top of page

Sample includes adult content - 18+ recommended.

Chapter 1

Kaeli

 

 

Crouched behind my locked bedroom door, I waited for the yelling to stop.

My hands trembled and my breath shook. Blood pumped through my veins faster than my head could process, and at its core was helplessness. The wait was going to kill me. A slow, torturous death.

Too many minutes later, the silence I was praying for came, followed by thunderous footsteps past my door.

I paused, still waiting.

As soon as I heard them stomp down the stairs and the unmistakable sound of the front door slamming shut, I moved, throwing the door open and running. The lack of noise that met my ears panicked me.

Please let her be okay. Please let her be okay.

The second I caught sight of Mom’s crumpled body on the floor beside the bed, the bottom dropped out of my stomach. I choked out a panicked kind of cry as I rushed forward, throwing myself down on the floor beside her.

Oh, God, please don’t let her be dead.

Relief struck hard when I heard her moan, but it was quickly replaced by concern when I saw her clutching at her stomach as she whimpered.

With careful movements, I took her in my arms. I didn’t say anything. I’d learned a long time ago that she couldn’t handle hearing my grief.

She gasped pitifully, making my throat close in on itself, and I had to screw my eyes shut tight to stop the tears that threatened to fall. I couldn’t let myself cry. I knew it would only add to the guilt she held inside her.

So, I just sat quietly, holding her while she whimpered, letting her know she wasn’t alone.

I felt her trying to breathe through her pain, and I breathed with her in encouragement. Then, after a while, she awkwardly stood on shaky legs and slowly limped to the bathroom.

Anger flared inside me as I watched her close the door behind her. I hated my stepfather more than any living thing in this world. He and his deadbeat, lowlife son had ruined our lives.

He’d been the nicest man there ever was when he’d first come into our lives. Full of pretty words and shiny promises. He’d swept Mom right off her feet just when she thought she’d never find anyone as wonderful as my father had been, but after they were married, he changed.

He became a monster.

When I was younger, I begged Mom to leave him, to take me away from the horror he subjected us to, but she always refused. Back then, I couldn’t understand why. I thought she loved him more than she loved me. But now that I was older, I knew the reason. He wouldn’t allow it. If we tried to leave, he would kill one of us, or maybe even both of us. I had no doubt about it at all. His heart was as black as they came.

With the lump still lodged deep in my throat, I shakily stood and moved back to my room to get ready for class. It didn’t matter how many times I’d had to leave her like that, it never got easier. Having to go to college and pretend everything was all fine in the world sucked. I hated it. I hated lying to my friends, and I hated having to lie for a monster like him.

Over the years, I’d been able to rely on playing what I called the pretend game when I was out in public, but even that seemed to be getting harder by the day.

It used to just be me and my best friend, Mia, hiding from the world. But now, thanks to Mia dating one of the city’s most popular guys, I’d somehow managed to inherit a dozen new friends. Friends who were fiercely loyal and protective. And very, very watchful.

But unfortunately, it wasn’t just my friends who were watching. When I said Jace—Mia’s boyfriend—was popular, I didn’t just mean he was well liked on campus. He was actually popular in a worldwide kind of way.

He and Mia’s twin brother, Aiden, along with their two closest friends, Matt and Dean, were on the brink of stardom. Their band, Fighting Fate, was about to reach worldwide fame after a clip they’d posted on YouTube went viral.

Unlike most of the kids who’d just started college, Jace and the guys had just recorded their first album and were going on a national tour with one of the country’s biggest rock bands, The Dark Hybrid.

So, you could kind of see my problem. Hiding wasn’t really an option anymore.

Pulling into the parking lot at Sac State, I parked in one of the farthest spaces, hoping to give myself a little time to collect myself before having to face everyone. Unfortunately, I’d only been there for a minute when there was a knock on my window.

Glancing up, I saw Mia smiling down at me.

Grabbing my things, I begrudgingly climbed out. “Hey,” I said, doing my best to look normal.

“Morning,” she said brightly.

“How is everyone this morning?” I asked, trying to keep her from looking at me too closely.

I’d never told Mia what went on behind the closed doors at home. I knew, considering we’d been best friends for five years, that probably made me a real shit friend, but it just wasn’t something I could do.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t stupid, and neither was she. She knew something wasn’t quite right. I mean, what kind of best friend never has her over for a sleepover the entire time they’d known each other? Or declines an invitation to sleep over at her house almost every time she’s asked? Yeah, not many.

We walked toward the large group of people gathered by Mia and Aiden’s car as she gave me the rundown on the guys and their coming tour. She’d been way more excited about it since she’d managed to organize a way of going with them.

I was going to miss her like crazy when she went, but I was still excited for her.

“So, I might’ve heard a little juicy gossip this morning,” Mia said with a teasing lilt to her voice.

I gave her a wary look. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to like where this was going.

Mia waggled her eyebrows. “Apparently, Corey wants to ask you out.”

The groan slipped out before I could stop it. This was the last thing I needed. “I’m not interested.”

She bit her lip. I could tell my reaction had confused her. “Not even a little? He’s nice . . .”

“No.” I looked her dead in the eye so she would understand. I’d heard Corey’s ex-girlfriend was making life hard for any girl he talked to. “Ken’s making my life hell at the moment. I don’t need any more drama.”

She went quiet for a little while, seeing the slight shadows under my eyes for the first time. “How bad is it?” she whispered.

I really didn’t want her to go there. I still didn’t have full control over my emotions. “Bad,” I said, unable to say much else.

A worried frown creased her forehead. “You know, you can always come and stay with me.”

My heart contracted. If it was just me I was worried about, I’d take her up on her offer in a heartbeat. But it wasn’t. Yes, Ken intimidated me—even threatened me sometimes—but he never laid a hand on me. All his anger was reserved for Mom.

Once, when I’d been younger, I’d pissed him off enough to make him rant and rave until the vein was popping on his temple. That one experience was enough to scare the life out of me, but what had upset me more was the fact that he took it out on Mom later that night. From that moment on, I vowed to never push him to that point again.

“Thanks, but I can’t. I have to stay at home.”

She frowned. I knew I’d worried her, but I didn’t know how to say it any other way.

When we reached her car, Jace immediately claimed her, wrapping his arms around her in a possessive hug. I knew it was more to ward the girls away than the other way around.

“Hi, Kaeli. How are you?” he asked over the top of Mia’s head.

I couldn’t help smiling at him. I loved the way he doted on Mia. “I’m good.”

“Are you coming to the party on Friday?” he asked.

I flicked my gaze down to Mia. Before Jace, she had a pretty serious anxiety condition that prevented her from being anywhere near a crowd. Being with Jace had helped her learn to deal with it a little, but it still made her nervous.

Looking back at Jace, I saw a tiny glint of worry in the depth of his eyes and realized he was nervous too. I suddenly got the hidden question inside his question. He was hoping I would be there in case the worst happened while he was playing.

But unfortunately, I couldn’t answer one way or the other. I had no idea if I was going to be able to make it. It had always been like that with Ken. It was impossible to plan anything around someone so volatile.

“I’m not sure yet,” I said in a low voice.

Mia’s gaze was full of understanding. Drawing Jace’s attention back to her, she said, “Are you guys playing a full set?”

“Not a full one,” he said softly. “I don’t want to waste half the night when I’ve finally got you all to myself.”

Ah, that was right. Apparently, Jace’s mom, stepdad, and sister were going out of town for the weekend, and Mia was going to be staying there with him. Alone.

I watched him lean forward and kiss her softly on the forehead before whispering something in her ear. Mia blushed a little, and then a shy smile touched her lips. God, I loved those two.

Looking away, I gave them a little privacy for their moment. Instead, I thought about the party. It felt like such a long time since I’d had the opportunity to let loose like a normal teenager. I wished I had that luxury.

Chapter 2

Noah

 

 

The bar was almost filled to capacity—just like I knew it would be this time of night. That’s why I chose it. The hordes of people who occupied the small space conversed freely, their voices straining over the heavy rock music that pumped loudly in the background.

I sat on one of the barstools at the far end of the bar, and although I wasn’t exactly watching the door, my consciousness was very aware of it.

Draining the last of my beer, I set the bottle down and indicated to the barman for another. He eyed me with interest but said nothing. I liked this one. He didn’t ask me for ID like most of the other bartenders I’d come across. I shouldn’t blame them, really. I was only twenty. But my ID said otherwise.

I gave a derisive laugh under my breath. The only thing real on my ID was my picture, and even that was a far cry from how I really looked. Everything else was a lie. Okay, it was a lie I almost believed, but it was still a lie. Shit, I’d lived the lie for so long, I’d almost forgotten when my real birthday was.

May 20th, dumbass, I growled at myself.

I hated that the lie was taking over my life. My mom had begged me not to lose myself when I’d left, and I’d promised her I wouldn’t. The thought of breaking that promise was the only thing that kept me going most days.

The barman slid a Bud in front of me, taking the money he needed off the pile I’d left on the bar.

That was when I saw her.

She paused just inside the door, scanning the room before coming to stand in the space at the bar between me and the other patrons.

I looked her over as she ordered a rum. She looked like she was somewhere in her early twenties. Her hair was cut into a kind of crooked bob, with lots of jagged edges and mismatched lengths, and strips of bright pink color that framed her face. She was pretty, in a street value kind of way.

She sighed heavily, looking kind of dejected.

Pocketing my money, I picked up my beer and slid a couple of seats closer to her. “Hi.”

She looked up at me with surprise. Her eyes narrowed, showing caution, then she looked me up and down and smiled, obviously liking what she saw.

“Hi,” she said.

There was a slight flirtiness in her voice that amused me. “Having a bad day?”

Her eyes moved over my chest and arms, then slowly, she turned her body so it was angled directly toward me. Still smiling, she bit her lip with playful contemplation. “It might be about to get better . . .”

Damn, she was good. She picked up her glass and threw back half of its contents. I followed suit, never taking my eyes off her. “What’s your name?”

Her lips twitched with amusement. “Renee. What’s yours?”

“Mitch,” I said automatically. “You know, Renee, I’m a very good listener . . .”

She looked me over again, a wicked smile creeping onto her lips. “I think I’d rather be distracted from my problems than talk about them,” she said suggestively.

I pushed myself up off the edge of my seat, coming to stand only a few inches away from her. Her breath hitched. “You want a distraction?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

I stared into her eyes for a moment, trying to get her to fold, but she stood resolute. I downed the last of my drink and smiled. “Come on, then.”

She looked at me for a while, seeming to be making a decision. With a quick glance back at the barman, she picked up her glass, emptied it, and took my hand.

Without another thought, I led her straight to the restrooms. It was an obvious choice, but that was the point.

As soon as the door closed behind her, she locked it and smiled at me widely. I quickly stepped away from her and laughed. “You know, Renee, I didn’t know you were such a hoe.”

She tried to pretend to be offended, but her smile gave her away. “Yeah, whatever, lover boy. What’ve you got for me?”

I sighed, quickly switching to business mode. Kate was a lot of things, but subtle wasn’t one of them. “Not a lot. TJ’s warming to me. He’s still taking Pock to most of his transactions but mentioned to all of us that a big delivery is coming soon. I think he wants all hands on deck with this one, so I should be in. I’ll try to get some details about it over the next week.”

“Okay.” She looked me over, a slight worry creeping into her gaze this time. “Captain wanted to know if you were okay, so . . . are you? Are you handling everything okay?”

I knew what she was trying to get at. The drugs. I knew when I was asked to take on the job, I’d be required to do everything humanly possible to look as though I fit in with TJ’s gang, and that included doing what they did. That’s what undercover meant. Unfortunately, it meant I needed to drink, party, womanize, and do whatever drugs they did. And it took everything I had to look as though I enjoyed it because, believe me, I didn’t. I had to repress the urge to punch at least one of them more than once a day.

I sighed. “Yeah, I’m all right. Some of the shit’s going to be a bitch to kick, though,” I said in a defeated tone.

She gave me a sympathetic glance. “Just be careful, okay? We don’t want to lose you.” She stepped closer then, giving me a quick sisterly hug. “We’re going to send Leah in next Wednesday, so give her a hard time for me, okay?”

I laughed. “Sure thing, and Kate . . . Thanks,” I said softly.

She gave me one quick nod, then unlocked the door and stepped out. As the door swung closed behind her, I caught a quick glimpse of her straightening her dress as she headed for the door. After a few more seconds, I strode out to the bar for another drink.

