16 years earlier
The change happens as suddenly and mysteriously as the dark storm clouds gathering in the perfect blue summer sky above. One minute, there’s sunshine and the next, nothing but impatient snaps of lightning and slow, earth-shaking rumbles of thunder that take her breath away.
Her father is that perfect storm, and that night, he’ll blow her life to pieces.
The thunderstorm was predictable if you were studying the atmosphere, alert to its ever-changing nature. And she’s not so completely wrapped up in mid-teen angst that she doesn’t notice things happening in her family’s stratosphere. She’s always been the sensitive sort to other people’s unspoken pain. So when her father, an FBI agent, announces that he’s a profiler of serial killers for the Behavioral Analysis Unit—the BAU—she assumes his recent somber mood has something to do with this sudden explanation of his career.
But that would’ve been too easy. Instead, she learns, against her will, about the Black Magic Killer, a serial killer whose been her dad’s “case” for the past three years. The case has intensified in recent months, which translates to: the BMK is targeting her father, and by extension, his family.
Her mom. Her brother. And Abby herself.
No one tells her at that moment that the BMK’s main targets are young women. Blond women. Probably because Abby is a young, blond woman and the BMK knows where she lives.
Tonight, her father only explains that, as a precaution, his job wants them to move into a safe house.
“Just until he’s caught,” he reiterates reasonably.
Later, Teige will tell her that he knew serial killers took years to be caught, if they ever actually were.
Twenty-four hours later, they’ll move into what would be the first of ten safe houses—or fortresses, as that was their true nature. She’ll meet Hoss, a United States Marshal and a good friend of their father’s, who will guard her and her older brother, Teige, for many years.
At first, it’s, “Pack what you can carry” and “Leave the rest. We’ll be back. Soon.”
That turns into “You need to be strong” and “The BMK will eventually make the mistake that lets us catch him.”
But she feels like somehow her father’s already done made the biggest one of all by letting this killer into their lives, by being unable to let the case go, by becoming so obsessed with it that the killer became equally so with him.
She doesn’t know, as she lies on the twin mattress in that first sterile house, that the BMK will continue to haunt them for a full seven more years from this moment. That her mom will be gone in two years from a quick-moving breast cancer, or that her father will slowly lose it and become unable to handle his kids or his job.
She has no idea that, seven years later, the BMK will attempt to make her his final victim.
She doesn’t know that he’ll fail, giving her a place in the history books.
The one thing she does know is that it doesn’t feel like there’s any safe haven from the storm she’s expected to ride out.
“This will. Not. Do,” the nineteen-year-old woman who’d been renamed Mary screeched in Abby’s ear for the tenth time since they’d walked into the apartment only moments earlier.
I love my job.
I love my job.
I love my job.
Abby did her best to ignore the hysteria by repeating her new mantra. Many witnesses new to protection were prone to shit like this. They were scared and angry and it was Abby’s job to make them feel comfortable and safe. “Mary—”
Mary whirled around, teeth bared. “Marshal Daniels—”
“Abby,” she said firmly, lowering her voice in a purposeful attempt to get Mary to lower hers. “Mary, no one’s supposed to know I’m a marshal, or that you’re in protection, remember?”
Mary held a pointed fingernail inches from Abby’s face. “Call your boss. Your superior. Call someone. Do you know who I am?”
Yes, Abby did know who Mary had been in her former life, which had ended rather abruptly a week ago. Now, she was a government witness who had a hit out on her from the top-level Russian mobster who used to be her lover, and any number of his associates, before his case went to trial next month. Mary was used to living large, and this one bedroom in the sticks was for shit. “Mary, it’s this or jail. That’s the deal. And trust me, a cell’s way worse than this.”
Mary glared at her, then dropped her bag. “Fucking feds. Fuck you, Abby.”
I love my job.
I love my job.
I love my job.
“Get settled in. I’ll be back later with some groceries.” Abby walked out, shutting the door behind her before Mary could complain anymore. Four days of dealing with this shit was more than enough. Four days of convincing Mary to cut and color her hair, to dress differently, to stop wearing the flashy clothing and high heels. She refused to give up the manicure from hell though, and Abby let her have that, although Mary would soon realize she didn’t have the money to get the acrylic nails done the way she once had.
Crime only paid for a short time, and that was always a rude awakening for most witnesses. Still, could she honestly tell Mary that the FBI would take care of her? No, not in good conscience. The last witness Abby had taken care of had been a short-term case—two months of lockdown in a hotel suite on rotation with two other marshals. The woman had been pressured to turn state’s evidence against her boyfriend, and after she did so, her boyfriend wasn’t convicted because of a technicality.
The marshals kept their end of the bargain and gave her a new identity, but the FBI and the CIA continued to breathe down her neck, pressuring her to turn over more evidence, to get back in touch with him and give them even more instances and details of illegal activity. They threatened her to the point where she was practically overdosing on antidepressants.
In the end, she got too close to her boyfriend. He was now in jail on a life sentence…for murdering her in cold blood.
Maybe Abby was becoming cynical, or maybe she’d seen things like that happen once too often. Either way, she wasn’t happy about her own acceptance.
Once back in her car, she checked her messages. She found one from Jacoby, her former partner on a case who’d turned out to be an FBI profiler, and who’d turned into a good friend. He was checking up on her. So was her brother, Teige, and his girlfriend, Kayla.
They were all always checking up on her, almost daily since last year when a big case landed her in the hospital. Kayla, the woman Abby had protected, was now living with Abby’s brother. They were, in all respects, family. But Kayla’s case had been a success, an anomaly, a way for Abby to utilize her background as the daughter of a legendary FBI profiler of serial killers… A role Abby had always been reluctant to inherit.
Abby understood her father’s obsession with his work, because when she caught a good case, the high was incredible. But since Kayla, the bad ones had been piling up, to the point where she was truly thinking about bailing.
Except she was thirty-two, with skills including weaponry, hiding witnesses and profiling serial killers…and being shot, so not exactly cut out for mainstream work. She’d fielded several offers to write a book based on her experiences with serial killers, “like I’m some kind of serial killer magnet,” she’d complained to Teige and her friend and former partner on Kaya’s case, Jacoby. Neither man had contradicted her.
Still, publishers and agents persisted, no doubt because she was pretty, something she could easily be objective about because, in her world, it didn’t matter to her. In fact, it was mostly a hindrance but she wasn’t going to complain about having blond hair, classic features, and a tall, slim build that drew men like target practice.
But after telling her life story—and probably making herself a target for even more obsessive killers—then what?
That question brought her to one of her favorite bars. It was loud and crowded, and it would force her to stop thinking. A true hole-in-the-wall with a mix of locals, bikers and military, there were nightly fights, lots of making out and ear-splitting music. Abby had been hustling pool here for years.
The motorcycle man sitting in the corner was too big a presence for her not to notice. Plus, he wasn’t a regular, and it was part of her job to clock the faces around her, like Red, the weekday bartender and Tiny, the constant, brick wall of a bouncer at the corner of the bar. Marla and Sam worked this shift, in their denim cut-offs and take-no-shit attitude. Sad man was still at the bar (divorce) and the chain-smoking woman who read palms (badly) at her usual corner table.
She wondered briefly what they called her.
