Dauntless / Sons of Templar

Dauntless – Chapter One

Hello my lovelies,

The countdown is on, Dauntless is releasing in ONE WEEK. I can’t believe it. Lucky’s story has been a long time coming and I can’t wait to finally share it with you all. For those of you who like a little sneak peak, I’ve posted the first chapter below. Not long until you get the rest 😉

Anne

xxx

7-days

 

 

God, grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

 

Prologue

 

Everyone measures time differently; the most common, of course, is hours, minutes, years, days. People count the days until weekend, until their next holiday, the moment they can sink onto a sofa after a long day. That’s what life is, a big yawning expanse of time, and we find different ways to measure it along the way. Pass it. Find ways to distract ourselves from the grim reality of mortality.

I say we. I mean they. It’s tempting to include myself in the proverbial we, to give myself at least the illusion of belonging. But I don’t have time for illusions. For euphemisms.

They measured time like that. I didn’t. Ever since I was old enough to grasp the concept, I understood I was different. My mind never thought in those terms, searching for a yardstick to measure my existence. I was too busy trying to survive. I lived in the present, the moment. I had to. The luxury of daydreams or plans for the future meant getting lost in my own head. Being more vulnerable than I already was.

That’s my long-winded way of saying I had a less-than-stellar childhood, where I had to be on the ball if I wanted to stay alive. If that’s what it was back then.

In this yawning tunnel of the present I’ve found myself in for most of my life, there was a time when I did venture tentatively into the future. Made plans. Dreams.

Then it was all shot to shit.

I couldn’t tell you, not even an estimate, on the amount of time I’d been in the damp concrete matchbox with a prison-style bed and steel bucket serving as the only décor. The rusty handcuff on my wrist served as my only accessory. I mean only; nothing else covered my body. The rough cotton sheet scratched my bruised skin when I huddled under it for warmth.

Hours. Days. Weeks. Months, even. It was possible. I couldn’t say. I also couldn’t say how long it had been since I’d eaten, showered.

I was measuring time differently now.

The next hit.

There was no such thing as the passing of the sand in the hourglass. The rising or setting of the sun. Only the yawning chasm of loneliness and despair between now and my next fix.

It had been a while, I knew. Too long. A thin layer of sweat covered my body, despite the chill in the air. My heart thumped in my chest, the beats seeming to hasten with every passing second. I had been deprived of my medicine, my escape, once before, and I knew it wouldn’t be too long until I was hunched over that bucket, sick from not getting what I needed.

Dying. Convinced I was, anyway.

I sat on my hands, the only way to stop from picking at my skin. My eyes were glued on the steel door in the corner of the room. Not so I could devise an escape plan, but willing it to open, for my next fix to be on the other side. That was the only escape I needed.

A murky memory surfaced as I distractedly hummed a long-forgotten lullaby.

“You’re stronger than this,” he told me, his voice serious and soft.

“Than what?” I half hissed, aware that my voice was far from soft.

He stepped forward, cupping my chin in his hand, choosing to ignore the way my body stiffened at the contact. “Than letting some demon have control over your body, like your skin is merely a vehicle, an empty vessel,” he said, eyes blazing.

I blinked, his words jabbing me like tiny spears. Anger bubbled up from the cauldron it had been simmering in. Not because he was wrong—because he was right. That was the problem. For someone who seemed so obtuse, he knew far too much. Saw far too much.

“You have no fucking clue what you’re talking about,” I snapped.

With a tilt of his head and a hardening of those hazel eyes, he saw. Saw it all. “I know what it’s like to have the monkey on your back, to feel the need not to fill the void in your soul but disguise it.” His hand tightened on my chin. “I may not know everything, as much as I’d like to think I do. But I at least know that. I also know what beauty is. True beauty. Mostly ’cause I’m staring straight at it. I know there’s nothing I can ultimately do to make sure that beauty don’t get tainted with ugly. That’s up to you. What I can do is remind you that you’re more. More than you think you are. A fuck of a lot more,” he declared.

