Heavy

Heavy is coming early this summer. Meet Dina, his HEA, in Hitting the Wall, coming February 12th to Kindle Unlimited!

The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

Heavy

She has the power to bring down Steel Bones. The little hacker knows too much, and she’s crazy enough to blackmail the club. I’ve murdered men for much less, but I can’t touch a hair on her head.

She’s my brother Wall’s little sister.

I can’t kill her. But I can marry her.

And in a war of wits, she’s gonna lose. She thinks she’s smart, but she’s outgunned, outmatched, and out of luck. When this is over, she’s going to be sorry.

It will be so sweet to hear her beg. 

Dina

He’s ruthless. He isn’t afraid to squeeze the trigger, and he knows where to hide a body.

That’s all I need in a man.

He does run his mouth a lot. I don’t like that.

But he looks like a cross between a barbarian and a rogue in a role-playing game. He can almost beat me at chess. And he can’t tear his eyes away from my body.

It’s a strange sensation.

I’m not sure if I like it.

But I might let him touch me. Eventually.

He is my husband after all.

Heavy is a steamy, marriage of convenience romance. It’s the seventh book in the Steel Bones Motorcycle Club series, but it can be read as a standalone. Intended for adult readers.

HEA guaranteed.

CHAPTER 1

DINA

I wish everyone had a name like Heavy Ruth. It’d make life so much simpler.

He’s heavy. He’s ruthless. He’s labeled.

No guessing or trying to pick up cues—no wondering if a twitch is a facial cue or the beginnings of a sneeze. How straightforward everything would be if you learned a guy’s name, and you knew everything important right away.

I like straightforward. I like simple. I like predictable, quiet, and in my control.

And I hate every single agonizingly awful second of this.

I’m perched on the end of Heavy Ruth’s bed, my stomach knotted and queasy, my brain numb from the buzzing. I snuck into his room at 4:26 a.m., and it’s 7:37 a.m., and he’s still sleeping. He’s on his back, splayed like Da Vinci’s perfect man—the circle pose, not the square.

Da Vinci would not have used Heavy Ruth as a model. His proportions are all wrong. His head’s too big, for one. It’s hard to tell whether he has a prodigiously large cranium or if it’s all that hair—the bushy black beard and the wild black mess on top of his head—but it throws off the symmetry.

His chest is big, too, but it’s on scale with his legs. If his thighs are thick tree branches, then his chest is a massive trunk. His head is the leaves. The dimensions are correct for an oak or sequoia, but not for a man.

He snuffles, hacks a cough, and scratches his crotch. My breath hitches, but he doesn’t wake up.

Realistically, he could sleep for several more hours. I cannot sit cross-legged and cramping by his enormous feet much longer. I’ll have to pee. I don’t have to now, but I will, and worrying about it prompts my wonky brain to produce cortisol, and cortisol surges always make me have to pee.

I pick at my nails—I don’t even try to stop myself. Desperate times and all.

I could poke Heavy very lightly. Or make a low humming sound. He’d wake naturally and calm, and he might not immediately lunge for the pistol on his night table.

The gun—it’s a 9 mm Sig Sauer with a thumb safe—is three inches from his right hand. If he startled awake and went for it, I might be able to drop off the bed and onto the floor before he could squeeze off a round. I can’t do a rough estimate of my odds since I have no idea how fast he can aim and fire.

The gun is a complication. I didn’t notice it until I’d already eased onto on the end of the bed. I’m so overstimulated, I only register the broad strokes in my surroundings.

It’s like opening your eyes underwater. You can see, but it’s disorienting.

Motorcycle clubhouses are loud, smelly, and teeming with simultaneous visual stimuli. I saw two women’s bare breasts, and one man’s flaccid penis, and I was mostly staring at the floor and stealing glimpses to navigate up here to the bunks.

At least Heavy Ruth’s room is dim and quiet. It smells earthy—like wood and old books. It’s not a bad smell, per se, but it’s strong. There are too much visual stimuli here, too. I mostly stare at his feet poking at the sheet, but I slide a glance around the room every so often.  

An entire wall is dedicated to a murder board. Like in a detective show. Photos and newspaper clippings and index cards connected by red string and thumb tacks. I don’t look in that direction again. If I tried to make sense of it, my battered brain would crack.

There are full bookshelves. More stacks on the floor. A table with a chess set.

Above his bed, there’s a poster of a pin-up girl from the sixties. I’m obsessed. She’s naked, on her knees and leaning back, propped on her hands, her huge, perky breasts thrust up, smiling from ear to ear.