 

***

 

Later that night, I sat on a stained brown sofa, in the middle of a dingy living room with worn, mottled carpet that stank like alcohol and smoke. Pressing a joint to my lips and inhaling deeply, I tried to numb it all from my mind.

Unfortunately, this was where I lived. We called it The Den. I have no fucking idea why. I guessed it was supposed to imply we were some sort of family, but if that was the case, then it was some fucked up family.

I blew out a puff of smoke in a sigh. Yep. This was my life. I fucking hated it, but it was also my job.

TJ, the leader of this fucked up gang of disgruntled criminals, paced the floor in front of me. He was on edge, swearing each time he turned and paced the other way.

“Fuck, I hate waiting!” he yelled.

I inhaled again. I was used to his behavior by now. So were the other guys. None of us so much as looked up from what we were doing. I leaned back on the couch and exhaled, and Davo turned another page on the titty mag he was reading beside me. When TJ’s cell beeped with a message, he swore again, but he seemed to calm a fraction.

We continued on like this, Pock and Vinnie sharing a cone, while Davo and I slumped on the couch and TJ paced. The only one not there was Mac, who was in the kitchen with a bad case of the munchies.

Fifteen minutes later, there was a knock at the back door.

“About fucking time,” TJ mumbled.

He called to Mac to answer it, and a minute later, a scrawny, dirty-haired guy, about the same age as me, wandered into the room, followed closely by Mac. He looked a bit frazzled, but then again, that was how he looked every time I saw him.

TJ didn’t bother trying to hide the fact that he was pissed off. He just cocked his gun and pointed it straight at him. “I fucking HATE waiting for people, Tom! Didn’t I tell you that the first time you came here?”

Tom’s eyes widened a fraction, but he remained the same otherwise. “Sorry, TJ. I thought I was being followed. I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t leading anyone here.”

TJ glowered at him for a few more minutes, but even he couldn’t fault him for that. “Just give Mac the fucking bag!”

Tom passed Mac a large brown bag—a bag I knew belonged to the middle-aged businessman Tom worked for—and sank down onto the couch. He immediately proceeded to light a joint while he waited. TJ shook his head at him before following Mac into the kitchen.

Ken, Tom’s boss, was the only one of TJ’s buyers who knew where The Den was. I wasn’t sure why that was. I’d heard it had something to do with Ken helping TJ stay out of jail when he was younger, but that was only hearsay.

Sitting back, I took a long drag on my joint and blew the smoke out slowly. Usually, I would help Mac bag the drugs Tom was there to collect, but we’d already done it earlier that day.

Falling into a languid state, I allowed my mind to drift back to my real life, the one I was hoping to get back to real soon. I didn’t allow myself to think about it very often. That would be an occupational hazard, but I had to do it every now and again, just so I wouldn’t forget who I was. I refused to allow myself to turn into anything like any of these fucked up people.

Funnily enough, the world of drug dealers, rapists, and murderers was my reward for graduating the police academy with honors. Some fucking reward, huh? But at the time, I did feel honored. Growing up with a detective for a dad, as well as two brothers who also worked in emergency services, it was a natural move for me to go into the police academy. I wanted to catch the bad guys, just like my dad did.

The undercover job was offered to me because, apparently, it was common knowledge TJ only took young guys into his gang, and I fit the profile perfectly.

It took me six months to work up enough credits with the guy for him to induct me into his gang, and the initiation was far from pleasant, but here I was, eighteen months into my job – eighteen months since I last saw any of my family, and I was doing everything I could to bring it all to an end. I’d had enough. I wanted out. I just needed TJ to trust me so I could find out the setup for the next big delivery. If we could just get TJ’s supplier, this whole operation would go down, and I could go back to my normal life.

I just hoped I could last until then.

 

Chapter 3

Kaeli

 

 

I came home to raised voices.

After what had happened that morning, my heart immediately jumped into panic mode. Stepping warily into the lounge room, I found Ken and my loser stepbrother, Aaron, having some kind of face-off over the coffee table.

The second they both spun on me, their gazes dark and feral, I regretted my decision to interrupt.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked.

Ken’s eyes narrowed. “She’s gone shopping.”

I exhaled with relief and turned, ready to make a quick escape.

Aaron spun back on his father. “I’m not going. Make Kaeli go! I’m sure they’d appreciate her a lot more anyway.”

I froze on the first step and looked back at them. Getting in the middle of their problems was the last thing I wanted to do. Aaron was oozing anger, looking between me and his father, and Ken was practically livid.

Ken’s gaze turned from feral to calculatingly malicious between one breath and the next. I’d seen that look a few times before, and the aftermath was never good. I was petrified to the spot.

“Do what?” I asked hesitantly.

Ken just continued staring at me, considering whether he wanted me to do this ‘thing’ or not. I was just about to ask again when his lips curled up into a snide grin. “Hmmm . . . I think you might be right, Aaron,” he said. “This could work in our favor.”

“What do you want me to do?” I asked again, this time, a little more forceful.

He wasn’t looking at me anymore. He’d begun bustling around near the couch, arranging a bag of some sort.

“You’re going to go pick something up for me,” he said, not bothering to turn around.

“I have homework to do.”

“It can wait. This is more important.” He zipped up the bag and walked over to the stairs to stand in front of me, shoving a piece of paper into my hand. “Here’s the address you’ll be going to. You’ll have to catch the fifty-one to Forty-Seventh, then go the rest of the way on foot.”

“What? Why can’t I just drive?”

“You just can’t! Tell them Ken sent you—that Tom OD’d, and you’re his replacement.”

Alarm bells started ringing in my head. “Who OD’d? What are you talking about?”

“Just shut up and do as you’re told, you stupid bitch! If you fuck this up for me, I swear to God, you’ll regret it!” He thrust the bag at me, knocking me back a fraction.

I glanced up at him in alarm, pushing the bag back toward him. “This doesn’t feel right. I don’t want to do it.”

Ken’s eyes flashed with murderous rage. “You’ll do it all right, you little bitch, because if you don’t, your mother will be the one to pay for your mistake, and it will be a lot worse than what happened this morning!”

I felt the blood drain from my face. Oh, God.

As if reading my mind, he smirked.

I felt sick. Every part of me screamed that this was bad. I’d never wanted to say no more in my whole life, but the thought of Mom cowering next to the bed was still so fresh in my mind, I just couldn’t. I swallowed hard.

He shoved the bag hard against my chest. “Now get going, or you’ll miss the bus!”

When I didn’t move, he grabbed me by the arm and pulled me toward the door. Once it was open, he thrust me out onto the porch and slammed it shut behind me.

My whole body started to shake as I stood there. I didn’t know what to do. I knew Ken’s threats weren’t idle. He’d definitely follow through with it, and Mom would pay the price, but my head was screaming at me, telling me if I did this, it would be the biggest mistake of my life.

Seeing no choice but doing what Ken wanted, I shakily checked I still had my cellphone on me and started down the street.

As I walked, I kept reminding myself I was doing it for Mom, not Ken. Every time the anxiousness started to creep back in again, I placed a firm picture of Mom smiling on the screen of my mind to help me.

The second I arrived at the bus stop, the bus rolled to a stop beside me. As the door swung open, I tried to ignore the warning bells that were still ringing inside my head. I couldn’t help but feel like I was standing on a precipice, and the instant I stepped foot on that bus, my life was going to drastically change.

With that god-awful pang of unease still churning in my stomach, I forced myself to step on.

Twenty minutes later, I got off where Ken had instructed and called up the address using my cell’s GPS. When I saw where I needed to go, I frowned. What the hell! It was nowhere near Forty-Seventh. Why did he tell me to get off there?

Swearing under my breath, I tightened my grip on the bag’s handle and set off down the back street. The whole situation was making me sick. Something was seriously wrong with it.

The fact that Aaron hadn’t wanted to go was a major indicator because I knew Ken would’ve offered him money to do it. He had to bribe the idiot to do everything, even take out the freaking trash.

And then there was the whole thing about this Tom person OD’ing. I had no idea what the hell that was about, but any sentence that included the phrase OD’d, couldn’t be about anything good.

A bag. A delivery. A Tom who had OD’d. A person would have to be pretty stupid to think it had nothing to do with drugs.

My breathing sped up. Could Ken be a drug dealer? He was definitely a lot of things that weren’t good, but a dealer? I wasn’t sure I could fit the image of him in that category, but what did I know of those underworld kind of things?

Crossing the street, I shook my head and started down the next block. I wasn’t sure how I felt about my stepfather being a supposed drug dealer. I guessed no different than I felt about him being a wife beater. He was a douche either way. I didn’t know how he managed to have so many high-profile connections, but then again, maybe they were his clients . . .

Looking at my cell, I turned down the next street, grumbling even more when I had to start navigating decaying piles of rubbish and what looked like dried up puddles of vomit. If he was thinking I’d ever do this for him again, he could forget it.

The image of Mom lying huddled on her bedroom floor flashed at me like a neon sign, and my heart instantly sank. Realization came at me like a slap in the face. Ken knew my Achilles heel. Of course I’d do it again. He knew I had no other option.

Stupid, freaking asshole of a man. God, I hated him!

I kicked a rock that was lying on the footpath, watching it sail through the air before it smacked into a metal trash can with a loud clang. I looked around, hoping I hadn’t drawn too much attention to myself, but when I saw the number of the house in front of me, I realized I was a lot closer to the place than I’d thought.

Checking the number on the piece of paper Ken had given me, I froze, and my anger quickly drained away, replaced by a fear I couldn’t control. My heart pounded, pumping loudly in my ears.

I swallowed as I stared at the house I was supposed to be going to. It looked just like any other house on the street, but, somehow, I just knew there was something terribly wrong inside of it.

 

 

Chapter 4

Noah

 

 

My blood pulsed in time with each thumping beat of the music blaring from the speaker. Leaning back on the couch, I sucked in a hard drag of a joint, hoping like hell it would help repress the urge to shove off the girl who’d climbed onto my lap.

I guess she took my non-refusal as acceptance, because she then straddled me, slowly rocking her hips, rubbing her crotch against my jeans-clad one. If she hadn’t already slept with every other guy in TJ’s gang, I might have actually found it a turn on.

Taking another long draw on the joint, I watched her with amusement. Her hands slipped under my shirt, gliding over my stomach and chest as she continued to squirm on my lap. When her fingers started manipulating the button on my fly, I snatched up her wrist with my hand, holding it away from the zipper with a firm grip.

She froze, her eyes snapping up to mine, fear and confusion flashing brilliantly in their depths. “Don’t,” I said darkly.

She opened her mouth to protest, but the music suddenly disappeared and the room fell quiet.

“All right, party’s over. You girls need to get out. Now.” TJ’s death glare worked every time.

The girls quickly collected their discarded clothing off the floor, dressing as they left. I sat forward on the couch, squashing out the remains of the smoke in the ashtray, and looked up at TJ. He met my gaze just as the door closed behind the girls.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Do we have any Es bagged?”

Mac stood up, zipping up his fly as he went. “Two,” he said, heading for the kitchen to check.

TJ nodded, then checked his watch. The dark glint in his eye told me he was majorly pissed. “Tom was supposed to be here twenty minutes ago. That’s strike two.”

My eyebrow went up. “Again?” He’d only collected yesterday. It was unusual for him to come more than once or twice a week.

TJ glanced at me again. There was definitely concern on his face. “Just . . . be wary,” he said. We all knew what that meant: Be ready to fight.

I watched Vinnie give an uneasy look to TJ before disappearing into the kitchen with Mac.

Fifteen minutes later, a knock sounded on the front door.

No one used the front door. Ever.

We all looked at each other in alarm before pushing to our feet and checking our guns.

 

Chapter 5

Kaeli

 

 

My mouth suddenly felt like a desert, and my palms grew sweaty. Shaking, I stepped up to the door and knocked for the second time. A long minute later, the door peeled open and I was faced with what could only be described as my worst nightmare. It left no doubt in my mind that there were drugs involved.

“What the fuck do you want?”

I stared, wondering if it was actually possible to die of fright. The man who stood glaring at me had shoulder-length hair that looked like it had never been washed, with small, beady eyes and horribly discolored teeth. He looked to be around his mid-twenties, and his face was covered in acne scars. He wore no shirt, only faded blue jeans that hung low on his hips, and although he was obviously very fit, it wasn’t an attractive sight. Every inch of his torso was inked with vivid and vulgar tattoos.

