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“Absolutely,” she purrs.

I slip on my gloves as I talk to her. “I want the evidence delivered personally to me.”

“With my absolute pleasure. I’ll make contact when it’s done.”

I hang up and stare at Melanie’s text again.

Just trash it, you f**king pu**y.

She’s a hot button, but this is me.

Do I really need a hot button? Do I need to wake up in the middle of the night with a hard dick? A twenty-five-year-old with a bunch of whores asleep so near, I can probably stumble over a couple just by opening my bedroom door. But those green eyes like forests, that pu**y tight around my cock. And those sounds she makes. Do I really have to torture myself, remembering how good it felt, how f**king clean and sweet she smelled?

“This can’t happen,” I whisper down at my own phone, my blood roiling in my veins when I think of how stupid I was to think I could have one night, just one night, of what a normal man does. “It can’t happen again,” I say.

I have a job to do. I AM the job.

My mother’s life could be at risk, and so could anyone’s who has contact with me. My father could take anything I’m interested in, just like that. Just to prove that he can. Just to try to own me. Doesn’t matter if I want to layer my princess in f**king jewels when she’s lying all sated and sweaty right next to me. Doesn’t matter if I want to go back and watch those eyes go dark when I fill her, over, and over, and over. Doesn’t f**king matter what I want. Only what I have to do.

Swiftly I pull the back off the phone. “Can’t happen to you.” I start pulling the phone apart. “It can happen to anyone but not to you. Whoever she ends up with, there’s a ninety-nine point nine percent guarantee he’ll be better than you.”

I pull off the battery of my permanent cell phone, remove the SIM card, the wire cage, until I’ve got dozens of little pieces in my hand that will ensure I will never get another text from her and will ensure she never again hears from me.

Until I come to collect on behalf of the Underground.

SIX

FIVE GOING ON SIX

Melanie

Five days after Greyson . . .

“So, he’s out of the picture?” Pandora asks today as I organize the pricing PDF file for one of my clients.

I bury my face in my hands. For a second, I want to pretend Pandora isn’t here, breathing over the top of my head, her angry concern like a little cloud with thunderbolts over us both.

Five days.

Five long, awful days where all my hopes have dwindled to nothing, all my fantasies have gone black, all my expectations have become nil.

And here’s Pandora, worried and angry on my behalf, probably happy she gets to have a good excuse to be a bitch today.

“Yes,” I finally grit out. “He’s f**king out of the picture. I hope you’re thrilled.”

I pull my phone out just to show her how textless it is.

She looks at the barren screen, grunts, and shakes her head and drops down on her chair. “Scumbag,” she says.

“Dick.”

“Asshole.”

“Scumbag!”

“I already used that,” she points out.

“And as quickly as the bastard used me,” I mumble. Literally, the disappointment piles up by the hour, and a fresh wave hits me as I tuck my phone away. Never have I felt like I’ve misjudged a situation as much as I did ours—his and mine. It’s officially Friday. If the guy wanted a date, you bet your ass he’d have called before today.

I’m so hurt I can’t even understand why I’m so hurt. Maybe because I thought he was different, and he turned out to be just what Pandora said. I hate it when she’s right and I’m wrong.

I especially hated her being right this time, when I really wanted her to be wrong.

Thank god she’s sitting down quietly at her desk and I’m not hearing any I told you sos. If she even starts, I will hit her as hard as I want to hit myself right now for being such a fool.

“I’m so done with men,” I burst out when I find Pandora’s silence equally as annoying as the stuff I know she wants to say. “I don’t need them to be happy. I’m going to get a dog. God! I just remembered I probably can’t even afford the luxury of a little dog anymore.”

“Stop buying shoes,” she chides.

Sighing because I’m not going to explain to her I owe more than a pair of shoes, I click on my search engine and navigate to the online advertisement of my car. A picture of my Mustang stares back at me—with a bright red number on the top and a big FOR SALE sign. It’s all I have, and still not enough to cover what I owe. Like me. We’re both not enough.

For the first time in a week, my reality crashes down on me. Hard.

