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She’d been cast out of Eden and straight into Hell.
Noelle had never seen anything as menacing as the Sector Four slums at twilight. Back in the city, the buildings were elegant, each carefully planned to fit the aesthetic of those around it, each maintained by silent crews of landscapers and cleaners tasked with making every inch of the city sparkle. Shining towers with crystal windows reflected the endless blue sky, and straight roads intersected at perfect angles.
Here, in the slums outside Eden, squat, ugly buildings seemed dropped with careless imprecision. The roads followed no logic she could discern. Brick and wood alike were dark with soot from generators spitting smoke into the air. Graffiti covered the walls, lewd curses and symbols she couldn’t begin to decipher. Garbage littered the cracked asphalt and dirt paths, broken glass and suspicious liquids. Noelle swallowed the pain of her ridiculous high heels and picked a careful path toward the end of the street.
Walking grew more difficult with every step. The military police had thrown her out the gate at the west checkpoint with nothing but the clothes on her back. No money or credits, just a pair of earrings and a colorful party dress she’d bought on the black market, a flashy bit of fabric meant to catch a boy’s eyes.
It was still catching boys’ eyes. She felt the weight of their gazes as she stumbled, barely catching her balance against the frame of a vendor’s stall. Bright lights strung on wires twinkled above her head. Danced. She blinked and rubbed her eyes. The lights only swam worse, each flaring like a tiny sun trapped in glass.
Her mouth tasted odd. She touched her earlobe, felt the empty hole. She’d wasted the entire morning and most of the afternoon looking for someone who would trade cash for the glitzy baubles. Finally, one man had taken pity on her and traded a sandwich and a cup of juice for the earrings, laughing as he confided that his wife wouldn’t know real diamonds from fakes.
Too aware of all the eyes on her, Noelle turned. The little table where she’d devoured her meager meal was around the corner, but the man who’d owned it wasn’t. He was following her. Watching her.
Panic surged. Noelle spun and stopped, but the world kept on whirling by. Her ankle buckled and she pitched into a solid wall, a wall that reached out and grasped her arms in a steely grip.
A man frowned down at her, his gaze sweeping her body. She registered a stern face, dark, flat eyes and a full beard. Tattoos—on his wrists and arms, the kind they taught about in school and whispered about at church socials. The sector gangs, the rough criminals who controlled the slums and waged war on virtue and life.
She’d been cast into Hell, and he was a demon.
The strange girl in the even stranger dress collapsed in his arms, barely conscious. Jasper shifted her weight to one arm and bared his teeth at the man who’d been following her. “What’s she on?”
The bastard looked ready to bolt until Ace stepped forward, one hand on his gun. Faced with two men wearing O’Kane ink, the man froze and did the only smart thing—he spilled his guts. “Just drops. Nothing serious.”
“It’s a piss-poor way to get a date,” Jasper growled. “Dallas won’t like it.”
The shopkeeper blanched, but he choked out a wheedling defense. “Come on, man. It’s a city bitch on a walk of shame. No one gives a shit.”
Jasper pushed down his anger, hiding it behind a stony facade. “I give a shit. It might fly in other sectors, but not this one. If you can’t pay for sex, use a little charm. If you don’t have any of that either, keep it in your pants. Otherwise, you might have an accident. A nasty one.”
Ace slid his thumb along the butt of his pistol. “Or you could have a nasty one now and get it over with.”
“Fuck.” The man raised both hands in a gesture of retreat and submission as he backed away. “Never again. You got it.”
Jasper rolled his eyes and turned away, back toward the compound. “He’ll be up to no good before nightfall.”
“We can have Flash check in on him tonight.” Ace unsnapped a pocket on his vest and slipped out a thin black scanner. “Want me to tell you what you’ve got there?”
Jasper didn’t want to know. The girl hung limply over his arm, her skin silky and unmarked. Her hair had the sort of sheen that came from regular trips to some city salon, and her fingernails were painted some gentle shade of pink none of Dallas’s women would be caught dead wearing.
Soft. Everything about her, head to toe, was just soft.
He sighed and held out her arm. “May as well. We can’t leave her here, can we?”
Ace slid the scanner over the inside of her wrist, where thin lines of ink formed her identification bar code. The box beeped, the sound somehow both melodious and strident, and Ace whistled through his teeth. “Shit. Maybe we should.”
“Why, who is she?”
“That’s a Cunningham. As in Edwin Cunningham, the whackjob councilman who wants to firebomb the sectors like God raining down fire on Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Terrific. “Well, when she wakes up, we can ask her what the fuck she’s doing on the wrong side of the wall.”
“Judging by the state of her ID, the twitchy bastard following her was right. She’s flagged as a second offender, all accounts frozen.” Ace frowned. “Locked records, though. Can’t tell what she did to get in trouble.”
“Jaywalking?” Jasper suggested sourly.
Ace snorted as he pocketed his scanner. “More likely criminally poor taste. That dress looks like the sort of shit you pawn off on rich fuckheads by telling them it’s pre-Flare vintage.”
As if her dress mattered a damn. Jasper hefted her over his shoulder with another sigh. “Maybe Lex will know what to do with her.”
“There are easier ways to get Lex nose-deep in pussy.”
“Charming, but not what I meant.”
The market cleared ahead of them. The denizens of Sector Four knew when to duck for cover, and if the military police came through here in an hour, no one would admit to seeing a member of O’Kane’s gang carting a city girl off over his shoulder.
No one would dare.
Ace shook his head as they turned off the main street leading out of the market. “That princess over your shoulder? Probably a prissy little virgin. If dragging a stray like her home isn’t about the corruption, it’s not fucking worth it.”
The insinuation that he couldn’t simply feel sorry for her—that maybe he had to bring home a helpless, unconscious woman to fuck—made Jasper recoil with a frown. “Lex could show her the ropes—we need a new waitress at the club, don’t we?”
“Yeah, but Dallas was going to bump one of the dancers over, maybe hire one of the groupies.” Ace swung in front of Jasper, his dark eyes hard as he blocked the way. “I know you’ve got a soft spot for damsels, brother, but this piece of ass could get you killed. Are you sure you want to go out on this limb just because the girl fell on you?”
“No, but we can’t dump her in the gutter and hope she makes out all right.” Jasper knew what that was like, being helpless but still left to fend for yourself against shitty odds. “At the very least, she needs time to sober up.”
