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WIFE FOR A PRICE: A Hitman Fake Marriage Romance by Thomas, Kathryn (1)

This is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, places, events, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.

WIFE FOR A PRICE: A Hitman Fake Marriage Romance copyright @ 2017 by Kathryn Thomas and E-Book Publishing World Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embedded in critical articles or reviews.

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WIFE FOR A PRICE: A Hitman Fake Marriage Romance

By Kathryn Thomas

NO PRICE IS TOO STEEP TO KEEP HIM FROM CLAIMING ME.

Mine is a Cinderella story – just without the happy ending.

I thought serving drunks at Hooters was rock bottom…

Until Hound showed up.

You might think he was my Prince Charming.

But you’d be dead freaking wrong.

He didn’t come to save me, or to sweep me off my feet.

He came to chain me to his bed and make me moan his name.

Hound is here to collect on what my father owes from gambling.

He’s willing to negotiate… but he sure as hell won’t be leaving empty-handed.

Matter of fact, he wants his hands on me.

And he won’t take no for an answer.

Because Hound needs a fake wife.

In return for agreeing to play along, he’ll forgive my father’s debts.

But what happens when pretending becomes something more?

The longer I force myself to follow Hound’s orders, the more I want to do it for real.

I want to be his toy, his slave, his plaything.

I want to be his wife…

For a price.


Daisy

Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine I’m standing on a tiny island in the middle of a still lake. I’m not doing anything. There’s nobody bothering me. I’m just standing there, unknown to the world, the world uninterested in me, just standing and letting a light breeze caress my face. Peace…is that too much to ask? I don’t need a lifetime of peace, but perhaps a few minutes of it, hell, a few seconds of it. Perhaps if I could just stand on this island for a half-second my life wouldn’t seem as hectic and insurmountable as it often does. But sooner or later, you have to stop pretending; sooner or later, you have to open your eyes. But I don’t go back to my hectic, hellish, debt-ridden life because I want to. No, I go back to it because, just like most people, I need the money.

I open my eyes and find myself in the cloakroom of The Lady Shack, hunched over a cheese-and-ham sandwich with the crusts cut off. Off to my left, Candice is pushing her massive D-cups into a push-up bra which leaves nothing to the imagination. Off to the left, Sarah and Jessica are tittering about something. Sarah keeps glancing at me with those long eyelashes, with those pouty fake lips. I have nothing wrong with plastic surgery. I just hate that I can’t see what Sarah’s thinking. I try and imagine her at the funeral of somebody she loves, but I can’t. I just see a collagen mold standing there. Candice struts out of the cloak room, shaking her ass at me, throwing me a wink. “Gotta get those tips, girl.” She giggles and leaves the room.

Sarah is tall, Jessica taller, both with deep bronze artificial tans and massive round artificial breasts. Don’t get me wrong. My breasts aren’t exactly on the small side. But these bitches could be hanging upside down bat-style and their tits still wouldn’t move. Jessica picks crumbs from her plate. Sarah doesn’t even go in for that pretense. She just sits there, head held high, not even deigning to sniff her food. And then they titter, and whisper. So much for peace.

I look down at my sandwich and try to ignore them. But ignoring people means distracting yourself, thinking of something else, and as I sit here, I find that there’s nothing I can turn my mind to. Working at The Lady Shack— Burgers, Beers, Boobs! —is not exactly a barrel of laughs, but then again waitressing isn’t great fun, either. But most people have the luxury of at least thinking to themselves: Okay, this shift sucks, this day sucks, this week sucks, this month sucks, but at least I’ll be able to buy X with all this suffering. Well, X for me means constant payments to my gambling-addicted father, who’s so far in debt he’d need an oil-drill to get out.

“Two jobs, and still no hope. Welcome to America.”

“What’s that, Duncey?” Sarah hisses, glee in her dull brown eyes. Dykey is Sarah’s hilarious and subtle way of rhyming my name with an insult.

Sarah’s the sort of woman who never understood the concept of high school ending. It’s like she was birthed into the world at fourteen and never grew past eighteen. I imagine she was the Homecoming Queen, and the Prom Queen, and the Queen Queen. And on the final dance of the final year of high school, she just stood there, in her Queenly dress, waiting for it to go on. Even in her Lady Shack tank top, breasts squashed to make the men’s minds go wild as all ours are, she sneers and snaps and giggles just like she’s in the cafeteria. And like all bullying high-school-minded women, she hasn’t had trouble recruiting a sidekick. Jessica just sniggers, covers her mouth, flits her eyes all over the place. A classic sidekick wretch.

“Nothing,” I say, walking across the room to the trashcan. I can’t be bothered to fight. There’s no purpose to it. At the end of the day, we’re all working at The Lady Shack. We’re all grope-meal for the men’s egos out there. “I need to get back to work.”

“We were just wondering about the last time you took a shower,” Sarah says, giggling. “We were wondering if it was April or May.”

“Today’s August ,” Jessica adds stupidly, folding her arms like she’s just made a very good point.

“Congratulations, y’all,” I say. “You can read a calendar.”

The Lady Shack is perhaps the most hellish place in Texas, which, in summer, is itself the most hellish place in the States. The sun batters down on Austin as though it’s angry at the earth, making every piece of sidewalk a scorching misstep and every shadow a cooling relief. Sun cooks cars and makes men’s wives sweatier than usual. It makes their homes less appealing. It makes their one-bedroom apartments into mini-ovens. And so they come here, The Lady Shack, with promises of air conditioning and Wi-Fi and iced soda and sexy dead-eyed women smiling at them and telling them how funny they are whilst eyeing their wallets. I walk between the aisles to the waitress station, catching snippets of conversation.

“Oh, baby, you’re so funny…”

“Do you wanna get outta here, honey…”

“I know how to take care of a woman…”

“Oh, stop it, just stop it, you bad boy…”

“You alright?” Marsha asks. She’s second generation Polish, with barely the hint of an accent underlying her Texan. Marsha has been known to sit on men’s laps to get tips if she badly needs the cash. Right now she looks bored, as she often does when the hungry eyes of the customers aren’t on her.

“Fine,” I say. “Where am I?”

“Group F.”

“Okay.”

I look out to my tables. A few people are eating. One of the girls is leaving her shift, trying to get out of the door, but a drunk guy is laughing and blocking her way. The girl is laughing, too. If management sees her not laughing, she might be out of a job. Then I spot him, the lone man sitting with his back to me, facing the window. The Lady Shack looks out onto a street which might as well be named Corporate Street: coffee chains, electronics chains, fast food chains, and on and on, left and right. I can’t see much about the man from where I’m sitting, but I imagine he’s much like the rest of them.

I had dreams once, I reflect as I walk on six-inch heels toward him. Not specific dreams, exactly—I was too young for that when life set them on fire—but general dreams of happiness, and love, and contentment, and bras which didn’t squash my body into unnatural shapes. Dreams of a man and a family, sure, but most of all dreams that I could make things happen. Me , not my body, me , not my looks, me . But maybe I’m just a cliché, like a hooker in a movie who is secretly saving to become a veterinarian. I can’t even claim that, though. My account is ever empty and the only thing I’m saving for is to be saved: survival, plan one, two, and three. As I walk, I remember how earlier today I was going to quit, march right into Steve’s office and slam my hands down on the desk and tell him point-blank: “I’ve had enough.” And then I’d walk right out of here, with a strut so sexy even Candice would be jealous, and all the girls would clap me on the way out, cheering. Of course I didn’t.

I need the money.

I hardly see the man when I reach the table. I’m sure that would seem strange to somebody who’s never worked in a place like The Lady Shack. But when you’ve worked with the direct intention of making money based on your tits and ass and legs for long enough, you start to see the same man where once you saw many. Just a slack-jawed, stony-eyed, slathering man who’s going to stumble out some awkward pickup line and hit on you for the next hour or so.

“Hey, honey,” I say, my voice way, way chirpier than I feel. How can a voice be this chirpy when my ankles feel like they’re going to snap? I wish I could find the man who created heels and make him pay. “I hope you’re having a fantastic afternoon! You look like you could do with a beer.”

“Daisy.”

The voice is torn, dragged-out, the sort of voice you expect to hear from a homeless man who’s muttering, “Change,” not from some guy at a booby bar. I recognize the voice, despite how much I’d like it not to be true. I remember when the cancer ate through my mother like a pickaxe eating through rock, shattering her piece by piece until nothing was left but a coffin, how this voice struggled to find the right words. “It’s just…oh God…Tilly…oh…” I remember how this voice cried out at me, “It’s just one bet! Just one goddamn bet! Can’t a man have some peace?” I remember how this voice made me feel guilty for expecting more. And most of all I remember asking him to never, ever come here. I never wanted him to see me like this.

“Dad,” I hiss, my voice completely changed now. “What the fuck are you doing here?” My voice is shaking with rage. All the things that have happened to me in this place—slapped asses, groped breasts, one time a man trying to put a finger inside of me, beer all over my shirt, etc., etc.—and yet this is what drives me almost to madness. I find I’ve dropped the notepad and pen, my hands hanging at my sides in fists.

“Daisy,” Dad says. I hate how weak his voice sounds, how weak it always sounds. It’s like he’s always on the verge of tears. So many times I’ve tried to be angry with him. So many times I’ve wanted to go absolutely ballistic at him. I remember the time he spent a month’s rent on poker and I had to work doubles just so he wouldn’t get kicked out of his apartment, walking over to his place and rehearsing what I was going to say. But then he said my name in that horrible way and all the anger just deflated from me. But not now!

“You shouldn’t be here, you idiot! This is where I work. This is where I make it so you can go out and bury us in even more debt, you selfish asshole! It blows my mind that it isn’t enough for you to saddle us with all this goddamn debt, but you have to come by here and try and ruin the only way I have of paying it off!” I stop, panting.

He’s been trying to cut in, but I’ve just barreled on. But I keep my voice low, a sort of low shout, yelling without once raising my voice.

“I’m sorry,” he says, staring at me with those red-rimmed eyes, shot with blood.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Marsha watching me curiously. I know what she’s watching for. Some of the girls arrange to meet the men privately, performing what Marsha calls “illegal services” for some extra cash. I’ve never done that, and I don’t want Marsha to think I am.

“Order something,” I say.

“I need to tell you—”

“Fine, so order a drink and a piece of apple pie and then I’ll bring it here and take my time putting it down and you can say what you want to say. Do you want to get me fired?”

He seems to be about to speak again, but then bites his lip like a chastised child. A painful memory hits me, the way he would make that face when Mom teased him. But back then it was all in jest. Back then it was all good fun. Suddenly, I feel absurdly guilty.

“I’ll have a piece of apple lie and an orange soda, please.”

As I go to the kitchen, Marsha calls over to me, “All good, doll?”

I spin on her, forcing the anger deep down, and plaster a smile to my face. “It’s all great!” I beam. Like a Stepford Wife.

I busy myself with looking pretty and waiting for a bunch of sneering frat boys before Dad’s order is ready. When I bring it to him, I move in slow motion, each movement lengthened so that we have time to talk.

“What is it?” I say. “I don’t get paid for another week. You’ve used the money already? Fine, then maybe you should say bye-bye to Blackjack, and roulette, and whatever else it is you—What is it? What do you want?”

“I’m trying to say,” he whispers. “I just—” He stares at me with those red eyes again. I’ll never understand how I can still feel such guilt for this man when, after Mom died, he basically shoved all the responsibility onto me. Me, a sixteen year old girl at the time. And yet I do, all the time, guilt like razors under my skin.

“What is it?” I say, this time with a softer tone. I’ve placed the apple pie down. Now I arrange the cutlery.

“I can’t go home,” Dad says. “Back to my apartment, I mean. I just…I can’t, Daisy. There’s something—something bad has happened. You get it?”

I feel like my stomach freezes. The absurd idea to close my eyes and once again imagine I’m on that island comes to me, for a few milliseconds of peace.

“So what now? What do we do? What do you do?” My voice is as cold as my stomach, ice-cold, but not in anger or shock. Part of me must’ve known that something like this was coming.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I just…I thought I should tell you, right?”

That’s when the anger hits me. Not anger at the situation, but anger at him, at the way he’s looking at me as though I know how to solve all our problems. I grit my teeth.

“I have other tables,” I murmur, voice trembling. “I’m done in an hour. We can talk then.”

“No, wait—”

But I’m already walking toward my next customers.


Hound

“Is that your real name, honey?”

I don’t really see the woman in front of me, seeing as she’s not the one I’m here following, but a man can’t forget his manners.

“Of course it is,” I lie. “Was Hound before I was born, even. Parents picked it out of a magazine and said they’d name me that if I was a boy or a girl.”

I look past her to the other side of the restaurant, to where the lone man sits. Dean Dunham looks like the sort of man you’d expect to see hobbling out of a psychiatric ward, all paranoid and skittish. His eyes are pitted, black holes and his skin is saggy and haggard. His hair is sparse and gray. He looks like a broken man. Part of me even feels for the poor bastard. It can’t be good to go to sleep one day a man and wake up the next a skeleton. His clothes hang on him, loose, way too baggy. I try and imagine waking up one day less than seven feet tall and a few feet wide. I can’t do it.

“Oh, you’re too much!”

The woman is called Candy, I think. She’s got big-ass tits and a big-ass ass, but then that’s most of the girls here. She eyes me up and down, pouting, giggling. I can tell I’ve broken through this Lady-Shack horseshit. Part of me even thinks about putting the job off and taking her round back. But then I remind myself that I’m trying to be a better man. Yes ma’am, Henry Roscoe has been doing some reading, two years of it, and he’s finally stowing away some of the money he makes collecting. Has quite the bank forming under his mattress. Maybe one day soon he’ll be able to get out of this life and become some kind of thinking man. I laugh at myself, like I always do, because it’s too close to home.

“What’s so funny, baby?”

“Have you ever seen a wolf and thought to yourself, With a little work that could be a dog, a beloved, kind dog, and not a wolf at all? ” I flash a smile at her. I’ve got to admit, charming women is fun. “Or am I just coming across like a freak you can’t wait to get away from?”

She giggles again. “No, no, honey,” she says seriously. “No, I wouldn’t say that.”

She’s so different to the wide-smiled, wide-eyed woman she was when she first came over here. The performance has stopped. Maybe she imagines she’s on a date.

As I watch Dean, a waitress comes over to him. And man, if ever there was a woman to make a man question if he’s going to be able to walk the Changed Man Trail, it’s this piece of ass. Around twenty-five, with a slender body but with a full ass and full breasts, all squeezed artfully to give her an hour-glass shape, hair the color of honey, a cute round face, eyelashes longer than my finger, eyes greener than a forest. She has a strong-vulnerable look about her, like she’s both at the same time. I’ve never seen it before and it interests me. I even get a little hard just at the sight of her, something Candy hasn’t managed since she sat down.

I can tell why the old pervert comes here now. Still, just because we happen to have similar taste in women doesn’t mean Mac won’t want his money. Candy is still talking, but she can’t compare with the woman with the honey-colored hair. I try and think if there’s anything in my books that can relate to this situation. That’s what my online course is always telling me, to try and link what I read with real life, since all books are about life, or some shit. Maybe that old man is like Gatsby without all the money, just a failed husk, and that girl is his Daisy. I shiver. That went creepy way too quick. I know for a fact that Daisy is Dean’s daughter’s name.

“Honey.” It’s Candy, chirping nearer to me. She’s standing over me now, notepad in hand.

I squint across the restaurant, listening closely to the woman serving Dean and blocking everything else out. Man, she’s hot, really hot, the sort of hot which makes you forget that cold even exists. There’s something strange about the way they’re talking, Honey Hair and Dean. I look closer, leaning forward, and then I see it, blurry but readable. Daisy, right there on her name tag. Which means the old man isn’t here to grope and leer.

“Hound?”

“Sorry, beautiful,” I say, leaning back. “I know this is a cruel thing to ask of a lady, but do you think you could send Daisy over to serve me?”

Candy takes a step back, as though wounded. “Oh. Sure.”

She leaves, her heels clicking a little louder than they did on her way toward me. I lean back, relaxed, watching Dean out of the corner of my eye just in case he decides to do something stupid. I doubt he will, though. How many times have I done this? Ever since I was a teenager, following people, tooling them up, scaring them, threatening them, and eventually getting their money. All in a day’s work. I try not to feel bitter about it. I think of my books back at my place and cough out another laugh. What a fucking joke. But then a second later I think of them again, and I smile. I don’t know how to feel about it. A man who never finished high school trying to grapple with the greats, and hopefully go on to math, science, maybe even French or whatever…

I’m glad when Daisy comes over. She’s a welcome distraction from myself.

She’s even sexier up close, especially when she smiles. She’s got some sharp canine teeth, giving her a vampire look, and her eye makeup is darker than a night’s sky, contrasting the bright green of her eyes. Her smile is fake, because of course it is. I try and write something in my head, like the course says: She smiled at me but it was more like she was smiling at somewhere very far away behind me and she was not smiling at me at all . Shit, shit. Maybe I ought to stick at what I’m good at, like bouncing heads off tables. But still, this piece of ass…

“Good afternoon,” I say, with my cheesiest grin. “How are you this fine day?”

She looks me up and down, maybe surprised to hear me speaking like this when I’m seven feet tall with a wild look about me. Most folks seem surprised by that. But I don’t think that a man has to choose between charming and tough, never have.

“I’m great,” she says shortly. All the while I’m watching her Dad with one eye, the way he just sits there and prods at his slice of pie with his fork, making sure he doesn’t duck out. “What would you like?”

“I thought you were supposed to be all sexy and flirty and shit?” I say, enjoying myself now. “It seems to me I’ve walked into some backwater truck stop or something, not into this high-class restaurant.”

I watch her face, watch as a hundred replies rise and fall on her lips, and then as the smile cracks over her like a mask. “Oh, where are my manners!” she beams. “Of course you’re in The Lady Shack! I hope you’re having a swell day. Can I get your name, sweetie?”

I tell her.

“Okay…uh, Hound…what would you like?”

“I would like to live in a world where people can do what they want without being fucked over every step of the way. I would like to live in a world where my knuckles aren’t bloody every night of my life and I haven’t hurt more people than I care to think about. I would like to live in a world where strong men and sexy women can do more than be strong and sexy.”

I don’t say any of this out loud, because I think that’d give the wrong impression. But I think it, and I get angry thinking it. I’ve been doing that way too much lately, questioning my situation. Questioning your situation is only good when you can get out of it, is the way I see it, and I’m not doing that until I have a smooth exit plan. Instead I say, “What would you recommend?”

On the table behind us, a group of businessmen are talking about finance and slamming their glasses together like their Vikings after a raid, shouting, “Cheers!”, over and over and leering at every passing waitress. I feel my seat juddering each time some fat bastard jumps up and down. I think about smashing his face into the table like I would’ve done once, just stood up and slammed his head until he was covered in blood. But whereas once the idea made me feel big, now it just leaves me feeling empty. Much better to get a good look at Daisy’s tight body.

“The pie is great,” she says. “Just great.”

“Something’s up with you,” I tell her, still keeping my cheesy-ass grin on my face. I’ve learnt that people are less nervous about seven-foot scary-looking giants if I smile. “I don’t blame you, though,” I go on. “Every goddamn day, people pawing at you, trying to get your number, calling you a cock tease and all that shit. And you don’t even get the satisfaction of throwing a drink in their faces or slapping them or telling them to fuck off. You have to smile and nod and thank them for all of it, hoping for a tip.”

She tries to keep her smile up, like a fighter trying to keep his fists up, but in the end she’s too weary and she lets it falter. “Well done,” she says, no longer the bubbly seducer. “You’ve solved the puzzle. Would you like a ribbon?” She shakes her head bitterly. “I need the money. The whole world needs the money. Are you telling me your one-hundred percent happy with your place in life? If you are, you’re the exception.”

I let my fake smile drop and give her a real one instead. “Hello, Daisy. It’s nice to meet you.”

She rolls her eyes. “I’m not supposed to talk to customers like this.”

“Sorry. Late me make it easier for you.” I sit up, and start looking at her beautiful legs and ass and breasts, up and down, up and down, for around a minute. “That better?” Even though I’m doing it as a joke, or to make a point, I can’t deny that looking Daisy up and down is a goddamn treat.

She smiles and I’m pretty sure it’s a real smile. This is the part where I get her into bed and fuck her face and pound her into the mattress until she’s begging for more. This is the part where I give into every animal instinct and just fucking take her. And I want to. I want to badly. Even if I just as badly don’t want to be the same old Hound anymore.

“You’re funny,” she says. “Now, are you going to order or not? You’ll get me in trouble.”

“Maybe trouble’s what you need,” I say, unable to look away from those forest-green eyes. They’re the brightest eyes I’ve ever seen, by far. “Maybe playing the good girl gets boring after a while.”

“Good girl, at The Lady Shack?”

“Good, honest, hardworking Texan girl, yes, ma’am, howdy, ya’ll.”

She giggles, which is the sweetest sound I’ve heard all week. “Right.” Rolling her eyes again, she shakes the pen at me. Even now, it’s like there are two men in me. One who wants to bend her over the table and drive deeply into her until she comes all over my prick, and the other who wants to take her on some kind of date. “I said are you going to order—”

“Fucking asshole!” one of the businessmen roars.

Then the security is running over and everyone at the next table is shouting and jostling. I could go over there and end it quickly, but I take this chance to lean across and wrap my hands around Daisy’s waist, dragging her into my lap.

“What’re you doing!” she squeals.

“Keeping you safe,” I reply. “I don’t want you getting hurt in the fight.”

She wriggles in my lap. Her dress is so tight I can feel her ass cheeks rubbing against my cock, and looking at the way she pauses, her lips pursed for a second, I can see she feels it too. Feels it and likes it more than she cares to admit. She even lets out a sighing breath.

“Let me up,” she says, when the fighters have been thrown out.

“Alright.”

She stands up and stares down at me, lips all twisted like she can’t decide what to think.

“I should report you,” she says after a pause. “That’s not okay.”

“Unless you liked it.” I smile. “Which you did. I’ll take a beer, Daisy. Now turn around and let me watch you walk away.”

I can tell she likes this by the way she bites her lip. She likes that I want her. That’s good to know.

She leaves, and I watch her ass. My blood’s up now, all my ideas of being a nice guy seeming silly and pointless. Why be a nice guy when there’s a tight piece of ass like this up for grabs? But then I watch as Dean stands up and makes his way toward the exit. Damn the man. Reluctantly, I stand up and make toward the exit, too.

I can’t forget why I’m here, even if it would be a relief to forget who I am just once.


Daisy

As I take Hound’s order to the bar, I look over to check on Dad, but his table is empty now. I go to Marsha and ask her if he paid. “No,” she says. “I thought maybe he went to the bathroom? Do you know him, Daisy?”

“No,” I lie. “I just don’t want The Lady Shack losing business. I care greatly about the continued success of the company.”

Marsha looks at me like I’ve gone mad, and then is swept away by another waitress. I don’t think. I just head for the exit, staring at the floor, trying to make it as clear as possible that I’m not in the mood for any, “Hey, honey,” or, “Nice ass, baby.” Except from the man called Hound, I reflect, thinking of the way he pulled me into his lap. The biggest, toughest-looking man I’ve ever seen in my life. Seven feet tall, wearing a plain blood-red T-shirt and scuffed jeans, muscled all over, bursting out of his clothes, looking oversized at the Shack’s table. Black locks of curly hair spilling over his head, a shadow of stubble, and a wolfish grin. All of it offset with dark ice-blue eyes. No, except for him…which I have to admit, kind of got me off…maybe just a little…

I force that from my mind as I push out into the parking lot. Dad can be such a jerk sometimes, and maybe jerk is understating it. He expects me to do everything: keep hope, support him financially, trudge on like a packhorse never once complaining, work two jobs, two shitty jobs because I had to drop out of school before graduation, and all he cares about is his gambling. And then he comes in here and unloads on me and disappears! I feel like leaping back in time and grabbing that sixteen-year-old girl by the shoulders and screaming in her face, “Listen! Don’t even bother with him! All he’s going to do is bring you pain and make you want to tear your hair out by the roots! One day you’ll be twenty-seven and thirty will look way closer than it does now and you’ll get very, very scared about what your life means.”

I can’t say that I regret helping him completely, otherwise I wouldn’t be pacing between cars right now looking for him. The sun beats down relentlessly, as it always does. Without the relief of the air conditioning I feel my clothes sticking to me. A group of businessmen on lunch stare at me with what I think they think are seductive expressions. I ignore them and make my way around the side of the building, down the alleyway where we throw the trash, pressed up against a big waffle chain on the other side. What am I doing? If he’s not in the parking lot, it means he jumped in his old beat-up car and drove away, leaving me to wonder what’s going on. But I remember when I was younger I would often wake in the middle of the night to find Dad gone from the apartment. This worried me the first few times before I skulked around in the night, walking the streets in my slippers, and found him in an alleyway opposite the building, smoking a cigarette. Maybe he’s had the same brilliant idea this time.

I think of Mom as I walk, of her sardonic twisting smile, her bright green eyes, her words which came sometimes like blades and sometimes like petals. And I wish she was here. Wish she was here so badly I get an ache in my chest.

But I can’t spend my life wishing. A Lady Shack girl has to remember to be bouncy, bubbly, beautiful. There’s no time to be human.

I’m halfway around the alleyway, squeezing between a dumpster and walking between some banana peels as though this is a cartoon, when I hear it. At first I think it’s the whimpering of a kitten. I imagine a tiny cat, patchy fur, limping, whining softly into the empty alleyway. But then I creep closer and hear the unmistakable sound of Dad talking. He’s talking fast, frantically, like he does when he’s nervous. I remember soon after Mom died he talked like that a lot, waving his hands and never letting his eyes settle on one place, as though if he kept talking he didn’t have to acknowledge that she’d never reply, and if he didn’t let his eyes settle, he could pretend she was right there, just out of his periphery vision.

I creep along the wall, past faded and new graffiti, right to the edge. When I peek my head round, I see Dad, looking as old and broken as ever, standing opposite the huge man named Hound, the man who got my body going a mile a minute back in the Shack. They’re side-on so I can see them clearly, Hound with his hands in his pockets, standing casually, hair wild around his eyes, Dad pacing in a small circle worrying at his knuckles with his teeth.

“Listen, listen, it’s not that I don’t have the money right,” and here he bites his knuckle before going on, “right now , it’s just that it’s not, you know, physically here with me. That doesn’t mean it’s not mine! That’s like saying that you’re broke because all your money—you know—like all your money’s in the bank so you don’t have any. But that’s not how it works.”

Hound sighs, but doesn’t move. He reminds me of a lion or a wolf or some other dangerous predator, resting lazily as though finding the idea of moving as erratically as Dad laughable. And yet as I watch him, as I soak in the reality of the situation—this man is here to collect on one of Dad’s many debts—I don’t kid myself by thinking that Hound would be any less dangerous than a wolf or a lion. “I really want to believe you, sir,” he says. “Really, I do. It’d make my day way, way better if I could just nod and smile and accept this story of yours. But the fact is I’ve done my own investigation into your finances and I happen to know that what you’re telling me is a lie…” Hound pauses, strokes his chin, and then speaks like a poet with sudden inspiration. “It’s a complete fabrication .” He seems quite proud of himself as he nods up and down. If he wasn’t shaking down my father, I’m sure I’d smile.

I make sure to crouch low, trying to work out what the best course of action is. I have to do something, I know, but only if it looks like it’s going bad. Maybe there’s a chance Dad might be able to talk his way out of it. I refuse to believe somebody can spend decades sinking into and then partially paying off debts without developing something of a silver tongue. But if it goes south, what then? Am I going to charge into the fray with a trashcan-lid shield and a banana-peel Morningstar? The image momentarily rises in my mind: a knight in a skin-tight Lady Shack uniform swinging a banana peel over her head and deflecting blows to the metallic clang of metal. No, I’ll have to use my silver tongue, if that even exists. Still, perhaps it won’t come to that…

“I have different bank accounts!” Dad breaks out, flapping his arms. “I do! I have bank accounts for all different kinds of things. Please, listen to me, this is real now. This isn’t the lie. But I can’t tell you all the details. If I could tell you—Yeah, yeah, come on, man, it’d fix all my problems. But I can’t give you all of it. But I can say this. Look, listen. I can say this. I have another bank account with over a million—way over, way, way over—just waiting to be released. Once all this legal shit is done, I’ll be richer than God. You’ll see. I promise!” Something about the earnest way Dad speaks give me pause. Maybe it could be true, I reflect, but then I remember that tomorrow morning I’m working fourteen hours straight. “It’s a—I can’t tell you the details because if they find out I don’t get my money! I signed a—what’d’ya call it? NDA! I signed an NDA!”

“You know who I am,” Hound says. It isn’t a question. He sounds tired.

Dad nods respectfully, the same way I once saw him nod in the bank when I went with him to pay his over-withdrawal fees, nodding to something larger than himself.

“Then you know I’m not an unfair man, sir,” Hound says. “My momma taught me two things: always respect your elders, and never hit a woman. But then again, that was before she hightailed it down to Cali to start a new family without so much as a goddamn postcard. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is this. I respect you, because you’re an old man and you seem pretty harmless. But I also respect my employer, and I also respect the fact that I’ve got a job to do. So what the fuck am I supposed to do here? I’m being honest when I say that I have no desire to smash your head into that wall there.” He indicates the wall in question with a lazy swipe of the hand. “But I also have no desire to go back to my employer with no plan about how to recoup his losses.”

He sighs again, shaking his head.

“I’m going to need your teeth,” he says.

“Wait—what? My…My teeth !”

Dad begins groveling, talking very fast. I don’t think even he knows what he’s saying.

Hound doesn’t click his neck side to side, or crack his knuckles, or make some tough guy comment. He just takes a slow step forward. It’s like he isn’t there at all, like he’s floated somewhere else and is letting his seven-foot body slip into Violence Mode. I don’t want to see him go into Violence Mode, especially where Dad is concerned, so I stand up from my place behind the wall and shout, “Wait!”

Dad stops groveling and Hound turns to face me. I see the moment the violence stops: a flicker in his eyes, life returning. Dad takes longer to notice me through his tears. “D-Daisy?” he says uncertainly. “What are you doing?”

I swallow nervously. That’s a good question. What exactly is my plan here? I’ve left the banana peels and trashcan lids behind.

“I don’t think you want to hurt people!” I yell. Or does my voice just sound too loud in my own ears? I can hardly tell over my panting breath. “I don’t think you want to hurt a man half your size and twice your age,” I go on, looking into his eyes, which are not the eyes of some mindless thug at all; they’re the eyes of a man who has been playing the mindless thug for a long time. Maybe just like my eyes aren’t the eyes of a mindless Shack girl, but the eyes of a woman doing the same. “There must be a way to resolve this without hurting anybody. There must .”

“You’re brave,” Hound says, watching me closely. “You don’t know me at all. What if I just take out a machete right now and start hacking at the both of you? What the fuck made you jump out here like that? You could’ve gone and gotten help, the police…well, I guess the boys in blue wouldn’t work for Dean, right? Too many connections to illegal gambling dens and the like.” Hound strokes his stubble, thinking. I just wait, toes curled in my heels, sweat making it feel like I’m in a sauna. “I’ve got a good, uh, rapport with my employer.” He pauses for a moment at the word rapport , as though using it for the first time. Maybe he thinks I’ll giggle at him. But Charlie Chaplin could dropkick Amy Schumer right now and get nothing from me. “I could talk to him, if I had a plan, but I can’t go back there with nothing. I can’t just skip in there and say, Hey, you know that thing you wanted me to take care of, well, I just completely ignored it .”

As he talks, I see his eyes once again straying to my body, my legs and my breasts. I’m used to men staring at me, but the way Hound does it is different. He’s not like an overexcited young boy, as most of the men in the Shack are. He’s not just pleased to be in the general vicinity of a woman. And he’s not in the least intimidated. No, he’s looking at me meaningfully, with real intent there. I can’t recall ever being looked at like that before. And so I’ll run with it. All my adult life has been spent fighting to keep what remains of my family safe. And now I’ll do the same. And if, maybe, I enjoy it just a tiny bit? If, maybe, I want to do it anyway?

“I can pay my father’s debts,” I say.

The corner of Hound’s lips twitch. “Really? You have the money?”

“I am willing to discuss a payment plan,” I reply. “But first, you have to let him leave.”

Hound shrugs. “I can always find him again, if need be, unless he’s got some secret high-powered connections I don’t know about?”

I shake my head. So does Dad, and I have to admit I’m slightly wounded by how quickly and eagerly Dad shakes his. He can’t wait to be out of here, even if it means leaving me with a man who just threatened to collect all his teeth. I’m as annoyed by him as I am by myself for being surprised. He’s spent his whole life behaving this way. People don’t suddenly change. Part of me wants to just leave him here, to whatever fate Hound decides is best for him, but my chest gets painfully tight at the thought, and all I can think of is Mom, looking away from me in disappointment.

“Then go.” Hound shrugs. “Just know that if we can’t sort this out—”

He doesn’t even get a chance to finish. Dad shouts, “Okay!” and then is gone, hurrying past me, eyes downcast. “I’ll fix this,” he mutters, before jogging down the alleyway.

“It’s pretty incredible how they make clothes these days,” Hound says, walking across the alleyway toward me. He stops about a foot away, so close I can smell something papery and musty on him, underneath his manly scent.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Well, take the company that manufactured that there uniform. They’ve somehow put pockets in it that makes thousands of dollars be able to squeeze into skin-tight skirts. Incredible.”

I bite my lip, wondering if I’ve made a mistake. But I don’t think this man would hurt me. I’m sure of it, in fact, which doesn’t make any sense to me.

“I take it you don’t have the cash,” he says, looking down at me.

Despite everything, I feel a tingle whisper up my thigh. Of all the things that have happened to me in, or near, The Lady Shack, I’ve never felt even a hint of real lust. I tell myself: I’m doing this for my family. But I can’t ignore the tingle, or how huge this man is, so big I have to crane my neck just to look into his face. I can’t ignore how my nipples are already getting hard and how my mind is already skipping away from me.

“Maybe we can work something out,” I say, shocked by the sound of my own voice. I sound confident, sexy, seductive, way more than I ever have giggling over a group of balding businessmen whilst watching the clock. I’ve always seen all men as essentially the same: jerky, jock-types who nod and smile just to get to your body. But Hound is somehow different. Maybe he’s a jerk, too. I don’t know him well enough to say. But there’s less pretense about him, and I get the sense that he’d make quick work of any of the usual assholes who hit on me. I find myself leaning forward so that my breasts brush against his blood-red T-shirt. “What do you think?”

He grins down at me. “You’ve got to know,” he says, “that you can’t come at me with a body as tight as that, with a face as sexy as yours, and expect me to back off. So you need to answer a question. Do you really want this?”

I look inside myself, wondering. I’ve never been sure if I really wanted anything, I realize. Maybe when I was young and Mom was still alive, but the day the cancer attacked her, I stopped wanting and just started doing. It wasn’t a question of want. I couldn’t even let it factor into my decisions because it would upset me too much. What teenager wants to drop out of school and work like a dog? What woman wants to work at The Lady Shack and smile at asshole guys? And yet, as I lean even closer to this mysterious, giant of a man, I find that I do want it. At least, I think I do.

“I…I don’t know how to tell,” I answer, honestly. Too honestly. I’m supposed to be playing the sexy seducer, not giving him a glimpse into my heart. “I mean—yeah, baby. I want it, bad .”

“No,” he says. “No, I don’t want that. I can pay for that. I want you.”

“You want me to want it? Why do you care?”

His lips twitch again, and then he reaches forward and slides his hand up my dress, to my panties, and presses his middle and ring fingers against my pussy. He presses hard, pushing against my clit, watching my face carefully.

The pleasure hits me like a speeding truck, taking my unawares. I didn’t realize how wet my pussy was until now, with the wetness filling my panties. The tingles multiply, becoming more intense, becoming so intense a moan escapes my lips.

“Because when you come all over my dick, I want it to be real . I want to hear you moan, and know it’s real .”

I twist my lips here and there, letting the fakeness seep out of me like water from a burst balloon. “It feels good,” I whisper. “It does. It really does.”

Maybe I am doing this for my family, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do it for me at the same time. Maybe it’s time I started thinking about me every once in a while anyway. But even as I sink into the pleasure, a little nervous voice echoes around my head: “What are you doing? Is this right? What are you doing? Is this right?”


Hound

I want to be a better man, goddamn it, I do, but when you’ve got a woman as fine as this twitching in the palm of your hand, it’s difficult. I think of the image I’ve had of myself these past few months, of a learning man who respects people around him and all that shit, and I can’t remember why that was appealing. Her pussy is warm, moist against my fingertips, her moans low and real. Even if the alleyway is stinking and disgusting, she makes it better just by being here, hot to the touch, nipples pushing so hard against her bra I can see it through her Lady Shack tank top.

“Are you going to come?” I ask her, looking down into her eyes, which flit open and closed as she rides my fingers. All around the alleyway, I can hear cars honking and people shouting and tires screeching, but that just makes it all the more dangerous. The man I was striving to be would take his hand away and ask her to go back to a hotel room at least, but I can’t, not now. I’m too hard for that. Rock-fucking-hard. Pressing against my jeans like I’m going to explode. All thoughts of literature and learning and houses drift away. I’m left with nothing but my cock and this cute, big-assed, big-titted moaning woman. “Are you going to come all over my fucking fingers?”

She bites her lip when she nods, looking nervous. Women must know how much it drives us crazy when they do that, biting their lip, like they’re scared of their pleasure but can’t help but want it at the same time. I push her underwear aside, feeling her lips, which are swollen and wet. Pushing down from her clit, I go toward her hole, my fingers getting wetter the closer I get.

“Tell me you want me to fuck you,” I say, as I slide my middle finger deep inside of her. Fuck, but she’s tight, one of those pussies which grips like a hand and only loosens after some teasing. I push deeper and deeper, loving how wet and warm she is.

“I do want you to fuck me,” she says quietly. She sounds surprised. Surprised at herself, maybe. “I really do.”

I push another finger inside of her, opening her even more. I really mean to rub her and tease her until she comes, but my cock is getting so hard now my balls are beginning to ache. The man I was trying to be would dutifully get her off before taking what he wanted, but that man is a dim shadow far back in my mind. So I grab her wrist with my free hand and guide her to the front of my jeans. She bites her lip again, looking unsure, but when her fingers press against my cock, she lets out another moaning noise. “Oh,” she says, rubbing up and down as I finger her. “You’re big. You’re really big.”

“And you’re tight and sexy,” I tell her. “You’re…fuck this.”

I can’t help myself anymore. Maybe I’m letting the animal out. Maybe the animal which was Hound for a large part of my life, ever since I started the game when I was a teenager, isn’t so easily ignored. I remove my hand from her and start tearing at her clothes. She lets out a squeal, but after a second she’s doing the same to my clothes, unbuckling my belt and tugging at my jeans. I yank her Lady Shack top over her head, revealing her bra, and then I’ve unclipped her bra with one hand and her breasts are spilling free. Jesus fucking Christ, if there were ever tits as round and plump and bouncy as these, I haven’t seen them. They’re somehow pointy and round at the same time, and the nipples are large and dark. I lean forward, grabbing one in my hand and sucking the nipples of the other. Her nipples are already hard, but they go harder as I suck and rub.

“That feels—oh—that feels…” She pulls my jeans and briefs down around my knees. My cock springs up. She’s so much shorter than me that it almost brushes her tits, just from standing here like this. She reaches down and grabs it, sliding pre-come from the tip all the way down to the balls and back again, jerking it fast.

“I need to fucking be inside of you,” I say, leaning up. “I need to feel that tight fucking pussy.”

She stares up at me, biting her lip in that way that’s driving me mad, wringing her hands. She looks unsure, but at the same time her chest rises and falls quickly, making her breasts jostle, and one of her hands creeps between her legs, toying with her clit. Unsure, but she wants it, she wants it as badly as I do. She looks around the alleyway, wincing, but when she turns back to me the alleyway seems to disappear. “I want it to,” she says. “I really do. Wow, I really, really do.” Her eyes go wide as she steps forward, pressing her breasts against my chest, squashing them. “Will you fuck me hard?” She shivers as she says it.

“Does it scare you, thinking about how hard I could fuck you?”

She nods. “But it excites me, too. Most other men are—well, they’re not men at all, really.”

I trail my hand up her back, lightly gripping her neck. “I can fuck you harder than you’ve ever been fucked,” I tell her. “But only if you’re ready to take it. Because I won’t be able to stop. Not with a pussy like yours. A pussy as perfect as yours.”

I love the way she swallows, the way she looks scared, unsure, and yet horny all at once. “Fuck me,” she says.

Her tights are around her knees, her skirt hiked up around her waist, revealing a perfect place of pleasure: two tight ass cheeks, round and large and bouncy, framing a wet pussy, the lips engorged. I guide her to the wall and push her forward, bending her over, so that she grips the concrete with her fingernails. I spit in my hand and stroke my cock up and down.

Then I grab her ass cheeks, watching the flesh turn red under my hard grip, and guide my cock to her hole. I’m bigger, way bigger than her hole, so when I first push in she starts moaning and twisting like she wants to get away, but then I push in deeper and I feel a rush of warmth over my dick as she opens up for me. Then she stops twisting and pushes back instead, sliding down the length of me. Hard, she said, and so that’s what I do. I fuck her the hardest I’ve ever fucked anybody. I fuck her so hard I lose all control of myself. I dig my fingers into her flesh and slide in and out, pounding her, my balls swinging against her clit, my cock burying as deep as it can over and over. My eyes are blurry and I’m only vaguely aware of her moaning, or my own grunts. All I know is that hot place between her legs, that hot place which makes my cock throb with heat each time I thrust into it. She squirts onto my cock, once, twice, big thick white liquid that slides up my cock and into her asshole. And that sight drives me even crazier, her squirting like that for me, and now it’s all over her round bouncy ass. I rub the come all over her, and then fuck her harder so that she’ll give me more.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” I groan, unable to hold it any longer, drilling so fast she almost slams into the wall a few times. She has to hold herself up. The man I was trying to be would stop and hold her tenderly so she didn’t get hurt. But me, Hound, the man I am in this moment, it’s all I can do not to throw her to the floor and drill her into the concrete. My balls start aching, the tip of my cock buzzing like crazy, and then I’m coming right into her pussy, exploding inside of her, emptying into her. “Fuck!” I roar. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”

I keep fucking her long after I’ve come, right up until my cock is too soft to go in anymore, and then I step away, almost tripping over my jeans.

We both dress silently, and then we’re standing opposite each other, her cheeks flushed and her hair messy. I don’t know what to say at first. It’s always a weird experience for a man, those moments after you come, when you go from wild animal to a person again.

“Meet me after your shift,” I say on impulse. “There’s a strip joint near here. Down the street, the third left. Meet me there.”

“Why?” she says, an odd look on her face. It takes me a second to realize what it is: the look a woman gets after she’s come a few times, that sleepy, content look. “What for?”

I lean close to her, smelling that sweet after-sex scent, sweat and come and lust. “Because I’m not done with you yet. Not even close.”


Daisy

I tell Marsha that I thought I was on my lunchbreak. I don’t think she believes me, but I agree to work an extra forty-five minutes to make up for it and that settles the matter. So for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, I work with Hound’s body pressed against mine, the memory of it so real at times that I’m sure I’ll turn around and find him standing over me again. He fucked me, really fucked me, fucked me harder than any man has even gotten close to. Hell, he fucked me even harder than I thought I could take. There were times when I was bent over against that wall when I thought I’d just snap in half, and yet there were times when I couldn’t believe I’d ever had sex in any other way. And now he wants me to go to a strip club, because he isn’t done with me . What does that mean? I’m not so naïve to think that one back-alley tumble will get rid of all Dad’s debts, so I think I ought to go to see what he has to say.

And even when I leave the Shack in my sweatpants and hoodie, glad to be out of the body-crushing clothes, I know that I’m lying to myself. Or half-lying, at least. I am going to the strip club to see about Dad, but I’m also going because this Hound guy intrigues me, intrigues me a lot. It’s like some scientist put all the men who usually hit on me into a machine with the intention of producing someone as close to opposite as possible…but who still wants to hit on me. I’ve been hit on so many times, I didn’t think a man like that existed.

Yet, as I make my way down the street, the world finally cooling, I can’t pinpoint exactly what is so different about Hound. He’s just as sex-hungry, body-objectifying, horny and crazed as the rest of them. So what exactly is this difference? Is it just that I feel less fake around him, less like a mannequin there to please him, and more like a real, actual woman? Or maybe that’s just some highbrow bullshit and really I just like how big his dick is and how huge his muscles are, and I’m just justifying.

The strip club is a squat, brick building with huge neon red letters which read The Red Room. I’ve never been in a strip club, but this is not at all what I expect. The few times I have imagined what strip clubs are like, I always get an image from an old episode of some reality show I watched a few years back, when a group of housewives went to the strip club because it would be kooky . As I approach The Red Room, with its chewing gum stuck to the door and smell of stale beer and cigarettes, the looming, flat-faced bouncer watching me with stony eyes, I’m sure the reality wives went to a staged set; their strip club was like a spaceship from a sci-fi flick, all clean flat surfaces with super-hot women who all absolutely adored their job.

When I get inside, I’m met with a sticky floor, a room packed full of old, young, fat, skinny, and leering men. Red lights shine all over, giving the place its name. I look around for Hound and spot him in the corner, leaning on the bar. There’s a woman working the pole, climbing up it and sliding down, her legs wrapped around the metal and her breasts bouncing freely. Hound isn’t watching her. He’s looking down at his phone, maybe at the time.

As I make my way toward him somebody touches my arm. I turn, startled, in no mood for some creep to be grabbing me. Even as I think this, I reflect: And yet I was okay with Hound fucking me in an alleyway, Hound, a stranger, a man I met less than twelve hours ago. I turn on the man, ready to shout at him, but then I see a smiling face I recognize. His name is Jack Michaels—which the Shack girls joke is about the most boring, mundane name that’s ever existed—and he’s a regular at the Shack. He’s wearing a flashy suit, as he always is, with an old-timey handkerchief stuck in the front, and an old-timey bow-tie, and an old-timey receding hairline and several old-timey nose hairs.

“Daisy?” he says, his old-timey eyebrows rising in shock. “What are you doing here?”

“Meeting a friend,” I respond. The crowd surges around me and I don’t really have a choice but to follow him to the edge. When we’re no longer being pushed from all directions, I say, “I shouldn’t keep them waiting.”

“Oh, sure, sure.” He smooths a hand over his sparse grey hair. He’s like Dad from an alternate universe, Dad if he had grown stocky and strong in old age instead of skinny and weak. “It’s just…well, don’t let anybody tell you that I don’t mind my manners, Daisy, I’m a man made of manners. Well—” He smooths his head again. “I was just wondering—this is out there, you know, way out there—well, look, let me put it like this. You see her?” He points to the woman writhing on the pole.

“I see her.”

“She makes three-hundred a night, sometimes more.”

“Okay…”

He squints at me, maybe wanting me to click onto what he’s saying without having to be told. I think I know what he’s driving at, but I’m not about to risk it by just offering it up. If I’m wrong that’d be incredibly embarrassing.

“What if you auditioned sometime?” he finally says.

I let out a laugh. A gruff, sort of manly laugh, the kind of laugh I usually reserve for random barks of hilarity when watching my favorite sitcoms. An image enters my mind: Daisy Dunham, stripped bare of her Shack uniform, writhing on stage. But even as I laugh, the financial, survival part of my mind, the part of my mind which ticks overtime and never stops, even when I’m asleep, starts to consider it. What if I did audition? I could dance a few nights a week instead of waitressing and make twice as much money.

“You don’t have to answer right now,” Jack assures me. “Here. Let me give you this.”

He hands me his card. I take it. Then I’m moving through the crowd once again, toward Hound. He smiles when he sees me, but not the cheesy grin he offered me in the Shack earlier today. This is a genuine smile, which lights up his face, turning him from a resting, dangerous fighter to a friend in half a heartbeat. It’s amazing what a smile can do to a face.

“Hello, pretty lady,” he says. “I hired us a booth.”

The booth is lit with red lava lamps, dotted on a low table and lined along the wall, and the couch is bright red leather. “I had one of those when I was a kid,” I say, nodding at a lava lamp. Talking, I suppose, so I don’t have to contemplate what I’m doing. “It was before Mom died, but after she got cancer. A friend gave me one for my birthday but one day Mom rushed to the bathroom and knocked into it—I put it in the living room after asking them—and it shattered all over the floor. I didn’t even care that it broke. All I cared about was that Mom was crying and trying to put the pieces of glass back together with vomit still clinging to her night blouse.” I abruptly stop, face going red. I don’t usually let my words get away from me like that. Before Hound can reply, I blurt, “So, why am I here?”

We sit side by side. Hound presses a button on the wall and a bikini-clad black lady holding an empty silver tray pokes her red through the red falling curtains. Hound orders a beer and I order a lemonade. “Not much of a drinker?” he asks.

“Not when I’m sitting in a stripper’s booth with a stranger,” I reply.

He laughs. “Fair enough.”

We sit sipping our drinks for a while and then I repeat my question: “Why am I here, Hound? I thought I paid my dad’s debts off earlier today.” I don’t believe this, but it’s worth a try.

He just shakes his head at me, seeming to say, We both know that wasn’t enough .

“I don’t think earlier today was as one-sided as you’d like to believe, anyhow,” Hound says. “My opinion is—and I was there, you’ll remember—that you enjoyed it just as much as I did.”

“Maybe I was faking!” I exclaim wildly, in an effort to exclaim away the truth. “You might remember where we met, Mr. Hound. It was at a place where the waitresses are trained to be the best fakers in the world.”

The red light catches Hound’s ice-blue eyes. “And the come all over my prick. Was that fake, too?”

I blush, lowering my gaze. “So why am I here? That’s the third time I’ve asked you now.”

“Are you angry?”

“I don’t have time to be angry. I’ve just worked a nine-hour shift and I have to be up at five to get in for a six o’clock start.”

“That’s rough,” Hound says.

“Careful,” I warn him. “It sounded like there was real compassion in your voice there.”

“Maybe there was.” I look up to see him smiling at me openly. Then he offers me his hand. “My name is Henry Roscoe. I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced.”

I take his hand, constantly surprised by the words coming out of his mouth. You’d expect a man like him to grunt and swear and shout. Huh, maybe I’ve got a little prejudice in me. His hand against mine brings back memories. I withdraw it before they get out of control.

“But everybody calls me Hound,” he says.

“Why?” I ask.

He seems stumped by that question, squinting and looking through me into the past. “I don’t really know,” he answers. “Isn’t that odd?”

He leans back, taking a long swig from his beer. I find I like watching these calm motions of his body, like watching the calm motions of a huge machine, a derrick pump, each of its movements solid and infinitely strong. Not at all like the erratic, face-touching, hand-worrying of other men. Maybe I should stop thinking like that. Other men . As though this mysterious stranger is already a category of his own.

“Why you’re here.” Hound nods. “Alright. To business, then. Let me explain my situation. I’m a debt collector, as you’ve probably guessed. I work for a man named Mac who was a friend of my dad’s; my dad’s dead now.” I remember him telling Dad that his mother ran out on him, so he’s all alone. For the first time in months I find myself glad that I still have my father, at least. He seems to be about to go on, but then he shrugs, clears his throat, and says, “There’s no need to go into unnecessary detail. The point is this: I’ve saved up some cash and I’m looking for a place in the suburbs, the sort of place where real people live, where you wouldn’t look twice if there was a bookshelf on the wall and desk set up at the window overlooking the garden.”

“I’m sure there are many places where you can put shelves up,” I say, confused by the importance he seems to place on this. His eyes went sort of dreamy when he said bookshelf . What a conundrum this giant is.

“I want a wife with me when I go check out the houses.”

He watches me calmly.

It takes me a second to realize what he means. When I do, I say, “This isn’t a real proposal, is it?”

“Depends what you mean by real.” He reaches into his jeans pocket and takes out two rings: one plain silver band and one diamond-studded band. A wedding rind and an engagement ring. “These cost real money. Here’s my proposal: you’ll be my wife as I’m looking around the houses—the realtors respond to couples, you know—and I’ll let your dad’s debts slide. I won’t drill you in every alleyway we pass, but if you find you love your husband just too damn much to resist, then don’t expect me to be some kind of gentleman.”

The main thing I hear is dad’s debts slide . Those three words ring around my head like some kind of chant. As though my entire life has been a football game and this is the home team’s winning song, roared after touchdowns with beer swilling over the rim of red plastic cups. This is what I am, what I’ve become. Somebody working to pay off debts. When it comes down to it, I don’t really have a choice. It’s this or let Hound collect my father’s teeth in a cup for his employer. I look him up and down. He’s changed into a faded blue shirt, rolled up at the sleeves, showing a triangular scar on his forearm that looks like he was nicked by a blade.

My heart is thudding in my chest. I try and imagine what Other Daisy is doing right now. I think of her sometimes, even though it’s immature and I should’ve grown out of it by now. When I was a girl, I would wonder if Other Daisy—who existed in some far-off land much sweeter and easier than this one—was out with friends right now instead of indoors with her ear pressed against the wall listening to Mom being sick. Now when I think of Other Daisy, she’s wearing a suit in an office doing something businesslike. But I can’t sit here pondering Other Daisy forever. Hound is waiting for an answer. And in the end, there’s no doubt of what I’m going to say. I don’t have a choice, not if I want to protect my family.

“I’ll do it. I’ll be your fake wife.”

Hound smiles, and then leans across and slides the rings onto my finger. The metal is cool against my skin. But it is somehow reassuring, too, even if I know it’s all playacting.

“Now what?” I ask, expecting him to slide his hand up my leg or leap on me. I’m ready for it, hungry for it, even.

But he rises to his feet. “Now I take you home,” he says. “You look tired.”

“If you take me home,” I reply, standing up with him so we’re almost touching, “you’ll know where I live. I don’t know if—”

“—your beloved husband should be allowed to know where you live?”

He leans close to me. I close my eyes, expecting—wanting—him to kiss me. But then I hear the curtains rustle. I open my eyes to find him waiting outside the booth, holding the curtains aside.

His car is an army-green jeep with one of those big tires on the back, the windows tinted night-black. I climb into the passenger seat and instead of my bum finding soft cushion, I’m sitting on something hard and jagged. I pick it up and find it’s a copy of Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. To find a book like this—one I was studying in my last year in high school, before I dropped out—in a car like this, which belongs to a man like this, is such a shock I drop the book into my lap.

“Something wrong?” Hound asks, as he starts the car, driving us smoothly through the streets, all of which are bathed in the light of the setting sun.

I pick up the book again. He grins. “Oh, that. Much prefer Yates to Dickens, I’ve gotta say. For one thing Yates doesn’t make me pick up a dictionary every two seconds—just every four.”

“You’re a conundrum,” I tell him, echoing my thoughts from earlier. A conundrum of a giant. That could be the title to a children’s book, I think: The Conundrum of Hound the Giant.

“I never finished it,” I say. “I started it, once…I never learned what happened to…what are their names? April and Hank?”

“Frank.” Hound gestures at the book. There’s something out-of-place in that: his giant paw gesturing at this sleek hardback. “Have that one. I’m done with it.”

“Are you sure?”

He shrugs. “Why not?”

I tuck it into my handbag. Then we’re walking up the steps to my apartment building, me fumbling in the bag for the keys, Hound waiting at my shoulder. When I finally get the keys into the lock, the door open, and I’m standing in the hallway and he’s standing just outside, I expect that now, finally, he’ll kiss me. My body is alive to the idea, aching memories of our animal fucking in the alleyway coming back to me. The book presses through my handbag into my thigh, and I find myself thankful that we’ll have a bed this time.

“I’ll be in touch,” he says, strolling back toward his jeep.

It’s probably for the best.

I lie on my bed and stare up at the darkening ceiling, where a patch of chipping paint perfectly catches the changing colors of the world outside. Yes, it’s probably for the best. But if my mind is relieved, my body isn’t, and by the time the ceiling has turned the color of a fading bruise my hand is snaking down between my legs.


Hound

As I drive over to Mac’s bar, I think about the lie I just told, and try and decide whether or not I’m worried about it. The truth is, I don’t have the ability to erase Dean’s debts, not really, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything to help them; that doesn’t mean I can’t buy them some time. If it’s not my decision whether or not Dean has to pay off all his debts, I can try and smooth-talk Mac out of collecting his teeth right away. The only thing is to think of something persuasive to say. I drive slowly, thinking about my father. He always knew what to say, always had the right words, was always able to talk his way out of a jam. Except one night when…But I won’t dwell on that. I’ve never understood what someone gains by dwelling on the bad things that happened to them. I want to try and think of something clever about past losses, maybe something from one of my books, but I’m head-tired and body-tired and want to get this business with Mac out of the way.

Under my tiredness, I’m floating on a cloud, floating high above all this petty shit. For a long time I’ve been thinking about getting a place in the suburbs, or maybe further, maybe way further, maybe somewhere so far away I can completely reinvent myself, stop being Hound the Hitter and start being…being what? Hound the Librarian? I laugh gruffly. I don’t know, but something else, something less violent. And Daisy—she’s like something out of a dream. Even if I didn’t get to drill into her again, that sweet peachy ass and those tits and those moans and that face , a face to chase you into your dreams, even if I didn’t get all of that, I’d still be obsessing about her. There’s something cute about the way she looks around all nervous and shy, all the while with lust in her eyes she can’t hide. I think of myself walking around a nice, solid, calm house with Daisy on my arm, the realtor saying to her husband or his wife later that day, “They were such a nice couple.” I’m ashamed by these dreams as I pull into the parking lot of Mac’s bar, which is a dingy one-room drinking den and a front for Mac’s bigger, more lucrative businesses. Dreams like these don’t belong in places like Mac’s bar, which doesn’t even have a name since it blew away in the wind a couple of years ago and nobody through to replace it.

No, dreams like beautiful women and nice houses and a life where violence isn’t the beginning and the end don’t belong here. I stop outside the bar, squeezing the steering wheel and taking a few deep breaths. I have to forget all that shit now. All that other-life shit. I have to be the Hound everyone in Mac’s bar knows, the Hound who some of the men respect, and still more fear.

When I step from the car, I leave my dreams on the driver’s seat, and by the time I push through the rickety, squeaking door I can hardly remember what those dreams were. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. The bar is empty apart from Nora, the one-armed barmaid who worked here even before Mac owned the place, worked here in the Depression as far as anybody can work out. She’s the oldest person I’ve ever seen, with wrinkles stacked upon wrinkles, and her stump moves skillfully across the bar, wiping it down with a rag wrapped around the place where her elbow used to be. I nod to her and then go into the backroom, where Mac will be, with his files and phone calls.

I knock. A booming voice calls, “Come. In.”

Mac is almost as large as me, around six-ten, and just as wide. The difference is he wears a sharp grey suit with glimmering cufflinks and an expression of perpetual seriousness, which I’ve never been able to manage. His fingernails are scrupulously clean. His hair is grey and thick, mostly covering the fading Swastika tattoo he got when he was younger than me and in prison. Only two edges poke out, making it look like two strands of hair plastered to his forehead.

Standing at his shoulders are his goons, Ripper and Hitter, ginger-haired twins who are always gripping bone-colored knuckle-dusters, and who always seem eager to use them. The only difference between the twins is that Ripper’s nose is bent out of shape from where he broke it in a bar fight, and Hitter has a scar just above his eyebrows. They’re as still as the desk and the safe and the shelf, pieces of furniture, never moving unless Mac asks them to.

“Sit down.”

I take a seat. I’ve always respected Mac, even if he’s never given me what I once wanted: some kind of pale phantom of Dad. When Dad died, Mac took me in and kept me on the road Dad set me on, giving me a job and skulls to crack, and once upon a time I thought that the more skulls I cracked, the more likely it would be that Mac would clap me on the back and call me “son”. Even if that day never came, I still respect him. He was once a collector himself, and now he spends his days sorting money and giving orders. A solid man, with a solid, hard face, the wrinkles making it look somehow harder, like an old rock, not infirm at all. But Mac never took the next step; he never got out completely, like I want to…No, leave that in the car. Let it die here. It can’t live here. There’s no sun here.

“Any news on Dunham?” he says, after writing something on a piece of paper.

Luckily, I’ve never once failed Mac, so I have a bit of leeway when it comes to stuff like this. “I used my contact at the bank to look into his finances.” This part is true. The next isn’t. “He found some cash in an offshore account, waiting to be released. I found Dean and shook him down, gave him a couple of cracked ribs.” This is good because anybody following Dean won’t be able to tell if he’s hurt his ribs or not. “He’s going to get our cash, soon, and if he doesn’t I’ll take care of him myself.”

Mac just nods. “Okay.” I’m about to stand up when he lifts his forefinger, his gold ring glinting in the light of a single bulb. “We’re not done. I have a job for you.”

He gives me the details: he needs information from a man about where another man is hiding, he needs the information tonight, and he doesn’t care if the man is killed or not.

Then he looks at me for the first time, instead of down at his papers or his money, and I’m sure I see Ripper and Hitter smile together, as though they know this is some kind of testing moment, as though they know that Mac is making sure I’ve still got the steel for this. I understand, after the business with Dean, but it still stirs some of the Old-Hound anger, the anger which would make me leap across the room and smash their skulls together until nothing remained but ginger-haired paste. I swallow the rage, and wait for Mac to speak.

“This won’t be a problem, will it?” he says, the two prongs of his Swastika shifting as his eyebrows rise in a paternal smile.

“No,” I reply. “Of course it won’t. I’ll text you the address.”

“Text one of the burner numbers.”

Ripper reaches into his pocket and hands me a folded up piece of paper. “Should work,” he grunts.

“Alright. Expect it soon.”

I leave the office, nod to one-armed Nora, and return to my jeep. My mind starts straying to places it shouldn’t as I drive toward this man’s apartment, like what his mom’s name is and what he does in his spare time. What TV shows he likes. If he prefers soccer or football. But then I kill all that. I’m not Henry, I have to remember; Henry Roscoe, the name which appears on my online course login page, doesn’t exist here. Only Hound exists.

I’ve been doing this for so long that getting a hold of the man is no problem. I just press a buzzer to an apartment which isn’t his, tell the nice lady that I live on the first floor and I’m stuck out of the building, and then stroll up to the seventh floor to where the apartment is. Then I knock on the door and say, “Hey, man, I’ve got this whole spare pizza, they gave me one by accident. You hungry? I know this is a little strange…” I hear the guy shifting around as he approaches the door.

After that, I don’t really let myself think about what’s happening. I tie the man to a chair and stuff a rag in his mouth and only take the rag out when he promises not to scream. Then the questioning starts, the repeated question: “Where is your friend? Where is he hiding? Where is your friend…” I use the man’s kitchen knife and go to work on him when he won’t answer, but I let my body go into autopilot, my hands knowing how to handle the blade without my mind having to intervene. My mind is romping faraway, in a place where me and this new Daisy girl are hugging by a fireside reading some book which looks ludicrously small in my bear hands. As the man screams, I imagine, instead, that Daisy is crying out in delight. When he begins to whimper, it’s Daisy, giggling into my ear. For a woman I just met, she’s a sanctuary unlike anything I’ve ever retreated to before. By the time the bloody business is done and I have the address, and the man is bleeding and crying and blood coats my hand like grime from a dirty pond, I’m hardly aware of my surroundings.

I leave the apartment, drive my jeep to an empty parking lot in a ghostly part of town, and then send the text. After that, I just sit there for a long time, until the blood has dried under my fingernails and my mind and my body are one thing once again. When that happens, it’s tempting to start thinking about what I just did. When I can feel, really feel, the blood tugging on the hairs of my arms with each movement, it’s tempting to close my eyes and contemplate the pain I just caused.

But that’s not Hound, not something tough guy, brutal Hound would do. So instead I start the car and drive toward my apartment, where a shower is waiting, where dreams of Daisy are waiting.


Daisy

After four hours at the café, it’s time for more fun at The Lady Shack. I’m a little anxious about Dad, too, seeing as I tried to call him this morning and there was no answer. But knowing him he’s probably huddled over some green-felt table somewhere gambling away money he doesn’t have and causing us more problems. Working at the café was easy because nobody really talks to me there. It’s one of those industrial places where thousands of people work and making friends is made impossible by the ever-shifting schedule. But when I get into the Shack’s changing room and see Sarah and Jessica, somehow always able to find the time to huddle together and laugh meanly about everybody else, I know it won’t be as easy. Their eyes, all four of them, move to the rings on my finger like flies hovering over…well, hovering over the words that are about to start pouring out of Sarah’s mouth.

“What is this ?” Sarah abandons her ignored sandwich and leaps over to me, staring goggle-eyed at the rings. “What’s happened? Did you treat yourself to a little imaginary wedding last night?”

“I’m twenty-seven years old,” I say as I begin getting changed, “and you must be around the same, right? So why don’t we drop the whole high school routine and just get on with our lives?”

Sarah lets these words wash over her like so much air. When she next speaks, I realize I might as well have said nothing. “So, who is the unlucky gremlin, then?” Behind her, Jessica giggles harshly.

“I think you ought to buy one of those papooses parents carry babies in,” I say. “That way, Jessica can sit on your back and the two of you can walk around laughing at every little thing you see.”

“I know what happened!” Sarah cries, clapping her hands together. I’m in my underwear now, about to put on my Shack uniform. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever been desperate to get out there and wait tables. “You found some poor icky hobo and dragged him back to your place and bounced on his pogo and then the two of you broke into a supermarket and stole some cheap flimsy trash. Am I close?”

Close to having your teeth smashed in, I think, but I don’t say it. What Sarah’s doing would be considered “light-hearted banter” by management. If I said that, it’d be considered a threat. Plus, I’m fairly certain Sarah gave Steve a blowjob at the last Christmas party, and I’m one-hundred percent certain I didn’t, which doesn’t exactly go in my favor where leeway and threats are concerned. Finally, I’m dressed. I close my locker, turn the key, and shoulder past Sarah, who’s tittering at something I didn’t hear. Her final stab comes just as I leave the changing room: “I hope he didn’t taste too homelessey!

If I thought safety could be found out here, however, I’m proved wrong straightaway. Marsha’s face is a picture of panic, her eyes wide, her hands scratching at her tights. As soon as I emerge she darts at me, throwing one hand to my shoulder and the other across the tables. “Look at this ! Mayhem! I’m going to need you in groups F, D, and E, okay?”

I see what she means: lunchtime, the place jam-packed full of businessmen types, with the added stress of two separate group of frat boys and what appears to be a stag party, twenty loutish men chanting at the corner table.

“Okay,” I mutter. “Let’s get to it.”

It’s just as horrible as it looks, six hours of being grabbed at, cheered at, talked up, leered at, and dribbled over. The men turn into animals after a few lunchtime beers and start looking at me like I’m not a woman at all—albeit a woman in breast-crushing clothes—but a piece of meat on a conveyer hook going past them every few minutes. When I approach them, they’ll nudge each other, egging each other on, and once or twice one of them manages to wrap his hand around my thigh. Unfortunately, this is pretty normal in places like this; all throughout the day, I see the same thing happening to some of the other girls. I almost snap at one man, who wears big horn-rimmed glasses and is old enough to be my father. He thinks it’s funny to pretend to unzip his pants every time I approach, and I begin to think it would be funny to let him finish only jam his cock in the zipper when he’s done. After about an hour, I stop being present in the room. I drift off and let my mind wander, let it romp in places where these perv men and their perv hands don’t exist. Finally, feet aching, head aching, chest aching with the effort of restraining my anger, it’s time to go.

“You did great today,” Marsha says, her eyes all puffy from where one customer made her cry.

I spot Steve in the back, near the kitchen, laughing loudly at something Sarah said.

“Thanks.”

I’ve never been so glad to ride the bus, sitting on the plastic seat and staring out the window at the sweltering city. I don’t even care that it’s boiling and sweat slides down my forehead constantly. Anything to be out of that hellhole. And tomorrow is Saturday, which I have off; I work Sundays, but Saturday! Saturday! Maybe I won’t even get up at all, just stay in bed, staring at the ceiling and enjoying the freedom of not having to look sexy. Looking sexy can get damn tiring.

As I get closer to my apartment building, I know that tonight isn’t going to be a time to stumble into my apartment and relax. First I know this because there is a vague, massive shape leaning against the wall, and then because the vague, massive shape grows features: locks of jet-black hair and ice-blue eyes and a crimson faded shirt and grey sweatpants, sturdy brown workman’s boots. Something happens to my legs when I see him, something I think says a lot about how I feel about this arrangement. They stop, wanting to both run toward him and run away from him. Both urges hit me, with equal strength. I could turn and run back down the street, or I could run into his arms. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have to think about Dad’s debts, but as it is, the choice is made for me. I walk toward him.

“Hey, pretty lady,” he says, smiling.

“Hi.” I offer him a small wave, even though we’re only feet apart now.

“You sound glum.”

“Glum,” I echo. “I guess that’s one word for it.”

“What happened?” he asks.

“I work at a place called The Lady Shack,” I respond. “What do you think happened? Assholes did what they do best. They behaved like assholes.”

“Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that, would I?”

I shake my head, but a smile touches my lips. “Can I help you?”

Hound reaches across—I feel like I’m a toy-sized miniature and a giant is reaching down to me—and touches my ring finger with surprisingly lightness. “Is that any way to talk to your husband, Daisy?”

“I don’t know, Hound. I’ve never had a husband before, Hound.”

My voice is tired and snarky but I can’t really help it. When you spend all day most every day being fake nice, when you get a chance to be real snarky, it’s hard to resist.

“Anyway,” I go on, “I’m pretty sure you told me not be fake around you. You said you could pay for that. So surely that means I can talk to you any way I damn well please?”

He holds his hands up, chuckling. “You’ve got me there. But please, please, calm down, you’re starting to make me afraid.” He pretends to shiver, rubbing his arms. “So afraid. Please stop. You’re so scary when you get angry. You make me want to cry.”

Without thinking, I reach across and jab him in the arm. “Quit it,” I snap.

“You’re stronger than you look,” Hound says, backing away.

“Did you come here just to piss me off, or is there a specific reason?”

“There’s a reason. A house tour. A nice place outside of town. I hope you haven’t got plans tomorrow. Aren’t you going to invite me upstairs for a drink?”

As he speaks, he edges close to the doorway. I tell myself I have no choice but to let him upstairs with me, even though part of me is glad he’s here and I’m going to have company for the evening, even though part of me likes the way his chest muscles brush against my shoulder. In my apartment, Hound walks around for a while, inspecting everything, not that there’s much to inspect: a one-bedroom place with a glass coffee table, an old TV, a few books dotted here and there, and some DVDs of reality shows I bought a few years back, clothes strewn over the floor from where I come in after work and just shed everything, as though shedding the clothes means I can shed the day.

“I only have wine,” I tell him, “or whisky. I don’t have soda or anything to go with the whisky.”

“Just a whisky, then,” Hound says, dropping onto the couch. When he sits, the seat makes a squeaking noise and the cushions visibly sag.

I fix the drinks and join him on the couch.

“I live in a place like this,” he says, sipping his drink. Most men make some kind of face when they sip whisky, even if they don’t mean to; the harshness of the drink is too much for them. I watch Hound for this, but he just sips it likes its water. Maybe that shouldn’t excite me, maybe it’s just a small thing, but it does, and I don’t know how to feel about that. “Most places are like this in the city. But I want something else: something big where you can walk from one side to the other in less than a couple of seconds.”

“I imagine apartments can be stifling to a man like you,” I say. “I mean—a man as big as you.”

As big as you, as big as you inside of me, in the alleyway, driving into me…crushing me. I repress a shudder of pleasure.

“Yeah,” Hound says. “Damn crushing, but it’s not just the size. It’s other things, too.”

“Like what?” I say. I take too-big gulps of my wine, but the day has been long and the feeling of wine in my belly makes it seem very far in the past.

“Just—stuff.” Hound pauses, and then says, “What about you? Have you ever dreamed about getting out, or getting away?”

I think about that for a second, think about how laughably on-point it is. Have I ever dreamed about getting away? It seems half my laugh has been spent dreaming about getting away. Even now, here, with him, I am wondering whether or not it would be better to get away from this man. I shouldn’t be sitting talking with a man who might one day be smashing my dad’s face in. “When I was a girl all I wanted to do was get away,” I say. Maybe I’m tipsy already. My words spill out without needing much encouragement from me. “After my mom died, I dreamed about it all the time, but then I had responsibilities, you know, and then—” I cut myself off, realizing that pouring my heart out is something I might regret in the morning. “Anyway, is that why you came here, to depress me?”

“The house outside of town looks like a place a husband and wife could settle down. That’s why I’m here.” I know he’s not serious by the ironic way he speaks, his lips twisted in a sardonic smile, his eyes moving over my body. Usually I would be in pajamas by now, but I haven’t had a chance to change. I’m still in my Shack clothes. I’m aware of my legs, shiny with sweat, and my breasts pushing against the fabric, stretching the Shack out so it’s unreadable. “A nice old place where a man could commute into the city and work a nine-to-five and the little lady at home could clean the bathroom and make herself some tea and practice yoga.”

I giggle, and he laughs along with me. Then he inches closer to me on the couch and the laughter dies. Memories of the alleyway return to me, deep, penetrating memories, memories that exist just as much in my pussy and my belly as in my mind. I remember the feeling of the concrete against my fingertips and the smell of the alleyway, all of it overshadowed by Hound’s manly smell and the hardness of him thrusting inside of me. I realize I’m biting my lip as I look up at him, realize that he’s leaning over me, and getting closer.

When he presses his lips against mine, the first sensation is shock: shock that this man, who so savagely threw me up against the wall, is kissing me. Hard, too, his teeth clicking against mine, our tongues intertwining immediately. For the first few moments of it, I don’t question anything. I just ride the pleasure, and then I think: I’m alone in my apartment with a debt collector. Something about that gives me pause, and Hound can tell. We stop kissing for a moment. His hand was on my thigh, near my pussy, sending tendrils of pleasure into my body. Now he slides it back down, closer to me knee. His lips still inches from my face, he says, “Something wrong?”

“I’m tired,” I admit. And scared, I don’t say. Scared because we’re all alone and we’re kissing and somehow that makes it more intimate. Scared because I’m not sure I understand myself anymore.

Hound leans back, nodding. “Okay, then, wife. But don’t expect me to leave. We’ve got plans tomorrow. I’ll take the couch.”

We finish our drinks almost in silence, and then I get up and go into the bedroom, collecting some sheets and blankets and pillows for Hound.

When I’m in my bedroom, door closed, and he’s out there, I press my ear against the door and wonder why I didn’t just go with it. Sexually frustrated and a little drunk, I collapse into bed and let myself sink into oblivion.


Daisy

Sitting in the passenger seat of Hound’s jeep, watching as city turns to highway and highway to the middle of nowhere, I wonder if this drive is ever going to end. I was watching the rear-view mirror for a while, as the city I’ve lived in my whole life became smaller and smaller until it was a pinprick and then nothing at all. Then I leaned back and closed my eyes and slept for a while. Now, staring down at my fidgeting feet, I wonder if I’ve gotten myself into an incredibly stupid situation.

“You know,” I say, as we turn yet another corner onto yet another nowhere road, “this is the sort of thing you watch in crime documentaries, isn’t it? You always hear about this sort of thing. A woman meets a man and she agrees to go on a date, or a trip, or whatever with him, and then… Kayleigh never knew what was waiting for her at the end of the road!” I speak in the over-the-top announcer’s voice many of those documentaries have. “So I just want to warn you, if you are planning anything like that, I’m ready for it. I’ve taken secret ninja training and I know how to handle myself.” I’m talking quickly, hoping for him to respond with something lighthearted, hoping that this is really a joke and he isn’t just some psychopath.

He doesn’t reply with something lighthearted, but it calms me down anyway: “I would die before I hurt you, Daisy. And that’s the truth.”

“Okay. Good.”

“Anyway,” Hound says. “It’s only been two and half hours.”

“Only!” I exclaim. “This is more like the boondocks than the suburbs.”

“Well—maybe.” He nods. “Yeah, maybe it is. But sometimes you just want to get the hell out of the city, don’t you?”

“Do you? I’ve never really considered it.”

“I do, all the time. The city is close and claustrophobic and there’re people everywhere, and sometimes all I can think about is walking out into the woods and being on my own, away from everything, away from…”

He stops, laughing away his words, but I get the unmistakable sense he was about to say myself . He wants to leave the life, I guess, the collecting, violent life. He doesn’t want to be the thug anymore.

Hound takes another turn and I’m met with a large, what must be a three- or four-bedroom detached house sitting on a street of similar houses: mown lawns and big cars and a few kids’ toys in the gardens spilling into the sidewalk. Outside one of the houses, a man is hosing down his car. Outside the one Hound parks in front of, a woman with bright red hair wearing a tight-fitting blue blouse and six-inch heels paces up and down. When she sees us climb from the car, her face goes from impatient to carefully composed. She waves and cries out, “Halloo! Halloo!”

“Halloo?” I whisper to Hound. “Since when did people say halloo?”

Hound laughs. It feels good to make him laugh.

The realtor’s name is Michaela Smithson. When I try and guess her age, I realize she could be anywhere between twenty and mid-forties. She has a face not unlike Sarah’s at the Shack, all fake and makeup and Botox, wearing fake eyelashes like I have to at work, which I absolutely hate. She’s a complete contrast to me, in my jeans and hoodie—when I’m not at work I can’t wait to throw on casual clothes, especially flat sneakers—and she looks me up and down as though wondering why I’m not squeezed into a chest-crushing outfit like she is. But when Hound introduces me as his wife, she claps her hands together and cries, “That’s about the best thing I’ve ever heard in all my life! Yippee!”

I look at Hound and Hound looks back at me, as Michaela turns on her heels and clicks up the pathway to the front door, and we have one of those rare moments I’ve only ever read about. We have an entire conversation in less than a second, without having to use any words. In that brief look, we both know that this woman is silly, and we both know that this is going to be fun, and we both agree not to say anything mean to her; she’s harmless enough, just doing her job. I’m kind of shocked by how much we say just with our eyes and smiles.

“Isn’t this lovely, darling?” I hear myself say, as we tour the living room. Everything is as it should be on first glance: a regular, all-American, suburbs-type house, even if it is in the middle of nowhere. It’s one of those houses that seems like it was built on a factory assembly line, spitting out the same model all down the street. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t gorgeous, and that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be personalized. I remember in high school when I was looking into maybe being a decorator or an architect or a planner or something like that, and as I walk around the house, it all returns to me, all the frantic teenaged research I did. I watch, and notice, and compile a list in my head.

“Oh, lovely,” Hound says, going along with my game.

“So how long have you been married?” Michaela asks.

“Three years,” Hound says quickly, so quickly that I infer he’s created this backstory already. “We were married in the spring of ’14, and we’ve been living in the city ever since.”

“Oh, that’s just adorable ,” Michaela says.

Hound reaches over my shoulders and hugs me close. “We like to think so.”

I give him a secret pinch, but I can’t deny I’m enjoying myself.

Then we come full circle, and we’re standing at the front door.

“Isn’t it just perfect ?” Michaela beams.

But I can see past her fake smiley face. I know what she’s hiding.

Before Hound can answer, I interject: “Well, I don’t know if I would say perfect.”

Michaela falters. “How—what—how do you mean that, sweetie?”

“In the living room there’s a patch of wall which has been painted over in an attempt to conceal the damp, but you can still see the damp if you look closely, creeping up from the basement. As we walked into the second bedroom I noticed that you made sure not to touch the door handle, instead just pushing the door, which makes me wonder if the handle isn’t broken. When Hou…When Henry made to flush the toilet, you were pretty quick to distract him with the bath, telling him that it’s a new model. Why? Is there something wrong with the toilet?”

I stop, suddenly aware of how quickly I’m talking, suddenly aware of Hound grinning down at me with more pride than I’ve been shown since high school, when Mr. Underwood gave me top grades in debate club. “Wow,” Hound says, turning to Michaela. “I think my wife has got you there. Would you please wait outside and give us time to speak alone?”

Michaela looks at me like she’s seeing me for the first time, the same way an owner might look at a dog which has behaved lovingly for years and then bites out of nowhere. Then she straightens her dress which didn’t need straightening and click-clicks out the front door. “I’ll be in my car,” she says stiffly. “Take all the time you need.”

“Oh, we will,” Hound says.

When Michaela is gone, Hound asks me to show him the things I mentioned. I feel another swell of pride as I go about the house, showing him what Michaela was trying to hide, and it’s heightened by the way he looks at me, pride spilling out from his icy blues. Am I blushing? No, no way. I’m not blushing. That’s something nervous teenagers do—girls with hope—not women who get pawed at by men on almost a daily basis just so they can stay afloat.

We’re upstairs and I’ve just showed him the toilet, which makes a loud cranking noise when flushed, a noise which sounds like an elephant in its final moments of life. I imagine Michaela out there in her car hearing the crank and wincing.

“You’re evil,” Hound says, noticing my smile, reading it. How can he know me so well so quickly? It’s eerie. “You’re enjoying this.”

“I am,” I admit. “I don’t know why…Hey, what’re you doing?”

He backs me into the bedroom, kicking the door closed behind him. The bedroom is clearly the master bedroom of whoever lives here. Plush cushions almost drown the sheets and a fifty-inch flat-screen TV is mounted on the wall. Having a TV that big in the bedroom seems obnoxious to me, but I guess some people like it. Hound backs me all the way to the bed. I watch myself in the reflection of the TV, constantly surprised by how huge he is compared with me. In the reflection it’s even more obvious.

“You’re scaring me,” I say, but it’s a lie and he knows it’s a lie.

“Am I?” he whispers, leaning down.

Last night, alone in my apartment, I couldn’t give myself to this man. And yet here, in broad daylight in somebody else’s house, with an impatient realtor clicking her heels outside, I find myself more willing to sink into him. I don’t know why that is. All I know is I’m floating on air, that this man has shown me some pride: pride for my mind, pride for my insight. And now when he presses his lips against mine the desire explodes inside of me, a hungry, animal desire I didn’t even feel in the alleyway. It grabs me by the shoulders and doesn’t let go. I leap up and wrap my legs around him, driving my hips down toward his groin, feeling his hard cock pressing through his jeans. We kiss passionately, tongues intertwined, drinking each other in. Then I start bouncing up and down, Hound lifting me and throwing me down with powerful hands—hands which are gripping my back, spreading over them hugely—and then he breaks off the kiss and tosses me onto the bed.

“Fuck,” I moan, hands worrying at my jeans. “Fuck, Hound. Fuck .”

“Fuck,” he agrees, as he pulls off his jeans.

We strip methodically, neither of us in the mood for foreplay. My pussy is still aching from the alleyway, but I want him, badly, want him when I’m on my back and I can look up at his face, the face which a few minutes ago filled me with never-before-felt pride. Soon I’m lying with my jeans and underwear rumpled on the floor. I’m still in my hoodie and socks. And when Hound takes off his bottoms, his cock springing up like a length of steel, he doesn’t even take off his boots. He kicks his jeans off around them. Something about this drives me even crazier. It’s animal, it’s urgent. I can’t wait for him to be inside of me.

He falls atop me, propping himself up with his hands either side of my head. The bed makes a loud creaking noise with his added weight. I feel trapped, but trapped in a good way. I want to be trapped. I’m panting as I reach down and take his cock in my hand, parting my legs and lifting them, pussy crying out desperately for him. When I guide him to my hole, I gasp, the thickness of him almost too much to handle. He pushes into me slowly, his massive cock parting my pussy, spreading into me. There’s pain, but the pain is soon pushed aside by the pleasure, pleasure which fills me as he slides deep, deep inside of me, far deeper than any man before Hound has ever gotten close to. His cock presses firmly against my sweet spot, causing me to ache, and then—Oh, fuck, and then I feel my pussy going tight, very tight, so tight that I think an orgasm might be coming. I think about where we are, how naughty this is, and my pussy gets tighter. Hound, noticing what’s happening, holds his cock in place, looking down at me with surprise.

When it hits, I can’t help it, I scream. I scream loudly until I lean forward and bury my face in his shirt. My pussy goes so tight around his cock I think I’ll break it, and then in less than a moment it releases, the entire lower half of my body vibrating and my pussy gushing come down the length of him. I keep thinking: He hasn’t even fucked me yet, he hasn’t even fucked me yet. But I’m coming, tilting my hips so that his cock changes angles against my sweet spot, gripping his shoulders and sitting down, hard, so that I can squeeze every last ounce of pleasure from the moment. When I think it’s over, a second wave hits me, this one sharper than the last, the pleasure moving from my legs and my pussy up through my belly and chest, making my nipples hard, so hard that when Hound grabs them through the fabric of the hoodie, the orgasm explodes all over again and I’m writhing and screaming and bouncing. Soon the orgasm passes, but I’m still bouncing, and Hound is fucking me with all his power.

