From the time he was old enough to understand words, people had been assuring Mad that he was blessed. He was the cosseted grandson of the Prophet, a holy prince adored and anointed by God himself. Everything he wanted should fall into his open hand. It was his destiny to do great things.
For a blessed man, he had terrible timing.
He paused on the threshold of the garage as Scarlet scowled at the broken-down amplifier on the bench in front of her. Shitty timing or not, the sight of her still kicked him in the gut as she pulled the wires away from the circuit board to get a better look.
She was wearing beat up jeans and an even more battered tank top. Her newly blonde hair had a bluish tint and was twisted on top of her head in a messy ponytail. The cigarette dangling from her lips emphasized her frown, which did nothing to diminish her overall impact.
Scarlet was hot. Not in spite of her clothes and her attitude, but because of them. Because Scarlet was unapologetically herself.
And because of who she was—protective, dangerous, stubborn—she was going to be trouble.
He’d hoped to slip out of Sector Four without attracting attention. Dallas had always granted Mad a certain amount of autonomy, a choice driven by politics and cemented by trust, but tonight Mad was treading a line dangerously close to disobedience.
She pulled the cigarette from her mouth without looking up. “Hey.”
“Scarlet.” He pushed off the doorframe and headed for his bike. She sounded distracted, so maybe luck was with him after all. “You’re working late.”
“Amp’s got a short in it. The garage has the best tools, but you have to use them when some motherfucker’s not banging them on an engine.” The soft glow at the tip of her cigarette flared as she took another drag. “What about you?”
“I have an errand to run.” Close enough to the truth.
“Alone?” Scarlet rolled her stool away from the work bench and propped one solid boot on the shelf. Her brows came together in a severe slash over her clear blue eyes as she looked him over. “I thought O’Kane had rules about that these days.”
These days had started the moment Eden tortured one of Dallas’s operatives. Started—or returned. Mad could still remember the early years, when no O’Kane ever ventured out of the compound without a partner to guard his back. Success and relative safety had made them all cocky, careless.
Now wasn’t the time for cocky and careless. Even Mad wasn’t that stupid. “I’m just bending the rules, not breaking them. I’m meeting a friend in Three.”
“Uh-huh.” The corner of her mouth tipped up in a sly smile. “Sure, Saint Adrian.”
The nickname made him tense instinctively, though he preferred the faint mockery in her voice to hearing the words whispered in earnest. “You can’t become a saint until you’re dead, sweetheart. That’s not on my agenda.”
“I bet.” She rose and crossed the garage, passing within inches of him before circling his bike. The proximity sparked heat all over his skin, and her low, husky laugh was even hotter. “Be careful anyway. And if—if—you make it all the way into Sector Two, do me a favor?”
That was the sexiest thing about Scarlet—her clever brain. “It never hurts to ask for a favor.”
“Mmm. Avery Parrino.”
It shouldn’t have surprised him. Avery was Lex’s baby sister, but she was also an old acquaintance of Jade’s. “She’s worried about her?”
“Of course. They’re friends.”
Somehow, Mad thought Jade might worry even if they weren’t. She’d won her freedom from Sector Two, but she still carried the place inside her, the same way Mad carried Sector One. A duty and an obligation. A painful scar.
At least Jade had Scarlet. Protective, dangerous, stubborn Scarlet. Whatever crazy shit was going on with Two, Jade wouldn’t have to face it alone.
“That’s why I’m going,” he said, reaching for his helmet. “We all know there’s trouble over there, and it can blow back on too many of our people. We need to be ready.”
“Spoken like a good little soldier.”
There was the mockery again. It dug under his skin this time, scraping at wounded pride he didn’t want to acknowledge. He was a good soldier. Even damaged and worn down, he held the line for his brothers and got the job done. “You got a problem, Scarlet?”
“A problem? Nah.” She crushed her cigarette out on the sole of one boot and tossed the butt on the work bench. “Just seems like you talk a big game about teamwork and brotherhood, but when you get right down to it? You’re gonna do whatever the fuck you want. You always do.”
She was leaning against the bench again, just a few feet away. He crossed the garage in two long steps that brought him into her personal space. Their bodies almost touched as he leaned past her to jab the switch that opened the big bay door.
Her ponytail brushed his cheek. Her hair smelled like vanilla and cinnamon. Like Jade, and the reminder of their relationship was a distraction Mad couldn’t afford.