I blinked at him. His words struck a chord deep within me. Maybe it was because no matter how hard I tried to deny it, I felt something for him. Maybe it was because it was unnerving to see him so serious, not a glint of joking in his hazel eyes. Whatever it was, in that second, that moment, I believed him.

The screeching of the metal door on rusty hinges jerked me out of my daydream. Lucky too, I thought for a second. Maybe unluckily.

Lucky.

I wished I could stay in that intangible place in my mind, get lost in that memory. Because now, after hurtling out of it, my entire body showed what a failure I was. How weak I had been.

“Junkie ready for her medicine?” a rough voice asked.

I scrambled as close as I could to the figure in the door, not caring about my nudity. I had in the beginning.

Before.

Before I gave in, I had cared about a lot of things. What they were going to do with my body. What my future held. The fate of my friends. My only family. Him.

That was then. Now I didn’t care about the horrors my vacant body endured while my mind numbed me from the pain of the present, took away the filth that lived under my skin. Didn’t care about the pain, which there was a lot of. It was creeping back now as the numbness receded. The steel of the cuffs had scraped a lot of the skin on my wrists away. It wasn’t pretty.

Though I guessed from the way I smelled, and with the matting of blood, dirt, and grease, that I wasn’t going to be winning any beauty contests.

A hand reached down to squeeze my breast roughly. I flinched at the pain, intensified by the fact my body was in the first stages of withdrawal. I was unable to move far past my position on the floor, and my flinch caused my head to collide with the edge of my bed.

There was a cruel laugh from above me.

“Don’t pretend you don’t love it, whore. I know better than anyone how much you enjoy me, how much you want it,” the voice sneered.

I glanced up, anger bubbling from deep inside me. Somehow, I managed to muster a glare filled with contempt and venom, despite my body and soul crying out for what he held in his brutish hand.

“Fuck you,” I hissed in a barely audible croak. My voice was raw from screaming, although I thought I had endured it silently—the torture, the abuse of my body. Obviously not.

He grinned and I felt sick to my stomach at the sight of it. Of him. His muscled body dwarfed my small form curled on the floor. Even if I had been standing, he would have towered over me. He was built, though not all muscle; his stomach protruded over the belt of his slacks. His hair was combed over and thick with grease. His beady dull blue eyes held me captive. Not a hint of humanity lingered beyond them as they roved over my battered and filthy body.

“I’ll do that soon. You’ll be begging for it,” he mused, then held his meaty arm out in front of me.

My eyes bulged at the object. Despite wanting to be as far away from the sick fuck as possible, my body betrayed me, lurching forward to snatch the precious package from his hands.

I wasn’t quick enough, and he yanked it out of my grasp. It wasn’t hard; my entire body was shaking and I barely had the energy to hold my weight. I knew it was because of malnourishment, of the abuse I had endured, but none of that mattered.

“Not so fast,” he cooed, making a clicking noise with his mouth. “You get this”—he swung the package—“only when you agree.”

I stared at his hand. “Agree to what?”

He nodded. “Agree to anything we say. We own you now. As long as you agree, then we’ll take care of you. We’ll give you your medicine, as much as you want, for as long as you perform for us,” he explained.

I didn’t watch his facial expressions. I couldn’t. My gaze was fixed on the one thing that would help, that would make the shame, the filth, everything go away.

“We’ll take the handcuffs off,” he continued. “Maybe even let you shower, if you’re a good girl. As long as you keep your customers satisfied, keep Carlos satisfied.” He grasped my chin roughly and yanked my shaking body off the ground. Beady eyes met mine. “Keep me satisfied,” he drawled, his putrid breath making me gag.

My violated body knew the meaning of those words. They’d kept me there for however long, strung out and abusing me when the need came to them, which was often. I knew there was an endgame.

This was it.