I can’t tell if it’s a Duchenne smile or not. She’s definitely contracting her zygomatic major muscle, but she’s wearing too much eye liner to tell if her orbicularis oculi are engaged.

Duchenne smiles are genuine. All other smiles are warnings. I learned that from social skills group back in middle school.

I hate smiles. I wish they came with labels. Clear ones like “real” or “sleezy.” Not “Duchenne.”

Heavy sniffs again, and I straighten my spine, but then he lets out a whistly, grumbly snore. Ugh. This part of my plan is subpar. I hate waiting, and I really hate waiting in one position. It twists my innards, and I get bloated.

I could tickle the bottom of one of his big feet. His instinct would be to reach down, not toward the gun at his side. Or I could touch his dick. It’s tenting the thin sheet just like his long feet. He has an erection. It started twitching about a half hour ago, and it’s been rising steadily since like a ghost in a sheet.

I’m no expert, but it seems disproportionately large. In terms of length and girth. And bulbosity of head. It’s as if a stout prairie dog wearing a stormtrooper helmet is alerting. Or a fat man’s fist is slowly thrusting up from his pelvis.

And it’s twitchy. What kind of tensile strength does a dick that size have? Prodigious, I bet. I could nudge it and find out. Kill two birds with one stone.

But it would be wrong to touch his dick without his consent. By that logic, it would also be wrong to tickle his feet. But my lower belly aches. I’m wearing leggings. I can’t pop a button and ease the pressure. I need to move. What can I hum?

What song would wake a man like Heavy Ruth in a good mood?

“Are you just gonna look at my cock, or are you gonna touch it?” A bombastic bass voice, laced with sleep, rolls from the head of the bed.

I jump in my skin, choking on a breath.

He’s awake. His eyes are wide open. They’re pitch black and glittering, which is strange, since the shades are drawn, and the room’s cast in gray shadow.

Eye contact is too much, so I dart my gaze back to his dick.

“It would be wrong to touch it without your consent,” I mumble.

It seems even bigger now, but I think it’s a matter of angle, not an actual increase of size. It’s pointing more towards his head than the ceiling.

“I consent,” he rumbles, noisily drawing himself up, sniffing and hacking, until he’s settled upright against the head of the bed. The sheet falls down, baring his chest. Yikes.

He’s very muscular. A man his size should be more barrel-chested, but he has definition. Slabs for pecs. His abs aren’t a pack; they’re chiseled from the rock-hard mountain of his torso.

And he’s hairy. I wouldn’t call it a pelt, per se, but it’s no smattering. It trails in a downward direction, laying flat, not wiry. I wonder if it’s soft?

His dick is still covered by the sheet, but black curls and a hint of purplish-red peek out. I’ve never seen an erect penis in real life. Growing up with four brothers, I’ve seen plenty flaccid ones. And a lot of bare ass. Especially Cash’s. He’s an idiot.

I flash a glance at Heavy’s face. His eyes are crinkled at the corners. He licks his lips and dips his gaze down to his lap.

He wraps a massive hand around the base and slowly strokes toward the head. The sheet slips a little lower. I can see a little more. It looks like the skin’s pulled taut. Would it be hot to the touch?

Logically, it’d be hot. It’s blood flow, right? Increased blood flow equals a rise in temperature.

But how hot? Warm like a blush? Or burning like when you bake in the sun in the middle of summer?

“It’s okay,” he urges. “Come closer, little girl.”

He strokes it again, over the sheet, root to tip. A damp spot shows up on the fabric.

I raise up on my knees. I need to take the pressure off my belly, and I’m antsy. Squirmy.

“You can do whatever you want. Come on,” he urges.

I like those words. I can never do whatever I want. I can’t now, either, of course, but I rerun what he said through my memory so it’ll stick. You can do whatever you want.   

I am curious, but I don’t actually know what I’d do with a dick. I’m on the internet all day. I’ve seen porn.  I understand the possible permutations, but I haven’t thought through what I’d try, if the opportunity arose.

It’s definitely “arisen.”

“Well?”

I dart another glance at his face.

Oh. Ugh. He’s smirking under his thick beard. Smirks are the opposite of Duchenne. It means I’m being made fun of. I scooch backward and slide off the foot of the bed.  

“Pass.”

He lets out an exaggerated sigh. “Then, what can I do for you, Miss…?”

I blink a few times, try to sift out the extraneous stimuli and find my way back to my train of thought, as I wander over toward his murder board. I’m careful to keep my back to the wall. If I look, I’ll get lost again.

