coming fall 2013
Featured Characters: Bren & Six
official blurb will be available later in the year
read the first chapter below, or send it to your kindle with one click
Rachel was dancing again.
From her vantage point behind the scuffed bar, Six had a decent view of the stage even with men standing three deep on the opposite side. A lot of them were tall fuckers too, the kind who’d usually tower head and shoulders over Six, but the floor behind the bar was high enough to put her at eye level with even the biggest brutes. O’Kane—or someone close to him—clearly understood the advantage height could give a bartender who had to face down a room of horny, drunk thugs.
Usually those drunks were crowded around the bar, jostling for booze or position or attention, but Six hadn’t poured a single shot since Rachel’s act had started, and she didn’t think it was the novelty of having a new dancer that held these men captivated.
No, it was the fact that Rachel had lost her damn mind. She was grinding to the music as she peeled off layer after layer of perfectly respectable leather to reveal the white, lacy garments beneath. Men stared slack-jawed as she rocked and swayed and ran her hands over her body, lost in a haze that fascinated and repelled Six in equal measure.
She was an object to these pea-brained cavemen, nothing more than the picture they’d hold in their heads when they stumbled back to their hovels and took their dicks in hand. The way they watched her should have made her weaker. Lesser.
It should have. But these men crowding the stage were nothing to Rachel. Flies to be swatted away if they got too close. Grubby children with their noses pressed against the dirty glass of the bakery, dreaming of something they could never have while hunger gnawed in their guts.
Rachel was oblivious, and somehow that turned the men into the weak ones. The ones who were less than.
Six saw it over and over, every time an O’Kane woman took that stage. Power in the place of helplessness, pride where she would have felt nothing but shame. There was a secret in these women that went deeper than the ink around their wrists, and sometimes she thought if she watched for long enough, she could unlock it for herself.
Of course, watching could be uncomfortable for other reasons.
Rachel slipped her fingers beneath the ruffled edge of her underwear, and Six turned her attention back to the bar. The low throb of the bass rhythm was harder to ignore, its steady beat vibrating up through the floor. In Sector Three, they’d made do with passable musicians beating on secondhand instruments, but the heart of Sector Four was a marvel of miraculous old tech.
Maddox had shown her the speakers that lined the walls, but Six still had a hard time believing that such bone-rattling sound could come from those tiny, unremarkable boxes. The O’Kanes seemed to take their luxuries for granted, but some days she felt as slack-jawed as the drooling morons hovering around the bar.
“God, this place is insane tonight.” Trix dropped a tray on the counter behind the bar and took a deep breath. “At least it’s slowing down—for now.”
For now, Six agreed silently, carefully not looking at the stage. As soon as the crowd broke free of Rachel’s spell, they’d be eager to get back to drinking—maybe even more enthusiastically now that Trix was behind the bar. The newest member of the O’Kanes was everything Six wasn’t—voluptuous, fashionable, gorgeous—and she spent every night drowning in admiring gazes and generous tips without doing anything more seductive than smiling as she poured whiskey.
Six had tried to smile, but she felt more like a stray dog showing her teeth in warning, and the men seemed to agree.
She swept up a rag and rubbed at a spill on the counter. “I should probably stick around until it clears out. If this keeps up, Dallas is going to have to start scheduling extra help on the nights Rachel dances.”
Trix shook her head as she eyed the stage. “She’s making mad money, you know that? She doesn’t play to the crowd, either. She ignores them, and they get off on it.”
A stripper cocky enough to ignore a crowd in Sector Three would have to be quick with a knife to avoid some frustrated bastard determined to fuck the bitch out of her. Of course, most of the dancers at the Broken Circle wiggled and preened for the audience. The girls who got away with being above it all had one thing in common—intricate tattoos around their wrists, with the gang’s symbol front and center. Every person who belonged to Dallas wore those cuffs, and no one in Sector Four would lay a finger on an O’Kane.
Six rubbed her thumb over her own unmarked wrist before glancing at Trix. The other woman had taken ink a few months ago, which put her beyond danger. “Are you thinking about doing it, too?”
“What, dancing like that? I’m a little more old-fashioned, I think.” Trix began to line up fresh shot glasses on the bar. “You ever hear of something called burlesque?”