He pulled back far enough to get a good grasp on his sanity, then smiled. “I’m gonna do whatever the fuck needs doing. Count on it.”
“You’re offended.” It wasn’t an accusation, just a statement of fact. “I meant it as a compliment, you know. O’Kane doesn’t need a bunch of blind followers. He needs men who can think for themselves.” She brushed a lock of hair back from his cheek. “Men like you.”
Her fingertips were soft. So was her touch, gentle and easy and nothing like his fantasies. And she could not be touching him right now—not with where he had to go and what he had to do tonight.
He caught her wrist and eased it away. “I’ll ask my contacts for news about Avery.”
“Thanks.” She turned away, but he could hear the smile in her voice. “You’re a prince.”
She was back to poking him, but it was almost a relief. The poking and the scratching and even the mockery were easy, safer than soft touches that tempted him to want what he couldn’t have. “Since the day I was born.”
Scarlet ignored him as he swung a leg over his motorcycle. He returned the favor as he shoved his helmet into place and roared out of the garage—maybe faster than was advisable.
He told himself it wasn’t running away if you had someplace to be.
The sector was mostly dark. It only took a few minutes to shoot past the final line of street lamps, and then the only light came from his bike and the moon.
He could still tell when he crossed the invisible border between Four and Three. Sector Four was rough around the edges, but Three was a mess. It had been almost a year since Dallas claimed ownership, but even long hours and determination couldn’t roll back the clock on total destruction.
Once upon a time, Sector Three had been a thriving business hub. An industrial center full of bustling factories that turned out the electronics and technology desperately needed by a civilization trying to drag themselves back from the brink of annihilation. But with raw materials hard to come by, profits were narrow—even when you paid your workers a pittance. And when you stopped paying them at all…
Mad could remember his grandfather talking about the strikes. A noble cause, he’d proclaimed. The people rising up to demand their due. A cause sure to shake Eden to its very foundations.
His grandfather might have been the Prophet, but he had no gift for prophecy. Eden’s foundations had stayed intact. And all eight sectors learned the price of disobedience when the sky filled with fire and Eden’s drones turned Three into rubble.
It remained rubble for more than a decade. None of the petty leaders who had risen to power in the sector had bothered expending time and resources to make things better. When the O’Kanes finally took over, half the roads were still impassable, and some were straight-up death traps.
Progress didn’t happen overnight. It would take years to turn Three around completely and rebuild what had been lost. But for now, at least Mad had a clear path through the sector as he guided his bike north, toward the East Road that marked the boundary between Three and Two.
The road wasn’t the only boundary. Even before the bombing, Sector Two had their wall. Ten feet high and running nearly a mile out, it encircled their paradise and did its best to keep out the undesirables on both sides.
It also did its best to keep girls like Lex’s sister—girls like Jade—inside.
The man waiting on an idling bike in the middle of the East Road was one of the ways those girls got out. Mad pulled to a stop next to him, rested his boots on the cracked pavement, and tugged off his helmet. “Deacon.”
“Mad.” The nickname still tripped clumsily off Deacon’s tongue, like a man speaking a language he’d learned to sound out but didn’t understand.
For good reason. Addressing a member of the Rios family casually approached blasphemy. Deacon might not have been the truest of true believers, but he was high up in the leadership of Sector One, the commander of the sector’s police force, and fiercely loyal to Mad’s cousin, Gideon. And this was why Mad hadn’t brought another O’Kane with him tonight. The way Gideon’s men looked at him—the way they treated him, with a hint of reverence and lingering deference—was too stark a reminder of all the things he’d fled.
But right now he needed Deacon and his connections.
“Another night might be better,” the man said slowly, squinting into the darkness surrounding them. “My friends in Two say security’s thin on the ground these days. Someone must have pissed off the MPs.”
Only one person could irritate Eden’s military police that much—the leader of Sector Two. “Cerys is usually more careful than that.”
“Guess she’s feeling the strain.”
They all were. But if Two had lost the support of the city, Dallas needed to know, and soon. “We can handle any trouble that comes our way.”
For a moment, Mad thought Deacon might argue. But he only bowed his head in submission.
Responsibility was a heavy weight. Sometimes he wasn’t sure how Dallas carried it every day. Mad felt it pressing down on him as they stashed their bikes and headed for the easiest place to slip over the wall.
Deacon went first, launching himself with a half-jump off the bottom of the wall to grip the top of the brick. He pulled himself up with no other leverage, then reached down from his perch atop the wall. Mad sighed and let Deacon haul him up.