“I agree,” I said without hesitation, holding out my shaking hand.

He smiled, revealing yellowing teeth. “That wasn’t hard, was it? Why did you give us so much resistance before?” He clucked his teeth once more.

Had I resisted? All I remembered was giving in. Finally taking the escape they offered after they’d beaten me. Starved me. Until I surrendered. How long ago was that? It felt like forever. Like nothing had existed before this. Like I’d always been there.

Something dangled in front of my face.

I snatched the package and frantically tore open the bag. My entire body was convulsing, and it took me a frustratingly long time to get it where it needed to be. To get out of this room. To escape the filth covering every inch of me. The filth that was me.

I finally got it—the escape, the relief. Everything melted away once more and my mind was freed from the shackles of my body. Gloriously, I barely registered the brutal way my body was pushed onto the rickety bed. The stinking weight that settled on top of me, the intrusion that pushed into me, dirtying my insides once more.

I wasn’t there. I was somewhere else. Beyond caring. Beyond anything.

I didn’t even jump at the dull bang that seemed to echo in my head. At the sudden emptiness above me as the body was yanked away.

My vacant eyes danced to the source of the noise, the reason for the various male curses and fury that even I could feel.

Then I watched, with a vague sort of detachment, as a familiar man in a leather vest savagely beat the creature who had just moments before been raping me. The rational part somewhere deep inside me both cheered and reared away from this.

He’s killing him.

That was good. No, that was great. But he, the man who smiled at almost anything and always had a joke on his lips, was killing him. Because of me. That was a mark on his soul I would be responsible for.

I wanted to say something. To tell him to stop. But I couldn’t. I was paralyzed.

I felt myself being covered with something, rough leather that smelled of tobacco and oil. The voices above me moved in slow motion, muffled as if my ears were stuffed with cotton wool I couldn’t get out.

The room swayed.

Or maybe it was me who swayed because I was no longer on the bed. I was floating like a cloud, watching the man with the hazel eyes kick something on the floor. Shapes moved around him, trying to pull him away, I guessed.

My cloud moved. I shifted my gaze. I wasn’t floating. I was in someone’s arms. Strong arms. Scarred arms. The rippled patches on them seemed like they were moving. I held my finger to them and trailed it lightly along the moving scars, hypnotized. Everything else in the room was forgotten.

But not the man with the hazel eyes. He still existed. Somewhere.

 

 

Chapter One

“I am the architect of my own destruction.”

-Prince of Persia

Ten months earlier

 

It started with a pill. Harmless, really. Everyone was doing it. ‘A party favor’ was what one of the girls called it. Never one to turn down anything to do with a party, I took it. It was surprising I hadn’t indulged sooner. Maybe it was because before, I had deluded myself into thinking there was a way I could escape. Get clean. Transcend the life I was born to. At that moment, that time when that little pill was offered, I had been educated on how fucking wrong I was.

So I took it.

And it was awesome. Everything was better, more colorful, more complex. It was as if that little pill took the film off my eyes which had been there since birth and I could see the world. Really see it, in all its beautiful color.

I had been searching for an escape, but I’d been doing it in the wrong places. Trying to trick myself into thinking I could escape by becoming better, by becoming a doctor, learning how to clean the dirt off my soul.

I was wrong. Escape didn’t come with college education and a medical certificate.

Escape came in the form of that little pill. I forgot. I forgot all of it. That I sold my body for a living. That filth was flowing through my blood. That the woman I considered a mother was fading before my eyes.

It was all gone. So easy.

I was easy. Weak. Took the simple way out. When the devil held out his hand and invited me into hell with that little pill, I took it without hesitation. And I descended into the fiery depths before I knew better.

I read somewhere that it apparently takes a few hundred injections and a year to make an addict. So written by an addict. What a wonderful romantic thought to have.

So then, by those standards, I was not an addict. The thought comforted me.

