Shakedown (Souls Chapel Revenants MC #8) Read Online Lani Lynn Vale

Categories Genre: Alpha Male, Contemporary, MC, Romance, Suspense Tags Authors: Series: Souls Chapel Revenants MC Series by Lani Lynn Vale
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Total pages in book: 1
Estimated words: 68113 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 341(@200wpm)___ 272(@250wpm)___ 227(@300wpm)
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Read Online Books/Novels:

Shakedown (Souls Chapel Revenants MC #8)

Author/Writer of Book/Novel:

Lani Lynn Vale

Language:
English
ISBN/ ASIN:
B095VWF1GR
Book Information:

Wanted: someone to hand feed me Doritos so my hands don’t get orange. No weirdos.
Belle Pena was an editor. Not a writer.
When her brothers challenge her to create a dating profile, she makes up the most random biography she can think of. She never, not ever, thought she’d find anybody to respond. But she was sorely mistaken.
Sadly, she finds that she has way more interest than she ever could’ve imagined. But only one profile catches her eye.
Bruno never meant to take the dating app seriously. Being the last single man in his band of misfits, he’s happy being the odd man out. Women spelled trouble, and he had enough trouble in his life to last him through the next decade.
Only his newfound family doesn’t feel the same. One innocent ‘sure’ has the women of the Souls Chapel Revenants MC creating him a dating profile that is too spot on to be comfortable. And just when he decides to delete the app entirely, a particular face catches his eye.
One innocent question of ‘Belle is that you? Do you remember punching me in the throat in high school?’ has him stepping into trouble neck deep, and he doesn’t even realize it until it’s too late.
Books in Series:

Souls Chapel Revenants MC Series by Lani Lynn Vale

Books by Author:

Lani Lynn Vale



CHAPTER 1

Pennywise isn’t special. I swallow kids, too.

-Text from Belle to her brothers

BELLE

“You won’t,” Bourne challenged, his eyes gleaming with mischief.

I sighed. “I will.”

“You won’t.” He shook his head. “I know you, Belle. You talk a good game, but you’re weak. You’ll overthink it when you leave, and then you’ll stop yourself before you can fully pull the trigger.”

I sighed. “Fine. I’ll do it before we even leave our parents’ house today. Happy?”

Booth, my other brother, snickered.

Like a little bitch.

“Yes, I’m happy,” Bourne said. “I have a great life. Meanwhile, you’re practically Old Maid status, and you’re not even trying to get out there and find someone.”

I narrowed my eyes.

“Boys,” my father warned.

But the ‘boys’ didn’t listen.

My oldest brothers, who also happened to be twins, had taken it upon themselves to make my life a living hell recently, and I didn’t know why.

Every time that I came home there were always comments from the peanut gallery about how I’d ‘not gotten out’ or I continuously tried to ‘wiggle out of dates.’

Well, when the dates that I was wiggling out of were duds, I didn’t see the problem.

It wasn’t my fault that I had an IQ of one hundred and forty-three.

I was, by all accounts, a genius.

I wasn’t in the top tier of IQs or anything, but I was definitely better than above average.

Though, my father likes to tell me the only reason I had an IQ of 143 was because I’d ‘gotten bored’ with the line of questioning.

Which, technically, I had.

I’d gotten extremely bored with it, and instead of answering the last few questions, I’d kind of… guessed.

Though, just sayin’, I didn’t need some test to tell me that I was smart.

“Dad,” Booth tried to explain away his ‘teasing’ as he liked to call it. “She literally made her date cry.”

Okay, so I had done that.

But the guy had been so freakin’ full of himself.

“I didn’t make him cry.” I rolled my eyes. “I made him emotional. And it was only because he kept trying to talk about himself, his cat, and his mother. So I told him that the statistics of men finding their soul mates when they lived with their mother was very low.”

“I heard that you told him that men who owned cats generally had an estrogen imbalance.” Booth reached for a roll and buttered it before continuing. “You also told him that using a heated laptop on your thighs all day could cause infertility. And this was after the guy told you how much he wanted kids.”

“He told me that he lived out of his mother’s basement, she cooked and cleaned for him, and he had no reason to leave it.” I paused. “And the laptop thing was serious. It can cause infertility.”

My father started to chuckle. “Just leave her be. The guy sounded like a loser.”

“Last week, she told her date, who also happened to be a man that I set her up with, that fifty percent of all women murdered are offed by their ex-husbands or ex-boyfriends,” Booth added.

“They are,” I said defensively.

“He lost his last wife by murder,” Booth said. “You basically accused him of murdering his own wife.”

I sighed. I had not, but there really was no reason in telling these two jerk-offs anything. They’d think what they wanted.

My phone buzzed, and I thankfully pulled it out of my pocket to read the text that flashed across the screen.

It was a one-word text from my best client.

Hastings: Mayday!

I sighed and replied.

Belle: What’s up?

Hastings: I lost my entire book. It’s just gone. G.O.N.E. Can you send it to me again? I can’t access my email.

I’d do absolutely anything to get out of this particular family dinner.

Belle: Yes. I’ll get it to you as soon as I can get home. You saved me from my brothers. Again.

Hastings: Glad that one of my lowest moments could be beneficial to you.

I kind of felt bad, but kind of didn’t.

She should know better.

You always, always, always used two forms of backup when you were writing.

Always.

Most people found out the hard way, like she was doing now, to do that.

Because usually, when authors were first starting out, they’d think that it could never happen to them.

They would think wrong.

It happened to everyone that ever used a computer eventually.

The only thing was, most people didn’t lose what an author lost—hours and hours of hard work.

“I gotta go,” I said to my dad. “Hastings lost her entire book and she needs me to send it to her again.”

Bourne started to make chicken noises. However, I was able to ignore him.

Mostly.

After giving my dad a kiss on his cheek, and my brothers the finger, I walked outside and headed in the direction of my car.

It was raining, and like always, the two assholes inside had ridden in with each other.

Grinning like the loon I was, I walked over to their left front tire and pulled a set of needle-nose pliers out of my purse.

Removing the valve out of the stem, I watched with glee as the massive truck tire dwindled until the rim was sitting on the concrete.

That’s about when the bottom started to drop out of the sky.

I laughed and started to run to my car, not caring in the least about the rain.

I loved rain.

Even more, I loved when the rain turned into a torrential downpour.

I loved it even more when lightning flashed and thunder rumbled.

It took me ten minutes to drive home, five to get dry, and two to send over Hastings’ file, leaving me with almost an entire night to do what I wanted most: read.

Most people wouldn’t like reading if it was their job, but I loved it.

I loved even more that the book I was reading was about murderers.

Why did I like reading books about murderers? I didn’t know. But I’d always had a bit of a fascination with them.

I was deep into the psyche of the murderer’s mind when I got a text pulling me out of the story.

Bourne: You play dirty. Still, don’t be a little bitch all your life and chicken out of the dating profile. I’m going to bother the hell out of you until you do what I want.

The bad thing was, I knew he would.

Bourne was a stubborn jackass like that.

Even worse, I’d promised him that I would.

Which meant that I owed it to him and myself to keep that promise.

Penas didn’t break promises.

And I’d be damned if I would be the one to start.

So, though I was engrossed in my book, I put it down and pulled up the dating app that my brother had suggested I use.

Then I started to write.

Wanted: Man to feed me Doritos so my fingers don’t get orange. No weirdos.

I highlighted that sentence and sent it to my brothers and their wives in the group chat that I was in with them.

I knew that they’d want to add their input, so I would allow it.

For now.

Too bad I had no idea that by doing so, I’d be giving the longest, weirdest bio for a dating profile ever.

CHAPTER 2

I would call my fashion style: clothes that still fit.

-Bruno to Laric

BRUNO

“Why Farmers Only?” I asked, wincing when I read the website’s name.

“Bruno, you have pigs. You’re a farmer. This is perfect,” Six assured me. “It’ll work out great. You can invite your date out to meet you at your farm. Y’all can go feed all of the animals. Then you can cook her dinner.”

I looked at Six.

“I don’t want to do this,” I told her bluntly.

“If you do this, I’ll never bring up you leaving me behind again,” Six declared.

I stared at her, wondering if her words were true.

I’d do just about anything for her to never bring that up again.

A long time ago, when we were in high school, her father had given me an ultimatum.

Leave Six alone, and never contact her again, or he’d make Six’s life a living hell.

The bad thing was, I knew that he could do it.

So like any dumbass seventeen-year-old, I’d done it.

I’d left her behind, gone my own way, and had never looked back.

At least, for appearance’s sake anyway, that was what I did.

In reality, I kept an eye on her from a distance, making sure that she was always okay.

At least, until Lynn, the man that might as well be my very own father, had taken a liking to her.

Then Six had come back into my life with a vengeance, and ever since she and Lynn had married, I’d found it almost impossible to get back into her good graces.

Which, might I add, was bullshit.

I’d done it for her.

Sure, once I’d ‘grown up’ I could’ve come back into her life, but who the hell would want an ex-con in their life?

I knew that I wouldn’t want anyone like me in Six’s life.

Hell, it was bad enough that I had to allow her husband, Lynn, to have a part of her life. If anything, Lynn was worse than I was.

But at least he loved her and would protect her.

That was more than I’d done for her.

“That’s not going to matter to him, honey,” Lynn said. “He believes that he deserves your ire, so he won’t care if you stop.”

That was true.

I did deserve her ire.

I’d left her, like she’d said.

Then again, I’d left a lot of people behind in my thirty-two years. Six was just one of many.

“Fine,” she said. “Then just do it because I want you to be happy.”

My eye started to twitch.

“I’m an ex-con, Six,” I said. “No woman’s going to want anything to do with me on Farmers Only. Or any website for that matter.”

Six rolled her eyes. “Bruno, you’re hot, successful, and you’re unattached. Trust me when I say that any woman is going to go for you, ex-con status or not.”

I sighed.

“I shot and killed someone. On purpose. There was no ‘oh, I might or might not have been high on adrenaline because he beat up my sister.’ I shot and killed someone. On. Purpose. People don’t just get over that because I’m hot,” I argued.

“You shot someone because you had to.” She waved my worry away. “And trust me when I say, someone out there will understand.”

Hell, I didn’t even understand.

And I’d been the one to do the shooting.

Granted, the guy had been a piece of shit.

He’d raped three women. He’d beat up his own mother. And he’d all but maimed a two-year-old with his careless actions.

But that wasn’t my reasoning for killing the piece of shit.

Hell, I hadn’t even known about all of that other stuff.

I’d known that the motherfucker had tried to kill me because of some suspected slight, and I’d had no other choice but to shoot him and suffer the consequences. That was it. Me or him.

I’d chosen me.

And then I’d spent the next eighteen months behind bars until the parole board had learned of all the other shit that the man had done in his life. Then they’d been all, ‘Oh, no. We need heroes like you on the outside.’ Which was a bunch of shit.

I was no hero.

“Are you even listening to me?” Six snapped.

“You know he’s not listening to you.” Catori, one of my brothers’ wives, chuckled.

“Where is your cut?” another woman asked. “You can’t take a picture like that. You have to have your cut on.”

I looked over to find Swayze, Trick’s wife, staring at me with her phone in her hand.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because leather and bikers go hand in hand,” she said. “If you don’t have your cut on, nobody will know that you’re in a club. And being in a club automatically ratchets up the hotness factor.”

I rolled my eyes. “It got dirty. Had to have it dry-cleaned.”

In all honesty, it got blood on it, and I’d had to douse it down with the water hose before taking it to the dry cleaners to see if they could salvage it.

If not, I might or might not need to find a new one.

I was hoping that it came out, though.

Or, at least, when I wore it, it didn’t look like I’d tie-dyed it in blood.

“Well that’s just stupid,” Swayze grumbled as she put her phone down.

“I have one from last week,” Blaise called out, pumping her fist into the air as if she’d hit the jackpot. “And he looks good in it. He’s not even scowling!”

I rolled my eyes.

“Oh, that one’s perfect. Send it to me.” Six was still typing away at the computer. “What do you think of this biography for a profile? Hobby pig farmer by day, Souls Chapel Revenant MC by night. Thirty-two-year-old man looking for a woman that isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. Anybody that can’t manage that need not reply.”

“I think we should add this…” Wyett suggested as she rattled off her idea of edits.

I sighed and sipped my beer, wondering idly how long it would take to get dinner figured out.

I was ready to go home.

Today had been long, and my fucking knuckles were aching.

Even worse, I think my back was acting up again.

I’d have to make another appointment at the chiropractor. The one that was scared of me.

Yay.

“Ohhh.” One of the ladies laughed, catching my attention.

“Oh, here’s one for you.” Six dissolved into laughter, turning the computer screen my way.

Wanted: Man to feed me Doritos so my fingers don’t get orange. No weirdos.

My ideal match: No animals, no kids, no annoying voices, doesn’t like beaches, can deal with me not talking, and doesn’t mind when I talk down to you or that I’m smarter than you. Also, it’d be ideal if you don’t like to cuddle, because my body temperature runs hot, and I don’t generally like people touching me skin to skin. Is blunt and doesn’t try to use sarcasm. Won’t try to get me to go out to places where there is a large group setting.

Again, no weirdos.

“This chick sounds like she’s perfect for you.” Six clicked on the photo, but she didn’t need to.

I’d seen the photo.

The woman was gorgeous.

Though I couldn’t see her height, I could make out other things.

She was curled up in a chair that looked like a cocoon of sorts. One with really tall sides, big, poofy cushions, and it was all hanging from a contraption from the ceiling.

She had her knees crisscrossed in front of her, and she was wearing a baggy white t-shirt, black horn-rimmed glasses, and had a book partially in front of her face.

That book happened to be one of my favorites.

Captain’s Fury by Jim Butcher.

In all honesty, that was the very first thing to catch my eye.

Her hair, which was so fuckin’ curly that I knew if I tried to run my fingers through it, they’d get caught at least a dozen times.

“She’s perfect,” Crockett declared. “Message her. But don’t make it weird. Make it… sweet.”

“Bruno’s not sweet,” one of the boys, likely Sin, called out. “Don’t make him come off as sweet. The chick will definitely know that it wasn’t him that wrote it.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Messaged her. Let’s see what she says.” Six squealed, clapping her hands.

I sighed.

“Oh, she already messaged back. Oh my God. She said, ‘Hell no.’”

My brows lifted at that.

“Oh, she’s perfect. I just know it.” Six snickered.

“Oh my God. I knew she looked familiar! That’s Belle Pena! One of my good friends! Sorry, Bruno. But there’s no way in hell that she’s going to agree to date you. She has a type,” Beckham said as she settled her son, Hiro, more firmly on her shoulder.

She looked like she was lagging, though.

I bent forward and caught the kid before Beckham, who really was interested in this whole mess, dropped her own kid.

Beckham didn’t even notice that she was giving him away to me before she was insinuating herself into the bullshit.

I tipped back the beer and settled the kid more solidly on my shoulder.

He snuggled in deep, buried his face in my neck, and promptly sneezed all down my neck.

Gross.

CHAPTER 3

Vaginas are expected to be bald, super soft, no stubble and taste like a mango. Yet there are so many hairy, discolored, sweaty and salty ball sacks demanding to be in a mouth. How is that fair?

-Belle on double standards

BELLE

Eight weeks later

“Somebody should tell him,” I heard one of the men at the table next to mine say.

“I’m not telling him shit,” another replied. “Do you know how pissed he’d be if he heard that his new girlfriend was cheating on him? There’s a reason that they have the term ‘don’t shoot the messenger.’”

I slowly turned my head so that I could see the table next to me.

The table was filled with bikers.

Bikers that declared themselves part of the Souls Chapel Revenants MC.

There were five of them in total.

One, whose nametag I could read, was named ‘Sin.’ He was by far the prettiest that they had.

Then there was the blond with the glasses. I could just make out the very edges of his nametag. Something that ended with an ‘nt.’

The only word that my analytical brain could come up with at that point in time was ‘Cunt.’

But I was sure that he didn’t go by that.

At least, I hoped he didn’t.

And, before I could stop myself, I started in on the spiel that my brain couldn’t help but output.

“During war, kings and warlords needed a way to communicate,” I found myself saying. “They called a truce with certain individuals under a white flag. It was formal and respected.” I frowned. “It’s also said that Shakespeare is responsible. In Henry IV, part two, Cleopatra threatens to treat the messenger’s eyes as balls when told Antony was marrying another.” I tilted my head slightly. “Then there was just the mention of town criers who spread news. If you hurt the messenger, it was considered treason. Therefore, people didn’t do it, and made mention of ‘not shooting the messenger.’”

The table of men turned their attention to me.

“What I’m getting at is that you should tell him,” I finished, repositioning my feet on the barstool next to me.

I was at a bar-height table, the only chairs in the entire place that had backs, and I had my feet up with a book in my hand.

There was a cold beer on the tabletop in front of me, and I was a quarter of the way through a book that I’d never intended to start.

Why didn’t I intend to start it?

Because I was supposed to be meeting a date here an hour and a half ago, yet my date had either no-showed me, or he’d been called in to do something at his work and hadn’t had time to call.

Both of which were very possible.

My date, Benji, was a successful CEO of a multimillion dollar company. He was also a doctor in town and apparently very popular with the ladies.

His company was into bionics or something, and he was a ‘very busy man.’

Well, I was a very busy woman, and you didn’t see me standing up my date.

“Did you order hot wings?”

I looked up to find the waitress, the one who’d been giving me ‘sad eyes’ all night, holding out the hot wings that I’d literally ordered from her not even twenty minutes ago.

I looked at the hot wings and nodded.

“I did,” I confirmed. “Did you remember the ranch?”

Normally, I wouldn’t do ranch because it was so messy, but I’d wanted to try the ‘burn yo damn mouth’ ones the restaurant boasted as their ‘hottest flavor’ and thought I’d better prepare for them to actually be too hot.

It didn’t happen often—me finding a flavor that was actually too hot—but the waitress had already been extremely slow so I wasn’t putting her not coming back and me needing ranch to chance.

“I’m going for it now. I should have it out in a jiffy,” she said as she all but sprinted away.

“She totally forgot,” one of the men muttered.

I looked over at the table of bikers, but they were all staring at something across the way.

I turned my eyes in that direction, too, finding a very pretty brunette with long, flowing brown hair sucked up to some man’s side.

Just then, the door to the bar swung open and a very large, intimidating man filled the frame.

He was tall, way taller than my five-foot-seven and a half inches—that half was very important, so I never forgot it. He had very dark hair. So dark, in fact, that in the somewhat favorable bar light I couldn’t tell what color his hair was—brown or black. He had dark greenish-colored eyes and his skin was the color of light brown sugar.

He obviously had some Latino roots in his family tree, because that skin was born, not sun-bronzed.

“Oh, fuck,” I heard one of the men say.

But I didn’t have time to turn and look at them. My eyes were enraptured by the man that’d just filled the door.

He was… intimidating, to say the least.

He was also a man that I’d turned down for a date a few weeks ago when I’d first started my dating profile.

Why had I turned him down? Because he owned a pig farm.

Not that pig farming was a bad thing, but from the moment that I’d seen the man’s photo—even in profile—I’d gotten this weird feeling in my chest that I couldn’t explain.

So I’d done the smart, sensible thing—I’d told him no on his date. And I’d blamed it on his pig farm, because why the hell else would I feel this… irrational… over him?

And now I was kind of regretting that gut reaction.

Because just seeing him standing there, taking in the entire bar like a silent wraith, had things inside of me taking flight.

Like when I got to that really, really good part in the romance books that I loved so much. The pivotal parts where the hero and the heroine FINALLY admit their love for the other. Or when something really bad happens, and the man realizes that all this time he’s been denying what was right in front of his face.

Those parts of the books were my absolute favorites.

The man, Bruno from what I’d remembered, stepped over the threshold, his eyes on something by the bar. The brunette that the people at the table next to me were talking about earlier.

He saw her, registered who she was, and rolled his eyes.

Instead of stopping and confronting the woman like I thought he would, he walked right up to the bar just a few spots down from where she was cuddled up to the man she was talking to, and held up a finger.

The man, obviously knowing Bruno, nodded his head and got to work on a beer.

It was a local brew. Dark. Something on the label had a skull and crossbones on it.

I looked at my own beer.

It was the same exact one.

I loved skulls and crossbones. Dark beer, though? Not so much.

But I loved the label enough that I could overlook the bitter taste.

In fact, I’d had the bartender wash the beer bottle out for me so that I could bring it home. It was currently in my bag, wrapped up in the cardigan that I’d brought with me to the bar.

Absently, I reached out and picked up a chicken wing and started to nibble on it, feeling the instant heat in my lips as the fiery taste hit me.

I licked my lips clean and basked in the burn as the big guy finally got his beer and made his way toward the table of men that were watching him with various shades of remorse on their faces.

“Y’all order yet?” Bruno asked the moment he sat down.

I took another bite of my wings, then tossed the empty bone onto the tabletop where a napkin was.

I reached for another one, a drumstick this time, and started in on that one when the waitress finally arrived with the smallest cup of ranch I’d ever seen.

I would’ve commented on it had I needed it. But since they weren’t as hot as they claimed, I would be okay.

In the meantime, I flipped the page on my book with my clean hand, listened with half an ear to Bruno and the table’s discussion, and waited for whatever shoe to drop.

That shoe dropped in the form of one of the men saying, “Oh, hey. I think she finally noticed that you’re here.”

Bruno grunted as he reached for a handful of peanuts that were in the middle of the table.

The ones that sat there all day long as person after person put their fingers into the metal canisters.

“Those are severely unsanitary,” I found myself saying as I turned back to my book. “Do you know how many people reach into that bucket for peanuts each day? I saw at least four people do it before y’all took the table, and just sayin’, but studies show that at least one in four people don’t wash their hands after they go to the bathroom. So saying that, statistically, forty-nine point three percent of the world’s population are women, that means that, logically, at least one in eight people have had their dick in their hands when they reached in that bucket for peanuts.”

There was a long, silent pause before Bruno himself looked at me.

But I’d already gone back to my book and was now on my fifth chicken wing.

“Oh, shit,” I heard said. “Bruno?”

The sound of a woman’s voice had me looking up in time to see the brunette from earlier come walking over with a sheepish looking male blond. The male blond that was supposed to be my date.

That’s when I started to get annoyed.

“You know, Dr. Benji Knight,” I couldn’t stop myself from saying. “If you were going to stand me up, the least you could do was tell me that you were rearranging your plans so that I didn’t have to be in a bar waiting for you to get here when I didn’t have to be.”

Benji looked at me, his eyes widened, and he sputtered out, “I’m so sorry.”

I rolled my eyes. “If you were sorry, which you aren’t, you would not be holding that woman right now. You’d be here, at this table, eating chicken wings with me. But, since the hero in my book likely has better manners than you, I think I’ll just continue to stick with him. Thanks for nothing.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bruno’s mouth twitch.

“It’s not what it looks like,” I heard the brunette say.

“It’s exactly what it looks like.” I licked one finger clean so that I could reach for my beer. After taking a hefty swallow, I said, “You practically were mauling that man with your mouth when I walked in. I just wish I’d have known that man was my date, and I would’ve turned around. These chicken wings are shit.”

A man at the table started to laugh, and I didn’t spare him a glance as I turned the page.

“I can get a manager,” I heard said.

I glanced up to see the waitress there looking a bit miffed.

“Just my check.” I shrugged. “Thanks anyway.”

I didn’t need to speak with the manager.

I knew the ‘manager’ was sitting at the table with the men.

“What’s wrong with the chicken wings?” the big man with the nametag that read ‘Trick’ asked.

“They’re okay… I guess.” I shrugged again. “You just boast that these are ‘super-duper hot’ when in reality they taste like I picked a flavor off of the kid’s menu. My lips are sufficiently tingly, but I can still function. If they were actually ‘hot’ as you put it on your menu, I wouldn’t be able to be sitting here holding an intelligent conversation with you.”

The man, Trick, who happened to also be the owner, laughed.

“Not many chicks can roll up in here and eat those,” he said. “But I’ve heard the same from a few of them.” He jerked his head toward the table. “You have any suggestions on better recipes?”

Actually, I did.

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll email them to you. Just get me your email address.”

He reached into his back pocket, pulled out a card, and then tossed it onto my table.

I only looked at it as I finished off my food.

“Do you mind if I join you for the rest of the meal?” Benji asked.

I looked over at the table he’d been previously occupying to see his date, pissed and glaring daggers at the two of us.

Upon seeing me, I would’ve expected him to leave her to come to me, honestly. Most people had a reaction when they saw me.

I was what you would call a ‘buxom beauty.’

I knew that I had a great body. It wasn’t that I was conceited or anything, I wasn’t. Far from it.

But I’d been told since I’d grown boobs that I was beautiful.

A ‘dark and sensual beauty’ as my tenth-grade science teacher and gym coach had called me.

Not that I’d shared my coach’s viewpoints with anyone. But he was just one of many who’d stated my loveliness.

CHAPTER 4

Every day I wake up and think ‘today I’m going to be nice.’ Let me tell you something, life never works out that way.

-Bruno’s secret thoughts

BRUNO

The day had been… long.

Honestly, there were many features of this day that had contributed to the ‘longness.’

I’d woken up this morning and set out to feed the animals and had found two of them dead from an attack in the night.

After taking care of that, I’d gotten a flat tire on the way to the strip club I helped Lynn manage.

I did the books for eight of his ten businesses, and the only reason I didn’t do it on the other two was that there just wasn’t enough fuckin’ time in the day.

After dealing with the flat tire, getting a ride from a buddy into town, procuring a new tire, and then heading back out to the motorcycle, I’d found the goddamn thing twisted like a pretzel and an elderly lady looking at it from her Cadi like she couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen it.

That was one of the problems with riding motorcycles, though. They were just hard to see.

Though, this one had its flashers on way off the road, so honest to God, she had no reason to smash into it.

So, after having it towed to the impound yard and getting an insurance collector to take a look at it, I’d gone home to get my spare bike and had started my day at least four hours later than I’d intended.

Needless to say, when I’d arrived at the bar, way later than usual, the last thing I wanted to do was deal with bullshit.

But that was what I saw the moment that I breached the door.

Bullshit.

I’d gone on a couple of dates with the woman that was currently standing in front of me with pleading eyes.

She wasn’t my girlfriend, no matter how badly she wanted to be, or Six wanted her to be.

In fact, I was still trying to decide if I liked her enough to have sex with her.

She struck me as an entanglement that I didn’t want to have any part of.

She also struck me as the type to accidentally get pregnant and say, ‘Oh, no! Whoops! Now you have to marry me.’

Well, honestly, I was glad to have a reason not to have anything to do with her now.

It would get Six off my back for a while, and it would also mean that I could get my pleasures… elsewhere.

Like the leggy dark-haired brunette at the table next to us going to town on some chicken wings and beer.

The one with the mouth who’d written me off with a resounding ‘no’ when Six had messaged her in hopes of us ‘hooking up’ on the dating website.

Seeing her in person, I knew that I would need to make a bit more of an effort to get her to change her mind.

Because there was just something about her…

“Bruno, won’t you talk to me?”

I’d rather talk to the voices in my head.

Eye twitching, I peeled my eyes away from Belle at the next table to see the reason for my upcoming headache staring at me with sadness in her eyes.

Sadness that she had no reason directing at me since I wasn’t the one that was all lovey-dovey with another man when I walked in.

And, just sayin’, but she said that she was ‘goin’ out with the girls tonight.’

That man was most certainly not a girl.

“I haven’t seen Benji in a very long time,” Briana promised. “It was just a friendly hug.”

“Sure, a friendly hug where you suck his tongue into your mouth,” Belle offered. “You know, you’re kind of blocking my light, and it’s really hard to see the words on the page. Do you mind stepping back far enough that there aren’t shadows? Since, you know, you aren’t leaving?”

Again, the way she delivered the punches, even verbal ones, were making my heart lighten with each word that came out of her mouth.

Benji, startled by her words, automatically took a step back, which put him closer to Briana.

Briana looked at him, tensed, and then took a step away from him as if she was worried.

I just rolled my eyes.

“Briana, honey. There was nothing to save here.” I gestured between me and her with my beer bottle. “We’re new. I get that. And I’m okay with you finding someone you like.” I took a swig of my beer, groaning. “Damn that’s good.”

“I agree.” Belle offered up her two cents. “This is the best beer I’ve had in years. And I don’t even like dark beers.”

Briana started to argue, of course, making Trouper who was beside me groan.

“Can’t you take this outside?” Belle asked. “This is really messing with my vibe. I’m at the part where they first meet and are getting that love connection, and you’re screwing it up.”

My lips twitched. “No reason to take it outside. Have a good one, Briana.”

Briana opened her mouth to continue her arguing but someone called her name. A woman dressed to the nines in a short black dress, big hair, and so much makeup that I could tell it was too much all the way across the bar.

“This isn’t over,” Briana promised.

“Them’s fightin’ words,” Belle singsonged as she returned to her book. “Oh, damn. Didn’t see that coming.”

It was at that point that I knew she’d gone back to her book.

For the rest of the night, I watched her.

She sat there, ordered two more beers, had a hamburger and french fries to go with her hot wings, and finished the damn book before she started to call it a night.

Sadly, as she was walking out, I got a call from Lynn that had me stepping out before her and not getting to see her to her car like I’d intended.

I did watch from a distance, though, as she got into a sweet little Pontiac GTO and drove off without a single glance in my direction.

Damn.

Girl was smokin’ and she drove a nice car.

A very lethal combination.

CHAPTER 5

A male bee’s testicles explode during sex, killing him. That means if you see a bee flying around, he’s a virgin. Fucking nerd.

-Text from Laric to Bruno

BRUNO

I had a headache.

It was about five-foot-three, a hundred and twenty pounds, and had hips that I’d once daydreamed about wrapping my hands around.

Now, seeing her anywhere was like an ice pick to the temporal lobe.

“Please can we talk?” Briana begged.

I sighed. “Briana. Seriously. There is nothing to talk about.”

“But…” Briana started, but she was interrupted when Belle, who I hadn’t seen near me until now, came out of the clothes rack to my right and walked right up to me with a package of underwear in her hand.

“I couldn’t remember if you wanted boxer briefs or tighty-whities.” Belle held up a package right in front of my face and got so close to me that she placed herself between me and Briana, who’d just showed up and placed her body in my personal space. “What about these? Too big? Too small?”

I looked at the package of black ‘tighty-whities’ and said, “Those are technically black, so you can’t call them tighty-whities. They’re probably more appropriately called briefs.”

She pulled back and turned the package around, confirming my words.

“You’re right.” She paused. “Damn.”

I grinned and hooked my hand around her hip, taking advantage of our closeness to pull her closer to me.

Her pupils dilated, and the confidence in her demeanor went from one hundred percent to almost nil in a matter of seconds.

She blinked, her eyes going to my hand, and I wondered if I should remove it.

But then Briana hissed. “Didn’t take you long to move on, did it?”

Belle turned, then placed her delectable ass against my dick, and I had to will my body to stay under control.

I dropped my hand and fisted it at my side just as Belle said, “Extreme circumstances brought us together.”

“It’s only been a day.” Briana paused. “This has been going on a lot longer than a day if you’re already buying him underwear.”

Briana did have a point.

“Umm,” a hesitant voice said from somewhere beside us. “I’m really sorry to do this, but your yelling is disrupting other customers. We’re going to have to ask you to take it outside.”

I jerked my chin in the direction of the doors. “Go on ahead, Briana. I have a few things left to get.”

Briana, pissed as hell now and obviously thinking that this was way more than it was thanks to Belle’s words, stomped off indignantly.

Belle turned back around and took a giant step backward.

Yeah, she was uncomfortable with my touch.

Shit.

Had something happened to her?

I knew that one of the first times that I remembered seeing her was when we were in middle school—at the time, I’d been a freshman and she’d been a few years younger—and she’d actually punched me in the throat and threatened to do it harder if I ever touched her again.

I wondered if she remembered me.

Which had my mouth running before I’d even had a chance to think about what I was saying.

“Do you remember punching me in the throat when we were younger? I was probably thirteen or fourteen and you’d just nearly been clobbered by a bunch of football players,” I explained.

Belle’s head twitched as she sifted through her memories.

Then her eyes widened as she said, “You tried to help me up.”

I nodded.

“That was a bad day for me,” she admitted. “I’m sorry.”

I hadn’t realized.

I mean, I knew that the football players had been assholes. They’d seen a young girl—and Belle was young. She was all of ten or eleven at most, that I knew for sure because it’d been the talk of the school—a young kid arriving at the high school to be placed as not a freshman, but a sophomore. And, they’d decided to be giant assholes to her instead of thinking about the girl as young, in a new school, and scared.

Me being the kid that always—and I do mean always—was getting the same treatment that they’d given her that day, I knew how bad it could get and be.

Belle hadn’t lasted more than two days, though.

After her parents had learned that she was being practically tortured all day and not learning a damn thing, they’d pulled her and put her in a school that was made for students exactly like her—smart as fuck.

She’d graduated with honors from what I’d heard.

“So you remember me?” I guessed. “You remember everything else, too?”

There was one other thing she’d seen that day.

One other instance that had been the thing that had made me think that’d been why she really turned me down for a date.

Belle smiled.

“You think it upset me to see you beating the absolute shit out of my abusers?” She rolled her eyes and tossed the underwear she’d been holding to the shelf that was holding a pair of jeans beside her. Then she frowned, picked it back up, and tucked it underneath her arm. “That was the highlight of my eleventh year.”

I gestured to the underwear. “You gonna buy those after all?”