This particular place was half an hour away from her city limits, which she preferred. She didn’t want to see many people she knew well. She wanted acquaintances.
Motorcycle Man stared at her when she got her soda at the bar, kept on staring when she joined in a game of pool with the intention of hustling the three men playing out of their money and smiling the entire time she did so. He joined her a few minutes later, casting a shadow over the men that scared the hell out of them.
He was at least six foot five, well built, and looked like a motorcycle badass. She didn’t see any patches on him but that didn’t mean anything—if he was military, he might not wear them on purpose. “You scared away my business.”
“I didn’t think law enforcement was supposed to hustle innocent civilians out of their hard earned dollars.”
She leaned a hip against the table. “What makes you think I’m law enforcement?”
He smiled. “Honey, I’ve got a nose for trouble.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Because I like trouble a whole lot.”
She rolled her eyes, pushed away from the table and shot until she cleared the balls. “I would’ve won big.”
“Would a kiss make it better?”
“God, that’s the cheesiest line ever.”
“So, that’s a no?” He’d moved close to her, and dammit, he smelled good, like the open road and promises.
After her father had been killed, Abby had gone through her own wild time before finally settling down. Still, that wild child never really retired…she just sat quietly until she saw her opportunity to escape.
“At least tell me your name.”
“I was close—I was going to say Angel.”
She moved close to him, tipped her face up to meet his. His eyes were the same color as the whiskey in her glass and just as warmly seductive. “You need to get some new lines. I hope you kiss better than you flirt.”
His smile was slow and lazy. His kiss was anything but. And yes, for the record, his kiss proved he didn’t need to have any game whatsoever. In fact, she ended up wrapping her arms around his neck and letting him half carry her to a dark corner of the bar as the music pounded around them. Thankfully, she knew they weren’t the only ones getting busy—this was the time of night when hookups ran rampant.
“Seriously, how’d you know who I was?” she asked.
He grinned. “Bartender told me to watch my step around you. Figured that meant you could arrest my ass.”
“I don’t see you wearing a patch.”
“I like to remain unattached.”
She nodded, but didn’t push. Getting answers would mean getting attached, and, like him, that’s exactly what she didn’t want. She only wanted his weight pressing her, his tongue licking the roof of her mouth.
She wanted that tongue everywhere.
He complied. He tasted good, warm and sweet, and his kisses went down as easy as the whiskey. Her hands went under his leather cut, running over the bunched, hard muscles of his shoulders and biceps as they flexed to hold her more tightly. She loved the feeling of being backed against the wall, of being seemingly overpowered (something she could handle because she knew and trusted her own strength and maneuvers to get her out of unwanted situations). Her surroundings also helped.
She moaned into his mouth, and in response, his hand tightened in her hair, keeping her close. The sounds in his chest rumbled, like growls and God, she wanted more.
By last call, the effective end to their makeout session in the dark corner of the bar, she was ready to drag him home with her.
He wanted that as well, murmured, “Take me home and have your way with me, Angel.”
It was only the fact that it was close to three in the morning and time to check on Mary that stopped her. She’d gotten in the habit of checking on unstable witnesses at odd hours. The more unexpected the visits, the more in line the witnesses stayed. Hoss had taught her that. Hoss had been her mentor for a long time, and when he’d been killed in the line of duty, she’d never thought she’d find out that he was the type of man who could’ve been compromised on the job.
Regretfully, she pulled away from Motorcycle Man. “Sorry. I’ve got to go to work.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Night shift?”
“Something like that.”
“Let me take you to dinner,” he said, pulling his cell phone out of his pocket. “Text me your number.”
“Afraid I’ll give you a fake one?” she teased.
“Most definitely. And then I’ll have to waste time hunting you down.” And Abby was pretty sure he actually would try, so she didn’t give him her number at all, then left before he could talk her into staying longer.
“Are you all right?” was the first thing Brayden said in lieu of hello when I answered my cell phone.
Brayden was tall, dark and incredibly handsome, but most important, he was also the safe man in my life. He was champion, cheerleader, family, and I’d been inside his art gallery—and away from him—for all of fifteen minutes.
“You worry too much about me,” I informed him as I paced the main space that was currently a mess from all my paintings dragged in from the back room.
“When was the last time you ate?”
I paused. “The last time you fed me. So I’m kind of starving.”
“What else is new, Ryn?” I heard the grin in his voice. “I’ll head over to the gallery with food.”
“You sure you’re okay?”
I sighed. “I haven’t read the article yet, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Good. Wait, and we’ll read it together over greasy food and beers.”
My stomach rumbled in appreciative agreement. “Love you, Bray.”
“When you get here, you can help me pick the order for the showing.”
“No way—that’s all you, so get to work. Time’s running out,” Brayden told me cheerfully and I mentally flipped him off.
The magazine article in question taunted me from the main countertop. I ignored it in favor of concentrating on the space, visualizing how I wanted my paintings to hang. I was very familiar with the gallery set-up, but having the luxury of planning my first solo show was amazing.
I’d seen this space over the years through pictures and on Skype, and once, in person, two years ago on Christmas. Brayden had bought the Lower East Side gallery years earlier and now, with other galleries escaping to the area like refugees from the expensive Chelsea zip code, it was the perfect spot. The gallery was on the street level, neatly tucked between the numerous Manhattan apartment buildings and other storefronts. There were a couple of cute cafés and restaurants clustered along the block, some with outside tables. Lots of art, lots of action.
I’d been in New York City for a grand total of three weeks, all of which I found completely overwhelming, with a tiny bit of exhilaration thrown in.
Outside, the city moved at a breakneck pace. I tried to capture the frantic combination of the cacophony mixed with calm confidence in my art. The frenzy combined with mine, and in the weeks leading up to the show, Brayden told me I’d done some of my best work. He’d also insisted on bringing some of those brand-new pieces into the show. The retrospective was called Shouldering the Past and it was so very appropriate. Sitting here, surrounded by my work, I felt ragged but happy.
He’d never pushed me to have a showing, but he’d told me that I needed to have one whether I was there or not. He left me a full year to plan for it. And although I was still unsure, my new place was a six-month rental that was two blocks away from the gallery. My apartment was one floor below Brayden’s, and paid for with some of the money he’d earned for me by selling my work over the years. I’d quickly gotten pretty well immersed in all of this city life. It had taken some getting used to—the noise, the general bustle of things—but my place was quiet. Surround sound and low, white noise music to block everything out was one of Brayden’s first installations for me. At night, I locked myself away and painted until dawn, all while staring at a far different skyline than I was used to. But the moon was still there—I told myself that was all that mattered. It was, to me, a time of renewal. A fresh start. I painted more in September, but I also slept less, eager not to miss anything.
In the past four years, Brayden had become my best friend as well as my benefactor. He knew most of my secrets and I knew most of his. He’d brought me further in my career than I’d ever thought possible. I’d gone from a second-floor apartment in the Catskills and a job in a coffeehouse to an in-demand, up-and-coming artist. He’d used my sketchy past to create a mystique, used my nemesis—my panic attacks—to make my reputation as an artist crazier, and thereby stronger.
It amazed me how the world worked: because people thought I was unbalanced, they looked more closely at my art and I got noticed in a big way.
