Short story written for the Scouts Anthology. 17K+ words. This book is not currently for sale or in paperback.
Copyright © 2021 Penelope Douglas
Cover Design © 2021 Pink Ink Designs
“Devil’s Backbone” by The Civil Wars
“Play with Fire” by Sam Tinnesz feat. Yacht Money
Note from Author
Ash City is a dark, short story originally published with the Scouts Anthology. Every story in the collection features a former Scout who specializes in a certain badge. My scout’s badge is fire.
Please look for all of the other scouts’ stories from these authors:
Claire C. Riley
In addition to playlists, all of my stories come with Pinterest mood boards. Feel free to take a look at Ash City’s storyboard as you read!
I’m never going to get back to sleep. My phone vibrates on my nightstand again, but I gaze up at the ceiling, ignoring it.
He should know better by now.
But once every two or three years—and with me still unattached—he thinks “you know, she’s probably lonely. And maybe just desperate enough.”
Shadows drift across my walls, clouds billowing with hues of a sunset—oranges and pinks and hints of red—reflecting against the white paint, even though the sun set hours ago.
My phone buzzes again, and I grab it, squeezing the case so hard it creaks as I see Roman’s name, answer it, and pin it to my ear. “I’d rather be alone for the rest of my life,” I tell him.
And then I hang up, tossing the phone onto the bed.
Sometimes I want to kill him. My sister deserves so much better. I mean, yeah, I was a little hurt she’d marry my ex, and I’ve gone hoarse trying to warn her about him and how he’s under some delusion I’ll still sleep with him on the side, even though we broke up fourteen years ago, but she thinks he’s all she has. She thinks she needs him.
Especially now that they brought kids into that mess.
Sometimes I thank my lucky stars that all he was for me was a waste of time. Other times I know I’m the one to blame for bringing him into our lives at all.
The phone goes off again, but I let it ring, throwing off the covers and walking to the windows.
The bay blazes red in the distance, smoke pouring into the night sky as the fires spread from Sausalito all the way to Richmond, Oakland, and Alameda. I turn my head from left to right one hundred eighty degrees, taking in the storm that slowly eats its way closer to my building. Alcatraz looks quite beautiful with the colors behind it.
I press my fingers to the floor-to-ceiling glass. “Jesus…” I breathe out, seeing the presidio unable to be contained.
It’s terrifying. And for a moment, I’m lost in the view from my skyrise apartment where only the barest hint of a scent reaches me.
What must be happening down there on the streets…
Danger, pain, a nightmare.
But even from here, I can feel the warmth. I haven’t seen a fire like this in…years.
And I don’t know why, but I smile despite myself.
Quickly, I let it fall again.
Notifications roll in, my cell going berserk, and I growl under my breath. Whipping around, I swipe my phone off my bed, ready to shut it off, but I see they’re texts and not voicemails.
Fuck, it’s an emergency!
Answer your phone!
I straighten, an alarm going off in my head. I dial my sister’s husband back, only waiting half a ring before he picks up.
“Is it Dru?” I blurt out.
The only emergency he would contact me about would have to do with my sister or their kids.
But I hear commotion in the background and then his curse. “Goddammit…”
“Roman, what?” Jesus, fuck off.
“I need your apartment tonight,” he finally says, out of breath. “Can you stay with someone else in your building?”
I stand there in my underwear and tank top, trying to make sure I heard him right. He needs my apartment? I look around my bedroom, the exposed brick of the renovated warehouse in the Hayes Valley district a small part of the spacious room, but one of the many things I fell in love with when I was finally able to afford a place like this. Eight years of working my way to a doctorate, to my own life out of Oregon, away from him, and the knowledge that nothing was given to me. My whole world is here.
I yank the phone away from my ear and hang up, tossing it onto the bed. I’m not sure what he needs my apartment for, and I don’t care enough to ask. He’s not getting it. Unless it has to do with my sister or her kids, it’s none of my business.
But then a loud pounding reverberates throughout my walls, and I startle.
I drop my hand, but my fist tightens around my phone. He’s here.
Is he serious?
Throwing open my bedroom door, I leave the living room lights off as I head over to the front door, but I stop short and dive under the cushion of my new couch and pull out the hammer hidden there.
Gripping it with one hand, I lean into the door to hear. “Are you drunk?” I growl.
“Open the door.”
“Not a chance,” I fire back. “Get out of here.”
“Castel!” He slams a hand into the door, knowing he can’t get through. It’s steel, in keeping with the whole turn-of-the-century industrial vibe of the property. “Goddammit. Open this door!”
I’m not letting him in, but something in the urgency of his voice nags at me. Keeping the chain secured, I open the door, peering through the crack to see him standing there, panting with his arms spread wide and pressed against the doorframe.
My ex’s dark skin, once warm and unmarked, now drips with blood and is coated with ash.
A black ski cap covers his head, and his beard is longer than the last time I saw him. His partner, Diesel Jones, shifts at his side, catching my eyes for a moment.
Roman’s gaze drops to the hammer in my hand that I make no attempt to hide.
“I’ll claim it was dark,” I tell him. “The cops will believe me.”
He stands up straight, looking down at me. “I’ve got a prisoner to hold. I can’t get around the traffic. Streets are blocked. Police are everywhere.”
The city is in shreds. Quakes are so common we don’t even feel most of them, but the 6.4 that hit last night rocked Oakland, collapsed buildings and parking garages all along the marina, and pancaked an entire office building. Thankfully, it was the middle of the night and empty. Mostly empty.
Water is still out in North Beach, and gas lines have ruptured, causing fires everywhere. First responders have been working all day, and those of us not required to evacuate are keeping an eye on the situation.
Shouts echo down the hall as doors open and slam shut, the squeaking from someone’s sneakers fades into the elevator. My neighbors are already getting out of Dodge just in case, but getting stuck in gridlock in a burning city isn’t a great idea, either.
I’ll wait till morning. See if the traffic dies down.
“I’ve got no way to get this guy into secure custody tonight,” Roman says.
“And that’s my problem, because…?”
All of a sudden, the asshole’s shoulders relax a little and he smiles. “Because if it wasn’t, you wouldn’t have opened the door.”
I barely pause. I swing it shut again, but he presses his hand into it, the chain taut but not breaking as he gazes down at me. “And because he’s right behind me, Castel,” he says. “And not blindfolded, either. You really want me to lose him—risk him escaping—now that he knows where my wife’s sister with the best pussy I’ve ever had lives?”
My stomach twists, memories sweeping to the forefront of my mind again. Memories of dirty carpet and the stench of smoke and freezing sheets and being alone while his friends’ laughter carries out from the living room.
Nightmares of a time when I didn’t know what I deserved and I stayed in places I didn’t like.
I tighten my fist around the hammer.
He leans in, lowering his voice. “Bet you’re just as tight as when you were eighteen.”
I rear my fist back and slam the hammer down onto his hand.
He growls, yanking his hand off the door, and I throw my body into it, scrambling to close and lock it.
But then before I can secure it, something breaks behind me. I stumble, nearly falling. What…
The room spins and I drop the hammer, holding on to the doorknob for support, because I feel dizzy. But it’s the building. Not me. The building is shaking.
Before I can get to safety from another quake, something slams against the door from the other side and I fly backwards onto my ass.
Roman stumbles through the door, and I splay my hands behind me to steady myself.
“Shit!” he growls.
The apartment shudders, steel beams whining in that way that they do when a ship sinks, like one last cry for mercy before it disappears into the abyss.
My heart pumps so hard my body feels like it’s on fire, and I tense, ready to rush underneath the table to protect myself, but…
I want him out of here.
I shoot to my feet. “Get out.”
I rush him, slamming my hands into his chest and shoving him back into the hallway, because even now, with the city falling apart, déjà vu haunts me and I can’t do this again.
I can’t be back here. In the same spot I was fourteen years ago.
Him still in my life.
The floor vibrates under us as he crashes into the far wall. I glare up at him, but the lights extinguish, the entire floor going dark.
Diesel shouts, “Roman!”
But Roman grabs hold of me, and I lift my arms to shield myself. He shoves me back, I slam into the wall, and I swear I hear thunder outside, but the world spins around me, and I lose my footing. Falling to the floor again, I blink, the wind knocked out of me.
My eyes water and I touch the back of my head, checking for blood.
I pull my hand away, not feeling anything wet.
“Get out your flashlight!” I hear Roman yell.
But then hands take hold of my arms and pull me up. I tense, reacting, but something feels weird.
It’s too soft to be Roman. He’s not gentle. “Shhh…” the voice says.
Diesel? Red emergency lights blink in the hallway, and every other moment, I can see my surroundings.
The building comes into view. The other apartment doors.
And the body standing in front of me.
I look up, a man I don’t recognize stares down.
My chest shakes. I can’t draw in a full breath.
A cut bleeds on his cheekbone, and locks of his brown hair, wet with sweat, fall into his eyes. Ash covers his jaw and neck, the vein there bulging and disappearing down into his black T-shirt.
Blue eyes hold mine, not once blinking.
He’s white. I don’t know why that surprises me.
This is the man Roman is bringing in? He’s not a kid, but he’s not far from it, either. Maybe twenty-five?
He stares at me, his face covered in shadow only momentarily illuminated by the red emergency light that blinks behind him in a steady rhythm. Dread shakes my hands, so close to him the hair on my arms brushes his black bomber jacket. He could kill me right now.
But instead, he just watches me.
And then…he cocks his head, zoning in on my eyes, and his own widen as if he realizes something.
What is he staring at?
“Castel…” I hear a faint warning from somewhere off to my side.
The perp and I don’t break eye contact.
“Castel,” Roman rasps. “Get the fuck away from him.”
Yeah, I, uh…
“Now!” he barks. “He has the hammer!”
My eyes drop, and I see my weapon in the guy’s hand. When did he get that?
My heart lodges in my throat, and I flit my gaze back up to his. I can’t move.
Why aren’t they rushing him?
Diesel and Roman stay back, rigid and ready, but cautious.
A moment passes, and I can almost see the thoughts passing in front of his eyes, but I can’t read what they are.
Why the hell did they bring him here?
Finally, he raises the hand with the hammer, I draw in a breath, and the guys shout. “Hey! Hey, hey!”
