اصلی All He'll Ever Be
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Munira Isse mohamud
you can win
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24 June 2021 (09:01)
WAHHHHHHH I've been waiting for this to be uploaded here
03 September 2021 (07:00)
I don't know how to put book request sooooo. Can you help me request the book 'The dark wood (legends of lust) by zhadie black...
03 September 2021 (07:01)
"All He'll Ever Be" - Collection of all 4 books in the "Merciless series"; Merciless, Heartless, Breathless & Endless.
13 May 2022 (13:59)
This book is apparently not my style. 2/5
26 May 2022 (01:26)
ughhhhhhhh downloaded the book now!
11 June 2022 (14:37)
All He’ll Ever Be Merciless Series Collection W. Winters Contents Also by W Winters Merciless Preface Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Heartless Prologue Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Chapter 36 Chapter 37 Chapter 38 Chapter 39 Chapter 40 Chapter 41 Chapter 42 Chapter 43 Chapter 44 Chapter 45 Chapter 46 Chapter 47 Chapter 48 Chapter 49 Chapter 50 Chapter 51 Chapter 52 Chapter 53 Chapter 54 Breathless Chapter 55 Chapter 56 Chapter 57 Chapter 58 Chapter 59 Chapter 60 Chapter 61 Chapter 62 Chapter 63 Chapter 64 Chapter 65 Chapter 66 Chapter 67 Chapter 68 Chapter 69 Chapter 70 Chapter 71 Chapter 72 Chapter 73 Chapter 74 Chapter 75 Endless Prologue Chapter 76 Chapter 77 Chapter 78 Chapter 79 Chapter 80 Chapter 81 Chapter 82 Chapter 83 Chapter 84 Chapter 85 Chapter 86 Chapter 87 Chapter 88 Chapter 89 Chapter 90 Chapter 91 Chapter 92 Chapter 93 Chapter 94 Chapter 95 Chapter 96 Chapter 97 Chapter 98 Chapter 99 Chapter 100 Also by W Winters About Willow Winters Copyright © 2019 by Willow Winters All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, scanning, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations within critical reviews and otherwise as permitted by copyright l; aw. NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to real life is purely coincidental. Copyright © 2019, Willow Winters Publishing. All rights reserved. willowwinterswrites.com Commissioned art from both Haley Powers (paperbirdartshop.com ) and Wovoka Trudell (http://instagram.com/wovoka_trudell_art). Created with Vellum Also by W Winters Merciless World A Kiss to Tell Possessive Merciless Heartless Breathless Endless A Kiss To Keep A Single Glance A Single Kiss A Single Touch Hard to Love Merciless World Spin Off It’s Our Secret Standalone Novels: Broken Forget Me Not Sins and Secrets Duets: Imperfect (Imperfect Duet book 1) Unforgiven (Imperfect Duet book 2) Damaged (Damaged Duet book 1) Scarred (Damaged Duet book 2) Willow Winters Standalone Novels: Tell Me To Stay Second Chance Knocking Boots Promise Me Burned Promises Forsaken, cowritten with B. B. Hamel Collections Don’t Let Go Deepen The Kiss Valetti Crime Family Series: Dirty Dom His Hostage Rough Touch Cuffed Kiss Bad Boy Highest Bidder Series, cowritten with Lauren Landish: Bought Sold Owned Given Bad Boy Standalones, cowritten with Lauren Landish: Inked Tempted Mr. CEO Happy reading and best wishes, W Winters xx My grandmother used to write. Her dream was for her stories to be published one day, but unfortunately that never happened. Times were different back then. Although she’s gone, she’s always with me in my heart and even in my writing. Pieces of what I remember of my grandmother have been sewn into these stories and I hope that you’ve fallen in love with her, even if you’ve never had the pleasure to meet her. I hope she would be proud of me if she were to see me now. The ones we love never leave us. Mommom, this book is for you. I love you. Merciless Book 1 From USA Today bestselling author Willow Winters comes a heart pounding, edge-of-your-seat gripping, romantic suspense. I should’ve known she would ruin me the moment I saw her. Women like her are made to destroy men like me. Given to me to start a war; I was too eager to accept. I didn’t know what she’d do to me. She sees through me in a way no one else ever has. Her innocence and vulnerability make me weak for her and I hate it. I know better than to give in to temptation. I should have known that she would change everything. A ruthless man doesn’t let a soul close to him. A cold-hearted man doesn’t risk anything for anyone. A powerful man with a beautiful woman at his mercy … he doesn’t fall for her. Preface Carter “I should have fucked you so much sooner.” I remember that first day, how she screamed and cried for me to let her go, back when I hated her and she hated me. Even with my tight grip on her throat, with my touch sending sparks through her body , she forces her head to shake, not taking her eyes off of mine. “No,” she whispers and my dick hardens even more, begging me to punish her for daring to defy me. But then she adds, “This is how it was supposed to be.” Her breathing is heavy as she closes her eyes, her body bowed on my lap. She’s completely at my mercy and her pouty lips are there for the taking. All of her. Every piece of her is mine and she knows it. Mine. Chapter 1 Carter War is coming. It’s something I’ve known for over two years. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. A tic in my jaw clenches in time with the rhythm of the clock, while the skin over my knuckles turns white as my fist squeezes tighter. Tension rises in my stiff shoulders and I have to remind myself to breathe in deeply and let the strain of it all go away. Tick-tock. It’s the only sound echoing off the walls of my office and with each pass of the pendulum, the anger grows. It’s always like this before I go to a meet. This one, in particular, sends a thrill through my blood, the adrenaline pumping harder with each passing minute. My gaze drifts from the grandfather clock in my office to the shelves next to it, then beneath them to the box made of mahogany and steel. It’s only three feet deep and three feet tall by six feet long. It blends into the wall of my office, surrounded by old books. I paid more than I should have simply to put on a display. All any of this is merely a façade. People’s perceptions are their reality. And so I paint the picture they need to see so I can use them as I see fit. The expensive books and artworks, polished furniture carved from rare wood… All of it is bullshit. Except for the box. The story that came with it will stay with me forever. In all the years, it’s one of the few memories I can pinpoint as a defining moment. The box never leaves me. The words from the man who gave it to me are still so fresh, as is the image of his pale green eyes, glossed over as he told me his story. About how it kept him safe when he was a child. He told me how his mother had shoved him in it to protect him. I swallow thickly, feeling my throat tighten and the cords in my neck strain at the recollection. He set the scene so well. He told me how he clung to his mother, seeing how panicked she was. But he did as he was told. He stayed quiet in the safe box and could only listen while the men murdered his mother. He offered to barter for his life with the box. And the story he gave me reminded me of my own mother telling me goodbye before she passed. Yes, his story was touching, but I put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger regardless. He tried to steal from me and then pay me with a box as if the money he embezzled was a debt or a loan. William was good at thieving, at telling stories, but the fucker was a dumb prick. I didn’t get to where I am by playing nicely and being weak. On that day, I took the box that saved him as a reminder of who I was. Who I needed to be. I made sure that box has been within my sight for every meeting I’ve had in this office. It’s a powerful reminder I can stare at as I make deal after deal with criminal after criminal and collect wealth and power in this godforsaken room. It cost me a fortune to get this office exactly how I wanted it. But if it were to burn down, I could easily afford to replace everything. Everything except for that box. “You really think they’re going through with it?” I hear my brother, Daniel, before I see him. The remembrance fades in an instant. It takes a second for me to be conscious of my facial expression, to relax my jaw and let go of the anger before I can raise my gaze to his. “With the war and the deal? You think he’ll go through with it and take her tonight?” he clarifies. A small huff leaves me, accompanied by a smirk as I answer, “He wants this more than anything else. He said they set her up and it’s already happening. Only hours until they’re done.” Daniel stalks into the room slowly, the heavy door to my office closing with a soft kick of his heel before he comes to stand across from me. “And you’re sure you want to be right in the middle of it?” I lick my lower lip and stand, stretching as I do and turning my gaze to the window in my office. I can hear Daniel walking around the desk as I lean against it and cross my arms. I tell him, “We won’t be in the middle of it. It’ll be the two of them, and our territory is close, but we can stay back.” “Bullshit. He wants you to fight with him. He’s going to start this war tonight and you know it.” I nod slowly, the memory of the smell of Romano’s cigars filling my lungs at the thought of him. “There’s still time to call it off,” Daniel says, and it makes my brow pinch and forehead crease. He can’t be that naïve. It’s the first time I’ve really looked at him since he’s been back. He spent years away. And every fucking day I fought for what we have. He’s gone soft. Or maybe it’s Addison who’s turned him into the man standing here now. “This war has to happen.” My words are final, and the tone is one not to be questioned. I may have grown this business on fear and anger, each step forward followed by the hollow sound of a body dropping behind me, but that’s not how it started. You can’t build an empire with bloodstained hands and not expect death to follow you. His dark eyes narrow as he moves closer to the window, his gaze flickering between me and the meticulously maintained garden several stories below us. “Are you sure you want to do this?” His voice is low, and I barely hear it. He doesn’t look back at me and a chill flows across the back of my neck and down my arms as I take in his solemn expression. It takes me back to years ago. Back to when we had a choice and chose wrong. When whether or not we wanted to go through with any of this still meant something. “There are men to the left of us,” I tell him as I step forward and close the distance between us. “There are men to the right. There is no possible outcome where we don’t pick a side.” He nods once and slides his thumb across the stubble on his chin before looking back at me. “And the girl?” he asks, his piercing eyes reminding me that both of us fought, both of us survived, and we each had a tragic path that led us to where we are today. “Aria?” I dare to speak her name and the sound of my smooth voice seems to linger in the space between us. I don’t wait for him to acknowledge me—or her, rather. “She has no choice.” My voice tightens as I say the words. Clearing my throat, I brace my palms against the window, feeling the frigid fall beneath my hands and lean forward to see Addison beneath us. “What do you think they would have done to Addison if they’d succeeded in taking her?” His jaw clenches, but he doesn’t answer my question. Instead he replies, “We don’t know who tried to take her from me.” I shrug as if it’s semantics and not at all relevant. “Still. Women aren’t meant to be touched, but they went for Addison first.” “That doesn’t make it right,” Daniel says with indignation in his tone. “Isn’t it better she come to us?” My head tilts as I pose the question and this time he takes a moment to respond. “She’s not one of us. Not like Addison, and you know what Romano expects you to do with her.” “Yes, the daughter of the enemy…” My heart beats hard in my chest, and the steady rhythm reminds me of the ticking of the clock. “I know exactly what he wants me to do with her.” Chapter 2 Aria There are a few things you should know about me. I like to wake up with a hot cup of coffee every morning. Preferably with enough creamer and sugar to drown out the taste of the bitter caffeine addiction. I love red wine at night. I can’t have white; it gives me a headache and a hangover that will leave me miserable when I wake up. Well, those aren’t things that really matter. They’re the superficial details you give people when you don’t want to tell them the truth. What do you really need to know? My name is Aria Talvery and I’m the