It was stupid to feel defensive when Trix wasn’t the kind of person to be poking at her ignorance, but Six still tensed. “No. Sounds fancy.”
“It’s kind of like the stripping, only not about getting naked. It’s about the show, the spectacle…” She seemed to be struggling for words. “The joy.”
If you believed the O’Kane women, everything up to and including fucking each other on stage was about the joy. And maybe it was, but it wasn’t Six’s kind of spectacle. “I’d put on a show if Dallas would let me in the damn cage. Can you imagine how much I could make betting on myself? The odds would be crazy.”
Trix started at one end of the line of glasses and poured them full of whiskey, straight down the row. “If it’s what you want to do, make it happen. Fight for it.”
Easy for Trix to say, since she was official now, a member of the gang in her own right. Six was still…hell. A prisoner turned reluctant ally turned awkward guest. “I guess I could,” she hedged as she bent to pull out more shot glasses. “But it’s not that important.”
Across the room, Rachel writhed on the floor and kicked her filmy panties—her last remaining scrap of clothing—off the side of the stage. As if it broke some sort of enchantment, the far more familiar hoots and shouts echoed through the room.
Even safe behind the bar, Six shivered. This was the part that twisted her guts until nausea made the room swim. Rachel was naked, her pale skin bare and vulnerable under the colored lights. Her tattoos did little to harden her soft curves, and every inch of her was on helpless display as she taunted the men by tracing her fingertips up the insides of her thighs.
The shouts got louder. Tension and anticipation built to the point that the air grew heavy, and Six found herself struggling to take even breaths, to keep herself from dragging air into her lungs like each breath could be her last. She busied herself with a second line of shot glasses, placing each glass precisely, its rim an equal distance from those on either side.
On the stage, Rachel moaned in pleasure.
A glass slipped through Six’s fingers, and she lunged to catch it before it hit the floor. Ducking down behind the counter spared her the sight of a gleeful Rachel with her fingers in her pussy, or rubbing her clit with so much enthusiasm you’d think getting off for three dozen strange lechers was the best fun she’d ever had.
Getting off. Actually getting off—no faking, no games. Six had done lots of things on stages. She’d been the entertainment, both willingly and unwillingly, clothed and naked. She’d fucked and stripped and bit her lower lip through floggings that left her body scarred. But she’d never, ever given those bastards the satisfaction of one unguarded moment, of one glimpse at her.
Rachel would work herself to screaming release right there in the middle of the Broken Circle. She wouldn’t think twice about sprawling, naked and open, her heart and soul as recklessly displayed as her body. Every time she did it, she pushed a little farther, came a little harder…
And Six had to choke back horror as the watching men lapped it up, taking something that should have been for Rachel alone.
Trix bent and pulled the shot glass from her shaking hand. “I can handle things here. You can go if you want.”
Six hadn’t even realized she was still crouched behind the bar, and embarrassment joined the ugly jumble of revulsion and fear turning her inside out. “I can stay,” she whispered, knowing it was a lie Trix could hear, but she couldn’t help it. Pride wouldn’t let her escape easy.
“No, you can’t. And that’s okay.” Trix tilted her head toward the back exit. “Go on. I’ve got this.”
Grateful, Six squeezed the other woman’s hand and abandoned any pretense of dignity. The thick wooden door was marked STAFF ONLY, and she didn’t look at the stage as she shoved through it, spilling out into a dark hallway. Doors to either side opened into extra rooms, closets used for storage as well as the small office where Rachel kept records of beer and booze sales.
A staircase to her right led up to the second floor and the employee lounge, but Six skipped it and plowed straight for the exit, needing the fresh night air more than the pitying looks of whatever dancers might be waiting their turns on the stage.
She burst through the back door into the comforting shadows of the parking area. The lot was half empty tonight, in spite of the crowd inside, with only two rusting cars and a spattering of motorcycles clustered close to the entrance.
She studied the bikes out of habit, looking for the familiar marks that would have indicated friend or foe in Sector Three, but nothing stood out. Nothing would. Most of the enemies of her old life were dead, and even the survivors wouldn’t venture into the lion’s den. Now that Dallas O’Kane ruled sectors Four and Three, she was as safe within the walls of this compound as it was possible to be in this life.