But he doesn’t falter. He flips the hammer around and hands it to me, handle first. I think he almost smiles.
I blink, the silver of his cuffs glinting in the faint light.
What is he doing? He could grab me and try to barter his way out of here. He has no idea Roman and Diesel don’t give a shit about me.
The emergency generator kicks in, the white lights fire up down the hallway, and I breathe again, snapping out of it. I snatch the hammer back and step away as the guys rush forward.
Roman grabs hold of him from behind, threading his arms through the criminal’s and yanking his elbows back. “This is why his hands should be secured behind him, dumbass,” he says to Diesel. And then to me. “Go to a friend’s apartment.”
“It’s too late now,” I murmur, turning around.
He’s already seen me. He might not know what building he’s in or what street he’s on, but he knows enough.
“Then get in your room,” Roman orders.
I dig in my heels, heading farther back into my apartment but not to my bedroom. Don’t let them in here. Nothing good will happen tonight. Stop.
All the voices in my head scream for me to turn around and push them out. To get rid of them. This isn’t my problem. I have never let Roman step foot in this apartment, even though he’s asked.
But I stop at the kitchen island and set the hammer down, pulling a paring knife out of the block and turn around to face them as I slip it into the waistband of my underwear at my back. I watch quietly as they walk him inside and shut the door, the earthquake long gone as he still stares at me, not even fighting them as he follows.
I need to put on some clothes, but strangely, his eyes haven’t left my face.
Roman shoves him in front of my distressed brown leather cushioned chair with the tufted back, but it’s like the guy’s in a trance as he holds me in his sight. He doesn’t budge. Roman slaps him across the face, and I see the blood on his cheek fly onto my area rug. I flash my eyes to Roman, pursing my lips as he shuffles over the fabric with his dirty boots, grinding into it with every step as he leaves a trail of dirt.
Water, sweat, and blood fall to the floor, and I turn away, breathing in and out.
I head over to the closet outside of the bathroom. It’s not a huge apartment. Every room centers around the great room—my bedroom on the far wall, the bathroom perpendicular, and the kitchen to my right—but everything is new and beautiful. Black and brick and light fixtures that look like something the building boasted when it was a mill in 1909.
I’m happy here.
I pull out a couple of towels and walk over, lining the seat to protect it, not making eye contact.
I won’t bother telling them to take off their shoes, because what’s worse than Roman in my apartment is Roman getting comfortable.
They shove him down, and Roman leans in. “Get in your room. Now.”
I pivot on my heel and do what he says, but not to hide. I pick my phone up off the bed and open it up. I dial my sister.
A hand comes down on top of the phone, grabbing it out of my hand. “What are you doing?”
I look up at my ex, now my sister’s husband. “When was the last time you checked in?” I question him.
I don’t talk to Dru often, but I know from our mom that she puts up with a lot of shit. Roman is always gone, sometimes for weeks at a time. She’s raising those kids alone, and I’m sure she’s gotten used to not knowing whether he’s alive or dead, but if she won’t put her foot down and demand what she deserves then I will.
I don’t want him throwing it in her face later on that he was “in my apartment all night” and conveniently leaving out how he forced his way in.
But he just smiles down at me, too all-knowing. “Like it would be the worst thing in the world if I was shivved or shot, leaving her a widow, right?”
Not at all. I clench my jaw, absently pressing my fingers to my stomach just below my breasts and feel the pendant that hangs on the long chain underneath my shirt.
I got it the night I broke up with him when I was eighteen, and I’ve never removed it. Not even after all this time, at thirty-two years old.
Still, I wait. I’m alone and not entirely happy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
He moves in. “Come here.”
But I step away, coming into view of the living room and the kid who still stares at me.
I turn my eyes on him and on instinct, I drop my eyes to the wet sleeve of his jacket dripping on my armrest. He follows my gaze and then looks back at me, slowly pulling his filthy arm off the leather.
I narrow my eyes as he tucks his arms in his lap, keeping as much of himself as possible on the towels.
“Who is he?” I mumble, not taking my eyes off him.
“Who?” I demand.
“Ash,” he replies, looking over at the guy. “They call him Ash. As in ‘ashes to ashes.’”
“Is he a killer?”
“I don’t know,” he muses. “He’s their best cleaner, though.”
Cleaner? As in…
Roman steps toward me, taunting. “He can turn your body into soup and flush you down the toilet with just the chemicals in this apartment, Cas. Bodies, evidence, witnesses… He cleans everything.”
But instead of getting sick with fear or hot with anger, I raise my eyebrows. “And you caught him?”
He flashes me a look, hooding his eyes.
“Does he work for the Mob?”
Roman shrugs. “Whoever hires him. He has no loyalties.” And then he looks across the room at the man again, adding the last in a murmur. “He just likes his job.”
I study the guy’s profile—still like stone—and even though he’s not looking at us anymore as his gaze follows Diesel walking into the kitchen, I know he’s watching all of us.
I pause for a moment, something in his profile…
His hair is a deep brown, his eyebrows sharp and his cheekbones high. He looks Italian, Greek, German… I’ve never met him, but…I don’t know. The way his mouth tilts down at the corners. The wet hair that hangs just over his eyes.
The brow is sterner. The cheeks are covered in scruff. His chest is broader. I…
I shake my head clear. I hate this feeling. Like seeing an actor I can’t place or remembering a line from a movie I don’t remember the name of.
“Why’s he so calm?” I ask. “If he’s that dangerous, wouldn’t he be trying to escape?”
“We’ve got it under control.”
“Was he easy to catch?” I retort, knowing Roman and Diesel aren’t particularly clever. “Maybe too easy?”
When something doesn’t feel right, it usually isn’t.
My ex just shakes his head and walks away with my phone. I rub the back of my neck, feeling the light sweat that covers it.
“Get us something to eat,” he calls over his shoulder.
I walk to my laptop on the kitchen island. “Get it yourself.”
I’m contacting your wife and letting her know where you’re at.
I open the computer, but his footfalls are fast behind me. He whips me around and grabs my jaw. I gasp, just as he slams me into the wall. I shift on my tiptoes, my heart leaping into my throat.
I nearly choke trying to breathe.
But I don’t fight. I press my teeth together, glaring at him in front of me. He’s only a couple inches taller than my five-eight, and I can see the white guy behind him out of the corner of my eye.
“You do as you’re fucking told and just stand there,” Roman growls. “Don’t talk or move!” And then he lets go of me and turns to walk away. “For one night, just don’t be a bitch.”
Grabbing my laptop, he throws it into the sink and turns on the faucet. I stand frozen, watching him and not even realizing I’m clutching the paring knife in the back of my underwear until I feel the blade dig into my skin.
I tried to tell Dru what he was like. How everything is fine as long as you don’t push back.
But if you do…
And sometimes, even if you don’t.
I almost never left him. I almost never left Salem, Oregon, because of him.
His cell phone rings, and he shoots me a look before he digs it out of his back pocket.
He checks the screen before he answers.
“Watch him,” he tells Diesel and then points to me. “And her.”
He holds the phone to his ear and walks into my bedroom. I stand there for a moment, still clutching the blade.
But then I feel him, and I raise my eyes, meeting the stranger’s gaze.
Ash. That’s what Roman said his name was. It’s a nickname, right?
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. That’s the pun. He turns people to dust.
“We can be at Odette and Central by seven a.m.,” I hear Roman tell someone on the phone as he closes the door to just a crack. “You got my money?”
I release the knife, keeping it tucked into the back of my clothes, and press my fingers to my stomach again, feeling the pendant underneath.
Ash slouches in my chair, his bomber jacket shiny with blood and red is soaked through the gray T-shirt underneath. He narrows his eyes, like he’s studying something.
“No, I’m not telling you where I’m at right now,” Roman yells from the bedroom.
I head into the kitchen, turn off the faucet, and shake out my laptop. I dry it and try to turn it on, but I already know it’s lost. Thank goodness I back my shit up, but it’s still a four-thousand-dollar piece of machinery that’s complete garbage now.
Yanking open a drawer, I pull on some kitchen gloves, pick a pair of scissors from the utensil holder, and grab the First Aid kit. Wetting some cloths, I wring them out and walk over to the kid, kneeling in front of him and open up the kit.
Diesel takes out a cigarette. “Get away from him, Castel.”
I set out a pack of anti-bacterial wipes and some bandages, not sure what kind of injuries he’s got, but I know this will piss off Roman and right now I don’t give a shit. “He could’ve ripped open my throat with the claw of that hammer in a second.” I pick up the scissors. “It’s not me he wants to hurt.”
Diesel lights up his smoke, and I spare the cigarette stinking up my apartment a glance before I let it go and start cutting off the guy’s bloody jacket.
Leaning in, I cut it off his arms, away from his shoulders, and then pull him forward as I slip it off his back and carry it to the kitchen. Stuffing it in the trash, I head back and kneel down between his legs again, working on getting his shirt off.
As much as I try to avoid his eyes, though, he’s still watching me. He’s been watching me since the hallway.
I dart my glare up at him. “Don’t look at me.”
He hesitates a moment, but then he blinks and drops his gaze, almost looking chastised. Like a puppy. At least someone in this apartment shows some respect.
I toss the shirt away with the jacket and start wiping away the blood on his shoulders, chest, and arms.
As I clear more and more away, I wipe harder when I notice it isn’t hurting him. But then, all of the red on him isn’t blood. As I clean his skin, I see dark pink pebbled flesh, different sizes and shades.
Old gashes. Some like old puncture marks.
And some circles. Perfect circles, like cigar burns.
I dart my eyes up, sensing him looking at me again.
And the wind goes out of me.
I stare into his blue eyes, having that feeling again.
It can’t be.
I look away, brushing it off. Having scars isn’t uncommon. Especially for people who live dangerous lifestyles.
I wipe and wipe, cleaning him off as much as I can, but there are layers of it. So much blood.
“What the hell did you guys do to him?” I bite out.
On top, it’s wet. Underneath, it’s dark and dried in the lines of his knuckles and in the dip of his clavicle.
“We didn’t do anything,” Diesel says.
I toss down the cloth and get the other one, standing up and leaning over Ash to clean his back. When I come back down, I steal glances at his arms again. The scars are lighter, bigger. There’s more of them now.