“All right.” Ace stepped aside and grinned at him. “Lex is going to kick your ass. You’re not getting head for a month.”
“S’okay. She bites.”
“Only if you ask nicely.”
“I can’t believe you did this, you jackass.”
The words pierced darkness and splintered agony behind her eyes. Noelle groaned and pressed her hand to her forehead, as if she could hold the pieces of her shattered skull together. And it had to be a shattered skull—nothing else would explain the pain knifing through her.
“I didn’t have a choice,” a gruff voice murmured. “If I’d left her out there—”
“Don’t kid yourself,” the woman interrupted. “You didn’t do her any favors. Look at her, for Christ’s sake. You should have put her on the first transport out to the communes.”
Communes. The word dragged her fully out of confused darkness. The communes were horrifying places where farmers lived primitive lives of indentured servitude. No electricity or running water, only backbreaking labor from dawn to dusk and being bred until you died in childbirth. Her father had threatened her with an extended stay on the farms often enough to make her heart seize now. “No,” she whispered, her voice cracking. “No communes.”
A feminine hand pressed against the back of her neck. “Here, sit up and drink this.”
Cold water splashed her lips, but hazy memories of the last drink she’d accepted made her pause. But she was parched…and helpless. The numbness of having lost everything melted into a hollow sort of trust, and she parted her lips and drank deeply before speaking. “Thank you.”
The man huffed out a sigh. “Lex—”
“Forget it.” The woman tipped the cup to Noelle’s lips again. “Let Dallas sort it out. He’s the man in charge, isn’t he?”
“I called him already.”
“Good.” Lex set down the cup and snapped her fingers in front of Noelle’s face. “How many fingers?”
Noelle blinked and focused on the woman’s fingers. “I’m not injured, just confused. Where am I?”
“Sector Four. The Broken Circle.”
She’d heard of it. Who hadn’t? The Broken Circle—the heart of sin, the club her friends spoke about in whispers because no one was brave enough to bribe an official for a pass into the sectors. The moonshine that had gotten them all arrested had been taboo enough.
“O’Kane Liquor,” she whispered, remembering the black-and-white labels affixed to the bottles. “This is where it comes from.” But how had she ended up here?
“Comes from a warehouse across the compound, actually, but close enough.” The woman held out her hand. “I’m Lex.”
“Noelle.” The other woman’s hand was soft but strong. She looked tough, even before Noelle struggled to sit up and caught sight of Lex’s clothes—leather boots with stiletto heels and the kind of sleek, skimpy lingerie you couldn’t find in Eden, not unless you bought it under the table from a black-market vendor. Noelle had never seen a person bare so much skin with so little concern, so little shame.
Lex lifted an eyebrow. “See what I mean, Jas? She’s looking at me like I have two heads.”
The man frowned—an expression that seemed habitual, if not permanent. “She’s from the city.”
Now that she was upright, Noelle could see him too. He filled the corner of the room with his bulk, made it seem smaller just with his presence. His clothing was as foreign as Lex’s, everything cut from denim and leather and edged with silver and steel. His forearms were covered with ink, and the dark swaths snapped her disjointed memories into sharp clarity.
Being thrown from the city by a stone-faced guard.
The drugged juice and the man following her.
Stumbling into the arms of a gang member.
She forced her gaze to his. “You saved me.”
His eyes widened in a flash of panic. “Uh, no. You fell on me.”
But he’d caught her. He hadn’t left her in the street, at the mercy of the predators prowling the sectors. He hadn’t hurt her. And the panic in his gaze intrigued her—surely if he was the monster she’d been taught, he’d be eager to accept credit. To twist her gratitude into obligation, and then use that to place lurid, degrading demands on her. The kind she wasn’t supposed to know about.
He hadn’t done anything of the sort. He’d simply been kind, and that deserved kindness in return. “Thank you for catching me.”
Lex covered her face with her hands and mumbled something under her breath.
The door slammed open hard enough to send Noelle’s heart rocketing into her throat. A slightly older man stepped through, clad in a leather vest that bared tattooed arms, and pinned her rescuer with an irritated look. “Jasper, you’re a pain in my ass.”
He rose. “Come on, Dallas. You would’ve done the same damn thing.”
“God willing, we’ll never know.” He leveled a finger at Noelle, the gesture somehow menacing and exasperated. “Three questions. You’ll answer them honestly or I’ll boot your ass back into the street.”
She’d fared badly out there before, so Noelle laced her fingers together to hide their trembling. “Honest answers,” she promised.
“Good.” He flicked up one finger. “Is your father motherfucking Edwin Cunningham?”
Shame heated her cheeks even as pain sank claws in her chest. “Yes. Though he’s probably already filing the paperwork to have me officially severed from the family.”
A grunt. Dallas held up a second finger. “Your ID shows two offenses. What’d you get arrested for?”
Oh, no. She couldn’t admit it in front of Lex, and certainly not in front of her rescuer. Jasper. Humiliation joined the mix of emotions churning in her middle as she stared at the floor and forced herself to answer. “Possession and consumption of alcohol and—” The word froze on her tongue. She had to whisper it. “Fornication.”
Silence. Then Lex shook her head with a disgusted snort. “Bunch of dickless bastards.” She turned on Dallas, her shoulders squared. “She can stay with me until she gets on her feet.”
“That’s the third question. Look at me, Noelle Cunningham.” Compelled by his voice, she lifted her gaze to his. He had steely eyes, seductive and overpowering at once, and she had to fight to focus on his words. “Do you want me to put you on a bus out to the communes right now? If not, the best I can offer you is a week’s probation under Lex. I’m not taking a poor little rich girl from Eden into this gang until I know she can handle it. So do you want a week of training, or do you want the bus?”
Two choices. Two lives. The farms would wear down her body. They had fertility drugs there, the kind that counteracted the contraceptives administered in Eden to prevent overpopulation. Resources were precious in the city—in the communes, babies were resources. Fornication wasn’t a sin there, but sex was only acceptable as a means of making more strong bodies to work the land and make the farm owners rich. In Eden, they called it noble work. Honorable. Toil for the body to enrich the spirit, surely deserving of eternal reward.
None of the things that might happen to her body in the sectors would enrich her spirit. The gangs outside Eden knew a thousand ways to sin, and—according to Noelle’s father—ten thousand ways to secure a place in Hell.
