love? Obsession? I squeezed my eyes shut. I didn’t want to think about it. Not now. Not when I felt so weak and vulnerable, and ready to shatter at the slightest touch.

“You know the truth, North. We’ve been friends a long time. He’s dangerous. Merciless, but it wasn’t him who did that to her,” the voice said.

My hand curled into the sheets.

“Yeah,” Ethan replied. “Fuck. I lost it.”

Their voices lowered so I couldn’t hear them, and I didn’t want to. I just wanted to be alone.

There was a rustle of fabric and footsteps, then something heavy was laid on top of me, and hands tucking it in around me. Soft lips touched the top of my head. “Get some rest, sis.”

I waited until I heard the door click closed before I let the first tears fall.

It was dark when I woke again. I probably would’ve stayed in bed if I didn’t have to pee so bad. I crawled out of the bed and peered around the opulent room, glad to see the chair in the corner was empty, and there was no sign of Ethan.

There was a hand-carved dresser on the opposite side of the bed that matched the walnut bedframe and nightstands. There was a tapestry of a black horse on the wall behind the bed, and heavy velvet curtains on the two windows.

I walked across the Persian throw rug into the adjoining bathroom. I saw my bag on the floor and unzipped it. I took out the toiletries, a pair of panties, and my onesie. I quickly peed and washed my face and teeth and got dressed.

When I walked out of the bathroom, I gasped, staggering back into the doorframe.

“Mr. James,” I said.

Callum James casually sat in the leather chair, one leg crooked over the other, his elbows resting on the chair arms, while the tips of his fingers touched in pyramid fashion.

“Callum,” he corrected. “I think we can drop the formalities. You are, after all, sleeping in my house.”

His house? This wasn’t a hotel? Ethan brought me to Callum’s farm?

I frowned. “Why are we here?”

“A courtesy to your brother.” He gestured to the bed. “Sit. You don’t look well.”

Yeah, because I’d chugged back a shitload of scotch, and felt like I’d been run over by a truck. And that was after I had the man I love tear my heart out and stomp all over it.

My breath hitched. Love. I loved him. I loved Vic. That didn’t just end like a love song. It played over and over again until the chords were worn and tattered, then finally snapped.

“He’s gone,” Callum said. “Darius reported seeing his truck leave town an hour ago.”

I swallowed back tears. He was gone. Vic was gone.

He might never come back. I should be glad he was gone. But the thought was crushing. Destroying.

Vic’s words repeated over and over in my head. “If there is breath in me, I promise to come back to you. You’ve always been mine….” Always. I’d been his since when? Since we’d been kids. Since he’d been that angry little boy.

Callum rose. “You are welcome to stay for as long as you need. I will be heading back to the city today, but I will leave a couple men to assist with anything you may require. And there is also Carlos, who lives in an apartment in the stables and cares for the horses.”

“Jackson—”

“Will be picked up and brought here as soon as the storm clears, if you choose to stay.”

He strode to the door and opened it. “The offer is still open for you to move into the guesthouse. But stay in the main house as long as you need.”

“Thanks,” I said, noticing Ethan in the hallway.

They spoke for a second, but I couldn’t hear what they were talking about. Didn’t care to try. All I wanted to do was sleep. Forget.

I crawled back into bed, pulling the covers up to my chin, my fingernails digging into the material. I didn’t close my eyes. I couldn’t because all I saw was him.

His face.

His eyes.

Dark gray eyes that stared at me when I stood at the top of the stairs. How they slid to the Yoda doll, then crashed with mine again.

The devastation. The pain. Then the sudden coldness as he shut everything out.

I choked on a sob.

Ethan walked around the bed and crouched in front of me. “Do you need anything?”

I closed my eyes to block him out. To block everything out.

I shook my head. “Jackson?”

“He’s fine.”

I closed my eyes again.

Ethan was quiet a minute and then said, “Why didn’t you tell me you were raped, Mac?” His tatted forearms rested on the bed, and he gently pried my clutched fingers from the covers and took my hand. The blood was gone, but his knuckles were bruised and swollen from the fight. “That you…. Christ, that you were pregnant. I would’ve helped you.”

My eyes flew open. “Who told you? Vic?” Is that how he found out. Did he tell my brother? No. That didn’t make sense. God, the betrayal was like acid trickling through my veins.

“No. I haven’t talked to Vic in years. I got a text last night, Macayla. I don’t know who the fuck sent it, and I would’ve ignored it, except it said something I couldn’t ignore.” He took out his phone and tapped on the screen. “‘He watched her for years,’” he read aloud. “‘I wonder if he was the one who raped your sister seven years ago.’”

He lowered his phone. “Seven years, Macayla. Jackson…. Fuck, is that why you gave him up? Is that why you never told me about the pregnancy? Why you wouldn’t tell me who his father was when you found him…. It was because you were raped. Jesus.” He ran his hand back and forth through his hair. “I never knew. I never fuckin’ knew you went through that.”

I couldn’t speak. My words were drowning in the dark cavern. Lost and spiraling down a drain. Why? Who would tell Ethan? Who knew about it? Who else knew Vic had watched me?

Ethan sighed. “I lost it. I’d called Hettie to see if she’d heard from Vic, and she said he was back. I knew you were staying in his cabin and… all I could think about was the text, and that I knew Vic had watched you for years on your birthday, and I thought….” His head dipped. “You were seventeen. Fuck,” he said, voice cracking. “Jesus, the text. It made sense.”

But it didn’t make sense. Because it was Vic Gate, and Vic protected. He shielded. Vic was a superhero. Oh my God. I’d accused him. His face. Oh God. Why did I do that?

My insides twisted. I was going to be sick. “He’d never do that. Vic would never do that.”

Ethan squeezed my hand. “Who did, Macadamia? Why would someone send me that text? Who else knew?”

I didn’t say anything. I stared out the window, watching the snowflakes fall and wanting nothing more than to be outside and silly dancing. To spin in circles, catch snowflakes on my tongue, and forget the monsters.

But I couldn’t. These monsters were real, and they wouldn’t be silly danced away.

I met Ethan’s dark eyes that were swirling with torment. Ruined with despair. Like Vic’s had been.

Vic. He was gone. He might never come back.

“I don’t know,” I whispered. “I can’t remember anything from that night, but one thing I do know Ethan—it wasn’t Vic.”

Then I told him everything.

Macayla

The mattress dipped and sheets rustled as I breathed in the scent of wood shavings. I opened my eyes to see Jackson sitting on the bed beside me. The wood shavings were from Waffles, who was cradled in his hands and clutched to his chest. The skinny pig’s little white whiskers twitched as if he was taking in all the new smells of his surroundings.

“Are you feeling better today, Mom?”

I smiled and reached out to cup his cheek, and my chest squeezed because he didn’t flinch or move away from my touch. “I’m just a little sad, Jack-o-bite.”

He scooched down and lay his head on the pillow. “That’s what Hettie said. Are you sad because Vic left?”

Oh God. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.

“Yeah, little man.” And hurt. And scared because it had been three days since I’d seen him. Three days since he’d touched me. Since I’d heard his voice.

Two days since I’d texted him and hadn’t heard a response. I’d asked him to call me. No emojis. Just “I’m sorry. Please, call me.”

We moved into Hettie’s despite Callum’s offer. I wanted Jackson to be somewhere familiar and around people he trusted.

Ethan met Jackson for the first time, and it might have been a more heartwarming moment if I hadn’t been so worried he’d see something in him and know who the father was. But Ethan didn’t say anything.

Jackson was a little mistrusting of him at first, until I told him Ethan was the one who had bought him the Aquaman, which led into them talking about all the superheroes.

“Don’t worry. He’ll come back once he gets all the bad guys,” Jackson said, completely confident that Vic would survive whatever he was up against.

But Vic may never come back, and it had nothing to do with him going after the most dangerous criminals in the world.

I reached over and stroked Waffles’ nose. “I hope so.”

My cruel words and his shocked face were burned into my memory. I had to apologize for what I’d said. At the time, I was so hurt and angry. Betrayed that he’d never told me he was that little boy in the police station. That he had come to my birthday every year. That he’d kept my Yoda plushy. But Vic didn’t deserve to be accused of something so horrific. Something he fought against with every part of his being.

What had I done? I swallowed back the sob.

I pretended I was okay. Going through the movements of living for Jackson’s sake, but that’s all they were. Movements. Vacant and empty.

Jackson settled Waffles on the bed and reached over and placed his finger on the tattoo of his name on my wrist. When I’d first shown it to him, he couldn’t stop touching it and grinning.

“It’s permanent,” he said.

“That’s right. It means I’ll love you forever, Jackson. And I’ll always be here for you, no matter what.”

He looked at me. “Then you can tattoo Vic’s name on your other wrist, so he will be forever, too, and he has to come back, and you won’t be sad anymore.”

Oh God. Tears pooled in my eyes, and I bit the inside of my cheeks so hard, I tasted blood. I loved Jackson more than words could ever express. He was in my soul. My every breath.

Jackson didn’t wait for a response, but then I didn’t have one because I was trying not to cry. He climbed off the bed. “I’m going to put Waffles away now.”

I sat up and glanced at my cell on the nightstand. I don’t know how many times I’d picked it up to text Vic again, but I never did because I knew him. I knew he’d never miss a text. He wasn’t careless or forgetful. He’d read it, and if he had wanted to respond, he would’ve.

“Okay, little man. I’ll be down in a minute to make you some breakfast.” I had to think about what we were going to do. Where we’d live because we couldn’t stay at Hettie’s. Yesterday, Ethan suggested we stay at his cottage on the lake, and as peaceful as that sounded right now, I didn’t want to take Jackson away from his friends, and Hettie, and the others. Besides, I really loved playing at Zero Crow.

Jackson stood beside the bed. “It’s okay, you don’t have to. You can be sad longer if you want. Uncle Ethan is making me waffles.”

My chest squeezed. Uncle. “Yum, waffles.”

Jackson grinned. “We’re going to fill all the holes with syrup and whip cream and make pictures.”

Ethan and I used to do that with Mom. I either did a music note or a horse, and Ethan did a hockey stick or a puck. “What are you going to make?” I asked.

“Aquaman. And the syrup is going to be the ocean.” Of course he would do Aquaman. He carefully shifted Waffles to one hand and opened the door. He turned to look at me. “I can do one for you, too, Mom. I can do a guitar.”

The thought of eating syrupy waffles made my stomach lurch. “That would be perfect, sweetie. I’ll come down in a bit.”

The bedroom door shut behind him, and I reached for my cell on the nightstand. There was a text from Brin, letting me know Calico would cover my Wednesday and Thursday shifts and, if I wanted, Garret would take my Friday-night gig. I guessed Addie or Hettie had told her I needed a few days off.

There was a text from Jaeg asking if I needed anything. And strangely, one from Saint that said, “You now have my number.”

None from Vic.

I tossed the sheets aside and climbed out of bed. Then I got dressed, brushed my teeth, and went downstairs for picture waffles.

Macayla

Sunlight flooded the room as Hettie ripped open the velvet curtains. I dragged the covers over my head to block it out, along with the glaring truth that I still hadn’t heard from Vic.

Five days had passed, and it felt like a lifetime. I wondered how I’d lived for twenty-four years without him. In some ways, I guessed I actually hadn’t. Because he’d always been there. In the shadows.

I peeked open one eye to see Hettie striding across the room, wearing a bright blue, 1950’s poodle skirt with a shiny black belt and a white blouse.

She turned to face the bed, her hands on her hips. “If Vic saw you right now, he’d be furious with me for letting you wallow for so long. Come on. Up we go. We’re going bowling.”