The bed creaks under the strain, but neither of us care. I drive my hips down in time with his thrusts, spent from the unanticipated orgasm, but still enjoying the waves of pleasure that move through me with each rough thrust of his unbelievably massive dick.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck.” Hound grunts, his cock buried balls-deep in me. “Fuck!”

I wrap my arms around him as he comes inside of me, finding the way his cock goes from rock-hard to semi-hard and then soft, all whilst he’s inside of me, alluring in an unexpected kind of way. Then he rolls aside, lying on his back and panting. I do the same, closing my eyes and wondering if I’ll ever feel pleasure that surprising again: pleasure that creeps up on you and drives into you without warning.

“That was—” he starts.

“—incredible,” I finish.

He looks at me and I look at him, and we both laugh. For a few moments, as we lie there with his come drying on somebody else’s sheets, I forget who he is, so that he becomes just a man, a sexy, funny man, lying in bed beside me. Nobody dangerous, nobody to be feared. It’s ruined when Michaela starts clicking up the stairs, calling, “Halloo! Everything okay up there?”

For some reason, that brings home the reality. I just fucked my father’s debt collector for a second time. As I get dressed, I feel distant, and by the time we’re driving back to Austin I lay my forehead against the glass and pretend to be asleep just so we don’t have to talk.


Daisy

Sarah isn’t working today, so the only thing I have to contend with is the prospect that Hound might have already killed Dad. After he dropped me off a couple of nights ago, my head was a mess, spinning like crazy, and I wanted to talk to Dad. I needed to check he was okay, too. When I called him and there was no answer, I didn’t think it was a big deal. I mean, he sometimes doesn’t even keep his phone charged. But when I went to his apartment and used my key to get in and found a pile of letters overflowing in his box and no sign that he’d even been back there, I started to get worried. Now, after hours of calling all his scumbag friends and being told that nobody has seen him, I have to smile and be sexy and flirty with the assholes at the Shack all while wondering if the man I’ve fucked twice now has killed my father. Not exactly a good start to a workday!

It’s made even worse by the customer I’m dealing with. I’m always wary when men come here alone, like this man has. If men come in groups, they might egg each other on, but usually there will be one or two sensible ones who will keep the others in line, or the wild ones will be too embarrassed to act like total freaks in front of their friends. But this man sits alone, smiling blandly in a way that makes me uncomfortable. He’s tall, thin, with a sleek nose and hands with long, manicured fingernails. He wears a buttoned-up shirt with a bow-tie and pleated trousers, with shiny brown shoes.

I go over to him and say, “Hey, honey, I hope you’re having a great day!”

“You hope, do you?” the man says, snorting out a laugh. “You really hope I’m having a good day?”

I roll with it, exclaiming stupidly that I really, really do! God, I hate when my voice is like this.

“Right. Maybe you should show me how much you hope by getting on your knees—No, no, now, Charles, don’t be rude.” He wags his finger at himself as though disciplining a child. “The nice lady—” leaning forward to spy at my name-tag, and my breasts “— Daisy is going to get us our food, okay? I’ll take a glass of water with five ice cubes and a burger without cheese or lettuce or pickle or onion or tomato, just the bread and the burger, okay?”

“Sure!” I beam. “That’s great!”

“Great,” the man—Charles—echoes. “Great. Hmm, is it? Great?”

“Well, sure!”

“Okay, then. Isn’t part of your job walking away so I can look at your ass? Seriously, how do you women fit into those skirts? Go on then, walk away. I want a look.”

The way he says this really creeps me out, even more than if he was some asshole frat boy reaching for me, but I have no choice but to turn around and take his order to the kitchen. As I pass Marsha, she says, “That’s Charles Wheeler. He’s a bit, well, off , you know? So just, well, you know, sort of be careful.”

Be careful? I want to ask. Be careful about what? Is he really that bad? But Marsha is swept away by another Shack girl and I’m left to my other tables, before Charles’ food is ready and I’m forced to return to him. As I carry the food to his table, painfully aware of his eyes locked onto me, I plaster a smile over my face. “That’s the Shack girl way!” Steve told me when I first got this job. “If a customer spills a drink, you smile! If a customer says something inappropriate, you smile! And if a customer reaches for your ass?” He left the question open for me there, and I felt I had no choice but to chime in with an enthusiastic, “Smile!” Now, I lay the food and water on the table, smile , and tell him to please enjoy his meal. I’ve walked no more than four steps away from him before he clicks his fingers at me and yells, way too loudly, “Here, girl!”

Swallowing my rage, my smile faltering for less than a moment, I turn around and go to him. “What is it, honey?”

“Honey,” he mutters. “Honey. That’s always confused me. Who says honey is a good thing? Is honey a good thing for a bear when he has bees buzzing all around his face? Is honey a good thing for an obese person who’s spent their whole fatty life slurping the stuff and now they’re so fat they can barely walk? Honey.”

I want to slap this man across the face. I want to head-butt him. Things I’ve never thought about before, like filling a glass with boiling water and throwing it in his face, come to me now. But I’m a Shack girl and I know that Steve is lurking somewhere in the kitchen, that I’d risk my job if I stood up for myself. I barely have time to reflect how pathetic this state of affairs is—especially after my tiny liberation with the realtor—before Charles is clicking his fingers at me.

“Hey, hey, don’t go floating off into the clouds. I’m talking to you. You shouldn’t be so rude when someone is talking to you.”

“What is it…?” Sweetie, I was about to say, but who knows what rant that will send him on. I see why Marsha warned me, now. “Is there something wrong with your food?”

“How would I know?” He looks at me like I’m the stupidest person he’s ever seen. “I haven’t touched my food yet. No, Daisy, sweet Daisy, I want you to do your Lady Shack thing with me, like lean over the table and pretend to clean it so I can get a good look at your titties. Those are darn nice titties!”

“I’m sorry,” I say stiffly, “but I don’t think that table needs cleaning.”

Charles seems taken aback by this. He points to a table of men in suits, and then says, “I just saw some blonde slut, some fucking whore—no, no, don’t be rude. I just saw some blonde woman leaning over there and shoving her titties in their faces.”

My palms sting and for a second I wonder what the hell’s going on. Then I unclench my fists, releasing the place where my fingernails have bitten into my skin. “Perhaps that table was dirty.”

“Oh, no, no, no .” Then, moving too fast for me to react, he jumps forward and grips his hands down painfully on my legs, yanking me toward him, muttering under his breath, “Tried to be nice, tried to be nice.” His manicured fingernails are sharper than they look, biting into my skin as my own bit into my palms moments ago, and before I can slap his hand away or yell out for help—not that yelling out for help is a good idea—he’s pulled me into his lap. “Ooh, that’s the stuff.” He licks his lip. I think about the way Hound pulled me into his lap, how that was exciting and this is revolting.

“Get off me!” I hiss, but I’m keeping my voice low. After all, my catchphrase still holds true: I need the money.

“Ooh, wriggle. That’s it, wriggle—”

Somebody’s strong hand lifts me to my feet by gripping my torso, a massive paw which covers my entire chest. I’m lifted up and set down, and then Hound is leaning down over Charles. Charles is fidgeting with his bowtie in Hound’s shadow. Hound grips the man’s neck and lifts him, one-handed, completely off his feet, holding him in the air and staring into his eyes with anger I couldn’t imagine on Hound’s face before now: not his smiling, carefree face. “You see those fucking rings on her finger?” he growls, and then he roars: “Do you see those fucking rings on her finger?”

Restaurants are never like movies. They’re louder, and people take far longer to react. So when Hound shouts, the place doesn’t immediately go quiet, the music doesn’t die, and everybody doesn’t stop what they’re doing to look. But people at the surrounding tables begin to stir. I jump to Hound and place my hand on his shoulder, aware that Steve could emerge from the kitchen at any moment. “Please,” I whisper in his ear. “Hound, let him go. Please. This is—this is part of the job!” When he doesn’t drop him, Charles’ face turning the color of beet red and his legs kicking uselessly, I thump Hound in the arm. “I said let him go!” I snap.

“Anyone touches my wife,” Hound says, his ice-blue eyes cold with rage, “I’ll break his goddamn neck. You’ve been warned, you bowtie-wearing fuck.”

He tosses Charles like a toy onto the seat and then swaggers from the restaurant. For a second, as I watch him go, I’m just stunned. But then anger rises in me like fire. He can’t just come in here and risk my job and then walk out like that! He can’t just disrupt my entire life and then leave ! And what about Dad? Has he done something to Dad? My anger propels me out of the front door, into the parking lot where Hound is climbing into his jeep. It’s another sweltering day, the heat making me all the angrier, making it hard to think after the coolness of the Shack. I go to his car and slam the door before he can climb in.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I yell, and since the parking lot is quieter and less busy than the restaurant, a few people turn and look at me. But I don’t care. I get even angrier when Hound just turns his smile at me. “Don’t give me that cheesy grin, Hound! What the hell’s the matter with you? This is my job, my job , this is how I pay bills, rent…this is how I live. Do you understand that? What makes you think you have the right to just barge in here and put all of that at risk? What makes you think you have the right ?” On the last word, I slap him in the chest. He doesn’t stagger, or even look like he notices it.

“You’re angry?” He tilts his head at me like he can’t understand it. “I don’t understand why you’re angry. That freak was grabbing at you and—and how can you be angry? I don’t get it.”

“I just explained to you why I’m angry,” I say, turning my back to him. “If you don’t understand that, then maybe you’re just as dumb as you look.”

I know it’s a low blow and even through my anger I feel mean, but I don’t take it back. We stand like that, me looking away from him at the Shack, at Marsha taking my place at the table and placating Charles, at the restaurant thrumming along in my absence. I’ll have to work through my break when I return, I know, but at least Hound’s performance hasn’t resulted in anything disastrous for me. But this annoys me even more, because now it means my anger might be unfounded; the foundations are slipping away and if I don’t quickly rebuild them, I’ll sink into apologies and meekness like I always do. Fold in upon myself and become the Shack girl, the waitress, the high school dropout.

I turn back to Hound and see that he’s just watching me. He’s very good at hiding what he’s feeling, but I’m sure his expression is wounded. I feel the word, “Sorry,” on my lips and know that if I want to win this argument, which suddenly seems important, I have to spit something out else instead. “And I know you’ve killed my dad,” I say, even though I don’t know anything of the sort. But he’s missing, and Hound is the man I witnessed threatening him. What have I been doing? Why have I been falling for this man? Just because I have to be his wife-slave, it doesn’t mean I have to like it. “Here’s what you thought: Oh, she’s just a silly girl, almost a hooker, so I’ll just make her my pretend wife and tell her I’m getting rid of her father’s debts and then I’ll just go ahead and kill her dad anyway. That’s what you thought, isn’t it, you sick bastard?”

Hound watches me calmly, which is about the most infuriating thing a man can do when you’re trying to have an argument with him.

“You killed my dad!” I snap, taking a step to him and standing on my tiptoes so I can look right into his eyes, or as close into his eyes as a five-something woman can with Hound. “Didn’t you? Just admit it!”


Hound

It shouldn’t bother me, what she’s saying, the way she’s looking at me like the scummiest thing on Earth. It shouldn’t bother me that she’s angry with me. She’s meant to just be a fuck toy, a fake wife I’m using so I can get into her pants every once in a while. For the Hound before all this book-learning shit, before I decided I wanted to be something other than a thug, this would’ve been a laughable encounter. So some hole I’m drilling is angry with me? Who the fuck cares? But now, for some goddamn reason, I feel my chest getting just a tad tighter, a tad tighter than is comfortable. I feel guilt, deep in my belly, even if what she’s saying is wrong. And I feel a strange urge to wrap my arms around her and hold her to my chest even though she’d push away from me. I picture myself explaining this to the guys at Mac’s bar, try and imagine what they’d say. I’m pretty sure they’d laugh me out of the place.

“Your father’s missing?” I ask.

She’s so close to me, staring into my eyes like men do before they want to fight, that I could lean forward a couple of inches and kiss her. But I don’t. Because something has happened to me with this green-eyed, bouncy, should-just-be-for-sex girl; I don’t want to disrespect her. Not unless she wants to be disrespected, like the time in the alleyway.

She snorts and backs away, shaking her head. “Like you don’t know!” She laughs forcibly. “Like you don’t know, Hound! Are you really going to stand there and tell me it’s a coincidence that one second you’re threatening to bash his teeth out and the next I can’t find him? And it’s not just me who can’t find him, either!” She tells me about calling his friends. “So he just vanishes from his life and you want me to believe the one man I know for a fact was threatening him had nothing to do with it!”

“Listen to me,” I say slowly, carefully, slower and more careful than I’ve ever been with a woman. I think of Gatsby and his Daisy in the hotel room when he gets angry with Tom and how it’s too late then, because he’s showed what he really is. I tell myself I have to be calm, calm as a still pool of water. I wish I could sink into myself like I do when I’m on a job, but I find I can’t, not with Daisy. “Listen,” I go on. “If your dad’s missing, this is the first I’m learning about it. I haven’t been following him or—or anything. I’ve just been focusing on you and books and…I don’t know where he is. I swear it.” As I speak, my mind is working overtime.

I had no idea Dean was gone, that’s the truth, which means he either skipped town or somebody’s taken him out. But if it was one of Mac’s guys, I’d know about it. So he must’ve ran, just upped and ran leaving his daughter to deal with his mess. This pisses me the hell off, first because I was a fool not to keep taps on him in the first place, and second because it shows what a rotten excuse of a dad this man is. And maybe if I’m starting to care for Daisy, I’m starting to care for things like that. Dean just basically abandoned his daughter to the wolves, prancing off somewhere far away from Austin, maybe far away from Texas.

Daisy watches me, and then says, “And what? I’m just supposed to just believe you?”

She speaks in a softer tone. Maybe she wants to believe I’m telling the truth.

“Look at me, Daisy. Just look at me.” I step forward and take her face in my hands. She gasps, but she doesn’t try and bat my hands away. “Look into my eyes and tell me if I’m lying. I swear on every damn thing in this world that I had nothing to do with your dad going missing.”

She stares into my eyes and I get the feeling that she’s staring into place no woman has before. My initial urge is to run away, get the hell out of here so I don’t have to feel these uncomfortable feelings. But I manage to force myself not to look away.

“I think you’re telling the truth,” she says. “But I’m scared you’re lying to me. If you hurt him, Hound, I could never forgive you.”

“I didn’t,” I say. “Seriously.”

She sighs, and then nods. “Okay, then where is he?”

I shrug. “I don’t know, but I’ll look into it. In the meantime, I’ve got another house I want us to check out.” What an idiot…I feel like a fool for bringing it up the second I say it. I let go of her face and wait for her to snap at me.

But she just smiles, a small, shy smile, and says, “Okay, then we’ll check it out sometime. But I have to get back to work now.”

She turns and leaves me in the parking lot, clicking on her heels back toward The Lady Shack. I watch her go, feeling like I’ve got whiplash from her moods, anger and then a smile… I watch the entrance until the asshole I throttled leaves. I think about following him and doing some damage, something I would’ve done before, but I don’t have the taste for it. I’m just glad he isn’t in there anymore, bothering her.

I get behind the wheel of the jeep and make my way back toward my apartment, stewing over Dean. Just up and leaving her, just flying the coop and leaving the only family he has left to deal with the massive shit he left in his wake. I don’t have kids so I guess I can’t judge, but I like to think I’d be more loyal than that. This is the first time in my life I’ve truly cared about something like this: about hurting a woman’s feelings. There’s something special about Daisy, something different, something that makes it so the idea that she might be in pain causes me some pain, too. It’s too confusing for me to understand. I’ve never been the best when it comes to knowing what’s going on inside myself. But I think I might be falling for this girl, falling for her more than the whole fake-wife thing accounts for. Fucking Dean, leaving her like that!

And even if it wasn’t a huge fuck you to Daisy, it’s going to cause me some problems down the line. Not right away, since I bought myself some time with Mac, but sooner or later he’s going to start wondering where that money is.

I grip the steering wheel, knuckles turning white, Daisy’s words echoing in my head: Just as dumb as you look, just as dumb as you look .

Maybe I shouldn’t let them get to me, but the more they echo, the angrier I get. Not at her, because I’m sure she said them just to piss me off in the moment, but angry that she might be right. That maybe it is a bit of a fucking joke that a man like me thinks he can live any other life. It is a bit of a fucking joke that a man like me thinks he can do better. Maybe this whole thing is a fucking joke—the home out of town, a job where my knuckles don’t get bloodied, a life where I don’t cause pain—just a massive joke of a massive man thinking he can do better.

I’m almost at my apartment when my cell starts to ring. I think it’s going to be Daisy so I answer it without checking. When I hear Mac’s voice, I veer to the side of the road and bring the car to a stop outside a gas station.

“Boss,” I say.

“Hound,” Mac replies, his voice unreadable. “Come by the bar. I have a job for you.”

“Alright.”

The bar is in the opposite direction, so I turn the car around, thinking to myself: So much for the peace of my apartment.

I say hello to Nora, ignore the smell of piss coming from the toilets, and try not to let my anger get out of control when Ripper tries to put his hand on my elbow to lead me to the office. “Want your nose broken twice?” I say, not angry, just telling him how it’s going to be if he puts his hand on me. He quickly snatches his hand away, knowing better. He leads me into Mac’s office, where his brother stands in the corner, gripping those knuckle-dusters.

Mac is counting cash, but he deigns to find the time to swipe a hand at the empty seat opposite him, letting me know I can sit down. I drop heavily into the seat and wait for him to talk, which takes about ten minutes of him just leisurely counting the cash. I know why he does this: to prove he’s in charge. I remember that I respect this man, and yet as I sit here, tracing the lines of that faded tattoo on his forehead, I struggle to remember why. He’s not out of the life, not really, not if he’s pulling shit like this. Finally, he says, “Did you know I was the champion in my block? The bare-knuckle boxing champion. Time passes, but I still think I could go a few rounds.” He smiles, one of the few times I’ve seen him smile. It doesn’t look natural on his face. “But that’s beside the point. Sometimes we have to let our minds wander, don’t we?” He sighs. “I remember when you came to me, Hound, after your father died. Do you remember what I said to you?”

I shift in the seat. I remember it all right. “You looked me in the eye and told me I didn’t need my father because I had you.” And I believed you, you sick bastard. I let you make me into a weapon. Hell, I let Dad make me into a weapon.

He smiles again. “So I know you’ll find Dean Dunham, wherever he is. I know you have contacts you don’t tell me about, which is as it should be. The owner of the abattoir scarcely gets down there with the pigs, does he?” He laughs, which is about as odd as him smiling. “Yes, you’ll find him, but that’s not why you’re here tonight. I need you to teach a few guys a lesson. They’ve forgotten who I am. Just a regular beat-and-remind job. Nothing too taxing. Make sure to tell them Mac says hello. Hitter, give him the address.”

Five minutes later, I’m behind the wheel of my jeep heading toward the other side of town. Yes, you’ll find him . Loosely translated, you better find him . But at least he’s given me some time, at least he isn’t pressing me to get it done right now. Which means he still has some trust in me. I’m angry with myself as I drive through the city, angry at the pathetic pride I feel at him trusting me. Some asshole cash-counting big man, and he makes me proud. What a fucking joke.

I get to the apartment and pull my usual trick of talking my way into the building, and then, since this doesn’t have to be done quietly, I crash through the door, kicking it clean off its hinges, and charge into the room. There are around five men, two of them with guns. I don’t really see or feel or smell or taste or anything at all, not really. I just let my body do what it knows best, go into Violence Mode. I pick up the TV and launch it at one of the men with a gun, smashing into his face and causing him to fall like a rock to the floor. Already I’m on the second guy, snapping his wrist like a twig and smashing him in the nose with the barrel of his own gun. One of the guys jumps on my back. I flip him over, slamming him across my knee, and then grab the heads of the remaining two and knock them together so that they both reel, dazed. By now a couple are back on their feet, but they’re easy enough to put down with a few jabs, one right hook, and then it’s just a matter of mopping up, making sure they all stay down. When that’s done and the place is trashed and there’s blood everywhere and I’m breathing heavily and shaking with rage even though really, back here watching it all, I feel nothing…when everything’s in place, I stand over them all and say, “Don’t fuck with Mac again, or I’ll have to come back.”

Just as dumb as you look . I look at my bloody knuckles as I drive, sinking back into my body, Violence Mode over now. As dumb as you look . By the time I’m in my apartment, a one-room place with books everywhere and a noticeboard with the word Learning Objectives at the top, my laptop open at the table where I’ve been doing work for my online course, I feel like an imposter. I just beat the hell out of five men, five men whose worst crimes were probably playing some blackjack at one of Mac’s clubs and not having enough cash. And now they might be seriously injured. Now they have to explain to their wives and mothers what happened to them. Now they might not ever be able to work again. And here I stand, amidst books and noticeboards and laptops, a fucking joke .

I tear the books apart, ripping the spines in half and tossing them across the room, pages fluttering everywhere, and then I crack the noticeboard in half over my knee just like I slammed one of those guys over my knee, and finally I snap the laptop in half and toss it at the wall, where it explodes in a shower of glass and plastic and keys.

Sliding down the wall, body aching from the violence, pages crumpled at my feet, I try and tell myself that it all wasn’t a waste of time, that a man like me can change. But that’s a little hard to believe with blood drying on my hands.


Daisy

“I’m so glad you’re here!” Jack Michaels claps his hands together, looking like someone from the 1920’s in his flashy suit, wiggling his nose hairs as his face crumples up in a delighted smile. “As you can see, we’ve cleared the place out for the auditions. We always do that.” As he speaks, he leads me into The Red Room . Last time, it was so jam-packed I could hardly get a look at it. Empty, it’s nothing more than a series of red lanterns and red couches, all set around a stage with a red-metal pole thrusting up from the floor to the ceiling. “I can’t tell you how glad I am that you decided to take me up on the offer. What made you change your mind? You didn’t seem too, let me say, eager the last time we spoke about it.”

“I’ve just been giving it some thought,” I say neutrally.

“Well, giving it some thought and coming to a decision like this can’t be faltered, that’s what I say!”

Jack leads me to a changing room with the word Auditions on the door, a printed sign fastened with a pin which looks grimy and not at all as glamorous as Jack is trying to make this seem. Why am I doing this? I ask myself as we walk through the hallways toward the changing room. And yet even as I ask the question, I know the answer. It isn’t complicated. I need the money.

It’s been a week or so since the meeting with Hound in the parking lot, and since then I haven’t heard a word of Dad. Hound’s called me to arrange another house viewing, which we’re going to soon, but that doesn’t fix the Dad problem. I need cash: cash to hire a private investigator to look for Dad, cash to pay off his debts if anybody comes calling, and since he still has months left on his tenancy agreement, cash to pay his rent and bills. And if that means I have to get naked in front of men I don’t know, then I guess that’s the price I pay. And maybe if I can make some quick cash I can buy my way out of this thing with Hound anyway, and then all the confusing feelings will go away. Life will go back to normal, whatever normal means for me.

For a second, as Jack talks on and on, I think of Other Daisy, living her life in a mystical world wearing a suit and making intellectual decisions. Other Daisy would never consider being a stripper. Other Daisy is too busy using her mind to make her way in the world. But even if I like to think I’m not at all stupid—even if I’ve read a few books and can hold my own in conversation—society doesn’t care if I haven’t got a piece of paper to prove it. So Other Daisy can stay in her mystical realm and I’ll stay here, where the only way of me paying my way is my tits and ass.

“And this is it!” Jack says, gesturing at the grimy sign. I notice that the paint on the door is chipped. From behind the door, the chatter of women sounds. “These are all new girls, too, so you’ll fit right in.” He leans close to me. His breath smells like old-people candy, the kind I remember an elderly relative eating in a different life, before Mom died and before Dad went off the rails with the gambling. Sitting at an old man’s feet and wondering what that off smell was. “Mind you,” he says, and I can’t stop looking at his receding hairline, “I don’t think I can say of them what I can say of you, Daisy: that you’re a dead cert and their cert ainly not!” He laughs at his own joke and then leaves me at the door.

I sigh, think briefly again of Other Daisy, think briefly of Hound (part of me wishing he was here, part of me confused about where we stand), and then open the door. All kinds of women are huddled around the ceiling-high mirrors, adjusting their bras and panties, turning here and there, dabbing their faces with makeup. Most of them don’t talk to each other, but a few girls have come together and huddle close. I walk by the girls to a free space at the mirror, dropping my bag and starting to get undressed. Once you’ve been in enough changing rooms, getting undressed isn’t a big deal, even in front of what must be twenty or so girls. I’m in my bra and panties, touching up my makeup, when Sarah drops into the seat next to me. At first I think I must be seeing things, but then I catch a glimpse of her face, her features locked in place from the plastic surgery, and I know it’s her.

I turn away, but it’s too late.

“Daisy Dumpster!” she cries, giggling and sidling over to me, her chair screeching on the floor. “What a coincidence this is! What are you doing here?”

“The same thing as you, I imagine.” I carry on with my makeup, telling myself that since she’s here as well, she can’t exactly start making fun of me.

“I’m here because if God gave it to you, you should use it, you know? Look at these.” She doesn’t seem to see the irony when she massages her fake breasts, saying, “Yeah, God did me good.”

Even though we’re not at the Shack, I’m wary of saying anything to Sarah that might cause offence. I know she’s not above carrying tales to Steve, tales and a shaking ass and a promise of a steamy night if he does what she wants, which might well be having me fired. So I just stay silent and dab at my face, though my makeup is done now; I’m layered in the stuff, my real face hidden far beneath the shield of foundation and blusher and mascara and eye-shadow. It feels thick, a protective seal over my skin. I think that will make the dancing easier.

I feel my heartbeat speeding up as I sit here surrounded by the girls, staring at myself in the mirror and trying to work out who I am. I was never going to be the sort of girl who went to audition at a strip club. I was never going to be the sort of girl who took off her clothes for random men to look at, all for some cash. I was going to have principals. I was going to use my mind. I remember Mom, when I was a little kid, lifting me above her head and laughing when I said I thought I was flying. “You are flying,” she told me. “And you’ll always fly. You can do anything you want to, Daisy. Anything in the whole world.” Mom worked as an insurance agent in an office, but I never knew that at the time. At the time, all I knew was she’d leave the house in the morning in sleek black tights and shiny black heels and a buttoned-up white shirt, glasses perched on her nose. All I know is, I was jealous even then.

An older woman walks into the room holding a clipboard. “Can we get Candy Spice, please?” A round of giggles sounds at that name; even for a stripper’s fake name, it’s silly. But I don’t laugh because all I can think is that I’m an idiot for not choosing a fake name.

“I’m Dawn Spring,” Sarah says, pouting and applying thick red lipstick to her over-inflated lips. “Isn’t it clever? It makes you think of something, just, like, well, just sexy , right? What are you? Dumpster Dumpling?” She throws her head back and laughs raucously, ending it with a harsh coughing giggle. When she sees that I don’t laugh, she shakes her head. “You’re no fun. I’m only messing with you and you sit there like I’m some sort of monster. I mean, can’t you just take a joke, for once?”

“What if I told you that your lips were—” I cut myself short. I can already see by watching her face that she isn’t going to take it as a joke. I can already see a plan formulating in her mind, a plan which involves snitching to Steve. “Never mind,” I say. “Don’t worry about it.”

She nods matter-of-factly. “Well, that’s probably for the best. There are jokes, and then there’s just being mean.”

I push my breasts up in the bra, arranging them, wondering if I’m even going to be able to dance. I request the new Taylor Swift song, which is fast-paced and sassy, hoping I can just bounce around enough so that nobody will notice that I haven’t danced properly in years, since I was a teenager, really. All these girls around me have probably spent countless wild nights at clubs, with all their girlfriends, dancing until their heels snapped or they stumbled drunkenly home or into the arms of a stranger, all while I was earning money so that Dad could go out and have the fun. I tell myself to stop being self-pitying, but by the time Alexis Crystal is called, the other girls returning to get changed, my foot is tapping against the leg of my chair frantically.

“My mom was a stripper,” Sarah says, after a few minutes of blessed quiet (or as quiet as a chattering changing room can be). She waits for me to respond, but I don’t, so she just goes on anyway, “Yeah, she used to dance at a place called Nudes, just Nudes, and sometimes I would go and sit in the back and watch her and watch all the men staring at her. I was—maybe five, maybe four, maybe six. I’m not really sure. Isn’t that just hilarious?”

“Hilarious,” I agree.

“I didn’t know that people thought it was naughty until I got older. I didn’t know that people looked down on you, I mean, but I knew better. Mommy taught me right.” She pauses, and then adds, “She had C-cups, I think. Real.”

“Okay.”

“Miley Hot.”

“That one isn’t very inventive,” I mutter, still annoyed at myself. When they call my name, it will be Daisy Dunham, and I know that all the girls in the room will know it’s my real name because it doesn’t sound ridiculous.

One by one, the girls are called, ridiculous name after ridiculous name. I watch the door they return through, looking at the girls’ faced. Some of them have subtle smiles, some of them looked dazed and confused as though they only learnt onstage that they were supposed to take their clothes off. One girl, a beautiful Asian woman with dyed pink hair, sprints into the room crying, collects her things, and then runs back out again. I overhear her friend say: “She said she didn’t like the way they were looking at her ass.”

Sarah scoffs. “That’s rich.”

I have to agree. It’s like a lumberjack not liking the way a tree falls.

Finally, the lady enters and shouts, “Daisy Dunham!”

Sarah shoots me a wide-eyed look, but I ignore her and climb to my feet, walking on my heels across the room, heart in my throat. This is it, I reflect, as I walk toward the door. This is the moment when I stop being the girl who Mom held above her head, the girl for whom anything was possible. This is the moment where life has finally beaten me into shape.

The walk to the stage is a dreamlike sequence of bright lights and narrow hallways, and then I’m standing backstage with the first few notes of “Look What You Made Me Do” playing. When Taylor Swift starts singing, I feel myself become a different person. It’s like at the Shack, or at the café, but exaggerated; at least at the Shack I have my clothes on, skimpy as they are.

I prance out onto the stage, head wagging, sassy and confident—or so I hope it seems to them—barely aware of what I’m doing. I can see Jack Michaels and a couple sitting below the stage, in a shadowed seat, his features hard to read. I can feel the air pricking my skin as I pump my ass, gyrate, shake my tits, and as I reach around for my bra strap I imagine I can see Mom’s face, staring at me, judging. Not judging me because of the stripping. If Mom was anything, it was a feminist who believed women should be able to behave how they want. No, but just staring at me waiting for me to come to my senses.

I’ve almost unclipped my bra when the music comes to a screeching halt, Taylor Swift abruptly cut off mid-word. Jack Michaels is on his feet. “Sorry, sorry, Daisy,” he says. “We have a guest, a very special guest. Mac White, it’s good to see you.” Jack reaches out his hand and that’s when I see him, a man almost as towering as Hound but not quite. It’s difficult to see him in the dimness of the room, but I notice that two ginger-haired twins stand at his shoulders like guardian angels, and there seems to be something smeared on his forehead.

“Don’t let me interrupt,” Mac says, dropping into a seat and leaning back as the lady who led me to the stage brings him a whisky. “Please, go on.”

“Mac is partial owner,” Jack explains to me, and then winces like he realizes he shouldn’t be explaining things like that to strippers. “But yes, let’s go on.”

All this time, I’ve had my hand on the strap of my bra. When the music was playing, pumping through me the way music does, making it so that tearing off the bra was just another part of the dance, it was one thing, but this stopping and starting stuff is, somehow, grimier. So now what? I just take off my bra for this stranger, show this stranger my tits?

I almost laugh. That’s the job, isn’t it? That’s what I’ll be facing every night if I impress in this audition. I start to hesitate as I walk back down the stage, getting ready to resume the dance, but then the ever-present voice of practicality speaks up: “But the money. What about the money?”

They start the song from the beginning, which is good since it means I can try and get back into the rhythm again. But as I dance, I find myself wishing that Hound was here, a primal desire that comes to me in no more than a vague image of Hound’s shadow falling over me as he stands between me and these hungry-eyed men.

But I push past it. I dance.


Hound

I’ve hated going into my apartment this past week. I’ve been damn busy with work, tooling up people for Mac, and every time I come back here, sometimes covered in blood, sometimes with the smell of gunpowder in my nostrils, I’m just reminded of the man I was trying to be. The carnage lies all around me, the pages and the laptop keys, all of it scattered everywhere. I just walk past it, go to bed, get up and leave, purposefully ignoring it all. Another man, another fucking man. What a joke.

Today is the first time I’ve gone over all of it, collecting the torn pages of the books in a big black bag. Sometimes as I’m doing this I’ll come across a page with some highlighting on, maybe some notes, but it just seems stupid now. The only color I see is red, the red of bleeding death, the red of the pain I cause every time I go out on a job. The notes seem pathetic. All of it seems pathetic. People don’t change. Dad made me into a weapon. Mac honed me. And now I’m here, the man I’m meant to be. Might as well swallow all that shit.

But the house…Daisy. I find I’m not prepared to swallow that, not yet. If my dreams of becoming cleverer are a joke, that doesn’t mean I can’t buy a house. Thugs can buy houses, too, can’t they? And it doesn’t mean I can’t obsess about the green-eyed moaning giggling angel.

I’ve collected all the pages in the trash bag, tying it and leaving it at the front door, when my cell goes off. This past week, I’ve come to hate the sound of my cell going off, because it means that it’s going to be Mac, asking me to come by his bar so that he can tell me to go and hurt more people. He thinks I like it, I know. During our last conversation he said, “I’m sure this is the best week of your life.” And I just nodded, big dumb Hound. Nobody knows, except Daisy, that there might be more in here, and Daisy and I barely know each other at all. As I take my cell from my pocket, a thought hits me: a person I hardly know knows me better than anybody I’ve ever met. What does that say about my life?

It isn’t Mac. It’s Martin Lopez, my online course tutor.

“Hello,” I say.

“Henry!” Martin shouts. It sounds like he’s outside. I know he lives in New York. Maybe he’s standing by the water. “I was just checking in that you’re okay. You know we had the practice paper about The Great Gatsby this week, right? Yesterday, in fact, and checking the system I see you haven’t submitted it.”

As he speaks, I study my knuckles; there isn’t one which is unmarked, uncut, unbruised. “No, I haven’t,” I say.

“May I ask why?”

Because last night I busted into a warehouse where four men were playing a poker game on my employer’s territory and I blew out one of their knees with a sawn-off shotgun and smashed the other one’s face in with my fist, probably shattered his nose, and left the other two passed out on the concrete bleeding into the gutter.

“I haven’t had the time.” I think about telling him I’m quitting the course, but I can’t. Maybe part of me still wants it. Even if it is a pathetic joke. I pause, and then say, “I don’t know if I’ll be submitting it for a while.”

“Submitting test papers is the best way to track your progress,” Martin explains.

If you could see me, I say silently, you wouldn’t want to talk to me, Martin. If you could see the man on the other end of the line you would slam the phone down as quickly as you could.

“I know. But it doesn’t mean I fail the course, does it?”

I’m just shooting the shit, buying time for the sake of it. I’ve already failed. The books are shredded and I’m not going to replace them. All those fancy quotes and fancy literary theories will soon just be half-remembered phantoms, and then nothing at all.

“No, it doesn’t,” Martin says. “Of course not. But it might impact your performance in the real test.”

“Alright. Thanks for letting me know.”

Martin makes an awkward half-word sound, and then sighs. “Is everything okay, Henry? Is this a personal issue? You know, we have a number you can call if—”

I can’t help it. I burst out laughing. A number you can call! I imagine myself calling this number, where they usually deal with normal-student shit, like stress about the deadlines or feeling overwhelmed by the work or whatever, and telling them about my particular problems. I laugh loudly down the phone, and then because I feel guilty laughing at this guy who’s helped me out over the months, I hang up and laugh myself out. Wiping a tear of laughter from my eye, I mutter, “A number you can call.”

When the apartment is halfway clean—can’t be bothered to deal with the beer bottles or the takeout containers, or to put away the free weights—I climb into my jeep and drive to an apartment about half an hour away, where one of my men lives. His name is Denton Curtis, a man I’ve used for jobs in the past. When I press his buzzer, he barks down, “What sort of self-righteous motherfucker thinks he can hold down a man’s buzzer for two motherfucking seconds and get away with it?”

“Me,” I say.

“Damn Hound, you should’a said. I was two seconds away from sending down a bullet on your vending-machine ass, you fuckin’ giant.”

“Alright, alright. Open up.”

Denton wears a baggy Austin Spurs jersey with baggy white shorts, high-top sports sneakers, and a perpetual white-toothed smile. Three or four silver chains clink at his chest as he walks, and he has the habit of shaking his head and laughing at anything anybody says. But he’s a damn good finder-of-people, in my experience.

“Take a seat, man.”

We sit in Denton’s living room, opposite his huge TV, sipping beers.

The TV is playing a Spurs game. I’ve never been a big basketball fan, but I can guess it’s not going well.

“Now would’ya look at this, Hound? These little fuckin’ fuckers spend the whole damn game polishing their sneakers and then decide at the last second to get their asses in gear, when it’s too damn late. That’s what I call lazy, fuckin’ lazy.”

“I’m here about Dean,” I tell him.

“Oh, yeah, yeah, lemme take a look.” He reaches down the side of the couch and picks up a manila folder. “No location on him—yet—don’t know if there will be one, either. I heard some rumblings in Silicon Valley about him. Weird, right? But these are old rumblings, years old, and all I can say is two techy guys have his name saved on their computers. Oh, motherfuckers!” He waves the folder at the screen, and then settles back down. “I don’t know where he is right now. Might be he’s got some ninja hiding skills you don’t know about, might be he’s lying at the bottom of a river somewhere. Might be he went up in flames. I dunno, man, not for sure. Gimme some more time.”

“Alright.” I reach into my pocket and take out his pay, with a little extra. “This is important, Denton. I need to find him because…” Because I find myself constantly drawn to his daughter. But I just let it hang, and then stand up. “Thanks for the beer.”

“Stay safe, Hound. See’ya later.”

I’m on the sidewalk when my cell buzzes again. I think it’s going to be Martin, but it’s Mac, his voice as no-nonsense as ever. “Come to The Red Room,” he says. “Now.”

Sometimes, the way Mac speaks to me makes me want to reach through the phone and crush his throat. I hate the sound of my own voice when I say, “Yes, okay.” Yes, okay, like I’m some kind of sniveling rat. As I drive to the strip club, I try and work out when exactly I stopped respecting Mac and started resenting him. It definitely has something to do with Daisy, that’s for sure. As I walk through The Red Room, I hear the start of some song that’s popular at the moment, some woman singing about how she killed a guy and it’s his fault, or something.

The place is empty, which means they must be holding auditions. I know that Mac likes to come here when they’re holding auditions so he can get a good look at the women. Sometimes he even has Ripper or Hitter go and tap them on the shoulder afterward and say, “The owner wants to see you.” And the old pervert gets most of them into his car with him. I nod to Jack and sit next to Mac, who doesn’t so much as look at me. I remember a boy who wanted to hear the word “Son” on Mac’s lips and feel like a rotten idiot. Then I look at the stage, and for a few moments I’m sure gravity has stopped working. Everything shifts, floats around, changes, and I’m left not knowing what the hell to do.

My first instinct is to be the Hound I’ve been my whole life, which would mean I’d go into Violence Mode and think about the consequences later. I’d smash Mac over the head with a bottle, glass anyone who got in the way, and get her off the stage. But then I see the moment where Daisy sees me, lit harshly under the too-bright lights. Her eyes go wide for the fraction of a second, locked onto me, and she shakes her head in such a subtle way I’m sure I’m the only person who notices. All the while she’s still dancing, gyrating her ass for these fucking perverts. She’s mine, I want to roar. She’s mine and you have no right to look at her.

Once I’ve swallowed the rage, I start thinking. If I fight now, what do I achieve? If I attack Mac now, Ripper and Hitter will jump on me. Fine, then I’ll kill them, too. But then what does that achieve for Daisy? Even if I can get her out of here for the time being, against her will, that doesn’t mean she’ll miraculously change her mind. Last week, when I dealt with that creep in the Shack for her, she wasn’t pleased. She was pissed. As stupid as you look… I realize I’m gripping my knees too hard, causing them to ache. It takes a surprising amount of effort to unclench them, sit back, and pretend that this is having no effect on me. As I sit here, I know I only have one real choice, and that’s just to sit still and let this happen. It’s what Daisy wants. It’s the only thing that ends this peacefully.

And so the torture begins.

I didn’t truly realize how much I cared about Daisy before now. Even if that makes no sense, I don’t give a damn. I care about her, I know it now, because listening to the men beside me grunt approvingly at her moves is driving me crazy.

“Good, isn’t she?” Mac says, finally glancing at me.

I think my face is composed enough to hide my recognition, but I’m not sure.

“Yeah.” I swallow. My throat’s dry. And these assholes haven’t gotten me a drink.

“Look at her move,” Mac says. “Smooth, sexy. I’m sure I don’t have to go into detail about what I’d like to do to her!”

“No,” I say, “you don’t.”

The song seems to be coming to an end. Daisy reaches her hand around to her bra strap. This is the moment where everything could turn blood-red. This is the moment where I won’t be thinking about the next hour, or even the next ten minutes. This is the moment where my mind will hone down to one instinct: stop her before these men see her breasts. I can’t let that happen. I tense up, all my muscles burning the way they often do before violence. Daisy sees this, hesitates, and then lets her hand drop.

“She isn’t showing her breasts?” Mac says, the disappointment loud and cloying in his old man’s voice.

“They don’t always show them,” Jack says, but I can hear he’s caught off-guard.

The song winds down with Daisy bouncing her ass on the pole and then coming to the front of the stage and waiting for the men to pass comment. This is fucked, this is really fucked. I think about smashing Mac’s face into the table, but I have to repress this urge. I have to just sit here. Man…this is fucked .

“So, Daisy Dunham,” Mac says, looking at a clipboard on the table between him and Jack. He pauses, turning to me. “Dunham. I wonder if there’s any relation.” He talks quietly, so only I can hear. I know the bastard is certain there’s a relation. I know he’s just watching to see how I’ll react. So I keep my face composed, don’t say a thing. I just shrug. Mac turns back to the stage. “That was a very enthusiastic performance, sweetie, but what happened at the end there? Shyness isn’t something valued in your kind.”

Your kind . I wish this man was dead. Out of the life. I thought he’d gotten out of the life. I was a blind kid, that’s what I was, just a blind over-trusting kid. I want to go back in time and throttle the moron who once tried to see this man as a father.

Daisy clears her throat and mumbles something I don’t hear.

“Speak up!” Mac snaps.

Ripper—or Hitter—snorts laughter.

“I just wasn’t sure,” she says. “Can I go now?”

Mac looks annoyed, but he waves a hand. Jack says: “Of course you can, Daisy. We’ll talk after all the auditions are completed. We’ll, err, have our verdict then.” He keeps glancing at Mac, nervous, as anyone shorter than seven feet would be around Mac.

“Okay. Thank you.”

Daisy turns on her heels and clicks away, and I know that Mac is staring at the way her ass shifts around her thong, and I know that it would bring me great pleasure to go into Violence Mode. But I have to be smarter. Even if all my books have been turned to kindling.

“Jack,” I say, leaving it until the next girl is getting ready to dance. “I reckon I’d like a private audition with one of your girls. You don’t mind, do you?”

I asked Jack on purpose, knowing he’d hesitate—it’s an inconvenience—and knowing that that’d piss off Mac. Just need to wait and let it happen.

“Well, Hound, you know…these aren’t exactly our girls.”

“If he wants to go back there and see what he can see,” Mac says, “then he can. I’m owner too, Jack.”

Being careful not to smile, I stand up and walk toward the changing room.


Daisy

“You used your real name,” Sarah is saying, but it sounds like her voice is coming from across a large gap. He was there, watching me, and there was a look in his eyes. It wasn’t judgment, that’s the most confusing part. “Why would you do that, you silly girl? Oh, Daisy Dunce! That’s a new name for you!” No, it wasn’t judgment in his eyes. It was just expectation; expectation that I’m worth more than this. What freaks me out so much is that it was a look not all that different to Mom’s, or the one I imagine Mom would give me. Does Hound think I can do better, just like Mom did?

But then I start to get angry, because I don’t know who the hell he thinks he is. The audition was going fine. I’d carefully stowed myself away in the back of my mind so that I could dance without thinking about anything but the money. And then he had to walk in, expecting more from me !

The lady with the clipboard comes in, but this time she doesn’t call out some ludicrous stripper’s name. This time, she calls out: “Miss Dunham. You have somebody outside waiting for you.”

“What did you do?” Sarah says, looking at me as though I’ve just slapped her across the face. “Did you suck their dicks, or what? Why are you being called out?”

I ignore her and go to the door, ignoring, too, the way the girls look at me. I’m wearing sweatpants and a hoodie now, looking out of place amidst all the bikini-clad princesses. When I get to Hound, he doesn’t say anything, just gestures for me to follow him. He leads me to a storage/break room, with a couch and a small TV, a few magazines, coffee rings on the table, boxes stacked to the ceiling, and a lock on the door. When we’re sitting on the couch and the sound of the music is pounding dimly through the walls, he talks.

“I almost went crazy out there,” he says quietly. “Really crazy, Daisy. Unhinged is probably the word for it. If you’d taken off your bra…”

We’re sitting side by side, so we’re not looking at each other. Or, he’s looking at me and I’m looking at the blank TV not looking at him on purpose. If I look at him, I might have to admit that I like this protective attitude, even though it’s presumptuous, even though he has no claim to me, even though we’re just strangers pretending at real affection—I think, that must be it, must be.

“You have no right to get angry,” I say. “You ruined my audition.”

“Ruined your…Daisy, why the hell do you want to be a stripper?”

“For fuck’s sake, Hound!” I yell, without meaning to. “Who ever said I wanted to be a stripper? Is that really what you think, that I sit around daydreaming about being a stripper? Just think about it for a second and you’ll get your answer.”

“Money.”

“Money!” I agree. “That’s all it ever comes down to, and since I didn’t even finish school, I can’t even get a job fucking filing, or, or—typing or anything. Because the second I walk in there, they’re going to laugh at me, laugh right in my face, and demand to know what sort of an excuse of a human being hasn’t even finished school!”

“I never finished school,” Hound says. “I started work when I was fifteen. I never graduated.”

“So you understand, then, don’t you? It’s about money.”

“It’s always been about money for me.” He nods. “Until recently, anyway.”

“With your online course?”

“No.”

I turn to him and see that his lips are twisted. Not a grin, not a scowl, an uncertain in-between look.

“Since I met you.”

I roll my eyes, pretending that his words have no effect on me. “Don’t try those lines on me, Hound. I’m not about to melt when you look at me. I’m not that sort of girl.”

His ice-blue eyes don’t waver. “I wouldn’t want you if you were that sort of girl. Listen, I’m not trying to reason anything out. I’m not trying to make some logical argument. All I’m doing is telling you what my reaction was when I saw you up there. And it was this: If she doesn’t get down, I’m going to hurt somebody.”

“You’re not my real husband!” I snap, jumping to my feet. “I think you forget that, Hound. You’re not my real husband and I’m not your real wife! I agreed to this fake marriage stuff because I thought you could help Dad, but you can’t help Dad if he’s not here , can you? So why am I wearing these rings? Tell me that!”

“I think only you can answer that,” he replies. He’s so tall that even sitting he only has to look up a little to stare into my eyes. “Why are you wearing those rings, Daisy?”

“It’s not because of what you’re trying to imply!”

“And what am I trying to imply?”

“That we have some kind of—like some kind of connection. That we’re falling for each other or something! But let me tell you, Hound, I haven’t got time to fall for anyone, especially somebody who thinks he can barge in on my life whenever he wants and think he knows what’s best for me—”

When he wraps his arms around my waist and pulls me into his lap, I don’t fight him, because my anger isn’t just anger. It’s fueled by passion. And what he’s implying is right. I really do think I’m falling for this giant. He sits me on his lap, his groin, and I feel him grow hard the second my ass cheeks squash against him.

“You’re mine,” he whispers, breath warm on my face. “Not theirs. Not those bastards. Not them.”

Then he kisses me.

I think about wrenching away from him, placing my hand on his chest and pushing away and telling him that he can’t just kiss me and make it all better. But when I put my hand on his chest I’m achingly aware of the bulging muscles, the power of him, and for some reason he feels safe, like home. He doesn’t feel like some man I once had wild sex with in an alleyway. He feels like a man I’ve had sex with many times and want to have sex with many more. I open my mouth, kissing him forcefully, moving my hand from his chest to his face, holding him as we kiss. And he does the same, cradling my face. Before I can summon the strength to jump up, return to the argument, I’m swiveling my hips so that my legs are split over him, grinding against him. For a moment I break off the kiss and look into his face. He’s staring at me seriously, intensely, without any hint of humor. He’s staring at me like he’d kill anybody who ever tried to hurt me.

“Let’s not speak,” I say. “Let’s just—”

I kiss him again. Grinding on him, I feel his cock, massive and engorged, struggling to break free of his pants. Both of us are panting through the kiss, the room a song of our combined voices, and both of us are roaming our hands over each other. I move from his face, down his torso, sit up and work my hand in between our groins, massaging his cock. He makes a growling noise and I rub faster, faster. Then all at once this giant has lifted me to my feet and he’s tugging at my clothes. I’m doing the same to him, pulling his shirt over his head, yanking his pants down. When we’re naked, he lays me down with surprising tenderness on the couch, leaning over me, rock-hard, ice-blue eyes watching me closely.

I reach down and grab his cock, all the while my gaze locked on his, unable to look away. I’m still aware of my anger—I don’t think there’s been a moment since I was a teenager when I wasn’t angry—but it’s dim, faraway. Most of all I’m just aware of the heat emanating from his body. I stroke his cock until he’s bulging so much I can feel the veins pushing against my palm, and then I guide him toward my pussy. My body is humming with anticipation, my sweet spot pulsing as though it’s sending out an urgent signal, my lips tingling, wanting to be brushed against by his cock. I wrap my arms around his back as the tip of his cock pushes firmly against my hole, opening me.

He’s big, he’s so fucking big. I’ll never get used to that. He thrusts slowly, splitting me open, and then he’s buried deep inside of me. But he doesn’t drill into me now. Neither does he bury his face in me so we don’t have to look at each other. I get the sense that sex is awkward for us both, usually. I know it is for me, when quick flings have been all I’ve known. But now he props himself up so he can look into my eyes, and me into his, and as he pumps his hips, sliding in and out, we watch each other. I watch his face as we make love—and make love is what we’re doing—watch his face and feel as though I know him better with each thrust. The pleasure is burning, captivating, and soon our moaning song is louder than ever. His cock sends the tingling in my lips into overdrive, my sweet spot feeling like it’s gathering all the heat in my body preparing for a final ultimate release.

I smooth my hands over his back, watch as his eyes stare directly into mine. He loves me. I think he loves me. The thought comes in the midst of the pleasure like a powerful flashlight cutting through fog. I try and tell myself I’m being silly, but with the gentle rhythm of our passionate lovemaking, it’s difficult.

My sensitive spot becomes warmer, denser, as though a week’s worth of energy is packed tightly in there, bursting to get free. I dig my nails into his back, lightly, and I see his lips twitch at the corner of his mouth and his eyes go wide for half a moment. A silent conversation, like at the house about the realtor: Come for me, he’s saying, without words.

I resist the urge to close my eyes as the orgasm releases, a slow, leisurely releasing taking as much pleasure from his face as from his cock, as much from the intimacy as from the mere physical act. Twisting my hips, driving up and down, forcing myself to keep our eyes locked together, I ride him as wave after wave of euphoric pleasure explodes in my lower half, making my legs tremble and my toes curl until they hurt. I writhe here and there, chasing the pleasure as it ebbs, find perfect burst after perfect burst of ecstasy. As I’m nearing the end of the orgasm, Hound pushes into me, deeply, so deep for a second it’s like we’re sharing one body. Then he comes, one loud grunt, eyes locked on my lips, my smiling lips. And he’s smiling, too.

When we roll away from each other, I can sense it. I’m sure he must be able to as well. Something has changed. That was the most loving sex I’ve ever had, I’ve even come close to. Looking at Hound, I know it’s the same for him.

“Are you going to take that stripping job?” he asks quietly, as we get dressed.

If he’d told me not to take it, or if there was any judgment in his voice, my anger would return, flaring with the extra fuel of him ruining a moment beneath it. But the question is curious, his voice too tired for accusation. The sex changed me, I reflect again as I pull my hoodie over my head. I don’t answer, and soon all the girls are out in the lobby, milling around in the after audition party. None of the other girls are dressed.

Jack Michaels doesn’t look pleased that I am.

“So, Daisy, did you find it, maybe I should say, fun , but after all, does work have to be fun?”

He’s tipsy, close to drunk, his eyes scanning the ass of every girl who enters his peripheral vision.

“No,” I answer honestly. “I didn’t. I’m going to have to refuse the job, Jack.”

“I haven’t even offered you the job.” He flashes a shaky grin. “So it’s not really in your power to refuse anything, is it?” He shakes his head slowly, sadly. “You try to offer them a chance…”

Hound, from the other side of the room, smiles secretly at me. I smile back, feeling we’ve crossed a threshold.


Hound

For the next two months, Daisy and I throw ourselves into this fake marriage game. We visit houses every time she has a day off, sometimes visiting two or three a day, as summer deepens and then begins to wane, as the first hints of autumn make the Texan air just that little bit cooler, that little bit more tolerable.

“I don’t know if having so many bedrooms is that important,” she says near the beginning, sitting in the jeep, looking sexy and beautiful even in her T-shirt and jeans, sexier and more beautiful than she does in her Shack uniform, in a way. “People get five bedrooms, six bedrooms, and for what? Huge walk-in closets, I guess…” She pauses, her forehead creasing. Her forest-green eyes get this playful look in them, and when she smiles, I can’t help but smile back. “Okay, maybe a walk-in closet would be pretty awesome.”

Or a library, I think but don’t say. A library with bookshelves stretching to the ceiling, so many books on it that the shelves make squeaking noises when you remove one, each book battered and well-read, a desk on one side of the room with a large wooden chair and a stack of papers. A place where a man can go to think and study without feeling a fool. But I keep it to myself. I haven’t looked at my course website, and I’m dodging my tutor’s calls.

“What do you want? I mean, all this time, you must’ve had something in mind, right?” She asks this another time, another weekend.

“Just a place where I can feel…” I cut short, shaking my head.

“What?” She reaches across and places her hand on my knee. She knows how that makes me less guarded. She must know.

“I…” Then I tell her, without meaning to. “When I was fifteen years old, a burglar broke into our house and my dad got in his way. My dad wasn’t a weak man, but this burglar was quicker and had a baseball bat, cracked my dad across the head and was about to cave in his skull, it looked like. I was huge, even at fifteen, at least six two, and still growing. So I charged at this man and lifted him over my head and threw him into the wall. Just threw him into that wall and then helped my dad to his feet. Well, after that, my dad was impressed, so he pulled me out of school and put me to work collecting for his business, the same old illegal shit thousands of people are into. So I went to work. I was happy about it, back then. Proud, you know. Felt like a bigshot. And then Mom left, and Dad got himself killed, and Mac took me in, and…” I cut myself off. “None of that matters. The point is this. I just want to live somewhere I don’t have to feel like an attack dog.”

That conversation terrified me more than any conversation has a right to. Without Daisy even asking me, I offered up the most well-guarded secrets of myself. I tell myself I’ll be more careful from now on, but one night we go to her apartment and lie in her bed and she tells me about how she used to wake up early just so she could watch her mom get ready for work, how she used to love the outfits, and the sense of purpose, and the way her mom would look flustered but in control. When she tells me this, I find myself talking about the one and only time I went up to California to see my mom, uninvited. How I stood at the steps of her stock broker husband’s house, how I rang a bell that echoed through what sounded like a series of caverns, and how when Mom came to the door, she hissed at me to go back to Texas and slammed it in my face. Daisy kisses me, tells me it’s okay. Weakening, both of us. “I never usually talk about this stuff,” she tells me. I tell her usually doesn’t even factor into it for me; I never have, never planned to.

“When I was nineteen,” she says one evening, talking quietly into the darkness as we both lie in bed, “I went to my dad and I told him I wanted to go back to school. I was scared he was going to say no, but honestly, when he said yes I was even more scared, because that meant I had to try and make it a reality. And I did. I really tried. I looked into online courses and night courses. I even booked a couple. But the day it came time to pay, Dad was at my door, telling me about his good friend and how he’d played a few hands of poker with his good friend and how now his good friend needed the money back. I deleted my account on the online course website. I ignored the calls from the night course place. I paid him. I didn’t look back. At least, I tried not to.”

“What were you going to do?” I ask her, reaching across the bed and laying my hand on her shoulder.

“You know? It’s odd. I can’t even remember now.”

Then there’s Dean, a constant elephant in the room. I know that Daisy is looking for him on her own. I know that she’s paid a private investigator. And I’m still trying to find him through Denton. But more and more, I’m starting to believe that he’s dead. It doesn’t make sense that a man like Dean could just disappear so that experts can’t find him. He isn’t trained military, he isn’t an enforcer or a boss or anything like that, he doesn’t have huge reserves of cash. “He’s lying at the bottom of a pit somewhere, man, but if you wanna keep payin’ me, keep payin’ me.” Denton tells me something similar every time I visit him. At first, I told him to just keep looking. Now, I don’t say anything. I know he’ll keep looking and I know he’ll find nothing. Words aren’t necessary. But I think Daisy believes me when I tell her I haven’t done anything to him. Mac, though…Mac is angrier and more distant every time he calls me in for a meeting. He sends me on more jobs than he used to, sometimes two or three a day. More than once I have to call Daisy and cancel because I barely have time to wash the blood from my hands before going out and getting some more.

But today none of that matters. Today, we’re looking at another house. For me it’s becoming less and less about the houses—though I still want one and intend to buy one—and more and more about just being with Daisy. The fake marriage charade never truly comes alive until we’re at a house, with the smiling face of the realtor bringing out the performance in Daisy. And it is mostly Daisy who comes alive. I play the role of reserved husband; Daisy brings life to the room.

The realtor is a heavyset lady with thick purple-framed glasses wearing a body-hugging turquoise dress, walking with surprising skill in six-inch turquoise heels. Her name is Miss Stone and I think it’s pretty fitting. She smiles, laughs, but there’s a fake, lifeless air about her. She leads us around the house with a professional, no-nonsense attitude, perhaps hoping to intimidate us. But I know better than that. If Daisy and I ever go to a house and there’s a problem, Daisy picks it out right away. Sometimes she tells the realtor like she did that first time. Sometimes she just tells me and we go on our way.

“So, have you been married long?” Miss Stone asks.

We’re in the kitchen of a four-bedroom house that is like something out of one of my daydreams. As I walk around, I mentally put up bookshelves, mentally place desks, before remembering that I’m done with all that.

“We thought it would be better with a baby on the way!” Daisy exclaims, doing her fake-marriage giggle, reserved for realtors. She places her hand on her belly, her baggy T-shirt crumpling under it.

She’s never taken the lie this way before and for a second it throws me sideways. Why would she take it here? Maybe she’s getting bored of the plain-old fake marriage story and wants to spice it up a bit.

“A baby. How wonderful.” Miss Stone smiles.

“We think so, don’t we, dear?” Daisy turns to me, smiling. There’s something off about the smile. Is she shaking?

“Yes,” I say, making sure to keep my face fake-husband composed. When we walk through this door, I stop being Hound and I become Henry, respectable Henry Roscoe, a man who sells advertising space in newspapers and websites, a man with a respectable, if boring, job, who works hard and plays by every rule society has ever set. Respectable Henry Roscoe would never even go five miles per hour over the speeding limit. “We are very happy.”

“A child is always a blessing,” Miss Stone says.

“Oh, a blessing, what a wonderful word!” Daisy cries, her voice loud in the close confines of the bathroom. Even the bathroom is incredible, with a marble bathtub and decorated in a nautical style, with shells and things like that. The sort of place you can’t imagine taking a dump, but still, I’m sure I’d get over that. “Yes, we do feel blessed, don’t we, my sweet husband?”

She’s laying it on a bit thick, even for the fake marriage routine. Of all the times we’ve done this now, this is the most melodramatic she’s been.

“Yes,” I’m forced to say, when Miss Stone turns her stony eyes to me. “I feel very blessed.”

“I was really shocked at first,” Daisy goes on, looking at me as much as at the house or Miss Stone. “I was terrified, in fact. I was so, so scared. You know, I just walked around and around in a circle like a dog chasing my tail!” She winces, as though aware she’s talking very fast, but then goes on anyway, apparently unable to stop herself. But it’s still the character she’s playing, I remind myself. Isn’t it? “I mean, how are you supposed to react to news like that, in this day and age? When everything is so difficult for everybody. I’m not saying my life is as hard as somebody’s in, like, a third world country or anything. I’d never say that. But with all the money, and the stress, and the…Wow, what a lovely study this would make!” She enters the room, twirling in a circle, and then begins pointing all over the place. “Just imagine, Hou—Henry, just imagine what we could do with this. A desk here.” Pointing. “Maybe a blackboard here if we want to jot anything down. Wouldn’t a blackboard be funny?” Pointing. “Some nice blinds for the window, so the sun can still come in but doesn’t blind us.” Pointing. “Imagine, a cot over there, so the baby can sit in with us when we’re studying!”

She turns her shaky gaze to me.

I nod. “Sure, it would be lovely.”

Miss Stone looks between us, trying to figure out what’s going on. I resist the urge to shrug. I have no idea, I want to tell her.

Once we’ve done a tour of the entire house, Daisy turns to Miss Stone and says, “We’d like a few minutes alone, please.”

Miss Stone nods stiffly and walks out the front door, leaving me and Daisy in the lobby.

“What do you think?” she asks.

“About the house?”

“Yes! About the house!”

Is she drunk? I’ve seen Daisy drunk a couple of times these past few weeks, but usually she just gets sleepy and chilled out. Is she on something else? I’ve seen enough speed-heads in my line of work to recognize it when I see it. I don’t think Daisy’s on it—she just seems fuller of energy than anything else—but the fact that I’m not sure freaks me out.

“I love it,” I tell her honestly. “It’s easily the best house we’ve visited.”

“It is, isn’t it?” She walks into the living room. “Just look at this place. I love how it’s not all made-up, already preened and pruned and made pretty. I’d hate that.”

Following her, I say, “Where did that pregnancy story come from, Daisy? You were playing it pretty straight, but you’ve never brought it up before.”

And then I remember how a few days ago we were at her apartment and I was sipping whisky and she only drank lemonade. A thought enters my head, but it scares the hell out of me and so I push it deep, far down, and focus on Daisy instead.

“Well…sure…” She watches me vaguely, and then sweeps into the kitchen. That’s what it’s like: sweeping, twirling, dancing away and forcing me to follow her. “I’m not much of a cook. I’ll be the first to admit that. But I can imagine just giving it a go in here. I’d have my cookbook propped up there, and I’d have my chopping board here, and…” She turns back to me, a shy smile on her face, the smile that drove me crazy about her to begin with. “Do you think I’m taking this a little too seriously?”

“No.” I wrap my arms around her. She’s hot to the touch. “You can take it as seriously as you want. What is it, Daisy?”

“What do you mean?” She speaks into my chest.

“You know what I mean. You’re acting weird.”

“Says the seven-foot giant!” She steps away from me, looking like she might shout, but then softens. “I don’t even know what that means. My head’s all over the place this week. I’m such an idiot…”

“What are you talking about?”

She lays her hand on the belly of her T-shirt, her baggy T-shirt. “Isn’t it obvious?”


Daisy

I remember going to the store muttering under my breath, “Are you serious? Are you going to be one of those women who poops out a kid and has no idea how it happened?” I remember tearing open two separate pregnancy tests, peeing on both of them, and then looking down at the positive signs and going out to the store to get two more. I remember sitting in the doctor’s office to get confirmation. Five days late until it occurred to me…And then, this morning, I remember sitting up in bed whilst Hound was sleeping (we spend a few nights together a week, now) concocting this crazy plan to pretend to be pregnant, to make it all seem like part of the plan, just to see how Hound reacted. But as the day wore on, as I sat silently in the jeep and went over what I would say, I guess the nervous excitement became too much. Until we were in the house and I started dancing around like some broken weathercock.

“What do you mean?” he says, squinting at me like I’ve just spoken Latin. “What are you trying to say?”

I stroke my belly. I just want him to guess. Whenever I have something I want to say to somebody, like the time I told Dad I wanted to start studying again, I always just want them to read my mind so I don’t have to actually say it. The saying it part is the problem, the part when you have to form the words on your lips and listen to them come out of your mouth, the part where you have to turn what has before existed only in your head into something real. “Hound, really?”

He shakes his head. I get the sense he’s purposefully not saying; I think he knows, but doesn’t want to be the one to say it.

I sigh, closing my eyes, summoning my courage. “I’m pregnant,” I say, opening my eyes. “I’m pregnant with your baby, Hound. I’ve been wanting to tell you for days, but I didn’t know how. And then I got this crazy idea to—”

My cellphone starts blaring from my pocket. I want to ignore it, but these past two months I haven’t missed a single cellphone call, even at work. It could be about Dad.

When I answer the phone, I’m surprised for two reasons. Firstly, it’s Sarah’s voice coming from the speaker. Secondly, she doesn’t sound gloating, or mean, or snide. She sounds quiet and solemn and even respectful .

“Hi, Daisy,” she says. No nickname. “I…err…well, I’m the only person here who can make this call, really. Marsha’s off sick today.” She pauses, and then adds: “I’m not happy about it.”

I’m being fired. Goddamn it. I find out I’m pregnant and I’m being fired. But then, if I’m pregnant, I won’t be able to work at The Lady Shack anyway. Oh, they make a big deal about “allowing for all kinds of lifestyles” but I’ve never seen a pregnant woman in tiny shorts with her belly bulging out of her Shack tank top. The eerie thought that somehow Steven found out about my pregnancy comes to me. I shouldn’t have worn a baggy T-shirt. Stupid, I’m not showing yet. Steve spied me, somehow, somewhere, and now…But none of this is true and I know it. My mind is spinning to try and make what Sarah just said not true. “Daisy? Daisy? Are you there? Are you okay?”

She said: “Your dad’s here, Daisy. He’s beat up really bad. He can hardly talk. I don’t know what happened to him. He mumbled something. Steve thinks he said he was attacked. I don’t know who by. I don’t know, well…There’s an ambulance on the way. Daisy? Daisy?”

Fire fills my head, burning on my tongue, the fire of two months spent with the man who had something to do with hurting my father. I’ve been an idiot. I’ve been an over-trusting idiot. I’ve been an absolute moron. I think of all the times Hound and I have had sex over these past two months—I can’t think of it as making love, not now—and the anger makes it so thinking is difficult. My head aches with it. My pulsing temples feel like they might burst from my skin. I hang up the phone and stare at Hound. The change in my expression must be shocking. He takes a step back, looking at me uncertainly.

“What is it?” he asks. “What’s wrong?”

“You don’t know?” I sneer. “You don’t fucking know!” I scream the last two words, turning away from him.

“Daisy!” He’s at my shoulder, following me as I pace from the house.

I throw open the front door, surprising Miss Stone and causing her to drop her cigarette. “Did you get a good look at—”

“We’re done here!” I snap. “Goodbye!”

“Oh! Okay!” Miss Stone takes a stunned step back as I barge past her toward the jeep.

I reach the jeep when I realize my mistake. Hound has the only car. Hound has the only car! I turn back and pace to Miss Stone, who’s climbing into her car. (Everyone has a damn car, I reflect. Everyone but me, the person who needs to get home.) “Where’s the bus station?” I ask her. “I need to get home—to Austin.”

“The bus station is quite a walk,” she says. “But there’s a car rental place just down the road.”

She gives me the directions, and right away I’m walking down the street, ignoring Hound who walks beside me.

“Daisy, will you stop?” he says. “Will you stop for just one second and talk to me? Just talk to me. Fucking hell, woman. Just stop .” He touches my arm.

I wheel on him. “Don’t you fucking touch me!” I scream. “Don’t you dare lay one finger on me!”

Lifting his hands to show he won’t touch me again, he says, “Fine, but just tell me what’s going on. Who was that on the phone?”

I stand on my tiptoes so I can almost look him right in the eyes. “All this time, I’ve been in your bed, fucking you, screwing you, and I’ve poured my heart out, and you’ve done the same, and all of it, Hound, all of it is a sad fucking joke! All this time, you’ve been trying to hurt my dad, and now you’ve succeeded. But it’s my fault, isn’t it? I never should’ve been stupid enough to trust you! What’s wrong with me!”

“Hurt? What’re you talking about?”

“Dad is at the Shack, bleeding, beat up. Tooled up . Isn’t that what you call it?”

“If that’s true, I had nothing to do with it.”

“Of course you did!” I thump him in the chest, annoyed that he just stands there, like I haven’t hit him at all. “Of course you did!” I thump him again. This time he steps back, a wounded look on his big stupid face. “I heard what you said to him. Collect your teeth. The way you said it, so casual, and then I…and then what I did with you in that alleyway. Why would I do that? What’s wrong with me? I’ve been—I feel sick, you’re making me feel sick. Looking at you is making me feel sick!”

I turn away from him, belly churning, and continue down the street. Hound walks a few paces behind me, like a dog following its owner. This sends me over the edge. Wheeling on him, I scream, “Will you just leave me alone? Even if you didn’t do it yourself, you’re part of it, Hound! You or one of your friends! You didn’t stop it, like you promised you would! This is the point of these , right?” I gesture to the engagement and wedding ring. “Isn’t that the tradeoff? So what happened? You failed, Hound, that’s what happened. I want nothing to do with you! Just leave me alone, please. Just get away from me.” I start shivering, the anger making my teeth chatter. When did I start crying? “Just get away from me before I scratch your eyes out!”

He opens his mouth to speak, thinks better of it, and then turns and walks slowly away, fists clenched at his sides.

I don’t stand here and watch him go, afraid if I do that that I’ll be tempted to follow him. I turn around and continue toward the rental place, thinking about Dad how he was the last time I saw him, jittery, panicky, angry at Hound and angry at myself. I threw myself into Hound’s arms, I threw myself into bed with him, I threw myself into this—into this what? Into this relationship ? Can it even be called that? Whatever it is, I threw myself into it and now look where I am, walking toward the man I’ve spent my life trying to protect whilst walking away from the man who may very well have had something to do with harming him. A mess.

In the rental car place, a blonde woman who’s studying a crossword with a crease between her eyebrows doesn’t look up when I enter. She just keeps looking down at that crossword, making a tutting sound, whilst I stand over her. I smooth down my hair, tap my fingernails on the desk, sigh, and still she just stares down at the crossword. I won’t get angry. I’ll stay calm. I won’t get angry. I’ll stay—

“What’s your problem?” My voice is trembling, barely restrained.

“It’s a difficult one,” the woman says, smiling tightly. “You know how you can get sucked into these things sometimes, right? Like you’ll be doing one thing and then—”

“I need to rent a car!” I blurt, causing the lady to sit up in her chair.

“Oh, yes, yes, of course.” She speaks as though somebody coming in here to rent a car takes her wholly by surprise.

“What sort of car are you looking for?”

“The cheapest one you have. I’m only going to Austin.”

“Well, let me see…Yes, we have one that will be quite suitable, I think. Now, total loss of hope, seven letters.”

I laugh savagely. “Despair,” I say, taking out my credit card. “The answer is despair.”

Sitting behind the wheel of a rackety old tin bucket that just might take me down Route 71 to Austin, I try and calm myself down. My breathing is coming in long, shaky in-drawn breaths, my hands clenched tightly around the steering wheel, my thoughts unable to turn away from two unwavering images: Dad covered in so much blood you can only make out a toothless black hole smile, and Hound leaning over me, thrusting. I relive the argument with Hound as I speed down the highway, wishing I’d slapped him across the face, slapped him across his big dumb face and told him I hated him. Maybe part of me suspected that the fake marriage was not completely honest—but no, no, I won’t go there. Because even if that’s true, even if I enjoyed our nights together, it doesn’t change the fact that he lied to me, doesn’t change the fact that he fucked me knowing full well he couldn’t do anything for Dad.

I pull up when I reach the Pedernales River, looking down at the sun-kissed water and toying with the rings Hound gave me: the bullshit rings, the meaningless rings. I think about the sob stories we told each other, suddenly embarrassed for revealing so much about myself. I think about how he’d sometimes trail his forefinger down my spine, the tingling sensation that would go through my body, how it would drive me crazy. I hate that girl, I despise her for lying there naked giggling whilst Dad was out there, being tooled up by Hound or his friends.

Climbing from the car, the traffic roaring a few yards away from me, I pace to the railing and wrench off the rings, looking down into the flowing water. It seems there’s something of my life in the water, the mad rush of it, the frothing whiteness, everything moving too fast for a change of course. Since Mom died…

“Stop with this self-pitying shit,” I mutter. “Stop with this self-pitying shit !” I hold the rings in the palm of my hand, the metal cool. I’m about to toss them into the water when my years-old practicality speaks up: How much are these rings worth? You might need the cash.

Laughing grimly, I drop them into my pocket and return to the tin bucket.

When I get to The Shack, Sarah meets me out front with an expression on her face I can hardly begin to pick apart. These past months she’s been going in on me pretty hard with this “joking” stuff, telling me whenever I protest that, “Oh, you should be able to take a joke, since you are one.” But now she’s forced to tell me what hospital they’ve taken Dad to, she just mumbles and looks at the ground, before turning away as quickly as she can. Maybe she’s guilty, or maybe she’s just annoyed because she thought of another hilarious joke and can’t use it today.

I drive to the hospital, which is only a couple of miles away, but the place is so busy I have to wait in line for five minutes. Some guy at the front of the line is trying to convince a nurse that he hasn’t been given his medication, even though he’s twitching like crazy and dribbling. “Come on, Patsy, you know I wouldn’t lie to you, doll. You know I wouldn’t!”

Finally a smiling black lady asks me, “What can I do for you, dear?”

I tell her, and she replies that my father is being seen to by the doctor and nurses at the moment and I won’t be able to see him for a few hours. When I slump into the waiting room chair, a machine-made hot chocolate cupped in my hand, I let my head fall back and close my eyes, trying not to think about if dad could be dying a floor above me, and trying not to think about my baby, whose grandfather might be dead before it’s born.


Hound

I drive back to the city in a state of numbness for the first ten or so minutes, trying to disentangle all this shit in my head. I relive the moment where Daisy told me she was pregnant, wishing that Dean had showed up bloody half an hour later so we had a chance to talk about that, at least. Pregnant, with my kid, pregnant, which means I’m going to have a son or a daughter if she doesn’t decide to get rid of it. Pregnant, goddamn. I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to have a kid, no way, not when you really get down to the sort of person I am. But if she decides to keep it, I won’t have a choice. Part of me is terrified of being forced into that; the other part welcomes it, thinking maybe I’d rise to the challenge. A few hazy fantasies come into my head of me and some tall lad sitting at a table and reading a book together, me teaching him to read, or me and this girl in the library and her turning to me and saying, “Daddy, look what book I found!” I choke them back. Daisy hates me. She might run. She might tell me I’m never allowed to see the kid. She might do anything.

Only slowly, the pregnancy revelation is pushed back to make room for Dean, bloody Dean, tooled-up Dean, who I really had no clue was back in town. Like Denton, I thought he was dead, long-dead, maybe dead before Daisy and I become fake-husband and fake-wife.

“Hey, man,” Denton says, when I pick up my cell. “What’s good?”

“Are you going to tell me about Dean? Because if you are, you’re too late.”

Shit , my man, shit .”

“How is it that women working at a The Lady Shack know before you?”

“He’s been hidin’ out in Austin for a minute. Hidin’ right under my nose, but the motherfucker’s got some James-Bond-type hideout or somethin’. Don’t know, man, but I’m sorry. You wanna refund or what?”

I hang up the phone without replying, and wonder where I’m driving. I want to go to the hospital to talk to Dean—it won’t be too hard to figure out which one he was taken to, I’ll just call Denton back—but I know that Daisy will be there, and I’m worried about how she’ll react if she sees me. Maybe she’ll make a scene right there in the hospital lobby, screaming and pointing at me and telling the whole building who I am, what I am. And before I know it I’ll have some pig’s knee in my back, cuffs on my wrists. I guess I could just wait until she leaves; maybe that’s what I’ll do.

But for now I just cruise through the city, clicking my neck from side to side, every so often images of me and some black-haired, giant kid—boy or girl, it doesn’t matter—playing catch or reading or riding on my shoulders. Maybe I’ll learn to fish and we’ll go fishing or something. Bonding shit like that. Stuff my dad never thought to do with me, since he was too busy turning me into a bullet that could be fired and then fired again.

I go through a drive-thru and get myself a burger and fries, but I can’t eat it without thinking of Daisy and Dean and the pregnancy, so I just pull up near some homeless guy holding a cardboard sign.

“Hungry?” I ask him.

He’d old with open sores on his face, wearing fingerless gloves showing dirty fingernails, but when he smiles, I can see him in a suit as a younger man, maybe selling car insurance. “Thank you, young man. Thank you kindly.”

“It’s okay, sir. Here you are.”

I hand him the food and continue on my directionless drive. I’ve never been in this situation before, of getting close to a woman and then being pushed away. Even my mom, I was never close with her. She was always sitting at her vanity table talking about plays she had never seen and concerts she had never been to and how uptown they did things so, so, well, so stylishly , tipping her head back so that she could watch her smiling lips as she spoke. No, only Daisy, and now that she’s gone there’s this pit in my stomach even extreme violence can’t create. Even trashing my books didn’t give me this feeling. For a few moments I long for the stone-cold, dead-eyed Hound I was for most of my teens and twenties, a violent, dead-inside thug who didn’t know better. At least then I didn’t have to feel.

I look in the rear-view mirror and do something I haven’t done in years. I pretend that Dad is sitting back there, hunched over in the seat, smoking a cigarette. Only this time I don’t tell him I miss him or he would’ve laughed the other day when one of the guys fucked up a job. This time I say: “You really did me over, old man. You really fucking did me over. I loved you, would’ve done anything for you. And you knew that, so you pulled me out of school—I liked school, truth be told, even if I told you I didn’t—pulled me out of school and put me to work and even—goddamn it, even Mom knew it was fucked. Even Mom left you because of that. And now you’ve poisoned my life, made it so I can’t even be with the woman I love. Yeah, the woman I love!” I snarl, thumping the steering wheel. “If you were here, I’d smash your nose in.”

I’m sitting at a traffic light when I come to my senses, a family of four watching me in confusion. When the light turns green, I hurry on.

Mac’s call comes in after I’ve refilled my gas tank. “The bar,” he says, and then hangs up.

I’m really starting to get sick of him talking to me that way.

But even if that’s the case, I don’t have any choice but to head toward the bar. When I get in there, Nora calls over to me.

“He’s in a meeting,” she says. “Do you want a drink, sonny?” As she speaks, she wipes down the bar with the rag wrapped around her stump.

“Sure, Nora. Whisky.”

She serves it up and I drink it down. She serves another, and I drink it down.

“Autumn’s coming. Seems yesterday summer started. Now autumn’s coming.” As she speaks, she polishes glass after glass with her stump. “You eyeing my goods, boy?” She winks at me, her wrinkled skin creasing.

“Maybe I am,” I say, smiling. “Just impressed with you, Nora. Always am.”

She giggles, and all at once she isn’t an older-than-old crone, but a twenty year old girl working her first shift at a bar. “I’ve seen thousands of men come and go,” she says. “Even before Mac, when this wasn’t a—well, you know.” I nod. She doesn’t want to call Mac illegal. “And then before that, when it was owned by some Italian-Americans. Oh, I’ve seen all sorts, Henry. All sorts.”

“Henry,” I echo. “You’ve never called me Henry, not since I was a kid, anyway.”

“You’re Henry again,” Nora says. “I can tell.”

I want to ask what she means, but then one of Mac’s goons calls from the doorway. “Boss’ll see you now.”

I take some cash from my pocket and put it on the bar. “Have a good day, Nora,” I call, before moving into the back.

Ripper and Hitter are grinning when I walk into the room, but the grins die when they see me. Hitter, who’s always been the less prickish of the twins, looks slightly embarrassed. Mac, as usual, is counting money and looking over documents. Part of me wants to reach across and tear those documents apart. There probably isn’t even anything on them, anyway, probably just a bunch of gibberish so he can keep men like me waiting on him. Arrogant ass.

“Take a seat,” he says, after what seems like an eternity of rustling papers. I drop into the seat and Ripper wriggles his bent, broken nose, smiling again. One day I’d love to crack that bastard’s teeth into his skull, stop the prick smiling. Mac leans forward, and now he starts smiling, too. “We’ve heard what happened to Dean, showed up hardly able to walk, the poor fucker!” Mac lets out a coughing laugh, the sort of laugh that makes me think of a very old man looking at a young woman, a seedy laugh. A laugh that makes me wonder why I once worshipped this man as a would-be father. “I can take it this was your doing, right?”

There’s something odd in the way he’s speaking, Ripper has that smile on his face again, and Hitter is glancing at me strangely. Was it Ripper and Hitter? Did they attack Dean, does Mac know, and now are they trying to get me to lie so they have an excuse to…It sounds far-fetched, but then, Mac has been sending me out on more and more jobs, almost the same way you’d use a saw that you knew was getting replaced in a few weeks: not caring about maintaining it, not caring if the handle snapped, not caring…Just not goddamn caring . I can’t say yes, but I can’t say no, either, because if I say no, I’ll be admitting to something worse: that Dean is in town and I had no idea.

I just lean back and stare at Mac silently, my only choice in this situation. He watches me for a few moments, grinning, looking so different to the Mac I’ve known all these years I’m almost certain that that Mac was a performance, a trick to make this wayward hulking teenage kid respect him.

“You’re too modest,” he says. “I get it, Hound. You’ve always been a good worker, never letting anything slide. Always very—what’s the word—you have an eye for detail.”

“Conscientious,” I murmur. Apparently my English literature course wasn’t a complete waste of time.

Mac snaps his fingers, smiling up at Ripper and Hitter. “Do you hear that, boys? Hound knows the score. Hound’s a walking dictionary.”

“He is, ain’t he?” Ripper says.

“A walking dictionary,” Hitter repeats, when Mac looks at him expectantly.

“Let me tell you a story,” Mac says. “Once, there was a man in prison, minding his own business, when four lifers came strolling down the hallway trying to cause trouble. But he was ready. He was fuckin’ ready . He’s got pepper spray in one hand and a razor shank in the other. He blinds two of them, guts the other two, and then guts the blinded fucks. And then after that, when he’s built himself a network of good strong men, everyone who was an inconvenience to him was removed. Everyone who wasn’t what they were supposed to be.” Mac pauses, stroking his chin. “But you’re always what you’re supposed to be, aren’t you, Hound? Efficient, cold. An enforcer. Just like the twins here. No time to get soft. No time to second-guess or any of that shit. So I reckon you’ll finish the job you’re too modest to admit you started: I reckon you’ll kill Dean Dunham.”

I have to stop myself from doing several things: gripping the arms of the chair, shouting, shaking with rage, showing any sign of anger on my face at all. I’ve worked for Mac for a decade and a half, and as far as I can remember, that’s the first time he’s threatened me.

I don’t trust myself to answer, so I just climb to my feet, nod, and leave the office. Mac waves at me, telling me I can go. I’m in the parking lot when I feel somebody tap my shoulder. I heard them coming, so I turn around quickly, ready to fight. But it’s just Hitter, scar making his eyebrows look twice the width. “Just do what he says.” He clenches his jaws, and then says, “Maybe in a different life you could fuck off to the suburbs and read books and whatever the fuck. But this ain’t a different life. This is the life. And you need to get that through your head.”

“Why didn’t you just kill him?” I ask. “Why not just kill him if that’s what he wants?”

“He doesn’t want us to kill him. You know that.”

“The old man thinks he can kill me by killing him.”

Hitter nods, and then turns and walks away.

He wants to kill me, kill the part of me that confuses him, the part that has grown over these past couple of years. Hitter knows about the books and the suburbs, which means Mac knows, which means the whole organization probably knows. Which means they probably know about Daisy, too. When I’m in my car, I call Denton.

“’Sup, man.”