I wasn’t unbalanced. Not in the way the articles I’d seen up until this point had made it seem, but since Brayden was the one giving the interviews for me, I could understand how it must come across. I’d done some phone ones, but I’d refused to meet for any of them in person before this last week. I’d talk about the café, because I’d say it was the beginning of my story, but in truth, I’d never let anyone visit there or my old apartment. I didn’t want anyone invading the space with my art. I was private and superstitious, possibly the worst combination ever. Add to that my panic attacks and—on paper—I was a straight-up mental case.
Which was somehow acceptable because I was an artist. It was even expected.
But the magazine that currently taunted me from the countertop contained the first interview I’d given face-to-face. First and last, if I had my way, which was why Brayden had done all the other press for the show and was currently firming up last-minute details for tomorrow night.
My job was the grunt work, which I much preferred. Surrounded by the pieces that’d been my heart and soul over the past six months, I looked for the pattern. Over the past six years, I always looked for it, because I knew that in some way, every painting I’d completed contained a piece of my past in it, a past I had no memory of at all.
In front of me now were the landscapes I’d been focused on, fraught with big, bold color slashed through like a bolt of lightning, ruining the perfection, marring it to the point where it made it beautiful. It was strangely hypnotic. It shouldn’t work, but it did—at least according to some critics.
Simplicity meets sophistication.
A fresh new talent on the rise.
I tried not to read the bad reviews but I failed, despite the fact that they were cutting.
The kind of untalented artist who’s making a name for herself based on her breakdowns.
I hadn’t had a breakdown, but I’d be damned if I’d answer any of them. Instead, their comments made me paint harder. They made me angry. But in reality, they were what forced me here, in person, to deal with the crap being said about me. Not that parts of it weren’t true—I owned up to my panic attacks.
The ones I could remember, at least.
Shaking that off, I got back to work, which consisted of kneeling on the ground, the paintings spread in front of me, glancing between them and the empty white walls where they’d soon hang, unable to make a decision.
I felt the cold of the tiled floor through the fashionably frayed knees of the Rag & Bone jeans Brayden had given me. He’d started muttering to himself earlier when he’d seen the paint splatters and other abuses heaped on them—”I’ve been trying some sculpture” apparently wasn’t the right explanation, but the jeans looked destroyed out of the bag anyway. I’d thrown on a tank top with skinny straps that kept falling off my shoulders, had already stripped off the denim shirt that matched my eyes and flung it into the corner and I was at least certain that there was no paint in my hair. I’d showered, let it air dry in a straight, buttery blonde sheet down my back, something apparently envied in Manhattan.
I absently tucked it into a loose braid over one shoulder while I studied the painting in front of me. I’d wanted to let Brayden pick the order, but he’d refused earlier that morning, and told me I was running out of time. At that memory, I murmured “Bastard” in his absence.
That’s when a low, rough voice said, “People usually know me at least five minutes before calling me that.”
Still on the floor, I whipped around to see the tall, brutally handsome man standing maybe ten feet away. How long had he been there? I hadn’t heard him come in, but now that he was coming closer, I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
The fight or flight response had remained intact when my memory hadn’t. Everyone, every stranger wasn’t necessarily a stranger. They could know me. They could be a part of my past.
Whether this man was or not, my base response to him was a purely physical one.
“The door was open,” the man explained.
And it might’ve been. Brayden told me to lock myself in but I often forgot. Panic must have flashed across my face because he stopped advancing and held up his hands like a show of surrender. But he didn’t try to tell me he was harmless, because he wasn’t. Never could be. And the man who waited for him had moved too, turned his back in an effort to appear less threatening.
“My name’s Lucas. I buy a lot of art from Brayden.”
“Mine?” I asked.
“I guess you’ll have to try harder.”
A smile ghosted across his chiseled face and I liked that. Wanted to see it more, wanted to be the one who could always bring a smile to his face.
These men could be here to harm me and I was too busy with my tongue hanging out to threaten them with the police.
Because you rely on your gut, Ryn, my therapist, foster mom and Brayden always told me. That will get you through just about any situation.
My gut said this man knew I was Ryn Taylor, artist, but didn’t know anything beyond that about me except what he’d read in interviews. Maybe he was here for my art, or maybe it was for me. But how could I feel so connected to someone I’d just met?
I rolled the name around in my mind as my eyes took in the black leather motorcycle jacket and the tighter black T-shirt underneath…the worn-in jeans and the heavy black motorcycle boots. I saw the hint of an expensive watch peek out on his wrist as he came closer.
I knew too, if I pushed up those sleeves, I’d find some ink. Incongruous, and ultimately intriguing.
The angles of his face begged to be drawn, to be touched, and I held my hands down rigidly at my sides so I wouldn’t do just that. “My show’s not until tomorrow night,” I managed.
“Are you here to…” I looked around for Brayden, like he would magically appear and caught another glance of the other man by the door. “Are you here for Brayden?”
“For Brayden? No.” His mouth quirked up to the side a little and he ran a hand through his dark blond hair. It was long enough to curl a bit at the nape of his neck, and it was rumpled, like maybe he’d just rolled out of bed…and maybe he hadn’t been alone.
“You’re not his type.”
His blue eyes pierced me. They were a dark blue and they missed nothing. “Whose type am I?”
Mine, I nearly blurted out. I was nervous, my stomach fluttering but not in that panicked way I recognized. Just the opposite, actually. Heat flooded me as he stared at me in my tank top and jeans with utmost appreciation, the frank gaze of someone who understood beauty and acted on it.
I wanted him to act, but at the same time, I needed him to stay away. I was too drawn to him, an electromagnetic pull that spun the earth on its axis differently. Something told me that I’d never get this man out of my life. I’d never be done with him, or him of me, and holy hell, that was a heady enough thought to make me dizzy.
I remained on my knees, stock still, looking up at him. I had the odd feeling that if I moved, even a little, I’d fall, trip, completely ruin the moment.
He gave me a heated look, and dammit, he knew what I was thinking.
Every woman who came into contact with him probably had that reaction. And that made me unnaturally, irrationally jealous because, in my mind, I’d already claimed him.
Finally, his gaze shifted to the paintings I’d been appraising. He focused on one that was part of a series that’d already sold well, thanks to Brayden. I’d wanted to call the series Man in Trees (and still did so) but Brayden told me it was creepy and insisted on simply, Catskills as the official series title. And while I could see what he meant, the person these were based on had never, ever scared me. But I couldn’t tell Brayden these were based on someone real, because he’d freak out.
Even though I was building an entire series around him, I’d never seen the man’s face. Still, I’d always sworn I’d be able to sense him the way I’d sensed him out there before I’d caught sight of the shadowed figure, and even though I hadn’t been able to see his face clearly, I knew he was big, broad and utterly male. I’d wanted to walk across the lawn, strip him and paint him…and then climb him after I stripped myself.
When I’d shown Brayden the first picture, he’d insisted on bringing it to the gallery. I hadn’t wanted that, but I’d felt foolish telling Brayden about why the painting was so special to me, why I wanted to keep it. He told me that if I was sentimental about my work, I’d never get anywhere. In the end, after a terrible fight, I agreed to let him show it in his gallery, but I’d have final say if it was to be sold.
