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Copyright © 2017 by Elizabeth Stephens.

Published in the United States by Elizabeth Stephens


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eBook ISBN: 978-0-9991305-0-6

Digital art and cover design by Amygdala Design

Part I

The Fighting Pit


Echoes of pain and pleasure sear the night, and the sheer magnitude of the sound is absorbed by nothing. Not the rotting wooden walls or the packed earth under my boots in place of floorboards. The barn is overfull, bodies crammed into every inch of the light and trickling out into the darkness.

Somewhere in between our town and the next, Clifton stumbled upon this shack. Large enough to house a hundred comfortably, we’re more than twice that by now. I stand in the center of a loose ring of men across from a guy with a shaved head and a black eye. He wears a mean snarl and snaps one curled fist into his other open hand.

I smirk. I’ve seen him in the ring before squaring up against one of my brothers. Aiden warned me about a serious left hook, but also ran me through a list of the guy’s failings about a mile long. Thanks to him, I’m far from nervous as he takes a first step towards me. Hell, I’m downright relaxed. What are brothers for, right?

“Total obliteration,” Dixon whispers into my ear, as if reading my thoughts. He gives my shoulder a tight squeeze and I clench my jaw to keep from wincing.

I click my tongue against the backs of my teeth and shoot him a tight smile. “You’re the boss.” He grins and his teeth are bright white against his obsidian skin. He might be my brother, but we couldn’t look further apart. Growing up, he always made fun of me for being white. Said that blood doesn’t show up so easily on his color.

As I move forward, the crowd goes wild. The density of the group is dangerous for them, but they never learn from it – not even after a kid got trampled and hospitalized last year. I recognize a lot of the same faces from the week before – other fighters, friends from Seventh Street bars, and the sycophants from the nearby colleges that make up the bulk of the screaming.

Amid the cries, a chorus breaks out: “Knu-ckles, Knu-ckles, Knu-ckles.” A few weak shouts try to break through with the name of my opponent: “Sla-ter, Sla-ter…” In this room, they’re quick to fade. I’m the crowd favorite, mostly because I’m easy money if you know how to play the stakes.

My opponent swings for my face with loose, uncalculated aim, but there’s power behind the blow. One hit might keep a guy down long enough for Slater to finish them off. Lucky for me, I’m not any guy. He swings for me again and this time, I take the hit to my stomach. Hurts like hell and I’m sure it’ll leave a bruise tomorrow, but it gets me close enough to strike at his leg. I nail his quadriceps with lightning quick jabs and pull back. The guy’s knee buckles and he looks up at me with momentary panic before I bring my fist down. Once in the cheek and he hits the soil. Both of his hands are down, but only for two seconds. A third and the match would have been called.

I shake my head slowly. “Should have stayed down, big guy.” He’s disoriented and tries to block, but moves too slowly. Throwing both arms up, I drive straight through them with my left hand and crush his nose. Blood sprays from it and he canters back like a log, staggering into the screaming masses behind him. They do nothing to break his fall.

I don’t wait for his people to cart him off the pitch, but carve a path through the crowd. Dixon stays behind to collect my cash – and his – but I’ve got eyes only for one thing. “Hello sweetheart,” I say as I approach the bar. I rub my hands together and Ollie, the bartender, waves a dishrag at one of the college kids. The kid starts talking through his ass until Ollie gestures to me. Seeing me, he tumbles off of his barstool, gestures to it frantically and runs his hands back through his gelled hair so that it sticks up in every direction.

“Aw fuck man, sorry I didn’t know that was your spot. No harm, right? No foul?” He chuckles nervously and edges back as I step close enough to really hurt him if I wanted.

“Man?” I say, closing the gap until we’re chest to chest.

“Sorry. I meant Knuckles. Sorry! Knox. Knox, sir.”

The larger part of me wants to laugh at the moniker, but I manage to keep a straight face. “Scram, kid.” I cock my head and he scurries away, disappearing into a crowd of sweaty, shifting bodies that are all gearing up for the next fight.

As I slide onto the barstool, Ollie slams a triple whiskey down in front of me and laughs. “Always the hard ass.”

“Got a rep to protect. Can’t have some little shit talking down to me like he owns the place.” I scan the guy sitting to my left. Another college kid. It takes him about a second to vacate his seat, leaving it free for Clifton.

Clifton pats me on the back hard enough I choke on a sip of my drink. “Fuck you,” I cough.

“Sorry,” he says and I roll my eyes because he seems to mean it. He might have been the biggest of the brothers – along with Aiden, his twin – but he’s damn near the softest man I’ve ever met. The only biological brothers in the group, he’s a one eighty from his twin even though they’re identical in every physical aspect – same broad shoulders, pale skin, white blonde hair. They’d been separated at birth and placed in two separate foster homes. Clifton got placed with Marguerite, eventual mom to all of us. Clifton was her first and it was fifteen years before she was able to track down Aiden. By then it was too late. A pattern of systemic abuse had ruined the poor bastard.

“Nice fighting out there today,” Clifton says, nursing the beer Ollie places in front of him. Though he may not be much of a drinker, I’m finished with my whiskey and halfway through round two while he watches me, sipping so daintily.

I shrug. “Boring.” I slap my hand down onto the stacked crate in front of me – a makeshift counter. “Ollie, find me some real competition next time.”

“You’ll have some next week.” He cocks his chin to the right and I follow the line of his gaze. Instantly, I harden.

“Knox.” A Mexican guy about my height is coming towards me wearing a wife beater and a shit-eating grin. “Or should I call you Knuckles? You’ve been making a name for yourself in my absence, I see.”

“Already out of the can and back on the hunt for blood. What’s it been, a year?”