She frowned. “No, I’m going to go put them back on the rack where I found them. It bothers me to have things out of place.”

Then she just… left.

I started to follow her—and did for the most part—when I got a call.

“He’s coming your way,” Sin said in my ear. “Black t-shirt now. He took off the sweatshirt.”

I picked him up immediately, heading right for a woman with a baby strapped to her chest, and three young kids running wild around her.

The littlest of the young kids was standing directly next to Belle, looking up at her and reaching for a long, bouncing curl that was playing with the small of her back.

I’d wanted to do the same damn thing.

But, sadly, I had a job to do.

Hanging back in the sock aisle, I kept my eye on the chaos around me, my gaze going from the kids, to the mom, to the man that was looking suspicious as fuck hanging out in the lingerie.

Neither Belle nor the frazzled mom noticed the man.

Which was his entire damn job. Be inconspicuous, follow young moms around, and relay that information to his buddies outside.

From there, those buddies would make their move while the mother was trying to control chaos and get her kids into the car.

Then, when she least expected it, the man would nab a kid—two if he was lucky—and run.

Child trafficking at its finest.

We’d heard that two children had been nabbed by neighboring bulk stores in the area, and then we’d gotten the call about the man about an hour ago.

Hunt had been doing some research online when a social media article had popped up and practically condemned a suspicious looking man.

Everyone had played it off as if it wasn’t a big deal, even the police, and Hunt had gotten us on it.

Sin and I had been the only ones available to go immediately, leaving us to walk around the damn store for the last hour trying to find this guy.

Finally, Sin had spotted him.

Which led to now, me watching him watching those kids.

It made me sick to my stomach.

Belle broke off when the child finally got ahold of the tip of her hair and pulled.

Belle grimaced, disentangled her hair, and then immediately scooted out of the aisle.

Yeah, she really didn’t like being touched.

Not even by a toddler.

That made me feel remotely better knowing that it wasn’t just my touch that she spurned.

Just as she was about to head even farther away from me, I got her attention by softly calling her name. “Belle.”

She paused mid-step, then turned her head curiously to the side, causing that mass of curls to fall all around her left side.

“Yes?” she asked.

I jerked my chin. “Come here.”

I needed a cover if I was going to stand here for any longer, and she would be a great one.

Frowning, she marched her way toward me, her face an adorable mixture of confusion and curiosity.

“What?” she asked when she was practically toe to toe with me.

Her head was tilted way back on her neck, and she was staring at me like she could see straight into my soul.

I brought my hand up, not quite touching her, but giving her the understanding that I was about to.

She didn’t flinch away, so I pressed my hand to her arm and closed my fingers around her wrist.

She didn’t flinch.

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t my touch, or anyone’s touch, as much as she just needed warning that the touch was happening.

Noted.

“Do you mind standing here with me for a few seconds?” I asked, squeezing her wrist lightly.

Her small wrist felt tiny in my hand. I could practically wrap my fingers twice around it.

She frowned. “Why?”

I reached up and tucked a swath of curls back behind her ear, not even realizing I’d done it until my fingers touched the inky, silky strands.

My eyes flicked to the man that was on the move, but again, following the woman and her unruly children.

“Because I want to keep an eye on that man right there.” I jerked my head toward them. “And I don’t want to make the woman nervous. I’m not dressed very inconspicuously, but he is. She hasn’t made him, but she’s definitely made me.”

To give her credit, she didn’t whip her head around and stare at the man and woman behind me.

She stayed exactly where she was, head practically all the way back, and stared at me.

“The one with the seventeen kids and the man following her around in the lingerie section?” Belle asked, surprising me.

I nodded.

“I clocked him in the frozen section,” she mused. “I actually called the cops about him. Or, at least, I called my dad. Who said he would call someone. But since we’re not in his jurisdiction, he couldn’t come himself.”

Souls Chapel was no-man’s-land. Nobody worked this particular stretch of the county. The one and only cop that we had that roamed around here, Briggs, was actually out doing fuck knew what at the interstate.

“We were called,” I said. “Since we do a lot of the patrolling in the area. No cops means that we get to do a lot more stuff our way. And this is going to be done our way.”

Belle tilted her head, shrugged, then turned around and started walking. “Let’s go find out where they’re going,” she urged.

I fell into step beside her. “I’m going to hold your hand.”

Belle looked over her shoulder at me, wrinkled her nose, and then offered me her hand.

“You telling me that you’re going to take it helps me do better,” she admitted. “I don’t do touch well unless I can see it coming. Or initiate it myself. Sorry about that flinch where Briana was concerned.”

She was apologizing for no reason.

And before I could tell her that, she turned the corner and I saw the man that’d been doing the following around the store now standing directly behind the woman.

“I guess I can buy these for myself,” Belle mused as she got into line.

I looked at the underwear.

Honestly, she could probably pull them off easily.

Before I could relay that, she continued to talk.

“I moved here because I liked the peace and quiet, and I liked how close I was to this superstore. I don’t know why they have it out in the middle of nowhere, but I love this place. No joke.”

I’d thought much the same thing about the massive bulk store out in the middle of nowhere. At first, I’d wondered if they’d made a mistake on the placement, because why the hell would they want a big store like this somewhere that was so far from civilization? But then I saw how busy it was, day in and day out, and realized that it was really the only store for about an hour around. It saw more action than the local grocery store at times.

“Souls Chapel is sort of weird, though.” Belle moved until she was practically tucked into my front when one of the kids broke off from standing next to her mother to crowd in close to the candy where Belle was standing.

I saw the man tense, as did Belle.

He wanted to grab the kid and run. I could see that all the way from over here.

My own muscles tensed, my body stiffening impossibly as if readying itself to explode into motion if the man so much as twitched toward the kid.

But the man slowly allowed his muscles to relax, which then caused me to control my breathing in reaction.

My eyes flicked up over the entire line to see Sin standing next to a toy grabber machine.

He had one eye on the grabber and the other on the man in the line.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something pink and sparkly come up with the grabber and drop down into the bin.

Sin bent down, retrieved it, and then handed it to some little girl that’d been staring at him with awe.

She already had two others in her arms.

The line moved quickly, and when the man’s turn came up after the woman and the kids walked away, the man cursed, comically patted his pockets and declared, “Oh, shoot. I forgot my wallet. I’ll be right back.”

Then he too was gone.

I watched as Sin followed him out.

“I’ll be outside, babe,” I said to Belle, absently leaving her behind before she could so much as agree or disagree.

When I arrived outside it was to find Sin walking two paces in front of the woman, behind a row of cars and mostly out of sight, while the mom tried to corral her unruly children into some semblance of control.

The man doing the following had his phone to his ear, and everyone was walking toward a mini-van with two adult stick figures on the window, as well as three small children characters. Next to the mini-van was a white panel van that had my insides tensing in anticipation.

Sin walked up from the opposite end of the lot, taking an immediate right beside the van on the opposite side of the one I could see.

Just as the woman reached the doors of her van, the ones of the other van burst open and men started to pour out.

I came off the curb and started to run, hitting the guy that’d been doing the following with a right hook to the back of his head.

The kids started to scream as one of the attackers caught the oldest and started to pull her away from the mother who’d finally caught on that something wasn’t right.

Sin came out from the side of the van like an avenging angel and took that man in the mouth with a fist.

I saw two front teeth fall out to the dirty parking lot ground before the rest of the man’s body joined them.

The kid was yanked down with the body but quickly got back up and ran to her mother.

The mother who was busy trying to keep another child out of another kidnapper’s clutches.

I arrived just in time to snake my arm around his neck and choke him out.

The man let go of the kid quickly and started to clutch at his neck.

Most people in this particular situation didn’t stop to think. Didn’t plan out how to get away. No stomping on the insole of someone’s foot. No using the elbow that was close enough to use. Nope, they panicked. Just like this guy was doing.

It helped that I was at least a foot taller, and probably a hundred pounds heavier than him. So there wasn’t much fighting he could actually do at this point.

The moment he stopped fighting, I dropped him to the ground, too.

He landed with a meaty thump right beside the stunned mother.

Her mouth opened and closed like a fish, but I didn’t spare her the time or my attention.

I backed away and looked around to make sure that I’d gotten them all.

“You missed one.” Belle absently reared back and kicked the one I’d punched in the back of the head. The man slumped back to the ground, unconscious all over again.

I looked backward and grinned. “Thanks.”

CHAPTER 6

Never ask a woman who’s eating ice cream straight from the carton how she’s doing.

-Pro tip

BRUNO

“Looks good as new, Bruno,” the doctor informed me as he patted my chest.

I patted my chest where my pacemaker—the new one I’d just gotten a few months ago—lay underneath my chest.

It didn’t feel weird to me anymore.

Hadn’t since I had first gotten it when I was fifteen.

But it still looked weird as fuck.

“I can return to regular exercise?” I asked.

I’d already returned, but it was good to make sure, just in case.

“Yes, sir,” Dr. Haygood responded. “Just don’t be dumb.”

I rolled my eyes.

I wasn’t going to be dumb. At least not on purpose anyway.

After offering my hand and settling my bill, I walked out into the hallway and nearly ran right over a pacing brunette female.

My heart skipped a beat when the woman—Belle—jumped back like she’d been burned.

“Oh.” She placed her hand over her heart. “What are you doing here?”

She looked at the sign behind me that read ‘Dr. Lawrence Haygood, Cardiologist’ and raised her eyebrow.

I patted my chest. “I have a pacemaker.”

Her head tilted. “I realize that young people need them, but I didn’t realize that you had one. You don’t look sick.”

I shrugged. “I’m not. Anymore. But I was at one point in time. I got one when I was fifteen.”

Her brows rose. “Interesting. You never would know.”

I shrugged.

“What are you doing here?” I countered.

She crinkled up her nose.

“Well,” she hesitated. “I need to see a gynecologist. My yearly was due about three years ago. You know how I am with touch?” She looked at me as if I would understand. And I did. If regular touch was bad for her, then what must a touch like that be like? Torture, likely.

“I do,” I confirmed.

“Well,” she hesitated again. “I made this appointment months ago and forgot about it. The only problem is, I really need one. Three years is too long. And then I found out that the doctor is someone I know. So now I’m out here weighing the pros and cons of going inside.”

I frowned. “Someone you know?”

She winced. “Benji. My date that stood me up. Kind of. He’s the gynecologist.”

Understanding dawned. “Yeah, I’d totally skip that one.”

She sighed in frustration.

“I would. I really would. But my periods have gotten so heavy over the last six months that I think I need to see someone about them. Get something for them. Anything, really. It brings me down for like days every month now. And everyone else in the area is either booked solid for a half a year, or they’re a woman. And I don’t do women.”

“You don’t?” I wondered.

She shrugged. “I think it’s a man’s firmer touch that I’m more okay with. Women tend to have delicate touches. Which weird me out.”

That I sort of somewhat understood.

“So go.” I paused.

“You would?” she asked.

I thought about that for a moment and then shrugged. “I mean, it’s not like you have much of a choice, do you? You either go, or you don’t.”

Belle grinned. “So you can go with me… right?”

• • •

I wasn’t sure why I’d gone to her doctor appointment with her.

I’d known what it was for, and honestly, I would’ve probably been more inclined to stay outside had the man that wouldn’t take no for an answer not been her doctor. Apparently, over the last few days that had passed since the bar incident, Benji hadn’t taken a hint. He’d only tried all the harder to make up for his mistakes.

The man that had missed his date, called to apologize a few hours later, and gotten told in no uncertain terms by Belle that he was rude and needed to learn proper phone etiquette skills. She then refused to answer every call after that.

And, just like me, that attitude had turned the doctor on, and now he wouldn’t take the hint that Belle wasn’t interested.

That had to be why I’d tagged along to a gynecologist appointment.

Had to be.

There couldn’t be any other reason.

It was as we were sitting in the waiting room that I realized what, exactly, a ‘pap smear’ entailed.

“I’m not sure I should go in with you,” I admitted. “We barely know each other.”

And this would be incredibly awkward.

“Just stay behind my head. There’s a draped sheet. There’s nothing that can be seen from that end.” She paused. “My dad had to go with me to my first appointment. For some reason I was in such a frantic state about it when I first went that nobody but my dad would do. I realized after the fact that it wasn’t that bad, but yeah. My dad is my go-to in situations that freak me out.”

That had to be awkward.

“How old were you?” I asked curiously.

Before she could answer, her name was being called.

And before I could try to get out of going in all over again, she grasped me by the fingers—her whole hand fit around two of my fingers—and pulled.

She was surprisingly strong, and though I could’ve protested, I didn’t.

I stayed with her and all but dragged my feet all the way into the exam room.

“What’s that look for?” she asked as she started to strip her shoes and socks off.

I shook my head, something weird forming in my stomach when I saw her bare toes.

They weren’t painted like normal girls.

They were multiple colors. And some weren’t painted at all.

They were cute. And I’d never in my life thought toes were cute before.

But there I was, thinking it.

“You sure don’t talk much, do you?” she asked.

I shrugged.

She snickered and started to unbutton her pants.

I promptly closed my eyes and waited for her to fully undress.

I heard each article of clothing fall to the floor.

Pants. Undies. Shirt. Bra.

When she finally said, “You can open your eyes now,” I was practically panting.

That’d been the single most erotic thing I’d ever been exposed to, and the only thing that she’d done was strip.

Wonderful.

I had it bad for the girl that didn’t even like me.

Wasn’t that just my luck?

Then again, she would never know that I had it bad for her.

It would all stay locked up in a tight vault buried down deep in my chest, never to be found or examined.

At least, that was what I thought.

But the moment that the doctor all but fell into the room moments after she’d donned the gown—barely giving her time to get undressed and put it on—I felt a protective instinct start to surge inside of me.

One that demanded that I mark my territory so that other males knew what belonged to me.

“Belle, hi.” The doctor tried to act cool once he closed the door, but he didn’t accomplish it.

“Hey,” the nurse who’d followed him in squeaked. “Dr. Knight. Ow. You hit me in the face with the door. Watch it!”

During all of his flourishing entrance, not once did he turn to look at me leaning beside the door.

He walked right up to Belle and offered her his hand.

For some reason, that pissed me off.

I moved, walking to Belle’s opposite side, and drawing Benji’s attention.

“Uhh.” He paused, hand midway stretched out between himself and Belle. “Hello.”

“Belle isn’t comfortable with touches,” I said blankly. “Today, during this exam, you will announce everything you are about to do before you do it. Do you understand?”

Benji dropped his hand. “I’m very professional.”

I shrugged. “It’s not about being professional.”

“I have touch/sensory issues,” Belle said. “As well as a minor case of OCD. Which is why I’m going to ask you to wash your hands where I can see it. Otherwise I’ll obsess over it over and over again until you do. I’m sorry.”

That ‘I’m sorry’ was directed toward the nurse whose smile was soft.

“My daughter has autism,” she said as she walked over to the sink. “I’ll do whatever makes you most comfortable.”

My head tilted toward Belle, studying her.

Was that what she had?

If she did, it was a very minor case.

Or she was very adept at hiding it.

Whatever. She was good.

It was just another ‘I want her’ moment in my head that I tried to tuck away, but couldn’t.

Benji also went and washed his hands, and then did as asked, announcing every single move before he made it.

Five minutes into this exam, I finally moved away so that I was at the head of the table and couldn’t see what was beneath the sheet. But it really didn’t matter. I had one hell of an imagination, and what I imagined was almost worse than being shown.

I saw the way her smooth, tanned thighs parted, almost as if they were waiting for me.

The way her toes rested on the cloth-covered stirrups at the end of the bed.

Then I got to thinking about how fuckin’ perfect this table would be for what I wanted out of her, and how far out the stirrups could be pushed.

The doctor rolled his stool up between her legs, catching my attention, and I stared at him hard.

The nurse that was with him held out a plastic cup with a plastic wand with a pointy edge inside of it.

“This is just going to be a bit uncomfortable,” Dr. Benji Knight said. “This is going to be inserted into your vagina, and I’m going to scrape the end of your cervix with it.”

Sounded awful.

“It’s already uncomfortable because some man that I’d originally thought about letting into my vagina is about to stick his fingers up it for medical reasons,” Belle quipped. “Just do it. I don’t want to be here all day.”

My lips twitched.

From the vantage point I was at, I couldn’t see any of Belle’s goods, but I could see the doctor’s hands disappear underneath the sheet that was covering her waist.

The nurse who was standing there now only holding the plastic cup looked confused.

Then the girl I was quickly coming to like a whole lot started to hum the JAWS theme song.

My mouth all but fell open. Dun dun. Dun dun. Dun dun.

The doctor looked up and paused.

That’s when I couldn’t stop the laughter.

Using my hand, I all but covered my entire face as whatever happened, happened.

And when the doctor announced that he was done, Belle finally stopped humming.

“I need to check your breasts for lumps,” the doctor explained as he covered her up more thoroughly with the shittiest paper sheet I’d ever had the experience of seeing.

“Okay,” Belle said as she watched him come up to the side of the table.

“Arm up and relax,” he said. “I’m going to go in a circular motion…”

I wasn’t fast enough.

One second, I was wondering if he’d announce that he was moving the paper gown, and the next he was pulling it to the side.

I closed my eyes, but not in time.

I saw the tip of one dusky areola before I looked up at the ceiling.

And, as they say, that was the areola that broke the camel’s back. Or however the fuck that saying goes.

CHAPTER 7

Never blame someone else for the road you’re on. That’s your own asphalt.

-Text from Belle to Bruno

BELLE

“Oh my God,” I said as I walked into the kitchen later that night.

My mom, who was for some reason in my kitchen cooking dinner, looked up and said, “What?”

“I had the weirdest freakin’ day,” I told her.

Then I went about telling her everything that happened.

“You showed him your boob?”

That was Bourne’s wife, Delanie.

I looked over to find her and Booth’s wife, Dillan, sitting at the kitchen table.

I frowned. “You didn’t bring any kids with you, did you?”

“No,” they both answered as Dillan added on, “It’s mother’s day out. So we brought your momma over here to cook for us. We’re going to have margaritas and talk about how much we’re stressed.”

“Oh.” I paused. “I’m okay with you being here for an hour and a half, but no more. I got this new Whoop strap, and it tells me that to reach peak potential tomorrow, I have to go to bed at eight fifteen. And, since I stayed up late last night editing Hastings’ latest book, I really could use it.”

“What’s a Whoop strap?” my mother asked.

I showed her the monitor that I wore on my ankle.

“That looks like you’re under house arrest,” she teased. “Which I would understand more than you wearing a fitness tracker when you don’t do fitness anything. Unless you count fitting donuts into your mouth.”

She had a point but…

“I’m trying to get better about my sleep habits,” I admitted. “I started getting really bad headaches, and when I did research on them, I determined it was due to the blue light from the computers. So I got some blue light glasses, stopped playing on the computer after a certain time, and essentially stopped my headaches. But there are some times, when I get rush editing jobs, that I realize I can’t totally just stop the blue light. But last night was a special occasion. Hastings has been working on this particular book for like a year. And I wanted to see if it was as good as she kept hinting at. It was, by the way. You should both read it. It’s about the SWAT team and all that jazz.”

Hastings was married to another member of the SWAT team that my brothers were on, and she’d gotten ‘inspired’ last year.

Needless to say, her inspiration knocked it out of the park.

“What does you getting off the computer and going to bed early have to do with this fitness tracker?” my mom asked as she placed the cheese she’d been stirring on the stove in the middle of the table for us to start dipping chips in. When she was back at the stove, I took a seat at the table and scooped my own bowl of cheese even though I trusted Delanie and Dillan implicitly.

I’d always been pretty particular about my food.

None of it could touch until I wanted it to touch.

I didn’t share food or drink—I’d learned the hard way from when one of my brothers had stolen my drink and I’d found a popcorn kernel in the bottom of my cup when I was eleven.

I did not, under any circumstances, eat anything yellow.

That was why the cheese sauce that was on the table was white queso.

And so much better than the yellow.

I also did not eat anything cold that was supposed to be hot, or vice versa.

“It helps me figure out when I need to go to sleep. If I was disturbed in the middle of the night by anything. How many hours of sleep I got. How good of sleep I got. What my strain level is for the day.” I paused. “I joined a group of people who are low level on the autism spectrum, and we all compete to see who can perform the best each day. And since I’m currently losing, it’s forcing me to make better life choices. Like going to bed early. I’m hoping these margaritas give me a sedative effect and help me conk out. I want to beat this one bitch. She’s won every single day since I joined, and it’s driving me insane.”

My mother laughed as she came back to the table with the fixings for tacos. She placed the white cheese next to me and handed the fiesta mix to my two sisters-in-law.

Once we were halfway through our first margarita, and I’d eaten three tacos, Delanie said, “So tell me about this Bruno?”

I did, not skipping one single detail.

“You think he has a big penis?” she repeated.

I shrugged. “Well, his hand size, in correlation to his foot size, I would guess so. The guy is hulking.”

My mother, used to my bluntness, just shook her head. “Penis size means nothing when you can’t have sex.”

That was true.

I’d not been able to force myself to have sex.

The exchanging of body fluids thing, paired with the fact that the man would have to practically tell me everything he was doing before he did it, meant that I wasn’t number one on anyone’s ‘have sex with her’ list.

“True,” I admitted. “But I think, if anyone could do that, it would be Bruno. He understands a whole lot more than any man I’ve ever taken a chance on spending time with. Not to mention he’s exceptionally observant.”

My mother’s eyes widened. “Don’t ever repeat this conversation to your father.”

I smiled.

My father was… awesome.

But he was also brash, opinionated, set in his ways, and loved his girls more than he did his boys.

He loved my brothers, sure, but he wasn’t nearly as overprotective with them as he was with us girls.

Me especially.

I was so much like him, according to both my mom and my dad, that at times they wondered if my soul had just been siphoned from him when I was born.

It’s a big joke between them, that the moment that I was born, my father lost what was left of his sound judgment when it came to reacting correctly.

“Belle wouldn’t share something like this with Nico.” Delanie paused, seeing my face. “Would you?”

I shrugged. “I mean, if I wanted a male’s opinion, yes. I’d also share it with my brothers as well if I felt like it would get me anything. Their opinions don’t matter to me as much as my dad’s, though. But that’s neither here nor there. If I felt like it was something that I needed to share, then yes.”

“She’s told you that she took him to her first gynecology appointment, right?” my mother asked, dishing up a taco and plating it before reaching for some of the queso.

Delanie gasped. “You didn’t.”

I shrugged. What was the big deal?

“Sure I did.” I delayed. “Is that a bad thing?”

“No.” Dillan paused. “Not if you are weird.”

I grinned. “We’ve already established that we are weird.”

My phone rang in my purse, and I was frowning at it in surprise when my mom said, “Aren’t you going to get that?”

I looked at her while it kept ringing then stopped.

It started up again seconds later.

“The only people that would call me are here. And everyone else would call you first. Since you haven’t gotten a call, I’m assuming that whoever is at the other end of the line isn’t someone that I want to talk to,” I admitted. “I’ve been getting a lot of telemarketer calls lately.”

The weird thing was, I hadn’t.

I never got any phone calls period.

And, to top it off, I never, not ever, put my phone ringer on loud.

Not only was a ringing phone annoying, but I tended to go places where it was rude to have a phone blaring out in the middle of peace and quiet.

My mother stood up and went for my phone, pulling it out of my purse and glancing at the screen.

“It says Bruno,” she whispered, holding it out for me.

A memory of Bruno taking my phone and inputting his phone number, then calling his own with mine, flashed through me.

We’d been walking out to the parking garage, him at my side, when he’d said, “If you need help with that next time, or anything else, call.”

I took it before I’d even told myself I was going to.

Placing it to my ear I said, “Hello?”

“Ahhh.” A stranger’s voice filled the line. “This is Burnett County EMS. This man’s phone was found, open and unlocked, with your phone number as the only number in his incoming call log.”

I stood up and reached for my purse. “What hospital are you taking him to?”

“Mercy,” he answered. “And ma’am, I just want to warn you. Whatever happened to him… it’s bad.”

CHAPTER 8

Never do the same mistake twice. Unless he’s hot.

-Text from Belle to Bruno

BRUNO

My head hurt.

My nostrils hurt.

My dick hurt.

What the hell was going on?

I peeled my eyes open to find myself looking at a room full of cops, Belle at my bedside, and the memory of the last… however long… gone.

“Sir, we need to ask you a few questions,” the cop that was closest said. “Where were you last night from the hours of three in the morning and six?”

“That’s this morning, Officer,” Belle interjected. “Last night would mean anywhere from nine to eleven. Morning is morning. And, if you would’ve asked, I would’ve told you that he was with me. Yet you waited until the doctors forcibly woke him up to ask him?”

“There are children missing, ma’am,” the officer snarled.

That’s when Belle stiffened in her seat.

“My father is an officer.” Belle leaned forward, planting both of her hands on her knees. “My brothers are officers. My uncles are officers. Some of my best friends are officers. And you, might I add, are the absolute definition of an asshole. I know good officers, and you are not one.”

The officer looked a bit stunned, and I felt my heart skip a beat.

“I. Was. With. Him,” she repeated. “There may be children missing, but my fiancé is not involved. Do you understand me?”

Fiancé? What?

The officer looked properly chastised for a few seconds before a look of annoyance rolled over his face.

“Can you explain to me, then, your alibi so that I can put that in my report?” the officer asked sweetly.

If I could lift my hand, I’d punch him in that smart mouth.

Sadly, I wasn’t sure that I could lift a finger, let alone punch a man.

“We were at my house from the time that we left the hospital together—and before you ask, I had a gynecologist appointment. Since I’m uncomfortable with male touch, he accompanied me to help soothe my fears. From there, we had tacos, white queso, and homemade tortilla chips. It’s all currently sitting on my counter still, in case you wanted to know. We got a phone call, which led us to that park. Something about a spotting of my fiancé’s motorcycle that was stolen from my house earlier in the evening.”

“You made a report?” the officer asked her.

Belle rolled her eyes. “We didn’t know it was missing. The only reason we got a call was because the bike is very distinct, and one of our friends in a local MC saw some random male riding it that wasn’t my fiancé.”

Lies.

I knew those to be lies.

My bike was not very distinctive. Though it was old, it wasn’t anything special, and had no identifying characteristics on it that would lead any of my MC to believe that it’d been stolen or to be noticeable at all. That was how I lived—unnoticed.

At least, I did until this particular woman walked into my life.

She wasn’t my fiancée, was she?

The moment that she said that she was, memories started to flicker to life. Ones of a certain bar just a few days ago where we’d officially ‘met’ again as adults.

Even if I couldn’t remember the last few weeks—at least, what felt like a few weeks anyway just a few short minutes ago—I would remember a soon-to-be wife.

“And did you see anything in the park when you arrived?” the second officer asked.

Belle’s attention moved to him. “No. We got there, got his bike, and left. That was the only time we were separated. Then he was hit by a car.”

“He was hit by a panel van, and witnesses say that this joker used his own body and bike to help another van with what looked to be six terrified kids get away,” the second officer pushed.

Belle looked up at the ceiling. “Yes, and there’s only one man in three hundred and twenty-eight million people that rides a bike in the United States.”

“It’s just a coincidence that a man riding a bike was hit by a van? That my witnesses didn’t see what they thought they saw?” the officer all but snarled.

Belle’s back stiffened.

“Actually,” she said stiffly, “this particular county is hopping with not one, but two motorcycle clubs. The Uncertain Saints MC are but a forty-five-minute drive away, and then there are the Souls Chapel Revenants MC. Both motorcycle clubs bring carry-ons and would-be prospects as well as bikers far and wide that just want to be around a motorcycle club because it’s ‘cool.’ So no, I do not find it odd that a van hits a motorcycle. Especially when I can go out into the parking lot and hit about ten of them with a fresh loogie. And trust me, my dad tried for years to get me to learn how to spit. It didn’t stick. So I can’t spit very far. Just sayin.’”

The ‘bad cop’ as I’d dubbed him glared.

The ‘good cop’ who’d stayed quite quiet throughout all of this smiled.

The doctor came in moments after the word ‘loogie’ came out of Belle’s mouth.

He took a look around and frowned.

“I agreed to help you if you kept his blood pressure and his anxiety level down. He sustained a head injury. One that still could require surgery. I’ll expressly ask you to leave now,” the doctor growled.

Growled.

I liked that.

I had no clue who he was, but he wasn’t intimidated by the cops or me.

Because the moment they left, he turned and glared.

“And, just fuckin’ sayin’, if you’re complicit in the kidnapping of children, I’ll fuckin’ end you myself,” he snarled.

I read his nametag.

Blunt.

Now that was fuckin’ fitting.

Without another word, he glared at me. Then at Belle. Then left.

Belle snickered. “Dang, that was almost as bad as when my dad thought Bourne and Booth were stealing his beer and weren’t telling him.”

“Who was stealing his beer?” I asked the most important question on the tip of my tongue.

She pointed at herself. “Me. I wanted to see what it tasted like at first. Then I decided that I liked it. He should’ve switched to dark beer and I wouldn’t have drunk it anymore.”

I frowned. “How old were you?”

She smiled. “Fourteen.”

I shook my head, trying to clear it.

That just caused a burst of pain to hit me and caused nausea to well.

“What the hell is going on?” I asked the moment that the nausea cleared.

Belle looked at me.

“Well,” she hesitated. “I was eating tacos when I got a call from EMS that you’d been in an accident. When I got here, you were in a medically induced coma due to possible brain damage. There was a court order to wake you up, apparently, because there’s cause to believe that the panel van carrying those kids was one of about five other vans just like it. I decided that you shouldn’t be left alone, so I came in here, and then all these police officers started showing up. But based on your activities from the other night, I knew that you couldn’t have been involved in the stuff that they said you were. So I… lied.”

I blinked owlishly at her words.

“What day is it?” I asked.

“Tuesday,” she answered immediately.

“And we just were at the bar on Friday night, right? The night you ate those chicken wings?” I asked, remembering how she looked eating those chicken wings.

Somewhere during the course of the conversation, the last few days had caught up with me, and I now remembered everything up until today. I couldn’t tell you a single thing that had happened until now.

“Yes,” she confirmed.

“Okay.” I cleared my throat. “And what about the fiancé thing?”

She smiled, presenting me with brilliant white teeth.

“That was all me.” She paused. “I didn’t like that you were in here by yourself. While I eavesdropped in the emergency room, I found that you were just left there to stay, and I knew that I wouldn’t like waking up with police officers in my room asking me questions. Which I knew you wouldn’t like, either. So I had to lie to get to stay with you.”

I smiled softly at her.

My face was broken.

That had to be why I was smiling so much.

Her phone rang seconds later, and I looked at it pointedly.

“I don’t know who it is,” she said by way of explanation.

I jerked my chin. “Answer it.”

I had a feeling that I knew who it was.

“I don’t…” She hesitated.

“Just answer it,” I repeated. “It might be for me.”

She did then, placing it to her ear and saying a hesitant, “Hello?”

She frowned hard, and her beautiful scowl had me smiling wide.

For some reason, I wasn’t getting upset over my show of emotion.

From a young age, I was taught over and over again that showing any emotion at all was a very bad thing.

If my stepfather didn’t know he was affecting me, he didn’t get to see the reaction he was getting out of me, which then in turn meant that he couldn’t torture me even further.

It was a game that I played with myself.

One that was sometimes a hard game to deal with when I got my face bashed in for my lack of reaction.

Belle sighed, breaking me out of the nightmare that was my formative years, as she pulled the phone away from her face and placed it on a mound of pillows. I looked down to see Lynn’s face staring back at me.

“He can hear you now,” Belle grumbled, sounding so damn cute.

I didn’t point out the obvious of ‘him hearing us’ when we were now FaceTiming.

“You’re going to have to stay away from us for a while,” Lynn said, looking at me, then to Belle, and back. “Your fiancée here” —he looked pointedly at Belle, then back to me— “knows you as Aryus Dumas. Y’all met in Vegas a week ago. Got engaged. End of story. Okay?”

“For how long?” I asked curiously.

Damn, my head hurt.

“Until we can find the rest of those kids,” Lynn said simply. “We don’t need the club’s name associated with finding a car full of kids. Or my name, either.”

He had a point.

“And you can’t go home,” Lynn continued. “You are known as a Souls Chapel Revenant.”

Before I could bark out an ‘okay’ Belle was leaning forward so that she was directly in the line of sight of the phone’s camera.

“He can come home with me,” Belle entered into the conversation. “I have plenty of room.”

I couldn’t see Lynn’s face, but I could hear him when he said, “Now I don’t think that’s a great idea…”

“It’s a perfect idea seeing as I just announced he was my fiancé,” Belle admitted, scooting back so that I could again see Lynn’s face. “Sooner or later, everything is going to get out about who he is. A child being saved from being kidnapped is going to make national news.”

Lynn sighed. “I know. But we only need a few days, hopefully. They’re still in the area—the ones responsible for this—because they’re afraid to move right now and draw attention.”

He had a point.

I pressed my hand against my face, feeling the pressure behind my eyes, and wondered if my brain might really explode.

“You okay?”

I wasn’t sure who’d asked it. Lynn or Belle.

My head had gone from an ‘I’m about to perish’ to ‘I’m already dead’ throbbing level.

I opened my eyes to tell whoever would listen that I needed something, but when I opened them, my vision was gone.

Everything was just… black.

“Fuck. I can’t see.”

Then I promptly passed out.

CHAPTER 9

Not everyone is going to believe I’m pretty or funny. They’re wrong though.

