Cynthia Rayne Shot to Hell (Four Horsem*n MC (ang) - PDF Free Download (2024)

Shot to Hell A Four Horsem*n MC Novel BOOK SEVEN

Table of Contents Table of Contents Prologue Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-One Chapter Twenty-Two Books in the Series About the Author Copyright

Prologue Nimruz Province, Afghanistan, 2006 “Steele, what the f*ck, man?” Lance Corporal Jack Steele gave his best friend, Lance Corporal Abe Calhoun, the finger. “Stop bitchin’. I’ll be back before you know it.” Abe gripped his rifle and, for a hot second, Steele wondered if his buddy might take a shot at him. Abe had been his best friend since high school. They’d gone to boot camp together and had been lucky enough to be assigned to the same unit. Steele deserved his buddy’s wrath.

Leaving his post in the middle of the night was a major dick move, but Steele couldn’t help himself. The co*ck wants what the co*ck wants. He’d been working on a sweet little private from the food service detachment for a couple of weeks. She’d promised to meet up with him, and he wanted to lock this down before she changed her mind. Pickings were slim in Afghanistan, and he had to take puss* wherever the opportunity presented itself. It’d been too damn long, and Steele needed to get laid. The private wasn’t much to look at, but she had all the right parts. Steele had never been one for hearts and flowers. Abe shuffled his feet. “And what

happens if the enemy comes marchin’ through here?” “Shoot ‘em.” Abe grunted. “What? You afraid to be alone in the dark or somethin’?” Nothing ever happened on these long-ass, overnight guard shifts. So far, Steele had gotten piss-poor pay to stand in a f*cking field with a rifle like a liveaction scarecrow. For the past month, their infantry unit had been assigned to guard poppy fields so they didn’t fall into Taliban hands. The decision had been made far above his f*cking pay grade. Apparently, turning a blind eye to the drug trade and

making nice with the locals bought the old US of A goodwill. Steele figured winning the locals hearts and minds would be difficult if you hit ‘em in the wallet first. But it still chapped Steele’s ass. He’d gone through the hell of basic training only to end up babysitting drugs. He’d come to this godforsaken place to be a hero and take down some terrorists. Which is what they’d been doing until his unit had pulled this bullsh*t duty. Steele wondered if their commanding officer had somehow f*cked up and now they all had to pay because of it. He’d been a good soldier boy long enough. The way he figured, he’d earned a twenty-minute break from plant duty to

get his dick wet. It beat standing next to Abe as the temp dropped at night. He was sick of being horny and shivering and shaking like a dog sh*tting razor blades. Besides, his mind played tricks on him. Sometimes, he could swear the tall, stalky plants moved around. It made him think about the horror movie they’d seen as kids: Children of the Corn. And now he and Abe were co-starring in Soldiers of the Poppies. As Abe tried to peel the skin off Steele’s back with his eyes alone, Steele made himself presentable. He sniffed under his armpits and nodded. Not too bad. Then he popped a piece of minty gum into his mouth—battlefield hygiene

wouldn’t stand in his way tonight. “If you get caught, you’re in deep sh*t.” Steele shrugged. “Not gonna happen. All I’m askin’ for is a few minutes. If I’m gone longer, I’ll send Frost out here to keep you company. But I’m sure I’ll be back before the combat team comes trompin’ through here like a herd of buffalo on their way back to base.” “Steele, I’m serious. I’ve got a bad feelin’ about this.” Abe scanned the stalks around them. For a second, Steele almost gave in —Abe seemed spooked. But he shrugged it off. “You’re jealous because you gotta jerk off every night.”

“You get more puss* than a tomcat.” Abe didn’t even smile. “Then you’ll let it go and cover for me?” Abe blew out a breath. “Fine, but I hope you get crabs.” Steele didn’t stick around to argue. He grabbed his rifle and double-timed it to the mess hall. He had to catch the chick Marine before some other bastard took his place. “I’ll be back before you know it,” he called over his shoulder. “Wait a second, I—” “Oh, for f*ck’s sake, shut your cake hole. You’ll be fine.” Those were the last words he’d said to Abe.

Chapter One Hell, Texas, 2016 “What crawled up your ass and died?” Steele glanced over to find Wendy, one of the club hellions, watching him, hands on her slim hips. Tonight, he’d tied one on and nailed her. Hellions were the wild women who hung out with his club—basically, biker groupies. They worked in club-owned businesses, offering cold comfort, and accomplishing any other tasks the brothers needed to accomplish. “What?” Steele tried to focus on her.

Wendy was black-haired, greeneyed, and as thin as a fence post. Not his usual beat, but Steele loved women, all women—they were soft, warm, and so very distracting. But when the fun ended, Steele hated the talking part. The dismount in one of these situations required finesse, and he’d always been a blunt instrument. He’d hooked up with her in one of the crash rooms at Perdition, his MC’s clubhouse and bar. It’d been fast and unsatisfying. Usually, f*cking made everything better, at least for a few brief moments. Since Coyote had been taken, he’d barely slept and didn’t eat much–he worked, he f*cked, and he drank. “You.” She made a fist, mocking

him. “You gettin’ ready for a prize fight, or what?” “I’m fine.” He’d f*cked her, but he wouldn’t wuss out and start blabbing to her. Unlike his brothers, he didn’t go to pieces over a woman, and he never intended to tie himself down. There’d been a love epidemic in the club–Ryker, Cowboy, Duke, Captain, Shep, Pretty Boy, and Axel had all fallen victim to relationships. Yep, commitment was going around like a bad case of the clap. Steele steered clear of it. Romance wasn’t in his plans. Naked as a jaybird, Wendy sauntered to the end of the bed. Steele watched her with halfhearted interest. The peaceful calm after his

org*sm hadn’t lasted long. He felt edgy once more—couldn’t wait to get his hands on one of the Raptors—he’d teach them a little something about pain. After balling up her drawers, she slipped them into the pocket of her skintight jeans before shimmying them up her legs. No panties. Nice. She scrunched up her nose. “Whatever. Not my business.” She shrugged on her shirt before sliding her legs into a pair of knee-high, f*ck-me boots. As she approached the door, Steele launched into his patented speech to make sure there weren’t any misunderstandings. The last thing he

needed was an emotional outburst. He’d been perfecting this bit for years. “Look, darlin’, I had a real good time tonight, but—” “But it was only fun.” That was easier than he’d expected. “Yeah, that’s right. I don’t do commitments. I’m the guy you f*ck and forget.” Wendy shrugged. “Gotcha.” What the actual f*ck? Steele narrowed his eyes. Shouldn’t she be more broken up about this? “Believe me, darlin’, you’re better off without me.” “All the girls know about the speech, Steele. It’s not a big secret. This

is a small town, and the word has gotten around.” Wendy ran a hand through her hair, smoothing it, then pouted at a dingy mirror on the wall, centerfold-style. She lined her lips with a tube of red lipstick she’d pulled from her pocket. “That a fact?” Steele thought she looked put together, like she hadn’t been grinding her hips over his a few minutes ago. “Yeah. So don’t sweat it.” “Damn.” “I know this was a one-off, and it’s fine.” “You don’t want more?” She didn’t reply, but he could read between the lines.

Oh, huh-uh. He prided himself on pleasuring women. Sure, he didn’t want to be a boyfriend, but he gave the ladies a good time. Making a woman come for him was a head rush. Steele loved the breathy moans, the way they tossed their hair, nipples peaking into two tight points and fingernails sinking into his back. He never tired of it, and they always came back for more. Steele didn’t mind obliging them…on his nocommitment terms, of course. Lately, his sexual mojo had been on the fritz. The pretty lady lawyer had turned up her nose, and the sassy thief had said “no thanks” and shacked up with Axel instead. Yeah, boring-as-hell Axel, and now hellions were giving him

the brush off. f*ck that…hard and up the ass without lube. “C’mere, Wendy. We ain’t finished.” Steele crooked a finger and put on his slyest smile, the one he’d used on cheerleaders when he’d been a quarterback at Poteet High School. The pom-pom girls had creamed their panties for him, and he’d screwed the whole damn squad his senior year with a half-dozen repeat customers. Being a football star from the wrong side of the tracks had given him bad boy sexual appeal, and he’d taken advantage of their breathless curiosity, which suited him fine. Not like he wanted to date any of those fluff chicks anyway.

Only one girl had captured his attention in high school, despite his best efforts to shut it down. Wendy’s brows pulled together. “Oh, yes, we are. I got stuff to do.” She sailed out the door like she’d already forgotten about him. “Dammit.” Steele threw his legs over the bed and smashed his fist on the nightstand. He seized a lukewarm bottle of beer when it wobbled to keep it from crashing to the floor. Then he took a swig as he made a mental note to chat her up again. He couldn’t have any twopump-chump rumors circulating around the club. What if he was off his game because he’d gotten carved up like a

turkey? He absently rubbed at the gauze taped to his chest. The Raptors had engraved their club symbol into his chest. The cuts still hurt like a bitch, despite the painkillers Duke had been feeding him. As soon as it healed, he planned on getting a big-ass, f*cking Horsem*n tattoo over it. After he sliced the skin off some Raptors, of course. You don’t hurt ‘em if you don’t hit ‘em. Lieutenant General Chesty Puller, the finest f*cking Marine there’s ever been, had once said that about the enemy. Steele wholeheartedly agreed. But what if the enemy is a bunch of cowardly dicks who’d gone into hiding after

snatching your brother? In true sh*t-out-of-luck fashion, Steele had no one to hit or hurt. Coyote, Steele’s best friend in the club, had been missing for nearly a week. Since Yo had been kidnapped, along with an ass-load of heroin on its way to Dallas for delivery, the Horsem*n had scoped out all of the Raptor hideouts and had come up empty. The lily-livered bastards had taken off without a trace. What if they’d already killed Coyote? No, Steele refused to entertain the thought. He wouldn’t lose his brother and his best friend. Not again. The Raptors must have taken Coyote for a reason, or they would’ve

roughed him up and left him in the warehouse with Steele. If the Raptors planned on killing Coyote, they’d have done it already. His beaten and bloody body would’ve shown up at Perdition. The kid was tougher than he realized. After all, he’d held his own against Raptors before—he’d even run one of the bastards down. Coyote could do this. He could keep it together until the cavalry showed up, led by Steele, of course. Once, the Raptors had shot up the clubhouse and killed one of the Horsem*n at their meeting table—the f*ckers weren’t known for sending understated messages. All Steele could do, for the moment, was stand around

with his thumb up his ass. He’d always been a man of action. Everyone should know their strengths, and he had his down. Steele didn’t like to plan a damn thing, so he left the prep work to smarter bastards. He’d rather be in the thick of it—his back against the wall, bashing heads together and kicking in teeth. But he needed direction—a lead. Until Steele had one, he was stuck thinking about days gone by and his past sins. Some things he couldn’t get out of his head, no matter how hard he tried. And since Coyote had been taken by the Raptors, he kept replaying one particular memory like a loop in his mind. The goddamned poppy field—the

acrid scent of smoke and coppery smell of blood thick in the air. f*ck. No amount of Jose Cuervo or puss*—or even some of Pretty Boy’s fan-f*ckingtastic Apocalyptic Night strain of weed —could shut it out. Steele downed the rest of the beer and checked the clock on his cell phone. It was nearly six in the morning. He hadn’t gotten much shut-eye, but he had a business to run. He pulled on his clothes and headed for Inferno Firearms. Time to go to work. *** Steele paced the length of the shooting range attached to Inferno. It was

nearly ten o’clock now, and he had restless energy to burn. The beer buzz had worn off, and he didn’t have a single customer to distract him. Being in this part of the store made him antsy. Since Coyote had been taken, Steele hadn’t even been able to walk down the hall to his office. It was late November, and a cold front had moved in from the Gulf, sinking the temperature into the midforties. Even in a pair of jeans, a Tshirt, a Horsem*n hoodie, and his cut, Steele froze his nuts off at work because Daisy had been cranking the air conditioning up to a temperature an Eskimo would find chilly. He wouldn’t dream of asking her to

turn it down, though. Daisy was several months pregnant with Cowboy’s baby. He had a duty to protect his brother’s old lady and give her whatever she needed. No matter how much it pained him. “Did you hear about the gas station in Canyon City? Police say they found a credit card skimmer on one of the pumps yesterday.” Steele glanced up to see Daisy observing him over the top of her newspaper. “No, I hadn’t heard, Daze.” And he really didn’t give a damn, either. More important things were on his mind. Before she’d gotten knocked up, Daisy had an athletic build with big brown eyes and blond hair—a real

looker. Steele had taken a run at her too when she’d been new to the club, but she’d gone and fallen for Cowboy instead. Yet another girl who’d passed on Steele—it was an epidemic. Today, she wore a pair of black leggings and a long, red shirt with a panda bear’s face on it. A few weeks ago, Daisy had been bitchin’ about how ugly and cutesy-ass maternity clothes were. “What the hell are you wearin’?” She scowled. “First off, I didn’t buy it, Elizabeth did. I mentioned doin’ a panda theme for the baby’s room, and now I’m the proud new owner of maternity bear wear outfits. Second, I can’t fit into any of my clothes, so unless

you want me to run around here naked….” “Say no more.” He held his hands up in mock surrender and let the naked comment slide. As an old lady, Daisy was off-limits. Steele couldn’t say for sure how many months along Daisy was—he didn’t do pregnancy talks. Regardless, something about her rounded appearance was oddly appealing. She was curvy, fertile-looking–bigger tit*, too. Kinda hot. Though he had enough sense to keep it to himself. Daisy would knock his teeth down his throat if he said it aloud—or Cowboy would for damn sure.

No harm in admirin’ the view, though. From a safe distance, of course. With difficulty, she clambered onto a stool at the end of one the lanes. Daisy had a glass of lemonade in her grasp like it was a summer day, and she kept misting the back of her neck with a small spray bottle full of water. “Stop it.” “Stop what?” he grumbled. “Pacing like a lion at the zoo. You’re givin’ me a headache.” “Sorry.” He stopped marching back and forth but he couldn’t shake the nervous energy, so he tapped out a rhythm on the wall instead.

“Worryin’ yourself to death ain’t gonna bring him home any faster.” “Who said I was—” “Hold it right there, Leatherneck. I can see it written all over your face, so don’t even think about lyin’ to me.” Her features softened. “I know exactly how it feels when someone you care about has been taken from you.” Her sister, Rose Weston, had also been taken by a Raptor and kept by their lawyer as a sex slave. While Steele didn’t know all the details, he’d pieced it together from some things Daisy had said. The bastard had raped Rose. No tellin’ what the Raptors were doin’ to Coyote right this very minute.

“Gotcha, Devil Dog.” He faked a smile he didn’t quite feel. Marines liked to bust each other’s chops. Leatherneck and Devil Dog were nicknames for members of the Corps. He and Daisy tossed them back and forth. Daisy was a fellow Marine, and she never burned daylight makin’ a point. She’d give it to you with both barrels, and Steele loved that about her. When she’d taken up with Cowboy, he’d offered her a job at Inferno. It’d been one of the best decisions he’d ever made. Working at Inferno together, all three of them had gotten close. Steele didn’t know what he’d do without Daze or Yo, and he didn’t want to find out.

“I don’t suppose you or Rose got any leads I could track down? Something the brothers haven’t thought about?” She sighed. “I gave Cowboy all the research I’d gathered on the club. Worryin’ ain’t gonna do any good.” “I know, but neither is standin’ around waitin’ for a body to drop.” Right before a combat mission, Steele always felt jumpy and tense. In a battlefield, being as nervous as a whor* in church made sense. He’d learned something worse always waited patiently to pound his ass into the ground. The Marine shrink he’d been ordered to see after Abe died called it “hypervigilance.” “Come on.” Daisy slowly got to her

feet and closed the distance between them. Then she put up her dukes like she was preparing for a prize fight. “What the f*ck are you doin’?” “You need to hit something, so let’s spar.” She tugged her ridiculous top down and scowled—full-on Marine with a grudge. The bear on her chest stared at him stupidly, and he fought the urge to snicker. “Stop it. I ain’t hittin’ you. You’re pregnant.” He didn’t add and a woman. It’d piss her off, but it was the God’s honest truth. Real men don’t hit women—under any circ*mstances. “Tell me somethin’ I don’t know. You can still hit me above the neck. Come on, Steele. I know you wanna.”

She paced around him in a semicircle, fists raised. Despite himself, Steele chuckled… just as she’d planned. “If you’re too chicken….” “Damn straight.” Steele clucked, doing his very best chicken impression. “We both know you would’ve wiped the floor with me.” He pulled her into a sideways hug. “Thanks, Daze.” She kissed his cheek and released him. Steele reached around and rubbed his neck. The tension dissipated, leaving him worn out. But his stomach didn’t feel so tight anymore. Maybe he should see about getting some grub from Hades

Diner. “Anytime, buddy.” She waddled back to the stool. “So what should I be doin’ besides drivin’ myself up a wall?” “When I get in a bind, I ask myself what Chesty Puller would do, but you gotta wait for the right time to act on it.” Only a fellow Marine would get the reference. Steele loved learning about other Marines, or even other soldiers. He had a thing for reading military biographies. He always collected bitesize nuggets of wisdom, which came in handy in his line of work. Of course, it took him forever to read one due to his —er—issues, but it was worth the effort.

She bobbed her head in the direction of the gun case next to her. “In the meantime, I’d get some target practice in if I were you. It’s a good release, and when the time comes to get serious, you’ll be in fightin’ shape.” It sounded pretty damn good— might curb his urge for destruction. Besides, payback was as slow as molasses and twice as sticky. He was in this for the long haul. “You wanna shoot too?” “Nah.” She rubbed her belly. “Baby Violet don’t like it much. She does somersaults every time I take a shot, but I’ll watch you.” After they slid in some ear plugs and placed protective goggles over their

eyes, he practiced shooting his Glock 17. He hit the paper target in the chest again and again—all lethal shots. His cell phone rang. Steele checked the number. It came up as Unknown Caller. He hit the green button. “Hello?” “Where’s Coyote, dearie?” Steele blinked. The voice was trippy, scaling up to a high falsetto and then down low to a baritone. It had to be a voice modulator. “Who the f*ck is this?” A laugh. “A fox in your henhouse. Where’s Coyote?” “You didn’t answer my question, why should I answer yours?” “Who’s that?” Daisy mouthed.

Steele shrugged. No f*cking clue. “I know something’s wrong. I can feel it. And if you don’t tell me what’s going on, I’ll get nasty with you.” The lights shut off. Oh, f*ck. Coyote controlled some of the shop’s systems via computer, and Steele didn’t know how to disengage them. “He’s missing. Do you know where he is?” The lights flickered on again. “Someone took him?” Steele couldn’t give particulars because it was club business. “Yes, he’s gone.” The call ended without another word.

Steele stared at the flashing screen. Nearest he could figure, the caller had been one of Yo’s hacker buddies, but the guy didn’t even know who’d taken his brother so he wouldn’t be much use. Damn. And Steele’s plate was already filled to the brim. He didn’t have time to track down a sad sack computer nerd. The door swung open, and the club’s new prospect, Angel, walked into the range. Angel had been hanging around the club’s businesses for weeks, and Axel, the newly minted president, had given the kid the opportunity to prospect for the Four Horsem*n. Mostly because all the other prospects had become full-blown members, and they

needed somebody around to do the grunt work. Angel was in his mid-twenties with blue eyes, blond, spiked hair, and a lithe frame. He had a girly-ass pair of angel wings tattooed on his back. But on the plus side, he hadn’t f*cked up too much yet, didn’t say a whole lot, and ran errands without bellyachin’. Angel held up a white paper bag from Hades, the club’s diner and hotel. “I brought you a couple sausage biscuit sandwiches, hot off the grill,” he said to Daisy as he handed it over. She grabbed one of them, tore the wrapper off, and took a bite immediately. “Thanks. I’m starving,” she mumbled around a bite. “I can’t seem to

get enough food lately. Did Cowboy send you over?” “He surely did. I’m supposed to stay with you today and get anythin’ you might need or want.” Daisy beamed. “Did I pick a good man or what?” Steele sighed and muttered under his breath. Thanks for showin’ us all up. Angel turned toward him. “Oh, and Axel said he wanted to see you and the rest of the brothers. Somethin’ about an emergency club meetin’.” All of a sudden, Steele’s throat ached and chills raced up his spine. They weren’t due for a meeting until tomorrow night. The only possible

reason could be news about Coyote. He took out his nerves on the kid. “Let me give you some advice, prospect. When the club president asks for someone, lead with the info. Did he say why?” “Sorry, man. He didn’t say what was goin’ on, only that he wants everyone at Perdition pronto.” “And you didn’t ask what for?” Angel licked his lips. “Uh, no. Damn. Sorry, Steele.” The kid gulped after he said it, like he expected Steele to shoot him on sight. Steele suddenly realized he still had a death grip on the Glock. He deliberately put the gun down and set the

earplugs and goggles with it. If Daisy hadn’t talked him down a few minutes ago, he probably would’ve taken a swing at Angel…or worse. He headed for the door. “You want me to go with you, man?” Steele didn’t bother replying—if the newbie riled him up again, he might earn a beat down.

Chapter Two Christ. Let this be good news. Steele jumped on his 2015 Harley Davidson Dyna Switchback in vivid black and took off. It handled like a dream, and he loved the built-in saddlebags. Great place to haul sh*t— guns, knives, condoms. Normally, a ride soothed his nerves, but this time his heart raced in his chest and his knuckles had gone white on the handlebars. It took him f*cking forever to drive up the road a piece. After he pulled into a space at Perdition, Steele hit the kickstand and dashed inside. Perdition served as the Four

Horsem*n’s clubhouse. The building had been a warehouse at one time and still had the bones of an industrial space. The exposed beams on the vaulted ceiling held two antique Harleys suspended on chains. A long, lacy string of panties wrapped around the walls, along with the occasional framed poster of a naked chick astride a Harley. Think on your Sins, the club motto, was painted in blood red across the surface of one large wall. Steele couldn’t think about anything else right now. All of his sins seemed to be bubbling to the surface lately. He strode past the bar and down the hallway behind it. The boardroom at the end of the

hall had been designed to intimidate. The steel entrance doors were stamped with the image of a stallion’s head along with the club’s name. A quote from Revelations was painstakingly carved into the long oak table centered in the room: Behold a pale horse. And his name that sat on him was Death. And Hell followed with him. Another Bible quote hung in a poster-sized frame on the wall: And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. He shot a glance around the meeting room, noting they nearly had a full table today. Most of the members were present: Axel, Voodoo, Captain,

Shepherd, Pretty Boy, Crash, Dash, Fetch, Goat, Duke, Justice, Breaker, Jagger, Ranger, Ryker, Renegade, Ace, and Wild. Steele stared at the one empty seat —Coyote’s. He forced himself to look away. Normally, the two of them would be sittin’ here bullsh*tting and waiting for the meeting to get started. There’d be no jokes today. Steele surveyed his brothers. They all wore forbidding expressions. Their lives had gotten a lot more complicated lately due to a seriously sh*tty run of horrible events. Captain had confessed he’d betrayed the club to the FBI back in the day. When Cap had been voted out as

a president, he’d been replaced by Axel. Then Shep had up and quit his VP post after announcing he was gay and shacking up with Pretty Boy. The Four Horsem*n now had an unf*cking-holy alliance with the Dixie Mafia thanks to being bribed by the mafia’s brand new underboss, Byron Beauregard. The Dixie Mafia f*ck-up had led to the Horsem*n working a heroin smuggling job with the Tres Erre cartel, nasty blood-soaked bastards out of Mexico. It’d gone south real quick, resulting in Coyote’s capture. All in all, it’d been a depressing few weeks. Axel pounded his gavel on the table, and the meeting started. He had a

commanding presence for someone only in his thirties. His height probably had something to do with it. He stood roughly six and a half feet tall with dark hair and intense, bore-into-your-soul dark eyes. Steele thought puttin’ Axel in charge made sense. He’d always been a brainiac like Duke. Steele respected his style—the new president gave them room to breathe, wanted their input, and always put the club first. “I gotta piece of new business.” Steele gripped the table. “But first, has anyone seen or heard anything suspicious?” They’d lost the cartel’s heroin days

ago. The shipment hadn’t made its way to Dallas because the Raptors had run off with it, and it was anyone’s guess what they’d done with the drugs. Sold it off to some drug dealers? Made a deal with the Feds? Or with another cartel? Everyone shook their heads. “No sign of the cartel. Yet.” Voo had a grim mug. It didn’t bode well. The grace period was bound to end soon enough and in the bloodiest way possible. Tres Erre left hacked up bodies in the street as a warning. Steele imagined the club members’ fates would be worse. “Keep your eyes peeled,” Axel said. “Meanwhile, we’ve got a lead on Coyote’s whereabouts. I’ve been

reachin’ out to friendly clubs in the area, seein’ if they got any intel on where the Raptors might be holed up. I got a lead, but it’s a shaky one. There’s a flophouse outside of Canyon City. At one time, it belonged to one of the members, Junior. I guess he inherited it from a relative but didn’t have enough money to keep it up.” “f*cking Junior,” Cowboy bit out. Steele remembered the name. Junior had been the bastard who’d tried to rape Daisy at the Raptors’ now defunct strip club, the puss*cat Palace, when she’d been working undercover, trying to find Rose. Axel continued on. “I need a couple volunteers to check it out.” Everyone raised their hands.

Axel pointed to Steele. “You sure you wanna go?” Steele rubbed at his chest selfconsciously. “I went to the last couple spots.” He wanted to be involved in the search party. He couldn’t sit around waiting for a miracle. “I’m fine.” He glanced at Duke for some backup. “His wounds are healin’, so I don’t see no harm in it. Speakin’ of, I need to check the bandages when we’re done here,” Duke said. Steele nodded. Duke had been a medic in his Special Forces unit. Before he joined the military, he’d been in med school. While he hadn’t graduated, his brother

served as the club’s official doctor. Despite his lack of bedside manner, Duke knew what the hell he was doin’, although he was a creepy son of a bitch. “I’m all over this, Axel,” Steele put in. “If you’re cool?” Axel got a pinched look, the one he used when he was thinking real hard. “Fine by me, but pick a brother to go with you.” “Seriously, I got this. I can do one bitty scout mission on my own.” He’d already f*cked this up real good. Damn if he’d let those asshats get a hold of another brother. “Yeah, lone-wolfing it ain’t an option,” Axel said. “Choose or I choose

for you.” f*ck it all. Steele pointed to Justice. Both of them had military training and were good shots. Justice had been a Navy SEAL, though he almost never talked about his time in the service, which was a shame. Steele bet Justice had some damn good stories. If Steele had made it through BUD/S training, which was rumored to be a real bitch, he’d never have shut up about how he’d come out on top. “We’ll meet at my place at nine,” Steele told Justice. “Then we’ll head over to Canyon City.” His brother nodded. “I’ll be there.” Justice stood around six feet with

light brown hair and blue eyes. The dude had shadows beneath his eyes and smelled like weed most of the time. He had a couple days’ worth of stubble and wore a gray shirt beneath his Horsem*n hoodie and cut. His clothing was rumpled, like he’d picked them up off the floor moments before he’d put them on. Steele didn’t have a clue how old Justice was, but he appeared to be in his thirties. “Go in stealthy—no cuts and no bikes. I want you to take a club cage and keep it quiet-like,” Axel ordered. “And I’ll text you the address later today.” “Got it, prez,” Steele said. “Good. Anyone else wanna add somethin’?” Axel asked.

No one piped up. Get us the f*ck out of here. Steele finally had a lead, and with any luck, he’d get somethin’ to hit. “Meeting adjourned.” Axel brought the gavel down. The brothers filed out of the room, but the president grabbed his arm before Steele made it. “Not so fast.” Steele sank back down into his chair. Damn. When the boss man wants to see you all private-like, it’s never a good sign. “S’up, prez?” “You doin’ okay, Steele? Need anything? I know you and Yo were tight.” f*ck, he hated this sympathy crap. Everyone had been tiptoeing around him

since he’d been found unconscious and bloody. They should be pissed him at him for failing the club and his brother. If he’d been watching his flank, none of this would’ve have gone down. They would’ve delivered the heroin, and Yo would be fine. He’d put everyone in danger—but then again, Steele had a bad track record. He’d been a screw-up all his life, so why would this situation be any different? Axel should’ve kicked his ass out of the Horsem*n, but he hadn’t even read him the riot act he deserved. Steele sucked in a breath. “Are. Not were. He ain’t dead.” The president clapped him on the shoulder. “If you ever need to talk….”

“Thanks, man. I’ll let you know. Anythin’ else, Axel?” “No, we’re good.” Steele beat feet the f*ck out of there and met up with Duke in the hallway. As per usual, his brother was dressed from head to toe in inky black to match his soul. He had dark hair and eyes, stood an inch or two taller than Steele, and was also in his thirties. Unlike Axel, Duke kept his trap shut and hadn’t said a f*cking word about the situation, which was unusual. His brother typically didn’t mind busting his chops over a screw-up. But then again, Duke was a dick. Although, ever since he’d gotten hot and heavy with Daisy’s baby sister, he’d

been…nice. Well, not nice—Duke would never be nice. But less of a dick. Dick Light. Sometimes Steele caught the man smiling. Smiling! It gave Steele the willies—like watching General Patton do a dance number or something. That just ain’t right. They strolled into the main room together, and Duke kicked a chair toward him. “Have a seat, brother, and take off your shirt.” Steel obligingly sat down and lifted the fabric over his head, wincing at the movement. “How ya feelin’?” Duke peeled the gauze from the wounds to examine it.

Steele hissed as some of the gauze stuck to the edges of a cut. “Like some dickhe*d sliced up my chest with a Ginsu knife.” Sometimes when he closed his eyes, Steele could still feel the knife sinking into flesh. Two men held him down, sitting on his legs, pinning his arms. As he’d thrashed, trying to break free, a grinning, bearded bastard had sliced him up, Freddy Krueger-style. Steele had to hand it to the Raptors, it’d been a well-executed blitz attack. He’d never heard them coming. He’d been exhausted from the drug run and not paying attention to the surroundings. Like a dumbass rookie. The last thing Steele had heard was

a grunt coming a few feet away and a dragging sound as the Raptors had carted Coyote off. He’d passed out afterward from blood loss and exhaustion. Duke continued examining him. “This all looks good. You’re lucky they didn’t cut you any deeper.” “Yeah, I’m real lucky.” His brother ignored the sarcasm. “I don’t see any sign of infection, and you’ve stopped bleeding. You’re takin’ the antibiotics according to my instructions?” “Yeah.” He’d written it all out and slapped them on his fridge. “And the painkillers?” “Yeah, takin’ those, too. Steele can

read,” he grunted, caveman-style. “Really? Because I wasn’t sure.” He grabbed a few rolls of gauze and some medical tape from his black leather doctor’s bag and tossed them to Steele. “Keep washing the wounds and changin’ the dressings twice a day.” “Will do, brother. We done here?” He stood as if Duke had already agreed. “Yeah, you’re good to go. You should be healed in a few weeks.” “Yup.” Though Steele seriously doubted the prognosis. He had a feeling this wound would never heal. “I’ll see you tomorrow, when you get back from your op, for another checkup.”

“Speaking of, you better be on standby. I might have Coyote with me.” On the battlefield, Steele had learned about the power of positive thought, and he tried not to drown in all the negativity. “Tried” being the operative word. “Sure thing, brother.” His brother’s mouth creaked into a serial killer-like rickety smile. Duke thought Coyote was dead, and the bastard was humoring him. Steele marched out the door without another word. He wasn’t giving in until he saw the body, and tonight, he had the opportunity to make those sons of bitches pay.

*** Several hours later, under the cover of darkness, Steele and Justice stood in the tree line near a dilapidated Victorian home. After parking the truck down the road and performing a perimeter check, they decided to approach the house. It had a crack den sort of ambience. Steele had met up with Justice at Inferno earlier in the evening, and they’d taken a cage from Perdition to Canyon City as instructed. The club used the trucks to make deliveries and the like. He hated riding in a cage, but they needed the element of surprise to confront the enemy, provided these

bastards decided to show their ugly faces, of course. They’d driven to Canyon City in silence. Normally, he didn’t mind shootin’ the breeze, but he hadn’t much felt like it lately. Lord knew Justice was terse, so he hadn’t minded the quiet. The Victorian home had once belonged to rich people, but now it looked like the set of a horror movie. The house had survived all this time, and now it stood empty at the end of a dreary country lane outside the city limits. There were a good three or four miles between homes, so this would be the ideal place to stash a prisoner. No witnesses and not a lot of foot traffic. The front porch roof bowed in the

middle, threatening to cave in any minute, and the windows were boarded up. The grass came up to Steele’s knees, and the mailbox was a rusted lump on the ground. He guessed some of the local teens had played mailbox baseball with it. Steele currently rented an apartment, but he’d dreamed of buying a house of his own…only less Nightmare on Elm Street than this house. Not a new house, though. He wanted to fix something older, with character. Steele thought owning property would be a badge of honor, as if he’d made something of himself. He’d grown up so poor he couldn’t even afford to pay attention. His mother had never

made enough money to pay for her own place, and his father had drunk everything he’d earned until Steele’s mother had tossed him out on his whiskey-soaked ass. “Looks vacant.” Justice’s voice turned Steele’s attention back to the present. “Looks can be deceiving.” “If the Raptors were here, there’d be some signs of life—noise, lights. No point in goin’ in.” Justice seemed agitated. He kept shuffling his feet and checking his pockets. “You okay, man?” “Fine.” He doubted it but didn’t pursue the

line of questioning. Even though it looked empty, something nasty might be waiting inside. “Regardless, we should check it out.” “Let’s get it over with then.” Flicking on a flashlight, Steele approached the place and stepped onto the front porch. The boards groaned and rattled beneath his feet. He cautiously made his way to the door, mindful of both his surroundings and the fragile wood beneath him. Given his luck lately, he’d fall through the floorboards and get punctured by rusty nails. Then he’d be forced to spend a couple hours with Duke as the bastard poked him with tetanus needles and sewed his ass together again. No thanks.

Justice followed Steele. They treaded lightly all the way to the entrance. Justice leaned against the wall next to the door while Steele tried the doorknob—the door hinges gave a rusty, metallic screech as it swung open. Yup, Freddie Krueger has to be in there. Steele drew his Glock and held up three fingers. Justice nodded, brandishing his own gun. He counted down, mouthing the words—three, two, one. Guns and flashlights out, they walked into what had probably been a parlor. Hard to tell, because it didn’t have a stick of furniture. Ugh, the smell. Steele should’ve remembered to

bring nose plugs. Ammonia assaulted his nostrils–the scent of piss, as well as the stench of rotting garbage. Justice coughed and drew the collar of his shirt up over his nose. He heard the scratch of nails behind the walls. Rats or mice? Or some ’roided up co*ckroaches? As a kid, he’d battled those bastards—spraying poison, leaving out traps, and eventually beating them to death on the kitchen floor. He’d cut their numbers down, but he hadn’t killed the horde of insects completely. Steele still hated the scurrying noise they made. It made the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. Suddenly, a memory flashed before

Steele’s eyes. Himself as a teenager, hip-deep in trash at the city dump. It’d smelled like this place. At night, when his mother had been working her second job, he’d scrounged for scrap metal he could sell to the recycling place in town. Sometimes he earned enough to buy them extra food, and every bit helped. Shaking off the recollection, he focused on his current surroundings. A collection of tattered blankets, empty bottles, fast food wrappers, receipts, used condoms, and stray pieces of clothing littered the room, along with an overflowing ashtray and cheap candles, which had welded themselves to the floor. Had the neighborhood kids been using it as a party pad? Or maybe some

squatters had taken up residence for shelter. They’d have to be desperate, given the state of this sh*thole. Together, they swept through the bottom floor. The kitchen held an assortment of rotten food, which added an extra layer of sickening on top of the urine/garbage combo. While it might be disgusting, the house appeared to be uninhabited now—no bikers, no hostages…no homeless people or horny teens, either. Although they hadn’t ventured up to the second level. Steele wandered over to the rickety staircase to find the top portion was crumbling–the wood literally rotting away. The stairs had been carpeted at

one point, but he couldn’t tell what color because it’d turned into a grimy black from dirt and fluids of some sort. He really didn’t wanna walk on the unstable flight of steps, and he didn’t hear any telltale noises. “Any chance someone’s hiding up there?” Justice shined his flashlight up at the plastered ceiling. Chunks had fallen on the floor, exposing the bare wood beneath them. Other parts were crumbling, surrounded by brownish stains. Still other portions had large holes where the wood had given way. Steele doubted the second story could support one man’s weight, let alone two…a guard and a prisoner. Or

Justice and himself, for that matter. “Nah.” His brother already backed toward the door. “f*ck this place.” Dammit. Yet another dead end. “Call it a night?” “Let’s pack it in. I think this is a lost cause.” “Yeah, it’s pointless.” “We’ll find another way. Sorry.” Steele nodded grimly. At this point, it’d take nothing short of a miracle to save Coyote. Justice exited first, and Steele gave him space while he navigated the shaky porch, in case the damn thing crumbled to the ground beneath their feet. Steele was about to step outside

when a human-shaped projectile slammed into him, pinning him against the wall.

Chapter Three “Who are you, and who do you work for?” Steele could make out his Glock laying on the floor a couple feet away, right next to his spinning flashlight. He tried to focus on his attacker’s face but couldn’t because the glare from the guy’s headlamp blinded him. Disoriented, Steele shook his head, trying to clear it. He hadn’t been bushwhacked since his first week in Afghanistan. Luckily, he’d survived the encounter, but he didn’t know if he’d be so fortunate this time. When he could think again, he

found himself pressed against the wall. Whatever lived in the rotting wood at his back squalled and scratched as if trying to tear through the panel. “I said, who do you work for?” “Where the f*ck did you come from?” Steele asked through gritted teeth. “I’m askin’ the questions.” “What’s goin’ on in there?” Justice demanded from the porch, but he was smart enough not to run in half-co*cked. Running headlong into an attack would be a stupid move. “One guy!” Steele bellowed. “Armed. Stay outside.” He returned his attention to the attacker. “Where‘d you

come from?” “Upstairs, asshole,” he growled. “You should’ve checked it out. Now answer me.” What the hell? This guy had somehow scrambled up the ramshackle staircase? “How’d you get up there?” “Scaled the wall with a grappling hook.” Steele focused on what he could determine without seeing the ninja bushwhacker clearly. His attacker was a short dude and carried a huge Smith & Wesson 460XVR. Overcompensating for a tiny dick, no doubt. From what he’d heard, it shot like a cannon and it could bring

down a bear with only one bullet, but it held five. They didn’t call it a “bone collector” for nothing. He had the gun co*cked and pressed beneath Steele’s chin. He hoped the f*cking thing didn’t have a hair trigger— the bastard might accidently blow Steele’s head clean off. “Nice piece you got there.” “Thanks. If you don’t start talkin’, you might get an insider’s view of it.” Steele tried not to think about the cold gun barrel against his chin and took another gander at his assailant. He wore black fatigues and a half-face mask printed to resemble a grinning skeleton, which covered his features from neck to nose.

Steele could hear Justice tromping across the porch, even though he couldn’t see his brother. “Stay back,” Steele called. The footfalls stopped. “Yeah, I’d listen to your friend. If you come in here, I might get agitated and accidently shoot you,” Skeleton Boy shouted. The intruder’s voice was a bit high for a man—girly even—and bizarrely familiar. Steele had heard the voice before, but where? “If you do, you won’t make it out of there alive,” Justice snarled. Steele heard the click of his brother’s gun co*cking. f*ck, this could

turn into a genuine bloodbath if he didn’t do something. Yet another op he screwed the pooch on. He should’ve checked the upstairs and done a more thorough perimeter check. Keep it together. Think about this later…after you make it out of here alive. “Two against one. Those aren’t the kind of odds you wanna play,” Justice said. “I can always pull the trigger, and we could have us a one-on-one death match. Sound good?” Skeleton Boy hit a button, and the head lamp switched off. Steele blinked as his eyes adjusted to the darkness once more.

“Come on. I’m done playing games. Who are you?” Skeleton Boy demanded again. “Who do you work for?” “I’m Steele, and I’m selfemployed.” f*ck if he’d bring the club deeper into this particular pile of dog crap. “I don’t have time for this.” When his eyes adjusted Steele brought a hand up and smashed his attacker’s wrist with all of his strength, knocking the gun out of Skeleton Boy’s hand. Steele vaulted forward and gripped the other man by the shirt before ramming him into the opposite wall. When Steele reached for the mask, the guy grabbed Steele’s other wrist and

butted the heel of his hand into Steele’s chin, clacking his teeth together. Lightning quick, Skeleton Boy hooked a foot around Steele’s ankle and sent him tumbling to the floor. Steele knocked him off balance and hauled him down to the floor. They struggled, spinning around and around in the filth until Steele finally pinned Skeleton Boy beneath him. “You okay?” Justice called from the doorway. “I’m fine, man. Got the gun away from him.” “Let go,” Skeleton Boy groaned. Steele heard Justice coming in the door behind him, but he didn’t turn to

look. He was more interested in the masked man on the floor. He yanked off the headlamp and used it as a spotlight, then jerked the mask down and gasped at what was revealed. “Ashton Calhoun,” he whispered. Steele couldn’t believe it. He hadn’t seen her since Abe’s funeral. Abe Calhoun’s younger twin sister. Abe had been born three minutes earlier, so he’d taken on the role of big brother. “I ain’t seen you in a month of Sundays.” Steele stood and dragged her along with him. He examined her more closely in the hazy light. He’d know Ash anywhere, even if she’d changed over the years. She stood about five and a half feet tall

with brown hair pinned tight to her head and the same vivid green eyes. Most noticeably, she now had a long jagged scar on the right side from her hairline to chin. While the skin must’ve knit together long ago, it’d left a deep groove in her pretty face. Ash stared right back at him, studying him. “As I live and breathe, Jack Steele. I thought you looked familiar, but I wondered if my mind was playin’ tricks on me.” Or maybe she’d wanted to f*ck with him. He certainly deserved it. Ash didn’t look angry, exactly— more like stunned, a bit wary. The last time he’d seen her, she’d been empty, hollowed out by grief at her brother’s

funeral. He’d tried to approach her afterward, wanting to say something— anything—to ease her pain, but she’d walked away from him and right out of his life. They hadn’t spoken since. Damn, but the military agreed with her. She was hotter than he remembered —sleek and sexy. She was leaner, meaner, and practically dripping badassery with her big gun and tight fatigues. She’d dropped a couple pounds and replaced it with whip-corded muscle. After he had a few minutes to get used to the scar, he might get into it —it gave her a dangerous air. Justice still brandished his weapon. “You two know each other?”

“Yeah. You can stand down. She’s cool, man.” “Chilly, you might say.” Then came her familiar sub-zero expression— colder than a cast-iron commode in the winter. “Uh…Steele?” Justice piped up. “She don’t look so friendly.” Yeah, he could read it in the curl of her lip, the indifference in her gaze. Ash hated his ass, and she had every right to, but at least she wasn’t empty. Pissed off was better than grief-stricken. Steele smiled at her, giving her a taste of his charm, hoping he’d thaw her out some. “Naw. Don’t worry. Me and Ash go way back. Trust me, she’s not a threat.”

“Wanna bet?” She socked him in the nose, snapping his head back. *** Twenty minutes later, Ashton Calhoun stood outside with Jack and his buddy, Justice. Jack had a white handkerchief pressed to his nose to stop the bleeding, and a large crimson stain bloomed on the fabric like a blood-red rose. Good. Ash snickered. She wished she’d popped him a couple more times, maybe knocked out a tooth or two—he’d earned it and then some. An awkward silence hung over the group. No one had

spoken a word after the introductions were made, and she sure as hell didn’t feel like chatting. Jack hadn’t aged much in the past ten years—still tall, long, and lean. His body seemed more solid, muscled. And she should know. Ash had gotten her hands on him as they rolled around in the filth. Actually, he’d gotten more attractive, which wasn’t fair. He still had dark brown hair and those striking hazel eyes—a co*ckiness she’d once found appealing as a lovestruck teenager. At one time, she’d thought he was the sexiest guy she’d ever seen. Ash had followed him around for years…even wanted to give him her virginity in high school. Now, Ash was

glad she’d screwed someone else. Though Jack, er, Steele had given her her first kiss. He’d been damn good at it too…the bastard. He’d been the only guy she’d ever loved, and it’d died a slow, bleeding death. And apparently, Jack had an alias now. He was going by his last name, Steele. Hmph. Justice and Steele. Lame. How the hell did Jack end up a member of a biker gang? But more importantly, did she really give a rat’s ass? She’d been searching for the Raptors for a week now, and she’d boned up on biker culture. It was obvious the two men belonged to a gang. Ash dusted the yuck off herself,

although something sticky was glued to her backside. She probably didn’t want to know what had gotten stuck there. Justice sat on the tailgate of their truck, watching her like he’d found a fascinating new show on Netflix. The biker had to be military, but she didn’t know what branch. She could tell by the way he’d handled himself in their earlier skirmish. He stood around six feet tall with light brown hair and blue eyes. His skin had a golden hue as though he’d spent a lot of time in the sun. Stubble hovered over his lips and across his cheeks. He wore a pair of hip-hugging, dark blue jeans along with a black hoodie. Ash glared at him.

Neither of them offered up anything in the way of intel. She had ways of getting to the bottom of things—not so pleasant ways. They’d gone snooping in that house too. They had to be assholedeep in all of this. Ash would be lying if she said she wasn’t looking forward to teaching them a lesson in the process. Namely, don’t f*ck with me. “Who is she again?” Justice asked. “A girlfriend, you said?” “He’s not my boyfriend.” “She’s an old high school buddy, Ashton Calhoun. She enlisted in the Corps too.” “Gotcha. A chick marine like Daze. Explains how she ambushed your sorry ass.” Justice raised his brows.

