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“My-my dress . . .”

He stops, then I hear plastic shuffling and I realize he picked it up in lord-knows-what condition from wherever it fell.

“Thank you,” I snivel. Then I realize, he’s not a good guy, he doesn’t want to help me! If he did, he’d have let me go.

An uncontrollable shaking takes over my body, making my teeth chatter. He straps me into the backseat of a car that smells remarkably like the lavender sachet I put in my car after it almost became a boat and the tires screech as we leave.

We end up parking somewhere, and once again, we’re in movement, pauses, movement, stealthy, as though he moves and stops, not to be seen. We climb some stairs, and I hear a crack of a window. We keep walking. Then I hear running water.

He sets me down somewhere soft, which I think is my bed, and unfastens the binding on my wrists, his gloves rubbing against my pulse points. I close my eyes and pretend it’s another glove, from another man, comforting me, but the fact that he’s not really that other man makes my misery all the more intense.

He mechanically starts freeing my legs, then rubs the wounds again around my ankles.

“P-please don’t hurt me . . . !” I cry, kicking then calming down when he eases back. “Is it because of the money . . . ? I’ll get the money, I’m getting the money,” I start rambling. “My car is up for sale, I just haven’t had takers and owe half of it anyway, so I need just a little more . . . !”

He does something unexpected. He reaches for my hand and gives me a squeeze. Not an angry squeeze, a reassuring squeeze. I fall quiet. My heart skids as he keeps his hand on mine for a moment too long, until he seems to be sure I’m breathing right. He lets go. I feel his footsteps and the creak of my window, and suddenly I reach up and scramble to remove the hood.

I’m in my apartment. The shower water is running. He left . . . through the balcony and emergency stairs?

There’s blood on me. There’s blood all over me as I slide into the tub, fully dressed, and take a bath, scrubbing myself clean. Quietly crying. I went to beg those awful men for more time, and they gave me some, but I’m running out of time again. Why on earth did I ever think I could make a stupid bet and not get involved with these kinds of people? I think about asking someone for help, but I’m too proud to. I’m too proud to tell my best friend, my friends, I’m too proud to tell my parents who think I’m perfect and can do no wrong. And Greyson. For some reason thinking about him makes me most sentimental of all. He makes me feel so safe, like he could protect me from the world. Even from men like these.

But I’m too proud to let the only guy I’ve had a connection with know about this. He probably doesn’t like me that much anyway. No. It’s never like that for me. I cry quietly in the tub, feeling so dirty I never, ever want to get out.





These bastards want to play around? Touch what’s mine? Then they better all. Be f**king ready. To die. Whoever sent these four to retrieve her, whoever made the call, they’re dead. And as for the ass**le C.C. brought back with us to the warehouse? I’m going to motherfucking kill him, tear him apart, limb by limb.

Hissing in pain, I stick my bleeding upper arm into running water, my eyes burning from the rage, the impotence, the pain of knowing what they were about to do to Melanie tonight.

I couldn’t even f**king talk to her. I couldn’t even tell her it was going to be all right. Because of the list, because of Zero, because he can’t be known out of the Underground; so I had to hold her in my arms and hear her sobs. I had never, ever held a crying woman before. Hear her beg me to please not hurt her, only adding fire to my already roiling gut. They were going to . . .

Goddammit, I can’t even think.

I stare at the mirror in the dingy warehouse restroom, nostrils flaring, my face pale from blood loss, my eyes brilliant with that cold gleam of death. I look deranged. I feel deranged. I pull the mirrored cabinet open and search for bandages, things clattering to the ground when I find nothing.

I press a towel tighter to the wound and try to knot it, all while unable to tame the urge to kill rushing in my blood.

I haven’t had a drop of real humanity in me since my mother left. But despite my upbringing, I wanted to tear that dirty hood off Melanie’s head, wipe her tears, look into her eyes, and command her to stop crying because it does something to destabilize me. And command her to stop shaking because it makes me shake in rage. And promise her that it’s going to be all right and the next time she’s touched, it will be by a man who wants to please her more than himself. Most ridiculous of all is that somewhere in my twisted mind, that man is me.

