Two pills stood between Lili and damnation.
She tried not to look at them as she applied her eyeliner, her hand steady from years of practice. The rest of her was shaking, but the line was perfect—smooth black kohl along her lower lash line. She could smudge it into a smoky shadow, but that might be too subtle for the night’s festivities.
Her gaze dipped to the two white tablets lined up beside the empty bottle. Just two. She’d come to Sector Four with so few possessions to her name—a gun, a nightgown, and a fur coat. But that coat had deep pockets, and she’d filled them with high-end drugs before she fled her home. At the edge of the desk, seven empty bottles traced the desperation of her last few months, her attempts to cope.
After tonight, she’d have to do it on her own.
She jerked her gaze back to the mirror. No, subtle wouldn’t cut it. These O’Kane women were bold. Brazen. Survival meant adaptation. She had learned to play wife when her life depended on it. Now she would learn to play something else.
She could hear her dead husband snarling the word at her, taunting her with the most degrading insult he could imagine. Nothing was so crass and despised in Sector Five as a woman who denied a man her body until money exchanged hands. Except, perhaps, a woman who denied a man her body altogether.
Making that mistake had almost gotten Lili killed.
Forcing back the memory, she thickened the line beneath her eye. She wasn’t bold or brazen, but she wasn’t meek and submissive, either, no matter how successfully she’d played that role. The makeup was her mask. If she applied enough of it, she could disappear into someone else.
The pills would make it easier. Lex hadn’t wanted to let her keep them, but Lili had begged. She’d been numb enough to survive the shame of that. Hell, she’d been so numb there hadn’t been any shame. She’d lost her family and her life—she hadn’t been ready to give up her peace of mind.
So Lex let her keep the pills, but she made it clear there would be no more. And Lili had tried to make them last. She rationed them out, saving them for when her own reserves of icy numbness just weren’t enough.
Two pills left, and not even the strongest ones. She’d sacrificed the last of those to endure the most recent fight night, insulating herself from the raw violence and terrifying lust. Every horrifying warning her mother had ever whispered about sex paled in the face of brutal reality—a man, bloody from battle, slamming a woman against the side of the cage to sate his urges in front of the entire sector.
It was uncivilized. It was barbaric. But the women of this sector faked enjoyment with a finesse that made Lili look like a clumsy novice. Either that, or they were like the dead-eyed girls who’d clung to her father’s men—so broken and hopeless they’d convinced themselves they wanted to be pawed at and violated, because wanting the inevitable made it easier to bear.
The liner pencil slipped from her grasp, and Lili realized she was trembling. Curling her hands into fists, she shoved back from her vanity and stalked to the bathroom. No fancy tub or pristine counters piled high with fluffy towels here. Her shower was tiny, the tiles newly laid and crooked. The bulb over her head was bare. The walls were of unrelieved cement.
But she had a sink, and a glass on the edge of it. Lili filled it with water and returned to the bedroom. In the mirror, her reflection stared back at her, a stranger in garish make-up and leather, with too much bare skin on display.
She had the too-short skirt. The too-tall shoes. The dark lipstick and lined eyes, the corset that all but demanded men stare at breasts she’d never even shown to her husband. But she didn’t have the ink, and she’d never have the attitude.
Without those things, she would never be an O’Kane. Just a confused girl playing dress-up.
Closing her eyes, Lili swept up the pills. They were bitter on her tongue, and she washed them down with the entire glass of water. The drugs were good, some of the best Sector Five had to offer, and especially popular inside Eden. She’d overheard her father’s bodyguards laughing about it once.
I guess it makes that high-strung Eden pussy more agreeable.
Well, where’s the fun in that?
Agreeable. A word that covered a multitude of sins, figurative and literal. The well-bred ladies of Eden took the drugs to numb themselves to all the ways their husbands violated their bodies.
Lili needed to be numb to watch the O’Kanes violate each other.
She set the glass aside and checked her reflection one last time, while she still cared enough to make it perfect. Her hair was a disheveled mess of curls, the front held back from her face by twin braids that circled the crown of her head. Her fingers itched to smooth everything into place, more out of habit than desire. Tidy fit this place about as well as restrained did.
Somehow, she had to learn to be neither.
The rooms she’d been given were on the third floor of the building where most of the O’Kanes slept. Every time she turned around someone was up here, hammering or painting or hooking up plumbing in another new room. The O’Kanes were expanding, adding blood to their ranks as Dallas’s power grew.
That was why Dallas wanted them all at his weekly parties—so that the new faces would know him, and he would know them. It had seemed harmless enough until Lili appeared obediently at the first one only to discover how intimately the O’Kanes defined know.
