Flame Chapter 2

Flame (Dragon Triad Duet Book 2)

Blurb:

Falling for a man like Rafe was just the beginning.

As danger looms overhead and her secrets are revealed, Hannah will have to trust him now more than ever.

But Rafe has his own past and, once uncovered, the truth may send her running for good…

Or the consequences will plunge her into a series of choices from which there is no turning back from.

Chapter 2

Disclaimer: The following is copyrighted material.

I will never understand how I manage to fall asleep on literal concrete with my only excuse for a pillow being a toned thigh. In awe, I find myself flexing my fingers over what must be the curve of his knee, resting beneath my chin. It’s a marvel how solid he feels. Hard enough to put his fist through glass and pummel a gangster into a bloody pulp. And yet soft enough to comfort me.

In a sense, his body serves as the perfect comparison to his personality—as unpredictable in nature like a chameleon. Or a dragon.

And just like that, my thoughts turn to a far more dangerous topic that haunts me as I trail my hand along his thigh. Like how the contours of this very body felt when pressed against mine. The heat of his skin, slicked by a layer of sweat…

“I’m here for you and all, bunny,” a voice cuts into my dreamy haze, constricted with obvious discomfort. “But I am human, and while I can tolerate having your head close to my dick for several hours, try to keep those hands to yourself, huh?”

I wrench my eyes open to a blindingly bright stream of sunlight. It’s hot out, but my skin feels pleasantly warm. Despite being curled on my side, with my head—as stated—practically on Rafe’s lap, I feel utterly content. Which is the complete opposite of how I should be feeling.

His mere presence infects me, robbing the seriousness of the moment long enough to almost forget it all. He’s staring down on me wryly, his lips quirked upward, betraying a million observations that I suspect he’s been stewing over while I slept.

And I did sleep, deeply. A fact that unnerves me when I inspect it too much.

“How long was I out?” I demand, batting my hair from my face as I rise onto my knees.

He shrugs, turning his attention to the brilliant blue sky above. Judging from the position of the sun, it’s late morning or even early afternoon.

“About four hours,” he says.

“I’m definitely late for work now.” With a sigh, I copy his posture by positioning my back against the railing. “Mr. Zhang has a welcome back sale planned. He needs me to help out with the setup.”

But I’m not moving.

“I told you—” Rafe fingers the rim of his now empty beer bottle. “I’ll handle Zhang. You calling out sick for a few days won’t kill him.”

“I really do need the money,” I add halfheartedly, another wrinkle in the growing web that my life has become. It’s laughable how naïve I’d been to think I could extricate myself from Branden’s control so easily. “I’ll have to start looking for another apartment soon.”

An alternate option is asking my father for more money, but I can’t even consider it longer than a few seconds.

“You can work for me.”

I look over to find Rafe still eyeing the sky, his lips pursed thoughtfully. “At least until you can wear sunglasses.”

“Why are you helping me?” I’m genuinely curious—and skeptical.

Any minute, he should toss out some kind of sexual request. Anything to lessen the enormity of what he’s really proposing—helping me yet again, for seemingly nothing in return.

“Because I fucking feel like it. Come on—” He stands and inclines his head for me to follow. Once we’re back in his shop, he enters the backroom to dispose of our trash. When he returns to my position, his expression triggers a pang of alarm in my chest. I can’t decipher it.

“I mean it.” His thumb slips beneath my chin when he comes close enough, raising heat in a shiver-inducing swipe. “You can work for me. At least until you can show your face at Zhang’s. I won’t even take a cut of your pay.”

I raise an eyebrow and wind up wincing with the effort. “Why? And ‘work for you’ doing what?”

“Well…” He steps into me, and I crane my neck back just to hold his gaze. It’s strange how intimidating he can seem when he wants to. Like flipping a switch—all the warmth vanishes from those dark irises, leaving them as unfathomable as the night sky.