-Belle to Bruno

BELLE

“He’s having seizures,” Dr. Blunt growled. “They’re being controlled now with medication, but seizures are not a good sign. Neither is the fact that his pupils are not equal. The vomiting was controlled as well with medication. But I’ve put him back under for at least the next few days. The swelling needs to go down. Now. I’m still under the impression that his brain will not need surgery based on the scans, but that’s something that could change at any point in time.”

I felt my stomach all but fall out of my body at his words.

“Do you have any questions?” Dr. Blunt asked.

I shook my head.

I had about a gazillion, but I’d research those instead of listening to Dr. Blunt explain something when it was very clear he did not want to be explaining anything.

And, honestly, I was okay with that.

As long as he took care of Bruno—Aryus—that was just fine with me.

Dr. Blunt nodded at my words and tried to stalk out of the room, but just as he hit the doorway, he nearly ran over a woman with bright violet hair.

“Sorry,” Dr. Blunt grunted as he veered around her and finished his stalk from the room.

I stared at the woman in the doorway with curiosity.

“Can I help you?” I wondered.

The woman turned her gaze to me and smiled, her lip quivering.

“Bruno’s my best friend.”

My brows rose at that. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” She nodded. “I’ve been giving him a hard time over the last year.”

I would love to know the story.

“So I hear you’re his fiancée?” she asked quietly.

The way she said ‘fiancée’ had me grinning.

She knew it was fake. Just like I knew it was fake.

Though, it was starting to feel really un-fake like.

The feelings that were currently rioting through my system were making me nervous.

I was feeling things about the man lying in the bed beside me that I hadn’t felt about any man ever.

“Aryus is mine, yes,” I confirmed.

Six snorted. “He always hated being called by his middle name. I’ll bet it annoys him to no end to go by that for now.”

I tilted my head to the side. “Why is that?”

“It was his real father’s name. He wasn’t very happy with how Aryus left. He wanted to get rid of that name like it was the plague or something,” Six admitted, walking farther into the room.

I noticed that she looked almost hesitant as she took more and more steps into the room.

“Why are you so nervous?” I wondered. “Just come in here and sit down.” I paused. “Are you even allowed to be here? Lynn made it sound like everyone was staying away.”

Six rolled her eyes. “He’s not my daddy or my keeper. He’s my husband. I do what I want, when I want, and he just sits back and rolls with the punches. If he has to do damage control, he has to do damage control. I don’t care. But I’m not going to leave B—Aryus here without knowing he’s in good hands.” She turned her stare directly on me. “Is he in good hands?”

I showed her my hands.

Six snickered as she finished her walk around Bruno’s bed and came to a stop beside him. “He’s taking the fall for this so we can find them. I’m sure he doesn’t know that just yet, but even if he did know, he’d allow it. He’s got a special place in his heart for these kids.”

My curiosity must’ve shown on my face because she said, “Bruno was taken as a young child. Kept for almost a week at the age of six before Texas Marshalls found him in the back of a box van with seven other children around the same age. He doesn’t talk about it much. Hell, I’m not even sure he remembers much of it, but it shaped the man that he became today.”

That made my heart hurt for the little boy that he used to be.

Which was quite weird because I was feeling so strongly for someone that I’d literally just met.

The feelings shouldn’t be this intense. Not yet.

“What’s with that face?” Six asked curiously, smoothing Bruno’s hair out of his eyes.

There was caked blood in it.

My stomach clenched.

“I have feelings for him and I don’t really even know him all that well.” I paused. “I punched him in the throat on my first day of high school.”

Six gasped, her head whipping to the side so fast that it looked almost staged. “That was you?”

I tilted my head. “You saw?”

She shook her head instantly, her hand dropping from Bruno’s head, which caused me an immense amount of relief.

So apparently, Bruno wasn’t allowed to be touched by any one of the female persuasion, or it set off my anger meter.

“I got a secondhand account from Bruno,” she admitted. “He told me all about it when we met for lunch.” Her smile was wide. “He said, ‘some ten-year-old just tried to kill me’ and that was that. I had to find out from a few people later what really happened. It was comical to say the least.”

My lips curled up in amusement.

“I was having a bad day,” I admitted. “Not to mention I was still dealing with a lot of issues then. I didn’t like people touching my stuff or me, and he’d tried to help me. I reacted badly, I admit. But to be honest, it’d been a very bad day.”

Six waved me away. “It’s okay. Everyone is allowed those kinds of days.”

A commotion in the hallway had us both turning toward it to see a man with an official looking business suit on stuffing something in his pocket, and the two cops from earlier, as well as Dr. Blunt outside Bruno’s room.

“I should probably go before I’m caught,” she confessed quietly.

I didn’t disagree.

There was a reason that the rest of them weren’t here.

“And, if Lynn catches me here, or I’m caught by someone else, things might go south. And though nobody really knows of me, the right person could figure it out.” She sighed.

“I’ll keep you updated if you want to text,” I offered.

She winked. “I’ll text you. No calling?”

I scrunched up my nose in disgust. “I don’t do phone calls.”

Her eyes twinkled as she hiked her hair up into a sloppy bun, then pulled the hood of her sweatshirt up over her head.

That’s when I saw the lettering on the sweatshirt.

“Dallas PD?” I asked curiously.

She shrugged. “I found it at the Goodwill. Hopefully nobody will ask me any questions this way.”

I mean, it was possible.

But it might also draw more attention to her in the long run.

“Do you need my phone number?” I asked curiously.

She shook her head.

“No. I have Hunt. He can find anything. Do you need anything?” Six asked. “Before I leave?”

I thought about that for a moment.

“I need my laptop, a change of clothes, and my medication off the table in my room,” I answered instantly. “But I also really need to go home and shower.”

She pointed to the room beyond me. “Take one here. I’ll have your stuff delivered.”

With that, she slipped out of the room, barely noticed by the men in the hallway as they discussed something.

I slipped out of my chair and stared at Bruno’s lax face.

He had a five o’clock shadow. Or, more appropriately, a ten o’clock shadow.

He didn’t look like he shaved every day. But he did look like he kept it somewhat under control so that it wasn’t what one would consider a ‘full’ beard.

More like a shadow of one that could turn into one very quickly if he’d had a mind to do it.

My eyes took in the dark circles under his eyes, as well as the bruising on the side of his face that was becoming more and more prominent every single hour that passed.

The abrasions from what looked like sliding on asphalt on his chin, throat, left shoulder and arms were oozing.

The blood that was in his hairline hadn’t been cleaned off, and I could see bits and pieces of debris in his hair as well.

All of which bothered me to no end.

Which was why I stood up and headed for the door, uncaring that I was walking out into the middle of all the men talking. About Bruno.

“Ma’am,” the bad cop said stiffly.

I ignored him and kept walking until I got to the nurses’ station, waiting for someone to look at me.

None of them did.

“Excuse me,” I grumbled to the one closest. “I need some clean rags and hot water so I can get him cleaned up,” I told the woman.

She blinked at me. “I can come in there and do that. I was just waiting for the room to empty out of visitors.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” I told her. “And it’s okay. I can do it.”

Her eyes said she’d rather argue, but her mouth said something different.

“I’ll bring it to your room,” she murmured. “Did he need more water?”

He was in a coma. I highly doubted that water would be helpful to him right now.

“He’s in a coma and can’t speak to ask for water, nor can he drink it,” I told her. “I mean, I guess you could give me ice chips, and I could allow them to melt in his mouth.”

She gave me a chin lift that clearly said, ‘okay, go away.’

Which I did.

I walked into the room to find the men now standing in Bruno’s room instead of out in the hallway.

Dr. Blunt had his arms crossed over his chest and he was glaring hard at the jerk from earlier.

My eyes went to his chest where normally a nametag would reside, only to come up empty.

I frowned. “Are you even a cop?”

The guy’s eyes went wide.

Then, before I could so much as blink, the guy took off running.

He bumped me with his shoulder on the way out, hitting me so hard that I had no choice but to go to the ground.

I hit hard just as the fake cop hit the doorway and took off for real.

There was a loud screech, a crash, and then the sound of water hitting the ground as well as a male scream.

That’s when the other two cops—the nice one from earlier and the suited one—took off after the runaway.

Exaggerated reaction much?

Shaking my head at the whole matter, I got up and took a seat next to the bed and stared at Bruno.

“Do you think that they were trying to kill you?” I asked curiously. “Because I read a lot of murder mystery, and if I was going to kill you, I’d do it now when you’re in the woods and your health is questionable. Doing it later makes it more obvious.”

The sexy man didn’t answer me, and I found myself irrationally angry that he didn’t.

That was one of my problems though. Anger.

I’d had that issue for as long as I knew. It was something that I couldn’t help, yet I got better and better every year at controlling it.

That was why I’d become such a recluse. Or, when I did go out, I went out with family or people very close to me that wouldn’t find my anger annoying.

“So what’s the big deal?” I asked him. “I wonder if they said anything that you could hear? I hear that if you are in a coma, you can still understand everything that is going on around you. I guess we’ll have to wait a few days for your answer, though, since they said they would keep you under so the swelling could go down. They also said that there’s a significant chance that you wouldn’t remember anything. That memory loss was a rather large possibility.” I looked at his arms where the scraping was most prominent. “Probably a good thing you’re in a coma since that road rash probably hurts like a bitch.”

A throat cleared behind me and I turned slightly to see the well-dressed suited guy from earlier.

He cleared his throat again and said, “Ma’am. My name is Jarome Gustier. I’m a special agent with the FBI.”

“Most people introduce themselves as Special Agent Jarome Gustier. Why did you switch it up?” I asked curiously.

He blinked.

He was a beautiful mocha-skinned black man that had the most pillowy lips I’d ever seen. I wanted to touch one with my finger to see if they were as soft as they looked.

His eyes were a warm butterscotch, and he had a black tight beard to the lower half of his face that looked like he’d just visited the barbershop yesterday.

Though, his hair was much the same. Perfectly cropped and cut.

I liked it.

I liked a well-dressed man.

Though, as I allowed my gaze to drift back over to Bruno, his unkempt look from today, and his ‘fuck it’ attitude with his dirty jeans and black tee from the bar last week, was definitely growing on me.

“I would have,” Jarome admitted, “but I try not to look like a pretentious asshole to people that I want to like me.”

My brows rose. “You want me to like you?”

The nurse arrived with some water in a large pink tub and a stack of washcloths inside.

She smiled tightly at Jarome, placed the bucket on the rolling table that was at Bruno’s bedside, and then went about checking things.

His urine output, the blood pressure cuff, and finally the IV lines before she left without a single word.

My eyes went back to Jarome, brows lifting in question.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I just get these feelings about people. And my gut is telling me that you need to like me.”

I snorted. “Maybe it’s your gut telling you that whatever expedition you were sent here to suss out is a joke. And that fake cop that was just here was your primary objective.” I paused. “Was the other guy a fake cop, too?”

“I’m not,” the good cop from earlier said as he came in. “I was ‘just assigned’ that man as my partner today. Yet I wasn’t told that he was my partner from the head brass. Which should’ve been a red flag, but I’m on hour forty-nine of a twenty-four-hour shift, and my brain isn’t working in tip-top shape right now.”

I immediately felt sorry for him.

I knew that if I didn’t get the correct amount of sleep, I was a right cow.

I couldn’t imagine working a forty-eight-hour shift.

Or a twenty-four one, for that matter.

I’d learned early that a structured schedule, with eight full hours of sleep, was best for me.

The guy standing in front of me looked like he’d had eight full hours of straight coffee.

My heart would be going gonzo right now if that were me.

“I’m Officer Dremmel,” he said. “I’m with the sheriff’s department. You’ve met Jarome?”

I nodded.

“We’re here to ask you a few questions about your whereabouts last night,” he said. “We know that you’ve already told us what you know, but we’d like to go over it one more time.”

I rolled my eyes, then went over it not once, but three more times.

By the end of the third round, I stood up.

“I know that you’re trying to find justice for children,” I said stiffly. “But right now, I need a break. He needs to rest. I need to get the blood that’s caked in his hair out. I want to clean his scrapes. And you’re bothering me. Don’t make me call my daddy.”

Jarome shifted, his eyes narrowing.

“Your father wouldn’t happen to be Nico Pena in Kilgore, Texas, would he?” he asked, seeming slightly alarmed.

I tilted my head. “Yes. Why?”

He swallowed. “Your mother Georgia?”

I blinked. “Yes.”

Jarome sighed. “She’s telling the truth here. I don’t need any further questioning from her.”

I blinked. “You don’t? Why?”

He slowly lifted his arm, then did that sexy thing men do when they roll the sleeves of their dress shirts up. The thing that always drives women wild.

I was so entranced with the movements of his fingers that I didn’t notice the scar until he said, “Your dad saved me from my own kidnapping when I was four. My arm was caught in a car door and I was drug for thirty feet before I fell free. He sat with me in a hospital for over eight hours before my parents were able to arrive in a private plane he’d gotten for them from Michigan.”

I understood instantly.

“You’re him,” I said. “My dad had nightmares about you for years after that.”

Jarome nodded solemnly. “Not my favorite thing in the world to remember. But I do remember being thankful that Nico was the man that found me. And, saying that, I’m now more than convinced that you wouldn’t be marrying a man that would allow that.”

I looked over at Bruno’s comatose form.

“No,” I agreed. “I wouldn’t.”

Fifteen minutes later, after being informed that the man that’d been posing as a cop had been apprehended, they both left, leaving me alone with the man that I couldn’t stop staring at.

Picking up the now lukewarm tub of water, I walked it over to the sink and dumped half of it out, refilling it with piping hot water that would counterbalance it out.

When it was at the desired temp, I brought it back to the rolling table and pulled out a washcloth that felt like a Brillo pad.

Wincing at how raw it would feel on his wounds, I was almost tempted to go ask for some softer ones, but decided that nothing would feel good at this point in time.

It was just lucky that he was asleep.

Bringing the washrag to his face, I paused midway when the thought of causing him pain made me physically ill.

Hopefully pain wasn’t like hearing, and you could feel it no matter whether you were put under or not.

Pulling out my phone, I quickly Googled whether coma patients could feel pain.

Answer: they couldn’t.

Thank. God.

After that, I made sure to wash every single bit of blood, dirt, and debris off of his skin and out of his hair.

By the time I’d finished with his arms, and his lower body, the water was a dingy brown, and I was thinking I needed some baby soap and another full bucket of water to roll over his skin as a cleanse.

But before I could, I got a text message.

I frowned and walked over, dumping the water and washing the tub out as best as I could before drying my hands off and walking to the phone that was sitting in the vacated chair on the side of Bruno’s bed.

Picking it up, my brows lifted to my hairline for a second time in an hour at what I read.

Six: that guy that was posing as a cop was an assassin. Like, honest to God, hired assassin. Lynn is putting armed guards on your door as we speak. They’re ex-cops in private security. Bruno knows something that we don’t. I know that it’s illogical to ask you to keep him safe but… try. He’s one of my best friends. And now more than ever Lynn won’t let me anywhere near him.

I flicked a glance up at the deep-sleeping man and said, “My dad really isn’t going to like you after he hears about this. But, I have a feeling that you’ll be able to talk him around.”

CHAPTER 10

I have a ho in different area codes.

-Belle tracking her Christmas packages

BRUNO

“An assassin?” I heard barked.

I couldn’t move my hands. Not my face. Not my arms or my legs. All I could do was hear.

“So I was told,” the female voice replied. “I’m still here. Someone brought me my laptop, some toiletries, and a change of clothes. But I’m here for the long haul.”

“You don’t even know him, Belle!” I heard bellowed.

“I know him. He’s my fiancé, Daddy. Get used to it,” Belle, the woman that owned that tantalizing voice, murmured smoothly. “And stop yelling. I’ve heard that coma patients can hear everything. We want to keep him calm, not rile him up when he can’t do a damn thing about his situation.”

“You can walk your happy ass right the fuck out of this hospital is what you can do,” Belle’s father growled. “Right now.”

“No,” she replied just as fast.

“Belle Pena, don’t make me…” the man rumbled.

“You may leave. We don’t need your negativity,” Belle growled back.

She was getting pissed.

She sounded adorable.

I drifted after that, not catching the rest of their conversation.

The next time I woke up felt like a long time later.

This time, the sweet voice of Belle was reading to me.

“…he thrust his cock deep into her sheath, not caring in the least that she was a virgin and that she was unused to his size.”

My brain whirled at the sound of her voice, saying those words.

If I could move my arms, I would be reaching for her right then and there.

“He pumped his hips deep into her valuga… nope. Typo. I think you meant vagina, Hastings.” She paused. “Bruno, would you say pump my cock into her vagina, or would you say pussy? Because I’m thinking, since this is from the male’s point of view, he would definitely say pussy and not vagina.”

Definitely pussy.

But, sadly, I couldn’t answer her, even though I wanted to so very badly.

Again, my thoughts drifted.

This time, when I woke up, she was talking again.

“The ball is in your court,” she all but yelled.

I had no clue what she was talking about.

Nor did I think she was talking to me.

“No, you moron. Don’t buy a vowel. Statistics show that you’ll end up on bankrupt, you dumbass.” She paused. “See? I frickin’ told you so. Bankrupt. You’re such a moron.”

I would’ve laughed had I been capable.

My bet was she was watching Wheel of Fortune.

“Yep, I was right. Moron. Hey, Bruno, you would’ve gotten that, right? I have a certain set of standards that I expect the man that I marry to meet,” she chirped.

Once again, I drifted.

Each time I came back, it was her voice that I heard.

Until one time, instead of drifting away, I swam up into consciousness.

“This’ll likely take a couple of h…” a woman’s voice said. Not my woman’s. “Holy shit.”

“What?” a beautiful voice asked.

I turned my head to find the owner of that beautiful voice and smiled when I found her.

Belle.

“Hey,” she gasped. “You’re awake!”

I was.

Finally.

I’d been drifting like this for what felt like a long ass time.

It was never-ending.

Something that I really didn’t like.

The fact that I couldn’t talk to her. Console her. Ask her a question. It was physical torture.

“I’ll go get his doctor,” the nurse, at least I assumed she was the nurse, said from the other side of the bed. “Wow, this has never happened like this before.”

I didn’t bother to look at her as she walked out of the room.

In fact, my eyes didn’t even blink as I continued to watch the woman that’d been talking to me in hell.

“Do you want some water?” she asked curiously, reaching long, elegant fingers for a Styrofoam cup at my bedside. She shook it and found it empty. “Sorry, but I drank it all. You weren’t drinking it and…”

“No,” I croaked.

Okay, maybe I needed some water.

But I didn’t want her to leave to go get me some.

I wanted her to stay exactly where she was, within reaching distance.

“I’m not going anywhere.” She smirked. “I can fill it up from the tap, but I can’t leave you. Not when you have someone that has a very substantial hit out on you.”

My brows furrowed as she walked away toward the sink beside my bed.

I was in a very nondescript hospital room with windows on one side, a small alcove, sink, and door on the other.

The only pop of color in the entire place was Belle’s bright royal blue shirt that clung to each and every single curve she had.

And the black yoga pants looked amazing on her shapely ass.

The long, black wavy hair that hung down her back only accentuated how beautiful she was, making me want to raise a hand and sink my fingers into the long locks.

“Do you remember anything?” she asked curiously.

No.

“No,” I voiced my thoughts. “Why? Should I?”

My brain was a bit fuzzy.

In fact, I couldn’t remember much of anything.

“Do you know your name?” she asked.

I frowned. “Bruno Aryus Marks.”

She did a little happy dance as she filled up the water.

“And what’s my name?”

“Belle,” I answered.

“And what am I to you?” she asked.

I tilted my head. “Mine.”

CHAPTER 11

Psychiatrist: What triggers you?

Me: Nouns

Psychiatrist: Nouns?

Me: You know, people, places and things.

-Text from Belle to Bourne

BELLE

“You’re sure the memory will come back?” I asked nervously, looking at the man at the end of the bed that was tying his boots.

“With time, yes,” Dr. Blunt replied. “It’s not very surprising that he has memory loss. He suffered a motorcycle wreck. Hit his head pretty hard on the ground because of the way he landed. Fortunately for him, he was wearing a helmet like a sane person. Had brain swelling. It’s normal. Most people get their memories back. You’re lucky he remembers you.”

I wasn’t so sure he ‘remembered’ me as much as he was possessive of me.

I mean, I’d take it, but I wanted him to figure out what got him here in the first place.

The fact that he couldn’t remember was scaring the crap out of me.

An assassin set on killing you over something you don’t even remember that you know? That wasn’t a good thing.

“He’s free to go.” Dr. Blunt shoved his hands into the pockets of his doctor’s coat. “If you have any questions, call the nurse.”

I would’ve laughed had I not been so scared.

I’d never really dealt with being ‘targeted’ before. I mean, my dad was a cop. I was protected beyond measure.

But the moment we left this hospital, we were going to find ourselves the target of someone that was hell-bent on killing the man I was quickly falling for.

Hell, I didn’t know who I was joking.

I’d already fallen for him.

It’d started when I’d denied him a date and ended when I’d found him hurt here in the hospital.

I didn’t have much rationality where he was concerned.

I mean, who the hell fell in love with a guy that fast? Certainly not most sane women.

And hell, what made it worse was that the majority of the ten days that I’d been around him, he’d spent in a coma and couldn’t talk back to me.

“Thank you,” I murmured softly. “I really appreciate everything that you’ve done for him.”

Dr. Blunt grunted out a few words that I couldn’t quite decipher and then left, leaving without another word.

I walked back past the two security guards that had scary looking eyes—eyes that felt like they looked straight through my soul—and moved toward Bruno.

“You ready to go?” I asked him.

“Mr. Dumas,” the security guard that was closest to me said. “We’ve got you a car in the back alley closest to the service entrance.”

Bruno stood up, his face ghostly white, and carefully nodded his head.

He had a fresh Band-Aid on his arm that covered his recently removed IV.

That was the only thing that could be considered ‘wrong’ with him since all of his other wounds were covered up by clothing.

He had a long-sleeved black t-shirt covering his upper body, shoved up to his elbow to reveal his forearms. He had on a pair of faded denim jeans that looked like they’d been found in the dumpster outside considering how dirty they were.

Then there were his scuffed boots.

He was wearing the same stuff that he’d come into the hospital with.

Surprisingly, none of it had been cut off of him because of his refusal to allow the ER staff to cut them off of him.

Bruno’s nurse had also offered to have them laundered—I secretly think she had the hots for him but was too intimidated to go past offering to do things for him—but he’d refused.

Which led us to now, walking out of the hospital, two security guards escorting us.

It took me two steps with Bruno’s hand in mine to show me that this wasn’t going to go how I’d planned.

It was only as the security guards were in the elevator, holding the door, that Bruno let them in on his plans.

“I’m going in my own elevator,” he murmured. “What floor are you going to?”

The security guards answered, their eyes curious and watchful.

“I’ll meet you down there,” Bruno muttered.

They nodded and went down—I wasn’t sure that was protocol, but who would argue with a grown man that looked like he could take on mountain lions and bears barehanded if he needed to?

Only after the doors completely closed and the next elevator opened did Bruno turn away from the elevator doors and start moving.

“Ummm.” I paused as I watched him turn us down the hallway directly to our left, go down two flights of stairs, and then take an immediate left into what looked like a long hallway that led to nowhere. “Where are we going?”

Bruno glanced at me, reached for my hand, and then tugged me toward him.

I went willingly, loving the way his hand practically engulfed mine.

I loved it even more that, despite not remembering who I was, he wasn’t letting me go.

“Back way out of here,” he answered, words clipped and carefully neutral.

He wasn’t moving fast, but he was still moving us faster than what I imagined was comfortable for him.

More importantly, he’d just woken up from his coma two days ago. He was still sore—that would happen when your head was practically ran over, helmet or not—and he probably shouldn’t be doing anything this strenuous.

“But what about the security guards?” I asked curiously as he continued.

He looked at me over his shoulder, his eyes going to where our hands were connected as a little frown filled his face, and then turned back around without answering.

I sighed and went with the flow, following him dutifully out of a side entrance that spit us out, not at the back or the front of the hospital, but across the damn street after we crossed over the skybridge.

He led us to a nondescript black sedan in the middle of the parking lot, parked me directly at the front driver’s side door, and then walked all the way around the car.

Just as he made a near complete circuit, his phone rang, and he reluctantly pulled it out and put it on speaker before saying, “Yeah?”

“Bruno, what the fuck?” Lynn barked into the phone. “That was for you!”

Bruno looked at the phone. “Don’t care. If you say don’t trust anybody, I’m not going to trust anybody. Even you.”

He had a point.

What did I know about Lynn?

Obviously, I’d asked my father about him.

Though he’d known ‘some’ about the ‘mayor of Kilgore’ he hadn’t known enough that he felt like I would be safe with him with an assassin hell-bent on taking Bruno out.

Lynn sighed. “So I take it you’re not going to Belle’s place, either?”

My heart skipped a beat at that announcement.

Bruno’s eyes met mine. “We’re going to mine.”

“Yours as in the one that nobody from this club has been to, that I haven’t been to, that one of your best friend’s hasn’t even been to?” Lynn asked carefully.

There was a pause and then Bruno said, very carefully, “Yes.”

Then he hung up, shoved the phone into his pocket, and then gestured at me to get started.

I looked at him blankly.

“I don’t know what you’re expecting me to do,” I admitted. “I don’t have the keys to this car.”

He pulled something out of his pocket, a set of keys, and then unlocked it.

“Lifted it from the tech that was taking all my bandages off earlier,” he murmured. “We’ll drive to the nearest car lot and leave it there. From there, we’ll buy a new one and head out.”

Buy a new one.

What?

But that was exactly what he meant.

It took us ten minutes to get there, fifteen to buy the car—Bruno was very persuasive—and five to get the keys before we were heading out in a brand-new, 2021 Chevy truck under my name.

My. Name.

I wasn’t sure why it was under my name.

I didn’t ask. Didn’t think it would matter.

Only…

“You know,” I said. “If you were going to buy it in my name, you should’ve let me pay some of it off. I’m trying to build up my credit.”

He looked over at me.

“I have an 823 credit score right now. I want to have perfect credit, however,” I explained when he still hadn’t turned to look at me.

Which was then making me nervous.

“What you mostly need to do there is open more lines of credit in your name. A car would’ve worked—if we would’ve had the time to sit there and do all that paperwork. Even spending what we did there was a chance I probably shouldn’t have taken. Saying that, we needed a vehicle that was new. One that didn’t happen to have a tracker on it like the one they wanted me to get into probably had. And, just sayin’, I pay. Always. Get used to it,” he grumbled as he took the driver’s seat this time.

“I guess that’s a good enough reason not to take that car,” I expressed warily as I slid in beside him.

The seats were nice. Like warm, melted butter.

I pressed my hands to the leather underneath of me and nearly moaned.

I loved heated seats, and I loved soft things.

Soft things made my life go round.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

I petted the seat some more.

“You know how, a long time ago, t-shirts had tags in them and you had to wear and wash them a bazillion times before they were soft?” I asked out of the blue.

He grunted out a word that sounded possibly like ‘yeah’ so I kept going.

“I was thinking how all this changed,” I said as I continued to feel up the seats. “Things didn’t used to be this soft. Which was a massive trigger for me. I had to have soft things. My dad used to dress me in his old t-shirts because they were always soft and comfy. He learned how to cut the tags out perfectly. Then, they started to change up t-shirts. Now they’re tagless and are in a soft cotton blend that isn’t scratchy at all. And they’ve come out with some great feeling sleep clothes—again, they had to be super soft or I’d be naked. I remember my dad used to have an old truck back when we were kids. I hated riding in it because it had one of those scratchy industrial seat covers on it. The kind that were universal for several truck seats. Anyway, he used to have to give me a blanket to lay over the seat so I’d even get in it.”

“Sounds like a pain in the ass,” he grumbled. “But I can see why it would bother you, I guess.”

I snickered.

“I’m weird,” I told him. “There are things about me that’ll make you sit there and question my sanity. I’m sorry you’re stuck with me now.”

He turned to look at me when we came to a stoplight.

“If I didn’t want you to be here, you wouldn’t be.”

With that, he drove in silence until we arrived at our destination.

CHAPTER 12

It’s thick girl season. All u thin crust women sit down. Deep dish coming through.

-T-shirt

BRUNO

My head hurt.

I couldn’t remember what I’d done last week, let alone last month, and the last thing I wanted to do was feed my animals.

But the moment that I pulled up in front of my barn, I knew that I’d fucked up.

Not telling anyone where I lived meant that nobody but I could take care of the animals.

It also meant that, though they could forage on their own, they hadn’t eaten ‘well’ in well over ten days.

Son of a bitch!

I hadn’t understood the urgency to get here until now, and when I got out of the truck and heard my pigs bleating like they hadn’t been fed in weeks, I couldn’t stop the rush to my steps.

“What is that?” Belle gasped, trying to hurry after me but her feet were slipping in the mud.

She stopped where she stood, looking at the mud in horror.

I’d already realized that she didn’t do anything sticky.

When she was helping me pull off the bandages, she’d made sure to get every single sticky piece that the bandages had left behind.

Even when I’d told her I would be okay.

And mud was definitely sticky.

And dirty.

And her shoes were now coated in it.

“I have some boots that I accidentally ordered in my barn,” I told her. “Come on. I’ll get your shoes taken care of after you get in there.”

She reluctantly started to trudge through the mud, her eyes practically squeezed shut as she did.

“And to answer your question,” I said, “what you’re hearing are my pigs.”

“Pigs?” she gasped. “They sound like starving cats.”

“Pigs,” I confirmed. “They’re the only fat asses that ‘can’t live off the land’ because they’re spoiled little shits.”

Her eyes widened in horror. “Did they get starved all week?”

I shook my head. “No. They can forage and live off the land. They just would rather be fed apples and table scraps like dogs.”

Her lips twitched up into a smile as we made it into the barn, and I pointed at the closet that held the new boots.

“Don’t know if they’re your size,” I said. “But I’m sure they’ll work.”

She pulled the door open and her eyes lit on all the stuff that was in there.

Random boots in all sizes, clothes, jackets. Anything someone visiting might need.

“Not my stuff, by the way,” I told her as I opened the pigs’ feed bin and started to load the wheelbarrow that was next to it. My head throbbed with each shovel full. “When I moved here, the farmer had granddaughters. The granddaughters visited at random times, so he always made sure to keep stuff handy for them. But the boots really are new. I ordered myself a pair and those were with them.”

Belle pulled the bright, shiny black boots with colorful yellow daisies on them out of the closet and smiled.

“They are my size,” she said as she walked to the nearest pile of feed sacks and took a seat on top of three bags. Then she proceeded to toe off her shoes as delicately as she could, then don the boots.

She held them up for inspection.

“Cute,” I told her, not lying in the least. “Until they get covered in mud.”

She wrinkled up her nose but didn’t complain as we walked together to the still bleating pigs.

“You have cows.” She stopped in front of a Boudin, a jersey milk cow that I’d rescued a few years ago.

And why the fuck could I remember what I did a few years ago, but the last year was a complete and utter blank? Hell, if I was being honest, I wasn’t even too crushed about it seeing as it landed Belle in my lap.

Boudin stuck her neck out in hopes of pats, but Belle was already backing away.

“I don’t do mud well,” she explained hesitantly. “I don’t do sticky. And I don’t do loud noises. Do you think that those pigs’ll stop screaming when you feed them?”

I walked to their pen and dumped the food into the trough instead of answering. The moment that the food hit the metal, and all the pigs surrounded it, the bleating stopped as if it’d never been.

Belle started to chuckle as she walked carefully through the muddy area until she was standing next to the fence.

“They probably never made a sound until they heard me pull up,” I explained. “They really do have plenty to eat out there.” I pointed to the pasture and the trees that the pigs had the run of. “They like to put on a good show, though. This’ll be a daily occurrence, FYI.”

Belle smiled softly, then bent over until she could see the pigs closer.

I had eighteen pigs, in all different breeds and sizes.

“The smallest is that black and white mini-pot belly pig. Candace weighs in at a hefty eighty-nine pounds. The largest is a big boy.” I pointed toward the fat bastard at the front of the line currently eating over his fair share. “His name is Thumper and he is a Red Wattle.”

Then there were all the sizes, breeds, and colors in between.

Belle listened intently, taking every single thing in that she could like a sponge, thirsty for more.

She asked me question after question until finally the pigs were done and started looking at me like they wanted a second dinner.

I was tempted to give it to them for not being here all week, but there were other animals I needed to take care of.

“Follow me back into the barn,” I urged as I picked up the wheelbarrow. “I have a few more that’ll need attention before we can head inside.”

She fell into step beside me, but looked over at me every once in a while as we made our way back to the barn.

“I’m not going to fall out dead,” I told her, guessing where her mind was going.

She snorted. “If I was worried about that, I wouldn’t be letting you do this.”

My brows rose. “You wouldn’t let?”

Her lip quirked up at the corner as if she had a secret that she wouldn’t be sharing.

Not yet, anyway.

“I wouldn’t let,” she confirmed. “Everything that we’ve done with each other so far, I’ve allowed you to do.”

Amusement laced my tone as I said, “And you think you could stop me if I wanted to do something?”

She raised her hands in front of her in a fighter’s stance.

“I’m not saying that I could kill you. Or hurt you permanently before you hurt me permanently. But I could make you think twice. I could defend myself long enough to get something that I could use to kill or hurt you permanently,” she explained. “I was raised by a man that saw the bad in the world. My mother…” She hesitated. “My mother was nearly killed when she was younger.”

I dropped the wheelbarrow and raised a suspicious brow. “Really?”

