After nine months of rebuilding and weeks of planning, Dallas did his final walkthrough of the new Broken Circle alone.
Most of the others had scattered for the final couple of hours before the official opening. Over in the barracks, makeup was being applied, and silk and leather donned like pieces of armor. Tonight, the O’Kanes would be on display like never before. The triumphant heroes of war. The indomitable, undefeatable hedonists. The demons who lurked just beyond what was left of the wall encircling Eden—demons that brave souls could venture forth and see firsthand, if they dared.
Tonight, Dallas expected a lot of people to dare.
The bar gleamed just the right amount as he ran his hand over it. The wood had been polished to a glossy shine, but beneath the shine were scratches and dents, signs of hard living and rough handling. He’d won that battle with his contractors, demanding recycled materials with a familiar edge of grit instead of new and shiny.
They could drag him into Eden and make him sit on their fancy fucking councils, but Dallas had no intention of letting the city tame him. His hard edges would always be proudly on display—a reminder and a warning.
Tables clustered around the new dance floor, surrounded by sturdy but mismatched chairs. The VIP booths had expanded to accommodate his growing family, and it didn’t take much imagination to envision a hundred nights to come, with everyone gathered around him, laughing and drinking and teasing.
Living. Because what the fuck good was money if you couldn’t enjoy it?
He heard footsteps only a moment before Cruz stepped through the door marked STAFF ONLY. “It’s done,” he said. “Jas and Zan already left to get ready. I’ll head out, too, if you don’t need anything else.”
“I’m good,” Dallas assured him. Cruz inclined his head, still so very serious, and disappeared back down the hallway.
Dallas took one last look around the empty main room and smiled. They were ready to write the next chapter in the legend of the O’Kanes.
And he was ready to revisit the first.
The staff hallway was lined with offices. Noelle had her own now. So did Noah, a claustrophobic room filled with computers and wires and so much tech it gave Dallas a headache.
But the largest office by far was his own, marked by a solid oak door at the end of the hall. Ace had burned the O’Kane logo into the wood before staining it a deep brown, and when Dallas pushed it open he exhaled with a sigh of pleasure.
His desk matched the door, and so did most of the furniture, done in dark woods and luxurious leather. A round table with six chairs sat on one side, enough room for a friendly game of poker or a quick strategy session over a meal. The couch on the opposite side of the room faced a stone hearth with wood stacked inside, just waiting for a romantic fire. And there were plenty of plush pillows on the expensive rug, enough to cushion Lex’s body when he stretched her out in front of the flames and took his time.
There was even a cabinet on one wall with leather cuffs and silver chains and shelves waiting for all the other little toys he might collect. He had a lot of possibilities in mind.
But the prize was behind his desk, rescued in secret and restored at an expense so extravagant that the first crafter had looked at him like maybe his injuries during the war had damaged his brain.
No one who looked at it could understand why a battered old safe had been worth the effort of digging it out of the rubble of the original Broken Circle and lovingly, carefully repairing it.
No one who hadn’t been there that night…
Six Years Ago…
There was a broken spring digging into his back.
Dallas shifted his weight on the sad, sagging mattress and chided himself for getting soft. Sure, the bed was a piece of shit, but he had a bed, which was a vast improvement in his general living conditions. When he’d first landed in the sectors, he’d slept on naked cement more nights than not, and had considered himself lucky to be under a roof. It was more than a lot of people had in the crap-heap of Sector Four.
But that fucking spring was driving him nuts.
Sighing, Dallas rolled upright and swung his feet over the edge of the bed. His boots were right where he’d left them, ready for him to shove his feet into them at the first sign of danger. He tugged them on and retrieved his shirt from the floor.
If he couldn’t sleep, he might as well make his nightly check of the stills.
The spring was a temporary annoyance. So was the hole in his jeans, the worn sole on his left boot, and the irritating squeak the door gave as he pulled it open. They were all leaving lean right now, trimmed down to the barest of essentials. The payday from their first quality batch of rum may have filled his pockets, but Dallas wasn’t about to blow that cash on meaningless luxury.
