Mirror Me

Prologue

She can’t scream. She must be screaming inside her head, but her throat’s too tight for sound. Her body’s heavy, her limbs weighed down like she’s been drugged.

Later, she’ll discover it had merely been fear rendering her unable to move or yell. They’ll find claw marks in the oak floor, where she’d been digging in with her fingernails, attempting to drag her frozen body across the floor—and toward the scene, not away from it.

 Anyone who knows her won’t be surprised.

But right now, she’s trapped, watching the extreme happenings not more than ten feet from her. She blinks hard, tells herself she’s dreaming even though she’s painfully aware of how real all of it is.

They’ve always known it would come to this, even after taking steps for years to prevent it. All of those preparations are proven useless tonight.

His screams hurt her ears, but she wouldn’t cover them even if she could. She has to be strong any way she can.

It’s a genuine horror show. No movie could ever get this right—the blood spatter, the unmistakable metallic scent, the anguished cries…they’re beyond human.

Everyone becomes a beast when they die. Everyone begs. She knows that now. And she will never, ever forget what she’s borne witness to. It’s irrevocable, and it’s more than a memory.

It’s a nightmare she might never wake from.

But she’s not the one being hurt and she tries to yell, “Stop,” tries to say something, anything that might make it all end, but nothing comes out but a too-soft whimper. It’s followed by a dying man’s tortured screams.

There’s a burst of fire that incites a new terror in her. It’s her turn. She scrabbles on the floor, exhausting herself with the effort. She hears soft laughter and sees that she’s in the same exact spot, that she hasn’t moved even an inch. The blood that began to seep toward her stops, the controlled fire burning away the flesh and bone and finally his screams have stopped.

But it’s not over. Her head throbs, her tongue hangs uselessly and her throat burns from the smoke and her choking tears so that she can barely breathe.

The sound of a siren’s burst breaking through her terror is the only thing that stops her from being the next victim, but she won’t know that until hours later when she’s conscious. She’ll wake in the hospital, screaming out loud this time, and she’ll see familiar faces.

She’ll know it wasn’t a dream or a nightmare. She’ll remember that his limbs were sawed off and he lived through it. That he was still technically alive when the fire began to burn him.

She’ll want to ask, “Did he feel it?” but won’t. Because she knows the answer and doesn’t want to hear them lie. They would do it out of kindness, but there’s no room for that here. She’s been taught that there’s a time and a place for everything, but the rules have changed.

She realizes there was never any room for rules in the first place.

Chapter One

16 years later
Colombia, South America

Master Sergeant Teige Junos lay belly down in the thick grass, camouflaged from predators. As the hours passed, his breathing had slowed and he’d stopped sweating. How much longer he could remain unmoving in the blazing temperatures was a testament to his training.

But this wasn’t training, and he wasn’t alone.

Next to him, his CO, Sergeant Major Greg MacDonald, lay in the same position. They’d been there for over twenty-four hours, staring through the murky waves of heat, when the sudden roar of enemy gunfire slammed through the still air overhead. Without a word between them, both began a commando crawl that was more like a swim through the wet jungle floor’s humidity.

They finally found shelter about half a mile away, a ditch that afforded them some respite from the unexpected blasts. They dug in, not returning fire in hopes that not drawing attention to themselves would make the conflict end sooner.

Hunched down, covered in sweat, Teige watched the explosions erupting in the sky like blazes of glory. The scent of gunfire mingled with the unmistakable smell of blood and death, the air vibrating with the disturbance.

The recon that began peacefully had caught him and Mac in the middle of two warring factions in the outskirts of Bogota. Definitely a wrong place, wrong time situation.

“Maybe they’ll all just kill each other,” Mac murmured.

Teige hoped they’d be that lucky, even as he kept his M16 at the ready. He and Mac could take on a big group alone, if necessary, but being Delta Force was about being smart. You risked when you were forced to risk. And this wasn’t their fight.

Hours before, during the monotony of the recon, Mac broke their silence to tell Teige he was retiring. That his wife was tired after twenty years of secrets and lies.

“Big step, Mac.”

“It won’t be easy leaving all this,” he’d said with only the barest trace of sarcasm and a genuine smile. “But she hung around this long—I owe her.”

Teige had smiled too, because that was pretty much why he never got too involved in relationships. At least that’s what he told himself.

As of now, there was no one even remotely special at home. He’d ended things with Diane for the hundredth time because it was never going to work. They both knew it but were drawn to each other like magnets. Or bad pennies.

“You’ll find her,” Mac had said in response to Teige’s silence.

“I’m old enough not to worry about it,” Teige had told Mac honestly. He could stay in Delta Force in several different capacities for twenty more years, if he got lucky.

If he remained lucky.

“You don’t have to—it’ll happen. One day, she’s going to show up and you’re just gonna know. That’s how it happens for guys like us—it’s like lightning. None of this ‘she might be the one’ shit. You see her, and you’re going to want to go caveman and throw her over your shoulder and that’s the end of that shit.”

Teige had tried to imagine Mac’s wife responding to that and he’d laughed.

“Keep laughing, boy. You know I’m always right.” Mac was always right. It was why Teige listened when Mac urged, “Curl up,” as a long bout of gunfire rang out overhead.

A few shells landed in the hole with them, one close enough to burn the hell out of his ear, and he kept his head down. It seemed like forever and then there was a sudden quiet, which was a more deadly sound than the shooting.

His ears rang and he fought the urge to peer out. When he finally did, he’d expected to see a lot of dead men left to rot.

He looked over at Mac, murmured, “Shit, that was close.”

Mac didn’t answer. The bullet had gone clean through the front of his skull, a lucky shot that had nothing at all to do with skill.

After two more hours of quiet, Teige was still stunned as he dragged himself up and hoisted Mac’s body over his shoulder. He walked over the bodies and out of the jungle toward the waiting helo five klicks away, even as daylight turned to dusk. And amazingly enough, he didn’t run across any soldiers.

Lucky, the doc had told him.

Teige had been lucky before, had watched someone he loved slowly kill himself for years before finally dying. Teige had been lucky not to have been there the night it happened, but his sister had been. It was pure luck that she’d survived.

One of these days, all that luck was going to kill him.

