“What are you so afraid of, Andrea?” her school counselor probed.
Fifteen-year-old Drea Timmons shifted in her seat, wanting nothing to do with this. But at least the woman sitting across from her with the smooth bob and placid expression hadn’t tried to call her by her nickname. That, Drea reserved only for friends, and these days, that pool was small. “I’m not afraid. Where do you get this shit from?”
That last part was one of Danny’s favorite expressions and was usually a conversation ender with most adults.
Not with this counselor, trying to bore into her brain by pulling the “we’re all very worried about you” card. “Your grandmother is concerned that you’re hanging out with dangerous people. I’ve heard the same thing from your teachers. They’re particularly concerned with your boyfriend . . . I believe his name is Danny Roberts?”
Drea shrugged. It was all the truth, yes, but what was the counselor going to do?
Continue to push, that was what. “Andrea, do you consider the people you’re hanging out with dangerous?”
Drea hadn’t bothered to learn the counselor’s name, because she was simply another in a long line of seemingly well-minded people trying to help. She wanted to ask where they’d been when her mother was doing drugs in front of her, when her mother’s boyfriends touched her in her bed at night, but she’d learned from Danny that showing weakness was to be avoided at all costs. As was the truth. “Why does it matter? I mean, they’re not dangerous to me.”
“Not yet,” the counselor countered. “But eventually, you’ll get caught up in it. There’s no way around that.”
“He’ll keep me safe.”
“Who’s he? Danny?”
Drea clamped her mouth shut—she’d said enough already. Danny didn’t like her talking about him to anyone in authority.
“Andrea, listen to me. I understand how you’re feeling.”
“No you don’t. How could you? You’re not me. You’re not in my mind. You have no idea how I’m feeling,” she challenged. “Danger isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes his kind of danger makes me feel alive.”
“And the other times? Does it scare you?”
“Sometimes. But being afraid is part of life.”
“Not to the extreme to which you’re taking it, honey.” The counselor shook her head. “To you, danger has somehow come to mean safety, and that’s completely wrong.”
“Who says?” Drea demanded.
Seventeen years later
Drea stared back at Dr. Siegel, the casually dressed older man who sat across from her, alternating his gaze between her and the open laptop in front of him. He and his wife, who was a doctor as well, made a formidable team. Some days they tag-teamed her, but today it was one-on-one. “Wouldn’t you be angry if you were me?”
He wagged a finger at her. “Spoken like a true medical professional. You’ve got to open up to me if you want this to be of any help.”
She threw up her arms. “Hypnosis didn’t even work—so how is just talking going to do it?”
He turned the laptop to face her, and there was a picture of a dark-haired, dark-eyed man wearing a black leather jacket. He’d been caught off guard by the picture, but he still looked easy and relaxed as he stared at her through the screen. “Tell me about him.”
She looked at that picture an awful lot these days, and for a guy she had zero memories of, the man called Jem certainly consumed a lot of her thoughts. But she hated having to admit that, and tried even more not to show it. She forced herself not to grit her teeth as she answered, “I can’t.”
“Tell me what you know. Tell me what you’ve heard. Tell me what you’re feeling when you look at him.”
She frowned and sat back in the chair like a petulant child. “He’s the reason I’m here. He’s part of the reason I don’t have a memory, although he didn’t do anything to me himself. He rescued me.”
“So he’s a white knight?”
Drea snorted softly, blurted out, “I wouldn’t say that,” without thinking.
“So what would you say, Drea?”
She crossed her arms for a second, but once she realized she’d done so, she uncrossed them, going for a more relaxed, neutral position, telling Dr. Siegel in a reasonable tone of voice, “I’m not sure what he is. Maybe it’s not black or white. Because he rescued me, but according to Carolina, he’s also the reason I was in the position to need rescuing in the first place.”
“So this man, he got you into trouble. He put you in danger.”