Dallas O’Kane had a goddamn plan.
The warehouse was silent and dark except for the hum of the generators that kept the stills and vats running, but the dials and displays and indicator lights provided enough illumination for Dallas to navigate the metal staircase down to the first floor. Ace always claimed the glow from the equipment cast the cavernous space in hellish reds and menacing shadows, but Dallas liked the eerie effect.
Lights meant they were in business. Business meant money. Money meant power.
Dallas navigated the crates of liquor branded with his newly designed logo with a swell of satisfied pride.
Ace hadn’t been the obvious choice for a man looking for hardened recruits to build his gang’s reputation. Sure, Ace could throw a punch when he needed to—and he was even deadlier with his guns—but Dallas could have found a dozen hulking street toughs to fill out his growing army. It wasn’t enough. Intimidating fellow criminals would only get Dallas so far.
True business dominance was going to be about branding. And Ace wasn’t just an artistic genius. He’d also banged the wives of half of the fancy fuckers running Eden during his brief but illustrious career as an extremely expensive hooker. Ace knew how to get the rich assholes in Eden to open their wallets.
Dallas planned to clean those wallets out.
Checking the stills didn’t take long. Everything was running smoothly, churning out subpar moonshine—hopefully their very last batch of it. Everything was about to change.
He stopped in front of the door to his office. Most nights after he checked the stills, he spent the next few hours locked in there, drawing up plans for the future, guessing at yields and prices, trying to make the math work faster. But he didn’t have the patience for numbers tonight, not with nervous anticipation buzzing through him. He could go out back and build crates, maybe. Burn through some of this extra energy.
Or he could grab his jacket and head out into the sector, find a better way to burn through it. Maybe not a fistfight—Bren and Jas would never forgive him if he went out and got into a fight without them—but the pretty black-market dealer who supplied their liquor bottles had been dropping hints along with her shipments for the last few weeks. A good, enthusiastic fuck might clear his head.
And he’d bet her bed didn’t have any broken springs in it.
Eager now that he’d made his decision, Dallas took the stairs back to the second floor two at a time and swung open the door to his bedroom—
All of his warm feelings fizzled.
His safe was open. And a thief had her fucking arm elbow deep in it.
She froze, then slowly turned to face him. “Well. This is awkward.”
It was sure the fuck something, but he didn’t know if awkward covered it. He hit the light switch next to the door and squinted at his intruder through the sudden brightness. The woman looked all of twenty-five—probably not even that—and woefully out of place in his shitty little bedroom.
Because she was stunning. Not pretty, not hot, not even of this fucking world. Her dark brown eyes watched him with amusement, like he was a curiosity in some traveling circus, and her full, perfect lips looked poised to smile.
He’d bet men had killed each other to earn that smile.
Yeah, no doubt about it. This one made men stupid. Dallas refused to fall for it. “It’d probably get less awkward if you took your damn hand out of my safe.”
“Right.” She complied, still moving carefully, like she was trying not to spook a wild animal. She rose and stood there, both hands raised. “I surrender.”
She said it low. A little sultry. Dallas couldn’t tell if that was just her voice, or if she knew what the word surrender could do to a man when she wrapped her lips around it all soft and loving.
Either way, he raised his estimation of her danger level another few notches. “Somehow I doubt it.”
She displayed her empty hands. “I didn’t take anything.”
He let his gaze slide from her hands down her body, which was clad in black, skin-tight clothing. The curves were killer—even beneath her jacket, he could tell her tits were amazing—but Dallas’s attention lingered on the sleek muscles. Her obvious strength.
If he got close enough to pat her down, she might try to murder him.
That shouldn’t be hot.
He jerked his chin at her. “Take off the jacket.”
With a quirk of one eyebrow, she obeyed. Except obey wasn’t even the right word. She made it look like it had been her idea all along as she peeled off the scuffed leather and held it out. When he reached for it, she dropped it on the floor.
So much for his intimidating bootlegger presence. Scowling at her, Dallas bent to snatch the jacket off the floor and rifled through the pockets. After coming up empty, he tossed it onto the rickety table beside his safe. “You know I’m gonna have to check you, too, right?”