Vipers Rule

Prologue

Heavy metal music blasted through the speakers of the sweet, cherry red Ford Mustang as Tals took the ramp to the parkway in a swift motion and then really let her loose on the open road.

It was nearly one in the morning. Maddie wouldn’t notice the car was missing. She might see that the odometer was higher and her gas tank was almost empty, but he had a feeling she didn’t notice things like that. She was surrounded by people who did things for her.

He was mostly pissed she wouldn’t let him in to be one of those people. But at sixteen, he knew he was too young to feel that strongly about any girl—though that didn’t stop him from knowing something about him and Maddie was just “right.”

Obviously he was thinking about Maddie too much to notice the police car silently trailing him. He did notice when the lights flashed and the sirens wailed, and instinctively, he sped the hell up… but there was a cop waiting at the next mile marker, blocking the road.

Fuck me.

His heart was still racing hours later when Maddie came into the police station, alone. She made eye contact with him while he was handcuffed to the bench with a few drunk and disorderlies.

He smirked. Because hey, she’d definitely noticed him, and she’d been working damned hard to pretend she hadn’t.

Long dark hair. Hazel eyes. A perfect body for the flowing hippie shirts she always wore with ripped-up jeans. It was summertime, and her flip-flops showed her toenails, which were painted with blue polish.

She was so fucking perfect, it made him ache. It was worse when she looked at him, and she did look at him, all the time, when he was supposed to not notice. But it was the oldest story in the book—bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks falls for rich girl who can’t be with him.

But she wanted to. And who said the story had to end badly?

“Are you pressing charges?” one of the policemen asked Maddie, and she had the damned nerve to consider it. That was the flaw in his plan—he’d never figured she’d make that move.

Shit.

She shook her head no, a tight expression on her face. She had to sign some papers, and she kept her back to him while she was at the desk. When she walked out, she didn’t make eye contact.

She hadn’t sent in her grandmother—or her father. It could’ve been worse. Way worse. Not that getting arrested was ever good.

Dad would be proud, though.

“Christ,” he muttered out loud as he waited for his ride home.

His one phone call had, of course, been to Tenn, who’d been at work and unable to get any messages—or leave the job—until he was finished filming. So Tals had hung out outside the police station, sitting on another bench, watching the faces of the men and women who entered. Prisoners were brought around the back, so these people were here to see loved ones—they had that frazzled look, because they were justifiably worried and had no clue what they’d find beyond those doors. He was familiar with being on both sides, thanks to his father, who regularly put him, his mother and his brother through nights like this.

Tals had managed to stay clean until now. That wasn’t to say he hadn’t done things to warrant being inside, but he’d been really good about not getting caught.

“Seriously, Tals?”

Tals looked up at his brother. They were fraternal twins, although there was no denying they were brothers. Tenn was a little taller, and his eyes were brown instead of blue like Tals’s were. But they had the same facial features that garnered plenty of attention. “Yeah, seriously.”

Tenn sighed and together they walked across the parking lot to their mom’s car, an ancient station wagon that she was convinced was too unsafe to drive. She took cabs back and forth to work, and Tals was convinced she had no clue that he and Tenn drove the thing on a regular basis.

She had no clue about a lot of things, but hell, talking about her was one of the few things that could get him and Tenn fighting. “Anyway, thanks for coming to get me.”

“No problem.” Tenn put the key in the ignition, and both said a silent prayer that the thing would start. After a tense few moments, it did, and they were headed through town, passing the exclusive community called Jessamine, where all the shit had started. “But all that over a girl?”

“Over a car,” Tals corrected.

“You can bullshit a lot of people, Talon. Pretty much everyone but me.”

Tals stewed over that for a minute. “She’s different, Tenn.”

It was Tenn’s turn to correct him. “She’s rich. She’s trouble.”

“You’re not wrong,” was all Tals could manage. “Don’t tell Preach.”

“Which part?”

“All of it.”

Chapter One

Fifteen years later

Axl Rose’s screaming falsetto screeched through the speakers as Tals drove the rebuilt 1974 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am SD455 nose to nose with the equally hot-rodded 1968 Ford Mustang GT500KR. The cars were important, but the drivers were the real part of this race, and Tals had the lack of fear and love of speed that always gave him the advantage.

Miles from home, in a stolen car in an illegal street race was the perfect end to the year. Smoke billowed from his exhaust as the car roared under him. His hands gripped the wheel so tightly he knew they’d ache tomorrow, and the engine alternately purred and rumbled as he took the tight corners on this stretch of now-deserted road.

He was never as free as he was during these moments. Treating the streets like a racetrack. These illegal street races were run on a dime, with an eye toward protecting its participants.

He wasn’t supposed to be racing like this. Or stealing cars for Havoc. But now that Cage was back as the MC’s XO, the second in charge, Tals was freed up from some of the heavier MC responsibilities and had more free time on his hands. He was back to being enforcer of Vipers, something he excelled at. His rep preceded him, so not too many guys wanted to deal with him flexing his muscles.

A bored Tals was a really bad thing. Especially for all the people set to lose major money tonight when he won.

Which he would.

The course laid out for the race would take no more than ten minutes—ten minutes that would alternately feel like a lifetime and fly by, the last mile stretching straight out in front of him.

Although he could never shake off his status as an MC member—never wanted to, either, since he’d fought damned hard for it—tonight he wasn’t Tals from Vipers MC, an enforcer, repo man or ex-Army. Tonight he was completely free.

Tonight he was also winning the fucking race, which he accomplished with a heavy foot on the gas, a tight swerve into the final stretch and balls of steel to take on the residential street at 110 mph.

His body still shook from the adrenaline when he eased the car to a stop about a hundred feet past the actual finish line. He took a few deep breaths, head back, eyes closed, trying to convince himself the car had stopped moving.

It took about that long for the crowds to reach him. When he finally pushed out of the car, he found himself surrounded by the men and women who’d parked their cars along the sides of the finish line—at least forty cars and far more people, all feeling the vibe of the race and feeding off it. Music blasted, women danced on cars… and it would all continue until the police got wind of it.

Tals gave it twenty minutes and planned to be gone in fifteen. He headed to find Bear, pocketing his winnings along the way and handing the keys back to Mel, who’d been the one to steal the car Tals had raced.