It was stolen a week later.
I stared up at Lucas as he stared at my painting—the fourth in a collection of nine, not counting the missing first one, all attempts to recreate those initial feelings that had propelled me to paint the first one. His expression unshuttered for a brief moment, like he was letting me in, drawing me closer to the fire.
I couldn’t afford to play with fire, but he was like the ghost of the man I thought I’d conjured up on that warm summer’s night in the Catskills. I was seventeen, dizzy and half high from creating. I’d glanced over and watched him. He was half hidden among the trees and if I hadn’t been coming off a painting, I would’ve been terrified. Instead, I noticed how handsome he was, chiseled and mysterious.
I dreamed about him that whole week, less as the years went by, but always when I needed comfort, or when I was coming out of the burn of my art.
He’d been there. He was now here. Could I have wanted him so badly that my dream turned into reality? A ridiculous thought and one I chided myself for.
Creation didn’t work that way.
I tried to draw in a shaky breath when this ridiculously beautiful, rough man moved a few steps in my direction, even though he was still focused on the painting.
The walls were closing in on me until he said, “Your work is beautiful,” and turned from me to the paintings.
What little space he’d given me let me breathe. Even though I swore his gaze heated me, the fact that he was pointing to various paintings soothed me.
“My first show is tomorrow,” was all I could think of to say, even though it was probably obvious.
“Your work is ready.”
Your work. Like he knew I wasn’t. “I don’t think I’ll ever be.”
He turned back to me then. “That’s not a bad thing. Protect whatever the hell makes these.”
What made those was a part of the nightmare of my blacked-out past. What if discovering what was behind it stole the art from me, left me limp, with nothing? What if I had to trade nightmares and the thing I loved for peace? That haunted me, so I’d chosen not to have peace.
I remained on the ground, drawn to him, wanting to rise but refusing to do so. Sheer stubbornness and self-preservation mixed together.
He reached a hand down to help me up but I couldn’t touch him. Not yet.
I pushed myself up. He was at least six foot four to my five feet four inches. The difference was dramatic.
He was so still, a predator, watching me with keen interest. I’d never been as intensely aware of a man in my life. I could smell his skin, wanted to taste it, put my mouth on his and forget everything else, including basic human decency.
I blamed the art. The heat. My lack of proper nutrition.
I stuck out my hand without saying anything, almost a dare. He took it in his and my pulse beat a tattoo. I felt the slow burn and then the aftershock quake through my whole body.
There was a definite sense of street in him, a primal, easily willing and able to fight for his life street sense.
His eyes were haunted, like maybe he already had.
There was no doubt he’d won.
14 years earlier
Bane was already outside Lucas’s house when he’d run out of it and vomited in the bushes. He’d still been on his knees when he noticed Bane’s old jalopy of a car idling in the street like a fucking angel’s wing.
Lucas didn’t hesitate. He had the clothes on his back, the bag he’d grabbed on the way out and some money. He hadn’t taken all of it, instead shoved it into the littler kids’ pockets for them to have when they woke.
He’d made Bane stop several blocks away so he could call the police too, because someone needed to be there for those kids.
He’d left the front door open so no one would scare them and he’d detailed to the police what he’d seen in the house, emphasizing that there were little kids inside who were sleeping. Who’d be scared—“scarred for life”—if the police came blazing in.
As he got back into Bane’s car, he could only hope for the best. For both of them. Bane was holding his arm at an unnatural angle and they both ignored that and the slate of bruises turning colors on the side of his face.
Instead, Lucas stared at the blood on his own hands as they drove through the night.
Pre-Chaos world—seven years earlier
He wasn’t prepared to die. He’d told himself he was, tried to prepare for it, because he was nothing if not practical. His lifestyle demanded it. His family necessitated it further.
But what a fuckin’ way to go, buried in a goddamned pine box in a pauper’s grave. He had a flashlight and a couple of air holes punched into the sides, but that only added to the torture. So he’d be able to breathe as he slowly died from dehydration. And probably panic, once the drugs wore off.
He’d tried to open the box, but the men who’d taken him had been kind enough to show him how far down he was going, the full six feet under. Even if he did escape the box, the dirt would suffocate him, maybe even before it crushed him.
The pouring rain didn’t help.
He shut the flashlight off and heard the absolute stillness around him. It was like wearing noise-canceling headphones that didn’t quite work all the way. Which meant he could hear, say, the siren of an ambulance in the distance, but his voice would give way if he tried to yell loud enough to be heard.
After all he’d been through over the past couple of weeks, this was by far the worst. He closed his eyes against the darkness, prepared to rail against it. His left palm itched relentlessly. It’d started before they’d grabbed him, and it might’ve been itching the entire time, but the pain he’d been enduring had pushed it to the back burner.
He blinked into the darkness when he swore he saw a white light. His flashlight was off—he even turned it on again and saw the light from it next to the other white light.
You’re hallucinating. You’re fucking dying.
He didn’t remember much after that. They’d later tell him that his hands were wrapped because he’d torn off his nails and infected the shit out of his fingers. “Because you never stopped trying to survive,” his father explained. The pain of his injuries, and the scars that remained when things healed, would be there forever.
Declan had been underground for just under twenty-four hours. It’d seemed like goddamned forever. He’d screamed and sobbed and prayed and that all blended.
He’d woken up for months afterward clawing at an invisible wooden ceiling inches from his face.
He didn’t remember much…but what he did was enough to create the biggest scar inside him, one he’d never told anyone about.
When he’d been underground, he’d heard a voice that was different from the men who’d taken him, a voice he’d recognized immediately…and one he never mentioned to anyone after his rescue.
It was at that moment that Declan’s circle of trust narrowed to a fine point that included only himself and his father.
Anyone else? Completely fucking disposable. And he’d promised himself he’d never forget it.
* * * * *
Six months later
Rebel was seventeen and living on the compound of the Defiance Motorcycle Club as a probie member when the sky opened up and rained motherfucking fire on his world. The water poured down in torrents and he was convinced the ground would soak so badly that the tubes would just dislodge from their underground moorings and float away, untethered, leaving him and Luna trapped.
She was his best friend, and he’d been preparing to go to her house when the storms hit initially, because she’d gotten into a huge fight with her parents. Because her father had threatened to hurt her…and the storms that would later be forever known as the Chaos had saved her life by collapsing the house.
She’d been on the first floor, backpack in hand, preparing to run. And when Rebel got to her, she was shaken but unhurt. He’d pulled her to safety and they’d made it into his tube where the realization began to sink in that the two of them, like so many others, had been made sudden orphans by the catastrophic events that hit the entire world beginning on that day.
He didn’t find out about his dad’s death until the storms cleared—not officially, but of course, he knew. His dad hadn’t made it down to the tubes, and the chances of him surviving aboveground for weeks were slim to none.
Rebel’s dad had been a senior member of the MC, had sat at the table with the president and other important members. That made Rebel a legacy, but making the jump to being a full-fledged member wouldn’t be an easy job. At least it wouldn’t have been if the Chaos storms hadn’t happened.
Once they did, Rebel and several other legacy guys his age were immediately patched in. But as he sat in the tube with Luna, he didn’t know that. He didn’t even know if there would be a Defiance MC after all of this.
