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“Not yet. I have work to do,” I whisper, rubbing the pang she just caused in my chest.

“But when are you coming back to me?”

Holy god, she’s going to be the end of me. “Soon, baby,” I concede. On your birthday. When I want no more bullshit between us, nothing between us. “I’m coming home soon and next time when I leave, I want to bring you with me,” I gruffly whisper. “Just answer me this. Are you my girl?”

“First tell me you’re my guy.”

She misses me.

It’s in her voice, in how she speaks to me.

“Yeah I am, which officially makes you my girl. And, Melanie?”

She’s quiet on the other end of the line, breathing hard.

I add, my voice low but uncompromising, “I’m going to eat YOU UP when I get in. As long as I have breath in me, you’re going to be my princess.”

“Okay, Grey. Then you’ll be my king,” she whispers.

Oh, yeah, she’ll definitely be the end of me. “I thought we said no majesty jokes.”

“It wasn’t a joke,” she counters. Then she adds, “Grey?”

“Yeah?”

“I knew you’d call. This is why I’ll never sell the necklace.”

“I’ll always call, necklace or no necklace. Let it go, baby, and I’ll give you something better.”

I hang up and try to get a grip on myself, but my blood runs hot from talking to her. I remember the first day I saw her screaming for Riptide in the Underground. She was bouncing up and down, clamoring for another man, and I just stood there feeling strangely assured, and a little voice in my head said, This one’s mine. I knew I’d been had in the same way I know when I’ve got my marks in my pocket and a debt slashed—I’d been had.

All of me, part of me, whatever piece of me she wants, she can have.

I’ve got it all perfectly planned.

Two more marks . . . aside from princess. I’ll retrieve the evidence for that second-to-last one in Denver, and I’ll take care of shit that night while the team makes sure the Underground fights are running smoothly. Then I fly to Seattle just in time for her birthday. I’ll surprise her. I’ll get to tell her that no, baby, I wasn’t spawned from the devil, and soon, you’ll actually get to meet my mother . . .

I groan as the first flicker of hope I’ve had in years takes root inside my gut, and I flip around in bed, trying to get some sleep even when I already know I won’t. Not until I know both my girls are safe and sound and with me.

EIGHTEEN

UNDERGROUND

Melanie

The Underground is exactly as I remember.

Crowded.

Noisy.

Stinky.

Nervous about encountering any mean men, but happy about Brooke expecting us, I tug Pandora toward our ringside seats, and that’s when I spot her.

My best friend. Dark hair in a ponytail, skinny jeans, spaghetti-strap top. She’s staring up at the ring as the two fighters work each other to the point of collapse.

“BROOKE!” I call as I start running over, and she leaps out of her seat.

She’s been my best friend since we were old enough to wear halves of a locket that said “Best Friends” and broke right in the middle. Naturally I still have my part in a little box under my bed, but Brooke’s part fell during a sprint and we never got it back. Which is fine, because our friendship itself has never broken. I’ve never fought, loved, or had as much fun with a girl as I’ve had with my best friend, so there’s naturally squealing involved when we hug today after months of separation.

After a tight squeeze, we both push each other back to make a thorough inspection. I want to make sure Mr. Riptide is taking care of my girl, but, holy shit, Brooke looks . . . there are no words for the shine in her eyes and in her hair and in her smile.

“Look at you!” I cry. Shit, of course he’s taking care of her, he freaking adores the Jesus out of her.

“No, look at you!” she counters as she hugs Pandora even though Pandora doesn’t like to hug as much as I do.

Pete comes and greets us as we settle in our seats. He starts chatting up Pandora about his romance with Brooke’s sister, Nora. I loathe Nora, so I’m glad the bitch is in college and away from here. Pete is so good for her, but I secretly hope he’ll fall for someone nicer and sweeter and smarter and break up with her for good. Nora used to be the girlfriend of one of the Underground’s grossest fighters, one with a scorpion tattooed on his big fat head—enough said.

I squeeze Brooke’s hand so that she updates me on everything possible. “How’s Racer? Am I going to get to see him tonight or is it going to be too late?” I demand.

