Rachel was dancing again.
From her vantage point behind the scuffed bar, Six had a decent view of the stage even with men standing three deep on the opposite side. A lot of them were tall fuckers too, the kind that towered head and shoulders over Six, but the floor behind the bar was high enough to put her at eye level with the biggest brutes. O’Kane—or someone close to him—clearly understood the advantage height could give a bartender who had to face down a room of horny, drunk thugs.
Usually those drunks were crowded around the bar, jostling for booze or attention, but Six hadn’t poured a single shot since Rachel’s act had started, and she didn’t think it was the novelty of having a new dancer that held these men captivated.
No, it was the fact that Rachel had lost her damn mind. She was grinding to the music as she peeled off layer after layer of perfectly respectable leather to reveal the lacy white garments beneath. Men stared slack-jawed as she rocked and swayed and ran her hands over her body, lost in a haze that fascinated and repelled Six in equal measure.
She was an object to these pea-brained cavemen, nothing more than the picture they’d hold in their heads when they stumbled back to their hovels and took their dicks in hand. The way they watched her should have made her weaker. Lesser.
It should have, but the men crowding the stage were nothing to Rachel. Flies to be swatted away if they got too close. Grubby children with their noses pressed against the dirty glass of the bakery, dreaming of something they could never have while hunger gnawed in their guts.
Rachel was oblivious, and somehow that turned the men into the weak ones. The ones who were less than.
Six saw it over and over, every time an O’Kane woman took that stage. Power in the place of helplessness, pride where she would have felt sick and exposed. There was a secret in these women that went deeper than the ink around their wrists, and sometimes she thought if she watched for long enough, she could unlock it for herself.
Of course, watching could be uncomfortable for other reasons.
Rachel slipped her fingers beneath the ruffled edge of her underwear, and Six turned her attention back to the bar. The low throb of the bass rhythm was harder to ignore, its steady beat vibrating up through the floor. In Sector Three, they’d made do with passable musicians beating on already battered instruments, but the heart of Sector Four was a marvel of miraculous old tech.
Maddox had shown her the speakers that lined the walls, but Six still had a hard time believing that such bone-rattling sound could come from those tiny, unremarkable boxes. The O’Kanes took these luxuries for granted, but some days she felt as slack-jawed as the drooling morons hovering around the bar.
“God, this place is insane tonight.” Trix dropped a tray on the counter and took a deep breath. “At least it’s slowing down—for now.”
For now, Six agreed silently, carefully not looking at the stage. As soon as the crowd broke free of Rachel’s spell, they’d be eager to get back to drinking—maybe even more enthusiastically now that Trix was behind the bar. The newest member of the O’Kanes was everything Six wasn’t—voluptuous, fashionable, gorgeous—and she spent every night drowning in admiring gazes and generous tips without doing anything more seductive than smiling as she poured whiskey.
Six tried to smile, but she felt like a stray dog showing her teeth in warning, and the men seemed to agree.
She swept up a rag and rubbed at a spill on the counter. “I should probably stick around until it clears out. If this keeps up, Dallas’ll have to schedule extra help on the nights Rachel dances.”
Trix shook her head as she eyed the stage. “She’s making mad money, you know that? She doesn’t play to the crowd, either. She ignores them, and they get off on it.”
A stripper cocky enough to ignore a crowd in Sector Three would have to be quick with a knife to avoid some frustrated bastard determined to fuck the bitch out of her. Of course, a lot of dancers at the Broken Circle did wiggle and preen for the audience. The girls who got away with being above it all had one thing in common—intricate tattoos around their wrists, with the gang’s symbol front and center. Everyone who belonged to Dallas wore those cuffs, and nobody in Sector Four would lay a finger on an O’Kane.
Six rubbed her thumb over her own unmarked wrist before glancing at Trix. The other woman had already taken ink, which put her beyond danger. “Are you thinking about doing it, too?”
“What, dancing like that? I’m a little more old-fashioned, I think.” Trix began to line up fresh shot glasses on the bar. “You ever hear of something called burlesque?”
It was stupid to feel defensive when Trix wasn’t the kind of person to poke at her ignorance, but Six still tensed. “No. Sounds fancy.”
“It’s kind of like the stripping, only not about getting naked. It’s about the show, the spectacle…” She seemed to be struggling for words. “The joy.”
If you believed the O’Kane women, everything up to and including fucking each other on stage was about the joy. And maybe it was, but it wasn’t Six’s kind of thing. “I’d put on a show if Dallas would let me in the damn cage. Can you imagine how much I could make betting on myself? The odds would be crazy.”
Trix started at one end of the line of glasses and poured them full of whiskey, straight down the row. “If it’s what you want to do, make it happen. Fight for it.”
Easy for Trix to say. She was official now, a member of the gang in her own right, but Six was still…hell. A prisoner turned reluctant ally turned awkward guest. “I guess I could,” she hedged as she bent to retrieve more shot glasses. “But it’s not that important.”
Across the room, Rachel writhed on the floor and kicked her filmy panties—her last remaining scrap of clothing—off the side of the stage. As if it broke some sort of enchantment, the far more familiar hoots and shouts echoed through the room.
Even safe behind the bar, Six shivered. This was the part that twisted her guts until nausea made the room swim. Rachel was naked, her pale skin bare and vulnerable under the colored lights. Her tattoos did little to harden her soft curves, and every inch of her was on helpless display as she taunted the men by tracing her fingertips up the inside of her thigh.
The shouts got louder. Tension and anticipation built until the air grew heavy, and Six found herself struggling to take even breaths, to keep herself from dragging them into her lungs like each one could be her last. She busied herself with a second line of shot glasses, placing each glass precisely, its rim an equal distance from those on either side.
On the stage, Rachel moaned in pleasure.
A glass slipped through Six’s fingers, and she lunged to catch it before it hit the floor. Ducking behind the counter spared her the sight of a gleeful Rachel with her fingers in her pussy, or rubbing her clit with so much enthusiasm you’d think getting off for three dozen strangers was the best fun she’d ever had.
Getting off. Actually getting off—no faking, no games. Six had done lots of things on stages. She’d been the entertainment, both willingly and unwillingly, clothed and naked. She’d fucked and stripped and bit her lower lip through floggings that left her body scarred. But she’d never, ever given those bastards the satisfaction of one unguarded moment, of one glimpse at her.
Rachel would work herself to screaming release right there in the middle of the Broken Circle. She wouldn’t think twice about sprawling, naked and open, her heart and soul as recklessly displayed as her body. Every time she did it, she pushed a little farther, came a little harder…
And Six had to choke back horror as the watching men lapped it up, taking something that should have been for Rachel alone.
Trix bent and pulled the shot glass from her shaking hand. “I’ll handle things here. Go, if you want.”
Six hadn’t even realized she was still crouched behind the bar, and embarrassment joined the ugly jumble of revulsion and fear turning her inside out. “I can stay,” she whispered, knowing it was a lie Trix could hear, but she couldn’t help it. Pride wouldn’t let her escape easily.
“No, you can’t. And that’s okay.” Trix tilted her head toward the back exit. “Go on. I’ve got this.”