It’s not him. It can’t be.
But in the back of my mind, I know they’re lighter and bigger now, because he’s aged. They’ve stretched with his growth and faded with time.
It could be him.
Heat rises to my cheeks. “I said stop looking at me,” I tell him. “We’re not friends. I just don’t want you ruining a seven-thousand-dollar chair.”
He turns away again, and I finish, leaving his fitted black pants and boots alone. I clean up his face with the wipes, since the cloths are filthy, and finally, I give up, sitting back on my feet. “I don’t see where you’re bleeding from.”
Other than the shallow cut on his cheek, there’s no injury causing this much blood.
There’s nothing to bandage.
But then Diesel speaks up. “That wasn’t his blood.”
“Well, it’s not yours or Roman’s,” I retort. “You’re not injured.”
“And neither is he.” He sucks on the cigarette and blows out smoke. “He was covered in it when we found him.”
I turn to Ash, who still sits there like he’s waiting for a haircut.
It’s like he still hasn’t noticed there’s anyone else in the apartment except me. Does he realize these two idiots are taking him back to jail tomorrow?
Diesel rises from his seat and steps over, leaning down into the kid’s face and blowing out smoke. “Covered in blood, weren’t you?” he taunts him. “You were having a lot of fun when we found you. Strung them up by their toes and everything. Place looked like a fuckin’ meat locker, skin sacks hanging everywhere. I think you were actually hard.” He smiles, nearly brushing the guy’s cheek with his nose. “Weren’t ya? Was your dick hard?”
When the guy doesn’t answer, Diesel pushes him in the head, and I falter. The way this guy is zoned in. Never breaking contact. Unmoving. Unflinching.
He has a timer. I swallow the lump in my throat.
Diesel chuckles in his face. “You think black folk would make up seventy percent of the prison population if this world would face how racist it is and acknowledge how truly fucked in the head white people are?”
The kid doesn’t respond.
Diesel goes on. “You’re always the sickos. The truly ill. Screwing corpses. Eating people’s fingers. Burying your victims in the walls. Locking your daughters in basements to use as sex toys for thirty years. Black people don’t do that shit.”
“There’s stew in the fridge,” I bark at him. “Go eat.”
“I’m not leaving you alone—”
“How much else can go wrong tonight?” I fire back. “Go eat.”
Like he or Roman give a shit if this guy strangles me or rips out my throat with his teeth. He’s cuffed. He’s not going anywhere.
Diesel stalks away, and a moment later, I hear the refrigerator open and him dole out a bowl of oxtail stew. One of the few remnants of my Jamaican heritage that’s survived three generations bouncing around the US and ten years living away from my mom. She made sure I didn’t leave until I knew a few things.
Pulling Ash forward again, I remove the bloody towel from behind him and then slip out the one underneath, using more wipes to finish cleaning him up best I can.
“I’m not being nice, because you know where I live,” I tell him.
I try not to meet his eyes, but I can’t help it.
There’s almost a smile there, and I’m pretty sure he’s knows I’m lying. I’m only being nice, because he knows where I live now.
I don’t want to have to move. I’d just finished measuring every inch perfectly to adequately space out the wall hangings and area rugs.
“I remember my mom always on my case growing up,” I tell him, listening for Roman in the bedroom to make sure he’s still occupied. “‘How can you live in such a pigsty?’ she’d say. ‘Clean up your room. Clean out your car. You’ll understand when you have your own place.’” I clear up the rest of the bloodstains on his skin. “She was right. About everything.”
I thought I knew so much. I’m just glad I got out before Roman ruined my life.
But now he’s ruining my sister’s.
I look up. “My apartment is my very small corner of the world that’s mine. Everything in here gets to be exactly how I want it—down to the scent and the sounds. It’s like being in my head without the effort of closing my eyes to see it. Everything out there is scary.” I nod toward the front door. “In here, it’s not. Or…it wasn’t.”
But strangely, he’s not the one making it a nightmare tonight. At least not yet.
“I take care of my home the way my mother asked me to help take care of ours and didn’t when I was young and thought I knew everything,” I say in a low voice, not even sure he can hear me, but I don’t care. “She was right about everything. I’m just glad she’s not here to see her thirty-two-year-old daughter in the thick of more bullshit.” I shake my head to myself. “Thankfully, she lives way up in…”
But I stop, realizing I almost told a stranger—and probably a psychotic one—where my parents live.
I clamp my mouth shut. I’m an idiot, and Roman is probably right. Why the hell am I cleaning him up? I should be in my room, waiting this out.
I guess nothing really changes. You want to believe people are good, so you do stupid shit, because you got this funny feeling that “he’s just different”. He won’t hurt me. Of course not. I’m special. We connected.
Please. Women always believe the slightest thing means ten times more than it actually does.
But then… Ash leans forward, his head next to mine, and even this close I can’t hear him breathe.
He rubs one of the scars on his arm, and his scent hits me, déjà vu taking over again as I remember another fire. Another night.
The last time I felt like the world was a new place.
It’s not him. I’ve never seen this guy before.
I’ve never seen him before.
“I won’t let you free,” I whisper before he has a chance to ask. “Don’t think you can play on my emotions or convince me you’re innocent, because you can clearly see I hate him as much as you do.”
I inhale the smell of him, that familiar feeling of danger whirling around us but we were safe together in that car.
It can’t be him. Not here. All these years later. So far away from home.
I shake my head slowly. “It won’t happen.”
But I don’t think he hears me. “That’s a unique birthmark,” he says instead.
And I blink, seeing him look at me and trying to catch my eyes. Trying to get another look at the discoloration in my eye.
The birthmark I’ve always had.
Most people think it’s an injury. He knows it’s not.
He knows because I told him fourteen years ago.
“I won’t let you go,” I maintain.
“Not many people have that birthmark,” he continues as if I’m not speaking.
His voice plays my veins like a guitar string, the humming in my blood warm and deep and deafening.
Roman yells into the phone, and my muscles tense.
“There was a time when most of us were so weak we could be manipulated,” I say to the kid. “I’m not that weak anymore. I won’t let you go.”
My bedroom door opens, I suck in a breath, and the kid smiles. “I’m not leaving you,” he whispers.
My heart stops for a moment.
But then someone yells. “What the hell are you doing?”
I’m yanked off the ground and ripped away from him as Roman squeezes my arm.
I bare my teeth, twisting my arm away as Diesel makes his way into the living room again.
But Roman takes hold of me again, glowering down at Ash. “I would’ve expected you to like a challenge,” he says. “Working her is beneath you.”
Why? Because I’m so workable? Too easy?
“Get out of my apartment,” I bite, trying to pry my arm away again.
But he refuses. “It’s too late for that.”
“Get out of my apartment!”
He hauls me in, bowing his head down. The smell of his sweat makes my stomach roll. “Make me,” he taunts. “We’re all gonna die tonight anyway. The fire is crawling North Beach, and if that doesn’t get us, the next quake will.”
I push at him. “Stop it…”
But he wraps his arms around my body and crushes my mouth with his, trying to force his tongue in.
“Stop it,” I grit out, but it’s muffled by his lips. I bite, immediately feeling his body jerk and then I hear his howl.
He glares down into my eyes, grabbing my ass in one hand and yanking me into his body as he licks the blood off his lip. “You want him instead?” he asks me. “Want to be his friend?”
He spins me around and pushes me onto Ash, down into his lap, my breasts in his face.
“Goddamn you,” I grit out to Roman.
Tears well, and I dig my nails into the leather of the chair as Roman pushes me down from behind and I resist, pushing back.
I cry out.
“Roman, man,” Diesel protests. “Stop.”
But Roman doesn’t listen. He’s stressed and high, and all it took was a turn of the screw.
“Stop it!” I bellow.
But then he thrusts into me, through our clothes, forcing my body to move on Ash’s, and I gasp.
He thrusts again and again, and I growl through the tears, thrashing and pressing back into him to try to push him off. “You fucker…” I sob.
He pulls my tank top strap down and shoves me into the kid.
Oh, God. I grip the handle of the knife.
I feel the kid’s eyes on me, and I turn my face away.
“Look at me,” he says in barely a whisper.
Roman continues his attack through my clothes, but I look down into Ash’s eyes. For a moment, I go still.
“Don’t cry,” he tells me.
I narrow my eyes.
“He’s already dead,” he says.
And just then, it’s like it’s the truth. This isn’t happening. I’m already safe. It’s over.
His cuffs jingle as he moves his hands over mine, squeezing my fist tighter around the knife.
“You didn’t think it was going to be easy, did you?” he asks me, no one else hearing. “That you would be different just because your life is different?”
That was exactly what I thought.
“We have to destroy to change,” he suddenly says those words I never forgot.
And I nod. “To survive,” I repeat the mantra.
A small smile tilts up his lips, we slip my knife out, and I hold his eyes as I reach around myself and stab, burying the knife in Roman’s stomach behind me.
“Ah!” he cries out, flailing. He hits me, and I shield myself in Ash’s body as Roman scrambles away, his weight falling onto the floor.
“Shit!” Diesel shouts.
Blood spills between my fingers and down my knuckles, and Diesel hauls me off the kid, throwing me to the floor.
I land with a thud, Roman scooting up to the sofa, resting against it as he holds his hand to his wound.
“I’m going to kill you,” he sputters.
A sad laugh bubbles in my chest, and it takes a moment, but I start gasping or breathing hard—I can’t tell. My head is floating, and I want to smile.
“There she is,” I hear the kid murmur.
And in some odd way, I know exactly what he means. I was once strong enough to get away from Roman Tillhouse.
I’ll do whatever it takes.
I grip the knife, my knees bent with my hands behind me, holding me up as I glare at Diesel and dare him to come.
He takes a step like he’s going to—like he knows he needs to tie me up or something, but…
We hear Ash.
“I knew someone who had a birthmark like yours,” Ash tells us.
He still sits behind Diesel like nothing happened.
“Every once in a while, I still look for her,” he goes on.
Diesel straightens and turns his head, eyeing the perp. I drop my eyes, meeting the kid’s gaze. His chocolate hair hangs in his eyes, making him still look like a boy but his build and scruff and all the new scars decorating his arms and now visible on his chest betray how well he knows how to survive a fight.