If she were righteous, there’d be only one possible choice.
If she were righteous, she’d still be in Eden. “I don’t want to go to the communes.”
“Fine.” Dallas pointed at Lex. “She gets full fucking disclosure. If she’s not willing to tend bar, clean house, or suck dick by the end of the week, she’s gone.”
“Fuck you,” Lex shot back pleasantly.
“Hop on my cock anytime, love.” He jabbed his finger at Jasper. “You, out. There’s a shipment over at the warehouse that needs your attention.”
“I’m on it.” Jasper hesitated. “If she needs anything—”
“She won’t,” Lex interjected. “Now get out.” When the door slammed behind him, Lex dropped to a chair across from Noelle. “You hanging out for all the gritty details, Dallas? I know you get off on it.”
Dallas raked his gaze over them in a way that made Noelle think perhaps he was imagining them both naked—and enjoying it. He grinned slowly as he hauled open the door. “Another time. Have Ace fill in her bar code, but no cuffs. Not until she makes it through the week.”
He snapped the door shut behind him, and Noelle let out a breath and tried to meet Lex’s eyes without flinching. “You must all think I’m a ridiculous, naïve fool.”
“Of course you are.” Lex leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs. “You’re from the city. They won’t let you be anything else.”
No judgment, at least, and maybe even a little sympathy. “I tried to be something else. That probably makes me more of a fool.”
“Only if you thought it’d work.” Lex pulled a small etched silver case from her boot. “Not many rules. First one is, the group means more than anything. We survive because we stick together—no exceptions. If you join up, it won’t be a free ride, but it’ll be a good one.”
Tend bar, clean house, or suck dick. Noelle stared down at her brightly patterned dress and traced a finger over one swirl. A dark craving dug its hooks into her as the fantasy formed, one where she wasn’t responsible for the filthy things they commanded her to do. Surely it couldn’t be a sin if she didn’t have a choice. “I’d have to give them all sex?”
“Nope. You don’t have to lay a finger on anyone, not if you don’t want to. Get a job, work the club, whatever. The sex is a bonus, not an obligation.”
Noelle was sick, twisted, because the only emotion she felt at hearing the words was vague disappointment—and crushing shame to cover it. “Oh. That’s good.”
Lex grimaced. “I thought you were into fornication. What a waste. Anyway, one of the runners managed to get his hands on some fertility drugs, and now he and his woman are having a baby. She used to wait tables at the club, so there’s an open job there. Ever done that sort of thing?”
“No.” Her mother would have slapped her hard enough to leave marks for a week if Noelle had breathed a word about working outside the house. “I can learn, though. I’ve read books about pre-Flare technology, and I’m a hard worker.”
“Any dance lessons?”
Finally, a question she could answer in the affirmative. “From the time I was five.”
“But none of them were on a pole, right?”
She shouldn’t even know what the question meant. Pornography was every bit as illegal as liquor, but it was the only place in Eden to learn about a stripper pole. “No, not exactly.”
Lex just nodded. “If you don’t want to wait tables, we can show you a few things about stripping. There’s a ton of credits in it. Not as much as the hardcore shows, though.”
Surely she didn’t mean… “Isn’t that illegal?”
Lex paused in the act of lighting a cigarette, her lighter sparked and waiting. “Honey, you’re not in Eden anymore. The only laws here are the ones Dallas hands down.”
“I’m not in Eden anymore.” The words hit her in the gut, stark and real, the first thing to come close to penetrating her creeping numbness. Her breath rattled out of her lungs, and she shuddered and fought to drag it back in. “I’m not—I’m not in Eden anymore.”
“Oh shit.” Lex tossed the unlit cigarette aside. “Hey, it’s okay.”
“No, I know.” Noelle clutched at her silly dress and tried to force herself to breathe normally. She wasn’t in Eden anymore, so she might as well avail herself of one of the advantages. “Can I have a drink?”
“No.” Lex held up her hands. “I’m not an uptight bitch, but you were rolling pretty hard when you came in here. I don’t want to accidentally kill you.”
Of course. Stupid. Noelle closed her eyes. “You’re right.”
The other woman sighed. “Look, bottom line. No one’s going to force you to do anything you don’t want to do. You have to work, but you can keep all your clothes on while you do it. And don’t fucking listen to Dallas—he won’t set you out. Not if I ask him not to.”
It was too much to process. The loss of everything Noelle had, everything she’d ever known, everything she was…and the tantalizing promise of freedom that made her want to hope when hope was an emotion she’d never learned how to feel. “I think I’m just overwhelmed, and maybe still fuzzy from whatever that man gave me.”
“Then you need to rest.” Lex crossed the room and pulled a pillow and a blanket out of the small closet by the bathroom. “Want something else to wear?”
Anything besides her fancy party dress. “A nightgown, maybe?”
“All right.” Noelle managed a smile. “No more layers and layers of modest clothing, I guess. That’s a good thing, right?”
Lex handed her a folded bundle of white fabric. “It’s whatever you make of it, honey. Whatever you want, it’s all up to you.”
What a terrifying thought. “The last time things were up to me, I got arrested.”
“Then I guess it’s all looking up from here, huh?”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way.” But maybe it was time she started.
Noelle woke in darkness, disorienting in and of itself. She blinked up at the empty space above her and tightened her fingers around the blankets as her heart tried to hammer its way out of her chest.
She wasn’t in Eden, that much was certain. Her bedroom had too many sources of illumination—the glow of the display panels that controlled the brightness and temperature in her suite, the soft light from the computer screen embedded in her desk, even the moon and streetlights shining through her gauzy curtains. Her family might live in the penthouse, far above street level, but Eden was a city of light. Too many of her parents’ generation remembered the years of darkness, after the solar storms had plunged the world into chaos and shadow.
Her mother had been afraid of the dark, but Noelle had never shared that anxiety. Still, she felt a twinge of it now as she wet her lips and spoke. “Lights, twenty percent?” She turned it into a question out of instinct, and her answer was more darkness.
No, no one out in the sectors would rely on computers for something pre-Flare technology could handle just fine with far less expense. Which meant she had to stumble out of bed and find a light switch. How deliciously uncivilized.
