Crime scene tape stretches from Tiny’s bar to the dry cleaners next door, and then across the street to the little Mexican restaurant that’s been there for longer than I’ve been alive. The tape continues on past that building, but I lose sight of it when a cop steps up in front of me, blocking my view.
At least I think he’s a cop.
Unlike most of the others, he’s not dressed in a uniform. I’ve been surrounded by men most of my life, but aside from Tiny, he’s one of the biggest I’ve ever seen. His booted feet are planted on the ground, shoulder-width apart. His jeans aren’t tight, but they do nothing to hide his thick calves and powerful thighs. His dark blue LAPD t-shirt stretches across his hard stomach and broad chest, hugging his muscular frame in ways that has heat sparking low in my belly. With his arms crossed, he looks as immovable as a mountain.
He clears his throat and I jerk my gaze upward…over the badge hanging from a chain around his neck and up to a chiseled jaw and full lips. His skin is caramel, the hint of a five o’clock shadow on his cheeks and jaw. The higher my gaze drifts, the hotter he is. His face is all sharp angles and planes. His eyes are so dark brown they’re almost black. Intelligence blazes in them…and something else too. Something I’m not even sure I know how to define. It’s some mix of confidence and uncompromising authority that screams cop.
Jesus, he’s hot.
He’s maybe thirty-five. He’s got a beanie pulled low over his forehead, but it does nothing to hide the way his dark brows climb upward as he looks me over. His hard expression softens incrementally, and I realize he’s speaking to me and I haven’t heard a word.
“I’m sorry,” I mumble, shaking my head as if that’s going to clear it of the screams and gunfire still echoing in the recesses of my mind. “Can you repeat that?”
He eyes me for a moment. I’m not sure what he sees on my face, but his expression softens even more. “I’m Octavio Hernandez. I’m a homicide detective for the Los Angeles Police Department. What’s your name, pequeña?” he asks. His voice is a deep rumble, like water rushing over rocks. It’s…pleasant. It washes over me in comforting waves, soothing away some of my raw nerves and anxiety. He crouches in front of me, forcing the paramedic to move over a little to give him room.
“F-faith. Faith Donovan.”
“Faith,” he repeats. I like the way he says it like he’s savoring the taste of my name on those full lips. “Faith, did you have friends inside?”
“I…” I almost tell him that I don’t have friends at all, but catch myself at the last moment and shake my head instead. “I’m a bartender. I was at work.”
“Okay, that’s good.” He gives me an encouraging nod. “Can you tell me what happened?”
I glance over his shoulder at the two dead bodies in the street, and then over to the group of Zetas cloistered together on the far side of the crime scene. They’re all blood-stained and tight-lipped, refusing to speak to the officers standing in front of them. Not that I thought they would or anything.
In this world, problems are handled in the streets, with knives and guns, not in a courtroom. The Zetas will hunt down whoever el Demonio sent and will kill them. That’s how gang warfare works. It’s a never-ending cycle of retribution, retaliation, and revenge that’s only gotten worse the last few months. I’m guessing what happened here tonight is only going to fan the flames and send the city spiraling closer to all-out war.
An eye for an eye. It really does leave the whole world blind.
Iván Santino’s dark gaze meets mine. He’s one of three Zeta lieutenants in Los Angeles, second only to Oscar Fuentes. Iván is vicious and cruel, and has spent the last five years making my life as painful as possible. I think, if Oscar would let him, he would have dragged me kicking and screaming to his bed a long time ago, and then left my battered and broken body for someone else to dispose of. But Oscar thinks I’m still of some use to him, and no one crosses Oscar, not if they want to live, anyway.
The way Iván looks at me sends another wave of nausea crawling up my throat. He’s running out of patience…which means I’m running out of time. If I don’t find a way out of this city soon, he’s going to come for me and not even the threat Oscar poses will be enough to stop him. What the Zetas have taken from me thus far won’t even compare to what Iván will do to me when he finally gets his hands on me…I know that much down to my soul.
Even from across the road, I can read the warning in his eyes. I’m supposed to keep my mouth shut and give this cop the same runaround the Zetas are undoubtedly giving the rest of them. Normally, that’s exactly what I’d do. My survival depends on me keeping my mouth shut and my head down. But I’m covered in the blood of a girl who probably didn’t make it to the hospital alive. I’ve seen more dead bodies tonight than I ever wanted to see. And I’m done with this whole mess. If Oscar kills me for talking…well, whatever death he gives me will be a sight better than what Iván wants to do to me.
“Faith, look at me,” Detective Hernandez says, reaching up and placing a hand on the side of my face. Sparks hum to life where his skin meets mine. His touch is gentle despite the roughness of his fingers. He moves my head gently until my gaze focuses on him again and then he releases me. Those dark eyes suck me in, compelling me to open my mouth and talk to him. “I know you’re scared, but I will protect you. Just talk to me. What happened tonight?”
“I…” I don’t even know where to start or how much I should say. “Some of the Zetas came in with their friends to celebrate Thiago’s birthday. They were drinking and laughing. Someone started shooting. I looked outside, and there were five men with guns.”