“With such an identifying feature,” he says, “you’d think she’d be easy to find, but she wasn’t.”
Diesel walks over to Roman, ripping the blanket I have hanging over the back of the sofa and pressing it to Roman’s wound.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to force fate,” Ash muses. “If I was supposed to see her again, then I would.”
And he smiles small, because he knows I know.
“I was twelve the first time we met.” He studies me. “She was like, eighteen, I think. I remember it, because it was the first time I wondered what a woman felt like. I hadn’t noticed girls before then. I did after.”
His deep voice courses through me, and his eyes feel like hands.
“I just didn’t want to stop looking at her,” he continues. “It was a need. Like air, and I could feel it on every inch of my body. Like she had a scent and a taste and a feel. Her breathing was music. She was…Christmas.”
My throat tightens.
“And she smelled like summer—like Hawaiian Tropics and salt on hot skin.” His tone is nearly a whisper, but we all hear it. “And that smile and the way she kind of slouched in the driver’s seat, her hand resting on the inside of her open thigh, bare in her jean shorts. Her car was such a mess.” I drop my eyes, feeling his smile. “It was full of those cheap mystery paperbacks, the spines rubbed down to the white, because she’d read them all multiple times and took them everywhere with her.”
How could he know that?
“They’d fallen onto the ground and flopped around the car and were probably stained with food and drink, because she’d read them at every spare moment, even meals.”
How many people have been in my life for years—some of them forever—and didn’t notice those things?
“And she’d clipped a pen to the one she was currently working on that rested on the center console of her old Nissan Sentra, so she could underline parts she wanted to go back and reread,” he tells us. “I think that was my favorite thing about her.”
I don’t remember that.
“Almost my favorite thing,” he adds.
I find his eyes again, seeing his chest rise and fall, and before I know it, I’m matching him.
“The cotton of that thin, white baseball tee she wore…” he rasps. “It chafed her, making her nipples as big as raspberries through that fabric.” He swallows. “I couldn’t breathe.”
Something takes flight in my stomach.
“She didn’t have a bra on. Short jean shorts,” he goes on. “The most beautiful head of long, black hair I’d ever seen and gorgeous golden, brown skin. I didn’t realize how stunning she was until years later when all I wanted to do was meet her again all grown up now, but I didn’t know her name, so all I could do was wish I’d been a man and taken her into my lap. Made her mine.”
Roman grunts, and Diesel shuffles around, the stench of the smoke getting closer and thunder rolling overhead, but none of it matters anymore.
“She found me annoying,” he thinks out loud with a little smirk, “but she was protective of me, too. Bossy even.” And then he loses the smile, his eyes rising with heat. “I like bossy.”
And just like that, we’re back in the car, danger everywhere, and I just want him safe.
“I always wished I could run into her again and see how she’d handle me now.”
But I get the feeling he’s not the one in danger here.
“Well, where can we find her?” Roman spits out, struggling to his feet. “Sounds like a piece of something I want when you’re dead.”
I pause, tearing my eyes away from Ash. “Dead…” I murmur. “I thought he was going to jail.”
Roman and Diesel chuckle, their laughter filling the room as they don’t elaborate.
I look to the kid.
His smile is soft. “They’re not giving me to the police, Angel.”
He says it like I’m the only one who didn’t know.
My chest caves, and I push to my feet. Who are they giving him to? I search his eyes and then look to the others for an explanation.
“Fuck the police,” Diesel says.
“My guess is…” Ash sits up in his seat. “Alfonse Reynolds?”
I know that name. He’s a politician who’s been in the news off and on for years. Indicted three times, because of his suspected involvement in organized crime, investment fraud, drugs…
They’re handing this guy over to the Mob. He has a price on his head.
“What time will he be here?” Ash asks them, eyes on his lap now.
“He’s not coming here,” Roman says. “We’re delivering you tomorrow.”
And Ash looks up, meeting my eyes but answering Roman. “You won’t be alive tomorrow.”
Just then, the apartment goes dark, the lights losing power again, and I suck in a breath, looking around.
“What the hell?” Roman grunts, and I hear his labored breathing as he shifts around.
Lightning flashes through the windows, and I see him and Diesel shuffle in the darkness.
“Calm down,” Diesel tells him. “It’s the storm.”
Thunder rolls, lightning strikes again, and I turn my eyes on the kid, neither of us moving. Even when an explosion rocks the floor underneath us.
He smiles at me. “It’s not the storm.”
Not the storm…
The floor shakes, the lamp on the coffee table tumbles to the ground, and the windows burst, blowing shards into the apartment. I fall to my knees, catching myself with my hands and crying out.
“What the hell is going on?” I shout.
But they ignore me.
“Stay with him!” Roman shouts to Diesel, staggering out the front door and still holding his stomach.
Diesel runs to stand between the kid and me, pulling out his pistol and cocking it.
“Don’t move!” he barks at me.
Turning his head, he watches the empty doorway Roman left through, the hallway dark except for the red emergency light blinking from near the stairwell. Screams are faint, and the sweat on my neck rises as the stench of the fire draws closer. The wind carries the heat, the air thick as thunder cracks again.
I raise my eyes, look at the kid seated behind Diesel, he looks at me, and I reach over, taking my knife off the floor, because I know what’s about to happen.
Ash was never caught.
In one swift, fluid movement, he vaults up and out of the chair, slams his handcuffed fists down on Diesel’s gun, knocking it out of his hands, and grabs him by the hair, yanking his head down. He knees him in the stomach and then swings his arms over his head, dragging him to the floor and uses the chain of the cuffs to press against his throat.
I blink, adjusting to the dim light and see the kid watch me as I watch him. Diesel kicks and sputters, reaching back with his hands and trying to grab hold of Ash. Grunts and whimpers fill the apartment as Diesel fights to breathe, and the kid just watches me, almost like he’s waiting for me to stop him.
I want him to stop. He’s wasting time. Roman and whoever is on their way up will kill him. He needs to run.
Doors open and slam shut, the heavy metal door to the stairwell creaking on its hinges, as the rest of my floor flees the building, and the approaching fire, and the earthquakes, and…
And I stop breathing.
Those last two shakes weren’t earthquakes like they probably think. They were blasts. Whoever Roman feared—the person he was supposed to deliver the kid to—is here, and instead of going door-to-door to search, they’re just emptying the building. Waiting for Roman to bring the kid out.
“Stop,” I murmur at first, out of breath.
Diesel’s legs twitch as he hangs on to his last breath.
“Stop!” I belt out.
Ash doesn’t. Not until Diesel goes limp, closes his eyes, and stops fighting.
The kid lowers him to the floor, keeps watching me, and releases him. I study Diesel in the faint light, certain he’s just passed out as I see his chest rise and fall.
Ash remains squatting as he holds one hand in the other and presses his thumb down until I hear a pop. I startle at the sound.
Lightning flashes across his eyes, and then he raises his wrist to his mouth and bites down. It takes a moment, but I see the blood he just drew spilling down his fingers, acting as a lubricant as he works the cuff off his hand.
I wince, looking away. Jesus.
But out of the corner of my eye, I see him dig into Diesel’s pocket and in a moment, I hear the cuffs drop onto the floor.
I look over at him as he puts his hands together again and pops his thumb back into its socket.
I want to throw up.
“Just get out of here,” I tell him. “Run.”
He rises and I think he’ll leave, but instead he moves toward me.
Cries and sirens go off outside, and I hear rain on the roof as he walks across the room in just his black pants. I back up as he advances, and I shake my head, but I don’t know why.
“Get out of here, kid.”
“I’m not a kid,” he says. “Look at me.”
He closes the distance between us, and I hold up the knife instead.
But he takes my wrist and pushes it down. “I would never hurt you.”
I look up into his blue eyes.
“I would never hurt you,” he says again. “But it does feel good to be bigger than you now.”
Fourteen Years Ago
Please let me make it home. Please. This day is a hellscape that feels like it’ll never end.
Throngs of protesters stream past my car, battle cries filling the air as the night sky blazes orange and horns honk ahead of me. Traffic is barely budging, and I quickly swipe a finger under each eye to clear up the smeared mascara.
“Stay in your car,” my mom tells me over the phone. “With your windows rolled up and do not stop. Get home now.”
“I know. I’m trying,” I explain, one hand on the wheel. “But every street I turn down is either blocked, on fire, or crowded with protesters.”
“Are you okay?”
I close my eyes for a moment, forcing my voice to steady. “Yes, why?”
“You sound funny.”
I am funny. Really funny.
Just pissed at myself for my choices in men.
Or man as Roman Tillhouse is my first and only love so far.
I slam my hand against my steering wheel, angry all over again. Three years ago, I would’ve laughed at any girl who believed her boyfriend when he told her he was “just living at his ex-girlfriend’s place, because he couldn’t afford his own when they broke up.”
I found out tonight that he’s not just living there. He’s still with her.
And a week ago, I lost my virginity in their bed while she was at work. No wonder he always has me home by ten.
You never imagine someone will do that to you. It doesn’t even cross your mind to ask if they’re committed. They’re supposed to tell you.
He pleaded his case tonight and begged me and told me, “Wait just a little longer. ‘I’ll leave her and we’ll be together,” and then he stuck his hand down my shorts and I let him.
I don’t believe him, but why do I want to?
I tear up again, but I clench my teeth and clear my throat, focusing on the road. I can’t let my parents know anything. They’re proud of me. Always have been. I’m a straight A student, accepted to every college I applied to, and I always put my dishes in the dishwasher.
If I can just get home, wash him off me…
But through my tears, I took a wrong turn, and now I’m in the middle of a city-wide nightmare that’s been happening while I was distracted.
The June heat has only emboldened the fires that rage down Central Avenue, businesses and cars engulfed as the consequences of the verdict came down from the state supreme court this afternoon and the city fights back.
Someone pounds the trunk of my car, and I yelp. White boys parade past with their fingers on their triggers, and I recoil, wishing my windows were tinted.
I’m a sitting duck out here. I’m tempted to just abandon the car and walk home.
“How close are you?” Mom asks.
“Hawthorne and Jones.”
“Are you smoking?”
What? My mouth falls open. “Smoking?” I glance down at my pack in the console, the blue lighter tucked inside the plastic cover. “Why would I be smoking?”
