The monthly meeting of Sector Four’s merchants was going about as well as Tatiana expected, which was a bad sign. Life in the sectors had taught her to lower her expectations bit by bit until her bar for decent behavior ended up in the dirt.
That didn’t stop people from digging under it.
Holding the shovel today was Wallace, a morality-impaired smuggler turned trader. He’d been digging himself into holes since he’d claimed Walt Misham’s spot in the market and the sheen of respectability that came with it. Stupid, but not unusual. Criminals who climbed too high got greedy, and greedy criminals got dumb. A dangerous problem, but self-correcting. In Sector Four, getting dumb usually got you dead.
Wallace’s inevitable demise wouldn’t have bothered Tatiana at all if her baby sister hadn’t decided to fall cross-eyed in love with him.
“It isn’t right,” he was saying. “O’Kane gets in some kind of sector war, smashes up half the market district, and who has to clean it up? Not him, that’s for damn sure.”
A few people muttered agreement. Halfway around the circle of chairs, Pam tilted her head slightly, her gaze picking out each person, probably memorizing the grumbles. The O’Kanes’ new office assistant stopped by Pam’s coffee cart every morning for cinnamon rolls and gossip, so chances were good that every word they uttered would be repeated to Dallas O’Kane by noon tomorrow.
That was why Tatiana kept her mouth shut. Hell, sometimes she didn’t even go to the meetings. But it had been her turn to host the gathering, squeezing as many extra chairs as possible into the front room that served as her storefront, so she hadn’t exactly had a choice.
Of course Wallace had picked tonight to stir up trouble.
Across the room, Stuart stood and crossed both well-muscled arms across his leather vest. “Yeah, a few stands got damaged. If you lost so much, take it up with whoever comes to collect your payment. O’Kane’s reasonable if you deal fairly with him.”
Wallace snorted. “Maybe with you, Stuart. You keep him rolling in leather and whips, and he keeps you ass-deep in money and credits. The rest of us aren’t so lucky.”
“We’re all lucky,” Stuart responded flatly. “We’re lucky because we have it so good, we have the luxury to bitch about things. You know how many of us used to die whenever Stone got in a brawl over territory?”
Now the uncomfortable gazes swung Tatiana’s way. Some were sympathetic, but others echoed the tense hint of accusation in Stuart’s voice. Matthew Stone had died years ago, put into the ground by Dallas O’Kane in the fight that had won him leadership of Sector Four.
Tatiana was still paying for his crimes. For a place hell-bent on rejecting Eden’s moral dogma, sometimes Sector Four was damn invested in visiting the sins of the father on his children.
But this time it was worse. Everyone in this room knew that Catalina was living with Wallace. Tatiana could stay silent and be damned by association, or speak up and further damage her fragile bond with her sister. Wallace would make sure of it. He’d twist any words she spoke against him into weapons and use them as proof that Tatiana was trying to drive them apart.
So she chose her words carefully. So very carefully. “The O’Kanes understand business. It’s in their best interests to keep us producing the things they want to buy. Dallas has never given any of us reason to believe he won’t deal fairly.”
Wallace’s eyes narrowed. “I see how it is.”
It’s survival, you fucking idiot. She bit her tongue to hold back the retort, because Wallace was too stupid to recognize self-preservation when it was staring him in the face. Tatiana would be fucked no matter what she said, so she said nothing.
Stuart had no such misgivings. “What’s the matter, Wallace? The good old days not looking so shiny when you can’t get the Stone Princess to play along?”
“You’re all soft, that’s what it is,” Wallace spat. “Curled up, nice and cozy, in O’Kane’s pocket.”
Pam reached for Stuart, but he shook off her hand and took a step forward. Chairs screeched across the floor and people shuffled out of the way as Stuart loomed into Wallace’s space. “Take a swing. Find out how soft I am.”
Wallace laughed and turned away. For a moment, Tatiana thought he would walk. Then he spun around with a blow directed at Stuart’s midsection.
Shouts erupted. Pam’s husband hauled her out of the way as one of the food vendors jostled into Tatiana, nearly knocking her down. She scrambled to her feet in time to watch Stuart take the punch–just takeit–and then swing a massive fist back at Wallace.
Panic made her sick. They were going to destroy her store, and she couldn’t stop them. She was half their size, and the only kind of fighting she’d ever learned to do was the kind that ended fights permanently. She couldn’t exactly stab one of them.
