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PROLOGUE

TWO YEARS AGO

 

AFTER THE ORANGE GLOW OF THE TUNNELS, the old bottling plant was full of spooky shadows, jagged silhouettes, and strange noises. I hated coming through here, especially after a long shift. It was too quiet. Even by day, it was eerie. By night, it seemed like some graveyard full of old war machinery, long abandoned by humanity. I hurried through the main hall and emerged out of the doorway into the yard.

Nights in winter always seemed darker than in summer, and tonight was darker than most, the moon obscured by thick clouds. The only light came from the guard’s hut on the gate, a hundred yards ahead of me.

“I hate this place,” Posy muttered, picking her way over a pile of rubble a few feet behind me.

I squinted towards the gate again. “There’s no truck waiting.”

“What?” Posy drew up in the shadow of one of the soot-covered outer walls, peering towards the gate. In the darkness, her black hair looked like a pool of ink, and her pale skin seemed to glow. “Fuck me, you’re right. Where is Mike?”

We, along with a few of the other girls who danced in the underground club located on the north side of town—had cut a deal with one of the truck drivers to make sure there was always someone there to pick us up.

“Tina’s going to be pissed.” Posy’s breath fogged in front of her mouth. I dug my hands into my pockets, suddenly spooked.

The only thing that would be worse than having to walk through the old factory was having to wait in it. You never knew what sort of people might have decided to camp out here for the night—renegade gang members, homeless people, or slavers lying in wait to capture pretty girls for the brothels out west.

I curled my fingers around the handle of my knife. “Let’s walk to the road. Maybe he’s just running late.”

“Fine, but if he’s not there, I’m going back in,” Posy said. “I’ll suck one of the guys off for a lift home.”

Posy might be willing to do that, but I certainly wasn’t about to. The only guy I liked was Marco Ellery, but he treated me like I was his kid sister. Besides, he was a member of the local gang, and I didn’t want to get involved with a gang member. Even if he was really sweet.

“Let’s just see,” I insisted.

We picked our way across the yard, between mounds of junk and piles of stone that had crumbled off where the building had started to collapse. The gate hung off its rail uselessly, guarded by a stern man with a rifle slung over his shoulder.

Posy walked right into the middle of the pockmarked asphalt and turned three hundred and sixty degrees, taking in the desolate road and the ruined buildings that lined it. We were in the middle of the wasteland, the town nothing more than a dim glow on the horizon.

“Nothing.” She turned to the guard. “You haven’t seen our taxi-truck?”

“Nope,” he said around his cigarette.

“Fucking hell.” She turned back towards town, staring down the road as though she could will our ride to appear out of nowhere. “Should have known we oughta have paid him less. Fucker probably ran off with the money.”

I scuffed my toe through the dirt. “Are you going to go back?”

“I dunno. Are you?”

I shook my head.

“You want to walk to town?” Posy groaned. “That’s going to take half an hour, at least.”

“There’ll be taxi-trucks once we get to the outskirts.”

Maybe. If we’re lucky.”

I shrugged. “I’m not sucking anyone off for a lift home. You know I don’t do that stuff.”

Posy sighed exaggeratedly. “Well, fine. Come on, then.”

“I thought you were going back.”

She rolled her eyes. “I can’t let you walk on your own, can I?”

“You could. I don’t mind.”

“Come on, Harley.” She whirled around and began marching down the road. I sprinted after her, my dance bag smacking my hip with every step. My thighs burnt as I fell in beside Posy. Running after a whole shift of dancing sucked.

“Maybe Mike left late and we’ll meet him on the road,” I suggested.

“I hope so.” Posy stuffed her hands into the pockets of her bulky coat. “Though that would suck too because we’ll have to come back here to pick up Tina and the others.”

“We should have left a message for them with the guard.”

“He’ll tell them where we went.” Posy kicked a loose stone. It skittered across the asphalt and landed on the grassy verge.

We’d left the bottling plant behind, and now the darkness surrounded us. I found myself glancing around uneasily. You never knew what might be hiding in the darkness—or who. As a kid, I’d used to get nightmares about all sorts of monsters, but as an adult I knew better. Earth didn’t need monsters. Men were capable of much worse.

We came to a turn-off, and Posy turned left, still walking in the middle of the road towards the distant glow of the town. It was perfectly safe; we’d have heard a car from a mile off. But the only sound was our footsteps.

Above us, the moon peeked out from behind the clouds, finally lighting up our surroundings. We were leaving the old industrial area behind. After the bombs had fallen, most of this area had been abandoned. The factories further south were still operational, but here the damage was too great to repair. A lot of the buildings had fallen down entirely, and between the ones that still stood were giant fields of rubble and scraggly bushes.

Nothing grows here but concrete, my dad used to say.