“Nine months,” he corrects with a confident tilt of his head, exposing stick-and-poke gang tats that I think are meant to intimidate me.

“Congratulations. Anything under a year brings you onto this side of pathetic.”

The man’s face flushes and he balls his hands to fists. Just under six three, he may rival me in height, but I’ve got more meat on my bones. Doesn’t much matter though. Last time we sparred, it hospitalized us both. Broken ribs, missing teeth, swollen eyelids all around. Ollie had to call a draw because Mario and I were intent on killing each other. Then the kid got locked up for possession and distribution – heroin, I think – and our rematch was postponed indefinitely. Until now. And I’m not the same kid I was back then.

“And how long have you been locked up, Knuckles?” he sneers.

I smirk and drain the rest of my whiskey. “Never been. Unlike you, I’m what some might call intelligent.”

Mario steps forward but a shorter man I hadn’t seen standing behind him grabs the back of his shirt. He whispers Spanish words under his breath and twists Mario’s hand until I hear something pop. I try not to let my surprise show.

“Alright, you’ve had your fun,” the older man seethes, “now go out there and make me some money.” He slaps the back of Mario’s head and Mario winces when the man raises his hand a second time. The older man meets my gaze listlessly before turning and following Mario into the crowd.

“Who was that?” Clifton says.

Ollie sweeps a dirty rag over the sticky tabletop. “Who?”

“The guy holding Mario’s chain.”

“Oh him? He’s uhh…Mario’s dad.” Ollie twitches as he reaches into the large metal cooler underneath the bar for a beer. He cracks it and takes a sip.

“Damn.” I laugh. “Papa’s come to shadow him?”

Ollie leans across the crate between us and drops his tone to a whisper. “By papa I hope you mean Padre.”

“No shit?” I turn, hoping to catch another glimpse of the infamous Padre, leader of the Mexican mafia around these parts. Not a particularly terrifying bunch, they’re still a big deal for a small town and can afford to swing their weight around a little. But hell, in a small town so can we. The Brothers is what they call us.

Ollie says, “You guys want to go up top to watch? Mario’s fight’s about to start. I’ll send the new girl up with y’all’s drinks.”

Beer sprays from Clifton’s lips and I bark out a laugh. “You’re kidding.”

“You hired a woman?” Clifton lowers his pitch and glances around. “Are you insane?”

“Girl can take care of herself, I’ll give her that. Plus, she’s reliable, good with the money, and every other guy in here is sweet on her.”

“Dixon give you the go ahead?” The moment I get an affirmative, I ask my second, more important, question. “She pretty?”

Ollie’s lips curl away from his teeth and he ruffles his lanky brown hair. “Uhh yeah. Pretty.” He swallows the word as he speaks, so that it comes out of his mouth sounding like some mutilated bird squawking deep in his stomach.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

I swear, but when Ollie turns away from me it’s to conceal a brilliant blush. “Just get the hell upstairs. Fight’s starting.”

He presses a button beneath the bar, lodged in one of the crates, and a bell sounds. Screams erupt and I hear the first smack of a fist against skin already. I curse under my breath and head for the stairs, throwing Ollie a frustrated glance before trudging up onto the platform. Clifton’s close on my ass and Dixon and Charlie are waiting for us at a table overlooking the fight. Aiden sits slightly apart from our other two brothers even closer to the banister. He likes watching the carnage even more than I do. I pause by his arm and though I want to give him a clap on the shoulder, I remember who I’m dealing with. I drop my hand and I don’t speak to him at all, noticing how fixed on the fight he is.

“What’s the winnings?” I say to Dixon as I collapse into the wicker chair to his right. Every chair in the damn joint is different and most are falling apart. Next to beer and bandages, chairs are low on our list of priorities for the joint. Still, it’s not like we’d have trouble affording it. Dixon hands me a stack of cash. Mostly fifties. Even so, feels a bit light.

Dixon doesn’t look up from the bills spread on the table in front of him. He’s busy organizing them into bricks of varying amounts. “Little more than twenty five hundred for you,” he says with a shrug. I whistle. “Nobody worth their salt would bet against you when you’re up against Slater. It’ll be more next week against Mario.”

Irritated, I open my mouth to say something clever when a glass of bourbon drops onto the table in front of Dixon. My brothers all fall silent and even Aiden looks up. By the time my gaze has followed the caramel colored hand up the slender wrist to the woman’s face, she’s already been talking for ten seconds.

“Name’s Mer. I’m the new bargirl around this place. I don’t take shit and if one of you hits on me so help me dios mio,” she crosses her fingers over her full tits and meets the gaze of each one of my brothers bluntly. Not many have the stones for that and adrenaline hits me like a body shot when it’s my turn, but the moment’s over quickly. “I will piss in all y’all’s drinks. Now I got three triple whiskeys and two beers. That’ll be twenty bucks even.”

“Eighteen for the same order at the bar,” Dixon challenges with one eyebrow cocked.

She kicks out a hip and narrows heavy black eyelashes over a blisteringly brutal gaze. “For eighteen you can go get your drinks yourself.”

“Fuck,” Charlie says, laughing hard. I cover my mouth with my hand, but Clifton and I both crack. Nobody ever talks to Dixon like that. Nobody.

Dixon grins and leans back in his chair – a rocking chair missing an arm. “Where’d you come from Mer?”

“Don’t see how that’s any of your business.”

“It is my business.”


“This is my business.” He pauses long enough for confusion to play out across her face – the widening of her eyes, the twitch of her mouth, her fingers moving up to sweep through her hair.

“Well then, boss man, I guess you’re shit out of luck. I didn’t come to make small talk. I came to serve drinks. Now that’ll be twenty bucks even.”