“Nothing’s ever going to be the same, Reb,” Luna whispered next to him on the bed, where they’d remained huddled.
Even though their MC had been prepping for doomsday disasters for years, to have it actually happen was unbelievable. Terrifying. All the death that occurred because people couldn’t get to the tubes…
“Reb, you saved me,” Luna reminded him again, when she saw he was brooding again.
“You’re right. And you owe me, so pay up,” he managed, and she looked shocked for a second, and then laughed. Because he was smiling.
It was the first time either of them had laughed in a week’s time—a seven-day stretch that had simultaneously flown by and dragged like molasses. When a knock at the door of his tube came, he found Lance on the other side of it. Their then-leader had explained that they were to stay underground for several more weeks, at which time the men would assess the damage.
“Plenty of food. Tubes are solid. Generators too. We’re all going to be fine.” Lance must’ve repeated those lines a thousand times that day.
Lance was correct about all of it. Many had survived. They were okay, thanks to all the prep. But the world? That would never be the same. The sun was gone, only coming out every two weeks, thanks to some kind of secret government laser to cut through the volcanic ash and debris that covered the atmosphere. It took power, money, influence and cunning to stay alive, to get food and other necessities. It took balls to even drive half a mile down the now-pitted roadways. The government was in hiding. TV and internet and phone lines were gone, as was most natural gas and water production. It was literally every man for himself.
Add to that, the severe storms continued to come up at a moment’s notice. Literally, overnight, the world became the most dangerous, predatory place there was…and the Defiance MC was ready for all the violence and treachery. Rebel had grown up in its bosom, imbibed those qualities as he’d prepped to become a full member…but hell, he’d grown up fast that day.
There was no escaping now. Even though he’d thought about it sporadically, knowing he’d have to hide the fact that he liked to fuck boys instead of girls. For the rest of his time with the MC, he was now locked in.
He’d survived… and he’d continue to survive, no matter the cost to himself.
Seven years later
“Yeah, Reb…don’t stop. Fuck, please don’t.” Declan’s words were a growl, a beg, a plea that made Rebel’s eyes light up, even as he teased Declan’s sweat-slicked body with his mouth, biting a path from pec to thigh, causing Declan to shudder each time Rebel sucked his skin into a raised red mark that blossomed like the beautiful pain it was.
A month of this, and Declan knew he’d never get enough. They’d started out thinking they were using each other.
They’d both been so goddamned wrong.
“Fuck!” he cried out as Rebel twisted his nipples hard.
“Focus on me,” Rebel said sternly, and Declan nodded, kept his eyes locked on Rebel’s as Rebel climbed onto him, spreading his legs.
This was the only place Declan was submissive—because in real life, Declan was one of Keller’s men. A hitman. A certifiably dangerous twenty-one-year-old man who’d been fucking Rebel on a regular basis for the past year. Then again, Rebel was pretty damned dangerous himself. There were multiple warrants out for his arrest, mainly for stealing cars pre-Chaos. He’d also been a rogue member of Defiance from the age of sixteen, because of his father, a much loved and longtime member who’d died during the Chaos.
Even though they’d only officially met a month earlier, they’d been circling each other for far longer at the underground gay clubs that had popped up since the Chaos. And now, Declan’s wrists were willingly—gladly—handcuffed to his bed as Rebel fucked him into the mattress. This was where—and how—they’d first connected, and it still worked best for them. Declan didn’t mind that. Rebel let his guard down in bed. Everything was possible when Rebel was inside him.
When they were done fucking…well, that’s when things got tricky. Because Declan began to think too much. Rebel too, until they got all twisted up in mafia/club shit. Because their extended families were enemies…maybe not of the Montague/Capulet extreme but Keller’s mafia and Defiance had been grudgingly trading goods for years, all while trying to undermine the other. The fact that Declan, a Keller assassin, and Rebel, a high-ranking MC member, were sleeping together could get both of them in deep shit, but for Rebel, it would also expose a lifelong secret. Because no one in his MC suspected he was gay, save for Luna and those who saw him in the clubs. Those were don’t ask, don’t tell, and that code was never broken.
Rebel was only here to make sure Luna was safe—she’d snuck into the Keller compound to follow the man she loved, sacrificing her safety purely for Bishop. Rebel would choose protecting himself—and Luna—over Declan. Declan would have to force himself to do the same.
Because no matter how comfortable Rebel was with Declan, and dammit, he was, it couldn’t stay secret. Shouldn’t.
Declan couldn’t imagine a lifetime of secrets. He had plenty of his own, but that wasn’t one of them. He didn’t advertise, but neither did he shy away. Simply put, his personal life was his, but many of Keller’s other assassins knew Declan was gay, and they didn’t give a shit.
But bikers? Whole different animal. And even though Keller wanted Rebel to stay on the compound and work for him—even though that’s what Declan wanted as well—Rebel would never agree to it. He was loyal to his MC, and Declan could never fault him for that. No, he admired the fact that Rebel was a legacy. He understood it.
It wouldn’t make things any easier though.
* * * * *
The fight started out of nowhere. That’s what Rebel wanted to believe, anyway. Had shoved down the anxiety that’d been brewing, almost from the start of their relationship.
When Rebel first picked Declan up in the private, underground bar, he’d never thought it would become more than a simple trade: information for sex. A dance as old as time. And, in today’s post-Chaos world, the barter system was what they resorted to…sometimes it was the only thing they could use.
He’d done it for Luna, who’d made a giant sacrifice. Rebel had followed suit, but not for Declan. No matter how badly he wanted to—and Rebel did want to—being gay or bi in the MC world wasn’t talked about…or accepted, if the code of silence in those underground bars was to be understood. Even so, going there wasn’t without its dangers—there’d been several bombings inside those clubs over the past year, letting the men (and women) who frequented them know that their kind wasn’t appreciated.
Since the storms destroyed half the damned world and took away the sun, it was a fight for survival every minute of every single day. Anything that could be perceived as weakness had to go.
Love, Rebel knew, could make you weak. Coming out would put a target on his back, and he told Declan so.
Declan responded with, “Then stay here.”
“You make it sound so easy, Dec. It’s not.”
Declan shook his head as he dressed, putting on his usual outfit of black jeans and a fine, black cashmere sweater. If he pushed the sleeves up enough, Rebel could just barely catch a glimpse of the tattoos that covered him. There were none above his collar, on his hands or feet, but everywhere his clothing covered him? Yes, he was covered in bold patterns of ink, which was incongruous to his blond-haired, blue-eyed, almost patrician handsomeness.
“Reb, you’ve got to stop hiding. And I’m not saying this because I don’t want to hide with you.”
“You don’t want to hide because you never had to,” Rebel said. Declan could only shrug at the truth of that, because Keller’s compound was a den of inequity—nothing was off limits and more than that, nothing was looked down upon. Being gay wasn’t even considered subversive or odd—it wasn’t blinked at.
Rebel would never had considered coming out when Lance was alive, but he’d hidden for so long, exposing himself was terrifying, and considering he survived the Chaos, that was saying something.
It was also ridiculous.