Grateful, Six squeezed the other woman’s hand and abandoned any pretense of dignity. The thick wooden door was marked STAFF ONLY, and she didn’t look at the stage as she shoved through it, spilling out into a dark hallway. Doors to either side opened into extra rooms, closets used for storage as well as the small office where Rachel kept records of beer and booze sales.
A staircase to Six’s right led up to the second floor and the employee lounge, but she skipped it and plowed straight for the exit, needing the fresh night air more than pitying looks from whatever dancers might be awaiting their turns on the stage.
She burst through the back door and into the comforting shadows of the parking area. In spite of the crowd inside, the lot was half empty tonight, with only two rusting cars and a cluster of motorcycles near the entrance.
She studied the bikes out of habit, looking for the familiar marks that would have indicated friend or foe in Sector Three, but nothing stood out. Nothing would. Most of the enemies of her old life were dead, and even the survivors wouldn’t venture here, into the lion’s den. Now that Dallas O’Kane ruled sectors Four and Three, she was as safe within the walls of this compound as it was possible to be in this life.
That was the story, anyway. Her racing pulse and queasy stomach weren’t buying it. She sucked in a few deep breaths, forcing herself to calm through stubbornness alone. The fear and panic were still there—they always were—but it had been a long time since she’d let herself give in to them. The O’Kanes were making her weak already, as soft as some city twit who had time to whine about her feelings.
In Three, fear was everywhere. You lived with it or you died from it, end of options—and that was if you considered dying a viable option. Six never had.
As soon as her heartbeat steadied, she stopped to get her bearings. Two large buildings loomed out of the darkness; to the east stood the warehouse where the O’Kanes held their weekly cage fights, and to the south sat the garage where Dallas stored his collection of lovingly restored cars. The living quarters lay beyond that, but that wasn’t why she headed in that direction. Instead, she slipped through the gate and then through the side door of the garage.
The knot of tension between her shoulders unraveled when she saw the familiar figure bent under the hood of his car. “How’s the work going?”
“Not bad.” Metal clanged against metal as Bren straightened. “Finally got the carburetor rebuilt.”
The words meant little to her. She’d never seen a working car up close before Bren had shoved her into one. “How long before you can drive it?”
“A while. It runs, but not well, not yet.” His grease-smeared forearms flexed as he wiped his hands on a rag. “How was your shift?”
“Busy.” Habit drove her fingers into her pocket to check the tightly rolled wad of bills, tips she’d managed to score from the perverse bastards who got off on being scowled at. “Rachel did her thing again.”
If she tried to talk about the panic that had sent her running, he’d listen. He’d watch her with those eyes that saw everything and probably understand parts of her she couldn’t. It was too much exposure for one night, so she sidestepped the moment by hoisting herself onto the worktable. “Is it hard to learn how to drive?”
He tossed aside the rag and pulled two beers from a bucket next to the table. “Depends on how good you are at turning off your brain and letting your body do the work.”
From anyone else, the words would have sounded like a lewd, clumsy come-on. From Bren, it was a straightforward answer, one made all the more ironic by how her body reacted to him any time she was foolish enough to turn off her brain. She was painfully aware of his graceful movements, of the appealing, subtle shift of muscle under skin as he held out a bottle.
“You should know,” she retorted, taking care not to let her fingers brush his as she accepted the beer. Maybe her tart tone would cover her confusion. “If I could stop thinking, maybe I’d actually beat you in a fight one of these days.”
A rare smile curved his lips. “I’ve had years of training when it comes to fighting, and decades of practice on the not thinking.”
Those smiles were dangerous, and not only because they made her tingle. They were dangerous because she couldn’t not smile in return, her lips tilting up to ruin her scowl. “That just makes you old. I will put you on your ass next time.”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
“Sure, grandpa. Tell me that after I beat you.”
He laughed as he leaned against the table beside her. “Cruz and Trix have their ink, but they’ve still got to drink in, make it official.”
Rachel had explained the process in vague terms, something about having a new member do shots of all the O’Kane liquors before welcoming them into the gang. It had taken Six a month to realize Rachel hadn’t been keeping gang secrets—that really was all that happened. No beatdowns for the men, no spreading your legs for the women. Just booze and celebration.
A few dozen city blocks separated this compound from Sector Three, but she might as well be on the moon. “It’s an O’Kane thing, I guess,” she said carefully, unable to keep her gaze from his wrists. Dark ink swirled around his muscled forearms, stopping above his broad hands. The gang’s signature cuffs, proof that he belonged.
“An O’Kane thing,” he echoed in agreement. “Do you want to go?”
“Am I allowed?”
Bren shrugged. “You’ll go with me, like Jasper and Noelle’s party.”
Maybe it was that simple. Dallas O’Kane was the most powerful man in the sector—one of the most powerful men in their world—and Bren was part of his inner circle. Rules didn’t seem to apply to him, or to her when she was with him.
Which didn’t answer his question—did she want to go? “How much like Jas and Noelle’s party will it be?” she asked, her cheeks heating at the memory of how quickly that celebration had turned into a shameless fuckfest.
“More like a fight night,” he hastily explained. “People might be getting it on in the corners or grinding on the dance floor, but it’s not— I mean, it’s different.”
Six covered her embarrassment by nudging his leg with her boot. “So, no wall-to-wall fucking?”
“No, just people drinking and having a good time.”
“Okay. It sounds fun.” She nudged him again, more for the excuse of contact than anything. He’d encouraged her to ask for physical affection when she wanted it, but she liked sneaking in teasing touches. Liked knowing she could, and that he wouldn’t hurt her for taking liberties. “Thanks for including me.”
“You’re not a guest.” He watched her intently. “This is your home.”
Home. Longing hollowed out her chest, a craving for a concept she could barely fathom, because it started with safety. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a home before.”
Bren nodded. “A lot of people here haven’t. You’re not alone.”
She knew what he meant—that she wasn’t alone in being overwhelmed—but the words resonated more deeply. Maybe it was because her panic from earlier had faded under the quiet warmth of his undemanding presence.
Or maybe she really was getting soft.
Some part of her trusted Bren, for better or worse, and that made his words true on every level. Closing her eyes, she leaned in until her shoulder touched his. She wouldn’t be able to ignore her body’s shiver of reaction forever, but tonight she focused on the satisfaction of friendship. “No. I’m not alone.”
“So, how ’bout it?” He hesitated. “I can’t skip the party, but you could, if you wanted.”
She considered it for a moment, balanced the loneliness of being the only person on the compound not celebrating against the awkwardness of being the only outsider at the party.
Except no one treated her like an outsider, not with Bren around. “I’ll come. I want to.”
“Good. Trix’ll want you to be there.”
Something he’d been careful not to mention until after she agreed, just as he’d kept any hint of encouragement from his voice. Smiling, she clinked her beer against his. “Then it’s a deal. As long as I can scowl at Ace if he tries to make me dance.”
Bren downed half his beer in several long swallows. “Scowl at Ace for whatever you want. He probably deserves it.”
“Yeah, but he probably likes it, too.” At least he’d stopped tossing her those flirtatious smiles, the ones that were all charm and dirty promise—and all the more alarming because she didn’t think he did it on purpose. “But he’s not so bad anymore. Did you tell him to stop hitting on me?”
