Chapter 1

Dax

Getting shot hurt like a motherfucker.

On some level, I’d always known that it would. It wasn’t like I ever thought it would tickle, but there was a huge difference between knowing it and experiencing it.

Huge. Difference.

I’d grown up in Hell’s Kitchen. Got into my fair share of fights as a kid and as an adult. Most of the people I surrounded myself with had spent time in juvie or prison, usually both. They fought with their fists, knives, pipes, and whatever the hell else was lying around. Most of them carried guns, but I didn’t. Having a gun meant charges were always worse. Better not to get caught at all, but playing it smart was always a good idea.

Except I hadn’t played it smart tonight, and now I was paying for it.

I couldn’t figure out where things had gone wrong, but I knew that wasn’t the most important thing right now. Definitely not what I needed to be focusing on. I needed to get the hell out of here.

If I could only remember where here was. My brain was so scrambled that, for a moment, I thought I’d gotten shot in the head, and this was what happened right before a person died. No life flashing before my eyes kind of shit, but rather a complete loss of everything that had made up my life.

Fuck that.

I wasn’t going to let some punk end me. Not when I had people counting on me.

Mom.

Just thinking of her, fired another shot of adrenaline through my system, causing me to groan, not from pain, but fear. She couldn’t lose me. Sure, she had friends, but I was her only family. I took care of her, and if I was gone, she wouldn’t have that. Plus, it would break her to know I’d fallen so completely from everything she believed in.

Sure, Carrie and Gavin might help, but it wouldn’t be the same.

Carrie.

Gavin.

Bryne.

Shit.

I had to get moving. Booker had threatened to hurt Bryne if I didn’t help the gang with a job. I’d always managed to keep my nose clean when it came to the shady shit, but with Mom getting hurt at work and medical bills piling up, the risk had seemed worth it, and I’d actually considered putting my neck on the line. Then, when I wanted to back out, Booker had used Bryne against me.

If anyone was the definition of innocent, it was her. Hell, she wasn’t even twenty yet. She didn’t need to get caught up in this shit. I’d tried to end it, to walk away, but I kept coming back to her. I’d been straight with her from the beginning, told her I didn’t do relationships, and she hadn’t argued. In fact, she agreed. But she’d done something to me, gotten under my skin, and I couldn’t stay away.

It was the memory of leaving her lying in her bed, smelling of sex and me, that got my brain working again. Lips swollen, bronze curls tangled. Green eyes dark with desire. Her hard nipples visible through the thin cotton sheets.

I left her there because I was supposed to go to Jersey with the guys to rip off five hundred kilos of coke. So I’d gone to the shop.

Right. The shop. That’s where I was. Outside the shop.

And suddenly I could feel the hard pavement under me, the icy January wind biting my skin.

I was outside because the door had been locked. I’d been early too. Standing around waiting, trying to figure out what I was going to do. Then someone had shown up, but it hadn’t been any of the guys.

Julius.

Right. The son of a bitch drug dealer from Jersey who’d inspired his cousin, Booker, to start moving cocaine through the shop. It was Julius’s supplier who we were supposed to be stealing from, and I was pretty sure Julius had been the one who shot me.

Even though it felt like an eternity had passed, as the rest of my senses started coming back to me, I realized it’d only been a minute or so since it happened. My side was burning, but the pain had been covered in layers of adrenaline. I could think again, function.

And I needed to get the hell out of here.

I was still lying on the pavement, which meant Julius hadn’t finished me off yet. I didn’t know if it was because he didn’t want to waste another bullet or some other reason, but I wasn’t going to let him know I was still alive until absolutely necessary.

So I listened.

“I told you to wait for my signal.”

A man’s voice. Annoyed, but still in control. I didn’t know who he was talking to, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that there were at least two people here, maybe more. I was pretty sure the guy talking was Julius, which meant he wasn’t the one who shot me.

All he seemed to care about, though, was that the shooter hadn’t waited for the go ahead. Which meant Julius had wanted me dead. The timetable was the only thing that hadn’t gone according to plan.

I really needed to get out of here.

I listened harder, trying to figure out where Julius and the shooter were standing.

“If you killed him, I’m going to do to you everything I had planned for him.”

Torture first, then death. That had been the plan.

Perfect.