I tried to remember what Ken had told me to say. “Um . . . Ken sent me?” I said, my voice high and squeaky. “He said to tell you, Tom—”

Before I could finish what I’d been instructed to say, I was grabbed by my upper arm and dragged inside the house with such speed, my head snapped back. The acne man slammed the door behind me, then pulled me toward the back of the house.

As my brain scrambled to catch up, I tried to scream, but he somehow managed to slap his hand over my mouth before any sound came out. I instantly went into a state of panic. I didn’t think my heart had ever beat so fast in all my life.

With acne man’s hand still clenched painfully around my upper arm, he yanked me down the hall and into another room, shoving me to a stop just inside the door and pushing me against the wall. I was sure I was about to go into full hyperventilation I was breathing so quick, but then I looked up and suddenly found myself surrounded by five more terrifying figures, one who was aiming a very scary-looking gun right at my head, and my breath stopped altogether.

The gunman looked a little older than acne man, maybe late twenties, and didn’t have anywhere near as many tattoos, but the thin, jagged scar that ran across one cheek, from his temple to his chin, coupled with the number one shaved head, was enough to scare the crap out of me.

And the look he gave me was enough to make me want to vomit. “Who the fuck are you?” he growled.

I was so worried I was going to be sick, I didn’t realize tears had started escaping. I honestly thought I was going to pee myself. “Ken sent me,” I said in a weak voice. “He said to tell you that Tom OD’d and that I was his replacement.”

His jaw clenched as he glared at me. He nodded to acne man. “Search her.”

Acne man instantly grabbed Ken’s bag, tossing it to one of the other guys, then pushed me harder against the wall, his hands groping over every inch of my clothing, pulling out my cell and purse and tossing them as well. Then he continued his search under my clothes, his hands groping over my skin, and under my bra, making me want to scream. I squeezed my eyes shut, trying not to whimper too loudly.

His hands disappeared, and I heard his voice beside my ear. “She’s clean. Very clean. I would very much like to make her a little dirty.”

I shuddered with repulsion, trying hard not to look back at his vulgar grin. Instead, I placed the bravest expression I could conjure on my face and stared at the gunman.

Without taking his eyes, or his gun, off me, he called to one of the other men. “Mitch. What are we looking at?”

The guy who’d caught the bag—Mitch—looked up at me before he answered. He had a shaved head just like the gunman, the stubble a pure white color, and his eyes were a strange yellowy brown. Even though he was wearing a shirt, I could tell he had a lot of ink. I could see swirling patterns that ran the entire length of both his arms, and one that snaked down the side of his neck, disappearing under the collar of his shirt. He also had a piercing in his eyebrow, a silver bar that moved every time he frowned—which seemed to be a lot as he gazed at me—and a ring in his bottom lip.

“It’s definitely Ken’s bag,” he said. “Looks as though he wants more than the usual five bags today, though.”

Gun man glowered at me for a few more minutes, then lowered his gun. “Either Ken doesn’t give a shit about you, or you’re really fucking stupid,” he mumbled before turning to a short, stocky guy with dirty blond hair. “Davo, I want you to go and explain to Ken how much I fucking hate surprises.”

With wide eyes, I watched as Davo took a gun out from under his shirt, checked it for bullets, then strode out the door.

Acne man still had me virtually pinned against the wall. I could feel his repulsive breath on my cheek as his hand brushed against my boob. “TJ’s gonna be a while, so I think you and I should go and have some fun while we wait . . .”

His hand reached toward my face, and I went to jerk away from him, but an arm reached between us, shoving against acne man’s chest. He stumbled away from me, his head snapping up in fury.

The guy with the shaved head, Mitch, stood glaring at him. “It’s my turn, Pock,” he said in a low, menacing voice.

Acne man—Pock—puffed his chest out, rising up to his full height, which was still a couple of inches short of Mitch’s. “Like fuck it is! You’re never interested in the fresh meat! You can’t just start now because some hot piece of ass comes along!”

Mitch wedged himself between me and Pock, pushing me back in the process. “I can, and I am,” he said dangerously. “It’s my turn, and you know it.”

Although I couldn’t see Mitch’s face, I could tell by the way Pock’s eyes narrowed that he must’ve looked like he meant business. Glancing over toward the gunman, who I assumed was TJ, I saw him watching me with amusement.

Eventually, Pock sneered, mumbling some obscenities under his breath before he shoved Mitch’s shoulder with his own, and stormed from the room.

TJ laughed loudly, the sudden noise making me jump. “Well, that was interesting! Have fun, man,” he said, slapping Mitch playfully on his back.

Mitch turned to me, his face still molded into a scowl. “Come on,” he grumbled, grabbing hold of my upper arm and pulling me toward a set of stairs.

“What? No!” I said, immediately pulling away from him.

His hand tightened around my arm, and he pulled harder. Terror like I’d never felt before hit me full force, and I started thrashing wildly, trying in vain to get free of his grasp.

His hand tightened even more, and I felt myself pulled sideways, my balance completely thrown. I stumbled, trying to catch myself, but then there were arms coming around me, and I was being hoisted over his shoulder as he began stomping up the stairs.

“No!” I screamed. “Please. Let me go!” My voice broke as I kicked and screamed, tears of fear falling down my face.

I heard TJ laugh again from somewhere downstairs before I found myself suddenly standing again. I spun, ready to run, only to see Mitch shutting a door and locking it behind him.

Oh, God.

 

Chapter 6

Noah

 

 

The girl stared at me from the middle of the room, wide, green eyes amidst a mass of soft brown waves. I kept my expression calm, but, inside, I was anything but.

I had no idea how someone who looked like her could possibly get caught up in this kind of shit. She looked so innocent, so clean. Why would she willingly do something so dirty?

But I knew better than anyone that looks could be deceiving. I’d come across a few people in the drug world, who I never would’ve thought would be there. I studied her, trying to see underneath the obvious, but there was nothing. She honestly looked like she had no idea how she came to be there, either.

My head spun. All I could think of was how I was going to get her out of this. I knew from experience that once you saw what was going on inside TJ’s house, you were there for good. It was like the fucking Hotel California.

I watched her back up until she was pressed up against the wall. She was like a caged tiger, all tensed muscles, coiled, ready to spring. Her eyes flickered nervously from me to the door, and I knew she was calculating her chances of escape. I saw her eyes quickly shine yet again, and I knew she’d realized her chances were slim to none.

With a deep breath, I turned away from her. I needed a drink.

Walking over to the small table I’d set up under the window, I poured myself a glass of bourbon, straight. Turning so my body was half facing her, I lifted the glass suggestively. “Want a drink?”

Her eyes darted to the glass, then back to me. She shook her head. Once.

I sighed again and sank into my armchair, sitting forward and leaning my elbows on my knees, caressing the glass between both hands.

“You can sit if you want,” I said, nodding toward the bed.

I watched as her breath froze inside her chest. “No, thank you,” she said, her voice barely a whisper.

Fragile. That’s the only word I could use to describe how she looked. I needed to get to the bottom of how she came to be here. I just couldn’t understand why someone like her would willingly do this. Maybe she liked a little party drug every now and again. “Do you want something to help you relax? Weed? Ecstasy? Coke?”

Her eyes widened. She didn’t say anything, just shook her head again. Fuck. She really was as innocent as they came. I needed to get her some protection.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

She swallowed, seeming to consider my question. I guessed she was deciding if she should give her real name. “Kaeli,” she said quietly.

I couldn’t be sure if she was telling the truth. “Interesting name. How do you spell it?”

Her eyebrows creased. “K-A-E-L-I,” she said quickly. Too quickly to be false.

“Is it the money, Kaeli?”

I had to ask. Ninety percent of the time, it was the promise of big dollars that enticed people into the drug game. Who knew? Maybe she had some college fees she wanted to pay off.

But I saw the confusion in her expression instantly. “What money?” she asked.

Damn it. What the fuck was he holding over her head? “Ken’s not paying you to come here?”

Her expression cleared with understanding, then soured into a very spiteful look. “No. He’s not paying me,” she said, her tone clipped.

I felt like I was getting nowhere. Maybe I just needed to be direct. “So, you’re not doing it for the drugs, and you’re not doing it for the money. What are you doing it for?”

Her eyes dropped to the floor, pain and distress clearly evident within her. She knotted her fingers together in front of her. Something inside my gut twisted with her sunken demeanor.

“Tell me,” I said soothingly.

She glanced up, meeting my gaze. She looked so vulnerable right then, I wanted to fold her into my arms. What the hell? You’re a bad ass drug dealer, Noah. Not a sympathetic guy! I warned myself.

“He threatened to hurt my mom.” Her voice was so soft, so delicate and fragile.

I instantly felt my jaw clench. “Does he know your mom?”

She nodded, her eyes filling with tears. “He’s her husband.”

Oh, fuck no. That couldn’t be right. “He’s not your—”

“No! He’s my stepdad.”

I inhaled deeply, needing to calm myself down. Not much pissed me off more than a wife beater. That lowlife fucking asshole!

I had to admit, Ken hadn’t really interested me before now. I knew he would come down with the rest of them when they fell. I didn’t even think about the shit they might be subjecting others—their family—to. Now I was just pissed. I was determined to make him pay for what he was putting Kaeli and her mom through.

“Why didn’t you just go to the police?” I asked when I felt calm enough.

She looked at me dryly. “I don’t know if you know Ken very well, but he hurts my mom a lot. I don’t doubt he’d kill her if I didn’t do this.”

That fucker! If he was anything like TJ, I didn’t doubt it either. I really needed to get some detail on her. “You still go to school, Kaeli?”

She gazed at me warily. “College.”

“Where abouts?”

She swallowed uncomfortably. “Sac State.”

I studied her. She didn’t look much older than eighteen. “Freshman?” I asked.

She nodded. “Yes,” she said quietly.

“What classes do you take?” I knew I was being intrusive, but if I could get someone in undercover, I needed them in some of her classes.

“Um . . .” I could tell she didn’t want to answer me, but either fear or an ingrained sense of politeness overrode her hesitance. “Biology, Calculus, English Literature, Economics.” She shrugged. “That kind of thing.”

Shit. She definitely shouldn’t be here. I’d make sure I got a message to the captain later tonight. I wanted protection on her like yesterday.

I pushed her for as much information as she’d give me while I downed another two glasses of bourbon. When I thought I’d gathered enough to pass on, I looked down at my watch, surprised to see how quickly the time had gone.

Exhaling hard, I swallowed against the dryness in my throat. Fuck. This was going to hurt. I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer for what I was about to do to her. I hoped one day she would understand and forgive me.

Standing, I clenched my jaw and strode toward her.

 

Chapter 7

Kaeli

 

 

After almost an hour of idle questions that didn’t seem to make much sense to me, Mitch checked his watch and stood up.

“We better get this over and done with,” he said, moving swiftly toward me.

I tensed, panic quickly rising to the surface again. He dragged his shirt over his head and tossed it behind him, his eyes locked on my panicked ones. Fleetingly, I noticed he didn’t have anywhere near as many tattoos as I thought he did, but that thought flew right out my head when his purposeful strides continued straight for me.

Shit. No! Please . . .

I scrambled to the side, knowing escape was virtually impossible, but desperate to try just the same. But before I got very far, he caught me, pinning me between the wall and his large, firm body. I gasped, and before I could do anything else, he forced his mouth to mine.

I lashed out at him, trying to push him away, but he was too strong. His other hand pulled at my clothes, grabbing my shirt tightly in his fists as he pulled me harder against him. I hit at him, and tried scratching, but his hand easily caught both my wrists in his, holding them prisoner as he continued to crush his lips to mine. I was powerless. And I couldn’t do a damned thing about it. Tears poured down my face. Please, God. Please, help me!

Then, just as suddenly as he came, he released me, stepping back without a word. I stumbled slightly, my head a whirling mess of confusion and fear. Silently, he picked his shirt up off the floor and strode to the door.

“Come on,” he said, his voice more than a little rough.

With my head still reeling, I ran after him, praying that was it and I could now go home. As he moved down the stairs, I watched him shuck his shirt back on over his head.

I knew I must’ve looked a mess. Tears were still falling down my cheeks, my chest was heaving from fright, and the wild panic that had been with me since the moment that Pock guy answered the door was forcing my gaze in a different direction with every beat of my heart.

It wasn’t until I came to a stop at the bottom of the stairs behind Mitch that I noticed the other guys standing around watching us. They laughed at my pitiful appearance and gave Mitch a fist bump, along with various vulgar comments directed at me.

