Atlas

CONTENTS

Title Page

Blank Page

Copyright

Dedication

Prologue

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

X

XI

XII

XIII

XIV

XV

XVI

XVII

XVIII

XIX

XX

XXI

XXII

XXIII

XXIV

XXV

XXVI

XXVII

XXVIII

XXIX

XXX

XXXI

XXXII

XXXII

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

About the Author

In My Head

Copyright © 2015 Alyne Roberts

All Rights Reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law..

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Any trademarks, service marks, product names or named features are assumed to be the property of their respective owners, and are used only for reference. There is no implied endorsement if we use one of these terms.

Cover by: R.B.A. Designs

Editing: Beyond The Cover Editing

“According to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.”

― Plato, The Symposium

PROLOGUE

Stella

"Have you ever shot anyone, Daddy?" I asked.

I was sitting on the kitchen counter with my legs dangling down, kicking the cabinets. Mommy hated it when he let me do this. My dad stopped spreading the peanut butter and looked back at me.

"Why would you ask me that?" he asked, his eyes laced with concern.

I shrugged. "Kelly said that cops have guns and shoot people."

My dad wiped his hands off on a towel and came over to me. He hefted himself up onto the counter with me and I stared at him with wide eyes. Mom was gonna be so mad. He could probably change her mind though. Daddy was good at that.

"Well, Kelly is right that cops have guns," he said. "But I don't go running around just shooting people. I only shoot when I have to."

"Why would you have to?" Daddy always said no matter what, you never hurt someone else.

"There are bad guys out there," he explained calmly. "It's my job to protect everyone from the bad guys. Cops sometimes have to shoot them to do that."

"Kelly said guns are bad. She's in second grade so she's pretty smart."

"Guns are bad if they are in a bad person's hands. Sometimes, good people have to do bad things to save others from bad things. I'm a good guy, but I would do anything to keep you safe. Even if that meant hurting someone who deserved it."

I wrinkled my nose and looked up at my dad's face. My tummy hurt when I thought about bad guys trying to hurt him.

"Why do you have to do it?" I asked. My words were getting caught in my throat.

"Because, baby," my dad said as he put an arm around me. "Everyone has a role and a job in this world. Mine is to keep people safe. I feel good because I can save people's lives."

"Like a hero?"

He laughed. "Yes. Kinda like that."

"What's mom's job?" I asked. What does she do if dad is so important?

"She is a mother. A wife. She is my support and brought me two beautiful children. It's because of those children that I fight bad guys."

I laughed when he pulled me closer to his chest. "But dad, that's not right."

"What's not?"

"She only gave you one beautiful kid. Ace is pretty ugly," I managed to say through a giggle.

"I heard that, butthead," my brother said as he came into the kitchen.

He tossed his baseball mitt on the table and picked up my sandwich. Before I could stop him, he took a massive bite out of it.

"Hey!" I yelled. "That was mine."

"You snooze, you lose," he said with a full mouth.

I was ready to launch at him and take my sandwich back when Mom came through the door.

"Really? On the counter?" she asked with a stern look.

Dad and I hopped off and gave her our best smiles. They usually worked. Dad's was the best. She turned to look at us and, as I knew she would, she smiled back. Just like that, we are out of trouble. Daddy shot me a wink before I ran off to get my sandwich back from Ace.

"All gone," he said, holding up his empty hands as proof. He stuck his tongue out at me.

"Gross." It was covered in bread and peanut butter.

I looked back at Mom and Dad but they were holding each other and paying us no attention. I remembered that Daddy said she was his support. Maybe he needed support right now. My eyes welled up because I was still hungry and no one could make me another peanut butter sandwich.

I shoved my older brother and stormed to my room, slamming the door behind me. I ran to my bed and grabbed Unicorn and held him close. Hugging always made Mom and Dad feel better, but it wasn't working for me. I tossed the stupid stuffed animal across the room just as Ace poked his head in my door.

"No boys allowed!" I yelled at him. I was so mad at him that I started to cry again.

"Here," he said, handing me a plate.

I took it from him and stared down at the sandwich. There was peanut butter oozing out of the sides. The crust was torn off but not like Daddy did it. It was ugly, but I was hungry, so I took a bite anyway. My lips and teeth stuck together from all the peanut butter and I swore I tasted a piece of crust. I looked up at Ace and smiled wide.

"Fank you," I mumbled, trying to pry my mouth open. "Iff better ‘n Dad's!"

"Really?" he asked, his eyes wide in surprise.

"Yeah," I said, spitting a little. "More peanuh-budder."

Ace nodded and walked out of my room. His head was held high and he looked so proud. I chowed down on my ugly, messy sandwich and imagined my brother would be just like my dad one day. Like Daddy, Ace would make it his job to protect people from the bad guys. He would be a hero. Mommy and I would always be safe.

I

Stella

I had to admit, I looked fucking hot. I never got to dress up or make myself look good lately. My best friend, Liddy, insisted that we go out tonight as one last girl's night. It took some convincing, but I gave in and even let her dress me and do my makeup. I would miss her like crazy when I left. We would be sure to make our last night memorable.

"Promise to have fun tonight," Liddy said to me as we took the elevator down to the ground floor.

"Promise," I agreed.

"Good. You've been through enough in your life. You need some fun," Liddy said, bouncing up and down impatiently.

Liddy was right. The last eight months had been the worse of my life. Some fun and dancing was the least I should do. Everything I owned was in a U-Haul truck on the way to the opposite end of the country. Tomorrow, I would leave the only city I had ever known, and hopefully all the bad that tainted it for me. One last night with my best friend was the perfect way to say goodbye.

My excitement grew as we got out of the cab and approached the bouncer at the entrance of one of the hottest clubs in Chicago. I could already hear the pounding of the bass from inside and it filled me with energy. Giving one quick look at Liddy and me, the bouncer ushered us right in. It was a weeknight so the line wasn't too bad, but I still felt like I was someone important walking inside.

I linked arms with my best friend, and we walked in like we owned the place. Sweaty bodies were grinding against each other as the loud music drove them. I looked at Liddy with wide eyes as she tugged me toward the bar. I was so excited that I was bouncing in the high heels I had borrowed. At the bar, people yelled over the music to bartenders who scrambled to get everyone good and wasted. It didn't take long for one to appear before us.

I couldn't hear what Liddy had ordered, but in a few seconds four shot glasses were being slid across the bar to her. Her blue eyes sparkled at me in mischief as she handed me a shot.

"To your last night in Chicago, you bitch!" she shouted before throwing her head back and downing the clear liquid. I followed, choking on the burn.

"Shit!" I coughed. Tequila.

"No holding back tonight, Stella! For once, just let loose."

We downed our other shots, though it burned less the second time. Maybe my throat was numb from the first one. A grin stretched across my face as we weaved through the crowd. A determination to enjoy tonight filled me. I promised myself I wouldn't worry about tomorrow. I wouldn't think about the goodbye. I wouldn't fear the move I would be making in the morning to San Francisco.

We found a little space for our two bodies to wiggle into, and we started to dance. As the alcohol warmed my body, the heat and people brushing against me didn't bother me. Everything was perfect. I didn't think it was possible for me to enjoy anything anymore, but here I was.

Music washed over me.

Thoughts left my head.

Emptiness was consumed.

The heavy bass thumped through my body as sweat trickled down my neck and my hair stuck to my face. I felt the burn in my cheeks and the exhaustion in my limbs. I didn't care though. I didn't care about anything in the center of that dance floor.

Liddy grabbed my arm, breaking my blissful trance, and pulled me toward the bar. We bumped other grinding bodies and weaved our way through the thick mass of people dancing. I was in desperate need of water and some more alcohol. After a few dozen accidental grabs and apologies, we made it the bar. It was even more crowded than before and I drummed my nails on the bar impatiently.

"Here you go ladies," a bartender said as he slid two water bottles and two shots of a bright blue liquid to us.

"We didn't order yet," I yelled at him over the music.

"From the guy over there," he shouted back to me and pointed to the opposite side of the bar.

Liddy and I both leaned over the counter to get a look at the other end. Already calmly watching us, sat a man in a dark suit.

"Holy shit. He's hot," Liddy said in my ear.

She wasn't kidding. In the dim lighting, I could only guess he was maybe late twenties. His dark hair was styled neatly and his wide body screamed control and power. A chill ran down my body when one corner of his lips tipped up.

"He likes the blonde," the bartender added with a wink at me.

"Go thank him," Liddy said with a playful shoulder bump.

I shook my head and downed the shot. "No. I'll never see him again," I hissed through the burn.

"Exactly," she deadpanned.

I took another glance at the stranger at the other end of the bar. He was still watching, and I wasn't sure if it made me feel excited or nervous. When he stood and started toward us, I held my breath. I had been alone for so long, I wasn't sure how to socialize with handsome men. Especially with one very much out of my comfort zone. He was sexier, more powerful and more intimidating than any college frat boy I had ever flirted with before. I could tell all of this from just one look across the bar.

"Last night. Live it," Liddy whispered in my ear before sneaking off.

I watched her exposed back disappear into the crowd. Her words echoed in my head as I forced my feet to take me to the stranger. She was right. I should live. He watched as I approached and I prayed that I didn't fall on my face. His intense focus made me nervous, as did attention from anyone. I thought of turning around and abandoning the whole idea, but soon I was standing right in front of him.

"Thanks for the drink."

"You're very welcome," his deep voice rumbled in my ear.

A grin stretched across his handsome face and his hand reached for mine. I put mine in his expecting a handshake, but he surprised me when he lifted my hand toward his lips. I swore I could feel my jaw unhinge and fall open as I watched plump lips come closer to my skin. I pulled in a deep breath and he shocked me further by twisting my wrist and placing a soft kiss on the inside of my wrist. It was intrusive, erotic, and exciting all at the same time.

"Let's find somewhere less crowded," he said and started to pull me away from the bar without waiting for me to agree.

Unlike when Liddy and I had tried to make our way anywhere in the club, the crowd parted for him. I didn't know if it was because he was known or if it was the power and the demand to be respected that radiated from him. One look at the man pulling me by the hand told me he was someone to admire and fear. It was the latter that had my heart beating and my throat dry. After months of solitude, any excitement had my body feeding off of it. I was unable to stop from devouring his attention and the way this stranger made me feel.

He led me up some steps, and a bouncer nodded as we passed. The music was a more bearable volume up here, but we still had the view of the dance floor. I stood at the railing and looked into the sea of people. I wondered if Liddy was down there dancing with a cute guy. She always lived without worries or regard for the consequences. Most of the time, I was jealous of her bravery and confidence.

I felt a tickle down my arm and the chill of a glass being wrapped in my fingers. I could sense him behind me. He wasn't quite touching me, but he may as well have been. His presence was felt on every inch of my skin. I lifted the cool glass to my lips to distract myself. The sweetness mixed with the burn and I let it wash away the nerves.

"Are you cold?" he asked behind me.

I shook my head and turned to face him. In the improved lighting, I could see his face better. His eyes were dark, and he had a straight nose and chiseled jaw. His suit was tailored to his body and had to cost more than several months of my rent. A scent of clean linen and fresh air complemented his groomed and perfect appearance. He was perfect and I swallowed, feeling entirely out my league.

He rubbed his hands up and down my arms, sending warmth through me. I was stuck staring at his deep, mesmerizing eyes when I noticed his smirk. With my fair skin, I was sure he could see the blush creeping into my face and spreading down my neck and chest. He confirmed that thought when his finger traced the low cut neckline of my dress, grazing the tops of my breasts.

"So soft," he said in a low voice. My head started to swim with the sensations.

How long had it been since I had been touched like this? Was it sophomore year in college with my last boyfriend before my life went to shit? Was it last year when I still had it in me to touch myself and enjoy it? Was it even before that when my mother would stroke my hair like she used to every time she saw me? Inside, the smart and fearful girl that I had become was telling me this man was a dangerous stranger, but the girl with life in her still soaked up his presence.

What harm could it be anyway? I planned to leave the next day for another state. I would start over and never see him again. It didn't matter if he thought I was easy or never called me after. In fact, that would be for the best. I promised Liddy, and myself, that I would give myself one last good memory in this city.

"Dance with me?" I bravely asked.

His eyes sparkled, and his hands firmly gripped my hips. Without the crowd of dancers, this was intimate and sexy. It felt empowering and reckless; something I hadn't felt in so long. I pressed my body to his and placed my hands on his hard chest. I could feel a steady heartbeat under my palm. It kept me grounded. It reminded me that we were both real and alive.

Even alone, the temperature rose between our bodies but it only made me cling closer to him, like I needed him to keep me from melting. One hand roamed up the open back of my dress, smoothed down my spine and played with the ends of my hair. With every thump of the bass, I grew more confident, and the little voice in my head who told me to be careful fell off her barstool. Having his hands on me and feeling how he liked it outweighed anything else.

He wiped some sweat off my forehead. Before I could cringe with embarrassment, he sucked the thumb he used into his mouth. His eyes closed and I could hear his low moan over the music and my pounding heartbeat. When they opened, they were burning with a fire and intensity I hadn't seen or noticed before. His other hand reached between us, pressing a fresh, cold glass to my lips.

Needing to cool down, I drank the cold liquor without hesitation. My eyes didn't leave his as I drank it down, letting it both numb and cool me. He watched the movement in my throat and I felt a strange sense of power over this man in front of me. I leaned into him to feel the hard intake of breath he took at the contact. The inner slut inside me grinned. I could do this to a man. I was stronger than I looked.

"Not that strong," I mumbled as I swayed, losing my balance and needing him to hold me still.

"What's that?" he asked with a sly smile.

"I feel like jelly," I giggled.

"You're alright," he assured me while he gripped my hips firmly. "I got you."

My head swam and my stomach rolled. The lights were too bright and the music became too loud. My limbs were too heavy to hold me up and I felt like I was suddenly melting, but not in the hot way.

II

Stella

My head pounded as I woke up. Every time I went out with Liddy, I ended up with a hangover. This morning was worse than ever. The pain was not just in my head, but my entire body. I didn't dare to move, in fear that I would just make it worse. I tried to remember how much I had to drink, but the memories were fuzzy.

Nothing felt right. The sheets on my skin were softer than my own bare mattress I was used to. My head was heavier than usual and I was positive that I had been sleeping too long. Slowly, I started to remember the night before. The hot guy who bought me a drink. Dancing with him alone. Trying to find Liddy to get a cab. A stranger carrying me from the club.

Panic slammed into me as I struggled to sit up but wasn't able to move. I was restrained with my wrists and ankles tied to a bed. A scream ripped from my throat. My wide eyes frantically scanned my surroundings, but I didn't recognize anything in the unfamiliar bedroom. A thousand thoughts raced in my terrified mind as I screamed for help and tears dripped down my cheeks. My worst nightmare was coming true.

"No need for all the noise." The voice cut through my own.

"Hello?" I choked. "Someone help me!"

He slowly shook his head as he came to stand at the end of the bed. I was severely underdressed compared to his black slacks and white collared shirt. Dark eyes trailed my body which was dressed in only my bra and panties. The dangerous look on his face made my heart race.

"Why? Why am I here?" I asked him.

"Because I want you to be," he simply answered.

I stared at him in disbelief. The man in front of me wasn't the charming and flirty man I remembered from last night. This man took whatever he wanted and had no concern for anything else. Although still gorgeous, he was terrifying. Everything in my gut last night had told me to run, but I had ignored it, thinking I was being paranoid. I was so very wrong.

"Please," I cried. "Just let me go. I promise I'll never tell anyone."

"I can't do that, Little Star," he said as he crawled over my tied body.

I squirmed underneath him, and I watched in horror as his eyes danced in amusement. He was enjoying watching me struggle. His lips titled up into that half smile that had me melting for him only hours ago. Instead of shivering in excitement, now it was fear. I was helpless and open to him.

"What's wrong? Not as turned on anymore when you're tied up?" he asked in a taunting voice. "Some women like it."

"I just want to go home," I whispered with my eyes closed tightly. I could feel the heat from his chest on mine. He was invading my mind and senses.

"And just where is that Ms. Harlow? Is it the tiny studio apartment on Southport? Is it in California? Or is it that bench in the cemetery you spend so much time at?"

I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. "How do you know all of that? How do you know my name?"

He chuckled low, and I felt his breath on my bare chest. "You don't hide as well as you think you do, Stella."

I started to scream as loud as I possibly could. My lungs struggled to take enough air with his weight on top of me. I didn't know if anyone would hear me, but I needed to try. I wanted to live. My screaming was cut short with a hand tight around my throat.

"Shut up or I will make you," he hissed in my ear.

I had known this day would come. This moment was the one I had avoided for nearly a year. Every night, I woke with the fear of the moment they’d find me. I thought I had stayed invisible for long enough. Every day I survived, I believed that keeping my mouth shut was enough. I was so stupid to have thought that I could finally make a run for it and would be safe.

He ran one finger down my cheek, gliding through my tears and along my jaw. It continued its path down my neck and over my collarbone. I cringed when I felt his finger dip into my cleavage.

"What's the problem, Stella?" he taunted. "You don't like me anymore? Did your attraction for me vanish with the sunrise?"

"Fuck you," I muttered. I couldn't give him the satisfaction of upsetting me more before he did what he had planned to me.

"You wanted me to," he whispered in my ear. His shirt brushed my bare stomach and I held my breath. "Last night, you wanted everything I wanted to do you. I could feel it. I could see it. I could even fucking smell it."

"That was before you fucking drugged and kidnapped me," I growled.

"Still the truth."

His finger continued to slide over my body. My skin was hyper-aware of every touch from him. I squirmed under him, but he was much larger, successfully keeping me pinned and still. I started to think he even liked it when I struggled against him. His eyes held to the spot on my neck where I was sure my pulse was pumping rapidly.

"Too many people saw me with you last night. You can't get away with this," I told him.

"No one will even notice you're gone. If you were successful in anything in the past eight months, it was becoming invisible and isolating yourself completely," he said softly. "No one is in San Francisco waiting for you. You have no one to miss you when you never show up."

"That's not true," I said in a tight voice. It was very true. I opted against getting a roommate and my rent was paid up for several months. No one would know that I never moved in after my belongings showed up.

"You know it is," he argued.

"Liddy," I whispered, hope fading.

"She already received a text that you were on the road. Safe and sound."

The fight left my body. My limbs went weak and I stopped trying to pull my wrists free. No one would know that I was missing. There wouldn't be any hearts broken when I left this world. Everyone would continue with their lives while I rotted in a shallow grave. No one would hear my screams or come to rescue me. I officially blended away into nothing. I was all alone.

"Then just kill me already," I whispered.

I felt him lift himself of my body. I opened my eyes to find him hovering over me, staring down at my face. The look was unreadable, but his dark eyes swarmed with something more than hate. Before I could figure out what that was, he blinked and it was gone.

"You are more of an interest to me alive than dead, sweetheart."

"What?" I asked in a panic. "You can't just keep me here. For what?

"Whatever I need." His eyes once again took in my half-naked and restrained body.

"Your little sex slave?" My voice rose higher and higher with every degree of terror. I never imagined their revenge would be like this. I waited every night for someone to come get me, but I thought it would be quick and over with before I even saw the gun, not this cat and mouse game.

"I can do whatever the fuck I want," he barked at me. "You’d rather be out there? Watching over your shoulder? Waiting for the axe to fall on your head?"

"Hasn't it already?"

He shook his head and walked to the door. With his hand on the knob, he turned back to me.

"Not yet. You can thank me later."

"Fuck you, asshole!" I shouted at him. "You fucking bastard mother fucker!"

I couldn't think of enough curse words for the vile man staring down at me.

"You can just call me Atlas, sweetheart."

The name rang over and over in my head as I watched the door close behind him.

Atlas.

My brother's friend.

The reason my family was dead.

The reason I was next.

The room went black.

III

Stella

Atlas left me tied to the bed for hours. I could see the sunlight fading on the walls as time went by. The straps were fastened to the iron headboard and I tried without luck to release them. The leather cuffs were tight on my wrists and ankles, keeping me immobile. My skin was chilled and my stomach rumbled with hunger. I hadn't heard a sound inside the house since he had left me. There were no footsteps, no city sounds or voices. Only my own breathing and occasional sniffling.

The room was simple with a plain dresser and a reading chair in one corner. The bare walls were a light cream color. There was nothing I could use to escape and nothing I would be able to reach. I was stuck helplessly waiting for Atlas to return and do whatever he had planned for me.

I had plenty of time to think about the situation I had gotten myself into. I trusted a guy I had just met and had let my guard down when I knew better. I thought I would have one last night of fun, flirting and dancing with the hot stranger whom I would never see again. My brother used to tell me never make assumptions about people. People would either disappoint you or impress you. No one was who they seemed to be.

My imagination was running wild. So while I could try to guess why Atlas wanted me alive, I wouldn't dare assume. My brother trusted him, but I knew where that had gotten him, along with my parents. Now it was my turn. I wouldn't trust a word he told me or even my own instincts. I had seen firsthand what people like him could do, which was how I had gotten into this mess in the first place.

When I heard the soft thuds of footsteps, I stiffened. I didn't know if I wished Atlas was coming for me or not. I was hungry and my arms were sore from struggling against the rope. I would feel much better with clothes on. I wanted to know where I was and what would happen to me. Knowing what little I knew of Atlas, it couldn't be good.

When the footsteps neared, my mind was dizzy with anxiety. There was nothing I could do while the knob turned and the door swung open. Atlas stepped through with ease and confidence. Only someone with his amount of power could walk like they didn't have a care in the world when there was a half-naked young woman tied to a bed.

"Let's try this again, Stella," he said to me. "You behave and everything will be fine."

I didn't respond as he stepped inside, setting a few things down on the dresser across the room. He was wearing dark jeans with a white button-up shirt. The sleeves were rolled up to show muscular, tattooed arms. It looked like he was ready to do some work, which was likely bad news for me.

"I'm going to untie you," he told me. "You try to run and I will taser you."

To make sure I believed him, he showed me the taser in his hands. I'd never been hit with a taser before, but I didn’t doubt it would hurt like hell. I swallowed the lump in my throat and watched as he crawled over me and reached for my wrists. My left wrist was released first and he rubbed the raw skin that was exposed. It was a surprisingly gentle gesture in contrast to the brutality I had seen so far.

While Atlas moved to my right arm, I took my time to examine the man I had only heard about. His face had some stubble, and his dark hair was longer than I had thought it was the night before. Dark eyebrows knitted together while he rubbed the inside of my wrist. He dropped my free hand and leaned back to stare down at me. Finally free, I wrapped my arms around my chest for some protection. His fingers moved quickly and smoothly to unbuckle my ankles.

"I brought food. You’ll need to eat," he told me as I pulled my knees to my chest.

"Fuck you," I said. "I won't eat anything you give me."

Atlas tilted his head and watched me curiously. It looked like part of him was trying to guess if I was going to try and run. I was wondering the same thing. Part of me knew I wouldn't get far. My limbs felt like they would buckle under my own weight, and Atlas was probably far faster than I could be even in my best health.

"Come. I'm going to show you something," he said to me.

I glared at his outstretched hand like it was poison, which I'm sure it was.

"Stella." I heard the warning and threat in his voice.

I scrambled to the edge of the bed, refusing to let him help me up. I didn't want to feel his skin on mine again or give him any more power over me. I had spent months hiding in the shadows and keeping my head down. It no longer mattered because my monsters had found me anyway. At least I could spend whatever time I had left as a fighter. It was what Dad would have expected from me.

"Stella. We can do this the easy way, or the hard way," Atlas told me with a glare. His fists clenched at his sides and his shoulders tensed.

"Do what?" I dared to ask.

Atlas closed the space between us in just a few long strides. I gasped when his fingers wrapped tightly around my arm. His grip was firm, but just short of painful. In just my bra and panties, I could feel his body heat on mine, making me want to pull away. Atlas wouldn't allow it, pulling me toward the door and out into the hallway.

There were a series of closed doors, but I couldn't see much else before he yanked me to the right. We came to another closed door at the end of the hall and Atlas dug in his pocket for a key. I could feel myself shaking as he pushed the key into the door and twisted it. The door was wider and heavier than a normal door and my stomach sank when I saw the steep steps leading down.

"Go," he demanded as he gave me shove forward.

I obeyed and took the steps slowly down into the darkness. Atlas held my arm and stayed close but didn't rush me. Every thud of our feet made me feel sicker with fear. I had always known someone would come for me, but I had hoped it would be quick. I felt like I was walking into a torture chamber.

When my feet hit the bottom, a light flicked on, illuminating something I did not expect. The room was empty. Completely empty. There were no chains or bars. No cage or metal spikes like I had expected. It was nothing more than a normal basement with a single pillar in the center of the room. Atlas led me to the pillar and turned me to face him, pushing my back to the cold metal.

"What are you doing?" I asked, looking up into his calm face with panic as he wrapped my arms behind the pole.

"Just remember, I never break a promise I make," he whispered as the metal clicked around my sore wrists.

I opened my mouth to scream, maybe to beg for my life, but the words were caught in my throat. The sound of the door opening echoed in the empty basement, followed by several pairs of heavy footsteps. Atlas shoved a rag into my mouth, quickly covering it with tape. I cried behind my gag as he wrapped another black cloth over my eyes.

This was the end. I was going to join my mom and dad now. They were going to drag this out as payment. They made my dad beg for his life, so I really shouldn't have expected anything different. I was foolish to think that my silence was enough to save my life. I cried quietly as the footsteps stopped in front of me.

"You got her," a deep voice said.

"Obviously," I heard Atlas answer in a bitter tone.

"No one saw you?" the deep voice asked again.

"No. I don't make mistakes," Atlas said.

“Of course not. You always do as you’re asked.”

My entire body was tense with anticipation. I could feel them watching me as my life hung in the balance. If I had to guess, I would have said there were three men who came down the steps. I could feel the danger hanging in the air with their silence. I could hear my own pounding heartbeat and shuddering breaths.

"Good. Kill her."

I started to thrash and scream but the gag and handcuffs kept me in place and muffled. A large, warm hand pushed on my stomach and I froze. I didn't know whose hand was on me, but I wanted to think it was Atlas's. The feeling was familiar and softer than I would imagine the others would be.

"I will. When I'm ready," I heard Atlas say near my ear. "I want to have a little fun first."

His hand trailed down my stomach and over my panties. I bucked away but the pillar wouldn't let me move far enough. The men laughed and my stomach rolled.

"Very well. Just end this for good," the man said. “Quickly. We don’t have time for little whores like her.”

Atlas's hand left my body as the footsteps sounded again. I listened as the door opened and closed at the top of the steps. It was then that I noticed how violently I was trembling. I was cold, petrified, and confused beyond belief. The tape was pulled from my face but I ignored the sting. It was probably the least amount of pain I would experience. The gag was pulled from my mouth and the blindfold fell from my eyes.

"I'm not going to kill you right now, Little Star," he whispered. "I still need you."

"For what?" I choked out.

"I made a promise, and I intend to keep it. I also have a job to finish, and I hate leaving things uncompleted."

"What promise?"

Atlas reached behind me and released the cuffs from my wrist before tilting my head up to look at him. I stared up into his dark eyes and tried to see the evil in them. I knew it resided in him and what he was capable of. I just couldn't understand how I had missed it the night before. Maybe because I had been searching for it all around me for so long, I couldn’t even see it anymore.

"If you cooperate and behave as I ask, then you may stay upstairs in that room," he told me.

"And if I don't?"

His lips tipped up in a sinister smile, and he started to circle me. He was like a shark, circling his prey before going in for the kill.

"Then you will stay down here. Alone."

"What do you want from me?"

"I want to know where Ace is."

 My heart stopped with the mention of my brother's name. It hurt deep down inside more than I imagined to hear his name spoken aloud. I missed hearing it. I missed seeing him. I tasted the salt of my tears as they dripped over my lips. Atlas's large hands framed my face, forcing me to look at him.

"You know where he is," I hissed in his face with hatred so strong and sudden. "You fucking killed him."

Atlas's eyes flared and his lips pressed in a tight line. I tried to jerk away when his grip tightened on my cheeks. I lashed out at him, trying to pull out of the hold he had on me. Desperately, I screamed and kicked at his legs.

"Stella," he grunted and reached out for me. His thick arms wrapped around my waist and he pinned me to his chest.

"No! Fuck you!" I shouted. "Let me go."

I tried to kick and twist away from him. In my anger and pain, his arms were almost comforting. He was warm and strong; something I needed. It had been too long since I had been hugged or touched at all. That only made me hate him more.

"It's all your fault," I cried while trying to punch.

"Stop," he demanded as he grabbed my wrists to stop my hitting.

"You took everything away from me. You killed him."

I clamped my teeth around his shoulder, getting a mouthful of his shirt. I bit down as hard as I could.

"Fuck," he grunted.

With little effort, he lifted me and spun around. The wind was knocked out of me as my back slammed into the wall. Atlas's face was furious as he pinned me to the cold bricks. I couldn't move with his weight, and I realized he hadn't used his full strength on me yet. He was strong and now very pissed off with blood dripping down his chest.

"I didn't kill Ace," he fumed.

"He didn't just leave me all alone after my parents were executed," I threw back. I swore I saw a flash of guilt when I said it. "He would never leave me like that, so I know he's dead."

"Then I need to know who killed him."

IV

Atlas

Stella's eyes glistened and glossed over. I didn't know if I should believe her. I knew Ace better than anyone, and I didn't think he would leave his little sister alone either. He wouldn't leave knowing there was a price over her head as well. But if there was one thing my father had taught me, other than to kill a man slowly, was that you couldn't trust anybody. Trusting Stella wouldn’t be another one of my lethal mistakes.

"When was the last time you saw him?" I asked her. With my body holding her to the wall, she was immobile.

"Eight months ago," she whispered. "The night before my parents were killed."

I felt the fight leave Stella's body as soon as the words left her mouth. Her shoulders slumped in defeat and despair washed over her pretty blue eyes. I released the rough grip I had and stepped back to look at her. She swayed on her feet, and I had to stop her from falling over. Stella was shutting down. After what she'd been through in the last twenty-four hours¸ I'd expect that. If I wanted answers, I would need to stop pushing so hard.

Looking at the broken and lonely girl made me want to believe her. How could someone so lonely and sad earn a top spot on my hit list? I wanted to believe that I wasn't wrong about Ace either. I had softened and had made a mistake of trusting before, and now I was dealing with the consequences of doing so. I wouldn't so easily fall into the Harlow trap again.

"Come. Upstairs," I told her when I was sure we were alone. I didn't give her the option to argue this time. I pulled her to the steps, dragging her up them behind me.

The door opened to the hallway and I led her back to the bedroom. I couldn't stand to see her half-naked another minute. It was clouding my judgment and that was something I used to pride myself in never allowing to happen. I needed to be angry and hard, but I was getting hard in the wrong places.

"Get dressed," I told her, tossing a black shirt at her with a pair of jeans.

Stella caught the clothes and checked the tags before quickly pulling the shirt over her head.

"How did you know my size?" she asked as she slid the jeans up her legs.

"I know a lot about you," I told her before opening the door again.

I took her wrist and led her down the hall. Surprisingly, she didn't fight me. I could feel she was growing weaker. I had had her for over twenty-four hours and she had yet to eat. I needed her alive for this to work.

"This is the kitchen," I announced as we entered the room. "You are welcome to any of the food. There is no phone in here so don't get your hopes up. This room and the bedroom are the only two rooms you will have access to."

"I'm not hungry," she mumbled.

"Bullshit."

"Just kill me already," she said, looking me right in the eyes. "He told you to. Just do it."

For a moment, I felt like a piece of shit. I killed before when necessary and never cared. It was an occupational hazard, and I always followed orders. I didn't have a choice in this family. But when this woman looked at me with dead eyes revealing her pain, I wanted to save her.

"I don't want to have to," I answered honestly. "Let me show you something."

Placing my hand on the small of Stella's back, we walked to the back of the house. I unlocked the doors, leading her to the living room. The back wall was lined with windows overlooking Lake Michigan. I opened the sliding glass doors and we walked out onto the deck.

The night was dark with the clouds covering the moon's light. The sound of crickets and frogs echoed in the darkness. I deeply inhaled the fresh cool air. This place was my own sanctuary. The city lights powered by corruption and violence couldn't reach me here.

"What do you see, Stella?" I asked her when she came to stand at the railing overlooking that water.

"Nothing," she answered.

"Exactly. Nothing," I agreed. "No one will find you here. There is nowhere to run. No one to hear you."

Stella's slim fingers trembled on the wood. I wanted to soothe them like I knew Ace would, because she didn't deserve this. He would kick my ass if he knew what I was putting her through, but the bastard wasn't here to do a damn thing about it. I needed her scared. I needed her to want her freedom and her life more than anything. After all, what else did she really have left?

"Boss?" I heard from the front of the house.

"My office," I shouted in return as I ushered Stella back into the house.

When we reached the door to the bedroom, I stopped Stella and turned her to face me. Slowly, I backed her against the door. I heard the small intake of breath when her shoulders hit the wood behind her. I smirked down at her at the small victory. A tiny flicker of fight flared in her eyes right before her knee connected with my balls.

I doubled over and Stella fled down the hall. I heard her screams for help, probably hoping my two men would be the good guys. She was sadly mistaken. Those were my men. I straightened and lunged for her, grabbing the back of her neck.

"They won't help you, Little Star," I said in her ear when I yanked her back to my chest.

"Go to hell," she grunted but I wrapped a hand around her mouth to stop the shouting.

Her muffled screams vibrated against my palm as I dragged her back into the bedroom. I kicked the door shut behind me and tossed her to the bed. Stella bounced once before scrambling to the edge. I was faster and had a hold of her waist before her bare feet could hit the floor. Pulling her back, she hit the mattress with a thump.

"That was unwise," I told her as I laid myself on top of her to stop her fight.

"Get off me," she grunted as she squirmed and pushed at me.

Taking her wrists, I pinned them above her head and used my thighs to hold her legs still. The friction between our bodies invoked me and set my senses on high sensitivity. Her blue eyes met mine and I watched the fire flare in them. I loved it. As much as I needed to hate her, this was like foreplay to me.

Nestled between her legs, I hardened against her and Stella gasped when she felt it. I always liked it rough and it was difficult to remember my purpose while I held her down. Bred and raised on violence, I had grown to accept it . . . maybe even love it, or need it. With Stella fighting me, and the memory of how she felt against me before she knew my name, she was making this the ultimate turn-on.

"Stop fighting me," I practically begged her.

"Never," she hissed.

"Then we are gonna have a huge fucking problem," I said with a small thrust of my hips.

"I wouldn't call it huge," Stella said with a hard face and direct eye contact.

Little bitch. My hand was around her throat instantly. Tight enough to gain her attention but not tight enough to hurt. I lowered my mouth closer to her face so she could hear me.

"I am being very kind to you, Stella. I expect some respect in return," I whispered.

Her body stiffened under mine as I pulled away. That's when I saw it. The fear in her eyes. The darkness that I saw hanging over her for months was there. A part of me, the part that came from my father, wanted to own it. To exploit it and dive into it. To push and feed off her fear and screams.

The other part wanted to shield her. To tell her that it would be okay and that nothing could hurt her. But that would be a lie. I could easily hurt her and most likely would. I shoved off the bed, hearing a soft exhale of relief as I backed away.

"There are guards on duty at all hours in the house. Get some food and stay in your room. We will discuss the rest in the morning," I told her as I left the room.

In my office, Tony and Sal were waiting for me. They gave me a head nod in greeting as I rounded my desk and took a seat. I pulled up the surveillance and checked that Stella was still curled up in the bed.

“My father gone?" I asked.

"Yes, sir," Tony answered. "He seemed pleased."

"Hope so," I grumbled. My whole life, I aimed to please that man. It was never enough, but I lived to try. I just didn't understand why.

"Think this will work?" Sal asked. He was the one always thinking ahead and running through the possible scenarios.

"It has to."

I knew my dad better than anyone else in the family. I had learned from him, had watched him, and had listened to every word he said. He was as brutal as he was smart. I needed to find out the truth before he figured out what I was doing. You never went against orders, especially directly from the boss, if you wanted to live. Being an actual blood relative didn't exclude me from the rules.

"I need you two to watch her," I told them. "She is allowed access to the kitchen and the bedroom. I don't want to have to lock her up just yet. If she fucks that up, she will go downstairs."

They both nodded, and I knew they would do what I told them. They may have been loyal to the family, but they owed their lives to me, and they knew it. Their allegiance belonged to me above anyone else. They were the only two men that I would trust with this.

"What did she tell you?" Sal asked.

"She doesn't know where she is," I told him. "She says he's dead."

She thinks I killed him.

"You believe it?" Tony asked.

"Not sure yet. I'll make sure she talks."

I hoped she was wrong, and I hoped she was right. Someone had betrayed me, and it was either my own father or my best friend. Was Ace a rat and stabbing me the back? I knew my father was a murderer, but the question was, which of the Harlows did he murder in this case? All of them except the one he sent me to kill?

V

Stella

I cracked open the bedroom door and peered down the hallway. It was dark and empty, exactly how I wanted it. I tiptoed down the hall quietly, holding my breath. The last thing I wanted was for Atlas to see me. I had sat in the bedroom, crying and pacing for an entire day. Too scared to leave and too stubborn to eat, I was starving. I wanted to hide out in my room until a miracle happened and I was set free, but I would soon starve to death with that plan.

So plan B was to sneak into the kitchen, grab something to eat and get back to the room without being noticed. I thought I was clever refusing the food they brought me, but the empty feeling in my stomach was making me regret it. If I ever wanted to escape, I couldn't be ready to pass out. Dying of hunger had to be more painful than a bullet.

Every door was closed in the hall but I saw the light coming from the kitchen. I was almost there when I heard the sounds of voices. I froze in place, listening. I heard the deep rumble of Atlas's voice along with a stranger's voice, or maybe two. My hands shook with nerves and my body wavered between going toward the voices or the kitchen.

What if they could help me? If I told them I was here against my will, would they save me? Surely Atlas wouldn't fight for me if he was outnumbered. The thought of being free had my feet leaving the safety the kitchen could provide and moving toward the voices. Another hall was off to my right and the voices got louder. I poked my head around the corner, hoping to find safety.

French doors opened at the end of the short hall to a dimly lit room. Atlas sat in a dark leather chair, holding a glass on his knee. His eyes were hard as they connected with mine and I saw his jaw tick. Gasping, I didn't even bother to see who was with him before I turned and ran back to the kitchen. I would pretend I had gotten lost on the way.

I came to a skid on my bare feet as I rounded the corner into the kitchen. I made it to the large refrigerator and swung open the door, hoping to look innocent. The inside was packed full of food and drinks. At the sight, my stomach rumbled as I remembered how hungry I really was. The cold air hit my skin and I reached in to grab a yogurt.

"Finally ending your hunger strike?"

I screamed in surprise and spun to find Atlas leaning in the doorway, dressed in a black suit. He had a glass of amber liquor in one hand and wore a confident smirk on his face. His dark eyes trailed down my body in a threatening gaze. I bit my lip and let the refrigerator door close slowly. Facing Atlas, I didn't know what to expect as he stalked toward me.

"Do I need to chain you up again?" he asked when he was closer.

I shook my head quickly and stepped back until I hit the counter. I thought of the night in the basement and cringed. I had never been so scared in my life than I was chained to that pillar, utterly defenseless. I never wanted to relive that again.

"Then I suggest you stay in the areas you have permission to be in," he said. His voice was low and steady. It was a warning. "I was hesitant to let you leave the room at all. Don't make me regret it, Stella."

Every bit of me want to melt to the floor with his glare on me. I wanted to run but I didn't know where. Back to my room where he kept me? To the people that I could only assume wouldn't help me? My options were limited. Refusing to eat did nothing but make me desperate. Being brave and exploring only got me cornered. The only option at the moment seemed to be to do as I was told.

"Go straight back to your room when are you done," he told me before leaving me alone in the kitchen. I listened as his footsteps faded, knowing he didn't go far from the doorway.

I sighed and sagged against the cold counter. After several attempts, I found the silverware and grabbed a spoon. I had come all this way; I might as well eat the yogurt. I lifted the foil top and dug the spoon into the creamy goodness. It wasn't nearly enough to fill me but I was too nervous to stay in the kitchen any longer. I felt safer in my prison, as messed up as that was.

I found the trash and threw out the empty cup. When I turned to leave, two large men appeared in the doorway. Both with dark skin and void faces, staring down at me. One reached forward and plucked the spoon from my grip. I self-consciously shifted, knowing I was only in shorts and a tank top. My wardrobe selection hadn't been very vast, but I did have a closet full of clothes in my size.

"Atlas?" I called out, knowing he would hear me. The two big guys just stared down at me, unamused.

"They will see that you find your way back to your room," Atlas answered from the hall.

My throat constricted with panic and I felt like a caged animal. I backed myself into the corner of the kitchen while the two meatheads closed in on me. Like most animals, my fight or flight instincts kicked in.

With a strength I didn't ever think I could possess, I pushed past the two burly men. With one fist, I hit one square in the balls and elbowed the other in the pit of his stomach when his arms tried to reach around me. Sounds of grunts and thumps sounded and I fell to my knees with them.

My hands and legs scrambled to pull myself back up. Knocking a fruit bowl off the counter, I grabbed a cutting board. A knife would have been better, but they were smart enough to remove those when I was granted access to the kitchen. Armed with a heavy piece of wood, I ran. My feet slipped as I scrambled for the open doorway. The two men were also getting to their feet behind me. The cutting board shook in my hands as I kept my eyes forward. The wood was heavy and I hoped it would be enough to at least cave in one of their heads.

"Stop her," one yelled as I rounded the corner of the doorway.

"Stella! Stop!" Atlas yelled. I could tell he was in the kitchen.

In the hallway, the front door was finally in sight. I knew it was locked and could only opened with their keys. That didn't stop my legs from sprinting toward it anyway, knocking the air out of me when I slammed into it. The side window panels looked too thin to fit myself through. I could hear the pounding of the men’s footsteps coming after me. Their voices echoed as they came closer to where I was pinned against the locked door.

With my blood pumping with adrenaline, I pounded at the glass with the cutting board. Glass shattered and fell to the ground. Stepping back, I felt the tears rolling down my face.

"Stella," I heard Atlas growl from the end of the hall. Only a few dozen feet of expensive hardwood floor separated us.

The sound of his deep and commanding voice pushed one more burst of will through me. I could hear my own cries as I punched the rest of the shards away. The glass digging into my skin didn't register in my mind as I tried to push my body through the thin opening. I was able to fit the upper half of my body through before I felt a hand grab my leg.

"You fucking bitch."One of the goons had my leg and yanked me roughly back.

"Let go!" I cried and kicked. My bare foot connected with a hard body and I was released.

Hearing my name called once more, I used every ounce of strength to pull myself the rest of the way. Glass and wood scraped at my skin, but I didn't stop. I could feel the cool night air on my skin. I could smell the rain that had recently fallen and saw the moon hidden in the clouds in the sky. I was outside!

The night was so dark I couldn't see a more than few feet in front of me. I actually couldn't see any light in the distance at all. My heartbeat thumped and my breath came in hard pants as I ran away from the house. I could hear the shouts for me, and Atlas barking commands, but I couldn't look back. It didn't matter that I had no idea where I was going. My bare feet hit the gravel and my body cut through the night air as I sprinted up the gravel drive. I had to keep going. I had to lose him and find help. I just had to keep running.

"Stella! Stop!" My heart stopped when I heard Atlas's voice behind me.

In a panic, I turned off to the right into the tall grass. I could hear him cursing as he entered the thick brush behind me. The grass and branches slapped my bare skin, stinging me. This would be my only hope to lose him and get away. I kept running, ignoring the pain and shortness of breath until I couldn't hear him any longer.

Bent over with my hands on my knees, I struggled to breathe. Every gasp of air burned and my entire body ached. I couldn't see in the darkness, and all I could hear was my own heartbeat pounding. Even the moon had been swallowed by the clouds. Goosebumps trailed over my sweaty skin as I noticed how very lost and screwed I really was.

"There's nowhere to go, Stella," his voice surrounded me. "You won't get away."

Fuck! Just when I thought I was alone, he had found me. A cry escaped my lips and I tried to run, only to be pulled back. My back hit a hard body behind me at the same time a hand clamped over my mouth. My cries and screams were muffled under the pressure of his hand. Another arm snaked around my chest and fingers wrapped around my throat.

"Shh," Atlas whispered in my ear. "That was fucking stupid. So stupid. You're hurt now."

I lashed out against him but it was pointless. The hand around my throat tightened in warning. His hold was strong and held me immobile in his arms. I slumped against him in defeat and despair. All the strength and determination leaked out of my body.

He found me. I ran and he caught me. I was warned how foolish it would be to run and now I would have to face the consequences. Tears streamed down my face and over his hand as the adrenaline wore off and reality sank in. Everything hurt and it was only Atlas holding me up on my feet.

His lips brushed my ear, sending a shiver down my spine. "Don't you dare fucking scream, understand?"

I nodded once and his fingers slowly lifted from my mouth and wrapped around my waist. I pulled in a deep breath, feeling the pain in my ribs with the inhale. Atlas tilted my head back while still keeping his grip on my throat. Even though I couldn't see his face, I felt his hard stare on me. Anger was rolling off his body in hot waves, and every muscle pressed to me was rock hard.

"I'm sorry," I cried quietly, slumping against him.

"Shut up," he growled as he hoisted me up into his arms. "We are going back to the house and I will clean you up. You are not going to fight me or even think about running again. Do you understand me?"

I swallowed the lump in my throat and nodded against him. I didn't struggle as he walked us out of the brush, with his arms protecting me from anymore scrapes. I didn't even fight as he carried me back up the long driveway. I didn't dare to apologize again for fear of angering him further. I had no idea what he would do to me for running.

Atlas carried me effortlessly and I started to feel the consequences of my escape attempt. My sides ached and stung with every step. My hands felt raw and I could smell the metallic scent of blood. As the light of the house came into view, two large figures lingered near the door as we approached.

“Board up the windows,” Atlas barked at them. “Get this cleaned up.”

"Yes, sir," the other answered as they shrank back at his anger.

"That will be all," Atlas muttered as he stepped up the front door. Glass broke under his steps.

"What about the girl?" Goon Two asked.

Atlas spun to face the two dumb brutes. I squeezed my eyes shut knowing he had gone from very angry to downright furious, and it was my fault. I could only imagine how I would pay for it when they left.

"You two fucking morons can't handle the girl, so you're no good to me at this point," he told them in a scary, low voice that sent goosebumps over my arms and legs. "You had one fucking job. Get. Her. To. Her. Room."

Atlas spun on his heels and slammed the door behind us once inside. My vision swirled and blurred as he carried me down the hall. Nausea mixed with the dread as I knew we were close to my room. When I heard the turn of the doorknob, everything went black.

VI

Atlas

Stella was covered in blood and limp in my arms. Her clothes were soaked, her long hair dripping water on the floor. I ripped off the sheet with one hand and placed her on the bed. Her blonde hair was a mess, strewn with leaves and dirt. Scrapes and cuts covered her face, and her hands were bloody. When I turned, Tony stood in the doorway with bandages and a damp cloth. Pushing aside my anger at him, I grabbed the stuff from his hands.

I knelt on the mattress, using the wet cloth to wipe the blood from her hands so I could see where it was coming from. Behind me, Sal appeared with the first aid kit, loaded with antibiotic cream, pain reliever and rubbing alcohol. After cleaning up her hands, I found few cuts from where she broke the glass windows. I didn't think she would fit through the small space, but the little shit was determined.

Stella didn't wake as I poured the alcohol over her cuts. Tony put blobs of antibiotic cream on them, but nothing looked deep enough for stitches. I wanted to kill him for letting her get away, but he was one of the few I trusted with my mission. I would need him, but I would be kicking their asses later for fucking up.

Sal was busy cleaning up her face. After the dirt was wiped away, I could tell that the scrapes were only minor. The brush out there was thick and unforgiving. It was the reason very few lived in the secluded area and why I chose this place as mine.

"She's fucking fast," Tony mumbled when he was done with her hands.

"She ran track in high school and college," I said. "Go fix the damn windows."

Both men nodded and left the room. I should have never trusted her alone. I was too busy trying to gain her trust and too concerned about her not eating that I let that override my common sense. If she was anything like her brother, she was stubborn and wouldn't eat the food I handed her anyway. I underestimated her and the balls she had.

My name was one to be feared and respected in this city. Not many dared to stand against me, but this little girl wouldn't back down. I had spent months planning, watching, and getting ready for this moment. I wouldn't have all this unravel now, or ever.

I ran my thumb over a cut under her eye and Stella groaned. Her eyelids slowly fluttered open and soon she was looking up at me. She blinked, looking around the room. I saw the moment she remembered where she was and what happened.

"Let me die," she whispered. "Just let me bleed out. You owe me at least that much."

I pinched the bridge of my nose and shook my head. Stella was more of a headache than I had anticipated. This was supposed to be the easy part.

"You aren't going to die, Stella," I told her. "You're not bleeding enough. I don't owe it to you to let you die. I owe it to you to save your fucking life."

"I don't even know what that means," she mumbled, fading in and out of consciousness. "What do you want from me?"

I leaned over her and grabbed the sides of her face. Her skin was cool and still damp from the rain. I lightly smacked her cheek and her big blue eyes opened back up, locking onto mine.

"I need to know what you saw that night. The night your parents were killed."

Stella's eyes went wide and she shook her head, breaking out of my hold. "I didn't see anything. I don't know anything."

I could hear the fear in the slight tremor of her voice as she recited the practiced lie. It was something I would normally feed off of. When a predator sensed the fear in their prey, it was a sign that victory was within its grasp. I lived and thrived off fear and weakness, conditioned to recognize it. Stella's distress told me enough.

"I know you saw who did it. You may have lied to the cops and everyone else, but I know the truth. So, Little Star, tell me what you saw."

"No," she whispered. "I saw nothing."

Stella tried sitting up but I grabbed her hands and pulled them out from underneath her. She fell back to the bed and I pinned her wrists above her head, careful not to press too hard on any of the cuts. She struggled for a few seconds before I felt the rest of her energy drain from her.

"Please. Let me go," she pleaded.

"No can do," I said. "You think that if I didn't drug you and bring you here that you would have actually made it to California? You think that it was actually enough that you kept your mouth shut?"

"Kinda," she answered weakly.

"No, Stella. It wasn't, and if I hadn't gotten to you first, you would have met a very similar fate as your parents. I'm sure you know what that would be like."

Stella's hand broke free of my grip and her closed fist connected with my jaw. I quickly snatched up her wrist and gritted my teeth to keep from breaking her hand.

"Do you have a fucking death wish?" I growled.

"Obviously," she snapped back. She glared up at me with hate, anger and fire.

"Too fucking bad," I said, pulling her up and off the bed. "Trust me, it would be easier to just kill you."

Stella swayed slightly on her feet, and I could see that the movement hurt. Her clothes were still wet and her shirt was torn. She would feel like hell in the morning.

"Hands up and keep them up," I demanded. Just to be sure she listened, I grabbed the small blade I kept on my belt. Her eyes went wide but she raised her hands like I ordered.

I stepped closer, grabbing the shredded hem of the tank top, and slowly pulled it up and over her head. Stella's muscles went tense and I watched as goosebumps scattered on the skin exposed in the cool air. The shirt fell to the floor with a heavy thud. Stella glared at me as her nipples hardened. I clenched my jaw with anger when I noticed the ugly bruises and scrapes that marred her perfect skin.

"Stay put," I said, pointing the blade at her.

I walked backward to the closet and pulled out a long robe. I could make her strip and expose herself entirely to me. I could watch as she struggled with herself while trying to decide if she was terrified or intrigued. It would be so easy to make her anticipate my next move while she was naked and defenseless. Having control was mostly making others fear you.

"Put this on," I told her as I handed the thick robe to her.

Stella took it and quickly wrapped it around herself, tying the waist tightly.

"Thank you," she said quietly. I could hear that she was starting to shiver.

Using the knife to wave her over, I directed her over the en suite bathroom and unlocked the door for her. I let her walk in first and followed in closely behind. Stella stood in the center of the bathroom, looking unsure of what to do next. I pulled open the shower doors and started the water, making sure it was hot.

"There is nothing in here that you can use to hurt yourself or anyone else," I told her. "Shower and get warm. I'll be outside."

I left her standing in the bathroom and closed the door behind me. I waited until I could hear the change of the water stream from hitting her body before I put my knife away. In the closet, I found some warmer clothes that she could change into when she got out. The night was not supposed to end with me dressing the girl like a doll.

"Shit," I cursed, running my hands roughly through my hair.

Gaining her trust was harder than I thought it would be. Understandably, Stella had her assumptions about me and my family. In most circumstances, she would be right. I was ruthless, a killer, and had no room for soft spots. But true to my ethics, I would protect my own and keep my word. I had no desire to kill her without reason, but she seemed determined to give me one.

I placed the clothes on the marble sink in the bathroom without being noticed. When Stella finally came out, a cloud of steam followed her. I sat on the bed holding antibiotic cream and bandages.

"Your hands," I told her.

Stella looked down at her knuckles, seeming to notice the blood and cuts for the first time. Hesitantly, she walked over to stand in front of me and offered her hands to me. Taking both wrists with one hand, I used the other to grab her chin and forced her to look at me.

"You do something like that again, I won't patch you back up," I warned her. I roughly let go of her face and spread some cream on her fingers.

"Why are you now?" she asked, trying to bend and get a look at my face.

I looked up and into her eyes. She could see how empty and cold I really was. "Because I'm not done with you."

Stella wisely chose to shut up and let me finish up cleaning her hands. I ignored her flinches and hissing as I put the bandages on. I was beyond pissed that she was hurt, but I couldn't coddle her. She needed to respect and fear me enough to never try something like that again.

