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“Let her go,” I say again, lifting my backpack, preparing to launch it at him.

“Set that down . . . we will.” My first mistake was listening to him. I lower my backpack. My father kneels before me and holds out a black weapon, then lowers his voice so that only I can hear. “See this? This is an SSG with a suppressor, so nobody will hear it. It’s got no safety—ready for use. Shoot one of these men, any man, and I will spare your mother.”

She’s crying hard, shaking her head, but a slimy, bald man behind her forces her neck still. I step away from my backpack. It’s close to me, close enough to kick like a soccer ball. I play, and I can send it flying across the room. But to who? What if I hit my mother?

I inspect the weapon and wonder how many bullets it has, not enough for all these men but for the one holding her, yes. I take it, confused that my hand doesn’t shake. It’s heavy and there’s no fear, only the need to free my mother.

I look at the one holding her neck still.

Her eyes crying.

One day he’ll find us Greyson . . .

I aim farthest away from her to the largest body part of the man that I can.

I fire.

A clean dark hole appears in his forehead. The man drops.

My mother screams inside her gag, and cries more hysterically, kicking both her tied legs in the air.

My father takes the gun from my hand with a look of wonder and he pats my head.

More men pull my mother up to her feet and drag her down to the garage staircase.

“What are you doing? Where are you taking her?” I grab my pack and swing it at one man. Another comes and grabs me, squeezes my arms as he talks and spits in my ear, “Son, son, listen to me, they made a deal, she lost you. She lost you!”

“She’d never lose me. Mother! ” I grab a knife from his belt and stick it into his eye, twisting. He releases me with a howl and a spurt of red blood, and I go running down the stairs as I hear a car start.

My father catches me. Slaps me. Then cocks the gun at me. He smiles when I go still.

“Greyson, my son, even your instincts made you stop. You know this just killed a man. You’re not going to die. If you die, you can’t save her. Can you?”

My whole body is paralyzed. He smiles sweetly at me and hugs me, keeping the gun against my temple.

“I knew you were my son. I told your mother, it wasn’t nice to keep you from me. Thirteen years, Greyson. Thirteen years looking for you. She insisted you weren’t my son. I told her if you proved to have my blood in you, you were coming with your father, where you belong.” He eases back and studies me with pride. “I gave you a choice to shoot a man.”

He looks up the staircase, where I know there is a motionless body. A body that won’t move again because of me.

“You killed him. Bullet straight to the head. You’re my son, every inch of my son; you will be powerful and feared.”

His voice chills me. I don’t feel anything when we go upstairs and I see the dead man, no remorse, nothing. I want to kill more, kill everyone who hurt my mother. “Where is she?” I ask, my voice odd. I killed something else with that man. Me.

“She will be taken somewhere else. Because real men are not raised by women, you hear me? My son will not be raised by a woman. Not without his father. No, you will be like me.”

I look at the car pulling out of the garage, driving my mother away. The look in her eyes when I shot that man. A cold panic like I’ve never felt spikes and spreads through me. I want my mother to explain to me what I did, why it was wrong, why it was wrong when it was all for her. Why she’s being taken away. My face is suddenly wet, and I get another slap, this one shooting me across the room and against the wall.

“None of that, boy! None of it. Now see that man?” My father points at the man covering his eye where I stabbed him, blood staining his shirt, his jeans. “He’s your uncle, Greyson. Uncle Eric. He’s my brother, he’s our family. We are your family. Apologize for what you did. If you’re good and I’m happy with you, I will let you see your mother. She will be kept alive only for you. She was family too, and I take care of my family—but she shouldn’t have betrayed me. She should never, ever, have taken you.”

It took me very little time to realize how this family worked. Very little time to realize that my father used only his newest men for these antics. The guy I killed, standing like some mannequin behind my mother, had been working for him for three days when my father whispered the dare in my ear, all the time expecting and hoping I’d prove myself Slater enough to make my first kill.

