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Hideaway

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2017
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7 comments
 
cnelle
My fave so far next I read kill switch
25 April 2021 (02:34) 
Kim
Favourite book in the series, I prefer their relationship more than Michael's and erika coz it just have more..idk how to describe but really good.
26 July 2021 (12:39) 
Anysha Williams
this book is sooo good. Kai and Banks are my fav couple in this series
26 July 2021 (23:45) 
Jasmina
really liked the book, 8,5/10
28 July 2021 (22:31) 
laisa
i dont like banks. shes so fucking uptight good gawd
15 August 2021 (06:09) 
laisa
yeah i hate her even more now. im only reasing this because i love kai and he's happy with her bitchass then whatever
15 August 2021 (08:58) 
ellie<3
this is my favourite book so far, idk why everyone is saying they don’t like banks i really like her because she didn’t let people push her around. the first book made damon seem like a horrible person but this book showed his traumatic past and showed that he can actually love and care about people. Penelope’s writing is outstanding and keeps you hooked all the way through, i really recommend this book 10/10 :)
08 September 2021 (20:51) 

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1

Hiding Behind Love

年:
2018
语言:
english
文件:
EPUB, 361 KB
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2

Hideaway

年:
2018
语言:
english
文件:
EPUB, 253 KB
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Penelope Douglas

Copyright © 2017 Penelope Douglas

Cover Design © 2017 Pink Ink Designs



All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system without the prior written permission of the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.



Proofreading & Interior Formatting by Elaine York, Allusion Graphics, LLC/Publishing & Book Formatting





Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Epilogue

Sneak Peek

Punk 57

Acknowledgements

About the Author





“Black Honey” by Thrice



“Castle” by Halsey



“Control” by Puddle of Mudd



“Cry Little Sister” by Seasons After



“Emotionless” by Red Sun Rising



“Go to Hell” by KMFDM



“Heavy In Your Arms” by Florence + The Machine



“Jekyll and Hyde” by Five Finger Death Punch



“Like a Nightmare” by Never Say Die



“Lung (Bronchitis Mix)” by Sister Machine Gun



“Paint It, Black” by Ciara



“Remember We Die” by Gemini Syndrome



“Save Yourself” by Stabbing Westward



“Scumgrief (Deep Dub Trauma Mix)” by Fear Factory



“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Think Up Anger



“Smokin’ In the Boys Room” by Mötley Crüe



“Waiting Game” by Banks





While the romance in HIDEAWAY is a stand-alone, the plot is a continuation of events that began in CORRUPT (Devil’s Night #1). It is strongly recommended you read CORRUPT prior to reading this novel.

Enjoy!





For Z. King





A man cannot de; stroy the savage in him by denying its impulses. The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.



–Robert Louis Stevenson,

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde





Kai



Rain was like night. You could be different in the dark and under the clouds.

I’m not sure what it was. Maybe the lack of sunlight and how our other senses heightened or the subtle shroud hiding things from our sight, but only certain times were acceptable to do certain things. Shrug off your jacket and roll up your sleeves. Pour a drink and lean back. Laugh with your friends and scream at the basketball game on TV.

Follow a girl you’ve been eye-fucking for an hour into the pub bathroom and have your friends nod in approval when you come back out.

Try doing that during the day with the intern at the office.

Not that I’d want the freedom to indulge in anything at any time anyway. Things were more special when they were rare.

But every morning, when the sun rose, the coils in my stomach wound tighter in anticipation.

Nightfall was coming again.

Letting my mask dangle from my hand at my side, I stood at the top of the second-floor landing and watched Rika sitting in her car. She kept her head down, her face visible by the glow of her cell phone, despite the downpour of rain hitting her windshield as she typed.

I shook my head, my jaw flexing. She doesn’t listen.

I watched as my best friend’s fiancée finished up, the light from her phone disappearing, and then she opened the car door, stepped out, and broke into a jog, dashing through the pounding rain. I darted my eyes, taking inventory of her. Head and eyes cast downward. Keys wrapped in her closed fist. Arms shielding her head from the rain and hindering her line-of-sight.

Completely unaware of her surroundings. The perfect victim.

Grabbing the harness at the back of my mask, I stretched it out and slid the silver skull down over my head, the inside hugging every curve of my face for a tight fit. The world around me shrunk to that of a tunnel, and all I could see was what was right in front of me.

Heat spread down my neck, seeping deep into my chest, and I drew in a long, cool breath, feeling my heart pounding, getting hungry.

All of a sudden, the rain, like a waterfall in the alley outside, filled the dojo, and the heavy metal door downstairs slammed shut.

“Hello?” she called out.

My heart dipped into my stomach, and I closed my eyes, savoring the feel. The sound of her voice echoed through the empty building, but I stayed planted on the dark landing, waiting for her to find me.

“Kai?” I heard her shout through the large space.

I reached back and pulled the hood of my black sweatshirt up, covering my head, and turned to look down over the railing.

“Hello?” she asked again, more urgent. “Kai, are you here?”

I saw her blonde hair first. It’s what you always noticed about Rika first. In her black penthouse, in this black dojo, in the black alley outside, in dark rooms and on black streets…. She always stood out.

I rested my hands on the rusted steel railing, keeping my feet planted on the grates, and watched her step slowly into the main room below, flipping up the switches on the wall. But nothing happened. The lights didn’t go on.

She jerked her head left and right, looking suddenly alert, and then darted out her hand, flipping them off and then on again.

Nothing.

Her chest moved up and down quicker, her awareness peaking as she clutched the strap of her bag tighter.

I fought not to smile and cocked my head, watching her. I should show myself. I should play fair, let her know I was here, and that she was safe.

But the longer I waited, and the longer I stayed quiet and hidden, the more nervous she appeared. And as she walked farther into the room below, I couldn’t help but want to feel this moment. She was confused. Scared. Timid. She didn’t know I was here. Right above her. She didn’t know that my eyes were on her right now. She didn’t know that I could run at her, get her in a hold, and have her on the floor before she even knew what had happened.

I didn’t want to scare her, but I did. Power and control were addictive. And I didn’t want to like it, because it made me sick.

It made me Damon.

I started breathing harder and tightened my fists around the railing, growing scared myself. This wasn’t normal.

“I know you’re here,” she said, looking around with her eyebrows pinched together.

But the stubborn set to her eyes was forced, and I lifted the corner of my mouth in a smile behind my mask.

Her long, gray t-shirt fell off her shoulder, and rain glistened across her chest and neck. The downpour pummeled Meridian City outside, and at this time of night—and in this neighborhood—the streets were empty. No one would hear her. No one probably even saw her enter the building.

And by the way she began backing slowly out of the dark room, it looked like she was just beginning to realize that.

I took a step.

The grate flooring creaked, and she snapped her head left, following the sound.

Her eyes locked on me. Keeping my gaze on her, I walked toward the stairs.

“Kai?” she asked.

Why isn’t he answering me? she probably wondered. Why is he wearing his mask? Why are the lights out? Because of the storm? What’s going on?

But I said nothing as I walked slowly toward her, her pretty, small form getting more defined the closer I got. Wet strands of hair I didn’t notice before stuck to her chest, and the diamond studs Michael gave her last Christmas sparkled on her ears. The points of her breasts poked through her shirt.

Her blue eyes looked at me warily. “I know that’s you.”

I smirked behind my mask, her rigid body betraying her confident words. Do you?

I circled her slowly, caging her in, while she remained stubbornly still. Are you so sure it’s me? I might not be Kai, right? I could’ve just taken his mask. Or bought one just like it.

Stopping behind her, I tried to keep my breathing calm despite the way my heart was pounding. I could feel her. The energy between my chest and her back.

She should’ve turned around. She should’ve been preparing herself for danger like I taught her. Did she think this was a game?

“Knock it off,” she barked, turning her head just enough so I could see her lips move. “This isn’t funny.”

No, it wasn’t funny. Michael was gone—out of town for the night—and Will was probably out getting drunk somewhere. It was just us.

And with the way my goddamn stomach was flipping right now, it wasn’t funny or good or right how much I needed to constantly push myself over the edge to feel in control anymore. It wasn’t good how much I didn’t want to stop.

I grabbed her, wrapping my arms around her and burying my nose under her ear. Her perfume made my eyelids heavy, and I heard her gasp as I tightened my hold, keeping her body against mine. “It’s just us, Little Monster,” I growled. “Just how I want it to be, and we have all night.”

“Kai!” she shouted, tugging against my arms.

“Who’s Kai?”

She twisted, fighting my hold and struggling. “I know you by now. Your height, your form, your smell…”

“Do you?” I asked. “You know how I feel, huh?”

I buried my masked face in her neck and tightened my arms around her. Possessive. Threatening. I breathed out in a whisper, “I miss you as a little high school girl, Rika.” I moaned, acting like I loved the feel of her squirming against me. “You didn’t give any lip.”

She stopped, every part of her body freezing except her breathing. Her chest caved and then began to shake under my arms.

I’d gotten to her.

Someone close to us said those exact words once, someone who scared her, and now she was doubting whether or not I just might not be him. Damon had disappeared last year, and he could be anywhere, right, Rika?

“I’ve waited a long time for this,” I said, hearing the thunder crack outside. “Get this shit off.” I yanked down her shirt, exposing her in her tank top, and she let out a scream. “I wanna fuckin’ see you.”

She gasped, pulling away and throwing her arms at me. She immediately stepped back—the first countermove I showed her when someone grabs her from behind—but I pushed off my back foot, knowing what she was going to do.

Come on, Rika!

And then, all of a sudden, she dropped, the full weight of her body slipping through my arms straight to the floor.

I nearly laughed. She was thinking quickly. Good.

But I kept up my assault. She scrambled to her hands and knees, getting ready to scurry away, and I lunged out, grabbing her by the ankle.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I taunted.

She flipped over and kicked my mask, and I reared back, laughing. “Oh, God, you’re going to be fun. I can’t fucking wait.”

A whimper escaped her as she crawled backward and pushed herself to her feet again. She twisted around, fear etched across her face, and broke into a run toward the locker rooms. Probably going to the exit at the rear of the building.

I raced after her, grabbing hold of her shirt, my whole body on fire.

Fuck. I felt a trickle of sweat glide down the back of my neck.

It’s just a game. I won’t hurt her. It was like tag or hide-and-seek as a kid. We knew nothing bad would happen when we got caught and we’d bring no harm when we chased, but the irrational fear excited us anyway. That was what I liked. That’s all it was. This wasn’t real.

Twisting her around, I wrapped one arm around her and lifted her knee up with my other hand, picking her up off the ground. She threw up the other knee, but I twisted my hips before her jab landed between my legs. Flipping her back, I threw both of us to the ground, coming down on top of her.

“No!” she cried. Her body thrashed under me, and I forced myself between her legs, bringing her wrists up over her head and pinning them there.

She fought against my hold, but the steel in her arms began to shake, and her strength started to weaken.

I stilled and stared down. Damon and I both had dark hair and eyes, although his were almost black. She wouldn’t be able to tell the difference under the shroud of darkness around us. But she could feel me. Handling her, forcing her, threatening her…just like him.