daughter of the most violent crime family in Fallbrook. The reason I like to have wine at night is because I desperately need it so I can get a few hours of sleep. My mother was murdered in front of me when I was only eight years old and I’ve never been okay since then, although I’ve learned to be good at pretending I am. My father’s a crook, but he kept me safe and tolerated me even though every day he reminded me how much it hurt him to look at my face and see nothing but my mother. It’s because of my eyes. I know it is. They’re a hazel-green concoction, just like hers were. Like the soft mix of colors you’d see in a deep neck of the woods when looking up at the canopy of leaves in late summer, early fall. That’s how my mother used to describe it. She was poetic that way. And maybe some of that rubbed off on me. Fact number… whatever we’re on: I love to draw. I hate the life I live and hide away in the sketches and smeared ink. Away from the madness and danger my existence inherently brings. And that love of art, the one thing I have that still connects me to my mother, is why I ended up at this bar, tracking down the asshole who stole my sketchbook from me. The prick who thinks he’s funny and that I’m some stupid joke or a toy he can play with because I’m a woman living in a man’s world, a dangerous one at that. But I inherited my temper from my father. And that’s why I ended up at the Iron Heart Brewery on Church Street. Yes, a bar on a street called “church.” What’s more ironic is how much sin has seeped into these walls. And so I went willingly, after my precious notebook that was stolen and walked right into the enemy’s arms. It was a setup, but my mother would have called it kismet. You should know I’m smiling now, but it’s a sarcastic smile as a huff of feigned laughter leaves me. Maybe all of this is her fault to begin with. After all, that notebook was irreplaceable to me because the only picture I had of her was tucked into the spine. The last thing you should know, and the most important of them all, is that I refuse to break. I don’t give in and I don’t back down. Not for anyone, and especially not for Carter Cross. The bastard who took me from my family. Locked me in a room and told me in simple words that my life was over, and I belonged to him. It won’t be his cutting words from his sharp tongue. Or his broad shoulders and muscular arms that pin me down and trap me. It won’t be his charming smile that utters filthy words that makes me cave. And it won’t be that spark in his eyes, the flames licking and flickering brighter and hotter every time he looks at me. No, I refuse to give in. Even if that same heat echoes in my chest and travels lower. But there’s this thing about breaking; the more you harden yourself and try to fight it, the easier and sharper the snap is when you inevitably break. And I know this all too well. The day my life changed forever… There’s a constant ringing in my ears. My fists are clenched so tight that my knuckles have turned white. Every time I have to face these assholes my father works with, this is how it feels. Like I’m on edge. My heart thuds, thuds, thuds as I pass the all-glass front door to Iron Heart Brewery and keep walking like I’m not going in. The front exterior is all windows, so they can easily see who’s coming and going; bulletproof, too. Because of the clientele. Word is my father fronted that bill, but that seems overly generous for a man like him. Cold. Selfish. Greedy. That’s how I’d describe my father, and I hate myself for it. I should be grateful; I should love him. But I’m loyal at least, and loyalty is all that matters. When you grow up in this life, you learn that little tidbit quickly. Resting my shoulder against the dark red brick just past the windows, I take a look at the parking lot across the street. They aren’t here yet. A frustrated breath leaves a trail of fog in the tense fall air as I cross my arms. This is where my father’s men go on a night off and I know Mika is going to be here. I hate being here alone, but I can’t wait for someone to save me. I hope Nikolai will come with them too. He’s a childhood friend, although now a soldier of my father’s, and my saving grace. Really, he’s my only friend and he’s put that bastard Mika in his place more than once when my father wasn’t there for me. Even knowing that to be true, that if Nikolai comes there won’t be any problems in the least, I hate that I have to be here at all. My thumb runs along the tips of my cold fingers, remembering how I held the notebook only moments before Mika came into the room. The photograph was tucked safely inside. Waiting for me to be inspired by it. A notebook is only a notebook, but that photograph is the only one I have of my mother and me the year she died. My father didn’t have time for my “meaningless shit,” as he called it, and the vise around my heart tightened at his response. A shiver runs down my shoulders and I let out another heavy breath. I can feel the chill on my nose and cheeks. My thin jacket isn’t doing a damn thing to help me. I hadn’t realized fall had come with intentions of revenge on the smoldering summer. Peeking up through my lashes, I read the chalkboard sign above the bar through the windows. They’re all locals, all drafts. I guess I could have one drink while I wait. The smooth music hits my ears as I walk into the bar, my heart beating faster as I take in a few of the men seated on the stools. It’s funny how a bar being mostly empty sends greater fear through me than one that’s packed. One where I can blend in. Right here, right now? I don’t belong, and every soul here knows it. Maybe this is why Mika thought he could get away with it, I think bitterly as I try to ignore the scared little girl inside of me. He thinks he can steal from me because my father won’t stop him and I’m too spineless to even come out of my room unless called upon. I force myself to straighten my back as I move closer to the bar and set down my clutch. I have a plan and I go over it as I try to swallow, form a smile, and order a drink. “Vodka and Sprite,” I order easily as I slip onto the barstool and meet the bartender’s eyes. With a nod he moves seamlessly to the glasses, making them clink and then filling one with ice. I’ll wait for the guys. Even if they scare me because I know what they’re capable of. I’ll look Mika in the eyes and tell him to give my sketchbook back to me by tomorrow. And then I’ll walk away. No threats. It’s a simple request. He wants to play around and tease me and I won’t give him the time to do so. That’s the only reason he took it. He gets a thrill from goading me. The wind batters against the glass windows to my right and it startles me. None of the men lining the room seem to have noticed it. I’m too busy watching the hanging sign for the brewery banging against the window that I don’t see the bartender come up to me. The sound of the glass hitting the hard maple bar top sends a spike of fear through me and I jump in surprise. The sudden stillness and immediate silence that accompanies all of their eyes on me force me to tense. I can barely form a smile as I stare straight ahead and thank the bartender. First, I feel a rush of embarrassment, followed by fear that they know I’m weak. Then that all-consuming anxiety that everything is going to go wrong washes over me. Very wrong. It makes me want to throw up, but instead, I lift the cold glass to my lips. One sip of the sweet cocktail does nothing. Two, and my throat still feels dry. I’m a foolish girl. I lick a bit of soda from my bottom lip and set the glass down on the counter as I stare at all the colorful labels of liquor bottles lining the shelves. There’s no one who will stand up for me and I can’t even bring myself to think about confrontation without getting jumpy. Trying to swallow proves useless and so I push myself off the stool with both hands clinging to the cold bar. My palms are clammy, and I nearly tell the bartender I’m just going to the restroom as if he’d care. As if anyone cares. That feeling of complete insignificance follows me with each step to the left of the bar as I head down a skinny hallway. It’s the only way to go, so the restrooms must be there. I only make it a few steps before I think I hear a shot. My body tenses and my heart goes still. It knows that if it were to beat, I wouldn’t be able to hear a single thing else. There’s no scream. There’s nothing but the sound of the music. I must have only thought I heard one. It’s all in my head. My eyes close as I will myself to breathe. But then they bolt open at a familiar noise. It’s not the harsh sound of a gun going off. It’s the whiz of a gun with a silencer, followed by the thud of a body hitting the floor. Bang, bang! Two of them back to back, and this time everything sounds closer. Another shot. My body clings to the wall as if it can hide me. I force myself to move, to head to the back and find a way out or place to hide. I might be a scared little girl, barely surviving in my father’s world, but I’m not a fucking idiot. I quicken my pace as I round the corner, motivated by the sheer will to live. But every bit of strength I have, even if it is minuscule, is for nothing. The scream that’s torn from my throat is barely heard as a thick bag covers my head. My clutch falls to the floor, hitting my thigh as I kick out and miss the man in front of me. My heels go with it, each kick accompanied by the rough laughter of several men. I try to fight, but it’s no use. It’s more than one man, I know that. Their hands are strong and their bodies like bricks. I don’t stop and won’t, but nothing I do is helping. I punch and yell and kick as terror flows through me, begging me to push them away and run. I can’t see, and my arms scream in pain as they’re pinned behind me. I only know we’re outside because of the wind slicing through my thin jacket. I only know I’m in a trunk because of the telltale sound of it opening before I’m tossed in, my small body crashing against the back of it as it’s quickly shut. Silence. Darkness. My breathing is ragged, and it makes me lightheaded. When my screaming stops, my voice is hoarse, and my throat burns with harsh pain every time I try to swallow. When my banging ends, my wrists are rubbed raw and cut from the cuffs and my muscles are aching with the type of pain that’s scorching hot and forces me to tremble. Another feeling takes over. It’s not quite panic. It’s something else. It’s not a sense of hopelessness. Not that either. When you’re alone and you know nothing is okay and nothing’s going to be okay, there’s this feeling that’s overwhelming and inescapable. My heart keeps ticking along despite everything. But it’s going too fast. Everything is going too fast and it hurts. And I can’t stop it. I can’t stop any of it. When you’ve done everything you can, and you’re left with nothing but fear of both the unknown and the known, there’s only one way to describe it. That feeling is true terror. Chapter 3 Carter “You’re going to keep her here?” It’s not much of a question from my brother; more of a statement as he looks around the cell. Jase was the middle child of five boys and never learned how to start a conversation without being direct and blunt. I suppose I can’t blame him. The thought reminds me of Tyler. The fifth brother who died years ago. His memory numbs the reality of the present, but only for a moment. Jase leans against the far wall with his arms loosely crossed and waits for me to answer. We leave in only an hour. Each small tick of the Rolex on my wrist reminds me that I’m so close to having her. Only time separates us now. Glancing from the thin mattress lying on the floor to the metal toilet on the other side of the cell, I tell him, “I think I’ll add a chair.” His quizzical expression only changes slightly. He may not even realize it, but I see it on his face. The disappointment. The disgust. I can hear the unspoken question that lingers on the tip of his tongue as he shifts his gaze from me to the steel door behind us. When did you become this fucked up? He has no idea. “I’ll need a place to sit.” I keep my voice even, almost playful as if this is a joke. It’s Jase though, and he knows me better than anyone. Much better than either Daniel or Declan. The three of them and I make the four Cross brothers. But out of all of us, Jase and I are the closest. As much as I can hide the anxiousness of getting my hands on Aria from everyone else, he can see it. I can tell by how careful he’s been around me since I told him. “How long?” he asks me. “How long what?” “Will you keep her