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Eric waits for my approval, and I give it with a nod. I’ve always taken his words—I’d say to heart, except I don’t have one. But I’ve taken him seriously all these years. Whereas my father refuses to engage in anything that might hint at weakness, Eric has, once or twice, patted my back and called me “son.” But loving uncle or not, karma is a bitch, and I owe Eric an eye. For my father’s side of the family, an eye for an eye is not only sworn by, it’s stamped on each of our birth certificates.

“This list,” I tell my father, unrolling it from my hand, looking at Eric first, then my father, a threat—smooth and cold as steel—in my tone, “I want your word, and therefore the word of any man under you, that nobody is to touch any of my targets. Any name here is exclusively mine to deal with as I see fit. I guarantee the amount owed. I want a guarantee to my methods.”

Eric looks at the list and his one eye focuses on number five. Melanie. He wants a chance to f**k her? They all want her. I want her. I want to grab him and tell him this little piece of heaven? This is mine. But I cannot do that or I’ll look weak. I can’t outright buy her name off this list without endangering her, and not only to my father. She could become my every enemy’s target, known or unknown.

“This list and every name on it is mine to enforce,” I repeat, my voice level. “Only I make contact, only I retrieve and direct payment—as I see fit.”

“On the condition that Eric be filled in on a daily basis of progress as he keeps me company here, yes,” my father agrees.

“Your word,” I insist.

“So stubborn, Zero.” He slaps me, hard enough to make a sound, but not enough to make me move a muscle, and laughs. “I give you my word.”

His word alone should be enough, but words, blood, I will never live a day when I believe in something without reservation. He could be lying. So I bend over and pat his shoulder, giving the impression of a loving son to the nurses nearby as I whisper, “Any of them step out of line, I’ll wipe them out. Even my brother.”

Once again, I see the respect in his eyes as I ease back and he nods at me, betraying no expression as I straighten. I glance at Eric. “I’ll be gone for a few days. I’m taking one or two of the team, no more. I’ll summon backup if needed.” I glance at the nurse injecting the needle into his veins, then back at Eric. “Thank you.”

When I head back to my room, I feel a buzz, the kind you get when you’re hunting. Or killing. Or want to.

I wouldn’t want to mess with me tonight. This talk of Melanie begging the Underground for an extension? “Please, can I have some more time to pay?”

It’s got me charged.

I’m charged with a fierce protectiveness I’ve never felt before and it’s spiking my adrenaline in ways nothing else ever has.

I grab a couple of new phones, change a couple of chips, then I book my ticket online and pack a few things. The buzz in me changes to something dangerous . . . not deadly, but dangerous, not only to me, but to her.

While watching her these past months, something’s happened to me. I want you too much, sweet princess.

She’s gotten to me, under my skin, into my head, it’s like she’s flowing in my damn blood.

I shouldn’t have her.

She deserves more.

More than any guy I know, and definitely more than me.

But to let her run around loose, single and available? When I can make sure the damn bed she’s sleeping in is mine? When I can hold that face in one hand and look into those eyes and f**king know—certain as I breathe—that she wants me too?

I’ve been working my way up the list, instead of the usual way, from top to bottom. But I’m stalling because I don’t want to collect from her. I’m stalling because she’s a little burst of life and I don’t feel like charging in there like the apocalypse, shrouding her with my darkness.

I don’t want to remember a month ago, when I watched her spill her coffee as she walked to the office, how devastated she looked because she’d messed up her scarf, her whole outfit ruined. From all the way across the street, where I ducked behind my newspaper, I heard her rant that she’d rather be fired than head to work wearing only two colors! Looking drab! That was no way to meet a client!

God, I laughed. I laughed, and I was still grinning over what a passionate little thing she was on my flight back to where my team was stationed, hiding my grin under my palm as I stared out the window.

From the moment I found her on my list and then laid eyes on her, I’ve followed her.