TJ pushed Ken’s bag at Mitch with a serious expression. “What do you think?”

Mitch gazed at me, then back at TJ. “She’ll be fine. Ken’s holding her old lady’s life over her head.”

TJ laughed and clasped his hands together like that was the best news ever. “Crazy fucker’d do it too.” He looked over at me, amusement clear in his eyes. “You know it too, don’t you?”

I felt sick that someone could be so delighted knowing my mom’s life was in danger. Bastard. His eyes suddenly turned dark, and his gaze cut into me like a razor blade. Panic flared inside me as I wondered if he’d somehow read my mind. Crazy, but that was where my head was at.

“Do I need to tell you what will happen to you or your mother if you so much as think about this place or what you’ve seen here in front of another person?”

I gulped and shook my head. “No.”

He stared at me for a long minute, his terrifying gaze reinforcing his threat. “Mitch, I want you to take her home. I don’t want any unnecessary risks with this lot,” he said, indicating toward Ken’s brown bag. He turned back to me with hard eyes. “And you can tell Ken that if he sends anyone but you from now on, he’s going to regret it.”

My heart sank to the floor.

Mitch jerked his head, indicating I should follow him, and my exact state of mind became clear when I found myself willing to do exactly that.

Taking a wide berth around the others, I trailed behind Mitch’s fast-moving form, never so relieved to leave a place in my whole life.

Leading me out the back door, he walked over to a very plain-looking white Camry parked under a dilapidated carport and threw the bag into the trunk. Opening the front passenger door, he held it open until I climbed inside, then closed it softly behind me.

My whole body felt like it was hanging by a thread. I knew it wouldn’t be long before I fell apart completely. It was only a matter of time. I could already feel everything rushing up at me, ready to push me into a complete emotional breakdown. My stomach roiled with it, needing the release.

The silence in the car didn’t help. Every now and again, I thought I could feel Mitch’s eyes on me as he drove, but each time I’d chanced a look at him, his eyes were focused straight ahead, his jaw set tight, and his hands gripping the steering wheel so hard his knuckles were white.

When he pulled the car into the alley behind our house without asking for directions, I wasn’t surprised. It should’ve made me feel uneasy knowing criminals like TJ and his gang knew where we lived, but I thought I might be too numb to feel anything just then.

He glanced at me as he flicked the car into neutral. “I thought it’d be better if you went in this way. Do you need help to climb over the fence?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure if my voice would work, but I tried it anyway. “No, there’re a few loose palings I can squeeze through.”

He nodded before climbing from the car and moving toward the trunk.

My legs shook as I climbed from the car. I knew I had to have been in some kind of shock or something. Mia always seemed to shake after having an anxiety attack, so I figured it was maybe something similar. I just knew I needed to be alone.

Mitch appeared before me, the stupid brown bag hanging from his clenched hand. Without a word, I took it from him and slipped through the fence, not looking back once.

Inside, I found Ken watching TV in the den, feet up on the table, remote in his hand. Not wanting Mom to see me in the state I was in, I chose not to say anything at all. Instead, I just gave him a stare I hoped told him just how much I hated him, and dumped the bag in his lap before turning to dash up to my room.

Pausing on the bottom step, I drew in a steadying breath, praying my voice wouldn’t betray me. “Hi, Mom! Sorry I’m late. I’m just going to jump in the shower!”

Without waiting for a reply, I ran up the stairs, no longer able to hold it all in. The second I stepped under the flow of the shower, it all came crashing down on me.

Hard and life-shattering.

 I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to get myself out of the mess I was in. The whole thing had been so terrifying, so chilling. I didn’t want to go back there. I couldn’t.

Sobs racked my body. Big, uncontrollable shudders that destroyed a tiny piece of my soul with each painful breath.

I wanted someone to save me. Take me away from the horror of it. I wanted to curse my mom for marrying someone so ugly. I wanted to curse my dad for leaving us to deal with this hell. I wanted to scream at the unfairness of it.

As my soul splintered, I sank to the floor, huddling my knees to my chest, trying to protect myself the only way I knew how. I’d never felt such despair, such hopelessness. It was a huge vacuous cavern. Pitch-black and utterly devoid of life.

Lying there, I allowed it to consume me. To swallow me up and take me. My body shuddered under its heavy hands and heaved.

The water ran cold, and still I lay there. If not in weakness, then to simply feel something other than despair.

Chapter 8

Noah

 

 

I felt sick as I watched Kaeli slip through the gap in the fence. She’d been trying so hard to be strong while she was in the car with me, but I could tell she was close to crumbling.

Everything inside me was screaming at me to tell her I was on her side. That she wasn’t alone in this, but I knew I couldn’t risk it. I just hoped I got the break we needed soon, so she could be away from all of it.

Glancing at the time, I decided a little detour was necessary.

Five minutes later I pulled into a small gravel parking lot fronting a very nondescript bar on the outskirts of town. The sign above the door that read, Harry’s, blinked spasmodically, flickering off more often than on. Slipping inside, I sat down at the bar and ordered a Bud.

I didn’t look around; I didn’t need to know who was there. I knew someone would be there within a few short minutes. Picking up a discarded pen, I began doodling on a coaster while I waited.

When I heard the rough voice ordering a scotch, I quickly finished my doodle, glanced at my watch for effect, then downed the last of my Bud and strolled out the door.

As I passed the window, I glanced inside and saw him move to sit in my vacated seat. I didn’t need to stay and watch him to know what he’d do next. He would pocket the coaster I’d scrawled on, and when he was alone, he would read the message I’d left him.

Kaeli. Sac State. Detail.

 

 

 

Chapter 9

Kaeli

 

 

I knew when I woke up the next morning that my life had changed considerably. I felt different. A little unhinged.

It was like I was in a constant state of panic, my blood pumping way too fast. I knew the only way out was for me to convince Mom we had to leave. And I had to do it now.

Thankfully, Ken had already left when I finally made it downstairs, so I hurried to get it done. Finding Mom in the laundry room, I pushed myself into the tiny space and gave her a desperate look.

“I can’t do this anymore, Mom.”

She frowned, her eyes instantly darting past me, worried Ken would overhear.

“He’s not home,” I said, my voice sounding a little frantic.

“Not now,” she said harshly.

“It has to be now, Mom. We need to leave, go to the police, or one of us is going to end up dead.”

Panic flashed in her eyes. “Why? Has he done something to you? Has he hurt you?”

I wanted to tell her. I’d planned on telling her, but her panic scared me. I suddenly realized if I told her, she’d do whatever she could to protect me, which I knew from past history, would be to throw herself on Ken’s mercy. Goddamn it.

Releasing my breath slowly, I pressed forward. “No, but it’s only a matter of time, isn’t it?”

Relief passed over her, then she shook her head. “No. He promised me he’d leave you alone.”

I blinked at her. “That’s your bargain? That he’ll leave me alone and give everything to you?” I stared at her incredulously. Un-freaking-believable!

She set her jaw tight. “You’ll understand when you’re a parent, Kaeli. It’s just the way it is.”

I grabbed her hands, more desperate than ever. “Mom, that’s not the only option. We can leave, get away from him. If we go to the police, they’ll protect us.”

She was already shaking her head before I’d even finished. “It doesn’t work like that, Kaeli,” she hissed. “They might arrest him, but he’ll be released at some stage. Men like him don’t just walk away. He’ll come back, and he will kill me. I know it. I won’t risk it.”

“No, Mom—” I started, but stopped short when I heard the sound of the front door opening.

Mom shot me an angry stare. “Go. Now,” she mouthed.

With one last desperate look, I turned and left.

I only made it as far as my car, though, before the panic flared up even more. Aaron was waiting for me, leaning casually against my door.

He took a long, hard drag of his homemade cigarette before flicking it away and blowing the smoke into my face. He smirked at my reaction. “Hey, Sis.”

“What do you want?” I hissed.

He shrugged, feigning boredom. “Money. How much have you got?”

I blinked at him with disbelief. He actually had the audacity to ask me for money? “Are you joking? You’re asking me for money?”

He didn’t hesitate, looking me straight in the eyes. “Yes. I need some money. Now.”

My mouth dropped open a fraction. What the hell? “Ask your dad! Isn’t he your personal ATM? He gives you, what? Five hundred dollars a week?”

How dare he ask me for money. I was a student, for crying out loud.

He shrugged again. “You either give me what you have, or I’ll go look for some in your room. Actually, that sounds like a better option, I might find something good to pawn while I’m in there.”

My eyes widened with his threat. “You wouldn’t!” His eyebrows lifted, ready to take my challenge. “If you take one step inside my bedroom . . .”

“What? What will you do, Kaeli?” he mocked.

My teeth clenched with anger. Pulling out my purse, I grabbed everything I had and thrust it into his hand. “Stay out of my room,” I hissed as he walked away.

As I stared at his retreating figure, I felt the thin threads of my sanity stretching even farther. At this rate, I wasn’t sure how long I had until they snapped completely, and I wasn’t sure what would actually happen when they did.

Chapter 10

Noah

 

 

The street light illuminated the stocky blond dude as he strode hurriedly along the sidewalk, hands shoved deep in his pockets. His head was bent low, and the backpack he wore strapped to his shoulders hung firmly between his shoulder blades.

Davo and I moved silently through the shadows as we stealthily followed behind him. I knew this boy was the businessman’s son—Ken’s son. I’d seen him before. He was stupid, careless. If my team hadn’t already been aware of him, I knew it wouldn’t have been too long before he got himself caught anyway. Ken was stupid to trust him. But I couldn’t complain. It did work in my favor, after all.

I liked doing these recon missions for TJ. It felt like I was actually doing something for my real job for a change. I always took them as an opportunity to remind myself of the real me.

We followed the kid down a darkened alley, where he met up with a group of teenagers. The exchange was quick. Surprisingly professional. It all happened in a matter of minutes, and then he was off again, heading to another part of town.

We watched him make three more transactions before calling Mac to pick us up. TJ had nothing to worry about. The only reason for Ken’s sudden increase in demand was that his son apparently had the knack for pushing drugs. He was probably kicking himself for not bringing him into the family business a long time ago.

My team, on the other hand, had a real problem. This kid was young enough to get right into the schools, and he obviously knew how to sell it to them. He wasn’t real good at being inconspicuous, but the kids seemed to trust him, so yeah, he was a problem.

Mac pulled up to the curb, and I jumped into the backseat, leaving the front for Davo. I wanted time to get my head around this before I faced TJ.

I hadn’t thought too much about Ken before today. Yes, he was going to go down with the rest of them when the shit hit the fan, but it was the suppliers we were really after. The shit kickers like Ken were usually offered some sort of immunity to help bring the big boys down. But after meeting Kaeli, I couldn’t let that happen. I had to make sure he was put away for a long time.

For the sake of her, and her mom.

 

Chapter 11

Kaeli

 

 

By Friday, everyone was talking about Ryan’s party. Thankfully, no one had brought up my uncertain attendance since I’d been asked earlier in the week. Even Mia had been careful not to bring it up with me. But when the bell rang at the end of the day, I knew my luck couldn’t last too much longer. In fact, it ran out the second Mia and I stopped beside my car.

“So,” she began, making me want to slap my hand over her mouth, “do you have any idea if you’re coming tonight yet?”

I sighed, trying to repress the urge to snap at her. It wasn’t her fault my life was a freaking mess. “Not really. I’d really like to—I think . . . I just don’t know if I’m going to be able to,” I finished quietly.

Mia bit her lip and glanced up at me hesitantly. It was that exact moment when I realized what a shit best friend I was being. “Are you definitely going? Do you have someone to stay with you while the guys are playing?”

Mia inhaled deeply, then rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I’m going. Ryan’s been assigned my babysitter.”

Now I felt even worse. “Shit, Mia, I’m sorry. I wish I could give you a definite answer.” Rubbing my face in frustration, I groaned. “This is so shit.”

She touched my arm softly and looked at me with the most understanding eyes I could imagine. God, I wished I could tell her. I hated having it all bottled up inside me. I felt like I could just explode at any given moment.

“Hey,” she said. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. It’s you I’m worried about. I can see something’s really bothering you at the moment. As long as you know I’m here for you and you can talk to me, okay? I don’t want you to feel like you’re alone. I can keep a secret too . . .”

My throat tightened up on me. Shit. I couldn’t do this. Not here. I wanted to tell her so badly.

In fear of choking up, I nodded as an answer. Giving her one last squeeze, I climbed into my car and drove toward home.