“Okay, good. That’s real good. Did you recognize any of them?”
My gaze darts away from Detective Hernandez to the Zetas. Iván’s glaring at me, hatred in his eyes. My heart pounds erratically, fear pumping through my veins. I break his gaze and glance back to Detective Hernandez to find him watching me intently. I lick my lips and then shake my head.
“I can protect you, Faith,” Detective Hernandez says again, his voice soft.
I think he means that, but I don’t think he can keep that promise. He doesn’t know who I am or what my mother and stepfather did to the Zetas. He doesn’t know I’m a prisoner here and have been since I was sixteen. He can’t help me because no one can. He’ll forget about me the second this case closes, if not before.
“She needs to go to the hospital,” the paramedic announces after wrapping my hands in bandages. “There are a couple pieces of glass embedded pretty deeply into her left palm. She might need stitches.”
“Fuck,” Detective Hernandez swears. “Faith, talk to me and I swear to you that I’ll find whoever did this to your friends.”
“They aren’t my friends,” I mumble.
One dark brow climbs, letting me know I’ve said a little too much. I silently coach myself to get it together. I’m out of sorts and off my game. I can’t let this man get to me. He’ll be gone soon, and I’ll be right back where I started.
He stays silent for a moment, just watching me. “Talk to me, Faith. Please.”
I shouldn’t, but the foreign tinge to his plea does me in. It’s been so long since anyone has needed my help with anything, so long since anyone has said please to me…and I don’t think this man is used to having to ask for anything, but he’s asking me.
I want to help him, even though I shouldn’t. I want to believe he can help me, even when I know he can’t.
“Why does Kaleo want this block?” I curse when he doesn’t answer me. “You really going to take the fall for some dumb son of a bitch who won’t spend two seconds thinking about you once you’re hauled out of here? Kaleo doesn’t give a fuck about you, Trey. You’re just another kid for him to use. As soon as you’re gone, he’ll have someone else to take your place.”
“He’ll kill me if I talk,” he mumbles.
“Not if he doesn’t know. Do I look like I run my mouth?”
Trey thinks about that for a minute and then answers my question. “Don’t know what he wants,” he says with a shrug. “Says the block should belong to him and it’s time for him to take it.”
“You believe him?”
“He’s wrong,” I mutter as a squad car pulls up on the curb, take-down lights flashing through the dark. “I own this fucking block. When you get out, you tell him Michael Kincaid is coming for him. He better fucking pray I don’t find any more of his people on my block. Tell him to stay away from January or I’ll put a bullet between his eyes. You got that?”
Trey nods, his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open. “You’re Kincaid?”
“Yep,” I confirm and then pin him with a hard glare. “Don’t even think about moving from that spot.”
“Okay,” the kid whispers.
“Agent Kincaid?” the LAPD officer calls out, jogging up the sidewalk toward me.
“That’s me.” I fish my badge out of my pocket and flash it at him, meeting him halfway down the sidewalk.
“He’s a cop?” Trey says behind me, his voice high pitched.
Yeah, you little shit. I’m a fucking cop and the girl next door belongs to me. Told you I was your worst goddamn nightmare.
“What do you have?” the officer asks, glancing between me and the kid.
I quickly fill him in on the situation and then pull Trey’s shit out of my pocket. By the time I’m finished talking, another squad car and an ambulance roll up the street. The patrol officer takes all of the kid’s stuff from me and then shakes his head.
“I knew Kaleo was up to something,” he mutters, narrowing his eyes on the boy. “We’ve been keeping an eye on Miss James for a while now. His people keep showing up around here, causing trouble.”
“You know January?” I practically snarl at him, not liking the way he talks about her like she’s his to watch over.
He glances up at me and smiles, too slow to realize he’s walking into a no-go zone. I don’t give a fuck if he does have a badge too, I’ll rip his throat out if he tries anything with her. “Everyone around here knows Miss James,” he says, emphasizing her name like I’m being disrespectful or some shit by calling her January. “She was my son’s kindergarten teacher.”
Shit. I forgot she’s a teacher. Well, that’s not true. I refused to think about her for so goddamn long, I blocked that shit out. But I knew she teaches kindergarten. It’s what she’s wanted to do since she was barely out of grade school herself. She’s so good with kids. She always wanted a bunch of her own.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed that she still lives in her old house, alone.
What? So maybe I think about her more than I should. More than is good for me. Sue me.
“Kaleo won’t be a problem for her much longer,” I mutter to the officer as he hooks Trey up and pulls him to his feet.
“Good,” he says, rubbing a hand over his crewcut hair. He pegs me with a considering stare. “You’re the kid who used to live with Ma Rose, aren’t you?”
I think about telling him no, but shrug instead.
He shoots me a speculative glance and then nods…whatever that means. He marches Trey down to the ambulance waiting on the curb and then helps him inside so the paramedics can deal with his nose.