Tightening the elastic at my elbow and positioning the needle right at the vein that protruded after I did so, I paused. Not for long. Too long would be to bathe in the bitter sticky bath of shame that submerged me in these moments. I was always tainted by this feeling, knowing that the only person who gave a shit about me didn’t see the filth. But in those short moments between expectation and exhilaration, the need and the fix, that was when my body crawled with shame.

What would Faith say if she saw me now?

What would Lily say?

What would that little girl who was curled up in a lumpy bed, broken and violated, say? The little girl who had had her innocence wrenched from her tiny body before she had time to realize it was something to be stolen?

They’d all rear away from this stranger in disgust. I’d do the same if such a thing were possible. But I couldn’t run from myself. Couldn’t escape nightmares when they existed when I was awake. I could only choose the things to make it bearable to stumble through the life I’d been given.

I chose the easiest escape. What was another mark on an already stained soul?

 

******

Four months later

 

I was flying high. Not exactly high; that’s what the pills did. Shot me into space until I was floating and plucking stars from the air. Heroin was different. Gave me a happiness that had been unfamiliar until that first hit. It wasn’t just happiness, but contentment. Life, for the first time since forever, was okay. I was okay. It wasn’t gray anymore; it was color, it was fresh. My job wasn’t dirty, or shameful. It was fine. It was good.

And the grief melted away. It still existed, but it wasn’t draining me. It was part of me. It was okay.

Since the moment we buried Lily’s mom—my mom—I had relied on the prospect of my next hit to get me through. Through the pain that not only sliced my soul, but the utter devastation that lay beyond my best friend’s beautiful eyes. I couldn’t surrender to that pain; I’d learned that early in life. I also had to be strong, put on that mask I’d become so skilled at hiding behind. I had to do it for my friend. My sister. The only person in the world who didn’t see the filth.

I hid behind the drugs while her grief hid the drugs from her. I used them as a way to feel nothing in order to take care of my best friend as well as I could. Which wasn’t exactly well. And I took it to escape my own demons.

When it got down to it, I just took them to make it easier.

So, as I strutted my barely clad ass onto the dimly lit stage, I was high. Soaring.

That meant the world was fuzzy around the edges, and everything seemed like it was underwater. I was wading through at exceptional speed. I could feel the music inside me, as if the beat originated within me. I let my vacant mind move my vacant body to the music, aimlessly looking over the crowd that was focused on me. I didn’t see them. I never did. I learned quickly not to look at the mostly disgusting men leering at my naked body.

Drugs helped.

But I glanced at Lily’s portion of the bar, just to make sure my girl was okay. Because even though I may be flying high, forgetting all the bad that took up ninety percent of my world, I wouldn’t forget the good. The ten percent. My girl. And if anyone fucked with her, they were dead.

I was trying to help the best way I knew how. The only way I knew how. Dragging her around to parties where she knew no one and could embrace the anonymity. Be someone other than herself. Hide from the pain. Escape with the help of a cocktail or five.

I was a fucking terrible friend.

Bringing my socially anxious best friend to the strip club where I worked, which was full of disgusting assholes who would eat her alive.

Yeah, a bad friend. The worst.

Just add another stroke to the lines staining my soul.

My step stuttered slightly when my gaze landed on her. And on the hawt-as-balls biker who had his hand firmly around her neck. Then moved quickly to two more bikers, their eyes on me. I didn’t have time to focus on them more because I was flying. Flying meant thought was hard to capture, like that fucking snitch in those Harry Potter movies. I gave up on the golden fucker and did the thing, the only thing I was good for.

I embraced the dirt.

 

******

 

“Fuck, babe, I’ve seen a lot of strippers in my time. A lot,” a deep voice exclaimed from beside me. “But you transcended mere stripperdom and became a celestial being. An angel sent down from heaven, designed by God to pursue a career in exotic dancing.”