Mom had her music turned up to practically its limit when I got there. I found her in her bedroom, dancing around with a glass of wine in her hand as she held dresses against her body in front of the mirror. She smiled when she saw me in the doorway.

“Hi, baby! How was class?”

I couldn’t help but smile back. It was so unusual to see her so naturally happy. “It was as good as class can get. Are you going somewhere?” I asked.

She grinned impishly. “Ken’s been invited to a charity event. It’s a big, fancy black tie thing.”

I refrained from frowning at the mention of Ken’s name and focused on Mom’s happiness instead. “Sounds like fun.”

She held up a soft green cocktail dress and frowned in the mirror. “I hope so. It feels like forever since I’ve been anywhere nice.”

That’s because it has been forever, I thought.

She looked up at me with that grin again. “Are you doing anything tonight? Maybe you should go to a movie with Mia or something. You don’t go out enough for an eighteen-year-old, Kaeli.”

I rolled my eyes at her. “There’s a party tonight at Ryan’s place, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go or not. Maybe I will if you’re going out.”

“Yes! You should,” she said, a little too enthusiastically.

I laughed at her. “Okay. I will.”

I left her boogying in her closet and went to my room, feeling good for the first time in weeks. Pulling out my cell, I opened up my text conversation with Mia.

All good. I’ll c u at 8 :)

About five seconds later, my phone beeped.

YO!!! Sooooooo happy!!!

I smiled at the message, and suddenly, I was amped. I couldn’t wait to let my hair down and party.

Mom came into my room an hour later, dressed in a knee-length black dress with an organza shawl and stilettos. She looked gorgeous. “Ken just got home. I’m just going to heat up some lasagna for you while he’s in the shower, okay?”

“Sure, Mom. Thanks.”

Pulling my gray micro mini, light knit dress off its hanger, I quickly shimmied it over my head and down over my black opaque tights. I finished styling my hair, letting it fall in soft natural curls down my back, applied a little mascara and lip gloss, then slipped on my black knee-high boots.

Giving myself a quick once-over in the mirror, I smiled. It was just the right amount of sexy. Swishing my hair, I blew myself a kiss and went downstairs to eat.

I was almost to the bottom of the stairs when Ken’s angry voice stopped me cold. Mom still had music playing in the kitchen, so it could hardly be heard over the volume, but I’d just become attuned and watchful for it over the years.

Relief flooded me when I heard Mom’s off-key singing floating out through the doorway to the kitchen. Thank God it wasn’t her receiving Ken’s malice this time.

Glancing over to the den, I saw Aaron’s large figure through the gap in the doorway.

Ken’s voice cut through the noise again. “. . . five grand, Aaron! . . . fuck were you thinking? . . . can’t believe you were jumped . . .”

I leaned forward, trying to hear what they were talking about, but the music was too loud for me to make any sense out of the few words I was catching.

Creeping forward, I strained harder, but then the door to the den flew open and Aaron stormed out, heading right for me. I tried to make out I was just on my way down, but the angry set of his shoulders froze me in place.

Then I saw the bruises on his face. I gasped. Holy hell. Did Ken do that?

He glared at me as he passed. The bruises looked even worse up close, and there was a little dried blood on his lip, from where it’d been split open. The dryness of the blood told me it had happened a while ago, so I didn’t think Ken had done it. I wondered what shit he’d gotten himself into now?

Trying to shrug it off, I rushed to the kitchen to see how the lasagna was doing.

I’d just finished eating when Ken sauntered into the kitchen wearing his tuxedo. He gave Mom an appraising look before his eyes finally found mine, turning malicious.

Mom fussed over him, pouring him a glass of scotch, before taking my plate and washing it. I watched her move around Ken with an increasing sense of anxiety.

The second Mom excused herself to go brush her teeth, he turned on me. “You have a transaction to make tonight.”

I gawked at him. “What? I can’t! I’m going to a party,” I said with horror.

His eyes narrowed. “You know, Kaeli, I hear an awful lot of accidents happen to women who wear stilettos.”

I felt the shock spread over my face. No! “You wouldn’t,” I whispered.

A wicked smile spread over his face, and his eyebrows shot up, saying everything his voice didn’t: Wouldn’t I?

Suddenly, I felt sick.

“TJ wants you there before seven. You’d better hurry. I don’t think you want to find out what he’d do if you were late.”

Chapter 12

Noah

 

 

Friday nights at TJ’s weren’t pretty. Even after a year and a half of witnessing them, I still found myself a little shocked by what went on there.

The music pumped hard, the sound creating invisible waves in the air that made my blood pulse with each beat. The usual girls were there, most of them half naked, ready to please any one of us at any time.

This was the part I had a hard time with. Not one of TJ’s gang minded sharing, even if the chick they were ready to get it on with just climbed off one of the other guys five minutes before.

At first, I participated in what was necessary to keep up my façade, but then I decided it was easier to play the hot-headed jealous kind of guy who didn’t like to share, or touch a girl who’d just been screwed by someone else. They liked to rib me about it, but they accepted it as though it was just part of my drug-fucked state of mind.

Of course, I didn’t avoid sex the whole time—that would’ve looked suspicious, but I did choose willing participants, and followed through with it within the privacy of my own room, instead of disgracing her in front of a room full of people.

Tonight, I decided to take the drug-fucked way and avoid the skanks completely. I’d just settled back in the armchair with a pipe in hand, eyeing Lilly—Davo’s favorite—with distaste, when I caught TJ smirking at me with his cell in his hand. I casually lit the pipe, sucking in the fumes, and watched him saunter over.

“You might get lucky tonight after all,” he said. “It seems Ken’s out of stock again.”

Fuck. The thought of Kaeli coming here in the middle of one of TJ’s parties was sickening. I forced a knowing grin on my face.

TJ laughed. “I thought you might like that. We already have it packaged for him, but she doesn’t need to know that. Take all the time you want.”

“Fuck, yeah.” I smirked. “Thanks, man.”

I took another draw on the pipe, desperately trying to figure out how the hell I was going to shield Kaeli from everything she would see, finding no answers other than dragging her upstairs as fast as I could.

Finishing up with the pipe, I put it away and went to the kitchen to wait.

 

 

Chapter 13

Kaeli

 

 

The bus moved slowly through the darkened streets, methodically winding its way toward the southern suburbs. I pulled Mom’s coat tighter around me, trying to cover the parts my short dress didn’t reach.

I scowled as I recalled the snide grin on Ken’s face as he and Mom left for their charity event. He’d known I wouldn’t have enough time to change before I had to leave to catch the bus. The best I could do was to clip up my hair and throw on a coat.

How on earth it was possible to feel so differently toward your appearance, purely based on the people who were going to see you was beyond me. I’d gone from feeling exhilaratingly sexy, to outright sleazy, all within the space of Ken’s announcement.

I knew there’d be a lot of girls showing way more skin than me at Ryan’s party, but knowing I was going to a house full of drug dealers, and let’s face it, probably rapists, I suddenly felt very exposed—like I was going there with a big neon sign on my forehead that said fuck me.

Every part of me was screaming at me to go home. To turn the hell around and hide under my bedcovers, but I knew I had to be strong for Mom. I had no idea what Ken would do to her if he found out I didn’t make the delivery, but I knew it wouldn’t be good.

My stomach turned as I remembered his words. You know, Kaeli, I hear an awful lot of accidents happen to women who wear stilettos.

My eyes stung. God, I hated him!

The bus jolted to a stop where I needed to get off and, holding Mom’s coat tightly across my body with one hand and Ken’s bag in the other, I hobbled down the steps.

The dimly lit corners of the backstreets felt a lot more unsettling than the last time I’d stormed down there, cursing Ken and his distorted view of normalcy, and I knew it had everything to do with the fact that I now knew what to expect.

The closer I got to the house of horror, the faster my heart raced. What the hell was I doing, willingly going back to that place? I knew that Mitch guy hadn’t gone as far as he could’ve last time I was there, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t this time, did it?

And I distinctly remembered them arguing about ‘turns.’ What if their fucked up rules meant that it was someone else’s turn tonight? What if it was that Pock guy? My stomach clenched, and my throat jerked like it was getting ready to puke.

All the reasons were in my head. I knew why I had to do it, but my sense of self-preservation was screaming at me with all its might. God! Please keep me safe!

Turning down the alley that led around to the back of TJ’s house, I slipped into the deeper darkness, trying to avoid tripping over the discarded rubbish and boxes that seemed to be covering most of the ground.

I slowed when the rusty old carport came into view and stopped at the back door I was now supposed to use. My chest was literally jumping with each pump of my heart. I tried to slow my breathing, tried to rein in the panic, but I couldn’t convince myself the fear I was feeling wasn’t real. I knew it was. My whole body was shaking with it. I didn’t want to go in there.

Tears of hopelessness pricked my eyes. I knew all the reasons why I had to go in, but fear had frozen me to the spot. I didn’t know how to get myself to make that final move.

Squeezing my eyes shut tight, I thought of Mom. I thought of the smile she wore as she’d walked out the door tonight. I thought of her coming home, still happy, and climbing into bed with that rare contented smile on her lips.

A tear ran down my cheek.

Before the image could leave me, I reached out and knocked.

After a few panicked heartbeats, the door swung open, and Mitch glared down at me from the threshold. For some strange reason, relief flared inside me. He stared at me for a few seconds, his eyes flashing with something I couldn’t quite decipher as his gaze trailed over the tear I hadn’t yet wiped away. Then he stood back, gesturing for me to come in.

I tried yet again to swallow my panic down, but when it refused to budge, I looked up at Mitch with despair. His jaw tensed as he watched me, and I thought I saw pain flash in his eyes, but I also knew I couldn’t trust what my mind was telling me anymore. It was in a complete state of emergency.

Swallowing hard, I forced myself to step inside.

Being inside their house again only intensified the panic even more. I couldn’t push the memory of Pock from my mind. The cold look in his eyes, the dark intent of his hands, the stale, acrid stench of his breath. It all made me want to stick to Mitch like glue. After that forced kiss the other day, I knew I had to be crazy to think like that, but I knew without a doubt I’d rather take whatever Mitch handed out than anything Pock might have in mind. He was evil.

Loud music played from the other room, and voices, wild and free, floated into the kitchen with it. The smell of smoke was thick in the air, though not the kind I was used to smelling on the street. It was strong and smelled sickly sweet.

Mitch took Ken’s bag from me with one hand, and grabbed the top of my arm with his other, leading me toward the other room. I looked up at him with alarm, reflexes telling me to pull away and run, but the hard stare he gave me made me think twice.

With a firm hand, he pulled me into the other room.

The lights were dim and smoke choked the air. I coughed, my throat automatically closing in protest, and my eyes watering against the intrusion. I stumbled behind Mitch, helpless with my limited senses, and tried to get my bearings, searching the room for the voices I could hear.

When my gaze finally found the source of at least two of the voices, I wished they hadn’t. The blond guy I’d seen last time, Davo I think his name was, was with a small dark-haired girl on the couch, and from what I could see, she was naked below the waist with her legs wrapped tightly around his waist as he half-knelt, half-lay on top of her. It wasn’t until I saw him rocking violently that I realized what they were doing.

I gasped with horrified shock, instantly averting my eyes, but instead of finding relief, I only found more scantily clad girls with TJ’s other guys, passing a strange-looking pipe between them.

Mitch threw Ken’s bag onto one of the guy’s laps. “Check it,” he demanded, then turned to me, thrusting his hands into my jacket pockets, pulling out my cell and thrusting it into his own pocket.

He grabbed me by the waist, forcefully turning me so my back, thankfully, was to everything going on. Untying my jacket belt, he unbuttoned it with sure fingers and pulled it open to reveal my clothing underneath.

I watched him pause for a few heartbeats, his eyes widening with surprise as he gazed down at my very short fitted dress and knee-high boots. I tensed under his gaze. His eyes shot up to seek mine, his breath noticeably faster, but before I could think any more about it, his hands reached under my jacket, running quickly, but softly, over my body, searching for God knew what.

I gasped at the small jolt of thrill that shot through my insides. What the hell? I was seriously losing it if I was feeling a thrill at being touched by a drug dealer. Mitch’s jaw tightened a fraction before his hands disappeared, leaving me feeling strangely confused.

“She’s clean,” he said, his voice rough.

I didn’t know who he was talking to. I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off the hard set of his jaw.

“Good. Have fun.” I recognized TJ’s voice from behind me.