I have a plan. I designed it so that I don’t need to think clearly. I knew I’d be overstimulated. I just need to follow the script. I suck down a deep breath.

“It’s not what you can do for me; it’s what I can do for you,” I begin. I stole that line from a movie.

“You still have my consent, baby.” He licks his generous red lips. Then he stretches his arms over his head, biceps bulging, as he yawns like a sea lion, and cracks his neck.

He doesn’t take me seriously. I clench my teeth. It doesn’t matter. He will.

I plunge ahead and recite my next lines.

“I have proof that Des Wade and Anderson Watts planted five crates of black-market Kalashnikovs in a box truck in 2001 with the intention of framing the Steel Bones Motorcycle Club.”

I sink back against his murder board. A push pin digs into my shoulder blade. I force myself to watch his face. I hate it. It hurts. But I need the information.

It was relaxed, lips curving up, but as I speak, it transforms. He bares his teeth, narrows his eyes, his jaw jutting. His entire body tenses, and somehow, he seems bulkier.

My heart kicks up its pace.

He rises from the bed, allowing the sheet to fall—and he’s naked and hair and bulging with muscle—and he traverses the room on one giant step to loom over me, vibrating with menace, almost seven feet tall, snarled hair falling over his shoulders, fisted hands the size of hams.

My heart goes even crazier, thumping against my ribs. I need to run. He’s between me and the door. And I can’t run. This is a panic response. I just need to breathe through it. I wait for him to reply, and then I say my next line. All I need to do in this moment is be still.

But my body thinks he’s a predator, and I’m prey. I’m itching to bolt. I could duck him. Big is slow, right?

But I’m not in real danger. Come on brain. You know this. I have what he wants more than anything else in the world. I’m in control. I force myself to suck down a breath.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, little girl,” he finally says.

His voice has lowered, impossibly deeper, and the words roll from his chest like thunder.

Shivers zip down my spine, and I break into a cold sweat.

I cough to clear my throat and visualize my script.

“On August 7, 2001, Steven Wayne Johnson and his son Brian Lee Johnson were pulled over by the state police on Route 29. By no coincidence, there was a photographer there from the county paper.”

I bet the photo’s on the wall somewhere behind me.

“What’s your scam?”

Heavy widens his stance, broadening his shoulders. He was already a giant before. The move is gratuitous, but my body recognizes it as aggression.

My heart breaks into an erratic clippety-clip-clop. It’s going to explode. Bust out of my rib cage like an alien. The contents of my chest cavity are going to leak out all over his expensive wool carpet.

I dig my nails into skin on the back of my hand, let the pain center me. My heart is fine. It’s reacting normally. I just have to keep going.

I swallow and plunge ahead.

“It was a set up. Anderson Watts used the publicity to tip a close race for state senator. Watts used his clout—and the local handwringing about rising crime—to push through a stalled development deal for the Petty’s Mill waterfront. Des Wade, the developer, made millions.”

Heavy looms closer and closer. He still has an erection. His flushed, reddish-purple dick bobs every time he moves.

“What’s your name?” he bites out.

I assume he’s glowering down at me. Threateningly. But my gaze is glued to his dick. It’s pointing at me.  

“It doesn’t matter,” I say to it. “Do you want the evidence you’ve been looking for or not?”

He bristles, his chest vibrating with vicious, animalistic reverberation.

“If you’re gonna blackmail me, little girl, look me in the eye.”

“Pass.”

I can’t. Not now.

I can force myself to maintain eye contact with Mom or my best friend Rory, but in this moment? No way. I wouldn’t be able to speak.

He lurches forward, bracing a thick arm on the wall, caging me in. His forearm is larger in diameter than my calf. Veins pop from the muscle. He’s not even flexing.

“You don’t get to pass,” he says, pinching my chin with his thumb and forefinger.

I screw my eyes shut.

He digs in, bruising my jaw. “What’s your name?”

“Boris Stasevich.”

“Your name is Boris Stasevich?”

He forces my chin higher ‘til my neck is stretched and my head won’t go back any further. I keep my eyes closed.

He’s so close. Heat radiates off him. He smells spicy. Cloves or cardamon.

He could snap my neck. He could bash my head against the wall. Blood pounds in my ears.

I have a script. I have what he wants. I’m in control.   

“Boris Stasevich sold Watts the guns,” I manage, my voice wavering. “Stasevich was extradited five years ago. As part of his appeal to stay in the U.S., he gave sworn testimony against Watts and implicated Wade.”

“Bullshit. Never happened. That would have been front-page news.”

