Read the First Chapter of Her Hero Now!

Chapter One

 

Donnie eased his Valkyrie to a smooth stop at a red light on Harbor Road and shifted his head from side to side, trying to ease the tension that always gripped his shoulders after hours spent on his bike.

Christ, what a perfect day. Unseasonably mild for April in New England, it was all warm sunshine and cool breezes that could have tempted even the most devoted workaholic to play hooky. And as much as he loved his job managing The Club South and overseeing the ongoing transformation of the dilapidated old firehouse into the premiere BDSM playhouse south of Boston, Donnie had never claimed to be that dedicated. Instead, he’d done what his boss, Master Blake, was always encouraging him to do, and he’d delegated, leaving the deliveries, the contractors, and the paperwork in the capable hands of his team while he escaped for the day to clear his head.

Donnie had been up at dawn with his saddlebags packed and his playlist loaded, letting a flip of the coin determine that north would be his direction for the day. He’d been on the road early enough to avoid all the rush hour traffic as he’d cruised from Quincy through Boston, sticking to the highways as far as the Maine border and then detouring for a slow, scenic ride up and down Route 1. Just him, his trusty Valk, and the rocky Atlantic coastline stretching as far as the eye could see. He’d grabbed an early dinner at a seafood shack that was nearly empty of tourists this early in the season, before heading back south. And now, as the last streaks of orange twilight lit the sky, he found himself only two blocks from the place he called home—a room above The Club with a view of the water and the Boston skyline, where a scalding hot shower awaited him. Anticipation and pleasure curled in his gut.

In a life where not a lot had gone right, let alone perfectly, Donnie Nolan knew better than to take this stuff for granted.

As he straddled the vibrating machine, appreciating the salty tang in the air and the crash of the waves just beyond the sea wall, a flash of light in his side mirror caught his attention. He watched with detached amusement as a giant fucking behemoth of a bike pulled onto the shoulder of the road, passing half a dozen cars, and coming to a stop beside Donnie. It was the kind of illegal, douchebag move that gave bikers everywhere a bad rep. Not content with his Asshole status, the guy then edged his bike forward in impatient bursts that had a mom yanking her toddler back from the crosswalk. He then leveled up to Fucking Asshole by revving his engine loud enough for the people standing outside the ice cream shop across the street to crane their heads and look for the source of the noise.

Jesus, what a fuckwit.

Donnie wouldn’t turn his head or give the guy the attention he was clearly asking for, but from behind his own full-coverage helmet, he could see that the other man had swiveled to look at him. Dude had long white hair tied back in a long tail, no helmet on his head, and a taunting smile on his face that got Donnie’s back up.

And that was before he started mouthing obscenities.

The guy was looking for trouble. A race? A fight? Who the fuck knew? And he was trying to goad Donnie into joining him. And for the briefest of seconds, Donnie almost allowed himself to be persuaded. He could imagine swinging his leg over his bike, throwing his helmet off, and decking the asshole. Donnie knew exactly how it would feel when the flesh and bone of his knuckles made contact with the other guy’s face, how the shock of the blow would reverberate up his arm to his shoulder, how all the rational processes of his brain would short-circuit, and a red haze would descend across his vision. He’d be a warrior once more, the tip of a spear, the chief leg-breaker in Mikey Nolan’s personal army, the instinct-driven animal he’d been trained to be. He almost craved the black-and-white simplicity of it. It’s him or me. Gotta fight, gotta win.

And then the light changed, sanity returned, and Donnie gestured the douchebag ahead with an ironic wave of his gloved hand. After you, motherfucker.

As the guy disappeared down the crowded street, weaving around stopped cars, Donnie slowly let out the clutch on his own bike, allowing himself to roll forward. He took a deep breath, forcing down the spike of adrenaline that made him want to chase after the other guy and teach him a lesson.

Not fucking worth it, he reminded himself. True strength lies in control.

He’d learned almost half a lifetime ago that when you let someone draw you into a fight, when you let them dictate the terms of a confrontation, you always lost, even when you won.

The Bluetooth speaker inside his helmet played out the first mournful notes of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Simple Man—the ringtone Donnie had assigned to his friend and mentor Blake Coleman. Donnie pushed away the last vestiges of his annoyance as he hit the button on his helmet to accept the call.

“Evening, boss,” he spoke into the mic as traffic crept along. He noticed with a smirk that his voice was raspy tonight, gravelly from disuse the way it always got when he’d spent the day alone on the road. Yeah, he’d paid a fair bit for a helmet that he could use to make and accept calls, but he could count on two hands the number of people who had his cell number, and even fewer he’d bother to talk to while he was riding. Blake was one of them.