“I want you to tail Daisy Dunham and call me if anyone moves on her. Take a partner. Work shifts. I also want somebody outside Dean Dunham’s hospital. I need the name of the hospital, too, and the room number.”

“Shit, man, but there’s a game on!”

“Just fucking do it!” I snap. “You’ll be paid.”

“Damn right I’ll be paid,” he says under his breath, before hanging up the phone.

I have to keep her safe, because I know one thing for certain. I’m not killing her father. I’m not being the attack dog anymore. I want to see Daisy, I want to see Dean. I want to make this right. I want to be a part of her family, since my family has never wanted much to do with me.


Daisy

I go to the window and look into the garden, watching them, unable to stop myself from smiling. The land for miles around is scorched dream-earth, unimagined, but that doesn’t matter to me. All that matters to me in this whole world is down there, playing in the yard. Hound—Henry, now; he was Hound a long time ago—is picking our child up over his head and flying around the yard with them. The child is neither a boy nor a girl, not yet, but they are laughing and shouting, “Daddy! Daddy!” I tug my apron on and fry the bacon, taking great pleasure in the methodical movements. I’m no cook, I warned Henry long ago, but I can fry some bacon and butter some bread, squeeze ketchup onto the crispy meat. When I carry it out to them, Henry’s hair is a mess around his face, and his ice-blue eyes are alive with life. He takes the sandwich from me and devours it in two bites. After giggling, our child does the same. Then we’re all rolling around the freshly-mown grass, fighting, playing, Henry laughing, our child laughing—

I’m woken by a nurse nudging me in the shoulder.

“Excuse me, Miss Dunham? Miss Dunham?”

“Yes? Yes? Sorry.” I rub sleep from my eyes and look up into her face: fake-tanned, tightly-drawn features, a no-nonsense look about her. “Is he—awake?” I almost asked if he was dead for a second then. I’m surprised to find that the world has turned dark, the light shining in through the windows streetlamps and moonlight. “Or…”

“He’s awake,” the nurse says. She gives me the room number where I can visit him and then walks away to deal with somebody else.

I’m nervous as I walk through the hospital, afraid of what I’ll find when I enter Dad’s room. They were working on him because his injuries were serious, which means he must look pretty bad. I catch myself thinking this and wonder if that’s the sort of thing you should be thinking in a situation like this. But when you’ve spent your entire life trying to avoid one particular thing, the prospect of being met with that thing doesn’t exactly fill you with hope. But I can only walk slowly for so long until I’m standing outside the door. I feel tears well in my eyes and force them back down. Pregnant, the father possibly involved in this, my own father coughing behind a hospital door.

I force away the tears and then open the door, telling myself to be strong. When Mom had cancer, she was strong, right up until the end. She never complained. She never let herself cry, at least where I could see her. She was strong for the people around her and that’s what I have to try and be. But it’s easy to promise yourself that before you’re met with cold bloody reality.

Dad’s face has ballooned to twice its size, covered in stiches and bandages, his body splayed out like a collection of meat and bones. IV drips feed into his veins, and a urine bag is attached to the side of the bed. His finger hovers near a Call Nurse button. When I enter, his eyes turn to me, but his head doesn’t. His head is propped up like a baby’s.

“D-Daisy?” he manages to say, thought it comes out more like Dassheee , because of his swollen lips. “Oh, th-th-thank God!”

I sit beside the bed, moving to take his hand before I see that it’s all swaddled in bandages. Seeing him like this is almost too much to handle, but I’m surprised to find that a big part of that doesn’t come from love or sadness, but from anger: anger that he would let this happen to himself after I’ve done so much to try and avoid it. Even as the anger grips me, I know, on some level, that it’s selfish. But it’s all too much to handle: the baby, Hound, and now this. I feel like screaming, I feel like hitting something.

“Where were you?” I ask him.

“I can’t say,” he replies. If he talks quietly, barely moving his lips, his voice is clearer and it seems to cause him less pain. “I wish I could, but, not yet, not yet…”

“Who did this to you, then?”

“I don’t know.” He winces. “I can’t remember. I don’t think I was facing them. I was—I was getting into my car, I think. I’ve talked to the police, but you know me, Daisy. You know I can’t really talk to the police.” He winces again, and then says. “I’m glad you’re here.”

A pause lengthens between us and I realize, with a terrible sense of failure, that we have nothing to say to each other. We’ve never talked, not properly. Our lives for the past decade has just been Dad spending the money I make him. We haven’t had time to talk. I wonder now, as I sit here with the silence growing more and more uncomfortable, if what I’ve been protecting all these years isn’t Dad, but an idea of Dad, or the man he was when Mom was alive, or some other phantom that was never realer than fog.

“I hate seeing you like this,” I say, and I mean it.

I mean it. Or am I just trying to convince myself? Is it that I hate seeing Dad hurt, or that I hate feeling like I’ve failed him—failed myself? I look up and down his bloodied, bandaged body and feel a profound sense of loss, but I’m not sure if that’s loss of Dad or loss of myself. If I can’t protect Dad, what am I? What have I spent these past ten years doing? Wasting away my twenties dealing with assholes at the Shack, never really even trying at anything better, using Dad as an excuse when in the end I’ll fail anyway? Is that all I’m worth? Is that all my baby’s worth? I tell myself I’m being selfish, but even if that’s true, it doesn’t change the way I feel.

“What is it, Daisy?” Dad asks, his eyes looking small as they turn to me in his bumpy face.

“I—” My fists are clenched. I’m shaking. I need to get myself under control, but my anger at Hound and my anger at myself and, yes, my anger at Dad is making it too difficult. “I—You should’ve been there for me.” I speak the words softly, decades-long-withheld words, words which have always lived between us but which neither of us have ever acknowledged as being alive. “You should’ve been there for me!” I repeat, voice cracking. “I was a child, Dad, I was a child and—and—oh, it doesn’t matter.”

“No!” Dad shouts. He collapses in pain at the effort. “No,” he wheezes. “You need to say this. I owe you that much, at least.”

“I just…” I take a deep breath. I don’t know how we got here. I was supposed to come in and play the good, supportive daughter. The elephant in the room was supposed to stay hidden, as he’s been for ten years. But we’re here now, so…“I used to hate you, Dad. I really used to hate you. Hate you with, like, a hatred that scared the shit out of me. I used to lie awake at night thinking of Mom and wondering how she would react to what you were turning me into. Oh, no, you didn’t make me drop out of school. You didn’t make me start working straightaway. No, you didn’t force me, or hit me, or anything. But you manipulated me, I’m sure of it. I’ve been sure of it for a long time.

“I remember a couple of weeks after Mom died when you were drunk sitting on the couch, getting more and more drunk, when I came to sit with you. You turned to me with red eyes, looked me right in the face with those red eyes, eyes I still see every time I look at you, and you said to me, Dad, you said: ‘They’re going to kill me if I don’t start paying. If I don’t get them their money, they’re going to kill me. And I can’t work! Nobody will hire me!’ And when I told you how I was doing at school, you’d grunt and shrug. But, oh, when I came home one day and told you I’d gotten a job, you jumped up and wrapped your arms around me and told me you were the proudest you’d ever been!”

I pause, wiping tears from my cheeks. Dad just stares down at his feet. I think he’s crying, too, but it’s difficult to tell with his puffed-up eyes.

“Do you have any idea what that does to a daughter? Do you have any clue what it’s like to come home with your homework and have your dad grunt at you like an animal, and then have him all but push you into a job? Do you have an idea what it’s like for all your friends to be graduating and going off to college until you don’t have any friends left, not really, and you look back and wonder, What the hell happened to my life? You never supported me, Dad. I know it hurts to hear. I know it must really upset you. And I know I’ve kept quiet for too long. But it’s the truth. You killed a part of me the first time you took my money. It died. Because all I could think was, Shouldn’t he be protecting me? Shouldn’t he be the strong one? I never even got to grieve for Mom. That’s what it feels like.”

I wipe the tears from my eyes, but there are so many now I’ve no sooner wiped my cheeks that they’re soaking again. Dad is trembling in bed, wincing in pain as his tears sting his bruised eyes. I grip my belly, thinking I might be sick, trying to get a hold of myself. All the pain of unvoiced anger, resentment, rage, self-loathing, washes over me, crippling me. A thousand memories of Dad snatching an envelope out of my hand whilst avoiding my gaze hit me. I remember asking him once if he wanted to go to the movies, and he agreed, but then he spent the whole time checking the time on his phone and tapping his foot. At the end, he jumped up and paced out of the theatre as quickly as he could. He didn’t want to hang out with his daughter. He wanted to party. He wanted to get away from his daughter as fast as he could, never mind that she was paying for the partying.

“And I never really considered stopping,” I say. “I never truly thought that it was time to stop paying your way. I never wanted to see you hurt. And now—and now look at you. So what’s the point of it all, Dad? I wasn’t helping you. I wasn’t making you better. I was enabling you. That’s the truth. I was making it so you never had to get better. I was making it so you never needed to stand up and do something.”

We both cry for ten or more minutes in silence. As time goes on, I find myself shocked at my words. But I also find that there’s far less tension than there usually is with me and Dad. There’s no longer a collection of unspoken agony between us. It’s all out there, except for one thing…

“I’m pregnant,” I tell him. “I can’t tell you who the father is, not yet.” Why not? Maybe because I’m not sure about Hound; maybe because I don’t yet know if Hound has anything to do with this. “You’re going to be a grandfather.” I should leave it at that, but I can’t. “Let’s hope you’re better to your grandchild than you’ve been to me,” I add bitterly.

Dad breaks down, weeping violently for around a minute, and then manages to calm himself down by breathing steadily. “Oh, Daisy,” he moans. “Daisy, Daisy. Fuck, I’ve been—I’ve been a horrible father. It’s true. You’re not wrong. Everything you’ve said is right. I’ve been a coward. When your mother died, I just—I froze, I guess. I froze and I stopped thinking of the next day or the next week and all I thought of was now, because at least now I didn’t have to think of her. But then what about you? I’ve been the world’s biggest coward, hiding from my problems. I hate myself!” He spasms in bed. I think he’s trying to punch the mattress, or the railing, but he’s too injured. He cries out in pain and slumps down. “I wish I was dead. I should’ve died, and your mother should’ve lived.”

“Don’t say that,” I whisper. I touch his hand softly, careful not to hurt it.

“Why not? It’s true. We both know it’s true.”

“Maybe it is. I don’t know. But don’t say it.”

He shakes his head as much as his bindings will allow. “I’ve always promised myself that tomorrow I would be better. I always did that, Daisy. I would lie awake, drunk and wheezing, and promise to myself that tomorrow, I would clean it all up. No booze, no poker, no blackjack, no anything . Some days I would even get to around four pm, but then I would start to see her, sitting sweaty after giving birth to you, or when we first met, turning her head to smile at me, and—”

But he can’t go on. He starts crying again for a long, long time.

“A grandfather,” he says. I start, sitting up. I thought he was asleep. “Me, a grandfather. Maybe if this thing works, it won’t be so—But life isn’t built on maybes. Whatever happens, I’ll be better. I can be better. I know I can.”

“I hope so,” I say. “I really do hope so, Dad.”


Hound

I sit outside the hospital in my jeep, watching. I need confirmation from Dean that it was the twins, not that I know what I’ll do with that information. I know that, above all, Mac is a businessman, so perhaps if I can convince him that Dean is going to pay soon, he’ll drop this vendetta and let it rest at that. But it’d have to be a damn lot of money to make him drop his interest in me. I think about the way he’s always looked at me, what I at first mistook for pride. That was my big mistake, thinking the old man was proud of me, and basking in that pride like an excited little kid. I was an excited little kid. I should’ve spit in his face and got the hell out of there the day Dad died. But no, I was too busy puffing up my chest and looking tough and liking it when the guys slapped me on the back.

The night is dark, the moon hid behind a veil of deep black clouds, the stars winking out once or twice before retreating again. I lean back and half-close my eyes, doing the kind of resting I’ve done countless times before, while waiting on countless marks to show their faces. Usually at times like these, my mind will go to my one abiding fantasy: the massive house, the normal life. But whereas before I met Daisy I was always walking around the place alone—in a bathrobe, more relaxed than I could ever be in the city—now I’m walking around with a toddler’s legs on my shoulders, to the sound of Daisy’s voice calling me from the end of the hallway.

When I see her leave the hospital at half two in the morning, I want to go to her, hold her, but I’m not here for that. I need to confirm with Dean so that I can…but it’s difficult to think of plans and scheming with Daisy passing within yards of the car. She walks into the glare of a streetlamp and I see that her eyes are red, her cheeks reflective with tears. I swallow down a pain I barely understand. When she’s out of sight, I climb from the car and enter the hospital. Denton told me Dean’s room number, so I go straight up. The hospital is dead to the world, silent, eerie, the only sounds coughing and rolling over and the occasional scree-scree of bed-wheels. I enter Dean’s room silently, close the door behind me, and then sit close by his Call Nurse button to make sure he doesn’t alert anyone that I’m here.

He wakes with a jolt.

“Ah, Hound—it’s Hound, right?”

“Sir,” I mutter. “I hope I didn’t frighten you too much.”

“I thought you were a bear.” He whispers, since his face is such a mess. “I was dreaming and I thought…It doesn’t matter. Are you here to kill me?”

“No, sir. I’m here to talk to you.”

“Talk?” He laughs, or makes as close to a laughing sound as he can when laid up like that. “You’re not what I expected you to be at all. Do you remember the first few times we met, lad? I guess met is the wrong word, but you know what I’m saying.”

He’s talking about the couple of times I warned him to pay Mac, before that meeting in the alleyway: the meeting that changed my life.

“I remember,” I say. “Don’t like to, though.”

“No? I thought you were pretty fair, as far as collectors go. Don’t look surprised. Do you think you’re the only collector I’ve ever had to deal with? You walked up to me and placed your hand on my shoulder—I could tell you were being gentle, lad, a big man like you, I could tell you were being careful not to hurt me—and told me, as respectful as you please, ‘Sir, you need to pay Mac, or I’m afraid something very bad is going to happen.’ And did I listen! Coward! Coward!” His voice cracks, which confuses me since I don’t think I scared him too much. “No, I just carried on doing what I was doing. Do you remember the second time? You talked to me about books, some book about a married couple in the fifties, if I remember correctly, and then you politely asked me to pay Mac again. It’s only the third time that you threatened violence.”

“I’m not a good man, sir. I may not have hurt you, but I would have.”

“I’m not a good man, either. I’m not going to judge you.”

“Who did this to you, sir? Can you remember? I know you’ve talked to the police, but a man with your background, I’m guessing you haven’t said much to them.”

He smiles tightly. “No, but then, I don’t remember much. The only thing the doctor can tell me is that it looks like I was beaten with knuckle-dusters. Well, they said it might be knuckle-dusters.”

“Makes sense.” I nod. So it was Ripper and Hitter who went in on him, which means it was Mac who gave the order. My blood turns cold at the thought of Mac playing with me like a chess piece, not only because he’s treating me like a kid now, but also because I guess he must’ve done it in the past without me noticing. Big dumb fucking Hound. Big over-excited fucking Hound. “I want you to know I’m doing everything I can to keep you and your daughter safe, sir.”

“My daughter?” Dean grinds his teeth. At first I think it’s in anger, but it’s more like he’s thinking deeply. After a long pause, he says, “You and Daisy…Is that possible? That would explain why you’re not killing me.”

“If she hasn’t told you anything, I don’t think it’s my place.”

His smile is small and almost shy from his over-inflated face. “But I think you already have, lad.”

My shoulders slump. “I guess so. I want to tell you something else, too, but I can’t without revealing something that isn’t mine to—”

“I know that Daisy’s pregnant.”

I sigh. “I’m the father,” I say. I don’t know what prompts me to come out with this. Maybe I just want to see how he’ll react. All my life I’ve been seeking the approval of men like Dean: father-aged men, men who’ll offer me some kind of encouragement to do something good for a change. “I hope you don’t find that too scary. I only learnt about it earlier today. I guess it’d be yesterday now. I just want you to know that I’ll be the best goddamn father I can be. I swear to that, sir.” If Daisy lets me, I add silently. If Daisy keeps it.

“Like I said, I’ve met many debt collectors, too damn many, is the truth. And you’re the only one I’ve ever met who I’d consider son-in-law material. But you have to get out of the life, somehow. I might be able to help with that, but—Things are in motion. I think. I hope.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

He shakes his head, but the way he’s swaddled, it’s more like he wiggles his eyes. “I really can’t say. Don’t want to risk it.”

“Alright,” I murmur, wondering if the pain meds are making him speak funny. I have no idea what he’s talking about.

I don’t get a chance to ask, either, because he closes his eyes and starts to snore lightly, drawing in breaths which sound hollow and raspy. The twins really fucked him over, by the sounds of it, but he’ll heal. Which is what Mac wanted: hurt but at no risk of dying, so when he does die, it’s good old obedient Hound who does the job.

I stand up, looking down at this man and wondering if I ever could’ve busted in his face and collected his teeth like I threatened. Could I have just turned off my brain, like I always do, and went to work on him? I’m not sure. I like to think I wouldn’t have. I like to think I wouldn’t have been able to, since he’s old and broken-looking. But I can’t say for definite, and that scares the shit out of me. Sometimes, it’s like I don’t even know who I am.

I’m walking through the hospital’s automatic doors, trying to figure out what exactly I’m going to do—persuade Mac that Dean has some money on the way and then try and raise that money myself is looking like the only real option—when Daisy walks toward me. We both stop, looking at each other over the harsh glare of the outside hospital lights, the concrete lit so that you can see every old stain and scuff mark. She’s holding a takeout bag in one hand and a drink in the other. She slowly removes the straw from her lips.

“What have you done?” she whispers. “What have you done to him!”

“Wait!” I approach her, wincing when she recoils from me. “I haven’t hurt him, Daisy. I swear on it.”

“Then what’re you doing here?” She believes me. That has to count for something.

Without discussing it, we move to one of the benches which sit along the hospital’s perimeter, away from the lights, where we can only make out each other’s faces by the light coming from the hospital windows and the hiding moon. I tell her about talking with him, about Ripper and Hitter, about Mac, all of it.

“He wants you to kill Dad as some kind of a test ? He’s a sadist, Hound. How did you ever look up to this man?”

“I don’t know. But I don’t anymore.” I want to reach across and place my hand on her knee. It’s only been a day of this, but it feels like far longer. Two months of being intimate every day, and then this…I’ve never had to deal with that before. When I notice she isn’t wearing her rings, it feels like a punch in the gut, fake marriage or no. “The only thing I can think of is to pay Mac four, five times what Dean owes. But that’s even more than I’ve got saved for the house. Way more, really.”

“How much does he owe?” she asks quietly. She isn’t looking at me. I wish she would look at me.

“Around two-hundred and fifty grand.”

“What!” Daisy jumps up, bringing her hands to her mouth. “How is that even…what! Hound!”

“Mac’s an evil bastard, Daisy. He lets the debts build up over years, let’s them borrow more, all whilst the other debts are gaining their interest. Massive amounts of interest, too. So that when he finally comes to collect, people are forced to mortgage their houses, sell their cars, and he gets a big payout. It doesn’t even matter if a lot of people can’t pay all of it. Even some of it is a fortune. But your dad’s a different case. Mac wants me to kill him, but I reckon he’d take around a million. But I don’t have a million.”

“And neither does Dad.”

I risk moving my hand to her, laying it gently atop her hand. She hesitates, but then flips her hand so that our fingers can interlock.

“I won’t let anything happen to him, Daisy. I’ll die first.”

“It wasn’t you…” She turns to me, the skin under her eyes puffy from crying. She looks vulnerable. All I can think is I want to hold her, shield her from the world, for the rest of my life. But then she slides her hand away from me. “What are we going to do, Hound? I’m going to have to run with him, aren’t I? Me and Dad are going to have to run far, far away.”

“Don’t do that. It’d kill me.” I reach for her again but she stands up.

“What else are we supposed to do?” she snaps.

“I don’t know. But I know one thing: if you left, I’d die. I love you, Daisy.” I’m on my feet, standing close to her, looking down into her face, a face I know as well as my own reflection now, a face I’ve spent hours exploring until I know every valley and peak. A face which would haunt me every day for the rest of my life if it were suddenly to disappear. “I used to think my dream life was just a house, Daisy. A house. Wood. Stone. Appliances. Shit. Whatever. I used to think my dream life was just being out of the life. But you know what these past couple of months have taught me? None of that means anything if I don’t have you, you and our kid. I want to make this work. I want to be somebody else. I don’t want to be—” I cut myself short, suddenly afraid I might cry.

Daisy touches my face. “You don’t have to be strong all the time, not with me.”

“I know.” I lean in for a kiss, but she backs off.

“I don’t know, Hound. This is all such a mess. I haven’t slept. I’m—God, I’m tired .”

“Just promise me you won’t go. Give me a week. Just a week.”

“Will we be safe, though?”

“I have men watching you and your father,” I tell her. “And I’ll talk to Mac and tell him that he’s going to be paid. I’ll lie my ass off.”

“And then what?” Daisy asks, a note of desperation in her voice. “A week isn’t forever.”

“And then we find a way. As a family.”

I don’t know if she’s fully convinced, but she nods before turning back toward the hospital. “A week,” she calls over her shoulder. Then she stops, turns, and looks me dead in the face. “And I love you, too. I think you should know that.”

She paces away before either of us can say anything else.


Daisy

Over the next week, I meet with Hound once, while I continue to work at The Lady Shack and the café, and as Dad stops being a swollen balloon and starts to resemble a person again. “There’s no way I’m finding this money,” Hound says. “I thought I could, but, shit.” We’re sitting in the café after my shift, sipping coffee, the distance of the table seeming too long between us after months spent in each other’s arms. “I’ve put off Mac, but pretty soon he’s going to be expecting his cash, and—fuck, I feel like the only thing for me to do is walk in there and tell him I’m out, tell him I’m out of the life and that I’m taking my family with me. You, Dean, you’re my family now.”

“And then what?” I ask. I’m aware that my voice sounds timid and I hate it. But I can’t stop it, either.

“Then we’ll get out of here. I have the cash I was going to spend on the house. We’ll run, find somewhere safe, away from him. Maybe I’ll be able to intimidate some of the men out of following me. They all know how dangerous I can be.”

“But your house—” I stop myself. Maybe it’d seem silly to most people, but I know how Hound has fantasized over this for years.

He just shakes his head. “I told you. It’s just a house. You’re what matters to me, you and our baby.” His ice-blue eyes go cold and distant. “And any man who tries to harm you better be ready to face me.”

That was two days ago. Today, despite all the craziness going on around me, life trundles on as normal. I’m at The Lady Shack, squeezing into my uniform, pushing my tits up to my chin and my ass into these tiny shorts, getting ready for another shift of goggled-eyed and mean-eyed men. Sarah seems to have gotten over her concern for my dad. As I’m leaving the changing room, she blocks my way and sneers at me. “So the whole marriage thing fell through, did it? I guess a woman like you can’t help herself, can she? Married one minute, slurping off every guy you see the next minute.” Behind me, her sidekick titters, and it’s all I can do to navigate around her without smashing her face into the wall.

The day gets immediately worse when I see Marsha’s face, which is distraught and apologetic all at once. I know that face well from working here, the face that ushers in a day of dealing with asshole customers. “I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I tried to tell Steve, but he said that you have to deal with him. Keep the customers happy, he said.” I don’t have to turn around and look down the aisle to know who it is, but I do anyway. Charles Wheeler sits in his buttoned-up shirt and bow-tie, tapping his manicured fingernails against the table and smiling down the aisle at me, an expression that tells me he knows exactly what he’s doing and wants to relish it.

Swallowing my pride—how many times is that now? a thousand?—I walk on my absurd heels to where he’s sitting, notepad in hand, plastering a smile on my face which surprises me when it doesn’t falter.

“Hey, doll!” I beam, despising my own voice. “How are you this afternoon?”

Charles holds his hands up. “Is he going to choke me again?” He lets out a harsh laugh, dropping his hands. “But in all seriousness, if he’d tried that when I was ready, I don’t think he would have had such a grand time of it, no way. I do karate. They teach you to use your opponent’s size and strength against them. So you can tell that cowardly braindead hunk of meat that if he ever lays his hands on me again, it will be the last thing he does.”

I accept all this with a smile, since there’s nothing else I can do. It’s ridiculous, Charles must know that, but I can’t say it.

“Now lean forward like a good girl.”

I’m about to say no when I notice Steve out of the corner of my eye, Sarah standing at his shoulder whispering in his ear. Oh, I know exactly what that bitch is saying: “Ooh, Steve, last time that customer was here Daisy caused a ruckus so we better keep an eye on her to make sure she isn’t going to risk making another scene. You know how much I care about this place, Steve.” All the while she’s leaning just a little too close and letting her lips brush over his ear.

I swallow my pride—one-thousand and one—and lean forward, painfully aware of Charles sitting up so he can look down my cleavage. “I see that those garish rings are gone,” Charles comments. “I don’t think rings like those flatter a woman like you. Women like you should be wearing cheap supermarket jewelry, so that when men look at you they know exactly what they’re getting. Whores, basically.” He tips his head back and laughs at his own joke.

I get the urge to stab my pen into the exposed skin of his neck, but I can still see Sarah and Steve staring at me, Steve with his thumbs hooked into his belt loops like some old-timey oil man.

“Would you like something to drink?” I ask, in my sweetest, most polite voice. How am I speaking like that? How is my voice coming out so serene when inside there’s an earthquake tearing through my body, making me want to clench my fists and spit and swear? “We have cocktails, beers, I think we even have a—” A mulled cider, I was going to say, because I’m just making sounds to stop myself from snapping at him.

“Where did you learn to speak so prettily?” Charles asks. He has one hand under the table, shifting slightly back and forth. I know what he’s doing and it makes me sick. “Didn’t you ever want to be something more than—well, more than one step up from a stripper? Or is it one step down? I’m sure strippers make more than you.”

“You know what, you little—” I bite down on my tongue so hard I taste blood.

“That’s right,” Charles says, nodding. “Be quiet now and take my order and shake that ass for me. You’re all whores, every single one of you. You’re all good for one thing. And most of the time you can’t even do that right! So what good are you? You look the type, all bouncy and sexy, but when you get you home, you just lie there dead and boring and pointless.” He shrugs. “You might as well be dead, to be honest.”

I see myself in five months with a bulging belly, see myself in five years with a son or a daughter, see myself in twenty years with a fully grown child, and wonder if I want to one day tell them about the time I let this man walk all over me, or the time I salvaged my self-respect and did something. I don’t think. I just tear off my apron and toss it on the floor, and then scream, “You’re a small little man! A tiny little man! A pathetic little man who’s never gotten laid in his whole damned life and so has to come here to feel big!”

I hear Steve gasp and see Sarah smile. Then Steve is walking toward me, shaking his head.

“Oh, you’re going to fire me?” I snap, tossing my notepad onto the floor with my apron. “You think I give a shit. I’m pregnant! I’m going to be a mother, and I won’t take this shit! Not anymore! Being pawed at by freaks for a few dollars an hour, only being able to pay rent with the tips! Letting them grind against you and—and you, Steve , are the worst of all. How many girls have you forced to suck you off, you fucking pervert?”

I turn away from him before he can answer, throw Charles a grimace which has him recoiling in his seat, and then stomp from the building, ignoring the eyes of the men. Even now, they go to my breasts, my legs. I want to slap the face of every man who robs some of this moment by leering, but then I’m out in the autumn sun, panting, fists clenched so tightly two of my fingernails snap. When I’m in the parking lot, I realize I’ve left my clothes back there in the locker, but it’s too late to go back now. I tap my pocket, where I always keep my purse just in case Sarah tries to play a prank on my locker, which is the sort of childish thing she’d do.

I’m walking down the street to the bus stop when I see Hound’s jeep parked at the end of the road. Instantly, I feel better, so much better than I did a few moments ago. I told him I loved him and I meant it, but it’s not until this moment that it really hits home for me. If I can go from rage to smiling in a matter of seconds, there must be something here. I think about how I’ll tell him the story, how I’ll relate all the looks on their faces. I wonder if he’ll laugh.

I open the passenger seat door and climb in. “I’m so glad you’re here,” I say, fastening my seatbelt. “This has been the craziest day. I just couldn’t handle it anymore— Wait? No! No!

Mac, the man with the tattoo on his forehead, grabs my arm when I reach for the door. He’s old, but he’s strong, his grip like iron. He reeks of whisky and cigarettes, but his suit is clean. He grins at me. “Let’s not be foolish, Miss Dunham,” he says. “Or you’ll have to deal with them.” He nods into the backseat and I feel like an idiot for not checking the car first. The ginger-haired twins who were with Mac when he came to watch the stripping auditions sit back there, staring with empty eyes straight ahead of them. “So please, can’t we try and be civil?”

“I’ll scream,” I say. “I’ll scream and—”

“And what?” Mac’s smile never once touches his eyes. I imagine this man putting a bullet into somebody’s head and then making some toast afterward. He doesn’t seem to care. “What do you think would happen? Prince fuckin’ Charming is going to come to your rescue, is he? No, you’re ours now, so be a good little girl and stay quiet, or I’ll have one of my friends here cut that baby out of your belly and force it down your throat. Don’t look so shocked, you stupid whore. How hard do you think it is to pay off a doctor?” He flashes a grin that sends worms crawling over my body. “Are you going to be a good girl while I drive us to our date, dear, or am I going to have to get one of my friends to educate you?”

I glance back at the dead-eyed twins. They don’t look like they’d enjoy hurting me. But they don’t look like they’d refuse to hurt me, either. They look like hammers, lying inanimately until it’s time for them to act. I turn back to the road and shake my head. “I’ll be quiet,” I say. “I won’t…” Tears rise in my throat. I cough them back. So much for my big, dramatic, I’m-strong-now exit. I’ve walked out of one situation where men are the judges and jurors right into another, only now they might be the executioners as well.

“Good,” Mac says.

He starts the car and drives leisurely through the city.

“We’re going to have to double back on ourselves,” he says. “I have a meeting at The Red Room, but there’s a stop we need to make first.”

He drives for five minutes before I realize where his destination is.

“No, please. Please don’t hurt him. He hasn’t done anything. It’s not his fault.”

Mac laughs at this, and then coughs violently. “Not his fault! It’s all his fault, you stupid hole. If it wasn’t for him you’d be safe in your slutty bar right now, sucking men’s balls for a ten dollar tip.” He leans across, breathing whisky onto my face. It takes all my self-control not to gag. I’m afraid that if I do, he’ll take offence to it and hurt me. “You’re all sluts in there, aren’t you? I know for a fact that one of your girls will do anything for a bit of cash, because she works at The Red Room. I’m always amazed by how far women will go for a few hundred dollars. A few hundred dollars! Not even enough to pay their rent and the sluts’ll let you put it in their asses.” He laughs again, before coming to a stop outside the hospital. “Go and get him. And you,” he goes on, shooting me a look of cold death. “If you make one more noise, I’ll cut off one of your fingers.” He takes a pair of pruning sheers from his pocket. “Try me. Go on. See if I won’t. I’m tired of you and that big hunk of fucking shit disrespecting me. You’ll both learn your lesson. I would’ve taken the money, a month ago, but let me tell you, it’d take a damn lot more money than your old man has to stop this now. I will not be disrespected.”

The twins exit the car and walk toward the hospital. This is my chance, I tell myself, but Mac doesn’t take his eyes off me and he opens and closes the sheers, making a click-click noise that makes me wonder how easily metal can cut through flesh and bone. And before I have a chance to summon the courage I’d need, the twins are walking back toward the jeep, but without Dad.

“Where is he?” Mac asks tightly, when they climb in.

“Don’t know, Boss,” one of the twins answers. “Wasn’t in his bed. Nurses and doctor don’t know, neither.”

“Your dear father has left you to your fate,” Mac says. “What a surprise.”

“What are you going to do to me?” I ask, as Mac drives back toward The Red Room. I’m shivering now and I wish that smell of whisky and tobacco would go away so I could think. It’s too stuffy in here, too claustrophobic.

“I’m going to have my adopted son kill the one obstacle standing between him and a long and fruitful career. I’m sure it will take some persuading. But that’s never been a problem for me.”

And the sheers go click-click .


Hound

“What do you mean, you thought she was with me?” I shout down the phone, making people on the street back away from me uneasily.

“She climbed into your jeep, man. Shit, the fuck am I supposed to think when I see her climb into your jeep? It’s your car, the license plate the same, all that shit.”

“And you didn’t check? You didn’t fucking check?” I stop, leaning against a wall that smells of piss and taking shaky breaths through gritted teeth.

“No,” Denton says quietly. “Shit. I know. Shit.”

“It’s Mac. It’s fucking Mac. That psychopathic old fuck . I’m guessing you didn’t tail the jeep, then?”

“No, man. No, I’m sorry.”

I hang up the phone and roar into the sky, “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

“Excuse me, mister.” The man taps my shoulder. He’s tall, around six feet, but I still loom over him. He’s standing a few yards in front of his daughter, who I guess is around five or six, and who’s staring at me like I’m an animal that’s gotten loose from the zoo. “Could you ease up on the curse words?”

I grin at him. “You’re a brave bastard, you know that?” I say, quietly so his daughter doesn’t hear. “A brave fucking bastard. If I was the man I once was…goddamn, be careful who you approach on the street, that’s what I’m saying. Not everyone will be okay with it. But sure, I’ll stop swearing loud enough for your little girl to hear.”

I walk away from him, opening and closing my hands, wishing Mac’s throat was in my grip so I could crush it. When I get back to my apartment building—I was at the gym around the corner, working out and thinking—I walk a block down the street and climb into my junker car that nobody apart from me knows about: just a rusted frame of a car that, to look at, probably doesn’t run. But it does run, just about, and when I start the engine I guide the croaking hull to Mac’s bar.

The place is empty apart from Nora, cleaning a glass. She looks up when I enter. “Ah, Henry,” she says. “He said you’d be by soon.”

“The bastard left me a message, I’m guessing.”

“Yes.” She sighs. “Please be careful about this, Henry. I know you want a different life, but you can’t have a different life if you’re not alive .”

“You’re a good woman, Nora. I wish you were my mother. But I have to do this. What did he say?”

“Mother!” She giggles. Again I see the girl she was, pressing through the wrinkled skin. “Grandmother, more like. But yes, the message. It was that twin, Ripper, who told it to me, and he was very solemn and mean-looking as he said it, I don’t mind remarking. He said: Tell that big hunk of shit to meet us where the walls are blood .”

“The walls are blood,” I repeat, and then nod. “The walls are blood. The Red Room. I just fucking passed there. Goddamn it.”

“Be careful!” Nora calls after me.

I drive the junker to The Red Room, sprint across the sun-kissed parking lot, and then slam through the door, roaring at the top of my lungs, “Daisy! Daisy! Where the fuck is she?” I’m angrier than I’ve ever been on a job, but I have the same itching sensations in my fists, the same desire to punch and do harm, the desire that once brought me pride and then shame and then, when I was dead to it, nothing at all. But now all I feel is an overwhelming protective urge. “Daisy!”

I charge into the main room where the auditions were held. Red lights shine all over the place and it looks eerie when empty, as it always does, without the women strutting at the poles or circulating and laughing, dead-quiet without the pop music. But the stage isn’t completely empty. Mac stands on it, just in front of Daisy, who’s tied to a rickety old wooden chair, the rope digging into her legs and arms. She’s been crying and blood trickles from the corner of her lip from where someone—I’m guessing Ripper—has hit her. Mac smiles when he sees me.

“Hound!” He claps his hands like we’re pals meeting at a barbeque, like he doesn’t have the love of my life tied up right where I can see her. “I was wondering when you were going to show up. Old One-Arm really is good, isn’t she?”

“Mac.” I talk to him, but I keep my eyes on Daisy. I try and tell her with my eyes that everything’s going to be okay. I try and tell her that I’ll get her out of this. But I can tell she isn’t convinced; maybe it’s because I’m not convinced myself. “Why have you got her up there like that? Let her down, Mac.”

“Let her down, he says.” He looks back at the twins, and then to me. “You need to let her go , Hound. You’ve become soft, weak. You’ve let her legs and her ass and her cunt hypnotize you. I don’t blame you. I really don’t. If we had more time, I would sample them myself. But you can’t let a tight hole rule your life. Only weak men do that. I never thought you were a weak man. Even as a boy, you were stronger than this.”

“No,” I say. One word, but it’s the most I’ve ever openly defied him.

“What did you say?” He tilts his head at me, as though one second he’d expected to see the obedient teenager and the next he saw me, the real me, the man who’s tired of his shit.

“I said no. I said fucking no, Mac. Let her out of that chair. Let her live her life. You want to cause some harm? Fine, have a field day. String me up, bleed me out. I don’t give a damn. Just let her go.”

“You’d really die for this cunt,” he mutters. “That’s interesting. I knew you were whipped, but I didn’t think you were that far gone. Listen.” He walks almost to the edge of the stage. I feel my predator’s instincts primed and ready. Ripper and Hitter are close to Daisy, but Ripper and Hitter are tools, have always been tools; they won’t act without their boss’s say-so. Their boss’s…it hits me heavily, the realization that Mac, after all these years, isn’t my boss but my enemy. “That’s incredible. I’ve been with my fair share of women—some of the girls in here still call me a lady’s man—but I’ve never lost my head like that. She must be one tight hole.”

“You’re right,” I say, hating how my voice takes on the Old-Hound sound, the proud sound, the sound of trying to please this bastard. I lean in conspiratorially, hoping that will make him inch forward. It does. “You’re right,” I go on. “She is. I reckon she’s got to my head. Did I really just fuckin’ ask you to let her go? Let me tell you something, Boss.” Call him Boss, lean in, make him take one more step forward.

“What?” Mac says, smiling that perverted old man’s smile. Behind his eyes, I can see what he’s thinking, and it makes me sick.

“She’s the best piece of—” He steps to the edge of the stage.

That’s when I make my move.

Even now, when he has my woman up there against her will, even threatening to make me kill her, he’s surprised when I strike. I grab his ankles and yank, making him tip backward, his head smashing into the stage. As he falls, I see the look in his eyes, the same look I must’ve had in my eyes that day Mom turned me away from her place in California: wounded shock. Even now, the old psychopath thinks we can be friends, thinks I’ll be his son. I jump up on the stage, everything foggy, hardly thinking, meaning to stamp his head into the wood, get Daisy, and get the hell out of here. But then Mac is on his feet, way quicker than I would’ve thought an old man like that could move, and Ripper and Hitter are at his side. Hitter doesn’t look awkward or apologetic now. He looks deadly. At least they’re not standing near Daisy anymore. Behind them, I see Daisy trying to work her hand out of the bindings, scraping her skin on the rope.

“That was—that was foolish.” Mac dabs at his head; his hand comes away carmine, his fingers bright and colorful. “That was a mistake, boy.”

“Boy,” I repeat. “Boy. Call me boy and send me to slaughter dozens of men. Call me boy and send me to intimidate old weak men. Call me boy and soak me in blood. When are you going to learn, you old moronic fuck , that I’m not your boy?”

Mac smiles, a sick sense of pride in his eyes. “You’ve grown up. I’m surprised. I never thought you would.” He pauses, and then says, “We’re going to kill you now, Hound, and then the three of us are going to rape that whore. I bet she likes it in the ass. She looks that sort. A real fucking slut.”

I’m on them, fists swinging, my mind heavy and weighted, weighed down so that the only things I feel are my fists and the blood. Ripper dodges my hook and gives me a couple in the gut with his knuckle-duster. I grunt, dance back, and then dodge Mac and Hitter, letting them run past me, before grabbing Ripper’s head in both my hands, holding it in place, and smashing my forehead so hard against his nose I feel the crunch of the cartilage. I hit him again and then pick him up by his head and toss him like a rag doll off the stage. He crashes into a table snapping it in half and then lying in a mess of wood and blood on the floor.

Mac and Hitter come at me again, Hitter shouting in anger because even if his brother’s a prick, he’s still his brother. He lands a blow on my jaw by feinting at my belly and then ducking and weaving. I reel back, Mac landing another on my forearm, would’ve been my face if I didn’t lift my arm to block it. They push me back to the opposite side of the stage, past Daisy, and then off the stage. I land with a thump on the floor, the wind going out of me for a second, but then I roll over and jump to my feet, grabbing the closest thing at hand. The chair lifts Hitter off his feet and sends him flying into a table like his brother, where he crashes and groans and then lies still, breathing weakly.

I’m about to charge at Mac when I see the panicked look in his eyes. I know what he’s going to do before he does it, but by then it’s too late. He’s across the stage and standing over Daisy whilst I’m still clambering up after him. He has his pistol out and pressed against the back of her head whilst I’m still walking toward him. Then I have to stop, because he pulls back the hammer and I know he’ll do it, blow her brains out right in front of me. I see a red spray and for a second think he’s already pulled the trigger, but then I wipe the blood away from my eyes—mine? somebody else’s?—and look at Daisy, who’s teeth are chattering in fear.

“If you kill her, you die,” I tell him.

He grins. “Maybe. But if I kill her, she dies. There’s no maybe about that.”

I’m clenching my jaws so hard my teeth are throbbing, feel like they might shatter. I watch as Daisy closes her eyes and mutters something and then opens her eyes. Suddenly her teeth aren’t chattering. Suddenly she’s calm. “Make him suffer if he kills me,” she says, eyes locked on mine. “Don’t let it be quick. Make him hurt.”

“Quiet!” Mac makes to hit her over the head, but then, from across the room, a voice calls out.

“Wait!”

Mac pauses, gun held in the air. I turn to the voice.

Dean Dunham walks into the room, holding a briefcase in one hand and a pistol in the other, aiming the pistol with a shaky hand toward Mac and clutching the briefcase to his chest. “I don’t want to use this, Mr. White, but I sure don’t like the way you’re aiming that gun at my daughter.” His face is less swollen now, but he still looks like he can barely walk. He totters across the room on instable steps and comes to a halt beneath the stage, gun aimed directly at Mac’s head. “I don’t want to kill anybody. I don’t want anybody to die.”

I see Ripper struggling to stand behind Dean, so I kneel down and take the gun from Dean, and then go and stand where I can shoot any of the three: Mac, Ripper, Hitter. “You might want to drop the gun,” I tell Mac. “You know I can use this.”

Mac swears, but drops the gun. I quickly pick it up and then prod Mac in the back, guiding him to the edge of the stage where I can easily keep the three of them in my sights.

“You’re going to kill us now, eh?” Mac chuckles. “That’d be a mistake, and you know it. I’ve got friends in New York, Miami, fucking Cuba. You’d be on the run for the rest of your life.”

I swallow bitterly. He’s right. We would be. But what other choice is there?

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Dean says, walking up the stairs to the stage on wobbly legs, holding his briefcase like a kid holds a lunch bag, scared the bully will take it away. “I have your money, Mac. I have it. Right here.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Mac says. “I’ll need more than—”

“I have one and a half million dollars.”

Daisy gasps. I’m too stunned to say anything. Ripper coughs out a bloody laugh. Mac just shakes his head. “Of course you do. And I’ve got the cure for cancer. Give me a fucking—”

Dean falls to his knees and opens the briefcase, showing stack after stack of fifty dollar bills, so many that it’s difficult to believe they all fit into the briefcase. Mac takes a step forward before remembering that I have my gun on him. He looks mesmerized, a man in a desert who’s just spied water. Everything else seems to fall away for him until only that briefcase full of cash exists.

“We may have our differences,” Dean says from his place on the floor. “We may not, well, like each other very much. But I have to believe that you’re a man of business, Mr. White. I have to believe that if you take this money, you’ll agree to leave my daughter alone. And you’ll agree to leave Henry alone.”

Mac falters for a moment, but then nods. “If I count this cash and find one and a half million, you can have them both. It means nothing to me.”

I shouldn’t be hurt at the easy way he discards me. It’s what I want, after all. And yet I am. It stings me. I swallow the feeling and keep the gun trained on Mac as he goes to the briefcase and begins counting, laying the bills on the floor when he’s counted a stack.

“I wasn’t lying about signing a non-disclosure agreement,” Dean says, facing me. “That day in the alleyway, I was telling the truth. Years ago, must be five, six, I won big on poker, really, really big. I shouldn’t even have been in that game. I bluffed my way in. I didn’t have the cash. But I won big and if there’s a god, he was smiling on me that day because before I could blow it, I got a call from one of my friends from the old days. Had a business opportunity, he said. Needed some cash, he said. I pledged every cent I had, even though back then I didn’t understand the business—an algorithm to do with advertising—but he convinced me. And made me sign an NDA, since it was a risk that some other company might just steal his code. The NDA was watertight. If he even heard of a whisper that I’d said something, to anybody, even my family, I wouldn’t be eligible for my payout. But I’ve had my payout now. So there’s no risk.”

I stare at him in disbelief, seeing Daisy’s mouth fall open out of the corner of my eye.

“It’s all here,” Mac says, already putting the money back into the briefcase. “Every single dollar.”

When Mac stands up and walks to Dean, he’s like a different man. He’s behaving how I imagine he behaves in the legal sides of his business, proper and respectful. Dean climbs to his feet and the two of them shake hands. “We can go?” Dean says. “All three of us?”

“Never step foot on my property again,” Mac says, “and we won’t have a problem. And remember, Dean, if you ever need a loan…”

I untie Daisy as quickly as I can, and then the three of us rush out to the parking lot. I’m surprised to find that it’s still daylight, that the sun has barely moved an inch. I turn to Daisy and wrap my arms around her, holding her close, savoring the feel of her, smelling her hair, smelling her skin, kissing her, and then all at once I’m crying, both of us are crying, and Dean is backing away saying, “I’ll leave you two to it,” and Daisy is kissing my cheeks, kissing the tears away.

“Is it over?” she asks. “Is it really over? Can we be together?”

“If you’ll have me,” I say, smoothing a stray strand of hair from her eyes. “If you think you can stomach living with a hound.”

“I can stomach living with a Henry ,” she says. She holds up her left hand. “I think I’m ready for my rings again. But for real this time.”

I pull her close to me, pressing our bodies together. When we kiss, I forget about Mac, forget about violence, forget about Hound. When we kiss, I forget about the past and the future. I forget about everything but this woman, this magical woman, this life-changing woman.

For the first time in my life, I can smile without being afraid of smiling.


Daisy

I sit at the window overlooking the garden, my papers and books on the desk in front of me. The textbook title reads Principles of Real Estate in large, bold letters; the cover is shiny and new. Every time I run my finger down the spine I shudder at how stiff it is, shudder when I think about cracking it open so many times that it’ll become easier each time, until its knowledge is pouring into me. Downstairs, I can hear Henry and Lola. Lola…named for my mother, sweet Lola, but already Lola owns the name. When I think of Lola, I don’t see Mom, but my baby, her gap-toothed grin and her pawing hands, her giggling voice.

Henry is singing to her, if you can call it singing. I listen to it for a while and then get on with my work. I started the course a week ago, when Henry found out he got the job as a security guard for a large firm in Austin. He’s doing his own studies, too, after passing English lit. That’s our deal. When one of us is studying, the other person has to sing to the baby. I think it’s a pretty sweet deal. And with a little help from Dad, and with Henry’s saved-up cash, along with what small amount I was able to add, we were able to close on our dream home, that perfect house that was only ruined because of our argument. Well, the arguments are few and far between these days. And when they come, they’re about petty things, normal things, and the making up is always worth it.

After working for an hour and a half, I lean back and hold my hand up to the sun which shafts through the window. It glints off my rings, my real rings. Henry and I were married quietly without any fanfare, with Dad and a man named Denton as witnesses. Maybe it’s sad that we didn’t have hundreds of people to invite, but I don’t think so. There was nothing sad about the feeling I got when he fell to his knees and kissed my growing bump. There was nothing sad about the passion that exploded between us on our wedding night. That was nothing sad about seven-foot Henry sitting behind me in pregnancy classes muttering, “Breathe, breathe, breathe…”

I think of Dad, too, working part-time at a garage, even though he’s got enough money to retire if he wants. But he likes to keep busy these days, working and going to AA and his gambling meetings. He was one-year clean last week. We had a barbeque.

It’s Sunday and our street is alive with activity. The Sands are cleaning their car and the Jameses are playing with their infant son. Two boys are playing soccer in their yard. Down the street, somebody revs their motorcycle.

I’m going to be a realtor, I’m going to work my ass off and then I’m going to be the kind of realtor these people deserve. Not the lying kind, not the kind to hide damp with pictures and lie to their clients. I’m going to build up my business slowly, honestly, so that in ten years’ time I can look back on what I’ve done and be proud. I’m not going to slip into my old habits of just surviving. I’m done with that.

“Is that what you call work?” Henry says, wrapping his arms around me from behind.

I sink into his enveloping embrace, an embrace which makes me feel invincible. “I was just thinking about paint and tiles and carpets and things like that.”

“Liar.” I giggle when he kisses me under the ear. “You’re just a liar, Daisy. I always knew you were.”

“Oh, what gave it away?” I tilt my head so he can kiss up and down my neck.

“When you said you loved me. A woman like you, loving a man like me?”

I turn to him seriously. “Don’t say that. I’m the lucky one, not you.”

He laughs. “Maybe we both are,” he says.

And we kiss.

***

Henry

I stand in the study, staring at my GED. Maybe most people wouldn’t as proud of a GED certificate as I am, but I’m way prouder of this than anything else, barring Lola and Daisy. I’m prouder of this than I am of my twenties, of Violence Mode, of Hound. I’m prouder standing in a mall in my security uniform than I am cracking through a door and causing pain. I’m prouder protecting than I am hurting.

“You’re going to call me stupid for staring at this thing again,” I say, when I hear Daisy enter behind me.

“I’d never do that.” She dances across the room and kisses my bare back. I’m shirtless and she’s dressed in raggedy old clothes. “But it is painting time, lazy.”

Dean’s got Lola for the day, so Daisy and I are going to paint her room. As we leave the study, I think of Dean with a sense of respect which proves the respect I felt for Mac was wish fulfilment, nothing else. Dean has really turned himself around. He’s off the booze and he’s holding down a job and I don’t worry one bit leaving Lola with him.

The painting doesn’t go too well. We’re about halfway through when Daisy gets bored and flings some red paint at me. She says it’s an accident, but by that time I’ve painted a red line down her shirt, and before either of us can tell the other to get back to work, we’re on the floor, thrusting, grunting, moaning, her hands running through my hair and her forest-green eyes flitting open and closed as orgasm after orgasm releases over my cock. When I bury inside of her and come, hard, I lean down and press my lips against hers. We kiss as both of us release.

For a long time, we lie on the floor, panting, staring up at the ceiling. Daisy nestles into the crook of my arm. Sunlight fades as we lie there, but neither of us think about getting up.

“I never thought I’d be here,” Daisy says. “I’m so happy. But I’m scared, too.”

“Scared?” I look down at her. She’s staring up at me with a look that reminds me of how lucky I am every time I see it.

“Scared that I’ll start taking it for granted. Scared that it will become normal.”

“It will become normal, but that’s nothing to be scared about.” I kiss her on the forehead. “I’d rather have this normal than the one before.”

“Yeah.” She nods. “Yeah, that’s true. Alright. Maybe we ought to get back to work. Unless…” She grins wickedly. “Unless, do you want to go get a beer and unwind at the strip club?”

I’m on my feet in a second, paintbrush in hand.

“Hell, no,” I say, painting like a madman. “I can’t think of anything worse.”

THE END

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Read on for your FREE bonus book – BAD BOY’S SURPRISE BABY


By Kathryn Thomas

I WANTED ADVENTURE. HE WANTED A BABY.

WE BOTH GOT WHAT WE WANTED.

Devin owned me from the second he walked into my shop.

He was like something out of a romance novel.

And I wanted to see where our story went.

I just never guessed it would end with his baby in my belly.

It was obvious from the second our eyes met:

Devin wouldn’t take no for an answer.

He saw something in me that he wanted…

And I was powerless to deny him.

But that was before I knew the kinds of people who were after Devin’s blood.

Bad men.

Evil men.

Men who wouldn’t hesitate to hurt me, too.

I never signed up for all this.

But when Devin puts his seed inside me…

I’m stuck going along for the ride.


Camille

The store was quiet. In fact, it had been quiet for the past two hours. Camille had been watching the clock tick, following every movement of the minute hand with her steely blue eyes. It was only several minutes later after she had been standing behind the desk, staring at the clock on the wall, that she realized she had been drumming her fingertips on the glass-top counter.

She couldn’t believe how bored she was. Bored was one of her emotions; the other was anxiety. Camille had taken a huge leap of faith by opening up a comic bookstore. She was only twenty-five, which meant that her other friends were out there in the real world, climbing corporate ladders, and making more money than they could spend. Basically, they were living a normal adult life; a life that she had been brought up to lead.

She had the education for it, with a Business degree, and even had the work experience too. After college, Camille had slogged away at a financial firm for a year, until one fine day she realized that this was not the life she wanted. And quit her job. At the time, she had been twenty-three and thankfully had some money in the bank, which she hadn’t spent on “nights out” and an unprecedented amount of alcohol, like so many other of her colleagues had.

So she had found herself with enough money to chase her crazy dream of opening a comic book store.

Now, here she was, apparently living the dream. The only problem was that not everybody shared her dream. Camille’s clientele was small and scattered, and her store was more often empty than busy. For the longest time, she kept her hopes up. It would work out. Business would pick up. But eventually, after two years of waiting behind her desk, praying to make a sale… Camille realized that it was too much to ask for. She had accepted the fact that she wouldn’t make more than ten sales a day, on a good day.

Camille sighed as she stopped drumming her fingers. She tore her face away from the wall clock and decided to re-analyze her life, as she had done on thousands of other occasions.

The question was: am I happy? Camille caught the reflection of herself in the store window across from her. Her tight blonde curls lay in a high halo around her face, and even in the dim reflection of herself, she could make out the tired look in her blue eyes. She didn’t bother with makeup anymore, so her lips were a natural pale pink, and her face looked dry and a little washed out. She was happy in her simple denim cut-offs and the sweatshirt she was wearing, but she then noticed a dried pasta sauce stain on her shirt. She eventually shrugged it off; it’s not like she had any customers to make an impression on.

Camille sighed again. This self-contemplation was getting her nowhere. She needed to occupy her brain with something else. She rummaged around on the desk until she found a blank scrap of paper, and she started doodling.

She was sketching subconsciously, mindlessly… and as always, she doodled Cammy.

Cammy was the heroine of her own comics. A plain-Jane small town country girl by day, who fought corruption and male chauvinism by night. Well, not quite in those simple terms, but Camille wanted Cammy to be the symbol of female empowerment, not like the usual comic book stereotype. Cammy didn’t have any super powers, and she didn’t fight the usual kind of comic book villain either. The villains in Camille’s comics were misogynists, men who abused their wives and girlfriends and mistreated women in general.

It was no surprise, therefore, that Country Crowns had sold only twenty copies in the past eight months since she started publishing them. The comics didn’t exactly fit into any tapped market of readers.

But in any case, Camille was happy in knowing that there were at least twenty people out there in the world who had read her work, probably even appreciated her artwork, and whose lives she may have touched through her characters.

Camille smiled as she drew, thinking about the thrill of someone actually picking out one of her comics and purchasing it. Actually paying money to read something she had written, and see something she had drawn. Hopefully, it would happen again.

She finished sketching a figure of Cammy on the sheet of paper. Cammy looked nothing like Camille, and purposely so. Cammy was tall, wore her shiny red hair in a loose fishtail plait, had thick, glossy red lips, and wore a black velvet jumpsuit and a mask at night when she fought evil. By day, Cammy helped her father on their family’s farm and donned plaid shirts with rolled up sleeves, and loose jeans with the kneecaps cut off. By day, Cammy was just another ordinary country girl… just like Camille used to be, and too long ago.

She stared at her drawing of Cammy, smiled again, and then in a sudden fit, balled it up and threw it in the bin. Who was she kidding? Publishing her own comic books was a hilarious fantasy; something she needed to stop if she wanted to save the very little money she had made from the store.

Camille walked around the desk and over to the stand where the more popular comic books were housed. She found the latest issue of Punisher and pursed her lips. She ran her finger over the sketched abs, the ripping torso of The Punisher. She grinned at the thought that somewhere out there, in some parallel universe, someone like him might actually exist. A man who was a daredevil, brave, rugged, and willing to avenge his family’s death through any means necessary.

Camille shrugged her shoulders and rolled her eyes. As if. She was kidding herself again.

***

The bell above the store door tinkled just as Camille turned the third page of Punisher . When she looked up, she saw a guy walk in, and she immediately felt her cheeks blush. It couldn’t be real, it couldn’t actually be happening! Just when she was daydreaming about a comic book hero, a guy straight out of her fantasies had walked in.

This guy was ripped. She could see that, even through the tight jeans and black leather biker jacket he was wearing. He had magnificent black hair that was brushed away from his face like an old photograph of Marlon Brando. His eyes were small, the color of chocolate, and he was clean-shaven with straight angular jaws.

He hadn’t quite caught sight of her when he walked in. In fact, he hadn’t seen her at all because the first thing he did was close the door and twist the key in the lock. Then, without turning to look at her, he turned the sign on the door so that it read, ‘Closed.’

Camille cleared her throat, while the comic book lay open in her hands.

He whipped around as if he was surprised to find anybody in the store at all.

“Thanks,” he said immediately, and his lips broke out into a wide smile.

Camille noticed the shape of his face, it was long and angular, and there were deep long dimples on both his cheeks as he smiled. She felt the back of her neck burning up, but she raised her chin, not quite sure what was going on.

“I’ll open the door in about five minutes, yeah?” he stated rather than asked and splayed open his palm to indicate the number five.

A strong whiff of his scent had filled the small space of the store, and now Camille felt overwhelmed by it. How could a man look so great and smell so good at the same time? Was she dreaming him up?

He smelt like polished oak furniture, with a hint of brandy and some old masculine aftershave. He took a few steps in her direction and Camille was struck by the scent of him again.

“Excuse me?” she managed to ask, as he smoothly walked past her and obstructed himself from her view with the help of one of the shelves.

“Like I said, you can open the store up in a few minutes,” he repeated, but it didn’t clarify her confusion.

A sudden rage combined with panic overtook Camille, and she crossed her brows as she watched him browsing the shelves for comic books. Who did he think he was? What made him think that he could simply waltz into her store, lock the door and shut shop whenever he felt like it, with no explanation? No matter how drop dead gorgeous he was, she wasn’t going to allow it.

Without exchanging another word with him, Camille walked over to the door and twisted the key in the lock, ready to open it again. But before she did, she bit down on her lip and turned back to the guy.

He was looking at her too; appearing to study her. Despite the fact that she was defying him, his gaze was calm. He was lazily looking her up and down, examining her hair, her breasts, her bare legs… Camille could feel her cheeks burning red again.

Slowly, as she watched him, he dragged his gaze away from her and pulled a book off the shelf. Camille had caught a look at the cover before he opened it. It was the first issue of Country Crowns, and Camille’s heart started beating fast. He had picked her comic book, even if it was by chance; he had her artwork, her story… in his hands!

Her hand froze on the key in the lock as she watched him turn the first page of the comic. His eyes were scanning the pages quickly, and he appeared to be engrossed in the story.

Before she could say anything, she watched him drop to his knees and then sit down cross-legged on the floor. The whole thing flabbergasted her. What was going on? He was sitting on the floor, in the middle of thousands of comic books, hidden by aisles, and quietly reading one of her books. He had still not given her any explanation as to why he had locked the door or turned the sign.

Camille hadn’t realized that her mouth was hung slightly open. It didn’t matter though; he wasn’t looking at her anymore. He was more interested in the book. Her book!

Camille shook her head to try and clear her mind and start thinking straight again. It wasn’t a good idea to be so carried away by the presence of a handsome man in her store. She turned on her heels and yanked the door back open, just for show, just to give him an indication that the shop was open again.

Then she turned the sign so that other people (if there were going to be any) wouldn’t be dissuaded from coming into the shop by a ‘Closed’ sign. Then slowly, taking a deep breath in, she turned back around again. It was time to think straight, to gather her wits about her. It was time to behave like the responsible adult store owner that she was, instead of a giggling blushing teenager.

It was true that not many, in fact, not any, customers who looked like this guy ever walked into her shop. But he should be treated like every other customer, even though he had somehow picked one of her books out of all the other choices.

But when Camille turned to look at him again, she wasn’t prepared for what she found. He was still sitting on the floor but had reached up with his long muscular arms for the rack of novelty masks on the shelf above him. In that split-second, when she had turned to open the door and turn the sign back around, this Greek-God of a man had picked out a unicorn party mask and was now fitting it over his face.

Camille’s brows crossed and she felt her lips stretch to a straight line. This was too unreal, what was going on?

“Excuse me, but what are you doing?” she asked, taking a few steps towards him.

“Just checking out your merchandise,” she heard him say, but his voice was muffled slightly by the unicorn mask. Camille tried to stifle a laugh. It was hilarious to watch this grown, seriously athletic looking biker dude in a pink glittery unicorn mask. But Camille took it in her stride and walked over to him.

She hooked her hands on her hips as she stood before him, with her legs spread apart.

“You have to take that mask off,” she told him, trying to sound as adamant and serious as she could.

“Why?” he asked and looked up at her. She could see him blinking through the eyeholes of the mask, and this time she couldn’t stop herself from smiling.

“Are you seriously thinking of buying a unicorn party mask?” She tilted her head to one side and raised her brows.

“Why not?” He shrugged his shoulders, with her comic book still on his lap. He had already finished reading the first few pages and a nervous jolt shot up Camille’s spine. Just the fact that somebody who had decided to read her book hadn’t violently thrown it across the room after the first few pages was a welcome feeling. Was he actually enjoying the story?

“I know you’re just fooling around,” she said, trying to compose herself again.

“Do you always treat your customers like this? Or just the ones who are trying to buy something?” he asked in an innocent voice. Camille licked her lips as she stared at him. Soon, she realized that she couldn’t have a proper conversation with him while he was still wearing that ridiculous mask.

“Look. You have to take this off now.” She walked closer to him, hovering over him as he sat crouched beneath her. He didn’t say anything or protest, and before she knew what she was doing, Camille reached down to him with both her hands and started to pull the mask off his face.

“You can have it back if you like,” he said casually as the mask came peeling off. Camille dangled it from an upright forefinger, still looking down at him with suspicion.

From this close, she could see every angle and every freckle on his skin. He looked flawless like a male underwear model. Camille bit down on her lip again as they stared at each other, and she couldn’t help but imagine him naked.

What was she thinking?! As he had reminded her, he was a customer at her store. Why was she picturing him naked?

“Did you open the door again?” he asked, looking past her and interrupting her inappropriate thoughts. Camille felt nervous in his presence now. He was too good looking for words, even though he was acting strangely enough to make her uncomfortable.

“Yes, I did.” She took a few steps away from him. What did this guy want? Was he trying to rob her? Alarm bells started to ring in her head, and she stepped further away from him.

“Well,” he simply replied, with a shrug of his shoulders. He was looking around him now, and his gaze fell on the rack of novelty props, his eyes seemingly focused on the cloth sacks with dollar signs - the ones that bank robbers in cartoons carry. She watched him smile… those damn dimples again.

“If you’re going to kick me out, I’ll need some kind of disguise,” he added, and slowly turned his head to look back at her. Camille’s brows crossed again. Kick him out? Disguise?

“I’m not kicking you out. You are free to browse for as long as you like. We close at eight,” Camille said, trying to hold his gaze, even though she could feel her heart dancing. His chocolate brown eyes were focused on her now, and she felt like he could look into her soul.

“I need that door locked if I’m going to stay here though.” He tipped his head towards the door.

Camille could feel her heart thumping loudly in her ears, but something made her turn around and walk to the door again. She turned the key in the lock. What was she doing? Why was she taking orders from this guy?

“And turn the sign too,” she heard him say, and she again did as she was told. She could feel her hands shaking, ever so slightly. Was he going to rob her? Was he a threat to her life? What did he want to steal from this store? Camille turned around to look back at him again.

He remained sitting on the floor, his back against one of the shelves. Her comic book remained open and splayed on his lap. He was peering back at her, and she thought she saw a look of gratefulness in his eyes. Was he actually thanking her for locking the door?

Camille licked her lips and wished she had used some lip-gloss earlier. But this was not how she had imagined her day to go. In an effort to calm her throbbing heart, and relax her soul, she decided to say something.

“Do you want to tell me what’s going on?” she asked, and he smiled at her. That terribly wonderful, dimpling smile that had an obnoxious way of warming her heart.


Devin

The girl in the store was asking him what was going on, and all he could do was smile at her. How on Earth was he supposed to explain to her that he was in the middle of running away from two guys from a rival club, The Choppers? Where was he even supposed to start so that she could understand that he was always looking over his shoulder to make sure that he wasn’t going to fall into a trap? That was his life now: a life of an outlaw.

So Devin just shrugged.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said instead, watching her standing at the door, with her hand still frozen on the lock.

From the moment he had caught sight of her, a comic book in her hand, he had wanted to rip her clothes off. Damn she was hot. She had the perfect body; the kind that always turned him on. She was in a pair of denim cutoffs, and her legs looked smooth and long. She had an old sweatshirt on, through which Devin could tell was hiding an impressive set of breasts.

This girl’s hair was wild, and her blue eyes were even wilder. She had a small pink mouth and a frightened look in her eyes. He wanted to hug her, envelope her in his arms and stroke her hair at the same time. He wanted to ravage her body too, one inch at a time. Up until now, his strategy had been to avoid looking at her. That way he wouldn’t be tempted. This was not the time or the place to pick up a girl. Not when he was on the run. But she was insisting on grabbing his attention. Now he had no other choice but to stare at her. And damn was she fine.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about. Why do you need the door closed and the sign turned?” she asked in a sweet voice. She had the voice of a girl who could sing, although she also had the demeanor of someone who wasn’t aware of her own talent. She took a few unsure steps towards him, and the whole time her eyes were darting, from him to the door to around the shop. Was she afraid of him? Couldn’t she see that he wouldn’t ever hurt her? That all he wanted to do, from the moment he saw her, was to protect her? As ridiculous as that sounded.

“Okay, you got me,” Devin replied, smiling again, and her eyes softened a little. His brain, on the other hand, was racing a mile a minute. He needed to come up with a good excuse. Something she would buy. He didn’t want to take advantage of her apparent naivety, but he didn’t have any other choice. He couldn’t just simply tell her the truth.

“I’m a celebrity,” he told her and watched as her eyes widened.

“I knew you looked familiar,” she replied, and a soft grin formed on her lips. “You’re a musician, aren’t you?” she added, and Devin nodded. That was good enough, he could go with that; even though he hadn’t picked up a musical instrument in his life, nor could he sing to save his life.

“But what has that got to do with any of this?” she then asked, and a look of distrust entered her eyes again. Devin licked his lips. It wasn’t as easy to distract her as he thought it would be. His gaze fell to her legs again, and he imagined how it might blow his mind to have them wrapped around his neck. He felt himself stir in his pants.

“I don’t like cameras. I don’t like screaming fans,” he blurted out for the lack of any other explanation. She softened again.

She was standing several feet away from him, but he had studied her closely enough to know the way her skin shone. How translucent and perfect her complexion was. How slender her fingers were and the way she hooked her left hip to one side when she stood. She was driving him crazy, even though he was pumped with adrenaline at the thought that the guys from The Choppers might discover him hiding there. In the first place that they could find.

“You’re running from your fans?” She crossed her arms over her breasts. Devin’s eyes were drawn to her chest again, and he allowed them to rest there before looking up at her face. She was grinning now, no doubt at the idea of a famous musician hiding in her comic book store, away from a throng of crazed fans.

“It makes me claustrophobic, and I didn’t have anywhere else to go,” he said and shrugged his shoulders again. She shook her head and bit down on her lip.

“What’s your name? I’m sorry, I’m not big into music,” she said, and had an apologetic look on her face. She actually seemed embarrassed that she hadn’t recognized him. Devin felt relieved. The fact that she wasn’t into music much meant that he might actually be able to pull this off.

“Devin, Devin Rock.” He leaped to his feet and extended a hand to her. She looked at it for a few seconds before accepting his handshake. Her hand felt small in his, delicate as lace and soft as butter. Devin held onto it for longer than necessary while he looked deep into her eyes. She appeared to be struggling to hold his gaze. She was shy, embarrassed, and probably still a little afraid of him.

“Camille Griffin,” she replied softly, introducing herself. “Rock, what a curious last name. Is that the kind of music you specialize in?”

He had no other choice but to laugh at that.

“No, trance isn’t really…” he paused to look down at his clothes, “my style,” he said, and thankfully she grinned at that.

They were standing closer to each now that he had stood up, and he could smell the warm vanilla scent of her skin. He wanted to touch her and feel her cheeks under his fingertips. He imagined how delicious she might taste if he were to trail his lips along her throat and then the grooves of her shoulders. She simply stood there, though, still grinning at him.

“So you own this little place, huh?” he asked, looking around him. Camille nodded her head lightly but didn’t seem too enthusiastic about it.

“C’mon, tell me… what’s your favorite comic? Which one would you recommend if you had to choose one for me?” He watched her closely. Her face seemed to change with that question, and he wondered if he had touched a nerve. She had to have a favorite right? She owned a comic book store for God’s sakes!

Camille looked around her like she was trying to think, then she shrugged her shoulders and licked her lips. Her arms were still crossed over her breasts, and that kept distracting Devin. He couldn’t stop thinking about the smashing body she was hiding under that sweatshirt.

“Who are you kidding? You’re not here to buy anything. You’re only using the store as a hiding place, and I’m losing business,” she said suddenly, taking him aback. It wasn’t that she sounded enraged or unhappy about it, but he just hadn’t expected her to say anything like that. He looked at her with his eyebrows raised. She suddenly seemed more interested in him buying something rather than talking to him.

A noise outside distracted them both. Through the windows of the store, Devin saw a guy on a Harley ride past, and his adrenaline started pumping on overdrive again. He was suddenly reminded of why he was there.

“I need to hide,” he mumbled, more to himself than to her. Devin clenched his jaw as he looked around the store. It wasn’t that he was scared. He was confident he could win a fight if he had to, but he was clearly outnumbered in this case.

When he had walked out of the cafe where he got his coffee that morning, he saw the three of them start up their bikes from across the road. He had thought about walking over to them and sorting it out then and there. And then reality sunk in. He would be minced meat with the three of them there. He couldn’t possibly take them on. So he did the only thing he could do. He ran. The three of them were on their bikes and hadn’t expected him to run into the alley adjoining the restaurant. It would take them time to park their bikes or ride over to the end of the alley. Either way, it gave Devin enough time to make his escape, even if it was on foot.

His gaze fell on a door in the back corner of the store, and without turning to look at Camille, he reached for her hand. She was no match for his strength, and with one quick yank on her arm, he was walking with her trailing behind him.

“Wait, what’s going on?” he heard her say, but he was resolute. He reached the back door, twisted the knob and pushed it open.

It was a small storage room, and there was barely any light. He didn’t bother to look for a switch even if there was one, and instead, he pulled her into the room and shut the door again.

“What are we doing here?” she asked, and Devin tried smiling at her. He didn’t want her to panic.

“I can’t risk somebody finding me. Your windows are large and an easy giveaway,” he told her, finally letting go of her hand. She rubbed her wrist where he had been holding her, as she inched away from him again towards the door.

“Relax, Camille. Just for a few more minutes and then I’ll be out of your hair.” He tried to sound as calm as possible. She breathed in deeply and looked at him with her brows crossed.

“I can’t believe you’re so afraid of being caught on camera. I would have assumed that all celebrities love the limelight,” she said, looking at him suspiciously. Devin tried to keep his anxiety under control. He was torn between trying to hide himself and also to put Camille at ease. The more time he spent near her, the more desperate he was growing to touch her.

“I’m not every other celebrity,” he replied, and she grinned again.

“I can see that.” She finally smiled. There it was - her full smile, and it violently affected Devin. He felt like his whole world was shaking as he watched her face transform into something even more beautiful than she was. Even in the dark, it seemed like her face was glowing. She had perfectly white small teeth, and her eyes danced as she beamed.

“So you’re really that terrified of your fans?” she asked, rolling her eyes.

“I’m not terrified of them. That’s the wrong word. I just don’t like being swarmed by them. I hope to lead a regular life,” he replied, and she breathed in, obviously still in disbelief over what he was saying.

“You can’t expect to lead a regular life if you’re a celebrity. And clearly, you’re good at what you do… you rock people’s worlds.” She laughed at her own joke, and Devin smiled again. Everything that she said made him want her more. No matter how silly and naive she sounded. He could see that she had a wall up and was trying to hide something from the external world with a pretension of innocence. He wanted to see her wild side too.

“Have I rocked your world yet?” he asked, and she shot him a look. For a second he thought she was going to slap him, but then she broke out a loud laugh. She was beautiful.

“You’ve rocked my world, for sure, at least for the day,” Camille said when her laughter finally subsided. Devin grinned and took a few steps closer to her. Her smile disappeared, and she pressed her back against the door, like she wanted to run away, but she couldn’t. The reality was that she could very simply just open the door and walk out. But she didn’t. Devin was hoping that she wanted to stay. Just like he wanted to stay close to her too.

“I’m sorry Camille. I really didn’t mean to put you out like this.” He looked at her directly. Their faces were inches from each other, although she had to crane her neck upwards a little to look at him. She seemed much smaller now that he was closer to her.

Camille shrugged, forcing out a weak smile and shook her head like it was nothing.

“It’s alright. I can understand. I know what claustrophobia feels like. You can wait here for a few more minutes until you feel like the coast is clear,” she said.

It suddenly felt to Devin like they were in a trance. That none of this was real. What was the likelihood of him simply bumping into this bombshell while he was on the run from The Choppers? It was like the universe was pointing to her as if she might be able to save him somehow. The truth was that nothing could save Devin from his life. This was the path he had chosen for himself, and this was the road he was supposed to walk down. And none of it was a game. It was dangerous, and a life that he should, in no way, involve Camille in. He didn’t even know her!

Devin shook his head to drive the thoughts out of his head and smiled. She smiled too.

“Thank you, Camille, you are very kind.” He breathed the words so that his breath made some of her tight blonde curls flutter. Camille’s eyes widened, and she was staring up at him. She looked like she was expecting him to say something.

He knew he had to leave soon. He hadn’t heard the sound of a bike outside for several minutes now, and he was fairly certain that the coast was clear. It was now or never.

But how could he leave like this? He couldn’t remember the last time a girl had this effect on him, and when he actually wanted to talk to a girl. Or want more than just her body. And he did want Camille’s body too!

“I’d like to take you out to dinner. For all this trouble that I’ve caused you,” he blurted out before he could stop himself.

The look on Camille’s face changed, and she seemed to be shocked again. Nothing Devin did ever seemed to put her at ease.

“No, you don’t have to,” she muttered, and he shook his head.

“I want to,” he insisted. They both looked at each other in silence.

“No, thank you,” she finally replied, and he felt his heart sink. He was a little offended. Since when had girls started turning him down? Everybody said yes. Everybody fell into bed with him. He was Devin Rock; panties dropped all around him all the time, and it was up to him which ones he picked up.

Why was she turning him down? She must have noticed the look on his face because she straightened her lips and looked at him quizzically.

“No, thank you?” he repeated her words. Camille nodded her head.

“That’s correct. No, thank you. Thank you for asking, but no I’m not interested.” This time, she didn’t even bother to smile. Devin cleared his throat in an effort to buy some more time. He needed to come up with an appropriate strategy.

Now that she had refused him, he was hell bent on getting her in his bed. He just had to find a way.

“How about if I buy a hundred copies of this comic book?” he asked and held up the book in his hand. It was the one he had started reading when he first came in.

There was an instant change in her expression. She looked like she couldn’t believe that somebody would want to buy that many.

“Are you serious?” she asked, her mouth falling slightly open.

“Absolutely. A hundred copies of…” he paused and turned the book over to read the title, “ Country Crowns . Fascinating title.” He continued on while she continued to stare at him, “By Ruby Red.”

He could see her visibly gulp. He knew he had hit the nail on the head. She wouldn’t be able to refuse him now, although she still hadn’t said anything.

“If you come out with me tonight, I’ll buy a hundred of these right away off you,” he said with a huge smile on his face.

Camille looked at him and then at the book in his hand, still in clear shock.

“Also, this is so obviously a pen name, isn’t it? Who is called Ruby Red? Anyway, I enjoyed the first few pages. This Cammy is a firecracker. I want to keep reading,” Devin added and raised his eyebrows. He didn’t have to wait for her reply to know what she was going to say.


Camille

“Alright,” Camille found herself saying. She could see it in his eyes; he already knew her answer before she had said it.

“But it’s not like you’re buying a date,” she quickly added before he could say anything.

“No, just tempting you into one,” Devin replied with his usual smile. The dimples formed deep ridges on both his cheeks and Camille felt like she was going to drown in the chocolate brown sea of his eyes. Why would a guy like him ask a girl like her out on a date? She had pasta sauce stains on her sweatshirt for crying out loud! But for the moment, Camille couldn’t concentrate on anything other than the fact that she was in a small confined space with Devin Rock, who had just manipulated her into agreeing to a date.

A hundred copies of Country Crowns! She hadn’t expected to sell that many copies of them in her lifetime. What was he even going to do with them? If he was as big of a musician as he claimed he was, maybe he was planning on distributing them to his fans? That would lead to more traction for her story. Camille shook her head to stop herself from daydreaming about comic book success.

“I’ll pick you up at nine. Give me your address,” Camille heard him say, snapping her out of her thoughts. The scent of him still had her enveloped in its charm; she was finding it difficult to even breathe.

There were stacks of papers and notepads and a few pencils on the only table in the small storeroom. Camille walked over to it and wrote down her address on a notepad. She still couldn’t quite believe that a guy who looked like Devin had asked her out and that she’d had the courage to say yes.

Well, it was more out of necessity rather than courage. She couldn’t exactly give up the only opportunity she had of selling her books. This would mean actual profit. Profit she never thought she would make.

“Thank you. See you at nine,” Devin said when she ripped off the paper from the notepad and handed it to him.

He took it from her hand, and they remained standing there for a few more moments, looking at each other. She couldn’t quite tell what he was thinking. He was a mystery to her.

He was a famous musician, hiding away from his fans, in her storeroom and he was staring at her like he was trying to size her up.

Camille tucked a few strands of her stray curls behind her ears and looked around the room nervously.

“Where are the books?” he asked, and she whipped her head up to look at him again. She had nearly forgotten about them.

Camille pointed to a stack of Country Crowns lying in the corner of the storeroom. They were still in their original cardboard box, unopened. Devin looked at the copy in his hand.

“Eight dollars? That’s it?” he remarked, clearly surprised.

“It’s independently published. I can’t retail it at the price of the other Marvel or DC ones,” Camille explained, and then wondered why she was defending herself. Wasn’t he glad that these ones cost less? It would mean that he had to spend less too.

“So, eight hundred dollars?” He reached around to the back of his pants and pulled out his wallet.

Camille nodded, but he was busy counting the cash in his wallet.

“Here, that’s a thousand bucks,” he finally said and handed her two five hundred dollar notes. Camille reached for them and then nodded her head.

“I’ll get you the change, just-”

“No, keep it,” he interrupted her. “This book definitely deserves more than just eight dollars each.”

Camille couldn’t believe that he was serious. That he was actually giving her a thousand dollars for her books.

“Well, thanks. I’m sure Ruby Red will be very happy for the extra commission,” she said, dropping her gaze to her hands. She could feel her cheeks blushing again. Devin Rock had unknowingly endorsed her creative efforts and made it possible for her to work on the next issue, even if nobody else was ever going to read it.

“All thanks to you. You’re a good salesperson,” Devin told her, picking up the box of books and then walking up to her, towards the door of the room. Camille felt her breath catch in her throat as he came closer. He towered over her, strong, lean and muscular. She felt like he could crush her in his hands, and she sucked in a breath.

“See you later, Camille Griffin,” he said, in a low gruff voice and opened the door to walk out.

Camille remained standing at the open door as she watched him weave through the aisles and shelves of comic books. He stopped where he had left the unicorn mask and picked it up.

“Throw this in for free with the rest?” he asked, balancing the box of books in one hand and holding up the mask with the other.

Camille found herself smiling and quickly nodded. Of course, he could have the mask! But she didn’t say that. Instead, she watched silently as he waved, turned the sign on the door back to “OPEN,” and walked out of the shop.

Through the windows of the store she watched him cross the street. Even from the back, he looked gorgeous, like a dream that was slowly but surely slipping through her fingers. She had never met anybody quite like Devin Rock before.

***

Camille closed the shop at midday, even though it was several hours before closing time. She just couldn’t think straight anymore. None of it made sense, and she needed to talk it out with somebody. What was she going to wear? Where was he going to take her? What did he actually have in mind for her? Camille couldn’t stop thinking that Devin had a hidden agenda. He couldn’t possibly want to simply take her out on an innocent ordinary date. He wasn’t an ordinary guy.

She drove until she reached Shayna’s house and parked out front. Camille shaded her eyes with her hand to look up at Shayna’s apartment. The Miami midday heat was scorching, and she was glad she was wearing shorts. Thankfully, Shayna was home.

“What are you doing here? Did something happen?” The moment Shayna had opened the door, she barraged Camille with questions.

They had been best friends since they met three years ago at a comic book launch. Shayna was born and bred in Miami. Camille was born and bred in a small rural town in Texas. There couldn’t be two people more different, but Camille hadn’t met another girl before who was as into comics as she was.

Shayna fit the bill though. She had been home all day, but she still had her pitch-black lipstick on. Her fishnet stockings had tears in them, but Camille could imagine Shayna ripping them purposefully before putting them on. For effect. She was in a short lycra dress, which would have only reached Camille’s mid-thighs but with Shayna’s slender height, it nearly reached her knees.

“Yes, something happened, but nothing to panic about.” Camille walked past Shayna and into her apartment, eyeing Scat, Shayna’s cat who was lounging on the couch in front of the television.

“At the store?” Shayna asked, closing the door. Shayna worked from home as a freelance writer, so she barely stepped out of the house during the day. At night the two girls spent time working on the next issue of Country Crowns - Shayna was the co-author and was always bursting with ideas.

“It’s Cammy.” Camille turned to Shayna with her hands on her hips.

“Cammy? What are you talking about? What going on with her? You know she’s not a real person right, Camille?”

“We sold a hundred copies of her books. For a thousand dollars,” Camille said, a smile spreading across her face.

Both of them screeched at the same time. Shayna jumped and clapped her hands, while Camille laughed in excitement and the two of them hugged tightly. Camille knew Shayna would be as excited. Neither of them could have seen this coming.

“Are you serious? Who bought it? And why did they pay so much more money for them?” Shayna had her hand on her heart as she tried to calm herself. She looked like she was still in disbelief.

“This guy. Devin Rock. Do you know him?” Camille asked, biting down on her lower lip. This was the tricky bit, to try and convince Shayna that she wasn’t setting herself up for a trap. Shayna was extremely judgmental of people; if there was anybody who was going to be suspicious of Devin, it was Shayna.

“Devin Rock? No, I don’t. Should I? Is he in the industry?”

“He’s a musician of some sort. You sure you haven’t heard of him?” Camille asked, still chewing her lip. She had hoped that Shayna had heard of him.

“I would have remembered that name. What kind of music does he play?”

Camille shrugged her shoulders. “He didn’t say.”

“Okay…” Shayna began, still staring at Camille. She looked like she wanted more of an explanation. “So who is he? Why did he want all those comics?”

Camille took a moment to reply. She looked at Shayna and pursed her lips, trying to prepare herself for the avalanche of questions and warnings that were about to be hurled her way.

“Because he wanted me to go on a date with him,” Camille told her meekly and squinted her eyes. She could see Shayna erupting before her eyes, her friend’s face going red as she glared at Camille in more apparent disbelief.

“He bought a hundred copies of our books because he wanted to go on a date with you?” Shayna asked in a much shriller voice than before. Camille quietly nodded.

“Does he know it’s your book?” She took a few threatening steps towards Camille.

“No. I didn’t tell him. There was no way of him knowing. It was pure coincidence. I refused him when he first asked and then he picked the book and said he’d buy a hundred copies of it if I said yes,” Camille tried to explain, while Shayna’s face grew redder by the second.

“And what did you say?” she urged in a low guttural growl. Camille licked her lips and looked at Shayna guiltily.

“I said yes. I couldn’t help it. You’ll know what I mean if you see him, Shayna. He is absolutely gorgeous.”.

Shayna was fuming, her shoulders shaking. “So you sold a hundred copies in exchange for a date?” Shayna repeated, and then added, “In exchange for a date with a man you were drooling over?”