“Just get home,” she replies, losing patience. “Or maybe you should just pull into a gas station. I’ll have your dad pick you up.”
“Please don’t.” I pinch the phone between my ear and my shoulder, digging a cigarette out of the pack. “He’d be in more danger out here than me. I’ll call you in five minutes.”
“Love you,” she says.
“Love you, too.”
I hang up. Pressing the gas, I inch forward until I see the taillights in front of me glow red, and I stop again.
Shit. Sticking the cigarette into my mouth, I flick the lighter, sucking in.
I hit the button to crack the window but hit the lock instead. Finding the other button, I roll down the window just a hair to let the smoke drift out.
I take another drag, but before I can exhale, my car door suddenly opens, and I jump in my seat. Screaming and shouting pours in from the street as a kid picks up my school books, climbs into my front seat, and tosses them into the back.
“Thank God,” he says, closing the door. “Almost everyone has the automatic locks on their doors now.”
I choke on the smoke, my cigarette tumbling to my lap. I gasp, snatching it back up and tapping out the embers that flaked off onto my bare legs.
“What the hell?” I shout, dumping the butt out the window.
“Don’t panic.” He stares at me, not more than twelve or thirteen but already as tall as me.
I clear my throat. “Get out of my car!” I bark. “Now!”
I look for cops, hoping I don’t see any. Now is not the time to get caught with a white kid in my car.
“Yes, ma’am. I will,” he replies quickly. “But can you just take me to the next red light? Please. I promise I won’t hurt you.”
“What?” I gape at him, his brown hair nearly covering his blue eyes. “No! Get out. Get out right now.”
“Get out!” I growl.
Suddenly, Roman is forgotten.
The kid sits there in some kind of uniform shirt—Scouts or something—but the collar is undone and the necktie hangs out of his jeans pocket. Dirt scuffs his arms, and the scent of a campfire hits me. I’m not sure if it’s from him or from when he opened the door.
“You’re gonna cost me ten bucks,” he scolds like I’m the child. He scans outside the windshield, keeping his eyes peeled. “Look, I just bet my friends that I’d get someone to take me to the next stoplight. That’s it. It was a dare. Please? I’m looking at making like fifty dollars tonight.”
I stare at him. Do his parents know where he is right now? I can’t drive him anywhere without permission. I could get arrested. “You stupid kids,” I snap. “What if I’d been dangerous? Huh?”
Salem, Oregon, is in the depths of a riot right now, because Chad and Kyle Ramsey got off with a nine-month prison sentence yesterday for drugging and kidnapping a fifteen-year-old girl. Her father was killed yesterday when he pushed through a police line to lead a protest.
But the kid isn’t listening to me. “Oh, wow…” he says, his mouth falling open.
I follow his gaze through the front windshield, spotting someone carrying an automatic rifle with another sidearm at his hip.
“He doesn’t look much older than me,” the kid murmurs, sounding almost smitten, like the prospect of having his own gun is the only thing he’s noticing about what’s going on in the world right now.
I groan as I let out a sigh. Hitting the locks to keep anyone else out, I let off the brake and inch forward, because I can’t put him out there alone with armed people on the streets.
Slowly, we creep through the barely moving crowd in my car, shouts muffled outside as the scent of things burning drifts in through the vents.
“Did you know the man who was shot?” the kid asks.
“Have you ever known anyone who was shot?”
I flash him a look. “Am I supposed to?” I look back at the street, gripping the steering wheel so hard my fingers ache. “And no, I haven’t robbed any liquor stores, either.”
Am I the first Black person he’s ever met?
“My stepdad did,” he says.
“Robbed a store.”
I glance at him again.
“That’s why my mom put me in River Scouts,” he goes on as his eyes flit around, watching the commotion. “She said they’d teach me how to be a man while he was away.”
I dart my eyes between him and the road as I follow the taillights in front of me, but then I notice something on his arm in the dark of the car, and I pause for a moment.
Abrasions discolor the skin, some red and faint while others are pebbled and fresher. Like burns. Some old, some new.
They’re all circular. Like the size of the old car lighters or a…a cigar.
I swallow, my mouth suddenly dry. “Is it working?” I ask him. “Learning how to become a man?”
“I think so,” he murmurs. “I don’t get caught.”
I damn near snort. Okay, that was funny. What a little bundle of trouble.
Shaking my head, I fix my gaze back on the road, braking as people slide between my car and the one in front of me to cross the street. They just keep coming, and I press my hand to the horn, ready to honk, but that might invite attention I don’t need. I inch ahead as much as I can, sporadically stopping to let crowds filter through.
“They’re spreading,” he almost whispers.
I open my mouth, but as soon as I follow his gaze and see the warehouse windows spilling with flames, I close it again. He’s talking about the fires.
My mouth feels like sandpaper. Where the hell is his mother? It’s like war out there. I might be eighteen, but I step on the gas, moving a miniscule faster, because now I understand why my mother is worried about me out here tonight.
“You need a babysitter,” I grumble.
He twists his lips to the side. “Yeah, because someone older always knows what they’re doing, right?”
And I can hear the sarcasm in his suddenly grown-up tone. I open my mouth to retort, because of course, adults are better equipped. They’ve been our age. Made all the mistakes. They’ve learned self-control and how to problem-solve.
More often than not, at least, right?
But then I catch sight of a hole in his sleeve and see the thin, tan threads spilling down his arm, unraveling the seam. I scan the rest of him. His broken Chucks. The dirt under his nails. The chop shop haircut he probably gave himself at home.
No one older than him has done their job in his life yet. That’s clear.
And after how far I’ve fallen in my own shallow drama, I’m certainly not qualified to tell him anything.
I reach into the backseat and dig into my open backpack, pulling out the sandwich I bought at the deli off campus but didn’t eat.
“You hungry?” I ask him, handing him the package.
For that, he finally tears his eyes away from the riot, looking at the BLT wrapped in Saran wrap like it’s cake. “Thanks.”
He grabs it and starts unwrapping. His mouth is full in two seconds as he barely gives himself time to swallow before he shoves in the next bite.
I touch the pin on the breast of his shirt, studying the silver emblem. It looks like flames rising out of a campfire. “That’s pretty.”
“It’s mine,” he says, taking another bite. “I made it.”
He nods, eating some more.
I guess he likes fire. I didn’t realize they taught River Scouts how to smelt.
Something hits my car, shaking it a little, and I jump as I slam on the brakes. I dart my eyes outside, seeing pedestrians still cutting in front of me, some blond guy in a black pullover and a beard glowers at me over the hood.
What? Did I nearly hit you or something? Because I’m where a car is supposed to be.
But I don’t say any of that shit out loud.
Horns fill the air as drivers get bolder than me, and I stay close to the car ahead, keeping the train going as less and less people see an opening to slip through.
But then I feel his eyes on me, and I glance to my right.
The kid leans forward as if he’s trying to see something on my face.
“What?” I frown.
He swallows his food. “What’s wrong with your eye?”
“Nothing,” I say in a groan under my breath. I should’ve seen that coming. By now, I’m used to it, and I just spit out my patented reply, bored with such a rude question after eighteen years. “It’s a birthmark.”
“On your eye?”
His eyebrows shoot up to his hair, but he shuts up about it and faces forward again. The discoloration in the iris of my right eye is sometimes hazel, sometimes gray, and sometimes blue/yellow. Luckily, it’s not vampire red like some cases, but it’s a sharp contrast to the brown of the rest of the eye, so people definitely notice. They usually think I had an accident or have an impairment.
But other than the slight annoyance of constantly explaining it, it’s no trouble. I actually kind of like it.
“You don’t live close, do you?” I ask him, shutting the vents to keep out the smoke. “Do you and your mom have a place to evacuate if the fire gets too near?”
“I’m not afraid of it.” He finishes every last bite of the sandwich and balls up the plastic wrapping. “How often do we get to see something like this?”
“It’s not good to see things like this,” I reply. “You shouldn’t see things like this.”
But I just hear a chuckle escape him, and I catch sight of the burns on his arm again.
I gather he’s seen worse.
I need to find out where he lives and call CPS. There’s a lot that’s not right with him.
He rolls down the window a couple of inches and tries to dump the trash outside, but I grab it from him and toss it behind me with the rest of the mess in my car.
“Fire is necessary to life,” he says, rolling the window back up. “We owe it reverence.”
“Fire is also death and destruction.”
“Rebirth and purification,” he retorts.
“Anger and punishment.”
“Hot tubs and cheeseburgers.”
What? Hot tubs and… And a tiny laugh escapes before I have a chance to stifle it. Yeah, yeah. Fire is necessary. Without it, we don’t have warmth.
Or soothing showers.
Or hot tubs and cheeseburgers.
I soften, glancing at him with a small smile. “Hot tubs and cheeseburgers,” I acquiesce.
He looks back, his blue eyes like the Pacific, and part of me wants to bring him home, so my mom can mend his shirt and my dad can feed him properly before we shove him into the shower.
I touch the badge on his chest again. “It’s a nice pin. You did a good job.”
He plucks my cigarettes out of the console and digs out the lighter from inside the plastic. Flicking the lighter, he holds the flame in front of him, staring at it. “There’s a point when you’re melting down the metal. It hangs on, keeps its shape to where you think it’s just not going to give,” he tells me. “It won’t melt.”
I watch him, switching my eyes from him to the road and back again.
“It shudders,” he says as if remembering when he made the pin. “It fights. And then…all of a sudden, it gives. It lets go. Bubbles, softens, gleams, and then it comes together, its shape disappearing and becoming one large pool of silver.”
I see it in my head. Kind of like the T-1000 in Terminator 2 or something.
“You can almost feel its pain as it heats up,” he murmurs, “struggles to withstand, but then…it peaks…and then it sinks. No more pain. It just …becomes.”
I look at the freshest burn on his arm again.
He blinks, snapping out of it as he releases the flame, letting it go out. “Learning to control fire has allowed our species to evolve.” He looks to me. “To some extent, we have to destroy to change.”
“To survive,” I muse.
He nods, and I gaze out the window.
I don’t want Roman.
I don’t want to go to Oregon State like my parents want.