I should probably feel bad for breaking it, but I didn’t know he was just a kid when I clocked him. And it’s not like he didn’t earn that shit by running around with Kaleo and trying to break into January’s house to scare her. Who knows what the fuck he was actually going to do with that knife he had in his pocket? He’s lucky all he got was a broken nose and a few smacks. Just thinking about what might have happened has my blood boiling all over again.
“What’s going on out here?”
I freeze as soon as I hear that dulcet voice. I don’t even have to turn around to know it’s her. She hasn’t spoken a word to me in a little over ten years, but the cadence of her voice is ingrained in my memory, embedded so deeply I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. I remember the exact resonance of her giggle and the sweet melody of her laugh. I know how that angelic voice turns sultry when she’s begging me to fuck her…and how she growls and hisses like a little lioness when she’s pissed off. I also know that her voice shakes when she’s scared. It’s shaking now.
“Nothing. Go back inside, January,” I say, planting my feet to keep myself from turning around to look at her. If I see her, if I look into those bright emerald eyes…it’s going to tear me apart. All those still festering wounds are going to break wide open, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle it this time. It’s been a decade since she ripped my heart out and I’m barely surviving as it is.
“Cade?” she gasps.
Fuck. She shouldn’t have said that. She’s the only person who has ever called me Cade. I never let anyone else use the nickname she gave me. It was just for her. Hearing her say it now is like a goddamn dare, taunting me to turn around and face her. And I want to do exactly that. I want to turn around and look my fill, ease the pain that’s been riding me every single day since she kicked my ass to the curb, but I don’t have that right anymore. I lost it ten years ago when I destroyed her life.
Like the bastard I am, I turn around anyway.
She’s still the prettiest little thing I’ve ever seen in my life. She’s tiny, her little body barely big enough to hold up those luscious tits pressing against her tank top so hard her nipples are visible. Her red shorts cover nothing. They’re so goddamn short every inch of those tanned legs are on display.
With one glimpse at her, I’m rock hard, my dick pressing into my zipper so insistently he’s about to split the seams. It’s been ten years—ten long, torturous years—and he still knows who he belongs to. January.
“Cade,” she whispers this time, her bright green eyes roving all over my body. She hasn’t changed at all. She’s still tiny and perfect.
But I’m bigger, harder, comprised of muscle and aggression. I’m also covered in tattoos that hurt to look at more than my scars do. With small gauges in my ears, a piercing in my nose, and a decade of ruthless decisions weighing on me, I look a hell of a lot like the thug I so often portray.
She seems to like what she sees now as much as she did back then. She pushes her long blonde hair away from her heart-shaped face and licks her lips. Her nipples get harder. The pulse in her throat flutters.
I take a step toward her, unable to stop myself from moving in her direction. She’s like gravity…a natural phenomenon I’m not strong enough to withstand. I never have been. My every instinct clamors for attention, screaming at me that I need her to survive.
She throws a hand up and takes a step back.
My heart cracks, but I stop moving toward her. Of course I do. My body is hers to command as much now as it ever has been.
“Don’t,” she says. Her gaze flickers past me to the squad cars and ambulance parked on the curb. Fear slides through her expression, tearing at my insides. I know what she’s thinking about, what she’s remembering. It fucking kills me to know she’s still bleeding over it too.
“It’s okay, baby girl,” I whisper to her, willing to say or do anything to ease the haunted look on her face.
“Everything is okay.”
“It’s not,” she snaps, glowering at me. And there it is. The look that annihilates me. The one that haunts every goddamn nightmare I have.
I’d sell my soul to take back what I did to earn her hatred, but I can’t. I did the crime. I’ll do the time. Every excruciating second of it until someone puts me out of my misery. Even then, it won’t be enough to redeem me. Some souls are so dirty, so black, there is no redemption. No salvation. There’s nothing but blood and pain. Mine is covered in so goddamn much of it I’ll never wash clean.
“What happened?” she asks, glancing from me to the roadway.
“Caught a kid trying to break into your place,” I tell her, shoving my hands into my pockets to hide the way they shake. “I took care of it.”
“How? By beating him up?”
I hate that that’s what she thinks of me…and I hate that she’s right. I don’t even try to defend myself. What’s the point? Her opinion of me was confirmed long ago. Nothing I say now will change it.
“What are you doing here, Michael?” she asks, weary and wary and so goddamn sad, it kills me.
It kills me even more that she’s calling me Michael like she doesn’t know me at all. Like she doesn’t own me. I’ve been Cade to her since she was four years old. I’ve belonged to her for just about as long. She was my first everything, but she’s not mine anymore. That ship sailed right into an abyss a long time ago.
“Taking care of a few things,” I say, not elaborating any further. If I tell her the ATF asked me to convince her to let Kaleo have this block before she gets herself killed, she’ll fight me. I don’t have it in me to fight her right now. I need to get the hell out of here. Now. Because the longer I stand here not touching her, the more it hurts.
“Agent Kincaid!” the LAPD officer calls from behind me.
Yeah, baby girl, I’m a cop. Too damned bad it doesn’t change a fucking thing. I’m still the monster at the end of this book. Only this one doesn’t end happy like the storybook I used to read you, sweetheart. Not for me and not for you either.