“North or south?” Blake asked without preamble, amusement evident in his deep voice.

Donnie snorted. He hadn’t shared his plans with Blake this morning beyond a quick text to say that he’d be out-of-pocket for the day, but it didn’t surprise him that Blake already knew. Blake wouldn’t waste time asking stupid shit, like “What did you do today?” or “Did you have fun?” because the answers would be, “Riding,” and “Fuck, yeah.” Every single time.

“North,” Donnie replied, feeling a weird warmth in his chest that came from having someone know him that well and give a shit about his welfare. It was a feeling he wasn’t entirely used to, even after knowing Blake for more than a decade. The only other person who’d ever given him that feeling was Grace, and she was…

God. He hadn’t allowed himself to think of Grace in years, hadn’t allowed himself to fully conjure her face or imagine what her life might be like these days. But just when he thought he’d succeeded in scrubbing her from his thoughts, locking every cherished memory in a vault, her name would appear right in front of him, taunting him with what could never be.

He swallowed and forced himself to finish the thought. Grace was ancient history. A closed chapter. Another thing he’d been forced to leave behind.

“Knew it. Elena owes me,” Blake said, with a note of satisfaction in his voice that brought Donnie’s attention back to the present. “You headed west last time, and east the time before that. Figured it’d be north or south.”

Donnie snorted again. “Uh, boss, you know I toss a coin to decide this shit, right? Not exactly the kind of thing you wanna bet on?”

Blake’s chuckle was low and meaningful. “Only if I cared about losing this particular bet, Don.”

Jesus.

“Right,” Donnie said, rolling his eyes as he put on his blinker, pulled into the lot behind the three-story red brick building, and eased into his parking spot.

Given all the years he’d worked for Blake at The Club, first as a bouncer, then a Dungeon Master, and now as a Club manager, Donnie figured he’d seen and done pretty much everything. But somehow even the most vaguely suggestive reference to Blake’s much-younger wife Elena, a woman Donnie had come to think of as his adopted older sister, made him squirm and quickly switch the subject.

“So, are we still meeting tomorrow afternoon? Second floor construction is done, but I want to walk you through the third floor before I give the general contractor the final sign-off.”

Blake hummed a negative. “Tomorrow’s not good. Slay’s got shit to do, and I want him and Matt to be there for this meet. I was down there a couple weeks ago, but the other guys haven’t seen the place since we opened on New Year’s Eve.”

Alexander Slater and Matteo Angelico, both well-respected and experienced dominants who had worked with Blake for years, had bought into The Club a few years ago, just before the opening of the third location, The Club North. Though the transition from sole proprietor to partner had been a bit tricky for Blake in the beginning, Donnie personally felt that Blake was happier now that he could devote more time to Elena and their kids.

“I want them to see how much you’ve accomplished,” Blake continued. “You should be proud.”

Donnie cleared his throat. He wasn’t shy. He knew he’d worked his ass off, and he was confident he’d done a good job, but he had no idea how to handle Blake’s praise. He never had.

“No big, boss,” he muttered.

“No big?” Blake echoed. “That building was ready to be condemned six months ago, Donnie. And honest to God, for a second there, I wondered if we’d bitten off more than we could chew, but you turned it around. In two months, you had all construction on the first floor completed six weeks ahead of schedule, you had over a hundred members lined up before opening night, and now you have us open four nights a week, when we’d only planned to be open three until mid-summer.”

“I had help,” Donnie argued, feeling the tension in his neck ratchet up a notch.

“Yup. An almost-entirely new team that you hired, vetted, and trained. Your staff is pretty damn impressive too.”

Donnie wanted to dispute this, but he was too caught up on Blake’s last words.

His staff. God, wasn’t that a fucking kick? Donnie Nolan, the perpetual fuckup who would’ve won “Most Likely to Serve Hard Time” if he’d bothered sticking with high school long enough to see his senior year, had big responsibilities these days and a fucking staff of men and women who reported to him.

And it was all thanks to the guy on the other end of the phone, who’d somehow seen a spark of potential in a punk-assed, muscle-bound delinquent who was never supposed to amount to anything. Words, never Donnie’s strong suit, failed him just then, but he vowed to himself that he’d never give Blake a reason to regret taking a chance on him.

Blake smoothly covered Donnie’s lapse. “So, I’m thinking we’ll meet the day after tomorrow. Wednesday afternoon or evening. I’ll let you know once I confirm with Slay and Matt, yeah?”

“Yeah. Sounds good. See you then,” Donnie agreed, before disconnecting the call and finally shutting off his bike.