"Lift up your shirt," I asked her when her hands were taken care of.

Stella took a deep breath before she lifted the flannel shirt to expose her stomach, keeping her breasts covered. There were scrapes and bruising on her ribs from pushing through the small window. One large gash decorated her stomach and I touched it gently, causing Stella to jump away.

I grabbed her hips, pulling her between my knees and running my fingers over her stomach. The skin was soft and warm under my cold hands. Stella held her breath while I inspected her body. I tickled down her ribcage, checking for any broken bones under the purple skin. The cut was the worst of the injuries so I cleaned it with alcohol and covered it with gauze.

I reached up and cupped her cheek, tilting her head to look at her face. The scrapes on her face from running in the brush were minor. They should clear in a day or so. I moved my fingers gently through her wet hair, feeling for any cuts on her head. Stella's eyes closed as she tipped her head back and I drug my fingers through the long strands. My hands trailed down her back and to her hips.

"Anything else hurt?" I asked, still holding her between my legs.

"Don't think so," she answered, her voice low and breathy.

I stood before I decided to pull her onto my lap. My chest rubbed against hers as I did, and I heard her sharp inhale. I smirked, letting her know that I had heard, and I pushed her back a few feet.

"Go to bed," I told her as I pulled the wingback chair from the corner across the room.

"What are you doing?" she asked. "Are you . . . are you staying?"

"Fuck yes, I'm staying," I told her as I sat in the chair with my back to the door, facing the bed. "It's either this or I tie you up again. Or you can go to the basement. I obviously can't trust you alone."

Stella shook her head but climbed into the bed quickly. She pulled the covers over her and I reached up to switch off the lights. We were plunged into darkness and silence and I could hear her staggered breathing. Tomorrow, I would come up with a new plan. I would feed her, forcefully if needed, and I would figure out a way to keep her inside and give me what I needed.

VII

Stella

I could feel it in my bones that something was wrong. Sitting up in my bed, I could see light in the hallway. I rubbed my eyes and waited for them to focus. When I heard the voices, a chill ran down my spine. It sounded like crying.

I crawled out of my bed and tiptoed to the doorway. I could feel my heartbeat pounding in my ears, but I forced myself into the dim hallway anyway. I could barely breathe with the feeling of doom and fear swallowing me, but I needed to see. I needed to know what was happening. I hoped I was just being paranoid and that nothing was wrong. 

I wasn't being paranoid. My mom was kneeling on the kitchen floor. Her face was in her hands and she cried quietly. My dad knelt beside her, looking ahead with determination and hate. Something was very wrong. The man I thought was the strongest and bravest man in the world was on his knees in our kitchen while my mom begged for their lives. 

My feet were glued to the floor as the gun pressed to my dad's forehead. I held my breath and prayed the scene in front of me wasn't real. I watched, frozen in horror, as the sound of the gunshot blasted through the silent night. Red splattered and another blast sounded, silencing my mom's screams. One scream continued to pierce the air louder than any gunshot.

I fell to the floor as I watched the blood pool on the tile. The kitchen my mom cooked countless dinners in was red instead of black and white. The room my parents, my brother and I talked in every night was ruined. The two people who meant the most to me had just vanished before my eyes. The dark figure who took away my world vanished just as quickly, as I crawled into the pool of blood my mom and dad were drowning in. 

My own scream filtered in my ears along with my name being screamed. I didn't want to leave yet. I wanted to save them, but it was too late.

"Stella!"

I was being shaken and my name was being yelled. I forced my eyes to open and look around. I wasn't in my kitchen. The floor was carpet and not the checkered tile covered in red. Strong hands held my face, and as the tears dried in my eyes, a face appeared.

"You with me?" Atlas asked. He looked at me with shock and curiosity.

"Yeah," I said with a rough voice. My throat hurt like I had been screaming. I probably had.

Atlas let me go and leaned back on the bed, watching me carefully. I ran my fingers through my hair, finding it damp from sweat. My clothes were wet under the warm robe and my hands felt clammy. My breathing was still coming in hot pants.

"Bad dream?" he asked.

"Something like that," I answered. A dream would imply that it was fiction and not real.

I tore the robe off, tossing it to the floor. I needed to cool down. I could feel Atlas watching me and I knew he wanted to ask a million questions. I would never answer them. I had never told a soul what I had seen that night, and I didn't ever intend to do so. For a while, I thought that was the only thing keeping me alive. Now, I wasn’t too sure.

"If I go get you a drink, will you try to run?" Atlas asked.

I shook my head. I didn't think my legs would hold me if I tried. I was finally feeling the consequences from my escape attempt. I hung my head as Atlas quietly left the room. When I was alone, I let three tears go—one for each part of my heart that was taken from me.

I jumped when the door opened again. Atlas came in with a glass and shut the door behind him. His shirt was only held closed with the last three buttons, exposing most of his wide chest. The shirt used to be white but was now covered in dirt smears, and one sleeve had a small rip. His hair was unruly and his face had a little more scruff than I had remembered.

"Orange juice," he said as he handed me the glass. "It's already five in the morning so we might as well stay up."

"Did you sleep in the chair all night?" I asked.

"I did. I couldn't strap you down with your hands like that," he mumbled as he pushed the chair back in the corner.

I awkwardly drank my juice, looking at my hands and the damage I had caused. They were sore and cut up. At the time, I didn't even feel it. I had just wanted to escape. This morning though, I was sore all over. My ribs hurt, and I felt like I had fallen down a cliff. Thanks to Atlas, I seemed to be cleaned and bandaged up.

"Go get dressed," he told me as he stalked over to the end of the bed. I shrunk down under his angry glare.

"And Stella," he started and leaned toward me. "As much as I would prefer you alive, do not assume that secures your life. The moment your life becomes too much of a risk to me, overcoming the potential outcome, I will dispose of you. Understood?"

"Yes," I whispered. There was no doubt in my mind that he meant it. I also didn't believe that he wouldn't kill me if I did cooperate. I knew what people like him were like.

"Despite what you say, you actually want to live," he said. "Otherwise, why hide? Why fight? Why lie to the police and say you didn't see anything that night?"

A chill ran down my spine and I clenched my jaw to keep my mouth shut. The images from my nightmare, and real life, were too fresh in my mind. I could still smell the freshly spilled blood. I could remember the sound of my scream echoing in the night. I remembered how cold my mother's body felt as I held her in my arms until the paramedics dragged me away.

Atlas wanted to know what I had seen that night, but I kept it locked away. It only came out at night. Only when the darkness took over and there was no light left did the truth have the courage to surface. It was a truth that I would never let out because Atlas was right. I wanted to live. Keeping my secrets was the only thing that kept me alive.

I got up abruptly, picked some random clothes from the closet and took them to change in the bathroom. It wasn't a coincidence it was full of clothing in my size. Atlas had obviously known who I was long before we met at the club. I ran my fingers through my knotted hair and rinsed my face. A hairbrush was apparently too much to ask for.

I came out of the bedroom to find Atlas sitting on the edge of the bed waiting. His dark eyes trailed down my body dressed in simple leggings and a long shirt. His gaze felt more sensual than it did when I was practically naked. Atlas tilted his head and cracked his neck. Standing, he motioned for me to follow him.

Without many other options, I followed him to the kitchen where he pulled out fruit and made me a bagel. I couldn't escape. The windows were boarded up and Atlas never took his eyes off me for more than a few seconds. I heard the footsteps of his guards nearby, but didn't see them. I reluctantly picked at the fruit and pulled off parts of the bagel.

Shoving a piece in my mouth, I tasted the thick cream cheese and my stomach rumbled. I hadn't realized how hungry I was until a piece of food landed in my stomach. I quickly devoured the fruit as well. Atlas kept pushing more food toward me until I couldn't shove anymore in my mouth. I paused, eyeing the fork in my hand.

"Don't even think about it," he warned, his voice low and full of threat.

Setting it down, I looked up at him. This man's attitude toward me had me spinning. One second he was flirting then shoving me in a truck. Then he nursed my wounds before going cold again. I knew who he was. My brother thought he was secretive, but I knew the family he was working for. Atlas was no different than rest of the Omegas.

"Good girl," he said, reaching forward and slipping the fork away from me.

As he walked around behind me, I stiffened and held my breath. When he moved my long hair off my back and over one shoulder, I shuddered.

"You think you could kill with just a fork, Little Star?" he said in my ear.

I shook my head.

"No? If you get the right spot . . ." he said, putting the tines at the pulse point on my neck, right under my chin. "You think this will kill someone?"

"Yes," I gasped when he applied slight pressure. I could feel each tine pressing into my skin.

"Or here," he said as he moved the fork to my chest. He dragged it over the top of my breast and poked the skin right over my heart.

I could feel my heart pounding in my ears and against the fork pressed to my chest. I tried to even out my breathing so he couldn't hear how scared I was. Men like him fed off of it, thrived off of it even. I could feel his body heat on my back as his hand moved from my shoulder and down my arm.

"So you see why I can't let you out of my sight?" he asked, releasing me from his hold.

"I won't do anything stupid again."

"I'm a very careful man."

Atlas washed the dishes and cleaned the kitchen like it was any other morning after breakfast. Maybe this was a regular occurrence. For all I knew, Atlas could bring back a different woman every few days as his prisoner. When he got whatever it was that he wanted, he’d get rid of them. I didn't know what exactly it was that Atlas wanted from me, but I wouldn't be giving it to him. He said he wanted information that he surely already knew.

"Sir?" I heard from behind me. I turned to see the two goons from yesterday.

"My office in ten," Atlas told them. Like soldiers, they both nodded and left the room.

"Did you get enough to eat?" he asked me once we were alone.

"Yes," I said. "Thanks."

I hated thanking him and I wished I could take the words back. I wanted to be my dad's daughter and kick him. I should be leaving this world fighting. Kicking and screaming. I shouldn't be hiding. Cowering and obeying a killer would have Daddy rolling in his grave. I closed my eyes and prayed that he wasn't watching me now. I could only hope that he was too busy keeping up with Mom and Ace in Heaven.

VIII

Atlas

I led Stella down to my office. As much as I hated the idea of her knowing where this room was, I couldn't allow her to be alone. She was smarter than I gave her credit for. Even after months of watching and waiting, I didn't know all there was to know about Stella Harlow. It made me feel unprepared and surprised. I hated it.

"Sit," I told her as I shoved her into a chair in the corner. Sal and Tony were waiting for me as I had asked.

"She looks pretty good considering last night," Sal muttered under his breath.

He was right. Stella had some bruises and minor cuts, but it was minimal for what she had gone through. Sal had a black eye and Tony had a decent cut on his cheek. They didn't even go through the broken glass like she had. I made a mental note that she was tougher than I had predicted as well. She wouldn't be easy to break.

"What's the word?" I asked them. I sat in my chair behind the desk where I could see my men and Stella in the corner.

"Your father seems quiet. No movement on his end," Sal started. "Rumor has it you killed the last Harlow. No missing reports on the girl yet."

I looked right at Stella and her eyes were wide. I smirked at her and she glared. Now she knew no one was looking for her, and the only people who were, wanted her dead.

"Good. Tell Larry and Tim that I killed off the whole family."

I heard Stella gasp as Sal and Tony exchanged a look.

"Those two idiots?" Tony asked me.

"Those two idiots are perfect," I answered. "They have the biggest mouths and word will spread fast. The only man who will argue that fact is someone wanting the credit themselves."

I saw it click in my men's heads and the confusion all over Stella's face. Little did she know that only she held the real answers. I was fishing in a pool of sharks. There was blood in the water and no one was safe. Only the biggest fish would survive. I had to be smarter and one step ahead of the rest of my family. I needed the truth out of the girl I had locked away in my house.

"And Hector has been asking to see you," Tony added.

I groaned and rubbed my temples. Hector had been trying to get together for weeks, but I kept blowing him off. There was no specific reason other than I hated the fucker. He was creepy and more evil than even my old man. It made my skin crawl just being around him, and I had been around some of the worst of men.

"Nice work," I told them. It took over a year to find guys I could trust. Other than Ace, they were the only people I ever trusted.

They left the room and Stella waited in the corner quietly for me. She looked at me with so much hate and pain. Normally, I loved seeing that look. It was much better than seeing hurt and betrayal on her face. I wanted to erase that look. She may not have believed me, but I was looking for the same monsters under the bed.

"You?" she asked. Her voice cracked. "You killed my parents?"

"You know damn well I wasn't the one who pulled the trigger that night," I said, walking over to her and placing my hands on each side of her on the arms of the chair.

She shook her head at me and tears welled in her eyes.

"You saw who was in your house that night. Tell me, Stella. Who did you see?"

Stella shut down. It was like watching the Christmas lights go out on the tree. They all dimmed at once, and the room was thrown into darkness. She wouldn't look up at me, and when I titled her face to mine, her eyes were void. She had checked out. I wouldn't get any answers from her.

I walked back to my desk and spent a few hours getting some work done. There was money to move, people to contact, and leads to chase down. Tapping into security cameras was one of the best ideas we had, but it was tedious and time consuming to go through all the footage.

"Stella," I called over to her. She looked at me with a blank stare that I couldn't handle another second.

I pushed off the desk so hard my chair hit the bookshelf behind me. She didn't even flinch. Taking her face in one hand, I took one second to savor how soft her skin felt. After that, I smacked her. It was nowhere near as hard as I could, but just enough to wake her up.

"Listen to me very carefully, Little Star," I said, looking deep into her eyes. "I will only say this once."

I waited until I was sure she was with me. Her breathing accelerated like it usually did when I was near, and the pink tint returned to her cheeks.

"I am not going to kill you and I did not kill your family. I want to know who did. You know who did. Now can you see the connection?"

Stella chewed on her bottom lip, and I watched in fascination. I was sure I knew everything about this girl. I knew her clothing size, her favorite coffee, that she preferred boy shorts to thongs, and she loved dance music. I didn't know she chewed on her lips when she was deep in thought. I didn't know that she slept on her stomach or that she was tough as nails.

"You need to tell me what you saw that night," I urged her.

"No. I didn't see anything," she lied. I saw the fear all over her face. She was smart enough to know what would happen if she told anyone.

"I heard you in your sleep, Stella. I know that's not true. You need to tell me."

"You seriously expect me to trust you?"

"Kinda," I admitted giving her a grin that usually worked to get my own way with women.

"Want to know who I trust?" she asked.

I didn't really want to know where she was going with this. I could tell she was getting worked up for some righteous rant that I didn't have the time for.

"My dad, who believed the law existed for a reason and that no one was above it. My mother who stood behind her man and supported him and her children no matter what. My brother who would have protected me against the evil likes of you."

I sighed and rubbed my face. I needed to shave and this wasn't going well. I knew the girl would be a handful because her brother was more than that, but I never thought she would be this fucking difficult. I didn't want to have to break her, so I needed to change her mind. Breaking her, and making her fear me so deeply that she gave in, was my last resort. Some sacrifices were necessary for the greater good. One lost to save many.

"You may not have a reason to trust me," I agreed. "But know that your brother did. Ace trusted me with his life."

"Right," she laughed harshly. "And we see where that got him. That life he trusted you with is gone!"

Stella raised her hand to strike me. I had plenty of time to stop her but I let her punch me in the chest. I let her smack at me and pound on my body until she ran out of energy. Even with all her might, it didn't hurt enough to make her stop. This was her letting it out. In the ten months since her parents’ death, I had never seen her lash out or let out the anger. She quietly cried in her sadness and grief. She hid in fear but never let out the anger and hate she had.

When she finally wore herself out, Stella fell limp in my arms. When I put my arms under her legs and carried her from my office, I could feel her shaking against me. I took her down the hall and into her bedroom. She didn't look at me as I placed her in the bed and covered her up. I didn't stay to watch her. Instead, I turned off the lights and locked the door from the outside, giving her privacy to get herself back together.

I headed back to my office where I paced the room for about an hour. Every day having her here was a risk. If anyone ever got wind that Stella wasn't really dead, then I would be next on the hit list. Even my own dad wouldn't bother to save me. In our family, your place is determined by loyalty, not by blood. I'm only his golden son because I was everything he ever raised me to be.

Much to my own surprise, I actually developed a set of values and skills on my own. I grew up into a man who wasn't created by the great and powerful Mr. Omega. I may have killed, lied and stolen, but there was a thin line that I refused to cross. There was a point that I thought was too far into the depths of darkness. I also had the skills and the lack of morality to end it at the expense of my blood family.

IX

Stella

I had been captive in the house for almost a week before I was finally allowed to see outside. I was kept in my room with the door locked most of the day. Sometimes Atlas would make me sit in his office with him while he worked. I had no idea what it was that he was doing, but I didn't dare ask. If I didn't want to answer any questions then I should expect the same from him.

"You're getting pale," Atlas said. His voice startled me. I was curled up in the chair in the corner of his office with a book.

"That's what captivity does to you," I threw back.

"Come," he said, standing and coming over to me.

Confused, I followed him down the hall I only been down once the night I had arrived. He opened the wide doors and we stepped into a large living room. It was bright and open, contradictory to Atlas. The exposed wood beams and wood floors reflected the afternoon sun that poured in through the tall windows.

Outside, the lake sat waiting for me. It was calm and beautiful. I smiled when we stepped out and I felt the sun and wind on my face. The only sounds were from the birds and the trees swaying. I walked to the railing and looked down into the water. I felt Atlas behind me but I ignored him. I wanted to be alone for just a second, even if it was only pretend.

"Will you ever let me go?" I asked when I couldn't bear the silence any longer.

"No, Stella. I won't."

"Will you just keep me here forever?" I asked. The thought made my throat tight but it was better than the alternative.

"Would that be so bad?" he asked as he stepped closer to me. I could feel his chest on my back even though he wasn't actually touching me yet.

The hairs on my body stood on end. He always made me feel so aware, and every sense was heightened. The first night I met him in the club, I loved the feeling. It was exhilarating and, for the first time in a very long time, I actually felt alive. Now, it was terrifying. I felt like an animal about to be eaten. I felt dead, not alive.

Atlas gently trailed his fingers down my bare arm and goosebumps followed in their wake. I fought to keep my breath from quickening. My body's reaction made no sense to me. It was a mixture of curiosity, pleasure, and fear. The emotions swirling made me dizzy trying to figure them out.

"You know what I want from you," he said in my ear.

What was it that he really wanted from me? Was it the answers to his questions? Was it my body? I gave up hope that anything I did would earn my freedom. I grew up in a family that was familiar with criminals like Atlas and his "family." I knew too much. I was a risk and could never walk out of this lake house.

"I can't give you what you want," I whispered.

"Sure you can," he said as he quickly backed away from me. "Let’s make a deal. A trade if you will."

"A trade?" I asked as I turned to look at him curiously.

"Keep in mind, dear, that I really don't need to be nice to you. Only out of respect for your brother do I refrain from chaining you up in my basement and torturing the answers from you."

My eyes widened because he issued that threat with such ease, without so much as blinking. He was being completely honest, and torture didn't seem like something he felt very guilty about.

"To be honest, I would actually enjoy that very much." Atlas licked his lips and looked me up and down. "But I will offer you an alternative."

I crossed my arms over my chest protectively. It did nothing to make me any safer.

"Here's is the deal. You answer one question and I will give you one freedom of your choice, within reason."

I chewed on my lip and mulled over the options. How hard could one question be? One freedom could save my sanity. It was tempting to think of becoming less of a pet and more of person.

"I want to be able to come out here or stay in my room instead of sitting in your office," I said.

"Deal. If you answer me this," he started and made eye-contact with me. "Did you see your parents murdered?"

I swallowed as the memories flood back in. "Yes."

Atlas nodded once. "You are free to go between your bedroom and this deck."

I exhaled in relief. One answer. One more day.

"Stella, I am a man of my word. You may think I'm dirt, but I live by a set of morals and loyalty. If you start to believe that, this could be a hell of a lot easier."

I tilted my head to try to see him in a different view. He looked the same. Powerful, strong and deadly. Even in his own home and alone, he dressed as I always saw him. He wore dark slacks with a collared shirt. When I saw him the first time, I almost drooled over him. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I must have thought he could be someone who could protect me.

"I'll be inside," he said. I nodded and before he left, he came and leaned into my ear.

"Don't fuck this up, Little Star, or I will slit your throat."

With those parting words, he turned and left me alone on the back deck. I stared after his wide shoulders as he slipped back inside. I saw the shadow of one of the guards in the living room. I wasn't truly alone but I could pretend for a while at least. I wouldn't jump into the lake and try to swim to safety like I had thought of too many times.

I watched the sun go down that evening. I spent hours watching the fish and bugs while humming to myself. I forgot what it was like to be outside. It wasn't something I had necessarily enjoyed before, but now it was something I wouldn't take for granted. I barely noticed when the air turned crisp. I never wanted to go back inside, but soon I started to shiver.

I opened the sliding door and walked into the living room. The lights were dim and the large fireplace on one wall looked cozy and inviting. Knowing Atlas, he bought the place for the secluded location and not the features like the hardwood floors and beautiful stone walls. I wanted to linger but didn't know if that was allowed, so I decided to head to my room.

In the hallway, I saw the light from Atlas's office. One of the guards, Tony maybe, stood in the hall near the kitchen watching me. I put my head down and turned the direction of my room. A hot shower sounded soothing. Tomorrow, I would be able to go back outside. Maybe I could bargain for a book or magazine. Even the newspaper would keep me occupied.

I was almost to my room when another figure came out one of the bathrooms. I froze for a second before walking again. Another day, another guard. This house was crawling with hardened criminals and killers. My dad would have loved busting into this place.

"Well, what do we have here?" the new guy asked.

I kept walking, deciding that was probably the safest option. I didn't need any more trouble tonight after having a decent day.

"I asked you a fucking question," he bit out and grabbed my arm roughly. The stranger yanked me back to him and pushed me to the wall.

"I was just going to my room," I told him.

"Is that so? Maybe I should come with you," he said with a sickening smile.

I shivered from my head to my toes. My heartbeat quickened and every muscle tensed in my body. A heavy feeling settled in my stomach as alarms rang in my head. Something bad was going to happen. I tried to break from his hold but he held me tighter. I could feel the bruises forming under his fingertips.

"Let go," I begged, trying to hide how scared I really was.

"I don't think so. Now I see what has Atlas so busy he can't meet with me. He got himself a new toy," he growled and he pushed me harder to the wall with his body.

"No," I argued. I could smell the cigarettes and whiskey on his breath and it made me sick to my stomach.

"Your pussy that tight?" he asked and I almost threw up all over him. "Maybe I should see what the all the fuss is about."

He wrapped one hand around my throat to keep me in place while his other hand grabbed my thigh and pushed my dress up to my waist. I bucked against him and tried to scream but I didn't have enough air in my lungs to make a sound. He was choking me and tugging at my clothes while I was helpless.

His fingers forcefully pushed and dug into my skin. My throat burned as his hand started to pull at my panties. His movements were rough and clumsy. I tried kicking but his body and hands kept me still. I squeezed my eyes shut as the darkness started to take over my vision.

His brutal hands left my body suddenly and a warm liquid splattered on my face. I fell to the ground with his grip no longer holding me pinned to the wall. A familiar metallic smell filled my nose, and I opened my eyes even though everything inside me told me to keep them closed. I was once again covered in blood.

"Damn it," I heard Atlas curse a few feet away. I could barely hear him over the ringing in my ears.

I heard several sets of footsteps coming toward me, but I couldn't look at them. I couldn't look away from the eyes staring blankly at me. Part of the side of his head was a disgusting mess. Hands grabbed my arms to pull me up, but I fought them blindly. I didn't want to be touched. I swung at Tony as he tried to pick me up from the floor.

"Stella," Atlas said, kneeling down and putting the gun in the back of his pants. He cupped my cheeks to get my attention. "Are you okay? Are you hurt?"

"I don't know," I whispered.

"What the fuck was he doing here?" Atlas asked Tony, who was still holding me.

"I don't know how he got in," he told him. "Hector had been trying to get a hold of you for a few days now. He must have decided to just come see you in person."

I watched as Sal grabbed my attacker by the feet, dragging him down the hall and out of my sight. Tony lifted me to my feet as Atlas paced the hall.

"Fuck," he growled. He pulled at his hair and I watched the muscles in his jaw clench. He was furious. When he looked back at me, he froze and let his hands fall to his sides.

"Get this cleaned up. Don't speak a word of it to anybody," he told Tony. "I'll deal with the girl."

I didn't fight as Tony passed me over to Atlas, who took my upper arm to lead me to the bedroom. It was the lesser of evils in the moment. I would do anything to get away from the bloody mess in the hallway. Atlas took me straight to the bathroom and turned on the water in the shower.

"I can't tell if you're hurt with all the blood," he mumbled as he pulled my sticky hair from my neck. "You need to clean up."

I pushed the straps of the dress off my shoulders. The fabric clung to me and wouldn't come off easily with all the sticky blood. Atlas roughly pulled on the hem, sending the ruined dress to the floor. My stomach rolled with the slick feeling on my body. I ripped off my panties and bra without caring that he was seeing me naked. I felt like I was ready to crawl out of my own skin. The smell, the sound of the gunshot, and the emptiness inside was all too familiar.

I slid open the doors and stepped under the hot water. It was almost scalding but I didn't care. I wanted to burn tonight off of my skin. Atlas closed the door and I closed my eyes. Memories flashed behind my eyelids, new and old. I pushed them down, swallowed the cries, and pretended it was all washing down the drain with the red-tinted water.

X

Atlas

I watched her silhouette in the shower without disturbing her. She was completely silent as she washed and scrubbed. The bathroom was filling with steam, and I wondered how she could stand the heat of the water. I was sure she knew I was out here, but she didn't ask me to leave. I wouldn't have anyway.

A knock sounded at the door and I opened it a crack to find Tony on the other side.

"Cleaned up?" I asked quietly, opening the door a little wider to see him. I wasn't going to leave this bathroom.

"Yeah. Sal is bleaching the floors. Might smell for the night," he told me. "She alright?"

"Not sure yet," I said with a glance back at her. I couldn't make out much with the frosted glass but I could see her leaning back against the wall, letting the spray hit her face.

"She might be in shock," he offered. "Especially if you're right and she saw her parents knocked off."

"I know she did. Being covered in blood probably isn't helping. Police found her holding her mom, covered in their blood."

"Shit," Tony hissed. "You are just determined to make that girl relive it aren't you?"

"You know I need to."

"The front door's lock was broken. That was probably how Hector got in,” he told me.

"What the fuck did he want?" I asked.

"He wanted to know what you were so busy with," Stella called from behind me. The knobs twisted and the water cut off.

"Did he tell you that?" I asked as I grabbed a towel and closed the door so Tony didn't get a show, too. A possessive feeling raged inside when I thought of him watching her get out of the shower with water dripping down her body.

"Yeah," she admitted, taking the towel and wrapping up in. "He thinks you're hiding away with a new plaything."

I grunted and tilted her head back to look at her neck covered in bruises.

"I'm sorry I shot him," I told her, looking into her confused eyes. "I should have beat him to death instead."

"I'm okay. Just sore," she told me

I clenched my fists and let her into the bedroom where the guys were waiting for us. Stella sat on the bed, keeping the towel tightly wrapped around her. My men kept their eyes off her and on me, waiting for their next orders.

"Find out what he knew," I told them. "If he talked to anyone, we are royally fucked."

"He didn't have any outgoing calls on his phone for the last hour, so I doubt he told anyone about the girl," Sal said.

"We need to be sure," I reminded.

"I watched Stella come inside just a few minutes before we found Hector with her. He couldn't have known about her before that," Tony said.

I looked over to where Stella was watching us calmly. She was too much in shock to care about how big a deal this really was.

"Stella, get dressed and I will be right back," I told her.

She nodded and I ushered the guys out into the hall. My nose stung with the smell of the bleach. I closed the door behind me and leaned against it. I doubted she would try an escape tonight, but it was not the time to take any more chances.

"If anyone hears I have the girl here, it's over. For all of us," I told them.

"You cut her loose now, all this shit will be for nothing," Tony argued. "You got nothing from her so far."

"I fucking know that," I growled at him.

"You said when the risk was greater than the outcome, we would end this," Sal reminded me. "Hector is high ranks. He probably knows her face."

"But instead of reporting it, he tried to get him a fucking piece," Tony said. He was in the girl's corner, which was clear.

"If someone comes looking for him and finds her," I started, but Tony shook his head. We all knew there was a plan for that.

"Give it a few days," Tony urged. "You just killed a man for her. You saved her ass. That may convince her to cooperate."

I looked over to Sal while I debated my options. We could kill her now and dump her with Hector. No one would know the difference. The family wanted her dead and thought I had already done the deed. We could keep her and hope no one knew she was still alive in the meantime. Once I got what I needed, it was all over anyway. One sacrifice to save many.

"Keep your eyes and ears open," I told them, my mind made up and plan formed. "And double up the security on doors and windows. No one gets in and no one gets out."

"Got it boss," Tony answered, pleased with my decision.

"We get so much as a feeling that they know she is here, get rid of her," I told them before pushing back into the bedroom.

Stella was curled up in the center of the bed, passed out cold. She looked so small and alone on top of the covers in the big bed. Rage and hate burned inside me to see the finger marks on the side of her neck. She was mine to mark up and push around, but I never liked hurting her.

I pulled the blankets back and covered her up. I don't know how long I sat on the bed and watched her sleep. It was a few hours before she started to toss and turn like she usually did with the nightmares. I wondered what she was dreaming about tonight. Was it her parents or Hector she was seeing in a pool of blood?

In the morning, I woke in the bed next to Stella. My eyes sprung open and I shot up when I realized where I was. I hadn't meant to fall asleep, let alone in here. Reaching to my back, my gun was still there. When I looked down, Stella was already awake and watching me. By the looks of her, she had been up for some time. I glanced at my watch, it was almost afternoon by now.

"Morning," she said. "I'm starving."

I couldn't help but laugh as I got out of the bed.

"By all means, let’s feed you."

In the kitchen, Stella picked at her food. She looked fine, but seemed broken. She was putting on tough act, but inside, she was terrified. Was she scared of me since she had seen me kill a man? She knew that was the man I was. But I killed for her.

For the first time, I realized how she could interpret my actions. Did I just give her evidence that I needed her alive? I killed one of my own to save her. Before I had treated her like she was disposable. Now, she might think that she was valuable and worth saving. She couldn't think she had the upper hand.

"You need a haircut," I told her harshly.

"What?" she asked, confused. She ran her fingers through her hair, looking at the locks as they slipped between her fingers.

"If by chance Hector told anyone of a girl here, it wouldn't take a genius to figure out it was you," I explained. "You need to look different from the girl I was supposed to kill in the basement."

"So we need to cut my hair?"

"Yes, and dye it. It's that or kill you."

Stella's eyes widened and she swallowed the grape she had been chewing for the past several seconds. She grabbed some hair and looked longingly at it. I would miss her long, blonde hair too. I would never get to fulfill that fantasy of pulling it from behind her, tilting her head back to look at me.

"What color?" she asked quietly.

"Black."

She stood from her stool and looked right at me. "I lost bigger things than this. Let's get it over with."

Snarky. I had watched her for months. I had witnessed her go through the five stages of grief and come out on the other end. She wasn't the same person, but she was alive. Hiding, but alive. Just when I had thought she was down and wouldn't get back up, she did. Every hit took a little out of her, but she came out on the other side, still breathing.

I grabbed the bag Sal had left on the counter for me and scissors from a locked kitchen drawer. I led her back to her bathroom where we stood in front of the mirror. I let her twist some hair around her fingers one last time. It was a shame we had to get rid of it.

"Here we go," I warned her.

Stella closed her eyes, and I wrapped my hand around the bottom of her hair. I clipped away what was above my fist. The hair fell to my feet like gold ribbons. The rest fell around her shoulders. It was still long even though about nine inches were at my feet.

"May I?" she asked, reaching back for the scissors.

"You're fucking kidding me. No."

Stella sighed and met my eyes in the mirror. "I just want to even it out. It looks like shit. I won't do anything stupid."

I handed her the scissors and reached behind myself, pulling out my gun. I pushed it into her back, letting her feel the cold metal of the barrel between her shoulder blades. Stella nodded in understanding and leaned forward, closer to the mirror. She clipped a few pieces here and there, cleaning up my messy style and giving herself sweeping bangs. I held the gun to her and bounced between looking at her ass while she was bent over, and watching her wield a pair of scissors.

Stella finished and handed me the scissors. I put them and the gun back in my waistband and let her rinse the stay hairs from her hair. As much as I liked her long blonde hair, the new look was hot too. It brought out her high cheekbones, light skin, and bright eyes. I could see her pretty face better with less hair to hide behind.

"Looks good," I told her.

"I'll get used to it," she said.

Stella read the directions and mixed the hair dye. I leaned against the doorframe, not really much of a help. With the shorter hair, it didn't take much time to apply the black dye.

"Now we wait twenty minutes," she told me.

We walked to the back porch to escape the fumes in the bathroom. The sun was bright, as though it didn't know of the horror that had taken place behind these walls overnight. The sun seemed to rise every morning, never knowing what happened when she was on the other side. She graced us all with her light, even those who didn’t deserve it.

"Why?" she asked me.

I didn't need to ask what she meant. Stella always seemed curious as to other's intentions, like their actions could be explained. Why save her? Why kill a man? Why change her look?

"I'm still not done with you," I said. "I need something from you. I did you a favor, now you can return it."

"That's why you killed him?" she asked, looking at me with those big eyes that were no longer hidden behind her hair.

"Yes. Don't think I did that for you," I told her. "I still need answers and I’ve dealt with you too long to give up now."

"Times up," Stella said after a long moment of silence.

"What?"

Stella was already walking back to the house.

"Time to rinse," she called back over her shoulder.

XI

Stella 

I grabbed the shower head wand and dropped it in the tub. If there was one thing that didn't suck about being trapped here, it was this shower with two shower heads and the massaging water jets. I turned on the water and played with the temperature until it was perfect. Kneeling on the floor, I leaned over the drain.

"Here," Atlas interrupted. "You're soaking the floor."

Atlas took the shower wand from me and pushed between my shoulder blades so I bent over. Gently and carefully, he ran his fingers through my hair, letting the water wash out the dye. He was even careful to keep the water out of my eyes. I watched as the black dye swirled down the drain, washing away what I used to look like.

A virtual stranger was washing my hair. He was gentle, considerate and even consoling. His fingertips may have caused pain and death, but they were washing away all the memories of it from my mind at the moment. For once, I felt comfort and not the pain and fear that I had been living with for so long.

When was the last time that I hadn't needed to look over my shoulder? Was it before my parents were killed? Not even then. Before my brother became involved with the likes of Atlas? Maybe. It had been so long, it seemed like all I'd ever known. I didn't need to watch my back anymore. I knew what was back there now. I had already been caught in the chase.

Atlas applied the conditioner to my hair and slowly rubbed in it. His hands felt so big on my head, but I wasn't scared. I didn't want to shy away from his hands. I wanted them on me. They were a reminder I was done running and it was over. One way or another, I wouldn't walk the streets in fear that I would be taken at any moment anymore.

Weeks of deprivation made me desperate for contact. I closed my eyes,concentrating on the sensations of his touch and the warmth of the water. The water was running clear but we both ignored it. My hip was pressed against his, and I knew my breathing wasn't steady since his hands were on me. My mind refused to remember the bad and concentrated on the moment. For once, I wasn't looking behind me.

"Ready?" he asked, his voice low and husky. It reminded me of when he whispered in my ear at the club.

"For what?" I asked, knowing I was playing with danger. It was like sticking your hand through the fence when you knew the dog would bite.

His hand stopped at the back of my neck and he gave it a squeeze. I could feel the bruises from the night before under his touch. I wanted him to erase them. He could cover them up, make them something else entirely.

Atlas used his grip to pull me so I was sitting up. I gathered the nerve to look at him and saw what I was feeling reflecting back at me. It was a confused mixture of want and lust. Water dripped from my hair down my shirt, making the already thin material cling to my skin. I watched as his eyes followed the water, zoning in on my nipples that I knew where hard.

"Stella," he said in a warning. I wasn't sure what for.

"Atlas," I said back. My voice was breathy and low.

"Shit," he cursed before he pushed me against the vanity.

I spread my legs and he crawled between them, leaning over me. His eyes were everywhere, taking in all that he could. He was trying to read me, see what it was that I really wanted. I licked my lips and pushed my chest out a little more, letting him know what it was that I needed. His lips parted as he clenched my thigh. For this one second, he was the weakest I had ever seen him.

One hand was still on the back of my neck as he reached behind me, moving it to my throat. I swallowed and tipped my head back, letting him get a better grip. When Atlas finally realized what I wanted, he pulled my face to his. My eyes shot up to look into his. I saw the understanding flash in his face.

"I erased that motherfucker," he growled before crashing his lips to mine.

We clashed together like a tragic wreck. It was wet and hard, his lips taking mine and crushing them. I moaned into his mouth and his grip on my throat tightened. The pressure wasn't enough to cut off air, but I felt his touch and no one else's.

Atlas kissed like he lived. He was powerful and forceful, taking whatever he wanted. His tongue parted my lips and I opened to him. I felt the rumble in his chest when he tasted me. His hand squeezed tighter and I welcomed the pleasurable pain. It was exciting and daring at the same time; a toxic mixture.

I squeezed my knees together, pinning his hips between my shaky legs. His body was hard and hot on mine. Atlas grabbed behind my knee and pulled, making me slide down to the floor. He never once released my lips as he lowered me to the floor and hovered over my body. The tile was cold on my back, cooling me down as I was burning up.

I could feel him all over me, although he was only touching my lips and neck. He devoured my mouth and I let him. If I could remember these touches and this moment in the house, maybe I could keep my sanity. Something less devastating to concentrate on and relive in my memories.

Growing bold, or impatient, I put my hands on his shoulders. The muscles flexed under my palms, and I loved the powerful feeling. His hand tightened on my throat when I dug my nails into his back. Atlas was holding back and restraining himself. I could feel it in his body. He could easily break me into a thousand pieces.

"This is a bad idea, Little Star," he said with his lips brushing mine. "I will hurt you. That's what I do."

"I'm already hurt," I whispered back.

Atlas pulled away to look down at me. He took in my lips that were red and swollen from his kisses. My neck that was under his hand, covering any marks. He watched my chest heaving and panting under my wet shirt.

Without warning, he gripped the neckline with both hands and tore the shirt down the middle. He pulled it open and lowered his lips to the skin between my breasts. I gasped when his tongue tasted me. I squirmed under him, but he pinned me with his body. I was trapped again. No matter what I did, Atlas had me trapped. I'm wasn't sure I cared at that moment.

"You think I can make you feel better?" he asked, his mouth trailing down my stomach.

I couldn't answer him. I didn't know if I thought I would feel better. I might feel numb. I could feel less angry. Was someone who only brought me pain and fear capable of taking away those feelings as well? Even he said himself, he hurts. All I knew was that right then, I didn't feel any of that.

I opened my eyes and watched as Atlas licked and sucked his way back up my stomach. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the glint of metal on the floor. His gun. With my legs wrapped around his waist, the gun was in the way so he must have taken it out. He was preoccupied with my skin and didn't notice me staring at it.

I couldn't reach it but if I slid over a little bit, I could grab it. I wouldn't need much time to point and pull the trigger. I knew how to shoot and knew how to pull the safety and fire quickly. With a weapon, I could get past the guards and out of this house.

Atlas stopped what he was doing and I looked down to find him watching me closely. His eyes were dark, mixed with danger and lust. His lips were plump and wet from kissing me. I bit my lip in response to the heated look he was giving me. It warmed my entire body.

Atlas pushed himself off me and leaned down over my face. One hand gripped my chin as he kissed me hard and rough. When he released me too soon, I was gasping for the breath he had stolen from me. When he moved again, I thought he would kiss me once more, but he stopped mere inches from my face.

Atlas reached out and grabbed the gun from the floor. He never looked away from me as he pulled back and tucked it back into his waistband. I couldn't read his look. Was it anger? Was it indifference? My heart hammered in my chest as I held my breath. Atlas slowly rose to his feet and left the room, without a word.

I pulled myself up and sat on the bathroom floor. My veins were pumping with a fear, but not one I expected or understood.

I wasn't scared of what he would have done if he had kept going. I was scared of how I felt when he stopped.

XII

Atlas

I avoided Stella for a few days. Cleaning up a murder in your house was time consuming. Especially if the wrong people noticed the victim was missing. Loyalties were being tested and so was my plan. It was hard to remain undetected when someone was snooping around your shit. I couldn't even call my dad without getting questioned.

"Where are you?" my dad asked when I finally got him on the line.

"Lake house," I said with a sigh. I knew he already knew that. Not much got by him.

"Did Hector make it up there to see you?" he asked.

"No. Was he supposed to?" I asked. It was not in my favor that they knew he was heading here when he went missing.

"That's what he said," my dad said. I could hear the suspicion in his voice but I ignored it.

"Are you in the city?" I asked him. I needed to know where he was, or rather, how close he was.

"No, Miami this week," he said.

My father told me he bought a "vacation home" in Miami and was spending a lot of time there. The boss didn't give a shit about anything other than money, so I didn't believe he was there for rest and relaxation. I couldn't leave to visit and scope out the place while I was tailing Stella, and I definitely couldn’t leave her now.

I had no idea what was going through her mind. I didn't know what to expect when I saw her next. I had one of the guys outside her room at night and they hadn't reported any escape attempts. That didn't mean anything though. I learned that Stella was smart and cunning. She offered her own body to distract me and get away.

"We can meet up next week," my dad offered.

"Sure," I said just to please him. We both knew that wouldn't happen. There had been a strain between us that neither of us had pointed out. Ever since the Harlows had been wiped out, I had more trust issues than usual.

We said our goodbyes and I hung up the phone to continue pacing my office. I stopped at my computer to check the security camera stream. Stella was on the back deck with her feet dangling over the water. Tony and Sal both stood behind her on watch. She looked bored and lonely, or busy plotting. Hard to tell.

I lost myself in the bathroom with her the other night. When I saw the bruises on her neck, I wanted to kill Hector all over again. I should have drawn it out, made his death slow and painful. No man got to take whomever he wanted, and no man got to try to take what was mine and live. I wanted to cover his marks and erase him from her memory. I wanted to be the only thing she could think of.

I thought I was succeeding. It was a powerful feeling to know that you could make it all go away for someone. I made her forget. Stella seemed like she wasn't thinking at all and her body was controlling her. Her breathing was fast, as well as her heartbeat. Her back arched into me and her legs tightened on my waist. Just when I thought I had complete control, I lost it. I glanced up to see her eyeing the gun I had set aside.

I wanted to wait her out and see what she would chose. Would she grab it and try to shoot? Would she freeze at the last minute, fumbling over the trigger? Was she lost in me enough that she would ignore it and let me keep going?

I took the choice away from her. I didn't want to know the answer. Each choice left us damned. Either way offered an insight into her mind that I didn't want to see. I didn't want to know if she would have shot me or let me rip off the rest of her clothes. I had enough mysteries to unravel. Somethings were better left unknown.

Unfortunately, I still needed something from Stella and avoiding her wouldn't get it. I left the safety of my office and went to the living room. A quick survey told me there was nothing that could be used as a weapon in the room. The fireplace tools, any decorations and curtain rods were already removed.

"I'll take it from here," I told the guys once I was out on the deck. They both nodded and left us alone.

Stella didn't turn to acknowledge me but I knew she had heard me come out. Her back went straight and her body went rigid. I wondered if it was from fear or excitement. Stella reacted similarly to both emotions, and I could never tell which she was feeling. I doubted she even knew herself.

I stood behind her and looked out over the water. It was too cold to sit outside, but Stella didn't seem to notice. She was wrapped up in a hoodie and jeans, but barefoot. Her black hair was styled to sweep over one side of her head. With her light skin and eyes, the color looked exotic and beautiful on her.

"May I sit?" I asked.

I lowered myself next to her anyway. I didn't really expect permission.

"You've been avoiding me," she said bluntly. Instead of seeming gratefully, she sounded annoyed.

"I've been busy."

"Doing what exactly?"

"Don't ask questions you already know the answers to," I warned her. "Your dad was a cop. Your brother worked with me. You're a bright woman."

"Not bright enough," she mumbled.

"Someone would have gotten to you eventually."

Stella shrugged and leaned back with her hands behind her. She looked up into the cloudless sky. It reminded me of the approaching winter. I was running out of time. Once the snow fell, I would need a plan. The lake house would need to be closed up and I’d have to return to the city. I couldn't leave with Stella. She would never be safe in the city, or anywhere else.

"Come inside," I told her.

Surprisingly, she followed without arguing. I pulled open the door for her and watched her ass as she passed. I knew better than to touch again, but I couldn't help looking. Inside the living room, Stella turned and looked at me for direction. I pointed to the couch facing the fireplace. I turned the dials and the flames came to life.

"You can come here, the kitchen and the deck," I told her.

"Thank you," she said. She watched me expectantly, knowing I had more to say.

"A trade. You tell me something and you get some more freedom," I offered.

"How am I supposed to trust you? You keep me here against my will and I'm pretty sure you had something to do with my family's death. How the hell do I know that you won't kill me the moment you get what you want from me?"

"Your brother trusted me. I promised him I would look out for you and I am holding up my end," I growled.

"My brother told me to trust no one."

Fucking Ace. Brilliant but probably just screwed us.

"I killed for you, Stella. I took a man's life. A man that dangerous people will come looking for. I did that for you. All I am asking for is for answers."

Stella chewed on her lip as I waited in silence. She had every reason to fear me, I made sure of that.

"You have an ultimatum, Little Star. We are running out of time. You tell me what I need to know and I will protect you. I will make sure people like Hector and the man who killed your parents won't hurt you. No one will find you or touch you as long as you're with me. But I need to know there is good fucking reason for keeping you alive."

"Why do you call me Little Star?" she asked instead.

"Your name means star."

She nodded and chewed on her lip. Stella was stalling but I was prepared to wait her out or resort to drastic measure to get answers.

"What do you want to know?" Stella asked and shifted in her seat. I hated making her go through it all over again.

"You know, I found my mom dead when I was seventeen," I told her.

Stella's eyes went wide. "I'm sorry."

"Maybe I didn't find both of my parents, but I found the only one that I loved floating in a bathtub of blood. I had to face the fact that my own mom didn't care about me enough to stick around and took the easy way out."

Stella was silent as I faced the fire, not wanting to see the pity on her face. I would save myself, and I tried to take comfort that my mom wouldn't be here to see it all go down.

"So I'm not asking about that night," I started. "I know Ace went home the day before. Am I right?"

She nodded and her eyes glistened. "He came to talk to my dad."

I came to kneel in front of her. I needed her trust even though I didn't deserve it.

"What did he tell him? This is very important," I said, grabbing her hands and squeezing.

"I didn't hear," she said, pulling out of my hold. "I caught the end of the conversation."

"Which was?"

"My dad was begging Ace not to leave. He wanted him to stay home, but Ace said he had to go."

Her eyes flashed with anger and pain. She felt betrayed. I knew the feeling. Ace left them there unprotected. For what reason? He had to know they would come for him and everyone important to him. I let myself believe he betrayed me, but I couldn't believe he would do that them.

"You don't know what he told your dad?" I asked.

"No," Stella snapped. "Take your pick of any of the crimes you guys committed. Drug dealing? Murder?"

"You watch too many mobster movies," I said with a chuckle. Stella glared back.

"We own casinos. We operate online gambling operations. We may traffic guns, drugs and even electronics, but the mob has grown more civilized than when you last watched Scarface."

Stella stared at me with confusion and anger. I doubted that helped my case, but I was giving in hopes of receiving in return. I’d give her some intel, she’d give me a little more. Unfortunately, this stubborn woman was the key to finishing what Ace and I started.

"Ace either ratted me out, or he ratted out someone more dangerous," I told her. "Either way, I need to fucking know because it got people killed."

"More dangerous? Than you?"

I laughed, but it lacked any humor.

"Yes, my Little Star. There are men colder than me, more evil. Men who would have killed you in the alley of that night club instead of keeping you alive like some fucking pet."

Stella looked down at the wooden floors, lost in her memories. She never made a move or made any indication in the past months that she knew the family's secrets. She told the police she didn't see anything. I was certain she saw the person sent to end her family.

"I don't know what he told my dad," she said and I knew she was telling the truth. "They were whispering and my mom was crying. Ace told me to stay in my room."

I rolled my eyes. "Which of course, you didn't listen."

"I'm not a child." She crossed her arms over her chest and I eyed her cleavage. No, she was not a child.

Did Ace finally find the proof we had been searching for? I just didn't understand why he would go home before coming to me? My dad claimed he didn't put the hit out on the family or Ace, but I didn't know who I could trust anymore. Why would he put the hit out on her if she didn't see one of his men?

"Atlas?" Sal called from the entryway. "A word?"

I nodded and met him in the hall. Tony was leaning against the wall, an anxious look on his face. Sal looked uncomfortable as well, shifting from one foot to the other.

"Boss called. Wants us to meet him in Miami," Tony told me.

"What the fuck? You are my men. Why does he need you two?"

"Pick up a package for you," Sal answered, knowing it was bullshit.

"Go," I told them. "I got the girl. If we put up a fight, he will only grow more suspicious."

Fucking fantastic. I'm losing my two guards and stuck for the next two days with Stella alone.

XIII

Stella

At home, I was limited to a ten-minute shower. Either the water would go cold or someone would flush, scalding me. Every morning, I rushed to get clean and get out. When I was in the house alone, I got a full fifteen minutes because no one was waiting on me. But the fact that I was alone was too depressing to enjoy it.

Here, I could spend as much time as I wanted. I was well stocked with gels and scrubs, so I always came out soft and smelling nice. The water pressure was perfect with an endless supply of hot water. It was the one thing that took my mind off all my worries. I probably wouldn't be killed in the shower. I was alone and the guards would never dare to step inside the bathroom. Both men actually seemed pretty uncomfortable even in the bedroom.

I was relaxed and content, until I stepped out of the steam to find Atlas leaning in the doorway, waiting. I quickly wrapped the towel around my body, almost falling in the process.

"Atlas," I hissed. "What are you doing in here?"

"Waiting. You were taking a while," he answered casually. He seemed completely unfazed with his invasion of privacy or a naked woman in front of him. He was probably used to both of those.

I was not unfazed or unaffected. Atlas ditched the jacket today, wearing his white shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows. His muscular forearms were crossed over his chest and I stared at the patch of skin peeking from the open buttons of his shirt. I clutched the towel tighter and tried to get out of the shower without getting close to him.

I wrung my hair out, getting used to the lighter, shorter hair. It took less time to wash and dry. With Atlas watching, I wasn't going to stall any longer in the small space. The bathroom was the size of a normal bedroom, but it shrunk with us both in here. The last time we shared this room, I was pinned below him on the floor.

"Hurry up," Atlas said sharply. "I don't have all day."

"Move then," I said, coming to stand in front of him in effort to get out the door.

Atlas didn't move. He just stared down at me, and I swore the steam grew thicker around us. There wasn't much protecting me from him but the thin towel that barely covered my butt. I might as well have been naked because I felt his stare on every inch of my skin. He reached forward and I held my breath as his fingers grazed my neck.

"I will only say this once, Stella," he said, his voice low and deep. "Don't ever let me touch you again. I will leave bruises deeper and darker than any other monster can."

He turned and took the heat with him. When I heard the door of the bedroom close, I finally came out of the bathroom. Unsure if he was still waiting, I dressed quickly. I grabbed a sweater dress from the closet and brushed my hair with my fingers. In the hallway, Atlas was waiting.

"Come on," he said before turning and heading down the hall.

"What's the rush?" I asked. I had to run to keep up.

"The guys are off for a few days," he told me. "I have stuff to do and you need to stay with me."

We entered his office and Atlas sat in his chair, leaving me to stand awkwardly. I had spent a lot of time in here before and was always so stuck in my own head that I had never really looked around. The dark wood shelves were stocked with books. Most were classic literature or history, others on art. I browsed the titles, hoping to find something to keep me busy for who knew how long.

"Where did Sal and Tony go?" I asked. "They weren't around yesterday. You give them vacation time or something?"

"No," he said with a laugh. "They went to pick something up for me."

I walked over to his desk where he sat at the computer. Papers and Post-It notes covered the surface. I had the strange urge to organize it for him. How could anyone get anything done in such madness? Behind his desk was a large painting, grabbing my attention. I had never really looked at it before.

A muscular man was crouched down on one knee, holding the world above him. Chains bound the man to a rock below him. The world was resting on his shoulders. It looked an image from Greek mythology. Atlas noticed me looking at the painting.

"It's the Greek Titan of strength. He held up the sky," he told me.

"I see where the saying 'holds the weight of the world on his shoulders' comes from," I said.

"The myth is that when the Titans went to war against the Gods and were defeated, Zeus sent most of the Titans to Tartarus," he explained. He pointed to another painting that looked like Hell.

"As punishment for leading the Titans in the war for the Heavens, Zeus chose one Titan to stand and forever be forced to hold up the Heavens, to make sure it never touched and mixed with Earth again," he explained. "His name was Atlas."

I turned and looked at him. He was watching me carefully, waiting for my reaction. A man stronger than human, but not quite a god. Someone punished and forced with the burden of holding the sky forever. Did Atlas feel he could relate to the mythology in some way?

"Over there," he said, pointing behind me to another painting of the night sky. It looked like a connect-the-dots between the stars. "The constellation of Atlas."

"Pretty full of yourself," I joked. He actually laughed, and I liked the sound.

"Interested in the family history," he said. "Without knowing your history, you are doomed to make the same mistakes."

