Revenge was addictive.
Crouched on the roof of an abandoned warehouse, Noah snapped his lighter open and shut, the one nervous habit he allowed himself. He’d given up cigarettes years ago, but sometimes he still felt the urge, especially on nights like this. Nights when justice was playing out before him, set into motion by a few righteous keystrokes.
Shadows moved across the street, figures slipping through the darkness, silent as ghosts. He knew they were coming, and he still almost missed them. One dark blur knelt next in front of the shop door and slipped something from his pocket while two more melted into the alleys on either side, their shoes soundless on the cracked, gravel-strewn asphalt.
Eden trained their hitmen well. Not that they usually wasted an entire Special Tasks squad rounding up criminals from outside the walls—everyone in the sectors was a criminal, at least in the minds of the fancy folks in Eden—but sometimes they made an exception.
Sometimes you could make them make an exception.
Boots thumped lightly on the roof behind him, a split second before a low whisper broke the silence. “Did I miss the show?”
Noah recognized the voice. Brendan Donnelly, one of the most dangerous men in Sector Four, and not only because he stood close to its leader. Bren wore the ink of the O’Kane gang now, but he’d come from Eden, from one of those Special Tasks squads.
Not a man to underestimate. “I’m impressed you knew there was going to be a show.”
“Got a tip from an old friend.” Bren crouched beside him and peered down at the alley. “Don’t worry. It took me a while to link it back to you.”
Across the street, the men were already carrying boxes out of the house. Fast. Silent. They piled them into the back of the electric vehicle in front of the shop, box after box of useless evidence. They undoubtedly hoped to figure out how some greedy sector seamstress had managed to manufacture the credits they used inside the shining walls of their utopian city.
It would take them years to realize she hadn’t. It had taken Bren less than twenty-four hours. “What gave me away?”
“What else?” Bren flashed him a knowing look, then nodded down to the shop. “Emma apprenticed with her before coming to the Broken Circle, didn’t she?”
Jaw clenched, Noah watched them drag the woman out into the street and shove her into the back of the truck. He’d paid her more than enough to keep Emma in goddamn luxury, and she’d pocketed it and put the girl to work. “She wasn’t supposed to be an apprentice. She was supposed to be safe until the heat from Sector Five died down.”
“I thought that might be how it was,” Bren said flatly. “How much did she take you for?”
More money than someone like her could have expected to see in a lifetime, but that wasn’t why he’d set her up for such a terrifying fall. Emma had split, and Clara Danforth, facing the loss of those monthly payments, had gone for a payday. “Remember when you told me Emma was an O’Kane, and I didn’t believe you?”
“Fifty thousand.” In the street below, the car pulled away. The rest of the squad melted into the shadows, undoubtedly to find their own way back to Eden’s gates. No one stayed in the grimy hell of the sectors longer than they had to. “That was how much I paid for Emma and the farmer she’d supposedly fallen in love with to get into one of the mountain communities. She was supposed to be gone. She was supposed to be safe.”
Bren swore, quiet and vicious. “That sucks.”
More than Bren would ever know. The money was nothing. Unlike the seamstress, Noah really could make credits appear from thin air. Not that he’d used those for Emma’s fresh start—that had been cash, almost everything he had left, and he’d sent it along with a clean conscience and a numb heart. It wasn’t the end to the story he’d wanted, but it was the one he’d promised her brother. Emma was safe, happy, and nothing else was supposed to matter.
Except he’d fucked that up, too.
Straightening, Noah shoved his lighter into his pocket. “I guess your boss probably wants to see me.”
“Figured you’d want to meet with him.” Another penetrating look. “More importantly, I thought you’d want to see Emma.”
He did, and wanting felt awkward after so many years of numbness. He didn’t have room for feelings or desires. Emma had the potential to be a fatal distraction—and if the wrong people realized just how much she distracted him, he wouldn’t be the one to suffer the consequences.
But he had to know she was okay. Not a want. A need. “Yeah. I’d like to see her.”
“Then come on.” Bren rose, casting one last look down at the silent, still street. “Show’s over, anyways.”
It hadn’t been much of one, and that was how Noah preferred it. Quiet. Efficient. No way to trace it back to him—unless you had contacts inside Eden and knew his weakness.
He couldn’t afford to have one, not if he planned to take down the man who had murdered Emma’s brother and destroyed Noah’s life. Which meant getting Emma out of the sectors or out of his system. Either worked, because one way or another, that chink in his armor had to be patched, or they’d both end up dead.