Dixon’s smile falls and I can tell that the girl is coming dangerously close to the limit. His limit. Standing, I pull a twenty out of my pocket and hold it towards her. She watches it shrewdly, but her lips still part and she sucks in a small breath when she finally looks at my face. Really looks. Wonder what the hell she’s thinking.

“I’ll be back in a bit to check up on you fellas,” she says rapidly and with an evidently southern lilt. She reaches out to take the cash and as her fingers graze the crumpled edge of the green, I release the bill and snatch her wrist, holding her with an easy pressure which I harden when she fights against it. Her eyebrows draw together and she opens her mouth, likely to retaliate, but I speak first.

“You can talk to me like that, but not Dixon,” I say, keeping my voice calm but the threat implicit. “Never Dixon.”

Her gaze widens again in a way that I’m unable to interpret, though I try. It’s not quite fear, it’s not quite anger, but idles somewhere in between. And Jesus Christ on her, the expression is riveting. Pretty – that’s what I’d asked Ollie, wasn’t it? Pretty doesn’t even touch this woman. She is pure fire and I’m humbled by her sudden, inexplicable docility. She passes that glance to Dixon beside me and a carmine hue touches the tops of her cheeks, running over the bridge of her nose. She’s not wearing any makeup.

“Whatever,” she grunts, tugging to free her arm. I don’t release it. Her gaze flashes to Dixon. “Sorry.” Her pitch is deep and honest enough for me to believe it. Smart girl.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Dixon nod. She nods back and pulls again against my grip, which I’m slow to release. Her skin is satin and smooth, layered over taut, lean muscle. I watch the way the muscles in her thighs flex and soften as she bounds down the stairs and I wonder if she isn’t moving so quickly to get away from us. Hell, I don’t blame her.

“Damn,” Charlie says, breaking the silence hanging between us. “Just damn.” I look around and vaguely realize I’m still standing, straining my optic nerve as I try to see through the wooden floorboards of the home team’s patio to follow her. “I think that might be the hottest chick I’ve ever seen.”

“You say that about anyone with a snatch,” I mutter, slumping back into my seat and turning my attention towards the fight. With purpose. Because I’m searching for her purposefully.

I’m surprised when I find her a few seconds later, emerging at the other side of the barn on a set of steps identical to the ones we just climbed. It leads to the private area roped off for the visiting team’s fighters. Slater is seated amidst a group of young guys that quiets the moment Mer plops their drinks down with the same gracelessness she showed us. She’s a terrible fucking waitress, and absolutely perfect for the barn.

I smile to myself, resting my elbows on my knees as I watch her lips move without being able to hear anything over the thrashing of the crowd below. Mario’s taunting his victim now and it sickens me. Any man who steps into the ring deserves a clean fight, a clean break. No need to resort to barbarism. Then again…my gaze pans over to Aiden who’s watching the blood sport with a blank expression that’s as close to happy as he ever gets. Barbarism is Aiden’s MO.

Mer turns to head for the stairs, but one of Slater’s minions steps in front of her and another closes in on her from behind. It’s the latter moron that slaps her ass hard enough, her body entirely lifts off of the ground. She pitches forward at the same time that warm whiskey shoots down my throat and turns to fire in my stomach. Like the hammering in my chest, that fire has nothing to do with the liquor’s potency.

The urge to fly across the room over the tops of so many heads grips me and I wonder how fast I could get there. How many bones would I have to break? The scratchy splinters of my chair bite into my skin like little teeth and I hear Dixon say my name twice before I finally have the strength to tear my gaze away from the scene and look at him.

“You okay, brother?” Dixon says.

I shake my head once. “Slater’s fuckers are giving the new girl a hard time,” I growl. Fuckers are closing in on her and though I could blow through them in a minute and a half, they’re bigger than she is and she’s delicate and feminine and outnumbered.

“Oh geeze.” Clifton stands, and I stand with him. At the same time one asshole’s hand lights down on her shoulder. As if I needed more of an invitation. “I’ll go give Ollie a heads up.”

“Don’t bother Ollie.” The words rip out of me in a breath and the hatred that I feel simmering through every one of my nerve endings reminds me of that very first time I got into a fight when I was a kid. The very first time everything had gone to red.

I head towards the stairs but as two men close in on her, I’m thrown. She reaches up to the hand on her shoulder and forces it away from her skin by the pinky. The man screams as she breaks it. The second guy barring her path raises a fist that could impale her, but Mer kicks the guy in the stomach and as he folds over, she kicks him again in the face. He topples backwards down the stairs, but she doesn’t watch to admire her work. Instead, she turns back to face the first guy and drives her fist across his cheek again and again until his whole face is bloodied.

“Ho-ly-shit,” Charlie says, and I turn to see that all my brothers are on their feet. All but Aiden. His face is passive and nonplussed.

Some of the spectators watching the current fight are distracted by the commotion and when Mer steps over the writhing body at the base of the steps, a group of them cheer. Ignoring them, she heads to the bar and as the next fight takes the ring, she revisits our table. “You boys need anything else?” she asks, making a face as she glances from my steel-toed shit kickers to my face. Probably wondering why I’m still standing. I’d have thought it obvious: I’m standing because I’m floored by her.

“Another round,” I say, though the words don’t come easily. I want to ask her something else.

She nods once and turns, but my feet are moving before I can control them. I catch her on the stairs and slip my hand around her upper arm though, the moment I so much as touch her, she rips away from me and puts another few stairs between us. I have to look almost straight down to see her face as she tilts it up. Staggered as we are then, the top of her head comes up to my belly button.

“Don’t,” she says and her cheeks redden. “You can’t just go around grabbing people…”

“Are you okay?” I let her anger go unacknowledged for now. “Those guys give you any trouble I’m happy to handle them.”