“What can you do for me?” He reaches out—but I’m not his target. Instead, he snatches an object from the wall behind me and promptly shoves it against my chest.

A broom.

“You work,” he says. “Unlike Zhang, I expect you to earn your fucking keep. I like the place spotless.”

“Fine.” I curl my fingers around the broom handle as an odd feeling weighs on my stomach, building with every passing second. God, I hate that he can do this to me. Meld fear and gratitude into a disarming mixture that heats my skin and upends my tried and true instincts. His nearness inspires a million nuanced reactions I’ve never acknowledged before. My frantically beating heart, the rapid breaths causing my chest to rise against the fabric of my shirt. His shirt. The rough cotton teases my nipples, hardening them.

And the worst part is that I’m sure he noticed every little detail before I ever did.

“Thank you,” I blurt in a rush, still eying the floor.

“Don’t.” He lumbers into the hall, and I follow him, watching as the pale light emanating from the storefront plays over his skin, reflecting off the subtle hints of gold in it. “Just keep the place spick and span, and I’ll… Shit—” he stops short, his shoulders tensing. “Get back.”

In a fluid motion, he surges forward, blocking me from view. Through the glass in the door, I can make out the shape of an approaching figure on the other side. Someone tall, wearing a signature shade of navy blue…

My worst fear escapes my lips, uttered in a whisper, “Branden—”

“Hannah,” Rafe snaps. “Get back.”

His voice knocks some sense into me, and I manage to lurch deeper into the hall, just as he wrenches the door open.

“Officer?” Rafe greets tersely.

I strain my ears to catch the officer’s reply, biting my lower lip to choke down any sound I might make. It’s Branden.

“Morning,” a man replies—but his voice is deep. Too deep to be my brother’s. Relief hits me like a bucket of ice water, both bracing and chilling—it’s not him. But then who? The silhouette of the figure flung over the far wall is too slender. Not Liam either, but another member of the force. “Are you Rafael Wei-Shen?”

“Figures,” Rafe says with a chuckle. “They’d send some newbie who doesn’t even fucking know me by name.” He laughs again, but the gruff sound triggers an instinctive tug in my stomach. The one that reacts to danger.

Whoever the officer is, he doesn’t seem shaken. His shadow doesn’t waver, his voice resonating crystal clear. “Are you familiar with a club named Stella’s?”

“And if I am?” Rafe replies, but the deliberate second he hesitated before answering alludes that he wasn’t expecting this topic to be the cause of the visit.

“Well, are you aware that sometime after one a.m. this morning, a fire was reported at the club?”

“No. But that sounds like a damn shame, officer.”

“It is,” the officer replies, nonplussed. “Especially considering the club wasn’t empty at the time. A man is currently in critical condition, a second barely escaped with minor injuries. And a family of four in a nearby tenant building reported to the hospital for smoke inhalation. Their newborn required oxygen therapy. So you can imagine our alarm that, according to preliminary analysis, it looks like the cause of the fire may have been arson, Mr. Wei-Shen—”

“Wow. That sounds like a real damn shame, officer,” Rafe snipes. “And not to be rude, but I’ve got some shit to attend to, and it sounds like you’ve got some sick motherfuckers to track down. If I have an epiphany, I’ll let you know.”

“Do that,” the man says. “You can also ‘let me know’ if you recall anything about a young woman named Faith Wen. Her body was found last night. I’m guessing she doesn’t ring a bell?”

Rafe says nothing this time, but I can feel his tension even from here.

“I thought so,” the officer admits. “Several other women have gone missing under similar circumstances. Were you aware of that?”

“No,” Rafe growls.

“When was the last time you recall seeing Faith?”

“Can’t remember,” Rafe snaps. “Is that all?”

“Strange. Seeing as how you and Faith were so close, at least according to what we’ve heard. What happened to that poor girl was a real damn shame. We’ve yet to locate her cell phone either, but you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

Rafe scoffs. “That’s a really interesting investigation tactic there, officer. Letting a suspect know that you’re missing a key piece of evidence.”