I slowly dropped my head to her breast, hovering an inch above her skin, and she’d stopped fighting. Her chest heaved so hard it sounded like she was having an asthma attack.

Looking up at her, seeing her body mold easily to mine and her hands bound helplessly above her, I saw her tear up. She knew this was it. No one to stop me, no one to hear her scream, a madman in a mask who could hurt her, kill her, and take all night doing it.

Her face suddenly cracked, and she broke, crying out as her fight was swallowed in the horror of what was happening to her.

Goddammit. I yanked back my hood and threw off my mask, furious. “You’re a fucking baby!” I bellowed, slamming my hand down on the floor at the side of her head. “Get me off you!” I got in her face. “Now! Come on!”

She growled, her face turning red, and she launched up and wrapped her arm over the back of my neck. Squeezing me into a headlock, she reached her other hand under her arm and dug her finger and thumb into my eyes.

It wasn’t much, but it got me to loosen my hold long enough for her to slam me in the side of the face, and when I reared back, she scrambled upright and grabbed her bag, swinging it at my head.

“Ugh!” I grunted, yanking it out of her hands.

But quickly, she scurried to her feet and ran to the wall, grabbing one of the Kendo swords and assuming her stance, bamboo shanai raised and ready.

I sat back on my heels and pulled my hand away from my face, checking for blood. Nothing. I let out a sigh and raised my eyes to her, my body growing cold as the fear left her eyes and was replaced with anger.

The adrenaline still coursed through my limbs, and I took a deep breath, all of a sudden my body ten times heavier as I pulled myself to my feet.

“I don’t like being ambushed like that!” she gritted out. “This is supposed to be a safe space.”

I blinked, fixing her with a scolding look. “Nowhere is safe.”

I walked toward the stairs, pulling off my sweatshirt as I climbed. “You’re not alert.” I picked up the water bottle I’d left by the window earlier. “I watch you. Your face was in your phone out on the street. And you could barely budge me. You waste too much time panicking.”

I gulped down the water, so thirsty from more than just the exertion. Too much thinking and worrying and plotting. I’d needed this.

I missed all those nights, years ago, when I had a release. When I had friends to get lost with.

Her footsteps fell on the stairs, and I stared out the window, the bright lights of Meridian City on the other side of the river glowing bright, a sharp contrast to the darkness of this side.

“I’ve absorbed everything you’ve taught me,” she said. “I trusted you, and I wasn’t taking it seriously. In the moment, if it ever happens again, I’ll handle it.”

“You should’ve handled it this time. What if it wasn’t me? What would’ve happened to you?”

I glanced down at her, seeing her pained eyes staring off out the window, and regret curled its way through my stomach. I hated seeing that look. Rika had been through enough, and I’d just shaken her again.

“I think you liked that,” she replied quietly, still staring out the window. “I think you enjoyed that.”

My heart skipped a beat, and I turned away from her, following her gaze out the window.

“If I did, I wouldn’t have stopped.”

She looked up at me, and I heard a car passing by below, its tires sloshing through the rain.

“You know, I watch you, too,” she told me. “You’re quiet, no one gets to see where you eat or sleep…”

I twisted the cap to the water bottle, the plastic container crackling in my fist. I knew what she was talking about. I knew I was distant.

But I had to keep everything inside or risk the wrong things slipping out. It was better this way.

And it was worse lately. Everything was fucked. She and Michael were so consumed with each other, and Will was only sober a few hours a day anymore. I’d been on my own more than ever.

“You’re like a machine.” She drew in a long breath. “Not like Damon. You’re unreadable.” She paused. “Except just now. Except when you’re wearing your mask. You liked it, didn’t you? It’s the only time I see you feel anything.”

I turned my head, softening my eyes. “You’re not with me all the time,” I joked.

I held her eyes for a moment, both us knowing exactly what I was talking about. She didn’t see me with women, and a slight blush crossed her cheeks. She gave me a half-smile, abandoning her line of questioning.

I cleared my throat, moving on. “You need to work on your counter-attacks,” I told her. “And your speed. If you stop, you give the attacker a chance to get a good hold on you.”

“I knew I was safe with you.”

“You aren’t,” I replied sternly. “Always assume danger. If anyone other than Michael grabs you, they get what they deserve anyway.”

She crossed her arms over her chest, and I could feel her aggravation. I understood it. She didn’t want to live her life always on guard. But she was barely taking basic safety precautions, and there was no limit to how sorry she was going to be taking the wrong chances. Michael wasn’t always around.

But when he was, at least he was with her. It had been weeks since I’d really talked to him.

“How is he?” I asked her.

She rolled her eyes, and I could tell the mood was shifting to something lighter. “He wants to fly off to Rio or somewhere to get married.”

“I thought you both decided to wait until after you were done with college.”

She nodded, sighing. “Yeah, I thought so, too.”

I narrowed my eyes on her. So, what was going on then?

Michael and Rika’s parents expected a wedding in Thunder Bay, and as far as I knew, the couple was fine with that. In fact, Michael had been very adamant about making a big deal out of it. He wanted to see her in a dress, walking down the aisle toward him. He grew up thinking she would marry his brother, after all. He intended to show everyone she was his.

And then it hit me.

Damon.

“He’s afraid a fanfare wedding will entice Damon to return,” I guessed.

Rika nodded again solemnly, still staring out the window. “He thinks if we get married nothing bad will happen to me. The sooner, the better.”

“He’s right,” I told her. “A wedding—hundreds of people and Will and me at his side—Damon’s ego couldn’t take it. He wouldn’t stay away.”

“No one’s seen or heard from him in a year.”

I flexed my jaw, anticipation curling its way through my gut. “Yeah, that’s what scares me.”

A year ago, Damon wanted Rika to suffer unimaginably. We all did, actually, but Damon went a little further, and when we didn’t stick by him, we all became his enemies. He attacked us, hurt her, and helped Michael’s brother, Trevor, try to kill her. Michael was smart to assume that Damon’s anger probably hadn’t dissipated. If we knew where he was, that would be one thing, but the detectives we hired to find him and keep tabs on his whereabouts hadn’t been able to locate him.

Which explained why Michael wanted to take measures to keep Rika out of the limelight, as such a grand wedding in our affluent, seaside hometown would put her.

“You don’t care about a large wedding,” I reminded her. “You just want Michael. Why not go off and just do it like he wants?”

She was silent for a few moments and then spoke quietly, her eyes in a far-off place. “No.” She shook her head. “Just behind St. Killian’s, where the forest ends and the cliffs give way to the sea. Under the midnight sky…” She nodded, a beautiful, wistful smile touching her lips. “That’s where I’ll marry Michael.”

I studied her, wondering about that far off, dreamy look in her eyes. As if she’d always known she would marry Michael Crist and had been seeing it in her head all her life.

“What is that building?” Rika asked, jerking her chin, gesturing out the window.

I followed her gaze, but I didn’t have to look to know which building she spoke of. I’d chosen this location for our dojo for a reason.

Gazing out of the glass, I stared at the building on the other side of the street, about thirty stories higher than ours, the gray stone darkened by the rain and the broken street lights.

“The Pope,” I answered. “It was quite a hotel back in its day. Still is, actually.”

The Pope had been abandoned for several years and had been built when there was talk of a football stadium being constructed over here as a way to bring more tourism to Meridian City. And a way to revitalize Whitehall, the rundown, urban district in which we now stood.

Unfortunately, the stadium never happened, and The Pope went under after struggling to stay in business.

I scanned the darkened windows, the shadows of drapes just barely visible inside a hundred rooms that now sat quiet and empty. It was hard to think of such a large place not having an ounce of life in it anymore. Impossible, in fact. My leery eyes watched each dark void, my sight only taking me a few inches into the room before darkness consumed the rest.

“It feels like someone’s watching us.”

“I know,” I agreed, surveying each window, one after another.

I saw her shiver out of the corner of my eye and picked up my sweatshirt, handing it to her.

She took it, giving me a smile as she turned to go back down the stairs. “It’s getting cold. I can’t believe October is here already. Devil’s Night will be here soon,” she sing-songed, sounding excited.

I nodded, following her.

But as I cast one more glance behind me, chills spread down my body thinking about the hundred haunting, vacant rooms at the abandoned hotel across the street.

And a Devil’s Night, so long ago, when a boy who used to be me hunted a girl who might be like Rika in a place that just may be that very same dark hotel out the window right now.

But unlike tonight, he didn’t stop.

He did something he shouldn’t have done.

I walked down the stairs, inches behind Rika and matching her steps in perfect time as I gazed at the back of her hair.

She didn’t realize just how close danger was to her.





Kai



Devil’s Night

Six Years Ago



Devil’s Night. This was it.

Our last one.

We were graduating next May, and once the four of us went off to college, we wouldn’t be home unless it was for winter or summer breaks. And by then, we’d be too old for this. We wouldn’t have the excuse of youth to explain why we chose to celebrate the night before Halloween, indulging in pranks and other childish shenanigans, for no other reason than to raise a little hell. We’d be men. It wouldn’t fly, right?

So, tonight would be it. The finale.

I slammed my car door shut and walked through the parking lot, past Damon’s BMW, and toward the rear entrance of the cathedral. Opening the door, I walked into the lounge area, consisting of some tables, a kitchen, a few couches, and a coffee table littered with pamphlets on how to pray the rosary and Fasting in a Healthy Way.

I inhaled a deep breath, the ever-present odor of incense filling the quiet halls. I was Catholic by birth, as was my friend, Damon, but in practice, we were Catholic in the same way Taco Bell was a Mexican restaurant. I played along for my mother, while Damon played along for amusement.

I headed down the hallway to the actual church, but a loud thud pierced the silence, and I stopped short, looking around for where it came from. It sounded like a book dropping onto a desktop.

It was a Friday morning. Not many people would be here, although there were probably a few stragglers kneeling in the pews and praying their penance, since confession had just ended.

“What did we discuss yesterday?” I heard Father Beir’s burly voice from somewhere off to my left.

“I don’t remember, Father.”

I smiled to myself. Damon.

Taking a left, I stepped quietly down another marble hallway, dragging my fingertips over the shiny mahogany paneling on the walls and trying to withhold my laughter.

Stopping just before the open door to the priest’s office, I hung back and listened. Damon’s smooth, calm tone answered Beir as if following a script.

“You’re unrepentant and irresponsible.”

“Yes, Father.”

My chest shook. Damon’s words were always in complete contradiction to how they sounded coming out of his mouth. Yes, Father as if in complete agreement that he’d misbehaved, while at the same time Yes, Father, aren’t you proud of me?

Most of us reconciled in the confessionals out in the nave, but Damon—after many years of failed “redirection” on the part of his father and his priest—was forced to be schooled face to face for weekly counseling sessions.

He fucking enjoyed it. He took pleasure in being anyone’s devil.

Twisting my head around, I peeked into the room, seeing the priest walk around the desk while Damon knelt on a single pew, Beir’s big, black Bible on the stand in front of him.

“Do you want to be judged?” the father asked.

“We will all be judged.”

“That’s not what I taught you.”

