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If you hit with the butt, you don’t change the force, only allow more or less rotation by standing back or forward. I have all this science behind my technique and I’ve never been more ready to apply it.

He’s tied to a chair, at a small corner room in the warehouse. One light flares bright over his head. He’s bleeding and swelling, but the sight of his blood isn’t enough to give me satisfaction.

He looks at me, I look at him.

His trembling increases, and it pleases me. Immensely.

I start approaching, keeping my voice low. “Who hired you?”

“I’m n-not talking, like I told your ff-friend.”

I pull open my knife roll and shoot, grazing his temple. He yelps, and I keep throwing until knives are stuck into the wall all around him, outlining his ass**le face. Then I aim for the center of his thigh. It hits.

“Fuck! Another crazy f**k? I thought you were the good one!”

“I’m sorry to break it to you, but you already met the good one.” I don’t even fake a smile, I feel nothing for this motherfucker. Not even pity. I pull out another knife and test its tip. “I’m the guy whose girl you just f**ked with, so I’m making this extra painful. I’ll be taking a little piece of your skin, one throw at a time. One ball at a time, a piece of your dick at a time. I’ll draw it out, make it slow and painful, until you tell me who hired you.”

I hit him in the tip of one finger, pinning him there. He cries out. I smile and pull out my next knife.

“Was she a surveillance?” I ask.

A lot of contracts begin as surveillance and end up as something else. I hit his next finger. He cries out and stains his pants.

“Was this ransom, kidnapping?”

He’s choking on sobs. I hear the faint sounds of traffic outside. I hear her, my big dreamy green eyes, sobbing under a f**king black hood and I clamp my jaw and send one knife that lands straight in the center of his palm. “WHO’S YOUR BOSS?” I demand.

The blood’s pouring now; but I won’t stop until the words start pouring too. Just when he’s falling asleep, numb from the pain, I quietly command C.C., “Music please. We won’t be sleeping tonight.”

♥ ♥ ♥

Four hours later

I DON’T HAVE a name.

I have a shitload of anger, a ton of f**king frustration, no sleep, some pain. But no f**king name.

We don’t know if she has a mark on her, whose target she is.

I need her off that list, and fast.

How will your pride take it if I give you the money, princess?

Will you throw it back at my face?

You will, won’t you?

Hell, I know you will . . .

Stepping into my apartment, I’m still hung up on the glimpse I got of her in bed, sleeping with a mountain of pillows on both her sides as I left her dress on the knob of her bedroom door.

She looked exquisite. Fuckable. Vulnerable. And I stood there, the blood rushing faster in my body, my c**k throbbing as much as my patched-up biceps and the left side of my chest.

Now I open up the safety deposit box and nearly yank the handle off its center. Some of our debtors are in so far they have to pay in barter. Watches, gold, jewels. Sometimes we keep “scraps” for bribing officials, anyone who gives us any trouble in any undertaking. Sometimes my father won’t take the scraps and I’m forced to provide the cash while I pawn, sell, or otherwise.

I grab a brilliant diamond necklace from one of the extras I’ve collected. Once, I thought my mother would enjoy wearing it. Now I hope, instead, that Melanie will enjoy selling it.

I’ve got that sweet little girl pegged, even if she’s a complicated little thing. In her fun little brain, it probably never occurred to her that she would lose her bet. She must’ve pictured new shoes and wardrobes in her future, and maybe, to finalize the payment for her car. Instead, now she owes her life to the Underground. To my father. To me. We have a highly elaborate team for bookkeeping and collecting all debts, organizing the fights, selling the tickets. The tamer “Underground Committee” handles the tickets and the fight organization. But it is the Slaters who handle the gambling and the funding—the collecting, and the things nobody else should ever know about.

If Melanie is like any woman I know, she’ll accept a gift from her new pursuer then say someone stole the necklace rather than tell me the truth. That she sold it to pay a debt. And that’s all right, she can lie about this. I’m lying to her too. We’ll be even. She’ll have paid her debt, learned her lesson, and won’t ever have to know I’m part of her nightmare.

And I won’t ever have to see those green eyes of hers stare at me in horror like my mother’s did.