“The feds buried it. Stasevich lost his appeal. They put him on a plane to Moscow. He was dead in weeks.”

He’s silent for a moment. I can hear him breathing.

“Very entertaining. You read a lot of spy novels?”

“I don’t like fiction.”

“You sure like telling stories.”

“I have the affidavit.”

“Show me.”

“I want something.”

He laughs, bitter and booming. It blasts over me, and now I’m trembling. If he weren’t holding me up, I don’t know if my legs would hold me.

I grab his wrist. His fingers don’t loosen their unforgiving grip on my jaw. I’m in control, but he’s stronger. A fear response is natural. He’s killed before. Many times. That’s why I’m here. 

I can’t help it. I peek up from under my eyelashes. His lips are twisted, his eyes blazing. With the hair, he looks entirely uncivilized, a prehistoric man, a creature of violence and rage and appetite.

He does not look like a person who can reason, but I’ve done my research. Heavy Ruth is a genius. I cycle through the evidence. Perfect SAT. Summa cum laude as an undergrad. Perfect GRE. Named author on a half dozen highly-cited papers on sustainable design. He could have gone to Silicon Valley and made a billion dollars.

He’s a murderer, but he’s rational. He’s motivated by protecting those close to him.

Instead of bailing to big tech, he came back here. To his small town, decimated by opioids and the collapse of domestic steel. He took over his dad’s motorcycle club, and turned it into a construction company with millions a year in billings. And he did it in less than a decade.

He employs hundreds. He has politicians in his pocket, and absolutely no one will shit-talk him in public. I’ve spent months online, researching him and the MC. People keep his name out of their mouths.

That’s power.

He’s worth millions, and he bunks in the clubhouse and dresses like a combination of a lumberjack and a fugitive from a punk rock Apocalypse.

He’s terrifying, but predictable. He’ll act in the interest of his club.

Predictable is good. I have what he wants. I’m in control.

“Well?” he snarls.

I blink. Sweet lord. I lost focus. His hand is vise around my jaw, and I’m off in my head. I can’t afford to glitch out. I have to follow the script. What’s my next line? Oh, yeah.

“Do you know the movie Strangers on a Train?”

“Who do you want me to kill for you?”

Oh. Yeah. Of course, he has.

“I’ll kill him myself. I need help with the—logistics. And cover up.”

Heavy’s hand moves so quickly, it doesn’t register until I feel him squeeze my left boob. It hurts.

“What are you doing? Stop.”  

I jam myself back into the wall as if that’ll help. He ignores me, running his hands over my other breast and belly, rough and brisk. Then he rips my button down tunic off and drops it to the floor, his gaze raking down my front. My entire chest flushes pink.

I bring my arms up to cover myself, but he flips me, and now my boobs are smooshed against the murder board. He rips my bra off—doesn’t bother to unclasp the hooks—and then he drags down my leggings and panties to my ankles, holding me in place with a forearm against my shoulder blades. It feels like a steel bar. A whimper escapes my throat.

He yanks the leggings off my feet. My ballet flats go flying.

He whirls me to face him again. My back to the wall. Naked except for black liner socks. It’s cold. I huddle, wrapping my arms around my breasts, jamming my thighs together to try and hide my pussy.

We’re both naked.

I’m gasping. I have goosebumps everywhere.

What’s happening?

I can’t think it through. There’s static in my brain. I cower, but there’s nowhere to hide. I’m stuck. Pinned in place.

And he’s too big. I can’t stare over him. Can’t stare around him.

“Stay put,” he barks, collecting my clothes. He stalks to the door and pitches them out into the hall.

When he comes back, he doesn’t come back to where I’m huddling against the wall. Instead, he lowers his bulk to the edge of his bed, facing me, knees wide. The mattress sags, and the springs creak. He still has an erection.

I lower my eyes to the beige carpet. It’s freezing in this room. My nipples have hardened to points, and I’m shivering.

He’s looking at me.

What’s he doing?

Thinking.

That’s what I’d be doing.

He’s thinking, and he’s staring at my naked body.

Is he thinking about my naked body?

That wouldn’t be reasonable. I’ve dropped a bomb on him. He has to be considering the angles. Even if it’s kind of a no-brainer. I’m giving him everything he wants, and I’m not asking him to add a body to his count. All I need is back up, and uh, disposal services.

I have no qualms about pulling the trigger myself, but I’m not stupid. I’m on the spectrum. I struggle with certain things, and I don’t want to implicate myself in a homicide because I glitch out in the moment.

Should I ad lib? Repeat the offer?