“By all means.”
She was still looking at him like she was an amusing bug she hadn’t decided whether or not to swat, but when he stepped closer, her muscles tensed, and her gaze flickered toward his bed.
Perversely, that irritated him. Her brazen lack of fear might be a little damaging to his ego, but he didn’t like the way she stiffened as his hands touched her shoulders. Like she was waiting for him to slide his hands all sorts of places they didn’t need to go. Like he was the fucking bad guy here.
As if he needed to grope an unwilling woman. “Cut it out,” he muttered as he patted his way down her sides and over her hips. “Your tits are nice, darling, but I can get better without all the backtalk.”
She stifled a yawn.
Impertinent little bitch. He would not smile. He kept up his grumbling as he checked the waistband of her pants and down her legs. Strong legs—he’d have to remember not to let her kick him anywhere sensitive. Because when he glanced up at her eyes, the fire burning there made it clear she was envisioning the heel of her boot crushing his balls.
He almost avoided her tits entirely, but a slight bulge between them ruined the line of her shirt. When he slid his fingers over it, he knew exactly what she’d pinched.
Without releasing her gaze, he dipped his fingers under the neckline of her shirt and came out with a rolled up wad of cash—the entire payroll he owed his boys. “Didn’t take anything, huh?”
She flashed him a disbelieving look. “You caught me burglarizing your bedroom, and you’re surprised that I lied?”
“Honor among thieves, darling.” He tucked the cash into his pocket and reached for her coat. Being this close to her was dangerous. After all, he’d lied too—he was pretty sure better didn’t exist inside the sectors or anywhere else. And his body was taking a distinct interest in making him stupid. “Get your ass out of here, and don’t come back. I won’t be nice next time.”
Her fingers brushed his as she took her jacket, and she smiled. “You’re going to miss me when I’m gone.”
“Probably,” he agreed with his most dangerous smile. He’d sent criminals scurrying for cover with it, but she just kept grinning. “I do love crazy things that’ll most likely get me killed.”
She edged past him, nudging his shoulder with hers, and slipped through the door. “See you around, O’Kane.”
She vanished into the darkness, and Dallas followed just far enough to make sure she really did leave the warehouse. The last thing he needed was her trying to pull another job—they still hadn’t managed to smooth the Special Tasks edges off Bren, who was likely to pull the trigger on an intruder before he even woke all the way up.
It would be a shame for that face to end up shot.
When Dallas got back to his bedroom, his safe was still hanging open. He crouched down in front of it and tossed the roll of cash back in on top of a stack of files and recipes and plans.
Then he froze.
Even with the lights on, the room was dim, and the shadows were deep. He slid his hand into the safe and felt around every fucking inch of it, inside and under the paperwork and around the edges in case it had gotten knocked aside.
The credit stick was gone. Their entire fortune from the rum, all those carefully squirreled away credits, all the sacrifice, all the shitty nights on his lumpy mattress, staring at the ceiling…
He was meeting the rep from the illegal farm in three days. This shipment of grain was supposed to be the one—the good stuff. The first batch of high quality whiskey. Their future.
And that bitch had stolen the payment.
»»» § «««
Lex didn’t slow down until she made it back to Sector Three.
She felt naked, unnerved not only by getting caught like a fucking amateur, but by the encounter that had followed. She was painfully aware of the stolen item she’d hidden in her left boot, and the urge to go to ground as quickly as possible almost overwhelmed her. She forced herself to be smart instead. She took a winding, circuitous route back to her apartment, doubling back once or twice, primed to run at the first hint of trouble.
But there wasn’t any, a rare goddamn occurrence in Three. She had to dodge a few drunks and a couple of roving gangs of assholes looking for trouble, but she could do that in her sleep. She slipped past them, finally reaching the pitted brick façade of her building.
No electricity tonight. The landlord turned it off whenever someone hadn’t paid their rent, and there was always someone who hadn’t paid their rent. Still, intermittent power was better than none at all, and the place was solid, relatively speaking. It had walls and a roof, and that was more than many tenements on the block could boast.