“From what I’ve been told.” It should’ve been painful to hear about all this, but whenever this topic was broached, a part of her went numb, like her mind was still trying to protect her from whatever horrors she’d endured. Some days she thought that maybe she was better off not remembering the hell she’d gone through. But that would mean not remembering Jem, and she’d been clawing at that memory desperately. “But I wanted to go with him.”
“In spite of the danger?”
“That. And maybe because of it too.”
“Because you didn’t have enough in your life already?”
“I didn’t say it made sense,” she muttered. “You’re very judgmental.”
“It bothers you?”
“I thought you people were supposed to stay neutral.”
He wrote down some notes, then glanced at her casually. “I thought you wanted to figure your missing memories out.”
She sighed, stared around the sitting room in the grand old house that had become her touchstone.
Both Dr. Siegel and his wife had been working with her for just over two months—longer than any of the others, but her tolerance was running low. Especially for him, because he was more fond of telling her what she was doing was wrong instead of waiting her answers out. Probably because he knew he’d get none. “I just want you to realize that you’re repeating old patterns. Over and over again, it appears. And you have a chance to finally break them.”
“How? Because of my amnesia?”
“In spite of that. Because the one thing you didn’t lose is your feeling that somehow danger equals security. And that’s wrong.”
From everything she’d heard about Jem from Carolina, Drea knew this therapist was the one who was wrong and she’d finally found something so right she wasn’t about to let logic ruin it. Jem’s picture did something to her insides, made her stomach flip, and she leaned forward and pushed the laptop screen back toward the therapist so she didn’t have to see Jem staring back at her. “Okay, that’s not exactly true, about the kidnapping-me-the-second-time part. Apparently I volunteered. More than once. He took me up on it both times. The second time is when it went bad.”
“You volunteered to put yourself in danger?”
“This is the first time you’ve done something like that in your life?”
“I’ve always been attracted to danger. I guess I feel like the more dangerous a man is, the more he can protect me from the danger I’m running from.” Even so, she knew that Danny’s kind of dangerous had never been good. But Jem? He was a whole other story.
Dr. Siegel steepled his fingers as he stared at her. She felt she’d had some kind of breakthrough, but of course it didn’t make her recognize the man in the picture any more than she had before. Truthfully, she didn’t even want to look at the picture.
“Are you?” Dr. Siegel asked.
“Am I what?”
That she could answer truthfully and without reservation. “Every single day of my life.”
Six months later
When Drea first arrived at Carolina’s a year earlier, she hadn’t realized she’d been running from an outside danger . . . and running just as hard from her missing memories. She’d also thought she was only seventeen, that Danny was still her savior, the only man who stood between her and her grandmother, who treated Drea like she was the devil incarnate. Truthfully, after just escaping her mom and her mom’s never-ending series of boyfriends, living with her grandmother should’ve been a dream come true for Drea.
Instead, her grandmother had been a nightmare, and Danny, the son of the president of a very dangerous motorcycle club, was the only person in Drea’s life who’d ever stood up for her.
She believed she owed him loyalty . . . She believed she owed him everything.
Slowly, she’d begun to discover that, despite these feelings otherwise, something inside her was off, and that Danny wasn’t the right man to love.
Now she kicked the treadmill into high speed, ran until her mind was settled and her muscles were jelly, all the better to give the trapped memories a chance to surface. This was part of her daily routine, since she couldn’t run outside. At times she resented it, yes. However, it was one thing to be a prisoner in Carolina’s house—and she had no doubt she was a prisoner—but there were many worse places she could be.
Like with Danny—or the FBI, who was apparently looking for her because of Danny. Or so she’d been told. Carolina was careful in doling out information, and while Drea hated being treated like something fragile, she was also smart enough to know Carolina was right.
And if Carolina didn’t trust her, it never showed. There were no interior key locks on the door, just a bolt that slid easily. But the house was like a fortress, with alarm systems, cameras in every room and an unending supply of ammunition everywhere Drea looked. The alarm bells chimed whenever a door or window opened, but that was so they could keep track of who entered, like the grocery delivery or Drea’s therapists.