“Ah, but I didn’t say you were a suspect, did I? Have a good day, Mr. Wei-Shen.”

As the officer leaves, Rafe slams the door, forming a fist. Without warning, he draws back and slams it knuckles-first against the wall. Again. “Damn it!”

Panting, he pulls away, storming in my direction.

“Did you do it?” I’m standing in his way, but I can’t seem to move. A sense of dread pools in my chest. Or maybe it’s relief? I should be begging for a reason to hate him. Doubt him.

Will he lie to me? Did he lie to me?

“Did you set the fire?”

“I don’t know…” He takes another step, towering over me, his gaze unreadable. “Did I, rabbit? Would I be sloppy enough to set a fucking fire that would bring the cops right to my doorstep? Or would I be a little bit smarter than that?”

His gruff tone differentiates this anger from his usual temper. Rather than rage and shout, he has his jaw clenched, his eyes distant. He’s just as on edge as I am.

Why? His wary glance toward the front of the shop might give me a clue. “Those motherfuckers,” he hisses. “What the fuck are they up to…”

It hits me—if his uncle’s men were behind the attack, he didn’t know. And the prospect caught him off guard. Did the older man leave him out intentionally?

Or was Rafe the one who stayed away?

The questions mount, but all I seem capable of doing is sighing, still clenching his broom.

Eyeing him, I press the bristles to the floor. “When do I start?”

“Huh?” He blinks and shoots me an odd look, only to recover a heartbeat later. His slanted smirk contains a mere fraction of his usual smug persona, however. He’s distracted. “You start now,” he says. “But change first. I’m not running a fucking skin bar.”

He boldly rakes his gaze down to my bare legs before starting for the stairs. I follow him into the apartment and approach the clothing stacked on top of the boxes at the end of the hall. I grab a skirt and sweater only to draw a scoff from my audience.

“I don’t run a nunnery, either,” Rafe says, reaching around me to snatch the sweater away. His breath heats the back of my throat, his voice vibrating through my skin, “Trust me. You look better in my shit.”

Referring to his shirt, I presume. The possession in his words requires further inspection—but later. For the time being, I squeeze past him and enter the bathroom, closing the door behind me.

He retreats, his steps storming toward the living room with a determination that alarms me. At least until I hear his voice, low, strained, presumably speaking into a phone.

“…If I hear you motherfuckers were involved, I swear to God,” he growls. “You’ll answer to me. I told you to keep out of this—I don’t give a fuck what anyone might think. Just be ready when those assholes come calling, because they will.”

Judging from the next few seconds of silence, he must have hung up.

“Hurry up, bunny,” he calls, raising his voice for my benefit. “I don’t got all fucking day.”

“I’m coming,” I snap back.

Approaching the mirror is a grueling ordeal, but in the end, I don’t even look at my reflection. I grab a washcloth from a nearby shelf and wash up blind. Once finished, I tug on my skirt and fresh underwear. I finally exit the bathroom to find Rafe standing near one of the windows in the living room with his back to me.

“What’s the rush?” I ask, crossing my arms. “Are you—”

“Fuck.” His posture alone conveys another alarming shift in his mood. Gone is the mocking, playful aura. “Shit’s about to get real, bunny,” he says coldly, his gaze riveted on something taking place below.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

As I inch closer to the window, I spot the problem for myself—a parade of three, flashy cars parking alongside the curb across the street. As if in some rehearsed motion, the driver’s side doors open in sync, and the occupants stream out. They’re dressed in suits—and I instantly recognize their leader.

Gino.

The other men with him are unfamiliar, but they approach the shop with a clear intent made obvious by their posture—clenched fists and rigid spines. Nothing good.

“Fuck.” Rafe barrels into the kitchen, speaking to me from over his shoulder. “Can you shoot?”

“What?” I gape as he wrenches open a cupboard drawer and rummages through the various random items inside it. Shoot could apply to a milieu of different things—or so I try to convince myself.