Camille nodded, and Shayna crossed her arms over her chest. Camille still couldn’t relax. She definitely didn’t think she had won her friend over to the idea yet.

“What are you going to wear? You haven’t been on a date in like… a year.” Shayna said, a smile finally creeping onto her face.

Camille shook her head and shrugged. “I have no damn idea.”

***

“I really don’t know.” Camille scrunched up her face, as she stood in front of the mirror of the changing room. Shayna was sitting on a couch nearby, and when she looked up from her phone at Camille, her eyes grew wide.

“That dress is so hot, Camille!” Shayna jumped up from her chair to come and stand behind her friend as she examined her in the mirror.

Camille stared at herself. It wasn’t the kind of dress she would normally wear, but she had to admit, it did look sexy, nothing like anything else she owned.

It was a fire truck red, with no sleeves. The bust fit tightly to her breasts and propped them up so that her cleavage looked even deeper than it actually was. The rest of the dress clung to her body, accentuating her perfect hourglass figure.

Camille couldn’t remember the last time she had been in a dress like this.

“You really need to go shopping with me more often,” Shayna said like she had read her mind. “You can borrow my black stilettos,” she added, and Camille just smiled. She couldn’t take her eyes off her reflection.

The last time she had been attracted to a guy who came into her comic book store, was… never . How had all this happened so fast? She had been attracted to Devin from the moment he stepped through her door, and what were the chances that he was attracted to her too? Then he asked her out on a date!

“What are you thinking? You should get it.” Shayna took a few steps forward, appearing in the mirror now. She placed a hand on her friend’s bare shoulder.

“Yeah, I’ll get the dress.” Camille locked eyes with her in the mirror.

“What’s with the long face then?” Shayna asked, and Camille sighed.

“This might be a bad decision. I mean, I don’t even know the guy.” Camille whipped around to face Shayna directly.

Her friend shrugged her shoulders. “You said you were attracted to him.”

“I am. He is like no other guy I’ve met before,” Camille admitted, and Shayna smiled.

“Go for it then. Did he seem threatening to you?”

Camille shook her head. How could she explain to Shayna that she had never felt safer than in Devin’s presence? When he had barely even touched her.

“Then what is the problem?” Shayna asked, and it was Camille’s turn to shrug her shoulders.

“I don’t know. I just get the feeling that he is going to sweep me off my feet. And that it’s a bad idea to allow myself to be so vulnerable.” Camille looked into Shayna’s eyes as if she were searching for answers in them.

Shayna gave a short laugh and reached for Camille’s hand.

“You’re overreacting. You’re feeling these things only because you haven’t been on a date for so long. This is how you’re supposed to feel when you’re attracted to somebody. That is the beauty of it.” Shayna was smiling reassuringly as she spoke and Camille nodded. Shayna was right, she had very little experience in dating anyway, and she’d had a long dry spell this last year. These were probably just nerves of an amateur she justified to herself and then turned to look in the mirror again.

“Let’s get this dress,” Camille said, smoothing out the fabric on her flat belly. It did look fabulous, like the dress was designed and made just for her. Camille bit down on her lip and smiled at herself. She couldn’t believe that she was this excited over a dress and a guy.

“So where are you going with him?” Shayna asked as Camille stepped back behind the curtains to take the dress off.

“I have no clue. He didn’t say where he was taking me,” Camille replied, and slipped back into her cutoffs and sweatshirt. She saw herself in the smaller mirror in her usual clothes.

“He sounds like a guy who would take you somewhere fancy,” Shayna’s voice interrupted her thoughts again. Camille was looking at her normal reflection, trying to locate what exactly Devin might have seen in her that made him so desperate for a date with her.

“No, he’s not a fancy guy,” she called out to Shayna.

“But he spent a thousand bucks on comic books at the store.”

Camille sighed. She couldn’t see it - what was so special about her, especially now that she was out of that beautiful dress. If Devin had seen in her in these cutoffs and stained sweatshirt, with her hair in a mess and no makeup on… what reason could he possibly have had for being attracted to her? Camille’s brows crossed as she continued to chew on her lip. She was beginning to feel suspicious again. She couldn’t believe that a guy like Devin didn’t have an ulterior motive for asking her out. She could see her cheeks flushing again.

“Yeah. He did. But he’s not a fancy guy,” she finally replied to Shayna.

“So you’re saying that he’s just rich and famous, without the fanciness?” Shayna threw back, and Camille sighed loudly, turning away from the mirror. She didn’t want to look at herself anymore.

“That’s what I’m saying. Although I don’t really know for sure. The man is full of surprises.” Camille pulled the curtain back so that she could look at Shayna directly.

Her friend looked excited and thrilled, and some of that feeling rubbed off on Camille immediately.

“Let’s go back to your apartment and wait. I’ll help you get ready,” Shayna announced, clapping her hands with excitement.


Devin

Devin sat with his feet up on the desk of his office. The cardboard box of comic books was lying in the corner of the room, and he was eyeing it while his hands rested on his stomach.

His office was grand; decorated and designed by professionals who had insisted that they knew what they were doing. Dan, his friend and business associate, the guy who usually took care of the finer details of their business, also insisted that he go with the designers’ ideas. “Creating the right impression is important,” Dan had told him.

So now Devin sat in his boots and leather jacket, behind a large rectangular mahogany desk. The curtains on the windows were thick, with green and gold brocade. The carpeted floor was a lush bottle green as well, while the walls were a rich ivory white. The oil paintings in carved wooden frames that hung on the walls were all different locations and landscapes within Miami.

Devin felt like an imposter in his own office. He probably still needed some time to get used to this major redesign of it. He didn’t believe it suited his nature, his business, but Dan insisted that this kind of lavish show of wealth and prosperity was something Devin needed to portray. They were in the business of intimidation, of bounty hunting and providing security and bodyguards. It was apparently important to demonstrate success. That was how they could gain trust and more clients, and also keep their enemies at bay.

Dan burst through the door of his office just as Devin was about to get up from the leather chair and walk over to the box of comic books.

“What the hell happened?” Dan asked, shutting the door behind him. Devin leaned back further in his chair and smiled at his friend.

“I caught three of them, from The Choppers, tailing me,” he replied in a much more relaxed tone of voice than Dan.

“Tailing you how?” Dan came rushing towards the desk, and Devin finally took his feet off it.

“Just following me, they were waiting for me outside the cafe. But I managed to lose them.” Devin shrugged his shoulders. He couldn’t understand what the big deal was. Dan had always been the kind of guy who tried to stay out of trouble, which was why Devin assigned the business and finances side of things to him, while he took care of the groundwork.

“Do you know what they wanted?” Dan asked, actually looked terrified.

“No. Do you know what they wanted?” Devin asked and then laughed when Dan looked at him, more shocked than he was before.

“Don’t worry, just relax Dan. I’ve asked the boys to look into it.” Devin placed his elbows on his desk and leaned forward.

“Look into it how?” Dan was adjusting his tie; he liked to wear a suit and tie every day, and pretend that he was going to work in a normal office. When in reality, their business functioned out of their old biker club clubhouse, which they had now converted into a makeshift office space. Dan obviously stood out from the rest of the club, none of who were able to do away with their old sensibilities.

“Find out what they want. Do some digging around. You know how it goes,” Devin replied, smiling at his friend’s nervousness.

“You think this is going to start another fight?” Dan asked, pulling at his collar.

“Relax, Dan. No, I just want to know what they wanted. It could be anything.” Devin was still smiling.

“Could be anything, like what? What are the possibilities?” Dan pulled out a chair in front of Devin’s desk and sat down.

Devin shrugged his shoulders again and swiveled around in his chair. “I don’t know… maybe they wanted to just have a chat. Some guy who we brought in for bounty wanted revenge and hired The Choppers for the task. They hate my guts and want me gone. Or maybe they’re just jealous of this office.” He spread out his arms in a grand gesture around the room.

Dan rolled his eyes. “Stop kidding around, Devin. Do you think your life could be in danger?”

Devin laughed again. Dan was a good business associate, but he scared easy. “I don’t even know why they wanted to speak to me. Maybe it’s just a friendly chat. A catch-up,” Devin suggested, and Dan stood up from his chair with a jerk.

“It’s never just a friendly chat with those guys, and you know it. I wish you’d just take it seriously for once so we can be prepared for what’s coming.”

“I told you the boys are looking into it, they’ll find out sooner or later and let me know.”

Dan looked back at him, concerned. “Maybe you should lay low until then - until we know why you were being followed.” He took a deep breath and Devin shook his head as he carved a reassuring smile.

“You want me to hide out here, seriously Dan? I thought you knew me better than that.” Devin stood up from his chair too, and Dan rolled his eyes again before turning and beginning to walk away.

“All I’m saying is that we can be prepared if we know what they’re after. It wouldn’t hurt to just be a bit more careful until we have all the details,” Dan called out over his shoulder before exiting the room.

Devin’s smirk widened at how much like an accountant Dan always sounded.

He sighed and sat back down again, the box of comic books in the corner catching his attention for a second time.

***

Devin found the number of Officer Hampton on his phone. He was one of the many Miami cops who owed him favors. Devin wasn’t very interested in calling police officers for payback. Frankly, he didn’t really need them. But they were good for giving him information when he needed it. They owed Devin their lives, and usually, they were always happy to comply.

“Hampton,” he said into the phone.

“Devin?”

“Do you know why The Choppers are looking for me?” Devin asked, jumping straight ahead to the main point.

“The Choppers? No. Are they looking for you? What happened?” Hampton was talking in a whisper, and Devin leaned his head back on his leather chair. He stared up at the ceiling. If he was honest with himself, he wasn’t really thinking very hard, not about The Choppers. He was heavily distracted by the way Camille, the girl from the comic book store, looked earlier that day. She had said yes to a date - it had cost him, but he didn’t really care. Since then, he had constantly been checking the time to see when he could go and pick her up.

“Three of them were waiting for me outside a cafe today. I managed to lose them, but they were following me,” Devin replied, his mind still partially distracted by thoughts of Camille.

“I have no idea. I’ve heard nothing.” Hampton said, a little louder this time.

“Keep me posted if you hear anything, and tell the others,” Devin told him and hung up the phone.

He knew Dan was right. That would be the most rational thing to do. Lay low. But since when was Devin Rock a pussy? When they were waiting for him outside the cafe that morning, he was unprepared. Now he would be prepared to face them straight on if required. It didn’t mean that he would hide out here in his office until things cooled down, as Dan suggested.

After all, he had a date to go to.

Devin jumped out of his chair and walked into the separate bathroom. He might be a little early, but he didn’t care. He needed to be on the move, he needed to do something. He had checked his sources, set the boys to work… now he would just have to wait and see what happened next. In the meantime, he would busy himself with doing what he really wanted to do - see Camille again.

Devin looked at himself in the mirror and smoothed over his dark wavy hair with moist hands. He splashed some water on his face and clenched his jaws as the water dripped from the rugged angles of his face. He focused on his face, his chocolate brown eyes, and the stubble that was forming on his chin.

He reached for a towel and wiped his face. The thought of changing out of his clothes barely occurred to him. He wasn’t the kind of guy who was keen on making an impression. It was take it or leave it with him. Camille would have to be happy with the same leather jacket, jeans, and boots from that morning.

“Are you going somewhere?” Dan was sitting outside in the lounge area with a few other guys when Devin stepped out of the office.

“Yes, Mom,” he threw back, as he flung his keys up in the air and then caught them a second later.

“We’re all heading to O’Murphys,” Rick said, standing up from his chair.

“I have a few things to do,” Devin replied, thumping his bike brother’s back as he walked past the club.

“What things?” Dan asked. He had taken off his suit jacket now that business hours were over.

“Dan. Just relax man. I’m simply going out. Go with the boys and have a few drinks will you?” Devin urged, giving him another reassuring smile but Dan didn’t look pleased.

“Be careful!” Dan called out to him as Devin stepped out of the doors of the clubhouse. Devin shook his head in irritation. Dan was good, a great business associate, but it was like working with an overprotective mother at times.

Devin got on his old Harley and fitted the helmet over his head. He rode with a specific destination in mind. He was headed for the address that Camille had written down on that piece of paper. He still had it folded up in the pocket of his jeans, but he didn’t need to refer to it again. He found it easily.

He was ten minutes early when he screeched his bike to a stop in front of her apartment building. The complex looked unassuming in a quiet residential neighborhood, with well-lit streets and trees lining the roads. Devin didn’t know which apartment she was in, so he blew the horn twice.

He looked up at the windows; the helmet was still on his face, which was good because he knew his face would betray just how he was feeling. He was excited.

Then he saw her. She had stuck her head out of a lit window on the third floor; her face was silhouetted by the light from inside the house, so he couldn’t quite see the expression on her face, but he recognized that tight halo of curls.

She soon slunk back inside without waving or saying a word. Devin could feel his heart racing again. He couldn’t be sure if she were ready or if she wanted him to wait, or if she had changed her mind…

All he could do was wait, and he did just that. His hands remained on the gears of his bike, as he stood with his feet firmly planted on the concrete, straddling his baby underneath him. He tried to distract himself from feeling so nervous. She was only a girl after all, but he couldn’t help his feelings. Especially not when he saw her step out of the front door and walk down the steps towards him.

Devin removed his helmet as Camille came closer without really looking at him. Could she have been blushing? He thought.

She looked different, to say the least, but absolutely ravishing. Her skin glowed, and the tight red dress she wore clung to her body. Her legs looked slender and long as usual, and she was wearing high heels that clicked against the ground.

Even without her having to turn, Devin could tell that her butt swayed with every step. Her shoulders were bare, and they looked soft and smooth in the dim light of the street. Her breasts looked big and juicy, just as he had predicted even under her sweatshirt that morning.

Devin’s eyes were mostly drawn to her face. Her gold hair shimmered with beautiful tight curls, her large blue eyes were offset by long, black lashes, and her lips were small and painted in the same red shade as her dress. In her hands, she clutched a black purse, which she held close to her hip as she swayed and walked towards him.

“I wasn’t sure where we were going. So I decided to dress neutrally,” she said in that sweet innocent voice of hers that had been ringing in his ears all day.

Devin laughed as he clutched his helmet to his side, and looked at her blushing face. That dress was anything but neutral. It was designed for a very specific emotion, and it was being very successful at it.

“Where do you want to go?” he asked, and he stretched out his hand to her. Camille looked at his hand like she was still hesitating, and then gave over her own to which he pulled to his lips.

He got a scent of the vanilla of her skin again, mingled with a sharp floral scent of her perfume. It almost made him dizzy as he held her hand up to his lips. He kept his eyes focused on her face as he kissed it lightly. Camille appeared to blush deeper and looked away from him, and at that moment, all Devin wanted to do was kiss her. Kiss her so that she would not have to feel embarrassed.

“Do you not have a plan?” she asked suddenly, interrupting his thoughts. Devin had forgotten what they were talking about; he was too distracted by the taste of her skin.

His brows furrowed quizzically “What?”

Camille looked nervous again like she was afraid that she had displeased him somehow. “I mean, where are we going? I thought you had a plan.” She slowly pulled her hand out of his.

“Hop on,” he said, instead of answering her question. Camille looked at him and then at the bike. Could this be her first time on one?

“Here give me your hand and place your foot on the step there.” Devin held out his hand again, and she gingerly took it. This time, Devin gripped it tightly, giving her enough support to climb on.

“Oh my goodness,” Camille squealed and then laughed as she stepped with one foot on the step on the side and tried to swing her leg over the backseat of the bike. Her dress was too tight, but she didn’t seem embarrassed by it. For the first time, Devin could see her having fun.

She tried to swing her leg over again, but failed and then finally decided to sit sideways behind him. Devin felt the pressure of her small, slender hands as she placed them on both of his shoulders.

“You’ll have to hold me tighter than that,” he told her, turning his face to the side. He couldn’t see her anymore, but he could feel her warm breath on the back of his neck as she sat behind him.

Camille didn’t say a word, but he felt her move in her seat so that she was now pressing her body to his.

“Hold on, Camille,” he said in an authoritative voice for her safety and also because he wanted to feel her. He was growing desperate for her touch.

When her arms wrapped around his abdomen, he felt like someone had punched the breath out of him. Her body was close to his.

He heard her breathe in sharply too, but he tried to distract himself by putting on his helmet. He needed to concentrate on riding his bike; he couldn’t allow himself to be distracted by her.

“So where are we going?” she asked again, and he smiled despite the fact that she couldn’t see it due to the helmet now covering his face.

“Hold on tight, and you’ll see,” he replied, his voice muffled by the helmet, but she had heard him. He felt her grip him tighter, and for a second he thought she was going to place her face on one of his shoulders. But she didn’t. Instead, she braced herself for the ride as he revved the engine.

Neither of them exchanged a word after that, not that they even could. The bike was way too loud. Devin was riding through the streets of Miami towards South Beach, the wind warm and salty on their faces. Devin could ride these streets blindly if he had to, but this time it felt new. Everything felt new with her behind him. Even when Camille wasn’t saying anything, just touching him… Devin felt like a different man. A man who would keep her safe by any means necessary.

***

They walked side by side as they entered the restaurant. Devin watched several heads turn to look at them, and he wasn’t sure if they were judging him by the way he was dressed or admiring how sexy Camille was.

She looked nervous beside him as the hostess guided them to the table in the far corner, overlooking the beach. Devin had picked this restaurant for its fantastic view of the ocean. Even in the dark, they could see the waves crashing gently as they sat down at their table for two. A candle was lit between them, and a waitress appeared to present them with the menus.

“I’m Joanne, and I will be your waitress for tonight. Would you like to order some drinks?” she said in a chirpy voice, and Devin turned to look at her. On any other occasion, he would have been quick to appreciate the sharp straight nose, green eyes, short white skirt, and the way the fabric of her black shirt stretched over her breasts, the buttons stretched to the brink of popping open. But instead, he just smiled at her, while Camille was engrossed in the menu.

“A bottle of your best red,” he told Joanne, the waitress, surprising even himself. He wasn’t much of a wine drinker, but something told him that Camille was. And this place just looked like one of those restaurants that didn’t stock beers. Camille looked up at him briefly and tried to suppress a smile.

“I can leave the menus with you so you can decide on your food,” Joanne said, and Devin felt her hand graze his as she placed the menu in front of him.

Camille looked up, apparently noticing, and watched Joanne walk away. “Do they know you here?” she asked, and Devin shook his head.

“Never been here before, why?”

She shrugged her slender bare shoulders.

“I just got the impression that she knew you,” Camille replied meekly and went back to looking at the menu.

“Have you been here before?” he asked.

“No, but it looks lovely. The view is beautiful.” He watched as she turned her head to look at the waves. Her eyes traveled over their motion, and she looked distracted.

“Something tells me you are more than a comic bookstore owner,” he added and wasn’t quite sure where the question had come from.

Camille looked at him, holding his gaze before finally smiling. “I’m an artist in my spare time,” she said and closed the menu.

Devin raised his eyebrows just as Joanne appeared again. Camille was an artist. He knew there was more to her than meets the eye.

“What can I get you?” Joanne asked animatedly. She had a huge smile on her face, and her glittering eyes were focused on Devin. He could sense that she was checking him out - his muscles, his shoulders, and his face.

“I’ll have the Chef’s special steak,” Devin said, not looking at Joanne directly.

“Good choice, Sir. I’ll make sure that he gives your steak his full attention,” Joanne replied with a laugh, and Devin finally met her eyes. Unlike Camille, she didn’t shy away from him.

“You’re very kind.” He handed the menu back to her. Joanne surprised him with a giggle, still not turning to Camille to ask for her order.

“And how would you like your steak, sir? Something tells me you like your meat well done.” She was openly flirting and still ignoring the presence of Camille at the table.

“Medium rare,” he said and turned away from her. In another time, on another day, before he had met Camille… this kind of open flirting would have led to a quick fuck in the staff toilets. But not tonight, not when all he wanted to do was talk to the beautiful comic bookstore owner. Alone.

“Anything else that I can get you, sir?” Joanne asked, emphasizing the last word. She then leaned forward and playfully touched his hand that was casually resting on the table. Devin withdrew it with a jerk and turned to Camille.

“You could take her order,” he said firmly and watched as Joanne’s face soured a little. But she was quick to regain her composure and turn to Camille.

That was when he noticed Camille’s face. It was rigid, and her eyes looked icy blue, even though she had a smile on her face.

“I’ll have the Caesar salad, thank you,” she said bluntly, and Joanne wrote the order down on her notepad.

“That’ll be all,” Devin said before Joanne could ask them any more questions, or waste any more time lingering. He wanted Camille all to himself again.

He watched her as she watched the waitress walking away, and then a few moments later she turned to him. She looked like she was trying very hard to put up a front of casualness; like Joanne’s flirting hadn’t affected her at all.

“She’s sweet. She likes you,” Camille said, and to his surprise, she reached for the bottle of wine that Joanne had placed on the table between them. Camille’s cheeks were flushed again as she poured the wine into her glass and didn’t offer him any. Devin wanted to smile. She was jealous, and he wanted to pull her close to him because of it.

“Who?” he asked as she took a sip of wine. The liquid glazed her lips, and she shot him a questioning look.

“The waitress.”

“What waitress?” He leaned back in his chair, as Camille appeared to suppress a smile again.


Camille

Devin had polished off his steak in ten minutes, while Camille took small bites of her salad. She had been drinking most of the wine, as Devin seemed to be forcing himself to keep drinking it. They hadn’t stopped talking.

“So are you going to tell me what kind of an artist you are?” he asked when he finally stopped laughing at her stories about the kinds of customers who came to her bookstore.

Camille fell silent; she didn’t know how to begin explaining her comic books and her art to him.

“I don’t necessarily like to talk about it.” She dropped her gaze to her bowl of salad instead. She could sense his eyes on her, but she didn’t dare to look up.

“Does that mean that I’ll never get to see it?” he urged her again, and she met his eyes. They were a dark chocolate brown, glittering behind the candlelight that was burning between them. His face was relaxed, exceedingly handsome and rugged. She could see the light dusting of a green late evening shadow forming on his jaws. He smelt the same, masculine and musky.

His hands were large and rough as they lay on the table on his side. He had focused all his attention on her the whole night, not once turning to look at that flirty waitress, even when she came to serve them their food.

Camille smiled at him shyly and shook her head. “Not if I can help it,” she said, secretly feeling victorious at the fact that he had a hundred copies of her art. He had bought them but had no clue they were her work.

They silently looked at each other, which was interspersed with some sipping of wine.

“Not unless you sing for me,” she said and watched as his face changed. It was his turn to blush, even though she didn’t think Devin Rock was the kind of guy who would blush at anything.

“Now, why would I do that?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Because you’re a musician. My art is my hobby; your music is your livelihood. Don’t you think I should get a firsthand personal performance from the great Devin Rock?” She laughed as she finished the last dregs of the wine from her glass.

Devin shifted in his seat and then smiled widely at her.

“Maybe some other night,” he said, and Camille pouted her lips.

“Why? Why not tonight?” she asked, and Devin continued to smile. Those dimples on his cheeks were obnoxiously sweet. They added a boyish charm to his looks that he otherwise hid very well. Devin was the definition of man. A hard, rock-solid man. There was nothing sweet or adorable about him, he was all sexy. But when he smiled, Camille noticed the softness in his eyes. Could Devin Rock be soft as a marshmallow on the inside? It was hard to tell, especially when he was looking at her the way he was now. His eyes were narrowed and intense, he was studying her closely. His gaze fell to her cleavage and then swept back to her face.

“Because I have a different kind of plan for us tonight,” Devin said, and Camille felt her eyes shining. She bit down on her lip and took a large bite of her salad.

“I’m done.” She pushed her bowl away. She couldn’t wait to see what plan he had in store for them. She hadn’t felt so thrilled before. Devin was a mystery to her, but she was anxious to unravel him and see what layers were hidden beneath.

Devin gave a short laugh and then shot up his hand in the air.

Joanne came bouncing towards them a few moments later with the bill on a small glass plate.

“I hope you both had a lovely evening, and everything was alright,” she said nervously, without looking at either of them.

“Everything was perfect. Thank you very much,” Camille told her, tucking some curls behind her ears. Devin reached for the bill before she could even look at it and then took out his wallet. He didn’t bother replying to Joanne who stood idly by. She still couldn’t help but watch Devin.

Camille realized then that was the effect that he had on everybody around him; an instant magnetic pull. Even when they had walked into the restaurant, everyone had turned to look at them. At him. At his leather jacket, at his six foot four inches of pure muscle, at his dark hair, and his ripped body. Maybe they all recognized him too as the famous musician who she still didn’t know him as.

“There. All done. Shall we go?” Devin asked and stood up from his chair. Camille followed suit, as Joanne stood to the side, waiting to see them off to the door. Devin walked over and stood behind Camille’s chair as she gathered her purse and steadied herself on her feet. Her brain was swimming a little now from all the wine she had drunk so quickly.

“Enjoy the rest of your evening,” Joanne said as Devin walked in front of Camille, and they weaved their way through the arrangement of tables.

Something suddenly overtook Camille, and she whipped around to look at Joanne, squarely into her eyes. She didn’t know if Devin had noticed and stopped, or just carried on walking.

Joanne looked surprised too, and she stopped in her tracks behind Camille who was smiling at her widely.

“Thank you, Joanne. We will enjoy our evening, I hope you enjoy the rest of yours,” she said as sweetly as she could and triumphantly turned again to follow Devin out.

She couldn’t be sure if it was the wine or a sudden rush of exhilaration. All she knew was that she had never felt this carefree and happy before, at least not on a date. No man before Devin had made her feel so confident in herself, like she could do anything she wanted. But she still couldn’t bring herself to tell him about her comics.

***

He brought her to the beach. They had walked around the restaurant and away from it, so that now they were strolling in the dark, away from the glistening skyline of Miami. The moon was bright which allowed for a light silvery hue to shine the path they were walking on, and all around them the sand looked like a dusting of precious stones.

The sound of the waves crashing was a mellow tune, and the warm salty breeze was in Camille’s hair as they walked.

“This is beautiful. I can’t remember the last time I did something like this,” Camille said as she bent down to pick up her shoes which she had slipped out of her hands. She re-hung them from her hooked fingers. Devin was looking ahead silently and had a soft smile on his face.

“I come out here sometimes when I want some peace and quiet.”

Camille turned to him and smiled. “When you’re trying to outrun your millions of screaming fans?”

Devin laughed. “There aren’t millions of them. I wouldn’t want to give you the wrong impression.”

They looked into each other’s eyes. He was much taller than her, and she had to crane her neck up to look at him. She still couldn’t believe she was there - walking with him on this deserted beach. It was like it was straight out of some kind of dream.

“Camille, come here,” he suddenly said and grabbed her hand and pulled her close to him. She was surprised by the force with which he pulled her to him, but the smile dropped from her face when she realized that he wasn’t looking at her, but up ahead.

Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness so that now she could see two dark figures walking towards them. They weren’t very far away.

“They must be out on a walk like us,” Camille suggested, but Devin’s eyes were set on the figures. He had stopped walking and so she froze too. She could feel the grip of his large hands on her arm.

“Just stay close,” he mumbled.

In a few moments, the two figures came into view. They were men, in similar leather jackets as Devin. One of them was much shorter, while the other was tall but lanky.

They both had wide sleazy smiles on their faces and were staring at them. Something inside Camille’s chest dropped, her heart was racing. It didn’t seem quite right to see these two bikers on a deserted beach heading towards them.

Devin said nothing but kept his hand gripped on Camille’s arm, holding her tightly to him.

The two men walked past them, but then she heard it. The tall, lanky man’s voice was clear as day.

“Did you see those jugs on her?” he remarked, and the short man laughed.

“I hope she’s serving him some fries with that shake,” the short one said, and they both broke out laughing.

Devin’s grip on her arm loosened in a flash, and before she had any time to react Devin had taken a few giant steps towards the two men. The punch came out of nowhere. It had all happened in a split second before even the men knew what Devin was going to do.

He had punched the tall guy right in his jaw, and the man fell back on the sand with force. The short guy took a step towards Devin, but he had placed his boot on the tall one’s chest as he lay on the sand, bleeding from his nose.

“Pick him up and leave before I have to call an ambulance for both of you,” Devin growled, and the shorter guy stayed back.

“It won’t be so simple next time, Devin,” the short guy threatened him, but Camille saw Devin smile.

“Get out of here.” He took his foot off the other guy’s chest. Devin took a few steps back, with his arm in front of Camille protectively. They watched as the short guy helped the other one get up on his feet.

“You’re fucked, Devin. You’re minced meat,” the guy with the bleeding nose blubbered.

“Scoot,” Devin said, his eyes bloodshot and his smile now a frown.

The two men started hurrying away almost immediately, and Devin stood in the same position and watched as they ran away in the opposite direction.

“Let’s get out of here. I know where we can go,” Devin said and turned to Camille, grabbing her hand as he took a few quick steps. Camille felt his large hand on hers, and also her heart heavy and beating. She couldn’t believe what had just happened - that Devin had just punched a guy, making his nose bleed.

He was pulling her away, in the dark, in a different direction and Camille wasn’t sure anymore what was going on. None of this felt like a normal date to her. Devin wasn’t a normal guy. She realized as she followed him, her hand in his, that she actually didn’t know him at all.

“He called you Devin,” she said loudly so that he could hear her as they ran. The wind was now lashing her hair across her face, and she was beginning to feel out of breath.

“What?” He turned around to look at her, having slowed down a little.

“Do you know those guys?” she asked him, and she could hear the nervousness in her own voice. Devin stopped, and she realized she was panting. He had a look on his face that made it clear to her that he was distracted. His focus had shifted from her.

“Devin?” she urged him again, and this time he nodded.

“Yes. They know me. They were the people I was hiding from this morning.”

“They didn’t exactly appear to be fans.” Camille tugged her hand out of Devin’s grip. He was still leading her towards a dark, deserted alcove of the beach. Camille didn’t care where they were headed anymore. All she wanted were some answers.

“They’re not,” Devin replied. She could only see the back of his head and hear his voice. He was walking ahead of her, leading her to the place he believed would keep them out of the public’s eye.

“This morning you said you were hiding from your fans.” Camille’s voice was strained and pinched. The breeze was stronger at this end of the beach, and she had to speak louder to make herself heard. Devin didn’t turn around or answer her question. For several seconds there was an eerie silence between them.

Camille could feel goosebumps on her skin, and she was suddenly cold and scared. Who was this guy? Had he been lying to her? Was she in danger?

“This morning, I lied to you.” Devin turned around as he came to a halt near the edge of the ocean. Camille’s brows crossed as she looked into his eyes. She didn’t know what she was feeling anymore. Whether it was fear or anger or just a fatal sort of attraction towards him.

“I’m not a musician. I don’t have hundreds of screaming fans. I was running away from those guys, who are out to get me for some reason,” Devin elaborated, watching her as the words came out of his mouth. His face was blank, handsome, and rugged even in the dark. But Camille couldn’t tell what he was thinking.

“Who are you then, if you’re not a musician?” she asked, and Devin suddenly laughed a little.

“Hard to explain, Camille.”

She crossed her arms over her chest. His hair was blowing in the breeze so that his dark curls were now lying messily on top of his head. His brown eyes were dark and deep, his jaw was clenched, and yet he had a soft grin on his face.

“Try me,” she said defiantly, and Devin took a deep breath.

“I’m an entrepreneur. That is the best way to describe it,” he told her so quietly that she could barely hear him over the noise of the crashing waves.

Camille bit down on her lip, she couldn’t keep looking at him any longer. He was too handsome, and his eyes on her did something to her body that she had no control over. He made her body shake, even from a distance.

“I’m sorry Camille, but that is all I can tell you right now. You’ll just have to trust me.”

She nodded. It was only fair. It wasn’t like he knew everything about her; she still had the comic book secret. And oddly enough, she did trust him. She didn’t feel threatened by him. Instead, she felt like she was as safe as she could possibly be around him.

When she hadn’t replied to him for several seconds, Devin suddenly smiled.

“I feel like a swim,” he said, and right in front of her, she watched as he took off his leather jacket and flung it on the sand. That was the first time she saw the tattoos. They were intricate, dense and formed sleeves on both his arms. His biceps were muscular and strong, and they flexed now as he started unbuttoning his pants too.

“What are you doing?” Camille asked, dropping the shoes she was still holding in her hands.

“Going for a swim,” he stated matter of factly. He still had the same smile on his face when his pants dropped to his ankles. Camille felt her eyes widen when she saw him, naked, in all his glory. His legs were chiseled like a Greek marble statue. And he wasn’t wearing any underwear, which meant that his dick hung between his thighs as he stood in front of her, slipping his t-shirt off his torso.

Camille felt herself getting wet just looking at him, and she couldn’t help but stare at him. This was not what she had expected… to see Devin Rock naked on a beach. She didn’t care that he could see her staring.

She bit down on her lip again when her eyes fell on his bare torso. She had never seen such a heavily tattooed body before - a snake crawled around the side of his ribs, and an eagle’s wings framed the two sides of his chest. When he turned away from her and towards the waves, she saw the image of a river on his back and a man on a boat. It looked like a beautiful watercolor painting.

“Join me if you like.” Devin turned his face to the side, and then he was running towards the sea, laughing.

Camille couldn’t help but laugh too. It was all too crazy, too wild… nothing like anything that ever happened to her. She felt elated, like a completely different person. She wanted to be crazy, just like he was being.

The dress came off easily. She quickly undid the zip, and her fabulous new red dress fell to the sand around her ankles. Then her bra and matching lace panties came off too, just as Devin had turned to look at her.

At that moment, Camille couldn’t imagine a sexier man. He was standing naked, with his strong legs parted, and his back to the ocean so that the waves slowly crashed around him. Devin remained there, looking at her, watching her naked body from the distance. He wasn’t smiling anymore as Camille took steady steps towards him.

She could feel the warm wet sand underneath her feet, and goosebumps on her flesh. She wasn’t cold; she was just very excited.

She quickened her pace as she got closer to him, and he looked like he was waiting with baited breath for her. He was as excited as she was.

How was she in his arms? The few moments that it took for her to walk towards him were a hazy blur to her.

All she knew now was that he was kissing her. They were both naked, and the waves lashed around them, but neither of them was bothered by it.

His lips enveloped hers, and that’s all that mattered. He tasted of steak and wine, and she wanted to taste more of him. She forced her tongue into his mouth, parting his lips; she wanted to breathe him in entirely.

She could feel his strong hands on her waist, lifting her up off the sand. They were kissing for minutes, maybe even hours, naked with their bare bodies pressed against each other.

She finally pulled away from him, and they were both panting. But they were smiling too.

“I want you to fuck me,” she said, loud enough for him to hear her. She couldn’t believe she had just said that, probably for the first time to anyone, but Devin didn’t wait for her to change her mind. He grabbed her by the waist instead and pulled her to him again.

He kissed her neck, while his hands roughly grabbed both her breasts. Camille moaned when she felt his fingers on her nipples. He squeezed them, gently at first and then hard. Then his hands traveled to her butt, and he squeezed them too, while his lips traveled down from her neck to her breasts, to her pinched waiting nipples. She was yearning for his mouth on them and could feel the wetness between her legs grow.

Devin sucked on her left nipple suddenly and without warning, and Camille squealed in pleasure and delight. One of his hands had traveled from her butt to her abdomen, and she could sense that he was about to touch her between her legs. She couldn’t wait any longer, so she pushed him away from her gently.

Devin pulled away and looked at her face, confused, but Camille was smiling. She had a different plan in mind. He might have been a mysterious, strong man, fighting biker gangs on the side, but she could see the control she had over his body. She had felt his big throbbing dick against her hip when they were kissing. She knew he couldn’t resist her; he wanted her just as badly as she wanted him.

Camille continued to smile as she placed her fingertips on his chest and pushed. Devin looked at her again, more confused.

“Get down, now,” she said, and like a child, he obeyed her command. Devin bent down on the wet sand as she stood over him. She wasn’t shy or embarrassed that he could see her completely naked, yearning for his body.

Camille chewed on her bottom lip and then followed him, only instead of being on the sand, she lowered herself onto his lap. She was straddling him, with her legs spread out around him. He grabbed her to steady her, and she felt his hands on her back, as she wrapped her own arms around his neck.

In silence, without asking or saying, Devin slid into her. She had felt his dick inside her before she knew what was happening. Their faces were finally at level with each other, and she rocked over him. He was big, strong and fit tightly inside her and Camille pressed her eyes closed in an effort not to scream.

He had reached her core, the spot, and then he started moving. He used his hands to lift her up and down, and she bounced on his lap. She could feel her breasts heavily bouncing as well, and when she opened her eyes, she saw Devin watching them move. So she arched her back, bending her head back and Devin’s mouth immediately went to her breasts. His mouth was warm and wet on her right nipple. He sucked on it hard, while she rocked him, his dick sliding in and out of her. She grew wetter and wetter.

His hands remained on her waist, and the waves were still crashing around her. Camille knew she was being pushed over the edge with every deep thrust of his dick inside her. She was moaning, and he moaned too as he sucked on her breasts. Then he looked up, just as she felt like she was about to burst. She saw the twinkle in his dark chocolate eyes; he wanted to watch her cum.

Camille’s toes curled, and she screamed, like a painful cry as her body shook violently. He remained deep inside her, pushing into her and she pressed herself down, as far as she could. He held her, smiling as she came and then she felt him explode inside her too. Devin threw his head back and shut his eyes. They were cuming together, and Camille had never experienced something like this before.

She was panting when her body finally began to relax. She realized then that one of Devin’s hands was gripping her breast tightly, squeezing it as he came inside her. Like it was his possession.

He opened his eyes, with a grin on his face. He was still holding her; neither of them seemed to want to move yet.

“That was a good swim,” he remarked, and they both broke into laughter.

Devin

Devin couldn’t stop looking at Camille’s hot naked body, even though he had just had her.

They had walked back to their clothes on the sand, and he watched her as she pulled up her red dress. He was lazily buttoning his pants, his body still quivered slightly from the force of the orgasm he had just had.

He didn’t know yet if Camille was just another conquest. He had taken, possessed, and fucked every woman he had ever wanted in his life. They had given themselves up willingly to his every desire. As had Camille. But he wasn’t sure yet, if she was just an entry on his list or if she meant more to him.

He wanted her again, just as soon as they were done, but that could be because of how sexy she was. She also had a certain innocent sweetness to her that he couldn’t quite describe, and now he followed her every movement with his eyes as she zipped up her dress and tried to fix her hair.

“You must be tired, I’ll drop you home now,” Devin said, picking up his jacket from the sand. Camille picked up her discarded shoes as well, and he noticed the blushing of her cheeks and the way she was avoiding his eyes. It was adorable, the way she couldn’t look at him now, even though he had been sucking on her nipples, cradling her naked body, and thrusting himself inside of her, only minutes ago.

“It’s been quite the night,” Camille replied, tucking a strand of hair behind one ear. She clearly was too nervous to know what to do with her hands. Devin wanted to hold her in his arms again and give her a tight sensual hug, but she was keeping her distance. He wondered if she already regretted sleeping with him.

They started walking back along the length of the beach.

“I had a nice evening, Camille,” he said after several minutes of silence. Devin could sense now that there were questions that she wanted to ask him, but he didn’t want to hear them. He wouldn’t know how to explain his life to her, and he also didn’t want to involve her, she was too simple for it.

“I had a nice evening too, even though some parts of it left me confused.”

“Here, I’ll explain it to you. We got naked, ran into the ocean and fucked on the beach. You were on top of me until I made you cum a few times,” Devin said in all seriousness, and she finally laughed.

He realized that he enjoyed watching her laugh. Her teeth were small and neat, and her whole body shook when she was laughing. It was a pleasure to look at.

“No, you know what I mean,” she said when her laughter finally died. Devin remained silent. Here it comes , he thought.

“I still don’t understand why some biker guys would want to chase you, and why you were so afraid that you hid in my shop. The lying to me about your fans bit, I get. You didn’t know me; we were strangers. You had no reason to tell me the truth. But why were you being chased?” Camille asked with sincerity. They were walking slowly, but the restaurant was already in sight.

Devin took his time to reply and avoided looking at her directly. He couldn’t be sure what would be the best approach.

“Like I told you before, I’m an entrepreneur. I have a couple of businesses to run, and these guys have their own businesses, and sometimes there is conflict,” Devin told her, looking ahead. He could sense that Camille’s eyes were on him.

“What kind of businesses?”

He looked at her. She almost looked scared like she was afraid of what she might hear; what he might tell her. Devin smiled, trying to put her at ease. He reached for her face and gently ran one fingertip over her smudged red lips.

“You don’t have to worry, Camille. It’s not what you think. It’s not dangerous or illegal.” He watched as she parted her lips and fluttered her eyelids. He could feel himself stir too. How could a girl he had just fucked still have this reaction on him? How could he want her so badly and quickly again?

Camille opened her eyes wide and nodded.

“Sure,” she said and quickened her pace. He followed her until they walked around the restaurant to the parking lot where his Harley waited for them.

“Camille!” he called out to her as she walked ahead of him to his bike. She stopped and turned around to look at him, questioningly. She looked beautiful, even with her hair in disarray with sand stuck to the back, her lips red and smudged, her shoes in her hands and not on her feet… he couldn’t think of a woman more beautiful, more desirable and yet more innocent and good.

“I had a good time. I’m sorry about the disruption. I’m sorry if you felt scared because of those men,” he said, pushing his hands into the pockets of his jeans as he stood in front of her. Camille licked her lips and then shook her head; her smile was weak and forced. She was trying to be brave, trying to understand.

“I wasn’t scared, I knew you would kick their asses.”

Devin smiled and walked over to his bike. “Hop on, let’s get you home.” He put on his helmet and watched as Camille smoothly, like an expert, climbed on the seat behind him. She wrapped her arms around his abdomen, and he felt himself stir again. Behind his helmet, Devin grinned again. This was going to be a good ride.

***

Devin and Camille arrived on his Harley outside her apartment building fifteen minutes later. He parked his bike as he had done previously, and planted his feet on the ground as she began to get off.

He didn’t know why or how, but he didn’t want her to leave. He didn’t want to have to watch her walk away from him. He wasn’t even sure if she wanted to see him again or whether or not she had completely changed her mind about him, or if she had gone out with him only as part of a deal for the comics he bought.

“When will I see you again?” he blurted out as she steadied herself on her feet. Camille looked up at him with a jerk, and her curls shook slightly from the movement. She looked like she hadn’t been expecting that question.

“When… when do you… I’ll check my calendar.” She was fumbling with her words, and Devin took off his helmet so that she could see his face, and see that he meant what he said. It wasn’t just a line that he dished out to every woman he fucked.

“How about this weekend? Saturday night at eight?” he asked before she could continue. Camille blinked at him, surprised again. She clearly wasn’t expecting this either. It seemed that she was under the impression that they were never going to see each other again. That he had fucked her and now he was going to cut her loose.

“Saturday night? Yeah, sure, I think I’m free,” Camille replied, licking her lips and playing with her hair. She tried to act natural, but he could see that a million thoughts were racing through her brain. Devin smiled, she was irresistible.

“You can bring a friend if you like,” he added, and then he watched her face drop. He realized what she might have thought he meant by that and he shook his head and laughed.

“Don’t worry, it’s not what you’re thinking. We’re going to an art gallery, for a show. Some of my friends will be there, so I don’t want you to feel alienated,” he explained, and her expression changed again.

“Art gallery?” Camille asked, still appearing confused. “You’re going to take me to an art gallery? Where your friends will be? Are you an artist?” Her mouth hung open.

Devin laughed again, it was adorable to see her this confused. He wanted to kiss her, to knead her breasts with his hands, and lick her long slender neck. He could feel his dick throbbing, growing again.

“No, I’m not. It’s just an art gallery. One of my friends organized a show, and I thought you’d be interested since you’re an artist yourself.”

Camille blushed, nodded, and smiled. “Yes, that’ll be great. I’ll see you at eight on Saturday then,” she told him, still standing just a few feet away from him. Devin was straddling his bike.

“I’ll pick you up.” He smirked at her. “Kiss me before you go, Camille,” he said in a deep, gruff voice. He wanted to feel her lips again. She had no idea how desperately he was craving for her.

Camille stepped towards him gingerly, her face was still flushed, and she couldn’t meet his gaze. Then, she leaned in, and he grabbed her head with both hands. Their lips met; hers were soft and tasted of wine and vanilla. He kissed her strongly, feeling the inside of her mouth with his tongue. He held her face in place with his hands and kissed her for several minutes until he could tell that she was out of breath.

Camille turned from him when she pulled away, and then hurried towards the house without saying anything. Devin was smiling as he watched her walk away. Her butt swayed in her tight red dress, her hair was a mess, and she walked hurriedly to the front door. She stopped and gave him a shy smile before going inside.

Devin shook his head after she was gone. He was in disbelief of the effect she had on him. He had never felt this way before. He was resisting the urge; fighting against it to follow her in and fuck her again.

Instead, he pulled out his phone and dialed a number he knew by heart.

“Hi, it’s me,” he said when he heard her voice on the other end. She might have been sleeping because she sounded groggy.

“Hello, darling,” she replied, breathing heavily into the phone. Devin sighed, looking up at Camille’s apartment where the lights had just come on. He could see her shadow in the house, behind the lace curtains on her window.

“Add two more people to the guest list for the show.”

Devin heard her sigh on the other end of the line. “Whatever you want darling.”

On another night, in any other circumstance, Devin would have been turned on by that voice. He would have remembered her naked body and zoomed over to her apartment in under ten minutes. He would have tied her hands with her silk underwear to the bedposts and fucked her hard, just the way she liked it. But tonight all he could do was think about Camille - her laugh, her body, and how she trusted him without admitting it.

“See you on Saturday,” he said and hung up before she could say anything else.

He waited for a few minutes longer; looking up at Camille’s lit window until she turned the lights off. She was going to bed, and Devin slowly put his helmet back on.

He forced himself to ride away. If he could, if he thought it wouldn’t spook her, he might have stayed all night outside her apartment building, waiting for her to wake up in the morning so that he could take her for coffee. But he knew it wasn’t appropriate.

He wondered if Camille was going to stay awake that night in bed thinking about him.


Camille

The comic bookstore was empty again, well nearly empty. There was one dorky guy in thick glasses who had been browsing through the racks of books for the past twenty minutes. Camille stood behind the desk twiddling her thumbs. The previous night was magical, thrilling, and confusing all at the same time. She couldn’t stop thinking of Devin; his rock solid abs, his large hands on her body, his tongue on her breasts…

“I’ll take this one.” The guy with the glasses had walked over and placed an old Marvel comic down on the counter.

“Sure, would you like a paper bag for it?” Camille zapped the book’s barcode through the system and waited for him to hand the money over to her.

“No, thanks,” the guy stuttered nervously, and she sensed that his eyes had traveled to the top of her cleavage. Camille shifted her feet and accepted the money he had stretched towards her.

She silently counted the change from the till, uncomfortable under his salivating creepy gaze. She thought of Devin and the way he had looked at her. What had made his lustful gaze so much more desirable than any other man?

The bell on top of the store door tinkled, and Camille looked up. Her hands froze as she handed the change back to the guy. There were three men at the door; all heavily tattooed, with piercings and leather jackets. It couldn’t have been a coincidence.

Suddenly, she didn’t want the dorky guy to go. She didn’t want to be alone with these three men in the store. She wanted to scream and call Devin. But she had no way to reach him.

The guy with the glasses took the change and scurried out of the shop, and Camille remained behind the counter, her heart beating fast, pearls of sweat appearing on her forehead. She hadn’t seen these three men before, but she knew exactly why they were here. They were walking towards her, and she felt her knees shake a little. She forced herself to lift up her chin and paste a fake smile on her face.

“Good morning, cupcake,” one of the men said, his eyes immediately dropping to her breasts. Camille wanted to run. She could see them all studying her - her cleavage, face, hands, and body. They were all undressing her with their eyes. She wished she could disappear.

“Morning,” Camille said nervously, retreating a little away from the counter. She knew it was a bad move to indicate how afraid of them she was, but she couldn’t stop herself. How had they even found her?

“How’s business?” another guy with blackened teeth asked, now leaning with his elbows on the counter so that he was even closer to her. They all smelt of beer and cigarettes, and Camille gulped, still trying hard to keep the smile on her face.

“Good. Thanks,” she replied, her eyes flitted from one face to another. One of them laughed and picked up a comic book from a nearby stand and turned the pages quickly.

“We were just in the neighborhood,” the guy with the bad teeth said with a wide sleazy smile. Camille shrugged her shoulders as if to say, so what? The guy with the comic book in his hand threw it on the floor casually and looked at her. He had a long gash across his cheek, and his eyes were the same color as Devin’s. But they looked evil, leery, and dirty.

“Is your friend Devin here?” the guy who had been silent all this while inquired. She turned to him; he had a red bandana around his head and no smile on his face. This guy had no time for anything else. He meant business.

“Devin?” She licked her lips.

“Yes, Devin. The guy you went for a walk with on the beach last night.” He placed both hands on the counter.

Camille shook her head slowly. “No, he’s not.”

The guy with the bad teeth laughed loudly. “Where is he then, sweetheart?”

Camille shook her head again. She really wished someone would come into the shop.

“I don’t know. I have no idea,” she insisted, taking a few steps back so that now her back was pressed against the wall. The three men exchanged looks and then turned to her again.

“Tell him The Choppers want to have a word with him okay, cupcake?” The guy who had thrown the comic book on the floor told her and picked up a pack of playing cards from the counter.

Camille nodded in silence. She just wanted them to leave.

“That’s a good girl.” He slipped the pack of cards into his jacket pocket.

“You have a good day, and stay safe,” the guy with the bad teeth said and straightened up. They all smiled at her, but it was a smile of warning before they turned around and walked out of the store.

It was only after they left that Camille realized she had been holding her breath. She was still scared and shaking. All she wanted was to feel Devin’s arms around her shoulders, to hear his voice, and for him to drive those men away.

But all she could do was lean silently on the counter and watch the men get on their bikes parked outside and ride noisily away.

Suddenly it felt like Camille’s whole life was changing. Something like this would never have happened before Devin Rock walked into her store and locked the door behind him. But curiously enough, she didn’t blame him; she just wanted to see him again.

***

“We haven’t worked on the next issue for the past ten days, Camille.” Shayna was sprawled on her couch, digging between her teeth with her long little fingernail.

“I know, I know. Just give me a few more days, please? I’m really distracted,” Camille said, bringing two mugs of tea to the coffee table in front of Shayna.

Shayna still remained sprawled, following Camille with her eyes.

“You’re not seriously going to go to the art gallery, are you Camille?” Shayna asked, straightening her neck and glaring at her. Camille sat down on the beanbag on the floor, across from Shayna and sighed.

“Camille, that man is trouble. Three big thugs came into your store yesterday and literally threatened you.” Shayna sat up on the couch now and folded her short legs. She was wearing torn fishnets again, her trademark look. Camille was in a pair of jeans and an old oversized t-shirt. She was in no mood for dressing up again.

“They didn’t threaten me. They were just looking for Devin, so they came to me.” Camille reached for her mug of tea, while Shayna continued glaring.

“Camille! They came to your store, stole a pack of cards, and basically commanded you to tell Devin they were there. Don’t be so naive. That was a threat.” Shayna’s voice was raised now; she sounded exasperated with Camille. Camille took a sip of her tea and gulped. Shayna was making sense, but she wanted to see Devin again, she needed to see him again.

“I can’t cancel now, I don’t have his phone number,” Camille told her, avoiding her friend’s eyes.

Shayna sighed loudly. “So just tell him you can’t go when he turns up here on Saturday.”

Camille remained silent, staring at her feet.

“I want to go, Shayna,” she said after a few seconds of silence.

Shayna flung herself back on the couch and covered her face with both her hands.

“Why, Camille, why?” Her voice indicated that she was not happy, but not quite angry either. Shayna wanted to understand what Devin’s pull was; what Camille saw in him.

“Because I want to see him again. I’m… attracted to him.” Camille dared to look at Shayna again.

“Because he has a big dick?” Shayna asked, half mockingly with an eyebrow raised.

Camille smiled embarrassedly and then shook her head. “It’s not just that, there’s something else about him.”

“He’s capable of putting your life in danger, Camille!”

“How?!” Camille stood up from the beanbag with a jerk. She placed the mug of tea back on the table and stared at Shayna. It was a genuine question.

“Because he’s putting you in harm’s way. Who knows what kind of business he runs, and what he’s involved in? The more you see him, the more entwined you’ll get in his stuff,” Shayna said, flailing her arms about her. She was obviously desperate for Camille to see some sense in this.

“He promised me that it’s not dangerous or illegal,” Camille insisted, but Shayna rolled her eyes.

“He was hiding away in your locked bookstore, then he punched a guy in the face and then three of them turned up at the store. How is any of that not dangerous?” Shayna asked, glaring at Camille. She had forgotten about her tea, but so had Camille by now.

“I’m going Shayna, and that’s that. I want to know what’s going on. I want to see him again,” Camille said in a strained voice. She had raised her own voice to match Shayna’s. “Are you going to come with me or not?”

The two girls stared at each other. Shayna had her lips pursed as she glared at Camille, and then she rolled her eyes again while folding her arms on her chest.

“Fine, whatever. Just because you’re my best friend and I love you,” Shayna finally replied, and Camille clapped her hands and went over to give her a hug.

“I love you too, Shayna. And I promise I won’t get myself into trouble,” Camille said, hugging her tightly.

“We’ll see. I just don’t get a good feeling about this guy. He sounds like someone who is capable of anything,” Shayna told her with a pinched face and crossed brows. She had agreed to go, but it seemed like she was still hoping that Camille would change her mind.

“I know what you mean, but I don’t know how to describe him better to you. He’s sweet and funny and protective.”

“He just has a massive cock,” Shayna said, and they both laughed. Camille had told Shayna about the sex on the beach, and since then Shayna believed that the amazing orgasm that Camille had experienced had completely changed her.

“Thanks again for agreeing to come with me, Shayna.” Camille sat back down on the beanbag, and Shayna finally picked up the mug of tea that had begun to get cold

“Of course I would. I don’t want you to spend any more time alone with that man. Not if I can help it,” Shayna said, sipping the tea and looking Camille directly in the eye. Camille sighed and then smiled. She didn’t want to say anything to Shayna, but the truth was that she couldn’t wait to be alone with Devin again.

“Can we work on our comic now, please?” Shayna then asked, breaking her train of thought.

“We can try, but I can’t promise that I’ll be any good. I’m sorry, I’m really just very distracted.” Camille watched Shayna walk over to her bag to get her notebook.

Shayna sighed and then turned to Camille with a shrug. “Fine, whatever, let’s do it on Sunday then, after our little visit to the art gallery.”

Camille beamed. “Sounds like a plan!”


Devin

Devin honked twice. He was parked in the same spot but in a Ferrari this time, and he saw Camille’s face appear at the window and then disappear. The past two days had been quite the wait.

His boys worked tirelessly trying to get in touch with The Choppers, to find out what the problem was. Why they were stalking Devin. But nothing was discovered. He had also been desperate to see Camille again. Two days without hearing her voice, seeing her face, holding her… it had made him grow anxious. And Devin couldn’t think of the last time a woman had made him anxious.

In a few minutes, the front door of Camille’s building opened, and she appeared, followed by another girl who Devin assumed was Camille’s friend.

She looked different today; there was no red dress. But she was just as gorgeous.

Camille wore a black pencil skirt that stretched over her long slender thighs, with a simple white silk blouse tucked into it and sparkling silver earrings. She had chosen a dark plum lipstick for her kissable lips, and her blue eyes shone just as bright as her earrings. Devin barely noticed her friend as his eyes remained on Camille.

“Devin, this is my friend, Shayna.” Camille had walked up to the rolled down window on the driver’s side.

“Hi, Shayna.” Devin tipped his head at her friend. “Hi Camille, you look beautiful,” he then added. Camille blushed, dropped her gaze, and walked around the front of the car to the passenger’s side. She climbed in, as did Shayna jumped in the back.

“How have you been?” he asked, turning to Camille with a wide smile on his face. Camille smiled back as she strapped her seat belt on. Devin had already forgotten there was another person in the car with them; all his focus remained on Camille.

“I’ve been well. How have you been?” she asked in her sweet musical voice. Devin nodded his head in response, watching her face, and then her nervous fingers on her lap. She was smiling widely, seemingly happy to see him.

In the backseat, Shayna cleared her throat, and the two girls exchanged looks.

“Devin,” Camille began as the smile disappeared from her face. For a moment he thought she was going to tell him that she wouldn’t be able to go out with him and that she never wanted to see him again.

“Three guys from some biker club came into the store the day before morning. They were looking for you,” Camille finished, looking up at him. Her blue eyes were suddenly small, and she looked afraid. Devin lost his temper almost immediately and struck the steering wheel with his fist.

“Did they hurt you? Did they threaten you?!”

Camille looked more afraid of his reaction, so he tried to calm himself down. “I’m sorry, Camille. Are you alright?” he asked, and she silently nodded.

“No, they didn’t do anything to me. They just wanted you to know that they’re looking for you,” she replied, and Devin reached for her face, he wanted to touch her lips, but Shayna interrupted them.

“Why are your enemies following Camille? What do they want from her?” Shayna’s voice was shrill, and Devin turned to look at her with his brows crossed.

“Shayna, will you please just relax?” Camille said while Shayna glared at him with dark eyes. Devin glared back until Camille touched him on his shoulder.

“She’s just worried about me,” Camille told him, but he didn’t stop glaring at Shayna. He had heard the threat in her voice. Shayna was trying to communicate to him with her voice and her eyes that she had control over her friend, and that Camille would listen to her.

“As am I,” Devin said, still holding Shayna’s glare.

“Then why are thugs turning up at her bookstore? What kind of shit have you gotten her into?” Shayna said through gritted teeth.

“Shayna! Stop it!” Camille’s voice was raised, and she jerked Devin’s arm, urging him to turn back around.

“I’ll take care of it, Camille. I don’t know what they want from me, but I’ll find out. You won’t have to go through that ever again.” Devin turned back to her, with his hand on the ignition key. Camille still had her hand softly placed on his arm, and his temper started to die down. Just looking at her face had that effect on him. He felt calmer around her.

“I’m sure you will, let’s just go to the art gallery,” Camille said. He nodded and threw one quick look at Shayna before revving up the engine.

“What a noisy little car,” he heard Shayna say in the back, but he only rolled his eyes.

“I’m looking forward to this. I didn’t expect an art gallery from you,” Camille added, ignoring Shayna’s comment, and Devin started the car with a smile. All he needed was to hear Camille’s voice, to have her by his side. Shayna was being problematic, and he wasn’t yet quite sure how much power she really had over Camille.

But for now he didn’t care, he was just happy to see Camille again. He drove, asking her questions about her day. Shayna sat in the back silently as they drove towards the art gallery, while Camille chatted away, looking over to him from time to time.

She was laughing more tonight, smiling a lot and he wondered if she was as happy to see him as he was to see her. He wanted to ask if she had been thinking about him, but he couldn’t because Devin Rock had never been this needy for a woman before. He had never been this desperate for one woman’s attention. But Camille Griffin was something else; she was like nobody he had ever met before.

***

Devin walked around to open the door for Camille once they had reached the art gallery and parked the car. She gave him her hand when she stepped out. He had held the door open for Shayna as well, and she stepped out behind them.

“Your friend is having a show at Evangeline Fox’s Art Gallery?” Shayna commented, looking at the lit up gallery across the road. The streets were jam-packed with expensive cars, and paparazzi cameras blocked the entrance. Miami’s best and foremost were arriving.

“Devin? This is a surprise. I don’t think I’m dressed for the occasion,” Camille whispered in his ear. Devin turned to her and smiled. Her hand was small in his, and he gripped it tightly as he led her across the street. Shayna had already crossed and was on the other side.

“Your friend must be very talented to be able to hold an exhibition here,” Camille added as they walked together. Her arm was entwined with his and Devin’s heart was racing. He couldn’t stop himself from constantly turning to look at her.

“Yes, she is very talented. She is a photographer. And, you look lovely, Camille, you will be the best dressed in the whole place.” Devin placed a gentle forefinger under her chin. Camille’s eyes widened, and she blushed again; her heels were clicking loudly on the street.

Some cameras turned towards them as they entered, with Shayna leading the way in. Now, even she looked excited, her former bitterness gone.

With Camille on his arm, they entered the gallery and found that it was crowded to the brink with Miami’s glitterati. The photographs were all up on the walls, and people had thronged around them.

“Devin!” He heard Camille cry when her eyes fell on the photographs. He wasn’t sure what her reaction would be. He could sense people walking towards them in a hurry, people who had been waiting for him to arrive. People who now couldn’t wait to talk to him.

“These are all photographs of you!” It was Shayna who spoke up, turning to both of them, and Devin turned his face to look at Camille. She wasn’t looking at him; she was looking at the photographs on the walls. Her grip on his arm had loosened. She was too distracted by what she was seeing to focus on him anymore.

“They are not all me,” Devin said, and Camille whipped around to look at him. He couldn’t tell what she was feeling. “This is a photo series of my biker club. The photographer wanted to shoot us, and she did, over the course of six months,” he explained, and both the girls looked around them dazed.

Even Devin had to admit that the photographs had come out great. They were mostly in black and white, and most of the ones of him were shirtless, or nude from the back. Some raw, honest moments had been captured by the camera.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Camille asked.

“I wanted it to be a surprise.” Devin smiled, and she tried to smile, but couldn’t. It was apparently all too overwhelming for her.

“They all seem to love it,” Camille said, looking deep into his eyes.

“Apparently this is art.” He reached for her face and grazed the side of her cheek with his finger.

“It is art. These shots are beautiful. You look handsome.” Camille’s voice had gone shy. Shayna had drifted away from them, and finally, Devin felt like he could have some time alone with Camille.

“This will probably make me more money than my business,” he said gruffly, pulling Camille to him by her waist. She placed her hands flat on his chest and looked up at him, with her sparkling blue eyes. Her lips looked luscious, like dark rich velvet. He wanted to kiss her there, rip her clothes off… but he knew all eyes were on them. Cameras too.

“I hope this is a good surprise, Camille,” he said, and she took her time to respond, but nodded.

“You’re a part of the art. And who is the photographer?” Camille asked, drawing closer to him so that he could hear her over the loud chatter in the gallery.

“It’s actually Evangeline,” Devin replied and watched as Camille’s eyes grew wide again.

“Evangeline Fox?” Camille’s brows went up. “You are friends with Evangeline Fox?”

Devin nodded. “Yeah, Evangeline is an old friend. She wanted to do this project, and we agreed.” Devin released his grip on Camille’s waist when he saw a reporter approaching them. He was aware that an art show like this, of nearly naked biker boys, would create a buzz. Evangeline had warned him of that… but this was not the scale of buzz he had been expecting.

“Camille, will you excuse me, please? I should probably go and mingle. I’ll find you soon,” he said, taking a few steps away from her.

Camille looked disheartened for a few moments but then seemed to force a smile and nodded her understanding. “Of course, go. You’re the star tonight,” she replied and gestured for him to leave.

The male reporter had been waiting to the side and now took the opportunity to step in between the couple.

“Hi, Mr. Rock. I’m Marcus Wise from The Evening Gazette. I was wondering if we could have a quick word?” The reporter had already taken his notepad out.

Devin licked his lips and turned from Camille to the reporter and smiled. Evangeline had given him strict instructions to be friendly with all the reporters. Her success with the project depended on it.

When he looked up again, Camille was gone. She had dissolved into the crowd of people, and he missed her already.


Camille

Camille wanted to touch the photographs hanging on the walls but knew that she couldn’t. The ones that were getting the most attention from people attending the art show were of Devin. He had a deep, intense stare as he peered directly down the lens of the camera.

In all the photographs he was shirtless on his bike or at the breakfast table with scruffy hair, his jeans low on his groin, and the elastic band of his underwear sticking out. His torso, his washboard abs, the light dusting of dark hair on his chest, the tattoos on his back, his large masculine hands, his muscles… they were all making Camille’s head spin. Everywhere she looked, women were pointing at the photograph - laughing, giggling, and ogling.

Camille knew she had no right to feel jealous. Who was she to Devin? They had been on one date together and had sex… but so what? Camille wanted to leave, she had a terrible feeling that she wouldn’t be able to bear to be around the photographs for too much longer.

Shayna was nowhere to be seen, and neither was Devin. The gallery was stuffed with people carrying champagne glasses in beautiful expensive-looking dresses, and Camille felt out of place. She didn’t feel worthy to be there. Then she caught sight of Devin again. He was standing underneath one of the framed photographs and shaking hands with a few people dressed in tuxedos. She smiled because suddenly she realized that he looked as out of place as she felt.

He hadn’t traded in his usual attire for a suit. He was still in a pair of dark jeans, with a plain white t-shirt, black leather jacket, and muddy boots. Even his hair looked the same. Devin had put in no extra effort for the art show despite it being held in his honor.

He caught Camille’s eye as she stood in the corner with a smile on her face. When he started walking towards her, she bit down on her lip.

“Sorry I had to go away, I hope you’re not bored,” Devin said when he finally approached her. She could see that everyone was turning to look at them, they all wanted to see who this handsome hunk of a model had come to the gallery with.

“No, I’m not bored at all. This is lovely,” Camille replied. Devin smiled and stared into her eyes. Whenever he did that, it always made her feel uncomfortable because it reminded her of their naked bodies pressed together on the beach. He’d looked at her the same way he had that night when she bounced on his lap.

“This would be a great place to hold an art exhibition,” Devin added, interrupting her thoughts and Camille’s brows crossed. She didn’t know what he was trying to say.

“Yes, it is good.”

“You’re an artist, don’t you have some art to show?” Devin took a few steps closer to her.

Camille felt her cheeks flush. She couldn’t believe that he would even suggest a thing like that.

“My art at Evangeline Fox’s gallery? Don’t be ridiculous.” Camille rolled her eyes, but Devin was still staring at her, with an encouraging smile on his face.

“I told you I’m friends with her, and I know she is always on the lookout for new talent. I’m sure she’ll be open to at least seeing your work,” Devin said, catching her embarrassed gaze. Camille tried to smile; this man was something else! And he didn’t even know the truth yet about her comics.

“I don’t need your help, Devin. And also, I told you, my art is just a hobby.” Camille was twiddling her thumbs as she stood in front of him.

“So make it more than just a hobby,” he suggested, and Camille shook her head.

“You haven’t even seen it yet. What if it’s absolute crap?” Camille gave a nervous laugh, but Devin wasn’t laughing.

“I know it isn’t. I know you have some hidden talent in you that is waiting to come out. I won’t be doing it as a favor; I’ll just help you get a lucky break. What’s wrong with that?”

Camille bit down on her lip, smiling unabashedly at him. She could feel her stomach churning; he was looking at her in that same way again.

“Guys, this is amazing. I had no idea, Devin!” Shayna had appeared next to them, and Camille turned, surprised. She hadn’t expected Shayna to suddenly change her tune, she actually sounded like she was impressed.

Camille smiled as Shayna gave her an obvious wink.

“Thanks, Shayna. I’m glad you both like it,” Devin said, and then turned back to Camille.

“She’s right Devin, this is amazing,” Camille told him. Then Devin’s face changed, as he looked past her. Camille turned to look as well.

“Oh great, there she is. I should introduce the two of you.” Devin hastily walked away from them, towards a woman who was standing across the room.

“Oh my gosh. Is that Evangeline Fox? Did you know that she’s the one who photographed him?” Shayna was speaking excitedly beside Camille.

Devin had reached the woman by now and had leaned in to speak into her ear. Camille noticed the way Devin’s hand gently touched her waist. There wasn’t anything overtly sexual in their relationship, but even from a distance, Camille could tell that they knew each other intimately. It was more than just a photographer-model connection.

They had started walking towards her and Shayna, and Camille needed no introduction to this woman. She had known it instantly; Evangeline Fox was Devin’s ex-girlfriend.

***

The best word to describe Evangeline as she walked towards Camille was elegant. Evangeline was in a long navy velvet dress that clung to her body and had a slit at the waist, so that every time she took a step, her long pale legs were revealed. She was slender to the point of perfection. She was wearing a dark bejeweled choker on her neck and matching long earrings. Her makeup was dark and silvery, and her hair was long, brunette and fell like a satin curtain around her shoulders.

Evangeline took small tender steps in her high heels and Devin walked beside her, talking into her ear. She held out her hand to a few people who crossed their paths, and they all kissed her hand like she was a queen among her subjects.

Camille felt too small, too nervous, and could feel her neck burning up with jealousy. She felt like she was no match for Evangeline Fox’s grace, charm, wealth, and incredible talent.

“She is absolutely stunning, isn’t she?” she heard Shayna’s voice beside her, and Camille shook her head to set her brain straight again.

“Yes… yes, she is,” Camille admitted, her nervous smile twitching a little.

“Do you think they’re friends? Is Devin going to introduce her to us?”

Camille gulped; she didn’t want Devin to introduce them, as she was afraid of how Evangeline would look at her.

She had not looked at Camille yet. Instead, Evangeline was allowing Devin to simply lead the way. She kept her attention focused on the other guests at the gallery - waving, smiling and extending her hand. She was the perfect hostess, absolutely flawless, and it was easy to see why Devin might have been attracted to her. Maybe he still was.

“Yes, they are friends,” Camille replied dejectedly to Shayna’s question. She wished she could disappear. Evangeline and Devin were close to them now, and all Camille wanted to do was run away.

But then she looked at Devin - at his handsome face, the face of a man she felt safe around - and she felt a little better. She didn’t know if she could trust him or what he wanted from her. All she knew was that she felt uplifted around him; confident and happy.

But he was with Evangeline Fox.

“Camille, I would like to introduce you to my photographer, Evangeline, Evangeline Fox,” Devin said. He had placed a hand on Evangeline’s waist as he made the introduction. Evangeline’s eyes finally rested on Camille. She had an icy cold stare - gray eyes and no smile. At that moment, when Evangeline first laid eyes on Camille, it was clear that Evangeline despised her.

Camille knew instantly that Evangeline had seen her earlier when they first came into the gallery, obviously from a distance. She had watched Devin with her, and she knew that they had come to the gallery together. Yet, she made a show of not noticing Camille and being disinterested in her.

Evangeline raised her eyebrows and extended her hand to Camille, still without a smile on her face. With Evangeline’s long fingers floating in front of her, Camille wasn’t sure if she was meant to kiss her hand or shake it.

“Hello, Evangeline. This is a lovely exhibition,” Camille said nervously and took her hand softly and gave it a shake.

“Hello, darling, Devin warned me that he was bringing two unexpected guests.” Evangeline’s voice was polished and sophisticated. She used small curt words, and her tone was as icy cold as her stare.

“And who is this charming young woman?” she asked, turning to look at Shayna. Camille could sense Shayna’s anxiety beside her.

“This is Camille’s friend, Shayna,” Devin told her, and Camille looked at him for support. But he had no idea the effect that Evangeline had on Camille. He was only politely making introductions.

“How lovely. Hello, Shayna.”

“Hello, Evangeline. I’m a big fan.” Shayna gulped like a teenage girl. Evangeline shook her hand as well and then turned to Camille again.

A strange silence hung in the air between them until Devin spoke.

“Camille is an artist herself. She is too humble to show her work to me, but maybe you can persuade her to show it to you,” Devin said, and Camille felt like she would melt into the floor. She didn’t want him to discuss her art with Evangeline. In fact, she didn’t want to be in Evangeline’s presence for a second longer.

A smile suddenly broke out on Evangeline’s face, but it didn’t reach her eyes. Her lips stretched over her face, and she reached over to Camille, placing a long hand on her shoulder unexpectedly.

“You shouldn’t be shy about your work, dear girl. If you are an artist, you must express yourself,” Evangeline said in a wise, rich tone, and Camille felt like she could burst out crying.

“I have to go and talk to Mark. I’ll be back soon. Evangeline, why don’t you give them a tour?” Devin suddenly said and threw a quick look at the graceful photographer before he disappeared into the crowd. He hadn’t even turned to Camille, and she began to feel worried.

The smile vanished from Evangeline’s face as quickly as it had appeared. “How sweet of Devin to have invited you two to the show.” Evangeline held her hands together with poise.

Shayna giggled beside Camille and nodded. Camille stood quietly, staring back at Evangeline’s icy gaze. She wasn’t sure what to say or do in her presence; she felt like the photographer was constantly judging her.

“Come along with me darlings, as Devin said, you at least deserve a tour. See for yourselves how absolutely stunning he is,” Evangeline declared and after turning on her heels, began to walk away. Camille didn’t want to follow her, but she had no other choice. It was too late to not be a part of Devin’s world now.


Camille

“Now, when this shot was taken, Devin was especially well behaved,” Evangeline said, flipping her long, lustrous brunette hair back over her shoulder. She had a laugh in her voice as she stood beneath the life-sized portrait of Devin.

Camille looked up. The shot was taken in the middle of Devin cleaning his bike. He had a water hose in his hand that was directed at the bike and a frown on his face. His dark brown intense eyes were staring directly at the camera again as if he didn’t appreciate being interrupted by the photography. He was stripped down to just his jeans, and the tattoos on his torso glistened in the sun behind him. His dark hair was ruffled like he had just woken up.

Camille could sense Shayna’s awe; she was thoroughly impressed by Evangeline.

“Is he an unpredictable subject to photograph?” Shayna asked, and Evangeline laughed again.

“Unpredictable in the best of ways. One minute we’d be tumbling in bed together, and he’d be making me scream with pleasure, and then the next he’d be out of bed, his beautiful naked body the perfect subject for my lenses.” Evangeline rubbed her hands together as she spoke, and even though Camille tried not to look at her, she could sense that Evangeline was directing her words towards her.

Shayna shifted on her feet uncomfortably. She knew Camille and Devin had sex on the beach, and that Camille wouldn’t be feeling comfortable with this kind of talk. But Evangeline didn’t seem to care that she was making either of the women uncomfortable. She was rejoicing in it.

“Devin’s body itself is art,” Evangeline added, and Camille suddenly turned to her and smiled. She didn’t want to display her displeasure; she didn’t want to allow Evangeline to feel as though she had succeeded in making Camille feel bad.

“This one for instance.” Evangeline took a few steps to the left. She now stood beside a black and white photograph of Devin. He was sitting on the porch of a house, with a cowboy hat on, and fully clothed. But his shirt was left open so that his muscular torso was bare and available for anybody to drool over.

Camille looked away from Evangeline, embarrassed. She didn’t need to be taken on this tour; in fact, she’d had enough of it.

“This was right after Devin had come back home after a fistfight with one of the other gangs.” Evangeline looked up at the photograph. “His appetite for my body grew every time he was in a fight,” she continued, and Camille gulped. This was completely inappropriate, Camille thought; she didn’t need to hear this. But Evangeline was saying all this on purpose. She wanted to make it clear to Camille that she had been with Devin, many times. And that she’d had everything Camille was now getting. Shayna remained silent as well, but Camille knew her friend would take her side no matter how much she appreciated Evangeline’s work.

“So he threw me on his bed, made me cum and then walked out and sat on the porch with a glass of whiskey,” Evangeline continued, disregarding the silence from the other two women. “I couldn’t resist the shot. I followed him with my camera. I was fully naked!” Evangeline laughed loudly. She was enjoying herself, even though she could see that Camille was suffering. This was not the kind of tour that Devin had intended for her… or had he?

Camille couldn’t stop thinking why Devin would leave her alone with a spiteful and embittered ex-girlfriend. Did he not know what Evangeline was like? Or was he trying to scare her away? Was he trying to push Camille away so that he wouldn’t have to directly break up with her? Break up from what? Was this even a relationship?

“Look at those lines. Those angles on his face.” Evangeline raised herself on her toes, to extend her hand and touch the photograph. Camille watched with contempt. There was no denying it; Evangeline was beautiful and graceful. She was touching Devin’s face, admiring him and her handiwork. It was so clear to see that the relationship wasn’t over in her eyes; Evangeline was still not over Devin.

“Every time I take a photograph of Devin, and try to sell it, it’s gone before I bat an eyelid. Women love having framed photographs of Devin hanging on their bedroom walls. I have some clients who have an entire collection. They just can’t seem to get enough of him.” Evangeline turned to Camille and smiled. Camille forced out a smile and nodded.

“It’s easy to see why. These photographs are stunning,” she replied, lifting her chin up.

Evangeline raised a neat high-arched eyebrow. “As is Devin,” Evangeline said, and Camille kept the smile on her face. Try as she might, Evangeline wasn’t going to see Camille drool over him. She wasn’t going to do it for Evangeline’s pleasure.

“If he’s invited you here, he must think you’re really special,” Evangeline remarked suddenly, and a frown appeared on Camille’s face.

“Camille is a great artist,” Shayna said nervously. It was obvious that Shayna’s defensive mode was on; she was trying to protect her friend’s dignity.

“I’m sure she is.” Evangeline reached for Camille and placed a cold hand on her arm. She had a gentle, brittle touch like she could break any moment. It made Camille’s skin crawl. “And I’m sure he sees something more in her too. Big boobs and parting legs.” Another loud laugh exploded out of Evangeline. Camille felt her cheeks flush and her neck grow hot. She roughly pulled her arm away from Evangeline and then felt Shayna’s hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t say anything,” she said through gritted teeth, just loud enough for Shayna to hear.

“There you girls are,” Camille heard Devin’s voice behind her, and then he appeared. He walked straight past Shayna and her and over to Evangeline, placing a small quick kiss on her right cheek. Camille’s face was still burning up with rage. She couldn’t believe Evangeline had just said that right to her face… and then laughed!

She wanted to disappear.

She wanted Devin to come to her rescue, to stop kissing Evangeline politely on her cheeks, and to take her away from this place. But he still couldn’t sense her discomfort. He seemed proud that his ex-girlfriend and his new maybe girlfriend were getting along so well.

“I’ve been giving them the tour,” Evangeline said, leaning on Devin’s arm, as he shifted his gaze to Camille. She could see the pride in his eyes, and also a certain sense of satisfaction. She knew she wasn’t smiling; she couldn’t keep up the act.

“Well, Camille doesn’t seem to have been enjoying it,” Devin replied, and without warning, took a few steps towards her, placing himself directly in front of Camille. She had to crane her neck up to look at him, and when their eyes met, she could feel a flush of happiness flooding her body. Just the sight of him made her feel like everything was going to be fine. Nothing could go wrong now.

“I enjoyed it. The photographs are lovely,” Camille said in a quiet voice, and then Devin suddenly bent his head and kissed her on her lips. The kiss came out of the blue. It was short, and it took her by surprise, but when they parted Camille was gasping for breath. She couldn’t believe he had just done that. It was the perfect payback for Evangeline. Camille’s heart was beating so fast that she thought she might faint.

From the corner of her eye, she could see Evangeline’s face twisted in rage. Her pale skin had suddenly darkened; she couldn’t stand watching Devin kiss anybody else.

“So is it business as usual?” she asked in a high-pitched voice. Camille smiled when she realized that Evangeline was desperate to interrupt them and bring the attention back to her. Devin turned to look at her, and Evangeline smiled weakly. She had folded her arm over her chest and perfect small breasts. Camille raised her chin, confident again, and studied Evangeline’s nervous flushed face.

“As in, do the proceeds from the sale go to the same charity?” Evangeline asked, and from the look on Devin’s face, it seemed that Evangeline had asked him a very obvious question. Camille smiled when she realized that Devin had no idea the political battle that the women in his life were playing. He was just confused.

“Yes, obviously,” he said with his brows crossed and Camille placed a hand on his shoulder to distract him from Evangeline again.

“What charity? You donate the money raised here to charity?” Camille asked, and Devin turned to her. He looked flustered and at a loss for words.

“It’s nothing. Maybe I should go find us all some drinks.” Devin started walking away from them. Camille’s hand dropped to her side, and she looked at Devin as he weaved through the crowd. She had no idea what had just happened. What was the meaning of that reaction? Why did donating to a charity embarrass him?

“Really, Camille. You shouldn’t be prying,” she heard Evangeline’s clipped voice, and she swung her head around to look at the woman.

She was still standing with her arms crossed over her chest; her feet planted firmly on the ground. Her long pale leg had appeared through the slit in her velvet dress, and she had the appearance of a villain in a superhero movie, with her dark silvery makeup and lips. Camille looked back at her with her eyebrows crossed.

“It was just a simple, innocent question.” Shayna was the one who answered, coming to her defense.

Evangeline was grinning again; fluttering her long lashes from Camille to Shayna and then back at Camille.

“Do you always have your sidekick answer for you?” Evangeline asked, and for the first time, Camille heard the malice in the other woman’s voice. Until now, Evangeline had done a good job of pretending to be a civil and courteous hostess. But she couldn’t pretend anymore. There was rage dripping from her voice.

“Thank you, Evangeline, for the tour,” Camille said, no longer smiling. She didn’t want to have a public fight with this woman. She grabbed Shayna by the arm and made to turn away, but Evangeline stopped them again with her voice.

“You think you understand him, but you don’t. He is more sensitive than you think he is. He has more secrets than you can imagine.” The same calm frozen look on her face had returned. Evangeline was a master at disguise. She wouldn’t allow herself to lose her composure for too long.

“You should be careful around him. If you can handle him at all,” she added and threw them a smirk.

“Whatever happens between Devin and me is private, but thank you for your concern Evangeline,” Camille said, spitting the words out at her.

“It was a pleasure,” Evangeline replied before walking away from them. Camille and Shayna both remained silent as they watched Evangeline walk back into the crowd. With her head lifted high, her long thick dark lashes fluttering, she was poised and ready to play hostess again.

“What on Earth was all that about?” Shayna asked as Camille loosened the grip on her arm.

“I don’t know. Jealous ex-girlfriend I suppose.” Camille dragged her gaze away from Evangeline. Shayna shook her head and pressed her eyes shut tightly and then opened them back up.

“Don’t you think you should stay away from that man? Nothing about him seems normal.”

Camille sighed and beamed at her friend. “I refuse to do anything Evangeline wants me to do,” she told Shayna with great determination. Camille knew she couldn’t stay away from Devin even if she wanted to. He had become a raw compulsion that she just had to have again.


Devin

Devin walked quickly into the restrooms at the end of the gallery, avoiding the advances of all several people who had hoped to chat as he passed by them. He entered a stall and locked the door behind him. Inside, he remained standing, placing his hands on the shut door and breathing deeply.

He wasn’t quite sure why his heart was racing. And why he was so embarrassed by telling Camille the truth about the charity. There was nothing wrong with donating to a charity, in fact, he was certain that Camille’s kind heart would be impressed by it. And yet, he didn’t want to tell her, not yet.

Devin pressed his eyes tightly shut and tried to regain an even breath. He donated to the Association of No-Kill Dogs, a charitable organization run by a small team of dog lovers who tried to home and re-home dogs left at pounds who were about to be put down. There was nothing wrong with the charity, but he slowly realized why he was so afraid of telling Camille about it - she would have questions, and he was not ready yet to tell her about his life, and explain why he had such a soft spot for dogs.

As Devin’s eyes remained closed, an image of his father floated in his head. Devin gritted his teeth. His emotions for his father were mixed. He respected the man and valued the hard lessons that he taught him as a child, which allowed Devin to become the person he was now. But there were also parts of the man Devin could never figure out.

At their farm in Pennsylvania, a pair of dogs had wandered onto the property, and Devin had watched his father shoot them right between their eyes with his old shotgun before dragging the limp bodies into the shed and burying them.

His father had grunted an explanation when Devin had asked him why he shot the dogs.

“They trouble the sheep,” his father had said, paying no heed to the torn emotions of his seven-year-old son. Devin had never asked again or tried to stop his father. The man was bigger, stronger, and had the strength of his convictions. But at that moment, Devin had decided that he would do everything he could, when he grew up, to save the dogs, and try and atone for his father’s cold-hearted sins.

Yet Devin loved his father, even though he witnessed his mother’s misery. Even though he saw every day that his mother suffered because she felt unloved, yearning for her husband’s touch and affection. But his father worked tirelessly on the land, returning home only for his dinner and for the warmth of the bed at night, while his mother waited on him.

They were both gone now, and Devin could never be entirely certain if he were anything like either of them. Well, he was definitely not like his mother, soft spoken, obedient, and entirely devoted to a husband who had never even so much as touched her hand after Devin was born. But was he like his father? Did he only care about his own success? Only about work? Was his heart made of steel?

Devin shook his head and opened his eyes, and stared at the locked door of the bathroom stall. Was that why he liked dogs and animals more than people? Because, like his father, he could never get close to any human being?