Damon’s head was bowed enough for his black hair to hang just over his eyes, but I could see the hint of a smile that Beir probably couldn’t. He wore our school uniform, khakis with his typical wrinkled, white Oxford, cuffs unbuttoned, and a loose blue and green necktie hanging around his neck. We were on our way to school, but he looked like he’d been in his clothes all night.

He suddenly turned his head toward me, and I watched as he jutted out his tongue, moving it side to side suggestively and grinning like an asshole.

I broke into silent laughter, smiling at him and shaking my head.

Douche.

Turning away, I walked back down the hallway, toward the church, and left Damon to finish his “lesson.”

There were many things I loved about this place, but being lectured like that wasn’t one of them. The masses bored me, the Sunday school monotonous, many of the priests distant and cold, and so many of the parishioners vile to each other Monday thru Saturday who suddenly changed their tunes between ten and eleven o’clock on Sunday mornings. It was all such a lie.

But I liked the church. It was quiet. And you could be quiet here without the expectation of forced interactions.

Heading down the aisle, toward the back, I scanned the four confessionals, making sure no lights were on that signaled a priest inside. Since they were all empty, I walked down to the far right, choosing the last one, partially hidden behind a column and the one closest to the stained-glass windows.

I pulled back the curtain and stepped inside the small, dark cubicle, pulling the curtain closed again. The scent of old wood surrounded me but there was something else I faintly noticed. A hint of being outside. In the wind and water.

Sitting in the hardwood chair, I looked ahead at the darkened, wicker screen in front of me, knowing the other side was empty. The priests had all moved onto their other daily duties. Exactly how I liked it. I always did this alone.

I leaned down, my elbows on my knees, and clasped my hands together. The muscles on my arms burned with an involuntary flex.

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” I said in a quiet voice. “It’s been a month since my last confession.”

I swallowed hard, always more aware that when a priest wasn’t listening to me, I was. And believe it or not, that was sometimes harder. No one to offer me forgiveness but myself.

“I know you’re not there,” I told the empty air on the other side. “I know I’ve been doing this too long to keep making excuses, but…” I paused, searching for words. “But sometimes I can only talk when no one is listening.”

I drew in a deep breath, my shell falling away.

“I just need to say things out loud, I guess.” Even if I didn’t get the cheap penance that did nothing to absorb the guilt.

I breathed in the smell of water and wind, not knowing where it was coming from, but it made me feel like I was in a cave. Safe from eyes and ears.

“I don’t need you. I just need this place,” I admitted. “What’s wrong with me, that I like to hide? That I like my secrets?”

Damon, I couldn’t imagine, had any secrets. He didn’t brag about his dirty deeds, but he never hid them, either. Will, the other member of our pack, didn’t do anything without back-up, so someone was always aware what he was up to.

And Michael—our team captain, and the one I was closest to—hid only from those around him what he hid from himself.

But me…I knew who I was. And I made a concerted effort never to let anyone see it.

“I like that I lie to my parents,” I nearly whispered. “I like that they don’t know what I did last night or last week or what I’m going to do tonight. I like that no one knows how I like being alone. How I like fighting, and I like the private rooms in the clubs…” I trailed off, lost in thought, remembering the past month since my last confession and all the nights I’d lost myself.

“I like that my friends are bad for me,” I said, continuing. “And I like to watch.”

I wrapped one fist inside another, forcing the words out.

“I like to watch people. Something new I just discovered about myself.” I ran my hand through my hair, feeling the ends rough with gel. “Wanting to be in it, to feel what they’re feeling, is almost hotter than actually being a part of it.” I looked up at the dark screen, seeing just a sliver of it left open. “And I like hiding it. I don’t want my friends to know me as well as they think they do. I don’t know why.” I shook my head, thinking. “There are just some things that are more exciting when they’re a secret.”

Dropping my eyes, I sigh. “But as much as I get off on not being seen, it’s lonely, too. There’s no connection.”

Which wasn’t entirely true if you saw it from the outside. Michael, Will, Damon… we were all cut from the same cloth in a way. We all loved the wild ride and craved the high that only came from doing anything we weren’t supposed to do.

But me? I liked my privacy. More than they did.

And I liked it sordid. As much as they did.

I pushed the shame away, coming back. “So, anyway, I lie. All the time. Too many times to count.” To everyone. “I also resent my father most of the time. I’ve taken the Lord’s name in vain about five hundred times the past month, and I’ve had pre-marital sex to break up the monotony of every waking minute consumed with impure thoughts.” I shake my head, laughing at myself. “Penance won’t make me stop, and I have no intention of changing, so…”

So that’s why confessing to a priest does me no good. Again, I like doing everything I do wrong.

But it felt good to admit it. At least I confessed, right? At least I knew I was doing things I shouldn’t, and that was something.

Closing my eyes, I leaned back against the wall and breathed in the silence.

Fuck me, I couldn’t wait for tonight. Thinking about the catacombs or the cemetery or wherever we ended up filled me with need. My mask, the fear, the chase… I swallowed the lump in my throat, feeling my body heat rise.

The lull of the fountain at the back of the church dribbled softly, and I heard the echo of a cough in the distance. I didn’t know what I’d be doing first, breaking something, screwing someone, or fighting, but I wanted whatever it was now, and it wasn’t even dark yet. Tonight was the highlight of my year.

“There’s a story…” a voice suddenly said, jolting me.

I popped my eyes open, and my heart dropped into my fucking stomach. What the…?

“What the hell?” I burst out, sitting up. “Who is that?”

The voice—a woman’s—came from somewhere close.

Like the other side of the fucking confessional.

I leapt up from my chair, the legs screeching against the marble floor.

“No, please, don’t,” she begged, probably knowing I was about to rip open the door to the priest’s chamber on the other side. “I didn’t mean to listen, but I was already here, and you started talking. I won’t say anything.”

She sounded young, maybe my age, and nervous. I stared down at the screen, her voice inches away.

“You’ve been in there this whole time?” I growled, my head a flurry of all the shit I’d just said. “What the hell? Who are you?”

I whipped open my curtain, but then I heard the shutter on her side of the screen slide open all the way, and her plea, “Please,” she whispered. “I want to talk to you, and I can’t if you see me. Just give me a minute. Just one minute.”

I stopped, locking my jaw together. What the hell was she doing over there? Did she know who I was?

“You can see me,” she said. “Just give me a minute.”

Something about her voice was fragile. Like she was a vase teetering on the edge of a coffee table. I stood frozen for a minute, debating whether or not to let my curiosity pull her ass out of that room or indulge her.

Okay. Just a minute then.

“There’s a story,” she started again when I didn’t move farther, “about The Pope Hotel in Meridian City. Do you know the place?”

I eyed the screen, barely seeing her outline in the dark.

The Pope? That multi-million-dollar waste on the shitty side of the river?

I closed the curtain, taking my seat again. “Who are you?”

“There’s a rumor about the twelfth floor,” she went on, ignoring my question. “It exists, but no one can get to it. Have you heard that story?”

I leaned back just slightly, my body still rigid and on guard. “No.”

“Rumor has it that the family that owns The Pope built a twelfth floor in every hotel they constructed. For the family’s personal use,” she told me. “The entire floor is their residence when they’re in a particular city with one of their hotels. It’s inaccessible to guests, though. The elevator doesn’t stop on that floor, and when it was investigated, there’s not even a possibility for the elevator to stop there. The floor is walled in.” Her voice evened out, and I noticed a touch of excitement in her words. “And so is the stairwell access.”

“So, how does the family get to their secret floor when they want in?”

“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?” she asked. “That’s the secret. For the longest time, people assumed it was just some mystery promoted by the owners and staff to increase the allure of the hotel.” She paused, and I could hear her draw in a breath. “But then guests started noticing her.”

“Her?”

“A woman—dancing,” she answered.

“Dancing,” I repeated, suddenly a little more interested.

A secret floor? A secret entrance? A ghost girl?

I felt like she nodded, but I couldn’t be sure. “After midnight, when nearly every guest is tucked into their rooms and the hotel is quiet and dark, they say you can see her…” she nearly whispered, and I could hear the smile in her voice. “Dancing by herself—like a ballerina—down in the dark, moonlit ballroom. Dancing to a haunting lullaby.”

I watch her lips move, concealed mostly in shadow, but I could make out the outline.

“Another story tells of a ballerina dancing on the twelfth-floor balcony, too,” she continued. “They could see her from the windows higher up. The light rain, shining as it reflects the city lights, dancing with her as she twirls and leaps in the air. Stories added up over the years, sightings and questions… A girl who never checked in and never checks out, hiding by day and dancing by night.” And then her voice dropped to a whisper, making the hair on my arms stand up. “Always alone, always hiding.”

It couldn’t be true, but I kind of wanted to believe it was. It was like a treasure hunt, wasn’t it? A girl, concealed from the world, hiding. Right under everyone’s nose.

“Why are you telling me this story?”

“Because she’s still there,” she replied. “Hiding on the secret floor. Alone. At least that’s what I like to believe. Secrets and mysteries make life fun, don’t they?”

I smiled to myself, leaning forward and resting my elbows on my knees again. “Yeah.”

Her fingers came up to the screen, and I finally saw a piece of her. Her slender hand, fingertips, and short nails.

“I like your secrets.” She sounded breathless. “And who are you really hurting by keeping them? Right?”

The wind and water surrounded me, and I realized that’s where the scent had come from. I’d smelled her as soon as I stepped into the confessional. She was already here.

“Do you listen to other peoples’ confessions often?” I asked, somewhat amused.

“Sometimes.”

Her reply was so quick, I couldn’t help but admire her. I liked that she felt so at ease being honest, and I kind of hoped it was because of me.

“I lie, too,” she offered.

“To whom?”

“To my family,” she said. “I lie to them all the time.”

“What do you lie to them about?”

“Anything I need to keep them happy. I tell them I’m fine when I’m not. I see my mother, and I’m not supposed to. I lie about my struggle to be loyal.”

“Is it important to keep the truth from them?”

“As necessary as their desire to know my every step, yes.” Her fingers drifted down the screen, her nails scraping it barely. “They still see me as a child. Incapable.”

“You sound like you might be,” I mused. “Young, I mean.”

A scoff escaped her lips, challenging me. “I was ancient at six. Can you hear the sound of that?”

I narrowed my eyes, trying to figure her out. Her voice, everything she said, who she was… Ancient at six. She’d grown up too soon. That’s what she’d meant.

Leaning back again, I watched her dark form shift on the other side of the screen. I wanted to see her, but I didn’t want to stop talking, either. Not just yet.

She said she couldn’t talk to me if I saw her. Did I know her then?

“We’re only ever good, because there are consequences,” I told her. “Take those away, and everyone shows their true self. Kind of like taking off a mask.”

“Or putting one on,” she replied. “After all, there’s freedom in hiding, isn’t there?”

Yeah, I guess—

“Do you like the feel of a mask?” she chirped, changing the subject.

It was kind of out of the blue, and my heart skipped a beat. “Why would you ask me that?”

She knew who I was, didn’t she? She knew it was Devil’s Night.

“I like the feel of one,” she said. “Like this screen and the darkness. They’re kind of like masks, aren’t they?”

Kind of.