At least until he slams an object onto the counter, leaving nothing to the imagination. A part of me knows what is inside the slim black case before he lifts the lid.

“Rafe…” I back away, but my alarm doesn’t prevent him from curling his fingers around the hilt of the weapon and raising it—a gun.

I’ve seen one before—my brother’s service weapon. This one looks to be a similar model, black and no less intimidating.

“What’s going on—”

“You hear shit going down, you take this, and you run,” he says as if I’ve never spoken. “Get the fuck away—but if you can’t, get on the roof. Do you hear me? Listen!” He smacks the counter with his free hand. “Do you remember that place you brought Zhang’s payment? Do you?”

I nod, picturing a musty warehouse on the outskirts of town, by the docks.

“Good. You get there, and you wait for me. If I don’t show, you look for a red case. I already changed the combination to something you’ll be able to guess, and you—”

“You’re scaring me,” I croak.

“You’re damn right, I am.” He returns the gun to the case, closes it, and sets it on the counter. “Remember this shit—”

A sound erupts from down below. One, ironically, we’re both familiar with—smashing glass.

“Damn it.” He pushes past me and wrenches open the door to the stairs. “Keep an ear pressed to the goddamn floor if you have to. You hear me say ‘motherfucker’ in any context, you run. You don’t hesitate. There’s a fire escape below the window in the hallway. Got it?”

“Rafe—”

“You fucking listen.” He holds my gaze until I finally nod.

“Okay,” I rasp.

Satisfied, he pivots and descends the steps, slamming the door behind him.

My pulse hammers against my eardrums, filling the silence left in his absence—but the quiet doesn’t last long. A series of footsteps resonate through the building’s very foundation, heading toward the shop’s front.

“What the fuck do you want?” I hear Rafe demand.

“You son of a bitch!” I recognize the speaker as Gino, his voice constricted with rage. “Do you have any idea of what you’ve done? Who you’ve fucked with? Do you?” More glass shatters in a musical cacophony. The frames holding his drawings? Something bigger? Panic chokes me, and this sense of blindness only enhances my dread. I’m shaking, my knees knocking together, my gaze fixated on the floor as if I can see through it by sheer willpower. What did he tell me?

You hear me say ‘motherfucker’ in any context, you run.

I drop to my knees, bracing my hands against the floorboards. Too suddenly—I might be heard from down below. I hold my breath, fearing just that, and I strain my ears, listening for any hint of what’s happening.

“…think you can fuck around with us?” another man demands. “You stupid cunt. You have no idea what you’ve started.”

“I don’t, do I?” Rafe sounds more distant as if he’s speaking from the very front of the store now. “Tell the bitch holding your leash that he doesn’t know what he’s done. Faith Wen? That name ring a bell? The next time you whore out your girls for a dime, don’t get so goddamn sloppy. I went easy on your ass once. No more.”

“You think you know everything, huh?” Gino replies with a harsh bark of laughter. “Oh, this is well beyond Faith, you dumb son of a bitch. You have no idea who you’ve really fucked with, do you?”

“Do you?” Rafe snarls amid the sound of more smashing glass. Each tingling chime brings to mind a series of picture frames breaking one by one. “I know the assholes you cater to. Bastards who strongarm barely legal girls into sex. Who torture them. Then kill them to protect their fucking reputations—”

“Faith was a lying little cunt,” Gino snarls. “She stuck her nose into where it didn’t belong. But it’s not like you have any proof.” He deliberately emphasizes the word with a hiss. “Do you, Rafael? Hidden in this rundown piece of shit? Keep looking,” he snaps, presumably to his men.

“Go fuck yourself,” Rafe snarls. “If she did give me anything, do you think I’d be dumb enough to keep it here?”

“You better hope not. Though maybe you need a little convincing to tell the truth? Boys. Hold him.”

