Hades – Stephanie and the Merciless Reaper (Ruthless MC #5) Read Online Theodora Taylor

Categories Genre: Alpha Male, Biker, MC, Romance Tags Authors: Series: Ruthless MC Series by Theodora Taylor
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Total pages in book: 1
Estimated words: 63382 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 317(@200wpm)___ 254(@250wpm)___ 211(@300wpm)
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Read Online Books/Novels:

Hades - Stephanie and the Merciless Reaper (Ruthless MC #5)

Author/Writer of Book/Novel:

Theodora Taylor

Language:
English
ISBN/ ASIN:
B09BLKHHVC
Book Information:

I was born a few moments after midnight on January 1st. On my 21st birthday, my father throws me the most lavish New Year's Eve birthday party Baton Rouge has ever seen—then he tells me I'm a woman now, and that means I belong to a man he owes a blood debt.
No, not a man. A demon who feeds on my family’s pain and suffering. Especially mine.
His name is Hades Fairgood. But he is neither good nor fair.
He's the twisted ruler of a biker underworld, and everything my dead mother warned me to avoid. Dirty rich, stupid hot, and merciless. There's not even a smidge of human left in his bitter, vengeful heart. I find that out the particularly cruel way when he renames me Persy--short for Persephone and has PROPERTY OF HADES tattooed across my back.
So that I never forget... I'm his possession now. He owns me, mind, body, and soul.
He’s a needlessly beautiful monster who I must escape. Of course, I must.
It’s just… The longer I’m with him, the more confusing it becomes. Is he a merciless monster or a wounded man in need of love? My love?
It doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter either way. I just hope I can escape his wrath before he ruins me.
Books in Series:

Ruthless MC Series by Theodora Taylor

Books by Author:

Theodora Taylor



CHAPTER 1

STEPHANIE

“Stop this.” I was beyond exasperated with the poor little rich girl sitting across from me.

She was no longer crying, but her shoulders continued to tremble after her unexpected fit. Her formerly made-up face was now a mess of mascara and streaked foundation. And I could tell she was barely holding back another gush of self-pitying tears.

I couldn’t let her go down to the birthday party like this. And I couldn’t stand that she was doing this to me, acting such a fool when I needed her to be perfect.

“There is no reason—no reason at all—for you to be so sad. Or so ungrateful,” I reminded her through gritted teeth. “Your life is wonderful. Just go downstairs and let everybody appreciate you for living another year at the party your father paid a lot of money for. Do not do this depressed, existentialist thing tonight—”

A knock sounded on the door before I could finish telling the girl what a terrible look emotions was on her.

“Miss Stephanie, you coming?” Bertha, our housekeeper, asked on the other side of the door. Her thick Southern accent was even more polite than usual—most likely because of all the guests gathered downstairs in the grand foyer. “Your daddy’s wanting to know why you aren’t down there yet. Everybody can’t wait to see you in your dress!”

See, I silently pointed out to the girl fighting back tears. Everybody’s waiting for you downstairs. You need to pull yourself together.

The girl sniffled, and I called out to Bertha, “Just a few more minutes, please. I’ll be down soon.”

“Alright, I’ll let him know,” Bertha agreed without hesitation.

The familiar muffled pitter-patter of her feet let me know she was headed toward the servant’s stairs.

Of course, she didn’t stand at the door asking me questions about what was taking so long, or if maybe I was going a little crazy in here. She trusted me to follow my father’s orders to the letter, just like I always did. Even with my mother gone.

I turned back to my vanity mirror to glare at the girl who couldn’t get with the program. This convincing job would be a whole lot easier if the messy face staring back at me in the mirror wasn’t mine.

For a moment or two, I indulged myself in the fantasy of sending Mirror Me down to the party while Real Me stayed upstairs.

But guess what? This is my real life, not a fantasy. So, I pulled out my makeup caddy and started putting my face back together.

“You are a Perreault. We exemplify excellence. And no matter our emotional state inside, we must always appear our very best on the outside.”

Memories of my mother saying those words on more than one occasion flitted through my head as I dabbed away the tears from my magnetic lashes, then blotted concealer and foundation over all the red blotches on my pale brown face. A couple swipes of eyeliner underneath my eyes.

They’re crescent shaped, thanks to a Black grandma I never met hooking up with a Chinese-Trinidadian grandfather who, according to my mother, “took himself right back home to his island as soon as he found out I was on the way.”

My mother had hated her eyes growing up and had gotten rid of them with an eyelid surgery shortly after landing a Perreault and dropping out of college to marry him. She’d tossed around the idea of the same surgery for me before the attention I got from boys convinced her they made me appear, in her words, “more exotic” than the rest of my competition.

I never managed to view every other pretty girl as rivals, like my mother did. But I knew she never would have allowed me to go downstairs looking anything less than sensational. So, I put in the time and makeup to cleanup my face. Then I stood up to perform a flawless check in the standing mirror that sat in the corner of my room.

Hair? My stylist had come by the house a couple of hours ago. She’d pressed the new growth kinks out of my blond ombre weave and pulled it all back into a sleek ponytail. The result was a highly sculpted birthday style that made me look like a slightly darker member of the Kardashian family. Check.

Body? My mother hadn’t been nearly as open-minded about my flat chest as my eyes. We’d flown out to L.A. the week after my graduation. Supposedly for a mother/daughter trip, but really so I could start at Tulane with a pair of tasteful 32-Cs. My Black ancestors and one hundred squats a day since the age of fourteen had taken care of my hips and backside. To add to that, I’d barely eaten in the week leading up to the party to get that curvy but thin-limbed look that had become the 21st century beauty standard. So, body, definite check.

That only left my asymmetrical shimmering gold party dress to check off the list. I twisted from side to side, admiring it from all angles. The top clung to my perfect breasts and my left arm while putting my bare razor-thin right arm on display, and the draped bottom gave my naturally wide hips even more of an hourglass flare. The skirt also fell just short enough to show off my long, thin legs without getting me called out by the wives of my father’s conservative friends for being indecent.

Oh, yes, this dress with a pair of black Louboutin heels was a definite check.

My mother would have loved it. She might have even threatened to steal it. And we’d both just laugh, knowing she wouldn’t ever actually be caught dead in a dress that I’d worn to one of my birthday galas.

But she was dead now.

My chest tightened with the memory of cremating her nearly a year ago in the Prada she’d worn to the first birthday gala for my Sweet 16. That year she’d successfully starved herself to fit into a cocktail dress that was the same size as the one she’d ordered for me. And after that, she’d fretted about ever getting back down to her Sweet 16 party weight—all the way up until she was diagnosed with a cancer that took off that unwanted weight better than any diet she’d ever tried.

Right before it killed her.

Sometimes, I had to remind myself that really happened shortly after my twentieth birthday gala.

I mean, here I was in the same house, about to attend the same over-the-top party, wearing a dress my mother might have picked out for me herself.

It was like she never left. I looked exactly like the flawless daughter she groomed me to be. Check. Check. Check.

Save for that crying fit, I was still playing the role perfectly.

So why were panic and dread clawing up my insides like a wildcat trying to get out?

Doesn’t matter, I reminded the girl in the mirror. Because it didn’t matter if I was on edge and scared to death for reasons I could not name.

I looked flawless. I looked perfect. That was all that mattered.

I gave the soon-to-be-woman in the mirror a reassuring smile before going down to my party.

My birth was big news from the start. And not just because my father was Antoine Perreault, a member of one of Louisiana’s oldest Black land-owning families and a successful lawyer, just like his father, and his father before him, who’d been one of the first Black men after Michael Stark was admitted to Tulane Law School (after Louisiana finally lifted their segregation laws in the ’60s and all the lawyers in his family stopped having to go north to get their degrees).

That was quite some legacy to be born into, for sure. But that wasn’t what sent a photographer rushing into my mother’s hospital room less than fifteen minutes following my birth.

I was born just a few moments after midnight on January 1, so a picture of me graced the front page of the next morning’s Baton Rouge Sentinel underneath the headline “First Baby of the Year!”

For fifteen years of my life, that was the first hit that came up when you googled my name. But then my mother signed us up for SuperRich Sixteen, that VMH show that always comes on before whatever iteration of Rap Star Wives they have going that season.

The episode was a huge ratings success. And the over-the-top party where I’d changed three times and was gifted a new car to match with each new dress was the talk of Baton Rouge for so many months afterward that by the time summer rolled around, Mom declared we just had to put on another one—minus the cars.

That touch had been too showy for her carefully refined Southern sensibilities. I think receiving way too many calls and requests for money from her estranged Ohio-based family had turned her off showy displays of wealth forever.

But other than that, it was game on. She began spending most of summer and all of fall planning my New Year’s Eve birthday galas.

Even her cancer diagnosis hadn’t stopped her. Nearly every last moment of our time together had been dedicated to her planning and explaining to me exactly what I would have to do for the fifth and most lavish of all my birthday galas.

“You’re a Perreault, but this is my legacy,” she’d warned me from her deathbed. Then she’d intoned with a severe look that would have put RuPaul to shame, “Don’t mess it up.”

Most Tulane kids let loose when they returned home for winter break from college. Not me. I’d spent almost all of my waking moments since I came back to Baton Rouge making sure everything was in place for this party.

Why? Because this was what my mom wanted.

I reminded myself of that as I descended the stairs of our antebellum mansion to a grand foyer stuffed with all of my mother’s closest friends, and even more of my father's business associates.

No, it didn’t matter that my mother had passed. This New Year’s Eve went the same as the four that came before it. Everyone clapped like a royal princess was gracing them with her presence.

My New Year’s Eve birthday galas had become so famous, my father’s associates clambered for an invitation every year. He often said these parties were the only reason he had friends.

He was joking. My father was a more-than-capable lawyer whose friends needed him more than he needed them.

But in my darkest moments, I suspected getting invited to my gala was the sole reason so many of my high school friends stayed in touch, even after I moved to New Orleans to attend Tulane.

Fake hair. Fake breasts. Fake friends. Sometimes it felt like my whole life was a game of pretend, and I was just playing along. The tears I’d dashed away with Southern resolution and makeup threatened to overwhelm me again.

But then I saw Luk standing at the bottom of the stairs, and the band around my heart loosened with relief.

Luk was my college boyfriend—everything my mother had groomed me to attract and more.

Tall, polite, and as rich as he was handsome. Good family? Oh, no, chile, his family wasn’t just good. They were the Brandts. Yes, that German-American family behind Weiss Fox Brewing Company. Luk’s many-greats-grandfather had been smart enough to immigrate to America around the turn of the 20th century—just in time to avoid both World Wars and ironically establish his family’s Bavarian hops recipe as Weiss Fox, America’s most well-known beer.

Luk and I had been too new last year for me to invite him to my twentieth birthday party. But my mother had given me a rare smile of approval when I visited the bedroom where she was gracefully dying to let her know he had not only asked me out but also agreed to sign Dad’s super-cringy virginity contract.

“You hold on to that one, just like I taught you, Stephanie. Use every weapon you’ve got,” she’d ordered, sounding much like a general, despite her severely weakened state. “Times are different now. He might be able to get away with marrying you—especially if you show him how you can be just as perfect a wife to him as one of those blonds with a German last name.”

I hadn’t been so sure. I knew I was beautiful—aggressively so. Just like my mother, I had at least one standing appointment to attend to some facet of my appearance every single week of the year. It was a secret job that I never talked about out loud. But I attended to it just as diligently as poor students who had to put in work-study hours to keep their scholarships.

Lukas Brandt had dozens of beautiful girls chasing after him, though. Many of whom would fit right in with his lily-white family. And while a lot of Southern girls are raised not to have sex before marriage, I didn’t know a single girl whose father required all guys who dated his daughter to sign a contract agreeing they wouldn’t have sex until after a marriage ceremony.

But Luk had dutifully driven the hour it took to get from Tulane in New Orleans to my father’s law offices in Baton Rouge. And two hours after that, I found him on the front porch of my Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house, triumphantly holding up his copy of my father’s dating contract.

When I tried to apologize profusely for the weird obstacle my father had put in the path of any boy who tried to date me, he just smiled and said, “Don't you go apologizing, now. Dating you is worth signing on the dotted line.”

Apparently, he’d meant that. Here he was, after a year of sexless dating, waiting to fete me along with everybody who was anybody in Baton Rouge.

“Steph…” His eyes filled with sweet awe when I reached him at the bottom of the stairs. “You look amazing. You are truly the most beautiful girl in the world.”

When he said that loudly enough to be heard by everyone packed into the foyer, then pressed a kiss onto the back of my hand, I could almost hear the jealous hisses and sighs from the other girls at the party. Most of them would kill to net a boyfriend like Lukas Brandt. Happily.

I could just about feel my mother’s beam of approval from beyond the grave as I gave him a perfect curtsy and replied, “Thank you for cutting your holiday short to join us this year.”

“Anything for you,” he said, his warm green gaze steady on mine. “I truly mean that, Steph.”

“Stephanie, good, you’re finally here.” My father suddenly invaded our conversation, sliding in between us before I could give Luk the gracious reply he deserved. “Let’s thank everyone for coming out.”

He glanced distastefully over his shoulder at Luk, as if he were a plate of rotten food. It didn’t matter that Luk was the heir to a considerable fortune, Dad always treated him like an unwanted pest.

I really did need to talk to Dad about that one of these days. But as I’d explained to a government major my first year at Tulane, who didn’t understand why I wouldn’t just keep dating him a secret from my dad and forget about the contract, “Southern parents have a way of raising their girls to be dutiful, no matter how crazy they get.”

After casting Luk an apologetic look, I returned halfway up the foyer steps to thank everyone for attending—and even more importantly than that, thank my father publicly for throwing me this party.

This was the way of the birthday gala. My mother or, in the case of this year, I did all the work while Dad got all the public credit, as if he’d actually lifted a finger toward the actual execution of this party.

Even worse than having to play along with that piece of Kabuki theater, Dad all but pushed Luk out of the way once we got back down the stairs so he could parade me around the room like a prize show pony.

I spent the next hour pretending to remember people I didn’t recognize, air-kissing wives of business associates I knew my father did not like, and demurely batting away compliments as if I hadn’t planned and replanned my outfit and near-starved myself for two weeks straight to look flawless for this party.

I’d never been a fan of our current Mayor-President. He was what my mother had labeled “a bit handsy with young girls” before warning me never to get caught alone with him. And from what I could tell, his decades hold on his office was based more on cronyism than being of actual service to his constituents. But I let out a breath of relief when he dragged my father away to meet some new judge.

As soon as they disappeared into the crowd, Luk appeared with a glass of water and a plate full of hors d’oeuvres, as if he’d been waiting to attend to me.

“Oh, my goodness, thank you!” I said in a grateful rush before practically shoving all the real food into my mouth. “Why are you the most perfect boyfriend ever?”

Lukas waved me off with a grin. “Thank my mother. Making sure she ate was my main job at the parties she threw. My brother August had to take over the duty when I left for Tulane.”

“Well, if and when we meet, I am going to thank her mightily for raising such a good guy,” I said.

And I totally meant it. Lukas had told me his father was a withholding alcoholic who was currently running their business into the ground between a string of mistresses he practically shoved in his wife’s face. But instead of going the same way, Luk had decided to become everything his father wasn’t.

Honorable, noble, more concerned about others than himself, and above everything else, a good businessman. He’d been a senior when we met last year. But he’d stayed on at Tulane to pursue a business degree. He was a man with a plan for his life.

Honestly, my mother couldn’t have designed a better boyfriend if she had tried.

“I am a very good guy,” Luk agreed. But the look on his face was anything but angelic when he added, low and husky, “However, seeing you in that dress is making me majorly regret agreeing to sign your dad’s contract.”

He wrapped an arm around my waist and pulled me in so I could feel his hard length against my stomach. “Not sure how much longer I’m going to be able to abide by that contract.”

I almost laughed. Almost. I wanted to hold on to Luk. Of course, I did. My mom would rise from her grave and haunt me forever if I failed to seal the deal. But, my father was serious about me not having sex before marriage. Like crazy virginity-contract serious.

Also, I wasn’t exactly as frustrated with the no-sex situation as Luk.

Don’t get me wrong. Luk was great. Everything my mother ever wanted. Plus, he was a really good kisser and made all of my sorority sisters jealous.

It wasn’t his fault he didn’t make my heart flutter. Didn’t fill me with a weird, tugging ache.

Not like Swamp Boy.

The first and last time I met our former housekeeper’s son slithered into my memory.

The way his silver gaze had held mine. Like a gator snapping its powerful jaw down on a bird.

The way I’d shivered for reasons that had nothing to do with me being dressed only in a bikini and having just climbed out of our pool in December.

“Swamp Boy?” I said, recognizing him from the start, even though we’d never met.

I’d stared at him so long and helplessly, I didn’t see my mother coming. Not until she pulled me away from Swamp Boy, who’d come to get the pool in order before the filming of my SuperRich Sixteen Chapter.

When we got back to the house, she’d slapped me like there was a devil on my cheek.

“Stay away from him,” she’d advised with a voice full of icicles. “Boys like him can ruin a good girl with just a few slick words.”

Less than a week after that, Mom had fired our beloved housekeeper and wouldn’t change her mind about it, no matter how much I cried and begged.

And a couple of months after that, my father made me sign the first virginity contract. My own.

But maybe the swamps of Louisiana truly were filled with magic, like everyone from local tour guides to Disney films claimed.

It was just one look. Just one meeting. But sometimes it felt like Swamp Boy had cursed me. Cursed me to want him forever. Want him and wonder why that mysterious, tugging ache never reappeared, even for boys as perfect as Lukas Brandt.

“I don't think that contract is enforceable,” Luk said, abruptly pulling me out of the memory. His eyes were full of teasing innuendo.

No, it probably wasn’t. But…

Luk’s expression suddenly fell before I could finish that thought. All the color drained out of of his face as he looked at someone standing behind me.

And somehow, I guessed who it was, even without turning around.

Crap…

“My father,” I guessed off Lukas’s stricken expression. “My father’s standing right behind me, isn’t he.”

CHAPTER 2

STEPHANIE

Of course. Of course, my father overheard my boyfriend insinuating that we should try to circumnavigate the virginity contracts we’d both signed.

I knew that even before I turned around to find him staring down at me with a thunderous look on his pale brown face.

“Sir, this isn’t what you think,” Luk sputtered. “I was just kidding around. I wouldn’t really…” He dipped his head and gave my father a significant look. “You know that, right?”

My father thinned his lips, as if Luk were a buzzing insect who’d somehow found its way into our pristine house, and directed his gaze toward me.

“There are a few things I need to discuss with you,” he said, ignoring Luk completely and taking me by the arm. “Come with me to my office.”

To get dressed down and lectured about what it meant to be a Perreault. No, thank you, sir. No, thank you.

“It’s just a few minutes before midnight. We don’t want to miss the fireworks,” I pointed out to my father. And just in case that was too subtle, I added, “People will talk if we don’t go out to the balcony to watch like we do every year.”

“Yes, it’s almost midnight,” Dad repeated. “That’s why we must talk.”

He glanced nervously around the party and tightened his hand around my arm.

“Don’t cause a scene,” he advised me. Just low enough that Luk couldn’t hear him.

Alarm bells went off in the back of my mind. Wow, Dad must really be upset. Usually playing the “people will talk” card was enough to get me out of anything—from one of his long lectures to having to wear the same party dress two months in a row.

“Steppie, can I watch your fireworks with you?”

I looked down to find my nine-year-old sister, Daphne, in the sparkly smock dress I’d bought her a week ago when we realized the dress Mom picked out for her didn’t fit and also didn’t come in plus-sizes.

Normally, she had to be in bed, lights out, by 9 pm. But everyone in the world got to stay up until midnight the night before my birthday, including her.

“Sure, Daph…” I carefully extracted my arm from Dad’s grip.

At the same time, Eunice West, our local Councilman’s wife chose that moment to swoop in and introduce Dad to yet another divorcée around his age. Mrs. West had been one of my mother’s best friends, and they’d served together on the Lakefront Historical Preservation Society’s board. But a man as rich and eligible as my father couldn’t be allowed to remain single in our gated community. Oh, no, no! It just wasn’t done. Now that my mother had been dead for almost a year, Mrs. West considered it her personal responsibility—nay, her mission—to introduce Antoine Perreault to his next wife.

I would have felt bad for Dad if it wasn’t also the perfect excuse to leave him behind—along with that serious conversation he’d wanted to have with me.

“Yes, let’s go watch your sister’s much-deserved fireworks,” Luk said to Daphne, gallantly offering her his arm.

My heart melted at the sight of them, walking in front of me. Luk was also great with kids. It was one of the many reasons I loved him—even if I didn’t exactly burn with passion for him.

Still, his words didn’t settle right in my chest.

Yes, they were my fireworks. I signed the work order and paid the bill for the show with my black Amex card that morning—not to mention getting all the necessary permits.

So yes, the fireworks definitely belonged to me. But I couldn’t say I deserved them. In fact, I knew I didn't.

These new year birthday galas had always been more about my parents than me. And now that my mother was gone, it struck me as even sillier.

My mother had considered Tulane just a place to acquire my “MRS. degree.” But after three years of living in New Orleans, I couldn't help but notice all the gross disparities between this party and the living conditions in the underserved communities surrounding my university and city.

So, did I deserve this? Heck no.

Did anyone truly deserve a birthday party that cost four times an average Louisianan’s annual income? I mean, why did we have to go out of our way every year to make people we didn’t particularly like jealous? Was this really the whole point of being Black, excellent, and elite?

I knew a thousand girls would kill for everything I had. But this wasn’t how I wanted to live. This didn’t even feel like my life. Fake hair. Fake friends. Fake life. So, so, fake….

Don’t do this, I warned myself. Be happy. Drink more champagne.

So that was what I did. I drank champagne. And I counted down with all my guests who yelled, “Happy Birthday!” instead of “Happy New Year!” after we got to midnight.

And we all laughed and air-kissed like we were starring in a rather melanated production of The Great Gatsby.

Then I pretended I didn’t see my father trying to catch my eye as I thanked a bunch more people for coming to the gala.

Eventually, I noticed Daphne had disappeared from the balcony.

Continuing to avoid my father’s eyes, I told Lukas, “I’m going to take my sister upstairs and tuck her into bed.”

He nodded. “You’re a good big sister. But come right back to me.”

“I will,” I promised, giving him a peck on the mouth before I searched for Daphne.

I found her sitting on the servant's stairs, rocking with both arms wrapped around her waist.

“You okay?” I asked, a ping of worry popping off in my chest. I might have been away at school for the last few years, but I could still tell when she was on the verge of tears and trying to hold them back.

“I ate too much cake!”

I think most kids would say that because they had a stomachache. But I knew Daphne’s reasons were different.

“It’s okay,” I quickly assured her.

“No, it’s not,” she whispered with tears in her eyes. “Mama would be so mad at me. I promised her…”

“Oh, Daph…” Even all the champagne I consumed couldn’t keep my heart from sinking for her.

I loved my mother. And I know that in her mind constantly monitoring our weight was her idea of being a good mother. She’d mentioned more than once that the women on her side of the family struggled with weight, and we had to be vigilant if we wanted to catch a good husband, like she did.

But I'll never forgive her for using her last deathbed talk with her then eight-year-old daughter to make Daphne promise to thin down. She’d actually told my sister that she’d be disappointed in heaven if she turned out fat.

As if heaven would actually let somebody in who chose those words as her last to a child.

I couldn’t say that to Daphne, though. The only thing that would upset her more than the possibility of our dead mom being mad at her in heaven would be the idea of her burning in hell.

So, I just took Daphne by the hand and led her up to her bedroom.

“Everything will feel better after a good sleep,” I assured her as I tucked her into bed.

“Do you think my real mom would be okay with a fat daughter?” she asked.

This birth mom business again. Mom had never hidden Daphne’s adoption from her—we even celebrated her official adoption birthday two days after mine. But Mom had never been forthcoming with the details for us or the family courts. The story was that Daphne had been left on our doorstep with a note from whoever left her: You can take care of this baby. We can’t.

I’d found the original note in mom’s things when I was cleaning out the desk. And that was it.

I’d almost think the trail was completely cold if Daphne didn’t look so much like mom and me. Minus the eyes, anyone would have mistaken her for mom’s blood-related daughter and my sister.

And the more hypothetical questions Daphne asked, the more that resemblance poked at me. Anyway, I didn’t want to get Daphne’s hopes up, but it was on my to-do list to hire a detective to look into finding the identity of her birth mother.

Right after we got through this silly party.

Until then, I answered my little sister’s question with the easiest truth. “Any mom would be lucky to have you as a daughter. I wouldn't trade you for any other sister in the world. You're the best late—”

She cut me off with a roll of her eyes. “I know, I know. I'm the best late birthday gift you’ve ever got. You make that same joke every year before my adoption birthday.”

“Because it's not a joke.” I pinched her chubby cheek. “If it was up to me, I wouldn't even have a birthday party. I'd just tell everybody how January third is my favorite day of the year, because that's the day I officially got you as my little sister.”

She pursed her lips like kids do when you're both delighting and embarrassing them. But then a worried look came over her face. “Are we really going to Disney World this year, Steppie?”

My chest ached with the memory of her ruined seventh adoption birthday. We were supposed to go to Disney World for a sister trip, just the two of us. I’d bought the tickets and everything. But then Mom had gotten the news that the cough she couldn’t seem to shake would require more than a prescription for antibiotics. And the year after that, my mother had only been a few weeks from drawing her last breath.

Almost a year had passed since Mom’s death, but Daphne stayed fretful about birthday promises. She’d be checking and rechecking to make sure the trip was still on until the day we got into my BMW 3 Series to drive to the airport. Even then, she might not stop until we checked into the resort at Animal Kingdom. It was just too hard for her to believe good things could happen to her anymore.

I couldn’t blame her for that, and I knew telling her about the character birthday dinner and private safari I’d already booked and paid for wouldn’t reassure her—only agitate her worse.

So, I just held up my pinky with a solemn, “I promise. Disney World, here we come.”

“Here we come,” she repeated. Her voice cracked with tentative hope as she wrapped her pinky around mine.

And yes, I know I'm biased, but I really didn’t understand how our mother could see this wonderful little girl as anything less than beautiful.

With our pinkies still attached, I dropped a kiss on her forehead, which was just a couple of shades darker than mine. “See you tomorrow, Best Birthday Gift Ever.”

See you tomorrow.

That promise had fallen from my mouth even more easily than the one I made about Disney World. But within twenty-four hours, both promises would come back to haunt me.

When I got up to turn off the lights, I didn’t know this would be the last time I saw my sister.

I figured that—save for a few barely staved-off panic attacks—this birthday gala would go the same as all those that came before it. So, I headed back downstairs, intending to drink enough to have a nice proper hangover when I met Daphne downstairs for our usual New Year’s Day pancake brunch.

Just the thought of it made my stomach grumble with hunger. I vowed to find some more hors d’oeuvres to tide me over until tomorrow.

So, my heart just about burst when I saw Luk standing on the other side of the foyer with a huge dinner plate filled with the tasty treats cater waiters had been passing out all night. He waved and pointed to the plate in a way that clearly said, “This is for you!”

Leave it to the sweetest boyfriend on Earth to make sure I could eat my fill when I returned to him.

A warm resolution tightened my chest as I made a beeline toward the guy I should have wanted above all others.

He was right. That contract probably wasn’t legally binding. No more hesitating. Tonight, I was going to give him what he wanted. What he deserved. Forget Dad’s stupid con—

“We need to talk.” My father appeared out of nowhere, his face as grim as Mama’s mausoleum stone. And he completely blocked out my view of Lukas.

Oh, geez. Not this again.

Maybe I could have handled an argument with Dad two glasses of champagne ago. But my head was all fuzzy, and that delicious plate of food in Lukas’s hand was so close to being achieved.

So instead of explaining the apparently foreign concept of a woman having agency over her own body, I went into pampered-Southern-daughter mode.

“Oh, Dad, Luk was just joking. Please don’t do this,” I wheedled. “You can reprimand me as much as you want tomorrow. It’s my birthday. Let me have tonight.”

“Yes, it’s your birthday.” My father’s expression remained unchanged.

He tended to drink too much at my annual galas, but tonight his words came out crisp and precise, without any slurring. Or joviality. “You’re twenty-one now. That’s exactly why we must talk.”

He took me by the arm, and this time he didn’t give me a chance to protest before dragging me back up the stairs to his office.

CHAPTER 3

STEPHANIE

I awoke face down in a cold, dark room. At least I thought it was a room. The dark surrounding me was so absolute and black, I couldn’t see anything. Not even shadows.

But I assumed I had to be in a room. The frigid air didn’t have any movement. It just covered me like a cold, wet blanket.

A literal cold, wet blanket. I found that out when a few icy drips of water hit the backs of my arms.

What the…?

I lifted my heavy, aching head and crooked an arm to pull what turned out to be a towel from my back.

Pain!

I cried out when a terrible, hot, stinging pain lit up the entirety of my back.

My Intro to Anthropology professor had been right. Humans were just a few DNA steps away from animals, and we often reverted to our primordial instincts when scared or wounded.

I couldn’t form words, could only curl up in the fetal position, even though that did nothing whatsoever to lessen the wretched burn across my back.

There came the sound of a door opening. Then a voice said, “She’s awake. Let H know.”

A small flicking sound came out of the dark, and then another wave of pain hit me—this time in the form of eye-scalding white fluorescent light.

The voice sounded soft, almost feminine. But her hands roughly pulled me into a sitting position.

“Here, take this,” she said, pressing a pill to my dry, cracked lips. “It will help with the pain.”

Normally, I’d be asking all sorts of questions before taking some random stranger’s pills. But she had me at “help with the pain.” I immediately opened my mouth to receive a bitter, chalky pill.

Even better, she tipped a bottle of sweet liquid into my mouth to wash it down. I thought it might be Coke. But it had been so long since the non-diet version passed my lips, I could no longer tell the difference between any of the brands.

It didn’t matter. I guzzled the sugary concoction down my dry throat until she tipped the bottle away from my mouth. “Careful. Don’t want you throwing up again.”

Again?

The head, back, and pain from the light faded just enough to unblur my eyes and let me see the person talking to me.

I was right about the voice being feminine. But that was all the femininity she outwardly displayed.

She was a teenager. Fifteen or sixteen, maybe. She had short black hair, which she wore like a man from the 1950s—parted on one side and smoothed back into a pompadour.

I’d been instructed to smile prettily when meeting someone new. Her lips tilted slightly downward, as if she’d received the exact opposite encouragement to frown at everyone you meet. Heavily.

She appeared to be one of the “butchy girls” my bi first-year roommate told me she preferred to date when I tried to set her up with one of my newly out sorority sisters. But she wasn’t white. If I had to guess her ethnically ambiguous race, I’d go with Latinx born in Louisiana, like me. But nothing like me.

I only ever allowed the slightest hint of my Southern upbringing to touch my refined voice—"just enough to let them know you’re from around here,” my mother had instructed me growing up. But this girl sounded like she’d crawled out of one of the swamp communities I was never allowed to visit.

I immediately regretted taking the pill.

As welcome as any relief from the pain was, I knew in an instant that I could not trust this person. Despite her youthful appearance, lean muscles rippled up both her arms. And she regarded me with an angry scowl that let me know her tone hadn’t been soft and nurturing, as I assumed, but mocking.

Panic and alarm temporarily muted the pain. Along with the realization that I was naked from the waist up.

My dress…the beautiful designer dress I’d picked out with such care had been ripped away. Why? I didn’t understand.

As scared as I was of the woman glowering down at me, I had to ask, “Who are you? What did you do to my back?”

Her glare became a little less intense. “Either those knockout drugs did a worse number on you than we thought, or your father didn’t do too good a job of explaining things to you.”

“My father? Is this about ransom?” I began to ask, only to break off when several flashes of memory hit me all at once.

CHAPTER 4

STEPHANIE

My father didn’t start lecturing me right away as I expected when I perched on the couch he used in front of his desk, as opposed to guest chairs. Instead, he went straight to his office liquor cabinet and said, “Let me pour you a drink.”

Not wine—which was the only thing I’d been permitted to drink before officially turning twenty-one—but several fingers of the thirty-year-old Glendaver Bourbon he only brought out for special guests.