The sounds of traffic from Harbor Road seemed even louder after Donnie removed his helmet and tucked it under his arm. It was fully dark now, and as he crossed the parking lot and opened the back door, he made a note to himself that they needed to bump up the lighting in this lot ASAP. It was entirely too dark out here for his peace of mind.

He climbed the short flight of stairs to the main floor, where one of the bouncers would normally be stationed on an open night, unzipping his leather riding jacket as he went. Tonight, the lights were low and the rooms on this level—a large bar, a dance floor, and three demonstration rooms—were deserted. All the construction workers had gone home hours ago, and none of the staff were scheduled.

He debated a detour to the stockroom, to make sure Andy had received and organized the liquor delivery properly, but the lure of his own space, the third-floor suite Blake had insisted he remodel before any of the other rooms, was too strong. Shower, hydrate, bed, in that order.

He’d just put his foot on the first step to the second floor when a creak above alerted him that he wasn’t alone.

Instinctive caution, born of years spent under the thumbs of first his alcoholic asshole father and then his psycho cousin Mikey, had him looking around for a weapon. He placed his helmet on the table near the main entrance and dipped his hand into his pocket, threading his keys through his fingers. He climbed the stairs quickly and quietly, keeping his feet on the thick carpet runner that ran down the middle of the treads. The Club hadn’t had any trouble with security at any of its locations in a long while; not since drug kingpin Chalo Salazar had been given a two-year prison stint and managed to win himself an extra year for bad behavior, and Donnie didn’t anticipate any trouble now, but it was always better to be prepared.

“Master Nolan? Sir? Is that you?”

The plaintive whine had him stopping in his tracks three steps from the top. Oh, Christ. Suddenly, he was almost wishing for one of Salazar’s goons to appear.

“Julie. You’re here late.” He made his voice as distant as possible as he shuffled up the last three steps, dropping his keys back in his pocket.

The petite brunette stood in the middle of the second-floor foyer, biting her bottom lip nervously, her eyes cast to the floor. She wore a short black dress that clung to her curves like a second skin and some strappy, death-defying heels—the kind of thing that the girls normally wore when they were off-duty, and at The Club to play or to participate in a demonstration.

“Yeah. I, um… I just finished up,” she said, waving behind her in the general direction of the office, which was located at the front of the building, directly above the main entrance.

Donnie pursed his lips at this outright lie. Julie was a waitress and bartender who worked (and played) almost exclusively downstairs. There was no reason for her to be hanging around the office at all. Still, he hesitated to call her out on it. He was pretty sure her real reason for being there had to do with seeing him, and the hopeful glances she was sneaking him from under her lashes only confirmed it.

He’d first noticed a change in her behavior a few weeks back, not long after she’d volunteered to participate in a Shibari demonstration with him. From his perspective, it had been a purely professional thing. Though he’d had to touch her quite a bit as he demonstrated the correct roping and knotting procedures, he’d remained as aloof and clinical as possible; his usual MO during demos. But despite his precautions, she’d somehow gotten the wrong idea. She’d started popping up wherever he was, calling him Sir in a breathy voice, and giving him shy smiles that seemed calculated to entice any dominant who was in the market for a long-term submissive.

Unfortunately for her, Donnie was in the market to rent rather than to own. All of his relationships could be better measured in hours than in years. But even if he had been looking for something more permanent, even if he weren’t her boss, Julie just wasn’t his type.

Donnie frowned and tried to put his finger on what bugged him about the girl. She was pretty enough, for sure, with long brown hair, brown eyes, and the petite, curvy figure he’d always enjoyed on a woman. But there seemed to be something hiding behind her eyes—a sort of calculation, like she was trying to project the image of the type of sub she thought he wanted.

Maybe some guys got off on the whole “I’ll be whatever you need me to be!” vibe, but Donnie wasn’t one of them. Christ, if there was one thing that he hated about the BDSM scene these days, it was the drama, the over-the-top fantasy that so many people seemed to be looking for. He knew that real dominant/submissive relationships, like the kinds that his friends Matteo, Slay, Dom, Tony, and Paul had with their partners required work and compromise, and he’d seen firsthand what it had taken for Blake and Elena to negotiate their rocky start.

Step one was to be honest with yourself and your partner about what you needed. If you weren’t ready and willing to do that—and God knew, Donnie wasn’t fucking ready to share his deepest, darkest desires with anyone—you had no business getting involved in anything complicated.

That was why, if Julie kept up with this shit, Donnie was gonna have to figure out how to say “No fucking way” in a diplomatic manner that spared her feelings, while leaving no doubt that they would never have an association beyond a professional one.

Words, diplomacy, feelings.

Fuck.

He’d rather beat the shit out of something any day.

