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“Twenty-four,” Princess corrects.

“In a little over a month it’ll be twenty-five,” her mother says, rolling her eyes and then peers through her lashes at me. “Our Mel always throws a celebration,” she tells me, her hands in prayer mode under her chin. “This year we can’t wait to see what she plans!”

For the first time I notice my party girl seems at a loss for words. “I might pass this year, everything’s so expensive.”

“Nonsense. It’s twenty-five big ones!” her father says.

Melanie’s silence is weighed down with a grief that’s palpable. Suddenly, I’m honed in on the fact that the three of us are watching her while she looks down at her plate, her lip caught under her teeth. My fingers twitch at my sides, and a flash of concern hits me as I realize she’s sad, the flash of pain followed by a flash of determination to make it better.

God, she brightens the room. When she’s sad it’s almost as if a light just turned off. I live in darkness enough and I’ll be damned before I let her see her light turn off.

“All right, so charades it is!” Her father claps with mock enthusiasm.

Under the table, I steal a touch of Melanie’s thigh and rub up and down in a slow, soothing motion I’ve never used on a woman before but that she brings out in me, nonetheless, and I get high when her cheeks redden and she smiles again, her sadness forgotten. I swear her smile shoots straight up to my head like an upside-down thunderbolt.

I should feel like a thief, like I’m stealing this moment that doesn’t belong to me. Instead it’s too damn easy to pretend it’s rightfully mine.

“Grasshopper, what do you say, boys versus girls. Huh, Greyson?”

Soon Melanie’s walking around sticking out her neck, puckering her lips, and leaning forward and pecking in the air. She’s sexy, and fun, and silly, and what she’s doing somehow shoots like a gallon of blood straight to my dick.

So apparently this game includes cards. We picked a category. The dad went for animals. And she’s acting like some weird animal.

“The team who guesses the most wins,” her dad tells me, slapping my arm. “Don’t worry, our little grasshopper never guesses correctly—a crane!” he suddenly yells out.

“Yes!” she cries.

“You go first, or should I?” her dad asks me next.

“By all means, sir. I’m not dying to make a fool of myself just yet.” He laughs and pulls a card out and I see it’s a bear.

He spreads his arms out and walks around. “Gorilla!” Melanie cries. He grins at me and lifts his arms up in the air, higher.

“Stallion!” Mrs. Meyers cries.

Mr. Meyers spares me a glance and lifts his eyebrows up to his hairline in a way that says, See? These women are clueless.

He continues acting until I’m chuckling, watching them, until it’s my turn. I sneak a glance out the window and make sure I’m not visible—if Derek sees this, it’s the end of Zero. No more respect for Zero.

I pull out a card and get dog. I start snarling and do the first thing I can think of, grab a pillow and chew on the corner.

“Wolf!” her mother cries.

I clamp it between my teeth and shake it from side to side.

“Oh dear,” her mother says.

Melanie is laughing her ass off, and I feel like a dickwad. Hell, I want her to guess, but f**k this, I’m not gonna whine like some dog.

I drop the pillow and give up, and she’s clutching her stomach, laughing, and so hot as she comes over and takes the pillow away, playfully running her fingers through my hair. I can see the family dynamic now so clearly.

“My grandma used to say,” she tells me, with one last ruffle of my hair, “those who play together, stay together.”

She’s been protected all her life. Happy. Playing an innocent, fun game. She shines. They all shine. They’re ridiculous and stupid and I have never in my life wanted to be ridiculous and stupid. I kill, blackmail, and con the ridiculous and stupid.

“The one who can do the best trick gets the last brownie!”

“Now, son,” her dad tells me after that announcement, “any trick you can do, now’s the time to do it. Those brownies are killer, I tell you.”

“You go first, Dad!” Melanie cries.

Mr. Meyers begins to do a Russian dance, hut noises included. Her mother makes a realistic gorilla. Melanie looks at me, then she cups her mouth and starts a donkey call. Finally, they all look at me.

Fuck. Seriously?

This is so f**king stupid.

But . . .