She runs her fingers back through her hair, pushing it over her shoulder so that it falls in thick raven waves down to her lower back. She’s got a thin layer of bangs that cut across her forehead and sweeps them to the side now, albeit unsuccessfully. “Okay?” Her voice doesn’t waver, though her glossy brown gaze dodges mine.

“Slater’s friends.”

“Those guys?” She rolls her eyes. “They’re college kids. Harmless.”

I smirk, though anger or something like it tickles the base of my spine and I’m reminded again of the red. The Red. “Tough guy, huh?”

“Who? Them?”

“No. You.”

Her mouth. Her full, blood red, fucking mouth. It manages to be sexy even when it’s this severe. “I don’t need you looking out for me. I can handle myself.”

“Fuck me for asking.” My fists tighten around the railing.

She pivots from me, though I’d meant to turn away first, but damn if she isn’t the kind of woman that holds your attention and doesn’t let go. Like a noose. “Thanks but I’ll pass on the offer,” she sneers. Over her shoulder, she adds, “Oh. And if I did ever want help, you can be damn sure that you’re the last person I’d ask.”

There it is again. My new friend. Or perhaps my constant companion, resurfaced. Just a pinprick this time, but it’s still dangerously scarlet. The Red. “Jesus fucking Christ, you’re a real piece of work, aren’t you?”

“You have no idea.”

She makes it to the base of the stairs, ass filling out those frayed jean shorts in a way that makes my gut throb. Not my gut. My cock. I rearrange it quickly in my jeans, hoping that the black material hides the stretching. She comes to serve us anymore drinks I’m going to end the night with a lethal case of blue balls. “Can I ask why I’m somehow not good enough to help you wail on some assholes, or did you not see my fight earlier?” Damn. Am I feeling wounded or what?

“That’s why,” she says blandly, as if she doesn’t give a rat’s ass about me or anyone. “Next week you’re fighting my brother.”

Shock hits me. Padre’s daughter. Mario’s sister.

“Well fuck.”


I remind myself again why I’m in this city that god forsook, why I walked into this barn house de mierda and begged the shrimpy brown-eyed bartender for this shitty job. Why I’m standing halfway up the staircase that leads to the guest team’s landing with my back pressed against the wall, arms crossed, gut tense. It’s all for him. It’s always only ever been for him and for me and for our collective survival. My no good, dumb ass brother.

I roll my eyes when he takes a hit, blood spraying from his mouth as the one they call Knuckles lays into him. Knuckles is the same height as my brother but fuller in the chest. He’s faster too and he cuts clean, with the precision and calm of a much older man though I don’t imagine he’s over thirty. Blood on his chest catches the gleam from the lights dangling like dice from the cross-beams that cut across the roof. His fists are huge, pale hands carving chunks out of Mario’s stamina. Watching him dance around my brother on light feet does something to me. Something animalistic and dark. I’m hungry in ways I haven’t been in months and though I know I should be rooting for my brother, I’m not.

Mario pulls a move I’ve seen him make several times before – a feint to the left before jabbing once with his left hand, twice more with his right. Knuckles dodges the first two strikes easily, but takes the second to the cheek at the same time that he brings his knee up into Mario’s stomach. Mario bowls over, arms flailing out and leaving his torso entirely unprotected. Knuckles doesn’t hesitate. He hits Mario in the chest with force. I bet he fractures my brother’s sternum. El idiota.

Mario gasps and tries to recover, but I see him sag, even from all the way over here. I roll my eyes and am about to head down the stairs when the floorboards on the landing above groan. I glance up. My father walks to the railing and stares down at his only son with a fixed expression that I know well. Carajo. I wonder how much he put on Mario to win, though judging by the expression on his face, it’s probably in the realm of five figures. He already owes Loredo so much, I wonder if this won’t finally be the time that Loredo decides to close the register and cash him out. Indefinitely.

A bell dings and I push forward into the crowd as it loosens. Some boys head into the darkness outside the open barn doors, but most flock to the bar. Mario’s on his knees in the dirt and Knuckles is clapping hands with the man I came for. The one with the dark skin they call Dixon looks directly at me as if called by something divine and though I can’t hear him with all of the sweating, breathing bodies so close to me, I see his lips mouth, “Just a second.”

Knuckles shifts around Dixon’s body and spots me through the layered frat bros between us. The expression he wears morphs from surprise to a shocking shade of darkness. He glances between Dixon and I. Heat crawls from the back of my neck and inches down my spine until my pussy lips are flaming and it has nothing at all to do with the sweaty male bodies glancing my arms. I shift my weight between my hips and use Dixon’s broad body to block the sight of his friend who looks pissed for absolutely no reason I can think of. Still, it’s a good look for him.

“Tell your friend he fought a good fight tonight,” I say, holding out my hand.

Dixon takes it and the rough weight of his palm is interrupted by something smooth and feathery as money passes between us. I am careful as I slide my hand over the front of my shirt, and hope that the well-rehearsed move is as discreet as it has been in the past. Mario normally doesn’t notice, but nothing escapes the man who created us and I can imagine that his eagle eyes are pinned on me now that I’m speaking with the enemy.

Dixon nods and the smell of citrus and ginger wafts from his skin, even in this hot room that smells of horseshit, beer, and sweat. “Your brother stood his ground well…for a while.”

“Not for long enough.”

“All the better for you.” Dixon lifts a brow and glances directly at my tits, though he doesn’t seem to be the least bit impressed by them. I respect that he’s got eyes only for his money. “The pot had him lasting thirty six minutes against my brother.”

I grin carnivorously, but say nothing. We both know that when I put in my bet, I had Mario clocking out at minute twenty three and I was right on the dot. On the money. “I saw your boy fight last week and Mario’s only gotten ballsier since prison – not better. Wasn’t a hard calculation.”

