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“I remember clearly. Being I’ve done the dirty work for you. So let’s spare you that penny. I’m thinking, why bother to wait for you to die? I could smash your oxygen tank right now and take care of you nicely.” Slowly, I hold his gaze with a cold smile, pull out my black leather gloves from the back pocket of my jeans, and start sliding one hand inside.

He glares at me for a quiet moment. “When you’re done disrespecting, go and clean up, Greyson.”

One of the guys steps forward with a suit.

I calmly slip my hand into my other leather glove.

“As before, no one will know your name,” my father begins in a softer tone. “You can have money and the life you want as my son—in fact, I demand you live like a prince. But I need your head and heart in this. The job comes first, and I’ll have your word on that.”

“I have no heart, but you can have my head. The job is all there is and all that’s ever been. I AM my job.”

Silence.

We survey each other.

I can see the respect in his eyes, even, maybe, a little fear. I’m no longer a thirteen-year-old, easily bullied by him.

“For the past five years of your absence, my clients . . .” he begins, “. . . they’ve seen no weakness from us at the Underground. We can’t forgive a single cent owed or we’ll be seen as weak—and right now there are many collections left to be done.”

“Why not have your minions do it?”

“Because there’s no one as clean as you. Not even the fighters know who you are. Zero trace. You’re in, you’re out, no casualties, and a hundred percent success rate.”

Eric pulls out my father’s old Beretta and offers it to me as some peace symbol, and when I find it in my hand, slightly over two pounds of steel, I find myself flipping it around and aiming it at my father’s forehead. “How about instead I take your Beretta Storm and encourage you to start telling me where my mother is first?”

He looks at me icily. “When you get the job done, I’ll reveal your mother’s location.”

I c**k the gun instead. “You can die first, old man. You’re well on your way already and I want to see her.”

My father’s eyes flick to Eric, and then to me. I wonder if Eric will really be “loyal” to me while my father sits there, pretty as you please.

“If I die,” my father begins, “her location will be safely revealed in an envelope, already in a secure location. But I won’t reveal shit until you prove to me, through the collection of what every name on this list owes me, that you are—even after these years apart—loyal to me. You do that, Greyson, and the Underground is yours.”

Eric walks over to a nearby chest and produces a long list.

“We won’t be using your real name,” Eric whispers as he hands it over. “You’re the Enforcer now, our Collector; you go by your old alias.”

“Zero,” the rest of the men in the room say, almost reverently. Because I have zero identity, and leave zero traces. I run through cell phones like I run through socks. I am a nothing, a number, not even human. “Maybe I don’t respond to that alias anymore,” I mutter, curling my fingers inside my leather gloves before I stretch them out and open the list.

“You will respond to it because you’re my son. And you want to see her. Now get changed, and work your way down the list.”

I scan the names, top to bottom. “Forty-eight people to blackmail, scare, torture, or simply rob in order to get my mother’s location?”

“Forty-eight people who owe me, who have something that belongs to me that needs to be retrieved.”

A familiar chill settles deep in my bones as I grab the suit by the hanger and head to the door, trying to calculate how long getting pertinent information about each of these debtors will take me. How many months it’ll take me to meet with them, try to bargain the nice way—then the hard way.

“Oh, and son,” he calls, his voice gaining strength as I spin around. “Welcome back.”

I send him an icy smile. Because he’s not sick. I’d bet this list on it. But I want to find my mother. The only thing in my life I’ve ever loved. If I have to kill to find her, I will.

“I hope your death is slow,” I whisper at my father, looking into his cold slate eyes. “Slow and painful.”

TWO

HERO

Melanie

Sometimes the only way to stop a pity party is with a real party.

Expectation hums in the air as warm bodies jostle, my body straining in between the other dancers. I can feel the fun around us spinning like whirlwinds at my sides, intoxicating me.

My body’s slick from dancing, my silky gold top and matching skirt clinging to my curves in a way that tells me I should’ve probably worn a bra. The brush of damp fabric only causes my ni**les to poke into the silk and draw several discerning male eyes in my direction.

