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100,500 words | 398 pages (trade)
She refuses to be owned.
Alexa Parrino escaped a life of servitude and survived danger on the streets to become one of the most trusted, influential people in Sector Four, where the O’Kanes rule with a hedonistic but iron fist. Lex has been at the top for years, and there’s almost nothing she wouldn’t do for the gang…and for its leader. Lie, steal, kill—but she bows to no one, not even Dallas O’Kane.
He’ll settle for nothing less.
Dallas fought long and hard to carve a slice of order out of the chaos of the sectors. Dangers both large and small threaten his people, but it’s nothing he can’t handle. His liquor business is flourishing, and new opportunities fuel his ambition. Lex could help him expand his empire, something he wants almost as much as he wants her. And no one says no to the king of Sector Four.
Falling into bed is easy, but their sexual games are anything but casual. Attraction quickly turns to obsession, and their careful dance of heady dominance and sweet submission uncovers a need so deep, so strong, it could crush them both.
AN EXCERPT FROM BEYOND CONTROL
The night was on fire. Lex could smell it, wood smoke and plastic burning in barrels and trash heaps. Gas, coal—anything that would take flame and light up the darkness.
A shatter of glass accompanied by victorious shouts echoed close by, maybe only three or four narrow streets over, and Lex lifted a hand instinctively to the pistol nestled under her jacket. It was the worst thing about these nights, the crime that swept through like a plague when the sectors went dark. People stole without thought or discrimination. Being disgusted by that might have made her a hypocrite, except that she never did either.
There was nothing elegant about looting.
The marketplace had been stripped of its wares, and the stalls stood like skeletons in the moonlight as she wound her way through the narrow street. Smart of the vendors to take their goods home with them, because boards and locks wouldn’t keep out prying hands, not on a night like this.
Lex ducked into the alley behind Walt Misham’s shop, sidestepped a pile of rotting trash, and knocked on the dented metal door.
Chains rattled on the other side before a rough voice challenged her. “Whoever it is, you should know I’m armed.”
“I should hope so, Walt,” she shot back. “Let me in.”
The door creaked open an inch. “Lex? What the hell are you doing out on a night like this?”
“Business,” she answered. He peered at her, one rheumy blue eye appearing out of the darkness, and she tilted her head to meet his gaze. “I finally got my hands on something you’ve been looking for.”
“Let me see it.”
Lex shoved her hands in her jacket pockets and squinted at him. “You know better. Mad’s bringing it. He’s on his way.”
Walt’s bark of laughter turned into a wracking cough as he pulled open the door far enough for Lex to slip inside. She had to ease carefully past a six-foot stack of crates in one corner, and a jagged wooden edge still snagged her hair.
She yanked it loose and followed Walt deeper into the back room of the shop. “You’ll be glad to get out of here, I bet.”
“Past time, to be sure.” His breathing was raspy, and he led her toward a candlelit table before lowering himself heavily to his chair. “If these blackouts don’t kill me first.”
“The solar converter will help.” She sat across from him and studied his face, which was heavily lined and shadowed in the dim light. “I tested it this afternoon, so it should be fully charged. You can try it out tonight.”
His lips twitched. “If I meet your asking price, of course. You’d best give me a good deal, girl, if you want me around to buy your stolen goods.”
“You’re not my only customer,” Lex drawled. “Still, it’d be a shame not to have you screeching at people in the market.”
“Don’t tease an old man, Lex.” He grunted as he lifted a lockbox onto the table. “Name your price—unless you’d like to trade.”
“Ten.” A few grand less than she could get elsewhere, maybe, but Walt had cut her plenty of deals in the past based on her association with Dallas. Besides, it seemed wrong to play hardball over something like this. A pretty bauble, sure, but not a legitimate medical need.
Walt groused—he always groused—but fumbled with the lock on the box. “You want cash or clean city credits?”
“Half and half. And bust the credits up onto a couple of different sticks.”
A hollow knock sounded on the front door as Walt pried open the box. “Drag your young body over there and let your friend in, if that’s him. I’ll load up your creds.”
“Cranky ass.” But Lex crossed the room and peeked out the dirty window. “It’s him.”