“Not for someone with a little street experience herself.” He gives me an appraising look and for some reason, I feel pride when I inhale my next breath.

Trying not to let it show, I run my hand back through my hair and shrug. “Enough to keep me alive in a room full of thugs.”

Dixon smiles at me though there is a guarded air to his expression, as if he’s wearing a mask that won’t budge. It gives me the chills and I’m grateful for Mario’s distraction when he calls my name. He’s crouched on the ground and some skinny ginger is standing over him dripping spittle onto my brother’s back and kicking dirt up onto Mario’s face.

I brush past Dixon, walk right up to the kid and shatter his nose with my fist. I can’t help but revel in the sensation of his bones meeting mine. The slight crunch that reverberates loudly through the shouting and laughing around me says that something’s given way – something of his, not mine.

“Fuck off, puto. You so much as look at my brother again and I’ll meet you in the ring myself.”

The kid’s friends grab his arms and pull him out from under me. I mirror the gesture with my own brother, but not before kicking his boot, bending down and whispering to him in Spanish, “Get up. Padre’s watching.”

That seems to strike some fear into him because he manages to stagger up into a vertical position and loop his right arm over my shoulders. The left he cradles to his chest and, like his sternum, I gather it’s also broken courtesy of the big guy barring our path.

“Do you mind?” I say and I meet his gaze when really all I want to do is look anywhere else.

His face is sculpted out of hardened bone, dark hair cropped short against his scalp. He isn’t handsome in the way most girls might find men handsome in an ad for cologne or a fancy watch. He’s way past rugged for that. Instead, he looks like some kind of Roman mercenary who’s come to take me by force unless I fight him to the death. Jesus, how I’d love that fight. Reaching Elysium with those deadly, emerald eyes staring down at me.

“Are you deaf?” My panties are damp and my brother’s weight is porcine. The scent of moonshine and weed wafts from Mario’s skin and I know my brother was halfway faded when he stepped into the ring. He’s a fool to think he could have come into this game anything less than prepared when Knuckles was his opponent.

Knuckles – Knox – grunts in a brutish way and rubs his hand across a stomach so ribbed it looks like he swallowed paint rollers. His palm streaks burgundy from breast to abdomen, and his hip bones are visible above the sagging waist of his pants. No belts in the arena. And I don’t see boxers either. Fuck. When he steps out of my way I nearly burst forward, lugging my brother’s weight to and up the stairs.

Spade meets me halfway and I wonder if he doesn’t use the opportunity to his advantage when his hand ‘accidentally’ paws across my breasts. I wrench away, but don’t dare raise my hand to the pinche pedejo. He’s a nasty fucker with a proclivity for torture. I can’t deny that he’s a good fighter though. Far better than Mario. Probably even better than Knuckles, not that he’d ever be able to prove it. Spade’s been banned from fighting in every pink slip pit in the South because his opponents only leave in body bags or in comas. I’d say it’s because he’s Russian and doesn’t know any better, but I’ve seen the look he gets when he hovers over a dead body. The bastard gets off on it and my dad doesn’t care because it was Loredo who hired Spade from the Russian mob in the first place.

Padre’s still convinced the man is a body guard, but anyone with half a brain or eyes to see would know better. No cartel leader hires a mercenary from the Russian mob to take care of one of their low level employees. And no bodyguard takes orders as poorly as Spade does. In fact, I often catch Spade looking at dear ole’ daddy in the same way a hound looks at its prey rather than its master.

“Plumeria,” a cool voice calls.

Gritting my teeth, I take the steps one at a time until I’ve got both feet planted on the landing and am standing directly in front of him. “Padre?”

He’s seated on a wicker chair watching Mario writhe in pain on the sofa, thin face drawn in disgust and something lethal. In an effort to distract him, I clear my throat. It works and he flicks his gaze to me. The same chocolate brown eyes I have, though everything else I am is my mother’s. The eyes are the only things I will concede.

“Plumeria, who was that man you were speaking with?” He says, switching to Spanish. He speaks in a rough brogue that betrays his poor, rural roots. Just a farmer’s son trying to make it in the big city. I wish it gave me more sympathy for the man, but the bastard deserves nothing from me.

“Dixon,” I answer blandly, “He’s Knox’s manager. I was congratulating them on the fight.”

“Not manager. Brother.”

“Brother?” I say. Padre nods, opening his mouth to elaborate, but I shake my head. “And why did you bother asking if you already knew?”

“There is evidently a lot I do not know and that I have left to the secondhand information of others.” He shoots an icy glare at Mario, curses, and lurches forward to smack my brother in the ear. He hits him so hard, he bleeds. “You said you could beat him. That there was no chance of a loss.”

Mario cries out and a flutter of nerves flurries through me. I don’t like the kid, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s my brother, the last sibling I’ve got left and the only one to ever stand in my corner against the cartel.

“It’s your own fault,” I shout, switching back to English automatically.

Padre twists to look at me and passes a hand over his oily hair, bares his teeth. “What did you say to me? Your own father…”

“Don’t give me that. If you believed I was your kid too, you’d have asked me what I thought the odds would be. I saw Knox fight last week and I knew he was good…”

“Is that why you bet against your own brother?”

My jaw goes slack and so do most of my muscles. My hand twitches, reaching for the wall to my right. It’s dry as bone beneath my fingers and just as brittle. “How…” I cough into my fist and try to recover – failingly. “I didn’t…”

Padre glances over my shoulder as Spade saunters around my body. He takes the seat to the right of my father and pulls a crumpled stack of folded bills from his inside jacket pocket. I cup my right tit, shocked to no longer feel the cash’s hard edge between my nipple and my bra and while my brother curses me to hell’s lowest chamber, a jolt of rage sweeps me. I’m pissed. I sidestep my dad and advance on Spade who does nothing but splay his cheek for me to hit, so I do. Then I grab for his hand. The rest happens too quickly.