There had only ever been one woman he could talk to without restraint, without the words getting twisted halfway between his brain and his tongue. Grace.

Jesus, Nolan, he chastised himself. Resurrecting ghosts twice in one night? Focus.

“So, um, have you eaten? Dinner, I mean?” Julie asked nervously, when it became clear that Donnie wasn’t going to pick up the conversation.

“Yep,” he confirmed. “A while ago. I’m getting ready to turn in.”

He folded his arms across his chest and waited for her to take the hint.

She didn’t.

“Would you maybe want to, you know, hang out?” she persisted. “I noticed that you hardly ever stop by the playrooms unless you’re giving a demo. We could maybe practice the cane thing you’re doing tomorrow night?”

Donnie sighed. No way to avoid it. He ran a hand through his chin-length blond hair and dove in.

“Think you got the wrong idea,” he said stiffly. “We ain’t gonna hang out. I’m your boss.”

“Oh.” She blinked. “But, um, is there a rule against employees hanging out? Because I heard through the grapevine that Slay was Alice’s manager and they, um… you know.”

Donnie suppressed a growl. How much clearer could he be? Yeah, everyone knew the story of how Slay had met and fallen hard for his wife, Allie, back when she’d worked the main bar at The Club, but that didn’t fucking matter.

“I’m not Slay,” Donnie said flatly. “I don’t get involved with my employees.”

“Oh,” Julie said again. She looked momentarily crestfallen, but then rallied and took a step closer to him. “Because I wouldn’t tell anyone…”

“Not the point,” he said, his low voice brooking no argument. “I need you to keep your behavior professional, or there will be consequences, up to and including termination.”

“T-termination?” she stammered, licking her lips nervously. “No! I can do professional. I, uh… I understand. I love this job. I need this job, Master Nolan.”

Donnie nodded and felt a faint stirring of pity. He knew what that felt like.

“Good,” he told her. “I’m relieved to hear that.” And then, something compelled him to add, “Listen, Julie, lots of the girls here, and at The Club Boston seem… nice. Friendly. If you need someone to talk to…”

Julie bit her lip and Donnie trailed off as someone started pounding on the door below.

What now?

He saw Julie’s eyes flash in surprise, and as he hurried down the stairs, she followed.

The banging had increased in volume and tempo by the time he made it to the first floor, and was accompanied by a man shouting in garbled English.

“Don! Open up, man! Oh, fuck, Donnie! Open the damn door!”

“Stand back,” he clipped at Julie, who nodded with wide eyes before moving around the corner into one of the demo rooms.

Once she was out of sight, Donnie unlocked the door and threw it open… only to have the guy who’d been shouting fall directly at Donnie’s feet.

The man pushed himself to his hands and knees on the hardwood floor and glanced up. Donnie automatically stepped back into a defensive position, reaching for the stupid keys in his pocket and wishing, not for the first time, that he hadn’t stopped carrying his Glock when he’d left his cousin’s employ. The dude’s face was a bloody mess. His nose was unmistakably broken, his mouth distorted, one dark eye swollen shut, and his clothes, which seemed to have started out as a high-end suit and silk shirt, were shredded, not like they’d been ripped or worn out, but…

Oh, motherfucker.

Sliced.

The man had been beaten and sliced, right through the fabric of his clothing, into his skin in dozens and dozens of places all over his body. With no more than a cursory glance, Donnie knew they were shallow wounds—bruises delivered by hand and cuts from a straight razor, precisely calibrated to scare, to scar, to hurt, but not to kill. And he knew, just as well as he knew the brown eyes he saw in the mirror each morning, that this poor fuck-up had been forced to count the strikes himself while a bunch of neighborhood punks who desperately wanted to be badasses had held him down by his hands and ankles. There would be one blow or cut for each thousand the guy owed. A gruesome, permanent accounting of his debt because that was the kind of twisted justice that Mikey Nolan found amusing.

Donnie ground his teeth together. His cousin had worked this guy over thoroughly, and Donnie couldn’t help but feel bad for the sap. But it had been years—God, more than a decade—since he’d had anything to do with Mikey’s shit. So why the fuck was this guy here? And how did he know Donnie’s name?

Donnie felt a sense of foreboding settle in his gut.

“Donnie,” the man pleaded, tears and blood making tracks across his skin. “Help me!”

Donnie narrowed his eyes and looked closer, beyond the bloody wreckage of his face, trying to place the connection. There was something… But it wasn’t until the man let his head fall forward with a sob, until a thick hank of dark brown hair fell across his forehead and obscured his swollen eye, that Donnie felt the flare of recognition. He knew that hair. He remembered eyes just like that…

“Christ. Pedro? Is that you?”