I bit the inside of my cheek. I didn’t like thinking about my dad.

“There’s someone there,” Posy whispered suddenly.

Ice crawled down my spine. “Where?”

“Just ahead. Look.” She pointed just off the road. I followed her arm. A vehicle was parked about three hundred yards in front of us, shiny under the moonlight. I could see several bulky figures walking around it.

“They weren’t there earlier, were they?” I mumbled out of the side of my mouth.

Posy shook her head. When I looked at her face, her eyes were wide with fear. “We need to hide.”

I glanced around. We were in the middle of one of the rubble fields. “Where?”

“We have to hide, Harley!” Posy’s voice was fraught with panic. “If they see us—”

“I know, but where?

Anyone who was wandering around this far out of town in the middle of the night was bad news. If they saw us, who knew what they’d do? It might be anything from offering us a lift back to town to shooting us in the heads so we couldn’t tell anyone we’d seen them. You really never could tell.

“Let’s lie on the ground,” I muttered. I grabbed Posy’s wrist, dragging her off the road. “Here. The rubble will hide us.”

I lay on my belly behind a large chunk of concrete. Hopefully, anyone driving along the road would miss me in the dark. After a second, Posy squatted beside me.

“They’re on the road to the old railway station,” she mumbled.

“I know. Lie down!”

She went on her knees, then eased herself down on her stomach. “This is super uncomfortable. Ugh.” She flicked a few stones to the side.

“Hopefully they’ll drive off soon.”

Silence fell. There was no noise whatsoever out here, apart from our breathing—nothing was alive except for us. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears.

For lack of anything else to do, I watched the men moving around the car in the distance. They opened the back and hauled a bundle out, throwing it on the ground. They seemed to be moving around a lot, though I couldn’t tell what they were doing. Finally, they hauled the bundle up again, and I realised it was a person. He stumbled drunkenly, and one of the men hit him. The clap of flesh on flesh carried over to us.

Posy jerked in shock.

“Shh,” I mumbled. “If we can hear them, they might hear us.”

“I know.” Posy tensed beside me.

In the distance, one of the men took something from his belt. The object glistened in the moonlight.

A gun.

He lifted it.

BANG!

I yelled out in shock. Posy grabbed my biceps, pressing herself against me. “Harley! Keep quiet!”

She was shaking, or maybe I was—I didn’t know. Her breathing was harsh against my neck.

“He shot him!” My heart was pounding. “We have to do something.”

“Don’t be stupid, they’ll shoot us, too.”

BANG!

A second gunshot went off. I jerked against Posy’s arms, but this time I managed to keep quiet.

BANG! BANG! BANG!

Surely he was dead by now? I swallowed hard. My eyes were stinging, my throat aching with the effort to hold back sobs of fear.

Under her breath, Posy was whispering, “Please spare us, please don’t see us, please, please, please.”

The gunshots stopped. The silence was almost louder than the gun had been, an oppressive stillness. I realised I’d never heard a man die before.

The roar of the engine cut through the silence. I looked up in time to see the car turn and drive back to the road, bouncing over the uneven ground. It veered in our direction and accelerated rapidly. Within seconds, it had whistled past us. I followed it with my ears until I couldn’t hear it anymore.

“Do you think it’s safe to move?” Posy asked once the sound had faded.

“I… I don’t know,” I muttered. “What if one of them stayed behind?”

I peered through the debris, but I couldn’t see any sign of movement.

“We have to get back to town. We can’t stay here all night!” Posy’s voice was shrill.

“I know.” My chest felt tight, every breath rasping down my throat. Pieces of gravel stabbed into my stomach and ribcage. I tried to turn onto my side, but that hurt worse.

In the distance, I heard another car engine.

“Oh God, are they coming back?” Posy whined.

“I don’t think so. It’s coming from the other direction.” I wiggled forwards on my stomach and squinted into the distance. Please be someone friendly… A vehicle appeared, bulky against the night sky. The blocky silhouette was familiar.

“I think it’s the taxi-truck,” I said.

“Oh, please,” Posy said fervently.

“It is.” I could see it more clearly as it approached. “I think it’s Mike. Come on, we need to flag him down.”

I scrambled up off the ground.

“Be careful, Harley!” Posy hissed. Ignoring her, I ran to the road, waving.

“Mike! Mike, over here!”

The truck had almost reached me when it braked, the tyres squealing. A moment later, it stopped in front of me. The window rolled down, revealing Mike, the elderly man who drove us to and from work every night. I’d never been so glad to see his whiskery face before.

“Harley? What are you doing all the way out here?”

“Mike! You were late—we started to walk—”

“Mike!” Posy lurched up beside me. “You irresponsible fucker. Where the hell have you been? You’re late!”