I wondered what mistakes Atlas was trying to avoid. Being caught or defeated? Trying to wage a war against the ones more powerful than him? Atlas hinted that he was on some mission and that I was a part of it, but I didn't know his end game. I had a feeling the more I knew, the more likely I would end up dead. What I saw one night had already determined my fate.

Atlas went back to his computer and left me to entertain myself. I felt like a pet. His cat that prowled around his office. Company if he wanted it, but not really needed or desired. I almost felt like I should purr and rub against his leg. Asshole might actually like that though.

He made phone calls about websites and bank accounts. He arranged for new slot machines to be installed in Vegas. It actually all sounded legit, but I knew Atlas enough to doubt that. He argued with someone for a while about a gambling website being shut down. The more frustrated he became, the more buttons on his shirt came undone. His hair was becoming a mess from tugging and running his hands through it. It was barely noon and he already looked wiped out.

Anyone else, I might offer words of comfort. Like my mother, I was caring and nurturing. I might have tried to distract him and calm him down. I needed to remind myself we were not friends. He was the man who kidnapped me, threatened me, and kept me here against my will. When he wasn't directly mean or abusive to me, I tended to forget all that.

"You have a lot of books on art," I pointed out when I couldn't find a single thing I wanted to read.

"I was an art major," he explained.

"Really?" I was surprised. I couldn't imagine Atlas walking a college campus like a normal student.

"Well, yes. I didn't really need a degree for my line of work, so I chose something enjoyable instead."

"Makes sense."

Atlas watched me whenever he wasn't looking at his computer screen. I felt his eyes on me while I browsed the shelves for something to read or look at. Having him watch me so closely caused a strange combination of emotions. There was the fear of what he would do and what his intentions were.

There was also a feeling of being protected and safe with him around. The most disturbing emotion, though, was the excitement. It was a rush of heat and tingles because his attention was on me. It was how I had felt at the club when we had met, but everything had changed since then. Or maybe nothing had changed after all.

I pulled a book from the shelf and sat on the floor, careful to keep myself covered in the dress. It was an art collection with a naked woman on the cover. What drew me in was how beautiful she looked. Not in an overly sexy or pornographic way. It was the lines of her curves and the soft lighting on her stomach. The way her back arched was sexual, intimate, and gorgeous. I flipped through the pages, finding each photograph more intriguing than the next. I stopped on a naked woman with a rope wrapped around her body.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Atlas asked from behind me. I jumped when I realized he was right behind me. "The naked body," he clarified.

"Yes," I agreed, flipping more pages.

Every photo was in black and white. The naked torso of a woman. A man's hands on a bare back. A couple intertwined, bodies pressed together. They were classically erotic and enchanting. It made nudity and sex something brilliant and natural. There was nothing dirty or shameful about it.

"I love a woman's naked body," Atlas practically purred behind me. "The softness of her skin. The curve of her hips. The roundness of her breasts. The arch of her back."

I swallowed and tried to ignore his deep voice. It made me shiver, and I imagined what he would see if I was naked. Those were dangerous thoughts.

"My favorite," he said, putting his hands on my shoulders, "is the neck."

His hands came up and smoothed over my throat. I held my breath as his fingers glided over my collarbone.

"I love the way it looks when her head is thrown back in pleasure."

I instinctually dipped my head back, looking up at him.

"I love the way the muscles feel under my hands," he whispered, gripping my neck in a gentle choke. "That sensitive dip under your chin."

I gasped when he tickled over the mentioned spot. My body heated and I felt my pulse pounding against his hand. My own heart was betraying my reaction to him.

"Tell me, Little Star. Has anyone appreciated that body the way it should be?" he asked.

I shook my head but I didn't know what I was saying no to. No one ever touched me the way I want you to? No one made me feel like I'm sure you would? No, don't touch me? My mind was a hot, swirling mess and the room grew hotter.

Atlas came to kneel in front of me. His hand reached out and his thumb rubbed my bottom lip. He studied my face, almost like he was seeing me for the very first time. I watched him, fascinated with how expressive those dark eyes could be. They were deep and endless, but I could almost see the fear and anger burning in them. I could even make out the hint of want and need.

Atlas inched forward slowly, crawling over me. I leaned back as he came closer. Soon, I was lying back on the floor, looking up at him. His legs were pressed to mine and with each deep breath, my chest brushed his. His knee slipped between my legs and wedged them apart so I could feel how hard he was. I could feel him all over me now. My body was heating up and melting under him.

Atlas lowered his face but froze when a noise came from outside the door. The door flew open and slammed against the wall. Atlas jumped up at the bang and I hurried to sit up. With quick and trained movements, Atlas pulled his gun and aimed at the open door.

"Shit," breathed Sal, holding his hands up in surrender. "Don't shoot, boss."

"What the fuck are you doing?" Atlas growled at him, lowering the gun. "You know better than barging in like that. Asshole."

"We have company," he said gravely. "Now."

"Who?"

"Xander. I rushed in before Tony and him to warn you," Sal said, glancing behind him.

Another face appeared in the doorway. He looked like Atlas a little, with dark hair and eyes. He smiled as he took us in, me sitting on the floor with a red face.

"Dude, didn't you know you had a chick with you," he said with a wink to me.

"Get out," Atlas barked.

Sal pushed the stranger back and closed the door. Atlas quickly locked it behind them. I could feel the rage rolling off him and it scared me. I wanted out of this room but I didn't know what dangers lurked outside the door. Atlas paced the room while I slowly stood up and backed up against the wall.

Atlas turned and glared at me. I wished I was invisible because when he looked at me like that, I feared for my life. If I could rewind to several minutes ago, his eyes would make me hot and want to do things I shouldn't.

"Stella," he whispered, coming at me in long strides. He put his hands on both of my shoulders, pressing me to the wall. "I told you not to let me touch you. Do you ever do what you're told?"

"Not often," I admitted quietly.

"Well, you're life depends on you doing what you're told tonight."

XIV

Atlas

I was a planner. Every plan had a back-up plan, exit plan, and even back-up exit plan. I never let a detail get overlooked. It was how I was raised, or trained, and how I operated. There was a plan to prevent anyone from finding out I had the Harlow girl alive. If anyone was about to discover her, I would make sure she wasn't alive to be found.

Xander's surprise visit could ruin this plan. As my cousin, he had loyalty to my dad and his own dad. I didn't know whose side he would stand on if a war broke out. I didn't know his involvement or what he knew. I could find out, or I could dispose of Stella now, eliminating the risk.

I gripped my gun and looked down into her terrified eyes. Moments ago they were passionate and ready for whatever I could give her. Sal saved her from getting exactly that. There was so much I needed from her still. And there was still the promise I made to Ace. I should at least try to make this work before I put a bullet between her gorgeous blue eyes.

"Stella, I need you to look at some photos," I told her.

"What photos?" she asked with a shaky voice.

I pulled her over to the computer and opened a folder of photos, flipping through them for her. Ace and I had spent months collecting these photos and evidence.

"Tell me if any of these men were the shooter."

Tears welled in her eyes and she swayed on her feet. I put an arm around waist to hold her upright.

"This is very important, Little Star," I said in her ear. "Stay with me. Don't you dare fucking shut down now."

"No. He's not there," she choked out.

I sighed, both relieved and disappointed that Stella didn't recognize any of the guys I showed her. Although I was able to eliminate about a dozen men I thought may have been involved, there were tons more who could be. These were just the guys who went missing in the past few months. If you left behind a witness, you were in a world of trouble. A smart man would disappear on his own or one of us would make it happen.

With everyone denying that we had anything to do with the Harlow killings, there was no one I could interrogate. Chances were that very few knew the real truth. If they knew what was good for them, they would make sure that I never found out either. Taking out Ace was a grave mistake on my father's part if he ordered it. And if a bigger and darker secret was lurking in the darkness, everyone would go down.

In this life, we had few real rules. Spilling blood wasn't a crime, but sometimes it was as necessary as taking out the trash. Lies were a weapon and a defense. The only people you feared or respected were those above you on the family tree. Within the family, you protected your own. As the boss’s son, I was practically a prince. I was in the inner circle, or I thought I was.

"How did you manage getting away that night?" I asked. If anyone saw her, he should have killed her then. You never leave a witness behind.

"When I saw," she paused and swallowed. "I went across the hall to the laundry room. I climbed on the dryer and up into the attic above until he left."

Sneaky. Smart. She would do just fine tonight. I was risking exposing what I was doing to Xander but it was the best option we had. Since he already saw her, I couldn’t just hide her away and lock her up. We would need to be creative. This was one of those moments I wished Ace was here.

"Me too," she whispered. I didn't realize I said that out loud.

"Did he have the power to get you to follow directions?" I asked, earning a small smile from her.

"What do you need me to do?"

"Shower, get dressed and meet in the living room," I told her. "You are not Stella tonight. Be anyone else you want to be, but not the girl I was supposed to have killed."

Her eyes widened but she nodded. I waved her off, needing a moment alone to regain my control. Between the surprise visitor and her, I was losing it.

"Oh, and Stella," I called as she reached for the doorknob. "Don't try anything stupid or I will kill you. Understand?"

"Yes, sir," she whispered and hurried through the door.

I ran my fingers through my hair and grabbed my jacket off the back of my chair. Time to work. I found Sal and Tony with my cousin in the living room. Tony was mixing a drink at the bar and the sliding doors were open to the patio. Xander smiled widely when he saw me.

"Atlas," he said, coming at me to shake hands. "Sorry to interrupt you and the little hottie. I thought you were alone up here."

I laughed and smiled like I wasn't on edge. "I'm never alone," I quipped with a cocky smirk.

"When I heard the boys here were on the way to your lake house, I demanded to hitch a ride back with them," he said. "It's been too long."

"Too long," I agreed. It had been a while since I trusted anyone. "Did Sal give you the tour? There's an amazing wine cellar downstairs."

"I forgot the tour," Sal jumped in. "In fact, there's a bourbon about a hundred years old we should get for tonight."

"I heard Bourbon," Xander said, standing. "Lead the way, Sal."

Sal led Xander out of the room and I hoped the bourbon really existed. Xander was a laid back guy but he was raised in the family as I was. He wasn't stupid.

"What the fuck?" I hissed when they were out of ear-shot.

"He wouldn't take no for an answer," Tony said. "We couldn't push anymore without him getting suspicious."

"You couldn't have called?"

"He wanted to surprise you," he said quietly. "We didn't feel secure using the phones to call you. What are you gonna do about Stella? And what the fuck did they walk into?"

"I have a plan," I said just as Stella walked into the room.

She looked around the room nervously and pulled on the hem of the dress she changed into. I should have told her to wear pants because seeing her long, bare legs brought me to my knees in the office. It would have been so easy to slip my hand up and into her panties. It probably would have happened if we hadn’t been interrupted.

"Where is he?" she whispered as she walked over to us at the bar.

"Sal is giving him a tour of the cellar in the basement," I told her. "Getting bourbon."

"Do you really have a cellar or is he going to kill him?" she asked.

"Shit," I said with a laugh. "I didn't think of that. You look nice."

"Thank you." Her cheeks blushed lightly. I got off on being able to do that.

My cousin's laughter and loud footsteps sounded down the hall. Stella's body stiffened so I reached for her and pulled her close. Tony pushed a pink drink over to her and she took it, quickly taking a drink. I put a hand on her back so she would know I was here and in control.

"Ah, the beauty has joined her beast," Xander said as he entered the room, expensive bottle in hand. It did exist. "Xander," he said, extending his hand for her.

"Alexa," she offered easily. I rubbed her back to let her know she did well. She looked different enough with the new hair that I was sure he wouldn't recognize her right away but her photo circulated for a while within the family.

"Nice to meet you," he said, already busy trying to pour a glass. If all went well, he would be wasted and passed out before the sun was down.

"Now I see what has my cousin hiding away for months," he joked. I felt Stella go stiff and her grip tightened on her glass. I knew those words reminded her of Hector. It reminded me of Hector, and pissed me off.

"Fuck off," I said, shooting him a deathly glare. Xander got the message and poured a drink.

"So tell me, Atlas," he started, handing me a glass as well. "How did you manage to get out of the city? I would kill for a vacation."

I laughed because no one got time off and he knew this. I just took off and no one dared to ask me to do any dirty work. Xander never showed the initiative that I had when we were young. He never seemed to want to run the casinos or gambling sites. Xander always appeared perfectly fine chasing down money or doing the ground work. That's why he never had the same responsibilities that I did.

"I'm not too far from the city," I told him. "It's not like I'm sitting in the Miami sun."

"Right," he said, all the humor leaving his voice.

Interesting. Party boy should love it down there. Sal gave me a look so I know he caught the shift as well. Although Xander had never had much responsibility in Chicago, that could've changed in Miami.

"No talk about work," Xander announced, finishing his drink in one gulp. "Where are you from, Alexa?"

"San Fran," she lied quickly.

"Tell me you have a hot and single sister," Xander said, putting his hands together in prayer.

Stella laughed and shook her head. "Sorry. Only child."

The words stabbed me and I'm sure they hurt her, too. I snaked my hand around her waist and pulled her into my chest. She slightly leaned back into me.

"Damn it," Xander whined playfully. "I had sisters once. It was amazing."

Xander grabbed his drink and Sal led him over to the fireplace. Tony followed as Xander gave a graphic retelling of hooking up with sisters in Vegas. It was a story I heard a dozen times already, so I stayed at the bar with Stella. I was sure she didn't need to hear his exaggerated story anyway. I don't even think the girls were actually related.

"You're doing fine," I whispered in her ear.

"You sure? I feel like he can see right through me," she whispered, leaning her head back so I could hear her.

Looking over, I found Xander watching us. I could tell he was suspicious. Understandably, since I wasn't someone often seen with a woman. Needing to convince him this was another fling, I ran my hand up her waist and over her chest. Stella inhaled sharply as I grazed over her nipple and up her neck. I wrapped my fingers gently around her throat and put my mouth on her ear.

“We're being watched," I breathed into her ear before pulling her earlobe into my mouth.

Stella's eyes fell closed and she went weak in my arms. I pulled her closer and licked the shell of her ear. She tasted salty and sweet at the same time. I tasted the spot behind her ear and down the back of neck. A soft moan left her mouth and I pushed into her in warning.

"Don't," I said against her skin with a soft bite to make a point. "Don't make me lose control."

XV

Stella

I was on fire. When I walked into the room, I was so nervous I thought I would be sick. It didn't take long to forget why I was even there. When Atlas touched me gently like I was his, I forgot how dangerous he was. He took me forcefully and kept me against my will. He was sent to kill me, but when he protected me, that didn't matter. I melted into him, needing the comfort he gave.

Maybe being alone for so long made me desperate for any affection or connection. Someone was finally holding me. After months of looking over my shoulder, I didn't need to anymore. The hunter already found me and had me trapped, but I felt safe in his cage. I wasn't sure if I trusted that he would protect me if I helped him, but part of me wished I could.

His hot tongue licked over my racing pulse before he slowly pulled back. I opened my eyes as the sounds of the guys talking by the fireplace filtered back into my ears. I straightened and pulled away from Atlas, needing my head clear. Looking over, Tony was watching us with a confused expression.

Atlas led me over the fireplace where Xander was telling another colorful tale. Sal made more drinks, and I found myself laughing at stories of Xander's drunken mistakes. While Xander told me about a waking up on a yacht that wasn't his, Atlas pulled me down onto his lap. At first, I froze but he squeezed my hand and I relaxed into him.

While the others chatted, Atlas kept touching me in some way. His fingers played with the hem of my dress. Every few minutes, his lips would graze my neck or cheek. Every touch made my stomach do a flip. Every nerve was awake and buzzing for him. This was how I imagined we would act before he drugged and kidnapped me.

"So Alexa, how did you meet Atlas?" Xander eventually asked.

"At a club," I told him. It was the truth so it was easy to say.

"Surely one Atlas owns otherwise he wouldn't be in one. He has two left feet," he said, laughing into his glass.

"I thought he danced fine," I said quickly. My cheeks burned when I remembered how we danced in the club. At the time I thought I would never see him again.

"That was the alcohol talking," Xander said. "Speaking of alcohol, we need another trip to the cellar. Be right back."

Xander got up and stumbled out of the room. The guys killed a whole bottle in a short time. Atlas seemed sober still. We exhaled loudly when we heard the door close down the hall. I shifted in Atlas's lap, unsure how to act when no one was watching.

"Why hasn't he passed out yet?" Tony asked. "I thought he would be out by now. He has no tolerance."

"This is your plan?" Sal asked, glaring at Atlas. "Pretend she's your girl?"

"It's working, isn't it?" Atlas asked. His grip tightened on my thigh.

"Oh yeah, your acting is spot on. And if he recognizes her?"

"He would have by now."

"Not worth the risk," Sal said, now glaring at me. "There was a plan in place for shit like this."

A chill ran down my spine. They were discussing me like I wasn't even in the room. Like I was a prisoner. Like I was disposable. I started to stand but Atlas stood behind me, stepping around me. He stood in front of Sal, his fist clenched at his side. Tony came up behind me, pulling me back behind the couch and out the way.

"Are you fucking questioning me?" Atlas growled at his man. "Because I have a plan to handle that as well."

"Our lives are on the line, too. Not just yours," Sal said back with equal anger.

"Better to put just hers on the line right?"

Sal looked over Atlas's shoulder at me. I could feel the tension rise in the room and I wanted to run. They were talking about me like I was a pet. Tony came to stand in front of me.

"He already saw her," Tony told Sal. "This was the best option. Now drop it because he's coming."

The men stepped away from each other just as Xander entered the room. I tried to smile at him but my head was spinning. My mind was catching up with what was happening. Sal obviously thought I shouldn't be here. I was a risk to them in some way because I was alive.

"What did I miss?" Xander asked with a slight slur.

"Nothing, cousin," Atlas answered, moving away from Sal with a final glare in his direction.

Xander went to the bar with the new bottle and started to pour more drinks. He was watching us closely and I could see the suspicion. My heart was pounding and I could feel my hands starting to shake with fear. It had become very obvious that the fact I was still alive was a huge problem.

Needing to do something, anything to save my own life, I walked over to Atlas. I needed to do something to take off the suspicion. Wrapping my arms around his neck, I pushed up on my tip-toes. He gave me a quick look of confusion before I pressed my lips to his. Molding my chest to his, he pulled me closer and kissed me back. I sighed into his mouth as he licked my bottom lip. I gripped the back of his neck and tilted my head, giving him better access to my mouth.

In front of the three guys, Atlas nibbled on my lips and kissed me like no one was watching. I slipped my tongue out to battle his. He tasted like the bourbon, and I wanted to get drunk off it. My eyes closed and I pretended for just a second that I was really just his girl and not a pawn in whatever dangerous game he was playing.

"Get a damn room," Xander said from behind us.

I slowly pulled away and opened my eyes. Atlas glared down at me and my skin burned under his gaze.

"What did I tell you, Little Star?" he whispered in my ear.

"To behave or you'll kill me," I told him. He shook his head.

"Don't let me touch you again." He pulled away and looked up at the guys who were watching us. I couldn't look at them. I was too scared to look to see if the suspicion was gone in Xander’s eyes.

"We are going to head to bed, gentlemen," Atlas said, placing a hand on my lower back to guide me.

"It was nice meeting you, Alexa," Xander said, reaching out to shake my hand.

"You too," I said, hearing the slight shake in my own voice.

Xander shook my hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. Atlas was close behind me, urging me forward. With a smile, I finally met Xander's eyes. When I went to pull away, he didn't release my hand. He just stared at me and I could feel the panic rising inside me.

"You look strangely familiar," he said quietly.

Those four words sent the room into a flash of movement. I was pulled back roughly and my knees hit the floor. The unmistakable sound of gun safety clicks echoed. Looking up, guns were pointed in every direction. Sal's gun was aimed at my head.

The room went silent. Xander had his gun aimed at Atlas, who was aiming at Sal but watching his cousin. Tony had his gun trained on Xander. I was defenseless on my hands and knees while Sal aimed at me. It seemed this was the moment all of us never wanted to see happen. Someone was going to die in this room. This couldn't end well and we all knew it.

"Put the gun down, Atlas. I don't want to shoot you," Xander said calmly. All evidence of the buzz he had seemed to have evaporated.

"You know I can't do that," Atlas said, his gun still pointed at Sal.

"Come on, man. We're family," Xander said.

"That's the fucking problem."

Everyone held their ground. Xander's eyes bounced between me and Atlas. Tony kept his attention on Xander, ready to shoot. I could feel sweat forming on my forehead. This had to be what my parents felt like the last few minutes of their lives.

"I'm not like them. And neither are you," Xander said, slowly lowering his gun. "That's why I came to you, cousin."

"Atlas," Sal interrupted. "This is out of hand."

"You shoot her and I will end you," Atlas told him with a menace to his voice that gave me chills.

Reluctantly, Sal lowered his weapon. Tony and Atlas followed and I finally took in a breath.

"You always keep your promises," Xander said. "She's Ace's sister right? She looks like him."

"What do you mean you aren't like them?" Atlas asked. "As you know, she should be dead and I can't have anyone knowing she’s not. Tell me why I shouldn't let Tony put a bullet in your head right now."

Xander rubbed his face and pinched the bridge of his nose. The tension in the room was so thick it was hard to breathe.

"I was asked to get rid of the Harlows," he said.

Atlas lunged for Xander, throwing him into the wall. I stared at Xander but knew he wasn't the man I saw in my kitchen.

"I didn't do it," he rushed out. His words were chocked by Atlas's arm pushing on his throat. "I told him no. Ace was my friend, too."

Atlas looked back at me and I nodded, confirming Xander wasn't the guy he was looking for.

"Who asked you?"

"Who do you think?"

Silence hung in the air. For the hundredth time since I had arrived at this house, I wished I could be anywhere else. I was looking at the people responsible for leaving me alone in this world and it was eating at me inside. Atlas finally pushed off Xander and came over to me.

"You okay?" he asked quietly.

I nodded and took his hand as he pulled me to my feet. He held my hand until I was steady. I glanced over at Sal, uneasy around him now. Moments ago he was ready to shoot me. Everything happened so fast but no one missed a second of it. Those actions would later be replayed and dissected to show true motivation.

One thing became painfully clear in that room. While the crickets chirped outside the sliding glass doors, we stood in silence and stared at each other. The realization washed over me like a cold waterfall, giving me goosebumps. I was never meant to leave this house alive. There was no scenario that my life wouldn't be a risk to these guys and whatever they were doing. The moment I was no longer needed, or too great of a risk, I would be dead.

"Tony," Atlas barked. "Take Stella to her room."

Tony took my arm and we quietly left the room without a backward glance. Atlas meant nothing to me, just as I was nothing to him. Every gentle gesture, touch, and kiss was all part of their cover. I was just a pawn in his plan.

XVI

Atlas

"What the fuck was that?" I roared when all three men faced me in my office.

I slammed my fists down on the desk, glaring at Sal. My fingers were itching to grab my gun and blow some shit up. It was a struggle to keep my cool.

"That was sticking to the fucking plan!" Sal growled back at him. "Anyone figures her out, she is gone. You remember that rule? It's your rule!"

Of course I remembered. It was the first rule I had made when I decided to take the job of killing her, and I kept her instead. Stella was more useful alive, but we agreed to take the chance within reason.

"I'm not done with her. She has information we need," I said to the room. I didn't like being questioned.

"What, you want to fuck her first? Feel those plump little lips around your dick before you put her out of her misery?" Sal fumed.

I lurched across my desk and wrapped my hands around the man's throat. Sal was older, wiser and had seen more than I had, so he wasn't fazed. He showed no fear, just anger as we stared each other down. Releasing his neck, I pulled my hand back and punched him in the nose. The cracking sound echoed in the room and my knuckles throbbed.

"Feel better?" Sal asked, his voice muffled from his hand holding his face.

"No."

Sal straighten and looked me in the eye. "I trust you and what we are trying to do here, but don't you dare forget the consequences if this falls apart. The only weakness you have, besides that girl, is that you only see the end goal. You see the fireworks, the gold at the end of the rainbow. You never consider failure because to you, that is not an option. Unfortunately son, it is a very real possibility."

He was right. I always planned for failure, but I planned meticulously to avoid it. I never planned for everything actually falling apart. There was a good chance my dad, or anyone in the family, could hear what I was up to. An army of men trained the same as me could descend on this lake house and wipe us out before I even heard the first footstep. There would be nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.

"All this is for nothing if she doesn't give us what she knows," I said.

"Get it soon, Atlas," Tony said, surprising me. He seemed against killing the girl, but he was right. Winter was coming. "Don't forget your priorities."

Everyone's priorities were made pretty clear in the living room. Every weapon drawn, pointing a flashing sign toward what mattered the most. Tony aimed at the threat, Xander. He would have shot to keep me alive. Xander aimed right at my chest, seeing me as the biggest threat to his life. Sal pointed at Stella, knowing she was weak link. I should have aimed with him. Even at Xander as he threatened to expose our secrets.

I pointed at Sal. I pointed a gun at my own man, one of the few I trusted. I protected the girl, not the mission. Not the hundreds of others who could fall victim to our kind if we didn't end it. I exposed the chink in my armor. If I had a weakness, we all shared that weakness. As much as my promise to Ace meant something to me, the guys standing with me did, too. The difference was that they were still alive and counted on me. Ace couldn't be saved anymore and if I was being honest, neither could Stella.

I walked past the guys and out to the deck. Funny how that was the selling point of the house, and I had never stepped foot out here before Stella. It was dark so I couldn't see the lake that I knew was out there. Like the monsters and evils, they were out there but you couldn't see them. I sat on the edge of the deck and hung my feet over, wondering what the fuck to do now.

When was the last time I had seen the sunrise? I wasn’t sure I had even looked around since Ace went missing. In my rage, I had only looked toward my end goal. Seeing only my revenge and the pain I would cause those who betrayed me, I didn't see what I was leaving behind. I never cared about what my actions caused.

I attended the funerals of those I had killed before. I sat behind their grieving wives and put a fake consoling hand on their shoulders. I had even taken advantage of the vulnerable state they were in before. I never ended a life that didn't deserve it my eyes. They may not have been good enough to anyone else, but my reasons were mine.

Stella didn't leave behind a distraught family. Her parents were lucky to never know the fate of both of their treasured children. Ace left this ugly world believing that I would keep my promise. And I would. Stella in my hands was better than her being in theirs. There was no doubt that it was only a choice between the two.

I rubbed my face in my hands roughly. I lost the jacket long ago, probably about last night after Tony escorted Stella out of the room. The cool morning air blew off the water and though my hair. It reminded me of the way Stella's fingers moved through my hair the night before. Most women got straight to the point with their hands, and I appreciated that. Stella was too curious; always needing to explore.

I stood from the deck and walked back to my office where the guys were waiting for me. The package from my dad sat on my desk, unopened. I quickly opened the box, sick of all the fucking games. We were either in a war, or I would start one, but I was sick of waiting.

Inside the box was a bottle of whiskey. Dust had collected on the bottle and you could barely read the label but I instantly recognized it. It had sat in my dad's study, for most of my life, on the shelves behind his desk. He had never opened it, saying it was worth too much to just piss away. So why send it to me now?

"Sweet," Xander said, reaching for it. I smacked his hand away.

"Don't touch it. Put the box down in the cellar," I told Sal. "I don't trust a fucking thing from that man."

Sal did as he was told, taking the box quietly from the room. I paced, agitated and on edge. My skin was crawling and I wanted to hit something. The whiskey was a message, not a gift. I just didn't know what he was trying to tell me. I needed to make a move.

"Where is she?" I asked through gritted teeth. It wasn’t safe here anymore. It wasn’t safe anywhere.

"Her room," Tony said. "Locked her in there last night."

"Is that so?" I asked, already leaving the office.

Anger rushed my veins as I marched down to her room. I hated Stella right then. I hated her for being here, for being Ace's sister, for making me feel anything at all. I had made it this far by being ruthless, violent, and never letting anything stand in my way. Stella was a visible flaw in my armor. The guys saw it and if anyone else had, we would all be dead.

Sal was right. Stella was a risk. A risk I wasn’t sure we could take anymore. I unlocked her bedroom door and walked inside without warning. Stella was startled where she stood near the window. She looked like she had been pacing, still in her clothes from the night before. Her eyes went wide, and I watched as her body tensed. She was afraid of me. Good.

I quickly rounded the bed and grabbed her by the throat. Stella gasped as I pushed her to the wall, holding her still with my own body pinned to hers. I pressed into her, dwarfing her easily. It was good to feel back in control.

"You wear this dress to drive me crazy?" I asked her in a growl. "Is that why you let me touch you all night?"

She shook her head and parted those full lips to speak. I didn't let her. I sealed her mouth shut with mine. My lips took hers so hard, I was sure she would bruise. I took her mouth like I owned it, like I was entitled to it. Stella pushed against me in protest for only a moment before clutching on to my shoulders.

Stella squeezed in surprise, and I pulled back to look down at her. Her chest rose quickly with her fast breathing. Her lips were red and plump as her tongue darted out to lick them. I held her to the wall by her neck and grabbed the hem of her dress. With one hand, I pulled and the sound of ripping filled the room.

"Atlas," Stella breathed. Her black lace bra and matching panties were exposed to me.

"I am the one in control, Little Star," I hissed. "And I hate you for making me lose it."

My hand skated up her neck to the back of her head. Pulling her hair, her head tilted back to look up at me. Big, blue eyes sparkled with fire and excitement. Stella was a little scared and a little turned on. I dove down and sucked the sensitive skin of her throat where I held her too tightly.

Stella whispered my name but I ignored her. I couldn't stop now. After days of being with her, months of watching her, hours of touching her, I was a goner. I could think of nothing but having her. My blood pumped hot and thick in my veins. My heartbeat pounded in my ears.

I ran my lips down the column of her throat, savoring her pulse pounding on my tongue. Kissing over her collarbone, I bit down on her shoulder. Stella swore and bucked against me but I held her immobile. In my grip, she was helpless.

XVII

Stella

Atlas had me pinned to wall and completely under his control. I was just as mentally controlled as physically. I was at his mercy as he attacked me with his hands, mouth and words. It was as if he was punishing me with his lips. Every growled word made my stomach flutter with nerves and fear. My hands went to push him away, but the power to do so never came.

Teeth sunk into my skin and I cursed. The pain sent a shock to every nerve ending, waking up my entire body. I was hyper-sensitive to Atlas and what he was doing to me. It was a mixture of pain and pleasure and my head spun trying to sort it out. He licked and kissed away the mark from his bite, only to repeat it over again. I was powerless to stop him as he left his mark from my shoulder to my throat.

Atlas was like a man possessed. It was as if he couldn't control his body when it was with mine. He handled me like he needed to. There was no restraint or holding back anymore. I should have been terrified of what he was capable of.

"I shouldn't have tried to save you," he said into my damp skin.

"I don't think you have yet," I answered, my voice breathy.

If anything, I was in a deeper danger than I was before a gun was pointed at my head in his living room. Not even before I was in his possession was I closer to the monsters. I started to wonder if the real danger I should be running from was the man with his hands on me.

Atlas pulled back to look at my face. I was sure I was flushed and my lips were swollen from his bruising kiss. His eyes were wild and dangerous. I held my breath, anticipating his next move. He was hanging by a single thread of control, and I watched as it snapped. The very power Atlas was struggling to obtain just shattered, falling to our feet.

His hands grabbed mine, pushing them above my head on the wall. I was open to him, exposed in only my bra and panties. He wanted to be angry at my dress or underwear, but he supplied them for me. Atlas had no one to blame but himself and he knew that. He was angry with himself as much as with me. Which one of us would pay the consequences?

When Atlas wedged one knee between my legs, I clenched my thighs together. Undeterred, he kicked my feet apart forcing me to open to him. His thigh rubbed against me, and a moan escaped my mouth before I could stop it. The slight pressure sent waves of heat through my body radiating from between my legs.

"Are you wet for me, Little Star?" Atlas asked with a knowing grin.

Atlas held my wrists together above my head with one hand while the other skimmed down my arms. He continued down over my breasts and stomach, finally landing on my panties. He wasted no time pushing his hand under the thin lace. His fingers slid over my clit, and I cried out before I could stop myself.

"You're dripping for me," Atlas whispered in my ear, biting my earlobe.

His fingers pushed inside me, stretching me. A deep growl rumbled from Atlas, sending vibrations through me. His hand pulled away from me, and I held back a disappointed whine. He wanted the power and control, but I didn't want to give it to him so easily. Dark eyes glared down at me as he slipped his two fingers in his mouth, sucking them clean.

I was fascinated with the calm that took over his features in that moment that I almost didn't notice him undoing his belt. Ripping it from the loops, he quickly and expertly bound my wrists together. With my wrists together, he put them behind his head. The position would feel normal and familiar if it wasn't for the leather forcing them there.

"You make me like this," Atlas said as he hoisted me up against the wall so my legs wrapped around his waist. "Unable to stop myself."

I was clinging to him like I couldn't get close enough. Atlas was holding me up and together at the same time. One hand gripped my thigh as the other moved between us. I hissed at the gentle friction as he reached down to position himself at my opening. I held my breath as his eyes bore into mine.

He was daring me to do something. I had the chance to scream even though no one would come to help me. I could bite him, scratch, or even kick. I could fight him off, or at least put up a struggle. Instead, I relaxed my muscles and waited for him to own me the only way he hadn't yet.

I didn't expect easy and gentle from Atlas and he didn't surprise me. He thrusted into me until he was fully inside me. I cried out, digging my nails into the back of his neck as he pushed into me. Atlas didn't give me time to adjust to his size or get used to being so full. He pounded into me, giving me everything he had.

"Fucking finally," Atlas said with his face buried in side of my neck.

The sexual tension between us was exploding. Every touch and tease had built up just to amount to this moment. It was almost too much feeling while he took his anger out on me and regained his sense of control. Almost.

Our sweaty bodies clashed and rubbed against each other. The sensations were building and my cries were getting louder. It had been so long since I'd been touched, let alone like this, that I was craving it. Every kiss to my neck and nibble to my lips sent me into a combustible mess. I was ready to finally explode.

"Come hard for me, Stella," Atlas growled. "I want to hear you scream."

Screaming was all I could do when I finally was pushed to the point of no return. I was a bomb detonating after a long and torturous countdown. My screams made my own ears ring but Atlas kept thrusting like he was trying to make me louder. My nails pierced the skin in the back of his neck, but it didn't slow him down.

Atlas pulled back just enough to watch my face. I could barely keep my eyes open as he groaned loudly and froze, pushed deep inside me. I could feel my insides convulsing around him as he throbbed inside. Warmth spread inside and my muscles went weak, making me go limp in his arms.

Spinning away from the wall, Atlas dropped us to the bed and pulled out of me. I couldn't breathe or even control my racing heart. I was sweaty, weak, and my mind was all over the place. I couldn't understand why I had let that happen or why I had enjoyed it so fucking much. It was as if we had both finally satisfied a craving that had been eating at us. I closed my eyes, afraid to look into his face while he removed the belt from my wrists.

"Yes. Go clean yourself up."

With that, he left the room, locking the door behind him. On shaky legs, I made it to the bathroom and under the hot spray. I let the scalding water wash away the marks he left on my body. But even the burning water couldn't fully erase it. His teeth marks and bruises still would mark me when I stepped out. There would no removing Atlas from my body.

That was exactly what he wanted. Atlas felt as if he didn't have any control so he took it. Last night in the living room, his true intentions were revealed. He didn't want me dead. I just had the task of finding out why. Was it because of his promise to Ace? Was it because I was innocent and didn't deserve to be executed in front of the fireplace in a lake house?

Not for the first time, I wondered who would attend my funeral when I had one. Liddy may never hear the news. I didn't have any family left to cry over my casket. I had alienated everyone else after the murders to the point that I didn't think I had anyone left to care. Atlas was the only one willing to fight for my life, no matter the reasons. Against all good judgement, that was the only comforting thought that kept me from falling apart.

I stepped out of the shower and pulled on my robe. I wrapped it tightly around me, needing the warmth. I felt alone and scared, but safe and protected at the same time. Only he could give me such contrasting feelings. I hated it but needed it at the same time. My room was empty but filled with the smell of our combined sweat and bodies. It was a harsh reminder of what had just happened.

I crawled under the covers, exhausted from the lack of sleep and everything that had occurred in the last twenty-four hours. As the darkness pulled me under, I couldn't help but wonder what would happen when the sun rose.

When I was a kid, I thought that monsters only lurked in the darkness. It was only at night when evil came out. As I grew up, I learned that the scary stories had that part very wrong. When the sun rose, the evil was still there. If you turned on the lights, the monsters were still there. They were not afraid of light or dark.

Something would be different in the morning. Light was already shed on the evil, and I saw it differently. Atlas was still a monster, a ruthless killer, but not one I would fear. As with anything powerful and strong, there was a weakness. Atlas's weakness was me.

XVIII

Atlas

Stella's breathing was deep and even. She slept without nightmares. After I left her to clean up, I snuck back in when she fell asleep. I fucked up last night. Fuck-ups are unlike me. I didn't have a backup plan for this. There was no Plan B for "Atlas fucked the prisoner we were supposed to kill at the end." Why didn't I think this through?

Where did I mess up? Was it watching her for so long while I learned her habits and waiting for the police to forget about her? Did I make the fatal mistake when I touched her skin at the club? Maybe I should have never kissed her. I knew I shouldn't have fucked her.

How did this make me any better than my own father? This whole thing started because he crossed the line into a territory I didn't want to be in, one I thought we were better than. Keeping her against her will, fucking her, and lying to her only to kill her in the end made me just like him. It was no different than what he was doing.

Stella flinched and I knew she was waking. I could sneak out and send one of the guys in. Sal would be glad to have the task, but that thought made me clench my teeth so hard my jaw ached. I may have strayed from the plan, but I was smart. I could think of another plan. One where I didn't have to watch the life drain out of her eyes would be preferred.

"What are you doing in here?" a groggy voice asked. It was raspy from sleep and screaming the night before.

"Thinking," I told her.

Stella rolled and stretched, the blankets falling off her in the process. She was wearing only a robe that had come untied during the night. Smooth, creamy skin was exposed to me. Red teeth marks covered her neck and shoulders. I promised I would hurt her and I never broke a promise. I lost my control with her, and Stella paid the price.

I was a man who never lost my head no matter the intensity of the situation. I never lost my cool in a fight or any dangerous situation I found myself in. And I absolutely never got so lost when with a girl that I didn't think of protection. Stella has this power to make me lose my fucking mind, and I couldn't even think sometimes when she was around.

Stella quickly pulled her robed closed and sat up. Running her hands through her hair, she tried to tame it but gave it up. It stuck up in all directions from tossing and turning all night. Her face was bare of makeup and her lips were still swollen. She was beguiling first thing in the morning, and I couldn't take my eyes off her. I thought her little dress last night was my weakness, but it didn't matter what the fuck she wore.

I looked at her face expecting to see fear and hate. Maybe even anger for taking her so hard and rough. I didn't see any of that though. I saw a calm and acceptance I had never seen in those blue eyes. Never in the months I followed and watched her.

What had she accepted? Me? Her own fate? The fact that she was paying for everyone else's mistakes?

"I've done bad things, Stella," I said gruffly. "Don't look at me like what I did to you was okay. You need to never let me touch you again. I told you that before."

"My dad once said that sometimes good people have to do bad things to save people from other bad things," she said softly.

Her words sent a shock wave through me. She was stubborn and naive just like her brother had warned. I stood and stalked over to the end of the bed. She had the decency to shrink away from me in the slightest as I approached.

"Little star, I'm not a good person," I said, tilting her face up to look at me. She needed to see what I really was.

"Without a doubt, you've done bad things. Ace too. But whatever you are doing now, I think it's to help someone. Ace would never have gone to my dad that night otherwise," she explained.

She looked so sure, so confident in her assumption. Ace loved his little sister. It was the only thing that made me believe he wouldn't turn on me. To save her. I shook my head, fully convinced then that Ace didn’t go there to tell his dad about me and the family. He was there for help.

"I was raised by criminals," I said. "I was born into the family. My dad is the worst and most dangerous man I know. He raised me as his son."

I remembered instead of going to the middle school dance, I went with my dad to beat up someone who owed him money. That was just child's play, the easiest of tasks. I thought I was so cool that I left Marissa May waiting for me while we left some guy bloodied in a parking lot.

"I played my part and contributed to the family like the rest, Stella. Don't think for a second that I'm innocent. There's too much blood on my hands."

Stella didn't argue but didn't agree either. She sat perfectly still, her breathing shallow and controlled. She asked for the truth so I gave it. She would quickly wish she wasn't so curious. I exposed myself when I pointed my gun at Sal. Along with everyone else in the room, she knew I didn’t want her dead. What she needed to know was that I would do what had to be done in the end.

"It was my responsibly to recruit new guys in. They wanted young and strong to join as lower level men. That's how I met Ace. He wanted the money and excitement. It didn't take much to convince him to tag along with me."

It was my fault it took so long to learn his dad was one of Chicago's finest. Ace and I took to each other, and I instantly trusted him. By the time I learned of his family, he was in too deep. I knew he was committed and one of us.

"We stuck to the usual. The stuff you see in the movies," I said with a smirk. "We put pressure on those who owed the family money. We ran security at the casinos, moved guns if needed. Met with contacts for various deals that weren't legal either. We thought we were untouchable."

Stella stiffened and I start to pace the room. She was smart enough to know that it was going to get bad real soon. She was smarter than us. Two boys who thought they ran the city. We had no idea what was coming for us. It was Chicago for fuck's sake.

"Ace met a girl. She worked one of the casinos, faking the books. We aren't supposed to fuck the help, but Ace thought he would never get caught. Soon, she disappeared. Ace was pissed, wanting to know who did it and what they did with her."

I looked back at Stella. Her eyes were glistening.

"They killed her?"

"That's what we thought for a while. The family isn't much for talking things out. We solved things with blood and tears. Hard lessons. But Ace didn't care and went digging around, wanting to get revenge on whoever pulled the trigger. He found something else."

"What?" Stella asked, sitting straighter and leaning forward with interest. Her eyes were wide and bright, hanging on every word. This was the answer she needed. Like Ace, she lost something and needed to know why. This was a family that believed in justice and balance. Not so different from mine in that way.

"We trade guns, funny money, and anything else for profit. One thing that set us apart from the lowest of the lowest monsters was that we didn't trade women. Until we did."

"Women?" she asked, voice tight.

"That's what's going on but we don't have the proof. It's hidden and only a few know. Those in charge know that not everyone will agree. After some digging, Ace found something that led us to think she was alive."

I hated that I believed my next words, let alone that I needed to say them.

"They sold the girl from the casino."

"Human trafficking," Stella whispered.

Silence hung in the air. I let her collect her thoughts. I shattered her image of her older brother. I probably shattered her image of me and my family. I didn't want her to believe I was a good guy like she said. I wanted her to know that we wouldn't stand for kidnapping and selling women. My mom raised me better than that.

It took losing my mom to realize that a woman was something to be treasured and cherished. They put up with our shit and bring us into this world. Their bodies were built for our enjoyment and pleasure, and vice versa. A woman would give us the world without force if earned. And nothing was ever as sweet and fulfilling as something earned.

"Your dad?" she asked.

"Nothing gets past my dad," I said bitterly.

He knew. He was most likely in control of the whole operation. The fact that he allowed me to stay locked away in this lake house this long confirms my suspicion. Up here, I'm out of his way and not snooping around in his little side business.

"And your promise to protect me? Does that still stand?"

I walked back to the foot of the bed and stared down at her.

"I had to get to you before they did. My father and his people would have no mercy."

I finally saw the fear I needed to see in her eyes.

"You are a traitor's sister. You witnessed one of us killing," I explained, drilling it deeper so she would understand. "They would torture you, make you suffer, kill you slowly or maybe even sell you off to the worst of bidders."

Stella blinked and looked down at her hands. There were red marks from the belt last night. I left my mark on her and, realizing that, I started to get hard. Knowing that I owned her like no one else had and that she let me was empowering. It was exactly what I needed after losing my control because of her. It was a fucked up balance in a way.

"He was there for Ace," she said. "The killer. He asked them where he was. They wouldn't tell him, so he killed them."

"You heard that?"

 "He said that Ace pissed off the wrong people," she said with a tight voice.

My dad. Ace and I were digging around where we shouldn't have. We didn't have enough yet, but we had enough to piss him off. I was now positive that Ace and the Harlows died under my dad's orders. He knew we were on to him, but killing his son would cause a scene. Every member in the city would be looking for justice.

"You are just telling me this now?" I asked.

"It's the only thing that was keeping me alive," she spat. "Once you have what you want, I'm of no use."

"And now?"

"Now, I want the fuckers found, and I was raised to believe that lives are worth fighting for."

XIX

Stella

"Stella, you need to leave your room," Tony yelled from the other side of the bedroom door.

Atlas was successful in avoiding me for two days. Sal and Tony constantly hovered, sitting outside my door and never letting me out of their sight. I had never felt so alone and so crowded at the same time. I wasn't sure what to make of Atlas's disappearing act. He gave me a look into the past and the deep secrets he was trying to unravel, only to abandon me when he needed my help.

I swung the door open and stared at Tony. The concern on his face was unmistakable.

"Why do you care?" I asked. "Where is Atlas?"

"He went into the city but should be back tonight," he explained. "You need food and sunlight."

"Trying to keep me alive just long enough?" I asked. Without waiting for a real answer, I pushed past Tony and started down the hall.

I wasn't stupid. From the moment the shock wore off in the hospital on the worst night of my life, I knew my greatest possession was what I had seen. It could get me killed or save my life. In the beginning, keeping that secret was the key to my survival. I saw nothing, knew nothing, remembered nothing. When Atlas came and demanded the truth, I held it as my last bargaining chip. It would be the key to unlock my freedom when the time was right.

I wasn't too sure what I would eventually earn when I traded my knowledge in the end. Somehow, I couldn't see myself walking the streets carefree ever again. A normal life seemed so far away and impossible anymore. If I was honest, normal died with the rest of my family.

I missed them. I missed my big brother. I hated feeling this alone when I needed someone the most. I couldn't let them die for nothing. Ace obviously believed in what he was doing. If Atlas was telling the truth, they wanted to put an end to the trafficking his father was doing. If I could help them, I would like to try. I really didn't have anything else to do with my life anyway.

I pushed open the doors to the back deck and inhaled the crisp air. I felt weak, mentally and physically. My mind was spinning with possibilities, both good and bad. My nights were restless and my bones ached carrying the emotional load. Atlas ignored me, pushed me aside like the tool I really was. There was a point where I thought he would save me; now I wasn’t too sure.

"You okay? You look pale," Tony said behind me.

"Just fine."

I wasn't fine. I stared over the water until I heard Tony step back inside, no doubt still close by. Despite feeling so lonely, I wanted to be left alone. I wanted company, not a body guard or babysitter.

A chill ran through my body as I looked out over the lake. The trees around me were changing color. This place could actually be very beautiful if you could block out all the bad. I leaned over the railing, looking over and into the murky water. I pulled myself up on the ledge. Slowly, so I wouldn't lose my balance, I pushed myself up upright.

I stood on the wood railing and all I could see was the water. I wanted to block out everything behind me, my past. Confinement, fear, and eminent death waited for me back there. The wind blew through my hair and I felt lighter in the chill with nothing below me but water. My balance wavered but I didn't care if I fell.

"I bet it's freezing," Atlas said behind me. "You going for a swim?"

"I don't know how to swim," I admitted, slowly turning to face him.

Atlas looked perfect as usual. His suit jacket hugged the muscles I knew were under there. His tie was gone but he looked put together. Always in perfect control. He watched me carefully, debating and planning. With measured steps, he came closer until he was right in front of me.

"Get down from there, Stella," he demanded. "Don't make me force you."

I laughed, the bitter sound echoing in the emptiness. My head was fuzzy and I felt tired. Tired of fighting, running and hiding. I wanted it all to be over already. I just didn't know how this story would end. Did it end with my death? My security and a happy ending? Only Atlas could give me any kind of finale.

"Stella, you don't look so good," Atlas said, coming closer and reaching up. "Please get down."

"Now I don't look good?" I asked bitterly. I was acting like a child but couldn't seem to stop it. "It's the black hair, isn't it?"

Atlas sighed and rubbed his face roughly. "I like the hair. That's not what I meant. Just come down."

I shook my head but the movement threw off my whole balance. I stumbled and swayed, losing my footing on the thin railing. When I expected to hit the cold water, warm arms wrapped around me. I hit a hard chest and my body went limp.

"Shit, Stella. You're burning up."

I felt myself moving but I couldn't keep my eyes open. I tried so hard to open them. I needed to see where they were taking me. What if I needed to fight back? I couldn't even lift my head enough to look around. My cheek stayed firmly pressed to Atlas's chest.

"She passed out," Atlas told someone. "She's burning up. What the hell happened?"

"Nothing. She didn't even leave her room," said Tony. "She hasn't eaten or anything."

I heard my bedroom door being kicked open and saw my familiar ceiling. I stared up at this ceiling so often, it was sad I would instantly recognize it. Atlas put me down on my bed and I sunk into the soft mattress and down comforter. His large hands ran over my face and forehead. His touch was gentle and soft, unlike any other way he ever touched me.

"Get something she can drink or eat," Atlas said quietly, followed by the sound of footsteps.

Atlas ran his hands down my face and neck. His fingers were feather light. It was a stark contrast to the roughness he had always showed me.

"You still with me?" he asked quietly.

"Think so," I whispered, my throat sore and raspy. "You can break your promise, Atlas."

"What promise?"

I struggled to open my eyes and finally blinked them open. Atlas's dark eyes were staring down at mine. His face was so close I could smell the faint scent of whiskey. Light stubble lined his strong jaw and I noticed a small scar on his bottom lip. I briefly wondered how he got it.

"I'm no use to you anymore. You can just let me die and Ace will never know the difference," I told him, still staring at his lips and the scar.

"Don't be stupid Stella," he said. "We are gearing up for war here, Little Star. You aren't done here yet, so quit trying to chicken out."

Atlas pulled away from me and my eyes fell closed. A coldness wrapped around me as voices whispered around me. Sounds faded out and back in. Atlas tried to pull me up but I couldn't hold myself up. I wanted to, but I couldn't fight anymore. I had nothing left.

"You need to try to eat this," he said to me, putting a spoon to my lips.

Atlas and Tony force fed me chicken broth. It burned my mouth but the salty familiar taste warmed me from the inside. My head pounded, my eyes burned as I tried to refuse the soup. I didn't want their help. I didn't want anyone's help anymore. I just wanted it to be over.

Just when I thought I was going to have my peace, I was awake. Ice cold water was spraying on me and I gasped in shock.

"What the fuck!" I shouted, trying to get away from the freezing water.

"Stop," Atlas demanded in a voice that made me pause.

He was in his boxers and white collared shirt. He was soaked, holding me in the shower.

"I had to cool you down," he explained. "Your fever got too high."

I relaxed into his chest and let the water cool me down. I was shivering but I could feel the sweat on my skin. My hair was damp so I dipped my head back, letting the cool spray soak through. The sound of my teeth chattering echoed in the large bathroom.

"Thanks," I mumbled, weak and exhausted.

"Don't thank me," he said. "Come on. You need food now that you're conscious."

He reached over and turned off the water. I took Atlas's outstretched hand and let him pull me to my feet. I lost my balance, but Atlas was quick to grab me. His hands held my hips and he looked down at me. We were both soaked in our clothes and his hair dripped water on my face. We were so close, I could feel his body heat and the beat of his heart through his chest.

"Don't give up yet, Stella," he said, running a thumb over my skin. "You are better than that. Better than us."

Atlas didn't give me a chance to respond before he pulled me from the shower. I got my privacy to dry off and put on warm, dry clothes. I was slow and weak, but I could stand on my own two feet. When I stepped into the bedroom, Atlas was sitting on the bed with a tray of food. Too tired to argue, I sat next to him and took the tray when he passed it over.

The soup was chicken noodle from the can but reminded me of home. My mom would make it whenever one of us was sick. The whole family would eat chicken noodle soup and crackers even if just Ace had the cold. Dad teased mom that it was just so she didn't need to cook extra. I think she didn't want one of us to feel left out.

I stared down into the broth and felt my eyes misting over. I tried to blink and hide it in time, but I was too late.

"I followed you," Atlas said, breaking our silence. "My dad sent me down after the cops found the bodies. He tried to tell me one of his enemies went after Ace, taking out the family, but you escaped."

I put down my spoon and looked up at him. I knew he had found me before the night of the club, but I was unsure how far back.

"I watched you at the funeral," he admitted. "I never saw you cry. Even those nights alone, you never broke down."

I swallowed the lump in my throat. Atlas followed me for months. He stalked me, watched me and saw every move I made. I should feel violated, scared and maybe even angry. Somehow knowing that he was somewhere close those dark and lonely nights gave me a sick feeling of comfort. Someone was there.

"I didn't want them to win. I thought that if I never told the police that I saw anything, they would leave me alone," I said. Hearing it out loud, I realized how naive that had been.

"They won't win, Stella. I will make damn sure of it," Atlas said, his voice low and angry. "My father promised he had nothing to do with Ace or your family. He lied to me and will pay for that."

"But he's your father," I said, confused how he could follow in the man's footsteps only to turn his back on him.

"Blood may determine your family, but it doesn't have to be blood shared. It can be blood spilled. Ace died for a reason, and I will finish what he started and make anyone who stood in our way pay."

XX

Atlas

I snuck out of the room while Stella slept. Her temperature had returned to normal but she was still exhausted and weak. I had spent the last twenty-four hours forcing her to eat and drink. Most of our time was spent in comfortable silence, but I could almost hear her thoughts.