I rolled my eyes, sucking down the last of my drink and pushing off the bar where I had been leaning. This was the part I hated. I could shake my ass, show my tits, and objectify myself on stage without blinking an eye. Even before the drugs, I was fine with that. Fine with the lap dances where I had to get up close and personal with a wide variety of perverts with body odor issues or drunken frat boys, provided I had some form of mood-altering substance flowing through my bloodstream. Before, I’d had wine. Now I had better.

But this part blew.

Carlos insisted that, after our performances, we ‘mingle’ with the customers. We weren’t at some fucking corporate mixer. There was no need to mingle. Unless, of course, you were soliciting; then the mingling was necessary. I would rather chew off my own arm than do that, as Carlos well knew. It didn’t stop him from aggressively insisting I ‘get to know’ my customers, as if communing with the dregs of society, AKA patrons of a strip club, would convince me to let them pay to fuck me.

I had one small shred of self-respect, of dignity, left. I clutched it in a death grip and I wasn’t ready to let it go, even though I’d let poison into my veins. A girl’s got to have her hard limits.

Prostitution was a hard limit. Pretty much my only one.

“I can die happy, then, knowing that I’ve pleased you,” I retorted sarcastically.

I may have to mingle, but I didn’t have to be polite. I was also cranky because my palms itched and a cloud descended over my mind as I came down. I needed another fix.

“I’ll have to return the favor, firefly,” the voice said, a hint of promise tingling his playful tone.

I finally jerked my head from the perusal of my glass to face what was a no doubt middle-aged man with a beer gut and receding hairline. His voice may have been manly, but I knew I wouldn’t be so lucky to meet the man I’d imagine having such a deep rumbling voice. Such men didn’t frequent establishments like this.

“What? You gonna get up on stage and provide me with a strip show?” I asked seriously as I turned.

When my eyes drank in the owner of that voice, I found my sarcastic question being rendered to a hopeful plead. The man in front of me was most definitely not middle-aged, and from what I could see from the tight black tee clinging to his flat stomach, there was no beer gut in sight. I’d wager a six-pack lay under there. Ditto with the hair prediction, though he didn’t have any hair at all; his head was shaved to the scalp, and man, did he work the ever-loving shit out of a bald head.

There was another bulky guy standing next to him, but my eyes were like steel drawn to a magnet.

I moved my gaze down to his muscled arms, which were covered in ink, impossible to decipher in the dingy light. His leather vest had my slow mind realizing he most likely belonged to the biker gang Lily seemed to be tangled up in. I’d seen him earlier, with Lily and the man who’d dragged her out of here. Asher, the man who’d taken her virginity three years ago, who she’d pushed away when she found out her mom was dying of cancer. Selfless as always, she sacrificed her happiness and one seriously hot biker for her mom. The thought punctured through my weary mind.

I was happy that it seemed he’d come back to give her the happiness she deserved. I wasn’t the best person to yank her out of this pit of grief we were both treading water in. Fuck, I was yanking her further down. It made me sick, that thought, but I didn’t know how else to help. I didn’t know how to bring the light back in because my life had been devoid of light the day I was born.

I shook away the self-deprecating thoughts to focus on the hot guy in front of me. Well, two. The other big one with ribbons of scars on his arms was nothing to sneeze at either. But it was the bald one who captured my attention, which was a feat in itself as my mind was becoming jerky and unhinged as it sobered.

“You ask me nice, I’ll don a feather boa and do my best,” he deadpanned. “Though, I don’t think I’ll be getting the same reaction as the little firefly here,” he teased lightly.

I met his eyes and, even through my residual haze of blurriness, arousal settled in my stomach. Yeah, this guy was hot. His features were sharp and pronounced, masculine. He was Hispanic, I guessed, from his latte-colored skin. His hazel eyes were soft around the edges and focused on me. They were also familiar.

“I know you,” I said, searching the recesses of my mind.