Many nightmares later, I supposed my mother had been trying to tell me not to shoot. If I hadn’t been so determined to defend her, if I’d proved to be weak, she’d be with me. I’d be left in school, thought unfit to be a part of this family. But I played my father’s game and instead of saving her, I doomed us both for the rest of our lives. I showed him I was thirteen and yes . . . I would kill, even him, for my mother.

I was good. I trained. I sucked back every emotion in me. I became nothing. Zero. And left when the promises and promises that I could see her turned out to be nothing but empty words . . . I followed every lead, and found nothing. A whole big world, and all these skills, and I still don’t know where she is.

A noise in my bedroom filters into my dreamlike state. I awaken instantly, and move by instinct, reaching under my pillow for my knife. Lightning fast, I flip around and send it flying, slamming it within a grazing hair from my intruder’s face, against the door.

“Zero?” a stunned voice says in the dark.

I’ve got my gun cocked and aimed before Harley finishes my name. Then I sigh. “Never do that again.” I shove up to my feet and flick on the lamp.

I turn back to my list. I’m anxious to get this over with. So many names. So many. I can’t even stand looking at her name, there, next to number five. “Your father wants to see you. He wants to know how the situation is going.”

My father has the oddest hours. We’re still off-season. Everyone is sleeping. The meds and the morphine they give him make him sleep all day, and wake only for small periods during the night. I grab the list and shove my legs into my slacks while Harley waits for me.

He grins. “You’ll enjoy that one.”

“Excuse me?”

“Number five?” he presses. “Your finger . . . it’s on number five.”

I drag my finger away and my heart starts pounding with the sudden urge to choke him as I fold the page into a tight little roll.

He didn’t attack her, but the fact that her name is on my list bugs me. The fact that all the guys know she owes us money. Wyatt, Harley, Thomas, Leon, C.C., Zedd, Eric, my father . . .

I think of her, feminine and vulnerable, exposed to these ass**les, and things uncoil from inside me, like cobras out of a basket. Only she can make me feel this. Like I’m the home of a deadly hurricane, and it has no outlet. I told myself last night before going to bed that I would use what little honor I had left to protect this girl from me. I told myself She doesn’t want you. Not the real you. She wants a prince, and you’re the villain. You’re the one she’s working extra hours for. You, your father. I don’t want to remember how she smells like summer and the way she slides into bed. Warm. Hot. Real. Melanie. Number five on my list.

“This chick. She came to ask for more time to make her payment,” Harley says, “which got her name almost to the end of the list now. She asked for an extension. Leon told her she could become an extension of his f**king c**k and they could forget about it. If she can’t pay, we’ll all pitch in for a chance to f**k her.”

I breathe hard.

Nope.

Doesn’t calm me.

There’s just no f**king way anyone will touch her. No FUCKING way.

“Go. I’ll go talk to my father in a bit,” I snap out darkly, holding his gaze pinned.

I slip into a shirt and then wait for him to leave. I’m so f**ked up by what he said that I grab my knife and fling it at my target across the wall. I do it several times . . . I won’t leave this room until I’ve hit my bull’s-eye twelve times, straight up, which means I’m calm again. I could probably blame this possessiveness on my cock. I never did like sharing for shit. Or I can blame it on some false sense of justice—I never believed it fair when someone stronger took advantage of anyone weaker. Pure cowardice. But that’s not it either.

I wonder who’s taking her home.

Jaw clamped, I swing my knife and hit dead center.

♥ ♥ ♥

“SON,” JULIAN SAYS, his eyes lighting up when he sees me. I hear the beep of his heart monitor, and notice, to his right, Eric is rolling up his shirt sleeves.

“Update?” I direct myself to Eric, crossing my arms as I assess the trio of nurses around them. I not only owe Eric his eye, I have owed him my life, here, in this f**ked-up, strange family.

“He needs platelets,” Eric explains.

I hate myself for being unable to stand there and just watch. I hate that some sense of duty, of loyalty to my own blood, makes me hold my shirt up and expose my veins. “I’ll do it.”

My father lifts a hand as I take a seat next to him. “No. You get nicked out there, you’ll bleed to death. Not you.” He looks at Eric and makes a hand gesture for him to proceed.

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