I isolated her. Stripped away what little she had left. I had never seen her break down in sorrow and loneliness before. But here, in her weakest moments, I saw the pain shine through. Not only was the pain surprising, but so was my reaction to it. I was angry. Angry that Ace wasn't here to fix this. Pissed that I had to witness her breaking.

I should never have touched her. Before, holding back was a struggle and now it would be near impossible. It was a mistake that could cost us the mission. When I saw her, I couldn't think straight. It took heading to the city for me to able to see clearly. Sometimes just being in the same isolated house was too much to be able to concentrate. I needed distance and couldn't let that happen again.

In my office, I searched through the footage I got from visiting my dad in the city. With a new determination, I looked for a new face. He must have someone new to be his right-hand man dealing with trafficking the women. I had compiled a group of men who were new by the time Sal and Tony joined me.

"There's a buzz in the family," Tony said. "A general unease that something is up."

"And there is," I said, looking up from the computer.

"Rumors are spreading," Sal added. "Some are saying you want out. Others think the old man is stepping down for you to take over. Either way, change is in the air."

"There will be change, boys," I told them. "We are getting ready for war. The final phase is falling into place so we best be ready."

"We are armed and ready," Tony assured me.

"Our guys are ready," Sal said.

We spent weeks quietly spreading the word about the darker part of the "family business." As expected, many didn't agree. My father may still have been the boss, but I was the one with the real following. We had an arsenal stocked and ready for just about anything.

"And the girl?" Tony asked.

"What about her?" I asked, glaring up at him. "She lives for now."

We spent the day going over plans and backup plans. We weren't planning to simply kidnap a young woman here. We were going to war with the boss. In the last decade, no one had tried to overthrow the head of the family in Chicago. My grandfather had ruled before my dad, and I was to take over after him.

I looked up at the painting of Atlas on my wall. He led the war against the Gods and paid for his mistake for eternity. Would I end up like my namesake? Was I leading us all into a trap, only to be defeated? Lives would be lost without a doubt. The only question was how many, and who would stand when the smoke cleared?

"Atlas," I heard in the doorway. I looked up to see Stella standing there, looking much better than the night before. "I'm sorry, I just didn't know where anyone was," she said, trailing off at the end when she realized she was interrupting something serious.

"How are you feeling?" I asked her, standing up.

"Better, thank you," she said, looking at the floor. She was nervous, scared, and uneasy around me.

Coming around from behind my desk, I walked toward her. I kept walking as she backed up, hitting the wall behind her.

"I need you to stay in your room until I come get you," I told her. "Tony, take her to her room, please."

Her eyes went wide as Tony came for her. When he grabbed her upper arm, her eyes met mine. Her bright, blue eyes sparkled with fury as she glared at me. I watched calmly as he dragged her away. It was for her own good but she wouldn't see it that way. I was treating her like a prisoner, like a pet.

"She is your weak spot," Sal pointed out.

I didn't answer as I came back to my seat. He stared at me with a knowing look.

"Everyone has a weakness," he continued. "You just need to know to arm them before your enemies find them."

I looked back up at the painting. Gods didn't have a weakness. That’s what made them Gods. Heroes were human, had faults, and were able to be defeated. Titans were strong and brave, but conquered. It was then that I realized my father had named me after the Titan doomed to eternal punishment. He named me after the one who would always be beneath him. Maybe it was time history was changed.

"There's no reason anyone would think she is here and alive, right?" I asked him.

"No. The missing person report circulated the news for a few days before losing steam. With only that Liddy girl, she was quickly forgotten."

That was a shame because Stella was someone that people should miss. She should have a family member on the news every day, begging and pleading for her safe return. There should be a worried boyfriend searching the ends of the earth looking for her. A big brother should be kicking ass for answers. Stella should not have disappeared so silently.

Sal and I continued to go through the people involved. We had a running list of the men working the trafficking business. We were able to figure out the port in Miami he was shipping from and the trucking company used to move the girls around the country. I was embarrassed and enraged that it had taken this long to figure out what was going on right under our noses.

Tony came back in and took his seat. "She's feeling much better. Even put up a fight."

I laughed. There was a fire left in her after all.

"I gave her food but she threw the plate at me," he said, wiping at the small cut on his forehead.

"What did you do to her?" I asked, knowing he wouldn't have taken the blow nicely. I clenched my fists, ready for a fight.

"Tied her ass up," he told me, hands up in surrender. "You can deal with the little devil. She's all yours."

We worked well into the night. It was almost winter and I was expected back in the city any day now. I couldn't go back yet. I couldn't leave Stella here unattended and couldn't leave business unfinished. We had reached the point of no return. Everything Ace and I worked for the last few years was finally coming to its epic conclusion. I wished he was here to see it. I only hoped I did him right. I kept his sister out of their hands and would end their reign of terror. Maybe I would find the girl he had been searching for all this time.

At the time, I couldn't understand how Ace was willing to risk everything for a girl he barely knew. He risked his job, his life, and ultimately his family's life, to find her. The girl could be dead by now for all we knew, but the circumstances called for an end. Were we fighting for all women, or the one he loved? I tried to think if it was Stella, how far would I go to save her from that life? Was me keeping her here any better?

I knew without a doubt that it was. I never forced her and knew damn well she wanted me just as badly as I wanted her. Her attraction was written all her face and body. I tied her up, but would never have taken her if she had been unwilling. She may have fought how she felt for me, but she never fought me.

Thinking of Stella, picturing her tied to the bed had me walking down the hall to her room. Since the moment I had brought her here, seeing her restrained was my favorite. I would have left her tied up all the time if I had thought it would have gained her cooperation. I loved any woman tied up, but Stella brought out a beast in me that I didn't know existed. I knew I was fucked up, more violent than one should be, but she brought out a stronger monster.

I pulled open the bedroom door and found her on the bed. Her arms were spread, tied to the headboard. Her dark hair covered half of her face while she slept. A thin sheet covered most of her body, the rest peaking though to tease me. My restraint was being tested, but I was never one to hold back.

Walking to the foot of her bed, I noticed her chest rising and falling quickly. Little pants passed her wet lips. In her tank top, I could see the sweat glistening on her chest. One bare leg stretched out, snaking out from under the sheet. I could see her pale skin up to her hip to her thin panties. I clenched my fists thinking about Tony holding her down like this and tying her up.

I stepped closer to her, running a finger up her exposed leg. A moan escaped her lips, even with her eyes closed. She was dreaming but not one her usual nightmares. Her back subtly lifted off the mattress, and I noticed how flushed her cheeks were. Who was she dreaming about? Who was making her moan when she could imagine anyone she wanted?

Stella moaned again and pulled on the ropes holding her wrists. Her breathing was labored and coming faster. I knew that sound, she was close and I instantly hardened at the sound. I wondered briefly if she would come while I watched her. Was I about to watch her fall her apart? In a moment of weakness, I ran my hand slowly but lightly over her stomach, pulling some of the sheet away. Her body arched into my touch and she whimpered.

I should leave this room. This was supposed to be one place she had a little sense of privacy. I promised I would keep away and never touch her again. Stella was my poison and greatest battle. Watching her while her body climbed higher and higher wouldn't be right. I wouldn't be able to walk away if I stayed any longer.

When did I ever do the right thing? History proved one thing; this girl was my weakness.

XXI

Stella

Every part of me was hot. I could feel myself melting, or evaporating; I couldn't tell which anymore. My skin tingled and buzzed with sensation. I was hot. Too hot but not from a fever this time. I was burning and my breathing was hard. I needed relief but I couldn't move. I was powerless against him, I always was. My nipples brushed the thin sheet, shooting bursts of pleasure through my body. I could feel the wetness pooling between my legs. The bed was damp under me and I rubbed my thighs together to relieve the building pressure.

It wasn't enough. It was never enough. I was so close, dangling over the edge but unable to fall over. I was chasing that burst of ecstasy. My surroundings were hazy but I sensed him. I could feel his touch and smell his cologne. I couldn't see him but I could feel what he was doing to my body. He was playing me like I was his instrument. My body begged for more as the waves of electricity rolled through me.

I was so close, I could feel myself rocking on the brink. I could hear my own panting as I gasped for air and begged for release. I tugged at the ropes and felt the pain biting into the raw skin. The pain intensified my awareness and a moan rumbled from my chest. Almost there. So close.

I arched my back and prepared to be dragged under, but it didn't happen. I felt the sweat collecting on my skin, and I was dripping between my legs. I was almost there as my dream started to dissolve. I whined and willed myself to stay asleep just a little longer. Just a few more seconds and I would be done. Please.

Reality trickled slowly in. I felt him before I even opened my eyes. I was shaking and panting when I forced my eyelids open. Atlas was leaning against the dresser at the foot of the bed. His sleeves were rolled up to show the muscles flexing in his arms that were crossed against his chest. His eyes were darker than I'd ever seen them and my skin tingled.

"Atlas," I gasped, my heart pounding louder.

"Close, weren't you?" he asked, his voice low but smooth. Just the sound sent goosebumps over my skin. So low and deep, promising the darkest of pleasure and pain.

He stepped forward, calm and composed compared to my buzz and trembling. Steady and controlled, he walked over to the side of bed. I clenched my thighs together, my need only growing more now that I was awake. I pulled and struggled against the rope, wanting my hands free. The need to run was intense, but I wasn't sure which direction I would run toward.

"Who were you dreaming about, Little Star?" Atlas asked, leaning over me.

"No one," I panted.

"Don't lie to me," he said, trailing one finger up my bare leg. He stopped and squeezed my knee, waiting for my answer.

"Please," I begged. I needed him to leave, or stay. I wasn't sure anymore.

"Please what?" Atlas whispered, his lips close to my ear. "You want to come?"

I bit down on my bottom lip to keep from telling him the truth. A dark smile spread on Atlas's face and I realized I didn't need to tell him the truth. He knew. The sheet was quickly torn away, leaving me exposed and cooling my overheated skin. I gasped as the cool air touched my skin, feeling like a caress with my senses heightened.

"You want to know my first mistake?" Atlas asked me as he took in the sight of my body.

"Yes," I whispered, unaware he made many mistakes.

"Tying you up when you first got here. I could almost forget how badly I wanted you in that club until I saw you like this," he said, sweeping his hand over me.

I pulled against the ropes again and watched as his dark eyes flared. He liked it. Atlas started to unbutton his shirt and I squirmed under his intense stare.

"My second mistake was kissing you in the bathroom," he continued as he worked the buttons free.

Everywhere he looked, I could feel it, like it was a physical touch. My tank top was riding up, exposing my stomach and my breast felt heavy under the thin material. I needed to be touched, and soon.

"The third mistake was fucking you because that is all I can fucking think about since then."

He glared down at me with dark eyes. The intensity of his words and his look made me desperate.

"Who were you dreaming about?" Atlas asked again as he rounded back to the foot of the bed. He waited with one knee propped on the mattress like he would pounce at any moment. My body was begging for him. I arched my back and squirmed, trying to get closer.

"You," I gasped, my face heating with shame and embarrassment.

I didn't have time feel much else because after a growl from Atlas, his hands were at the sides of my panties. His large fingers twisted under around the strings on the side and he pulled, ripping the fragile fabric off my body.

"What did I do to you?" he asked, his words floating between my legs. "You moaned so sweetly. Did I feel good?"

"Yes. Please," I begged, even though I didn't know what I was asking for. I wasn't even sure I could handle what I was asking for.

"Did I lick your wet pussy?" Atlas asked, spreading my legs apart and lowering himself to the bed.

I could only pant as he ran a finger over me, feeling how wet I already was. This was only the first touch and I was already dripping. I could feel a rumble in his chest before I looked down and watched as he lowered his mouth to me. I cried out as his tongue tasted and massaged. I should be pulling away, but I found that I didn't want to.

I dropped my head back and pulled on the ropes. Every stroke was too much, but not enough at the same time. I squeezed my thighs and locked his head between them. That didn't slow Atlas down. He continued to assault me with his tongue until I was sure I would come all over his lips. My eyes rolled to the back of my head and my body tensed, ready.

Atlas stopped. He pulled himself away and I cried out in pain.

"What the fuck?" I yelled. "Why?"

"I'm not done with you yet," he said, crawling over my body.

His lips crashed on mine as I rolled the familiar words around in my head. When would he ever be done with me? My lips moved with his, desperate for more of him. I could taste myself in his mouth as my tongue swept in. I moaned into his mouth and wrapped a leg around his, pulling him closer. I wanted more of Atlas.

With my hands above my head, I couldn't touch him. I fought again and felt Atlas grow harder on my thigh. He was huge, and rock hard. Pulling at the ropes made him flex against me. I should have found it sick, but I pulled harder, loving the reaction I could get from him. With a final growl, he lifted off me and worked his pants off quickly. This time around, I had time to feel and notice things like his body, the way he tasted, and the sounds of our breathing mixed together.

When his shirt hit the floor, I took a second to take in his naked body. He was strong and built to last the worst. His skin was perfect, stretched over tight muscles. As he lowered himself on top of me, I looked up into his face. His eyes were on mine already. I felt a surge of pleasure rush my body at the fire I saw in them. He may have been my weakness, but I was his as well.

I tilted my hips and Atlas pushed fully into me. It was blunt, hard and fast, just like he was. There was no warning, no easing and no softness. I didn't expect anything different. He filled me up, taking over every inch of me and every sensation. Atlas demanded and took every nerve, every inch of skin, every gasp for air.

"I warned you before," he said in my ear. "I will hurt you."

"Do your worst," I rasped.

Those words were like the crack of a whip. I felt the control snap in his muscles and Atlas kept his promise. Raising up on his elbows, he pounded into me. He was deep and hard, and I screamed with every thrust. Sweat covered our skin as the room's temperature turned to sweltering. With a strength I only imagined, Atlas took me. He took me hard with no apology or shame. I accepted it with no fear or regret.

Every time he bottomed out inside me, I cried out his name. My moans pushed him, spurred him on. I expected nothing different from Atlas. He was harsh, commanding, and powerful. I felt it with every stroke. He was everywhere, owning every sensation, smell, and sound. This man moved without restraint, and I got a rush from his loss of control.

I started to clench around him, and I felt it all over. My body was owned by him and racing toward the fire he promised. It hurt, but the pleasure won in the battle. An energy buzzed as Atlas’s eyes burned into mine. Without warning, I was screaming and clenching around him. The wave of pleasure hit so hard and fast, I lost control. I pulled at the ropes as wave after wave hit me and my eyes squeezed shut.

Atlas tensed and pulled out of me, leaving me feeling empty. I opened my eyes to watch him pump his cock twice and then come on my stomach. He groaned lowly as the warm liquid hit my hot skin and I arched into it, wanting to claim it as my own. I watched his face in fascination as it went from tensed to relaxed. When he opened his eyes again, they were a calm dark gray, like the sky after a violent storm.

The room was silent except for our panting. Atlas stared down at me with an unreadable expression. His hair was damp with sweat and I wanted to run my fingers through it. My bound wrists stung when I tried and I winced.

"I should undo those ropes. They make me lose control," Atlas grumbled, tugging on the ropes that held my arms above my head. "But I can't do that now."

I should have been upset, but I felt safe and protected for once. It was a feeling only Atlas had been able to provide for me since I'd been alone in this world. My limbs felt loose and dead. I didn't even mind the heat anymore as I drifted away into nothing. I wanted to fall asleep, but part of my brain was still awake and demanding attention.

"Are you going to kill me?" I asked him, unable to see his face as I said the words.

He sighed and climbed over top of me.

"If you can still speak after I'm done with you, then I didn't do a good job."

He wrapped my legs around his waist and pulled the ropes tighter so I couldn't move. I gasped when I felt him hard and pushing against me again. That round, Atlas was successful in shutting me up and turning off my mind. Sweaty and sore, I fell into a dreamless sleep.

XXII

Atlas

Quickly, like I'd done it a hundred times (because I had), I undid the knots holding her in place. Stella moaned and closed her eyes. A power surged through me when I saw the effect I could have on her. I couldn't control her any other time but now, with my dick in her or mouth on her. She was so agreeable and free when we were naked.

Even more powerful was the effect she had on me. There was no use denying that now. I needed to confront it and own up to it. You are only as weak as your secrets. The man always with a plan wasn't sure how to work around my loss of control when Stella was around. Unless I got rid of her, I would need to deal with it.

Knowing the sun was rising on another day, I dressed and left her room. With our time running out, I needed to pull every resource we had. The days following were spent in my office. We called in favors from all over the world and spent obscene amounts of money. The air was thick with the buzz of anticipation. It was like feeling the electricity of lightning before a storm.

Stella spent most of her time in her room or on the deck. At night, I snuck into her room. She never asked any questions, but she never turned me away. As compelled as I was, I would have left if she had asked me to. But she never did. Wordlessly, she opened up to me and let me release my pent up energy on her while she remained tied up. Sometimes it was rough and the marks would spur me on the next day. Other times it was rushed like we couldn't wait a second longer.

The sun going down was a stark contrast to the daylight. Sunlight poured in the windows while we planned war. While we discussed lying, cheating and killing, the sun graced us. It was in the shadows that it all disappeared. Only Stella and I existed in whatever way we wanted to. When darkness came, I pretended the evil wasn't there, and she acted like I wasn't a monster.

Sometimes I wished it wasn't. I wondered if my mom had stayed if I would have turned out differently. Could I have been the person Stella thought she saw inside me? The shitty thing about the past is that we could never change it. We couldn't even change the effects it had on the present or future. We could only look back and wish it were different. Maybe when this was all done and over with, she could find comfort in this one time when she caught a glimpse of someone worthy of her.

Most likely, I would end up one of the bad guys her dad had warned her about. If she had a choice or options, I was sure she would never let me touch her. Stella was raised in the opposite atmosphere I was. She was taught that life was valuable and never to do harm. I was taught how to get away with murder. It was a wonder I ended up with any morals at all.

It was cold the morning I woke Stella up and forced her get dressed quickly. I only gave her a few hours of sleep before I was hauling her out of her warm bed. In a last act of desperation, I had an idea I prayed would pay off. Otherwise, I was risking everything.

"Where are we going?" she asked and she put her arms through the flannel jacket I shoved at her.

"Home," I said, pushing her out of the bedroom.

"Your place?" she asked.

"No. Yours."

Stella's feet froze but I picked her up, carrying her easily to the waiting car. I shut the door and Tony pulled away from the lake house.

"I don't understand," Stella said, her voice shaking with nerves. "You're letting me go?"

"No," I answered bluntly, taking the blindfold Sal handed back to me. "Put this on."

Stella's shoulders sunk and she hung her head while I tied the black fabric over her eyes. The car was silent as we weaved through the dark gravel roads away from the lake. With the cold moving in, the tourists had fled the area, leaving only the crazy locals. Even I should have been back in my plush penthouse, overlooking the city I controlled with violence and fear. Instead, I was taking a trip down memory lane.

After an hour of driving, the car came to a stop.

"Are you going to kill me now?" Stella whispered.

I didn't answer and instead opened my door. Coming around, I helped her out and guided her away from the car. It was still dark enough we would go unnoticed. I still needed to be careful.

"Don't scream," I said in her ear as I pushed her forward. Her entire body was trembling as we stepped through the doorway.

When I pulled away the blindfold, I stepped back and let her take it all in. Stella gasped when her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She spun around, taking in the bare walls of the house she had lived in her entire life. What was once a home was now a cold and vacant house.

"Why did you bring me here?" she asked me, turning to face me with tears in her eyes.

"If Ace was last here and left a clue for you, me, or even your dad to follow, we need to find it," I told her. “We can't have anything in the hands of the wrong people.”

I stepped forward and took her shaking hands, pleading wordlessly for her help. Stella pulled away and slowly walked the halls. She ran her fingers down the walls of the hallway to the bedrooms. Some furniture and items still remained since Stella was still the owner of the house. With her missing, the place wasn't sold or emptied completely yet.

"This was his room," she said, pointing to the room with blue walls and a single bed inside.

I walked inside, checking the closet and under the bed for anything hidden. Ace wasn't a novice teenager hiding dirty magazines or drugs. He was a professional, so his hiding spot would be good but I knew what to look for. We learned from the best. When I didn't find anything, I looked around to find Stella was gone.

I found her down the hall in her old room. It looked much like the night she left it. Most of her stuff had been packed and sent across the country. She seemed lost in herself until she heard my footsteps. Giving me a sad look, she motioned for her to follow her to the closet.

"This was my hiding spot," she said, pushing on a loose board on the floor.

Stella pushed on the corner of the board and one end came up, enough for her to pull it away. Underneath was a sizable space, filled with a tiny wooden box and papers. I knelt down and pulled them out. The papers were worn and old but smelled like Stella. I unfolded one, finding a drawing of the house we were standing in.

"You drew these?" I asked, flipping through the rest.

"Yeah," she admitted quietly. "It was a hobby of mine for a while."

"Why hide them?" I asked while staring at a sketch of her mother. I could easily see the resemblance in her and Ace. It was rough and unfinished, but talented and beautiful.

"They aren't that good. I just liked doing them."

I shook my head because she was so wrong. Not one was finished and full of rough lines and harsh shading because she gave up before perfecting them.

"They are good," I told her.

She took them from my hands roughly, one of the papers ripping in the process.

"It doesn't fucking matter because no one will see these. No one will see this woman that I drew from memory," she hissed, thrusting the drawing of her mom in my face and throwing it to the ground.

"No one will know about the lone survivor of the Harlow family who could draw, because what does that matter with the backlash of murder, mob involvement, and crime? Who the fuck cares about me in all this?"

Angry tears streamed down her red face.

"I do." I said as I handed back the corner of paper that fell to the ground. She couldn't give up yet. She needed a reason to keep going just a little longer.

"What is this?" she said, taking it back and looking at it fully. It was then that I noticed the handwriting on it for the first time.

Stella sat on her bed and sorted through the drawings to find one that was not her handwriting. I recognized it immediately as Ace's. Stella silently read it, holding the missing piece to make it whole. Her eyes glistened as she soaked up her brother's words. I wanted to rip it from her hands and read it, but I couldn't take any more from her at that moment.

She flipped through the rest of the drawings and sprawled them out over her bed. Picking out one of a beautiful woman who looked slightly different than the other drawings, she handed it to me.

"He asks we never forget her. Memorize her face and fight for her every day that he can't." Her words were choked at the end.

I took the drawing of the girl. It was the girl from the casino that Ace had fallen in love with. This drawing was finished and detailed down to the reflection in her eyes. This face was innocent and undeserving of what I knew she would have gone through.

"He said that I had to make sure you kept your promise," she said, pulling my eyes away from the pencil marks Ace left behind for us to find.

"What's in the box?" I asked.

Stella opened it, and looked shocked to see what was inside.

"Nothing," she said, revealing the empty box.

I looked outside to find the sky changing to dawn. "We need to go. We have enough."

I pulled Stella off the bed and rushed her to the car. I locked the front door behind me and we pulled away. Ace found the proof he needed and it no longer mattered what that was. I would keep my promise. I would make those fuckers pay. Starting with the people who took his girl and killed his family. I would end with the man who brought me into this world. That was the thing about family. You killed for them and you died for them. I would do them both for Ace.

XXIII

Stella

I woke up sore. Everything hurt. My legs ached, my skin was raw and my heart was broken. My brain felt scrambled. A familiar fog settled over me much like the one after losing my parents and brother. That feeling of unbelieving and sadness was swallowing me.

A heat was wrapped around me. Atlas. When we got back from visiting my old house, Atlas brought me to my room. For the first time since he started sneaking in, he fucked me without the ropes. It was also the only time he had ever stayed. It was his way of distracting me, keeping away the bad memories that were threatening to take me under.

His heat reminded me I was alive and still breathing. Still fighting. I had fought the fog off before. What kind of person would I be if I let it back in? I was raised better than that. I was stronger than that. Atlas clung to me and held me to his chest. I was safe for now. With open eyes, I recalled my trip home. I remembered the way he fucked me, hard and unrelenting when we returned to the lake house.

I closed my eyes and dug into the dark spots of my mind. The places I never dared to go. They were the parts of my memory that only came out at night. Shadows disappeared in the dark. In the darkness lie my demons and greatest fears. It was there that the memory of the night I saw a murder was hidden. That was where I would find the man who shot my mom and dad.

"You're shaking," Atlas said in my ear. He could have been screaming but I barely hear him.

My brother's written words replayed in my mind. He told me to trust my gut because I had the "Harlow intuition." Ace said he loved me more than anything and never to stop fighting. His letter warned me that he sent a friend to come for me, but I found it too late. His parting words ripped a hole in my heart.

"Stella!" he was shouting. "Come back to me."

"I can't" I said as I threw myself from the bed.

Memories played in my head like a movie. Unlike every other time they bubbled over, I didn't fight them. I embraced them. I saw the dirty dishes from dinner stacked on the counter. I could see the floral pattern of my mom's robe. The lines on my dad's face looked so real in my mind. I even saw the man who was about to take their lives.

Atlas grabbed me as I crawled on the floor. He tried to grab my hands, but I fought him. I needed them. I needed to draw.

"I can draw," I said. "The man who came into my house and killed my parents."

"You can draw his face?" he asked, trying to understand my shaking words.

I answered with a nod.

"Why would you do that now?" he asked.

I knew that it was my last bargaining chip. It was the only piece that kept me alive this long. I just wanted it all to end. Not just for me, but for everyone involved.

"Pen. Pencil," I rasped. I felt the tears rolling down my cheeks and saw Atlas notice them too.

He listened though and found a pen in the pocket of his jacket that he had tossed to the floor earlier. Using my teeth, I pulled off the cap and crawled to the wall. Quickly, perfectly and quietly, I drew the face I hated to see. I drew his eyes that held only evil and pain. I drew the lips that lifted into a smile as he pulled the trigger. I drew the scar on his chin that I was sure he had deserved.

I worked without interruption, forgetting I was naked. If Atlas tried to talk to me, I didn't hear him. I was lost in my nightmares. Lost in my past. At some point, I broke the pen and used the spilled ink for better shading. By the time I was finished, I had taken up most of the wall. I stepped back and dropped the pen.

"Stella." The voice was gentle in my ear.

I turned and Atlas stood behind me. He had pulled on pants at some point and held a robe out for me. Feeling a sudden chill, I turned and let him slip my arms through the sleeves. He stared back at me. All ink and flat, but real to me nonetheless. This man didn't just kill a cop and his wife in their kitchen. He killed their daughter who was left alone and unprotected in their absence. The Stella they raised was buried with them, leaving someone else entirely in her place.

"You should shower, Little Star," Atlas said, forcing me to look at him.

I looked into his eyes and saw my own anger and hate reflecting back at me. I saw the thirst for revenge and justice. I recognized the hunger for truth and blood. I saw a part of me in Atlas. Or did I see a part of Atlas in me?

We went to the bathroom where Atlas helped me under the hot water. Shedding his clothes, Atlas washed me, using his hands and lips to erase the memories. As his fingers glided over my skin, it warmed me and brought me back. His lips breathed life back into my lungs. His voice pulled me from the fog. When he dried us both, he wiped away the guilt and fear.

"That's him?" he asked when we stepped back into the bedroom fully clothed.

"Yeah," I growled.

"I'll find him," he said forcefully.

"Do me a favor," I said. Atlas looked down at me with a questioning look.

"Make him beg for his life before you end it."

After a quick nod, I pushed past him and out to the hall without an ounce of regret for my request. I could hear Atlas following and I knew he would keep the promise. I didn't feel bad. My dad said sometimes you had to hurt people to save others. The man belonging to the face on my wall needed to be hurt to save others. There were probably more who needed to be hurt to save lives.

Atlas opened the door to let Sal and Tony come inside. They stood staring at my depiction of a killer. Their faces were hard and I saw Tony clench his fists. The three men whispered quietly while I waited numbly. There was nothing left for me to do at this point. I gave them all they needed so my job was done. I was useless.

Tony and Sal left the room looking like men on a mission. I looked up to find Atlas watching me with an angry glare. Swallowing, I felt resigned. I knew a long time ago that this day would come. I didn't know why I had even bothered running in the first place. My brother's trouble would have caught up to me eventually.

"Come on," Atlas said roughly, pulling me up to my feet.

Atlas pulled me out of the room and down the hall. He didn't take me the direction of the office or kitchen. We went the direction I had only gone one other time. My heart pounded loudly in my chest as he pulled the basement door open. Forcing me before him, I descended the stairs into the darkness.

It was silent when our footsteps stopped. I couldn't see or hear Atlas behind me anymore. I spun around, searching in the darkness for him. I knew he was there. I could sense him somewhere. Willing my eyes to adjust and reaching into nothing, I was still blind and lost. Alone.

"I can hear your heartbeat," said Atlas in a calm and even voice.

I spun around, trying to pick out where he was. His voice was everywhere, but nowhere at the same time.

"Are you scared, Stella?" he asked.

My breathing was heavy and my hands shook as I reached out, searching for him. I wasn't sure if I was looking for safety or the very thing I needed saving from.

"Answer the question," he whispered in my ear. Turning around quickly, he was already gone and out of reach.

"Yes," I admitted.

My answer was met with more silence. I could only hear my own pounding heart and short, shallow breaths.

"What are you afraid of?"

I tingled with awareness that he was near, but I feared how close he could be. Or how far. I couldn't even tell anymore what I was so afraid of. Alone in the pitch black, I was exposed and vulnerable. A familiar panic started to grow and my palms started to sweat. Just when I opened my mouth to let out a scream, I was thrown back

My scream was cut off as my back slammed into the wall. I could smell Atlas as he pressed against me, stealing away my air. Then I felt something hard and cold against my neck. A knife. My gasp pushed my skin into the sharp edge and a chill washed over me.

"Are you afraid of what I will do to you?" he asked. His voice was a low growl, sending shivers over me. "Answer me!"

"Yes!" I shouted, careful not to move enough to cut myself.

"Do you think I'm going to kill you?" he said and I felt the whisper in my ear, warming my face.

I nodded and waited for his next move. Would this be how it ended for me? In this dark basement in the middle of nowhere after fighting all this time?

"Stella," he said, running his fingers over my lips. "Remember this fear. That dark feeling in your heart that you feel because you think you are moments away from death. Hold on to it."

"Why?" I asked, needing to know why he felt the need to do this to me.

"Because, Little Star," he said, his lips now touching mine, "you feel this fear because you don't want to die."

Atlas pulled away from me and cold air took his space. I gasped for air and slid down the wall to the floor.

"Remember this fear the next time you think about giving up. Don't you dare fucking forget that you want to live. Others didn't have that choice, so don't take it for granted."

The sounds of his footsteps echoed as he walked away from me and up the stairs. I was alone and I could feel it around me. I hung my head between my knees as I sucked it up and calmed my breathing.

Atlas was right. When faced with dying, I was scared. My parents didn't get to just give up. They wanted to fight but it wasn't enough. Ace went out fighting and I would be a disgrace to do anything differently. If they were watching me now, and I truly hoped they weren't, I wanted them to be proud.

I slowly stood and walked to the stairs. I didn't know what stood on the other side of that door, but I wasn't going to hide anymore. Tomorrow could bring more pain and danger, but I would try to make it through. Holding the feeling Atlas had just given me in the darkness, I stepped outside and into the light.

XXIV

Atlas

From the safety of my office, I watched on the surveillance stream as Stella left the basement and headed to the kitchen. She moved around my house freely like she had all the freedom in the world. I smiled to myself while I put the finishing touches on the final stages of our plans. Now that Stella had snapped out of it, I would have one less thing to worry about.

I let her sleep that night without interruption. It took all my control to stay away. It was at night that I finally felt relief. Tying her up and controlling her was how I kept myself sane. Without the release, I was feeling on edge, angry and more than ready to rip someone's head off. When Tony came in the office, he was the perfect target.

"What the fuck took so long?" I asked as soon as I saw his face.

"Is that a serious question?" Tony asked with a glare. "I said days. We are back within a day. Don't be a dick."

I rubbed my face and felt the stubble there from being too busy. I didn't even know how many days I had been here anymore. A quick stay at the lake house turned into so much more. It became a turning point, a battlefield, and a command center.

"How did it go?" I asked, leveling my voice.

"Your dear daddy is back in Miami, so it went better than expected," he told me with a wide grin.

I stood and brushed the wrinkles from my suit jacket. Slowly and methodically, I buttoned it up and straightened my tie. I never liked to meet people looking less than perfect. It intimidated them, made them feel inferior. As I left my office, I became focused on one thing only.

"Get the girl," I said.

Everything went black and white as my mind cleared. The familiar feeling of zoning in on a target filled me. I entered the living room and took a deep calming breath. The open space was perfect.

"Atlas?" I heard her behind me. Stella's blue eyes went wide when she saw what caused us to haul her out of bed in the middle of the night.

In the center of the room, a man kneeled on the floor. His head was hung low and his shoulders heaved with his heavy breaths. Tony stood behind him, a gun pressed to the back of the man's head. Sal held Stella firmly as he pulled her into the room. She looked panicked and confused.

"What’s going on?" she asked, her eyes pleading with me.

I stepped forward, pulling out my own gun. I traced the pathetic excuse for a man's face with the barrel, forcing him to look up at me.

"Look at me," I spit at him.

His dark and empty eyes met mine and I had to step back to keep from pulling the trigger. I had seen evil, but this man was sick.

"You recognize him, Little Star?" I asked her.

Stella stepped forward and Sal let her. Her body was tense as she looked down at him. I saw when she finally got a good look at his face. A sound of pain escaped her mouth and she jumped away from him.

"It's him," she whispered. She was between breaking down and breaking out in a fit of anger. Which one would win out?

The fucker on his knees had the nerve to laugh. "You are dead, little girl."

The blunt end of my gun smacked into his skull, shutting him up. His didn't flinch or even make a sound as he glared up at me.

"You would go against your dad for this piece of ass?" he asked with blood dripping down his forehead.

I had had enough. I steadied myself and put my gun right between his eyes. He showed no fear, just amusement. I pulled back the safety, the click echoing in the room.

"No!" Stella cried, grabbing my arm.

In surprise, I looked down at her watering eyes. Our victim started to laugh.

"I want to do it," she said quietly, effectually shocking everyone in the room. Dead silence.

"What?" I probably didn't hear her right.

"It was my family," Stella said with an even voice.

Stella's cold fingers slid down my arm and wrapped around my fingers that were holding the gun at a man's head. She gave it a gentle squeeze to remind me to let go, so I did. Her hand fell with the unexpected weight, but she corrected quickly. I stepped back while she squared her shoulders and faced her family's killer.

Stella was taught to shoot. She and her dad had frequented a shooting range as their own way of bonding. I'm sure he felt he was teaching his little girl a skill to protect herself that she would never need to put to use. I was sure he never imagined his little girl using those skills to get revenge for his death.

Stella raised her arms and held the gun at his head. She moved her thumb so she was clear of the safety and held her feet slightly apart for balance. I could see the slight tremor in her body. She was scared but fighting her fear. Her beautiful eyes held so much pain and hate as she looked at the guy she was ready to kill. I looked over at Sal who stood next to me, his gun also aimed and ready.

"Do it," I said.

A gunshot pierced the air, followed by a hollow thump. Stella's gasp echoed in the room and could be heard over the ringing in my ears. As the thin cloud of smoke cleared, I could see the red puddle growing on the hardwood floor. Stella still stood with the run raised, ready for the shot. Sal lowered his weapon and I gave him a nod in thanks.

"I . . . I didn't," Stella stammered.

"I know," I whispered, coming for her and taking my gun from her shaking hands. "You didn't need to."

"I wanted to," she admitted, looking up at me with fear in her eyes. She was afraid of that part of her that wanted to take a life. Stella had never had to meet that dark side of herself before.

"I know. It's done."

Stella looked back at the body in my living room. Instead of screaming in terror like when Hector was in my hallway, she looked thoughtful. Sal and Tony started to bag the body as I pulled her out of the room.

"Why did you that?" she asked me as I led her back to her room. "I would have done it."

"I know you would have, but I didn't want you to," I answered.

"Why?" she asked once in her bedroom.

"You aren't like us. You're a good person, and though you wanted revenge for the people you loved, you wouldn't like taking a life. I didn't want you to have to feel that guilt."

Stella sat on the edge of the bed and stared down at her hands. Those hands could have killed someone tonight. I wasn't entirely sure if she would have pulled the trigger. I told her I thought she would have, but I wasn't sure. She had never taken a life and, if she had, I wasn’t sure she could have lived with herself afterward.

"Leave the killing to the real monsters," I told her.

"Is it over?" she asked me.

I never had to really deal with women and the hidden meaning in their words. I never kept them around long enough or really cared what they meant. I was smart enough to know Stella was asking about more than the search for the man who killed her family. She meant more than the war I was starting with my family by having his body delivered to my father's beach house in Miami.

"There's more," I told her before I took her lips with mine.

Stella's hands came to grab my shoulders as I leaned over and pushed her to the bed. I never pulled my mouth off hers as I took off my jacket and shirt. She ran her soft fingertips over my chest and back. My tongue fought hers as I pulled her pants down her legs and thrusted my hand up her thin tank top.

Stella's head dropped back with her moan as I pinched her nipple. When she looked at me, her eyes were wild and clouded over with want and need. I would make it all disappear for her. I could erase it all with my body and mouth if she let me. She would let me. She always did.

I picked her up and threw her up higher on the bed. As I crawled back up, I pushed my pants down and pulled her legs apart to make room for me. Nestled between her thighs, I pushed her tank top over her head. Stella was bared for me and her chest was pink with the rush of blood.

Taking a nipple in my mouth, I cupped the other breast in my hand. I earned a long and low moan from her that made me want to bite down on her skin. I held back, the restraint making me tense and grow hot. With all the adrenaline rushing my veins, I wanted to unleash on her. I wanted to use up all my energy until I was spent.

"Atlas," she moaned as I licked down her stomach. "Tie me up."

"I can't," I said honestly. I couldn't hold back with her held down and mine for the taking.

"Please," she begged. "Tie me up. Let it out."

I looked up into her eyes that were full of need and fire. Something else lingered behind the want, something deeper. Understanding.

"You have no idea what you are asking of me, Little Star. I will hurt you," I warned her darkly. My dick was rock hard and pressing against the panties that I could feel soaking through.

"No you won't. Please, tie me up."

I broke with her words. Climbing over her, I grabbed the ropes on the headboard and quickly tied her wrists. I pulled the ropes so tight she hissed when I was done. Stella squirmed as I pulled back to look at her. She was open and helpless to whatever I wanted to do her. Tearing her panties off, I pushed her legs apart.

"So fucking wet," I whispered, running my fingers over her.

Stella arched off the mattress and I stroked my dick, watching her lost in the feeling. Neither one of us would think about anything outside of this room tonight. I would make damn sure of that. I held her thighs apart and lowered my face between them. Using my tongue, I licked and sucked until she came so hard I thought she would pass out from screaming.

Taking my dick in my hand, I pushed into her. Her pussy was still convulsing from the orgasm my mouth gave her and it squeezed my dick. I let out a low groan as I pushed as far as I could. Stella gasped when I pressed even deeper, pushing harder and deeper than I ever had before. It probably hurt, but she asked for it and I was giving my all.

I took a leg and hitched it over my shoulder, wrapping the other around my waist so I could get deeper. I watched as her chest rose and fell quickly, letting it urge me on. The effect I could have on her never got old even though I kept waiting for her to get boring. Without an ounce of control, I thrusted into her, making her bounce off the mattress.

I repeated the movements. I fucked her so hard I couldn't tell if she was crying out in pain or pleasure. Her pussy squeezed and milked my dick so I kept going. The headboard banged against the wall loudly as I used every ounce of energy on Stella. I leaned down, going even deeper and biting her neck as I did.

"Is this what you wanted?" I growled in her ear, finally losing all control.

"Yes!" she screamed.

She clenched down on my dick and screamed my name. My balls pulled tight and an orgasm wracked my body. Every muscle went hard and tight before I burst open into her. Her screams kept me going as I pumped us both empty. Sweat dripped down my body and hers when I collapsed on top of her.

Stella got her wish. I let it out on her until I couldn't keep my eyes open.

XXV

Stella

I stared up at the ceiling for hours. I was alone in the bed and the sun was starting to rise. Everything was sore and my wrists were raw and burned from the ropes. I asked for it, even wanted it. In the morning light, I felt the effects of the rough way he took me.

Atlas always lost the most control with me, and I knew that. Part of me loved seeing him finally unhinge and knowing that I did that to him. Last night, I wanted to break that last string holding him back. I watched it snap and he pounced.

It hurt.

It was amazing.

What did that say about me that I loved being hurt by Atlas? Every bite brought me higher, and his punishing thrusts pushed me over the edge again and again. I loved it as much I feared it. It was as pleasurable as it was painful, and I wore the marks from it proudly.

Forcing myself to shower, fear started to sink in. I was scared of what I saw last night and what it meant. What would happen next? Why didn't I pull the trigger? I wanted to and I knew how to. I just didn't pull it. How could my conscience spare my family's killer? Part of me knew that if Sal hadn't killed him, I would have. I wanted to and that scared me more than watching his blood spatter everywhere. I screamed not because of the familiar sight of spilled blood but because of the overwhelming feeling of relief that had washed over me in that moment.

I walked the quiet halls in search of Atlas. I had too many questions and it didn't hurt to just come out and ask. There wasn't much they could do to me anymore. I had no leverage to keep myself safe, and they had no reason to punish me, or keep me alive. The house was quiet and I froze when I came to the living room.

It was clean without any sign of what had happened in here just hours before. I could smell a trace of bleach much like after Hector. A lot of death happened in this little lake house. So much blood had been spilled. Would I be the next person to paint these floors with their blood? Could I just be washed away with bleach like I had never existed?

I found Atlas in his office, alone. He watched me closely as I walked inside and closed the door behind me. Neither of us spoke and I looked up at the painting of the constellation in the sky. When Atlas first told me the story of the Titan who led the war against the gods, I thought the Titan was foolish. How could I feel bad that he was eternally punished for picking a fight he could never win? I understood now.

"You scared, Little Star?" he asked, his voice low and level.

"Yes," I whispered.

I was scared of him and myself. The person I was becoming was someone I didn't know. I was scared of the way he made me feel. I was terrified of what would happen next.

"Are you going to kill me now?" I asked Atlas, turning to look in his eyes.

He stood and I noticed he was in jeans and a white shirt. I had never seen him dress down and it surprised me. Atlas came around his desk and leaned back against it.

"I made your brother a promise to protect you," he said.

"So you'll let me go?"

Even as I said the words I realized how crazy they sounded. How would I just walk away and pretend nothing had happened. I had seen too much and knew too much. They could never let me go and I would never be able to move on. I wasn't sure I would want to.

"You know I can't do that," he said quietly. "The war isn't over yet."

Atlas hung his head and when his eyes met mine again I saw something I had never seen before: regret. A chill ran down my spine.

"You leave here, they will find you and kill you. I can't let that happen."

"Why not?

"Several reasons," he said, standing and circling me while I stood in the middle of his office. "That would be breaking my promise. If it came down to me or them getting you, I would be easier on you. They will torture you. But there is one main reason I will keep you."

My heart hammered in my chest because I wasn't sure if I wanted the answer. I didn't know if I could handle his truth.

"Why?"

Atlas stopped in front of me and placed both his hands on the side of my face. Tilting my face up to look at his, I saw a fierce determination in his eyes.

"Because I want to keep you. I'm still not done," he growled.

His lips crashed to mine and I clung to his forearms. He held my face tightly but not enough to hurt me. It was a gentle touch coming from him, but his lips were hard on mine, taking what he wanted. I gave into him, knowing he owned it all already.

Our tongues danced and tasted each other in slow motion. His possessiveness over me should have scared me or pissed me off. Instead, I felt safe and warm. I clung to his broad shoulders and wanted to be underneath him. I needed to know that I meant something more to him than a pawn in his games.

Atlas grabbed the back of my thighs and lifted me. Wrapping my arms and legs around him, I held on tightly without breaking our kiss. He walked me down the hall and I vaguely realized it wasn't the direction of my room. When he reached forward and opened a door, I pulled my lips away to see where I was.

We stumbled into a large bedroom with a window overlooking the lake letting the sunlight in. A huge bed with a black iron frame stood in the center of the room. This had to be Atlas's bedroom. In all the weeks I had been here, I had never seen where he slept. This was a rare glimpse into the man who controlled my life.

Atlas backed me up to the large bed and let me fall onto the soft covers. He stood above me, looking over my body. The familiar burn and heat grew inside of me. I reached for him and he willingly came, leaning over me. His lips found mine again and he took his time, like he was savoring my taste. Atlas had never taken his time before, seeming to always be driven to take me against his better judgment. I always let him against my better judgement.

His lips moved down to my neck, kissing and sucking the sensitive skin lightly. His shirt was off and tossed somewhere. I pushed my pants down my legs, kicking them off. He licked over my pulse point where I was sure he could feel my blood pumping. I titled my head back, giving him access. My eyes opened, and I looked up to the iron headboard as he drug my panties down my bare legs.

"No ropes in here," he whispered on my collarbone.

My head spun as Atlas flipped us, leaving me on top of him. My hands rested on his hard chest as his hands skated up my shirt. I lifted my arms so he could slowly pull it over my head. Atlas lifted his hips, and pulled down his jeans. I was on top of this strong and naked man. Someone who never relinquished absolute control was underneath me, under my hands.

My fingers tickled and explored his chest, arms and hard stomach. His skin was warm, smooth and soft under my touch. Atlas hissed as I smoothed my fingers over the V that led under my thighs. His muscles were tense with impatience and I smirked down at him. I could make him squirm, too.

"Not funny," he growled.

Done with waiting, he lifted my hips and placed me over his hard cock. Our eyes locked as he let go and I lowered myself down on him. Slowly, painfully, and perfectly. I let out a long moan as he buried himself inside of me as deep as he could. Once there, I waited before finally moving.

As I rose and pushed myself back down on him, something took over my body. I was loud and in control, taking from him as I wanted. My back arched, my hands held my sensitive breasts, and sweat collected on my skin. Letting go, I used my instincts to lead my body.

"You are so beautiful," Atlas murmured, his eyes hooded as he watched me ride him.

I felt beautiful. I felt amazing, alive, and energy buzzed in my veins. Atlas flexed and stiffened inside of me, hitting deeper than I had ever felt him. Unexpectedly, I was coming and screaming his name, totally lost in the wave taking me under. Large hands gripped my hips and Atlas thrust hard a few times before his own release hit him.

I fell to his chest, sweaty but satisfied. His heart was pounding in my ear and I fully relaxed. When I woke some time later in the darkness, Atlas was asleep and I was curled into his side. I looked up into his face. He looked younger and more innocent when he was sleeping. I could forget about all the bad things he'd done when I looked at that face.

Slowly and silently, I climbed out of his bed. I grabbed his white tee-shirt from the floor and pulled it over my head. My bare feet padded across the cold floors quietly as I left his room. The house was quiet, dark and cold. I almost turned to crawl back in bed with Atlas but my spinning mind needed space.

I tiptoed onto the deck and inhaled the fresh, cold air. I felt free for the first time since my parents had died. The walls that seemed to constantly close in on me broke down. That fear that followed me lifted. Their killer was dead and, for some reason, I believed that I was safe here. I didn't know what that said about me as person.

The vast and calm lake stretched before me. The only sounds were the crickets and leaves blowing in the breeze. I was alone. I could have left if I had wanted to. The greater question was, did I want to? The idea of leaving Atlas behind gave me a sickening feeling. For weeks, all I wanted was to run for my freedom. But here I was with my feet firmly planted. Could I leave? What did I have waiting for me out there?

XXVI

Atlas 

Her scent was everywhere. I could feel her sweat on my skin. What I couldn't feel was her body still pressed to mine. I opened my eyes and reached for her, feeling empty sheets. Sitting up, I quickly scanned the room to find it empty. The sun was starting to rise outside, letting in little light. I quickly dressed and went to find her.

I'd done something I had never done before with anyone. I gave her control. I gave her the choice and let her have her way. Watching her come apart above me was fascinating. It quickly made up for losing my control. The way her eyes came to life as she rode me to her own orgasm made it all worth it.

Sal and Tony had left us alone to dispose of the body and watch for my father's next move. I would need to return to the city soon. I came to the living room and found it empty. Same with the back deck. A cold feeling sunk into my bones and every muscle went tense.

"Stella?" I called out. Where the fuck was she?

I didn't tie her up because I didn't believe I needed to. I killed a man for her. I did it so she could have her justice and didn't need to pull the trigger herself. I could see the relief in her eyes. I saw the acceptance. She wouldn't run.

"Boss?" Tony asked as he and Sal came in the front door.

"Where is she?" I growled, searching the kitchen.

"Fuck," Sal swore as he headed toward her room.

"You didn't lock her up?" Tony asked me as we followed.

"I didn't need to," I told him, knowing he wouldn't understand.

This was the part of the plan where I was supposed to kill her. There was no way to take her to the city and I couldn't stay here much longer. Her part was done and she was no longer needed. By now, the rest of the family knew I was on to them and their dirty secrets. My father would be looking for me but I couldn't make myself end her.

We froze once we entered Stella's room. It was trashed. The closet doors were open and clothes were strewn across the room. The bed was a mess and the ropes were removed from the headboard. In the bathroom, the mirror was broken. Broken glass was all over the floor and I saw my furious face looking back at myself from a shard of mirror on the floor.

"Fuck!" I roared.

I punched my fist through the bathroom door. I didn't even feel the pain as I seethed. She left. She fucking ran after all. The one time I went against my plan, it backfired and left me in the worst position. I couldn't believe I was so fucking stupid.

"Find her," I seethed. "Now."

The boys left the room in a hurry. We would find her and I would stick to my plan. I was going to kill her. She would die for running. I would make her pay for making a fool of me. After everything, I thought she would stay willingly. I promised to keep her safe. Protection and safety were the things she craved and needed the most. I offered it to her and she threw it back in my face.

I tore through the house looking for her. My temper rose until I couldn't see straight. In the living room, I broke every bottle and piece of glass from the bar. I should have killed her. I regretted taking her to my bedroom last night. If I would have stuck to the plan, this wouldn't be happening.

She didn't deserve my gentle touches. I should have choked her while I fucked her roughly. Her body should be covered in my bite marks and bruises. Instead of putting a bullet between her eyes, I would have squeezed her throat while she gasped for air. As my anger boiled, I closed my eyes and imagined her death.

Her hands would have clawed at mine, eyes begging for release. I would have clenched harder and watched the life fade from her eyes. That light that I always searched out would dim and fizzle out. Darkness would take over just as it had for me. Her limp body would fall to the floor, naked and bruised. Used up with nothing left.

"She's nowhere on the property," Sal reported. “But I found this.”

I took the piece of paper from his hands. It was one word written neatly in the center. My blood boiled as the truth started to sink in. In parting, all she had to say to me was “Goodbye.”

I stomped to my office and pulled up the surveillance feed. A chill ran down my spine to find it all black.

"Lines were cut," I said, looking up at Sal.

His eyes went wide and I clenched my fists. Smart little bitch. I pushed past him and grabbed my keys from the lock box near the door.

"Where are you going?" he asked, chasing after me.

"To find her and kill her," I told him. "You find her, call me but don't hurt her. I want to give her every ounce of pain she deserves."

I left the house and ignored him calling after me. I lost control and my anger and bitterness were driving me. For the first time, I was without a real plan. I just knew one thing. I needed to find her.

My car raced down the open roads. It was very early in the morning so they were practically deserted. Without having any idea of when she had left, I didn't know how far she could have gotten. Had she been planning this all along? When she asked me to tie her up, making me believe she liked it, was she just playing me?

I was stupid and let sex cloud my mind. When I fucked her, I thought she wanted it. I actually thought she loved it as much as I did. She screamed for more and begged for it. Was it all a joke? I never thought she would be so conniving and deceitful. She deserved the slow and painful death I had planned for her.

My tires squealed when I pulled into her own neighborhood. I knew the streets well from my time stalking her. I drove to her house barely able to see past the anger and hate. Turning a sharp corner, I slammed on the brakes and stared ahead.

Red and blue lights flashed in the early morning light. People crowded around the scene in their robes and pajamas still, wanting to get a glimpse. Black smoke filled the air, looking like black ominous clouds. Stella's house was nothing more than a charred frame of what it once was.

Firetrucks and police swarmed the area, fighting to keep people clear as they fought the remaining flames. I parked the car and went closer to the house. The air was thick with smoke and ash. When I was close enough to feel the heat, I stopped. A police officer walked by and I grabbed his arm.

"Was there anyone inside?" I asked.

"The house was vacant, so we don't think so," he answered.

"Don't think so?" I glared at him and he shrunk back at the intensity of it.

"If there was, we won't know until the examiner goes through what's left. Everything, and anyone inside, is only charred remains now."

He pulled away and stomped off. Would Stella burn down her own home? I didn't think she would be dumb enough to go back there because she’d know I would find her here. Part of me hoped she came here knowing I would come for her. My phone rang and I pulled it out, walking away from the scene.

"Tony?" I said once it was to my ear. "You find her?"

"Not yet. We went to her friend's house. The one from the club."

"Liddy?" I asked.

"Yeah, but she's gone too," he said.

"She could be in class or something. Wait her out," I told him, getting back in my car.

"Doubt it," he said. "The place is a mess like she left in a hurry. She's gone and I don't think she will be coming back."

"Fuck," I growled and hung up the phone.

I punched the steering wheel in frustration. Stella probably thought I would go for her friend if she ran. She was smart like her brother. She had better hope she was smarter than me because if I found her, she would wish she had died with her parents that night. Starting the car, I sped away from what was left of her home.