“Ey, you two aren’t my only customers,” Mike grunted.

“We pay you to be there to pick us up,” Posy snarled.

“You don’t pay me that good, princess.” He jerked his thumb towards the back of the truck. “Get in and pipe down.”

“Fuck you,” Posy spat. “I’ve a right mind to walk.”

Mike shrugged, uncaring. “If you want.”

“Posy, stop it.” I grabbed her arm. “Come on, let’s get in.”

I pulled her around the back of the truck, and we climbed the built-in stairs into the back. There was a bench on either side, and the floor was roughly carpeted. I sagged onto one of the benches, and Posy collapsed opposite me. A second later, she leaned over and thumped the partition. Mike pulled the truck away from the kerb.

“We are never walking again,” Posy declared.

“Fine,” I mumbled. “But… who do you think that was?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t care.” Posy nudged my ankle with the toe of her boot. “And if you know what’s good for you, you won’t care either. Men who go shooting each other are bad news.”

“All men are bad news.”

“Yeah, but those ones are worse.”

I didn’t have an argument against that, so I fell silent as we drove into the night.

ONE

“OOOH, LOOK.” ANNA LEANT IN, her eyes wide. “The new boy’s here.”

It was a slow, hot summer evening. We had the windows open to the square, letting in the warm, humid air and the sounds of the market closing up. Clem and his buddies were playing bridge next to the windows, and a couple of businessmen in the corner had paid us to ignore the deal they were doing. Apart from that, the bar was empty. I paused in wiping down the bar top to glance at the doorway to the hotel lobby.

“Huh, he’s pretty.”

He was around my and Anna’s age, twenty-four, with fluffy black hair, golden-brown skin, and green eyes. He was dressed in a suit, with the jacket thrown over one arm.

I’d been hearing whispers about the new boy all day, ever since he’d rolled up in his truck and parked on the square—not that I needed gossip. The Kranikovska, where I worked, was the only decent hotel in town; every newcomer walked through our doors eventually. Where else would they stay?

“He checked in at lunch,” Anna confided. “Lou was on. She said he’s paid upfront for a month.”

“Longer than usual.” There wasn’t that much to do in our town.

“She said he told her he was here for business.”

We cut our gossiping short as he reached the bar. I tossed my long brown hair over my shoulder and offered him a saucy smile. “Hey there, new boy.”

He smiled cautiously in return. “The lady in the lobby said you serve dinner.”

“Dinner and drinks. We’re open to two AM Sunday to Thursday, and weekends until four.” I bit my lip, looking coyly up at him. “What’s your name, then?”

“James Maddock.” He held out a hand over the bar. “Nice to meet you.”

“And you, Mr Maddock.” I fluttered my eyelashes at him, purring, “I’m Harley.”

I had a good name. It was sexy without any silly nicknames.

“Like the bike?” he asked.

“Vroom, vroom.” I smiled slyly. “I ride like one, too.”

He laughed. “I’m sure you do.”

His response took me aback. Most men were all too happy to flirt with me when I made comments like that. I leant back, assessing him. Well dressed. No ring. Polite, respectful gaze. He hadn’t stared at my chest once, despite my low-cut top. Hmm.

“I’m Anna,” Anna chirped, waving. “What can we get you?”

“I heard a rumour that Bale Rocks was known for its whiskey.”

“You’ve come to the right place, then.” She pulled a bottle off the shelf. “My uncle stocks the good stuff. Best whiskey in the West Rim.”

“I’ll take a double, thanks.”

“So polite,” I teased.

Maddock laughed. “You’re not the first to call me out on that today. I’m starting to think the ladies round here prefer their men rough around the edges.”

“Keeps things interesting.” I winked. “Cash up front, hot stuff. Standard policy.”

He wasn’t entirely comfortable with my flirting, I could tell. He hid it well, but I was good at noticing these things: the subtle shift of weight, the slight grimace that scrunched his nose. This one was going to be a tough nut to crack.

But I was game for a challenge. I got to everyone eventually.

“That’s alright.” Maddock pulled a wallet out of his pocket. Even before he opened it, I could see it was stuffed with cash. “How much for dinner and a drink?”

“Three NP for the drink, seven for food. Tonight is chicken burgers or veggie stew.” I rested my elbows on the bar, leaning forwards so he had an unobstructed view down my top. “Water’s free, if you want. We filter it.”

“I’ll have the burger, thanks.” Keeping his eyes on my face, he held out a twenty. “Keep the change.”

Rich and free with money. I took it before he could realise what a stupidly large tip that was, exchanging a glance with Anna. She widened her eyes and waggled her brows at me as she recapped the bottle of whiskey.

“Have a seat. I’ll bring you your water.” I made a show of sliding the money into my top. He shuffled back a step, averting his gaze.