Ash snorted. Jack’s mouth hung open like he was trying to catch flies. “f*ck off. I was friends with her older brother, Abe.” The mention of Abe’s name sent a spike of adrenaline spiraling through her body. She felt like backhanding him for daring to bring up her brother’s name but managed to hold on to herself. She ground her teeth together. “Were you?” Jack met her eyes. “We were all good friends. Once.” Ash hadn’t intended to run into Jack —er—Steele again. It might’ve been easier if she’d left this alone, but she was here and she had a case to work.

Maybe fate had stepped in on this one. They had a lot of unfinished business between them. Things needed to be said. And she didn’t back down from a fight—not these days. Jack cleared his throat. “What the hell are you doin’ here? Last I heard, you were workin’ for military intelligence, all top secret.” “Times change. Now I work for Cole Security as a contractor.” “You’re a mercenary.” Justice had a disapproving tone, but Ash nodded anyway. She didn’t like the title, but she couldn’t deny the truth of it. “Doing what?” “None of your f*cking business,

Jack.” “The name’s Steele, and it’s the only one I’ll answer to.” A muscle bulged in his jaw. “Now what the f*ck were you doin’ in the house?” “Lookin’ for buried treasure.” “Dusty….” “Don’t call me Dusty.” In middle school, he’d given her the pet name long before either of them had any real experience with death—ashes to ashes, dust to dust. “When did you join a biker gang? Last time I saw your sorry ass, you were still a Marine.” “I think you mean motorcycle club, and what makes you think I joined one?”

“The location, the stupid nicknames…Justice, Steele. Not to mention your tats. Are you Raptors?” “f*ck, no,” they said in unison, feathers ruffled like two wet hens. Interesting. They obviously didn’t like the Raptors, which might prove useful. “Then which biker gang are you members of? I know you weren’t hangin’ around this dump for sh*ts and giggles.” “Who are you working for?” Steele stepped closer. “I told you. Cole Security.” “Yeah, I heard, but who are you contracted to work for?” Steele asked. Then he and Justice exchanged a sly look.

She might as well give it up. This pissing contest was going nowhere. “The Drug Enforcement Agency.” Justice frowned. “The DEA is using mercs? What the f*ck? Don’t they gotta whole cadre of government employees?” “Yeah, but those boys gotta obey so many pesky rules. I don’t.” Being an independent contractor meant very few rules and no legal hangups. Ash didn’t require any red tape like search warrants, and she didn’t work with local law enforcement either. The bad guys she hunted down lived outside the protection of the legal system, so it all worked out real nice. She didn’t feel a bit sorry for the dealers or worry much about their so-called rights. And the pay

wasn’t half bad either. “No, it’s sort of like being a bounty hunter. I get bonuses for accurate information leading to arrests, but I’m not involved in the actual arresting most of the time. Now it’s your turn. Who do you work for?” “So as a merc, you work outside the scope of the system.” Steele co*cked his head to the side. She gritted her teeth. “Yeah. So what?” Justice gave her a once-over in a non-sexual way, as though sizing her up. “And you’re huntin’ the Raptors?” Ash raised her chin. “Yeah, what’s it to you?”

They both grinned evil, like twin jack-o-lanterns on a fall front porch. “We’re members of the Four Horsem*n MC.” Justice acted like it was something to be proud of. “How’d you like to be partners?” Steele asked. Partners with Steele and his criminal buddies? “I’d rather light myself on fire.” Ash turned on her heel and headed for her Forrester. “You haven’t even heard us out.” Steele followed her to an SUV she’d stashed behind the house in a copse of trees while Justice trailed them, still letting his brother do all the talking.

“Don’t need to.” She opened the door and grabbed a couple of napkins from the console. Ash spread them over the seat so her stained ass didn’t make the upholstery a gummy mess. Before she could climb up, Steele snagged her arm. She fixed him with a glare. “Why you workin’ a dangerous mission like this without a partner?” “I work alone. Now get out of my face.” Ash did everything alone these days. The higher-ups at Cole had offered her all sorts of partners. She’d had her pick–former Special Forces, exSEALS…anyone she wanted. But she’d refused, preferring to keep her life clean

and simple. He backed away and placed his hands on his hips. “Look, all I’m askin’ is for to you meet with Axel, the president of our club.” “Why?” “Because we can help you.” “Why are you so fired up to find the Raptors? Is this some kind of revenge deal? Because I ain’t got time for cowboy sh*t.” “You seem to make time for your own revenge.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Abe died in a poppy field. You can’t tell me it’s some coincidence you’re workin’ for the DEA now,

bringing drug dealers to justice.” She wanted to shove the barrel of her gun under his chin again. “Abe was murdered because you didn’t stay at your f*cking post, Steele.” He flinched. Good, she wanted to hurt him as much as he’d hurt her, if it was even possible. While he’d lost a friend, she’d been severed in two, and only death would make her whole again. He refused to meet her eyes. “I know. But I’m right, aren’t I?” “Yeah, you got me, but you’re the last person on earth I’d work with. I hate your guts.” She’d wanted to identify and hunt

down Abe’s killers, but her superiors had found out she’d been misusing Marine intelligence resources. They’d chewed her ass and hurried her out of Afghanistan. Ash had served out the rest of her tour in Iraq. Afterward, the military told her she could either quit or they’d dishonorably discharge her. Ash couldn’t enter Afghanistan without raising some big f*cking red flags; she’d been forced to target other bastards who killed people for drugs– cartels. If she couldn’t punish Abe’s killers, she’d make damn sure his death meant something by going after assholes in the drug trade. Steele turned from her, and she studied his profile for a minute. He

cleared his throat before he spoke. “I know you hate me. Hell, you should hate me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t help you complete your mission.” She shook her head. “I can’t trust you. You care more about your own skin than partners, so f*ck you, and f*ck your offer.” “One of our men is missing. The Raptors took him and....” Steele turned away from her so she couldn’t see his face. “What aren’t you sayin’?” Calmly, Steele worked the buttons on his shirt until he revealed his chest swathed in gauze. He peeled back the tape and exposed a deep cut in the shape of an eagle—the Raptor’s symbol.

“Holy sh*t.” Ash took a sick sort of satisfaction in seeing his wounds. Sometimes she felt like Steele had taken a knife to her chest and carved out her heart. He nodded. “Right before they took one of our brothers, Coyote.” “You mean you lost another partner?” “I did.” His tone was cold and clipped. “And he’s still…alive?” “We think so. For now.” Steele sighed. She glanced at Justice over Steele’s shoulder. He wouldn’t look her in the eye. “I’m surprised you walked away

from this mission.” “So? Will you work with us?” If the Raptors had one of the Four Horsem*n’s men, the gang had a plan of some sort, or they would’ve killed the guy and been done with it. Tracking a target was easier if she knew their purpose. Otherwise, Ash had to fumble around blindly, hoping she’d figure out what they were up to and where they’d gone. Ash hated to admit it, but she was desperate. The run-down house had been a long shot. The Raptors had gone underground, and she’d only come up with one other tiny lead because one of their former employees had shown up in the system. If she delivered the Raptor’s

location, they’d get one step closer to taking down the Tres Erre. She wanted to see something meaningful come from her work—something to make Abe’s sacrifice worth all the pain and suffering her brother had gone through that terrible night. “Why’d they kidnap Coyote?” “Not a f*ckin’ clue. So you’ll meet with Axel?” “Fine. I’ll see your boss, but it’s only a meetin’. I haven’t agreed to anythin’.” “Got it,” he said. “We’ll lead the way.” Steele sauntered over to his truck while she slid into her SUV. Despite her better judgement, she

might have to work with the Four Horsem*n.

Chapter Four I must be out of my ever-lovin’ mind. She drove behind Steele and Justice in her dark grey Subaru Forrester. The next thing Ash knew, they passed the city limits into a town called Hell. Fabulous. Ash distracted herself by glancing around, getting a lay of the land. While she wanted to hate the place simply because Steele lived here, she couldn’t. From what she could tell, Hell was a quaint town. Lots of little shops with hell-themed names: Devil’s Brew, Inferno Firearms, Perdition, and Hades

to name a few. It reminded Ash of her hometown, Poteet, Texas. Poteet’s biggest tourist draw was a strawberry festival held in April every year. Poteet really got into it—the water tower had been painted to resemble a big strawberry, and there were several smaller statues of the fruit scattered around the town. She’d been in marching band, and they’d performed every year in the town parade. Ash had learned Strawberry Fields Forever on the flute —no easy task. Ash loved the small town atmosphere, but working for the DEA required a lot of traveling, both domestic and abroad to Mexico. She hadn’t been

back home to Poteet in years—being in the town was too painful. Around every corner were memories. Poteet was so small, the elementary, middle, and high schools had been combined into one mega building, and she and Abe had been in the same class since kindergarten. They’d shared everything—friends, family, a vocation. Their parents were furious when she and Abe had announced they were enlisting into the Marines. Ash thought they’d probably pictured them following in their footsteps—going to college and then medical school or law school—but a recruiter had come to the high school. Knowing what she did now, she wished

they had applied to college. Abe would still be alive, and she wouldn’t be so…damaged. Suddenly, the bikers stopped, and she snapped back to the present. Ash was grateful for the distraction. Memory lane was a real bitch. According to the flaming sign, featuring a devil holding a wrench, the garage was Seventh Circle Motors. It was a large warehouse-type structure with three separate garage doors. One of those slid open, and a tall, dark-haired man sauntered out. Looking beyond him, Ash noted a concrete floor and a vaulted ceiling. Along the walls were red metallic cabinets, presumably stuffed full of shiny steel tools.

Steel and Justice hopped out of their truck, and she slid out of the SUV. Ash joined the men near the doors. The tall man held out a hand to her, which she shook. “I’m Axel. Good to meet you, Ms. Calhoun.” Evidently, Steele had filled him in on the ride over. “Thanks.” She’d never been one for small talk, so she didn’t even try. Axel stood roughly six and a half feet tall with penetrating dark eyes, wide shoulders, a narrow waist, and something between a beard and a five o’ clock shadow on his cheeks. None of the Horsem*n were ugly. Weird. When she’d been assigned this case, she’d seen some surveillance

photos of the Raptors. Calling them homely would be a nice way of putting it. “Why don’t we talk in my office?” Axel walked to a nearby door and held it open. Ash trailed Justice and Steele into the room. The smell of motor oil lingered in the air. There was a metal reception desk outfitted with a cash register, a coffee pot, and a water cooler, as well as a few steel chairs and an end table covered in old magazines. Both Steele and Justice sat down while she stood in the corner. No one was at her back, and she didn’t get too comfortable in case they had something nefarious in mind. Axel shot a glance at a young

woman working on a red sedan twenty or so feet away. She was tall and thin with short black hair streaked with purple and shaved on one side. The woman appeared to be in her twenties and wore a pair of black coveralls and Doc Martens speckled with lavender and silver. “Dani, I’ll be a couple of minutes. Knock if you need me.” “Will do,” she called. Axel shut the door and got right down to business, which Ash appreciated. “Steele tells me you’re a merc working for the DEA through Cole Security.” A lot of ex-military worked for security firms after they’d completed

their tours because those jobs tended to pay better. “Yeah, I worked in intelligence while I was in the Marines, and Cole recruited me after I finished my tours.” “How’d you get picked for intelligence work?” Justice watched her intently. “One of my instructors recommended me.” Ash wasn’t convinced the recommendation had been a compliment. She had a feeling she’d been singled out due to moral ambiguity and general sneakiness. “I joined a special squad, and I can’t say much more about it.” “What do you do for Cole?” Axel leaned against the front desk, angling his

body to face her. “I scout for them, tracking down persons of interest and such. Then they send in a heavily armed extraction team.” She cracked her knuckles. “Sometimes I get in on the action.” If she played better with others, they’d probably call her in for more of those group missions. Ash loved a good takedown—maybe a bit too much. “What do they want with the Raptors?” Steele asked. “It’s the Drug Enforcement Agency. What do you think?” Steele glanced at her, and she could see censure in his gaze. Well, she answered to Cole and nobody else. As a contractor, she had the freedom to take

or leave jobs and work—more or less— on her own terms. She liked not having an overbearing boss. “Don’t know unless you tell us.” Axel seemed to be a patient man, thoughtful. Actually, none of these men fit her expectations of what outlaw bikers should be. “Big picture? They’re after the Tres Erre cartel. I’d imagine the first step in squeezin’ them is to shut down their supply lines in the United States.” Not like the DEA sat down and rolled out their strategy for her, but she could piece it together and figure it out for herself. All three men looked at each other, having a silent conversation she couldn’t quite grasp.

“From what I understand, the cartel is the real target, and the Raptors are a means to an end for you.” Axel scratched his chin. “Yeah. How can you help?” “We’ll talk about it in a moment.” She gritted her teeth, resenting his high-handed tone. “Before we do, it’s important you understand somethin’. The Horsem*n steer clear of law enforcement when we can, but we’re in a real bind this time. So we gotta do things we don’t wanna do to get out of it.” Axel crossed his arms over his chest. “Steele says the two of you were childhood friends.” It was a bit more complicated, but

her personal life didn’t figure into this equation at all. If it did, she would’ve walked away from Steele the second she clapped eyes on him. Only she’d have beat the tar out of him first. “We knew each other, yeah.” “And we can trust her?” Axel turned to Steele. Steele considered this a moment before he answered. “Yeah, I think so.” “Trusting me has never been the problem,” she said pointedly. Steele grimaced. Axel’s eyes flicked back and forth between them, as if trying to suss out what the deal was, but he didn’t ask. He glanced at Justice, and they seemed to

have a wordless conversation. “And do you vouch for her?” Axel asked. Steele hesitated a second and then nodded. “I do and I take full responsibility for Ash.” The men all nodded, and Ash knew she’d missed something. Axel turned his attention back to her. “Okay then. Our information comes with a price.” “Of course it does.” Criminals always demanded payment. Cole offered cash to informants as an incentive, and she’d made her share of deals with the lesser of two evils over the years. She let all the contempt she felt for Steele

show on her face as she spoke to him. “How much money do you boys want to do the right thing?” “We don’t want a dime,” Axel said. “You may not believe this, but we’re the good guys. This club helps people.” “How?” They couldn’t be serious with this good guy shtick. Outlaw biker clubs dealt in drugs, prostitution, gunrunning, and any number of other sins. They were bad guys—less horrible than the cartel, but only incrementally. They should all be rounded up and taken to jail. “We believe in vigilante justice,” Steele said. “Sometimes the law doesn’t help the right people, and we come in handy during those kinds of situations.”

For a moment, she thought they were joking, but nobody laughed. Three pairs of unblinking eyes stared at her. Holy sh*t. They were serious about this good-guy routine. “Then what do you want?” The president cracked his knuckles and glanced around the room. The brothers nodded at him, as if giving him a wordless go-ahead. “Immunity for me and mine. We gotta…connection to the situation. One you might find helpful.” Now they were getting down to it. A long, uncomfortable silence stretched on, and she waited for one of them to fill the void. No one spoke up. “What kind of connection?” She eyed Axel.

“We’ll tell you after an agreement is drafted—between us, you, and Cole. The DEA never even gets a whiff of this. Understood?” She bit the inside of her cheek. The last thing she wanted to do was protect guilty parties. Anyone involved in buying or selling drugs was part of the problem as far as she was concerned, but she didn’t get to dole out the punishment. Sometimes these thorny decisions really sucked ass, but deals had to be cut with some of these lowlifes. Especially if they were interested in the shot-callers —the ones who made the decisions, got the most profit. For a moment, Ash was torn. She

could tell them go to hell and watch the club instead. Sooner or later, the Horsem*n would lead her to the information, but it’d be the harder way to go. If things got sticky, she’d have backup with her. “We got a deal?” Axel stood and offered her his hand. She stared at it, unwilling to shake until she got more information. “Tell me first.” “Deal first, and then we talk—and I want it in writing.” Ash met Axel’s dark eyes, and she didn’t see any wiggle room in their black depths. Aw, f*ck it. Big picture, right?

“Fine. I’ll call my boss, and he’ll fax over an agreement.” Ash nodded to the fax machine in the corner of the room. “Give me the number.” He scribbled it down on a piece of scrap paper, and she tucked it into her pocket for safekeeping. Axel crossed his arms over his chest. “I’ll run this by the rest of the brothers, but I don’t foresee any problems.” “Works for me.” Ash headed to the door. She’d had a long-ass day, and the foul odors from the abandoned house still clung to her skin and clothing. What she wanted more than anything was a hot shower…and to get the hell away from Steele for a few hours.

“After we sign, we’ll talk tomorrow. In the meantime, we’ll put you up for the night. Steele, can you get her squared away at Hades?” “Sure thing, prez,” Steele said. Ash bit the inside of her cheek. She didn’t want another encounter with Steele, but she didn’t bitch about it. It’d only prolong the meeting. “Fine. See you all tomorrow.” She turned to stare at Steele. “You comin’ or what?” Steele headed for the door, and the other bikers all exchanged a questioning look. She’d bet anything they wanted to know exactly what her relationship had been with Steele.

f*ck ‘em. It was none of their business. *** Twenty minutes later, Steele handed Ash room key number ten. They stood in the Hades lobby together. Steele could’ve handed this task off to a hellion, but then he wouldn’t have had an excuse to talk to Ash. Since they’d left Seventh Circle, his conversation with Ash had been stilted, overly polite. He’d somehow become f*cking tongue-tied, and that never happened to him around women. He normally flirted his way into their panties without much effort, but not with

Ash. Steele wasn’t trying to get into her bed, but he hoped he could talk to her at least, maybe try to make things right between them—though he doubted it would ever happen, especially after what he’d done. But he still had to try. “Do I need to sign anything?” He noticed when she spoke, she focused on something else—his forehead or the wall behind him. She never looked him directly in the eye. Steele stepped closer to her, trying to make her see him, acknowledge him in some way. “Nah, no books on this one. You’re helpin’ out the club, so room and board is included. You can stay here

as long as the job takes.” “This ain’t necessary. I get a per diem amount every day.” His pocket buzzed, and Steele glanced at the message. Duke wanted to know if he’d broken any of the cuts open. He thumbed an I’m fine message and turned his attention back to Ash. But she’d already headed for the door. He ran to catch up with her on the sidewalk. “Need any help with your bags?” f*ck, he sounded as desperate as a prospect trying to chat up his first hellion. “Nope.” She grabbed a couple of rucksacks from the trunk of her vehicle and slung them over a shoulder.

“Are you hungry? We could get a bite.” They had a lot to hash out. Steele wanted to say “I’m sorry.” He should’ve apologized at Abe’s funeral, but the words had gotten stuck in his throat. It seemed like such a weakass thing to say. And it didn’t come anywhere close to covering the damage Steele had done. “I don’t feel like eatin’ after rollin’ around in the filth.” Ash headed for the room. As she reached the door, she glanced back at him. “Steele, I’m here to do a job and that’s it.” “I know.” “Good.” She unlocked the door and tossed her bags on a nearby chair.

He saw her point. They had some sticky issues to sort through. Steele was relieved he’d gotten a second chance to rectify some of the damage he’d done. Now, he just had to convince her to listen to him. Steele stepped closer to her, but she held a hand out to ward him off. “You’re too close.” “Okay.” Steele backed off but handed her a business card. She plucked it from his fingers, taking great care not to touch him. “I run Inferno Firearms up the block. I work there with Daisy WestonGrant. She’s, uh, married to one of my club brothers,” he babbled. “You’d like

her, she’s a former Marine too. We all worked together—me, Daisy, and Coyote—until…well, you know. I got an apartment in the Brimstone Arms complex a couple streets over if you need anything. I also wrote my cell number on the back.” “Thanks.” Without another word, Ash slammed the door and locked it. Dazed, Steele stood there, staring at the grain of the wood since it was up close and real personal. He had the strangest feeling she wouldn’t be giving him a call. *** “Yeah, that went real well.”

Steele turned to see Justice leaning against his Harley in the parking lot. He had a wide smile on his face. Evidently, he’d retrieved his bike from Inferno right after the meeting and decided to annoy the hell out of Steele for sport. “How long you been there?” He hadn’t even noticed his brother in the parking lot. But Steele should be used to it. As a teenager, he’d been more aware of Ash in a room than anyone else. “Long enough.” “Good for you. What the f*ck do you want?” He walked over to Steele and nodded to the closed door. “Answers. I ain’t ever seen anyone of the female persuasion act that way around you.”

“Which way?” He hoped Justice would get bored and find someone else to harass. Steele blew past him and started hoofing it down the street to his shop, where his own bike would be waiting for him. “You know exactly what I’m talkin’ about.” His brother paced him, matching his strides. “I think she wants to rip your head clean off your neck.” “Really? Because I think she’d rather shoot my balls off and mount them over her fireplace.” “Why? Women are usually all over you…at first.” Steele didn’t answer the question and kept hiking.

Justice tried again. “Is this an after sort of situation? You f*cked her and now she hates your ass?” The only sound was boots on concrete. “I thought you might need to talk is all.” Steele didn’t believe the bullsh*t for a second. All of his brothers were a bunch of nosy bitches, and the club loved gossip. “I don’t.” “Fine, keep your secrets, but I bet you could use some weed.” “Don’t need any weed,” he grumbled. “And why the f*ck are you bein’ so friendly?” He stopped walking and glared at Justice. They’d hung out in

a group before but never alone. Steele spent most of his time with Coyote, Daisy, and Cowboy. Who the f*ck knew who Justice hung out with? “’Cuz you need a friend, and I take those club commandments real serious. ‘Honor the brotherhood by always being willing to help another brother out,’” he quoted. Steele thought about protesting but gave up. f*ck, he could use some relaxation. He was wound tighter than a top. “Fine, let’s do this, but I’m not tellin’ you a damn thing.” “Whatever you say.” Justice pulled a baggie of weed from his back pocket. “Get your bike, and I’ll meet you at Perdition. We’ll do this up right.”

The next thing Steele knew, they were seated in the pinball room in the back of Perdition. The last time he’d come here, he’d been with Coyote. They’d had an all-day gaming marathon —winner bought the loser dinner. Yo had won, of course, and proceeded to eat the biggest steak Voo had ever cooked. Steele shook it off. He couldn’t think about Coyote right now. The room had three big screen televisions. Justice had found a good episode of American Pickers, and it played on one of the screens. There were a couple of pinball machines along the wall, as well as gaming systems like Xbox and PlayStation.

They’d finished playing Call of Duty, Black Ops III. Shooting imaginary folks had felt damn good. Like the firing range earlier, it’d taken the edge off Steele’s anger. At the moment, he had a basket of hot wings and a bottle of Shiner Ruby Redbird in his hand. Steele was feelin’ no pain…actually not much of anythin’ else, really. It was the best he’d felt in days. He and Justice were passing a bong made out of a plastic Dr. Pepper bottle back and forth. “So what the f*ck’s goin’ on with you and this girl?” Justice asked. If Steele didn’t know better, he’d say his brother had set his ass up. Justice had high tolerance for this sh*t, but

Steele rarely toked. The combination of beer, weed, exhaustion, and dealin’ with Ash had knocked him on his ass. “You tryin’ to take Voo’s job? ’Cuz the VP vets all the old ladies.” Steele bit into a buffalo wing. “Nah, curious is all.” Justice had a basket of potato skins on his lap. They looked damn good, and Steele was wishin’ he’d ordered some, too. He hadn’t felt like eating much lately, and right now, he was ravenous. He finished off the wing and chucked the bones on a nearby napkin, then pressed a hand against his growling stomach. “Damn. I could eat the north end of a southbound polecat.”

“Steele….” “I call bullsh*t on you.” He pointed a finger at his brother. “You don’t care, but Axel does. He put you up to this.” His brother took a long swig of beer. “Fine. You got me. He caught a whiff of somethin’ in the meetin’ and wanted me to track it down. Anythin’ we need to worry about?” “Like what?” “A woman scorned. She’s got the vibe, man–hot, kinda scary, and way too interested in you.” “She’s interested in me?” “Focus.” “And you think I f*cked her?” “No offense, but it’s what you do. A

lot of women in this town hate your ass because you’ve left them high and dry. ” Steele wanted to argue, but the man had a point. Actually, he left them hot and wet….and alone. He’d spent most of his life screwing and discarding women. Steele gave them the speech and tried to minimize the damage, but not all of them got it. And he sure as sh*t wasn’t going to explain it before he banged them. Ash was the only one he’d wanted and couldn’t have. And he’d craved her for a long f*cking time—since they were kids. At her sweet sixteenth party, he’d given Ash her very first kiss. Steele had been watching her, dreaming of her for months before it had happened. And he’d almost given her a lot

more than a kiss. Somehow, she’d gone from his friend’s bossy kid sister to dream girl over one summer. He’d craved her ever since, but he couldn’t have her because of Abe. f*cking around with your best friend’s sister violated the bro code. Steele had been forced into doing something drastic to shut down the attraction. Something he still regretted to this day. After Abe’s death, there’d been no hope at all. Now Ash hated his ass, and Steele couldn’t say he blamed her. Besides, he didn’t deserve a woman like her. He’d only f*ck it up if he did get the chance. She’d always be the one who’d gotten away.

“Steele?” He tossed back the rest of his beer and then stood. “I didn’t f*ck her, man. I don’t give a damn if you don’t believe me, but I’m tellin’ you the truth.” He swallowed the lump in his throat. “She hates me, but not because I f*cked her.” “What’s the issue then?” Steele wanted to tell someone he’d gotten his best friend killed, but he couldn’t. Justice had been in the military too. What would he think of someone who’d blown off guard duty for a lousy roll in the hay? “It ain’t got nothin’ to do with the club. Ash will keep her word. You can all trust her.”

“But—” “We’re done here. I liked you better when you were a silent motherf*cker.” Steele stalked out and found an empty crash room down the hall. He needed to sleep if he could, but it wouldn’t be easy. His past was comin’ at him with both barrels, and Coyote might die at any second.

Chapter Five Beep…beep…beep. The shrill shrieking of the alarm app echoed in the hotel room, bouncing off the white walls and intensifying. Ash rolled over in bed and fumbled for her cell. She snatched it from the nightstand and thumbed the alarm off, then collapsed back against the pillow with a groan. She checked the time. Five in the morning, time to get her ass up and moving. She rubbed her eyes, and they felt grainy and raw—like she’d gone to bed only a few minutes ago. It took all her willpower to stop herself from snuggling down beneath the covers and

snoozing for a couple more hours. “Damn, I must be getting soft.” She threw her legs over the edge of the bed and silently gave herself a good talking to. Marines don’t whine, they get sh*t done. With attitude. Lounging in bed all day wasn’t an option. Ash’s life was made up of a series of rituals—duty, schedules, and responsibilities were a big part of her vocabulary. Pushing herself came with the territory. She hobbled to the bathroom. Rolling around the floor with Jack—no, Steele—had hurt more than she’d thought it would. She should’ve gulped down some Advil last night. Her shoulders ached and so did her right foot. A few

years ago, she’d gotten a hairline fracture on some icy stairs, and every now and then it pained her when the weather got colder. In the dim light, she got a better look at her temporary digs. She’d been too exhausted to do more than fall into bed last night. A queen-sized bed stood in the center of the space. The white hotel linens had been surprisingly comfortable. They hadn’t been scratchy, and she hadn’t spotted any suspicious stains, which was more than she could say for a lot of places she’d stayed. The room had a television, a small Formica table with matching chairs by the windows, and a small bathroom. Not too shabby, and nothin’ beats

free. Ash hit the switch as she entered the bathroom and blinked as the fluorescent light flickered and flashed on the ceiling. She splashed water on her face and stretched her arms above her head. Her body showed some serious wear and tear from her active lifestyle. She had a jagged cut bisecting her face, courtesy of a drug dealer. It was the last thing the bastard had done in this life, but it was precious little consolation. Several more scars from shrapnel marred her arms and shoulders. A gun shot had left puckered skin on her upper thigh. In short, she wasn’t a pretty girl. And she’d given up on pretty girl

trappings since they didn’t do her much good. Besides, she didn’t have time for makeup, hair products, heels, and tight, itchy clothing. She’d rather wear a pair of jeans and a T-shirt any day. Back in ye olden hoopskirt days, women with her distinct lack of beauty had been called plain, and the descriptor fit Ash. Well, it had before all the scars. Ash had a thin mouth and deep green eyes flecked with gold spaced a bit too far apart, though they were her best feature. She had medium brown hair and an athletic build with a bit too much muscle for most men’s taste but not enough to be a female body builder. Ash didn’t give a damn what men thought. Not anymore, at least. In high

school, it’d been a major source of pain. But worrying about what other people thought of her proved to be a big waste of time. Now, she had a simple philosophy when it came to men. Take me as I am or shut up and leave me the hell alone. Once she’d made up her mind, a flip had switched. In the military, she’d been surrounded by men on a daily basis, and there’d been quite a few takers. She hadn’t accepted all the offers that had come her way, but it’d given her a healthy dose of self-confidence. But she wasn’t in someone like Steele’s league. He’d always been gorgeous—muscular, charming, and a real flirt. He liked pretty, easy,

uncomplicated girls, and they never lasted long, flitting in and out of his life like beautiful butterflies. Ash was scarred, prickly, and the very definition of complicated. Steele had made it clear in high school—in the most painful way possible—he had zero romantic interest in her. She didn’t have a claim on him and didn’t want one. He could have all the one-night stands he damn well pleased. They weren’t even friends anymore. Once, they’d been close, but not after the incident, and certainly not after Abe’s death. As soon as she solved this case, she’d be on her way. Ash hoped she’d never lay eyes on the bastard again. Of

course, they’d talk before she left, and she planned on telling him exactly what she thought about him…in cruel detail. She pulled some clothes from her rucksack and got dressed for her run. If she didn’t exercise first thing in the morning, she’d end up skipping it. She jumped into a pair of fleecelined, flared-leg black yoga pants with a leopard-print band around the waist, then put on a pair of white socks and her black and gray Nike high-tops. Next came a white, stretchy sports bra and a Marine Corps T-shirt. It read: Oorah, the last word a terrorist will ever hear. Ash was a sucker for good Corps merchandise. She ducked into the bathroom and

gathered her hair into a messy bun before she shrugged on a black hoodie and slipped Abe’s dog tags over her head. They jangled, and she rubbed her fingers over the letters. After his death, the Corps had returned his tags to her family, and she’d worn them ever since. Other than memories and some photographs, it was the only thing she had left of her big brother. She kissed them and slipped the tags beneath the collar of her shirt. They were cold as they settled next to her heart. Sighing, she placed her hand over the metal, feeling the chilly press of stainless steel against her skin—as cold as the grave. “Oh, Abe.”

Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes, and she swiped them away. Dammit. It’d been nearly a decade since he’d died. Some days it felt like a century, and on others, the wound felt fresh, bloody. Every time their birthday rolled around, the pain of Abe’s passing intensified and she got more agitated. Running into Steele had only made matters worse. Her brother deserved better than dying in pain by himself. He must’ve been so scared, so lonely…. Stop it. Ash glared at her reflection in the mirror. She balled up a fist and barely resisted the urge to shatter it. She loved to hit things and people, as if spreading

pain around would lessen hers somehow. Instead, she examined her face and saw Abe’s more masculine features echoed in her own. They were fraternal twins, but they’d had a strong resemblance—the same eyes, the same upturned nose, and same unfortunate hair color. “Don’t do this to yourself. Not today.” It was definitely time to go. The run would burn off some of this rage. Ash headed out the door and jogged around Hell. Trying to be Zen about it, she emptied her mind and focused on being in the moment. She didn’t want to think about the case, her brother, or

Steele. Nothing but the open road beneath her feet. The soles of her shoes slapped against the pavement as she propelled herself farther, faster than she’d gone before. Ash concentrated on the momentum–arms pumping, heart hammering, and the cold air slamming into her lungs. Every now and then, she got into an open headspace, but it didn’t happen often enough. She loved the peace running gave her, the cold clarity of movement. From time to time, she wondered if she wasn’t running toward something like a goal. What if she was running away from something? Herself? Her past? Abe?

Focus. But she couldn’t, her brain ran faster than her feet. While she glimpsed inner peace occasionally, she’d never gotten a feeling of ecstasy. Nothing about running was euphoric. It was exhausting, dirty, and made sweat pour from her body. Unless you counted sore thighs and shin splints as bliss. To distract herself, she fired up her iPod and hit the running playlist. Big Data’s Dangerous started up. As she listened, she took in the view. While she was in town, she planned on visiting some of the local businesses—the Bloody Hell Tea Room and Devil’s Brew, for sure. And she planned on

avoiding Steele’s place, Inferno Firearms. Nostrils flaring, Ash sprinted right by the gun shop. Twenty minutes later, she finished her run and loped back to Hades. Now, the question was what to do about breakfast. The residents of Hell didn’t seem the kind of folks who were into health food. Southern food in general had a reputation for not being the healthiest of cuisines. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a fridge in her room. Ash made a mental note to get a dorm-sized fridge and some supplies when she went out today. Lately, her go-to breakfast was a smoothie made in her small travel blender—a handful of spinach or kale,

some pomegranate juice, yogurt or almond milk, half a banana, and some berries. Sometimes, she added protein powder or powdered peanut butter. But this morning, she’d make do with something from the diner. With her luck, it’d be calorie-ific, and she’d have to run off the meal later in the day. Oh, joy. After grabbing a quick shower, she threw on a pair of jeans, red Chucks, and a blue shirt. She added a matching flannel shirt because it was nippy this morning. Ash strolled into Hades. An antique jukebox played Bobby Darin’s Mack the Knife. The diner had a fifties feel— black-and-white-checkered floor, red vinyl booths, and steel stools with red

vinyl tops. Texas memorabilia decorated the walls. Her favorite metal sign read: Bad Cowboy! Go to my room. Amen. She’d had the chance to meet men from all over the world, but Texans were the best. The place was busy—several men in matching black leather vests sat on stools situated around the counter. From her research, she knew the vests were called cuts. They featured an angrylooking stallion in the center with Four Horsem*n along the top. Near the bottom of the vest was a Texas patch. She heard the biker’s raucous laughter but couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. Some non-leather clad civilians were tucked into booths and

tables around the room. After taking a seat by herself in a booth, she noted there weren’t any menus on the table. Maybe the locals had memorized the diner’s menu and already knew what they wanted. How…quaint. After discreetly scoping out everyone’s plates, she determined eating here was definitely a bad idea. It was all gravy, biscuits, and pork products. Not a vegetable or fruit in sight, unless she counted orange juice, which she didn’t because it was loaded with sugar. Although, she had to admit the food smelled delicious. It smelled like home, actually. Her dad used to make biscuits and sausage gravy on weekends. “You were lookin’ good out there.”

Ash glanced up to see a handsome man swaggering toward her. He had cropped black hair and skin the color of caramel. She couldn’t place his heritage, exactly, but it seemed to be a mixture. While she couldn’t suss out the mix, he sure was a handsome devil. With a ripped body and jeans which outlined his muscled thighs in exquisite detail, she definitely noticed him. And so did the other women in the diner, who watched him walk with rapt attention. He wore a Four Horsem*n leather vest over a long-sleeved black T-shirt. Another biker. Figures. “I’m Ace.” He extended a hand. “And who might you be, darlin’?” He grinned, showing gleaming white teeth.

He had a perfect aww shucks sort of down-home smile she found herself returning. “I’m Ashton Calhoun.” She gave his hand a good squeeze. “Call me Ash.” His eyes widened. Ash raised a brow. Perfecting her handshake had taken years. Working in a male-dominated profession demanded manly communication skills, and men respected a good, firm handshake because it communicated competence. She meant it to be business-like and perfunctory, but he clasped her fingers in his for a couple of extra beats, enough to convey sexual interest in her. Uh, oh. Lord have mercy, he was going to try to pick her up. Being a

woman in the military, she’d heard all sorts of come-ons. Ash had been quite the hot commodity in Afghanistan, and she’d helped herself to handsome Marines every now and then. None of those encounters had been serious. Actually, they’d all been fun as hell. Ash had only been serious about one man. “Mind if I sit a spell? Join you for breakfast?” He made a sweeping gesture at the opposite side of the booth. She wanted to refuse. The less she interacted with the bikers, the better. Getting in deeper with a criminal element wouldn’t be great for her career or her temper. However, a lifetime of southern manners dictated she invite him

to eat with her. Damn it, why couldn’t she have been born up north? Being rude was a lot more socially acceptable north of the Mason-Dixon line. “Be my guest.” Ash vowed to load up on supplies– vegetables, fruit, juice, along with some healthy snacks like nuts and rice cakes, and some drinks. She shouldn’t socialize with the bikers if she could help it. “What brings you to Hell?” He slipped into the booth. Evidently, word that she’d be working with the Horsem*n hadn’t spread, so she decided to have some fun. “Business.” He leaned closer. “What kind of

business?” Another handsome man hurried over to the table. He was young, mid- or early twenties with blue eyes and blond, spiky hair. “Hi, I’m Angel, and I’ll be your server today. Would you like coffee?” “Oh, yes, please.” She allowed herself exactly one cup a day, although if she had her way, she’d drink an entire pot. Especially today. “You’re late getting over here, prospect. We’ve been here forever.” “Sorry, Ace.” Prospect meant a new member. She’d done her Biker 101 homework when she’d taken this case. In the

Marines, they called them grunts, and higher-ups made their lives a living hell until they got into the groove of things. Ash smirked. She missed those days. “Got any menus, Angel?” Ace answered the question. “Voo doesn’t let you order. Instead, he brings you something he knows you’ll enjoy.” “No can do. I eat healthy food.” “Oh, he makes healthy food.” She raised a disbelieving brow. “I’ve seen Captain eat turkey sausage and egg whites here.” He leaned back in the booth, spreading his arms wide along the back of the seat. So she didn’t order any food, but Angel returned in a few minutes with

their coffees. And she put exactly two spoonfuls of honey in hers. She didn’t use refined sugar or artificial sweeteners either. She’d broken her habit of using real cream and sugar, but it’d been painful. Ace added a couple packets of Dixie Crystals to his. Another man sidled up to their table. He stood a couple inches over six feet tall with mocha skin and extraordinary silvery eyes. His dark hair was twisted into short dreadlocks and came down to right below his ears. “Bonjour,” he greeted Ace. Ace nodded. “Mornin’, Voo.” “Bonjour, mademoiselle.” He grasped her hand and brushed a kiss along the back of her knuckles. She

couldn’t quite place his accent. Creole, maybe? It had a dash of French united with a bit of Southern and a trace of Spanish. “Welcome to Hades. I own and operate this fine establishment.” “Good mornin’.” She was charmed by his demeanor, despite herself. “You must be the famous Ashton Calhoun.” Voo studied her for a moment. She widened her eyes. “Axel and Steele texted me last night. I’m Voodoo, the Vice President. We don’t have many outsiders here, and I put two and two together.” “How come I didn’t hear about this?” Ace scowled. “You didn’t need to know.”

“Yeah, I bet.” He turned to Ash. “Word to the wise, Voodoo’s got some freaky ass intuition powers, so watch yourself.” “Is it my problem all your thoughts are posted on your forehead just waiting for me to read them?” He glanced at Ash. “You’ll find I’m very perceptive, which ain’t my fault.” Somehow, she found it unsettling. “Hey, wait.” Ace frowned. “What did you say about Steele texting?” “Ashton is a former amour of Steele’s,” Voo explained. She rolled her eyes. “Steele’s not my boyfriend. Never has been and never will be. He’s just an old friend.” Hmph.

Friend? Enemy’s more like it. When she looked up, Voo watched her with curious eyes. “Keep tellin’ yourself that.” “You belong to Steele?” Ace eased out of the booth with a long face as though she’d come down with a sudden case of leprosy. She gritted her teeth. “No, pay attention. I don’t belong to Steele or anyone else. Last time I checked, this was a free country.” Voo watched the interplay with interest, his gaze flicking back and forth between them. “Steele has no claim on you?” “Oui,” she said dryly, mocking his

accent. “We’re partners, but only to solve this Raptor case. Nothin’ more.” “The hell you say?” Ace gave her a once-over. “Is he f*ckin’ blind? You’re a knockout. You’ve got this whole superhot, kick-your-ass kinda vibe. Steele hasn’t tried to tap that?” “How kind of you. Steele’s never touched me.” Well, that’s not quite true. “What an idiot.” Ace slid back into the booth. Evidently, her sudden case of leprosy had been cured. “I’m not disagreein’ with you.” Voo hmphed in response but kept his thoughts to himself. Thank God.

Ash changed the topic. “I know you don’t have menus, but—” “Don’t worry none, I’ll bring you somethin’ delicious.” Yeah, Ash wanted something delicious, but she needed something nutritious. Eating anything other than some combination of yogurt, fruit, and/or grains would screw with her routine. All of those rituals didn’t allow for going off script—order, control, discipline. “Thank you, but I only feed my body healthy food.” “And what do you feed your soul?” She stared at him, completely flummoxed. “Uh, I care about carbs and fats, and how many grams of protein.”

He stared at her as if she’d said something incredibly stupid or offensive. Probably both. “Non. Food is life. Food is important. It should be an event, an experience, and if it ain’t, you’re eatin’ the wrong things.” Okayyy. Most people praised her healthy food choices. There was this whole assumption of virtuousness built into eating well—as though people assumed you were a better person for resisting temptation. Ash thought it had to be some sort of puritanical hang-up built into society. Why else would high calorie food be assigned decadent names— Devil’s Food Cake and Death by

Chocolate. But Voodoo didn’t think so. Maybe because he was a chef, he was more concerned with how food tasted than its calorie content. Regardless, he seemed deeply offended, and Ash didn’t know what to say to him without making the situation worse. “Close your eyes,” he ordered. “I don’t think—” “Close them.” Humoring him, Ash shut her eyes. “I want you to concentrate. Take the time to reflect before you answer. What’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten?” Ash considered the question. The

best thing she’d ever eaten was chocolate mousse at her graduation dinner. Her parents had taken her and Abe, along with Steele, to a fancy French restaurant, Délicieux. The meal had been wonderful, but the dessert was amazing. She opened her eyes. “Chocolate mousse. I had it at my graduation dinner.” “An excellent dish. My grandmere used to make it for me the night before an important day. She said it was good juju and would bring me luck. How was it prepared?” “The chef made it with farm-raised eggs, heavy cream, and dark chocolate. They served it in a chilled silver goblet

with curls of chocolate and real, handwhipped cream on top.” She’d savored every single bite. “And wouldn’t you say that dessert was an experience? That it gave you pleasure? Joy even?” Ash felt perilously close to tears. She hadn’t felt joyous in nearly a decade and, no, she didn’t just mean the delicious dessert. That night she’d accomplished something wonderful, and she’d spent the evening with everyone in her life who’d mattered most, including Steele, though she hated admitting it. Shortly afterward, she’d gone off to war, and life had never been the same. “It did.”

“There’s no shame in allowin’ yourself simple pleasures. But I’ll have Angel bring you something…healthy.” He said the last word as though it should have four letters. The biker turned and stalked off majestically, his dreads whirling around his handsome face. “Damn. You’d think you insulted his mother or somethin’.” She shook off her sudden funk. “So it’s not my imagination?” Ash jerked a thumb at the retreating biker. “No, ma’am. He’s mad as an old wet hen.” Ace gave her a lazy sort of smile, a bedroom look he’d probably perfected during puberty. “But enough about him. Let’s talk about you.”

Terrific. Here we go. “You and Steele aren’t hot and heavy then?” “Nope.” Ash didn’t want to talk about Steele. “Trust me, we’re cold and light.” Ace’s head whipped toward the door. Ash couldn’t help but turn in her seat to see what caught his attention so thoroughly. He wasn’t the only one engrossed either. The Horsem*n at the counter turned to watch a leggy brunette stalk to the front counter. She wore a pair of tight jeans, black leather kneehigh boots, and a matching jacket. Ash preferred her Nikes and yoga

pants. The brunette had a long slim neck, and her hair fell in waves around her face. Large-framed sunglasses perched on the pert end of her nose. She had a take-charge, get-outta-my-way vibe which denoted some military or paramilitary training. Angel handed the woman a white pastry box tied with string, and she made conversation with the prospect, though Ash was too far away to hear. “Who’s that?” Ash asked Ace, but he didn’t reply. Instead, he watched the woman with rapt attention. He reminded Ash of a hungry cartoon dog presented with a juicy steak just out of his reach. Ash snapped her fingers.

He shook his head. “What?” “Who is she?” Ash nodded to the counter. Ace cleared his throat. “Glory Banks. She’s a private investigator.” Glory Banks walked out, and everyone went back to normal. The bikers returned to their breakfasts, and the locals chatted with one another. Ace rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Damnation. I’m guessin’ I blew my chances with you.” Ash laughed. He hadn’t had a shot, but no harm in letting him think he had. “No woman wants to be second best.” Lord knew she knew what it felt like to pine away for someone. How many

years had she wasted on her obsession for Steele? And what had it gotten her? Not a damn thing. “You speak from experience?” Ash stiffened. “Hell no.” “Bullsh*t. I struck a nerve. I think you like Steele more than you let on.” “You’re wrong.” Why hadn’t she kept her trap shut? “I’m almost never wrong, darlin’.” But he dropped the line of questioning. He ran a hand down his face. “Glory used to be a cop.” “Yeah, I got the vibe.” “She’s my type—beautiful and dangerous.” He winked at her. “I fit the bill on the second half.”

Ash had no illusions about her appearance. “Haven’t you ever heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder?” “Yeah? I bet an ugly person came up with that quote.” He chuckled. “What the f*ck are you two doin’ here?” Ash glanced up to see Steele standing over them. She hadn’t even heard him approach. She hoped he hadn’t heard much of the conversation. “Well?” Steele demanded. “Talkin’. Do you mind?” “As a matter of fact, I do.” He glared at Ace. “Leave. Now.”