He put his hand on his impressive chest. “Well, consider me touched. The little firefly remembers our brief but passion-filled meeting three years ago.” Again his tone was teasing, but something lay underneath it. A heat. An intensity. Or maybe that was just me. It was easy to imagine things when I was coming down. Hard to pick apart what was real and what my high mind had plucked from unreality.

“Though we weren’t properly introduced, apart from you threatening to throw a Molotov cocktail at me,” he continued, winking. “I do like a girl with spirit. Lucky.” He held out his hand.

I stared down at it, unmoving. I did remember that particular conversation. It had not been an idle threat either. Three years back, I’d had to pick Lily—Lily, of all people—up from the biker compound of the notorious Sons of Templar MC. This guy had been there, and had the gall to flirt with me while a red-eyed Lily had been standing in her clothes from the night before, holding her shoes, and obvious sorrow and shame, in her hands. On that day, she looked more like me than herself, and I hated that. I despised everything that turned her into that. Including this guy.

The same went for Asher, the man who’d painted that look on her face, until I realized how much he cared about her.

“Yeah, well, that promise still holds true if any of you decide to fuck with Lily,” I told him icily, suddenly feeling stone-cold sober.

His easy grin instantly dissipated. His hand left the shake position and he crossed both arms across his chest. “That ain’t gonna happen. You’ve got my word on that. That girl won’t be seeing more hurt. I’ll personally mix that particular cocktail if my brother fucks it up again,” he promised seriously.

I regarded him for a long moment. For whatever reason, I believed the hot biker with the questionable sense of humor. “Good,” I said finally, nodding. “I’ve got work to do, and you two probably have a couple of steroid shots to take.” I gave their muscles a pointed look. I was saying this mainly to be a bitch, as their muscles didn’t look like overinflated balloons like the bouncers here. No, they were much more enticing. Hence the reason for me needing to get out of Dodge. I might try and lick one, and that would be embarrassing.

“Oh I like her. She’s got fire.” He nudged the staunch and emotionless man beside him. He didn’t take his eyes off me. “Dibs,” he said suddenly.

Oh no, he didn’t.

I put a hand on my barely clad hip. “Did you just say ‘dibs’ after talking about me like I wasn’t here?” I asked slowly.

He nodded, unperturbed. “You see, our club has a history of beautiful, spunky women blowing through. I’ve missed out.” He held up four fingers. “Four times. I’m not missin’ out this time. I’ve got a feelin’ all those times were meant to be so I could meet you.” His gaze flickered to his emotionless friend. “I don’t want this fucker snapping you up, so dibs,” he said, his eyes latching back onto mine.

I narrowed my gaze at him. “You can’t ‘dibs’ a human being,” I snapped.

He grinned at me. “Think I just did, darlin’.”

Glancing to the mute giant who had his scarred arms crossed and his unnerving blue eyes on me, I swallowed the unease that came with that stare. “I get this now.” I gestured between the two of him. “You’re obviously his caretaker or something. I’d suggest you get him back to his padded room before that crazy takes him somewhere it shouldn’t.”

I went to turn on my heel, deciding to indulge in one last hit to get me through the rest of the night and forget the slight pang at the bottom of my stomach I got from this guy. I didn’t need that. Not right now.

Not ever.

He grasped my elbow, not tight enough to be painful but enough to stop me and pull me slightly closer to his body. “Wow, not so fast, firefly,” he murmured. “We’ve barely gotten to know each other. I think it’s only proper we exchange names after exchanging threats.” He raised an attractive brow. “Phone numbers would also be a good start.”

I raised my own brow back at him. “Cocky, aren’t we?”

He shook his head. “Nah, I’m Lucky, but we’ll get to that part,” he said, grinning.

“That’s one thing you won’t be getting tonight, Lucky,” I clarified, irritated at his demeanor. It confused the shit out of me. He was a biker, hot as balls, and looked scary as hell. That was until he grinned like a maniac and joked like a goof. I was also irritated at the fact I found this extremely attractive. I didn’t do jokers. Bikers, yes. Scary, yes. Funny? No. I also got the inkling that this was a good guy. I stayed away from those at all costs.