They hit the ground on the other side together, their boots digging into the soft grass. The trees lining the river made this the best place to slip in undetected, but by the time they’d eased out of the sparse woods and into the shadows of one of the larger warehouses, Mad realized it didn’t matter.
Security wasn’t just thin. It was absent. So were the people who were usually going about their business, even at this late hour. He and Deacon made it two blocks without encountering anyone, and that was chilling enough to make Mad stop in a sheltered alley with his back against a brick building. “What the hell is going on?”
“No fucking clue.” It must have unnerved Deacon just as much, because he seized the opportunity to check the pistol tucked into his shoulder holster.
The shadows were deep, but Mad’s eyes had adjusted enough to pick out the tattoos winding down Deacon’s left arm. Every man who joined Gideon’s Riders was given the same initiation tattoo on his left shoulder—a sparse, leafless tree growing out of a skull. Deacon’s shirt sleeve hid most of it, but not the little black ravens spilling down toward his wrist, each one signifying a life taken in his quest to protect Sector One.
Gideon was tattooing his men long before O’Kane formed his gang. Maybe Dallas had even been inspired by the memorial tattoos—there was no denying the intimidating impact of a Rider with an arm full of ravens. But Mad preferred the promise of brotherhood inked around his wrists to the silent penance etched into Deacon’s skin.
Too many reminders of why he’d left. His shoulders tight, Mad checked his own pistol. “Let’s go see Lincoln so we can get the hell home.”
They made it only a few blocks before an unmistakable sound drifted out of the darkness—a blade clearing a leather sheath.
Mad spun, but his companion was faster. As the figure rushed from the shadows, Deacon surged in front of Mad. Silver glinted, but Deacon didn’t even grunt as the knife slashed across his chest. He gripped his attacker’s head, whispered something low and unintelligible, and snapped his neck with a vicious twist.
Just like that—in less than a heartbeat—it was over.
“Looks like Three.” Deacon kicked the knife away before kneeling beside the dead man. His jacket had fallen open, revealing a tangle of gold chain, credit sticks, and the occasional jewel. “Must have gotten cocky, with none of the fancy folks fighting back.”
He spoke so casually, as if he wasn’t bleeding from an entirely preventable wound. As if he wouldn’t be going back to Sector One to receive another little black raven tattoo, penance Mad owed for dragging him over the wall to begin with.
Mad retrieved the credit sticks and a couple of pieces of jewelry that looked easy to fence and shoved them in his pocket. Lincoln could use the credits to save a few more lives, to give a few more girls like Jade a chance at a future of their own choosing.
Triage. That was all it ever felt like. But he kept trying, even in the face of relentless hopelessness.
Maybe he was still a Rios at heart after all.
The only bad thing about his new place was how empty it was.
Dylan stood in the center of his new loft and surveyed it critically. It was essentially one giant room—only the bathroom was separate from the rest of the cavernous space. There were no half-walls delineating the kitchen or sleeping areas, just an endless, open room nearly the size of the entire floor.
It wasn’t fancy—nothing in Sector Four outside of Dallas O’Kane’s private bedroom was—but it was entirely livable. Nothing leaked, and only one of the numerous window panes had been broken and repaired with tape instead of replaced. It had endless possibilities. It would be good for entertaining. He could set up weight machines and mats, even a boxing ring, a whole gym right in his living room.
But somehow, as he paced in his bare feet over the scarred wood floor, all Dylan could think was how useful it would be as a morgue. There was plenty of room to lay out bodies, and everything more than six feet away from the fireplace was freezing cold. The only thing missing was the smell—chemicals and disinfectant. Death.
He fumbled with the tin in his pocket. The metal was warm from his body heat, comforting, but not as comforting as the tiny tablet he slipped under his tongue. A half dose, and he mentally tallied them up as the tab dissolved.
One before breakfast. Two after lunch. One just now—four. Only two doses in an entire day. A personal record.
The voice startled him. Not with fear, but with a shiver of heat down his spine. “Mad. I didn’t hear you come in.”
And it was no wonder. The man could move silently when he wished, which was often. He stood just inside the door, dark. So dark. Dressed in black, his motorcycle helmet dangling from one gloved hand.
Dark and haunted. His gaze was blank, but tension bracketed his eyes and showed in his stiff posture. “I know it’s late…”
“No. I’m glad you’re here.” He was just a man, one man, but he filled all the empty space somehow.