My heart skipped a beat at the mention of his name.

“Let’s go,” Hettie said. “Get your ass out of bed. Come on. Hop in the shower and then come downstairs for something to eat before we go. Jackson is jumping up and down like a kangaroo with a mouse in its pouch.”

I snorted. It was Friday, and Jackson had a PD Day today, and I guessed that was why he was excited. I was going into work tonight for my gig because I wanted to play. No. I needed to play music. Jackson had been the one to show me that when he brought me my guitar yesterday after school. We sat on my bed, and he listened to me play, and afterward I showed him where to place his fingers to play a few chords, just like my mom had taught me at his age.

The yellow-and-white sunflower duvet was tugged off me, jerking me from my thoughts. “You’ve had long enough to feel sorry for yourself. Up.”

I sat up but didn’t climb out of bed. “I’m not feeling sorry for myself.” I totally was.

The floor creaked as Hettie walked around the bed and sat on the edge, beside me. She took my hand and lightly sandwiched it between hers. “Vic hasn’t been around much since he joined the military, and I know it’s partially to keep us from any blowback his job could bring. But mostly, he doesn’t want the attachment, even though it’s already there. I’m okay with that. I’ve learned to be okay with that.” She smiled tenderly and pushed back strands of my hair. “You need to be okay with him leaving. If you can’t be, then you’ll spiral with constant fear. Wondering when he’ll come back. When he will leave again. And yes, if he will come back.”

A tear escaped and trailed down my cheek. “I hurt him. I said something…. I shouldn’t have said it, Hettie.”

“We all say things we don’t mean, sweetie. It makes us human.” She wiped the tear with the pad of her thumb. “Sarah Sanders told me my husband, my boyfriend at the time, had cheated on me with Hazel Winters. I took a baseball bat to his dinky sailboat and called him a selfish, lying bastard who dressed like a dorky bumblebee.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “Dorky bumblebee?”

She smiled with a shrug. “The high school football team colors were yellow and black. He was the quarterback, and the complete opposite of dorky, so I knew he wouldn’t like it.”

“Did he cheat on you?” I asked.

She laughed. “I married him, didn’t I? Sarah lied so I’d break up with him.” Hettie patted my hand. “Arthur was honest, almost to a fault. I knew that deep down he’d never cheat on me. But I was hurt, betrayed, and pissed as all hell, so I lashed out.” She chuckled, thinking about it. “My Arthur was a hot commodity, just like your Vic.”

I bit my lip and shook my head. “He’s not my Vic.”

“Oh, sweetie, sure he is. He’s never brought a girl for Sunday dinner. And I’ve never seen him show affection with anyone before. Give him time. A man like him doesn’t ever let go of the woman and child he loves. He fights for them. Whatever it takes.”

I shook my head. “He never…. We never. I mean, we didn’t say—” That we loved each other.

“Love isn’t just a word, Macayla. It’s a crusade. It’s travelling a million miles for one moment together. It’s battling the hurt to find forgiveness and laughter. And for Vic, it’s conquering the war inside him to let you and Jackson past his walls. He did that. He won’t let that go.”

She stood up and walked around the bed. “Now, shower, then come downstairs. Addie is meeting us at the alley in an hour.”

Hettie flounced from the room, and I crawled out of bed.

Bowling. We were going bowling.

Macayla

My fingers floated across the strings like gentle waves, and my voice echoed through the bar. Every word was like a tremor in my belly. An awakening quiver that cocooned me in its embrace.

The crowd was gone, and there was only the music.

Napkins torn. The words falling like snowflakes.

All around me. All around my beating heart is falling apart.

Promise you’ll never say goodbye while I sleep.

Because I’m in too deep.

Promise you’ll never say goodbye while I sleep.

Because I’m in too deep.

I closed my eyes as I repeated the words, plucking the strings to play notes like soft whispers until my raspy voice faded away.

I inhaled a breath and slowly opened my eyes as the crowd clapped and cheered. I glanced over at Ethan leaning against the bar ten feet away. His arms were crossed, and his jaw was tight, but there were tears in his eyes. He’d never heard me play before, and I suspected he was thinking of Mom.

He nodded with a half grin, and I smiled back.

“Thank you so much, everyone,” I said into the microphone.

I slipped off the stool and crouched beside my guitar case, flipping the lid open and placing my guitar inside. I snapped the latch closed and then I froze. Everything in my body pulsed and thrummed with warning. I’d tried to block Vic from my mind all night, but he was always there. Inside me. And my body was so hyperaware of him that it played games on me.

I couldn’t trust it. I couldn’t let myself believe only to fall.

Movement caught my eye to the right, and it was Ethan shoving through the crowd, his body like a missile.

I jerked my head in the direction he was headed, and my breath hitched. Vic was striding toward the stage.

Toward me.

Our eyes clashed and locked.

Vic.

Oh God. Vic. A wracking sob tore from my raw throat, and I trembled.

My heart pounded.

My gaze skidded to Ethan again. He was about to intercept. Vic had to notice him, but if he did, he didn’t seem to care. Even when Ethan grabbed his arm and blocked his path.

Vic’s eyes never left mine.

I scrambled into action, jumping off the front of the stage and barreling through the crowded tables. “Ethan,” I shouted. “No.”

There was no movement from either one, but Vic looked relaxed and unconcerned about the anger pulsing through Ethan. Or the fact that he had his hand on him.

Vic said something, and Ethan flinched before his hand dropped from Vic’s arm.

I ran over and pushed in between them with my back to Vic. “Ethan.” He hesitated a moment before his chin dipped and he looked at me. “I don’t need your protection, Ethan. Not from Vic.”

Vic’s hands settled on my hips, and my body shuddered. He didn’t say anything, but I knew he was telling me that he was there if I needed him. I glared at my brother. “You’re going to walk away and let this go.”

“Macayla, he stalked you and lied to you.”

I softened my voice. “That’s for me and him to work out. Not you. He came to my birthday once a year, Ethan. And I’d invited him.” Vic’s hands twitched on my hips, and I felt his warm breath against the side of my neck as he pressed his long length against me.

“For years,” Ethan blurted. “Do you know what he does for a living? He’s not good enough for you, Macadamia.”

I felt Vic’s body tense, but he remained silent. “Yeah, I do know what he does, and if I want to be with him, that’s my decision. I love you, Ethan, but if you try to tell me what I can and can’t do like Dad did, then you won’t be part of my life or Jackson’s.”

He swore beneath his breath and jerked his hand through his hair. “Macadamia…. Christ, you were assaulted, and it was my fault. I had the party. It was one of my fuckin’ friends. Fuck, I didn’t protect you. I can’t…. I just don’t want you to get hurt again.”

I placed my hand on his tatted forearm. “It wasn’t your fault, Ethan. But it wasn’t Vic’s either. I trust him, and I trust him with Jackson. The most important person in my life.”

He inhaled a breath, then nodded. He looked at Vic. “You going to do something about him?”

“Yeah.”

“I want in.” Ethan gazed down at me again. “You looked beautiful up there, Macadamia. Just like Mom, but even better. She would’ve been so proud of you.”

My chest squeezed. “Thanks.”

He turned and walked away.

Vic’s hands slid up from my hips so he could hook my waist and drag me into him. “Rainbird,” he whispered against my ear. “Baby. Fuck.”

“You’re here,” I said.

“Yeah,” he whispered against my neck, crushing me to him. “Team’s still on the other side of the world for another week or so. Your text came through when we had cell service again. Flew back as soon as I could. Can you leave now?”

I nodded. “Let me go grab my guitar and things.”

But he didn’t let me go. Instead, Vic kept his hand locked in mine as we collected my guitar off the stage, and then went behind the bar for my purse and jacket.

It wasn’t until we were outside and in his truck that we spoke again. “I’m sorry, Vic. What I said about the rape…. God, it was wrong, and I didn’t mean it. You didn’t deserve that. I was angry and hurt that you didn’t trust me enough to tell me about the police station and then the birthdays…. My Yoda.”

He wrapped his hands around the steering wheel as the engine rumbled, the heat blowing from the vents. “You had every right to be angry. I should’ve told you, Macayla. I should’ve told you I was that boy. Fuck, I should’ve told you about the birthdays, but… I didn’t want….” The leather crackled as his grip tightened. “I didn’t want you to see me as that kid. That angry, worthless kid who didn’t deserve any kindness from a girl who held his hand.”

Oh my God. “Vic.”

He stared out the windshield. “That day in the station…. It was the day my brother drowned in the sewer.”

I’d only been five, and that day was a distant memory. I didn’t remember everything, but I still recalled snippets, like the boy in the hoodie who had been soaking wet and so angry and sad.

“I don’t know what it was about you. Maybe how persistent you were. Or how you made sure I had a pop too. Or that you weren’t scared of me. Maybe all of it. Yeah, it was all of it. I don’t know, but somehow it felt as if you saw past who I was. You saw past the anger and destruction, and you held my hand because….”

“You needed it.”

Oh God, he’d thought he was worthless. No kid deserved to grow up feeling worthless. But that’s what Vic had seen in Jackson. Why he’d understood what he’d been going through. Because he’d felt it too.

“Yeah. And when you did, the anger, the pain…. It eased and nothing hurt anymore. I felt as if I could breathe. That I wasn’t drowning in the suffocating darkness.” He sighed. “I snuck into the officer’s desk who had been talking to your mom and found out where you lived. On your birthday, I sat up in the old oak tree and watched you and your mom make that cake and put green gummy bears all over it.

“I needed the pain to go away, Rainbird. The hurt. To not feel as if I was dying inside. I wanted to feel free like you. And for a little while, I did. But then it would fade, and I couldn’t stop chasing it. I convinced myself that if I saw you once a year, that was all I needed to survive.”

I don’t know what hurt more, hearing the pain he carried with him, or that he thought he’d been undeserving. Worthless. A kid. He’d just been a kid. Just like I’d been.

“But you stopped. You said you stopped coming.”

He shifted in the bucket seat, his hands dropping to the bottom of the steering wheel. “Your brother caught me watching you on your sixteenth birthday.”

I didn’t have to think back to my sixteenth birthday because I remembered it clearly. It was right before Mom died. Ethan hadn’t lived with us for years, but the doctors had only given her a few more weeks, so he’d taken time off from hockey and was staying with us.

“We had a fight, and he told me to stay away from you.”

My breath hitched. “That’s why you wanted to talk to him about us. To explain.”

“Yeah.”

I shifted in my seat and reached across, settling my hand on his arm. “You’re not worthless, Vic. You weren’t worthless to me then, either. If I had thought you were, I wouldn’t have left you my Yoda.”

He looked at me, scowling. “I thought you forgot it.”

I shook my head. “And I thought you needed it more than I did.”

He closed his eyes a second, chin dipping. “Fuck, I don’t deserve you.”

I couldn’t wait any longer. I crawled across the center console and into his lap, my back against the steering wheel, and my bent knees on either side of him. “You’re the most deserving man I know, Vic Gate.”

“My five second Rainbird,” he whispered just before he yanked me into him and kissed me.

Macayla

“Vic, I have to go,” I smacked his shoulder and pulled from his embrace.

“Call in sick,” he said, latching onto my hand before I managed to get off the bed and to my feet. With one tug, he yanked me back down on top of him.

“I can’t. It’s too late. I need to be there in fifteen minutes.” I wiggled against him, and he groaned, then released me.

We were in the cabin, and Jackson was at school. Vic had been back just over a week, and Jackson and I pretty much lived at his house except for sleeping, but Vic was trying to change that. He had been working on finishing the downstairs bedroom and bathroom for Jackson in order to try to convince me to stay the night with him.