Ace made a show of stretching and getting comfortable in the booth before he took a sip from his coffee. “Hell no,” he said over the room. “In case you missed it, Ash and I are havin’ breakfast together. Besides, if you’re goin’ after the Raptors, you’re gonna need my help.” He glanced at Ash, puffing out his chest a bit. “Did I mention I was a fighter pilot?” “No, you didn’t.” “Are you impressed?” “Very.” “You should be.” Ash chuckled. “You clearly have self-esteem problems.” Ace flipped his hair back. “Uncle

Sam only lets men with big hairy balls drive multi-million dollar aircraft.” Steele made a disgusted noise. She’d be lying if she said she didn’t enjoy tweaking him. For some reason, he didn’t want her getting familiar with his buddies. Too damn bad. The Marine butted into the conversation. “From what I remember, fly-boys stayed above the action in their birds—droppin’ bombs and streakin’ off —while Marines were in the thick of it on the ground.” Ash rolled her eyes. Ace placed one arm along the back of the booth, the other half-over the table

—taking up as much room as possible. “Air support saves lives, brother. You should come up with me some time. Tell you what, I’ll even throttle back so you don’t power puke.” His gaze flicked to Ash. “Airsickness is a bitch.” The flyboy raised a brow. “She said you two weren’t an item, unless you’re tryin’ to tell me different?” Steele squared his jaw. “No, we ain’t.” “Okay then.” Ace gave her his bedroom look once more. “She’s fair game.” Steele’s phone rang, and he glanced at the screen. “f*ck, I gotta take this.” He stabbed a finger at Ace. “When I get back, you better be elsewhere.” He

hoofed out to the parking lot, pacing in front of the window as he talked on the phone. His eyes were on her, watching every move through the glass. Ace whistled. “So, you wanna revise your statement on Steele? Because it sure as hell looks like somethin’ is goin’ on…and it’s juicy.” She took a sip of coffee and did her level best to appear unconcerned. “I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.” “You know, we could have some fun with this here situation, if you wanted.” Ash was sorely tempted. Steele deserved whatever he got. As soon as Steele waltzed back

into the diner, Ace placed his hand over hers. Steele stared at his brother like he’d palmed her breast instead. She didn’t knock his hand away. “Have supper with me tonight, darlin’.” Ace used a husky tone. If he’d asked her earlier, she’d have turned him down flat, but Steele’s reaction spurred her on. Steele was practically seething—his chest thrust out, muscles cording in his arms. Ash smiled, slow and wide. “I’d love to, Ace.” She slid her phone across the table and he put in his digits, then she called him so he’d have her number. “It’s a date.” He winked at her and slid out of the booth. He stood chest to

chest with Steele and, for a second, Ash thought one of them might take a swing at the other. Finally, Ace backed off. “Wish I could stay and eat, but I’ve got a busy day so I’ll catch you later. How about a late dinner? Ten?” “Perfect.” With a grin, Ace sauntered off. To tweak Steele further, she turned to watch the other biker walk away. Ace had a damn fine ass–high, tight, and firm. If only she were interested. Although Ace wouldn’t care if she was. His heart—or at least his attention —clearly belonged to another—a former cop, no less. She doubted an outlaw and

a former officer of the law had a chance in hell. “Are you finished?” Steele plopped down across from her. With one finger, he pushed Ace’s cooling cup of coffee to the edge of the table as though his brother had the cooties. She blew out a breath. “For now.” “Ace is a dick.” “I didn’t ask, and I don’t give a damn about your opinion. You and I are strictly business.” Angel brought over a mug and poured coffee for Steele. Ash told him Ace had left and then ordered her food to go, so she could get away from Steele as soon as possible.

After the biker waiter left, Ash pulled a small notepad from her jacket. During an investigation, she kept detailed notes on all the interactions she had with people involved in the case. “I’ve got a lead we should follow up on.” “What kind of lead?” Steele glanced at the pad. Justice walked over. Evidently, he’d been having breakfast at the counter, and she hadn’t picked him out amid all his brothers. All of them looked the same from behind—jeans, leather cuts, and nice rear ends. Ash continued speaking. “I’m hopin’ it’s a helpful one. The DEA keeps tabs on people of interest. In a records

search, they came across someone who might have worked at one of the Raptors’ businesses. It’s been hard to sort out since the bikers did a lot of things off the books. Enid Poole might have stripped at the puss*cat Palace, and now she works in nearby Crimson Creek at a new place called The Lone Star Lounge. Her stage name is Ginger Heart.” Ash would rather not go to a strip club, but it was the only lead she had. It wasn’t the first raunchy place she’d gone looking for criminals and it wouldn’t be the last, but going in there with a couple of big guys at her back might make it easier, at least. She’d been to a few strip clubs in her day—for work purposes only. The criminal element

gravitated toward dives and drunken party types. She didn’t begrudge anyone making a living the way they saw fit or patronizing those establishments, but it made her wonder about chasing some high-end, white-collar criminals. Maybe she’d get to go to a ballet or an opera instead of bars filled with nude girls. “Crimson Creek is Dixie Mafia territory,” Steele said. “Hold up.” He narrowed his eyes. “They gotta strip club now?” “The Dixie Mafia,” Ash repeated. “How do they figure into all of this?” “Long story.” Steele didn’t answer the question, the tight-lipped bastard.

The Raptors had an association with the Dixie Mafia, but the evidence trail was tenuous at best. According to her boss at Cole, DEA leadership was more interested in nailing the Tres Erre. They’d leave busting the Dixie Mafia to the FBI. Justice slid into the booth with Steele. “Well this oughtta be interestin’.” He turned to Steele. “Are we gonna make a scene or go in stealth mode?” “No, we’re gonna get the intel we need and get the hell out before we run into the devil himself.” “Are the Dixie Mafia enemies of yours or what?” She could sense a story there. “No comment.”

Ash let him have his secrets for now, but she’d snoop to get some answers later. Angel brought her a white Styrofoam container. She opened the lid to find a yogurt parfait with fresh berries and granola on the side. Hmph, Voodoo had known exactly what she’d like. “I should be going,” Ash announced. “I gotta sign the agreement with your club president and fax it back to Cole.” “Any idea when the stripper’s gonna be there?” Justice asked. “If you got her home address, we could show up, maybe avoid an unnecessary

confrontation.” “I don’t have a residence on record. I tried all the databases but didn’t come up with jack sh*t. I got a feelin’ she’s transitory. Maybe stayin’ with friends or relatives?” She pulled out her cell phone, searched for the Lone Star Lounge, then dialed the number. Ash grabbed her breakfast and stood. “I’ll text you if she’s working tonight,” she called over her shoulder and walked away from Steele as fast as her feet would carry her. She wished she’d practiced the maneuver when she was younger. It might’ve saved her a lot of pain.

Chapter Six Later in the evening, Ash rode with Justice and Steele over to the strip club. The drive to Crimson Creek had been awkward and silent. Ash hadn’t done the teamwork thing since being in the military. To make matters worse, the bikers had insisted on driving, so she was squished between them as she rode in one of their trucks. Her Forrester had four seats, more leg room, and bulletproof glass. She’d been shot at more than once, so it came in handy. For some reason, Ash had an uncanny ability to piss folks off. They stood in the parking lot,

staring at the glitter and glitz. The strip club was wrapped in red, white, and blue neon lights. On the top of the club’s sign, a glittering cowgirl flexed her leg up and down, displaying her boots. Justice and Steele didn’t look happy about being here either, which was rare for men. The lot was nearly full, and a group of guys in their twenties leaned up against the wall near the entrance. They wore identical blue shirts, but she stood too far away to read them. Ash guessed they were probably part of a bachelor party. “You sure you wanna go in with us? It might get rough in there.” She bristled. “I can handle myself,

Steele. Unless you got another reason? Are you afraid your Dixie Mafia pals will show up and spill the beans about more felonies?” After she’d signed the contract with Axel that morning, the president had let the club’s business relationship with the mafia slip. He’d been light on details, but she’d figured out the club had done one drug run across the border. Now, she’d be forced to work with the Horsem*n in order to find the Raptors, and Steele’s club would skate off with no criminal repercussions. Steele shook his head. “Not now, Ash.” “Fine. Let’s get this over with.” “Who pissed in your oatmeal?”

Justice shot her a look, but she pretended not to hear him. They trudged to the door. Both bikers paid an entry fee to a big, beefy guy in a tight white T-shirt and jeans working as a bouncer. He wore a tengallon hat, and his muscled arms were as big as her thighs. “No charge for you, ma’am.” He tipped his cowboy hat. “Why?” He leered at her chest even though she’d dressed down in a sweatshirt and jeans. Walking into a strip club in provocative clothing would invite unwelcome attention when she was trying to lay low.

“We don’t get many ladies. You here to watch or strip too?” Ugh. The men draped against the walls whoohooed as if they expected a reenactment of the creepy Aerosmith video, Crazy, where Alicia Silverstone and Liv Tyler jumped on stage at a strip club and took it all off. One thing she loved about her job was the opportunity to channel all the rage she’d stored up. Bouncer Boy might be big, but she had tricks up her sleeve she’d bet he’d never seen before. Laying him out flat on the pavement would be easy and kind of funny. Ash pulled back her fist, but Steele seized her elbow and hauled her in the

door. “Take it easy.” “Hey!” She shoved him away once they were inside. “We’re keepin’ this quiet-like, remember? Enemy territory and all.” “Yeah, yeah. I get it.” She shook her arm as if he’d tainted her by touching it. Justice patted her shoulder. “Make ya a deal. If the bouncer gives you any lip on the way out, you can break his nose.” She laughed. “I’ll keep it in mind.” “Alright then. Let’s find this girl.” Ash scanned the room to get a lay of the land. She hated to admit it, but the place wasn’t half bad for a strip club. It

was somewhere between strip club and a honky tonk. It wasn’t as sleazy as some of the places she’d been. That wasn’t saying much, though. One club she’d had the misfortune to visit in New York’s Chinatown featured something called a “Ping Pong puss*” show, which had scarred her for life. Ping pong balls should never be launched out of some places. Lone Star had a Texan feel, which matched the name. The club’s music was so loud it practically vibrated the tables…if they’d had tables. Instead bar stools were placed around old kegs, which had been branded with the name Jack Daniels. One wall had beer cans

arranged in the shape of Texas flag. Ash glimpsed a group of men in the back, watching a stripper in lingerie ride a mechanical bull, her bared breasts jiggling. Classy. The DJ in the booth by the bar played Jessica Simpson’s sultry version of These Boots Are Made for Walkin’. The stage in the center of the room featured three women twirling on poles —all of them wearing cowboy boots, Daisy Duke short shorts cut to show their ass cheeks, and red bikini tops that barely harnessed their breasts. A waitress who breezed by with a tray of shots wore a red bandanna halter top, cut-offs, and red cowboy boots. She

tipped her hat to Justice as she passed. “What brings you fine gentlemen to this establishment?” She turned to see a handsome man standing near the bar in an expensivelooking black suit. Ash sized up the good-looking, blond man in his early thirties. He had penetrating blue eyes, and he smoothed an expensive black silk tie as he returned her frank gaze. He didn’t look like he belonged at the club, but criminals came in all shapes and sizes. Some much more attractive than others. “Well, if it ain’t Byron Beauregard.” A pulsating vein stood out on Steele’s forehead. She’d heard the name before. The

DEA had a close partnership with the FBI when it came to drugs and organized crime, so they briefed each other on current developments. Beauregard had worked his way up the Dixie Mafia food chain in Texas. Beauregard looked so…normal. Color her disappointed. She’d been hoping for some flashy suits, like the kind the Italian mob guys strutted around in. The latest stories placed him as the brand new underboss. Cotton Krug, the former underboss, had inexplicably come to an untimely end, which put Beauregard right beneath the head honcho, Tucker Cobb. What Ash couldn’t work out was

why the FBI hadn’t yet made a move on Beauregard and his organization. Were they waiting to build a better case? Or did the mafia have protectors in high places, men in power they paid off with pricey bribes? Beauregard offered a hand to Steele and Justice. The bikers folded their arms over their chests, refusing to play nice, which made Beauregard shake his head. “And who might this pretty thing be?” Beauregard asked Steele. Steele and Justice remained silent, as if they were doing a statue impression. It was confusing to Ash. Weren’t they hauling this asswipe’s drugs over the border? “Ashton Calhoun.” Ash offered her

hand to the gangster. She’d intended to shake it, but he kissed her knuckles instead. “Byron Beauregard, local businessman and entrepreneur.” Ash grasped his hand and squeezed hard as she looked him straight in the eye. For a moment, they stared at one another, hands locked. Beauregard’s smile widened. She kept hers stony and devoid of warmth. Drug-dealing bastards like him had killed her brother. He winked. “Can I have my hand back, darlin’?” She released him and smiled sweetly. “Pleasure to meet you.”

“The pleasure is all mine. And what brings a pretty thing like you to this deplorable place?” Beauregard slyly glanced at Justice and Steele. “Unless you’re here to avail yourselves of some adult pleasure?” He raised a wicked brow. “Far be it from me to judge anyone’s…appetites.” “Oh God, no,” she screeched before she checked herself. The mobster threw back his head, laughing. “And why not? Were you hopin’ for a better offer?” His tone implied he might make one…or he was playing with her. But Ash found the implication more disturbing than a ping pong ball stuffed up her vagin*.

“She’s here on business,” Steele snapped as he stepped between them. “You own this place?” Beauregard shook his head as if the idea were too ludicrous to even contemplate. “Don’t go gettin’ on your high Horsem*n about this. I don’t own this…club.” He cast a disdainful eye around the room. Ash was sure he’d been about to use a more colorful term— like rat’s nest or hellhole. He continued prattling away. “One of my relatives owns the Lone Star, and I was simply stopping by to be polite.” He leaned forward, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “You know how it is with family.” “Last time we checked, you didn’t

give a f*ck about bein’ polite,” Justice said. Ash watched this interplay, fascinated. What the hell was going on here? Had the Horsem*n been unwilling to work with the Dixie Mafia? “If I wasn’t a gentlemen, I would’ve ordered the bouncer to toss you out on your sorry asses.” Beauregard had all the charm of a crocodile about to snap its jaws shut on tasty prey. “Except for Ms. Calhoun, of course.” He turned his attention back to her. “And you never elaborated…what exactly brings you all here?” Steele cleared his throat. “We need to speak with one of the dancers, Ginger Heart. You know her?”

“Afraid not, why you wanna speak with her?” “She’s a person of inter…an interestin’ person.” Ash had almost f*cked up. She’d rather shoot her way out of a problem than puss*foot around. It was a character flaw. He scratched his chin. “You meant person of interest. Now that’s somethin’ I think an officer of the law might say.” Beauregard pinned the bikers with a flinty gaze. “She ain’t a lawman,” Steele’s lips twisted. “Er, woman.” Beauregard stepped around Steele and invaded her space. “What alphabet soup are we talkin’ here? FBI? ATF? DEA?”

She couldn’t tell if he was about to take her out back to the old woodshed, or if he was about to offer her a bribe. “None of the above, actually.” It was sort of the truth. “No?” “Nope, I don’t work for any of those agencies. I’m here in a civilian capacity.” Ash hoped the dear Lord wouldn’t strike her dead for lying. “And the fine, upstanding Horsem*n are acting as your escort?” Beauregard asked her the question, but he stared at the bikers, baiting Justice and Steele. As if on cue, the men flanked her small body with their imposing frames.

Annoyed, she squeezed between them, pushing herself to the forefront. “Trust me. I don’t need protection, boys.” Beauregard gave her a bemused smile. “I don’t believe you do.” “You could talk the hide off a cow.” Steele stalked closer to the mobster. “If you don’t mind, we got business that doesn’t involve you.” He walked off. Beauregard blocked Steele’s way again. “What are you hopin’ to learn from Miss Heart?” “We’re gonna girl talk a bit. You know how it is.” Beauregard frowned but let it go. He turned his attention back to Steele and Justice. “Since you boys are here,

we gotta have a conversation about…a situation.” Now it was her turn to be curious. “Which situation?” Steele scanned the room. “Is there somewhere we can talk in private?” Beauregard nodded. “Follow me.” Before he walked off, he pinned Ash with a warning glance. “We won’t be long, so don’t go causin’ any trouble while we’re gone.” “Wouldn’t dream of it. You boys have a real nice chat.” Ash didn’t waste any more time. She made her way to the back of the room and didn’t linger near the stripper poles since she’d lost her escorts.

Experience told her one of the men would offer to buy her a lap dance if he could watch. Instead, she hedged her bets, hoping Ginger would be backstage, getting ready. Ash slipped through the door stamped Employees Only at the rear of the club. Behind it lay a long concrete hallway. Halfway down the corridor, she found a door slightly ajar. Inside, a half dozen women sat in front of small white dressing tables and mirrors surrounded by lights. A radio in the corner played Miranda Lambert’s Kerosene. The women chatted as they applied makeup, paying her no mind. Some of them wore

robes, others had on variations of a cowboy/stripper look. She didn’t have a badge to flash, but she hoped her don’t-f*ck-with-me expression got results. “I need to speak with Ginger Heart,” she said loudly over the music. Shrugging, the women returned to their grooming and gossip, except for one redhead in the rear of the room. She hunkered down at her mirror, obviously trying to look unobtrusive, but ended up making herself seem guiltier than hell. Keeping her body between the woman and the door, Ash stepped over, and the stripper feigned interest in her makeup. Glitter coated her eyelids, and her lips had been painted a glossy Pepto

Bismol color. Her hair had been teased and sprayed like a chick in an eighties music video, and she wore a pink sequined bikini with matching leather cowboy boots. Her Stetson lay on the table in front of her. “Ginger Heart?” “Naw, I don’t know her.” She hooked pink dangly earrings in her lobes and studied her reflection. “Okay, we’ll try this again. Enid Poole?” Her eyes went wide, and she met Ash’s eyes in the mirror. Her lower lip quivered. “W-who wants to know?” “I’m Ashton Calhoun, and I need to ask you a couple of questions.” She kept

her tone light so she didn’t spook the girl. “You a cop?” “Nope. I only want some information. It’ll only take a couple minutes, I promise.” “Okay, fine. But do you mind if we talk outside? I could use a cigarette.” She grabbed her lighter and a pack of mentholated smokes from a drawer. “Not a problem.” The sooner Ash got out of this place, the better she’d feel. Ash made it past the bouncer without incident, but the four bachelor party boys still stood against the walls. They watched her with interest as she

walked past. One of them was bent over, puking on the sidewalk. Another had a cigar in his mouth, and he licked his lips as he ogled her. Another sang an off-key version of Tim McGraw’s Real Good Man. The last one pissed on some poor bastard’s Ford truck. Pukey wiped his mouth. “Hey there, sexy girl. Is she your girlfriend?” Ignoring them, she pulled Ginger further into the parking lot so they could speak in private. With shaking fingers, Ginger lit a cigarette. “What do you wanna know?” “A few months back, you were arrested for driving while intoxicated near a strip club called The puss*cat Palace.”

“Yeah, and I paid my fine. What about it?” “Did you work at the Palace? For the Raptors?” The DEA hadn’t been able to prove it with any records, since the club hadn’t kept any, but it seemed likely. Ginger studied her pink boots. “I can’t talk about it.” “Can’t…or won’t?” She sucked on the cigarette again and blew out a series of smoke rings. “A bit of both, actually. The Raptors are no joke, and talkin’ about their business with outsiders is dangerous.” “Your name won’t come up.” “Who do you work for?”

“I’m not with the police. I work with a security firm. This ain’t a strictly legal operation. I’m not gonna call you as a witness or ask you to testify against anyone. I need some info.” “And why should I believe you?” “Because I’m not lying.” Ginger stared at her, and Ash could read the indecision on her face. Pissy staggered over to them. “Hey, girls! How about a lap dance?” “f*ck off.” Ash pulled Ginger further away from them. “I’ll never tell ‘em where I got the intel.” “And if I tell you anything, what’re you gonna do about it?” Ash smirked. “I’m gonna rain all

kinds of hell down on those boys.” After a long moment, Ginger nodded and gave a small smile. “Yeah, I used to work there before I got my head straight.” She pulled a blue coin from her bikini top. “I got my six month’s sobriety chip from NA last week.” “Narcotics Anonymous?” Ginger nodded. Ash was impressed. Six months sobriety from hard drugs was an achievement. “Congratulations.” “Thanks.” Pukey drifted closer. “Hey, don’t be a bitch. We’re tryin’ to help you make some money.” Ginger ignored the guy, talking to

Ash instead. “When I worked at the puss*cat, they handed out drugs like candy. Got me hooked, and then….” Tears filled her eyes. “Those dicks deserve all the hell you can give them. What do you wanna know?” “They’ve disappeared. The Raptors abandoned their business holdings and their homes. We haven’t even found any family members. Do you know any place they liked to hole up when they were in trouble?” She thought a moment. “Yeah, actually. There’s this state park they liked to hang at. They used it a couple of times when somethin’ went down with the local police. They used fake ID to get cabins and camping spaces until it

blew over. And one summer, they threw a huge blowout there. All the club officers stayed in cabins while the girls and regular members stayed in tents.” Ash pulled a piece of paper and pen from her pocket. “Do you remember the name?” Ginger nodded. “Write it down for me.” As the girl scribbled down the information, Ash scowled at the bachelor party guys who were getting closer. She got a good look at the matching T-shirt designs as all four of them wobbled toward her. It had a lame checklist: moon someone, get a girl’s phone number, get a girl to flash you, shotgun a beer, and—her personal

favorite—get a girl to spank you. “Can you think of anything else that might be useful?” Ash asked when Ginger had finished. She tucked the piece of paper into her pocket for safekeeping. “Cabin number twelve. Manson, the president, used to bring his side chicks up there on weekends and when he’d get into it with his old lady.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “I think he had dirt on the park rangers or some kind of deal with them because they left it empty for his use. I know he’s…gone…but there might be something you can use there.” “Did he ever bring you up there?” “Only once, and believe me, once

was enough.” Ash sighed. “I’m sorry.” “Are you two lesbos?” Pissy asked. “Because we’d pay to watch you f*ck.” All of his buddies shuffled in behind him. They reminded her of zombies with their vacant expressions and slow movements—only instead of brains, they wanted breasts. Ash didn’t reply. These dicks were practically begging her for a smackdown. Ash placed her hands on her hips. So much for not making a scene. “Thank you for the help. Go inside now. I’ve gotta have a word with these here gentlemen.” Ginger didn’t walk away. “Um, I

don’t wanna leave you here by yourself. This doesn’t look safe.” “I’ll be fine. Go on.” The stripper hesitated but darted past the drunks and scooted in the door. “No. Don’t leave us, Pink Ranger.” They all cackled at Pissy’s joke. “Alone at last,” Ash said as they circled her. She cracked her knuckles. Damn, she could use a little tension release. Nothing like a good oldfashioned, knock-down, drag-out bar fight. “Now then, maybe I can help you boys with the last number on your checklist.” “You’re gonna spank us?” Pukey asked.

“In a manner of speakin’.” Ash sidled up to him. “Oh, I’m scared.” His voice was high and girlish. “You should be.” Ash kicked him square in the balls.

Chapter Seven Steele and Justice followed Beauregard into an unmarked door on the left side of the bar. The room was an office, and like the rest of the club, it had a country and western theme. Steele took a gander at the signs on the wall. One read: $5.00 fine for whining. Another read: Sinners and Saints Welcome Here. The walls and the floor were wooden, and the ceiling held several long, braided ropes. Strung through them were Mason jars with pail-like lids that had been wired with bright white lights. Two suede chairs faced a converted barrel. It’d been tipped on its side, sawed in half, and nailed to two wooden

slats, which held it in place. With the flat wooden top, it formed an unusual desk. Beauregard sat in the leather chair, while Steele and Justice took the chairs on the opposite side of the desk. The door burst open, and a woman with long blond hair walked in. She had a rough-and-tumble look with her faded jeans and flannel shirt. Lines surrounded her mouth and eyes, and Steele would be willing to bet her blond hair had come from a bottle. “This is my aunt, Bonnie Beauregard. She’s…rustic.” Bonnie strolled over and placed her hands on her shapely hips. “And what he means by rustic is, I don’t put on airs, unlike some people I know. Now,

what are y’all doin’ in my office?” “I’m havin’ a meetin’ with these nice gentlemen. It’ll save me a trip.” “I told you I don’t want none of your no-account mafia dickhe*ds runnin’ around this place. I paid for it with my own money, and I don’t owe you boys jack sh*t.” Beauregard leaned back in her chair and placed his feet on her desk. “We’re bikers,” Steele informed her. “And for the record, we hate those mafia assholes as much as you do.” While he spoke to Bonnie, he looked Byron in the eyes. She laughed. “If you don’t mind?” Beauregard

said pointedly. “I do mind, but I doubt it’ll stop you.” And then she shoved his feet off her desk and sauntered to the door. She tipped her hat. “Nice to meet ya, boys.” Steel and Justice waved at her as she walked out. “Let’s get down to business, I have other things to do tonight. How goes the Raptor situation? You boys found ‘em?” Beauregard withdrew a black box from the inner pocket of his jacket and pulled out a cigarette. He sucked on the end and lit up the smoke. Steele bristled. Justice had the same reaction, judging by how tense his shoulders got.

Steele would give Axel an explanation anytime he wanted because he respected the chain of command— always had. But he didn’t owe Beauregard sh*t. He crossed his arms over his chest. “Nope.” Beauregard flicked the ash off the tip of his cigarette. “I’d expect you and yours would be runnin’ all over Hell and half acre tryin’ to find ‘em. Especially since the Raptors snatched one of your brothers. What’s his name? Crow?” “Coyote,” Steele gritted out. “Whatever.” Beauregard rounded the desk. “And that’s why you’re here with your girlfriend, right? Scarin’ up leads on the Raptors?”

“She ain’t my girlfriend.” Justice sighed. “Why? You got any helpful intel?” “Wish I did, but seein’ as how you ain’t gettin’ it done, I’d better step in.” He buttoned his jacket and smoothed it. Oh, hell no. The last thing the club needed was another deal with this bastard. Beauregard had dug the club deeper and deeper into his debt with every deal they’d made. Not to mention the danger he’d gotten them all into. “We don’t want your help,” Steele said, giving Beauregard all the f*ck you attitude he damn well pleased. “Yeah? Well, you need it.”

Justice set a warning hand on his shoulder. “Take it easy.” Steele forced himself to take a calming breath before he spoke. “I’m not talkin’ for the club—it’s important you understand. And I ain’t tryin’ to be disrespectful neither, but I gotta put it all out there.” “By all means, speak your mind.” Beauregard glanced at his watch. “My patience is runnin’ low.” Steele let Beauregard have it. “I don’t give a damn about your deals or your f*ckin’ leverage. Far as I’m concerned, you got us into this mess, so I won’t be makin’ any arrangements or back-scratchin’. The only thing I give a damn about is finding Coyote.”

Justice spoke up, “What he meant to say is—” “I said exactly what I meant to say,” Steele interrupted. Steele got to his feet and stood toeto-toe with the mobster, one hand hovering at his side, ready to pull the gun if he needed to. Justice also palmed his gun. If they got out of this alive, Steele knew he’d be getting an earful on the ride home. Nobody blinked or moved for several long minutes. The mob boss took a step back. “I appreciate your candor. Let me be as honest with you as you were with me. If ya’ll took care of business, you wouldn’t keep needin’ my help all the damn time.”

“We don’t and we never have.” The club had gone to sh*t since Beauregard had gotten involved. “You do. Or you woulda solved this problem already,” the mobster insisted. “We’re about to,” Justice said. “Don’t look like it from here. You boys don’t know where the vermin scuttled off to?” Steele ground his teeth. “Not exactly, no.” “Then you need my help.” Beauregard sat on the desk once more. “All you gotta do is ask me real nice, and I’ll help you out.” Steele would be damned before he

asked for a favor, but his brother piped up. “We’d appreciate any leads you got, Beauregard.” “See? It wasn’t so hard, was it?” Beauregard finished his cigarette and stubbed it out in a crystal ashtray on the desk. “And don’t worry your delicate sensibilities none….you boys get this one for free.” For a moment, Steele was stunned. No devil’s bargain? And then he got suspicious. “Ain’t that what drug dealers say when they give you a taste? Then they get you hooked.” Beauregard smirked. “I wouldn’t know.” “Why the sudden change of heart?” Steele doubted Beauregard had suddenly

grown a conscience. He must be getting something out of this. “I have my reasons,” he evaded. “One of my associates, Dixon Wolf, is damn good at finding people. I’ll have him dig into the Raptors and their families. Somethin’ is bound to shake loose.” Justice co*cked his head to one side. “Seriously, why are you offerin’ to help?” “Why do you doubt my magnanimous nature?” Beauregard lifted a brow as though offended by the very notion. “Because you ain’t got one,” Steele put in.

He chuckled. “Fine. I might have an ulterior motive or two.” “You always do,” Justice muttered. “Before they pulled their vanishing act, the Raptors did this. Don’t shoot, I’m only reachin’ for my phone.” He slowly pulled a cell from his pocket without making any sudden movements and tossed it to Steele. Steele took a gander at the screen. The image was stark—inside a black leather duffel bag lay a severed head on top of blood-spattered bills. “What the f*ck?” He passed the phone to Justice. “Couldn’t have said it better myself. They sent back my employee in pieces, along with the sweetener I’d added to our deal.”

“Sweetener?” Steele asked. “The cash.” Beauregard shook his head. “I’m done with the cartel. Drugs aren’t gonna be the cornerstone of my business any longer. I wanted to buy some time until the heroin could been found.” “Looks like they didn’t go for it.” “Ya think? I must say, I thought ya’ll would be more competent.” Beauregard clucked his tongue. Steele really wanted to shoot his ass. But who sends back a few thousand in cash with body parts? He had trouble wrapping his mind around it. The cartels used terror tactics to guard their

reputation…or they were bat-sh*t crazy. Maybe a bit of both. Steele glanced at his brother. Justice stared at the screen, eyes gone wide. Sweat beaded on his forehead and upper lip. Steele slipped the phone out of his brother’s hand, and Justice shook his head as though trying to clear it. Justice studied Beauregard. “You actually give a damn about your men?” They all thought the Dixie Mafia considered their soldiers disposable, but maybe they were wrong. Beauregard’s brows drew together. “It’s not like we talked sports every mornin’ at the office water cooler, but Grayson’s been with the outfit three years, and he was under my protection.

This is a personal affront.” Steele shrugged. So much for the mob boss having a conscience. “I see. This is about your rep.” “Essentially. It’s also a matter of honor. I can’t let an attack go unpunished.” He glanced away. “Someone has to be held accountable, for group morale if nothing else. He left behind a widow and three little boys.” “What’s gonna happen to them?” Steele was curious despite himself. The club watched out for their own. Old ladies and children were considered precious, and the brothers would defend them to the death. The protection extended beyond a brother’s life too. His family would always be provided for

and protected. “None of your affair.” He sat down behind the desk, once more his coldblooded, corporate self. “If you don’t mind, gentlemen, I have some calls to make. I’ll be in touch if we find anythin’.” “I guess that’s our cue,” his brother said, standing up. Steele walked to the door ahead of him, eager to get the hell away from Beauregard. *** Steele waltzed out of the Lone Star Saloon’s office feeling pretty damn proud of himself. He’d secured the bastard’s help without digging the club

in deeper, and while he’d rather not work with Beauregard, hell was about to rain down on all of them. A little mafia protection would be helpful. It was an all-hands-on-deck kind of situation. And who knew? They might get lucky. The cartel and Dixie Mafia boys might kill each other. Win-win. Steele stopped by the pool table and perused the crowd of drunken men, looking for Ash, but she was nowhere in sight. Justice stopped beside him. “If he hadn’t lost his guy, he might’ve painted the wall with your brains.” “Yeah, yeah. I know, brother, but I can’t stand his bullsh*t.”

Justice chuckled. “Get in line.” He still didn’t see Ash. Surely, she’d finished chatting up the stripper by now. Where the hell did she go? A stripper in a pink cowpoke getup hauled ass through the door and ran over to Bonnie Beauregard, who sat on a barstool across the way. Steele couldn’t hear the conversation, but he knew enough from her wide eyes and big hand gestures something bad was going down. As if on cue, Bonnie reached behind the bar and pulled out a rifle nearly as long as her body, then doubletimed it outside. “Let’s go.” Justice took off for the door.

“You read my mind, brother.” Steele took a pool cue from the wall, just in case. He always carried a gun, but gunfire drew the law. Right now, he couldn’t afford to cool his heels in the lockup when Coyote might be dying. *** Steele skidded to a halt on the pavement. Ash was surrounded by those drunk dumbasses from earlier. Two of them stood on either side of her, holding her arms, while another had his fist balled up, ready to strike. Yet another genius filmed the felony assault on his phone. f*ck. This kinda situation could

escalate. Bonnie had her gun drawn. “Little tip from me to you, fellas. This thing’s loaded, and I ain’t afraid to pull the trigger.” She paused to let it sink into their alcohol-addled brains. “Though I’d rather not do a stretch for manslaughter. Step away from the lady and take your drunk asses home. No harm, no foul.” Real fast and hands raised where Bonnie could see them, Steele approached. “Let me help?” Nodding, she lowered the gun a fraction. “Don’t need your help,” Ash growled. “Don’t want it, either.” “Wasn’t talkin’to you,” Steele said.

The douchebag with a bloodied nose punched Ash in the gut. Steele lurched forward, but Ash was already on top of it. She used the dickhe*ds holding her for leverage and kicked the other one in the face, sending him sprawling to the ground. Justice grabbed the bastard and hauled him across the pavement by the shirt collar like a sack of garbage. Thank God the dipsh*t was smart enough not to get back up. Steele barreled into the bastard on her left, pitching him to the pavement. He scrambled to his feet, and Steele whacked him upside the head with the pool cue. “Stay down.” Arms pinwheeling, he collapsed onto his back.

Ash had the other guy on his knees, punching him in the face repeatedly, making hamburger out of it. “Stop! You’re killin’ him.” Steele whirled to see YouTube dude lowering his phone, but he hadn’t called 911. Yet. “Enough.” Steele tried to pull her back, but she ignored him, still pounding away. He seized her by the waist and yanked her backward. Flailing, she swiveled in his arms and then walloped him in the jaw. “Dammit, Dusty.” “We’re gonna sue you, crazy bitch,” YouTube threatened. “Let me go.” Ash lunged at the

cameraman like a wild animal. “f*ck no. You done lost your mind.” Steele snatched her up again, pressing her arms against her sides this time. He glanced at his brother. “Justice, a little help, please.” “Already on it.” Justice marched over to YouTube. “Can I borrow this?” Without waiting for permission, he grasped the phone, tossed it to the ground, then stomped on it, smashing it to smithereens. “Lookie there. No evidence.” “Turn me loose.” Ash struggled in his arms. Bonnie raised her gun once more, leveling the barrel at the drunken men. “Like I said, hit the road, boys, and

never come back here again.” Bruised and beaten, they shuffled over to one of the cars. Bonnie glanced at Steele. “Thanks for the help.” “You’re welcome, ma’am.” He hauled a struggling Ash to the passenger seat and climbed in. Justice bounded over, started the vehicle up, and they took off for Hell. Bloody and wheezing, Ash slumped against Steele. “I hate you.” Her eyes were blazing with fury. Steele winced even though he should’ve been used to her barbs. She still had the power to hurt him. “You’ve got every right to. Now

shut up and sit still.” *** Thirty minutes later, they stood outside of Ash’s room at Hades. Justice had already hauled ass out of the parking lot like it was on fire or something. And Steele had reached the very end of his patience. “Let me call Duke. He’s our resident doctor, and he’ll check your wounds, maybe give you some painkillers.” “I’m fine. I can take care of myself,” Ash muttered as she rooted around in a pocket for the right key. She seemed as flustered as he felt. “You shouldn’t have jumped into the fight.”

He bit the inside of his cheek and prayed for divine patience. “If I hadn’t, you would’ve ended up in the poky.” She didn’t respond, but she didn’t need to. Her body did all the talking, trembling with anger. Ash had always been as stubborn as a mule, but she’d blown right past obstinate to damn near irrational tonight. “If you don’t wanna see a doctor, at least let me look at it.” He’d taken care of bruised knuckles and blackened eyes by himself over the years. “No.” She got the door open and was about to slam it in his face again when he shoved a hand against the wood, halting the movement. “‘No’ ain’t an

acceptable answer.” He pushed his way inside and shut the door behind him. “It’s the only one I got for you,” she huffed. “In case you missed it, I don’t need or want you here.” “Message received, but you ain’t gonna scare me away.” “Why the hell is your club mixed up with Dixie Mafia and the Tres Erre?” He’d been waiting for her to bring it up. “No ma’am, we’re takin’ care of your wounds first, then we can talk business.” “I got another lead, but it’s a shaky one.” “Good, but I said doctorin’ first, then business.”

Muttering curses under her breath, Ash stomped into the bathroom. She returned moments later with a hot, soapy washcloth and a first aid kit. Steele snatched them from her. “Sit down and shut up.” He pointed to the bed. Ash glowered, but he didn’t back off. “Sit down, or I’ll put you down.” They stared at one another, unblinking. Steele wondered if he’d be forced tie her to the bed in order to see to her wounds. He would if he had to. Ash was a mess. She hadn’t dealt with Abe’s death, and neither had Steele —not really. The past ten years must’ve been hard on her. He didn’t remember her ever being so unreasonable, and he probably wasn’t helping the situation

none. They’d always rubbed each other the wrong way, but since Abe’s death, she couldn’t stand the sight of him. Rightly so. He’d gotten her brother killed—of course she hated him with an abiding passion. Steele hated himself and always would for his role in Abe’s death. He might not have been the one who wielded the sword, but he was just as culpable. Finally, she turned away with a sigh. “Fine, since you’re gonna be such a pain in the ass about it.” She sat down so hard she bounced. “You say such sweet things.” “Shut up.”

“Shuttin’ up.” He rifled through her supplies. Not too shabby. She had antibacterial ointment, gauze, medical tape, large bandages, a set of scissors— everything he needed to tend her wounds. “Give me your hand.” He held his out expectantly. Curling her lips, she slapped her palm into his and then grunted in pain. His lips twitched, but he didn’t dare laugh. She might take a swing at him. “Smarts, don’t it?” “It’s fine.” “Yeah, everything with you is all hunky-dory.” He gently dabbed her bloodied

hand with the washcloth. Her knuckles were red, raw circles on her hands where the skin had split and peeled back. He hissed in sympathy. Steele had bruised his own quite a few times, and they hurt like a bitch. Took forever to heal too. She stared straight ahead, refusing to look at him. “Tell me about the cartel.” Axel must’ve given her an abbreviated version. The club kept their secrets well. “We were…coerced into an alliance with the Dixie Mafia. They had an agreement with the Tres Erre to ship drugs across the border. The Raptors have been smugglin’ for years.” “How’d they rope you in?”

“Long story. Ain’t mine to tell, though.” She blew out a slow breath, and Steele could tell she was making an effort to control her temper. “I can’t do my job if you keep secrets from me.” “Gotta keep this one.” Eddie Rollins, Axel’s mother, had gotten in deep with Beauregard, and the mobster now held her life in his hands. Literally. “Figures.” Her lips twisted. “I shoulda known you’d put your needs above duty.” Steele had no defense. Ash wasn’t right about this particular situation, but his dick had come before his best friend in the world. He didn’t even try to defend himself.

He tended to her wounds and shut his mouth. Moments passed and neither of them said a word. “The DEA,” she began, filling the silence. “They’d heard rumors about a management shake-up in the cartel, a new leader.” At least he could talk about this with her. “Yeah, a couple of us met her. They call her bruja.” “Spanish for witch?” He nodded. “A woman in charge of a cartel. I don’t know whether to be proud for the sisterhood or disgusted.” “Believe me, it’s the last one, and her name should be bitch, not witch. She

left a pile of bodies in the village we traveled through, and I ain’t bein’ poetical. I mean, a mountain of pieces.” “Holy sh*t.” Ash pressed a fist to her lips and puffed out her cheeks. “Talk about a sight you don’t forget. She’s livin’ high on the hog in this big fancy house while she’s killin’ folks and pumpin’ poison into the States.” Her lips twisted. “Sounds like the bitch needs put away for life.” “What she needs is a cozy grave for one.” Ash had a wicked gleam in her eyes —the thrill of the chase. Damn, this new kickass side of her was kinda hot in a twisted way, but it

came from a dark place. “I know why you’re so angry.” “Oh yeah? You psychic all of a sudden?” “Don’t need to be. His birthday is comin’ up.” He usually spent Abe’s birthday and the anniversary of his death on benders—filling up on whiskey and women so he could drown out the pain. “Our birthday.” His chest tightened. Steele wanted to tell her lots of things—that he was sorry, and she shouldn’t be tempting fate and trying to get herself killed. But it was hopeless. She’d never listen to him, so he stayed mute and finished the damn job.

After a while, Ash yawned into her hand. Her eyelids drooped, and she wasn’t as tense. “You tired?” “Yeah, didn’t sleep much last night.” No wonder she’d taken on several grown men tonight and held her own. “Maybe you should get some shut-eye.” He didn’t come out and tell her to rest, because she’d stay awake to spite him. Oil and water—they didn’t mix well. “Maybe.” Steele walked to the end of the bed, pulled out his cell phone, and fired off a text to Ace, canceling her dinner date with him. And nope, he didn’t bring it

up. He doubted she’d remembered it. Ash curled on her side, and as she moved, Steele noticed the wound on her neck. A scar swooped down by her throat, directly over the vein. He couldn’t help but stare, and he reached a fingertip out to touch it. Ash slapped his hand away. “Don’t touch me.” She pulled the collar of her shirt higher then dragged herself to the other side of the bed. “What happened? Who cut you?” What the hell had she gotten herself into? It was bad enough someone had taken a knife to her face—they’d tried to end her life too? “I did.” Her look was drenched in bravado.

“You…?” Steele couldn’t even get the words out. She’d taken a knife to her own throat. Ash stood and walked to the mirror. She pushed her hair back and examined her throat in the shiny surface. “I always keep it covered. I shoulda been more careful today.” “You tried to commit suicide,” he breathed. He felt like someone had punctured his ribcage and seized his heart. “Yeah, but it’s none of your f*ckin’ business so do us both a favor and leave.” She stalked back into the bathroom and slammed the door shut. Dumbly, Steele stood there for

several minutes, staring at the closed door. He wanted to break it down and demand an answer. He wanted to shake her until she told him everything—until he made Ash promise she’d never, ever do something stupid again. But he didn’t—couldn’t, actually. He was the last person on earth who could reason with her. When his legs worked again, Steele dragged himself out of her room. And threw up on the pavement.

Chapter Eight The next morning, Steele sought out Pretty Boy at Perdition. Steele hadn’t been able to sleep—not a wink. Every time he closed his eyes, he dreamt about Afghanistan again—the night Abe died. He could still play every single second of it in his head like a horror movie. The smell of charred flesh on the smoky air. Abe’s face frozen, contorted in pain forever. Since Coyote had gone missing, the nightmares had come calling every evening. Steele shook his head, trying to block out the images. Normally, he f*cked his way into a good slumber, but Ash had come

crashing into his world. And screwing another woman had mysteriously plummeted to the bottom of his priority list. Steele was out of his depth—he didn’t do this touchy-feely crap. Ever. He preferred to shoot his way out of a problem, which wouldn’t cut it in this particular situation. Besides, Ash needed help, whether or not she realized it and, unfortunately, he wouldn’t be able to give it to her. So Steele sought out reinforcements. Pretty Boy stood behind the counter, pouring pretzels into small wooden bowls from a Sam’s club-sized bag. The bar hadn’t opened yet, so the

place was nearly empty. Other than Pretty Boy, he spotted a couple of hellions meandering around, refilling salt and pepper shakers. Neither of them were Wendy—thank the Lord for small favors. Steele didn’t see Eddie or Ryker around, so this was a prime opportunity to have a talk. Pretty Boy raised a brow. “What’s up, brother?” He didn’t normally come to the club this early in the day without a good reason. Steele needed a favor but didn’t know how to ask for it without sounding like a gigantic douche. “Nothin’ much. How’s tricks?” He sat down on a stool and helped himself to a fistful of pretzels. After he’d

barfed in Hades’ parking lot last night, he hadn’t felt like eating when he got home. Although salty pretzels probably weren’t the best breakfast option. Narrowing his eyes, Pretty Boy continued filling the bowls, and while he didn’t call bullsh*t on Steele’s answer, his face sure as f*ck did. “Tricks are fine,” he said after a long pause. “Why?” Pretty Boy rolled his eyes heavenward. “I swear. Are you here to hassle me?” “About what?” “My affection for dick. For the last time, I ain’t into you. Never was, and I don’t know sh*t about decoratin’. Don’t believe everything you see on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy reruns.”

Steele frowned. Yeah, he’d probably given Shep and Pretty Boy a hard time, but not deliberately. He’d been interested was all. Not like he’d met many gay folks. “I really don’t care, man. The gay thing is ancient history. Gay it up, brother.” Pretty Boy‘s shoulders shook. “Good. I will.” “Damn shame you don’t know nothin’. My place is a f*ckin’ mess.” They both grinned. “Before I forget, I need you to take somethin’ to Justice. He didn’t stop by yesterday, and you two are workin’ together right now, right?” “Yep.”

Pretty Boy slipped a hand in his cut and withdrew a Ziploc baggie full of weed. Steele turned it over in his hands, examining it. “Is this Apocalyptic Night?” “Nah, it’s a strand I developed for Justice. I call it Mercy.” “Justice gets his own type of weed?” Steele was impressed and a bit jealous. “Yeah, he asked me to work on one when I was a prospect. It calms you down, helps you sleep.” Steele tucked it into his cut. “I’ll make sure he gets it. He owe you any money?”