“Thanks.”

Anna and I watched him flee with shared looks of amusement. “Don’t scare him off,” she chided.

“I promise I’ll be good.”

Anna rolled her eyes. “You’re never good.”

“Flirting gets good tips.” I shrugged.

Maddock had found a table on the far side of the bar from the window, under the tarnished antique mirror. Well, Tom called it antique, but by the strict definition, everything in our dilapidated town was antique, so the mirror was hardly special. Antique was a nice way of saying old, grotty, and essentially useless. The mirror certainly didn’t do any reflecting.

I set a water jug on my tray, and Anna added a tumbler of whiskey. “I’ll call in the dinner order.”

“Okay.”

I made my way across the room to set my tray down on Maddock’s table. Cocking my hip, I flipped over the water glass and filled it from the jug. “So, what brings you to town, James Maddock?”

“Just business.” His voice was friendly. He rolled up the cuffs of his sleeves, exposing his strong, corded forearms. He wasn’t as soft as his clothing implied; he had the lean muscles of a dancer—or a fighter. And no tattoos, at least not that I could see. Tattoos were a whole language of their own around here—without a mark to go by, I had to rely on my wits to figure him out.

“Business?” I set the whiskey in front of him and laid out cutlery. “What sort of business are you in?”

Maddock smiled sheepishly. “It’s not very interesting, I’m afraid. Wholesale trading for the construction industry.”

“Construction?” I raised an eyebrow. We had a couple of new developments—the mayor’s attempts at cleaning up the city—but mostly around here everything was make-do-and-mend: clothes, houses, medical care…

“Real estate and commercial.” He studied my face, his grey-green eyes intent.

“Are you working with the Godfreys, then? They’re building a new dev in the southeast, right?”

“That’s the one.” He leaned forward, his shirt gaping open to show the start of a scar at the base of his neck. “Why all the questions?”

“Just curious. We don’t get many new people round here.”

“It’s a hotel.”

“In town.” I lifted my tray. “In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re sort of the end of the line.”

“Maybe you need to build a new line.”

I laughed. “Maybe you can sell the Godfreys that idea. See you later, new boy.”

“It’s Maddock,” he called after me as I sashayed away. Halfway across the room, I looked back. He wasn’t staring at my butt. Hmm.

Maddock remained the biggest topic of gossip in town over the next few days. I saw him again on Tuesday when he wandered into the bar around dinner time.

“Ooh, look, the new boy’s back.” Anna twirled a strand of hair around her finger. “Susie thinks he’s going to stay.”

“They never stay.” I shifted the jug onto my tray. Condensation ran off it in little rivulets. We were in the dog days of summer, which always seemed endless—until they ran out suddenly. “The city always draws them back.”

“I didn’t think he was from the city,” Anna said sceptically. “I guess he’s got the manners of a posh boy, though.”

I was spared having to reply when Maddock reached the counter. “Evening, ladies.”

“Good evening,” Anna called flirtatiously.

“Maddock,” I greeted. “How’s business?”

“Business is wonderful. At least, Mr Cornelius is pleased.” When he smiled, he looked younger, as though some heavy weight had slid off his shoulders. “Could I get a whiskey?”

“Sure. Have a seat; I’ll bring it to the table.”

He left a twenty on the counter again and headed for the same table as last time. He sat with his back to the wall. I watched him as Anna prepped his drink. “He looks like a city boy to me.”

“Susie overheard him saying he was from Brackfields.”

Brackfields was an industrial area, hours away, and a pretty dangerous drive. You had to cross the territories of three different gangs. I cast a glance at our new boy, with his suit and his kind manners. “I doubt it.”

“He’s nice, anyway. And a bit of mystery is fun, don’t you think?” Anna topped his whiskey off. She’d poured a bit too much. “He likes you. He asked after you yesterday.”

Uh oh. That was the last thing I needed.

“Maybe just because he doesn’t know anyone else in town.” I shrugged. “City boys are always bad news.”

“You’re so jaded.” Anna waved me off. “Go flirt.”

Rolling my eyes, I picked up the tray and made my way to Maddock’s table.

“How’re you finding town?”

He leant back in his seat. He’d thrown off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. It was another humid day; we were all suffering from the sticky heat.

“Not bad. People have been welcoming.”

“Oh, we’re good at welcoming strangers.” Or rather, their money. Bale Rocks wasn’t a wealthy town by any stretch of imagination. “That’s us, excellent hospitality.”

“Either that, or you’re all bored and hoping I’ll provide new gossip material.” A smile played about his lips. I smirked.

“That goes without saying.”

Maddock laughed. “Well, this town isn’t alone in that, I can assure you.”

“You travel a lot?”