Lex hurried up the stairs and finally—finally—bolted the door behind her, and she could breathe again.
Shake it off, Parrino.
She lit a battery-operated lamp and peeled off her clothes. When she’d laid them carefully over the back of her chair, she regarded her prize.
The tiny credit stick didn’t look like much, but they never did. That was the beauty of them, part of the gamble. What was on it? It could be barely enough for a meal or two at the grubby cafeteria down the street—or it could be thousands, so much she’d have to launder it through a broker so O’Kane couldn’t trace it back to her.
She stretched out on her bed, flipping the credit stick between her fingers. Dallas O’Kane already had a reputation. He was smart, ruthless, with a growing number of dedicated members in his organization. Not someone you wanted to cross, because he didn’t need his men to handle his shit for him. If he wanted you dead, he’d pull the trigger himself.
The thought set off a flutter in her belly. He could have killed her tonight. He should have. The fact that he hadn’t even hurt her was…incongruous. And it made her curious. Suddenly, she caught herself remembering all the other words people had used to describe him—determined, stubborn, capable.
Words that would make him damn good in bed.
Groaning, she squashed that thought and reached for her handheld scanner. Even if she wanted to see him again, it would be suicide now. She’d made it out of his place unharmed, but once he figured out she’d robbed him, after all…
No one’s luck lasted forever. Not even hers.
Lex slid the stick into the reader and almost dropped the whole damn thing. Because the number that came up on the display wasn’t just enough to buy a meal at the cafeteria, it was enough to buy the cafeteria. A preposterous number of zeroes stared up at her. Stunned, she stared back.
A knock on the door kicked her heart into her throat. Her hand was already on the loaded pistol tucked under her pillow before she realized that O’Kane’s men would have just broken the damn thing down. “Who is it?”
“It’s me, Rosemary.”
Lex hid the scanner beneath the pillow, right next to her gun, and slipped from the bed. She paused to haul an oversized T-shirt over her head, then listened for a moment at the door.
If anyone else was out there besides the kid who lived down the hall, they weren’t making a sound.
She pulled open the door, and Rosemary greeted her with a strained smile. “Hi.”
“Hey.” Maybe she should have brought the gun, after all. Maybe someone had come by already, asking questions. “What’s up?”
“I was wondering—” The girl shifted nervously, and Lex’s grip tightened on the edge of the door. “Do you have any spare candles? For Benny.”
The girl’s baby brother was a ball of fearless energy, with one exception—the dark. “Bad night?”
“Yeah. I tried singing to him, but it’s not working. Nothing is.”
Lex relaxed her hold on the door and stepped back. She’d let Dallas O’Kane—and all the goddamn zeroes on his credit stick—into her head, and now she was jumping at shadows. And harmless teenage girls. “Come in.”
“Thanks.” She closed the door behind her. “I’m sorry to drop in like this, but I saw the light under your door—”
“It’s fine.” Lex knelt to rummage through the cupboard beneath the sink in what passed for a kitchen, though it was really just a section that had been curtained off from the main room. “Is your mom at work?”
“Have you two eaten?”
“Yeah.” Rosemary shrugged helplessly. “It’s just…the dark.”
No candles. Lex swallowed a sigh and reached for her battery-operated lamp. “Here, take this.”
The girl hesitated. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. I’m going to bed anyway, and your mom can bring it back tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Lex.” The girl’s eyes shone in the lamplight, and she kept murmuring her thanks for a solid minute-and-a-half, until Lex gently reminded her that her kid brother was waiting.
With the door locked firmly behind Rosemary, Lex climbed back into her bed. For a long time, she sat there in the darkness, her knees drawn up to her chest. Then she retrieved the scanner and activated it again. The screen cast a soft blue glow over the room—and silently damned her with the numbers it displayed.
She hadn’t just stolen from Dallas O’Kane. She had, quite possibly, ruined his life.
»»» § «««
When Dallas needed a job done competently, efficiently, and with a minimum of fuss, he called Jasper.
When Dallas needed advice on dealing with the viper pit that was Eden and its surrounding sectors, he called Bren and Mad—and usually got an earful.