“Nah, he already paid me. Justice has a standing order.” Pretty Boy placed the bowls around the bar. “So why are you really here?” Steele nearly choked on the pretzel he’d been munching on. f*ck, he should’ve been practicing his approach. “Uh….” “Is it Wendy?” He leaned closer to whisper. “How the f*ck do you know about Wendy?” “Brother, there ain’t no secrets in this place. I overheard a couple of the girls comparin’ notes last night.” He didn’t give a sh*t about hellions gossiping behind his back. Not anymore. They could chin-wag all they liked, but

gossip had a way of turning up at the worst possible moment. What if they said something to Ash? It bothered him more than he cared to contemplate. “What? You into her or somethin’?” “Oh, God, no. I want the social worker’s number.” And there it was, without finesse. “Etta May?” His eyes narrowed. “Why?” Pretty Boy was no longer a prospect and couldn’t be ordered around anymore. It sucked ass. Big time. “I need it.” “Hell no.” “Why not?”

“Because I like her, and you aren’t gonna f*ck her.” “Don’t wanna.” The idea had never occurred to him. “Yeah? I don’t believe you. That’s what you do. You’ll screw her and then toss her away. What do you want with her? Are you fresh out of hellions to bang?” “Do you think the only reason I talk to women is to f*ck them?” A ripple of shame ran through him. Oh, f*ck—that’s exactly why he talked to a woman. Women viewed him as a fun guy to fool around with, not the kind they’d bring home to Mom and Dad. Steele had

never been the brightest crayon in the box. In high school, he’d lived for the gridiron, not the classroom. In the military, he’d held his own, but he wasn’t exactly a genius. “Yeah, I do.” Pretty Boy vaulted over the bar. Damn. “I talk to the old ladies all the time. I never—” “Only because it’s in the club commandments, and our brothers would knock your teeth down your throat for lookin’ at them sideways.” “I don’t wanna f*ck her. I need her help. Are you gonna give me the number or what?” “I’m leanin’ toward not. What’s

up?” “None of your f*ckin’ business.” “Tell me.” Pretty Boy drummed his fingers on the bar. “Etta has hauled my ass out of the fire a few times. I’m sure as hell not gonna leave hers unprotected.” Steele sighed. He might as well tell the partial truth. “I need the number for a friend.” Ash deserved her privacy. No one else needed to know she was suicidal. “Uh huh.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “And?” “And she’s goin’ through a difficult time. Her brother died in the war, and I think she’s havin’ trouble letting go.” He

offered up a slice of the truth, but he couldn’t say more. Pretty Boy cursed under his breath. “Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” He held out his hand. “Give me your phone. I’ll put the digits in. She’s in Dallas right now—some kind of social worker conference she’s speaking at— so I’m not sure when she’ll be back.” Steele forked over the prepaid, and Pretty Boy’s fingers flew over the keyboard before he tossed it back. “Got it. Thanks, brother.” “No problem, but while Ms. Etta May Jameson is helpin’ out your friend, she’s under your protection. Got it? Don’t let nothin’ happen to her. And I can’t overstate this…don’t f*ck her.

Don’t.” “Got it, brother.” The matter settled, Steele tried to be his usual jokester self, even though the role didn’t quite fit just now. “Let’s talk about my strain of weed. What do you think about Man of Steele?” Pretty Boy rolled his eyes. *** Steele headed got to Hades in time to watch Ash jog across the parking lot. When she caught sight of him, Ash broke into a run. He sprinted over, catching her at the door before she could dash inside and shut him out. She wore a pair of thigh-hugging

black leggings and a tight top which read: Sweaty Haute Mess. She’d fastened the arms of her hoodie around her tiny waist. Upon closer examination, he could see she’d swiped some makeup over her scar to disguise it. If he hadn’t known what he was looking for, he’d have never noticed the wound. “You run every mornin’?” “Yup.” Turning her back on him, Ash placed an arm on the wall and extended one foot, stretching her muscles. Steele filed the info away for later use. He wanted to talk about her suicide, but could he bring something so volatile up? “Hey, we need to talk.” “About what? You pukin’ right

outside my door?” “How’d you know it was me?” “Because you just copped to it. The barf stunk to high heaven, and I had to keep refilling the ice bucket from the tap to wash away your mess. Took me six trips.” “Sorry.” He’d meant to text Angel and tell the prospect to care of it, but he’d been befuddled last night. Might as well say it. “Let’s talk about the big ass scar on your neck.” Ash cooled, and damn if her grim face didn’t look meaner than a junkyard dog. “f*ck off, Steele. Let it go, ain’t none of your business.” She headed for the door, keys jangling, and he followed her, muscling his way into the room.

She stood staring at him with her hands on her hips. “Let’s talk about the shaky lead instead.” He wanted to say so many things, but the words wouldn’t come. Steele couldn’t heal the damage he’d caused. “I —” “What, Steele? What do you want from me?” I wanna make you whole again. Instead of saying the words, Steele handed her Etta May’s number. He’d copied it down on a bar napkin. “Here, she’s a clinical social worker. One of my brothers knows her, says she’s real good at her job. Maybe she could help.” Biting her lower lip, Ash studied

the napkin. Steele waited for her to rip it up, maybe throw it in his face, but she didn’t. “I saw a therapist.” She said it so low he had to strain to hear. He stepped closer. “Yeah?” Ash rubbed a thumb over her scar. “Right after I cut myself.” “Why did you cut your own throat?” She turned away from him. “I thought it’d be a fast way to go, quick and easy. But my mom found me, got me to the hospital in time. As soon as I saw her face, I regretted doing it. She’d lost one child, and I nearly caused her to lose another.” He could only see her profile.

“After they patched my ass up, I got shipped upstairs to the loony bin for a month.” Her mother was an emergency room doctor. Thank God she’d been there to save Ash. “When?” She walked to the mini-fridge and grabbed a couple of bottled waters. Ash tossed one to Steele and grabbed another for herself. Twisting off the cap, she took a long pull. For a moment, he didn’t know if she’d answer him. “Our birthday. The first one without Abe.” “And that’s the only time?” She nodded. “It was after I’d left

the Corps, before I started working for Cole. I was at loose ends….” “Why would you slice yourself up?” It was the question he’d been dying to ask since he’d found out last night. “Why do you think?” “I know he’s your brother and your friend. You miss him, but—” “But what? I have so much to live for? I have my whole life ahead of me? Go on, give me your platitude, I’ve heard them all.” “I wanna hear you talk.” “You don’t get it, and you never will.” She turned her back on him. “Losin’ a twin is more painful than

losing a brother and best friend. He was my other half. The therapist at the hospital told me about twinless twins. There’s a support group for us, like Alcoholics Anonymous or somethin’.” She turned to face him once more. “You ever go?” Ash shook her head. “I read the pamphlets she gave me, but I can’t sit there and yak about my problems with a roomful of strangers.” Steele didn’t blame her. He wouldn’t be able to open up to a bunch of people he didn’t know either. “It’s about identity. We were a set. Abe and I shared a sense of self, and now he’s gone, I’m half a person.” Ash wrapped her arms around herself.

“Somethin’ will always be missin’ from my life. We came into this world together, and we should’ve left it that way.” Steele ached all over. He wanted to hold her, offer her comfort, but she’d give him a black eye. So he stood there, staring, unable to say or do anything helpful—useless as teats on a bull. “I gotta live for the both of us, and sometimes I can’t take the pressure is all.” She lifted her chin. “This is the last time we’ll jaw about it.” Ash blew out a breath. “I want you to leave, then we’ll follow up on the lead tonight. I’ll text you the details. We’re gonna need the cover of darkness.” “Yes, ma’am.”

Shaking, Steele stumbled out the door—but at least he didn’t upchuck.

Chapter Nine Later in the morning, Steele sat by himself in Hades, picking at a Denver omelet. He’d ordered the damn thing hoping the smell would make him hungry. It didn’t. The front door swung open, and Steele glanced up to see his buddy, Frost, walk in. Frost had short reddishblond hair, blue eyes, and a neatly trimmed beard. As per usual, he was dressed in a fancy blue suit. Steele had gotten a terse text from him the night before requesting a meeting, and judging by the hard set of Frost’s jaw, he hadn’t come to breakfast to do a little chin-

wagging. Steele and Frost had served together in Afghanistan, along with Abe. After their tours ended, Frost had gotten a position in the county sheriff’s office, while Steele went the outlaw route. Unlike most of the club brothers, Steele didn’t have a record and took an occasional bounty hunting gig on the side. Frost let him know when some dickhe*d slipped through the legal cracks so the club could administer some vigilante justice. After ordering coffee and a glazed donut at the counter, Frost sat down across from Steele. Voo usually sent a prospect to Devilicious every morning for a dozen or two donuts. The bakery

added a red cinnamon coating, which gave the pastry a satanic luster. Steele raised a brow. “Seriously? A donut?” “f*ck the cliché, I got a sweet tooth to indulge.” He bit into the pastry with gusto. “Why’d you need to meet?” Shaking his head, Steele speared a forkful of omelet and twirled it around. He let it fall back to the plate, untouched. Nope, still no appetite. “We got a report over the wire yesterday about a dangerous fugitive believed to be in the area.” Steele glanced up. “Oh yeah?” “You’re gonna sit there and play

stupid with me?” “Who says I’m playin’?” As a kid, Steele loved the role of class clown— still did, actually. School hadn’t been easy for him, so he’d enjoyed himself in other ways—quarterback, babe magnet, and joker extraordinaire. “Fine.” The cop pitched his donut down with a sigh. “Let’s do this your way. The fugitive is Jonathan Royal, the former president of Kentucky’s Four Horsem*n chapter. He’s a convicted murderer, not to mention the extortion, illegal arms sales, assault, and racketeering charges.” Steele knew exactly who Frost was jawing about. Not all of the Horsem*n chapters had a strictly straight-and-

narrow approach to earning money. Royal had busted out of prison and had been on the run ever since—for nearly a year now. Frost had an excellent bullsh*t detector, and Steele made sure to keep his face neutral. “You don’t say,” he remarked casually. “Sounds like a real menace to society.” While he counted Frost as one of his good buddies, he never forgot they stood on opposites sides of the law in Hell. He’d served with the man and loved him like a brother, but loyalty to his club came first. Sometimes it put Steele in a bind, like when Coyote had gone missing. He’d wanted to enlist Frost’s help

finding Yo, but he couldn’t. It would’ve put the club in legal jeopardy. While Frost might give some of the rules the finger, he didn’t ignore all of them— drug-smuggling and harboring a federal fugitive would be too much for the cop to ignore. “You’re gonna sit there pretendin’ you don’t know him even though he’s a member of your outfit?” Before he replied, Steele took a slow sip of coffee, trying not to appear agitated. “A Kentucky member. I’ve never met the man.” Royal had asked the club for help when he’d arrived in Texas a few weeks ago and was now holed up in Goat’s old hunting cabin. Axel had been bringing

him supplies. Horsem*n always helped another brother out, no matter what the cost. Frost studied him. “Rumor is Royal’s in this neck of the woods, and I know how loyal you Horsem*n are—to each other at least.” The dig stung, but he didn’t dignify it with a response. “Most recently, Royal kidnapped a federal marshal—a federal marshal.” Steele knew, in Frost’s world, it was an un-f*cking-forgivable sin. “Yeah, and I heard she was released alive and well.” The cop leaned closer, setting his elbows on the table. “Where’d you hear

that?” “On the news.” Royal hadn’t harmed the woman, which was good because Horsem*n didn’t tolerate sh*theads who hurt the ladies, regardless of club affiliation. Steele made a mental note to share Frost’s suspicions with Axel. The president might have to move Royal. After this meeting concluded, Axel would be getting a text from Steele. “You didn’t get it from another source?” “Nope, but I’ll keep an eye peeled for this fella.” He sighed. “Steele, helpin’ you guys dole out justice when some

asswipe gets away with rape or backs out on payin’ child support is one thing. Harborin’ a fugitive is serious, and I have a duty.” “Do what you gotta do, man.” Steele meant it. He had a hell of a lot of respect for Frost, even if the street didn’t go both ways. “I think you’re lying to me.” “Frost—” “Shut up. Don’t sit there with your teeth in your mouth. I used to trust you, but since you joined the Horsem*n, you’re becomin’ like the rest of them… crooked as a dog’s hind leg. You used to be my brother—we were on the same side.”

“Not anymore. I wish you’d joined the club with me, then this kind of sh*t wouldn’t come between us.” He scowled. “And for the record? I ain’t crooked.” “Bullsh*t. If you swallowed a nail, you’d sh*t out a corkscrew.” They glared at one another. Steele wanted to be pissed, but a laugh bubbled up instead. “Asshole.” The insult didn’t hold any heat. “dickhe*d.” Frost joined in the laughter. Suddenly, they were two old friends having breakfast together. “You’ll never guess who’s in town.” Ash hadn’t served with them, but they’d all met at her parents’ place when they’d been given leave at the same time.

“Too early for guessin’ games. Who?” Frost washed down the rest of his donut with coffee. “Ash.” His eyes widened. “Ashton Calhoun? That Ash?” “Yeah.” Frost raised a brow. “And I’m sure you welcomed her with open…arms.” “She’s only a friend.” “No, we’re only friends.” “What? You think I wanna f*ck her? You’d be hard-pressed to find a woman I don’t wanna f*ck.” Frost snorted. “No, man. I watched you two at the party. What’s it been? Twelve years ago? If I recall right, she

slapped you upside the head, but you still followed her ass around all night like a dog without a home.” “Did not.” Steele pressed a hand to his face. For the life of him, he couldn’t recall what he’d said to her, but he could still feel the slap—even the memory of her touch was…electrifying. “Don’t even try to deny it. I’m not the only one who noticed. Abe took you out on the porch and threatened to knock you into next week for daring to look at her.” They both sobered at the mention of Abe. “He’d be thirty-four next week.” Steele ran a palm down his face. In his mind’s eye, Abe never aged—twenty-

four forever. “I remember. I say a prayer for him every year.” A lump formed in the back of his throat, and he struggled to swallow it. “I left him all alone.” Frost squeezed his arm. “You didn’t know what would happen. None of us took guard duty real serious until….” He shook his head. “Guardin’ heroin poppies wasn’t what we’d signed on to do.” The entire unit had been up in arms, but they hadn’t had much choice. They’d followed orders…except for Steele, of course. “I know, but I should’ve done my duty. You don’t get to pick and choose what orders to follow.”

“Steele, you can’t beat yourself up. You didn’t set this in motion. The Taliban needed money for their war machine, and they wanted to scare the f*ck out of the farmers working with us. They murdered him to scare the locals. You didn’t kill him, they did.” “I might as well have. They lynched him and gutted him like a fish.” Steele saw it all again—the rope around Abe’s neck, hanging at an unnatural angle. The glossy, unseeing eyes. Frost gripped him harder, digging his fingertips in, as if trying to physically pull Steele back into the here and now. “Don’t do this to yourself.” “Can’t help it.” Seeing Ash again and Coyote’s abduction had brought it

all boiling to the surface once more. He sucked in a breath. “Frost, I need you to tell me the truth.” The cop held his gaze for a long moment and then nodded. “You promise?” “Yeah, of course. Anythin’.” Steele forced himself to ask the question he’d been dreading for years, the one he desperately needed an answer to. “If I’d stayed and done my duty… would Abe be alive today?” Frost pondered the question. When he spoke, his voice was low and gravelly. “If you’d remained at your post, I’d have buried two friends instead of one.”

“I should’ve died with him. My face should’ve been the last thing he saw, not his murderer’s.” Frost didn’t reply. There was nothing more to say. *** Afterwards, Steele went to work and tried his level best to live his life, even though he felt like it was unraveling at the seams. He hadn’t received any more spooky phone calls from Coyote’s hacker buddies either. Daisy didn’t try to cheer him and left him be. There was a steady stream of customers to concentrate on, so the day passed quickly.

After he closed up shop, he went over to the hotel and knocked on Ash’s door. “Ash?” Nothing. Steele knocked again. No answer. Damnation. It was nearly dark, and they should be heading up to that cabin and checking it out. She’d texted everything to him earlier. He tried her cell, but it went straight to voicemail. Had she fallen asleep? Steele pounded on the door. Again, no response. A disturbing thought occurred to him. What if she’d tried to hurt herself again? Steele ran to the front desk and got a spare key. He slid it into the lock and

entered the room. Once inside, he glanced around but didn’t see her. Then he heard running water coming from the bathroom. She was taking a shower. He sighed, the tension leaving his body. Steele checked his cell. He was running about twenty minutes earlier than he’d planned. Steele knew he should walk on out of there. Once she got dressed, she’d give him a call. He could wait for her in the diner. But he was in her room— alone in her space—and he couldn’t resist the opportunity to poke around a bit. Ash had never been a traditional southern belle. She’d always been less

refined and a hell of a lot more ferocious. As a teenager, he’d loved to wind her up and see what she’d do next. On the nightstand, she had a black mesh case chock-full of girly stuff he perused. He was charmed by the bottle of perfume, TokyoMilk Dark. The bottle was black and featured the white outline of a gun, and the scent was called Bulletproof. He found a silver cross on a chain, an inky black bottle of nail polish, and some lip balm. No makeup. On the bed, she’d set out her clothes–a black T-shirt which read Pistol Packin’ Mama, boot-cut jeans, a pair of white cotton boy shorts with a matching sports bra—the kind women ran in, both sprinkled with cherries. She

loved the Rockabilly style, the kind of clothing a 1950s pinup girl would wear. He fingered the cotton, imagining her in them. f*ck, he’d love to see her model those. He found it sexier than the more obvious lingerie. Or maybe because he’d pictured her wearing it. The door behind him banged open and there stood Ash, nearly naked and wet in a towel. Steele stood still like he hadn’t just been touching her underthings. Most women would’ve bawled him out and pushed him out the front door. Or screamed and shut the bathroom door, but modesty had been drilled out of both of them in the military. Ash raised a brow. “Pervert.”

“Exhibitionist,” he tossed back. Dear sweet baby Jesus. She was wet and covered by a bit of terry cloth. Damn. He wished the towel would slip down an inch or two. She didn’t appear to be affected by sexual tension. At one time, she’d thought Steele was the hottest thing on two legs. “Didn’t know I had an audience. Shoulda figured you’d have a key.” She lifted a hand and made a twirling motion with one finger. Oh, f*ck. She wasn’t gonna march his ass outta there. He turned around, and she stepped up behind him to get her clothing. Steele shivered. He could feel the warmth of her skin, still hot from the

shower she’d taken, radiating around him. He breathed in her scent. She smelled like cinnamon with a hint of vanilla. “Ain’t familiar with the area. How far away is the campground?” Right. They should talk business and not about how he’d love to lay her down on the bed and lick her. He swallowed. “About an hour.” His voice hadn’t even shook. Nailed it. “When’s Justice meeting us?” He hesitated. “Um, soon.” “Yeah, but when?” She tossed the towel back into the bathroom. He heard it flop wetly onto the floor. Dear God, she was naked behind

him. All he had to do was turn around to get a full frontal glimpse of the goods. She might shoot his ass, but he knew it’d be worth it. He heard a shuffling noise behind him as she pulled on what he assumed were her underthings. Damn. He needed to talk her into taking his Harley. Then she’d have to surrender those drawers as a toll for the ride, and he’d get to… admire them later. His co*ck thickened, leaping in his pants as he imagined her shimmying out of them, and he was suddenly grateful he faced away from her. She’d be pissed as all get-out to see the tent pole he had stuffed down his pants. Ash cleared her throat. “Well?”

f*ck, she’d asked him a question, but he couldn’t remember it. “What?” “When’s Justice comin’?” She said the words slowly, like he was the idiot everyone thought he was. Try never. I somehow forgot to mention this trip to him. “Not sure.” He tried to play it casual, hoping they’d get a chance to talk if they were alone. “Say, why don’t we take my bike since I know the route?” “Because I’d rather walk there barefoot over hot stones.” “It’d be easier. You don’t know your way around these parts.” He could hear the rustle of clothing as Ash continued dressing. “See, I got a

newfangled thing called a GPS. It’s ahmazing. Like magic, it can direct you anywhere you wanna go.” Steele ignored the sarcasm. “My ride would be a lot more fun.” “No, the weather is funky this week. A cold front is moving through, and they forecasted a bit of snow.” “f*ck.” Hell didn’t freeze over very often, and when it did, Texans lost their damn minds. The last time they’d gotten half an inch, schools had been closed, businesses had shut down, and the stores had a run on basic supplies. “We’ll bundle up. It’ll be fine on the bike.” Ash jumped into her jeans and then grabbed the shirt from the bed. “Hell no.

I’m not freezin’ to death on the back of your Harley so you can play big, bad biker man. I’m decent. You can turn around.” She grabbed a brush from the nightstand and ran it through her wet strands. “Besides, I’m gonna use the car’s heater to dry my hair.” Dammit, this round goes to you. He’d get her on the back of his bike before this mission was complete. She grabbed a gunmetal gray hoodie from her bag and her cell. “You comin’ or what?” Hunched over to hide his erection, Steele shuffled to the bathroom. “Yeah, in a sec. Gotta…uh, take a piss.” “Fine, meet you in the car, but make it snappy.” No time to rub a quick one out.

f*ck, he’d have to drown his co*ck with water and hope he didn’t splash any on his jeans—she’d think he pissed himself. This was shaping up to be one sh*tty road trip. *** Ash stopped short in the parking lot as Steele’s gleaming motorcycle came into view. It was black and chrome, very sleek. God, the thing damn near sparkled. How many coats of wax did he use on it? Then she got a mental image of Steele shirtless, rubbing the bike with a rag, and her knees felt a little weak. Steele walked out of the hotel

room. “Do you see Justice anywhere?” She glanced left and then right as if she’d somehow misplaced a six-foot-tall man. Ash was desperate to have a buffer along. They had a talk coming, and she wasn’t ready to use a can opener on those particular worms. He palmed his phone. “I, uh, got a text from him. Justice ain’t comin’ with us. He’s busy.” Steele had on a tight pair of jeans that outlined his muscled thighs to perfection. No way was she going to wrap herself around his body when he looked so damn good. She hated to admit it, but he filled out the denim better than Ace. Ace!

Crap. She’d forgotten all about her faux date with him. Ash made a mental note to text him later and apologize. Then she remembered Steele’s words. “Doing what? He’s too busy to run down a lead in his friend’s kidnappin’?” “f*ck if I know. This is a scout mission. Between the two of us, I’m sure we can handle it.” Steele straddled the Harley and started the engine. It became a loud, rumbling beast beneath him. “Now get on the damn bike.” “I said no, remember? We’re takin’ my SUV.” She tromped over to the Forrester. He stood. “Why do I have to go three rounds with you every damn time?”

“Because that’s who I am, and I ain’t gonna change,” she called over the roaring engine. He shut off the bike with a smirk. “Yeah, I know who you are, Dusty,” he said, using the pet name to bait her. “You love takin’ risks and livin’ dangerously.” “My mother said those things are death traps.” Leslie Calhoun had come home from the hospital full of stories about bikers being wheeled straight into the morgue after splattering their asses all over the highway. She’d called bikers organ donors on two wheels. “You’re scared?” Actually, Ash was intrigued. It was a sexy-looking machine with an even

sexier rider. But taking them both out for a spin would lead to more tears. “Hell no.” If she was risk-averse, she’d be in another profession. Ash didn’t fear riding on the bike, but she was scared of getting close to Steele. She was both terrified and titillated by the very idea of holding onto his big, warm body, her arms and legs wrapped around him as they raced down the asphalt together. Giving in to her insane desire to touch him would lead to other poor decisions. She remembered very well how good it’d felt. Sometimes she wished she’d never laid eyes on him. “Get in the damn car. We’re done talkin’ about this.” Ash started up the

Forrester. Scowling, Steele got off the bike and swaggered over to her. He slid in the seat and started fiddling with the radio. She slapped his hand away. “My car, my radio, my rules.” “You gotta have everythin’ your way, dontcha?” “Pretty much. Meanin’, if I wanna, we’ll listen to Backstreet Boys for the next hour.” Steele gaped at her. “You wouldn’t.” “I would. You know why?” “Because you’re evil?” “No, because I want it that way,”

she quipped, riffing on one of the band’s song titles. “Actually, I got somethin’ better.” She slid a mix CD into the console. “New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys toured together a few years ago. I’m in the mood for a mashup.” Steele groaned. “My ears are gonna bleed.” The boys started singing, and she turned it up to cement her bitch status. Then Ash started singing along. Loudly. He shot her a sideways glance. “Laugh it up, but mark my words… before you leave town, you’re gonna take a ride with me.” “Yeah, when hell freezes over.”

And that’s when the f*cking snow flurries chose to fall.

Chapter Ten “You, me, and a park, huh? Just like old times.” Ash stared straight ahead as if she hadn’t heard him. Steele had made several attempts at conversation, but she kept her answers short and not sweet at all, hoping he’d give up. He hadn’t. One long car ride later, they rolled into Pine State Park. They passed the guard station, which was closed up for the night. Tourism in Texas didn’t really gear up until March when spring breakers came flooding down the coast. The park had a fishing lake, a campground, and some cabins. It looked like the very last place a biker gang

would hide out—probably the very reason they chose it. The Raptors could flash fake IDs to the rangers and keep out of trouble. No one would think twice about it. “Ash?” “What?” “Don’t tell me you forgot about the park.” Oh, how she wished she could. “No, I haven’t forgotten.” She shook her head. “We’ve got bad park karma, and this won’t end well.” The week after the sixteenth birthday kiss, Steele had driven her home after the football game, and they’d stopped in the park down the street from

her house. “I thought it almost ended well last time.” “Except for the part where the park ranger found us in the backseat of your old beater.” It’d taken Steele a year to build his very own car from junked auto parts. All he’d had to pay for was the engine. He’d been so damned proud. Her father had bought her a brand new Ford Aspire as a sixteenth birthday present, and she hadn’t taken nearly as much delight as Steele had in his junker. “Don’t,” she gritted out. “Don’t what?” “Don’t play innocent with me. I’m

not in the mood for memory lane.” “So we aren’t gonna talk about a damn thing?” She turned in the seat, eyes fierce. “You wanna talk it all out? We can, but I don’t think you’re gonna like it. And no, I don’t mean all the teenage lust parts.” They had a big conversation coming, one that’d waited ten years— about her brother’s death and Steele’s role in it. There were things she needed to say to him, but she worried she’d pull herself apart in the process. It’d taken her years to piece herself together. “No, it’s fine. We can be all business tonight if you want.” “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

They both shut the hell up, and Ash did a slow drive through the park, scoping out all the camping spaces. Steele took the right-hand side of the road, while she took left. The Raptors were a pretty large group, and they’d need several spaces to spread out on. Unfortunately, the park was a ghost town. “See anything?” “Nah, some old folks—winter Texans, most likely.” A lot of retired people came down to the Lone Star state to escape harsh northern winters. The residents had dubbed them winter Texans, because they weren’t lucky enough to live there all four seasons. “The stripper mentioned a cabin,

though. Number twelve. We should check it, just in case.” “You think some of ‘em might be there?” She shrugged. “Or maybe they left somethin’ behind. I don’t imagine they’ve had a lot of turnover.” “It’s a long shot, but worth a look.” Ash pulled into the lot behind the row of cabins. There weren’t any other cars, but there was a big honking floodlight over the area. Steele pulled out his gun and screwed a five-inch silencer into the barrel. He shot out the light. It made a small cracking sound, but it wouldn’t be detectable as a gunshot.

In shadow, they approached the cabins and located number twelve. She slipped around back and peered in the window. No signs of life. Steele glanced in another window, and they both shook their heads. Steele tried the door handle, but it didn’t budge. “You any good at pickin’ locks?” “Nah, I like to break when I enter.” She pulled a thick black pen from her pocket. “You gonna write them a nasty note?” “I talk with my hands.” The aluminum pen was heftier than a garden variety BIC, and it packed a punch. Ash slid a leather glove on then turned her

head to the side as she aimed for the corner of the window pane. It shattered on impact. “Holy sh*t,” Steele breathed. “Gotta get me one of those.” “The other side is a weapon. It has perforated teeth, so you can take ‘bites’ out of your attacker.” “Glad you didn’t use it to chomp on my ass.” Ash flashed back to rolling around on the ground with him. His large, muscled body on top of her, pinning her down. Pushing aside the traitorous thought, she reached in the window and grasped the door knob. Drawing their weapons and

flashlights, they walked in but didn’t find anyone after doing a sweep. They stood together in the small kitchen—the shelves were bare, and the drawers were empty. The skinny stove and tiny fridge were unplugged. “The place is cleaned out. The Raptors haven’t been here in a while, and I know they didn’t leave it lookin’ this good. Housekeeping must’ve come through.” “And carried away any evidence.” Ash had been amazed at what kind of information she could get from someone’s trash—receipts, old bills, discarded medication containers. All of it offered clues. Steele slammed a fist on the

wooden countertop. “Another f*cking dead end. I’m sick of this sh*t.” “Let’s have a good look around to be sure.” They searched through drawers, closets, and cabinets, only to come up completely empty. “We should get out of here before a park ranger comes by on rounds and notices the light out.” Steele marched to the door. His disappointment was palpable, and she almost felt bad for him. Almost. Steele’s partners had a way of ending up dead or kidnapped, which couldn’t be coincidence. He’d always cared more about his own skin than anyone else’s.

“You think we’re gonna find him?” “I don’t know these guys, but they covered their tracks pretty well, which is never a good sign.” “Tell me about it.” They hopped into the Forrester, and she drove down the road. As they passed the guard station on the way out, Steele smiled. “The park ranger kept sayin’, ‘This is a family place.’ Do you remember?” The ranger in question had kept repeating the phrase over and over. Ash knew what he was doing—trying to distract himself with a better memory. She didn’t have the heart to shoot him down again. “Yeah, I remember. We were alone in the park because it was

after dark.” “Until we were interrupted. Then he threatened to call our parents.” “But he didn’t.” A smile tugged at her lips. “We were idiots. We could’ve gotten charged with public indecency.” “Yeah, but I’m thinkin’ he was some kind of perv.” “Eww.” “So he’d have some explainin’ to do. He probably sat there and watched us while he beat off.” She made a barfing noise. “I could’ve done without that mental image. But I’m glad he didn’t call my folks, or I’d have spent my summer being grounded and listenin’ to lectures.

What about you?” “Nah, my mom worked too damn much. I only got to see her an hour most days, between first shift at the grocery store and second shift at the fast-food place. If I didn’t have football practice, we’d grab a bite to eat before she went in to work.” Ash knew he’d grown up poor. His mother worked two jobs to make ends meet, and she’d never been around much. After Abe and Steele became friends, he’d spent most nights at their house. He’d been the extra kid at the dinner table in cheap, ill-fitting clothing, devouring his food because he never got enough to eat at home. Steele had never invited them to his place, and she

wondered if he’d been ashamed. A long moment passed, and she spoke up. Something had bothered her for years. “I need to ask you a question.” “Shoot.” “I’m not an idiot. I know Abe warned you off after we kissed at my birthday party, but I don’t understand why you boned Sally Abrams and her magnificent wonder-snatch the very same week. No, not even. The next day after we….” “After we went parking.” “I hate her.” He stared out the window. “Would you rather I picked a girl you liked?” Suddenly, she felt sixteen again.

Sixteen and in the throes of unrequited love. “No, but you could’ve talked to me.” It would’ve saved her a lot of pain and self-loathing. It was like a real life version of the Taylor Swift song You Belong with Me. Everyone at school gossiped about the football star and the head cheerleader “doing it” at Sally’s place while her parents had been gone for the weekend. Sally was pretty and perfect—a blonde bombshell. Ash had felt ugly and awkward in comparison. While she had no idea what Sally had done with the rest of her life— if she was married, had kids, a white picket fence, maybe a couple of stupid parakeets—Ash still held it against her.

In fact, she hoped Sally had a sh*tty life. After the Sally incident, Ash had spent six miserable months in a funk mooning over Steele. In school years, it’d felt more like twenty. “No, I couldn’t,” he said after a few minutes, then turned to meet her eyes. “Why?” Ash wished it didn’t bother her—hurt her— but it still did. And it was the beginning of the end of their relationship. Abe’s death had been the very last straw. He settled back in his seat, staring straight ahead. “I had to make you…we needed a clean break.” “I think you mean dirty,” she said

bitterly. “It was a dirty way to break up.” He’d been everything to her. She’d wanted Steele for years, and he’d finally noticed her, but it’d fallen apart in a week. Ash had mourned the loss for months. “We weren’t datin’—not really— and I wanted you to hate my ass.” “Well, it worked.” “Yeah, I know.” Steele didn’t seem pleased with his own success. After he’d screwed Sally, she’d ignored Steele. School was easy, because she’d been in advanced placement everything and their paths never crossed. When he came over to see Abe, she’d go out with her friends. And if she had the misfortune to get stuck

in the same room with him, she pretended he didn’t exist. Operative word: pretend. She’d been all too aware of his presence. “If we’d had a great big, grown-up talk instead, would you’ve let it go?” Ash wanted to say she would’ve handled it fine. They could’ve dealt with the situation maturely, like two adults, and she would’ve moved forward while keeping her friendship with Steele. But it was a lie. Ash had wanted him too much to let him go so easily. “No. Probably not.” She wanted to ask why, why Abe had mattered more to Steele than she had, but she couldn’t without coming off completely pathetic.

“Sisters are strictly off-limits. I never should’ve touched you, but I couldn’t”—he swallowed—“help myself.” She turned away and sucked in a breath. “Were you gonna…?” “I didn’t have a plan. We were alone, and then I touched you, kissed you.” His voice somehow reverberated, and she could’ve sworn the sound stroked her inner thighs. “Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I wanted more.” Once again, Ash found herself on the backseat of his car—the foggy windows, bodies pressed together, those teasing lips on her breast. Part of her wondered what it would’ve been like if that f*cking ranger hadn’t intervened. If

Steele had been her first, would he have come to his senses and dated her instead of man-whoring around? Would Abe have come around? Yeah, and I might become a mermaid the next time I take a bath. If she’d slept with Steele, he still would’ve broken her heart, only it would’ve been even worse because she’d have been the idiot who had given the town’s male tramp her virginity. “You got real quiet.” Ash shook her head. She’d had this particular injury for years, no sense in picking at the scab. It’d never heal right. Instead, she pulled out her cell phone and thumbed a quick text.

“You should be payin’ attention to the road.” “Yeah, yeah, I’m reckless. I get it.” Her phone pinged with an immediate response. With a grin, she tucked it back into her pocket. “Who texted you? “Ace. I’m going out with him tonight. I might get lucky.” His irritated, grunting response was priceless. *** Perdition wasn’t the kind of place Ash would have chosen for a first date. For one thing, the biker bar theme

was a bit much—the Harleys, posters of nearly naked girls on bikes, and the mysterious, sleazy-ass line of skan*y underwear, of course. But the music had grown on her. The Crossroad Crows band played a June Carter and Johnny Cash version of the classic, It Ain’t Me, Babe. A woman with blue and blonde hair sang the duet with a sexy blond man. A few other band members played the instruments behind them, but the couple had a spellbinding energy. She could watch them all night long—staring at one another while they sang, looking into each other’s eyes. Oh, she knew the look. Longing. Ash used to gaze at Steele with her heart

in her eyes and a lump in her throat. Because I’m an idiot. After a half pint of peach moonshine, she felt pretty damn mellow —not even close to drunk, but she had a pleasant, warm glow, like she’d spent a lazy day on the beach, sunning and working on a tan. She even loosened up enough to sing along, drumming on the table. It Ain’t Me, Babe could be Steele’s theme song. Lord knew he loved being a goodtime guy. He wasn’t the sort a woman settled down with or depended on. Ash glanced at the bar. Steele had turned his stool sideways and kept watching her and Ace.

She tried not to feel smug about capturing his attention, but she failed. All those years, she’d assumed she’d never really appealed to him. He hadn’t found her sexy enough or pretty enough to deflower. If she didn’t know better, she’d say he’d done some pining for her too. Maybe it was wishful thinking. “You should eat something, darlin’.” Ash flinched. She’d forgotten all about Ace. “Sorry, I don’t think I’m good company tonight.” “You’re doin’ fine.” She grabbed a paper menu Ace had brought over earlier and glanced at it as though carrot sticks and yogurt dip had suddenly appeared on the list. “I can’t.

Everything is fried. The moonshine is enough of a treat.” “Come on now, live a little.” Ace leaned across the table and offered her the end of his mozzarella stick. “A couple bites ain’t gonna kill ya.” What’s not to love about breaded cheese fried in oil? They smelled divine, but it didn’t fit into her routine. She pushed his hand away. “Not according to the surgeon general.” “Ash….” “Seriously, I can’t. Don’t tempt a girl.” “Course you can. And what if I wanna tempt you?” Ace bit into the cheese stick and waggled his brows.

Her lips twitched. If only she were interested. Ace was handsome, fun, and sexy as hell, but he didn’t do a damn thing for her. It seriously sucked ass. “What about Glory Banks?” She took another swallow of moonshine, pleased with her diversion tactic. “She’s married…to an asshat, yes, but she’s still taken.” “And you, my friend, carry a fiery torch for Mrs. Banks. And I got an old flame of my own.” Ash refused to sneak a peek at Steele again. “Well, damn. Aren’t we a sorry pair of suckers?” She snickered. “At least eat something.” Ace held

the snack closer and the delicious scent of fried cheese wafted over. The next thing she knew, she’d bitten off a piece. It was delicious— cheesy, hot, and decadent. She hadn’t had anything so good in years—and she wanted more. “Hey, you wanna split some sauerkraut balls?” “Knew you’d come over to the dark side.” He glanced around. “I don’t see our waitress, so I’ll place an order at the bar on my way to the restroom.” “Can you get me another drink too?” “Sure thing. Another ‘shine?” Ash already felt perilously mellow.

If she had another one, she might dance on the bar or join the band onstage. “Better not. Order me something else.” “Like what?” She shrugged. “Surprise me. Tonight, I’m steppin’ outside my comfort zone.” Ace licked his lips. “I love the sound of that. Tell you what, I’ll put in our order, hit the head, and be right back. Sit tight.” He sauntered to the other side of the bar and didn’t acknowledge Steele, who appeared to be boring holes into the other man with his eyes alone. “Can I get you another drink?” Ash looked up to see the waitress who’d gotten their drinks earlier. If

memory served, her name was Wendy. She was a thin brunette with pretty green eyes, and she wore a pair of jeans so tight Ash wondered how the girl sucked in air. Her hair stuck up every which way, and she bet the waitress had been, er, otherwise occupied. “No, thanks. I’m good.” Wendy sat in Ace’s vacated chair. “Look, I don’t know you at all, but I thought I’d give you a heads-up.” “About what?” “Steele, the guy whose been starin’ at you all night.” Her eyes widened. Club gossip sounded potentially juicy. “What about him?”

“I know he’s doin’ a great jealous guy impression, but he’s the love ‘em and leave ‘em type. Believe me, he’s damn fine in the sack, but don’t get too attached.” Her stomach clenched, and the fried food in her belly settled like a lead balloon. “You and Steele…?” “Yeah, a couple nights ago.” She pursed her lips. “Had a good time, but it’s not a big deal. He’s slept with most of the girls who hang around the club.” “Of course.” “Thought you should know.” Wendy stood and grabbed her tray. “I don’t have a thing for him, but I watch out for the sisterhood and all that.”

“Yeah, thanks for the warnin’.” “No problem.” Wendy wandered over to another table. She slumped in her seat. It’s not like the news came as a surprise. Steele had been screwing his way around small towns since he could get an erection. And he’d probably nail every lady in his old folks’ home thirty years from now. Ash watched Steele, a full-on f*ckyou sort of stare. He turned away from her, suddenly interested in the bowl of pretzels in front of him. She drained the rest of her moonshine and wished she’d asked Ace to bring her another glass. After a bit, Ace came back with a

hurricane for her and red plastic basket full of fried treats. She took one to be polite, but her appetite had gone. The drink didn’t do much for her either. Hurricanes were a bit too sweet, but he’d surprised her as promised so she sipped it. Ace nodded to the other side of the room. “He’s still watchin’ us, and I think he’s fantasizing about kickin’ my teeth in.” She slanted Ace a wicked sort of grin. “Maybe we should give him somethin’ entertaining to watch.” “You’re tryin’ to make him jealous, aren’t you?” Ash took a syrupy sip of her drink. “Nope.”

“Don’t be lyin’ to me. I don’t need Voodoo’s freaky-ass perception powers to tell.” He leaned closer to whisper into her ear. “Know what’d really make him jealous?” “What?” “If we kissed.” And then he stole one, brushing his lips against hers. He pulled back and offered her a lazy grin. Ash scooted her chair closer and pressed her leg against his before leaning closer in invitation. “Do it again.” Right now, she needed to think about anyone but Steele. Ace planted one on her, only this time he was assertive, slipping his tongue into the cavern of her mouth.

It was…pleasant. Nice. But it didn’t exactly rock her world —until she saw Steele’s face when she came up for air. Then she felt distinctly warm. Oh, God, the way he way he watched her, stalking her with his eyes. His lips curled, and a vein stood out on his forehead. He tossed back a shot and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Then he barked something at the bartender, but she couldn’t hear him over the music. She wrapped her arms around the biker in front of her, all the while holding Steele’s gaze. Then she shut her eyes and kissed Ace’s neck before slowly making her way to his ear. She whispered to Ace, “I’m sorry

about this.” But, for all Steele knew, she’d said something suggestive. From the glower on his face, he certainly thought so. Good. Serves his slu*tty ass right. “You love up on me all you like. Never apologize for kissin’ a man.” He leaned to the side and captured her gaze. “But you seem to be enjoyin’ Steele’s reaction more than my lips.” A shameful blush made her cheeks hot. “Yikes. I’m not being fair to you, and after I brought up your married girl earlier too.” How long was this obsession with Steele gonna last? When her brother died, she could’ve sworn all her feelings for him had ended, but here she was,

stirring them up something fierce. “I’m s—” He pressed a finger to her lips. “Don’t fret about it none. Believe me, I’ve had worse dates.” Ash pulled away and stood. “Tell you what. Let’s get out of here. We’ll go somewhere I can give you my full attention.” “Well, now, if you’re really feelin’ sorry for me, my apartment’s available.” Ace raised a brow. “I’m sure you could find a way to make it up to me there.” Ash laughed, shaking her head. “Yeah, I don’t feel that bad.” “It’d make your boyfriend jealous….”

“He’s not my boyfriend.” A movement across the room captured her attention. Steele stood up so hard he knocked over the stool. He closed the distance between them with several long strides. “I’ve had enough.” He made a grab for her arm, but she slapped it away and faced him, hands on hips. “What or who I do is none of your damn business, Jack.” She didn’t add “ass” which should be tacked on to the end of his real name. Steele swiped his hand over the table, knocking over the hurricane, which gushed to the floor. “Ash hates those. They’re too sweet.” Then he yanked Ace out of his seat by the shirt collar. “Keep your hands off her.”

“She’s yours then?” “She’s mine, spread the word.” Steele released his brother, who backed off, hands raised. The biker took his seat again with a grin. “Fine by me, brother.” Ace laced his hands together behind his head, looking like he’d somehow scored the best seat in the house. If she didn’t know better, she’d say he’d been trying to bait Steele. “Well, it’s not fine by me.” And then Steele scooped her up, throwing her over his shoulder before she could stop him. From her brand new, upside-down vantage point, she watched as Ace leapt

to his feet, arms raised. “I called it. Pay up, bitches. Steele’s claimed an old lady. The Four Horsem*n has lost its reigning manwhor*.” Those biker bastards started exchanging money. *** “Put me down,” Ash demanded as soon as they got outside. Steele didn’t say a word, just kept walking across the parking lot. She had no idea where they were going since she had a face full of the ground as she bobbed along. She slapped his back. “Put. Me. Down.”

He didn’t. Ash used her fists then, pummeling his ass. “Let go.” He shifted her weight. “Ouch. Quit it, or I’ll put you over my knee.” “I’d love to see you try.” She balled up a fist and kidney-punched him as hard as she could. “That f*ckin’ hurt.” “Yeah, that’s the point, asshole.” Ash did it again, and he tossed her ass down in the gravel. “Ouch,” she hissed. He turned, knees bent, a palm against the small of his back like an old hobbled man. “You maimed me, woman.”

“Right back at ya.” She stood and rubbed her sore ass. Ugh, he was infuriating. She felt like striking his face and then kissing it better, which was really sick and twisted. “I can’t stand up straight.” “Quit bitchin’. Take a hot shower and you’ll be fine.” Actually, that’s what she planned on doing as soon as she got back to the motel. “Were you gonna screw that bastard tonight?” For a second, she thought about saying yes, for spite, but moral superiority might be more fun. “No, I’m not you, Steele. I don’t sleep with just anyone. Were you gonna f*ck Wendy again tonight? Or was it some other

biker’s turn? Maybe ya’ll got a schedule made out.” Imagining him grinding on top of the waitress made her feel stabby. Steele stood, and they had a glareoff. Both of them had injuries inside and out—wounds that would never heal. “What the f*ck?” He threw his hands up and then gasped in pain. “What in tarnation is wrong with me? I’m turnin’ into Axel. I had no idea why he got so pissed, and now I do.” This didn’t make much sense to Ash, so she let it go. “It was only a kiss or two.” “A kiss or two? More like tongue f*cking in public.” He grabbed a handful of gravel and started chucking them at another bike. They all scored a direct

hit, clanking against the metal. Ash bet the other Harley belonged to Ace. “Whatever. I’m outta here. Enjoy your mental breakdown.” “The only Horseman you’ll be kissin’ from now on is me.” Ash stopped in her tracks and snapped back around. “In case you missed it, you don’t own me. I do whatever I want.” “No, you don’t get it. This ain’t me. I don’t get territorial over women. There’s always another one waitin’ to come along.” “Thanks, I feel so special.” He put his head in his hands with a groan. “Everything’s coming out wrong.