Fighting a shudder, she straightened her back and lifted her chin. The drugs hadn’t kicked in yet, but she imagined she could feel the comforting distance wrapping around her as she descended to the second floor. The party room sat at the end of a long hallway, but the door was open and she could see flashes of skin already.
That was the danger of being late. They’d already started taking their clothes off—at least, the ones who’d worn any to begin with.
Just before she reached the end of the hall, Trix walked out of the room with a cigarette in one hand. The redhead was usually as pristine as Lili had always been, embracing the fashion of Sector Five instead of rejecting it.
Not tonight. Instead of a perfectly tailored dress and crinoline, Trix had a man’s shirt slipping off one shoulder and falling to mid-thigh. Her hair was a tousled mess—not the artful tumble Lili had labored over, but the kind of disheveled that only came from being tangled around a man’s fist.
In spite of that, the woman was smiling. So Lili did the only thing she could—she smiled back. “Trix.”
“Lili.” The woman’s smile didn’t fade, but her expression took on a guarded quality. “Having a good night?”
They didn’t trust her. The harder Lili tried to blend in, the more she felt the distance between them. And with Trix most of all, because Lili knew her father had hurt her. Her father had hurt every woman who touched his life.
Trix and Lili were the only two who’d survived the association.
Her smile hadn’t worked, so Lili let it drift away and settled for being politely impassive. “I am, thank you.”
Trix lifted one eyebrow as she brushed past her. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Faint warning. The things Trix did on stage at the O’Kanes’ bar had shocked Lili enough, but when Trix’s lover won his match at the last fight night, the two of them had—
No, the drugs weren’t strong enough to protect her from that memory. And they weren’t strong enough to insulate her when she crossed the threshold into Dallas O’Kane’s private den of sin.
The sounds were the most visceral part. There was so much skin, but she could unfocus her eyes, stare at nothing in particular. But nothing protected her from the sounds, and they were still so alien, even after all these weeks.
Laughter. Moans. The slap of flesh against flesh, of bodies coming together with a force that made her cringe inside. Voices rose and fell in and around the cries of pleasure, as if they were gossiping over tea instead of…
Lili didn’t even have a word for it.
A couple was kissing just inside the door, the man’s hand poorly hidden beneath the woman’s sheer skirt. Lili jerked her gaze away and scanned the edge of the wall, desperately looking for a safe corner.
There were so many men. More than there were women, so many more. Some of them tried to catch her gaze, but Lili stubbornly refused, even knowing she’d have to give in to one of them soon. A woman on her own in the sectors didn’t last, and Dallas O’Kane hadn’t been able to hide his disappointment at learning how little she knew about the inner workings of Sector Five. His tolerance would wear thin soon enough, and if she didn’t have a man willing to claim her…
She’d trained to be a wife, but Sector Four didn’t seem to have those. She didn’t know what they had—mistresses was the nicest word she could come up with, and it was better than the alternative. At least a mistress might have some duties outside of the bedroom.
But if she had to be a whore, she’d do that, too. She’d do whatever it took.
A flash of white in the shadows drew her gaze, and Lili’s heart shot into her throat.
Amazing how homesick a well-tailored dress shirt could leave her. She didn’t miss much about her life in Sector Five, but it had been a place where she understood the rules. The man on the couch was perfect in a way that felt familiar. Not just well dressed, but refined. His crisp white shirt and perfectly fitted slacks stood out among the leather and denim popular with the O’Kanes, but he didn’t appear to care.
In that, she envied him.
She didn’t make the decision to drift toward him, not on a conscious level. It just happened, like it was inevitable. Like he was a magnet, and she was steel instead of ice, tugged toward the only person in the room who was like her.
It was an illusion. It had to be, if he was here at an O’Kane party. Putting on a nice shirt didn’t make a man safe and boring any more than putting on a leather skirt had made her wild. But she still stopped next to the couch and did her best to smile. “May I sit?”
He looked up at her, his gaze lingering for only a moment on her breasts. “Please.”
The drugs weren’t working. They couldn’t be, because her cheeks warmed as she did her best to sit without flashing the room. With her knees together and her ankles crossed, the skirt barely covered her underwear. She was showing more skin than she was hiding, but she hadn’t really felt exposed until he looked at her.
He shifted his glass—whiskey, from the looks of it—and held out his hand. “I’m Jared.”
He didn’t give a family name, so maybe she didn’t have to, either. It wasn’t as if she had one she was eager to claim. “I’m Lili,” she said instead, slipping her hand into his. So intimate, his skin brushing hers, his fingers wrapping around her hand. These people touched all the time, and Lili wasn’t sure she’d ever grow used to it.