here?” “As long as it takes.” For what? The question is there in his eyes, but he doesn’t ask it and I have no intention of telling him regardless. I could lie and tell him as long as it takes for the war to end. As long as it takes to see if she’ll be useful in negotiations if Talvery wins. The lies could pour from me, but the truth is simple. As long as it takes for me to decide what I want from her. “There’s no shower,” he remarks. “There’s a faucet by the side of the toilet and a drain. She’ll figure it out while she’s in here.” Time passes and a chill settles in the already cold air. I know this is something I’ve never done, and it crosses more than one line. But in times of war, there is no right and wrong. “I could give her other things. Little by little.” Although I’m answering his question, I’m merely thinking out loud. “Last time I was here, I was getting some very useful intel,” Jase comments as he moves to the corner of the room. I know he’s looking at the rim of the drain, inspecting it for any remnants of the blood. The cell has only been used for one thing prior to this. It’s what Jase excels at. “Are you planning on getting information from her?” Jase asks with genuine curiosity and before I can answer he quickly adds, “I don’t think Talvery is known for speaking business openly.” I would commend Jase for prying, but this isn’t a matter I want him or anyone else involved in. She’s mine and mine alone in this deal. And I’ll do whatever I want with her. My brothers and everyone else can go fuck themselves where she’s concerned. “No, I don’t think she knows anything.” Jase walks casually around the small room. Ten feet by ten feet. That’s more than enough space. His boot brushes against the mattress and then he kicks it. There are no springs or coils in the thing. There’s nothing in here she could use as a weapon. I made sure of that. “Just a mattress and a chair?” he asks, still skirting around the questions he wants answered. After years of me leading us and making the decisions, he knows better than to question me, but this is fucking killing him. It’s eating him alive that he doesn’t know what I want to do with her or why I want her. And the knowledge that it’s killing him only thrills me. “For now. I imagine she’s going to want to fight and the fewer things in here, the better.” “And you think this is a sign that we can trust the Romanos? He gives you the girl, risking everything to get her, and you trust him to go to war? If he really has her and is willing to hand her over to you?” He’s reaching, prying still. “We can’t trust anyone.” I make sure he holds my gaze as I add, “That truth will never change.” We only have each other. That’s how we survived, and that’s the only way we’ll continue to live. He’s smarter than that. I imagine Jase will realize why all of this is happening before anyone else. That’s his job, to gather any and all information necessary. By any means. “Then this is a test?” he questions. His forehead is creased, a deep line evident. He’s lucky he’s my brother and that I still feel guilty for bringing him into this. For bringing all of them deeper and deeper into my hell I’ve created. “The Romanos want the Talverys dead and vice versa. All over a decade-old feud for territory. The Romanos need allies and the upper hand. It was only a matter of time before I agreed to war; she just happened to be the first casualty. I wanted something, and Romano is going to give it to me, so we back him and not the Talverys.” “Casualty?” he asks to clarify if I really am going to kill her. “You and I both know if she stays with her father, she’ll die at his side… or worse,” I say easily as I leave the cell. Jase’s footsteps echo behind me. “Why save her?” Jase’s question echoes in my veins. Agreeing to take her is a risk I shouldn’t have taken. “It was an impulsive decision.” “It’s unlike you,” Jase pushes, and I have to steady my breathing to keep from telling him to fuck off. He has no idea that Aria once saved me. No one does, not even her. Whether I hate her for it, or something else, I have yet to decide. “After this is over, what do we do with her?” Jase asks me. Closing the steel door, I shut it tightly and pull the edge of the painting back over the barely visible slit of the frame. The door is designed to be concealed. If you didn’t know how to maneuver the painting just so to unlock the hidden seal, you’d never see a door at all. It’s a soundproof cell no one would ever find. Impenetrable and fitted with an electronic cloak so any type of tracking is silenced. It’s Aria’s new home. His question resonates with me as I turn my back to the cell. What am I going to do with her afterward? “I haven’t thought that far ahead,” I reply, and the tone of my answer puts an end to his questioning. Chapter 4 Aria My heart will kill me before these men do. That’s all I can think as it races in my chest. I’ve never felt fear like this. Maybe it’s a lie that I’ve never felt it before. But it’s been so long, and I don’t remember my heart pounding like it is now. My hot breath makes me feel faint as I try to breathe steadily. My eyes open even though all I can see is darkness with the bag still wrapped around my head. I have to be smart. As much as I’d love to fight, I have to be smart or I’ll die. It’s impossible to be smart when you’re terrified though. The dry lump in my throat feels scratchy as I swallow, opening my eyes to see nothing but the scant light that seeps through the burlap. I can’t make out anything but I can hear everything. My erratic heartbeat blasting in my ears, the sound of several men in the room, and the scraping of chairs across the floor. One of them is named Romano and I’m fully aware that he’s a man who hates my father. I’m in the hands of the enemy. I know I’m on a plastic tarp. I can feel the slickness beneath my fingers. It almost feels like a trash bag beneath me. That’s what scares me the most. I’ve never seen my father kill anyone, but I know they line the floor before they go through with it. It makes it easier for cleaning up. I try to swallow again, gently lifting my head because I feel like I’m going to suffocate if I don’t breathe. “Bitch is up.” My breathing hitches at the gruff voice coming from somewhere in front of me. I tried and failed, not to let them on to the fact that I’m awake. Even when the cigar smoke woke me, and I thought I was in a fire, I was still. A few minutes have passed at most; I haven’t learned shit that’s going to help me though, other than that I’m lying on a floor and helpless. Someone else responds, “Just in time.” And then rough laughter erupts in the room. My aching body stiffens, my hands clenching and making the cuffs dig deeper into my broken skin. I’m so terrified, I don’t react to the pain shooting up my arms. Every second that passes is agonizing. They speak calmly, softly, and in Italian. A language of which I know very few words. I know baldracca though. It’s the word for whore and hearing that makes my shoulders hunch in a useless and pathetic effort to hide myself as a new sense of fear overwhelms me. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m being held captive by one of my father’s enemies. Romano, and he’s one of many. I would give them anything to be able to run back home and stay there forever. “Please,” I can’t help the attempt to bargain that slips from me. “My father will pay you whatever you want.” The tears come without notice and my voice cracks on every other word. The warmth of my breath makes my heated face feel even hotter. I’ve never thought of myself as such a weak person. But tied up and knowing my fate includes death or being a whore, the desperation outweighs anything else. “There is no saving you Talvery trash,” a man sneers as he walks closer to me with deliberate steps. His heavy footfalls get louder and quicker. Instinctively I try to back away, despite being on my side with my ankles and wrists cuffed behind my back. The struggle is useless. With my back against a wall and nowhere to go, all I can do is hunch my body inward as the heavy boot kicks brutally into my gut. The air leaves me in a harrowing instant. Pain bursts inside of me, radiating outward but coiling in my stomach. It sinks deep inside of me, making me want to throw up to get rid of the agonizing pain. I sputter and heave, trying my best to remain quiet. Bastard tears leak from my eyes and I can’t stop them. I can’t do anything. This is a hell I’ve been terrified of for so damn long. A nightmare that I knew could be a reality. Helpless takes on a new meaning. My body trembles and the fear is overwhelming. But then I remind myself, be quiet. Be smart. There is always hope. Always. I’m smart enough to find a way. The idea is soothing for a moment until I hear the boot rise again and my instinct to cower is greeted with laughter in the room. I pray that maybe I’ll wake up. Although I know it’s not a possibility I’m asleep, because pain doesn’t follow you to your dreams. Not this kind. But the thought gives me a heady comfort that allows me to stay quiet as the men talk and laugh, their banter mocking me and my helplessness. My father will come for me. That last thought I nearly whisper to myself. My lips mouth the words and I stay in the fetal position with my eyes closed. He will save me. It’s his pride at risk. If for no other reason, stealing me is a sign of weakness for him. He won’t allow it. My breathing slows at the thought, the adrenaline in my blood seemingly ebbing away from me. He has to save me. “Do you think we should torture her first? Get any information out of her?” The two questions are asked by another man farther away from me and on my left. One with a casual and lighthearted way about the fucked up questions which leads to the room being filled with Italian comments and some amused chuckle from my right. Sweat covers my skin. Turning hot and cold as the air smothers me. The laughter is silenced with the sound of the door opening and greetings are exchanged. Only three men speak, and I can’t make out the words until the door is shut again. Something’s changed. The air in the room is different. I can feel it. “Is that her?” a deep, rough voice asks. The velvet cadence of the man who interrupted the jovial laughter makes everything still. Goosebumps flow over every inch of my skin. There’s no answer for a moment, but I imagine someone may have nodded. Again, my heart beats and I wish it would stop. I need to hear. All I can think is that I’m going to be slaughtered. I can’t be. Not like this. Please, God, not like this. My adrenaline spikes and I can’t help that my head turns to hear better. Everything in the room is still and so quiet that I can hear the puff of a cigar. It’s so clear I can imagine his lips as he exhales, the deep breath overshadowing everything else. “I didn’t think you’d do it,” the new man’s voice says calmly and in control. The others had an accent to them, but this one is from here. American descent, born and raised. Still, his voice commands fear. There’s something about it, the intonation that feels like power in and of itself. He says, “It’s very rare that I’m proven wrong.” Fear and hope flow through me. The fear I expected, but hope doesn’t make sense. It’s alive in me though. Some part of me urges to beg the smooth-voiced man to save me as if it knows he’s my savior. “Aria Talvery.” He says my name with reverence, but even so, as he steps closer to me, the tread of his shoes on the floor not nearly as heavy and foreboding as the man who kicked me, I instinctively move away. I don’t even notice how calm my heart is until he says the words that create utter chaos. “The deal wasn’t meant to be taken literally.” A slew of Italian fills the room. Not everyone’s yelling, I know that, but several are and their anger ricochets through the room. “You said you’d do it; you’d side with me in the war in exchange for her. Are you going back on your word?” One voice is louder than the rest. Deeper and raspier. It sends a sickening chill through my bones. “I didn’t, actually. And terms need to be negotiated.” The man with the raspy voice responds quickly and doesn’t hide his irritation as he retorts, “You’ve known about this for three days. Three fucking days!” He yells the last three words and they make me jump as much as I can in this position. Speaking with nothing but control, the man who sent for me answers him, “Like I said, I didn’t think you’d do it.” “Bastardo,” a new voice spits and it’s followed by the crunching sound of a punch. “Fuck!” another man yell, but I don’t recognize his voice, and the sound of