Mad crossed to the table and set his helmet down with exaggerated care. “I was in Sector Two tonight.”
That always upset him, but this was something more. Dylan reached for his jacket and eased it off his shoulders. “What happened?”
Underneath, Mad’s shirt stretched tight over tense muscles as he clenched his fists. “One of my cousin’s men was there with me.”
“We were meeting a contact.” Mad rolled his shoulders and didn’t turn. “It was necessary. There’s intel Dallas needs.”
“And you didn’t answer my question.” Dylan threw the jacket across the back of a chair and waited.
Mad knelt down to jerk at the laces on his boots. Disheveled black hair fell across his forehead, hiding his eyes. “I got the job done. Without a fucking scratch on me, because a Rios never has to bleed or kill when there’s a Rider left standing.”
“It’s a good thing I’m not competitive.” Dylan gripped Mad’s forearm and hauled him to his feet. Their faces—their mouths—were only inches apart. “Self-loathing is my thing, not yours.”
Mad took an unsteady breath, and finally something beyond empty blankness sparked to life in his gaze. Heat and hunger and a deeper, darker need. “No, it’s mine,” he whispered hoarsely. “Yours is self-destruction.”
“An excellent point.” There were goose bumps on his arms, and Dylan traced them lightly. “Chilly?”
“Aren’t you?” Mad skated his fingers up Dylan’s arm, then curled them around the back of his neck in a rough grip. “Why do you keep it so fucking cold in here?”
Because he had to feel something, and the cold was safe, easy. He could endure it without having to reach for the tiny tablets of oblivion stashed in his pocket.
Dylan bit back the words. “I was waiting for you to come and warm me up.”
“Liar,” Mad rasped, before cutting off any chance of reply with a brutal kiss.
Some nights were soft and slow, full of long, helpless groans and warmth. Others were like this, sharp bites and indrawn breaths, hard and punishing. Desperate.
Dylan craved them all.
He opened his mouth, seeking the wet heat of Mad’s tongue as they moved toward the bed. No stumbling, because they both knew the way by now. It was second nature to cross the room blindly, too wrapped up in the pleasure of touch to break away.
Mad twisted both hands in Dylan’s T-shirt and jerked, tearing the fabric. Hard fingernails raked over his stomach, higher as Mad’s lips found his ear. “You’re just as bad as the Riders. You’d let me do anything to you.”
“Is that what you want? To ravage me?” He wound his fingers in Mad’s hair, clenched tight, and pulled his head back. “Or do you want to be ravaged? Pinned down and fucked until you forget everything else?”
Mad flexed his hands on Dylan’s shoulders. Still rough, still pushing, but the words that tore out of him were more plea than command. “I want your lips around my cock.”
It pulsed through him, heating his blood. Dylan stripped away his ruined T-shirt and reached for his belt, his gaze fixed on Mad. “Take off your clothes.”
He was as violent with his own clothes as he’d been with the T-shirt. His shirt ended up ripped and discarded. He kicked his boots off without breaking eye contact, then attacked his belt with clumsy hands.
He was shaking by the time he stripped off his pants. He stood there, naked and hungry, and Dylan watched, mesmerized by the play of golden skin and ink over muscle.
He stepped closer. Mad’s cock jutted out, hard and ready, and Dylan soothed him with a single firm stroke. Mad hissed in a breath, but he didn’t resist as Dylan pushed him back onto the bed.
The fireplace was close enough to the bed to cast flickering shadows over Mad’s skin, and Dylan stretched out beside him and gave in to the urge to trace the dancing shadows with his tongue.
“Dylan—” Mad twisted a hand in his hair—tense, as if he wasn’t sure whether to tug his head up or push it down.
“No.” Dylan arched away, relishing the zing of pain when Mad held tight. “You don’t control this. Not tonight.”
Mad closed his eyes and dug his head back against the sheets. “What am I? Self-loathing or self-destruction?”
“Neither.” He was a chance to escape both, if only for a little while, a truth Dylan realized with a jolt. Words wouldn’t do, so he tried to convey it through touch—a kiss to Mad’s collarbone, a slow, leisurely lick over his hip. His hand wrapped around the thick, rigid base of his cock.
Groaning, Mad thrust up into his hand. “Then stop torturing me.”
Torture seemed like a strong word, at least until Dylan squeezed tighter. Mad’s dick throbbed in his hand as a drop of moisture pearled at the tip. He licked it away, teasing more than soothing, and bit back his own groan when the man’s salty, musky flavor spread over his tongue.