 

Caillate, Gracia Maria! You’re not coming with us. Not today. And stop whining.” Donnie’s best friend propped his foot on the built-in seat of the scarred wooden picnic table and combed his fingers carefully through his mop of brown hair, his eyes trained on his reflection in the darkened window of Sully’s Grab ‘n Go next door.

“But why?” A little girl, whose dark, serious brown eyes took up nearly half her face, perched on the edge of the wooden table top, her short legs kicking back and forth. In truth, the girl never whined, but she also never gave in without a good reason. A fact which drove her brother crazy but made Donnie laugh.

“Because you’re too little, mija.”

“Little! I’m eleven! And I can help. I can carry things. I notice things! It’s not fair you guys get go places and have fun without me.”

“Donnie and I are seventeen. We’re men now. We’re gonna be working for Mikey, for God’s sake. You’ve gotta stop following us around like a puppy. It’s weird.”

The impatient, superior big-brother tone made Grace’s eyes narrow, and Donnie stepped in as he always did, pushing himself out of his slouch against the building and searching for the words that would make her understand.

“Gracie, there are different ways to be helpful. The place we’re going today, the guys we’re gonna meet… it might be dangerous.”

The full force of those shining eyes—eyes glowing with hero worship, and more excited than anxious at the prospect of adventure—swung toward him, and he found himself momentarily stunned. All he could think was, “Holy shit. Someday she’s gonna fucking OWN a man with those eyes. She’ll break hearts.” And he’d felt a quick, confusing clench of anger in his gut at the prospect of Grace ever bestowing that look on anyone but him.

“So what if it is?” Grace challenged. “You’ll protect me. You said you’d always protect me.”

Donnie nodded, because yeah, of course he would.

“But that’s why you can’t be there. The two of us would be distracted, worrying about you.”

He could see the lightning-quick calculation behind those eyes, and knew she’d reached the right conclusion when her shoulders slumped in defeat.

“When you give an intelligent explanation like that, I can’t really argue,” she sighed.

Intelligent explanation? Him? A weird, warm feeling curled in his chest, and Donnie absently tried to rub it away.

His friend hooted. “Right, Don’s Mr. Intelligent. So smart he didn’t need school no more.”

Donnie flipped him off behind the girl’s back.

“Maybe while we’re gone you could work on your drawing? I keep asking you to do a sketch of me,” Donnie teased her.

Her cheeks flooded with color and she shook her head. “No way.”

Her brother snorted, not looking away from his reflection. “Oh, bro, consider yourself lucky. She sucks. She did a picture of me the other night. Made me look like a fucking donkey, with this big, stupid smile.”

Grace’s eyes met Donnie’s, and she grinned. Donnie didn’t know shit about art, but he knew enough about Grace’s talent to be sure that if she’d drawn her brother like that, it was totally intentional. Donnie smirked.

“Time to get back inside the house, Gracia,” her brother said, turning away from the window. “We’ve gotta go, and if Papa catches you out here alone…”

Donnie frowned. They were in the Diaz family’s own backyard, but even so, Grace wasn’t supposed to be outside unsupervised. The nuns at St. Bridget’s had fewer rules and restrictions than Mr. Diaz did for his only daughter.

Grace sighed and jumped down from the table, looking so lonely and dejected that Donnie jammed his hands in his pockets and looked away before he did something stupid, like try to give the kid a hug.

But Grace had never let him off the hook that easily. She threw her arms around his waist and squeezed, pressing her cheek against his chest for the briefest of moments. The smell of her—the faint tang of cinnamon chewing gum that he always associated with his Grace—filled his nose.

“Come back safe, okay, Donnie?” she asked, turning those bright, solemn eyes up at him, and he was helpless to do anything but nod. Then, after a quick glance at her impatient brother, she turned back to Donnie, rolling her eyes as she pulled away. “And take care of Pedro.”

 

He’d pictured Pedro the way he’d always looked—perfectly mussed hair, round-cheeked baby face, laughing brown eyes, as tall and wiry as Donnie had been at eighteen. But in the intervening years, Donnie had grown, gaining several inches in height and at least forty pounds of solid muscle. Whereas Pedro, Donnie saw, as he helped the man unsteadily to his feet, seemed to have shrunk. He was skin and bones beneath his fine clothing, his shoulders were stooped, and he flinched when Donnie wrapped an arm around his waist and guided him into the bar area.