guns being cocked fills the room. “Jase, no need.” My eyes are wide open as I lie helpless on the ground. My fingertips search for something, anything to help me but the only progress I’m making is pulling at the plastic beneath me. Without any warning, three heavy steps come closer and the burlap bag is ripped off my head, taking a bit of my hair with it and forcing a scream from me. The bright light blinds me as I’m pulled up by the nape of my neck, clear off the ground and then hurled down to the floor. I have no hands free to catch myself, they’re still cuffed behind me and so my shoulder hits the ground first, then my face. The hint of blood fills my mouth, and pain shoots up my shoulder. Fuck, it hurts. Everything hurts. I rock onto my back as I cry out. Please, make it stop. Please. I wish I could take myself away from here. I wish it were only a dream. But as my arm twists and scrapes on the cement in an effort to right myself, I know this is real. I can’t escape this. I whimper and give into the pain. There is no nightmare to wake from. This is my reality. “You said you’d back me if I gave her to you!” A violent scream tears through the small room. My neck cranes to see the man who spoke over a table. A rough and splintered, unfinished wood table. The man’s dress shirt looks damp with sweat and his face glistens with it too. Dark, black eyes stare across the room toward me, but not looking at me. The anger on his face is undeniable and I can’t look anywhere else as he screams words that make my body shudder with fear. “I won’t let you go back on this!” My eyes close tight. I’ve heard the whispers of war for years from man after man. It’s been so long since I’ve actually feared the hint of it. Maybe that’s where I made my first mistake. I forgot that I should be terrified and that the dangers are always lurking and waiting to strike. Please take me far away from here. I can imagine this going wrong so quickly. I could be shot and never even given the chance to escape. My heart races wildly and the terror makes my body tremble. “And now you’ve damaged her,” the man, the one with control, says quietly and calmly but with an uncontained anger that’s brimming with threats. The deadliness of his simple sentence silences the room once again. It’s only then that I dare to open my eyes, slowly peeking up through my lashes. Dark eyes stare deep into mine as a tall man crouches down in front of me. Not black like the other man’s, not so darkened. But a mixture of browns and amber, like a piece of burned wood from a raging fire. There’s no heat there though. His eyes are so cold they make my blood freeze and instantly the air turns to ice. There’s a hint of something in his gaze that speaks of inexplicable things. My body tenses, my lungs fear to move and I stay still like prey caught in the beautiful hunter’s gaze. Time passes slowly as he considers me. And I find myself hoping and praying that he’ll save me. How ridiculous that I would, but there’s something about his eyes. I can’t refuse the pull, the electricity surrounding him that seems to bend the air between us, making me feel closer to him. So close that he could save me. His intentions aren’t any better than these men. But there’s only one of him and he’s a man of control. I prefer that to the chaos I’m currently in. I know it. He can save me. Even if it’s only by killing me right now in this moment and ending the pain. And I’m acutely aware he could do it. There’s not a thing about him that could hide the fact that he’s a ruthless, cold-hearted killer. His fingers brush along his stubble as he tilts his head, considering me. The sole light overhead, a bright light in the middle of the room casts a shadow down his face that somehow makes his chiseled and hard jaw look even sharper. His presence alone speaks of a power that steals the air from me. I’m nothing beneath him as he towers over me. My eyes close slowly as he reaches out and gently brushes the hair from my face. His hot touch melts everything inside of me. It’s tender but deliberate. The soothing caress makes me weaker as his fingers travel down my chin and to my throat. His masculinity is undeniable, the fear of his power only adding to the forbidden desire that rages through me. The man is everything I’ve been taught to fear, although the sensation is mixed with something else entirely. Something I’d never admit. And that’s when he grips me, his fingers wrapping around my throat and forcing me to open my eyes, staring back into the dark abyss of his gaze. Chapter 5 Carter “I asked for her, yes,” I finally answer Romano although I’m still staring at Aria’s face, those lips of hers parted and swollen from the fall as I tighten my grip just slightly. Anger ripples through me at the sight of the fresh wounds. That fucker put his hands on her. They hurt her. They hurt what’s mine. The tic in my jaw spasms again as the rage intensifies. They should know better than to touch what’s mine. I force the boiling rage down to a simmer; I’m not a fool. There are six men in this room and only one is on my side. I’m not just outnumbered. I’m not prepared to fight. And I don’t intend to either. I want to take my gift and leave this prick to his war. I want that feeling back, humming in my veins. The sheer power of having her at my mercy, feeling her breath cut short and her blood rushing beneath my grasp. She’s mine. Finally. “But not for a beaten and broken version of her,” I grit the words through my teeth and they come out lower than I expected. I’m barely contained as I loosen my grip, allowing her to break eye contact and suck in a deep breath. If I hear another plea or whimper from her in reaction to this fucker, I know I’ll shoot Romano without a second thought. And that can’t happen. Not yet. The second I get my hands on Aria, her father will be after me. I need Romano to distract him just as much as Romano needs me. Romano doesn’t answer, and I imagine it’s because my back is to him as I look over Aria. But he’ll have to fucking deal with that. So long as she’s here, she’ll be looking at me and no one else. I scan every inch of her and each time I see an injury, my teeth clench, and my muscles coil. The cut on her swollen lip. The scratches and scrapes around her wrists. There’s a bruise on her arm and I’m sure there are more I can’t see. “We just got her two hours ago. She’s not broken. You better not fuck me over.” Romano’s words are rushed and desperate as I stand tall, leaving the girl where she is. My heart races, but I don’t let on. To them, she’s only a girl I randomly chose. A girl who was harder to kidnap. Just a challenge for them and nothing more. “This isn’t a fight or debate,” I tell Romano with my back still to him. I want him to know in his truest of hearts that I’m the one helping him, and it’s only out of my desire to do so. He’s fucked over more than one of his allies in the past. I’m going to make him think twice before he decides I can be used as a pawn. Even knowing how much is at stake in this very moment, I can hardly think. I can’t pry my eyes from Aria. Her chest rises and falls steadily as she rolls onto her side. Her lips are a gorgeous hue of red. Her hair tousled and flowing over her bare shoulder. But what’s better is how she keeps looking at me with a mixture of both fear and hope swirling in those striking hazel eyes. I didn’t imagine she’d look like this. The sight is addictive. “Plea-” she starts to say – to me - but Romano cuts her off. His sickening and desperate voice hushes the soft sounds of her speaking to me. My fists clench, nearly splitting the tight skin across my tense knuckles and instantly my suit feels like it’s suffocating me. His ignorance will be the death of him. “We had a deal and it will benefit both of us, Cross.” As I loosen my collar, walking closer to him in the filthy room, he continues, “You don’t have to do anything but give me that territory, Carter.” He raises his hands in defense when I stare daggers at him. “Only for a little while, just so we can strike first. You’re closer to Talvery. You don’t want your men to do the work, so what other choice do I have than to take it over?” My gaze sweeps over a pile of crates in the corner of the room. There are three of them on top of empty pallets. The wooden table is etched and weathered. I can only imagine the blood and sweat and drugs that have seeped into the wood. Even over the smell of smoke, the stench is revolting. Each man in the room is dressed similarly, except myself and Jase. I always wear a suit; it’s better to overdress than under. Romano’s attempt at an ill-fitting suit didn’t last long. His wrinkled jacket is a puddle of cheap fabric laying across the back of his chair. The others wear nondescript hoodies and shirts with faded baggy jeans. Each of the thugs looks at me as I survey them, and each one of their questioning gazes falls without a word uttered from their insignificant lips. And then I look back to her. Back to the soft curves of her waist, the messy halo of dark hair around her pale skin. Her slender throat that’s so exposed as she writhes quietly and hopelessly on the ground. This beautiful, broken creature. She’s all mine. “Your men are positioned between Fourth and Weston, give that territory to me so I can take his men down.” Romano starts to speak terms. “We’ll take them all down at the same time on every edge of his territory. Any man who stands against us after that will die. It’s simple. They back us, or they die like the rest of them.” “I’ve heard this all before,” I mutter. He says he’ll kill them all. Erase any trace of Talvery from our existence. It’s related to unfinished business started a decade before me. All in the name of greed. “Just give me access to that territory and the suppliers for the guns.” He reeks of desperation as he adds, “That’s what you agreed to!” I expected a lot of things when I came here. But this amount of irritation is something I never accounted for. As the seconds pass, I imagine how I could kill each and every one of the men in this room. How long it would take. How many shots they’d get off. Jase is behind me and I know he could hold his own. I have to will away the temptation and eagerness to get Aria alone. Leaving the image of her beautiful figure crumpled at my feet, I focus on the business at hand. “You want me to back down, clear the path for your men?” I ask him. “They’ll never see it coming if we take them from both your side and mine. We take over on the edge of your territory--” I cut the fucker off before he can finish. “He’ll think it’s me killing them off. When his men around the edge of my territory start dying, he’ll come after me without a second thought.” My words come out deadly. “This isn’t me starting a war, it’s you.” “I’m giving her to you for a reason.” He rushes his words with sincere bewilderment. “No deal,” I say and turn to leave, but Aria’s whimper pierces through the air. Even without a word spoken, I can hear her plea not to leave her at their mercy. It does things to me that it shouldn’t. Just the knowledge that the threat of my absence can create a reaction from her is everything to me in this moment. “Wait!” Romano’s hands smack on the wooden table in the center of the room. “What if,” he swallows visibly as he pushes off the table and then lets out a heavy breath. I peek at Jase for the first time since we’ve been in here. In a slim-fitting suit and his arms hanging loosely in front of him, he could be the usher at a fucking wedding right now. Well, if it weren’t for the glare on his face that can only be read one way, for anyone looking at him to fuck off. “What if…” he pauses and clears his throat before looking me in the eye. “Once I take over Talvery’s territory, we could split it.” He earns himself a small reaction from me, the tilt of my head for him to continue. “I want to start flooding the product at the top, closest to just outside of the tri-state area, to keep the cops away from our bases.” “And?” I question him. “None of this is relevant to splitting a damn thing.” “I only need his territory in the Upper West Side. I don’t even have enough men to cover the rest,” he says in a lighter, nearly comical tone as if the problem’s already been solved. “I’m not interested in more territory,” I state, and my barely spoken words cause the hopeful expression on his face to fade. “But I’d happily take a percentage of the profits to cover my losses,” I offer. “Fifteen percent every quarter until my losses are paid.” “Deal.” Romano is so quick to oblige, even his own men stare at him rather than at me. They can’t