She nodded once. “Really. When she was a teen, her father woke her and all of her siblings up in the middle of the night, tied them to chairs, and then shot them while doing the same to their mother. Two of their siblings didn’t survive. The rest that did only did because my father had taught my mother how to escape from zip ties one day. Shot and hurt, she helped her remaining brothers escape from that house and the fire after their father shot himself in front of them. Needless to say, my dad thought that teaching us how to survive was a good thing. I know how to hunt for my own food, shoot, survive in the wilderness over an extended period of time. Hot wire a car, evade someone that’s following me, and protect myself if I need protecting.”

My lips curved up into a small semblance of a smile.

“What?” she asked, her brows lowering so that she was all but scowling at me. “You think I’m lying?”

I grunted out a ‘no’ and then moved to the next feed bucket. The cats came running from all corners of the barn and from outside.

The moment I had the large trash can lid filled up with food, I set it on the ground for the eight cats to eat from.

It was only after they were fed that I said, “I was thinking I should’ve let you drive home. I had no clue you could take care of yourself.” I paused. “And I was also thinking that instead of stealing that person’s car keys, I should’ve just let you hotwire a car.”

Belle sort of collapsed in relief at my words. “I thought you were going to tell me that you didn’t believe me.”

I snorted. “Hardly. If I thought you were soft, you wouldn’t be here right now.” I turned to face her fully, my hands going to my hips as I said, “The next week, or two depending on how long it takes for these morons to figure out what’s going on and what happened to me, or for my brain to finally get with the program, are going to be filled with danger. I don’t think that we’re going to be able to stay here indefinitely without someone finding it. I’m hidden out here, and there are a lot of hoops and tunnels, but eventually I will be found. We’ll be found. And you’ll need to stay strong throughout it all. So, what I’m saying is, this will likely be a lot of work on your end to make sure you can keep yourself safe. I should feel bad that I invited you into my world.”

“But you don’t?” she asked.

I shook my head. “But I don’t.”

CHAPTER 13

Back in my day, it was during a game of dodgeball that you found out who really didn’t like you.

-Text from Belle to Booth

BELLE

His house was amazing.

I’d never gone into someone’s house and felt instantly at home like I had with Bruno’s.

I didn’t even feel this particular sense of calm when I went into my parents’ house. I walked in the door, and everything had a place. There was no clutter. No messiness. No bright colors. No weird smell.

It smelled masculine. Like cedar and pine.

That must’ve been where Bruno’s smell had come from. His house.

From the outside it looked like a normal house, but on the inside, the walls were exposed wood and cedar beams. The floors were an extravagant coffee brownish/black. And there wasn’t a speck of dirt anywhere on the floor.

I immediately toed my boots off in the entrance, happy to see that he’d done much the same as he’d walked inside and I followed behind him as he made his way into the house.

It wasn’t a huge house.

Based on looking at the outside, I had to guess that the house was a three bedroom. But when I walked into the entranceway and was immediately thrown into a room that had such high ceilings—vaulted and absolutely stunning—I knew that my guess was likely wrong. I’d obviously not gotten the big picture from just seeing the outside.

“Wow,” I said as I took the house in. “This place is stunning.”

The front door faced the back door, and the whole room seemed to be lit up even though all the lights were off. The ambient lighting was sensational.

“I don’t remember building it,” he admitted. “I know that this place is mine. The plans obviously are mine.” He looked around. “I remember designing the room with a lot of lighting when I sketched this place out, but I don’t remember getting it built.”

I looked at him curiously. “You designed this place?”

He nodded once as he gestured toward the kitchen that was off to the left of the large room. “Come wash your hands. Then I’ll show you to your room.”

A pang of sadness hit me at that.

I’d spent the last nights in his room, with him. I didn’t want my own room.

Yet, that would be a bit irrational of me to request seeing as the man barely knew me—even if he did have his memory back—so I kept my mouth shut.

He walked over to the kitchen sink and washed his own hands before he gestured for me to take his vacated spot.

“I’m going to go shower.” He paused. “I feel like I’ve been ground into the dirt and left to fester for days. Let me show you to your room on the way?”

I finished washing my hands, grabbed a paper towel, and then dried my hands off. Then the counter where we’d both dripped. Followed by the sink.

Then the floor where I’d watched a few droplets fall.

When I was done, I came up blushing.

“I’m sorry,” I apologized. “I didn’t mean to do…”

He shrugged. “Don’t care.”

I blinked.

Then decided that I didn’t care either.

Jerking my chin in his direction, I walked around the counter and fell into step with him as we made our way down the back hallway.

The entire length of it was one long tube that was quite dark.

When we got to the end, one way led to a bedroom, and the other door led to another.

“That’s my room.” He gestured toward the door on our left. “This is yours. There’s a bathroom through here.” He pointed out as he pressed against the back wall.

The door slid open, and I blinked at the bright, open and airy room.

“Wow,” I said as I took in the glass shower that dominated the middle of the room, as well as the toilet that was on the right, followed by the vanity that was on the left.

There was a bench at the back of the room that I assumed was there to get dressed on…or stare outside at the pigs. I wasn’t sure why there would be a bench.

But whatever.

“My room is through this way,” he said as he pushed open another door that was once again hidden. “We share this bathroom, so make sure you lock both sides, and unlock both sides, before and after.”

I followed the doorway to the bed that was in direct line of sight from the bathroom, and gasped.

“You have silk sheets,” I mused.

He grunted out a ‘yeah’ and then turned around and led me to the spare bedroom.

“This one only has a bed,” he muttered. “I will give you a pillow off mine for now. Tomorrow, I’ll have some more. I’ll do overnight delivery off of Amazon. You have any preference on type?”

I blinked. Then blurted, “Firm. It has to be that stuffing-filled type. It can’t be the pieces of foam, the memory foam, or feathers. Otherwise it… I won’t sleep,” I settled on.

He nodded once. “Mine is regular filled, I believe. You can come pick the one out that you want while I shower.”

I nodded and he led me back to his bedroom. Then he shut the bathroom door between us, leaving me staring at the bed with my eyes wide, and listening to him strip out of his clothes behind me.

I swallowed hard and walked toward his bed, then face-flopped down onto it and all but snuggled down into his sheets.

The bed smelled like him.

Even better, his sheets felt like heaven.

I groaned—both at the smell of him surrounding me and the feel of his sheets that I pretended his hands would feel like as they glided across my skin.

Which, I knew wouldn’t be factual. Because I’d touched his hands—and they were rough hands. Hands that were used to doing work. They wouldn’t feel like the sheets.

I sighed and rolled over onto my back, my hands going up to reach for the pillows as I brought the two that there were on the bed close to me.

Though his house had been orderly, his bed most certainly hadn’t been.

It looked like he’d been roused from sleep in the middle of the night, and he’d left in such a hurry that he hadn’t been able to put his bed to rights before he left.

One pillow was all the way across the large king-size bed while the other was shoved far down into the sheets almost by the foot of the bed.

And the comforter for the bed, a black and red buffalo plaid flannel heavenly thing, was practically falling off the end side of the bed. I hadn’t even seen it until I’d reached for the far pillow.

After righting both pillows, I next righted the massive comforter that was surprisingly much heavier than it looked, and then made myself comfortable in the bed.

That was how he found me.

I heard the shower turn off, then the slow roll of the barndoor pushing open, telling myself to keep my eyes firmly shut.

I hadn’t seen any clothes in there. Nor had I seen any towels.

Then again, that didn’t mean anything. I hadn’t seen the doors, either, yet they’d been there.

“What are you doing?” he asked, sounding slightly amused.

I didn’t bother to open my eyes as I said, “I’m testing out which one I like better. So far, I’m leaning toward the other one.”

It wasn’t because it was more comfortable, either. It was because it smelled more like him.

It was obviously the one that he chose to sleep with.

“I kind of thought you’d just take one,” he admitted as I heard him move across the room to what I assumed was his closet.

I hadn’t explored—even though I’d wanted to.

That was my downfall. I loved to have information of all kinds. That didn’t matter if I had to snoop to get it.

Hell, I’d once gotten into trouble as a young teen because I’d seen a medical condition in a person’s chart that’d intrigued me while at the doctor’s office. Needless to say, neither the nurse practitioner nor my mother had been amused.

“I didn’t want to bother you in the middle of the night if the other one was unsatisfactory,” I told him.

He paused, as if he was trying to ascertain if I was serious—I was—and chuckled softly. “Noted.”

I rolled over so that I could get significant side action from both pillows and then groaned.

“Maybe you’ll just possibly need to take the guest bedroom,” I muttered, thinking about the plain cotton sheets that I’d seen on that bed.

The bed dipped beside me, and then I felt the distinct slide of a body entering the other side of the bed.

Seconds later, I was being picked up, rolled over, and then deposited on the other side of the bed farthest away from the door, and then the pillow I was using was shoved underneath of my head.

It wasn’t gentle, either.

It was all rough manhandling, which somehow made his touch not repulsive.

Or maybe it was the man.

I didn’t know.

But when I opened my eyes to orient myself with my new position, it was to find Bruno on his back in the bed, using the pillow that I’d deemed as ‘his’ for the night.

He was also pulling the covers up past his chest and sighing.

“I don’t remember this bed,” he rasped. “But I’m starting to think that my body does. Think the pillow is wrong, too. But you can use that one for the night anyway.”

I was going to with or without his permission.

I smirked at him.

He didn’t open his eyes to see it.

I studied his features in the harsh overhead light, taking in his jaw that was covered in a beard more than a five o’clock shadow now. The dark circles underneath of his eyes. Then the bruises and contusions that were still very prominent.

Despite all of that, he was still sexy. Masculine beauty had never made sense to me, but Bruno, I decided, had it in spades.

“What are you staring at?” he grumbled, still not opening his eyes.

I didn’t bother to ask him how he knew I was staring.

“Studying your bruises, wondering what happened to you to get them on your head when you were wearing a helmet.” I paused. “I know that you were ‘hit’ by that van, but that doesn’t explain the contusions underneath where a helmet would normally reside.”

He grunted out an affirmative sound. “I agree. Doesn’t make much sense at all. It was like the helmet was put on after the fact.”

I agreed.

But, with how lethargic his voice sounded, I didn’t say anything in case he needed to sleep.

Something in which he did.

Soundly.

Something in which I did next to him for far longer than I ever intended.

When next I woke, the natural light from outside had dimmed to full dark, despite what I could see on the clock being only six fifteen in the evening—daylight savings time blew.

Carefully getting out of bed, I walked into the closet that I’d seen Bruno disappear into earlier and snagged a t-shirt that looked like it was the oldest and softest he owned and walked right back out.

When I got to the bathroom, I carefully shut both doors almost all the way, keeping the one to the bedroom partially open just in case Bruno needed anything, and took the hottest shower I could stand.

And, just sayin’, but Bruno’s shower got super-duper hot.

I’m talking, burn the piss out of your inner organs hot.

I. Loved. It.

By the time I was done, my skin resembled a red cherry, and I felt cleaner than I’d ever felt in my life.

My water heater at home didn’t get that hot. And the water heater at my parents’ house, though it was new, never really stayed hot long enough to call it worthwhile.

Sharing a house with seven thousand people would be like that, though.

If the shower wasn’t running, the washing machine and or the dishwasher was.

There was just not enough supply to keep up with demand.

However, Bruno’s place didn’t have that problem.

I was smiling when I stepped out of the shower onto the fluffy bathroom mat.

Even the mat was soft.

It was like this man had prepared his home specially for me.

If he kept it up, I might not ever leave.

Smiling at that, I walked over to the sink where I’d tossed the t-shirt I’d procured and dropped the towel—again, my God, it was so soft and fluffy.

Leaning forward—I reached for the shirt and thought I heard a groan.

However, when I turned to survey the bed where I could clearly see Bruno’s face, it was to find his eyes closed and his big body breathing easily with sleep.

Frowning, I turned back around and pulled the shirt over my head, sighing happily when I felt it settle into place around my neck and shoulders.

After I was ‘dressed’ I picked up the towel and headed for the kitchen to see what I could make us for dinner.

I wouldn’t call myself a chef or anything, but I was capable of cooking a meal.

A meal, might I add, that would pass muster if push came to shove.

Cooking was just one of those things that took time away from reading or napping or generally sitting down and being immobile, and I tended not to do those things if I didn’t have to.

But when I opened his fridge, it was to find it fully stocked.

Hell, there was even meat sitting on the shelf.

Sadly, when I looked at the expiration date, it was all out of date, even the milk.

So, throwing those things away, I went through his freezer, pulling out a pound of meat that resembled hamburger.

After putting it in a bowl of cold water to thaw, I looked through his cupboards and then stalled on what I thought might be the pantry.

However, I couldn’t figure out how to open it.

It took me a good two minutes of searching to finally realize that the thing didn’t slide, push in, or pull out. It pushed up.

Which was super cool.

And super weird.

But whatever.

When I walked into the pantry, two things struck me with what I saw.

One, my mom would love the size and the stock that Bruno had here.

Two, the man was just as OCD as I was.

Everything had its place.

The pasta was all on one shelf, the canned veggies on another.

And below that there was Mexican-themed—refried beans, spices, tortillas, and jalapeños.

I decided to go with that, seeing as I knew how to cook tacos, and they took a short amount of time.

I’d just come out of the pantry, and started to place my spoils on the counter, when I heard a creak from behind me.

I frowned and turned to find Bruno sitting behind the bar-height counter with his forearms resting on the cool marble surface. His head was in his hands, and he looked tired as hell.

Upon seeing me with my hands full, he got up and made his way around the counter, and I found myself staring at the man in all his glory.

He was wearing gray sweatpants and nothing else.

I’d always heard that gray sweatpants were utterly enticing, but I hadn’t really seen the ‘big deal’ about others wearing them.

But with Bruno wearing them?

The man was downright drop-dead gorgeous.

I’m talking, beautiful, not going to change my mind that he’s the sexiest thing in the world, better than the hero in my favorite book, stunning.

He walked toward me, and I couldn’t stop my eyes from going to the bulge between his legs.

I mean, there were his abs, his dazzling, well-defined chest, and shoulders that looked like they could hold up the world.

But it was his dick, which was bouncing slightly behind his sweats, that held me captive.

He got so close that I froze, meaning he was easily able to take the jalapeños from my hands without much protest from me.

Not that I would’ve put up a protest on him taking some stuff, but it wouldn’t have been the jalapeños, because they were holding up the can of beans.

The beans that then nearly dropped directly on my toes.

He bent down and caught them before they could drop a half a foot, and then swore swiftly as he pressed his hand to his forehead.

I placed the rest of the items on the counter that I’d been juggling, then gently took the two items from him before placing them on the counter, too.

Then I reached up and pressed my hands to his head and slowly started to rub the pressure points above his temples.

He sighed and dropped his hands to my waist, startling me slightly at first.

But before I could pull back, the uneasiness fled, leaving me with a sense of rightness.

His eyes were squeezed tightly shut, and the lines around his eyes were deep while the veins in his forehead throbbed with each beat of his heart.

I started to work my massaging hands around his head, pressing in trigger points all down the length of his neck in hopes of relieving some tension.

I was so caught up in studying him as well as pressing my fingers into his muscular flesh, that I wasn’t ready for the intimacy when his eyes suddenly popped open.

I’d never been this close to him as I looked into his eyes, so it was a surprise to see all the striations of color in what I thought were just normal green eyes.

But they weren’t just a normal color green.

They were a little bit of brown, and a little bit of blue.

The colors were boring on their own, but together they were extraordinary.

I was so caught up in what his eyes looked like that I hadn’t realized I was leaning in until he jolted me out of my inner thoughts.

“Does your hair dry straight?” he wondered.

I snorted. “My hair dries into this humid, massive mess that might or might not look good after I tame it with a brush.”

He licked his lips, then slowly dropped his hands from my hips.

I felt like I’d lost a part of myself when he stepped backward, putting distance between us.

“I don’t think I can help,” he murmured softly.

I swallowed hard. “That’s okay. I don’t need help. I’m fully capable of cooking sub-par tacos all on my own.”

The corner of his mouth kicked up into a small smile, obviously still in pain.

But there was something in his eyes as he watched me cook dinner that made me feel like there was something brewing underneath the surface, and I had no clue what kind of monster I’d unleashed.

CHAPTER 14

I say fuck so much, I forget that people actually get offended by it.

-Bruno to Belle

BRUNO

“Give me the kid.”

The man with the dingy yellowing teeth smiled, revealing a piece of black between his front two teeth.

I wanted to knock that piece out with my fist.

“Who are you, anyway?” he asked, chewing on his gum so loudly that I wondered if he realized just how fuckin’ annoying he was.

There was no way he knew.

Otherwise he’d be grinning like an asshole, knowing that he was getting to me.

I didn’t react.

To anything.

Even pieces of shit like this who drove around with children in a panel van.

I hadn’t set out to rescue any kids today.

In fact, I’d been so lost in my own head that I hadn’t realized that anything was up with the van I’d been following at a long distance until I’d stopped with him to get gas.

The driver, the asshole I was currently talking to, kept looking over at me warily.

You know, like a kid that knew they were doing something wrong, yet they kept doing it until they were caught?

The guy had stared at me nervously out of the corner of his eye, warily shifting from foot to foot, drawing my attention way better than if he’d just filled his tank up and not acted so guilty.

I’d gone inside to get a drink, and when I’d come out, it was to see the guy holding open the back of the van doors, staring in at something.

Something hit the doors, and the guy had to scramble to get whatever it was contained.

I was just getting to my bike when I heard the cry of a kid shut off abruptly as he slammed the doors closed.

The ‘thump’ of a body hitting something solid had me tensing.

Then I heard the muted wails.

Which led to now, me confronting the piece of shit.

Only, I hadn’t expected the little weasel’s quickness.

Before I could take a step past the gas pump—a gas nozzle still in his panel van—he’d all but dashed toward his front seat and dove inside.

Knowing I wouldn’t catch him, I hopped on my bike, bottle of water toppling out of my hand to mix with the gas that was now pouring out of the pump that’d been ripped free when the van had taken off.

Starting my bike up with a roar, I sped toward the van that was now careening down the street unsafely.

I caught up to him, had my phone in my hand to call the cops, and had another panel van—one identical to the one I was chasing—come out of nowhere and hit me so hard that it knocked my helmet free of my head.

“Bruno.”

I blinked open my eyes, surprised to find Belle leaning over me in the bed, her cool, soft as hell hand covering my cheek.

I glanced at the clock on the bedside table. Three past three in the morning.

I looked back to her, my breath catching in my chest. “Yeah?”

She was once again only in my shirt.

Her unbound breasts were rubbing deliciously against the soft material of my favorite t-shirt.

Her hair was surrounding the both of us, and it smelled like me—something that I found that I quite liked.

“You were having a nightmare,” she murmured softly.

I rocked my head back and forth on the pillow, not remembering anything of what I was dreaming.

Though, that had a lot to do with the woman that was currently leaning over me, who had no idea just how sexy she was.

“I…” I started, but shrugged, absently lifting my finger up to twirl a piece of her hair around one lone finger. “I don’t know.”

The strand of hair felt like silk, giving the sheets underneath my back a run for their money.

I wanted to bury the rest of my hand in it and never let go.

“You were shaking the bed, and I couldn’t sleep,” she murmured.

The smile that lit my face at that announcement had her shrugging.

“Just being honest,” she admitted. “Are you okay?”

I sighed and reluctantly let go of her hair, causing her to frown herself.

“What?” I countered, not bothering to answer her earlier question.

She blinked.

“I guess I’m upset that you keep staring at my lips, and then not kissing me,” she admitted. “You keep touching me, looking like you might, and I work myself up to it, and then you don’t.”

Before I could say a thing to that, she grinned and pulled away from me, heading toward the bathroom seconds later with my t-shirt hiked up high over her hips.

And I realized two things.

One, she was naked underneath my t-shirt, and two, I’d been sleeping next to her all night exactly like that.

I rolled over onto my side, away from the bathroom, and tried to control the raging erection that was tenting the front of my sweatpants.

I’d never, not ever, been unable to control myself around a woman.

Until Belle.

She came back to bed a short time later, and I had to tense my entire body to keep from reaching for her.

Then, before I could tell myself that this was a bad idea, my control snapped.

I moved until she was underneath me, but not one single piece of me was touching her.

I stared at her in the dark.

“I think you need to go to the other room,” I told her breathlessly.

The only light in the room, the stupid light that came in from the moon that had illuminated her backside, was nonexistent in the bed.

Meaning, I couldn’t see her face or judge how she felt by my new position.

But I hoped that she felt threatened.

She should, anyway.

I was about to do questionable things to her if she didn’t get the fuck out of my bed.

And even if she did, I didn’t know if I could stop myself from following her right out the door.

But she needed to take that first step, because I knew that I couldn’t.

“Why?” she asked.

She didn’t sound scared.

What was wrong with the crazy woman?

Couldn’t she tell when a dangerous man was losing control?

Because I was right there, on the verge, and seconds away from putting my hands on her when I knew that she didn’t like to be touched.

“Because I want you. I want to touch you. I want to put my fingers inside of you. My cock. My tongue. And I want to not stop until we both have exactly what we want,” I growled.

She breathed out swiftly, finally showing me the first sign that she wasn’t completely unaffected.

“Who’s to say that I don’t want all those same things?” she asked, her breath once again fanning against my own.

I shifted slightly, my body starting to tire now that I was holding myself so still over her. “I’m going to touch you.”

She inhaled.

“I’m going to press my lower body against yours. And then drop down onto my forearms and kiss you,” I continued.

There was a long stretch of silence as I waited for her to argue or protest, but she did neither.

I began to lower my body onto hers, one slow, agonizing inch at a time.

I didn’t want to frighten her with my touch, too much too soon.

So even though it damn near killed me—figuratively and literally—I took my time, until my lower half was pressed into her, and she was gasping for air.

“You okay?” I asked, digging my lower half into her splayed thighs.

She felt like heaven, and I hadn’t even gotten started yet.

My hard cock pressed against her intimately, and it was then I realized that she wasn’t breathing.

Fuck.

“Belle?” I questioned and started to pull off of her.

She caught me around the waist with her legs and held me exactly where I was before taking a deep breath. “I’m okay.”

And she did sound okay.

In fact, she sounded more than okay.

She sounded excited.

Which was a good thing because I damn well was, too.

“Tell me if I do something you don’t like,” I ordered.

She nodded, and the only reason I knew she did that was because I felt her hair slide up and down the sides of my chest where I was slowly starting to lower myself onto her.

When I was in a more comfortable position, my chest now blanketing hers, I shifted my weight onto my left arm and used my right hand to trail up the side of her neck.

My fingers encountered more hair than skin, so I gathered it all up and held it away from her before dropping my mouth to her throat and skimming my lips against her soft skin.

She hissed in a breath, and I pulled back, waiting for her to protest.

She didn’t, so I went back to it, trailing my lips up and down the length of her throat until goose bumps were pebbling her flesh. Once I was sure she was used to my touch there, I allowed my tongue to follow the same path, causing her to hitch in a breath of surprise.

Her legs tightened around my waist, and it was then that I remembered that she’d been naked underneath my shirt—which had started this whole thing—and I was now pressed against her with only the thin fabric of my sweats separating us.

“No,” she murmured.

I paused, trying to figure out what had set her off.

“No, I meant, No. As in short for Bruno. Shit. Keep going. Don’t stop,” she explained quickly.

I grinned at that, going back to her throat with my mouth, laying soft kisses there now, while my free hand dropped from her hair to trail down the length of her body.

My hand caught her outer thigh, and I teasingly trailed my palm down the back of it, allowing my fingers to move closer and closer to the part in her thighs with each sweeping touch.

“You’re killing me,” she whispered. “Is it supposed to be like this? My clit is pulsing with each beat of my heart, and I have this ache…”

She didn’t need to finish.

I knew the ache she was speaking of.

Moving until I was on my knees between her thighs, I moved my palm to the top of her thigh, then went even farther until my thumb was skimming the seam where her leg met more intimate parts of her body.

When still she didn’t tense up, I moved closer, allowing my thumb to sweep slowly over the lips of her sex.

We both froze for different reasons, then.

Me because she was wet as hell and bare to the touch, and her because I’d just touched something that no other man had touched before.

At least, I assumed no other man had touched it before.

I hoped no other man had touched it before.

She hadn’t told me—at least again anyway—but I just knew.

With her aversion to touch, something that I couldn’t remember either, but could definitely pick up on when anyone got close to her at all in the hospital yesterday, I just knew that she wouldn’t have shared this part of herself with anyone else.

“Holy shit,” she breathed. “You’re so close.”

So close to that ache.

So close to touching her exactly where she needed me to.

I moved my hand until I was cupping her entirely, then squeezed, causing her to jerk against me.

I wasn’t sure what she needed from me. A light touch. A firm touch. So I was learning this all as we moved along, and what I found was confusing.

She didn’t mind any touch, it seemed, and I was moving slowly with the assumption that she was going to freak out at any second.

But maybe she wasn’t.

Maybe I should just move, do what I wanted to do to her, and let her stop me if I did something she didn’t like. Something in which I had a feeling she’d have no problem doing since she was used to speaking her mind.

“Why’d you stop?” she asked, moving her hips up and down, causing my hand to jerk with her.

I grinned and let go of her pussy, my fingers moving again to part her lips and skim the soft, overheated skin between.

She gasped when my finger finally met her clit, her body bowing up in surprise as she jerked at the contact.

“What the fuck?” she inhaled.

I grinned wickedly at her. “What the fuck what?”

I wished I could see her face.

I wanted to watch the expressions cross it as she experienced these things for the first time.

But I also felt like the loss of one of her senses made her focus on the others—touch and sound—as I started to play her body like my instrument.

My fingers swirled around her clit, round and round I went, until she was jerking with each almost-touch.

“You’re killing me,” she whispered, her hands finding my hard thighs as she dug her fingernails into my skin. “I want you to touch it.”

Meaning, she was tired of me playing. She wanted me to do what I was warming her up to do.

I moved my fingers down instead, causing her to curse up a storm, which was incredibly cute coming from the girl that I’d never heard curse before.

“What was all that?” I asked as I slowly teased her entrance with the two fingers that’d been doing the circling.

“I hate you,” she repeated her last statement. “You’re doing this on purpose.”

I was.

But only because I wanted her very, very wet. And very ready to take me.

I wasn’t small by any means, and this being her first time meant it was already going to be uncomfortable for her.

“Yeah,” she whispered. “Totally teasing me on purpose.” She groaned when I pressed just the tips of both fingers inside of her.

She was tight.

Too tight.

Meaning that I’d have to do more to make sure that she could take me.

Bringing both fingers to my lips, I sucked them clean, nearly groaning at the taste of her on my tongue.

“Are you licking your fingers?” she whispered, sounding breathless and curious.

“Yes.” I pulled them both free, then notched one at her entrance again—after dragging it from the tip of her seam all the way down to my target.

She was wet.

But still a single finger slowly working inside of her felt almost too tight.

Yet, the moment I was buried to the webbing, she started to pulse around me, letting me know that she liked the way I felt inside of her.

“Not enough,” she whispered.

I curled my finger inside of her, feeling for that squishy bit of flesh inside of her that hid her G-spot.

“Ohhh,” she breathed, my dick responding to the need in her voice, to the point where I was so hard that I felt like I might snap directly in half. “That’s good.”

I knew it was good.

Why did I know? Because the moment that I started to work that bit of flesh, her pussy started to flood my finger.

I pulled out, then thrust it back inside of her, over and over again until she was practically squirming and cursing, needing to come.

“Please,” she whispered, making my dick pulse with need. “You’re killing me.”

I wasn’t killing her.

I was working her closer and closer to the edge until I knew that she’d be on the teetering point.

One finger moved to two on the next slide inside of her, causing her to hiss in a breath.

“You have really large fingers,” she breathed as I was pulling my cock out over the top of my sweats.

I searched for one of her hands with my free one and pulled her hand down to my cock, and she cursed as she wrapped her hand around it.

“That’s three times the size of your fingers.” She sounded intrigued, but also a little bit nervous.

I didn’t say anything as she slowly worked what she could reach of my shaft without moving away from my exploring fingers that were now doing that curling bit again.

“Ohh,” she moaned as she squeezed the tip of my cock, causing a spot of precum to gather on the tip. “You’re making me want.”

That was exactly what I was trying to do—make her so crazy for me that by the time I caused her pain, she wouldn’t give a fuck.

She swept the pad of her thumb over my tip and paused when she encountered the precum.

Her hand left me, and I heard the smack of her lips as she cleaned her thumb free of my offering.

“You taste salty,” she said. “Not sure what I think about it.”

I chuckled at her words.

Some women liked the taste, others didn’t.

It was a personal preference, and I wouldn’t mind if she went either way, as long as I had her tight pussy to sink into instead.

Her hand moved back to my cock, and this time, she moved forward until she could rub it against her pussy—at least the parts that I wasn’t currently filling with two thrusting fingers.

The wet heat of her pussy felt like a jolt straight to my heart, and I knew then and there that I wouldn’t be able to give her much more time.

“Move your fingers,” she pleaded.

I did, giving her exactly what she wanted.

“Ohh,” she whispered as she brought the tip of my cock up and brushed it along her clit.

“Keep doing that,” I rasped, my voice sounding like I’d gargled with bleach, so raspy and husky. “And I’m going to come all over your pussy instead of inside of it.”

She notched my dick at her entrance, then said, “Then come inside.”

I brought my fingers up to my mouth and licked them clean again, slowly as I tried not to think about what was in store for my cock.

Just the heat of her slick entrance hugging the crown of my cock was enough to make me see stars.

“Inside,” she hissed, her fingers now clenching into my thighs to the point of pain. There was no way in hell I wouldn’t see those nail indentations in the morning. “I’ll seriously kill you.”

I pushed inside, only to curse myself ten ways until Sunday before abruptly pulling back again.

Reaching over the side of the bed, I all but laid on top of her to get at the condoms—one condom to be specific—that I kept in the nightstand drawer.

After my fingers closed over everything else in the drawer first—gun, magazines, ChapStick, baby oil, lube—I finally felt the little foil packet.

Latching onto it with desperate fingers, I ripped it open with my teeth, had it slicked on in half a second flat, and was returning to the writhing woman underneath of me seconds later.

“Oh, God.” She breathed when I breached her farther than before.

My hands gripped her ample hips, my fingers digging into the soft flesh there, and lifted her up at the same time that I sank slowly inside.

I didn’t give an inch, just slowly filled her until she was taking all of me.

“Oh, boy.” She breathed. “I didn’t feel my membrane tearing. I’m almost a little sad about that.”

I would’ve replied to her weird comment if I could have.

However, my head was so focused on what was happening with my other head—thank God I’d worn the condom. If I was inside of her bare, I’d already have exploded—that I couldn’t concentrate on two things at once.

“Move, please,” she whispered desperately.

I moved, pulling back only a half inch before slowly grinding back inside of her. Over and over I did this, playing her body like my instrument, and getting her closer and closer to the edge.

Just when I felt like she was about to teeter over, her body all but locked up on me.

I froze, unsure what was wrong.

“What?” I asked, my voice sounding very strained.

She cleared her throat. “I think I want to be on top.”

I reversed our positions, rolling so that she was on top, with my head resting on the pillow she’d been using all night.

“Better?” I asked her.

She wiggled on top of me, her body taking mine in just a bit deeper, and clenched and unclenched her pelvic floor muscles.

“Yesssss,” she hissed. “Oh, yes.”

That’s when she became wild.

With nothing to do but experience her—I still couldn’t see anything but the glare of the red numbers on the alarm clock—I closed my eyes, put my hands above my head, and enjoyed the ride.

She felt like a hot, slick fist that was made for hugging my cock.

Up and down she slammed until suddenly I didn’t know if I could hold off long enough for her to finish.

But before I could really start to worry, those tightening muscles started to ripple again.

Her hands slammed down onto my chest, and she shrieked in surprise as an orgasm slammed into her.

Once again, her fingernails were digging into my skin—my chest this time—but I didn’t care.

My hands went to her hips when she started to drape herself forward and slow.

Unable to stop myself, I yanked her down hard, making sure that she continued to move on me until my own orgasm smashed into me.

Like a wrecking ball, the world around me exploded.

Lights started to dance behind my eyelids, and my body clenched so hard that a cramp in my midsection hit me that would’ve made me freeze any other time.

And don’t even get me started on my head.

The throbbing was so bad that I couldn’t fuckin’ breathe without what felt like my brain slamming against my skull.

But goddamn, was every single second of the sex with Belle worth it.

Eyes closed, I finally let her go long enough for her to collapse completely onto my chest.

I reluctantly pulled out from her still spasming pussy, knowing without a doubt that that was one thing we didn’t need to chance right now—any mishaps with the condom.

I left her in a wet slide that did nothing to help my dick go down.

And when she flipped her head to rest her cheek against my pec, I didn’t make a move to dislodge her hair from my face.

I couldn’t.

I was so content—as long as I didn’t move my head—that I knew that I could sleep like this all night long.

“You’re like, super-duper quiet when you fuck me,” she whispered. “It was really weird.”

My lips twitched up into a small smile.

I snorted. “I talk when I have something to say. But when I’m concentrating, I tend to trail off and let other things do my talking for me.”

“Well, your other thing worked really well with relaying how you felt,” she panted next to me. “I’m on the pill. Next time we do this, you’re doing it bare.”

A thrill shot through me as I thought about taking her bare.

“I’m clean,” I said. “They just ran all those tests when I was in the hospital.”