Have fun? What? My head suddenly cleared, registering what he meant. Shit! No! These people were disgusting. I knew I had to be strong for Mom, but to what extent?

Mitch grabbed my jacket again, roughly pulling at it, overlapping the edges until my dress was concealed beneath it. He glanced up at me sharply, anger flashing in the depths of his eyes. I couldn’t hide my fear. I knew it was etched all over my face.

He jerked his head toward the stairs. “Let’s go.”

My eyes widened, and I shook my head in a panic.

His expression hardened even more. “You want me to fuck you down here so everyone can watch?”

The world stopped spinning. It was in that moment I realized I was still holding onto the hope that he wouldn’t go any farther than he had the last time I was there. Despair washed over me, and my eyes stung even more.

“That’s what I thought. Now move.”

Taking me by the arm again, he led me over to the stairs and pulled me, stumbling and tripping, upwards.

 

Chapter 14

Noah

 

 

I released Kaeli’s arm the second she was safe inside my room and turned to quickly shut and lock the door.

The memory of her broken expression was burnt on my fucking brain. I fucking hated myself for having to speak to her that way, but TJ was standing there watching me. What the fuck else was I supposed to do?

Spinning, I dragged my hands over the short stubble of my hair. “Fuck!”

I had no fucking idea what to do. I didn’t know how to do this without leaving a permanent fucking scar on her psyche.

Striding across to the other side of the room, I splashed some bourbon into a glass and threw it back. I wanted to throw the fucking thing at the wall and watch it shatter into a million pieces.

Slamming the glass down on the table, I spun around to face her. When my eyes fell on her, she took a fearful step back. Motherfucking hell.

She stared back at me, eyes wide. Well, at least she wasn’t fucking crying, although I wasn’t sure if that really made me feel any better.

Everything about her was cautious, from her gaze to her stance. Her chest moved rapidly as she took short, shallow breaths. Her arms were wrapped tightly around her stomach, protecting herself the only way she could, looking very much like the prey caught in the hunter’s trap, and her body was coiled tight, ready to fight.

Taking a deep, calm-the-fuck-down breath, I took a slow step toward her. She took one back. I stopped.

Even though the guys ribbed me about the different needs I supposedly had with girls, I knew TJ watched me. I didn’t think he was entirely convinced about my preference to choose my own girls and have them in private. I knew he’d be looking for details. I needed him to believe I was having my way with her. And that meant she needed to look a little roughed up.

“Take off your jacket and let your hair out,” I said in a low voice.

Fear spiked in her eyes.

I waited, not moving, not speaking. Just letting her make the choice. Her gaze stayed locked on mine. I could see her mind ticking over, trying to understand my demand.

After a long minute of watching each other, she carefully slipped the jacket from her shoulders and let it fall to the floor.

I forced myself to keep my gaze locked on hers. I knew what she was wearing underneath that jacket, and if I let myself look her over again right then, she would see the desire in my eyes, and I would lose her trust instantly.

It was another long minute before she unclipped her hair. I held my breath as it tumbled over her shoulders and down her back in a mass of sexy-as-fuck curls. I seriously thought I was going to choke. Damn, she was beautiful.

I couldn’t stop myself then. I had to see that dress again. My gaze moved down, slowly taking her in. It was short and tight and showed off every curve on her body. If the other guys had seen her wearing this, I knew I would’ve had a fight on my hands.

Wrestling my eyes back to hers, I gave her a pleading look. Was she trying to get herself into trouble? I didn’t know how I was supposed to protect someone who didn’t know the first thing about self-preservation.

“Why would you wear that?” I asked, my voice a little strangled.

She seemed to blanch at my question, but then her expression turned apologetic and worried. “I . . . I was on my way to a party. I didn’t know I had to come here.” Her voice was all but a frightened whisper.

Oh, hell. I could see that now. What she was wearing would be quite normal for a teenage party. If anything, it was probably covering more than most. I just wanted her to understand that these guys weren’t like the guys she went to school with. They wouldn’t try to sweet talk her so she’d hopefully say yes. They would take whatever they wanted, without a care to her at all. I needed her to understand that.

As I took in her panicked face, I realized she probably did. Her confusion toward my reaction was clear. She didn’t understand why I was worried about her appearance. In her eyes, I was just like the other guys downstairs. I was a lowlife drug dealer who took advantage of women. She knew I should be ogling her, trying to rip that sexy dress off her and take her with or without her consent. She was calling me out in my own game. Eighteen months of undercover work was coming unraveled right before my eyes, and I couldn’t do a damn thing about it.

I ran my hand over my head again before deciding I needed another drink. Turning away from her innocence, I tipped the bottle quickly, spilling a little in my hurry.

It didn’t work. I just couldn’t seem to collect myself. This girl was doing something to me. I felt like it had been so long since I’d felt something real, and now that I did, I couldn’t switch it off. It was frightening and exhilarating at the same time.

I half-filled my glass again and turned back to her. She didn’t look scared. She looked nervous. I hated that I was the one making her feel that way. I wanted her to relax.

“Drink?” I asked, holding the glass out suggestively.

She didn’t say anything, just shook her head. I inhaled deeply, then threw the bourbon down in another long gulp. I wanted her to trust me.

So fucking much.

Without taking my eyes off her, I placed the empty glass back on the table and slowly made my way toward her.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I wanted to touch her, touch that long silky-looking hair. I wanted to hold her. And more than anything, I wanted her to hold me. I wanted to know that I hadn’t sacrificed the best years of my life for nothing.

Her gaze held me captive. It lured me in. Her breath became shallow, quicker.

I stopped within reaching distance of her. Why did she have to be dragged into this world? I didn’t know what would happen to me if she ended up getting hurt, but I knew it wouldn’t be good. I knew it would destroy something inside me.

“You’re so beautiful,” I whispered. The pain in my voice confused me.

I heard her suck in a sharp breath at my words. Her eyes flickered with bewilderment. I watched her arms slip from their defensive position, her body language becoming receptive. I could see the battle raging deep inside her eyes. Her attraction locked head to head with her common sense.

Unfortunately, her common sense won out, and she took a tiny step back, away from the contradiction that was me.

Goddamn it! I really needed to get a grip.

Breaking her gaze, I moved over to the armchair and sat down. I needed a better plan than this. Think, damn it. Think! I ran my hands over my shaved hair, leaving them cupping the back of my neck with my elbows on my knees.

I heard her moving farther away from me, probably back to the wall she’d sheltered against the last time she’d been here, but I didn’t look up. I honestly didn’t know what to do. All I knew was that in half an hour’s time, I’d have to make her look like she’d just spent an hour in my bed. I hated myself already.

Chapter 15

Kaeli

 

 

I don’t know how long Mitch sat there with his head hung low. I just stood there and watched him from my place against the wall. When he did finally look up, he didn’t seem surprised I was standing where I was.

The bright violet of his eyes drew me in yet again. They were kind of mesmerizing. I knew they had to have been contacts. No one had eyes that color. And I remembered they’d been a yellowy color the last time I’d been here.

He steepled his hands in front of his face and pressed his fingers against his lips as he observed me. I was so confused. I didn’t know what he was doing. For whatever reason, he looked torn today. It went against everything I thought I knew about him.

He sat there for another ten minutes, just watching me, his brow creased with contemplation. I fidgeted in my position against the wall, not sure where to look while he watched me. I felt so self-conscious.

“How long has your mom been with Ken?”

I jumped at the sound of his voice. He’d been silent for so long, I hadn’t been expecting it. His question surprised me too. I don’t know why. I thought it was because he’d been so intense for the past half an hour, so conflicted and sad. To see him switch so suddenly to casual conversation threw me.

I swallowed. “Since I was nine.”

“Has he always been abusive?”

“They were married for about six months before Mom even saw a glimpse of his ugly side.” I frowned. Why was I telling him this so freely?

Mitch’s jaw tightened. “Does he hurt you too?”

“No.”

He nodded, looking suddenly relieved, and that confused me even more.

“How long have you known about his side business?”

I understood immediately that he was talking about the drug dealing.  “I still don’t really know anything. I’m assuming it’s drugs, but no one’s told me for sure.”

He sat back in the chair and sighed, turning to gaze out the window. I shifted weight slightly, trying to take the pressure off my aching feet. My head felt so tired all of a sudden. I just wanted to lie down and curl up. I let my head fall back against the wall and closed my eyes for a little while.

I thought I had my life all mapped out. Yeah, okay, Ken’s temper made it hard to make plans most of the time, but I’d always thought I’d be free once I went off to college—that I could just go live my life the way I’d always wanted to.

Now I realized just how stupid that thought had been. In what world would I stop worrying about my mom just because I was now in college? I was always going to be stuck with this mess, for as long as Ken was in our lives.

And now I’d been brought into his mess even further. Where the hell did that leave me? I had no idea what would become of me now. How much was this new violation in my life going to affect me? How far did my involvement with them go?

I sighed heavily and opened my eyes to find Mitch watching me again. This time, I was sure I could see sadness in his eyes. I wondered what he was thinking.

He checked his watch and sighed, then his jaw clenched hard, like he was upset about something. Slowly, he pushed himself off the chair and stood, then made his way toward me.

My heart went into a spin. A wild, erratic thumping that made the breath stick in my throat. I’d seen him do that before—check the time before coming to me. After that, he’d forced me to kiss him. I tensed, my eyes growing wide, but I wasn’t one hundred percent sure if it was with fear this time.

Mitch moved slowly, his jaw still tensed with aggression, but it was his eyes that threw me. They were a complete contradiction to the tough, aggressive criminal he was supposed to be. They were filled with despair and guilt. They made me freeze in place, my breath caught somewhere inside my chest.

He didn’t stop until our toes were touching. My hands went out automatically, pressing against his chest, ready to push him away. He leaned closer, bracing himself against the wall, one hand on either side of my head until his body was pressed against mine. I gasped from the pressure, pushing firmly with my hands. God, he was so solid.

He pushed his chest harder against me, then forced one of his legs in between both of mine, lowering his face toward me. I could feel something hard press against my stomach. Oh God, was that his . . . ? My heart burst into a sprint. Shit. Was I excited? Did I actually want him to kiss me?

What the hell was wrong with me?

I pushed harder, forcing myself to turn my face away. In a split second, he had both my wrists in one hand, pinning them on the wall above my head, and with his other hand, he grabbed my face, holding it still while he pressed his lips to mine.

I struggled against him, a pathetic whimpering noise sounding in the back of my throat. I tried shaking my head out of his grip, but his hold was unbreakable. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt in the slightest. His hands were actually gentle.

He didn’t use his tongue, and he didn’t try to pry my lips apart to get inside me. He just moved his mouth over mine. Everything about it confused me. His kiss was hard, but his lips were so deliciously soft. My mind was all over the goddamned place.

It wasn’t until his hand released mine that I realized I’d stopped fighting. I wasn’t kissing him back, but I certainly wasn’t giving him the right signals to stop, either.

I tried to form some semblance of coherent thoughts. Tried to work out what my plan of attack was, but then his hand was around my waist, running over my lower back and around to my stomach. I felt it glide smoothly over my ribs, sending that tiny little thrill of something through my body, then his hand scrunched into a fist, pulling the folds of my dress in with it. I exhaled on a sigh.

A slight growl sounded in his chest, making something low in my stomach flutter. I tried pushing against him again, but even I knew the attempt was pathetic.

His hands moved over my hips, down past the hem of my dress and over my thighs. I felt his hands tighten and his chest and arms flex before the sound of ripping nylon caught my attention and my tights pulled roughly around my thigh.

I gasped. Oh, my God. Did he just rip my tights?

His muscles flexed again, and I felt the tight pull around my other thigh before there was another ripping sound.

My head spun. I had no idea what was happening, no idea why I wasn’t fighting harder. I gave myself a mental slap, telling myself to snap out of it, but then Mitch was biting my bottom lip, sucking on it.

What . . . ?

Then, all of a sudden, he released me. He didn’t move away. He just stood there, his hard body only inches away from mine, but his hands and mouth no longer touching me. Insanely, I felt a pang of disappointment. I pushed the thought away with self-disgust and screwed my eyes shut tight.

It didn’t help. It felt like my senses were on high alert. The sound and feel of his deep breath was doing something to my body. I could feel it on my face. I swallowed. It smelled sweet. Good.

Holy hell. I really was attracted to him. What was wrong with me?