“Yes.” Mad’s fingers tightened at the back of his head. “Harder.”
Dylan licked him again, from base to tip, then stopped with his lips only an inch away, so that Mad could feel his breath as he spoke. “I’ll give you what you want, but only if you tell me which one you’re thinking about.”
A snarl vibrated up out of Mad’s chest. “Fuck you, Dylan.”
Yes, fuck me. “Tell me, love.”
This time his groan was pure surrender. “Scarlet. I saw Scarlet tonight.”
Of course. Scarlet and her lover were sexy as hell, and both appealed to Mad—and, if he was being brutally honest with himself, to Dylan, as well. But Jade was softer, sweeter. Lusting after her, longing for her, never seemed to put this vicious edge on Mad’s hunger the way Scarlet did.
Dylan hummed encouragingly and sucked Mad’s dick into his mouth.
Mad’s hips jerked up, and he bit off a curse. “You’re an evil bastard.”
Dylan tightened his hand but lifted his head. “I guess you want me to stop, then.”
“God fucking damn—” The firelight clung lovingly to the muscles in Mad’s arms when he clenched his fists in the blankets. “She smelled like cinnamon and vanilla. She smelled like she’d just crawled out of Jade’s bed.”
The scent was as familiar to Dylan as Mad’s, or as his own. Thinking about it made his balls ache as he turned his attentions back to Mad’s dick and grazed his teeth lightly over the head. “And?”
“And she touched—fuck.” He was trembling already, need and guilt twisting him up so tight he was helpless as Dylan swallowed him deep. “She touched my face. I had her backed up against a bench. I could have fucked her on it.”
Could have—but didn’t. Between the denial and the guilt, no wonder he was so wound up, close to coming even though Dylan had barely touched him.
He didn’t have to prompt anymore. Mad knew this game, and only resisted it with the first touches. He was lost in it now, breathing heavily, his eyes clenched tight. “Fast. Fast and hard. She wouldn’t let me go slow the first time.”
Not a fucking chance. She did everything that way, wide open, and sex would be no exception. Dylan found himself sucking harder, matching the quick rhythm Scarlet would demand.
Mad lifted his hips, pushing deeper as his hand found the back of Dylan’s head again. “I want to hear the sounds she makes. I want to hear—”
Dylan pulled free, but kept his fist pumping over Mad’s cock. “She already has a lover.”
“I know.” Mad’s groan was desperate. “Just like I know her lover’s the one you want in your bed.”
Jade, with her endless curves and her sweet scent. Her haunted eyes. He’d found out by accident—with a murmured, offhand command while she was helping him tend to a patient. But something had flared in her then, a single moment of relief so bright and palpable that it had followed him for weeks.
He wondered if Scarlet ever gave her that subtle, quiet domination. If she even knew Jade needed it.
He leaned up and stared down at Mad, whose dark eyes were full of hesitation now as well as lust. “And Jade wants you. She must. Or don’t you know why Scarlet tries to tempt you?”
It was a line too far—or one temptation too many. Mad upended them in a surge of strong muscles and slammed Dylan back to the bed. He settled astride him, his hands rough and hurried as he dragged open his pants. “This is a twisted fucking game.”
“You get off on it.” Mad’s erection ground against his thigh, still slick from his mouth, and Dylan reached for it.
“Maybe I’m twisted, too.” Mad shifted out of reach, sliding down Dylan’s body, hauling his pants with him. He tossed them off the bed and crawled back up until his mouth hovered over Dylan’s aching cock. “Isn’t that what you like about this?”
“If it helps.” Dylan tangled his fingers in the other man’s hair. Sex was a way to pass the time. Games could be fun or frustrating. But Mad—he was beautiful. He burned with life and righteousness, burned so hot you could feel it even through the anguish and guilt.
Tonight he burned with something else, too. He was determined as he closed his mouth around the head of Dylan’s erection. No teasing, no patience. Just lips and tongue and sucking hard as he worked his way lower.
The drugs could numb Dylan to everything else, but not this. Not the sheer animal pleasure of Mad’s mouth, or the heat of his desire. He welcomed both, let the waves roll over him until he couldn’t stop himself from thrusting up, seeking more.
Mad moved up with him, staying tauntingly out of reach. “Tell me which one you’re thinking about.”
His answer tore free, uncensored. Raw. “You.”