I want a summer job. I want to go camping with my friends. I want to become.
I inhale a deep breath and fist the wheel, shaking my head. Here I am, finding the answers to life from a twelve-year-old.
“I’ll take you home,” I tell him, slowly pulling into the right lane. “Where do you live?”
“It’s okay,” he chirps, opening the door. “There’s the gas station.”
He jumps out of the car, and I slam on the brakes. “Hey, wait!” I shout.
He leans his head back down into the car and removes the pin on his shirt. He tosses it onto my lap.
“What…” I stammer. “I can’t take…”
But then he snatches my cigarettes and lighter, casting me a smile and a wink before he slams the door.
But he’s gone. In two seconds, the crowd consumes him, and I try to open my door to climb out and call after him, but bodies block me in, and I can’t get out.
I scan the crowd, but I don’t see him again.
Ash hovers over me, a foot taller and twice as broad now, staring down into my eyes but filling the whole room. I can’t see anything else.
He grazes his fingers over my collarbone, underneath the thin chain around my neck, and lifts it, pulling out the flame pendant buried in my shirt like he knew it was there all along.
I close my eyes as he holds it in his hand.
“We have to destroy to change,” he says again, and it feels like it was only an hour ago that we were in that car, two very different kids finding a home in the most unlikely of moments.
We have to change to survive, I add in my head.
“Look at me,” he whispers.
His chest rises and falls against mine.
I shake my head. “Just run.”
“Look at me.”
But I don’t.
He grabs my face, cradling the back of my head with one hand, and I whimper as he caresses my cheek with the other. He tips my chin up, forcing my eyes open. “I’m not a kid anymore.” A small smile spreads across his lips. “I got this now.”
I hold his eyes.
“And I need you to get under the table,” he instructs me.
But he doesn’t explain. He shoves me down, diving with me, and yanks a chair away from the table as he pushes me underneath. “Don’t move.”
He rises, I hear some steel unsheathe from my knife block on the island, a bottle clank across the granite top, and then he grabs my blanket of bulky yarn off the floor. I see him slice a knot with the knife as he disappears out the open doorway, unraveling it like one long piece of rope.
Like he’d clocked his weapons of choice as soon as he entered my apartment tonight.
The smell of charred wood fills the air, screams echo from below, and the whole building moans as it struggles to maintain itself.
I can’t be in any real danger, right? I mean, he wouldn’t keep me here in a building that’s about to collapse.
But then I roll my eyes and climb out from under the table, standing up straight. I have insurance to replace all of this, so why am I listening to a man I basically babysat without getting paid for one night fourteen years ago? It doesn’t matter if the building will survive or not. The point is I’m in more danger inside of it than out.
I start off toward the door, but pause mid-step when I see Diesel still passed out on the floor.
Roman is out there, too. I don’t want to run into him. He wouldn’t hesitate to use me—or any innocent—as leverage. Ash might’ve been telling me to stay, because he knows my ex is dangerous.
Or because of Alfonse Reynolds.
There are three ways out of this building. The elevator, which is probably disabled due to the fires. The stairwell, where I’ll most certainly run into people I shouldn’t.
And the fire escape.
I dive into my bedroom, pull on some shorts, and reach down onto the bed to grab my phone, but then I remember that Roman still has it.
Running for the front door, I shove my feet into flip flops and leave the apartment, racing to the end of the hall and the window.
I do a double-take toward the stairwell to my left, not wanting to leave him behind, but I didn’t sign up for this. We don’t know each other. Not really.
And for all I know, he’s just as dangerous.
He’s right. He’s not a child anymore. From the sound of it, he’s grown into far more than I can handle, and I don’t owe him anything.
But when I try to lift the window to climb out onto the fire escape, it won’t budge. I strain my muscles, jerking at the window, but it won’t move.
I peer down where it meets the frame and see it’s painted shut.
I jerk my eyes to the stairwell, faint light glowing across the dark walls, and I make a run for it, pushing past tenants trying to make their way down as I try to step onto their floor instead.
But I can’t get past. I lose my footing, stumble, and am swept away with the crowd, down another flight of stairs.
People scream, the building shakes, and I look up. What the hell is going on? This isn’t an earthquake, and the fire isn’t this close yet.
And then I spot something flying over the railing and spilling down in the middle of the stairwell, a man’s body reaching the end of his rope, stretching by the neck. Everyone screams, and I can’t move, letting myself be pushed into the wall. Everyone rushes past me as I stare at his head hanging limp while his body dangles.
Oh my God.
The crowd thins, disappearing, and I inch forward, looking up. Ash looms above, looking over the railing at me.
But then a burst of light hits him, and an explosion rocks the building. I cry out, grabbing onto the railing to steady myself, and when I look back, he’s gone.
“Ash!” I yell.
I look down, seeing the crowd descend and then back up again, worried.
I growl, grip the railing, and launch myself up the stairs, climbing as fast as I can.
Stupid. Stupid. I should run, but I don’t want to wonder what happened to him for another fourteen years.
I rush through the door onto the floor below mine and see flashes of lightning through the window at the end of the hall.
And I see glimpses.
Two men, one holding the other.
A sharp swipe at the throat.
An outstretched arm burying a blade under a jaw.
A body twitching and spilling something all over the floor.
And then he’s there, in the light of the fire that spreads over the walls and across the ceiling, surrounding him.
He doesn’t run. Rain flies in the broken floor-to-ceiling windows of the old warehouse, and I watch him as he looks around at the tunnel of fire he stands in.
And then…he takes his hand and hovers it just over the wall, moving it down and down some more, the fire following like it’s taking direction.
But it’s not.
He just knows where it will go. He knows how it feeds.
Someone coughs and grunts, and I drop my eyes. Roman sputters on the ground, holding his gut. His face is a mess.
I cast my eyes back to Ash, seeing bodies lay around his feet.
Fire builds toward the sky, higher and higher in the city through the broken windows behind him, and he tips his head back, letting the rain cool his bloody face.
He breathes hard, exhausted, but not like he just ran a marathon. More like he just fucking came.
Sated. He’s happy.
God, how did he get here?
“What happened to you?” I ask, but it comes out as a whisper.
Was he already becoming this when he climbed into my car that night?
He tips his head back down and opens his eyes. A stream of blood falls down his temple. “I haven’t changed.”
I open my mouth but then close it again.
People aren’t born like this. Violence only feels good if you’re sick or…
“It doesn’t hurt,” he tells me like he can read where my mind is going. “I promise.”
Doors slam shut below us, the sound of cries and shouts fading away as the building empties, and Roman starts squirming away, toward the fire escape.
He doesn’t get far. Ash dives down, grabs him, and hauls him up. He holds a knife to his throat, both of them staring at me. “Do you want me to kill him?” Ash asks.
I immediately shake my head, but then I stop, the wheels in my head turning.
He could kill him. Easily.
I would never have to see Roman again. My sister would be far better off.
My family could stop paying for a mistake I made over a decade ago.
How easy it would be to be done with it, and I wouldn’t go to jail for it.
But it’s not the first time I’ve had thoughts like that. They come.
And they go.
“I want you to run,” I tell Ash instead.
“I could do it,” he says, ignoring me. “And I’ll get away with it.”
I shake my head. “Not for me.”
He holds my eyes, something soft passing as he murmurs, “Everything for you.”
My eyes well with tears I won’t let fall. I don’t know when I started to think I wasn’t worth the effort, and maybe this stupid kid idolized someone he shouldn’t have all these years, but with just a few words, I start to feel not so cold anymore.
Before I can say anything more, he shoves Roman away, kicks him to his knees, breaks the glass case on the wall, and grabs the ax inside.
I suck in a breath, but then in one swift swipe, he brings the ax down hard into the floor. Roman’s right hand severs from his body, and my heart leaps into my throat.
“Ah!” he wails, sweat and tears pouring down his face. A guttural cry pours out of him, his eyes bloodshot and his mouth twisted in pain as blood spurts from his arm.
I start to turn my eyes away, but something stops me.
Maybe he didn’t deserve that, but maybe… Maybe he’ll stop now.
Maybe he should’ve stopped years ago when I told him to.
“If he lays another hand on you…” Ash says. “I will take all of his pieces, one by one, and I won’t ask your permission next time.”
And for the first time, my instinct isn’t to get away from trouble as quickly as possible. I feel roots sprout from the bottoms of my feet, strengthening my stance.
I turn to face him. “Is that so?”
He removes Roman’s belt as the man cries and flails, wrapping it around his arm above his elbow as a tourniquet, and yanking it tight.
“Ah!” Roman wails again, tears wetting his face.
Ash secures it so my sister’s husband doesn’t bleed out—this time—and grabs Roman’s hand off the ground, strutting toward me as Roman scoots away. Ash tosses the hand through the stairwell door. I hear it bang against the railing as it plummets down a dozen floors.
I shake my head as the kid stops in front of me, eyes cast down on me like he enjoys his size now.
I don’t need a protector. I don’t need another dog who barks louder than I talk.
He stares at me, and I stare back up at him.
“You’re too close,” I tell him.
But he doesn’t move.
I flex my jaw. “Leave.”
A pinch appears between his brows, making him look twelve again, but still…he remains.
Goddammit. He’s going to be caught if he stays.
I rear my hand back, slap it across his face, and his head whips to the side. He blinks, and it takes a moment, but he turns back to face me.
I hit him again, but this time he doesn’t budge. His eyes stay on me like it’s nothing he’s not used to.
He was just jostled the first time I hit, because…
He didn’t expect it.
I drop my eyes, shame overtaking me. “Just leave,” I whisper.
He moves in, dropping his head to mine, his breath warming my forehead. “Look at me,” he says.
I shake my head.
He plants his hand on the wall on the left side of my head, and I look over just in time to see him place the other on the right.
Right over a small poster—a piece of paper slowly burning that I think advertised a community garage sale or something.
“Look at me,” he orders again.
I jerk my eyes up to him, pulling at his arm, trying to get his hand away from the fire. My stomach rolls, hearing the searing flesh of his hand.
“What are you? Crazy?” I almost cry out.
But all he does is lean in. “Why not?” he asks, his hard cock pressing low on my belly. “Life’s short.”