“Good job, man.” Mel clapped him on the shoulder.

“Always a blast. You taking her back home?”

Mel sighed. “Maybe. I’m going to take her for another ride myself before I do, but I knew she’d like you better.”

Tals ran his hand along the nearest car’s bumper. “They always do.”

“Things good at home?” Mel asked.

Tals smiled. “Living the dream.”

Mel snorted. “Give my best to Preacher—don’t tell him about the car.”

Tals had no intention of doing that, although he didn’t doubt Preach would get wind of tonight’s race. Guy had radar for this shit, especially where Tals was involved.

Thankfully, though, things were back to normal at Vipers. And when things were this quiet, it meant more time for him to get into trouble, which was really the kind of shit he lived for. And that’s why he hadn’t been able to think of any better way to ring in the New Year than a fast car, fast cash and heading back to Vipers to share in the celebration.

He finally found his fellow MC member—and Bear was having a blast in that way only a red-blooded American male could—without reservations. Unabashed, with no limits.

Hell, Tals had been like that once.

No, he’d appeared to be like that, and probably most still saw him that way. Except for the MC members he was closest to. Preach, Cage, Rocco and Bear? They all saw through him like he was fucking paper.

And although he’d never discussed it with any of them, especially not Bear, the guy still knew. He took care of Tals as much as Tals took care of him. And Tals pretended not to notice… and Bear seemed to prefer it that way.

“Tals, you got a call from Sal,” Bear told him, handing him his phone. Tals never wanted any distractions while he drove, but now, with his adrenaline roaring, a little repo would work out just fine.

“Time to go to work.” But hell, work wasn’t really work to him, and he had several jobs, most of which fell under the Vipers MC umbrella. Repo’ing was one of them, although his main work for the club involved enforcing. Keeping order, imposing rules and justice.

He liked that role a lot.

“No one else will take this motherfucking job,” Sal was grousing in his ear. “You know anything about that?”

“Nope,” Tals said, not bothering to try for innocent—didn’t work, even when he was. “I’ll keep trying.”

“Find her.”

“Hey, I’m better than nothing.”

“Not by much.” Sal hung up in his ear, and Tals sighed.

“Where’re we going?” Bear asked.

Tals looked down at the money roll, then over at Mel. “You stay and have fun. I’ll take this one—an easy job.”

“You sure?” Bear asked, even as he was allowing two women to pull him back into the street-side celebration.

Tals grinned, shook his head. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

* * * * *

The job was several hours outside his usual territory. He’d initially been tagged for it when he was doing a difficult repo close by. Sal said taking Cathy’s car would be an easy reward.

There was nothing easy about taking a single mother’s only mode of transportation. And so he’d warned her, had initially walked away from the job, reporting to Sal that the address he had was bad. He’d done that once more, buying her several months, but, like she’d told him, she couldn’t create money from air.

“Where the fuck’s your old man?” he’d asked, motioning to the three kids playing on the patch of grass outside the motel room.

She’d rolled her eyes. “Prison. Again. Sometimes I think he likes it better in there than out here. You know how that goes.”

Yeah, Tals knew that all too well. It was easier for most of them on the inside. And even though he got it, this time he would need to take the car back—she was too far behind in payments and he couldn’t keep other guys off her ass forever. Tals could only threaten so many of them before one of them would ignore him. He’d make them regret it, of course, but she’d be stuck.

He knocked on the door softly, because it was so late. And she opened it, in pajamas, her eyes tired. There’d been no New Year’s celebration for her.

He gave her credit for opening the door for him. “Gotta take it this time, Cathy.”

Her eyes watered, but she refused to let the tears fall. “You bought me a lot of time. I can’t be mad at you.” But she was—and he was on his way to becoming just another in a long line of men who’d disappointed her. She reached to the chair next to the door and handed him the keys. “I’m sure you know where it’s parked.”

“Show me. And you’ve got to empty it anyway.”

She sighed as she stepped out of the motel room, shutting the door behind her. “I never leave anything in it, since I’ve been waiting for this to happen.”

It was parked a few doors down. Tals looked it over, started it up easily and then got out.

“Are we all set?” Cathy asked, eyeing the door to the room where the kids slept.

“One more thing.” He handed her a set of keys and an envelope. And then he pointed to the car he’d released from the flatbed and parked right in front of her door. It was nothing special to look at, needed a paint job that Mel was supposed to do, but the engine purred like a baby. It was a good, strong car.

“Tals, I can’t afford—”

“It’s yours. First month’s insurance is paid—it’s registered under your name.”

“Tals…”

“For the kids,” he said roughly. “Don’t fuck it up.”

She smiled gently, then touched his cheek like a mother would. Like his mother used to. “You’re a good boy, Tals. Now try to take your own advice.”

He couldn’t help it—he laughed.

* * * * *

He had another three-hour ride back to Skulls Creek—he’d miss the party at the clubhouse, but hell, he didn’t care. Every night could be a party for him, if he wanted it to be.

But it was a new year, and things felt different. He wasn’t really sure why. Maybe because Cage was back with Vipers, but nothing had changed within the South Carolina city itself.

He dialed his brother’s number now, then pulled the flatbed onto the highway as it rang.

He and Tenn had grown up on what was most definitely the wrong side of the tracks in Skulls. But now there really wasn’t a wrong side—just an MC side. Skulls was thriving. There wasn’t violence or squalor, in no small part due to Preacher taking over Vipers. Still, they worked hard to keep out of trouble, mainly in the form of drug-pushing MCs, and Tals knew most of the Skulls community didn’t fully understand or appreciate the Vipers’ role in that.

Preach always said he didn’t give a shit, but being treated like he was a criminal definitely got to him.

Tals had been looked on as one for as long as he could remember, but he’d also always gotten a lot of interest from the women of Skulls. And the Army. And Vipers. Havoc too. And Havoc allowed him to indulge in stealing and racing cars without bringing the law into Skulls or on Vipers.

Vipers relied on vigilante justice. Old-fashioned, but very effective.

“Happy New Year, brother.” Tenn’s voice sounded muffled… and slightly drunk. And Tenn rarely drank, so Tals wasn’t sure if this was a good sign or not. “You out celebrating?”