With a groan, Mad surged up his body and claimed his mouth. Hot, deep, his teeth scraping Dylan’s lip as their tongues met, tangled. It was perfect, an intimacy even more gut-wrenching than the man’s mouth on his dick.
Dylan wrapped one arm around Mad’s flexing back, holding him close, and slipped his other hand between them. “Come with me,” he whispered.
Mad’s fingers joined his, warm and eager as they wrapped around Dylan’s shaft. They stroked together, faster and rougher until Mad stiffened and moaned into his mouth. His grip tightened almost painfully, and Dylan followed him into oblivion, coming all over Mad’s belly, his own, and their desperate, grasping hands.
“Fuck.” Panting, Mad pressed his forehead to Dylan’s. “Fucking hell.”
“Stay.” It came from that same raw place, the place where Dylan couldn’t close his eyes without hearing Mad’s quiet voice.
“I shouldn’t,” he replied, the words wrapped in reluctance. “Dallas needs to know what’s happening in Two.”
The fight went out of him, and that was how Dylan knew it was bad. Mad never stopped fighting. “Okay.”
“You deserve this.” Dylan caught his chin and forced him to meet his eyes in the dim light. “One night that’s just yours.”
The smile was slow to come, but it softened Mad’s expression and warmed his gaze. “Will you turn on the damn heat for me?”
“Mmm, for you.” He fumbled for the control on his nightstand and flicked the screen. It took only a few seconds to activate the heating system, and a handful more for the chill in the air to begin to dissipate.
Soon, the loft was as warm as the bed, and Dylan let it wrap around him, blocking out the rest of the world. There was no more suffering, no political maneuvering, just the steady, reassuring thump of Mad’s heart.
It was enough. More than enough. It was everything.
Lex was the only person in the meeting room when Jade arrived, carrying a basket of warm muffins and her tablet. “These are from Lili.” She set the food down in front of the tired looking queen of Sector Four. “She and Jared got in late last night.”
Lex didn’t look up from the map spread across the table—a perfect representation, drawn in Ace’s meticulous hand, of Sector Two. “Did you ever think you’d get out, and then have to spend this much time thinking about that fucking place?”
“No,” Jade admitted, because it was the truth. Getting out and never looking back had been the plan from the first day her mother had returned to Rose House, broken-hearted and slowly dying, with Jade’s tiny hand clutched in hers. Only seven years old, and Jade had already been too aware of how little security life in Sector Two offered.
Too aware, and still not aware enough.
“Eden wants something,” Lex murmured. “They’ve pressed Cerys before, but it’s never gone this far.”
Jade slipped into the chair beside Lex’s and reached for a muffin. “Two years ago was the worst,” she said as she carefully peeled the paper liner from her breakfast. Focusing on the small, meticulous details of the task gave her the distance to keep her voice flat. “Eden cut our network connection for two weeks, until Cerys agreed to…compromise on their request.”
“What did they want that time? More money, or more girls?”
It was always one or the other. “More girls. The second tier bureaucrats wanted the same quality of free companionship that the Council enjoyed.” They wanted her, or other girls like her. And Jade had been forced to watch, sick with dread, as girls without her emotional protections were marched into Eden like lambs sent to nothing as merciful as a quick slaughter.
“Of course they did.” Lex’s chair screeched over the floor as she pushed it back and rose. “Cerys managed to keep that quiet. The fact that we’re hearing so much shit now has me worried.”
“Cerys had more control two years ago.” The muffin smelled delicious, but Jade’s stomach was too unsettled to eat. She set it down and looked up at Lex instead. “How many girls have left now besides me, besides Mia? Cerys keeps her power because of the secrets her girls collect, and there are fewer left who can do the job than ever before.”
“Maybe. But Two’s real security has always run deeper.” Lex stabbed one deep red fingernail down on the map, right on the checkpoint coming out of the city. “It’s a little bit of Eden out in the sectors.”
“It was,” said a low voice from the door. Dallas stepped into the room, his expression grim, but it was the man behind him who made Jade’s pulse stutter.
Adrian Maddox was a beautiful man by the standards of almost any time period. Jade recognized that the same way she objectively recognized her own attractiveness. Classic bone structure, symmetry of features—meaningless things they’d both been born with. They even shared similar coloring—black hair, brown eyes, brown skin, though Mad’s was lighter than her own, and so much of it was covered in vivid, beautiful ink.