“Happy Birthday,” he said, handing the bourbon to me in a crystal tumbler.

So, this talk was about wishing me a private happy birthday, not about yelling at me. I let out a grateful breath of relief before gulping the whole thing down like it was a shot and I was at a Greek party.

The fine bourbon burned my throat, but I managed to choke out a, “Thanks, Dad. Thanks for everything. Mom would have been so proud of this party.”

Dad was a handsome man. He was only five foot eight, but clean-cut with just enough salt in his black hair to appear distinguished, not old. He was also known for his charm. My mother had often quipped that he didn’t have to argue—even for his job. He was that good at convincing people to do what he wanted without ever having to raise his voice.

But instead of responding to my words with a warm smile, he shifted his eyes away. “I’m glad your mama died, actually. After the doctors told us there was nothing else they could do, I prayed she wouldn’t hang on too long, like some people who get diagnosed with terminal cancer do.”

I blinked at him. “Why would you say something like that?”

He went back to his liquor cabinet to pour another drink. For himself this time. “I was torn up about this for years. Had no idea how I’d explain things to your poor mother when the time came. I didn’t know how to make her understand the deal I had made. Lucky for her, she got her cancer diagnosis and died without ever having to know.”

Lucky for her? Was he serious?

I narrowed my eyes. “Are you trying to say it’s a good thing Mom died?”

“It’s better than the alternative,” Dad answered with his back still turned to me. “If she’d known I gave you to him….”

Dread pooled in my stomach like a dark lake with gators in it. “Dad, what are you saying? Who did you give me to? I don’t understand.”

Dad turned back around with double the amount of liquor he’d given me in his glass. But he’d chosen something clear. Vodka. Maybe tequila. Neat. “That Brandt boy. He came by my offices yesterday and asked for my permission to marry you.”

“Lukas? Lukas wants to marry me?”

My stomach dropped. In the bad way it once did when I ate a bacon-wrapped fried Twinkie before getting on a roller coaster at the town carnival.

But I quickly swallowed down the feeling.

“Mom would have been so happy to hear that,” I pointed out to both him and myself.

“Yes, too happy,” Dad agreed, a sour look passing over his face as he raised the crystal tumbler to his lips. “I would have had to break her heart.”

I didn’t understand. So many confused questions swirled around in my brain. But one beat all the others to my tongue. “What did you tell Lukas?”

Dad didn’t answer. Not at first.

He took another swig of his clear liquor before saying, “I lied. I told him it was up to you.”

Another question. This one even more dread-laced than the first. “What do you mean you lied? It is up to me.”

“No, it isn’t up to you. Or me,” Dad bit out. His face was harsh with an emotion I couldn’t name. He took another drink of bourbon, then informed me, “It hasn’t been up to you since a couple of weeks after your sixteenth birthday.”

My heart raced, but my brain slugged along. I couldn’t keep up. Couldn’t figure out what he was trying to tell me.

“Dad, what are you talking about?” I asked.

My father looked back at me, his eyes hollow and his expression haggard. “You’re twenty-one now. A woman. That means you belong to him.”

“B’lngta him…? Wha d’you mee?”

Belong to him? What do you mean? That was what I was trying to ask.

Maybe I’d drunk too much. The words wouldn’t enunciate on my thick tongue. A fatigue like nothing I’d ever felt began to seep into my bones.

Wait, no, this wasn’t simple drunkenness I realized as sleep pulled me down like quicksand.

My dad…my dad had done this to me. Poisoned me…

But why?

CHAPTER 5

STEPHANIE

I’d woken up here. Wherever here was. I looked around the small room, which featured four gray walls and the thin cot I was sitting on. No furniture, no art. And definitely no answers to my current dilemma. Not to mention my back, which continued to radiate with stinging pain. What had they done to me while I was passed out?

Ugly ancestral memories rose in my throat like bile.

“Did you…?” I shook my head at the teenage girl. “Did you whip me?”

“What? No!” A disgusted look passed over her face. “H would never do that to anybody. Not even you.”

“Then why—”

She tossed a plastic bag to me before I could finish asking that question. “H wants you clean and dressed in under thirty.”

“H?” I repeated. “Who’s H?”

Instead of answering, the teenager walked back to the door and pounded on it. Like a guard in a prison film.

That was what this was, I realized then. A prison.

A shiver ran through me—one that had nothing to do with the cold—as someone I couldn’t see immediately opened the door to let her out.

“Wait, you can’t just leave me here!” I dashed forward to stop her from going before she answered my questions.

But it was too late. All I got for my efforts was another burst of back pain and a glimpse of a big burly man in a leather vest. He leered at my naked chest—right before closing the door in my face.

Fear and panic reared inside of me.

It was like I was in a thriller film. And I guess I knew how to play my part.

I did all the things imprisoned girls do in thrillers, from slapping my palm against the door to yelling all the questions and demands. But all my come back heres, let me outs, why are you doing this to mes, and what do you wants got the same answer.

A whole bunch of silence.

And eventually, I ran out of steam.

There was nothing left to do but go back to the bag I’d knocked to the floor beside the cot when I ran after the butchy teenage girl. It had St. Louis Market stamped across its front. That was a tiny store in the heart of the French Quarter. So maybe this place was in or near New Orleans.

I found two things inside of it. A slip of black fabric that turned out to be a skimpy dress, and some disposable bath cloths—presumably to wash up with.

Their inclusion made me instinctively sniff under one arm. I had no idea how long I’d been out, but I smelled…well, if not rank, a lot less lovely than I preferred.

And any coverage was better than walking around bare-chested. So, I did my best with what I had. Thankfully, the pill was doing its job. My back was only sore now. Like I’d gone too hard at my twice-weekly cardio barre class.

The pill must have had some kind of opioid component as well. Even though I should have been freaking out, a chemical calm kept a lid on my panic and fear as I disappeared my body odor. Not exactly my usual from neck to toes scrub down with exfoliating body wash, followed by lotion and a spritz of Atelier Jasmin Angélique perfume. But better than before. A little better than before.

And with the chemical lockdown on my panic, a strange, disassociated gratitude was all I could manage as I gingerly slipped the dress over my body.

The dress was the skimpiest thing I’d ever worn. It clung to every curve—not in a constructed way but in a cheap, red-light district sort of way. And the haltered neckline barely covered my breasts. But at least it was backless, so it didn’t aggravate…whatever had been done to my back.

The stuff in that pill tamped down another rise of panic just as a knock sounded on the door, and the teenage girl entered without being invited to come in.

“You’re ready.” She was taller than I’d thought when I was sitting on the bed. A good three, maybe four inches taller than me. Which made it sound particularly menacing when she added, “Good. I didn’t feel like wrestling you into that dress.”

Another disassociated fizzle of alarm sputtered inside my heart, which should have been racing.

If not for the chemically enforced calm, I’d probably be fetal with panic.

As it was, I just wondered about it at a disconnected distance, tossing around possibilities of what was happening to me. Kidnapping for ransom didn’t explain my father’s apparent corroboration. Really, nothing could explain why my upstanding father would put any woman in this position—much less his oldest daughter, his own flesh and blood.

You’re a woman now. That means you belong to him.

My father’s words echoed through my head like the somber toll of funeral bells. But who was “him”?

No answer I came up with was even remotely comforting.

The teenager had left the door open this time. She grinned and called out something to the guard in Cajun French—way too fast for me to keep up with my formal high school version of the language. But I could tell it was about me. And vaguely insulting.

“Are you here for a reason other than making fun of me?” I asked her, biting down on my back teeth.

She shrugged. “I’m supposed to make sure you’re decent so we could take you to H.”

“I wouldn’t call this dress decent,” I muttered.

“Nobody gives a shit about your opinion, princess. C’mon…” She jerked her head toward the open door and turned to walk out.

I guess she just expected me to follow her.

Which I did. More out of curiosity than actual compliance.

The hallway was just as gray and concrete as my room, but much wider. And there were two double doors at the end of it. I could only assume that was our destination.

Nonetheless, I asked, “Where are you taking me?” after falling into step beside the teenager.

She gave me a scathing up-and-down look, as if I should already know. “To your owner. Where do you think?”

I jerked my head back, all my hackles rising.

“My owner? Are you kidding me…?” I started to ask before stopping myself. She was obviously trying to get a rise out of me, and I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction.

“Does this person you’re taking me to see have a name?” I asked instead in a facsimile of the voice my mother used with service people who had displeased her.

Her snicker sliced through the air, mean and nasty. And instead of answering, she grabbed me by the shoulders and turned me to face her. “Here’s a window you can use as a mirror. Take a look at his name.”

There was indeed a window built into the hallway’s wall. It showcased what appeared to be a dance club beyond it—the kind locals went to, not tourists. It was filled with mostly young people, and the music blasting overhead was that new Colin Fairgood-Roxxy Roxx duet—not some mainstream party classic from the last century.

And the teenage girl was right. The dark club made the window just as good as a mirror. I did as I was ordered and took a look…only to immediately wish I hadn’t.

My entire back was covered in a tattoo.

PROPERTY OF was written out in huge gothic letters across my shoulder blades, and someone had inked the name HADES just above the dress’s short skirt.

The chemical calm wasn’t enough to contain the horror that flooded through me.

What is this? What did they do to me?

I thought it.

Then I screamed it. “What is this? What did you do to me?”

Forget the pill. Forget not giving the teenager the satisfaction of seeing me upset.

Blood rushed into my ears, and a new pain lit up the top of my back as someone babbled and pleaded in the distance.

That someone was me. The new pain was also me.

Me trying to scratch the heinous tattoo off my back as I cried, “Get it off! Get it off!” and demanded to know who this Hades was over and over again.

Both my request and my question received the same answer. The burly guard appeared and pulled my hands away from my back.

He bound my wrists with the kind of zip-tie handcuffs I had only ever seen on television, then he dragged me, kicking and still babbling, through the double doors into a room I could only describe as...

Actually, I didn’t know how to describe it. And my eyes had to adjust again just to take it in. The space was dark and cavernous, illuminated not from overhead light, but rows of old-timey gas lamps in sconces along each of its side walls.

Awful desperation worming through me, I looked around. When I was around twelve, our next-door neighbors tried to commission a renovation of their carriage house to turn it into a separate guesthouse for the husband’s mother. But the process turned out to be way more fraught and complicated than they’d bargained for. The city inspector had insisted that every single thing needed updating to pass inspection. My mother, the mayor’s wife, and all the other people on the Lake Front Heights Historical Preservation Board had threatened to bury them in fines if they even so much as breathed on the original doors the inspector insisted had to be completely replaced.

In the end, the neighbors ended up putting the guy’s mother in a home as opposed to having to jump through all the often-conflicting hoops the Preservation Society members and the city permit office had held up in front of their goal.

This room struck me as that kind of conflicting space. Preservationists wouldn’t have wanted the owner to change a thing. But a building inspector would have declared it a fire trap for the lack of lighting alone.

I’d seen the nightclub, crowded with carefree people dancing and drinking the night away. This room might have served as an additional club space at some point in its history. A place for patrons to spill over. It was large enough and mostly empty, save for one piece of furniture and one person.

A man lounged on a large black throne in the middle of the room, his face mostly obscured by shadows.

Hades.

I knew it was him without having to be told.

The teenager pushed down on my shoulder, and my knees banged against the wooden floor, adding two more jolts of pain to my throbbing back.

“You want me to duct tape her mouth?” the mean teenager asked the man.

“That won’t be necessary,” he answered. He also had a Louisiana accent, complete with the thick-rolled “o”s that had come be associated with Cajuns. But his was smoother, deeper. And much, much darker.

It wafted like smoke up my spine as he said, “Ma belle, it is good to see you again. I can trust you to keep quiet while we have this talk, non?”

As scared as I was, I realized he was right.

I didn’t need to have my mouth duct taped because I was no longer screaming.

I hadn’t said a word since being dragged into the room. I could only stare at the man on the throne.

As if sensing he had me completely in his thrall, he uncoiled from his seat like a king—the cobra kind. And stood up to loom over me on the raised dais.

Black. Black leather boots. Black jeans encasing strong legs. Black leather jacket with a PRESIDENT patch stitched over its left side. Black hair the same as the teenager’s but not slicked back in a pompadour. It topped his head in thick, tousled waves, an inky ocean at rest.

He was beautiful. But not like me. His beauty was neither feminine nor particularly mortal.

He was beautiful like a god. And I immediately knew why they called him Hades.

But all those other details fell away when I met his gaze.

His silver gaze.

It twinkled with a mix of amusement and curiosity. Just as it did five years ago when I emerged from that broken pool.

I gasped.

“I’ve already got a child, princess. A son. I named Galen after his father. Beautiful name. It means calm weather,” Mama Fairgood, our dear nanny/housekeeper had explained to me when I asked why I wasn’t allowed to just call her plain Mama, since she was the one who took care of me the most. “But he hates it. My sister friend Cherise lets him watch too much TV. And he spends all the money I give him on comics. He’s decided he wants to be a hero when he grows up. Some kind of mix between Swamp Thing and Gambit. He makes everybody call him Swamp Boy—even his own mama. It’s real silly. But you always can find him down on the bayou, helping folks out the best he can. He’s my pride and joy. And that’s why I can’t let you call me just mama without the Fairgood.”

The hero…the boy she’d told me about…he was standing before me.

And apparently, he still didn’t let anyone call him Galen.

Hades.

That was his name now. And he was no longer a superhero. He was a monstrous god.

Yet, it was his old nickname that fell out of my mouth when I finally opened it to speak.

“Swamp Boy?” My voice, my body, my mind…they all trembled as I asked, “Swamp Boy, is that you?”

CHAPTER 6

GALEN

Around the age of six, Galen realized his mère had another family. She took care of them and looked after them and called their little girl “princess,” and stayed with them every school night. The other family got most of her time. Weekends, Easter, and Christmas to the day before New Year’s Eve belonged to him.

He used to get New Year’s Eve too. But then the other family’s little princess cried because his mother wasn’t there for her birthday, so that day started going to them too.

When it came down to him and his mother’s other family, the other family came first, every time.

Galen wasn’t sure how much his mother got paid to be some other family’s mother, but according to his godmother, Cherise, it wasn’t enough.

But Galen was satisfied. His mother’s job made it so that Nanan Cherise didn’t never have to keep a job—which she couldn’t on account of a head sickness she called “my emotions.” Galen had clothes and comic books. And Nanan Cherise, who couldn’t drive anything but their swamp boat on account of her emotions, was able to pay folks to pick him up from extracurriculars after school and bring him to the main dock at the end of their unincorporated bayou.

But she still insisted his mother wasn’t getting paid enough.

According to her, his mother working for that Black family was a scandal.

“She only took the job to prove she ain’t how she grew up. And they only hired her to show they got money,” Nanan Cherise insisted. “Ooh-ah, look at us, swannin’ around with our white maid. The nerve of them. Can you believe that? Abandoning her own child to take care of those Perreaults. They act like their fertilizer don’t stink, but you know, they got that ugly history. Black-on-Black slave owning, politics, bodies that ain’t never been found, thinking they better.”

Politics was Nanan Cherise’s catchword for all the corrupt stuff that went on behind the scenes in Louisiana to keep the rich rich and the poor poor. But Galen noticed she put the most offended emphasis on the Perreaults thinking they were better.

Galen didn’t mind his mother’s better family. In his opinion, they paid well enough, in his opinion, and other boys on their bayou had it worse.

Plus, he liked all his freedom. He got to build rafts and fix things around Cherise’s house and do super-hero stuff for the neighbors, like catching extra fish for the bigger families, babysitting when single mères were sick, and even learning how to maintain and fix everybody’s various boats.

He didn’t even mind that his neighbors sometimes teased him for not being a real Cajun, like Nanan Cherise. Or that a few of them also shook their heads over his mother’s job.

A lot of mamas yelled and got mad. His was always sweet and happy to see him. After he began reading, she started bringing home books and comics during her weekly visit. And whatever he asked for, he got. Candy. Binoculars. Even a computer. Though, he had to take their swamp boat followed by two buses to a Radio Shack in Baton Rouge before he could get internet working at the house, like on the computers at school.

His little sister, Ellie, probably could have done with a mother, though.

She refused to wear dresses from the time she could stand up straight—even the ones their mama sewed. She insisted on running all over the swamp with her big brother and convinced Galen to take her to his barber.

Ellie cutting off her long hair had put Nanan Cherise in her emotions for weeks. All the way up to her death, she insisted to Galen, “That poor girl never would’ve turnt out the way she did if your mère had raised her right.”

But he liked how Ellie had turned out. It was like having a little brother. And besides, his mère already had a girly girl—two when the Perreaults added that second daughter out of nowhere. She didn’t need a third princess.

At least, that was what his mother told Nanan Cherise when her sister friend got to complaining too long about the Ellie situation.

Anyhow, Galen got everything he needed to grow up right and serve his country as a real hero by joining the Army. So no, Galen never held any ill will against his mother’s other family.

Not even when Mrs. Perreault called her in a panic, the one week before New Year when he was on stateside holiday leave.

By this time, the Perreault lady had put his mother on their family phone plan—as a gift, she claimed. Cherise, and even a precociously cynical Ellie, had translated that gift as Mrs. Perreault wanting to make sure her housekeeper didn’t ever get a moment to herself. But reception remained non-existent on the bayou, so most times the Perreault lady ended up calling on the landline anyway.

Her voice was so frantic that Galen could hear her loud and clear, even though he was sitting on the other side of the living room.

“Jose’s not here, and the pool’s not working!” the Perreault lady cried in that strange accent of hers.

His mother once told him, she was from some no-name family in the Midwest. But she’d spent a lot of time improving herself so she could marry into a family like the Perreaults. And that was why she sounded like the Black anchorwomen on television who enunciated every syllable down to the unnecessary gees and esses at the end of words. Also, she didn’t speak a lick of French.

Jose hadn’t been there for over a decade. Their former handyman left the state of Louisiana about two days after his mother announced she was pregnant with Ellie. Mrs. Perreault blamed his mère, not Ellie’s absent father, for this turn of events. And ten years later, if something the Perreault queen would have called Jose about came up, his mother was expected to “handle it.”

Galen got up to grab the keys to the swamp boat before his mother was even done with the call.

Apparently, the Perreault pool wasn’t working right. And they couldn’t have that. The original spoiled princess was going to be on TV. However, the boy who usually fixed it was on vacation.”

“Like the two of you are supposed to be,” Nanan Cherise grumbled before they headed out in the swamp boat Galen had built himself—from the cup holders to the huge back fan.

“Swamp Boy, do I need to be worried about whatever you and Waylon are getting up to in the Army?” his mother demanded after they climbed into the brand new F-350 Galen had purposefully not told her about.

He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. They’d mostly made small talk over the week of their vacation—the differences between Middle Eastern winter and bayou winter, back bayou folks versus city desert folks, how neither of them were looking forward to voting for anybody in the local elections.

How had she come to suspect about his extracurriculars with Waylon?

He supposed the same way she knew that him getting assigned to his cousin Waylon’s unit wasn’t just a matter of luck, even before he did.

“Another generation of Fairgood men getting exactly what they want,” she’d muttered back when he called to tell her.

And now, as if hearing his silent question out loud, she answered, “You think I don’t know what Fairgood men get up to after they join the Army? Your great-great-great-granddaddy started one of the first criminal motorcycle gangs when he got back from fighting in World War Two.”

Galen frowned. That debacle in the Middle East wasn’t World War II, and he’d never considered himself a real Fairgood. That was just the name he’d used on all his government paperwork to enlist three years ago.

His grandfather had kicked both his daughters out of the family for taking up with men he didn’t approve of. And Galen had grown up knowing his birth was the reason his mother had become a black sheep. She’d also insinuated that the disappearance of her son’s father, the scion of a Tennessee-based Greek mafia family, might not have been a case of abandonment.

“We tried to run away together,” she once told him. “That’s how we ended up in Louisiana. But one day he just clean disappeared, and I couldn’t prove it, but I knew…I knew in my soul the Fairgoods had something to do with it.”

Her father was dead now. But his mother still called her brothers and the rest of her Tennessee family “not welcoming.” And though he didn’t believe every word out his godmother’s mouth, he suspected that Cherise’s claim they were “crazy white supremacist criminals” was closer to the truth than his mother’s “not welcoming.”

He never would have classified himself as a Fairgood. But in Waylon’s case, she might have been right.

Waylon might have been half-Hispanic, like Ellie, but he was a whole lot more like the grandfather who started that original MC. A natural leader with dark instincts, he’d taken one look at the poppy fields outside the city he’d been stationed in and sensed an opportunity. An opportunity that had turned into a thriving side business until his second-in-command got brigged for the classic crime of getting high on his own supply.

“I need somebody I can trust,” Waylon had explained after his cousin arrived at his new base. “And it don’t hurt you got all the shit I don’t, including that pretty snake charm.”

They’d spent a whole summer together once when Waylon’s mother went into rehab with the promise she’d get better.

His mom did get better—at least for a year or two. Then she relapsed, and Galen didn’t see his cousin again until he walked onto his new base and found him running it like a king, though he wasn’t even an officer.

They hadn’t talked much over the years, but apparently Waylon had never forgotten what Nanan Cherise had referred to as his “pretty snake charm” when he complimented her into making shrimp etouffee for his cousin, even though Waylon wasn’t a for-real guest.

As it turned out, Waylon was right about Galen fitting right into his side business. Waylon was all “get it done,” and Galen was good at convincing people to do what Waylon wanted. Soon, their side hustle had expanded into a full-blown operation that included weapons and drugs.

And Galen had loved it. American hero during the day. Business man who actually made money at night. Waylon’s opportunity had been an exact right fit, utilizing a secret skillset and fulfilling a desire he hadn’t even been aware he possessed.

Galen had pretended to be the same ol’ him when he returned home to their swamp house. But he’d spent most of his break trying to figure out how to wash all the cash he’d brought with him—not to mention figuring out how to explain to his mother and Cherise how he’d come into his sudden windfall.

And that was only the beginning of his dilemmas. The business was thriving to the point that Waylon pretty much ordered Galen not to re-enlist after his contracted four years were up.

“You’re coming back stateside with me, and we’re starting an MC just like that great-great-grandfucker we don’t talk about,” Waylon said. “But ours won’t be racist.”

“Whatever he has you doing, stop,” Galen’s mother said as they drove toward the Perreault’s place. “Whatever he wants you to do, stop.”

She fretted her hands in her lap. “I can’t believe I’m even having to have this conversation with you after losing my sister to drugs.”

“It’s not like that. I’m not scum, like the guy who sold her bad goods. We’re not purposefully getting anybody hooked,” he argued. “There’s a demand, and we’re just fulfilling it. And we’re better than most because we do quality checks and make sure the stuff we supply isn’t laced with—”

She cut him off right there. “Do you hear yourself? You sound like an all-out criminal.”

She threw him a fearful look. “I know I haven’t been the world’s best mom. But I did my best, and I can’t…I can’t lose you too. You and Ellie are the only blood family I got left.”

“Mère…Mama, I’m doing this for our family.” Galen shook his head. “You can’t work for the Perreaults forever. Don’t you want me to take care of you? Of Ellie and Nanan?”

She rubbed his arm. “Aw, my sweet Swamp Boy. Always trying to figure out how to save all of us.”

He smiled. So she got why he was doing this.

But then she smiled back at him and said, “Find another way.”

He opened his mouth to protest, to explain things to her in a way she’d understand. But she cut him off with, “I did not work myself to the bone all these years just to raise another Fairgood criminal. Save yourself, Swamp Boy. Find another way.”

He no longer went by that silly childhood nickname. And he could have kept arguing with her. But in the end, he loved her more than he wanted to be right.

Nobody said no to Waylon.

But that was exactly what Galen planned to do when he got back to the desert. And driving his mother to the Perreault house convinced him even more than that.

She’d worked hard to get him away from that life. The least he could do was not repeat it. No, he’d stick with the Army and find another way to take care of his family—one that didn’t involve going the Fairgood way.

After dropping his mère off at the front door, he walked around the side of the house to the pool. And he started making a plan. A plan to be good. Be the opposite of the men she left behind.

A plan he completely forgot when he saw the vision, standing at the other end of the pool, wearing a yellow string bikini.

His new plan. All thoughts. The entire world. It all disappeared at the first sight of her.

Long springy curls. A heart-shaped face. Large brown eyes. Pillowy lips. And wide hourglass hips he could see himself gripping as he moved her up and down on his cock. She was a collection of all the things he liked put together in just the right way. And it was all overlaid with the brown skin that generations of Fairgood men had been told they couldn’t and shouldn’t like.

But he wasn’t a typical Fairgood. Just like she wasn’t a typical girl.

A swamp siren, maybe? Nanan Cherise insisted they existed just the same as gators and used to warn him to look out for both when he built rafts to take out on the river. Maybe she was from the Creole and Black side of the swamp he’d never visited.

But what would a Creole swamp siren be doing at a house as fine as the Perreaults? Also, she had a screwdriver in one hand and something metal he couldn’t quite make out in the other one.

He only had a moment to wonder what it was before she gracefully dived into the deep end, barely making a splash as she disappeared underneath the surface.

So not a swamp siren, then. Only two-parent kids who went places like summer camps and swim classes ever dove off things like that.

By the time Galen reached the side of the pool, he’d figured out this vision was the spoiled princess. The one he’d always imagined looking like a brown version of Veruca Salt from that Johnny Depp movie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

But she didn’t come up right away. She stayed in the water so long he was taking off his shoes with a plan to dive in there after her when she finally emerged with a huge gulp of air. No, not a siren. But she put Galen in mind of a mermaid. Her hair was slicked back and dripping with water.

Later, he’d find out she’d correctly figured out the bottom drain cover needed to be replaced, and she’d been trying to fix the problem herself. She hadn’t finished the job, and maybe she would’ve done another deep dive right after her gulp of air.

If she hadn’t seen Galen.

She blinked at him. Then swam to the stairs at the side of the pool.

And maybe there was some realm where he didn’t go hard as concrete as he watched her climb up those metal steps like Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But this wasn’t that universe.

She stood, dripping water on to the concrete. She was so much smaller than him. He towered over her. She was a teenage girl, and he was a grown, Army-trained man.

But she held him completely entranced.

“Swamp Boy?” she whispered.

Two words. That was all she ever said to him.

Just two weeks before her people turned him into the monster he became.

CHAPTER 7

HADES

Galen was dead. Buried in the same grave he’d found his mother in when he and Waylon dug up her body.

Hades.

That was what everyone called him now. Not Galen. Not Swamp Boy.

He’d picked the name when he returned to Louisiana a few months ago. This time as the leader of a powerful biker gang. One who could and had gotten away with several counts of murder.

Yet, the spoiled virgin had called him Swamp Boy. Like he was still just a story his mother had told her. Not the man who now owned her, body and soul.

Disrespect.

He could not stomach it.

Perhaps that was why he deviated from the plan, even though the camera was rolling and Ellie was waiting for him to do exactly as they’d talked about.

Kill her in cold blood on camera, then leave her body deep in the woods behind the Perreault house, just as Antoine Perreault and his cronies had done to their mother.

The virgin sacrifice had only been a piece of patient teasing. He’d wanted Antoine to suffer and sacrifice before watching his spoiled bitch of a daughter get snuffed out.

Death wasn’t good enough for that bastard. Hades wanted him to lose everything, bit by bit. Including his precious blood daughter.

But she’d called him Swamp Boy.

And another idea occurred to him as he regarded her, trembling before him on the floor. An idea his dick liked.

“Give me the room,” he said to Ellie and the Reaper who’d escorted her into the throne room.

The Reaper immediately turned to go. Ellie’s face fell. “But—”

“You said you wanted to be part of this. Part of my operation,” Hades reminded her before she could finish. “Best learn not to question my orders.”

His point was valid. But Ellie was a hothead on her best days, and she wanted this bitch dead almost as bad as he did. He could tell frustration had her close to the edge of the insubordination he’d already told her would get her kicked out of his underworld faster than oil down a gator’s back.

But she must have read the serious look on his face. In the end, she snapped her mouth closed and left out without another word.

The woman on her knees didn’t watch her go. She continued to stare up at him. Trembling, but otherwise still.

“We were planning to kill you, but you look so pretty down there. How about this?” Hades proposed with a genial smile for his special guest. “You give this chok a good suck, and I let you live one more night.”

Silence. And he wondered if she was so fussy she actually didn’t know the Cajun French for dick.

Fear flared in her eyes, and she glanced at the camera they’d set up by the throne, as if just now seeing it for the first time. “Are you asking me to suck your dick in exchange for my life?”

“Smart girl,” he answered. “You catch on fast.”

Tears welled in her eyes. “Why? Why are you doing this?”

Hades had to tilt his head and ask, “Cho, did your père really not tell you why you were being handed over to me as a virgin sacrifice?”

It didn’t matter, Hades decided before she could answer. He did not hit women, but he was more than willing to punch the naïve little princess in the face with the story her father withheld.

“You’re aware your mother fired mine after she outgrew her usefulness?”

The Perreault Virgin blinked. “So this is about revenge for your mother’s job? I begged Mom not to do that. I loved Mama Fairgood, and it broke my heart when she refused to answer any of the texts I sent her after—”

Mama Fairgood. He couldn’t bear to hear her call his mother that, and he cut her off before she could finish spouting her excuses. “My mother came to get her check while you and your mother were on vacation in Saint Tropez—you know, getting over your grief about losing your favorite servant.”

“I didn’t even know my mother had fired her until we got back—” she started to protest.

Non, non, he still couldn’t stand to listen to her. Hades continued on like she hadn’t even spoken. “Unfortunately, she walked in on him and some Bulgarian associates he was entertaining with his family out of town.”

Memories flashed through his mind, dark and bitter as he recalled ferreting all of this information out of her murderers. “Men who decided it was better to chase my mother down and shoot her in the back than let her live to tell the tale of what she had seen.”

She stared at Hades, her face a work of absolute horror, her mouth fell open, but no words came out. Finally, he’d earned her silence.

“The two men who shot her are dead. So are their first-born sons. But your father only has daughters.”

She expelled a breath she appeared to have been holding since Hades told her his mother was dead. “My father…he…should have reported your mother’s death to the police, but—”

“He didn’t just not report it, ma belle,” Hades pointed out, his voice icy with derision. “When my godmother called to ask where she was, he made up a story about her telling him she wanted to be free and asking for money to run away.

“When I got back stateside to look for her myself, I did find out he’d made a large withdrawal. But ironically, it was to pay the police officers who refused to even open a missing person case file for my mother. If I hadn’t put all my efforts into figuring out what really happened, your father and his buddies would have let my sister grow up thinking her mother had abandoned her. Luckily, I knew better. I just wish I’d figured what a cowardly hypocrite your père was before I returned to my unit.”

“Oh, no. I can’t believe she died like that. How awful.”

To his surprise, tears started rolling down her face. Not because of her impending death but because of his mother’s terrible one.

“Poor Mama Fairgood. If I had known, I would have talked to my father. I would have made him—”

Hades cut her off with a barking laugh. “Made him? Non, non, non, do not act as if you had any power in that relationship. I told him I wanted his virgin daughter on her twenty-first birthday or I’d kill him right then and expose his crimes to the world. And do you think he begged for your reprieve?”

A mocking smile lifted his lips. “Non, he drew up a contract to make sure nobody touched his little hothouse flower before she was ripe and ready for me. And you just went along with it. He’s a pathetic coward, and you’re his clueless daughter.”

Hades almost felt sorry for her as he spoke.

This wasn’t his first end-of-life talk, and not everyone knew how pathetic they truly were until they were faced with their impending death.

But her eyes flashed, the tears suddenly drying up. “If I’m so pathetic and clueless, why am I here instead of my father?”

“You’re a blood debt,” Hades answered simply. “Your father gave you to me in exchange for his own life.”

Her chest heaved at his words. “Oh, my God. This is not happening. I’m supposed to be going to Disney World in two days. How is this happening?”

Here was the freak-out he’d been expecting from the start.

No, of course her father hadn’t told her. Cowards always coward in all situations, big and small. They were predictable in that way.