The newest of those were a married couple—the Drs. Siegel were a formidable team. They didn’t let her get away with anything. They probed her mind until she wanted to scream, but they didn’t use drugs or any invasive methods . . . unless you counted what she’d started to deem as “the mind fuck.”
And yes, over the past six months with them, she’d made tremendous progress. As it happened, this very treadmill was where her first memories, post “happy Daniel time,” had come back to her.
It’d been a brief flashback, and even though she’d known logically that Danny wasn’t there with her, hitting her, threatening her with a knife, she still hadn’t been able to hold back her screams. When Carolina found her, Drea had been huddled on the floor in the corner, tears running freely down her face.
It’d taken a while for her to reassure Carolina that she was truly okay, that at least a crucial part of her memory had returned . . . everything, it seemed, except her time with the mysterious Jem.
Now she upped both the speed and the incline, pushing her muscles harder, the same way she’d continued to push forward from that breakthrough.
Discovering Danny was a violent criminal, and now the head of the upstate New York Outlaw Angels MC, like his father before him, made her even more certain that she was with good people. These days, the face she saw in the mirror, while by no means old, was not seventeen.
You’re a doctor.
You’re in trouble because of Danny.
Jem’s been helping you.
Carolina had kept her from mirrors in the beginning, and that hadn’t been hard. Drea had been in a fog, thanks to the antianxiety medicine she’d slowly been weaned from. Even after she’d realized her real age, she continued to actively avoid looking in the mirror for several more weeks, until Carolina forced her hand.
“You’re thirty-two, not ancient,” Carolina would tell her. “What do you think you’re going to see?”
Carolina had to be fifty, but she was ageless. Steely. Beautiful. Her hair was a beautiful white-blond sheen and she had the complexion to pull it off. She looked natural. She had laugh lines in her smooth skin. Her face had character.
And when she’d walked Drea to the mirror and forced her to confront her present, Drea saw a fierce amber-eyed woman with long, tawny hair that was wild and loose past her shoulders staring back at her, one who didn’t look nearly as weary or exhausted as she felt inside at times.
“Beautiful, child.” Carolina had pulled some of Drea’s hair off her shoulders as they stared at their reflections together. “Trust me. Your memories are all here.” She pointed to Drea’s forehead, and then to her heart. “And here.”
“What happened to me?”
“You’ve gone through more than most, Drea,” Carolina said gently. “The most important thing you need to know is that you’re safe with me. And you’re safe because of Jem.”
Drea believed that, which was why she sat with Carolina nightly since learning that she’d been kidnapped when she was with Jem, that she’d been helping him and things had gone terribly wrong. It was at that point when she’d asked Carolina to tell her about Jem, wanting to know more beyond his physical appearance. Only then did Carolina begin to show her pictures and tell her stories until Drea began to feel as if the man were an old friend.
But somehow she knew Jem was far more than simply a friend.
It was all so much more complicated than it had seemed at first, and she wasn’t at the bottom of it yet. There was so much more to learn, and Drea was determined to make sure she did so.
Carolina had quietly slipped into the gym toward the end of Drea’s workout, knowing that the treadmill tended to fill her with more questions than answers. And she carried the file folder that contained pictures of various Section 8 members, including—especially—Jem.
Drea shut the treadmill down, patted her face with a towel and grabbed for her water bottle, and Carolina motioned for her to follow.
They sat at the kitchen table, and Drea asked, “Did you know any of them—the old Section 8?”
“I’d heard of them, sure. They were part legend and myth, but anyone who worked for the CIA during that time knew that a team like that could be far too real. There were so few rules then. It was . . . lovely.”
“So if you’d been asked . . .”
“I’d have joined that team in a second,” Carolina confirmed. “These days, I’m much better as backup.”
They’d had this discussion before. So many times Drea hadn’t recalled it the next day. Now she did, but they still started this way. It comforted Drea that she could retain information. And this information was important—she could feel it.