I yank at his arm again, but he doesn’t budge. Simply balls his fist, crumples the paper inside of it, and drops it to the floor, crushing the small fire out with his boot.
“I’m bigger now,” he says. “And I don’t need a babysitter. You’re good for other things now.”
My clit throbs, but I smack him all the same, anger rising like lava up my throat. “Leave.”
But he just grins. “You know,” he muses, “years later, I would think about how pretty you were that night, and how I wished I’d been older.”
The thick ridge in his pants nudges me, and I feel my nipples harden and chafe against my tank top.
As if sensing it, his eyes drop, and his chest caves. “How strong you were. And protective. How I felt safe. If I’d been a man, I wouldn’t have wanted to stop. I would’ve peeled up your shirt in that backseat and kissed your tits so good you’d never ask me to get off of you.” His eyes meet mine. “Only to keep coming inside of you. More and more.”
A moan escapes me, and I try to turn, but his arm is back on the wall.
I pull at it, seeing the skin has turned red and angry.
“Ash, please,” I whimper.
He’s hurt himself. Doesn’t he even feel it? How can he stand it?
“I know you like the look of me,” he taunts.
I push at his chest. “Just go!” I growl. “The police will come.”
“You like the look of me a lot,” he goes on.
“It’s Dominic.” And he sweeps me up, over his shoulder, and walks. I nearly choke on my breath as my world turns upside down, and the next thing I know, we’re going up stairs. “My name is Dominic Hahn.”
“Put me down!” I yell. “Help!”
“No one will save you from me out here,” he warns.
I grip the belt at his waist, seeing the floor below tilt and sway and feeling like I’m going to fall, but he carries me without a stumble. In a minute, I hear a door slam shut and see the area rug in my living room.
Diesel is gone, only the cuffs remain on the floor.
Ash—or Dominic—swings me back upright, sets me on my feet, and I back away. “You son of a bitch!”
He pins me with a look. “In here, though, you’re the boss.”
Yeah? Thanks for nothing!
“There’s a fire,” I bite out the obvious. “We need to get out of here.”
“I don’t care if the whole world falls down around us tonight.”
I gape at him, amazed at how little he’d changed. He looks at me like he looked at that AR-15 on the street that night. Still a one-track mind.
I take in the burn marks, cuts, and incision scars, knowing not all of it was accidental and most of it wasn’t self-inflicted.
“What the hell happened to you?” I ask.
“What are you afraid of?” he fires back, demanding answers of his own.
I stand there, silent for a moment. I’m not afraid of anything. I went to college. I moved to a city by myself without knowing anyone.
But I exhale, feeling every single scar on his body like it’s my own. We don’t always see them, but we all wear them. In some form or another.
“Feeling like a failure,” I tell him.
“Do you feel anything?” he sasses like a know-it-all teenager.
Yes, I feel things. I love my career. I love to cook and walk and see movies and be the first customer at the bakery at 5 a.m. when the first batch of sourdough bread comes out of the oven and the world is quiet.
I feel proud that my parents are proud of me and I never again gave them a reason to be ashamed.
I feel lonely.
And sometimes, I want to feel what it’s like to be fucked by someone who loves me.
“There are no rules in the wild,” he tells me, finally answering my question. “We’d go camping in the Scouts. Kill, cook, eat, sleep. Kill, cook, eat, sleep.” He pauses, and I can see him thinking before he looks back up at me. “And sometimes, later on, after I ate, I’d run into something to fuck. I liked not having rules.”
That’s what happened to him. He was tested. He liked it.
“What didn’t you like?” I ask.
“The cold,” he replies. “Sometimes it was cold in a way a hot flame couldn’t cure.”
He approaches me.
“So I’d go into my head, and when I’d think about warmth, I’d remember you. About how familiar it felt around that stranger I met that night when I climbed into her car and how it never felt like that around anyone else. Not my mother or even my friends, really.” He gets closer. “In my head, there was no place for you but in my arms.”
He looks at me, and I don’t have to ask what he wants from me.
And it’s tempting. God, it’s tempting. We’re adults.
His body… His face…
He’s more than old enough.
But I’m already connected to him and him to me. What do I need with someone who’s just going to get killed or arrested eventually? Every day with him would be borrowed time.
“You need to go,” I tell him.
“You said I was in charge in here!” I shout, knowing I won’t have the willpower if he fights me on this. “I’m telling you to leave!”
He stands there.
He straightens, his chin up but his eyes down on me and his jaw tight.
It takes a moment, but he starts to back away. He actually starts to leave like I ask him to.
Maybe he thinks he just has to leave the apartment. Maybe he thinks once I’m on my way to work tomorrow, he can do what he wants then.
Or maybe he’ll get arrested tonight—maybe killed—and that’s it.
Maybe he’ll leave and never come back.
He turns and walks for the door, doing what he’s told.
And I feel sick.
I take a step toward him. “Put on the cuffs,” I say.
He stops, and I take another step, my heart about to pound out of my chest.
He scans the floor next to him and sees the cuffs he dropped there twenty minutes ago.
Slowly, I approach him. “Do it.”
I watch the muscles in his back flex as he lowers himself to the floor and rises again, handcuffs in hand as they click into place around his wrists.
Stopping at his back, I look up at the side of his face and reach around, tightening the cuffs. I know he can get out of them, but he won’t try. He’ll obey.
I graze his back with the tip of my nose, smelling wood and sulfur and heat on his wet skin. Holding up my hands, I’m almost too scared to touch him, but I glide my fingers up his forearms, taking in the cords and tendons and then moving up to his biceps and bulky shoulders. I press harder, running my hand up the back of his neck and loving how he doesn’t lean into it. Just dips his head and lets me touch him, probably too afraid I’ll stop if I know he likes it. I resist the urge to peek around him and look down to see how much.
Releasing him, I back away, watching him turn to face me. His wrists rest bound in front of him, and his eyes trail over my body as I untie my sleep shorts and let them fall to the floor.
He yanks at his cuffs, and I watch as he presses one thumb down on the joint of another, ready to dislocate it and free himself.
I shake my head. “No.”
He bares his teeth, breathing hard. His wet hair falls in his eyes, but I can see him watch me like a cat. His eyes lock on to my tits, and he wets his lips.
“What do you need?” I tease him. “Something to eat?”
He shakes his head, looking like he can’t breathe.
Again, he shakes his head.
“Let me see them,” he says.
My pulse races, and I hesitate.
“Lift up your shirt,” he breathes out, rubbing his cock through his pants.
I back up and he steps forward, trying to close the distance.
Slowly, I inch up my shirt, revealing my stomach inch by inch. “The police are coming.”
“Fuck the police,” he growls. “Show me.”
I pull my shirt up over my breasts and leave it sit there, the air cooling my hot skin and caressing the pebbled flesh of my nipples.
He swallows. “Jesus Christ.”
His eyes touch everywhere, falling over the mounds, underneath, and across the hard points.
I want more. I want his mouth.
But suddenly, chills spread over my body. I know I’m not that much older, but I know he’s had hotter and younger. He could have anyone.
I start to pull down my shirt. “I shouldn’t have…”
But he closes the distance between us and growls low. “You have to now.” He takes my hand and presses it to his pants. His cock is a rock-hard muscle, and it’s so thick. “Look at what you did,” he says. “You can’t stop now.”
I can do anything I want. I let him look. That’s enough.
I jerk my hand away, but he reaches out with both hands still cuffed and grabs me by the neck, pulling me back in.
And he kisses me, sinking his lips to mine, hot and wet and fire, and I moan, feeling it in my toes.
He licks my lips, and I dive in again, caressing his tongue with mine and unable to get enough.
I moan. “You have to get out of here.”
But he shoves me back into the wall, stares down into my eyes, and I feel the tug and hear the tear of my panties. He drops to his knees and sinks his mouth to my pussy.
I tip my head back and groan, my breasts hanging out and shaking as I shudder. God, I can’t breathe.
He licks my clit over and over, and then takes it between his teeth lightly before sucking on it.
I plant my palms to the wall at my sides, too stunned for a moment. But when he thrusts into me with his tongue again and again, I can’t take it anymore. I slide my fingers through his hair and hold him to my cunt, loving to feel him move as he licks and kisses me.
I hook a leg over his shoulder, pressing his mouth to my body and grinding into his tongue, wanting it deeper.
Wanting him deeper.
Unfastening his belt and pants, he takes himself out and looks up at me as he eats my pussy and strokes his cock.
“Faster,” I tell him.
He jerks it faster, and I watch it grow even more.
He nibbles and sucks, and my orgasm builds. My eyes start to roll into the back of my head, and I pant, “Don’t…don’t stop. Yeah.”
I can’t do anything but hang on to him between my legs.
I come as he nibbles my cunt, crying out as he rocks my body.
Dominic rises, and I kiss him, holding his face in my hands.
“I will be the best fuck of your life,” he grits out. “And the last.”
I can only nod. Right now, I don’t care what happens in a week, an hour, or the next minute. Every moment with him is stolen, and I want it.
No fear. I want to go off the deep end.
“Pick up the gun,” I say, shaking.
He holds my eyes for only a moment, and I see the confusion, but he does it. Bending down, he picks up the pistol Diesel left behind and stands up straight.
“Put it in my…mouth,” I instruct.
His gaze falters.
“Do it,” I order.
He grabs the back of my neck with one hand and holds the gun with the other, positioning it in my open mouth.
I wrap my lips around it.
And I’m his. The metal between my teeth, the threat of what comes next… I’m sick of worrying about what happens a year from now. I want the fucking moment.
He leans in. “Lay down on the couch,” he says in a deep tone, “and spread your legs wide. Now.”
My clit throbs again, and the promise of him there makes me want to come.
I lower myself to the couch, him following, and I lay down as he comes down on top of me. The chain stretching just enough between his cuffs, he holds the back of my neck with one hand and keeps the pistol in my mouth with the other.
His dick digs into my stomach. He’s so hard.
“Now take my hips, baby.” He looks into my eyes. “Pull me inside of you.”
I nod, whimpering, as my tongue grazes the bullet chamber.
He cocks the gun. “Do it.”
I suck in a breath, breathing hard and fast, but I love this fear.
Because I trust him.
Inhaling and exhaling in quick, sharp breaths, I grip his hips and pull him down between my legs. His cock crowns my entrance, and I see him smile.