It usually doesn’t go well when I speak off the cuff.

Besides, I feel weird. There’s a strange tension swirling low in my belly. Like during hide-and-seek when you’re trying to stay still and silent, and the other person is close and inching closer. Kind of like I have to pee, but not.

What does he see when he stares at me?

My parents call me a tomboy. I’ve explained that the term is problematic, but that doesn’t stop them. They mean that I have short hair and small boobs. And I work with computers. I pick my cuticles, and sometimes I go a few days without a shower. I’ll wear the same hoodie every day for weeks. I sleep in boxers.

Still, the term is problematic.

I glance up from the carpet. His back is ramrod straight, shoulders squared, hands carefully resting on his massive, muscular, hairy thighs. His dick is flush against his abs. And he’s looking at my chest.

I flush hot all over, instantly, like I’m a struck match. I drop my gaze, and my arms fall to my sides.

Why did I do that?

Now he can see everything. The thrum in my belly swirls and pools between my legs. I tingle. My breasts are achy. The air’s chilly, my skin’s burning, and everything’s sixes and nines.

I press my palms to the wall and study the vacuum cleaner lines crisscrossing the carpet.

This feels dangerous.

It’s wrong.

My brain glitches, not my body. My body’s predictable. It doesn’t function perfectly, but it never does this either.

The longer he stares, the more I’m filling up with something.

It’s too much, but—   

I like it. I like his eyes on me.

It’s quiet and dim in the room. No movement. Nothing is touching my skin. No chafing or itching or constriction. The only stimulus is his gaze and the riot it’s stoking inside me.

I change my mind. It’s not too much. It’s not enough.

Maybe I would like to touch him. I bite my lower lip, inch forward, and somehow, I break the spell.

He snarls, grabs the sheet, wads it up, and hurls it at me.

“Cover yourself.”

My face bursts into flame.

I snatch the sheet from the floor, wind it around me like a toga, and tuck it tight above my breasts.

I misread the situation. If I wasn’t clutching the sheet in a death grip, I’d whack myself in the head like I did when I was a kid.

This isn’t sexual. I’m extorting him. He’s not lusting after me. He’s plotting.

This is very embarrassing.  

No man has seen me naked before. I’m shy or repressed, but I am an introvert, and pretty much a recluse. When I was in high school, my brother Cash bullied any guy who dared look at me. Unless I had a web cam, there’s no one to get naked for.

This is bad.

Maybe he can’t tell that I liked it. Everyone always complains that I have an unreadable face.   

He jerks his head toward the door. “When my people look through those clothes, are they gonna find a bug?”

“No.”

It would be really dumb to record myself pre-meditating murder.

Of course, if there was a bug, “his people” wouldn’t find it. You’d think a guy from M.I.T. would hire better tech people. I broke into his systems in a matter of hours, and I’ve been reading his emails for months now.

He reaches for the night table, and my heart leaps into my throat. He grabs his phone. I wipe my palms on the sheet. If he noticed where my head was, he’s not acknowledging it. That’s good.

He scrolls and taps. “Mikey? There are some clothes in the hallway in front of my room.” He pauses. Grunts. “Yeah. Take ‘em out back and burn ‘em.”

He drops his phone onto the mattress and falls silent. I get the sense he’s staring at me again, but I learned my lesson. I study his feet. They’re like paddles. Or flippers.  

He’s probably trying to make me nervous, but I’m already nervous. I’ve been on edge since I got in the ride share. I stole a handful of my mom’s chill pills. That’s the only way I lasted for four hours in the back of a compact car with slightly damp upholstery and the lingering odor of dank weed and French fries.

Then, I had to crouch behind a truck in the clubhouse parking lot until it got late enough that everyone would be drunk and unsuspecting. Sneak in. Dodge the folks still partying. Find the stairs. Open several doors before I found Heavy’s bedroom.

I can’t get more nervous. I’m already one hundred percent nerves, and I have been since noon yesterday.

Longer, really. Since I decided Uncle Van has to die.

I don’t want to stand here and be stared at anymore.

I shuffle over to a wingback chair and sink into the soft leather.

“You have a lot of fuckin’ nerve.” His voice booms in the silence.

“A hundred percent,” I agree.

He makes a sound between a sigh and a snort. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m neurodivergent.”

“Not that. I mean the blackmail and the conspiracy to commit murder. And trespassing. Breaking and entering.”

“Oh.” I knead the sheet. It’s high thread count. No irritating seams. Very nice. “I have good reasons.”

“Yeah?” He’s incredulous. “And what are those?”