When I eventually opened my eyes, he was gone, back on the other side of the room. He wasn’t looking at me, but I could feel his awareness of me like the tingling of a soft breeze. He poured himself another glass of bourbon, tipped it down, and turned to face me.

“Let’s go,” he said, the roughness of his voice sliding over me like warm butter.

My mind was still spinning. I was so confused, not only with my own weirded out emotions but with the way he was acting. I had absolutely no idea which way was up or down when I was around him. I mean, he was a criminal for crying out loud.

After seeing what was going on downstairs, I couldn’t understand why he hadn’t gone any farther. Hell, everything he’d done felt like he actually cared about what happened to me . . . well, except for the forced kissing. I didn’t understand that in the slightest.

He reached down and grabbed my jacket off the floor, holding it out to me like it was a peace offering. I blinked at it, trying to force my mind to catch up.

A slight hiccup suddenly made me realize I had tears falling down my face. When the hell had I started crying? Jesus, I was a freaking mess.

Mitch stood patiently, watching me and waiting like he had all the time in the world.

Forcing myself to snap out of it, I stepped forward and slid my arms into the sleeves. Wrapping it as tightly across my body as I could, I hoped it might hold the capacity to stop me from falling apart any more than I already was.

Mitch watched me as I struggled with my emotions. He actually looked like he wanted to say something, but was holding back for some reason. It was funny how I didn’t feel uncomfortable with his gaze this time. I didn’t know why that was, and I was pretty sure I didn’t ever want to know because I knew the answer would only confuse me more than I already was.

After what felt like an eternity, Mitch sighed and turned for the door, and with a strange sensation in my gut, I followed.

TJ was waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs. His eyes narrowed as I met his gaze, and I had to look away, not wanting him to see how distressed I was. I felt him scrutinizing my appearance, searching my hair, my clothes, even my mouth. The waiting eventually got to me, and I looked up at him again. He smiled, and a shiver went down my spine.

“Want to drive her home, or should I get Pock to do it?” TJ said, all business.

I couldn’t hear much over the loud thumping music, but Mitch looked like he growled at him. “I’ll take her. Pock’s not getting into her pants until I’m done.”

Fear and anger exploded inside me at once. Realizing they were planning on sharing me around was sickening, but knowing Mitch was going to allow it made me angry. Then I was just angry at myself. Why had I allowed myself to think he was any different? I was so incredibly stupid.

TJ grinned. “Check out the strip on your way back, see what’s going down.”

Mitch nodded, then, without another glance, grabbed my arm and marched me to the kitchen.

The little dark-haired girl I’d seen with Davo when I’d first arrived was just inside the door, wearing only a bra. This time, she was pinned up against the wall by one of the other guys, and she had her legs wrapped tightly around him as he pounded away. I was sure my face was as white as snow. I felt like I was seriously going to be sick. Didn’t these girls have any self-respect?

Mitch pulled me harder, thrusting open the back door and dragging me out to the car. It wasn’t until we were well away from the house that he finally spoke.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

What? Was he really asking me if I was okay when I’d just been subjected to the most revolting scenes I’d ever witnessed? When he’d just pushed himself onto me, forced his lips against mine?

I wanted to scream at him. Ask him how the hell could I possibly be okay?

Clenching my fists at my sides, I glared down the tears that were threatening to spill, again, and tried to bite my tongue, but after a few seconds it became too much for me. Turning, I shot lasers out my eyes at him. “Are you serious!”

He flinched, and his hands tightened on the steering wheel.

I knew it wasn’t just his question. It was everything, finally catching up with me. It was either I let it out with anger, or I let it out with tears. I preferred anger, but I also knew I was probably dicing with death, speaking to a known criminal like that.

“I’m going to go home, throw this Godforsaken bag at Ken if he’s there, then I’m going to the party, and I’m going to get very drunk.” I enunciated every word through my anger.

Mitch glanced over at me. He seemed to be holding his breath. “You’re still going to the party?” He sounded surprised.

“Yes! I need to just . . . I just . . .” My voice shook, betraying me. “I just want to forget everything. I want . . .” I couldn’t finish. I was close to losing it.

“I thought you didn’t drink,” he said quietly.

I looked over at him. I honestly had no idea how to take this guy. By all rights, he should’ve been angry at me for speaking so bitchily toward him. He should’ve had a cocky scowl or something on his face. He should’ve been damn intimidating.

But he wasn’t. And I actually thought I might even feel safe with him.

I shook my head at my stupidity. Shit! I was losing my common sense. He was a damn criminal, for God’s sake! I felt like screaming.

When he stopped in the alley behind my house, I grabbed the bag and slammed the car door behind me, leaving him there without another word.

 

Chapter 16

Noah

 

 

I watched Kaeli slip through the gap in the fence with a knot in my stomach. I knew she was upset. Hell, the fact that she wanted to go get herself drunk when it was obvious she didn’t drink was like a flashing neon sign to the fact. I wanted to reassure her that it was all going to be all right, that I would do everything within my power to make sure she was kept safe. This was the first time since I’d become a cop that I felt completely helpless.

It hurt to think she hated me. I wanted to tell her I wasn’t really the bad guy. That it was all just an act, but, of course, I couldn’t do that. I hated to think what the captain would do to me if I blew eighteen months of undercover work for a girl. But I knew the state she was in at the moment was a dangerous one. Not for me or anyone else. For her. I knew her mind would be in a state of shock, between what she’d seen back at the house and what I’d done to her. It made me more determined than ever to put those sick fucks behind bars.

I planned to rendezvous with the unit later that night, to find out if they’d put any detail on Kaeli at school yet. I knew the captain would want to keep an eye on her to make sure she didn’t do anything that might jeopardize the operation, but I just wanted to make sure she was coping.

Six minutes after I’d watched Kaeli disappear through the fence, I watched her slip out her front door, minus the tights I’d ripped, and head off down the street on foot. I frowned. She really was going to the party.

Tucking my piece into the waistband of my jeans, I quietly climbed out of the car and slipped into the shadows to follow her.

The tight set of her shoulders told me she was still upset. Well, that and the fact that she had her arms wrapped tightly around her body and her steps were quick and heavy on the sidewalk. She’d ditched the jacket she was wearing earlier, and I now had full view of her beautiful, curvy little body. The way her hips swung as she walked had me swallowing hard.

Five blocks later she slowed her steps, coming to a stop in the shadows across the street from the party. I couldn’t see her face, so I wasn’t really sure why she’d stopped, but after a few minutes, she dropped her arms to her sides and crossed the street.

I settled down in the shadows and waited.

 

Chapter 17

Kaeli

 

 

It took me a little while to work up the courage to walk into Ryan’s house. I’d been so consumed with everything going on in my life that I’d totally forgotten the implications of me coming tonight. Standing in the shadows across the street, I’d finally remembered Corey and the fact that he could be waiting for me.

I wasn’t sure if I was ready to handle that particular situation right now. The fact that his ex-girlfriend was trying to get him back, and the memory of Mia’s run-in with a jealous girl over Jace was still too fresh in my mind. That had ended with Mia in the hospital in a coma.

Even if that wasn’t an issue, I still didn’t really think it was fair for me to have a boyfriend with everything that was going on in my life at this point in time. But then, on the other hand, after what I just went through at the house of horror, I kind of felt desperate for a little normalcy. It really was a no-win situation.

A surge of despair shot through me. Would I ever know what it was like to have a normal relationship? To have what Mia had with Jace? I sighed. I was beginning to think not.

Steeling myself with a deep breath, I walked inside.

Mia spotted me the second I stepped in the door. She lit up so brightly, I had no choice but to laugh. My shoulders instantly relaxed. God, I loved her ability to do that.

She pulled me into a big bear hug, her soft giggles making it obvious she’d had quite a few drinks already. “I thought you weren’t going to make it! Do you want something to drink?”

I pulled back to give her an exhausted look. “God, yes!”

She grinned at me knowingly, then dragged me to the kitchen, where Ryan was pouring a few shots. Amber was front and center, overseeing his efforts. She looked up at me when I leaned closer. “Shots?” she said, mischief ripe in her eyes.

I pushed the voice of reason to the back of my mind. I’d never had a shot before, but I sure as shit wanted to try some tonight. “Sure.”

Mia gave me a worried glance. “Are you sure? You’re not really a seasoned drinker, babe.”

Ryan grinned like an idiot, pushing a few of the tiny glasses in front of me. “I am tonight,” I said, determined to blast my mind into an oblivion.

Mia didn’t say anything, but she bit her lip. That was speech enough. She didn’t approve. Oh well.

Without waiting a second longer, I picked up one of the shots and threw it down my throat, just like I’d seen Mitch do only an hour ago. It burned the whole way down. Tequila. Gross.

The thought of Mitch made me think of Ken, and the anger inside me reared its ugly head again. I picked up another one and slammed it down too. My anger roared triumphantly.

Amber smirked at me and pushed a third one closer to me, holding one of her own up like a toast. Picking it up, I clicked our little glasses together and downed it too.

Mia frowned at me, still biting her lip. I knew she was worried, but I really needed to wipe my mind. Picking up one more, I tipped it back and shrugged. I didn’t care anymore. The burning liquid quickly reached my stomach, and all of a sudden, I just wanted to dance. Looking at Mia, I smiled widely. “Let’s dance.”

She looked back at Jace, who was eyeing me cautiously. When he gave her a slight nod, she smiled and stretched up to kiss him before grabbing my hand.

We half-walked, half-skipped back to the lounge room, where a crowd was jumping maniacally to the beat of a fast techno song.

I caught Jace and Aiden standing off to the side, watching, their gazes intent. I knew they were only concerned about Mia. She hadn’t had an anxiety attack in a while, but the last one wasn’t so long ago that it had been forgotten yet.

About six tracks later, my head was starting to feel fluffy. My body felt loose and relaxed, and everything seemed funny. I was on my own planet, doing what felt good to me, and I didn’t care one single bit what anyone else thought about it.

Mia laughed with me the whole time, easing my troubles, even if it was only for one night. Every so often, Jace would appear with a fresh drink for each of us. Sometimes it was water, sometimes it was a cup of some sweet-tasting orange juice, but each time, we would hold our cups up and toast to some bizarre wish for my future.

A few tracks later, when Jace took our empty cups away, he reappeared beside us and took Mia in his arms for a dance of his own. I didn’t see Corey until he was right in front of me.

“Hey!” I said, immediately wondering why I was so excited to see him. Then I quickly realized I’d forgotten all about him. Whoops. I giggled.

Corey cocked a lopsided grin at me. It was kind of cute, really. I giggled again.

“Wanna dance?” he asked, sliding a little closer to me.

I bit my lip, trying to repress the urge to flat-out laugh. What was wrong with me? If I didn’t rein it in, I’d be in complete hysterics soon. He took my non-answer as a yes, and, taking a full step forward, put his hands on my hips.

We swayed to the music in an almost hypnotic way, just feeling the beat flow through us until the song changed into another, then another.

It was somewhere in the middle of the third song when I realized my mood had changed. The laughter was gone, and it all felt way too serious. His hands had moved slowly around to my lower back, fingers splayed, tension high.

This new energy confused me, and I wasn’t really sure why. Pushing away from him a fraction, I looked up into his eyes. Despite the fluffiness in my head, I knew I was standing on a precipice. I had to make a decision: retreat, or attempt normal.

Before I could think anything else, his lips were on mine, and we were kissing. The decision had been made. My body melted and reacted of its own accord, my lips parting against his, and my hands snaking up into his hair. Corey’s hands pressed firmly against my lower back, pulling me against him as his lips caressed mine.

I instantly knew this was the kind of normalcy I’d been looking for. My body had been craving it, but I still couldn’t help feeling like something was missing. It didn’t feel right. And it didn’t taste right.

Eventually, we pulled apart and Corey exhaled with a grin. “Wow.”

I looked up at him and blinked, reality coming back like a slap in the face. The lust in his gaze paralyzed me. Everything, and I mean everything, rushed back to me, stealing the air out of my lungs. I felt like I was back in Mitch’s bedroom. Shit.

I guessed my expression mustn’t have shown the anxiety that coursed through me, because Corey just lifted his lopsided grin a little higher, pulling it into a knowing smile. Oh, crap. What the hell was I doing?

Confusion, my constant companion, stepped front and center. Taking a small step back, I feigned a tiny smile. “Um . . . I need to use the bathroom.”

Corey let his hands glide over my hips as he released me. “Okay. I’ll get you a drink.”