That was the story, anyway. Her racing pulse and queasy stomach still weren’t buying it. She sucked in a few deep breaths, forcing herself to calm through stubbornness alone. The fear and panic were still there—they were always there—but it had been a long time since she’d let herself give in to them. The O’Kanes were making her weak already, as soft as some city twit who had time to whine about feelings.
In Three, fear was everywhere. You lived with it or you died from it, end of options—and that was if you considered dying a viable option. Six never had.
As soon as her heartbeat steadied, she reoriented herself. Two large buildings loomed out of the darkness; to the east stood the warehouse where the O’Kanes held their weekly cage fights, and to the south was the garage where Dallas kept his collection of lovingly restored cars. The living quarters were past the garage, but that wasn’t why she headed in that direction. Instead, she slipped through the gate and went in the side door.
The knot of tension between her shoulders unraveled as soon as she saw the familiar figure bent under the hood of his car. “How’s the work going?”
“Not bad.” Metal clanged against metal as Bren straightened. “Finally got the carburetor rebuilt.”
The words meant little to her. She’d never seen a working car up close before Bren had shoved her into one. “How long before you can drive it?”
“A while. It runs, but not well, not yet.” His grease-smeared forearms flexed as he wiped his hands on a rag. “How was your shift?”
“Busy.” Habit drove her fingers into her pocket to check the tightly rolled wad of bills, tips she’d managed to score from the perverse bastards who got off on being scowled at. “Rachel did her thing again.”
If she tried to talk about the panic that had sent her running, he’d listen. He’d watch her with those eyes that saw everything and probably understand parts of her she couldn’t. It was too much exposure for one night, so she side-stepped the moment by hoisting herself onto the workbench. “Is it hard to learn how to drive?”
He tossed aside the rag and pulled two beers from a bucket next to the bench. “Depends on how good you are at turning off your brain and letting your body do the work.”
From anyone else, the words would have sounded like a lewd, clumsy come-on. From Bren, it was a straightforward answer, one made all the more ironic by how her body reacted to him any time she was foolish enough to turn off her brain. She was painfully aware of his graceful movements, of the appealing, subtle shift of muscle under skin as he held out a bottle.
“You should know,” she retorted, taking care not to let her fingers brush his as she accepted the beer. Maybe her tart tone would cover her confusion. “If I could stop thinking, maybe I’d actually beat you in a fight one of these days.”
A rare smile curved his lips. “I’ve had years of training when it comes to fighting, and decades of practice on the not thinking.”
Those smiles were dangerous, and not because they made her skin tingle. They were dangerous because she couldn’t not smile in return, her lips tilting up to ruin her scowl. “That just makes you old. I will put you on your ass next time.”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
“Sure, grandpa. Tell me that after I beat you.”
That made him laugh as he leaned against the bench beside her. “Cruz and Trix have their ink, but they’ve still got to drink in, make it official.”
Rachel had explained the process in vague terms, something about making a new member do shots of all the O’Kane liquors before welcoming them into the gang. It had taken Six a month to realize Rachel hadn’t been keeping gang secrets—that really was all that happened. No beatdowns for the men, no spreading your legs for the women. Just…booze and celebration.
A few dozen city blocks separated the O’Kane compound from Sector Three, but she might as well be on the moon. “It’s an O’Kane thing, I guess,” she said carefully, unable to keep her gaze from his wrists. Dark ink swirled around his muscled forearms, stopping just above his broad hands. The O’Kane wrist cuffs, proof that he belonged.
“An O’Kane thing,” he echoed in agreement. “Do you want to go?”
She touched her own wrist, rubbing her thumb over skin that felt naked. “Am I allowed?”
Bren shrugged. “You’ll go with me, like Jasper and Noelle’s party.”
Maybe it was that simple. Dallas O’Kane was the most powerful man in the Sector—one of the most powerful men in their world—and Bren was part of his inner circle. Rules didn’t seem to apply to him, or to her when she was with him.
Which didn’t answer his question—did she want to go? “How much like Jas and Noelle’s party is it going to be?” she asked, and her cheeks heating at the memory of how quickly that celebration had turned into a shameless fuckfest.