“I could be anyone.” Her fragile voice smoothed over, turning playful. “I could be a girl you grew up with. A classmate. Someone’s little sister. The kid you used to babysit when you were sixteen…”

The corner of my lips lifted, and I entertained the idea. Although I didn’t recognize her voice, that didn’t mean I didn’t know her. She could be a girl I passed in the halls every day. Someone I never gave a second glance to. Or she could be a buddy’s girlfriend or one of the gardener’s kids. Who knew?

“And you could be anyone, too,” she pondered. “A friend’s boyfriend, a teacher I had a crush on, or one of my father’s friends. You could say anything to me. I could say anything to you. And there’s no embarrassment, because we never have to face each other. Not if we don’t want to.”

I leaned closer again, trying to breathe in more of her scent.

I wanted to see her. I definitely had to see her.

“I’ll keep your secrets,” I told her. “No matter who you are.”

“You are one of my secrets,” she shot back. “I’m trying to steal you, but I wish I didn’t want to.”

“What does that mean?” Steal me?

“So, what do you like to watch?” she asked.

“Huh?” She changed the subject again. She was moving a mile a minute, and I was having a hard time keeping up.

“In your confession, you said you like to watch. Watch what?”

I chewed the corner of my mouth, hesitant. “I think you know,” I replied, caging. “Figure it out, big girl.”

She laughed for the first time. It was this perfect, innocent sound, and my hands hummed with the urge to touch her all of a sudden.

“And what if I like to watch, too?” she teased. “Show me with your words.”

“I can’t.” I looked down, embarrassed despite myself.

“Please,” she asked again, her voice dropping to a whisper, and I swore I could feel the heat of her breath on my face. “Talk to me. Tell me what you don’t tell anyone else.”

I shook my head, struggling. The way she talked…. Sometimes it was like a woman, straddling my lap with her lips inches from mine.

But just now, it was like a little girl, desperate for a treat.

“When was your last confession, little one?” I prodded, inching further into her territory.

“I’ve never had one.”

“Aren’t you Catholic?”

“No.”

Then why was she here?

But then again, why was she in the priest’s chamber, too? “You’re a little mystery yourself, aren’t you?” I asked, not expecting an answer.

“Come on. What do you like to watch?” she repeated, pushing me.

I opened my mouth, but just ended up letting out a sigh.

Jesus. What do I like to watch? I can’t tell her that. Fuck.

I closed my eyes. I needed to leave. What if she knew me? What if I went to school with her? What if she was someone I’d like? She wouldn’t want to know this shit.

But as if she knew my fear, she told me, “Don’t be afraid. I’m already imagining the worst, and I’m still here, right?”

I shook my head, feeling stupid, but I laughed anyway. “I like…” I ran a hand up and down my face. “One of my friends had a girl in the media room this summer,” I said, starting over. “It was late, we were all really lit, and the mood was getting heated. He started kissing her and feeling her up, nothing I haven’t seen before, but she would look over at me, probably expecting that I would join in, but…”

I inhaled a deep breath. I didn’t feel like I was safe right now. I didn’t feel like I was hiding in this dark, fucking confessional with a screen between me and this girl I may or may not know. I should shut up.

But part of me didn’t want to. Every word brought me closer to the edge. Closer to falling. I wanted to fall.

I continued. “Something kept me rooted in my seat this time. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, but I couldn’t move, either.”

The girl on the other side remained quiet, but I knew she was still there.

“I didn’t want to move,” I confessed. “And she couldn’t take her eyes off me, either. She straddled him, fucking him, but her eyes were on me the whole time.”

I closed my eyes for a moment, remembering the sight of her grinding on him. But it was all for me. Everything she did was to keep me watching. I controlled her.

“I could see her chest moving faster with her breathing, the sweat on her neck, her nervous eyes…. She didn’t know what I was going to do. She didn’t know if I liked what I was seeing or if I was going to pounce at any second. She was scared. And excited.”

She had no idea what I was thinking. How I liked what she was doing for me without laying a hand on me. I wasn’t communicating with my hands or my mouth, just my eyes all over her body, and it drove her crazy not knowing. God, she loved it.

“He fucked her,” I said, “but I was the one who made her come.”

I realized my pants felt tighter, and I reached down to adjust myself, grunting under my breath at the ache.

“Sordid, right?” I said. “Disgusting, sleazy, vile…”

“Yeah.” But I heard a smile in her voice. “So, what did you do about it?”

“What do you mean?”

Her fingertips pressed against the screen again. “You must’ve been turned on after that. What did you do?”

I held in my nervous laugh. She didn’t miss a beat, did she? “You’re skinning me alive right now, kid.”

A breathy laugh escaped her, and I could nearly make out her lips close to the screen.

“How old are you?” I asked.

“Old enough to have seen and heard worse,” she replied. “Don’t worry. Now what did you do after that?”

“I can’t…” I breathed out. “I didn’t…. I didn’t do anything.”

But she waited. She knew I was lying.

I licked my dry lips, dropping my voice so low, I didn’t know if she could hear me. “I didn’t wait for my friends to get up and leave in the car to go get food,” I told her. “And I didn’t wait for the girl to trail down the hallway to the bathroom or for her to step into the shower. I didn’t follow her or turn off the lights, scaring her…”

The memory of her gasp rang in my ears, and the world tilted in front of me. The dark bathroom, the swaying shower curtain, the steam I could already smell…

“It’s okay,” Mystery Girl said when I remained quiet.

“I didn’t like frightening her or making her scream.” I clenched my teeth, dropping my head into my hand. “Or climbing into that shower and grabbing her and feeling her come apart in my hands…”

My fingers slid through my hair, shame burning my face but also a weight lifting off my shoulders. If this kid didn’t run, then maybe I wasn’t so bad, right?

Right?

“And I didn’t love every second inside of her tight body—”

“No, don’t,” she urged, stopping me. “Don’t say anymore. Please.”

I raised my head, my insides shrinking. “I’m scaring you.”

“No.”

“Liar.”

“Yes,” she finally said. “Yes, you scare me. But I like it. I’m just…”

“Just what?”

“I’m just…” She paused, breathing erratically. “Just jealous.”

“Why?”

“Because you hunted her.” Her pale forehead leaned into the screen, and I caught a few strands of rich, dark hair. “Maybe I shouldn’t let you see me just yet. Maybe I should let you hunt me, too. Sounds like you’re good at it.”

I leaned back up, a smile tugging my lips. I was no longer embarrassed. Keeping my eyes on her, I pulled my keys out of my pocket and stuck the sharp one to my car into one of the holes of the wicker screen. Before she even had time to rear back, I tugged the key downward, ripped a slit in the screen, and pushed my hand through, catching her shirt in my fist just as she tried to escape. I pulled her forward and leaned in, smelling the wind on her skin and feeling how small and light she was. I barely flexed a muscle, holding her.

“What makes you think I haven’t been doing that this whole time?” I teased. “Do you think that little story is as naughty as I can get? Should I tell you about last summer and running into my former babysitter one night who was home from med school? She liked how I’d grown up.”

She breathed in hard, shallow breaths, and her hands came up, clasping mine. “Yes.”

I narrowed my eyes, releasing her sweatshirt and, instead, raising my hand to her face. At my touch, she shivered, but she didn’t back away.

The smooth skin felt like water as I grazed my fingertips over her sharp jaw and up her cheek. I drifted past her delicate ear lobe and into her hair, deciphering the softness and the length she hid. Fabric brushed against the back of my hand, and I realized she was wearing a hood.

Her hair was tucked behind her, and everything was chilled. Her face, her hands, her hair…even her ear felt like an icicle.

“You’re so cold,” I said.

But she turned her face into my hand, her hot breath falling into my palm. “I don’t feel cold.”

Her lips barely touched my hand, and I wanted to go the extra centimeter—reach closer and touch them, but I didn’t. She wasn’t getting away from me, and I wanted to drag this out. Sliding my hand around the back of her neck, I held her and grazed my thumb down the front of her throat, feeling her swallow.

She was so still, as if she were really afraid. A sound broke from somewhere in the church, and I briefly registered a basketball bouncing. After years on the court, I knew the sound like it was my mother’s voice.

“It’s Devil’s Night, and the night is young,” she finally spoke up. “Maybe you’ll find someone else to scare tonight.”

I tightened my grip. “And if I want to scare you?”

I felt her body shake with a laugh. “Then maybe I’ll be around,” she said playfully, pulling away. “Happy Hunting.”

And I heard a shuffle and saw light pour into her little room before the door slammed shut, making it dark again.

“Hey.” I pulled my hand back in. “Hey!”

I stood up and threw open the curtain, walking out and looking around before opening the door. The priest’s chamber was empty. I whipped around and scanned the church, noticing only a few people in the pews, none looking like a teenage girl. Walking over to the row of columns near the windows, I looked around them, not seeing anyone there, either.

“What the hell?” Where did she go?

The bouncing sound registered again, and I looked up, seeing Damon round the last row of pews and walk toward me. He must’ve just finished up with Beir.

“What’s goin’ on?” he asked through the unlit cigarette in his mouth.

I straightened and closed my mouth, trying to breathe slower. “Nothing.”

I had no idea how to start explaining what just happened. Plus, it wasn’t wise to put a girl on his radar if you planned on keeping her to yourself. At least, at first.

Holding the ball at his side, he leaned down and lit his cigarette using one of the prayer candles.

“Come on, knock it off,” I scolded, still trying not to look around for the girl. I still felt her there.

Damon rose, the end of his cigarette burning orange and a puff of smoke drifting up into the air. “Like we give a shit.” He took the cigarette out of his mouth and blew out.

“But it’s insulting to people who do. No wonder you’re in confession every fucking week.” I walked around him, growing impatient and not knowing why.

Damon did everything he could to be an asshole, but that was him. He was always the same.

And suddenly, I didn’t want the same old shit tonight for some reason. I didn’t want him to be him or me to be me. I didn’t want to hide anything tonight.

It’s Devil’s Night, she’d said. She knew what we got up to. She knew me. If she didn’t find me, I’d find her.





Kai



Present



I grabbed a couple water bottles from the ice bowl next to the towels and walked toward the steam room, the wet heat snaking up my nostrils as I opened the frosted glass door and walked in.

Hunter-Bailey Men’s Club was quiet this time of the day. And no matter how busy my friends and I were—or how hungover—we usually found ourselves here most mornings.

I looked up, instantly spotting Michael sitting two steps up on the marble seating that snaked around the room, while Will sat hunched over to my right one step down. He lifted his head, and I could see last night’s indiscretions written all over his pale and weary face. Dark circles sat under his eyes, and he dropped his head again, grumbling, “Motherfucker.”

I shook my head, holding out a bottle of water. “You need new vices.”

The asshole was drunk every day. And to add insult to injury, he was blowing through every cent his asinine, indulgent parents gave him, paying for any one of three things to which he’d dedicated his life: drinking, women, and, as I was starting to suspect, pills and powder.

He pulled the water out of my hand and held the chilled bottle to his brow, his shallow breathing growing shaky.

Taking my bottle, I climbed the step and sat down next to Michael. His back and head rested against the wall, and his eyes were closed as steam billowed in the air around us. Dim lighting cast a soft, blue glow throughout the room, and I felt a trickle of sweat already sliding down my chest toward my towel.

