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I leaned my head against the wall. “I have claimed her.”

“Oh shit.”

I stood up from the couch and pretended to be interested in the new sketch King had been working on to finish Ray’s sleeve. It was all three of their kids’ names woven into a mangrove tree on the bay.

“Never thought I’d see the fucking day, man.”

“It was stupid. Twice now and I didn’t wrap up either time.”

King laughed and motioned for me to bring the joint back to him.

I shoved it into his hand. “What’s so fucking funny?”

“Let me ask you something, man. Of all the girls you’ve ever fucked how many times you forget to wrap it up with?”

“None. Not a single fucking one,” I admitted.

“It’s funny ’cause that’s how you know. Never thought about it with Ray. Never crossed my mind and honestly, if it had, I didn’t give a fuck about the consequences. Anything to keep her linked with me was all right by me. I may not have known that at first, but I sure as shit know it now.”

“Now you got three kids, man. Two of which are tearing the house apart block by block.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty fucking great. Still don’t think to wrap up either,” he said with a laugh.

“I’m not thinking about having kids right now. I’m thinking about how to keep this girl alive.”

“Your girl.”

“Yes, MY girl! There I said it, does that make you happy now?”

“It’s a start,” King said. “So you think about what Bethany said to you? ’Cause if you are going to go through with it then you need to tell her. She should know what she’s in for. There are things you need to go over with her. I’ve been there man. You don’t want her going in blind.”

I lit a cigarette. King was right, but I had no idea how to start the conversation with her. “I got something else in mind,” I said.

“If you’re thinking of doing something stupid, don’t,” King warned.

“Stupid was taking her into a public place and almost getting her killed. Stupid was making a promise to a ten year old I never intended to keep. Stupid is every fucking thing I’ve ever done in my life up until this point. I got to keep her safe.” I stubbed out my smoke in the ashtray on the coffee table. “Nothing stupid about that.”

*     *     *

Thia was up at the house to help Ray with the kids or dinner or something, to be honest I hadn’t been paying attention because I was too focused on the fact that if it wasn’t for Gus or Ti’s quick thinking, she wouldn’t be breathing right now. I was too busy thinking with my cock instead of worrying about keeping her safe.

You were thinking with your heart, dumbass. It’s that other useful organ in your body. Preppy informed me.

I made a promise to myself that although all this shit started out as a lie, I would keep my promise to her. I would protect her, but I made another promise to myself too. I would not just protect her, but I wouldn’t let her get sucked into my life. She was better than it.

Better than me.

I would keep her safe.

I just couldn’t keep her for myself.

Thirty minutes and one text message later, a practiced hand was wrapped around my cock.

I’d drank straight from the bottle of Jack until I didn’t care, which although I was hammered, still wasn’t working. Because Ti was going to walk through door at any second and see what kind of man I really was. I was hoping I would be drunk enough not to see the look of hurt in her eyes. Not to register the look of disappointment on her face.

Why did I even care?

She knew I’d planned to leave from the moment we met. I never told her that had changed. I never promised her that I was going to stay.

Or that she was going to stay.

King was locked up for years. I made him promise that he would call in all the favors he still had on the inside because I could protect her for now, but wouldn’t be able to when we weren’t together anymore.

Fuck, why does this hurt so bad?

“Mmmmmmmmm…” she murmured, like I wasn’t paying her to jerk me off. I wasn’t even hard.

Every time I started to wake from whatever self-induced coma I’d put myself in, my newly conscious state always brought a wave of disappointment with it.

It’s not that I wanted to die. I just wanted to live in a state of oblivion. Was that too much to ask? Oblivion didn’t have thoughts of being a biker without a home. Oblivion didn’t have confusing thoughts of Ray, although in recent days those had started to fade away.

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