be that stupid. An even-numbered war is never a good thing. They need men and territory and backing. I’ll give them the minimum, and pray they still kill each other off. I nod my head once. “Deal,” I say and while forcing a semblance of a smile to my lips, I offer him an outstretched hand. I have to keep the grin from spreading as I turn my attention back to the wide-eyed girl, still tied up on the floor. “Jase.” I speak to my brother although I keep my gaze on her, “Put her in the trunk.” Chapter 6 Aria It’s odd, the things that you think when you’re alone for hours in a room filled with nothing but hopelessness and anger. Some thoughts make sense of course. Thoughts of Mika and how he should have been there. He should have been at the bar, and I find myself wondering if he knew. If he took my notebook because he knew how much I loved my art and I’d know he had it and come after him. I find it hard to believe he wouldn’t expect me to go after it. Or else why do it? I’ve spent hours trying to determine the intentions of a psychotic asshole. But the truth is that I wouldn’t have gone after him for any other reason. I wouldn’t have left the safety of home… if that picture hadn’t been tucked safely inside. The thoughts of Mika and how bleak my reality is seem reasonable. Other thoughts though… other thoughts don’t make sense. Like the flashbacks of my mother. I’ve been haunted by so many images of what happened the day she died for years now. But none of those keep me company as I rock on the cement floor in the corner of the cell. It’s the sweeter things I remember that are driving me mad. My thumb brushes against the cut on my lip, sending a sharp pain through me that reminds me this isn’t a dream. “Aria,” I hear my mother call out for me in the memory. I was hiding in the closet, so proud that I’d hidden so well. “Ria?” Her voice changed to fear and desperation, and my smile vanished. “Ria, please!” she begged as her hushed cry from the hallway beckoned me to show myself. My fingers gripped the door of the closet just as she forced the guest room door open. I remember how her light blue dress swung around her knees. How her perfectly pinned hair didn’t come undone. Yet her voice and her bearing were nothing but distraught. I wish I could go back to that moment. Where she was running toward me and so close. Where she’d inevitably be in reach. “Don’t hide from me.” Her words were ragged as she pulled me into her chest. She rocked me too fast, she held me too hard before gripping my arms and making me look her in the eyes. I’ll never forget how hers watered over. “You can’t hide like that.” Her words were so pained, they came out as only a whisper. “I’m sorry, Momma,” I tried to speak the words, so she knew I meant them. “I was only playing.” Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes as she pulled me back into her arms and rocked me. She whispered many things, but the one that’s stayed with me is that we don’t live in a world where we can play. I should have known better than to run after Mika. Every possible situation of a setup runs through my head as I bite my thumbnail and rock against the cement wall. I can’t sit. My legs beg me to run, but with nowhere to go, I simply stand and lean on the far wall across from the door. Waiting for it to open. I was only playing myself, thinking that I could prove myself to be anything when I went to hunt down Mika. I was childish and foolish. I can hear my mother saying it now. How foolish she was, she said it all the time before she died. And foolish is what I’ve become. I keep whispering that I’m sorry, and I know the man is watching me. Carter. That’s what the men called him. Carter Cross. I know he can hear my whispers of despair. I’m not saying it to him though; it’s an apology to my mother. I should have known better than to chase after the memory of her in that picture. The words are spoken as I focus on the metal drain in the corner of the room. Between the toilet, mattress, and drain, I know this room is meant for prisoners, but also for torture and murder. One and then the other. I’ve searched every inch; the sides of my hands are bruised from pounding against the tall steel door. There’s simply no escape. One way in, and one way out. I should have fought harder when Jase Cross, Carter’s brother from what I overheard, held the rag to my mouth. Stolen, drugged, and reassigned to a prison: that’s what my life has become. The faint sounds of the camera moving drag my attention back to it. It’s the one thing in the room I wish I could destroy. There’s only one from what I can tell, and it’s in the far right corner of the room. But the camera is encased in cement and untouchable, if throwing the metal chair was any indication. As I stare at the mattress, I wrap my arms around myself. I won’t sleep on it; there’s no way my back will ever touch it. I suck in a deep breath, reliving the feeling of those dark eyes pinning me in place. I know what he wants from me, but he’ll have to fight me to get it. I’ll kick him, bite him, scratch him until my nails break and bleed. I’ll make him regret this if it’s the last thing I do. My fingers lift slowly up to my jaw and then trail down my throat. Remembering how his gentle comfort so easily became a threat. My heart thumps hard, once then twice as I hear the fucking camera move again. “What are you moving it for?” I scream out like a madwoman, as loud as I can. My throat is hoarse from the screaming before, my body screaming along with me in a shuddered breath. “I’m not fucking going anywhere!” I scream again and then wrap my arms tighter around myself as I fall to the floor on my ass and then my side. Just the way I was when that monster first found me. The cuts on the sides of my wrists touch the dirty cement floor. I should lie on the mattress. I know I should, even as my tearstained cheeks rest on the unforgiving floor. If, for no other reason than to have the energy to fight another day. He’s waiting me out, I think. And that’s something I can’t fight. Hours and hours have passed. I don’t know how much time has elapsed exactly, but I know I have to sleep. I can’t stay awake forever, waiting for whatever’s next. I’m powerless and completely at Carter’s mercy. And he’s not even here. He had me stolen from my home, then nearly left me in the kidnapper’s arms. And now that he has me, he’s left me to go crazy on my own. That’s exactly how I feel as my heavy eyes stare at the steel door and sleep threatens to take over. When you don’t know what’s waiting for you, what you’ll have to fight, it can do that to you. It can make you feel crazy. Another hour passes, or more. So much time escapes and all my fight has gone. In its place, only fear and exhaustion remain. “Why are you doing this to me?” I whisper as I stare at the camera, imagining all the answers it could give me. And not a single one of them offers me comfort. I find it hard to believe that when I first heard his voice, I was so desperate for him to take me away. The blame lays on my survival instincts. The fear of what those men would have done to me made me desperate for Carter to steal me away. My mind drifts back to that moment, and I wish I’d looked harder for a different escape. He’s going to come back. And I need to be able to fight him. But how can I, when I don’t know when he’s coming, and I have to sleep? Eventually, I have to sleep. I doze off once, at least once that I know of, and startle awake only to find myself aching on the floor. Forcing myself up, I try to open the door once again and then cry on the floor beneath it. I imagine him opening it in that moment, and that alone scares me to move to the farthest corner in the room. How heartbreaking it is, that the only bit of comfort I have is knowing that when the monster comes back, I’ll be as far away from him as I can possibly be. Even if it is only ten feet. But it’s what I needed to finally give in to sleep. Of all the things to dream about, I dream of my mother. And once again, I should have known better than to let my mind wander to the memory of her death. Chapter 7 Carter She fell asleep after fourteen hours of looking for an escape, slamming the chair into the door, screaming profanities, rocking against the wall, and whispering all her regrets. And I watched every minute of it well into the early morning. Obsessed with what she’d do and watching the fight leave her as every hour passed. After she’d realized her efforts were hopeless, she hummed softly. So low, that I thought it was only a buzz from the camera until I turned up the volume. She hummed for hours. I don’t even know if she noticed. She’d finally fallen asleep, the hum of a lullaby still soft on her lips. The thrill of victory sang in my blood. It was only then that I left my office and the monitors, reminding myself to be patient. I wouldn’t be surprised if the carpet beneath my desk is worn from the pacing of my shoes against it. My last thought as I left the office and checked the monitor on my phone, was that as much as she was fighting now, she’d cave. She’d give in and obey. She has no choice. And time is on my side. Not hers. An hour into going through orders and updates on each of the deliveries, I heard her screaming again. But instead of it bringing the buzz of a challenge, her screams curdled my blood. The sweat is still hot on my skin by the time I finally get to the cell and kick the door open with the gun cocked in my hand. My heart pounds in my chest. Aria’s screams are violent and shrill. I don’t know what the fuck happened, who the hell got to her or how they got in here. But someone has their hands on her. My heart hammers and the anger of her defiance is dulled by something primal, a raw fear that sends a prickle of unease through my body in an instant. I can hear the terror in her voice as she cries out into the dark room for someone to help her. Someone’s in there. Someone’s hurting her. It’s undeniable in her screams. I can’t fucking breathe. I finally have her in my grasp. Mine. My breathing is barely controlled with the gun raised in the air above her place on the floor. Whoever it is will die a painful death for taking what’s mine. “Please!” she cries out, her eyes shut tight as her body stiffens and her back arches on the mattress. She screams again, trembling, and helpless. Her small body is cradled into itself. “Carter!” I hear Jase call out to me, the door to the cell still open. I can hear him running down the hall. Now that the cell is open, anyone and everyone in here can hear her screams. My gun lowers slowly as Jase enters the room behind me. His breathing is ragged as he closes the distance and stands next to me. Our shadows tower over her small frame, lying destitute in the bed. She doesn’t stop crying out, and although she doesn’t sob, the sounds are there. She’s captive to her dreams. “Night terror,” Jase says with a heavy breath. The metal of his gun rubs against his jeans as he slips it back into place and then looks at me. “I thought someone got in here.” Tiredness is etched onto his face, but also the raw look of fear. He takes a moment to compose himself before starting to tell me, “I thought…” As he starts to speak, she screams out again and the sharpness of the pain sends spikes over my skin that scrape their way down my body. It’s a desperate cry that sounds foreign to my ears, although I’m so used to hearing something similar. Pleas for mercy, which I never show. “What do you want to do about it?” Jase asks me. He’s still catching his breath, just like I am. I can feel him staring at me, wanting to know what to do next. I can’t tear my eyes from her as she curls on her side. Jase turns to the door as the sounds of someone else coming down the hall makes their presence known. “I’ll put her on the mattress,” I tell him absently. “Take care of whoever that is and shut the door behind you,” I order him, and my words come out flat. I try to keep the emotion away, but a sense of despair is evident. This wasn’t a part of my plans. My fingers dip into my pocket, fingering the clicker that will open the door to the cell while I’m on the inside. “You think they did something to her? Romano? Or maybe it’s what she thinks is coming?” Jase asks and finally I turn to look at him. “How the fuck would I know?” My words come out harsh. The anger at him suggesting her terror is caused by thoughts of what I’ll do to her is unexpected and more than that, unwanted. Of all the things I expected from her, I didn’t anticipate this. It cuts me in a way I can’t explain. I want to consume her every waking thought. I want her to live and breathe for me and my desires. And maybe this is the cost of it all. That I can have her during her days, but her nights will destroy her. “Just a nightmare then,” Jase says as if it’s a casual observation. The whimpers still slipping through her parted lips are accompanied with a strangled sound of pain. “You aren’t supposed to wake them, you know?” Jase breathes out. “When they have night terrors, you’re not supposed to wake them up.” The light from the door is blocked and the shadow of someone else covers Aria’s slender neck and bared shoulders. I don’t turn to look, but I don’t have to. It’s Declan, asking what’s wrong. He knew she was here, but he doesn’t want any part of this. “It’s fine,” Jase tells him and then continues, “I don’t think you can do anything really.” “Just go,” I tell them both and stand as still as I can as they leave the room, taking with them the light from the hall as the door shuts. The creak of the steel is met with a thud and then the click of the lock. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust. Another moment of her small cries and then a scream. A terrified scream. “What did I do that earned me this?” I question her although I know she can’t hear. I haven’t touched her; we haven’t even started. I almost touch the cuts on her wrists, but I pull back. I’ll give her ointment and bandages in the morning. She’ll have to do it herself until she earns my touch. “Please don’t,” she begs in her sleep. Her words are whispered so softly, and I wonder if they came out that way in her dream. “Please,” she begs. “You don’t know what you’re asking, songbird,” I tell her softly and consider my own sanity in this moment. “You never had a choice. The moment your father left me alive, your fate was sealed,” I confess to her. Something I’ve never said aloud to anyone. He should have killed me. It’s Nicholas Talvery’s fault I’m allowed to live another day. His fault… and someone else’s. The moment the thought comes to me, I see her tremble. Beautifully weak on the cold, unforgiving ground, the sleep taking more and more of her as her words become quieter. She worries her bottom lip between her teeth, and it’s the only part of her that moves. “Please.” Her lips mouth the word. Kneeling before her, I’m slow and deliberate as I pick her up. Conscious of where my gun is tucked away in case she’s playing me. She’s light and fits easily into my arms. I thought she may fight me. That she’d react in fear to my touch. But instead, she molds her body to me and her slender fingers grip onto my shirt. Holding me tighter to her. Her lips brush against the crook of my neck as I carry her the few feet to the mattress. Her pleas are still whispered, and the gentle warmth of her breath sends a tingle down my spine. I barely contain a groan of desire as I move her to the mattress. She clings to me still, holding tightly and begging me. This time she begs me not to leave her. “Don’t go. Stay with me… please,” I barely hear her words. Her face is still pained, but there’s gentleness in her cries as I shift her onto the mattress. Her hand fits in mine as I pull her fingers from me and place them on her chest. Her chest rises and falls as she calms herself, slowly drifting to a different place. Time passes quickly. Too quickly as I sit on the mattress, making it dip with my weight and staring down at her. Her heavy sighs emphasize her breasts, the bit of lace from her black bra peeking from her shirt. It almost tempts me as much as the dip of her waist. My gaze caresses each curve of her body as I remember the first time I heard her name. The day my life changed forever. Her bed groans in protest as Aria turns in her sleep, settling into the mattress and my body stiffens. I shouldn’t be here right now. That’s not how I gain the control I want. I can’t breathe until she’s still and her own breathing evens out. But as I move to stand, shifting my weight ever so slightly, the mattress slumps and her hand falls, her soft fingers brushing mine, the tips touching. My hand stays still beneath hers, but it begs me to explore. To thread my fingers between hers. Closing my eyes and inhaling deeply, I remind myself that there is time. Time will change everything. My eyes open at the reminder. Just like that day did years ago. The day my father dropped me off at the corner of West and Eighth by the liquor store to sell that last bit of his pain pills. I was more approachable, according to him and we needed to pay the bills. It didn’t matter what I said or how much I didn’t want to do it. I was the oldest of five, my mother was dead, and I had nothing left in me. Nothing but pain. My father dropped me off on Talvery’s territory unknowingly. And it wasn’t long before I learned what it meant to sell drugs on his ground. I was only a child before that day. But one day changes everything. Chapter 8 Aria Waking up with my heart beating out of my chest, the hope that it was all a nightmare crumbles into dust when all I can see is cement and cinder block walls. I have to close my eyes and cover my face to keep from losing it. “This can’t be happening.” The trembling words leave my lips unbidden. Wrapping my arms around my knees, I try to tell myself that it’s all a dream. I rock back and forth, and as I do, the sounds of the mattress creaking beneath me and the feel of my heels digging into the comforter makes my body freeze. I try to remember last night, and I know full well I slept on the ground only a few feet away. I know I did. My hands fly over my body. As if they could check to see if I was touched. I feel the sharp edges of a scratchy throat but swallow thickly, trying to suppress the terror of what he could have done to me. I must have crept into the bed and not remember it. I know I haven’t been touched. I would know, wouldn’t I? “I would,” I say the words aloud as if I was speaking to someone else. Maybe I just needed the reassurance. I don’t remember a thing after falling asleep. I wish I could have just stayed awake. The whispered words echo in the hollow room as I glance up at the door. And then to the camera as it moves. Carter Cross, I almost speak his name aloud. I’ve heard his name before, always spoken with anger. I know he’s one of a number of brothers and the head of a drug cartel. That’s where the information ends. My father never liked me knowing anything and the only bits I learned were slivers of the truth from Nikolai. And he only told me what I needed to know. They said it was to protect me, but I would give anything to know what I’m up against. I’d give anything to know what Cross is capable of. Is he just going to leave me here to die? My throat pains in a way I didn’t think was possible. “Let me out,” my raspy voice begs and the words themselves are like knives raking up my throat. I haven’t eaten or had a drink of water since I’ve been here, and I don’t even know how long that’s been. I stand a little too quickly, and nearly fall as I try to make my way to the door. I’m dizzy, lightheaded, and I think I may throw up. Still, I head straight for the door, pulling at the doorknob and desperately trying to open it. My fist slams against it, over and over. There’s no use, stupid girl. Again, I slam my fist and scream out, “Let me go!” but I’m only met with an unmovable door in an empty room, with no way out and no idea of what will happen to me. The pain from the next slam of my fist makes me wince and cradle my hand to my chest. My back presses against the door as I fall down slowly onto my ass, resting my head against the door. So many slow moments pass. Moments where I just try to breathe. Moments where my fingers brush along the cuts at my wrists. Moments where I stand and stretch and pretend like it’s not odd to stretch when you’re caged like an animal. What’s the point if there’s no escape? It takes me longer than it should to see the foam tray with a grilled cheese sandwich and the cup of water next to it. And a bucket of water with a sponge behind it. I spent so much time staring at the door, I didn’t see it. He came in here. He was here. My chest heaves and again my fingers travel to my thighs. He didn’t. I would know. I can barely contain the fear of knowing he came in here while I slept. It’s hard to swallow and I stay far away from the tray of food. Time slips by again. And then more time. There is no change in my predicament, save my sanity. Although my stomach grumbles and the delicious scents of butter and cheese are all I can smell, I leave the tray where it sits. I don’t eat, and I don’t undress to bathe myself. Not with him watching. The anger boils and rises to such an extreme that I almost slam the bucket across the room, straight at the camera. I’m not his pet or his test subject. He can take that foam tray and go fuck himself with it. At least that’s what I think when I first move closer to see it; the thought even gives me joy. Hours pass and then more. How much time, I don’t know. There’s nothing in this room and loneliness and boredom are only two of the emotions I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle if this is how my new life will proceed. My mind starts playing tricks on me and I find myself etching small things into the cinder blocks with a button on my shirt. The shirt’s already ripped so it doesn’t matter. The top two buttons have been pulled off, the first one long lost and the second now a writing tool. A small and poor one, but there’s nothing else to do but pace and let my mind wander. And that leads me to awful places. I’m busy carving a pattern, a useless, meaningless pattern of birds and vines into a block that’s not even deep enough to be seen clearly when the door opens behind me. My heart lurches and I swing my body around so violently that the back of my head collides with the wall, the button slips from my hand and the sound of it pinging to a stop on the ground fills the room. The flood of light is lost quickly as Cross steps inside my cell and closes the door behind him. His figure is like a shadow of darkness as he walks toward me. “What do you want?” I ask instinctually, barely able to breathe, let alone swallow the pathetic words before I can speak them. I’m glad I didn’t eat because if I had I would have lost it all in this moment. Panic rages inside of me. He’s quiet as he takes one step forward and then another. He only takes his eyes from me once, and that’s to look at the chair in the corner of the room. “My father will come for me,” I tell him as he walks toward the chair and positions it so he can sit and face me. “He’s going to kill you,” I add, and my words are strangled, but audible. All I’m rewarded with is a soft smile on his lips. The stubble on his jaw is more noticeable and his eyes seem darker, but maybe it’s just the light. Everything else about him is more foreboding than I remember. His height and broad shoulders, the lean build of his body with the rippled accents of his muscles. God made him to do deadly, sinful things. One look and that’s obvious. As if reading my mind, he grins at me, forcing me to take a step back, which only widens the grin to a charming and perfect smile. I feel like I’m caught in a cage. A little mouse to a lion. And he’s only toying with me. “You’re sick,” I spit at him, clenching my hands into fists. “I’m well aware of that little fact, Aria. Tell me, what else do you know about me?” His voice is smooth velvet, and it echoes in a deep way from wall to wall in the room. The kind of echo you feel deep in your gut, one that haunts you so much later in the night. “I know my father will gut you,” I answer him with sickening contempt. “He isn’t going to do anything. He doesn’t even know I’m the one who has you.” His head tilts slightly as he examines my every reaction. “Yes, he does,” I breathe as if it will be true if only I say it is. His look turns to pity, but only for a moment. It passes so quickly I wonder if I even saw it, or maybe it was only the dim light in the room playing tricks on me. “He doesn’t and even if he did, he’s useless.” Menace lingers on the heels of his words, falling hard and crashing to the ground around me. He adds, “He couldn’t even defend your mother’s honor.” “Fuck you,” I dare to sneer at him. Anger rises quickly inside of me and my breathing quickens. “You fight now, but you’ll submit later,” Cross says easily, completely unaffected by my words. “Submit?” the fear is evident in my voice. “You’ll do as I say. Every command. Kneel at my feet, undress, lie in my bed… Spread your legs for me.” The depth of conviction in his voice is frightening. “I’ll die before I submit to