She snorted. “I know that. I’m clean as well. You know, seeing as I was a virgin until about thirty seconds ago.”

I chuckled lightly as I reached for her and pulled her closer to me, not stopping until she was pressed against me chest to hip.

“I don’t think I can sleep like this,” she admitted sleepily.

Then she fell asleep doing exactly what she’d just said she couldn’t do.

CHAPTER 15

Behind every successful woman is a tribe of other successful women that have her back.

-Amelia to Belle

BELLE

I no longer had a hymen.

It felt like it, too.

My vagina was sore. My legs were sore.

My ass was sore—not that he’d touched that particular orifice—but the muscles in my glutes were outrageously so.

I had a beard burn from Bruno’s now-shaved beard on the inside of my thighs, my breasts, and my neck where he’d skimmed my skin with his tongue.

And… I was no longer a virgin.

I had to tell my mother.

Which I did moments later.

Me: I’m no longer a virgin. Also, I didn’t realize sex was so nice. Why didn’t you tell me?

I mean, logically I knew it had to be good. There was a reason that everyone liked it.

But I hadn’t realized it would be that good.

Mom: I would like to point out that I want to be your friend at this point, that I’m very happy that you are no longer sporting your V-card, but you have an assassin after you. Do you think that sleeping with the man that just might wind up dead is a good idea?

Me: Probably not. But I really like him. You’re going to have to break it to Daddy gently that I’ve found the man I’m going to marry.

Mom: I realize that you like him, but that’s a little soon, too.

Me: Maybe. Maybe not. But he gets me. I’ve never, not in my life, found someone that gets me quite like he does. And he looks good in sweatpants. I now realize why women say that they’re lingerie for men.

Mom: Oh my God. I have to delete these texts in case your father reads them. Don’t ever mention Bruno’s bulge to your father. Promise me.

I grinned and placed my phone back into my pocket only to look up and see Bruno staring at me with a look of desire on his face.

“What?” I asked him.

His eyes traveled the length of my body again.

“I wanted to wake up and have you again,” he admitted. “But you weren’t there.”

I shrugged. “I have an emergency edit to do from a new client. Sorry for your bad luck.”

He laughed at me then.

“The pigs would be pissed at me anyway,” he agreed. “They are used to getting fed at around seven in the morning. If I hadn’t shown up soon, they would’ve let their displeasure be known.”

I had noticed that they were getting rather rambunctious after they saw the kitchen light go on.

“That’s funny,” I told him. “I can feed them if you want.”

He tilted his head. “I can…”

“Your head still hurts.” I eyed him knowingly.

He blinked. “Well, yeah. I nearly had it ran over.”

I tilted my head sideways. “How do you know that?”

He opened his mouth to reply, then closed it as a look of concentration lit his face.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I just… know. It was almost run over. I don’t know why I know, though.”

“Hmm,” I said as I stood up and walked to the kitchen cabinet. “Do you want coffee?”

He grunted out a ‘yes’ and went to take a seat where I’d just vacated.

The chair that felt like it was big when I was sitting in it looked dwarfed when he took it.

I turned my back on him and started in on the coffee making.

Once his drink was ready, I walked it over to him, placed it onto the table, and then leaned in until my upper body was resting against his between his splayed thighs.

His hands went to my upper thighs, where he realized that I was once again not wearing underwear.

Last night, I’d known what I was doing by walking to the bathroom.

I’d also known he could see everything thanks to the light I’d left on for him in the bathroom.

I did make sure to turn it out on the way back out of the bathroom, though, blanketing us in darkness so that he could make the first move if he wanted to. Or pretend like he hadn’t seen a thing.

Thankfully—for me and him—he hadn’t pretended anything.

Just as I was about to straddle his thighs, right then and there, the awful squealing started again.

Bruno chuckled at the exaggerated sigh that fell from my lips.

“I can go…” He started to push me away.

I snorted and got off of him.

“No way, Jose.” I turned my back on him as I headed to the back door where I’d put my rain boots earlier when I’d washed them free of all mud and other things that’d been caked on them. “I’d much rather use you for other nefarious activities than that.”

His chuckle followed me out the door.

When I arrived in the barn, something immediately didn’t seem right.

The gurgling squeals hadn’t died down any, but all of the cats that’d been there last time I’d gone into the barn were gone, and even the cow didn’t greet me at the fence.

Frowning, I filled up the wheelbarrow just the way that I’d seen Bruno do it just yesterday. It took me twice as long as him to fill it up, and three times as long to push it through the muck toward their pen.

However, when I got there, I saw that one of the small pigs was out.

Small being kind of a misleading word, seeing as ‘small’ still meant ‘over a hundred pounds.’

“What are you doing out?” I asked the little pig.

The pig snorted at me, then walked up to the wheelbarrow and nudged it.

Assuming that meant ‘feed me now, bitch’ I pushed the wheelbarrow the rest of the way toward the enclosure where I’d seen him dump the feed into the trough yesterday.

Just as I was about to upend the wheelbarrow, I felt the hair on the back of my neck start to stand on end.

Having a sort of sixth sense since I was younger—my brothers liked to sneak up on me and scare the absolute shit out of me every chance they got—I knew that there was someone behind me.

And it wasn’t Bruno, because he would’ve announced his presence.

Carefully acting like I wasn’t aware of him, I dropped down onto my haunches just as I felt something swing over the top of my head.

The two-by-four that’d been in the man’s hands swung and hit the fence right where my head would’ve been had I not ducked.

Turning around and aiming for the nuts—again, something that I’d learned on my brothers to do—I punched hard and viciously.

I heard an audible pop when my fist met the man’s nut sack.

He tried to back up, but the pig that was out chose that time to get pissed that she wasn’t getting fed, and directed her anger at the man that’d done the distracting.

She went for the man’s heels, causing him to trip.

The board landed at my feet as he went down onto his knees next to the trough where I’d been about to dump the food, upending the feed that I’d been about to dump.

The baby pig was happy.

The other pigs?

Not so much.

That’s when I saw where the smaller one had gotten out.

Because just as I noticed it, the heftiest pig in the bunch pushed his way right on through the too-small hole and went straight for the feet.

I picked the two-by-four up and slammed it down hard against the man’s head.

He went out like a light in the middle of the feed.

Pig after pig pushed out of the fence until not a single one remained inside.

That’s when I noticed that they weren’t just eating the feed.

They were now nibbling on the man’s body.

I watched, in utter horror, as the biggest pig in the bunch leaned over and practically ripped a piece of the man’s flesh off of his face.

A huge, hulking pig-sized bite mark was taken directly out of the man’s face.

I backed away, stunned into silence, as another pig followed suit.

“Oh, shit,” I said as I started to run back toward Bruno’s house.

I didn’t realize that the barn was so far away from the house until I had to run—and let’s just say, I wasn’t a freakin’ runner.

Never had been, and never would be.

And the mud under my feet made it even harder to stay upright.

But eventually I did get to the back door.

I took my shoes off and immediately went to the sink to wash my hands clean of the mud.

Because priorities.

The moment that I was clean, I went in search of Bruno, finding him nowhere on the first floor.

I hauled ass for the second floor where he’d pointed out was his home office, and all but slammed inside.

He looked up from his computer with a frown.

He saw my face and immediately knew that something was wrong.

“What happened?” he asked, taking in my clothes.

I was wearing nothing but his t-shirt, that was now slightly wet from rinsing my body of the smelly mud.

“There was a m-man that was outside. He tried to hit me over the head with a two-by-four, but I ducked and he hit the fence. Then I punched him so hard in the balls that I think I ruptured his testicle. Also, I rendered him unconscious by beaning him over the head with the same two-by-four he dropped. Then the pigs started to eat him!” I cried.

Bruno cursed and started to hurry as fast as his own poor little body could take him—which admittedly wasn’t all that fast because he first had to arm himself to the teeth, get dressed, and call a friend.

When he was done arming himself, speaking with his friend, and in a pair of sweatpants, a simple white t-shirt, and his muck boots, he turned to me.

“You come with me,” he ordered. “I haven’t been watching the security cameras, so there might be more. Didn’t think that they could find me here so fast.”

I wasn’t staying behind. That was how women died in horror movies.

Which I told him, causing him to chuckle.

“You’re right,” he agreed. “Always stick together.”

His strides were purposeful as he all but marched his way out to where I’d left that man.

Each second it took to get there had my heart rate ratcheting up another fifteen beats per second.

By the time we got to the point where I could see the pigs—all fighting over something on the ground—I could swear I was in cardiac arrest.

Bruno’s shoulders were bulging in the shirt he was wearing, and I could see the play of his tattoos through the t-shirt.

I was so focused on him that when we finally arrived at the scene of the crime, I didn’t first notice that there was something really, really wrong.

There was no screaming—like I expected—and honestly, the pigs weren’t even making much noise other than the occasional snort.

“Fuck me,” Bruno croaked.

That’s when I chose to look around his big hulking body at what lay ahead.

There was nothing left but a femur bone and blood that was quickly being spread around by the pigs that were rolling in the mud.

A femur bone that two massive pigs were playing tug of war with.

It’d been a max of fifteen minutes since I’d left him.

Fifteen minutes for fifteen pigs to consume a man’s body completely.

Clothes and all.

Bruno pulled his phone out of his front pocket and tapped a few numbers before placing it to his ear.

“Yeah.” Bruno paused and placed his phone on speaker. “I’m gonna need one of y’all to see if you can find a vehicle. Possibly more. But… shit.”

“What?” I heard the man on the other end of the line.

“Hunt, tell Lynn he was right. Pigs will eat humans,” Bruno muttered.

There was a long, silent pause and then, “I fuckin’ told you, man!”

“I know,” Bruno grumbled.

“You do?” Hunt asked at the same time that I said, “You do?”

Bruno looked down at me, then nodded. “In between the walk out here and seeing this mess in front of me, I had a quick flash of everything that I’ve been missing. I need to get us somewhere safe, and then I’ll call and tell you what I know.”

Bruno kept looking around like he expected someone to fall out of the woodwork at any second.

And now that he was looking, I could see thousands of places for someone to hide.

“Speaking of,” Hunt said into the quiet of the moment. “I was able to access how they found you. She has a computer that’s linked to her social media pages. She posted, and her IP address was flagged. I’ve blocked that access now, and there’s no way in hell they have another person that can find you. That was just a fluke that they had someone like me.”

Bruno looked at me over his shoulder before shaking his head and returning his gaze back to the woods beyond.

“Not taking that chance with her life,” he grumbled. “We’re heading out at zero two hundred. I need someone to come here and feed my animals…”

“I’m not getting near those murderous swine,” Hunt declared. “But Six already said she would be there. Lynn said she wasn’t coming anywhere near there if you didn’t have the fence fixed. So you may want to get that done before…”

“He’s not doing that,” I protested. “He can barely walk upright at this point. You get your fat, lazy asses out here and help him, or I’m going to call my family, and y’all can go fuck yourse…” I trailed off when Bruno’s hand covered my mouth.

“Okay then.” Hunt sounded like he was smiling. “I guess we’ll all be there to help you get those murderous swine back into their pens before she lets her family loose on us.”

They would let loose on them, too.

I knew they would without a shadow of a doubt.

All any of us Pena girls had to say was ‘help’ and they would come running.

“Okay, well then we’ll be there in thirty.” Hunt paused. “I’m so damn excited to actually come out there. You told me time and time again that…”

Bruno hung up on the man, causing me to snicker.

“Hunt’s an acquired taste,” Bruno muttered darkly.

CHAPTER 16

Know everything happens for a reason but, what the fuck?

-Text from Belle to Bruno

BELLE

I’d met Lynn and Six.

I hadn’t met the rest of them.

Trick and Swayze. Hunt and Wyett. Crockett and Zach—though I’d seen Zach before when I was younger. Not so much as an adult.

Then there was Trouper and Beckham—Beckham I knew through my dad. Her dad and mine worked together on the SWAT team. And though Beckham and I hadn’t exactly run in the same circles, we still got along well, so I wasn’t totally a ‘newcomer’ so to speak.

There was Sin and Blaise—again, with Blaise, I knew her like I knew Zach.

And finally there was Laric and Catori—Catori, like Beckham, was a family friend. Though she was older than me. Laric I had met this past year when my now sister-in-law, Dillan was having trouble.

Still, I felt totally and completely out of place when they all descended on Bruno’s place looking as if they were seeing something spectacular that they never hoped or prayed to see.

“Holy shit,” I heard one of the ladies say. “He’s holding her hand.”

I looked down at Bruno’s hand—which hadn’t let me go since we’d gotten in the door of his place. Then I looked up at the group that was congregating in the living room.

“Take your fuckin’ shoes off for Christ’s sake,” Bruno grumbled as Sin took a step into the main room.

Sin looked down at his shoes, then sighed. “They are lace-ups.”

“I don’t fuckin’ care,” Bruno muttered.

While they were all distracted with the shoes, I all but yanked my hand out of Bruno’s and headed for the chair in the very corner of the room, that was all but in the shadows, and planted my ass there with my knees up against my chest.

I was overwhelmed.

And when I say overwhelmed, I mean, I’m about to start freaking out any second.

Bruno, the man that could read me better than my own family could, looked over as I had that thought and frowned.

“This is the best house I’ve ever been in,” Six breathed. “Bruno, how could you keep this place from us?”

Bruno continued to keep his gaze on me, his eyes taking in every single detail.

He got up and moved then, sitting down on the ottoman so that he was penning me slightly into the corner of his living room.

But now, with Bruno sitting on the ottoman in front of me, he’d effectively blocked me from the room with his hulking form.

I could instantly breathe.

And when he reached back and placed his hand on top of my foot, I smiled and leaned into his back, my face going to the spot right between his shoulder blades that felt like they were made for my cheek to rest.

“How about we stop worrying about his house and get to talking about why he has an assassin after him,” Trick grumbled.

“I’m more interested in getting those pigs back inside their pen,” another man said, but since I wasn’t able to associate his face with his voice, I couldn’t remember who he was.

“We go out there and get those pigs back in,” Bruno said. “And we’re going to get dirty. They’re well satisfied at this point and don’t really have a desire to leave at the moment. So they’ll be fine until we can have our discussion and then go out there.”

“Ewww,” Six gagged. “That’s so gross.”

“We’ll discuss the pigs later,” I heard someone else say. “Let’s talk about the assassin who somehow found your place, why you have an assassin in the first place, and how the hell we can help find those kids.”

Bruno grunted, and I felt the vibration against my cheek.

“I was out for a ride on the bike, trying to clear my head after the op last week, when I got behind this panel van. I’d been behind it for what felt like an hour when I realized I needed fuel. Since it was the only place in the area, I went ahead and pulled off along with this van. When I went inside for something to drink, I came back out to the guy in the panel van doing something in the back of the van. When I got closer, I heard a kid whimpering and something hit the van so hard that it sounded like whatever it was inside didn’t want to be there.”

I closed my eyes as I felt my stomach roll.

Just the thought of that happening, to any kid, was devastating.

“Then what happened?” Lynn asked.

“I confronted him,” Bruno continued. “Things happened, he took off with the gas nozzle in his van, and then I got on my bike and followed him. I was close, about to call it in, when another van came from out of nowhere and plowed into me.” He paused. “I think that was the van that was found at the scene. The one without all of those kids inside. That was the one that the cops were questioning me about. The guy who hit me hit the steering wheel wrong and broke his neck. The guy in the van that I’d been chasing backed up and nearly ran over my head. He got out, made sure I couldn’t get up by kicking me in the face, dazing me, and then checked on the van. But by that point, we’d already drawn a crowd so he couldn’t stay. But I remember the guy’s face. I can get a sketch artist to mock him up.”

“The guy you fed to your pigs was a one-man show,” Hunt said.

I leaned slightly to the side and peeked over Bruno’s shoulder at the room as they discussed what they would all do next.

After Bruno gave them every piece of information he could remember, down to the license plate of the van even, they all went out and helped get the pigs back into their pen.

And, by looking at them, you wouldn’t know that just a short hour ago, they’d eaten a man alive.

They looked so cute and pudgy. Not lethal at all.

“I never would’ve expected this to be true,” Swayze mused as she looked at the pigs.

It was like herding a pack of cats.

None of them wanted to go back into their enclosure.

And they were feisty as well as adamant that they did not, under no circumstances, want to go back in where they belonged.

Apparently, it was a whole lot more fun outside the pen than inside. Go figure.

When the smallest of the bunch headed in my direction, I made kissy faces at her and started to walk toward the pen.

I attracted not just that one’s attention, but all of their attentions.

As I moved toward the pen, they all started to fall into line behind me. Even the fattest of the bunch came running from the trees to follow.

Bruno’s eyes were lit with a smile as I made my way into the pen and they were able to close the fence behind me.

“Wow,” Hunt said jovially. “She’s the murderous swine whisperer.”

Everyone laughed at that, even Bruno.

“I’ll bet it was because she was the one partially responsible for feeding them their Thanksgiving Day meal,” Six suggested.

I snorted. “If that’s the case, then they’re welcome. Kind of. Should I feel bad?”

“He was going to kill you,” Hunt said as he pulled something up on his phone. “By the way, Bruno, I hacked into your system. It’s pretty good, but not the best. I’ll fix the faults for you. Look at this. You can see that he woke up halfway through being consumed alive.”

I didn’t bother to go looking at the video.

In fact, I chose to walk toward the gate at the other side and let myself out.

CHAPTER 17

How antisocial am I? If I swipe my card at a gas pump, and it tells me to ‘see cashier’ I’m going to leave.

-Text from Bruno to Laric

BRUNO

“I made sure to hide your trace,” Hunt said as he and his wife walked to the door. “You’re booked in as Mr. and Mrs. Aryus.”

I offered Hunt my hand. “Thanks, but I’ll probably just leave that as a decoy and find somewhere else to hole away.”

Wyett, who’d stayed back slightly, looked over my shoulder at who I assumed was Belle.

“She going to be okay?” Wyett asked quietly. “Meeting everyone all at once like that is a bit…”

“Overwhelming?” I offered up the word that I knew she was going to use but didn’t.

Wyett grinned. “That word is really kind of an understatement. Six is overwhelming at the best of times. Six, being protective of her first best friend, is overwhelming times infinity.”

That wasn’t a fuckin’ lie.

Six was a little pain in the ass today, and that surprised me, because most of the time she acted like she didn’t care anymore, when I knew that she did.

Six held a mean grudge.

I’d left her way back when, thinking I was protecting her, when in fact it hadn’t protected her much at all.

But my young brain, at the time, hadn’t realized that. All I’d thought was that I was protecting my best friend.

And, in the process, I’d broken her trust in me.

“Yeah…” I said to the two of them. “Thanks for the help.”

Hunt held up a fist and I knocked it with my own before the two of them left, leaving me to go back inside and see what kind of damage Six had done with Belle.

Belle who was currently drinking chocolate milk out of a wine glass.

“Whoa,” I said. “Don’t drink too much of that. We have to get on the road. I don’t want to have to stop every fifteen minutes because you can’t hold your bladder.”

And, I shit you not, Belle poured even more into her glass, then held eye contact with me while she drank it all down.

My lips twitched.

“Nice.” I laughed.

She shrugged. “Your ex-best friend caused me to drink. But, since I’ve never been a heavy drinker, and can’t really stand the taste of anything alcoholic except beer, I had to settle for chocolate milk, which is my one vice.”

My lips twitched. “What did she have to say?”

“In the hospital.” Belle poured herself another wineglassful. “She was really nice. I think that she thought this was all a joke. But when she saw you holding my hand, her eyes narrowed on me, and I might or might not have realized that she might kick my ass. Y’all didn’t…” She made a hand gesture toward me.

“We didn’t,” I promised. “We never went there. In school, we were each other’s rock, so to speak. She was around when I got my ass kicked. I was around to listen to her bitch. Then when I left, she practically disowned me. When we reunited when she met Lynn, there was a really big blow out between the two of us. And she still doesn’t trust me all that much. I left her. I get that. I wasn’t there when she truly needed me to be. But she has Lynn now. And Wyett.”

“Who do you have, Bruno?” Belle asked quietly.

I shrugged. “The guys are there when I need some help. Like today.”

She tilted her head slightly to the left. “They’d never been here before today.”

I shook my head. “No.”

“Then you must not need them all that much if they’ve never been in your house,” she pointed out.

That was true.

I was used to relying on myself and myself alone.

Relying on anyone else was a recipe for disaster.

“I like my place to be just that… mine.” I paused. “I thought having you here might mess with that feeling of ‘mine’ but it hasn’t. But the minute they all got here, I got really agitated.”

“That was why you looked like you wanted to murder them when they walked in here with their shoes on?” she snickered.

“With you, you saw me take my boots off, and didn’t even question it. With them, they all questioned it. I don’t like being questioned,” I admitted. “You ready to go, or do you need another hit?”

She looked at the now-empty wine glass, then at me. “I’m ready. Just need to grab my bag.”

“Leave it,” I suggested. “We’ll buy whatever you need when we get where we’re going.”

She tilted her head. “How are we getting where we’re going?”

I pulled a set of keys out of my pocket and showed them to her. “Lynn procured a car for us.”

She eyed the key chain. “A Tesla? You don’t seem the Tesla type.”

I shrugged. “I’m not. Which Lynn knew. He found me something I would likely never be caught dead in. Anyone who is after me will know I’d never get into something like that willingly, too.”

“Well,” she hesitated. “I still need my clothes. And my phone. And my computer. I’m like three days behind schedule on my work. I know that I fucked up and led people right here, but I’ll just disable the Wi-Fi card. I’ll do it all offline, use a jump drive, and upload it from a coffee shop or something. Or, get Hunt to do it. I don’t know. He said he could. Whatever. I just really need to get this to them. They’re counting on me.”

I nodded once. “Okay then.”

Fifteen minutes later, we were both standing next to the fuckin’ Tesla.

“Did you know that Elon Musk did not start Tesla?” Belle opened the door, tossed her crap into the back seat, and then slammed it closed.

I sighed in resignation, opening the door much more carefully than her seeing as my headache was still very much there.

“I didn’t,” I admitted. “I always assumed it was him.”

“Most do,” she confirmed. “And did you know that, regularly, only six parts on a Tesla need replacement?”

I grunted out a, “No shit?”

“The four tires and the two wiper blades. The rest are made so efficiently that it’s very rare for anything else to need replacing,” she murmured. “I read an article once about this. They said even the brake pads don’t really wear down because the Tesla braking system is regenerative, turning the electric motor into a generator to recharge the battery. They last a really long time.”

“Huh,” I said as I started the car.

“Wow.” she paused. “You know, I’ve never really heard one. I’ve seen one, of course, but I’ve always just assumed that they would sound like a regular car. This is eerie.”

It was.

It didn’t even sound like it was turned on.

But the damn thing was responsive, I’d give it that.

My eyes scanned the surroundings as we drove, and despite the tenseness of the situation, we ended up talking about completely random shit to pass the time.

That was until she started to edit.

Then I lost her to her work.

Every once in a while, she would spout out random bits of knowledge that I was beginning to really adore.

“Cherophobia is the irrational fear of being happy.” Belle paused. “The reason I told you that is that in this book, there’s a girl that’s scared of loose or detached hair. I was trying to find a phobia that didn’t sound so… weird. But still be cool.”

My lips twitched. “It’s kind of sad if you’re afraid to be happy.”

She looked over at me. “It sounds like you,” she countered.

I snorted. “Maybe. Maybe not. I just don’t want to be falsely happy. I want to be truly happy. That means that I don’t go faking being happy just because seeing me happy will make other people feel better. That doesn’t mean that I’m not happy. It just means that I would much rather live my life for myself. Not anybody else.”

She hummed, seeming to agree with my words, and fell back into silence as she went back to her work.

Fifteen minutes later, she paused mid-keystroke and looked at me. “Did you know that in Sweden, they notify blood donors when their blood is used?”

My brows went up. “I think if that were the same here, then more people would be willing to donate blood.”

She nodded as if my words were true.

“I agree,” she replied, then went back to her work.

I kept my eyes on our surroundings, hyperaware of everything that was going on around me, when she said, “You should try autopilot.”

I blinked.

“What?” I asked, not sure I’d heard her correctly.

“Autopilot. You know, when you let the car drive for you?” she suggested. “That’s the whole point of the Tesla.”

I frowned.

“Bruno,” she said, sounding exasperated. “Where have you been living? Under a freakin’ rock?”

Then she proceeded to rock my damn world.

“I mean, logically I knew that we were coming to this,” I replied as I looked at the steering wheel. The steering wheel that did not have my fuckin’ hands on it, yet was still on the damn road and not crashing into other cars. “I guess I just instinctively ignored everything there was about this weird shit because I didn’t need to know about it.”

She snickered as she went back to her work.

“Which of these sounds better.” She looked over at me. “The girl was one of my favorites. Used to, I would fuck her, and be able to forget. Or this one. The girl was one of my favorites. When I fuck her, I was always able to forget.”

I looked over at her. “What kind of book are you reading?”

“A motorcycle club romance,” she explained. “And I’m not ‘reading’ it. I’m editing it. Now, which one sounds better?”

“A man doesn’t think like either of those sentences. If I was going to think what you just wrote, I’d probably go with ‘I fucked her because she was one of my favorites.’ We’re simple creatures.”

She nodded her head, made a note on the computer, and then went back to editing.

It was an hour later when she sighed.

“I have to pee,” she grumbled. “I’m almost done, though. I think that if I can just hold off long enough to finish, we can send this info back, and keep moving along.”

I looked at the next road sign and said, “The closest gas station is still thirty-four miles away. That enough time to finish it?”

We were in the middle of Nowhere, Texas and the gas stations were becoming fewer and farther between as we drove.

“Where are we going by the way?” she asked.

I shrugged as I repositioned myself in the driver’s seat. Even though it wasn’t me driving. Still so fuckin’ weird.

“I figured I’d just drive until I was where we wanted to stop.” I paused. “Depends on how long you feel like being in the car.”

She hummed. “I don’t mind being in the car at all. I mind having to pee. And just sayin’, but if it’s not a nice gas station, I won’t want to stop there. I have a thing about dirt. Remember?”

I did.

“I’ll make sure to pick a nice one,” I told her.

It was a lie, though. I’d take her to whatever gas station they had in the area, seeing as the farther we drove, the less and less they appeared.

Luckily, forty minutes later, the one we arrived at was indeed a nice one.

“This is so fuckin’ weird,” I grumbled as I got out of the car.

Belle snickered as she left me behind, and I casually looked all around us as we made our way into the gas station.

It was weird driving that long and not needing a tank filled.

I would need to make sure that wherever we stopped for the night had access to electricity, though.

When I arrived inside, it was to see Belle’s head disappearing above the aisles of food and other truck-stop delicacies as she hurried toward the bathroom.

While she was gone, I made use of the facilities as well and waited outside the bathroom door for her to come out.

Something which took way longer than expected.

When she finally arrived, it was to see her face scrunched up in annoyance.

“What?” I asked, catching her hand and directing her out of the shoot that led to the bathrooms.

“There was a line,” she grumbled. “Everyone crammed in on top of the other. And people need to learn boundaries.”

“Use the men’s next time. There was no line at all,” I suggested.

She sighed. “That’s kind of illegal.”

“Who the fuck cares?” I asked as I guided her toward the food. “Are you hungry?”

She looked at the food, then bent down to the very bottom and picked out a super-sized bag of Funyuns.

She then moved down to the candy bars where she picked up not one but four plain Hershey chocolate bars.

I followed her lead, stopping to pick up a package of jerky and a bottle of room-temperature water before waiting for her to backtrack for her own drink.

But halfway there, she found the peanut butter M&M’s, vanilla wafers, and a small travel-sized cup of chunky peanut butter.

Shaking my head as she walked toward me with her arms full of food that there was no way she was going to get through before the end of our road trip, I still couldn’t help but grin.

She narrowed her eyes at me. “Was that a grin?”

The grin immediately fell off my face. “No.”

“Uh-huh.” She snorted. “If you say so.”

I did say so.

Because grinning wasn’t my thing.

Grinning invited questions like the one she just asked me.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Sure.” She paused next to a shelf that had Hostess cupcakes. “Can you grab me one of those Little Debbie Christmas trees?”

I grabbed not one, but three.

“And.” She hesitated as she looked at me. “Can you get me a chocolate milk?”

Rolling my eyes, I placed all the shit I had in my hands on the counter, then went back for her chocolate milk.

“Only Borden!” she called out. “I don’t like anybody else’s chocolate milk.”

I rolled my eyes, refraining from asking what the difference was, but chose to keep my questions to myself.

Instead, I grabbed her drink, headed to the counter, and paid in all cash before gathering up our three full grocery sacks and heading back out to the car.

When we arrived, it was to find the car surrounded.

Apparently, Podunk, Texas didn’t see Teslas very often.

“Nice car, man,” the young man closest to the driver’s side door said.

I walked toward the passenger side door, opened Belle’s door, and then waited for her to get in and put her seat belt on before handing her all three bags of food.

She immediately started to dig into them as she found the things she most wanted.

I jerked my head toward the kids. “Thanks.”

Then without another word to them, I started the car and headed back to the highway.

Surprisingly, Belle surpassed all expectations.

The bad thing was, any time she licked her fingers, my dick would get hard, and I would question why it was that I couldn’t take her right then and there if I was on autopilot with the car.

The more the thought entered my brain, the more I questioned why I was questioning it, until eventually she figured out that I was in a state and clued in.

“What’s with that face?” she asked, sucking on a Jolly Rancher.

I cleared my throat. “I’ve never seen a girl eat so much, and me be so turned on by it, ever in my life. I feel like I’m in an alternate reality.”

Her eyes sparkled. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” I grunted, reaching down to readjust the erection that was pressing against the unforgiving fly of my jeans.

She smirked at me, then reached backward for her computer.

“Since you’re already in this current state,” she said. “I want to ask you a question about this scene I read earlier. That’s why I didn’t send it yet. I wanted to get your opinion on it. But I wasn’t sure that it was a good idea to ask you when you were driving.”

I gestured to the car that was driving itself. “I’m bored. Hit me.”

Her eyes gleamed as she opened the laptop and looked at me saucily before she started explaining.

“This particular scene, they’re in the front seat of a big box truck,” she explained. “The man is driving, and the cab is really dark. They’re on an open road in the middle of nowhere without any lights. And she’s lying across the bench seat, her face in his lap.”

I felt my gut tighten at her words.

“Okay.” I waited.

“Here goes…” She took a deep breath and started reading. “Beth lay with her face in his lap. Her mouth was inches away from his cock that was pressing against the fly of his blue jeans.” She glanced over at my own crotch, which was painfully hard. “With each painful second that passed, she inched closer and closer to the tip of his hard cock until she could just barely feel the tip pressing against her lips.”

I nearly groaned when she stopped.

“So here’s my question. When she first woke up, he’s watching the road, driving. Then she lies there, inches closer and closer, and she’s all but breathing on him. Wouldn’t he feel the heat through his jeans?” she asked.

I thought about that for a moment.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Firstly, he’s not paying attention. He would have to be really focused on her to ‘notice’ that I think. But then again, I don’t know if someone laying like that would really be able to penetrate a man’s jeans with just her breath.”

That’s when Belle shoved all of her spoils to the floor.

I frowned as she unbuckled, then my brows climbed to my hairline as I watched her lay across the middle console to put her head in my lap.

My hands clenched on the steering wheel, and I glanced down before jerking my head back up.

“Belle,” I growled. “We’re in a car that’s going seventy miles an hour down a highway.”

She situated herself until her mouth was only a scant inch away from my cock.

“Let’s reenact this scene. The faster you tell me when you can feel it, the better,” she murmured.

I sighed and allowed my hands to drop from the top of the steering wheel to the sides, allowing me a much less unencumbered view of the girl in my lap.

Her head was on my right thigh, and her face was aimed toward my belly.

Her mouth was open, and all I could think about was unzipping my jeans and shoving my cock down her throat.

“Can you feel it?” she asked, her expressive eyes lifting to meet mine.

CHAPTER 18

If you are not happy single, you won’t be happy in a relationship. Happiness comes from guns, not a man.

-Text from Bourne to Belle

BELLE

“Can you feel it?” I wondered.

Okay, so I didn’t actually need to reenact this particular scene.

The accuracy of this particular scene wasn’t crucial to the story, and sort of added a bit of comic relief where it was needed most.

However, I’d wanted nothing more than to get into Bruno’s lap since I’d gotten into the car, and this was the only way that I could make the plan succeed that didn’t happen to have me outright asking him if I could suck on his cock.

Something that I didn’t quite have the confidence built up to do just yet.

“I can’t feel it.” He sounded like he’d said that through gritted teeth, making me smile.

“Okay,” I sighed and sat up, disappointed in myself and my inability to just ask him what was on my mind.

Dammit, I was turning into a weirdo girl.

I…

Bruno gathered my face into his hands and kissed me.

In between one breath and the next, Bruno was kissing the hell out of me, and I was practically moving into his lap.

Things moved fairly fast after that.

One second I was in my seat with all of my clothes on, and the next I was pantless, on his side of the car, and Bruno’s cock was out and between us.

I blinked at the speed in which he’d divested me of my clothes, then couldn’t help the small smile that tilted up the corner of my lip at the need I saw written all over his face.

“You’re sure about the no-condom thing?” he asked, his massive hand wrapping around his impressive cock and squeezing.

He squeezed it so hard, in fact, that I winced.

The tip of his cock turned an angry purple color, and I caught his wrist up in mine and yanked his hand off of his poor abused penis.