“I know who you are.”
She studied his expression, searching for signs of disapproval or distaste, but his mask was even better than her own. “Is that a problem? Who I am?”
In response, he flashed her his naked wrists, clearly visible beneath the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt. “It doesn’t matter what I think.”
So he wasn’t an O’Kane, either. Just a man secure enough in his place with them that he made no effort to fade into the background. Not a man to cross. “It matters to me.”
Jared shrugged. “I never knew your father—or your husband. Except by reputation.”
If he was lying, he was flawless. His lack of concern was as perfect as his face—and oh, how perfect that was. So many of the men here were roughhewn, ragged and worn. Jared was a sculpture carved by a master, all strong lines and beauty.
Maybe that was why he didn’t intimidate her in the same way as the O’Kanes. He didn’t seem entirely real. “I wish I’d only known them by reputation.”
A sympathetic smile tilted his lips. “Of that, I’m sure.”
She gestured to his wrist. “Why are you here? Are you thinking of joining Dallas’s men?”
That made his smile widen. “Me? I’m here for the view.”
He looked to the side, and her gaze followed his before she could stop herself. And then the warmth wasn’t just in her cheeks, but creeping down her throat and bubbling up from inside her.
She knew Rachel. The blonde bartender had been friendly from the beginning, making overtures to Lili even after her inability to reciprocate had driven away some of the other women. There was something comforting about her, especially when she was dressed in overalls and smudged with engine grease. She wasn’t familiar, but her differences were tantalizing, a hint that women might have more choices than cooking and sewing. Rachel fixed cars and brewed beer. She wore whatever she wanted.
She wasn’t wearing anything at all right now. Naked and apparently unconcerned with the fact, she knelt in front of the two men sprawled on a couch, pleasuring one with her mouth and the other with her hand.
Lili groped for the safety of chilly numbness, but those two sad little tablets hadn’t been strong enough for this. And if it had only been fear—that she could manage. Fear was vital, the basis for survival. But the sick, confusing way her body heated, the way it prickled and ached, like a limb waking up…
She averted her gaze and tried to unfocus her eyes again, but there was no safe place to look. Not even Jared, because when she turned back to him, the perfection of his face didn’t evoke polite appreciation.
He made her tingle and ache, too.
“This must be odd for you.” His voice was lazy and low, casual as he lit a cigarette. “Even after a few months. It isn’t much like Sector Five, is it?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted, flinching when her voice wavered. “I didn’t see much of Sector Five. But no. It’s not like my life was.”
“And you doubt it all.” It wasn’t a question.
To doubt it, she’d have to have a point of reference. Something she could comprehend to begin with. “I don’t understand it.”
“Fair enough.” He drained his whiskey. “Out of curiosity, what do you see?”
He was asking now, so she forced herself to look at Rachel again. The taller man—Cruz—had his hand in her hair, trapping her so that she had no choice but to let him take whatever pleasure he wanted from her mouth. But she was still working at the other man, too, as if having the responsibility for one man’s satisfaction wasn’t enough.
Lili closed her eyes, but that accomplished nothing because of the sounds. The trio was close enough for her to hear the men’s groans of pleasure, and Rachel’s moans of—
Satisfaction? It should have been impossible, but she was as loud as the men, and so sincere it rattled Lili’s confidence. “I don’t know,” she told Jared without opening her eyes. “I told you, I don’t understand.”
The leather cushions creaked. When Jared spoke, his voice was only inches from her ear. “She has them both begging,” he rumbled. “Completely at her mercy. That’s what I see.”
The tingling in Lili’s body intensified. Goosebumps rose on her skin, and she rubbed her hands over her arms. This was the danger of all those years of numbness—being raw, vulnerable to feelings she’d never experienced, much less learned to manage.
And Rachel was still moaning. “What I’m seeing isn’t the confusing part,” Lili whispered. “She sounds…”
“Like she’s getting off on it?”
The words were incoherent, obviously slang for something else her life in Five hadn’t prepared her to understand. “Does that mean she’s enjoying it?”
Jared huffed out a soft laugh. “You enjoy a fine drink, good company, or a particularly beautiful desert sunset, Lili. Something like that? It tears you apart, then puts you back together again. It’s pleasure, love. Real pleasure. It’s not something you merely enjoy.”
The ice protecting her nerves was melting. The ice beneath her feet was cracking. One more whisper and it would shatter, plunging Lili into the depths of sin.
And she wanted it.
* * *