Like a boomerang, my hand hits him and he retaliates by slapping me in the face hard enough to whip my head around. As I stumble towards the railing, Spade shoves me from behind. The cool wood cuts into my belly and the whole railing shakes like the legs on a startled colt while, at the same time, knocking the breath clean out of me. Spade comes up against my spine.

He overpowers me, spinning me into the shadows of the back wall and wrenching my shorts down over my ass. He’s fumbling with his belt and for a second, I don’t know if he’s just reminding me how much bigger he is than I am and that he holds power over me in every way imaginable or if he really does mean to rape me right here, right now.

Behind me, my father is shouting, Mario is coughing and much closer than that, Spade drags my hair over my shoulder and shoves his tongue deep into my ear.

“You are mine,” he breathes and the scent of his breath – rot and moonshine and the dip he chews – makes my gag reflex kick. He presses himself closer and closer to me. I can’t breathe with my injured cheek wedged against the dusty planks and his whole body surrounding mine. Like an eclipse, the whole world is gone in seconds and the hot flesh of his hand on my ass is all I can feel.

Betraying my fear, I yelp, like the little girl that I am. I close my eyes and clench my fists and though I don’t stop struggling, I do mentally prepare to take a very short trip to a very faraway place. I can feel my father close by, pushing or pulling on Spade’s shirt, though I doubt it makes much of a difference and I’m reminded again that Spade is the one who has the upper hand.

A voice cuts through the chaos like a cleaver. “You’ve got to the count of three, big man.”

The voice is familiar and I struggle to place it in the haze of my confusion. Then I hear the cock of a hammer and when I blink my eyes open, I glance past my father’s pathetic, quivering form towards the men on the stairs. All five of them. It isn’t Dixon that stands in the front of the pack however, though I thought he was the one in charge, but Knox, and the strangest settling of relief stops the muscles trembling in my arms and legs.

“Thought there was a no carry policy in here,” Spade crows, without releasing me. In fact, his hand snakes down to spread my ass cheeks and when Knox’s gaze flashes to mine, I look away. I’m embarrassed and I feel like crying, cutting something, someone, me. I fucking hate this. I hate being a girl. I hate crying. I hate Spade. I hate my father, my brother, this man stepping up for me.

“We own the place. We decide who carries.” He keeps his pitch low, but the sinister chords carry. “You want to die tonight? We’re out in the middle of nowhere. Plenty of places to bury a body.”

Spade sneers and I throw my elbow back into his stomach, but only because he lets me. He catches it and the pressure of his chest eases up on my spine. He bends in close and in heavily accented English whispers, “You will be mine very soon, moya lubov.”

He releases me and I trip over the leg of the table as I do everything in my power to cover the exposed crotch of my panties and hoist my jean shorts back up over my bare ass. My hands shake badly and Knox mutters a terse order to the others to step aside and let me through.

They obey and I’m running and my vision is blurred and I want so badly just to fix my clothes, flip back my hair and keep on serving drinks, but there’s a knot of hysteria in my lungs that’s swimming up the length of my throat and in my head it sounds like screaming. A woman screaming. I know her voice, I know her name, I know her face. Is it me? I’m not sure.

Wolf whistles chase me out into the night air and I run into its embrace, and don’t stop running until I reach the trees. I collapse against the first one I find. It’s a sapling, and shivers under my weight as I brace my shoulder against the slim, coarse trunk and feel for the buttons and the zipper along the front of my shorts. I manage to get both undone, but it seems to take hours.

Like some puzzle I knew how to solve once, but no longer remember, I can’t get my clothes to do what I want. My hands are not my own. They’re silver. Stained by moonlight. I close my eyes as goosebumps break out across my arms though I’m far from cold.

The wind whispers my name and I jump. “Holy shit. How…how long have you been standing there?” My voice wavers as I drink in the sight of Knox. Standing just a dozen paces away, he’s wearing a black tee shirt, black jeans, and a grimace. The moonlight falls across his skin and glints off of the barrel of his gun.

I wonder if my expression betrays fear, because the moment I turn towards him, his crude, near barbaric severity softens. I gasp at the unraveling and he edges back, lifting both hands to shoulder level. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he says. Funny, because I hadn’t even considered that.

I must look vulnerable enough though for him to say it and needing to correct the impression, I step back into the shadows of the trees so that he cannot see me. From that safety, I stammer, “I fucking know that. I didn’t need you to follow me and I didn’t need you to stand up for me in there.” Jesus, it’s a lie. Because I need everything, and nothing. Just the words he said before and his hand against my cheek. A promise I can believe in. A taste of something gentle. A different life.

His eyebrows come together and the hollows beneath his prominent brow make him look demonic. His lips draw back from his clenched teeth and all at once he stows his gun in the back of his jeans, I presume, to keep from shooting me with it. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with you and your constant need to be a man and be in charge and defend the poor and defenseless?” I rebuff lamely. “I don’t need you! Just get away from me.”

“You know what – I should have just left you. I should have seen you across the bar pinned to that wall being assaulted and just let him fucking…” He doesn’t finish his sentence, but his face twists like he’s sucking on something sour to the point that he’s no longer recognizable. He’s vicious and violent and reminds me for a brief and harrowing second of Spade and I remember the bastard’s hands on my ass, hear his voice in my ear, taste his salty sweet skin.