“I already have been. Got to talk to the most beautiful lady in the room, and got to see the firefly has bite, as well as a great ass,” he countered.

I was robbed of my sharp retort by a huge presence. “No touching,” Tyson barked at Lucky.

Any other moment I would be loath to have this steroid-ridden oaf in my presence, but right then he was a godsend. It didn’t matter that he never came and enforced that particular rule of the club. He usually encouraged all sorts of touching as long as money was exchanged. Money he got a cut out of.

Lucky glanced his way, his grin gone entirely and the scary look that his appearance promised in its place. He didn’t let go of my arm, commencing in a stare-off with Tyson.

I rolled my eyes, yanking my elbow out of Lucky’s grasp. “No problem here, dude,” I addressed Tyson. “I was just leaving.”

I didn’t look back after I turned on my heel and walked into the crowd. As much as I wanted to.

That was it. Our first proper meeting after three years when I’d stormed into his clubhouse to retrieve my best friend who had incidentally lost her V-card to his brother. It wasn’t love at first sight then, and it sure as shit wasn’t love at first sight now. But I found as I was walking away, my mind already on what the syringe in my handbag held, that I couldn’t completely forgot the hazel eyes and the easy smile.

 

******

 

I expected he would lose interest. He seemed like he either needed Ritalin or was taking too much. Like an overexcited puppy that wouldn’t stop wagging its fucking tail.

Except puppies were cute.

Lucky—yes, that’s really his name, or the only one he’d give me—was not cute. Not in any sense of the word. He may have been slightly goofy with the sense of humor of a seven-year-old, but he was hot. Hot in a way that had him invading my drug-addled dreams. Filtered through my foggy waking mind. His muscled caramel skin exposed to me and his sinewy arms wrapped around me. It was not good. Not because I found him hot, but because I actually found him something else. He didn’t just arouse me on a carnal level; there was something else, a connection that seemed too fantastical and real all at the same time.

It was dangerous. I didn’t need real connections. I needed that like I needed a root canal.

The fact he’d been at the club at least three times a week for three weeks and counting was pissing me off.

Pissing me off in the way I’d come to look forward to our banter when I ‘mingled.’ The way I was disappointed when he didn’t turn up. Despite whatever high I was riding that night, only he made me feel different. Better. But when he didn’t turn up, when I was convinced he’d finally realized what I was, it was worse. Much worse than any low a narcotic offered.

His presence was something my addict mind craved. So fucked-up.

“You changed your mind about me taking you away from all this and giving us a nice quiet life in the country?” his deep voice asked, silky and smooth across the rough ridges of my mind.

I took a breath and turned from the bar, hoping to hide the way my eyes were just a little too bright. I was an expert at hiding the effects of the junk. It was the effects of him that I was trying to conceal. I didn’t want to show him that his presence did something to me. That would be bad for both of us.

“Hell frozen over yet?” I asked, trying not to drink him in too obviously.

As always, he was wearing his cut and faded blue jeans. A white Henley showed off the ridges of muscle underneath the fabric. I itched to see it freed from its polyester cage and run my hands, or mouth, along it.

“I’m workin’ on it. Got a hundred air conditioners going full blast as we speak. Man downstairs will not be happy with the electric bill, but you’re worth battlin’ the Devil for,” he replied, jerking me out of my daydream.

I gave him a look. “Those lines work, ever?” They were totally working.

He grinned. “Sixty percent of the time, they work every time.”

“You know those are about eighty percent urine, right?” I nodded to the nuts he was stuffing in his mouth.

Lucky stopped chewing, his eyes bulging. “You’re shittin’ me,” he said through a half-full mouth.