Between the gangs that blockaded the roads and the slavers who picked up anyone who strayed too far from the town limits, the roads were pretty dangerous. These days, to travel, you needed one of three things: a good car, a good security detail, or a good gun. Preferably, all three. And luck, not that there was much of that left in the world. We hadn’t had much in the way of luck at all since the meteorites had hit centuries ago.

“On and off. Someone has to sell things, and I happen to be good at it.”

“I bet.” I picked up my tray again. “Will you be having dinner?”

“Yes, the meat option, please.”

“Alright, I’ll be back in a few.” I stepped away.

“Before you go, can I ask you something?” Maddock’s tone was guarded.

I turned back, curling my fingers around the edge of my tray. “Depends on what sort of question it is.”

He looked me up and down, slow, searching, but not sexual. I knew sexual looks. I was wearing shorts so tiny they were hidden behind my apron and a top that swooped low, baring my cleavage. I didn’t have much in the way of curves, but I knew how to direct a man’s eye. This was not a sexual look.

“It pays to listen to gossip when you’re new in town,” he remarked.

“I’m sure. Great way to get the lie of the land.”

“Exactly. And I’ve heard a few whispers, for example, that one of the waitresses at the Kranikovska used to be a dancer in a very specific club.”

My spine stiffened. It took every ounce of focus I had not to react to that. Someone had been telling tales, and if I found out who, I would flay them. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mr Maddock.”

“Of course not.” He knew. Somehow, he knew it was me. Someone had given him my name. “But if you did know who it was… and I were to ask that person… say, if I were interested in fighting someone…”

Interesting.

There weren’t many reasons people came out to our neck of the woods. Business was one reason—not that there was much in the way of business out here. The alcohol trade was the other. And the last was the fights. Those drew the most people, everyone from hardened mercenaries to soft city boys, all hoping to try their luck, and maybe win big, in the cage.

Except I hadn’t pegged Mr James Maddock for the sort.

I made my eyes wide and my voice breathy. “I didn’t think businessmen went in for fighting.”

“Everyone has a bit of a warrior in them these days, don’t you think?” Maddock’s eyes never left my face. “There’s no other way to survive.”

Especially out here. We were a long way from the cities. “True,” I murmured.

“So,” Maddock prompted, “if I were to ask how one goes about buying into the fights… and you happened to have overheard the right sort of gossip, what would you tell me?” He slid a twenty across the table and tucked it into my apron pocket.

I bit my lip and fiddled with my hair whilst I thought. He wasn’t the first person I’d given directions, but this felt different. He wasn’t asking the same questions. Somehow, in a few short days, he’d found out that I not only knew how to get access to the fights, but that my last job had been in Sayle’s bunker, the exclusive cage fighting club run by the Iron Fists.

The thought didn’t sit well. I’d put those days behind me. It had been eighteen long, blissful months, and I didn’t need the past rearing its ugly head now.

“If you were to ask,” I said tentatively, “and you happened to find someone in the know, that someone would most likely direct you to a pub on Busker Street.”

“Busker Street?” His eyes glinted hungrily.

“That’s right. The Arsonist. If the right person were to pay the right fee, they might be able to persuade the bartender there to let them buy in.”

Maddock’s leant in eagerly. “And if I were to buy in, what would I be required to do?”

We’d dispensed with any pretence. It was obvious that I knew what I was talking about—as obvious as it was that he wanted into the cage fights.

“Fight, of course.” I ran my finger over the edge of my tray. “Don’t expect it to be easy.”

“And if I win at The Arsonist?”

“It’s not about winning, Mr Maddock.” I leant in. “It’s about impressing the right people.”

“Ah. And the right people may—if I’m lucky—be watching at The Arsonist?”

The right people were watching right now. Always watching. Always listening. But they wouldn’t take action until Maddock gave them what they wanted: proof, either way. That he was an asset… or a threat.

“I wouldn’t count on luck. Luck’s never your friend out here.” I squeezed his shoulders, letting my fingers linger. “Go tomorrow.”

He met my gaze head-on. “On a Wednesday?”

“You get one tip. Seeing as you paid for it. That’s it. Go midweek. It’ll be quieter, easier to get a slot. Play smart, not hard. One fight only.”

“I’m not here to play games,” he said flatly.

“But it is a game, Maddock. If you don’t play, how can you win?”

Heavy footfall echoed on the tile floor of the lobby, a second before a group of men entered the bar, all dressed in black fatigues, young, fit, and built like fighters.

Sayle’s enforcers, the men tasked by the local gang with keeping order on the streets.

I stepped away from Maddock’s table. “I’ll order your dinner. Have a good evening, Mr Maddock.”