And this was the daughter of a coward, which was why he simply pointed out, “The offer’s still on the table, ma belle. One more day of life in exchange for those pretty lips around my chok.”

His nasty offer made her hyperventilate that much harder.

Ouais, he knew exactly how the Perreault Virgin would answer his offer. With a yes. She’d debase herself, agree to whatever he proposed. Anything to stay alive. Just like her fath—

“Okay…okay…I’m ready. Do it.”

Hades grinned and began to unzip his jeans. This would make for a fine piece of video to send to her father, after some heavy editing and doctoring of voices, of course.

“Eww, no!” she answered before he could finish unzipping. “I’m not going to suck your dick. I’d rather die than ever do that for you. Just kill me. Kill me now if that’s what you were planning to do.”

Rage and shock battled for dominance inside his head.

Men twice as large as her had sniveled and begged him on their knees. A few of them had offered to suck his dick without an ultimatum. Anything to stay alive.

But she’d denied him. Said she’d rather die, hissing the words angrier than a snake in a gator’s mouth.

The Perreault Virgin was many things, Hades realized at that moment. Spoiled. Clueless. Mostly a user and a liar—garbage, just like her father.

But she wasn’t a coward.

He knew that when, instead of taking her words back—like any sane person would—she bowed her head to await her bullet.

CHAPTER 8

BENJAMIN

Benjamin had only volunteered for his boarding school’s summer-long mission trip to escape his father. Enduring a three-hour flight to Ohio in a cramped middle seat was better than what he might do if he stayed home.

“You’re swole. You don’t need me there now,” his big brother had insisted when he called to explain his last-minute decision to spend the holiday break partying with his college teammates as opposed to coming back home to South Boston.

If he’d seen the bruise forming on his younger brother’s face, Benjamin’s brother might not have said that.

Absence was supposed to make the heart grow fonder. You’d think Benjamin’s time away at the boarding school he attended on a hockey scholarship would have given his father some perspective.

But no, it was the same drunk “woe is me” routine as soon as Benjamin walked through the door.

First came the slurred derision because his youngest boy with his black-Irish hair and pale skin had the genetic nerve to look too much like her. The wife who’d left him and their two sons for a hockey player.

It was bad enough to have one son who’d decided to follow in the footsteps of that fucker who “stole your mother from me,” he’d claimed. “Now I gotta lose you too?”

Benjamin hadn’t bothered to point out that his father hadn’t lost him. His mother had left him too, so he’d had no choice but to come home to his drunk father for the holiday break.

He’d learned from rough experience that trying to introduce logic into his father’s beer-soaked rants only made them worse.

Not that staying quiet had helped much either. Their father had woken him out of a dead sleep with a punch to the face for the crime of thinking “you’re too good for me now. You’re just like her!”

“You can fight back,” Benjamin’s brother had yelled over “Stay Fly” by Three 6 Mafia blaring in the background. “Come visit me at college for your spring break. I’ll teach you how.”

A delicious satisfaction had surged inside of Benjamin at the thought of hitting his father back, of finally teaching that drunk asshole a lesson. And that was when he knew he couldn’t spend any more breaks in South Boston.

It would be too dangerous, he suspected.

If he let himself hit his father, he’d keep going. One punch wouldn’t be enough. He had years of pent-up rage inside of him. Just begging to be unleashed on that drunk, self-pitying bastard.

No, Benjamin couldn’t return home.

He’d taken his brother up on his offer to spend spring break with him, but he’d have to figure out something else for June, July, and August.

His older brother had gone straight from college to training for his dream job, and he’d already said Benjamin could stay with him on all future school breaks. But that summer, he was on his own.

So when he saw a flyer on his boarding school’s VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES! bulletin board for a mission trip to the Ohio Valley to help cleanup and rebuild houses in the aftermath of the Hurricane Ivan flooding, he’d signed up. Not just for altruistic reasons, but to keep from killing his father.

But this trip had started out bad from the start. Cramped middle seat that didn’t recline.

Also, no friends.

Most of his hockey teammates had either gone home or taken vacations. A few of his boarding school buddies had also signed up for mission trips, but unlike him, they had passports. So they’d opted for summers in Africa and South America—places that would look way better on their college applications.

Worst of all, Benjamin had packed his bug spray deep in his luggage, figuring he’d be able to access it when they got to their destination.

Big mistake. They’d lost his suitcase at the airport, and none of the good Christian boys in his cabin were of much help. His hockey teammates would do anything for him. But these were the kind of Boston guys who razzed you about any flaw they could find. And just like Benjamin’s teammates, they assumed he was rich because of the designer hand-me-downs he’d carefully picked out of the “Lost N’ Found” boxes at his brother’s college. And pride kept Benjamin from pointing out he was probably poorer than most of them.

They also found his good looks offensive. In their opinion, Benjamin was way too pretty to be getting his hands dirty on a mission trip to the Midwest.

So, after pinning him with the particularly uninspired label of “Pretty Rich Boy,” they teased him about needing bug spray in what turned out to be a mosquito-infested temporary camp set up just outside their work zone. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not one of the boys in the Boston cabin had been willing to lend him a change of clothes either, so he was forced to make a trip to the mission director’s office trailer to ask if they had a bottle he could borrow.

A trip that was just long enough to get him covered with bites.

But the uncomfortable plane ride, asshole cabinmates, and mosquito bites faded into the distance when he saw the dark brown girl with long braids tied up in a ponytail.

She was sitting on top of a step ladder inside the office, hunched over a book. From the looks of it, she was almost to the last page. And there was another book propped underneath the one she was reading, as if she planned to tackle that one as soon as she was done with the first. He squinted to read the title on the second book’s spine: A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking.

So, she was smart. And kind of pretty if you looked past the clunky glasses and spots of acne dotting her forehead. She had a cute round face and a big soft body that filled him with a strange urge to touch.

He’d only dated the opposite of her before. Thin girls with thin noses and perfect skin who were only a few shades darker than his pale Irish white. Those were the girls who stood on the sidelines at his games, who strolled confidently into hockey parties and offered themselves up to him with a smile. Every straight guy on his team had some version of this girlfriend. He’d assumed that was what he wanted too, the only kind of girl he could ever want.

But he’d been wrong. Electricity thrummed through him. He couldn’t speak. Couldn’t step forward. Couldn’t do anything but stare at the smart girl reading her smart girl books.

She suddenly stilled. Like a squirrel who somehow knew it had been sighted by an unleashed dog.

Her gaze shifted from the page she was reading to him, and when their eyes met…boom, boom, boom.

Fireworks exploded everywhere. In his head, in his stomach, in the part of his chest where his heart was supposed to be beating.

“Hi, are you looking for my mom?”

She was talking…talking to him he realized somewhat dimly past all the explosions in his head. He should say something. Come up with some words.

“Yes. I’m looking for…What’s your name?” he answered.

He couldn’t exactly hear himself talking. But the expression on her face told him he had to sound crazy.

She looked him up and down, obviously confused. But then her whole face collapsed with concern. “Oh no! You’re all bit up!”

She hopped down from the step ladder and dropped the books on its foot platform before rushing over to a wall of white plastic shelves.

He watched her pull a first aid kit down from the shelf. She couldn’t have been that tall. Five two, three tops, he guessed. He greedily drank in the sight of her large breasts and generous curves, filling out her knee-length shorts and “God’s Work Youth Missions” tee.

“Here, take the whole tube.”

Electricity zapped through him when she pressed a tube of Benadryl anti-itch gel into his hand.

She eyed him worriedly. “And you’ll be needing sunscreen too. You’re already turning red.”

Back to the shelves, and she returned with a bottle of Cal-Mart brand sunscreen.

“You didn’t bring any of this stuff with you?” she asked, pressing the 50-proof block into his other hand.

“I didn’t even think about sunscreen,” he admitted, finding his voice. “I brought some Off with me, but it was in my luggage…”

Her face lit up with understanding. “Oh wait, are you Benjamin Keane? We got a phone call about your suitcase a few minutes ago. My mom’s going to grab it at the airport after she picks up the next batch of kids.”

Her mom…This must be the daughter of the squat little Black woman who picked them up from the Port Columbus International Airport. That meant they’d be spending the entire summer together. And no one knew him here. He could be whoever he wanted. Pursue whoever he wanted without judgment from his teammates.

“What’s your name?” he asked again. Not because he was confused this time. He just wanted to know. He needed to know.

“Brady? Brady, man, is that you?” a voice asked behind him.

A familiar voice.

Benjamin turned to see Donovan, their hockey team captain at Boston Glenn, the Catholic boarding school they both attended. Though Donovan wasn’t there on scholarship.

He was everything Benjamin only pretended to be. Rich, confident—the kind of guy who created shadows for his younger brothers instead of living in them, as Benjamin did with his older brother.

And now he was here in the mission director’s office.

“I was worried when my parents made me go on this stupid mission trip at the last minute. I’m supposed to be building character or whatever. But Halverson said he thought you might be on this trip too. Glad he was right.”

He slapped palms with Benjamin and pulled him in for a quick bro hug. “Those Southies in your cabin weren’t much help finding you. Come hang with me and my Connecticut crew, if you’re done with whatever you’re doing here.”

He cast a quizzical look between his teammate and the chubby black girl he’d been staring down like a meal he planned to eat.

“Brady?” the girl asked before he could answer. “I thought your name was Benjamin.”

“Everybody on my team calls me Brady,” he explained quickly. “Usually, we use last names. But my older brother was this huge hockey star when he was there, and he just signed with the Boston Hawks, so it would be weird to call me Keane. I mean, he holds so many records at our school, they retired his jersey and hung it up on the wall.”

He was babbling. He could hear himself babbling. This girl made him lose track of his tongue. But he wrapped up his unnecessarily long explanation with, “Anyway, that’s why everyone—even my own cousins—call me by my middle name. Brady. But you know, call me whatever you want…”

Then he asked a third time. “What’s your name?”

“Countess,” she admitted with a grimace. “But everyone calls me Tess. So please don’t make any Moesha or The Parkers jokes.”

Okay, he might have caught an episode or two of those UPN shows. “I won’t, as long as you don’t compare me to Tom Brady.”

She laughed. It was a beautiful laugh, and the smile that accompanied it lit up his entire chest.

“I dunno. I don’t look that much like Countess Vaughn. But if you lightened up your hair, you could play young Tom Brady in the Lifetime movie.”

Now, it was his turn to laugh.

“Brady, you coming or what?” Donovan demanded behind him.

Reminding him about the world beyond them.

“I—I’ll let you know when your bag gets here.” Tess took a step back and cast him a flustered look. Was she feeling it too? All the fireworks exploding in the background of their conversation?

“Thanks,” he said. The word didn’t feel big enough for the feeling in his chest.

“Yeah, thanks,” Donovan said. “Could I get one of those sunscreens too? And some bug spray, while you’re at? My boy’s all bit up.”

“Yeah, o-okay.” With an awkward turn, she went to fetch the items. But she handed them to Benjamin, not Donovan, when she returned.

“L-let me know if you need anything else,” she said to him.

He issued another thanks that didn’t feel nearly big enough, and then there were no more excuses to linger. He had to leave with Donovan.

“Let me know if you need anything else,” Donovan said in a high falsetto as soon as they were out of her earshot. “Good idea flirting with the mission director’s uggo daughter. We’ll be able to get whatever we want all summer.”

A pang of guilt tightened his chest. Uggo?

Part of him wanted to defend her. Point out all the great things about her Donovan hadn’t seen when he dismissed her with one glance for not looking exactly like the composite hockey girlfriend they all dated.

But there was another part of him…the same part that pretended to be richer and more emotionally stable than he was in order to fit in with all the guys at his posh private school.

That part of him was older than the new feeling in his chest. Embedded in a concrete foundation of shame and desire not to be who he really was. And that part of him wouldn’t let him speak up for her.

“Yeah, good idea…” he agreed, his voice weak.

Donovan clapped him on the back. “You know what? I’m going to get you transferred to my cabin. I can’t believe they stuck you with those Southie guys….”

A week ago, having their popular team captain look out for him like they were best friends would have thrilled him.

Not now.

Now, he just felt sick to his stomach as Donovan made plans to talk to the mission director as soon as she returned with Benjamin’s bag.

CHAPTER 9

STEPHANIE

“Alright, ma belle. Death it is.”

His silken declaration iced my blood. And my impending death thrummed in my ears the same as the bass of the club banger playing in the distance.

“Time of Our Lives” by Pitbull and Ne-Yo. How ironic. I’d danced to the then fairly new song with my sorority sisters at our last party before winter break. That now felt like years ago.

Strange. I’d never thought of myself as a particularly prideful person. But I tamped down the strong, life-preserving urge to simply submit.

Instead of taking it all back for the relatively simple price of sucking his dick, I kept my head down with my eyes glued to the shadow my bent form cast across the old wooden floorboards.

I still didn’t quite understand how I’d gotten here. Or why. How had Swamp Boy—the sweet, ever-helpful kid Mama Fairgood told me about—turned into this monster? And how did my harmless father come to owe him a blood debt, of all things? Much less agree to pay it with his own daughter?

Was Dad really involved in illegal activities I knew nothing about? And had he really tried to cover up Mama Fairgood’s death to keep the identity of his clients hidden?

My head was still spinning with all the new information I’d received. But I suppose it didn’t matter.

This man was going to kill me. That was the only thing that mattered now.

As if to confirm my conclusion, there came a rustling sound, and then something cold and metal pressed into the top of my forehead. My belly cramped and a bitter taste flooded my mouth.

“Your father tried to shoot me with this gun when I made a surprise visit to his home office five years ago. It’s a family heirloom. A Colt Detective Special. Apparently, your grandfather received one as a gift after helping the then chief of police out with some legal troubles.”

I was going to die. I was going to die with a bullet from my father’s own gun. Oh, God…

Swamp Boy was going to kill me.

No, not Swamp Boy. He wasn’t a self-commissioned hero anymore. He’d become a demon of the underworld.

Hades.

How appropriate a name for the devil who was about to end my life.

But then, the gun suddenly withdrew.

“You know what? This is an old-fashioned gun, so let’s do this the old-fashioned way.”

There came the sound of several metal plinks.

“I’m going to take all but one bullet out, and we’ll see if that fou bitch Fate wants you to live another night.”

A slight spinning sound. Then my father’s revolver was pressed back into my forehead.

I knew nothing about revolvers. But I’d watched enough older movies to recognize the sound of him cocking the gun for the game I’d heard referred to as Russian Roulette.

At that moment, I suddenly understood the meaning of the phrase “lose your shit.”

My bowels threatened to loosen. But if there was anything us rich Southern girls got training on faster than most, it was how to keep liquids inside your body. Sweat, tears, and especially poop were things we only ever released when we were hidden and alone.

I hadn’t had accidents beyond the age of two and a half. And I clenched everything to keep from having one now.

I’d lost it when I saw the tattoo, but I wouldn’t do that again. No more satisfaction given to these monsters. If I died, I would die with digni—

The dramatic click of him squeezing the trigger stopped my heart cold.

But somehow…

Not my life.

I blinked. And blinked some more. Oh God, Oh God, I was still alive….

“Looks like Fate ain’t done with you yet,” Hades said, his tone amused and wry. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”

“What?” I breathed the question out on a gasp. “Why did you do that?”

But conversation time was over. Instead of answering me, he called out, “Derelict, Jam. Y’all can come out now.”

That was all the warning I got before two men I hadn’t seen before emerged from the shadows. Like the guard who’d left with the teenage girl, they were dressed in leather vests. But neither of them wore tees—just skin covered in tattoos. Mardi Gras-style skulls appeared to be the main motif.

“Take her upstairs,” Hades commanded. His voice was calm, almost soft. But his expression…

A storm raged behind his silver eyes. Like he was just as pissed off about me still being alive as I was surprised.

The shirtless guards grabbed me and dragged me out of the room before I could ask any more questions. There were steps…two flights of them, then they sent me tumbling through a set of double doors into a…

Actually, I wasn’t quite sure what to call this place as I climbed to my feet.

My first thought was a suite. But it was more like a whole apartment with a full bedroom, a sitting room, and even an office area with its very own throne chair. However, I wouldn’t necessarily call the large living place a loft either.

This was the kind of setup I’d only seen in French Quarter homes that doubled as museums. Gold and maroon damask wallpaper, gorgeous bergère sofas in the seating area…There was even a hand-carved Victorian-style bed with a two-post silk canopy.

Honestly, my mother would have died all over again—this time from pleasure if she had seen this place.

Hades lived here?

Antebellum mansions like the one I grew up in were worth millions of dollars. But I couldn’t calculate the value of a space this well-preserved upstairs, but also big enough to house a nightclub downstairs.

But now wasn’t the time for a price of real estate guessing game. I ran straight over to the windows draped in heavy red velvet Victorian curtains.

And I was right. We weren’t exactly in the French Quarter, but I recognized the street below as French Quarter adjacent, even if I couldn’t quite name it. And there was a small balcony attached to the window. Perfect for throwing beads. Or letting the people down below know I was up here and in need of saving.

I had to get out there!

But unfortunately, the window hailed from when people left doors permanently opened and closed, depending on the season. A few pulls on its handle with my zip-tied hands revealed it to be secured shut with one of those top and bottom bolt set-ups. And unfortunately, the top lock was placed so high, there was no way I could get to it without something to stand on.

I looked back at the chair behind the desk. Not as large as the one in his throne room, but somehow just as regal. It was upholstered in red velvet, with its wooden parts painted the same burnished gold as the one downstairs.

No swiveling office chair for Hades. Apparently, only a king’s seat would do.

Whatever. I rushed over to the mini-throne to drag it to the window.

And…nothing.

I pulled as hard as I could, but it didn’t budge. Not an inch. It wouldn’t even do me the courtesy of tipping a tiny bit toward me. It had been so important to my mom that I work out without weights. Squats and all the cardio I could stand were fine, but upper body muscle?

“Men don’t like bulky,” she’d warned me in the same tone Kathy Kliebert, the Louisiana Department of Health Secretary, used to warn people against swimming in lakes infested with flesh-eating bacteria.

Well, look at me now. Muscle-free and unable to move the one thing in this room heavy enough to break window glass. Crap! Crap! Crap!

The door opened and closed before I could figure out a new plan.

“Time for bed,” the teenager said, once again walking in without knocking. “If you want to use the bathroom, I suggest you do it now.”

I stared at her in the new light Hades had shed on her identity.

Ellie…

This was Ellie, the little baby I’d watched grow in Mama Fairgood’s tummy for nine months but never got to meet. I could see her resemblance to Mama Fairgood now. Same round jaws and long, straight noses. But their eyes were much different.

Mama Fairgood’s cornflower-blue eyes had always stayed gentle and sympathetic. She’d acted like everyone was worth a kind word and a smile.

But her daughter regarded me like I was a pile of poop she’d found in her brother’s rooms—right before she pulled out a switchblade.

I instinctively reared back.

“Relax.” She grabbed me by the zip-tie handcuffs and cut them off with a sneer. “If H is going to keep you alive and make me babysit you, I’ll be damned if I’m also wiping your ass, princess.”

I didn’t know whether to be relieved to finally have both of my hands free or insulted that she considered me so little of a threat that she felt completely safe to let me out of my restraints.

“Babysit me?” I asked her. “How old are you? Fourteen? Fifteen? Why are you here, helping him, and not in school?”

She just glared at me and pointed to a gorgeous French Oak chateau inner door. “If you want that bathroom, better do it now. I’m giving you five minutes. And then you won’t get another chance.”

A small part of me wanted to stay and keep asking questions until I got some answers that made sense. But a bigger part of me actually did have to go to the toilet.

So I dashed into the bathroom and reviewed my situation as I unloaded all the waste product that had been pushing against my urethra and sphincter ever since that monster pressed a gun into my head.

I did my business and wiped everything. But when it came time to stand up…

I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. It all hit me at once.

Mama Fairgood…

The woman I’d loved just as much as my own flesh and blood mother…She hadn’t answered any of my texts because she was dead. My father had stood by and let some random criminals kill her. And now the son she’d been so proud of…Swamp Boy….he’d turned into a complete monster.

On the morning of December 31st, I’d jumped out of bed at five a.m. to make sure everything was in place for my biggest birthday gala yet. And now…

It had to be at least twenty-four hours later. And I wasn’t safe. I knew I wasn’t safe. But all my adrenaline abruptly stopped pumping, and exhaustion crashed down on me. An ocean wave that couldn’t be outswum.

When I awoke, I was no longer on a toilet but curled up on top of a soft bed. And my hands were zip-tied again. This time behind my back.

The first thing I saw was bars.

But not like jail cell bars. They were thin, really thin. Almost like…

I blinked. No…No, they wouldn’t have.

I scrambled into a seated position—and banged my head into another set of thin bars.

What in the ever-holy hell?

“Good morning, ma belle. Or should I say good evening? You slept the whole day away.”

I craned my neck to see Hades sitting in the throne chair. I hadn’t been able to budge it, but he now had it set up in front of my latest prison.

A cage. Bile rose in my throat. They’d placed me inside a dog cage.

And just in case I wasn’t getting the message that I was now something this monster owned, he said, “By the way, I’ve decided to rename you.”

His tone was friendly enough, but his silver eyes glittered with hatred as he informed me, “We’ll call you Persephone from now on. Persy, for short.”

CHAPTER 10

PERSEPHONE

“Oh my God, you’ve got a girl in a cage! That’s so hot. Is she going to watch us the whole time?”

Hades, as it turned out, was a big-game hunter. His quarry of choice: ladies who didn’t even blink an eye when they came back to his place and saw a grown woman in a dog cage.

Tonight’s game was a redhead, and she was rubbing herself against him as if the thought of being watched made the prospect of sex with him even hotter.

“Maybe. Depends on her time of the month.” He answered her, but grinned at me.

Then he spun her into the closest wall and put on a condom.

I’d say I’d lost count of the days. But the truth was my grasp of date and time had been shaky from the start of the year.

I was pretty sure the second semester at Tulane had already started, though. My period had come twice, and my imprisonment had taken on a sort of routine.

Morning—wake up in a dog cage and eat a breakfast of granola and what I suspected was some kind of protein-laced yogurt on my hands and knees. Ellie had taken off the zip-tie handcuffs a few days into my imprisonment but had put them right back on the next morning when I tried to eat with my hands. Like a human being.

My breakfast had been swept away, and I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to have food again until three days later. By that time, I was half-starved, and my pride was all the way gone. Humiliated and defeated, I made a fool of myself, inhaling the granola with just my mouth and licking the doggie bowl clean.

Ellie had watched me do this from behind a phone screen the whole time. She occasionally made videos of me. Maybe she sent them to my father. Maybe she and her big brother watched them together after dinner, like family movie night. I didn’t dare wonder too hard on the subject. I was barely hanging on to my sanity as it was.

“You learn your lesson?” Ellie asked the third time she cut off my handcuffs.

Yes, I had. And the lessons kept coming.

My afternoons were possibly nights. I had no idea since Hades kept the curtains drawn.

Anyway, the time I called afternoon was mostly spent in his throne room, watching as he conducted business with criminals who made the Bulgarians who killed Mama Fairgood look like Boy Scouts.

Cartel, Russians, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Asian Triad members—just about every character I’d ever seen depicted as the bad guys in movies—they all entered the throne room to kiss Hades’s proverbial ring.

I watched him grant favors, give orders, and negotiate the finer points of deals from the dog cage at his feet. Sometimes underneath his feet. When the underworld king felt lethargic or just wanted to make a particularly droll point, he kicked back and used my cage as an ottoman.

Mostly bikers came through. I figured out pretty quick that Hades was the co-president of the Reapers, an MC that used to be based in Tennessee but had split into two chapters. One operated out of Iowa, and the other called Louisiana home.

They referred to themselves as an MC, short for motorcycle club, but from what I could tell, they were pretty much a well-run criminal motorcycle gang. They mostly ignored the girl in the dog cage.

But his co-president, Waylon—a ruggedly handsome biker who turned out to be his cousin—had a couple of questions when he came down.

“This her?” he grunted, looking me over with a frown.

“Ouaip,” Hades had answered—the French version of yep. He spoke fluent Spanish and bits and piece of Cantonese, but he always fell back on Louisiana’s unofficial second language when he was relaxed.

Waylon hadn’t looked nearly as unbothered as him.

“Why she ain’t dead yet after what she did to Amy?” He had a thick, flat Southern accent, and unlike the highly nuanced Triad members, a direct way of talking that left nothing misunderstood.

Amy was Mama Fairgood’s first name, and apparently, he was just as annoyed by my continued breathing on this earth as Ellie.

Hades merely shrugged. “Fate’s bullet ain’t found her yet.”

Waylon harrumphed. “She’s also pretty as a fuckin’ supermodel.”

I’d frozen when he said that. The other Reapers never paid me much attention, and I suspected that was on purpose.

One of the Eastern Europeans had offered a little too heartily to buy me and hadn’t accepted no as an answer. He’d kept on upping his price and even came over my cage to make kissy sounds at me and say something in his language. I couldn’t understand it, but I could tell it was vulgar.

And somewhere in the background, Hades had said, “Ah, hell—Derelict, just end this fonchok. He’s pissing me off.”

A red dot had appeared on the guy’s forehead, and the next thing I knew, I was splattered with his blood. By the time, I figured out Derelict had shot him with a silenced gun, the two guards he came in with also fell to their knees with holes in their foreheads.

That had sent a message. No other visitors had commented on the girl in the cage, or even let their gazes linger on me too long. It was like the story had spread through Hades’s underworld like a viral tweet.

But maybe Waylon wasn’t on criminal social media.

He not only asked his cousin about me, he also dared to comment on my lips.

“She is a blood debt. Let’s not talk about her anymore,” Hades suggested. His tone, usually so full of bon amie when he was conducting his business, had gone from wryly amused to ice-cold.

Waylon raised his eyebrows, but in the end, he just went back to talking about a potential deal with some old-school New York heavy hitters. I assumed that was code for Italian mafia.

And I tried not to think about how quickly I was learning to read between the lines and interpret heavily coded Criminalese.

Anyway, that was how I passed most of my days before Derelict and Jam carried me back upstairs. Then came Ellie with dinner—the only meal I was allowed to eat sitting up and with my own hands. After that came a bathroom break, for showering and waste management—turned out humans could also be trained to only go potty twice a day, same as dogs.

Then, just to keep the good doggie treatment going, I got to walk around under Ellie’s slit-eyed supervision for a while. Again, I had no idea for how long. Time was a dimension I couldn’t track in Hades’s underworld.

But eventually, Ellie would get a text message. Then it was back in the cage for me, and she’d leave without so much as a goodbye.

Ten to fifteen minutes later, Hades would come in with the Catch of the Night.

I used to be innocent. By Hades’s decree, as it turned out.

I wasn’t anymore.

In the time before my 21st birthday, I’d never seen two people have sex in real life. And certainly not right in front of me.

Now, I got a front seat every evening. With Hades’s silver gaze burning into me as he plowed into the woman from behind.

Hades had been right to tell the redhead “maybe.”

Sometimes—okay, when I was on my period—I turned around in the cage and buried my face in my knees as they went at it.

But this life I’d been consigned to was somehow criminally insane and insanely boring at the same time. My first few days in captivity, I’d asked for the TV remote or a least a crochet needle and some yarn. Ellie had just laughed at me and said, “Fuck you, bitch. This ain’t Club Med.”

So, there was literally nothing else to do.

That was why I watched, I told myself the first time I did it and tonight too. I was bored, and that was why I let his gator-jaw gaze hold mine, completely magnetized as he fucked the redhead, pressing his big body into hers from behind and working a hand between her legs. It wasn’t because of the nasty lust that continued to tug at my insides, despite my endless weeks of captivity.

It was the boredom that made me ache. Made me wonder what it’d be like to be the woman Hades pressed into the nearest surface…to have his staff inside of me with his hand between my legs…to feel whatever the redhead was feeling when she suddenly began bucking between Hades and the wall like she’d been possessed by one of the many demons that supposedly roamed the streets of New Orleans, even as she called out to God.

Hades finally broke eye contact with me after that. “That was good, cher. Real good. See how my pet enjoyed the show?”

He sped up his thrust as he said that and came with one last punch of his hips. Hades ran his sex like he ran his deals—outside that one time with the Eastern European boss. Perfectly smooth, perfectly in control. Everybody but me came out feeling like a winner in the end.

After he pulled out and disposed of the condom, he gave the redhead sweet, honeyed words that made her smile and made my insides curdle. The strange emotion gnawing at my guts was shame, I told myself. Not jealousy. Definitely not that. Because I hated everything he was doing to me with all my soul.

Doors opened and closed. Then Hades came back into the room alone.

I kept my back turned. I didn’t have to watch what came next. By this point, I’d memorized our nighttime routine.

Hades went to his desk and grabbed the Colt revolver he kept there in an unlocked drawer as a flagrant reminder of how little power I had in my situation.

“How’d you like that reddie, Persy?” he asked as he walked back over to my cage. “You pass a good time? You want me to bring home more like that if Fate decides to grant you another tomorrow? Or is tonight the night you beg me to fuck you? Make sure you don’t die a virgin?”

I didn’t answer at first. I refused to answer.

Damn him. My head swam with a different kind of hunger, and my sex frantically clenched and unclenched beneath the thin skirt of tonight’s slutty dress.

I felt sick with lust, and I hated, absolutely hated the urges that washed over me every time he made that offer.

“No! I don’t want that. Especially with you,” I eventually bit out. “If you’re going to kill me, just kill me.”

He’d been so charming with the redhead. But all I got was cold, dead silence. Followed by the sound of him spinning the snub-nose revolver’s chamber and then cocking it to shoot.

Then came the moment when he pressed my father’s gun through the cage’s thin bars into the back of my head.

The first few times he did this, I squeezed my eyes shut and concentrated on not crying.

This time, I just breathed into my knees, wondering if tonight was finally the night.

Click!

I flinched at the sound of the trigger squeezing—I still hadn’t learned to control that. But when I opened my eyes, I was, once again, still alive.

“Not this time either.” He sounded a bit surprised and somewhat amused. “You’re either very lucky or very unlucky. We’ll find out for sure one of these days.”

With that, he went on to the next part of the routine.

Nothing else to watch. My eyes followed him to the bathroom.

He always left the door open. And tonight, just like pretty much every night that had come before it, I once again lost the battle with myself to do anything—anything other than watch him showering off his magnificent body. I especially hated myself for letting my eyes linger on the thing hanging long and heavy between his legs before I forced my stare up to his upper half.

From what I’d seen, the Reapers’ tattoo ethos ranged from none at all to completely covered. Hades had gone the minimalist approach. Just one sleeve that you’d never know about unless he took off his leather jacket—or you got to watch him shower every night.

“Beaux rêves, Persy,” he said when he emerged from the bathroom, dressed in a pair of pajama bottoms.

Sweet dreams…

My dreams turned out fine, but I jolted awake at the sound of his voice shouting in the dark.

The first few times this happened, it had scared the stuffing out of me. But by now, I recognized the situation upon waking.

Hades was speaking in garbled Cajun French. Something about his mother. But he wasn’t speaking about her. He was talking to her. Apologizing. Apologizing like a little boy.

Then he cut off abruptly.

There came the sound of heavy breathing in the dark.

I waited with my own breath suspended for him to go back to sleep, like he always did when he woke himself up with a nightmare—at least every other night.

However, that night a lamp flicked on, sending a warm light into my cage. I sat up to find Hades sitting at the side of the bed, panting like he’d just run a marathon.

Tonight’s nightmare must have been even worse than usual.

“Hades?” I asked before I could think about calling out to him.

His head whipped to the side. Not toward, but away from me—as if he couldn’t stand the sight of me seeing him like this.

“Go back to sleep,” he ordered, his voice strange and harsh.

I followed a routine.

-Eat.

-Watch Hades underworld it up.

-Eat.

-Shower.

-Watch Hades fuck yet another woman in his endless string.

-Don’t die.

-Watch Hades shower.

-Go to bed.

-Get woken up about every other night by one of Hades’s brutal nightmares.

-Go back to sleep, and do it all again the next day.

Weeks had passed in this manner.