Though sinking a knife into Wallace would solve so many problems…
Something slammed, a loud crack that rose above the rest of the noise, but Tatiana couldn’t see what it was–until silence rippled through the room, and the crowd of people parted.
Jasper McCray stood at the open front door, glaring at the mess. “What’s going on here?”
Stuart swiped blood from his nose and turned his back on Wallace in a sign of either reckless arrogance or suicidal trust. Or maybe it was neither–Wallace wasn’t likely to take another swing with Dallas O’Kane’s second-in-command standing there, glowering at all of them. “Just working out a difference of opinion, Jas.”
He glared past Stuart at Wallace, who tried to return his stare before breaking and lowering his gaze.
As the host of this month’s meeting, Tatiana should have been the one to step into the awkward silence. But rules and customs had a way of bending when an O’Kane entered a room. Gravity readjusted itself. The hardscrabble pecking order twisted, warped. People with strong ties to the O’Kanes stood taller.
People like Tatiana tried to disappear.
So it was Stuart who righted a fallen chair and raised his voice, a new strength and confidence giving his words the whip-snap edge of command. “I’d say that brings the meeting to a close. Next month we’re meeting at Big Sal’s.”
With Jasper McCray standing there like a bearded mountain, no one argued. Wallace went first, striding past Jasper without looking back. Others followed quickly behind. A few turned sideways, edging between him and her shelves of soaps and lotions with wary respect in their eyes, but there was none of the usual jostling for position or catty comments. Just a sea of silent, nervous people spilling out the door into the sector streets.
They probably wanted to escape any association with Tatiana and Wallace, which only made her fingers itch for the hilt of the knife tucked into her boot. There was no association, but no one would believe it after tonight. Stabbing him seemed more and more tempting.
Stuart was the last to head toward the door, and he paused next to Jasper. No words, no question. Just a soldier, silently waiting for his command.
But no command came, and Jasper’s words were delivered with a crooked smile. “If you keep settling differences of opinion with your face, Stu, you won’t be nearly so pretty.”
Stuart grinned and slapped him on the arm. “A busted face hasn’t slowed you down. Come by tomorrow, eh? I have something special for your lady.”
“You bet. Have a good night.”
Stuart left, and Jasper studied a shelf that had been jarred during the fight. He straightened the bottles carefully, then turned to face her. “If they broke anything, let me know. Dallas’ll pay for it.”
The floor was littered with discarded paper cups and crumpled pieces of paper, but other than a few upended chairs and a display of soaps that had spilled to the floor, the damage was minimal. “It’s all right. You stopped them before things got too out of hand. But thank you.”
“No problem. Tempers run hot. It happens.”
Jasper probably knew exactly the sort of shit Wallace was saying. By tomorrow, Pam would have provided him with the precise, damning details. The O’Kanes had always treated Tatiana well, but she was under no illusions. They watched her, too.
Other people could prove they were loyal. Everyone was waiting for her to prove she wasn’t.
She turned and reached behind the counter for a garbage bag. “Some of the vendors are worried about the damage from the fight. Stuart told them to bring it up when someone comes to collect their payments. I think most will listen to him.”
“They should. Dallas has been putting out the word that he’ll make it right.”
And some of them would never believe Dallas, because they wouldn’t do the same in his position. “Maybe if your men bring it up first?” She dumped a handful of trash into the bag before looking up to meet Jasper’s dark, serious eyes. “My father had a knack for discouraging demands, and some habits die hard.”
He nodded. “Is everything else cool?”
She gripped the bag more tightly and forced her voice to remain curious, casual, as if the answer didn’t matter much. “Is Zan doing better? I’m running out of jasmine oil, and he’ll never tell me how he gets hold of it.”
Jasper’s severe expression softened a bit. “I’ll let him know.”
Nothing about his condition or his recovery, because she’d played her cards too cautiously. If she had expressed concern for the man instead of what he could do for her, maybe Jasper would have given her some news and soothed this nagging concern she couldn’t shake.
She’d have to add it to all the other worries sitting heavy on her shoulders. “Could you also tell Rachel that her order will be ready to pick up tomorrow? I just need to bottle it.”
He looked around the shop, but his reply had nothing to do with her orders. “Were they giving you a hard time?”
You didn’t lie to an O’Kane, especially not to one as powerful as Jasper. But she didn’t have the luxury of whining, either. “No worse than usual.”
“Is that why Stuart was about to pound that little creep into a greasy stain on your floor?”