I felt his sharp gaze on my back as I moved behind the bar. Across the room by the window, the four men pulled out chairs, the legs scraping the floor, and sat down with loud chatter and boisterous laughter. It was an act, a deliberate game to fill the room, so no one could ignore them.

Everything was a game in this town. The faster you learnt the rules, the greater your chances of survival.

I straightened my apron.

“I wish they wouldn’t come here,” Anna whispered anxiously.

“You know it’s for show,” I mumbled out of the corner of my mouth. All the gangs in town loved to make public appearances—that way the common folk couldn’t forget who was boss. The Kranikovska was considered neutral territory, so we often saw members of all the local gangs, either using our bar to conduct their illicit business, or else trying to throw their weight around and intimidate their rivals.

“Will you be okay?”

“Of course. I can handle them.” I tossed her a smile before leaving the sanctuary of the bar and crossing the floor.

Technically, we had three gangs: Moriarty’s Black Hands, Percival’s Aces, and Sayle’s Iron Fists. But it was Sayle who had swept into town, gunned down the corrupt law enforcement, and taken over. It was Sayle who’d turned the town around and brought order to our streets. And it was Sayle who ruled with an iron fist.

I reached the table. “Evening, boys.”

“Harley, baby,” Briggs purred. Of all of Sayle’s enforcers, he was my least favourite. Handsome, but a pig. He ran a hand the size of a dinner plate up the back of my thigh, squeezing my bum. I leant away from the touch.

“Always so hands-on, Briggsy.”

“You need a firm hand, love.”

I giggled and pouted at him. “I’m not so bad.”

“Oh, you’re the baddest of bad.” Marco Ellery leant in across the table. “Naughty, naughty kitten.”

Ellery was the only one allowed to call me kitten; he was the golden boy of Sayle’s men—both my favourite, and the one I feared the most. Ellery was dangerous; not just because I’d seen him shoot a man point blank with a smile on his face, but because he was fun. He flirted and complimented. He was kind. He drew you in like a moth to a flame—and then he stabbed you in the back.

I blew him a kiss. “Always bad for you.”

Ellery laughed, tousling his blond hair with a hand. He was broad-shouldered, not too tall, and had the build of a farmer: strong muscles earned from hard work. I’d known him for years, and I liked him more than I should have, though I’d never admit it to anyone. That was the sort of vulnerability I preferred to keep to myself.

“Quiet today, isn’t it?”

“Mm, it’s been nice.” I lowered my lashes, offering him a coy smile. “Hope you boys aren’t going to ruin it.”

“Aw, we’d never make trouble for you, kitty cat.” His suntanned skin crinkled as he flashed me a grin.

“I don’t believe that for a second.” I turned my smile on Kade, the third man at the table. He was one of the youngest of Sayle’s enforcers at around nineteen, a tall, lean black man. Fast, too. I’d seen him run. He ran a hand over his shaved head, the tattoos on his arms catching the light: a mermaid that was highlighted green and gold on one arm, and a lion on the other. He offered me a polite smile.

“Evening, Miss Harley.”

“Hello, Kade.” I liked Kade, even though I didn’t know him well. He hadn’t yet developed the cocky swagger the others had spent years honing.

The last man at the table was unfamiliar. Chestnut hair, olive skin, and eyes so green they looked like flecks of bottle glass. I’d never seen him before, which was interesting because I’d thought I knew all of Sayle’s men.

Two new boys in my bar in the space of a week? That had to be an omen.

“Who might you be?” I ran a finger playfully up his bicep and bit my lip. His arm felt like steel.

He caught my hand and steered it back to my tray, squeezing hard enough that I knew it was a warning. I wrapped my fingers around the edge of the tray, and he let go.

“Bas.”

“Not interested in playing?” I fluttered my eyelashes at him.

“No.” His gaze was unwavering and totally devoid of humour. “Flirt with someone else, kitten.

“Harley.”

His mouth twisted angrily. “I don’t care.”

Most women would have taken a hint, but it had always been my weakness: whenever someone pushed, I couldn’t resist pushing back. I rested my boot on the edge of his seat, watching as he tensed.

“Aw, but I’m super fun. Ask anyone.”

“If I wanted a whore, I’d pick one up outside.”

I dropped my foot back to the floor. “I’m not a whore.”

“Then don’t act like one,” he sneered.

Wow, okay, ouch. This guy really didn’t like me. That was new. I wasn’t bragging when I said I was popular with the boys.

“What can I get you, then?”

“We’ll have whiskeys for the table. And privacy,” Bas said stonily.

Dismissed. Wow. Very, very rarely did I have customers who weren’t good for a little flirting. It was considered part of the service.

As I stepped away, Briggs ran his hand up my leg and pulled me back onto his lap. I fell back with a gasp.

“Briggsy!”

“Don’t worry, pet. The rest of us still enjoy your company.”