But I couldn’t get back to sleep, even after he turned off the lamp and the sound of the bed creaking told me he’d laid back down.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Mama Fairgood’s terrible death. And the weeks that followed my own mother’s death…

“Hades,” I said again, wondering if he was awake too.

“Go to sleep,” he growled. “You do not want to know the consequence for disobeying me.”

No, I didn’t. But…

“I can help you,” I told him in the dark. “I can help you with the bad dreams.”

CHAPTER 11

HADES

“I can help you.” The offer came soft and unexpected in the darkest hour of night. “I can help you with the bad dreams.”

Hades let cold silence serve as his answer—which was, of course, no.

The nightmares had been bad since he and Waylon dug up his mother’s body in those woods. At least once a month, his mère visited him with blood seeping from each of the holes where they’d shot her in the back, her eyes regarding him mournfully with an unspoken demand to be avenged.

He was avenging her though. No, he hadn’t killed the Perreault virgin yet. But the spoiled brat she’d waited on hand and foot, only to receive a thankless dismissal in the end had been put in a cage. He was making Persy suffer, therefore extending the humiliation for her father who received daily pictures and videos of his precious daughter in her new habitat.

Hades hadn’t even allowed her to keep her name.

But the nightmares had only ticked up since he took Persy prisoner.

He was beginning to suspect nothing would stop them, save for her death along with the father who stood by while his mother was run down and then shot in cold blood.

So, of course, his prisoner couldn’t help him. And, of course, his answer was no.

“Let me know if you change your mind,” she said in the dark.

He didn’t.

At least he didn’t for several more weeks.

But then one evening, he walked in with that night’s conquest and found Ellie still in his room.

She was frowning over a thin hook in her hand. A crochet needle, he dimly recognized. He remembered their mother using one to make blankets for all the folks with new babies in their unincorporated bayou as they watched TV together during her weekend visits.

Even more surprising than that, the prisoner was outside her cage and appeared to be pointing out a stitch that Ellie had gotten wrong.

“It’d be easier to learn the hair kind you were telling me about,” Ellie grumbled, yanking at the yarn. “Or just buy my Algebra teacher a baby blanket.”

“People love gifts extra when you put your heart into it,” Persy answered. “And admit it, don’t you feel better about getting that C? Life’s problems tend to go away when you put a mind to helping others.”

A memory hit him then, with the force of his first F-350.

Nanan Cherise complaining to his mother, “Why you choose to spend so much time doing even more things for people who ain’t your kin, I don’t even know. You got problems of your own to be attending to on your one full day off.”

“Life’s problems tend to go away when you put a mind to helping others,” his mère had answered, her voice a melodic singsong.

As if remembering right along with him, Ellie said, “My mère used to say that.”

Persy smiled fondly. “She said it to me too. Growing up, she really did make it quite difficult for me to act like a spoiled brat.”

Hades scrunched his brow, not appreciating this contradiction to his narrative or that Persy was sharing memories of a woman she had no business talking about, considering what her father had done. He expected Ellie to call the Perreault virgin out on her bullshit.

But to his shock, Ellie burst out laughing. As if it was okay for his prisoner to be out of her cage. As if they were friends. But Ellie didn’t have friends.

And she never laughed. Not since he told her about what had happened to their mother. What the hell was this?

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

Ellie abruptly broke off laughing and dropped the needle like she’d been caught by the police with a stolen firearm.

“I was just….she was just…”

Persy came up with an answer before his sister did. “We lost track of time. I’ll just get back in my cage.”

“Yeah, get back in your cage,” Ellie said, resetting from laughing teenager to her usual sullen base zero. She shoved all the crochet supplies into a large tote bag from The Quarter Stitch.

He’d never been one to craft himself, but he recognized the simple logo from the popular knitting and needlepoint boutique over on Chartres Street.

What the hell? He glared as Ellie scooted out the door like she should have done over a half hour ago.

He’d have to talk to her tomorrow about how charming the duplicitous Perreaults could be when they were running a psychological offensive on you. First thing in the morning, he’d have to remind his sister that she couldn’t let her guard down with his prisoner. Not even for a moment.

But tonight, he turned to Persy and demanded, “How did you do that?”.

She froze midway to crouching down to get into the cage. “Do what?”

“Make her laugh,” he answered. “She never laughs. Not since our mère…”

He was a big, bad biker. The leader of one of the most dangerous MCs in the states. But he still couldn’t say the words. They clogged in his throat.

“Maybe she just needs a friend. Someone she can talk to about the person she lost.” Persy hesitated, then stood all the way back up. “Maybe you both do. I’ve noticed the nightmares are getting worse. Almost every night now.”

She was right. But he’d be damned if he’d admit it. “I’m fine.”

“If you’re so fine, why don’t you let me help you?” she asked. She tilted her head to the side. “You’re acting like you’re scared of me when it’s the other way around. And you’ve got to be exhausted, keeping the hours you do with such a low quality of sleep.”

She was right again, damn her. A wave of exhaustion passed over him just thinking about all the meetings and negotiations he had scheduled for the week. Could she really help him, or was this a trick?

An unwise curiosity wormed its way into his head.

Maybe that was why, instead of telling her to get back in the cage, he declared, “One chance. You’ve got once chance. And if it doesn’t work, no more Russian Roulette. I’ll put a bullet in all six chambers and make sure your luck doesn’t keep holding out. Otherwise, you need to get back in your cage and never speak of this to me again.”

She visibly swallowed. And Hades waited for her to take back her offer and return to her prison. Like a good little broken dog.

But instead, she glanced to her right and answered, “You’re going to have to send her away.”

He followed her glance to the blonde he’d brought upstairs to fuck. Strange, he’d forgotten she was still standing there. His dick wasn’t even hard anymore.

She glanced between him and Persy quizzically now.

Hades didn’t like to disappoint his lady friends. But, in this case, she’d already heard more than she should.

“Go,” he told her, his voice as hard as Waylon’s when he gave an order.

And perhaps she sensed he’d throw her out if she didn’t obey. She left without protest, under her own steam, calling, “DM me if you change your mind! I’m on Insta!”

Hades didn’t answer the blonde. He’d already forgotten all about her.

He just stared at Persy with his heart vibrating in his chest.

“Alright, Persephone, show me what you got.”

CHAPTER 12

PERSEPHONE

“Alright, Persephone, show me what you got.”

It took me a few blinking moments to realize what was happening—that Hades had actually agreed to let me help him.

For a price, a practical voice reminded me. If this doesn’t work, you die. For real this time. With zero chance of exemption.

Okay, well…I shoved down those not-so-helpful thoughts. I’d managed to stay stoic about my impending death up until now. Tonight wasn’t the time to finally lose my mind—like any rational person who’d been kept in a dog cage for who knows how many months would have a long time ago.

“Great. Just give me a few minutes…”

I rushed away to the bathroom and rummaged around in the cabinets, finding everything I’d need to help him kick his nightmares.

“Alright, come in!” I called out when I was done setting everything up.

No answer. Also, no sounds of shoes shuffling closer. Had he already left? Maybe his agreement to let me try to help him had been a trick. Get my hopes up, then dash them. That sounded like something Hades would d—

The door opened, cutting off my pessimistic hypothetical. And suddenly Hades was in the bathroom with me.

I could hear club music pumping from below, but I hadn’t heard him approaching. What kind of gator is this?

I swallowed. The bathroom was the one room upstairs my mother wouldn’t have stamped with her seal of approval. It had been thoroughly updated with a sleek glass shower, a separated toilet, overhead lighting with a dimmer switch, and even a charming claw-foot copper soaking tub—not exactly historically accurate. But there was only so much renovation one could do when it came to old bathrooms in old houses. The space was tiny compared to the rest of his apartment, where he’d obviously knocked out walls.

So not only had I invited a gator into my sanctuary—the only place in my prison where I was allowed any privacy—but the predator also took up most of the space. And the air. My heart sped up, trying to catch the breaths that had suddenly become shallower.

We’d never stood this close upright. My head barely reached his shoulder.

He looked all around in the room where I’d dimmed the lights. “What’s this?”

“This is the first step to no nightmares. A nice warm bath.” I waved my hand toward the cooper tub I’d fill up with water and some Epsom salts I’d found underneath the sink, like voila.

But then I had to clear my throat and add, “You’ll, um….need to take off all your clothes and, you know…get in.”

A beat of silence, and I wondered if he’d say no. I have to admit, I’d say no if I were him.

But then he took another step into the bathroom, closing the rest of the small distance between us. He wasn’t standing close enough to touch. Still, I could feel his predator energy pushing against me as he started to remove his clothes. Slowly. Sensually. With more grace than a man who wore a leather jacket and jeans like a business suit should have possessed.

He was doing that alligator-jaw trap thing with his eyes again. I tried and failed to look away as he revealed his body, piece by piece. Heavily veined forearms, the sleeve tattoo, abs so defined, they cast shadows.

Then…

Okay, must stop openly staring at my captor.

I ripped my gaze away from his and pinned it on the ceiling, refusing to look. But he didn’t have to tell me when he was fully naked. I swear, I could feel the piece of male anatomy I refused to look at pulsing between us. Even before he said, “Now what?”

“Just get in.” I meant to sound efficient, but my voice squeaked out.

Another still beat, but then he stepped around me, and the sloshing sound of water told me he’d lowered himself into the bath.

“Now what?” he asked again.

I turned around, and dear Lord…How could one man look so masculine lounging in a copper bath?

I tried to swallow, yet again, but no dice. My throat had gone that dry.

I hastily turned and picked up the hand towel I’d set on top of the sink, along with a bar of his Black Amber Mistral soap that I’d grabbed from the shower.

“Here’s a hand towel and some soap.”

He just stared at the items I was holding out to him.

“Alright, Persy, make me clean.”

I doubted anyone or anything could do that. Not enough expensive soap in the world. Also, why couldn’t he do it himself?

The challenging look in his eyes told me it was better not to ask. None of the soothing nighttime routines I’d looked up for my little sister had included start arguing during the bath portion.

Besides, I’d given my little sister plenty of baths when she was younger. I’d read The Baby-Sitters Club series way too many times, and I used to beg Mama Fairgood to let me do all the work when it came to getting Daphne ready for bed.

No big deal. I picked up the towel and soap. I’d just imagine I was back home in Baton Rouge giving my baby sister a nice scrub.

I soaped up the wash cloth and efficiently began swiping it over his chest—which turns out to be decidedly not like a baby’s. Everything on him was a hard, unyielding plane. Did he even have any body fat?

Don’t think about his ridiculous physique.

I cleared my throat. “After this, you should hang out for a while. You know, just enjoy a nice soak. If you want to tell me where your phone is, I could play some soothing music.”

“Don’t need a phone, when I got you,” he answered. “How about you help me relax right now by singing me something in French. Anything but ‘La Vie en Rose.’”

I stared at him, stunned by the request.

“That’s one of your many talents, non? I thought I heard something about you always singing French around the house.”

“Yes. Back when I was in high school,” I admitted. It seemed that Mama Fairgood had told him a lot about me. “I had this teacher who made us memorize songs and sing them to the whole class. But…”

I was about to point out that “La Vie en Rose” was pretty much the only thing any lapsed French student could still sing by heart. But then I remembered my obsessed-with-Carla-Bruni phase, when she was the First Lady of France.

“Quelqu’un m’a dit,” one of her biggest hits of all time, suddenly came back to me like it was yesterday and I was memorizing it for Madame Hebert’s Advanced French class.

Running the towel down his muscular arms, I sang about the fleetingness of life. How it passed in an instant, the same as a withering rose, and how that bastard, time, made coats from our grief. However…

The refrain about how someone had told the singer that an unidentified “you” still loved her lodged in my throat.

“Go on,” Hades said. His voice was a dark shadow in the dim bathroom. “Finish your song.”

I refocused on my pronunciation and quavered through the refrain as quickly as I could before getting to the second pessimistic verse.

I’d been just a girl in high school. More concerned with getting the enunciation right and earning my A+ than understanding the words. Also, I got to get away with saying the word “bastard” in French.

But the song hit way different as an adult. Sad chorus. Hopeful refrain. Confession that she didn’t actually remember who told her about the still-held secret love. Until it ended with the original bittersweet verse and a refrain that didn’t sound nearly as full of possibilities as it did toward the beginning. Yes, the poetic you still loved the singing me, and then…

Nothing. Nothing changed for the singer, I realized. Nothing came from hoping.

There was just a bunch of silence when the song was done.

Silence that covered everything and made it still. I was no longer moving the towel over his body. We were two people, frozen in place, as if we were posing for one of the paintings that local artists peddled to tourists in Jackson Square.

Eventually, he said, “You have a pretty voice, ma belle.”

“Thank you,” I barely managed.

“But you missed the most important part of my body.”

Oh, no. Oh, no. I glanced at the long thing underneath the water, and my entire body flooded with heat. Not the kind I couldn’t stop from happening when I watched him have sex with that redhead against the wall. But the mortified kind that washed over me in waves whenever I had to tell a potential boyfriend about the virgin contract. Did he expect me to…?

He smirked. “My face. You forgot to wash my face.”

His face. I could tell he was laughing at me, that he liked seeing the naive virgin squirm.

My embarrassment suddenly gave way to anger. I was so sick of this. So sick of him having all the power.

Instead of washing his face like a good little subservient virgin, I dipped my hand farther into the water and wrapped the towel around the thing between his legs.

His entire face went slack with shock. “What are you doing?”

To my own shock, the thing I was holding came to sudden life. From snake to staff in a long and thicker-than-expected instant.

He was so much larger than any boy I’d ever touched, including Lukas. My pulse skittered.

But then I glanced at him and forced myself to calm. I liked the surprised expression on his face, the stunned and wary look in his usually mocking eyes. It was as if I was the predator all of sudden. Not him.

And that made me bold.

No, I wouldn’t suck his dick. Not ever. And especially not on camera.

But alone with him in this bathroom…

“I’m assuming there’s a reason you keep bringing those women back to your place. We should make sure this doesn’t interfere with your sleep tonight.”

I began moving my hand, watching closely for his reaction as I stroked it up and down his length.

I watched him. He just watched me back, meeting my unspoken dare with a careful smirk and a jaunty, “Alright, then. Merci beaucoup.”

Intimidation bottomed out my stomach like a drop on a roller coaster that turned out to be higher than I anticipated. But I kept going.

I studied him instead of chickening out. Gripped the throbbing thickness in my hand and adjusted my stroke and pace as his breaths became faster and shorter.

How good did it feel when he broke first? The smug look fell away, and his head tipped back with a helpless, “Fuck!”

Such coarse language. I inwardly smiled and fisted his erection even faster, sensing he was close. The sound of splashing water filled up the room. I hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol since my birthday, but I felt drunk. Drunk on the power I held over him as his erection jerked in my hand and he shouted out. His large body twisted and thrashed, displacing enough water to send it sloshing over the tub’s thin edge and soaking the front of today’s slutty cowl-necked dress.

Even then, I refused to stop. I kept on milking him until he was fully emptied out and deflated in my hand.

Only then did I finally answer his merci beaucoup with, “Pas de quoi.”

It was nothing—our regional version of “You’re welcome.”

I flashed him a grin and finally released him. But he grabbed ahold of my wrist before I could fully withdraw, his silver eyes clamping down on mine.

“Don’t touch me again unless you plan to let me in that pussy, ma belle. I don’t do hand jobs. I fuck. And I am not gentle.”

My chest jangled with alarm at his vulgar words. But my sex…

Oh, God, it flexed. With curiosity. And even more shamefully, with a desire to know what it would feel like to be fucked roughly by a beautiful monster.

I stood up swiftly.

“You should wash your face in the sink since the water’s, ah, compromised.” I supposed that was as polite a way as any to point out that it was full of his spunk now.

I didn’t wait for his response to my suggestion, just rushed out of the bathroom and prepared the room for Phase 2 of the No Nightmares plan.

He came out of the bathroom a few minutes later with a towel wrapped around his waist and stopped short.

Maybe because I’d turned off all the lights save for the bedside lamp. But more likely because I wasn’t in my cage.

“There have been studies,” I rushed to explain. “Studies show that sleeping next to someone reduces your chances of having a nightmare. It doesn’t have to be someone you’re romantic with either. I—”

I stopped short of telling him the origin of all my anti-nightmare bedtime routine knowledge—how I let my little sister sleep in my room for months after our mother’s death until Daphne felt emotionally strong enough to return to her own.

Love was vulnerability in Hades’s underworld. Something easily weaponized. And I’d accepted my fate, but I’d be damned if I let anything happen to my sister.

He knew so much about me, but I assumed she was safe for two reasons:

1. She was adopted, with only my mother’s name on the paperwork.

2. Hades had no idea how much she meant to me. That all my pride ended with her, and I’d do anything to keep her safe.

I’d like to believe that even a monster like him wouldn’t threaten a little girl. But was I willing to risk giving him that extra bit of knowledge about me on that hope? Hell no.

“I read that somewhere,” I substituted, instead of telling him the full story. “Anyway, me sleeping next to you is the best way to ensure this works.”

He shifted his eyes to the open cage, and I held my breath. I know he’d served in the Army, and I sensed he might have a rigid sense of protocol somewhere under all that smoking-hot criminal. He might not agree to this on his messed-up principles alone.

“No touching,” he eventually said. “And you need to stay on your side of the bed. Or else it’s going to be what I warned you about.”

The image of him rolling on top of me entered my head unbidden. But like the copper tub, that mental thought wasn’t exactly historically accurate.

He occasionally used the bed with his women. Kneeling behind them and taking them doggie-style. But he never employed the missionary position, or anything else that could be considered remotely intimate. My belly quivered with the idea of ever being put in such a lewd position. Would I like it? Would I cry out with every thrust, like the noisy Asian girl he’d once bent over the side of the bed?

That question couldn’t be answered. Shouldn’t be answered.

I reminded myself of that as I scrambled into the side of the bed closest to the lamp.

Instead of going to the set of drawers to fetch the pajama bottoms he usually slept in, Hades simply came around the bed and dropped the towel.

I averted my eyes as he climbed into the bed with me and quickly turned off the lamp light.

Time to get back on track.

“Do you pray?” I asked in the dark.

“What?”

“We have to seed a good dream,” I explained. “If you believe in something, anything, the easiest way to do that is to ask God to give you the dream you want.”

Silence. Then: “I believe just enough to know better than to ask God for anything at this point. Don’t care much for the idea of going up in flames.”

I chuffed. “So, you grew up with the fire and brimstone version of God.”

“I was raised by a godmother who grew up with the fire and brimstone version of God,” he corrected.

Another weird pang of guilt tightened my chest. Mama Fairgood had encouraged me to say little prayers all the time. Her version of God was happy and delighted to grant any little girl’s requests. How sad that I’d gotten her very best, even the best version of God, while her children had to settle for scraps.

Complicated emotions swirled around my chest as I told him, “That’s okay. It doesn’t have to be that version. You can ask anybody or anything. The Universe, that Fate you’re always referring to, even your subconscious—whatever you believe in. Just tell it specifically what kind of dream you want. Then breathe with that dream on your mind until you fall asleep.”

Another tick of silence.

Then: “You had better hope this works. I’m sure as hell not doing this with you again if it doesn’t.”

I guessed I wasn’t as brave about dying as I thought. I shivered in the dark, knowing exactly what that meant. He’d kill me. He’d kill me if he had another nightmare.

“It will,” I answered. Not because I was that certain, but because I needed the reassurance myself. “Just do the work exactly as I told you. Visualize the good dream and breathe. Do the work.”

No response. But I could hear him breathing in the dark. Hopefully, following my instructions exactly as I said. In any case, his breath soon evened out to the point I knew he must have fallen asleep.

Leaving me to shift uncomfortably in the bed. I’d somehow gotten unused to not sleeping completely curled up. Also Hades.

We weren’t touching. I was happily abiding by that rule. But somehow, I could still feel him. Hades was like Louisiana’s infamous humidity. Something you couldn’t just ignore when you encountered it. It filled your lungs and made everything uncomfortable—especially falling asleep.

Yes, I was overheated. That was the only way to explain the steady throb between my legs. Like a second heartbeat that refused to stop racing. Even for a man who’d destroyed my life from top to bottom. A man so evil, even he knew he had no business praying to God.

Disney World. I ignored the throb and asked God for my own special dream. Disney World, please.

Then I closed my eyes, hoping that at least in my subconscious, I’d be able to take my little sister on the trip I’d promised her….

I woke up with a start several hours later. Not because Hades was having a nightmare this time, though. I sensed another presence in the room, moving around.

However, Hades wasn’t even here. His side of the bed lay empty. Only the rumpled covers let me know he’d ever slept there.

So did it work? Did he sleep through the night?

“Good job, princess, your plan worked,” a voice said, answering to my unspoken question. “No more cage. I see you got that Perreault charm offensive turned up to 100. First offering me that crochet lesson when I was down about that bullshit C, then going after my brother.”

I looked up to see Ellie, standing in the place where my dog cage used to be.

Perreault charm offensive? Sure, I understood my dad was a master manipulator. Well, now I did after discovering all that virgin contract business was because of the deal he’d struck with Hades, not out of any overprotective fatherly concern for me.

But did Ellie really think I was just like him? That I’d offered my advice and crochet lessons when I saw that she was down just to escape my prison? That I’d actually had sex with her brother?

“Congratulations on fucking my brother,” she all but spat out, confirming my questions. Her eyes, which had shined with laughter last night, were back to their usual setting. Bitter and angry. “Looks like your père done spit you out, didn’t he?”

And even though I was the one who’d been taken prisoner, guilt flashed through me as if I’d done something wrong.

“I didn’t…”

I started to answer, but then stopped when I saw the large item parked in the place where my dog cage usually stood. It was a clothing rack, of all things—filled with long evening gowns.

Instead of defending myself, I had to ask. “What’s all of this?”

“Da hell it look like, Persy Putain?” Ellie rolled her eyes. “You’ve gotta pick a dress. H is taking you to some charity ball.”

CHAPTER 13

PERSEPHONE

I was going to a ball!

Two weeks after picking out a tasteful evening gown that—gasp!—reached past my knees and—double gasp!—covered the terrible tattoo on my back, I was—triple gasp!—putting on makeup. Like, actual makeup for the first time in months.

How many months? No idea. And I kind of regretted being too proud to ask Ellie exactly what season it was outside the tall windows I’d only been allowed to look out wistfully…until tonight.

My heart soared with the idea of seeing people other than Hades and Ellie, who’d reverted back toward bitter and surly ever since assuming I’d slept with her brother. She was no longer open to talking about her mom with me or crochet lessons, even though, in the hugest shock of them all, Hades had gifted me with a craft room.

The place was no bigger than a storage closet. Knowing Louisiana, it was probably a servant’s tiny bedroom at some point in time. Unlike the rest of the heavily damasked upstairs, it featured plain white walls. Not going to lie, it kind of felt like an alternative prison now that the dog cage had disappeared.

But inside I found a treasure trove of items to keep me from losing my mind during the long days. A rolling caddy filled with crochet and knitting needles, along with skeins of yarn. Even fabric and a sewing machine—similar to the one I remembered Mama Fairgood using to make clothes to send home to her children. Maybe the exact same one I remembered her using.

I didn’t dare ask Ellie, who locked me in there every “morning” and only came back to fetch me for dinner.

No more boring afternoons in the throne room, but my new jailer was back to the kind of responses that could only be filed under three categories: monosyllabic, reluctant, and downright nasty.

No, I didn’t speak her kind of French, but I knew enough to glean that her new nickname for me—Persy Putain—wasn’t her calling me “sweetie.”

I’d thought about correcting her a few times. Not only about the ugly history of impugning women but not men for having sex, but also to let her know I was only sharing a bed with her older brother. And nothing else. But I didn’t want to disturb the current status quo I had going with Hades.

The dog cage was gone. Along with the nightly game of Russian Roulette. Hades had even sent a hairdresser around a week ago to finally take out my seriously old ombre blonde extensions. My mom would have rolled over in her grave if she could see that I was wearing my natural ear-length soft curls to a charity ball, where important people she knew would see me.

But thanks to solving Hades’s nightmare problem, I’d gained more freedom for both my body and my hair.

Though, believe me, after drawing his bath and quickly retreating to sit on the toilet lid every night prior to this one, I was deeply aware that our peace was fragile, at best. I didn’t want to compare myself to Scheherazade, but every sleep cycle I woke up happy to be alive—and positive thinking had nothing to do with it.

Still, over the last few weeks, there’d been a gentling between us. We’d actually started talking during his nightly bath. About safe things. Our wildly different childhoods, the differences between Cajun and formal French, what we’d had for dinner, my sewing projects, movies and TV shows we’d watched before all of this.

I couldn’t say the sexual tension was completely gone, but he didn’t gator-stare me down anymore, or bring home random women to fuck in front of me.

He hadn’t exactly thanked me for his lack of nightmares. But the craft room gift and, you know, not locking me up in a dog cage every day let me know he was grateful, even if he never said so with words.

And that was why I didn’t tell his sister the real reason we were sharing a bed. I would have had to explain he was suffering from nightmares. But that was what Mama Fairgood would have called “his business” when she’d warned me against the terrible sin of gossip. From what I could tell, I was the only one who knew about the nightmares. And though morals had no place in Hades’s brutal underworld, it didn’t feel right to disclose his private mental anguish to his sister.

Also, I didn’t want anything to ruin my chances of going to this ball.

Hades, with his mostly criminal circle of friends, obviously didn’t know how small New Orleans could be. But guaranteed, there would be someone I knew at the ball. Real power players who could help me out of this mess my father had gotten me into and maybe even get justice for Mama Fairgood.

My sister’s birthday was in April. If I played my cards right, I might be able to take her on that trip to Disney World after all. I just needed to find the right person to talk to, and the police would come storming in here to rescue me and arrest Hades. If I ever saw him again, he’d be behind bars.

I paused putting on my makeup. The thought of that both thrilled me and made my chest pang with guilt.

And see, that was another reason I need to get the hell out of here. Just a couple weeks outside a dog cage, and I was already harboring sympathetic thoughts toward that monster.

Resetting my resolution, I returned to putting on my face for the first time since my birthday. I’d kicked myself so many times over that “poor little rich girl” crying fit I’d had right before my party. If only I’d known then what I know now. I couldn’t wait to get back to the life where I belonged.

“Persy, you in here?” a deep, silky voice called out from the other side of the door. Apparently, Hades had replaced Ellie.

A spider of irritation crawled down my neck. Was he planning on calling me by that horrible nickname at this mysterious charity ball he was taking me to?

You know what, it didn’t matter. Getting to the ball. Getting somebody to help me. That was all that mattered.

I forced a smile into my voice and called back, “I just need about one more Southern minute.”

That was a joke my mother used to tell us when she was still fifteen to twenty minutes from being done.

It must have translated, Hades just said, “Got it….Persy?”

I paused with my mascara wand halfway up to my eyes. “Yes?”

“We’ve been getting along these last couple of weeks. You’re not planning on doing anything at this charity ball to fuck that up, are you?”

The answer to that question was so complicated. I went with a version of the truth. “Hades, I refuse to go back into that dog cage. Please, trust me on that.”

“Alright, I’ll take you at your word,” he answered, his voice soft with amusement. “I’m already in my tuxedo, so I’ll just wait for you on the couch like a good Southern man until you’re dressed and ready to go. Is your Southern minute closer to fifteen or an hour?”

“Ten more minutes, tops!” I promised with a real laugh. Also, I was more than a little curious to see Hades’s look for tonight. As well as he wore his motorcycle jacket and jeans, he had to look absolutely swoony in a tuxedo.

I hastily finished adding my mascara and returned to the main suite. But since I only had a towel draped around me, I didn’t go straight to the sitting area at the other end of the apartment to check out my captor in a tuxedo.

But I did advise him, “Keep an ear out. I might need you to zip me up” as I practically jogged toward the walk-in closet where Ellie had hung up my perfect dress.

It was a gorgeous Valentino with a cape effect. It was a tad long and modest for former me—people might wonder if I’d converted to some seriously conservative religion. But I didn’t care. It covered up the tattoo, and not going to lie, I’d been taking little peeks at it as I waited for Ellie to announce that today—whatever day it was—was the evening of the ball.

Hopefully, it wouldn’t be too hot. Balls tend to be held in heavily air-conditioned spaces, but if this one was outside, I might end up roasting, even in light silk crepe.

But oh, who cared. As long as it covered up the horrible tattoo on my back, I’d stay nice and comfortable, no matter the weath—

I stopped short when I saw the dress hanging in the closet.

Not the conservative evening gown I’d picked out, but a bright pink vinyl number with a low-slung chest and a haltered neck.

And I didn’t even have to check the back of the hanger to know…

But I did. Like a woman in a horror film, I walked farther into the closet. And sure enough, the back was completely out to the point that the whole dress had to be secured by a short zipper at the back of its halter neck.

“Still need me to zip you up?”

It turned around with a churning stomach.

Oh, look at that. I was right….

Hades looked gorgeous in his black-on-black tux. He was also completely clean-shaven, without even a hint of his tattoo sleeve showing. If not for the smug cruelty blazing in his silver eyes, he’d fit right in at any elegant charity ball.

I don’t want to know. I already know that I don’t want to know. But I have to ask, “What happened to the dress I picked out?”

“I let you pick something out for the ball, Persy.” He crooked his head to the side and smirked down at me. All the bon amie, all the camaraderie, was completely gone from his expression. “But I never said you could wear it. Now hurry up and get dressed. Everybody’s waiting for us to make our debut at The Tessier Ball.”

The Tessier Ball.

No, I hadn’t known what month it was. Or what season. I’d lost track in the seemingly endless string of days spent inside Hades’s prison.

But as soon as he named the ball, I knew what day it was without a doubt.

It was March. March 20th, the first day of spring. I knew this because Arboretum de Tessier was officially founded on the first day of spring back in 1802. When the French still owned Louisiana and the rumors of this land becoming part of the American Union had neither been confirmed nor denied by President Jefferson.

It had been an auspicious beginning for an institution that had since managed to survive several wars and recessions. And this being Louisiana, no one was quite sure if the ball always being held on the first day of spring was a matter of tradition or superstition.

Either way, everybody who was anybody in Louisiana society attended it. My father would be there, along with anyone else who considered themselves a member of Louisiana’s elite—Black, white, and every color in between.

Horror thrummed through me at the thought of wearing this tacky dress to that grand ball.

And that’s when I knew. Going to this ball wasn’t my reward for helping Hades sleep these past couple of weeks.

This was the latest step in his plan to break me.

CHAPTER 14

STEPHANIE

One thing and one thing only made me get into that dress. Made me walk up the stairs of the Benton Grand New Orleans with my head held…well, if not high, at least straight forward. Because no matter what, this was an opportunity.

Since Hades had imprisoned me, I hadn’t been allowed to step foot outside the house or talk with people who weren’t part of his underworld since he’d imprisoned me. This was the one and only chance I’d gotten—the only chance I might ever get to slip away from him and ask for help.

So, I withstood the frying pan of embarrassment. I ignored all the heads that turned as we walked past. And I pretended not to hear the shocked gasps when people saw my back. I also didn’t react when the woman with the guest list did a double-take as soon as she saw my horrible dress.

She gaped at me. But she recovered quickly when she noticed Hades, looking more handsome than ever in his evening attire.

“Name?”

Luckily, she couldn’t see my back. Women wearing gaudy, inappropriate dresses was something New Orleans had excelled at before Las Vegas was even a speck in Bugsy Siegel’s eye. But even the Big Easy had its limits. And if she’d seen my tattoo, she might have signaled for security.

Maybe that was why Hades looped an arm around the back of my shoulder as he answered, “Galen Fairgood and Stephanie Perreault.”

The lady’s face became less wary when she found his name on the list. “Oh yes, Mr. Fairgood. Thank you for your incredibly generous donation!”

She gave us both a glowing smile and even waved someone forward to tie gold ribbons around our wrists—a sign I dimly remembered for the people who’d made six-figure donations on top of buying a table for the ball. After that, Hades dropped his arm. He must have realized, as I did, that rich men could get away with pretty much anything when it came to their dates.

Wow.

I started scanning the crowd as soon as we walked into the grand ballroom, looking for someone I might know.