I risked opening my eyes, then winced as sweat dripped into them. No, not sweat. I wasn’t hot, and the liquid was. Blood. And now that I thought about it, I did have a dull, throbbing ache in my forehead. I must’ve hit my head when I fell.

I opened my eyes again, squinting as they began to water. I wanted to wipe them, but I was pretty sure I had blood on at least one of my hands thanks to the wound in my side. It wasn’t gushing, but there was more than I was comfortable losing.

Whoever Julius was talking to gave an answer, but the voice was too low for me to make out the words, or even identify who was speaking.

“This is your mess,” Julius said. “Finish him and then we’ll go have a talk with my cousin.”

The shooter said something else, but I still couldn’t hear it.

“Enough!” Julius snapped. “It’s not my fault you fucked up. I don’t care why you did it. Just fix it.”

I could see them now, or rather, see their outlines in the shadows. The shooter was shorter than Julius but bundled up enough that I couldn’t tell if the asshole was a man or a woman. While I wanted to know who it was, I was glad they were several yards away. It put more distance between them and me, which meant I just might make it out of here alive.

Now I just needed to figure out how to put more distance between us. I’d been pacing the space for a while before Julius showed up, so now I racked my brain to try to remember what I’d seen around me before I was shot. It was easier than I thought.

Nothing.

A whole shitload of nothing.

Which meant I couldn’t hide behind a car or even a fucking trashcan unless I made it down to the Exotic Ladies’ Club. And I couldn’t go inside any buildings without either breaking in…or going to the Exotic Ladies’ Club.

All of that meant that once I ran, I had to go in the opposite direction because there was no way Julius would ever think I’d do something as stupid as not go for the easiest place to hide.

Suddenly, rapid-fire gunshots cut through the night, and I stopped thinking. As Julius and the shooter turned toward the sounds, I jumped up and ran. Pain laced through my side, and fresh blood soaked into my shirt. I pressed my hand to my side as I tried to gain traction on the pavement that was slick with my blood. I didn’t look back, didn’t second-guess my choice.

I just ran.

I was a few feet down the sidewalk when I heard a shout behind me. Shit. I didn’t even slow down. I wasn’t that stupid.

A sharp crack filled the air and then a chip of brick nicked my cheek as a bullet hit the building I passed.

Shit!

I rubbed the back of my hand across my forehead as blood dripped down into my eye, but I didn’t slow down. I could hear people running after me, but no more gunshots. Contrary to what action films and cop shows would have people believe, shooting a gun at a moving target while running wasn’t exactly easy.

I cut a sharp turn left, nearly lost my balance, stumbled a couple steps, then kept going. The alley was nearly black, but I knew it well enough to know where it led. I’d grown up on these streets, spent years moving through them, running from bullies, or running after someone myself.

Twenty-five feet to the fence, then through the cut in the links that had never been repaired. Another twenty-five feet and I came out the other side. I went right, made it a few yards down the sidewalk…and slipped on a patch of ice.

I twisted as I fell, let my hip take the brunt of it. I put my hand down, leaving a bloody print as I pushed myself up. The adrenaline that had been fueling me was starting to ebb, and I knew I had to get someplace safe soon.

My entire left side felt like it was on fire, and each step was excruciating, but I kept running. It wasn’t just my life I was running for. I was running for my mother, for Bryne, for a life I hadn’t even realized I wanted until now.

I turned down another alley, ducked through a side door that hadn’t been latched in about fifteen years, cut through the abandoned storehouse, and came out behind the local hardware store. A couple more feet and I ducked into yet another alley, finally allowing myself to stop.

I leaned against the wall, each breath an agony. I couldn’t hear anyone pursuing me anymore, but that didn’t mean I was safe.

I pulled my phone out of my pocket and sent off a text to my mother. She needed to get somewhere safe until I figured out what had actually happened, and what I was going to do about it. I couldn’t get her involved in the middle of this.

As soon as I sent it, I closed my eyes to keep my head from swimming. I couldn’t stay out here, and I couldn’t go home. I knew my mom would do as I asked, but I still didn’t want to lead Julius or anyone else back there. Normally, if I needed some place to crash, I would’ve gone to Force. He was in Booker’s gang but was a decent guy. More or less. But I couldn’t trust anyone right now.

And that’s when I realized I did have one place I could be safe. One person I could trust.