It took a solid minute to disengage all the locks and chains, but Mad didn’t seem impatient. He smiled as if the night wasn’t alive with the threat of violence and held up a crinkled brown paper bag. “Old man willing to deal?”
“I’m very persuasive.” She opened the door far enough to admit him, then glanced around the square outside before securing the locks again. “Show the man what he’s bought, Mad.”
“The finest tech money can’t buy.” Maddox was nearly twice Lex’s size, but he moved with deceptive grace, claiming a chair across from Walt. “I’ll have you know, old timer, that these aren’t available to private owners. City-issue, strictly reserved for councilmen and military police. I still don’t know how Lex managed to find one, but it’s a thing of beauty.”
“Never you mind how I found it.” Stole it, she corrected silently. Not that it mattered.
Walt’s gnarled hands shook as he reached for his breathing device. “Flex those clever fingers, girl, and help me hook it up. If it works, the money’s yours.”
Walt’s assisted breathing device delivered oxygen through a simple set of nasal tubes. The complicated part was the apparatus itself, a small black box that functioned as a conductive purifier. The small intake drew air in, filtered it, and both isolated and concentrated the oxygen content. It worked without power, but barely any more efficiently than simply breathing.
Lex slipped one of the small rechargeable battery cells from the solar converter and fit it into the slot Walt indicated. A tiny light on the side of the purifier flashed blue and then a solid green, and an almost imperceptible hiss filled the room as Lex helped Walt loop the tubes over his ears and fit the points into his nostrils.
Walt closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. Mad watched them both, a tiny smile curving his lips. “See, old man? Tech so smooth it’s almost magic.”
“Hush,” Walt grumbled in between more of those relieved breaths. “This one, Lex—he has no trouble getting air, and he wastes it on so many words. Does he ever stop talking?”
“Nope.” Mad talked all the time—and mostly, Lex suspected, to convince people he was simple. Shallow. “Don’t let it fool you though, Walt. He’s sharp.”
Walt huffed. “The whole lot of you O’Kanes are sharp.”
“That we are,” she teased.
The old man squinted at her. “I heard Dallas had himself some trouble, though. Should I be worried about moving out to the edge of the sector? Is the place coming down around our ears?”
“No more so than usual.” Lex gathered the cash and credit sticks in one hand. “Anything else you’re on the lookout for? Just in case I stumble across it?”
“I’ve got a new customer, a collector. He’ll pay top credit for pre-Flare videos. Westerns, he wants. Cowboys and outlaws.” Walt showed his disdain for that preference with a loud sniff. “Fools with more money than sense. But fools make my living, don’t they?”
“We’ve all got our something.” Some people wanted porn, others wanted priceless art. And others wanted vintage Clint Eastwood. “I might be able to scrounge up a few. Keep in touch.”
Walt followed them back through the labyrinth of crates and boxes to the back door, and Lex lingered outside long enough to hear the click and scrape of every lock and chain. “Got plans?” she asked Mad, her hands in her pockets.
“That’s what I was about to ask you.” He nodded to her jacket. “I saw you got credits.”
She still had her fingers wrapped around the paper and plastic in her pocket. She pulled out the handful and shoved it at him. “You and Doc can split it. You know the drill.”
“Doc’s got a girl who can use some of this tonight.” He folded the bills before dumping the credit chips into his pocket. “Pregnant. She almost drowned in the river trying to get out of Two before—”
Lex closed her eyes, as if doing so would shut out the words, as well. “It’s better if I don’t know, Mad.”
“You’re doing good work, honey, helping people who need it. Why don’t you ever want to hear that?”
Because it wasn’t her job. Because it wasn’t enough. Because Dallas would make her stop—or worse, try to throw in with her and do more. “This is the way I want it.”
“Ah, Lex. All right.” Mad threw a friendly arm around her shoulders and tugged her to his side for a brief hug. “You gonna let me walk you back to the compound?”
“That wouldn’t be very sneaky,” she demurred. “I’ve got to slip by Dallas somehow. I’m not supposed to be out after dark.”
“Well, be good and sneaky, then.” He squeezed her shoulders. “I know you can take care of yourself, girl, but have some pity on the rest of us. Dallas roars around like a lion with a thorn in his paw when he thinks you’ve been putting yourself in harm’s way.”