I shook my head, the corner of my mouth quirking despite the ice queen routine I was trying to perfect. “I’m sure you’ve been to a few bars in your time. I figured you’d know by now that you’d ingest as many bodily fluids from licking a toilet seat as you would from snacking on those.” I paused, tilting my head and running my eyes over his cut. “Though, as a biker in a club that owns its very own strip club, I’m sure you see your fair share of bodily fluids,” I added sweetly. Someone who looked like him would get the attention from the girls who worked at their club. I knew a few of them, and they all swore it was the best gig they’d had in the biz; the money was good, they were treated well, and the hotties from the Sons of Templar MC frequented the place.

Much better than the rat-infested shithole I worked at where we got paid shitty, treated even shittier, and the clientele looked like they had girls tied up in their basements.

Which was why it baffled me that Lucky was even there. It pissed me off too.

Lucky grinned at me. “I only exchange bodily fluids with people I’ve taken to dinner first.”

Somehow, he made that line actually send tingles down my already-sensitive skin.

“Why are you here?” I snapped, my withdrawals making me twitchy, cranky. Okay, cranky was an understatement. I felt like I wanted to murder this attractive idiot with a rusty fork. Or kiss him. I wasn’t sure which.

He quirked his brow. “I really like the chicken wings.”

Despite the snake in my belly and the ants on my skin, I smiled, slightly. “You enjoy salmonella, then,” I retorted.

He stepped forward, not close enough to touch me but close enough that I could see his face illuminated in the dingy light. “I enjoy the company and the conversation. Salmonella helps me keep my delightful figure.” He rubbed his flat belly over the top of his tee. I followed its journey and could actually see the outline of his six-pack.

I swallowed the cocktail of emotions that came with his proximity, chasing away the worst of the itch. It wasn’t gone, not completely—it never would be—but his tobacco scent was like a salve. “You come to a strip club for conversation?” I repeated, finding sarcasm as a shield to stop my voice from shaking. “That’s like going to a hooker for a hug.”

“Well, I do need a hug,” he teased.

My skin went cold. “I’m not a hooker. Even if I was, you couldn’t afford me. Or be able to handle me,” I purred, my voice velvet and steel at the same time.

His eyes flared with intensity. “Oh baby, I could handle you,” he rasped.

I swallowed, the pure sex in his tone like a physical caress. “No, buddy, you can’t. Your muscles aren’t big enough to contain me,” I croaked finally.

Something moved behind his eyes, like he was seeing something I didn’t even realize I’d exposed. Then they flickered back to the teasing glint. “Well, that’s just mean. I work very hard on these.” He stroked his arm. “You know, that’s going to do shocking things to my self-esteem.”

I let out an unladylike snort. “Yeah, I’m sure it’s in the gutter. You’ll survive. How about you go and engage in some riveting conversation with Nat.” I nodded to my friend and coworker who had professed her utter jealousy that I had my very own ‘pet biker.’ She could have him. He was more trouble than I needed and I was more than he could handle. I cloaked my face before regarding him again. “I’ve got to get to work.”

Before I could turn away from him and the complicated emotions he seemed to arouse in me, he stepped even closer, so his body brushed mine. All humor flickered out of his face. It was unnerving, the quick transition, and also hot as fuck.

“I want to see you,” he half growled.

I swallowed. “You will.” I nodded to the stage. “You and everyone else.”

I tried to turn again and that time he snatched my hand in his, maneuvering it so the meatheads at the corner of the room couldn’t see the gesture, his muscly body working like a shield.

“I don’t want to see what everyone else sees,” he murmured, his voice rough. “I want you to give me something. Give me you.”

I was paralyzed, only for a split second but long enough for his words to filter through the utter fucking chaos of my mind and settle somewhere. I ripped my hand out of his grasp.

My eyes met his. “There’s nothing to give,” I whispered, and before I could inspect the way his face changed at my words, I turned on my heel and walked away. As soon as I left his presence the itch came back, more ferocious than ever, more intense and unbearable than before.

cover-reveal

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