The faces of women he had slept with then floated up in front of his eyes. All the women who had thrown themselves at him, who he had spent only a night with, and the ones he had pushed away. So he was exactly like his father, Devin admitted to himself in the silence and the dim light of the restroom. Was he going to hurt Camille? Would Camille, like his mother, remain silent and suffering all her life with a man who couldn’t show her affection?

Devin hit the door with the base of his palm. He wasn’t sure why he was so angry. Nothing had happened. He had simply frozen when Camille asked him about the charity. He could tell her if he wanted to, and perhaps she would think nothing of it. But a part of him wanted to explain, a part of him told him that he owed her an explanation; to warn her what she might be getting herself into and that she might be better off staying away from him.

The dogs that his father had killed and all the dogs that his donated money helped protect were symbols. They were symbols of the burden of being his father’s son. Devin was who he was because of the lessons his father had taught him. Was it in his nature, therefore, to not be able to love wholeheartedly? To not love a good woman?

Devin unlocked the stall door and walked out towards the mirrors that lined the back wall of the restroom. He splashed his face with cold water and enjoyed the tingling sensation of the drops evaporating from his face.

Despite all the demons of his past that he was fighting against, the one thing he was sure of was that he wanted to be with Camille again. He wanted to see her face, watch her blue eyes smile, and her blonde curls shake with her innocent laughter. It was getting harder for him to stay away from her; even a few minutes felt like a lifetime. So he did what his father would never have done, he walked back into the gallery and looked around until he found her standing alone underneath a photograph, admiring it with her sad, sullen eyes.

“What are you thinking?” he asked as he walked up behind her, and traced the curve of her neck with his forefinger. He could feel the goosebumps appear on her flesh under his fingertip.

Camille turned to him, her cheeks blushing. He had caught her thinking about him.

“I was admiring your picture - how calm and satisfied you look. Evangeline does a good job of capturing you in your best moments,” Camille said and reached for his face. He hadn’t expected her to; he had expected her to be shy around him, to blush and look away, but there was a sudden conviction in her voice and bravery on her face. She was not going to back down.

He remembered the way her body felt, how small and gentle she was, and how her breasts were big and voluptuous in his hands. He could feel himself stir just from the way she was looking intently at him.

“I think I’m an open book. I’m easy to read,” Devin replied, as she pulled her hand away, but kept her gaze on his face. Camille smiled and then laughed, and Devin felt like he was falling deeper in love with her. She had forgotten and forgiven his behavior when she had asked him about the charity. He appreciated it; she wasn’t pushy.

“You’re anything but easy to read, Devin Rock,” Camille said in a soft, seductive voice and she leaned in towards him. Devin smiled and dug his hands into the pockets of his jeans. He could spend the whole night just staring at her face.

“But I could give it a shot,” Camille added with one raised eyebrow, and Devin looked at her face, confused. He couldn’t quite understand what she meant by that.

“I could try and draw you, and see if I can capture you for yourself,” she explained, and Devin sighed. He hadn’t expected that from her either. Until now, Camille had been so protective of her art; the last thing he expected was for her to offer to draw him. But Devin was flattered, excited, and wanted to see her in her element.

“Are you serious?” He was unable to keep the excitement out of his voice. Camille laughed again, this time more sweetly, and then she nodded excitedly too.

“It could be fun. I haven’t done a live portrait before. Who knows, maybe we could both learn something new.”

They both looked at each other, and Devin watched as she licked her lips.

“Tonight? So that you don’t change your mind later,” he asked, and Camille shrugged her shoulders.

“Sure, if you’re not busy,” she said, and it was Devin’s turn to laugh. She was testing him, and he liked it.

“We can go back to my place together, and you can find a spot for us to sit and work together.” He grabbed her hand, pulling her close to him. He hadn’t thought this through, just minutes ago when he was in the restroom, he wasn’t sure if he should drag Camille into his life; if she deserved to be hurt and put in harm’s way. But now he was inviting her to his place, plunging her deeper into his life. But Devin couldn’t help himself; he couldn’t resist Camille, not when she looked like this.

“I can see Shayna has found herself a ride,” Camille’s words interrupted his thoughts, and he followed her gaze. They watched Shayna together. She was standing with a drink in her hand in the corner, laughing loudly as a man leaned into her ear saying something.

“We can always drop her home first if she needs a ride,” Devin suggested, but Camille shook her head.

“I’ll go and ask her, don’t go anywhere.” She slipped her hand away from his and walking towards Shayna. She turned once to look back at him and smile, and Devin felt like he already missed her.

He could watch her talking to Shayna, laughing, looking over to him… and yet he felt like she was far away. He wanted to reach for her and drag her back to him. He couldn’t understand it: what this hold was that she had on him. He could have any woman he wanted, he could fuck anybody, and yet all he wanted to do was hold Camille’s hand.

She had started to walk towards him again, and they were both smiling at each other. Groups of people got in her way, and she had to walk around them until she was finally only a few feet away. Devin couldn’t wait, he took a few long strides and then he was kissing her.

His hand traveled to her waist, and he pushed her back as he held her close to his chest. Camille kissed him, but he could feel her lips stretched in a smile. Could she be just as happy as he was? Was it too quick to be this happy and comfortable in each other’s presence? Didn’t she detest him for bringing the Choppers to her store? Wasn’t she afraid of his lifestyle? And jealous of his naked pictures on display?

Devin breathed in her scent when they parted. Camille had her hands firmly planted on his arms for support and a smile on her face.

“Take me home, Devin, I can’t wait to draw you,” she uttered, and Devin straightened up.

“I can’t promise you artist’s material, but I can give you a pencil and a notebook to get started,” he replied, smoothing out his jacket.

“That’s all I’ll need tonight,” Camille told him, and before he knew it, she was leading the way out of the gallery.

Camille

Devin remained characteristically quiet on the drive to his house, while Camille fidgeted in her seat in silence. She couldn’t believe any of this was actually happening. She had her doubts whether she would even see him again, and here she was in his car being driven to his house so she could sketch a portrait of him!

Where the car stopped was the last place she would have expected Devin’s house to be. Devin turned off the engine and unlocked the doors and Camille sat in silence again as she watched him walk around the front to open her door for her. The whole time, Camille couldn’t stop staring at the house that waited for them. The car was parked in a large driveway with a marble fountain overlooking the grounds of the house.

“Welcome to my humble abode,” Devin said with a laugh in his voice, because he could sense her surprise. This was not the kind of house she expected him to live in, and he definitely gave no clue that this was a house he owned.

Camille grabbed his hand and allowed herself to be led out.

“Devin… this place is magnificent.” She was fumbling with her words and dying to ask him how he had this much money and what kind of business he ran, but she knew better than to ask. She believed he would tell her more about his life in time.

The driveway was pebbled, and Camille walked with Devin, hand in hand towards the house. A flight of black marble steps greeted them, with an ornate brass banister. Camille touched the surface of the banister as she took small slow steps up towards the front door. She was still in awe.

Devin had let her hand go by now and walked quickly in front of her and fumbled around in his pocket for keys.

“You live alone here?” Camille asked, and Devin turned to her just before pushing the key through the lock on the door.

“Of course. Why?” He asked, and Camille smiled at him.

“It’s just strange to find you opening the door yourself. I was expecting a butler or someone,” she said, biting down on her lip. Devin shook his head and smiled.

“I don’t need a butler Camille. I don’t really need this house either.” He threw open the front doors.

Camille wasn’t expecting what happened next. A group of dogs jumped up on Devin, smothering him with wet licks and wagging tails. Devin nearly fell back from the force of the dogs. Camille squealed in surprise and delight at the sight.

She made a quick mental count - there were at least ten dogs jumping on Devin. Different breeds, but mostly all were mongrels, the kind of dogs who are found sad and discarded in the pound.

“Clearly you don’t need a butler,” Camille said, happiness overwhelming her at the sight of the greeting they were receiving. Devin looked like an entirely different person in their presence too. He was laughing, stroking their heads and clapping his hands.

“Okay, sit down children,” Devin said sternly, and on command all ten dogs sat down where they were, looking up at their master devotedly. Camille laughed again; these dogs were well trained.

“Good. Now, go!” he said, and the dogs turned and ran back into the house, paving a path for the two of them to follow.

Camille hadn’t realized that her hand was on her heart from the experience. A flood of good spirit had taken over her; she couldn’t remember the last time she had seen so many happy dogs in one place, all lovingly devoted to one man, the man she was falling in love with.

“Sorry if that scared you.” Devin finally turned to her, and Camille shook her head. Her face was flushed, and her eyes were wide and bright. She couldn’t contain her happiness.

“Not at all. I didn’t expect that, but your dogs are amazing,” Camille said, and Devin smiled too.

“Come on in,” he said and led the way for her.

Camille looked around as they entered the foyer. A large crystal chandelier hung over their heads, as Devin led her into a large beautifully decorated living room.

“This is the room I visit least. I don’t entertain very often,” Devin said, spreading his arms around him, while Camille took in the sights of the room they were in. It had heavy curtains on the windows, matching upholstery on the couches and chairs, and thick carpet under their feet. The walls were ivory white and had framed vinyl’s hanging as decorations. There were no photographs of Devin, none that bore any resemblance to the ones in the gallery anyway.

“What’s in there?” Camille asked when she caught sight of an open door at the end of the room. She turned to Devin, and he shrugged his shoulders.

“That’s my office. It’s a library and study basically,” he said, and Camille didn’t wait for him to lead the way, she walked straight to it. Something told her that Devin’s true self was hidden there.

This room surprised her as well by how untidy and messy it was. There were large wooden cupboards stuffed with books that lined the walls, a table in the center of the room with papers and files strewn all over it, forgotten mugs of coffee on the table, leather jackets hung from the backs of chairs, and food stains on the carpeted floor. Camille smiled and turned to Devin who had followed her and now stood by the door, looking embarrassed again.

“Sorry, I wasn’t expecting visitors,” he said, and Camille laughed.

“So this is the room you spend the most time in,” she commented rather than asked, and they both laughed.

“But you can’t sketch me here, we have to find you a different, better suited spot.” He crossed his arms while leaning on the doorframe. Camille stared at him, taken aback by the charm and casualness that Devin was displaying. She had never seen him more relaxed.

“Where do you think would be appropriate?”

Devin narrowed his eyes, trying to think. “I have an idea, follow me.”

And Camille did just that, with a skip in her step.

***

When Devin had led her to the basement, Camille wasn’t quite sure of what to expect. Why would he want her to sketch him in the basement? But then she saw and realized what he meant. The basement of this house was like no other she had seen before.

The basement was as large as the floor area of the house and had a rectangular well-maintained swimming pool in the center of it. Surrounding the pool was an impressive home gym, complete with treadmills, exercise bikes, weights, poles, etc. Camille’s heels clicked against the floor as she walked into the gym area, and towards the edge of the pool.

There were dim lights in the basement, but the pool was lit up so that a blue glow reflected on her face as she stood over it wondering how she had found herself here. Devin was nothing like she had imagined him to be. He didn’t live in a derelict one room dirty studio sharing with his other biker buddies. Devin Rock was actually a successful businessman, who lived in a big house alone with ten well-trained dogs.

“What do you think?” His voice interrupted her thoughts and Camille turned to find him standing, with his hands in his pockets. He had taken his leather jacket off so that his biceps were now visible, flexed and bulbous. She wanted to cling to him - to his chiseled torso whose outline was now visible underneath the thin material of his t-shirt.

His brown eyes were focused on her, his jaw was angular and sharp, his lips were small and pink, and his wavy, dark hair was brushed neatly to the side. Camille could feel herself growing wet immediately. They were finally alone again.

“This will do perfectly,” she said and stood in front of him.

“I got you the notebook and some pencils.” He pointed at where he had left them on a deck chair by the pool. Camille nodded and smiled. She was nervous around him again; nervous about whether she would be able to keep her composure.

“What do you want me to do?” Devin asked, and Camille gulped.

“Take off your shirt,” she blurted out before she could stop herself. Then she took a few steps back until her legs touched the chair. She sat down slowly, grabbing the notebook and the pencils in her hands. Her eyes remained on Devin. He didn’t appear to be as surprised by her words as Camille herself was.

He reached for the bottom of his shirt and peeled it off over his head and threw it on the ground.

Camille gulped again and pushed away the strands of curls that had fallen over her face. Devin’s torso was exactly the way she remembered it – a rock solid, chiseled, six-pack with a narrow muscular waist. His jeans hung low on his hips, and he stood with his legs apart, looking at her with a smile on his face.

Camille drew lines on the notebook, trying to get his frame sketched correctly on the page. But she couldn’t concentrate, not when he was standing half naked in front of her.

“Maybe take off your pants too,” she found herself saying, surprising herself again with the confidence in her voice. Devin obeyed her silently and with a smile on his face. He undid the buttons on his jeans and pulled them down. He wasn’t wearing any underwear, as she had suspected, and now stood fully naked in front of her.

His shoulders were straight and proud, as was his back. He wasn’t shy; he was confident. He could see the effect he had on her, but Camille tried to hide it. She crossed her brows and sketched more lines on the paper. Devin was the perfect candidate for art; Evangeline was right. Camille could feel her hands shaking as she tried to draw him. He was made of pure muscle and sharp angles, his eyes were dark and shiny, his hair was perfect, and his chest was wide and tough.

Camille pressed her thighs together because she could feel herself growing wetter. His hands were large as they rested on both his sides. He had simply done what she had asked him to do, silently and without question. He had stripped, but he had stayed on his side, making no move to come closer to her.

Camille wanted him to come closer, but he didn’t. He probably wanted her to yearn for him, to make her wait until she had no control over herself.

Only the scratch of Camille’s pencil on the paper made a sound, as she tried to keep her eyes on it.

When she looked up again, she caught Devin make a movement. He was taking his dick in his hands. Camille’s breath stopped in her throat. She had tried to avoid looking at his dick, but now he was holding it in his hands, stroking it gently while keeping his eyes on her. Camille pressed her legs tighter together.

Camille let the pencil drop from her hands, and allowed her hand to wander to her chest. Her fingers found the buttons on her white shirt, and she undid the top few buttons. She needed some air - she also wanted to touch her breasts, touch herself the way Devin was touching himself.

Camille’s mouth opened a little as she watched him. He was looking back at her, with no smile on his face, like all he could think about was her body.

Camille breathed in deeply when she saw that he was walking towards her.

“What are you doing to me, Camille Griffin?” He asked roughly when he reached her. She remained sitting on the chair, but he brushed the pencil and notebook off her lap and leaned down to kiss her. Camille welcomed his lips, engulfing his mouth with hers. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and he pulled her up with his sheer weight.

Their tongues were entwined, and she moaned softly, realizing that this is what it felt like to lose all control.

Devin had lifted her, and while he kissed her, she felt the zip at the back of her skirt being pulled down. He was undressing her. Her skirt fell down, and then his hands moved to her breasts. With one quick tug, the buttons on her shirt were popped off, they fell clanging on the floor, and her white silk blouse fell off her shoulders.

Devin’s hands went to her breasts as he kissed her, and she could also feel him moving her, slowly inching her towards the wall.

He pulled his mouth away from hers prematurely, and she wanted more.

“Turn around,” he ordered in a low guttural growl, and Camille did as she was told. She turned around and found herself facing the wall of his basement. Then his hands were on her waist, and he pulled her butt, and gently pressed the small of her back. He wanted her to bend down. He was going to take her with no preparation. He was apparently desperate for her.

Camille’s breathing roughened as she placed her hands widely spread apart on the wall. She bent down and felt his hands tug at her silk panties. His hands were large and warm, and he squeezed her butt and then slowly pulled them apart.

Camille breathed in sharply, but before she could make another move, he was inside her.

She screamed from the suddenness and the surprise of his dick sliding inside of her. She hadn’t realized how wet she actually was because he slid in easily, fitting inside her. His entire length. Devin groaned, and Camille moaned as well. It felt good, it felt too good, and she wanted more.

Devin pulled out, and then he thrust into her again. He was strong and forceful, and Camille moved her hips, inviting him in. Her eyes rolled back in her head, as she felt herself dripping wet. Devin pumped into her with increased speed, and she felt her body shake.

His hands had come around her body to find her breasts. He squeezed her nipples and then held her breasts as he pushed into her. Camille moaned loudly, and her voice echoed off the walls of the basement. He was relentless, pushing and pulling and thrusting. Their bodies shivered and squeaked. She could feel him inside her, reaching her core, and stroking her where she needed to be stroked.

“Devin!” she screamed his name, and when he placed his hands on her shoulders, she felt the pinch of his strength. He was pumping into her, over and over again and her legs were going weak. It was the kind of intense pleasure and pain that was too much for her. She knew she was going to cum; she was going to come hard. Her breasts were swinging, and Devin slammed into her.

“Come for me Camille, come for me,” she heard him say, and that was enough for her to be pushed over the edge. Her body shuddered as she felt her muscles release. She could feel the juices squirt, and she tried to straighten herself, but he kept her down. Camille screamed, moaned and allowed herself to be deeply satisfied. His hands were still on her shoulders but were now moving slowly to the back of her neck, then the top of her head.

“Good girl,” he murmured as her body began to relax. Camille was still shuddering from the force of her orgasm, while he remained behind her, still thrusting himself into her.

Then it was his turn. He bunched up her curls into his fist and increased the speed of his thrusts. Camille moaned again as he pumped, quicker and more forceful. He was so much bigger than her, so much stronger, she felt helpless… like a toy in his hands. And she screamed along with him as he came inside her. She could feel him shoot, ooze, and dribble inside her. His body shook with the power of the effect he had on her, his hands tightening their grip on her hair as he pushed into her.

Then he released her hair, and his hands traveled to the small of her back. She could hear him panting while he stroked her butt affectionately. Camille realized she was smiling. Her orgasms were getting more powerful every time she was with him, it was like she was a superhero from the comic books she read and wrote, and Devin Rock was the source of her energy.

He pulled out slowly and slapped her butt. It pinched her skin, but Camille couldn’t help but smile. Devin Rock had just fucked her. All the women in the gallery, all those women who drooled over his photographs, including Evangeline… none of them had him inside them tonight. Only she did.

“Don’t even think about putting your clothes back on just yet,” she heard him say when she slowly turned to look at him. Camille licked her lips that were dry now and smiled at him.

“But shouldn’t I finish sketching you?” She asked as she watched him walk back to the spot he was standing at when she was drawing him.

“C’mon, you can draw naked, can’t you?” He laughed, and Camille bit down on her lip.

This man was making her head spin.


Devin

She had seemed so innocent, like an untouched naive flower growing on the side of a mountain, Devin thought. He blinked his eyes in the dark and stillness of his bedroom. She probably was, as innocent as she looked, but where had she found the courage to ask him to strip for her? Where had she found the courage to scream his name while he pumped into her?

Devin felt himself growing hard again, and he turned himself to the side, away from the peacefully sleeping face of Camille, so that he could stop thinking about her for one minute. But he couldn’t.

She had sketched him, right before they fucked again, this time inside the pool. Devin smiled. She was unpredictable.

The sketch blew his mind. She was more than talented and obnoxiously humble. He believed Camille’s art deserved to be showcased and applauded. Her quick sketch of him, interrupted by their fucking, was so good… what could she achieve without distraction?

Devin could hear Camille’s soft breathing beside him. She had fallen asleep in his arms on the deck chair due to exhaustion. And then he had carried her to his bed. He couldn’t remember the last time he had shared his bed with anybody else, but Camille Griffin was something else.

Devin sighed and then sat up in his bed. Try as he might, and he had been trying for quite some time now, he couldn’t fall asleep. He couldn’t stop thinking how beautiful Camille was, and how innocently she was getting tangled into his life. He couldn’t stop imagining what misfortune he might bring to her, how he might end up disappointing her, and his biggest fear was that he might end up exactly like his father.

Camille sighed in her sleep, and Devin turned to look at her peaceful face. She was sleeping naked under the covers, and her face was calm and relaxed. She seemed to feel protected and safe in his presence. Devin clenched his jaws at the thought of that. He couldn’t keep her safe, he wanted to… but his life was too dangerous, he was too dangerous. And Camille had no idea.

Devin got up from the bed and walked towards the balcony doors. He slid open the glass door and stepped out. The night air was cool, and it calmed him a little as he stood there thinking about her. She was a brilliant artist; the least he could do for her was offer her an opportunity. He wanted to, no, he needed to.

His cell phone was on the coffee table in the balcony, and he grabbed it. Evangeline’s phone number was on the top of his call list, and he dialed. She answered only after a few rings, and she sounded like she had been awake as well. Her deep groggy voice was missing, and she almost sounded like she had been waiting for his call.

“Hello, darling,” she said, and Devin rolled his eyes. He didn’t have any more patience for Evangeline, not for the games she always played.

“Were you sleeping?” He asked in a whisper, yet knew full well that Camille couldn’t hear him.

“Not with you, unfortunately.” Evangeline gave a high-pitched laugh, and Devin breathed in.

“I wanted to check with you. I’m planning an art show, for someone, for a friend, at your gallery,” Devin said, pacing across the balcony. Evangeline was quiet on the other end, and he wondered if she had figured out who this artist friend was.

“Evangeline?” He urged and heard her sigh loudly.

“Of course, anything for you, darling. But I will obviously want something in return.” She had dragged her words out lazily. Devin crossed his brows and clenched his jaw.

“What do you want in return, Evangeline? I’m willing to rent the gallery and pay money for it. What more can you possibly want?” He threw the words at her through gritted teeth and realized then that he had been gripping the railings of the balcony tightly with his fists. His knuckles had gone white. He let go, trying to calm himself down.

“I don’t want your money, Devin,” Evangeline replied in her usual seductive voice, and Devin snapped again.

“If you’re thinking we can go back to being what we were before, you can forget about it. I’m not asking for a favor, I’m asking as a business booking,” Devin threw back, and he sensed a shift in Evangeline’s voice when she spoke again.

“You really know how to test my patience, don’t you? Just because you know that I’ll agree to anything you want,” she said in a shrill clipped voice, and then she hung up before he could respond.

Devin stared at his cell phone and placed it back on the coffee table. He was willing to deal with Evangeline’s drama just so that Camille could get a shot at displaying her art. He was willing to do that for he was willing to do anything for her.

In the dead of night, when the grounds around his house were locked up and still, Devin heard the rumblings of motorbikes, not very far away.

He looked out into the dark, but couldn’t see any lights, nothing that would indicate a location. He gripped the railings of the balcony and strained his eyes to look, but he couldn’t see anything. But he could hear the bikes still. It was quite clear that someone was still following him.

Devin turned to look at Camille sleeping on his bed through the glass sliding doors. She had turned towards him, and her eyes were shut and peaceful. Devin thought she had never looked more beautiful. Her hair was in disarray and had fallen over her face. Devin was sure now that he would do anything for this woman. He would protect her from everything that she didn’t even know about.


Camille

Camille blinked her eyes open to rays of light pouring in through the lace curtains of Devin’s bedroom. She jerked and sat up in bed, disoriented a little for a few moments before realizing where she was. His bedroom was large, oval shaped and as well decorated as the rest of the house. The sheets she had been sleeping on were a deep, rich purple satin, and Camille ran her fingers over it to feel its smoothness. Then she smiled.

As she looked around, she found a fluffy white dressing gown neatly folded and left on a chair next to the bed. She swung her legs over until her feet touched the ground and realized when the covers slipped away that she had been sleeping naked all night. She knew Devin had slept beside her as the other side of the bed was still warm where he had left, and she could smell him in the room. Camille grinned as she stood up and reached for the dressing gown.

She tightened the cord around her waist and ran her fingers through her hair. She didn’t need to look into a mirror to know that her hair and her face was a mess, and she didn’t want to see her makeup running. But instead of looking for a bathroom, Camille went looking for Devin.

She left the bedroom and the smell of eggs being fried wafted up over the stairs at the end of the landing. Camille smiled again; he was in the kitchen.

She walked slowly down the stairs and followed the smell of eggs until she found herself walking into the kitchen. Devin was standing over the burners, flipping them in a frying pan, and all his ten dogs were in a circle around him, blocking his path.

Devin hadn’t heard her come in, and Camille stood at the door watching him. His back was to her, and she could see the width of his shoulders, the muscles under his shirt, his narrow waist, and his muscular legs in a pair of jeans. She enjoyed watching him and wanting him in silence. She couldn’t believe how lucky she felt.

Eventually, she cleared her throat. The dogs and Devin turned to look at her. He grinned and turned off the burner.

“Good morning sleepyhead. Take a seat here at the table,” he said, preparing two breakfast plates for them. Camille smiled and tugged at the sleeves of the dressing gown before she proceeded to take a chair at the table. It was an airy, open-plan kitchen with lots of beautiful natural light. Just the atmosphere alone was enough to make her happy; Devin’s presence only made it more worthwhile.

“Sorry about your clothes. Your shirt is ripped. You can borrow one of mine for the day if you like,” Devin added, walking over to the table with the plates. Camille bit down on her lip, nodded, and stared at the food. She hadn’t realized how hungry she actually was.

He had fried two eggs each and made them a stack of pancakes with maple syrup dripping off the edges. Camille licked her lips and looked up at him. He was watching her closely.

“And you can cook?” she remarked, reaching for the cutlery that he had already arranged for her on the table.

“It’s all an illusion. Don’t blame me if none of this is edible,” Devin said with a laugh and walked back over to the kitchen counter to pour some coffee into two mugs.

Camille had already dug in, and when the sweet doughy texture of the pancakes hit her taste buds, she closed her eyes and moaned.

“This is gorgeous. Where did you learn to cook a breakfast like this?” She asked, with food still in her mouth. Devin came back to the table with the coffees and placed a mug in front of her.

“My mother. She was an excellent cook.” He pulled out a chair beside her. His dogs had all congregated around him again, and he tore a few pieces of the pancakes and started flipping them over to his dogs. Camille giggled and tried doing it herself. The dogs wagged their tails and were drawn away from Devin and towards her immediately.

“I had a wonderful time last night, Camille,” his voice interrupted her, and she looked up at him. He was serious. Camille nodded and smiled.

“I had a lovely time too, Devin,” she replied, a sudden dread filling her bones again. She was worried that he was going to tell her suddenly that he didn’t want to see her anymore and that a night like this couldn’t happen again. Why would a man like Devin want to be with her anyway?

“I’m going away on a trip,” Devin said, and the smile on Camille’s face disappeared. Here it was, he was about to tell her that he wouldn’t be able to keep in touch with her. She didn’t say anything, so he continued.

“Only for a week though. I just don’t want you to worry if you don’t hear from me for a few days,” Devin explained, and to her surprise, he reached for her hand and patted it. Camille stared at him.

“Sure,” she said, trying to hide her nervousness.

“I’ll have a surprise waiting for you when I meet you again.” Devin had a twinkle in his eye and Camille tried to read his face. He still looked calm and relaxed; he trusted her. But she couldn’t trust him entirely. She couldn’t be completely sure that she would ever see him again. But she smiled anyway. She wasn’t going to make him think that she doubted him.

“I look forward to it,” Camille said and chewed on another mouthful of her pancake again.

***

“What are you doing here?” Camille asked when she entered her comic bookstore. She had tried to unlock the door but found it already unlocked. Shayna was standing behind the counter, bagging a few books for a customer.

“It’s eleven Camille. I guessed right - that you wouldn’t make it in time to open up the store,” Shayna said, accepting the cash that the customer handed to her. Camille waited for the guy to leave before she walked over to Shayna, unable to hide the smile on her face.

“Did you spend the night at Devin’s then?” Shayna placed her hands on her hips. Camille nodded and bit down on her lip.

“He is seriously amazing. I even sketched a portrait of him,” Camille replied, walking around the counter to go stand next to her friend. Shayna rolled her eyes, and then looked excited again.

“Hey, you got a call this morning at the store. Thankfully I was here to receive it.” Shayna said while Camille started arranging her accounts books. She turned to look at Shayna with her brows crossed.

“Someone called the store? Nobody ever calls the store.” Camille dropped her hands to the side. Shayna nodded her head excitedly; she looked like she was bursting with some sort of secret she had forced herself to keep.

“What did they want? A book order?” Camille asked, studying Shayna’s face carefully.

“No. They were looking for the store owner because they wanted to be put in touch with the author or authors of Country Crowns .” Shayna clapped her hands and jumped up and down with excitement. Camille’s eyes widened, and she smiled broadly.

“What? Why? Who were they?” Camille asked, but Shayna was still too giddy, and she needed to calm down first before she could explain anymore.

“I don’t know. They didn’t say. He said that he would explain it directly to the author,” Shayna told Camille with her hand on her heart.

Camille could feel her own heart beating fast, how was this all happening? Was it just a coincidence that ever since Devin Rock had walked into this store, her usual boring life had suddenly taken an exciting turn?

“So what did you say, what did you do?” Camille asked her friend.

“I gave them your number. I didn’t tell them your name, of course, but I gave them your digits.” Shayna was still excited and fumbling up her words. Camille’s smile grew.

“Oh my goodness! What do you think this means?!” Camille shrieked, and Shayna shrugged.

“Maybe it’s our big break? I don’t know? I guess we’ll just have to wait and find out. Oh my God, Camille, I’m so excited!” Shayna jumped and hugged her friend tightly. Camille hugged her back, and they were both giggling like teenage girls.

“This could be big, Shayna. This could mean anything. Or it could mean nothing,” Camille said, stroking Shayna’s back.

“I want it to be big. I want it to be huge news. I want to be famous Camille! I want people to know about our books.” Shayna was jumping again, and Camille started laughing.

“We have to take it slow there, Shayna. We have to decide first if we are going to reveal our true identities.” Camille had started pacing the floor of the bookstore now. She was thinking hard, trying to make sense of it all.

“What are you talking about? Of course we have to reveal our true identities! What is the point otherwise?” Shayna squealed, and Camille held up her hand.

“Let me think, Shayna. I have to think.” Camille told her, and Shayna came up close to her face.

“Think about what? We have to tell them who we are. We have to come out in the open, publish our books under our own names. Country Crowns is good, it’s brilliant… it’s getting noticed.” Shayna suddenly shook Camille by her shoulders, and the two girls started laughing with excitement again.

“But what if it gets too much to handle? Maybe it was a good idea to publish under pen names. Do you really want all that fame?” Camille asked, and Shayna nodded her head vigorously.

“Of course I do! I want the fame and the money and the recognition. Camille, we have to tell them who we are. This is the chance of a lifetime - what we’ve been waiting for. We have to grab it and just… just go with it!” In her excitement, Shayna knocked a stack of books off the counter top. Camille shook her head indulgently and then walked over to help her friend pick them back up.

“What is holding you back, Camille?” Shayna asked in a quieter voice now. Camille ran her fingers through her curls and tucked a few strands behind her ears and shrugged her shoulders.

“I just want to be absolutely sure that this is the right thing to do. I want to make sure that our audience accepts us, and that our lives don’t change because we start publishing under our real names,” Camille said, stacking up the books. When she looked up, Shayna was staring at her.

“Are you kidding me? Our lives will never be the same again if our books are a success. Isn’t that what you want anyway? Our lives are boring, Camille. It’s time to take ownership of our talent,” Shayna threw back, straightening up and dusting her short denim skirt. Camille followed suit and smiled. She trusted Shayna’s decision and her instincts. It was time to come out and face the limelight.

“What are you wearing by the way?” Shayna asked, suddenly interrupting her thoughts. Camille looked down at herself, remembering now that she was wearing one of Devin’s shirts.

“Are you wearing his clothes?” Shayna’s mouth hung open in mockery.

Camille felt her cheeks blush, and she turned away from her friend. “Yeah… He ripped my clothes off me,” she confessed, and Shayna broke into another fit of giggles.


Devin

They were taking a break, so Devin hopped off his bike and walked over to the side of the ravine to light a cigarette. The sun was setting, and there was an orange-red glow on the horizon, which made the desert sand around them shine to a brilliant, glittering gold. Devin took in a deep breath, a mouthful of smoke from the cigarette, and thought about how he wished Camille could see the beautiful desert terrain.

He could feel his shoulders ache. They had been riding for at least four hours non-stop now, and there were so many more miles to go. Mr. Janson was a good customer, loyal. He always hired Devin and his club to create a convoy for him when he was making road trips across states. Mr. Janson was loyal to Devin because he never asked any questions. He never wanted to know why Mr. Janson, the multi-millionaire owner of some of the best Las Vegas casinos, never traveled by air. Devin didn’t ask what he was providing Mr. Janson security against. He only gathered his best-trained men and they rode in silence around Mr. Janson’s car across states and then back again, prepared to fend off any attack that he might face. Nothing had happened yet.

“Hey, Devin. Mr. Janson says we have to get back on track in a few minutes,” he heard Mario’s voice behind him. He breathed in another mouthful of smoke, the cigarette end burnt to a bright orange, and then he dropped it to the dusty ground.

“Sure,” Devin replied without turning to look at his friend.

“Five minutes, yeah?” Mario said and then Devin heard his retreating footsteps.

Devin crushed the cigarette with his heavy duty riding boots and dug his hands into his pockets.

He couldn’t stop thinking of Camille. It had been three days since he last saw her when she was sleeping in his bed, when she had drawn a sketch of him, and when he had made her breakfast. All he could do was think about when he might see her next. There was no going back now; he had promised to see her again when he went back. It was too late to back out, even for her own good.

His cellphone in his pocket vibrated, and Devin reached for it. It was an unknown caller, and he answered the call gruffly.

“Hello, Devin,” he heard the dry deep voice of an older man at the other end of the line. He instantly recognized the voice. It was Jimmy Figueroa, the leader of The Choppers.

“Hello, Jimmy,” Devin replied, whipping around to make sure that nobody from his club was close enough to listen to the conversation. He didn’t want anybody else to hear because he didn’t want anybody else to react.

“I hear you’ve been well, Devin,” Jimmy said, but there was laughter in his voice, and Devin gritted his teeth.

“What do you want, Jimmy?” Devin asked, clenching his fists and trying to keep his emotions under control.

“I just want to talk Devin.” Jimmy gave a loud laugh. “Why are you getting so worked up?”

Devin unclenched his fists and looked out towards the darkening horizon to steady his breathing.

“You’ve been following me. Threatening my friends. I don’t have any reason to talk to you. Now fuck off before I find you and crush you and make sure you never walk again. Stay away from me,” Devin growled into the phone and then hung up before Jimmy Figueroa had a chance to respond.

He muttered under his breath and waved at Mario who was waving at him to come join their convoy again.

Devin gritted his teeth as he walked towards them. He couldn’t believe that Jimmy Figueroa had actually had the nerve to call him.

His thoughts drifted immediately to Camille. Now that she was a part of his life, all this wasn’t just about him, it was also about another person. His life, this life, had always been a dangerous one. But Devin had never worried about the consequences before because he didn’t particularly care about his own safety. But now there was Camille.

The Choppers had already visited Camille at the store, so they knew her whereabouts. They knew she was connected to him; which would make her a liability.

Devin clenched his fists again, enjoying the sharp piercing pain of his fingernails digging into his tough skin. He wanted to draw blood. He wanted to punch something, kick someone.

“You alright there, Devin?” Mario asked when he came into earshot of the club.

Devin tried to force a grin on his face and nodded. “Let’s go,” he said, swinging his legs over his Harley and fixing his helmet on. At least he was going to be able to ride away - ride away from his thoughts. Maybe this time out from Camille would be a good thing, he thought as he started up his bike. Perhaps this was what she needed; maybe she would even change her mind. If she decided that he brought too much baggage with him for her to be in a relationship with him… he wouldn’t struggle against her decision.

But one thing he was sure of was that he wasn’t strong enough to push her away. Even though the best decision, for her own safety, would be to do just that. But he needed her too much - he craved for her touch, missed watching her laugh, and wanted to feel her soft bare skin under his fingertips… Camille Griffin was too perfect, too innocent, and too beautiful for him to just give up. But what would be the right thing to do? Wasn’t he just putting her in more danger now? Wasn’t she just asking for trouble?


Camille

Camille was nervous. She had spent the past two hours deciding what exactly she was going to wear. Devin had texted her the previous night to say that he was back and given her the address of his office to meet him there. It had been over one week since she last saw him, and she hadn’t been able to get him off her mind.

She was standing in front of her full-length mirror now, wondering if this outfit would do. She had picked out a short blue dress that showed off her curves. It barely reached mid-thigh and had short sleeves. Her heels were black and high. For her makeup, she had gone with a more natural look, and lip gloss instead of lipstick. Her hair was the usual halo of thick tight blonde curls.

Camille checked her watch again; it was nearly time to go. She gave herself the once over and decided to leave. It was too late to change again anyway. She picked up her purse, locked her apartment, and made her way downstairs with a maddening beating heart.

Camille caught herself smiling when she settled into the driver’s seat of her car. She was smiling because this was the moment she had been waiting for all week. There were times when she had nearly given up hope of ever hearing from Devin again. She was convinced that this was Devin’s way of putting distance between them. And then he had texted her. Exactly a week later like he had promised her he would, and since then Camille hadn’t been able to stop smiling. No matter what Shayna thought of him, and no matter what her gut instincts told her, Devin made her feel good and safe. She may not know enough about his life, but she knew that he made her head spin in a good way, and she was satisfied with taking it slow.

Camille drove with the music playing on full blast in the car. She remembered that he had mentioned there would be a surprise waiting for her when they met next, but she didn’t care about this surprise anymore. Not as much as she cared about seeing him again. Her heart was beating out of control from the excitement.

Devin had mentioned in his text that the address was that of his office, but when she parked outside the building, she realized that it was more of a clubhouse. She smiled again thinking that Devin Rock was always full of surprises.

Camille got out of her car with her brows crossed with curiosity. The lights in the clubhouse were all out, and it looked like there was nobody there. She grabbed her purse, slammed the car door shut, and started walking towards the entrance. With each step, nervousness returned to her bones. Was this all some kind of joke? Had Devin forgotten about their date? The place looked deserted.

“Hello? Devin?” Camille said in a loud whisper. She could feel the goosebumps on her flesh as she took small nervous steps towards the front door, and when she finally reached it, she knocked.

Silence. No footsteps, inside or out. Camille bit down on her lip and pushed the door, and surprisingly it swung open. There was more darkness inside as she peered in, afraid to go any further.

“Devin?” she said a little softer this time, more to herself. She suddenly felt very afraid and clutched her purse to her side. When there was still no sound, Camille took a few steps inside. It was pitch black, and she had no idea where she was going. Devin had forgotten about her. He had forgotten about the date.

A sudden light blinded her, and Camille screamed with fright and covered her eyes with her hands.

“Surprise!” she heard his voice booming around her, and Camille gingerly dragged her hands away from her face to find that she was standing in the middle of a large hall, which was now illuminated with bright disco lights that were rotating on the ceiling.

Camille’s mouth dropped open, and she could still feel her body shake from the shock of it all, and from the fact that she had heard his voice but hadn’t caught sight of him yet.

“Devin?” She called out his name again, and that is when the music came on. It was loud, all around her, through hidden speakers… and the tune was an old country love song. Camille grinned; he hadn’t forgotten her.

“You look beautiful, Camille.”

She whipped around to find Devin walking towards her. He seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.

As always, Devin Rock looked scorching sexy. He was in his usual leather jacket and jeans. His hair was neatly swept to the side, and his eyes, even in the multicolored lights from the disco balls, shone and sparkled as he came closer.

“You gave me a fright, Devin,” Camille said, still clutching her purse with both her hands in front of her.

“I’m sorry, I just wanted to give you a grand entry,” he replied as he approached her.

They stared at each other and smiled. It was just as she had imagined it; he made her feel instantly warm and safe. He reached for her face and cupped her cheeks before she leaned in and kissed him. She couldn’t wait any longer. This kiss was slow and soft, unlike all their previous ones. This was a loving kiss, gentle and long.

“I missed you, Camille,” he said when she pulled away from him for breath.

“I couldn’t wait to see you again,” Camille breathed, and he stroked her cheeks with his large rough thumbs. She wanted to be closer to him; she wanted their bodies pressed together.

“Come dance with me.” Devin suddenly grabbed her hand and led her to the center of the room. Camille was laughing, at the absurdity and surprise of the whole night. He stopped and turned to face her again. She felt him wrap his arms around her waist and pull her closer to him. Camille instinctually wrapped her own arms around his neck, and they were taking small slow steps together, perfectly aligned and coordinated with the music and each other.

Camille laughed again, and Devin smiled. They were swaying to the slow music, gently drifting across the floor, and Camille laughed because this was the last thing she had expected to see Devin doing. Slow dance to a love song.

“How was your trip?” She asked him.

“It was good, but I was tortured by thoughts of seeing you again.”

Camille blushed. He always knew just what to say to make her blush. He pulled her closer and now she could feel her breasts squeezing against his rock solid chest as they danced.

“I can’t imagine you listening to a song like this,” Camille said, leaning in close to his ear.

“How boring would life be if I was predictable?” Devin joked, and she laughed again.

“Don’t get me wrong, I like this cheesy side of you.” She dared to look directly into his eyes. Devin moved suddenly, dragging her in a few quick steps until she felt her back hit the cold marble surface of a bar counter.

“You think this is cheesy? I can get cheesier than that.” Devin said gruffly, and before she knew what was going on, he had lifted her by the waist and placed her on the top of the counter.

Camille was laughing until she felt his large warm hands caress the inside of her legs and travel all the way up her thighs. He was parting her legs. Camille’s breath caught in her throat, as she looked into his eyes in the dim light of the room. The smile and the laugh had disappeared from her face. The anticipation of what was going to happen made her heart beat faster. She had been yearning for his body for all these days, and now it was finally happening.

Her dress had ridden up and bunched up at her waist, as Devin used his hands to part her legs wide. Then, he crouched down in front of her, and Camille bit down on her lip.

“Devin,” she breathed his name, and he shushed her. His head was at level with her laid out body, and she was supporting her torso with the strength of her folded elbows.

“Just relax, Camille. Just enjoy this,” Devin said, and she let her elbows go so that her back now rested fully against the cold counter. Her body was burning up, it was like her skin was on fire, and Devin touched her at her wet center, slowly pulling her panties clear.

Camille moaned when she felt his forefinger stroke her. She was already wet, and he was looking at her. But she couldn’t look back, so she threw her head back and closed her eyes. And then she felt the wetness of his thick tongue. Camille shrieked with delight when she felt him stroke her with his tongue, slowly and gently, at first, and then in sudden quick bursts.

He was pinning her down with both his hands while she wriggled with the sensation. He was sucking, licking, and stroking her wet pussy while her body writhed from pleasure. Then he inserted two fingers in - they easily slid into her - while he kept his mouth focused on her clit. The sensation blew her mind and Camille screamed repeatedly. She was close to cuming; she could feel it rising up, her hips rotated furiously, and she clutched his shoulders and screamed.

“I think you’re ready now,” she heard him say, but it barely registered in her mind. It was only when she felt his throbbing dick slide inside her that she realized what he had meant by that.

Devin Rock was inside her. He had raised himself above her, still holding her down with both his hands while he pumped into her. Camille was too far gone; too close to the edge to be able to resist him anymore. Her body shuddered, and she felt herself soar. She screamed as she came against his body, with his dick deep inside her, thrusting into her. She could see him smiling, focusing on her face, and he kept going until she finished cuming.

He increased his speed and kept thrusting while her body went limp from exhaustion. She traced the muscles on his arms with her fingernails, leaving a trail of goosebumps on his skin.

“Camille, you are so sexy,” Devin groaned before she felt him explode inside her. He kept pumping into her still, and she kept moving under him. She watched him cum, releasing everything, and losing all his inhibitions as he just simply oozed into her.

What was it between them that they couldn’t spend a few minutes alone in each others company without just ripping their clothes off? Was Devin some kind of drug for her? He was irresistible. She had never experienced anything like this before - this hungry need that only his body could quench in her.

Devin’s motions finally began to subside, and she felt him slowly release his grip on her arms. He still remained inside her - big and throbbing. Camille wriggled her body and bit down on her lip. He was looking down at her face, studying her eyes, lips, and the curve of her neck.

“What are you looking at?” She asked, her cheeks flushing under his steady, concentrated gaze.

“Nothing really. Just wondering if I’m addicted to you,” he replied, as though he had just read her mind and stolen her thoughts.

***

“That was some surprise,” Camille said, licking the corners of her mouth. She was sitting on the counter where they had just had sex only a few minutes ago.

Devin had presented her with a burrito right after, and he was sitting on the floor under her, chewing on his. Camille had laughed when he presented the burrito to her.

“I’m starving, aren’t you?” He’d said, and she nodded before accepting it from him.

“One of the two surprises I have planned for tonight,” Devin then added, ripping the foil paper away from his burrito in hand. Camille gulped the food in her mouth and with crossed brows stared at him some more.

“You have another surprise for me?” She swung her bare legs over him. Devin looked up at her, with his chocolate brown eyes and smiled.

“What would you say if I told you that you have one month to prepare for an art show?” Devin asked, casually chewing on his food. Camille stopped chewing and gaped at him; the burrito nearly fell out of her hands from the shock.

“An art show? My art show?” She asked, and Devin nodded.

“I spoke to Evangeline, and she said that she can give you a date a month from now,” he explained, and Camille cupped her mouth with a hand. This couldn’t be real. An art show for her at one of the best galleries in Miami?!

“I don’t have anything prepared, I’ve never done this before,” she said, and Devin laughed.

“There’s a first time for everyone, and I’ve seen your work first hand. You can do it, and you can do it well.” Devin gulped down the last bite of his food. Camille felt a warm smile spread across her face. She didn’t know if she was more excited or nervous at the prospect of revealing her artistic soul.

They both looked at each other in silence; wide smiles on both their faces. Camille couldn’t stop thinking that this man was in the process of completely changing her life for the better.

“And also, I think you should collaborate with the author and artist of that book I bought from you, Country Crowns ,” Devin said, dusting his hands. Camille’s brows crossed immediately. What on Earth was he talking about?

“Why?” She snapped, and Devin raised an eyebrow.

“Because I read that book and saw the artwork, I think you two would be a good match. It would be good publicity for your store too. By the looks of it, nobody has heard of this book and it could be a win-win situation for you all,” Devin said, standing up from his spot on the floor. Camille followed him with her eyes as he walked over to toss the crunched up foil paper in the bin, before walking back to her.

“The reason…” Camille began, taking a deep breath. It was time to come clean; she didn’t want to lie to Devin anymore. “The reason why the artwork is so similar is because it’s mine.” She hung down her head in embarrassment.

“I don’t understand… what is that supposed to mean?” Devin asked, walking up close to her again. He bent his head to catch her face, and Camille kept trying to avert her eyes from him.

“I’m both the artist and author of that comic book. I self-published it under a pen name, with Shayna… it’s our work,” she said, finally daring to look at him. She had seen the look of surprise in Devin’s eyes before he made sense of what she was telling him.

“You wrote Country Crowns ?”

She nodded but was afraid of his reaction and what he would think of her when he realized that she had been deceiving him all this time.

“That is amazing, Camille. I knew you were talented, but I had no idea you had this much scope. This is brilliant news.” Devin hugged her tight, taking her by surprise again. There was no anger in his voice; he was genuinely happy to hear it. Camille smiled, burying her face in his shoulder until he pulled away from her again to look at her face.

“What I don’t understand is why you’ve kept it a secret for so long?” he queried, and Camille licked her lips. She could feel her cheeks flushing again.

“Because I didn’t want people to start making connections. A lot of the things that I write about have actually happened in the town I come from. I didn’t want my parents to know that I was writing about my family. I didn’t want people to judge me for where I come from,” Camille told him, dropping her gaze. She couldn’t look at him while she revealed the truth about herself.

Devin was silent for a while, and then he started stroking her hair.

“Embrace it, Camille. Your life, your childhood… it’s all given you the strength to write about it. It’s made you who you are. That’s what makes your stories so real, so hard hitting. Even if it’s only a comic book,” Devin whispered, and Camille finally looked at him. She had never felt this close; this connected to another human being before. She had never derived this kind of strength from another soul.

She reached out for him and hugged him tightly, burying her face in his shoulder again. She felt like she could hug him forever, and he didn’t seem like he was in a hurry to let go of her either.

“So it’s all settled then. One month to go and your art will be on show,” he said, and Camille smiled up at him.

“And the theme will be ‘Country Crowns: A True Story,’” Camille added, and they both grinned at each other, satisfied enough that they were in each others presence.


Devin

Devin caught himself smiling as he chewed on a piece of toast and threw the rest over to his patiently waiting dogs all gathered around him. That night with Camille at the clubhouse had happened two days ago, and he still couldn’t stop himself from smiling. He still couldn’t stop his mind from revisiting those moments when he had her in his arms.

He had only known her for a few weeks, but he felt like he had known her a lifetime. Things weren’t moving quickly enough for him. Camille was charming, talented, caring and smashing in bed. A part of him wanted to ask her to move in with him. But he also knew it would be a bad idea. Camille didn’t know who he truly was and what he did for a living. Bringing her this close to his life would be inviting danger.

Devin shook his head and ran a hand over his chin. It was time to shave; there was stubble on his chin that he needed to get rid of.

“I let myself in,” he heard Evangeline’s voice and his head jerked up to find her standing at the kitchen door. It was nine in the morning, but she was already dressed like she was on her way to a cocktail party.

Her dress was a frail, baby pink silk, short, and clinging to her body. Her arms and legs were bare, pale, and long. Her hair was left open, silky and dark, and she had the perfect pink-shaded made up face, as though this is what she had woken up looking like.

“You still have a key?” Devin asked, his brows crossing. Just this image of Evangeline in his kitchen brought back memories of their relationship. She never allowed him to see her without her makeup. For the two years that they were together, and in those last six months when she moved in with him, Evangeline made it a point to wake up in the morning before him so that she could do her hair and makeup for their breakfast together. Even if she was only going to be in her pajamas.

“What did you think? That I’ll just throw your keys away?” Evangeline smiled broadly and took a few tender steps towards him. Some of the dogs growled - they had never liked Evangeline for some reason.

“Go!” Devin commanded them, and they left the kitchen to go outside. Evangeline rolled her eyes and crossed her long pale arms over her breasts. Devin knew that she had never liked the dogs either.

“Well, I guess I should have known better and changed the locks a long time ago,” Devin said, resting the cup of coffee he was holding on the table. He hadn’t offered Evangeline a chair or any breakfast because he didn’t want her to stay for a second longer than she needed to. But Evangeline, as always, was not in a hurry to leave.

She took a few more steps towards him and then placed her rhinestone covered pink clutch on the kitchen counter. Without a word she reached for an empty glass and walked over to the fridge.

“You still don’t buy sparkling water for yourself, darling?” she asked opening the fridge door and laughing a little. “You will never change will you, Devin?”

She bent down, making sure that her small shapely butt stuck out in front of him. Devin looked away and clenched his jaw. She was becoming a nuisance, and really testing his patience. But he also knew that he needed to tolerate her for a little longer, just at least until Camille’s art show.

“Why are you here, Evangeline?” he asked, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice. She didn’t seem to notice and turned around with her glass filled with orange juice. She slammed the fridge door and had a wide, fake smile pasted on her face.

“I’m here to talk about this favor you asked me the other night,” she replied, walking over to the counter. She took some small sips of the orange juice while Devin looked at her with a bitter grimace on his face.

“It wasn’t a favor, Evangeline. It’s a business deal. I’ll pay you for the booking, of course.” He crossed his arms over his chest and noticed Evangeline’s eyes drop to his muscular arms. Her face softened. He could always tell when a woman wanted him; when he was making her wet. Not Camille though, she was always hard to read.

“So why aren’t you going to any other art galleries in Miami?” she asked, and Devin tried to smile.

“Because yours is the best. One show at your gallery will make sure that my friend’s art is officially launched and appreciated,” Devin said, shifting in his seat. Evangeline smiled back at him, nodded, and took a few more sips of her juice.

“That is true.” walked towards him. Devin clenched his jaw, following her movement with his eyes. “But like I said, I want something in return,” Evangeline continued, now stopping right in front of him so that he had to look up at her.

Devin sighed. “What do you want?”

“For us to give it another shot.” Evangeline was quick to respond. Devin pushed his chair back and stood up, taking quick steps away from her.

“It’s over, Evangeline. It’s been over for nearly a year now. You can’t manipulate me into getting back with you,” Devin thundered, walking to the other end of the kitchen, putting as much distance between them as he could. Evangeline followed him slowly. Her face had changed from casual and seductive to desperate, and even a little bit angered.

“How can you say that? We had something real for two years. Hell, we nearly got married!” Evangeline screamed, and Devin had to do everything he could to not scream back at her.

“And then you overdosed and nearly died!” he growled, trying to keep his voice low. They had screamed and yelled at each other enough a year ago, he didn’t want to have to go through that again.

He watched as Evangeline took in a deep breath, released it, and tried to smile again.

“That phase of my life is over now, Devin. I’ve been clean for six months. It’s in the past. Give me a chance to prove it.” Her voice had changed. She wasn’t the one with the upper hand anymore, she wasn’t the seductive hostess from her art gallery parties anymore. She was begging Devin to take her back, but after everything she had done?!

“Evangeline… I’m happy for you. That you’re past now.” Devin ran his hands through his hair and shook his head. “But I can’t. I don’t want to give our relationship another shot. Not after everything that happened.”

Evangeline sucked in a mouthful of air, and he could see that her lips were quivering. The last thing he wanted was for her to cry. She had always been good at drama, at producing crocodile tears on cue. He didn’t trust her at all, this was all for show.

“Why not Devin? You loved me once. And I don’t believe you can’t love me again. I still love you.” She came up closer to him, and he pressed his back against the wall. A few weeks ago, he might have fallen for this. For her perfect porcelain skin, her wide mouth, her slender body, and her seductiveness. But now there was Camille. Only she mattered, and nobody else.

“No, Evangeline. I don’t, and I can’t love you again,” Devin said, slipping away from her before she had the chance to come any closer. He took long strides to the other end of the room and started clearing up his plates from breakfast. He wasn’t looking at her anymore.

“I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that you don’t have any feelings for me anymore. That’s a lie. I’ve seen the way you look at me.” Her voice had changed again. She wasn’t begging anymore, she was angry, screaming again. This is how it had always been with her; she could manipulate her mood and her tone of voice depending on the situation. Now Devin was convinced that none of her emotions were real. He should never have gotten into a relationship with her in the first place.

“Evangeline, I think it’s time for you to move on as well. You should get out there, date again,” Devin said, depositing the plates in the sink and then dusting his hands. When he turned around, he found that she was standing with her hands on her hips and with a sly smile on her face.

“Please, darling, you think I’m that pathetic? That I’ll stay away from men just because you broke up with me? I’m not that broken hearted.”

Devin raised his eyebrows and tried smiling too. “Well, that’s good. I’m glad you’re keeping yourself busy.” He folded his arms again. Evangeline continued to smile and raised her chin proudly.

“In fact, I’m dating someone seriously now,” she told him, and Devin tilted his head, the smile still pasted on his face. In reality, he wasn’t even curious to know. But he played along.

“That’s good news. Is it somebody I know?” he asked, and Evangeline suddenly threw back her head and laughed.

“Indeed it is. Somebody you know very well in fact.” She licked her lips, watching Devin intently with a steady gaze. He crossed his brows and waited for her answer.

“I’m dating Jimmy,” she said flatly, and Devin dropped his smile.

“Figueroa? Jimmy Figueroa? The leader of The Choppers?” Devin growled and took a few steps towards her. Evangeline licked her lips and dropped her arms to her side.

“Yes, the one and only. He’s an animal in bed,” she added, clearly aware that Devin was losing his mind. He clenched his jaw and gritted his teeth and then swung his face away from her. He tried to remind himself that he shouldn’t care anymore. She wasn’t his girlfriend. In fact, they were barely even friends.

“Well, good for him. I hope you both are very happy together,” Devin said, trying to smile again. Evangeline wasn’t fooled by his words, she knew exactly the effect this news had on him, and she was relishing in it. She laughed again and walked towards him. They were now standing only a few feet away from each other.

“But Devin, you’re still the one. Jimmy is an excellent lover, but you’re still the best,” she said, and Devin smirked. He didn’t know what else to say to her.

“You can call me anytime. Day or night.” She slowly walked towards him and touched him gently on his arm before walking past him and picking up her clutch from the counter. Devin didn’t turn to follow her.

“It’s settled then, darling. Your friend can have her art show at my gallery for free,” Evangeline said, and Devin finally turned.

“For free? No, I said I want to pay for it.”

Evangeline walked over to him quickly and placed a kiss on his cheek and then started walking away again. Her hips swayed in her tight dress as she walked, but Devin wasn’t paying attention to that anymore.

“Don’t be silly, my love. You know I’d do anything for you. I’ll text you an available date.” She waved at him and then left the kitchen.

Devin remained standing where he was until he heard the front door open and then close gently. He made a mental note to change the locks right away.

Camille

“So these are all the old ones, then?” Shayna asked as she and Camille stood beside each other with their hands on their hips. They had collected all their old artwork in the back storeroom of the bookstore and now stood staring at it. They exchanged looks and smiled.

“I can’t believe this is actually happening, Camille!” Shayna clapped her hands, and they both laughed in excitement.

“But we have to make new ones as well, these can’t be the only ones we use,” Camille said, pulling out her phone from her pocket which had started ringing. It was Devin.

“Hi,” she said, walking out of the storeroom and leaving Shayna by herself.

“Hello, gorgeous,” she heard him say, and she blushed, even though he was nowhere in sight.

“I was just checking in to see how things are coming along,” Devin said, and Camille stood leaning against a bookshelf, twirling one of her curls around her little finger.

“They’re going well, we’ve collected all our old ones in one place and have to decide on the new ones I want to draw,” she told him, picturing Devin in front of her now - what he might be wearing, his chocolate brown eyes, his wide shoulders, and how much taller than her he was.

“That’s good. Has Evangeline been behaving herself?” he asked, and Camille suddenly felt lost in his voice for a few moments, before she regained her composure and nodded.

“Yes, she’s been very helpful, thanks. She calls me every few days to coordinate and has given me lots of useful tips,” Camille said, realizing at that moment that her happiness knew no bounds. For the first time in her life, everything was going well. She had her first art show coming up, in the best and biggest gallery in the city. She had Devin, who even though she didn’t share a defined relationship with, she was just happy knowing that he was in her life. Camille couldn’t stop smiling.

“Very good. Looks like Evangeline has finally grown up.”

“Yeah, she said that she’s deciding on a price and that we can price them quite high. She’s confident that they will all sell.” Camille was unable to contain her excitement, and Devin laughed when he heard her sound so happy.

“I miss you, Camille, we should get together again, soon,” Devin said, and she felt like her heart was about to melt.

“When do you want to meet? I’m free all this week.” Camille bit down on her lip. She didn’t want to sound this excited, but she couldn’t help herself; Devin’s voice was irresistible.

“I’m not sure when we can meet. I have a big project this week so it might not happen. But you should know that I’m constantly thinking about you. I have to go now. Good luck with your art,” he said and then hung up.

Camille listened to the white disconnected noise at the other end of the line and continued chewing on her lip. This was Devin’s appeal: he left her hot and cold, pulled her in and then pushed her back. And for some strange reason, she liked it. He was unpredictable, and she felt like it was dangerous for her to place her heart in his hands. But she wouldn’t have it any other way; she couldn’t even think of a life without Devin now, even though she barely knew him.

“Are you done? I have a few ideas I want to run by you.” Shayna appeared, and Camille nodded. She could think about Devin all day, but there was work to do.

“So you know how you said you want to make Cammy the central theme? Make each artwork a symbol for feminism?” Shayna said, walking back towards the storeroom. Camille followed her, but her brain was still filled with thoughts of Devin.

“Well, I was thinking that we could use colors to symbolize a different kind of evil in each drawing. You know, like red for spilled blood. A dark navy blue for men in uniform who take up positions of power against women.” Shayna was talking fast, as she always did when she had a big idea. Camille was barely paying attention, but she nodded anyway.

“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” she said, giving a wide genuine smile.

“Great, I’ll go and start working on a narrative then,” Shayna replied, turning around to give Camille a tight hug before walking out of the storeroom.

Camille was the one left alone with her old paintings now. She stared at them, blankly and silently. Most of the artwork was of Cammy, the superhero from her comic book. Some others were of landscapes, torn down buildings, and roughed up small towns. They were all a reflection of where she had grown up; the unrest and evil she had witnessed as a child.

She was a long way away from all that now, Camille thought, the smile disappearing from her face. She was lucky to have found a friend like Shayna, a man like Devin, and the kind of opportunity he and Evangeline were giving her. She wondered if she had misjudged Evangeline too quickly at the exhibition. Evangeline seemed like a completely different person now. She was warm, friendly, cooperative and most of all, she seemed like she genuinely cared about Camille’s artistic success.

She forgave Evangeline for her cold and unfriendly behavior the other night. She smiled because she understood her - it couldn’t have been easy to let go of Devin, get over him, and then watch him attend her party with someone else.

Camille stared at her phone in her hand again; she missed him already. But there was work to be done, and new art to be drawn. Her destiny was waiting for her, and Camille was ready now, more than ever, to grab it by the horns.

***

Camille threw her keys on the couch and switched on the electric kettle. She had already had dinner with Shayna earlier at a restaurant, but she was craving some hot milky tea now. Her apartment was a mess; she hadn’t bothered to clean up much in the past few days. Her attention had been entirely on Devin and the upcoming art show. The rest of her life, the bookstore… everything had taken a backseat for the time being.

She made herself a cup of tea and sat down on the couch, resting her feet on the low coffee table in front of her. She could see her own reflection in the window on the opposite wall. She was in a short denim skirt, a cotton top, her hair was in its usual unmanageable curly state, and she hadn’t bothered with makeup that day. What did Devin see in her?

Devin. She reached for her phone and stared at the screen blankly. She missed him; she craved to hear his voice. But he seemed so far away. Before she could stop herself, she was dialing his number.

“Hi, gorgeous.” He answered the call within the first few rings.

“Hi. Just wondering what you’re up to?” Camille smiled, snuggling into the couch, and pulled the soft throw over her legs.

Devin laughed and then sighed. “I just came back home. I had a long day at work, but I couldn’t stop thinking of you.” He sounded sexy and irresistible.

Camille placed her mug of tea on the table and leaned back into the couch. She could perfectly imagine his chiseled face, his wide smile, and his tattooed back.

“And what are you going to do now?” she asked huskily. Even though they were on the phone, Camille felt like she was alone with him. Just the two of them.

Devin sighed again and took his time to respond. “Maybe lie here on my couch, dreaming of you and your perfect breasts,” he said, surprising her with his directness.

Camille couldn’t stop herself from giggling, and then she bit down on her lip and sighed. “I wish you were here with me. Then you wouldn’t have to dream of my breasts,” she replied, and Devin drew in a deep breath.

“No, then I’d be ripping your clothes off you. I’d want those breasts in my mouth.”

Camille found her hand traveling down her belly to where she was beginning to grow wet. She hadn’t done something like this since she was a teenager! How was he able to turn her on with just his voice?

“Touch them, Camille. For me,” she heard him say, and she did as she was told. She grabbed her breast, the left one, and squeezed. She moaned and closed her eyes, and heard him take in a sharp breath.

“Now flick your nipples, squeeze them… you know how I do it.”

She did that too. She hadn’t touched herself like this in a long time, and for some reason, it felt natural. Her nipples were pert and raw, and she winced when she squeezed them, enjoying the sharp pleasurable sensation. She licked her lips as she imagined Devin’s hands on her body, his large warm hands on her skin and playing with her nipples.

“What are you doing?” She asked him breathily.

“I’m touching myself, stroking my dick,” he said, and she could hear him beginning to breathe heavily.

“I want to touch it too. Suck it, wrap my tongue around it.” Camille was shocking herself by the words she was using. Devin took in a sharp breath of air, he must have been surprised as well, but at least it turned him on.

“I want to be inside you, Camille. I want to rip off your panties with my tongue and stick my fingers inside you.”

Camille moaned again. She had started stroking herself as well, making herself wetter with each passing second. She could picture Devin naked in front of her. His tattoos, his ripping muscles, the ease with which he carried her around, and how small she felt with him over her. Camille shut her eyes tightly and started stroking more vigorously.

“I want to make you cum, Camille. I want to see those breasts swing,” he said, and she threw her head back. She had forgotten that she was pleasuring herself; her fingers stroking herself were Devin’s fingers. She pushed her underwear aside and slipped in two of her fingers, and heard herself moan loudly.

“I’m going to ravage that body when I see you next, Camille. I’m going to lick every inch of you. Pump into you until you tell me to stop.” Devin’s voice had become heavy, and he was breathing raspy. She could sense that he was pushing himself over the edge. He was stroking himself thinking of her, and they were both losing control.

Camille had never managed to pleasure herself this way. She had never bothered to, and she had never felt this good either. Now her fingers were inside her, sliding in and out, her juices were seeping out, her fingers were sticky and wet, and she was touching herself there, where Devin had managed to touch her. She was close to her orgasm, and she screamed his name.

“Devin! I’m going to cum!” she yelled, and Devin groaned.

“Cum with me Camille, let me cum inside you,” she heard him say before her mind lost all control. She was on a high, her body writhed and her hips moved of their own accord. She gyrated against the cushions on her couch while her fingers remained inside her. It was too exciting and felt too good for her to fathom.

When her breathing subsided, she heard Devin laugh a little. It was a laugh of satisfaction.

“Sweet dreams, Devin. I have to go now,” she told him and ended the call. The smile on her face remained as she held the phone in her hands and sunk back into the couch. She was going to sleep well tonight.

Devin

Four weeks had gone by in the blink of an eye. Even though Devin had a lot of business to take care of, and he had been away from Miami for most of that time, he couldn't believe how much he missed Camille when he couldn’t see her.

The upcoming art show had kept her busy too so that they only had the chance to meet three times in those four weeks. And she hadn’t stayed over on any of those nights because she wanted to wake up early and he’d had work as well. Now his busy streak was finally over, the art show was in two days, and he had convinced her that he should take her shopping.

He was waiting for her, leaning on his Harley outside her apartment building. Camille finally appeared at the door. She was in a pair of ripped boyfriend jeans with a loose oversized t-shirt tucked in and a wide black belt. She looked too young, too innocent and beautiful for a life with him, he thought. But Devin smiled nonetheless. Camille came bouncing down the steps towards him. They hadn’t seen each other in over five days, and by the look on her face, she had missed him just as much as he had missed her.

“Devin!” Her cheeks flushed with excitement as she came running towards him. He extended his arms so that she fell into them and he picked her up. They kissed passionately, and when he pulled away, her cheeks were still flushed. The large silver hoops in her ears shook as she laughed.

“It’s so good to see you,” she said, and he released her, her sneakers touching the ground again.

“I’ve been dying to see you. You look gorgeous,” he replied, and she tucked in some curls behind her ears in embarrassment. She really didn’t know how to take a compliment, Devin thought and laughed.

“All set for the show?” he asked as she walked around to hop on the bike.

“Yes, all set. The paintings and sketches have been transported to Evangeline’s storage. Now it’s all in her hands,” Camille said as she slid her legs over the backseat like a pro, and waited for him to settle in. Devin smiled and buckled up his helmet. He felt her arms wrap around his waist as he revved up his engine.

“Are you as excited about it as I am?” he asked, and he felt Camille nuzzle up behind him.

“You have no idea, and thank you again, Devin. For doing this for me.”

He turned sideways to face her. Their faces were close, and she placed a small kiss on his helmet where his lips would have been, and Devin immediately felt the tension from his shoulder muscles subside. She always had a calming effect on him.

“You’re very welcome, but don’t thank me. It’s all about your talent, and you deserve it, Camille.” He smiled, but she couldn’t see it behind his helmet. But she looked happy nonetheless.

“Remind me again, why you’re taking me shopping?” she asked with a giggle.

“Because you will need a grand new dress for the show and I want to treat you to something nice,” he said and started his bike before she could protest again. Unlike all the other women he had ever dated, Camille Griffin was shy about compliments, and also shied away from accepting gifts. He wanted to do this for her; he wanted her to feel like a princess at the show and be the center of attention. Devin had a feeling, even though she had told him very little about her life, that Camille had grown up with very little. He wanted to make her feel appreciated for her talents. She deserved it for how good she made him feel.

They arrived at Dorothy’s boutique fifteen minutes later, and he could already sense Camille’s inhibitions as they got off the bike.

“I thought we were just going to the mall,” he heard her say as she hopped off the bike behind him. He took off his helmet, parked the bike and got off himself. He couldn’t suppress the smile on his face. He had brought her to the most exclusive boutique in the city. Dorothy Patterson catered to celebrities, millionaires, and dressed film stars for the red carpet; she designed everything from clothes to accessories, to jewelry. This could be their one-stop destination for the perfect look for Camille for the art show.

“You deserve something special. An artist needs to sell herself just as much as her art,” Devin said, placing a hand on her waist as he led her towards the entrance to the store. Camille hesitated; he could feel the tension in her shoulders.

“But this is too much, Devin. Dorothy Patterson’ boutique!” she whispered as he pushed her gently towards the store.

“I wouldn’t bring you here if I didn’t think I could afford it.”

Camille turned to him while biting her lips in nervousness. “I didn’t know models make that much money,” she said, and Devin smiled.

“I also have my business,” he said, and Camille raised her eyebrows.

“Which I know nothing about, but which you insist is a hundred percent legitimate,” she replied, finally giving up and walking at his pace. Devin laughed and stroked the small of her back as he held open the glass doors to the boutique.

“You don’t need to concern yourself with that. Just enjoy today, and concentrate on your art. I promise I won’t get us into trouble.”

Camille walked past him into the boutique, wide-eyed and nervous. She turned to him with a half-baked smile as she waited for him to join her.

“I just want you to stay safe, that’s all,” she said, and Devin leaned in to plant a long kiss on her forehead.

***

It was Devin who was insisting that she try out every possible dress at the store. He was sitting opposite the changing rooms, and Dorothy Patterson’ assistant kept handing Camille dresses over the curtains for her to try on.

This time, Camille parted the curtains and stepped out. The assistant had even picked out shoes for her to wear. It was a glittering silver cocktail dress with long sleeves and a plunging back that reached just above her butt. The shoes were high, silvery heels and Camille walked out in the outfit looking nervous and shy.

“Give me a twirl,” Devin said with a satisfied smile on his face, and Camille turned slowly. He could feel himself move in his pants as he watched her. But she looked uncomfortable.

“Just one more, the black one, and then you can choose which one you want,” Devin said, sitting back in the chair, and Camille rolled her eyes.

“I can’t believe you’re making me do this!” she snapped, trying to suppress a smile as well. As much as she tried to deny it to herself, she was enjoying the experience. The assistant brought over a silver tray with two champagne glasses that they both accepted. Devin could see the excitement in Camille’s eyes. She was still nervous and shy, but she was thrilled about it all too.

“Go ahead, just one more,” he urged.

Camille bit down on her lip and nodded. “The black one please, Joanne,” she said, leaning in towards Dorothy’s assistant. Devin smiled, he was right… Camille was having fun.

She parted the curtains and disappeared again, while Joanne handed the black dress over to her. Devin took another long sip of the champagne and settled in for the show. Who would have ever imagined it, he thought to himself, Devin Rock in a premier boutique, shopping for dresses for a girl who wasn’t even officially his girlfriend. And he was actually having fun! He could do this all day. He could watch Camille all day.

In a few minutes, she stepped out through the curtains again. And this time, Devin knew that this dress was created for her.

The dress was in black lace that reached her knees with a shimmering black layer underneath that only reached mid-thigh. The neck plunged to a V, pronouncing Camille’s breasts. Joanne had picked out high stilettos in turquoise to clash with the dress and was now suggesting a matching turquoise clutch.

Camille came out looking at Devin, she was watching his reaction as he drunk her in.

“You could go with blue tones in your makeup too. For your eyeshadow and a pale lip,” Joanne suggested, but neither of them paid her any attention. They were both looking at each other. Camille could see it in Devin’s eyes that he wanted to rip that dress off her. He wanted to pin her against the wall, right there in the middle of the boutique, and fuck her.

“Thank you, Joanne, we’ll take this one,” Camille said, breaking their eye contact as she turned to the assistant and smiled. Joanne smiled, nodded, and walked away.

“I should get out of this,” Camille spoke to Devin in a whisper.

“Yes, you probably should before I rip it off you. You look beautiful, Camille.” He got up from his chair to walk to her. Camille placed her hands on his chest, and they kissed again. This time it was a hungrier kiss. They had both seen the look in each other’s eyes. It was evidence of their raging attraction for each other. The dress was just a symbol.

She tore away from him, and he pulled her back again, and now he was kissing her neck, and she threw her head back. He placed his fingers on the lacey straps on her shoulders, and he was just about to tug them away when they heard Joanne clear her throat. They both whipped around to look at her, and she had turned her head away.

“Mrs. Patterson was wondering if we could also interest you in some jewelry?” Joanne asked.

“No, thank you,” Camille replied while Devin chimed in with a, “Yes.”

“I’ll have a look around for what might suit the dress best,” Joanne said before dropping her head and walking away. Camille turned with widened eyes to Devin, who smiled back at her.

“I really don’t need jewelry,” Camille said, pulling away from him slightly.

“Let’s just have a look and see if we can find something for you,” he said, and Camille shook her head.

“No, Devin, this dress is expensive enough.”

He placed a finger on her lips. “Go get changed, and we’ll go look at a few earrings. Something in turquoise to go with your shoes and purse.”

She gulped, looked at him, and then turned to go back into the changing rooms. Devin was having just as much fun as she was.

***

“These are in turquoise and clear quartz,” Joanne said, looping the earrings into Camille’s ears. She then held a small mirror up for her to see while Devin stood behind her.

“I think they’re perfect,” he said, and Joanne nodded. Camille touched them as they dangled from her ears, and then she turned to look at him directly. Devin smiled at her, drinking in her matching blue eyes and the shape of her mouth that he so desperately wanted to kiss.

“Yes, they would have been perfect. But I was thinking diamonds,” he added, and while Camille gasped, Joanne nodded again.

“We can find something in diamonds too. Something in the same teardrop shape,” she replied, walking away.

Camille shook her head and took a few steps towards him. “Devin, diamonds!” She laughed.

“You deserve it. It’s your special night.” He touched her small shoulders, and she tried to suppress a smile.

They were standing in front of a glass case full of bracelets and rings. A solitaire diamond ring was displaced at the center of the flagship engagement ring display. Both their eyes fell on it at the same time, and Camille turned her head away, blushing.

“That’s a beautiful ring, isn’t it?” he asked, and Camille didn’t respond. She obviously didn’t want him to know that she had been looking at it as well. It was too beautiful and too big not to notice.

“That one? Yeah, it’s lovely,” Camille finally said, avoiding Devin’s gaze.

He could feel his emotions running high. Here was a ring alongside a woman he was in love with… could he ask her to marry him? He had never felt this way about anyone before. She made him feel good and had given him strength, and he wanted to protect her. Isn’t that what marriage was supposed to be?

“Do you want to try it on?” he asked, and Camille took a few steps away from him. That excited look from her face had drained, and she almost looked scared now.

“Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to marry me,” he said, and she licked her lips and nodded. “At least, not yet.” Camille was frozen to the spot again.

“Camille…” He walked up to her to hold her in his arms again. “I don’t mean to scare you. I thought we were just having a little fun and I wondered if you wanted to just try it on. It was an innocent suggestion,” he explained, and Camille nodded again.

“Of course. Yeah, no, I didn’t take it a different way,” she said and slipped away from him and walked over to the glass case, staring at the ring directly now. Devin dug his hands into the pockets of his jeans and watched her as she stood looking at the ring nervously.

What could possibly go wrong if he asked her to marry him right there? He was in love with her, that much was certain. He couldn’t think of a life with anybody else. It might be too soon, but what about their relationship was regular anyway?

“Yeah, I’ll try it on,” Camille said, suddenly turning to him and interrupting his thoughts. She looked determined; she looked like she was saying yes. Devin knew, just from her face, that if he asked right there, she would say yes.

“There we go.” Joanne appeared by their side again, and this time she opened a blue velvet box with a pair of diamond earrings. They were long, fat, and teardrop shaped, and Joanne took them out of the box to help Camille put them on.

Camille dragged her gaze away from Devin to wear them and then she looked at herself in the mirror again.

“They look great. They’ll go well with the dress,” Devin said, walking towards her. When she looked at him, her cheeks were red again. She had been clearly thinking about the ring and didn’t care about the earrings anymore. Devin smiled and placed his hands on her small hand on the counter.

“Thank you, Joanne, we’ll take the earrings, the bag, and the shoes,” he said and turned to the assistant, who smiled and walked away. Camille and Devin stood in silence. Camille continued to look at herself in the mirror while Devin looked at her reflection as well.

It was true, she made him happy, she was beautiful… and if he wasn’t wrong, she felt the same way about him. But why didn’t he ask her to marry him? Why did he let the moment pass? It was probably because, at the back of his mind, he knew what the truth was - that they could never live a normal life together, not the kind of normal life that Camille was used to.

His life was made up of unpredictable moments. He was constantly in harm’s way, and marrying someone would put her life in constant danger as well. And what if they had kids? He couldn’t do that to his own family.

But Camille would have said yes, he could see it in her eyes.

“Here’s your bill, Sir.” Joanne appeared again, and Devin reached for his pocket to pull out his wallet, and then handed her his card. Camille was following his every movement with her wide, frosty blue eyes.

“What happened back there, Devin?” She broke their silence, and he tried to smile.

“Just an awkward few moments,” he told her and reached for her shoulder. Camille smiled and then proceeded to take the earrings off.

“Don’t worry Devin, I don’t expect you to pop the question just because you made a small accidental suggestion.” She placed the earrings back in their box, then smiled, and he believed that she was smiling genuinely. What she said made him feel a little relieved, because as much as he would have wanted to make her his wife, a married life with him would be impossible for an innocent young girl like Camille. He would only be torturing her by asking her to marry him.

“Should we go get dinner then?” he asked, changing the subject.

Camille smiled as she looked at him and nodded. “I’m starving, and I’m suddenly craving a burrito,” she said, walking ahead of him just as Joanne came back with all their packed bags and his card.

Devin laughed as he carried the bags for Camille. “Burritos it is then.”

They both walked out of Dorothy’s Boutique with happy smiles on their faces. That moment had passed, and they had achieved what they had come here for - to find the perfect outfit for Camille so that she would be the center of attention at the art show.

Camille

On the night of the art show, Devin turned up outside Camille’s house in his car to pick both the girls up. Emotions were running high - Shayna was giddy with excitement while Camille kept her lips sealed, even when Devin kissed her.

“Just relax, Camille, it’ll all go well. You look beautiful,” he whispered in her ear as she sunk down into the passenger seat. Camille had taken her time getting dressed. The shoes, the earrings, the clutch, the dress, the hair, and the neutral looking makeup… it all had to be perfect.

Shayna was in her usual fishnets, a black velvet dress, and lots of costume jewelry. Both of them praised each other for how beautiful they looked.

“Are we ready to go?” Devin asked as he settled into the front seat. Shayna clapped her hands and Camille turned to him with nervous eyes.

“Hey!” he said, touching her shoulders to reassure her again. “I know you’ve never done anything like this before, but you’re in good hands. If there’s anyone who could do a better job than Evangeline, I have yet to meet them.”

Camille nodded. He had dressed up for the occasion as well. Camille had never seen Devin in anything else except his leather jacket and jeans. Tonight he was in a navy suit, tailored to perfection and a red bowtie. He looked slick like a movie star, and she blushed every time their eyes met. The most gorgeous man she had ever met was driving her to her first art show.

They drove in relative silence. Each of them had their own nervous thoughts to think about, and when they reached the gallery, Evangeline was waiting outside to greet them. She was right, there were huge crowds and an even bigger media group waiting. It had all been kept a big secret, and she had been able to get the buzz going off the launch of a new artist. Nobody had seen a preview, so everyone was dying to know which new talented artist Evangeline Fox had discovered this time.

Evangeline surprisingly held the car door open for Camille as she stepped out, and they both exchanged kisses, something that Camille was still getting used to. As usual, Evangeline was the epitome of perfection. She was in an angelic white sheath dress that flowed like an old Greek princess around her as she moved. She had a floral necklace around her throat and matching earrings. She looked like she belonged on a meadow or a beach, but either way, she was able to carry it off well; creating her very own magical aura with every step she took.

“You look absolutely stunning, darling,” she said, clutching Camille’s arm with her cold, pale hands. A shiver ran down Camille’s spine, but she smiled anyway. She was grateful for everything that Evangeline had done for her and Shayna, and she couldn’t really blame her for anything now. Evangeline was being the poster child of friendliness.

“Hello, darlings, doesn’t Camille look lovely?” She turned her attention to Devin and Shayna while Camille tried to catch Devin’s gaze. She was still nervous, and she didn’t want him to leave her side, but Evangeline was leading her down the red carpet, on either side of which people had been barricaded out along with the press.

“We’ve made this a member’s only screening. Just for the first few hours, so that they can all have the best selection. The other walk-ins can come in after two hours and take the rest.” Evangeline waved her hands around as she spoke, entangling her long arms with Camille as they walked slowly towards the entrance.

“And we also have another little surprise for everyone,” she added, and Camille turned to her with her brows crossed. What more could Evangeline have possibly done? She was already so grateful to the woman.

“I decided that the best effect would be created if we all gathered in the gallery in darkness, just to heighten the tension. There’ll be a countdown, and then the lights will come on, and all the artwork can be revealed in one go. What do you think?” Evangeline turned excitedly from Camille to Devin, ignoring Shayna completely.

Camille looked over to Shayna who was walking behind them, and Shayna shrugged her shoulders.

“That sounds like a good idea, Evangeline, thank you for thinking of it,” Camille said meekly.

“You know best,” Devin said as he walked beside them.

“Smile and wave, honey.” Evangeline nudged Camille with her elbow as she turned to the flashing cameras and waved. Camille pasted a fake smile on her face and tried to weakly wave. This was not the life that she was used to; this was exactly the kind of fame she wanted to stay away from. But it was too late now.

“Camille.” Devin’s hands grabbed her by the waist just as they were about to enter the darkened gallery. Camille caught Evangeline turning to them with crossed eyebrows, and her expression changed again to a wide plastic smile. She grabbed Shayna’s hand instead and pulled her inside.

“Stand anywhere. Just don’t bump into anything,” Evangeline informed them before walking in with Shayna.

Camille turned to Devin, who placed a hooked thumb under her chin and lifted her face to look up at him.

“It’s all going well. You don’t have to stay in the limelight for the whole night. A couple of minutes more and once the artwork is revealed, you can get yourself lost in the crowd,” he told her, and she looked deep into his brown eyes. How did he always know exactly what she was thinking?

Camille smiled, grateful that he was right there by her side and she nodded. “Let’s go in, I’m ready.”

***

Evangeline had arranged for the gallery to be dark, but as their eyes adjusted to the lack of light, Camille could make out figures of people and canvases and framed artwork hanging on the walls. But the darkness wasn’t bright enough to reveal what the artwork was. Camille smiled as she stood with her hand clasped around Devin’s arm. This was all her. This was her work. Her moment. Her chance to shine.

There was the sound of a microphone being turned on, and then Evangeline’s voice filled the room.

“Good evening, ladies and gentleman. I am Evangeline Fox, and I welcome you to Camille Griffin’s show, ‘Country Crowns, A True Story.’”

All around Camille, in the darkness, the room erupted in loud clapping. She could sense that Devin beside her was clapping as well. She couldn’t stop smiling now.

“Once the lights come on in a few minutes, you will be able to witness the work of a truly talented young artist. We will also be handing out pamphlets for you to read a little more about Camille Griffin and the stories behind her work - a project she has completed in association with master storyteller, Shayna DuVry,” Evangeline continued, and there was more applause, even louder this time.

It was evident that people were losing their patience; they all wanted to see these brilliant pieces of art that Evangeline was promising them.

“So without further adieu,” Evangeline said, and Camille felt Devin’s mouth press against the side of her head. “I present to you, ‘Country Crowns, A True Story.’”

Suddenly all the lights turned on.

There was a gasping sound around her as the sheer force of the sudden lights first blinded Camille and then her vision began to clear up.

Her hand from Devin’s arm dropped, and her mouth automatically hung open. All her artwork, hanging from the walls, they had all been disfigured. They had been slashed with a sharp object, like a knife, right down the center, and what looked like black ink had been splashed all over them. None of them looked the same - they had all been destroyed. They had all been originals, the only copies of all her artwork. A lifetime’s worth of work… gone.

There was silence in the gallery, except for the gasps that were still erupting around her. Then Camille heard Shayna’s loud wail.

“What the fuck!” Shayna’s voice pierced through the air, but Camille was frozen on the spot.