She’d planned to wait until morning to run her errand. She’d tried, even, but in the end she couldn’t. “Was I supposed to let a sick man huff and puff all night just to keep Dallas from flipping his shit?”
“You snarl and snap all you want, Lex. I know your dirty secret.” Mad laughed and poked her in the chest. “You have a heart.”
Now that she couldn’t let stand. She grabbed his finger and bent it back until he winced. “What I have is money, along with a tiny bit of a conscience. That’s not the same thing.”
“We live in the slums of paradise, sweetheart.” Mad looked down at the O’Kane logo tattooed around her wrist—the same logo inked around both of his. “Do you know what the street value is on a tiny bit of conscience? Don’t undersell it.”
“I only have it because I can afford to.” She hated the almost frantic edge that tinged the words. “If I couldn’t, you’d better believe it’d be gone.”
“You can afford it.” His words were intent, a quiet answer to the desperation she wanted to hide. “You’re an O’Kane. Hell, you’re the next best thing to the O’Kane.”
“Don’t let him hear you say that.” Lex took a step back, then another. “If Dallas finds out we were out tonight, do me a favor, huh? Don’t tell him anything.”
“You asking me to lie to the king of Sector Four?”
“Hell, no. Just keep some shit to yourself.” She flashed Mad her most irreverent smile. “Buck up. I’ve been doing it for years, and I’m still kicking.”
If Dallas O’Kane had an ounce less self-control, he’d have found a way to plant a tracker on Lex to preserve his peace of mind.
The tech existed, though most people would have to give up eating for months to get their hands on it. In the four decades since the solar storms had obliterated life as humanity had known it, technology had become a luxury enjoyed by the privileged and the powerful—or those willing to cater to vices the powerful were privileged enough to be allowed to enjoy.
Dallas had gotten rich off other men’s vices, for all that he allowed himself only a few. The fantasy of tracking Lex was one of them. Eden was the morally righteous city of the future—they must have come up with a hundred ways to keep tabs on the many sins of their citizens.
Not that they needed to trouble themselves with covert surveillance. The Council tracked their sheep right out in the open, like any self-respecting theocratic oligarchy. No one dared to breathe a word of protest, even when the councilmen parked their intrusive little spy drones right up some poor bastard’s ass.
Sometimes Dallas envied them the bliss of blind obedience. Sometimes.
Liar, whispered a taunting inner voice. Dallas ignored it and dropped the butt of his cigarette to the cracked pavement, grinding it under the heel of his boot. He was all but invisible in the shadow of the garage, but from here he had a good vantage point of the side gate. If Lex was going to sneak back into the O’Kane compound, this was the likeliest place.
Blind obedience would never be a problem for Dallas as long as Lex was around, so any tracking mechanism he planted on her would have to be covert. Something unobtrusive that could be sewn into her favorite leather jacket or those shit-kicking boots with the heels that made her legs go on forever.
If she found out, he’d be the one getting kicked, and the fantasy of Lex coming at him with violence and passion all twisted up was a vice he didn’t have time to indulge.
But fuck, it was a hot fantasy.
The scuff of boots interrupted his reverie, and Jasper’s face flared out of the darkness as he lit a cigarette. “Last shipment’s on its way. We had to siphon one of the trucks for enough diesel to run the club’s generators, but we managed to keep the lights on ’til closing.”
“Good work.” Keeping the club open on blackout nights was worth the hassle. Anyone who wasn’t out looting or had finished lining their pockets showed up to watch the girls dance, or to pickle their livers on the lifeblood of Sector Four—O’Kane liquor. “How’s your lady handling her first night without lights?”
“Noelle’s all right. She doesn’t love it, but hey. The sectors are already darker than Eden, right?”
“Damn near every day.” Dallas reached into his vest for his battered cigarette case as he studied Jasper. His right-hand man had the easy smugness of a guy getting laid well and often, a fact Dallas might have resented more if Jasper and Noelle hadn’t been willing, even eager, to include him in their sexual adventures.