And my heart soared when I spotted Councilman West’s wife and a few ladies who had sat on the Lakefront Historical Preservation Society’s Board with my mom. These ladies had kept us in food for weeks after her death, and Mrs. West practically begged me to get in contact if I ever needed help.

Her face lit up when she saw me, and she started to wave. But then another one of the ladies jerked her arm down and whispered in her ear.

It didn’t matter, I was sure. Mrs. West was one of my mother’s best friends. Of course, she’d do whatever she could to help.

Except, no…she wouldn’t. A stricken look came over her face as her friend whispered in her ear.

Then Mrs. West not only didn’t approach me, she pursed her lips and turned her back on me—along with all the other ladies—as if we’d never met before.

“Those friends of yours?” Hades’s voice was a cruel challenge in my ear. “Want me to take you over there to say, comment ca va?”

I gritted my teeth. “No, I’m fine.”

Even though I wasn’t. I really wasn’t.

I tried to catch the eyes of a few other people, including high school friends who’d gushed over me at my birthday party just a few months ago.

Screaming out, “Help he’s kidnapped me!” would most likely get a hand slapped over my mouth and a “she’s had too much to drink” from Hades before he dragged me out of here. But maybe I could signal one of my old girlfriends to meet me in the bathroom.

As it turned out, the only difference between my friend and their mothers was age. They all did the same thing in response to my eye-to-eye hails—either pretended not to see me or whispered about me boldly behind their hands. The party was crowded to the gills, but it felt like being in a tank at the Audubon Aquarium. I had a ton of people gawking at me. But no one was particularly interested in helping me escape my glass cage.

The hopeful feeling began to die in my chest. Then I froze in place when I saw the man standing nearing the bar.

It was my father, holding court with the Mayor-President of Baton Rouge, that judge he just had to talk with at my birthday party, and several other masters of the universe I remembered meeting back when I was forced to attend my parents’ awful dinner parties and keep the other bored kids company while our parents droned on.

Dad stopped holding forth, all of a sudden. As if he sensed me watching.

Our eyes met, and my father reared back. Like he’d been shot.

I could only imagine what he was thinking. I looked nothing at all like the girl who used to curate every look and vet it with her mother before walking out of the house. Even after I went away to college.

His expression became so stricken, hope flared in my chest. Maybe he was the one I should have been looking for all along. I don’t know why he or any decent father on earth would agree to Hades’s terms. But maybe he simply hadn’t thought the deal through. Maybe now that he saw the state of me, he’d come to his senses.

His pride and reputation wasn’t worth my complete degradation and death. Surely, he could see that.

Without a thought to Hades, I surged forward, rushing toward my father. Toward the sanctuary of him and his powerful friends.

But the respected lawyer, Antoine Perreault, turned on his heel before I could even take two steps—turned and bolted away, as if he’d just seen the devil, not his innocent daughter, coming after him in the distance.

I stopped in my tracks, and my heart broke all over again with the realization…

My father truly had no plans to help me. If my going to Hades saved him, he would let me rot.

I realized that. Then came Hades’s dark voice, cruel and taunting. “Aw, travester. Say it ain’t so, ma belle. Was you really thinking that capon would help you out?”

My Cajun French had gotten a lot better over the last few months. Hades was offering me faux condolences for not realizing what he had all along. That my father truly was a coward. That he’d do anything—even sacrifice his own daughter—to save himself.

Dad had probably told everyone some story to cover his own ass. What was it? I wondered. Had I gone crazy for girl reasons? Decided myself to run off with some criminal?

Everyone—everyone—was looking at me. Judging me. It was like all my worst nightmares coming true all at once.

The room closed in, and my stomach pitched.

“Wanna dance?” Hades asked.

“No!” I spat out, struggling not to throw up.

“It will be easier if you dance,” Hades told me, his voice almost gentle. “Come, ma belle.”

He didn’t give me a chance to turn him down again, just tugged me onto the floor with a bunch of couples much older than us just as the music switched over to that old “Glory of Love” song from one of the original Karate Kid sequels. Not exactly the club bangers I’d gotten used to hearing through the floor. Probably because no one under the age of 50 danced this early at a ball.

The older men’s eyes flared when we joined them. And a few of the women craned their necks to gawk at my back.

“Don’t look at them,” Hades advised, smoothly pulling me into his arms. “That’s your past. And every single one of them people judging you is a piece of trash. Ya hear me? They’re garbage people, just like your père.”

His words washed over me, a strange absolution that somehow cleared away the shame. But also cracked open something deep inside of me. I’d held on to my pride for so long. Forced down the emotional waste products, no matter what happened to me over the last three months.

But now tears welled in my eyes, threatening to spill.

Hades’s face fell. “Oh, no, ma belle. They’re not worth your tears.” He pulled me deeper into his arms, covering up the tattoo with what felt an awful lot like a hug. “Don’t pay them no mind. You’re with me now. Sssh, I’ve got you right here.”

I’ve got you. That scrap of solidarity made the urge to cry even worse. With that ’80’s guy singing about how he was the man who would fight for my honor overhead, it felt like Hades was a true friend, my only safe space.

He wasn’t just encouraging me. He was upset on my behalf. He sounded like he actually cared about my suffering. Maybe even regretted bringing me here.

But that isn’t true, is it?

Dark thoughts rose like bile again, reminding me that Hades wasn’t my savior. Yes, these people were a whole bag of judgmental garbage. But he was the reason I was here being gawked at like an ugly aquarium catfish.

He’d put me in this position. Commissioned the tattoo. Made me wear the dress.

These past two weeks, all our tub conversations and peaceful nights of sleep together—it had all been an act to lull me into a false sense of security.

He fed off my suffering. And he’d fattened me right on up for this ultimate humiliation. These people had proven themselves to be fake friends, but he was my blatant enemy. No pretending.

I pulled away from him, tearing myself out of the dance. “I need to go to the restroom.”

For a moment, Hades stared at me in a way that almost appeared hurt. Also, frustrated. As if I’d broken his spell before he could finish casting it.

But the look quickly got wiped away by one of his ultra-charming smiles. “Alright, go’on, take care of your business. But come right back to me, ma belle.”

A pang of memory—Luk saying a version of the same thing the last time we spoke.

But Hades wasn’t Luk. After saying that, he leaned forward and whispered in my ear, “Come right back, or else I’m gonna hunt you down.”

Unfortunately, the Benton Grand New Orleans had been built rather recently and was aggressively set up to keep homeless people out.

All the restrooms lined a hallway on the opposite side of the ballroom from where we’d come in—just about as far as you could get from the main entrance.

But maybe I could find someone sympathetic to tell my story to in there. And if it the restroom was empty, maybe there was a back entrance I could slip out of during my supposed bathroom trip. I didn’t have any money, but if I could make it back to campus, maybe I could borrow a sweatshirt from someone at my sorority house—anything to help me cover up and get someone to take me seriously when I asked them for help.

My spirits picked up when I entered the hallway and found not only the possible sanctuary of a women’s restroom, but also a security guard posted outside of it.

Hades was right about one thing. Rich people—all the friends who’d occupied my rarefied world—they were trash. It had been a mistake to come here like a lamb to slaughter, thinking they would have enough character to help me out.

Thanks to Hades, I saw things clearly now.

A security guard. A working-class security guard—that was exactly the person I needed to help me escape this hotel and find my way to someone who would actually help me.

I started toward him, my heart racing in my chest. But then, a hand grabbed my arm and wheeled me around.

Crap! I was so close—

My lament cut off when I saw the person who’d grabbed me. Not Hades. Not my father.

My heart stopped cold. Then soared.

“Lukas!” I cried out.

Lukas, the perfect boyfriend I’d been too silly to appreciate three months ago….He was standing right in front of me in a white tux!

Grateful tears sprang to my eyes, and I threw my arms around his neck. “Oh, my goodness. I can’t believe you came. I’m so happy to see—”

He shoved me away from him before I could finish.

“What the hell are you doing?” he demanded. His eyes scanned me from top to bottom. “Coming in here, looking like that? With a known criminal? Don’t you think you’ve embarrassed your poor father enough? Everybody’s talking about you!”

I blinked with the realization that he was one of them. One of the people who’d easily assumed I would voluntarily run away from my life and get some crimelord’s name tattooed across my back.

“Luk, no. Let me explain.”

“Is this what you wanted all along? Why you wouldn’t let me touch you? Made me sign that stupid contract?” He shook his head, his expression ugly with hurt and even more disgust. “Were you with him this whole time, you fucking whore?”

I drew back, as hurt as if he’d raised his manicured hand and slapped me.

“Not this whole time, non,” another voice purred before I could reply. “And you…You do not talk to her that way.”

That was all the warning I got before Hades appeared out of nowhere and slammed Lukas into a wall.

They were around the same size. Both tall and broad. But whereas Lukas owed his muscles to a well-maintained gym routine kept up after four years of playing lacrosse for Tulane, Hades had earned his doing much darker things.

Those background differences became crystal clear when Hades pinned my ex-boyfriend to the wall and easily kept him there.

“Perhaps the tattoo on her back didn’t explain the situation for you, couillion. She belongs to me now.”

“Hades!” I cried out. “Stop!”

“What the hell are you doing, man?” Lukas demanded. “Secur—”

Hades barred a forearm across my Luk’s neck, choking off the rest of his cry for help.

“Aw, man, what the hell were you even thinking following her back here after she left you without a word of explanation?” Hades asked him, his voice perfectly pleasant. As if he were a concerned friend and simply curious about Luk’s motivation.

Lukas tried—he tried to answer but couldn’t form words underneath Hades’s arm. He couldn’t breathe. His face was turning red because the monster I’d been given to by my “poor” father was suffocating him to death.

Now it was my turn to call out, “Security!”

But the guard near the double doors just stood there, staring straight ahead, as if he saw nothing. Nothing at all. Was Hades a ghost?

Yes, I realized with a sick thud. The kind who paid attention to working-class security guards. And paid them in advance not to see anything he was doing or let his prisoner out.

This ball had never been the opportunity I thought it was. Hades had walked me into a different kind of jail. Just to show me the whole world was his prison. One I’d never escape.

Horrible choking sounds brought me out of that realization. Luk!

I turned back to confront my captor since the guard would be no help.

“Hades, please,” I begged. “Please, stop. Don’t hurt him.”

“You’re right. Maybe I’m being too dramatic,” Hades said. As much violence as he was doing at the moment, his voice sounded totally calm, without a hint of strain.

He grinned over at me, like it was just us in the bathroom while he told me about his day in the tub. “Why don’t you explain the situation to him, ma belle, so he understands why talking to you—I mean, even looking at you again—is not in his best interest?”

My heart stopped, but I knew in an instant that I needed to do as Hades suggested.

You truly are the most beautiful girl in the world.

That was what Luk told me on my birthday. But I felt like the ugliest girl now—the ugliest girl in the entire world as I told him the version of the truth that would get him out of the monster’s chokehold the fastest.

“I’m sorry I led you on. I shouldn’t have done that. The truth is, I was saving myself for him the whole time. I belong to him now—just like he said. And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry….”

I wanted to give him a real apology, but that would only make the situation worse. The security guard continued to stare straight ahead, as if he couldn’t see or hear anything going on in this hallway.

As rich as Lukas was, Hades possessed a different kind of power. The kind that made heirs choke and security guards too afraid to intervene.

I clenched my teeth. “I’m sorry. I’m with him now. I choose him. Please, Lukas, don’t ever talk to me again.”

With those magic words, Hades finally pulled back his arm from Luk’s neck. And my ex collapsed to his knees in front of Hades. Like a servant cowed.

He inhaled and exhaled—big hideous breaths that sounded like he was coughing and trying to clear his nose at the same time. As he did, he looked up at me balefully, with snot and water streaming down his face. Tears of suffocation, frustration, or anger at me? I didn’t know. And I wouldn’t ever know.

Luk and I were done. We were done in a way that was so final, all the hope I’d felt when I saw Lukas standing there, like a movie hero in a white tux, died in an instant. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

And as I stood there in the ruins of our relationship, in the bitter embers of the gentle love and friendship we once shared, I understood that my old life as a young Louisiana socialite was done too.

People love you when you put everything you’ve got into acting perfect, when you never actually need anything from them. But when you’re not perfect, when you’re weak and vulnerable in ways they don’t like, they design you out of their lives like the Benton Grand was designed to keep out the homeless. They hide basic facilities from you and treat you like vermin. They blame you for all your too obvious problems, then donate gobs of money to plants while you suffer alone.

I could never go back.

Hades might have never put that bullet in my head, but he’d killed Stephanie Perreault. Thoroughly. After tonight, I didn’t even want to be her anymore—at least not in this faker-than-fake world.

Hades must have realized his all-hopes-crushing job here was done.

“Alright, man. Good talk,” he said to Luk, who was still struggling to get to his feet after being denied oxygen so long.

Then he took me by the hand and asked, “You ready to go, ma belle?”

More than ready.

I let him lead me past the unseeing guard, outside of the Benton Grand, and into his low-slung black Corvette, which was somehow magically waiting at the valet stand when we exited the ball.

All hopes of getting saved, like the fairy-tale princess my mother raised me to be, disappeared on the wind his Corvette made as he ferried us back to his underworld. There was only one way out of this situation, and one way only.

I knew what I had to do. But did I have the guts to do it?

That was the question.

CHAPTER 15

HADES

Revenge didn’t taste as good as Hades thought it would.

He’d begun planning this outing two weeks ago, when he woke up nightmare-free and disturbingly grateful. As if he was losing all track of his goals. The urge to kill her hadn’t just faded over the months, it had completely disappeared.

He’d killed the Bulgarians too fast. Shot their grown, eldest sons through their backs in front of them, so that that they could watch their progeny die just like his mother. Then he’d tortured them to death, dismembered them, and buried them in various swamps. His efficiency in ending his mother’s murderers had been his mistake.

Their quick deaths had left him with a gaping hole that still needed filling. Persy’s father was the only one of the men in that room who remained alive. Making Antoine and his kin suffer—that was all he had left.

So he’d found a way to justify all the gifts and new freedoms he’d given her—not to mention the fact that she was still breathing.

Antoine Perreault had probably never expected to see his daughter again. As soon as she hadn’t shown up for breakfast the morning after her birthday gala, he began spreading rumors around their community that she’d gotten hooked on opioids and had run away from the life he’d given her.

That phony fonchok had even made a big show of lobbying the Governor of Louisiana to enact more laws to make opioids harder to access. And he’d been asking his friends to invest in a charity to battle the scourge of opioids shattering so many families.

He’d been covering his ass something fierce. So, humiliating Antoine by bringing his completely lucid runaway daughter to the biggest charity ball of the year had been the meal. But showing Persy what complete phonies the people in her former world were had been the dessert.

She’d probably thought one of them would actually lift a finger to help her. The truth was, the worlds of crime and business weren’t that far apart. Business had accountants. So did crime. Business hid money. So did crime.

Making the money was the easy part, keeping it hidden from the government was the hard stuff. Both business and crime could be heard lamenting that truth on any given day.

Antoine Perreault wielded influence and power over the people gathered at the Benton Grand.

So did Hades.

Her father had purposefully kept her naïve about the darker deals he arranged for his clients along the extremely thin line between business and crime. And Persy would probably be surprised to know how many of the men in that room knew Hades personally. Owed him. Favors, money, silence, even if they heard one of their scion babies calling for security.

But only Persy’s father owed him a blood debt. Antoine had gotten relaxed after handing his daughter over. He started spreading that cover-up story about her going wild and running off with some gang leader she’d met in a club. Even pretended to be ravaged with guilt. According to Hades’s sources, he told quite a few of his friends that his daughter’s rebellion was partly his fault for letting her go to a liberal school like Tulane.

Hades had felt compelled to show Antoine’s community and his daughter just how little spine the lawyer they’d been consoling had when it came to his daughter. Also, he’d wanted to publicly humiliate the man who’d thought he’d literally gotten away with murder by sending his daughter to his enemy as payment for his crime.

Hopefully, tonight had disabused him of that notion. Blood debts could never be fully paid. Not until either the debtor or the debtee died. But Hades wasn’t ready to kill him yet.

He’d take his revenge slowly for the last debtor. Enjoy sip by patient sip.

And tonight’s plan had worked. Antoine had scurried out of the ball with his tail between his legs, thoroughly humiliated. Good job.

Yet, the night had been…anticlimactic, for lack of a better word.

Hades glanced over at Persy in the passenger seat of his Corvette. You’d think she’d be ranting and raving. On the verge of tears, as she’d been on the dance floor. But she just stared out the window, looking lost. And broken.

Good. She already disrupted his original plan. Breaking her was a necessary evil. He needed her broken in order to satisfy his thirst for revenge.

Nonetheless, a weird guilt gnawed at his gut. He kind of wished she would yell or scream. Say anything, so he could stop thinking about how upset she’d looked when they danced.

But she remained quiet on the car ride home. She didn’t even react all that big when she saw the dog cage he’d told Ellie to place back in front of the bed while they were out.

She paused, then simply bent down to climb in.

A desperate rage surged inside of him. She was denying him. Denying him the satisfaction of taking pleasure in a revenge well-executed.

Maybe that was why he said, “You forgot to run my bath.”

She froze. But then, after a few beats, she crawled back out of the cage. And less than ten minutes later, he found himself once again soaking in the copper tub.

He handed her the cloth with a challenging look.

But she didn’t meet it. Just took the washcloth from him and got to work. Going nowhere near his penis this time.

He wasn’t sure how to feel about her taking his threat seriously. On one hand, he could use the release. He hadn’t touched her, or any other girl, since she’d started sleeping in his bed. On the other hand, she was disturbingly good at hand jobs.

He frowned, remembering the terms he’d given to her father to get around all that Catholic private school girl technical virgin bullshit. No anal, no oral, no intercourse whatsoever.

But hand jobs hadn’t been on the no-go list. And that made him wonder out loud, “Is that what you did with all those boys you weren’t allowed to fuck? Gave them hand jobs?”

She shrugged, her eyes weirdly placid. “It seemed like the least I could do.”

Don’t, he advised. Don’t ask about—

“Did you hand fuck that Beer Asshole too?” he asked.

This time, she stayed quiet.

She probably suspected, after tonight, that he couldn’t stay in his right mind when it came to the guy who’d actually expected to marry her. Before Hades came along.

The fact that he’d disrupted that plan too should have brought him some measure of glee. But their PG-13 romance made him burn with jealousy for some reason.

“Hades?”

Her voice brought him out of his fume.

“Yes?” he asked, still annoyed, but also curious. She’d never asked for his attention before, especially while he was in the bath.

She pulled his knee up and ran the towel over his leg. “If you wanted my virginity so bad, why do I still have it?”

He supposed he shouldn’t feel so insulted by that question. He could understand why she’d think so little of him.

“I take lives, and I reap riches,” he answered, laying a hand on his chest. “I do not force sex on women.”

“That’s an interesting ethos to live by.” She set down the towel. And pumped the face soap she always set down beside the tub into her hand.

Something tugged on his gut when she began rubbing it into his cheeks and forehead, careful to avoid his eyes. Having her hands on his face felt weirdly…close. Even more so than having them on his body.

No close wasn’t the right word. Intimate. It made him feel close to her in a way he never had with other women, even though he’d only gotten the same hand job as all her other guys.

“Hades?” she said, once again interrupting his jealousy spiral.

“Yes?”

“You like making deals, right?”

He arched an eyebrow. “I do. Why do you ask?”

She exhaled—once, twice—like somebody working up courage. Then she looked at him directly with those pretty crescent-shaped eyes and asked, “What would you give me for my virginity?”

Hades froze in place, even as his head went up in flames. The plan had never been to actually take her virginity. Yes, he wanted her, but taking a woman forcibly was a line he’d never cross.

However, the idea of her willingly giving herself to him in exchange for something else…that idea filled his cock with lead.

Somehow, he managed to keep his voice level as he answered, “What would you want?”

“My freedom?” she suggested with a hopeful look that set his chest sparking.

“No,” he answered, nonetheless. Immediately.

That should have been the final answer. But she was right about him liking to make deals. A strange sense of justice flowed through him at the thought of their relationship taking a sexual turn. It reminded him there actually was one tactic that used to pay blood debts in full and end all sorts of other stalemate conflicts.

Taking the daughter of an enemy into your bed.

Even more than that, his cock was pulsating at just the thought of finally sliding in between her real legs, instead of just imagining it was her with other women when he came.

He wanted her. Just as badly, if not more so than when she emerged from that pool and revealed herself to look nothing at all like a Black Veruca Salt.

“Try again,” he suggested. “Give ol’ Hades something he can live with.”

Her eyes flashed, but she immediately came back with adjusted terms. “How about I give you my virginity and sex once a month? In exchange, no more dog cage and no more Russian Roulette—or any sort of gun violence ever again. Also, you’ll let me go after three years. That way, I’ll be able to live out my twenties. And surely, you’ll get tired of me by then anyway.”

He’d like to believe the same, but just in case, he countered with, “No more cage or guns. Five years. Sex once a week. Last offer.”

Her eyes fluttered down and away from him as she thought about it. And he held his breath, for once not sure what he’d do if the person on the other side of the negotiation didn’t agree to his final terms. Walking away didn’t feel like an option he was capable of executing with his cock raging underneath the water. Should he remind her that he always honored his deals, warn her that this—not some ball—was her best chance at eventual freedom?

Before he could decide how to play this, she whispered, “Okay. Five years. I can live with that.”

She could live with that.

Hades made a humming sound in the back of this throat.

Then he surged out of the tub and finally…

Finally, he claimed her lips.

CHAPTER 16

HADES

No more dealmaking.

Hades took her lips like he took his final revenge. Slow, deliberately. Savoring every moment as he devoured her whole.

She fell into his kiss with a little sigh, like she’d been waiting for this kiss just as long as him. Since they were standing across from each other at that pool.

But now, it was just the opposite. She was dry, and he was dripping water all over her.

She pulled back with a laugh. “Do you mind drying off? And I’ll get out of this dress.”

That dress…

Hades glanced down at the outfit he’d made her wear and a lump rose in his throat. Suddenly, everything didn’t feel so cut and dry, and doubts began to push in.

She interrupted his thought again with a polite, “Also, if you could put on a condom, I think I saw a box in the medicine cabinet. My mom got me an IUD when I was seventeen—she’s the product of a teen mom, so she didn’t trust a virginity contract to keep me from having sex and possibly getting pregnant. But with your sexual history…”

Persy didn’t finish, but she didn’t have to tell him she was concerned about STDs. Shame washed over him as he remembered the many women he’d taken, out of sheer pettiness, right in front of her.

“I hope that’s not too much to ask,” she said, mistaking the reason for his consternated look. She leaned forward and admitted, “I’m…not as upset as I thought I would be about this deal.”

Neither was he. He grinned at her, somehow happier than he’d been in a long time. A really long time. “How about this? I’ll meet you, naked and sheathed, on the bed.”

“Alright, it’s a date.” She smiled back at him, and man…the things it did to his heart. He wondered if he’d get used to her exquisite beauty.

One thing was for certain, he planned to have a lot of fun finding out.

He took his time drying off, from head to toe, and carefully put on the condom.

It wasn’t just about consideration. There was a motorcycle engine revving in his belly. And Hades already knew…

Once he got started, there would be no more stopping.

Turned out he was right to make sure he was all in order before coming back out to the main suite.

The sight of Persy on the bed…

She was too skinny when she first arrived. But now she was perfect. Soft on her stomach, like a woman should be, her curls wild and free. Lush as a goddess, and innocent as a virgin. He understood in an instant why his paternal ancestors were so crazy about Athena.

But he didn’t get much time to appreciate her.

“Now what?” she asked, her grin not nearly as innocent as her untouched body as she made that callback quip.

His body moved forward of its own accord, not stopping until his ravenous mouth finally claimed hers again, until he bowled her over and urged her legs around his waist.

He couldn’t believe he was here. Five years. Five years he’d been walking around with this hunger for her gnawing at his gut.

Now, here she was, offering herself up to him like a meal. He knew it was wrong, but he couldn’t deny the raw craving any longer. He had to consume. She tasted like flowers and luxury—it didn’t matter how much he denied her or what she wore to the ball that night…

Still, that new, unfamiliar guilt tugged at him. He wouldn’t apologize, but another idea occurred to him…

He moved his mouth down her body.

“Are you… are you going to kiss me down there?” she asked. “I’ve never had anyone do that before.”

Mon dieu. A shudder wracked his body. She was so innocent, and he wanted in her so bad…but no, not yet. He kneaded his cock to calm it down.

You’ll get your turn, he promised. But first…

He flattened out on his stomach and ransacked her pussy like he did her mouth. His ravenous tongue drilled into the hole where he’d soon be fucking her for the first time. He laved and kissed those lips, then sucked on her nub like it was candy.

Too much.

She bucked awkwardly under his mouth and pushed at his head, and he backed off instinctively. Lapping gently. Patiently. As if his cock wasn’t pounding and he had all the time in the world.

He studied that beautiful cunt, and he let her instruct him with her moans and her whimpers and the way she grabbed on to his hair, pulling his face in deeper as opposed to pushing him away.

Then he slowly drew that nub into his mouth, making her cry out. “Oh, God. What are you doing? What is happening?”

She was getting close. And she sounded confused.

Had she never had an orgasm before? The thought of that made his ears rush with blood.

Still, he backed off, removing his mouth from her mound. His dick was pulsing painfully, but he wasn’t ready for her to come. Not yet.

She let out such a sweet sound of protest. And his cock leaked, begging to be put to use.

But he told himself and her, “Hold on. As bad as I want this, I don’t want to hurt you.”

Her writhing hips stilled. “You already hurt me. Tonight…”

She let out a shaky breath. “Tonight was so painful.”

No, he wouldn’t apologize. But her quiet admission ripped through him.

She had never admitted to being upset. She’d taken the revenge he meted out with prideful eyes and zero tears.

And she was his blood debt. There was no way around that. But as hard as he’d plotted this revenge, he somehow both relished what he’d wrought and hated that he hurt her.

“I know it was, ma belle,” he said, caressing the knee she still had draped over his shoulder. “But when we’re together like this, there won’t be any pain. Just pleasure. I promise you that. And the one thing you’ve never seen me do is break a promise.”

Silence. He could almost hear her replaying the tape in her head of every moment she’d spent in his throne room to assess if that were true. She must not have found anything that countered her claim.

Instead of challenging him, she pointed out, “In books, it always hurts the first time.”

“It don’t have to,” he assured her. “I’ll show you. Take this finger…”

He pressed one finger into her sweet cunt, testing. Merde, she was tight. But slick enough from his earlier attentions. And instinctive.

She arched into his finger with a little mewl. And he rewarded her for her responsiveness with another finger.

“You like that?” he asked, running the pad of his thumb lightly over her button.

A sharp intake of breath. Then she bit her lip and nodded. Like an innocent girl who was afraid she’d done something bad.

“It’s alright. The punishment is over. It’s okay, to feel good here with me now.”

He was telling her. But he was also telling himself.

All the shit that had gotten them to this place fell away as he focused solely on making her feel good. Of getting her ready to take him without pain.

Outside of this bed, she was a pawn. The ultimate piece in his game of revenge. But inside of it…

Mine.

The word whispered across his mind. Forbidden and selfish. But he couldn’t deny the possessiveness that had nothing to do with that tattoo.

It didn’t matter why. She had saved herself for him. And that meant, she was his. His to take care of this first time. His to pleasure. His not to hurt.

Maudit, he had to taste her again. He replaced his thumb with his mouth, fingers pumping as he noted—and relished—the way her pussy pulsed around his tongue.

Soon her breaths began to quicken. “Hades? Oh, God. Oh, God. I’m going to…don’t stop. Please, don’t…”

She sounded scared, and bastard that he was, he answered by sucking on her engorged flesh. And this time, when she bucked and cried out, he didn’t back off. He continued to abuse that little clittie until she tensed and pressed her pussy into his mouth with a breathy scream.

Afterward, she surprised him with a sound he’d never heard before. Her laughter, sweet and clear. As if everything that’d gone wrong tonight had suddenly been made right.

Still, she grimaced when she got over her giggling fit. “Okay, that was not how I expected my response to my first orgasm to go. I also promised myself I wouldn’t be loud, like a few of the other women you’d brought up in here. I guessed I lied.”

Hades stilled. She’d thought about this? Thought about us doing this together enough to make herself promises she couldn’t keep.

What other women? Their faces instantly disappeared from his memory. There was only her now.

That animal possessiveness surged inside him again. The gentlemen disappeared in an instant, his cock roaring with the reminder about what they still hadn’t done.

Wrapping her legs around his waist again, he settled into the cradle of her thighs and found the front of her entrance with his aching cock.

She whimpered a bit and tremored.

Slow, slow, he had to go slow.

He took her lips to distract himself as he pushed in, inch by inch.

He wasn’t a virgin. Not by a long shot. But he felt like one again. Flushed and scared of hurting the woman beneath him. Of not making this right for her.

That was what this was all about for him, he realized. The deal was only an excuse. He wanted to…he had to make things right, make her forget about that shitty ball and those shitty people she used to call friends.

They both groaned when he gave one final push and was fully inside of her.

“Oh God, you’re so big,” she whispered, her voice filled with something akin to awe. “I’ve never felt anything like this. It’s in so deep. But it doesn’t hurt.”

She adjusted and readjusted her hips, as if testing her original hypothesis, and seated him deeper. “No, it doesn’t hurt.”

“Persy, merde…” he bit out.

He was trying. He was trying so hard to be gentle with her. But when she said that, he just lost it.

Nothing could stop his hips from shoving forward. He was suddenly a virgin, just like her. He rolled his hips between her thighs, desperate with lust. Unable to control himself from taking the pleasure he found inside of her.

And, merde…she was taking him, her sweet pussy clenched around him tight as a fist as he drove into her, hips rolling.

Usually, he was mindful to work a woman’s clit as they had sex, but he didn’t have to worry about that with Persy. He couldn’t get in deep enough, and he had her pinned down so tight to the bed, every part of her was getting his cock, especially her clittie.

Soon she grew frantic underneath him, one hand scratching at his back like she was scared he’d tear her apart and the other gripping one ass cheek like she was afraid he wouldn’t.

“Don’t stop. Don’t stop. Oh God, what is happening? Don’t stop. Please, don’t.”

She cut off with a silent shout, her head knocking into his shoulder. And he wasn’t far behind. He dropped his face into her neck, the need to claim her blurring out everything else.

His. His. She was fucking his. At the last moment, he reared up. To look at her. Just to look at the woman he could finally claim as his.

Then he came. So violently, his entire body bucked and jerked for moments on end before he collapsed back on top of her.

For several moments, neither of them moved. All he knew was bliss.

But eventually, he had to roll off of her. He didn’t want to crush her. And she needed her rest.

So, he turned off the light, but he lay awake in the dark, unable to believe what had just happened.

She’d been pissed about his revenge, but instead of whining or berating him, she’d struck a deal. She’d given herself to him. Taken the higher road.

And that inspired him to do the same.

Tomorrow, they would talk. They’d figure out how to go forward with what was obviously going to be a passionate relationship.

Yes, tonight was…painful. She was right about that. But tomorrow would be different.

He’d make sure of it.

And with that decree, he drifted into a sleep that he already knew would be free of nightmares, seeded or not.

But he didn’t end up sleeping through the night. A few hours later, in the gray light of morning, he awoke to a loud click.

One he immediately recognized as the sound of the Colt Detective Special revolver being cocked.

As if to confirm his guess, cold metal pressed into his temple.

He opened his eyes to find Persy kneeling over him, beautiful and once again wearing the pink dress. She was the one holding the gun.

His entire chest cracked open at the sight of her.

Merde….Last night…the deal…it had all been a setup.

“Persy, don’t—” he began to say.

Too late.

She squeezed the trigger before he could finish asking her not to shoot.

CHAPTER 17

TESS

Benjamin was waiting outside the mission director’s office. At the early hour of six in the morning. Again.

It had only been a five-minute walk from what her mom referred to as the “sleep trailer” to differentiate it from the “work trailer.” But suddenly, Tess was out of breath. Her heart raced at the sight of him leaned up against the tree she often sat under for lunch.