But it’s too late now, and the crowd is high on the music, the dancing.

I stopped by tonight when one of my clients, for whom I decorated this small little bar/restaurant, invited my boss and all my colleagues over. I said only one drink, but I’ve had a couple extra, and the one half empty in my hand is now seriously the last one.

A guy approaches.

I can’t miss his sudden, I-want-to-bang-you smile. “Want to dance with me?”

“We already are!” I say, moving a little with him, swinging my h*ps harder.

The guy wraps an arm around my waist and pulls me closer. “I meant if you want to dance alone with me. Somewhere else?”

I look at him, feeling a little high and dizzy. Do I want to dance with him?

He’s cute. Not sexy, but cute. Sober, cute is no way, Jose. But drunk, cute is completely doable. I try to find the answer in my body. A tingle. A want. And nope. Today I still feel . . . hopeless.

Smiling to ease the blow, I edge away from him but he presses close to my body and blatantly whispers in my ear, “I really want to take you home.”

“Of course you do.” I laugh, declining the drink he offers with a playful, but firm, shake of my head.

I think I’m a little too drunk already, and I have to drive myself home.

But I don’t want to aggravate a possible client, so I kiss his cheek and say, “But thanks,” and head away. He takes me by the wrist and stops and turns me, his eyes hot and lusty. “No. Really. I want to take you home.”

I give him another once-over. He looks rich and just a little bit entitled, the kind who always uses me, and I suddenly feel even more hopeless, more vulnerable. In less than a month, my best friend is getting married. The effect of that wedding on me is not bad, it’s worse. Far worse than anyone could have imagined. My eyes burn when I think about it, because everything my best friend, Brooke, has—the baby, the adoring husband—has been my dream for so long, I cannot remember having another dream.

Here’s a man who wants to have sex with me, and once again I’m tempted to fall. Because I always fall. I always wonder if he, maybe he, is the one for me. The next thing I know, I wake up alone with a bunch of used condoms around me and feeling lonelier than ever, and I am once again reminded I’m only good for one-night stands. I’m no one’s queen, no one’s Brooke. But god, will someone just tell me, when do you stop kissing frogs? Never, that’s when. If you want that prince, you have to keep trying until one day you wake up, and you’re Brooke, and a man’s eyes are shining on you and only you.

“Look, I’ve done you a thousand times,” I whisper, sadly and hopelessly shaking my head.

The guy lifts his brows. “What are you talking about?”

“You. I’ve done you.” I signal at him, top to bottom, his elegant looks and dress, the weight of my sadness and disappointment only crushing me further. “I’ve done you . . . a thousand times. And it’s just not going to work.” I turn to leave, but he catches me and spins me around again.

“Blondie, you’ve never done me,” he counters.

I look at him again, tempted to just be taken home and made to feel good.

But this afternoon, I was at my best friend’s place, where I caught her being kissed long and hard by her guy, a kiss so long and hot, he was murmuring sexy stuff to her the whole time, telling her he loved her, in a voice that was deep and tender, and I wanted to cry.

My insides are still warm and sensitive remembering, and not even dancing for a full night has successfully made me forget how truly loveless I feel. After seeing the way my best friend is kissed, really kissed, and after knowing she will have less time for me now that she has other priorities with her new and beautiful family, I’m starting to feel like I will never, ever find the kind of love that they have. She was always responsible, always a good girl, but I am . . . me.

The fun one.

The one-night stand.

“Come on, Blondie,” he urges in my ear, sensing my indecision.

I sigh and turn. He pulls me close, and he looks at my mouth as if ready to convince me with a kiss. I’m a toucher. Brooke calls me her love bug. I love closeness, contact, crave it like I crave air. But I never really feel any man’s touch reach past my skin. Yet I’m always tempted because I keep thinking that THE ONE is right around the corner and I can’t help but try.

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