These memories, though from moments ago, should be gone by now, locked away, but instead I’m drowning in them and my heart is racing too fast and I’m breathing so damn hard and shivering though it’s as warm as an Arabian winter. The sticky heat wraps around me and I imagine that it’s the only thing holding me up. I stagger and moonlight cuts across my hand as I reach for the tree, but it’s disappeared.

I gasp and everything disappears but two men in the moonlight. No. That’s one man twice. His back is turned and he’s walking away from me and it’s as if he’s taken all of the light with him because it’s suddenly so dark and I’m afraid and a child and in my ears I hear pounding, like a train, though I know it’s a fist on the door coming to take me away.

“Please don’t let them take me away,” I say, though he can’t hear me. “Knox,” I gasp and the air comes shorter and harder. I clutch my chest and my right knee wobbles dangerously. “Knox.”

He twists and seeing me, hesitates. Suddenly, he’s running and I’m hit by a wall even though he’s far away. “Mer,” he shouts, but I’m lost, falling for hours and days until the grass punches into my spine. It’s hard and scratchy against my legs and back and I want to stand, but I can’t seem to catch hold of anything to pull me to my feet. There’s nothing for a moment, but the sound of me dying, and then in the next there’s him.

He rises over the horizon of the grass before dropping to his knees. He grabs me roughly as he takes a seat and drags me onto his lap. He’s leaning against something and I’m surprised when his tee shirt comes down over my head. He gathers up my wrists and holds them to my chest and uses his whole body to warm me.

“Shh.” His voice is a command and I am able to find solace in that. “Follow my breath.” I can feel the rise and fall of his chest but it means nothing to me. “Mer,” he barks. He takes my chin between his fingers and forces me to look at him. Envious irises ringed by an even darker green. “Breathe.”

“D…d…dying,” I rasp and my throat closes entirely or maybe it’s just his hand around my neck, cradling my head.

“Plumeria.” His voice is a shout that pummels like a jackhammer through me. He calls me by my full name. Not many people call me that and no one has ever spoken those four syllables with such importance. I feel commanded by it. Compelled. Lifted.

I black out but resurface what feels like years later, though I know it was only the span of a much-needed breath. His hand is on my forehead, lifting up my bangs, and my crown rests on the broad pillow his massive shoulder creates. I can’t move at all, but I can hear the air coming in and out of my lungs and his deep bass whispering, “Like that. Exactly like that. In and out, even, calm. Nothing’s going to hurt you, not while I’m here.”

“But…you’ll leave.” I wish I can take back the words the moment I say them but I can’t.

His arms tighten around me and I am rendered immobile by his size and the sheer density of him. But I don’t feel threatened. I feel safe. “I’m not going anywhere, Plumeria, and nothing is going to hurt you.”

He’s true to his word and as a sequence of familiar constellations pass by slowly overhead, he doesn’t move except to pull gently on my hair. My breathing is back to normal and I no longer shake, but I still don’t get up even though I should. My brain is mud, though I know that’s only part of the reason.

The larger part is that seated with him in his heat and his protection is the happiest and safest I can ever remember being and I’m afraid if I so much as flinch and sever the sensation I’ll burst into tears. This is the last I can ever see of this man. No one was ever supposed to see this part of me. To erase evidence of this night from my life’s history book, he too must go into the box of memories. The box of pain.

The haunting notes of a wind chime sound in the distance and I begin to close my eyes as a sudden fierce sleep grips me. Beneath his breath, Knox curses and a second later those bells become voices.

“Knox!” I don’t recognize the speaker, but Knox must because he shifts out from underneath me and sets me gently on the grass.

He glances down at me and must read the obvious intent in my expression because he issues another quiet order. “Don’t move.” He turns to face the cursing voices without budging from my side. “I’m alright.”

“Christ, brother, we were worried that Padre and that walking asshole had…”

“Don’t come over here,” Knox shouts and another heaping of fear freezes my bones at the thought of being discovered here by four other men when I’m already at my most vulnerable.

“Why the hell not?”

“Because I’m fucking Plumeria,” he says, holding out his arms as if it were the most obvious explanation. “Now get the fuck back.” The grunts and whistles of approval make me smile on the inside, though the grin doesn’t quite touch my lips. I had wanted to fuck Knox, hadn’t I? Had being the operative word. Not anymore. Sleeping with Knox now would ruin me.

“You know the rules, brother,” Dixon chides.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. No girls at the house. That’s why we got a field.”

“Good.” The jangling of keys.

Knox stretches above his head and snatches something silver from the air. Starlight. “Thanks.”

The distant sound of voices fade and when Knox looks down at me, the pressure of his gaze is brutal enough to wound. I wince and try to stand, hoping to move away from him but he’s there. He’s everywhere. His hands slide around my lower back, pulling me into his heat and after the despicable weakness I just displayed, I don’t feel capable of pushing him away.

Fuck it, I think to myself as his fingers cup my ass, he can just have me. I slump against his chest, but instead of lowering me back to the ground and taking me for himself in the way all men seek to take women, he hoists up on the waist of my shorts once, and then again, both times hard enough that my feet leave the ground and I have to hold onto him.

There’s a pressure in my chest I’m unable to displace where the numbness is supposed to be and when he fastens the button at my hips and pulls my zipper up to meet it, I cough into my fist. It’s all I can do not to cry. And then I wait for it – for him to ask me a barrage of questions that peel the skin back even further though I’m already only flesh and feelings.

He clears his throat and steps away from me. I try to think of something to say but my throat is gooey with saliva that I can’t swallow. Finally, he breaks the silence. “I’m not doing anything right now and I’m thinking you are in pretty serious need of sugar…”

“I’m not in shock,” I say, but I barely complete the sentence. I flick my gaze up to his face and see that he isn’t angry – for once – but is smiling.