Geez, he was gorgeous. Dark raven-black hair, light blue eyes, and a jaw so square, his face basically looked like a rectangle with a rounded triangle at the bottom.

He was also tall. At least six feet. But not gawky, like most of the tall boys at Rhodes Senior High. She’d only started going to her first American high school in February, more than halfway through her sophomore year. But it had been plenty of time to assess the boys.

None of the guys at her Athens County High School looked like Benjamin. Not even the senior varsity football players. Supposedly, he was sixteen, a rising junior, just like her. That’s what he’d told her. But he looked like he’d walked out of one of those TV shows where all the high school guys were played by crazy hot dudes in their twenties.

Half of the girls on the summer-long mission were in love with him, and the other half were all moon-eyed over Donovan—even though he had to be one of the biggest jerks she’d ever met. He was the de facto leader of the Connecticut boys cabin —which now included Benjamin after Donovan badgered her mom into making the switch. From what she’d heard, they had a list ranking all the girls they wanted to hookup with on the mission trip on a hotness scale of 10 to 1.

Apparently, they’d been magnanimous enough to deem her a three, with an extra point added for her service with a smile. She had no idea why the other girls would crush on boys who reduced their entire value down to looks and smiling enough. But over the course of the summer, the Connecticut boys had come to be known as the “hot cabin,” and its occupants could get any girl they wanted. Especially Donovan and Benjamin.

Which made it even harder to understand why Benjamin kept on showing up at six a.m. to help her set up when everyone else at the mission site was fast asleep, including her mother.

“Why do you get up to do this every morning?” he’d countered when she’d asked him about his extra-extra volunteer work on Day 3 of finding him under the tree.

“Because I’m a nice person, and it’s the least I can do for my single mom,” she’d answered—somewhat evasively. Having never attended a public institution of secondary education prior to this year, she had no idea how other American high school students operated. But personal business was personal business in her family. Sharing the real reason she was doing her mother’s job every morning didn’t even enter her mind.

In any case, his answer had been just as cagey.

“Okay, you’re a nice girl, and I’m a nice guy,” he’d said with that interesting Mark Wahlberg accent of his. “Let’s just agree we’re both nice people, and keep it moving.”

Fine. Tess dropped it, figuring his real reason would come out any day. An “Oh hey, could you get your mom to write me a special recommendation” or “Wassup! Would you mind letting me and my broskis borrow your mom’s van to go into town?” Or maybe he had one of those special juvie work orders that needed to be signed toward the end of July when the mission would be done, and he’d been too rich and privileged to join the juvenile offender unit on the other side of the camp.

She kept waiting for the penny to drop, but the more she got to know Benjamin, the more reasons he struck off his possible motivation list. While helping her set out all the supplies for the day on long tables outside the trailer, he’d revealed that even though he attended the same posh East Coast boarding school as the guy she’d privately labeled “Donovan the Douche,” unlike most of his fellow hockey teammates, he was there on a full scholarship.

Benjamin had an older brother who had actually started playing professionally.

“I’m not nearly as good as him,” he admitted with a self-deprecating chuff. “But colleges keep sending scouts out to my games, and they’ll probably give me a full ride at some D-1 just ’cause I’m related. You’d be surprised how much nepotism there is in the college recruitment game. But if they wanna be stupid about putting me on their roster because my brother’s got talent, I’m not fighting them on it. I’ll ride their bench and get a free business degree out of it.”

So no, he didn’t need a letter of recommendation to get into college. And despite the hard accent, he was so agreeable and polite. She just couldn’t see him doing anything that would earn him juvie work hours.

That meant he must be in it for all the extra favors she could grant him as the mission director’s daughter. So, she accepted his morning help, and cynically waited for him to make the big ask.

But four weeks in, and only three more weeks to go, he’d yet to ask her for anything. All he did was help her, every day except Sunday, which the whole camp got off to attend church services and relax.

Also, sometimes when her back was turned, she could feel his eyes on her, burning into her skin. A few days ago when she felt the sensation, she turned around quickly, pretending to need something—and totally caught him staring at her.

Staring at her in a way boys never stared at her. And instead of dropping his eyes right away, he’d held her gaze and asked, “Anything else I can help you with?”

And for a moment, it had felt like he was flirting with her. But no…that couldn’t be the case. Again, guys never looked at her that way. She was a three on the Connecticut boys cabin’s hotness scale. It was probably a misinterpretation due to his accent.

Tess averted her eyes and made something up about needing more sunscreen. But the moment had left her weirdly flushed, even though it was still the cool hours of the morning. She had to be reading all sorts of things into the interaction that weren’t there, but it had felt…intense.

And maybe that was why she hesitated this morning before taking a deep breath and joining him under the tree.

“Hey,” he said with a lopsided grin.

“Hey…” she managed over all the static in her head. He was so fine, she almost forgot what she came here to say. But after a few brain skips, she managed to add, “It’s July Fourth. It’s a free day.”

“Yeah, I know,” he answered, standing up a little straighter. “But I wasn’t sure if that included you too. And I, um, wanted to make sure you had help.”

Tess drew herself up to her full height too. But that still made her a lot shorter than him. Five two to his six-foot plus. “No, none of us are working. Everyone has the day off, including my mom. And me.”

“Oh…” He scraped a hand over the back of his head with a chagrinned look. Then he gave her a confused frown. “If you’re off, why are you here?”

“Because I was afraid you might be here waiting for me,” she admitted with her own sheepish look.

He raised his eyebrows. “So you got up early on your day off just to tell me I didn’t have to get up early?”

“Yeah.” Tess let out a sigh. “Yeah, I guess that’s what I did.”

He looked to the side. “Okay, uh, thanks. I probably would have figured it out after fifteen minutes or so. You didn’t have to get up…”

He trailed off, and her stomach churned with thoughts of how this must look to him. So unnecessary and desperate. Like all the girls who found excuses to make their way to the nearby lake in bikinis when they heard the Connecticut boys were over there shirtless and taking a dip.

“Okay, I should probably—” she started to say, pointing a thumb in the direction of the home trailer.

At the same time, he asked, “Hey, want to have breakfast in town, since we’re both up?”

Tess blinked, shocked at the request. “Um, the closest town is Athens, and the buses aren’t running today, so it would be about a sixty- to ninety-minute walk.”

He glanced over her shoulder. “Maybe we could drive.”

She followed his gaze to her mom’s van, parked on the other side of the work trailer.

So he did want to borrow the van, which had “God’s Work Youth Missions” plastered across its side. Just not the way she thought.

“Oh, I mean, maybe,” she answered, her stomach ping-ponging at the thought of spending time with Benjamin outside of camp. “But I don’t have a license.”

“I got one,” he assured her. “My brother taught me to drive and took me to get my license as soon as I turned sixteen. I just need the key.”

So that was how she ended up having breakfast on the Fourth of July at a little diner just up the street from Ohio University. With the guy half the other girls on the mission trip were crushing on.

Despite his good looks, Benjamin turned out to be surprisingly easy to talk to. As it turned out, he’d also read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, along with the other two books she’d brought with her: Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, and Feed, by M.T. Anderson. Why? He couldn’t quite say.

“Class or something. Dunno…” he mumbled vaguely.

But his recall was as good as if he’d read all the books from her summer reading list right along with her over the past few weeks. He wasn’t like the other jocks Tess had observed during her short time in American high school. He could actually think critically enough about texts to talk about them thoughtfully. Over breakfast, they’d had a significant conversation about British Imperialism, the expanding universe, and whether or not the internet would one day go directly into people’s heads.

Tess thought yes. But Benjamin told her there was no way.

“I come from a long line of Irish mob guys. Believe me, if there’s a way to break into something, crime’s trying it. Tell you what, in ten years, cybercrime will have become such a problem, nobody will even be talking seriously about that Feed concept anymore.”

Later, when Tess discussed the book with her AP English, she’d think of Benjamin Brady Keane, and bile would rise in her throat. So fast, she’d have to run out of the classroom with her hand clamped over her mouth without time to ask for a bathroom pass.

But by the time their food was long gone, she found herself utterly charmed.

“Separate checks?” the waitress asked as she looked between the two of them like “no, you couldn’t possibly be together.”

“Nah, I got this,” Benjamin answered, sending a secret thrill through her, even though she knew he was just being nice.

After taking the check from the waitress, he turned back to Tess to add, “That scene where the guy keeps ordering stuff he doesn’t need and it gets dropped off at his house faster than fast, though. Yeah, that’s definitely going to be a thing in the future. This Prime service Amazon just started? Keep an eye on them. Watch.”

“Okay, I will.” She laughed. “Have you read Brave New World too? That’s next on my list.”

“Not yet,” he answered. “But I will if you want me to.”

If you want me to…

About twenty minutes later, they walked out of an off-campus bookshop with a brand-new copy of Brave New World for Benjamin.

But instead of heading straight back to the van, he said, “I want ice cream. You want ice cream too?”

Yes, she did want ice cream. And when they saw the sign advertising the parade that would be starting in less than an hour while walking out with their scoops, they figured they might as well stick around. So, the easy conversation kept going as they aimlessly walked down historical Court Street.

He told her this was the first time he’d ever traveled outside of New England, while she told him it was the first time she’d worked with her mother inside the United States. Then she explained that she’d been born to American missionaries on a multi-year church building project in Angola.

“Though, it took me forever to figure out that we weren’t Angolan,” she remembered with a laugh. “I was so shocked when my parents told me we were Americans, like all the white people at our build site. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t Angolan, like all my other Black friends. So, I was like, then what part of Africa are we from? And they were like, we don’t know because—well, slavery. And I really did not trust that answer. They had to keep explaining the whole concept of African American over and over again because I was so sure they got it wrong.”

Benjamin laughed so hard at her story, he smeared ice cream on his nose, and she handed him the napkin she’d so wisely wrapped around her cone.

“Thanks,” he said, still laughing—until their hands touched.

A zap of electricity went through Tess, and her stomach tied in triple knots.

And though Benjamin was still smiling, he was also looking down at her in that weird, intense way again.

She didn’t realize they’d both completely stopped walking until a woman with a stroller said, “Excuse me!” impatiently behind them.

That broke her out of her trance.

We’re just friends, Tess reminded herself as they returned to walking. You’re just imagining things.

He cleared his throat as they began walking again.

“So how did you end up going from Africa to Ohio?” he asked.

“Well, you know Catholics love building all sorts of stuff in other countries—not just churches. So after my father died, Mom continued to take long-term assignments for God’s Work, all over Africa and South America. But eventually, I decided I should probably do a few years here if I wanted to go to college. So I secretly signed her up for this three-year rebuild Ohio Valley project. I figure that will at least get me through high school.”

Benjamin shook his head. “She didn’t get wicked mad when you told her you’d signed her up for a new job in another country?”

Tess shrugged. “No, she was just grateful she didn’t have to do anything for her next job. She’s um…very dedicated to helping people—obviously. But not so great at organization and planning.”

He was quiet for a few moments. Then he said, “You’re a good kid.”

She brushed off the compliment. “I’m sure you’re even better.”

“Nah, my parents aren’t the kind of people that inspire you to help them.” Benjamin’s face clouded over. “My mom walked out on us when I was still a kid. And my dad…I guess, he decided to prove she made the right decision. He was a bad drunk before she left. But beer became his whole life after. He can’t hold onto jobs. He’s pissed off at the world. I wouldn’t even call him functioning. That’s why I came here this summer instead of staying in Boston.”

“You came here for a whole summer instead of staying in Boston and trying to help him?”

He stiffened. “Why would I do that?”

“Because your father’s hurting, and he needs help,” Tess answered carefully. “And you said you were a nice guy.”

He tightened his square jaw and looked to the side. “Yeah, well, sometimes you can’t be nice. Sometimes all you can do is save yourself.”

He threw the napkin she’d given him into a trash can. “Not all of us are like you. I can’t cover for him like you cover for your mom.”

Tess stopped walking again, this time on purpose. “What do you mean?”

Benjamin tipped his head back and cursed under his breath. Like he’d said something he shouldn’t have.

And a sour taste formed in her mouth as she repeated, “What do you mean?”

Benjamin cursed lightly again and drew her toward the edge of the sidewalk, out of the flow of traffic.

“Look, Tess, I wasn’t going to bring it up….” He folded his arms defensively. “But I’m the kid of an alcoholic too. I recognize the signs. She’s tired all the time. Forgetful. And, oh yeah, she’s got her kid basically doing her job every morning—probably because she’s still in bed with a hangover until at least ten or twelve.”

That was exactly where her mother was. Everything inside of her curdled. She’d never talked with anyone about her mom’s problems. Never even put a label on it. So to have this Greek god of a boy pointing out all the things she’d worked so hard to cover up…

“I have to go!”

Tess walked away, blind to the direction. It didn’t matter. She just had to get out of there. Shame washed over her in waves of heat that made her feel like she was broiling inside.

“Tess, wait!” he called after her.

She was a big girl. She always had been. It didn’t matter where they lived in the world. But she became a track star to get away. And when she spotted a group of people gathered for the parade, she made a beeline for it, disappearing into the crowd and ducking into a shop that sold lingerie all meant for women at least half her size.

“May I help you?” a saleslady asked, eyeing her suspiciously.

So that was how Tess ended up walking by herself down the main road back to camp on one of the hottest days of the year so far, with a pair of lacy bobby socks she didn’t need inside a bag labeled “Gloria’s Fine Lingerie.” She had to be presenting quite the weird picture.

But that still wasn’t enough to make her stop when Benjamin pulled up beside her in her mother’s van.

Unfortunately, Benjamin’s arm was long enough for him to reach across the seats and roll the passenger window down. “Thank fuck, there you are. I was looking all over for you back on Court Street!”

“I’m good where I am,” she assured him. “Just go on without me.”

“C’mon, get in the car. I’m not going to leave you out here.”

“It’s not that much farther.” Just six, maybe seven miles—underneath the roasting sun. But she’d had a big breakfast. She could make it.

Out loud, Tess said, “Just go on without me. I want to be alone, please.”

“Well, I don’t want to be alone,” he countered out the passenger window. “I’m pretending to be this cool jock, just like Donovan and everyone else on my hockey team. But I’m alone. At school. Even here. You wanna know the real reason I came on this trip? Why I’m not at home taking care of my dad? Because I knew he’d get drunk and decide to whale on me for looking too much like my mother or thinking I’m too good for him or whatever crime he decides I’m guilty of when he’s drunk off his ass and looking for somebody to hit. And I want to be a nice guy, but I’m not nice enough. I’ll beat my father to death if he ever comes at me again. And that’s why I’m here.”

Okay, well…The angry steam inside of Tess evaporated as fast as it had built up.

She paused walking.

And Benjamin eased to a stop beside her. “Get in, please.”

No more arguing. Feeling much chastened, she climbed into the passenger seat.

“I’m sorry,” she eventually managed to say after a lot of mental What would a good Christian do? fretting. “I didn’t know your situation, and I shouldn’t have judged you before I had the whole story.”

He shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. I’m so angry and pissed off. And when I saw you were in the same position, I just assumed stuff I shouldn’t have.”

He rolled his eyes at himself. “Sometimes I forget that alkies are all special snowflakes. Not all of them are like my dad. And the thing you’ve got going with your mom—it works. The mission’s doing great. Good job.”

“No, we’re not in the same position,” she agreed, keeping her eyes straight ahead on the road, even though she wasn’t the one driving. “I was helping my mother, who never got over my father’s death. She would never hit me. But, um…”

She swallowed a heavy lump that had suddenly formed in her throat. “Those feelings of rage and resentment when you’re trying to be nice. I’ve felt that. I want to help my mother. She deserves my help. But it’s so hard to keep everything going sometimes. It always feels like we’re on the edge of disaster. And I’m studying so hard to get into a good school. But the truth is, I have no idea how I’m going to go to college. I can’t leave her alone, and who knows where God’s Work will send her next….”

The tears came without warning. And the next thing she knew, Benjamin was pulling the van over to the side of the road. Down the little path that led to the lake just outside of camp.

He cut the engine and yanked his seatbelt off. Then his arms were around her, warm and comforting.

Tess had gotten a lot of hugs in her life. Hugs were a big thing with Christians, especially the dedicate-their-lives-to-helping-others kind.

So it meant something when she finally drew back and told him, “Thanks, that’s the best hug I’ve ever gotten.”

He laughed. “Me too.”

They both let out a cleansing sigh.

But Benjamin didn’t let go. And she knew she was pretty emotional. But it felt like the air was thrumming between them.

“Benjamin….” She said his name quietly. And her voice became even more careful when she formed her next question: “We’re friends. Just friends. Not anything more, right?”

Benjamin immediately drew back from her and dropped his arms.

Wow, there was her answer. To both her question and the unspoken one she didn’t know she was asking. What is mortification?

The answer was this. This was embarrassment and shame so absolute, it needed its own separate word.

“I’m a nice guy….” he started to say.

And as it turned out, fight or flight was a very real thing. Without any formal decision-making at all, Tess turned in her seat and prepared to bolt out the door like an animal running from a T-Rex.

But this time, Benjamin caught her by the arm before she could get away. “Hold on, Tess. What I’m trying to say is, I’m a nice guy, and that’s why I can’t lie to you.”

Tess shook her quickly. “You don’t have to…”

“I’m your friend, but I really want to kiss you right now.”

Tess went completely still. Did he just say what she thought he said?

“I’ve been wanting to kiss you all summer,” he said, as if answering her unspoken question. “And that’s the real reason I kept getting up early—why I had my brother Amazon Prime me all those books I saw you reading. I like you. I really like you.”

He liked her? Tess didn’t know what to say. She could barely breathe.

But somehow Benjamin looked even more scared than her when he asked, “Can I? Can I kiss you?”

CHAPTER 18

PERSEPHONE

I pulled the trigger. Not once. But six times.

I’d lain in the dark for hours before that. My whole body vibrating. Not just because I’d never committed an act of violence in my life. But also, from the aftershocks of my unexpectedly passionate first time.

I’d thought it would be just sex. I’d thought he’d simply plow into me from behind, like he had with all those girls I’d seen him with before. I even visualized not crying because I knew it would hurt.

I hadn’t expected him to take such care with me. To gather me in his arms afterward, like I was a precious gift. Not just some pawn in his game of revenge.

I’d gone back and forth with myself for so long. But when I saw the thin shafts of morning light peeking over the horizon, I knew the time for debating was over.

If I didn’t do it now, I’d never work up the courage to do it again.

So, I’d extracted myself from his hold and reached for the gun I’d hastily dug out of his desk and hidden beneath my pillow while he was getting ready in the bathroom.

His eyes popped open as soon as I cocked the gun.

And there was a moment of hesitation on my part.

Maybe you don’t have to do this, I thought inside that moment.

I could toss the gun away. Apologize. Figure out some other way to escape.

But what other way was there? Last night, he’d more than proven how tightly he’d wound his mouse trap.

No, this is the only way, I told that part of me that felt like we’d truly connected when we had sex.

If Hades died, this all stopped. I could go home. Demand my father hand over custody of my sister in exchange for my silence. Finally, take Daphne to Disney World.

And that was why I squeezed the trigger. One time. Then another five. But…

I clicked several more times, and still…Nothing.

Hades probably could have grabbed the gun from me after the first fruitless click. Definitely after the second. But he didn’t.

He just watched me try to kill him, his gaze cold and patient until it finally dawned on me…There weren’t any bullets in the gun. Oh, my God. There weren’t any bullets in the gun. Had there ever been?

“Are you done?” he asked below the muzzle’s snub nose.

He didn’t wait for my answer before snatching the gun away from me and twisting off the bed in a way that made me fall to the side in a heap.

“It was smart of you to make that deal with me before you tried this.” His voice was flat. All business. “I honor my pacts. No guns. That’s the only reason you’re still alive.”

Had I imagined the tender looks he’d given me? When we danced? When he lifted up to gaze into my eyes for his final release?

I must have. I’d never seen anything as hollow and dead as his silver eyes in the cold morning light.

“You fucked me over….” The sentence started out just as flat as all the others, but he broke off. And suddenly, his face was all emotion. Ravaged and hurt.

And that look hit me like one of the bullets that turned out not to be in the gun.

But then it was gone in a flash. And his eyes were back to glittering, like they used to when he regarded me from a higher position, full of malice and hate.

“You fucked me over once,” he repeated, his voice cold as ice. “That’s on me for forgetting whose daughter you are and believing one word that came out of your duplicitous mouth. But if you fuck me over again…I mean, if you even think about pointing another gun at me or trying to escape before your five years are up, then you better make sure as hell it’s loaded. Otherwise, I will take you back to that house you grew up in, snap your neck in front of that father who spit you out, and shoot him dead. Do not test me.”

“Hades…” I started to speak. I didn’t know why. It wasn’t like I had a good rejoinder for “I’m so pissed off you tried to kill me, I’ll snap your neck if you fail to kill me twice.”

I had a deep urge to explain myself. But how do you explain yourself to a monster? He knew what I did, and he knew why I did it. And he didn’t care about reasons, just like he didn’t care about my innocence.

So I clamped my mouth shut, and we stood there in silence until he said, “Wake up, Persy. We’re here.”

Three years after I tried and failed to kill Hades, I jolted awake and found myself…not in New Orleans, but in the cab of the black F-150 Hades was driving up to Nashville.

Yet another nightmare.

I still drew daily baths for Hades. He hadn’t touched me since I pulled that trigger, but he’d kept his word, and I slept in his bed most nights.

But over the years, we’d switched places. I was the one who suffered from night terrors, while he easily slept through the night.

The recurring one about me trying to kill Hades was the most disturbing nightmare of all. Even worse than the one where I finally made my way back to my sister after my five years were up, only to have her tell me she hated me forever and never wanted to see me again.

That sister nightmare was only what I was afraid might happen, and it had nuance. Sometimes she hated me in her room. Sometimes she hated me at our mom’s grave. Sometimes she hated me out on the back balcony of our house while fireworks burst overhead.

The trying to shoot Hades one, however, was a completely accurate play-by-play. Every single time.

I’d read all sorts of internet articles about dreams when I was trying to help my sister after our mother’s death. Some oneirologists, as they called the people who study dreams, thought they were the equivalent of a nightly mental cleanup—a tool our minds used to process fear and work out our problems. They claimed that some people had used lucid dreaming to achieve closure with relatives and friends, without it mattering if they were dead or alive. And a lucky few had even managed to rewrite their traumatic experiences in a way that brought them closure.

Not me.

The Hades nightmare always went the same way. I made the same mistakes every time because I knew nothing about guns back then. And the outcome never turned out any different.

I always awoke next to Hades. Whether it was in New Orleans or here in the passenger seat of the black F-150 he was bringing up for Waylon—Waylon, of all people.

I’d never seen Hades’s psycho cousin drive anything but a motorcycle, even in the dead-deadest of northern winters. But I’d also never heard of Waylon claiming a woman as his. And, apparently, he’d texted Hades that he needed a truck to drive his woman to Iowa—and something for her to wear.

Hades could have just grabbed something from the seemingly never-ending stash of backless bodycon dresses he kept on hand for me to wear out and about New Orleans. But after a few months of going on trips without me, he started always bringing me along.

Presumably because I’d grown very adept at standing around like a blank object. And no matter how much progress was made on the feminism front, men still considered men who used scantily clad women as never-speaking background set pieces to be badass.

But I also suspected his Mama Fairgood nightmares returned when we were apart. Not that we’d ever discussed anything that deep. That wasn’t how our status quo worked.

Anyway, it was August. So as any Louisiana person would tell you, any excuse to go north—away from the state’s swampy humidity—we were on it.

That much-cooler-in-Tennessee night, Hades parked Waylon’s gift truck in the dirt lot of a nameless roadhouse where the two Reaper chapters loved to meet halfwayish.

We’d been to this roadhouse countless times before, but heads turned, as they always did when we walked into a room.

Hades was still as beautiful as a god.

And I supposed I might have still struck others as beautiful too. It had been a while since I bothered to assess my looks. Mirrors were just something I glanced at to make sure I was putting my eyeliner on straight for set-piece duty.

Anyway, heads turned, like they always did. But at least my tattoo didn’t get as much attention in this place.

Hades had made me go to three more Tessier Balls since the first year of my captivity. My father had rescinded his membership—from what I’d heard loudly whispered behind hands. And Lukas had failed to show his face there ever again. You’d think they’d be used to the annual sight of their fallen flower by now. But the gasps always abounded.

Not at the roadhouse, though, where my back tattoo was one of the least outrageous things the biker bar would see on any given night.

Topless waitresses of all hues—with long, butt-grazing weaves—zigzagged between giant banquet tables, flirting for bigger tips as they delivered food and beer. There were also biker groupies and plenty of “old ladies.” I saw a few with their own Property Of tattoos.

But none were nearly as prominent as mine.

However, at this nameless roadhouse, my tattoo didn’t engender tuts and whispers. Just jealous hisses.

Other women didn’t know what to make of me, so they always just assumed I was Hades’s old lady. They congratulated me for being “one lucky bitch” and asked me for advice to land their own hot biker boyfriend.

Then never took me seriously when I advised them, “Don’t. Run.”

They giggled and told me I was funny, even though I never joked. Not anymore.

Tonight, a few women ran up to me and demanded I make them a version of the crochet top I was wearing—in various colors.

As it turned out, I’d accidentally stumbled onto an untapped market for making backless crochet halter tanks with enough upfront coverage for women with bigger or fake breasts.

Not only did I get several orders just on the way to the Reapers’ usual banquet table, but quite a few bikers, old ladies, and waitresses stopped me to eagerly ask if I had their tops in the tote I’d brought with me. It was filled with orders, along with the one outfit I’d brought for Waylon’s new old lady.

Most of the orders were from the bikers for their girlfriends. But I did have one secret custom order for one of the SkullCrusher MCs, who’d paid me triple to never let anyone know what he liked to wear under his typical biker uniform of t-shirts and leather vest.

By the time I made it to the Reapers’ table, my usual arm candy position next to Hades was occupied by Vampire, the tallest and broodiest member of the three-man enforcement team everyone called Vengeance.

He was leaned into Hades, talking into his ear.

Uh-oh.

By now, I’d become an expert in bad-guy body language, but anyone who’d watch anything featuring a criminal MC would recognize this as the “somebody did something we don’t like and now we’re going to have kill him” body position. Or them. Vengeance had been known to rain Reaper wrath on entire clubs.

I started to hang back, but Vampire caught a glimpse of me and immediately stood up. It could be mistaken for chivalry, but he didn’t give me a word of acknowledgement or even look at me beyond that one glance. More likely, he’d just been done talking.

When I sat down beside Hades, I found the rest of the table abuzz with the Waylon gossip. Apparently, Waylon had skipped out on running security for Griffin Latham’s latest show to go fetch this lady of his from Delaware—the same woman he’d be bringing into the bar any minute.

Also, Des-E, the quietest member of Vengeance, was celebrating a birthday. No one but Hyena, the third member of Vengeance, appeared all that excited about it.

But Hyena was, by far, the most extroverted of the trio. Vampire served as their de facto leader, but he did most of their talking—especially when it came to pulling women. Vengeance shared everything: a job, a safe house in Nebraska, and hookups. If I was still capable of being scandalized, I’d probably find it odd. But my “this isn’t right” switch had been turned off a long time ago.

Anyway, the friendliest member of Vengeance was walking around with a Polaroid camera, making everyone commemorate the day.

I didn’t realize I’d sat down next to the ever-silent birthday boy until Hyena called out, “Hades! Persy! Vampire! Des-E! Crowd in so I can get you all in the pic, and say cheese!”

Vampire, who’d apparently taken a seat on the other side of Des-E, didn’t crowd in or say cheese—just glowered. But to my surprise, Hades pulled me into his lap and squeezed me to him tight.

Maybe it was just to make sure we all fit in the Polaroid. But he never touched me on purpose, even though that was part of our pact. My heart raced. And when Hyena handed me the finished product, I couldn’t help but stare at it.

Hades was laughing, and my face was lit up with surprise. We looked like the opposite of what we really were. A playful couple. Emotions I hadn’t indulged in a long time tugged at my chest.

“Smart Elephant,” I whispered to myself.

“What?” Hyena answered.

I blinked. I hadn’t realized I said that out loud.

“Nothing,” I answered.

Hades narrowed his eyes at me, and it looked like he was about to ask a follow-up question.

But then Waylon chose that moment to walk into the bar, dragging a pretty Black woman in a big poofy wedding dress behind him.

“What the…?” Hades said, pushing up from the table.

I followed him, just as curious about her.

Even before I knew she would completely disrupt my three-year status quo.

CHAPTER 19

HADES

“We going to talk about what Vengeance found out or what?” Waylon asked.

Hades threw his cousin a wry look over the Sazerac Rye whiskey he’d just gotten off a particularly big-tittied waitress. “You mean instead of talking about the whole bride you just dragged in here?”

They’d sent Persy off with instructions to help Waylon’s surprising woman change out of that frilly wedding dress and then hand her off to Doc, that one bartender Vengeance was always sniffing after.

Waylon glanced at the back room, but then his Fairgood blue eyes came right back to Hades. “Pretty sure the seven-figure hit some anonymous asshole put out on you in your own territory comes first. I’m not going to be able to focus if I’m worried about you. We’re brothers, and we’re blood.”

Hades lifted both eyebrows. Normally, Waylon only had two settings: serious and psycho.

Those words coming from him, of all people, were the equivalent of “I love you, man, and I’m worried about you.” What was up with his cousin?

Still, Hades assured him, “You don’t have to worry about me. Vengeance is heading down to Louisiana to do the detective work tomorrow. They’ll smoke them out.”

Waylon opened his mouth to ask something else but stopped, as if he sensed something behind him.

His eyes drifted toward the back room, and Hades followed his gaze to where his cousin’s woman was coming out the door, now dressed in a pair of scrubs. Meanwhile, Persy also emerged with them. But instead of going to sit at the bar with Waylon’s woman, she came straight back to Hades. Like a woman-sized homing pigeon.

As usual, men craned their heads to look at her as she moved through the crowd, hips swaying with a feminine allure he knew wasn’t affected. She wasn’t trying to attract their attention. She didn’t even appear to notice any of them as she moved through the crowd.

Her sole focus was returning to Hades’s side, where she belonged.

“You’re going to have to teach me how to make my woman submit like that,” Waylon said beside him. “You don’t even wanna know what I had to do to get mine to come home with me.”

Get tricked into putting a time limit on her imprisonment, then threaten to kill her and her father if she tries to leave. Or tries to shoot you again.

His advice for Waylon was simple—but nontransferable in his cousin’s case—so he didn’t bother to say it out loud.

But that method had been more effective than any other tactic Hades had tried, including that fake game of Russian Roulette every night. He’d been looking for glimpses of the woman who’d tried to kill him that early spring morning, but she’d yet to show up.

Persy had become an exemplary handmaiden. No more fighting. No more trying to defend herself. She did what he told her to do, without hesitation or complaint. Over the years, Ellie had even taken to calling her The Persy Device because of her habit of sitting or standing nearby, like a serene statue, until he asked her a direct question.

Hades couldn’t disagree with the label. But she was an Echo device with a five-year timer going.

He hated that he could practically hear her counting down behind her now ever-placid expression. Almost as much as he hated how the other bikers looked at her as she passed by them, their faces slack with blatant want.

But they couldn’t have her. She was his. At least until the five years were up.

There was absolutely no reason he should still be so obsessed with her. He knew she wouldn’t dare to so much as look at another guy, so why did a weird territorial jealousy flare up whenever he watched her walk through a room?

He tracked her every move. And sometimes, late at night, when his dick was throbbing, he thought of telling her to suck it, just to see how she’d respond.

He preferred to believe he hadn’t followed through on that urge because he wasn’t interested in getting his dick sucked by a Delilah who’d only been setting him up for murder when she claimed to want him.

But in the dark of night, he admitted it was more because he preferred to think of her as Schrodinger’s cat.

Maybe the old, defiant Persy was still in there. Maybe she wasn’t.

In any case, he preferred to suffer than find out. And he refused to let himself dwell on his reasons for that.

“Why is she wearing scrubs?” Waylon demanded as soon as Persy came to a stop in front of them.

“She didn’t want to wear the outfit I brought for her,” Persy answered, her expression unchanging. “So, I let her borrow Doc’s scrubs.”