I have no more hazel eyes with adorable green flecks to make me feel hopeful and expectant. I have no more texts to look forward to. I have a car to sell, a debt to settle, and a whole lot of misery to deal with.

My grandma, before she passed, always said the best way to feel better was to focus on someone else and do something nice for them because you weren’t the only one with a problem.

I look at Pandora, thinking of all the times she’s been called a bitch in this very office, and I reach out and tug a strand of her onyx-colored hair, saying, “All that black hair is so drab. You should make a change too, add a pink strand to all this soot?”

“Fuck you, I hate pink.”

I roll my eyes and tell the heavens—okay, Nana, I tried!—then get back to my computer to stare at my car. Whoever dried it while Greyson dried me did a great job—Brain, please focus on my Mustang.

It took me a full day to get the perfect images when the sun hit my car at just the right angle. It’s so pretty I can’t believe it’s been several days and no callers.

What if I get no callers?

The stress starts creeping up me like a big ole whale choking my windpipe when Pandora rolls around in her chair to face me. “Come on, bitch, talk to me!” she cries. “What made you think he would even be more than what you always get? He gives you a ride when your car won’t start; you go to a hotel. What do you even know about him except that he apparently f**ks you stupid and now you’re not the Melanie I know? Where’s the smile, where’s the spark? You’re acting like me and I don’t like it.”

I fling my arms up high. “He said he’d be in touch . . . he came back to give me a ride home and I read more into it, which was a mistake, all right—my mistake. Believing him. Believing he was different or that we had some special . . . connection. God, I’m so lame, but I bet that’s no news to you.”

“Fuck him, Melanie.”

“I already did. Now let’s stop talking about him. Let’s order me a T-shirt online that says I RULE, MEN SUCK. I need to raise my bar higher. I need to really make them prove themselves before I give them a chance. Let’s go see Brooke today.”

Brooke’s baby was born premature in New York over a month ago, but since her fighter husband is currently off-season, they’re living in Seattle while they plan a small church wedding.

Pandora grabs her backpack as we get ready to leave for the day. “Have you noticed the way daddy holds the baby? It’s like the baby’s head is half the size of Remy’s biceps,” she says.

God. I hope I can take seeing the way Remington Tate looks and smiles with his dimples and his loving blue eyes at Brooke.

“By the way, I asked Kyle to go with me to the wedding. I just want to put those lesbian rumors to rest, you know?” she tells me on the elevator.

“Really?” I ask, suddenly feeling abysmal. “Great. I’ll be a third wheel then.”

SEVEN

MARKED FOR A LIFETIME

Greyson

It’s always the same dream.

Never varies.

Always the same number of men.

It’s always 4:12 p.m.

I’ve been dropped off by the bus.

A line of cars is in our driveway.

My mother’s words ring clear as a bell in my head: One day he will find us, Greyson. He will want to take you from me.

I won’t let him, I’d promised.

But right then I know, he’d found us. The father I didn’t know. The one my mother didn’t want me to end up like.

I pull the strap of my backpack from my shoulder and hold it with my fist, ready to knock someone out with a hundred pounds of homework and textbooks.

Ten men stand in my living room. Only one is seated, and I know it’s him when the blood in my body starts rushing faster. It’s just blood, but my entire being recognizes him even though I’ve never seen him before. He doesn’t have my eyes, but I have his eyebrows, sleek and long and almost in a perennial frown. I have his lean nose, his dark looks. He sees me, and a parade of mixed emotions marches across his face, more emotion than I allow him to see in my own expression. He gasps, “God.”

I see my mother then. She’s also seated in one of the single chairs, her honeyed hair in a tangle, her ankles bound, her arms pulled tight behind her. She’s trembling, gagged with a red bandanna, and trying to talk to me, words that get muffled by the cloth.

“What are you doing to her? Let her go!”

“Lana,” my father says, ignoring me, his attention now slowly turned on my mother. “Lana, Lana, how could you?” He looks at her, his eyes filled with tears. But for every tear my father sheds, my mother sheds a dozen, trails of them.

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