He’d hoped Declan would cut him a break. But the fucker refused. Kept pushing. “I don’t get it. Bishop doesn’t care—”
“Bishop’s not Defiance.” When Rebel said that, Declan’s brows raised. “I don’t fucking mean it like that. Of course he’s Defiance, but he didn’t grow up in an MC. Neither did you. How many gay MC guys do you know?”
Declan thought about that, then began checking them off on his fingers.
Rebel held up a hand. “Stop. Don’t want to know.”
“No one since we started.”
Rebel’s stomach tightened. “What do you want from me?”
“I think the bigger question’s actually what do you want from me?”
“Dude, is that a trick question?”
Declan narrowed his eyes.
“Go public with me,” Declan challenged.
Declan shook his head slowly, but he didn’t look surprised. “I know secrets, Rebel. Live them. They save my goddamned life. But yours isn’t…it’s destroying you, slowly. Forcing you to live a lie is one thing the MC’s doing, or you’re doing it to yourself. But not dealing with your past? Fuck, I want to touch you, and not just physically. I want more, Reb. I fucking deserve it. We both do. Go get your shit together. Get in touch with me when you do. Maybe I’ll still be here. Maybe I won’t, but I realize it’s a risk we both have to take.”
Rebel didn’t say anything except, “Nothing’s going to change. It can’t.”
He didn’t turn around as he walked out the door, mainly because he didn’t want to see the pain—or worse, the indifference—that could possibly be etched in Declan’s expression.
Only when Rebel had driven a couple of miles away from Keller’s did he realize how perfectly Declan had played that. Forced his hand, because he’d know Rebel would never be able to go public.
“He was protecting himself,” Rebel muttered. And breaking me in the process.
He’d been so deep in thought, he hadn’t noticed several members of the Lords of Vengeance MC lying in wait ahead. Several more LoVs drove up behind him, circling his truck.
He knew that at best they’d just kill him on the spot. Hell, he considered doing the job himself for a brief second, because the other, more probable path the LoV would take with him would be torture.
He’d seen evidence of that firsthand.
For several tense moments, he remained safely inside his truck—they shot the tires out first thing.
He struggled on the slick roads, but between the large hail, the ice, he was skidding toward the bank of thick trees on the right…and at a damned high rate of speed.
He passed out on impact, mercifully so, as the LoV shot him at some point while he was unconscious. He was vaguely aware of Bishop hovering over him, and he wanted to warn Bishop that the LoV were around…hiding. But he couldn’t get the words out.
Everything was blurred from that point on. He only vaguely recalled being dragged roughly from his truck, but that was a small consolation when he did wake up in screaming pain in the trunk of an LoV car.
Although he refused to scream. Wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. Hell, the only reason he’d come to was because they’d thrown Bishop in there, half on top of him, before they closed the trunk, covering them in total darkness.
Rebel was all too willing to let it wash over him once again.
* * * * *
Declan escaped the main area of Keller’s office, leaving Luna, Kammy and Zara behind so he could think for a fucking few uninterrupted seconds. He paced silently in the chamber where he knew Keller often did the same, worried about everything under the sun (when there was sun)…and now, Declan was facing the possibility that in a single evening, the three men he counted on the most were gone.
Could they all be wiped out? Could the powers that be actually be that fucking sadistic?
All he had to do was look around at the near-constant night sky to get his answer.
The storm started up in earnest about half an hour after Declan fought with Rebel. Bishop had gone into the blinding rain and wind in order to look for Rebel, and Declan stayed behind with Luna. Because Declan had responsibilities to Keller and to the compound that was his home. But the worse the storm got, the more the tube felt like that goddamned coffin, and Declan spent most of the storm trying to evade a goddamned panic attack.
When the storm had finally ended several hours before, he and Luna had walked from his tube to Keller’s offices…discovering the horror of the mass destruction all around them. It was more from the LoV’s massacre of innocent people who lived on the compound, rather than Mother Nature’s fury, and there were bodies strewn all over the compound under the blazing sun.
Of all the times for the sun to come out on its own, with no help from the government satellite…the images of the bodies tossed around like rag dolls was burned on his brain.
And he knew then that there was no way the LoV—even coupled with Fletcher’s mafia—was in on this alone.
Luna had, of course, asked, “Declan, who did this?”
Even before he’d get confirmation—and Declan knew that at some point he would—he had no doubt who’d masterminded this massacre.
And they’d been here, on Keller property. Close enough to reach out and touch Declan…again.
He’d rubbed the scar on his hip through his jeans as it started to tingle. The N cut into his skin was tattooed over, but it stung worse than the others. Especially at times like this—it was as if that was a direct connection to the men who’d carved it into his skin…the men who’d murdered Keller’s people.
Now, he looked into Luna’s eyes, and he lied. “It was the LoV and Fletcher.”
“I didn’t know they were capable of that,” she said softly. “I thought nothing could surprise me anymore.”
He’d sent Keller’s guards out to assess those who made it down to the tubes in time, checking for anyone who might’ve lived through the massacre…and disposing of the bodies before disease spread. Irony of ironies that the sun not only exposed the massacre, but made it necessary to bury—and possibly burn—the bodies quickly.
“Declan, Siobhan is here,” Kammy called through the door. She never barged in on Keller, and she offered Declan the same respect.
He strode over, opening the heavy door and ushering Siobhan in. “I won’t be long,” he promised Kammy, whose pretty face was drawn with worry over Keller.
When he shut the door, he was almost afraid to turn and look at Siobhan—he’d avoided meeting her eyes when she came in but now it would be inevitable.
Finally, he stuffed his hands into the pockets of his black jeans and faced her.
When she’d first come to live on the compound, she’d been a mere teenager—all of thirteen. Now, she was twenty, all grown up, with auburn hair and dark eyes that bore into his.
“He’s alive,” she told him immediately. “All three are.”
“You’re sure?” Declan asked, not wanting to say any of the names of the men he worried about, not Rebel or Bishop or Keller. But Siobhan would know. And the knowing had to be a burden, but right now he was too damned grateful to dwell on her pain.
“He’d come back here immediately.” She lowered her voice as she spoke of Keller, adding, “He built this,” for emphasis. “There are a lot of dead here, but he’s not one of them. Neither are the others you’re worried about. Especially the one you—” She stopped then, like she realized she was getting too intimate, too involved.
Hell, how much more involved could she be?
And Declan believed her, as he always did.
At that moment, there was a knock on the door, Kammy calling through the closed door that a ransom demand had just come in via SAT phone.
Less than twenty-four hours later, Rebel, Bishop and Keller were riding in his truck on the way back from the LoV’s compound. All three were hurt, although Keller far less than the other two. Rebel and Bishop bore the brunt of it—Bishop, forced to box his way through the LoVs three at a time, and Rebel, with his injuries from the car crash, plus a bullet wound and contusions from being beaten and dragged.
Declan’s heart had nearly seized at seeing Rebel like that. It took everything he had not to go to him immediately, to help him.
But Mathias and Luna were there. Instead, Declan helped Keller, who clapped a hand on his shoulder, and grabbed for him with the other, like he was about to fall and needed bracing…and at that point, he slid a folded square of paper into Declan’s hand that Declan would later open, then burn, watching the letter N slowly crumple in the fire.