“Might as well tell the sun not to shine, sweetness.”
She laughed. The sound was so foreign it still startled her sometimes, another way her body turned traitor around Bren. The warmth and the tingles and the smiling and now laughter. Low and a little rusty, but it was real. “Are you almost done working?”
“Yeah.” He pulled down the metal rod propping up the hood and let it slam shut. “Want me to walk you to your place?”
“Sure.” She slid off the worktable and tried not to let her gaze linger on his shoulders. This was always the most dangerous time, when she was loose and relaxed enough to remember a time when sex had been more good than bad, when she’d appreciated a man with a hard body and beautiful shoulders.
White looked good on him, especially with all the engine grease. His T-shirt clung, the sleeves stretching wide over flexing biceps. Aside from his O’Kane cuffs, his arms were free of ink, but a black swirl curled up his neck from beneath the fabric, hinting at the tattoo that covered his entire back.
She loved watching him fight in the cage, watching all those muscles move together so perfectly she thought the prissy bastards in Eden must be at least partly right about their God. Only a higher power could have created something as graceful and stunning and deadly as Brendan Donnelly.
He turned and caught her staring—he must have—but he didn’t call her on it. Instead, he finished off his beer and held out his hand. “Come on.”
Exhaling, she slipped her fingers into his. His hands still bore smudges, the kind that would rub off on her skin as tangible proof of contact. She knew she’d stare at it later, at the dark grease on the back of her hand that marked the spot he’d rubbed his thumb over, and she’d remember the way it felt. This jolt, the way his touch shivered along her nerve endings as if her instincts couldn’t decide if he meant blissful safety or delicious danger.
Her gut already knew. Her body was safe with Bren, but her mind, her heart, her soul… Hell, Wilson Trent had shattered her into a thousand razor-edged pieces, but Bren could grind those shards into dust.
If she had half a brain left, she’d run.
Slums were slums, no matter where you went.
Bren ducked a low-hanging clothesline and marked the progress of the footsteps behind him. Quick, too light to belong to someone his size. Nervous, like a scurry.
He stifled a sigh and slowed. He knew better than to wear his normal clothes on an errand like this. He didn’t dress fancy, but O’Kanes could afford quality. Forget the silver he wore or the cash in his pocket, his leather jacket alone could feed a desperate kid for a month.
He should know.
The scuttling steps drew closer, and Bren spun in time to intercept the arm swinging at him. Dirty steel flashed, and he twisted his wrist with a jerk, flinging the knife into a pile of trash heaped against the nearest wall.
His attacker was just a girl, no more than thirteen or fourteen, but she looked older under her dirty, matted hair. The features youth should have softened had been starved into sharpness, and her eyes were flat. Not hard, not quite, but dull. She stared up at Bren, who could have snapped her neck like a twig, but no fear materialized. No worry, but no hope, either. Like it didn’t fucking matter what happened to her, she was finished either way.
That was what decided her fate. “You need to pick your marks better. Cash is worthless if you’re too dead to use it.”
She bared her teeth at him, but even that gesture of defiance stirred no emotion in her exhausted gaze. It was a challenge born of stubborn habit, like her words. “What, you some kinda do-gooder?”
“No.” He didn’t release her. “But I know a place you can go.”
Suspicion tightened her features. “If you’re a pervert, you’re too far east. The cribs are on the other side of the city center.”
Her conclusion was too logical for him to find it amusing. “No, no sex. I’m on my way to visit a friend. You can come with me, get something to eat.”
It must have been days since her last meal, long enough to make the tiniest scrap of hope worth risking everything. She stopped trying to wrench free and stared up at him in silence for one second. Two. “Okay,” she muttered, looking away. “Whatever.”
“The concrete building past the tunnel access. Do you know it?”
She nodded, silent and wary.
“Good.” She’d be able to find her way back on her own. “Come on.”
Bren didn’t slow down for the girl as he continued on to Cooper’s building. She kept pace, undoubtedly accustomed to moving fast through the packed alleyways. “What should I call you?” he asked. Not her name, just something.
Her gaze rested heavily on him. “Syd,” she said finally. “Call me Syd.”
“Bren,” she echoed, like she didn’t believe him. “You don’t make any damn sense.”
“No?” He stopped in front of Coop’s door and pounded on it with the side of his fist, watching the girl out of the corner of his eye as his jacket sleeve rode up to bare the ink around his wrist. “I’m from the sectors. Four.”
She’d stared him right in the face with the threat of death hanging between them, but the sight of his O’Kane tattoos widened her eyes. She inhaled sharply and tensed, as if she might bolt, but the scrape of the door caught her attention.
Coop was old and grizzled, his once-powerful body stooped with age and the ache of joints that had suffered too much punishment in his youth. But his eyes were still sharp, and he snorted roughly as his gaze jumped from Bren to Syd. “Good thing I had Tammy cook extra. This one looks like she’d chew her way through my boots if I gave her the chance. Bring her on in.”
Bellyaching aside, Bren knew the old man would take care of any strays he dragged along with him. He urged the girl through the door and followed her. “Cruz couldn’t make it, but he sends his regards.”
“That boy’s not flexible enough to travel between worlds,” Coop said, only pausing long enough to let Bren bolt the door before leading them both down a narrow hallway. “Wherever he’s standing, he puts down roots, and that’s all there is to it.”
He was right. Cruz had settled in to Sector Four and life as an O’Kane, but only because he’d thrown himself headfirst into work. Running jobs for Dallas wasn’t that much different from being a high-level, decorated military police officer in Eden. You did what your boss told you to do, no matter how ugly or dirty.
A soldier was a soldier.
“He still thinks about you, though.” Bren pulled a credit stick out of his jacket pocket and pressed it into Coop’s hand.
Coop tucked it into his pocket as they passed through the open door and into a warm, brightly lit kitchen. “Good. Maybe next time you come around, he’ll unbend enough to visit.”
The busty blonde bent over the stove turned with a smile of greeting that froze when she caught sight of Syd. Cooper’s housekeeper wasn’t much older than Bren, but she had a maternal streak a sector wide and a backbone stiffened by years of dealing with Coop and his protégés.
Syd didn’t stand a chance. One second, she was still eyeing the hallway as if considering a bolt for freedom. In the next, Tammy had pressed a warm meat pie into the girl’s thin hands and was sweeping her toward the stairs with the promise of a hot bath and clean clothes.
Coop watched them disappear with a look of fond amusement. “Suppose it’s just as well Tammy’s living here full-time now. She’s good with the wary ones. Doesn’t take any shit, but she doesn’t scare them like my busted face seems to.”
Survival—the strongest drive of all. “A hundred bucks says you still catch her trying to rob you tonight.”
“I hope so,” Coop replied heartily. “Those are the ones who have a chance. The ones who ain’t done fighting.”
“The ones like me?” Bren hit the living room first and dropped into his favorite chair in the corner.
Coop handed him a bottle of beer before claiming his spot on the throne-like recliner. “No one’s quite like you, boy, and thank God for that. You wouldn’t have stopped until you’d taken everything that was bolted down.”