Stella had been a very busy girl this morning. She must have crawled out of my bed as soon as I had passed out. I wondered if she had meant to wear me out on purpose. Was she riding me, bringing out every ounce of pleasure and coming all over my dick just so I would let down my guard? I didn't want to believe that. She would have needed to be planning this for a very long time.

I pulled into the driveway of the lake house feeling numb. I couldn't believe I was that dumb to fall for her and her innocent act. Last night, I thought we shared something different without the ropes and the pain. Stella had just been using me.

I would find her. And when I did, I would pull every last scream out of her until she couldn't make another sound. I would make her nightmares seem like a fairytale compared to what I would do to her.

XXVII

Stella

My swollen eyes fluttered open, but all I could see was darkness. I was cold and wet, and everything hurt. I could smell the familiar scent of blood, and I could taste it in my mouth. I licked my dry and bloodied lips. My head throbbed and my throat hurt.

I had no idea where I was. My arms and legs failed me when I tried to pull myself up off the damp floor. I couldn't see or hear anything as my mind tried to piece together my memory. Last I remembered, I was on the deck looking over the lake. I felt so calm and relaxed, I should have known it would end.

Tears sprang to my eyes as I remembered being pulled from behind. A hand went over my mouth and something stung my nose as I smelled it. Then everything went black. I woke up somewhere unfamiliar for the second time in a few months. This time, I could feel death looming close. I wouldn't find a tainted hero in this damp hell.

Fighting to push myself up, I noticed the familiar pain on my wrists. Pulling them up to my face, I didn't see the rope I had eventually come to trust. It was chains. The weight of the metal pulled them back down, and I finally let myself cry. I felt too dried out to cry, but the tears flowed anyway. The tears stung as they slipped over the open cuts on my face.

Where the hell was I and how did I get here? Did Atlas change his mind and decide to kill me anyway? This wasn't his basement though. It was cold and damp where ever I was. I could hear water dripping somewhere in the distance. My chains clanking together echoed in the darkness. I could hear my own stuttered breathing mixing with my pounding heartbeat.

Once again, I was trapped and facing a monster. Since I had seen my parents shot, I didn't think I had ever actually lived. The moment that gunshot sounded, I became a victim who needed to hide from the enemies my brother left behind because I was a witness. Atlas found me, and I used to think that was for the best, but now I knew I was wrong. I was right where I should have ended up all those months ago.

Heavy footsteps pounded toward me and I trembled, inching back into a corner. They came closer, stopping near me. I couldn't see anything but I could hear his heavy breathing. The footsteps came closer and I was yanked to my feet.

"Please," I cried. "Please let me go."

A low and throaty laugh answered and I was pulled roughly toward him.

"Shut the fuck up or I'll bury you," he snarled.

I waited on shaky legs as he held my wrist together and pulled my chains from the wall. He spun me away from him, and I felt the heavy fabric go over my eyes before being pushed forward. I stumbled on my bare feet on the rough, stone floor. I cried quietly as I climbed the stairs into the unknown.

It was warmer when I was pushed to the floor. The air was humid and nothing like the cool, crisp air at the lake house. Every forced step I took, the sinking feeling grew in my stomach. I was ready to throw up by the time we came to a stop. Whatever was going to happen, I just wanted it to happen soon. I had been fighting too long and I was exhausted.

"This her?" someone asked.

"This is the one," the guy pushing me around answered.

"Hot little thing," the other guy said, causing a shiver to crawl across my skin. "Do we get a taste?"

A finger trailed down my arm and across my stomach. I was still in Atlas's shirt which meant I wasn't very decent, but at least I wasn't naked.

"Fuck no," the other guy said, pulling me back roughly. "The boss said don't touch. He has plans for this one."

"Shit. I don't want to know what those are."

Neither did I. My mind was spinning, wondering who the boss could be. I just knew in my bones it wasn't Atlas. I was far away from Atlas and his lake house. I doubted I was even near Chicago anymore.

"Hose her down and take her up."

With that, I was shoved forward into another man's hands. He took my chains and pushed me down to the floor.

"Crawl," he growled down to me.

I held myself up on my hands and knees, unwilling to move.

"Move bitch." Then a heavy boot kicked me in the back, forcing me to move.

My knees hurt on the hard surface and the metal cuffs cut into the soft skin of my wrists. I almost hoped they would cut me and I could bleed out. That would be a better fate than the one I was crawling to, I was sure.

"Stand," he ordered while pulling my chains.

I listened as they were hooked somewhere and his heavy footsteps led away from me. I started to run, but was pulled back by the chains. Screams ripped from my throat when a cold burst of water hit me. I was actually being hosed off like an animal. Water filled my open mouth, and I choked until the water finally shut off. I was left freezing and shivering.

Other footsteps sounded and I knew we weren't alone. I could feel the eyes on me. I could only imagined what I looked like, soaked and dressed only in a large, white shirt. My skin was crawling as I waited for what would happen next.

"Is she hurt?" a deep voice asked.

"Not severely. Some bruising and scrapes. She will heal fine," another voice answered.

"I told you not to hurt her."

"She was bruised before we got her here."

Silence hung in the air and I wanted to laugh. Atlas left his mark on me and it ruined me. It saved me.

"Let her dry. She will ship out soon."

The footsteps faded as they walked away, leaving me to dry like laundry on the line. I was treated like an object, a prisoner, a product. My mind raced with the possibilities. I remembered the story about the girl my brother loved. The secret dealings in selling woman in the family. It all clicked. I was meeting the ending I always should have. I was a victim of the very thing I was used to fight against. Life was ironic and cruel.

Was this the real end for me? I would have rather been shot in the head than sold off to a life of slavery and violence. Atlas promised me that they would torture me and make me suffer. Being his captive was much better than what was waiting for me now. The tightness in my chest grew as reality crashed down around me.

I didn't know how long I had waited before I was gathered and forced to crawl again. Every time I stopped moving, a kick came to my ribs or back.

"You're not supposed to hurt me," I cried, pain radiating through my chest.

"Doesn't matter anymore," he answered. Grabbing a fistful of my hair, he pulled my head back. "Speak again and I will cut your tongue out."

Something told me he meant it. His voice rang of true evil. A killer with no remorse or empathy. There was a chill that men like him gave me. It was sad that I had been around enough to know. By now, it was too late to protect myself. I was a statistic. One of the victims my father fought to protect and find justice for.

We reached a set of stairs and I was pulled to my feet by my hair. Every step felt like defeat. When I felt I had landed on level ground, I made a run for it. I gritted my teeth as I felt my hair ripping from my scalp. The guy yelled but I ducked and moved as quickly as I could. I fell, scraping my knees, but scrambled back up.

"Fucking bitch," the guy cursed behind me.

My chains stopped me, pulling me back so I fell on my ass. Pain shot up my spine and my head smacked the floor. I felt the man stepping over me, lingering and laughing at me.

"I really wish I could kill you for that," he said, spitting on me.

He didn't even bother getting me back up. He grabbed my ankles and pulled me the rest of the way. The floor scraped and cut my back and I screamed the short distance until he let me go.

"Just kill me," I hissed from the floor.

"I wish I could," he said. "But you have something far worse waiting for you."

He secured my chains and walked away, his steps echoing in my prison.

"Atlas should have killed you when he was supposed to."

The metal door clanked shut and my tears fell freely, soaking the blindfold. I listened as his steps faded away. When he was gone, I heard similar sounds to my own cries. I was surrounded by them. The sniffles and quietly prayers were whispered all around me. I realized I was not alone.

I sat up, feeling around and ripping the blindfold from my face. I couldn't see anything, but I heard them. I could feel the fear and sorrow everywhere, suffocating me. I crawled around, reaching out, hoping to find something or someone.

"Hello?" I called out.

"Shh," another voice hissed. "They will hear you."

"Who are you?" I whispered.

"I am no one," she answered. "Now shut up before you get us killed. Or worse."

I snapped my mouth shut. I could only imagine what could be worse than getting killed. I leaned my head back against the stone wall. I wished I was still at the lake house. I regretted ever doubting Atlas. Although I didn't think he had always intended to keep me safe, he would have never allowed this to happen to me.

I faded in and out of sleep, listening to the other cries for help and whimpers of fear. There was no light and no hope. My stomach hurt with hunger and my throat burned with thirst. I had no idea how much time had passed. In this darkness, I only wished for the end. Atlas was right. I once wanted to live. I fought for it and I would have killed for it. None of that would end up mattering in the end.

XXVIII

Atlas

A full day went by without sign of her. My frustration and anger grew with every passing hour. Stella was smart, but I wasn't sure if she was smart enough to hide from me forever. My anger and hate for her festered. The things I would do to her when I found her couldn't even be described.

Sal and Tony watched the apartment in San Francisco she thought she would move to, but she didn't go there. Her friend Liddy seemed to have vanished with news reports filling the airwaves looking for her. Amazing what a difference having a family makes. Someone was looking for her. No one, but me, looked for Stella.

After searching the remains of her home that burned to the ground, I walked into the lake house. I smelled like smoke and was covered in ash. No bodies were found inside. The official reports said the house was empty but I had to know for myself. I only trusted myself and a few other men to give me accurate information.

When I shut the front door behind me, I felt something was wrong. My instincts told me something was off and I wasn't alone. Grabbing my gun from my holster, I quietly stalked down the hall. The light in the living room was on, confirming my suspicion. I pulled my weapon close and disarmed the safety, ready for whatever waited in that room.

I stepped into the living room, every muscle tense and alert. Quickly scanning the room, I found two glasses of whiskey on the bar. Frost still coated the outside of the glass. As I stared in confusion and shock, I let my guard down. A crack sounded as pain split across my face starting at my nose. My vision went dark just long enough for my gun to be kicked from my hand.

I stumbled back but righted myself quickly. Opening my eyes, I saw something I never thought I would ever see again. My own gun pointed at my face, ready to fire. My vision was spotted from the break in my nose but I knew who held it.

"You sorry mother fucker," he growled. "You made me one fucking promise and you couldn't even keep it."

"Ace?" I whispered.

There he stood, well and very alive. Very angry. The vein in his neck was throbbing as his finger twitched on the trigger. His blue eyes, much like his sister's, were clouded over in a murderous rage.

"I thought you were dead," I offered lamely. I honestly didn't have a back-up plan for resurrections.

"Yes. More than we could say for Stella," he hissed.

"I didn't," I said, raising my hands in defense. "I didn't hurt her."

"No. You didn't save her."

I couldn't speak. I couldn't fight. My best friend and partner stood before me in the flesh. Someone I thought was dead and gone forever. I mourned his death. I fought for his revenge and honored him.

"She ran," I said, anger coming back to me when I remembered the girl I tried to save.

"Did she really?" Ace asked, coming closer with the gun. "You just can't possibly fathom that you failed, can you?"

My own anger started to rise. He made me think he was dead. He thrusted the burden of keeping his stubborn sister alive. Best friend or not, I was fucking livid.

"What the fuck are you talking about?"

"Imagine my surprise," he started, lifting a glass to his lips and taking a sip. "I'm watching your dear old dad's place and I see a very familiar girl passing through."

My stomach sank.

"She has black, short hair but I would know her from miles away."

Silence hung over our heads while I tried to catch up. Stella was in my bedroom and then she was gone. This place was locked up, but I had let my guard down. All this time, I thought she had played me.

"You were supposed to protect her," Ace roared, coming at me with his fists again.

I let him hit me because I deserved it.

"I asked you to keep her alive, not fuck her and then let her end up in their hands you sick son of a bitch."

I swung back out of instinct and he fell off me. A smirk grew on his face as we stared at each other panting.

"She's in Miami?" I asked. My voice was hollow as I tried to gather my thoughts.

"Yeah," he said sadly. "They have her and her friend Liddy there."

"You didn't get her out?" I asked, glaring at him.

"Oh yeah. I just went in there alone against thirty or so armed guards. No big deal."

I sighed and rubbed my face, forgetting that he pounded into it. I pulled my hands away finding blood in them. I deserved it and more.

"You promised," he whispered. The words were heavy and hung in the air.

"I thought she ran," I told him.

"She was taken," he said. "How the fuck was she alone that someone could get her?"

I couldn't answer. I didn't have one good enough.

"You should have kept your dick out of it," he growled, pointing the gun at me again.

"Are you going to kill me or what?" I asked.

"We are going to get her back and then I will deal with you. Xander is watching the place so I know she’s still there," he said.

"Xander? He knows you’re still alive?"

"Yeah," he said with a bitter laugh. "I sent him up here to check on you. I was shocked to hear you had a pretty girl on your arm."

"I was trying to protect her," I explained.

"Why?" he asked. "Because you are a man of your word or because she deserved to live?"

"Both."

Ace sighed and slid the glass of whisky to me. I took it and quickly downed it, needing something to numb the turmoil I was feeling. Knowing Stella hadn't run from me redirected some of my anger. Now I was just furious she was taken.

"Well, let’s go," I said, starting to stand.

"Not so fast," Ace said. "I'm waiting for backup."

"You want me to wait?"

Ace stood, coming to his full height and strength. I stood too, ready to defend myself now that I had something to fight for. I saw the anger and darkness in him, too. Blood would be spilled for every second Stella suffered. I knew then we would save her. The only question was how much would we lose doing it?

"Yes. While you were busy shacking up with my baby sister, I was making connections and getting men on our side," he said, coming to stand chest to chest with me. "We will get her back, and we are taking them down for good."

He was talking about my dad. The man who brought me into this world and taught me everything I knew. We would need to kill him and most of the leaders in the family. I was next in line and would rule the criminal underworld of Chicago. It was a day we had dreamed of, but I honestly thought would never happen.

"You ready for that brother?" Ace asked me. His look was challenging but trusting.

"Ready."

The next few hours went by fast. Sal and Tony showed and were more than ready to join the fight. We pulled every connection we had to get more men on our side. The lake house soon filled with criminals and ready to fight. Xander waited in Miami, watching my dad's compound for any sign of Stella. Weapons were loaded and packed up. Plans and back-up plans were made.

In the cellar, I pulled the bottle my father sent back as a gift. At the time, I didn't trust it. I sure as hell didn't now. I grabbed the bottle and shoved it in my bag. When I turned, Ace stood there watching me.

"Ready?" I asked, trying to push past him.

"Are you?"

"I will keep my promise, Ace. No matter what," I said.

After several tense seconds, Ace nodded and followed me up the steps. The boss had all his people close so no one would see the flock of armed men leaving my little lake house and boarding my private jet. He might suspect I would come looking for him, but he would never imagine how many I managed to turn against him or how quickly we could form a small army against him.

As much as Ace's death had torn things apart, it was a genius idea. With the invisibility of death, Ace was able to move without being watched. He found members spread across the country and revealed the dark secret only the top people knew about. Even if they were not against the selling of innocent women, they were pissed about being cut out of the profits. Ace had collected a lot of important resources that my father could never defeat.

The darkness concealed our convoy leaving the airport in Miami. We parked at a nearby pier and walked the rest of the way to the beach house so we wouldn't be seen by the guards. The sun was rising on the ocean's horizon while we hunkered behind the sand banks. The house looked still and almost relaxing if a person didn't know any better. Only we knew of the dungeon full of girls that hid under the house. Every man going in knew Stella's face and her safety was key. My fingers stretched and clenched around my gun.

"Atlas?"

I turned to look at Ace from where he kneeled, watching the house.

"I know you let her in," he said. "Get her back and keep her."

"I will," I promised. "And I'm giving her her brother back."

After that, the signal was made and I snuck down the sand hill. Approaching the house, I found one guard. He didn't even see me coming before I took him from behind and slit his throat. The limp body fell to the ground and I stepped over it. The next two were just as easy before I reached the window. I waved to my men watching before slipping inside.

The house was small compared to my dad's normal mansions. I tiptoed down the halls until I heard his voice. It was deep and it used to sound powerful and controlled to me. Now it just sounded sick and evil. Father was a word reserved for men like Officer Harlow. Men who loved and protected their children. Men who taught them to fight and to know right from wrong. This piece of shit was nothing but a sperm donor who knocked up a beautiful woman. He only took that spawn she created to be his assistant and help spread his evil.

As I stepped into the kitchen, he sat by himself. The man we all feared and respected was clipping his fingernails in his last moments of life. His eyes widened when he saw me and he reached for his gun. Only I was faster and had the barrel to his temple already.

"Atlas," he hissed.

"Pops," I said with a smirk. "I thought I would drop by for a visit."

His wide eyes and loud swallow told me he knew I wasn't here for a chat. Most parents would be thrilled to see their only child at their doorstep just to see them. My father knew better. He knew that I was here for one reason.

"I brought whiskey," I said, holding up the bottle.

I grabbed two glasses from the cabinet and slammed them down on the table. Using my knife, I cut the wax seal and was met with the hiss of air. I smirked at my old man as I poured two glasses and pushed one over to him.

"Should we make a toast?" I asked, taking a seat across from him. The shocked look on his face brought me great pleasure.

"To what?" he asked cautiously.

"To new leadership. New beginnings."

XXIX

Stella

At some point, I stopped worrying about what would happen to me. I wasn’t really sure when that had happened, but I knew that it did. Now, when I heard the cries and someone praying to live, I hoped they would. I wanted them free more than anything. More than I wanted my own freedom. These other women were someone's daughters, or wives, or even mothers.

I was no one. I was an orphan old enough to take care of myself. I was a number and name in a database no one looked at. I used to be a daughter and sister. I would never be a wife or mother. No one missed me and I felt lucky for that. When I heard the girl crying on the other side of the wall, my heart broke for her family because she couldn’t be any older than me. Someone missed her and was worried sick over her disappearance.

Without light, we didn't know how long we'd been held. Atlas would know I was missing by now, but I wasn’t sure he cared. He could have allowed this to happen from the beginning. Maybe he used me to find my brother's killer, then sold me off to the highest bidder. Was all that shit about trying to find my brother's lover a ploy to earn my trust? In this dark and damp place, I trusted no one.

"Hey," I whispered when the crying next door didn't stop. "You're going to get yourself killed."

She sniffled and tried to stop. I hoped she could because the weakest were always dragged upstairs. As much as these dark cells sucked, I was sure upstairs was not any better. Those girls never returned. Maybe they didn't know what I knew. They didn't know those girls were killed or sold off to a worse future.

"I want to go home," the girl next door cried.

"I know," I said, trying to sound calm and soothing. "But you need to be quiet. They’re punishing the ones that are loud."

She was quiet enough that I could hear the thuds upstairs. I could hear muffled voices and footsteps above my head. I was scared for the rest of us. The sound of footsteps came, making the dread grow. It was never me, but one of the others. That was worse for me. When my door opened and the dark shadow came for me, I felt relief.

I was pulled up and unchained from the wall. It was me this time and not one of the others. I went without fight as some sick man pushed me up the steps. They didn't even bother to blindfold me, so I knew this would be bad.

Bright sunlight met me when the door opened. I squinted and was momentarily blinded. I was used to darkness. I was pushed forward and my feet blindly carried me. I was ready for the end. I wasn't ready for what I would actually walk in to.

"There she is," a deep voice announced. It was familiar and set every nerve on end. I heard the voice my first day here. He rang with power and force, much like another monster I knew. My memory flashed to when I was first in Atlas’s basement. This was the same deep voice that ordered Atlas to kill me.

"She's sold of course," he continued. "Shipping to Spain in the morning."

"Is that so?" another voice asked, causing my head to rise.

Atlas.

He sat with an older man who looked much like him. He was leaning back in the chair like he didn't have a care in the world. Was it so easy to see me, still in his shirt and ready to be sent to the highest bidder? His dark eyes roamed my body, taking in the blood and bruises I endured both here and with him.

"How much?" he asked and I shivered at hearing his voice again.

"Too much for you," the man answered. "You already had it. For free."

Atlas's hands clenched and I recognized the anger in that move. He was pissed. I looked between the two men. I noted the way their noses bent, although Atlas's was bruised. This man had to be his father, their looks and mean glares were too similar for them to not to be related.

"And you took her," Atlas said. "I wasn't finished with her yet."

"You were supposed to kill her," his dad said, slamming his fist down on the table. I flinched but Atlas stayed still.

"I thought I would make her suffer a little longer. She's a fighter, but I like it when they scream," he said, a sick grin taking over his face and my stomach rolled. I thought he kept me around because he didn't want to kill me. He was only keeping me so he could fuck me?

"You lied to me," his dad said, standing and coming for me.

I trembled and watched his boots come closer. No one would save me and I knew it.

"It didn't matter," Atlas said. "She was gone."

The man came to stand next to me and roughly shoved me down to my knees. I hissed but stopped myself from crying. That would only make them hurt me more. I didn't know how long I had been here, but long enough to learn that.

"And now she will really be gone. Her buyer doesn't keep them around for too long before he breaks them in half."

I fell forward, gagging and crying. This was really happening. The man who dragged me up here kicked me in the back so I would shut up while his boss laughed manically.

"Touch her again and I will kill you."

My head shot up at the threatening voice. The familiarity tugged deep in my heart and I was sure I was hallucinating. The tears cleared and I was finally able to focus on the newcomer.

"Ace?" I whispered.

"Hang in there," he said only to me.

His gun was pointed at Atlas's dad while time seemed to have stopped. I briefly wondered if I was going into shock, or maybe I was already dead. I glanced around, half expecting my parents to come out as well.

"Mr. Harlow. It's good to see you alive, son." I could tell in the tightness of his voice, he was in fact not happy.

"I'm sure, Mr. Omega. I see you met my baby sister."

"Let's cut the bullshit," Atlas interrupted. "We are taking the girl and any others you have. You're done here."

His dad laughed and my skin scrawled with the sound. It was hollow and haunting.

"You aren't leaving here alive," he told them. "And neither is your little plaything anymore. Kill her."

I looked up into Atlas's eyes as the other man stepped forward. Most of the time, Atlas was locked away inside. The only thing I ever saw when I looked in his eyes were lust and anger. For the first time, I saw fear and panic. I felt the cold metal at the back of my head as the boss stepped away to avoid the blood spray. My eyes closed. I couldn't see the only people I had left as they witnessed the very thing they'd fought so hard to avoid.

A gun shot rang out and I fell to the hard floor. When I heard another shot, my eyes flew open. The first thing I saw was blood, but it wasn't mine. The red pool was coming from the guard who was supposed to have killed me. As I scrambled back, I saw Ace holding his bleeding hand. Atlas was on his back while his dad pinned him down with a gun to his chest.

"I will kill you myself, Atlas."

"No you won't because I will kill you first."

His dad laughed again before looking back at Ace in warning.

"Anyone moves and I will pull this trigger."

We were at a standstill. The atmosphere with thick with humidity, tension, and death. I could smell the blood I was covered in. Closing my eyes, I fought to calm my breathing. Now was not the time to slip into the past and lose it. Ace was bleeding, Atlas was unarmed and it seemed no one would leave this room alive.

Fighting back the panic, I spotted the gun covered in blood. I could probably reach it if I was quick enough. If I wasn't fast enough, he could shoot Atlas. I glanced up at my brother and he shook his head once. His eyes said 'don't fucking move'.

"Your men are all dead," Ace said. "No is coming to help you and we aren't leaving without Stella. Make this easy for yourself. Get up and walk away."

"And what the fuck will you do about it?"

"I will kill you," my voice cut through the silence.

I slowly pushed myself up to stand, keeping the gun aimed right at the man who had caused this shit storm. His eyes danced in amusement and my blood boiled.

"You don't think I will do it?" I asked, feeling patronized. I was sick of feeling weak and victimized.

"I know you won't," he said, sounding fully convinced. "You want a man's death on your conscious? You want that to haunt you?"

"This is all your fault," I said. I didn't know who I was trying to convince more, myself or Mr. Omega. "All this time, I blamed Atlas for ripping apart my family and my life. But it's you that I should hate."

"Stella, run," Atlas hissed at me. I ignored him, knowing if I looked at him I would obey. I always gave in to him.

"Who do you think brought your brother into a life of crime? I wasn't the one who tied you up and kept you locked away, using you for your pussy."

Ace started to move and Atlas got in a punch to his dad's face before the butt of the gun hit his face. When the barrel pressed to Atlas's temple, everyone froze again. Ace looked livid and Atlas spat blood.

"Run, Stella," my brother ordered, still glaring at his former boss who currently held Atlas down.

"I can't," I whispered.

"Stella," Atlas barked. "You don't want to be like us. Run while you can and never look back. Don't be a monster."

Would that make me a monster? I wished my dad was here. He would save me or know what I should do. I remembered the day he told me sometimes good people had to do bad things to save the ones they loved. I even told Atlas that once. I'd seen him kill two men for me even if he said it was for his own benefit.

I looked behind me and saw the open doorway. I could run fast. I would be free forever. My hands shook as I lowered the gun just a little bit before one last bang echoed in the room.

XXX

Atlas

I closed my eyes and waited for the pain. There was a part of me that knew I would never leave this house alive. It was sickly ironic that the same man who brought me into this world would be the one to take me from it. My chest felt heavy. Was this that feeling of loss and devastation I thought I would never feel again?

The ringing in my ears faded and gave way to crying. Sweet and soft crying. Slowly, my senses came back, and I could smell the blood and smoke. My eyes shot open and I saw my father's lifeless eyes looking back at me.

"Stella," I heard Ace grunt.

I shoved the body off my chest and rolled over, my head throbbing from the blows I had taken. Ace pulled himself over to the small girl on the floor. A loud thud came when she dropped the gun to the floor and scrambled away from it and her brother.

She killed him.

"Stella," I called to her, but she didn't seem to hear me or Ace.

I never wanted her to have to do that. She was a good person and had a respect for life that I was never taught. This would eat her alive.

"Little Star," I said gently. Her big, blue eyes snapped to mine. "There you are."

Stella seemed to come back to us, looking around quickly before struggling to stand. Ace was there to pull her up in a second. His large arms wrapped around her small frame so tightly I thought he might break her. Stella pulled back and looked up at the brother who she had thought was dead. Her hand came to his face and the smack echoed in the room.

"Shit!" Ace cursed, holding his cheek.

"I thought you were dead!" she shouted, smacking him repeatedly. "You left me all alone! I needed you!"

I wrapped my arms around her waist and pulled her back.

"Easy, Little Star," I said in her ear. "He's already bleeding."

Stella turned on me, punching and hitting my chest. I let her until she collapsed in my arms and I held her up. Her body shook with sobs as I carried her out of the room. Outside, I set her down in the sand and let her cry. Ace came out shortly after, sitting down with his hand wrapped up in a towel.

"How bad?" I asked him.

"Grazed. Need stitches but I have all my fingers."

We sat silently in our guilt and remorse as Stella let out all the pain and fear we both put her through the past several months. We both had a choice to do the right thing. I wasn’t sure how I would have done things differently, but I wished I would have. Anything so Stella wouldn’t be falling apart in my arms over what she had had to do.

We had forced her to make an impossible choice. It was just as hard as the choice for Ace to stay or save the women he knew would die. It was harder than my choice to keep her safe instead of killing her. She could have run. I saw her look back and thought she would. I had hoped she would.

I don't know how long we sat on the beach before Stella went silent in my arms. Her breathing evened out and the shaking finally subsided. I knew Xander and my men were close by, waiting for my signal.

"Are you okay?" I asked her quietly.

"Not yet," she answered, pulling away from me. I felt cold without her in my arms.

"Stella," I started but she cut me off.

"We have to save them," she said. "The girls."

"We will," I promised. "Let me see you."

I helped her stand and looked over her body carefully. She was dressed in my shirt and I gritted my teeth knowing she was taken right after our night in my bedroom.

"I thought you ran," I said in her ear as I circled around her, looking her over for injuries. She was covered in bruises and blood. I wished she hadn’t killed my father because I would do it over again if I could.

"I thought you gave me up," she confessed.

I grabbed her cheeks and forced her to look at me. "Never."

Ace stood up behind her and shot me a glare before rubbing at some dry blood on her hands. It wasn't hers.

"I thought you were safe," he told her.

"I hate you for putting me thought that right now. I hate myself." She turned and walked to the water, wading in and using the salt water to wash it all away.

Neither one of us had anything to say to make it any better. We both put her through a war she didn't start. She fought and killed for a cause she never had a part in. The blood on her hands might wash away in her eyes but never in her heart.

"Hey guys," Xander called from behind us, approaching cautiously. "Can we wrap this up and get the fuck out of here?"

"Yeah. Go inside," I ordered and turned back for Stella.

"There are girls locked up in the basement," she told us and she joined us in a wet, white shirt. I quickly tore mine off and pulled it over her head.

"Take her to the trucks," I told Ace.

"I don't think so," Stella said, pushing off his hands. "I think I deserve to see those girls brought up alive."

I looked at Ace and dared him to argue with that. I was willing to give her anything she asked for. He looked like he might fight her, but relented and headed inside the house. I followed slowly behind him and my hate only grew with every step. Once I was in the basement, I wished I had been the one to kill my father. He deserved a slow and painful death.

The guys wore masks as they broke locks and pulled young women from the cells. Some went willingly, weak and defeated. Others fought back, not believing we were here to save them. Ace worked his way through every cell and checked each woman's face. He was looking for her. Looking around, I almost hoped she wasn't here.

"Hey," Stella told one of the women who was fighting Xander, "we are helping you."

The woman froze and struggled to push her wild hair out of her face. Stella reached forward and pushed her hair back, looking in her face.

"Liddy?" she whispered. "Oh my God."

Liddy threw her arms around Stella. The two girls held each other tightly while the chaos of getting the women out ensued around them. Their bodies shook with their cries but they didn't let go of each other. Stella rubbed her friend's back and whispered quietly in her ear. When the basement was finally empty, I touched Stella's shoulder.

"We need to leave," I told her.

She nodded and helped Liddy to her feet. When she almost fell over, Ace came up and lifted Liddy in his arms. We climbed the stairs and I looked back at my father's body before leaving the house. Outside, Xander was loading the women in cars and trucks.

"They are coming with us," I told him, indicating Stella and Liddy.

He nodded and signaled the guys to leave. Xander had a house ready for them to get cleaned up and ready to be set free. While planning, I didn't really think I would find anyone else other than Stella, but wanted to be prepared. We had enough men on our side to make sure those girls were taken care of.

In the van, I buckled the girls in the back seat. When we arrived at the airport, my plane was waiting as promised along with an ambulance I had on payroll. Ace got stitches on his hand while the girls were checked out. Stella wouldn't leave Liddy's side as a nurse fussed over them. I leaned against the truck watching a woman carefully check Stella for injuries.

"She's in good shape considering what she went through," the doctor told me. "Dehydrated and some bruising, but nothing too serious."

"And the other one?" I asked. I wasn't sure I wanted to know because I was ready to kill someone already seeing them hurt.

"She wasn't so lucky," he said with a sad voice.

We were loaded on the private plane where the girls passed out quickly. I sat in my seat and gripped my glass of whiskey so hard I thought it might shatter. I couldn't even go to Stella because I was afraid I would hurt her in my rage. I itched to break something. The blood shed today wasn't nearly enough.

"I didn't find her," Ace whispered with a raspy voice. "All of this, and I didn't get her back."

"We saved some," I told him. "It's not over."

Ace looked back at this sister and then to me. "She should hate me."

"She should hate us both."

XXXI

Stella

Death was a bitch. I was shaped by it, changed from it, and sick of it. I watched too many die and one at my own hands. It was something I could never forget. The way the gun kicked in my hands and the way his body fell limp was engraved in my mind. It would join my nightmares.

I stared at myself in the mirror and didn't recognize the girl looking back at me. Her hair was changed, her face was thin and pale, and her eyes were dull. A part of me died in Miami. I didn't know if I could ever get her back. Maybe she was with the old Liddy.

My best friend lost herself. It was days before I could coax her to eat or drink. It was even longer to get her to talk to me. When she finally spoke, I wished I had never asked. I was saved just in time. I didn't think I could have survived what Liddy had gone through. When I thought about what they had done to her, I felt a little less guilty for pulling the trigger.

Liddy called her parents and made up some excuse about taking a last minute vacation with a boy. She wasn't ready to face them and she didn't want to talk to police. The other women were returned to their homes and some even spoke to the police. I didn't know what Atlas did to keep them from telling them who was to credit for their escape.

There was a certain emptiness I felt. For so long, my life had become fear and hiding. Every moment, I was waiting for the past to catch up to me. Even when Atlas found me, I was fearing what would come for us. Now, it was all over. My parents were forever gone but I still had my brother. No one would ever come for me again. I wasn't sure what do with myself anymore.

"Stella, you need to talk to me eventually," my brother said from the bathroom doorway.

"That may be true, but it doesn't mean it needs to be right now," I said, pushing past him and into the bedroom.

I was still at the lake house in the bedroom I had come to think of as mine. The four walls that were once my prison were now my safety. Not even Atlas dared to enter them. The first night back here, I waited all night for him to come in like he used to, but he never did. Was he giving me space or did he not want to see me?

I was the girl who killed his father. It was my bullet that left a dead body on his chest and covered him in blood. They told me to run but I couldn't. I was too weak to run anymore.

"Do you have any idea what you put me through?" I asked, spinning to face Ace. "I needed you. I stood at our parents' funeral, alone!" I was screaming now but I didn't care. "I was scared, sad and I needed someone. You left me behind!"

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I watched you. I sent Atlas for you. I thought you were safe."

"But I was hurting." The tears followed my last word.

Ace's arms wrapped around me and I melted into him. It had been too long since I had seen him. When we were younger, his hugs were rare but priceless if I could sneak one out of him.

"He's worried about you," Ace said in my hair.

"He has a funny way of showing it," I said, unable to mask the bitterness in my voice.

Atlas hadn't spoken to me since we returned to the lake house. He returned to the city the next morning for a few days and had avoided me since then. He didn't come to me at night like he used to. I didn't know what I had expected exactly, but the coldness wasn't it.

"He's just pissed and I think he's scared he will snap if he sees you."

"Because I killed his dad."

"No," Ace said quickly, grabbing my face to keep my attention. "For making you kill him. For putting you through that and what they did to you. That's all our fault."

"I don't blame either of you," I said.

"You should have run," he whispered, his blue eyes glistening.

"Dad would have stayed and fought."

Ace nodded, knowing I was right. I couldn't walk away knowing they were in danger. Before that day, I thought Ace was the only child to inherit Dad's courage and morals, but maybe we both did. Maybe I wasn't as weak and scared as I thought I was. As much as what I had done sickened me and would haunt me, I didn't see how this could have ended any other way.

"I love you, Stella," he said and my heart broke at the words.

It had been too long since I had heard those words and my anger melted. I threw my arms around him and held my brother like he had come back from the dead, since he had. He squeezed me and I let go all the tears I had held in since we had returned to the lake house. A throat cleared in the doorway and we broke apart.

"Atlas," I whispered.

Atlas stood in the doorway looking as dangerous as he was. He cooly watched our exchange like he wasn't making my heart race just by being near. Ace gave me a squeeze and left us alone in my room, giving a slight nod to Atlas as he passed.

"Stella. Are you okay?"

"You ask me now? Days later?" I asked, frustrated with how distant and cold he was.

"I had some things to take care of in the city," he answered evenly. He was too calm and collected.

"I'm fine," I told him with a heavy sigh. "I'm sorry."

"Don't you dare," he said, coming forward to grab my face. "Don't fucking apologize to me."

"I killed him," I whispered, my heart breaking with the admission.

"I'm sorry," he said, his voice cracking. "I never wanted you to have to do that."

His hands dropped from my face and he took a step back, giving us space. I didn't like it. I wanted him close. I wanted him to touch me, wrap me up and tell me nothing would ever hurt me again. Instead, he moved across the room as if he couldn't get far enough.

"In the hallway is a bag," he told me. "It's yours. Inside, you will find your keys to your apartment in San Francisco and everything you need to get on with your life."

"Get on with my life? What are you saying to me right now?"

Atlas rubbed his face roughly before looking me right in the eyes. The coldness made my stomach sink with dread.

"I took you from a new start. I kept my promise and kept you safe. No one will hurt you ever again."

"So, that's it? I just pretend none of this happened?"

"Exactly. You can never speak of anything you heard or saw here. Ever."

"You mean how I killed the leader of the most powerful mob family in Chicago? How we shot a man in the head as revenge for killing my family? What about the man killed for trying to rape me?"

Atlas crossed the room with a quickness of a predator. Large hands grabbed my throat and pinned me to the wall. The thrill of having his hands around my throat again heated my body.

"Never," he growled. "You are safe if you keep your mouth shut."

I nodded and stared back into his eyes. They went dark as he looked at my lips. I thought he would kiss me but he dropped me, pushing away from me.

"You need to leave. Go to California and go to school. It's paid for and you will be safe."

"You want me to leave?"

"That was always the plan, Stella," he said, his voice dripping with resignation. "I kept you safe, even if that meant killing you before my family got to you. It's over now and you have no reason to hide anymore."

My chest hurt thinking about leaving. This house was once a prison. Then it became a place of my own. I felt safe here. I was being thrusted back into the real world. A scary and vast place that I hadn't been a part of since my parents had left it.

"I don't want to leave," I bravely told him.

"Stella. Go. Take Liddy and start over."

Start over? He said it like it was so easy to leave everything behind. My childhood home was gone. My parents were gone. Ace would continue to look for his missing girl. I thought I had actually found something to fill that void, but he was pushing me away.

"There's money and everything is ready for you both. She will need you. This is the life you were meant for before I pulled you into a battle you had no business fighting."

"Sure," I finally said resignedly. "I will leave in the morning."

Atlas slowly came back to me where I stayed leaning against the wall. His hand gripped my chin lightly and tilted my face to his. I could smell his minty breath as he closed the small space between our lips. Our mouths connected and my body instantly reacted. My skin heated and my fingers clung to his jacket. I wanted to crawl inside of him.

Atlas's restraint broke and bit my bottom lip as he sucked it into his mouth. I could taste the cooper of my blood but it didn't scare me. It made my hungry for more. I pressed harder to him, wanting the pain and possession he would give me. But it never came. He pulled away just as quickly as he gave it and left me gasping against the wall.

"There will be a car ready for you both," he told me before walking out of the room.

As always, Atlas had kept his promise. I found my two-bedroom apartment just as I had expected. The bag was filled with money, and my wallet and keys. The book of boudoir photographs that we had once looked at together was also in my bag.

XXXII

Stella

San Francisco was nothing like I thought it would be. When I signed my lease, I thought I would live alone, in fear and paranoia. But here I was with a roommate, eating ice cream on the couch and watching Grey's Anatomy. I was okay.

"This can't be good for us," Liddy said, hitting pause. "We are in our twenties, hot and single. We should be out partying and shit."

"Last time you said that, I ended up tied up," I blurted.

Liddy knew everything that had happened since the last time I had seen her at the club. After a night of too much wine, I had told her everything. I watched as her face went from shock to horror to sadness. It was therapeutic to finally have someone know the truth and all the secrets I had been carrying.

"I need out," she said, standing and taking the blanket with her. I grabbed the carton of ice cream before it hit the floor.

"Liddy, I don't know," I said. I was scared and not too sure I was ready for that yet.

"Stella, it can't be healthy for us to stay locked up like this. Neither of us leave unless we need to. I can't stay locked up with my thoughts like this anymore."

I frowned because I was so focused on myself sometimes. I would never forget what Liddy went through. I was in the cell next to her but was lucky to never have endured the hell that she had. I listened to her any time she needed to cry or talk about it. Sometimes, I was so lost in my own feelings that I didn't consider Liddy's.

"You're right," I agreed. "Let’s go."

"Fucking A," she said, jumping up.

While we got ready like normal women in their twenties, a feeling of normalcy filled me. I didn't think I had ever gotten to be a normal girl before. I couldn't continue to be a ghost of who I was anymore. Atlas set me free so I could take the life I was looking for. What I really got was something better. I had looked pure evil in the eye and had survived. I knew without a doubt someone was looking out for me, and I had my brother.

"Ready, babe?" Liddy asked me from the doorway, looking hot in her little black dress.

"Fuck yeah," I said, grabbing my bag and pulling her from our apartment.

Down on the street, we quickly hailed a cab. I could feel how tense Liddy was. This was her first time out, too. I held her hand, wanting to be strong for her. Liddy needed this more than I did. As much as she told me it wasn't true, she got into that mess because of me. They took her looking for me and knowing Atlas would go to her as soon as he found out I was missing.

There was nothing better than being ushered into a club when the line was down the block. Liddy and I linked arms and walked inside calmly even though I knew we both wanted to jump in excitement. Inside, the lights were flashing and everything was neon and glowing. It was dark except for the black lights and glow sticks, lighting up the club enough to be fun and exciting.

We grabbed our glow necklaces and reached the bar, ordering neon-colored drinks. Liddy smiled widely at me, but it looked forced. Liddy had been more withdrawn since we had moved out here. I knew she had gone through something terrible and I didn't know how to help her. She downed her drink and quickly ordered us another one.

"Let's dance," I shouted to her over the music.

I didn't even let her try to back out. I grabbed her hand and dragged her into the middle of half-naked bodies grinding on each other. I pushed away the memory of how similar this was to several months ago. The roles were reversed with Liddy trying to cheer me up. We could pretend to be normal girls in their twenties for one night.

The music took control of our bodies. The club was dark, with only flashes of bright, colored lights darting around the room. I only saw flashes of faces and body parts as the heat consumed me. For a second, I thought I saw the one face that haunted my dreams. When I opened my eyes and looked again, it was gone.

Atlas didn't come to me at night anymore, but that didn't stop me from seeing him in the darkness. As much as I tried to be angry and hate him, I never could. He pushed me away when he was done with me, but it didn't change what had happened between us in that lake house. Atlas may have ruined my life, but he saved it, too. I just didn't know how to feel about either of those things.

Hands touched my sides and wrapped around to my stomach. I started to pull away when one large hand pushed on my chest and pinned me against a hard body. My heart pounded against the stranger's palm as I tried to pull away. He didn't back away, instead moving his hand to wrap around my throat.

I froze as warm fingers rested over my racing pulse. A familiar panic washed over me. In the flashing, I couldn't see Liddy and I knew screaming wouldn't do any good. The only thing that made me more uneasy than the person holding me was how it was making me feel. I warmed with the excitement and thrill that Atlas once gave me.

I tilted my head back and gave the stranger more access to my neck. Making myself vulnerable and exposed as my body melted into the one behind me. My eyes closed and I let myself hold on to this feeling for just another second. It had been too long and I may never have this again.

The hand tightened on my neck, making it impossible to breathe. Finally realizing what I was doing, I roughly pulled out of his arms. I spun around, stumbling into a random dancer and tried to search out the man. All I could make out were flashes on body parts and faces. No one even noticed me while I frantically spun in a circle, seeking him out. A hand rested on my shoulder causing me to jump.

Liddy's wide eyes looked back at me. She nodded her head toward the club entrance, looking ready to bail. I nodded and took her hand. Maybe neither one of us were ready for this tonight. Too many monsters haunted us. Too many memories lurked in the darkness.

"Sorry," Liddy said once outside. "I just couldn't do it."

"I understand." I couldn't either.

Back at the apartment, we locked up and went to bed. Both of us were lost in our own memories and thoughts. I was stupid on the dance floor. Instead of running or protecting myself, I got pleasure out of the threat. Frustrated with myself I tore off my dress and left it on the floor, climbing naked into bed.

My hands coasted down my stomach and between my legs. I felt the wetness that wouldn't go away since I had been touched on that dance floor. I wanted so badly to feel the way he used to make me feel. I missed the control he took while making me feel safe at the same time. I wanted to feel completely owned again.

My hands moved on their own as I closed my eyes. I let myself drift to the past in my mind. I pictured his hands on my body and pinching my nipples. I spread my legs wide, pushing my fingers deep and letting out a long moan. I added a third finger, needing more. I always needed more.

My muscles clenched around my fingers as I pushed them deeper inside. I was so lost, I could almost smell him and feel his body heat. One hand left my nipple and I wrapped it around my neck. With gentle pressure, I felt myself soaking my hand as it thrust into my body. In my mind, Atlas was doing this to me. With an image of his face and body over mine, I was so close.

I bit my lip to keep from being too loud. I fucked myself hard, chasing that release I desperately needed. I was close and my back started to lift from the mattress. The pressure on my neck intensified. In my haze, it took a second to realize another hand covered my own. My scream was cut off with the tight squeeze and my eyes shot open.

Dark eyes glared down at me and I combusted inside. I felt myself milking my fingers as I stared into the face that I saw every night when I closed my eyes. I came silently and breathlessly. Atlas glared down at me with a storm of emotions swirling in his eyes.

"Bad girl," he growled in my ear, using his own body to push me into the mattress. "You aren't supposed to come without me."

"Atlas?" I gasped, fighting for enough air. "Are you really here?"

"I am," he said in my ear, releasing the tight hold on my airway. "I tried to stay away."

"Why?"

"Because I am dangerous to you."

My heart was pounding so loud, I almost couldn't hear him. I couldn't catch my breath with the shock and the orgasm. Atlas lowered his body between my legs that were already spread for him and a calmness settled over me.

"You saved me," I told him.

"And you ruined me," he said as he wrestled off his jacket and pants. "You destroyed me. Broke down my defense and got inside my walls."

He took his belt and quickly wrapped it around my wrists. Pinning them above my head, he stared down at my naked and waiting body like a man starved.

"No matter how fucking hard I try, I can't get you out. You manage to do the one thing that can't be undone. You have to deal with the consequences of that now, Little Star."

"What am I paying for?" I moaned as I felt his skin on mine again.

"Making me fall in love with you," he bit out before pushing into me.

Atlas wasted no time, thrusting into me rough and hard like he was punishing me. He tasted everywhere he could reach without releasing my hands. His sucked and nibbled on my neck, biting my ear. Every second spent apart was turned into the power he displayed on my willing body.

"You wanted it at the club," he hissed. "You were aching for it."

"Yes, I was. I wanted it to be you," I told him as I wrapped my legs around his waist.

"Were you thinking about me when you touched yourself?"

"Yes," I shouted, close to another orgasm. "It's always you. I never stopped thinking about you."

"Fuck," he breathed on my skin. "You wrecked me. I can't leave you."

His words were pushing me higher than his relentless thrusts were. He was deeper inside me than ever before and it wasn't just physically.

"Then don't. Keep me. I love you."

I was cut off by my screams and I clamped down around him. Atlas groaned and pumped into me slowly while I fell apart in his arms. Tears streamed down my face and wave after wave of intensity hit me. I felt him pulsing inside me as I slowly spiraled back down. Our sweating and spent bodies clung to each other.

Atlas slowly rose and pulled out of me. Staring down at my face, he pushed the hair out of my eyes.

"I can't let you go."

"You don't need to. I'm yours to keep."

XXXII

Atlas

I was still awake when the sun came up. After taking Stella hard, I gave it to her slow to make up for the marks she would show in the morning. Even in my frustration, anger, and built up hate, Stella was able to handle me. She could always take me at my worst and was probably the only person that ever could. She finally passed out after we showered and I carried her back to the bed.

I stared up at her ceiling as sunlight stared to fill her room. It was a dark blue with silver balls scattered. The paint was thick and wasn't there when I checked the place before she moved in. I finally realized it was the night sky with the stars. I recognized the pattern of the stars placed in the sky. It was the constellation of Atlas.

"When did you paint that?" I asked her when I felt her waking. She rolled on her back and looked up at the ceiling with me.

"A few nights after we moved in," she said. "This way, you are always watching over me."

"I was always watching over you, Stella," I told her, rolling over to look at her.

"I needed you with me," she whispered.

"I thought you were safer away from me. Everything you went through was because of me. You've seen too much spilled blood and that's my fault."

"Why did you come back then?"

I sighed and pushed myself up in the bed. Stella looked up at me, waiting for me to explain why I kept hurting her.

"I wanted to leave you alone. I thought I could get rid of you easily and move on with my life. I watched you to make sure you were safe and it killed me not to go to you. I realized I might never be okay with letting you go, but I was going to for your sake. For once, I didn't want my selfish actions to hurt you."

Stella sat up ready to argue and I placed a finger over her lips, silencing her.

"You didn't look happy though. I had this image of you moving out here and becoming someone different, but you still looked lost. Like you were missing something."

"I was."

"I waited for the day you would find it. I told myself that I would walk away then and never look back. But then I saw you and Liddy go to that club. It reminded me of the night I took you. I couldn't help it."

"That was you on the dance floor." It wasn't a question because she knew.

"You didn't react the way you should have. I expected fear or for you to run, reminding me of what I did to you. But you melted into me like you had been waiting for that moment."

"I was. You never hurt me, Atlas. You hurt me when you left me," Stella said.

"I have hurt you, Stella. You are just too strong to see it but I am prepared to make it up to you."

"How?"

"Every tear," I said pulling her face to mine, "I will kiss away." I kissed her cheek and moved to her neck.

"Every bite, I will soothe. Every bruise, I will cover up with pleasure. For every moment you spent alone and hurt, I will make you happy."

I lowered her back to the bed and took her lips. I hoped she believed me, trusted me, and wanted me enough. I took my time with the kiss because for the first time, there wasn't a deadline. The ticking clock that had always hung over my head with her was gone. We weren't going anywhere. I was done being without her. Neither one of us were happy like that. And if you couldn't be happy, what was the point? Why fight a war when you had nothing to fight for?

A bang in the kitchen broke us both apart and Stella jumped from the bed. I grabbed her just before she pulled open her door.

"Stay," I said, pushing her back a few steps.

Silently, I walked down the short hall and heard a scream. I came around the corner quickly to find Liddy with a pan in her hand, looking ready to swing. Ace leaned against the counter with his hands up in surrender.

"What the fuck?" I growled at him. Liddy jumped when she heard my voice.

"I just touched her hand," he explained as he slowly removed the pan from her shaking hands.

"Ace?" Stella asked from behind me. "What are you doing here?"

"Came to check on my girls and to make sure the boss here behaved himself," he said as put the pan on the stove. "By the looks of your hair, he didn't."

Stella blushed and ran her fingers quickly through the mess until Ace swept her up in a tight hug. I stepped aside and joined Liddy in the kitchen.

"So, you're back?" Liddy asked me. "Finally pulled decided to put her out of her misery?"

"I'm not here to hurt her," I snapped.

"I meant by coming back for her," Liddy said, stepping away from my outburst.

"Right. Sorry," I told her. "I came back for you both."

"What?" Stella asked, looking between her brother and me.

"I'm not taking you away. We can go where ever the fuck you want to go," I told her. "You aren't leaving behind your best friend either. I have casinos and homes in almost every major city. Wherever you want. I'm not tying you down."

"But I like the ropes," Stella blurted.

I ignored Ace's glare and rounded the counter, pulling her little body flush against mine. Her eyes widened when I poked her in the stomach with the proof of what her words do to me.

"Don't you worry, Little Star. They will go wherever we go."

The war within the family was far from over. There were still enemies hiding and women missing. In the last month, Ace and I had managed to take down three other holding spots for the girls. Ace hadn't found his girl yet. Every time we would think we were close, he'd come up empty-handed. After everything he had gone through, it couldn't all be for nothing.

Ace grew concerned with his sister and Liddy living alone in San Francisco. Neither one looked happy or well. Stella held her head high, but her eyes were dull like before I took her to the lake house. Liddy wasn't healing or dealing with what had happened to her either. That angered Ace even more, and he fought harder to find every man who was to blame for the way she cried herself to sleep at night. I promised her the best help we could get her. And revenge.

"Anywhere?" Stella asked, her eyes clouded over and barely focused.

"Anywhere. You won't get away from me again."

EPILOGUE

Stella

Six Months Later…

Paris was beautiful in the spring. The fog of the winter had finally lifted. The trees sprouted into full bloom, covering the land in flowers. The air smelled sweet with the cherry blossoms decorating the sky. The warmer air wrapped around me as I stood on our balcony, watching families board their sailboats for the first time this year. It was perfect, calming, and inspiring. I never wanted to leave.

"You ready, Little Star?" Atlas asked.

He came up behind me and wrapped his arms around my stomach gently. The large bump made it hard to fit his thick arms around me. I never thought I could see him as gentle as he was with me in the last few months. Atlas touched me like I might break or he would hurt the tiny life growing inside me.

"I guess so. I hate leaving."

"I know. We will come back, I promise. We need to fly out before you can't do it safely anymore. Liddy and Ace are waiting for us."

I reluctantly came back inside, leaving the beautiful view I had fallen in love with behind. Atlas would keep his promise so it made waking away a little easier. I hoped to love the view at our new lake house just as much.

When Atlas asked where I wanted to go to have our child, the lake house was first place I thought of. But I couldn't go back with all the blood that I knew was on the floors and the pain inside those walls. Atlas built us a new one in the area. I wanted to be close to the city so he could still work, but far enough from the corruption and poison.

I should have been scared to bring a child into this world. I was. I was terrified of what could happen, but that wouldn't stop me from trying to give him or her the best life ever. Atlas had saved my life many times over, and he would do so for his baby. He would never turn into his father, that much I knew. Ace teased that the baby would make him soft. I didn't think that would ever happen. Not in any one else’s eyes anyways.

"The plane is waiting," Atlas told me, taking my hand and leading me out the door.

This penthouse had been my home for the last six months. While Atlas and Ace had trailed leads about the trafficking ring and had made alliances, I had enjoyed Paris and the art here. I no longer felt in danger, although I probably was now more than ever. I was the boss's woman and just as hated or respected as he was.

There was no doubt Atlas would keep us safe. Even as we get into our car to travel to the airport, I was surrounded. Sal and Tony were in the car with us and were never too far away. Ace was with Liddy in the states and would be joining us at the lake house. Knowing I would see them soon made our departure less bittersweet.

Our car parked on the runway and we boarded our small plane. I would never get used to the money Atlas seemed to have. I knew not all this money was earned legally, but this was the life I had chosen for myself. I would like to think my dad was proud that I had found someone to take care of me, and who was good on the inside, despite what he'd done on the outside.