Bren was already moving toward the fire escape, so Noah followed, doing his best to ignore the wobbly iron and the rust. The whole thing felt fragile enough to crumble under their boots, so jumping the last five feet to the chipped pavement was almost a relief.
At least the buildings in this corner of the sectors were solid, not the leaning, rickety death traps he was used to in Three. Dallas O’Kane kept Sector Four relatively well-maintained—and under his absolute control.
No wonder he’d somehow known about the raid.
The closer they drew to the O’Kane compound, the cleaner everything got. No more cluttered alleyways or figures congregating in the shadows. The streets were well-lit, and it was easy to follow the noise and crowds to the very edge of Dallas O’Kane’s personal empire.
Bren slowed near a sprawling brick building. Its façade was lit up, and thumping music spilled out of the barred windows and door. “Welcome to the Broken Circle.”
Noah tried to reply, but a group of drunks shoved through the doors, and he got his first glimpse of the stage—and the person dancing on it.
Sweet little Emmaline Cibulski was all grown up.
It was a truth he’d never expected to face, not after three years of trying to forget she ever existed. He’d written a happy ending for her in his mind, one where she still looked like the nineteen-year-old girl he’d bundled out of Sector Five in the middle of the night. One where she was blonde, pink-cheeked from the cool mountain air, and probably pregnant with her second baby by that nice, boring-as-fuck farmer, living a nice, boring-as-fuck life.
The woman dominating the stage of the Broken Circle wasn’t nineteen. She wasn’t innocent. And she sure as fuck wasn’t boring.
Music washed over Noah as he slipped through the door, a rough bass line that pounded in time with his heart as Emma gripped the hilts of the knives strapped to her sleek thighs and circled her hips with a raw, knowing sexuality that had Noah’s dick half-hard already.
Emma was stripping at the most infamous bar in all eight sectors, a fact that would have been crazy enough all on its own. But tattoos curled around her wrists, cuffs that stretched from the tops of her hands halfway to her elbows, a sight only slightly less infamous than the bar. Members of Dallas’s gang wore those cuffs, inescapable proof that she really had joined up with the O’Kanes.
Appreciative noises rose from the crowd as Emma slipped the sharp end of one blade under her shirt, slicing the tight black cotton right down the middle. It pulled away, baring her breasts—and the taut pink tips of her nipples.
The knife fell from her fingers with a clatter, and she pulled the cotton together with a wicked grin. Pleas and groans of disappointment rose from the crowd in equal measure, and she peeled the shirt open again, this time letting it slide off her shoulders to the floor.
Half-hard? How optimistic. Noah was a raging pervert, rock-hard and transfixed by her gorgeous tits—not to mention the seductive twist of her hips. Somehow, somehow, he had to remember that those tits and hips belonged to Cib’s baby sister, and that he’d made a promise.
Keep her safe. Get her out of the sectors, or out of his system.
Both were looking less possible by the minute.
“Solid show, Em.”
“Thanks.” Emma dropped her knives and sheaths on the dressing table and slid her arms into her robe. The brushed satin stroked her skin like a lover, and she shivered as she drew her hair up into a loose knot.
Dancing was a rush, all right, the kind that kicked her senses and her adrenaline into overdrive, same as a fight. Sometimes, afterwards, all she wanted to do was fuck.
“Ladies.” Dallas’s familiar voice rumbled through the dressing room, and half the dancers rushed across the floor to fawn over him.
Emma watched him in the mirror instead. He was a big man, but he moved with absolute grace—the kind of self-assurance that came from owning everything around him, probably. From the top of his dark head to the tips of his worn boots, Dallas O’Kane was in charge. No questions asked.
His gaze met hers in the mirror, and Dallas patted one of the dancers on the hip before raising his voice above the noise. “Em, darling, I need a word. Upstairs.”
She spun on her stool. “In your office?”
“Conference room.” He tilted his head and seemed to consider. “You might want to get dressed first.”
There went any chance he’d come to fetch her because tonight was the night he and Lex were finally going to rock her world. Emma kept her voice even as she rose and reached for her pants. “Something wrong?”
The other dancers were watching now, quiet and nervous. None of the other girls backstage tonight were family, and whatever Dallas had to say, it was clear he didn’t plan to share it with outsiders. “Nothing to worry about. Just a little O’Kane business.”
Emma threw off her robe and dressed quickly. “Break a leg out there tonight, girls.” She snatched up her bag and followed Dallas through the curtain, out into the back hall.
He didn’t speak until they reached the stairs, but the words were enough to make her stumble, mid-stride. “Noah Lennox is upstairs.”
Shock rendered her tongue thick. “Noah’s here?”