A loud, opposing-viewpoints earful.
“She doesn’t matter,” Mad said firmly, leaning forward in his chair. His wavy black hair and earnest brown eyes complemented a face that skated the line between handsome and beautiful—but Dallas knew that all of the man’s smiles and friendliness masked a bone-deep darkness. “Whoever she was, she’s long gone. Our focus has to be the meeting. If we don’t show up with money in hand, this opportunity is gone.”
“She does matter,” Bren argued. “Symbolically, if nothing else. People need to know what happens when you fuck with O’Kane.” He turned to Dallas. “I can find her.”
No doubt that was true. Bren had been trained by the scary motherfuckers inside Eden, the shiny, terrifying city that lorded over the sectors like some ancient king walled away from the unwashed masses. As a former Special Tasks soldier, he’d been trained to find a criminal needle in a haystack made of thieves and drunks and murderers.
That didn’t mean he could do it in time. “We’ve got what, seventy-two hours? That’s not long enough.”
“But I can give it a shot. And you and Mad can be working on something else in the meantime.”
“I can get the money—”
“No.” Dallas cut Mad off before he could finish his offer. “I don’t want a loan from your godly cousin.”
“It wouldn’t be a loan,” Mad protested. “Gideon has always said I can claim my inheritance at any time. It would be more than enough to pay for the shipment. Supplies, too.”
What a simple solution that would be. Mad’s cousin ran Sector One like an honest-to-God cult leader, and he had the wealth that went with it. The high and mighty Gideon Rios probably had the cash Dallas needed stuffed between his fucking couch cushions.
If Dallas asked, Mad would do it. Return to the sector he’d fled, dive back into the complicated tangle of noble families and family pressure. It would hurt him in ways Dallas still didn’t fully understand—but it would hurt. No one turned their back on princely luxury in this world without a whole lot of pain.
But if they didn’t get their hands on this money, everyone would be hurting.
“Maybe I can help.”
That voice was branded on his brain. Husky and low. He spun toward the door, and even with wild rage whipping through him, he couldn’t not appreciate the way she looked.
Jeans hugged her curves, riding low on her hips. Her black top was cut deep enough to show off tits that were, indeed, spectacular.
Bren moved. In what seemed like the span of a heartbeat, he had her hands pinned above her head and one forearm across her throat. “This is her?”
The woman stared back at him mildly, like he wasn’t within an inch of crushing her windpipe. “Do you mind?”
“Yeah, I kinda do.”
“Bren.” Dallas forced himself to relax back into his chair, echoing her casual demeanor. “I thought the doors were locked.”
“They are.” He leaned in, forcing her chin up until she winced. “Which means she broke in. Again.”
“Bren.” Dallas wrapped his fingers around the edge of his desk. “Let’s hear her out before we choke her, yeah?”
He wasn’t happy about it. His displeasure was written in every tense line of his body, and it took him a moment longer than it should have to release her and step back, both hands raised.
Warily, she approached the desk. But when she reached it, she stopped and turned her head, not quite looking back at Bren and Mad.
Waiting for Dallas to dismiss them.
It was stupid as hell. She’d already played him once. But he liked to think all of his brains weren’t in his dick—and Bren’s volatile presence would increase the likelihood of this going sideways. “You guys go check the security. Figure out how to improve it.”
Bren wanted to argue. He started to, then snapped his mouth shut. Mad rose from his seat, quietly obedient, and snagged him by the arm. “C’mon. I’ve been wanting to upgrade the door locks for a while.”
Mad got Bren out the door, and when it clicked softly behind them, Dallas transferred his gaze to the thief. “Darling, your survival instincts could use some work.”
“Tell me about it.” She shoved her hands in her back pockets. “And my name isn’t darling. It’s Lex.”
“Lex.” It suited her. Short and to the point, but if he wanted to wrap his drawl around it, he could drag it out nice and slow. “I’m Dallas O’Kane. And I believe you were about to tell me why I shouldn’t let my angry, ex-Special Tasks soldier kill you?”