“Be nice to it,” I ordered jokingly. “I want to be able to use it.”

The car slowed, and I had a moment of ‘oh shit’ but saw that a small possum had entered the roadway we’d been driving alone on for an hour.

Once the possum moved, the car sped back up.

When I turned around, it was to see Bruno’s eyes wide and him shaking his head.

“We should really…”

I was thankful I was a small girl.

Mostly because before he could say ‘we should stop’ I was moving forward and placing his cock at my entrance.

Between his finished sentence of ‘should’ and then ‘stop’ I had him sheathed inside of me.

He hissed out a breath, his eyes closing and his hands going to either side of my hips and clenching slightly.

I groaned at the feeling of utter fullness.

“You feel like…” I couldn’t find the correct word for what I was feeling.

“Mine,” Bruno finished for me, his eyes opening to blaze out at me. “You feel like mine.”

Then he started to pull me down onto him.

Over and over until I wasn’t sure where we were, what I was doing, or what I was feeling.

I’d never, not ever, thought that sex could be like this.

So mind-numbingly perfect.

So life changing.

So… everything.

There just weren’t enough words in the English language that could reveal everything that I was feeling in that second.

Or, if there were, I just couldn’t articulate them.

So I stayed silent, kept my eyes closed, and rode Bruno like my favorite horse.

Over and over he filled and emptied me. My thighs were screaming, I was fairly sure that I was going to have a permanent imprint of the window button on my shin, and I couldn’t catch a full breath.

But the things that were happening inside of me? Well, it felt like dying might just be worth it.

Even the sound of the police siren couldn’t stop the orgasm that slammed through me.

I threw my head back and cried out, my entire being feeling like it was launched into space.

My fingers clenched on Bruno’s shoulders, nails digging in helplessly, as my orgasm claimed me.

Or maybe it was Bruno’s orgasm. I mean, technically, I wouldn’t be having an orgasm at all without him.

So yeah, I was going to give credit where credit was due.

A series of grunts left Bruno’s lips, and I knew that he’d followed right behind me.

It was only as I was opening my eyes to stare into Bruno’s clenched shut ones that I realized that the police siren I’d heard earlier hadn’t been a figment of my imagination after all.

Mostly because when I looked out my window, there was a police car with lights on right next to said window.

Oh, and we were stopped.

At some point, Bruno had pulled us over, not the car.

And the police officer in his police cruiser was looking at us like he was gobsmacked.

As if he’d never walked up on two people fucking in a car before.

I turned away from the police officer who was now getting out of his cruiser, and then looked seriously at Bruno.

There was a knock at our window, and I couldn’t stop myself from throwing my body into his arms.

He caught me with a grunt.

“Hey, B?” I whispered against his throat.

“Yeah?” he all but croaked.

“What do you think of self-driving cars now?” I asked cheekily.

He paused, his hand halfway up the length of my spine, and said, “I’m sold.”

CHAPTER 19

A good way to get out of a conversation is to take off one of your socks and hand it to them.

-Introvert’s guide to survival

BELLE

We ended up in Reno, Nevada.

I wasn’t sure what was here, but the city itself ended up being rather nice.

After dealing with the cop who chose to find humor in the situation instead of getting pissed and giving us a ticket, we drove on.

This time, Bruno drove the rest of the way and didn’t do the autopilot thing at all.

When we arrived at the house, the first thing Bruno did was stretch an extension cord out to the car and plug ‘the bastard’ in.

While he did that, I went to the nearest coffee shop that was a hop and a skip away from our rental, called Hunt, and allowed him to take control of my computer and send out everything I needed sent out.

“All done,” Hunt said. “Now, tell me more about you and Bruno.”

I rolled my eyes. “Bruno and I are Bruno and I.” I paused when I watched the man in question walk into the coffee shop. “Gotta go. Thanks for sending that info for me.”

He chuckled. “Don’t thank me too much. I’m going to read the one about the highlander. It looked really good, and I’ve always liked time travel books.”

Before I could tell him that he couldn’t, he hung up, leaving me rolling my eyes as Bruno walked up.

“What’s that look for?” he asked curiously.

“Hunt just told me his fee for sending my books for me was him getting to read one about a highlander. The only problem is that I’ve signed a contract that expressly prohibits me from sharing any information about it, the book itself, or anything related to the book. This is a big contract with a publisher, so it’s making me a little antsy,” I told him.

He took a seat and then gestured toward my laptop.

“I had an idea when you were walking here. Do you mind if I use that?” he asked.

I pushed it toward him and watched as he once again called Hunt back and asked him to get him a secure connection.

He did and Bruno was off.

“So I was thinking while you were taking a nap earlier, about the man in the van. The first van that I interacted with,” he murmured. “And it was when you were walking away that I finally figured out the connection to the man. He’s the spitting fucking image.”

I had no clue what he was talking about.

At least, I didn’t until he turned the computer to show me.

I narrowed my eyes.

“That’s the governor,” I said stupidly.

Bruno winced. “I know.”

My mouth fell open. “Are you trying to tell me that the governor of the damn state has something to do with this child trafficking ring?”

Bruno looked sick to his stomach as he pulled out his phone.

“Hunt,” he said into the silence. “Look at the computer. Tell me what you think of it.”

There was a long pause and then Bruno said, “The man that was driving the first van that got away. Looked like an older version of this guy.”

“He was on the television at the gas pump this morning,” I murmured as I thought back to how Bruno would’ve come up with this correlation between the two men. “The governor. He’s running for reelection.”

A grim look crossed Bruno’s face. “We know.”

I shivered at the look on his face.

He wasn’t very happy with that fact, either.

Stomach tumbling, I gathered up my coffee and pastry, no longer having an appetite whatsoever, and walked toward the trash can.

I smiled at the young barista when she noticed me throwing away my food. “It’s not you. It’s me. I thought that I wanted a pastry and coffee, but my stomach is all nerves.” I looked over my shoulder at Bruno.

The barista looked in the same direction, and she drew in a deep breath.

“Where did he come from?” she whispered. “Wowza.”

I wondered how she could miss a man the size of Bruno coming in the door. But then I got to thinking about how it was likely nobody was as aware of the man like I was.

If Bruno didn’t want to be seen, he wasn’t.

I’d noticed it with other people, too.

Like today with the gas station attendant. He must’ve missed Bruno coming inside, because when we were checking out, Bruno had walked up and placed his stuff on the counter. As he did, the attendant had reached for something under the counter as if he thought he might need it.

“He walked in the door like I did about twenty minutes behind me,” I told her, not trying to sound pissy but coming off that way anyway.

The barista’s eyes came to me, and she winced. “He your man?”

I stared her down as the words came from my lips. “Of course, he’s my man. Who else’s would he be?”

I meant it as ‘there was nobody else in the damn building’ not ‘nobody else could handle him but me.’

She could take it whatever way she wanted.

I didn’t care.

Turning my back on her, I headed back to the table where Bruno was now sitting and staring at me as I walked back toward him.

I frowned. “What?”

He shook his head, gathered up the computer, then jerked his chin toward the side door that led out into the back patio area.

“Let’s go that way,” he said. “I don’t want to be predictable and come out the front way just in case.”

We would have to jump over the short fence, I’d learned.

How did I learn that?

When we got back there, Bruno handed me the computer and then easily hopped it to the other side.

Then, without a strain or a grunt leaving his lips, he wrapped his massive hands around my waist, his fingertips nearly spanning me from back to front, and then lifted me.

I went up, had a sense of ‘I’m flying’ and was put down just as fast.

I blinked at him, a smile forming on my face.

“Do you think you can lift me up again?” I asked him.

He frowned. “Yeah.”

I placed the computer onto the coffee table, then lifted my arms in the universal sign of ‘lift me up.’

He did, again not even straining, and hoisted me up in the air as if I weighed no more than a feather.

“Now what?” he asked curiously.

“Now spin me!” I snickered.

He rolled his eyes, but ultimately did what I wanted for a few seconds before placing me back down onto my feet.

I hit with a thud, laughing the whole way down.

“Thanks,” I said. “I haven’t been picked up like that since Daniella came along.”

“Daniella?” he asked.

I tilted my head. “My sister. You don’t know everything about me?”

He shrugged. “I had no reason to know everything about you. So I’m assuming she’s your younger sister.”

“You would assume correctly,” I confirmed. “There’s Bourne and Booth,” I took his hand in mine as we started walking. “They’re twins. Then there’s Priscilla. Garrett, Heath. Me. Then Daniella, the baby. There was another pregnancy between Priscilla and Heath, then me and Daniella, but my mom miscarried.”

“That sucks,” he grumbled, his hand squeezing mine lightly as he steered us toward the house he’d rented.

The place where it was located was downright cute. The neighborhood was nice, clean and tidy. The shops matched the cute houses.

And there was quite a bit of pedestrian life/foot traffic, making it a quaint little area of Reno.

I had a feeling that Bruno knew exactly what he was getting when he came here, too.

“It sucks,” I confirmed. “But it’s also life. When my mom delivered my little sister, there was a moment in time where they considered more kids. But then my mom got a uterine infection after the birth, and they suggested having a full hysterectomy.”

“That really fuckin’ sucks,” he said. “How many more would they have had had that not happened?” He paused. “You’re all Catholic? Don’t believe in birth control?”

He looked at me accusingly.

“We are. And, yes, I’m on birth control. I-I don’t know. I just… I don’t want kids before it’s time. I’ll welcome all that I can have once the time comes, but I want to make sure that it’s the right time. If that makes any sense whatsoever?” I blabbered.

His lips twitched. “When I was in prison, I shared a cell with a man that had seventeen kids, all with the same woman. They had each one naturally. All single births. In between kid fourteen and fifteen, he’d lost his job. Between sixteen and seventeen, his eldest tried to rob a liquor store because they couldn’t feed them all. Old man took the hit to save the kid from that life. They made it two and a half years without having any kids—the biggest gap between any kids. The moment that he was out, he got her pregnant with the eighteenth.”

“Wow,” I paused. “That’s a lot of kids.”

He snorted. “Shit ton of them. They had to break them up into groups to come visit him at the prison. He got out, got another job, and he’s been keeping his nose clean, having more kids, every time I check on him.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Why do I get the feeling that you’ve kept an eye on him on purpose?”

“Because I offered his two eldest kids a job the moment I was out and able to do so. They both work at the strip club in Kilgore that Lynn owns,” he explained. “He’s a good guy. All of his kids are, too.”

“These kids you offered jobs. Were they girl kids or boy kids?” I wondered.

He burst out laughing. “Both big, strapping boys. Boys that can protect the girls that work there. They keep the place in line now that I’m not making it in as much as I used to.”

“Why aren’t you?” I asked curiously.

At this point he was leading us up the stairs to the rental.

Before he answered, he walked inside, pointed to a spot on the floor, and said, “Stay there. I’ll be back.”

I stayed, wondering what he would do if I’d moved.

I decided to try that particular move when it wasn’t my life that was on the line.

When he got back a few minutes later he answered with, “I’m not there because I’m doing more work with Lynn. Illegal work that I try to keep out of the legal establishments.”

I tilted my head and stared at him curiously. “What kind of illegal work?”

He looked at me thoughtfully for a few seconds. “Your dad is a cop.”

My brows rose. “Yeah.”

“Your brothers are cops,” he continued.

I rolled my eyes. “So that means that you don’t want to tell me because you think that I might snitch?”

He sighed. “I don’t want to put you into a position where you might have to. If you know what I do, or don’t do for that matter, then you won’t have to tell someone—like your dad, or that Jarome guy. Or Dremmel—that I was or wasn’t bad. You wouldn’t have to give me an alibi knowing that I did something illegal to require it.”

“This time you didn’t do anything illegal,” I pointed out.

“No,” he agreed. “But next time? When I beat the shit out of some meth head because he has some information I might need that would advance a case I’m looking into, I don’t want you to have to experience that.”

“Does that happen often?” I wondered.

He gestured for me to head with him to the kitchen, then walked to the fridge where he pulled a set of menus from beneath a rather large ‘I LOVE NEW YORK’ magnet.

“Italian, Mexican, American, or Chinese?” he asked.

“Mexican,” I answered instantly. “Unless it has less than four and a half stars. Then Italian.”

He looked at me curiously. “How would I know if it has less than four and a half stars?”

I grabbed my phone out of the purse that he’d so graciously brought in for me, disregarded the multitude of text messages from various people, and then went to my search app.

“What’s the name of the place?” I asked.

He read it off to me, then tossed the menu on the counter before hoisting himself up to wait for me to give him my verdict.

“They have really good ratings,” I said. “Except for one recently from a mother who was asked to leave because her child was being loud.”

Bruno snorted. “What’s wrong with that?”

I rolled my eyes. “Nothing. Unless you want to piss off every single household that has children. I mean, it’s not like she can choose whether or not her kid stays quiet while out to eat.”

Bruno rolled his eyes. “Or, it could make all us childless people who hate going out to restaurants with screaming kids happier. I know that I’d pay more money to go to an establishment that doesn’t allow screaming kids to be there.”

I snorted. “Do you not like kids?”

“I like some kids.” He hesitated. “And I’m sure that I’ll like my own.”

“You’re sure you’ll like your own.” I grinned with amusement. “Yeah, but what happens if you don’t?”

“Then I guess I’d have to get used to them, because they wouldn’t be going anywhere.” He shrugged. “Yes or no on the Mexican food?”

“Yes,” I said as I walked toward him, reaching for the menu that was next to his thigh.

His very hard, very large thigh that he had one hand resting on as he leaned back against the cabinets behind him.

I licked my lips as I pulled the paper closer to me, causing him to growl.

I glanced up at him. “What?”

He pulled me close until I was between his splayed thighs.

“When you bite your lip, it makes me want to do it, too,” he grumbled.

I smiled as I glanced down at the menu.

“I want two chicken enchiladas with sour cream sauce, rice and beans. White queso. Chips and hot sauce. Oh, and an order of flour tortillas.” I paused. “And whatever kind of dessert they have.”

His smile into my eyes was enough to have my heart rate sky-rocketing.

“Are you going to share the queso?” he teased.

I shrugged. “Maybe. Best to get your own, just in case.”

Then I watched as he threw his head back and laughed.

CHAPTER 20

Panic at the disco? Grow up and panic everywhere like everyone else.

-Text from Laric to Bruno

BRUNO

She wasn’t kidding about the not sharing her queso thing.

After she consumed almost all of the chips and hot sauce, she started on the tortillas and queso before finally ending on her entrée.

I was halfway through with my food when she finally offered me what little was left in her queso.

“I’m good,” I joked. “Where are you putting all of this?”

She rolled her eyes. “My brothers and I used to compete in every way. I guess I just learned to eat a lot from a young age. I didn’t like being outdone. I’m not very good at sports, shooting, or anything really. But I can eat. And read. Two things that really shouldn’t be something I can excel at seeing as they’re both things that cause you to gain weight if you’re not careful.”

“Reading doesn’t really cause you to gain weight,” I disagreed.

“No.” She paused. “But it does cause me to sit there for hours on end, and not want to do anything. So it leads to gaining weight if I’m not careful.”

“Ahh,” I said. “I guess that I can see your point.”

She pushed some cheese onto her tortilla and shoved it in her mouth before saying, “When I was younger, my mom and dad used to think that I fed the dog my food because I always ate everything on my plate.”

“And did you ever feed the dog?” I wondered.

She shook her head. “No. I didn’t really like the dog. He was really standoffish around me, and I think he sensed that I didn’t really like him.”

“You don’t like dogs?” I asked. “Or just that one in particular?”

“That one in particular, but all dogs really.” She winced. “I’m just not good with animals. I don’t like dog hair. I don’t really like them touching me with their wet mouths. And I don’t really like the smell of them and how dirty they make things. Or the way they’re so loud.”

I grinned. “So, what you’re telling me is you don’t like kids, either?”

She opened her mouth to reply, but nothing came out.

CHAPTER 21

I like big butts and taco trucks.

-Bruno to Belle

BRUNO

“How many times have you been to prison?” she asked curiously.

I grinned at her change of topic. How we’d gone from talking about dog adoption to prison was anyone’s guess.

“Twice,” I answered.

She tilted her head. “For how long each time?”

I thought back to that answer.

“For the first time, I spent eighteen months in there. For the second time, which was just last year, I was in for four months,” I responded.

She blinked. “You were in prison just last year? Why?”

I grimaced. “Long story short, I needed to be in there to get some information that I couldn’t shake out by other means. So I picked a fight using an alter ego that Lynn set up for me, got arrested, and then spent the time there while I waited for shit to get settled on the outside. Fast forward two months, I have the information that I need, but not the means to get myself out. It was decided, instead of Lynn pulling a get out of jail free card, I just spent the rest of my time in there that they deemed necessary.”

“I’ve never heard of someone getting into jail because they wanted to be there before,” she admitted as she sat back with a sigh and rubbed her belly.

It was then that I saw she’d unbuttoned and unzipped her jeans, exposing her underwear that said ‘Holi-yay’ on them.

My eyes were glued to the green fabric.

“What did you do when you needed to let one loose?” she asked curiously.

I tilted my head. “Let one loose like a fart? Or let one loose like an orgasm?”

She blinked. “An orgasm.” She tilted her head. “I assume you’re just like any other guy in that respect. Wherever you may be, your wind goes free.”

My lips were seriously kicking up hard at the corners.

I managed not to smile, though.

“Interesting.” She grinned. “That didn’t even make you smile. You’re such a robot.”

Did it make me a robot that I didn’t laugh? Maybe.

But I’d learned from a young age that showing any joy, sadness, anger or hope was a one-way ticket to pound town.

Showing no emotion was preferable to getting a fat lip or a black eye.

My family had never been the best at handling emotions, and I had the inside and outside scars to prove it.

“Do you want to watch a movie?” she asked out of the blue. “If I start another book, I might have to finish it tonight depending on if it’s any good or not. So it’s best to watch something I won’t get so emotionally attached to this late in the day.”

“This late in the day being eight in the evening.” I snorted as I leaned forward and caught up the television remote. Turning it on, I paused when I saw the guy that I’d been trying to find earlier. The governor. Sander Bryan. The most corrupt governor that’d ever had the chance to lead the great state of Texas.

“That guy looks smarmy,” she said as she stared at him. “It would stand to reason that his dad is just as weird and creepy.”

I agreed. “I can’t believe I haven’t heard anything back from Hunt about him yet.”

Just as I was about to flip the channel to something else that didn’t have that motherfucker’s face on it, my phone dinged, indicating a call.

“Ask and you shall receive,” Belle said as she stood up and pulled her pants off.

I was so busy watching her that I missed the first half of what Hunt was saying. I mean, the woman was stripping naked right there in front of me and expected me to be able to listen?

“…isn’t Sander Bryan’s dad. It’s his brother. His elder brother by about fifteen years,” Hunt explained. “I’ve managed to track him down to a little place right outside of Nacogdoches, Texas. He works as a hotshot transporter. You know what that is?”

When Belle looked at me, I knew that she didn’t.

“Hotshot transporters are men and women that own their own trucks and trailers and move equipment around all over the country like a truck driver does,” I said.

“Exactly,” Hunt said, thinking I was explaining to him that I knew what he meant, and not to Belle. “Funny thing is, TX-DOT doesn’t show that he’s taken a single haul anywhere but from his part of town to the Arkansas/Texas border. He never deviates from the path, even though he gets hundreds and hundreds of orders and requests a month. Not even his crew that he hired about two years ago deviates from that path.”

“What does he transport each time he goes?” I wondered, watching as Belle moved until she was tucked against my side before reaching for the blanket on the back of the couch.

I had to lean forward slightly to allow her to get it out from behind me.

“Says he transports insulators,” he answered immediately. “Those things that go on telephone poles?”

I shook my head. “You able to get into his camera feed or anything?”

“Nope.” Hunt sounded disgusted. “The guy doesn’t have any camera feed to jack into. He’s completely off the grid. Even has solar panels and his own goddamn cell tower. He’s one-hundred-percent self-sustainable.”

I groaned. “Like that isn’t fuckin’ suspicious at all.”

“Exactly,” Hunt agreed immediately. “I am using other peoples’ business systems to get as much as I can remotely before I suggest we start sending people in.”

“Nacogdoches is about forty-five minutes from where you are. And about ten minutes from where I ended up riding the other day before they tried to run me over,” I told him.

There was a long pause on Hunt’s end and then, “We’re looking into it right now. You did the hard work, man. This part, finding them, is going to be easy. And obviously they have something to hide, or they wouldn’t have tried to run you over. Or put a hit out on you. Good work.” Hunt paused. “I have a really good feeling about this.”

I was beginning to have that same feeling.

For the last two years since this all started, I’d had a feeling that each person we took down was only one really small part of a whole.

But this time, I felt like maybe, just maybe, we might’ve gotten lucky and found the snake that kept laying the eggs.

The momma.

The bad motherfucker that was the brains behind each and every bad thing that went on in our neck of the woods.

When I finally hung up a few minutes later, it was to find Belle leaning into me so heavily that I knew she was asleep.

At some point, with the movie up on queue, and through the rumble of my voice going back and forth through Hunt’s questions, she’d succumbed.

And I wondered idly how long since she’d had a true night of sleep.

They’d told me that she’d stayed vigil at my bedside for the days that I’d been in a coma.

The guys also said that she had been a godsend when she’d told the police that I’d been with her. That made the club able to hide their involvement, meaning that now they were able to look into the details of this all anonymously without having a target on each one of their backs.

My hands trailed down the length of her hair, my fingers sliding effortlessly through the long locks.

“What am I going to do with you?” I asked her.

She didn’t reply.

But she didn’t need to, either.

If it took me going blue in the face, I was going to convince her to stay with me.

I was going to make her mine.

I was going to keep her.

She just didn’t know it yet.

Leaning back in the couch with my mind at peace at the thought of what keeping her meant, I crossed my ankles, tugged the woman in my arms more fully into them, and then switched on a different movie from the one she wanted to watch.

When I got bored with that one, I changed to the television cable, then cruised through those channels until an old favorite, Top Gun, showed up.

I was halfway through the movie, at the volleyball scene, when Belle stretched and then settled more fully onto me. Her leg straddled one of mine, and then she moved until her head was tucked against my neck.

“I used to love this movie,” she mumbled sleepily against my throat.

My cock jerked at the husky sound of her voice.

“It’s one of my favorites, too,” I admitted.

She hummed, her lips playing along the skin there. “Surprisingly, it’s not the volleyball scene that’s my favorite. It’s the part where he’s at the end, and flying, thinking about his partner, and he finally gets past that final roadblock that kept him from really flying again.”

“Some would say that’s one of the worst parts,” I confirmed.

She rubbed her skin against my own.

“Maybe,” she acknowledged. “But it’s also the part of his rebirth. The part where he realizes that he can make it on his own. He doesn’t want to, he misses his friend and his old life, but he knows that life goes on even when he’s missing a serious component of his soul that he can never get back.”

I hummed in agreement. “That’s very philosophical.”

“I’m a philosophical bitch, what can I say?” She snickered, moving even more fully onto me. “I do read and edit books all day, though. I’m bound to have some professionals’ words making their way into my daily life.”

I started to run my hand up and down the length of her back, my fingers tangling with the tips of her hair with every stroke.

“Do you like doing what you do?” I asked curiously. “I know you like reading, but isn’t it a bit different, too job-like, reading, when you’re actually editing?”

“Depends,” she admitted around a yawn. “Sometimes it can be if it’s not a particular genre that I like. Like last month, I had to edit a gothic horror-type romance. It was set in the depression era and even worse, it was about vampires. Another sub-genre that really isn’t my favorite. It took me a while to get through it, but I have to admit it was probably one of my better edited works. When I’m not ‘into’ something that I’m reading, it takes me longer, and I don’t get pulled into the story as much.”

I hummed in understanding. “Are you a professional? I mean, I know that you’re good. You wouldn’t have as much work as you do if you weren’t. But are you like school-licensed or anything?”

“I went to college and majored in English lit. I finally got my master’s last year while waffling between wanting it or not. But it didn’t change anything that I was doing professionally. When an author and I were just starting out, she took a chance on me being her editor. And now that she’s a New York Times bestseller, her name-dropping—mine in particular—gets me enough business to last me all year. I was very fortunate,” she admitted.

“Who’s the author?” I wondered.

She snickered. “She writes erotica. She’s the woman behind the new movies coming out about that billionaire that buys an island and then traps the love of his life on it. The line that they used on the movie poster at the movies is one that I wrote myself.”

I moved my hand up to catch a lock of her hair, twirling it around my finger. “Why don’t you write?”

She shrugged, causing her delicate shoulder to drag against my nipple. “I can. I just don’t really want to. It’s not something that really sounds fun to me. I’d rather sit on my ass and read all day than come up with worlds of my own.”

I grinned as she stretched like a cat.

“I like when you play with my hair,” she murmured, moving so that she was more fully in my lap, allowing me full access to her hair.

I twirled a long lock around my finger, and in companionable silence, we watched the rest of Top Gun before it rolled into the next movie—Terminator.

“Do you think the mom is hot?” she wondered.

I thought about that for a long moment.

“I mean, yes. I think it’s hot that she knows how to handle herself.” I paused. “I think her body looks good. But I think the outdated style kind of throws me off.”

She rolled until she was face up, her back against the couch with my thigh being used as a pillow, but her head still faced toward the screen.

It gave me an unencumbered view of her legs which had slipped out from under the small blanket.

Her toes weren’t painted—at least, not all the way.

And her legs were ashy.

Yet she didn’t give a fuck.

Not that I cared about either, but from what I could tell from my other girlfriends, they wouldn’t be caught dead with half-painted and chipping off nail polish.

I grinned and smoothed my hand down the length of her side, my hand going to her ass to play my fingers along the length of her panty line.

She rolled over and exposed her butt to me fully, causing me to grin.

I continued to run my fingers along her backside, grinning with each swipe that caused goose bumps to break out on her flesh.

She groaned and buried her face in my lap, right up against my cock that I was having a very hard time keeping under control.

She sighed, and I felt the heat of her breath against my length.

“I can feel that,” I teased her.

She burst out laughing and then went up onto her knees, raising up all the way before she straddled my body.

I caught both of her ass cheeks in my hand, groaning when my fingers sank into her squishy flesh.

I looked at her, the words on the tip of my tongue, and bit it.

“What?” she asked, leaning forward and slowly grinding her pussy down against my cock.

I swallowed. “I was thinking things I probably shouldn’t voice.”

She tilted her head sideways. “Like what?”

“Like things about other women and why you’re better.” I paused. “Again, things I probably shouldn’t say.”

Her eyes filled with mischief, and the iconic ‘I’ll be back’ filled the air behind her head, causing her to laugh.

“Come on,” she urged. “Tell me. It’s not bad, is it?”

I thought about that for a moment. “I don’t think it’s bad.”

“Then tell me,” she said, smoothing her hands down the length of my shirt.

When she came into contact with the hem, she gathered the ends up in her hands and then pulled the shirt up over my head.

I rolled forward slightly so that it was easier for her and then groaned when she started pressing open-mouth kisses to my flesh.

“I was thinking about how you’re so different from other girls,” I admitted. “How I like that your ass jiggles when I sink my fingers into it. Or how when I fuck you, your flesh bounces.”

She licked the line of my chest between my pecs, causing me to groan.

“What else about me do you like?” she asked.

I took her shirt off before answering, hissing in a breath when I realized that she’d been braless this entire time.

Her breasts spilled from her shirt, and they bounced and bobbed with the movement.

Her nipples were turgid and dusky brown, making me want to lean forward and capture them in my waiting mouth.

I did, but only after I answered.

“I like the way that my hands are filled up with your ass,” I told her, leaning forward and running my tongue along the very tip of her breast. “I like the way that you tell me what you’re feeling, when you feel it, and don’t make me guess.” I switched to the other nipple. “I like that you’re right now in my arms, rubbing yourself against me, asking me to explain what I meant instead of getting pissed that I’m comparing you to another woman when you’re in my arms.”

She bit her lip, and I had to bite back a groan as I pulled away to get a good look at her. “And most importantly, I like that you didn’t run and hide when you had the chance, and instead chose to come on this crazy journey with me. Even though it would’ve been way smarter for you to leave me to my own devices.”

She reached for my belt, her hands skimming over the gun holster that was at my appendix before popping the metal free. She followed it up with the button of my jeans, followed shortly after by my zipper.

She was super careful as she pulled it down, though, making sure not to catch my engorged cock in the teeth of the zipper.

She trailed one lone finger over my hard dick, feeling like she burned me as she did.

“I’m not really a girl to run away at the first sign of trouble,” she admitted. “I’m more of a build a barrier and hunker down kind of girl.”

She’d already proven that to me the day that she gave me an alibi when she most certainly didn’t have to.

Her eyes were on fire when she leaned back just far enough to draw the length of her erect nipples across my chest.

I flashed her a quick grin.

Then leaned back and allowed her to use me as her own personal playground.

At first, it was something I could handle.

Her nipples would play along my chest hair, dragging up and down.

It was amusing watching her make herself hot by only using my body to do it.

But then she lifted her breast up, bent forward, and sucked the tip of her nipple into her mouth, and I went from ‘amused’ to ‘fuck no.’

I growled and leaned forward, my mouth moving so that I could steal that particular piece of flesh right out of her mouth.

“Mine,” I said right before I took over the job for her. “You feed me. Hold it up for me.”

While she held it up, I used my hands to pull my cock fully from my jeans, then push the gusset of her panties to the side. From there, I tested her readiness.

Soaked.

More than soaked, actually.

In actuality, she was so wet that she drenched my fingers.

As they slipped inside of her to the second knuckle, she moaned out a ‘yes’ and started to buck her hips.

I pulled back, causing her to growl.

My lips pulled back from the tip of her nipple, and I admired the flush of red from my last few harsh sucks.

“Give me the other one,” I urged as I grasped my cock, then pulled her forward using my fingers inside of her pussy.

She did everything that I wanted.

Gave me her nipple as well as moved forward without the least bit of resistance.

When my cock was near her entrance, she quivered with anticipation, and I almost took the time to tease her pussy with my tip and my fingers.

But she whispered the sweetest words to me.

“Please, don’t tease me. I need you,” she whispered. “I ache.”

I didn’t tease her.

Not this time.

Removing my fingers, I replaced them with my cock, and only let the side of her panties go when I was fully embedded inside of her.

Which honestly didn’t take much because she was so wet, and so eager to have me fill her.

“That’s it,” she breathed the moment that I was sheathed completely inside of her. “This feeling right here.”

I brought my wet fingers up to my mouth and licked them clean before I growled, “What about the feeling?”

My voice rumbled out of my chest like it was sent through an industrial grinder.

“I don’t know,” she whispered. “But I’ve never felt it before. I just… I love it. I feel like I’m finally complete after a lifetime of searching for some missing piece that I didn’t know I needed.”

I couldn’t stop myself from bucking up to meet her thrust.

And when that didn’t get deep enough, I turned the both of us until I was hovering over her on the couch, fucking my cock so deep into her that each jolt made those pretty titties bounce right up against her chin.

She groaned at the switch in position, but didn’t once complain.

Not even the seam of her panties digging into my cock could stop me now.

Not when I was this out of control.

“Please,” she whispered again. “Please.”

Over and over those six letters, in that specific order, came out of her mouth.

A word that, before her, would never have swayed me, no matter whose mouth it came out of.

However, that word coming out of Belle’s mouth was like lighting a match inside my deep, dark soul.

It brought things out of me, things that I’d always kept hidden even with my most trusted friends.

I wanted to give her absolutely everything that she might ever need or want.

And when all I had to give her was me? What kind of asshole would I be not to give her me?

I fucked her hard and fast.

Giving her my cock so deep and hard that she was crying out with each rough thrust.

And then, before either of us were prepared for it, she came.

Her fingernails dug into my arms where she’d been rubbing her hands up the length of my biceps and shoulders. I felt the prick of each nail digging into my muscle, so deep that I knew she might very well draw blood.

Hell, even the thump of my headache—which had never gone away or dulled in power—couldn’t stop the way that I enjoyed each and every second of her tight pussy wrapping around my cock like it never wanted me to leave.

She cried out loudly in my ear, and even the resulting throb inside my head couldn’t stop me.

With a grunt and a jerk of my cock, I started spilling myself inside of her, unable to stop even if I’d wanted to.

“Uhhhh,” I grunted out as a burst of semen rushed from my cock, finding a very deep home inside of her.

Just the thought of me leaking out of her pussy was enough to have me bursting even more inside of her.

“Fuck me,” she breathed in my ear. Much quieter this time.

I moved my mouth to her neck and bit lightly as the last dregs of my release pulsed out of me.

Finally, the jerking stopped, but the resulting twitches and squeezes from her pussy around me had me staying inside of her until there was nothing left but the pounding of our hearts and the harsh breathing in our ears.

Her fingers released my flesh, one single digit at a time, until both arms flopped backward above her head.

Her deep inhalation, followed by her ‘this shouldn’t be real’ had me pulling back from her neck and staring down at her.

“It’s very real,” I informed her. “Those words? That resulting explosion from not just me, but you? That means that whatever this is, it’s not one-sided. I feel the same about you as you do for me.”

Her eyes were twinkling when she said, “Las Vegas is just a hop and a skip away.”

I snorted, was about to reply, but then my phone rang on the floor where I’d dropped it at some point during our lovemaking.

I bent forward and picked it up, my still hard cock digging deep inside of her with the move, causing her to clench around me in surprise.

“Shit,” she breathed.

I grinned wickedly and hit answer on the screen without paying attention to what I was answering.