“How are the renovations going on at St. Killian’s?” I asked him.

But he shook his head. “Don’t. Don’t talk to me about fucking renovations right now.”

I narrowed my gaze, seeing his eyes open and his jaw flex as he stared ahead. He was angry? With me?

And then suspicion hit me. The night before last and what happened at the dojo with Rika.

Great. Not that I was in the right by any means, but I trusted her to not tell Michael every damn thing.

I let out a breath. “Man, I’m sorry. I wasn’t going to hurt her. I—”

“You know who I’ve been thinking about lately?” he interrupted me, asking but not waiting for a response. “Your mother, Vittoria.”

I kept my eyes on him.

“She was a prized piece back in the day, huh?” he mused, a slight smirk on his face. “Still is, if you ask me. Great ass. Long legs.”

I stilled, clenching my jaw. I knew what he was doing, but anger was rising anyway.

He continued, “I don’t think I ever told you how hot she always got me, did I? Back in high school, coming over to your house and seeing her in her skin-tight workout clothes. That woman still doesn’t look a day over thirty.” He smiled, savoring the insults he grinded in my fucking face.

“You know what I think I’ll do?” he taunted. “I think I’ll go to your parents’ house tonight. Wait until your father is asleep and see if she wants to climb on top of me. Yeah.” He nodded. “She’ll love the feel of me, and if she doesn’t, who cares? Who cares how much she fights and cries? I’m gonna put fear in her, so every time I’m around she’s gonna know I can take whatever I want from her no matter what.”

I tightened my fists at my sides and stared ahead, fury burning its way through my gut. Too fucking far.

I stood up and walked down the steps, turning to Michael who still sat relaxing against the wall. But his eyes were locked on mine, all too ready for this confrontation.

“I would never have hurt her,” I said again.

“Hurt who—”

But Michael cut off Will’s question and glared at me, leaning forward. “When I wake up in the middle of the night, I expect to find Rika there,” he gritted out. “Not crying as she pounds the shit out of a punching bag downstairs at three o’clock in the morning because you made her feel ashamed of herself.”

He followed me down the step, crowding my space and trying to intimidate me. “And when I ask her what’s wrong,” he went on, “I don’t expect her to lie to me to protect you. What the hell is the matter with you? Why would you go so far?”

“She needs to be able to protect herself,” I told him. “She needs to be ready. She’s not your doll.”

“Don’t tell me what she is!”

“You said she was one of us!” I retorted. “She’s no different, right? You don’t coddle Will or me. ‘She’s an equal.’ That’s what you said. We’re her friends, too, and we have a stake in seeing her be able to protect herself. I’m not holding her fucking hand like she’s five years old.”

Michael darted forward, getting in my face. “You don’t get to make decisions about my woman.”

“Are you sure you do?” I shot back.

The dents between his eyebrows deepened. He was still pissed.

But I was the one who was right.

Michael fucking groomed Rika for years. Since they were kids, he played with her and mind-fucked her. He never handled her gently and always expected her to take care of herself and her own shit.

But now that she was his, he’d changed. We all fought our own battles, including Rika’s. What the hell was he thinking? He wasn’t doing her any good.

I heard the bones in his body crack as something tightened. If I were anyone else, he’d have hit me already.

If I were anyone else, he wouldn’t be scared to.

“Just try it,” I taunted him. “I dare you.”

He took a step closer, and so did I, neck to neck and eye to eye as we both stood our ground. I never stepped on Michael’s toes, and he never treaded too far on mine. He knew he wouldn’t win, so to save his pride I was always the first one to back off. On the few occasions we were angry with each other, anyway.

But I found myself not willing to relent this time. I didn’t mean to make Rika feel bad, but she shouldn’t feel comfortable, either. Not with Damon running around. I was right.

Sweat ran down my back, and we stared at each other, neither one of us blinking.

“Are you guys gonna get it on right now?” Will asked.

I hooded my eyes. For Christ’s sake.

Leave it to Will to crack a joke right now.

Heaving a sigh, I walked around Michael and looked between the two of them. “We have enemies. And the list grows every day. Rika should be just as alert as we are.”

The four of us had formed a corporation—Graymor Cristane—a combination of our last names—and Rika insisted on being an equal partner in the business. And in the group. She needed to know how to handle any threat.

But Michael turned toward me, shaking his head. “Damon’s gone.”

“No, Damon’s hiding,” I corrected him. “Have you stopped to ask yourself why?” I tossed a glance to Will before going back to Michael. “Why aren’t there any pictures of him online? Why aren’t the detectives able to find him to keep track of him like we asked them to? They’re not finding any hits on his credit cards, and his passport hasn’t shown any activity for the last year.”

I mean, assuming he’s not dead, why isn’t he showing up on anyone’s radar?

“Damon doesn’t hide,” I told them. “Why is he hiding now? He knows we’re not coming after him. Why isn’t he hitting clubs in Moscow or buying shit in Tokyo or being spotted in Hawaii or Fiji or L.A.?” My tone grew louder, more demanding. “Why is he invisible?”

Michael and Will were silent for a moment, their expressions pensive before Will finally answered. “Because he doesn’t want people to know where he is?”

“Exactly.” And then I met Michael’s eyes. “And why wouldn’t he want people to know where he is?”

Michael’s gaze fell, and his voice was subdued. “Because he’s somewhere he’s not supposed to be.”

I nodded. Damon’s ego was a hundred times the size of a ship. He wouldn’t hide from us. Not unless he had a good reason not to be found.

“What if the passport we tracked to Russia last year was a cover?” I asked them, not expecting an answer. “What if he’s closer than we thought?” And then I approached Michael, dropping my voice to a whisper. “What if he never left?”

Michael’s hazel eyes narrowed again, and his jaw flexed as the wheels in his head started turning. After all this time and all the failed efforts to locate Damon, it finally hit me. He was deliberately staying under the radar. And it wasn’t out of guilt or shame for what he’d done. He was hiding, because he was right under our noses. I’d bet my life on it.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Will chimed in, and I saw him rise out of the corner of my eye. “There’s no fucking way! He couldn’t have been here a whole year and we not know it. And if he is, what the hell’s he waiting for?”

I turned my head toward him. “Devil’s Night.” And then I looked back at Michael. “We need to go. Now.”





It took less than an hour to get to Thunder Bay, our coastal hometown where we’d all grown up. Rika was still in class, a junior at Trinity College in Meridian City, so Michael shot her a text, letting her know we’d be back in a few hours. I’m sure she would’ve liked making the short commute home to see her mother, but Michael didn’t even give her the option. Probably because he had no intention of ever bringing her anywhere near Damon’s home or his father.

And as much as I talked a good talk in the steam room earlier, I couldn’t say I blamed him. Gabriel Torrance was a piece of shit.

We sat in a parking space off to the side of his circular driveway, idling in Michael’s new SUV.

“Let me go,” I said, sitting up in the passenger seat, staring at the stone mansion. “I want to talk to him alone.”

“We’ll all go,” Will spoke up from the back seat.

“No.” I turned my head toward him, narrowing my eyes. “You stay here.”

I turned forward again, briefly meeting Michael’s eyes. Will had been misbehaving like it was his fucking job ever since Damon left, and I wasn’t sure it was the best idea to bring him here, let alone subject him to this house. For all I knew, Damon could be hiding out somewhere inside.

Clearing my throat, I pushed the door open and hopped out of the car, looking back through the open windows as I shut the door. “Tell my mother I died well,” I said sarcastically to both of them and then shot a look to Will. “No, actually, you tell her. Michael’s not allowed around my mom anymore.”

I turned away, hearing Michael’s chuckle behind me. None of that shit better be true, either.

Heading up to the front door, I briefly glanced up to the tower built into the front house. The Torrance home was a chateau-style structure of light stone, but there were three watchtowers giving it a castle-like quality. One of the towers adjoined Damon’s bedroom where a spiral staircase across from his bed led up to a small alcove at the top with a single, small window. I’d only been up in his room once, and he didn’t let me stay long. That was one place where he coveted his privacy.

I reached out to press the doorbell, but the door suddenly opened, and I dropped my hand.

“Mr. Mori,” Hanson, a blond man in a plain, black suit greeted me. “Please, come in.”

I hesitated only a moment before stepping forward. Since we had to announce ourselves at the gate, they knew I was coming, but I felt a knot tighten in my stomach anyway at the quick response. A few more moments of delay at having to deal with Gabriel would’ve been appreciated.

He closed the door, and without a word, I followed him through the house. Damon’s father could almost always be found at home. It’s where he was safest.

Although he put up the front of dealing in media, investing in networks, news, and entertainment, I knew that was merely a drop in the ocean of how he made his money. Men of honest means didn’t change their Russian surnames to English ones to hide their past. And only men of dirty deeds employed a team of muscle to protect them around the clock.

The servant led me through the vast house and out to the terrace where the entire area was paved in a mosaic of gray stone with sporadic rows of Italian Cypresses. Several people loitered around, many young women dressed chicly and holding glasses of champagne. It didn’t seem to matter that it was barely noon.

A buffet of food sat to my right, while a table full of well-dressed men talked and laughed nearby. Gabriel, dressed in black slacks and a black shirt, stood over a rottweiler, grasping its collar.

I stopped, watching him. He rotated his fist into the back of the dog’s head, the lion-headed, gold ring on his middle finger digging into its skull. The dog whined, inching down but still tried to keep its legs under it. The fight was still there.

I locked my jaw and raised a hard look to Gabriel. Son of a bitch. A sickening smile curled his thin lips as he pushed farther down and twisted the chain around the dog’s neck, choking it.

I took a step but stopped, seeing the two huskies, the beagle with bloody gashes in its side, and the pit bull whose ribs I could see through its skin.

Given all my resentment of Damon Torrance—how he’d tried to kill me last year, how he betrayed Will and Michael, and how he’d tried to hurt Rika—I’d never failed to remember what a true monster looked like.

The dog finally broke and fell to its stomach, shaking as it laid down.

Gabriel grabbed a small chunk of meat from the plate on the garden table and tossed it down to the dog. He then stood up straight and grabbed some more meat, tossing the larger chunks to the trained shepherd and huskie standing behind him as the other dogs looked on hungrily.

“So, they sent me the Nip, huh?” he said, not looking at me as he stroked the huskie’s fur. “Isn’t Michael the alpha dog anymore?”

I tipped my chin up, keeping my tone level despite his slur. “Moscow Rules, Mr. Torrance.” I reminded him. “Number eight. ‘Never harass the opposition.’”

“Number nine,” he shot back, flashing me his dark eyes under a gray brow. “Pick the time and place for action.”

And he held out his hands, gesturing to his men and their guns, which were never far away, and his house, meaning I was on his turf. He had the advantage.

“So, what’s this about?” He wiped his hands off on a linen napkin, digging between his fingers and under his ring. “Are we coming to terms? Will you leave my son alone if he comes home?”

“That depends. Are you open for business?”

All of a sudden, the German shepherd snapped, both he and the pit bull barking at each other as the latter tried to snatch meat. Gabriel took a step, shouting, “No. Heel!” He whipped the cloth, snapping it at the pit bull’s face.