I didn’t script an answer to that question. I thought offering Heavy Ruth the heads of Anderson Watts and Des Wade on a silver platter would be sufficient. I figured he’d want to know as little as possible.

I’m not good at reading people, though. Or accurately anticipating reactions or correctly identifying motivations.

I also suck at lying.

“Revenge.”

“You want revenge?”

I nod. I also want to stop my uncle from hurting anyone else, ever again, but mostly, I want revenge.

“Against who?”

“My uncle.”

“What did he do to you?” There’s an odd note in his voice. I can’t quite name it.

“He hurt my friend. He broke up my family. He’s evil.”

“’Let he who is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.’”

Is he quoting the Bible at me?

“’When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evil doers,’” I answer. My parents dragged me to church every Sunday, and I have an excellent memory.

“’Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil—’” His voice booms louder. Sonorous. Pretentious.

I interject and finish the verse for him. “’—For those who are evil will be destroyed, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.’”

“I’m not a hired gun, little girl. You’re playing a dangerous game.”

“This isn’t a game.”

“What did he do to your friend?”

It’s not my story to tell. I ignore him and nervously pluck an ivory chess piece from the board. The queen. It’s smooth and cool. I roll it in my fingers.

“Put that back,” he snaps. “I’m in the middle of a game.”

I cast a glance at the board. “Don’t worry. I’ll put it back. C7.”

There’s a pause. “You play chess?”

“4D,” I say. It’s a joke. My plan is as straightforward and obvious as they come. I’m blackmailing the president of a motorcycle gang to help me kill my uncle and dispose of his body.

He growls, and rises to his feet. I draw myself against the back of the chair. Why is he standing? What changed?

Oh, crap. I didn’t answer him. He snapped. I made a smart remark. He’s angry.

I can always see where I go wrong in retrospect, and I can never, ever see it coming.

He swoops down, grabs me by both arms, and hikes me into the air. By some miracle, the sheet holds. He lifts me like I weigh nothing until I am eye level, pressing my elbows so hard they compress my sides and steal my breath.

Oh, no. I’m caught.

His head is twice the size of mine. It’s like looking into the face of a statue. I glance down. I’m dangling a foot and a half off the floor, and I still have the queen clutched in my fist.

“Look me in the eye,” he demands.

I bite my lower lip and jerk my head no.

He gives me a shake. My teeth rattle.

“You’re hurting me.”

“I’m a murderer, aren’t I?” he sneers.

“Yes. You are. There are at least seven bodies buried on Half Stack Mountain.”

His grip tightens, biting into my flesh. If he had nails, he’d draw blood.

“How do you know that?” he spits.

I didn’t. Not for sure. Not until this moment.

It was deductive reasoning, mostly. I started with the premise that a formerly one percenter motorcycle gang had killed before. I searched local news for reports of missing men and cross-referenced them with known associates of Steel Bones or their rival club, the Rebel Raiders. Then, I hacked into the club member’s credit card accounts and looked for patterns.

Shortly after each of the men were reported missing, Steel Bones bought gas or cigarettes at locations along eastbound Route 11. Eastbound route 11 leads to Half Stack Mountain, nothing else. I wrote a program that compared satellite images of the area over time. I found beavers building a dam on the north face, the emerald ash borer decimating acres of forest, and someone planting trees.

Or digging graves and then planting trees.

I’m inferring a whole heck of a lot, but by his reaction, I’d say I’m not too far off base.

Still, a magician doesn’t reveal her tricks.

“I’m not going to tell you.”

He drops me. I land on my feet—barely—and stagger, but before I can bolt, he has me again. His huge, calloused hand wraps around my throat. My pulse throbs in his grasp. I clutch his wrists on instinct. He’s not squeezing.

Much.

Yet.

My heart gallops faster, my entire body tensing. I want to fight. Scream. Claw at his bare, hairy chest. It’s so hard to remain still.

But he’s not going to kill me. I have what he wants.

This is posturing.

If he was going to kill me, he would have already done it. It would be so easy for him to break my neck. I can feel the strength of his grip. He’d snap my spine like a twig.

This is intimidation. I have the information he needs, so I have the upper hand. He’s trying to regain dominance. He can’t kill me.

He could torture me, though. I’d fold so easily. I freak out at gross textures or unpleasant sensations or loud sounds. I force myself to meet his eyes. It hurts. I hold for the count of ten.

“I’m not going to tell anyone else, either,” I promise. “If you help me.”

“You’re blackmailing me.”