Donnie hadn’t seen Pedro Diaz in nearly a dozen years. Last Donnie had heard, Pedro had been middle management in Mikey’s “organization,” which was the highest rank Pedro was ever likely to attain, given that he wasn’t blood family. He’d assumed the guy was doing well—as well as a man who’d chosen to sell his soul could be—but even though Donnie lived minutes away from the old neighborhood, he’d made a point never to go back and check on them. He’d only set foot there once in the past decade. That was Mikey’s neighborhood, and always had been. It was safer for everyone who lived there if they weren’t associated with Donnie, the cousin who’d disgraced the family by walking away, and it was crucial to Donnie’s survival to forget they existed.

Didn’t mean Donnie hadn’t thought about his friends over the years, though. He’d imagined P getting married, maybe to one of Donnie’s own cousins. More than once, he’d forced himself to confront the fact that Grace was likely married now too, and he hoped the lucky fucker deserved her. He’d read in the paper that Mr. Diaz had died a few years back, and he’d grieved for Pedro and Grace. And right now, as he looked at the pathetic battered man, he could hear the echo of Grace’s voice in his head, telling him to take care of Pedro. So, whatever bullshit Pedro was involved in, however he’d incurred Mikey’s wrath, Donnie couldn’t bring himself to turn his former friend away.

“Sit here,” he said, heaving Pedro onto one of the wooden barstools. “Calm yourself. What do you need, man? Hospital?”

“No!” Pedro gasped, leaning heavily against the bar. “No hospital. No cops.”

Donnie nodded, not surprised. He ducked beneath the pass-through, collecting ice in a clean towel and opening the first aid kit they always kept on hand beneath the bar, before turning to assess the damage.

The lacerations on Pedro’s body would heal with time and some antibiotic goop. Ice would help control the swelling on his face, and it didn’t look like he needed stitches. The greatest threat to his health right now was in failing to pay back whatever debt he’d managed to accrue.

“Here,” Donnie said, holding out the makeshift ice pack, while he wet a second towel under the tap.

Pedro took the ice and gingerly held it to his swollen eye. “Don, I need your help,” he said, attempting to draw a deep breath against ribs that were probably bruised, trying to control the tears streaming down his broken face.

“Yeah. So you said,” Donnie agreed, cutting under the pass-through once more. “But, bro, if you managed to cross Mikey somehow… I don’t know how you think I can help you.”

He approached the other man and braced one hand against his back while grasping his nose with the other. He waited until Pedro gave the barest nod of assent, then set Pedro’s broken nose back into place with one deft movement and secured it with strips of sterile tape from the kit.

Pedro barely flinched. “Still got the touch with that, huh? Must be, what, the third time you’ve done that for me?” he asked, his voice thick with pain.

Donnie nodded. “Don’t get much practice anymore,” he said. And he hadn’t missed it.

He wiped his hands off on the towel and took the stool next to Pedro before continuing.

“You know better than anyone that I dragged myself out of Mikey’s shit, kicking and screaming. If I get involved again, it’ll be a death sentence. We’ve been through a lot, man, so if you need a place to spend a couple nights, you’ve got it. And if you need some cash—and by that I mean a couple of thousand, enough to get you out of town, not enough for… this,” he looked pointedly at the dozens of small cuts up and down Pedro’s torso, which had to sting like a sonofabitch. “I’ll get it for you. But, P…” He deliberately let his voice go lower, firmer, so there would be no confusion on this score. “There is not a single thing in Heaven or on Earth that will get me involved with Mikey again.”

Pedro’s eyes, stark with shock and misery, met his.

“They’ve got Grace, man. They’re holding her… until I pay my debts.”

And Donnie’s world turned red.

***

“Pick up, pick up, pick up,” Donnie muttered, as the phone rang inside his helmet. He was weaving the Valkyrie through the light city traffic in a remarkable impression of the douchebag on the Harley from earlier, and he couldn’t care less. He’d been hyper-focused since the moment P had spoken his sister’s name, and not a fucking thing existed but Grace and his need to get to her.

Now.

He’d barked orders like a sergeant, clearing away obstacles. He’d called in a favor from Lucas, a guy who worked with Slay doing what they called “off-the-books security jobs,” which seemed to run the gamut from global terrorism prevention to rescuing kittens from trees, and had found someone who could patch Pedro up and give him a place to crash until he’d healed. He’d gotten Julie, who had still been cowering in the demonstration room, out to her fucking car, and out of his hair. And he’d grabbed the wickedly sharp Ka-Bar knife from the box on the top shelf of his closet just in case. Its weight against his thigh felt comforting.

The one obstacle he hadn’t been able to surmount was finding out where Grace was being held… and how the hell he’d get her back.