“You’re gonna be a tight one, aren’t you?” He leans down and glides his tongue over my nipple, up my neck, and across my cheek. “Put me inside you.”
I reach down and fist his cock, working him inside me. He stretches me as he presses himself deeper and seats himself inside.
“Holy fuck,” he growls.
I groan, squirming, as he pulls out and thrusts back in hard. He does it again and again, my cum wetting and coating him so he slides in easier.
“Show me how much you want it.” He fists the back of my hair as I suck on the gun. “Show me.”
I take his hips again, sliding my hands down the back of his pants and dig my nails into his ass. He thrusts between my legs and after a minute, I fall into a rhythm with him, letting him fuck me.
“Oh, that’s a good girl.” He takes my nipples in short, possessive kisses. “You like that, don’t you?”
“Mm hmm,” I moan over the gun in my mouth.
“Oh, God, you feel so fucking good,” he whispers. “Police aren’t coming, baby. No one’s coming to stop this.”
I know. Thank God. I don’t want anyone stopping him. Just don’t stop.
He slides in and out of me, and I’m coming again. I close my eyes, whimpering and getting wetter as tears pool at the corners of my eyes.
“What a slut,” he taunts against my cheek. “Did you come? You liked that, didn’t you?”
I gasp, trying to swallow, but my throat is so dry. I tighten my legs around him and hold him to me, and he takes the gun out of my mouth, covering my lips with his instead. He kisses me hard, removing his rough hands and replacing them with a soft caress. “So beautiful,” he pants. “So perfect.”
He groans, and I know it’s my turn. I don’t know why I needed that. The danger, the threat—but it was strong hands and sure arms and eyes seeing me too.
Now I want to please him.
Pushing him back, I climb on top of him and sink down onto his cock. I keep my shirt on but still pulled up above my tits as I ride him. He throws his head back, moaning and closing his eyes as he holds me.
“You’re so hard,” I tell him, rolling my hips faster and faster.
“So wet,” he adds.
Sweat drips down my back, my hair sticking to my skin, and I grind on him, needing this more than I need to escape. The fire could be right out the door, I don’t care. I’m fucking him.
“Come inside me,” I beg.
“Yeah,” he growls.
I push his bound hands up over his head and pin his arms to the sofa, curling my fingers into his flesh.
I lick his mouth. Mine.
“Oh, fuck,” he groans, watching my body bounce on his like it’s a movie. “Angel…”
“I want to feel your cum,” I whimper, orgasming again, my muscles so tight I’m ready to scream. “I want to feel your cum…”
“Fuck!” He throws his head back and squeezes me, holding me in place as he jerks and spills inside of me. “God. Shit. Fuck.”
I grind on him as much as he’ll let me move, finishing myself off before I collapse on top of him, wet and exhausted. It’s so hot, the air is so thick, I can’t breathe.
Three times. I came three times. Jesus.
I turn my head into him, burying my nose against his skin to kiss him.
He wraps his arms around me, and the room spins.
“Ash!” I hear a faint shout.
I blink my eyes open.
“Ash, you in here?” someone yells. “Answer me, man!”
I lift my head, Dominic rising with me.
The door swings open and men enter my apartment, dressed in dark blue jackets.
I grab the square pillow behind Dominic and cover myself quickly.
“What is this?” I ask.
A guy with dark blond hair—graying at the sides—stops and looks at us. “Jesus, man. You okay?” He rushes over, whipping off his jacket and throwing it around me. “Christ! Why are you still in this building? You were supposed to call in.”
I look to Dominic as I climb off of him, hurriedly covering myself as people fill the apartment. “What’s going on?”
But he doesn’t answer me. He rises from the couch, pulls up his pants, and zips them.
“Did you get him?” the guy asks him.
Dominic fastens his belt. “Had a little trouble. I—”
“I don’t care how you do what you do,” the guy cuts him off. “I don’t need the details. Did you get him?”
“He’s alive.” Dominic nods. “Just. He’s one floor down.”
Someone takes my arm and tries to lead me away, but I yank it back, tossing them all a dirty look. What is going on?!
“And if he makes bail?” Dominic asks the guy.
“Then I’ll find you.”
He turns and starts to leave and that’s when I notice the yellow letters on everyone else’s jacket. The ones probably on the back of the one I’m wearing.
I turn to Dominic. “You’re a…a cop?” I stammer.
He cocks an eyebrow. “A cop?” he repeats, looking like he’s about to laugh. “Fuck the police.”
The guy leaving laughs as law enforcement swarms my apartment, and I glare at the kid. FBI is still police. Is he serious?
“Rest up.” The guy tosses him his badge. “I’ll see you in the office in a few days.”
Someone tries to pull me again. “We need to clear the building,” the woman agent says.
But Dominic steps in. “Leave her with me.” He pulls on a shirt, and I have no idea where he got it. “I still need some questions answered.”
The lady nods, and slowly, everyone clears out.
Rain falls harder against the windows, and hopefully, it will help slow the fires. Dominic circles me, smoothing his hair over the top of his head.
“You weren’t a criminal at all,” I say, starting to put it together. “You were bait.”
He was undercover or something. Working for the Mob. Alfonse Reynolds found out, and Dominic let himself be caught to lure him in.
“Oh, I’m a criminal,” he tells me. “The only difference is who I do it for.”
He smiles. “What better way not to get caught than to do it under orders?”
“You lied to me,” I tell him.
His smile falls, and he looks contrite. “I didn’t want to,” he says. “They brought me here, I saw you… All that became important was keeping you safe.”
I fold my arms over my chest.
“It took me fourteen years to find you and tonight, all of a sudden, you just fall into my lap,” he explains. “I meant what I said. I’m the last man you’ll ever have, Castel.”
“I don’t date cops.”
A grin pulls at his lips. “You were not-dating me pretty fucking hard a few minutes ago.”
I press my teeth together. I won’t dignify that with a response. What a child.
He approaches, his voice softening. “I won’t lie to you again.”
And I stand there, feeling the war wage inside of me. I wish I didn’t believe him.
He nods to the bathroom behind me. “Shower,” he orders. “We have to clean you.”
“We have to get out of here,” I reply. “It can’t be safe with—”
And he scoops me up, my curly hair spilling around me and my arms still defiantly crossed.
“If you think I’m letting you walk out there dressed like this…” he warns, his eyes dropping to the FBI jacket and nothing else I’m wearing underneath.
“I’ll do it myself,” I tell him.
“I’ll wash you.”
“Bring the handcuffs,” I retort. “You’ll need them.”
He takes me into my bathroom and kicks the door shut behind him. “I like knots,” he teases. “And I know ’em all.”
I step through the trees, seeing all the lights off in the cabin, the clean scent of the waterfall twenty yards behind it crashing against the granite rocks almost enough to mask the scent of the chimney smoke.
I squint, just making out the swirls of black drifting out of the stone stack. She knows better than to light it at night, but…it’s cold. She doesn’t like the cold.
Luckily, I’m the one who found her tonight and no one truly dangerous. As if she could ever hide from me again anyway.
The wind sweeps through the trees, the warm days behind us and a long winter ahead as I approach the isolated structure.
My shirt is filthy, and the stitches on my arm have torn, but I don’t even notice the pain anymore. I’m just glad it’s dark. She won’t see me coming.
I try the door first, knowing I could break through the lock in less than a second, but that would wake her.
Slipping over the window, I hop up on the sill and leap to the second-floor ledge. I take the knife out of my back pocket, slide it under the frame, and pry up the old wood, opening the window.
I tiptoe inside the house, the heat of the fire warming the whole floor and make the hair on my arms rise.
I inhale and smell her.
She was always for me. The ideal I compared everyone to. The tough act that shattered when she couldn’t let a kid go unsupervised on the streets during a riot. The incredible face and body I realized years later was perfection. The smile and the memory of her voice in my dreams.
I didn’t even get her name that night.
But she was the rest of me. Plain and simple.
I walk across the second floor of the cabin, touching the walls and the pictures and the railing, feeling her in the house. Knowing exactly where she is.
I step into the master bedroom and see her laying on top of the sheets. Suitcases lay on the floor, opened, and the Pack ‘n Play sits erected against the wall, the sleep machine playing rain sounds.
I walk over and peer down into the portable crib, leaning over him; his brown hair and plump cheeks and if he opens his eyes right now, I know what color blue I’ll see. I have it memorized.
Not that anyone would ever question it, but there’s no denying that’s my son.
I lean down and kiss his forehead, already so much bigger than when I saw him two weeks ago.
Heading over to the bed, I peel off my shirt, shoes, and socks, and I climb up next to her and lay down.
She groans, reaching her hand across my body. And then she startles. “Dominic?”
“Sorry, baby.” I take her in my arms. “Go back to sleep.”
She exhales and relaxes again, nestling into my neck. “Everything okay?” she asks, her voice sleepy.
“Perfect,” I say. “I’m sorry about this.”
She snorts. “Been through it a dozen times. I know the drill.”
Yeah. Still sucks, though. As much as I’ve tried to hide having a wife, the wrong people find out and she and Cannon are in danger too often. I call in the middle of the night, and then she has to grab a bag that I’ve trained her to keep packed, and it’s off to some safe house.
It’s happened more times than it should, but she never complains. Always ready to go. A non-stop adventure.
I’ll retire in a couple of years, though. I’ve got another adventure planned. Something where I’m in charge and my girl has the life she deserves.
Her hand grazes down my body and arms, but she stops when she reaches my hand.
I jerk, remembering my wedding ring. Shit.
“Sorry, baby.” I dig it out of my pocket, my latest cover some neo-Nazi incel who hasn’t gotten laid since his wife left him three years ago. He wouldn’t be wearing a wedding ring, obviously.
I want to laugh when I think about it. If those fucking assholes could see the queen who rides my dick, runs my house, bears my name, carried my son and will carry more, they’d burst into tears as they masturbate in their cherry Jello.
I slide my ring back on my finger.
She climbs on top, straddling me and pulls her shirt off over her head, smiling down. “You know the rules.” She takes my gun off my hip and sets it on the bedside table. “I’m in charge at home.”
I grip her hips, pressing myself up into her and getting hard. “Yes, ma’am.”
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