To her credit, Carolina was very good at pretending this wasn’t the nine millionth time they’d done this. It happened mostly every night, except for those times when Drea was too frustrated to try.
Tonight wasn’t one of those nights.
They went over the background easily, with Drea recalling, “The old Section 8 was disbanded. Most of the members were killed, except for Darius and Adele. But then Darius disappeared, Adele was killed and Darius’s son, Dare, and his half sister, Avery, found each other. And realized they were in trouble, because they were the kids of Section 8 members.”
“So Dare and Avery are part of this new Section 8, right? Along with Jem and Key, who are brothers, and Gunner.”
“And this new Section 8 started unofficially when Dare kidnapped a woman named Grace but ultimately ended up helping her.”
Carolina pointed to a heavily tattooed man with spiky white-blond hair. He stood outside a tattoo shop, his arm wound around the shoulders of a shorter blond woman. “This is Gunner—he’s a tattoo artist, and a pretty famous one at that. His father was a former CIA guy and a pretty nasty terrorist. Gunner hid from him for years, until Dare and Avery came along, looking for their father. Turns out that Darius was kidnapped and killed by Gunner’s father.”
Drea frowned. This part was always tricky. “But Gunner’s father was Grace’s stepfather—she calls him Rip. And Grace didn’t meet Gunner until last year. Together, all of them helped to capture and kill Rip.”
“Exactly. And then Gunner tried to leave S8 to keep them safe, once he’d been exposed as Rip’s son, and they’d ended up having to help him get rid of some old, dangerous enemies,” Carolina added.
As always, Drea muttered, “I swear, if I didn’t know better—which I don’t—I’d think you were making this up. It’s like a soap opera.” More so especially because Drea couldn’t recall ever meeting any of the players involved.
“I did not make this up . . . but I could always write this up and sell the script. Do you think anyone would watch it?” Carolina mused, then frowned. “I’d have to redact several classified points, though. Perhaps if I changed the names and dates . . .”
Drea sighed and motioned for her to go on with the picture viewing.
“Oh yes. Where were we? Right. So this man right here is Key. He’s Jem’s brother—younger.”
“You haven’t said much about Key yet,” Drea pointed out.
“Key was in the Army, until he rescued Dare and got court-martialed.”
“I thought rescuing someone was a good thing.”
“You’d think, wouldn’t you? Anyway, that’s how they all met. Key and Jem went looking for Dare.”
“To thank him?”
“To kill him,” Carolina corrected. “And that’s when they all realized that they had Gunner in common, and that Grace’s stepfather was trying to kill them.”
“That would be Gunner’s father too.”
“Right. But none of them knew that at the time, except for Gunner.” Carolina sat back and nodded.
Drea traced her fingers over the tablet where the picture of the team, sitting together on some steps, was looking out at her. The photo had been taken of them especially for her so she could get to know them, that maybe something in their faces would jog her memory.
And then there was Jem. He was in her dreams an awful lot, and before she’d learned anything at all about Jem, she’d assumed the dreams were about Danny. In those dreams that she still had, she’d never see his face, and even though she’d call out to him for help, he’d never turn around.
The first time he did turn around was the night before she saw his picture.
And she still hadn’t told any of that to anyone—not Carolina, not the therapist—and she certainly wasn’t going to tell Jem, if and when she ever met him. Instead she held on to the dream for dear life, because that was what it was to her—a complete and utter lifesaving moment. And every day and every night she scratched and scrabbled to try to regain another scrap of memory, of him and her time together with Section 8.
Tonight, she didn’t ask Carolina any questions about the parts that involved her kidnapping. She repeated those facts over and over in her mind often enough, anyway, and that’s all they were to her: facts, with no feelings behind them.
Jem had kidnapped her because he needed a doctor to save Avery, who was dying. Drea had saved her, but spending time with Jem had gotten her in trouble with Danny and the OA. S8 helped her get away from the OA, and she’d gone on the run with them, willingly. And when they had a job to do, one that involved a human trafficker who was after Gunner, she’d gotten involved as a decoy. Unfortunately, from what she’d been told, it’d gone wrong, and she’d been kidnapped.