My life is falling apart. History is f*ckin’ repeating itself with a vengeance. Coyote’s missin’, I’m losin’ my damn mind, and I can’t get you out of my head.” He met her gaze. “You’re all I think about.” Ash gasped. Steele’s gaze lingered on her lips. “It’s been a long time. I wonder if you still taste like cinnamon.” Her nostrils flared as she bit her lower lip. Ash never knew if she wanted to beat him up, f*ck him, or perform some perverse combination of both. Right now, she was leaning towards f*ck. She wanted rough, hard hate sex, right there on the dirty ground. Yeah, she’d knock

his legs out from under him, straddle his hips, and ride his co*ck to oblivion. No matter how wrong it would be. Evidently, Steele read the thoughts on her face, because he stepped forward. Slapped back to her senses, Ash balled up a fist. “If you kiss me, I’ll punch you in the face.” Steele rubbed his jaw as though anticipating the blow. “Might be worth it.” He was right; fighting had always been their warped form of foreplay. “You know what? I’ve had enough of you for one night. Stay away from me if you know what’s good for you.” She’d had enough crazy for one

night, thank you very much. Ash took off for her Forrester. She slipped her hand into her jeans pocket and pulled out the keys. “Let me take you home.” Steele sprinted over and fell into step beside her. “You were drinkin’ tonight, and you didn’t eat much, only a bite or two.” He really had been watching her— intently. Like a stalker. “Didn’t you hear my speech? Go away, Steele.” Steele snatched the keys out of her grasp and ran in the opposite direction. Balling up her fists, she screamed an inarticulate cry of fury. When she turned, the biker was leaning against his motorcycle, spinning her key ring around one finger like a medal.

Ash stalked over to him. When she was a foot away, she took in a deep breath, closed her eyes, summoned every single last ounce of patience she had, then held out her hand. “Give me the keys.” “I’ll take you home and then give ‘em back. You’re tipsy. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.” Her calf muscles clenched as she thought about kicking him between the legs. “If I were you,” she said in an overly calm and even tone, “I’d be more worried about what might happen to you.” He was undaunted. “Come on. Let me take you to the hotel.”

“Keys. Now.” “Take a chance and go for a f*ckin’ ride with me. I know you want to. I can see it on your face. It’ll be fun. You remember how to have fun, dontcha?” He raised a brow. “I’ll show you a good time.” Steele reached for her, palm up, and his big hand looked large and inviting. But there might as well have been an apple sitting in it—the kind snakes offered gullible girls. Ash wasn’t about to fall for it. She sighed, her temper dwindling a little. “Why do you want me on your bike so damn bad?” It was his turn to be uncomfortable, and he ducked his head, avoiding her

gaze. “Come on. Give in for once.” She ignored the plea. “And while we’re talkin’ it all out, why the hell were you so jealous tonight?” Steele cursed a blue streak. “f*ck. You wanna talk now? I had to pull words out of you earlier.” “Yeah, I’m female and we’re contrary. Get used to it. Answer the question.” She glanced up at him. He folded his arms over his chest. “If you answer me, I’ll go for a ride with you.” “You will?” He narrowed his eyes as if he didn’t quite believe her. Ash nodded. “Okay then,” he said with a grin.

“Let’s go for a ride and then we’ll talk. I promise.” Yeah, she’d run right smack dab into the trap. “You’re a dick.” “I know.” “I’ll walk home.” She held out her hand. “Gimme the hotel key.” “Let me take you.” “This ain’t worth arguin’ about.” Ash glared at him. “And Steele?” “Yeah?” She settled her hands on her hips and lifted her chin. “I’ll never kiss you again.” The bastard gave her a knowing grin. “We’ll fight some more tomorrow.” Ash stalked down the road on foot,

and Steele followed, keeping ten feet between them. He watched until she got inside the room safely. Yup, she’d lied to both him and herself.

Chapter Eleven What the hell is wrong with me? The next morning, Ash ran at a grueling pace as the self-recriminations echoed in her head. She didn’t look at her surroundings; no distractions were allowed—nothing in the world but the long strip of open road in front of her. Sweat trickled between her shoulder blades and dampened her black cotton Tshirt, but she forced herself to move faster. It was what Ash did best—pushing herself. She definitely didn’t think about last night or the toe-curling sexual tension between herself and Steele.

While she hated his guts, her hormones apparently found Steele tempting. Traitors. What had she been thinking? Dredging up the past had only brought her more pain, not closure. She should’ve kept her head down, done the job, and then left this place as soon as possible. Instead, she’d laid awake all night, thinking about Steele. Erotic images had assailed her. Her on top of Steele, grinding as he thrust between her thighs. They’d have wild, angry sex. A hate f*ck, for sure. She instinctively knew it’d be good, and Ash could practically taste it. She’d been contemplating what

Steele would be like in bed for years. She’d gotten her wish, and Steele had been the first boy who kissed her. But she’d wanted him to be the first in all ways—used to daydream about him. She gritted her teeth, pumped her arms, and extended her stride. Ash thumbed up the volume on her iPod and tried to put it all out of her mind. Wild, Wild West by the Escape Club from her eighties playlist blasted in her ears. She focused on the lyrics, singing them as she sprinted along. Then Steele was behind her, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Her heart slammed against her ribcage as she picked up the pace. Ash forced herself to run faster, giving it

everything she had. He came in hot, eating up the distance with extended strides. “Get away from me,” she puffed and tried to leave his sorry ass in the dust. No such luck. “We gotta talk.” He didn’t even sound winded as he closed in on her. They ran in tandem—left foot and then right. Like their bodies naturally synched. And, oh, yes, they would. Ash licked her lips and refused to glance at him. If she did, she’d be a goner. She remembered all too well how good he’d looked running. Broad

shoulders, long legs, all rippling muscle and effortless grace. In high school, she'd watched him from the bleachers underneath those Friday night lights. It’s why she’d joined marching band in the first place—so she had a legit reason to stalk him. He’d been beautiful— bronzed, muscled, every teenage girl’s dream boy. And then she remembered he’d spoken. “About what?” “You know what. Last night.” “Last night won’t happen again. We’ll do the job and stay the hell away from each other.” Ash drove herself forward, hoping to leave the bastard behind in the dust. No revelations. No kissy-face

either. He kept up with her easily. “Which part?” “All the parts.” Ash skidded to a halt and hunched over, resting palms against her screaming thighs, gasping for air like a geezer going up a flight of stairs. Steele leaned over too. Ash kept her head down. If she looked at him, she’d be lost. When she caught her breath once more, she spoke. “I know exactly what part you wanna talk about. We aren’t goin’ there ever again. Not ever. Forget it happened.” “I wish I could.”

“Try harder,” she snarled. Ash booked it in the other direction. “Where you goin’?” “Away from you, asshat.” He didn’t follow her, but Ash knew she couldn’t outrun Steele. Not forever. But right now, she needed a cold shower. *** Later the same morning, Ash gaped at a palatial mansion coming into view. After her goose-pimpling, chilly shower, Ash found both Justice and Steele on her doorstep. Steele had

handed over her keys without a word, and Justice had informed her they’d gotten a terse message from Beauregard requesting a meeting. Apparently, he’d come across some useful information. She had trouble keeping her eyes on the road—the urge to gawk was almost overwhelming. She’d grown up in a nice upper middle-class home, but this was a mansion. It belonged to Dixon Wolf, Beauregard’s Dixie mafia douche buddy. Their rich and famous lifestyle pissed her off righteously. Her parents had played by the rules—earned all of their money by working their asses off— but these thugs broke laws and reaped all the rewards without consequences. And now here she was, working

with the bastards. She couldn’t believe Steele and his band of bonehead brothers had dragged her into a meeting with Dixie Mafia men. The house had a southwestern hacienda look with a brick courtyard and a red tile roof. They parked near an ornate brick wall flanked by an illuminated fountain and hopped out to find another SUV pulling in. Byron Beauregard jumped out and led the way to the front door while they trailed him. They passed a collection of red clay pots and long thin shrubs lining the walkway. The turquoise front door was massive and ornate, possibly antique. It had a detailed cross carved into the

surface and looked like it belonged in one of those old time Spanish missions. Maybe it used to hang in one. A maid let them in the front door then hurried off. Beauregard yammered away to Steele and Justice, but Ash took a gander at her surroundings, noting exits and entrances. The foyer lived up to the exterior. The ceiling had to be thirty feet high with exposed wooden beams. The terracotta tile floors were sporadically interrupted by blue tiles arranged to form patterns. The walls were a plain beige stucco, which accented the rustic paintings on the walls in wooden frames with bright colors–red, purple, yellow, and orange.

Hard to believe a place this beautiful belonged to a killer. A young woman stepped into the foyer. She appeared to be in her early to mid-twenties with baby-fine black hair pulled up into a haphazard bun, pale skin, and cobalt blue eyes behind tortoiseshell glasses. She had a voluptuous, hourglass figure with large breasts and curvy thighs. She wore boot-cut jeans and a dark blue sweater, which seemed informal by mafia standards. “Hello, Mr. Beauregard,” she greeted with a jerky wave. “Vick, nice to see you again.” Beauregard gestured to the woman. “This is Victoria Hale, Dixon Wolf’s

assistant.” Then he introduced Justice, Steele, and Ash “Nice to meet ya’ll. Call me Vick, everyone does. Dixon’s waiting. Please follow me.” She led the way down a hall and ushered them into what appeared to be a home office. Vick seemed like the sort of woman who’d be at home on a college campus —a graduate student or a young professor. How on earth did she get mixed up with the bottom feeders in the Dixie Mafia? Again, Ash marveled at her surroundings. Dixon’s office also had a southwestern theme. The walls were stucco with the same tile floor found in the foyer. In lieu of a desk, he worked at

a roughhewn table. Along the wall behind him were a selection of sleek black filing cabinets. And seated behind it was El Jefe himself. Dixon Wolf wore a white buttondown shirt and a sedate gray suit with a matching tie. She put his age in the late forties, possibly early fifties. His thick, dark brown hair was bracketed by streaks of silver. Along the edges of his mouth and eyes were laugh lines. He had a layer of stubble on his cheeks and chin. He was a handsome man, like Beauregard. Yep, both of them were attractive, except for the whole murderer issue. It was probably some knee-jerk, fairy tale crap leftover from childhood,

but Ash somehow expected bad guys to be ugly. She noted Wolf wore a wedding band on his ring finger. What kind of idiot married a mobster? Probably the same kind who’d spent most of the night fantasizing about screwing an outlaw biker…the one who’d abandoned her brother to die alone. Damn. Her conscience could be a real bitch sometimes. So much for selfrighteous indignation. Given her wayward thoughts, Ash was in no position to be casting aspersions on anyone’s character. Beauregard nodded to the other mobster. “Dixon is an associate and friend of mine.” And then he gestured to

her and the two bikers. “This is Steele, Justice, and Ashton Calhoun.” “You have friends?” There was a palpable edge to Steele’s attempt at humor. “If I were you, I’d do my level best to stay on my good side, or you’ll find out exactly how many friends I do have.” A little stare-off ensued. The room was thick with testosterone and ego. Ash shot a solidarity, sister sort of glance at Vick who groaned in shared frustration. Vick stood next to Dixon and stroked a laptop on the desk in front of her, as if it were a pet. Ash wondered if it was a nervous gesture. “Pleasure to meet you,” Dixon Wolf

said. A knock sounded on the door, and another man entered. He had thick dark hair and even darker eyes. The man wore another sedate suit—gray with a black tie. The pronounced five-o’clock shadow on the planes of his face kept him from looking like an ordinary businessman. Ash imagined CEOs appeared polished at all times. “This here is one of our associates, Tennessee Ross,” Beauregard explained. “But everyone calls him Ten.” Ten nodded but didn’t offer a verbal greeting. While Wolf and Beauregard cultivated southern manners, Ten didn’t put on any respectable airs. He appeared

cool, composed, and utterly indifferent to the tension in the room. Instinct, honed from hairy situations in the military, told Ash that he was easily the most dangerous man in the room, and considering the company she made an impression. “Yeah,” Justice said, breaking the silence. “This is real nice.” “Ms. Calhoun, I understand you’re currently employed by Cole Security, correct?” Wolf’s eyes gleamed in a gotcha sort of way. Thrown, Ash could only stare. “I told you he was good.” Beauregard wore an unholy smile. “Not me, Vick.” Wolf patted her

arm as though she were a treasured pet. Vick cast sheepish eyes Ash’s way. “I’m only doin’ my job.” Her boss cleared his throat. “And if I’m not mistaken, you got a contract with the DEA.” Busted. Lying about it would only make the problem worse. “How’d you hear about it?” “It’s hard to keep secrets in the digital age,” Vick said. “Especially when it comes to government agencies.” Wolf laced his hands together. “Answer the question.” “Why go through this charade? You already know the answer.” Ash didn’t have a high bullsh*t tolerance.

Beauregard swaggered over to Wolf’s desk and turned to face them. “All of this means you’ve brought a fox into my henhouse.” He winked at her. “And I mean that in every way possible.” Ash rolled her eyes. “Fox in the henhouse,” Steele repeated, his eyes faraway. He seemed to be thinking about something intently, but then he shook his head. “Looks like the surprise is on you this time, Beauregard.” “For once,” Justice muttered. Ash had the feeling the club had been taken for a ride or two by the mobster.

“I wouldn’t get used to it if I were you.” Beauregard placed a hand at his side, where his holster bulged beneath the jacket of his suit. “As I recall, we didn’t invite you to this here party. You got involved with the Raptor issue all on your own.” Steele had a hand ready to pull if necessary. “Actually, you caused the entire snafu.” Justice copied the movement. She couldn’t see the rest of Wolf’s body behind the desk, but she bet he’d put his gun within easy reach too. Oh, damn. Ash and Vick were the only ones who hadn’t made a threatening move. This was rapidly becoming a volatile situation, and she needed to step

in before they added more red to the office color scheme. “I’m a merc, not a Fed.” Hands up, Ash slowly approached Beauregard, but Steele stepped into her path, putting his body between them like a human shield. “I don’t give a damn about the Dixie Mafia. You aren’t relevant to my assignment.” She slipped by Steele, making no sudden movements in case anyone got trigger happy. “You’ll understand if I somehow doubt your sincerity, since I’ve already caught you in a lie.” Beauregard got in her personal space, towering over her. “Are you wearin’ a wire?” Beauregard scanned her body as if he

had x-ray eyes and could somehow see it through her clothing. “No, but you’re welcome to check.” Ash kept her arms at waist level. Beauregard raised a brow. “Don’t mind if I do. Strip.” “She ain’t takin’ off her clothes for you.” The mobster chuckled. “Somebody’s got a crush.” Ash bit the inside of her cheek as Steele made a noise low in his throat. This was about to go south in a big way. She didn’t want to be in the middle of a gunfight—especially for such a petty reason. Gritting her teeth, Ash pulled her T-

shirt over her head, leaving her in a plain black sports bra. She was suddenly glad she hadn’t worn anything more exotic. Keeping his eyes trained on Steele, Beauregard spoke to her. “Don’t be shy, darlin’. Show us some skin.” “Ash doesn’t—” “Steele,” she said sharply. “It’s fine.” Before the mobster could provoke him further, she slipped the bra over her head. Ash made no attempt to cover herself. She was far from shy, and she wouldn’t give Beauregard the satisfaction of acting all girly about her own nudity. It was only skin. Although she wished it were warmer in the room

—her nipples had pebbled in response to the cold. “Happy?” Ash asked Beauregard. “Very.” Beauregard’s voice dipped lower as he leisurely perused her chest as if he had all the time in the world. “I’ve always admired a pretty view.” Steele didn’t look, though, and it irked her. He’d been all hot and heavy last night. Ash tugged her clothing into place once more. “Now that we’ve established I’m not wearing a wire, we can get back to business. I arranged an immunity deal for the Four Horsem*n. Any felonies discovered in this investigation won’t be reported to the DEA.”

“How nice for the biker boys,” Beauregard drawled. “But what about my organization?” Ash gritted her teeth. “The DEA is interested in the Raptors, since they’re the ones who have direct contact with the Tres Erre. The cartel is the main target.” “You sidestepped my question.” Damn, he’d noticed. In this business, she usually had a choice between two objectionable decisions. She’d love to hand over the Dixie Mafia, but the DEA wouldn’t be handling their case anyway. Most likely, it’d be slid over to the FBI, and the drug charges would be folded into a RICO case. The DEA and her bosses only cared

about the cartel. Ergo, it was her priority, as well. She sighed. “If you give me your fax number,” she told Dixon, “I’ll call my supervisors and procure a similar agreement with you.” Beauregard and Wolf stared at one another. Oh, goody. More mental conversations. No one moved or breathed, waiting to see if they’d go for it. After what felt like forever, Beauregard nodded. Wolf wrote a number down on a scratch piece of paper and handed it to her. Ash stepped outside to dial her supervisor and explain the situation. He

agreed, a decision Ash wasn’t exactly happy about. After the documents were signed and faxed back, they got down to business. “What did you find about the Raptors?” she prompted, taking a seat on one of the Queen Anne’s chairs in front of his desk. The sooner they got out of here, the better. The three men behind her didn’t sit down, and she chafed at having Beauregard at her back. But Justice and Steele would handle it if he got a homicidal urge. Huh. She trusted the bikers more than the mobsters. Wolf pulled out a manila folder and flipped through it. “I’ve been going over

the club members’ financials.” “And how’d you get access?” He smiled slyly. “I have my ways.” “And those would be?” Steele asked. “I make it my business to know money. Over the past few days, Vick and I made some inquiries into their spending habits. Those boys are smarter than I gave them credit for. There ain’t been any activity on their bank accounts or credit cards for more than a week.” He smirked. “I froze ‘em anyway, though.” “How?” Last time she checked, only the government could do something so high-handed. Unless he’d corrupted

some politicians along the way, which wasn’t totally out of the question. Wolf smirked. “Like I said, I have my ways.” While she didn’t like using questionable means, not having ready access to their money would make it harder for the Raptors to remain in hiding. Hopefully, this would flush them out. “But Vick found out something even more interestin’.” “Actually, it wasn’t really me. I had a clue where to look. Hackers, like me, all travel in the same circles, you see. Fox approached me while I was on Tumblr.” Vick shrugged.

Ash had heard of the social media site before. “You were blogging?” “Yeah, about the Walking Dead. I have a thing for Steven Yeun. He plays Glenn on the show, and he’s so sexy, I mean—” “Vick, on topic please,” Dix said sharply. She flinched. “Right, sorry. Fox told me I needed to check a particular PayPal purchase made by one of the Raptors named Woody.” Woody? What a stupid alias. Knowing the Raptors, he’d probably meant it as a dick joke. “But Woody slipped up.” “Don’t keep us in suspense.”

Beauregard folded his arms over his chest. “They bought a credit card skimmin’ machine.” Ash had several questions, but chief among them was the identity of the informant. It could be a trap. “Who’s Fox, and do you trust this person?” Vick bobbed her head. “I do. She’s famous in hacker circles. We chatted once or twice before.” She leaned forward with a conspiratorial air. “When you go digging on the internet, you leave behind breadcrumbs, and someone really good, like Fox….” “She figured out you were diggin’ into the Raptor’s financials. But why would she help you? She doesn’t know

us, so why would she even give a damn?” Steele frowned. “Hey…wait a second. Fox. I know this chick. She’s one of Coyote’s hacker buddies.” “She is. And hackers help each other out.” Vick smiled. “The Raptors have a bad reputation—internet p*rn, abusing women, you name it. Anyone who brings those jerks down is doing a good thing—and you get hacker street cred for joining the fight.” “Even though you happen to work for the Dixie Mafia?” Ash had to be suspicious in her line of work. “Never mind that for a second. I wanna know what the f*ck a skimmer is.” Justice curled his lip. “Sounds like a video game.”

“It collects credit card data.” Vick turned her computer around so she could show them examples of the tech involved. Ash was stunned to see everything from fake card slots to false keyboards made to fit right on top of the real deal. Talk about taking thievery to the next level. People handed over their credit card information without evening knowing it. Vick continued her explanation. “Criminals install them at ATMs and gas station pumps—there are even little handheld devices. Thieves who work as servers use them at restaurants. You know, when you hand your card over with the bill. From what I’ve put

together, the Raptors bought a device to place inside the gas pump itself, so you never even see it from the outside.” Beauregard whistled. “Talk about sophisticated, especially for those idiots.” “Yeah, but they couldn’t do it on their own, so they profit-shared with the thieves who actually made the skimmer.” “You can seriously buy these on the internet?” Ash was dumbstruck. Vick nodded. “There are some sketchy areas on the net, and the thieves who build the skimmers take a pretty hefty cut—seventy percent.” “That’s why the Raptors took Coyote,” Justice said. “He’d be able to

make a skimmer, no problem. The kid’s never met a piece of technology he couldn’t rip apart and rebuild.” Steele slumped down in the chair next to her. “Coyote must be alive then.” He rubbed the stubble on his jaw. “Yes, I think so too. I bet they wanted to keep all the cash, but they didn’t have the tech skills to pull it off,” Vick said. “It also explains how they’ve been livin’ off the grid. They have a big influx of dinero from their skimmers.” “How are they able to get away with it without anyone bein’ the wiser?” Ash asked. “Once in a blue moon they got caught, but the cops can’t get identifiable info off the skimmers. The thieves cover

their tracks.” Vick turned her computer back around and typed on the keyboard. “And they take other countermeasures. They install skimmers on Friday nights and remove them before banks open on Monday mornings.” “So they could empty people’s bank accounts over the weekend when the banks are closed.” Ash whistled. “By the time people figure it out, the bastards have moved on to another gas station or ATM.” Steele sat up straighter. “How do they break into gas pumps or ATM machines?” “Don’t need to,” Vick said. “There are only a few manufacturers, and if you buy replacement keys….”

“You can build yourself a key ring which will open any ATM or gas pump,” Dixon said, putting it all together. “They’ve got money, right there for the stealin’.” “Great, we found out what they’re up to. How do we catch ‘em?” Steele clasped his hands together and rubbed. “That’s where we run into a problem.” Vick licked her lips. “I don’t have the foggiest idea where they installed the skimmers. It could be ATM machines or gas pumps. Hell, they could’ve had Coyote make the handheld kind and gotten hired at restaurants for all I know.” “Hold on…I know somethin’. Think, think…Lickety Split.” He

snapped his fingers. “Daisy mentioned it the other day. The police found a skimmer on a gas pump in Canyon City, but they didn’t have any leads.” “Raptor territory.” Justice clapped Steele’s shoulder. “They probably started close to home.” “We should check other gas stations,” Beauregard said. “They’re outdoors, and the bikers got an excuse to be at a pump. We could stake them out and wait for a Raptor to lead us back to the rest of the group.” Ash was onboard. “Makes sense to me. And as luck would have it, it’s Friday. I say we go on a big stakeout all over the county tonight.” “I wish we had more time,” Vick

said, typing again, her features pinched. “I could GPS tag the machines, and ya’ll could follow them right back to their hidey holes without them bein’ on to you.” “We’ll have to do this the oldfashioned way.” Beauregard paced back and forth. Steele pulled out his phone. “I’ll text Axel and let him know what’s goin’ on. We’ll have the Horsem*n out in force tonight.” “I’ll put my people on it too.” Beauregard turned to Vick. “Can you Google gas stations in the area so we can get a list going?” “I’m on it.” Vick’s fingers flew over the keyboard.

As they made plans and divided up the stations, Ash sighed with relief. Finally, they had a solid lead to go on and not another freaking goose chase. It was time to nail these assholes. *** “We should’ve split up.” Steele glanced at his stakeout partner, Ash. “We’re safer in pairs.” Though Steele wasn’t convinced they’d even see a Raptor tonight. Ash was in a horn-tossing mood and had been ever since they’d headed out in her Forrester to their assigned Lickety Split gas station in Bellville, a

nearby town. He’d had to go ten rounds with her on who was driving tonight. Steele had won, but it didn’t feel like much of a victory. Axel had ordered everyone to fly under the radar, which meant no cuts and no bikes. Between personal vehicles, Axel’s loaner cars from Seventh Circle, and the club’s trucks, everyone had a vehicle to use. The club had spent the day dividing up gas stations and making plans. Between the Horsem*n and the Dixie douchebags, they’d covered the whole county. They’d paired bikers together in case any sh*t went down. Voo had even instructed the hellions to fill thermoses

with hot coffee as well as pack some sack lunches in case this thing stretched out long into the night. Tonight they’d catch one of these bastards. They had to. “I don’t need your protection.” She wiped at the dust on the console with a paper napkin, scrubbing furiously. “Well, you got it anyhow.” He grinned, trying to charm her out of the foul mood. “And who says I don’t need your protection?” She didn’t even acknowledge the comment—no laughter or smart remark. He knew why she was so agitated. They didn’t have an elephant in the car with them—nope, they had a whole

damn herd. Noisy bastards stomping all over the place, trumpeting. The longer they held off talking about Abe, the worse it would get. But now wasn’t the time. It never seemed to be the right time. He should’ve let one of his brothers pair off with Ash. But he had a feeling she’d have chosen Ace, and Steele would’ve had to put his brother in the hospital. Steele sipped his coffee and turned his attention back to the darkened gas station. He raised the pair of binoculars he’d borrowed from Inferno and took a good long look. Nothing. After the night clerk had closed up,

they’d pulled into the strip mall across the street from Lickety Split. It had a Walmart, open twenty-four hours a day, so they didn’t look suspicious. She’d parked them at the edge of the lot, facing the gas station. They’d turned off the car so it looked like any other parked vehicle. Steele was glad he’d dressed warm for the occasion. Ash had brought her own sack lunch with her. While he ate one of Voo’s sausage biscuits, which were somehow even better at room temperature, she ate some trail mix, crunching it loudly, taking out her irritation on helpless almonds and cranberries. “Since we got nothin’ better to do than pass the time, what do you say we

shoot the breeze?” She hmphed. “Let’s not and say we did.” Stubborn as a mule. “You never told me. Which lucky bastard actually took your virginity?” Steele calmly surveyed the gas station, like he didn’t give a flying rat’s ass. Though it was eating him up inside. “I forgot.” She’d finished off the mix and crinkled the bag in her hand. “Bullsh*t. Come on. Give me a hint at least.” Damn, talking to her these days was like trying to bag flies. She scowled. “Hell no.” “Do I know him?” She blew out an irritated breath,

and it was so cold in the car he could actually see it. “Yes, you do.” Steele pulled out his Horsem*n lighter and lit it. He placed it between them, and she held her hands near the flame to warm them. “’Fess up. At least give me his initials.” “F.U.,” she replied with a smirk. He laughed, despite himself. “Come on, be serious.” For some manly territorial reason, it bothered the f*ck out of him. To his way of thinking, he should’ve been her first, but another bastard had gotten the pleasure. “Who took your virginity?” He flicked the lighter closed and tucked it back into his pocket. “Nah,

don’t even try to change the subject.” He gave Lickety Split a cursory glance. Still a whole lotta nothin’. “How am I changing the subject? We’re talkin’ about losin’ virginity. It’s the same topic.” “Fine. If I tell you, will you tell me?” She dipped her head in agreement. “Freshman year of high school, Stephanie Newman.” They’d had sex after football practice. He’d gone home with Steph, and her parents hadn’t been home from work yet. The sex had been…well, great, in the physical sense. But then again, he’d been fourteen and got hard

from watching….well, anything. But it hadn’t meant much to him. Maybe because he’d been picturing Ash in his mind’s eye. “Figures, another pretty popular girl.” Ash huddled against the car door. Steele had deliberately gone after attractive girls from wealthier families. He’d needed the ego boost of a rich girl willing to go for a poor guy from the wrong side of the tracks. Like the movie Say Anything, only he didn’t hold up a boom box outside their windows afterward. “I told you mine. You tell me yours.” “You aren’t gonna let this go, huh?”

“No, ma’am.” “Fine. Tommy Reaves.” He snorted. “You f*cked Tommy? You gotta be kidding me.” Tommy had come from a well-to-do family, and the bastard loved to flaunt it. In middle school, he’d made fun of Steele every chance he’d gotten…until Steele had a growth spurt and whipped Tommy’s ass after school one day. Then the bastard was afraid to look Steele in the eye. “Nope.” The f*ck? “You chose him on purpose, didn’t you?” “You bet your ass I did.” Her brow furrowed. “But he surprised me. Tommy

was a gentleman, and he didn’t blab to anyone.” “Why? Did you want me to hear about it?” Ash didn’t respond. “When did you and Tommy get it on?” Ash didn’t answer him at first and then whispered, “About a month after you were with Sally.” Ah, hell. Guilt slammed into him. Neither one of them spoke for a while. Steele didn’t know what to say. Her first time had been about getting even with him. Ash deserved someone tender, a guy who was crazy about her,

who gave her pleasure. Somebody who realized how special she was. Not some asshole looking to get laid. She cleared her throat. “It was good for a first time.” “Yeah, what made it so damn good?” He was definitely not jealous. “I guess it was effort. He gave me oral, which is thoughtful.” Steele gritted his teeth. “Though it could’ve been better.” “Oh yeah? What went wrong?” She shifted in her seat. “Too much pressure. Then again, men are usually too rough. Internet p*rn gives you guys the wrong idea.” “Don’t lump me in with the rest of

‘em, Dusty. I’m amazin’ at licking puss*. I always leave the ladies satisfied.” Ash turned to him, raising a brow. “Yup, I’m sure there’ve been hundreds. No shortage of biker groupies.” She made it sound like he was some sort of gigolo. Although, it wasn’t far from the truth. Over the years, he’d gotten used to mutual masturbation. He pleased the girls and Steele got his rocks off in the process, but he didn’t feel a damn thing. After seeing Ash again, he remembered it’d once been something better. “And after Tommy rocked your world?”

She ran her fingertips over the console, and he had an overwhelming urge to place her hands on him instead. “We went straight from high school into the Corps, and I kept it light—a few overseas, a few after I got back. No big deal.” And yet Steele had a feeling sex with Ash would be a very big deal. He’d already had a preview— knew instinctively it’d be mind-blowing. Hell, she already made him nuts. If he got in any deeper, he might never crawl out again. She nodded at the gas station. “Heads up. I think our boy is here.” A motorcycle rolled into Lickety Split. They watched as the bike slid up

to the last pump on the right-hand side. The biker opened the metal door on the gas pump and pulled something out of one of his saddlebags. Steele pulled the binoculars up and took a look at the Raptor, even though the low light level made it difficult. The biker blended into the shadows near the far pump. He wasn’t wearing a cut, but the Raptors were trying to fly under the radar and wouldn’t want to flash their colors. The kid was young, probably a prospect. He lit up a cigarette near the gas pump. Yeah, definitely a Raptor. What kind of idiot smokes around gas? Steele started the car, and the prospect glanced across the street,

clearly spooked, but they didn’t pull out of the space, so he kept working on the pump. “How you wanna do this? Confront or follow?” “Confront.” Steele grimaced at the lack of traffic on the road. It wouldn’t provide much cover. “If we follow him, he’ll catch on and we might lose ‘em. He’s only a prospect. I can make him cooperate.” “There’s two exits. If we block one, he’ll run to the other. How far away is the closest group?” “Twenty miles. They won’t get here in time. And I’m bettin’ the Raptors only sent one prospect to set up the skimmers. It wouldn’t attract as much attention.”

As the prospect continued working, Steele eased the car out of the space and slowly made his way across the street, trying not to spook the kid. As soon as they pulled into the lot, the prospect slammed the pump shut and dashed for his motorcycle. Steele pulled up right behind him, threw it in park, and dashed out the door, gun in hand. “Don’t move, asshole.” Ash followed with her weapon drawn, as well. “You aren’t gonna shoot me.” “Oh, yeah?” Steele kept the gun pointed at the Raptor’s chest. “Can’t get your brother back if you don’t know where the f*ck he is, and you

can’t find that out if I don’t tell you.” Steele wanted blow a hole in this little sh*thead, but he forced himself to work the problem. Prospects were a bunch of hotheads looking to prove themselves to the brothers. He probably figured he was a big deal, having a runin with one of the Horsem*n. “Hey, I know you.” The kid smirked. “The brothers carved the club symbol into your chest. Musta hurt like a bitch.” “It tickled a bit,” Steele lied. He had to find an opening he could use, but Ash beat him to it. “What’s your name, kid?” The Raptor frowned, clearly

thrown by the question. “Ain’t tellin’ you, and I ain’t a kid, neither.” “Come on, all you bikers have cool nicknames,” Ash said. “Tell me yours.” Was it Steele’s imagination, or did she sound flirtatious? The prospect gave her a once-over, and Steele could see the appreciation in the little snot’s eyes. “They’re road names. Mine’s Knife.” Steele snorted. “Did I say something funny?” Knife removed the cigarette from his mouth and deliberately ashed on the ground. Steele stepped back. He could smell gas in the air. There was an oily puddle on the ground beneath his feet.

Someone must’ve fumbled with the fuel nozzle earlier in the day. “Where’s Coyote?” Ash asked. He shrugged. “I can’t say.” “Wherever he is, he must be alive and well. He’s been building your skimmers, since you dipsh*ts couldn’t figure it out on your own.” So Steele still had a chance to save his brother. The kid ignored the jab. “I’ll tell you something, though.” Steele co*cked his head to the side. “Oh, yeah?” “The cartel’s comin’ for y’all.” “Yeah, tell me somethin’ I don’t already know. They’re comin’ for us because you dickhe*ds stole their

heroin.” “Was our money to begin with, and your boys shouldn’t have gotten involved.” He chuckled. “And good luck explainin’ it to ‘em.” “What’s the plan? You gonna sell it off? Keep the profit?” Ash asked. Knife puffed out his chest like he was all big and bad. “Should give us a fat chunk of change, a brand new start.” “What about when the cartel finds out? The witch is gonna come after your ass.” “But she’s already after yours. You and the Dixie Mafia.” “I get it. So you assholes disappear with the goods, the cartel blames us and

the Dixie boys, then you ride off into the sunset with all the cash.” The kid grinned. “Works out nice, don’t it? You should tell ‘em we said ‘hello’, but it’s gonna be a short conversation.” The bastard dropped the cigarette and the gas lit, blazing beneath their feet and forcing them both backward. Knife jumped on his bike, started it up, and took off. Steele ran for the Forester, and Ash jumped in beside him. Wheels screeching, they followed the biker. In a matter of seconds, they’d cleared the town. At this time of the night, there was no traffic. Only a wide open stretch of highway lay in front of

them. “We’ll never catch him,” Steele gritted out. “Bikes are built for speed, and there’s nothing but asphalt up ahead.” “Then we’ll have to slow his ass down.” Ash unbuckled her seatbelt then rolled down the window. “What the hell are you doing?” He didn’t dare take his eyes off the road. Knife surged ahead on his bike, and he pushed the pedal to the floor. “What the hell do you think?” She sat on the windowsill and fired at the Raptor. Steele heard the whiz of a bullet ricocheting off the bike. “Get the f*ck

down from there. You aren’t even wearing body armor for God’s sake.” She ignored him, firing another shot. The Raptor pulled his weapon and blindly fired behind him. It hit the passenger windshield, spider-webbing the glass. “Get in here now.” But Ash kept firing. “Shut up and drive faster.” The Raptor fired another round, and Ash gasped in pain. “Are you hit?” “Keep going. It only grazed me.” Steele glanced up and saw a blood stain spreading over her shoulder.

Gritting his teeth, he took his foot off the gas and slowed the SUV down. If he’d slammed on the brakes, she would’ve gone flying out of the car. Knife sped off, disappearing into the night. Steele slammed a hand on the steering wheel.

Chapter Twelve “What the f*ck is wrong with you? He could’ve killed you.” Ash paced back and forth, hands clenched at her sides. They stood in the parking lot in front of Hades. The sky rumbled above their heads, billowing black clouds and flashes of lightning. It was a warning—one she couldn’t seem to heed. Snow spat from the sky, and the earth rumbled around them—thunder snow. After Steele had let the Raptor get away, he’d informed his club what had gone down and then taken to her Duke, a scowly biker who’d patched up her

shoulder. The bullet had only grazed her arm. She was fine, but Steele acted like she’d nearly been murdered tonight. The blood roared in her ears. She wanted to hit something, hurt someone. Steele had pulled her away before she’d gotten any satisfaction—like screwing a guy only to miss out on the org*sm. Over the past few years, the takedown had become a bit of a drug to her—jumping on a suspect, roughing him up. Ash didn’t always go in for the kill. Most of the time, it was about the pain. Their upcoming birthday sent a tsunami boiling through the deep well of rage inside, and she couldn’t seem to calm the waters. Taking down Knife tonight might’ve helped.

“Are you even listenin’ to me?” “What?” She stopped pacing and glowered at Steele. She hadn’t had her ass handed to her since she’d been a Marine, and she wasn’t taking this crap. “Newsflash, I’m fine. Knife didn’t kill me.” “Not for lack of tryin’ on his part.” He crossed his arms over his broad chest. “Or yours.” “What?” She tossed her hair back and tilted her chin up, hands on hips. “Think about it real hard.” “I handled myself fine.” “That’s what you call handling it? You got lucky.” “No, I’m awesome.” Ash gave him

her best oorah smile, but she didn’t feel it. Not really. Beneath all her bravado, a small part of her wondered about what would happen if the Raptor had killed her tonight. One bullet straight to the heart or brain. Sure, it’d hurt at first, but ultimately, there’d be stillness—no more anger, no pain, and no grief. Peace—that’s what death brings, right? Her life felt like a three-ring circus, chaos swirling all around her—gunfire, drug deals, hunting down criminals. Most of the time, the pandemonium was comforting. While running for her life, she didn’t have time to sit and examine it more closely, think about what she was

missing and who. “Sooner or later, your luck will run out.” Promise? But Ash said nothing. Steele slowly approached her, hands splayed, as if she were about to bolt. Her thighs clenched, and she forced herself to remain still, unmoving. No, unmoved. Tucked away, safe inside her own mind where nothing could get to her. “Ash,” he began then stopped. He tilted his head, trying to discern something. “What?”

“I think…I think there’s something you’re not tellin’ me. You denied it earlier, but do you…still wanna die?” Her breath hitched, and she turned from him. God, he knew her all too well. Somehow, Steele had always understood her, even when no one else did. The only person who’d known her better was Abe. “Talk to me.” He placed a hand on her back and she shrugged it off. Ash squared her shoulders. f*ck him. He didn’t have the right to stand there with his hound dog eyes and demand answers. “Leave it alone. It’s none of your business.” He grabbed her shoulders and

whirled her around. She hadn’t even heard him approach, and she was always painfully aware of her surroundings whenever he was near. “Answer me. Are you tryin’ to get yourself killed?” “Of course not.” “I don’t believe you.” “I don’t give a sh*t what you believe.” She kicked him in the shin and shoved him away. Oh, no. Not now. Ash could feel the tears burning behind her eyelids. She’d be damned if she cried in front of Steele. Steele backed up a couple of paces. “You’ve made yourself clear. But I give

a sh*t about you, so I’m not lettin’ it go. Why are you so reckless?” “I’m not reckless. I’m brave.” Ash’s lower lip quivered, disproving her own words. “Yeah, I got that memo. Talk to me.” He wasn’t going to leave it, so she ’fessed up. “The only time I let go is when I’m fightin’.” Ash spent most of her time trying to control everything— her ops, her exercise and food regime. It was one of the reasons her relationships had gone by the wayside. Family and friends couldn’t be controlled. And they had a terrible habit of dying. “You can’t bend everyone and everythin’ to your will.”

His expression was so tender, so understanding, it made her ache to let him in. More than anything, she wanted him to hold her, to tell her everything would be okay, even if it was a lie. But she couldn’t. If she laid the armor down, she’d be vulnerable, helpless. “Spare me the overprotective routine. I already have an older brother who watches over me.” Her lips twisted. “Or I did…until you let him die.” Steele went ashen and silent. For a second, she regretted her harsh words. Then she remembered watching her parents cry for their son, and she got over it. He spoke again after a moment or

two. “You’ve always been brave, but you never went lookin’ for trouble.” “You don’t know me anymore, Steele, and maybe you never did.” Ash wanted to hurt him, and judging from the way he flinched, she had. “I know what’s starin’ me right in the face. I’ve seen it before. A part of you wishes you’d died with Abe— you’re not alone.” Tears filled her eyes again. “You wish you’d died with him too?” And there it was—out in the open, lying in the middle of the street between them, twitching and bleeding like an animal run over by a car. What she’d always been thinking, secretly, in the shadowy corners of her own mind.

Steele shared the same shameful desire. “No.” Ash backed away from him, shaking her head. “I can’t do this. I don’t wanna talk about this. We aren’t gonna discuss it.” And then she started running—from him, from the memory of Abe. She tried to escape the reality of her own dark thoughts—to lay beside Abe in the cold ground. Steele was right behind her, eating up the space between them with his longer legs and more powerful strides. “Too damn bad,” he panted. “We’re talkin’ about it.” “Go away.”

Steele gripped her arm and yanked her off her feet. He hauled her off the blacktop until they were huddled against the wall. “Talk to me.” Ash punched him in the face. “Let go.” “Make me.” His voice cracked. Ash stared at Steele, and her vision tunneled. The rage inside boiled, bubbled to the surface, aching to come out and play. Begging for release. Ash swayed closer to him, arms clamped at her sides to keep from reaching out. “That’s it.” Steele tapped his own chest. “Put the blame where it belongs. On me. Abe’s dead because of my actions, because I didn’t stay at my f*cking post. I wanted to get laid, and

that mattered more than my duty, mattered more than my friendship with Abe at that moment.” Steele spread his arms wide, offering up his big body as a target. “Stop punishing yourself and punish me instead. I deserve it.” “No.” She trembled, adrenaline rushing through her veins. All she could see was Steele standing against the brick wall, big body braced for impact. God help her, she wanted it. Needed it. How long had she been carrying around this anger, this pain? She could put it on him, and Steele wouldn’t fight back. For once, Ash could let the rage loose. “Come on. You know you wanna.” His voice lowered. “I want you to.

Punish me.” The wind lashed at their clothing, making it billow around their bodies. For a wild second, she wondered if the two of them had somehow caused this weird weather—two fronts crashing into one another, triggering mayhem around them. Ash wailed on him—striking his handsome face, pummeling his chest. Steele didn’t even try to defend himself. He just took it. She knocked his legs out from underneath him, and then straddled his hips. As she slapped and kicked and hit, tears streamed down her face. Tears she’d been holding on to forever. The floodgates let down, and all of it poured

out—fury and pain and grief. Steele kept repeating, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He said it like a prayer, a plea. It only made her hit him harder. The words weren’t enough—they’d never be enough. And when his lips were bloody and his face was bruised, she stopped. Ash collapsed on top of him, and Steele shuddered beneath her. They held one another, both wounded—inside and out. It was the best she’d felt in years. She hiccupped, exhausted and utterly spent. The release left her feeling like a limp rag doll. And then he ruined everything by

speaking. “I’m sorry, Ash,” he whispered, tears in his eyes. “I’m so sorry. I should’ve apologized the day of his funeral. I should’ve begged for your forgiveness. You don’t know how many times I wished I could trade places with Abe. It shoulda been me.” She couldn’t hear this right now. Ash scrambled off him and bolted again. Steele paced her, even in his broken and bloody state. He seized her from behind, wrapping his big arms around her and burying his face in her hair. She struggled in his hold but couldn’t get free. And Ash was too exhausted to put up much of a fight.

“What are you doin’?” “What does it look like?” His arms felt good—big, warm, and safe. Like the comfy, old zebrastriped fleece blanket on her childhood bed. At night, she’d wrap it around herself and fall asleep, content and cozy. “Let go.” “Never.” “I don’t like bein’ held.” “Yes, you do, but you’re too stubborn to admit it, so shut up and let me hold you. Besides, it’s what I'm supposed to do. You’re cryin’.” “I’m not cryin’,” she lied, even as the tears dried on her face. “And I don’t

need to be held.” Showing weakness was never an option. But he didn’t let go, and Ash sobbed as he held her. Together, they rocked. For a moment, she soaked in the comfort. As quickly as the storm began, it quieted. The wind died down, and the snow stopped swirling. Once more, it was only another crisp, chilly evening— clear and calm. “I felt him, you know.” “Abe?” “Yeah, all the time. When we were kids, we could always tell when the other was sad or scared or in pain. He fell off his bike when we were ten,

pitched right over the handlebars and went tumblin’ into the concrete.” “I remember. He got pretty beat up.” “Abe scraped his knee and broke his thumb. I was at home, a block away, colorin’ in my room. When I felt his pain, I fell off the bed.” She shuddered. “I never knew that,” Steele whispered. “We didn’t tell anyone. It was one of our secrets.” She swallowed and forced out the rest. “I miss that the most, the connection. I was never, ever alone. Not really.” It was easier to say the words when she couldn’t see his face. Steele squeezed her harder, and she

wrapped her arms around his, holding on. “Twins are supposed to be linked— sense when the other is in trouble. We were always close. Our parents said we’d cry if they tried to put us in different cribs, so they left Abe and me together. We held each other as we slept. It was comforting somehow. We’d always been together, since before we were born. Our lives started the very same moment.” But she hadn’t been able to die with him. “I know this sounds crazy, but I sensed what Abe went through that night. I felt him die.” Ash could barely choke the words out, so she told the faceless brick wall in front of her instead. “I

woke up screamin’ my head off.” “Ash….” Her neck was damp from Steele’s tears. “He died in pain,” she whimpered. “Half a world away.” “I know.” “I read the report, but I didn’t really need to. I knew what they did. They…tortured him.” All the horror had been laid out in neatly typed sentences describing Abe’s torture and death. “I haven’t forgotten. I can’t,” he said raggedly. “When I…when I got back to the field, I…saw him.” “Tell me.” “No. You don’t need those images in your head.”