* * * * *
Once they were all settled back in Keller’s office, assessing the damage, dealing with Defiance and their anger, Declan found himself agreeing to live at what was to be the new Defiance compound. Caspar promised the MC would speed up the move, bringing the time down to approximately three months as opposed to the originally proposed six.
He’d thought Rebel had been passed out when Declan was being discussed like a commodity to be traded from compound to compound, a bargaining chip so neither side could hurt the other without the threat of their own being harmed.
He’d been wrong, because later, after he helped Luna get both Bishop and Rebel over to their tube, he settled Rebel in—Keller had a bed moved into the living area for Rebel. Luna shut the door to the bedroom after a long glance at Declan, knowing he and Rebel had things to discuss.
He wasn’t sure if he was grateful or pissed at that. But now definitely wasn’t the time—not after they’d be forced together soon enough.
Beyond that, nothing had changed. Nothing—and everything. Declan knew Rebel wasn’t ready to deal with any of it—he hated it, even as he accepted it time after time. Because there wasn’t anything he could do to change it.
Until he’d forced Rebel to make his decision and leave.
“I want more, Reb. I fucking deserve it. We both do. Go get your shit together. Get in touch with me when you do. Maybe I’ll still be here. Maybe I won’t, but I realize it’s a risk we both have to take.”
Now, the consequence of Declan’s actions was right in front of him, bloodied and bruised, and he’d carry this guilt for a hell of a long time.
As he went to remove Rebel’s heavy boots, easing them off carefully, Rebel glanced at him. “This can’t work.”
He wasn’t talking about boots—that much, Declan knew. But he had no idea if Rebel meant the truce between Defiance and Keller’s. Wanted to think he did, but fuck, he was still so raw from the fight…the break-up.
From falling the fuck in love.
“Not gonna work,” Rebel repeated, his tone stubborn.
“You staying here tonight?” Declan asked innocently.
“You. Me. Defiance.”
When Declan had agreed earlier to go to Defiance, Rebel had been there, albeit in a narcotic haze. Obviously, not enough of one. “It’s done.”
“Shouldn’t be. We don’t mix.”
“We could, Reb.”
“You pushed me away,” Rebel pointed out.
“Just shut up and heal, okay? Christ—you don’t have the goddamned sense to pull over in a storm?”
Rebel gazed at him. “The LoV ran me off the road, fucker.” He didn’t add, “After you pushed me away,” but they were both thinking it.
“We broke up,” Declan told him irritably.
“You said we were never really together.”
Declan didn’t remind him that he’d added that they weren’t really together if Rebel hadn’t been able to acknowledge it to himself. “You need more pain meds?”
“Fuck no.” Rebel tried to sit up and pain tore visibly through his body.
“Dammit, Reb. Don’t always have to be strong,” Declan admonished.
“Right. I’ll try to remember that.”
“Asshole,” Declan muttered, pressing the pain pills into Rebel’s mouth, forcing him to drink some water to chase them down.
“Same to you,” Rebel shot back after he’d swallowed. “Fucking horse pills—disorient the fuck out of me. Didn’t want them.”
“But you needed them—that’s more important than what you want.”
Rebel gazed up at him, silent acknowledgement that they weren’t really talking about the pills. They continued the silent staring contest, Declan’s hands fisted at his side…until the narcotics finally did their job, leaving Rebel sleeping—if not exactly peacefully, at least his face wasn’t drawn tight from pain.
Hesitantly, Declan reached out, his first touch a light, tentative one to brush along Rebel’s cheek. When Rebel didn’t move, or flinch or grasp Declan’s wrist, he got bolder, the way he’d never been able to. Not for longer than a few seconds before Rebel was holding him down.
As much as Declan liked—loved—that, he wanted the intimacy of touching Rebel whenever he felt like it.
And you had to wait till he’s passed out in pain to do it, he chided himself as he stroked a hand along Rebel’s thick, dark hair, traced a strong shoulder, the rose tattoo…then moved back up to run his knuckles lightly over the bruises, evidence of the beating he’d taken, the accident. The things Declan could’ve prevented, at least this time, if he hadn’t forced Rebel to do the inevitable.
Any guilt about touching Rebel when he was passed out was quickly usurped by the guilt of that. And so he continued to stroke Rebel, because fuck it, he’d take it any way he could get it.
Two years earlier
“You had to entertain this as a possibility—in those deep, dark recesses of your mind that we both know you have.”
Her voice was seductive. Throaty. Deep enough to be intriguing but not so much that it failed to be feminine. It was a wash up his spine, an odd combination of a tortured caress and nails on a chalkboard. Pleasure and pain.
And he had entertained it—a constant thought. A threat, a promise. A sick need, still unfulfilled.
And now, he’d been captured by the serial killer he’d been hunting, held captive…in his own house.
She studied him, a slight frown marring her otherwise placid features. “You’re a tough one. Always were. Covering up all the sins of a lifetime. You’ve got such a gift.” She paused, and when she spoke again, she sounded pleased. “We’re a lot alike.”
He snorted in response, then jabbed her with, “From what I hear, you’re a lot like your mother.”
She didn’t bite, though. “You have mommy issues, Ward?” Jessica trailed a finger lightly across the back of his neck—a lover’s touch—her voice soft, her tone comely. “Tell me all about them.”
She laughed, a sexy, throaty sound. She was so damned pretty, all sunshine and flowers…
To Ward, she smelled like roses on a grave.
“Didn’t Brother tell you all about our mother? I’d think you’d be sick of our stories by now.”
“Never. You’re all so scintillating,” he said dryly.
He was rewarded with the finger across the back of the neck again, but this time she dug her nail in, then showed him the blood she’d drawn. “Don’t be a bitch, because I can definitely be a bigger one.”
He sighed. “Can we get on with this shit?”
She’d caught him so off guard, in the privacy of his own home, his sanctuary.
“You’d think, after Brother found you so easily, that you’d have better security. Because lightning does strike twice. But you knew that already. You learned it so early.” Suddenly, the pinprick at the back of his neck changed everything. He knew she’d do it, knew the drug she’d injected was a hallucinogenic, meant to loosen up any and all inhibitions and keep him completely off balance… it was truth serum.
A life ruiner.
At first, he went in and out of consciousness. When he was able to wake himself up for longer periods of time, he wished he couldn’t.
“Who are you, Ward Thayer?” she mused.
Don’t tell her anything. “Sin eater,” he mumbled.
“Really? How fascinating—tell me everything.”
He was drifting again, back to childhood, the first time he’d seen true evil. It was so nebulous a concept to most, an overreaching theme in literature and in TV shows…just outside of the average person’s reach, and thankfully so.
But it had never been out of his. All he’d had to do was reach out and let it touch him, and he had, over and over. Let it taint him just enough so he could recognize it easily, and so it could recognize him.
The first time Ward encountered evil he was six. And maybe he’d sensed it earlier, the way his grandmother had recognized his innate sensitivity in that area, but his most vivid early memory was of a classmate killing a cat for sport. He recalled the anger in the boy’s face, the unnatural, unprovoked rage as he killed…and then the calm afterward. The blissful smile.
Ward had been playing on the other side of the fence, a silent witness. It had happened so fast that Ward hadn’t gotten a chance to get to his feet, never mind stop the boy.
But watching him, Ward saw the dual nature, the monster behind the innocent face, and, once he’d seen it, there was never any way of unseeing it.