By the time Jem found her, she’d gone into shock and was close to death. Physically, she’d recovered fine. The memories were coming slowly but surely, but those last months were more like listening to the plot of an action movie as opposed to having anything to do with her life.
Carolina assured her it was no movie plot. That she hadn’t done anything wrong during her part of the operation. That S8—Jem especially—felt horribly guilty, and hadn’t so much abandoned her as left her with Carolina for her own safety while they continued their attack on human traffickers and other criminals.
“Is this the kind of work you do?” Drea asked Carolina.
“When I retired, I swore I was done with this kind of work. But what am I supposed to do—sit around, read magazines and garden? Those are all fine things, but I’m trained to kill. Frankly, I’m finding retirement boring. I told Jem I’d be more than willing to help them out, but I’m not going up in planes or crossing the country for jobs. That’s the beauty of being old and crotchety—you get to make them come to you.”
“Well, I’m very grateful that you took me in.”
Carolina patted Drea’s hand. “Obviously in my line of work it’s hard to have family. I think of Jem as family. Anyone he’s close to is my family by default.”
Drea’s head was swimming with all the information. It was starting to integrate, but still in that frustrating way because it didn’t seem like her story.
It was always, however, a hell of a bedtime story. “So I know that Gunner is with Avery. And Key is with . . . ?”
“Many different people,” Carolina finished. “Apparently, he’s still hung up on some girl from the bayou. That’s what Jem says.”
Carolina looked as though she didn’t believe what Jem said in that regard. All Drea could do was shake her head and mutter, “Old loves,” disapprovingly.
“Not all old loves are necessarily bad.” Carolina paused. “Granted, right now I can’t think of any good ones. But I’d have to say that second loves are better. You’re through all that infatuation bullshit and you know what’s real. And there’s nothing more real than these men and women you’re learning about. They’ve made lots of sacrifices for one another. That’s the way you build a successful team.”
“And they sacrificed for me too,” Drea said thoughtfully.
“Well, honey, they did almost get you killed. Twice,” Carolina pointed out.
Drea rolled her eyes. “That’s so not helpful.”
“Just keeping it real, dear. Isn’t that what you all say these days? In my time, it was ‘Honesty’s the best policy.’ But come to think of it, that’s total bullshit.”
“You and Jem got along well as partners, then?”
Carolina flashed a brief smile. “Quite.”
“Wonderin’ if I can hitch a ride.”
Jem’s drawl made the three guards on the freighter ship turn and gawk at him. They were miles from shore along the stretch of Indian Ocean notorious for pirates and other sorts of unsavory characters. Like him. And he’d somehow emerged from nowhere to balance on the railing. Before they could respond, he jumped onto them, taking two down with him and punching the third when the man lunged toward Jem.
He finished them off easily—a little too easily, which was always disappointing when he was geared up for a fight and none came. He sighed loudly and knocked on the side of the boat to let Gunner, his partner in crime for this particular job, know it was time for him to board.
Gunner was still in the water, holding Jem’s wet suit and O² tank. Jem helped the man up over the railing and told him, “We’ve got twenty minutes to get to our meeting place.”
The captain wouldn’t know what had happened above-deck, would blithely sail along until they docked. Jem would deal with him there. For now, they’d ride this out and free the merchandise the ship was scheduled to pick up—human merchandise in the form of kidnapped women who’d been bought and paid for at private auction by a scumbag they’d deal with soon.
That human trafficking shit made his stomach turn. Helping to save them and find out who actually bought them was something he’d been doing with Gunner and the rest of the Section 8 crew for months now. “Avery and Dare’ll be waiting at the dock.”
“And Grace has customs officials waiting for her call,” Gunner confirmed. “She’s also got the CIA looped in.”
S8 treaded carefully where government agencies were concerned, but Jem still wasn’t happy that his old agency would be so close. He tended to avoid agents like the plague these days.