But he wasn’t the only one they included. And if Lex had drifted back into the compound through the main doors, Jasper’s girl was the one most likely to know where she was. “Don’t suppose Noelle’s seen Lex?”
Jas shook his head. “Nah, not tonight. But I can let you know if she shows up at our place.”
Dallas paused with his lighter open but unstruck. “Does that happen a lot?”
“Often enough.” The corner of Jasper’s mouth quirked up. “Had to get a bigger bed.”
There was a mental image to give any man a raging hard-on. Sleek, hungry Lex climbing into bed with dreamy-eyed Noelle. A sexy, gorgeous sector woman and a soft, curvy princess out of Eden, tangled together. Naked.
And Jasper, the lucky bastard, getting to have them both in his damn bed. “What a hardship,” Dallas drawled. “Must be rough.”
A creak interrupted his reply. “You bragging again, Jas?” Lex closed the side gate and fixed the man with a challenging look. “Whatever happened to not kissing and telling?”
“Guess I’m not as well-mannered as you thought.” He grinned at Dallas as he turned back toward the garage. “Good night. To both of you.”
Dallas took his time lighting his cigarette, waiting until the door shut behind Jasper to click his lighter closed. “I’m surprised you’re not curled around Noelle right now. You know city folk don’t like the dark.”
“She has Jasper.” Lex was dressed in head-to-toe black and zipped up all the way to her chin. “Besides, I was busy.”
“Mmm, busy.” Even though his eyes had adjusted to the dark, she was barely more than a shadow. He couldn’t see her face or judge her expression, which would have been a disadvantage with anyone else. With Lex, it never mattered. She’d been trained from the cradle to show the world only what she wanted it to see. “We’re not under lockdown anymore, love, but you picked a hell of a night to go for a stroll.”
“I know. But I brought you something.” She stepped into the center of the courtyard and held out her hand. Moonlight glinted off her hair and the small glass jar in her palm. “It’s strawberry.”
“Jam?” Something that cost more than liquor or tech. Fresh produce was always at a premium in the sectors, since it had to be lovingly cultivated in dry, scorched earth or shipped in from the rustic communes far beyond the city. “Where in hell did you find this?”
“I have my methods.” She wiggled the jar teasingly. “Well, do you want it or not?”
Dallas caught the jar and her hand along with it, folding her fingers under his. “Tell me you had backup, Lex.”
“I’m not dense, Dallas.”
Dallas, not his given name. Not Declan, the two syllables he only heard from her. Tenderness and rage brought them forth, and it was no wonder he had a hard time separating the two. At least now he knew she wasn’t completely pissed. Yet.
He could fix that. “Good. Then I won’t take you over my knee for sneaking out.”
She stiffened, and a rueful, mocking smile curved her lips. “I almost forgot. Property of Dallas O’Kane, whether I like it or not.”
Yes. Not a civilized thought, but this wasn’t a civilized world, and he’d never pretended to be a civilized man. Letting his cigarette fall to the ground, he snatched the jar out of her hand and twisted her wrist until the moonlight spilled over her tattoo cuffs with the O’Kane logo. “Damn straight, honey. You and everyone else.”
“Me and everyone else,” she echoed flatly.
He ran his thumb over the skull etched into her skin. “You regretting taking ink, love?”
“No.” She hesitated. “But would it matter if I said yes?”
His blood chilled. “O’Kane for life, isn’t that the promise?”
“From the day I first darkened your door.” Lex tugged at her hand. “I’m tired. I want to go to bed.”
Resisting the urge to ask whose bed, Dallas released her and took a step back. Personal space, it turned out, wasn’t optional when it came to Lex and his self-control. “I’ll find out when the power’s coming back on. We’ll need to push Jas and Noelle’s party back until it does.”
“I’ll take care of it.” Lex cradled her wrist, rubbing it gently, as if to erase his touch. “I always do, don’t I?”
“You always do,” he agreed, closing his hand around empty air. The harder he clutched at her, the faster she slipped away. It had always been true, but it had gotten worse since she’d been shot. Money could buy regenerative technology that healed flesh, but nothing could rid him of the image of her bleeding out on the club’s stage.
He couldn’t stop tightening his fists, even when he threatened to crush her.
* * *