The cement floor was cool under her bare feet, and rough. No plush carpets softened the hard expanse, only a rug half hidden by the bed that had folded out of the couch. Noelle skirted the edge of the mattress with halting steps and blinked into the gloom, trying to make out the shapes around her.
She stumbled a little as she worked her way around the room, but eventually her questing fingers encountered a switch. Turning it on flooded the room with low, diffuse light, something that made everything visible enough but kept the corners shadowed and the room itself…intimate.
Or maybe it only seemed that way because of the bed. All of Lex’s furniture was nice, but her bed dominated one side of the room, piled with sleek cushions and luxurious sheets that could have easily belonged in Noelle’s bedroom back home. High quality, expensive—and utterly out of place surrounded by unadorned brick walls and cement floors.
There were four doors Noelle could see. One opened out into the hallway, and another she thought might be the closet. Hoping one of the remaining two led to a bathroom, she opened the one closest to her and found a treasure trove instead.
This second room was smaller and contained only a table and a pair of chairs. But the walls were covered in art—not the digital kind displayed on the enormous plasma screens currently popular in Eden, but pre-Flare masterpieces. Hypnotized, Noelle moved to stand in front of the closest painting, an Impressionist piece in a gilded frame.
This close, she could smell the slightly musty scent of the canvas and paint, could see the individual brushstrokes. She touched a faded red rose petal and marveled at the subtle ridges of the paint, three-dimensional and vivid in a way nothing in Eden was, not anymore.
Lex spoke sharply from the doorway. “That’s probably older than anything you’ve ever owned. You might want to stop pawing it.”
Noelle stumbled, shoving her hands behind her back as if that would change what was already done. “I’m sorry. I’ve never seen anything like it outside of textbooks. I was just—” What? Snooping? No explanation was adequate.
“Having a look around. I get it.” Lex dropped her black knapsack in the corner and began to peel off the high-collared jacket she wore. “It was a gift. The Renoir, I mean.”
Noelle tugged at the hem of her borrowed T-shirt, self-conscious about her bare legs. “It’s beautiful. Priceless. Someone must think very highly of you.”
The woman snorted and turned toward a small sliding door on the far wall. “It cost money. Some people have more of that than they know what to do with.”
Lex seemed to be one of them. Noelle tried not to be nosy, but the open closet door revealed tangled piles of jewelry and sculptures mixed with electronics that must have been smuggled from the city at great cost. She even saw one or two sleek weapons—guns, honest-to-God guns, something she’d rarely seen within the walls of Eden, and never anywhere but in the hands of the military police.
Noelle turned her attention back to the painting, back to Lex’s words. People—men—with more money than they knew what to do with. Eden had its share of those. More than its share. “I’m familiar with people like that. They think they can buy anything. Or anyone.” And in her experience, they usually could.
“No, not—” Lex stowed her bag and faced Noelle. “You can’t buy people here with money, especially women. You buy them with security, safety, all the things that have always been true in societies where men hold the power. But we hold power, too. Remember that—there are things we have, things we can offer. Things they need.”
Noelle couldn’t imagine that any of the men here gave a damn about the things she’d been raised and trained to do. Organizing and managing a household, hosting elaborate dinner parties where she smiled at important city leaders and used her mother’s encyclopedic knowledge of their foibles and vanities to flatter them into agreeable moods.
Noelle gripped the hem of her shirt again. “I don’t have much to offer the men here. Except…” If she couldn’t even choke out the word, how was she supposed to offer them sex?
“Fucking is the least of it,” Lex muttered. “Everyone has a couple of holes a guy can stick his dick in. The important stuff is all above the neck.”
It felt like her entire body had flushed, but Noelle fought past self-consciousness. “What’s the important stuff?”
“Using your brain, baby girl. There’s nothing you need to know about anyone that you can’t figure out in ten seconds flat.” She beckoned. “Follow me.”
Lex walked into the bedroom, flicked on another lamp on the nightstand and sat on the bed, crossing her legs. “Now—how do you get under my skin? What do I like?”
During the course of their acquaintance, Lex had shouted at Jasper, whose formidable presence weakened Noelle’s knees, and had snapped just as viciously at Dallas O’Kane, a figure of criminal legend. Everyone in Sector Four lived or died by Dallas’s whim—Lex had admitted as much when she’d said he made the laws here.
But she’d yelled at him, and she hadn’t shown fear. Noelle sank to the edge of the bed and rubbed her fingers over the expensive duvet. She thought about the priceless art, the silken sheets and the closet full of valuables hidden away like a treasure instead of displayed proudly, the way her father’s friends showed off the things they bought with their vast wealth.
“You like beautiful things, but you don’t need them to make you feel important.” She smiled a little shyly. “Maybe you have a soft spot for things that get thrown away.”
Lex laughed. “The last part’s true.” Her amusement faded. “Dallas gave me the paintings.”
Noelle wet her lips. “Are you and Dallas—” Did people marry in the sectors? In Eden, marriage was a sacrament, but nothing sacred was likely to survive in the slums. “—together?”
“What do you think? If he had me already, would he be dropping thousands on pretty presents to catch my eye?”
“Perhaps not.” She tilted her head and regarded Lex, searching for the meaning beneath the words. “Is that the only power we have? Not being caught?” The thought turned Lex’s blithe freedom into its own sort of cage.
“No. It’s your first lesson.” Lex brushed Noelle’s hair back behind her ear. “It’s not like in the city. Belonging to someone isn’t the endgame, the point where they’re allowed to get lazy. It’s a beginning, one you have to be damn sure you want.”
Her skin prickled under the other woman’s touch. Not sexual arousal, not exactly, but a sensual pleasure she’d only begun to crave when she’d started spending time with people who violated the social taboo forbidding unnecessary physical contact.
“Thank you,” she blurted out, leaning in to Lex’s touch. “For convincing Dallas to give me a chance. I’ll learn anything I need to learn. I can’t go to the communes—they’re even worse than Eden.”
“You’d go if you had to, and you’d be all right. Trust me, honey. That is the important thing.”
To Noelle’s everlasting humiliation, her eyes burned. She blinked them twice before realizing there was no stopping it, then squeezed them shut as the first tear slipped free. “I didn’t really think my family would throw me away. I only wanted to feel something. I know I was privileged, that I must seem like a spoiled city brat…” Her chest felt tight, as if all the weight of Eden’s claustrophobic expectations were closing in on her again.