“I was. Then I caught a job.”

“Never ends, right?” Tenn went quiet, but there was obviously a party going on in the background.

“How’d you spend your night?”

“Threw a party for the guys who weren’t working,” Tenn said. “They invited some friends—it got bigger than I thought. Sometimes I forget how young these guys are.”

“Not too young for you,” Tals said.

“Yeah.” Tenn’s voice had that far-off quality to it, but true to form, he shook himself out of it before he got too maudlin. “Love you, bro. Be safe.”

“Love you, Tenn—be safe.”

It was the same every time. Just because they didn’t live in the same house anymore didn’t mean they weren’t as close. It’d been painful when Tenn moved away—Tals swore he felt it physically. Having Cage gone for months had left Tals hanging in the wind, and even though Bear had been there to steady him, it hadn’t been easy.

No matter how much he tried to fill the space, it never worked.

“I’ll change that this year.” He wasn’t sure how. Maybe he’d give more women a chance—fuck the one-night stands. Try to open his horizons and look for a real old lady.

The whole one-night-stand shit hadn’t ever been that easy for him—the mechanics were, because orgasms were never bad, as was finding willing women. But if he added up all the one-night stands—and fuck, that could take a long time—he’d realize something was missing.

Hell, he didn’t even have to add them up to know that. It was a space he’d never filled, a hole in his heart that never healed. As much as he tried to wall it up, compartmentalize it, he could never separate it for long.

New Year’s Eve always made him think of Maddie… no matter what he did since then, what country he was in, whether he was partying, stone-cold sober, in the desert, fighting another MC member or stealing a car, Tals could no more not think about Maddie on New Year’s Eve than he could stop breathing.

Fragmented

Chapter One

“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

“You’re angry.”

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?”

“Yes.”

“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?”

“Running.”

That she could answer truthfully and without reservation. “Every single day of my life.”

Chapter Two

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.”

“That’s right.”

“So Dare and Avery are part of this new Section 8, right? Along with Jem and Key, who are brothers, and Gunner.”

“Yes.”

“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.”

Chapter Three

“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.

Chapter Four

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.”

“Kind of?”

“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?”

Vipers Run

Prologue

One year earlier

Luna knew it was time to leave Defiance when she saw Tru being marched up to the front gates of the motorcycle club.

She didn’t know for sure at that moment if Tru was coming back into the MC she’d grown up in against her will or not, but being half dragged through the gates by the leader of a rival MC didn’t bode well, for any of them.

That feeling of being trapped, of needing to escape had been brewing inside Luna for months, years, but she’d managed to tamp it down, mainly out of fear. The post-Chaos world wasn’t the place for a woman alone. The pre-Chaos world hadn’t been either, though, and seeing the woman who’d been one of her best friends being forced back inside made the dread grow in her belly.

What if there’s really no escape?

For the week prior, she’d had the feeling of some kind of impending crisis, had spent most of the time assuming it was another big storm coming down the pike and trying not to panic too badly. But the feeling of doom intensified and even now, looking at Tru’s march back through the Defiance gates, Luna wasn’t sure if this was the event that had been weighing on her so heavily.

She’d had this foreboding feeling before, many times in her life…most importantly, right before the Chaos hit, and that series of storms had changed the world as she’d known it. It was an intense event that took her parents, the sunlight, many forms of communication. It changed her entire way of life and left her in the cradle of the Defiance Motorcycle Club, a place where she’d grown up, one she’d been forced to depend on for her complete survival.

Defiance MC was in a chaos of its own with Tru’s return. The one-time princess of the MC was causing a ton of trouble with other MCs, with Caspar, with the leaders of Defiance. Although the MC had thrived during the three years following the Chaos, thanks to their doomsday prepping club founders and their system of underground tubes, there were still an awful lot of challenges that came with daily living.

Luna spent a lot of her time during the next evenings after Tru’s arrival in one of the smaller garages, working on her truck. She’d been rebuilding it, nearly from scratch after it had been caught under the partial collapse of her childhood house. She’d smoothed out the dents on the bumpers and the hood, but didn’t bother with new paint and the like, because she didn’t want it to stand out on the roads.

A tremor went through her—she looked up at the sky as if an impending storm was on the way but it was dark and clear. Goose bumps rose on her arms but she didn’t pull her shirt on over the tank top she wore. Her hair was half wrapped in a bandana, a braid over her shoulder, grease on her arms. She drew in a couple of deep breaths and mentally cursed that her truck wouldn’t be ready to leave that night—the timing would’ve been perfect. But she couldn’t risk getting stuck on the road.

In reality, she couldn’t risk leaving at all, but she would. She had to, or she’d shrivel up and die here.

“God, maybe you could be more dramatic,” she muttered, went back into the garage and continued to work on the engine until her eyes blurred. And then the feeling covered her again, like some kind of blanket. Her skin tingled as if electricity burned through her.

When she looked up, he framed the doorway, filling it. There was light shining in from behind him, which she didn’t understand since there was no light out, and she drew in a sharp breath.

It was, she imagined, a lot like being struck by lightning. Painful but somehow thrilling at the same time.

Honestly, for about two seconds, she thought he was an illusion, an angel, with the song “Patience” blasting in behind him that she’d later learn was coming from his van.

Rebel had left her some pot earlier, and she’d smoked while she worked. It might’ve been particularly strong or maybe it was just the night’s magic—or the man it ushered in—but she was higher than she’d ever been in her life.

The pull toward him was indescribable. The fire burned in the corner stove, the music pounded and she’d dropped the wrench and walked toward him.

He’d moved toward her as well. When they were close enough, she noted that he looked haunted, as haunted as she felt. She went up on her tiptoes, threaded her hand through the back of his hair and pulled his head down. She pressed her open mouth to his and kissed him with abandon.

He tightened an arm around her waist—not enough to frighten her, but rather, to add to her excitement. Somehow, his arrival was what she’d been waiting for, what she’d needed. And as she moaned against his mouth, they swayed together.

This had to be a dream. A slow-dancing, sinking-to-the-ground dream, where they lay together, fully clothed looking up at the fluorescent paint Rebel had put on the ceiling. Axl Rose’s rough voice and promises soothed her almost as much as this man’s arms. And that’s all it was—kissing and lying in the tall, tattooed man’s arms but it felt far more profound, like they’d connected on a level she’d never connected with anyone before.