I stood up and shimmied into my panties and jeans. I grabbed my bra off the back of a chair and put it on before pulling the black, long-sleeved V-neck shirt over my head.

I hurried into the bathroom and brushed my teeth and twisted my hair into a knot. When I came back out, Vic was on his back, hands behind his head, one knee bent, and the sheets kicked off. His cock was hard and throbbing beneath his briefs.

I raised my brows. “Does it ever get tired?”

Vic smirked and my God, Vic smirking was orgasm worthy. “Come here. Five seconds, Rainbird.”

I laughed and grabbed my purse off the dresser. “Oh my God, it’s never been five seconds. More like five-thousand seconds.”

“I want infinite seconds with you, baby.”

I smiled. “Unfortunately, I can’t lie in bed all day like you do.” He huffed. Because the only time he laid around was when he watched me play guitar, or when we were in bed spooning while he traced his fingers over my skin. “I have to go to work. You’ll be here when I get back?”

“Meeting Saint later. Not sure how long we’ll be. You good to pick up Jackson, or do you need me too?”

“Yeah, I will. He’s agreed to let a female hairdresser cut his hair, so we’re going after my shift, and we’ll be later than usual.”

I licked the scar above my lip. I knew what the meeting with Saint was about. I’d overheard Vic on the phone talking to my brother. They formed a truce of sorts, mostly because they wanted the same things: for me to be happy, and for them to find the man who had raped me. As much as I wanted them to let it go, I understood why they couldn’t. It wasn’t in them to let him walk away.

“Babe,” he said frowning. He climbed out of bed and strode toward me. When he reached me, he cupped the back of my neck. “I know you want to let it go, but that can’t happen. I’ll keep it far away from you. You’ll never have to know who he is, and Jackson won’t find out. Okay?”

I nodded, my chest squeezing. “Okay.”

Vic would shield me from whatever they found out and what they did with that information. I had no misconceptions as to what Vic did for a living and what he was capable of.

He pulled me in closer and kissed me, and my body instantly sagged into his arms. I was about to say fuck it and skip work when my cell vibrated, and I jerked.

“Oh my God, I have to go.” I slipped from his arms and hurried out the door while reading the text from Addie on my way to the car.

When I pulled into Zero Crow’s parking lot and shut off the engine, I quickly replied to Addie’s text about the time we were meeting this weekend. I’d booked Jackson in for his first riding lesson, and Addie wanted to come with us. I shoved my cell into my purse and climbed out of the car, locking the doors.

I didn’t even think about the van that pulled in beside me. I’d been thinking about the soreness between my legs. About my bruised mouth. About Vic kissing me—everywhere.

I smiled, taking a step toward the bar.

My spine tingled when I heard the van’s door slide open beside me. I half turned to look, but I was too late as an arm hooked my chest. I opened my mouth to scream, but it was smothered by a large palm.

I scrambled, kicking out, and I fumbled to grab hold of the doorframe to stop him from pulling me inside.

I kicked and twisted my body back and forth. My hand latched onto the frame, and I held as tight as I could.

He jerked hard on my chest. My fingernails scraped the metal as my hold released.

No. Please, God. No.

The door slid on the rails and clanked shut.

Something jabbed into my arm, and then there was nothing.

Vic

“Aderyn. Slow down,” I said, calmly.

Her voice was muffled in the phone, and I couldn’t understand a single word she said.

“Macayla. She didn’t pick up Jackson.” I was at the police station with Saint, and we were going over the list Ethan had given us on every person who had been there the night Macayla was assaulted.

“Okay, you need me to go get him?” I pointed to the next guy on the list. Trey Harmon. Saint typed the name into the computer, and it came up deceased. I looked at the date he died. The night of the party. Macayla’s birthday. Fuck. I kept reading. ‘Senator Adam Harmon’s son Trey Harmon, a rising hockey star, was found dead in the ditch off Nottingham Street this morning. Severe burns, numerous cuts and bruising noted around his neck, wrists and ankles suggesting he was restrained and tortured. No leads or suspects.’

Saint and I looked at each other. Neither of us believed in coincidences. Saint brought up the police report—Cold case.

“Vic, Macayla didn’t show up to work. She didn’t pick him up. The school called Hettie.”

I straightened, moving away from Saint’s desk. Calm. I needed to be fuckin’ calm. You can’t think straight worried.

“You try her cell?” I said, but I knew she would’ve. “She drives that piece-of-shit car. Maybe it broke down on her way and her cell is out of juice.” I was trying to think logically, but my mind was already skipping to the worst-case scenarios.

Saint frowned, glancing up at me.

Addie was breathing hard. “I’m at Zero Crow. Her car is here, Vic. But Brin says she didn’t show up for work.” My grip on the cell tightened, and the plastic cracked under the pressure. “I found her keys on the ground beside her car.”

It was like being hit by a fuckin’ tank and flying through the air and landing on an iceberg.

Five hours ago. Macayla had been gone for five fuckin’ hours.

“Go home, Aderyn. Keep Jackson inside and stay away from the windows. I’ll have Saint put a car on the house, and an APB out on Macayla.”

I lowered the phone, my chest tight, and an uncontrollable rage pounding inside me.

Saint was already on his radio, giving the orders.

I was out the door and headed for my truck. I knew Saint would follow.

Jesus. I’d kept my two lives separate for a reason and staying here with Macayla and Jackson had tipped the balance.

Now those worlds had collided.

Macayla

I woke up lying on a black, foam-like mat.

My vision was blurred, and my head felt heavy and foggy. It took a second before I could figure out what had happened. Then it all came flooding back like an imploded dam, the surge sucking me under the depths.

The van. Someone grabbing me. Kicking and writhing. Fingernails scraping. The door sliding closed. Then darkness.

Where the hell was I? What was I doing here? Who had grabbed me?

I slowly sat up, breathing in mildew and dampness. Then my heart skipped a beat at the jangle of chains. I glanced down at my wrists. Metal manacles were clamped around my wrists with a short chain linking them together. They were attached to a two-foot-long tether that was padlocked to the bottom of a chain-link fence.

My breath came in short gasps as I scrambled to my feet, but I couldn’t straighten because of the chain. My gaze darted around. A ten-foot fence surrounded me on an octagon-shaped platform three feet off the ground.

Directly in the center of the cage sat a wooden chair. Above it hung a flickering fluorescent light that droned incessantly.

The space beyond the fence was dimly lit. There were no windows, and the walls and ceiling were rounded and cemented like I was underground.

Oh my God. Underground. Caged ring.

This was the underground fight ring beneath Callum James’ stables where they used to fight as teenagers.

My heart thumped in my chest as my mind scrambled. No. It couldn’t be Callum. Could it? Would Callum do this to get back at Vic for nearly killing him?

But I worked in his bar for months. We’d stayed at his farm the night I’d left Vic. Ethan trusted him. Hettie and the others did too.

Vic didn’t. Vic said he was dangerous. He didn’t want me to sing at his bar or move into his guesthouse.

Panic lurched through me, and I was suffocating in its clutches as it dragged me under its strangling hold.

No. No. I had to get out of here.

I yanked and pulled on the rusted metal shackles around my wrists. I tried desperately to squeeze my hands through them, contorting my hand and scraping the skin until they bled. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t get them off.

I grabbed the chain and put my feet against the fence and kicked as hard as I could over and over again.

With every second, the fear grew, and it was like I had guitar strings wrapped around my neck that were getting tighter and tighter.

I stopped kicking when I heard a heavy door open.

Hinges groaned. There was a rustling sound. Then a click.

Light, steady footsteps approached.

I bit the insides of my cheeks to stop myself from screaming.

“Why are you doing this? Let me go,” I shouted, but the words came out broken because my throat was so dry, it felt as if I’d swallowed a mouthful of sand.

A figure appeared out of the darkness.

“Let me go,” I yelled again, yanking on the chains.

The man wore a ski mask that covered his head and face. Black pants. Boots. A long-sleeved black turtleneck. And black leather gloves.

I realized that he’d made sure every part of him was concealed so there were no distinguishing marks. The only thing I could tell about him was that he had to be over six feet and was lithe, like a runner or something. Callum was lithe and over six feet. But why hide his face? I’d know it was him as soon as he spoke.

“What do you want with me?” I ground out.

He casually walked toward the opposite side of the caged platform, then up a few stairs and lifted a latch. A gate swung open, and he stepped inside. He didn’t bother closing it behind him before he strode across the mat toward me.

I hated that I couldn’t stand and was forced to kneel in front of him. “Why are you doing this?” I screamed.

He stopped just beyond the reach of my chains. He didn’t say anything, his empty, emotionless brown eyes watching me.

Brown eyes. Callum had green eyes.

“Who the fuck are you?” I shouted, my voice cracking.

The small slit in the ski mask where his mouth was visible revealed a smile. My insides froze. Because it wasn’t a normal smile. This was different. Unhinged.

“Ethan North’s little sister.”

My breath locked in my throat, and my fingers closed around the chain.

This wasn’t some random kidnapping. He knew exactly who I was.

He reached in his left pants pocket and pulled something out. I heard the crackle of the cellophane, and my heart stopped.

That sound. The cellophane.

No. No. Please.

He unwrapped something. “You know, I never liked these as a kid. They always got stuck between my teeth.” He popped whatever it was into his mouth.

He chewed, and the smell slammed into me. I gagged on the caramel scent, and my stomach twisted.

It couldn’t be. No. It couldn’t. Why? Why?

He inhaled a deep breath. “Ah, the smell of caramel. So decadent. And the juices…. Mmm.”

This was the man who raped me. Who stole my innocence. Jackson’s father.

This was why I never wanted to know. I didn’t want to know the ugly side of something so beautiful.

I jerked on the chain. “It was you. You…. You raped me.”

Macayla

Tears pooled in my eyes and I forced them back.

No. I wouldn’t give him that. Never. He’d assaulted me. He made me feel dirty and disgusted. I’d blamed myself for years.

He sighed, shaking his head. “No. That’s a crude act for the weak and pathetic.”

He pivoted and walked to the center of the platform. He clasped the back of the chair and dragged it across the mat toward me.

My heart skipped beats and my belly tightened. That sound. It was different, but there was something familiar about it. I shook my head. The chair. He’d sat in the chair in the dark. Dark eyes watching.

My stomach lurched. I was going to be sick. I fell to my hands at the edge of the platform and dry heaved. Oh God. He’d been there. No. This couldn’t be happening.

When my stomach stopped revolting, I turned to look at him. “You were there.”

He sat in the chair and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. Then he placed the tips of his fingers together.

“Yes. As it happened.”

“No.” I couldn’t stop the word from ripping from my throat. He’d watched me being raped? He’d been there in the room? Why? Why would anyone do that?

He leaned closer. “Oh, look at that scar. Well, you can’t look, and I didn’t bring a mirror with me. But trust me, it’s perfect. I bet you don’t remember how you got it.”

I swallowed the bile in my throat. This couldn’t be happening. Why was this happening?

“You were stumbling around like a newborn fawn trying to get to the door. You fell right into the corner of the dresser. I’d have helped you, but he grabbed you and threw you on the bed.”

Oh my God. He watched. He watched another man sexually assault me and did nothing. “Why were you there? Who are you?” I didn’t understand anything, and I felt as if I was reaching for answers that were sinking into an endless black hole.

“It was your birthday. Of course I was there.” My heart lodged in my throat. “But why wasn’t Vic there? I waited for him, you know, and he never came.”

Vic. He’d been waiting for Vic.