Then Trick’s face filled the screen, and the seam of Belle’s body and mine filled that little black box at the top.

“Jesus Christ,” Trick said. “Give a man a little warning.”

I quickly moved it up to my face. “Why the fuck are you FaceTiming me? What are you, a teenage girl?”

Trick’s eyes lit with laughter. “I can see good sex doesn’t tame your wild heart.”

I would’ve flipped him off had I had a hand free.

“What do you want?” I growled.

Trick rolled his eyes. When they met mine again, they were completely sober.

“So, um…” Trick started. “I might or might not have fed your pigs another human body. But it seriously wasn’t intentional. I swear.”

• • •

“He tried to use a shortcut to get to your back door,” Hunt said forty-five minutes later in a Zoom meeting that was more protected than a presidential meeting with two foreign leaders. “And he didn’t follow you, or Belle. He followed that dip wad that found you first. I’m getting really fuckin’ tired of my brain not working like it should.”

Hunt was recovering from the flu that had knocked him so hard on his ass over the last few weeks that he was just now getting back to one hundred percent.

Since nobody was hurt, I’d give him the lapse.

This time.

Had Belle been hurt either time, though? I might’ve had a different attitude about it all.

“This time,” Hunt continued. “I made sure to monitor your video feed. Which is why Trick was there in time to intercept the imbecile.”

“The guy saw me and started to run, only he slipped on the fence and hit his chin on the bottom rail. When he didn’t get up, I decided to leave him there and take the long way around so I didn’t have to go into the pen. By the time I got there, the pigs were already feasting on him. And he was dead as fuck. When he fell, he must’ve broken his neck.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose. “And you just let them keep eating him?”

“Easier than calling the cops in and telling them what happened,” Trick answered with a shrug. “They’d already done such a good job before.” He paused. “But it was really fuckin’ gross. So I didn’t watch. I just left them to it, went and gathered some fresh eggs—one was still warm from a chicken’s ass by the way, and a really pretty color green—and waited for them to do their job.”

I shook my head. “This is really fuckin’ disconcerting.”

Belle came up behind me and started to rub my shoulders, and I couldn’t stop my head from falling backward and rubbing against the breasts that were pillowed against my head.

“Now that you drove all the way out there,” Lynn entered the conversation. “We think it would be best to meet us in Austin. I have a private jet waiting for you at the airport.”

I looked backward and over my shoulder to Belle.

She wasn’t the least bit put out that we were once again traveling with barely a moment’s notice.

“I want to meet with the governor face to face. I want to see if he knows what his brother is doing.” He paused. “Belle, you have family in Austin, correct?”

I felt her nod behind me. “My sister lives there with her police officer husband.”

“Good,” Lynn said. “I’ll call your brother-in-law and let him know to expect you at the airport tomorrow morning at ten. We’ll wait for you to get situated with him, then we’ll go take care of business.”

Belle’s fingers squeezed my shoulders as she said, “I’ll call him.”

Lynn shrugged. “Fine. But he’s going to want to talk to someone that knows what’s going on. He’s not going to believe you’re just coming up there and need a ride when he sees you break off from Bruno.”

Belle sighed. “You’re correct. But if you talk to him, he’s going to call my father and brothers. They’re going to be there even if they all have to call in sick to work, leave work sick, and drive all night. And then you’re not going to be able to do this as stealthily as you’d like.”

Lynn’s eyes connected with mine, and I shrugged.

“I don’t know them,” I admitted. “I do know that I had to do some creative negotiating to get her family to agree to allow Belle to come with me.”

Belle’s fingers dug into my neck.

“What?” she asked. “When did you talk to my dad?”

“Actually,” I said, “it was your mom. And I told her that I would protect you with my life in a brief five-minute conversation while you were getting coffee before we left the hospital.” I paused. “She was the one to call me. I’m not even sure how she got my number, but she did.” I paused again. “She told me that if she didn’t get regular updates from you, she was sending every single male in her family after me, and they’d find me, and then kill me if you weren’t okay.”

There was a bit of chuckling from the other men on the Zoom call.

But it was Belle sighing behind me that had me grinning.

“Oh my God,” I heard either Trick or Sin gasp. “He smiled.”

The smile fell off my face immediately.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I grumbled.

“There he is.” Sin clapped. “I thought you might’ve gotten brain damage when that van tried to run over your head.”

“I think it did get damaged,” Hunt offered his two cents. “The man seriously has changed to almost approachable since he met her. I’m not sure what to think about it.”

I ignored them all and focused on Lynn.

“We’ll be there.” I paused. “Plan for her parents, siblings, and law enforcement in the area to know all about whatever it is you’re planning to do.”

Lynn nodded once. “I’ll plan for the worst but hope for the best.”

CHAPTER 22

If you’re going to be weird, be confident about it.

-Text from Bourne to Belle

BELLE

I told them so.

Not only did I say ‘I told you so’ but I also pointed out that it was going to be impossible to do anything illegal now that Angel invited them to our meeting.

However, I wasn’t upset at seeing my family there.

The moment that I arrived at the terminal, I saw my mom, dad, Bourne, Booth and Angel.

Surprisingly, it was my father who reached me first.

Bruno let go of my hand just before my father engulfed me with a hug.

He was the only one besides Bruno who could hug me.

There was nothing against the rest of my family—I loved them all dearly—but I just couldn’t do the touchy-feely thing with them. I had never been able to stand it. I felt like I was suffocating.

Which sucked for my mother, because she always wanted to hug me.

I could see it in her eyes over my father’s shoulder..

She wanted to hug me so bad her fingers were clenching and unclenching with it.

My dad, however, squeezed me hard enough for the both of them.

“Damn, you’ve gotten skinnier,” I heard said. “You fuckin’ suck. You still have your boobs.”

I looked up to see my little sister, Priscilla, standing beside my other sister, Daniella. Both of them were grinning hugely.

“I see we brought the entire family,” Lynn said as he arrived just in time to hear Priscilla’s comments.

“Actually,” I grumbled. “I haven’t lost any weight. I found these cool new pants at Target that have tummy control. They’re so tight on me that they’re cutting off circulation to my lower half. But they’re really soft, so I’m able to deal with the tightness.” I looked over at Lynn. “And I’m missing Garrett. So not quite the entire family. If you’re counting siblings. If you’re counting sisters-in-law, then Delanie and Dillan are also not here. And Asa. And…”

I then went on to list exactly who was missing, down to my very newest nephew.

Lynn shook his head with a smile. “I was more just commenting that you were correct in your assumption that they wouldn’t be able to leave you here alone knowing something was going on. Possibly we should’ve just allowed you to hang out in a hotel.”

Bruno made a grumbling sound in his throat before saying, “Wasn’t going to happen. Not with that motherfucker involved.”

“Agreed,” Angel grumbled. “I’ve been dealing with him for a long time. He’s shady as fuck. Even if it was his brother doing the trafficking. There’s no way that Sander doesn’t know.”

Lynn looked around at the private hangar at the airport that he’d come through to make sure that we were alone.

“I swept it before you got here,” Dad replied. “There’s nothing here, and your friend, Hunt, already turned off all camera feeds to this part of the airport.”

Lynn’s head tilted slightly.

“You’re not the only one who has connections,” Dad answered his obvious confusion cryptically. “Now that we’ve all gotten here, let’s do a rundown of what’s happening today.” He paused. “I’d like you to know that for today, I’m not wearing a badge. Angel and my boys will be staying out of this fight until they’re needed.”

I felt my belly clench.

Out of all the things that I expected my father to say, him ‘not wearing the badge’ wasn’t one of them.

My father was a stickler.

He loved his job. He hated the hit that the profession had taken lately, and he sure the hell hated more how everything was being handled by everybody else.

His job was his life. Besides us, he’d made it a mission to always be truthful, honest, and hardworking.

For him to ‘drop the badge’ was downright terrifying.

Because this obviously meant a lot to him. And I had a feeling it was due to his daughter’s new man—Bruno—being involved.

The kids being trafficked were very important to him, too. But my dad loved me.

He knew what this meant to me to be helping the man I was beginning to love.

“Noted.” Lynn looked toward Bruno, who was standing at my back, offering me support.

His hand went to my hip and squeezed.

The move did not go unnoticed by my mother, brothers, or my sisters.

Lynn, however, kept talking, turning to Angel.

“Can you give us any information before we go have our talk with Governor Bryan?” Lynn asked.

Angel crossed his arms over his chest and sighed.

“Other than the feeling of him being totally dirty,” Angel said. “I don’t really have much evidence to go by. It’s just a gut feeling.” He paused. “You know when everything absolutely goes wrong, shit hits the fan, yet the one person that started it all always comes out shining and bright with no shit clinging to them? That’s Sander. He’s always coming out shining, no matter what the problem.”

“No reason to beat around the bush then.” Lynn pulled his wrist upward so he could glance at his watch. “I have him at a country club meeting set to start in approximately an hour. All other staff and patrons have been contacted regarding a broken pipe via the emergency alert system thanks to Hunt. He’ll be there alone with whoever he brings with him. Which, according to my sources, are always a couple of bodyguards.”

“Two,” Angel confirmed. “He doesn’t go anywhere without them.”

Lynn nodded once, looking over at the man at my back. “Ready?”

Bruno squeezed my hip.

When I looked up at him, he was already looking down at me.

“If you need me, call,” he ordered.

I grinned. “If I need you, I’ll call. After I handle things on my own first, that is.”

My brothers snorted.

After looking down into my eyes for a few long seconds, he gave my hip one last squeezed before letting me go.

And, before my entire family, he dropped a slow kiss to my lips, unconcerned about the eye killing he was receiving from my brothers.

And without another word, he left, expecting everyone else to follow.

“I honestly thought that he was psychotic or something with the way he never smiled or spoke to anyone with any inflection,” Bourne admitted once everyone left. “I’ve seen him around before, multiple times. And I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

“‘That’ being…” I said.

“He loves you, sis,” Booth said. “When a man falls, he can’t help but look at his woman the way Bruno was just looking at you. It’s impossible to hide your feelings. And that man wasn’t hiding shit. He was claiming you in front of your family. Which he knew would piss us off since we don’t know him at all.”

I rolled my eyes. “Whatever. I never acted like this when you both found your wives. And if anyone had the right to act crazy, it was me. Y’all were dating twins. Twins that started out with the other brother. I could’ve made your life hell at first. But I didn’t. And you will give me the same courtesy and extend it to Bruno.”

“Bruno is such a weird name,” Priscilla butted in. “But it fits him.”

I thought so, too.

“Mom,” I said. “You’ve been awfully quiet. What’s wrong?”

My mom watched as my father and Bruno as well as Lynn and the rest of the men got onto their various motorcycles or into their vehicles before she said anything.

“I was just thinking that I need to have the ‘talk’ with you.” She looked over at me, causing Daniella to start to cackle.

I frowned and looked from my mom to my sister and back.

“Okay,” I hesitated.

“Do we really need to be here for this?” Booth grumbled under his breath.

“No,” my mom drawled. “Feel free to walk to the hotel we’re staying at.”

Booth sighed and shut up.

My mother gave his ‘quiet’ form a look before she turned to look at me.

Grabbing my sister Daniella’s hand, she gestured toward the door. “Let’s go.”

Booth and Bourne took lead out the door and frowned. “Where’s Heath?”

“Heath and his new girlfriend are… fighting,” my mom said. “He stayed behind to hopefully convince her to stay with him. But if we’re being honest, I’m hoping that they decide to call it quits.”

My brows rose.

My mom was normally a very nice person. She was a social worker and genuinely liked everybody she met.

That was why she’d been so supportive of Bruno and me. She liked to see the good in everybody, even though she knew there was bad in the world.

She liked to treat everyone like they were ‘good’ until proven otherwise.

“Heath and his new girlfriend had a falling out when Mom started talking about Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mom tried to suggest that Meya—if you ever meet her, her name is pronounced me-yuh and don’t you fuckin’ forget it—come over for Thanksgiving Day Eve. Dad, Booth, and I have to work. So, like always, we’re going to schedule the holiday before the actual holiday. Only Meya decided that she was going to go to her mom’s house and cook Thanksgiving Dinner a day early and couldn’t go. Only, when Heath said that he’d go to Mom and Dad’s without her, she all but had a shit fit because Heath is supposed to be at her parents’ house with her. Not off celebrating fuckin’ Thanksgiving without her.”

I frowned at Bourne’s words. “She what?”

How do you put stipulations on a man’s time when it comes to his family?

I mean, I could see if Heath were going out and hanging out with a bunch of chicks, and her not wanting him to go there. But this was Heath’s family.

“So anyway, Heath told her that he needed a break from her selfish attitude. She automatically assumed that they were breaking up and acted like it was the end of the fuckin’ world. Said that she would do anything as long as he didn’t leave her. So they’re ‘talking it out,’” Bourne grumbled.

“If there’s this much of a problem now, how the hell do they plan on doing this when shit gets really real? Like if they ever have kids? I mean, it wasn’t like we were even asking for the actual day. We hardly ever get that thanks to y’all being in law enforcement. I mean, I think there was a time that you and Booth showed up at the Thanksgiving meal, then had to leave during the middle of it because of a SWAT call, and then Angel got called back all the way to freakin’ Austin, leaving Daniella to scramble to find a way home for her and the baby. Honestly, we’re lucky to just find a day. If she can’t do that, then how the hell is she going to do it later when it’s actually tough? God forbid us being able to celebrate on the actual day. Then what will she do?” I wondered.

“Exactly,” Mom said. “If she can’t compromise now, she’ll never compromise then.” Mom shook her head. “Then I tried to book a couple of cabins in Broken Bow. It was for the week after Christmas. Three days and nights. But her brother is coming in from California, and she went all apeshit that Heath would want to go to Broken Bow with us instead of spending it at home in their house with them. I then said that they could also book their own cabin and come with, since I know the guy that does the booking. She said that, and I quote, ‘her brother doesn’t like to go to places with trees.’”

I scratched my head in confusion. “She sounds like a real winner.”

“Heath needs to kick her to the curb,” Booth and Bourne muttered at the same time.

Daniella snorted, but it was Priscilla who said, “Heath thinks he got her pregnant, so he’s staying until he knows for sure.”

Everyone stopped walking right there in the middle of the airport parking lot.

“He what?” my mother snapped.

“Fuck me,” Angel groaned.

I looked over at my brother-in-law.

The first brother-in-law to join our family. The quiet police sergeant who had taken one look at my sister and known that she was the one. Even though my sister had been much, much younger than him at the time.

I grinned. “You’re glad that you joined this family, right?”

Angel looked at his wife, who was laughing her ass off while hanging on to Priscilla, and then grinned.

“Count my lucky stars every single day,” he admitted.

We both were quiet while the rest of our family discussed Heath’s idiocy.

When we finally arrived at the car, everyone got in at once, leaving just me and Angel standing on the driver’s side of the big passenger van.

As Angel reached for the door, he said, “It took a lot of balls to do what your man did this week.”

I blinked at him in surprise. “You think so?”

He nodded once. “I know so.”

I tilted my head slightly. “Why?”

Angel dropped his hand from reaching for the driver’s side door and turned to stare at me.

“One, he has an assassin after him.” He flipped up one finger. “Two, he took you with him knowing that he had one, but confident that he could protect you better than your own family could.”

I smiled.

“Three.” Angel flipped another finger up. “He was very open with the fact that someone came onto his property, he allowed his animals to eat him, and then he came here because he was involved in something illegal.”

“He wasn’t involved with the reason he came here,” I told Angel. “He will be doing something illegal, though. Of that I have no doubt.”

Angel rolled his eyes. “The man’s been in prison twice, with no guilt from either crime that he committed. Not to mention that whatever that motorcycle club is involved in is highly illegal. How do you think he accomplishes the things that law enforcement can’t?”

I hadn’t thought about it to be honest but…

“I don’t really care what he has to do if he’s getting those kids back,” I told Angel point blank.

“Agreed.” Angel nodded solemnly. “Unfortunately, I’m on the other side of the law and can’t act on it. But if your man does find himself in hot water over whatever they’re trying to accomplish today, then I’ll do my best to get him out of it.”

CHAPTER 23

I’m going to let God fix it. Because if I fix it, I’m going to be in jail.

-Bruno’s secret thoughts

BRUNO

“Son of a bitch is lying through his teeth,” Belle’s father grumbled.

I looked over at him and snorted. “Did you honestly think he wouldn’t? I mean, there’s a reason Angel gets a bad vibe off of him.”

Nico shook his head. “I was hoping that the man running this state wasn’t a piece of shit, and that Angel was just wrong in this one instance.”

“But he’s not,” Hunt said. “Now that I’m able to connect to his personal server thanks to what Lynn brought in with him, I’m able to go through his files, and I’m not liking what I see.”

Hunt turned his computer, and all the men turned their heads to stare at it.

“What am I looking at, Hunt?” Trick asked in confusion.

“Times and dates of the hotshot trucks and what they’re hauling each subsequent time,” Hunt answered.

“Okay,” I hesitated. “But what does it all mean? What’s a 2BM? What’s a 3WF?”

Hunt shook his head sadly.

“It took me a while to cross reference those terms. But the first one you read is two black males. The second one is three white females.”

My stomach fucking dropped. “You’re joking.”

“No,” Hunt said stoically. “And there are pages and pages of this in his servers. Each run they make has some sort of parts in them for a trucking company that’s stationed where they’re at and where they’re going. They actually do drive the truck parts to the company. But they’re always, according to the trucking company they deliver to, missing something. Something big to where they have to ‘run another truck’ to them. To the point that they’re actively seeking out another company to do this for them. They’ve had no luck with the past four companies, because all have been bought out by the same master company—BryHoldings, Inc.”

“Meaning, when they fuck up, they just acquire a new hotshot crew to run parts down to them, and they keep ‘accidentally’ forgetting parts to the point where they have to return. Meaning that they have room for other things in the vans/trucks since they’re carrying half empty,” Nico surmised.

“Exactly.” Hunt nodded as he poked through lists. “Last month they took eight trips. Five of those trips were return trips where there was a ‘part’ forgotten. Meaning they had a nearly empty van. Which, I assume, they used to transport their victims.”

“Son of a bitch,” I grumbled. “They have this down, don’t they?”

“Is Bryan ever ‘involved’ or is he just on the outskirts?” Nico leaned back in the seat into the metal of the van at his back, looking for all the world that he was calm and collected when in fact he was pissed as hell.

I could see a vein in his neck throbbing, and his hands were clenched into tight fists that he had tucked tight across his body.

“From the public appearance, no.” Hunt scratched his head, then yanked his glasses off and pinched the bridge of his nose. “He looks squeaky clean when you look at him like this. But then you look deeper, and you find that there are certain things ‘checked’ off per se. There’re initials all over the place as quality control, and all of them are SJB. Sander James Bryan is my guess. What ‘higher-up’ would have the same initials as him? I mean, there’s the possibility, but all the company databases that I’ve checked through, there are no other employees by that name. And he has a list of employees. His brother being the ‘big boss’ that all of the transporters know. The brother that has been out a week and a half due to a broken collarbone. Weird how he got that, huh?”

“Weird,” I muttered, remembering the one good lick I’d gotten in on the old man.

He’d been driving, and with nothing else to stop him, I’d thrown an iron bar at the van.

I was happy to see that at least something had hit true.

“I threw a pipe,” I mused. “It was next to the head they nearly ran over.”

“The one you used to carry on your bike?” Sin asked curiously.

I thought about it. Thought about the familiarity when it’d fit into my hand just before I threw it.

“Yeah,” I said. “It was after they ran me off of it. That fits.”

Nico sighed. “Something more needs to be done here. We can’t just sit on our hands, and it doesn’t look like he’s getting very far, either.”

“Call the press,” Trouper snapped. “Get them out here. Leak the story to them. Get some news stirred up and get them going on this while Lynn is inside.”

“You don’t think that’ll stir up shit before we find out where their base is at? What if they’re holding kids right now? And by us sharing their story, they cut and run? Kill all the kids they have and disappear into the wind? We need to plan this out,” Zach cut in, always the voice of reason.

“Anywhere in those notes tell you where their base of operations is?” Nico asked, his hand to his head as he looked at the front door Lynn had disappeared through only an hour before.

“Two possible locations,” Hunt said. “If we split up, we can hit each one with a team.”

“Do we wait for Lynn, or just go?” Sin wondered.

I looked at the front door where Lynn had been invited in so easily.

“I’ll wait for Lynn,” I suggested. “Unless you want to, Laric?”

Laric, Lynn’s actual son, shook his head. “I want to get to these facilities and find out whatever they have hiding there. Lynn can take care of himself. Not to mention I don’t think that you will be very good to us with your broken head.”

Lynn could handle himself.

Lynn may look like an average, run-of-the-mill mayor right now in his three-piece suit, but he wasn’t.

He was a trained killer in fashionable clothes.

I, on the other hand, was broken.

Though I was standing upright, I’d been slightly nauseous since we’d gotten up to altitude in the plane.

And I wasn’t doing any better right now.

I felt like I had a head that was about to explode.

“Fine,” I grumbled. “I’ll stay here in case something happens.”

“In case something does.” Hunt stood up and started to go through the crate that was holding his computer up. He shifted stuff around, then pulled out another computer. “I have this.”

I blinked. “What is it?”

“It’s all the files I was able to pull out on the way over here. I want you to deliver that to the first badass cop that you see.”

“The first badass cop,” I murmured. “Why not Angel?”

“Because Angel is with your soon-to-be wife, and I have a feeling that whoever has this is about to have an assassin on his back just like you already have.” Hunt held it out to me.

I took it and looked at the innocent-looking computer.

“Okay,” I muttered. “And, I meant, if something happens here. Not if something happens with you. You better be safe, or your wife will never forgive me.”

For real. Wyett already disliked me because of how I’d treated Six in school before Wyett was even around. No matter if it was in her best interest or not. I still hadn’t gotten her to look at me as anything other than a nuisance. If I got her husband killed, there really would be no mercy then.

“She already doesn’t like you.” Hunt grinned.

Then he was gone, along with everyone else.

Nico stopped at the back of the van.

He looked at me with hard, unyielding eyes. “I don’t want to explain to my little girl, my mini-me, that you’re hurt or worse. So take care of yourself.”

No flowery words were needed. He knew, just as well as I did, that Belle was beginning to mean something to me that felt life changing.

I gave him a chin jerk, and I felt like my head took flight as stars burst in my vision.

“Will do,” I said through gritted teeth.

With one more harsh look, Belle’s father was gone, too. Leaving me alone with my thoughts, Lynn having a discussion with the piece of shit, and a pain in my head that I was fairly sure wasn’t normal.

Something was very wrong, and it wasn’t just with the dude on the screen in front of me.

I leaned back and watched as Lynn questioned the governor.

Hunt had hacked into the security feed that was in Bryan’s home office where we’d found the Governor ‘taking the day off.’

He’d allowed Lynn entrance into his home, and together we’d all watched as Lynn brought up his brother.

Only Governor Sandler Bryan ‘didn’t associate’ with Malcolm Bryan. ‘Hadn’t in years.’

But I knew when someone was lying.

It’d stemmed from when my family had told me ‘they weren’t going to hit me anymore.’

At some point in my young life, I’d become very suspicious of everyone, even the men that I knew would never hurt me the way I’d been hurt too many times before.

The one person that I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that wouldn’t hurt me, would always choose me? That was Belle.

It’d been such a short time, but in that short time, I knew that she would always choose me.

Over her own family. Her mom and her dad. Her brothers. Her sisters. Hell, I knew she had a nephew, and I had a feeling she’d choose me even over him.

That made me feel… right.

Like for the first time in my life, I had someone that I could trust without any worry that they’d betray me, forget me, hurt me, or downright disappoint me.

Belle was… mine.

Lynn on the screen started to get angry. His eyes were now narrowed, and his fists were clenched.

The governor sat back in his chair, a smarmy smile on his face that I wanted to knock off with my fists, and the knowledge on his face that he was untouchable.

Well, he wasn’t untouchable.

If we took him out, his operation probably wouldn’t die. But the ease of access would.

If nothing else, we could start here and finish elsewhere.

I had a feeling, based on the tightness of Lynn’s jaw, that he realized it, too.

The governor, seeing that look on Lynn’s face, leaned forward and pressed a button that Lynn couldn’t see—though Lynn could tell that he’d pressed the button. We knew it was there before he’d even gone in—but I could from my vantage point.

That’s when I started to move.

Yes, Lynn could handle himself.

But I didn’t see a reason for him to if I was here to help.

The pounding in my head intensified as I started to move toward the house.

I pulled out my phone, made one single phone call, then shoved it back into my pocket.

Without knocking—because why the fuck would I—I entered the residence and walked to where I knew Lynn and the governor to be.

Just before arriving, the answer to the governor’s prayers—at least he thought they were the answer—rounded the corner on the opposite side of the hallway.

I withdrew my weapon and shot twice.

One to the chest of the first man that I could see. And one to the side of the neck of the second.

Two shots. Two kills.

Thank God for silencers.

The door to the governor’s office was shut.

Despite the silencer, when I opened it, both men were already on their feet, having heard the commotion outside the door.

Lynn looked at me with annoyance.

“Yes, I know you could’ve handled it,” I grumbled. “But I was tired of sitting in the fucking van.”

“Who are you, and why are you in my house?” the governor asked in a high-pitched, squeaky voice.

Hell, from the videos, he looked like he’d have a deep voice.

Not one of a girl.

I narrowed my eyes at him.

“Why the fuck do you traffic children and sell them to people that are near the border?” I countered. “If you answer me, I’ll answer you.”

Lynn had been beating around the bush when it came to his questions.

Well, I wasn’t Lynn.

I was a bulldozer, and I was tired of the fucking games.

“I-I don’t,” the governor lied.

I rolled my eyes. “Don’t fuckin’ joke. Everything on this computer right here tells me otherwise.” I paused. “Why would you sign your initials to each check off? I mean, if you were wanting to be completely anonymous, you wouldn’t use your brother to do your dirty work so your manicure doesn’t get messed up. And you wouldn’t have initialed your own damn initials each time that you did your ‘quality control checks.’”

The governor’s mouth fell open.

I smiled at the look on his face.

“Gotcha,” I said to him. “Now, it’s in your best interest to tell me what’s going on. My fucking head hurts and I don’t have all day.”

Sander Bryan all but gulped.

“I…” He hesitated, his eyes going to the door where I’d come through not even moments before.

“They’re probably dead,” Lynn answered the question in Sander’s eyes. “Bruno is sharp. He wouldn’t have come in here without first clearing the rest of the house.”

Well, I hadn’t done that.

But mostly because I knew exactly how many people were in the house. Hunt had been able to ascertain that within the first few seconds of hacking into Bryan’s system.

But still. Semantics.

“I-I…” Bryan stuttered.

“Listen,” I brought the gun up to my temple and pressed the cool metal against the throbbing beat that felt like it was slowly breaking through the skin. “I don’t have all day.”

“My brother did it all!” Bryan admitted quickly. “I had nothing to do with it but funding it.”

“Nothing to do with it but funding it.” I shook my head, causing sparks to shoot up the length of my spine. “You don’t count that as having something to do with it?”

“I don’t know what’s being transferred. I thought it better not to know,” he lied.

I scoffed loudly. “You’re full of fuckin’ shit.”

“I’m not…” he tried to lie again, but I aimed the gun at him.

“Tell me all of it.”

The door opened that was at the side of the room, and I pulled my spare pistol out of the small of my back, whipping it in the direction of the opening door.

“Malcolm…” Sander Bryan started.

Malcolm took one look at both of us just as Lynn’s bullet pierced his chest.

Malcolm went down like a sack of grain.

I turned back in time to see Sander Bryan try to reach for his panic button again.

“Won’t do you any good,” I said. “It was disconnected from authorities the moment our computer guy hacked into your system. Now, you literally have a minute and thirty seconds to tell me everything, or I’ll make sure that you wish you had.”

The guy’s mouth went stubbornly closed.

I narrowed my eyes. “There are worse things than death.”

The governor’s eyes narrowed as he tried to call my bluff.

“Have you ever been to a prison, Governor?” I asked curiously.

The governor narrowed his eyes, refusing to answer.

“I’m going to assume not,” I said. “And, let’s just say, you get to federal prison—because that’s where you’ll end up. You are involved in human trafficking of minors. That’s a serious offense. You’ll get lifetime sentences. I’m talking, you’ll never see the other side of the prison yard fence again. You’ll be there until you die. Hopefully of old age after every inmate in there has his turn with you.”

The governor blinked at that.

“Prisoners don’t take kindly to people that hurt children,” Lynn mused quietly as he leaned back in his seat, his forty caliber Glock on his knee, his finger resting along the length of the barrel. “You’ll get in there, the inmates will find out what you did, and then you’ll never have a moment’s peace. You’ll live the rest of your life being tortured. If you’re lucky, during one of those torture sessions, you’ll die. Most likely, they’ll stop before you do because they don’t want you to die before they’ve had their chance to achieve justice for the children that you’ve hurt.”

“You don’t have anything. I was careful,” he snarled.

He was right, technically.

Without a blatant confession, and with what little evidence we had of his involvement, he likely would get out with a slap on the wrist thanks to his status in the government.

Which fuckin’ sucked because if anyone deserved to go to prison, it was this guy.

“Maybe. Maybe not. You willing to bet your ass on that?” I asked curiously.

The man narrowed his eyes, looking like he was murdering me in his head.

Something creaked behind me, and I stiffened, experienced a blacking-out sensation for a few seconds, just as Bryan’s eyes lit with hope.

“He shot my guards!” the governor cried out, his eyes aimed at something I couldn’t see.

I looked over at the cop that I knew wouldn’t be able to ignore this, then pulled the trigger just before I promptly passed the fuck out.

CHAPTER 24

I wish being a bitch paid the bills.

-Belle’s secret thoughts

BELLE

I knew the moment that the phone rang in my hand that something was wrong.

I didn’t have to hear the words out of my father’s mouth to confirm it.

I’d felt it for the last hour. Something that wasn’t quite ‘right.’

Like something big had happened, and I was sitting on my ass waiting for the other shoe to drop. Or for someone to call me and tell me that they’d wound up getting my man hurt. Or even worse, killed.

And now my father was calling to confirm it.

If it would’ve been okay, Bruno would be calling me right now.

Not my father.

I hit the green button on my phone, then placed it to my ear without saying hello.

“Baby,” my dad said. “You need to meet us at the hospital.”

My family, which were joking around and having a good ol’ time, were no longer having a good ol’ time.

They saw the moment that the words registered on my face and then went silent.

They stayed that way all the way to the hospital.

The first person I saw, Trick, was the one to explain.

“We think that he had something go wrong with his head,” Trick explained. “Lynn said that right before he passed out, he clutched it like something had happened. The doctors are working on him now.”

I nodded woodenly and made my way farther into the hospital, coming to a small room to the side of the waiting room that the entire group had taken over.

Angel made his way inside right behind me, and the entire group of men—all of the Souls Chapel Revenants MC—came to a complete standstill. No words were said. No glances were exchanged. They all just stopped talking at once, as if they knew what they were talking about couldn’t be overheard by a cop.

“Out, Angel. Boys,” my dad said. “For now. When we figure it out, we’ll let you come in.”

Angel rolled his eyes. “There’s only so much that I can ignore, Nico.”

But he left anyway, leaving me to be inside the room with the men that were Bruno’s family.

“Tell me what’s going on,” I ordered the moment they were gone.

I felt Trick close the door behind me, and then I watched as he came around me and took a seat at the table.

The rest did the same, leaving me a spot next to my dad.

I didn’t take it, though.

Couldn’t.

Wouldn’t.

That was Bruno’s spot. Not mine.

“Tell me,” I pleaded. “Please.”

Lynn then went on to explain everything, allowing Hunt to fill in the blanks here and there until I had the full picture.

“What did you find at the locations that you went to?” I asked, feeling my heart pound.

Bruno and I had spoken about the increase of children going missing in the area.

Had they found the source?

Hunt’s face went solid.

“At our location, a bunch of nothing,” Hunt grumbled. “We found that the actual hotshotting supplies were stored at that one. At the other location…”

Suddenly Hunt had pulled up his computer, something I noticed he was rarely ever without, and spun it around so I could see.

I wasn’t sure if any of the others had seen what he was about to show me, but still the men reacted to what they were seeing just like I did.

Kids. In cages.

A lot of them.

“They took over an old pound,” Hunt said through clenched teeth. “They used the cages to hold them. It was… bad.”

I could see it was bad.

My heart hurt just from the empty cages. I couldn’t imagine what it would do to my heart to see them utilized in their intended disgusting ways.

“Overall, we were able to get six children out,” Sin explained. “Trouper is still there, watching and making sure everything smooths out and goes the way it should be going. Making sure there aren’t any crooked cops withholding evidence.”

“I have a live feed going on social media.” Hunt grinned wickedly. “Everything that was found was aired live. There’s no way that they’re going to get out of this.”

“Except for the governor,” Lynn grumbled. “Wish Bruno would’ve killed him.”

“He didn’t?” I asked.

Lynn shook his head. “No. Shot him in the spine. Likely, he’ll be paralyzed from the arms down. Won’t be able to even wipe his own ass.”

That was too good for him.

After seeing those cages… I wanted to torture him.

I wanted to try out every torture technique that I’d ever read or heard about and do it on him for the rest of his life.

He deserved nothing less.

A man that did that to children was the lowest kind of low.

“What now?” I asked.