“Aww, that’s so sweet.” I dragged a finger down his thigh, hard muscle under rough cotton. “But don’t enjoy it too much, yeah, baby? Or I won’t be able to get your drinks.”

The boys laughed—except Bas. He looked as unamused as if he were watching an execution.

“Get your head out of the gutter, Duncan,” he snapped.

“Chill out, man.” Briggs pressed a damp kiss to my temple. “It’s just a bit of fun. Harley’s one of the sweetest dancers we ever had at the bunker. She does this thing… Show him, baby.”

He made a crude gesture at Bas’s lap. I gritted my teeth.

I really didn’t feel like showing off dance moves—but it had nothing to do with Bas, and everything to do with Briggs. Briggs had given me plenty of reason to hate him in the past, though I hid it well. “Nahhh,” I drawled. “If he doesn’t want to play, I won’t force him.”

“Might help with that stick up his arse.” Briggs slid a banknote into my top, before releasing me. “Alright, baby. Off you go. We gotta talk.”

The men wanted to talk, and off I was sent like a little girl to her bedroom. I stood, glancing at Ellery. He’d been up for flirting earlier. Now, he was watching me silently with a frown on his face. What was going on?

Bas’s stare told me I was overstaying my welcome, so I headed back to Anna. It ought to have been a relief to be able to just serve without any demands for social interaction, but instead, it unsettled me. Ellery and the boys were always good for a bit of flirting; most of them liked to cop a feel, as well. Whoever this new guy was, he was upsetting the order of things.

I didn’t like people who didn’t play along.

“I don’t know how you face them so calmly,” Anna muttered as I slipped behind the bar again.

“They’re just men.”

“Rapists and murderers.”

“Not so different from every other man, then.”

“Not all of them.” Anna’s eyes rested on Maddock. He was watching Sayle’s men with, in my opinion, too sharp a gaze. Those were the last people he wanted to make enemies of, and even looking at the wrong person could be dangerous in this town.

“Don’t,” I warned. “You don’t know him.”

The most dangerous thing a woman could do was build up a romantic fantasy. Those never worked out. It was the fastest way to get yourself raped and left for dead, killed, or worse, caught by the slavers. Keep smart, and trust no one. That was the way.

“I know.” Anna sighed wistfully. “Anyway, who’s the looker?”

“Bas. And he doesn’t play.”

“Rough night for you! So many boys who won’t pay extra for you to show off.”

I made a face at her and grabbed the bottle of whiskey we reserved for Sayle’s men. Only the best for them.

I was always hyper-alert when Sayle’s boys were in. Sometimes they had their jackets off and were in a relaxed, jokey mood, but that was a lie. They were never off-duty. Today, they had dropped the façade. Bas sat stiff and alert, Kade’s eyes kept scanning the room, and even Ellery wasn’t as laid-back as usual. Something was up.

Things had been quiet in town lately. We were probably overdue trouble.

The night chugged on slowly. Midweeks were always slow. An elderly couple came in, as well as a few rye farmers who supplied the whiskey distillery. There was a lull after dinner was finished. I brought Ellery and the boys another round, then wandered over to Maddock’s table to fetch his plate.

“Did you enjoy your meal?”

“I did, thank you.”

“Can I get you anything else?”

“I wouldn’t mind another whiskey.” He tilted his head towards Ellery’s table. “You know them?”

I affected a disinterested tone. “They’re enforcers for the Iron Fists. One of the local gangs.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Wouldn’t have thought the hotel would want people like that in the bar.”

“Tom’s an equal opportunist. If you’re thirsty and you have the money, he’ll serve you.” Tom was the owner. I owed a lot to him—he’d given me a chance when not many people would have. Anna was his niece, and I was sure part of the reason why he’d taken a chance on me was because I was the same age as her.

“Except you’re the one doing the serving.”

“Well noticed.” I balanced my tray against my hip. “Maybe I’m an equal opportunist, too.”

“Maybe,” he said neutrally.

Maddock didn’t want to play games, either. I frowned. “Let me get that whiskey for you.”

“Sure.”

I had just delivered his whiskey when Ellery’s trouble arrived: Jackson, one of the Iron Fists’ lieutenants, accompanied by two guys I recognised peripherally. Jackson was in his forties, with a weathered face and cold eyes. He regarded me dismissively as I approached. Of the other two, one was a grizzled man who reminded me of a bear, and the other a redhead who was around my age.

“Evening, gents. What can I get for you?”

“Ales for me,” Jackson said. “Gentlemen?”

“Ale is fine,” the boy said.

I reached over the table, turning over their water glasses so I could pour. The bear leant in and groped at my arse, almost making me spill the water.

“How much for your company?”