Speaking of . . .
His pocket vibrated. He grabbed his phone and saw the text from Carolina, his former CIA partner in crime. All it said was We need to talk.
“Good news?” Gunner asked as he looted the guard’s pockets to see if there was any intel he could grab about the next shipment the human traffickers had planned. Jem knew he’d roust the computer systems next and finally the captain.
Half the time, they disabled the captain early and drove the boat in themselves, but Jem’d taken out half the dock last time . . . and Gunner refused to let him try again, even though Jem told him he’d been aiming for the CIA agents on the dock on purpose. “Shit, I hope it’s good news, ’cause it’s Drea.”
“Maybe she’s getting more memories back,” Gunner suggested.
Jem stared at the phone like Carolina had hidden a code in her words. “Maybe.”
Dr. Drea Timmons was never far from his mind, especially because she was tied in to the S8 crew of mercenaries he’d been working with for nearly two years now.
Over the past year, S8 developed a reputation for their no-nonsense approach to human traffickers. Of course, the group caught the attention of some of the bigger agencies out there. S8 members would deny their involvement, but that was only for security purposes.
Because the agencies wanted S8 to continue. The small group could easily accomplish so much more because they didn’t have to deal with red tape. No rules but their own.
As such, there was an unspoken hands-off agreement. Because even though blowing up ships and cargo and planes was against the law, the efficiency with which the jobs were done, and the lack of collateral damage, kept S8 in good stead.
Stopping them would be a win for the traffickers, and no one wanted that.
For the past year, S8 had lived and worked and breathed jobs. Some were paying, others weren’t, but they used the blood money Grace had inherited from her stepfather to fund their missions.
“The last thing we want to do is be at the mercy of rich assholes,” Jem had announced.
“We’re the rich assholes now,” Gunner had reminded him.
Jem smiled, remembering that, as he and his crew of assholes pulled to the dock and ended up freeing forty women, many of whom were going to get returned to their families.
More happy endings.
Drea would have one. He was fairly certain of that, based simply on the strength of her character. She’d hung out with a very tough crowd for a long time, which meant she had to be tough as nails herself—and she was. Any woman who survived any amount of time with a motorcycle club had to be.
He didn’t hold out much hope for himself, though. And for the first time in a long while, that bothered the fuck out of him.
* * * * *
Half an hour later, Jem texted Carolina back as he balanced on the deck railing and watched Gunner do an impressive job of waterboarding a trafficker for intel. Things okay?
Carolina answered with She wants to see you.
He stared at the words as they swam in front of him, not quite believing them. He could still remember those first texts from Carolina that had come in about six months ago, talking about how Drea remembered that Danny was bad news.
Since then, Jem had heard from Carolina regularly about what exactly Drea was remembering. At first, it was in fits and starts, a lot of it had her waking up with screaming nightmares. Those had related to her childhood and teenage years, and Jem’s fists had tightened when Carolina shared those memories of various abuses Drea had suffered, first at the hands of her mother and then her grandmother. And, of course, with Danny.
And while it was a necessary and good thing that Drea’s memories were returning, no matter how painful they might be, Jem couldn’t help but think how much better it’d be if her memories didn’t stop before the months leading up to meeting Jem and the others. Sure, he was, of course, partially responsible for her memory loss related to shock. The doctors called it hysterical amnesia.
Jem supposed that might be considered a good thing, considering she’d been kidnapped and threatened.
But the fact that she couldn’t remember him at all was like a red-hot poker shoved straight through his heart. Because her life had been more than a little fucked up to start with, and he’d taken that and fucked it up way more, to the point where she was wanted not only by her ex, Danny, a high-ranking member of the notorious one percenter MC, the Outlaw Angels, but also by the FBI. The feds were prepared to question her about stealing and selling narcotics, as Danny had been framing her to get himself out of trouble. Whether or not the feds believed Danny didn’t matter—what did was that they’d use Drea any way they could to suit their investigation—and the RICO, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, cases—against the MCs.