Stuart had been defending Dallas, not her. Not the Stone Princess. The O’Kanes might treat her kindly, but too many of their most devoted followers had suffered pain and tragedy at her family’s hands. They tolerated her, but they would never love her. “It’s okay, Jasper, I promise. As long as Dallas and Lex believe that I’m loyal, the rest doesn’t matter to me.”
“Maybe it matters to us.” He paused and searched her face. “Wallace, right? That’s the guy making trouble. He shouldn’t have a beef with you.”
Oh yes, Jasper knew everything. About Wallace, about her sister. About the tightrope Tatiana had to walk, weighing family against her future. “I have something Wallace wants.”
Jasper nodded again. “Yeah, I guess you do.” He took a step back. “If he crosses the line, you don’t have to put up with it. Remember that, okay?”
“I’ll remember,” she promised, a little truth to hide her lie. She’d remember, all right. But, loyal to the O’Kanes or not, she was still her father’s daughter.
If Wallace crossed the line, she’d take care of it like a Stone.
The third blow that Zan landed hurt him more than it hurt his sparring partner.
He drew his fist back and gritted his teeth against the urge to cradle his shoulder. “Doc’s version of physical therapy sucks.”
Cruz’s tight smile held an edge of sympathy–but only a little. “You think this is bad, be glad you never met a Special Tasks doctor.”
They couldn’t be tougher than Doc, blearily blinking his way through a hangover, smacking him on the shoulder and reminding him it could be a hell of a lot worse. “It makes no sense. I got shot a couple of times, but regen tech took care of all the life-threatening shit. Completely healed. The only thing that still hurts is the one wound that wouldn’t have killed me anyway.”
“Makes decent sense to me,” Cruz replied with infuriating calm. “It’s triage. Sometimes with regen, you have to pick your battles. I saw you when you came in, Zan. They had a lot to fix.”
He’d come close to death, that much was undeniable. “I remember some of it.”
“I know what you mean.” The taller man stepped back and reached for a bottle of water. “It’s like a bad dream. Flashes you remember, but half the time it barely makes sense.”
He remember the kidnappers, the gunfire. His last glimpse of Trix before the van door slammed, shutting out everything but the slick red haze of pain. “It ended okay. I’m grateful for that.”
“Everyone’s home safe,” Cruz agreed. “Even you.”
His own safety mattered less than the fact that Trix had made it home largely unscathed. “I was supposed to protect her.”
“I know.” Cruz held out a second bottle of water. “But you can’t plan for everything. You can’t plan for crazy, and that’s what that attack was.”
“Crazy,” Zan muttered, still unsettled. He turned to the heavy bag hanging from a bracket in the corner and gave it a good whack. “It’d be easier if I was back to regular duty. At least I could keep busy.”
“We need you out there. That’s why I’m pushing you with the shoulder, man.” Cruz shook his head. “Did you know Jas broke up a fight when he checked in on the Stone girl last night?”
Zan’s next blow glanced off the patched surface of the bag and sent it swinging. It rebounded and smacked him in the good shoulder. “He what? At Tatiana’s place?”
“Mmm, Stuart was about to throw down on that Wallace kid. They were having a meeting at her shop, I guess, and he started talking shit.”
About Dallas, no doubt. It was the only thing that would prompt Stuart to a fight–and it left Tatiana caught in the middle. “Shit. I should have checked on her myself instead of sending Jas.”
“Jas handled it.” Cruz steadied the punching bag and gave him a look–one he could have learned from Lex. “You needed the rest. And now you need this practice, so we can get you out there scowling at people again.”
How much do you like being weak? Zan bit his tongue to hold back the question. None of this was Cruz’s fault anyway, and he only spoke the truth.
They were all just trying to help.
It didn’t ease the tension tightening the muscles in Zan’s back and neck. “Tomorrow, same time?”
“Absolutely. You’re making progress. You’ll be busting heads in no time.”
“Yeah.” Zan draped a towel around his neck and cracked open the bottle of water. Under normal circumstances, he’d hit the shower and head over to Tatiana’s shop to keep an eye on the place. But he wasn’t functioning at a hundred percent, and if his presence stirred up trouble, she might pay the price.
It wasn’t like he could take care of her, not right now.
Instead, he showered and went to the bar. It was still closed, the shutters open to let in the slanting, early morning sunlight. It always looked so odd this time of day–quiet, deserted, the chairs turned up on the tables. The main room had been cleaned already, and the only activity was bustling back in the kitchen and behind the bar.