“It was perfect. Killing you on your birthday and Ethan finding you. Blood all over the place. And Vic watching. What would he have done, do you think? Screamed and come running? And your brother—he’d have been covered in your blood as he held you and cried. Oh God, the beauty in it all.”

He’d been there to kill me. He was in my bedroom, waiting for me.

The chair creaked as he sat back and hitched one leg over the other. “But I couldn’t do it if Vic wasn’t there. I mean, he’s the one who tortured me. He had to be there. And then that boy came in your room, stumbling around drunk. He had no idea I was there, and I really didn’t think he’d ever leave.”

Bile rose in my throat, and I swallowed several times.

My mind scrambled to connect the pieces, but it was like jamming broken fragments together. Nothing would fit. Was he someone Vic had hunted? Was this revenge? But he wanted my brother to suffer too.

“I had to kill him, of course. It wasn’t my favorite kill. I mean, it was good, but I don’t like when they drool and get all snotty and shit as they beg. Do you know how much his liver went for?”

I gasped, eyes widening with horror.

He slapped his knee and laughed. “Just kidding. I had to get out of that business. Logistics. But I couldn’t let him live after what he did to you. That wasn’t right.” He uncrossed his leg and his foot smacked onto the mat. “Can you imagine if Vic Gate had got his hands on him? He’d have screamed like a tortured puppy, and I couldn’t let Vic have that satisfaction.

“Oh, oh—I saw your little boy,” he added suddenly. “How sweet. He looks to be what, about six or seven? Don’t tell me he’s the result of that night?”

I lurched forward. “Don’t you dare touch him,” I shouted.

The manacles cut into my wrists as I jerked on them. I felt the fresh drops of blood trickle down my wrists, but I didn’t feel anything except terror at the thought of this man getting anywhere near Jackson.

He waited, watching me struggle against the restraints.

I stopped, my chest rising and falling rapidly. I raised my chin, glaring up at him. It was pathetic, really. I was chained, trembling, and weak as a newborn kitten from the drugs. “Don’t you dare fuckin’ touch him.”

He chuckled, but it sounded odd, like it was off. “Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare,” he repeated, mocking me. He made a sucking noise on the candy. “You know, it feels like yesterday when I saw him watching you the first time.” My stomach dropped. “It was like opening up that first Christmas present under the tree. The giddiness screaming inside me. It was fate, you know. Vic coming back from the military that week, and me being here in town. I followed him to your house and oh, it was too good to be true. The stone-cold killer had a weakness, and like a neatly tied bow on top, you were Ethan North’s little sister. Finally. I mean, it couldn’t have been any better than that.

“He must have watched you for three hours with your mom in the garden.” My stomach twisted as I thought about this monster watching me. “I have to say, it was rather boring, until the cake. Ohhh, the cake in the shape of a guitar.” He shook his head back and forth. “I wish my mother had done that for me. But alas, she couldn’t very well do it after I slit her throat.” Oh my God, he was a lunatic. “I counted fifteen candles.”

Vomit lurched in my throat as debilitating fear raked its poisonous claws across my insides, leaving me raw and bleeding.

“Who are you? What do you want from me?”

He hit the heel of his palm to his forehead. “God, so rude of me. I guess we have no need of this anymore.” He dipped his head and slowly pulled the balaclava up from over his face. “It was more for my brother’s benefit with all his security cameras. I wouldn’t want him knowing I was in town—not yet.”

My heart stopped. Brother. Security. The stables. The fight cage. Oh my God, he was Callum’s brother.

Vic

My tires spit gravel as I skidded into Zero Crow’s parking lot. I had my cell to my ear and was talking to Jaeg as I jammed the gear into Park.

I jumped out of the truck. “I’m at the bar. Ethan’s not answering, but he’s in the city for a game. Call Callum and tell him to pick him up in his chopper and get here.”

This was on me. This was my shit. Someone I’d pissed off had found me. Maybe it happened when I’d come back, and I’d been in a hurry to get to her. I’d been fuckin’ careless.

But I was checking every single fuckin’ angle. This could be a crazed fan of Ethan’s. A fuckin’ feuding crime lord of Callum’s. Or some guy Saint had taken down in the past.

I strode into the bar and stopped, my eyes adjusting to the dim light as I scanned the tables and booths. Brin saw me and was already out from behind the bar and running toward me.

“What happened? Did you find her?” Brin asked.

I flexed my jaw and shook my head. “No. Did she come in here at all for her shift?”

Brin shook her head, a twisted strand falling over her shoulder. “Not that I saw. And her apron is still under the bar.”

“Anyone hanging around the bar today you didn’t recognize?” I asked, my gaze skipping from table to table and assessing.

“No. The usuals. A few tourists came in. Skiers. About ten minutes ago.” She turned, looking at the booth in the corner where two couples sat with their snow pants on and winter jackets crumpled up behind them.

“Maybe her brother came by and picked her up?” Brin said, her face hopeful.

“He’s in the city. Where are the security cameras?”

She nodded across the bar. “Darius. He’s the only one with access besides Callum and Freddy.”

I was about to head over to Darius when he gestured with his chin toward the bar. I weaved through the tables and met him there.

Darius flipped up the flap and we walked into the back area of the bar. He took out a key and unlocked the iron gates I’d had Macayla pressed against.

Jesus. Where the hell was she?

If someone took her, they did it in broad daylight. At a crime lord’s fuckin’ bar. They either didn’t know, were stupid, or they didn’t care. The didn’t-care option worried me the most.

I followed Darius down the stone steps into a large room. There were old wine barrels piled on top of one another along all four walls, and a long rectangular table in the center of the room with a chandelier hung above it, its lights dappling the surface.

“This way,” he said, taking me down a long tunnel. He stopped in front of a massive oak door with a pass key. He slid it through the device, and the door clicked open.

I raised my brows as I stared into what looked like an office. “Callum has an office here?”

Darius didn’t say anything. He walked across the Persian carpet to the far right side where there was a mahogany floor-to-ceiling cabinet. He opened the two doors, revealing numerous TV screens.

I walked over. “She left the cabin at quarter to twelve and would’ve pulled in five, six minutes after.”

Darius rewound the tape from the camera outside the front doors. “There,” I said when I saw her car pull in. My heart thudded, and I curled my hands into fists as I watched her sitting in her car for a second. Her head down. Then she opened her door and climbed out.

She was biting her lip as if she was trying to keep herself from smiling.

Fuck.

My spine straightened, and a cold tremor went through me as the black van swung into the space beside her.

My stomach dropped and chest tightened as I watched. Everything was in slow motion. The door sliding open. The man in black garb grabbing her from behind.

Jesus. It was barely three seconds before he had her in his van and contained. No license plates. No logos. A plain black van with tinted windows.

I slammed my fist into the cabinet.

“Play it again,” I demanded.

Darius pressed a button and rewound the recording.

I watched it again.

“Again,” I said.

I watched those few seconds over and over again. Blocking Macayla from my mind and concentrating on the man who grabbed her. How he moved. His hands. Where he grabbed her.

There were always telltale signs. A gesture. A movement. Something that gave them away.

There was no doubt he knew what he was doing and had done it before.

I heard Darius’ cell ring, and he picked it up while I watched the footage over and over again. No tattoos visible. No scars or marks. He was careful.

Professional.

“Stop,” I said, and Darius pressed the button. “Right there. He’s looking up at the camera. He knows.” I looked closer, trying not to look at Macayla as she kicked and reached over her head to try to gouge his eyes.

I clenched my jaw. “He’s smiling.”

Darius was quiet, his eyes on the screen. “Yeah, boss. I think it’s him,” he said into the phone. He held his cell out to me.

I placed it to my ear. “If this has something to do with you, this time I’ll fuckin’ kill you.”

There was a rustling on the line as if he was outside, walking. “I suspect it has to do with all of us.”

My spine stiffened. “What?”

“The Horsemen.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

Callum’s voice was controlled, but then, he rarely lost his cool. “Darius has been in town because there’s been word circulating that my brother has surfaced.”

It was like a tank had plowed into my stomach. Fuck. Aiden. “And you didn’t think to tell me? Tell all of us.”

I heard a door shut and an engine roar to life. “We weren’t sure. He’s been gone for ten years.”

“I should’ve killed you for letting him go.”

“He gave us what we needed.”

“Get here.” I hung up on him, and Darius took his phone before I could crush it in my grip.

Callum’s brother. Jesus Christ.

Fear wasn’t something I was accustomed to. I’d made sure all my life that I had nothing to lose.

But now I did.

And the fear I felt about that was like being rolled up in a suffocating wet blanket.

Because Aiden James was unhinged. And he wouldn’t hesitate to kill Macayla.

Macayla

I gaped at Callum’s brother, my eyes hitting the jagged scar running from the corner of his left eye, and across his cheek and his mouth. His lower lip was crinkled on the left from the scar, the skin white.

There were very few, if any, similarities to Callum. Maybe the strong nose with the notch on the bridge, as if it had been broken a few times. Strong, square jaw, high cheekbones. He was handsome and ugly at the same time.

He grinned. “Aiden James,” he offered. “I’d tell you the name I’ve been using recently, but then I’d have to kill you.” He gasped with a laugh. “Never mind. That’ll happen anyway. Not sure when, though. That’ll be up to nature if they don’t find you soon enough.” He folded the ski mask neatly on his lap. “I changed it to Ivan a few years ago, but I was thinking I’d like something better. Stronger. You know? Maybe Zack or Damien…. No. No. Edward. Yes, Edward. I like that name. It’s kingly. What do you think?”

This was a game to him. This had nothing to do with me.

I met his eyes, refusing to cower under his gaze. “Vic will kill you.”

He raised his arms half-mast and waved his hands like they were trembling. “Ohhh, I’m scared.” He chuckled. “I mean, really. No. He’ll run around, freakin’ out that you’re gone. Vic Gate freakin’ out. God, that will be fun to watch. He’ll of course call Saint and the others, and then all of them will be searching for you. Oh, oh, and your brother. I’m guessing, and this is just a guess, he’ll kill Vic when they find your ravaged body down here. I wonder what Jaeg will do. Whose side will he be on? My little brother, of course, will side with your brother…. Isn’t that sweet. Our brothers on the same side. Oh, then there is Gabriel St. Clair. The big chief. Gosh, all of the Horsemen back together again in the underground. I wonder if they’ll kill each other before I have the chance to.” He inhaled a deep breath like he was smelling a dozen roses. “Ah, the final battle. God, isn’t it exhilarating?”

My heart lodged in my throat, and fear slid its greedy hands further into my insides to twist in my belly. He hated them all. This wasn’t just about Vic.

He sucked on the caramel, making a slurping noise, then moved it around in his mouth before it bulged in the right side of his cheek. “I can’t wait until he finds you. Are you going to scream? I think you should. Not too much, though. I want to hear him when he sees you. I guess that’s if you’re still alive by then. What do you think? Should I put a red bow around your neck like you’re a Christmas present?” He shook his head. “No. No.” His eyes widened. “That would be too much red.”

The greedy hands inside me tightened, and bile lodged in my throat. Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up.

He stood up and pulled the chair back to the center of the ring. He stepped back, examining it and then readjusting it again. “Do you know it was all of them? The Horsemen planned it. Oh, maybe it was Vic who did the dirty work. Tortured me for weeks until I spilled the beans. But they were all in on it.

“My brother let me go. I know. I know. I should be grateful. But I know he only did it because of her….”

Her? Who was her?

He looked at the chair. “No, no. That’s not right.” He adjusted it again, then grinned as if satisfied, and turned to look at me. “Okay. Okay. I’m getting way too ahead of myself. It’s just so exciting.” His voice fluctuated up and down like an off-key piano.