Thuds erupt, alluding to a struggle, but sheer terror roots me in place. I can’t move. Can’t breathe…

My gaze drifts to the counter, and the box resting there, as my ears strain for a key phrase. Would I have the strength to grab it even then? I try to make my hands move, but my fingers twitch in place and nothing more.

“Fuck,” Rafe snarls, and the pain in his tone sets every nerve on red alert. He’s hurt.

I’m already on my feet, scrambling for the counter. I wrench open the box and clumsily grasp the object inside it. As I turn to the door, a shout rings out.

“Fuck! You motherfuck—”

“Shit!” Another man says. “Someone must have called the fucking cops.”

Cops. That word spurs my paralyzed limbs into motion, and I creep toward the window. Sure enough, a lone cruiser idles alongside the curb. I’m not sure if it’s the same one that used to live in Branden’s driveway, polished to shine.

From this height, I can’t make out the driver or anyone in the passenger seat. Liam?

The sound of a door slamming reinforces the more pressing danger. Three figures trickle from the store and stroll across the street. One man, in particular, has his hands in fists, visible from even here. A substance glistens over the prominent knuckles, and my mind goes blank with recognition. Blood.

By the time I regain my senses, I’m already inching down the short hallway on the first floor, tensing in expectation of what I might find beyond it. The smell reaches my nostrils first—coppery, fresh…

“R-Rafe?” From my vantage point, I can only make out the shattered front door at first—the source of much of the glass scattered across the floor. Anxiety builds with every step I take.

Near the counter, I spot a sight that almost makes me drop the item in my grasp. Rafe—upright, clutching at his chin. Overwhelming relief blinds me to anything else. Like self-preservation. I pick through a sea of broken glass to reach him on bare feet, heedless of the risk.

“Are you okay?” The words have barely left my mouth when I realize that he isn’t. Blood is gushing from his lower lip. A lot. He may need stitches, though I’m already setting the gun aside and winding up the hem of his shirt to use as a makeshift cloth.

“I’m fine,” he grunts, shrugging off my attempts to dab away the blood—until suddenly he isn’t. We’re face to face, toe to toe, and I suck in a breath, my hands frozen with his shirt lifted high enough to expose my stomach. For once, he drops the bravado. His face reveals everything—every emotion he’s hidden so well until now.

Fear.

“They were here about the fire,” I deduce, dabbing at his jaw as I remember how to move again. “And Faith.”

He dodges my touch, his eyes narrowing. “I guess I told you to eavesdrop this time, so the joke’s on me.”

“Yes,” I say thickly. “So, stay still.”

He grudgingly submits to the ministrations but snatches the gun and slips it into his pocket. Thankfully, a split lip seems to be the extent of his injuries. Not that knowing as much stops my fingers from running over his forearm without my brain telling them to, searching for any hint of damage there.

When I reach his shoulder, he gently bats my hand away, swiping at the remnants of blood with his bare hand. “It’s broad fucking daylight, and those assholes came here,” he hisses, sounding more incredulous than infuriated. “Even you were smart enough to grab a weapon, though I don’t know how you’d shoot it with the safety on. Shit. You know it as well as I do—this is about more than a fucking fire, bunny.”

“Tell me, then,” I demand. The back of my neck prickles with an awareness of just how dangerous a request this is.

Some monsters and their secrets are best left in the dark.

Regardless, watching his dark eyes scan the carnage of glass scattered at his feet triggers the same instinctive pull that I felt the night when I stole his lighter. In a childish sense, I’d believed I’d been protecting it from him. What had my rationale been? Some monsters deserve protecting…

“I want to know,” I insist. The hitch in my voice contradicts that confidence. To steel myself, I tiptoe back into the hall in search of the one task I can do as I await his response. I find the broom where I’d left it. Grasping it in both hands, I return to the front and get to work sorting out the pieces of glass too small to pick up.

It’s monotonous work—nearly distracting enough to shield me from his presence. He’s watching me, his gaze like a laser, piercing through flesh and bone.