He shakes his head. “Of course you aren’t. What I meant to say was, I’m feeling hungry and Patty’s Place is open late. Care to join me?”

Shock makes me grin, though the expression is as wobbly as my knees are. “You go to Patty’s?”

“What? A guy like me isn’t allowed to like pie?”

“No. I mean yes.” I look down at my sneakers and the patch of disrupted grass peeking up around their dirty white soles. The air smells like earth and pollen, but like sweat, eucalyptus and blood even more. “I mean, you can like whatever you want.” The harsh edge I usually hear in my own tone eludes me, and I sound like a kid.

“Good. I’d like for you to come with me.” He holds out his hand. I’ve never held anyone’s hand before. I mean, not unless I was trying to hurt them, or stop them from hurting me.

“I’m still on tonight.”

“Fight’s over and the place is mine. I’ll text Ollie from the car and let him know why you can’t make it.”

“Why can’t I make it?” I say skeptically.

He shrugs, still holding his hand flat out between us, like an offering. “Sex, obviously.”

I smirk, “Thanks.” Funny thing is that I mean it. I place my palm against his and he laces his fingers through mine. I flush at the contact, finding it surprisingly intimate. His hand is warm and dry and covered in calluses from the fights. I wonder if that’s how he finds my hand too.

We go the long way around the barn to avoid the smokers hanging out in the shed, opting instead to trek through brambles and immense stretches of ivy to the parking lot. About half of the cars have cleared out so I feel less bad about leaving Ollie all alone. He did me a favor, hiring me on the spot like he did. I’d thought the place was his because when he’d hired me, he hadn’t had to call the owner.

My gaze wanders over the back of Knox’s head down his thick neck, over his shoulders. The muscles flex beneath them and he still sports dark streaks across his back, from his left shoulder blade to his right hip. It’s blood, though the fact that it’s my brother’s doesn’t bother me. The sight of his skin covered in bruises and a few faint abrasions around his right ribs feels like home to me. Home? What the fuck am I saying? I don’t even understand the meaning…

Pinche idiota,” I shout as his right hand reaches to push aside a curtain of Spanish moss. A flare of aggression lights up his face, but it flickers quickly and fades when I pull his fingers into mine. Now I’m just holding both his hands like the idiot I just accused him of being. “Chiggers. In the moss. Don’t look at me like that. Lo siento.

His eyes are huge and his lips are parted. He licks them after a moment and grins. “No reason to apologize.”

He ducks under the misty grey curtain, following the path that I show him. When we hit gravel, he leads me to a 1980 Chevy C-10, charcoal metallic. Of course he’d drive a muscle car. I’m smiling at the selection until I realize that his hand is on the passenger door’s shiny silver handle. It glints as it catches the moonlight. Guys don’t open doors for girls like me and yet here he is, body framing the darkness of the doorway.

He’s not looking at me, but at the ground, as if there are diamonds nestled there in the gravel. His brow is tense, lips severe and when he holds his hand towards me, I understand the implicit order. He reels me in until I’m directly in front of him and inhales once, then again.

“I’m going to ask you one question about what happened back there, and no other. Do you understand?”

I want to say no, but he isn’t asking and I’m not up for a fight. So instead I nod, hold my breath and pray.

“Did I get there too late?”

“Too late?”

His thumb sweeps the back of my hand, applying a firm pressure that terrifies me, because it betrays how his fingers shake. With rage. He must notice me noticing because he releases me and shoves his hands into his front pockets. “Did he rape you?”

Knox might as well have thrown a bucket of ice water over me. I freeze, moving only my head as I twist it to the side, like when Spade hit me. I’m only just now beginning to feel the makings of a bruise, and evidently he sees it. The moon is strong and I feel it on my skin as a whisper of sunlight. Then his fingers.

They start beneath my eye, following the curve of my cheek back to my ear. He doesn’t ask me if it hurts, if I’ve taken a hit before. Both are obvious. I feel him come close to me. So close I wonder if he’s going to kiss me. I’m struck over the head with a brick when he does. His lips are full and they’re hot as hell and sinfully smooth as they sweep my hairline. I jerk back, but he’s already pulled away and is standing on the other side of the car door, watching me from over its rim.

“Get in.”

I pass my hand over the leather bench but hesitate before taking a seat. “I wasn’t,” I say, letting the heavy curtain of my hair fall between us. “He didn’t.”

His chest expands…deflates…expands…deflates… His teeth bite down and he grunts something between them.

“What?” I ask.

“Good,” he says, and true to his word, it’s the last thing he says on the subject.

He only manages to shrug out of the anger he wears like a coat when we’re on the road, back in the city. Lights start growing more frequently out of the ground as the first of the storefronts pass. It’s late. Most people are inside with their loved ones. City’s too small for night owls. But there are some of us. The delinquents and the degenerates, struggling for survival in alleyways, dealing drugs beneath the shady awnings of gas stations, vomiting on street corners as they try to drag themselves home or…eating pie.

He sits across the metallic tabletop with his elbows spread wide, wearing a jersey from his gym bag. Two Irish coffees, two empty plates, four empty glasses, a slice of pecan and a slice of pumpkin rest between us. I didn’t realize how hungry I was – how thirsty either. I’ve been keeping pace with him the whole way and the slices are big, and the whiskeys aren’t singles. He pauses halfway through his last slice and leans back against the cracked, plastic leather. It’s fire engine red and squeaks beneath his weight as he drapes his arms across the top of the bench seat.

“What?” I say, draining half of my last Irish coffee. I’m lightheaded already. Always been a lightweight. Probably not a good idea with Knox watching me like that. “What?” I say again.

“What.” He shrugs, tone so flat and nonchalant it makes me wonder what I’d been asking about in the first place.

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