Stupid, stupid, stupid! I grumbled to myself as I weaved my way through the crowd, trying to find the way to the bathroom. I reached the end of a long hallway, and opened a door that looked like it could be it, but, instead, I found myself standing outside. Shit.

I sighed, then drew in a deep breath. Now that I was away from the music and the intoxication of the crowd, I felt kind of wrong. My head couldn’t seem to keep focus on anything for very long, and my body seemed incredibly heavy. Why did it sound like such a good idea to get drunk? Yes, I’d felt pretty damn good for those few hours, but this uncontrollable mess was horrible. I needed to go home.

I didn’t even bother going to find Mia to say goodbye. I just tapped out a quick text, then slipped down the side of Ryan’s house and started for home.

 

Chapter 18

Noah

 

 

At exactly 12:36 am, Kaeli slipped through the side gate and out onto the street. She’d barely gone past the neighbor’s house when I realized she’d accomplished her goal of getting drunk.

She didn’t stumble and giggle like most girls did when they were drunk. Kaeli just had an intense focus about her, her body tightly wound as she concentrated on each foot going in front of the other. I wondered if it’d helped her forget everything she’d seen back at the house. Strangely, I hoped so.

I walked a little way behind her, on the other side of the street, keeping to the shadows. She’d only gone two blocks when I heard a faint sob come from her. Fuck. Why did that sound hurt me so much?

She slowed, then eventually came to a complete stop, dropping her face into her hands. My heart contracted. I hated the thought of her being so upset. I just wanted to comfort her.

Quietly, I slipped farther up the street from her, then crossed over, coming to stand a few yards in front of her. As if sensing my presence, she lifted her hands from her face and looked up at me. I couldn’t hear her from where I was standing, but her lips parted like she gasped and her eyes widened a fraction.

“Mitch?” she whispered.

I watched her warily. I knew what she must think of me. Even though I wanted to go to her more than anything, I knew my touch probably wasn’t what she wanted right now.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

I decided to go with the truth. “I followed you. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Her eyes narrowed slightly. “Why?” she said disdainfully. “Is TJ worried his latest mule might get hurt? Or was he just worried I might become a blabbermouth when I was drunk?”

“Neither. TJ doesn’t know I’m here.”

She blinked in surprise. “Then why are you?”

I shrugged. “I told you. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

She stared at me for a long while. I almost couldn’t hear her next words. “Well, I’m not.”

Her bottom lip trembled. I could tell she was trying so hard to keep it together. I took an involuntary step toward her, then stopped, remembering I was the enemy. That was when she lost it. The tears flowed down her cheeks like a waterfall.

I closed the gap between us, coming to stand before her. Gingerly, I reached out and wiped a tear away with my thumb. Surprise flickered in her eyes for a second, then, before I had time to register what was happening, she leaned forward and rested her forehead on my chest, her hands coming to rest on either side of my waist. I didn’t think about the fact that she should hate me, that she should be cringing from my touch. I just wrapped my arms around her and did what I had wanted to do since the first moment I saw her. I held her.

After a while, she pulled away from me. She didn’t move away very far, just enough to look up at me, her hands still resting on my hips. The trust I saw in her eyes paralyzed me. When the hell did that happen? I was so screwed. The second TJ saw her look at me like that, the operation was going to go to hell. I needed to fix this.

She interrupted my thoughts with a whisper. “You’re not like the others.”

Ah, fuck. “Are you sure about that?” I gave her my best intense gaze. The kind I used with the guys when I needed to show them I wouldn’t be fucked with.

She blinked at me. “Yes.” The alcohol was making her brave. “I don’t think you’d hurt me.”

Oh, God, was I that easy to read? I opened my mouth to respond but was cut off by a voice down the street.

“Kaeli?”

We both turned at the sound of the voice. A boy, about the same age as Kaeli, was walking toward us. Kaeli didn’t attempt to move away from me, so I didn’t think he was her boyfriend. He was tall, although not quite as tall as me, and was solid for someone his age. He had medium-length blond hair and brown eyes that flickered nervously between us. The confidence he showed by approaching us in this situation proved he was probably one of the popular guys at school.

His gaze zeroed in on Kaeli. “Are you okay?” he asked, unable to stop himself from glancing at me when he said it.

She inhaled deeply, then dropped her hands from my hips and turned to face him. “Yeah. I started to feel sick, so I thought I’d go home.”

The confusion in his gaze told me it wasn’t the answer he was looking for. “Do you want me to walk you?” he asked hopefully.

Her eyes darted to me for a second before returning to him. “No, I’ll be all right. Thanks, though.”

He pursed his lips together as he decided what to do. After a few seconds, he simply nodded and turned to walk away. What a dick. There was no way I’d just leave her with someone who looked like me.

 

Chapter 19

Kaeli

 

 

It was strange having Mitch walk me home. It felt like such a gentlemanly thing to do, and that just didn’t match up with the whole drug dealing criminal thing he had going on.

Then, when we were about halfway home, the tequila caught up with me, and I had to run for the bushes to be sick. Mitch stayed with me the entire time, softly rubbing my back and holding my hair for me. I was so confused. He was one big contradiction, and every minute I spent in his presence, I grew to trust him a little more. I had no idea why. It went against all common sense.

We didn’t talk. At all. My mind was too full to verbalize anything anyway. By the time we’d reached my house, I’d analyzed the kiss I’d shared with Corey, both kisses Mitch had forced on me, as well as the strange sense of protection I felt from him. The end result was a headache with no answers.

Before he turned to leave, he looked at me. “Kaeli, be careful. Whether you like it not, from now on, you’re probably being watched.” And with that, he disappeared, leaving me wondering what the hell he was talking about.

I didn’t know what it was with him. It was almost like I was beginning to forget what he was, and what he stood for. It was crazy. So many things were starting to become clear—or fuzzier if I really thought about it, because none of it gave me answers. Only more questions.

I thought about the way he’d asked me if I wanted him to fuck me down in the living room so everyone could watch. Why did he say that only to take me upstairs and do nothing but kiss me? It didn’t make any sense. Unless he was only saying it for TJ’s benefit? But why would he want TJ to think he was, ‘fucking me’ when he wasn’t?

My mind immediately went to Pock, and I felt the blood drain from my face. I had a feeling I knew exactly what he’d do if he thought Mitch wasn’t using me like he thought I should be used.

I stopped breathing. Surely he couldn’t be pretending to be with me just to stop the others from taking advantage of me? It seemed stupid to think, but what other explanation could there be? I searched my brain. Maybe he was gay and had to hide the fact from the guys.

Remembering the hardness I’d felt against my stomach earlier that night, I flushed. No, he definitely wasn’t gay.

I groaned. My head hurt. God, if I thought about it any more, I was going to have a mental breakdown.

Pulling out my keys, I fumbled with the lock, grumbling. It seemed finding the hole in the dark was more difficult than I thought. Just when it finally found its mark, and I thought to cheer my success, I heard footsteps behind me.

Mitch’s warning had me turning in a panic, but when I saw Aaron striding up the path toward me, I exhaled with relief.

Aaron eyed me suspiciously. “Who was that?” he asked, jerking his head back toward the street. I narrowed my eyes at his beat-up face. It looked so much worse than it had earlier in the night.

Glancing out into the darkness, I tried to see if Mitch was still there. When I couldn’t see anything, I returned my glare to Aaron. “Just one of your BFFs, making sure I’m not spilling any deep, dark secrets.”

His eyes widened a fraction, and he turned to squint in the direction Mitch had gone. “That was one of TJ’s guys?”

I threw him any icy stare. “Yes. They’re quite charming, aren’t they?”

He stared me down for a while, his eyes beginning to narrow more with each passing second. “Are you drunk, Kaeli?”

I thought I’d sobered up after vomiting, but apparently not enough. I rolled my eyes, really not wanting to have that conversation. Turning the key in the lock again, I pushed the door open and walked inside.

Heading straight for the shower, I stripped and stepped under the hot spray, allowing it to wash everything away. All the horrid feelings. All the confusion. All the fear.

When I was done, I felt exceedingly tired, well and truly ready for bed. Trying not to stumble as I left the bathroom, I hit the light switch and shuffled toward my room.

Movement in my mom’s room caught my eye, snapping my brain wide awake in a heartbeat. When I realized it was Aaron, I blanched. What the hell was he doing in our parents’ room?

“What are you doing?” I demanded, my tone accusatory, but then again, I meant it to be.

Aaron spun around so quickly I was surprised he didn’t get whiplash. “Not that it’s any of your business, but I was looking for Dad’s blue tie. I’ve got an interview tomorrow.”

I cocked my eyebrow. Somehow I found that hard to believe. Aaron didn’t want a job. He was the laziest person I knew.

With my care factor dropping to zero, I rolled my eyes and went to bed, making sure I sent Mia a quick text to tell her I was home safe.

 

***

 

My head announced its displeasure the second I woke on Saturday morning, or maybe I should say afternoon because it was definitely borderline. It took about five seconds for all the memories from the night before to come rushing back to me, and then the heat to fill my cheeks.

I kissed Corey. I kissed Corey, then walked out without saying goodbye. Then what had I done? I’d practically wrapped myself around Mitch! Mitch, of all people! Oh, my God! What Corey must’ve thought when he came out and saw me like that. I groaned, burying my face in my hands.

I’d be lucky if he ever looked at me again.

Rolling over, I grabbed my cell from the bedside table. Four missed calls from Mia, and six text messages. Shit.

I quickly scrolled through the worried messages. They ranged from, where are you? And Are you ok? to, Corey said you left with some guy with tats?! Pls tell me ur ok.

I sighed. Good job, Kaeli. Dig yourself out of this one. Finding Mia’s number, I hit the call button.

Mia answered on the second ring. “Kaeli?”

“Hey.”

“Oh my God. Are you okay? I’ve been worried sick,” she said in a rush. I could hear low voices in the background.

“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m sorry I bailed on you. I did text you, though.”

The voices grew louder through the phone. “Hang on,” Mia said, then I heard shuffling sounds like she was on the move. “That’s better. Why did you leave? I thought you were having fun. I mean, you seemed to be into Corey.”

I groaned. I didn’t want her to remind me. “That was such a mistake. I can’t believe I let him kiss me. I’ve got so much going on, my head’s a mess. Shit. Was he upset with me?”

There was a pause for a few seconds before she answered. “I don’t know. I think he was worried more than anything. To be honest, I’m a little angry with him. So’s Jace.”

“What? Why?”

“Kaeli, he saw you with a guy none of us have ever seen before. A guy with tats and piercings. You were drunk, and he just let you leave with him.”

This was just getting worse! “Don’t blame Corey. He asked if I was okay—if I wanted him to walk me home—but I told him I was fine.”

“Why would you do that? Who was the guy, Kaeli?”

I chose my words carefully. “He’s kind of a business associate of Ken’s. I wouldn’t have left with him if I didn’t think I was safe, Mia. You know that. Yes, I was drunk, but I could still use my brain.”

My words made me pause. I remembered the conclusion I’d come to the night before. I still wasn’t certain about Mitch’s intentions, but I truly believed he didn’t want to hurt me. Why, I didn’t know. It was just a gut feeling.

“So, he wasn’t some random stranger you just met on the street?”

I laughed then, but immediately regretted it when my head protested. “I should be pissed you could possibly think I would do something like that.”

Mia sighed. “I didn’t. It was the guys. They were all ready to go after you. Lucky you text me when you got home or they probably would’ve.”

Great. Just great. Having any attention on me at the moment was bad. I didn’t need anyone looking closer than they needed to. “Well, you can tell them he’s a friend of the family’s, so they can all just back off.”

It came out a lot more forceful than I’d intended, but I wasn’t in the mood for niceties right now. My life was screwed, and I was dealing with it the best I could.

“Don’t worry. I’ll sort it out, okay?”

The lump that came to my throat came out of nowhere. What the hell? “Yeah, thanks. I know I’m probably not making any sense right now, but I just need some space to work through it, and having the guys checking on me is only going to make things worse.”

Mia was quiet for a bit, and I could picture her biting her lip with worry. “I understand, but Kaeli? Just remember there are people here who love you and would do anything for you.”

Yeah, I needed to get off the phone. I swallowed. “I know.” Shit, this was hard. “Listen, I better go . . .”

“Okay. I’ll call you tomorrow. Maybe we could try to catch up or something?”

If only I had the luxury of planning anything in my life. “Yeah, sure.”

We said our goodbyes, and I threw the cell down on my bed. I’d never felt like everything was so hopeless in my life.

bottom of page