If she’d woken in the morning and found it had been a dream, she wouldn’t have been surprised.

She spent a lot of time staring at the phoenix tattoo on the inside of his forearm. She swore she saw the wings move.

Was he who she prayed for?

“I wanted someone to come rescue me,” she murmured.

He looked concerned. “Are they hurting you here?”

Yes, they were, but not in any way she could encapsulate at the moment, not enough to make him understand. She should’ve given him more credit, because somehow he knew. He was like her in more ways than she’d understood at that moment—the connection was immediate, impossible to ignore and it was forever.

“Not really,” she lied.

“Well, I’m here, babe. And fuck, you’re beautiful,” he murmured, brushing her cheek with his knuckles as they lay on the blanket in the middle of the garage.

She smiled. And then she fell asleep.

The next morning, she woke, blinking, confused and thinking it all must’ve been a dream. Until she saw the man with the phoenix tattoo at the diner with another new guy. He glanced over at her, his eyes full of the same intensity they’d born toward her last night and her heart squeezed tight.

She didn’t even know his name.

* * * * *

The next night, he’d broken into her place, climbed right through her window.

It had been the middle of the night and she’d been reading by candlelight. She hadn’t had time to react before his entire body was halfway inside and then she’d been too stunned to say anything right away.

When she finally found her voice, she managed, “Most people knock.”

“I’m not most people. Besides, do you kiss everyone the way you kissed me last night?” There was no teasing in his tone, no censure—he was completely serious, like he knew her answer would be no. Like he was telling her that this was the way it was going to be.

He scared the shit out of her for that. Her cheeks burned. “I don’t even know who you are.”

“I’m Bishop. You’re Luna.”

“I’m with Rebel,” she blurted out.

“Try again.”

“What are you even doing in here?” she demanded

“Talking to you,” he said reasonably.

“That’s not…you can’t just do that.”

“Really? But I’m here.”

“If you don’t leave…”

“What? You’ll call your boyfriend?”

The way he said the word, she knew he wasn’t buying that anything was happening between her and Rebel. But she said “Yes” anyway.

“But you don’t love him. Not like that. Although you pretend really well. Why do you want people to think you’re in love with him?” he asked, tilting his head.

“It’s complicated,” she muttered, keenly aware of how little clothing she wore. Rebel rigged the heat in the house to blast most nights, since she refused to come down to the tubes unless there was a storm. So she wore a sleeveless tank and her underwear…Bishop was in jeans and a black leather jacket, a navy blue bandana wound around his head that made his blue eyes stand out even more.

His hands…they were so big. Everything about him was big—she knew when he was pressed against her last night.

Now, he sat on the edge of her bed and then laid back and stared up at the ceiling. “You don’t like it underground?”

“No.”

“I don’t either.”

“You can’t stay here.”

“Rebel said I could.”

“He did not,” she said, but knowing Rebel…”Dammit.”

He laughed then. “Luna, you made this whole goddamned thing worth it.”

From that night, he’d refused to be ignored, and even though his presence was often silent, that made it no less demanding. And as much as she’d thought she’d hated it…she’d really also loved it.

She realized he could break down her walls, and in response, she worked on building them higher, using Rebel as a shield and pretending that things could get back to normal. But in reality, things were never normal, even when people thought they were.

Bishop was like magic to her. She was embarrassed to say it to herself, but every time she caught sight of him, she felt as thought there was something so mystical inside of him, it made her want to crawl into bed with him and never come out.

He made her restless, more than she’d been, because everything was shifting and changing. Bishop and Mathias showing up in their big, black van had given her the imminent sense that something was going to happen soon, and it would be big. Bigger than all of them.

Even so, she remained convinced that loving him wouldn’t protect her from anything in this world.

Chapter One

The office phone rang at 4:55 p.m.

On a Friday.

When I had my keys in hand, bag over my shoulder, ready to lock up behind me.

I debated ignoring the insistent ringing, but since I didn’t have any actual evening plans, I walked backward a few steps and glanced at the caller ID. And froze.

Bradley Industries.

I snatched up the phone before I could stop myself, forgoing the usual niceties of “Bernie’s Investigations” in favor of a clipped “Calla speaking.”

“Calla, it’s your father.”

Jameson Bradley.

As hard as he’d tried to be a part of my life, we didn’t speak very often, so “Hi, Dad” wasn’t exactly a major part of my vocabulary. “What’s going on?” I said instead.

It was the way my mother had always greeted him, so I guessed, Like mother, like daughter. But just like all the times I’d spoken with him before, his voice soothed me. And, as I always did, I tried to ignore the brief moment of comfort. I was desperate for family but I’d grown up unable to trust any of them. His tone didn’t change—it wasn’t chiding or cold, but still warm and comforting when he said, “Actually, your boss called me.”

“Bernie?”

“He was worried about you.”

“I’m fine.”

“You don’t have to pretend with me. I know your brother stole your money. I know you had to sell the bar,” my father said.
“When did he tell you that?”

“The day you went to see him.”

Bernie had betrayed me from the start. I didn’t understand how someone I’d told a bit of my family history to, in order to find my thieving shit of a brother, could so easily take that information and hurt me with it. “That’s true. But I’m not homeless. I’m working and I’m fine. Bernie never should’ve involved you. I didn’t ask him to.”

The first time I ever spoke to my father, I was fifteen and in the hospital.

Because of that, I associated him with the very worst thing that had happened in my life. The entire conversation was like a knife stabbed through me. And maybe I was being dramatic, but my father and I never had the typical father­ daughter relationship. Or any relationship at all.

My father sighed, like he was reading my mind. “Bernie contacted me in case I heard any­ thing from your brother. That was all he asked. And I hadn’t heard from Ned, not until last night.”

Ned was my half brother, and Jameson Bradley wasn’t his father. “Ned contacted you?”

I heard a hard swallow on the other end of the line, which meant this couldn’t be good. “Does your brother know about what happened to you?”

My mouth opened and closed. My world spun. “Yes,” I managed. Ned was a year older than me, but we’d never been close.