“Are you kidding me?” Lex pulled her into a hug and made soothing noises. “No offense, baby girl, but I wouldn’t have had your life there for anything.”
Her tears soaked Lex’s shirt, but the answer was there, just beyond reach. “Why?” Noelle didn’t even know what she was asking. Why wouldn’t Lex want her life? Why hadn’t it been enough for her? Why had she thrown it all away?
Lex answered them all with three words. “You weren’t free,” she said. “You can be here, you know. Dallas talks big about shit, but he’s never forced a woman to do anything she didn’t want. Remember that too, Noelle.”
“I don’t know what I want. I don’t know anything.”
“That’s why you try things. Eventually, you stumble across the ones that make you happy.” Lex kissed her cheek. “And you learn. Everything anyone tells you, file it away in that brain of yours.”
She could do that. She’d always been mind-hungry, devouring everything in her parents’ digital library before going so far as to learn how to circumvent tablet security to gain access to the more restricted titles, old books from a time before fear and morality had swallowed everything. “I’m good at remembering things.”
Lex patted her back. “Go crawl in bed, honey. I’d let you stay in mine, but I don’t think you really want to.”
She rather did, and not just because the sheets would feel heavenly against her skin. Touching Lex meant having an anchor instead of being cast adrift in the darkness that would soon envelop the room.
But she’d already cried and laid her soul bare. Enough humiliation for one lifetime, let alone a single evening. She slipped from Lex’s enormous bed and crawled back onto the lumpy mattress that folded out of the couch. “Can you help me find a job tomorrow?”
“We’ll see, all right?”
It was as close to a promise as she was likely to get. Noelle settled her head against the pillow and closed her eyes, feeling more hopeful than she had in…forever, maybe. “Thank you, Lex.”
The lamp clicked off, followed by the overhead lights. Clothing rustled in the darkness, and a light flared, illuminating the space closest to the couch. “Here,” Lex murmured, setting the tiny round lamp on the end table near Noelle’s head.
The glow was just enough to paint Lex’s features in intriguing shadows, but not so bright that it would give Noelle trouble sleeping. “I guess you only needed ten seconds to figure me out,” she said, trying to turn the words into a joke.
“Maybe a little more. Get me drunk sometime, and I’ll tell you what I figured out.”
How convenient it would be to have Lex explain Noelle’s own secrets to her. Then she wouldn’t have to bother to learn them herself. “As soon as you’ll let me drink.”
“Uh-huh. Good night, Noelle.”
She didn’t ask Dallas for much, never had, but she’d ask him for this.
Lex leaned against the side of the car. “She doesn’t have anyone, and she’s helpless. Tossing her out on her ass would just be wrong.”
Under the hood, Dallas grunted as metal clanged on metal. “Eden spits out a dozen like her a week, love. That’s what happens when you only give reproductive drugs to the righteous. They pop out ignorant, helpless babies like it’s a contest to see who can produce the most useless human being.”
“She has a name, you know.” Lex reached out to trace the shell of his ear. “And if she were really useless, she’d be crying in a heap on my bedroom floor.”
Dallas spared her a look, turning his head just enough to bite the tip of her finger. “Don’t tell me she’s not damn close to it.”
“A couple weeks, okay? Give her a chance. She’ll probably blow you once or twice and then settle down, make one of the guys very, very happy.”
He snorted and focused on the old car’s engine again. “That girl couldn’t spit out the word fornication without turning fifteen shades of red. What the hell happened after I left? I miss a hot time?”
Not even close, but the spark was there. The hunger. Lex could practically taste it. “She wants to be a little bad. How is she going to do that on a peanut farm or whatever?”
Sighing, Dallas straightened and tossed aside the wrench. “Are you seeing what’s really there, Lexie? Or what you want to see?”
As if he knew the first damn thing about what she wanted. “Easy way to find out. You throwing a party tonight?”
“I was, yeah.” He wiped his hands on a rag and rubbed his thumb over her lower lip, a clear sign that his thoughts had shifted from cars to sex. “You think she could survive it?”
“One way to find out.” He still tasted like motor oil and metal. Lex licked the pad of his thumb and wrapped her fingers around his belt buckle. “Are you saving your strength for later?”
“My strength doesn’t need saving, love. Not with you around.”
His jeans were already tightening across the hard bulge of his cock. Lex kept hold of his belt and pulled him toward the back door of the warehouse.
Inside, she reached under his shirt and traced circles over his chest while her vision adjusted to the near darkness of the back hall. Dallas leaned against the wall and watched her through narrowed eyes. “Don’t think I’m not on to you, girl.”
She tensed, but only for a moment, before unbuckling his belt. “What do you mean?”
He caught her wrist with one hand and her chin with the other. “Don’t get on your knees for this. If you’re that damn taken with the girl, she can stay. Hell, have Ace give her the full wrist cuffs if you want.”
Relief warred with anger. He hadn’t really figured her out, that secret part of her with all its insane desires. But the fact that he thought she’d use her body, her mouth, as currency, pissed her off plenty.
Lex still had one hand free, and she slapped him with it. “I’m not a whore. Not even for you.”
She’d seen Dallas kill men for less, but he only growled and caught her other wrist. “Everyone’s a whore for me except you. It gets goddamn tedious.”
She could barely think with his fingers wrapped around her wrists, trapping her and yet careful not to squeeze tight. “Liar. You need me to keep your head on straight. Just one person you can’t buy.”
His laugh swept over her. “Sweet, silly bitch. The whores are the tedious ones.”
Too close. Too intimate. “So let it lie, Declan,” she urged, using his given name. “And apologize, for fuck’s sake.”
He moved fast, jerking her around to crash against the wall, her hands pinned next to her head. “Watch the sharp side of your tongue, Lex,” he rumbled, voice low and dangerous. He loomed over her, his heat its own oppressive weight.
No room to move, breathe, nothing but him, everywhere. “Why don’t you watch my tongue?” She started to slide down the wall. When she was halfway to her knees, he released her hands, sinking his fingers into her hair instead.
Hard didn’t begin to describe him now. His erection jutted against his fly, jumping when she smoothed her palm over its length. “Do you want my mouth?”
Dallas growled and tightened his grip on her hair, skating the line between arousal and real pain. “Am I breathing?”