“I brought it all back.” And so would this girl. She was beaten down, but not broken to the point of cruelty. Not yet.
He cracked open his beer with a glance at the label. Liam Riley was still the only brewer in town, and that wasn’t likely to change. Rachel made plenty of beer in Sector Four, but her brew stayed in the sectors, where it wouldn’t compete with her father’s.
As if he could sense the thought, Coop lifted his own bottle. “How’s Liam’s girl? Still sitting snug with O’Kane?”
“Yeah.” Bren skirted the news of her dancing and of her brief involvement with Cruz. None of those things were his to discuss.
“You come across the wall just for a visit, or did you have business in the city?”
Business. Bren busied himself with his first gulp of beer, anything to postpone the inevitable answer the man wouldn’t want to hear.
But Coop had always been good at reading between the lines. “Miller, huh? When’re you gonna finally put a knife between that bastard’s ribs?”
“When the time’s right.” A quick, easy answer, as if Bren hadn’t spent hours trailing him. Years biding his time, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
Lieutenant Russell Miller—Bren’s former commanding officer, the man responsible for his banishment from the city. The mission had been simple: plant some contraband on a mid-level executive at one of the biggest import companies in Eden, a man suspected of embezzling funds. The resulting investigation would include his financial records, making the evidence-gathering process easy for his employer.
Simple, except the man hadn’t embezzled anything, and he hadn’t gone easy. He’d gone public, and Miller had denied ever giving Bren the order. Instead, he’d sacrificed him to the nonexistent mercy of a perfunctory military tribunal.
Bren tried to imagine Dallas doing the same, abandoning one of his men instead of owning up to his own failed maneuvers, but he couldn’t do it. Miller was a man without conscience, without honor, and one day he would die for it.
“Hey.” Coop snapped his fingers. “You goin’ down the rabbit hole or something?”
“No.” Bren drank more beer. It was smooth, with none of the bite Rachel brewed into hers. It made him miss home. “You heard about Three? The other sector leaders put Dallas in charge of cleaning up the shit Trent left behind.”
“Is that what’s going down?” The old man grunted. “Heard a hell of a lot of rumors, but they’re nothing compared to Gareth Woods turning up with his throat slit. Been fifteen years since someone managed to murder a councilman.”
Bren swirled the amber liquid in his bottle. “It’s a mystery, all right.”
“Ain’t it? And that fancy lady from Two on the hook for it, and not a whisper of your boss anywhere.”
“Maybe he wasn’t involved.” It wasn’t exactly a lie, since Lex had been the one to take Woods down.
Coop grunted again. “Just as well. I hear Eden’s got their fancy knickers in a twist over a whole mess of things.”
Of course they did, because the sectors were in upheaval. Power fluctuations were unstable, dangerous. Maybe no one gave a shit that Gareth Woods—a councilman, one of their own—was dead. The man had been crooked, even depraved. But with the sectors in flux, they’d be watching anyway.
Bren changed the subject. “Anything else I should know? Word on the ground?”
Coop nursed his beer for a moment before nodding abruptly. “A lot of eyes on the sectors, but it’s more than that.” He hesitated. “The whole city’s got a vibe, like something bad might go down, but we don’t know what it is yet.”
A warning, loud and clear. When the men with the helicopters and explosives got nervous… “Everyone’s waiting to see what happens next, and whether they need to blow it all to hell and back.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time.” Coop fixed him with a steady gaze. “You just make sure you’re not standing there when it does. I put too much effort into you to have it all go to waste.”
“I’m an O’Kane now. If it comes to that, you know exactly where I’ll be.”
Coop sighed. “I know. At least you’ve got Cruz to watch your back now. That’s something.”
It wouldn’t be a visit to his friend and mentor, his surrogate father, if he didn’t ask. “There’s a place for you there, you know. No questions. Tammy, too.”
“I know, but I still have a few comforts inside these walls. And Tammy’s tough as nails, but she’s an Eden girl to her bones.” Coop’s smile returned, amused and a little self-mocking. “She gets flustered at the idea of kissing before marriage. You O’Kanes would give her a heart attack.”
“Could be. But I think you’d be surprised how fast that fades when you get outside of these walls.”
“A lot of shit does,” the old man acknowledged. “You look good, Bren. You happy out there?”
“I’m—” He had everything. Power, security, the kind of family he’d have killed for as a child on the streets in the slums of Eden. Not a damn worry in the world.
Except for Six.
His lips formed the words without his thought or consent. “You’ve had a lot of kids come through here. How broken is too broken? How do you know what you can’t fix?”
Coop didn’t answer right away. He twisted the beer bottle in his hand, staring at the label as he picked away at the edge. “No one’s too broken. But you can’t fix a damn thing. All you can do is figure out which ones want to fix themselves, then give them the tools to get the job done.”
Wise words, and it was just as well. Bren wasn’t the man anyone called to fix things. He tore them down, ripped them apart. Killed them and disposed of the evidence.
He wasn’t a man meant to build things—Eden had made sure of that, both with his childhood and his military training—but maybe he could stand beside her while she picked up her pieces. And the truth, something she’d definitely never heard from Wilson Trent’s lips—about her situation, about Bren himself—he could give her that, too.
Surely it would be enough.
Bren was used to being called to Dallas’s office. The man handed out orders from behind his wide desk, inhabiting the space with an assurance that spoke of power.
The woman at his right hand, though… That was new.
Lex studied Bren as Dallas poured a round of drinks. She had stepped fully into her role as queen, all right, but it was obvious she didn’t intend to plan parties and serve as eye candy on her man’s arm. She was in it, advising Dallas every step of the way.
“Bren can handle it,” she said finally. “And if he can’t, he’ll let you know. He won’t let his ego choke the shit out of him.”
“You hear that, Bren?” Dallas grinned. “Rare fucking praise, indeed.”
Bren held his answering smile in check. “I didn’t know I had an ego. What exactly am I handling?”
Dallas stabbed a finger down on the map spread out between them. “Sector Three.”
Bren stared at the lines marking out the sector. So far, Dallas had sent the usual suspects over to Three—him, Jasper, and Mad. “Why me?”
Lex downed her whiskey shot. “Don’t ask questions I already answered, Donnelly.”
“There’s what she said,” Dallas agreed. “But it’s also time. Lex and I need to focus on the bigger game. That means Jas is stepping up here in Four to cover more of the day-to-day shit, and I need someone I can trust keeping an eye on Three. Then there’s Six.” His lips twisted. “The girl. Not the sector, and that’s fucking confusing. Don’t suppose you’ve gotten a real name out of her yet?”
Bren arched an eyebrow.
Dallas sighed. “Fine, I’ll deal with it. But you get to deal with her. I figure she can help you cut through a lot of the bullshit over there. She knows who’s who, the lay of the land.”
His first instinct was to refuse. She was still on shaky ground, barely trusted him, and maybe the last thing she needed was to go back there. But to not even allow her to make the decision for herself? Unacceptable. “She’s not an O’Kane, not yet. If she says no?”
Dallas opened his mouth—then shut it and looked at Lex, who laid a hand on his shoulder and answered. “If she says no, that’s fine. She can answer questions and provide information without budging. But if you’re going, she’ll want to go with you.”