“You’re strangling me.” My gaze drops, and I exhale. “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

He sighs and eases his hand down my shoulder. His touch is rough. Abrasive. But it’s not irritating. It makes me shiver.

“How did you get in here?” he asks.

“Your bedroom?”

“The clubhouse.”

I shrug. “The front door.”

“You walked right in?”

I nod.

“Did anyone see you?”

“No.” I don’t think so. I kept it moving.

“How did you find my room? Do you have the floorplans?”

“I opened doors until I found you.” I grimace, remembering. I saw a pimply ass pumping between a woman’s spread thighs. She was scrolling on her phone and chugging whiskey from a bottle. It was sad, and also wet and slurpy.

“No one called you out?”

I shake my head. His security is pretty lax, especially for a quasi-criminal enterprise. I imagine they don’t do crimes on site, but still, it’s sloppy.

“What’s your name?” he asks again.

“I think we should keep things anonymous. You know, because of the co-conspirator thing.”

“Why aren’t you scared?”

“I am.” On impulse, I grab his hand and hold it to my chest. My heart’s pounding.

“Why don’t you seem scared?”

I lift a shoulder. “Alexithymia.”

He snorts. “You seem to know what you’re feeling.”

I blink. He knows what alexithymia means? I’m surprised, but I guess he is a genius. Perfect verbal score on the SAT means he knows a lot of random words.

Alexithymia is the inability to identify or describe your own feelings. It’s why I had a chart of facial expressions hanging above my desk until I graduated high school. And why I had a shelf of “social stories” as a kid, the kind where a little girl lost her kitty and felt sad. Then, she found the cat, and she felt happy.

I hated those stories with a passion. The little girl was much too irresponsible to own a pet.

“Racing heart. Cold sweat. Gun on night table. Threat of strangulation,” I tick off on my fingers. “Fear.”

It’s not rocket science. I have trouble with subtle or new emotions, but fear, sadness, happiness, anger. I’ve got those down.

“So, you want me to help you kill your uncle. And then you’ll give me the evidence against Watts and Wade?”

“Yes.”

“And you won’t say anything about what you think you know? About Half Stack Mountain?”

“No. I promise.”

“Oh, you promise, do you?” He’s saying what I want to hear, but his tone—it doesn’t match. “And then you disappear wherever you came from, and we never speak again? Strangers on a train?”

“Yes. Strangers on a train.”

“Sit.” He presses my shoulder, gentle but insistent, and I sink to the chair. My system is wacked from being flooded with wave after wave of adrenaline. I’m getting shaky. I need water. And a break.

He crosses the room. I’m so overstimulated that I close my eyes. Just for second. Just to regroup.

A safety clicks.

My eyes fly open. He’s aiming the Sig Sauer at my head. A cry flies from my lips.

“I’m a good shot,” he says, calm and even. “It won’t hurt.”

I shrink against the high back of the chair. This isn’t supposed to happen. It’s not how the plan goes.

“If you kill me, you won’t get your evidence.”

“I know it exists now. I’ll find it.”

His arm is straight, unwavering. The barrel doesn’t move. He’s going to do it. He’s going shoot me. I whimper. I misjudged. Again. So badly.

“It’s not personal,” he says. “You’re a threat to my club. My family.”

“I’ll walk away. I won’t tell anyone about the bodies on the mountain. I swear.” My voice sounds wrong. I don’t sound like me.

Blood pounds in my ears. There’s too much. The gun, the man, the hair, the nakedness, the leather creaking when I shift, the sweat behind my knees. I want to close my eyes, but I don’t want darkness to be the last thing I see.

“What’s your name?” he asks again.

“Dina,” I sob.

“I’m sorry, Dina.” He draws in a breath. Hot tears fill my eyes.

I brace. The clock on the wall ticks. And ticks again. I count my breaths. My last breaths. One. Two. Three. I can’t look at him. All I can look at is the barrel of the gun.

“Please don’t,” I whimper.

And then, by some miracle, there’s a loud, rapid banging at the door.

“Heavy! You awake?”

It’s a man. It sounds like—I don’t dare hope. I leap to my feet, make to dash behind the chair, find something to throw, but Heavy already has me scooped in one arm and dangling.

The knocking continues. “Heavy! Wake up! It’s an emergency, man!”

Oh, I know this voice! Tears trickle down my cheeks. He’ll save me. I gulp down a breath to scream, but before I can, I’m slammed against the wall next to the door, a meaty hand clamped over my mouth.

“Don’t make a sound,” Heavy snarls. Then he opens the door. I’m wedged between it and the wall. He positions himself so that he can point the gun at me, and no one can see.