One of his men rushed to grab the dog as Gabriel scowled at the fighting animal.

“That spotted one is pissing me off,” he told the man and then barked at the dog again. “Down. Down!”

The poor animal was dragged away and Gabriel came back to the table, tossing the napkin down. He glanced at me, coming back to our conversation. “Don’t play with me, boy,” he gritted out. “You’re only still alive because Damon will want to do the honors himself.”

“No,” I replied, my tone dead calm. “Your son has made enough of a mess for you, and you don’t need another one right now. If we can do this amicably, I know we’d both prefer it, so don’t try to intimidate me.”

He laughed softly, taking a drink from his rocks glass. Michael, Will, and Rika had agreed that they would move on with their lives and let Damon move on with his if he stayed out of town and away from us.

But not me. I needed to find him, and I couldn’t tell my friends why.

And I needed to find him now, before he returned home and to the protection of his family.

“Your hotel in the city,” I continued. “The Pope. It’s on my side of the river, and I’m interested in it. Quid pro quo. You give me something. I give you something. Is it for sale?”

“Everything’s for sale.” He set his glass down and took a seat, gesturing for me to do the same. “But I’ll want my son back.”

Of course, you do. I took a seat in the black, wrought iron garden chair, trying to look relaxed despite the ache in my knotted stomach. I hated him and this house.

“And even if that is on the table,” he went on, “it still won’t be enough to make a deal. I don’t like you.”

“I do.” A young blonde approached, and I turned my gaze on her. She wore a white silk robe just long enough to cover her ass as she leaned over to set another drink in front of Gabriel. “And I’m for sale,” she teased.

I cast my gaze back at Gabriel, trying to ignore the interruption. It was neither unusual to see women dressed like that in this house, nor was her flirtation out of the ordinary. Entertainment was always within reach here. Even when Damon’s mother had lived here.

I dropped my eyes, feeling adrenaline flood my veins at the memory of her. I didn’t like her any more than her husband.

The young woman moved to walk away, but Gabriel pulled her back and into his lap.

“You know what your problem is?” he asked me as he snaked a hand around her and squeezed her breast through her robe. “Why, out of the three of you, you were the one I hated hanging around my son in high school?”

I remained silent.

“Your loyalty has a limit,” Gabriel said, answering his own question. “I could always see that. Grayson and Crist, they would protect you even if they found a dead hooker in your bed and blood on your hands. No questions. No hesitation. And so would Damon.” He nodded at me. “But I don’t think you’d do the same for them.”

His arrogant eyes held mine as he slipped a hand inside her robe, absently fondling her breast.

I curled my hands into fists. But then I relaxed, not wanting to give him the satisfaction. He would never know how much I’d done for his son.

“Even your love for your friends,” he continued, “could never overshadow your sense of right and wrong, right?”

“I went to prison for assaulting a police officer. For a friend,” I reminded him.

“No. For assaulting a man you believed deserved it for abusing his sister,” he argued. “Even as a criminal, you’re noble.”

He then turned his eyes on the girl. “You see, honey,” he told her, pulling his hand out of her robe and brushing her hair behind her ear. “Kai Mori is a self-righteous little fucker, and I want you to go over there and suck him dry right now.”

Anger instantly heated my body. The girl locked eyes with me, cocking her head playfully, and then she walked around the table toward me.

That motherfucker. He knew how to work people, didn’t he? If I left now, the conversation was over. No deal. Which is probably exactly what he had in mind. He might want Damon back, but he didn’t want to deal with me. He expected me to jump ship and run.

Now if I let the girl blow me, that would surprise him, wouldn’t it?

She stopped in front of me, and I held her eyes as she knelt down, her merlot-colored finger nails slowly scaling up my thighs. She grasped my belt, and I grabbed her hands, shoving her off.

No.

Gabriel wasn’t pushing me down the gutter with him.

I rose, straightening my belt and smoothing my hand down my jacket.

“Always predictable.” Gabriel laughed.

The girl looked to him, probably scared she’d done something wrong, and he jerked his chin at her, speaking Russian. She immediately stood and headed back into the house.

“You should try her, though,” he told me, picking up his drink. “A throat a mile deep on that one.”

“Everything okay?”

I jerked my head, seeing Michael and Will standing in the doorway to the house, watching us. I let out a breath, not realizing I’d been holding it. I wasn’t sure if they’d seen what had just happened, but I didn’t really care.

“Hanson,” Gabriel called his man over, setting his drink back down and putting his arm around the waist of a brunette who had come up. “Take these gentlemen into the dining room.” He glanced at the three of us. “My assistant will meet you in there to discuss terms and The Pope. I’ll be in touch.”

And off he went, taking the young woman with him into the house.

The flat expression that I’d been forcing faltered, and I glared at his back as he left.

Damon’s father was nearly identical to Michael’s in personality. I hated them both. And I completely understood why my father rarely spoke to either of them at parties or sporting events growing up. It was the one area where Katsu Mori and I agreed.

“Gentlemen.” Hanson stepped forward, holding out his arm and gesturing for us to follow him into the house.

Michael pinched his eyebrows together, questioning me with his eyes, but I shook my head, following the servant.

The dogs. The girl. The crowd of people he didn’t give a shit about seeing his filthy deeds. He wanted me to know he was stronger.

But I was going to be smarter.

Hanson led us back through the house, hands locked behind his back until we came to a set of double doors, and he opened them, inviting us into a dining room. He stopped and turned, letting us enter.

“Please, sit wherever you like,” he instructed. “Refreshments will be served shortly.”

He backed out of the room, closing the black double doors, and as soon as I heard the gold knobs click shut, I released a breath and closed my eyes.

“What happened?” Michael asked, sounding concerned.

I just shook my head, turning away and staring off out the windows to the terrace we’d just left. “I almost forgot,” I mumbled to myself. “I almost forgot there was a reason Damon was so fucked up.”

I kicked the leg of a chair, seething. Goddamn him. He called me a fucking criminal. “Even as a criminal, you’re noble,” Gabriel had said. He could go fuck himself. His cruelty, his diabolical nature, his pleasure in others’ pain…every inch of that guy was filth. I wasn’t the criminal. I was nothing like him.

Michael stepped up. “What’s going on?”

I gripped the back of a chair, seeing Will standing on the other side of the table. “I don’t know yet,” I said through clenched teeth.

“Why did he mention The Pope?”

“It’s—” But I stopped as Hanson opened the door again.

A young woman, this one fully clothed with her hair stuffed up into a newsboy cap, wheeled in a cart with water glasses and a tray of some kind of pastry.

I pulled out a chair, and Michael and Will followed my lead as she got to work getting the refreshments ready. Hanson said something in Russian to her and backed out of the room, drawing the doors closed again.

“It’s across from the dojo,” I told Michael. “I thought we’d check it out for Graymor Cristane.”

“We didn’t talk about that,” he griped. “Where the hell is this coming from? I thought we came here to see if Gabriel knew where Damon was.”

I shot him a leveled look across the table, trying to tell him with my eyes that this wasn’t the best place to talk. Michael knew me well enough by now to know I didn’t make fast decisions. I had a plan.

“I don’t think he knows where he is,” I told Michael as I relaxed into the chair. “Why not put the past behind us and make a deal? The hotel is still in great condition. We could make something out of it.”

“What?” Michael looked at me like I had three heads.

I almost laughed.

I made a show of glancing to my right where the girl was working, and then said with a smile in my eyes, caging, “Did you know The Pope is a Torrance property?” I rounded my eyes on Michael, hoping the knucklehead knew how to pick up a hint. “It’s been abandoned all this time. But it must be pretty nice inside, because all the entrances are fortified with an alarm system, cameras cover every door and corner surrounding the hotel, and there’s even a security guard that still cruises past the hotel at the top of every hour and does a walk around the perimeter every four hours. I noticed that from the dojo.”

Michael studied me, the wheels in his head turning, while Will still looked confused.

Come on, Michael. Figure it out.

And finally I saw the light go on in his eyes, realization hitting. “Oh, yeah.” He nodded. “Right.”

I smiled to myself, glad he finally understood.

Why all the security for a place not being used? Why not just lock and board up the doors? Or tear it down and sell it off? Why was it sealed up and guarded like a prison?

Damon was there.

I had no intention of buying the hotel, but I wanted inside of it. And if the rumors about a mysterious, hidden twelfth floor were true, I needed full access to the place and privacy to explore.

Damon had tried to kill us. He wasn’t going to be allowed to come home ever. But there was a reason I needed to find him. We had a loose end to take care of.

A cloth napkin and water glasses were set in front of us, and I heard a shuffle of dishes behind me. Where was this assistant we’re supposed to meet?

“Just trust me,” I mumbled to Michael, still speaking in code. “It’ll be a great hotel. And if it’s not clean, we’ll clean it up nice and quick.”

He laughed under his breath and then opened his mouth to speak, but the servant came around and placed a plate in front of him.

“I’m not hungry,” he said, swiping his hands in front of him to stop the kid. “Ny-et.”

She quietly picked up the plate again and set the one in her other hand down in front of Will, before circling the table to come over to me.

“Do I know you?” Will spoke up, staring over my head to the young woman who was filling my water glass.

But before the girl had a chance to answer, Michael turned to him. “Come on, dickhead. Now now,” he grumbled. “You don’t need to get laid every time we stop the car. Damn.”

Will’s eyes turned angry, every muscle in his body looking tight. Jesus. He shoved his chair back and stood up, walking out one of the glass doors leading to the patio.

I sat up straight and let out a breath. I knew Michael meant it as a joke, but not really, either. And Will knew it. He knew his extracurricular activities were becoming a problem, but he didn’t want his friends pointing it out.

Michael stared at the table, his hazel eyes hooded and a little regretful. I watched Will through the doors as he lit a cigarette, a habit he’d picked up last year.

“So, anyway,” Michael continued, “we get inside the hotel, do an ‘assessment’, and see if everything is…copacetic before we try to buy it, right?”

I nodded, taking a drink of my water.

“And if it’s not?”

Meaning ‘And if Damon is there?’

Then we handle it. But before I had a chance to answer him, I saw Michael jerk back as water and ice cubes spilled onto the sleeve of his jacket. “Jesus Christ…”

The girl hurriedly lifted the pitcher back up, bowing her head in apology.

“Iz-vee-nee-tye,” she gasped out in a small, scared voice. I glanced up at her, unable to see her face hidden under the hat. She pulled the container away and set it down, grabbing a napkin and trying to wipe off his sleeve.

“Just…” He snatched the towel away from her. “Leave it alone. And take this away.” He handed her his glass and the wet linen, immediately turning away and dismissing her.

She bowed her head again, hurrying off to hide herself somewhere behind me where the serving table and her cart sat.

I stood up, walking toward the doors to the patio and looking out. “If everything isn’t how it should be,” I said, “then I’ll handle it.”

“Just you?” Michael stood up and made his way toward me.

“You take care of Rika,” I told him. “And Will.”

The business I had with Damon was private.

Michael leaned in, speaking low. “We all need to face him, especially Will. He’s floundering without Damon.”

“Damon tried to kill him,” I bit out. He’d tied a cinderblock to his ankle and threw him in the fucking ocean.