"I think the belt is buckled," I told Atlas who was still checking the seat belt on my lap.

"Just making sure," he mumbled. He still didn't look satisfied with the hold.

"Atlas." I waited until I had his full attention. "I love you."

"I love you too, Little Star."

Forgetting about buckling me in so tight I couldn't breathe, he stood to tell the pilot we were ready.

"Let's go. Uncle Ace and Aunt Liddy are waiting for us at home!"

I smiled during takeoff with excitement and squeezed Atlas's hand tightly. I missed my brother and my best friend. I was anxious to see how Liddy was doing. Ace was trying to help her and get her revenge, but I knew she hadn't healed yet. Maybe she never would. Maybe none of us would ever be the same.

I knew I still had wounds and cuts that would never close. Some pain would never go away and some nightmares would always come back. Certain things would forever haunt me and I wasn’t sure I could get rid of them. I might always see the death of my parents when I slept or the way it felt to shoot and kill a man. Those nightmares might not go away, but I wouldn’t let them consume me again. The only thing I could do was to fill the holes with enough happiness and love to make the bad worth it.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed Atlas, please consider leaving a review.

Thank you

Atlas is the sixth book I wrote. I am lucky enough to say that I have a few people that stuck with me through most of them. Atlas, and the others, would not be here without my little support system. The people that stood by me, virtually and physically.

My husband rocks because put up with me when I was crabby, tired and stressed out as I worked on Atlas. He deserves a medal for that. I was a witch. My fur babies never left my side either.

My family never stopped believing in me. Thank you for your never-ending support and love.

Thank you Steph. I love you and you were always there to talk me down or just keep me company. I needed that. I have no idea what I do without you.

Tiffany. You are amazing and came into my life when I needed you the most. Thank you for your kind words, support and loyal pimping.

Thank you to the small group of Alyne’s Angels for your help spreading the word. [Jordan: you are a superstar!]

Huge thanks to R.B.A. Designs. Thank you for making the perfect cover for Atlas. You never cease to amaze me with your talent!

Thank you Jen at Beyond the Cover Editing. You fixed my hot mess. I don’t know how you sorted it all out.

Thank you to my beta readers, Missy and Ashley. You ladies have been with me though every book now!

Thank you to every blog, reader and reviewer that has shared or will share Atlas. It means the word to me and I would be invisible without you!

Most of all: Thank you for picking up this book and taking a chance!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alyne lives in Ohio with her husband, two dogs and cat. Working full time in an office all day, she spends her nights reading, writing or watching an entire TV series in a night. She refuses to grow up and loves Disney movies and anything with owls. She couldn't live without her coffee or her furry "children".

Alyne wrote her first novel titled "Light to the Darkness" in 2014, followed by the Conflicted Encounters Series.

To stay up to date on what Alyne is working on, teasers and more: Sign up for the newsletter.

She loves to connect with readers so feel free to stalk her!

Website: www.AlyneRoberts.com

Like Her on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/AlyneRoberts

Books By Alyne Roberts: 

Light to the Darkness

Memorized

Conflicted Encounters Series:

Jolted

Impacted

Shaken

IN MY HEAD

S.L. Schiefer

Prologue

It’s amazing, looking back, what all I missed. Things that were obviously right in front of me. I couldn’t see how things looked from the outside, because I was in my own world of denial. I had no idea how I got to where I did.

If I had known, I would have gone about things differently.

I would have stayed out of my head.

Chapter One – Last  Call Wonders

“LYLA! What are you doing here?” Ben asks over the thump of the bass in the bar we’re in. We just finished our first semester of college so we decided to come out and celebrate. We being myself and my roommate Michelle.

Ben is a sophomore, studying business management. We don’t have any classes together, but every time I’m at the library he’s always there. So we’ve become study partners. Even though we can’t help each other at all. The only reason I agreed is because he’s nice to look at. Okay, nice might be putting it mildly. Ben is the epitome of my wet dream. He’s has black hair, green eyes, a strong chiseled jaw, and a constant stubble. It’s like he uses clippers to keep his beard trimmed down without getting rid of it completely.

“Celebrating! What are you doing? Here with a hot date?” Ben goes out a lot, but never with the same girl twice. He’s not a bad boy, but he does have the reputation of one.

“I’m kind of hoping I can get this one girl to go home with me,” he says, then puts his bottle of beer up to his lips to take a drink. I watch his throat as he takes a long pull of the amber liquid.

“Oh, ya?” I start glancing around the bar, trying to see if I can pick out the girl he’s trying to hook up with. “What’s she look like?”

“She’s a little short, has the stubbornness of an eighty year old man, and has the deepest brown eyes I’ve ever seen.”

I turn and give him a puzzled look. “That does not help me pick her out in this crowd of people.”

“I think you’ll have a hard time picking her out. She isn’t like anyone else I’ve ever met before. I’ve actually been trying to catch her attention for a while now, but it seems she doesn’t have the slightest idea that I’m interested.” He stares at me intently, while I just stare back. I’m not really sure what to say to that. It’s no secret, well to me and Michelle, that I want this guy for myself, but I’ve never let him in on that secret. I couldn’t take the heart break of rejection that would likely occur. I’m not on the same level as this guy. To even delude myself into thinking that is absurd.

“Well, whoever it is had better realize just how lucky she is. To have a great guy like you wanting her.” I turn away and take a drink of my amaretto stone sour. This stuff is like candy, and almost just as good to fix a heart ache.

I feel Ben come in close behind me, and I feel the brush of his lips on my ear right before he says, “Lyla, I’m positive she would feel that way if she would open her eyes and see what’s standing right in front of her. Or, right behind her in this case.”

Butterflies burst into flight in my stomach. What the hell is he going on about? If he’s toying with me, he won’t be able to perform in bed for a very long time. “What, Ben?”

“Lyla, for as brilliant as you are, you’re so blind,” he chuckles and I feel his breath on the back of my neck. My skin breaks out in goosebumps from the intimate feel of the situation.

He grasps my shoulders and turns me around to look at him. All the while I stand there frozen. “Lyla, I’ve been trying like hell to get you to see how I feel about you.”

“Is this some kind of joke? It isn’t April. This is seriously fucked up, even for you, if you’re toying with me,” I growl at him.

“Sunshine, why would I play around with you about this? I’ve seen the way you check me out when you think I’m not paying attention. What you fail to see, though, is how I look at you. Even when you’re looking.”

This is like a dream come true. Finding out that the guy you’ve been lusting after is actually into you after all. But, is it possible to go from good friends to boyfriend and girlfriend? Without it being weird?

“Now, let me take you to the bar and buy you a drink. I have no expectations of tonight. I just want to get to you know better, but know that I don’t want to see you with another guy after tonight. You’ve been mine for a while now, you just didn’t know it.” He smiles his panty dropping smile and takes me by my hand and leads me to the bar.

We’ve been at the bar ever since he told me the truth. I’m unaware of how much time has went by. But, the next thing I know “last call” is being shouted throughout the bar.

“You want to come back to my house?” His green eyes are so hopeful. It’s not like I haven’t been back to his house before. Since we ran into each other, and became more comfortable with each other, we’ve been to each other’s houses a lot. But, this is different. So different.

I look away from his eyes, and mumble, “Sure.”

***

Walking in his front door, he leads the way to the kitchen. Where I hop on yet another bar stool. But, I put my arms up on the counter top and prop my head on my hands. Watching Ben work his way around the kitchen making me a drink. Which gives me a minute to check him out.

He’s wearing dark wash jeans, and a tight black button up with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, black chucks, and a light blue beanie. The beanie is the only amount of color he has showing. I know for a fact he has the start of a sleeve on one of his arms that has a lot of color in it, but they’re covered up.

“What makes you decide you want a specific tattoo?” I break our silence as he turns to place a drink in front of me.

“Meh, whatever strikes my fancy is usually what triggers me wanting a tattoo,” he tells me.

“I don’t have any tattoos. I’ve always wanted one, but never could decide on one when it came down to it.”

“Well, I can draw. If you can think of something you want, let me know and I’ll draw it up for you.” I smile at him, but don’t say anything.

We just sit there and stare at each other. My eyes scan over his face, finally locking in on his eyes. Trying like hell to read into his mind through those green depths. I want to be cautious of this, but I want to dive head first into it. What does that say about me? I feel like we’ve had months of foreplay, so this is the right next step… right?

I sigh, “What do you want from me, Ben?” I need to know what he wants out of this before we go any further.

“Lyla, I may not always be right about things when it comes to my life. But, I know I’m right about this. You’ve given my life a giant amount of sunshine in the short time I’ve known you. You’ve brought smiles to my face, even when I’m not with you. The only thing left, that would make me even happier, is giving yourself to me. One-hundred percent giving yourself over to me, to this, to explore what we could have. Because, sunshine, what we could have could be some epic fucking romance. One that I don’t want to let myself miss out on.”

Well. What do you say to all that? I stand up, walk over to him on the other side of the counter, and press myself against his front. Running my hands up his chest, up the sides of his neck, and into his hair. I push my fingers into the hair at the nape of his neck, the hair that’s too long to fit under his beanie. I pull his head down to mine, and right before I press my lips against his, I whisper, “I can’t miss out on epic, either.” Then I kiss him, and he furiously kisses me back. And if our kiss is telling of our future, it will be nothing short of passionate.

CONTENTS

Title Page

Blank Page

Copyright

Dedication

Prologue

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

X

XI

XII

XIII

XIV

XV

XVI

XVII

XVIII

XIX

XX

XXI

XXII

XXIII

XXIV

XXV

XXVI

XXVII

XXVIII

XXIX

XXX

XXXI

XXXII

XXXII

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

About the Author

In My Head

Copyright © 2015 Alyne Roberts

All Rights Reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law..

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Any trademarks, service marks, product names or named features are assumed to be the property of their respective owners, and are used only for reference. There is no implied endorsement if we use one of these terms.

Cover by: R.B.A. Designs

Editing: Beyond The Cover Editing

“According to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.”

― Plato, The Symposium

PROLOGUE

Stella

"Have you ever shot anyone, Daddy?" I asked.

I was sitting on the kitchen counter with my legs dangling down, kicking the cabinets. Mommy hated it when he let me do this. My dad stopped spreading the peanut butter and looked back at me.

"Why would you ask me that?" he asked, his eyes laced with concern.

I shrugged. "Kelly said that cops have guns and shoot people."

My dad wiped his hands off on a towel and came over to me. He hefted himself up onto the counter with me and I stared at him with wide eyes. Mom was gonna be so mad. He could probably change her mind though. Daddy was good at that.

"Well, Kelly is right that cops have guns," he said. "But I don't go running around just shooting people. I only shoot when I have to."

"Why would you have to?" Daddy always said no matter what, you never hurt someone else.

"There are bad guys out there," he explained calmly. "It's my job to protect everyone from the bad guys. Cops sometimes have to shoot them to do that."

"Kelly said guns are bad. She's in second grade so she's pretty smart."

"Guns are bad if they are in a bad person's hands. Sometimes, good people have to do bad things to save others from bad things. I'm a good guy, but I would do anything to keep you safe. Even if that meant hurting someone who deserved it."

I wrinkled my nose and looked up at my dad's face. My tummy hurt when I thought about bad guys trying to hurt him.

"Why do you have to do it?" I asked. My words were getting caught in my throat.

"Because, baby," my dad said as he put an arm around me. "Everyone has a role and a job in this world. Mine is to keep people safe. I feel good because I can save people's lives."

"Like a hero?"

He laughed. "Yes. Kinda like that."

"What's mom's job?" I asked. What does she do if dad is so important?

"She is a mother. A wife. She is my support and brought me two beautiful children. It's because of those children that I fight bad guys."

I laughed when he pulled me closer to his chest. "But dad, that's not right."

"What's not?"

"She only gave you one beautiful kid. Ace is pretty ugly," I managed to say through a giggle.

"I heard that, butthead," my brother said as he came into the kitchen.

He tossed his baseball mitt on the table and picked up my sandwich. Before I could stop him, he took a massive bite out of it.

"Hey!" I yelled. "That was mine."

"You snooze, you lose," he said with a full mouth.

I was ready to launch at him and take my sandwich back when Mom came through the door.

"Really? On the counter?" she asked with a stern look.

Dad and I hopped off and gave her our best smiles. They usually worked. Dad's was the best. She turned to look at us and, as I knew she would, she smiled back. Just like that, we are out of trouble. Daddy shot me a wink before I ran off to get my sandwich back from Ace.

"All gone," he said, holding up his empty hands as proof. He stuck his tongue out at me.

"Gross." It was covered in bread and peanut butter.

I looked back at Mom and Dad but they were holding each other and paying us no attention. I remembered that Daddy said she was his support. Maybe he needed support right now. My eyes welled up because I was still hungry and no one could make me another peanut butter sandwich.

I shoved my older brother and stormed to my room, slamming the door behind me. I ran to my bed and grabbed Unicorn and held him close. Hugging always made Mom and Dad feel better, but it wasn't working for me. I tossed the stupid stuffed animal across the room just as Ace poked his head in my door.

"No boys allowed!" I yelled at him. I was so mad at him that I started to cry again.

"Here," he said, handing me a plate.

I took it from him and stared down at the sandwich. There was peanut butter oozing out of the sides. The crust was torn off but not like Daddy did it. It was ugly, but I was hungry, so I took a bite anyway. My lips and teeth stuck together from all the peanut butter and I swore I tasted a piece of crust. I looked up at Ace and smiled wide.

"Fank you," I mumbled, trying to pry my mouth open. "Iff better ‘n Dad's!"

"Really?" he asked, his eyes wide in surprise.

"Yeah," I said, spitting a little. "More peanuh-budder."

Ace nodded and walked out of my room. His head was held high and he looked so proud. I chowed down on my ugly, messy sandwich and imagined my brother would be just like my dad one day. Like Daddy, Ace would make it his job to protect people from the bad guys. He would be a hero. Mommy and I would always be safe.

I

Stella

I had to admit, I looked fucking hot. I never got to dress up or make myself look good lately. My best friend, Liddy, insisted that we go out tonight as one last girl's night. It took some convincing, but I gave in and even let her dress me and do my makeup. I would miss her like crazy when I left. We would be sure to make our last night memorable.

"Promise to have fun tonight," Liddy said to me as we took the elevator down to the ground floor.

"Promise," I agreed.

"Good. You've been through enough in your life. You need some fun," Liddy said, bouncing up and down impatiently.

Liddy was right. The last eight months had been the worse of my life. Some fun and dancing was the least I should do. Everything I owned was in a U-Haul truck on the way to the opposite end of the country. Tomorrow, I would leave the only city I had ever known, and hopefully all the bad that tainted it for me. One last night with my best friend was the perfect way to say goodbye.

My excitement grew as we got out of the cab and approached the bouncer at the entrance of one of the hottest clubs in Chicago. I could already hear the pounding of the bass from inside and it filled me with energy. Giving one quick look at Liddy and me, the bouncer ushered us right in. It was a weeknight so the line wasn't too bad, but I still felt like I was someone important walking inside.

I linked arms with my best friend, and we walked in like we owned the place. Sweaty bodies were grinding against each other as the loud music drove them. I looked at Liddy with wide eyes as she tugged me toward the bar. I was so excited that I was bouncing in the high heels I had borrowed. At the bar, people yelled over the music to bartenders who scrambled to get everyone good and wasted. It didn't take long for one to appear before us.

I couldn't hear what Liddy had ordered, but in a few seconds four shot glasses were being slid across the bar to her. Her blue eyes sparkled at me in mischief as she handed me a shot.

"To your last night in Chicago, you bitch!" she shouted before throwing her head back and downing the clear liquid. I followed, choking on the burn.

"Shit!" I coughed. Tequila.

"No holding back tonight, Stella! For once, just let loose."

We downed our other shots, though it burned less the second time. Maybe my throat was numb from the first one. A grin stretched across my face as we weaved through the crowd. A determination to enjoy tonight filled me. I promised myself I wouldn't worry about tomorrow. I wouldn't think about the goodbye. I wouldn't fear the move I would be making in the morning to San Francisco.

We found a little space for our two bodies to wiggle into, and we started to dance. As the alcohol warmed my body, the heat and people brushing against me didn't bother me. Everything was perfect. I didn't think it was possible for me to enjoy anything anymore, but here I was.

Music washed over me.

Thoughts left my head.

Emptiness was consumed.

The heavy bass thumped through my body as sweat trickled down my neck and my hair stuck to my face. I felt the burn in my cheeks and the exhaustion in my limbs. I didn't care though. I didn't care about anything in the center of that dance floor.

Liddy grabbed my arm, breaking my blissful trance, and pulled me toward the bar. We bumped other grinding bodies and weaved our way through the thick mass of people dancing. I was in desperate need of water and some more alcohol. After a few dozen accidental grabs and apologies, we made it the bar. It was even more crowded than before and I drummed my nails on the bar impatiently.

"Here you go ladies," a bartender said as he slid two water bottles and two shots of a bright blue liquid to us.

"We didn't order yet," I yelled at him over the music.

"From the guy over there," he shouted back to me and pointed to the opposite side of the bar.

Liddy and I both leaned over the counter to get a look at the other end. Already calmly watching us, sat a man in a dark suit.

"Holy shit. He's hot," Liddy said in my ear.

She wasn't kidding. In the dim lighting, I could only guess he was maybe late twenties. His dark hair was styled neatly and his wide body screamed control and power. A chill ran down my body when one corner of his lips tipped up.

"He likes the blonde," the bartender added with a wink at me.

"Go thank him," Liddy said with a playful shoulder bump.

I shook my head and downed the shot. "No. I'll never see him again," I hissed through the burn.

"Exactly," she deadpanned.

I took another glance at the stranger at the other end of the bar. He was still watching, and I wasn't sure if it made me feel excited or nervous. When he stood and started toward us, I held my breath. I had been alone for so long, I wasn't sure how to socialize with handsome men. Especially with one very much out of my comfort zone. He was sexier, more powerful and more intimidating than any college frat boy I had ever flirted with before. I could tell all of this from just one look across the bar.

"Last night. Live it," Liddy whispered in my ear before sneaking off.

I watched her exposed back disappear into the crowd. Her words echoed in my head as I forced my feet to take me to the stranger. She was right. I should live. He watched as I approached and I prayed that I didn't fall on my face. His intense focus made me nervous, as did attention from anyone. I thought of turning around and abandoning the whole idea, but soon I was standing right in front of him.

"Thanks for the drink."

"You're very welcome," his deep voice rumbled in my ear.

A grin stretched across his handsome face and his hand reached for mine. I put mine in his expecting a handshake, but he surprised me when he lifted my hand toward his lips. I swore I could feel my jaw unhinge and fall open as I watched plump lips come closer to my skin. I pulled in a deep breath and he shocked me further by twisting my wrist and placing a soft kiss on the inside of my wrist. It was intrusive, erotic, and exciting all at the same time.

"Let's find somewhere less crowded," he said and started to pull me away from the bar without waiting for me to agree.

Unlike when Liddy and I had tried to make our way anywhere in the club, the crowd parted for him. I didn't know if it was because he was known or if it was the power and the demand to be respected that radiated from him. One look at the man pulling me by the hand told me he was someone to admire and fear. It was the latter that had my heart beating and my throat dry. After months of solitude, any excitement had my body feeding off of it. I was unable to stop from devouring his attention and the way this stranger made me feel.

He led me up some steps, and a bouncer nodded as we passed. The music was a more bearable volume up here, but we still had the view of the dance floor. I stood at the railing and looked into the sea of people. I wondered if Liddy was down there dancing with a cute guy. She always lived without worries or regard for the consequences. Most of the time, I was jealous of her bravery and confidence.

I felt a tickle down my arm and the chill of a glass being wrapped in my fingers. I could sense him behind me. He wasn't quite touching me, but he may as well have been. His presence was felt on every inch of my skin. I lifted the cool glass to my lips to distract myself. The sweetness mixed with the burn and I let it wash away the nerves.

"Are you cold?" he asked behind me.

I shook my head and turned to face him. In the improved lighting, I could see his face better. His eyes were dark, and he had a straight nose and chiseled jaw. His suit was tailored to his body and had to cost more than several months of my rent. A scent of clean linen and fresh air complemented his groomed and perfect appearance. He was perfect and I swallowed, feeling entirely out my league.

He rubbed his hands up and down my arms, sending warmth through me. I was stuck staring at his deep, mesmerizing eyes when I noticed his smirk. With my fair skin, I was sure he could see the blush creeping into my face and spreading down my neck and chest. He confirmed that thought when his finger traced the low cut neckline of my dress, grazing the tops of my breasts.

"So soft," he said in a low voice. My head started to swim with the sensations.

How long had it been since I had been touched like this? Was it sophomore year in college with my last boyfriend before my life went to shit? Was it last year when I still had it in me to touch myself and enjoy it? Was it even before that when my mother would stroke my hair like she used to every time she saw me? Inside, the smart and fearful girl that I had become was telling me this man was a dangerous stranger, but the girl with life in her still soaked up his presence.

What harm could it be anyway? I planned to leave the next day for another state. I would start over and never see him again. It didn't matter if he thought I was easy or never called me after. In fact, that would be for the best. I promised Liddy, and myself, that I would give myself one last good memory in this city.

"Dance with me?" I bravely asked.

His eyes sparkled, and his hands firmly gripped my hips. Without the crowd of dancers, this was intimate and sexy. It felt empowering and reckless; something I hadn't felt in so long. I pressed my body to his and placed my hands on his hard chest. I could feel a steady heartbeat under my palm. It kept me grounded. It reminded me that we were both real and alive.

Even alone, the temperature rose between our bodies but it only made me cling closer to him, like I needed him to keep me from melting. One hand roamed up the open back of my dress, smoothed down my spine and played with the ends of my hair. With every thump of the bass, I grew more confident, and the little voice in my head who told me to be careful fell off her barstool. Having his hands on me and feeling how he liked it outweighed anything else.

He wiped some sweat off my forehead. Before I could cringe with embarrassment, he sucked the thumb he used into his mouth. His eyes closed and I could hear his low moan over the music and my pounding heartbeat. When they opened, they were burning with a fire and intensity I hadn't seen or noticed before. His other hand reached between us, pressing a fresh, cold glass to my lips.

Needing to cool down, I drank the cold liquor without hesitation. My eyes didn't leave his as I drank it down, letting it both numb and cool me. He watched the movement in my throat and I felt a strange sense of power over this man in front of me. I leaned into him to feel the hard intake of breath he took at the contact. The inner slut inside me grinned. I could do this to a man. I was stronger than I looked.

"Not that strong," I mumbled as I swayed, losing my balance and needing him to hold me still.

"What's that?" he asked with a sly smile.

"I feel like jelly," I giggled.

"You're alright," he assured me while he gripped my hips firmly. "I got you."

My head swam and my stomach rolled. The lights were too bright and the music became too loud. My limbs were too heavy to hold me up and I felt like I was suddenly melting, but not in the hot way.

II

Stella

My head pounded as I woke up. Every time I went out with Liddy, I ended up with a hangover. This morning was worse than ever. The pain was not just in my head, but my entire body. I didn't dare to move, in fear that I would just make it worse. I tried to remember how much I had to drink, but the memories were fuzzy.

Nothing felt right. The sheets on my skin were softer than my own bare mattress I was used to. My head was heavier than usual and I was positive that I had been sleeping too long. Slowly, I started to remember the night before. The hot guy who bought me a drink. Dancing with him alone. Trying to find Liddy to get a cab. A stranger carrying me from the club.

Panic slammed into me as I struggled to sit up but wasn't able to move. I was restrained with my wrists and ankles tied to a bed. A scream ripped from my throat. My wide eyes frantically scanned my surroundings, but I didn't recognize anything in the unfamiliar bedroom. A thousand thoughts raced in my terrified mind as I screamed for help and tears dripped down my cheeks. My worst nightmare was coming true.

"No need for all the noise." The voice cut through my own.

"Hello?" I choked. "Someone help me!"

He slowly shook his head as he came to stand at the end of the bed. I was severely underdressed compared to his black slacks and white collared shirt. Dark eyes trailed my body which was dressed in only my bra and panties. The dangerous look on his face made my heart race.

"Why? Why am I here?" I asked him.

"Because I want you to be," he simply answered.

I stared at him in disbelief. The man in front of me wasn't the charming and flirty man I remembered from last night. This man took whatever he wanted and had no concern for anything else. Although still gorgeous, he was terrifying. Everything in my gut last night had told me to run, but I had ignored it, thinking I was being paranoid. I was so very wrong.

"Please," I cried. "Just let me go. I promise I'll never tell anyone."

"I can't do that, Little Star," he said as he crawled over my tied body.

I squirmed underneath him, and I watched in horror as his eyes danced in amusement. He was enjoying watching me struggle. His lips titled up into that half smile that had me melting for him only hours ago. Instead of shivering in excitement, now it was fear. I was helpless and open to him.

"What's wrong? Not as turned on anymore when you're tied up?" he asked in a taunting voice. "Some women like it."

"I just want to go home," I whispered with my eyes closed tightly. I could feel the heat from his chest on mine. He was invading my mind and senses.

"And just where is that Ms. Harlow? Is it the tiny studio apartment on Southport? Is it in California? Or is it that bench in the cemetery you spend so much time at?"

I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. "How do you know all of that? How do you know my name?"

He chuckled low, and I felt his breath on my bare chest. "You don't hide as well as you think you do, Stella."

I started to scream as loud as I possibly could. My lungs struggled to take enough air with his weight on top of me. I didn't know if anyone would hear me, but I needed to try. I wanted to live. My screaming was cut short with a hand tight around my throat.

"Shut up or I will make you," he hissed in my ear.

I had known this day would come. This moment was the one I had avoided for nearly a year. Every night, I woke with the fear of the moment they’d find me. I thought I had stayed invisible for long enough. Every day I survived, I believed that keeping my mouth shut was enough. I was so stupid to have thought that I could finally make a run for it and would be safe.

He ran one finger down my cheek, gliding through my tears and along my jaw. It continued its path down my neck and over my collarbone. I cringed when I felt his finger dip into my cleavage.

"What's the problem, Stella?" he taunted. "You don't like me anymore? Did your attraction for me vanish with the sunrise?"

"Fuck you," I muttered. I couldn't give him the satisfaction of upsetting me more before he did what he had planned to me.

"You wanted me to," he whispered in my ear. His shirt brushed my bare stomach and I held my breath. "Last night, you wanted everything I wanted to do you. I could feel it. I could see it. I could even fucking smell it."

"That was before you fucking drugged and kidnapped me," I growled.

"Still the truth."

His finger continued to slide over my body. My skin was hyper-aware of every touch from him. I squirmed under him, but he was much larger, successfully keeping me pinned and still. I started to think he even liked it when I struggled against him. His eyes held to the spot on my neck where I was sure my pulse was pumping rapidly.

"Too many people saw me with you last night. You can't get away with this," I told him.

"No one will even notice you're gone. If you were successful in anything in the past eight months, it was becoming invisible and isolating yourself completely," he said softly. "No one is in San Francisco waiting for you. You have no one to miss you when you never show up."

"That's not true," I said in a tight voice. It was very true. I opted against getting a roommate and my rent was paid up for several months. No one would know that I never moved in after my belongings showed up.

"You know it is," he argued.

"Liddy," I whispered, hope fading.

"She already received a text that you were on the road. Safe and sound."

The fight left my body. My limbs went weak and I stopped trying to pull my wrists free. No one would know that I was missing. There wouldn't be any hearts broken when I left this world. Everyone would continue with their lives while I rotted in a shallow grave. No one would hear my screams or come to rescue me. I officially blended away into nothing. I was all alone.

"Then just kill me already," I whispered.

I felt him lift himself of my body. I opened my eyes to find him hovering over me, staring down at my face. The look was unreadable, but his dark eyes swarmed with something more than hate. Before I could figure out what that was, he blinked and it was gone.

"You are more of an interest to me alive than dead, sweetheart."

"What?" I asked in a panic. "You can't just keep me here. For what?

"Whatever I need." His eyes once again took in my half-naked and restrained body.

"Your little sex slave?" My voice rose higher and higher with every degree of terror. I never imagined their revenge would be like this. I waited every night for someone to come get me, but I thought it would be quick and over with before I even saw the gun, not this cat and mouse game.

"I can do whatever the fuck I want," he barked at me. "You’d rather be out there? Watching over your shoulder? Waiting for the axe to fall on your head?"

"Hasn't it already?"

He shook his head and walked to the door. With his hand on the knob, he turned back to me.

"Not yet. You can thank me later."

"Fuck you, asshole!" I shouted at him. "You fucking bastard mother fucker!"

I couldn't think of enough curse words for the vile man staring down at me.

"You can just call me Atlas, sweetheart."

The name rang over and over in my head as I watched the door close behind him.

Atlas.

My brother's friend.

The reason my family was dead.

The reason I was next.

The room went black.

III

Stella

Atlas left me tied to the bed for hours. I could see the sunlight fading on the walls as time went by. The straps were fastened to the iron headboard and I tried without luck to release them. The leather cuffs were tight on my wrists and ankles, keeping me immobile. My skin was chilled and my stomach rumbled with hunger. I hadn't heard a sound inside the house since he had left me. There were no footsteps, no city sounds or voices. Only my own breathing and occasional sniffling.

The room was simple with a plain dresser and a reading chair in one corner. The bare walls were a light cream color. There was nothing I could use to escape and nothing I would be able to reach. I was stuck helplessly waiting for Atlas to return and do whatever he had planned for me.

I had plenty of time to think about the situation I had gotten myself into. I trusted a guy I had just met and had let my guard down when I knew better. I thought I would have one last night of fun, flirting and dancing with the hot stranger whom I would never see again. My brother used to tell me never make assumptions about people. People would either disappoint you or impress you. No one was who they seemed to be.

My imagination was running wild. So while I could try to guess why Atlas wanted me alive, I wouldn't dare assume. My brother trusted him, but I knew where that had gotten him, along with my parents. Now it was my turn. I wouldn't trust a word he told me or even my own instincts. I had seen firsthand what people like him could do, which was how I had gotten into this mess in the first place.

When I heard the soft thuds of footsteps, I stiffened. I didn't know if I wished Atlas was coming for me or not. I was hungry and my arms were sore from struggling against the rope. I would feel much better with clothes on. I wanted to know where I was and what would happen to me. Knowing what little I knew of Atlas, it couldn't be good.

When the footsteps neared, my mind was dizzy with anxiety. There was nothing I could do while the knob turned and the door swung open. Atlas stepped through with ease and confidence. Only someone with his amount of power could walk like they didn't have a care in the world when there was a half-naked young woman tied to a bed.

"Let's try this again, Stella," he said to me. "You behave and everything will be fine."

I didn't respond as he stepped inside, setting a few things down on the dresser across the room. He was wearing dark jeans with a white button-up shirt. The sleeves were rolled up to show muscular, tattooed arms. It looked like he was ready to do some work, which was likely bad news for me.

"I'm going to untie you," he told me. "You try to run and I will taser you."

To make sure I believed him, he showed me the taser in his hands. I'd never been hit with a taser before, but I didn’t doubt it would hurt like hell. I swallowed the lump in my throat and watched as he crawled over me and reached for my wrists. My left wrist was released first and he rubbed the raw skin that was exposed. It was a surprisingly gentle gesture in contrast to the brutality I had seen so far.

While Atlas moved to my right arm, I took my time to examine the man I had only heard about. His face had some stubble, and his dark hair was longer than I had thought it was the night before. Dark eyebrows knitted together while he rubbed the inside of my wrist. He dropped my free hand and leaned back to stare down at me. Finally free, I wrapped my arms around my chest for some protection. His fingers moved quickly and smoothly to unbuckle my ankles.

"I brought food. You’ll need to eat," he told me as I pulled my knees to my chest.

"Fuck you," I said. "I won't eat anything you give me."

Atlas tilted his head and watched me curiously. It looked like part of him was trying to guess if I was going to try and run. I was wondering the same thing. Part of me knew I wouldn't get far. My limbs felt like they would buckle under my own weight, and Atlas was probably far faster than I could be even in my best health.

"Come. I'm going to show you something," he said to me.

I glared at his outstretched hand like it was poison, which I'm sure it was.

"Stella." I heard the warning and threat in his voice.

I scrambled to the edge of the bed, refusing to let him help me up. I didn't want to feel his skin on mine again or give him any more power over me. I had spent months hiding in the shadows and keeping my head down. It no longer mattered because my monsters had found me anyway. At least I could spend whatever time I had left as a fighter. It was what Dad would have expected from me.

"Stella. We can do this the easy way, or the hard way," Atlas told me with a glare. His fists clenched at his sides and his shoulders tensed.

"Do what?" I dared to ask.

Atlas closed the space between us in just a few long strides. I gasped when his fingers wrapped tightly around my arm. His grip was firm, but just short of painful. In just my bra and panties, I could feel his body heat on mine, making me want to pull away. Atlas wouldn't allow it, pulling me toward the door and out into the hallway.

There were a series of closed doors, but I couldn't see much else before he yanked me to the right. We came to another closed door at the end of the hall and Atlas dug in his pocket for a key. I could feel myself shaking as he pushed the key into the door and twisted it. The door was wider and heavier than a normal door and my stomach sank when I saw the steep steps leading down.

"Go," he demanded as he gave me shove forward.

I obeyed and took the steps slowly down into the darkness. Atlas held my arm and stayed close but didn't rush me. Every thud of our feet made me feel sicker with fear. I had always known someone would come for me, but I had hoped it would be quick. I felt like I was walking into a torture chamber.

When my feet hit the bottom, a light flicked on, illuminating something I did not expect. The room was empty. Completely empty. There were no chains or bars. No cage or metal spikes like I had expected. It was nothing more than a normal basement with a single pillar in the center of the room. Atlas led me to the pillar and turned me to face him, pushing my back to the cold metal.

"What are you doing?" I asked, looking up into his calm face with panic as he wrapped my arms behind the pole.

"Just remember, I never break a promise I make," he whispered as the metal clicked around my sore wrists.

I opened my mouth to scream, maybe to beg for my life, but the words were caught in my throat. The sound of the door opening echoed in the empty basement, followed by several pairs of heavy footsteps. Atlas shoved a rag into my mouth, quickly covering it with tape. I cried behind my gag as he wrapped another black cloth over my eyes.

This was the end. I was going to join my mom and dad now. They were going to drag this out as payment. They made my dad beg for his life, so I really shouldn't have expected anything different. I was foolish to think that my silence was enough to save my life. I cried quietly as the footsteps stopped in front of me.

"You got her," a deep voice said.

"Obviously," I heard Atlas answer in a bitter tone.

"No one saw you?" the deep voice asked again.

"No. I don't make mistakes," Atlas said.

“Of course not. You always do as you’re asked.”

My entire body was tense with anticipation. I could feel them watching me as my life hung in the balance. If I had to guess, I would have said there were three men who came down the steps. I could feel the danger hanging in the air with their silence. I could hear my own pounding heartbeat and shuddering breaths.

"Good. Kill her."

I started to thrash and scream but the gag and handcuffs kept me in place and muffled. A large, warm hand pushed on my stomach and I froze. I didn't know whose hand was on me, but I wanted to think it was Atlas's. The feeling was familiar and softer than I would imagine the others would be.

"I will. When I'm ready," I heard Atlas say near my ear. "I want to have a little fun first."

His hand trailed down my stomach and over my panties. I bucked away but the pillar wouldn't let me move far enough. The men laughed and my stomach rolled.

"Very well. Just end this for good," the man said. “Quickly. We don’t have time for little whores like her.”

Atlas's hand left my body as the footsteps sounded again. I listened as the door opened and closed at the top of the steps. It was then that I noticed how violently I was trembling. I was cold, petrified, and confused beyond belief. The tape was pulled from my face but I ignored the sting. It was probably the least amount of pain I would experience. The gag was pulled from my mouth and the blindfold fell from my eyes.

"I'm not going to kill you right now, Little Star," he whispered. "I still need you."

"For what?" I choked out.

"I made a promise, and I intend to keep it. I also have a job to finish, and I hate leaving things uncompleted."

"What promise?"

Atlas reached behind me and released the cuffs from my wrist before tilting my head up to look at him. I stared up into his dark eyes and tried to see the evil in them. I knew it resided in him and what he was capable of. I just couldn't understand how I had missed it the night before. Maybe because I had been searching for it all around me for so long, I couldn’t even see it anymore.

"If you cooperate and behave as I ask, then you may stay upstairs in that room," he told me.

"And if I don't?"

His lips tipped up in a sinister smile, and he started to circle me. He was like a shark, circling his prey before going in for the kill.

"Then you will stay down here. Alone."

"What do you want from me?"

"I want to know where Ace is."

 My heart stopped with the mention of my brother's name. It hurt deep down inside more than I imagined to hear his name spoken aloud. I missed hearing it. I missed seeing him. I tasted the salt of my tears as they dripped over my lips. Atlas's large hands framed my face, forcing me to look at him.

"You know where he is," I hissed in his face with hatred so strong and sudden. "You fucking killed him."

Atlas's eyes flared and his lips pressed in a tight line. I tried to jerk away when his grip tightened on my cheeks. I lashed out at him, trying to pull out of the hold he had on me. Desperately, I screamed and kicked at his legs.

"Stella," he grunted and reached out for me. His thick arms wrapped around my waist and he pinned me to his chest.

"No! Fuck you!" I shouted. "Let me go."

I tried to kick and twist away from him. In my anger and pain, his arms were almost comforting. He was warm and strong; something I needed. It had been too long since I had been hugged or touched at all. That only made me hate him more.

"It's all your fault," I cried while trying to punch.

"Stop," he demanded as he grabbed my wrists to stop my hitting.

"You took everything away from me. You killed him."

I clamped my teeth around his shoulder, getting a mouthful of his shirt. I bit down as hard as I could.

"Fuck," he grunted.

With little effort, he lifted me and spun around. The wind was knocked out of me as my back slammed into the wall. Atlas's face was furious as he pinned me to the cold bricks. I couldn't move with his weight, and I realized he hadn't used his full strength on me yet. He was strong and now very pissed off with blood dripping down his chest.

"I didn't kill Ace," he fumed.

"He didn't just leave me all alone after my parents were executed," I threw back. I swore I saw a flash of guilt when I said it. "He would never leave me like that, so I know he's dead."

"Then I need to know who killed him."

IV

Atlas

Stella's eyes glistened and glossed over. I didn't know if I should believe her. I knew Ace better than anyone, and I didn't think he would leave his little sister alone either. He wouldn't leave knowing there was a price over her head as well. But if there was one thing my father had taught me, other than to kill a man slowly, was that you couldn't trust anybody. Trusting Stella wouldn’t be another one of my lethal mistakes.

"When was the last time you saw him?" I asked her. With my body holding her to the wall, she was immobile.

"Eight months ago," she whispered. "The night before my parents were killed."

I felt the fight leave Stella's body as soon as the words left her mouth. Her shoulders slumped in defeat and despair washed over her pretty blue eyes. I released the rough grip I had and stepped back to look at her. She swayed on her feet, and I had to stop her from falling over. Stella was shutting down. After what she'd been through in the last twenty-four hours¸ I'd expect that. If I wanted answers, I would need to stop pushing so hard.

Looking at the broken and lonely girl made me want to believe her. How could someone so lonely and sad earn a top spot on my hit list? I wanted to believe that I wasn't wrong about Ace either. I had softened and had made a mistake of trusting before, and now I was dealing with the consequences of doing so. I wouldn't so easily fall into the Harlow trap again.

"Come. Upstairs," I told her when I was sure we were alone. I didn't give her the option to argue this time. I pulled her to the steps, dragging her up them behind me.

The door opened to the hallway and I led her back to the bedroom. I couldn't stand to see her half-naked another minute. It was clouding my judgment and that was something I used to pride myself in never allowing to happen. I needed to be angry and hard, but I was getting hard in the wrong places.

"Get dressed," I told her, tossing a black shirt at her with a pair of jeans.

Stella caught the clothes and checked the tags before quickly pulling the shirt over her head.

"How did you know my size?" she asked as she slid the jeans up her legs.

"I know a lot about you," I told her before opening the door again.

I took her wrist and led her down the hall. Surprisingly, she didn't fight me. I could feel she was growing weaker. I had had her for over twenty-four hours and she had yet to eat. I needed her alive for this to work.

"This is the kitchen," I announced as we entered the room. "You are welcome to any of the food. There is no phone in here so don't get your hopes up. This room and the bedroom are the only two rooms you will have access to."

"I'm not hungry," she mumbled.

"Bullshit."

"Just kill me already," she said, looking me right in the eyes. "He told you to. Just do it."

For a moment, I felt like a piece of shit. I killed before when necessary and never cared. It was an occupational hazard, and I always followed orders. I didn't have a choice in this family. But when this woman looked at me with dead eyes revealing her pain, I wanted to save her.

"I don't want to have to," I answered honestly. "Let me show you something."

Placing my hand on the small of Stella's back, we walked to the back of the house. I unlocked the doors, leading her to the living room. The back wall was lined with windows overlooking Lake Michigan. I opened the sliding glass doors and we walked out onto the deck.

The night was dark with the clouds covering the moon's light. The sound of crickets and frogs echoed in the darkness. I deeply inhaled the fresh cool air. This place was my own sanctuary. The city lights powered by corruption and violence couldn't reach me here.

"What do you see, Stella?" I asked her when she came to stand at the railing overlooking that water.

"Nothing," she answered.

"Exactly. Nothing," I agreed. "No one will find you here. There is nowhere to run. No one to hear you."

Stella's slim fingers trembled on the wood. I wanted to soothe them like I knew Ace would, because she didn't deserve this. He would kick my ass if he knew what I was putting her through, but the bastard wasn't here to do a damn thing about it. I needed her scared. I needed her to want her freedom and her life more than anything. After all, what else did she really have left?

"Boss?" I heard from the front of the house.

"My office," I shouted in return as I ushered Stella back into the house.

When we reached the door to the bedroom, I stopped Stella and turned her to face me. Slowly, I backed her against the door. I heard the small intake of breath when her shoulders hit the wood behind her. I smirked down at her at the small victory. A tiny flicker of fight flared in her eyes right before her knee connected with my balls.

I doubled over and Stella fled down the hall. I heard her screams for help, probably hoping my two men would be the good guys. She was sadly mistaken. Those were my men. I straightened and lunged for her, grabbing the back of her neck.

"They won't help you, Little Star," I said in her ear when I yanked her back to my chest.

"Go to hell," she grunted but I wrapped a hand around her mouth to stop the shouting.

Her muffled screams vibrated against my palm as I dragged her back into the bedroom. I kicked the door shut behind me and tossed her to the bed. Stella bounced once before scrambling to the edge. I was faster and had a hold of her waist before her bare feet could hit the floor. Pulling her back, she hit the mattress with a thump.

"That was unwise," I told her as I laid myself on top of her to stop her fight.

"Get off me," she grunted as she squirmed and pushed at me.

Taking her wrists, I pinned them above her head and used my thighs to hold her legs still. The friction between our bodies invoked me and set my senses on high sensitivity. Her blue eyes met mine and I watched the fire flare in them. I loved it. As much as I needed to hate her, this was like foreplay to me.

Nestled between her legs, I hardened against her and Stella gasped when she felt it. I always liked it rough and it was difficult to remember my purpose while I held her down. Bred and raised on violence, I had grown to accept it . . . maybe even love it, or need it. With Stella fighting me, and the memory of how she felt against me before she knew my name, she was making this the ultimate turn-on.

"Stop fighting me," I practically begged her.

"Never," she hissed.

"Then we are gonna have a huge fucking problem," I said with a small thrust of my hips.

"I wouldn't call it huge," Stella said with a hard face and direct eye contact.

Little bitch. My hand was around her throat instantly. Tight enough to gain her attention but not tight enough to hurt. I lowered my mouth closer to her face so she could hear me.

"I am being very kind to you, Stella. I expect some respect in return," I whispered.

Her body stiffened under mine as I pulled away. That's when I saw it. The fear in her eyes. The darkness that I saw hanging over her for months was there. A part of me, the part that came from my father, wanted to own it. To exploit it and dive into it. To push and feed off her fear and screams.

The other part wanted to shield her. To tell her that it would be okay and that nothing could hurt her. But that would be a lie. I could easily hurt her and most likely would. I shoved off the bed, hearing a soft exhale of relief as I backed away.

"There are guards on duty at all hours in the house. Get some food and stay in your room. We will discuss the rest in the morning," I told her as I left the room.

In my office, Tony and Sal were waiting for me. They gave me a head nod in greeting as I rounded my desk and took a seat. I pulled up the surveillance and checked that Stella was still curled up in the bed.

“My father gone?" I asked.

"Yes, sir," Tony answered. "He seemed pleased."

"Hope so," I grumbled. My whole life, I aimed to please that man. It was never enough, but I lived to try. I just didn't understand why.

"Think this will work?" Sal asked. He was the one always thinking ahead and running through the possible scenarios.

"It has to."

I knew my dad better than anyone else in the family. I had learned from him, had watched him, and had listened to every word he said. He was as brutal as he was smart. I needed to find out the truth before he figured out what I was doing. You never went against orders, especially directly from the boss, if you wanted to live. Being an actual blood relative didn't exclude me from the rules.

"I need you two to watch her," I told them. "She is allowed access to the kitchen and the bedroom. I don't want to have to lock her up just yet. If she fucks that up, she will go downstairs."

They both nodded, and I knew they would do what I told them. They may have been loyal to the family, but they owed their lives to me, and they knew it. Their allegiance belonged to me above anyone else. They were the only two men that I would trust with this.

"What did she tell you?" Sal asked.

"She doesn't know where she is," I told him. "She says he's dead."

She thinks I killed him.

"You believe it?" Tony asked.

"Not sure yet. I'll make sure she talks."

I hoped she was wrong, and I hoped she was right. Someone had betrayed me, and it was either my own father or my best friend. Was Ace a rat and stabbing me the back? I knew my father was a murderer, but the question was, which of the Harlows did he murder in this case? All of them except the one he sent me to kill?

V

Stella

I cracked open the bedroom door and peered down the hallway. It was dark and empty, exactly how I wanted it. I tiptoed down the hall quietly, holding my breath. The last thing I wanted was for Atlas to see me. I had sat in the bedroom, crying and pacing for an entire day. Too scared to leave and too stubborn to eat, I was starving. I wanted to hide out in my room until a miracle happened and I was set free, but I would soon starve to death with that plan.

So plan B was to sneak into the kitchen, grab something to eat and get back to the room without being noticed. I thought I was clever refusing the food they brought me, but the empty feeling in my stomach was making me regret it. If I ever wanted to escape, I couldn't be ready to pass out. Dying of hunger had to be more painful than a bullet.

Every door was closed in the hall but I saw the light coming from the kitchen. I was almost there when I heard the sounds of voices. I froze in place, listening. I heard the deep rumble of Atlas's voice along with a stranger's voice, or maybe two. My hands shook with nerves and my body wavered between going toward the voices or the kitchen.

What if they could help me? If I told them I was here against my will, would they save me? Surely Atlas wouldn't fight for me if he was outnumbered. The thought of being free had my feet leaving the safety the kitchen could provide and moving toward the voices. Another hall was off to my right and the voices got louder. I poked my head around the corner, hoping to find safety.

French doors opened at the end of the short hall to a dimly lit room. Atlas sat in a dark leather chair, holding a glass on his knee. His eyes were hard as they connected with mine and I saw his jaw tick. Gasping, I didn't even bother to see who was with him before I turned and ran back to the kitchen. I would pretend I had gotten lost on the way.

I came to a skid on my bare feet as I rounded the corner into the kitchen. I made it to the large refrigerator and swung open the door, hoping to look innocent. The inside was packed full of food and drinks. At the sight, my stomach rumbled as I remembered how hungry I really was. The cold air hit my skin and I reached in to grab a yogurt.

"Finally ending your hunger strike?"

I screamed in surprise and spun to find Atlas leaning in the doorway, dressed in a black suit. He had a glass of amber liquor in one hand and wore a confident smirk on his face. His dark eyes trailed down my body in a threatening gaze. I bit my lip and let the refrigerator door close slowly. Facing Atlas, I didn't know what to expect as he stalked toward me.

"Do I need to chain you up again?" he asked when he was closer.

I shook my head quickly and stepped back until I hit the counter. I thought of the night in the basement and cringed. I had never been so scared in my life than I was chained to that pillar, utterly defenseless. I never wanted to relive that again.

"Then I suggest you stay in the areas you have permission to be in," he said. His voice was low and steady. It was a warning. "I was hesitant to let you leave the room at all. Don't make me regret it, Stella."

Every bit of me want to melt to the floor with his glare on me. I wanted to run but I didn't know where. Back to my room where he kept me? To the people that I could only assume wouldn't help me? My options were limited. Refusing to eat did nothing but make me desperate. Being brave and exploring only got me cornered. The only option at the moment seemed to be to do as I was told.

"Go straight back to your room when are you done," he told me before leaving me alone in the kitchen. I listened as his footsteps faded, knowing he didn't go far from the doorway.

I sighed and sagged against the cold counter. After several attempts, I found the silverware and grabbed a spoon. I had come all this way; I might as well eat the yogurt. I lifted the foil top and dug the spoon into the creamy goodness. It wasn't nearly enough to fill me but I was too nervous to stay in the kitchen any longer. I felt safer in my prison, as messed up as that was.

I found the trash and threw out the empty cup. When I turned to leave, two large men appeared in the doorway. Both with dark skin and void faces, staring down at me. One reached forward and plucked the spoon from my grip. I self-consciously shifted, knowing I was only in shorts and a tank top. My wardrobe selection hadn't been very vast, but I did have a closet full of clothes in my size.

"Atlas?" I called out, knowing he would hear me. The two big guys just stared down at me, unamused.

"They will see that you find your way back to your room," Atlas answered from the hall.

My throat constricted with panic and I felt like a caged animal. I backed myself into the corner of the kitchen while the two meatheads closed in on me. Like most animals, my fight or flight instincts kicked in.

With a strength I didn't ever think I could possess, I pushed past the two burly men. With one fist, I hit one square in the balls and elbowed the other in the pit of his stomach when his arms tried to reach around me. Sounds of grunts and thumps sounded and I fell to my knees with them.

My hands and legs scrambled to pull myself back up. Knocking a fruit bowl off the counter, I grabbed a cutting board. A knife would have been better, but they were smart enough to remove those when I was granted access to the kitchen. Armed with a heavy piece of wood, I ran. My feet slipped as I scrambled for the open doorway. The two men were also getting to their feet behind me. The cutting board shook in my hands as I kept my eyes forward. The wood was heavy and I hoped it would be enough to at least cave in one of their heads.

"Stop her," one yelled as I rounded the corner of the doorway.

"Stella! Stop!" Atlas yelled. I could tell he was in the kitchen.

In the hallway, the front door was finally in sight. I knew it was locked and could only opened with their keys. That didn't stop my legs from sprinting toward it anyway, knocking the air out of me when I slammed into it. The side window panels looked too thin to fit myself through. I could hear the pounding of the men’s footsteps coming after me. Their voices echoed as they came closer to where I was pinned against the locked door.

With my blood pumping with adrenaline, I pounded at the glass with the cutting board. Glass shattered and fell to the ground. Stepping back, I felt the tears rolling down my face.

"Stella," I heard Atlas growl from the end of the hall. Only a few dozen feet of expensive hardwood floor separated us.

The sound of his deep and commanding voice pushed one more burst of will through me. I could hear my own cries as I punched the rest of the shards away. The glass digging into my skin didn't register in my mind as I tried to push my body through the thin opening. I was able to fit the upper half of my body through before I felt a hand grab my leg.

"You fucking bitch."One of the goons had my leg and yanked me roughly back.

"Let go!" I cried and kicked. My bare foot connected with a hard body and I was released.

Hearing my name called once more, I used every ounce of strength to pull myself the rest of the way. Glass and wood scraped at my skin, but I didn't stop. I could feel the cool night air on my skin. I could smell the rain that had recently fallen and saw the moon hidden in the clouds in the sky. I was outside!

The night was so dark I couldn't see a more than few feet in front of me. I actually couldn't see any light in the distance at all. My heartbeat thumped and my breath came in hard pants as I ran away from the house. I could hear the shouts for me, and Atlas barking commands, but I couldn't look back. It didn't matter that I had no idea where I was going. My bare feet hit the gravel and my body cut through the night air as I sprinted up the gravel drive. I had to keep going. I had to lose him and find help. I just had to keep running.

"Stella! Stop!" My heart stopped when I heard Atlas's voice behind me.

In a panic, I turned off to the right into the tall grass. I could hear him cursing as he entered the thick brush behind me. The grass and branches slapped my bare skin, stinging me. This would be my only hope to lose him and get away. I kept running, ignoring the pain and shortness of breath until I couldn't hear him any longer.

Bent over with my hands on my knees, I struggled to breathe. Every gasp of air burned and my entire body ached. I couldn't see in the darkness, and all I could hear was my own heartbeat pounding. Even the moon had been swallowed by the clouds. Goosebumps trailed over my sweaty skin as I noticed how very lost and screwed I really was.

"There's nowhere to go, Stella," his voice surrounded me. "You won't get away."

Fuck! Just when I thought I was alone, he had found me. A cry escaped my lips and I tried to run, only to be pulled back. My back hit a hard body behind me at the same time a hand clamped over my mouth. My cries and screams were muffled under the pressure of his hand. Another arm snaked around my chest and fingers wrapped around my throat.

"Shh," Atlas whispered in my ear. "That was fucking stupid. So stupid. You're hurt now."