Steele started to pull away from her, but she sank her fingernails into his skin. “I already know what happened.” “That’s different than hearin’ it firsthand.” “Tell me.” She drew blood, scratching him. He hissed in pain. “I noticed the fire first. When I left…the tent…I could see it, roaring in the distance. It was hot, and it filled the air with black smoke. I ran as fast as I could, but it was too late,” he muttered. “When I got there, I saw….” She swallowed. “What did you see?” He didn’t speak for a moment, and

then the words came in a flood. “They’d strung him up from a tree. His neck was broken. I remember I remember hopin’ they’d hanged him first because his insides…were on the outside.” Steele’s voice broke. “They’d used a sword, I think. It nearly cut him in two.” Ash howled, a soul-deep wail. “Abe didn’t deserve to die like that. He never even got to live—no wife, no home of his own, and no children. Nothin’. It’s like he was never even here. He left nothin’ behind…except me.” Steele held her tighter, and she let him. “You aren’t alone, Ash.” “Yes, I am. And I’ve tried, but I

don’t know how to live without him.” Steele turned her around until they were facing one another. He looked as bruised as she felt inside, but she couldn’t apologize. She didn’t even want to—he deserved it and more. They’d never, ever be even. “No, you aren’t alone. You have me. I ’m your friend.” “With friends like you….” “I’ll never be your enemy, Ash. I have a piss poor way of showin’ it, but it’s true.” He cupped her face in his hand and ran the pad of his thumb over her lower lip. Ash wanted to slap him, scream at him, but instead, she closed her eyes,

relishing the touch instead. She should pull away, but she couldn’t. In fact, she barely resisted the urge to open her mouth for him—letting his thumb in further. Once again, Ash was sixteen, ready to be kissed by the boy she’d been dreaming of. She remembered every single detail of that day. Her parents had thrown a big birthday bash. While she’d had a basem*nt sleepover, Abe had hosted his friends in the backyard for a campout. Later that night, she’d bundled up in a hoodie and jeans and snuck outside. Steele had been the only one still awake. He’d pushed her on the old tire swing in the backyard, and they’d talked for

hours. When she’d been about to go inside, he’d sauntered around to the front of the swing and held her suspended in midair instead. And then he’d stolen a quick kiss before leaping out of the way, sending her flying through the air, breathless and blushing. To this day, it’d been the best kiss she’d ever experienced. And now, in the present, Steele dipped his head and pressed his lips against hers, slowly, learning her once more. Mindful of his split lip, she returned it. Damn him—it was every bit as good as the first one. Sweet and soothing, their lips brushed, a kiss born

of comfort. Slow and sensual, and oh, so welcoming. Funny. They hadn’t kissed in twenty years…and he still left her breathless. No. No. No! This was wrong. She shouldn’t be here with Steele, kissing him. Forgiving him for a betrayal he couldn’t make right. Ash thrust him away from her and ran for the hotel room as fast as her legs would carry her. Steele didn’t follow her.

*** Steele limped into Perdition and

flung himself down onto a bar stool. Ash had left him bruised and bloody in the parking lot, and he’d dragged himself to his motorcycle and headed straight for the bar. After barking his order at a hellion, he sat with a full bottle of Eddie’s moonshine, the straight up kind—no fruit infusions and no glass f*cking necessary tonight. The cuts on his chest had ripped open again. He could feel his face had puffed up like a melon, and he could taste the blood from his split lip. He tipped the bottle back and took a long swig. It stung his lip, but the liquid fire slid down his throat and settled into his stomach, numbing the pain—the physical injuries at least. He

ran a hand through his hair and tried to pull his sh*t together. Steele didn’t know what the hell to think. He’d f*cked up another chance to get Coyote back, but in some ways, he felt better than he had in years. Letting Ash take her anger out on him had felt good. Right, somehow. He’d been craving absolution for a long time, and she’d given him a taste of it. They weren’t square, and they never would be, but he’d made a dent in his debt. Sooner or later, a man must pay for his sins. But he shouldn’t have kissed her— started this crazy obsession of his again. Abe had made it abundantly clear

the day after he’d kissed Ash the first time. His best friend had tackled him to the ground, and they’d rolled around in the dirty and scrubby brown sh*t that passes for grass in Texas. Steele had walked off with a black eye and a stern warning to stay the hell away from Ash. He’d gotten the message, but somehow, he couldn’t bring himself to leave her alone. Steele knew he wasn’t good enough for Ash and never would be. Her parents were professionals, and they lived a nice middle-class life. The last thing Ash needed was his poor, white trash hands on her. She deserved better— someone from her world. He’d nearly destroyed the Calhoun

family single-handedly. Ash and Abe should’ve gone to college, followed in their parent’s footsteps. After watching the horrors of 9/11, Steele had signed up. He’d also talked Abe into joining the Marines with him. Steele had f*cked up his future in football, and he couldn’t think of a better cause. But Ash had followed right behind her big brother. Now Abe was dead, and Ash wanted to join him. His death had shattered her too. Before her brother had been murdered, she’d been strong and independent, a fighter. In many ways, Daisy reminded him of Ash. Those two were cut from the same warrior woman cloth. If Daisy hadn’t found Rose alive, she would’ve become

like Ash—a loner hell-bent on vengeance. A hand settled over his, taking the bottle from his grip. “I think you’ve had enough, brother.” Steele turned to see Voodoo sitting next to him at the bar. He snatched the moonshine back. “Didn’t ask for your opinion.” “Got it anyway.” Voo watched him with his creepy, take-a-gander-at-yoursoul mojo. Talking to his brother was a lot like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick—painful and unnecessary. Steele preferred action over words any day. He turned away. “Leave me the f*ck alone. Ain’t in the mood for your

shenanigans. Can’t a man drink in peace around here?” “We both know you aren’t at peace.” Steele didn’t reply. He kept right on drinking and hoped ignoring Voo might make him go away. “Axel wants to see you first thing tomorrow mornin’.” “I figured.” He’d texted his brothers after the car chase with the Raptor prospect had gone south. Maybe Axel would finally let Steele have it for his series of f*ckups. Steele was overdue for an asskicking. “And I’m thinkin’ you be havin’

woman troubles.” “Yeah? And I’m thinkin’ you can kiss my ass.” He’d gone through enough trauma for one day, f*ck you very much. As per usual, Voodoo didn’t give a damn what anyone else wanted. “Everyone is talkin’ about you and Ashton Calhoun. As the club’s VP, I’m responsible for vetting all potential old ladies.” “She ain’t my old lady.” “From what I heard, you declared her yours in front of everyone at Perdition the other night.” Steele hissed a breath out. “Oh, f*ck me. I did.” “I think you need her.”

That was up for debate, but Ash certainly didn’t need him. She’d be better off if she’d never even met him. If Steele had a time machine, he’d try to set this mess straight. But tonight, he’d have to settle for a beating and some moonshine. Hmph. Time machine. Coyote would be all over the idea. Steele could imagine Yo spending hours scouring the web, then hunting down the parts on eBay. After he’d pieced the thing together, Coyote would do crazy test runs with the gadget he’d made. After making Steele watch a Back to the Future marathon, of course. Tears pricked his eyes, and he blinked them away. Both Abe and Coyote had paid in

blood for their friendship with Steele. It was the second time he’d teared up tonight. He was on his way to becoming a character in a bad country song. Steele cleared his throat. “Ash is doin’ a job for the club. That’s pretty cut and dry, brother. I only made sure the other brothers didn’t hassle her. Don’t read more into it.” “Few things are.” “What?” “Cut and dry.” His lips twitched. “Especially when women are involved. You should see Duke tonight. Have him look at those bumps and bruises. Who beat you?”

Oh, f*ck no. Admitting to getting a beat-down from a woman? No way. He’d take the info with him to the grave. The brothers would never let up if they found out. As far as Steele was concerned, Ash had a free pass to clean his clock any time she damn well pleased. “I’m fine, brother. Don’t worry about it.” Besides, Steele didn’t want Duke to look at the wounds. He’d earned every bit of pain she’d caused. “Who hit you?” Voo repeated. “I fell.” Yep, it sounded lame, even to his own ears. He should’ve thought of a better excuse. “Don’t lie.”

“You callin’ me a liar?” he drawled. Maybe a bit more violence would make him feel better. That’s what’s wrong with the world—too much yammerin’ and not enough knockin’ heads together. A long moment passed. Voo didn’t rise to the bait, and Steele couldn’t take a swing at the VP without good cause. “You lie to yourself all the time.” Perceptive f*cker. “Oh, yeah?” He took another swig. Might as well crawl deeper into the bottle while he listened to this touchyfeely crap. “No, ‘lie’ ain’t quite the right

word.” Voo tapped his chin. “I think you obfuscate the truth.” “I ain’t cloudin’ the truth.” Oh, hell. He’d stepped in it now. When Steele turned, stool creaking beneath him, his brother looked like he was about to break an arm from patting his own back. What an asshole. Steel fumbled for an excuse. “Don’t. You understood exactly what I said. You know,” Voodoo began, all wise man imparting knowledge. “Lex has been showin’ me all these Shakespearean plays. Different productions. When she visits, we stream ‘em on the Roku player, and while we

were watching one night, I noticed somethin’.” “Good for you, asshat.” Steele tipped the bottle back. Voo continued. “Shakespeare usually puts a fool into his plays. Do you know why?” “He was plumb out of ideas?” “Because the fool is never foolish. He’s usually the one tellin’ you exactly what the play’s about—the moral. My question is, brother, why do you play the fool?” Enough poking at old wounds for one evening. “I ain’t playin’. You’d best believe I’m ten kinds of fool.” He tottered down the hallway into

one of the crash rooms. Steele slammed the door and threw himself down onto the bed. Sleep was a long time coming.

Chapter Thirteen My life’s a mess. Steele lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, even though he didn’t truly see it. He was exhausted—mentally, physically, every way possible. Between dealing with his past, Coyote’s disappearance, and Ash’s trauma, he was spent. He’d lost the one decent lead they’d had. He couldn’t even be a dick about it and put the blame on Ash. She hadn’t helped matters, but she hadn’t triggered the situation either—Steele had. It was a random convergence of factors—no traffic on the road, the

prospect dropping the lighter, and Steele’s failure to get the bastard to spill his guts in the short time he’d had. But he couldn’t lay there and feel sorry for himself. He picked up his cell and cursed when he found out it was five thirty in the morning. He found several text messages: Axel ordering Steele to meet him at Seventh Circle as soon as Steele got the text, a peeved but vague-onpurpose-in-case-the-Feds-read-this message from Beauregard indicating his “displeasure” at the outcome of last night’s stakeout, and one from Frost about motherf*cking Royal. Steele deleted them and sat up in bed. He ran a hand over his face, feeling

the prickly stubble on his cheeks, and then wiped the crusty stuff from the corner of his eyes. He felt like sh*t, and he knew he probably looked like it too. He surged to his feet, jumped into his discarded jeans, and stumbled to the bathroom down the hall. After he splashed water on his face, he studied his reflection in the mirror. Dark half-moons sat beneath his eyes, which were red-rimmed. His split lip had crusted over, and purplish-red bruises mottled his face. If Steele was going to make it through the day, he had to pull it together. He rummaged around the crash rooms for some supplies. Steele found a stick of Old Spice deodorant and a half tube

of toothpaste. After he rolled the deodorant over his pits and scrubbed his teeth with a finger, he grabbed a clean Perdition shirt from the back room. Ryker had purchased them for a promotion, but they’d never taken off. He threw on his hoodie and cut, then took off out the door with his game face on. On his way to Seventh Circle, he stopped at Inferno to leave a note for Daisy. He had a feeling he wouldn’t make it into work today due to multiple ass-chewings and club business. Steele hated to add to her burden, but he didn’t see a way around it. A delivery of ammo she had to sign for was coming between noon and two. He also wanted her to put

Angel to work doing inventory. Steele slid off his bike and was about to walk in the front door of Inferno when he stopped in his tracks. A cardboard box sat on the Come Back with a Warrant welcome mat Daisy had given him as a joke. But there was nothing funny about the strange box. An unshakable sense of dread settled over him—like the terrible night in Afghanistan when he’d scented smoke in the air. All of his shipments came to the rear of the building during business hours. So where had it come from? Someone must’ve dropped it off for him. Steel studied the box from a distance, unwilling or unable to move

closer. He didn’t see a shipping label, and the left corner was wet—darker than the rest of the cardboard. Knees wobbling, Steel stepped closer. He pulled out his pocketknife and knelt beside the box on the mat. Biting the inside of his cheek, he cut away the silver duct tape sealing the edges. Steele touched the damp corner, and his fingertip came back red. Blood red. The parking lot spun around him, and Steele clutched the wall for support. Oh, God. What the f*ck’s in there…Coyote’s head? “No…no. No, please. Not Coyote. Not like this.” Steele couldn’t open it out here in

the parking lot where anyone might drive by. With trembling fingers, he scooped the package up and took it inside with him. He trudged past the display cases and down the hallway to Coyote’s office. He hadn’t been able to set a foot in there since Yo had been snatched. Steele fumbled with the doorknob and winced as the bright fluorescent lights overhead flickered on. For a second, he stood in the center of the room, clutching the cardboard and trying to make his legs work. The office looked more like a boy’s bedroom than a place of business with framed Avengers movie posters on the walls. His plastic-sleeved comic book collection took up an entire bookshelf.

Star Wars office supplies decorated the desk. When he’d first met Yo, the kid had annoyed the hell out of Steele. He wasn’t much of a fighter, and all day he spouted nerd talk. But Yo was passionate about the things he loved, and Steele admired his enthusiasm. Once he’d witnessed Yo’s technical skills, Steele had been a true believer. Yo was a younger, nerdier MacGyver. And no matter how dark things got for the club, he always found something to smile about, something to keep them going. Steele could use some of that hope right about now. He slogged over to the desk and sank down into Coyote’s desk chair. The

neon orange thumbprint on the armrest made him chuckle. “You and your damned Cheetos.” Steele set the box on the desk. He braced his hands on his knees, staring at it, trying to find the courage to move forward. Once he opened it, his world would change. All hope might be lost. Coyote could be dead, and Steele would only be able to avenge him— which wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough. Gritting his teeth, Steele pushed back the outer and inner flaps—inside was a ball of newspaper. On the corner, he spied today’s date. Steele ripped the paper back to reveal two severed

fingers. The skin had an unmistakable golden hue, one of the fingers curled obscenely around a Four Horsem*n lighter. The digits had been chopped off right below the knuckle—snowy white bone, wrapped in pink tissue. The blood had pooled, coagulated on the paper beneath them. Steele’s stomach churned. He stood, swaying on his feet—caught somewhere between relief and dread. Relief it hadn’t been a more important body part and apprehension that this was only the beginning of gory packages. He stumbled over to the wall and leaned his forehead against the cool plaster. He gulped down air like a fish without water.

Coyote could have survived the amputation. “Oh, thank God. You could still be alive. I let you down, brother, but I’m gonna get you back. I’m bringing you home. We’re gonna be here together again. I promise.” *** If ever there was a time for an emergency meeting, it was now. The boardroom was in chaos—brothers shouting at each other and Axel wildly banging his gavel. It didn’t do much good—no one was listening. After Steele called Axel, he’d convened one. They needed to hunt down and kill the bastards who’d done

this to Coyote. While he could hear his brothers’ raised voices, they barely registered with Steele. He didn’t say a f*cking word. His mind was still on the bloody box and its terrible contents. He gripped his own fingers, imagining what it’d feel like to have them lopped off. Coyote must be in so much pain—alone and scared sh*tless. Just like Abe. “Enough.” Axel pounded a fist on the table, shaking it. “Everyone, take your seats and shut the f*ck up.” The room quieted. The brothers slid into their assigned seats, and everyone turned eyes on the president.

But Axel pointed to other side of the table. “The only person I wanna hear from right now is Duke.” After making the discovery and calling Axel, Steele had handed the box over to Duke. Duke cleared his throat. “I examined the fingers and the cut is clean. I’m guessin’ it was done with something sharp and heavy, maybe a meat cleaver.” “Can you reattach them?” Axel asked. Duke shook his head. “There’s a short window to perform replantation, and both the wound and severed digits need to be iced to preserve the tissue. We’re beyond the time frame.” Steele put his head in his hands.

Coyote had been permanently maimed, and he needed all his digits to perform his computer wizardry. The Raptors had sliced into Steele’s chest, but he’d be able to cover the wounds with a tattoo—no harm done. Yo didn’t have that luxury, and every time his brother glanced down at his own hand, he’d be reminded of what the bastards had taken from him. “We need to find these f*ckers.” Ace thrust his chest out. “To hell with trying to force them out of our territory. They need to die bloody.” No one disagreed with him. The Raptors’ sins were too numerous to ignore—shooting up the Horsem*n’s clubhouse and killing a

brother. They’d also kidnapped Coyote and snatched up the heroin—leaving the Horsem*n’s asses flapping in the wind. The cartel was coming for the club, and it was only a matter of when. Not to mention the Raptors’ penchant for using and abusing women. “Anyone wanna speak on the Raptors’ behalf?” Axel surveyed the group. The room fell deathly silent. Steele had hit his personal limit, and it looked like his brothers agreed with him. “There’s only one problem. We don’t even know where the hell they are.” Justice swiveled in his seat to eye Steele.

Steele cleared his throat. “Victoria Hale, the Dixie Mafia hacker girl, said she could track the skimmers with GPS if she had more time.” Justice nodded. “Yeah, she said somethin’ about thieves leavin’ the skimmers in gas stations over the weekend when there’s a lot of business. They won’t pack in their operation until Sunday night. We still got time to find a skimmer and slap a GPS on it. We need to find one and follow a Raptor back to their base…without tipping our hand this time.” “Fine. I need someone to locate a skimmer and work with Beauregard.” Axel’s lips twisted. Justice raised his hand to volunteer

before Steele could. “Keep me posted.” Axel turned to the larger group. “We need a couple men to track the hideout once the Raptor leads us back to it.” “Why don’t we all go, guns blazing?” Ace asked. Ace had a tendency to go off halfco*cked. Steele bet it was fighter pilot arrogance leftover from Ace’s blue sky glory days. He didn’t have much use for airmen. While Steele had appreciated the air cover in Afghanistan, they weren’t in the trenches and never saw bodies drop up close and personal. “If we go in hot, they might kill Coyote,” Steele put in. “We gotta be prepared before we storm the castle. I

volunteer to follow the GPS back to the hideout.” “I’m in that group too,” Justice said. “And why should we leave this operation up to you?” Ace leaned across the table, looking Steele in the eye. “It ain’t personal, brother, but if you hadn’t f*cked up last night, Coyote might still have all his fingers.” Steele didn’t defend himself. He couldn’t. “You’re right. This is my fault, my f*ck-up.” He scanned the room, laying eyes on each of his brothers. Some of them met his gaze with contempt, others with compassion. “Let me fix it.” When Steele glanced at Captain, the

older man spoke up. “We all make mistakes. Steele needs to have the chance to make it right.” No one spoke for a moment as the words sank in. Steele smiled back at him. If anyone understood screw-ups, Captain did. “Fair enough,” Axel agreed. “After all this is settled, there’ll be plenty of time for accusations. Steele and Justice will check the hideout, but Ace is goin’ with you. Take Ash too.” Steele didn’t contradict Axel, but he wasn’t overly enthused about FlyBoy’s presence. “Beauregard ain’t gonna leave this alone. He’ll want to send someone or come himself.”

“Yeah, he’ll be in the middle of the action, but you’ll need the backup.” “Great, more face time with motherf*ckin’ Beauregard,” Shep grumbled. Beauregard and his “boys” had given Pretty Boy one hell of a beatdown, and that score hadn’t been settled yet. Maybe it never would be. “I think we need all the help we can get, brother.” Voo placed a hand on Shep’s shoulder and squeezed. Steele had a more pragmatic view. Beauregard might be an asshole, but he’d rather deal with the mobster than fight off the Raptors and cartel by himself. Beauregard had worked his way up from hitman to underboss in a few short years. That sort of advancement

didn’t come up without being ruthless and lethal. Before Axel adjourned the meeting, he turned to Steele. “We’re counting on you. Coyote’s counting on you. Don’t let us down—again.”

Chapter Fourteen Last night had been out of control. No, she’d been out of control, which hadn’t happened in a long time. And it couldn’t happen again. She had a thing for Steele, and it hadn’t gone away over the years. He clearly wanted her. One thing was for certain—it was no longer the sweet, little puppy love it’d once been. It was ferocious—howling, snarling. While she jogged, Ash spun the situation around in her head. Steele had been culpable in Abe’s death and had broken Ash’s heart as a teen, but she still hadn’t fully moved past her feelings for him. Ash could finally admit it to

herself. She’d measured every man she’d ever been with against Steele and had found them lacking. Pretending nothing was going on between her and Steele wasn’t working. Her gut told her he’d been every bit as affected as her. They should sit down like two grown-ups and talk it out. After Ash finished her morning run, she breezed into Hades. But the diner was dead—no Horsem*n, except for Angel, who stood at the counter. She walked right back out the door. Frankly, she was a bit irked Steele hadn’t tried to contact her. When she hadn’t seen or heard from him a couple hours later, she went to Inferno Firearms. Avoidance was no

longer an option for both of them. Ash strolled in the door and took a good long look around. Inferno was tricked out like an outdoorsman’s version of a candy store. Her fingers itched to try out something new, maybe a pistol. Although the rifles looked inviting too. She found a steely-eyed woman behind the counter. Ash remembered Steele mentioning he ran the store with Coyote and another woman. “You must be Daisy.” Daisy placed her hands on her hips. “So you’re Ashton Calhoun. I’ve heard all about you.” “Really?”

“The Horsem*n love some good gossip.” Ash strolled over to the counter and met the woman’s gaze evenly. Daisy was a brown-eyed blonde, pretty, and somewhere in her twenties. Steele had mentioned Daisy had been a Marine too. They sized each other up. Queen Bees never liked each other, and Daisy clearly wanted to establish her dominance. Ash understood it on an intellectual level. After all, it was only natural for Daisy to be territorial on her own turf. But it still pissed her off, and Ash wasn’t in the mood for diplomacy. Might as well settle this like a devil dog. “Runnin’ through the desert with my

M-16, I'm a mean motor scooter, I'm a U.S. Marine.” Ash shouted the cadence. It was one of her drill sergeant’s favorites, and it had echoed in her head long after boot camp. As they’d done a five mile run every morning, he’d made them sound off. She’d spent many mornings yelling the refrain while her thighs screamed and her feet blistered. “If you see me comin’, you better step aside. ’Cause many men didn't and many men died,” Daisy finished. “Steele told me you were in the Corps.” Though Ash didn’t think she looked so tough…especially since she was pregnant and out to there. “Still am.” Daisy raised a brow.

True enough. No one ever left the Corps completely behind. They’d both established their alpha status. “Nice bear,” she snarked, taking in the black and white panda T-shirt, complete with matching yoga pants. “Thanks, it was a gift.” Daisy placed a hand on her belly. The words were pleasant, but the tone was anything but. “Cowboy and I are expecting a little girl. He mentioned you were working with Steele.” She moseyed around the counter and went toe-to-toe with Ash, who refused to back up, despite the close proximity. “Speaking of Steele, where is he?”

“He ain’t here.” Ash bit the inside of her cheek. I will not sucker-punch a pregnant woman. “I didn’t ask you if he was here, I asked you where he is.” “You seem kinda anxious to find him.” Daisy leaned forward, speaking soft and low. “I heard you two ain’t strictly professional.” “That ain’t none of your business.” “See, there’s where you’re wrong. Steele and I are tight—best friends, you might say. He’s goin’ through a tough time, and he doesn’t need any more pain.” “Whatcha gonna do about it?” Her nostrils flared. “I might be

pregnant, but I’m not helpless.” “Yeah, you’re real scary.” She tried not to smile. Well, almost tried. Right then, the door swung open, and Ash turned to see Ace sauntering into Inferno. “I’ve been lookin’ for you everywhere. Didn’t you get my calls?” She grabbed the phone from her pocket. Sure enough, she had a couple of messages. “Damn, I had it on silent. What’s goin’ on?” Ace nodded to Daisy. “Uh, club business.” Daisy watched the interplay with wide, overly innocent eyes. “Do tell.” Ash tapped her foot. “You’re quite the little busybody, aren’t you?”

“You two havin’ a fight?” His eyes got kind of glossy. “Because, if you girls wanna wrastle it out, I’ll get some mud and a pair of bikinis.” “Yuck.” Ash shuddered. “With a side of hell no,” Daisy finished. “And I’ll tell Cowboy you said that since I’m in no shape to give you a black eye.” Ace put his hands up. “Sorry, my bad.” “Thought you were about to kick my ass.” Ash sneered. “Come on, break it up. Let’s go outside.” Ace grabbed Ash by the elbow and hauled her down the aisle and out the door. “There’ve been some…

developments.” Ash shot a smug look in Daisy’s direction. She wasn’t feeling so smug after Ace finished giving her the 411 on the situation. Ash stared at the welcome mat, which still had a reddish-brown smudge. Steele must’ve been devastated when he opened the box and found his friend’s severed fingers. Whatever issues were between the two of them, she felt for Steele. No one deserved that kind of psychological torture. She needed to see him more than ever. “Where’s Steele?” Ace shrugged. “No clue. After the

meeting, he took off. He ain’t answering his cell either.” He studied her face. “Now, don’t go throwin’ him a pity party. Steele’s the reason we’re in this mess. If he’d kept his guard up at the warehouse, none of this would’ve happened.” Ash didn’t reply. “Hey, you wanna get some lunch?” She glanced up at him distractedly. “Uh, no, I can’t. I’ve gotta go.” Ash set off in search of Steele, leaving Ace in the parking lot.

*** Hours later, Ash stared at Steele’s

apartment door, arm raised, ready to knock. The sun was setting in a blaze of pink and orange. Ash had spent most of the day trying to find him—calling him every hour or so, sending a dozen text messages, and she’d searched for him everywhere. When she’d driven by his place earlier, his motorcycle had been gone, but now it was pulled into the space in front of his apartment. She was glad she’d thought to check in before calling it a night. Ash knew she should probably leave this alone, call one of his brothers to check on him. But she knew he was in pain right now. And while he didn’t know for sure if he’d lost Coyote, the

possibility had to be weighing heavy on his mind. Ash knocked on the door. “f*ck off.” The voice was muffled and slightly slurred. “Steele, it’s me.” Nothing. After a long pause, the door swung open, and Steele stood in the doorway in a pair of jeans with bare feet and a bandaged chest. He looked like hell— bloody, bruised, and beaten. She felt a twinge of guilt as she examined him. The skin around his left eye was swollen and tight-looking—it’d turned a reddish-purple color with an overlay of yellow. His lower lip puffed

up. There were more bruises all over his torso. “I’m fine.” “You sure as sh*t don’t look it.” “Well, I am.” Steele bent his head, studying the floor. “They told you.” “Yeah.” Ash didn’t wait for an invitation; she slipped underneath his outstretched arm and rushed past him. With a curse, he shut the door behind her, but he didn’t argue. Ash took in her surroundings. They stood in his kitchen, but she could see through to other rooms. It was a typical bachelor pad—small with beige carpet, white walls, mismatched furniture, a

sink full of dirty dishes, and a layer of dust coating everything. “You don’t need to do this. I’m not gonna do anything stupid.” Steele pulled a quart-sized Mason jar from the fridge and took a long sip. The liquid was clear, but she knew it wasn’t water. “Ain’t that my line?” she joked. It fell flat. His chin quivered for a moment, then his features smoothed. “You want some?” He held it out to her. “No, thanks. Do you need anything?” He took another long drink. His movements were slow and a bit unsteady. She wondered if he’d been

driving around liquored up. “Didn’t know you cared.” It was her turn to examine the floor. “I…I don’t. We’re workin’ a job together, and this is a professional courtesy.” As soon as the words left her mouth, she wished she could put them back. He gave her a little half-smile. “I see.” “Where were you today?” Ash turned her back on him. She should’ve called Justice or Ace to handle this. She had no business playing Florence Nightingale. “Drivin’ around. Seein’ the sights.” It was a non-answer, but she left it

alone. Ash stepped into the living room. “I like your place.” A couple of books sat on the corner of the scuffed coffee table. From the marked spines, she could see they’d been checked out from the public library. She’d never seen him with anything other than a textbook in school. Ash picked one up, perusing the back. It was a military biography. The due date was two months from now, which was a long check-out period. As a kid, she’d only been able to check books out for two weeks. He must know a friendly librarian. “You’re quite a reader.”

“Nah, I like the pictures.” He walked through the living room and into the bedroom before flinging his battered body down onto the bed. Steele placed the Mason jar within reach on the nightstand. “Bullsh*t.” Ash grabbed another to see sticky notes placed on several pages. “Leave it alone.” Just to be ornery, Ash thumbed through the book. She grinned when she read a quote by General William Thornson, U.S. Army: There are only two kinds of people that understand Marines: Marines and the enemy. Everyone else has a secondhand opinion. “Why didn’t I know you’re a

bookworm?” “Not a bookworm. I’m bored.” Steele rolled over on the bed, giving her his back. When they were kids, he’d teased her about spending all her free time with her nose in a book. He’d snatch them out of her hands and run away, forcing her to chase after him. She walked into the bedroom and stood, staring down at him. “What are you really doin’ here?” He burrowed into the pillow. Steele seemed to be fading fast, sucked under by the alcohol and his injuries. No clue. “Makin’ sure you don’t fall asleep

on your back and choke on your own vomit.” “I can hold my liquor, and you’re a bad liar, Dusty. Always were. You hate my ever-livin’ guts.” She probably shouldn’t be here alone with him. Not when his defenses were lowered. Because her walls were down too. And he looked damn good in his rumpled bed. Ash sat on the corner of the bed, a safe distance away. Right now, she couldn’t seem to summon the familiar pain and anger. She wondered if the beating she’d given him, combined with sympathy for the Coyote situation, had started to heal the rift between them. Right now, his fear and pain was

palpable, but she didn’t want to push him. “Tell me about the books.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “Ah, f*ck. I don’t wanna talk about it.” “Too bad, you’re drunk and defenseless, so this is the perfect time to talk. Tell me.” Steele rolled onto his back, staring at the ceiling. “Damnation, you ain’t gonna let this slide, huh?” “Nope.” “I’m dyslexic. That’s why I sucked at school.” Ash gasped. “No one caught it?” He pulled a pillow over his head, refusing to look at her. “Nah,” he muttered beneath the fabric. “I hid it.”

Clowning in class had been his specialty, and she’d lost count of how many detentions he’d gotten. Not to mention the many suspensions for being a “disruptive influence.” Because he’d been such a star athlete, she wondered if the teachers had been pressured to pass him. Ash snatched the pillow from him. “I’m so—” “Don’t.” He sat up in the bed. “Don’t f*cking feel sorry for me. It’s no big deal. I squeaked through high school and made it into the military. I don’t need your pity.” He snagged the moonshine again and took another sip. Steele was too proud for his own good.

“I don’t pity you, but I would’ve helped you.” Steele reminded her of a roughand-tumble tomcat who used to hang around her neighborhood. She’d wanted a cat but her dad was allergic, so she’d taken care of the stray and pretended it was hers. Ash had named the tabby Rocky because he was always scratched up from fighting. Rocky had a sleek brown, black, and white coat with fierce green eyes and a torn ear. The cat used to look into their basem*nt windows at night—cold, hungry, and alone. She’d offered him plates of leftover chicken, canned tuna, and any other treat she could scrounge up. But he’d hissed and spit at her every

time she got near, so she’d been forced to leave the food and watch from the window as the taciturn cat devoured every morsel. Ash used to bring Steele food too. When she packed a lunch, she’d “forget” and bring two sandwiches or an extra slice of cake. He’d always scarfed down the treats she’d brought him. Steele had never been malnourished, but there probably hadn’t been enough food in the house to satisfy a growing teenage boy. The cat had never let Ash pet him, even though she’d longed to stroke his fur. And Lord knew she wanted to stroke Steele too. Ash scooted closer to him on the bed but managed to keep her hands to

herself. Being around him stirred up so many old memories, old feelings too. “I’m so sorry about Coyote.” Ash laid a hand on his arm and squeezed. He placed his hand over hers. “Thank you.” “You’re gonna find him. We’ll find him.” “Why aren’t you bein’ nasty to me?” “No fun when you can’t fight back.” Steele laughed, but it came out rusty and low. “Maybe I should let you beat the tar out of me more often.” Their gazes locked. She shivered. Right now, laying down beside him on the big bed seemed

like a reasonable idea. Clearly, I’ve lost my mind. Ash ducked her head and forced the words out before she could take them back or do something even more stupid like kiss Steele. “I’m not an idiot. You didn’t kill Abe. I know that, but I can’t…. I’ll never get justice for him or my family, and it eats away at me.” If the military had put Abe’s murderers on trial, or if she’d been able to hunt them down on her own, she’d at least have closure. It wouldn’t bring Abe back, but it’d be something at least. But no one had been punished for killing Abe, and no one ever would. Somehow, she had to accept it and move on.

“And you know I had a hand in it.” “Yes, but I’ve laid all the responsibility at your feet, and I…I shouldn’t have. I’m s—” “Don’t apologize to me. Not ever.” Steele clutched her hand. “I wanted your anger, your hatred. I wanted you to take it out on me.” “Why?” “Because I deserve it.” “Steele….” “And because you looked so… empty.” “Empty?” “When I saw you at the funeral, you’re weren’t…there anymore.” Steele circled a hand around his own face to

illustrate. “I was grieving.” Steele shook his head. “No, it was too hollow for grief. It wasn’t sadness or pain. I think you were hiding.” She wrapped her arms around herself but didn’t deny his words. “Ash…do you….” “What?” “Do you think you could ever….” He glanced away, and his voice grew hoarse. “Could you ever think about forgiving me?” Ash considered his words. The anger had lessened, but she wasn’t quite there yet. “I know you’re sorry and if you could change what happened, you

would.” He nodded. She pulled her hand back and moved away from him. “But…I….” Ash sucked in a deep breath. “I think…damn. We shouldn’t be talking about this right now. You’ve been through enough for one day.” “Please say it.” Ash closed her eyes. “I think the Coyote situation is similar. It sounds like you made the same mistake—like you didn’t learn your lesson the first time. Part of being with a unit is having your brother’s back, no matter what.” Steele swallowed thickly. “If it came down to it, would you

sacrifice yourself to save someone else? Put their needs above your own?” He hung his head. “I’ve always put myself before others. If I hadn’t been tryin’ to get laid, Abe wouldn’t have died alone. And if I hadn’t been screwing around, Coyote would still be here. I’m a f*ck-up, always have been.” He touched the gauze on his chest, rubbing at the wound. “I wasn’t payin’ attention the night the Raptors snatched him. I was on my phone, textin’ a chick, wishin’ I hadn’t volunteered for guard duty, and half-assin’ it. I should’ve watched my flank.” “You didn’t know the Raptors would attack.” Damn, she shouldn’t have brought it up. No sense in kickin’ a man

when he’s already down. “It’s no excuse to slack off.” Steele handed her the jar, and she took a sip this time. It blazed down her throat. “Damn, that’s strong.” Ash gave it back and forced herself to stand up and walk away from temptation. He pointed to the closet. “Take my football career for example.” The closet door stood open, and she spied his old letterman jacket hanging to one side. The booster club had purchased his football uniforms and the jacket—after Ash confided in the coach about Steele’s financial situation. Steele’s mother couldn’t swing the cost, and he’d been such a stellar athlete, the school didn’t want to let a little bitty

thing like the cost of a uniform stand in his way. She hadn’t told Steele she’d betrayed his confidence. Steele never accepted help—he considered it charity. But the booster moms had made it a present, so he couldn’t refuse. “You still have your old jacket.” “Yeah. A little souvenir from what my life coulda been.” Ash drifted over. While she watched him play from the bleachers, she’d fantasized about him driving her home after one of the games. He’d place the jacket over her shoulders to keep her warm, and then he’d kiss her goodnight on the front porch. Ash pushed open the closet door to get a closer look. Her fingers itched to

feel the supple leather of the white sleeves. The rest of the jacket was green wool with a chenille P on the breast pocket. White and green—Poteet Pirate colors. “Can I put on?” She hadn’t meant to ask, but the words popped out. When she glanced over her shoulder, Steele was watching her. He licked his lips. “Go ahead. You cold?” “Um, yeah.” Big lie. Right now, she felt warm—very warm. Turning away, Ash slipped the coat over her shoulders, and her eyes fell closed. The smell of old leather washed over her. The jacket was too large and the sleeves were too long, but she loved the fit. It felt better than she’d imagined.

Reality hardly ever surpassed fantasy. Ash did a little twirl. “What do you think?” “Looks good on you.” “Go Pirates,” Ash whispered. “What were you saying earlier? What happened with your football career?” As far as she knew, he’d never been offered a scholarship. Before he spoke, he tucked into the moonshine again. “Our senior year, the coach got wind of a scout comin’ to our last game of the year. The guy wanted to see me in action.” Steele laid back on the bed and turned over on one side, facing her. “So I practiced my ass off, ran drills every night after school…only to blow it the night before the game. I

went to this party down by the creek.” He shook his head. “I should’ve been gettin’ sleep, preparin’ for the game. Instead, I drank myself unconscious, f*cked two girls, and spent the next mornin’ pukin’ my guts out.” Ash winced. “I remember the game. You didn’t play so hot.” The Pirates had gotten their asses handed to them on the field. Football in Texas was a big deal, and Steele had pissed off the whole damn town. They heckled him for months afterward—until he’d gone to basic training and come back a Marine. The only thing Texans respected more than a great football player was a man in uniform. Steele snorted. “I played like a

junior varsity douchebag. My mom was countin’ on me. She wanted me to get a scholarship, play for Texas A & M, and then get drafted to the NFL. I was supposed to be able to take care of her, give her everythin’ my dad never did.” “You were eighteen years old, just a kid.” “It shows a pattern.” Ash couldn’t argue with the logic, but she didn’t wanna send him into a shame spiral either. “Come on, give yourself a break.” “I should’ve played for the Dallas Cowboys and bought my mom a big ol’ house anywhere she damn well pleased.”

“You bought her a house in Poteet.” Ash had driven by it the last time she’d been home. It might not be a mansion, but his mother was living her golden years in comfort, thanks to her son. “It’s not enough,” he mumbled. Steele’s eyes were shut. Ash took the Mason jar from him and set it back on the nightstand. Then she hit the switch on the lamp. “You’ve had a long day. I bet you could use some sleep.” “Don’t wanna.” But he didn’t make a move to turn on the lights. “We’ll talk tomorrow.” “About what?” “You’ll see.”

After a few moments, Steele’s rhythmic snoring filled the room. Ash perched on the end of the bed and watched him sleep. She wished they could go back somehow—a girl with a crush on the handsome football hero. Back then, everything had seemed so simple. What if we’re overthinking it? What if we scratched the itch? Wait, woah, bad idea. Oh, yeah, she needed to get out of there before she did something stupid like crawl into bed beside him. Ash hesitated before she draped the jacket over the bed and fled the scene.

Chapter Fifteen Hours later, Steele slowly drifted into consciousness. He cracked an eye open and peered at the far window. The graying light told him it was early in the morning. What was I thinkin’? Steele grimaced. His mouth was dry and tasted terrible, like he’d spent the night licking the floorboards in one of Perdition’s crash rooms. He ran a palm along his tongue, as if he could scrape the gross off it. A cursory scan of the room revealed he was at his sh*tty apartment, not the clubhouse, so the wood-licking thing had to be a bad

reaction to moonshine. “Never again.” But he knew history would repeat itself. Steele was a fun guy in the club— he drank, partied, and f*cked strange women. No one expected anything more of him. Steele staggered into the bathroom and took a scalding hot shower. After a good scrub and a vigorous teethbrushing, he felt almost human again. He padded back into the bedroom and pulled on a pair of clean drawers. He spotted the letterman jacket sprawled on the end of his bed and froze. So it hadn’t been a dream—Ash had come over last night. He recalled most of their interaction, even if the

memory was foggy. Steele also remembered how the Raptor prospect had gotten away from them. Ash had been reckless—playing a game of chicken with fate. It was Saturday morning, and Steele couldn’t track the Raptors until tomorrow night, if Vick was right about their timeline. That meant twenty-four hours of waiting and worry. Well, he could do something about Ash. One way or the other, she’d walk out of his life tomorrow. Either he could let it go, or he could man up and make the most of their time together—maybe lay a few demons to rest.

He grabbed some things they’d need for the ride—bottled water, trail mix, an extra helmet for the lady. At the last second, he grabbed the jacket. Steele wished he’d given her the damn thing in high school. Well supplied and mind made up, Steele headed for Hades. *** “We’re both edgy. We got nothin’ to do but wait until tomorrow night. So I say we find a way to deal with the frustration. And I only know of three ways to work off this kind of energy.” Ash stood in the doorway of her hotel room, arms crossed over her chest.

Steele hadn’t even said “howdy” to her. Instead, he’d blurted out his frustration speech as soon as she’d opened the door. His hair was wet from a recent shower and slightly darker. Steele had shaved, and the skin on his cheeks and chin looked smooth and supple. She wondered how it would feel beneath her fingertips or against her own cheeks. Or lips. The last few days had worn her down, sanded down her rough edges. If she spent any more time with Steele, sifting through raw memories, she’d turn into one of those super sensitive Lifetime movie chicks. She shook her head. “I’m not

interested.” There hadn’t been much venom in the words. Ash couldn’t manage the tough girl routine this morning. Why did she get the feeling an indecent proposal was headed her way? Or maybe it was wishful thinking. Steele ignored the protest. “A good fight, but I think we should save it for the ass-kicking to come.” Steele touched a fingertip to his busted lip. Ash was glad to see the swelling and bruising had eased. “The next is sex.” “Are you hittin’ on me?” Steele braced an arm above his head, swaying closer to her. “And if I was?”

“What’s the third?” Her voice sounded high and shrill even to her own ears. “A ride. We can burn this frustration off with a long, hard ride.” Her breath caught. Dear Lord, those words summoned a barrage of filthy images. She doubted being around Steele for any length of time would calm her down—but getting out of town sounded good. Or maybe she wanted an excuse to touch him. Riding behind him on his big, noisy Harley, she’d wrap her arms around him and press her front against his back. It might make the tension between them worse, which a wicked part of her thought might be fun too.

“Unless you can’t handle it?” He ran a hand along the door frame, his touch slow and deliberate. Ash lifted her chin. “I can handle anything.” “Well, then, anytime you’d like to handle it, let me know.” Ignoring the innuendo, Ash scooped up her bag and keys. “I’ll go for a ride, but that’s all we’re doin’.” “Suits me fine.” Steele strutted over to his Harley and straddled the machine while she locked up. He started it up, and the machine purred and rumbled to life. “You like?” Ash smiled at the pride in his voice. He’d come up in the world from

his infamous piece-of-sh*t car. “I do.” “Then you won’t mind this next part. The Horsem*n have a tradition, you see. When a woman rides on one of our bikes, she has to pay a toll.” “What kind of toll?” He held out a hand. “Panties. I need yours.” A thrill ran through her body, and for a second, she considered it. Then sanity stepped in as she remembered the panty-raid clothesline she’d seen earlier. “I don’t give a damn about your frat-boy tradition. I’m not givin’ you my underwear. No way, no how.” She took a couple steps back.

“Then you won’t be getting a ride —or the tension release afterward.” Steele revved the engine. Of course, he’d brought all this up after he’d sold her on the ride. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him to go f*ck himself, but she really wanted to go. “You’re a dick.” “So you’ve said. Deal or no deal?” Ash swaggered over. “f*ck you.” Steele shut off the bike and stood. “Love to. Choice number two it is.” His lips curled into a feral smile. “Thought you’d never ask.” Ash swayed closer to him, her knee brushing his, and she stared at his mouth. He wrapped an arm around her,

pulling her flush against his body. “Wanna finish what we started in the back seat all those years ago? Because I’m game, Dusty. I’m all yours if you want me.” She could feel him, hard and heavy against her abdomen. All she had to do was open the hotel room door, and Steele would be on top of her, inside her. Bliss was only a couple of feet away. Ash couldn’t say no, nor could she say yes. Instead, she stood still, paralyzed by indecision. To his credit, Steele didn’t push, merely let her ride out the uncertainty.