He’d told his school counselor, who hadn’t seemed surprised, but nothing was done until the next year when the boy stabbed a teacher with a fork. By then, Ward had a mental list of the psychopaths he’d met along the way at the fancy schools and churches his family had been attending for a hundred years.
It was a horrible gift to have, but he didn’t know any other way. To watch another person who’d lived with it, with horrible consequences, at first had him wanting nothing to do with Jacoby.
That resolve lasted all of five minutes.
All the same person…and the man Ward loved.
“Stay with me, Ward,” Jessica admonished, because she remained fascinated by his admission and pressed him. “So I confess to you and you can eat my sins?”
“You don’t have a conscience,” Ward pointed out, his voice slurred.
“I don’t think that matters—that’s not part of your deal.” The way she concentrated on him was unnerving. “That doesn’t mean I can’t hand it over to you, force you to carry it.”
You’re a sin eater, Ward, so I’ll make you eat my sins.
The story of his life. He looked her in the eye. “I dare you.”
He hadn’t needed to. His chest felt wet, and he didn’t need to look down to know she was carving letters—words—into his body. Worse, she was forcing her sins into his mind…
“I like to hear them beg for their lives. I usually come as soon as they do—and then I kill them. It makes the orgasm last that much longer. It’s gorgeous.”
She ran a finger down his chest and he fought a shudder of revulsion—or maybe plain fear—and she laughed.
“Don’t worry, baby. I plan on ruining you tonight, but not with my pussy.”
You’re a sin eater, Ward, so I’ll make you eat my sins.
Visitors to Brennan Booth’s house were never a welcome sight. These days, they were downright unnerving, thanks to a random phone call from a man named Jasper, who claimed to be the brother of one of the most famous, active serial killers in both Europe and North America—and a female to boot—who wanted Bren to write the story of his family.
At that point, Bren had gone from a bestselling author able to lead a very private life to a very well-known one when the details of this new book—and the giant contract that came with it—leaked. He was now suddenly living in an odd fishbowl in his new house in Virginia, hemmed in by the FBI and his publisher, not to mention the press and his fans.
It had definitely fucked with his mind and his writing, not to mention his productivity, and he’d moved months earlier in an attempt to stave off some of the stress that his newly public life was giving him. He’d been holed up, taking phone calls from Jasper and trying to put his notes into book form.
So far, it hadn’t worked all that well for him on the productivity end, since nothing he wrote even vaguely resembled a book. He tried to tell himself it was because he was used to writing fiction and this was decidedly not.
Every once in a while, he’d take a look at the number of zeros on his advance check, which was often enough to scare him into doing some actual writing. He’d done so when he’d woken up that morning, which was why he’d gotten off to such a good start, but the man coming up the walkway with a purposeful don’t fuck with me stride promised to ruin that momentum. Bren knew that being in semi-protective custody with the FBI—pretty much against his will, but not his better judgment—left him open to Agent Thayer’s scrutiny. However, the man who approached wasn’t his handler, but he’d been confident enough to drive a noisy Harley right up to the gate and walk to the front door in broad daylight. He looked like a biker, although the flip of the badge held up to the peephole when Bren called through the door after his loud knock was pure agent, and his voice was a deep, rough gravel that announced, “Agent Razwell.”
Bren took his time looking the badge over, just the way Ward had shown him. Ward was paranoid, he’d figured. For good reason. “How can I help you?” he asked finally.
“You don’t seem surprised.”
“Agent Thayer mentioned you might stop by. Apparently, writing this book is upsetting people at the FBI,” Bren mused before stepping aside to let Razwell into the house…mainly to not draw the attention of his neighbors.
“I’m sure Interpol’s not happy either.” Razwell’s eyes searched his, like he could somehow download the information from Bren’s brain, before he strode inside and walked immediately toward Bren’s office like he had some kind of homing device. “Great place you’ve got here.”
“It is,” he agreed as he followed the man. “But I’m sure you didn’t come here to talk about real estate.”
Razwell smiled. “You’re a psychologist?”
“No—just an author.”
Bren pointed to his own books on the shelves and Razwell moved in order to stare at the shelf of Bren’s books asking, “True crime?”
“No. I’ve actually always written fiction.”
“About serial killers.”
“Yes,” he admitted, falling into interview mode, a result of having been asked this question incessantly. “That’s why this non-fiction fit so well with me. It wasn’t something I sought out, Agent Razwell.”
Razwell nodded seriously. “Call me Jacoby—I’m not big on formality. And sure, I bet this book just fell into your lap.”
“Something like that.” Bren paused, then dealt with one of the elephants in the room. “I haven’t committed a crime.” Not that he hadn’t been accused of that over the past months…
“But you’re writing about an active serial killer. Some might call that aiding and abetting.”
“It’s not my fault Jessica is still out there. Maybe if the FBI spent a little less time interrogating an author and a little more—”
“Don’t fucking finish that sentence,” Jacoby warned, his tone harsh.
“Are you threatening me?”
“Yes,” Jacoby told him, suddenly calm again, even when he added, “Take it seriously.
“I’ll mention it to Ward.”
For just a moment, Jacoby’s expression flashed with an emotion Bren couldn’t quite place and then it went back to being placidly bored. “You think you know what you’re doing?”
“I’ve been writing for a long time.”
Jacoby rolled his eyes. “You’ve also got a death wish.”
“I didn’t realize you knew me so well.”
“Your publisher’s blinded by money. Maybe you are too.”
Bren laughed. “It’s definitely nice to have. I was a starving artist for way too long.”
“So being close to a serial killer’s a joke for you?” Jacoby observed.
“My career isn’t a joke. And I think the book will shed some interesting light on—”
“A killer,” Jacoby finished. “Thing is, the FBI—and Interpol—would appreciate that information your source is giving you.”
“I realize that. But I don’t owe the FBI or Interpol anything.”
“True. But anyone she kills from this point onward is on your head. Your conscience, if you have one.”
“Now you’re calling me a psychopath?” Bren demanded. “Look, I’m writing about Jessica’s early years.”
“With information from a source who claims to be the killer’s brother—and you refuse to provide proof, which means there is none.”
Bren threw his hands up in the air, frazzled and pissed that his day was most likely ruined by Jacoby trying to play the part of Bren’s conscience. “Can you get Ward on the line? Because I’ve already been through this shit.”
“No,” Jacoby said flatly. “I just have a few questions.”
“Like I’ve told Ward a million times, Jasper contacted me. And no, you don’t have my permission to read my notes, as per my lawyer and my publishing company’s legal department, since Jasper is not a killer.”
“You’ve got it all down, don’t you?
“I guess I do. Can you leave now?”
“No,” Jacoby said with a smile.
“You’ve worked on this case, Agent Razwell? Because you seem a little young,” Bren queried.
Jacoby turned to him. “Maybe research will only take you so far. Right now, you’re only talking to someone who’s uncomfortably close to a killer. Maybe you’ll be the next victim, Bren—you ever think of that?” He pointed. “Lock the damned door.”
He closed it. Locked it behind Jacoby and firmly told himself to ignore everything Jacoby had told him if he wanted to earn all the zeros on the paycheck, then promptly called Ward for backup.