He turned and stepped toward the gate, and my heart jumped. It was obvious he was insane, but if I had any chance of escape, it would be through trying to talk him out of this.

I tried to keep my voice steady as I asked, “Why did they torture you?”

He tsked, turning back around and approaching me again. “Aren’t you such a treasure for asking. Well, you could say they didn’t approve of my extracurricular activities. Like the pillaging of girls and sending them overseas. But to be fair, here, I only picked the ones who were lonely or sad. One girl even had a teardrop tattooed on her face.”

Oh my God. Oh my God, no. Avalon. Addie said she was gone. It was Aiden who had taken her.

He was insane. A sociopath. Psychopath. All of the above.

He clapped his hands together. “This really has been so much fun. Watching and waiting. But they are all finally together again, and so the game must end.”

I was the bait. Then it hit me. “It was you. You texted Ethan. You told him about the rape. You made it seem like it was Vic who assaulted me so he’d come here.”

He inhaled a long, deep breath. “I like you. So clever as well as resilient. Yes. That was me.”

I glared at him. “You’re insane. He’s going to kill you.”

Something snapped in his eyes like a shutter closing. He stormed over to me. The blow across my cheek was hard and fast, like being slapped with a wet towel, and my head jerked to the side.

He punched me in the jaw, and I fell to my side on the floor. I raised my arms to cover my face as he continued to hit me. Then he kicked me in the stomach with his steel-toe boot and knocked the wind out of me. I tried to crawl away, but the chains wouldn’t let me get far.

I didn’t know how long it was before he finally stopped punching and hitting me. I felt as if I’d been tossed around in a tornado, and every breath was agony.

From the corner of my eye, I saw him lean over me. I flinched, waiting for the blow.

But he picked up a strand of my hair and twisted it around his finger. “Look at me.”

I lowered my arms and turned my head to look into his cold, detached eyes.

“Don’t ever call me that. Ever.” He released my hair and straightened. As fast as the anger came, it was gone.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out two caramels. Slowly, he unwrapped them, then dropped the cellophane to the mat along with one of the caramels. “A little dessert for them.”

My stomach pitched and my heart lodged in my throat.

He popped the other into his mouth and held it in his right cheek so it formed a large bulge. “If you’re really quiet, you can hear them coming. The blood from the fights always draws them in. It has such a wonderful scent, doesn’t it?”

Terror gripped my insides and I frantically looked around.

“Gosh, I wish I could stay and watch when they first start nibbling. That’s the best part. But I’ll be back later to finish getting ready.”

He strode across the mat and out the cage door.

It clanged shut.

I jerked on the chains and kicked at the fence. “No. Don’t leave me here. You can’t leave me here,” I yelled.

He walked away, whistling.

A door hinge creaked open, then shut with a clonk. The lock clicked, then silence.

No. It wasn’t silent.

Somewhere in the darkness, I heard the faint squeaks.

Macayla

I was bait. Bait for the rats and bait for the Horsemen. I didn’t know what psychotic Aiden had planned for them, but if I was chained here long enough, I’d likely be dead before they found me.

And then what? Would he kill Vic, Ethan, Jaeg, and Saint? His own brother?

No. He wouldn’t get the chance. This is what Vic did for a living. Saint was ex-SWAT and Callum…. Vic said he was just as dangerous and had men. Vic had a team. Except he’d said they were across the world. It would take them at least a day or more to get here.

I had to get out of here before then.

I shuffled around on my knees and put my hands on the fence. The links were tightly twisted together. But if I could undo the ones attached to the pole at the bottom, I could slide the chain off the end.

I frantically worked at the wire around the pole, trying to untwist it.

Tears streamed down my face as I cut my fingertips on the sharp edges of the wire.

Blood dripped onto the mat. It was going to take hours.

When would he be back? How long did I have?

I choked on a sob.

No. I wouldn’t break down. I wouldn’t give up.

I couldn’t give up—ever. I finally had Jackson back, and Vic…. God, as much as I needed him right now, I didn’t want him or the other Horsemen anywhere near me because I had a feeling if they found me down here, they’d never escape alive.

I bit my lip as I worked on the chain link until the wire separated from the pole.

I started on the next one.

From the corner of my eye, I saw something scurry across the floor. I jerked, scuttling away from the edge of the platform as far the chains would allow.

My stomach dropped, and a cold chill went through me.

Rats.

Then I screamed.

Vic

It had been seven hours. Seven fuckin’ hours she’d been gone. I knew what Aiden was capable of in one minute. Snapping a rat’s neck. Lighting fire to a cat’s tail. And that was when he was a kid.

I couldn’t think about the seven hours he’d been alone with Macayla.

Did he sell her? Was she already gone?

Fuckin’ Christ. I felt as if I was slowly sinking in quicksand. All I wanted to do was fight and lose my shit, but if I did, I’d drown in a raging fury, and I didn’t know if I’d come back from that.

Calm. I needed to stay fuckin’ calm. She needed me to be calm and find her. Bring her back to Jackson. To me.

“Chopper should be landing any minute. Ethan’s with him,” Jaeg informed me from where he sat at Callum’s desk with a laptop open in front of him. He was reviewing the storefront security footage Saint managed to get from the businesses surrounding Zero Crow. All we had so far was the van turning right out of the Zero Crow parking lot and heading south out of town. Saint had every cop in town searching for the van, but it had been too long.

I’d gone to the house and grabbed every fuckin’ weapon I had stashed under the floorboards in my bedroom. Saint had brought his own arsenal, and now all we needed was a location.

Where the fuck would he take her?

Jaeg nodded, looking up from the laptop. “So, what? He’s been staking out the bar?”

I shook my head. “Not in person. Not with Darius here every day, and Callum’s men watching the cameras. They’d notice the van or him lurking. He had to be watching another way. Fed into the cameras somehow. He knew Macayla was working here, and exactly what time she’d pull in. He knew she was important to us.”

Saint stood with his arms crossed over his police vest. “Don’t like to say this, but Aderyn and Hettie. They are important to us. He could’ve used them at any time. Why Macayla?”

“Yeah, but Vic’s been gone for years. It’s the first time we’ve all been back together,” Jaeg said. “Fuck, I’ve always hated that sicko. We should’ve ended him back then.”

But Callum had let the bastard escape.

My cell vibrated, and I glanced at the screen. UNKNOWN. Likely Callum letting us know he’d landed. I slid my finger across the screen and placed it to my ear. “Gate.”

Macayla’s screams vibrated through the phone.

No. Jesus, no. My blood curdled, and the terror and rage clashed like a hurricane of bullets hitting me from all directions.

Fuck, Macayla.

Breathe. Think. He wants you to freak out and make a mistake.

Take her out of the equation. What do you hear?

I blocked out her screams and focused on everything else. I lowered the phone, put it on speaker, and placed it on the desk so Jaeg and Saint could hear too. No one said anything as Macayla screamed and shouted.

Chains. She was chained to something. And her voice sounded hollow, echoing as if the place was empty. I lowered my head and closed my eyes, blocking out the chains. Her screams. What else? There. What the hell was that? A cold tremor shot down my spine.

I knew that sound. I waited, hoping to hear it again.

There was a loud bang like a heavy door shutting, and her screams cut off. I picked up the phone and placed it to my ear again. “Let her go, Aiden. She has done nothing to you. You want me? Then you can have me.”

“You figured out it’s me already?” He tsked. “Now, that’s no fun.”

I clenched my jaw, my hand tightening around the phone. “Name the location, and I’ll come unarmed and alone. Just let her go.”

“No. I think we’ll play a while. Has my brother arrived yet? I’m dying to see him. Of course, you’re my favorite, Gate. We spent countless days together. I have to say, I like her. She’s a real trooper.”

“What do you want?” I ground out.

He laughed and it sounded wet, as if he had too much saliva in his mouth. “Why, all of you, of course. To make you suffer and—”

My heart stopped at the sound in the distance. What the fuck?

The phone clicked and went dead.

I was already moving toward the door. “Horses. I heard a fuckin’ horse whinny.”

My hands curled and uncurled as Macayla’s screams replayed in my head.

Jaeg jumped to his feet. “The fight ring beneath the stables.”

Saint was already on his cell, calling Callum as we ran out.

Vic

Callum crouched beside the body lying in a pool of blood on the cobblestone floor of the stable. His throat was slit, and the blood had already congealed and was like gelatin.

“He’s been dead a good eight hours, maybe longer,” I said, peering at the sixty-something-year-old man. “No signs of a scuffle. Who is he?”

“Carlos,” Callum said, staring down at the body. He straightened with his jaw clenched. “He’s been looking after the horses since we were kids.” He straightened, eyes lingering on the body. “Carlos was family.”

Family in Callum’s world was much different than in most. Family wasn’t just blood, but included the men who worked for the James’. Loyalty was paramount. You break that trust, betray them, don’t expect to survive very long.

“He likely killed him before he even took her,” Jaeg said. “The sicko planned ahead.” He glanced at Callum. “Sorry, man. But you should’ve ended him.”

“I’ve been looking for him for ten years,” Callum said.

Ethan slammed his fist into the stall door. “He’s a lunatic.”

“Look at this,” Saint said, crouched down beside an open stall door. He swiped aside the fresh shavings and gestured to three wires running along the ground. “He’s rigged the place to blow.”

It felt like black, ice-cold sludge was moving through my veins. Macayla was under the stables. She wouldn’t stand a chance if it collapsed.

I looked at each of them. “He doesn’t escape alive.” My gaze landed on Callum, and he gave a curt nod.

“You think he’s down there?” Jaeg asked.

Callum shifted his weight, his jaw tight. “He’ll be there. He likes fire and to watch people suffer. What he didn’t count on was us so quickly finding out where he is holding her.”

My blood ran cold. I knew Aiden’s love of fire and suffering. We’d seen it as kids, but I’d tried to block it out.

I had to keep my shit together and not run straight into Aiden’s trap. And he had a trap. Aiden may be psychotic, but he was patient and calm. Fuck, he could’ve been planning this for years. Watching. Waiting.

There were only three ways in and out of the underground fight ring. One tunnel ran from the main house. One from the stables. And another to the far side of the property where it came out in the woods. The tunnel system had been built in case the place was ever raided.

Aiden knew about them all.

“You know the plan,” I said. A plan they’d fought against.

Saint shook his head. “Gate, I don’t like it. Too many variables. He might not even be down there.”

He was right. There were too many variables, too many question marks, ellipsis, and whatever fuckin’ else. But time was a factor. And if we all went down there, I guaranteed Macayla and the rest of us were dead. If I went alone, there was a chance I could exchange myself for Macayla. And then we’d do it Saint’s way.

“He’ll be there. And he’ll have a way out,” Callum said.

I looked at Saint. “Find the detonator. Underground is a dead zone, and I’ll lose communication. I won’t know if you’ve found it.” It had been built that way so no one had access to the outside when they were at the fights. I looked at Callum. “Give me fifteen.”

He nodded.

I strode toward the far end of the stable to the thick mahogany door. There were stone steps on the other side that spiralled down to the underground. I’d been down here countless times before. It was where I’d killed my demons after my brother died.

My hand curled around the iron latch.

“Vic,” Ethan said.

He didn’t have to say anything more. I looked at him and nodded. “I’ll bring her home.”

Home. I never thought I’d have a home, but Macayla and Jackson were mine. They were my home, and I wasn’t giving them up.

I opened the door and stepped inside the cold, dank stairwell.

The door closed behind me, and I heard a faint click.

I dove forward, hitting the far wall as the ceiling collapsed, a huge wooden beam narrowly missing me.