“Don’t know.” She hummed as she opened his pants and wrapped her fist around his dick. “You’ve got a strong pulse, though.”
His head fell back as he pushed against her hand with another of those hungry, rough noises. “You going to teach your little stray how to do this? If she can get half as good as you at sucking dick, maybe she will get marked.”
Noelle would wind up marked anyway, just as soon as she learned to let go a little. “I thought men liked the wide-eyed innocence.”
“Men think they like wide-eyed innocence until someone like you swallows their cock down like she can’t get enough of it.” He forced her head back at a rough angle. “Or did you see something I didn’t, clever girl?”
“Like Jasper showing off his protective side?” Lex teased her tongue over her lower lip. “Watch them together. You’ll see.”
“All the girls throw themselves on Mr. Hero. He lets them bounce on him for a little while, and then he bounces them right back off.” A rock of Dallas’s hips bumped the head of his cock against her mouth. “Goddamn, Lex. Fucking blow me already.”
One quick lick, followed by a slower one, over and over in succession until his shaft gleamed wet enough to slide between her lips. Not too much pressure, not at first.
“Never enough,” he growled, slapping one palm against the wall. His entire body shook with restrained hunger, but he didn’t thrust against her mouth. Not yet.
Instead, he demanded with words. “Harder, Lex.”
She complied, but only for a moment. Then she pulled away and stroked him with her hand.
“Tease.” Pressing one thumb against her lips, he smiled slowly. “I think I changed my mind. I am saving my strength for tonight. I want a hell of a show.”
Lex took a deep breath to ease the sharp pang of disappointment. “Maybe I won’t bother.”
“Oh, you’ll bother.” He stepped away and tucked his cock back into his pants. “I’ll know you’re really pissed if all I get to do is watch.”
“Or I won’t show at all.” Even as she spoke, she knew the words for a lie. She’d go, all right, just to make him watch another man spend the night face down in her lap.
“We’ll see. Up, Lexie love.”
She rose, hunger still twisting in her belly. “Have fun trying not to walk funny.”
Dallas gripped her chin and kissed her hard and fast, nothing but growls and teeth and gone a moment later. “The girl can stay as long as you keep an eye on her. Bring her around to Rachel. See if she’s waitress material.”
Rachel wasn’t even waitress material. She should have been the one tinkering under the hood of that car outside, because God knew she was better at it than most of the men, including Dallas. “And the party?”
His smile was positively wicked. “Let’s leave that to Jasper.”
Lex held his gaze as she traced her index finger over the corner of her mouth and licked her fingertip. “Yes, sir.”
Bren slid into the back seat, but he left the door open and one foot on the ground. He never shut himself into a car until they were ready to roll. “We leaving now?”
“Waiting for Flash,” Jasper muttered.
“Aw, shit. Did we check to see if he had his hand in Amira’s pants? ’Cause that’ll take all day.”
Flash jerked open the front passenger door. “That’s why I have a woman and you don’t.”
“Something you never let anyone forget,” Bren drawled.
The third man folded his immense body into the front seat and grinned, looking entirely self-satisfied. “Marking that girl was the smartest move I ever made. You think the women are hot before they get the ink around their throats? You have no fucking idea.”
Flash’s satisfaction was a tangible thing, filling the scant space left in the car. Jasper started the engine. “Where’s this place supposed to be?”
The man’s smugness melted away, replaced by brisk, businesslike seriousness. “Over by the border with Five, just outside the second perimeter. I think they took over an abandoned church.”
“Are they stupid or desperate?”
Both was dangerous. Jas pointed the car toward their destination. “Our orders from Dallas are to tear it down. Standard shit. This is their warning. If they rebuild, we tear them down.”
“Standard shit,” Bren agreed.
“Violence and mayhem.” Flash grinned. “I hope someone takes a swing at me.”
Jas unbent enough to smile. “And ruin that pretty face?”
“Didn’t say I’d let them hit me.” Flash clenched his fists. “I’m itching to deal a little damage. Property, people… Whatever gets in my way.”
Bren leaned over the back of the front seat. “Save it for the cage. Pick up some extra money.”
“Why, you going to climb in there with me?”
“Hell, no. But there’s never any shortage of dumbasses who will.”
“Chicken.” Flash muttered the word, but there wasn’t much heat behind it. He played for keeps in the cage and didn’t relish facing off against the few men he actually liked. “So what’s the deal with the new girl? Amira says she’s like a baby deer in the woods.”
Jas shifted gears as the car pulled free of the more congested, debris-scattered streets and gained speed. “Something like that.” A woman desperate to find a place and a little bit of safety was more like it.
“I hope she takes to waiting tables. Maybe then Amira’ll quit bitching that Rachel’s got too much on her shoulders. She’s pissed I won’t let her work, but fuck if she’s gonna haul trays around when she’s pregnant with my kid.”
“She could do something less physically taxing,” Jasper pointed out.
“I don’t want her around outsiders, either.”
No, Flash wouldn’t rest easy having her exposed to unknown dangers. “Amira’s sharp. Dallas could probably use her help with paperwork. Keeping the books.”
Flash grunted and glanced at Bren. “No smartass comments from you?”
“What? He’s right.” Bren shrugged. “Only questionable thing the woman’s ever done is place her bets on a monster like you.”
“Monsters always get the girls,” Flash said, his haughty arrogance returning. “We’re the ones who can keep them safe.”
Safe. Jas swallowed a growl. Amira wanted a damn sight more from Flash than that, and she got it—even if the man barely seemed to realize it. She always watched him with a mix of adoration and indulgence, and none of it had to do with his macho posturing.
As usual, Flash was oblivious. “Up here.” He pointed to an intersection where rundown buildings sagged alongside burned-out warehouses.
Jas slowed the car and took a turn around the block. “Remember what I said, both of you. No blood.”
“And if they hit first?”
“Then you do what you’ve got to do.”
Bren checked his sidearm as Jas parked in a shadowed spot in the alley. “We’ve got it—no excessive force.”
“No excessive force.” Jasper jerked open his door.
Flash popped the car’s trunk and pulled out a sledgehammer before falling in behind him as they headed for the side door of the warehouse. “Is kicking the door in excessive?”
“Come on, man.” Bren stretched his neck and grinned. “Jasper’s polite. He’d rather knock.”