“Probably,” Bren allowed, dropping his gaze once more to the map. “What’s my objective?”
“Information, to start.” Dallas bent and resurfaced with a second map, which he unrolled on top of the other one. It outlined Three, but large parts of it had been sketched vaguely with pencil, while other parts remained completely blank. “Ace pieced this together from the intel we have, but it isn’t much. We need to know what’s over there, who’s got it, and who might try to take more when we’re not looking. And if there are people in a bad way, people who could be loyal if we threw a little help in their direction… Well, I want to know that too, so I can take advantage of it.”
Lex snorted. “It’s not quite as mercenary as all that. Dallas O’Kane takes care of his own, and that now includes Sector Three.”
Dallas glanced up at Lex, his lips twitching, but the look in his eyes was something Bren had never seen before. Quiet, peaceful satisfaction. “If the queen commands it,” he murmured, the words carrying a teasing edge.
She threaded her fingers through the short hair at the back of his neck and held his gaze. “She does.”
A private moment, but Bren couldn’t bring himself to look away. All the kicking and fighting had come down to this—two people who knew each other inside and out, well enough to speak without words.
It was Dallas who broke the spell, quirking an eyebrow at Bren. “Stick to people who need our kind of support, but make a list for Mad. He’ll coordinate all the feeding of the hungry and healing of the sick with his cousin.”
“Got it.” Bren rose. “You want me to head out after the party?”
“Sometime in the next few days, yeah.” Dallas rolled up the map and offered it to him. “If you want something a little less unwieldy, Noelle’s been working her way through my stash of tech. You can probably snag a tablet, but everything goes on the map. I want a hard copy.”
“Understood.” He tucked the paper under his arm. “I know this is about intelligence gathering, but what do you want me to do if I run into something really fucking wrong?”
That fast, Dallas made the transition from love-struck man to ruthless leader. “I want you to clean house.”
They’d made a few contacts in Three already, people who would be more than willing to help him eliminate the worst offenders. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Anything else you need?”
A clear dismissal, made clearer when Lex eased onto Dallas’s lap. Bren nodded to them both and turned for the door.
He tossed a look at Lex over his shoulder. “Yeah?”
“Don’t get dead.”
The loneliest place at a party was on the fringes. The edge of the crowd, just on the other side of belonging. That’s where Six had expected to be, drifting off into invisibility while the O’Kanes hooted and hollered and welcomed two more into the fold.
She hadn’t expected Bren to park himself next to her.
“You don’t have to stand with me,” she told him quietly as they watched Cruz down two shots of tequila and slam the empty glasses next to the four that had held whiskey and vodka.
Bren just stood there, arms crossed over his chest, watching the spectacle with a small smile. “I don’t mind.”
He hadn’t lied to her yet, so she took the words at face value and watched Cruz start his way around the loose circle of O’Kanes. He’d done the same after each of the previous pairs of shots, accepting hugs and kisses and Ace’s too-enthusiastic back-pounding.
By the time Cruz had passed the spot where Six and Bren were standing, Rachel had poured another shot of tequila and offered it to Trix. The redhead grimaced comically before letting Mad pull her into a warm hug of welcome.
It was a world away from life in Three, and not just because Trix was being welcomed as a full member. Mad’s brown skin would have barred him from the ranks of Trent’s gang, no matter how skilled he was. “Dallas doesn’t care, does he?” she asked Bren, following Trix’s progress around the circle. Mad wasn’t the only one who would have been excluded. Ace, Lex, Flash, maybe even Cruz—and those were just the names she knew.
“Care about what?”
“What color people are.” It hadn’t mattered on the farms, but the street kids in Three grouped together with others who looked like them, piecing together scraps of identity from the lucky few who remembered having parents. And Trent had never grown past it, even when it hurt him. “Cain had valuable farming contacts, and Trent still almost didn’t let him in his gang.”
“Because he’s black?” Bren shook his head with a snort. “No, Dallas doesn’t give a shit. Hard to believe there are people around who still do.”
“Dumb people.” Six couldn’t help her wry laugh. “They still care if you have tits, too. Dumb people care about lots of silly things.”
“Yeah, they do.” His last words were almost drowned out by the roar of the crowd as Cruz took his next shots.
“Do the guys always have to drink more than the women?” she asked, eyeing the man’s progress. He was still pretty steady, but she doubted he would be with twelve more shots sloshing in his stomach.
“The men are bigger,” Bren answered simply, then laughed. “Don’t worry, you can do both shots if you want. Sometimes the ladies do.”
As if there was no question at all that Dallas would accept her, like the only thing standing between her and a family was the technicality of time. Funny how the knowledge could be soothing even while it made her feel trapped. “I could get down sixteen shots, but I might not be walking back to my own bed afterwards.”
“Neither did Rachel. She loved the whole world for about twenty minutes, then she threw up all over me and Jas.”
Six pressed her lips together as firmly as possible, biting the inside of her cheek until the urge to smile had passed. “I hope Cruz doesn’t puke on us.”
Bren said nothing, but the tops of his ears grew pink as a blush crept up his face.
Oh, God. He’d thrown up.
She could bite her lips bloody and not hide her sudden grin, so she tipped her head forward and let her hair sweep down to shield her expression from him. “That’s okay. I’ve heard booze hits old men harder.”
“C’mon. You can’t be the only guy who couldn’t hold down sixteen shots in a row.”
“He’s not,” Lex cut in, easing between them. “But Bren doesn’t spill secrets. Unless, of course, they belong to Rachel—who’s gonna kick your ass, by the way.”
“I know,” Bren said mildly.
Six tucked her hair behind her ear and glanced at Lex. The female leader of the O’Kanes was dressed down—for her—but she still made a statement. Her pants alone were worth a month’s wages, the leather so supple it hugged every curve and moved when Lex did. Lush, especially when compared to her tiny white tank top, but that scrap of fabric had a different purpose: to barely cover her tits while framing the pair of tattoos that shouted her status, with Dallas’s name across her abdomen and his mark around her throat.
The O’Kanes said everything that mattered to them with ink. It made her feel naked, sometimes, having none at all.
Lex didn’t seem to care. Her gaze tracked around the room instead, and she shook her head. “Things’ll get pretty wild around here tonight.”
Six couldn’t tell if it was a warning or not. “I thought all your parties got a little wild.”
“Some wilder than others. Right, Bren?”
Before he could speak, Trix whirled around, laughing dizzily. Lex caught her with a smile and brushed a kiss to her cheek. “Steady, love.”
“Sorry.” Her face was flushed, her chest rising and falling with quick, elated breaths.
“Nothing to be sorry about.” Lex guided her toward Bren.
He kissed her temple and whispered in her ear, and something ugly and dark twisted in Six’s gut, a feeling unpleasantly like jealousy. She jerked her gaze away in time to watch Lex fist a hand in Cruz’s short hair and lick her way past his lips.
Jesus, these people had no boundaries.
Lex held the kiss, her tongue sliding over his, while he kept his hands out at his sides, as if he didn’t know where he could safely rest them. Six didn’t blame him—Dallas O’Kane was a scary fucker.