She was exiled. Her medical license was at risk. Her life was at risk, but all this was since she’d met Danny.
And now Drea wanted to see Jem. In person.
She’s gonna have to wait, he texted back.
I don’t think she’s in a very patient mood. She just threw a chair at one of her therapists.
He actually smiled at that, right before he and Gunner jumped back into the water. The boat blew when they reached shore with the well-timed precision they’d perfected over the past months.
He didn’t think dealing with Drea would be anywhere near as easy.
“She threw a chair at her therapist?” Jem repeated now into the phone.
“Yes, Jem.” Carolina’s tone let him know that, somehow, she thought it was all his fault. Like his influence could travel over the miles. “Well, she’s definitely been hanging out with you for too long. Because that’s totally your MO.”
“Why does she want to see me now?”
“She’s learning more about Section 8. The kidnapping, but she wants to hear it from you. She’s also asking more questions about being wanted by the FBI, and you’re going to have to be the one to tell her what she’s really up against. You need to fix this, Jeremiah.”
Next she’d be middle-naming him. “Suppose I can’t?”
Carolina softened for an instant. “There’s nothing you can’t do when you set your mind to it.”
He wanted to tell her she was wrong, that there were things he hadn’t been able to fix, people he couldn’t save. But he’d never used that as an excuse not to try.
Three nights after Drea told Carolina she needed to see Jem, he strolled in casually through the door to the balcony off her bedroom.
On the third floor. “That isn’t normal,” Drea told him.
“It is for me, babe.”
His voice . . . it was like an electric current, a low buzz running from the base of her spine outward. She didn’t recognize it as much as her body responded to it.
And he watched her, gauging her reaction. And then he gave her an easy, lazy smile. “I heard you wanted to see me.”
Yes, but she hadn’t expected to be struck stupid in his presence. Especially because he was moving toward her, his steps slow and sure, never tearing his gaze from hers.
His stride was what she imagined a stalking panther’s to be.
“I can’t stay long.” He pulled out one of the elegant chairs from around the table by the window. His big body in such a feminine chair made him look graceful and no less masculine.
Drea started right in, because she had a feeling he could—and would—disappear at will. “I want you to tell me what happened. Carolina’s filled me in a bit, but I thought—”
“You look beautiful.”
And he looked so serious when he said that. She blinked, and suddenly she was at ease for the first time in months. “Thanks.”
“Come on, sit down.” He pushed out another chair with a foot and she sat facing him.
Had he always looked that dangerous?
Probably, since that had apparently always been her weakness.
Jem kept his gaze steadily on her. “Do you have any whiskey?”
“I think I’ll be okay.”
“I meant for me.”
“Jeremiah, if you’d used the front door, I’d have offered you one there.” Carolina came through the half-open door and glanced at Drea. “Don’t worry, darling. I spotted him two blocks from the house.”
“Oh, come on, Carolina. Making me look bad in front of her.”
“Everyone could stand to up their game.” Carolina was carrying a tray with two highball glasses and a crystal tumbler of what appeared to be whiskey. She placed it on the table between them, told Jem, “Behave” and smiled at Drea before exiting.
Jem wore a grin that told Drea he planned on doing no such thing. He poured her a shot and slid it to her, then poured himself one and held up his glass for a toast. “To your memories.”
She couldn’t argue with that, clinked the heavy crystal of her glass to his and they both drank down their shot. The whiskey was familiar and good. “This is one of my favorites,” she said, staring at the empty glass in wonderment.
“You haven’t had any since you’ve been here?”
“The doctors said alcohol may confuse my memories, so I’ve been abstaining.”
Jem shook his head. “I never listen to the doctors. And from what I’ve heard, doctors never practice what they preach.”
God, it was so good to hear his voice. She couldn’t grasp an actual memory of him beyond the way he looked and moved, but this easy banter and her comfort level told her everything she needed to know. He was the missing piece of the puzzle. She leaned forward on the table and said, “I know that Danny’s no good. I understand why I’m here.”