Dallas caught her arm and steadied her. “In the conference room, talking to Lex. But before you see him, I wanted to talk to you.”
Noah Lennox. He was the last remaining link to her past, a past full of struggle and pain and loss. The last time she’d seen him, he’d dropped her off on a back street in Sector Four, in the middle of the night. No promises to come back for her, nothing. She’d missed him horribly for weeks, and then hated him just as intensely for leaving her.
She shouldn’t have wanted to see him, but she did. So much her throat ached.
“Hey, darling.” Dallas’s fingers brushed her chin before he tilted her face up. “If you don’t want to look at him, we’ll spin right back around and that’ll be it.”
She shook herself and tried for a smile. “It’s not that. I’m surprised, is all. I haven’t seen him in four years.”
“Well, this was inevitable. He’s got skills I need, and I have resources he can use.” Dallas dropped his hand but held her gaze. “I need to know if you can handle that.”
Dallas wanted him around, of course—a hacker with Noah’s abilities was invaluable—but something else lurked beneath the words. A question, but also a warning. “What are you saying?”
Exhaling, Dallas wrapped his fingers around her wrist—and her ink. “I’m saying you’re an O’Kane. We need him, bad. But you’re not a whore and you’re not a prize, and I need to know you understand. Lex and I will ask a lot of you, but never that.”
He could, though. There was no one to stop him, and precious few who would even try. In Sector Four, Dallas was the law.
It made his consideration that much more meaningful.
Emma leaned up and kissed his cheek. “Any other time, I might do it. But not with Noah. He was my brother’s best friend, and he saved my life. He deserves better than getting played.”
Dallas snorted and smacked her ass, urging her up the stairs. “If he can get me the intel I need, I’ll bury him in all the willing pussy he wants. Only the good kind of playing.”
Noah had never flaunted his women in front of Emma, but she knew what he was into. “He likes ’em dirty,” she muttered as she started for the second floor. “Really dirty.”
“Does he, now?”
Again, a question hovered just under the words. “Observation, not firsthand experience.”
“Mm-hmm.” When they reached the landing, he slung an arm around her shoulders. “After you’re done chatting with him, I figured I’d spin him by tonight’s afterparty. Give him a taste of what we can offer. If he likes dirty ladies, I’ll own his ass.”
Emma elbowed him in the ribs, then freed herself from his embrace and took a deep breath before slipping into the conference room.
Noah looked the same. A little rough, like he’d had a bad couple of days, but still Noah, who was always sweet and warm, just for her. The same red hair and ginger beard, the same broad shoulders that could block out the world if she needed them to.
Christ, she’d missed him.
She was halfway across the conference room before she caught herself and stopped. “Noah.”
He stared at her, his gaze flickering across her face, as if cataloging all the things about her that had changed. “Emmy.”
Her lips trembled into a smile, and she pressed her fingers to them. “I thought I’d never see you again.”
“I didn’t know you were still here, in the sectors. I thought—” He cleared his throat and lifted his right arm. He’d done it a hundred times before, inviting her to duck under it for a hug while he ruffled her hair and teased her. But before she could move, his arm fell to his side again, and he looked away. “She told me you’d left. If I’d known the truth, I would have come to get you. I would have taken you somewhere safe.”
“I did leave. I came here.” Fuck it. Emma wrapped her arms around his neck in a firm hug. “You look so damn good.”
He stiffened against her, then slid one arm around her waist in an awkward embrace. “You look…grown up.”
She bit her lip to hold in a laugh. “Four years’ll do that.”
“I guess it will.” He skated a hand lightly up her back until he reached her arm and tugged it away from his neck to examine her O’Kane ink. The coolness in his gaze melted into regret. “This is the life I was trying to keep you out of.”
God only knew what he thought of Sector Four—and the O’Kanes. “No, this is—it’s nothing like Sector Five here. Dallas isn’t Mac Fleming.”
“He moves booze instead of drugs,” Noah agreed, rubbing his thumb over the O’Kane logo. “I guess it’s a step up. But I wanted to get you out. To the mountains, like Cib used to dream about.”
She jerked her hand away. “I wasn’t talking business. People here look out for each other.”
Noah studied her face in tense silence before lowering his voice. “I’ve read Eden’s files on Dallas O’Kane and his inner circle. Some of these bastards could give Mac Fleming nightmares. If you’re scared—”
“Oh, Jesus.” Emma stood there, torn between laughing and crying. “I’m not a hostage, Noah. This is my family.”
No comprehension in his eyes. He didn’t believe her—or couldn’t—though he didn’t say so. Instead, he took a step back and shoved his hands into his pockets. “You’re happy?”