But when his voice came bellowing across the crowd, Dallas only sounded amused. “Christ, woman,” he called out. “Pace yourself. He’s barely halfway there.”
“Technicalities,” Lex murmured as she pulled away and patted Cruz’s cheek. “Enjoy your party.”
The man might be six-foot-four and carved from rock, but Six swore he blushed as he stumbled to the next person in the circle.
At least she wasn’t the only one out of her element.
She tried to fake a casualness she didn’t feel as Trix and Cruz worked their way back around toward Rachel. “What happens when they’re done with their shots?”
“If they’re still upright?” Lex raised both eyebrows as she backed away into the crowd. “Anything goes, honey.”
Six couldn’t bring herself to look at Bren with the words hanging in the air, vibrating with promise. “Anything, huh?”
He stepped closer, his arm brushing hers. “She’s exaggerating, but not much. If it makes you uncomfortable, we can go.”
“Not uncomfortable yet.” Six bumped her hip against his. “I didn’t get it last time.”
She felt his stare, intense and focused. “Get what?”
She watched Ace give Trix a friendly slap on the ass that earned him an indulgent smile in return. “That they don’t wanna fuck me if I’m not into it.”
“Not even a little bit.” Bren gestured around the room. “Everyone in here is into something different. Mad likes to have as many people around as possible. Flash used to dig the groupies before he hooked up with Amira. Jas and Noelle are together, but they like to play a little, too. Dallas and Lex are… Well, they’re them. But no one in here gets off on forcing anyone.”
“But it’s not just that. I’ve met plenty of guys who aren’t into force but are fine with a woman who’ll close her eyes and put up with it.” She’d expected Dallas to be one of them, but maybe she’d been selling the arrogance of the O’Kanes too short. None of these men would tolerate being tolerated.
Bren’s words confirmed it. “Doesn’t sound like much fun to me.”
If it had, he would have already fucked her. She shifted her weight, and the warm skin of his arm pressed more firmly against hers. “Must be nice to be such hot stuff you can hold out for the good sex,” she said lightly.
He brushed a lock of hair off her cheek, and her stomach dropped out as his fingertips grazed the shell of her ear.
She dragged in an unsteady breath and shoved both hands into her pants pockets to keep from reaching for him. “Cheater.”
“Why?” His hand lingered near her face. “Because you like it? Or because you want more?”
Bren didn’t ask rhetorical questions. He asked blunt ones and expected honest answers. Worse, he acted on the things she told him. If she said she didn’t like it, he’d stop, even if he didn’t believe her. There was no safe evasion, no closing her eyes and protesting too much and secretly hoping he’d keep going.
Honesty—especially about sex—tasted odd on her lips. “I like it,” she said carefully. “I don’t know if I like liking it. It’s dangerous, isn’t it?”
He nodded. “I wouldn’t do anything you didn’t want, but it doesn’t stop there. I wouldn’t do anything you weren’t really fucking sure about, either.”
Her heart pounded as the full import of his words slipped through her. The precarious balance of their relationship had tilted. He’d given her the power to ask for more, had painted a magical picture with deceptively innocent words.
Do anything. So mundane, but easy to imagine them lower, rougher. Whispered against her ear, they’d paint a different picture.
I want to do things to you.
She shivered. “If you wait for me to be sure about anything, you really will be an old man before you get the good stuff.”
He turned toward her, leaned closer, his bulk and the look in his eyes blocking out the rest of the room. When he spoke, it wasn’t against her ear but her cheek, hot and gruff. “What qualifies as the good stuff? Tell me.”
This time it wasn’t a question. It was an order, an out-and-out command. As hot as his lips were against her cheek, she would not tremble like some city girl who’d just gotten her first glimpse under a man’s clothes.
She pressed her hand to his chest and slid it down, past the thick leather of his belt, until her fingers found the firm bulge of his half-aroused cock.
At least she wasn’t the only one getting hot and bothered.
With a shred more confidence, she traced the outline of his growing erection before pressing her palm against it. “Every man I’ve ever met thought it was getting this inside me somehow.”
He swallowed, his throat working, and the barest hint of a groan escaped him. “That’s not what I asked you.”
“Then I don’t know.” She needed to release him, but feeling him harden under her touch carried a dizzy sort of power. How long had it been since she’d wanted a man to feel good when she touched him? Long enough that she let her fingers fall away. “The only good stuff I know about is getting off, and I never needed a man for that.”
The back of his hand grazed the button on her jeans. “No, I guess you don’t.”
She hissed in a breath and tried not to picture his fingers sliding down the same path her own had taken so many times. “Do you get what I’m saying, though?”
His touch vanished. “No, but I get what it means. It means not yet.”
From the shouts and whooping cheers behind him, Cruz and Trix had made another pass. Six felt bolted in place, held captive by nothing more than his gaze and her own confused longing. “What do you think the good stuff is?” she asked, desperate to prolong this quiet oasis of brutal honesty.
“Fucking? That damn sure counts.” A tiny smile tilted one corner of his mouth. “But so does everything else.”
Without taking her eyes from his, she touched his shoulder. Strong muscles flexed enticingly under her fingertips as she slid her hand down his arm and finally twined her fingers with his. “Even this?”
Bren’s smile faded as he raised their clasped hands and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. “Especially this.”
The sudden burn in her chest scared her. It wasn’t arousal, but something far more insidious, more dangerous. Affection, digging hooks into the painful scars on her heart, and she had to laugh it off to keep from flinging his hand away and bolting. “Then you’re easy, Donnelly.”
“I know.” He looked away, and the moment was broken.
But she still had his hand, his grip firm and reassuring. So she clung to him as the O’Kanes celebrated their newest members, and almost felt as if she belonged.
She liked to watch.
It wasn’t the first time he’d caught Six staring at a scene of carnal decadence. Tonight, however, Bren was ready to chalk it up to his imagination, horny wishful thinking at its worst. But the third time her gaze drifted toward Mad and Trix and lingered, he knew it was true. Not morbid curiosity or detached interest.
She liked to watch.
Mad had sprawled on a couch with Trix astride his lap. Her hands were tangled in his hair, and his were lost under the skirt of her dress. Their kiss might have seemed tame if the frantic, hungry movement of her hips hadn’t suggested that Mad was being very, very clever with his fingers.
When Trix tossed her head back with a sharp moan, Six jerked her gaze away, color rising in her cheeks, her pulse pounding at the base of her throat.
Bren pressed a drink into her hand and watched as Mad shifted position slightly, his arm flexing. Trix whimpered this time, the sound quickly choked off by the shudder that wracked her.
“God.” Six stared at empty space as she took a drink. “It’s not safe to look anywhere after a few drinks, is it?”
“Lex warned you, and so did I.”
“Yeah.” She laughed breathlessly. “I don’t know the rules. It’s not like they’re putting on a show. They’re all just…”
“Doing what they want.” And getting off on people watching. “If they had problems with being seen, they wouldn’t be out here.”
“Yeah?” She sounded dubious, but her attention was starting to drift again, this time toward the corner where Noelle was on her knees in front of Jasper, unbuckling his belt with slow, teasing movements.