Waylon frowned. “Did she ask you for help escaping?”

Alarm bells went off in Hades’s head. He hadn’t considered that. Other than Doc, a medical resident, who only bartended at the roadhouse on her days off, Waylon’s woman was the closest in age, intelligence, and education to Persy. And she was essentially Waylon’s captive.

He couldn’t help but wonder if his own prisoner felt sympathetic toward her.

But Persy’s eyes barely flickered as she answered Waylon’s question. “No.”

There was no indication at all that Persy was lying. But the alarm bells continued to go off. A lot quieter now, but still there.

Waylon might have continued to interrogate her, but two dumb-as-shit prospects chose that moment to come on to his new old lady.

Aaand cue the bloodshed.

Waylon put one guy on the floor with what had to be a severe concussion, if not the kind of brain damage that would have his mama feeding him through a straw for the rest of his life. And the other one he shot point-blank in the face before dragging his new woman upstairs to the fucking rooms.

There were a few gasps and screams from some of the other women in the roadhouse. But Persy watched it all from a seated position beside him without so much as a flicker of reaction. Not even when Waylon came back downstairs ten minutes later and put a couple of bullets in the unconscious prospect.

No need to worry about brain damage. He was dead now.

“Clean that up,” Waylon ordered one of their own prospects. He snatched up the bottle of Glendaver Bourbon their resident country trap star, Griff Latham, had ordered for the table.

“Let me get you a whisky glass,” Rowdy offered. He was one of Griff’s barnacles. Hyena had never been on a ship in his life, but that was what he called the Reapers who doubled as members of Griff’s entourage. Or as Hyena put it, “hung off his nuts.”

Waylon ignored the offer and poured what had to be at least five fingers of Glendaver Bourbon into an empty beer glass. Then he knocked it back, his expression tight and annoyed. Like killing two bikers wasn’t enough of an outlet for whatever was going on inside of him.

Yeah, Waylon was a Fairgood, through and through.

And so was Hades.

Swamp Boy…His mother’s voice whispered across his mind.

Hades rubbed a hand over his face. It was going on eight years since she’d called him that. Sometimes it felt like he’d been Hades Fairgood longer than he’d ever been that superhero he made up, a good woman’s son.

Still, Waylon was acting crazy—even for Waylon. Hades didn’t like staying upstairs at the roadhouse when he was here with Persy. They were called the fucking rooms for a reason. The beds were designed for carnal activity—not for lying as far apart from each other as possible.

But when Persy came back from delivering her crochet orders, he said, “We’re staying here tonight.”

Persy didn’t respond. She never did unless she was given a direct command to do so. Her going along with whatever he said was assumed.

She merely waited until he was done drinking and followed him upstairs to a hallway lined with doors. As usual, there was a whole lot of moaning and carrying-on noises floating into the space from various rooms. They could also hear Waylon’s woman slamming her hand against her door and yelling at the top of her lungs.

“Let me out! Dammit, Waylon, let me out! Somebody help me! Please help me! I’m not supposed to be here. He’s holding me prisoner against my will!”

Hades cast a glance at Persy. But again, no reaction. Even for a woman who was basically in the same predicament as her.

He’d truly broken her.

Good. He should feel good about that.

But the alarm bells kept ringing low. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off with her as they went through their usual on-the-road routine.

At home, she always played soothing French music when she drew him baths. The European version, of course. There wasn’t any such thing as a good Cajun French song you could relax to before going to bed.

But out on the road, they just took turns washing up in the usually tub-less hotel bathroom. And the roadhouse’s communal toilets forced them to get even more basic than that.

No way he was letting her go in alone tonight, though. Waylon’s earlier altercation had proven what could happen when bikers who didn’t know your reputation laid eyes on your girl.

They entered the communal bathroom together and washed their faces side by side at a long trough of spigots. One guy from the Bandits MC was in there with them, and he tried to steal glances at Persy at the other end of the sink.

Hades stared him down until he realized that was a bad, possibly life-ending idea and the Bandit ducked his head and left him and Persy alone in the bathroom.

When he turned back to the sink, he noticed she was having to tilt her head at a funny angle to keep her hair from falling into her face. Without thinking about it, he gathered it in one hand, holding it back so it wouldn’t get in her way.

“Thanks,” she said when she stood back up. She cast him a slightly surprised look before tearing off a sheet from the brown roll that was sitting on the spigot ledge to dry off her face.

He wasn’t surprised by her surprise. They spent a lot of time together. But up until now, he’d purposefully avoided moments like this.

“Your hair’s getting too long,” he pointed out as an excuse. “You on those extensions again?”

If so, he needed to have another talk with her hairdresser. Maybe over the three years she’d been coming to the house, Delfina had forgotten about his original preference for Percy’s natural curls.

“No, I was telling Delf how I couldn’t keep it from frizzing up. So she just flat ironed it straight and put it in two protective braids that I can take in and out to keep it from going crazy on me—speaking of which, I should…”

She started braiding half of her straightened locks over her shoulder.

And a sudden urge to help her with the other half of her hair rose up inside of Hades. Just so he could touch it again. Touch her again.

But no…he’d vowed not to let her weaponize his desire for her a second time. Weirdly, that vow was harder to keep during intimate domestic moments like this.

His mind time traveled back to the day they’d met, when her mama swooped down like a red-shouldered hawk and suddenly took the vision who’d just called him “Swamp Boy” away. Leaving him to finish the drain cover job the daughter had begun and give the pool a good cleaning and pH rebalancing after that.

He’d been disappointed, but by the time he’d met his own mother at his truck, he decided the Perreault lady’s intervention was a good thing.

Stephanie Perreault was too young for him anyway. Plus, she was the kind of girl who’d want to get in some college.

Five years….

As he drove his mother back home, he gave himself that timeline for getting done with the Army and making something of himself on the right side of the law. Five years to become someone impressive enough for Stephanie Perreault to say yes to when he asked her out on a date.

That had been his plan—the plan her father destroyed when his mother walked in at the wrong time to pick up her last check.

But how would their lives have unfolded if she’d arrived any other time?

As they brushed their teeth together at the trough sink, he imagined that life. Them in a house together, maybe with a couple of kids his mother would have been happy to take care off.

His mother had wanted to break the ugly legacy of her Fairgood family name. And Nanan Cherise had preached to him mightily about the “sin” of marrying somebody who didn’t speak French. Hades might not have been born a Cajun or have a French last name, but she expected him to carry on the tradition of speaking French in the home.

Persy could have handled that. Her French had mightily improved over the last three years. She understood everything he and Ellie said now. And he’d even come upstairs to find her listening to Afro-French trap music as she put together her crochet orders.

If not for the blood debt, she would have made for the perfect wife. Maybe they’d be living in a real house right now with her belly full of their first kid and French music playing in the background of their happy ever af—

He stopped himself right there. This was why he didn’t let himself do intimate shit with her beyond the nightly bath. Why he refused to touch her, even though they slept in the same bed.

He finished his brushing after a few swipes, took a swig of mouthwash, and spit it out.

“You finished?” he asked Persy.

She didn’t answer, just spit out the rest of her toothpaste and stowed her travel toothbrush in her now empty tote, as if to say, I’m finished if you want me to be.

Outside the communal bathroom, that woman of Waylon’s was still carrying on. But her pleas had racked down to desperate sobbing.

Again, he glanced at Persy to make sure none of this was rubbing off on her. Again, no reaction.

Inside the room he’d purchased for the night, they stripped naked and lay down in bed together. Like a married couple with a routine. One who never fucked.

Still, Hades knew he wouldn’t have to worry about nightmares. He only ever had them when he left Persy at home and went out on the road by himself.

Still, he had issues getting comfortable in the bed. The mattress was rock hard and even narrower than usual. Like, a lot of guys who lifted weights, he couldn’t lay on his side without something going numb. But lying on his back meant he was pushing Persy off the bed, even with her on her side.

“I can sleep on the floor,” she offered, the third time his shoulder jabbed into her back.

“No, just…” It was best to avoid intimacy, but he wasn’t going to let her sleep on the floor—or tell her even that short distance was too far. Forget nightmares, he needed her there right next him just to fall asleep these days.

Instead of talking, he hauled her onto his body, splaying her across his chest.

Touching her like this, having her skin touching his—well, luckily it was dark. She couldn’t see the sudden tent in the thin blanket.

Surely, by then you’ll be tired of me.

How wrong she’d been three years ago. If anything, he was more obsessed with her by the day.

Merde, how was he going to sleep without her when the five years was up and he had no choice but to let her go?

“There’s a new Marvel movie out. Another Ant-Man,” he said, talking out loud to get away from the confusing shit going on in his head. “I was thinking we could go see it sometime next week. Enjoy somebody else’s air conditioning.

“Mmm, Swedish Fish, popcorn, and lots and lots of corporate air conditioning. Yes, please!”

He could hear the happy smile in her voice, and that made him happy. Happy enough to add, “It’s at the Waterfront 16, so you want to do dinner at that one place you liked so much that one time?”

Not exactly specific, but she said, “Louise’s? Sure. That was honestly the best gator I’ve ever had. And I don’t believe in magic, but she’s spelling the food, right? I mean, she’s gotta be.”

“Persy, listen carefully to these words coming out of my mouth,” he said with a dead serious tone. “That woman is a witch if I ever done tasted it. If I tried to take my Nanan Cherise to that place, she would’ve taken one bite of that gator jambalaya and come back with a priest to holy water the demon out of Louise’s cooking spoon. Want me to make a reservation for next Thursday?”

Persy was laughing so hard against his chest, she had to catch her breath to answer. “Sure, I’m not doing anything on Thursday.”

Now it was his turn to laugh. “Then it’s a date.”

A date….

She stiffened, Maybe wondering about the same things he was. When had their Marvel date nights become a regular thing? How did these moments of intimacy keep on popping up if they were supposed to hate each other? Why did they sometimes act like a couple when she was supposed to be his prisoner and him her captor?

And perhaps the most disturbing question of all: why did laying here like this in each other’s arms feel so good? So natural?

In the end, she didn’t comment on their increasingly blurry dynamic. Of course, she didn’t. Instead, she asked, “How are they going to do another Ant-Man after what happened in Infinity War?”

Aaannd they were off to the safe topic races. Since neither of them had seen the trailer, they spent the rest of their awake time knocking around guesses about what my transpire in the second Ant Man movie and eventually drifted off to sleep.

However, he woke up with an agitated feeling in his gut despite sleeping nightmare free through the night.

They were sticky with sweat from sleeping in that position all night, but he could barely stand it when she disentangled herself from him and rose out of the bed. He hated having to leave her alone in the room for the couple of minutes he needed to take his morning leak. And when he rushed back, he couldn’t stop tracking her every movement as they put on their clothes and got ready to leave.

It was enough to make him wonder who had imprisoned whom as they walked downstairs.

They found Waylon at the bar, buying a cup of joe from Doc, who always ran a coffee service in the morning for all the bikers who spent the night.

Doc greeted them cheerily. But Waylon simply told Persy, “Go get my woman, and tell her it’s time to come downstairs.”

Persy immediately turned to do his bidding, which annoyed Hades. Nobody said no to Waylon, but that didn’t mean he got to treat her like a dog.

Not that Waylon stuck around for an etiquette lesson. Just started walking out the door without so much as a thank you for the truck.

But then he turned back with a, “Goddammit, I forgot to give her the key to unlock the door.”

“I’ll take it up to her,” Hades said, holding out his hand. “Why don’t you go pull around the truck? I’ll make sure your woman doesn’t try to run.”

“Alright,” Waylon agreed. Judging from the consternated look on his face, he didn’t think his old lady running wasn’t outside the realm of possibility.

Both the Lord and the Devil knew, Hades was in no position to tell Waylon how to handle his woman. But considering everything his cousin had planned for that nurse of his, they seemed to be off to an inauspicious start.

He was worried about his cousin. Maybe that was why the agitated feeling grew worse as he walked up the stairs, the alarm bells getting louder and louder.

Yeah, that had to be why, he told himself.

But then he found Persy sitting on the hallway floor with her head leaned against the remaining closed door upstairs. She was telling Waylon’s woman something with an urgent look on her face. And tears were shining in her eyes.

CHAPTER 20

PERSEPHONE

There’s this parable people like to tell—especially the rich male kind. A circus elephant is attached by a rope to a stake when it is a baby. No matter how much it tugs, it cannot break free. So, eventually it stops trying. As it grows older, the circus goes from town to town and continues to attach the elephant to poles with nothing but a piece of rope. And it never tries to escape, even after it grows. It becomes so much bigger and stronger than one piece of puny rope. But the thing is, the elephant has been conditioned into an imprisoned mindset, so it never bothers to tug on the rope.

Silly elephant, the story seems to say. If only it wasn’t so conditioned, it would realize it was stronger than the rope. It would realize it was free.

But here was the thing about that parable that I’d come to realize over my years with Hades. The elephant had an imprisoned mindset because a circus, no matter how much fun it looks like from the outside, is a prison.

And while it is true that the elephant becomes stronger than the rope, that doesn’t mean it could ever be free. Say the elephant manages to break free of the rope. What happens then?

It certainly wouldn’t be allowed to escape. The men who had owned the elephant since birth would chase it down. Tranquilize it. And when the elephant woke up, it would no longer be tied by a simple rope, it would be shackled. Perhaps even encaged. Or worse.

The truth is, the men who considered the elephant their property would kill it before they ever let it escape.

When you think about it—I mean, really think it through—there is not one escape scenario that doesn’t leave the elephant worse off than when it was simply tied to a stake with a rope.

Maybe the elephant wasn’t conditioned. Maybe it had figured out the truth—that it couldn’t be free, so it might as well stay put and not fight it.

And maybe that makes the elephant wiser than any of the people who love to tell others this story.

Smart Elephant.

I’d chosen my stake. I could live with the idea of dying by Russian Roulette. But Hades had inadvertently stumbled upon the one threat that would keep me in line.

The possibility of my sister finding my father’s and my body in his office was bad enough, but Hades had ripped off my rose-colored glasses when it came to the elite world I used to inhabit. If both my father and I died, my sister would be left all alone. And I couldn’t trust that any of my father’s family members would take custody of her since, as one of his sisters had once unkindly put it during a family photoshoot, she wasn’t a real Perreault. No, if there was one person more important than me in this scenario, it was Daphne.

So, I’d stopped fighting Hades and started counting down the years left of my imprisonment. On the day I met Wedding Dress Girl, I had one year, seven months, and eight days left on my sentence. One year, seven months, and eight days until I could take my little sister to Disney World.

Over the last three years, I’d become a smart elephant. When thoughts of escape rose up, I ruthlessly suppressed them and counted. Sometimes I counted the days left on my blood debt sentence. Sometimes I counted the money I’d made selling my crochet items.

One thousand, six hundred dollars so far. But my crochet tops were getting more and more popular by the month. If I worked hard and kept adding styles, I’d make two thousand more dollars. And that would be enough to take my sister to Disney World after this was all done.

If she still wanted to go anywhere with me. She’d be thirteen by then. Too old for Disney World, maybe. Or maybe just too angry with the sister she hadn’t heard from in five years.

But I had to try. Honoring that promise was the only thing keeping me sane as the days of my imprisonment slowly ticked by.

At least, I thought focusing on my crochet business was keeping me sane. Until Wedding Dress Girl made me lose my mind with one question.

The answer to that question echoed in my head as I reported back to Waylon. And it nibbled at my chest as we walked past the room where she was screaming inside. It looped round and round in my mind as I washed my face and brushed my teeth.

It dogged me as I fell asleep, and the next morning, a voice whispered in my ear the answer I hadn’t given Wedding Dress Girl, jolting me awake.

Mama Fairgood? The voice sounded an awful lot like hers. For a few blinking moments, I thought I was a lazy teenager again, being shaken awake for school or some weekend event my mom said I just had to go to.

But no, I was still in Hades’s underworld. It was just the answer to Wedding Girl Dress’s question wouldn’t let up.

I had to get it out.

Get it out—that was all I was trying to do when Hades left me in the room alone to go use the toilet. I had one year, seven months, and seven days to go. I couldn’t keep obsessing over this.

So, I tore off a corner piece of paper from the notebook I used to keep track of my orders and wrote down the answer to her question. That was all.

I wasn’t planning to do anything else with it. I might have even forgotten about the piece of paper inside my tote. Thrown it out when I got back to New Orleans.

Smart Elephant.

But then, Waylon told me to go fetch Wedding Dress Girl. And instead of throwing it away, I slipped it underneath her door.

Stupid, stupid elephant.

We didn’t go straight back to New Orleans the next day. I didn’t ask why, just like I never asked why.

Meetings with shadowy types who were more concerned with anonymity than having girls on display as set pieces, I assumed.

After a short ride on the back of the custom black-on-black Harley-Davidson Hades had hauled up here in the bed of Waylon’s gift F-150, I was all but dumped in a penthouse suite at the Tourmaline in Nashville—that one hotel where non-local celebrities always stay when they’re in Tennessee filming movies or making albums with producers who prefer Nashville to Atlanta and L.A.

Or maybe Hades was still pissed at me for daring to talk to Wedding Dress Girl.

Either way, our room overlooked downtown. So I got to crochet with a city view when I decided to use the time alone to get a jump on all my new orders. I needed the sewing machine in my craft room back in New Orleans to fully construct the pieces, but I got a lot of shell work done before crawling into bed.

Hades never came home that night.

And I refused to worry. Or wonder where he slept. Or do any other stupid elephant things like that. I’d already come dangerously close to disrupting our status quo that morning.

I didn’t sleep well. Hades was my captor—the circus owner who’d tied the rope around my ankle. But he was the body I knew best. And it had been months—maybe an entire year—since we’d slept apart. I guessed I sort of…

It took a few moments to label the unfamiliar feeling. I guessed I sort of missed him. No, not him. I quickly corrected myself. His body.

I didn’t care for my captor. I didn’t miss or yearn for the man who considered me nothing more than a blood debt—the man who would snap my neck if I tried to escape.

I told myself the same thing I told Hades the first night I convinced him to let me sleep next to him instead of in the dog cage. Any body would have done. It didn’t have to be my captor’s.

Nonetheless, I woke up way earlier than usual the next day, just as morning rays of light were cracking over the city skyline.

One year, seven months, and six days to go.

The last time I was awake to see the sun come up was three years ago, after I spent all night working up courage I didn’t need because the gun I’d stolen from my captor’s desk was unloaded.

Hades finally walked through the suite door, interrupting that morbid thought. And he was dressed in an outfit that made me double-take.

Was he….was he wearing cargo shorts and a white t-shirt?

I sat up in bed because I’d never seen Hades in anything outside of black-on-black-on-top-of-more-black.

But yes, that was exactly what he was wearing!

And even more surprising than that, he tossed a muslin Free People shopping tote at me, the contents of which made my heart stop: underwear, festival shorts, an athletic bra, and oh, my God, a t-shirt! An actual tattoo-covering t-shirt!

I didn’t know whether to scream for joy or be very, very worried that this was another installment of his especially cruel brand of punishment.

“Get dressed,” Hades ordered before I could decide either way. “I want to get there before noon.”

Okay….but where was “there.”

In the end, I neither shouted nor screamed. I reverted to my usual setting: quietly doing exactly as Hades told me. I kept all my thrill and worry to myself.

Smart Elephant.

I found another surprise waiting when we went downstairs to the parking garage. Derelict, idling in a black Ford F-350 I’d never seen before. But if Derelict had driven it all the way up here, it had to be from Hades’s private collection of cars.

Alarm bells clattered in my head as Hades exchanged keys with his minion, and Derelict drove off on Hades’s custom black-on-black Harley.

Smart elephants don’t ask….

But I really, really wanted to ask.

Especially eight hours later when we pulled up to a dock, instead of his New Orleans night club mansion. And I spotted something featured all over travel ads for New Orleans, but that I’d never actually seen before.

A swamp boat. And not a nice one, either—if swamp boats could ever be described as nice. Unlike the ones in the ads, this one consisted of a giant corroded aluminum flat-bottom boat with a huge back fan and four cracked leather car seats with cupholders, of all things.

And smart elephant…but no, no, I was still a Louisiana Black girl in a bayou I could not name if you showed it to me on a map. The words burst out of my mouth before I could stop them. “What’s this? Where are you taking me?”

Hades’s lips thinned in a way that made me suspect he wasn’t going to answer. But then he said, “Home. I’m taking you home.”

Home?

How many times as a child had I begged Mama Fairgood to take me home with her? So many apologetic nos from her had piled up over the years that I’d come to think of the place she disappeared to when she wasn’t with me as a sort of Shangri-La. A secret place where I wasn’t allowed.

I wasn’t a child any longer, but some dreams never die. I climbed into the homemade swamp boat.

Twenty minutes of bayou travel later, we pulled up to the magical place Mama Fairgood used to go when she wasn’t with me. The home of Swamp Boy.

It was nicer than I thought it would be. A whole lot nicer. A mid-sized Acadian-style house made of dark wood with a steep-sloped tin roof and darling log shutter windows. It stood so high up on stilts, you could have parked a truck underneath it outside of flooding season. Was this where the F-350 I’d never seen had been living?

“I spent all my off time renovating it after Waylon and me started the Reapers,” Hades explained off my confused look. “And I used to come out here once or twice a year with Derelict and Jam to fix it up before…”

He trailed off, but I could guess the rest. Before me.

He threw the overnight bag Derelict must have packed onto the well-maintained dock. Then held out a hand to help me out of the boat.

“You wanna take those inside while I tie up the boat?” he asked.

I had so many questions, including, “Will Derelict and Jam be joining us on this not-so-little excursion?” and, oh yeah, “Why the hell are we here?”

But Smart Elephant. I didn’t ask any of them. I just did as I was told.

However, I couldn’t help frowning as I climbed the two-story wooden staircase. This cabin was the very definition of remote. I’d spotted some shacky-looking houses on the way here, a few of them abandoned. But there weren’t any houses as far as I could see in any direction. And it was so noisy with the sounds of frogs and cicadas, nobody could hear anybody’s screams. Including mine.

A chill ran down my back. This would be a great place to dump a body.

But then a new thought occurred to me.

Hades was an MC King. The ruler of an underworld where anything could happen. I couldn’t imagine him going anywhere unarmed, but he wasn’t wearing his usual gun-covering leather jacket—probably because he’d die of heatstroke if he tried. And the pockets in his shorts didn’t look big enough to house a Glock, so that meant…

I looked down at the overnight bag I’d been instructed to sherpa up to his bayou stilt house.

And I was a smart elephant. A very smart elephant.

But as soon as I got inside, I had to rush over to the couch and set the bag down to see if my theory was correct. I began to unzip it—

“Persy.”

I nearly jumped out of my skin. The silent gator had struck again. I turned around to find Hades at the front door with his phone gripped tight in one hand. And the tote I’d forgotten in the boat in the other.

Had he seen me about to unzip his bag?

But he wasn’t looking at his luggage, he was looking at me. “Tell me again what you said to Waylon’s woman at the door yesterday morning.”

Why was he asking me about this again? I’d already told him.

“You heard what I said,” I answered carefully. “I told her to submit to Waylon. And I got emotional, but that was all I said to her.”

Hades went still—so still—only his mouth moved when he asked, “Why were you talking to her?”

I blinked. “I was—I was trying to help her.”

“Why were you trying to help?” he asked with a sneer. “You never try to help anybody unless they’re buying one of those crochet tops of yours.”

His words made me inwardly flinch. Did he really think all I cared about was money?

I loved making my tops, loved that I’d discovered something I enjoyed doing that could make me money—not a lot of money, but way more than most would expect without an Etsy shop or any kind of technology save a phone and a computer.

But why bother defending myself? He wasn’t interested in the real me. I was just some blood debt to him.

I backed down with a dull, “It was out of character, and it won’t happen again.”

Smart, smart elephant. It was the right thing to say to get out of this conversation, and Hades finally blinked.

But then he held up his phone and asked, “If you were only trying to help her, why did Waylon just text me about the hidden note he found in the pocket of those scrubs she wore out of the roadhouse. A note from you?”

CHAPTER 21

HADES

It had been a moment. Just a moment at that locked roadhouse door. Persy’s explanation had sounded reasonable enough. But he hadn’t been able to let it go.

And Hades understood why when her eyes flared with the shock of getting caught.

She had been trying to escape, maybe even get a message to someone through Waylon’s woman, the only person she’d met in years who’d have sympathy for her position.

Hades had relaxed his guard with his captive. Had ceased nearly all punishment and torture even though she’d tried to kill him. He’d shortened her sentence to five years. But still, she’d attempted to escape.

He wasn’t like Waylon.

He was the smooth Reapers Prez. The one who kept his cool, even in the heat of arguments when the other side was threatening to draw guns. Even when they did draw guns.

Nothing made Hades Fairgood break.

Nothing except the thought of Persy trying to escape again. He’d backed off punishing her, had actually started to trust her to stay put until the end of her sentence. But here she was, playing him for the fool. Again.

Rage flared inside of him, a sudden fire in a dry room.

Fire.

The idea occurred to him, and he didn’t even think before executing it. He put away his phone and headed over to the fireplace they’d updated to a quick start switch when they converted it to gas.

She must have realized what he was about to do because that got a reaction.

“No, Hades, don’t! Please, don’t!” she pleaded, raising both hands in a stopping motion.

But she couldn’t stop him. She wouldn’t stop him.

He snatched the envelope of cash out of the tote she made from her sales. There was maybe fifteen hundred dollars in there. Less than his last pair of custom boots had cost. He thought she’d been keeping herself busy, but obviously this was her escape fund.

“Oh, my God, don’t!” she screamed at him, her voice going shrill and angry. “That’s my money. I earned it!”

“I compromised my revenge for you,” he yelled back, stabbing a finger into the fireplace button.

It blazed to life with a gas-filled whoosh, burning as hot as his rage as he reminded her, “I cut your sentence down, and this is how you repay me. You think I’m going to just sit back while you actively plan your escape before your five years are done?”

“It’s for after my five years!” she answered. “I need that money to…”

She cut off and glanced to both sides with an obvious tell, as she substituted, “To survive after you’re done with me” for whatever she was originally going to say.

She was clearly lying. And Hades had to ask her from between clenched teeth, “You think I’m gon’ believe anything that comes out your mouth? After you tried to use Waylon’s woman to escape?”

“I wasn’t using her. I’m not that stupid. Not anymore,” she insisted with a bitter shake of her head. “I know she’s as trapped as me.”

Hades narrowed his eyes. Okay, that didn’t sound like a lie, and his confusion stayed his hand. Before he burned her money, he needed to know, “Then why did you give her your name on that piece of paper?”

Persy spread her arms out and yelled, “Because she asked for it! For the first time in years, somebody asked me for my name—my real name. Made me feel like a human being who mattered. And I knew it was stupid. But I woke up with her question on my heart. On my soul. And I couldn’t let her leave without telling her. So, I wrote it down on a piece of paper. That’s all. I’m not trying to escape. I’m just trying to get through this. Please, please don’t take the one thing I’ve managed to accumulate in three years.”

She clasped both hands as if he really was a god she was praying to. “I won’t be able to withstand it. It will break me. Do you understand? It will break me for real. I will be useless to you.”

Strangely, he did understand. She was a blood debt, but…

The rage seeped out of him as quickly as it had flared. And all those feelings from the night they were together—those feelings overtook him again, sweeping through his chest like the latest hurricane.

But she was a liar. A betrayer. She would play him for a fool if he let him.

And there was still the matter of the money, and the real reason she was nest egging it. He knew in his gut now that it wasn’t a simple savings fund. It was intended for something specific. Something she wasn’t telling him about.

“I can’t let you keep this money,” he explained to her as he turned the thin envelope of cash over in his hands. His voice was firm but a lot gentler than it was before. “And from now on any money you make, you hand it over to me, and then…”

He looked up to tell her he’d keep it for her someplace safer than the Quarter Stitch tote bag she carried everywhere with her. That she didn’t have to worry about saving up anyway because he’d make sure she was taken care of when they were done. That she had nothing to worry about.

But he stopped talking altogether and his blood iced over when he saw the unzipped overnight bag sitting behind her on the couch….and the object in her hands.

“That’s my money!” she said, angry tears streaming down her face.

She’d found a gun—his gun. Both of her hands were wrapped around the trigger well of his Glock.

She had it pointed straight at him. And just in case he thought she didn’t know how to use it, she reached up and pulled back the slide. The modern equivalent of cocking a gun—one he knew was for sure fully loaded this time.

CHAPTER 22

PERSEPHONE

I thought I had the elephant parable all figured out. But while staring at Hades over the right side of the gun I’d fished out of his overnight bag, a new solution became clear to me—one I’d failed to see before.

The elephant could bide its time as it got stronger. It could go from town to town with the circus, as docile as a lamb, waiting for the perfect opportunity to present itself.

Then, when the right time came, it could use its strength. It could trample the circus owner. Kill him before he even had a chance to hunt it down.

Strong Elephant.

That’s what I was as I stared down the barrel of Hades’s Glock at the man who’d held me captive for three years.

He often played it affable. Everyone Hades met got a Cajun smile and the full bon amie treatment. Even his enemies. Especially the ones he was about to kill.

But to his credit, he didn’t play that game with me. His face became a complete blank as he waited to see what I’d do next.

Three years…

Three years of set-piecing in the background of arms deals. Three years of watching that psycho cousin of his shoot men point-blank in the face for reasons both big and small. All the violence and weapons demos had finally paid off.

No more sticking a vintage revolver in my captor’s forehead and hoping for the best when I pulled the trigger with one hand. I knew how to use a gun now.

With my newfound sense of empowerment flowing through me, I braced both feet for the recoil and pulled the slide back on his gun.

Yet, Hades didn’t flinch. He didn’t even blink.

“Go’on ahead then,” he said quietly. “Just remember what I said.”

Oh, I remembered all right. It was either him or me.

I had dreamed of this moment. Nightmared it so many times. This was my chance to finally fix the outcome.

And I’d been right when I came in here. This was a terrific place to hide a body. I could shoot this monster dead and drag him out to the swamp.

Here, finally, was my chance to end this living nightmare and take back my life.

All I had to do was end his.

All I had to do…

The last three years suddenly flashed through my head.

Dancing with Hades at the Tessier Balls…giving him my virginity…laughing at silly things the Reapers had said or done, like they were our children…Marvel movie date nights…me crocheting while he read the latest Walking Dead compendium…discovering Stromae together and bingeing all the Belgian singer’s videos…the quiet moments…the fun moments…all the stuff that had made our status quo easier than I expected.

Don’t, a voice whispered somewhere in the distance as the last memory of his holding my hair back for me flitted by.

The voice sounded like Mama Fairgood, and it came from my heart.

Hades was my enemy, but he was also my only friend.

And I really, really shouldn’t have told Wedding Dress Girl my real name. It had reminded me that Stephanie Perreault wasn’t all the way dead after all. And the girl I used to be could never take a human life and then go to Disney World. No matter how much I wanted to make that dream come true.

At the end of the day, I wasn’t a Hades. I was a Mama Fairgood.

I expelled one breath. Two. Then I told him, “This swamp is a good place to hide a body.”

To his credit, Hades remained stoic. His voice didn’t even tremble when he answered, “I know.”

I lowered the gun and released the slide. “If I agree not to shoot you, can you agree not to…”

I trailed off, my voice going weak. I couldn’t shoot him. And I couldn’t repeat his terrible threat. “Please, don’t do what you said you would. If you ever cared about me at all, please don’t do that.”

“Okay,” he said carefully. “Okay. I won’t kill you in front of your father, if you put down the gun.”

“Okay.” With one last big exhale, I handed him the gun butt-first, the way I’d seen him hand firearms off to Jam when Hades had done something terrible with it that required fingerprint removal or disappearing it altogether.

Hades took the gun—my last chance, my only chance, to gain my freedom—away from me.

I’d failed. I’d failed myself. I’d failed my sister.

Just failed at life all around. Five years. I’d only had to go for five years without tugging on that rope. Without giving some rando my name just because she asked for it.

Weak, weak elephant.

But I was resigned to my fate.

Hades put the gun aside, then stepped forward and curled his hands around my neck.

