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Jaxon looked even worse today. I had no idea what story they gave Tucker, but Jaxon looked every bit like he’d been jumped and brutally beaten. His eyes were swollen and puffy, heavy blackish-purple circles lining each one, and he was limping slightly, holding a hand to his side. His ribs were either bruised or broken, and part of me didn’t even want to ask.

I wanted to rush to him and take him in my arms, but I merely met his eyes with a sympathetic stare and he gave me a tight nod. Even though this was pretty much the world’s crappiest situation, it brought me closer into this family, and I had to say I loved that.

Watching Knox converse in hushed tones with Jaxon and Luke, I was struck with a pang of shock. Before I met Knox, I was so naive. I never knew even half of the things that went on in this world. I had been living in my own bubble of misery, volunteering and just existing. Still, I wouldn’t trade this for anything. Even though times were tough, I had a family again. A big, messy family, complete with love, heartache, and worry. My emotions were right at the surface today and everything felt so raw and new. I was out of practice with this whole family thing, and felt vulnerable and exposed.

Luke and I watched them prepare to leave, exchanging equally worried expressions between us. Luke, seeming to realize he was now the oldest brother in charge, came to stand beside me and placed a comforting arm around my shoulders, giving me a squeeze. “It’ll be okay, McKenna. Knox will handle this.” His voice sounded calm and certain, but he had no way of knowing the outcome, any more than I did.

I just nodded. I trusted Knox; I just didn’t trust this shady neighborhood street gang. Once they’d gotten this money from us, would they really leave us alone?

Shrugging on the backpack, Knox crossed the room and kissed me full on the mouth. He rarely did that in front of his brothers, but I met his kiss with my own fierce edge, letting my tongue briefly rub against his. His hands cupping my face trembled ever so slightly. “I love you,” he whispered.

I nodded. “Love you, too.” My eyes screamed at him to stay safe and come home to me in one piece.

He nodded in silent acknowledgement of my request. “We’ll be fine.”

My stomach dropped to my toes and for the first time, I could relate to Knox’s fears and hesitations when it came to love. If I didn’t love them all so much, this process wouldn’t be nearly as scary. I gripped Luke tighter and said a silent prayer that Knox knew what he was doing.

Several hours later and everyone was in bed, but I was way too amped up to sleep. I paced Knox’s bedroom, my heart heavy with worry. Where were they? What was taking so long?

I checked my phone for the hundredth time and fell back onto his bed. I curled into the pillow that held Knox’s unique scent, inhaling deeply. Warm leather and male musk, a delicious combination.

A short time later, I awoke to the sound of someone climbing the stairs.

Knox was back.

I sat up in bed, rubbing the sleep from my tired eyes. Oh, thank God. He was okay.

Knox stood in the doorway, smiling at me like everything was right with the world, and the tense knot that had taken up residence in my stomach uncurled in an instant. His brilliant smile melted my heart and the hardened shield I’d erected in his absence.

He tossed the backpack onto the bed and it landed with a dull thud. It was still full. I lifted it to my lap and unzipped it. The cash was still stacked inside.

“What happened…how did you?”

Dread sank low in the pit of my stomach. They hadn’t succeeded tonight. Which meant the gang was probably coming for us. My mind was already running through scenarios of us five holed up in my apartment. I needed to buy groceries, milk, get more towels…

“McKenna.” Knox’s warm hands cupped my cheeks. “Look at me.”

My gaze drifted back to him and I took a deep breath. Just breathe.

“You didn’t think I was just going to watch them walk away with Luke’s college fund, did you?”

That was exactly what I’d assumed. That was the plan, wasn’t it? I wouldn’t have offered the money if I hadn’t thought it was the only way. “I don’t understand.”

I listened with bated breath while Knox filled me in on how he’d contacted his lawyer and provided the tip that this exchange was going down tonight. His lawyer agreed to inform the police; that way the call could never be traced back to Knox. Several members of the gang were wanted on various charges, and once the cops had the time and meeting place of tonight’s exchange, they showed up and apprehended the bad guys. Knox and Jaxon took off running—well, hobbling in Jaxon’s case—and hid out until the police had made their arrests and taken the gang members away to keep up the ruse Jaxon and Knox weren’t responsible for involving the police. Once the scene was clear, the money was returned to Knox.

I shook my head in disbelief. I couldn’t believe he’d put himself in danger, orchestrating that entire thing without me knowing. I felt sick thinking about what could have gone wrong. It was probably better that he hadn’t told me about his alternative plan; my head would have been spinning with what ifs. Saving this money was not worth the risk.

“Knox, you guys could have…” Been killed. I couldn’t even bring myself to speak the words. Hot tears leaked from the corners of my eyes. Why would he take such a risk? I couldn’t lose him.

He took my hands and held them. “That is your money to do what you want with. Your parents worked hard to earn that, saved for years to make sure you would be okay. Even if I don’t love the idea of you giving it to Luke, I get it. It’s who you are. It’s one of the reasons I love you. That money is yours to do what you want with. There was no way I was just handing it over.”

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