I glanced back at the blocked doorway. Only two more exits.

I unholstered my gun and headed down the stairs, the damp air tainted with gasoline.

Macayla

I kicked at the rat poking his head through the fence and it fell off the platform. The chain link was stained with my blood, and the scent was drawing them closer.

I’d only managed to untwist six links from the pole. I had at least a dozen more left. Ignoring the cuts on my fingers, I worked faster.

I was not dying here. Jackson needed me. I needed him. I wasn’t going to take my last breath—

I froze as the smell of gasoline hit me. I scuttled around on my ass and saw a bouncing beam of light coming from a tunnel.

Vic? Did he find me? I opened my mouth to scream when I heard whistling.

It was like a small flicker of hope being ripped from my insides and stomped on. Aiden. What was he doing? Where was the gasoline coming from?

My eyes skidded to the movement over the ground. Rats. They were scurrying from the tunnel to escape the gasoline, their feet sounding like thousands of fingertips tapping on a keyboard.

Oh my God. Was he going to set this place on fire?

I jerked on the chains, kicking at the fence as hard as I could. No. No.

I frantically tried to force my hands through the manacles again. Scraping my skin, my blood dripping onto the mat.

“Fuck,” I screamed. “No. Please.” I kicked and kicked at the bottom rail of the fence, the steel bar bending but refusing to break. “Please,” I cried. I didn’t want to die. Not like this.

The whistling grew louder.

I stopped kicking as Aiden strolled out of the tunnel, carrying a large red gasoline can. He walked toward me, letting the clear amber liquid spill from the spout. There was a bounce to his step as if he was on the way to the local fair.

He cocked his head and smiled at me as he slowly circled the platform. “I apologize. The game will have to end sooner than I anticipated. I got too excited hearing you scream and had to call him so he’d hear you.”

The smell of gasoline penetrated my nostrils. “You won’t get away with this.”

He laughed. “Of course I will. Once they are all dead, no one will come after me. No one even knows I’m here. Well, Carlos did, so I had to kill him. It was quick though. He’d always been nice to me.

“It’s going to be so much fun to hear them scream. Burning alive is a rather….” He stopped, tilting his head as he thought of a word. “Illuminating experience. The smell of burning fle…”

I blocked him out. No. They’d smell the gasoline. They’d know and not risk being trapped down here. I had to save myself.

But my fear was for Vic and what he’d do. Because regardless of what he was up against, Vic would come for me. I knew that with every fiber of my being. And that terrified me.

There was a loud rumble above me to the right, and Aiden stopped.

He put his finger to his lips and tiptoed across the floor toward a staircase, more for effect than anything else. He tipped the can and poured the gasoline from the last stair, leaving a trail back to the platform.

“It’s a trap,” I shouted, praying they could hear me. “There’s gasoline everywhere.”

Aiden didn’t seem concerned as he approached me. When he was close enough for me to spit on him, he set the can on the floor and took a box of matches from his pocket and slowly opened the cardboard drawer.

“I know. I know. A lighter would be better, but the sound of a match striking is so much more effective.” He shifted his body back a step, and I realized he was using me to shield himself from the stairs.

“Aiden,” Vic said, his graveled voice erupting from the stairwell. He stepped into the dim light, and my heart slammed into my chest. Tears burned my eyes. A chaos of emotions tore through me. Relief. Terror. Dread. I didn’t want to see him, and at the same time, all I wanted to do was see him.

“Vic.” I couldn’t stop the choked sob from escaping. Please. God. Don’t let him die.

“Oh, isn’t that so sweet. Vic Gate coming to his birthday girl’s rescue.” Aiden sifted through the matchbox like he was searching for the perfect match to turn this place into a suffocating inferno. He struck the one he chose and held it up for Vic to see.

“Let her go, Aiden. She has nothing to do with this,” Vic said, stepping off the last stair.

“It’s Edward now. Right, Macayla?” Aiden shook his head with a tsking sound. “You brought a gun to a firefight. Ten seconds. That’s how long it will take for this entire platform to burst into flames. Do you think you can shoot me, then get to her in ten seconds? Maybe. But I don’t think you’ll risk it.

“You’re rather predictable, Aiden. The explosives. The gasoline. You’ve always liked to watch things burn alive.” Vic spoke in a steady and calm voice, never once taking his eyes off Aiden.

Aiden’s grip tightened on the box of matches and the cardboard crinkled. “It’s Edward. Where are the others?”

“It’s just me. That’s who you want, right? The man who put that scar on you. Who tortured you.”

The right side of his face twitched. “No. I want all of you,” he yelled, looking around him. Then his glare landed on Vic, and he held out the match. “You shoot me, I drop this match and she dies in a fury of flames.”

Vic tossed his gun aside. No. No. What was he doing? “You get me. That’s it. Me for her.”

“Vic. No.” Vic’s eyes flicked to me, but it was quick, barely discernable. His expression was cold and immobile, not a hint of uncertainty over what he had planned.

“No. No. No. I want all of you. Where are they? Why aren’t they here?” The flame burned farther and farther down the wooden stick. He didn’t even notice when it burned his fingers. The flame snuffed out, and he grabbed another match and struck it. “Call them.”

“You know as well as I do that the underground is a dead zone.” Vic stepped closer. “They aren’t coming until she is free.”

He shook his head. “No, that’s wrong. They need to be here now.”

Vic kept walking toward the platform. “Let her go, and you get what you want.”

Aiden’s eyes bounced back and forth from the tunnels to Vic then to me. The flame snuffed out again and he struck another match. “Oh, oh—let’s tell him the news, Macayla.” His eyes gleamed. “Tell him. Tell him I was there. I want to see his face.”

I glared at Aiden. “No.”

“God, so sensitive. Okay. Okay, I will. First, get in the cage with her,” Aiden ordered.

My heart skipped a beat and I shook my head. “Vic. No. Don’t.”

Vic ignored me and walked across the room to the stairs leading up to the platform. He climbed the steps and opened the latch and stepped inside the cage.

“Brings back old memories, doesn’t it? The smell of blood and the sound of rats. I always liked it down here. I used to play with the rats.” He chuckled. “Do you know what they sound like when they’re burning?”

I wasn’t listening to him anymore. All I heard was Vic’s boots on the mat as he walked toward me. I focused on the way his eyes locked with mine, lending me his strength. His calm.

“Baby,” he whispered, and then he was crouched beside me. As much as I wanted him to wrap me in his arms, I knew he wouldn’t. Instead, his eyes travelled over my body, assessing if I was hurt anywhere, and then slid to the manacles. His jaw tightened, and his muscles flexed when they landed on my scraped and bleeding hands and fingers.

“I’m okay,” I said, trying to keep my voice from trembling.

“I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay,” Aiden taunted. “Okay, let me tell him. I was there in her bedroom, ready to kill her on her seventeenth birthday, but I waited, and you didn’t come, Gate.” Vic was like a stone, not reacting to Aiden’s words. “I thought it was a good plan. Ethan finding her and screaming and shit. You running out of the shadows to barge in and see her dead. God, it would’ve been beautiful. But when that monster—and he was a monster for what he did—interrupted, it was like fate. Oh, and don’t worry, Gate. I tortured him before I killed him.” He grinned. “But this is so much better. Bringing us back to where it all began. It’s rather poetic, don’t you think?”

“Brother.” Callum’s voice cut through the damp air like a knife.

Aiden spun on his heel and the flame went out. He quickly struck another match. “My baby brother, you came. I just knew you wouldn’t let me do this alone. It’s been how long since we’ve seen each other? What? No hugs? No cries of glee?”

Footsteps followed Callum from the shadows and Ethan appeared. Ethan? Why was Ethan here? His gaze instantly went to me, and I saw his hand curl into a fist while the other went to the gun at his waist. Ethan had a gun? I didn’t even know he’d ever handled a gun.

“Oh now, isn’t this nice,” Aiden said. “The famous Ethan North. All we need is the Chief of Police and Jaeg Mason and it’ll be a big old reunion. Except this time, it’s me who will torture all of you. Just two more. Come out, come out, wherever you are,” he sang.

Vic wasn’t paying attention to Aiden anymore. His focus was on me as he ran his hands down my body, checking for any wounds.

“Vic, I’m fine.”

He didn’t say anything as his eyes went to the chain links I’d managed to untwist. Then to my bloody fingertips. “Fuck,” he swore beneath his breath.

He reached into one of the pockets on his black tactical vest and pulled out a small, pin-like tool. He reached for my hands and inserted the pin into the lock on the one manacle. Within seconds, it slipped from my wrist, and he moved to the other.

“I let you live,” Callum said, staying at the mouth of the tunnel. He wasn’t wearing tactical gear like Vic, but there was no question from his steadiness and control that he knew what he was doing.

Aiden struck another match and smiled. “Yes. Yes. But it wasn’t because I was your flesh and blood. No, you only let me go so I’d tell you what I did with your girl. Ah, sweet young hidden love. You know everyone thought she ran away. But you knew it was me.”

Vic’s hands stilled on my wrist, and he swore beneath his breath.

Callum kept his gun steady on Aiden. “You sold her.”

Vic slid his hand into mine.

Aiden made an exaggerated sigh. “She told me how much she loved you and got all emotional and shit… God, that was beautiful. Really touching stuff.”

Vic urged me to my feet. Then his lips grazed my ear as he whispered, “This is going to blow up at any second, baby. Need you to do everything I say.”

I nodded. His fingers squeezed my waist, and he slowly backed us toward the gate while keeping his eyes locked on Aiden.

“You fuckin’ sold her because she was mine. You killed her,” Callum said, his voice strained with barely controlled rage.

“Now, that’s not fair. I didn’t actually kill her,” Aiden said.

It was like a movie playing in slow motion as Aiden’s head turned toward us, his eyes widening and the match falling from his fingertips at the same time as Callum’s gun went off. Vic dove on top of me, covering me with his body as the gas can ignited and blew up. A burst of flames roared up, and then the fire circled the platform like a snake, trapping us inside the cage.

Vic leapt to his feet, bringing me with him. He reached for the gun under his pants leg and fired off several shots at Aiden, who was holding his shoulder and running toward a tunnel. His pants leg was on fire, but he either didn’t notice, or didn’t care as he ran.

“Callum. Ethan. He’s headed down the tunnel toward the house. He gets there first, he’ll trap us inside,” Vic shouted.

They were blocked by a wall of fire, and the tunnel where they’d come from now engulfed in flames.

Callum and Ethan covered their faces with their arms and leapt through the fire, rolling on the other side. Callum took off running after Aiden, and Ethan ran for us.

“No. Ethan, I got her. Go. If he gets through that door, we’re all dead.”

Ethan looked at Vic and then me before he took off.

“Baby.” Vic kissed the top of my head, then pulled back. “We need to move fast. He’s rigged explosives through the stables. Saint and Jaeg are looking for the detonator, but I have no way of knowing if they’ve found it and are able to stop it if they have.”

He cupped my face in his hands, his thumbs stroking back and forth on my cheeks. “We have to jump through the fire. Run. Jump and roll. Then run for the tunnel. I’ll be right behind you. Okay?”

The wooden platform crackled and splintered as the fire ate away at it. “Yeah.”

“Good girl.”

I didn’t think. I couldn’t because everything in my mind was telling me I was crazy to jump through a wall of flames. But we’d be dead in minutes if we didn’t get out of here.

I ran across the mat for the gate, then jumped. I landed hard on the cement, and my legs gave out. I collapsed and rolled.

Vic was right behind me. He didn’t roll, just jumped and landed beside me. He grabbed my hand and pulled me to my feet. “You good?”