Flash tightened his grip on his makeshift weapon with an answering expression of mirth. “Good. That’ll make the surprise bigger when I rip the place up. Go on, lover boy. Knock.”
“You both talk too much.” Jas shouldered through the door and watched as the men surrounding the copper monstrosity in the center of the room scattered. “Nice still, boys.”
The leader cursed and dove for a gun, swinging it up to point at Jasper’s forehead as chaos erupted behind him. “We’re on the border between sectors,” he snapped. “This isn’t O’Kane territory.”
Bren swore and reached into his jacket, but Jas held up a hand as he stared down the barrel of the gun. There had been a time when the sight had scared him, a time when that tiny little black space inside the muzzle had expanded to encompass the world, and he’d been so sure it could swallow him whole.
It still could. Jasper wondered idly where the fear had gone, then forced his thoughts back to the task at hand. “It’s possible you don’t understand what a non-compete clause is. I’ve come to explain it to you.”
The gun barrel wavered. “What the fuck sort of fucking bullshit is this?”
“It’s an opportunity,” Jas said evenly. “A chance to start over someplace else.”
The blond man hesitated, his gaze leaping to Bren and Flash and back. “We can’t move our operation.”
“Yes, you can.” Jasper gripped the man’s wrist and twisted until the barrel of the gun pointed toward the exposed steel rafters above. “Once we’re done, you won’t be operational anymore. Easy enough to move then.”
As if to punctuate the point, Flash hefted the sledgehammer and swung it through a crate of bottles. Everything shattered, wood and glass alike, crashing to the ground.
Blondie cursed and tried to free his gun hand. “Fuck, you can’t do that.”
Jasper gestured Bren forward to check the tanks. “First warning’s your only warning. Next time, Flash tosses that sledge through your face.”
“Tanks are clear,” Bren declared. “Looks like they’re between batches.”
Two of the men started forward when Flash lifted his weapon again. A snarl and bared teeth had them scrambling back, and Flash demolished their remaining supplies in an orgy of gratuitous destruction, the very recklessness of it its own message. O’Kane didn’t need to steal supplies from competitors. O’Kane would just wipe them off the map.
Jas didn’t release his grip on the leader’s wrist, even when the man kept fidgeting. Instead, he spoke calmly. “You’re going to let us walk out of here with no trouble and go set up shop someplace else. You’re going to do it because nothing here is worth dying for. Yes?”
The leader rolled his eyes toward his men, who looked torn between rage and disgust. He could let Jasper walk away, but he wouldn’t be leading anyone.
He knew it, too. Bravado and bluff filled his eyes. “There’re more of us than there are of you.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
He twisted fast, thrusting his free hand behind his back. Another gun. Jasper jerked the man’s arm with a snap. “Don’t.”
The second gun spilled from nerveless fingers as Flash stomped across the floor, scattering splintered wood, glass shards, and cheap liquor across the cement. “Boss?”
“Back to the car. They’ve learned their lesson.” He squeezed a little harder, and the bones in the leader’s wrist ground together. “Haven’t they?”
“Yes,” came the pained, shaky whisper. “We’re gone.”
He released him and stepped back. “Don’t forget—Dallas O’Kane doesn’t do second chances.”
No one tried to stop them as they left. No one said a damn word.
Back in the car, Flash heaved a sigh. “So much for a fight. What a bunch of limp-dick cowards.”
Cowardice or intelligence, Jasper didn’t really care what had motivated them. “Would you rather fight, Flash? All it takes for someone to get the jump on you is a split second, and Amira could be raising that kid alone.”
“She’ll never be alone,” Flash shot back, “not while she’s an O’Kane.” He shifted on the seat with a growl. “Are you telling me you don’t miss it, even a little? Having to fight to protect our territory instead of showing up and watching them all piss themselves?”
“Of course I miss it,” Jasper muttered. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t spend so much time in the brawling ring and the cage. “But this is what we were fighting for. Enough recognition and respect to not have to spend all our time cracking heads to get the point across.”
Bren spoke from the back seat. “He’s saying you should get your ya-yas out some other way, ’cause this is the new standard operating procedure.”
“Fuckin’ hell.” Flash grumbled for a few minutes more before subsiding with a sigh and switching back to his favorite topic. “The cage is better anyway. Amira gets fucking wild watching. You two don’t know what you’re missing.”
Bren kicked the seat. “But you’re gonna tell us—at length, whether we want you to or not.”
How would Noelle react to the violence of the cage fights? Amira knew how members of the gang blew off steam and settled scores amongst themselves. Noelle, on the other hand, was used to pacifism. Civility.
And look where it got her, a voice growled deep inside him. Drugged and helpless, waiting to die.
Flash was still running his mouth. “Since when do you not like the dirty details? Or am I supposed to shut up ’cause the bleeding heart over here’s got his panties in a twist? Honestly, Jas, why are you in such a fucking foul mood?”
“Because I have to deal with you. Isn’t that enough?”
“Nah, I’m a laugh a minute.”
Jasper didn’t fight his grin. “Your face is.”
“Least it’s not my dick. Poor Bren.”
Bren snorted. “Amira seems to like it okay.”
Flash lunged, driving his hip into Jasper’s arm as he swung at Bren between the seats.
Jasper swore and jerked the wheel to correct their course, but the left front bumper clipped an already-dented garbage can. “This is one of Dallas’s new cars. He just got it running the way he wants it.”
“Fucker.” Flash settled on his seat. “I’ll punch you when we’re back home.”
“When we get back, we’re all going to have a drink and think of a good way to break the news about the busted headlight to Dallas.”
Noelle couldn’t carry a tray worth a damn.
Not that it mattered much. Lex had poured her into a pair of leather pants that hugged her ass and a halter top that only precariously covered her tits. Jasper caught himself staring, watching for the inevitable moment when the slinky silver fabric would shift just a little too far.
“We’re stuck with her,” Dallas drawled next to him. “We might as well ink your waif now. Lex went and got attached, and now she’ll take my dick off if I kick the girl to the curb.”
Dallas wasn’t scared of Lex, not for a second, which meant something more like sentimentality—or mercy—motivated him. “She’s trying. After a day, that’s about all you can ask.”
“Yeah, she’s trying.” Dallas ignored the women gyrating on stage and watched Noelle smile at two customers as she set drinks in front of them. “And she’s a little lost lamb in a den of wolves.”