TWELVE

WEDDING

Melanie

I wake up to find my red dress hanging on the knob of my bedroom door, facing me. I blink and terror spins through me as I realize he was here. In my bedroom.

“Is anyone here?” I cry, pulling my sheets to my neck.

Silence. I leap out of bed and race to slam open all my doors, hard—in case there’s someone hiding behind them. I’m exhausted by the time I’ve gone around my apartment like some deranged person. Sagging against the wall, I let my eyes scan my dress. It’s perfect. No mark on it. It even has the dry cleaner’s stamp. My arm trembles as I touch the silk, snippets from last night flashing across my mind. Hands. Blood. Tears.

Seems like we both survived, my dress and I—but I’ll die before I sleep at home tonight. I’ll make Pandora invite me over for a couple of days, or I will spend the night at a hotel, alone.

God, but I don’t want to be alone.

I want another night with Greyson. I have lain in my bed for two weeks remembering that night we were together, and what I feel for him is so far beyond wanting, it feels like a needing. A hungering. I want his arms and his mouth. I want his heat and the look in his eyes to make me forget that I have bruises on my thighs, in my pride, and in my heart.

Exhaling, I hurry into my bathroom, lock the door, fill up my tub, and remind myself my best friend is getting married today.

After my bath, I rub myself with coconut-almond oil, slide on my sleekest thong, my red dress, some turquoise heels, a thick yellow wristband—at least three colors on me, which always makes me feel good—and I hurry over to Brooke’s place, telling myself to stop wondering if I’ll really have a date, if I’ll ever pay the debt, if I’ll ever have a good night’s rest again. Today it’s all about my best friend’s wedding and I am going to enjoy this day.

I’ve dreamed and dreamed of this for Brooke even before she knew she wanted it herself, and the moment Remington Tate leapt out of the Underground ring and asked for her number, I felt butterflies on her behalf and immediately gave him the number myself. Brooke would have never given it to him otherwise.

Now she’s as in love as I never imagined she’d be. She’s covered in white and I’ve just shooed the men to the church—because there’s no way in hell I’m letting Remy and Brooke start with any bad luck on their side. The groom just cannot see the bride in her dress until the wedding.

Grudgingly, they left, though Remington did not look pleased about it. Now big ole Josephine, the bodyguard turned nanny-bodyguard, and I are helping add the last crystal flowers to Brooke’s hair as we wait for Brooke’s mother and sister to arrive.

“Whose turn to hold Racer? He just drooled on my dress and I don’t want him puking on it too,” Nora says, nodding in the direction of a little dark spot on the bodice of Brooke’s dress.

Dropping her gaze, Brooke studies the stain and rubs it with her thumb, a weary disappointment showing on her face.

“Brooke, your guy won’t even notice the spot, I guarantee! Hand Racer over to me!” I demand as I grab little Racer and set him on my lap, rubbing my lips over the top of his round little head. He smells like talc and slaps his arms all over the place.

Brooke is busy texting the groom and glancing ahead. “I swear, this traffic,” she groans.

“It’s not like he won’t wait for you,” I squeak excitedly before handing Racer to his grandmother, who goos and ahs all over him, and I go and switch seats and try to hug Brooke even through all the tulle of her skirt. “Brookey, Remy was waiting for you all his life! He’ll wait ten more minutes, trust me.”

Brooke points a finger at me. “Don’t you say anything to make me cry,” she warns, discreetly patting the corners of her eyes.

I nod with a grin, but my windpipe tightens when I take her hand and squeeze it.

She’s my best friend. I’m an only child.

I have Pandora, my goth friend who’s my opposite—negative, sarcastic, and dark, and who I love. But Brooke is Brooke, and there’s only one for me. Brooke won’t be staying in Seattle because the nature of her husband’s work demands he goes on tour with the fighting league, and this moment is a very emotional one for me. Nobody ever thinks about the best friend when the bride is getting married. But right now, I’m so happy I could burst, and, at the same time, as miserable as I could be. First because I will miss her, and second because since I was a little girl, I’ve always wanted to be draped in white and to have the kind of groom she has waiting for her at the altar, madly in love with me, ready to protect me, spend the rest of his life with me.

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