“Yeah.” Michael nodded, meeting my eyes. “His best friend tried to kill him.”

“We’re his best friends.”

“Damon and Will were always closer,” he said. “Just like the two of us are closer. Will needs Damon. You know he’s spiraling. He needs to face him. So, let us all find the son of a bitch and give him a warning he’ll never forget.”

“You want him in the same room as Rika, too?”

Michael ran his hand through his hair and exhaled. That was a no.

“You take care of everyone else, and I’ll take care of The Pope,” I instructed. “He’s no less of a threat to Rika than Trevor was.”

And we both knew how Michael had handled his brother. The idea of doing the same to Damon—someone who had been a friend—made my stomach roll, but I would do what I had to do. To keep my friends safe.

And to keep Damon’s goddamn mouth shut.

I turned and walked back to the table, remaining standing. I spotted Will outside the doors making his way toward us again, hopefully having calmed down.

“Enough of the fucking waiting,” I told Michael, picking up my glass and taking another drink. “Let’s take care of loose ends.”

“Yeah, speaking of waiting,” Will chimed in, stepping through the door. “Where is this guy? This assistant we’re supposed to meet?”

I watched as he opened the doors to the hallway and called out to someone. “Hey?” He backed up, letting the man, Hanson, come into the room.

“Yes, sir.” He looked to Will in question.

“Where is this assistant we’re supposed to be meeting?” Will asked. “We don’t have all day.”

Will probably just wanted this over with so he could get away from Michael.

The man stared at Will hesitantly, and I suddenly felt like a shoe was about to drop. I narrowed my gaze on him. What was going on?

Hanson then turned his head, speaking to the young woman. “Banks?” he asked. “Did you need anything more from the gentlemen?”

Banks? What? My heart pounded in my chest.

I slowly moved my gaze to the servant girl he was speaking to, the one who had stood so demurely next to the wall, quiet this whole time.

I watched as she raised her head, the timid and submissive demeanor now gone. Her gaze met mine, dark brows framing green eyes with a blue rim around the iris. Her chin lifted, a subtle defiance in the gesture.

Oh, my God. Her?

“No, I think I have all I need,” she told him.

She then untied the white apron around her waist and tossed it on the cart of food.

I forced down the lump in my throat. Fuck.

That dark hair hidden under a cap, the slender shoulders and narrow jaw, the men’s clothes she still wore… Only instead of the dirty jeans, broken shoes, and oversized sweatshirt I remembered, it was now a pair of black suit pants, a black shirt, and a striped neck tie.

I dropped my eyes. Her fingernails were still dirty, though, visible in her fingerless leather gloves.

She turned on her heel and left the room, grabbing a suit jacket off the chair in the hall and donning it as she disappeared from sight. I followed her with my eyes, my breathing gone shallow.

“Gentlemen,” Hanson said. “Mr. Torrance’s assistant will update him, and one of them will be in touch. If you’re finished, I’ll see you out.”

“What a minute,” Michael barked. “That was his assistant?”

I let out a breath, turning my eyes on him. “That was Banks.”

He pinched his eyebrows together, not remembering, but then the light dawned, and he looked back down the hall to where she’d disappeared and then back to me. And his jaw dropped open.

“What did she hear that she’s going to update him on?” Will spoke up, looking worried. “Did we say anything bad?”

I laughed to myself, my blood suddenly running hot as memories of that night came flooding back.

“Do you think she remembers us?” Michael asked.

I took a step, all of us following Hanson out of the dining room and toward the front door as I mumbled under my breath, “Does she realize he’s not around to get in my way this time?”





Kai



Devil’s Night

Six Years Ago



I’d been on edge ever since confession earlier.

Looking over my shoulder, taking second glances at everyone as I walked down hallways and sat in classrooms.

The girl in the confessional, I had to know her, right? She certainly knew who I was.

And steal me? What the hell did that mean? I shot a glance to the girls sitting and chatting in the bleachers, ready and waiting to give the guys on the court some attention after practice. Any one of them could be her. Any girl in this school could be her. While I liked a little mystery, I preferred being on the inside track. The one doing the playing, not the one being played with.

Shooting the basketball over to Will, I jogged to the end of the court with everyone else, twenty sets of sneakers skidding across the floor as the ball changed hands twice more and then came back to me. I caught it, breathing hard with sweat cooling my back as I pushed into the point guard at my back, dribbling, twisting, and then shooting. The ball soared through the air, skidded off the rim, and I clenched my jaw as it missed the basket and fell into Damon’s waiting hands.

He grinned, running back down to the other end of the court, satisfied in my failure.

Anger sat like a brick in my stomach, but I kept quiet. I shouldn’t have missed that. I was thinking about her, and I would until I figured out who she was. I should’ve barged in there and confronted her when I had the chance.

Damon passed the ball off to Michael, and he caught it, his T-shirt hanging out of the back of his shorts as he ran down the court. There was a flash of something off to my left, and I turned my head in time to see the branches and leaves of the forty-foot sycamore outside the gym blowing against the windows above the bleachers.

“That fucking wind is going crazy,” Will said, rushing up next to me. He moved light and quick, keeping one eye on the ball as he cast me a glance, smiling. “It’s gonna be a wild night tonight.”

Yeah, wild. Compared to what?

My friends didn’t need Devil’s Night as an excuse to get crazy. But I did. It was the one night I let myself make really bad decisions. Decisions made out of desire and selfishness and a need to not think methodically over every detail of every movement I made every day. I wasn’t raised to be perfect, but I was raised to do everything with perfection in mind. Slow, careful, focused… showing the same consideration in pouring a cup of coffee as I do taking a math test. Or working on my car.

Or screwing a girl.

And I was more than ready to let go of it all. My rough edges were itching to get out.

But now, instead of anticipating all the ways I was going to get my hands dirty tonight, I was obsessing over her and whether or not I would see her. How would I recognize her?

The best part about talking to her this morning was that I didn’t think she intended to be mysterious or to get under my skin the way she did. She wasn’t working me like other girls tried to do. What she didn’t say was just as interesting as what she did. Her breathlessness, her small voice, the flirtation that slipped out in her careful words as if she wanted something but had no clue how to be bold. I liked her innocence, but I could feel her desire to shuck it. So perfect.

“Hey, man.” Michael nudged my arm. I glanced at him, trying to look like I hadn’t just spaced off again when he tipped his chin, gesturing to my right. “Your dad.”

I turned my head, keeping my scowl but straightening, nonetheless. My father stood on the edge of the court, staring at me with his arms crossed over his chest, his sharp, black suit in severe contrast to the cream-colored walls and the warm wood of the court floor. What was he doing here? He knew I was going out after school.

His black hair, same color as mine, looked as perfect as it had this morning, and his dark eyes and pinched brows leveled on me, telling me he was either happy about the weather, satisfied with last night’s workout, or completely put-out about the state of affairs in the Ukraine. I could never really tell.

Without asking for permission to leave practice, I walked toward him, pulling my shirt out of the back of my shorts and slipping it back on.

“Father,” I said, grabbing my towel off the bottom bleacher and wiping my face.

He didn’t say anything, waiting to have my full attention before speaking. This is where I was both lucky and cursed. While my friends’ fathers were in their fifties, my father was only forty-three. And he took care of himself. He had no trouble keeping pace with me and had the patience of a saint.

Stuffing my towel into my duffel bag, I pulled out my water. “I won’t be home for dinner. Mom told you, right?”

“She did,” he said, his expression stoic again. “But I would prefer that you change your mind. You can spend time with your friends another night.”

“Another night won’t be Devil’s Night.” I popped the top of my water bottle, unable to meet his eyes. “It’s once a year, and it’s the last one before I go off to college. I’ll stay out of trouble.”

He remained still, not arguing or moving as I took a drink and continued to pack up the rest of my gear. The laughter and energy grew louder as everyone picked up their bags, and I heard the locker room door swing open and closed several times.

None of it made the feel of his eyes on me fade.

“You’re disappointed in me,” I stated. “I know.”

I zipped up my bag and swung it over my head. My father never forbid me from doing anything, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew exactly what we got up to on Devil’s Night.

“I wish you made better choices,” he clarified. “That’s all.”

I finally looked up at him. “Your choices, you mean.”

“The right choices.” His eyes turned stern. “This is why respecting your elders is important. We have a lot more experience making mistakes, Kai.”

I couldn’t help it. I smiled. “I never make mistakes,” I replied. “I’m either right or I’m learning. Jaku niku kyo shoku.”

I recited one of the many Japanese sayings he’d spouted over the course of my life.

The weak are meat, the strong eat.

And as much as I knew he wanted to say more, he nodded, letting it go with a barely visible smile on his face. Finally.

“Don’t forget Sunday,” he said.

“I never do.”

And I backed away, turning around and heading to the locker room. Every Sunday morning, I joined him in the dojo at our home for a workout. It was the one thing we did together, and he never failed to be there. And so, of course, neither did I.

“No offense.” Will ran up next to me, sweat soaking through his T-shirt and covering his neck. “But your dad scares the shit out of me. Even I want his approval, and I know he hates me.”

“He doesn’t hate you,” I assured him, smiling to myself. “He’s waiting for the better you. That’s all.”

He simply grunted, and I followed as he pushed through the locker room door.

Frankly, I didn’t care if my father liked my friends. Damon’s father didn’t like anyone, and I’d be surprised if Michael’s father knew my name, even after all these years. My friends were simply mine. That was it. They were separate from what happened at home, in class, or even in my head sometimes. That’s what I liked about them. When we were together, we were a planet.

After I undressed and showered, I walked down the row of lockers, the room suddenly so noisy I could barely think. Everyone was ready, and so was I. I wanted to see her tonight. She had to find me.

I opened my locker and started pulling out my clothes.

“Alright,” Will called out, fixing his hair in front of the mirror in his locker, “the chicks already set everything up, and the paintball equipment is loaded in the cars,” he told us. “We’ll head out and do our shit, kill a little time at the cemetery, and then head to the city.”

“Wait. The city?” Damon spoke up. “We’re not going to the warehouse?”

I grinned. “You’re absolved, right?” I asked him, reminding him of his confession this morning. “You need new sins for next week. Don’t worry. You’ll like it.”

“I better,” he said, tightening the towel around his waist. “Because, holy shit, I need my dick sucked.”

Locker doors immediately slammed shut, and I looked up, all of a sudden seeing three of our teammates vacate the area quickly. Will burst into laughter so hard, he hunched over, shaking uncontrollably.

Damon turned and shouted, “Hey, where y’all going? One hot, wet mouth is as good as another, as far as I’m concerned!”

Smiling, Will shook his head, and raising his hands in the air, he met Damon’s palms in a high-five.

Damon chuckled and stuck an unlit cigarette in his mouth, but then a bellow echoed through the locker room.

“Torrrance!” Coach shouted. And Damon immediately spat out the cigarette.

“Goddammit,” he growled in a low voice.

How Lerner always knew when Damon was about to smoke, I had no idea. His aggravation, though, didn’t stop Will from breaking out in Mötley Crüe’s Smoking in the Boys Room, teasing him.

“Alright, let’s do this,” Michael called out, shutting them up. “It’s time.”