In the shadows, but not quite hidden, which was part of the game. Jas and Noelle were into the exhibitionism, all right, but sometimes this seemed to turn them on the most. The thin veneer of privacy, all too easily pierced by prying, hungry eyes.
Bren slid behind Six, directing her gaze more firmly to the couple. “Now, that is different. They don’t just not mind. They want you to see.”
“Oh,” she breathed, as if she hadn’t meant to say anything at all. Her body was primed, and the battle between tension and arousal left her trembling as they both watched Noelle free Jas’s erection. Noelle’s face was blissful as she stroked her fingers up his shaft, and Six’s hand constricted around her glass until her knuckles turned white.
Jasper’s groan echoed in Bren’s chest, but he held it back in favor of quiet, careful words. “What about you? Do you want to watch?”
Noelle used her tongue to taunt Jasper into sinking his hands into her unbound hair, his fists twisting tight. Six made a muffled noise and leaned into Bren. “I guess I’m a freaky pervert, after all.”
He rested one hand on her hip to steady her. “It’s not a joke, not any more than the blowjobs or the whips or anything else. It can be something you need.”
“Do you need it?”
He tried not to tense. Not that it mattered—it wasn’t like his predilections were a big secret. “It’s hot, but the only thing I’d call a need of mine is the pain.”
She didn’t reply, not until Noelle’s lips were stretched wide around Jasper’s shaft. Six’s free hand fell to cover Bren’s, her nails digging into his wrist as she shifted uncomfortably. “I couldn’t do this,” she whispered, and it sounded like a warning. “I couldn’t let them watch.”
He shivered at the bite of her nails in his skin. “So?”
Her grip tightened, threatening to break the skin. “It’s not rude? To get all cranked up and leave to take care of it?”
As if Jas and Noelle would expect her participation in a scene they hadn’t discussed with her first. “They’re not doing it for your benefit, not like you think. Not so you’ll return the favor.”
Noelle’s hungry moan rose, dragging more eyes than theirs to the corner in time to watch her cross her wrists behind her back in willing, submissive invitation. Jasper teased her by going slow, rocking his hips in short movements before thrusting deep without warning.
“Fucking hell,” Six muttered, losing her grip on her glass. Bren didn’t have time to catch it before it hit the cement floor with a sharp crack, the glass shattering into a dozen razor-edged pieces.
Six flushed and twisted to face him. “Crap, I’m sorry. I didn’t—”
He laid his finger over her lips and slid his free arm around her waist. “Watch the glass.”
Lifting her over it was easy—too easy. She’d been in Sector Four for a couple months now, but she was still too thin. Almost delicate.
But she was warm. Her breath was warm too, puffing against his finger with every quick breath. Her nipples were hard little buds he could feel through their clothes, clear evidence of her arousal.
He had to get her out of there before he broke all the careful promises he’d made.
Her body rubbed against his as he lowered her, and he gritted his teeth until her boots hit the floor. “I’ll take you back to your room, if you want.”
She stared at his chest for a tense moment before nodding.
Her hand was shaking when he wrapped his fingers around hers and pulled her through the crowd and out the side exit. The heavy metal door swung shut behind them, blocking out all the music except for the dull thud of the bass.
She inhaled deeply as the cool night air enveloped them, but didn’t speak. Usually she seemed as comfortable with not talking as he was, but tonight their silence was more tense than companionable. She clutched his hand as they crossed the cracked asphalt, not letting go until they reached the building that held the O’Kanes’ living quarters.
“You can go back to the party if you want,” she said abruptly. “I’m okay.”
He kicked open the door and held it for her. “I’m not going to shove you down the hall and run for it. I’m taking you home.”
“I won’t get jumped between here and my room,” she retorted, rolling her eyes, but there was no heat in the words, and her fingers brushed his. “Hell, no one’s jumped me in months except you, during practice. I’m probably getting rusty.”
“Will you just let me do this?”
She fell silent again.
Anger had lent his words a brusque edge, and he knew she’d assume he was pissed at her, at the world—anyone but himself. “Sorry.”
Six shrugged uncomfortably. “I’m a pain in the ass.”
He never broke his word. He never lost control. “I promised I wouldn’t go there, and I shouldn’t have.”
“Wait.” She grabbed his wrist and hauled him to a stop. “Go where?”
“The party.” Except that wasn’t quite it. “The sex.”
Her brows tugged down in confusion. “What, watching other people have it?”
He felt worse. “You wouldn’t have if I hadn’t pushed you to, and now look at us.”
“You didn’t do anything.” But she released his wrist and took a step back, crossing her arms over her chest in a way that screamed defensiveness. “I’m not some sheltered city girl who’s never seen a guy getting sucked off before.”
“But I promised—” And then it hit him, a thunderclap of understanding. She wasn’t a city girl, no. But she’d been sheltered, because she had no idea. “You don’t know, do you? How close we were?”
Those dark eyes were so wary. “To what? Fucking?”
He closed the space between them. He couldn’t help it, just like he couldn’t help the way his voice roughened. “Fucking. It doesn’t start when you get naked, not the way I do it.”
She stiffened, but even with him crowding her space, she didn’t shrink away. She didn’t look away, either, just stared up at him as her uneven breaths pushed her tits against his chest. “How does it start?”
“Like this.” His hands itched to slide up and cup her flesh so he’d know what kind of noise she made when he pinched her nipples between his fingers. “When we both start thinking about it. When we both want it.”
Her gaze dipped to his mouth, and her tongue darted out, wetting her lower lip. “Maybe that’s how it starts, but it shouldn’t count until you’re trying to get in me. So you didn’t do anything wrong, okay?”
Bren scoffed. He was so hard it hurt, and he’d bet cash money she was so wet he’d have to fight to keep his fingers from slipping on her thighs as he positioned her for that first thrust. Maybe it shouldn’t count, but it sure the hell did.
He stepped back, putting a solid two feet of distance between them before meeting her eyes again. “You wouldn’t tell me if I did do something wrong, though. Would you?”
She blinked, as if he’d broken a spell, and her features twisted into a scowl. “If you did something I didn’t want, I’d knee your balls halfway to your throat.”
Which didn’t mean she wouldn’t let him lead her, talk her around to something because she trusted him to know what was best. To treat her kindly. “Come on.” He resumed his path down the hall. “It’s getting late.”
She trailed behind him, silent as a shadow until he reached her room. She paused with her fingers on the doorknob. “You don’t have to go back to the party to get off. We could—or I could. I mean, if you want.”
Oh, Christ. “I’m not going back to the party.” And he’d be damned before he let any woman, much less a traumatized one, throw him a pity jerk.
“Oh.” She pushed open the door, but didn’t cross the threshold. “But you don’t wanna mess around?”
It was his own fucking fault for jumping the gun, for the mixed signals of putting his hands on her. “Maybe some other time.”
Awkward silence stretched out forever before she turned and walked stiffly into her room. “Okay, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow. If we’ve still got practice.”
“Three o’clock this time.” By then, he could lock it down. Get his libido under control.
She made a quiet noise—agreement, acknowledgment, he couldn’t even tell—and closed the door in his face.