“What do you want to know?” he asks, though I get the sense that he’s mocking me.

I look back to find his gaze far more serious than I expect, though.

Sighing, I lift my shoulders. “Everything.”

He leans against the counter, letting his lip bleed freely. Confidence enhances him, until he’s a giant, invincible amongst a sea of destruction.

“My uncle calls his outfit ‘red dragon’ though he’s not stupid enough to broadcast it. Most of the people around here know he’s dirty. They just don’t know how.” His gruff inflection conceals a dare.

One I warily take him up on. “So how?”

“Extortion, money laundering. Worse,” he says with a coarse laugh. Shaking his head, he runs his fingers through his hair. “I can’t believe I’m fucking spilling the dark family secrets to a nosy little bunny. You still could be a fucking reporter.”

But he’s talking to me. Deep down. I suspect that he needs to do just that. Talk. To someone. Anyone.

“He has a protection racket going, but it’s just pocket change,” he says. “His real money comes from real estate these days. Cleaning up his image so he can make a jump into politics. To hear him tell it, he’s too ‘reformed’ to get his hands dirty anymore.”

“Do you?” It chills me to the bone that I don’t truly know what I’m asking. Dirty hands could refer to so many things.

Judging from the distant, cold gleam in his eyes, I suspect that none of the answers he could give I’d find reassuring.

“I work for him,” he says softly. “Take that however you fucking want. Does that make me his errand boy? Probably. But he promised me he’s getting out of the business soon. Besides, he’s family.”

But there’s more to it, apparent in what he doesn’t say.

“So what happened with Gino?”

“Gino and his pathetic excuse for a wanna-be-mafia have been muscling in on our territory for years,” he says. “His old man worked with Shen back in the day. They were partners, but lately, the bastard’s gotten too cocky. He has a deal extending from his shitty club all the way to the top. Cops. Politicians. They come to his club for pussy and pay through the nose for it—but that’s just the start of it. You see these cops, in return for the shit they get away with, overlook whatever happens in Gino’s part of town. Murders. Disappearances. Everything. The fish rots from its fucking head—they’re all in on it.”

Anger leeches into his voice that was absent when he spoke of his uncle. Whatever his issue with Gino is, it’s personal.

And he seems to feel that same animosity toward the police.

“You doubt that?” he prods, sensing my discomfort. “Your precious Bran is one of them. You ever hear him talk about hanging around Stella’s?”

His tone is cutting—he wants a fight. Rather than give him one, I turn my attention to a pile of toppled frames in the corner and stoop to salvage what I can. Which isn’t much. Only one casing is wholly unbroken, containing the snarling image of a wolf with mistrustful eyes.

It reminds me of Branden. For all I know, he could be in the cruiser still parked outside. I’m torn between alerting Rafe to its presence or just letting the inevitable take place.

The more I run, the harder he’ll give chase.

“This is beautiful,” I murmur, spotting another drawing, clinging to the distraction it provides.

“That bother you?” Rafe calls, like a shark catching a whiff of a drop of blood. “That your perfect boyfriend—that Bran could be a part of that shit? Trust me, chances are more likely than not that he is, bunny—” a fact he seems to gloat over. “Maybe you don’t know him like you think you do.”

“I know Bran better than anyone.” And that’s why I’m shaking. Why the back of my throat feels tight with the threat of vomit. I know Bran.

Could he be involved in something so heinous? Ironically, Rafe hit on the answer himself—the chances are more likely than not.

“Come here,” he commands.

As I advance toward him, he withdraws the gun, presenting it to me on the flat of his palm. I jump, but the look in his eye banishes any alarm I might feel.

“You think the bastard cares about you,” he says, once again reading me like an open book. “But he didn’t even teach you to fucking shoot? A cop should be good for that much.” He jerks his chin, daring me to inch closer.

The second I’m close enough, he snatches my waist with his free hand, spinning me so that my back hits his chest as he lowers the gun before me.