“He’s got the pictures,” my father admitted reluctantly.

“What? How?”

“I’m still trying to figure that out.”

“He wants money,” I said hollowly.

“Yes.”

Which meant he’d blown through everything Mom and Grams left, including the money from the sale of the bar that he’d sold from under my nose. He’d always had far too much influence on both of them, and he’d twisted it to his advantage, even though we were supposed to make joint decisions regarding the bar and any money to be split. “I’ll find a way—”

“I took care of it. I am taking care of it. With Bernie’s help. I didn’t want to keep you in the dark, Calla. You have a right to know every­ thing.”

Something about the way he said “everything” concerned me, but Bernie’s cell phone began to ring. And Bernie wasn’t in the office. He never went anywhere without that phone, and I knew that ring—an urgent one reserved for only a select few clients. Clients I never spoke to.

“Can I call you back?”

“Please do, Calla. I’d really like to talk to you . . . about more than just this.” He sounded so sincere and I convinced myself it was just years of practice. The rich were different. So was I.

“I will.”

I hung up and went into Bernie’s office, rooted around and found the phone on the ground. “Shit.”

I debated answering, when whoever it was hung up. And called again two seconds later.

There were texts from the same number with 911.  I knew what that meant.

* * * * *

My voice was tentative when I picked up with, “I’m not Bernie.”

A man’s rough voice countered with, “I’m dying.”

Okay, then, the dying man wins.

I never knew words could haunt, but those would. Fear raced through me even though I wasn’t the one in direct danger. I took a breath and started, “If you’ll just . . .” If you’ll just hang on a minute, dying man, I’ll try to track my boss down . . . “Can you tell me your location?”

“Where . . . the fuck . . . is Bernie?” His breathing was labored, his speech peppered with pauses, like he was trying to gain the strength to get the words out.

“Please, sir, if you tell me where you are I can send help—” I started and he broke in, saying, “No. Time.” And then, “Sir? Jesus Christ,” but his voice was so weak and slurred, I had to strain to hear it.

“Bernie’s not here. He dropped this phone in his office. Please, let me try to help you—I’ll send an ambulance and the police.”

“No.”

I had no idea what else to do, but I wouldn’t hang up on this man. I took a deep breath, forced the words past my tightening throat. “Okay. Tell me what you need me to do.”

“Talk.”

Talk? “I want to help you.”

“Might be . . . the only . . . one.”

“I’ve never had this happen.”

“Me . . . neither.”

He was drawing in harsh breaths between each of the words. He sounded so labored and I figured the more I talked, the less he’d have to.

“My name’s Calla.”

“Sounds . . . soft. Pretty. Fits you.”

Soft. God. “Please don’t—” I took a deep breath and stopped before I could say die. “What happened to you?”

“Shot. Knifed. Beaten. Hit . . . by a car.”

“Just that, huh?” The sarcasm slipped out because I was nervous.

He huffed a laugh and then drew in a sharp breath and muttered, “Fuck.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

“What’s your name?”

There was a pause and I thought I’d lost him.

But then he said, “Cage.”

“Cage. I like that nickname.”

“S’my middle name. First . . . is Christian.” Christian Cage. I liked it.

“Talk,” he commanded, and God, I couldn’t let him down. So I asked the first thing that popped into my mind.

“What do you look like?”

“Gonna . . . set up a dating profile . . . for me? Better do it . . . quick.”

It was my turn to laugh. “I can certainly do that for you.”

“Just don’t . . . call me ‘sir.’ ” There was a long pause and heavy breathing that sounded like he was in tremendous pain. I glanced out the win dow, hoping to catch sight of Bernie’s truck. He never went very far if he went out at all during his time on in the office. “Six foot four. Dark . . . hair. Green eyes. Your . . . turn.”

I was cute, certainly, but not a head­turning supermodel type. “I’m five foot five. And a quarter.”

“Quarter’s important.”

He was teasing. Dying, and still teasing. Dammit, where was Bernie? “My hair’s blond. Shoulder length. And I have blue eyes.”

“Pretty.”

He wasn’t asking, but telling. “If you ask what I’m wearing, I won’t answer.”

Another laugh, another gasp of pain. “Won’t . . . ask. But I can picture it.”

“Should I even ask?”

“I’m not picturing clothes.”

My cheeks burned at the roughness of his voice. “You’re dying and you’re picturing me naked?”
“I’m a guy,” he said. And he did sound better, so who was I to argue? I laughed, then put my hand over my mouth simultaneously to keep from crying. “What . . . were you doing . . .before I called?”

“I was on the phone.” I didn’t mean for the words to come out so clipped.

“You sound sad. Can’t be . . . for me.”

“Why not?”

“Calla . . .”

The way he said my name was like a warning and a command. The oddest thing, but I blurted out, “It’s just my family.”

Because a dying man needed my drama.

“Do you get along . . . with them?” he asked.

God, I didn’t want to talk about this. I felt the blurred edges of a panic attack closing in, sure that if I looked up I’d see the room glazed over. Instead of looking up, I forced myself into tunnel vision. “My mom died a couple of years ago. My Grams died early last year.” And I’m all alone.

“I know what being all alone’s like.”

I hadn’t realized I’d said that out loud. Cage and I shared a silent moment together, and I wondered if he realized the irony that, finally, neither of us was alone. “Grams used to tell me that being able to keep someone’s company is the most important thing in the world, and that the hard part was finding the person who you could tell your deepest, darkest secrets to.”

“What are yours?”

I almost didn’t answer, but knew I had to. “I’m scared I’ll always be alone.”

“By choice? Or . . . by design?”

“Both,” I admitted.

“Don’t . . . let that happen.”

I swear, it sounded like an order despite the hitch. “You sound better.”

“Yeah. Feel . . . beyond the pain.” That couldn’t be good. I gripped the phone hard as I forced myself still.

“God, Calla, I really fucked this up.” He laughed, but it came out more like a groan. “Should’ve known . . . I tried to fight them. My whole life, I tried . . .”

“Don’t let them win, Cage. Please . . .”

“You sound like you know what it’s like.”

“I do. And I let someone win and I hate him for it.”

There was such a long pause that I thought I’d lost him—I closed my eyes and just waited for what seemed like forever.