“What is going on? Who did this?” Devin thundered, but all Camille could do was stare at her destroyed art.

“I apologize, ladies and gentlemen. There seems to have been some sort of confusion. Please give me a few moments,” Evangeline’s voice rang through the microphone again, and finally, Camille looked up at her.

Evangeline looked as confused as her; she looked like she was on the verge of tears too. She dropped the microphone and came running towards them, pushed Devin out of her way, and pulled Camille into her arms. Camille felt the cold skin on Evangeline’s shoulder as she forced Camille to rest her head there.

“I’m so sorry, Camille. I have no idea what happened. They were all fine when we arranged them and turned off the lights. I checked them all myself. I can’t believe this,” she said, and Camille heard the tears in Evangeline’s voice.

Camille straightened herself; hot tears were prickling the back of her eyelids. They were threatening to come gushing down her cheeks, but she was forcing herself to not cry.

“Camille…” she heard Devin’s voice beside her, but nothing was making sense, none of it mattered. Her work, her soul… was all destroyed.

“Camille!” she heard Shayna’s voice and turned to her best friend. They both hugged tightly, aware that everyone’s eyes were on her.

“This bitch did this!” Shayna screamed, turning on Evangeline, but Camille held her back.

“She has nothing to do with this. Shayna, just calm down.” Camille tried to talk to Shayna in a calm controlled voice but it wasn’t working, Shayna was in tears too, just like Evangeline.

“Camille…” it was Devin who was calling her name again, and this time when she turned to look at him, she saw a look on his face that she had never seen before. He looked destroyed; he looked as though he was mourning the loss of his own paintings. Like he had spent his whole life working on them himself.

“Camille…” he said, and she turned straight into his arms. His hands were on her head, stroking her hair. She snuggled into his arms and closed her eyes, still forcing the tears back.

“I don’t know what to say, Camille. This is all my fault. I shouldn’t have forced you into this,” he whispered, cradling her in his arms. Camille shook her head and looked up at him. She knew that he could see it on her face, that she was doing everything in her power to stop herself from crying. Her nose was bright red, her cheeks were flushed, and the back of her neck was burning up, but she was holding herself together. She wasn’t going to cry. She was an artist. She was Cammy.

“It’s alright, Devin. I can deal with it,” she said, and she heard Evangeline’s wail again.

“No, Camille, you shouldn’t have to deal with it. This is all my fault. I should have been more careful; I should have taken the insurance out against vandalism. I should have known that you could have enemies - competitors against your art,” Evangeline told her through her tears.

None of those things were making sense to her. Enemies? Competitors? Nobody even knew that Camille drew; she had always published the comic books under a pen name. Who could have held a secret grudge against her work?

“Why would Camille have any enemies?” It was Shayna who came thundering forward and wedged a gap between Evangeline and Camille.

“Shayna, please just… don’t make a scene,” Camille whispered. She had lost her voice somehow, and Devin’s hand had disappeared from her shoulders too, so she was feeling more and more now like she was losing all her strength.

“Yes, Shayna. That’s the last thing we want - to drive all my guests away,” Evangeline snapped at Shayna, turning on her with her wide piercing eyes.

“Shut up. You messed this up. Screw your guests!” Shayna screamed, and this time it was Devin who came over and put a calming hand on her shoulder.

“Shayna, let’s all just take the time to figure this out,” he said while Camille bit down on her lip, trying to hold the tears back.

“Figure what out? It’s all ruined. Destroyed. Because of your jealous ex-girlfriend.” Shayna was still speaking loud enough for everyone to hear.

“Oh my God!” Evangeline wailed, and Camille stepped in again.

“Shayna, please, leave her out of this. Can we all just please calm down?” She tried to make her voice heard, but neither Shayna nor Evangeline listened. They had started quarreling among themselves, and Devin simply shook his head and came over to her.

“Camille, I feel so bad. How can I fix this?” he asked, and Camille shook her head. She was too lost in thought; it was all too confusing. Why would anybody do this to her work? What could anybody possibly have against her?

“You can fix it by shutting them up, please Devin, before they go out of control here,” Camille said, with her lips quivering, and with one nod of the head, Devin stepped in between the two quarreling women and separated them with his hands. He was holding Shayna and Evangeline at bay, who were only seconds away from scratching each other’s faces off.

“Camille, you have to believe me. Devin… I had nothing to do with this,” Evangeline said, clutching Camille’s hands again. She tried to wriggle out of her grip.

“I believe you, Evangeline, please just let me go now. I need to think,” Camille told her, finally being able to free herself.

“I suppose I should just call it off. I should go and make the announcement right now,” Evangeline said, wiping some tears away from her face.

“No, wait!” Camille called out to her. “I’ll announce it. It’s my art.” Camille walked past Evangeline, not giving her the opportunity to protest or interfere. She walked straight to the discarded microphone while everyone else’s eyes followed the disgraced artist across the gallery floor.

She picked up the microphone, switched it on, and faced her audience. Camille tried hard to not look at Devin or Shayna’s defeated faces. She didn’t feel defeated yet. Not when she had Devin by her side.

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I am Camille Griffin, and as you all can see, I also used to be an artist,” she said nervously and smiled. A few people in the crowd smiled at her too. However, most people were too much in shock to find that statement funny. Certainly, nobody was laughing.

“It appears as though my art offended a few people.” She stretched her hands, indicating to the destroyed frames hanging on the walls. Everyone looked at her with rapt attention and Camille tucked in a few curls behind her ears and continued. “It was that good.”

There was laughter this time and more people smiled. When she looked at Shayna, she looked like she was still in shock. Devin looked like he was in disbelief. He hadn’t been expecting this reaction from Camille. Evangeline, on the other hand, looked angry!

“I do urge you all to, however, not leave this gallery empty-handed. You all came here today to be stunned and shocked by my art, and truly, have I not achieved that?” Camille added, and then was a sudden murmur in the room. People were talking amongst themselves, consulting each other. And suddenly the mood had started to change.

“Isn’t this art in itself? Look around you, and you will find that each piece of vandalized art here will speak to you, straight to your soul.” Camille wasn’t fumbling with her words any longer. She was confident, and Devin had been right, an artist needs to sell themselves just as much as their artwork.

“Buy one of these pieces today, and I’ll sign it for you, and this night’s presentation will be etched in your memory for life. You’ll have a piece of vandalism hanging from your living room walls as a steady reminder that this kind of hateful action cannot kill an artist’s soul. Thank you all very much for coming,” she finished and switched off the microphone. She couldn’t even hear her own footsteps as the whole gallery erupted in the loudest applause of the night. She could see Shayna wiping a few tears from her cheeks. Devin was clapping the loudest. He looked proud and happy, and like he couldn’t wait to have her in his arms again.

Camille smiled as she walked towards him. Her life’s work had been destroyed, but she was in a room full of people who were going to buy her destroyed artwork, who would remember her name forever, and that was worth something. Whoever had destroyed her art had done her a huge favor.

“Devin,” she said as she fell into his open arms.

“You are a shining star, Camille,” she heard him say in her ear as he held her tight and kissed her cheeks.

People were still clapping, Shayna included, but Evangeline had disappeared. But Camille wasn’t concerned about the truth. She was just happy knowing that she and her art were being appreciated. Even if it was in the most absurd way possible.


Devin

Devin watched from a distance as Camille and Shayna sat on two chairs at the center of the gallery signing the paintings being bought. He couldn’t have been more proud of Camille. He hadn’t seen it coming or expected it from her, but this had just proven to him that she was the woman for him. She had guts, she was smart, and she was strong. She wasn’t the innocent and naive girl he had assumed she was. Camille Griffin was a force to be reckoned with.

From the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Evangeline’s dress, and Devin was immediately on the move. He weaved through the crowds until he was directly behind her and with one swift movement he had caught her by the arm.

“You, come with me,” he said, and tugged at her arm, pulling her roughly through the crowds until he found the back door of the gallery. He knew where it led. It led to a quiet alleyway behind the gallery, where Evangeline used to drag him for a quick fuck when they were dating. He was taking her there for a completely different reason now.

“What are you doing? Let me go!” Evangeline squealed, but Devin pushed open the doors and pulled her outside with him, slamming the doors behind him.

“What am I doing? What did you do?!” Devin thundered, and Evangeline was wailing again.

“How dare you blame me for this?” She was crying but screaming as well, and Devin clenched his fists and took a few steps away from her.

“This is exactly the reason why it’s been over between us, Evangeline. Because of shit like this that you pull.” Devin spoke through gritted teeth, and she looked up at him with her scrunched up face. Her tears were spreading down her cheeks, but her makeup remained perfect and un-smudged.

“How dare you say that? I’ve done nothing against you. Anything I’ve done in the past is for your love,” she wailed, and her whole body shuddered. Devin stayed away from her; he wasn’t going to fall her tricks again.

“Tell me what you did. How you arranged for all this?” he demanded, but Evangeline kept wailing.

“Why would you think I did any of this? Why would I jeopardize that poor girl’s career?”

Devin gritted his teeth again. “To get back at me for dumping you. Shayna was right, you’re a jealous ex-girlfriend, and I should never have allowed Camille to be associated with you. This is all my mistake.” He was growling, pacing the street, and slapping the brick alley walls with his hands.

Devin could feel his rage rising up his spine. He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt this angry. Perhaps it was with Evangeline.

“I don’t have anything to be jealous about,” Evangeline said, suddenly straightening her back from her crouched position. I have everything I need. I have a man who can actually take care of me, and who has more money than you’ll ever have. And who treats me like a queen.” She wiped the tears off her face.

Devin rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Why did you turn up at my house then, begging me to take you back?” he asked, taking a few steps towards her.

“Because I wanted to tease you,” Evangeline replied, rolling her eyes too. The tears had vanished, and her expression had changed. She wasn’t in a wailing mood anymore. Instead, she ran her fingers through her long, shiny dark hair and started feeling her lips to make sure that her makeup was still intact.

Devin scoffed and shook his head. “I wish you’d just give up the act, Evangeline.” Devin looked at her as she slipped a compact mirror out of her purse. She flipped it open and looked at her own reflection, pouted her lips, and got busy with making sure that when she went back in, nobody would find her face amiss.

“You’re right, Devin, it is all an act. And I’m incredibly good at it,” Evangeline said after a few seconds of silence. She snapped the mirror shut, slipped it back into her bag, and smiled at him, a broad, satisfied grin.

Devin’s face twisted into more hatred. He knew Evangeline was manipulative, but he hadn’t thought that she could stoop this low. She had never admitted to all this before, but he wasn’t surprised by this.

“Just stay the fuck away from me, and don’t even think of going anywhere near Camille,” Devin said and just as he took a step towards the door, he felt a sharp thud on the back of his head.

The impact made him plunge forward, and his knees buckled, propelling him forward to the ground.

Devin felt a little dizzy, but he still hadn’t lost complete consciousness. But now he could sense a male shadow above him, and the world looked skewed. He fought to keep his eyes open, while he sensed someone tugging at his limp arms. He tried to keep his eyes open, but Devin could feel them growing heavy. There was an ache in the back of his head where he had been hit.

He kept wondering how he could have been this stupid. How he could have been this unaware of his surroundings. But there was no physical strength left in him anymore; his injured brain had overtaken his body, and none of his limbs would move. Somebody was dragging him towards the back of a car. Where was Evangeline?

Then he saw her, topsy-turvy, but he could see her clearly now. She had a smile on her face.

“I’ll be seeing your precious girlfriend real soon, darling,” he heard her say, and before he had the chance to even part his lips, somebody had pulled him into the back of a van, and there was pitch black darkness all around him.


Camille

“Shayna, I think we should go to the police.” Camille turned to her best friend, who was busy signing her name on another one of their vandalized pieces of art. The show had turned out to be a major success. After Camille’s speech, urging guests to look at their art as vandalized creations, and not ones ready for the dumpster, people were inspired. They all came together in support of the artists and their work. She and Shayna were surrounded by prospective buyers who wanted to learn more about their work and were willing to buy them too.

In the commotion, Camille had lost sight of Devin, and Evangeline was nowhere to be seen either. She had waited patiently, smiling and entertaining prospective buyers, signing the art and trying to keep a casual and confident air around her. The truth was that she was slowly beginning to lose her confidence. She had gained inspiration from Devin, from his words of encouragement and she felt like his presence had empowered her to make that speech. And now he was nowhere in sight.

Shayna hadn’t heard Camille, so she tugged at her sleeve this time and leaned into her ear.

“We should go to the police,” Camille said again, and this time Shayna whipped around to look at her, slightly surprised.

“What are you talking about?” Shayna asked. She was facing Camille with a look of surprise while her fingers still did the signing. Shayna was over the top with excitement; this had been a big night for them.

“We need to go report the vandalism,” Camille said, and Shayna’s confusion grew.

“To the police? I’m sure the gallery will do it for us, won’t they? Shouldn’t Evangeline file the report?” Shayna waved her hand at someone else who had approached them for an autograph.

“Do you see Evangeline anywhere? She might have gone home already? Or maybe she doesn’t care,” Camille said, sitting back in the chair that she had been sitting on for the past hour and signing the art. It could have been more than an hour, Camille wasn’t certain anymore. All she knew was that it had been an incredibly long time since she last saw Devin.

“You were the one who said to leave Evangeline out of this. I warned you she was trouble. I told you that she was behind all this,” Shayna accused her, and Camille shook her head.

“I know you did, but I didn’t want you to make a scene. Of course I don’t trust her.”

“And where’s Devin? Shouldn’t he be here to support you?” Shayna asked, still in a sour mood.

“I don’t know where he is,” Camille said, her voice was shaky, she was losing her confidence, and a sudden fright had filled her bones. She didn’t want to think too seriously about it, but she was aware that Devin was involved in something not quite right. There were men on bikes following him. She didn’t want to think about the worst.

“So Evangeline and Devin are both missing, together, at the same time. When they both should be here with you.” Shayna stood up from her chair, and Camille felt her lips quivering. She didn’t want to have to think about the fact that they were both missing at the same time. She tried to remind herself that there had to be a perfect explanation for all this. But it had been over an hour, and neither of them had been seen anywhere.

“Camille, you look like you’re going to be sick.” Shayna looked down at her friend.

Camille looked up, and she felt another gush of tears overpowering her, she bit down on her lip to make it stop. “I’m fine, I just need some fresh air I think,” Camille said, and she felt Shayna’s hand on her arms. Shayna was pulling her up gently.

“You’ve had a shock, you’ll be fine,” Shayna assured her as she tried to steer Camille away from the crowd.

“That’s all for the night folks. You can direct all your queries and questions to Ms. Charlene Cummings. She is Evangeline’s assistant and will be happy to help,” Shayna then spoke to the crowd that was still gathered around them.

Camille noticed Charlene, who she had met earlier briefly and spoken to several times over the phone before the exhibition. She swooped in and started talking to the interested buyers.

“We’ll just let her handle it, for now, she can give us an update later. I trust her more than I trust that bitch Evangeline,” Shayna said, still walking with her arm around Camille’s shoulder.

Camille felt unsteady on her feet. Where the hell was Devin? How could he have just left her here and disappeared? That was so uncharacteristic of him. Although did she really know him at all? Did she know anything about him other than what he chose to show her? Maybe he got bored here; maybe he had other things to do. And where was Evangeline? Were they together?

“Hey, do you want to go to the police station?” Shayna interrupted her thoughts as they walked towards the front door of the gallery. Camille licked her lips and shut her eyes, then nodded in response.

“Yeah, let’s go and report the vandalism at least.”

They pushed through the doors and walked out into the cool but humid Miami night. There were still some cameras and paparazzi parked around the entrance, and a few flashing lights blinded them as they walked down the luxurious red carpet.

She noticed Devin’s car still parked on the other side of the road, where he had left it when they arrived earlier.

“His car is still here, Shayna. Where is he?” Her voice was breaking as she spoke. Camille could feel the panic rising in her veins.

“Let’s just go and talk to the police Camille,” Shayna said, and they walked in the opposite direction from Devin’s car.

***

They had been sitting on metal benches for over half an hour, waiting for somebody to attend to them. It was getting quite late now, and both of them were tired, exhausted from all the drama of that night and also aware that they now had no ride home.

Shayna’s phone rang in her purse, and she answered the call. Camille sat by her in silence; she had no energy to talk anymore. She was worried, excited about the outcome of the exhibition, and saddened that all her art was ruined - it was a heady mix of emotions that she had no control over. But the worst of it all was that she couldn’t get that nagging feeling out of her bones that she didn’t know where Devin was. That he had left her there, stranded without support. And that he might have left with Evangeline.

“That was Charlene.” Shayna had hung up the phone and had an encouraging smile on her face. Camille turned her tired eyes to her friend and tried to smile too, but she couldn’t.

“She said that we sold everything and made more money than they had anticipated. How exciting is that Camille?!” Shayna hugged her, and Camille clung on to her friend for support.

“Cheer up, please! This has been a good night, hasn’t it? It all worked out in the end, just when we thought that stupid bitch ruined it for us,” Shayna said, patting Camille’s arm. Camille only managed a weak smile and didn’t reply. Shayna was right, it had definitely been a good night career-wise, but she was too exhausted and too worried to think straight anymore.

“I bet it was she who orchestrated it all. Evangeline. She did this to get back to you for stealing her ex-boyfriend,” Shayna said, and Camille couldn’t control it anymore.

“What boyfriend? What did I steal? He isn’t even here anymore. Where is he? He just left me there!” Camille couldn’t help herself. The words came tumbling out of her before she could stop them.

Shayna grabbed her by the shoulders again. “Get it together, Camille. I’m sure there’s a perfect explanation for all this. He probably had something urgent to do, some sort of emergency,” Shayna was clearly trying her hardest to change Camille’s mood.

“He didn’t tell me anything about an emergency. He just disappeared. How could he do that? I shouldn’t have ever trusted him either.” Camille could feel the tears pooling at the corners of her eyes now. It had been too long; the night’s events had been too dramatic for her to hold back the tears any longer.

“Look, Camille. Just give it some time. Maybe he’ll turn up. It’s only been a couple of hours. He probably had to be somewhere, and we were too busy. Have you tried calling him?” Shayna asked, and Camille nodded her head, wiping her cheeks at the same time.

“His phone is switched off,” she replied, remembering the three times she called him and left voice messages too.

“There you go, he probably had somewhere to be, and he’ll be back. You know how secretive he is about his work. He probably just didn’t want you to worry,” Shayna said, rubbing the back of Camille’s neck.

Camille looked at her friend and realized how lucky she was to have her. She smiled at Shayna, and just then a male voice interrupted them.

“You ladies waiting to file a report?”

They looked up to find a burly police clerk holding a sheet of paper in his hands. He looked as exhausted as Camille felt. He too was having a long night, or perhaps he was just bored.

“Yes, sir. Our artwork was vandalized at Evangeline Fox’s gallery. The lights were out, so none of the cameras caught anything and-” Shayna had spoken fast, and Camille was glad that there was finally someone to speak to them after waiting for close to an hour.

The policeman interrupted Shayna by raising his right palm and cutting her off. “I don’t need to hear all the details. You have to file a report, so put it all in that,” he said, holding out the sheet of paper. Shayna glared at him and then grabbed it from his hands.

“Can’t you record me or something? Do we really have to sit down and write all this down now?” She asked, shaking her head in outrage. The expression on the man’s face didn’t change. She didn’t affect him at all.

“You’ll need to write it out if you want us to have a record of it, ma’am.” He had a bored, drawling voice. He was about to turn and walk away when Camille remembered Devin’s parked car outside the gallery.

“I also have a missing person to report,” she added suddenly, standing up with a jerk. The policeman turned to her with a confused look on his face.

“A missing person? Who is it?”

Camille changed nervous looks with Shayna, who didn’t look like she was in support of what Camille was saying. But that parked car had left her with a bad feeling; she had to tell the authorities.

“He’s my friend, his name is Devin. He was at the exhibition too, and he’s disappeared, his phone is off.” Camille’s words came hurling out of her, and her hands were shaking.

The policeman’s big belly shook as he laughed.

“Devin? Well, ma’am, your friend hasn’t disappeared. He’s probably just made a smooth getaway with a different woman for the night and hasn’t told you about it,” he said and didn’t wait for a response from her. He turned away from them, shaking his head, and continued laughing as he walked back toward an office.

Camille felt like her whole world had come crashing down. The policeman’s laughter was still ringing in her ears as she slowly sat back down on the cold metal bench. Is that what had happened? Had Devin left the gallery with Evangeline?


Devin

Devin blinked his eyes open. He had lost all track of time, and he could still feel that same dull ache at the back of his head. It was dark around him when he strained his eyes to open, and there was a sound of dropping water from a leaking pipe overhead.

The first sensation that hit him was a ferrying stench like he was surrounded by rotten meat or human flesh. Devin felt a shudder run down his spine as he blinked his eyes several times more, trying to adjust his eyesight to the dim light. It wasn’t pitch black; there were some rays of light coming in through the cracks in the ceiling overhead.

He was alone. He was thankful for that. But he couldn’t be sure for how long. The sound of the dripping water was annoying, and he shook his head vigorously, but it only made the ache in his head worse.

He realized that his hands were tied behind his back and he was sitting on a small low chair in the center of some sort of storage room.

He had only one choice, even if it meant he might be inviting trouble.

“Come down here, fuckers!” he yelled at the top of his voice, and it made his throat hurt. He yelled it again, and he heard his own voice echo and bounce off the dilapidated walls.

There was the sound of a door being unlocked and then footsteps down some stairs.

“Boss! He’s come to,” he heard a man’s voice say. He couldn’t see the face or trace the voice - it was too dark for that - and the voice was behind him somewhere. He was too immobilized to be able to turn his head either. He could only fidget in the chair. Whoever had tied his hands had done a good job of it.

Then there was the sound of a shuffle of shoes down the same stairs. It was a group of people who were walking towards him now. Then the smiling face of Jimmy Figueroa appeared in front of him. Devin’s eyes had now adjusted to the low light, and even though he couldn’t see completely clearly, it was definitely the leader of The Choppers before him.

Jimmy was dressed in a dark navy suit and a red silk shirt. He was an older man and very pale with a thin face and a goatee. Devin had never been able to stand him. And his suspicions were right; The Choppers had been behind his abduction. Jimmy was smiling wryly, no doubt chuffed that he had finally managed to pin Devin down.

“Well, well, well. Look who has decided to finally join us… Welcome to your new humble abode, Devin Rock,” Jimmy said, slowly clapping his hands. He had three cronies standing behind him, with their feet spread apart and guns in their hands that were pointed at Devin’s head.

Devin could feel his eyes burning, and he was sure that the back of his head, where he had been hit, was bleeding as well. But he glared back at Jimmy nonetheless.

“Why am I here, Figueroa? To what do I owe this pleasure of our meeting?” He asked through gritted teeth, still trying his hardest to wriggle his hands out of the knots on his wrists.

“Give up trying to escape, Devin. You’re going nowhere.” Jimmy grabbed his hands together behind him.

“Did you destroy all that art? Was it your fucking men who did it?” Devin growled, and Jimmy laughed.

“Of course it was. Anything to bring a frown to your face. Your new girlfriend handled it well, though, she’s a smart one,” Jimmy said, that sly smirk still on his face.

Devin jerked his body in an attempt to fly at Jimmy, but he couldn’t move. His feet had been tied together as well.

“You’re going to pay for this you bastard!” Devin screamed, but it only made Jimmy laugh more.

“It’s cute when you try to struggle. I’ve always tried to remind you that resistance against me is going to be futile.” Jimmy took a few steps towards Devin and punched him in his face. Devin’s head twisted, and he felt the center of his lip split open and start to bleed. He clenched his jaw and looked back at Jimmy. He wasn’t about to give in, a few punches and blows weren’t going to break his spirit.

“That is for what you did to my man on the beach,” Jimmy said with a wide smile.

Devin’s nostrils flared as he looked back at the man, his lip bleeding, and his head throbbing.

“What do you want Figueroa? Money? Is the business not going as well as you hoped?” he growled, and Jimmy raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. He turned to his men behind him, and they all exchanged smiles.

“You think I want money? The money that you make by underwear modeling?” he asked, and they all laughed. The sound rang in Devin’s ears, and he had to do all he could to keep himself from fainting. His body was protesting against him. He was thirsty.

“Then what do you want?” he demanded, and Jimmy walked towards him again. Devin didn’t flinch; he was prepared to fight this man to his death for what he had done to Camille’s art.

“I want you to tell me just what you’ve told the police,” Jimmy said and punched him again. This time Devin’s chair toppled backward, and he felt his head crash loudly against the concrete floor. For a moment he saw Camille’s smiling face, her blonde curls and then there was darkness again. He had lost consciousness for a second time, and Devin had never felt this helpless before.

***

Devin’s chair had been straightened, and he was sitting upright again. He could feel the crusty coagulated blood on his face. He was thirsty, his limbs were aching, and this time Jimmy Figueroa and his men were already standing there to greet him.

“We were worried there for a second. You’re getting old Devin. Not able to take a few punches?” Jimmy laughed. Devin breathed in deeply. His head was swimming, but he remembered what Jimmy had told him right before he knocked him out.

“Why do you think I’ve been talking to the police?” he asked, trying to get right to the point. He didn’t want to have to delay this any longer. He knew they weren’t going to kill him. That would start a club war and madness. They clearly wanted something.

“We know you’ve been ratting on us to the cops,” Jimmy replied, and this time the smile on his face disappeared. He meant business. Serious business.

“And if I was, how would you know?” Devin asked, raising his chin up so that he could look at Jimmy directly.

“Because I have a source and they have confirmed it,” he said, bringing his face up close to Devin’s.

Devin smiled. Now he knew exactly what they were talking about.

“Is Evangeline your source?” Devin asked, and Jimmy clenched his jaw.

“Yes, my beautiful new girlfriend. Soon to be wife,” he remarked and looked at his men, who nodded at him in support. Devin laughed.

“Shut the fuck up!” Jimmy screamed, but Devin didn’t stop laughing. He knew it. He knew Evangeline had stirred the pot and started something.

“And what makes you think she knows what she’s talking about?” Devin asked, the smile still on his face.

“You still think she’s close to you and your friend. You tell her everything,” Jimmy said, and Devin grimaced.

“I barely talk to her. She doesn’t know anything about me!” Devin screamed, and Jimmy shook his head.

“I know you’re still crazy about her. You want her back. You’re trying to put me in prison so you can have her all to yourself again. But she’s mine!” Jimmy was like a mad man now. His eyeballs were pushed out of his sockets, and the vein on his forehead was pumping. He was enraged by the thought of Devin with Evangeline.

“I don’t want her. She’s crazy. You two are perfect for each other,” Devin threw back, and Jimmy smacked him in the face again. This time Devin was prepared, and the punch didn’t land as hard on his face.

“Watch yourself, brother. She’s my woman,” Jimmy said, and Devin narrowed his eyes.

“What has she told you?” Devin asked, deciding to go with a different approach.

“She told me everything. How you’ve been feeding the cops with false information about us. Pinning your own crimes on us. Giving them our location!” Jimmy screamed, losing his temper even more with every passing second.

“And you got your men to follow me. Did they see me talking to any cops?!” Devin screamed again, but Jimmy wasn’t listening to him. It was obvious that only Evangeline’s words were playing in his ears. He was besotted with her. Obsessed. He could trust nobody else except her. Devin had seen this happen before, he knew what Evangeline was capable of - how she could wrap anybody around her little finger. Even a man like Jimmy Figueroa.

“She’s playing you, Figueroa. She’s trying to start up a club war by pitting us against each other,” Devin said, hoping that the man would be able to see some reason. But Jimmy was still under Evangeline’s spell.

“Why the hell would she do that? She has nothing to gain from doing that!” he yelled back.

Devin knew Evangeline had her reasons. She was obsessed with Devin; she knew that he would never take her back so if she couldn’t have him… he needed to be punished. And the best way to do it would be to get The Choppers to do the dirty work for her. And Evangeline had another agenda too. Something that nobody else knew about. Something that Jimmy Figueroa wouldn’t believe about his angelic girlfriend.

“Evangeline hates me that’s why,” Devin replied instead. There was no way that he could have a logical discussion with Jimmy at this moment. He couldn’t see reason.

“But she loves me!” Jimmy yelled, and Devin nodded his head.

“Yes, which is why she thinks that you’ll do anything for her. Even start a club war. You’ll kill me for her. Don’t fall for it, Figueroa. Let me go.” Devin was still trying a different approach, but he couldn’t be sure if it was working yet.

Jimmy still looked maddened, his eyes were wild, and he had begun to sweat. He was clearly thinking about what Devin had just said. He didn’t want to believe it. He didn’t want to believe that his precious, beautiful girlfriend could hatch a plan of revenge like this using him.

“I trust her. I don’t trust you. We have always been at war!” Jimmy yelled after a few moments of silence.

Adrenaline was pumping strong in Devin’s veins. He was in survival mode. He needed to find a way out of this place alive. Jimmy Figueroa was capable of anything, especially when he believed that Devin was a rat.

“We don’t have to be at war. Our gangs can work together. We’re both bikers. We live by a code. We can find a way to work together Figueroa,” Devin urged, softening his voice. He knew there was no way he could enforce violence on this man or his men, not in his current position. Trying to reason with him and buying time was his only option.

Jimmy regarded him intently like he was looking at Devin’s face for clues. He clearly wanted to believe Evangeline, as he was in love with her, but he also seemed to find some truth in Devin’s words too.

***

“I live by a code. I have never broken the code. I’m not a rat!” Devin was screaming again. He had been trying to talk reason with Jimmy Figueroa for ages. He had lost all track of time, but his body clock was telling him that it was morning now. Jimmy’s men were growing weary too. Their boss had still not decided whom to believe.

“Why would she lie to me?!” Jimmy yelled back. He must know, somewhere at the back of his mind, that Devin had no reason to lie. He wasn’t under police investigation and his men had found no evidence that proved that he had been talking to the cops.

But on the other hand, there was Evangeline, a woman he was obsessed with. He couldn’t look past her or the information that she had fed him. He couldn’t think of one reason why she would make this stuff up, and Devin had yet to convince him that she would do all this just to get back at him for breaking up with her.

“Give me a chance to prove it then,” Devin said.

Jimmy threw him an indignant look. “You want me to just let you go? So you can run directly to the cops with this evidence, all these bruises?” He laughed, still unsure of himself. But Devin jumped on the opportunity. They were headed in the right direction of thought.

“If I run to the cops, you’ll know where to find me, where to find my men, and if I’ve ratted on you. All the evidence will be there. Then, you can really do me in.” Devin was speaking evenly again. There was no need to scream at Jimmy anymore. What was needed was calm and calculated rational thinking. He needed to save his own skin first before he could think of an appropriate way to handle the mess that Evangeline had made.

“You want me to let you go so you can go and sit pretty in your clubhouse?” Jimmy shook his head.

“I can prove to you that I’m not a rat. My biker code and loyalty to our gangs is stronger than anything else,” Devin said.

Jimmy was staring at him and a new sly smile formed on his face. “Your loyalty to us is stronger than your feelings for that new young thing you have around your hip?” he asked, smirking.

“Camille?” Devin felt like his heart stopped for a few moments. “She means nothing to me. She’s not a part of our world. She’s just a girl I know. I can prove my loyalty to you in so many ways. Tell me how,” Devin replied, trying to change the topic.

Jimmy smiled and shook his head again. “A biker’s code is above all. It’s why I haven’t killed you yet. I should have killed you when Evangeline told me you were snitching to the cops,” Jimmy said, bringing his face close to Devin’s again.

“I understand. I know you uphold the code and let me show you that I do the same. Let me go and see if I go to the cops. Investigate and see if the cops know anything about you.” Devin kept the strength in his voice. The only way he could play with Jimmy’s fire was by showing him that he had nothing to hide and that he was willing to do anything to demonstrate his loyalty to their biker gangs against government authority.

“Good,” Jimmy said, taking a few steps away from Devin. He clapped his hands together and dusted them like he had just finished a tasty meal.

“Prove it then,” he added, and Devin held his breath in silence. “I’ll let you go, and I’ll make sure that my men follow you. Make sure that you stay away from the cops.”

Devin nodded and smiled genuinely for the first time in several hours. He had finally managed to convince this madman to free him.

“Untie me then. Let me go, and we’ll forget this little misunderstanding ever happened,” Devin said, looking Jimmy directly in the eye.

“Not so fast, Mr. Rock. You also have to prove your loyalty to us. Your loyalty to the biker code above all else,” Jimmy said, waving a hand to his men behind him so that they didn’t yet take a step in Devin’s direction.

Devin glared at Jimmy. By the look in the man’s eyes, Devin knew that nothing that he was about to tell him would be anything he wanted to hear. But he was willing to agree with him, buy some time - just to get out of this place alive. By now he knew that Jimmy Figueroa was capable of anything. He wasn’t a rationally thinking man.

“What do you want me to do?” Devin asked when Jimmy hadn’t spoken in several minutes.

“I have a special request. Something that’ll prove to me just how truthful you are about upholding the code.” He walked up to Devin and leveled his face with his. Devin could see the man’s chapped lips, the hair in his nostrils, and the cold, flaky, pale skin on his head where his hair was thinning. Evangeline was using Jimmy for her own gains - that much was clear.

“What is it?” Devin asked, noting the dull ache at the back of his head returning. Just a few minutes more in this place, without water, without light, and he felt like he might go completely mad.

“Boys, make sure that he has none of his precious dogs to go home to if he doesn’t follow through with the plan,” Jimmy called out to his men while keeping his eyes on Devin.

Devin clenched his fists but kept the smile on his face. He was going to do just what Jimmy Figueroa wanted him to do.


Camille

The previous night had been a rollercoaster of emotions, but business had never been better. Camille was behind the desk, and a queue had already formed right to the front door of the comic bookstore with people excited to get their own copies of Country Crowns.

The media coverage, the vandalism and all the photos and reviews had played their part. People wanted to know about the secret authors and wanted to get their hands on their own copies of the comic book.

Shayna was showing customers around the store while Camille was manning the till. It was only midday, but they had made more money in three hours than they did in an entire month. She didn’t have time to think about anything else. The exhibition was a huge success, and they were going to be famous.

Shayna and Camille had both received calls from agents, including from the person who had called some days ago. Agents wanted to represent them as artists, and publishers were sending emails about buying the copyrights. Camille had all but forgotten the fact that she still hadn’t heard from Devin. She had no idea where he was, even though he was the one who had made all of this possible in the first place.

Camille smiled at a customer at the desk, and when she looked up, she saw Shayna reading an excerpt from the book. She smiled to herself, happy that things were finally coming around for them after so many months and years of hard work.

But Camille couldn’t get that nagging feeling out of her system; that Devin wasn’t there by her side.

He had completely changed her world. Initially, he had seemed like a bad idea. Like a man who could be nothing other than trouble. But she had been unable to resist him - his charm, good looks, and how absolutely hot he was in bed. And then she had begun to realize that he meant more to her than just a sexy man. She needed his company; she yearned to hear his voice. He had pushed her and encouraged her to do all this. He had gone out of his way to make sure that she made a name for herself.

But then he had disappeared. She knew his business - the one that he insisted was completely clean and yet she knew it wasn’t everything that he pretended it was. She knew he was involved in things that he was keeping hidden from her. But was it actually more dangerous than he was willing to admit? Than she was willing to admit?

But maybe it was as simple an explanation as that he went away with Evangeline - that they had rekindled their romance and he had gone away to spend the night with her. After all, she and Devin weren’t exactly in a marriage or even a committed relationship. He was free to do what he wanted.

Then she thought about the previous day at the boutique, how he had hinted at buying her an engagement ring. Maybe she had looked too deeply into that. Maybe he was just joking. Maybe he told all the girls that.

Camille smiled at the next customer, even though her brain was swimming with thoughts of Devin again. Just when she thought that she had forgotten about him.

Maybe he had done all this out of charity. Maybe he saw talent in her and just felt sorry for her being unrecognized, and did all this because he was a good person. Thus, there were no feelings involved. Camille breathed in deeply. She couldn’t think of him as anything else other than the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. She knew she was in love with him, even if she didn’t know everything about him. Whatever she did know, she loved. She had never felt this way about someone else before.

But now the truth was revealed. He had vanished without a trace. He was like one of those superheroes from the comic books she read. He had done his good deed and gone. He didn’t have anything else to give her. The only problem was that she had given him her heart.

“Hey, those kids over there want to take a picture with us.” Shayna had appeared at her side, with a huge smile on her face. Camille snapped out of her thoughts and turned to her friend.

“You okay?” Shayna asked, apparently noticing the sullen expression that had overtaken Camille’s face. It had been a long rough night; neither of them had gotten much sleep.

“I’m fine. Let’s go,” Camille said, smoothing out her denim skirt with the palms of her hands. She welcomed the distraction - anything to keep her from thinking about Devin. The sooner she accepted it, the better her life would be: she had meant nothing more to him than a charity case. He had a life of his own that he didn’t want her involved in, and he probably had several other women to worry about. She wasn’t the only one.

Shayna and Camille walked over to the group of teenagers who were waiting with their camera phones poised to take pictures.

Camille accepted their handshakes and greeting hugs with a cold smile and then posed with them for the cameras. She tried to smile as she looked directly into the lens. She hoped that the cameras wouldn’t capture the sorrow in her soul; the deep pinching pain she could feel in her heart, of loss and misery. She might have become a successful cartoonist, artist, and storyteller, but she had also lost the one person who had made her feel true happiness. The one person who had given her the hope and confidence to achieve all that surrounded her right now.

“Smile, Ms. Griffin, you’re on camera,” a boy said as he flashed his camera at her, and she did what she was told because there was nothing else to do.

***

“Chin up, sweetie,” Shayna said as she finished counting the money from the till.

Camille looked up at her friend and smiled. “I’m fine, don’t worry about me.” She folded her arms over her chest.

Shayna bundled the cash into a bag, stapled it, and then sighed. “You look exhausted. It’s been a long day. Last night was long too. We both need some rest,” Shayna added and came around to Camille who was standing in the center of the bookstore.

It was six in the evening now, and they had to finally close the door on more customers. They needed to restock, count their cash, and prepare for the next day. Their new agent predicted that there would be long queues at the store for the next few weeks until all the media uproar about the vandalized artwork died down.

“Yes, definitely need some sleep,” Camille said, accepting Shayna’s hug.

“We should start working on some new art like that agent suggested. He said he’ll be getting in touch with galleries all over Florida in the coming weeks,” Shayna said. Camille nodded. Somehow working on new art didn’t thrill her as much as she would have liked. She was still reeling from the ordeal from the previous night. Talks of new work were too soon. But Shayna didn’t seem to think so; she was rightly looking ahead.

“Camille, you need to snap out of it, sweetie. He’s gone, or gone missing.”

Camille wriggled free from her friend’s grip. “I just need some time to heal. Is that all right? Can I just get a few moments to breathe in peace?” Camille hadn’t realized that she had raised her voice to Shayna.

Her friend stared back at her with wide eyes. Then she held her hands up and started backing away. “I was only trying to help. Suit yourself,” Shayna said.

“Good. Just leave me alone then!” Camille snapped and waited in silence while Shayna collected her things and walked to the front door.

Before she left, she suddenly whipped around to look at Camille. “You know, Camille, I warned you about him. I didn’t have a good feeling about him or Evangeline. We’ve made the best out of a shitty situation. But he’s left, disappeared. You should accept that and just move on,” she said, a silent bitterness creeping into her voice.

Camille rolled her eyes, amazed by Shayna’s tone. All their success had been possible by Devin. But clearly, Shayna didn’t see it that way.

“Just go, Shayna. You’ll never understand,” Camille threw back, making sure that her face did most of the talking. She wanted Shayna to leave. She didn’t need her backlash.

“All he has done is tried to pull you and me apart. When are you going to wake up and see that?” Shayna accused, and then rattled the door open and slammed it as she left.

Camille clenched her fists and jaw and turned around. She just needed a few moments of peace and quiet, just a few moments to think.

After a few seconds, she realized that she was finally alone. The store was silent, she was by herself, and she could finally clear her head and figure out her next steps. If Devin was really gone, out of her life… then she needed to move on. She needed to figure out a way to survive.

“Hello, darling!” Evangeline’s cold, smooth voice took her by surprise, and Camille’s hand flew to her heart as she whipped around to find the other woman at the door. She was standing with one hand holding the door open. Then she stepped in and shut the door, locking it just like Devin had done that first time he had come into her store.

Camille’s heart was beating fast. She didn’t understand what was going on. She didn’t greet Evangeline, she couldn’t. All she could do was stand there in silence, staring at her angrily.

“What are you doing here? Please leave,” Camille told her, realizing that her voice was shaky. She wasn’t exactly the picture of confidence and Evangeline could see that.

While Camille was in a pair of baggy jeans and an oversized t-shirt, with her spray of tight blond curls around her face, Evangeline was as impeccably dressed as usual. She was in a sleek black jumpsuit with a gold belt around her waist. Her hair was shiny black and straight, and she had gold earrings and bangles. Her high-heeled shoes were also gold and clicked against the floor with every step she took.

“I came to see if you were doing alright. Charlene mentioned that we had an epic night.” Evangeline had a cold stare in her eyes but a smile on her face that Camille couldn’t trust anymore.

“You did it to my art, didn’t you? I know you did that!” Camille couldn’t keep her voice down; especially not now that Evangeline had locked the door. She was beginning to feel afraid. Even though Evangeline didn’t look particularly strong, Camille was beginning to feel dizzy with weakness. It was like her body was shutting down, and she was losing all control of her muscles. She was going to have a panic attack, and Evangeline would be able to overpower her if she wanted to.

Evangeline laughed and walked towards Camille while she took a few steps away from her. She couldn’t think straight or decide what to do; just the sight of Evangeline approaching her was enough to make her want to make a run for it. But she knew she didn’t have the strength to do that.

“I told you last night, darling, it wasn’t me. Why would I do something like that to a woman who was thankfully keeping Devin away from me?” Evangeline said, and her smile grew.

“You wanted me to keep him away from you?” Camille asked, her mouth dropping open from horror. Evangeline’s face changed from a smile to a surprise.

“What did you think was happening?” she asked, walking closer to Camille now.

“I thought you were jealous of us. Why would you want him to stay away from you?” Camille’s heart was pounding. None of this was making any sense. How could any of this actually be true? From the first time she had met Evangeline, all that Evangeline seemed to want was to be close to Devin. Were all her instincts wrong from the start?

Evangeline hurried over to Camille and clutched her hands. Camille couldn’t shake her hands free and instead met Evangeline’s gaze. She didn’t care anymore that the other woman could see the tears in her eyes.

“Oh, my poor girl! Why would I be jealous of you both? I was happy that he had finally found someone else to horrify.” She laughed a little. When she saw that Camille wasn’t laughing, she took a deep breath and carried on talking.

“You see, Devin is a dangerous man. Has he told you any of the things he’s involved in?”

Camille shook her head. “He hasn’t said anything, but I can guess that something is up,” Camille replied, relaxing a little. She felt like she was out of immediate danger around Evangeline, as the woman didn’t seem to want her life with Devin. She must have just overreacted.

“You guessed right. He’s involved in some things that I shouldn’t be discussing. I know things about him and his club of thugs that could get me killed. And that’s what I thought he wanted. You know, to kill me off,” Evangeline said, and Camille gulped. Devin didn’t seem like a killer. He was kind, appreciative, and encouraging.

“I know what you’re thinking.” Evangeline interrupted her thoughts. “That he seems like a good guy. But he has a dark layer underneath, my sweet girl, that you don’t want to see. And I was glad that I was rid of him.”

Camille bit down on her lip. “He’s gone now,” she said flatly, and Evangeline’s face changed to look surprised.

“Gone? Gone where?” she asked, and Camille shrugged her shoulders, a few tears rolling down her cheeks. She didn’t bother to hold them back any longer. Life as she knew it had come to an end. Her dream man, the man who had saved her, wasn’t a superhero after all. He was a thug, a criminal, and someone who manipulated and scared the women he slept with.

“I don’t know. He disappeared last night, and I don’t know where he is. I thought he was with you,” Camille said, and Evangeline smiled again. She was still holding onto Camille’s hands pulled her in closer.

“With me? I ran home because I saw the rage in his eyes. I was afraid of what he was capable of doing. I didn’t want to be around him,” Evangeline said and shivered a little.

Camille looked at the woman in fright. “You’re that scared of him?”

Evangeline nodded and bowed her head. “Devin Rock was the single worst decision of my life. He had me terrorized since the first time we slept together,” Evangeline said, and Camille shook her head, still unable to process all this information.

“But all those photographs you took of him… How comfortable you both were in each other’s presence… I thought you were happy together,” Camille insisted, but Evangeline insisted more. She pressed Camille’s hands to her chest and pouted her lips like she was about to cry.

“I had to do those things. I had no other choice. If I didn’t pretend like I was happy to be with him, I wasn’t sure what he was capable of doing,” Evangeline said, and there was a tear in her voice. Camille looked at her in shock. None of these things about Devin made sense. He had done nothing to make her afraid. But where was he now and what good would all this do to Evangeline? Why would Evangeline lie to her about Devin?

“How did you manage to leave him?” Camille asked, and Evangeline took a deep breath.

“I got lucky. Just before we were supposed to get married, he disappeared, and a few weeks later he appeared out of nowhere with you by his side.”

Camille gasped again. She couldn’t believe that she had been a part of all this!

“But you’re lucky too. He’s bored of you. He’s disappeared. Maybe, if you’re really lucky, he’ll find someone new in a few weeks, and he’ll leave you alone. Then you’ll finally be safe,” Evangeline said and pulled Camille even closer.

Camille wriggled free from her hug, but her hands remained tightly in Evangeline’s grasp.

“I can’t believe any of this. I can’t believe these things that you’re telling me about him!” she screamed, and Evangeline nodded in silence, tightening her lips like she was disappointed with Camille.

“I understand. He’s a good actor. A good model. He did the same with me. He charmed me into thinking he was just a normal handsome man. But once I got involved in his life, and found stuff out about him, he changed. He couldn’t trust me. He wanted to control me. He wanted to make sure that I never told on him to anyone,” Evangeline said and placed a cold hand on Camille’s slight shoulder.

Camille tried to jerk it off; she was still unsure of why Evangeline was in her store. She looked back at the woman’s face. Evangeline’s eyes were reddened like she had been crying too. She wanted to believe what Evangeline was telling her - the perfect explanation for Devin’s disappearance - but then she remembered his face, his hands on her skin, the way he kissed her, the words he had whispered to her in her ears, and how he had encouraged her to come out of her shell. She thought she knew him. Things just weren’t adding up.

***

Camille found herself in Evangeline’s arms again. She had been crying, and Evangeline was trying to console her. She was stroking Camille’s blonde curls while Camille cried on her shoulders, her body shaking, unable to control the sudden surge of emotions. She was in love with a man who wasn’t who he said he was. She was in love with a man who she should have been afraid of. And now he was gone. She should be, was supposed to be, relieved, but all she could do was cry and wish that he were there so that she could confront him. How could she have been that stupid?

“There there, sweetheart. I know how you feel. A few more months with him and you would have been in the same state that I am in now, hoping that he disappeared from your life,” Evangeline was cooing. Her voice was a whisper, and she was managing, strangely enough, to calm Camille down.

Camille blubbered and pulled away from her, wiping her cheeks with her knuckles.

“I’m so sorry, Evangeline. I’m so sorry for doubting you and thinking that you were the villain in this story. I fell for him hard. I was so stupid.” Camille’s tears were uncontrollable, but Evangeline shushed them away. She wiped them from Camille’s cheeks and pulled her close to her again.

“You can’t blame yourself, dear girl. This isn’t your fault. We both fell for his charms. At least you have me to tell you the truth and warn you before things got really bad,” Evangeline replied, and Camille shut her eyes tightly. All of this was too overwhelming. She had slept with Devin; she had given him her body and her soul. She had trusted him when all her instincts, and her best friend, had warned her against him. Camille felt stupid and naive. She had fallen for a man’s good looks and tattoos.

“What does he do? What are the dangerous things that he’s involved in?” she asked, with her head still on Evangeline’s shoulders.

Evangeline shushed her again. “Forget it, Camille. You don’t need to know. With any luck, he’s gone, and he’ll never bother you again. I can help with your art. We can work together.” Evangeline stroked her hair, but Camille pulled her head away. They were both hugging each other tightly, with Camille’s back against the counter.

“I want to know what he does. I want to know exactly how foolish I’ve been. Has he killed people?” Her lips were quivering, and Evangeline laughed. Her laughter was loud pitched and cold, and Camille suddenly felt very afraid of her again.

“You think that killing people is the worst thing that someone can do? You truly are a little girl aren’t you?” She placed a finger under Camille’s chin.

Camille furrowed her brows in irritation. She was having a tough enough time; she didn’t also want to be laughed at.

“Just tell me, Evangeline!” she demanded, and the other woman wrapped an arm around her and looked her straight in the eye.

That’s when she felt it, a cold metallic restraint being slipped onto her wrists that had been wedged at her back. She tried to turn around, but she heard a metallic click, like handcuffs being locked.

It was handcuffs. Evangeline had managed to handcuff her to the leg of the counter, and then she felt Evangeline’s hands. Camille was forced to slide down the leg of the desk so that she was now sitting on the floor. She tried to struggle free and screamed, but there was nothing she could do. Evangeline had duped her. She had been fooled. She had allowed Evangeline to get close to her.

“What the hell is going on? Let me go, now!” Camille shouted, and Evangeline stepped away from her, appearing to study Camille.

“You are a silly little girl, aren’t you?” Evangeline commented, sticking one hand into the pocket of her jumpsuit.

“Why did you do this? What do you want?” Camille was crying again. She hadn’t asked for any of this. She had followed Devin’s lead, and now she seemed to be in real big trouble.

“What I want?” Evangeline threw back, and Camille watched in horror as she extracted a thick hypodermic needle from her pocket. “I want Devin, obviously.”

Camille screamed again. “You lied! You lied about him!”

Evangeline laughed.

How could somebody be this evil? Camille had been right about this woman all along.

“Of course I lied. Devin is a gentle giant. He’s a gem, and you should have kept him closer. And now you’ll overdose on heroine.” She took a few steps towards Camille, who tried to thrash her away with her free arm.

“What are you doing? Get away from me!” Camille yelled, none of Evangeline’s words were sinking in. All she could do was stare at the syringe in Evangeline’s hands and how it was full of a milky liquid that she couldn’t identify.

“There’s no use struggling, darling. You’re going to overdose on heroine, and when Devin finds you here, I’ll be there to console him in his hour of need.” Evangeline pouted her lips and smiled at the same time. Camille shrieked again, but she knew nobody was coming for her. She was alone, and this mad woman was going to kill her.


Devin

Devin dialed Evangeline’s phone number on his cell phone as he paced the floor of his kitchen. All his dogs were following his every move, and he was looking at them with nervous eyes. He wasn’t going to let anything happen to them. They were his life and soul. He had spent years rescuing them, and they depended on him. He loved them more than life itself, and they were devoted to him.

Evangeline’s phone was switched off.

“Shit!” he screamed and flung his phone at the wall, where it cracked and fell to the floor. His dogs looked at him with worry, a few of them whining. They knew that he was upset about something. He invited them over and sat down on the floor. His dogs surrounded him - they licked his face, jumped on his shoulders - and he petted them, huddling with them like they were all one big pack. No, he could not let anything happen to his dogs.

Eventually, Devin stood up and walked up to his bedroom. He didn’t know why he was so afraid. He had never been afraid before. He wondered if he was afraid for the first time because he was concerned about those other than himself. For the first time in his life, he was responsible for other people’s lives. Camille and his dogs. Did he have to choose? He had no other choice. Jimmy Figueroa had made it very clear to him that he could have it only one way. And he had to do it to prove his loyalty to the biker code.

Devin locked himself in his bathroom, away from his dogs who were still following him around. His face was completely bruised; the top of his left jaw had taken on a purple hue. His lip was swollen and cut, and he had a black eye too. His limbs ached, his joints creaked, and his shoulders felt like they had been carrying a mountain. He was happy to be back home and safe, but he wasn’t happy about the next steps he had to take.

Devin screamed at himself in the mirror as he slowly slipped his T-shirt off. They had punched and kicked him when he was unconscious too because he realized that there were bruises on the sides of his torso as well. He glared at himself in the mirror, with his nostrils flaring.

“Fucking bitch,” he muttered, thinking about Evangeline. And now he couldn’t even call her since he had broken his phone a few minutes ago. He couldn’t even call Camille. Although he wasn’t quite sure if he wanted to speak to her. What would he say? How would he explain all this? How could he explain to her what he had to do next?

Devin punched his mirror and bruised his knuckles. But the pain from the punch seemed to calm him down; it reminded him that he needed to get going. He needed to set the ball rolling. The Choppers were watching him. They’d be following him. He needed to do this to keep his dogs and himself safe. Nothing else mattered.

Camille mattered. He thought this as he put his T-shirt back on. He didn’t even know where she was. He didn’t know what she might be thinking. He didn’t think that anything had happened to her, but he was convinced that she hated him now. She would even more after what he was about to do. But the code was the code. He had to do what he had to do. And hopefully, she would understand.

As for Evangeline, he would have to deal with her in his own time. He had to solve the problem with The Choppers first. She has another thing coming , he told himself as he grabbed the keys for his Harley off the rack by the front door.

When he stepped out of the house, he thought he heard the rumble of bikes. The Choppers were watching him. They were making sure that he went forward with his proof of loyalty to bikers. They had to see it with their own eyes. He didn’t blame them. In reality, he didn’t even blame Figueroa. He knew the power that Evangeline had over people’s minds. She could convince someone of anything. She’d once had Devin under her control for so long that he was eating out of her hand until he finally snapped back to reality. Figueroa was in the same position. Devin needed proof to be able to show Figueroa that she was duping him.

Devin got on his bike and put on his helmet. His shoulders ached from the strain of clutching his gears. But there was no time to waste.

It was nearly six in the evening, which meant that the bookstore would be closed. Shayna and Camille would have gone home by now, which would give him the perfect opportunity to execute the plan. He didn’t want to have to do it, he didn’t see the point of doing it either; but if that was the proof of loyalty that Figueroa wanted, then that was what Devin had to deliver. And he was going to do it himself. If he were going to be responsible for Camille’s ruin, then he would own the responsibility, not get some other guy to do it for him.

His only hope was that this wouldn’t mean that he’d lose Camille forever.

As Devin rode his bike towards the comic bookstore, he wondered if all this was for the best. The events of the past two days had only proven his worst fears - that his life wasn’t meant to be shared. He couldn’t have another liability. He couldn’t have a family or other people he loved and cared for, as it would only make them easy targets for his enemies.

Devin was approaching the bookstore with a heavy heart, but he was resolute. There was no other choice. There was no way he could back out of the deal now.

***

When Devin parked his bike outside the store, he noticed that the lights were still on. He took off his helmet and walked towards the front door. Now he could see clearly into the store. Evangeline was pushing Camille down on the floor and it seemed like Camille’s hand was handcuffed to the desk’s leg.

Camille was screaming something at Evangeline, and to his horror, Evangeline was laughing. Then he saw the syringe in Evangeline’s hand. She was going to do something. She was going to poison Camille. Devin gnawed his teeth. He wanted to punch through the glass of the door and unlock it, grab Evangeline by the neck and strangle her to death.

But Devin breathed in quickly to calm himself. The situation needed to be handled with care. One wrong move could mean pushing Evangeline over the edge. Camille was under her control now, her hands were cuffed, and Evangeline could do something rash and put Camille in danger. Devin needed to think straight.

He ran his fingers through his thick, dark hair and breathed in deeply. When he released his breath, he knocked on the front door in quick successions. He saw both the women turn to look towards the door. Camille screamed, crying out for help. She looked relieved to see him there. Evangeline on the other hand, looked like she had been caught red-handed. She gripped Camille’s shoulder and stuck out the syringe in the air.

Devin knocked on the door again, and this time he even forced a smile on his face. He was directing Evangeline with calm eyes to come over and open the door for him. She looked undecided. She clearly didn’t trust Devin’s intentions, but she also seemed to be confused by Devin’s calm reaction.

Eventually, when he knocked again, Evangeline approached the door, leaving Camille wriggling on the floor. Devin didn’t dare to look at Camille again; he didn’t want Evangeline to think that he was interested in her at all. He had seen the look on Camille’s face - her beautiful eyes screaming out for help. He would have given his soul to stop her from screaming, but this was the only way to keep her safe. He was going to play Evangeline’s game. He had no other choice.

Evangeline unlocked the door, staring right at Devin. He kept the smile pasted on his face. She opened the door, and he stepped in calmly like he was in no rush.

“Help me, Devin. She’s crazy!” Camille screamed, but he ignored her and instead smiled at Evangeline.

“Oh, darling, what have they done to you?!” Evangeline touched Devin’s face lightly. He grabbed her hand, and she gasped, but he only kissed it, pecking her long cold fingers.

“I’m fine, Evangeline. I’m all right now,” he said, and she threw herself at him. Devin hugged her tightly and stroked her hair. It also gave him the opportunity to catch Camille’s gaze who was staring at them with her mouth open. She couldn’t speak any more; she obviously couldn’t believe what was happening. This was not what she had expected. She had expected him to save her. He tried to tell her with his eyes that he would do everything in his power to protect her, but she was giving up now. He could see her growing weak and losing her trust in him.

“I’m so sorry I had to do all this Devin. I didn’t want you to get hurt,” Evangeline cooed in his ear, and Devin slowly peeled her off of him and held her at arm’s length, smiling at her.

“I know how much you love me. I know now that you did all this for me,” he said, and Evangeline fluttered her eyelids at him.

“Nobody can love you as much as me. I wish you’d seen that sooner,” she said, and she flung herself on him again, wrapping her arms around his neck.

“I know that now, Evangeline. You don’t have to apologize.” He tried to slowly wrestle the syringe out of her hands. Evangeline furrowed her brows and cocked her head to one side.

“I think I’ll keep this with me for now, just for precaution.”

Devin smiled at her. “You don’t trust me?” he asked, and she kissed him on his cheek, where the purple bruise was.

“I don’t trust her,” she said, tilting her head back towards Camille who was still hunched over on the floor. Camille had stopped screaming, but she was panting out of exhaustion and fright. She had no idea what Devin had planned and seemed to be falling for his act just like Evangeline was.

“Who cares about her?”

Evangeline rolled her eyes. “You seemed to.”

Devin laughed, pulling her closer to him. “I wanted to make you jealous. And it worked,” he said, and Evangeline threw her head back and laughed. Devin laughed with her, and she kissed him again. Evangeline was falling for it. She was so wrapped up in her own head, in her own world, that she couldn’t see what was going on. Devin wondered if she was high again and if that was what was making her act so crazily. Because holding a person hostage and trying to poison them was a new low, even for Evangeline.

“You’re a very naughty boy. I like it,” she said seductively and licked her lips. “Shall we go back to your place? I’ve missed you so much. I’ve missed your body.” She grabbed his hand and placed it on her right breast. Devin gulped but repressed it quickly, and used his thumb to feel her erect nipple. He remembered her body well but was now repulsed by it. He didn’t want to touch her or kiss her, but that was the only way he could convince her that he didn’t care about Camille anymore.

***

“As good as ever,” Evangeline breathed into Devin’s ear as he held her by the waist. They had just finished kissing again, and Devin felt like he was prepared to strangle her to death. He didn’t have to look at Camille to know that she was terrified and confused by what was going on. She had grown quiet and was just sitting hunched on the floor with her wrists still handcuffed to the leg of the desk. She was whimpering softly, but Evangeline seemed to have forgotten about her.

Evangeline, however, was still holding on to the syringe tightly. Devin wondered if he could overpower her and wrestle it out of her hands, but he wasn’t sure if that would be successful. And if Evangeline managed to get away from him, then it would blow up his plan, and it would mean that she would lose all her trust in him and surely do something drastic. The only possible solution was to play along and do what Evangeline wanted him to do. And carry out Figueroa’s plan.

“Should we head back to your place?” she asked him again, and he smiled. He had to do everything in his power to make sure that his body didn’t shake with rage. He hated Evangeline more than ever now.

“The Choppers are watching my house,” Devin said, just to keep the conversation going. Evangeline shrugged her shoulders and smiled, running her long pale fingers through her silky curtain of hair. Her other hand continued to hold the syringe up in the air, as a sort of warning for Camille it seemed. She had let her defenses down as far as Devin was concerned; she was convinced now that he had come back to her for good.

“Wouldn’t Figueroa lose his shit if he finds out that you came back home with me?” Devin asked, and Evangeline laughed one of her loud screechy laughs.

“Yeah, he is obsessed with me. He’ll lose his mind.” Evangeline licked her lips. In her mind, she was probably enjoying watching the two men fight over her. She didn’t care if she started a club war, as long as she got what she wanted. And what she wanted now was Devin. “But you’re not afraid of him, are you Devin?” she asked, and he laughed.

“No, I’m not afraid of him. And if I have to fight The Choppers just so I can have you, I’m willing to do it,” he said, taking a few quiet steps towards Evangeline. From the corner of his eye, he could see the syringe in her hands, but he knew this wasn’t the right moment to do it. Evangeline licked her lips again; she was satisfied with his response.

“Then let’s go back home, to our home. I miss your house. I miss being with you,” she continued and placed a hand on the center of Devin’s chest. He could feel her cold palm on his body through the fabric of his shirt, and he felt goosebumps on the back of his neck. Never had he loved Camille more. Long ago, when he was stupid, he thought he loved Evangeline too; but now it was clear as day that Camille was the woman for him, and there she was on the floor before him, sitting with her hands tied. He hated Evangeline; he could kill her.

“I’ve missed you too,” he lied, and Evangeline looked up at him admiringly.

“Tell me what you’ve missed about me,” she urged him, and Devin pretended to think. The longer he could distract her and keep her there, the better it was. Ideally, he would be able to take her away and give Camille a chance to call for help or escape. But he knew nobody was coming, not until the morning at least, and she couldn’t reach a phone. Besides, he couldn't leave her here handcuffed all night, giving Figueroa the opportunity to set his men on her.

“I’ve missed your body, Evangeline. Your sexy body,” he said and grabbed her butt with both his hands. He jerked her close to him, and she giggled, enjoying all the attention he was showering on her. But the syringe was still tightly held in her hand, she wasn’t about to let that go. He squeezed her butt, and she licked her lips. He could see that her eyes had glazed over with her desire for him. She wanted him to fuck her.

“That’s what I wanted to hear. I’ve waited so long to hear that.” She brought her lips close to his face. He didn’t want to have to kiss her again, but she kissed him. Evangeline forced her tongue into Devin’s mouth, and he had no other choice but to reciprocate. He didn’t even want to imagine how Camille was feeling, but he was doing this all for her. She had to know that!

“Let’s just get out of here and leave that bitch here. Or we could finish her off so that she doesn’t end up talking,” Evangeline said when Devin gently pulled himself away from her. He stroked the side of her cheek and tried to smile. Finish Camille off? That was Evangeline’s plan all along. She wanted Camille dead. And if Devin didn’t act carefully, Evangeline would eventually make sure that Camille was dead.

“I think I have a plan,” Devin said, and Evangeline’s eyes lit up. She smiled and then giggled like a child. Devin smiled too.

“I can kill two birds with one stone,” he added while Evangeline watched him intently. “Figueroa wants me to do something to prove my loyalty to the biker code. That could also take care of her.” He pointed to Camille. At that moment when he looked at Camille, he saw the fear in her eyes and he wanted to cry out. But he continued. Evangeline was hanging onto his every word, and he needed to be calm to carry on with the plan. That was the only way to save Camille.

“What do they want you to do?” Evangeline asked, and Devin turned to her with wide, crazed eyes.

“They want me to burn down this place,” he replied quietly. Evangeline clapped her hands and laughed.

“The bookstore?”

Devin nodded.

“So you want to burn it down with her in it?” Evangeline asked, giggling uncontrollably now. Very soon she was going to forget about the syringe, Devin thought, but she was still holding on to it.

Devin nodded in response and Evangeline clapped her hands again with delight. To her, this was proof that Devin was indeed back in her life for good.

***

Camille screamed when she heard that while Evangeline continued to laugh. Devin tried to smile, but he couldn’t.

“Let’s do it, Devin. Set fire to this place!” Evangeline laughed deliriously. Devin was convinced now that Evangeline was high on drugs, which might make it easy for him to operate. But he still couldn’t be sure; she still had the syringe in her hands. Camille continued to scream

“Shut up bitch!” Evangeline yelled at her, but Camille didn’t shut up. She was fighting for her life again.

“How are we going to do this?” Evangeline asked sweetly, turning to Devin.

He thrust his hand into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a Zippo. “I came prepared,” he said laughing and Evangeline was pleased again.

He threw a nervous look at Camille who was screaming with a red face. She was banging her back against the desk, trying to wriggle free, break the desk, and do anything to get out of the place. But her hands were handcuffed; any struggle was futile.

“Hurry up, Devin, I want to get out of here,” Evangeline whined, and Devin turned to her again, forcing a smile on his face.

“Let’s start with that poster there,” he said, pointing at the comic book poster taped to the wall behind the desk. Camille craned her neck to look up at the poster too. She knew what that meant. The fire would start with a poster, then they’d set fire to the books, and once that happened, it would be very easy for the fire to spread.

Evangeline licked her lips in excitement and Devin walked over to the desk. He was even closer to Camille now, and a whiff of her vanilla scent overwhelmed him for a few moments. He could sense her fear; it was in the air between them.

“Please don’t do it, Devin. I promise I won’t tell anyone if you just let me go. Please, Devin!” Camille was begging now as she looked up at him. Her cheeks were stained with tears, and her lips and eyes were swollen from all the crying. Devin was sure that she’d faint from exhaustion soon if he didn’t act fast.

“Shut up, bitch! I told you to shut the fuck up!” Evangeline had walked up behind him and was also staring down at her now. Camille cried again, hanging her head low. She was giving up. She knew there was no escape. Her bookstore was going to be burned down, and she was going to be burned down with it.

Devin flipped the Zippo open and threw a look at Evangeline. He could see the excitement in her eyes; she wanted him to do it right away. Devin stepped around Camille and moved closer to the poster on the wall.

“Do it, Devin. Just do it. Forget about her,” Evangeline squealed, and Devin held up the lighter to the edge of the poster. He needed to do this. He hadn’t lied. This is what Figueroa and The Choppers wanted him to do as proof that he was loyal to the biker code, above everything else. They hadn’t asked him to kill Camille, though. They only wanted him to burn down the store to prove that he didn’t sympathize with a girl he had just met. That his loyalty to the gangs surpassed all his loyalty to any woman.

“Devin!” Evangeline screamed, trying to urge him on. He brought the lighter up closer to the poster so that now the flame licked the edge of it. It caught fire immediately, and Evangeline squealed again with excitement. Camille screamed too.

Devin turned to look at Evangeline who was laughing loudly. The flame of the burning poster was reflected in her eyes as her shoulders shook. He had finally proved to her that he didn’t care about Camille.

Devin laughed too and took a few quick steps towards Evangeline. She hadn’t noticed, but he had also slid off a mask from one of the shelves when he walked towards her.

Evangeline was enjoying herself and wanted to kiss Devin again. He came up to her and brought his face close to her, but instead of kissing her lips, in one quick motion he slid the mask on over her head.

“What are you doing?!” Evangeline shouted. The poster crackled as it burned behind them while Camille continued to scream. The mask was a big comic hero mask, and Evangeline was disoriented by what Devin had just done.

He forced the mask down, and Evangeline’s hands clawed at it, but Devin held it down.

“Devin! What the hell? Stop joking around!” She struggled to get the mask off, and then Devin saw what he needed to see. The syringe fell out of Evangeline’s hand and onto the ground. Devin used his feet to kick it out of their way, and it slid across the floor to a corner underneath one of the bookshelves, way out of everyone’s reach.

“Devin!” Evangeline had obviously heard the sound of him kicking the syringe away. Devin had managed to get her to bring her guard down so that he could trick her into dropping her defenses.

With one hand Devin kept the mask on her head, and as she struggled, with his other hand, he twisted her arm around to her back. The poster was still burning; it would be safe there, burning on the wall behind them, isolated.

“Where’s the key?!” he thundered, right up to her face. He knew she couldn’t see well through the mask, it covered all her face and was stifling her breathing. He kept her arm twisted behind her back, pinning her to his body. Even though Evangeline knew he was stronger than her, that she couldn’t possibly escape now, she still struggled.

“Where’s the key to the handcuffs Evangeline?” he asked and twisted her arm even more. Evangeline yelped in pain. Her rage had finally turned to fright, which was what Devin needed.

Camille had stopped screaming now, which made him feel better, but he still needed to set her free.

“I’ll never tell you. She can rot there for all I care,” Evangeline spat, her voice a little muffled by the mask now. She had stopped struggling, and Devin felt her shoulders relax.

Now he used both hands to hold her wrists tightly behind her back. He was still twisting her arms, which he knew was painful for her. A few more minutes and he knew she would break.

“You’re going to tell me where the keys are,” he growled right in her ear and dragged her by the arms towards the desk where Camille was. Evangeline continued to scream. She still wasn’t willing to divulge the information.

Devin yanked her down to the ground next to Camille. Still holding her hands together with one hand, he reached into his pockets where he had put some plastic tags earlier. These were impossible to get out of. He wrapped two around Evangeline’s hands and stood back from her. She still had the mask on her head so he couldn’t see her face, but he knew she was crying.

He got out some more plastic tags and started tying her feet together as well.

“I told you I came prepared,” he said to Evangeline.

When he turned to Camille, he noticed that she still looked fearful, but also a little relieved too.

“Where’s the key, Evangeline? Make it easy for me, or I swear I’ll burn this place down with you in it.”

“It’s in my bra, okay? It’s in my bra!” Evangeline yelled when she sensed Devin stand up and hover over her.

He breathed in deeply and reached for her breasts. He slipped his hand into the top of her jumpsuit and in between her cleavage to reach for the bottom of her wire. He found the key.

“You’re crazy, Evangeline,” he said and turned to Camille, who was whimpering again. It looked like she was feeling a mixture of emotions – most likely rage, fright, and relief.

Devin didn’t waste any time to get her free. He unlocked her handcuffs and unexpectedly, Camille threw her arms around him and started crying again.

Devin stroked Camille’s head and held her close.

“I’m so sorry I put you through this Camille, it’ll be alright now, I promise,” he told her softly.

She was crying on his shoulder, and her body shook. Devin finally had her in his arms and was relieved. Camille was safe, Evangeline was tied up, and he could now breathe.

“Let me go!” Evangeline screamed, interrupting them. Devin didn’t turn to her and instead continued to stroke Camille’s head. She remained in his arms, still shaking from the experience.

“Devin, I was so scared. I thought you were going to kill me. I thought she was going to kill me.”

Devin gently kissed her cheeks. “I would never allow that to happen. I had to do this. I had to play along with her to make sure that I could get you out of here safely,” he said, and she pulled away from him but still clutched his arms. Camille nodded and wiped her cheeks. He could see where the handcuffs had bruised her wrists and he wanted to punch the wall. How could he have allowed this to happen? He had come so close to losing her. How could he have put her in this much danger?

“I know that now, but I thought it was all over,” Camille said and finally smiled. “Are you still going to have to burn this place down?”

He heard the strain in her voice. This was her life’s work, her investment, and her only source of income. He looked into her eyes and shook his head. “I’ll figure something out. No, I won’t burn this place down. Don’t worry,” he replied and stroked her cheek.

Evangeline screamed again. Camille was free and looking at her with disgust.

“So, what are we going to do about her?” Camille asked, turning to face Devin again.

He grinned at her and nodded. “I have an idea.”

Camille

Devin had taped Evangeline’s mouth and was now dragging her by the shoulders. Camille stood in the center of the store watching him, still shaking and reeling from the events of the evening.

She had come very close to losing her life and her store, and she thought she had lost Devin too - that he had betrayed her and wasn’t the man she thought he was. But once again, Devin had proven her wrong. He was more than the man she thought he was. As painful as it was to watch him kissing Evangeline, feeling her breasts, laughing with her… he had done all of that so he could protect Camille.

“Camille?” Devin yelled, snapping her out of her thoughts. Evangeline was still struggling in his arms, but her mouth was taped, and her hands and feet were tied. She was going nowhere.

“Do you have the keys to your car?” he asked, and she nodded. “Let’s go. Are you okay to go?”

Camille nodded again and whipped around to go look for her car keys. She still wasn’t sure what Devin’s plan was, but she knew she could trust her life with him.

She found the keys and followed Devin outside. He had now flung Evangeline over his shoulder and was carrying her towards Camille’s car parked outside the store.

Camille pointed the clicker at the car to unlock the doors. Devin flung the back door open and shifted Evangeline in. There were still muffled protests and screams coming from Evangeline, but it was late now, nobody was around, and no cars had gone by either. Whatever Devin’s plan was, they could carry it out without being caught.

“Wait, what about The Choppers?” Camille asked as Devin walked around the car towards her. “Didn’t you say they were following you?”

Devin nodded and then smiled affectionately. “Yeah, but they’ll be looking for my bike, not for your car. At least not for a while and I plan on fixing all this before they catch on to what’s happening.” He placed a hand on Camille’s shoulder. She looked up at him, with all the emotions and turbulent events behind her now and she knew that she had never loved a man more before. This man had risked everything and was still risking everything for her safety.

“I didn’t think she could do such a thing, Devin,” Camille said, biting down on her lip nervously. She still couldn’t believe what Evangeline had done.

Devin touched her lips softly and ran a finger over them. “She’s more dangerous than you think. I know things about her that could get her in real trouble with the cops,” he said, and Camille’s eyes widened.

“Things like what?” she asked, and Devin breathed in deeply.

“Her gallery is a scam. She sells fakes, steals the authentic paintings, and uses the business to launder money.”

Camille chewed on her lip. “How have the cops not caught her yet?” she asked as they stood beside the car while Evangeline struggled to get free inside. The car shook with her efforts.

“She’s good at what she does. She uses aliases, and she has the support of The Choppers now, but what they don’t know is that she’s stealing money from them too,” Devin explained, and Camille shook her head in surprise.

“That’s probably why she wants to keep you close to her. Because she knows you know all these things about her,” she said, and Devin pulled her close to him. She laid her head on his chest and closed her eyes, only for a moment, to catch a breath. Devin was stroking her hair, and she felt like she could stay in his arms forever. She found herself smiling, despite everything that had happened.

“Very soon, Camille, you won’t need to worry about all this. I promise I will make it go away,” he told her, and she looked up at him and smiled. She believed him; she believed that he could take care of it. She had no doubts.

“And I’m sorry for getting you tangled in all this, Camille. You should never have been involved. I should have kept my distance. I haven’t been as careful as I should have been. I should have known what Evangeline was capable of,” Devin continued, and Camille lifted her forefinger and placed it on his lips to silence him.

“Don’t say that, because that would mean that we couldn’t have been together. But we are, Devin. I want to be where you are, with you,” Camille said, and she felt him tighten his grip around her waist and pull her closer to his body. She could feel the warmth of his muscles and the strength of his embrace. He didn’t plan on letting her go.

“So, you’re not afraid?” he whispered in her ear, and Camille shook her head.

“Not anymore. Not when I’m with you,” she whispered back and felt his lips crush down onto hers. It was a hungry kiss; their bodies were pressed together as their mouths explored each other’s. His tongue thrust its way into her mouth while his hands traveled up her body. She clasped his biceps tightly as she felt her body sway with desire. She wanted him, right there and then. She remembered how good it felt to have him inside her.

His fingers were now entangled in her hair as they continued to kiss. When he pulled away, his mouth traveled down her neck, leaving a trail of wetness on her skin. She knew he was thinking what she was - that it had been too long, too many things had happened, and they needed to fuck to get it all out. But she stopped him, right when he was about to slip his hand under her shirt.

“We need to take care of her first,” Camille told him, with a newfound conviction in her voice.

***

“Where are we going?” Camille asked Devin when they were sitting in the front seats. Devin was driving. He had started the engine with a roar and was turning the car around.

“Somewhere she can’t escape from,” he said, without looking at her. Evangeline was still screaming in the back of the car, but her cries were muffled, and Camille had gotten used to her by now. Besides, the woman had tried to kill her, poison her with drugs, and force her to overdose. There was no way she was going to sympathize with her now.

“Hand me my phone,” Devin instructed, and Camille reached for his cell phone that was wedged in the pocket of his pants. He took it from her and dialed a number.

“It’s me,” he spoke into the phone. Camille was looking at him intently, still not fully aware of his intentions. It seemed like he was talking to a friend or an accomplice.

“I have Evangeline Fox with me,” Devin said and seemed to be waiting for the other person’s response.

“I’m ready to make a statement against her now,” he then said, and Evangeline screeched. Camille now realized whom Devin was talking to. A cop.

“I’ll gather the evidence and testify against her. And if you give me a few days I can get Jimmy Figueroa to testify against her too,” Devin said, and Evangeline continued to scream.

Camille gulped and sat back in her seat.

“I’m bringing her in. Make sure that you meet me at the doors. I don’t want to go in. I have business to take care of first. I’ll swing by tomorrow again with the statement.” Devin hung up the phone.

“Was that the police?” Camille asked, and Devin clenched his jaw.

“I didn’t want to have to do this,” he said loudly, more to Evangeline than to Camille. He was glaring at her tied up figure in the rearview mirror. Evangeline had started struggling more to get out, but her hands were tied, and Devin had done a good job of restraining her.

“But you tried to kill Camille. You should have just left me alone, and none of this would have happened. You’re finished now, Evangeline,” Devin continued, taking a quick sharp turn. Camille shifted in her seat and clutched her thighs. She had never seen Devin so angry and intense.

“I want to testify as well.” Camille was the one who spoke up, and Devin turned to look at her questioningly.

“She had me handcuffed, she tried to poison me to death and then tried to burn my store down. I want to testify against her too. Make sure that she never gets out of prison,” Camille said quietly while Evangeline continued to scream at the back. Devin remained silent for a few moments and then nodded.

“That is very brave of you,” he said as he made another sharp turn. He was driving fast to get them to the police station. He wanted to be rid of Evangeline, and Camille wanted to be alone with him as well.

“Devin,” Camille said his name tentatively. She didn’t want to ask him, but she knew she had to. When he turned to her, she continued, “Have you been involved in crime too? Something they can arrest you for if you get involved in her case?”

Devin breathed out and shook his head. “I told you, Camille, everything I do is legal. I own a security firm. I can’t say the same for my clients. I don’t get involved in what their business is, but my company has never done anything out of legal boundaries,” Devin said, and they both remained silent for a few seconds after. Camille was more relieved than ever. She didn’t know how she would react if Devin told her that he was just as much of a criminal as Evangeline.

“And I’ll get immunity if I testify against her. The crimes and things that she has been involved in are much worse than anything I’ve done. She’s wanted by the Interpol for the thefts she’s committed in countries in Europe. She is much more precious to the cops than anything I’ve done,” he explained, and Camille placed a hand on his as he held onto the gear. He exchanged looks with her and smiled.

“We’re okay, Camille. You’re okay. I’m not going to do anything stupid. I’m staying right here with you,” Devin added, and she nodded. She believed him.

Within minutes Devin had pulled into the parking lot of the police station. A cop in uniform came running towards the car as Devin jumped out and opened the back door. Camille held her breath as the cop pulled Evangeline out of the backseat. He had looked at Camille in the front but didn’t say anything; it was as though she didn’t exist.

Back outside he snapped handcuffs on Evangeline’s already tied wrists.

“You’ll need to cut her binds with scissors,” Devin said as the cop proceeded to pull the tape off Evangeline’s mouth. She screamed in full force the instant it was off.

“He kidnapped me. That bitch in the car kidnapped me and Devin helped her. They should be the ones who are arrested!” she screamed as the cop held onto her tightly. She was still trying to wriggle free, and it seemed like she would punch Devin in the face if she did get free.

“You can stop now, Evangeline. We all know the truth, drop the act. I hope I never have to see you again,” Devin spoke softly, with nearly a laugh in his voice. Then he got back in the car, kissed Camille on her cheek and drove away. Away from Evangeline and the police station. To Camille, it seemed like they were leaving their troubles behind. Even though she knew it wasn’t over yet.


Devin

He watched Camille until she walked into her apartment building and closed the door behind her. Then he waited until she appeared at her window and waved. He waved back and blew her a kiss. Then he was off again. Camille had let him borrow her car, which he needed since his bike was still at the comic bookstore.

They both wanted to be alone with each other after Evangeline was dropped off at the police station. Devin would have given anything to spend the night in Camille’s arms, to be inside her, feel her warmth… but there was bigger fish to fry. He needed to take care of all loose ends before he could be with her in peace. And it needed to be done now. Evangeline was only one part of the problem. The Choppers were the other part and the ones who were much more dangerous.

Devin drove in silence to The Choppers clubhouse, where he knew Figueroa would be. He knew he wasn’t being followed. They still hadn’t found out what he had done to Evangeline, where she was. There was a lot of explaining to do, especially now since Figueroa was obsessed with her.

Devin arrived at the clubhouse and got out of the car. A few members of the club were sitting outside on their bikes, and they all grew silent when they saw Devin walking towards them.

“Where’s Figueroa?” Devin growled, and one of them flung his can of beer away. Devin realized that this was the man he had punched at the beach when he was there with Camille.

“What are you doing here?” the man asked, walking right up to Devin. Their faces were now only inches apart, but Devin didn’t back down.

“Where’s Figueroa?” Devin repeated. “Your boss is going to be pissed if he finds out that you’ve kept me away from him. He’s waiting for me.” But the man was still up in his face.

“He’s inside. Just let him through,” some other guy said from behind them. They glared at each other for a few more seconds with their nostrils flaring until the man stepped aside and Devin walked in towards the clubhouse. He squared his shoulders and clenched his jaws. This needed to be done right if he had to be successful. He was responsible for Camille, his dogs, and also his own club. This was going to be a sensitive mission, and he needed to handle it with care.

Someone had already informed Figueroa of Devin’s presence because he found Figueroa sitting on a lavish leather chair near the reception area, surrounded by a group of bikers with their guns drawn. They didn’t seem to trust Devin, even though he was by himself and clearly defenseless in the middle of a rival club.

“My men tell me that you haven’t done what I asked you to do.” Figueroa didn’t believe in formal greetings. He cut straight to the point, and this time he meant serious business.

Devin smiled at Figueroa, trying to establish friendly terms but Figueroa seemed to have prepared for a battle. In his eyes, Devin had failed to prove his loyalty to their code of conduct, and he had to pay for it.

“No, I haven’t burned the bookstore down,” he said and watched as Figueroa breathed in deeply, relaying his disappointment.

“May I ask why? Or is that a useless question. Is the answer to that question the fact that you are indeed a snitch, or that you’re a pussy?” Figueroa asked, and one of the men behind him laughed.

“I didn’t burn it down because I found Evangeline there and I didn’t think you’d want me to burn the place down with your girlfriend in there,” Devin said, standing his ground. The key was to not show any weakness. He could see that Figueroa was surprised by that revelation. Figueroa couldn’t seem to think of any reason why Evangeline would be there at Camille Griffin’ comic bookstore.

“What was she doing there?” he asked, and Devin was the one who sighed this time. There was a lot of explaining to do, but he wasn’t quite prepared with a speech.

“Because she had taken it upon herself to murder Camille Griffin. My girlfriend,” Devin explained, and he could sense the surprise in the room. The other men remained silent, but Figueroa sat forward in his seat, more surprised than all the rest. In his mind, Evangeline was undoubtedly a sophisticated and yet delicate little princess. Why would she try and commit such a violent act of crime?

“You can’t be serious. Evangeline? Wanted to kill your girlfriend?” Figueroa asked, glaring at Devin. It was clear that there was still a part of Figueroa that didn’t want to believe what Devin was saying.

“Yes, because she wanted to silence me. She thought she could scare me into shutting up about her,” Devin continued, and this time Figueroa stood up with a jerk.

“Shut you up? Why? What were you planning on doing?” Figueroa asked, and Devin held his chin up.

“I could have and probably would have told you everything about her, and she didn’t want me to do that.” Devin decided to leave out the little detail about how Evangeline also wanted Devin all to herself. That she wanted to be with him again. He didn’t believe that Figueroa would believe it or take it well.

“Tell me what?!” Figueroa was screaming now.

“About how she’s a drug addict and has been stealing from me and now you. And that she’s wanted by the police and the Interpol in Europe.”

Figueroa held his head with both his hands. He was shaking his head vigorously like he didn’t want to hear another word that Devin was saying. But Devin was going to make sure that the man heard the truth about his beloved new fiancé.