It’s the way she is looking at me, curious, happy. It brings me back to where she is. And it makes me study the dining room to see what the f**k I can do. I spot a vase with daisies on the table. They’re hot pink—so princess.

Grabbing a steak knife and backing up several paces, I fling it across the room, past them. And pin the center of the daisy to the far wall.

Silence.

“Holy guacamole!” her dad cries.

“That’s an incredible trick!” her mom cries.

Melanie brings me the brownie as I unpin the daisy, and as she hands over the sweet, I hand her the flower.

“That’s an interesting trick,” she says, surveying me and smelling the flower. “They teach you that at security school?”

“They teach you donkey speak in Decorating 101?” I want to make her flush, and it works. She laughs.

My effect on her is like a drug and it shoots straight to my head, dizzying me.

“That was one cool trick,” I hear the father whisper to the mother, but I’m consumed by my f**king filthy-mouthed princess standing close, panting and excited, playful and warm and full of promises of the things I’ve never had in my life.

I offer her some of my brownie, and she bites into it. I start to brush her hair behind her forehead, and when I look up, her parents are watching us with these huge smiles on their faces, like they’re thrilled their grasshopper has finally found a guy “friend.”

And I see, right here and now, that this is what the Underground took from me.

SIXTEEN

DEBTS

Melanie

We f**ked before he left town.

Straight from my parents’, he followed me to my apartment, up the elevator, to my door. I stood there, starting to say goodbye. He slammed my mouth to his, scooped me up, and took it from there to the bedroom.

He threw me to the bed and ripped my clothes off, then his. My body trembled and my breaths shuddered out of me as he dropped over me.

He held me down, one hand on my shoulder, the other on my hip, and f**ked me hard. I screamed and twisted, raking my hands down his back.

“Look at me.”

I tried, moaning.

He slid his hand up my back, under the fall of my hair and held me by the skull, tipping my face up. “Say you love it,” he commanded. “Say you f**king love it.”

“I love it,” I moaned.

His mouth crashed down on me and he gave me the kiss of a lifetime, the f**k of a lifetime. When he peeled our mouths free he slowed his pace and said again, huskier, “Look at me,” filling me to the hilt with hot, pulsing live flesh.

I looked and he looked back at me, greedy, strong, driving over and over inside me. Not holding back. Every move telling me he needed this as bad as me.

My cl**ax took me over like a storm. With every shudder that passed through me, another, deeper one ran through him until we were both panting and undone. I clasped my thighs and arms tighter around him, holding his hard, heavy body to mine, keeping him a little longer inside me.

I didn’t want to let go. My face was wet again from my orgasm but all of a sudden I felt like crying an ocean.

I’m afraid of what he makes me feel, and of the reality of my circumstances.

I’m afraid that I will owe all this money and have had no buyers for my Mustang, and when my time runs out three days after my birthday, a dozen angry mobsters will come knock on my door and nobody will be able to help me. Nobody will be able to stop them. Not even him.

I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know what to do. But nobody makes me feel as emotionally vulnerable and as physically safe as he does when he holds me.

The fact that he came to brunch, unexpectedly, told me more than all his warnings have. He exhaled in my neck and rolled us to a more comfortable position, where he kept me to his side, and I felt strange emotions swamp me.

Don’t be needy, I told myself, but I felt like an imposter. I still heard myself whisper, “Everything my parents said . . . don’t believe it. They just think I’m perfect, but I fake it.”

I eased away from him and clutched the sheet around me.

He sat up in bed. “I know about faking it.”

“My life came at a very high price and it’s just hard to live up to it.”

Instantly he reached out and set a hand on my shoulder, tracing a circle on my skin with his thumb. “My life has come at a high price too. Every day of it.” He brushed one lone tendril of hair back from my face, our eyes locking. “So many days trying to find some f**ked-up meaning in it.”

The revelation left me breathless, and I waited and waited and waited for more, saw there was more in his eyes, but he got up and grabbed his clothes.

“I’m glad to be wanted here, Melanie,” he said, shooting me one of his many winning smiles.

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