“More like fight night,” he hastily explained. “People might be getting it on in the corners or grinding on the dance floor, but it’s not—I mean, it’s different.”
Six covered her embarrassment by nudging his leg with her boot. “So no wall-to-wall fucking.”
“No, just people drinking and having a good time.”
“Okay. It sounds fun.” She nudged him again, more for the excuse of contact than anything else. He’d encouraged her to ask for physical affection when she wanted it, but she liked sneaking in teasing touches. Liked knowing she could, and that he wouldn’t hurt her for taking liberties. “Thanks for including me.”
“You’re not a guest.” He watched her intently. “This is your home.”
Home. Longing hollowed out her chest, a craving for a concept she could barely fathom, because it always started with safety. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a home before.”
Bren nodded. “A lot of people here haven’t. You’re not alone.”
She knew what he meant—that he wasn’t alone in being overwhelmed—but the words resonated more deeply. Maybe because her panic from earlier had faded under the quiet warmth of his undemanding presence.
Or maybe because she really was getting soft.
Some part of her trusted Bren, for better or worse, and that made his words true on every level. Closing her eyes, she leaned in until her shoulder touched his. She wouldn’t be able to ignore her body’s shiver of reaction forever, but tonight she focused on the satisfaction of friendship. “No. I’m not alone.”
“So, how ’bout it?” He hesitated. “I can’t skip the party, but you could, if you wanted.”
She considered it for a moment, balanced the loneliness of being the only person on the compound not celebrating against the awkwardness of being the only outsider at the party.
Except no one treated her like an outsider, not with Bren around. “I’ll come. I want to.”
“Good. Trix’ll want you to be there.”
Something he’d been careful not to mention until after she agreed, just as he’d kept any hint of encouragement from his own voice. Smiling, she clinked her beer against his. “Then it’s a deal. As long as I can scowl at Ace if he tries to make me dance.”
Bren downed half his beer in several long swallows. “Scowl at Ace for whatever you want. He probably deserves it.”
“Yeah, but he probably likes it, too.” At least he’d stopped tossing her those flirtatious smiles, the ones that were all charm and dirty promise—and all the more alarming because she didn’t think he did it on purpose. “But he’s not so bad anymore. Did you tell him to stop hitting on me?”
“Might as well tell the sun not to shine, sweetness.”
She laughed. The sound was so foreign it still startled her sometimes, another way her body turned traitor around Bren. The warmth and the tingles and the smiling and now laughter, and even if it was low and a little rusty, it was real. “Are you almost done working?”
“Yeah.” He pulled down the metal rod propping up the hood and let it slam shut. “Want me to walk you to your place?”
“Sure.” She slid off the workbench and tried not to let her gaze linger on his shoulders. This was always the most dangerous time, when she was loose and relaxed enough to remember a time when sex had been more good than bad, when she’d appreciated a man with a hard body and beautiful shoulders.
White looked good on him, especially with all the engine grease. His T-shirt clung, the sleeves stretching wide over flexing biceps. Aside from his O’Kane cuffs, his arms were free of ink, but a black swirl curled up his neck from beneath the white fabric, hinting at the tattoo that covered his entire back.
She loved watching him fight in the cage, watching all those muscles move together so perfectly she thought the prissy bastards in Eden must be at least partly right. Only a higher power could have created something as graceful and beautiful and deadly as Brendan Donnelly.
He turned and caught her staring—he must have—but he didn’t call her on it. Instead, he finished off his beer and held out his hand. “Come on.”
Exhaling, she slipped her fingers into his. His hands still bore smudges, the kind that would rub off on her skin as tangible proof of contact. She knew she’d stare at it later, at the dark grease on the back of her hand that marked the spot he’d rubbed his thumb over, and she’d remember the way it felt. This jolt, the way his touch shivered along her nerves as if her instincts couldn’t decide if he was blissful safety or delicious danger.
Her gut already knew. Her body was safe with Bren, but her mind, her heart, her soul… Hell, Wilson Trent had shattered her into a thousand razor-edged pieces, and he hadn’t felt this dangerous. Bren could grind those shards into dust.
If she had half a brain left, she’d run.
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