“Evangeline wasn’t involved in this, she couldn’t have been. She was at her house all day. I’ve bought her a new apartment, she spent the day there working on her photographs,” Figueroa finally said, but he was speaking more to himself. One of the men he had sent out earlier to find out information came back into the room. Devin was watching all of them with an intent gaze. One wrong move and he could set The Choppers ablaze, and they would be prepared to kill him.

“Boss. She wasn’t at the apartment. She left at around six and hasn’t been back since,” the man said to Figueroa, who shook his head with more vigor. He still couldn’t believe it.

“Check the police station,” Devin intervened, and everyone in the room whipped their heads to look at him. The mention of cops in a conversation always meant trouble.

“Police station? Why would she be at a police station?” Figueroa had been pacing the floor of the room and now stepped in Devin’s direction.

“Because I dragged her there myself,” Devin admitted, and Figueroa rushed towards him in rage. His eyeballs protruded out, and his nostrils were flaring. He looked like he was ready to kill somebody. Devin stood his ground.

“I had to. She handcuffed Camille and tried to poison her with heroin to force her to overdose,” Devin said, and Figueroa’s mouth hung open. Devin knew that even though the older man had asked Devin to burn down the bookstore, he would never order such a thing as Camille’s murder.

“Besides, she’s wanted in eight states here and by the Interpol. By surrendering her to the police, it grants you, me, and both our gangs immunity from any other petty crime that we might be charged with for the next few years.” Devin folded his arms over his chest. Figueroa appeared to think. He had grown quiet and less enraged. He was clearly in shock from what he was hearing.

“It grants us immunity?” Figueroa asked, and Devin nodded.

“If you’re willing to testify and make a statement,” Devin explained, and he watched as Figueroa grew incensed again.

“Against my own fiancée? I love her!” He thundered and pushed his face towards Devin again.

“Check your accounts. See if she’s stealing from you. If I’m right and she has been stealing from you, it gives you the evidence you need to testify against her,” Devin continued while Figueroa shook his head again.

“Boss?” one of the men called out to him.

“Check the accounts. Now!” Figueroa yelled at him, and two of the men ran out of the room. It would take a few hours for the accounts to be thoroughly checked - for the full scope of Evangeline’s crimes to be visible. But Devin was willing to wait. This would prove once and for all, that it wasn’t him who was The Chopper’s enemy. It was Evangeline.

Figueroa sat back down in his leather chair with a huff. He was still angry and confused yet also exhausted.

“She told me about you going to the cops. Why would she do that?” Figueroa asked, in a quieter voice this time.

Devin allowed his shoulders to relax; Figueroa was beginning to face reality now.

“Because she hoped that you would kill me off, in which case she wouldn’t have to, and all her criminal secrets would be safe with my dying breath,” Devin said, and Figueroa shot him a look. Despite the situation, and even though the two rival gangs and their leaders had never quite gotten along, Devin began to feel a little sorry for Figueroa.

He knew exactly the kind of hold Evangeline could have on people, especially the men who fell so hard for her. It was difficult to believe that she was a criminal and see the clues that gave way to her drug addiction. But once you began to see her for who she really was, the rest only became clearer. Figueroa would need some time to face reality, but once he did that he would be able to connect all the dots and understand how Evangeline did it. How she had completely duped him and made a fool of him.

“And don’t think for one second that she’s not in there spreading lies about you and me. She’s going to take every opportunity she gets to save her skin,” Devin continued, and Figueroa watched him with a deathly stare.

Figueroa stood up again with a jerk and shook his head violently. “I should never have trusted her. She isn’t a biker. She doesn’t belong to the club. She doesn’t follow our code. I shouldn’t ever have trusted her.” Figueroa was speaking more to himself again rather than to anyone else. There was a deer-in-the-headlights look in his eyes as he stared at Devin while he spoke.

Devin stepped towards him now and taking a chance, he reached out to pat Figueroa on his shoulder, like a friend or comrade. Surprisingly, Figueroa didn’t seem to react. He simply stood there, looking like a man whose heart was broken and whose dreams were shattered. His new love was stealing from him, had lied to him to start a club war and had also tried to murder an innocent girl.

“We’ve all been there, Figueroa,” Devin said encouragingly, and the two men stared at each other in silence for a few moments.

***

The two men were sitting on the front porch of The Choppers’ clubhouse, sipping from their cans of beer.

It had been three hours since Devin first showed up here, and Figueroa’s men had revealed to him that they had already uncovered traces of money being laundered, all pointing towards Evangeline. Figueroa ordered them to keep digging.

“You have to just take my word for it, I guess,” Devin said, taking a big sip of his beer. Less than a day ago, Figueroa had bashed Devin’s face, and the bruises were still there to prove it. And now they were sitting on porch chairs, sharing a drink and talking to each other like they had been friends all along.

“Take your word for what?” Figueroa asked, still a little disoriented.

“About my loyalty to the code. The bookstore is Camille’s source of income, her art has all been ruined because of Evangeline, she’ll have nothing if I take the store away from her as well,” Devin explained, and Figueroa nodded silently.

“Yes, I think we’ve all been responsible for the shit that the poor girl has been through in the last couple of days. You tell her that I’m deeply sorry for this all. I never meant for any of this to happen,” Figueroa spoke quietly. He didn’t seem like a man who was used to apologizing often.

Devin drank from his can again, allowing Figueroa’s words to truly settle in.

“She understands. This wasn’t anybody’s fault, especially not yours. You were told lies,” Devin said, and Figueroa interrupted him.

“And I believed them! Like a fool,” he said, and Devin remained silent. He needed to give the other man some time for the truth to sink in.

“You seem happy with her, anyway,” Figueroa said, finishing the remaining beer in his hand. Devin nodded and smiled, an image of Camille’s face floated up in his mind. He had forgotten how much he missed her.

“She’s great. We are very happy together. And she’s forgiven me for all of this, what more can I ask for?”

Figueroa remained quiet for a while. “You should set the poor girl free. This isn’t the kind of life she’s prepared for. She nearly lost her life this time, but how long will you be able to protect her. She’ll become a liability,” Figueroa said, and Devin listened. He knew there was great truth in his words. He had thought about those exact things. Camille was going to be in constant danger if she remained with him. There was always going to be something new.

Devin shook his head and remained silent.

“It’s just my two cents. For your sake and hers,” Figueroa continued.

“I understand what you’re saying. And I agree with it. It’s just, I don’t…” Devin ran his hands through his thick dark hair and caught Figueroa smiling. It was the other man’s turn to feel sorry for him for being in love.

“She must be one hell of a girl if she’s put Devin in a trance,” Figueroa said and laughed loudly, very happy with his own joke. Devin smiled too. He was also glad to see that Figueroa was feeling better about the whole Evangeline debacle.

“You know I’ve always respected you, Devin,” Figueroa added, reaching for another can of beer on the floor. He threw one over to Devin and then picked up another one for himself.

“I’ve never doubted that,” Devin replied, popping the can open and taking a quick sip. Figueroa was watching him, and he had a smile lingering on his face.

“Although I must tell you that all those photographs of you, your modeling career… I don’t think I’ve ever met or seen a real biker do things like that before,” Figueroa admitted and then laughed loudly again. Devin smiled and nodded. At least Figueroa was being honest with him; telling him what everyone else must have been thinking as well.

“You could blame Evangeline for that too,” Devin said, and Figueroa’s face darkened for a few moments, just at the drop of Evangeline’s name in their midst. But he straightened himself back up soon.

“I’m guessing you made a lot of money from it anyway?”

Devin nodded. “Just another business venture,” he said, and Figueroa smiled again.

“But no, I honestly have immense respect for you. And I’m very sorry that that damn bitch was able to manipulate me into kidnapping you and beating you up,” Figueroa told him, leaning forward now towards Devin.

Devin extended his hand towards Figueroa. “It’s all good. Shake on it?”

The two men shook hands, smiling at each other. Evangeline may have started a series of events that had put nearly all their lives in danger, but her lack of success had resulted in bringing the two gangs closer together.

Devin stood up from his chair, emptying the contents of the can into his mouth in one long gulp. He scrunched the can and flung it aside, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

“You have a girl to go back home to,” Figueroa said, looking up at Devin.

Devin straightened his leather jacket and ran his hands through his hair. “I sure do.”

Figueroa breathed in deeply. “Think about what I said. You can’t be good at what you do with a liability hanging around your neck,” Figueroa repeated, and Devin nodded in thought. Figueroa was right, and the events of the last few days had proven it. Camille didn’t deserve this life. She didn’t know what she was getting herself into.

Devin turned on his heels and walked down the steps of the porch towards Camille’s parked car.

“Oh, Figueroa!” Devin called out to the man who was still sitting alone in the dark with his can of beer. “Don’t ever threaten my dogs again!”


Camille

Shayna had made Camille some tea, and they were both huddled up on the couch together. Their faces were turned to the TV, but neither of them was really watching. Camille had come very close to losing her life a few hours ago. Devin had dropped her home, and Camille had immediately called Shayna to come over. It was pretty late now, in the wee hours of the morning, but they were both in shock, neither of them could really go to sleep.

“I should never have left you alone in the store,” Shayna said, staring blankly at the TV screen.

Camille looked at her friend and forced a weak smile. “You didn’t know what was going to happen. How could you have anticipated that?” Camille spoke quietly. Her throat still hurt from all the screaming and crying.

“But we were arguing. If something happened to you, I’d never be able to…” Shayna broke into tears and Camille threw an arm around her neck and pulled her close.

“Nothing happened to me. And we always fight and then we make up. And you were right about Evangeline all along,” Camille said while Shayna wiped the tears from her cheeks. They were both still shaken up, and Camille was glad that Shayna had been so quick to come over. She hadn’t wanted to be by herself that night, not yet.

“But I was wrong about Devin,” Shayna admitted, straightening herself up to look at Camille again.

Camille smiled and nodded her head. “He’s a mystery, but I trust him. I would trust him with my life.”

Shayna nodded. “No, you’re right. Devin is a good man, even though his life is so dangerous,” Shayna began, and Camille fell silent. She knew what Shayna was about to say, and even though she didn’t want to hear it she knew that it was true. “Look it’s your life, but you’ll never be safe as long as you’re with him.”

Camille nodded and pursed her lips. Shayna was right, but Camille didn’t want to think about giving Devin up, not after everything that had happened.

“I love him, Shayna,” she said, and Shayna licked her lips. She was clearly still frightened for Camille.

“I can see that you do. But he’s trouble. He probably loves you too, and he’ll try his hardest to keep you safe, but what if there comes a time when he can’t. You’ll never have a normal life with him, Camille.”

Camille sighed deeply and took a long sip of tea from the mug. “I’ve had a normal life, Shayna. And I can’t say that I like it. I know he leads a dangerous life, but I want to spend it with him. Or at least I think I do,” Camille said, not quite sure of herself. She was trying to convince herself that being with Devin was a good idea, but she was failing miserably at it.

“Look what being with him did to all your art, your life’s work,” Shayna said, and Camille fell silent. She had no comeback for that, no saving grace. It was what it was. Devin was irresistible - he made her feel good and safe, like she could achieve anything. Every time they were together, it was like her body was on fire; she wanted him inside her the moment he looked at her. But he was a bad idea. A life with him would only lead to disruption. And she may be bored with normal now, but normal was safe.

“I just think you should give it some thought. Devin will not be able to keep you out of harm’s way forever,” Shayna added.

They sat in silence together for a few moments longer until Shayna decided to change the subject. “I do have some good news, though. Charlene called, and she said that she wants to sign you up for five more shows.”

Camille’s eyes widened, and she finally smiled a genuine smile. “Five more shows? That’ll take me two years to arrange!” Camille exclaimed, and Shayna nodded in excitement.

“We’ll have a steady source of income for two years, and it only means that it’ll open us up for more opportunities after that.” Shayna clapped her hands, but Camille was frowning again.

“What about Evangeline? I thought she owned the gallery. There is no way I’m working with her, and she’s probably going to be in prison no, for many years,” Camille said, but Shayna was still smiling.

“Charlene informed me that Evangeline was only on the board of directors for the gallery. She never actually owned it, and now she’ll have to give up her position,” Shayna explained, and Camille was smiling again. This was great news. Her career as an artist was finally kicking off.

There was a sudden knock on the door and both the girls exchanged quick, nervous looks. It was two in the morning, and after the recent events, neither of them were happy about someone knocking on their door at this hour.

“It’s me, Camille!” Devin’s voice floated through the door, and Camille jumped up off the couch and ran towards the door.

She flung it open and found him standing on the other side. He looked exhausted, his hair was disheveled, and he had a late night shadow on his chin. Camille didn’t wait for him to say anything, but simply threw her arms around his neck in relief. He was fine, things had obviously gone well, and he had taken care of everything. All the reservations and doubts she had about him only a few minutes ago were all gone. Now that he was standing in front of her, she couldn’t care less about anything else.

“Hello, Shayna,” Devin said while holding Camille close to him.

***

“So you now have five exhibitions to prepare for? You need to start working right away!” Devin was sitting on the couch with Camille beside him. Shayna was in an armchair facing them, with her legs folded under her thighs. It was three in the morning, and Camille wished that Shayna would take the hint and leave, but she was still seemingly waiting around.

Camille smiled at Devin when he grabbed her hand in his and gave it a tight squeeze.

“It’s all very exciting, and it’s all because of you,” she said and kissed him lightly on his cheek.

“So what really happened with the other club? What did you say to them? Is all that solved now?” Shayna had a number of questions, and when Camille looked at Devin, he didn’t seem like he was prepared to answer any of them.

He smiled at Shayna and raised an eyebrow in her direction. “The less I tell you, the safer you’ll be,” he said in all seriousness, and Shayna shot a nervous look at Camille who only smiled at her.

“Oh, Shayna! He’s only messing with you,” she said, but Shayna still looked like she was going to completely freak out.

“It’s getting late, isn’t it?” Devin said, and Shayna turned to him again, with a sour look on her face. Camille realized that as much as Shayna knew that Devin could be trusted, and as much as she knew how Camille and Devin felt about each other, it seemed like Shayna still couldn’t bring herself to like him.

“Well, you’re still here aren’t you?” Shayna threw at him, and Camille stood up before any of it got any worse.

“Break it up you two. Like seriously. We all need to learn to get along.” She crossed her arms over her chest. She could see that Devin and Shayna were glaring at each other, even though he seemed to have a humorous smile on his face. He was only pretending. Neither of them had replied to Camille.

“Can we shake hands and call it even now?” she urged them, and they continued to glare.

“Sure, what the hell,” Devin said suddenly and stuck out his hand towards Shayna. Shayna looked up at Camille and then back down towards Devin. She sighed loudly before extending her own hand and shaking Devin’s.

“I am very grateful for all the opportunities with our work that you are bringing to us,” Shayna said, slowly standing up from the armchair. Camille smiled, slightly relieved. She couldn’t do without either of them, and they both knew that as well as she did.

“But you should remember that you started all this in the first place,” Shayna said with her brows crossed.

“Shayna!” Camille exclaimed and used her hands to start pushing her towards the door.

“I’m just telling the truth. He should be aware of it. He can’t just think he can swoop in here and be the hero when he started all this in the first place.” Shayna was still talking loudly while Camille pushed her in the direction of the door.

“He’s quite aware of that Shayna, just go home now, will you?” Camille had reached the door and pulled it open. Shayna was still exchanging mock-threatening looks with Devin while he laughed in the background. Just a few more days of hanging out together and Camille knew that Shayna would warm to him. She was always weary of everyone at first, and of course, Devin had given her enough reason to be as well.

“Bye. I’ll call you tomorrow!” Camille shouted as she shut the door on Shayna, and then she turned around to look at Devin.

They were both smiling at each other silently, neither of them had anything they could possibly say. All the events of the day had overwhelmed them.

Devin stood up from the couch and rushed towards her. He grabbed Camille by the waist and pulled her close to him, kissing her lips tenderly at first and then with a growing hunger. She had tilted her head back to kiss him and felt his hands in her hair as he held her there.

When they parted for breath, they were both panting.

“I love you, Camille,” he said, for the first time and didn’t wait for her response. It seemed like he didn’t care what her response was; he just wanted to tell her the truth.

“I love you, Devin,” she said when he tilted her head back so he could kiss her neck.

She bit down on her lip as she felt his tongue slide down her neck and towards her breasts. She had waited for this moment all day, ever since she saw him at the store kissing Evangeline. And now here he was in her arms again.

She let her hands slip in under his shirt, and she felt for the curves of his muscles. She knew where his tattoos were and she traced them out with her fingers while he kissed her neck and her shoulders.

“Camille,” he breathed her name, and she heard a certain panic in his voice. She searched for his eyes and he looked like he was about to break into a smile.

“Will you marry me?” he asked, and suddenly, the world felt like it had cracked open, and she was falling through. She couldn’t believe what she had just heard. She didn’t know if it was even true. Was she dreaming? She must have been! Until she felt Devin’s hot breath fall on her face and she was snapped back to reality again. She was actually in his arms, he was actually kissing her, and he had also truly asked her to marry him.

Camille was in shock, but she knew what her answer was going to be.

“Yes, of course, I will,” Camille replied breathily while they both stared into each other’s eyes with smiles on their faces.

“I didn’t think you would say yes,” Devin said and then reached for her face so he could kiss her. Camille giggled as their lips met and then she pulled away from him. She was too excited to stay still.

“I don’t have a ring yet. I hadn’t planned on this.” Devin looked apologetic, but Camille smiled and grabbed his hand, pulling him towards the couch.

“Why wouldn’t I say yes, Devin?” she asked quietly as she indicated for him to sit down. He did, and she followed him, throwing her legs over his and straddling him.

Their faces were level now, and she held on to him by his shoulders while he kept his hands on her waist gently.

“After everything that happened… I wasn’t sure if you even wanted to see me again.”

Camille licked her lips and smiled. “There is nowhere I would rather be than with you. No matter how dangerous your life is, I want to be in it.” She knocked her forehead against his, and they kissed again.

“I didn’t think I wanted a relationship, Camille. Not one like this, not one that would lead to a married life, especially not with you. Because I didn’t think a life with me would be safe for you,” Devin told her gruffly while Camille traced the side of his jaw with her tongue. His skin was salty, and his stubble prickled her tongue, but she couldn’t have been happier. All her fears and suspicions about him had disappeared. This was the Devin she knew and loved, and this was the man she wanted to marry. No matter who in the world thought it was a bad idea.

“I don’t need as much protecting as you think I do. I can take care of myself,” Camille said, pulling herself away so she could look at him again.

“I can see that. You’re much braver than I gave you credit for,” Devin replied, and Camille laughed again.

“I’m going to be your wife, Devin!” She laid her head on his chest. That was her favorite thing to do because she could hear his heart beating fast. His body was warm, and she could mold herself to his shape while he played with her curls, twirling them around on his forefinger.

“And I’m going to be your husband,” he said, and she could feel the vibrations in his body when he laughed. Camille sighed a sigh of relief and contentment. She could be here forever, straddling Devin Rock, with her head on his chest and their bodies intertwined.

“Will it be bad if I started working on a new comic book series?” she asked after they had been like that for a few moments.

“Of course not. You don’t want to work on Country Crowns anymore? I love Cammy. I want to read more of her.”

Camille straightened her back to look at him directly. “No maybe not a new series, but just write in a new character. Cammy meets her match and falls in love with this biker man who also works as an underwear model,” Camille said, and they both started laughing.

“That character doesn’t sound appealing in the least,” Devin said, still snorting through his nose. Camille reached for his cheek and ran her finger over his stubble, feeling his skin under her fingertips.

“Cammy needs a partner. Nobody can do it alone. And this new character is appealing, very appealing indeed.” She leaned in towards him to playfully bite his lower lip. Devin smiled and stroked her back.

“You’re the artist and author. You know what is best. You’ve done a brilliant job so far.”

Camille smiled widely. She had never felt so encouraged and so powerful before as she did in this man’s presence. He had completely changed her life, given her confidence, and now a new purpose. She was more grateful to Devin than he even knew.

She leaned in again to kiss him and allowed her hand to trace his chest and then his abdomen. She pushed her tongue into his mouth while her hand explored his body like it was new to her. Every time she touched Devin, it was a new experience for her. When she felt his dick through his jeans, she could feel that it was throbbing with desire. It had grown, and she unzipped his pants.

Devin gasped while kissing her as she slid her hand in and grabbed his dick gently.

“Camille,” he breathed her name by pulling away from her mouth and knocking his head backward. She watched as Devin shut his eyes tightly. He was enjoying it; he was like clay in her hands. She stroked him gently at first, and then hard until she could feel his body shaking violently. She wanted to push him just that bit to the edge and then pull him back.

Devin still had his eyes closed while his hands held her waist tightly now. Camille continued to stroke him, feeling the length of his dick up and down. It was hot and throbbing in her hands, still growing as she continued. He was under her control now, and he knew it. She could hear him groaning as he rushed towards the edge and then Camille pulled back. She stopped, and he jerked his eyes open. Devin gulped while Camille smiled. She could see it in his eyes; he was hungry, and his lips were dry from his thirst for more. He was in shock that she had stopped when he was so close to the edge.

And then a wild animal power took over his eyes and Camille smiled. She knew he was going to devour her alive and she just couldn’t wait.

Devin clutched the material of her blouse with both his hands and then she heard the rip of the cloth. He had torn it apart, and it had turned to rags.

He hadn’t said a word yet; he was only making his way slowly towards his prey. He was on the hunt. Then he ripped off the rest of her blouse. Then off came her bra and her denim skirt. He wasn’t wasting any time. He wanted her, and that was all he could think of. He was barely even looking into her eyes; his focus was on her body.

Without warning, Devin inserted two fingers into her. His fingers slid in, and Camille moaned loudly, more out of surprise. She was still sitting on his lap, as he stroked her hard. His other hand was pinching her left nipple while he turned his gaze to her face.

He wanted to watch while she writhed and wriggled with unbearable pleasure. Her body was revolting against her mind. She was losing all of the control she had just tortured him with minutes ago.

Camille was laughing uncontrollably while he stroked her, pushing his fingers deep into her and sliding them out repeatedly. Camille screamed when she felt his mouth on her nipple. His tongue lapped at it and then sucked while his other fingers played with her other breast.

The sensation was overpowering - she had no respite and no escape. Her body had no other choice but to give in to him.

Then he thrust his dick into her. He had done it all in one swift motion. His fingers were out, and his dick had slid in, while his mouth remained on her breast. Camille screamed again when she felt the length of him slide in. When he pulled his mouth away, his lips were glistening with his own saliva. He was looking straight into her eyes like he was trying to communicate something to her... That she was his now. Body and soul. They were going to get married and be with each other forever. Camille allowed her mouth to hang open slightly as her eyes glazed over as she stared at him.

She was bouncing up and down on his lap. She could feel her breasts moving with the motion. His hands traced the shape of her breasts, then her waist and now his right hand was massaging her clit while he pumped with his dick inside of her.

Camille screamed again as the sensations took over her mind. He was biting down on his lip as he pushed and thrust with an increased force. He didn’t want to do it gently this time. He wanted to possess her.

He gripped her by the waist when her screaming turned to uncontrollable moaning. He was stroking her deep inside where nobody had touched her before. He could see it in her eyes, in her body, that she was going to cum and Devin was going to cum with her.

Camille’s body shook, and she moaned while her toes curled and she came violently. Her body froze while he kept thrusting into her. Then he came as well, and she felt him shoot inside of her. Camille dug her nails into the flesh of his beautiful naked torso - tattooed, ripped, muscular, and strong. This man could protect her against anything; never had she trusted anything more.

He had cum, and he remained there until their breathing subsided and Camille could smile again.

“A lifetime of this!” Camille said as she felt Devin slide out of her. She threw her legs off him and slid into the corner of the couch, completely naked, sweating and breathing hard. Devin smiled at her and ran his hands through his hair. He was completely naked as well - the finest specimen of the male species that she had ever set her eyes on. Every woman who met him wanted him. Some had photographs of him hanging on their bedroom walls, but only Camille could truly have him. That made her smile.

“That was the perfect ending to this shitty day,” he said and stood up.

“Don’t put your clothes on just yet,” Camille said when she saw him reaching for his jeans. He let them drop from his hands and smiled at her. Camille sighed loudly and tucked her legs under her as she watched him walking to the kitchen sink. He was sweating too, the sides of his face glistened, and sweat drops dripped from his hair. His chest was covered in a film of her sweat mixed with his.

Then her phone rang. It was four in the morning! Camille shot him a look, and he held up his hand to her, indicating for her to remain where she was.

He walked over to her cell phone and answered the call.

“Who is this?” he spoke into the phone. Camille could hear the faint murmur of a male voice, but she couldn’t quite recognize it. Devin had grown silent; he was listening to the caller without saying anything. Then he hung up.

“I broke my phone by smashing it against the wall. So they didn’t know how else to get a hold of me,” Devin explained, placing the phone back on the coffee table. Camille was confused.

“Who are they? What did they want?” she asked, and a shiver ran down her spine. This was what her life was going to be like going forward. This is what she was signing up for… constant fear.

“That was Jimmy Figueroa. The head of The Choppers,” Devin said while Camille still held her breath. She was afraid of what he might say and how it might change her life. Did he have to leave? Had Evangeline escaped?

“He was calling to say that he is willing to testify against her. And he’ll give the cops a statement. She has been stealing from them, and Figueroa wants payback.”


Two Years Later

Camille

Camille still had the same set of tight blonde curls like a halo around her face, and her eyes were the same precious blue. She was in a pair of tailored chocolate brown trousers that flared at the bottom. She wore an ivory silk blouse tucked in at her slim waist. In her ears were the earrings Devin had gifted her for her first art exhibition at Evangeline Fox’s gallery, and they sparkled when the camera lights flashed on her face.

Shayna was sitting beside her on the couch. She hadn’t changed much either. A blue velvet short dress, fishnets, costume jewelry on her wrists and neck, and dark Goth makeup. Shayna and Camille made an unlikely artistic pair, but they were slowly rising to national fame.

Nora Rhodes, Miami’s morning talk show host, was fixing the lapel microphone on her suit. Shayna and Camille exchanged looks and smiled. The first segment had gone well. They had spoken about their work, all the art they had been selling, their exhibitions, and their plans of starting their own comic book publishing company. They were a successful duo, and they had already developed quite the fan base all over the country. The past two years had been a rollercoaster ride, but Camille wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Nora turned to them when their producer indicated that the commercial breaks were over. They were live.

“Welcome back to the show. We were chatting with Camille and Shayna about their work, and now moving on to your personal lives, tell me, Shayna, what are your plans for the future?” Nora got straight to the point. Time was of the essence.

Shayna flipped her hair away from her face and smiled at the host. “My plan is the same as it has been - to continue doing good work,” Shayna replied, not exactly comfortable in this setting. Camille had convinced her to come on this show, and she was trying to hardest to remain pleasant.

“And you’re dating NBA superstar Scott McKinney?” Nora dug a little further, but Shayna wasn’t willing to reveal any more. She only nodded and smiled. Camille smiled as well, she knew Shayna well, and she could expect a lot of complaining from her when the show was over. Nora cleared her throat and turned to Camille, pasting a wide smile on her face.

“And you, Camille, how is family life treating you? You named your daughter after a character from your comic book,” Nora said, and Camille licked her lips and smiled. She was a private person, even though she was increasingly turning into a celebrity. Such questions and prying into her personal life were bound to come her way.

“Our daughter is named Cammy, after my first character, who I believe embodies all the qualities I know my daughter to have - strength, courage, and a will to fight against evil. Our daughter is all that and more,” Camille explained, and she could hear a round of applause in the audience; fans of Cammy the comic book character.

Nora smiled again and pushed on. “And how is the family of three?”

Camille smiled again. She could see that the host was pushing to find out if she had a man in her life. Camille was very protective of her personal life, and reporters had caught on very little.

“Yes, we are a family of three. My husband Devin, Cammy, our daughter, and me,” Camille said, and she finally saw the look of satisfaction on Nora’s face. She had got the answer that she wanted.

“And what does your husband do? Is he an artist like you?” she asked, and this time Camille laughed - she wasn’t willing to give up too much information.

“You’ll have to ask him when you’re interviewing him,” she said, and Nora smiled too.

“We would love to have him on our show too, is he in the audience?”

Camille watched as the camera panned and searched the faces in the audience. In the little screen above the producer’s head, she saw the cameras capture Devin and Cammy in the crowd. He was sitting in the third row, with Cammy on his lap. Camille panicked first but then noticed the calm on his face and her muscles relaxed as well.

He was happy to smile at the camera, and then he gently lifted Cammy’s small baby hands and helped her wave at the camera. The audience was delighted, and they all swooned in unison when baby Cammy giggled and made a bubble with her mouth.

The camera panned back at the guests on the show, and Nora smiled at Camille and Shayna.

“You have a beautiful family, Camille, and I wish you all the luck in the world. You and Shayna are both very talented, and I know you’ve made this city proud and given young girls a new voice and an inspiration.” Nora finished the interview, and the audience broke into a thunder of applause. Camille and Shayna both stood up to shake Nora’s hand and then Camille turned to wave at the audience.

She sighed and smiled, and then caught Devin’s gaze. As handsome as always, he had stood up and was clapping with Cammy in his arms. Cammy was clapping as well, as best as she could and Camille knew that her heart was melting with contentment. She couldn’t have asked for more from her life. She had it all.

The cameras were turned off, and she ran towards her husband in the audience. She climbed up the steps until she reached him and placed a quick kiss on her daughter’s head, breathing in the scent of her one-year-old baby girl. This was her family. This was her life, and she couldn’t have been happier.

***

Devin

He had given it all up. He had handed over the reins to his second in command in his club. He didn’t want to do it anymore.

Camille was now in the kitchen, setting the table. Shayna was on the floor of the living room, playing with building blocks with Cammy. The interview had gone well. It meant more publicity, more commissions, and more fans. It had been a good day.

Devin was standing with a can of beer in his hands, staring at their wedding photos on the mantelpiece. They had been married two years ago. The photo was of Camille in a beautiful white dress, a tiara on her head and she was laughing while Devin had turned to look at her. All his ten dogs were in attendance, and they had posed in the photographs with the happy couple. They were all wearing black bowties to match his tuxedo.

That was a happy day. And then a year later, Cammy had arrived and taken over their lives. And Devin’s previous life as head of a biker club was long over. He could barely even remember it now.

He’d barely even kept in touch with them because he wanted to keep his family safe and away from them. Now he had a daughter too, and he could never involve her in that life. It was in the past. He had paid his dues and tied up all the loose ends. It was time to move on.

Now he ran a body shop for bikes - repaired them, fixed them up, and sold spare parts. He worked by himself, having converted their garage into a studio, which he worked out of. It gave him the chance to be close to his family.

“Dinner’s ready!” Camille appeared at the living room door with a smile on her face. Every time Devin saw her, she looked more beautiful than before. He knew he was lucky to have her, her trust, and her love. He could never compromise on what he had now.

Shayna carried Cammy to the kitchen and Devin followed. Even they were friends now, practically best friends. He couldn’t imagine a life without Shayna. She was Cammy’s Godmother, and he trusted his daughter’s life with her.

Camille had cooked up a lavish dinner, and she was in the process of pouring wine into glasses for herself and Shayna. Cammy was lifted into her high chair, and Camille served her a bowl of baby food while Devin prepared the bib. He was responsible for dinner, and she always listened to her daddy. Even though she was a spoiled princess and the light of her parents’ lives.

Devin looked around him while Shayna and Camille chattered. They were talking about the show, laughing and exchanging high fives, with a dull stream of classical music playing in the background.

Camille had lit candles at the center of the table, and from time to time she turned to watch her husband feeding the baby. Camille smiled at him when she caught his eye, and he felt a thrill run through his veins.

This was his life. This was his world. He had a family, a home, a legitimate business, and a daughter who he loved more than life itself. And he had the love of a good woman, a woman who still made his heart rate quicken every time he looked at her.

He had given up his old life; the biker life that he had grown up in. And Camille had asked him repeatedly over the course of the two years if he regretted it. He knew she felt guilty. He knew she blamed herself and even Cammy to a certain extent because she knew that Devin had given up that life for them. But he had tried to explain it to her that he wouldn’t have it any other way. He had never been happier, and he couldn’t have asked for anything more from life.

“Shall we sit down?” Camille asked as Devin wiped Cammy’s mouth. Cammy had eaten all her food like a good girl, and he had brought her some toys to play with while the adults ate their food.

He sat down beside his wife while Shayna sat across from them. Camille was serving them the food and Devin couldn’t help but stare at his beautiful wife.

He was a biker; he had used his strength to run a business of providing security for criminals. He had seen more bloodshed and lives lost than Camille would ever know, and here was having dinner by candle light with a family.

“I just want to say,” Devin spoke up suddenly, and Camille and Shayna both turned to him. He realized then that he was interrupting their conversation. He remained silent for a few moments and then he felt Camille’s hand cover his on the table. Devin gulped while Shayna sipped from her glass of wine.

“Come on out and spit it already, Rock. What do you want to say? Something soppy and sentimental no doubt,” Shayna said, as cynical and rude as ever. Camille turned to eyeball her friend who only rolled her eyes. Shayna would never change, and Devin didn’t want her to. Each and every element, with all their uniqueness, at this dinner table, was what made them a whole. A family. That is what he wanted to say - to tell them how happy and settled he felt. But he couldn’t find the words; he wasn’t as creative as the other two girls. So he only smiled at Shayna and then at his wife.

“It’s okay, darling. We know how much you love us and how proud you are of us,” Camille said and leaned over to place her head on his shoulder. He knew it was her favorite thing to do, so he remained still, drinking in the moment, enjoying the pleasure of finding that their violent lives had led to so much happiness and beauty.

THE END

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Read on for your FREE bonus book – BIKER’S SURPRISE BABY


By Kathryn Thomas

THEY TOLD ME TO STAY AWAY.

INSTEAD, I PUT MY BABY IN HER WOMB.

Impossible. Off limits. Suicidal to even try.

But that’s never stopped me before.

I want the president’s daughter to carry my baby…

And the devil himself won’t be able to stop me.

Her father’s got a temper that’s as famous as him.

No one in the state would dare defy his orders.

No one except for me.

Call me what you want: a rebel, a lone wolf, or a straight-up a**hole.

But following rules has never been my strong suit.

He can warn me, threaten me, do everything in his power to stop me.

But it ain’t gonna work.

Because I want Vanessa.

I want her now and forever.

In my bed and on my bike.

Naked and in a wedding dress.

Most of all, I want her round with my baby.

So do your worst, you S.O.B.

She’s mine now.

We’re a family.

Me, Vanessa, and the baby in her belly.


The road is a funny thing. It can be as straightforward as a line going from one place to the next. And when it’s full of bikers like me, there ain’t a damn soul who looks outside the lines. Everyone’s too focused on their destination, where they’re trying to get to, not where they actually are.

But the road’s a fickle bitch. One minute, it’s that line, pointing a path towards where you’re going. Next minute, it’s a vicious circle, repeating itself over and over again, and every time you feel like you’ve figured out your path, something on the road sends you back, the destination now gone, as if it was a mirage.

Here in the desert, the road is scorched, parched, dying from baking in the sun, but with its last gasps of dusty breath, it’ll send you twisting this way and that. In the midst of a sunny day, beaming down orange on the cracked pavement, it waves around, glitters, sparkles, darkens. It fakes you out, leaves you desiring more, leaves you wondering how you ended up where you are. Most of all, it lies. It lies right to your face, and it doesn’t give a damn who you are or what you might want. It lies to serve its own damn self.

When you ride this road as much as I do, you know that that pavement is that circle, just the same goddamn loop over and over and over again. There’s only one real destination, and that’s about six feet under. But in this game, there sure as hell ain’t no pit stops or places to get off and stretch your legs. It’s only black tar and red dirt that stretches as far as your mind lets it.

I’ve been on the road far too long lately. Granted, it’s for a good reason—leastways, I suppose it is. Now that I’ve been with the Bloody Pagans for nearly fifteen years, I’ve earned my patch logging in these miles day after day. Like the Boy Scout, the obedient soldier with his orders and routes, I don’t ask questions, I just ride, pick up, ride, drop off.

A normal person doesn’t have the blood or brains for a job like this. Truckers I’ve met call it “road brain,” where your mind goes mush seeing only the yellow and white lines of the highway for hours each day. But I love it. I love riding next to my brothers as we zigzag in and out of the same traffic coming to or from Los Angeles. I love staring down the same men as they hand me their satchels and packs. And I love smelling the burn of the gas as I fill up at the same station every morning.

Today, however, is different from the rest. Thad and I are firing up the concrete like bats out of hell. Behind me, about a quarter of a mile back, are two enforcers from the Midnight Kings. They’ve been trailing us for an hour now, ever since we managed to pull off one of the greatest heists in Bloody Pagan history.

I can just imagine the reports back at their headquarters. Wilson Kirkwood, the kingpin and President of the Midnight Kings, was someone we all thought couldn’t be got. But when Martin Barber gave the orders straight from his daddy that I was to pocket their runs before it got to their distributors, I didn’t tell them it couldn’t be done. I did it. I robbed that sumbitch of his stash.

Thad and I outfoxed the best goddamn fox in the world. And that big pile of cash they thought was going to their bank is burning a hole in my back pocket. The satchel full of pristine, white, Colombian-grade coke is sloshing around in my bucket. I just need to get it past Exit 43 and back to Garland before I can call us safe and in the clear.

No Senators cross Exit 43. It’s an unwritten law among bikers like us that says territory is sacred. If they pass that mark, we’ve got all the power—and the right, or the obligation, even—to shoot them dead. And the cops in Garland ain’t going to do a thing to stop us. They take a cut of the action themselves to keep us out of trouble. May not be pretty, but it keeps us on the good side of the law.

Of course, I violated the goddamn truce myself. I’m the one who just crossed enemy lines to get Kirkwood’s stash. But I’m the fastest rider in all of California. I know the routes, the side streets, the short cuts, and the alleyways as if I invented them. Even King land is fair game to me. The two enforcers on our tail don’t even give me second thought as I motion with my leather-gloved hand to Thad to dash a left at Exit 42, a frontage road. We’re going to lose them before they can even get on our tail.

I slow my Harley down just enough so that it allows me to swerve right in front of the face of a big rig. The trucker slams on his brakes, causing his whole bed to lift off the ground and send debris flying everywhere. The cars around him swerve outwards towards the steep ditches and landscaping. The sound of metal on metal fills the empty air.

Thad and I use the distraction to veer off onto the exit ramp, our pace still slow and low. Our engines hum and purr as they practically crawl down the loop towards the overpass. We walk our bikes off the road and under the dark and damp cover of the little bridge. Only our shadows—of two men and their bikes—give us away.

Moments pass as I try not to hold my breath. Thad takes out a cigarette and lights up as he checks his pack. Last thing you want is to lose that picking on the road while you ride. What a waste. But he gives me the thumbs up. All accounted for. I do the same, distracting myself by counting out the wad of hundreds. It’s nearly $10,000, minus a couple of bills probably still crumpled in that runner’s sweaty hands.

Martin gave me the job knowing that the cash reward would be high. A man much younger and dumber than me probably couldn’t resist the temptation. Ten grand could get you a whole new life in Mexico if you could manage to make it out without being caught by the Senators or one of the other Bloody Pagan chapters. A few have tried, but I’ve never heard them tell their tales. Punishment for stealing from the gang wasn’t exactly lenient.

So I know better. I know to leave the money alone and let the club distribute it. We’d all see a bonus in our envelopes later this month. A couple hundred towards food and some new riding boots was going to be my reward. That, and being named the new captain of the road crew.

It was a big honor, but I’ve been expecting it. Ever since Martin was promoted to chief enforcer, his daddy, Jonah Barber, has been calling me to take a bigger position in the club. I was training young guys, new runners, left and right. And I was picking up night shifts which I typically didn’t do. I even gave up my part-time job as a bartender to be the full-time drug runner they needed.

Tonight, it was going to be official—leastways that’s what I heard. The rumors had been circulating that the huge blowout party we were stopping at later was going to be in my honor. I’m not one for much of a fuss…I like to keep a low profile, blend in. Easier to breathe—and get away—that way. But this was one time—one damn time—I was going to soak in their praise. I deserved some fucking recognition for doing their dirty work after all this time. I’d been treated like a goddamn second-class citizen in the Pagans on account of me being a bastard with no daddy to claim me. So being treated like the king, even for one goddamn day, almost feels like retribution for all the times I was called a mistake.

Thad’s cigarette burns slowly as the little puffs drift my way. It brings me back to the present as I try to think of our next move. By now, the Senators’ riders have either peeled off at Exit 43, thinking we managed to get away—back over to our lines—or they’re still hunting us out on the highway among the wreckage.

I close my eyes and open my ears to the sounds around me. There are some shouts from a lady as she tries to explain to another driver that it was his fault she slammed into this bumper. Another big rig passes on by in a flash with his horns blaring. And among the chaos, I hear two chopper engines racing to my left and right. They’re smarter than I thought.

“We gotta get out of here. We’re sitting ducks.” I turn on my engine, this time not caring how loud it roars and echoes off of the brick. “You ride in the front. I’ll take the rear.”

Thad looks at me with his bug eyes bulging from his sunken face. He isn’t quite sure what I’m talking about. To him, we’ve been free for minutes now. He doesn’t speak “road” as I do. He probably can’t even tell that those engines are Japanese…bikes made for speed racing. But he still trusts my instincts. After riding as my partner for over five years now, he knows better than to question me.

As soon as he manages to start his, I see the flash of the black tire around the corner of the exit. It’s speeding at us at breakneck speeds. Two faceless riders are hitched on the back of two souped-up bikes. Both of us react by peeling away without any sense of direction or where we need to go. Dirt and gravel flies behind us, snapping at the sides of my legs and back.

Thad speeds ahead like a racehorse. He doesn’t look back; he just trusts me to cover him. He circles around the highway on-ramp, his massive Harley struggling to speed up the incline. Mine chugs along behind him, nearly matching his velocity. He pulls into the moving cars, past the truck we caused the accident with and the woman still screaming about her car’s busted backend. None of them even notice the chase that’s happening right before their eyes.

We plow through the cars, following the white center line. We never ride directly in view of civilians typically, but I don’t blame Thad. Riding in public gives us a bit of reassurance. No motorcycle gang member is dumb enough to pull out his weapon in mid-day traffic.

But the guys behind us aren’t as subtle. As I look behind me, spotting the two men riding up on the back of their bikes, pushing them to go even faster, I see the head rider pull out a gun from inside his jacket. He aims it carelessly at us and fiddles with the trigger. The wind whips at his arm, and he struggles to balance both himself and his bike with just one arm.

I hear the bang piercing through the roar of the wind against my helmet. The bullet hits at the side of my mirror and ricochets off in a high-pitched bang. I swerve, nearly bursting into Thad’s pipe and the side of a large, black SUV. The driver stares at me dumbstruck as he clues in on what’s going on. I push my hand against the man’s vehicle to straighten myself back up as another shot lands on the ground in front of me.

Now I can see the shooter’s game. He doesn’t want to kill me, at least not yet. He’s going for my tire. It’s a harder shot than getting at a body, one that I’ve made a few times in my career. And by the sound of the whirling police sirens coming up from behind us, he doesn’t have much time to get it right either. As I see the red and blue flashes, I direct my bike in front of the SUV and out towards my exit. My knee skims the side of the concrete barricade as I can practically feel the skin burn off of my leg.

The shooter manages to follow me. His shots go wide left, and I drive out even farther to the right. Another shot dings the side of my bike’s body, managing to just miss me by inches. And as I pull down towards the end of the road, he finally makes his target.

There’s a POW and a bang, as I feel the bike under me lose control. I try to steady it with all my strength, but it’s too much. It pulls out from under my thighs, as I go flying towards a clearing off of the road. There are flashes of yellow, red, brown, and green as my shoulder hits the ground first followed by the rest of my body in a somersault onto the brittle desert grass.

I don’t have a moment to think about what just happened to my bike or me. I can’t even consider where Thad is. I shake my head with dirt and dust falling off of my black leather jacket. I try to pick myself up, but the pain is too much. Something around my hip is busted…bad, and I can feel the cool trickle of blood soak into my jeans.

I stop moving altogether when I hear the heavy footsteps of a man approaching me. My eyes can’t make him out with the sun beaming down on me, but I see the outline of his broad shoulders and long neck. His hands are clenched to his side and his boots scuff at the pavement, as he walks with a man who knows what he is about to do.

“Well, well, well,” he snarls at me as he stands over my body, just feet above my chest. “The Bloody Pagans think they can rob the Senators? Think again, son. No one, and I mean no one, steals from Wilson or—especially—from me!” His voice grows cold and dark, and I hear the distinct metallic click of his safety as I suck in air…possibly my last breath ever.

And with all the reserves I have managed to save up, all the adrenaline coursing through my body, all the power I have—my arm spins around my chest and dives into the folds of my jacket pocket. I pull out my trusty gun and shoot, aiming wildly at the object above me.

Everything goes still with the pop of the gun firing. A small puff of smoke replaces where the man was hovering above me. Almost in slow motion, I hear the thud of a body and a shriek of someone wailing. And as I spin, I can make out the gun falling from his motionless hand. I reach around, grabbing it from his space just in case my shot wasn’t fatal. But he doesn’t move, doesn’t even shake or flinch. There is only the roar of the main road on the other side of us and the highway looming just ahead.

I roll myself over, moving my bruised and battered hip gingerly with my hands. I’m aching, but there’s nothing broken. The blood that stains my jeans is my only visible injury, a tear in my skin from when I fell onto the ground. My bike, however, is in worse shape. It’s going to need a trip to the bike doc before I can ride it again.

My phone vibrates urgently against my waist. I cough a few times, letting the pain fly out of me. “What’s goin’ on, boss?” I ask Jonah Barber on the other end.

“You get the job done, Gavin?” He’s not one for small talk, but I’m grateful of that. This isn’t exactly the time to chitchat about the weather.

“Yes, sir. Everything’s accounted for, including one corpse belonging to the Senators outside of Exit 43. I’m gonna need some backup on this one, along with the crash truck to come get my bike. It’s in worse shape.” Dead bodies in our business are like a missing spreadsheet at others. It happens. No sense getting too bent out of shape over it.

“I’ll send J.R. and Percy. You send me your coordinates. I’ll see you at headquarters later tonight.” He adds with a touch of humor in his voice, “It’s a big night for us, kid. Long time coming.”

I answer happily, “Yes, sir. It is.” I hear the sound of the phone click over as I try to contain my excitement. Even a broken bike and a casualty aren’t going to wreck my big night with the Bloody Pagans.


“Mom, please! Just this once! Just tonight!” I wail.

“You know the answer, Vanessa,” she snarls, barely giving me a glance. “It’s your father’s decision. Whatever he says, goes. I’m not about to go against what he said.” She’s so focused on stirring the noodles in the pan that she can’t even register that her only daughter is more desperate than ever.

That’s my mother -- an old woman through and through. Since I was born, all I have known of her is this weak little bird of a woman, who took orders from my daddy as if they were straight from the mouth of God. I’ve never once disobeyed him -- or even spoken a bad word against him. That’s how all the motorcycle club women are around these parts. Once you get married, you’ve lost all of your power. You’re his property to control.

I know when to give up. I can see it in her eyes that I’ve gone way too far with this. Whenever we talk these days, we come to that fork in the road where I can push her buttons, or I can just let it go. And I’m choosing to let it go.

Ever since I turned sixteen, I’ve wanted to go to a club party. At that age, all of my other friends with dads and brothers in the Bloody Pagans were allowed to attend. But me? Oh, no, no. I was the lucky exception. I was Bloody Pagan royalty, which meant that I was above all the drinking, drugs, and dancing. I am Jonah Barber’s only girl, the virginal princess to be put on a pedestal next to her daddy and brother. No man, let alone a club member, was allowed to even come within five feet of me without my daddy’s expressed written permission.

But I’m twenty-four now. I’m long past my prime compared to my other friends. My best girlfriends all lost their virginities at parties just like these nine, ten, even eleven years ago. And while the idea of giving it up in the HQ’s damp basement or on one of the overused couches wasn’t perfect, they still got it done. I couldn’t help but be just a little bit jealous of that.

I storm upstairs like the little brat I want to be. My feet kick at the hardwood planks as they go until I reach the door to my bedroom, which I slam for extra dramatic effect. Is it childish? Fuck yes, it is. But it’s not as if my mom is going to say anything to me at this point.

In the quiet of my room, I slump down into my large bed still covered in the princess pink comforter I was bought years ago…just another reminder that I’ll always be twelve years old to my family. I pull out my phone and dial the one person who understands it all, Alice Dugger.

Alice’s my best friend—and these days, she’s my only friend. She is the one person my parents allow me to talk to currently, but that’s only because her dad happens to be the vice president of the Bloody Pagans. To them, she isn’t a threat because, well, she’s got loyalty and position. Daughters of lower members have something to gain by gathering intel on the Barber family. And now that Alice’s dad is retiring at the end of the year, she’s even higher on my dad’s okay list.

But what I love about Alice is that she knows what it is like to be the daughter of a high-ranking Pagan. Her daddy wasn’t as strict as mine is. She always got to go to the parties or date some of the younger members, but she also had curfews and chaperones. There was even a date in which my brother Martin followed her around from the movie theater to the restaurant and back home just to ensure that her date didn’t figure out that she was part of the motorcycle club lifestyle.

Her bright, cheerful valley girl voice instantly springs into my ear as she picks up the call, “Hey girl! What’s going on?”

My mood lightens just listening to her. She’s got that effect on people, “Hey, Alice. I’m just lying in bed dreaming of what it is like to not be Jonah Barber’s daughter.”

“He seriously won’t let you go tonight? That’s such a bummer.” She huffs loudly into the mouthpiece. “Doesn’t he know that you’re twenty-four, in college, and totally able to fend for yourself? It’s not like you’ve given him any reason to doubt you.”

She’s right. My life has been a long list of accomplishments and high marks. I’ve been the captain of my swim team, an honor roll student in high school and now college, and I even volunteer at animal shelters while I’m working on getting my degree in veterinary school. I am basically any father’s dream daughter. Why can’t he see that?

“You know him, Alice. He’s just trying to protect me. Or something like that.”

“I wish you would stand up for yourself.”

“You know what would happen if I tried.” I swallow hard, as I unconsciously pick at the scab on my knee. I don’t want to really think about what happened when I tried to go against his orders last time. I add tiredly, “It’s no use. I’m not getting into that party.”

There’s a long pause as I can tell Alice’s mulling it all over. She’s always one to try to think of the sunnier side of bad situations, but her answer totally surprises me. “You should just go.”

“What?”

“You should just go, Vanessa. Wear a hoodie, come late after the party’s begun, stay outdoors and out of sight of your dad, and don’t tell anyone who you are. It’s not like they would recognize you anyways.” Her voice speeds up as she thinks through her plan. “I’ve got this tight black hoodie that would look awesome on you! Show off those banging curves, girl!”

“Be serious.”

“I am! You could do it. I mean, it would be a risk, but you have to live a little. How long do you plan to be locked up in that bubblegum palace of yours? You gonna be that amazing, world-renowned veterinarian and still have to ask your daddy for permission to go out at night?”

I don’t know how to respond. Everything she is saying makes sense to me. For so long I’ve just gone along with everything my dad has told me, but I haven’t even gotten my feet wet in the real world. Maybe it’s time that I do get myself out there…screw the consequences.

I can feel my confidence build, as I try to think through the logistics. But one thought stops me. I ask softly, “What about Martin though?”

“Your brother isn’t going to rat you out. He’s a good guy.”

“Alice…?” I hold back my words, knowing that she’s been harboring a crush on my older brother for years now. How can I break it to her that he is as demanding and controlling as my dad? “You know that if he saw me, he’d report back to my dad. He thinks my dad knows best on everything.”

“Dad knows best on what?”

I spin towards the voice in my room. Dad, himself, is standing in the doorway, his hand resting above his head against the pink walls. I whisper quickly into the phone, “I’ll call you back, Alice,” as I focus on him now.

“Dad knows best on what, Vanessa?” He eyes me suspiciously, his jet-black eyes peering at me, judging me.

I drop my phone down by my side, as I slowly explain, “About the party tonight. I was telling Alice that I couldn’t go.”

The mood changes, as he instantly jumps on my words. “Damn right I know best about that, Vanessa. You have no place at a Bloody Pagan party. You hear me, goddammit? No fucking place.”

“But what if I went with Vanessa? I mean, she’s been to the parties be--”

“Quit it, Vanessa!” he seethes. He walks into the room, his stocky figure taking up so much space. “You listen to me when I say this for the last time: I make the rules around here. And when I say you can’t go to a Bloody Pagan party, I mean that you can’t go to a Bloody Pagan party.”

He leans his body over mine, a finger pointed directly at my face. I can feel his sticky, hot breath on my face as I back off and away from him. My body practically falls into the bed trying to escape. But he knows how to make it clear that he’s the dominant one in this relationship.

When I don’t answer, he lowers his voice to a dim roar and says, “Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.” My voice is shaking, as I become aware of just how afraid of him I really am.

“Good. That’s the end of this conversation.” With that, he storms out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

I take a deep breath and exhale quickly, as I try to move all the negative, horrible energy out of me. He has this way of getting to me, of forcing me to be someone that I am not. But I have had enough of this. I wasn’t going to be his little princess trapped by her evil father. I was going to get out here. I was going to make my life what I wanted it to be. I was going to go to that damn party.

I waited a few beats before picking up my phone and texting Alice a frantic, angry message: That was my dad. He said no way in hell that I could go to tonight’s party. But I’m going. I’m not going to let him control me anymore!

In seconds, she replied: That’s right! You go, girl! But how are you going to get there?

I smile widely, as I type back: You, of course. You got me dreaming of escaping, so you’re going to help me out of here. 10 PM, my place. Park along the alley so you don’t wake my mom.

I pass the rest of the hours leading up to the party by hanging out in my pajama pants, watching some ridiculous talk show with my mom. She cackles away at some celebrity guest star while I roll my eyes and try to focus on the giant textbook in my lap which conceals the phone which I’m using to monitor Alice. At around eight, Dad and Martin sneak out, both of them already tipsy from their dinner beers and whiskey.

Before he leaves, my dad grabs his jacket and walks towards me. I put the book above my face, hiding the bitter scowl on my face. He kisses me on the forehead, as he says in his sloshy voice, “You’re such a good girl, Vanessa. Such a good girl.”

“Yeah! A good girl who’s gonna sit at home with her mommy all night.” My brother—with his too tight t-shirt and wild black hair—stares at me with a wild grin on his face. He knows how much I wanted to go to this party, or any party at that. His freedom is like a power trip to him, and he doesn’t waste any opportunity he gets to rub it in my face like a child.

“I’m fine,” I say through gritted teeth and pursed lips, as I stare off into the highlighted pages of my book. “I’ve got a lot to read up on. I’ve got a test on Monday anyways.”

Right then, something changes. The mood in the room goes blank. I swear I can hear a sharp whistle of the wind from outside seep through the windows and walls. My brother grabs the book from my hands and throws it to the ground. It hits the floor with a dull thud. Everyone stares wordlessly at him, but he only grunts loudly as he catches his breath. “Don’t act like you’re better than us, Vanessa,” he seethes, his voice full of venom.

I sit up and slowly walk towards the textbook, cradling it in my arm as I sit back down. My eyes dart to the floor as I say timidly, “I didn’t say that. I said I had a test—”

“Shut up!” My dad’s in on it, too, now. I look over to where my mom sits frozen in her rocking lounge chair. She only briefly looks towards her boys, as my father shouts, “I won’t have this back-talk garbage in my house! Got it?”

“Yes,” I try to say, but the words get stuck. I clear my throat and start again, “Yes, sir.” Something stirs in me, as I try to acknowledge him, to give him the power he so desperately wants. “I’m…I’m sorry.”

My brother mumbles, as he walks past my dad and out towards the door, “You’d better be.”

“We’ll talk about this tomorrow, Vanessa.” My dad points another finger at me before he grabs the rest of his gear hanging on a peg near the door. In a whoosh of cool air, he’s gone, and I’m left with my zombie mom to think about what’s happened. Yet, neither of us says a word. We both go on with our lives as if nothing happened. Her to her shows, and me to my book.

The next two hours pass like an eternity, as I wait for my mom to fall asleep at her usual time of nine thirty. Just around nine fifteen, she saunters into the kitchen and smokes her last cigarette with the yellowish-white coffee mug she uses for ashes. At nine twenty, she heads towards the bathroom where she strips her face of the outdated, heavy makeup and brushes out the hair spray curls. She slips into the same cotton nightdress and shouts from her bedroom doorway, “Goodnight, Vanessa, I’ll see you in the morning.”

I grumble a reply, as I rush upstairs towards my bedroom. The black leather jacket with the gray hood is already waiting for me, as I toss it over my black t-shirt. I then change my blue polka dot pajama pants for a pair of jeans I haven’t worn in ages because I knew my dad would disapprove. Within minutes of finishing my makeup and running a comb through my wild, long brown hair, I see my phone light up with Alice’s texts.

I slip past my mom’s room, where I hear her already snoring over the sound of her television, and head downstairs through the living room. I then dart out the front and around towards the back where I hop over the low fence towards Alice’s beat up Cadillac waiting for me with its lights off.

“Vanessa! You look smoking! Your daddy certainly won’t recognize you in that outfit.”

“Oh come on,” I reply demurely, as she begins to drive through the relatively empty streets.

“No! I’m serious. I didn’t even think you’d show, let alone come out looking like that.”

“Just drive, Alice,” I answer, as I stare out the window. A wide, content smile eclipses my face, as I finally get my first taste of freedom in my adult life.


You’d think after what happened to me out on the road, I’d be exhausted or even burnt out. But I’m the opposite. I’m a candle burning at both ends as I fly through the party on a high like none other. The room flashes by in a sea of familiar faces congratulating and celebrating with me. I’m finally feeling like a God coming home.

“Gavin! My man!” A large bear of man I vaguely know from around the meetings grabs me by the crook of my arm and drags me to the bar. “Tonight’s the big night I hear! The old man’s gonna make you the head runner. That’s some heavy shit!”

I mutter, “Yeah, it is,” as he reaches over the creaky old wooden bar and grabs two shot glasses and a golden bottle of whiskey. As much as I’m feeling like the invisible man, I’m also not going to get shit-faced drunk before the big announcement. I want to savor those words for an eternity. So I push the drink back to him and pat him heartily on the back, “Nah man, not just yet. Save it until after Jonah makes the news official.”

He stares at me roughly, almost hurt, but takes his shot and mine in seconds of one another. He lets out a long wail as the alcohol seeps down his throat and into his blood system. He even pours himself a third, sinking it down without a pause. I watch him in awe. As much as I do love drinking and the occasional snort, I’m not one to just blow through that shit. I practice control so that I don’t make the same mistake my mom and dad supposedly made when I was conceived.

Still, I do let myself go in one particular way…women. This room is full of gorgeous, ready-to-go women just staring me down. There’s a good few of them I’ve already had, to be entirely honest. Hell, if I go far enough down that memory lane, I can still taste juices and sweat mixing in my mouth, that sweet tang that makes it even better.

Aya is just one of the few I could take over and over again without hesitation. She’s wearing that skimpy black dress that practically falls off her body if she moves too quickly. Her jet-black hair cascades over her full breasts. I can’t help but lick my lips when I see her slowly walk my way, her cigarette billowing a smoky haze around her dark face.

“You look like you could use some company, Gavin.” Her voice is dark and raspy, and everything she says is so matter-of-fact. There’s no question that this woman gets what she wants. And tonight, she’s eyeing me.

“I could, I suppose. What do you suggest?” I turn my body into her, as I place a few fingers around a thick strand of her hair. The fibers twist and curl as I gently pull them to me. She follows as our bodies press up against one another.

“How about I stand beside you when President Jonah makes his announcement.” She smiles, her red lips stretching across her tan skin. “I want all these women to know that the only one you’re going home with tonight is me.” Her hand reaches up towards my t-shirt and presses down upon my chest. I can feel her nails push into my skin, as her smile grows darker, richer. She’s an animal claiming its prey, and I’m happy to be marked.

Suddenly, the room instantly quiets. A sea of men part towards the walls, leaving a large space in the front near a makeshift podium we usually use for meetings. Two men walk down the steps of the HQ basement, as everyone whispers excitedly. I turn back to Aya and add, “You won’t have to wait long. Barber and his, eh, boy are here.”

Jonah Barber owns the room. He’s the politician of the family, though he certainly doesn’t look it. Faded tattoos line his arms and neck, trophies from adventures and conquests within the club. There’s marks for kills and injuries and scenes of famous rides through California and out to Sturgis. His own skin basically tells the story of the club from start to present.

His own father was the founder of the Bloody Pagans after he got back from Vietnam. And by all accounts, his son Martin is going to take over the family business when the old man retires. Not that I support it. Martin Barber is a sadistic little hellfire with no head on his shoulders. He’s a yes-man to his daddy, a nark who can’t deal with bad behavior the right way, and something about him tells me he’s only concerned with looking out for himself. That’s not exactly what being head of a club with over three hundred working members across the state is about.

Still, I’m loyal to them, and they are to me. I’ve put in the time and hard work, and I am going to finally get my just reward. Feeling Aya cling even tighter to me, her lips just inches from my neck and her hand drifting down towards the buckle of my pants, just seals the deal. I’m ready for this. I’m ready to be the leader I’ve been primed and trained to be.

Jonah Barber clears his throat and slaps his hands together, signaling it’s time to get business taken care. The room goes deathly silent at his command, as his team of leaders gather near the front to hear him better. I, too, step forward, as I feel hands slap my back in a pre-congratulations for what’s to come. That pit in my stomach swells.

“Pagans!” He shouts, making sure that every person in the room can clearly hear him. “Tonight we celebrate! First, it’s with heavy hearts that we say goodbye to our brother, a faithful servant to our cause, a man who has been there for us for nearly forty years now, Malcolm Dugger. He will always ride with us as a brother, an equal, even if he’s stepping down from his post.”

A woman dressed in all black comes through the room carrying a large tray full of clear shots. I grab one and raise mine to the sky as the members drink to the man standing to the right of Jonah. He bows, as we all shout as one, “To Malcolm!” I chug back the vodka and wipe my mouth with the back of my hand.

Jonah goes back to business. “That brings me to this happy announcement. As many of you know, Malcolm was also the head of our road team. We’ve been in need of a good man to take his place for months now, and one person in particular has risen to the occasion.” My hands begin to shake as I hear him speak. I’m usually calm, cool, collected. Right now, though, everything in me turns to globs of mess as I wait for him to call my name.

But he doesn’t.

“Tonight,” he says, his voice bursting with pride, “I’m proud to announce that my boy, Martin, will be taking over for Malcolm, as both the vice president and the captain of the road runners. It’s a tough two jobs, but if there’s anyone I trust the most with making sure our business gets done, it’s my own flesh and blood.”

I can feel the entire room’s eyes drift my way in shock. I stiffen myself like a statue, my face unmoving and blank. My entire mind shuts off, as the girl with the shots comes back around, skipping over me when I don’t move for a drink. The men around me slowly raise their glasses with a huge hesitation. They mumble an off-sync, “To Martin…” before whispering to their neighbors and pointing in my direction.

And in seconds, it’s over. My big moment is gone. Aya’s warm, soft body isn’t even near me anymore; she’s already across the bar talking happily with one of the other men. The only one who dares to stand next to me in the center of the room as I stare at the spot where Jonah Barber just betrayed me is my man, Thad.

He leans across to me, as he whispers into my ear, “That was your role, Captain.”

I grit my teeth, as I reply back, “I know. I know.”

“Go get some air, brother. You look like you’re about to lose it.” He gestures upstairs, as he places a hand at the small of my back and guides me up the crowd all lined up at the bar for more drinks and the men gathered around the Barber boys. I can’t help but look back at Jonah Barber, as he smiles heartily and pats his son’s wide, chunky shoulders. That was supposed to be me.

By the time we’ve made it outside to the patio area, I’m incensed. All the anger I thought I’d be able to push down and ignore has bubbled to the surface. My mind goes red, as I spot a small glass bistro table just to the side of me. Before I know it, my curled fist shatters through the glass, the noise catching me first, and then the blood.

I’m in shock, totally out there and away. It’s only when I pull my hand away that I notice the actual damage: the shards of glass clinging to my tattooed hands, the red streaks trickling down my wrist and onto the cement, the stunned looks of the smokers and partiers lingering near me.

I don’t look up though. I keep my eyes on my hand unsure of what I should do next. It’s a small voice, a soft voice that brings me back. “Oh my gosh. What did you do?” Two small hands grab around my shoulders. She can barely reach up towards me, but she still manages to hold on to me and pull me out past the crowd to a darker spot near the side of the house.

“I need you to sit, but keep your arm out. I’ve got a tweezer in my purse here to pull out the glass.” I watch, as two golden-brown curls fall out from under the black hood she’s wearing and down towards her eyes. She puffs loudly, blowing them to the side. After a few seconds of hunting through a large handbag, she pulls out a pair of silver tweezers.

The girl holds them up proudly and then trips over backwards as she exclaims, “Here they are! I found them!”

I watch her, as she tries to pull herself up to kneeling in front of me. Her hands grab onto the legs of my jeans, her hands moving up and down the fabric. She looks up at me with large doe eyes. “I’m sorry. I…I…I don’t drink that often…or ever.”

“Should you be doing this then? I can get it myself.” I try to yank the tweezers out of her hand, but she sloppily pulls the tweezers away before I can get to them.

“I can do this. I do it to dogs all the time!” She pulls my cut-up hand towards her, as I let out a yelp. “Sorry. I’ll be gentler. I promise.”

Her tweezers start pulling at the little bits of glass. She works quickly, moving from side to side to ensure she gets every bit. As she pulls it further into the fluorescent light above us, I ask curiously, “Dogs?”

“Yeah, I’m training to be a vet. At least this is giving me practice.” She sits up a bit taller, giving me an opportunity to study my vet doctor. Her black jeans show off her curvy, full figure and her apple-shaped ass. She’s got a thicker waist, but it’s still that hourglass shape you have to love in women. And while she is wearing a bulky jacket, I can tell her tits are just as nice as the rest of her.

“I haven’t seen you around here. How did you get in?”

“Oh,” she stumbles suspiciously, “I came with a friend. I haven’t been to a party here before.”

I look at her face as it hits the light. Her thick lips and large eyes remind me of someone, but I can’t place it, “Are you sure I don’t know you?”

“No, you don’t.” She slurs, as she says, “I would have remembered if I’d met you. I’m Vanessa.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment, Vanessa. I’m Gavin.” I wink at her, as I lean down over my knees. My free hand pushes down her hood, revealing her wavy mess of hair and the plump, pink skin of her cheeks.

“You can flirt with me all you want, but it’s not going to make this any better for you” She looks out towards the crowd, which has all but ignored us in our private corner. “Hey! Alice! Can you grab me some moonshine and someone’s handkerchief?”

She goes back to her purse, pulling out a little travel-sized sewing kit, and it hits me what she’s about to do. With her tongue slightly sticking out, she holds up a small needle to the light and threads a pink thread through the loop after a few misses. I notice I’m starting to sweat. “Are you sure you should be doing this? I mean, I don’t doubt your abilities with dogs, but aren’t you usually sober?”

Alice Dugger appears behind her, holding a clear bottle of moonshine and someone’s dank bandana. “It’s all I can find.” She kneels down and whispers to her friend, “Vanessa, I think we need to get going though. Your brother’s looking for you.”

“Shhh.” She waves a finger towards Alice’s face. “I got a patient, and Gavin needs me. Right?”

She looks longingly towards me for an answer. I swallow hard and nod my head “yes.” Alice glances at me with strained eyes before leaving us alone again.

“Can I have a drink of that?”

“Only if you let me have a swig first.” She doesn’t wait for my reply. The bottle hits her lip, and I watch in awe as she swallows the almost pure alcohol with no hesitation. And before I can grab it away, she pours the entire bottle on my hand. The alcohol stings at my flesh, as I try to pull it out of her grip.

“Jesus, girl! What the fuck?! Did you not hear me?”

And again, she doesn’t wait. As I’m screaming at her, she has managed to get the needle in my skin and her first stitch in. I grab the neck of my shirt and bite down, letting the pain flow through my teeth. She finishes quickly, admiring her handiwork by wrapping her fingers into mine and turning the hand over in the light. Her delicate skin feels warm in mine, as if she fits like a pillow.

“Not bad for a girl who’s had four shots and a quarter of a bottle.” With a devilish glance, she begins wrapping my hand in the bandana. To tie it, she lowers her head to my hand and uses her teeth to pull the last strand through the knot. I feel her creamy lips press against my skin as she finishes, and every part of my body becomes goosebumps.

Without another word, she stands and turns, walking back towards her friend who has been eyeing us from across the patio as if she is her keeper. When Vanessa makes it back to her, she pulls her hood up over her head again and turns her back towards the large, brown fence, her back facing the crowd.

A loud bang causes her to jump, as I hear the screen door slam. Everyone goes silent, as they look at one another, trying to figure out just whom Martin is screaming at. And inside, my heart sinks, as I watch him grab the girl who just bandaged my hand and push her up against the wall. His arm pins her in place, as her feet and arms flail.

As her hood falls to the side, I start to realize why exactly I thought she looked familiar. She is the spitting image of her brother, the Bloody Pagan’s new vice president and road captain.


The scene spins and twists as I try to keep my focus on my brother and his grip around my neck. This is not what I had expected. Sure, I thought that I might get caught and kicked out, but I didn’t think it would go down like this…with my brother nearly taking my life as a crowd of strangers watch helplessly.

“Martin, please...” I plead, my voice barely squeaking out, as he presses harder down on my windpipe. “Please, let me explain.”

“There’s nothing to explain, Vanessa! Dad told you not to go this party, and you disobeyed him. I bet you want to be a skank just like your friend. Looking at how you’re dressed, you’re just asking for it, aren’t you?” Spit dribbles out of his mouth, as he growls like the vicious animal he is.

He’s always been this way, ever since he realized who he was—the Barber prince…groomed to be large and in charge, and it didn’t matter whom he had to take down or bully to get to what he wanted. And that included me. When he got to high school, it was as if I was just another one of his objects to boss around. Tonight was no different—though it felt like when he was around his minions, it only made his hate towards me grow worse.

“I’ll go. I’ll go. I promise. Just put me down, and I’ll go.” It’s the only thing I can offer him short of getting down on my knees and shaming myself.

“Like hell you will! I’m going back inside, but if I find you and your whore friend here when I get back in ten minutes, I’ll personally escort both of you out by your hair. And I don’t care who sees me do it either.” His hand grabs at the bunch of hair nearest my shoulder, and he pulls my head down so that I am bowing to him. He lets go of his grip just so that I fall into a heap on a pile of stones and gravel.

I can’t bear to look up. Instead, I quietly ask, “Are you going to tell dad about me?”

“Not unless you don’t go.”

I wait till his black combat boots pass me to stand. The booze hits me fast, as I stumble further into the rock pile. My skin scratches against the pavement. I’ve never been in such a strange state of pain, panic, and confusion. And the arm around my waist, slowly pulling me up isn’t helping either.

“Why didn’t you tell me who you were?” It’s that guy again… Gavin. His long, tattooed arm is basically propping me up against the fence so that my head droops back against the post. I’m sturdy where I am, but he hasn’t let go just yet. And truth be told, I don’t want him to. I just want to stare into those topaz eyes and touch the wavy strand of amber hair that almost makes him glow in the moonlight. But I can’t. I heard Martin’s warning. I only have a few minutes to get the hell out of here before my problems get even worse.

“I…I didn’t think it mattered who the fuck I am,” I reply hastily, brushing his strong, meaty grip off of me. I take another step forward, as I reach my hand in the air to gesture and say, “Where is Alice? She’s my ride!”

I feel myself tumbling back down to the ground before my body actually moves. And then those two hands keeping me in my place come to my rescue. He’s good. Real good. It’s getting harder and harder to leave him.

“She ran off with Moses when your brother got here. They’re probably long gone.”

“Shit! Shit! Shit!” I cry out, not caring about causing a scene anymore. It’s not as if I’m trying to keep my identity under wraps anymore. “How am I supposed to get home now? Is there a cab or something I can take from here?”

I already know the answer. The headquarters for the Bloody Pagans isn’t exactly located in the safest part of Garland, California. The warehouse was once an actual booming business when manufacturing was big nearly twenty years ago, but my father bought it after the recession, knowing that if his enemies came looking for him, they wouldn’t have guessed he’d be in the deserted button factory with a few busted out window and a large fenced-in parking lot. Plus, it’s located in a tiny industrial area where the only people coming here after dark are criminals, dealers, and the occasional ironworker from down the street. You couldn’t pay a taxi driver enough money to risk serving this part of the neighborhood.

“I’m going to take you home.” Gavin looks at me with that long jaw of his jutting out, as if it pains him to say it.

“Like hell you are. I am not going home with you tonight, buddy. That’s the last thing on my mind.” Well, that’s a lie. I will admit that since I spotted him and his broken-glass-infused hand, all I could imagine was him, tossing me onto a bed and doing me every which way I could think of. By the looks of the curves of his biceps and his long, lean legs, he could certainly take my virginity and then some.

“That’s not what I mean.” He looks back towards the open door leading into the warehouse. “You need to get out of here, and I need to go as well. Your ride is gone, and you’re way too drunk to trust anyone else. I’m your only option, princess.”

“Don’t call me that!” I ignore everything he just said and walk towards the makeshift bar in the corner of the patio. I grab a shot that’s waiting to be drunk and throw it back. The liquid causes my pulse to race and my face to blush. The verdict is in, and it says that I am a terrible drinker. Still, that isn’t going to stop me.

“Stop that!” A hand flies in my view before I can grab another. “Take this instead.” Gavin thrusts a glass of clear liquid in my face. I shrug, as I drink it down quickly.

My stomach turns, as I spit some of it back up. “Ugh! What was that?”

“Water. You need it.” He reaches down and opens one of the many large, red coolers. He pulls out a water bottle and places it in my hand. “Take this, too. I’m not going to have you barf all over my back as I ride. I’m not into that.”

“Well,” I try to make some kind of witty comeback, “I’m not into you! So la-di-da!”

He chuckles loudly, as his bright face goes from concerned to—at least—amused. I can’t help but smile back, too. The tension between us has to break.

“If I go with you,” I ask cautiously, “do you promise to not try anything? I’m not that kind of girl.”

He bows down at the waist so that his face is directly in front of mine, as he promises sincerely, “And, believe it or not, I’m not that kind of guy.”

“That’s yet to be seen… damn it!” In the corner of my eye, I see my brother walking towards the outside door. He’s flanked by several of his goonish friends as they chat him up. I hide behind Gavin’s massive frame as we both start to move towards the side of the building that leads up to the front parking lot.

Gavin’s bike is jet black. Black on black on black, to be exact. It looks like it’s straight out of an action movie. When I see it, I can’t help but ask, “Is that yours?”

“Yeah. It’s my show bike. My other one…” He slows his words, as he rubs a hand to the back of his neck nervously. I get the feeling that I am not going to get a straight answer from him. “The one I usually drive around is getting some repairs done.”

I purse my lips, as I head straight for the bucket seat. I hitch my leg over the side, instantly regretting the tight jeans. He stares at me with eyes that gloss and glare, as I pat the seat in front of me with the palm of my hand. “I like this one.” He pauses, taking me in. I can practically feel his eyes tracing me from the ankle, to the thigh, past my ass, and onto my tits.

I blush and turn away back towards where I hear my brother’s voice shout at someone unknown person. Gavin hears it as well and wastes no time jumping into the driver’s space. The engine roars violently before I feel the jolt of the wheels taking off from under me. It’s not till we’re out onto the main streets of town, far from the warehouse, that he turns his head slightly to ask, “Where’s home?”

“Nowhere,” I answer nonchalantly. I’m more focused on the road and streetlights spinning together in a haze. Riding drunk is not something I could ever get used to.

“Seriously. What’s your address?”

I know I should answer. I know that not going home is basically a death sentence. But I can’t do it. I can’t go back there. We pass the last turn to my home before I respond, “Take me somewhere, anywhere else. I can’t go home right now.”

He shouts back at me over the noise of his bike, “Vanessa, your dad and brother will kill me if I don’t take you home.”

“What do you think they’re going to do me when I do get home? Please, Gavin. I don’t care where we go. I just can’t go back there tonight.” The words come out before I can stop them. But they’re the truth. I’ve never broken a rule like this before. I’ve never disobeyed. I have always managed to stay on the good side of my dad’s thin gray line. Now I’ve gone and crossed a point of no return.

I can feel the bike swerve slightly as he goes silent. We pass by a few stoplights and street signs that I don’t exactly recognize. It isn’t until we pull into a small apartment complex that I hear him say, “Fine. I’ll keep you here in my apartment tonight, but only because you’re drunk as hell.”

“What a gentleman,” I answer. “I owe you one.”

“You owe me a life when your daddy finds out.”

“I can’t promise you that.”

“Then you’ll just have to make up for it in other ways.” I can practically feel his chest heave against mine as he laughs to himself. Little does he know that I am not that kind of girl. No matter what he thought before, I was not giving him any part of me just because he did what I asked and kept me from facing my daddy.

Gavin dismounts from his bike first and then offers his uninjured hand to me. He practically has to pull me off the bike, as I struggle to find the ground under my feet. Somehow, the ride has made my state so much worse, and I find myself getting more and more tired and worn down. All I can think about is falling back into my cotton candy pink bed and waking up to big glass of water and some aspirin.

But instead, I’m walking down a long corridor with a man I just met. His hand is grasped firmly around my waist, and he’s practically pulling me towards a door I’ve never entered. This is when my red light for danger should be flashing, but I can’t make myself call out. This all seems somewhat right and okay with me.

Gavin’s apartment is warm and bright. It’s not exactly what I would expect from a Bloody Pagan. A large bed and a dresser are in the middle of the room. A two-person table is off in the kitchen area, and a couch is the only other seating area, but it’s on the far end of the room. I pick the bed, my hands reaching for it until I fall back with a thud.

He lingers above me for a long while not saying anything. I can tell he’s unsure what to do. Instead, he reaches down and grabs at my ankles. The shock of him touching me sends me flying upwards. But to my shock, he doesn’t linger. Instead, he slowly takes off my shoes and looks up at me sheepishly. “Sorry. I hate shoes on my bed.”

“Oh. Wow. Okay.” I lie back down slowly, trying to figure this guy out. Here’s a man who could overpower me in a second. I’m in no state to fight back. But instead he’s concerned about shoes on his bed? Whom the hell did I trust myself with? The question slips out of my mouth before I can stop myself. “Gavin, why are you doing this?”

I feel him lie gently on the bed next to me, his body pushing down on the thin mattress. I roll myself over to face him, finally seeing the man who basically rescued me. Two freckles dot his long nose, and the crinkle in his forehead pushes further into itself as he smiles awkwardly. “I, well, don’t know. I guess it’s because you bandaged me up.”

He holds his bandana-covered hand out for me to see. I pull myself up to examine it closer. Slowly unwrapping it, I check the wound. The hot pink thread probably wasn’t my best choice, but it isn’t bleeding, and it’s only slightly red. I can’t help but be proud of my work. The other vet techs have nothing on me when it comes to stitching.

I know I’ve been staring at the hand too long. I can feel the silence growing, as we both become speechless. I look back down at him to see those ocean eyes peering at me. His teeth bite down slightly on the pink, crackled lips. I take a deep breath before lowering my head towards his, and to my surprise, he finds my mouth before I can find his. Our lips touch and part, pressing into one another.

His battered hand reaches around my neck and through my hair, and I move myself closer to him so that my own hand rests on his chest and our hips touch. The heat between our bodies builds, as our kisses speed up. I need to come up for air, but I can’t make myself let go of him. Every movement of his mouth is just deeper, more urgent.

I feel his arm twist me back down to the bed, and one of his enormous legs wraps around my hips and over my body. I hold on tighter, strengthening my grip around his neck, as I try to hold on tight. My whole world is turning and moving, and I am losing all of my control.

He pulls away from me slightly, as I hear him call my name. But I’m already far away…in the darkness of my own, blank mind.


“Hey, Vanessa,” I whisper into her ear as sweetly as I can, as I brush the strands that have stuck themselves to the side of her face away. “Vanessa, it’s time to wake up. We have to get going.”

I watch as she turns quickly away from me, her arms grabbing a heap of the blanket and pillows in their way. She curls up, her bare legs pulled into her chest and her arms wrapped around whatever she can grab. Her pink lips, still covered in yesterday’s faded lipstick, curl and part as she inhales the morning air. Seconds later, her brown eyes open slowly, each blinking as they adjust to the light of the morning sun.

I give her a moment to adjust. More than likely, she is going to be slow to remember how she ended up in a complete stranger’s bed. And that hangover she’s sure to have isn’t going to help matters.

Just as I predicted, as soon as she gets her first look around the room, she goes into a sort of shock. In an instant, she pulls herself up to sitting, with the blankets wrapped around her chest for a barrier. And when she spots me, the giant towering over her in my boxer briefs, she startles worse than before. So much so that she nearly falls off the side of my queen-sized bed, but I manage to catch her flailing arm just in time.

“What…what…?” I watch, as she pieces everything together in her mind before the drinks catch up to her. She places a hand to her forehead as she moans tiredly. I turn back towards the dresser and hand her a few white tablets of aspirin and a glass of seltzer.

“Here,” I say, as I gently push the glass and the pills her way. “You’re probably going to need this.” She squints in pain, as she tries to make it out. Both of them look suspicious to her, and she refuses silently.

“Come on,” I urge. “It’s not poison or some roofies. If I wanted to take advantage of you, I would have done so last night.”

“So,” she asks, clearing her throat, “we didn’t do anything last night?”

“No. Nothing besides you laying on me at one point. That’s about as PG as it gets in this bed.” I pat the hunter green comforter next to her, as I briefly think back to all the adventures this room has seen. And there have been plenty of them—Vanessa Barber excluded.

“But the last thing I remember was…”

“... us about to fuck. Yeah. I’m sure we were just seconds away, but I don’t mess with drunk girls or those who pass out on me. I’m just not into that nearly dead thing.”

She scratches and shakes her head, as she looks at me in complete disbelief. She knows better. Stories of sex in the Bloody Pagans are always good gossip, and as the daughter of the president, she’s probably had to hear it all, including my story. There’s no doubt that when she sees me, she sees a guy who is rabid and horny twenty-four seven. While that description is slightly true, unlike the rest of the club, I’ve got a better head on my shoulder when it comes to this stuff.

“I need you to tell me the truth…” She stumbles as she tries her best to remember my name.

“Gavin.”

“Gavin.” She grits her teeth as she adds, “If you did something to me, if you touched me or took pictures of me, you know my daddy will hunt you down and kill you right in this very room.”

Woah. She may be a mess, but she’s a serious one. After seeing how her brother was, I’m surprised she’s even bringing her family into this equation. Still, I don’t like the implication she’s getting at here. I stand up and walk towards the kitchen, not caring if I bang some of the metal pots around. She can suffer.

I shout back from across the room, “Listen, lady! I’ve been called a whole bunch of things, but no one has ever called me a rapist. I don’t do that shit!” I round the bend of the room, heading straight towards the bed. I’m inches away from her face as I cry out, “You’ve got to be kidding me with this. If I say I fucking didn’t touch you, I didn’t touch you!”

She whimpers, as she cowers towards the bed. She has no idea the nerve she’s managed to hit. Rape and my family seem to go hand in hand. That’s how I was conceived. I’m the bastard child of a Bloody Pagan member, but my mother never knew whom. She too was drunk or drugged—just like Vanessa—and someone much stupider than me took advantage of her. And, in the end, he got away with it while she and I suffered every day of our lives as outcasts and untouchables.

I head back towards the living space and grab a pair of dirty jeans off of the couch along with a plain white t-shirt. She stares at me with those big, almond-shaped eyes, as she tries her best to figure me out. I just focus on tying the thick thread of my boot shoelaces so I don’t have to meet her face to face.

Finally, she breaks through the silence and asks, “Why are you acting like this? Is it because you’re lying to me?” She’s in a complete tailspin, as she brings her knee up to her chest with her head resting in the crux. I hear her mumble and murmur to herself in complete terror and disbelief, “God Vanessa! This is how you lose it…to some guy at one of your dad’s parties? How stupid are you…?”

As soon as I hear the words “lose it,” I run straight back to the bed. I gently pull her hair into a ponytail behind her and pull down so that her head shoots up. She wipes away a tear, as she looks back up at me completely despondent.