His beauty wasn’t what made her heart skip. It was the look in those deep brown eyes when their gazes clashed, the intensity that burned there, the hunger he tried to fight.
So much heat. Subjective. Personal.
After only a moment, he looked away, reminding her that his desire for her could never overcome the shame he felt for wanting her. It had been that way from the beginning, and it still had the same devastating impact on her.
Stiffening her spine, she shifted her attention to Dallas. He wasn’t classically beautiful, but he had the sort of presence you couldn’t teach, the kind that came from knowing your own power, owning your place in the world.
“Was?” Lex asked expectantly.
Dallas tilted his head toward Mad, who nodded slowly. “Security has been pulled from Sector Two. All of it.”
Ice filled Jade’s veins. “The military police are gone?”
“Seems like.” Dallas took a seat. “They’re squeezing Cerys hard. What would keep her fighting like this?”
Lex stared blindly, her hands on her hips, her expression torn between anger and amusement. “What else? Her own power.”
Raw truth. Jade’s own body was proof of that. Long months of recovery had returned her appetite, and the face she looked at in the mirror was almost hers again. Not starved and gaunt, not lined in pain. But the shadows were there, in her eyes and in the occasional hollow ache inside her. One mistake in judgment had almost killed her—the mistake of overestimating her value to Cerys.
Cerys would sacrifice anyone if the price was right. “She’d give them money or girls—”
Lex cut in viciously. “But she’ll never give them Sector Two.”
No, that was the twisted morality—or simple vanity—at Cerys’s core. She could have tolerated handing her empire over to Lex because she still harbored the delusion that she’d been responsible for the powerful woman Lex had become—and the even greater delusion that Lex would someday embrace her for it. But she’d never give it to a man.
“The sector’s locked down.” Mad braced his fists on the table, his gaze riveted to the map. “A few opportunists jumped the wall from Three, and no one’s even bothering to chase them out.”
“Everyone with half a brain will be hiding in their safe rooms until this blows over.” Lex leaned over the table and frowned. “The city will have to give. Cerys won’t. Not this time.”
“They need Two.” Dallas traced his fingertip over the outlines of the buildings just inside the far edge of the wall. Warehouses, mostly, full of treasures from other cities. That was the lifeblood and necessity of Two—the willingness of its men to take risks and their skill at forging connections. As valuable as Jade had been to Cerys personally, the secrets she’d coaxed from a councilman were nothing compared to consistent trade.
“They want Two,” she corrected softly. “The Council’s weakness has always been their inability to make the distinction between need and want.”
Dallas acknowledged her words with a rough laugh. “They’ve never had to learn there is a distinction.”
Because no one had the power to teach them that harsh lesson. Not even Dallas. “Lex is right. Cerys would burn Two to the ground before handing them the keys.”
“I almost wish she would.” Lex sank back into her chair and pinched the bridge of her nose.
“I know, darling.” Dallas dragged her closer and dropped an arm around her shoulders. His lips found her temple in a soft kiss so tenderly intimate, Jade averted her gaze.
She found Mad doing the same, and that only made it worse. She didn’t want to share someone else’s intimacy with him. She didn’t want to watch the fantasy come to life in his eyes, to know he was imagining holding her, touching her, kissing her—
Gently and softly. That’s what he’d expect—no, demand from her. A fragile, fractured creature who trembled and shook. A woman who was broken because bad people had hurt her. Who needed a savior, not a man.
Sometimes, she wondered what would be worse—giving in and playing the victim just for the chance to have him once…or watching him bolt when he discovered her spine had always been more steel than spun glass.
In her darkest moments, she didn’t care how much it would hurt to pretend.
She forced her attention back to Dallas and Lex. “Lili said Jared was going to meet up with you. Have they heard anything about the situation in Two?”
“Not a goddamn whisper.” Dallas eased away from Lex but kept his arm around her. “Even Markovic’s got nothing. Or if he does, he’s not sharing.”
“The silence goes both ways,” Lex agreed. “Cerys doesn’t want anyone to know she’s being pressured, and Eden doesn’t want anyone to know they can’t make her buckle.”
Dallas nodded. “Cerys is running short of friends on both sides of the wall. She relied too heavily on advantages she doesn’t have anymore.”
Mad flinched. Jade refused to. “You mean she relied too heavily on my ability to sway Gareth Woods.” She offered Lex a tight smile. “I hope you don’t mind that I got all the credit for his death.”