C.C. stalks into the bathroom of the small warehouse where he brought the sole survivor of our encounter.

“Where the f**k is he?” I yell.

“Hell, you’ve looked better. We need to stitch you up, man.”

I follow him outside to where the group of girls who usually trail after C.C. is gathered around. “Get a needle,” I tell the one I see first, then I kick a chair out from a plastic table and lean over to talk to C.C., just me and him. “Tell me he at least f**king spilled something?”

C.C.’s eyebrows furrow low. “He doesn’t seem to know who hired him.”

“What about the others?”

“I stashed the bodies. Just the lucky survivor will be getting a visit from you.”

“I wouldn’t call him lucky.” I scan our surroundings, wondering who could be after her, and why.

My father, Eric, any of the guys. Is there a hit on her? Is this my father dabbling in his own affairs after he gave me his word? Was this a warning from one of my own “loyal” brothers-in-arms?

My arm is so numb, I can’t feel it, but my skin is sticky and warm with blood and I’m so frustrated I want to kick something.

By all that’s holy in the world, if my father’s behind this, I will kill him.

I’m battling with my emotions as the brunette comes back with the needle to stitch me, and she brings a bottle of alcohol.

“Well, well, now, looks like I’ll have my hands on you after all,” she purrs. “What have we got there?”

I extend my arm as she opens the bottle of alcohol.

“It’s a nick from my girl,” I growl. “She doesn’t like it when I don’t call.” I don’t want to remember how she was sobbing and I wanted to rip off that hood . . . and do what? Reveal myself to her? Can’t do that.

The girl pours the alcohol over the wound and I bite back my reaction, gritting out, “Make it nice and tight. Small.” I tear a piece of my T-shirt and bite down on it and don’t make a sound, watching as she sews me up.

“She did good. For a princess,” C.C. tells me.

I’m in pain, and I’m still f**king fuming. I clench my teeth around the cloth.

A redhead comes and sits on my lap as her friend bandages me. “Oh, Z, we were so worried.” She licks her lips. “What do you need?”

“Mindy,” I say, spitting out the cloth. “That’s your name, right?”

She nods eagerly.

“Mindy, I’ve been teaching my girlfriend how to shoot her new gun. I don’t think she’d appreciate you sitting here.”

“Oh.” She eases off me.

“Come here, darling, I’ll give you a long, slow petting now.” C.C. edges his legs open and makes room for Mindy, eyeing me. “Girlfriend, huh? She know about it yet?”

“I’m informing her tomorrow.” I turn my attention to my best friend now. “C.C.—this could be coming from the Underground. This could have something to do with that f**king debt.” I tighten the bandage just a little more. “I need her name scratched off ASAP and I think I know how.”

“Well, you can’t let Slaughter know you so much as thought to buy her a paper or he’ll f**k with you, man. He’ll make her disappear just like he did Lana.”

“Don’t you think I f**king know that? No. I need her to have the means to pay without her ever sensing it.”

Stalking to the small bar, I pour myself two fingers of whiskey and drink, gazing at the path of my own blood on the floor. She’s too good for this, but now she’s involved. Now she’s more than a name on my list. She’s on somebody’s blacklist and I am one pissed-off motherfucker here.

“Whoever it is, they f**ked with the wrong girl.” I toss back the whiskey and pop some Vicodin back with it.

“Ah, god, I’m vastly entertained by the look on your face. I’m almost sorry for our guest.”

“Take me to him.” As I follow C.C., I ask him to get me a plane ticket to my apartment in D.C. for early morning. “Make sure I’m back by six so I can make the wedding.”

♥ ♥ ♥

THERE ARE THREE types of knives for throwing. Blade heavy. Handle heavy. Or balanced. Grip and angle are most important. Long range, you keep your wrist unbent when you throw so the knife won’t turn too much in air. Mine hardly turns, it shoots straight ahead. I used to practice on cardboard cereal boxes, then willow, birch, pine slab, hanging in the wind. Now there’s a man before me and I know exactly how to shift my weight from my dominant leg to the other to create momentum, how to swing my forearm, elbow straight out on my release. It’s not about strength, but about finesse. Little force is needed. The knife gathers strength on its own.

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