And then he said, “Fuck, Calla. Would strangle the son of a bitch who hurt you,” in a voice so strong and fierce that I actually took a step back and hit the wall.

“I’d let you,” I said softly.

“What did he do to you?”

“I can’t tell you.” I couldn’t tell anyone. It had been all locked up, put away. Except it never really was. “There was this guy. I was fifteen. He—” I couldn’t say much more except, “He took so much from me.”

I waited for him to say he was sorry, that he wished he could do something, because there were so many wishes associated with what had happened to me.

Instead, he growled, “Did anyone make him pay?”

Even though that’s not what Cage was asking, I thought of the money in my account. The pictures. “No,” I whispered.

“He will pay. I promise.”

How many broken promises had I waded through? “Don’t.”

“Don’t defend you?”

“Don’t promise.”

“Too late.”

“I don’t goddamned believe you, Cage, so take it back.”

“Who gets into a fight with a dying man?” he asked out loud.

“I don’t believe in promises.”

“And I…don’t…break them. You need to be . . . prepared.”

Prepared? What did that mean? “Don’t do this to me.”

“What are you afraid of?” he challenged, sounding more resolved by the second.

“That you’re going to want to know what happened to me. That you’re not going to want me.” “I think you’re really . . . scared that I might . . . want you, and you’ll have to let . . . those walls . . . all the way down.”

I wanted to tell him this was a hypothetical conversation, that I was happy he was going to live, but that I’d make sure he didn’t find me.

And what are you going to do, Calla? Quit Bernie’s and run away?

“I don’t want to believe you,” I told him.

“But you do.”

“Maybe,” I admitted.

“Fucking meet my angel in the middle of hell,” he managed, more to himself than me. “Gotta go, Calla. Remember . . . what I said.”

“Cage, please let me do something for you.”

“Babe, you have no idea what…you’ve already . . . done. I . . . Shit.”

“Please.”

“I’m . . . coming back.”

“I believe you,” I said, because how could I not? Because I wanted him to. “Let me help you.”

There was a silence and then he coughed and then, “Gonna give you a number. Remember . . . it.”

“Of course.”

“Bernie . . . tell him . . . immediately. Important.”

“I will.” I memorized the last thing I’d know about Cage. Ten numbers that meant nothing. “I’ve got it.”

“Say. Back.”

I repeated them and he sighed. “Good. Sorry . . . so sorry.”

Sorry? For dying? For giving me a relatively simple job? For not letting me help him? “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more, Cage.”

“Jesus. You did . . . everything.”

“Cage . . .”

But the line clicked off. I blinked back tears, unable to stop the small sob that made my shoulders lift involuntarily. I was yelling then, slamming the desk with my fists before I pulled my shit together.

Feeling like I’d failed.

Another loss. My whole life was loss and pain, and why I thought it could be any different, I had no idea.

I looked up at a picture behind Bernie’s desk, hanging low on the wall. I’d never really noticed it before, because if I was in here, Bernie was in his big chair, which partially covered it. Why it was hung so low was another story, but I finally realized that Bernie was one of the men wearing an Army uniform. I grabbed a magnifying glass to look at the names on the uniforms. There was one man, his head turned to the side…

“Calla?”

“Bernie!” I dropped the magnifying glass and turned, wanting to hug him. I handed him his phone and started babbling about Cage and the numbers.

His face paled. He looked behind him, out the window and then tossed me a set of keys. I caught them instinctively. “Black truck in the corner of the lot. Walk to it like it’s yours. Get in. Hit the GPS and follow where it takes you. Money’s in the glove compartment. Do you understand?”

“Bernie—”

“There’s trouble, honey. Please, do what I say. Now.”

He walked out then. I don’t know why, but I grabbed the picture from his wall before I went out the back, grabbing my bag along the way.

Two weeks earlier, he’d gotten a call that made him close his office door. He never closed the door. And when he’d finally emerged, he’d been pale and distracted. Twitchy, even.

For the rest of that week, he answered all his own calls. But then things seemed to go back to normal. We dealt with the usual cases . . . some heartbreaking, some frivolous.

I supposed I could call in my father, ask for help. Or I could throw off everything, once and for all, and thank Cage by actually going free.

When I got into the black car and turned the key in the ignition, I’d made the choice. As I pulled the car out of the lot, I heard gunshots, four in a row, and I forced myself not to go back and check on Bernie. Instead, I followed his orders and got the hell out of there. Running from my past and present . . . and realizing I had no clue where my future lay.

Salvation

Prologue

One year earlier

Luna knew it was time to leave Defiance when she saw Tru being marched up to the front gates of the motorcycle club.

She didn’t know for sure at that moment if Tru was coming back into the MC she’d grown up in against her will or not, but being half dragged through the gates by the leader of a rival MC didn’t bode well, for any of them.

That feeling of being trapped, of needing to escape had been brewing inside Luna for months, years, but she’d managed to tamp it down, mainly out of fear. The post-Chaos world wasn’t the place for a woman alone. The pre-Chaos world hadn’t been either, though, and seeing the woman who’d been one of her best friends being forced back inside made the dread grow in her belly.

What if there’s really no escape?

For the week prior, she’d had the feeling of some kind of impending crisis, had spent most of the time assuming it was another big storm coming down the pike and trying not to panic too badly. But the feeling of doom intensified and even now, looking at Tru’s march back through the Defiance gates, Luna wasn’t sure if this was the event that had been weighing on her so heavily.

She’d had this foreboding feeling before, many times in her life… most importantly, right before the Chaos hit, and that series of storms had changed the world as she’d known it. It was an intense event that took her parents, the sunlight, many forms of communication. It changed her entire way of life and left her in the cradle of the Defiance Motorcycle Club, a place where she’d grown up, one she’d been forced to depend on for her complete survival.

Defiance MC was in a chaos of its own with Tru’s return. The one-time princess of the MC was causing a ton of trouble with other MCs, with Caspar, with the leaders of Defiance. Although the MC had thrived during the three years following the Chaos, thanks to their doomsday prepping club founders and their system of underground tubes, there were still an awful lot of challenges that came with daily living.