“I’m not giving you my drawers,” she finally managed. “Wrong answer.” Steele backed her against the wall of the building in slow, measured strides. When he had Ash where he wanted her, he ran a hand through her hair. She shut her eyes and leaned into it —until she got a hold of herself. “What do you think you’re doing?” “What’s it look like?” He pressed his body into hers, pinning her between him and the wood—she couldn’t tell which one was harder. Steele whispered into her ear, “You’re gonna give me those panties,

then I’m ridin’ off with you wrapped around me.” “Am I?” His laughter was rough and dirty. “We both know you wanna give me a lot more, but I’ll settle for those right now.” He inched his fingers into the pocket of her jeans, brushing blunt fingertips against her sex, rubbing her through the fabric. Ash arched against him, rocking, seeking more contact. “Come on, give in.” Steele’s touch was maddening, stoking the fires of whatever hell burned between them. He teased, sweeping against her thigh, edging closer but never

satisfying her. If only he’d move his fingers a couple of inches to the left. Steele stopped. “Ash?” She licked her lips. “Fine. I’ll give them to you.” God, she must’ve woke up stupider this morning. “You got a knife?” “Why?” “Whip it out then.” His nostrils flared at her word play. And for a hazy second, she wondered if he’d whip out more than a blade. He rimmed his lips with his tongue. “The knife, you mean?” She smirked. “Yes. You’ll have to cut the drawers off me. I’m not getting naked for the world to see.” Ash glanced

over his shoulder to find the parking lot nearly empty. Steele produced a pocketknife with the club symbol engraved on the handle. He brought it to the waistband of her jeans, and she bit the inside of her cheek to keep from whimpering. Ash reached for the edges of her panties and pulled them above the denim border at her waist. She wasn’t wearing anything particularly sexy today—a pair of black hip-hugging panties printed with tiny skulls. She hadn’t counted on anyone seeing her underwear, so she hadn’t dressed up for the occasion. “f*ck, look at those.” Steele thumbed a skull. “Bad-ass.” She gave his words right back to

him. “You like?” Her taste in fashion intimidated most guys. “Hell yeah.” His hand settled on her hip, and he gripped the fabric, pulling it up higher. The cotton tightened, pressing against the swollen bud of her cl*t. Ash shuddered. He slipped the knife beneath the fabric and sliced one edge, cutting into the leg hole, and then he slit the other. Ash shivered at the chilly kiss of the steel and the naked hunger on his face. So very wrong to find it arousing. The dark and twisted scene from Dogma popped into her head. Ben Affleck’s character had a knife to the

heroine’s throat. There’s an erotic edge to the villainy—his mouth is pressed against her ear, and he almost caresses her with the blade. Steele tugged her panties off while the jeans remained on, undressing her in the parking lot. He brushed his fingers against the crotch of her underwear, and they came away damp. “Oh, f*ck. You’re wet. And hot. You want me.” Steele tucked the panties into his pocket. Ash couldn’t deny it. She’d been wet around him…since…well, since she’d started having those kinds of feelings for boys. “And you want me.” She nodded to his hips. All she could think about was

straddling Steele and riding him instead of the bike. “Like it was ever in doubt.” Steele pressed her into the wall once more, grinding his co*ck against her lower belly. She could feel him—big, hard, and warm—even through the fabric. “Whatcha gonna do about it?” She’d wanted him for years, but it’d never been her turn. All Ash had to do was say yes—hell, a nod would suffice—and they’d spend the evening in bed. If they screwed enough times, she might be able to move on and get him out of her system. Or she’d end up with an even bigger addiction. Ash hesitated. No, she couldn’t. Ash had to do the

right thing, the responsible thing. The ride was treat enough. “Not a damn thing.” He groaned and slid a hand between them to palm himself through the denim, adjusting the family jewels. For a moment, she thought he might protest, but he backed off, holding his arms up in the air like he’d been caught red-handed. “Let’s go,” he croaked. Steele reached in the saddlebag to retrieve an extra helmet along with his old letterman jacket. “Suit up.” He straddled the motorcycle once more, gunning the engine, channeling all the extra testosterone. After they both strapped helmets on, Ash climbed on,

and he took off at a hectic pace. Ash gave a whoop as they raced by the township limit sign. Just as she’d predicted, it was intoxicating–the smell of his old leather jacket, the growl of the engine—the rumbling chrome beast between her legs. Not to mention the chance to wrap her arms around Steele. Ash encircled his waist and laid her head on his shoulder, soaking it all up. Yeah, he gave her a great ride, but it wasn’t the kind she really wanted. *** A couple of hours later, Steele pulled off into a roadside rest stop. The

highway was deserted. They were a few miles from the Smoke Desert. The rest stop was a hundred or so yards off the highway. Steele spied a picnic table and a copse of trees a few more hundred feet in. With Ash clinging to his back, he’d been half hard the entire time. He’d intended to give them both some tension relief, but he’d only managed to make it worse. Steele needed a cold shower or a hellion. Maybe both. Actually, he was fooling himself. No one else would do… no one but Ash—yet she still resisted. Ash hopped off the bike, and he shut the motorcycle down. They both took off the helmets, then he grabbed a bottled water from the saddlebags.

“Come on, let’s take a break.” “The ride didn’t work.” With a sigh, she trailed him to the picnic table. “Tell me about it.” Steele cracked open a water and took a slow drink, never taking his eyes off her. She had flushed cheeks from the cool weather and the hot ride. Steele would rather throw her down onto the picnic table and work off the anger the fun way. “Give me some of that.” Ash tugged at the bottle, and he let her take it. After she swallowed some, she held up her dukes. “You up for a fight?” “f*ck no.” Ash widened her stance and turned to face him. “You don’t want more of

this?” She fisted her hands. “Oh, believe me, I haven’t had enough.” Her gaze was heavy-lidded, and her hair was windblown, wild-looking. “Come on then, hit me.” She motioned him forward. Steele didn’t want to fight Ash, but despite his good intentions, he didn’t back off. He wanted her legs wrapped around his waist—needed to push his co*ck inside her. There was something primal in the air. She tapped him on the arm with a fist. It was light and playful but with an edge. “This has been comin’ a long

time.” “I’m not gonna fight you.” “That’s what you think.” Ash closed the tiny distance between them and took another swipe up at him, this one harder and not playful at all. “Come on. We both know you like a good piece of ass. And I know you want mine.” Steele shuddered. The blend of anger and lust caught fire, urged him on, but he backed off, shaking his head. Sex could be an aggressive act. One partner on top of the other—penetrating, pinning the other down, the one beneath yielding, accepting the intrusion. Yeah, he needed to shut this down. “What the f*ck? I ain’t gonna hit

you.” “Why?” She tilted her head. “Because you don’t hit women?” That was one rule he didn’t have a problem obeying—with the notable exception of the Bruja bitch. “No, I don’t—especially not you. I’ll never hit you.” “Why? What makes me so f*cking special?” “You just are.” Everything about her was special, but he couldn’t tell her. She wasn’t ready to hear it. Ash might never be ready. Steele had been drowning himself in cheap and easy sex for years, but it didn’t mean a damn thing. Not like Ash

did. As f*cking girly as it sounded, he’d rather spend time arguing with her than screwing another woman. Ash grabbed the front of his shirt, balling it in her fist, and pulled an arm back as if to strike. “Let go. Fight me.” Steele made no move to defend himself. He had six inches on her and a hell of a lot more weight. So why did he feel so outmatched? “No. I’m not gonna give you what you want. I won’t make it easier for you. If you wanna kick my ass again, have at it, but I won’t hit you back.” Steele couldn’t have what he wanted, so he guessed they were both

f*cked. Ash made a disgusted noise in the back of her throat. “What do you think I want?” “Pain? Release?” “Wrong, I’m not a masoch*st.” Wasn’t she? Weren’t they both? All they ever did was rile each other up and hurt one another. “Then what is it?” He grasped her shoulders. “What the hell do you want from me?” Ash pushed at his chest. “I need to feel something. Anything.” And then she leapt on him, legs snaking around his waist, arms around his neck. Steele tore at her clothing,

trying to claw the fabric away. When he got it off, he grasped her hips, arching against her. She gripped him by the nape and kissed him hard, nipping his lips and opening the cut on his mouth. Ash jumped down and kicked him in the shin, knocking him off balance, and they both tumbled to the ground. They rolled on the coarse, dry grass, each trying to be the one on top. Somehow, Steele got the upper hand, and he straddled her, pinning both of her wrists in one hand. Ash was turned on and pissed off. “f*ck you.” “That’s the idea, Dusty.” Ash leaned up and bit him, sinking

her teeth into the underside of his arm, though she didn’t break the skin. Hissing, he released her hands, but she didn’t get up. Instead, Ash lay beneath him, panting, which made her breasts jiggle in a mouth-watering way. He couldn’t wait to push her shirt up so he could touch them, taste them. “I’m takin’ sex off the table right now.” Steele thought about the condoms in his saddlebag. Condoms for just such an occasion. “Oh, come on.” “I mean it.” “Fine, but later we—”

“Steele, focus.” “Fine. What do you want?” His heart pounded fiercely, like a drumbeat in his chest. Her teeth sank into her lip in the most delicious way. “This kinda feels inevitable, so I might as well get somethin’ from you. I want you to lick me— make me come with your mouth.” His co*ck leapt in his pants. Steele’s muscles warmed, heat sinking into them as though his body had an engine of its very own and it was accelerating to pleasure her. “Done.” Steele leaped off her, then dragged her into his arms. For a second, he thought his knees

might buckle from the sheer enormity of what was about to happen. He’d been thinking—no dreaming—about this for years. Steele would finally make her call his name as she came. He gathered her up and staggered like a drunken sailor to the redwood-stained picnic table, and set her down on top of it. Steele grasped the edge of her Tshirt, but she batted his hands away. “No, I meant it. I want you to lick me and walk away hard. We won’t have sex, not until we get back to Hell…and even then, I might change my mind.” He’d finally get his hands…well, his tongue on her puss*, and she expected him to take a walk afterward? All he could think about was quenching

every single masturbatory fantasy he’d ever entertained about her. “Ash….” “That’s it for now, or we’re done here. What’s it gonna be?” “Why?” Her smile wasn’t pleasant. “Sally.” Steele pounded a fist on the table. “That happened a hundred years ago.” “Still feels fresh to me.” Steele stood there in agony. He’d love to tell her no and walk away with his dignity still intact, but he’d been obsessing about her for years. Abe was no longer here. How could he pass up this chance? And, hey, he had some mad skills—if he showed her a

good time, she’d be all over him. f*ck, Ash must have his ass whipped, because he was gonna do it. If his brothers knew about this, they’d never let him live it down. “Deal or no deal?” “Deal. I’ll lick you.” “Knew you’d see things my way. Scoot back. Let’s get in a more comfortable position.” He reluctantly released her, and she wriggled on the table. She cast an anxious eye at the road. “Think we’ll get caught?” “Ain’t nobody around for miles.” He doubted someone would stumble upon them. After all, they’d only seen a

half dozen people today on the road, but even if there was a good chance, he probably would’ve lied to her. He ran a hand up her jean-clad thigh. “Let’s take these off.” “Not so fast.” Steele slipped a finger beneath her shirt. “At least let me see you again.” His recollection was hazy from the park. He’d been so hungry for her. “Maybe later we’ll do all the bells and whistles. Right now, I need you.” She unbuttoned the fly and slid a hand in, cupping herself. Ash moaned, arching into her own fingers. Steele thought he might lose his mind if she kept this up. He was already

hard and straining. Steele wanted to push her back and f*ck her for all it was worth. No, he needed to feel her, hot and drizzly in his own palm. But he’d promised to be a good boy. He watched her fingers move beneath the fabric. Her eyes fell closed, lips parting as she rocked. Steele was torn as to which was more erotic—the faces she made or her movements. Ash pulled the jeans down her thighs and kicked them off. Afterward she lay there, legs closed. Steele sat down on the bench so he was at eye level. f*ck, she had gorgeous thighs, sleek and muscled.

He palmed her calves. “Let me in, Ash. Show me.” With a sigh, she parted her legs, and Steele caught his breath. She was spread out on the table like Sunday dinner—all for him. Ash wasn’t perfect, but the slight flaws charmed him even more, especially the puckered skin leftover from a bullet on her upper thigh. She was so damn strong, and he admired her resilience. Her courage. Ash had a sleek puss*—shaved bare and shiny with need. He fantasized about putting his name there, tattooing it right above her wet entrance. Yeah, right there, a brand. His co*ck leapt in response as he

imagined rubbing the head against the letters of his own name, or even marking it with his come. Steele groaned. She’d never be his old lady, never truly be his. But he could dream. He pressed the heel of his hand against her, and she arched up to meet him—sighing, thighs quivering. And it made her even wetter. “Let’s take the edge off first.” Steele traced the tender folds, then placed his thumb between them. When she arched, he rubbed her cl*tor*s, pressing gently at first, then rotating just a bit harder. He slipped two fingers into her as he stroked just enough to make her gasp his name as she came.

*** Ash hadn’t been so turned on since the night in Steele’s car. So many times, she’d pictured being with him. In her mind’s eye, she sought out his image when nameless guys were inside her. The fantasy had always made her come, unlike the men she’d been with. But the reality was so much better. Steele grasped her thighs, preparing to hoist her up, but she planted a foot on his chest. “You’re gonna do this slow and easy.” “You sure?” He slid his tongue over his lips in an exaggerated gesture that made her squirm.

Her sex tightened. “Yes.” “Okay then. We’ve already established you’re the boss.” “Don’t you forget it.” Steele hooked her legs over his shoulders and scooted her bottom to his mouth. Ash rested on her elbows and watched. He kissed her inner thighs first, then her lower lips. Before long, his tongue got in on the action. Steele kissed and licked and tasted. He made erotic sounds, deep satisfied groans as if he thought she was delicious. Every once a while, he pulled back to lock eyes with her. The lust in his eyes was almost enough to make her explode again.

Steele buried his face in her, sticking his hot tongue inside. He was driving her crazy, pressing his mouth against her, tongue-f*cking. Then he worked her over hard, devouring her puss*. As she was about to come, she wrapped her legs around his head, and he placed his hands flat against her stomach. He was relentless, tonguing deep, not even stopping for a second. Ash quivered, teetering on the edge. She let go and threw her head back as the org*sm raged through her body like a storm. Oh yeah. Totally work the wait. Afterward, she lay sprawled, completely undone, legs wide open.

Steele gave her puss* one last, long lick and then kissed the outer lips as if saying goodnight. Steele wiped his face on his shirt and stood. He was between her splayed thighs, and she could feel the heat of him, pressing into her ass, even through the denim. Steele ground himself against her, letting her feel every thick, hard inch, and she shuddered. “You sure you don’t want all this? It’s ready for you.” Ash imagined Steele dragging his zipper down and pushing his big co*ck inside her. God, she’d probably come again as soon as he did. It was so tempting.

She wanted him, but she also wanted control. “Not…until…we…get…back… to…Hades.” The words came slow because it took so much effort to think, let alone say them. Women loved Steele, and the feeling was mutual. They threw themselves at him, and he never had to put in much effort. She’d be damned if she’d be one of them. Not again. Never again. If he wanted her, Steele had to work for it. With a growl, he pulled away. “Hurry up then. We’re gonna speed all the way back.”

*** Two hours later, Steele pulled into the Hades parking lot. It took less than that many seconds to get Ash into the hotel room. He’d thought the first ride had been hellish, but the ride home nearly killed him. Balls full, his co*ck raging, and the scent of her sweet puss* on his shirt had nearly driven him bat-sh*t an hour into the trip. Steele was on her as soon as the door shut behind them. Their bodies were pressed against one another, and he pushed her toward the bed. Ash teased him, running her hands along her thighs, then over her luscious ass. She even

slipped them into the tight pockets of her jeans. “Right here.” Steele pulled her closer to the edge of the mattress. “No. Over here.” Instead, she hopped up onto the table by the door and shucked her jeans, then spread her legs. No, not like this. He wanted to take it easy—kiss her and take his time. Steele wanted to argue with her, but his dick wouldn’t let him. He saw how wet and ready she was. So much for slow. But Steele wasn’t complaining…much. He’d wanted this for hours. No…years. And it was finally happening. There was no time for tenderness

or foreplay. If he didn’t get inside her, he might die. Next time, they’d be slow and sweet. Steele ripped off the corner of the condom packet and rolled the rubber over his co*ck. Thank God for the latex separating them—he’d never been this worked up before. It’d take him longer to come this way. He’d hate to embarrass himself by coming straightaway. He closed his eyes as he entered her. Steele wanted to make it last, but his body had other plans. He had a thick, and a bit longer than average, co*ck. And her puss* held him tight, almost draining him. With a growl, he pressed into her

then worked his hips, going deep. Ash bucked, meeting his thrusts. They moved, grinding their bodies together—it was rough and animalistic. With a sob, she came for him again. Steele loved the look on a woman’s face—utter bliss. For a second, he drank it in, reveling in her pleasure. Twice so far. Not a bad start. He thrust faster, harder. He’d screwed dozens of girls, and it’d always been about the rush of org*sm, the adrenaline. Not with Ash. He was trembling in her arms, almost undone by being this close to her. Steele was inside her, a part of her. His skin

tingled, his stomach fluttered. Steele realized he had f*cking butterflies floating around in there. He tried to last, but he couldn’t. Steele pushed himself into a devastating climax—a total blackout. With a sigh, he collapsed on top of her. He brushed kisses over her forehead, her cheeks, but when he tried to tenderly kiss her lips, she pushed him away. Steele got to his feet, and she stood. Ash wouldn’t look at him. Suddenly, the room got colder, and it wasn’t the temperature. Ash pulled up her pants while he fastened his. When she did look his way,

her eyes were calm once more, unfeeling. Like their afternoon together hadn’t meant a damn thing. “Thanks, Steele, you were right. I feel better.” He didn’t want this feeling to end. Steele wanted to spend the day with her and then the night. “Oh, uh good. We could get somethin’ to eat at Hades, or maybe drive over to—” Ash stretched her arms over her head, and he heard her back crack. “Nah, you don’t have to do this.” “Do what?” “Steele, cut it out. I’ve seen you in action for years. I know the drill.” He didn’t want to run away from a

woman and escape with his freedom intact. So help him, he wanted to crawl in bed with Ash—hold her, kiss her. He wanted to cuddle, dammit. “I think I’ll take a shower and maybe get a quick nap.” She yawned. “I didn’t sleep much last night.” Ash walked to the door and held it open expectantly, like he was the f*cking pizza man. “But—” She waved him off. “Don’t worry, I know this wasn’t a big deal. We f*cked, and we’ll forget about it.” She’d just given him a version of his very own speech. The one he used on girls to get rid of them after meaningless,

casual sex. This hadn’t been casual. No, this was serious. For the first time in his life, Steele felt something for someone he’d slept with…and it was exhilarating, humbling. Ash grabbed his jacket from the table and handed it to him, but he refused to take it. “Keep it. It’s yours.” “Fine, but you need to go.” Steele stumbled out of the room, confused and hurt. He stood there in the parking lot, completely bumfuzzled and feeling like a jackass. What the f*ck just happened to me? And then a brutal realization knifed

him. Oh, yeah…commitment was going around like a bad case of the clap. And he’d just come down with a terminal case.

Chapter Sixteen “What are you eatin’?” Ash glanced up from her plate to see Ace frowning at her cheese, hash browns, spinach, and mushroom omelet with buttered wheat toast. Last night, she hadn’t slept well, so she’d kept busy. Ash surfed the internet on her phone and caught up on email. Then she filled out some paperwork for Cole. But none of the busywork had kept her mind off Steele. Sleeping with him had been a tactical mistake, one she’d pay for until this job ended. That’s when she realized Ace wanted a reply. “Food.” Ash was

drowning her troubles in tasty fats and carbs. Sure, the meal was healthy-ish, but not up to her usual stringent standards. When she’d walked into Hades, Voodoo had carried in a crate of fresh vegetables, and the spinach had looked healthy and green. Before she knew it, he’d whipped up an omelet, and she was a goner after she’d had the first bite. “Yeah, but its real food. Not twigs and berries or whatever the crap you eat.” He slipped into the other side of the booth without being asked. “I eat healthy food. You eat crap.” Ash pointed to the donut in his hand. “Do you know how many calories are in a glazed donut?”

“The question is, do I care?” Ace took a big bite and mumbled around it, bits of pastry flying everywhere, “And the answer’s hell no.” “Charming. Go annoy someone else.” Hades was full of both bikers and townies—but no sign of Steele. She wouldn’t have come in otherwise. She wanted to wolf down her food before he made an appearance and polite conversation took too much time. Ace washed down his breakfast with a swig of coffee. “What’s wrong with you? Something’s different.” She didn’t look up, but she could feel him scanning her face.

“You boned Steele, didn’t you?” He’d spoken so loud, the ambient sounds of the diner stopped—the murmur of conversation, clinking glasses, the scrape of the silverware—everything screeched to a halt. Ash pasted on a cheery smile. Nothin’ to see here, folks. They continued gawking. “Shut your face,” she hissed, then scowled at the nosy patrons until they turned away. He placed his elbows on the table and scooched forward in the seat. “Oh, yeah, you boned him alright. You boned him real good.” “I did not.”

“Did too.” She pounded a fist on the table. “Talk about somethin’ else.” “Nope.” He placed his arms behind his head and waggled his eyebrows. “Come on, don’t leave me hangin’. Give me the deets.” “Why? You got money ridin’ on it too?” “Oh, you heard that bit, huh?” “Yeah.” “It’s a club thing.” He didn’t seem the least bit embarrassed. “Tell me about the bonin’.” Involuntarily, her legs jerked to the left, ready to bolt. “I don’t gotta bone. I’m boneless.”

“And apparently spineless.” People didn’t accuse her of cowardice. Ash picked up her fork, flipping a piece of egg in the process. “You wanna be skinless?” “You wanna fork me?” He snickered. “Enough with the innuendo. It’s none of your damn business.” They eyed one another. After a moment, Ace nodded. “No, I suppose it ain’t, but I figured you’d wanna talk about it. I’m the closest thing to a friend you got right now.” Actually, Ace was the closest thing she’d had to a friend in years. Her job didn’t allow for a personal life. Her

friendships had fizzled out over the years, but she couldn’t confide in him. His loyalties were mixed. But she was sorely tempted. “I’m fine.” “Yeah, you seem real fine.” His eyes widened. Then Steele strolled through the door. Ash cringed, wishing she could slink away unnoticed, but he saw her. The next thing she knew, he was leaning over her table, eyeing Ace. “Do you mind?” “Hell yeah, I mind. It’ll be harder to eavesdrop from another table.” But Steele’s don’t-f*ck-with-me

expression convinced Ace to scoot out of the booth. Ash watched Ace stroll away longingly. Steele slipped into the booth. “What the f*ck was that last night?” When she’d thrown him out after sex, she’d assumed they’d skipped the obligatory discussion afterward. Apparently, she’d only postponed the “morning after” talk. She folded her arms across her chest and went mute. “Ash, we need to talk.” “No, we don’t. We only scratched an itch last night.” Ash jabbed at her omelet. It’d cooled down and congealed

on the plate. “You mean that’s all it was to you.” If she didn’t know any better, she’d say she’d hurt his feelings. But it couldn’t be—Steele got his rocks off and then moved on. She’d watched it happen to girl after girl in high school. Sometimes he went back for seconds or thirds, but sex was nothing more than a biological need for him. Like food or water or the slu*tty air he breathed. And she wouldn’t be reeled in only to get hurt. “Were you expecting more?” “Yeah, I thought….” Steele swallowed hard. “You thought I still had feelin’s for

you.” Ash did, but fool me once. Besides, that emotion was left over from her teen crush, so it didn’t mean a damn thing…to either of them. Steele slipped his hands into his pockets, and she could hear the thunk of his foot against her booth. Then crickets. “And what about you? You got feelin’s for me? Are you even capable?” “Of course I feel.” She waited for him to explain, but he sat there doing a real good bump on a log impression. Ash changed the subject. “Since we’re bein’ all open and honest. There’s

somethin’ I’ve been wantin’ to know for years.” “What?” “Why did you choose your relationship with Abe over me back then? Because you only wanted to f*ck me?” “No…I….” Steele pushed a hand through his hair. “Because I needed you both. I didn’t have anyone, not really. My mom worked her ass off keepin’ a roof over my head and food in my belly. I hardly ever saw her. When she wasn’t workin’, she was so exhausted she slept most of the time. I was alone.” “Until you became friends with Abe.”

He nodded. “And then I had a family. Your parents came to my games. Abe was like a brother.” “And he was afraid you would use me and toss me away.” Steele rubbed the back of his neck. “Can’t say as I blame him. I was an asshole—still am when it comes to women. He was lookin’ out for you.” “You love ’em and leave ’em….” Ash bit her lip. “And you would’ve left me too.” He placed a hand over his mouth, as if trying to shove the words back in. Steele dropped the hand to his heart, and his eyes were suspiciously shiny. “Ash, you deserved better than me. You still do. You should marry a man with a

career and a good home. Someone who’s settled and successful…and on the right side of the law.” Ash lifted her chin. “Do you think money matters to me?” If she’d wanted to marry well, she would’ve dated one of those Brooks boys in town with the rich, oil baron father. His wavering smile tore her up. “Take it from someone who grew up without any, it does.” She felt a pang for the poor kid he’d been. He was right, Ash didn’t know what it was like to go without. “I’m not the marryin’ sort.” Steele sat up straighter in his seat. “What’s done is done. We can’t change

what happened. Have dinner with me tonight.” Ash blinked, thrown by the topic change. “Like a date?” He shook his head. “Not like a date, an actual date.” “Why?” “Why not?” She bit the inside of her cheek. “What’s the point? It’s not goin’ anywhere.” “You’ll see.” “Okay, let’s try another question. Where?” Steele gestured to the room. “Hades is the only game in town. Meet you here at seven?”

She hesitated. “Come on. Don’t say no.” Ash got to her feet. “Fine, see you later tonight.” Ash walked out before she agreed to anything else. *** Steele was nervous. He waited on the sidewalk in front of Hades. He hadn’t been on an honest to God date in…well, never. Drinks with a woman at a bar didn’t count. He couldn’t recall being this stirred up since he’d gone over to the Calhoun house as a teen, and he’d worked himself into a tizzy every damn time.

Earlier, Steele had showered, shaved, and slapped on some citrusscented aftershave. He’d even dressed up a bit—denim shirt, a newer pair of jeans, and the boots Cowboy had given him for Christmas. Instead of his cut, he wore a black Carhartt jacket. And then he saw Ash, striding toward him with swaying hips. f*ck me, she’s in a dress. Ash wore a black lace number showing a teasing amount of cleavage. She wore matching heels too. When she got closer, he admired the red nails and lips. And she’d worn his jacket. His name and old jersey number were on the back. It was as close as he’d get to putting his name on her.

She looked him up and down. “You clean up real good.” “So do you.” He should’ve done this years ago, Abe’s objections be damned. “Oh, this? Fifteen-ninety-five on clearance.” Ash smoothed the dress, running her fingertips over her hips. “Walmart carries both ammo and dresses.” “Ain’t that convenient? Let me escort you to the table.” Steele offered her an arm. “I called in a favor, and Voodoo made us somethin’ special for tonight.” With a smile, Ash took it and he walked her inside. It was a promising beginning to his first real date.

Voodoo had made them grilled salmon with roasted asparagus, which was healthy enough to please her without making Steele gag on chick food. Throughout the meal, they made pleasant conversation, mostly talking about their shared past—old friends and warm school memories. It went way more smoothly than Steele had thought it would. He held his breath when Voodoo returned with dessert—chocolate mousse, her favorite. His brother served the mousse in chilled parfait glasses with whipped cream and chocolate shavings on top. Voo set the glasses down on the table with a flourish. “Chocolate

mousse, my grandmere’s recipe. It’s good juju, so I made enough for the whole diner. Bon appétit." Steele glanced around the room, and sure enough, everyone had glasses of the rich dessert. Justice and Ace poked at theirs with spoons, as if they expected the dessert to bite them. “This looks amazing.” Ash dipped a fingertip into the cloud of whipped cream and licked it clean. She beamed at Voo. “Thank you.” Steele imagined her licking other things. He shifted in the seat, trying to get himself under control. Voo cast him a knowing look, but Ash was too busy admiring the chef’s artistry to notice.

“Yeah, thanks, brother. Now go away.” Steele shooed him off with one hand. Tossing a towel over his shoulder, Voo sauntered away like a king in his own castle. Ash smiled. “I can’t believe you remembered.” “How could I forget?” Their graduation night had been burned into his memory. He’d known an era was coming to a close, so he’d drank in every sight, every sound. And he didn’t mean leaving high school and starting his adult life. Steele knew Ash would no longer be a fixture of his life. Sure enough, they’d only seen each other

a few times afterward. Not to mention watching her enjoy the decadent dessert had been erotic as hell—the cream on the corner of her mouth, the way she’d closed her eyes as she savored the dark chocolate on her tongue, how she’d held his gaze as she licked the back of the spoon. Damnation, he was already hard. Steele dragged his coat over his lap. She raised a curious brow. “Cold,” he muttered. “You’d better dig in. Voo takes juju seriously. If you don’t eat some, he might slit your throat with a butter knife.” Steele was only half joking. He took a spoonful of the mousse and glanced over at Voo, who watched them from the counter.

His brother nodded and then turned to another patron. Ash savored her dessert while Steele watched with a white-knuckled grip on the edge of the table. When she finished hers and lapped at the spoon, Steele pushed his own glass forward. “You’re sure you don’t want it?” Steele nodded. “Why?” He crooked a finger as he leaned forward, and she met him in the middle. His gaze dropped to her mouth. “Why do you think?” “Ohhhh.” With a wicked grin, Steele leaned back in his seat and watched.

Ash slowly finished the mousse, taking her sweet time with it just to torture his sorry ass. And f*ck if it wasn’t hotter than any p*rn flick he’d seen. After he paid the bill, they stood outside together, shivering in the cold. There was an awkward silence between them. Usually, he was much smoother about these sorts of things. Ash wrapped her arms around herself. “Well, uh, thank you for dinner. It was fun.” She hooked a thumb at the sidewalk. “I should head back to the hotel.” “Come home with me.” He blurted the words out—no seduction, no bullsh*t, just honest to God need.

She looked away. “We shouldn’t.” “So that’s it? We find Coyote or… we don’t…and then go our separate ways?” Ash squeezed his arm. “Steele, we’re gonna find him. And as for separate ways, that was always the plan.” Steele hooked a finger in her jacket pocket and towed her closer. “It doesn’t have to be. Your job ain’t good for you. You don’t gotta home or friends. All you’ve got is the work.” His own life left felt empty at times, but at least he had the brotherhood. “Believe me, I know.” “Then why go back to it? You

could…” Steele had to force the words out. “You could stay here.” Ash looked up sharply. “With me.” “Steele…” “Come on, Dusty. No matter how many drug kingpins you catch, it won’t bring Abe back.” “You think I don’t know that?” Steele pulled her into his embrace, but she pressed her arms between them, pushing at his chest—not letting him in. “This job is killin’ you.” Her eyes were shiny. While she didn’t agree with the comment, she didn’t try to convince him otherwise either. “And what would I do here?

Become a biker?” Steele grinned. “No chicks in the club. But there’s plenty of bounty hunter work in Texas. I work it in as a side hustle sometimes. You’d be damn good at it too. And you could live here in Hell, put down some roots, get to know people. Maybe make some friends.” “Like Ace.” “No, not like Ace. f*ck Ace. You could make female friends…with lady parts.” “I think Daisy’s off the list. She hates my ass.” Ash chuckled, but it was raspy and hurting. “And what about you and me?” Steele swallowed the lump in his

throat. He’d been thinking about this the whole day. “I shoulda done this years ago, and God knows I don’t know how to be in a relationship with a woman, but I wanna try. We could give it a shot.” Ash gaped at him. They stood still for moment, holding on to one another, but then she pushed him away. “No, I’m not gonna do this to myself.” She shook her head. “Why not?” “Because…men leave. They die, they disappoint. Why would I set myself up for more hurt?” “It doesn’t have to be like that.” She huffed a breath. “Of course it does.”

“You don’t trust me.” He deserved her wariness. Steele was the one who’d shaken her faith in men, after all. Ash placed her hands on her hips. “Any particular reason I should give you the benefit of the doubt?” Steele couldn’t think of one, but he still wanted a second chance. “We bring out the worst in each other, Steele. And we’ve got too much bad blood. Face it, we don’t have a shot in hell.” Steele didn’t believe it for a second. “So…what? Love is supposed to be perfect?” “I guess. Not like I’ve ever been in love.”

Every time he’d thought about her over the years, it’d ripped him up inside. He wasn’t about to let her go without a fight. “You were in love with me until I f*cked it up. Love isn’t perfect. It’s painful, burning need. I want you so bad I can’t think about anything or anyone else.” “That’s lust.” “It’s more. I was more scared of you dyin’ than you were. And I’m willin’ to take a chance on us. Are you?” Shaking her head, Ash backed up the street. Ah, hell, I’m losing her. Too much, too fast. She stepped further away.

“Why not?” She planted her legs wide, and her hands fisted at her sides. “I told you. Because you put yourself first—with me, my brother, and with your friend, Coyote. You always have, and you always will.” And there it was. Steele couldn’t deny it. He had a terrible track record. But he wasn’t too proud to settle for whatever she was willing to share of herself. If he could only have her body, then so be it. “Then come with me. I want you in my bed tonight. If that’s all there is between us…if that’s all I get.” “No.” She stepped further away.

He followed her, trying to keep her from slipping through his fingers again. “Spend the night with me. I wanna hold you and touch you.” Ash pressed a hand to her mouth. “I need to make love to you in a bed. I wanna wake up beside you.” Steele could read the agony and indecision on her face. She stood there, utterly speechless. “Come on, Ash.” She at least had to give him this much. If he got her into his bed, maybe he could persuade her to give him everything. They gazed at one another, tears glittering but unshed in their eyes. “We’re makin’ it worse. It’ll only

hurt more when we’re done.” Steele scooped her up into his arms and took her to his bike before she could change her mind. “Then I say bring on the pain.”

Chapter Seventeen Ash wasn’t sure how they’d gotten back to Steele’s place. Everything happened in a big blur. She hadn’t felt the wind in her hair or the heat from the motorcycle. Had no memory of the ride whatsoever. But somehow, they were in Steele’s bedroom, hands ripping at clothing, mouths merged together. They tumbled down onto the bed. The room was dark, thick with shadows, and a wail broke the silence. Ash realized it’d come from her. Steele was on top of her, and she wrapped her legs around his waist. So good, so right. This is what she needed, an

org*sm. Oblivion. He slid his hands down her body, followed by his mouth—kissing her neck, her breasts. Then her lips. Sinking fingers into his hair, she tugged. Every time Ash touched him, she lit up, flared to life. Burned. They never went slow and gentle. Maybe sweet and romantic just wasn’t them. She ached all over like a fever wracked her body. No, they hurt, they ached for one another. And every touch made it worse—cranked up the heat until she was roasting. Reaching between their bodies, she wrapped her hand around his thick co*ck. She stroked him roughly, tugging, urging him on. “f*ck me.” Spreading her legs

wide, she seized his hips, goading him. Ash needed Steele to enter her. He pinned her arms over her head. “Let me in.” “I am.” Ash lifted her hips, trying to get him to enter her. “I want you inside me.” He shook his head. “No, not your body.” His hands slid down her wrists, her arms, until he cupped her face. “Let me in, Ash.” His eyes were wide and bright, beseeching. And suddenly, she couldn’t bear it. She tried to shake her head, break his hold, but he wouldn’t let her. “Ash? What’s wrong?”

Tears made her vision blurry, and they ran down either side of her face, dripping onto the coverlet beneath him. Damn him for making her feel. “No. Did I hurt you?” Steele lifted himself off her, scanning her body for injuries. “No, but…yes.” Neither of them spoke or moved for several minutes. Steele blew out an agonized breath as he reached down and adjusted himself. “Bad as I hate to, we’re gonna sleep together, but we won’t…sleep together. Sex is off the table for tonight, even if it’s our last night together.” Her eyes widened. Surely, he

couldn’t be serious. “Yeah, there’s a first time for everythin’.” Steele lifted the covers so they could both shimmy beneath them, and then he curled up beside her, resting his head on the pillow. “Steele, come on. Let’s just—” “I’m not a casual lay. Talk to me, Dusty.” She mimicked the movement, and they faced one another like bookends. “I’m a mess.” He chuckled. “Yeah, we got that in common.” Ash brushed the tears away. She didn’t have the energy to keep the walls up tonight. “I don’t want….” She gulped

down a breath. “f*ck it, I’m just gonna say it…I don’t wanna be alone anymore.” His face lit up. “Yeah? Well, you don’t have to be, Dusty. Let me in, and you’ll never be alone again.” She didn’t believe him, not really. His hands shook as he reached for her. Steele stroked the underside of her chin with a thumb, and they moved their heads together. She turned her body further into his, twining their legs together. “I don’t know how to be with someone.” “Me neither, but I’d love the chance to try.” He placed his hand on her chest.

“I wanna be there.” Steele smiled. “If you were mine, this is where I’d tattoo my name, right above your heart. I thought I wanted it somewhere more… lusty, but I was wrong.” “Is that some kind of macho biker tradition like those damn panties?” His features sobered. “It’s a promise—more permanent than a wedding ring and twice as serious. When a biker chooses an old lady, it’s for life.” She placed her hand over his. Together, they felt her heart thudding in her chest. He looked into her eyes, and somehow, she couldn’t glance away. “I want you to think about us. Don’t give

me an answer tonight, mull it over.” All she had to do was say the words, and her life would change. Steele would be her boyfriend. Vengeance wouldn’t be the only thing she cared about. What if she let Steele in, really let him in, and then he left her alone? What if he died on one of his dangerous biker missions? What if he screwed around on her and broke her heart? No, she couldn’t take the chance. When the scrutiny got to her, she made a joke. “You know, the spot’s also right above my breast.” Steele glanced down as if to check. He grinned. “I won’t lie, though. My first

choice wasn’t your heart. It was right above your….” He waggled his eyebrows as his gaze slid just below her hips. Oh, thank God. He’d broken the tension. Ash giggled and grabbed a pillow. She slapped him with it as he bellowed. Steele snatched it from her and attacked. Screeching, she tried to wriggle away, but he caught her. They didn’t stop until they were breathing hard and laughing like children. It was the most fun she’d ever had in bed—probably because she hadn’t had sex with Steele in a bed. Yet. No, I’ll never have sex with Steele in a bed.

The thought made her unspeakably sad, but she didn’t say anything. Ash clung to him, let herself be held in his strong arms, let go…just a little bit. *** The next morning, Steele woke to find Ash standing beside his bed. She’d put the black lacy dress back on, and her face was solemn. She was so close, he could feel the heat of her body, but somehow she’d never been further away. “How long you been standin’ there?” After casting a look at the door, she stepped back. “I didn’t wanna leave without saying good-bye.” She sighed.

“Steele, I can’t….” “You mean won’t. You won’t let me in.” “Fine. I won’t let you in.” Steele sat up in bed. “I know I got a couple strikes against me, but I think I’m a ’til-death-do-us-part sort of man when it comes to you. And I got no plans on dyin’ anytime soon.” He splayed his hands. “Give me a chance. Give us a chance.” “You can’t make that promise. People die every single day. They die and leave you broken. And I don’t wanna talk about this anymore, Steele.” He knew when he was beat. He couldn’t make her want him, force her

into fighting for them. If she wanted to run away, he had to step back and let her. Steele suddenly realized just how scared she was. Ironic. One of the bravest women he’d ever known was too afraid to fall in love. So he watched her, drank her in. This would be the first and last time he’d see her rumpled from sleeping in his bed. “We've got to end it, Steele.” “If you say so.” “Don’t make this any harder than it has to be.” Ash retreated further away, moving closer to the exit. “Tonight, we’re gonna kick some Raptor ass, and we’ll save your friend. And then I’m headed to my next assignment.”

“You really think he’s still alive?” Steele had doubts. “I do.” Her eyes were wide and fierce. And he loved her a little bit more for believing it. If he had any pride at all, he’d tell her to go, to not let the door hit her on the ass as she walked out. But he was a desperate man faced with an impossible situation. “Kiss me good-bye.” It was a demand. He stood, not even bothering to hide his nudity—letting her see exactly what she was giving up. “Just a kiss?” “Yeah. Make it a good one, because the memory has to last the rest of our

lives.” Steele bent down to taste her lips, but she placed a hand on his chest. “After this, we're old friends and partners. Nothing more.” “Understood.” Steele snatched her up into his embrace, big screen-style—literally sweeping her off her feet. He tipped her backward, cradling her head, and really kissed her. He poured all of his longing into it, along with the pain and frustration. He pressed himself against Ash, savoring her scent, her taste, greedily taking all she would give him. When they were both breathless and gasping, he released her and set Ash on her own two feet once more.

She pressed a hand to her swollen lips and shuffled to the door. “Steele?” “Yeah?” “About Afghanistan….” He stiffened. “No, hear me out. What you did was stupid and selfish. You didn’t think about the possible consequences.” Steele hung his head. “I know.” “But it ain’t unforgivable. I should’ve done this a long time ago, but I couldn’t let it go.” Afraid to hope, Steele looked up. The kindness in her eyes nearly brought him to his knees. Ash hadn’t

given him such a tender look in years. “You didn't know what was gonna happen. How could you? You certainly weren’t the one who killed…well…uh, what I’m trying to say is, I forgive you.” She gave him a wobbly smile. “What did you just say?” He couldn’t have heard her right. “I forgive you.” Ash stepped out his door and into his past, where she would remain—a memory, the one who got away. Steele collapsed onto the bed and wept.

Chapter Eighteen “We don’t have much time, so let’s get started.” Hours later, Ash listened as Vick launched into her spiel about the GPS system. At sundown, Ash met up with Justice, Ace, and Steele at Dixon’s place in Crimson Creek. Ace had texted her with the information earlier in the day. He’d even offered a ride in his van, but she’d decided avoiding the Horsem*n as much as possible was a wise idea. Steele and his two brothers stood on one side of the room while Ten and Beauregard took the other, which left

Ash smack dab in the middle. The vibe in the room was awkward to say the least. The mafia boys and the bikers got on as well as cats and dogs. The tension between her and Steele only ramped it up a notch. Steele refused to look at her while Ace kept giving her the enquiring eyebrow. She kept telling herself she was doing the right thing. She didn’t have a future with Steele, and she had to move on. So she’d spent the day by herself, packing her sh*t and preparing to leave Hell for good. Meanwhile, Ash struggled to pay attention to Vick. Her time with Steele was winding down, and in a few hours, she’d be walking out of his life. The

urge to stare at him was overwhelming, but she kept it together. She felt edgy, uneasy—and she feared it was only going to get worse. Instead of being emo about this operation, she should be excited—Ash had a shot at dealing a blow to the Tres Erre. When she handed over her prisoners, she’d get a big check and then move on to her next assignment. With any luck, the next one wouldn’t come with a side of emotional baggage. “Okay, I’ve got an app you’ll have to download on your smartphones so you can track the credit card skimmers.” Vick texted it to all of them. Ash downloaded hers, and three beeping dots appeared on her screen,

overtop of a map. Vick continued explaining the operation. “Justice found three skimmers, and we tagged all of them. Anyone not seeing three units?” No one spoke up. “Dix and I talked it over, and we think three teams would be best—one for each skimmer. There’s no guarantee the Raptors will be heading to the same location. If the Raptors are smart, they’ll split up and take convoluted routes back to their hideout—or hideouts.” Ace cackled. “Since when are those boys smart?” “Since the day after never, but we should be prepared. Every once in a

while, a blind hog finds an acorn.” Beauregard glanced up from his phone. “I see you’ve labeled each tracker with numbers.” He pointed to Ash. “You’re with me, and we’ll take number one.” “f*ck that.” Steele stepped to the middle of the room, but he still didn’t glance in her direction. Instead, he focused on the mobster. “You’re comin’ with one of us.” “In case you missed it, we’ll be sittin’ in the car for hours until the Raptors decide to roll up and claim their ill-gotten gains. If I gotta be trapped all damn day, I need somethin’ pretty to look at, and sorry, son, but you ain’t my type.” Ace raised a hand. “For the record, I’m damn pretty.”

Ash knew Ace was trying to diffuse the tension. Unfortunately, it wasn’t working. Steele and Beauregard continued having a stare-off, like two old dogs fighting over a bone. Dix and Vick didn’t say a word, just watched the interaction with interest. Ten didn’t get involved either. “It’s fine. I don’t care.” Ash placed a hand on Steele’s arm, and he flinched as if he’d been struck. Beauregard watched the interplay with a devilish smile. “What do we have here?” Steele crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m not lettin’ you run off with the godfather.” “I resent that comment. I’m sexy as

hell, and I don’t talk like I have marbles stuffed in my cheeks.” Beauregard rubbed his perfectly square jaw. Ash gritted her teeth. “Okay, I’ve had enough macho bullsh*t. You don’t let me do anythin’, Steele. I’m an adult, and I make my own decisions. Beauregard, we’re takin’ my car.” Her gaze flicked to the mobster. “And I’m drivin’.” Steele turned away from her, and she silently kicked herself for hurting him again. This was only more proof they needed to get away from each other. They’d done enough damage to last several lifetimes. Steele got in the mobster’s face again. “If anything happens to her, I’ll —”

“Make threats you have no ability to back up?” The biker didn’t reply, but his dirty look said it all. “I’ll be in the car while you finish the lover’s quarrel.” Beauregard swaggered out the door. “I’ll take number two…and don’t that sound wrong?” Ace crossed the room to Ten, who had a disturbingly passive expression. Ash wondered if he’d ever had an emotion before. “I don’t let men on the bike, but I have an ass, grass, or gas rule for my cage.” “I’ve been told I’m a good lover.” Ten’s features were smooth and unruffled. There wasn’t a hint of a smirk or a leer.

It might’ve been a joke, but Ash couldn’t tell. From the wide eyes on Ace, he couldn’t either. “No thanks, man, and the gas is on me.” Ace traipsed to the door. Ten followed him. Justice cleared his throat. “I’ll be in the pickup outside, Steele.” He left the room and Vick went with him, prattling on about the GPS. Ash didn’t pay much attention. She was suddenly very aware of her proximity to Steele. She shot a look over his shoulder to see Dixon on the phone, yakking at someone. “Be careful.” Steele grasped her arm, squeezing it. “Take it from me, you

can’t trust the bastard.” Ash fought to keep her eyes from closing. “I know.” Ash had gotten Beauregard’s number the first time she clapped eyes on him. “Promise me somethin’?” “What?” “You won’t do anythin’ stupid.” Ash stared at the ground. “You know me….” “Yeah, that’s why I brought it up.” He clutched her shoulders. “I mean it. Watch yourself.” “I’ll be fine. Focus on gettin’ Coyote back.” “Speakin’ of,” Steele said,

releasing her. He thumbed a message on his phone. “I’m sendin’ you a picture… so you know what Yo looks like.” Ash shook her head. “Coyote can tell me who he is when I meet him. We aren’t gonna find his body, Steele. I won’t need to identify him.” He pulled at his earlobe. “Just in case.” “Okay.” Then they stood, staring at one another awkwardly until Ash turned and stalked away—before she did something stupid like hug him. She jumped into the Forrester outside and took off with Beauregard in the passenger seat. And forced herself to not look

back. *** “This is it.” The third GPS blip led Steele and Justice to the remains of a yuppie subdivision two counties over. Wakefield had been hit hard by the housing crises, and many of the homes had been foreclosed on. The years showed on the aging buildings and cracked streets— just the sort of place to be overlooked. A large house crouched at the end of a cul-de-sac, set back at least a mile on a large tract of land—the perfect hiding spot. The street was quiet,

lined with sparse, dry trees and long fences. Justice tapped his phone. “We’re right on top of it, brother.” When Steele pulled up, he noted all the blinds and curtains were closed— another good sign. No eyes in or out. If Coyote were here, he’d be checking network signals or some such sh*t—laughing about the f*cked-up irony of hiding a place like this amongst middle class suburbia and making some sci-fi reference Steel didn’t grasp. After poking around, Steele found a half-dozen motorcycles concealed beneath the back deck. He couldn’t tell if the sick feeling in his gut was from wishing his friend was in the house or

praying to whatever God would listen to him that he wasn’t. Justice took point as they rounded the house and lined up with the back door. They met each other’s eyes, guns and flashlights at the ready. They didn’t have to say it. For Yo. With Justice at his side, Steele exploded through the front door. They flipped the switch on the wall by the door, but the lights didn’t flicker on. Flashlight and gun in hand, Steele marched into the living room…and nearly slid on something wet and thick beneath his feet. Blood.