She couldn’t answer, because he wouldn’t believe that, either. “Let me show you,” she whispered. “Stay for a little while?”
He shrugged and looked away. “I’ll stay. For the night, at least. O’Kane’s woman invited me to some party.”
Every time she’d allowed herself to imagine reuniting with Noah, the fantasy had been different. Sweet or sexy, happy or even a little sad. Bittersweet. Nothing had prepared her for this awkwardness, the chasm between them that seemed to widen with every passing moment.
She had no idea what to say to him.
They stared at each other forever, tense and miserable. Then he bit off a curse and turned away. “I didn’t know,” he snarled, the words so low and furious she barely understood them. “I didn’t know I’d have to do this again.”
“Noah.” Her clumsiness melted, and she reached for him, smoothing her hands over the knotted muscles of his shoulders.
He shuddered under her touch. “You have no idea, Emmy. No goddamn clue how bad I was when you knew me, and how much worse I am now.”
“Come on,” she whispered. “That isn’t true.”
Laughter sliced out of him, harsh and broken. “Don’t get any romantic ideas about me. I’ve always been a criminal.”
It made her sound like a foolish little girl, and she’d always prided herself on being pragmatic. Just because she was an artist didn’t mean she was a dreamer, floating along with her head in the clouds.
Emma stepped back. “Why did you come here?”
“To make sure you were okay. And because O’Kane can help me.”
“Help you with what?”
He turned to stare out the window, giving her a glimpse of his hard profile and clenched jaw. “Take down Mac Fleming. Even if I have to go down with him.”
Emma shivered. “If you set Fleming on fire, Dallas wouldn’t piss on him to put it out. But it’s not worth—” She touched Noah’s arm. “Look at me, damn it.”
When he did, it hurt even worse. He looked tired, used up, like there was nothing good left inside him. Only revenge.
It made her words ring hollow, even to her own ears. “It’s not worth dying over.”
Noah raised his hand to stroke one of the blonde streaks of hair back from her face. His fingers followed it down to her bare shoulder, where he traced the outline of one tattoo. “I’m fucking this all up. If I’d known I’d be seeing you again, I would have held on a little harder.”
The detached regret scared her most of all, as if he was already gone in all the ways that mattered. Her heart pounding, she mirrored his movement, testing the solid strength of his neck and shoulder beneath his shirt.
He’d saved her once. It wouldn’t be right to let him drift away like this, not if she could help it.
Emma leaned in, brushing her lips to the corner of his mouth.
Groaning, he plunged his fingers into her hair, tangling them up tight enough to hold her there, on the verge of a kiss. “Why?”
Nothing less than the truth. “Because you’re here, and you’re alive. And I missed you.”
He closed his eyes. His mouth moved against hers—words, not a caress, though they felt the same. “I’m not good enough for you. I never was.”
Once upon a time, he’d been one of the few stable things in her whole world. She’d loved him with all her young, naive heart, and that emotion fluttered in her belly now. Close, so close that his breath was hers too, and Emma wrapped her hands around his upper arms. “Do you want to be?”
His fist tightened, edging her head back. His parted lips brushed her chin, her jaw. “That’s a question I’ve never let myself ask.”
She’d experienced mindbending pleasure, fallen into the spaces between naked, eager partners with zeal and joy. But none of it had ever made her tremble to her core, not like Noah’s lips skating a path down her throat. “Then you must have known the answer would be yes.”
“And damn me for it,” he groaned, lifting his head to meet her gaze. “I’ll hurt you. I won’t want or mean to. But I’ll do it. Mark my words, Emma.”
“Shh.” It would be worth it to show him—what belonging felt like, what home was, everything she hadn’t been able to say as a shy nineteen-year-old with a desperate crush. “I know what this is, Noah. What it isn’t. Just kiss me.”
His mouth hovered over hers, so close his sigh ghosted across her lips like a promise. He relaxed his hand, fingers cupping the back of her head, and started to close the distance—
The door crashed open. “Keep it in your pants, Cibulski. We’re all locked up downstairs, and that boy has an O’Kane party to get to.”
She refused to jump away from Noah like a kid caught making out. “We’re just catching up, Dallas.”
“Uh-huh. Save it for the orgy.” He grinned and vanished, leaving the door hanging open.
Both of Noah’s eyebrows swept up. “Orgy, huh?”
“That’s Dallas’s version of the hard sell.” She kissed Noah on the cheek. “His recruitment speech.”
His expression finally cracked into a smile. “I bet it’s effective.”
The smile kindled the first glimmer of hope, and Emma slid her hand into his. “You can let me know in a few hours.”
* * *