I know I have to change my tone with her. She’s used to kid gloves—that or she’s been tortured and yelled at for so long that she can’t get out of her head when someone else does it. I place my hand on her chin, my thumb catching one of her tears as it falls. I find myself saying as softly as possible, “Hey, Vanessa. Nothing happened. I promise you that. You didn’t lose anything to me. Everything’s still intact.”

A virgin. I should have known. No one at that party last night who’s a regular came in with their v-card—except for Vanessa Barber. Hell, even though I was an outsider, I managed to lose mine to a skank at the bar when I turned sixteen. That’s just the way of the club. The longer you have it, the more of a unicorn you become. And no one wants to touch the unicorn. Jonah Barber had apparently done a fine job of keeping his girl untouched and untouchable.

Vanessa doesn’t smile or look reassured at what I say. In fact, something about her face looks even more disappointed than when she thought we had fucked. I try to lighten the mood with, “I could prove that you’re still a virgin, but I doubt you want to do that here and now.”

She sniffles back a small cry as she says, “I’ll take a pass at that.”

“For now,” I quickly reply. She looks up at me with a coy smile, as I over-exaggerate a wink.

Vanessa looks back down at the blanket covering her before asking, “So, if we didn’t do anything, why am I undressed? I don’t remember many things from last night, but I remember you taking off my shoes.”

It’s a good question—one that I am not really jazzed about answering. After she blacked out in my bed, her thick, warm body wrapped around me, I had a moment of self-doubt. Here was this girl, this beautiful, powerful girl, who clearly wanted me. Her body was practically begging for it just seconds ago, and being with her would be an extra little bit of revenge towards the Barber family for screwing me over on the promotion. But she was also dead drunk.

It would have only taken me seconds to rip down her tight little jeans and have my way with her. I could have easily torn at her shirt and nuzzled those perky little breasts of hers without anyone knowing. They were practically calling me all night as I slept beside her, an arm draped protectively around the curve of her waist.

But I resisted. Instead, the moment she passed out, I placed her underneath the covers, making sure her head was on the softest pillow I could find. I then got up and checked my phone for any sign that Jonah Barber was looking for his little girl. Besides a few condolences from my loyal Pagans who knew what had (or rather had not) happened at the party, there was nothing. No missing person call, no texts from the boss, no frantic messages asking me for my location. It looked like I was in the clear.

All I had to do for the rest of the evening was just resist sleeping with her while she was under. A few hours passed, as I dozed a bit on the couch, watching old infomercials I’d seen a billion times. But her tossing and turning in the bed kept waking me. And then when I eventually managed to get some shuteye, a bigger worry of her dying from alcohol poisoning in my own bed managed to keep me up and bring me back to the problem at hand.

As Vanessa slept, I hesitantly removed the blanket from around her and slowly unbuttoned and removed her jeans so she could be more comfortable sleeping. It solved the issue of her tossing and turning, but then I noticed she was sweating. From my experience dealing with men who did a little too much a little too quickly, I knew that wasn’t a good sign. She was going to become dehydrated fast if I didn’t act. And the only solution I could think was pulling off her top and sponging her off with a towel from my kitchen.

Her body cooled quickly under the rag, as the damp cloth left trail marks up and down her hands, her shoulders, her neck, her chest, and the space between her plump thighs. I carefully worked the rest of the night while I tried my best not to wake her. However, my hands moving slowly up and down the line of her body was agony to me. I wanted her more than ever, so I let myself do one simple thing…I lay down next to her.

I admit sleeping next to a half-naked chick wasn’t easy. Just the smell of her sent a raging urge through my body, turning it electric. When she rolled over towards me with her head on my chest and a leg hitched over my hip, I was practically going nuts with wanting. Every small move she made, the inhale of her chest that set her breasts higher into my view, the hand rolling down from my pecs to my hips… it was torture of the worst kind. I had to count the seconds just to get any sleep.

But when she asks why she’s shirtless and pantless, I give her the only reply I can think of on the fly. “You got sick. I didn’t want to leave you there like that. But I washed your outfit while you were sleeping. I’m no expert at laundry, but I do know a thing or two about puking from drinking too much.”

I watch, as Vanessa nods at me, and I can see her trying to make sense of everything that I am saying. Part of her doesn't want to believe me, and I give her credit for that. But the other side of her is letting go of all those walls she’s built up.

With her face transforming, I hand her back the pills and seltzer. Vanessa takes a sip of the drink and pops her dry lips. Her eyes close with a hint of relief as she swallows. She then takes the pills and tosses them into her mouth dramatically.

When she’s through, she pulls the blanket off of her and grabs at the shirt on the floor. The pants are second, but she has a harder time with them. She looks at me shyly, as I turn and face the opposite wall. I can hear her struggled to yank those jeans up over that ass of hers, and I admit to taking a little peek in the mirror next to the bed. Inside, I’m kicking myself for not taking advantage of that body when I had a chance.

After a moment of sitting in silence, both of us unsure what to say or do next, I say what needs to be said, “We have to get going. Your daddy is probably looking for you.”

The very mention of her father sends her back in a tailspin. Her hands twist into one another, as her face turns bright red. I want to ask her what the big deal is, or why her brother treated her like she was some escaped prisoner last night, but I know better. This isn’t my place to get involved, and after last night, I’ve already done enough.

And that’s when she drops the bomb on me: “How about you come to lunch at my family’s house?”


“Woah! Are you nuts, lady! Do you know who your father is?” Gavin runs his hands through that dark, auburn hair, as he looks at me in total disbelief. “I have to ask again, Vanessa. Are you out of your mind?”

I am. I am totally out of my mind. But when you wake up in bed next to someone you just met a few hours ago and you can’t remember anything past him pinning you to the sheets, you get to be a little out of it the next morning. I don’t know whether to trust this guy or to just run to the hills. But every part of my heart is telling me that he didn’t do what I think he did. He’s just not that kind of guy.

So that’s why I ask him to lunch. Part of it is to cover my ass. If we can come up with a story about where I am and how I met Gavin, my father might be lenient. But if I walk in there without a background story in place, both Gavin and I are dead. If I think the beatings my mama gets when she messes with my dad are bad, I am in for one far worse.

I stand up and walk towards the living room where Gavin is sitting, and I get bold. I take his hands in mine and point at the still raw stitches from last night’s incident. “You don’t think I forgot about this, did ya?” I wait as he rolls his eyes and pulls his hand away lightly. The other one still holds onto me, as if he’s forgotten about it completely. I add slyly, “You owe me, Gavin…”

“Wren.”

“Gavin Wren. You owe me so big. If it weren’t for me, you’d be in some hospital ER still waiting on an intern to practice her sewing skills on you.”

“But instead I get the vet.”

“The vet in training.”

A lightbulb goes off in my head, as I come up with the perfect cover story that may just clear both of us. I walk to my purse and check my phone. It’s blank, meaning that no one is too suspicious of where I am. If they were, the police would be checking in on me, and my phone would be dead from the calls threatening to kill me when I got home. Instead, all I’ve got is a message from Alice about a guy she slept with named Moses. Typical stuff from her. I ignore all of it and reply with a question.

As I type furiously at the keyboard, I turn back towards Gavin who is waiting on me to leave. “Listen, Gavin. You have to come to lunch with me.”

“No, I don’t. I don’t have to do anything. And if you think I’m stepping foot into Jonah Barber’s home after what that bastard did last night, you have another thing coming to you.”

“Yeah, yeah. I get that. But I need you to keep me from getting killed by my daddy.” I sit back down on the old, brown leather couch and wait for him to join me. He moves back into the living room, setting his keys down on one of the side tables.

With his attention back on the situation at hand, I lay out my plan, “Here’s what’s going to happen, I’m going to tell my mama and daddy that after my mom went to bed last night, I got a text from Alice Dugger to spend the night with her at her new place once she got done with the party. The next morning… I mean, this morning… Alice messaged you because she was too hungover to drive, and you agreed to pick me up. We met and hit it off. You asked me out to lunch, but I said you had to meet my family first.”

He scratches his head, as he mulls over my plan. It’s asking a lot of him, I know that. First, I’m asking him to straight up lie to the president of his motorcycle club. That alone is akin to treason against his country. And then, I’m asking that he pretend to be my boyfriend. This, after a night of just getting so far as taking off my shoes and making out with me for about two minutes. Any other guy would have run for the hills and prayed I didn’t rat him out.

But he doesn’t run. He doesn’t even move. After a long second of him thinking it over, he replies, “You know that’s a stupid plan. All those guys saw you at the club party after your brother called you out. What are you going to do about that?”

He’s got a good point, but I’ve already thought it through. “Martin isn’t going to tell my daddy. He’s a snitch, a nark. So unless he told him that night, he isn’t going to rat me out now. And he didn’t see you with me, so my story makes sense, even if I lie about being with Alice the whole night. To Martin, I left when Alice did. We met when you picked me up to go back home. The rest is history.”

“But I still have to pretend to be your boyfriend.”

I don’t know why I say this, but I do, “Is that a problem?”

My heart sinks a bit when he doesn’t answer. Motorcycle men like Gavin with the tattoos and scars littering his arms and chest aren’t boyfriends. They aren’t even lovers. They are guys you, as Alice puts it, “fuck, suck, and say good luck.” If you managed to snag one down for more than a minute, you were a fool. None of them ever stayed true, and that included my daddy, who came home at least once a week smelling like some other woman dosed herself all over him.

Gavin juts out his jaw and pops his lips before answering, “No, no it’s not. As long as you agree to see me again.”

I want to say “no.” I want to get this nightmare over with and get back to my goodie-girl routine, but I know there isn’t going back from this point. Both Gavin and I owe each other something big. And if it means seeing him again, I can handle that.

“Fine. As long as my daddy says it’s okay.”

“He’s not going to.”

“No, he isn’t. But I’ll make it work.”

The ride back to my house was one of the most excruciating in my life. I knew that to make this work, I was going to have to be more confident than I had ever been in my life. As I thought about how I should act, what I should say, and how to put Gavin into the equation, I squeezed my grip around his hips even tighter. He was the only comfort I had, and the only way I was going to ensure getting out of this situation alive.

I should have probably mentioned that I was using him as protection and that he was walking into a volcano of fire that was waiting for me. However, he probably knew that already. By the patches on the back of his jacket, I could tell he wasn’t just a low man on the totem pole. He’d been around, and he’d seen a side of my dad that I could only imagine. Hopefully that could work to my advantage.

When we get to the yellow brick house, my mother is already outside pulling weeds in her garden. Her straw hat covers the top of her face, but I can tell by the way she purses her lips together, as if she’s chewing on something sour, that this isn’t going to be an easy sell.

Immediately, she jumps on me and says, “Vanessa Barber! Where the hell have you been?” I take a step backwards, running straight into Gavin, who places two hands on my shoulders to steady me.

“Um, I was at Alice’s. I didn’t want to wake you. I thought it would be okay since, well, it’s Alice. I would have texted you this morning, but my phone died.” The lies were flowing through me like water in a stream. Maybe this was going to be easier than I thought.

“Mrs. Barber, I’m Gavin. It’s good to meet you.” Gavin stepped ahead of me, pushing me behind his large body as if he is protecting me from a bomb. “My friend Alice had me drop off Vanessa since she was too hungover to drive from the party last night.”

“Yeah, Mom. I invited Gavin over for lunch. Is that okay?”

My mom is completely caught off guard. Gavin’s gigantic size and the way he stepped in for me has shocked her into submission. She stares off dreamily into Gavin’s sky blue eyes until the sound of my dad’s bike roaring in the driveway brings her back down to earth. She turns and gathers her gardening supplies and dusts the brown dirt chunks from her pants and top.

Gavin and I turn towards him as well, making room for the king and his castle. My father calls his name in a way that isn’t exactly friendly and isn’t exactly predatory, as he says, “Gavin! What brings you here to my house?”

Gavin keeps his eyes directly on my dad as he answers readily, “Sir, I was doing a favor for Alice Dugger. She was too out of it from last night to drive your daughter home, so I stepped in.”

Dad sneers at him and says, “I didn’t know you knew Alice or Vanessa.”

“Well, I met Alice at the party last night. She’s friends with Moses, one of the armory guys. And I met Vanessa when I picked her up.”

My dad is staring him down, as he tries to decipher the truth behind it. But even with his rough glare, Gavin doesn’t flinch. I have to add something to this before he finds a hole in our story to poke at.

“Yeah, Daddy. Gavin was great. We talked for a while and realized we had a ton in common like…”

“Animals. I was always interested in animals. Vanessa was talking to me about her vet training and all the dogs she’s working with. I’m thinking about getting a guard dog for the place. You know, with break-ins and all.”

God bless Gavin. He’s faster than I could ever be at this. “Right. We were talking about what dogs would be best. But anyways, I invited him over for lunch. We were going to go out, but I figured you’d want to approve of that first…”

I stop before I can get too far ahead. The whole conversation hinges on whether my dad says he can come to lunch, and I can feel both Gavin and I collectively hold our breath together. He looks towards my mom, who is out in the corner of the lawn looking totally powerless and just as clueless, before finally relenting. “Yeah. Come inside. I’m sure your mama cooked up enough since your brother’s out today.”

Gavin and I both linger back, as my father heads inside with my mother mere steps behind. Gavin hovers just above my ear, as he leans down to say, “I guess I’m getting a dog…”

“A beagle. You should get a beagle.”

Gavin joins Dad in the living room, as I help my mother set the table for four. My hands practically shake as I set down the flatware and serve out the pasta salad. She, too, looks petrified, as if her world is about to collapse. Part of me thinks she can see right through me, but my mom has never been the most astute person. I’d be surprised if she noticed I changed my hair color, let alone lied to her about something like this.

The men join us soon after, neither of them talking or even smiling. Gavin takes his place at the lower end of the table while I sit buffer in the middle between him and my father. My mother pours the glasses of lemonade, as I try to break the ice.

“So, Daddy… how was your day today?”

“Hell,” he answers, as he takes a bite into his roll. “What about you, Gavin? Aren’t you supposed to be riding?”

“Not until this evening, sir. I’ve been picking up day shifts lately, but after yesterday and my bike, I can’t take on anything extra.”

I can’t help but ask, “Yesterday? What happened yesterday?” Gavin’s face goes instantly blank, as my father sips loudly at his drink. No one even attempts to answer me, so I continue, “Daddy, do you think that after Gavin’s shift tonight, we could go out and maybe grab a bite to eat? I’m going to be at the college late anyways doing practicum…”

“No.”

Both Gavin and I respond at the exact same time, “No?”

“No. It’s out of the question.”

My mom quickly chimes in, her hand reaching out to touch my father’s arm, “Jonah…”

“No, Olivia. She’s not going out with Gavin.”

“Why not?” Gavin asks with a voice that doesn’t break. He seems more enraged than disappointed.

“Because you’re a company man, Gavin. And I don’t let any Pagan date or even see my daughter. You’re lucky you’re at this table, but it’s going to be the last of it.”

“Dad!”

“And you’re lucky I don’t beat you down right here, Vanessa. Now I’ve had enough of this. You two are not to see each other after today.”

The table goes silent, as he pounds his fist into the lace tablecloth, sending the empty dishes levitating in the air for a millisecond. Under the table, I feel Gavin’s leg press up against mine, and I wonder if he’s actually feeling let down about this.

But I don’t get a second to think that possibility though. Before I can take another bite, I hear the front door slam, as a pair of boots storm into the dining room. Martin appears just behind me, as he examines the table. His dark eyes lock onto Gavin, as he takes two steps forward and lands a punch with his leather-gloved fist right onto Gavin’s jaw.

“What the fuck did you do to my sister, you fucking prick?” He steps back, far from where Gavin can retaliate.

Gavin jumps to his feet, the rest of the table following behind him. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Moses told me you took my drunk sister home last night. You repeating the same mistakes your dad did, you sick bastard?”

“What are you talking about?!” I add, screaming over the chaos. “He didn’t bring me to his place!”

“Like hell, you little slut!” Martin leaps towards me, his hand raised to slap me. But before it can land, Gavin pushes in front of me, catching the slap on his shoulder.

“I’m just bringing your sister home. Nothing happened between us.” Gavin turns to face me, his hands balled in thick fists by his side as he adds, “And nothing will happen either. Your dad made that clear.”

No one moves. No one breathes. We all just stand there among my mother’s off-white dining room, as if we are mannequins in our own lives acting out a scene. My dad still is red-faced and beady-eyed—while my mother is mere seconds away from bursting out in tears. And my brother stares us down, as Gavin and I share a moment that is more intimate than any of our other moments have been. He’s saying goodbye.

The scene breaks as Gavin walks past Martin and heads out towards the door. It shuts quietly behind him, as I move towards the window to watch him drive away on the jet-black motorcycle. I should be worried about the words my brother and father are screaming at me.

But I can’t focus on them. All I can think of is the sound of his voice as he says the words, “And nothing will happen.”


Why is it that my home feels empty without her in it?

I’ve been home for a few hours now, enough to decompress after that drama at Vanessa’s home. And that should be enough for me to recover, to let it go, but I’m still stuck in my head. Every time I turn towards that bed with the covers still undone, I see the outline of her body nestled in the sheets, tossing and turning. And when I turn towards the door, I can hear her voice calling my name, beckoning it back.

But I know it can’t be. What I said in that house was the truth. This is it. This is the end for Vanessa and Gavin. Some things are just not meant to be, and we’re one of them. Luckily for me, the only thing I wanted her for was that sweet, petite body of hers and a little revenge after last night’s let down.

However, if that’s true, why am I still feeling like this…as if I should run out that door and go back for her?

It’s her problem. Her family is her problem and not mine. And if I tried to make it an issue, I know that I’d lose my place in the Pagans so fast that I wouldn’t even be able to take off my jacket fast enough. Just the thought of going back out on the road is killing me, knowing that I am going to have to face Martin Barber at least once more today.

Just a few minutes ago, he sent a text to the runners, telling them to meet him at the HQ warehouse for our shift. The new sheriff is in town, and I can tell things are going to change. After our confrontation at his family’s dinner table, I could bet that this isn’t going to end well for me in the slightest.

Any other guy would have run. Facing the music when it comes from a guy who could get you killed with one word would send most running for the hills to safety. But I knew better. There isn’t any “safety” in California where the Barbers are concerned. And leaving would mean saying goodbye to one of the best things I have in my life. Sure, being a Bloody Pagan isn’t ever perfect or easy, especially in the beginning when I had to prove myself, but it was family, my only family I ever knew.

And I wasn’t going to let that go because of Vanessa Barber or her brother. I was going to have to fight for my place…just as I did fifteen years ago as a young gun with hopes. Luckily, this time, I have my boys behind me. No matter what Martin Barber does or says, he is never going to have the kind of brotherhood I have with the men I trained. Guys like Thad and Grizzly would die for me, and they’d kill for me, too. Martin has to know that if he tries to step to me, he will have a revolt on his hands.

With that reassurance, I grab my jacket and head back out on the road towards the headquarters. My night shift’s about to begin, and I’ve got a long road ahead of me now that Thad and I are enemy number one on the Senators’ list. I was going to have to be on the ball if I was going to make it out alive, and by the look of the parking lot as I pull up to the headquarters, I was going to need to keep my wits about me, too.

The entire lot is full of bikes I don’t recognize. They’re the show bikes, the ones ridden by the slow riders. These are the guys who don’t put in the long hauls for the club. I walk past one of the bikes still hot from just parking, and I instantly know what I’m dealing with. These bikes aren’t just owned by slow riders. These bikes are owned by enforcers, and for the last ten years, the enforcers have been strictly under the control of Martin Barber himself.

I walk through the backdoor around the side and down the patio into the main meeting room. A few faces I recognize almost immediately. They are the regular guys, some I’ve even trained, but they’re not my boys, my partners, my team. And as I make my way into the damp, dingy room with the overhead lights that flicker, I get no more than a cold stare.

Martin’s already up at the front of the room, talking loudly about his orders being the rule of the land. As I step forward towards my usual place at the front, he stops preaching just in the middle of a sentence. His stringy little eyes lock on to me with his mouth narrowing. He’s been waiting for this. I can already tell.

He points a finger at me as he exclaims, “Who the fuck told you that you could come into my meeting late?”

“Late?” I look down at my phone. It’s only six o’clock. I’m nearly a half hour early according to my text. And my shift doesn’t actually begin until an hour later. I hold up my lit up phone to him as I offer, “I was texted six thirty for this meeting. I’m here early.”

One of his henchmen, a clinger I always see following him around like a sick puppy, steps in front of Martin to say, “No you’re not, brother. The text said five thirty.”

“I can show you the message I got. Unless I got the wrong one, I’m about ninety-nine percent sure that I’m here early for my route and this meeting.”

Martin pushes forward and walks straight toward me until he gets directly in front of me. I feel his hot breath, as he pushes a finger on my forehead, just tempting me to take him, one-on-one. “You think you can come into my meeting and call me a liar?”

“I’m not calling you anything. But I certainly didn’t imagine this text message.” I hold up my phone once more only to have him slap it out of my hand, causing it to fall on the floor. He steps on it as he comes even closer to me.

I tower over him, taller by at least six inches, but he still manages to puff out that boxy chest of his and suck in his gut, as he huffs and puffs loudly. “My daddy was way too lenient with you. He let you run this ship, but now it’s my turn. And I’m not going to have you stand in my way, do you hear me, bastard?”

I don’t answer. I can’t answer. I’m not about to be disrespected like that. Instead, I cross my arms in front of my chest and step backwards towards the wall, my new place in this group. Martin goes back towards the podium and points towards a chalkboard with about twenty names written in a child-like handwriting.

My name’s at the bottom, connected to a man I’ve never heard of. My stomach turns as he explains the new pairings. “This shit show had some real fucking stupid teams. It allowed you assholes to get away with far too much. Now I’m putting each runner with one of my enforcers.” Martin turns back to me as he adds, “Any of you so much as ride an inch outside the routes I planned during your shift, these boys have orders to take you down and ask questions later.”

I see Thad in the crowd stand cautiously, his hand raised slightly over his head, “Martin, err, I mean, Captain. I’m not on that list.” I look back over the board and scan for confirmation. He’s right. He’s not even on the list of alternates or trainers. He’s been completely left off.

“Who the fuck are you?” Martin sneers.

“Thad McBriar. I’ve been running with Gavin for a long time now. I’ve been on the road since I was seventeen… sir.” I’ve never see Thad so fearful in my entire life, but whatever Martin’s been selling has got him spooked. He can’t even ask a question without his voice quivering slightly.

Martin scuffles through a stack of paper in a manila-colored folder until he comes to a small post-it. He holds it up as says, “Ah yes, Thad. You and Gavin managed to get yourself into some shit yesterday, didn’t you?”

I mumble loudly so that those around me can hear, “You calling us shit when we managed to steal nearly ten grand from the Senators along with a whole stash of pure coke?”

“You bet your sweet ass,” Martin says, turning back to me. “I’m calling it shit. You managed to kill two guys in broad daylight, get chased through midday traffic, and crash both of your bikes outside our territory lines. Do you know what my daddy had to deal with last night to come to your rescue?”

“He made a call and cleaned it up. We were under orders to do what we did because your daddy seemed to think that we were the best runners you had on the team. I didn’t see him ask you or any of these soft boys to go do his dirty work for him, did I?”

Martin smiled, his sharp, pointy teeth showing through his dry, cracked lips, “If that were true, you’d be here, wouldn’t it? The old man didn’t think you were man enough to handle the captain position, did he?”

The crowd of men both old and new started shifting in their chairs awkwardly. I can hear the whispers of disbelief. Sure, there’d been arguments and back-talking before, especially when there was a yellow rider with a big attitude getting trained, but no one ever challenged me like this. Everyone knew that I backed up my words. And tonight wasn’t going to be any exception.

I step towards my spot, as I say boldly in my loudest voice, “I’d be up there if I was your daddy’s butt boy. But I don’t suck his dick enough, do I?”

A few brave souls actually laugh out loud, as Martin’s pale and pasty face seems to drain of all its color. His few henchmen surround him as he points a hand toward me. I don’t have time to react before one of his crew comes out from behind me and grabs me from around my shoulders. His surprise force brings me down to the ground quicker than my arms can fight against him. My knees smash into the concrete floor in a loud, dim thud. I look up just in time to see Martin standing above me. He swings his arm back behind his head in a wind up before slamming it directly into the side of my skull.

The searing pain of his fist is only made worse by the ringing in my ear. Through it, I can just make out the crowd shouting in a muffled roar. Martin talks over them, screaming madly, his veins popping from the side of his chubby neck. “And this is for my sister, you punk ass.”

There’s another direct hit, as I finally am able to pull my arms out from around the man holding me. I manage to catch myself with my hands before I fall forward. A small trickle of blood drips from the top of my temple, leaving a trail of my punishment.

As the room goes still and silent, everyone waiting for me to strike back, I take that deep breath in. It’s the one that keeps me from doing anything stupid. It’s the one that makes me think back on Vanessa and her arm around my waist. It brings me back to her pleading with me to go anywhere, anywhere but home.

I understood now. I understood more than I could before. The Bloody Pagans had a leader so blinded by his son he couldn’t see the hell he was about to get. These men in this room may not know me. They may only be a part of Martin’s reign. But if there was one thing that I was good at, it was rallying my own troops and keeping loyal to the ones that were true to me.

And that troop was going to include Vanessa Barber. I know that I made my promise to Vanessa to never see her again. I know that I promised myself that this was the end. But I was going to get Vanessa after all, and I was going to enjoy each and every moment of her.

Martin leans back over me as he gets in his last words, “You think about coming after me or my family, especially Vanessa, again, and I’ll personally kill you.”

I know I should be afraid. I should be enraged. But instead, something inside of me was growing even stronger…revenge.


The house is finally silent. Finally.

After Gavin left, it was as if hell broke loose in the Barber den. I had never heard my dad scream so loud or so intensely at me. And for what? Bringing home a guy that he himself had given his seal of approval to by letting him into his club? I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t want to understand it.

All I want is Gavin.

I’m not sure why I am feeling the way I am, to be honest. It’s not as if we had any connection other than a night where I bandaged his hands and stared deeply into the puddles of his eyes. But he was different from anyone I had ever met in my entire life. He was a gentleman, a protector…unlike my father.

Hours pass, dinner goes by, and my father is still ranting away at my mom and me. It’s non-stop, as if we could have prevented the scene between Gavin and Martin. We were to blame. We were the weak ones who let the snake in the door.

My mom takes the brunt of it for me. Even hours later, and I can still hear him laying into her. And not just with words. As I lie awake in bed, I can hear her body crash up against the wall with a terrible, muted sound that echoes against my wall. I would give anything to run in there and stop him, but I know it would do neither of us any good. This was how my dad calmed himself—by hurting my poor mom into submission.

I roll over, as I try not to listen to their argument, a pillow wrapped around my head as I try to shut off the sound around me. I have to will myself to a happier place just to take my mind off of it. And to my dismay, it’s back in that bed with him. It’s that kiss, the first one with its urgency and wonderment. It’s how I was the one who made the first move, how he took off my shoes with the roughness of his worker’s hands, how I could hear his voice joking with me as if I was enough for him.

Sleep takes over the scene, as I find myself back there under that hunter green comforter. We’re back to where we left off, him pinning me into place against the sheets as he pushes his hips into mine. I wrap my arms around him, begging him to come down to me, but he shakes his head no. He’s had enough of kissing.

The warm, rough skin pulls at the edges of my black blouse. I feel the jagged edge of his nails, as he slowly lifts the fabric over my prickled skin. It lifts over my belly button and up past the outline of my ribcage till it gets to wire of the black, strapless bra. He stops, admiring the canvas he’s opened up. His mouth plants a soft kiss right between the bones of my chest, and a trail up to where he has let my shirt fall, where he can just make out the full underside of my breasts.

An arm wraps underneath me and pulls me towards to him, and before I can stop him or at least pretend to resist, my shirt is over my head. The arm that is still holding me up unhooks the bra, freeing my breasts like a spring. I’ve never been this exposed to anyone in my life, but I want more of this freedom and flesh.

I place a hand around his waist and tug at the black t-shirt he has tucked messily into his jeans. It’s not as easy or as fluid for me to yank the shirt off a giant, so I get on my knees before him so that I am level with him, and in one solid pull it’s done, and we are both left to stare at one another—up close for the first time. His steely blue eyes remain on my breasts, but my hands reach out to trace the lines of his tattoos, all colorful and bold. They told a story that I want to know.

As I study the marks around his neck, I feel him stiffen underneath my soft touch. He pulls me up so that I am sitting up on his lap, still perched tightly on my knees. He lowers his mouth to my own neck, causing me to lose all control. My head tilts backwards, sending my hair cascading down my bare back. His warm mouth moves down over my shoulders and to my chest. They linger along the top of my cleavage, dipping in the curve of my breasts until finally landing on my nipple.

His tongue surprises me first. It’s as if I can feel every bump and ridge as it curls around the tip of my nipple. The sensation sends me flying back down to the pillow, him catching me mid-fall with his mouth still teasing and lapping at me. My legs hitch around his hips pulling him in for a better taste.

His teeth come next. They’re neither too sharp nor too quick, and they nibble at me as the tongue runs over the same spot. The other breast feels the weight of his hand, as he begins to gently warm up the skin. As his mouth sucks tenderly, his hand kneads deeply, massaging into me and then pulling right alongside his teeth.

My hips can’t resist this. They raise slightly, meeting his growing bulge against the thin layer of my jeans. I press even tighter up against him, loving the pressure of him rubbing on the tip of my clit. He notices it too, as the hand around my breast makes its way down to the waistband of my jeans. With his thumb wrapped in the hook of the belt straps, they slip lower and lower and lower, taking my panties with them.

“Gavin,” I whisper breathlessly, unsure of what I really need to say.

He places a finger to my lips as he says self-assured, “I know.”

The finger rests on my lips as I part them slightly. He pushes in so that I smell and taste his flesh in my mouth. His dry skin presses slightly at the roof of my mouth as it slowly pulls out and then hustles back in. On the second entry, I purse my lips together, keeping him in place. My tongue wrap around the tip of his finger just as he had done to my nipple while my teeth just gently touch down on the pad.

Gavin pulls his finger out altogether and then scoots himself up to me while a hand continues to hold me down at the hip. Our foreheads touch before our lips do, and I’m back to feeling the wave of wanting him to take hold of me as our mouths connect with a roar. I hold him to me, begging him to give me more, forcing him to kiss me deeply.

The hand that rests on my hips lifts, as I am too transfixed to notice. I feel the brush of his fingertips against my skin, but it isn’t until I feel two fingers directly on the top of my folds that I get what is about to happen. One of the two is the same finger that I just wet in my own mouth, and I’m thankful for the moisture.

The fingers circle slowly, putting pressure on my sex. The longer, middle finger hooks under to gently push away the folds of my pussy and then dips down inside. My clit practically opens itself to him like a flower primed and ready to bloom. His fingers explore the area first, gently touching at skin that’s never felt anyone’s touch before. And then, like an expert, he moves to the nub. His pressing causes me to jerk, as my own hand instantly reaches down to push him away. But he doesn’t move and instead kisses me even more intensely.

Gavin speeds up his massage while his large thumb digs into the top of my pussy just above the clit like an anchor. A third finger enters, behind the other two. I brace myself as I feel it coming. He slips himself inside me in a rush I’ve never experienced before. It sends shockwaves down my spine, causing me to curl into him, begging him for me. His finger hooks even higher into my now wet pussy.

The pit in my stomach that first opened when we kissed seems to be chiseling away with each of his movements. For every touch to my clit, it tears open, giving me an emptiness that cannot be filled. My mouth goes dry, as I find myself needing to moan, to cry, to scream. The hand that had swatted at him finds the blankets of the bed and holds on tighter while my other hand grabs around his shoulders, forcing him to look at me.

I know what is coming. I’ve heard about it before but have never felt it for myself. I want to ask him to stop. I want to beg him to keep going. And he just looks down at me with his wild, untamed face. And those eyes, those eyes that never seem to miss a thing…they hold me in place as I give myself to him.

My mind closes as everything fades to black. Everything disappears. The dream that I have created disappears around me. Gavin’s hands, his mouth, his body. Even the bed we are in melts away in a white and gray cloud, and I awaken. I’m covered in sweat, and tears that I had no idea I was crying seeping down my flushed cheeks.

The house is silent again. The silver moon pours through my open window which faces our front yard. I stare off out over the city lights and through the tree branches in search of something that tells me everything is going to be okay. And as I come to, I let myself listen in on the master bedroom next door. Thankfully, there’s nothing but the sound of my mother and father both snoring away.

After that dream, I can’t let myself go back to bed. Any other dream wouldn’t be enough for me. But as the quiet hours pass, it comes to me. I grab the phone charging on the charger, and I text the one person I know who’s going to be up at four in the morning: Alice! I need you to do me a favor.

A few agonizing minutes pass before she replies: Girl, it’s four in the morning. You can’t possibly need me to do something for you right now. Plus, I’m not exactly free, if you know what I mean.

I need you to get a hold of Gavin Wren. He’s the guy that I met at the party with the busted hand. I need him to meet me tonight. Can you do that?

There’s an even longer pause this time, as I wonder frantically if I have asked too much from her. This was my one true friend, the only person in my life I could really trust to be there for me. But she was also a Bloody Pagan loyalist with a lot to lose. Going against the club president could get her and her father in a ton of trouble. And if she let it slip to anyone that I was stepping out with Gavin, there could be even more at stake here.

Vanessa, I love you. I really do. But is he really worth this?

I write back without a second thought: Yeah. He is. And I have to see him. Can you do this for me?

She replies: I’ll arrange it. Midnight at the Sunset Bar. Moses told me that Gavin drinks with his runner friends there every Sunday night. There’s a back room there. We’ll get you in. You got a message you want me to send to him?

I go through three or four drafts before I finally send her: Tell Gavin that I want to make good on the promise to pay him back. He’ll know what that means.

She texted: Oh, I am sure we all get the gist of what you promised. There was a little mischievous winky face attached to her message.

I texted: I love you, Alice. I really do.

She responded: I love you too, but I hope you know what you’re doing.

For the first time in my life, I am certain that I do.


“Man, I can’t believe you fucking did that. Have you gone nuts or something? Did that Barber pussy get you sprung?”

“I wish.” I sigh heavily, as Thad places a bandage over the cut on my eyebrow. “I didn’t even get past first base with her last night.”

“Damn.” He sounds even more disappointed than I feel. “So all of this for a girl you didn’t even get to screw? That’s a crying shame. All the boys that saw her say there’s a reason why her dad keeps her under lock and key.”

“Yeah, I’ll give ‘em that. She is fine as hell…thick in all the right places. But besides seeing her in her panties, she was passed out drunk before we could get to the tasty part.” My mind drifts back to the sweet, summertime smell of her hair and the round line of her ass as she bent over to pull up those tight jeans of hers.

I add as an explanation, “But I don’t give a shit who Martin Barber is. You don’t ever sucker punch me, especially at a dinner table when I’m just trying to get through my day.” I lower my voice, as I look around the empty meeting hall, and continue, “And you certainly don’t do it in front of my boys. If he thinks he can turn those guys against me over something as small as bringing his sister home after a night of drinking, he’s got another thing coming for him.”

“I don’t think it’s just that, Gavin. I think the boy has a legitimate beef with you. You’re a threat. You know the routes better than any man here, and you’ve got the respect of all the runners from newbies to retirees. That’s pretty powerful, especially when you’re a sniveling little road dick who rides limp every time he gets out there.”

As Thad finishes his work, I stand and brush off my pant legs. Turning back to him as I place the jacket over my arms, I say, “That’s why tonight’s so important. I’m inviting the entire road crew out to the Sunset, including Barber’s new butt boys. Martin Barber would never do that, let alone buy ‘em a couple rounds. I’ll get them good and sloshed and then convert them over to the Gavin side. That little bitch won’t know what hit him when they stop following his orders.”

My plan isn’t exactly foolproof. To make it work, I need to have Martin go along as well. Not inviting him now that he was the new, official captain would be akin to mutiny. I wasn’t about to get even more retribution over this. Instead, I had to do this slyly and under his very own nose. Revenge done in broad daylight is always that much sweeter.

“Well, I just hope I’m still invited now that they are making me corporate.” Going ‘corporate’ was the label we gave to the guys who worked background, inside jobs for the club. They were the guys answering media calls, or coordinating with our inside men in the police force. And, for Thad, they were accountants.

“Dude, just because they benched you doesn’t mean you’re not still part of the team. Hell, you’re even more valuable now that you are on the inside. You’re going to see the inner workings of the club.” I pat him on the back heartily, as I walk out back towards the empty parking lot.

After the big drama between Martin and me, he announced that Thad’s former background as a math wiz meant he would be replacing our old man Bernie, who just retired out. He’d be handling the incoming cash flow and our paychecks. While I didn’t pity him, I was a bit excited to see if he could find anything suspicious in the Barber family business. That’s why they always say to never mess with the moneymen.

Thad calls after me a bit disappointed, “Eleven then? The Sunset?”

I look back to him and nod. It’s my way of avoiding the glare of the man riding with me now. I think Martin said his name was Brock or something ridiculous like that. He’s been waiting on me for some time now, and I can tell his patience is growing thin by how he’s checking the clock on his phone like a teacher with a truant student.

Still, there’s no need to be rude to him. I need all the friends I can get, and this man would have to be my new partner for the foreseeable future. The last thing you want is to ride with a guy who doesn’t have your back. “You ready to ride, brother? You know the routes?”

“I’ve been ready to ride for fifteen minutes now.” He jumps on his bike, an old beat up, firetruck-red Harley with not much life left in her.

“My apologies. When I get jumped, I try my best not to ride with blood coming down my face.”

It’s the last words I say to him the entire night. I take the lead riding from pick-up to drop-off points like the professional I am. I handle everything from talking to the suppliers and dealers to placing the deposit envelope in the lock box at the train station. Brock, or whatever his name is, just sits back, observing, waiting.

At the end of the night, we head back to the headquarters and clock out by signing on a piece of paper with the time. It’s a new measure under the regime of Martin Barber, but I don’t mind. It gives me enough time to round up the newbies to let them know about my get-together over at the Sunset. Most are game while Martin’s enforcers seem more suspicious than anything.

When I get to the final guy, the man who held my arms behind my back as Martin took his swing at me, I add a twist, “Hey man, can you send a message to the captain. I want to make sure he gets my invitation to join us. His old man too, if he’s with him.” The man peers at me for a long moment in an awkward silence he doesn’t break. But as I’m about to give up and leave, he takes out his phone and pulls up his messages.

“Hey! Gavin!” Someone pulls on my jacket, as I spin defensively. I was just about out of the door and on the way to the bar when I’m pulled back in. He blindsides me enough to manage to drag me into the coatroom near the front of the building. The door slams before he turns to face me, but I’m already on him, pinning him to the door. His body slams against the sturdy wood.

“Woah! Woah! It’s me. It’s Moses… Moses Hawks. We’ve met before when I was training to be a runner. I work with the armory guys now.”

I know Moses. I know just about every Bloody Pagan in this chapter. But his name rings even more bells when I remember him from Vanessa’s lie to her father about her friend Alice and him. I put him down slowly, but I don’t back away. I am not about to get jumped again.

“What do you want?” My voice crackles, as it goes low.

“I…I…shit, man. I have a message for you from Alice. She told me to not get caught giving it to you, so I thought I’d pull you in here.”

“Alice? Alice Dugger? What the hell does she want?” My blood races through me, as I feel a strange sense of dread and excitement wash over me.

“It’s not really from Alice. It’s from Vanessa Barber. I was to tell you that she wanted to see you tonight at the Sunset. She’s going to be there in the backroom. There was something else… ugh. I can’t remember. Alice told me it in a hurry.” He reaches down quickly to his pocket and pulls out his phone. I watch him scroll through the lit up screen before adding nervously, “Oh yeah. Vanessa said that she wanted to ‘make good on her promise.’ I don’t know what that means. That’s all she said.”

I go blank. Every part of me just stops operating like a machine on the fritz. I’m unsure what to say or do. So, with a dry mouth, I ask the kid, “When?”

“When, what?”

“When is she going to be at the Sunset? Did she say?”

“Oh yeah, at midnight.”

The plan that I had—to destroy Martin Barber with drinks—was slowly falling to pieces before my very eyes. If Vanessa was going to be there, I couldn’t have Martin there. And if Martin wasn’t there, I’d be called out worse for just messing with his sister or being a smart ass. I had to manage this, but I had no idea where to begin. All I knew was that I needed to be at that bar to beat her there before anyone spotted her.

Without another word, I push past Moses and open the door to the empty headquarters. The only people left were few runners who worked the graveyard shift.

But before I go, I remember one important part. I head back into the room and shut the door slowly behind me. In one grand motion, I grab Moses by his collar and lift him off the ground so his feet dangle. His face meets mine, as I growl, “I don’t know you, Moses, but I do know this…you’re one of my boys now. You’re not in Martin or Jonah Barber’s pockets. And if you tell either of them or any of their men about what Alice, Vanessa, or I had to say, I will hunt you down and kill you with my bare hands. Are we clear about that?”

Moses’s eyes bulge out like an insect, as he squirms in my hands. Breathlessly he replies, “Yeah, man. I get it. I’m no snitch, okay?”

I toss him down, and he lands on his hands and knees. I reach my hand out as a peace offering. Our eyes meet, as I study them one last time. This snot-nosed kid could be the difference between life and death for both Vanessa and I, but he seemed harmless to me. He didn’t even seem to know the importance of the message he gave to me. To him, it was just a favor for the girl he was doing. But to me, it was much, much more.

The ride to the Sunset Bar isn’t a long one, but to me, it’s a race against the clock. I knew that I didn’t have any time to stop back home to change, let alone slow at lights. Back alleyways are the fastest way, as I ignore pretty much every car, truck, and pedestrian in my path. All I can focus on is getting to that backroom before she does.

Just as I suspected, the parking lot for the Sunset is already packed with bikes with our patches along with a few stragglers and riders from other clubs. The noise of the jukebox playing old Johnny Cash songs, along with the voices of men shouting wildly, fills the late night air. The bar seems to be electric tonight, as if it knows it’s about to be the center of my universe.

I walk in quickly, taking the backdoor and doing my best not to be spotted. I head straight toward the end room where the door is closed tight. We used to use that room for meetings years ago when the club was just about thirty or forty of us. It wasn’t until after the recession hit, when men started to get desperate enough to ride with patch holders, that the Bloody Pagans burst at its seams. The room back at the Sunset was still Pagan property; it was to be used for smaller meetings or retirement parties. But tonight, the doors are locked up tight, and from the crack in the door, it looked like there wasn’t even a light on inside.

I head out towards the front of the bar where my men are already gathered around, waiting for me to buy the first round. A loud shout goes out as Thad spots me. “Our man, the buyer of beers!” he screams joyously. I nod an acknowledgement at him before heading to the bar.

The old and gray bartender, Silva, is already prepared: he has seven large pitchers and a row of whiskey shots on trays. As soon as I give him a quick click of my head, he brings them to the five or six tables our men are occupying. He’ll keep them coming the rest of the night until I say stop, which could mean hell for my wallet. But tonight, it’s worth them being distracted for as long as possible with free booze.

“Drinks are on me, boys!” I yell, trying my hardest not to look suspicious. “I’ll be back soon. Gotta take care of some, uh, business. Save a shot for me in the meantime.” To my luck, no one is even paying attention to me. They’re all focused on getting the first few pours. The men are served by rank with the oldest runners getting first dibs while the newbies wait their turn with mouths wide open.

While Silva isn’t looking, I walk over to the back of the bar and grab the key hanging from a hook under the swinging service door. No one seems to notice as I walk quickly back to the room, its key pocketed in my hand. That is, until someone in a black hoodie grabs me around by the arm.

One look into her eyes, and I say hushed, “Vanessa Barber, what the fuck are you doing here?”


Before I can answer Gavin’s question, he has his large hand wrapped around my mouth and another arm against my hips. He drags me down to the room I told him to meet me at and unlocks it quickly. As he pushes me inside gently, he turns and looks back at the bar suspiciously, as if we’re being followed.

Despite the darkness of the room, he finds me. A hand wraps around the back of my neck and pulls me in close to him. Though I can only make out the powerful shape of him, I can feel the enveloping warmth of his body just inches from mine. Suddenly, it feels like I can’t breathe.

“Vanessa—” he starts.

I cut him off, unafraid of what I need to say, “I had to see you. I’m sorry. I know this is dangerous, but I couldn’t not see you.”

He whispers lowly, “You don’t know what you’re asking me to do, Vanessa. Your father and brother already have it out for me for some reason. This is just giving them more reason. Your brother jumped me at today’s meeting and then threatened to have me killed if he caught us. This is serious shit.”

I want to fall apart as he explains. I should have known that what happened in the dining room wasn’t over. Nothing with my brother or my dad is ever over…not until they get complete and utter satisfaction. And for my sadistic dick of a brother, that meant Gavin Wren’s head on a platter.

Gavin continues, “You know that your brother, maybe even your dad, are coming here tonight? I invited them as a peace offering.”

“I…I…I didn’t know. Alice told me that you go out drinking with the rest of your guys. I didn’t think that would include them.” Fear is washing over me the deeper we get into this. When I arrived all cloaked and hooded with Alice hiding me at a corner booth, every bit of me was fired up and ready for whatever may come. And while I don’t regret doing this, I, too, am wondering if it’s going to be worth the risk.

“I know you didn’t. But you can’t be that stupid anymore. You’re Barber’s daughter. We can’t keep doing this.” The tone of his voice sounds unsure, even disbelieving. He may be saying one thing, but I know another larger part is saying something else.

“Doing what?” I ask as innocently as possible. I place a hand on his rock-hard chest, the lines of his muscular abs making an indent through the thin t-shirt. I run my fingertips up the line of his sternum towards his neck, my nails slightly pushing into his flesh as I make a ring around his neck and up towards his the line of his hair.

“Vanessa…” He goes quiet as my other hand places itself low along his hips. A fingertip slips under the waist of his jeans and tugs slightly to pull him closer to me. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

My voice lowers, deep and thick. “I know what I am doing. I know what I want. And it’s you.”

“I’m not going to be a gentleman or some fucking knight in shining armor.” His arm wraps around my hips and lifts strongly around my ass. My feet and legs go up and around his hips as he hoists me off of the ground. “You sure you want this?”

I swallow hard as I answer, “Yes, Gavin.”

Our lips meet first, both of us grasping for the other. His taste is sweet and sour, almost dry, but I love it even more because it’s him. No dream could make this kiss more real or precious to me. And as we dive in—head first—I can feel our bodies synch up. He pushes forward, and I move back, I’m still grasping onto him, holding on with all my might, but he never lets go, never adjusts his hold on me. We just remain locked, our lips and mouths doing all the work.

Eventually, he moves farther into the room. He navigates it expertly—without even having to break or look up. I see his eyes blink open for a second, as he lifts a hand out to find the tall end of a wooden bar. Rocking me backwards, he lowers me down slowly onto the high tabletop so I am level with him.

He stands back for a moment to admire me, and I watch as his chest caves in and out as if he can’t catch his breath. A hand reaches out and finds the zipper on my hoodie. It lowers slowly, revealing the tight, black tank top with the lace edge along the low-cut neckline. I shimmy out of the sweatshirt before making my intentions to him clear. Slowly, letting him see every centimeter of my skin, I inch the tank top up my torso, past my bare breasts, and above my head so that I am completely and totally exposed to him.

He follows my lead, taking off of his shirt. And just how I imagined him in my dreams, the first thing I notice in the slight light of a shuttered window behind the bar is those tattoos. But they aren’t black and white, but a vibrant tapestry covering every inch of his skin from the sunrise on his lower abs to the Bloody Pagan’s crest upon his chest. I reach out and touch my hand to it, covering it up.

Gavin is quick to grab my wrist and bring it to his mouth. He plants a small kiss on the sensitive skin and then another and another until his mouth and head begin to travel the length of my thin arms. When he reaches the curve between my arm and chest, I feel him inhale my scent, taking in the natural parts of me. The nuzzle of his scratchy face against my skin, so close to my breasts, sends me reeling.

He only lingers a second before moving up to the base of my neck. Little, light kisses spin around me, as I cock my head back to give him even more of me. But he’s already lowering his head down the centerline of my body towards my chest. Before I can have a second thought about what we are about to do, he touches me where no one else has. Two strong, large hands push at the C-shape sides of my breasts. The mounds push together around his face as again I feel his breath suck in the smell and feel of me.

With his head still in place, the hands begin to gently massage. The sensation is almost comforting or relaxing, as I lose all sense of myself. His fingers travel down towards my nipples as he goes, brushing over them as they alternate. When he gets to his pointer fingers, they curl around the bare tip and slightly pull. Immediately, my body responds by pushing towards him, begging him for more.

He moves his hands to focus just on my nipples. One finger becomes two while he tweaks gently at the center of my pink nipples. They are already hard, but they become tiny mounds under his care, and I find myself wanting that gentle pain that comes from him touching me.

While Gavin works at my chest, my hands have wandered towards his loose jeans. I place a hand inside his pocket to feel his hips against me. But by doing so, I brush up against his package. It’s thick and stiff, and I know from just a touch that it’s primed. My finger slithers up the base through the thin fabric, tentatively exploring what he has to work with.

But it never ends. I can’t seem to find where it starts and finishes. So I do something I thought I never would. I grab at his belt, pulling him forward into me. He stops his work and looks down as I unhook his belt buckle. The button and zipper come undone easily so that his pants practically slide down his legs. Before I lose my confidence, I pull the fabric of his dark-colored boxers down as well so that his cock comes in full view.

I haven’t seen many dicks in my life…I’ll admit that. But as a teenager, I couldn’t help but be a bit curious of what I was missing out on, so I would occasionally sneak on my brother’s computer to see a few of his saved “special” videos. The men in those movies had pretty average-sized penises…nothing to write home about.

Gavin, however, was different. His physical size translated to a cock so long and meaty that I actually became a bit afraid. If we were going to do what I knew we were going to do, how was this going to work?

In awe, I place a hand around the shaft, my hand circling him so that my small fingers don’t even touch one another. I move it slowly up the long shaft till I hit the already-damp tip.

My eyes fly up to his darkened face. He stares down at me in shock, as if he can’t believe I’m doing what I am doing. I continue the motion, this time going back down as slowly as possible till he lets out a moan unlike any sound I’ve ever heard before.

When I reach the bottom again, he places a hand on mine to stop me. “Like this,” he whispers. “Do it like this.” The master teaches me, as he guides my hand quickly up his member. At the top, he shows me how to just slightly circle around the head before cascading down again. He shows me again and again until he pulls away, letting me take over. I lean over to speed myself up, my head is just inches from his cock. In a moment of complete insanity, I give in and kiss at the small slit where I feel the moisture oozing out of him.

As soon as my lips touch his skin, I feel him leaning backwards, taking it all in. This is what he wants and likes, but can I really give him this? I do it again, this time opening my mouth a bit wider so that about a centimeter or two of his cock is in. My tongue flickers against his skin, and again, I feel him lose control. I may be the virgin in this, but I have just as much power as he does!

“Vanessa...,” he calls out softly, as I feel a hand run through my hair. It tangles into a ponytail for him to hold onto while I work my mouth over him. With slight pressure, he pushes my mouth even further onto his cock until I’ve practically taken half of him. I try to choke back the taste of him, but the farther I get, the more I like it. His skin isn’t metallic or dank, as I had imagined it to be, but it was earthy and even a bit meaty

My hand remains at the base, still following the motion that he had taught me just minutes ago, but I replace the long stroke with my mouth instead. At the top, I use my tongue to do that little twist, and with each tiny circle of the tongue, he exhales loudly and forcefully.

I love the sounds of his body, the rocking towards and away from me. But I especially love how he uses my hair to show me what he wants. A pull back and I’m to go up faster, a push down and I am to take even more of him in. It’s forceful, direct, and exactly what I need to build up some confidence. Eventually, I take over completely. I open my jaw as wide as I can go to take as much of him as possible, and I feel his cock press up against the roof of my mouth as I pull him in.

He becomes more frantic as I speed up. His hands move to my shoulders for balance, and I lose track of his breath. I can smell and feel his sticky sweet sweat break through his skin as he’s overcome. Even his nails dig into me. And with a deep growl, he gives me a warning, “I’m going to come, Vanessa!” He pulls my hair back, springing me up and off his cock just seconds before his hands take over. He catches most the drip of his cum in his palm, but some of the lukewarm liquid manages to spray onto my bare chest and neck.

I watch on, fascinated by it all. I have never seen a guy go to completion, even on the porn episodes I’ve watched. I just could never get that far. But I don’t feel disgusted or dirty being a voyeur with Gavin. In fact, I feel proud and damn sexy. I want it to be my turn to breathe deeply and release it all like that. I want that same wicked smile he has on face.

I pull myself off the bar and grab the sweatshirt off of the floor to throw it on over my shoulders. I leave it open as I wrap my arms around his waist to kiss the line of tattoos that marks his spine. I whisper in complete satisfaction and joy, “I have to clean myself up. I’m just going to sneak out for a second. Okay?”

He turns back towards me so that he spins within my arms. A cold hand zips up my sweatshirt and places the hood upon my head so that it covers my eyes. With a kiss to the top my head, he says softly, “Be careful. Don’t get yourself in trouble. And come right back here. We’ve got more to do.”

I break free and move towards where the door is letting in a little bit of light from the crack at the very bottom. I slowly open it—just slightly—so that a sliver of the noisy, rowdy bar fills our private sanctuary. With no one around, I quickly walk out and over towards the bathrooms a few feet down. I quickly clean myself up in the sink with one eye fixed on the mirror in front of me in case someone popped into the bathroom and caught me. But I’m in the clear. I even have time to take out my lipstick and apply another coat before heading back out there.

This time I don’t check before I walk out the door. And within about two feet from the bathroom’s darkened corner, two large hands come flying at me. They curl around my neck, choking the breath out of me. The pressure against my windpipe caves in around my skin, as one of my hands weakens as it tries to yank away the fingers.

I hear the crystal clear voice of my dad drunkenly stammer, “Vanessa Barber! What the fuck are you doing here?” And as I look up at his dark eyes, full of hate and disgust, I know that there’s no chance in hell I’m going to make it back to Gavin alive.


“How in the world did I manage to raise such a fucking disobedient brat? Did I not hit you enough?” I can feel my father’s steamy breath against my face as he leans over me. The hand around my neck tightens, as I feel his stubbly beard brush against my face. “Did I not teach you to fear me?” he demands.

I want to cry out. I want to fight back. I want to do something—anything. But I can just barely get my hands up around the large fingers holding me in place, to say nothing of making them move. My eyes flash up to his, as they beg him to have mercy on me. I don’t know much about my father, but I do know that there’s love deep down in that blackened pit of hatred.

Somewhere.

His wide nose curls and flares; I can tell he’s beginning to break. He has never been violent with me—ever. Not once. I was always his little princess, the little girl he would always love and cherish. As I go in and out of consciousness, my mind even flashes back to the man tossing me a softball as I swing at it from a distance with a red plastic whiffle bat. And then there’s the time he was too drunk to protest me painting his fingernails with my mom’s nail polish.

Surely, he was seeing those memories, too, even while doing his best to choke the life out of me. Something softens within him. A finger lets up, and then another one. My feet that were previously dangling over the mustard-yellow bathroom tiles slowly fall back to the ground. And then there’s the final release, as he pushes me into the wall one last time before looking at me with complete and utter disgust.

When he turns his back, his hands running over his forehead, I finally take in a long, deep breath. It’s jagged and painful, feeling like glass in my lungs. I take in a few more deep sucks, which lead to hard, gritty coughs. My mouth tastes like sand, and that combined with the echo of his hands around my throat makes swallowing an almost impossible task. As I feel the color come back to my face and the pins and needles disappear from my hands and wrists, I place my palms on my knees as I continue to grasp at the foul bathroom air.

I only get a moment to relax before he comes back for more. This time, he grabs a hold of my hair in a rough ponytail and drags me to the ground. My hands instinctively cover my head as I cry out, “Daddy! Please! I’m sorry! Just don’t hurt me!”

“You did this to yourself, Vanessa!” There’s a large thud as he kicks my arm out from under me and I slam down into the tile so that I am looking up at him. He kneels over me, his hands curled at his side. “What makes you think that you could get away with disobeying my orders? You think you’re better than us because you’re in a fancy school? You think you can just sneak out of the house I pay for like a little whore just asking for it? I won’t have it!”

I don’t see his hand hit me. I feel it. It’s white hot and pulsing like a hornet sting on a sunburn. I turn my head away from him, not daring to let him see my eyes watering from the pain. I would not let him see me cry. My mother did that, not me. I would take this.

There’s a long pause, as if he can’t believe that he laid a hand on me -- let alone that he’s done as much damage as he has. He stands up slowly and walks towards the door. My dad opens it just a crack before letting it close behind him. His face has warped back to normal from the monster that was just before me, dishing out punishments. Quietly, almost calmly, he asks, “Did you see him?”

“Who?” I hate to admit it, but in this moment, I can’t even remember why I’m here in this bathroom. My mind has gone blank. All I want to focus on is surviving my dad’s wrath.

“Don’t be stupid, Vanessa! You know who I’m fucking talking about. Did you see Gavin Wren or not?”

The name is another slap as I am back to reality. Gavin. This is all about Gavin. Those colorful tattoos, the strong bruised hands, the bulging cock, the pursed lips…. Gavin. I am here on this floor for him. But my father didn’t know that. To my surprise, this isn’t about the sin we just committed in the back room. He’s oblivious to that. This is about my defying him by even daring to sneak out to one of Gavin’s parties. I can save this! I can!

I lower my voice to an almost girlish whisper, as I say sadly, “No. I-I-I don’t know where he is.” I look up at him with my watery eyes blinking at him blankly and add, “I just wanted to say sorry about what happened at lunch. I didn’t mean—”

He cuts me off as he shouts, “Shut the fuck up, Vanessa! You know what you were fucking doing.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I’m sorry. I thought I’d only be here for a few minutes and then go home. I didn’t think you’d be here.”

“Well, you were goddamn wrong on that one. And that will teach you to test my authority. If I so much as get a whiff that you were even on the same fucking street as Gavin, I swear to Christ, you won’t be the only body on the floor. Do you hear me?”

I swallow, a jagged stream of air sticking in my throat as I nod. Grimacing, I answer nervously, “Yes, Daddy.”

There’s no more discussion between the two of us. There’s just an arm around mine that pulls me harshly up to my feet. He stands behind me and grabs my wrists, crossing and then pushing them together like a handcuff. With my arms bound, he pushes me from behind towards the bathroom door before kicking it open with his boot.

From the noise of the jukebox blasting old ‘80s rock songs and the men screaming and clinking glasses, I know that what just happened in that bathroom between Jonah Barber and his daughter isn’t even registering for any of the rest of the club, let alone Alice who is sitting on some guy’s lap just out of view. She doesn’t even turn to watch me be marched down the hallway and towards the back door.

As we push out into the night from the bar, I glance back over my shoulder and past my father’s hulking body towards the back room where I should be, where Gavin is most likely still waiting for me. A part of me wants to twist my arms and break free to run back there, lock the doors, and hope that we could find a way out. But I know the realities of the situation. Gavin and I would never be, not as long as my father and brother lived. What we just experienced together was our one moment in time when we were allowed to let this all go. And that moment would have to stay there, wanting and waiting.

I turned back around towards the parking lot now filled with motorcycles and cars. The few headlights glittered in my eyes as tears began to swell. I shake my head rapidly, pushing them away before they can fall and give me away to my father. He marches me past a line of men smoking -- all whom put out their smokes and gesture to him like the king he is. No one asks about me. I’m just one of the others.

The ride home on the back of his bike seems to me to last an eternity. We hit every stop light, which is usually not a concern for my father. But tonight, he seems to know that the longer we wait to get back to the house, the longer he can drag out the unknown. Would there be more beatings waiting for me? Would he find some new and demented way of punishing me further? I didn’t want to know. I just wanted it to be over.

As we pulled up to the driveway, I hopped off before he could even turn his engine off. However, his arms grabbed me before I could get a step in the door. He spins me around quickly to face him with a hand gripped around my arm. My father’s dirty nails dig into my skin through the layers of clothes. His low voice grumbles, “From now on, you wait for me. For everything. You don’t breathe unless I tell you to. You don’t speak. You don’t think. You don’t even piss. That freedom you thought you had in this house is over.”

I nod and purposefully lower my gaze down to the slate gray cement driveway, unsure if I am allowed to speak here. Satisfied, he pulls me past my mother’s garden, through the patio, and into the darkened home. He lets go suddenly, causing me to trip on the hardwood floor and cheerful welcome mat.

The tired, startled voice of my mother calls out in the distance, “Jonah! Is that you?”

“Olivia! Get the fuck in here! NOW!” The contents of my stomach do somersaults, as I hear the muffled scuffed footsteps of my mother and her little slippers walk through her bedroom and down the hallway. I knew my father well. When something was wrong, she was the one easy target he could take it out on. This time, I was what was wrong, and I knew she would not escape this either.

The hallway lights flicker on, painting a strange family portrait as everyone remains perfectly still. My mother’s eyes adjust to the light before falling on me in a sort of shock. I was the last person she expected to see down here, let alone laying helplessly on the floor to her entryway. The last she knew, I was in bed sleeping a bad day away. I was that one constant she could count on, and I had broken that facade.

She whispers cautiously, “Vanessa…? What are you—?”

“Don’t fucking coddle her, Olivia! Don’t you coddle her, you hear me? This little bitch snuck out while you were supposed to be watching her.” He points at her accusingly, as she backs up a few steps towards the hallway. “I can’t trust either of you cunts, can I?”

“Hold on a sec there, Jonah,” she says, a mixture of menace and fear in her eyes. “Come on. You know that I had nothing to do with this. I’d never let this shit go down.” She stiffens herself like the good soldier she is. She’s experienced this kind of rage tons of times, but never with her own daughter playing witness and executioner. Still, she looks almost powerful, as she looks down at me with stern eyes and says assuredly, “I’m sure Vanessa had a good reason for going out.”

My dad’s feet pound on the floor as he walks quickly over to her. With one large push of his hands, he slams her into the blue painted wall with such force that a family photo of us on vacation in Seattle falls and shatters near her, as she sinks to the ground. He looks over her as he yells, “Don’t you dare stand up for her! You raised a fucking slut. Same as you were. I should have known better! Goddamn fucking whores!”

She only has moments to curl into a ball before his steel-toed boot slams into the side of her tiny torso. Air escapes her closed lips, and she lets out a sound I’ve only heard once from a family dog run over by a car. My mother falls in slow motion to the ground, her arms still wrapped around her legs.

This was something I always knew happened between them, though I’d never seen it up close. For all of my life, I have been pretending not to hear her body fall and crash against the wall, slam into tables and chairs, slump on the floor. I can’t remember when I first started praying that it wasn’t as bad as what my imagination could have made it seem. However, seeing it in person and up close was like replaying all of those nights with a pillow over my head to dampen the sound of her cries and whimpers all over again. I have never felt more helpless in my entire life.

But I don’t move. I don’t make a sound. I can’t; I’m absolutely paralyzed in both fear and shame. Trying to help her would mean more punishment for the both of us. All I can do is hope and pray that my father tires himself out, like a boxer.

As he breathes heavily over both of us lying in repose over the floor, he does the one thing I had been hoping for over an hour he would do: he turns and walks towards the door, finally leaving us there. With a parting, “Get to bed!” he goes through the entryway and back outside.

We wait in our protective shells for the sound of his bike to roar to start and then take off past the neighborhood of darkened houses, each blind to what has always been going on in the Barber home. With that bastard safely gone, I crawl on my hand and knees towards my mother. To my surprise, she lifts her hand up and out towards me and wraps it around the back of my neck. I lower myself down to her and curl my body around hers with an arm placed high around her waist to avoid the tender spot.

Despite everything, her body is still warm, still as comforting and as peaceful as I remember it being when I was a child. They say there’s nothing like a mother’s arms, and I know that to be true even when the mother can’t hold her baby any longer. Her voice shakily asks me, “Why Vanessa? Where were you?”

I don’t bother lying to her. I owe her that much. “I went to go see Gavin. I admit I had to go see him, Mom. I know I shouldn’t have, but I had to. I wish you could understand.”

Slowly she turns around to face me, our foreheads touching softly as she takes my hand in hers, “I do, Vanessa. Believe it or not, I was once you. Grandpa Aaron was the vice president just like Martin. He ran the Bloody Pagans with an iron fist, too, and he wanted me to have nothing to do with the club. But when I saw your daddy at a cookout for new recruits, I knew I had to have him. And just like you, I ran off with him. Grandpa Aaron tracked us down in a motel room just outside Reno, but by then I was already pregnant with your brother and there was nothing he could do but accept it.”

I had never heard this story before. I hadn’t even bothered to ask. I knew my mom grew up in the Bloody Pagans--her own daddy was a Vietnam vet and the founding father. But I just thought she got married off to the first MC man my Grandpa approved of. Knowing she picked that man was unbelievable to me.

“Why him? Did you know he was like this, Mom?” I stare into her deep brown eyes, a mirror reflection of mine as she struggles to answer me back.

“I didn’t know. Power does strange things to a man, even a good one.” A lifetime of pain washes over her, and I can tell that the word “regret” is on the tip of her tongue. But she could never say it. She is too much of an indoctrinated lady to say it out loud, let alone to her daughter. Still, she adds, “But you, Vanessa, you’re smarter than me. You’re smarter than all of us. And if this guy Gavin is what you think he is, then I trust you, and I’ll take whatever comes from it.”

“Mom, I can’t ju—”

“Vanessa Barber, I won’t let you give up on this so easily. If this is what you want, then you go get it. I’m your mama, and it’s my job to protect you no matter what. And I promise you that I will have your back.” Her voice cracks as she stammers, “Someone in this house deserves that happier ending. Just promise me something.”

“What?” I ask timidly.

“Promise me that this is the right decision for you, and that you’re not doing it just because of your father. Promise me that you’re picking Gavin because you care for him and he cares for you. I can’t bear to see you get hurt over a guy who you just leapt at because we sheltered you for too long.”

I pull her in closer to me, my arms wrapping around the shell of my mother, as I whisper the only words I can think to say, “Thank you.”


Something’s not right. I know it. I can feel it. The hair on the back of my neck is practically standing up as I scan the darkened room for the cause. There’s gotta be a reason why Vanessa left me here alone, waiting for her.

What just happened between us wasn’t a fluke. It couldn’t have been. She wanted it more than I did—and I really, truly wanted it. Seeing her face twist in pleasure was one of the greatest, sexiest moments of my life. And it’s a memory I don’t plan on erasing for a long while. But then she just disappeared before the action started to heat up? From what little I know about her, that doesn’t seem right.

Then, another, probably more sensible, voice in my head points out that she is a virgin and virgins are basically cold fish when it comes to this stuff. At her age and in this club, she’s an old maid. Most girls lost their v-card way back in high school—or at least fooled around. But she’s fresh meat, totally untouched. And while I was certainly impressed, I could tell by how she wanted me to take over that there was part of her that was unsure.

And that’s the problem when you take on a virgin: they can turn on you. They fear guys like me with our muscles, position, and rough exterior. It’s intimidating to most, even the experienced ones who spread their legs for anyone. I wouldn’t blame her for running.

But this was Vanessa. This was the girl who bandaged the hand of a guy who just broke a glass table with her fist. This was the girl who invited a man she just met to have lunch with her father. She was more fearless than I could ever be for things like this. And I wouldn’t peg her as the type to run away.

I walk over to my jeans, which are still lying on the floor where we discarded them, and find my cell in the back pocket. There are few text from the boys in the bar asking me where I am and why I’m not enjoying a drink. There’s even a photo from Thad posing with some hot piece of ass I haven’t seen before. But there’s nothing from Vanessa.

There’s nothing else for me to do but call it. Wherever she went, whatever she had to do, I would have to find out later. Right now, I just had to get back to the bar before any of the Barber boys grew suspicious. Despite everything, I could still turn this night around by getting into my guys’ heads about what was going on with upper management.

The bar is more crowded than when I last left it. It seems like half the club and their women are crowding around the bar, ordering off my tab. As I waltz back in, Silva the bartender holds up my credit card with a look on his face that says he isn’t quite sure what he should do. I holler out as loudly as possible, “One more round, boys! Then this guy is tapped out!”

There’s a rush of burly men towards the bar, each with their hands and glasses eagerly raised. Silva fills up their empty cups one by one until all the guys in the crowd return to their stools and chairs. Through their part, I spot Martin Barber. He’s stewing in the corner, a glass of golden whiskey sloshing in his hands. He’s flanked by a few of his men from earlier in the day, including Brock, my new partner.

I suck in deeply, puffing out my chest, as I grab a glass of some cheap beer and head over to where a group of my friendlies are sitting and chatting. Thad pushes the little blonde bimbo off his lap to greet me, his arm pulling me in for a large bear hug. He’s already good and drunk as he shouts to the rest of the group, “To the best man I know. May he always reign as the one, true leader!”

I pull his arm down and sit him back on his chair. His body sways against mine, and I can tell this just ain’t the alcohol talking. What he just said could get him in deep shit with the Barber family, let alone killed by Martin if he took offense. I glance over to him, but Martin doesn’t seem to even notice. He’s too busy gesturing over to Alice Dugger, who is practically screwing her boy, Moses, on one of the booths.

I turn my attention back to Thad, as I reprimand him. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” I demand. “You can’t say that shit anymore.”

“Whatever, Gavin!” he says, practically incoherent. “Everyone in this bar knows who our real brother is, and it ain’t no pussy like Martin—”

My hand shoots up before he can say it, covering his mouth and pushing him in for another hug to drown out his shouts. The rest of our group watches with wide, shocked mouths. No one is sure what to say, but a few nod their heads in agreement. It seems that Thad has been doing all the talking while I’m away, and it’s actually working.

A big man we call Crush leans over across the table and whispers lowly, “Don’t worry about it, Gavin. We got your back. The Barber kid pulls something like he did today, they all have hell to pay.”

Another kid, maybe only eighteen years old, chimes in, “He’s right. Not a man in this bar who ain’t willing to put it on the line for you, Gavin. You say the words, and we’re there.”

I’m honestly touched. I mean, I had a hunch the guys felt this way, but hearing it said out loud was a whole different story. Loyalty and brotherhood were the reasons why I wanted to be a Bloody Pagan despite all the shit with my mom and being a bastard child. Now I’m finally being accepted, and not only that, revered. Maybe Martin and Jonah Barber did have reason to worry about me. My army was clearly already assembling right before their eyes.

I sit with that little bit of confidence the rest of the night, as I listen to the men talk about their weeks, their runs, their women. They want to know about the incident with the Midnight Kings, and I gladly (and very loudly) recall how we managed to just barely escape near-death with a whole lot a cash and an even bigger stash. The entire bar with the exception of Martin and now Jonah seem to be totally wrapped up in my every word.

Despite the attention, it’s the quiet moments that are eating me up on the inside. It’s the time when a woman walks by, her shirt almost completely open, her ass hanging out of a pair of denim shorts, that I have a moment to think about Vanessa. Just the smell of another’s perfume sends me back to her, when I leaned her back and took a plump pink nipple to my mouth.

It ramps up as I suck down even more drinks. And by last call, I’m wasted on the thought of her. I can’t let this be it. Before Jonah and Martin can get up to cover their bills, I’m already racing out the door, my feet huffing it to my bike. It roars on my command before taking off down the road, back towards the house I shouldn’t be within a thousand feet of. The death wish that awaits me just makes me ride harder and faster towards Vanessa and her castle.

I park my bike a few blocks from the Barber home in a parking lot of an all-night fast food place. It’s well hidden from anyone passing by, but I yank a few garbage cans in front of it just in case. Then I take off towards her home. The whole time, my ears were perked and listening for the sound of the boys beating me back to their homes and to Vanessa.

From their neighbor’s yard, I spotted my way in. A large oak tree leaned against a window where one desk lamp was still illuminating a bubblegum pink room. It had to be Vanessa’s. My only shot up there was to scurry up the tree like a little kid and hope that the branches would hold my weight so I could leap up and over to the second floor bedroom’s window.

Climbing the tree is easier said than done. As soon as I’m past the trunk, the limbs begin swaying and cracking from my weight. I know that any wrong move could mean I’m a second away from sending me crashing down to the ground. And the last thing I want is for whomever is inside to notice me sneaking up to a bedroom at two or three in the morning.

But I have bigger problems than that. Right before I’m ready to start knocking on the window, the sound of the Barber choppers comes roaring up the block. I pull in closer to the tree’s center, praying that I’m concealed enough. When the boys pull in, their headlights aim right at me, blinding me with the sharp white light pointed directly in my eyes. I hang on even tighter.

Yet, they don’t seem to even notice me. They stammer in drunkenly, talking about something one of Martin’s boys did that night. I can hear the conversation continue well past their front door being closed and locked. I wait, watching the lights of two of the rooms spark and light up. And through the curtains, I can see Martin Barber flop into bed without even undressing and the outline of Jonah Barber moving up through the hallway straight towards Vanessa’s bedroom.

Vanessa’s room flashes bright yellow as a door flings open. Jonah walks in and pulls off a cover from Vanessa’s bed revealing Vanessa curled up around a pillow. I can just make out her red, swollen eyes and her terrified glances, as he surveys her room. He checks in every crevice and hiding spot but comes up empty, almost disappointedly so, before leaving the room without even helping her tidy it back up. Another light pops on, and Jonah undresses behind a curtain and then hops into bed.

I’m still focused on Vanessa and her shaking hands. She rushes over to the closet door he has flung open and a few coats he removed from a hanger on the door. She moves tiredly through the motions, as if she is resound in the fact that she deserves to be terrorized like this. I have to make my move. I can’t stand to see her like this.

I reach over to a smaller branch and slide my legs across the line of the bark till I’m at the windowsill. With one hand holding onto a limb above my head, I lean over and tap gently against the window. Vanessa turns towards me, completely frightened. Nothing in her even softens when she recognizes me lingering among the branches. Still, she walks quickly to the window and lifts it up and open for me to slip in.

I begin to speak, “Vanessa, what the he—?”

Her hand flies up to my mouth, covering it quickly. She places a finger to her lips, as she guides me over to the side of her bed facing away from the door. I slump down onto the lumpy mattress before turning back to her, waiting for her to make the first move. Her warm, soft hand slides down the length of my bare neck, her fingertips sweetly caressing at my stubble and dry skin.

Those fairy tale eyes lock in on mine, as she asks as quietly as possible, “What are you doing here, Gavin?”

And in that moment, I don’t know what to say or how to answer. I have no idea why I am here, risking both of our lives. So I give her the basic answer, the answer that just scratches the surface of what I am feeling. “I had to know what happened to you. Why the hell did you leave me?”

A small smirk crosses her face as she explains, “I didn’t leave you. My dad caught me outside the bathroom. He doesn’t know that we were together. He thinks I snuck out to see you so I could apologize for what happened at lunch.”

“Shit.” I finally notice the way she is turning her cheek away from me. My thumb reaches up to spin the other side to face me. Before I can see it, I already know what it is. The stormy colors of a large bruise take up nearly half of her cheek. And that’s not even half of that. As she lifts her chin, I spot the brown, dim finger marks around her neck.

Something in me bursts, as I immediately stand, my hands knotting into thick fists. Motherfucker, I think to myself. I don’t say that out loud, though. Instead, I look down at her as I command, “We have to go. You can’t stay here anymore. That fucking bastard is not allowed to do that to you.”

She follows me yanking me back down. Her voice raises slightly, as she points at the wall her bed leans up against, “Gavin, no. You don’t understand. If I leave, he will kill my mom.”

“You can’t stay here, Vanessa. I’m not going to let that twisted son of a bitch do this to you.”

I pull her into my arms, cradling her against my chest. She rocks slightly, and I can feel her holding back the tears threatening to fall. As she pulls up and away, I reach out towards her, gently pulling her in for a long, drawn out kiss. I don’t want to hear her protests. I don’t want her to tell me no. I just want to protect her for as long as I can in this embrace.

Her small hands find their way to my chest and gather up the material of my t-shirt in her fists. She pulls me in tighter as the waves of our body hit us again. Her tongue slips into my mouth, exploring and plunging head first into our union. As she comes closer to me, I can’t help but hook a finger under the strap of her tank top, the same one she took off for me hours earlier. The material slides down easily over the curve of her tan skin.

She pulls away and watches helplessly as I trace a line along the top of her breasts from shoulder to shoulder. I reach out to one of her hands to place it on my thigh so that she is mere centimeters from my crotch. She turns away from me, so I trace the nape of her neck with my nose. She shudders, and I can’t tell if it’s out of pleasure or pain. Probably both. Weakly, she bats me away. “We can’t, Gavin,” she insists, though it’s not the kind of tone that tells me “no.”

I continue to kiss her, making my way around the bruises of her neck to behind her ear. “Then come with me,” I whisper. “Even if it’s only just for tonight. I’ll get you back home before they know you’re gone.” I feel like a goddamn kid again, like a teenager trying to sneak in a quick bang before I hear the door open to signal Mom and Dad are home.

But with Vanessa, it’s different. I want her to come with me not so that we can continue with what is happening in her own bedroom, but so that she feels safe and wanted. I want to make her feel what I am feeling when I’m with her, no matter how murky and unclear that was for me.

She pauses, the air stopping in her throat. A hand presses against me and pushes me away as she says firmly, “No. I can’t. I can’t do this. Gavin, this is not going to happen, and I can’t let it happen. There’s too much at stake.”

I wonder if she means my life. The way she peers at me makes me think that she’s more concerned with me getting out of this alive than anything else, but she slowly says, “He’s going to kill us if he catches me, and I can’t let that happen. Please, just go.”

“But you want this.”

“But I can’t have it.” She looks up at me with pleading, terrified eyes. “Please, just make this easier on me and go. I can’t do this anymore.”

In what feels like someone fast-forwarding my life, I walk backwards towards the window and out into the tree. My hands scrape against the bark as I don’t look back. My feet hit the ground, and I give myself just three seconds to look back up at her as she closes and locks her window. In those three seconds, I watch as she hesitates before closing a pair of pink blinds on me for good.


My room goes black as I shuffle softly back into bed. Outside, I listen to Gavin scurry down the tree, the branches scratching up against my window. And it takes everything in my power to just lie here in bed, listening to my chance at freedom walk right out of my life.

I pull my hands up to around my chest. The feeling of his calloused fingertips on my bare skin is still leaving heat impressions on me. I follow the line of fire from my shoulders to the tips of my breasts before forcing my hands to the side. As much as I wanted him to continue, to give me back what was missing from earlier in the evening, it just couldn’t go past this invisible line I drew up.

I curl myself up back into a ball with my knees pressed firm against my chest. My head tucks in and pulls itself under the blankets so that the small glimmer of light that is seeping in through my bedroom disappears along with the sound of the man outside of the window. My mind floats off as the hours pass and I pray for the sunrise.

In that time, I dream wistfully about life with Gavin on the run. I can see us as a caricature of my parents on our way to Reno in hopes of not being found. Or maybe we want to be found so that we can declare ourselves. I don’t know. But it doesn’t work out the way my parents’ lives have. There’s no grandfather relenting and giving a place to Gavin. My brother has made it clear that it would never happen. Gavin would never be my family as much as those who are my own blood are. The future I could dream up is just not a reality.

As I toss and turn and push away the thoughts of white fences, open roads, and Gavin and I lying in a big brass bed together, the house around me starts to stir. It begins with my mom. She’s always an early riser. Her footsteps are heavier today as I listen to her quickly turn off her alarm and then shuffle towards the master bathroom. A few minutes later, she returns to the bedroom where my father is waiting for her.

Usually, he barks an order about breakfast or murmurs where he is going to be that day, but this morning is different. Something has shifted in the room adjacent to mine. His voice is sterner, more focused on her. And she sounds less tired and run down than usual. Her words are pierced and firm.

I pull myself up to sitting, my ear to the cold spackled wall as I catch the end of their conversation. “Don’t make me angry, Olivia. My word is God, and you don’t question God.”

“I’m not questioning you, Jonah. I am saying that your daughter is an adult. She’s almost done with school, and it’s her right to do what she wants with whomever she wants. We can’t treat her like a teenager anymore. She’ll only get more hurt when she does get herself free.”

There’s a pause before I hear my dad’s voice growl even louder. He must have charged at her as she was dressing near her mirror. “What did I say about this? I make the decisions for this family. I know what is best! And Vanessa is not going off with some Pagan just because he flirted with her! You hear me? I won’t fucking have it! And I won’t have you standing up for him either!”

My mother doesn’t back down. Her voice grows stronger “What the fuck do you expect her to do?” she demands. “Grow old, stay unmarried, have her brother take care of her? You know that is not what’s going to happen. When we’re gone, there will be no one for her, and I don’t want her to be left in the cold to be passed around like one of your whores.”

“Don’t you talk to me like that, Olivia! You’ve got no say in this!”

“That’s what I don’t understand. Why don’t I get a say in my daughter’s life? What big plans do you have for her?”

“Martin and I have it settled. She’s going to graduate from that vet school, and then she’s going to be paired up with Brock. When Martin takes over, he’ll be second in command so she will still be protected.”

There’s a long, deafening pause as the blood in my ears pounds and my mouth goes dry. My mother breaks the ice, her voice so low that I have to press my entire body to the wall to hear her. “Jonah Douglas Barber, you will not marry off our daughter like some prized cattle. I won’t have it. I won’t. This isn’t the fucking Middle Ages. She’s not some currency being bartered for twelve cattle and a tract of land. Not. Fucking. Happening.” The last three words thump out of her mouth, every syllable dripping with contempt.

But he’s not having any of it. “It’s done, Olivia,” he snaps. “Martin’s grooming Brock, and I’m working on Martin. When we retire, the club is set, and Vanessa’s life is decided.” I can’t believe it, but my dad actually sounds proud of himself, as if he has done this great and wonderful deed on my behalf. Even with my mom’s resistance, I can tell from how his voice drips with self-righteousness that he won’t be persuaded.

“Why won’t you think of us then? The only reason why you sit on your throne so high and mighty is because my father had mercy on you. When we were in Reno, he could have had you killed with a wave of his hand, but he didn’t. I had to beg for your life, and he gave it to you.”

“You didn’t have a brother, Olivia, and he knew you were knocked up. Things are different with Vanessa. She has Martin, who deserves his head spot. If we want to keep the Barber name alive, Martin has got to take over.”

“Then what’s wrong with letting her pick out who she wants to be with?”

He sounds exasperated, as if this should be so obvious. “If she sticks with that road junkie, Gavin, how long do you think he’s going to be satisfied with her? She’s his path to our spot, and as soon as he overthrows Martin and me, he’ll drop her.”

“You don’t know that. You saw how he looked at her at the table yesterday. He’s not there to take your precious presidency. He was there for Vanessa. Any smarter man wouldn’t have taken two steps into our home if he was planning some grand coup like the one you cooked up in your paranoid mind. And you know that.”

“It’s over, Olivia. Gavin Wren ain’t getting within spitting distance of her ever again. And if he does, he’ll be in a body bag out in the Pacific. I’ll even be the one doing the tossing.”

Their words become more muffled as I hear their door click open. I sink back down into my bed and roll over towards the window, waiting for what comes next. There’s the sound of the twisting doorknob followed by my mom, who walks even slower today. She sits down at the edge of my bed, pausing to look off in the distance. I feel her cold, thin hands on my shoulders as she lightly pushes me from side to side. Her voice hoarsely saying, “It’s time to get up, Vanessa. You’ve got class in an hour. Breakfast will be waiting for you.”

As she leaves and heads back down towards the kitchen, my eyes flicker open once again and I stare off towards the window. Just hours ago, that window was my path to my own freedom. And now, all I can see is a way to avoid the months or even years to come of being stuck with a man I didn’t know, having babies I didn’t want, and living a life very similar to my mother’s.

I run out of bed, shutting the door my mother had left open before grabbing a pair of jeans from a pile of dirty clothes on the floor. I grab my backpack, tossing the textbooks out one by one. I shove them under my bed, being sure to hide them out of sight with a pink sheet from my bed. I fill the rest of the empty backpack with clothes, chargers, my toothbrush and paste, and my laptop…anything I think I’ll need while I’m on the road. I don’t have time to double check. I just toss the heavy pack over my shoulders, my back slouching from the weight, and shut the bedroom door behind me.

As I pass my parents’ bedroom, I spot something…my dad’s wallet. I peek my head into their dark-colored room, listening as my dad showers in the other room. I just have a minute, but it’s enough time to run in and grab the wallet off of the dresser. Inside is a large stack o