I lashed out against him but it was pointless. The hand around my throat tightened in warning. His hold was strong and held me immobile in his arms. I slumped against him in defeat and despair. All the strength and determination leaked out of my body.

He found me. I ran and he caught me. I was warned how foolish it would be to run and now I would have to face the consequences. Tears streamed down my face and over his hand as the adrenaline wore off and reality sank in. Everything hurt and it was only Atlas holding me up on my feet.

His lips brushed my ear, sending a shiver down my spine. "Don't you dare fucking scream, understand?"

I nodded once and his fingers slowly lifted from my mouth and wrapped around my waist. I pulled in a deep breath, feeling the pain in my ribs with the inhale. Atlas tilted my head back while still keeping his grip on my throat. Even though I couldn't see his face, I felt his hard stare on me. Anger was rolling off his body in hot waves, and every muscle pressed to me was rock hard.

"I'm sorry," I cried quietly, slumping against him.

"Shut up," he growled as he hoisted me up into his arms. "We are going back to the house and I will clean you up. You are not going to fight me or even think about running again. Do you understand me?"

I swallowed the lump in my throat and nodded against him. I didn't struggle as he walked us out of the brush, with his arms protecting me from anymore scrapes. I didn't even fight as he carried me back up the long driveway. I didn't dare to apologize again for fear of angering him further. I had no idea what he would do to me for running.

Atlas carried me effortlessly and I started to feel the consequences of my escape attempt. My sides ached and stung with every step. My hands felt raw and I could smell the metallic scent of blood. As the light of the house came into view, two large figures lingered near the door as we approached.

“Board up the windows,” Atlas barked at them. “Get this cleaned up.”

"Yes, sir," the other answered as they shrank back at his anger.

"That will be all," Atlas muttered as he stepped up the front door. Glass broke under his steps.

"What about the girl?" Goon Two asked.

Atlas spun to face the two dumb brutes. I squeezed my eyes shut knowing he had gone from very angry to downright furious, and it was my fault. I could only imagine how I would pay for it when they left.

"You two fucking morons can't handle the girl, so you're no good to me at this point," he told them in a scary, low voice that sent goosebumps over my arms and legs. "You had one fucking job. Get. Her. To. Her. Room."

Atlas spun on his heels and slammed the door behind us once inside. My vision swirled and blurred as he carried me down the hall. Nausea mixed with the dread as I knew we were close to my room. When I heard the turn of the doorknob, everything went black.

VI

Atlas

Stella was covered in blood and limp in my arms. Her clothes were soaked, her long hair dripping water on the floor. I ripped off the sheet with one hand and placed her on the bed. Her blonde hair was a mess, strewn with leaves and dirt. Scrapes and cuts covered her face, and her hands were bloody. When I turned, Tony stood in the doorway with bandages and a damp cloth. Pushing aside my anger at him, I grabbed the stuff from his hands.

I knelt on the mattress, using the wet cloth to wipe the blood from her hands so I could see where it was coming from. Behind me, Sal appeared with the first aid kit, loaded with antibiotic cream, pain reliever and rubbing alcohol. After cleaning up her hands, I found few cuts from where she broke the glass windows. I didn't think she would fit through the small space, but the little shit was determined.

Stella didn't wake as I poured the alcohol over her cuts. Tony put blobs of antibiotic cream on them, but nothing looked deep enough for stitches. I wanted to kill him for letting her get away, but he was one of the few I trusted with my mission. I would need him, but I would be kicking their asses later for fucking up.

Sal was busy cleaning up her face. After the dirt was wiped away, I could tell that the scrapes were only minor. The brush out there was thick and unforgiving. It was the reason very few lived in the secluded area and why I chose this place as mine.

"She's fucking fast," Tony mumbled when he was done with her hands.

"She ran track in high school and college," I said. "Go fix the damn windows."

Both men nodded and left the room. I should have never trusted her alone. I was too busy trying to gain her trust and too concerned about her not eating that I let that override my common sense. If she was anything like her brother, she was stubborn and wouldn't eat the food I handed her anyway. I underestimated her and the balls she had.

My name was one to be feared and respected in this city. Not many dared to stand against me, but this little girl wouldn't back down. I had spent months planning, watching, and getting ready for this moment. I wouldn't have all this unravel now, or ever.

I ran my thumb over a cut under her eye and Stella groaned. Her eyelids slowly fluttered open and soon she was looking up at me. She blinked, looking around the room. I saw the moment she remembered where she was and what happened.

"Let me die," she whispered. "Just let me bleed out. You owe me at least that much."

I pinched the bridge of my nose and shook my head. Stella was more of a headache than I had anticipated. This was supposed to be the easy part.

"You aren't going to die, Stella," I told her. "You're not bleeding enough. I don't owe it to you to let you die. I owe it to you to save your fucking life."

"I don't even know what that means," she mumbled, fading in and out of consciousness. "What do you want from me?"

I leaned over her and grabbed the sides of her face. Her skin was cool and still damp from the rain. I lightly smacked her cheek and her big blue eyes opened back up, locking onto mine.

"I need to know what you saw that night. The night your parents were killed."

Stella's eyes went wide and she shook her head, breaking out of my hold. "I didn't see anything. I don't know anything."

I could hear the fear in the slight tremor of her voice as she recited the practiced lie. It was something I would normally feed off of. When a predator sensed the fear in their prey, it was a sign that victory was within its grasp. I lived and thrived off fear and weakness, conditioned to recognize it. Stella's distress told me enough.

"I know you saw who did it. You may have lied to the cops and everyone else, but I know the truth. So, Little Star, tell me what you saw."

"No," she whispered. "I saw nothing."

Stella tried sitting up but I grabbed her hands and pulled them out from underneath her. She fell back to the bed and I pinned her wrists above her head, careful not to press too hard on any of the cuts. She struggled for a few seconds before I felt the rest of her energy drain from her.

"Please. Let me go," she pleaded.

"No can do," I said. "You think that if I didn't drug you and bring you here that you would have actually made it to California? You think that it was actually enough that you kept your mouth shut?"

"Kinda," she answered weakly.

"No, Stella. It wasn't, and if I hadn't gotten to you first, you would have met a very similar fate as your parents. I'm sure you know what that would be like."

Stella's hand broke free of my grip and her closed fist connected with my jaw. I quickly snatched up her wrist and gritted my teeth to keep from breaking her hand.

"Do you have a fucking death wish?" I growled.

"Obviously," she snapped back. She glared up at me with hate, anger and fire.

"Too fucking bad," I said, pulling her up and off the bed. "Trust me, it would be easier to just kill you."

Stella swayed slightly on her feet, and I could see that the movement hurt. Her clothes were still wet and her shirt was torn. She would feel like hell in the morning.

"Hands up and keep them up," I demanded. Just to be sure she listened, I grabbed the small blade I kept on my belt. Her eyes went wide but she raised her hands like I ordered.

I stepped closer, grabbing the shredded hem of the tank top, and slowly pulled it up and over her head. Stella's muscles went tense and I watched as goosebumps scattered on the skin exposed in the cool air. The shirt fell to the floor with a heavy thud. Stella glared at me as her nipples hardened. I clenched my jaw with anger when I noticed the ugly bruises and scrapes that marred her perfect skin.

"Stay put," I said, pointing the blade at her.

I walked backward to the closet and pulled out a long robe. I could make her strip and expose herself entirely to me. I could watch as she struggled with herself while trying to decide if she was terrified or intrigued. It would be so easy to make her anticipate my next move while she was naked and defenseless. Having control was mostly making others fear you.

"Put this on," I told her as I handed the thick robe to her.

Stella took it and quickly wrapped it around herself, tying the waist tightly.

"Thank you," she said quietly. I could hear that she was starting to shiver.

Using the knife to wave her over, I directed her over the en suite bathroom and unlocked the door for her. I let her walk in first and followed in closely behind. Stella stood in the center of the bathroom, looking unsure of what to do next. I pulled open the shower doors and started the water, making sure it was hot.

"There is nothing in here that you can use to hurt yourself or anyone else," I told her. "Shower and get warm. I'll be outside."

I left her standing in the bathroom and closed the door behind me. I waited until I could hear the change of the water stream from hitting her body before I put my knife away. In the closet, I found some warmer clothes that she could change into when she got out. The night was not supposed to end with me dressing the girl like a doll.

"Shit," I cursed, running my hands roughly through my hair.

Gaining her trust was harder than I thought it would be. Understandably, Stella had her assumptions about me and my family. In most circumstances, she would be right. I was ruthless, a killer, and had no room for soft spots. But true to my ethics, I would protect my own and keep my word. I had no desire to kill her without reason, but she seemed determined to give me one.

I placed the clothes on the marble sink in the bathroom without being noticed. When Stella finally came out, a cloud of steam followed her. I sat on the bed holding antibiotic cream and bandages.

"Your hands," I told her.

Stella looked down at her knuckles, seeming to notice the blood and cuts for the first time. Hesitantly, she walked over to stand in front of me and offered her hands to me. Taking both wrists with one hand, I used the other to grab her chin and forced her to look at me.

"You do something like that again, I won't patch you back up," I warned her. I roughly let go of her face and spread some cream on her fingers.

"Why are you now?" she asked, trying to bend and get a look at my face.

I looked up and into her eyes. She could see how empty and cold I really was. "Because I'm not done with you."

Stella wisely chose to shut up and let me finish up cleaning her hands. I ignored her flinches and hissing as I put the bandages on. I was beyond pissed that she was hurt, but I couldn't coddle her. She needed to respect and fear me enough to never try something like that again.

"Lift up your shirt," I asked her when her hands were taken care of.

Stella took a deep breath before she lifted the flannel shirt to expose her stomach, keeping her breasts covered. There were scrapes and bruising on her ribs from pushing through the small window. One large gash decorated her stomach and I touched it gently, causing Stella to jump away.

I grabbed her hips, pulling her between my knees and running my fingers over her stomach. The skin was soft and warm under my cold hands. Stella held her breath while I inspected her body. I tickled down her ribcage, checking for any broken bones under the purple skin. The cut was the worst of the injuries so I cleaned it with alcohol and covered it with gauze.

I reached up and cupped her cheek, tilting her head to look at her face. The scrapes on her face from running in the brush were minor. They should clear in a day or so. I moved my fingers gently through her wet hair, feeling for any cuts on her head. Stella's eyes closed as she tipped her head back and I drug my fingers through the long strands. My hands trailed down her back and to her hips.

"Anything else hurt?" I asked, still holding her between my legs.

"Don't think so," she answered, her voice low and breathy.

I stood before I decided to pull her onto my lap. My chest rubbed against hers as I did, and I heard her sharp inhale. I smirked, letting her know that I had heard, and I pushed her back a few feet.

"Go to bed," I told her as I pulled the wingback chair from the corner across the room.

"What are you doing?" she asked. "Are you . . . are you staying?"

"Fuck yes, I'm staying," I told her as I sat in the chair with my back to the door, facing the bed. "It's either this or I tie you up again. Or you can go to the basement. I obviously can't trust you alone."

Stella shook her head but climbed into the bed quickly. She pulled the covers over her and I reached up to switch off the lights. We were plunged into darkness and silence and I could hear her staggered breathing. Tomorrow, I would come up with a new plan. I would feed her, forcefully if needed, and I would figure out a way to keep her inside and give me what I needed.

VII

Stella

I could feel it in my bones that something was wrong. Sitting up in my bed, I could see light in the hallway. I rubbed my eyes and waited for them to focus. When I heard the voices, a chill ran down my spine. It sounded like crying.

I crawled out of my bed and tiptoed to the doorway. I could feel my heartbeat pounding in my ears, but I forced myself into the dim hallway anyway. I could barely breathe with the feeling of doom and fear swallowing me, but I needed to see. I needed to know what was happening. I hoped I was just being paranoid and that nothing was wrong. 

I wasn't being paranoid. My mom was kneeling on the kitchen floor. Her face was in her hands and she cried quietly. My dad knelt beside her, looking ahead with determination and hate. Something was very wrong. The man I thought was the strongest and bravest man in the world was on his knees in our kitchen while my mom begged for their lives. 

My feet were glued to the floor as the gun pressed to my dad's forehead. I held my breath and prayed the scene in front of me wasn't real. I watched, frozen in horror, as the sound of the gunshot blasted through the silent night. Red splattered and another blast sounded, silencing my mom's screams. One scream continued to pierce the air louder than any gunshot.

I fell to the floor as I watched the blood pool on the tile. The kitchen my mom cooked countless dinners in was red instead of black and white. The room my parents, my brother and I talked in every night was ruined. The two people who meant the most to me had just vanished before my eyes. The dark figure who took away my world vanished just as quickly, as I crawled into the pool of blood my mom and dad were drowning in. 

My own scream filtered in my ears along with my name being screamed. I didn't want to leave yet. I wanted to save them, but it was too late.

"Stella!"

I was being shaken and my name was being yelled. I forced my eyes to open and look around. I wasn't in my kitchen. The floor was carpet and not the checkered tile covered in red. Strong hands held my face, and as the tears dried in my eyes, a face appeared.

"You with me?" Atlas asked. He looked at me with shock and curiosity.

"Yeah," I said with a rough voice. My throat hurt like I had been screaming. I probably had.

Atlas let me go and leaned back on the bed, watching me carefully. I ran my fingers through my hair, finding it damp from sweat. My clothes were wet under the warm robe and my hands felt clammy. My breathing was still coming in hot pants.

"Bad dream?" he asked.

"Something like that," I answered. A dream would imply that it was fiction and not real.

I tore the robe off, tossing it to the floor. I needed to cool down. I could feel Atlas watching me and I knew he wanted to ask a million questions. I would never answer them. I had never told a soul what I had seen that night, and I didn't ever intend to do so. For a while, I thought that was the only thing keeping me alive. Now, I wasn’t too sure.

"If I go get you a drink, will you try to run?" Atlas asked.

I shook my head. I didn't think my legs would hold me if I tried. I was finally feeling the consequences from my escape attempt. I hung my head as Atlas quietly left the room. When I was alone, I let three tears go—one for each part of my heart that was taken from me.

I jumped when the door opened again. Atlas came in with a glass and shut the door behind him. His shirt was only held closed with the last three buttons, exposing most of his wide chest. The shirt used to be white but was now covered in dirt smears, and one sleeve had a small rip. His hair was unruly and his face had a little more scruff than I had remembered.

"Orange juice," he said as he handed me the glass. "It's already five in the morning so we might as well stay up."

"Did you sleep in the chair all night?" I asked.

"I did. I couldn't strap you down with your hands like that," he mumbled as he pushed the chair back in the corner.

I awkwardly drank my juice, looking at my hands and the damage I had caused. They were sore and cut up. At the time, I didn't even feel it. I had just wanted to escape. This morning though, I was sore all over. My ribs hurt, and I felt like I had fallen down a cliff. Thanks to Atlas, I seemed to be cleaned and bandaged up.

"Go get dressed," he told me as he stalked over to the end of the bed. I shrunk down under his angry glare.

"And Stella," he started and leaned toward me. "As much as I would prefer you alive, do not assume that secures your life. The moment your life becomes too much of a risk to me, overcoming the potential outcome, I will dispose of you. Understood?"

"Yes," I whispered. There was no doubt in my mind that he meant it. I also didn't believe that he wouldn't kill me if I did cooperate. I knew what people like him were like.

"Despite what you say, you actually want to live," he said. "Otherwise, why hide? Why fight? Why lie to the police and say you didn't see anything that night?"

A chill ran down my spine and I clenched my jaw to keep my mouth shut. The images from my nightmare, and real life, were too fresh in my mind. I could still smell the freshly spilled blood. I could remember the sound of my scream echoing in the night. I remembered how cold my mother's body felt as I held her in my arms until the paramedics dragged me away.

Atlas wanted to know what I had seen that night, but I kept it locked away. It only came out at night. Only when the darkness took over and there was no light left did the truth have the courage to surface. It was a truth that I would never let out because Atlas was right. I wanted to live. Keeping my secrets was the only thing that kept me alive.

I got up abruptly, picked some random clothes from the closet and took them to change in the bathroom. It wasn't a coincidence it was full of clothing in my size. Atlas had obviously known who I was long before we met at the club. I ran my fingers through my knotted hair and rinsed my face. A hairbrush was apparently too much to ask for.

I came out of the bedroom to find Atlas sitting on the edge of the bed waiting. His dark eyes trailed down my body dressed in simple leggings and a long shirt. His gaze felt more sensual than it did when I was practically naked. Atlas tilted his head and cracked his neck. Standing, he motioned for me to follow him.

Without many other options, I followed him to the kitchen where he pulled out fruit and made me a bagel. I couldn't escape. The windows were boarded up and Atlas never took his eyes off me for more than a few seconds. I heard the footsteps of his guards nearby, but didn't see them. I reluctantly picked at the fruit and pulled off parts of the bagel.

Shoving a piece in my mouth, I tasted the thick cream cheese and my stomach rumbled. I hadn't realized how hungry I was until a piece of food landed in my stomach. I quickly devoured the fruit as well. Atlas kept pushing more food toward me until I couldn't shove anymore in my mouth. I paused, eyeing the fork in my hand.

"Don't even think about it," he warned, his voice low and full of threat.

Setting it down, I looked up at him. This man's attitude toward me had me spinning. One second he was flirting then shoving me in a truck. Then he nursed my wounds before going cold again. I knew who he was. My brother thought he was secretive, but I knew the family he was working for. Atlas was no different than rest of the Omegas.

"Good girl," he said, reaching forward and slipping the fork away from me.

As he walked around behind me, I stiffened and held my breath. When he moved my long hair off my back and over one shoulder, I shuddered.

"You think you could kill with just a fork, Little Star?" he said in my ear.

I shook my head.

"No? If you get the right spot . . ." he said, putting the tines at the pulse point on my neck, right under my chin. "You think this will kill someone?"

"Yes," I gasped when he applied slight pressure. I could feel each tine pressing into my skin.

"Or here," he said as he moved the fork to my chest. He dragged it over the top of my breast and poked the skin right over my heart.

I could feel my heart pounding in my ears and against the fork pressed to my chest. I tried to even out my breathing so he couldn't hear how scared I was. Men like him fed off of it, thrived off of it even. I could feel his body heat on my back as his hand moved from my shoulder and down my arm.

"So you see why I can't let you out of my sight?" he asked, releasing me from his hold.

"I won't do anything stupid again."

"I'm a very careful man."

Atlas washed the dishes and cleaned the kitchen like it was any other morning after breakfast. Maybe this was a regular occurrence. For all I knew, Atlas could bring back a different woman every few days as his prisoner. When he got whatever it was that he wanted, he’d get rid of them. I didn't know what exactly it was that Atlas wanted from me, but I wouldn't be giving it to him. He said he wanted information that he surely already knew.

"Sir?" I heard from behind me. I turned to see the two goons from yesterday.

"My office in ten," Atlas told them. Like soldiers, they both nodded and left the room.

"Did you get enough to eat?" he asked me once we were alone.

"Yes," I said. "Thanks."

I hated thanking him and I wished I could take the words back. I wanted to be my dad's daughter and kick him. I should be leaving this world fighting. Kicking and screaming. I shouldn't be hiding. Cowering and obeying a killer would have Daddy rolling in his grave. I closed my eyes and prayed that he wasn't watching me now. I could only hope that he was too busy keeping up with Mom and Ace in Heaven.

VIII

Atlas

I led Stella down to my office. As much as I hated the idea of her knowing where this room was, I couldn't allow her to be alone. She was smarter than I gave her credit for. Even after months of watching and waiting, I didn't know all there was to know about Stella Harlow. It made me feel unprepared and surprised. I hated it.

"Sit," I told her as I shoved her into a chair in the corner. Sal and Tony were waiting for me as I had asked.

"She looks pretty good considering last night," Sal muttered under his breath.

He was right. Stella had some bruises and minor cuts, but it was minimal for what she had gone through. Sal had a black eye and Tony had a decent cut on his cheek. They didn't even go through the broken glass like she had. I made a mental note that she was tougher than I had predicted as well. She wouldn't be easy to break.

"What's the word?" I asked them. I sat in my chair behind the desk where I could see my men and Stella in the corner.

"Your father seems quiet. No movement on his end," Sal started. "Rumor has it you killed the last Harlow. No missing reports on the girl yet."

I looked right at Stella and her eyes were wide. I smirked at her and she glared. Now she knew no one was looking for her, and the only people who were, wanted her dead.

"Good. Tell Larry and Tim that I killed off the whole family."

I heard Stella gasp as Sal and Tony exchanged a look.

"Those two idiots?" Tony asked me.

"Those two idiots are perfect," I answered. "They have the biggest mouths and word will spread fast. The only man who will argue that fact is someone wanting the credit themselves."

I saw it click in my men's heads and the confusion all over Stella's face. Little did she know that only she held the real answers. I was fishing in a pool of sharks. There was blood in the water and no one was safe. Only the biggest fish would survive. I had to be smarter and one step ahead of the rest of my family. I needed the truth out of the girl I had locked away in my house.

"And Hector has been asking to see you," Tony added.

I groaned and rubbed my temples. Hector had been trying to get together for weeks, but I kept blowing him off. There was no specific reason other than I hated the fucker. He was creepy and more evil than even my old man. It made my skin crawl just being around him, and I had been around some of the worst of men.

"Nice work," I told them. It took over a year to find guys I could trust. Other than Ace, they were the only people I ever trusted.

They left the room and Stella waited in the corner quietly for me. She looked at me with so much hate and pain. Normally, I loved seeing that look. It was much better than seeing hurt and betrayal on her face. I wanted to erase that look. She may not have believed me, but I was looking for the same monsters under the bed.

"You?" she asked. Her voice cracked. "You killed my parents?"

"You know damn well I wasn't the one who pulled the trigger that night," I said, walking over to her and placing my hands on each side of her on the arms of the chair.

She shook her head at me and tears welled in her eyes.

"You saw who was in your house that night. Tell me, Stella. Who did you see?"

Stella shut down. It was like watching the Christmas lights go out on the tree. They all dimmed at once, and the room was thrown into darkness. She wouldn't look up at me, and when I titled her face to mine, her eyes were void. She had checked out. I wouldn't get any answers from her.

I walked back to my desk and spent a few hours getting some work done. There was money to move, people to contact, and leads to chase down. Tapping into security cameras was one of the best ideas we had, but it was tedious and time consuming to go through all the footage.

"Stella," I called over to her. She looked at me with a blank stare that I couldn't handle another second.

I pushed off the desk so hard my chair hit the bookshelf behind me. She didn't even flinch. Taking her face in one hand, I took one second to savor how soft her skin felt. After that, I smacked her. It was nowhere near as hard as I could, but just enough to wake her up.

"Listen to me very carefully, Little Star," I said, looking deep into her eyes. "I will only say this once."

I waited until I was sure she was with me. Her breathing accelerated like it usually did when I was near, and the pink tint returned to her cheeks.

"I am not going to kill you and I did not kill your family. I want to know who did. You know who did. Now can you see the connection?"

Stella chewed on her bottom lip, and I watched in fascination. I was sure I knew everything about this girl. I knew her clothing size, her favorite coffee, that she preferred boy shorts to thongs, and she loved dance music. I didn't know she chewed on her lips when she was deep in thought. I didn't know that she slept on her stomach or that she was tough as nails.

"You need to tell me what you saw that night," I urged her.

"No. I didn't see anything," she lied. I saw the fear all over her face. She was smart enough to know what would happen if she told anyone.

"I heard you in your sleep, Stella. I know that's not true. You need to tell me."

"You seriously expect me to trust you?"

"Kinda," I admitted giving her a grin that usually worked to get my own way with women.

"Want to know who I trust?" she asked.

I didn't really want to know where she was going with this. I could tell she was getting worked up for some righteous rant that I didn't have the time for.

"My dad, who believed the law existed for a reason and that no one was above it. My mother who stood behind her man and supported him and her children no matter what. My brother who would have protected me against the evil likes of you."

I sighed and rubbed my face. I needed to shave and this wasn't going well. I knew the girl would be a handful because her brother was more than that, but I never thought she would be this fucking difficult. I didn't want to have to break her, so I needed to change her mind. Breaking her, and making her fear me so deeply that she gave in, was my last resort. Some sacrifices were necessary for the greater good. One lost to save many.

"You may not have a reason to trust me," I agreed. "But know that your brother did. Ace trusted me with his life."

"Right," she laughed harshly. "And we see where that got him. That life he trusted you with is gone!"

Stella raised her hand to strike me. I had plenty of time to stop her but I let her punch me in the chest. I let her smack at me and pound on my body until she ran out of energy. Even with all her might, it didn't hurt enough to make her stop. This was her letting it out. In the ten months since her parents’ death, I had never seen her lash out or let out the anger. She quietly cried in her sadness and grief. She hid in fear but never let out the anger and hate she had.

When she finally wore herself out, Stella fell limp in my arms. When I put my arms under her legs and carried her from my office, I could feel her shaking against me. I took her down the hall and into her bedroom. She didn't look at me as I placed her in the bed and covered her up. I didn't stay to watch her. Instead, I turned off the lights and locked the door from the outside, giving her privacy to get herself back together.

I headed back to my office where I paced the room for about an hour. Every day having her here was a risk. If anyone ever got wind that Stella wasn't really dead, then I would be next on the hit list. Even my own dad wouldn't bother to save me. In our family, your place is determined by loyalty, not by blood. I'm only his golden son because I was everything he ever raised me to be.

Much to my own surprise, I actually developed a set of values and skills on my own. I grew up into a man who wasn't created by the great and powerful Mr. Omega. I may have killed, lied and stolen, but there was a thin line that I refused to cross. There was a point that I thought was too far into the depths of darkness. I also had the skills and the lack of morality to end it at the expense of my blood family.

IX

Stella

I had been captive in the house for almost a week before I was finally allowed to see outside. I was kept in my room with the door locked most of the day. Sometimes Atlas would make me sit in his office with him while he worked. I had no idea what it was that he was doing, but I didn't dare ask. If I didn't want to answer any questions then I should expect the same from him.

"You're getting pale," Atlas said. His voice startled me. I was curled up in the chair in the corner of his office with a book.

"That's what captivity does to you," I threw back.

"Come," he said, standing and coming over to me.

Confused, I followed him down the hall I only been down once the night I had arrived. He opened the wide doors and we stepped into a large living room. It was bright and open, contradictory to Atlas. The exposed wood beams and wood floors reflected the afternoon sun that poured in through the tall windows.

Outside, the lake sat waiting for me. It was calm and beautiful. I smiled when we stepped out and I felt the sun and wind on my face. The only sounds were from the birds and the trees swaying. I walked to the railing and looked down into the water. I felt Atlas behind me but I ignored him. I wanted to be alone for just a second, even if it was only pretend.

"Will you ever let me go?" I asked when I couldn't bear the silence any longer.

"No, Stella. I won't."

"Will you just keep me here forever?" I asked. The thought made my throat tight but it was better than the alternative.

"Would that be so bad?" he asked as he stepped closer to me. I could feel his chest on my back even though he wasn't actually touching me yet.

The hairs on my body stood on end. He always made me feel so aware, and every sense was heightened. The first night I met him in the club, I loved the feeling. It was exhilarating and, for the first time in a very long time, I actually felt alive. Now, it was terrifying. I felt like an animal about to be eaten. I felt dead, not alive.

Atlas gently trailed his fingers down my bare arm and goosebumps followed in their wake. I fought to keep my breath from quickening. My body's reaction made no sense to me. It was a mixture of curiosity, pleasure, and fear. The emotions swirling made me dizzy trying to figure them out.

"You know what I want from you," he said in my ear.

What was it that he really wanted from me? Was it the answers to his questions? Was it my body? I gave up hope that anything I did would earn my freedom. I grew up in a family that was familiar with criminals like Atlas and his "family." I knew too much. I was a risk and could never walk out of this lake house.

"I can't give you what you want," I whispered.

"Sure you can," he said as he quickly backed away from me. "Let’s make a deal. A trade if you will."

"A trade?" I asked as I turned to look at him curiously.

"Keep in mind, dear, that I really don't need to be nice to you. Only out of respect for your brother do I refrain from chaining you up in my basement and torturing the answers from you."

My eyes widened because he issued that threat with such ease, without so much as blinking. He was being completely honest, and torture didn't seem like something he felt very guilty about.

"To be honest, I would actually enjoy that very much." Atlas licked his lips and looked me up and down. "But I will offer you an alternative."

I crossed my arms over my chest protectively. It did nothing to make me any safer.

"Here's is the deal. You answer one question and I will give you one freedom of your choice, within reason."

I chewed on my lip and mulled over the options. How hard could one question be? One freedom could save my sanity. It was tempting to think of becoming less of a pet and more of person.

"I want to be able to come out here or stay in my room instead of sitting in your office," I said.

"Deal. If you answer me this," he started and made eye-contact with me. "Did you see your parents murdered?"

I swallowed as the memories flood back in. "Yes."

Atlas nodded once. "You are free to go between your bedroom and this deck."

I exhaled in relief. One answer. One more day.

"Stella, I am a man of my word. You may think I'm dirt, but I live by a set of morals and loyalty. If you start to believe that, this could be a hell of a lot easier."

I tilted my head to try to see him in a different view. He looked the same. Powerful, strong and deadly. Even in his own home and alone, he dressed as I always saw him. He wore dark slacks with a collared shirt. When I saw him the first time, I almost drooled over him. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I must have thought he could be someone who could protect me.

"I'll be inside," he said. I nodded and before he left, he came and leaned into my ear.

"Don't fuck this up, Little Star, or I will slit your throat."

With those parting words, he turned and left me alone on the back deck. I stared after his wide shoulders as he slipped back inside. I saw the shadow of one of the guards in the living room. I wasn't truly alone but I could pretend for a while at least. I wouldn't jump into the lake and try to swim to safety like I had thought of too many times.

I watched the sun go down that evening. I spent hours watching the fish and bugs while humming to myself. I forgot what it was like to be outside. It wasn't something I had necessarily enjoyed before, but now it was something I wouldn't take for granted. I barely noticed when the air turned crisp. I never wanted to go back inside, but soon I started to shiver.

I opened the sliding door and walked into the living room. The lights were dim and the large fireplace on one wall looked cozy and inviting. Knowing Atlas, he bought the place for the secluded location and not the features like the hardwood floors and beautiful stone walls. I wanted to linger but didn't know if that was allowed, so I decided to head to my room.

In the hallway, I saw the light from Atlas's office. One of the guards, Tony maybe, stood in the hall near the kitchen watching me. I put my head down and turned the direction of my room. A hot shower sounded soothing. Tomorrow, I would be able to go back outside. Maybe I could bargain for a book or magazine. Even the newspaper would keep me occupied.

I was almost to my room when another figure came out one of the bathrooms. I froze for a second before walking again. Another day, another guard. This house was crawling with hardened criminals and killers. My dad would have loved busting into this place.

"Well, what do we have here?" the new guy asked.

I kept walking, deciding that was probably the safest option. I didn't need any more trouble tonight after having a decent day.

"I asked you a fucking question," he bit out and grabbed my arm roughly. The stranger yanked me back to him and pushed me to the wall.

"I was just going to my room," I told him.

"Is that so? Maybe I should come with you," he said with a sickening smile.

I shivered from my head to my toes. My heartbeat quickened and every muscle tensed in my body. A heavy feeling settled in my stomach as alarms rang in my head. Something bad was going to happen. I tried to break from his hold but he held me tighter. I could feel the bruises forming under his fingertips.

"Let go," I begged, trying to hide how scared I really was.

"I don't think so. Now I see what has Atlas so busy he can't meet with me. He got himself a new toy," he growled and he pushed me harder to the wall with his body.

"No," I argued. I could smell the cigarettes and whiskey on his breath and it made me sick to my stomach.

"Your pussy that tight?" he asked and I almost threw up all over him. "Maybe I should see what the all the fuss is about."

He wrapped one hand around my throat to keep me in place while his other hand grabbed my thigh and pushed my dress up to my waist. I bucked against him and tried to scream but I didn't have enough air in my lungs to make a sound. He was choking me and tugging at my clothes while I was helpless.

His fingers forcefully pushed and dug into my skin. My throat burned as his hand started to pull at my panties. His movements were rough and clumsy. I tried kicking but his body and hands kept me still. I squeezed my eyes shut as the darkness started to take over my vision.

His brutal hands left my body suddenly and a warm liquid splattered on my face. I fell to the ground with his grip no longer holding me pinned to the wall. A familiar metallic smell filled my nose, and I opened my eyes even though everything inside me told me to keep them closed. I was once again covered in blood.

"Damn it," I heard Atlas curse a few feet away. I could barely hear him over the ringing in my ears.

I heard several sets of footsteps coming toward me, but I couldn't look at them. I couldn't look away from the eyes staring blankly at me. Part of the side of his head was a disgusting mess. Hands grabbed my arms to pull me up, but I fought them blindly. I didn't want to be touched. I swung at Tony as he tried to pick me up from the floor.

"Stella," Atlas said, kneeling down and putting the gun in the back of his pants. He cupped my cheeks to get my attention. "Are you okay? Are you hurt?"

"I don't know," I whispered.

"What the fuck was he doing here?" Atlas asked Tony, who was still holding me.

"I don't know how he got in," he told him. "Hector had been trying to get a hold of you for a few days now. He must have decided to just come see you in person."

I watched as Sal grabbed my attacker by the feet, dragging him down the hall and out of my sight. Tony lifted me to my feet as Atlas paced the hall.

"Fuck," he growled. He pulled at his hair and I watched the muscles in his jaw clench. He was furious. When he looked back at me, he froze and let his hands fall to his sides.

"Get this cleaned up. Don't speak a word of it to anybody," he told Tony. "I'll deal with the girl."

I didn't fight as Tony passed me over to Atlas, who took my upper arm to lead me to the bedroom. It was the lesser of evils in the moment. I would do anything to get away from the bloody mess in the hallway. Atlas took me straight to the bathroom and turned on the water in the shower.

"I can't tell if you're hurt with all the blood," he mumbled as he pulled my sticky hair from my neck. "You need to clean up."

I pushed the straps of the dress off my shoulders. The fabric clung to me and wouldn't come off easily with all the sticky blood. Atlas roughly pulled on the hem, sending the ruined dress to the floor. My stomach rolled with the slick feeling on my body. I ripped off my panties and bra without caring that he was seeing me naked. I felt like I was ready to crawl out of my own skin. The smell, the sound of the gunshot, and the emptiness inside was all too familiar.

I slid open the doors and stepped under the hot water. It was almost scalding but I didn't care. I wanted to burn tonight off of my skin. Atlas closed the door and I closed my eyes. Memories flashed behind my eyelids, new and old. I pushed them down, swallowed the cries, and pretended it was all washing down the drain with the red-tinted water.

X

Atlas

I watched her silhouette in the shower without disturbing her. She was completely silent as she washed and scrubbed. The bathroom was filling with steam, and I wondered how she could stand the heat of the water. I was sure she knew I was out here, but she didn't ask me to leave. I wouldn't have anyway.

A knock sounded at the door and I opened it a crack to find Tony on the other side.

"Cleaned up?" I asked quietly, opening the door a little wider to see him. I wasn't going to leave this bathroom.

"Yeah. Sal is bleaching the floors. Might smell for the night," he told me. "She alright?"

"Not sure yet," I said with a glance back at her. I couldn't make out much with the frosted glass but I could see her leaning back against the wall, letting the spray hit her face.

"She might be in shock," he offered. "Especially if you're right and she saw her parents knocked off."

"I know she did. Being covered in blood probably isn't helping. Police found her holding her mom, covered in their blood."

"Shit," Tony hissed. "You are just determined to make that girl relive it aren't you?"

"You know I need to."

"The front door's lock was broken. That was probably how Hector got in,” he told me.

"What the fuck did he want?" I asked.

"He wanted to know what you were so busy with," Stella called from behind me. The knobs twisted and the water cut off.

"Did he tell you that?" I asked as I grabbed a towel and closed the door so Tony didn't get a show, too. A possessive feeling raged inside when I thought of him watching her get out of the shower with water dripping down her body.

"Yeah," she admitted, taking the towel and wrapping up in. "He thinks you're hiding away with a new plaything."

I grunted and tilted her head back to look at her neck covered in bruises.

"I'm sorry I shot him," I told her, looking into her confused eyes. "I should have beat him to death instead."

"I'm okay. Just sore," she told me

I clenched my fists and let her into the bedroom where the guys were waiting for us. Stella sat on the bed, keeping the towel tightly wrapped around her. My men kept their eyes off her and on me, waiting for their next orders.

"Find out what he knew," I told them. "If he talked to anyone, we are royally fucked."

"He didn't have any outgoing calls on his phone for the last hour, so I doubt he told anyone about the girl," Sal said.

"We need to be sure," I reminded.

"I watched Stella come inside just a few minutes before we found Hector with her. He couldn't have known about her before that," Tony said.

I looked over to where Stella was watching us calmly. She was too much in shock to care about how big a deal this really was.

"Stella, get dressed and I will be right back," I told her.

She nodded and I ushered the guys out into the hall. My nose stung with the smell of the bleach. I closed the door behind me and leaned against it. I doubted she would try an escape tonight, but it was not the time to take any more chances.

"If anyone hears I have the girl here, it's over. For all of us," I told them.

"You cut her loose now, all this shit will be for nothing," Tony argued. "You got nothing from her so far."

"I fucking know that," I growled at him.

"You said when the risk was greater than the outcome, we would end this," Sal reminded me. "Hector is high ranks. He probably knows her face."

"But instead of reporting it, he tried to get him a fucking piece," Tony said. He was in the girl's corner, which was clear.

"If someone comes looking for him and finds her," I started, but Tony shook his head. We all knew there was a plan for that.

"Give it a few days," Tony urged. "You just killed a man for her. You saved her ass. That may convince her to cooperate."

I looked over to Sal while I debated my options. We could kill her now and dump her with Hector. No one would know the difference. The family wanted her dead and thought I had already done the deed. We could keep her and hope no one knew she was still alive in the meantime. Once I got what I needed, it was all over anyway. One sacrifice to save many.

"Keep your eyes and ears open," I told them, my mind made up and plan formed. "And double up the security on doors and windows. No one gets in and no one gets out."

"Got it boss," Tony answered, pleased with my decision.

"We get so much as a feeling that they know she is here, get rid of her," I told them before pushing back into the bedroom.

Stella was curled up in the center of the bed, passed out cold. She looked so small and alone on top of the covers in the big bed. Rage and hate burned inside me to see the finger marks on the side of her neck. She was mine to mark up and push around, but I never liked hurting her.

I pulled the blankets back and covered her up. I don't know how long I sat on the bed and watched her sleep. It was a few hours before she started to toss and turn like she usually did with the nightmares. I wondered what she was dreaming about tonight. Was it her parents or Hector she was seeing in a pool of blood?

In the morning, I woke in the bed next to Stella. My eyes sprung open and I shot up when I realized where I was. I hadn't meant to fall asleep, let alone in here. Reaching to my back, my gun was still there. When I looked down, Stella was already awake and watching me. By the looks of her, she had been up for some time. I glanced at my watch, it was almost afternoon by now.

"Morning," she said. "I'm starving."

I couldn't help but laugh as I got out of the bed.

"By all means, let’s feed you."

In the kitchen, Stella picked at her food. She looked fine, but seemed broken. She was putting on tough act, but inside, she was terrified. Was she scared of me since she had seen me kill a man? She knew that was the man I was. But I killed for her.

For the first time, I realized how she could interpret my actions. Did I just give her evidence that I needed her alive? I killed one of my own to save her. Before I had treated her like she was disposable. Now, she might think that she was valuable and worth saving. She couldn't think she had the upper hand.

"You need a haircut," I told her harshly.

"What?" she asked, confused. She ran her fingers through her hair, looking at the locks as they slipped between her fingers.

"If by chance Hector told anyone of a girl here, it wouldn't take a genius to figure out it was you," I explained. "You need to look different from the girl I was supposed to kill in the basement."

"So we need to cut my hair?"

"Yes, and dye it. It's that or kill you."

Stella's eyes widened and she swallowed the grape she had been chewing for the past several seconds. She grabbed some hair and looked longingly at it. I would miss her long, blonde hair too. I would never get to fulfill that fantasy of pulling it from behind her, tilting her head back to look at me.

"What color?" she asked quietly.

"Black."

She stood from her stool and looked right at me. "I lost bigger things than this. Let's get it over with."

Snarky. I had watched her for months. I had witnessed her go through the five stages of grief and come out on the other end. She wasn't the same person, but she was alive. Hiding, but alive. Just when I had thought she was down and wouldn't get back up, she did. Every hit took a little out of her, but she came out on the other side, still breathing.

I grabbed the bag Sal had left on the counter for me and scissors from a locked kitchen drawer. I led her back to her bathroom where we stood in front of the mirror. I let her twist some hair around her fingers one last time. It was a shame we had to get rid of it.

"Here we go," I warned her.

Stella closed her eyes, and I wrapped my hand around the bottom of her hair. I clipped away what was above my fist. The hair fell to my feet like gold ribbons. The rest fell around her shoulders. It was still long even though about nine inches were at my feet.

"May I?" she asked, reaching back for the scissors.

"You're fucking kidding me. No."

Stella sighed and met my eyes in the mirror. "I just want to even it out. It looks like shit. I won't do anything stupid."

I handed her the scissors and reached behind myself, pulling out my gun. I pushed it into her back, letting her feel the cold metal of the barrel between her shoulder blades. Stella nodded in understanding and leaned forward, closer to the mirror. She clipped a few pieces here and there, cleaning up my messy style and giving herself sweeping bangs. I held the gun to her and bounced between looking at her ass while she was bent over, and watching her wield a pair of scissors.

Stella finished and handed me the scissors. I put them and the gun back in my waistband and let her rinse the stay hairs from her hair. As much as I liked her long blonde hair, the new look was hot too. It brought out her high cheekbones, light skin, and bright eyes. I could see her pretty face better with less hair to hide behind.

"Looks good," I told her.

"I'll get used to it," she said.

Stella read the directions and mixed the hair dye. I leaned against the doorframe, not really much of a help. With the shorter hair, it didn't take much time to apply the black dye.

"Now we wait twenty minutes," she told me.

We walked to the back porch to escape the fumes in the bathroom. The sun was bright, as though it didn't know of the horror that had taken place behind these walls overnight. The sun seemed to rise every morning, never knowing what happened when she was on the other side. She graced us all with her light, even those who didn’t deserve it.

"Why?" she asked me.

I didn't need to ask what she meant. Stella always seemed curious as to other's intentions, like their actions could be explained. Why save her? Why kill a man? Why change her look?

"I'm still not done with you," I said. "I need something from you. I did you a favor, now you can return it."

"That's why you killed him?" she asked, looking at me with those big eyes that were no longer hidden behind her hair.

"Yes. Don't think I did that for you," I told her. "I still need answers and I’ve dealt with you too long to give up now."

"Times up," Stella said after a long moment of silence.

"What?"

Stella was already walking back to the house.

"Time to rinse," she called back over her shoulder.

XI

Stella 

I grabbed the shower head wand and dropped it in the tub. If there was one thing that didn't suck about being trapped here, it was this shower with two shower heads and the massaging water jets. I turned on the water and played with the temperature until it was perfect. Kneeling on the floor, I leaned over the drain.

"Here," Atlas interrupted. "You're soaking the floor."

Atlas took the shower wand from me and pushed between my shoulder blades so I bent over. Gently and carefully, he ran his fingers through my hair, letting the water wash out the dye. He was even careful to keep the water out of my eyes. I watched as the black dye swirled down the drain, washing away what I used to look like.

A virtual stranger was washing my hair. He was gentle, considerate and even consoling. His fingertips may have caused pain and death, but they were washing away all the memories of it from my mind at the moment. For once, I felt comfort and not the pain and fear that I had been living with for so long.

When was the last time that I hadn't needed to look over my shoulder? Was it before my parents were killed? Not even then. Before my brother became involved with the likes of Atlas? Maybe. It had been so long, it seemed like all I'd ever known. I didn't need to watch my back anymore. I knew what was back there now. I had already been caught in the chase.

Atlas applied the conditioner to my hair and slowly rubbed in it. His hands felt so big on my head, but I wasn't scared. I didn't want to shy away from his hands. I wanted them on me. They were a reminder I was done running and it was over. One way or another, I wouldn't walk the streets in fear that I would be taken at any moment anymore.

Weeks of deprivation made me desperate for contact. I closed my eyes,concentrating on the sensations of his touch and the warmth of the water. The water was running clear but we both ignored it. My hip was pressed against his, and I knew my breathing wasn't steady since his hands were on me. My mind refused to remember the bad and concentrated on the moment. For once, I wasn't looking behind me.

"Ready?" he asked, his voice low and husky. It reminded me of when he whispered in my ear at the club.

"For what?" I asked, knowing I was playing with danger. It was like sticking your hand through the fence when you knew the dog would bite.

His hand stopped at the back of my neck and he gave it a squeeze. I could feel the bruises from the night before under his touch. I wanted him to erase them. He could cover them up, make them something else entirely.

Atlas used his grip to pull me so I was sitting up. I gathered the nerve to look at him and saw what I was feeling reflecting back at me. It was a confused mixture of want and lust. Water dripped from my hair down my shirt, making the already thin material cling to my skin. I watched as his eyes followed the water, zoning in on my nipples that I knew where hard.

"Stella," he said in a warning. I wasn't sure what for.

"Atlas," I said back. My voice was breathy and low.

"Shit," he cursed before he pushed me against the vanity.

I spread my legs and he crawled between them, leaning over me. His eyes were everywhere, taking in all that he could. He was trying to read me, see what it was that I really wanted. I licked my lips and pushed my chest out a little more, letting him know what it was that I needed. His lips parted as he clenched my thigh. For this one second, he was the weakest I had ever seen him.

One hand was still on the back of my neck as he reached behind me, moving it to my throat. I swallowed and tipped my head back, letting him get a better grip. When Atlas finally realized what I wanted, he pulled my face to his. My eyes shot up to look into his. I saw the understanding flash in his face.

"I erased that motherfucker," he growled before crashing his lips to mine.

We clashed together like a tragic wreck. It was wet and hard, his lips taking mine and crushing them. I moaned into his mouth and his grip on my throat tightened. The pressure wasn't enough to cut off air, but I felt his touch and no one else's.

Atlas kissed like he lived. He was powerful and forceful, taking whatever he wanted. His tongue parted my lips and I opened to him. I felt the rumble in his chest when he tasted me. His hand squeezed tighter and I welcomed the pleasurable pain. It was exciting and daring at the same time; a toxic mixture.

I squeezed my knees together, pinning his hips between my shaky legs. His body was hard and hot on mine. Atlas grabbed behind my knee and pulled, making me slide down to the floor. He never once released my lips as he lowered me to the floor and hovered over my body. The tile was cold on my back, cooling me down as I was burning up.

I could feel him all over me, although he was only touching my lips and neck. He devoured my mouth and I let him. If I could remember these touches and this moment in the house, maybe I could keep my sanity. Something less devastating to concentrate on and relive in my memories.

Growing bold, or impatient, I put my hands on his shoulders. The muscles flexed under my palms, and I loved the powerful feeling. His hand tightened on my throat when I dug my nails into his back. Atlas was holding back and restraining himself. I could feel it in his body. He could easily break me into a thousand pieces.

"This is a bad idea, Little Star," he said with his lips brushing mine. "I will hurt you. That's what I do."

"I'm already hurt," I whispered back.

Atlas pulled away to look down at me. He took in my lips that were red and swollen from his kisses. My neck that was under his hand, covering any marks. He watched my chest heaving and panting under my wet shirt.

Without warning, he gripped the neckline with both hands and tore the shirt down the middle. He pulled it open and lowered his lips to the skin between my breasts. I gasped when his tongue tasted me. I squirmed under him, but he pinned me with his body. I was trapped again. No matter what I did, Atlas had me trapped. I'm wasn't sure I cared at that moment.

"You think I can make you feel better?" he asked, his mouth trailing down my stomach.

I couldn't answer him. I didn't know if I thought I would feel better. I might feel numb. I could feel less angry. Was someone who only brought me pain and fear capable of taking away those feelings as well? Even he said himself, he hurts. All I knew was that right then, I didn't feel any of that.

I opened my eyes and watched as Atlas licked and sucked his way back up my stomach. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the glint of metal on the floor. His gun. With my legs wrapped around his waist, the gun was in the way so he must have taken it out. He was preoccupied with my skin and didn't notice me staring at it.

I couldn't reach it but if I slid over a little bit, I could grab it. I wouldn't need much time to point and pull the trigger. I knew how to shoot and knew how to pull the safety and fire quickly. With a weapon, I could get past the guards and out of this house.

Atlas stopped what he was doing and I looked down to find him watching me closely. His eyes were dark, mixed with danger and lust. His lips were plump and wet from kissing me. I bit my lip in response to the heated look he was giving me. It warmed my entire body.

Atlas pushed himself off me and leaned down over my face. One hand gripped my chin as he kissed me hard and rough. When he released me too soon, I was gasping for the breath he had stolen from me. When he moved again, I thought he would kiss me once more, but he stopped mere inches from my face.

Atlas reached out and grabbed the gun from the floor. He never looked away from me as he pulled back and tucked it back into his waistband. I couldn't read his look. Was it anger? Was it indifference? My heart hammered in my chest as I held my breath. Atlas slowly rose to his feet and left the room, without a word.

I pulled myself up and sat on the bathroom floor. My veins were pumping with a fear, but not one I expected or understood.

I wasn't scared of what he would have done if he had kept going. I was scared of how I felt when he stopped.

XII

Atlas

I avoided Stella for a few days. Cleaning up a murder in your house was time consuming. Especially if the wrong people noticed the victim was missing. Loyalties were being tested and so was my plan. It was hard to remain undetected when someone was snooping around your shit. I couldn't even call my dad without getting questioned.

"Where are you?" my dad asked when I finally got him on the line.

"Lake house," I said with a sigh. I knew he already knew that. Not much got by him.

"Did Hector make it up there to see you?" he asked.

"No. Was he supposed to?" I asked. It was not in my favor that they knew he was heading here when he went missing.

"That's what he said," my dad said. I could hear the suspicion in his voice but I ignored it.

"Are you in the city?" I asked him. I needed to know where he was, or rather, how close he was.

"No, Miami this week," he said.

My father told me he bought a "vacation home" in Miami and was spending a lot of time there. The boss didn't give a shit about anything other than money, so I didn't believe he was there for rest and relaxation. I couldn't leave to visit and scope out the place while I was tailing Stella, and I definitely couldn’t leave her now.

I had no idea what was going through her mind. I didn't know what to expect when I saw her next. I had one of the guys outside her room at night and they hadn't reported any escape attempts. That didn't mean anything though. I learned that Stella was smart and cunning. She offered her own body to distract me and get away.

"We can meet up next week," my dad offered.

"Sure," I said just to please him. We both knew that wouldn't happen. There had been a strain between us that neither of us had pointed out. Ever since the Harlows had been wiped out, I had more trust issues than usual.

We said our goodbyes and I hung up the phone to continue pacing my office. I stopped at my computer to check the security camera stream. Stella was on the back deck with her feet dangling over the water. Tony and Sal both stood behind her on watch. She looked bored and lonely, or busy plotting. Hard to tell.

I lost myself in the bathroom with her the other night. When I saw the bruises on her neck, I wanted to kill Hector all over again. I should have drawn it out, made his death slow and painful. No man got to take whomever he wanted, and no man got to try to take what was mine and live. I wanted to cover his marks and erase him from her memory. I wanted to be the only thing she could think of.

I thought I was succeeding. It was a powerful feeling to know that you could make it all go away for someone. I made her forget. Stella seemed like she wasn't thinking at all and her body was controlling her. Her breathing was fast, as well as her heartbeat. Her back arched into me and her legs tightened on my waist. Just when I thought I had complete control, I lost it. I glanced up to see her eyeing the gun I had set aside.

I wanted to wait her out and see what she would chose. Would she grab it and try to shoot? Would she freeze at the last minute, fumbling over the trigger? Was she lost in me enough that she would ignore it and let me keep going?

I took the choice away from her. I didn't want to know the answer. Each choice left us damned. Either way offered an insight into her mind that I didn't want to see. I didn't want to know if she would have shot me or let me rip off the rest of her clothes. I had enough mysteries to unravel. Somethings were better left unknown.

Unfortunately, I still needed something from Stella and avoiding her wouldn't get it. I left the safety of my office and went to the living room. A quick survey told me there was nothing that could be used as a weapon in the room. The fireplace tools, any decorations and curtain rods were already removed.

"I'll take it from here," I told the guys once I was out on the deck. They both nodded and left us alone.

Stella didn't turn to acknowledge me but I knew she had heard me come out. Her back went straight and her body went rigid. I wondered if it was from fear or excitement. Stella reacted similarly to both emotions, and I could never tell which she was feeling. I doubted she even knew herself.

I stood behind her and looked out over the water. It was too cold to sit outside, but Stella didn't seem to notice. She was wrapped up in a hoodie and jeans, but barefoot. Her black hair was styled to sweep over one side of her head. With her light skin and eyes, the color looked exotic and beautiful on her.

"May I sit?" I asked.

I lowered myself next to her anyway. I didn't really expect permission.

"You've been avoiding me," she said bluntly. Instead of seeming gratefully, she sounded annoyed.

"I've been busy."

"Doing what exactly?"

"Don't ask questions you already know the answers to," I warned her. "Your dad was a cop. Your brother worked with me. You're a bright woman."

"Not bright enough," she mumbled.

"Someone would have gotten to you eventually."

Stella shrugged and leaned back with her hands behind her. She looked up into the cloudless sky. It reminded me of the approaching winter. I was running out of time. Once the snow fell, I would need a plan. The lake house would need to be closed up and I’d have to return to the city. I couldn't leave with Stella. She would never be safe in the city, or anywhere else.