“I fucked up, Donnie,” Pedro had admitted. “Moving money, making book, it got old. And I got greedy. I wanted to grab some money—enough to last me a good, long while—and get the fuck out. New guy started cutting into our territory, a young kid named Javi. I never got a handle on who he was working for, but shit started getting chaotic. I thought I could take advantage of it. I lied and told Mikey that Javi had stolen our money…but Mikey found out. I gave him back the money I stole, every penny of the 750 large. But he says he wants me to pay him back double, to atone for my sins or… forfeit Grace.”

Typical Mikey, handing out penance, knowing full well that there was no way for a man like Pedro to come up with three-quarters of a million dollars.

“How’s Grace gonna get him the money?” Donnie had asked.

Pedro had looked at him in disbelief, as if shocked that Donnie was so far gone from his years in Mikey’s shit that he couldn’t figure it out for himself.

And then he had, and his blood had grown cold. “Sex?”

Pedro had nodded. “Far as I know, Grace’s still a virgin, Don. I don’t know if she’s saving herself for marriage to Prince Charming, or if she just drank too much of the good-girl KoolAid that my dad passed out, but I’ve never seen her with a guy. She’s never even dated. And if Mikey has his way, her first time is gonna be sold to the highest bidder and broadcast online.”

Over Donnie’s dead body.

The ringing in his headset finally stopped and a slurred voice answered. “H’lo?”

“Joe.”

Just one word, just the man’s name, but it was enough to get his older brother from happy drunk to allll worked up.

“I can’t talk to you! What the fuck are you doing calling me, Donnie? You’re dead to us, remember. Jesus, I have kids.

Funny how Donnie had been very much alive last year, when Joe’s son Declan had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and needed a bone marrow donor, wasn’t it?

“I’m coming to the house,” he said simply.

“No, Don! Fuck. Just… No. Meet me somewhere else,” his brother begged. “A bar… or…”

“Better open the door,” Donnie said. “The longer I stand outside banging, the more the neighbors are gonna get an eyeful. And we wouldn’t want them to get the wrong impression, would we, Joey?”

“You’re killin’ me, man,” Joe whined.

Donnie snorted and disengaged the call. Killing his brother was just the beginning. If those assholes harmed Grace, no one would be safe.

***

When he arrived at his brother’s house a few minutes later, he pulled his bike around to the back, near the rickety old garage, and left his helmet on the seat. He climbed the rear steps two at a time, and the back door opened before he could knock.

“Get in here!” Joe told him, pulling Donnie into the kitchen and making sure none of the neighbors had seen. “Christ, you have no idea, Don…”

His brother was tall and whip-thin, with thinning, sandy hair that had once been bright red. There had been a time, when Don was a kid, that he’d thought Joe was the bravest of the brave, always looking out for Donnie, protecting him from the worst of his father’s booze-soaked beatings.

Now, Joe’s hands shook with fear.

“Let’s get this over with,” Donnie said without preamble. “Mikey took Grace Diaz to pay Pedro’s debt.”

Joe didn’t look surprised, but somehow he seemed to grow even more nervous.

“What do you know about that, Joe?” Donnie asked.

Joe licked his lips, but instead of answering, he turned pleading eyes to Don. “Why’d you have to get involved now, Donnie? You haven’t been back to this neighborhood in years. Why now, huh? Why not just… stay gone?”

A fair question. He hadn’t seen Grace Diaz in nearly twelve years; not since he’d been nineteen and she’d been a wide-eyed thirteen-year-old. For all he knew, he’d passed her a hundred times at the grocery store or riding the subway, and hadn’t even known. Would he even recognize her as a woman?

It didn’t matter, though. Grace was the best part of him—his conscience, his beating heart. The only part of his childhood that he could remember without feeling disgust or shame. Just subconsciously knowing that she was okay, that she still existed in the world, had meant that he could keep existing too.

But Joe didn’t need to know any of that shit.

“You owe me, Joe.”

He hadn’t wanted to say those words. You didn’t hold a kid’s life over his father’s head. That wasn’t a debt you ever called in…

But for Grace, he was calling it.

Joe shook his head and drew a shaky breath. “I need a drink. Have a seat. We’ve got… shit to discuss.” Joe gestured his hand at the Formica table in the corner, then sat down and poured himself three fingers of Irish.

Jameson’s. Just like their dad had drunk.

Donnie took a seat at the table and glanced around the kitchen. The only time he’d been here, a year ago, Joe’s wife Karen had had a pot roast in the oven, and the whole place had smelled homey and inviting. Their three kids had been running around, bouncing off the walls, even Declan. But tonight, the house was… quiet. Stale.

No car in the driveway. No kids making noise.

Suspicion clenched in Donnie’s gut and he got up to open the refrigerator. Joe sighed, but didn’t move to stop him.