I nodded. “Yeah.”

He kept his hand locked in mine, and we ran for the tunnel. He pulled a flashlight from his vest without missing a beat and flicked it on as we went deeper into the tunnel. I didn’t know how far we had to go or where this tunnel led. I just ran as fast as my trembling legs could move.

There was a loud blast and a rumble just ahead.

Vic squeezed my hand and kept running.

We reached a door, and my heart stopped. It was blocked. The blast had collapsed the ceiling, and there were enormous chunks of cement in front of the door.

Vic bent down and moved aside a few smaller pieces. I gasped, my hand flying to my mouth when I saw the body. No. Don’t let it be Ethan. Please God. I just got him back. Jackson needed his uncle.

Vic moved aside more rubble, and I fell to my knees beside him to help. The face was charred, and I couldn’t tell who it was. Vic moved another larger piece, and I collapsed in his arms.

It was Aiden.

“They got out,” I said. My brother got out.

“Yeah,” Vic said. He put his hand to Aiden’s throat, as if making sure there was no chance he’d survived. Then he stood up, bringing me with him.

“Is there another door? Another tunnel?” I asked. We couldn’t go back. The fire was spreading too fast, and even this far down the tunnel, the smoke was getting heavier.

Vic shook his head. “No, baby. They are all blocked.”

We were trapped.

Macayla

Vic’s hand tightened in mine, and we started running back the other way. “There’s an overflow waterway off this tunnel that leads to a well. We need to get to it before the fire does.”

I coughed on the smoke as it grew thicker. It wouldn’t be long before we’d suffocate.

“Keep low. Cover your face,” Vic ordered.

I lifted the bottom of my shirt and covered my mouth and nose. We couldn’t see anything through the smoke, and we slowed to a jog as Vic used his hand on the wall to guide us.

There was a clang and Vic stopped. “Here.” He yanked on an iron gate, but it was padlocked. “Stand back, baby.”

He unholstered his gun and shot the padlock off the gate. The chain clattered to the floor. He swung open the rusted gate, and we hurried along a narrow culvert, our feet splashing through an inch of water.

The shaft opened up into a room where there was a huge, circular wooden cistern. He pulled me over to a ladder that led to the top of it.

“What is this?”

“Overflow from the well. There is a shaft that leads to it.”

My heart skipped a beat. “What do you mean?”

“We can swim through it, and it opens up into the well.”

I heard a crash behind us that sounded like the platform had given way. “Let’s go before this place collapses, or blows up,” he said.

I hurried up the ladder to the top, then down the other side. Vic was right behind me. The clear water didn’t look that deep, maybe chest level, and I slid into the depths. But the second I did, my breath was sucked from my lungs when I felt the freezing cold water.

Vic jumped into the water, not reacting to the cold. But I remembered him in the cold shower. He’d done that for years. God, he’d watched his brother drown in a sewer. I had no idea how he was keeping it together right now, because my mind was grappling with what we were doing. What we had to do if we wanted to survive.

“I need to find the opening.” He put the flashlight between his teeth and disappeared beneath the surface.

I rubbed my arms, shivering as I watched the beam of light and the ripple on the surface of the water.

A minute later, there was an abrasive grinding sound, and then a clang before a metal grate fell to the bottom of the cistern.

Vic emerged beside me and curled his arm around my waist. “Okay, baby. We’re going to swim through the shaft to the other end.”

I nodded. “How far?”

His jaw flexed and his eyes hardened. “To the main house.”

Oh my God. I shook my head, my lips quivering. “Vic, I can’t hold my breath that far.” It had to be almost the length of two football fields. It was impossible to swim that far under water.

“Look at me,” he said, taking both my hands in his.

Tingles spread through my arms and legs as I stared at the mouth of the tunnel beneath the water. “I can’t. I’ve never held my breath that long.” My entire body was trembling now, likely a combination of the cold water and the fear descending over me.

“Look. At. Me,” Vic demanded.

I did and was met with steady eyes. Calm. He wanted me to be calm. He needed me to be calm.

I slowed my breathing.

“Good girl,” he said. “I’m going to be straight up with you, Rainbird. We stay here, we die. If the smoke doesn’t kill us, the fire will. No one can get to us in time. We got to save ourselves. Saint and the others know this is where I’ll go if there is no other way out.”

My teeth chattered incessantly. “Vic. No one can hold their breath that long.”

“I can.” It was almost like the shield lowered over him, blocking everything out. His eyes turned cold and impenetrable. “It’s the only way out, and I’m not leaving you here.”

He released me and reached into his vest, grabbing a thin cable and a knife from his pocket. He dipped below the surface of the water for a second, then came back up. He cut the cable with his knife and looped the other end around my waist and tied it.

He put his knife away. “You’re tied to me. We do this together. No matter what.”

I swallowed and nodded. My mind was scrambling for another way out. Another possibility. But this was what Vic did for a living. He knew our chances, and he knew what had to be done.

“You need to be calm, Macayla. When your lungs scream for air, your instinct will be to get above the surface and breathe. But you’ll lose more oxygen if you aren’t calm.”

I nodded. But panic was already swirling through me.

He cupped the back of my neck. “Jackson needs you. I need you. You do whatever it takes to survive, Macayla.”

I bit my lip and tried to keep my breath even like his. “If I die…. Jackson. Don’t let him be taken away. Promise me you won’t let him go to a foster home.” I didn’t ask him to promise me I wouldn’t die because I knew he couldn’t make that promise, and I didn’t want to hear him say it.

His fingers squeezed my neck. “I gave you my word that would never happen, Rainbird. But you won’t die. I won’t let you.”

I inhaled a ragged breath. “Vic?”

“Yeah, baby.”

“I love you. God, I love you, Vic Gate.”

He kissed me. It was hard and fast, but it was everything in that one moment. “Rainbird, I’ve loved you from the second you held my hand when you were an annoying little five-year-old who wouldn’t shut up.”

I choked on a sob-laugh, and I knew he’d said it to make me laugh and attempt to release some of the fear that had its claws sunk into me.

“Ready?”

I inhaled three deep breaths. I nodded. “Yeah.”

He nodded once, then we dove beneath the surface.

Vic

I swam through the tunnel, using my hands to push on the walls and propel myself forward.

I blocked everything out. This was a mission. Get out or die. Simple.

It was how I’d survived. How I kept the demons away.

But there was nothing simple about holding the woman I love and knowing I was taking her to her death.

Because I knew she couldn’t hold her breath that long. The house was a good football field and a half away. Too far for anyone untrained. I’d done countless breath-holding drills in Special Forces training. I could stay under water for almost three minutes.

Macayla couldn’t.

I gritted my teeth and propelled us forward. Pushing past the demons of my brother that played with my mind. Him sinking. The darkness.

Then staring into the sewer, water spilling out of it. My brother’s body floating to the surface and hitting the grate. Eyes wide and staring. Lifeless.

No. I wouldn’t let her go. I’d never let her go. No matter what, I wasn’t letting her go.

I kicked harder. But she couldn’t keep up, and the cable tying us together grew tighter.

Fuck. Come on, baby.

I slowed my pace, but I knew her lungs were screaming for air. Her body fighting.

The next time I pushed off the wall, I was jerked back by the cable.

No. Fuck, no.

Don’t think. Do what needs to be done.

I stopped swimming and quickly reached for the cable tied to my ankle. I pulled her toward me, but I didn’t look. I couldn’t look at her. If I saw her, my world would collapse, and there’d be nothing left to fight.

I pulled her body to me and wrapped my arm around her waist. I kicked and pushed forward, using one hand on the wall. She was going to make it. I wouldn’t let her die. I couldn’t look at her, or we’d both die, and I needed to live in order to bring her back.

My lungs burned. Muscles strained.

The faint shimmer of sunlight illuminated the water and the grate twenty meters ahead.

Almost there, baby.

Suddenly there was movement in the water on the other side of the grate. A flashlight shined into the tunnel, blinding me for a second, before it dropped away. I saw two figures pulling the grate from the opening of the tunnel.

I swam harder.

The figures disappeared for a second, as if they swam to the surface to get air and then they were there again.

Fuck. It was Saint and Jaeg.

I reached the mouth of the tunnel, and they both grabbed me by the vest and jerked me and Macayla the rest of the way out and up at least ten feet to the surface of the water.

I sucked air into my starving lungs as I quickly scanned the old stone walls of the huge well for the ladder. As soon as my eyes locked on it, I pulled Macayla’s lifeless body toward it.

“How long has it been?” Jaeg asked.

They were on either side of me, bobbing in the water as I grabbed the rung of the ladder.

She wasn’t dying. “One minute.”

“Let me take her,” Saint said.

“No.” I wasn’t letting her go. I’d never let her go.

They helped me lift Macayla up over my shoulder, and I climbed the twenty feet to the top of the well.

Callum and Ethan were there, and they hoisted Macayla off my shoulder. Callum pulled a knife from under his pants leg and cut the cable tying us together.

They lowered her to the ground, and Ethan started compressions on her chest as I climbed out of the well the rest of the way.

I fell to my knees beside her and tilted her head back. Ethan stopped compressions. I lowered my mouth to hers and breathed air into her lungs.

One. Two.

I shoved Ethan aside and cupped my hands over her chest below where her rib cage met and started compressions again. I blocked out the thought that this wouldn’t work. That she wouldn’t live. Because she had to live. She’d always been there for me. She was the girl who gave me a reason to live. To fight. Now I was fighting for her, and I’d never stop.

Thirty.

I tilted her head back again and breathed into her mouth.

Baby. Come on. Don’t you dare leave me. Leave Jackson.

I pumped on her chest again. Counting.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

Five seconds, Rainbird.

Breathe. Just breathe.

Water spilled from her mouth and down her chin. Then her body lurched up and she coughed and choked up water.

Every part of my body sagged.

It was as if I was twelve years old again. The rain pounding. My body screaming as I tried to pull the grate off the sewer. My brother begging me to save him.

I yanked the grate off and let in the light.

This time he lived. She lived.

Macayla coughed and spit up more water, and I held her steady with one of my arms behind her back. Ethan knelt on her other side. He pushed back wet strands of hair from her face, his hand trembling.

She stopped coughing and spitting up water and Ethan grabbed her, pulling her into a hug. “Macadamia.”

She hugged him, then pulled back and looked at me, her lips quivering and water and tears trailing down her face. “We made it.”

“We did.” I cupped the back of her neck, staring into her ocean-blue eyes. Eyes that had been scarred into me since I was that angry boy sitting on a bench next to a little girl who held his hand because he needed it.

She threw her arms around my neck. “I love you, Vic.”

I crushed her to me. “You’re mine, Rainbird. You always have been.”

July 9th

Seven months later

Macayla

The mattress sagged, and I woke to fingertips sweeping my hair from my neck before his lips brushed just below my ear.

He’s back.

“Happy birthday, Rainbird,” he whispered, his arm snaking around my waist from behind and drawing me back against his chest.

I opened my eyes and turned my head to peer at him over my shoulder. “You remembered my birthday,” I teased.

He chuckled. “Smartass.”

I smiled at the rare sound and tucked it away inside me, so I’d always have it with me. “I didn’t think you’d make it back in time.” I linked our fingers.

He kissed down the side of my neck and I arched into him. “I promised I would.”

He had. He promised he’d never miss my birthday again. But when he’d texted from the airport yesterday, the plane had been grounded due to weather. I didn’t know where he’d been flying in from because Vic still kept that part of his life separate. I knew it was to protect us from that world, and I’d accepted it. I was okay with it. As long as he came home to me.