you.” My throat dries and tightens. I can barely breathe as he stands. He’s not quick, not hurried in the least to stalk toward me. I can run. I know I can, but the room is small; there’s nothing to hide behind and he’s so tall, it wouldn’t take much beyond a lunge for him to catch me. My knees weaken, and I nearly fall to the ground, but I don’t. I stay as tall as I can although I have to crane my neck to look Cross in the eyes. My heart pounds chaotically as if it’s trying to escape. For every step he takes forward, I take one back until I’ve hit the wall. “How did you sleep?” he asks me in an eerily calm voice. “Like a baby,” I say, and my answer is nothing but defiant. I surprise myself with the immediate answer. Fuck him. Fuck Carter Cross. A crooked smile twitches onto his lips. “Do you always have nightmares?” he asks and the strength inside of me wavers. My gaze flickers from him to the floor. “It seemed like a terrible dream,” he adds, his eyes blazing with a threat. I get the sense that he was here, that he knows I had a nightmare because he was here, not from the camera. As much as I’d like to hide the sickening sense of defeat from my expression, I can’t. He sees my weakness, and I can’t hide from him. “Answer me.” His command comes out tense and deep. I almost tell him, no, but then decide on silence, pretending to ignore how the fear that’s growing inside of me makes my limbs feel numb. I expect anger from him, but all I can see is the twinkle of humor in his eyes. “You will give me everything that I want,” Cross says and then reaches out to me. My eyes close tightly as his fingers brush the hair from my face. He tucks the lock behind my ear and I think about biting him, about fighting him when I remember the first time he touched me so comfortingly, only to then grip my throat and hold me like his prized possession. With another step forward, he bathes me in darkness, blocking the light and forcing me to push myself against the wall and stare up at him with genuine fear I wish I could deny. “You’re going to love doing it too,” he whispers in the small space, heating the air between us and my body betrays me at the thought. It makes no sense at all. Save the scent of his presence. He smells like the woods. Inhaling the deep scent reminds me of the way my mother used to describe our eyes. Like the canopy of the forest after a long day of rain. Maybe I could blame it on instinct. Or maybe I’m just meant to be the whore to a monster. I don’t admit my response to him. There’s no way in hell I ever would. “Let me go,” I whimper the plea and hate myself for it. I can pretend to be strong. He can’t see what’s deep inside of me. I can pretend to be stronger than he knows. His only response is to chuckle, a deep and rough masculine sound that rumbles his chest and the anger I feel from it overwhelms me. I’m barely holding on to my composure. I know if I strike him, he’ll respond, and I will lose. I’m not stupid. This is what he wants. The realization makes my eyes widen. He’s playing with his shiny new toy. “Just kill me.” My muscles scream as I stiffen them, refusing to lash out. Although my body heats and adrenaline pumps faster at the thought of him doing it, I still tell him to just get it over with. I don’t want to be played with. “I’ll never give you anything.” “Now what would that accomplish for me, songbird?” I don’t want to cry and give him the satisfaction. I refuse to. My eyes are already burning from being so fucking weak. I won’t be weak. I won’t let him win. Be smart. A million possibilities run through my head at what the smart choice would be in this moment, but the only situation I allow to rule my actions is to not give in. I’ll wait. I’ll survive day by day until my father comes. He will come. I know he will. “I’ll fight you until the day I die,” I sneer at him with every ounce of conviction I can gather. It only makes him smile. A wicked grin that sends a chill through my blood. “You’ll find comfort in thinking that… for a little while.” With a growing smile of triumph, he leaves me where I am. His shoes smack on the ground, and the sound grows quieter as he confidently strides to the door and turns the knob with ease. How? He’s simply walking away, and the door opens for him. I don’t have time to consider anything. All I know at this moment is that the door is open. And whether or not he’s there, I need to try to run. He opens the door just enough to get through. But I still run to it. I do my damnedest to make it to the door before it shuts and like the merciless prick he is, he leaves it open. My bare heels bash against the cement as I sprint toward the light, but just as I make it, my hopes are so easily dashed. Just as the hope that I’ll actually get out of here so easily burns into my chest, his tall broad frame fills the doorway, standing with a foreboding presence and taking a large step toward me. A step so powerful and undeniably in control that I stagger backward, my foot scraping against the cement and throwing me off balance. My ass hits the floor first and my head would have smacked against the concrete as well if Cross’s hand wasn’t wrapped firmly around my forearm. His fingers dig in and I let out a squeal of both surprise and pain. “You’re smarter than this,” he hisses. The rage in his eyes swirls with darkness, but with it are golden flecks of intrigue and delight. “You won’t leave this room until I say so.” I’m paralyzed by the certainty in his voice. The strength of his grip. The desire that drips from each of his words. “You. Are. Mine. Aria.” He says each word lower and lower until I can barely hear him over the pounding of my heart. The concept of being owned by this man is a deadly concoction that sends a ripple of both fear and desire straight to my core. Without warning, he releases me, and I fall to the ground, still shaken but staring up at him. “I’m not an object to own. No one owns me!” I scream at him even though I don’t believe my own words in this moment. He merely smiles at me. As if it’s all a joke to him. “Let me go,” I try to scream at him as if it’s a demand, but the words are a pitiful plea even to my own ears. Still, I try to stand, to get back up as he smiles and closes the door, leaving me right where he wants me. I swear I hear him answer me before the steel door closes with finality. I would swear on my life I heard him say, “Never.” Chapter 9 Carter Daniel is my only brother who doesn’t knock. He never has. I know he isn’t going to this time either. His steps are hurried, angered and I have to suppress a sigh of irritation. I’m fucking tired and I don’t have time for his bullshit. “This war between Talvery and the Romanos doesn’t have anything to do with us.” Daniel’s always had a knack for speaking as he enters the room, regardless of whether or not my gaze is down on my desk, focused on a spreadsheet of product and how much is selling. Having high demand is good, but some of this doesn’t make sense. And it’s only on the border of our territory that touches the Romanos’ territory. Pinching the bridge of my nose, I ignore him. “Did you go to the club with Jase?” I ask Daniel as I continue down the order of supplies. “Did you hear me?” Daniel questions me, kicking the office door shut and making his way across the office to sit in the chair opposite me. “I did. You didn’t tell me anything I don’t already know.” Shutting the laptop computer, I finally give him my attention and for a moment I’m caught off guard. “You look like shit,” I say, and I don’t hide the surprise in my voice. My brother’s eyes spark with a hint of humor as he smirks at me and replies, “And you look like a fucking Ken doll. Drug dealer Barbie style.” A huff of a laugh escapes me as he runs his hand along the scruff on his jaw. “Addison isn’t sleeping. She’s having a hard time with this.” “With what?” I ask him, feeling a chill in my blood. “With the shit that’s going on. The war, not knowing who tried to take her or what they were planning.” “She doesn’t need to know about a damn thing,” I say beneath my breath with every bit of humor long gone. “You shouldn’t have told her anything. We stay on lockdown. We wait for the Talverys and Romanos to trim their own numbers. If you have to tell her anything, that’s all she should know.” Daniel’s head tilts back slightly and he runs a hand down his face, his body slumped in the chair. “She’s not allowed in the north wing and I don’t want her leaving without me or someone else with her… and I’m not supposed to tell her anything?” he questions me, letting his chin drop and daring to look me in the eyes. “The women should stay out of this.” He fucking knows better. “Says the man who started a war over a piece of ass.” “Careful.” He cocks a brow at my response, but I stay firm. Leaning forward, he puts both palms on the desk and asks quietly, like it’s a secret, “What’s going on with you?” I steady my back against the leather chair, letting one hand fall to the armrest, my fingers tracing along the steel nail heads. “I wish I knew,” I tell him in a breath. “We have to move forward with this and there are some things that will benefit us, but it’s a careful walk from here until the end.” Daniel nods his head, his eyes never leaving mine. “And when are we getting revenge on Marcus? The man who tried to take what’s mine?” “We don’t know that it was Marcus who tried to take her.” “Who else would have done it?” Daniel asks but even as the last words slip out, his conviction wanes. Our enemies are surrounding us. The only saving grace is that they fear us, and they have other wars to fight. “He has yet to answer any of our messages and no one’s confirmed he had anything to do with it.” Daniel’s nostrils flare as he slams himself back into his seat, making the front legs of the chair nearly come off the floor while he looks past me and out the window. “So, I’m supposed to do nothing and keep Addison in the dark?” Daniel asks with contempt. “I need to do something. I can’t let him or whoever the fuck it was get away with it.” His frustration is getting the better of him. And I understand. I do. But we have to be smart and know how best to move forward before we act. “We don’t know who did it. There will be nothing done until we do.” My answer is absolute, with no room for negotiation, and the air tenses as Daniel considers me. A moment passes, and I can’t breathe. My brothers are everything to me. All I have. And they’ve never questioned me. Not until this past week. I’m losing my grip; I can feel it. And that’s never a good thing. Finally, he nods once and relaxes his posture, moving one ankle to rest on his knee. “Can I ask you something else?” he asks, and I rest my elbow on the desk and then my chin in my hand, nodding as I do. He’s going to ask me regardless. “What are you doing with her?” “It’s personal.” That short answer already reveals more than I’ve told anyone else, but Daniel shakes his head, a look of disappointment clearly written on his face. “You aren’t the brother I remember.” He’ll never know the pain that comment causes me. “Tell me what you remember, Daniel? You never saw anything past Addison.” I practically hiss her name. “What the fuck does that mean?” His anger is evident, and his jaw tightens. “You had her and I had no one.” My voice cracks at the revelation. Time marches on as we stare at each other. He has no idea how she saved him. Having someone to love, even if it is from a distance can give you hope. And hope is everything. “We had each other,” he finally tells me. I know he’s thinking about the same shit I am. All the shit we went through. There were five of us, five brothers, but Daniel and I were the oldest and the two our father paid more attention to. If you can call what he did attention. I let the anger and every other emotion fade, opening up the laptop to cue that this meeting is over. The truth slips by me unintentionally as I point out, “It’s not the same.” “I just want to know you’re not hurting her.” He won’t let it go. My grip tightens on the laptop as I try to remain calm. “You have to trust me. Everything is about to change and if that girl had stayed where she was, she would have died.” He waits for more. Proof, maybe. I don’t know what he wants, but the less he knows, the better. “There’s so much you don’t know.” “You could tell me.” There’s a hint of sadness in his voice, or maybe I imagined it. “Soon,” I promise him. “Soon.” He doesn’t say goodbye as he walks away. But as he makes it to the door, gripping the handle and swinging it open, I remember what he said about Addison. “Daniel. Give her this,” I call out to