Bren backed against the opposite wall and indulged himself with one light bang of his head against the brick. She was upset, he was an ass—and the whole situation would get worse, not better, if they had to hit Sector Three this twisted up.
No way. It was too dangerous, not to mention unfair to her. He’d fix it.
Rachel had slid into Sector Four so smoothly it was like she’d always been an O’Kane, but Mad could have watched her for thirty seconds and known she wasn’t sector-born.
She didn’t know how to hide her pain. Everyone who grew up in the sectors learned to sooner or later—it was your only defense against bullies, not to mention the cruelty of a world that favored strength over compassion. Not everyone grew up to be a good actor, but you stood a better chance of growing up at all if you refused to let anyone see when you were hurting.
Rachel sucked at hiding. As he approached, he watched her slam more dirty glasses on the counter, her movements so rough she snagged a fingernail under the edge of the plastic tray and snapped it off.
“Perfect,” she muttered in a defeated voice that pinched at his heart.
Blood pearled on her fingertip. Mad reached for her wrist, ignoring her start of surprise as he lifted her hand to examine the damage. Not too bad, but it had to sting like a bitch. “Bad day, darling?”
Her hand twitched, as if she’d barely stopped herself from jerking away. “I broke a nail, that’s all.”
Liar. Calling her on it wouldn’t help, so he rubbed his thumb over her palm and tilted his head toward the remains of the party. “You don’t have to clean this all up tonight, you know. Plenty of people’ll be around to help you tomorrow, if you want.”
“It’s got to be done.” The words were brittle. Pained. “May as well get it over with.”
Alone. It seethed under the words, and Mad would have had to be blind and stupid not to know why. With Jasper stepping up into a leadership role, Ace had been left without a partner. Cruz was the perfect replacement, a steady straight man to play off Ace’s lazily deceptive charm.
It had proven a killer combination in the past, and everyone had expected them to put aside their shit and get the job done. No one had expected them to hit it off—least of all the woman they’d been fighting over.
He gave her hand a final squeeze before releasing it to see to the tray. “Well, if you’re determined to do it now, you’ll have to put up with me helping. Besides, I don’t get to see much of you these days. Dallas has kept me busy.”
She joined him in unloading the tray. “Maybe we can rustle up another regular poker game. Think Jas wants to teach Noelle how to play?”
From what he’d seen of Noelle and Jas lately, any poker game with the two of them would involve betting clothing and eventually sexual favors. Fun as hell, but Rachel was still holding on to too much of that sweet Eden innocence that Noelle had been throwing away with both hands.
“Better off asking Flash and Amira,” he suggested instead. “She’s going crazy, waiting for that baby to join us. Or maybe Flash is the one driving her there.”
Rachel blew her bangs out of her face and sighed. “He’s worried about her, that’s all. Just scared.”
“I know. Hell, we’re all a little worried. Babies aren’t much of a thing out here.”
“Yeah.” Rachel picked up a dishcloth and twisted it between her fingers.
He watched her wrench it into knots, her grip white-knuckled, before closing his hand over hers. “What’s weighing so heavy on you, honey?”
She didn’t answer at first. Emotion played across her face—anger, hurt, bewilderment—and she whispered, “There’s nothing more important than the brotherhood, is there?”
Ace and Cruz, then. It must seem like that from the outside, like they’d fallen together and left her behind, and the guys would close ranks behind them. Which was true.
To a point.
Cruz was new, but Ace had been around long enough to know what would happen if the O’Kane women decided he’d done Rachel wrong. “You’re forgetting sisterhood.”
“Touché.” She swallowed hard and looked up at him, her gaze bordering on pleading. “What would you do?”
There was no answer he could give that would fix things, and that hurt most of all. “I always do the same thing. Love everyone who crosses my path. Love ’em as much as I can, for as long as they need.” He brushed his thumb over her cheek and tucked a lock of hair back from her face. “You’re not me, honey.”
She leaned in to his touch. “I could be. Is it easier?”
“It’s the easiest thing in the world.” He curled an arm around her and tugged her against his side, a little comfort to soften the truth to come. “But it won’t heal what’s hurting you.”
Rachel poked him. “It’s not so bad. I’m not brooding, or anything. Much,” she added ruefully.
He poked back, throwing in a tickle to make her smile. “Nah, you’re just smashing around and ripping your fingernails off.”
“What do I care, anyway?” Rachel hid her face against his shoulder, belying the defiance of her words. “I’m free. I can do whatever the hell I want.”
“Sure you can. Lord knows it’s a pleasure I’ve enjoyed to its fullest.” He rubbed her back, sliding his fingers along her spine in long, soothing strokes. “You’ve never done that, have you?”
“What? Thrown myself into affairs?”
“Is that what you want?”
“Maybe.” She tilted her head back and met his gaze. “I’m tired of doing things my way. It’s not working.”
The moment was so delicate, and the familiar temptation rose. Rachel was sweet-natured with a delicious edge of sass, and he was as fond of her as he was of all the O’Kane girls. There was an invitation in her eyes, whether she knew it or not, one it would be no hardship to accept.
He knew how to play a good hero. Sweep in and rock her world, and it wouldn’t have to be anything more than the same easy pleasure he’d shared with Trix already that night. Two friends getting each other off.
But she was right. Brotherhood mattered, and Ace was still in love with her.
Smiling, he rubbed his thumb along her jaw. “You’re dancing. That’s new. Have you got anything else you’ve always wanted to try?”
She blinked, the moment dissipating like smoke. “I haven’t decided yet.”
Mad laughed—and put some space between them, just in case. “Well, there’s your first step. Put that big brain to work on figuring it out.”
“Right.” Glass clinked as she lifted another tray and then put it down again. “Did I do something wrong? Did I hurt him somehow? I don’t—” She dug her teeth into her lower lip with a wince. “No, forget it.”
He couldn’t leave that unanswered, brotherhood or no, so he caught her chin. “People always think the broody bastards like Bren are the broken ones, but being tough is how you survive in the sectors. It’s the easygoing ones you have to watch out for, because they’re the ones so scarred up on the inside that they can’t feel, or they’re so far past broken they just don’t care.”
Rachel exhaled on a shaky sigh and reached for him. “Mad…”
He’d revealed too much. He’d only meant to reassure her, but now she was giving him that look, the one he was so desperate to avoid that he’d sworn Dallas and his cousin and every damn person who knew his history to secrecy.
“Uh-uh,” he said lightly, intercepting her hands. “You’ve already got one busted old sector bastard on your plate. Don’t get greedy, love. I’m someone else’s project.”
“It’s not funny.”
It was for him. It had to be. “I know, but laughing at inappropriate things is what I do.”
She relented with a soft smile that quickly turned wicked. “Is that why Trix kicked you out of her bed early?”
“Who says I ever got there?” Relieved that they’d skirted dangerous territory, he threw her a rakish wink before turning to gather up stray liquor bottles. “You’re not the only one who likes to put on a show.”
She laughed, and Mad relaxed, safe in the knowledge that maybe he’d helped a little, and he’d only lied once.
Ace might still have a chance, but Mad had promised himself long ago not to let any woman make him her project. Some scars were too deep for another person to heal, no matter how much they loved you.
He was an O’Kane. That was enough.