“Grab it.”

I do with both hands, hating the weight of it. The power conveyed in the trigger.

Disgust inspires another confession from me, “I never wanted to learn.”

Rafe laughs. “Fuck that. You need to. Hold it like this—” he guides my fingers into the right positions. “The gun isn’t bad, bunny. Just make sure that you never point it at something you aren’t willing to destroy. Kill. It’s the intent that matters. Like when you write those pretty little words of yours—but in this case, there is only one conclusion to take away.”

“And what’s that?” I whisper.

“That you decide what happens next,” he says, coaxing me to aim at the wall near one of his still hanging sketches—a snarling dragon. “You are in control of good or bad. It’s all on you. So, learn how to take the safety off at least.”

He demonstrates how with a few flicks of his thumb. Then he pulls away entirely, and I turn to find him stowing the weapon behind the counter.

“You seem comfortable with that,” I deduce as my brain taunts me with why that might be. “Have you shot someone before?”

He grunts, palming the counter. “Don’t ask me questions you don’t really want to know the answer to.”

Fair enough.

“Do you teach all of your women how to operate a weapon?” I ask.

Let alone in, as he put it, “broad daylight,” in the middle of his vandalized shop. The fact that the police aren’t swarming this place stuns me. A glance through the shattered door reveals no one in sight. The city itself might as well be deserted.

And the idling cruiser never does anything more than that. Wait.

“Teach the others? No. Only the sexy little bunnies who play out the innocent shtick,” he counters. But his tone is too hard to be mocking. He’s still on edge. Worried.

“What’s wrong?”

He meets my gaze from over his shoulder. “What happened just now? That was just a friendly kiss on the cheek, bunny—they’ll be back. And if you do decide to stay, you better be ready for that. Gino is a ticking time bomb. It’s only a matter of time before the idiot goes too far.”

If I stay…

There are plenty of reasons why I shouldn’t, but I can’t dwell on the choice now—so, I retrieve the broom, and I perform the one task I have control over. I clean.

Ironically, there is some familiarity in the act where he is concerned. I’m transported back a few days ago when I dutifully scrubbed blood stains from the floor of my old apartment. Utilizing the broom, I push the smallest pieces of glass into the center of the room, letting the monotony lull my brain into a false sense of normalcy.

Nothing else matters. Like the fact that I’m essentially homeless, or the police cruiser slowly driving away without its occupant ever stepping foot from it.

Once I’ve made headway in sorting a majority of the glass, I finally take stock of the store as a whole.

“So much for your invitation-only policy,” I state to Rafe, nodding to the remains of the front door. “You may have to take walk-in clients, after all.”

He shrugs and lumbers down the back hallway, muttering over his shoulder, “I have plywood somewhere.”

A few minutes later, he returns armed with sheets of the material while I set off in search of a dustpan.

Between the two of us, it takes only a few hours to have a majority of the mess either boarded up or filed away into trash bags. Only as I dump the last few shards of glass into a quickly filling bag do I gather up the nerve to broach the topic he himself left open for discussion, “You said I can ask you anything.”

He’s on the other side of the room, wrestling the larger frames into a trash bag. Stopping, he looks back at me. “And?”

I suck in a breath, mulling over how to phrase my next question. But there isn’t a pretty way to put it. “Mara says you’re a member of the triad.”

“Triad?” Laughing, he approaches me and lifts my chin with the pad of his thumb, peering directly into my eyes. “Do you even know what that word fucking means, bunny?”

I don’t break eye contact. “I know it sounds illegal.”

“Illegal.” His voice deepens, raspier than usual. “Do you even know what that word means, rabbit? It means I do shit like ‘shake down old men for money,’ right? Or it could mean that I pay off their debts when a little bunny bats her eyes at me once. It means…”

Suddenly, he’s too close. Warm breath feathers over my skin, and with every inhalation, his nostrils flare as if straining for more of me. More, more, more. I eye the flames licking down his forearm, convinced the dragon suits him more than ever. This must be how such a predator chooses to devour his prey—through fire. One scorching exhale at a time.