him as I open the drawer. I have a few vials of S2L inside the small safe and toss one to him. He nods once and says something about Jase, but I don’t hear, and he’s already gone before I can question him. Staring at the closed door, I think about how my brothers are the only constant I’ve had. Only them and no one else. But admitting the truth out loud… I can’t trust myself to do it. The last time I admitted something of this weight, my world changed. I sparked the depraved monster inside of me to life and it changed everything. The day Talvery left me to rot where he found me. I’ll never forget the feeling as I heard my father’s truck come to a stop. The old thing sputtered, and the sound was so comforting until his door shut and the anger in his voice was clear. “What the fuck are you doing out in the open? Do you want someone to call the cops?” he yelled at me and when he tugged on my arm, the burns and cuts shot a horrible pain through my arm that made me scream in the dark alley. Bloodied and bruised, my father still tossed me around like I was nothing. Couldn’t he see what they’d done to me? I could hardly open my eyes. “We’ll get whoever did this, but come the fuck on before someone sees,” he hissed between his teeth. “They wanted to know who I worked for,” I barely spoke as I hobbled to the car. Every bit of me hurt just to breathe. I slumped into the seat as he rounded the truck. And I know they saw. They had to have been watching me. Waiting to see who would come. Country music played out as my father shut his door and took off down the street toward the dirt roads. I wanted to roll down my window so badly. I remember thinking I was dying, so I wanted to feel the wind on my face one last time. I’d coughed up so much blood, there was no way I’d be okay. My father ignored me as I asked him to do it, and instead, he turned down the music so only the sounds of the rumbling truck and his questions could be heard. “Who’s ‘they?’” my father asked as he raced over a speed bump and my body jolted forward. I cried out like a bitch and he screamed the question again at me. It was fear in his voice though, not anger. I know it now. Fear is what dictated his actions. Not strength like the man who’d done this to me. “Talvery,” I answered in a single painful breath. As I said his name, I remembered the look of Nicholas Talvery’s freshly cleaned face only an inch from mine. I would never forget the way he looked at me like I was nothing and how much joy it brought him to know he could do whatever he wanted with me. “What did you tell him?” he asked, and I looked at my father. I made sure to really look at him as I told him he was safe. “I said I was just selling my dead mother’s cancer meds. I said I was no one. And they believed me.” My heart has never hurt as much as it did at that moment when my father nodded his head and seemed to calm down. He was good at taking care of himself. He was good at living in fear. That was the last day he looked at me as if I was a pawn in his game. My wounds were still fresh when I started hitting him back. And I never stopped. I wouldn’t do the stupid shit he wanted me to. I would make money, a fuckton of it. But I never set foot on Talvery’s turf again. I wasn’t a dumb fuck like my father. And the next time he pushed me into the truck and screamed in my face so loud it shook my veins and the spittle hit my skin, I let my anger come forward, slamming my fist into his jaw. I let the fear rule me in that moment. But it’s the fear I saw in my father’s eyes that defined the change between us. Each time I went out, leading a life I didn’t choose, I thought it would be my last. I wanted to die, and it wasn’t the first time in my life that I wished for sweet death to end it all. But without fear of death, I learned what power really was. And none of my brothers understand that. Not a single fucking one of them. Chapter 10 Aria His eyes won’t leave mine. He won’t leave the room. He won’t give me any space. I don’t know how many days I’ve been here, but I do know that today is different by the look in Cross’s eyes. It’s hard to count the days. My eyes flicker to the carving of stripes on the wall just beyond Carter Cross’s never-changing stern expression. Sitting on the metal chair a few feet from me puts him at the perfect height to block the etched stripes. One for each of the days I’ve been here. But I stopped a while ago. My sleep is fucked and there aren’t any windows in the room. I’ve noticed that when I lie down and curl up to sleep, the lights go off. Which means two things, as far as I can tell. He wants me to sleep. And he doesn’t want me to know how much time has passed. It could be midnight a week from when I was taken. Or it could be noon with even more days between now and my last day of freedom. There are four stripes on the wall. One scrawled after each time I slept. But on the fifth day, I slept on and off with terrors of my childhood that woke me up constantly. The first two days I got three meals, always delivered the same way. A small slot in the door opened, the food was shoved inside on a small foam tray and then the slot quickly shut with a deafening slam. I waited for hours by it on the third day, praying I could catch it, snatch the hand… I don’t know what. All I knew was that on the other side was freedom. But I quickly found that the slot only opened when I was in the corner of the room farthest from the door. Otherwise, no food would come. I can barely eat as it is, but hunger won a few times. And instantly, I slept afterward. I don’t know if he drugged me or not, but the fear of sleeping is at war with the need to eat. Either way, the food I’m given doesn’t aid me in knowing what time of day it is. There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason as to what’s on the tray. There haven’t been any breakfast foods at all. The last thing I ate was a biscuit and a chunk of ham. It was glazed with honey and my stomach was grateful. I devoured every scrap and then immediately regretted not eating whatever it was he’d given me before. If I don’t eat what’s given, he simply takes it away when I sleep. And somehow, he knows when I’m faking sleep. I tried that, too. I don’t know how many times I laid in the darkness waiting for him to open the door, only to fool myself into sleeping and waking to the tray being gone. So much wasted time. Maybe losing the time is the first sign of victory for him. But I want it back. “What day is it?” I ask him and it’s the first thing I’ve said in the time he’s been in here. He comes in every so often, merely watching me. Scooting his chair closer and waiting for something. I don’t know what. “It’s Sunday.” Sunday… It was Thursday when I left to go to the bar. I know it was Thursday. “So, that means it’s only been three days?” I ask him although inwardly my gut churns. It’s not possible. A devilish smile plays across his face. “You slept a lot, songbird. It’s been ten days.” His words steal the bit of courage from me and I turn to face the door rather than him, pulling my legs into my chest and sucking in a deep, calming breath. Ten days of screaming and crying in this room. Of not knowing when help is coming, or if it ever will. Of barely eating and only bathing from a bucket of water while hiding under my dirty clothes. “If you would only kneel for me when I come in, I would give you so much more than this.” “Why are you doing this to me?” My question is a whispered breath. No tears come from my dry eyes and the pain in my chest is dull. There’s only so much a person can take before they break. I don’t need sleep or food even. I need answers. “You ask that often,” is his only response, as he straightens himself in the chair. Squaring his shoulders toward me and making the pressed dress shirt stretch tight across his shoulders. His handsome features look like nothing but sin as he stares at me. I have to rip my eyes away from him. I can’t look at him. He’s a monster and that’s the only thing I need to know about Carter Cross. A beautiful monster who enjoys depriving me and watching me fade into nothing. “How about we play a game?” he asks me, and a chaotic laugh erupts from my lips. “Come now, I promise you’ll enjoy it,” he says, and his voice is a promising caress. “And what’s the game, Cross?” I say his name out loud, staring defiantly into his eyes. I imagined his aggravation, maybe even anger at my response, but instead, he only grins at me. A crooked grin on a charming face. I wish I could smack it off. “An answer for an answer,” he says and that’s when it hits me. “You think I know a thing about my father’s business? You’re wasting your time,” I say but my voice betrays me as I speak. It cracks on my last words. So, this is his plan? Steal me, lock me in a room with nothing for days until I’m desperate for change so he can get information from me? I know it’s merely because I’m a woman. That’s why they haven’t tortured me. But it will come eventually, and I have nothing to give them. My eyes burn with the need to cry, but I don’t let it happen. “I swear to you,” I barely get out and then stare into Cross’s dark eyes, willing him to believe me, “I don’t know anything.” “I know you don’t.” It takes a moment for me to register what he’s said. “Is this a trick?” I ask him, feeling as if I must be going crazy. The hope in my chest is fluttering so strongly. “I don’t want to die,” I whisper the confession. “I’m not going to kill you.” He answers simply, devoid of emotion, giving me nothing to hold on to other than the matter-of-fact words. “The Romanos would have killed you. You would have died or been captured and given a much crueler fate if I hadn’t taken you first.” I’m silent as I listen to him talk about me as if I’m merely a pawn to sacrifice. “Your best chance at surviving what’s to come is with me.” Tears threaten to leak down my cheeks at the thought of men infiltrating my father’s estate. At Nikolai being shot as he sits at the kitchen table where he always sits on the early weekend mornings. At my father being killed in the same room where my mother’s life ended. “Do you want to play the game?” “I’ve never done well with games,” I answer breathily, watching every inch of his expression for a hint at what’s to come. “The blanket is yours for playing,” he says and nods toward a pile of fabric he’d tossed at my feet when he came in. And inwardly, I’m grateful. “Why don’t you eat?” he asks me, and I know the game has started. An answer for an answer and he holds the first question. Staring down at myself, I answer him with half honesty. “I’m not hungry.” Ten days… I try to remember how many times I’ve eaten. Maybe six meals. At the realization, my stomach roils. A moment passes before he shifts in the chair, leaning back but keeping his hands on his thighs. “If you lie, then I can lie,” he says and the way he says the word “lie” forces me to stare into his eyes. It’s like the devil himself discussing deceit. “That’s the way this game works.” “I don’t trust that you aren’t going to drug me or poison me. Or something.” The truth so easily pours from my lips. My eyes drop to the ground at the reminder of all the horrific ideas that have flitted through my head since I’ve been here. “It’s only food and you need to eat.” Again, there’s no emotion, only a statement of fact. I watch him intently as he leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands in front of him. “Your turn.” “What are you going to do with me?” I ask him without thinking twice. “Feed you and keep you in here with nothing but what you have until you submit to me.” He readjusts in the chair and adds, “You’re a social creature and lonely. I can see how lonely you are.” As he speaks to me, my gaze wanders and the hollow ache in my chest rises. “I’m used to being lonely.” “I hear your prayers in the dark, songbird. I hear your wishes for someone to save you. Your father. Nikolai… Who is Nikolai?” “A friend,” I answer him, feeling the pain and agony sweep over my body. And feeling like a liar. The word friend sounds false even to my own ears, but it’s been so long since Nikolai was anything else. And a friend is what he needed to be. Nothing more. Or else my father would have found out. “Wrong answer. He is no one anymore. They’re all gone, and no one is coming to save you.” “Gone?” The word comes out like a question, but the monster in front of me doesn’t answer. My eyes close as I inhale deeply, thinking he’s lying. They’re coming. They’ll come for me. “You’re bored, alone, and starving yourself into nothing. You will submit to me, or you will stay like this forever.”