Luna spent a lot of her time during the next evenings after Tru’s arrival in one of the smaller garages, working on her truck. She’d been rebuilding it, nearly from scratch after it had been caught under the partial collapse of her childhood house. She’d smoothed out the dents on the bumpers and the hood, but didn’t bother with new paint and the like, because she didn’t want it to stand out on the roads.

A tremor went through her—she looked up at the sky as if an impending storm was on the way but it was dark and clear. Goose bumps rose on her arms but she didn’t pull her shirt on over the tank top she wore. Her hair was half wrapped in a bandana, a braid over her shoulder, grease on her arms. She drew in a couple of deep breaths and mentally cursed that her truck wouldn’t be ready to leave that night—the timing would’ve been perfect. But she couldn’t risk getting stuck on the road.

In reality, she couldn’t risk leaving at all, but she would. She had to, or she’d shrivel up and die here.

“God, maybe you could be more dramatic,” she muttered, went back into the garage and continued to work on the engine until her eyes blurred. And then the feeling covered her again, like some kind of blanket. Her skin tingled as if electricity burned through her.

When she looked up, he framed the doorway, filling it. There was light shining in from behind him, which she didn’t understand since there was no light out, and she drew in a sharp breath.

It was, she imagined, a lot like being struck by lightning. Painful but somehow thrilling at the same time.

Honestly, for about two seconds, she thought he was an illusion, an angel, with the song “Patience” blasting in behind him that she’d later learn was coming from his van.

Rebel had left her some pot earlier, and she’d smoked while she worked. It might’ve been particularly strong or maybe it was just the night’s magic—or the man it ushered in—but she was higher than she’d ever been in her life.

The pull toward him was indescribable. The fire burned in the corner stove, the music pounded and she’d dropped the wrench and walked toward him.

He’d moved toward her as well. When they were close enough, she noted that he looked haunted, as haunted as she felt. She went up on her tiptoes, threaded her hand through the back of his hair and pulled his head down. She pressed her open mouth to his and kissed him with abandon.

He tightened an arm around her waist—not enough to frighten her, but rather, to add to her excitement. Somehow, his arrival was what she’d been waiting for, what she’d needed. And as she moaned against his mouth, they swayed together.

This had to be a dream. A slow-dancing, sinking-to-the-ground dream, where they lay together, fully clothed looking up at the fluorescent paint Rebel had put on the ceiling. Axl Rose’s rough voice and promises soothed her almost as much as this man’s arms. And that’s all it was—kissing and lying in the tall, tattooed man’s arms but it felt far more profound, like they’d connected on a level she’d never connected with anyone before.

If she’d woken in the morning and found it had been a dream, she wouldn’t have been surprised.

She spent a lot of time staring at the phoenix tattoo on the inside of his forearm. She swore she saw the wings move.

Was he who she prayed for?

“I wanted someone to come rescue me,” she murmured.

He looked concerned. “Are they hurting you here?”

Yes, they were, but not in any way she could encapsulate at the moment, not enough to make him understand. She should’ve given him more credit, because somehow he knew. He was like her in more ways than she’d understood at that moment—the connection was immediate, impossible to ignore and it was forever.

“Not really,” she lied.

“Well, I’m here, babe. And fuck, you’re beautiful,” he murmured, brushing her cheek with his knuckles as they lay on the blanket in the middle of the garage.

She smiled. And then she fell asleep.

The next morning, she woke, blinking, confused and thinking it all must’ve been a dream. Until she saw the man with the phoenix tattoo at the diner with another new guy. He glanced over at her, his eyes full of the same intensity they’d born toward her last night and her heart squeezed tight.

She didn’t even know his name.

* * * * *

The next night, he’d broken into her place, climbed right through her window.

It had been the middle of the night and she’d been reading by candlelight. She hadn’t had time to react before his entire body was halfway inside and then she’d been too stunned to say anything right away.

When she finally found her voice, she managed, “Most people knock.”

“I’m not most people. Besides, do you kiss everyone the way you kissed me last night?” There was no teasing in his tone, no censure—he was completely serious, like he knew her answer would be no. Like he was telling her that this was the way it was going to be.

He scared the shit out of her for that. Her cheeks burned. “I don’t even know who you are.”

“I’m Bishop. You’re Luna.”

“I’m with Rebel,” she blurted out.

“Try again.”

“What are you even doing in here?” she demanded

“Talking to you,” he said reasonably.

“That’s not…you can’t just do that.”

“Really? But I’m here.”

“If you don’t leave…”

“What? You’ll call your boyfriend?”

The way he said the word, she knew he wasn’t buying that anything was happening between her and Rebel. But she said “Yes” anyway.

“But you don’t love him. Not like that. Although you pretend really well. Why do you want people to think you’re in love with him?” he asked, tilting his head.

“It’s complicated,” she muttered, keenly aware of how little clothing she wore. Rebel rigged the heat in the house to blast most nights, since she refused to come down to the tubes unless there was a storm. So she wore a sleeveless tank and her underwear…Bishop was in jeans and a black leather jacket, a navy blue bandana wound around his head that made his blue eyes stand out even more.

His hands…they were so big. Everything about him was big—she knew when he was pressed against her last night.

Now, he sat on the edge of her bed and then laid back and stared up at the ceiling. “You don’t like it underground?”

“No.”

“I don’t either.”

“You can’t stay here.”

“Rebel said I could.”

“He did not,” she said, but knowing Rebel…”Dammit.”

He laughed then. “Luna, you made this whole goddamned thing worth it.”

From that night, he’d refused to be ignored, and even though his presence was often silent, that made it no less demanding. And as much as she’d thought she’d hated it…she’d really also loved it.

She realized he could break down her walls, and in response, she worked on building them higher, using Rebel as a shield and pretending that things could get back to normal. But in reality, things were never normal, even when people thought they were.

Bishop was like magic to her. She was embarrassed to say it to herself, but every time she caught sight of him, she felt as thought there was something so mystical inside of him, it made her want to crawl into bed with him and never come out.

He made her restless, more than she’d been, because everything was shifting and changing. Bishop and Mathias showing up in their big, black van had given her the imminent sense that something was going to happen soon, and it would be big. Bigger than all of them.

Even so, she remained convinced that loving him wouldn’t protect her from anything in this world.