The other waitress who’d been training her, Rachel, joined Noelle in animated conversation with the customers, and Jasper finally looked down into his glass. “Maybe Lex’ll keep her.”
“Unlikely.” Dallas stirred his drink. “If it’ll bother you when the men start fighting over her, you better get straight. Because that girl wants it, and when she gets around to admitting it, the boys are gonna give it to her.”
Jasper didn’t have time for a woman, much less one with big eyes who would expect things. “What, you don’t like her?”
A shrug. “She’s got a nice ass. Pretty mouth. I like the idea of Lex teaching her how to give head. But I’m not in the market for a keeper.”
Jasper let his gaze stray back to Noelle. “Neither am I.”
As if she could feel his gaze, she glanced up and smiled, an open expression edged with a hint of shyness. An unwitting invitation.
Dallas snorted. “That one’s in the market to keep you.”
How could she be? “She doesn’t know me, and a day isn’t long enough to know what it’s like around here, either.”
“She doesn’t know shit about shit,” Dallas agreed. “But you’re her bloody fucking savior, and good for you. What I don’t need is you beating the other men bloody outside of the cage ’cause you’re a jealous motherfucker. So hit it or quit it.”
“You’re a humorless bastard. When did you get so cranky?”
“Times are tough in the slums of paradise. Politics are heating up in the city.”
Politics. Jasper hated them, thought about them as little as possible, and even that effort was reserved for the careful dance of power between the gangs that ruled the sectors. He never thought about the shit going down in the city. “Uh-huh.”
Dallas huffed out a laugh and rose, glass in hand. “You suck at pretending to give a shit, Jas. I’m going to go find someone who’ll suck at something more interesting.”
Nothing went on at the Broken Circle without Dallas’s approval, explicit or not. “If I kept her—and that’s a big if—it wouldn’t be because she has no place to go. I’d rather help her out as a friend than rope her into something she doesn’t understand.”
“I’m not fucking heartless. She can stay, and you and Lex can be responsible for her.” Dallas hit him with a stern look. “But don’t make a habit of this. I can’t take in every stray the city kicks out.”
True, and Jasper had seen him flat-out ignore people a lot more pathetic than Miss Cunningham. Whatever was driving him to tolerate Noelle probably had more to do with Lex than his compassion. “Yes, sir.”
Dallas strode away, stopping to say something to Rachel and Noelle. Noelle looked at the stage and transferred her tray to Rachel’s more competent hands.
Then she turned and wove a path through the tables, heading directly for Jasper.
He pulled out a chair and nodded to it. “Taking a break?”
She slipped into the seat, and for a moment he thought the halter was going to lose its grip on her breasts. “Dallas told me I should watch the show with you.”
“I’m sure he did.”
Her cheeks colored. “You don’t want me to?”
“He’s testing you,” Jasper explained. Testing them both was more like it, but she didn’t need to know that. “He wants to see if watching makes you run and hide.”
“It might make me squirm and blush,” she admitted, eyeing the stage. “But if I was prone to running and hiding from sex, I wouldn’t be here.”
“If all sexual encounters were equally shocking, you’d be set,” he murmured. “But there’s shit that goes on up there that I never saw before I joined up.”
“Really?” Her eyes widened, their blue faded to smoky gray in the dim lights. “Like what?”
“Depends on the night. This? It’s just a little dancing, some making out for show.” He stretched his arm across the back of her chair and motioned to the curtain behind the front half of the stage. “There’s a raised section back there they use for the real action. Most nights, it’s two or three of the girls getting it on.”
“Oh.” Still wide-eyed, but she didn’t look appalled. She leaned back, and her curly, unbound hair tickled across his arm. “It’s kind of hot,” she whispered, watching the current dancer swivel her hips. “That’s what I used to dream about. Being that free. Not having to hide.”
Or maybe her fantasies were simply that. “If you want to see what that freedom’s like, you’ll have the perfect chance tonight. Dallas is having a party after hours.”
She tore her gaze from the dancer and studied him. “The parties are like that?”
He’d have to lay it out for her. “Some people are paired off, but they’re not hard to spot. They have the collars, you know, or ink. Everyone else just wants to get off. You can join in or you can watch, but that’s pretty much all it is. Wall-to-wall fucking.”
Her top was so slinky he saw her nipples stiffen under the fabric. “That’s the sort of party we were trying to have when I got arrested. None of us were very good at it. People who are good at it don’t last long in Eden.”
“Yeah? Well, remember—it’s optional.”
She slid her hand onto his thigh, awkward instead of smooth. Her fingers dug in, and her expression was more earnest than sultry. “Are you going to be there?”
“I’d planned on it.” But that wasn’t what she was really asking—and it wasn’t what he wanted to say, either. “You want to go with me, Noelle?”
Shivering, she swayed toward him. “Do you think I’m a harlot?”
She could not be serious. “No. I think maybe you’re a lady who likes to fuck.”
Noelle’s lips twitched. A laugh bubbled up, and she jerked her hand from his leg to cover her mouth. “You say it so easily, like it’s not the same thing at all.”
“Because it’s not. No one here is going to think you’re a bad person.” Seeing her mouth covered was a travesty, so he pried her fingers away and rubbed his thumb over her lower lip. “I’ll show you tonight, and you’ll see.”
She wet her lower lip, her tongue flicking over the tip of his thumb. “I’ve only done it once,” she admitted in a husky whisper. “They caught us the other night before I made it to the actual fornicating.”
Practically the virgin everyone would assume she was, and the big guy was right. The other men would be fighting to get balls-deep in her by the end of the night. “Tonight, you can watch,” he said evenly, a fucking miracle when she was already licking him.
Her chest heaved with every breath, and Jasper flicked the material aside just enough to catch a hint of one pink nipple. “Yeah, with me.”
She gasped, and this time she licked his thumb on purpose. “But no sex?”
“No sex.” If he could manage it.
A tiny frown tugged at her lips. “Why not?”
“Because first I’ve got to figure out how to give it to you.”
She shivered again and looked down. Her hair spilled forward to hide her face, but not before he saw her blush. “Maybe I’ll get some ideas tonight.”
Or she’d run screaming, thinking a simple life in the communes might not be a bad idea, after all. “We’ll see, sweetheart. We’ll see.”
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