He leaned forward on his elbows, mirroring her stance, one of his hands reaching out to grasp hers. “So tell me what you need from me.”
“I want to know . . . what was happening between us. How it started. I need to hear it from you.”
He nodded. Gave her a rueful grin. “I kind of kidnapped you.”
“I didn’t tie you up and throw you in my trunk. I belong to a group called Section 8.”
“Which was once code for discharged military crazies,” Drea added. “And pretty fitting, from what I hear.”
“No memory, but she’s got jokes.” Drea raised her brows and Jem cleared his throat. “S8’s a mercenary outfit. We help people.”
She tilted her head but stared directly at him. “You save people. That’s what Carolina said.”
His expression tightened noticeably when he said, “We try.”
* * * * *
Jem barely got the words out, and it was only years of grueling practice that allowed him to sit here when he really wanted to bolt.
As if Drea knew, she reached out quickly, took his hand and squeezed it reassuringly. “You did save me, Jem. I’m here.”
She sounded sincere, like she believed it. It would take him far longer to do so.
“You got in trouble because of us too.”
“You needed me to save Avery’s life. A pretty good reason, I’d say,” she added softly.
He wanted to tell her not to be so fucking nice to him, but he owed her enough, which meant he needed to let her be however nice she wanted to. “Right. Avery was bleeding out and you stitched her up after some fucked-up madman tried to kill her to get revenge on Gunner. You got mad at me. I think at first you thought that Gunner and I had done something to Avery, but she told you the truth. And then we talked and you weren’t that mad anymore. And then you asked if you could stay with us. Out of the blue.”
She frowned. “Because of Danny.”
“At the time, I didn’t know that, but yeah. You’d been under his control for a long time. I told you no, because I figured we were much worse for you than a controlling ex. And I was wrong.” He paused, stared into those striking amber eyes that reminded him of a fierce tiger’s. “When I let you go, I realized I got you in trouble with Danny, so I swung by your house and kept you with us.”
“You kidnapped me and I wanted to stay with you,” she said with a shake of her head, almost more to herself than to him.
“I told you—crazy. You fit right in.”
“Tell me how the FBI figures into all this,” she prompted.
“We didn’t know about any of that until you’d been with us for a while. I was in the process of making you a false ID. But that’s when I found out that the FBI was looking for you. We knew it had something to do with Danny, and even though they appeared to just want to question you, we knew turning you over would be the worst thing for you.”
“So you didn’t.”
“And that’s when you volunteered to help us on a dangerous assignment. I tried to talk you out of it. You were supposed to be safe, but things went wrong . . .” He took his hand away and poured himself another drink, downed it before continuing. “By the time we found you, you’d gone into shock. I don’t know what happened to you when they held you, Drea. They’d roughed you up. Scared you. Gunner and the other doctors we brought you to said you were hypothermic and you were probably panicking, and just one of those would be enough to bring on shock, never mind the combination.”
He eyed the bottle but pushed it away before he downed the whole damned thing. Drea remained stoic, simply stating, “You didn’t want to hand me over to the FBI.”
“Never. I wouldn’t have let you do that even if you did remember. They’ll eat you up and spit you out. And they can’t protect you the way I can.”
“Tell me what the FBI wants with me. This is where Carolina’s version of things is . . . sketchy, to say the least.”
Jem managed a brief smile. “I asked her not to tell you too much. Not until . . .”
“I remembered?” she asked ruefully. “Guess again.”
His throat went tight again. He waited a beat, then said, “Look, Danny will do anything to get you back. He’s under investigation by the feds for a RICO case. And the feds told him that if he turned evidence against some of the other MCs, especially the head guys, they’d grant him some leeway. So Danny grabbed at it, and used this as an opportunity to have the FBI help to hunt you down when you disappeared with us. He told the feds you gave them the drugs they were selling.”
“I never did that,” she said dully. “Why would they believe him, of all people?”