He raised the flashlight to reveal pools of it on the floor. Suddenly, the metallic odor washed over him, along with other smells—urine, loose bowels, and the acrid trace of gunpowder. He made out the slumped forms of at least a dozen bodies. The murders had been recent. Because the power, along with the heat, had evidently been shut down to the foreclosed home, Steele could feel the warmth of the blood radiating off the floorboards, steaming the air. No, please, no. Once again, he was too late to save his friend. Steele’s vision blurred, and he gritted his teeth. The sour tang of vomit rose in his throat, and he swallowed it back down. He forced

himself to pull it together, put away the pain to deal with later. The cartel had come calling. Steele stood on the edge of a massacre, and whatever had gone down here was over. Raptors, some of them identified by their cuts, lay slumped on the ground. Their bodies were pierced by gaping wounds. Someone had shot the place up real good—the room had been peppered with automatic fire, judging by the holes in the floor and walls. Discarded on the bloody floor, Steele found the credit card skimmer. Steele texted the information to Axel and then to Ash. Ash texted back, saying she and Beauregard would be there momentarily.

“We need to see if Coyote’s here,” Steele said matter-of-factly, but he couldn’t bring himself to face Justice. He couldn’t bear seeing the sympathy he knew he’d find in his brother’s eyes. Steele didn’t deserve it. Instead, he focused on the task and ignored everything else. The blood and gore made it impossible to tell if Coyote was among the dead from a distance. He’d have to walk around and take a good long look at all their faces. In Afghanistan, he’d stored too many horrific images in his memory bank. At night, they flicked through his mind’s eye on a loop. He didn’t need to add to his collection, but he had to do this. Steele slowly walked around the

room, starting with the perimeter and moving inward. He held his breath every time he came to a new corpse. Please don’t be Coyote. He hoped the words would somehow protect his brother. Many of the Raptors were on their stomachs, so Steele had to toe them over to see their faces. Steele glanced at a corpse’s arm, noting all his fingers had been removed. He nearly gagged when he turned the guy and saw the digits tucked in the guy’s gaping mouth in a grisly display. Evidence of torture marred nearly every body. The cartel must’ve been after information. Another body had long, stringy peels of skin hanging from the bare

chest. Again, he swallowed the gorge rising in his throat. He wouldn’t be eating Voo’s spaghetti with homemade marina anytime soon. Steele pressed a hand to his own chest wound, remembering the grinning, bearded bastard kneeling over him, slicing at his flesh. Karma is cruel bitch. He wasn’t squeamish, and he’d pulled the trigger before. Killing didn’t bother him, especially when he did it in service to a larger goal like taking down terrorists—but torture freaked him the f*ck out. Shoot someone in the head who’d earned a real good killing. Hell yeah. Remove some dude’s molars with pliers? f*ck no.

It took a real sad*stic son of a bitch to do this kind of damage. Someone who got off on pain and suffering. Steele scrutinized the nearby faces, studying the expressions forever frozen in fear. Was he actually starting to pity the bastards? He shook it off. They’d brought this on themselves and their club. He wouldn’t go so far as to say the Raptors deserved this, but they’d willingly gotten into bed with psychopaths. Dying bloody came with the territory. Finally, Steele checked the remaining bodies in the center of the room. Only two left. He checked the second to the last and recognized Junior from Daisy’s description—barrel-

chested with a ragged, graying beard and long rusty red hair. At least he could tell her the bastard who’d tried to rape her was dead. The devil had given Junior his due. Down to the last body—a man with long black hair lying face down. He didn’t wear a cut, and he had a lithe frame—a dead ringer for Coyote. He bent over and gently grasped the man’s arm, turning him over slowly. So slowly. Please don’t be Coyote.

Chapter Nineteen Steele gasped as the corpse’s unfamiliar features came into view. Not Coyote. Thank you, God. He’s not here. He pressed his palms against his eyes and blew out a long breath. His knees nearly buckled. Tears ran down his cheeks, and he didn’t even bother trying to hide it. Maybe Coyote hadn’t been here in the first place. The Raptors could have stashed him in another house. Who the f*ck knew? Steele still had hope of finding Coyote alive. After the panic subsided, he realized Justice hadn’t said a thing in

ages. “You okay, brother?” Steele shined the light in Justice’s direction. His brother stood just inside the door, like his feet had rooted to the floorboard. His back was pressed against the wall, face ashen. “Brother?” Steele slowly made his way across the room, picking through the carnage to get to him. “Answer me.” Justice didn’t make eye contact. Instead, his gaze darted around the room. Steele recognized the wild-eyed look instantly. He’d seen it on the faces of his brothers in arms after Abe had been gutted and strung up like a six-point buck. And Steele had seen it on his own haunted face in the mirror.

“Justice, look at me,” Steele said softly. “I need your head in the game. We haven’t finished our mission.” “I shouldn’t…I shouldn’t be here.” Justice edged toward the door but slipped in the blood and fell to his knees. He braced himself on his arms and then his bloody hands, staring at his own fingers as if they’d become foreign objects. “Blood’s hot,” he muttered. “Scorching me.” “Easy now. Let’s get you cleaned up, brother.” “Blood don’t wash out. It soaks into your skin, sinks in there and sets up.” Arms raised, Steele continued his

approach, trying not to spook Justice further. His brother scrambled for the door, slipping and sliding as he hauled ass the hell out of there. Steele couldn’t run after him without falling in the carnage himself. Oh, f*ck. Still not making any sudden movements, Steele methodically searched the house until he found Justice seated on the second floor in what must’ve been a child’s bedroom, judging by the giraffe and lion painted on the walls. He sat in the corner, revolver in one hand and a finger on the trigger, holding it beneath his chin. Despite the chill in the air, sweat drenched his temples, running down the sides of his

washed-out face. His eyes were closed, and he muttered to himself. Oh, sh*t. “Justice, whatcha doin’?” No, I can’t do this. I can’t lose another brother. But Justice had left the f*cking building. He kept moving the barrel over his skin, almost stroking his face with the weapon, as though it comforted him. Steele knew the attraction—peace was only one bullet away. Steele crept closer, arms outstretched to indicate he hadn’t pulled his gun and wasn’t a threat. “Talk to me. Tell me what’s goin’ on.” “Get away from me.” Justice

pointed the gun at him. It wobbled in his grasp, and Steele feared his brother might accidently shoot his ass. “Don’t make me.” “Easy there.” Steele sat in the corner on the opposite side of the room, giving his brother space. A long minute passed, and Justice didn’t say a word. Steele let the silence ride while he gathered the necessary words. Ages later, Justice spoke. “I shouldn’t be here.” “Why not?” “I’m dead. I already died.” Justice stared at him hard, then put the weapon down. But he hadn’t put it away, merely

laid it on the ground in front of him. The piece was still within easy reach. “No, brother. You’re here with me, we’re both stateside. You made it out alive. You’re home, you’re safe, and you’re alive.” Justice snickered, nearly choking on his own laughter, coughing and sputtering. “You don’t get it. I don’t exist. I’m a dead man.” What the f*ck had happened to Justice? War was hell, but Steele hadn’t seen anyone this bad off before. Justice was going full-on Rain Man. Steel heard the crunch of gravel beneath tires outside, and he pulled his weapon then took a peek out the window. He recognized Ash’s Forrester.

He turned to his brother. “Justice, we’re gonna sort this out, but I need you to be calm and hold on a few more minutes for me. I don’t want you to freak out, but Ash and that bastard Beauregard are gonna walk in the front door.” Justice didn’t respond. Instead, he wrapped his arms around himself and rocked back and forth. “Mind if I take this with me?” He crouched forward, hand reaching for the gun. Either Justice didn’t hear him or didn’t care, because he kept rocking, gabbling to himself. Steele grasped the weapon, clicked the safety on, and tucked it into the pocket of his cut.

Crisis averted for the minute. Unfortunately, Justice’s mental state would have to be a problem solved another day. Right now, he had to save Coyote. As soon as Steele heard the front door squeal open, he backed out of the room and met up with Beauregard and Ash in the front room. Both of them had pulled their weapons. “The place is clear. You can holster ’em.” Ash tucked her gun away. “Number one was a bust. Nothin’ but a foreclosed house with a roomful of bodies. The prospect just made it in the front door when he was gunned down.” Then she got a whiff of the living room and

pressed two fingers beneath her nostrils. Steele didn’t blame her—the smell would gag a maggot. “Apparently, it happened here too. Is Coyote…?” Steele shook his head. He didn’t trust himself to speak—showing emotion in front of Beauregard wasn’t an option. “And what about you? Was Coyote… was he…?” “No, we checked all the bodies.” She gave him a gentle smile. “No Coyote.” But his brother wasn’t quite out of the woods yet. Steele’s phone vibrated, and sure enough, he had a text from Ace. He summarized the contents for Ash and Beauregard as he read. “Ten and Ace

found bodies too. Along with a Raptor prospect dead in a ditch a block away from the safe house. They had to have found it by searching for bikes.” He waited anxiously for the next text. “Coyote ain’t there either. The Raptors have another hideout.” They had no f*cking clue where it was. “Where the hell did they stash him?” Beauregard waltzed over to the living room to take a gander at the bodies. The mobster didn’t seem moved one way or the other by the gory scene. Although Steele supposed Beauregard had probably seen—or, more likely, caused—worse. “Gotta hand it to those cartel boys. They’re efficient. Looks like the Raptor

problem has been solved, though.” Beauregard dusted his hands off. “Did you find our missing heroin?” Steele shook his head. “Nope, but if it was here, I’m bettin’ the cartel took it with them on their way out.” “Pity. We could use a bargaining chip.” Beauregard lit up a smoke. “Now just have to worry about the cartel.” “You’re talkin’ about goin’ to war.” “No way ’round it,” Beauregard said flatly. Unfortunately, Steele didn’t see another solution either. Ash piped up. “You could make a different deal with the DEA and go into witness protection. If you testify against

the Tres Erre, you could negotiate for probation or—” Beauregard cut her off. “Or die in a hail of bullets six months from now when another cartel assassin squad shows up at our new front door? No thanks.” Steele gripped Justice’s gun. “Well, in the meantime, we’ve got another problem. Justice seems to have lost it.” “Why? Because of the Jackson Pollock-style stains in there?” Beauregard snorted. “You biker boys and your scruples.” “If you don’t have somethin’ useful to say, shut the f*ck up.” Beauregard flipped Steele off but

shut his trap. “Post-traumatic stuff?” Ash asked. Steele nodded. “I think the blood triggered him. He got some on his hands and just lost it. We’ve handled a lot of ops together, and he’s never been like this. Justice never talks about his Navy SEAL days so I don’t know what went down, but I’m guessin’ it was pretty damn bad. Hey, do you still have Etta May’s number? Justice can’t continue this operation. He needs some professional help.” Ash pulled the cell from her pocket, thumbing through the numbers. “Yeah, I got it. And I’ll get some wet wipes from the Forrester so you can clean him up.” “Thanks. Tell her you’re with the

club and drop Pretty Boy’s name. We need someone who knows what the f*ck they’re doing to stay with Justice while we figure out our next move.” “I’m assuming we’re bringing Justice to her?” She stared into the living room. “Yeah, I’m guessin’ she doesn’t have experience with mass murders.” “I’m on it.” She dialed the number and headed outside to make the call away from the smell of death. While Beauregard cooled his heels, Steele checked on Justice. His brother still huddled on the floor, but the crazy level had dipped a good 25 percent. After Ash returned with wipes and a thumbs-up to drop Justice off at Etta

May’s, Steele hustled Justice into the downstairs bathroom and cleaned him up. As he wet-wiped the blood away, Steele prayed for a miracle.

Chapter Twenty Half an hour later, Steele was distracted—his mind was swirling, trying to come up with a new angle on this situation. After they left Justice at Etta May’s place, Steele and Ace sat in the van, spit-balling solutions while Ten, Beauregard, and Ash had their own session. It was admittedly a weak-ass plan, but they were fresh out of options. His phone vibrated again. The ID came up Unknown Caller, and he flashed back to the phone call he’d gotten in Inferno. Please let it be the computer chick with a lead. Gripping the phone tight, he hit the

green button. “Hello?” “No time for greetings, Dearie. It’s Fox, and I know where Coyote is.” “He’s alive? Coyote’s okay?” Steele could hardly believe it. “Ain’t that what I just said? I had to intervene, you were makin’ a mess of things.” He pumped a fist in the air. Steele had never been so happy to hear a creepy, cascading computer-generated voice. If he ever got a chance to meet the hacker, Steele would buy her any comic book she wanted—despite the snippy tone and her tendency to leave his ass in the dark. “Who is it?” Ace leaned closer to

eavesdrop, and Steele shoved him away. The foxy chick started speaking again. “Dead people don’t message their friends, Dearie. Now pay attention. Coyote doesn’t have much time. He could only message me a couple of lines. I guess he snatched a smartphone from one of the bastards who took him during some sort of confusion.” Steele would bet money the confusion came from a cartel attack. “Why didn’t he call me directly?” It stung that Coyote didn’t trust Steele to find him. The phone line crackled. “Don’t go emo on me. We use an underground messaging app so luddites like you can’t trace us or read it. Those bird-brain guys

might not be bright, but they can check a call log.” Steele flexed his fingers and resisted the urge to cuss her out. “Text me the address and I’ll go after him.” The call dropped, and Steele held his breath until he received a big beautiful text message with an address. Ace looked over his shoulder at the phone. “What the f*ck’s goin’ on, Steele?” “I know where our brother is.” Now they just had to get to Coyote before the cartel killed him. ***

“If we were starring in a horror movie, this would be the place bodies started piling up.” Steele turned to Ace, who was frowning. “I heard that. This is The Town that Dreaded Sundown.” Ace had pulled into a run-down city forty minutes from Hell—shabby houses, rusty chain link fences, billboards sprayed with gang graffiti. It was a bit after eight in the morning and driveways were empty as they pulled by. Steele figured most folks must’ve already gone to work. “We’re at our last stand, brother.” Ace parked on the opposite side of the street from a two-story, green house. Ten, Ash, and Beauregard were half a

block behind them on the opposite side of the road so they wouldn’t attract as much attention. According to the mailbox at the corner of the lot, the house belonged to The Miller Family. With the Raptors and cartel stopping by, Steele bet the Millers were no longer among the living. Ace leaned forward in his seat to get a better view. “Two bogeys in the driveway. Dim bastards, ain’t they?” Steele was crouched on his knees on the passenger side and watched from the side window as two burly men in dark gray hoodies carried trash bag after trash bag into a moving van with tinted windows. “Yeah, I was thinkin’ the same

thing. They gotta be haulin’ heroin outside.” “Not much of a smokescreen— people don’t put trash in a car.” The van didn’t have a logo either, and the two hooded thugs were definitely not movers. Steele could tell from the large, block-lettered RR cartel symbol on their hands. The vehicle and large trees in the yard blocked the view from any nosy neighbors—great place for a blitz attack. Along the side of the driveway were tall, scrubby bushes, which would also provide some cover. Steele didn’t give a damn about keeping or selling the drugs. As far as he was concerned, the Tres Erre could take turns shoving it up each other’s asses.

But if the cartel had the heroin, then the Horsem*n had lost an important bargaining chip. “Fangs out, brother, we got company. I’ll take care of this one, and you take a run at the other one.” Ace didn’t turn back to him as he spoke so they didn’t tip off the thug headed in their direction. The other one continued loading the van. “You got yourself a deal. Do me a favor?” “Sure. What?” “Can the fighter pilot lingo.” Steele wasn’t in the mood to go on a mission with Maverick. “But you can oorah all you like?”

“Yup, just like Uncle Sam intended.” Steele grasped the door handle and waited. As the thug rounded the hood, he slammed a hand down onto it, presumably to rattle Ace—who yawned into his palm. The man flashed the gun beneath his hoodie as he approached the driver’s side door. Ace hit his attacker in the face with the car door then dragged the big thug’s ass inside while Steele surged out of the van and sprinted toward the vehicle in the driveway. Steele rushed at Hoodie footballstyle and tackled the bastard to the ground behind the van. He smashed the thug’s head against the pavement. “How

many dickhe*ds are inside?” “f*ck you.” Steele bounced Hoodie’s head off the concrete again. “Tell me how many or I’ll scramble your brains some more.” Blood burbled from his lips. “Quatro and the Bruja.” “Thanks for your cooperation.” Steele slammed the man’s skull again, and he fell to the pavement, limp. Five against four wasn’t bad odds. Plus, they still had the element of surprise— Hoodie hadn’t gotten the chance to alert his buddies inside. Sticking close to the bushes, Ace strolled up the driveway. He was followed by Beauregard, Ten, and Ash.

Everyone moved at a slow, unconcerned pace. Then they huddled behind the moving van, staring at the fallen cartel member. Ten pointed to Hoodie. “We should kill him and his partners. If we don’t, they’ll come after us. Any objections?” There was only one possible holdout. Steele glanced at Ash, who wore a gratified smile. Yeah, no objections there. “Excellent. No one’s feelin’ high and mighty today. It’ll make this easier.” Beauregard grinned. Ace pulled a thumb at his van. “Mine’s tied up in the back end.”

Ten scanned the road with the efficiency of a predator. “Can’t, the street is too exposed. We’ll take care of him at a second location—preferably outside your car.” His mouth quirked into a rickety thing much too scary to be a smile. “Upholstery’s a bitch to clean.” Beauregard looped an arm under one of Hoodie’s armpits while Ten took the other. They hauled Hoodie’s ass deep into the shadows of the garage. Steele watched as Ten pulled a silenced Beretta from his jacket pocket and pumped two bullets into the man’s skull. It made a slight popping noise, but that’s it. Steele watched the street, but no one was out rubbernecking. This was

probably a lock-your-doors, mind-yourown-business sort of community. “I’m going in first.” Steele creeped to the back door, followed by Ace and Ash. The mafia boys brought up the rear. Weapon drawn, Steele ripped open the door and rushed into the kitchen. Pop, pop, pop—suppressed shots rang out, and Steele hit the deck as automatic fire exploded into the cabinet behind him. The bastard must’ve hit the spice cabinet because a cloud of fragrant dust hit the air. Unable to help himself, Steele sneezed, but so did his opponent—a guy with long black hair pulled into a ponytail. Ponytail pulled his M4 Carbine up to get off another shot, but Steele fired

two into his chest then bum-rushed him before kicking the rifle out of his hands. Bloodied and weak, Ponytail made a grab for the weapon, but Steele finished him off with a shot to the head. Ace, Ash, Beauregard, and Ten came rushing into the groovy orange and yellow seventies kitchen. Steele grabbed the weapon and checked the chamber—it still held a few more rounds. In all likelihood, Ponytail had used this to gun down the Raptors. A door on the far end of the room slammed against the wall, and another thug with a goatee ran into the kitchen. Steele glimpsed stairs behind him. They must lead to the basem*nt. “Hey, over here,” Ace called.

When Goatee turned, Ace slammed a fist into Goatee’s throat and then shoved his ass backward down the stairs. Cursing, the man tumbled back down to the cement floor. “And that’s how we roll ‘em in the big blue yonder.” Ace spun around. Steele drifted over. A peculiar smell wafted from the musty basem*nt— rotten meat. He guessed the odor was coming from whatever was left of the Millers. Ace stepped on the top stair and shot Goatee twice in the back. “Show off.” Steele headed through the doorway at the end of the kitchen and into the living room. Weapons out, the others followed him. Steele found two more thugs—one

with a big hairy mole on his chin and the other with what looked like diamond earrings in both lobes. Behind them, Steele glimpsed Bruja. For evil incarnate, she sure was beautiful—long, dark brown hair, bronzed skin, big breasts, and a tiny waist. She couldn’t be more than twentyfive, yet she ran one of the most ruthless cartels in Mexico. “Well, if it isn’t the biker with the big mouth. I told you underestimating me could be fatal.” She had a wicked gleam in her eyes. The two thugs grabbed Coyote from the orange plaid couch in the corner of the room and used him as a human

shield. Steele gasped. He hadn’t arrived too late this time. He could still save his brother—Coyote wouldn’t die on his watch. Coyote’s left hand was bandaged with a blood-stained towel and duct tape. His wrists and his mouth had been taped shut too. He hung limply in their arms, and his eyes were half-mast— puffy dark half-moons lay beneath them. Coyote looked exhausted from the blood loss and the stress of being held captive, but he was alive. “The rest of your men are dead. It’s over.” Steele raised his weapon. “Let him go.”

“Not quite.” Bruja moved further behind her two remaining thugs. “I have another squad running around town as well.” Hairy Mole shoved his Glock beneath Coyote’s chin. And then things got hectic, happening all at once. Before he could react, Steele heard a shot go whizzing by his head. It hit Hairy Mole square between the eyes, and the man slumped to the floor, stonecold dead. Steele figured Beauregard or Ten must’ve dropped him, but he couldn’t take his eyes off Coyote to check. Earrings snatched at Coyote’s stained Avengers T-shirt, trying to tug

him closer, but a bullet pierced his skull too. As Earrings dropped to the ground, Bruja slipped an arm around Coyote’s waist and slithered behind him. “Let him go.” Steele surged forward. “I need a hostage.” She slid a knife to his throat. Steele wondered if using the blade meant she hadn’t been carrying a gun. Maybe she counted on her crew to do all the dirty work. Confirming his suspicion, Bruja edged closer to one of her fallen men and started to shimmy downward to grab a gun. “Hold it right there, honey.” Ash stepped up beside Steele and co*cked her piece. “You didn’t bring a gun? That’s

sloppy. Look at the odds you’re up against. Let Coyote go, and then—” “I’ll gut him like a fish.” To prove her point, Bruja sliced a thin red line into Coyote’s throat. His groan was muffled by the tape. “Put it down, Ash,” Steele ordered. “The bitch killed her own fiancé for money and power. She’d slice up Coyote without a second thought.” Hesitantly, Ash lowered her weapon. “Tell you what. You can take me instead. I’m bigger than Coyote, and I ain’t bleedin’ to death—I make a better hostage.” Steele crouched and placed his gun on the floor. Then he raised his arms

above his head and slowly stood. “Once we get south of the border, you can do whatever the f*ck you want with me…as long as Coyote goes free.” Ash gasped. Eyes gone wide, Coyote muttered behind his gag and shook his head. Steele ignored them both, focusing on the cartel queen instead. “We got a deal?” Bruja slapped his brother’s cheek. “I don’t know. If young Coyote here survives the trip to Mexico, he’ll be useful—computer skills, he speaks Español, and he’s so very handsome. Maybe I’ll even take him to my bed.” Coyote stiffened. He met Steele’s

gaze, and his eyes were cool and calm. Steele braced himself. Coyote slammed his head backward—head-butting Bruja. She grunted, and her hold on him loosened. Then he slammed an elbow into her breasts, and she released him. Coyote pitched forward, and Steele caught him before he hit the floor. “I got you, brother.” Bruja dashed for the door, and Ash was right on her heels. Ten ran after them. Steele looped an arm around Coyote’s waist and escorted him back to the couch, which he sank down onto gratefully. It was only then he noticed

three more dead Raptors lying facedown in the corner of the room. Beauregard stepped over two bodies and fished through a discarded trash bag until he came up with a brick of heroin. “How thoughtful. They loaded up our cargo for us.” Ignoring the mobster, Steele carefully peeled the duct tape from Coyote’s mouth while Ace sliced into the tape around his wrists. Coyote flinched as the knife pressed against his skin. No telling what horrors Yo had seen the past few days. “You okay, brother?” Steele knelt at Coyote’s feet—staring up into his bruised and beaten face. “Well, I’m a couple fingers away

from bein’ Captain Hook, but I’ll live.” Coyote held up his bandaged hand. Steele hung his head. “I’m so sorry. I should’ve been payin’ more attention. If I had, then you wouldn’t—” Coyote shook his head. “Don’t… just don’t.” Ace clasped Yo’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “It’s gonna be okay. Duke will fix you up. You’ll be back to your old self in no time.” Steele watched Coyote’s guarded features. He seriously doubted Coyote would ever be the same again.

Chapter Twenty-One “Sit down.” Ash pointed to a wingback chair in the living room. She’d caught up with Bruja outside and hauled her ass back into the living room at gunpoint. With the exception of Bruja, no one was paying her much attention. Ten stayed outside with the heroin shipment while Beauregard gathered up the remaining drugs into a trash bag. The mobsters didn’t know it yet, but Ash intended to seize it and turn it over to the DEA along with the witchy cartel lady… assuming Bruja cooperated. Steele and Ace fussed over Coyote.

And Ash still couldn’t believe Steele had offered himself up as a hostage. What if she’d been wrong about Steele all along? He’d been so brave, so selfless. No, she couldn’t think about Steele’s sacrifice right now. Ash had to keep her eyes on the prize. If Bruja cooperated with the DEA, it would be a major coup—if Ash didn’t lose it and kill the bitch. “How dare you speak me to this way?” Bruja ran palms along her faded skinny jeans and sat down in the chair. She kept her back ramrod straight and fixed Ash with a dirty look. “Shut it, or I’ll blow your head

off.” She kept imagining it splitting open like a ripened watermelon. Bruja clamped her mouth shut. “You’re used to bein’ in control, aren’t you?” Ash gestured with the gun, and it shook a bit in her grip—not from fear, but from desire. “You got two options available—come with me and tell the DEA every damn thing they wanna know about Tres Erre—and I do mean everythin’ so they can dismantle your operation piece by piece. The cartel won’t sell an ounce of drugs in the states again.” “I’ll never talk. I’m—” “I said shut up. You’re in our jurisdiction, which means you’re subject to our rules and regs. Not to mention…”

Ash kicked Hairy Mole in the back. “You’re fresh out of thugs, honey. There’s no one around to do your dirty work.” “Except for that other squad.” Ash crouched down so they were at eye level. “And I’m bettin’ you’re late checkin’ in with your crew. Cartel folks aren’t overly loyal. Y’all are killin’ each other all the time. Somethin’ tells me they’ll be headin’ for the border any minute now.” Bruja reared back. “Maybe I will speak with your DEA.” “Oh, yeah?” This had been easier than she’d thought. Kinda dissapointin’. “I can tell them how you worked

with criminals. How you broke laws to get me into custody.” Ash stood up again. “Okay. Couple things I forgot to mention…I played Let’s Make a Deal with the other criminals, and I work for the DEA, but I’m not an officer as such. We’ve been losin’ the war on drugs for decades, and the agency finally did something about it. The DEA has a new GITMO model—so you’re subject to the laws. But you don’t have our protections. Ain’t that a bitch?” Bruja tossed her head back. “You see, we’ve been handin’ you guys over to the Mexican authorities only to find out later you’d bribed or threatened your way out of charges.” “What was the other option?”

“Oh, right. To hear the other one, you’ve got to know a bit about me.” She turned her face away. “Spare me your sermons.” Ash slapped the woman hard across the face. “Eyes on me when I’m talkin’.” When Bruja looked over, Ash could see her own fiery red handprint on her cheek. A sick and twisted side of Ash had woken up, and it was hungry for vengeance. “Like I said, you need some background information. I have…had… a brother named Abe. He was murdered in Afghanistan by the Taliban. All because of the heroin poppy trade. You

know, the same kind of poison you get rich on.” She said nothing. “You don’t give a damn about my pain or misery because you’re a sociopath and the only person you care about is yourself, so I’m gonna skip ahead to the point. I never got to hunt down his murderers. As far as I know, they never got punished for their crimes.” As she spoke, Ash circled Bruja. She lost awareness of anyone else in the room. Right now, it was just her and the cartel leader. When Ash faced her again, Bruja’s lips curled into a sneer. “Do you know what that’s like?”

“No, and I don’t care. What’s this have to do with me?” “Pay attention. I’m comin’ to option two. If you don’t cooperate and tell the DEA about your operation, I’ll work out some of my issues with you. And I’ve had ten years to build this rage.” Her eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?” “Frankly, I’m hopin’ you’ll choose door number two, because I’m dyin’ to put you in the ground.” “Killing me won’t bring your brother back.” Her laughter was cold. “Of course not. Nothin’ will. Not this job or the fights I get into or…the other ways I

cope with it.” That was a stark realization. She’d taken this job to do some good in Abe’s name, but what was the cost to her and her own sanity? Her lips pulled back from her teeth. “I tire of this game. Shoot me and be done with it.” Ash sighed. “I said I wanna put you in the ground. And no, it ain’t a metaphor because that’s not what I’m gonna do.” She rounded the chair and knelt down to eye level with the woman. Across the room, Steele made a sharp sound. When Ash stood once more, he shook his head, eyes pleading with her.

Ash deliberately turned her back. Bruja swallowed, and Ash could hear the sound. “No?” It was so tempting. Ash could take out all her rage and fear on this woman. Maybe it’d heal her—take the pain away. “No. I’m gonna bury you. Alive. And I don’t feel bad about it. You leave piles of body parts around to spook the locals, but I think a cold, dark hole is worse. I had to put Abe in the ground all by himself.” Ash squatted down again. “Of course, my brother was dead, but you won’t be. You’ll be all alone slowly chokin’ to death, unable to see or hear anything.” Beauregard’s whistle broke the

tense silence. “Damn, that’s cold. You could give me a run for my money.” At Ash’s look, he stepped back. “Right, sorry to interrupt. This is your show.” Ash turned her attention back to the prisoner. “So, what’s it gonna be, a long, excruciatin’ night of suffocation, or a stint as a star witness in a federal case? I’ll give you one minute to decide.” For the first time, Bruja looked scared. *** Two hours later, Ash sped down the highway as she listened to the GPS give robotic directions. Beauregard sat next to her in the

passenger seat. The mobster’s eyes were closed, and he sat back in his seat. She knew he hadn’t fallen asleep—his body hadn’t gone slack, and his breathing wasn’t even. But she didn’t say anything. She sure as hell didn’t feel like talking. And Beauregard was still pissed that she’d turned the drugs over as evidence, but she didn’t give a damn. Ash couldn’t let the heroin be sold on the streets. The Cole agents had taken Bruja into custody for transport to a federal facility. The woman wasn’t some underling who didn’t know squat about the operation. With her knowledge, the DEA might be able to bring down the cartel. Of course, another cartel would

step into their place, but Ash tried not to think about it. Bruja’s willingness to cooperate made Ash strangely miserable. That, in turn, scared the bejeezus out of her. She’d been looking forward to torturing someone. How f*cked up was that? Beauregard cleared his throat, bringing her back to the present. Before they’d gotten on the interstate, they’d rolled through a drivethru and gotten cups of coffee for the road. She’d needed the jolt of caffeine to stay awake. It’d been a long couple of days. “Where did Ten go?” If she hadn’t

been so drowsy, she’d have noticed the other mobster hadn’t climbed back into the car with them. “Said he had somewhere else to be.” Beauregard sipped his coffee. “Where? A double homicide?” she joked and then sobered instantly. “Tell me I wasn’t his wheelman.” The words accessory to murder flashed in her mind. “You mean accessory to another murder? Because you already played wheelman for a quadruple homicide.” Sarcasm dripped from Beauregard’s words. “That was different.” But was it? “Because you considered it to be

justified?” Beauregard chuckled. “And here I thought you were different from the biker boys.” Ash ignored him and stuck with a safer subject. She couldn’t contemplate her own homicidal tendencies at the moment. “So you don’t know where he went?” “Ten ain’t much of a people person. You know the type—don’t socialize much, lives alone.” Beauregard shrugged. “It’s one of his quirks.” “Sounds like the Unabomber.” “Ain’t sayin’ you’re wrong, but he has a cat. That counts for somethin’, right?” He frowned. “Hmph, come to think of it, Ten likes cats more than people.”

Her lips twitched. “He’s a crazy cat lady.” “Crazy cat gentleman.” They both laughed and then stopped abruptly—staring at one another. “Did we just share a moment?” Beauregard drawled, draping an arm over the back of her seat. “I have a gun.” With a low whistle, he withdrew. “Only bein’ sociable. Don’t read more into it.” “No, you were testin’ my boundaries.” The mobster deliberately pushed buttons to see what would happen. “Don’t get your knickers in a twist.

I’m seein’ someone…more or less.” Ash glanced in her rearview mirror before she pulled into the passing lane. “More or less? You either are or you aren’t—just like you can’t be a bit pregnant.” Beauregard ignored her tirade. “She’s a lawyer. Her name’s Jane.” “I didn’t ask.” “But you’re curious.” Damn him, he was right. Beauregard was dating an attorney? Didn’t it violate some sort of ethical code? But Ash left it alone. Beauregard’s love life was his own damn business. The less she knew, the better off she’d be.

“You handled yourself pretty well in there.” Getting a compliment from a killer meant…well, not a damn thing in her book. Ash didn’t know what to say, so she focused on the blacktop ahead and drank her coffee. “I believe the proper response is ‘thank you.’ Unless you’d like to give me a compliment as well?” “This ain’t a buddy cop film. You and I won’t be makin’ friends, so let’s not even go there. I vote we keep our mouths shut for the duration of the trip. Deal?” “No deal. Where you off to next?” “Not sure.” Ash was anticipating a

big fat check from Cole. She should’ve been on top of the world, but she wasn’t. In fact, she was contemplating turning in her resignation. Steele had been right about her job. “If you ever decide to get out of the merc business, you could work for me.” She nearly choked on the coffee. “Do you need the Heimlich? I’m happy to oblige.” Ash coughed it out and gave an exaggerated shudder, like a shockwave had gone through her body, as she imagined Beauregard’s arms wrapped around her. “I’d rather be the circus dude who cleans up after elephants than work for you.”

“So that’s a no?” “A big honkin’ no. I stay on the right side of the law.” Beauregard tapped on the console. “As a merc, I’d say you’re smack dab in the middle between right and wrong.” She shifted in her seat. Ash had seen a scary side of herself today, one she never wanted to unleash. “It don’t take much of a push to slide on over to the darker side. Trust me, the outfit pays well enough to ignore those pesky moral dilemmas.” “You have morals and ethics?” “Everyone does. Mine are a bit more flexible than most.” “I can’t do this job anymore.” She

sighed. “It’s killin’ me.” Damn the road, something about the rhythmic motion of the drive and the tension release had loosened her tongue. “Like I said, I got an opening.” “Yeah, but you make my skin crawl.” Ash slid the car back in the far right lane and sped up. The sooner they got back to Hell, the better. “I have that effect on people.” “Besides, workin’ for you wouldn’t help my problem.” “Oh, Lord, you really are in an ethical quandary. I remember what those were like. Had some problems when I first started. But, believe me, the pain stops eventually.”

Ash wasn’t sure she wanted to know if she could kill without feeling guilt. “When?” “When you’re dead inside.” He’d said the words teasingly, but there was an edge to his voice. “Of course, I’m assumin’ you don’t gotta natural knack for the work. Way I figure it, you’re born a genuine killer—psychopaths and such —or you get used to it.” “And which are you?” This was probably the strangest discussion she’d ever had, yet it was somehow helpful. “A lot of people would say I’m the former, but they don’t know me. I managed to escape my genetic predisposition as it were, so I had to work at it.”

Woah. Confessions of a killer. “It’s not an option for me.” “Maybe you could get a job with the Horsem*n. They fancy themselves vigilantes. I don’t split those kinda hairs, but it might sit better with your moral compass.” “They don’t let girls join their club. Besides, what makes you think I wanna stick around here?” Beauregard gave an exaggerated sigh. “I read people very well, so don’t lie to me. We both know you’re in love with Steele. And it goes both ways, sweetheart.” “I’m not in love with—” “That’s a lie.”

“I don’t…love him.” Ash knew it didn’t sound the least bit convincing, but she said the words. He waved a dismissive hand. “I’m a stranger, so you don’t need to impress me with your tough-girl routine. I can see right through it.” “Why do you even care?” Ash was irritated he’d seen past all her bluster. “I don’t. I’m just passin’ the time. And I don’t believe in love. I like passion, seduction, flirtation. Love is more…volatile. But we aren’t talkin’ about me and my hang-ups, we’re talkin’ about you and yours…which is a lot more fun. So the real question is, what are you prepared to do about it?” Good question.

Too bad I don’t got any answers.

Chapter Twenty-Two “Damn it!” The next morning, Steele heard cursing and shuffling sounds emanating from Inferno’s back hallway. He’d spent a couple hours down at the shooting range and heard the ruckus when he came back into the main area. He’d gotten to work early, hoping it would distract him from Ash’s departure. When he’d driven by Hades this morning, her SUV was gone. Steele tried not to think about Ash. He just needed to hold it together for a few hours. Tonight, moonshine would ease the pain. Steele wondered if he’d ever be

able to get it up again for a hellion—it didn’t look likely. When Steele investigated the noise, he found Coyote halfway up a ladder, surrounded by a half-dozen boxes. One of them contained a sh*tload of comic books, and another was stuffed with Star Wars memorabilia. Steele wasn’t close enough to get a peek at the others. “What’s all this?” He had a sinking feeling in his gut. “I’m clearin’ the decks.” “Yeah, I can see that. Why?” Yo turned his way. His face was swollen and bruised, and his hand was swathed in bandages. Steele had heard other veterans talk about phantom limb

pain from missing arms and legs. He wondered if Coyote still felt like his fingers were attached. Coyote took another step up then gripped the edge of a poster frame with his good hand. He ripped it off the wall, and it slipped through his fingers and fell to the floor with a smash of glass. Everyone had ways of coping, and this seemed to be Coyote’s. “Why aren’t you home restin’ up?” “Don’t need rest. Duke gave me pain meds and antibiotics before he stitched up my stumps.” Coyote thrust his hand out, and while he’d wiggled the last two beneath the bandage, Steele got the impression he’d just been flipped the middle finger.

“Why don’t you leave this for another day? I was thinkin’ we could go for breakfast at Hades. Afterward, we can watch the bug show you like so much.” Steele knew very well the show was a space-western, but he wanted to get a rise out of Yo, shock him back to his senses. “You mean Firefly. And I can’t, I’m busy.” Yo climbed down the ladder, then started tossing action figures off a nearby shelf and into a box like they were trash. Okay, now Steele was worried. Under normal circ*mstances, Coyote would launch into a complicated explanation of the show and its characters. And Coyote had once ripped

Steele a new one for knocking a figurine off a shelf. “What’s goin’ on, Yo?” He brushed his long black hair back and didn’t quite meet Steele’s eyes. “I’m fine, brother. Everything’s fine.” Steele seriously doubted it, but he knew better than to push. His brother had gone through an ordeal, and he needed the time and space to heal. Speaking of healing, Justice was still staying with Etta May. She’d left him a message saying Justice was better but still off— whatever that meant. Maybe the Horsem*n needed a new business—a nuthouse. Steele, Justice, and Coyote could be the first customers. He decided to leave it alone for the

time being and backed toward the door. “Okay. Well, I’ll be out front if you need me. Maybe we’ll get some dinner tonight?” “Yeah, maybe.” As Steele walked away, another poster crashed to the ground. *** You got this. You can do this. You’ll kick its ass. That evening, Ash stood in a field, trying to calm her nerves. She kept patting her body down and couldn’t shake the feeling she’d misplaced something important.

Maybe her mind. She was surrounded by dingy brown grass and three half-dead pine trees, preparing to do the most romantic and rash thing she’d ever done. No way to back out now, even if she wanted to. Earlier, she’d sent a text message to Steele—a text, because apparently she was a baby who couldn’t use her big girl words to talk to him on the phone. As she watched a lone headlight snake up the drive, she realized the moment had arrived. Ash swayed on her feet, feeling nauseous. Her fingertips had gone numb and cold, and her hands wouldn’t stop shaking.

Pull it together, Ash. She hadn’t felt this scared since her first night in Afghanistan. Steele pulled up then cut the engine and dismounted. She hadn’t been sure she’d ever get to see him again, but here they were. Ash only had to make it through the next five minutes. Blurt the words out and be done with it. He wore a pair of soft-looking faded jeans and his cut. Beneath it, a hoodie, and she wanted to run over to him, wrap her arms around his waist, and bury her head in the soft, warm cotton fabric. But she didn’t dare. Not yet.

“Thank you for comin’. I wasn’t sure you would.” “Of course I came.” Steele stood in the glow of the torches. “What’s goin’ on? I thought you’d be long gone by now.” Her body quaked as adrenaline surged through her system. It made her shaky, jumpy—which was ridiculous. She wasn’t fighting for her life. Well, in a way, wasn’t she? Ash sucked in a breath and fisted her hands at her sides. “No, I, um, need to tell you somethin’…or ask you.” He walked closer. “What’s wrong, Dusty? What happened?” “I put all my stuff in the car then

drove down the street, but I couldn’t leave the township. I just stayed there on the side of the road this morning, thinkin’.” “About what?” Steele sidled up to her. “You…me…us. I told you how brave I am when it comes to chasin’ down bad guys or huntin’ terrorists. I’m a badass when it comes to the job.” “I know. I’ve seen you in action.” And here was the hard part. “But when it comes to love, I’m a chicken. No, worse than that, I’m a fraidy cat. I’m the kind of girl who shakes in her combat boots when it comes to lettin’ men in. I’d rather

pretend I don’t need anyone.” Ash blurted the words before she could lose her nerve. “And I hope I didn’t screw it up with you. I’m sorry I didn’t say yes when you asked me.” His head tilted to the side, and he was watching with her the softest eyes. “I know you’re scared. Me too.” “But what if I start needin’ you and relying on you?” Her vision blurred with tears. “What happens if I can’t live without you?” Steel didn’t say anything for the longest time. It felt like years before he spoke again. “I think that’s the point of being in love with someone.”

“This mornin’, I must’ve lost my mind because I bought all this dirt and grass….” Ash spread her arms and turned in a slow circle. His eyes widened. “You bought this lot?” “Yeah, and this tree. Because trees are about life and growth. They’re longterm. Get it?” Sitting on the ground next to her was a tiny sapling with its roots wrapped in burlap. A tree so small and so sickly, Charlie Brown would’ve walked away from it. But it’d been the only tree the nursery had left, so she’d bought it. She couldn’t interpret his expression. Then he gave her the most beautiful

smile. “And it has roots.” “Exactly! I wanna put down roots here. I want to live here.” “With me?” “Yes, with you. I want more than a job. I want real friends and I…I want you. I have since I was sixteen years old. You’re the one for me.” “And you’re the one for me.” They stared at one another, and Ash felt dopey all of a sudden, slaphappy and breathless—like the first time he’d kissed her. “But, for the record, I’m not your girlfriend.” Ash smiled. “Damn straight. You’re my old lady.” Steele opened his arms, and she

ran into them. He swept her up into his arms and kissed her. When he pulled away, Ash placed her head on his chest, and it felt just as good as she’d imagined. Steele studied their surroundings, his gaze flicking over the property. “Know what this lot needs?” “Hmm?” “A house would be good. Unless you like campin’.” She’d already spent her cartel reward check, so the house might have to wait a bit. “Good point. You sayin’ you wanna live together?” “I want way more that. We’re gonna work together too. I think you’ll be a

damn good bounty hunter. We can talk about it during dinner at Hades.” Steele led her over to the bike. “We’ve got some serious plannin’ to do.” He paused by the Harley expectantly. “What?” “When you ride on the bike….” Smirking, Ash dropped trou and forked over her knickers. Steele tucked them in his pocket. Afterwards, Ash climbed on behind him, and Steele started the engine. Before they put their helmets on, she whispered into his ear, “Can we have chocolate mousse for dessert?” Steele groaned as her questing hands settled on his hips. “As long as we

get it to go. I wanna watch you eat it in bed…while I do other things.” And they took off to make plans for the future. Together. Thank y’all for readin’! Want free Four Horsem*n short stories? Join the newsletter. Check out the upcoming releases. Take a gander at the new Dixie Mafia Series.

Books in the Series Sweet Perdition (Ryker & Elizabeth) Hot as Hades (Cowboy & Daisy) Damned (Duke & Rose) Devil May Care (Captain & Eddie) Hellbent (Shepherd & Pretty Boy) Hell on Wheels (Axel & Charlie) Shot to Hell (Steele & Ashton) Hell or High Water (Voodoo & Lex,

coming soon) A Living Hell (Justice & Etta May, coming soon) More titles coming soon!

About the Author Cynthia Rayne is a USA Today bestselling author and co-author of the Amazon bestselling Four Horsem*n MC series along with her sister, best friend, and partner-in-crime, Sara Rayne. While Cynthia was born and raised a damn Yankee in Ohio, her parents hail from Dixie, and she grew up on homemade buttermilk biscuits and southern wisdom. In her spare time, she enjoys shopping, reading way too many romance novels, and drinking a truly obscene amount of coffee. Website Goodreads Twitter

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Copyright © Cynthia Rayne 2016 All rights reserved. Except for use in any review or book discussion, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part is forbidden without the written permission of the author.

Editing Edits by Jade Theresa M. Cole

Stock Photo artofphoto via Can Stock Photo

Cover Art © Sarah Laney 2016

Sweet Southern Creations

Disclaimer This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places,

and events are the product of the author’s wicked imagination. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and frankly a bit creepy.

Table of Contents Prologue Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-One Chapter Twenty-Two

Cynthia Rayne Shot to Hell (Four Horsem*n MC (ang) - PDF Free Download (2024)


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