He even resembles the creature. Dark, glowing eyes and a fearsome expression unbothered by the day’s events. Jealousy bites at my fragile resolve. Even bruised, he looks unshaken. Untouchable.

I look…

Broken. A trembling little bunny shrinking from my own reflection. But in his eyes, there is no hiding from it. The real Hannah is laid bare in the center of his irises—a creature caught beneath his gaze with a wide, unwavering expression. Someone who makes his brow furrow and his lips part, glistening with wetness.

The motion draws my attention to the red gash there—no longer bleeding—and the trail of dried blood snaking down his jaw.

I don’t know why I do it. Lick my forefinger and swipe at the smear. Maybe self-preservation? Scarlet suits him, feeding the dangerous illusion he struggles to maintain. Without it, he’s no more intimidating than anyone else.

Though no one has these eyes. Dark, they meet mine unflinchingly as he gently captures my hand in his. And no one has his voice, inspiring goosebumps as it drips into my ear. “I’ll tell you,” he murmurs, picking up the thread of our previous conversation. “It means I’m capable of some fucked-up shit, bunny. Shit that would make your innocent little toes curl. It means…you should probably vet the people you fuck.”

“You too,” I counter in a tone I don’t recognize. “You don’t know me.”

He blinks in surprise before releasing a low laugh. “I figured that,” he snarls, lowering his mouth to the crook of my shoulder. “I knew from the second I first saw you, watching me with those bunny eyes—you’re a head fucker. I’ve got my work cut out, don’t I? Making sure you don’t pull your tricks on me—”

He seizes a piece of sore, abused skin, and rakes his teeth over it. In the same moment, he captures my waist, anchoring me to him. My nails sink into his forearms, seeking out stability, but beneath the various aches and pains I still feel all over my body, something sparks to life, too foreign to name. Pleasure?

Whatever it is builds as his lips latch over my pulse point, his tongue lathing in slow strokes.

It’s terrifying how easily I can forget everything else.

“You get off on this,” he grates, exhaling against my collar. “The thrill of it all. But you should ask yourself, bunny… What happens when I decide I’m tired of playing with you?”

In so many ways, it feels like a rhetorical question. One even he doesn’t know the answer to—because he’s the one initiating this game. His fingers are already sliding beneath the hem of my borrowed shirt, drifting to the waistband of my skirt and grazing the flesh beneath. Then he changes tack and travels higher. His fingers find my breasts next, toying with my nipples until I can’t silence a gasp.

Our lips meet, and it’s electric. My skin flushes warm as his tongue coaxes my mouth open before slipping inside. At the same time, his fingers continue their slow, searching caress unabated. I find myself arching into him, extending every moment—his touch, his taste.

But right before the inferno can truly take hold, I draw back.

Good, a part of me urges. You should stop. You have too much to worry about. Branden. The program. Everything. This can only distract you for so long…

Rafe tenses as if expecting me to voice that very conclusion.

But around him, I can’t even predict myself anymore. A question escapes my mouth without any input from my brain, “Is the bed off-limits?”

He thought he could make my life hell. 

But it already was. 

The one time Hannah Dewitt tries to live a little, she winds up in the crosshairs of a local thug who seems hellbent on terrorizing her. As it turns out, there is more to Rafe than meets the eye, and their connection stokes her creativity like nothing else. Drawn to him despite the inherent risks, she can’t resist feeding the flames of this unlikely attraction no matter how hot they burn. 

But Rafe isn’t the only monster in her life. Another looms in the background, and he won’t let her go so easily.

Falling for a man like Rafe was just the beginning.

As danger looms overhead and her secrets are revealed, Hannah will have to trust him now more than ever.

But Rafe has his own past and, once uncovered, the truth may send her running for good…

Or the consequences will plunge her into a series of choices from which there is no turning back from.

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