I pulled on my jeans, glancing at the clock behind me and seeing it was nearly two in the afternoon.

Time to round up the party.

We quickly finished dressing, pulled on our black hoodies, and grabbed our phones, wallets, and keys, leaving everything else behind. The bell rang, signaling the start of the final period of the day, and the four of us stepped out into the empty hallway, hearing the faint chatter of teachers carrying on with their final lessons on this Friday afternoon.

I wish you made better choices. That’s all.

I looked left to right, seeing the dim afternoon light barely igniting a glow on the blue and green lockers. The dark corners lurked beyond, and we all stood quiet for a rare moment, enjoying the calm before the storm.

“Let’s do this,” I said, still staring down the hallway and seeing the branches with red and orange leaves outside the front doors going wild in the wind.

I heard the shuffle of the bag, and knew Will was pulling out our masks one by one. Damon pulled on his black skull, the teeth in the mouth looking like claws. Will handed Michael his red one with deep black gashes across the face that were just as vicious as the gnawed lips. Will tossed me my metallic silver mask with slits for the eyes that were small and dark, and the gouges in the skin mean and hard. Then he slipped on the white one with a red stripe down the side of the face. All of us looked like some post-apocalyptic death squad, which suited the egos of a bunch of spoiled, rich boys who never really knew danger.

Will tossed the duffel back into the locker room, and I pulled my mask on like a helmet. I closed my eyes, savoring it. In here, I was invisible. I could be whomever I wanted.

In here, I wasn’t hiding.

Pulling out my phone, I texted Kylie Halpern in the front office, cueing her to play the music. Within ten seconds, Sister Machine Gun started beating out of the speakers down the halls and all around, and I slipped my phone in my back pocket, taking a deep breath.

Michael stepped forward, looking left then right. “Now,” he said.





“Go, go, go!” Max Cason shouted into the wind, his head sticking out my passenger side window.

A half hour later, fourteen cars, trucks, and motorcycles were on their way, packed to the breaking point with every player on our team, some of their girlfriends, and a few just along for the fun. The school didn’t stop us or anyone from leaving for what had quickly become a Devil’s Night tradition to boost team camaraderie and morale.

Storming the school at two in the afternoon to kick it all off had turned into one of my favorite parts of the night. Barging into classrooms, grabbing my fellow basketball players—and whomever else we wanted—and dragging everyone out of school was like an amphetamine to the brain. We had everyone’s attention, their awe, and sometimes, their fear. It was power, and for one night a year, we enjoyed a limitless supply of it. Teachers didn’t stop us, cops stood aside, and for a while, I really loved being me.

Everyone wanted to be us.

Will’s black Ford Raptor drove in front of me, and all the guys in the bed of his truck laughed and shouted out with beers in their hands already. Some of them had water bottles filled with a clear liquor, which was an interesting tactic to drink in class. As long as it looked like water, teachers never knew the difference.

With my mask tucked on the console beside me, I shifted into sixth, racing ahead and following Will. Damon led the motorcade, and I glanced to my left, seeing Gavin Ellison speed past on his motorcycle with his girlfriend sitting behind him and her arms wrapped around him.

Damon must’ve seen him coming out of his rearview mirror, because just as Gavin sped up to overtake Damon’s BMW, Damon swerved left, blocking his path. I laughed to myself, but then I spotted a kid on a bike, inches from Damon’s car, swerve and fall to the side of the road, and my face fell.

“What the hell?” I barked, pressing my foot lightly on the brake to slow down.

The kid tumbled to the ground, spilling down the small incline, and his bike crashed into the grass.

And Damon and the motorcycle just fucking kept going.

Goddamn him.

I broke harder, slowing the Jeep to a stop and seeing Will’s brake lights glow red ahead of me. I shifted into neutral and yanked up the parking brake, hopping out of the car.

I glared at the road ahead, seeing Damon and the motorcycle still racing in the distance. Did it even occur to him to fucking stop?

“Damon’s such an asshole.” Will looked back at me, jumping down from his cab and taking a bite of the beef jerky in his hand.

A few of the guys from the bed of his truck hopped out, too, and Will walked up to where the kid fell, bending down to help him up.

“You okay?”

The kid sat on his hands and knees, and I approached, catching glimpses of him through the guys’ legs as he moved around, grabbing books that laid strewn on the side of the road. I didn’t hear him answer, and I couldn’t see his face.

Will scooped up two books that had fallen, and I caught sight of a basket on the front of the bike.

“I said I’m fine,” the kid spat out, and I stopped, seeing a baseball cap fall to the ground.

Long, dark hair suddenly went wild, blowing in the high winds, and I made out a slender face and full lips.

It was a girl.

Dressed kind of like us, though, wearing jeans and a navy blue hoodie.

She reached over, keeping her head down and her eyes shielded by her hair as she grabbed the books out of Will’s hands.

She seemed fine. We could go.

“I’ve seen you around before, haven’t I?” Will asked, bending over to pick up her bike. “You live around here? We can take you home. Get in.”

“No.” She shot out her hands, stopping him from touching her bike. “I said I was fine. Just leave. Please.”

I narrowed my eyes on her, stepping closer.

Just then a couple guys picked up some of her books and showed them to each other, laughing. She stilled, staring at the ground. Her jeans were filthy. Dark smudges covered the knees, but I didn’t see any blood. I didn’t think she was hurt.

“We should just bring her with us, man,” someone joked.

“Yeah, can we give her a bath first?”

“Enough,” I barked, cutting them off. “Get back in the truck. Your beers are getting warm.”

They dispersed, and Will walked back to his cab, casting one more look at the girl, who was quietly and quickly gathering up her books, ignoring us.

She had to be about our age, but she certainly didn’t like any attention. Especially judging by the ratty clothes she wore and the old Vans shoe that laid on the ground. It must’ve fallen off her foot in the fall. Why wasn’t she wearing socks? It was cold.

I squatted down, picking up a pedal from her bike, which had broken off.

“You can’t ride this bike, kid,” I told her. “The pedal is broken.”

I held it under her face, showing her.

“I’ll manage.” She stood up, her arms wrapped tightly around all of her books, avoiding my gaze.

She was a curt little thing, wasn’t she?

I didn’t know if she was afraid of us or pissed off about what happened, but she definitely didn’t want to engage.

“Will said you live close?” I asked. “I can toss the bike in the back of my Jeep and take you—”

“I said I’ll manage,” she spat out, still keeping her head down. “Just leave.”

I couldn’t help but smile a little. She seemed so desperate to have us gone. Like she was afraid something bad would happen. What did she think we were going to do to her?

I turned around to leave but spotted a paperback on the ground, nearly stepping on it. I leaned down and picked it up, doing a double-take at the redhead in an emerald gown on the cover. Her tits were busting at the seams as some hard-muscled guy in a blouse held her to him dramatically, rivers of his hair and her dress both blowing in the wind.

I snorted as I turned around and handed it to her.

“Shut up,” she mumbled, seeing the smile on my face and snatching the book back.

I squatted down once more, grabbing her shoe off the ground, and then pulled up her foot.

Her skin was freezing, and I jerked in surprise. Her jeans had holes everywhere and no socks. Why wasn’t she dressed properly?

She pulled her foot away, grabbing for the shoe. “I can do it.”

But I held firm, giving her a defiant look as I pulled up her foot.

“God, can’t you take a hint?” she snipped.

“Your skin is freezing,” I remarked, slipping the shoe on. “Maybe you should—”

“Hands off,” someone ordered behind me.

I whipped my head around and saw that several men had arrived, their sport bikes parked in the middle of the road. Over Will’s truck engine, I hadn’t heard them pull up.

I stood up as they came around, and I watched as they placed themselves right in front of the girl, standing between us.

What the hell?

“Excuse me?” I looked around them, trying to see her.

“She’s fine,” said the one in the middle with the shaved head who was dressed in a white, sleeveless T-shirt. “We’ll take it from here.”

I let out a little laugh, feeling Will inch closer at my side and seeing Michael approach.

“Who the hell are you?” I asked.

But he just ignored me, turning his head to her and whispering, “Pull your hood up.”

She followed directions, quickly covering herself and keeping her chin down. Two guys flanked Shaved-Head, as Michael and Will did me, all of us walls.

“Leave,” the one in the middle ordered me.

“Yeah, no way.” I tilted my head, trying to make eye contact with the girl behind them. “Are you okay? Who are these guys?”

They could be her brothers, but they damn well didn’t look anything like her.

She stole a few glances up, and then I noticed it. A small smile pulling at her lips and an amused look crossing her features, her shyness all of a sudden disappearing. “They’re far more of a handful than you are, Horsemen.”

Her new pals broke out in a laugh, looking smug.

I lifted my chin.

“Let’s go,” Shaved-Head told her.

They all glared at us as they walked past, and the young woman followed, brushing my arm as she slipped by. I inhaled her faint scent. The energy in the air was suddenly so thick you could take hold of it. There was something familiar about her.

She handed her books to the tall one with blond hair and a silver chain around his neck, while the other one hooked her bike over his shoulder as he straddled his motorcycle.

She climbed on behind Shaved-Head, and I narrowed my eyes, watching her circle her arms around him.

I stepped forward as their bikes all roared to life.

She looked back over her shoulder one more time, and I finally saw her eyes. A beautiful green with touches of gold. “Thought you had some people you wanted to scare tonight,” she said.

What?

She turned away but not quick enough to hide the smirk on her face, and off they went, all three sport bikes whirring down the road as they sped away.

What the hell did she say? How did…?

I clenched my jaw, realization hitting.

The night is young. Maybe you’ll find someone else to scare tonight.

The girl from the confessional today. Fuck, that was her.

I watched her and those pricks disappear from sight, everything I’d told her today playing in my head again. How did she know who I was? And why had I never seen her before?

She was playing with me.

How confident and bold-as-fucking-brass she got when they arrived. She thought those guys—whoever the hell they were—could put us in our place. We were playing at being bad and they were the real thing. Is that what she thought?

“Do you know her?” Michael asked next to me.

I focused down the road, not sure how to answer that.

“If you want her, she’s yours,” Michael said.

I kept my smile to myself. Michael talked about women the same way he talked about cheeseburgers. It really was as easy as that.

“Want her?” Will cut in. “What the hell would he want with her when we have top-shelf chicks in our cars right now? Didn’t you see how she was dressed? No make-up, guys’ clothes... She’s a feminist.”

I closed my eyes, laughing to myself. Jesus. “I thought you liked the hard-to-get ones?” I joked, looking over at him.

But he just twisted up his lips, the secret object of his obsession no more primped up than the girl who’d just left. “Yeah, well…you want me to call Damon, or what?” he asked. “Someone said she worked at his house.”

She did?

“No,” I reply. “I don’t want him telling me anything about her. I’ll find out myself.”

He was already gone anyway, probably at the cemetery by now.

“So, are we going to get her then?” Michael probed.

But I just stared ahead, thinking.

She’d challenged me, hadn’t she? She’d made it a point to let me know who she was before she made her little escape with those assholes. To let me know she got me today only when she thought she could get away from us.

I barely nodded, every muscle in my body tight as a rope. “I kind of want to scare the shit out of her first.”

I heard Michael laugh softly and th