“Now, we try to find other ways to tie the governor to the crime.” Hunt shoved his hands through his hair, and it was then I realized why it was sticking up the way it was. “I mean, everything that I’ve found is circumstantial. The brother lived on the property and did all the dirty work for them. All the shithead has to do is say that it was all his brother’s files, and that he had nothing to do with it, and he’ll walk off free.”

“Which is why Bruno shot him.” Lynn sighed.

I swallowed past a lump in my throat.

Bruno.

Was he going to be okay?

My question was answered not even thirty seconds later when Angel pushed into the room with a haggard-looking doctor in tow.

He looked like one of the surgeons that I’d seen on the billboard outside.

“He made it this far,” was the first thing the doctor said to us all. “He had a brain bleed. It was very severe. We don’t know if he’ll make it. Or if he’ll have any cognitive deficits in his brain. When I say it was bad, I mean it was very bad. He’s lucky to even be alive right now. I’ve seen some with brain bleeds much less severe die right there in the field. That he made it to us, alive, is a signature of his strength but…” The doctor shook his head. “It’s going to be a rocky road until we get him out of the woods.”

I didn’t like the doctor’s answer at all.

“I don’t honestly know how he was standing for as long as he was.” The doctor shook his head. “He’s very lucky to be alive.”

I felt sick to my stomach.

“Can I see him?” I asked.

The doctor frowned. “I mean, in the ICU, you’re allowed one person. But with him having a guard…”

“That guard doesn’t affect her getting to see him,” Angel interjected. “If he’s allowed to have visitors, then we’re fine with him getting one.”

The doctor nodded then, looking unaffected by the fact that he’d saved a man that’d supposedly attempted to murder the governor.

Which had me curious.

“Why are you so willing to help my man when he hurt the governor?” I wondered aloud.

The doctor’s eyes flashed. “I’m a professional. I work on everyone.”

That was totally a lie.

I made eye contact with my dad, who understood instantly. “Angel, can you run and fetch me a water or something?”

Angel sighed loudly. “Sure.”

That ‘sure’ was enough to have me laughing under my breath as he all but stomped from the room, knowing why he was sent away.

“Y’all are the ones that found the children, right?” he asked the moment that Angel had the door firmly shut behind him.

“Yes,” Lynn answered simply.

“My nephew was taken a year ago from my sister in the grocery parking lot. We’ve searched everywhere and haven’t been able to find him. Hired every single private detective that’s supposedly ‘the best’ with no luck.” He looked green for a second. “I’m really fucking pissed that the governor played a part in this. He may not be related to my nephew being stolen, but he may be. And to know that all of those children were locked up in cages with plans to ship them out of here… I’m fucking pissed. And I wanted to do what I could for the man that tried to stop the person responsible.”

Lynn sat forward, resting his hands on his knees. “How do you know that the governor is responsible?”

The doctor walked toward the door. “I’ve had feelings about people before that are always spot on. And the governor was always one of those men that made me feel like he was shady. The promises. The lies. The deceit. I read the news report put out by his campaign. And I don’t feel like it was genuine at all. His brother being in it? He was in it. No doubt about it.”

Without another word, the doctor left.

“If anything else, the suspicion is there,” Zach said the moment the door closed. “It won’t help Bruno, but I think that it’ll help get the governor what he deserves in the long run.”

“Agreed.”

But my thoughts were still on ‘it won’t help Bruno.’

• • •

Three weeks later

He had a brain bleed. It was very severe. We don’t know if he’ll make it. Or if he’ll have any cognitive deficits in his brain. When I say it was bad, I mean it was very bad. He’s lucky to even be alive right now. I’ve seen some with brain bleeds much less severe die right there in the field. That he made it to us, alive, is a signature of his strength but…

“You don’t have to wait for me.”

I looked at the man that had done something illegal, knowing full well that he wouldn’t be getting out of it. Knowing that, if he did what he did, he wouldn’t be able to tell them it was an accident, or it wasn’t him, or some excuse that wouldn’t have him going where he’s going. Yet he’d done it anyway.

He’d taken himself away from me.

I didn’t know whether I was extremely mad at him for doing what he’d done and leaving me behind, or proud of him for making sure that the man doing the ugly things to all those kids was exposed for the disgusting person he was.

“I’ll wait,” I told him.

I was mad. Not stupid.

Somehow, I would find a way out for him.

Somehow, some way, I would see him in the interim.

The last few weeks, with him in the hospital recovering from a brain bleed, had been the happiest of my life.

Though we all knew that it would end, I just hadn’t wanted it to.

Now he was being taken away in handcuffs, able to stand on his own two feet finally, and I felt my heart leaving right along with him.

My heart was pounding in my chest, and I physically ached with each and every step he took farther away from me.

I couldn’t stop myself from doing what I did next.

“Wait!” I cried out.

Bruno stopped half in the entrance to the police precinct that I’d followed him to. Where he was now being escorted by a cop in handcuffs to where he was officially arrested.

Bruno half turned just as I hit him hard.

The police officer doing the escorting had to physically hold Bruno up with a palm to the middle of his back so he wouldn’t fall.

The officer began to protest but Angel interjected with a, “Let her.”

The police officer removed his hand and went to the side, giving us space.

“Don’t forget about me.”

Bruno laughed into my neck. “I couldn’t even if I wanted to.”

With those parting words, I allowed my hands to drop from around his neck.

But before I backed away entirely, I placed both hands on either side of his scruffy cheeks.

“I love you, B.”

Bruno’s eyes flared, but before he could say another word, the local news media found us, taking pictures of the man who’d attempted to ‘murder’ the governor.

Angel stepped in and barked, “Get him out of here.”

Bruno was pulled from my arms in the next second.

“No questions,” Angel barked. “I said what I had to say at the news conference.”

Angel had said a bunch of nothing. He’d literally talked himself around in circles.

But whatever.

I didn’t much care.

All I cared about at this point was finding a way to get Bruno out.

“I want him out in seven months max,” I told the man that was standing by my side.

Lynn looked at me. “I don’t know if that’s possible this time. The governor was hurt, and there’ll be…”

“I’m pregnant,” I told Lynn.

He was the first person I told.

Not even Bruno knew.

He wouldn’t know until he was out.

I didn’t want him to worry about it while he was in there.

Lynn looked over at me and sighed. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“You’ll call a news conference,” Angel suggested. “Tell everyone what’s been going on. Get sympathy on Bruno’s side.”

Lynn turned his head and looked at the man that was supposed to be upholding the law.

I loved my brother-in-law.

“I think that just might work. At least partially,” Lynn replied.

I sure hoped so. Because I’d never had a kid before. I didn’t want to fuck it up by myself.

CHAPTER 25

Go disappoint the next bitch. I’m busy.

-Coffee Cup

BELLE

Five months later

“He’s out.”

My head whipped around, and just that small of a movement had my stomach tightening in protest.

“When?” I asked.

“As of fifteen minutes ago,” Lynn said into my ear. “He should be on the way there now.”

I was a little bit sad that he was out and hadn’t wanted me to come get him.

But I wasn’t going to complain too badly.

I mean, the man was out!

I had my man back!

“The man we got in as a character witness to men having brain bleeds was very influential,” Lynn said. “It made the difference.”

I’d done my research.

After Bruno had gone in, I had nothing but time to figure out a way to get him out.

I didn’t care if I had to lie, cheat and steal. I was getting him out.

I would not live my life without him any longer.

Even if I had to move to a country that didn’t extradite criminals, I’d do it.

My family would just have to come to me for holidays.

“I knew it would,” I said, getting up off the couch and heading toward the door.

I’d taken up residence in Bruno’s house.

Now, there was a little bit of me, and a little bit of him, sprinkled everywhere.

I hoped that he didn’t mind.

But I needed to be there to help with the animals.

I didn’t want anything to happen to them while Bruno was gone.

I didn’t see him on the porch and knew that he probably wouldn’t be here as fast as I was hoping if he’d just been released. Sadly, where they’d been keeping him, the prison in Huntsville, was over two hours away.

I had some time yet.

But still… I checked just to make sure.

“So is it done?” I asked.

I’d wanted to go to the trials, but they’d been held in Austin, and I’d been given the express orders I was not to travel due to high blood pressure. And, when I was going to go anyway, my mom, brothers, and sisters had literally stolen my car to keep me from doing it.

I was literally on the way to bed rest if I didn’t calm my shit down.

But Bruno being gone was incredibly stressful. I wanted him home.

And I had no clue how anybody thought I could stop worrying about my man.

I decided to heed my doctor’s orders, seeing as the moment that Bruno walked in the door, I was jumping him. And being on bed rest meant that I probably couldn’t ‘do’ Bruno.

I hadn’t had him in a very long time.

So long, in fact, that I felt like I was dying inside.

That, and perpetually horny.

It was getting really, really hard to think about work during a sex scene when all I could think about was reenacting the sex scene with Bruno like I had that one time in the car on the way to Nevada.

How was I supposed to prove a hundred percent effectiveness without first trying it out?

Now that Bruno had given me that in real life, I was loathe to act it out in my brain any longer.

I groaned, took one last look out onto the porch, and then dejectedly walked to the bathroom to get myself cleaned up. Which then led to a complete and total shower, seeing as I wanted to look good—and smell good.

After finishing up in the bathroom, I looked at myself in the mirror.

It’d been a long five months.

My hair had grown out to a length I’d never had it at before. My eyes had dark circles under them, and I was at least twenty pounds heavier because I found it was easier to eat my feelings than acknowledge them.

That, and I was six months pregnant with Bruno’s child.

A child that was even then kicking and rolling in my belly, letting me know that he or she was very much there.

I heard the creak of the door, and then a soft ‘click’ of the front door latching.

I walked out of the bedroom, uncaring of my appearance—I was in one of Bruno’s t-shirts and nothing else.

A t-shirt that was the last shirt he’d worn with me. A t-shirt that didn’t smell like him anymore, but I pretended it did.

The moment I saw him, butterflies exploded in my belly.

He was scruffier than he’d been when I saw him last.

And his eyes also had dark circles under them.

His hair was a shaggy mess, and I knew that would likely be one of the first things we fixed.

After.

I ran to him, all but throwing myself into his arms.

I hit him hard, a sob already catching in the back of my throat the moment he wrapped those massive arms around me and pulled me in tight.

His face ducked to my neck, and he inhaled deeply, uncaring about the cold, wet strands of my hair that all but whacked him in the face at my exuberance.

“You’re here,” I breathed.

Bruno’s hands moved from around my back to my hips and then froze.

I felt my heart start beating in my chest a million miles an hour.

This was it…

He pulled back even farther, so far in fact, that I instantly hated the distance.

Then his eyes met mine.

I knew what he was looking at. Trying to get me to admit.

I wouldn’t.

Not now.

He inhaled deeply, and then reached for his t-shirt, slowly lifting it up and up and up until my belly was exposed.

My big—there was no hiding it now—belly.

His throat bobbed as he swallowed hard, and then he was once again looking into my eyes.

“What the fuck?” he rasped.

I grinned. “So I was going to tell you when you got home, but you took forever.”

He blinked, then once again allowed his eyes to trail along my belly, not even noticing that I was naked but for the t-shirt he was still holding up.

“How?” he asked.

“Well,” I said. “I don’t honestly know. I was on birth control. But as you know, it’s only ninety-nine point nine percent effective. So there is a slim chance that it doesn’t work. If you’re asking me how it became twins, I don’t know that either. But they say you’re more prone to have twins if a mom or a sister has twins. So, there’s that likelihood. It just happened. And, at this point, I think it may be too late to see if they’re boys or girls since they’re so big, and it’s cramped inside there.”

Bruno slow-blinked, then said, “Twins?”

I nodded.

“I’m having twins.”

I nodded again.

“And you didn’t tell me,” he growled.

I bit my lip. “It’s not like I didn’t want to. Honestly, if it would’ve gotten to the point where you would’ve been inside while I was having them, I would’ve told you. I wouldn’t have had them without telling you. But… I wanted to do it in person. I wanted to do it without a foot of plexiglass between us. Or chains around your ankles. I wanted you to hold me when you found out.”

I didn’t even get the chance to finish my last sentence before he was picking me up bridal style and carrying me to our room.

I bit my lip. “I’ve gained twenty pounds since you last saw me and held me.”

He laid me down on the bed oh so gently.

Then he started stripping his clothes off.

I watched, tongue pressed tightly to the roof of my mouth, as he got to his pants.

This was it. The moment I’d been waiting for. Dreaming about. Thinking about nonstop.

“Why do you look like you’re about to cry?” he rasped.

I shifted my feet until they were spread apart, revealing my need to him.

“I’ve been horny as hell with no one to fix it,” I told him, shifting on the bed.

He grinned then, so wickedly that I knew he didn’t care in the least that I was horny and wasn’t able to fix it on my own.

He knew the power he held.

Goddamn.

The look in his eyes, paired with the smirk on his face? Yeah, I knew how the next five minutes were going to go, and I didn’t freakin’ care that it would be fast.

Not when I knew he would be here later to fix the ache that only he could heal.

He removed the rest of his clothes with a swiftness that relayed his need, his eyes on me as he did.

When he finally got to his underwear, he pushed them down over his hips, and his engorged cock popped free.

“Take off your shirt,” he urged.

I slowly rocked back and forth to get up on my elbows, and then pushed myself up from there, all under the amused stare of the man that would one day be my husband.

Even if he hadn’t actually asked yet.

He tilted his head slightly sideways as he palmed his cock.

“What was that look for?” he asked.

I opened my mouth to tell him something else. Something that wasn’t going to put pressure on him to ‘do the right thing.’ But then I found my mouth saying the words before I’d even realized they were going to come out of my mouth.

“I want to marry you,” I blurted.

He grinned, then bent down for his pants.

“Funny thing,” he said as he came back up, a velvet box in his hand. “I was going to do this after we met with your parents later. After I asked your dad for your hand in marriage. But, since you asked…”

He placed the black box on my stomach, and I stared at it with awe.

“Ask me later,” I breathed, my eyes going from the box that was now being kicked, to the man that was looking at me expectantly, waiting for me to open it. “There’s one single part in every book I read. That part where the man asks the father for the daughter’s hand in marriage. That’s my favorite part.”

“Why?” he rasped, reaching for the box now, his eyes no longer on me or the box, but at my stomach that was doing acrobatics, looking like I was an extra in the Exorcist.

I reached for him with one arm while balancing on the other.

He held out his hand.

I took it and placed it on my belly and waited.

It took half a second.

Kick. Punch. Roll.

Kick. Punch. Roll.

He hissed, and my eyes flashed up to meet his.

“Holy shit,” he breathed.

Then he was leaning forward, forcing me to my back, and kissing the hell out of me.

I hadn’t kissed him since he’d gotten back.

I’d forgotten how much I missed having his hands on me while he plundered my mouth with his.

I moaned into the kiss, kicks and babies forgotten while I lifted my hips, urging him to do something.

He got the hint, moved up more thoroughly and pressed himself against me solidly.

I groaned at the feel of him, so close to where I needed him most at that moment.

“It’s safe?” he asked, pressing the tip of his cock against my entrance.

“Yes,” I hissed.

Then he was sliding inside of me.

I stretched like it was the first time all over again.

Groaning, I pulled my head back and arched my back, my breasts pushing into his chest.

“Holy shit,” I breathed.

Then, quiet Bruno was there.

Quiet, yes. Idle, hell no.

He fucked the living hell out of me.

And he did it slowly. Reverently. I had no idea just how reverently and slowly until I needed him to move faster.

But that only caused him to move slower.

To give me everything I hadn’t known that I needed.

My breasts ached for his touch, and he knew it.

He ran his fingers around the tips almost before I even realized where I wanted those hands.

His mouth met my skin, sucking and licking, all before I even asked.

It went on like that for what felt like hours, but when it finally came, it was like a wrecking ball straight to the… everything.

Nerve endings fired. Toes curled. Hearts sang.

Then I had an out-of-body experience as everything slammed into me so fast and hard that I had no time to brace myself.

I heard Bruno grunt, then plant himself deep and jerk inside of me.

But I was too busy riding the wave to notice, or care that he’d stopped.

When I finally came down, when I finally caught my breath and leveled out my heart rate, I slumped against the bed.

Bruno was leaning over me awkwardly, but apparently it wasn’t bothering him any.

When he came up, his eyes were shining.

“I love you, too.”

Those words that I’d said to him all those months ago when he’d left. Words that hadn’t been repeated until now.

I grinned. “Good.”

“Now what?” he asked, breath still coming out unevenly.

“Now we go talk to my dad. Because I want to see what’s in that black box about as badly as I wanted you home.”

He pressed a kiss into the middle of my chest. “Let’s go. But I want to stop at one other place first.”

CHAPTER 26

Don’t trust children. They’re here to replace us.

-Text from Belle to Bruno

BRUNO

Twins.

Fucking. Twins.

I’d just seen them both, live, on the computer screen that Zach had rolled into the room for me.

He’d gotten it from the pool house where all the medical equipment was held, and the large group watched along with me while Zach found the two heartbeats beating a mile a minute inside of my soon-to-be wife.

I was sitting on the couch, Belle’s head in my lap, and staring at the screen with a feeling of awe filling my chest.

There were two babies.

Holy shit.

Two babies that were mine.

“Both are very healthy looking,” Zach announced as he pressed a button and printed a photo out of one of our children’s asses.

“Thanks.” Belle rolled her eyes when Zach gave it to her.

“You’re welcome.” He grinned.

Then he started to flip off switches and the computer monitor died.

He tossed me a rag, and I caught it in midair and cleaned Belle’s belly off.

“Babies for everyone!” Six half-clapped as she tried to do so around the child in her arms.

Lynn and Six’s children had been born while I was on the inside.

While I was sad that it’d happened that way, I couldn’t deny the outcome.

The world was a safer place for that baby.

That baby who reached for Belle the moment that Belle was within reach.

My heart all but rocked in my chest at the sight of Belle reaching for Six’s son, pulling him in close, and tucking a kiss into the crook of his throat, causing the tiny baby to giggle.

I stood up and walked toward them, stopping closer to Six than I did Belle.

“You did good, kid,” I told her.

Six grinned. “Kind of hard to do bad when he all but delivers himself.”

“True dat,” Trick said. “Swear to God. Thought that I was going to watch her deliver right there on the hospital floor. Luckily, they got her into a bed first. And kept me the fuck away from anything I wasn’t supposed to see.”

There were chuckles all the way around, and I felt even worse that I’d missed it.

That’s when Belle spun and placed Six’s son in my arms.

I automatically took him, bringing him in close to my chest.

He didn’t look like Lynn at all.

He looked everything like Six.

“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.” Six clapped, bringing all of our attention to her. When she had it, and mine, she tossed me a bottle. “The douchebag Governor Sander Bryan who has yet to turn in his resignation.”

Well that was a shit show if I ever saw it.

The governor was holding on to his position with his grimy demon claws and doing it so hard that it was hurting everyone.

With my testimony, as well as half a dozen others, as well as his fucking own at that news conference admitting to his own guilt in a trafficking ring using his own influence and business, he should be rotting away in a cell by now.

He was not.

He was fighting tooth and nail, his lawyer doing everything he could, to keep him out of the hellhole that would make him pay for his sins.

The baby gurgled in my hands, and I thought about what I would do for that little one. What I would do if something like that had ever happened to him.

Then I looked at Six, who was watching me with such happiness on her face.

“With Sander’s brother’s death confession on tape to both of their involvements,” Sin suggested. “The trial will be a slam dunk. The only problem is, he’s been filing motion after motion to keep him out, appealing every single call that is made. He’ll get there. It’s not an ‘if’ at this point, but a ‘when.’”

I agreed.

Only, I wanted this over with.

I wanted that piece of shit locked away, and for good, when my kids made their arrival in this fucked-up world.

A fucked-up world that they would never witness as long as I had breath left in my lungs, and a heart beating inside of my chest.

“Agreed,” Lynn said. “But every day he breathes free, is a day that I breathe uneasy.”

I wholeheartedly agreed.

“So let’s take care of it,” Trick suggested.

“Affirmative,” Sin agreed. “I want to take care of it, too.”

“Fuck yeah.” Six fist-pumped the air. “Let’s do it.”

Lynn shot his wife a look. “You’re not going anywhere near him.”

Six smiled sweetly. “We’ll see.”

“We all need alibis,” Lynn suggested. “Ones that aren’t our wives and are airtight. Because there’s no way to keep this under the radar. People are going to assume now that you’re out of prison, B.”

I looked at Lynn and grinned. “I’ll talk to my soon-to-be father-in-law. See what kind of assistance he can add.”

• • •

“She’s not stunted,” I growled.

Belle patted my leg, trying to calm me down.

But I would not calm down.

I would not allow her family, even if they were doing it out of love, tease the living hell out of her for being ‘stunted’ when she wasn’t.

“I was just saying, it’s a surprise that she was able to land someone.” Booth leaned back in his chair. “She always promised that she would never marry. Never have kids. Never anything. She didn’t want that life.”

I turned to look at the woman that had agreed to be mine forever just a few hours before.

“You thought you’d be alone for your entire life?” I asked, unable to stop the sadness from leaching into my voice.

She shrugged. “I hadn’t met you yet. I didn’t know that there would be someone out there that understood me.”

I felt something inside of my chest shift and knew without a shadow of a doubt that from now on, there would never be a time that she felt unwanted.

I would make sure that she knew, every single day of the rest of our lives, that she was mine. That I wanted and needed her right there at my side. For as long as we both shall live.

“Did you have something to ask us?” Bourne asked out of the blue. “Is that why you’re here?”

“Actually.” I stretched my neck from side to side. “I have two very good reasons.”

“Which would be…” Priscilla drawled.

I looked over at the woman that looked so much like Belle, but couldn’t be more different.

Belle was an extroverted introvert. Priscilla? She was the belle of the ball, always willing to be in someone’s presence.

She was cute and sassy and willing to try anything, while Belle was beautiful, reserved and would always question you no matter how much sense it made.

“Which would be, I need to talk to Nico.” I looked over at the door where the man had disappeared to cook steaks over twenty minutes ago.

Belle rolled her eyes.

“Just go,” she grumbled.

She was in on this plan.

From the moment we showed up here to the house full of her family, she’d concocted a plan that would have her dad grilling steaks and giving me the opportunity to talk to him seeing as he hated having anyone help him cook them.

So she said.

Anyway, I got up and headed for the door among the whispers of their family.

But just before I got to the door, the line of questioning from Booth’s wife, Delanie, had me stopping and looking over my shoulder.

“Priscilla, when you sit down on the toilet in a public bathroom, and accidentally fart, do you get embarrassed?” Priscilla’s face flushed bright red.

“Of course I do!” She flushed under all the attention.

Dillan’s eyes turned to Belle.

“Belle, when you fart in a public restroom, do you get embarrassed?” Daniella challenged Belle.

My lips twitched with amusement.

I’d found out just this morning that she was a bit… different. As in, she was now much gassier. Gas that was coming out both ends, but didn’t seem to bother me in the least.

“No.” Belle shook her head. “It’s a bodily function. Everyone does it. You poop. Pee. Throw up. Produce vaginal secretions. Ejaculate. It all happens. It’s natural.”

Daniella turned to me.

“There was one time that Belle started her period while we were in the middle of the mall shopping for Christmas presents. We all tried to shield her, but she couldn’t care less. Not only did she continue shopping, but she didn’t even get embarrassed when a bunch of teenage boys tried to make her feel bad,” Daniella said. “We weren’t making fun of her. Promise. We were just making a point to say that she was very different than us. Almost freer in how she decides to live life. It’s refreshing. I wish that I could go through my daily life not giving a flying fuck what anyone else thinks.”

I shook my head and laughed as I made my way out the door.

“What are you laughing at?” Nico grumbled as he watched me walk out from his position next to the grill.

“Their line of questioning,” I said. “I feel like eventually as time goes by, I won’t be as surprised by the shit that comes out of their mouths.”

He watched me walk up to him, not moving his glare away from my face until I said, “The steaks need flipped.”

He flipped the steaks, set the spatula down on the grill top, and then turned to look at me.

“The answer is yes,” he said. “I’ve seen her over the past few months practically waste away before my eyes, and if you’re what she wants, then I’m not going to step in your way.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. “Good.”

“What else is on your mind?”

I pressed my hand against my forehead. “I need an alibi.”

Nico tilted his head. “Why?”

But before I could answer, Booth poked his head out. “Hey, have you seen Belle?”

When I looked up, it was to find my fiancée gone, and nobody knew where she went.

CHAPTER 27

Owls can sit criss-cross-apple sauce.

-Belle to Bruno

BELLE

“It’s done.”

I hadn’t struck the killing blow.

None of us had.

We’d all been very careful not to be seen by any cameras.

Wyett had showed off her B and E skills she learned from her husband and gotten us in.

Crockett had taken out one security guard, while Beckham had taken out another.

Swayze secured them in a closet and locked the door from the outside using a chair.

Blaise tracked the douchebag down while I found a maid.

A maid who, might I add, had been planted by Six to make sure to keep an eye on anything that happened in the house.

Crockett had given the maid the packet that we’d scrounged up, and together we had watched as the maid took the governor’s ‘afternoon tea’ to his study.

I looked at the ladies that had helped me commit a murder. “Let’s go.”

• • •

An alert came on my phone an hour later.

An hour later as Bruno glared at me as he helped me from Six’s car.

“Y’all are fucking certifiable,” Bruno hissed at the car full of ladies.

I was the first to be dropped off.

“Whatever.” Six rolled her eyes. “You don’t even know what we did.”

Bruno gave Six a look, then showed her the news banner that’d just popped up on his phone.

Breaking news: Governor Sander Bryan found dead in his home of a heart attack.

Six shrugged. “Them’s the pits.”

EPILOGUE

It’s an add to cart kind of day.

-Coffee Cup

BELLE

One month later

“Do you promise to love and cherish him even when he watches videos on his phone at full volume?” the man officiating our wedding ceremony asked.

I blinked, seriously considering this.

That was one thing that I really, really hated.

I’m talking, on a scale of one to ten, if that were to happen, I might just very well leave the room, or hell, the house entirely.

“She does.” Bruno pulled me closer, answering for me.

I frowned. “But Bruno, I really don’t think that’ll be something that I can live with…”

Laric, who’d gotten ordained just for our marriage, started to laugh.

Six, who was at Bruno’s side as his ‘best man,’ started to laugh right along with him.

Bruno, who’d been very patient with me so far during all of the interruptions, gave me a ‘look’ that clearly said that I needed to behave. Or else.

I grinned up at him.

“I guess that I can handle that,” I said, breathing the words right into his face.

Bruno’s eyes smoldered. “Then by the power vested in me, I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss your bride.”

• • •

Two months later

“Push!”

“Fuck you,” I said to my brother as I slammed the door to the bathroom.

My brother’s laugh was infectious as the rest of the family in my hospital room laughed right along with him.

The only one not laughing was my husband. My husband who was now a father.

My husband who’d been holding our twin daughters in his two hands since they were born when they weren’t needing fed.

My husband who was a baby hog.

My husband who hadn’t relinquished them to anyone, not even my father who’d all but begged.

“In a minute,” I heard him rumble again.

Bruno was going to be a good father.

I knew that.

“How’s it coming out?” I heard Priscilla yell through the door.

I growled.

I was scared as hell to go to the bathroom.

Mostly because I’d ripped from my vagina to my ass, and I was goddamn terrified to do either number one, or number two.

However, the laws of nature didn’t care that I had a grade-four tear.

They only cared about making my bowels work overtime.

Luckily, things turned out better than expected, and when I emerged twenty minutes later, freshly showered among other things, it was to find my dad finally getting to hold my girls.

I smiled as I walked over to Bruno, who carefully pulled me into his lap.

He was a witness to the tearing, and he’d treated me like glass ever since I’d given him his children.

I didn’t blame him. If I’d seen what he had, I would freak out, too.

“You okay?” he whispered in my ear.

I pressed my forehead against his temple. “Hurt. But it went… okay.”

He pressed a kiss to the side of my neck and then wrapped his hands around me tighter. “I want them back.”

I smiled and turned so that I could see into his eyes. Those gloriously beautiful eyes.

“I’m sorry that I ever rejected your farmers-only invitation,” I teased.

He rolled his eyes. “It all worked out in the end, didn’t it?”

It had.

It most assuredly had.

• • •

BRUNO

Nine years later

“Foul!”

My eyes followed the field across to the little yuppie coach who had been calling our girls for fouls for the entire damn soccer game.

“Ref!” the opposing coach continued to yell. “Call the fouls! Those girls are animals!”

Our girls, Ashland and Gracelynn, were definitely animals.

Wild children to the extreme.

However, they were not playing aggressively at all.

In fact, they were playing damn good soccer. Their girls were a bunch of pansies, though.

They fell down onto the ground and all of a sudden they were producing tears out of nowhere.

“Daddy,” I heard my daughter gasp. “I have to pee!”

I looked at Gracelynn who had just been subbed out.

“Let’s go,” I urged, standing from my chair where I was between Nico and Belle.

I wasn’t sure why Gracelynn always came to me when she had to use the bathroom, but it was what it was.

She was my mini-me. Though Ashland did a pretty good impression of it, too.

It was cute.

I loved the hell out of them.

And at least they weren’t like their little brother, who was hell on wheels.

A brother who was currently playing on the soccer field behind us with Georgia, Six, and Lynn watching him.

I glanced between the two fields, seeing if Tucker was on the field—sadly, he wasn’t—and hurried Gracelynn to the bathroom.

When she was finished, she all but ran back to her team, and I took my time.

However, as she ran, she ended up going close to the other team’s coach, and the coach growled at her.

I stiffened at the corner of the field, trying to convince myself to calm down.

Our coach, seeing that Gracelynn was back, immediately asked for a sub, pulling out a little girl that was good, but not up to Gracelynn’s caliber.

A whistle on the other field had me looking over to see Tucker go down on the ground in a brawl.

I groaned and started over there just as I heard the other coach of the girls playing our team say, “If you have to, kick them when they’re down.”

I bared my teeth and started closer to the field, knowing this was about to get out of hand.

Because, like their mother and me, these girls of mine had tempers.

They were angry little monsters.

And, when one of the twins was hurt, the other would surely retaliate.

“PK!” I heard someone yell.

A parent of the other team.

There were more whistles from the other field, but I knew Tucker could handle himself.

He was a brawler just like me.

I had a close eye on my girls, which was when I saw a tall behemoth that looked like she was twelve, not eight, creep up behind Ashland.

Gracelynn hadn’t allowed the move to go unnoticed, either.

Which was why, when she saw the tall behemoth pull Ashland’s hair and yank her to the ground before, in fact, kicking her, Gracelynn struck.

See, the thing about Gracelynn was, she had plenty of uncles around to teach her how to play dirty.

Blood and club ones alike.

So Gracelynn had skills.

And one of those skills was to attack without being seen.

One second the behemoth was standing, and the next she was on the ground crying.

Who wasn’t crying was Ashland.

She was pissed.

“Baby,” I said, catching her attention.

My daughter’s eyes, so much like her mother’s, lifted to meet my own.

“Now’s not the time,” I said. “Score. Shove that win down their fuckin’ throats.”

Ashland’s eyes narrowed.

Then the team went on to do just that.

And in the end, when the big guy who’d been running his mouth about a penalty kick not actually getting into the goal, and then came up on my girls threateningly, I’d had enough.

Once again rising from my chair, I stalked across the field and got right in that motherfucker’s face.

“You either get your annoying fuckin’ ass away from my kids, or I’ll make you.”

Aaliyah, the lightweight boxer of our team, snickered as she whispered, “Mr. Marks, you’re not supposed to say those bad words.”

I winked at Aaliyah as she caught Ashland’s hand and led her over to her coach who was giving them a congratulatory speech as they talked about their next game.

The dude in front of me bowed up his chest. “Your team played like hood rats.”

I looked at the man that probably had never had dirt underneath his nails before and said, “Our girls played like a team that wanted to win. There was no unnecessary fouling. There was only playing. Get the fuck over your loss and go home.”

The man took a threatening step forward but I felt the heat of someone at my back.

I didn’t have to look over to know it was my club brothers.

“I suggest you go back to your seat and think about the consequences of your actions,” Sin drawled.

“Or, you could go ahead and try,” Zach suggested.

“Or, you could stop being a little bitch and let the kids play,” Hunt piped in.

The man growled in frustration and turned away, but not before saying, “I’ll be calling league officials about this.”

I rolled my eyes and turned around to find everyone at my back but Lynn. Lynn, who was now at Tucker’s game talking to him on the sideline.

I grinned and looked at my men.

“Thanks.” I jerked my chin up.

“Welcome,” Trick teased. “We were worried about you.”

Scoffing, I pushed through them and walked to my wife, who was holding our youngest in her arms.

Baker was still a baby. Only six months old. But he liked to get in the thick of it just like the rest of them.

“You’ve raised mini-demons,” she whispered. “They’re going to get in trouble one of these days.”

I grinned and pulled her into my chest, causing Baker to screech in protest at me being close to his mom.

“Gotta make sure they know how to handle their own,” I teased as I pressed a kiss to her lips.

“Gross. Get a room,” I heard one of her brothers say.

Belle leaned in until our son really was kicking up a storm, and then said, “Love you, Bruno.”

I pressed my hand against her ass. “Love you more, Belle.”

“Y’all seriously disgust me,” Bourne groaned as he reached for my son. “Come here, little man. Let’s get you away from this torture.”

Belle laughed as she wrapped her arms around me, pressing in close. “Let’s go home. Those pigs aren’t going to feed themselves.”

No, they sure the hell were not.

Fat, always hungry bastards.

• • •

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