I closed my eyes and waited for the snap. I hoped this kind of death didn’t come with a lot of shock and pain, like gun violence. I hoped it was instant, like in the mov—

My eyes popped right back open when, instead of snapping my neck, Hades’s mouth crashed down on mine.

CHAPTER 23

PERSEPHONE

Hades wasn’t killing me, he was kissing me. He was kissing me like he hadn’t kissed me in three years.

“You didn’t shoot me dead,” he said between kisses, his voice filled with awe. “You could have, but you didn’t.”

Weak…I had been so weak. But he spoke of what I did in the same tone religious people used to talk about miracles.

“Please say I can have you,” he begged, trailing kisses down my neck. “I will give you any amount of money you want. All the yarn in the world. Just let me have you again. Please, ma belle.”

My head swam. Hades was begging—begging me. Even though…

“You don’t have to ask,” I reminded him. “It was part of the deal, remember? Once a week. I keep my promises too.”

It was the green light he asked for, but his kisses came to an abrupt stop.

“This isn’t about that fuckin’ pact,” he growled, his voice hoarse with anger.

He pinned me with that gator-jaw silver gaze, his hands heavy on my neck. “I want you. I’ve been wanting you since Day One, even when I knew it wasn’t right. First, because you weren’t on the right side of eighteen. Then, because of what your father let happen to my mother. I tried not to want you.”

He let out a ragged breath. “I tried to hate you. Tried to break free of this obsession over you. I was supposed to kill you that first night. But I could never bring myself to shoot. Because I want you. Stephanie…”

His use of my real name stopped my heart. And the tender look—the tender look I’d come to believe I’d just imagined over the last three years—it came back as he said, “I want you more than I want revenge.”

My heart soared at his words, and my chest filled up with something I hadn’t felt in a long time. Hope.

I’d thought about the captive elephant so much through the years. Turned the parable over and over in my mind. But there was one untold aspect of the story that I’d glossed over, along with all the other people who told it. Being a circus performer, living an unconventional life that most other elephants couldn’t even imagine…it was fun.

I suddenly remembered the unit on catchphrases and idioms we did in the seventh grade, where we all had to present on the origin of common sayings. I got “saved by the bell,” which turned out not to be a school thing, but a morbid grave thing because they used to have to put bells in coffins just in case the person they thought had passed wasn’t really dead. People had laughed at my presentation.

But everyone got weirdly quiet for the one on how “running away with the circus” went from being the subject of a popular post-Civil War book to a catchphrase for wanting to escape your boring life.

The only thing missing for the elephant—for me—was choice.

Hades had taken me captive without my permission, and he’d also provided me with an escape hatch out of the life I secretly couldn’t stand. Both were true.

I wanted to kill him, and I couldn’t ever kill him. Both were true.

He kept me a virgin against my will for crazy, nefarious reasons, and he was the only man I’d ever truly desired. Both were true.

All those contradicting truths came out of my mouth as, “Hades, I hate you. I’ve hated you for so long.”

No more hiding his emotions from me. His face fell, clearly devastated.

“Ma belle—” he started to say.

“But I…I also have feelings for you,” I concluded. For both him and myself. “And that’s the real reason I couldn’t shoot you.”

Hades went utterly still. “You have feelings for me?”

“I’m also suffering from Stockholm syndrome. Clearly,” I pointed out sternly. “Both are true.”

But then, I smiled up at him and added, “But yes, I have feelings for you. So, if you want me, take me. Because I’ve also been wanting you like you wanted me from Day One. Even when I shouldn’t have. Deal or no de—”

He cut me off with a fierce kiss. We had a deal in place, and this had nothing to do with that deal. Both were true.

Making a ragged sound in the back of his throat, he slammed me up against the living room wall. Our bottoms came off in a blur of loosened buttons, undone zippers, and shorts shoved down hips.

“Need you…need you…” he said on a rough pant, lifting me up to wrap my legs around his waist. “Need inside you.”

We were too desperate to deal with underwear. He just yanked my panties aside and pulled his erection out….

Then he shoved inside of me. So roughly. I gasped at the burn, and I loved the sensation of being filled by his thick shaft. Both were true.

“Too tight,” Hades bit out with a French curse. “I’m hurting you.”

He started to pull out, and I scratched at his shoulders. Because it hurt to have him there or because I couldn’t stand the idea of not having him there. I didn’t know. Either way, I whined, “Hades…”

“Non, it’s okay, ma belle. Don’t get upset. I’m just…” He eased off, then rolled back into me with a guttural sound, opening my legs wider. He ground his hips in circles, helping me adjust until my sex became slippery enough to stretch around him and take him even deeper.

“Do you understand how good it feels here inside you?” he asked, his voice serious like it truly was a question he needed answered.

I shook my head helplessly. “Not as good as it feels to have you there. But please, more. I need more.”

He didn’t give me more. Cruel Hades, he actually stopped moving.

“Look at me.” It wasn’t a request. He grabbed my face with one large hand, pressing his thumb into my cheek, so I had no choice but to do as he said.

“I thought you were going to shoot me.” His eyes were back to glittering. But not with malice and cruelty. With emotion, all his emotions, concentrated and intense. “A few minutes ago, I thought getting shot by you was how my life was going to end.”

Three years of captivity. It made perfect sense what I did, what I tried to do.

Yet, in that moment, it made none at all. Guilt ripped through me at the thought of almost ending his life.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’m sorry for scaring you.”

He let go of my face. “Non, don’t you apologize, cher bèbè. The point is, you didn’t shoot. A life for a life…” Hades pressed his forehead into mine. “Your part of the blood debt is done.”

His Cajun accent grew thicker as he informed me, “Punishment ain’t how we going to do this from now on. I’m gonna take care of you. I’m going to take care of us. Make it all right till my last breath of air. You didn’t shoot, so now we can be together, just like I wanted from the first moment I saw you. Here’s more. Take more from your man. It’s all yours.”

With those words, he started driving into me with a deep primal rhythm—rutting me, claiming me, like an animal. It didn’t hurt anymore. The burn of him turned sweet in an instant as needy sensations spread across my loins.

Was I dreaming? I couldn’t have come up with a better resolution to the gun nightmare if I had tried.

“I think I might be dreaming,” he rasped, as if reading my thoughts. “Do you know how many times I lay there at night, wanting so badly to reach for you? You’re what I want. The only thing I can’t do without. Thank you…thank you for creating a way forward for us.”

His words…his gratitude. The complete switch from our status quo was too much for me to take. An orgasm exploded in my core, then bloomed like a mushroom cloud to the rest of my body, melting everything inside of me.

I was obliterated by pleasure. I was alive—more alive than I’ve ever been. Both were true. Both were true. Both were true.

Hades couldn’t hang on much longer.

“Aw hell, aw hell, I want to stay here forever and always. But the way you’re squeezing down on me.”

His voice held true lament, but in the same breath, he vowed, “I’m going to give you more. I’m going to give you everything. It’s about to be a whole new us.”

Bye-bye rhythmic strokes. With that declared, Hades lost all control, his hips bucking between my legs, desperate and fast, until he drove into me one last time, his entire body going rigid as he pinned me to the wall with his release.

We stood there in the quiet that followed all the aftershocks. Foreheads pressed together, panting against each other’s mouths. Until Hades finally heaved himself off me and pulled out.

And, wow…I didn’t realize we hadn’t used a condom until I felt all the wet stuff dripping down my leg.

My face heated when I looked back up and saw that his eyes had gone to the mess he’d made too.

“Good thing my mom insisted on that IUD,” I said, my voice going weak.

“I’m clean, you know.” Hades raised his eyes to regard me with a somber look. “No more revolving door of women. I haven’t had one for years.”

I thought I was completely melted by what we just did, but his confession turned me into a pile of goo. Even as I quipped, “Funny story, I haven’t had a man in years myself.”

Get it? Because I was being held captive.

But Hades just continued to look at me so very seriously as he said, “I’ll tell you this, ma belle. I’m going to be for real pissed off if I wake up and find out this was another fucking dream.”

I could only chuckle and agree, “Me too.”

Finally, his face broke into a smile.

“And, you know, your man’s got one of those copper soaking tubs in this place too.” He stepped forward, and I let out a little squeak when he scooped me up into his arms. “Why don’t we go get cleaned up. Together. Then we can eat some dinner and get some sleep and tomorrow we’ll find out whether or not we were dreamin’.”

I relaxed in his strong arms. The sun was beginning to set in the bayou, beyond the front room’s windows.

But it felt like a brand-new day. Maybe this time we’d make it last.

“Sounds like a dream come true,” I answered.

And, finally, he laughed, the sound filling up the whole house as he carried me toward our first bath together.

CHAPTER 24

HADES

Hades woke the next day but refused to open his eyes. No blackout curtains at the bayou house. He could sense the morning light on the other side of his closed lids.

But what if it had all been a dream? What if all of it had been a story made up by his subconscious, and none of it was real? That would be the real nightmare.

Fear revved inside of him like a motorcycle engine. But in the end, he couldn’t be a coward. He opened his eyes….

And found her side of the bed empty.

Merde! Merde! Merde!

He sat up, thinking of the gun he’d never secured and the swamp boat—so easy to operate, even a child could handle it because it had been made by one.

It hadn’t been a dream. But she’d played him again. Claimed to have feelings for him, only to run away at the first opportunity she got. How could he have been so stupid? Again?

“Hey, you okay?”

Her voice interrupted his self-castigating lament. And he looked up to find her standing in the bathroom doorway, wrapped up in a towel. Looking exactly like what she was….

A dream come true.

Strange, he’d spent so much effort trying to hold onto all of it: his hate, his revenge, his blood debt. He’d fought himself on wanting her. Saying over and over again it was wrong. He shouldn’t. He couldn’t.

But at the end—or in this case, the beginning—of the day, letting go of it was the easiest thing in the world.

A profound knot loosened inside of him as he answered, “More than okay.”

Then he dipped his chin to tell her, “I don’t know why you took that shower, though. I’m about to get you dirty all over again.”

And Hades always honored his promises.

This time, he invited her to sit. First on his face, as he licked all the parts he’d made sore last night--against the living room wall, in the copper tub, and right before they fell asleep because if this was a dream, he wanted to make the most of it.

He apologized that morning with his tongue for not being able to get enough of her, even though he’d already worn her out. And as she came apart over his mouth, he made silent vows to both her and himself.

She was no longer his prisoner.

She was his queen now.

And there were past actions to be made up for, rings to put on fingers, an IUD to take out, futures to plan that extended beyond the five years of their deal.

But before that…

He placed her thoroughly slickened opening down on his aching staff. And, merde, it was an effort not to shoot as he watched her beautiful pussy split and slide down his thick cock.

“I’ve never…” She braced her hands on his chest when he was all the way in and wiggled to adjust around him. “How do we do this with me on top?”

Her innocent words only made the battle his dick was fighting worse.

But Hades somehow managed to advise her, “Just rub that clittie against my cock. Work your pretty cunt all over me until you start to feel good.”

“Oh, oh…” His filthy words set off something inside his innocent girl. She began circling her hips around the fat base of his erection, her body helplessly obeying his command.

Through clenched teeth and sheer willpower, he managed to hang on to his load. And he taught her. Gripping her ass and guiding her hips, he taught her how to ride her man until all her self-consciousness fell away and she pitched forward, finding her own natural rhythm.

This was the original dream, Hades realized—the one that had spun off in his mind when he saw his destiny standing at the edge of that pool. But even better.

She felt so goddamn perfect, grinding against him, her breaths short and squeaky as she rode his dick. He wanted to be the man who taught her everything, the man responsible for her pleasure. He wanted this with her. He wanted it forever.

And that was what allowed him to hold on until she found the thread she was looking for and her hips began whipping faster and faster. She suddenly reared up, her nail scratching at his chest as the orgasm speared through her.

And the look on her face…the pure awe as she drenched his cock with her release.

Merde, there was more holding on, no more holding back. He slammed into her with hard, upward thrusts as he lifted her up and down on his cock.

He could have come this way, no problem. But right as the cliff was approaching, he had to pull her back down to his chest to growl in her ear.

“You are mine now,” he informed her in the language of his bayou, his voice guttural. “Forget the deal. I will not ever let you go. We are doing this forever. Moi, je t’aime toujours.”

Maybe she understood that he was saying he more than had feelings for her—he loved her. Always. Maybe she didn’t. But at that moment, she came again with an agonized cry. Submitting to his claim with her body if not necessarily her mouth.

That was fine. His hips powered into her one last time as he finally gave in with a strangled shout. “Moi, je t’aime.”

They lay together after that. Him glowing with knowing. Her not saying anything at all. Especially not “I love you back.”

But that was alright. She didn’t have to agree in French or English. He hadn’t earned it yet. Besides, they had time. And he could be patient.

They spent the rest of August at the bayou house, allowing themselves to enjoy each other for the first time without duplicity or guilt. He told her why he no longer had neighbors, how he’d been buying their properties one by one over the years with plans to transform this unincorporated piece of swamp into a waterfront neighborhood called Bayou Falls.

He also answered all the questions she’d stored up over the years. Mostly about his behavior.

He told her about the anonymous hit that had brought them to the bayou house, which Jam had left fully stocked. They were basically lying low in a place Hades trusted, since there were only two ways into this area. By boat or down a single long and twisty road.

Either way, a potential hitman would be sighted by one of the Reapers he had posted in various houses along their bayou. Sighted and taken out before the would-be killer reached them.

Almost all of the other questions about his treatment of her fell within the same range of terrible excuses, though: denial, stubbornness, and more denial.

“I think I understand,” she said at one point. “I didn’t want to want you either. Still being attracted to you was the hardest part of getting through the first three years.”

He noticed that she still talked in terms of the deal language. And he tried not to let it bother him or ask his own questions about whether she was still planning on leaving him.

What they had was a strong but fragile thing. One of those Chinese porcelain vases they’d had to swap out of the lobby of his club. They looked real pretty and could hold trees. But let some drunk partygoer knock it over, and bam! Shattered to pieces.

He wasn’t going to knock this over.

That’s what he told himself when he hid her envelope of getaway money at the bottom of his bag. He wasn’t volunteering to give it back to her. But she also wasn’t asking for him to return it. The vase remained upright.

Instead of pressuring her about a future that was already certain in his mind, he assured her things would be different this time when they returned to New Orleans. They talked about getting her an Etsy shop. And to his surprise, she pitched an idea he loved about starting a charitable foundation in his mother’s name.

Suddenly, everything was gentle and loving between them. Somehow, they’d turned the bayou in August into a paradise on earth.

But much like that drunk partygoer, you never see the cause of your vase’s destruction coming until it’s too late.

In this case, it was a text from Vampire one morning after he finally let Persy escape his arms and go take one of her Sisyphean showers.

VAMPIRE: We got a name.

His heart soared when he saw the message. Hades knew immediately that Vengeance had smoked out whoever had the nerve to commission that hit.

A name meant they could go back to New Orleans. Start their new life. Maybe even—

Vampire’s second text message interrupted all that hopeful mental planning.

VAMPIRE: It’s Zeus.

His heart soured as fast as it had soared when he saw the name—heavily coded but easily understood. By Hades, at least.

“You okay?”

Hades looked up from his phone to see Persy, once again draped in a towel and standing in the bathroom door.

Like a dream looped and reset. Right before it turned into a nightmare.

EPILOGUE

STEPHANIE

Four Years Later

“Stephanie, are you out here?” a voice whispered in a dark night fragrant with roses. “It’s me, Amira!”

I was scared. So scared. If we got caught—disaster. But, Brave Elephant, I call-whispered back, “I’m over here!”

Then I awake with a start inside a dream come true.

I’m in a room straight out of a magazine. White linen sheets, soft downy pillows, an entire two corner section of wall made out of glass windows overlooking a placid body of water. My husband and I call it a lake. But my little sister Daphne calls it a pond—with a snide tone.

Tess’s Great Lakes State pride is really rubbing off on her. Or maybe Daphne was just a small-lake-poo-pooing Midwesterner stuck in Louisiana that whole time.

I wish I could remember.

“You awake?” The bed depresses behind me—my husband rolling over to pull me into his strong arms.

He’s sporting some serious morning wood, and I naughtily rub my bottom against it as I answer, “I am now.”

He chuckles low and dark and drops kisses down the back of my neck—a secret erogenous zone only he knows.

Then he flips me onto my back and keeps going to another zone. This one isn’t such a huge secret, but what he does down there with his tongue and fingers awakens all sorts of pleasure points I didn’t know I had.

In less than a minute, he has me biting my lip. I bring my hands down to his hair, and my three-band stacked Tiffany wedding ring set winks between his dark locks as I writhe and moan under his mouth.

But it’s not enough.

“Fuck me!” I gasp. “Please, fuck me. I want to feel you inside me. Please, baby?”

He stills. Then resumes eating me out like he didn’t hear me—even though I know he did.

Before I can protest, he pulls his fingers out of my pussy, and pushes his wet middle finger into my rear entrance, teasing it round and round the tight hole. Either to distract me from my request or because he has a busy morning planned, and he knows this will send me straight over the edge.

Whatever the case, having a thick finger in such a taboo place while the most wonderful man in the world licks and sucks on my sex is an immediate conversation stopper. I cry out when an orgasm crest over me unexpectedly, shooting my legs out straight and arching my back off the bed like something possessed.

“I’m going to go take a shower,” he says into the puddle of wife goo he made on the bed. “Gotta get to work early.”

He took such good care of me with that orgasm. I try not to mind how quickly he’s withdrawing from our bed. And I’ve read several online articles about how penetrative sex isn’t everything to help me with my feelings over the past few months.

But gotta admit, I’m still smarting when he emerges from the bathroom about twenty minutes later to grab a couple of suits from his walk-in closet.

“Which one?” he asks, holding them both up. He always lets me decide what he’s going to wear when he’s at the office all day in meetings instead of out on construction sites with his guys.

“The light blue one brings out your eyes,” I answer, sitting up in our ridiculously large bed. “But the black one says Ruthless Mogul to me. So it depends on how much you want to intimidate who you’re meeting with today.”

“It’s just the guys from the Louisiana office, updating me on the progress with Bayou Falls, so I’ll put the black one back,” he says, heading back into the closet. “And don’t forget we’ve got dinner with—”

“Desmond Keane and his wife, I know, I know. The Real Estate Kings finally connect!” I answer with a laugh. “And don’t forget my sister’s the one who got you that meeting—because she never will.”

“Ever,” he agrees from inside the closet before emerging in the light blue suit. “She’s already texted me a list of all the things I could get her as a thank you gift. Including an Apple Watch.”

“Aw, I’ll talk to her when I see her. Tess once told her she had champagne tastes on a root beer budget when she asked to go to New York City for a Broadway weekend on her birthday. Of course, she just asked her dad the next time I dropped her off, and he took her on his weekend. Tess was so annoyed…”

We both freeze after I say that.

He breaks the silence first. “Another memory?”

“Yeah but…” Tears well up in my eyes. “This is so frustrating. It’s just stupid bits and pieces. Nothing I really need. Like our wedding. And our life together before that.”

I know he’s got that early meeting, but he drops right back down on the bed to rub my back.

“We’ll get through this,” he promises me.

“It’s been a year,” I point out. “What if this is as good as it gets?”

His expression remains calm and steady as he assures me, “Then we’ll get through that.”

Normally, I appreciate how great he’s been through all of this—I mean, just unbelievably patient and encouraging with me. But today, his lack of fear about our future rankles me. “And how about babies? How are we supposed to make them if you refuse to have penetrative sex with me.”

He removes his hand from my back to rub it over his face. “Steph…”

“I hate to be that nagging wife, but I’m not getting any younger,” I point out. “My mom had trouble conceiving after me, and I don’t want to miss my window.”

“That’s not going to happen,” he says like a general who gets to decide who’s having babies and who’s not. “Your last workup from your OB said you don’t have anything to worry about in that regard. And things have come a lot further since your mom had you. We have time.”

“Yes, but I don’t want to waste any more of it!” I burst out. I know I’m acting like a whiny brat, but… “I want to have sex—real sex, like we had at our old house last weekend—with you. I want to have babies with you. You’re my husband, and I want to move forward with the life we had planned before the accident.”

He stands and grabs the copper watch I got him for our seventh anniversary off the top of the dresser drawer where he keeps it. It’s not nearly as stylish—or expensive—as the black-on-black square ceramic Hublot he favored before he received my gift, but he’s been wearing it every day since.

As he fastens the timepiece around his wrist, his voice goes terse, like it always does when I bring up this subject and refuse to drop it. “I’m sorry. I know this is frustrating. But the cabin was a mistake—”

“Oh, great!” I jump out of the bed and start gathering my own things for work. “I’m glad the only time you decided not to treat me like an invalid was a mistake. What are we going to do if I don’t get my next period, then? Are you going to make me get an abortion because you don’t think I’m capable of mothering a child?”

He stills. We both do.

The devastated look on his face lets me know I’ve crossed a line, and all the anger deflates out of me.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper.

“Don’t apologize to me.” He closes the distance between us and picks my wedding ring hand up, clasping it to his chest with one hand while the other wraps around the back of my neck to bring me close.

“I love you. I love you more than my own life. You are mon coeur, my heart, and I vowed when I put that ring on your finger to spend my life making you happy. For the record, I enjoyed our time at the bayou house too.”

He kisses me…with so much passion, it spins my head. But then he says, “We’ve been over this, though. You need to remember before we do anything permanent. And I shouldn’t have lost control like that at the bayou house.”

“I loved you losing control. It was explosive, and I can’t stop thinking about it.” I shake my head. “And isn’t this hard for you too? I mean, it’s been a whole year. How can you stand to wait for a milestone that might never happen? The doctors say there’s a chance the damage to my mind is permanent.”

“Stephanie Fairgood, believe you me this.” He squeezes his hand around mine. And the Southern accent he is trying so hard to kick comes back strong as he says, “I would wait a thousand years if that’s what it took. I just want to be with you. I don’t care about nothing else.”

Like I said, he’s the most wonderful husband in the world. I take my hand back, but only so I can wrap both of my arms around him.

I still can’t believe how lucky I am to be married to Swamp Boy, the guy I fell for at first sight at the tender age of sixteen. Not going to lie, it’s been difficult cramming in my last two years of units at Ohio University around my full-time job at the Amy Fairgood Foundation. But dropping out of Tulane to marry Galen is one decision I’ll never regret.

We have a loving marriage. A beautiful house. And he’s right. We’ll make it to starting a family. I just have to be patient.

“I love you too,” I whisper into his lips. Because in the end, that’s all that matters.

We kiss and nuzzle noses like the lovebirds we still are, and I hop in the shower, once again resolved to be a better wife to him. As patient and loving with him as he is with me.

And, as it turns out, I shouldn’t have been so hard on Galen for bouncing to the shower so soon after making me come. I’d managed to score a morning meet and greet with Melinka Hale, the Managing Director of Corporate Responsibility at Weiss Fox Beer. But that argument with Galen cost me valuable time I should have spent reviewing my argument for why our “2050 Tiny Houses by 2050” housing initiative would be a great partnering match for their Environmental Sustainability program.

I’m hoping maybe she’ll show up late, but no such luck. The petite light-skinned Black woman is already waiting at one of the outside courtyard tables for me when I arrive at 9 am on the dot at the business hotel in Columbus where she’s staying.

“Hi!” I say, trying not to look or sound as flustered as I am.

I should have factored in that we might sit outside. Northerners are way more excited about dead-of-summer al fresco dining than Louisianans. The sun is already beating down, so I have to take off my lucky cardigan, which leaves me in just a silk spaghetti-strap tank top. Not exactly the best meeting attire.

“Just give me a second to stow this,” I say, my voice full of apology as I stuff it in my large tote purse before sitting down.

“Oh, wow, you got rid of the tattoo,” Melinka says when I finally settle in my seat.

“What tattoo?” I ask.

She looks at me quizzically, then says, “Oh, I totally get it, girl. We’ve all done things that we’d rather forget. And not a lot of guys look like Galen Fairgood. Don’t tell Lukas, but…”

She looks to both sides, as if she’s afraid we’re being watched, then says behind one hand, “I am so not mad at you for sealing the deal by whatever means necessary. He is insanely—I mean, blazing hot. And look how he turned out! Those folks back in Louisiana can say whatever they want about you being ruined by a bad boy. But I’m like, good for you, investing early in a future real estate mogul.”

Panic bells sound in my head. Wait, people in Louisiana talked poorly about us when we lived there?

I know Galen didn’t go to college, but he’s been investing in bayou properties since before the market rebranded bayou swamp houses as “homes on the waterfront.” He was a self-made millionaire at such a young age, and he gave away tons of money, even before we formally started the Amy Fairgood Foundation. I can’t see why people would think he ruined me or that he was bad.

Also, this woman knows a lot more about me personally than I know about her professionally. I saw that she went to Tulane for grad school, but it never occurred to me we might know each other. All my lost time once again rears its ugly head.

But I circumnavigate the situation by getting down to business. “Yes, Galen is thriving right now and into the future. And that’s why it’s a great time to partner with the Amy Fairgood Foundation.”

Melinka’s face drops. “Oh, you were serious about that? I thought the request to meet up while I’m in Columbus was code for let’s get together and gossip on company time.”

I blink. “Yes, I’m serious about programs that could change thousands of lives for the working homeless—Wait, where are you going?”

Melinka is already scooting back in her seat before I can finish my pitch. “I’m so sorry. This was a terrible idea on my part. I just wanted to see what you were up to. I didn’t mean to waste your time.”

“Then don’t.” I stand up too. “Sit down. We’ll talk about all the good work we could do together.”

She shakes her head and narrows her eyes at me. “In what world do you think Lukas would let me sign off on co-funding anything you’d touched?”

Now it’s my turn to squint as I try to connect the dots.

“Do you mean Lukas Brandt, the acting CEO of Weiss Fox?” I ask carefully. “What could he possibly have against forward-thinking housing initiatives?”

Melinka makes a scoffing sound, like I’ve somehow offended both her and her boss. “Lukas and I go all the way back to grad school. He was wrecked when you left him. He had told everybody he was going to ask you to marry him over the break, but you dropped out instead.”

My heart painfully jolts at the thought of hurting someone so badly.

But then I do the math and hold up a hand. “Wait. Why would he do that? I was with Galen all the way until I dropped out.”

Her eyes widen. “Well, Lukas didn’t know that until you two showed up at the Tessier Ball. To be honest, I was hoping I could report back to him that you were still trash, no matter how much Galen Fairgood had come up in the world. But you just seem…”

She gives me a pitying look. “Confused. Were you on drugs back then? Because honestly, that would explain a lot.”

My stomach roils. And I finally admit, “I wasn’t on drugs—I don’t think. But I was in a bad car accident, and I lost time—a lot of time. Basically, my college years and all of my twenties.”

Melinka’s expression goes from pitying to horrified—just like everyone does when they hear about my accident, which is why I try not to bring it up. Especially at work.

But I press on anyway. I’m too confused by everything she’s told me not to keep asking questions. “Maybe if you explain what happened with this Lukas Brandt, I could piece some more things together.”

“Look, I can’t help you,” Melinka says, snatching up her Hermès purse. “But I will pray for you.”

Another memory flashes through my head. This one from what I’ve been referring to as the Ohio years. Tess joking before a volunteer meeting that “I’ll pray for you” is code for “I’m not going to give you a dime or volunteer a second of my time, but I don’t want to look like a total douche. I prefer to remain a secret douche.”

Apparently, Melinka is a secret douche. I sigh as I watch her scurry away.

And apparently, I had a boyfriend before Galen. Or during Galen, from the way Melinka made it sound. But why would I ever cheat on my husband?

But obviously, I can’t ask Galen, “Hey, did I cheat on you at some point with, like, an heir to a beer fortune?”

So, the weird meeting just kind of sits like a Louisiana sewer ghost with me all day, giving off a smell I can’t figure out how to rid from my nose.

“Hey, Steppie! You okay?” my sister asks when I pick her up from the expensive all-girls’ school where her birth father insisted on enrolling her.

“Weird day,” I answer without elaborating. I could ask her about Lukas, but I doubt I would share with the child she was back then that I was cheating on Galen. Plus, Daphne already has enough stress as a sophomore at one of the most competitive high schools in the state.

“Maybe this will help,” she says, handing me a metal tin.

“What’s that?”

“Tess sent these for your birthday.”

I squint. “But my birthday isn’t until January first.”

“That’s not what we told Tess,” Daphne explains.

“Why not?” I ask.

“You never said,” she answers with a shrug in her voice.

And when I glance over at her for clarification, she’s already on her phone. I didn’t see her pull it out of the bag she threw in the back seat when she got into the car. But it magically appeared in her hand in some feat of wizardry that only teenagers have access to.

I try again as I head toward the school parking lot’s exit. “Hey, Daph, did I have a tattoo? Like a really ugly tattoo that people talked about?”

Daphne shrugs. “Doesn’t sound like you.”

No, it doesn’t. Maybe Melinka was mis-remembering. That happens to people—even those who haven’t been hit by a car and thrown ten feet.

“Okay,” I say, pulling out of the school parking lot. “Homework at home or homework at the food bank?”

“Homework at the shelter,” she answers without looking up from her phone. “The food bank’s every other Wednesday.”

The shelter it is.

Unlike Galen, who probably won’t be home until right before our 8 pm dinner with Desmond Keane and his wife, I pull up to our ultramodern stone and wood mansion by 4 pm.

It wasn’t much of a day, but somehow, I’m exhausted.

And hungry. I always skip lunch since I have to leave work early to pick up Daphne from school.

I’m also not quite ready to go into our 8,000-square-foot house that my husband doesn’t want to start filling up with children just yet because he’s too scared to fuck his fragile amnesiac wife.

So, I open the tin of cookies. Seems as good a meal as any to tide me over until dinner. I’m beginning to see why Tess calls her tins “eating your feelings” gifts.

But I stop short of reaching for the cookies when I see the note taped to the lid. A birthday card with the words “BURN AFTER READING” written across it.

I frown. Is this a Tess thing? She can be super political about everything from imperialism to the pink tax. And you don’t even want to see her go off on single-use plastic.

Still, the title’s intriguing enough for me to hold off on housing her oatmeal-cranberry cookies long enough to read it.

Are you alone? Don’t read this unless you’re alone.

That’s the first line of the card, as opposed to Happy Birthday. I glance to both sides. What the…?

But hey, I am alone, so I keep on reading.

I’m sorry to alarm you, but I had to do it this way. I have reason to believe your phone and email are being monitored. And I think he might be monitoring us too.

My stomach sinks. Oh no…

Has Tess crossed that line between super passionate and fanatical conspiracy theorist? As if to answer my question, she says…

I know this sounds crazy. That’s why I took my time gathering what little information I could on the subject of your husband.

But I have reason to believe Galen Fairgood might be a former motorcycle gang president who went by the name of Hades. I don’t think he’s your real husband. And if he is, I think you might have been hiding from him.

I think that’s why you were living alone at the time of your accident. His people came to clear out your apartment after he took you home from the hospital.

But they didn’t get your shoebox of personal items. Long story about how I came to have it. But there’s a name in there. Someone I think you need to hunt down.

She left you a note that sounded like you were trying to run away from this guy, Hades. So I think she might be the key to a lot of missing information from before you came to Ohio with Daphne. I’m sorry, I don’t have a last name. But her first name is Amira.

“Stephanie, are you out here? It’s me, Amira!”

The voice from my dream whispers through my head as soon as I see her name written out in Tess’s neat handwriting. It wasn’t the first time I’d had the dream. And it was more like a dream moment. I never get to see what happens after I call back to her.

But what if it isn’t a recurring dream moment? What if it is a memory trying to break through the fog. What if this Amira was someone I had trusted? Like Mama Fairgood and Tess?

Who is this Amira person?

And more importantly, who is my husband?

My phone chooses that moment to light up with a text from the person I’ve labeled Swamp Boy in my contacts. The person I thought I knew.

SWAMP BOY: Ma belle, waiting on your call. Did you pick it up?

It isn’t just my stomach that sinks this time. My heart and mind drop down to my feet right along with it.

Yes, it had been a day. And I had totally spaced on the most important item on my to-do list.

Buying a pregnancy test.

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