“I don’t offer sexual services.” I straightened up and pasted on a smile. Before I could turn, the bear grabbed me, dragging my back against his chest and sending the jug crashing to the floor.

“Aw, come on baby, don’t be shy.” He pawed at my chest. “We’ll make it worth your while.”

I tensed, biting my cheek against a wave of revulsion. “My job is to serve drinks.”

He put his face close to mine, his rancid breath wafting over my ear and cheek. “Dressed like that, I don’t know who you think you’re fooling.”

Behind the bar, Anna met my eyes and flicked her head upwards. Do you want me to get Tom?

I shook my head slightly, reaching into the folds of my apron. No one could handle this for me. I had to be the one to fight my battles.

“Unhand the lady.”

For fuck’s sake. My captor turned us, affording me a view of Maddock. He looked ridiculous in his suit—not at all capable of fighting off several men who were quite likely to be armed. I suspected he’d try, though. Damn him and his stupid manners. Meeting his gaze, I lifted my hand, showing him the handle of the sturdy hunting knife hidden beneath my apron. His eyes widened in surprise.

“Please let go of me,” I said calmly.

The bear laughed. “You know who I am, girlie? Or Jackson, there? We can get you in trouble with people straight out of your nightmares—”

I slammed my foot down on his, then jerked my head back, whacking his chin. He yelped, his grip loosening.

“You little bitch!”

I jerked away from him and spun around so I could see him. He was reaching for a weapon inside his jacket, but before he got close, he froze. Bas stood behind him, a gun held to his head. So much for being a gun-free bar.

“The fuck, man?” The bear’s voice had gone high and shrill.

“This is a bar, not a brothel,” Bas said coolly.

“It’s all good, man. I’m just here to do my business.” The bear eased his hands away from his jacket, holding them loosely in front of him. I kept a close eye on them. They were still awfully near his jacket and whatever weapon he had concealed there.

“Then sit down and do your business.” Bas gestured towards the empty chair with his gun.

Slowly, the bear shifted his weight and slid into his seat. He kept his hands above the table. “No harm done, see?”

Bas’s expression remained ominously blank. He tucked his gun back into the holster at his hip. “As you were, then.”

Without sparing me a glance, he sat once more. I pursed my lips. After two deep breaths, I smoothed down my apron and picked up my tray. “Let me get a towel to clean up this mess.”

My shift wound down around ten, when Brenda got in. Brenda was fifteen years older than me, a mother of two, and all-round fierce. She kept the bar in line a lot better than I did.

“Any trouble?” she asked as I untied my apron.

“Nothing out of the norm.” Anna shot me a pointed look from the other end of the bar, though fortunately, she made no attempt to refute my words. “Bit of gang argy-bargy. You know how it is.”

“The boys get restless in the summer.” Brenda rolled her eyes, surveying the room. Maddock had left, asking me if I needed a lift home on the way out. I’d waved him off. Jackson and his lot had moved off, too, to my relief. Ellery was still there—Briggs was so deep in his cups that one of them was going to have to carry him home.

“Who was checking weapons on the front door when you came in?” I asked.

“Benny’s on tonight. Why?”

That explained it. Benny was so crooked, it wasn’t even funny. “Reckon someone slipped him cash to turn a blind eye.”

Brenda pursed her lips. “Thanks for the warning. Is that a new boy with Sayle’s lot?”

“Bas.” I shrugged. “He’s hard. Maybe you can crack him. See you tomorrow night?”

“Always, darling.”

I slipped past the kitchen and emerged into the sticky night air. Music drifted out of the bar, filling the square. A few girls were lurking along the line of crumbling buildings, some of them smoking to pass the time, and a couple of taxi-trucks idled to one side, waiting for passengers. Krani’s had one of the best spots in town, overlooking the square—but in some ways, it was also one of the worst spots. Everyone in town came through there eventually, both the honourable and the troublemakers.

I lived a twenty-minute walk east, but I took a detour. It was never wise to walk through the open streets at night—and I had an errand to run.

I’d delayed a few nights, which was excusable, but now Ellery had been into Krani’s and seen Maddock for himself, and that meant that I had to do my job. I slipped down the side streets, weaving through the shadows and taking a circuitous route to make sure I wasn’t followed to the drop point. There, I slid a scrap of paper out of the pocket of my heavy coat. I’d scribbled on it:

New boy wants into the fights. Sent him to TA. H.

I’d bought my freedom over a year ago. I supported myself. But there was a fine line between a waitress and a whore these days, and if I wanted to stay above that line, I had to play Ellery’s game. That was the price of freedom.

He’d got me my job, and in exchange I passed him information about what happened in the bar. That was how the gangs kept their power. Even the freest people in this town were owned.

I tucked the paper into the old mailbox and headed for home.

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