“As long as he’s dead, honey. That’s all I give a sun-toasted shit about.”
In that, Jade fervently agreed with her. For seven endless years, she’d played whatever games necessary to keep Councilman Gareth Woods addicted to her presence. One hundred and seventy-eight alternating weekends. She’d given him innocence and fear, she’d given him wide-eyed sexual awakening. Sometimes she’d given him pain—or had taken it in return.
One hundred and seventy-eight times—and for the first one hundred and sixty-five, she’d held him in the palm of her hand. Her eager, willing victim, blind to how deftly she coaxed free his secrets or nudged his opinions to align with Cerys’s best interests.
The most foolish thing Cerys had ever done was take away her control.
Remembering Gareth Woods didn’t hurt. Not as much as the memory of the drugs he’d given her, drugs that had shifted their balance of power. Even nearly dying while she shuddered through withdrawal was less painful to recall than the six horrifying months when her will had not been her own.
Just the thought constricted the room around her, and maybe her spine wasn’t steel after all. She reached for her tablet and rose. “I have to meet Scarlet. I’ll check in later to see if you need anything, Lex.”
She refused to look at the men as she turned and walked—walked, not fled—to the door. It didn’t help. She heard the soft footsteps behind her before she made it to the end of the hall, and she knew it was him. She felt him all along her skin, an unwelcome tingle when she needed peace.
Mad’s fingers closed on her shoulder, and she spun quickly enough to jerk away from his touch. He stood, frozen, his hand still in the air, and it was the look in those beautiful brown eyes that snapped her self-control.
Wary. Cautious. Like she was a skittish creature he was trying not to startle.
Jade stepped closer, into his personal space. So close that she had to tilt her head back to meet his eyes, and that was the point. To make him feel big, to make him feel dominant.
To make him feel guilty, because he was already imagining her sliding down the front of his body. And she did, running her fingers along the outsides of his legs as she sank gracefully to her knees. “Is this what you want, Mad?”
If lust had been the only thing filling his eyes, she might have eased open his pants and taken him between her lips right there. She could already taste him, salty and warm, could imagine the noises he’d make as she took him deep and made him come.
And then, with the taste of him on her tongue, she’d have to listen to his self-recrimination and apologies.
She wrapped her fingers around the hilt of his boot knife. And when he dragged her back to her feet, the denial already forming on his lips, she twisted her wrist and rested the tip against his balls.
His eyes went wide. “Jade—”
“No,” she said, letting the chill of anger fill her voice. “I’m done being treated like some broken toy you wish you didn’t want to play with.”
His fingers tightened on her shoulders. “I’m not—”
She pressed a little harder, and he stopped. Good, at least he wasn’t stupid.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he said instead.
She hated the earnestness in his voice. It threatened to shake her resolve, because he meant so well. But his well-meaning solicitousness was killing her. “I spent seven years keeping a psychopath wrapped around my little finger. If you think you present a challenge after that, your ego is even bigger than your cock, and I’m happy to trim either for you.”
Mad’s chest heaved. Something dark flashed behind his eyes. He leaned in, even with the knife precariously close to his balls, and his warm breath danced over her lips. “I still don’t want to hurt you.”
“You can’t,” she lied.
He didn’t challenge her. No, he did something so much worse.
He kissed her.
It didn’t seem real at first. The softness of his mouth on hers, the sweetness of the contact. So careful, so restrained, but she couldn’t blame it on his reticence this time. Not when she was holding a knife to pieces of him he’d rather not lose.
It was his tongue that undid her. The tiniest lick across her lower lip, as if he was testing her, tasting her, and her hand trembled. She’d shown him her spine, steel and all, and she wasn’t prepared for his response.
She dropped her so she wouldn’t cut him, and he rewarded her by cradling the back of her head, his strong fingers splaying wide as he tried to deepen the kiss.
It was the memory of Scarlet that had her pressing her lips together and turning her face. His mouth ended up on her jaw instead, and that was even worse. His teeth teased over her skin in the faintest of nips, and pleasure tingled all the way to her toes.
“I have to go,” she whispered. “Scarlet is waiting for me.”
“I know.” Mad released her, letting his fingers slide through her hair before stepping back. “She asked me to check on Avery for you. Her patron’s house is locked down, but secure.”
To Mad or Scarlet, that might mean safe. Neither of them would understand that the greatest danger to Avery had always lived within the four walls of the estate—and within her own heart.
That, at least, was a vulnerability Jade never intended to share.