“Actually, no. I don’t have a good reason why you shouldn’t.” She leaned closer. “I just came to bring this back.”
His precious credit stick clattered softly on his desk, and for a few moments, he wondered if he was wrong. Maybe his brains were in his dick, because they sure as fuck must have vacated his head.
This made not a damn bit of sense.
Without taking his eyes from her, he jerked open his side drawer and found his scanner by touch. It beeped after he slid the stick in, and he had to look down to read the number on the screen.
It was all there. Every last credit. A fortune.
This lady was fucking insane.
“Sorry for the hassle.” She took a step back. “You won’t see me again. That’s a promise.”
“Wait.” He slipped the credit stick free and into his pocket—the thing wasn’t leaving his direct possession again until he handed it over in exchange for his grain—and tossed the reader aside. “Why’d you bring it back?”
“Does it matter?”
“Honestly? I’m not sure.” She blew out a breath. “It was more than I’d planned to take. Or I’ve just lost my damn mind.”
It had to be more than that. “So you’re a thief with a conscience,” he drawled, letting his disbelief color his words. “Lucky me.”
Her eyes flashed. “I don’t take things from people who can’t stand to lose them. And this—” With another sigh, this one almost frustrated, she ran her fingers through her hair. “You know what? You have your money back. You don’t get to know what I’m thinking, too.”
“Fine.” He turned and retrieved a bottle from the shelf behind him—Nessa’s first batch of really good rum. The glasses sitting next to it were smudged, and one had a chip on it, but they were good enough for this. Spinning his chair back around, he set them on the desk and poured two drinks. “Let’s talk business.”
“Business,” she echoed flatly.
“You don’t steal from people who can’t stand to lose the shit.” He pushed the glass without the chip across the desk toward her. “I assume that means you’re okay stealing from the assholes who can. I have a few of those I’d love to rob.”
“Uh-huh.” She nudged the glass aside and bent over his desk, stretching out until her breasts were pressed to all his sales projections and her fingers wrapped around the edge closest to him. “What if I want to talk about something else?”
That shirt wasn’t hiding a damn thing. He could ponder the magnificence of her tits at his leisure now—and that might be safer than imagining what the view was like from the other side. Her denim-encased ass waving in the air, practically begging for him to grab on and—
He peeled her fingers off his desk one at a time and then prodded her shoulder. “Don’t even try it, darling. You might be real good at getting my dick hard, but I’m not stupid enough to stick it in you. God only knows what you’ll leave with next time.”
“And here I was, thinking that was part of the fun.” She straightened with a shrug and reached for the rum. “Oh, well. Your loss. Mine too, I bet.” She licked the rim of the glass, then tossed back the liquor.
Dallas knocked back his own rum, and the warm burn of it didn’t help a damn thing. His body wanted what it wanted—but Dallas O’Kane hadn’t gotten this far by giving in to anyone or anything. Even his own painful erection. “Business,” he repeated. “I need a chemical printer. I haven’t been able to find one for less than a couple years’ earnings. Think you can help me out?”
“Sure.” Her empty glass hit the desk with a thud. “For a price.”
“Nothing’s free, darling. What do you want?”
“I haven’t decided yet, but I’ll let you know.” She flicked the glass with her fingernail. “It’s good stuff.”
“It’s passable.” He lifted the bottle and swirled the liquor inside it. Nessa had done a good job, proving herself a tiny copy of her brilliant grandfather, but even they couldn’t turn cheap shit into liquid gold. “That credstick you brought back is gonna buy us what we need to make some real liquor. Then I’ll show you good.”
“Can’t wait.” She wandered toward the door, tossing a wave back over her shoulder. “I’ll be back when I have your printer.”
He tried not to watch her ass. He really tried. But she was rolling it like she wanted him to know just what he’d missed, and he really hated his dick. Or his dick hated him.
Fuck, there wasn’t enough blood left in his brain to be sure.
“Get out of here,” he growled. It was a good growl, his intimidating one. And Lex just laughed, strutting out of his office like she owned it, and him, and the warehouse besides.
Fuck, she was going to be trouble.
Fuck, she was going to be fun.
* * *