“You can come over to our suite, of course! He’s so big, Mel. But tell me—” She stops talking and her eyes widen when we hear the word “RIPTIDEEEEEEE” shoot out from the speakers.

And the arena knows it’s that time. Riptide. Remington Tate. Brooke’s husband. God of sex—in case I haven’t mentioned him a little, let me just say I know for sure that every vagina in this arena is crushing over him.

The fights in the Underground are never as alive and intense as when he comes out—there’s just something about him. He puts it in the air, excitement, intensity, raw strength, and boyish playfulness.

“My ovaries just exploded,” Pandora mumbles to my left.

Brooke jumps to her feet as Remington “Riptide” Tate leaps into the ring, draped in a boxing robe that is redder than red—and I’m so excited to be here, to see this, to get my mind out of my own insecurities and that stupid debt that I can’t help it, and my body can’t help it, and my vocal chords can’t help it—so I scream.

“Remmyyyyy!!!” I’m on my feet with Brooke, where I can’t resist hugging and smacking her simultaneously. “God, you f**king whore, I can’t believe you do that every night!” I say, shoving her.

She shoves me back, yelling, “Several times a night!”

And that’s when he winks down at her from the ring.

She stops goofing around with me and grins back at him—all her attention on only him. Her husband now. And as he waits for his opponent, he keeps his smile and his sparkling blue eyes on her. And that look? It’s a clear You’re Mine look, but it’s so f**king tender I feel it melt over me. Greyson . . . Greyson . . . Greyson . . . suddenly he’s in my head, his own version of this look swimming inside me. His own version is a little less tender, a little more guarded, a lot more raw, a lot more dark, like there is something painful inside that makes him hurt more when his eyes meet mine. My body feels like a huge void just opened inside it at the mere memory of him. Of us.

“Oooh god, you guys are going to kill me,” I tell Brooke, watching as a big-ass man comes to take the stage. I’m concerned for Remy for a moment as the fight begins, but then, wham! He takes control so thoroughly that I’m not concerned anymore.

“YOU’RE THE SHIT, REMINGTON!” I squeal, pulling Brooke’s face to mine. “Look at you. Wife and mother, dude, he’s so f**king in love with you, I can’t even take it!”

“Oh, Mel.” She sighs and sags against me like she can’t take loving this man any more than she already does.

They bring another man up for Riptide, and I swear these opponents get bigger and bigger as the seasons pass by.

“Remy!” I scream again as the men start fighting up on the ring.

Brooke squeezes my hand, and I squeeze back and lift her hand in mine, high in the air as we watch them fight. “Remy! Your wife is hot for you, Remy!” I scream.

Brooke has always been the reserved one of us two, a little shy about speaking out with conviction, but I know that she loves it when I do the screaming here.

“Remington, you’re so f**king hot!” I scream on her behalf.

And then Brooke stuns me when she leaps up to her feet and cups her mouth so her voice carries farther, and she starts screaming with me, “YOU’RE SO FUCKING HOT, REMY, KILL IT, BABY!”

And he instantly kills it.

The public goes wild as his opponent falls down with a thud, and I stupidly blink at my best friend. “Omigod, so you scream now? And how well trained is Mr. Riptide to immediately please his sweet little wife?”

I’d go on, but Brooke is too busy grinning up at Remy because he’s grinning down at her, all sweaty and lickable, and I fall quiet while something squeezes hard in my heart.

I will never be the first person Brooke turns to now when she wants to cry, or talk something out, or vent, or go out for a run. My best friend is deeply, madly in love with this man who I know would go through hell and back for her—because he already has.

So, in a way, my best friend has a new best friend now. And he’s a husband too, a father to her baby, a lover to her.

But me? My guy likes to f**k me. He says he’s bad for me, but I sense he needs me. I sense he misses me. Is it my gut talking to me, or my silly hopes? All I know for certain is that I’m falling in love and I’m so far in deep now that the sheer gravity of it all makes it seem impossible to stop myself from continuing deeper and harder into this dark, unknown, scary plunge.

God, I’m so f**ked.

Brooke seems to notice I’ve fallen quiet, and I hadn’t realized she’d been watching me intently.

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