I’ve followed her in the pretense of finding out her social habits, her weaknesses, so I can sweep in for the kill, but the truth is, I follow her because I’m a sick f**king ass**le, obsessed as a dog with the way she walks, all the colors she wears, all the ways she smiles, the bubbly, lovely little package that she makes.

I had two emotions in my life before I met her, anger and detachment.

Now she’s given me ten more. Lust, frustration, concern . . . even joy. I have never, ever wanted anything the way I want those green eyes to memorize me the way I’ve made it a religion to memorize her.

I grab my duffel, the ziplock bag with all the phone pieces, and the card. I build it back up as I ask Derek to drive me to the airport.

The phone comes alive in my hand and my gut starts to heat when I start texting her back, finally, at last:

Be home tonight.

EIGHT

MESSAGE

Melanie

Saturday morning, as dictates our comfortable little routine, I find my parents having breakfast, bathed, perfect, and smiling. Maria, their cook, has the best breakfast in town, and having breakfast at Mom and Dad’s makes me happy because the table is always set with linens, silver, and the food is placed in such a perfect way that you feast with your eyes first before reaching into the offerings and serving yourself.

“Lanie!” Mom says as I walk in. “Your father and I were just talking about Brooke’s wedding. When did you say it was?”

“Less than a month.” I kiss her cheek and then hug my tall, handsome dad. “Hey, Dad, you look cute.”

“See? She noticed I cut my hair, unlike you,” he tells my mom, pointing an empty fork in her direction.

“You hardly have any hair, how am I supposed to notice? So tell us about the wedding. I still can’t believe she’s getting married before you. You were always prettier and so much more lively,” my mom says, squeezing my hand as I sit down.

“I’m sure her fiancé would disagree,” I counter. I hate when my mom always puts Brooke down merely to make me feel better. I don’t feel better—she feels better, making excuses as to why a good guy won’t want me. Sometimes I think her own desperation to see me happily married makes little ole Murphy poke his head out and lay down the law—the more she wants it, the less it’ll happen. Woe is me.

“Still doesn’t excuse why no decent man out there can see that my baby girl is about as good as they come. You’re fit, you have a beautiful smile, and you’re sweet just like your momma.”

“Thank you, Daddy. I’m sure my unmarried state has everything to do with the fact that all men are ass**les except you.”

“Lanie!” Mother chides, but she doesn’t really chide, she laughs softly.

“Well, Ulysess’s son is running for senator and he always asks about you. He’s not the brightest nut out there, but he’s good looking and—”

“He’s g*y. He wants a beard, Dad. A sham marriage to fool his constituents. I can do better than that on my own.”

“When I was twenty-five . . .” my mom begins.

“You were married and already had me, yeah yeah yeah. But I have a career. And I have a . . . very busy dating life. In fact, I’ve been dating so much I wouldn’t know who to pick to take to Brooke’s wedding,” I exaggerate.

My mom and my dad, what can I say? I love them. I like pleasing them. They’ve loved me my whole life. I have been showered with love. They not only love me, they want me to find the kind of love they share. I don’t ever want them to suspect what I already suspect myself—that for some reason, it’s just not happening for me.

“Just remember what I told you, Flea,” my mother says. “Choose the man who treats you best. The one who will not break your heart, who can be your friend, who you can talk to.”

I poke at my French toast. “You say that because Dad was your best friend. I, however, have a female best friend, and I would never marry my closest guy friend, Kyle. Ever.” I shudder when I think of my sexy Justin Timberlake-look-alike-BFF and me having so much as a kiss. Continuing to poke my food and softening my voice, I add, “I don’t think you can plan these things, Mom. I think they just happen and suddenly you’re standing on the side of the ring, meeting the man you’re going to marry when he winks at you. Or you find yourself standing in the rain, and all you pray for is that whatever feeling just struck you struck the man in front of you too . . .”

I look at my phone wistfully.

God, I’m such a fool fool FOOL!

The only thing that struck that man was lust, and now he’s been stricken with the Run-Away-From-Melanie syndrome.

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