“What?” he barks.

“I need some men. My mom just called. My sister has disappeared. She thinks she might have gone for a hike in the woods. Maybe gotten lost or hurt.” John’s panting and speaking fast.

I want to call out, but the gun is so close. Inches from my chest. Oh, my god. If I scream, he could fire. And then shoot John.

Heavy wouldn’t shoot a member of his own club, would he?

If my big brother knew Heavy was holding a gun on me, he’d kill him. Without hesitation. If John attacked, Heavy would defend himself. Heavy’s armed, and John might not be. I swallow down my panic, muffle the whimpers I can hardly control. John can’t know I’m here.

“How many men do you need?” Heavy asks.

“As many as you can spare.”

“Take everyone. Call in Smoke and Steel, too. How long has she been gone?”

“Since lunchtime yesterday.”

“Jesus. And your mom just called?”

“Dina keeps odd hours. No one realized she was missing until breakfast.”

“Dina?” Heavy’s adjusts his grip on the pistol.

“Yeah. I’ll call Forty. Have him muster the men. I need to be on the road.”

“How old is Dina?”

“Twenty-four.”

“Twenty-four?” Heavy repeats in his low, gravelly bass.

“Yeah. She’s, uh, got issues. She doesn’t leave home. She doesn’t drive. No friends. We don’t know where she went. The hike’s a guess. This isn’t good, man. She’s on the internet all the time—”

Oh, my god. He’s making it sound like I met a perv in a chat room. I mean, I’ve run into my share, but I’m not stupid.

And he’s also making me sound mentally incapacitated. I mean, it’s partly true. I don’t leave home. Or drive. But I do have a friend. Rory Evans. She lives in New York City now, but even when we were neighbors, we mostly texted.

I have a job. I do freelance coding. And I can read a damn compass. I’d never get lost in the woods.

“I’m sure she’s fine,” Heavy says. “Go. Call me with an update.”

“Thanks, man.” John slaps the doorframe and jogs off.

Relief floods my chest, following by a cascading rush of fear. John’s taking everyone with him. No one will hear a gun shot. No witnesses. And Heavy knows there’s already a story. I went for a hike, and I never came back.

My breath comes in short pants. I fist the sheet that somehow is still wrapped around my cold, shivering body. I screw my eyes shut, and I can’t stop the high-pitched keening from coming out of my mouth.  It’s too much.

“Be quiet.” Heavy closes the door with a snick.

I can’t. I keen louder.

“You’re Dina Wall?” he demands.

I slide to my butt, wrapping my arms around my shins, burrowing my head between my knees. He can shoot me down here. I’ve had enough.

“You’re John Wall’s sister?” he prods, nudging me with his foot. He’s angry. Loud. I press my palms to my ears.

“What are you doing?” he booms. You can’t muffle a voice like his very much. It’s too deep. “What the hell are you doing?” he repeats, shouting.

I’m trying to block him out. I’m trying to mute his oversized, homicidal, too-damn-loud self. I made so many mistakes.

He isn’t interesting. He’s a stone-cold criminal. I’m aware of the irony. That’s why I’m here, after all.

He’s not being reasonable. The logical call is to take the deal. Maximum reward, minimum risk. How is killing me safer than helping me dispose of a body?

He’s irrational.

And unpredictable.

And I don’t like that at all.

I rock. I wish he’d just do what he’s gonna do, instead of looming there, too close, smelling like Black Jack gum.

Finally, he grunts. And then I’m tucked to his chest, and he’s hauling me across the room. Another door opens. He lowers me, carefully placing me on a cold, hardwood floor, and leaves. It smells like fabric softener and boots. I peek. It’s a small room. A closet. Pitch black.

There’s no window. No way out. I jump to my feet and try the door. There’s no lock on the smooth knob, but it doesn’t budge.

And then there’s a hammering around the frame.

“Are you nailing me in?” I shriek.

“There’s a chair under the doorknob, too. Don’t bother trying to escape.” He drives in a few more nails. “Steel Bones might have been easy to get into, little girl, but it’s gonna be a bitch to get out.”

He chuckles, bombastic and evil. Another door slams, and then there’s silence.

I grossly miscalculated.

I roll the queen in my fingers and scoot into a far corner.

So did he.

He didn’t shoot. He didn’t snap my neck. He didn’t shove me at John and tell him to handle me. 

I’m not dead. I’m locked in a closet. That means I have what he wants.

I’m in control.

I lay on my side, curl up like a shrimp, and let the dark and quiet sooth turn the volume down in my brain.

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