“Did you put on your red tights and fly, honey?”

He groaned, and in seconds had me flipped onto my back, my hands locked to the mattress above my head as he straddled me. “Fuck, I like when you call me honey.” He leaned forward, his mouth a breath away from mine and eyes burning with raw hunger.

I bit my lower lip as pixie-fairies twirled in my belly while lighting fireworks. “I missed you,” I said, my husky morning voice cracking.

There wasn’t a single second that I didn’t think of him. Miss him. Jackson was the stronger one whenever Vic left, and he’d had to a few times in the last seven months, but he always came back.

Vic’s lips brushed mine, and I moaned, lifting to try to kiss him, but he wouldn’t let me. “Vic, kiss me.”

His warm breath grazed my ear. “It’s your birthday. Need an answer, baby.”

Vic had been gone three weeks. He’d had to leave in the middle of the night, and as he promised, he’d woken me up to say goodbye. When I got up in the morning, there was a little black velvet box perched on his pillow.

My heart nearly exploded when I opened the box and saw the gold engagement ring. It wasn’t opulent and gawdy, it was simple, and it was beautiful and it was me. It was us.

It was an aquamarine and diamond infinity twist with sheet music engraved along the band. The noteheads were all tiny diamonds. Underneath the box was a note. “Your birthday, Rainbird. I need an answer.”

I’d kept it on my nightstand ever since, waiting for him to come back. I never tried it on, but I opened the box and looked at it a million times when he was gone. I’d wanted Vic to be the one to put it on me for the first time.

Vic shifted his weight to the side and locked my wrists in one hand. He trailed his fingers down the curve of my neck, between my breasts, and then to the seam of my yellow panties. “Baby, answer me.”

I sucked in air as his fingers slipped beneath the material. “Yes.”

“Yes, what?” he demanded, nipping the lobe of my ear while he teased my clit, slowly circling.

“Yes, I’ll be yours.” I shuddered under his fingers.

He growled low in his throat and shoved two fingers up inside me. “I want to hear you say it, baby. Or I’ll have to resort to my more convincing tactics.”

I laughed, but it was cut off with a sharp gasp as he withdrew his fingers and sank three up inside me.

I trembled. “Vic. God.”

His fingers stilled and my body arched, begging for more. “Promise you’ll be my wife, Rainbird.”

I stared into his eyes, loving every piece of him whether he’d give them all to me or not. It was enough. “Yes. I’ll marry you, Vic Gate.”

He growled low in his throat and crushed his mouth to mine. Then he showed me how much he wanted me to be his wife.

“Oh my God, we’re late to my own birthday party.” Hettie was finally getting her Sunday dinner with all the Horsemen, except it was Saturday instead because we were celebrating my birthday. “Vic.” I tried to escape his grasp and climb off the bed, but he snagged my waist and I toppled backward.

“Mmmm,” he murmured, trailing kisses down my neck.

“We needed to leave twenty minutes ago and Jackson will wonder where we are.” Ethan had picked up Jackson this morning to take him swimming at his new cottage just outside of town.

Which meant, Vic and I spent half the day in bed, and when we weren’t in bed, he was fucking me in the shower, on the stairs and then against the fridge which led to the island and involved ice-cubes and me panting and begging. And afterward, we’d sat on the porch, and I’d played guitar while nestled up against him.

“Know why she wants us there so early?” Vic asked, but didn’t wait for a reply. “It’s raspberry-picking season, babe.”

I laughed, wiggling from his arms and crawling off the bed. “I love raspberries.” I bent and picked up my panties and slipped them on. Vic groaned, watching me with heated eyes. My heart leapt and my belly flipped. God, I don’t think I’d ever get used to him looking at me like that.

“I’ve waited a long time to have you all to myself on your birthday.”

I put my hands and one knee on the bed and leaned over to kiss him. “You have me every single second for infinity, Vic Gate.” I scrambled away when he went to grab me, and ran into the bathroom to finish getting ready.

When I came out again, he was dressed in his mouthwatering, drool-worthy, snug faded jeans, and a black, short-sleeved shirt with three buttons undone at the neckline.

He stalked toward me, and my body tingled in anticipation of his touch. When he reached me, he took my left hand in his and slipped the engagement ring on my finger. “I’m yours, Macayla North.”

I couldn’t stop the tears from spilling over the rims of my eyes as I stared at the ring glimmering on my finger.

“Hettie is going to freak,” I said. I hadn’t told anyone that he’d asked me, even Addie. I wanted us to tell Jackson and everyone together.

He huffed. “She’ll have an announcement in the local paper tomorrow.”

I curled my arms around his neck and looked up at him. “Good. I want everyone to know you’re mine, especially Cake-face.”

His mouth twitched. “You ready for your birthday presents?”

I frowned. “You just gave me the best present I could ever ask for.”

“Presents, baby.” He tugged me downstairs into the living room, and there on the floor was a pile of presents.

I stared, mouth agape. “Oh my God, Vic. Why did you buy me all these presents?”

He moved to stand behind me, his hands on my hips and his mouth next to my ear. “I kept them. Every year when I came to your birthday, I brought you a present.”

My legs nearly gave out, and I would’ve collapsed if he hadn’t been holding me steady. Words were locked in my throat and tears spilled over the rims of my eyes.

He kissed the side of my neck and I shivered. “Been waiting a long time to see you open them, Rainbird.”

Then we sat on the floor with me between his legs and we opened my birthday presents.

Addie choked on her beer, laughing. “Oh my God, really? I can’t imagine Vic walking into Walmart and buying a Barbie doll. Even if he was only thirteen.”

I chewed my lower lip and smiled. I’d told Hettie and Addie about the presents that was after the half hour of talking about the ring and Vic asking me to marry him. When I saw her looking over at Vic, Hettie had tears in her eyes. Whether he knew it or not, Hettie was the mother he never had. She was that to all of them.

“What else?” Addie asked, leaning forward in her chair.

“The cutest Furby and a stuffed palomino horse.”

“Oh, like Trinket, at camp.” She frowned. “How did he know you loved Trinket if he only saw you on your birthday?”

I shrugged. “Jackson’s going to love the Star Wars figurines. Vader, Chewbacca, Han Solo, and R2-D2.”

Addie sat back in her chair with the beer cradled in her grasp. “Han Solo. Now, that man I’d have in my bed. Or anywhere else.”

I laughed, nodding toward where the men and Jackson were picking raspberries. “You have a sexy-hot and dangerous Chief of Police who rarely takes his eyes off you. I’m pretty sure if you gave him the nod, he’d have you slung over his shoulder and in his bed within ten seconds.”

Addie’s smiled faded. She glanced over at Saint leaning his shoulder into the bush as he plucked a raspberry. “Saint and I will never happen.”

“Why not?”

“Which one of you boys would like to barbeque the steaks?” Hettie called as she came out of the house, carrying a plate.

“I’m doing it,” Jaeg shouted, and made his escape from berry picking.

He didn’t get far before Ethan tripped him and he went flying. Saint and Ethan smiled at each other, then tackled Jaeg and pinned him to the ground.

“Jacks, buddy. Bring your bucket,” Ethan said.

Jackson ran over with his bucket of raspberries. I didn’t hear what Ethan said to him, but I guessed when Jackson dumped the bucket of raspberries over Jaeg’s head.

“Squish them in, Jackson,” Ethan said. “He’ll turn pink.”

Jackson grinned and jumped on top of Jaeg and squished the raspberries into Jaeg’s scalp, and red juice slid down his face, staining his skin pink.

Callum chuckled, and Vic shook his head, mouth twitching.

I laughed. The guys seemed to think that Zero Crow was the one place where whatever had gone down in the past was left at the door. But it wasn’t.

It was here with Hettie.

And maybe they didn’t see it, but Vic, Ethan, Jaeg, Saint, and Callum were brothers who conquered and survived. They were their pact Zero Crow, and despite their hostilities and differences, there was no question they’d die for one another.

After dinner, I sat at the picnic table and watched Vic. He chatted with Ethan at the far end of the patio under the string of white lights. I didn’t know what they were talking about, but Vic looked relaxed, a water bottle dangling from his fingers and one leg cocked as he casually leaned against the pergola post.

The animosity between Vic and Ethan was gone, and there was an unspoken respect between them. I think it had to do with Vic saving my life, and Ethan confronting Dad about everything. I don’t know what was said, but Ethan had told me Dad was out of his life and I never had to worry about him coming here or being anywhere near Jackson.

What I did find out was that Vic had found Jackson’s foster parents, and when he did, he’d left for a few days. I didn’t ask what he did to them. I didn’t care. They deserved whatever they had coming for what they’d done to Jackson.

My heart squeezed as I watched him. I may never get all of Vic’s pieces, but the ones I had were what made him who he was. Overprotective. Honest. And yeah, there was no question he was dangerous, but there wasn’t anyone in my life I trusted more.

As if he knew I was watching him, he glanced over at me, and my belly flipped. His eyes heated as they roamed the length of me before sliding back to my face. He said something to the guys, then made his way toward me.

“You ready?”

I nodded.

“Okay. I’ll get Jackson.” Jackson was in the yard kicking the soccer ball around with Jaeg and Saint.

He leaned in and kissed me, and I heard his cell vibrate. My heart slammed into my chest. Because everyone was here. Everyone except his team.

He slipped his hand into mine and took his cell out of his back pocket and placed it to his ear. “Gate,” he said.

He was quiet a minute, listening to whoever was on the other end. I knew he’d have to leave again. It was his job. This is what he did. This was what he was good at it. And he liked it.

I’d never like that he risked his life, but I understood why he did it.

He released my hand and hooked my waist, resting his fingers on my hip and squeezing. “Yeah. Be there tomorrow.” He ended the call and placed it in his pocket.

“You’re leaving tomorrow?” But I’ve only had one day with you. I didn’t say the words because I never wanted him to feel guilty for leaving.

I peered up at him and I was met with soft gray eyes. Not shielded or cold. Breathtaking.

“Tyler is okay.”

My heart skipped a beat. Oh my God. “He is? He woke up?”

“Yeah, baby, he woke up.” His voice cracked and he cleared his throat. “He’s weak, but he’s already hitting on the nurses and being a pain in the ass.”

“Oh God, Vic, that’s amazing.” I threw my arms around him and hugged him. I’d never met Tyler or his team, and that was one of the pieces of him I knew I might never get.

“Babe, I’m going to miss Jackson’s soccer game tomorrow.”

I cupped his cheek. “Yeah, of course. God, go see him. They are six, so it’s not exactly the World Cup or anything. I’m just happy Tyler’s going to be okay, Vic.”

He stared down at me, his hand sliding up my spine to curl around the back of my neck. “Do you think Jackson won’t mind missing a game so you both can come with me? I’d like you to meet Tyler and everyone.”

My chest squeezed and my heart swelled. I looped my arms around his neck and drew him into me. “I’d love that. We’d love that.”

Jackson ran up to us with a soccer ball in his hands. “Jaeg called Saint a pussy. But I don’t think he’s a pussy. He’s really strong, like you. And you’re not a pussy, Dad.”

I broke away from Vic, my eyes widening and heat invading my cheeks. I wasn’t sure what to be more shocked at. That Jackson called Vic “Dad” or that he was using the word “pussy.”

Vic put his hand on Jackson’s shoulder, and my little boy looked up at him, and it was just like a father and his son. “Sometimes when people say things about others, it’s a reflection of themselves,” Vic said. Jackson scrunched his nose, not understanding. “It’s how they see themselves, not the other person.”

“So Jaeg’s a pussy?” Jackson asked.

Vic grinned, then burst out laughing.

The END

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