“Like this,” Noelle was saying as she swiped her finger over the tablet on the scratched surface of the bar. “We track the drinks as we make them.”
Dallas squinted at the tablet with the sort of mistrust a man usually reserved for his enemy. “Counting stock at the end of the night’s worked just fine for a decade.”
Noelle smiled as she set the tablet into a stand behind the bar. “You were the one who wanted to work smarter instead of harder. Besides, the data syncs with Ford and Mia’s new system. They can analyze trends and adjust trading priorities.”
“All right,” Dallas growled. “You win, kitten. Tech all around.”
Zan couldn’t help but grin. “You giving up the good fight, Dallas?”
“Adapt or die, right?” He shook his head and leaned against the bar. “It was bad enough when it was just Noelle making big eyes at me–“
Noelle, who had been as docile as the kitten Dallas had nicknamed her for only a few months ago, made a rude gesture.
“–but now I’ve got Mia tearing through this place, wringing her hands at how inefficient we are. Sometimes I miss the days where all I had to worry about was keeping the stills and my skin in one piece.”
Zan would have recognized the words for a lie even in the early days. Dallas had never wanted anything more than he wanted to protect his people, and financial security offered the best opportunity for that. If streamlining their liquor business would help, Dallas would install a fucking computer in his own damn head.
But their leader had a cranky, forbidding image to maintain, so Zan fought to keep his expression neutral. “Just think about the money.”
“Damn straight.” Dallas grinned at Zan. “And maybe I’ll think about watching Jasper spank this little brat’s backside once for every time she’s rude to me.”
Noelle made a much, much ruder gesture.
Zan covered his face. “Hey, now. My virgin eyes.”
“Sorry,” Noelle said, almost managing to sound contrite. “I have to go talk to Mia. I’ll be extra rude to you later, Dallas.”
“I’m sure you will,” he drawled, giving in to a chuckle as the back door slammed behind her. “I can’t decide if Lex is a wonderful or terrible influence on that girl.”
“Can’t be both?” Zan pulled out a stool and sank onto it. “I heard there was trouble at the merchants’ meeting.”
Dallas’s humor faded. “Yeah. That punk who took over Walt’s shop has been waving his dick around, trying to get it twisted off.”
“How much of a pain in the ass is he gonna be?”
“Christ only knows, but probably a bigger one now that he’s managed to talk one of Stone’s girls into fucking him.”
Matthew Stone had ruled Sector Four before Dallas ousted him, and having one of the man’s daughters by Wallace’s side would mean respectability among some of the old-timers. Not everyone was happy with the law and order the O’Kane reign had brought to the sector, but no one had dared to speak against him–yet. But if Wallace could rally enough support around him…
He wouldn’t just speak out, he’d fight. He’d lose, no question about that, but crushing the rebellion could do Dallas more harm than the rebellion itself. It could make him look like a tyrant.
“It’s a bad situation,” Zan mused.
“It sure could be.” Dallas tapped his finger on the bar. “Seems like Tatiana could shut some of it down. You’ve always kept a pretty close eye on her. You got any pull there?”
“No.” His answer came too forcefully, and he shook his head with a sigh. “You know how it is. Too much attention can seem like a demand, so I keep my distance.”
“You may not be able to forever.” Dallas’s brow furrowed. “Not that I’m saying you should make like Wallace and hit that. But if this shit escalates, she’ll have to have to pick a side. I really hope it’s ours.”
All Tatiana wanted was to run her shop. “Then we need to stop it from escalating.”
“Can we?” Dallas grimaced and waved his hand. “Scratch that. The real question is, can you? I know your shoulder’s still giving you grief, but we’re spread awful fucking thin, man. Crazy shit is brewing, and I feel like I’m juggling knives.”
“I can talk to Tatiana,” Zan offered. “Chances are good she doesn’t like having her sister involved with Wallace, either.”
“Who the fuck would?” Dallas slapped the bar and straightened. “In a perfect world, I’d give you another week off your feet to mend up. But we need you.”
“I’ve got this.” He was an O’Kane. It was his responsibility to take care of things, to handle whatever needed to be done–even if it involved Tatiana. “I won’t let you down again.”
“Zan.” His leader’s expression was serious as he reached out to grip his arm. “You never have.”
He had to say it, because Dallas O’Kane wasn’t the sort of man to kick you when you were down. Zan nodded again and slid off the stool. “I’ll head over early so I can be back before nightfall.”
“Good. And, Zan? Watch your back.”
* * *