Empty, except for a pitcher of water and a bunch of condiments in the door. It looked like Karen and the kids had taken off… or Joe had sent them away.

Fuck.

“Where is she, Joe?” he demanded.

“I… I’m not saying shit,” Joe replied. But his eyes darted left, to the small bedroom off the kitchen.

Christ Jesus, she was here.

Donnie strode across the room, his eyes on his brother, but Joe didn’t move except to pour the whiskey down his throat and pour himself another.

“I didn’t wanna be mixed up in this shit, Don. You know how Mikey is,” Joe whined.

Yeah, Donnie knew. That’s why he’d walked away years ago rather than spend his life as Mikey’s lackey. Joe had chosen differently.

Donnie turned the knob, but the door was locked. He ran his hand above the door jamb, rolling his eyes at his brother’s stupidity when he found the fucking skeleton key on the first try. To Joe’s credit, he clearly hadn’t been trying very hard. It was almost like he’d wanted someone to find Grace.

He pushed the door open, and entered the cool, dark room.

The room was empty except for a twin bed in the corner, where a woman lay curled on her side away from him, covered by a thin blanket. He crept toward the bed slowly, his mind rapidly cycling through the best ways of transporting her. Was she drugged? How could he wake her?

Long, long, strands of familiar dark hair covered her face and he reached out a hand to push them aside, but he actually found himself hesitating. God, what did she look like now?

The hesitation was nearly his downfall.

The woman on the bed, who had been breathing so deeply just a moment ago, leapt into action, grabbing his wrist and yanking him down, then delivering a powerful knee to his gut, before lunging upright and delivering a sharp blow to the back of his head that made him see stars.

Only instinct had him reaching out, ducking her flailing fists, to grab her around the waist and pull her back on the bed.

“Let go of me, asshole!” the woman screamed as she thrashed and flailed. “Or I swear to God, I will extract your motherfucking dick through your motherfucking nose!”

What?

Without wasting another moment, Donnie lifted one knee and straddled her on the bed, sitting across her thighs to neutralize her legs. He grabbed her hands in each of his and bore down, until her arms were braced above her head, and still she would not yield.

“Let. Me. Go!” She reared up, trying to knock her head into his.

Christ, she was amazing. Every twist of her head against the pillow had him smelling cinnamon, and every flex of her muscles reminded him that she was here. She was okay.

A weight on his chest he hadn’t realized he was carrying seemed to loosen.

“Grace,” he said. “Grace, baby, it’s me.”

Her thrashing stopped, and only the sound of harsh breathing—hers and his—filled the room.

“D-donnie?” Her voice was small, tentative.

“Yeah,” he said.

He cautiously released one of her hands and brushed the hair back from her face.

His breath stuttered.

The only light in the room came from the streetlight shining in the window, but as her gorgeous eyes came into view, he wondered how he could ever have doubted that he’d recognize her. He’d know those eyes anywhere. But the rest of her…

The last time he’d seen Grace, she’d been on the edge of womanhood. She’d lost the sweet, rounded look she’d had as a little girl, but she’d still been stick-skinny, all knobby knees and braces. But now…

He swallowed hard.

She was all curves, from the pleasantly rounded hips and thighs between his knees, to the sweet, full curve of her breasts as her chest heaved under his. And damn if, all spread out on top of her like this, his dick hadn’t taken notice. Time seemed suspended as he returned his gaze to her face, to those full lips that parted and begged to be kissed, to be bitten hard. He could imagine himself wrapping that hair around his wrist, and holding her down as he fucked her until she screamed…

She was staring up at him the way she always had, with full-on trust, like he’d hung the moon… and suddenly he felt like the sickest prick on the planet.

Control yourself. This is Grace.

“Get her out of here,” Joe said from the doorway, resignation in his voice. “I told you I’d help you, but we need to figure out a plan.”

Donnie nodded without turning his head, and heard Joe shuffle away.

“If I let you go, are you gonna extract my motherfucking dick through my motherfucking nose?” he asked, unable to look away from her face.

She giggled, and then her eyes filled with tears. For all her tough talk, she’d been scared to death, and he knew it.

“I’ll try to restrain myself,” she whispered.

He smiled. Then he let go of her hands and eased back. But before he could stand, she stopped him with a hand on his cheek.

“I knew when you found out you’d come, Donnie. I knew you’d keep me safe.”

He closed his eyes against the warmth that seared his chest, a sensation he hadn’t felt in years. That, coupled with the arousal that hadn’t completely abated, had him biting back a moan.

He’d keep her safe from Mikey, but who was gonna keep this woman safe from him?

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