"Come inside," I told her.

Surprisingly, she followed without arguing. I pulled open the door for her and watched her ass as she passed. I knew better than to touch again, but I couldn't help looking. Inside the living room, Stella turned and looked at me for direction. I pointed to the couch facing the fireplace. I turned the dials and the flames came to life.

"You can come here, the kitchen and the deck," I told her.

"Thank you," she said. She watched me expectantly, knowing I had more to say.

"A trade. You tell me something and you get some more freedom," I offered.

"How am I supposed to trust you? You keep me here against my will and I'm pretty sure you had something to do with my family's death. How the hell do I know that you won't kill me the moment you get what you want from me?"

"Your brother trusted me. I promised him I would look out for you and I am holding up my end," I growled.

"My brother told me to trust no one."

Fucking Ace. Brilliant but probably just screwed us.

"I killed for you, Stella. I took a man's life. A man that dangerous people will come looking for. I did that for you. All I am asking for is for answers."

Stella chewed on her lip as I waited in silence. She had every reason to fear me, I made sure of that.

"You have an ultimatum, Little Star. We are running out of time. You tell me what I need to know and I will protect you. I will make sure people like Hector and the man who killed your parents won't hurt you. No one will find you or touch you as long as you're with me. But I need to know there is good fucking reason for keeping you alive."

"Why do you call me Little Star?" she asked instead.

"Your name means star."

She nodded and chewed on her lip. Stella was stalling but I was prepared to wait her out or resort to drastic measure to get answers.

"What do you want to know?" Stella asked and shifted in her seat. I hated making her go through it all over again.

"You know, I found my mom dead when I was seventeen," I told her.

Stella's eyes went wide. "I'm sorry."

"Maybe I didn't find both of my parents, but I found the only one that I loved floating in a bathtub of blood. I had to face the fact that my own mom didn't care about me enough to stick around and took the easy way out."

Stella was silent as I faced the fire, not wanting to see the pity on her face. I would save myself, and I tried to take comfort that my mom wouldn't be here to see it all go down.

"So I'm not asking about that night," I started. "I know Ace went home the day before. Am I right?"

She nodded and her eyes glistened. "He came to talk to my dad."

I came to kneel in front of her. I needed her trust even though I didn't deserve it.

"What did he tell him? This is very important," I said, grabbing her hands and squeezing.

"I didn't hear," she said, pulling out of my hold. "I caught the end of the conversation."

"Which was?"

"My dad was begging Ace not to leave. He wanted him to stay home, but Ace said he had to go."

Her eyes flashed with anger and pain. She felt betrayed. I knew the feeling. Ace left them there unprotected. For what reason? He had to know they would come for him and everyone important to him. I let myself believe he betrayed me, but I couldn't believe he would do that them.

"You don't know what he told your dad?" I asked.

"No," Stella snapped. "Take your pick of any of the crimes you guys committed. Drug dealing? Murder?"

"You watch too many mobster movies," I said with a chuckle. Stella glared back.

"We own casinos. We operate online gambling operations. We may traffic guns, drugs and even electronics, but the mob has grown more civilized than when you last watched Scarface."

Stella stared at me with confusion and anger. I doubted that helped my case, but I was giving in hopes of receiving in return. I’d give her some intel, she’d give me a little more. Unfortunately, this stubborn woman was the key to finishing what Ace and I started.

"Ace either ratted me out, or he ratted out someone more dangerous," I told her. "Either way, I need to fucking know because it got people killed."

"More dangerous? Than you?"

I laughed, but it lacked any humor.

"Yes, my Little Star. There are men colder than me, more evil. Men who would have killed you in the alley of that night club instead of keeping you alive like some fucking pet."

Stella looked down at the wooden floors, lost in her memories. She never made a move or made any indication in the past months that she knew the family's secrets. She told the police she didn't see anything. I was certain she saw the person sent to end her family.

"I don't know what he told my dad," she said and I knew she was telling the truth. "They were whispering and my mom was crying. Ace told me to stay in my room."

I rolled my eyes. "Which of course, you didn't listen."

"I'm not a child." She crossed her arms over her chest and I eyed her cleavage. No, she was not a child.

Did Ace finally find the proof we had been searching for? I just didn't understand why he would go home before coming to me? My dad claimed he didn't put the hit out on the family or Ace, but I didn't know who I could trust anymore. Why would he put the hit out on her if she didn't see one of his men?

"Atlas?" Sal called from the entryway. "A word?"

I nodded and met him in the hall. Tony was leaning against the wall, an anxious look on his face. Sal looked uncomfortable as well, shifting from one foot to the other.

"Boss called. Wants us to meet him in Miami," Tony told me.

"What the fuck? You are my men. Why does he need you two?"

"Pick up a package for you," Sal answered, knowing it was bullshit.

"Go," I told them. "I got the girl. If we put up a fight, he will only grow more suspicious."

Fucking fantastic. I'm losing my two guards and stuck for the next two days with Stella alone.

XIII

Stella

At home, I was limited to a ten-minute shower. Either the water would go cold or someone would flush, scalding me. Every morning, I rushed to get clean and get out. When I was in the house alone, I got a full fifteen minutes because no one was waiting on me. But the fact that I was alone was too depressing to enjoy it.

Here, I could spend as much time as I wanted. I was well stocked with gels and scrubs, so I always came out soft and smelling nice. The water pressure was perfect with an endless supply of hot water. It was the one thing that took my mind off all my worries. I probably wouldn't be killed in the shower. I was alone and the guards would never dare to step inside the bathroom. Both men actually seemed pretty uncomfortable even in the bedroom.

I was relaxed and content, until I stepped out of the steam to find Atlas leaning in the doorway, waiting. I quickly wrapped the towel around my body, almost falling in the process.

"Atlas," I hissed. "What are you doing in here?"

"Waiting. You were taking a while," he answered casually. He seemed completely unfazed with his invasion of privacy or a naked woman in front of him. He was probably used to both of those.

I was not unfazed or unaffected. Atlas ditched the jacket today, wearing his white shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows. His muscular forearms were crossed over his chest and I stared at the patch of skin peeking from the open buttons of his shirt. I clutched the towel tighter and tried to get out of the shower without getting close to him.

I wrung my hair out, getting used to the lighter, shorter hair. It took less time to wash and dry. With Atlas watching, I wasn't going to stall any longer in the small space. The bathroom was the size of a normal bedroom, but it shrunk with us both in here. The last time we shared this room, I was pinned below him on the floor.

"Hurry up," Atlas said sharply. "I don't have all day."

"Move then," I said, coming to stand in front of him in effort to get out the door.

Atlas didn't move. He just stared down at me, and I swore the steam grew thicker around us. There wasn't much protecting me from him but the thin towel that barely covered my butt. I might as well have been naked because I felt his stare on every inch of my skin. He reached forward and I held my breath as his fingers grazed my neck.

"I will only say this once, Stella," he said, his voice low and deep. "Don't ever let me touch you again. I will leave bruises deeper and darker than any other monster can."

He turned and took the heat with him. When I heard the door of the bedroom close, I finally came out of the bathroom. Unsure if he was still waiting, I dressed quickly. I grabbed a sweater dress from the closet and brushed my hair with my fingers. In the hallway, Atlas was waiting.

"Come on," he said before turning and heading down the hall.

"What's the rush?" I asked. I had to run to keep up.

"The guys are off for a few days," he told me. "I have stuff to do and you need to stay with me."

We entered his office and Atlas sat in his chair, leaving me to stand awkwardly. I had spent a lot of time in here before and was always so stuck in my own head that I had never really looked around. The dark wood shelves were stocked with books. Most were classic literature or history, others on art. I browsed the titles, hoping to find something to keep me busy for who knew how long.

"Where did Sal and Tony go?" I asked. "They weren't around yesterday. You give them vacation time or something?"

"No," he said with a laugh. "They went to pick something up for me."

I walked over to his desk where he sat at the computer. Papers and Post-It notes covered the surface. I had the strange urge to organize it for him. How could anyone get anything done in such madness? Behind his desk was a large painting, grabbing my attention. I had never really looked at it before.

A muscular man was crouched down on one knee, holding the world above him. Chains bound the man to a rock below him. The world was resting on his shoulders. It looked an image from Greek mythology. Atlas noticed me looking at the painting.

"It's the Greek Titan of strength. He held up the sky," he told me.

"I see where the saying 'holds the weight of the world on his shoulders' comes from," I said.

"The myth is that when the Titans went to war against the Gods and were defeated, Zeus sent most of the Titans to Tartarus," he explained. He pointed to another painting that looked like Hell.

"As punishment for leading the Titans in the war for the Heavens, Zeus chose one Titan to stand and forever be forced to hold up the Heavens, to make sure it never touched and mixed with Earth again," he explained. "His name was Atlas."

I turned and looked at him. He was watching me carefully, waiting for my reaction. A man stronger than human, but not quite a god. Someone punished and forced with the burden of holding the sky forever. Did Atlas feel he could relate to the mythology in some way?

"Over there," he said, pointing behind me to another painting of the night sky. It looked like a connect-the-dots between the stars. "The constellation of Atlas."

"Pretty full of yourself," I joked. He actually laughed, and I liked the sound.

"Interested in the family history," he said. "Without knowing your history, you are doomed to make the same mistakes."

I wondered what mistakes Atlas was trying to avoid. Being caught or defeated? Trying to wage a war against the ones more powerful than him? Atlas hinted that he was on some mission and that I was a part of it, but I didn't know his end game. I had a feeling the more I knew, the more likely I would end up dead. What I saw one night had already determined my fate.

Atlas went back to his computer and left me to entertain myself. I felt like a pet. His cat that prowled around his office. Company if he wanted it, but not really needed or desired. I almost felt like I should purr and rub against his leg. Asshole might actually like that though.

He made phone calls about websites and bank accounts. He arranged for new slot machines to be installed in Vegas. It actually all sounded legit, but I knew Atlas enough to doubt that. He argued with someone for a while about a gambling website being shut down. The more frustrated he became, the more buttons on his shirt came undone. His hair was becoming a mess from tugging and running his hands through it. It was barely noon and he already looked wiped out.

Anyone else, I might offer words of comfort. Like my mother, I was caring and nurturing. I might have tried to distract him and calm him down. I needed to remind myself we were not friends. He was the man who kidnapped me, threatened me, and kept me here against my will. When he wasn't directly mean or abusive to me, I tended to forget all that.

"You have a lot of books on art," I pointed out when I couldn't find a single thing I wanted to read.

"I was an art major," he explained.

"Really?" I was surprised. I couldn't imagine Atlas walking a college campus like a normal student.

"Well, yes. I didn't really need a degree for my line of work, so I chose something enjoyable instead."

"Makes sense."

Atlas watched me whenever he wasn't looking at his computer screen. I felt his eyes on me while I browsed the shelves for something to read or look at. Having him watch me so closely caused a strange combination of emotions. There was the fear of what he would do and what his intentions were.

There was also a feeling of being protected and safe with him around. The most disturbing emotion, though, was the excitement. It was a rush of heat and tingles because his attention was on me. It was how I had felt at the club when we had met, but everything had changed since then. Or maybe nothing had changed after all.

I pulled a book from the shelf and sat on the floor, careful to keep myself covered in the dress. It was an art collection with a naked woman on the cover. What drew me in was how beautiful she looked. Not in an overly sexy or pornographic way. It was the lines of her curves and the soft lighting on her stomach. The way her back arched was sexual, intimate, and gorgeous. I flipped through the pages, finding each photograph more intriguing than the next. I stopped on a naked woman with a rope wrapped around her body.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Atlas asked from behind me. I jumped when I realized he was right behind me. "The naked body," he clarified.

"Yes," I agreed, flipping more pages.

Every photo was in black and white. The naked torso of a woman. A man's hands on a bare back. A couple intertwined, bodies pressed together. They were classically erotic and enchanting. It made nudity and sex something brilliant and natural. There was nothing dirty or shameful about it.

"I love a woman's naked body," Atlas practically purred behind me. "The softness of her skin. The curve of her hips. The roundness of her breasts. The arch of her back."

I swallowed and tried to ignore his deep voice. It made me shiver, and I imagined what he would see if I was naked. Those were dangerous thoughts.

"My favorite," he said, putting his hands on my shoulders, "is the neck."

His hands came up and smoothed over my throat. I held my breath as his fingers glided over my collarbone.

"I love the way it looks when her head is thrown back in pleasure."

I instinctually dipped my head back, looking up at him.

"I love the way the muscles feel under my hands," he whispered, gripping my neck in a gentle choke. "That sensitive dip under your chin."

I gasped when he tickled over the mentioned spot. My body heated and I felt my pulse pounding against his hand. My own heart was betraying my reaction to him.

"Tell me, Little Star. Has anyone appreciated that body the way it should be?" he asked.

I shook my head but I didn't know what I was saying no to. No one ever touched me the way I want you to? No one made me feel like I'm sure you would? No, don't touch me? My mind was a hot, swirling mess and the room grew hotter.

Atlas came to kneel in front of me. His hand reached out and his thumb rubbed my bottom lip. He studied my face, almost like he was seeing me for the very first time. I watched him, fascinated with how expressive those dark eyes could be. They were deep and endless, but I could almost see the fear and anger burning in them. I could even make out the hint of want and need.

Atlas inched forward slowly, crawling over me. I leaned back as he came closer. Soon, I was lying back on the floor, looking up at him. His legs were pressed to mine and with each deep breath, my chest brushed his. His knee slipped between my legs and wedged them apart so I could feel how hard he was. I could feel him all over me now. My body was heating up and melting under him.

Atlas lowered his face but froze when a noise came from outside the door. The door flew open and slammed against the wall. Atlas jumped up at the bang and I hurried to sit up. With quick and trained movements, Atlas pulled his gun and aimed at the open door.

"Shit," breathed Sal, holding his hands up in surrender. "Don't shoot, boss."

"What the fuck are you doing?" Atlas growled at him, lowering the gun. "You know better than barging in like that. Asshole."

"We have company," he said gravely. "Now."

"Who?"

"Xander. I rushed in before Tony and him to warn you," Sal said, glancing behind him.

Another face appeared in the doorway. He looked like Atlas a little, with dark hair and eyes. He smiled as he took us in, me sitting on the floor with a red face.

"Dude, didn't you know you had a chick with you," he said with a wink to me.

"Get out," Atlas barked.

Sal pushed the stranger back and closed the door. Atlas quickly locked it behind them. I could feel the rage rolling off him and it scared me. I wanted out of this room but I didn't know what dangers lurked outside the door. Atlas paced the room while I slowly stood up and backed up against the wall.

Atlas turned and glared at me. I wished I was invisible because when he looked at me like that, I feared for my life. If I could rewind to several minutes ago, his eyes would make me hot and want to do things I shouldn't.

"Stella," he whispered, coming at me in long strides. He put his hands on both of my shoulders, pressing me to the wall. "I told you not to let me touch you. Do you ever do what you're told?"

"Not often," I admitted quietly.

"Well, you're life depends on you doing what you're told tonight."

XIV

Atlas

I was a planner. Every plan had a back-up plan, exit plan, and even back-up exit plan. I never let a detail get overlooked. It was how I was raised, or trained, and how I operated. There was a plan to prevent anyone from finding out I had the Harlow girl alive. If anyone was about to discover her, I would make sure she wasn't alive to be found.

Xander's surprise visit could ruin this plan. As my cousin, he had loyalty to my dad and his own dad. I didn't know whose side he would stand on if a war broke out. I didn't know his involvement or what he knew. I could find out, or I could dispose of Stella now, eliminating the risk.

I gripped my gun and looked down into her terrified eyes. Moments ago they were passionate and ready for whatever I could give her. Sal saved her from getting exactly that. There was so much I needed from her still. And there was still the promise I made to Ace. I should at least try to make this work before I put a bullet between her gorgeous blue eyes.

"Stella, I need you to look at some photos," I told her.

"What photos?" she asked with a shaky voice.

I pulled her over to the computer and opened a folder of photos, flipping through them for her. Ace and I had spent months collecting these photos and evidence.

"Tell me if any of these men were the shooter."

Tears welled in her eyes and she swayed on her feet. I put an arm around waist to hold her upright.

"This is very important, Little Star," I said in her ear. "Stay with me. Don't you dare fucking shut down now."

"No. He's not there," she choked out.

I sighed, both relieved and disappointed that Stella didn't recognize any of the guys I showed her. Although I was able to eliminate about a dozen men I thought may have been involved, there were tons more who could be. These were just the guys who went missing in the past few months. If you left behind a witness, you were in a world of trouble. A smart man would disappear on his own or one of us would make it happen.

With everyone denying that we had anything to do with the Harlow killings, there was no one I could interrogate. Chances were that very few knew the real truth. If they knew what was good for them, they would make sure that I never found out either. Taking out Ace was a grave mistake on my father's part if he ordered it. And if a bigger and darker secret was lurking in the darkness, everyone would go down.

In this life, we had few real rules. Spilling blood wasn't a crime, but sometimes it was as necessary as taking out the trash. Lies were a weapon and a defense. The only people you feared or respected were those above you on the family tree. Within the family, you protected your own. As the boss’s son, I was practically a prince. I was in the inner circle, or I thought I was.

"How did you manage getting away that night?" I asked. If anyone saw her, he should have killed her then. You never leave a witness behind.

"When I saw," she paused and swallowed. "I went across the hall to the laundry room. I climbed on the dryer and up into the attic above until he left."

Sneaky. Smart. She would do just fine tonight. I was risking exposing what I was doing to Xander but it was the best option we had. Since he already saw her, I couldn’t just hide her away and lock her up. We would need to be creative. This was one of those moments I wished Ace was here.

"Me too," she whispered. I didn't realize I said that out loud.

"Did he have the power to get you to follow directions?" I asked, earning a small smile from her.

"What do you need me to do?"

"Shower, get dressed and meet in the living room," I told her. "You are not Stella tonight. Be anyone else you want to be, but not the girl I was supposed to have killed."

Her eyes widened but she nodded. I waved her off, needing a moment alone to regain my control. Between the surprise visitor and her, I was losing it.

"Oh, and Stella," I called as she reached for the doorknob. "Don't try anything stupid or I will kill you. Understand?"

"Yes, sir," she whispered and hurried through the door.

I ran my fingers through my hair and grabbed my jacket off the back of my chair. Time to work. I found Sal and Tony with my cousin in the living room. Tony was mixing a drink at the bar and the sliding doors were open to the patio. Xander smiled widely when he saw me.

"Atlas," he said, coming at me to shake hands. "Sorry to interrupt you and the little hottie. I thought you were alone up here."

I laughed and smiled like I wasn't on edge. "I'm never alone," I quipped with a cocky smirk.

"When I heard the boys here were on the way to your lake house, I demanded to hitch a ride back with them," he said. "It's been too long."

"Too long," I agreed. It had been a while since I trusted anyone. "Did Sal give you the tour? There's an amazing wine cellar downstairs."

"I forgot the tour," Sal jumped in. "In fact, there's a bourbon about a hundred years old we should get for tonight."

"I heard Bourbon," Xander said, standing. "Lead the way, Sal."

Sal led Xander out of the room and I hoped the bourbon really existed. Xander was a laid back guy but he was raised in the family as I was. He wasn't stupid.

"What the fuck?" I hissed when they were out of ear-shot.

"He wouldn't take no for an answer," Tony said. "We couldn't push anymore without him getting suspicious."

"You couldn't have called?"

"He wanted to surprise you," he said quietly. "We didn't feel secure using the phones to call you. What are you gonna do about Stella? And what the fuck did they walk into?"

"I have a plan," I said just as Stella walked into the room.

She looked around the room nervously and pulled on the hem of the dress she changed into. I should have told her to wear pants because seeing her long, bare legs brought me to my knees in the office. It would have been so easy to slip my hand up and into her panties. It probably would have happened if we hadn’t been interrupted.

"Where is he?" she whispered as she walked over to us at the bar.

"Sal is giving him a tour of the cellar in the basement," I told her. "Getting bourbon."

"Do you really have a cellar or is he going to kill him?" she asked.

"Shit," I said with a laugh. "I didn't think of that. You look nice."

"Thank you." Her cheeks blushed lightly. I got off on being able to do that.

My cousin's laughter and loud footsteps sounded down the hall. Stella's body stiffened so I reached for her and pulled her close. Tony pushed a pink drink over to her and she took it, quickly taking a drink. I put a hand on her back so she would know I was here and in control.

"Ah, the beauty has joined her beast," Xander said as he entered the room, expensive bottle in hand. It did exist. "Xander," he said, extending his hand for her.

"Alexa," she offered easily. I rubbed her back to let her know she did well. She looked different enough with the new hair that I was sure he wouldn't recognize her right away but her photo circulated for a while within the family.

"Nice to meet you," he said, already busy trying to pour a glass. If all went well, he would be wasted and passed out before the sun was down.

"Now I see what has my cousin hiding away for months," he joked. I felt Stella go stiff and her grip tightened on her glass. I knew those words reminded her of Hector. It reminded me of Hector, and pissed me off.

"Fuck off," I said, shooting him a deathly glare. Xander got the message and poured a drink.

"So tell me, Atlas," he started, handing me a glass as well. "How did you manage to get out of the city? I would kill for a vacation."

I laughed because no one got time off and he knew this. I just took off and no one dared to ask me to do any dirty work. Xander never showed the initiative that I had when we were young. He never seemed to want to run the casinos or gambling sites. Xander always appeared perfectly fine chasing down money or doing the ground work. That's why he never had the same responsibilities that I did.

"I'm not too far from the city," I told him. "It's not like I'm sitting in the Miami sun."

"Right," he said, all the humor leaving his voice.

Interesting. Party boy should love it down there. Sal gave me a look so I know he caught the shift as well. Although Xander had never had much responsibility in Chicago, that could've changed in Miami.

"No talk about work," Xander announced, finishing his drink in one gulp. "Where are you from, Alexa?"

"San Fran," she lied quickly.

"Tell me you have a hot and single sister," Xander said, putting his hands together in prayer.

Stella laughed and shook her head. "Sorry. Only child."

The words stabbed me and I'm sure they hurt her, too. I snaked my hand around her waist and pulled her into my chest. She slightly leaned back into me.

"Damn it," Xander whined playfully. "I had sisters once. It was amazing."

Xander grabbed his drink and Sal led him over to the fireplace. Tony followed as Xander gave a graphic retelling of hooking up with sisters in Vegas. It was a story I heard a dozen times already, so I stayed at the bar with Stella. I was sure she didn't need to hear his exaggerated story anyway. I don't even think the girls were actually related.

"You're doing fine," I whispered in her ear.

"You sure? I feel like he can see right through me," she whispered, leaning her head back so I could hear her.

Looking over, I found Xander watching us. I could tell he was suspicious. Understandably, since I wasn't someone often seen with a woman. Needing to convince him this was another fling, I ran my hand up her waist and over her chest. Stella inhaled sharply as I grazed over her nipple and up her neck. I wrapped my fingers gently around her throat and put my mouth on her ear.

“We're being watched," I breathed into her ear before pulling her earlobe into my mouth.

Stella's eyes fell closed and she went weak in my arms. I pulled her closer and licked the shell of her ear. She tasted salty and sweet at the same time. I tasted the spot behind her ear and down the back of neck. A soft moan left her mouth and I pushed into her in warning.

"Don't," I said against her skin with a soft bite to make a point. "Don't make me lose control."

XV

Stella

I was on fire. When I walked into the room, I was so nervous I thought I would be sick. It didn't take long to forget why I was even there. When Atlas touched me gently like I was his, I forgot how dangerous he was. He took me forcefully and kept me against my will. He was sent to kill me, but when he protected me, that didn't matter. I melted into him, needing the comfort he gave.

Maybe being alone for so long made me desperate for any affection or connection. Someone was finally holding me. After months of looking over my shoulder, I didn't need to anymore. The hunter already found me and had me trapped, but I felt safe in his cage. I wasn't sure if I trusted that he would protect me if I helped him, but part of me wished I could.

His hot tongue licked over my racing pulse before he slowly pulled back. I opened my eyes as the sounds of the guys talking by the fireplace filtered back into my ears. I straightened and pulled away from Atlas, needing my head clear. Looking over, Tony was watching us with a confused expression.

Atlas led me over the fireplace where Xander was telling another colorful tale. Sal made more drinks, and I found myself laughing at stories of Xander's drunken mistakes. While Xander told me about a waking up on a yacht that wasn't his, Atlas pulled me down onto his lap. At first, I froze but he squeezed my hand and I relaxed into him.

While the others chatted, Atlas kept touching me in some way. His fingers played with the hem of my dress. Every few minutes, his lips would graze my neck or cheek. Every touch made my stomach do a flip. Every nerve was awake and buzzing for him. This was how I imagined we would act before he drugged and kidnapped me.

"So Alexa, how did you meet Atlas?" Xander eventually asked.

"At a club," I told him. It was the truth so it was easy to say.

"Surely one Atlas owns otherwise he wouldn't be in one. He has two left feet," he said, laughing into his glass.

"I thought he danced fine," I said quickly. My cheeks burned when I remembered how we danced in the club. At the time I thought I would never see him again.

"That was the alcohol talking," Xander said. "Speaking of alcohol, we need another trip to the cellar. Be right back."

Xander got up and stumbled out of the room. The guys killed a whole bottle in a short time. Atlas seemed sober still. We exhaled loudly when we heard the door close down the hall. I shifted in Atlas's lap, unsure how to act when no one was watching.

"Why hasn't he passed out yet?" Tony asked. "I thought he would be out by now. He has no tolerance."

"This is your plan?" Sal asked, glaring at Atlas. "Pretend she's your girl?"

"It's working, isn't it?" Atlas asked. His grip tightened on my thigh.

"Oh yeah, your acting is spot on. And if he recognizes her?"

"He would have by now."

"Not worth the risk," Sal said, now glaring at me. "There was a plan in place for shit like this."

A chill ran down my spine. They were discussing me like I wasn't even in the room. Like I was a prisoner. Like I was disposable. I started to stand but Atlas stood behind me, stepping around me. He stood in front of Sal, his fist clenched at his side. Tony came up behind me, pulling me back behind the couch and out the way.

"Are you fucking questioning me?" Atlas growled at his man. "Because I have a plan to handle that as well."

"Our lives are on the line, too. Not just yours," Sal said back with equal anger.

"Better to put just hers on the line right?"

Sal looked over Atlas's shoulder at me. I could feel the tension rise in the room and I wanted to run. They were talking about me like I was a pet. Tony came to stand in front of me.

"He already saw her," Tony told Sal. "This was the best option. Now drop it because he's coming."

The men stepped away from each other just as Xander entered the room. I tried to smile at him but my head was spinning. My mind was catching up with what was happening. Sal obviously thought I shouldn't be here. I was a risk to them in some way because I was alive.

"What did I miss?" Xander asked with a slight slur.

"Nothing, cousin," Atlas answered, moving away from Sal with a final glare in his direction.

Xander went to the bar with the new bottle and started to pour more drinks. He was watching us closely and I could see the suspicion. My heart was pounding and I could feel my hands starting to shake with fear. It had become very obvious that the fact I was still alive was a huge problem.

Needing to do something, anything to save my own life, I walked over to Atlas. I needed to do something to take off the suspicion. Wrapping my arms around his neck, I pushed up on my tip-toes. He gave me a quick look of confusion before I pressed my lips to his. Molding my chest to his, he pulled me closer and kissed me back. I sighed into his mouth as he licked my bottom lip. I gripped the back of his neck and tilted my head, giving him better access to my mouth.

In front of the three guys, Atlas nibbled on my lips and kissed me like no one was watching. I slipped my tongue out to battle his. He tasted like the bourbon, and I wanted to get drunk off it. My eyes closed and I pretended for just a second that I was really just his girl and not a pawn in whatever dangerous game he was playing.

"Get a damn room," Xander said from behind us.

I slowly pulled away and opened my eyes. Atlas glared down at me and my skin burned under his gaze.

"What did I tell you, Little Star?" he whispered in my ear.

"To behave or you'll kill me," I told him. He shook his head.

"Don't let me touch you again." He pulled away and looked up at the guys who were watching us. I couldn't look at them. I was too scared to look to see if the suspicion was gone in Xander’s eyes.

"We are going to head to bed, gentlemen," Atlas said, placing a hand on my lower back to guide me.

"It was nice meeting you, Alexa," Xander said, reaching out to shake my hand.

"You too," I said, hearing the slight shake in my own voice.

Xander shook my hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. Atlas was close behind me, urging me forward. With a smile, I finally met Xander's eyes. When I went to pull away, he didn't release my hand. He just stared at me and I could feel the panic rising inside me.

"You look strangely familiar," he said quietly.

Those four words sent the room into a flash of movement. I was pulled back roughly and my knees hit the floor. The unmistakable sound of gun safety clicks echoed. Looking up, guns were pointed in every direction. Sal's gun was aimed at my head.

The room went silent. Xander had his gun aimed at Atlas, who was aiming at Sal but watching his cousin. Tony had his gun trained on Xander. I was defenseless on my hands and knees while Sal aimed at me. It seemed this was the moment all of us never wanted to see happen. Someone was going to die in this room. This couldn't end well and we all knew it.

"Put the gun down, Atlas. I don't want to shoot you," Xander said calmly. All evidence of the buzz he had seemed to have evaporated.

"You know I can't do that," Atlas said, his gun still pointed at Sal.

"Come on, man. We're family," Xander said.

"That's the fucking problem."

Everyone held their ground. Xander's eyes bounced between me and Atlas. Tony kept his attention on Xander, ready to shoot. I could feel sweat forming on my forehead. This had to be what my parents felt like the last few minutes of their lives.

"I'm not like them. And neither are you," Xander said, slowly lowering his gun. "That's why I came to you, cousin."

"Atlas," Sal interrupted. "This is out of hand."

"You shoot her and I will end you," Atlas told him with a menace to his voice that gave me chills.

Reluctantly, Sal lowered his weapon. Tony and Atlas followed and I finally took in a breath.

"You always keep your promises," Xander said. "She's Ace's sister right? She looks like him."

"What do you mean you aren't like them?" Atlas asked. "As you know, she should be dead and I can't have anyone knowing she’s not. Tell me why I shouldn't let Tony put a bullet in your head right now."

Xander rubbed his face and pinched the bridge of his nose. The tension in the room was so thick it was hard to breathe.

"I was asked to get rid of the Harlows," he said.

Atlas lunged for Xander, throwing him into the wall. I stared at Xander but knew he wasn't the man I saw in my kitchen.

"I didn't do it," he rushed out. His words were chocked by Atlas's arm pushing on his throat. "I told him no. Ace was my friend, too."

Atlas looked back at me and I nodded, confirming Xander wasn't the guy he was looking for.

"Who asked you?"

"Who do you think?"

Silence hung in the air. For the hundredth time since I had arrived at this house, I wished I could be anywhere else. I was looking at the people responsible for leaving me alone in this world and it was eating at me inside. Atlas finally pushed off Xander and came over to me.

"You okay?" he asked quietly.

I nodded and took his hand as he pulled me to my feet. He held my hand until I was steady. I glanced over at Sal, uneasy around him now. Moments ago he was ready to shoot me. Everything happened so fast but no one missed a second of it. Those actions would later be replayed and dissected to show true motivation.

One thing became painfully clear in that room. While the crickets chirped outside the sliding glass doors, we stood in silence and stared at each other. The realization washed over me like a cold waterfall, giving me goosebumps. I was never meant to leave this house alive. There was no scenario that my life wouldn't be a risk to these guys and whatever they were doing. The moment I was no longer needed, or too great of a risk, I would be dead.

"Tony," Atlas barked. "Take Stella to her room."

Tony took my arm and we quietly left the room without a backward glance. Atlas meant nothing to me, just as I was nothing to him. Every gentle gesture, touch, and kiss was all part of their cover. I was just a pawn in his plan.

XVI

Atlas

"What the fuck was that?" I roared when all three men faced me in my office.

I slammed my fists down on the desk, glaring at Sal. My fingers were itching to grab my gun and blow some shit up. It was a struggle to keep my cool.

"That was sticking to the fucking plan!" Sal growled back at him. "Anyone figures her out, she is gone. You remember that rule? It's your rule!"

Of course I remembered. It was the first rule I had made when I decided to take the job of killing her, and I kept her instead. Stella was more useful alive, but we agreed to take the chance within reason.

"I'm not done with her. She has information we need," I said to the room. I didn't like being questioned.

"What, you want to fuck her first? Feel those plump little lips around your dick before you put her out of her misery?" Sal fumed.

I lurched across my desk and wrapped my hands around the man's throat. Sal was older, wiser and had seen more than I had, so he wasn't fazed. He showed no fear, just anger as we stared each other down. Releasing his neck, I pulled my hand back and punched him in the nose. The cracking sound echoed in the room and my knuckles throbbed.

"Feel better?" Sal asked, his voice muffled from his hand holding his face.

"No."

Sal straighten and looked me in the eye. "I trust you and what we are trying to do here, but don't you dare forget the consequences if this falls apart. The only weakness you have, besides that girl, is that you only see the end goal. You see the fireworks, the gold at the end of the rainbow. You never consider failure because to you, that is not an option. Unfortunately son, it is a very real possibility."

He was right. I always planned for failure, but I planned meticulously to avoid it. I never planned for everything actually falling apart. There was a good chance my dad, or anyone in the family, could hear what I was up to. An army of men trained the same as me could descend on this lake house and wipe us out before I even heard the first footstep. There would be nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.

"All this is for nothing if she doesn't give us what she knows," I said.

"Get it soon, Atlas," Tony said, surprising me. He seemed against killing the girl, but he was right. Winter was coming. "Don't forget your priorities."

Everyone's priorities were made pretty clear in the living room. Every weapon drawn, pointing a flashing sign toward what mattered the most. Tony aimed at the threat, Xander. He would have shot to keep me alive. Xander aimed right at my chest, seeing me as the biggest threat to his life. Sal pointed at Stella, knowing she was weak link. I should have aimed with him. Even at Xander as he threatened to expose our secrets.

I pointed at Sal. I pointed a gun at my own man, one of the few I trusted. I protected the girl, not the mission. Not the hundreds of others who could fall victim to our kind if we didn't end it. I exposed the chink in my armor. If I had a weakness, we all shared that weakness. As much as my promise to Ace meant something to me, the guys standing with me did, too. The difference was that they were still alive and counted on me. Ace couldn't be saved anymore and if I was being honest, neither could Stella.

I walked past the guys and out to the deck. Funny how that was the selling point of the house, and I had never stepped foot out here before Stella. It was dark so I couldn't see the lake that I knew was out there. Like the monsters and evils, they were out there but you couldn't see them. I sat on the edge of the deck and hung my feet over, wondering what the fuck to do now.

When was the last time I had seen the sunrise? I wasn’t sure I had even looked around since Ace went missing. In my rage, I had only looked toward my end goal. Seeing only my revenge and the pain I would cause those who betrayed me, I didn't see what I was leaving behind. I never cared about what my actions caused.

I attended the funerals of those I had killed before. I sat behind their grieving wives and put a fake consoling hand on their shoulders. I had even taken advantage of the vulnerable state they were in before. I never ended a life that didn't deserve it my eyes. They may not have been good enough to anyone else, but my reasons were mine.

Stella didn't leave behind a distraught family. Her parents were lucky to never know the fate of both of their treasured children. Ace left this ugly world believing that I would keep my promise. And I would. Stella in my hands was better than her being in theirs. There was no doubt that it was only a choice between the two.

I rubbed my face in my hands roughly. I lost the jacket long ago, probably about last night after Tony escorted Stella out of the room. The cool morning air blew off the water and though my hair. It reminded me of the way Stella's fingers moved through my hair the night before. Most women got straight to the point with their hands, and I appreciated that. Stella was too curious; always needing to explore.

I stood from the deck and walked back to my office where the guys were waiting for me. The package from my dad sat on my desk, unopened. I quickly opened the box, sick of all the fucking games. We were either in a war, or I would start one, but I was sick of waiting.

Inside the box was a bottle of whiskey. Dust had collected on the bottle and you could barely read the label but I instantly recognized it. It had sat in my dad's study, for most of my life, on the shelves behind his desk. He had never opened it, saying it was worth too much to just piss away. So why send it to me now?

"Sweet," Xander said, reaching for it. I smacked his hand away.

"Don't touch it. Put the box down in the cellar," I told Sal. "I don't trust a fucking thing from that man."

Sal did as he was told, taking the box quietly from the room. I paced, agitated and on edge. My skin was crawling and I wanted to hit something. The whiskey was a message, not a gift. I just didn't know what he was trying to tell me. I needed to make a move.

"Where is she?" I asked through gritted teeth. It wasn’t safe here anymore. It wasn’t safe anywhere.

"Her room," Tony said. "Locked her in there last night."

"Is that so?" I asked, already leaving the office.

Anger rushed my veins as I marched down to her room. I hated Stella right then. I hated her for being here, for being Ace's sister, for making me feel anything at all. I had made it this far by being ruthless, violent, and never letting anything stand in my way. Stella was a visible flaw in my armor. The guys saw it and if anyone else had, we would all be dead.

Sal was right. Stella was a risk. A risk I wasn’t sure we could take anymore. I unlocked her bedroom door and walked inside without warning. Stella was startled where she stood near the window. She looked like she had been pacing, still in her clothes from the night before. Her eyes went wide, and I watched as her body tensed. She was afraid of me. Good.

I quickly rounded the bed and grabbed her by the throat. Stella gasped as I pushed her to the wall, holding her still with my own body pinned to hers. I pressed into her, dwarfing her easily. It was good to feel back in control.

"You wear this dress to drive me crazy?" I asked her in a growl. "Is that why you let me touch you all night?"

She shook her head and parted those full lips to speak. I didn't let her. I sealed her mouth shut with mine. My lips took hers so hard, I was sure she would bruise. I took her mouth like I owned it, like I was entitled to it. Stella pushed against me in protest for only a moment before clutching on to my shoulders.

Stella squeezed in surprise, and I pulled back to look down at her. Her chest rose quickly with her fast breathing. Her lips were red and plump as her tongue darted out to lick them. I held her to the wall by her neck and grabbed the hem of her dress. With one hand, I pulled and the sound of ripping filled the room.

"Atlas," Stella breathed. Her black lace bra and matching panties were exposed to me.

"I am the one in control, Little Star," I hissed. "And I hate you for making me lose it."

My hand skated up her neck to the back of her head. Pulling her hair, her head tilted back to look up at me. Big, blue eyes sparkled with fire and excitement. Stella was a little scared and a little turned on. I dove down and sucked the sensitive skin of her throat where I held her too tightly.

Stella whispered my name but I ignored her. I couldn't stop now. After days of being with her, months of watching her, hours of touching her, I was a goner. I could think of nothing but having her. My blood pumped hot and thick in my veins. My heartbeat pounded in my ears.

I ran my lips down the column of her throat, savoring her pulse pounding on my tongue. Kissing over her collarbone, I bit down on her shoulder. Stella swore and bucked against me but I held her immobile. In my grip, she was helpless.

XVII

Stella

Atlas had me pinned to wall and completely under his control. I was just as mentally controlled as physically. I was at his mercy as he attacked me with his hands, mouth and words. It was as if he was punishing me with his lips. Every growled word made my stomach flutter with nerves and fear. My hands went to push him away, but the power to do so never came.

Teeth sunk into my skin and I cursed. The pain sent a shock to every nerve ending, waking up my entire body. I was hyper-sensitive to Atlas and what he was doing to me. It was a mixture of pain and pleasure and my head spun trying to sort it out. He licked and kissed away the mark from his bite, only to repeat it over again. I was powerless to stop him as he left his mark from my shoulder to my throat.

Atlas was like a man possessed. It was as if he couldn't control his body when it was with mine. He handled me like he needed to. There was no restraint or holding back anymore. I should have been terrified of what he was capable of.

"I shouldn't have tried to save you," he said into my damp skin.

"I don't think you have yet," I answered, my voice breathy.

If anything, I was in a deeper danger than I was before a gun was pointed at my head in his living room. Not even before I was in his possession was I closer to the monsters. I started to wonder if the real danger I should be running from was the man with his hands on me.

Atlas pulled back to look at my face. I was sure I was flushed and my lips were swollen from his bruising kiss. His eyes were wild and dangerous. I held my breath, anticipating his next move. He was hanging by a single thread of control, and I watched as it snapped. The very power Atlas was struggling to obtain just shattered, falling to our feet.

His hands grabbed mine, pushing them above my head on the wall. I was open to him, exposed in only my bra and panties. He wanted to be angry at my dress or underwear, but he supplied them for me. Atlas had no one to blame but himself and he knew that. He was angry with himself as much as with me. Which one of us would pay the consequences?

When Atlas wedged one knee between my legs, I clenched my thighs together. Undeterred, he kicked my feet apart forcing me to open to him. His thigh rubbed against me, and a moan escaped my mouth before I could stop it. The slight pressure sent waves of heat through my body radiating from between my legs.

"Are you wet for me, Little Star?" Atlas asked with a knowing grin.

Atlas held my wrists together above my head with one hand while the other skimmed down my arms. He continued down over my breasts and stomach, finally landing on my panties. He wasted no time pushing his hand under the thin lace. His fingers slid over my clit, and I cried out before I could stop myself.

"You're dripping for me," Atlas whispered in my ear, biting my earlobe.

His fingers pushed inside me, stretching me. A deep growl rumbled from Atlas, sending vibrations through me. His hand pulled away from me, and I held back a disappointed whine. He wanted the power and control, but I didn't want to give it to him so easily. Dark eyes glared down at me as he slipped his two fingers in his mouth, sucking them clean.

I was fascinated with the calm that took over his features in that moment that I almost didn't notice him undoing his belt. Ripping it from the loops, he quickly and expertly bound my wrists together. With my wrists together, he put them behind his head. The position would feel normal and familiar if it wasn't for the leather forcing them there.

"You make me like this," Atlas said as he hoisted me up against the wall so my legs wrapped around his waist. "Unable to stop myself."

I was clinging to him like I couldn't get close enough. Atlas was holding me up and together at the same time. One hand gripped my thigh as the other moved between us. I hissed at the gentle friction as he reached down to position himself at my opening. I held my breath as his eyes bore into mine.

He was daring me to do something. I had the chance to scream even though no one would come to help me. I could bite him, scratch, or even kick. I could fight him off, or at least put up a struggle. Instead, I relaxed my muscles and waited for him to own me the only way he hadn't yet.

I didn't expect easy and gentle from Atlas and he didn't surprise me. He thrusted into me until he was fully inside me. I cried out, digging my nails into the back of his neck as he pushed into me. Atlas didn't give me time to adjust to his size or get used to being so full. He pounded into me, giving me everything he had.

"Fucking finally," Atlas said with his face buried in side of my neck.

The sexual tension between us was exploding. Every touch and tease had built up just to amount to this moment. It was almost too much feeling while he took his anger out on me and regained his sense of control. Almost.

Our sweaty bodies clashed and rubbed against each other. The sensations were building and my cries were getting louder. It had been so long since I'd been touched, let alone like this, that I was craving it. Every kiss to my neck and nibble to my lips sent me into a combustible mess. I was ready to finally explode.

"Come hard for me, Stella," Atlas growled. "I want to hear you scream."

Screaming was all I could do when I finally was pushed to the point of no return. I was a bomb detonating after a long and torturous countdown. My screams made my own ears ring but Atlas kept thrusting like he was trying to make me louder. My nails pierced the skin in the back of his neck, but it didn't slow him down.

Atlas pulled back just enough to watch my face. I could barely keep my eyes open as he groaned loudly and froze, pushed deep inside me. I could feel my insides convulsing around him as he throbbed inside. Warmth spread inside and my muscles went weak, making me go limp in his arms.

Spinning away from the wall, Atlas dropped us to the bed and pulled out of me. I couldn't breathe or even control my racing heart. I was sweaty, weak, and my mind was all over the place. I couldn't understand why I had let that happen or why I had enjoyed it so fucking much. It was as if we had both finally satisfied a craving that had been eating at us. I closed my eyes, afraid to look into his face while he removed the belt from my wrists.

"Yes. Go clean yourself up."

With that, he left the room, locking the door behind him. On shaky legs, I made it to the bathroom and under the hot spray. I let the scalding water wash away the marks he left on my body. But even the burning water couldn't fully erase it. His teeth marks and bruises still would mark me when I stepped out. There would no removing Atlas from my body.

That was exactly what he wanted. Atlas felt as if he didn't have any control so he took it. Last night in the living room, his true intentions were revealed. He didn't want me dead. I just had the task of finding out why. Was it because of his promise to Ace? Was it because I was innocent and didn't deserve to be executed in front of the fireplace in a lake house?

Not for the first time, I wondered who would attend my funeral when I had one. Liddy may never hear the news. I didn't have any family left to cry over my casket. I had alienated everyone else after the murders to the point that I didn't think I had anyone left to care. Atlas was the only one willing to fight for my life, no matter the reasons. Against all good judgement, that was the only comforting thought that kept me from falling apart.

I stepped out of the shower and pulled on my robe. I wrapped it tightly around me, needing the warmth. I felt alone and scared, but safe and protected at the same time. Only he could give me such contrasting feelings. I hated it but needed it at the same time. My room was empty but filled with the smell of our combined sweat and bodies. It was a harsh reminder of what had just happened.

I crawled under the covers, exhausted from the lack of sleep and everything that had occurred in the last twenty-four hours. As the darkness pulled me under, I couldn't help but wonder what would happen when the sun rose.

When I was a kid, I thought that monsters only lurked in the darkness. It was only at night when evil came out. As I grew up, I learned that the scary stories had that part very wrong. When the sun rose, the evil was still there. If you turned on the lights, the monsters were still there. They were not afraid of light or dark.

Something would be different in the morning. Light was already shed on the evil, and I saw it differently. Atlas was still a monster, a ruthless killer, but not one I would fear. As with anything powerful and strong, there was a weakness. Atlas's weakness was me.

XVIII

Atlas

Stella's breathing was deep and even. She slept without nightmares. After I left her to clean up, I snuck back in when she fell asleep. I fucked up last night. Fuck-ups are unlike me. I didn't have a backup plan for this. There was no Plan B for "Atlas fucked the prisoner we were supposed to kill at the end." Why didn't I think this through?

Where did I mess up? Was it watching her for so long while I learned her habits and waiting for the police to forget about her? Did I make the fatal mistake when I touched her skin at the club? Maybe I should have never kissed her. I knew I shouldn't have fucked her.

How did this make me any better than my own father? This whole thing started because he crossed the line into a territory I didn't want to be in, one I thought we were better than. Keeping her against her will, fucking her, and lying to her only to kill her in the end made me just like him. It was no different than what he was doing.

Stella flinched and I knew she was waking. I could sneak out and send one of the guys in. Sal would be glad to have the task, but that thought made me clench my teeth so hard my jaw ached. I may have strayed from the plan, but I was smart. I could think of another plan. One where I didn't have to watch the life drain out of her eyes would be preferred.

"What are you doing in here?" a groggy voice asked. It was raspy from sleep and screaming the night before.

"Thinking," I told her.

Stella rolled and stretched, the blankets falling off her in the process. She was wearing only a robe that had come untied during the night. Smooth, creamy skin was exposed to me. Red teeth marks covered her neck and shoulders. I promised I would hurt her and I never broke a promise. I lost my control with her, and Stella paid the price.

I was a man who never lost my head no matter the intensity of the situation. I never lost my cool in a fight or any dangerous situation I found myself in. And I absolutely never got so lost when with a girl that I didn't think of protection. Stella has this power to make me lose my fucking mind, and I couldn't even think sometimes when she was around.

Stella quickly pulled her robed closed and sat up. Running her hands through her hair, she tried to tame it but gave it up. It stuck up in all directions from tossing and turning all night. Her face was bare of makeup and her lips were still swollen. She was beguiling first thing in the morning, and I couldn't take my eyes off her. I thought her little dress last night was my weakness, but it didn't matter what the fuck she wore.

I looked at her face expecting to see fear and hate. Maybe even anger for taking her so hard and rough. I didn't see any of that though. I saw a calm and acceptance I had never seen in those blue eyes. Never in the months I followed and watched her.

What had she accepted? Me? Her own fate? The fact that she was paying for everyone else's mistakes?

"I've done bad things, Stella," I said gruffly. "Don't look at me like what I did to you was okay. You need to never let me touch you again. I told you that before."

"My dad once said that sometimes good people have to do bad things to save people from other bad things," she said softly.

Her words sent a shock wave through me. She was stubborn and naive just like her brother had warned. I stood and stalked over to the end of the bed. She had the decency to shrink away from me in the slightest as I approached.

"Little star, I'm not a good person," I said, tilting her face up to look at me. She needed to see what I really was.

"Without a doubt, you've done bad things. Ace too. But whatever you are doing now, I think it's to help someone. Ace would never have gone to my dad that night otherwise," she explained.

She looked so sure, so confident in her assumption. Ace loved his little sister. It was the only thing that made me believe he wouldn't turn on me. To save her. I shook my head, fully convinced then that Ace didn’t go there to tell his dad about me and the family. He was there for help.

"I was raised by criminals," I said. "I was born into the family. My dad is the worst and most dangerous man I know. He raised me as his son."

I remembered instead of going to the middle school dance, I went with my dad to beat up someone who owed him money. That was just child's play, the easiest of tasks. I thought I was so cool that I left Marissa May waiting for me while we left some guy bloodied in a parking lot.

"I played my part and contributed to the family like the rest, Stella. Don't think for a second that I'm innocent. There's too much blood on my hands."

Stella didn't argue but didn't agree either. She sat perfectly still, her breathing shallow and controlled. She asked for the truth so I gave it. She would quickly wish she wasn't so curious. I exposed myself when I pointed my gun at Sal. Along with everyone else in the room, she knew I didn’t want her dead. What she needed to know was that I would do what had to be done in the end.

"It was my responsibly to recruit new guys in. They wanted young and strong to join as lower level men. That's how I met Ace. He wanted the money and excitement. It didn't take much to convince him to tag along with me."

It was my fault it took so long to learn his dad was one of Chicago's finest. Ace and I took to each other, and I instantly trusted him. By the time I learned of his family, he was in too deep. I knew he was committed and one of us.

"We stuck to the usual. The stuff you see in the movies," I said with a smirk. "We put pressure on those who owed the family money. We ran security at the casinos, moved guns if needed. Met with contacts for various deals that weren't legal either. We thought we were untouchable."

Stella stiffened and I start to pace the room. She was smart enough to know that it was going to get bad real soon. She was smarter than us. Two boys who thought they ran the city. We had no idea what was coming for us. It was Chicago for fuck's sake.

"Ace met a girl. She worked one of the casinos, faking the books. We aren't supposed to fuck the help, but Ace thought he would never get caught. Soon, she disappeared. Ace was pissed, wanting to know who did it and what they did with her."

I looked back at Stella. Her eyes were glistening.

"They killed her?"

"That's what we thought for a while. The family isn't much for talking things out. We solved things with blood and tears. Hard lessons. But Ace didn't care and went digging around, wanting to get revenge on whoever pulled the trigger. He found something else."

"What?" Stella asked, sitting straighter and leaning forward with interest. Her eyes were wide and bright, hanging on every word. This was the answer she needed. Like Ace, she lost something and needed to know why. This was a family that believed in justice and balance. Not so different from mine in that way.

"We trade guns, funny money, and anything else for profit. One thing that set us apart from the lowest of the lowest monsters was that we didn't trade women. Until we did."

"Women?" she asked, voice tight.

"That's what's going on but we don't have the proof. It's hidden and only a few know. Those in charge know that not everyone will agree. After some digging, Ace found something that led us to think she was alive."

I hated that I believed my next words, let alone that I needed to say them.

"They sold the girl from the casino."

"Human trafficking," Stella whispered.

Silence hung in the air. I let her collect her thoughts. I shattered her image of her older brother. I probably shattered her image of me and my family. I didn't want her to believe I was a good guy like she said. I wanted her to know that we wouldn't stand for kidnapping and selling women. My mom raised me better than that.

It took losing my mom to realize that a woman was something to be treasured and cherished. They put up with our shit and bring us into this world. Their bodies were built for our enjoyment and pleasure, and vice versa. A woman would give us the world without force if earned. And nothing was ever as sweet and fulfilling as something earned.

"Your dad?" she asked.

"Nothing gets past my dad," I said bitterly.

He knew. He was most likely in control of the whole operation. The fact that he allowed me to stay locked away in this lake house this long confirms my suspicion. Up here, I'm out of his way and not snooping around in his little side business.

"And your promise to protect me? Does that still stand?"

I walked back to the foot of the bed and stared down at her.

"I had to get to you before they did. My father and his people would have no mercy."

I finally saw the fear I needed to see in her eyes.

"You are a traitor's sister. You witnessed one of us killing," I explained, drilling it deeper so she would understand. "They would torture you, make you suffer, kill you slowly or maybe even sell you off to the worst of bidders."

Stella blinked and looked down at her hands. There were red marks from the belt last night. I left my mark on her and, realizing that, I started to get hard. Knowing that I owned her like no one else had and that she let me was empowering. It was exactly what I needed after losing my control because of her. It was a fucked up balance in a way.

"He was there for Ace," she said. "The killer. He asked them where he was. They wouldn't tell him, so he killed them."

"You heard that?"

 "He said that Ace pissed off the wrong people," she said with a tight voice.

My dad. Ace and I were digging around where we shouldn't have. We didn't have enough yet, but we had enough to piss him off. I was now positive that Ace and the Harlows died under my dad's orders. He knew we were on to him, but killing his son would cause a scene. Every member in the city would be looking for justice.

"You are just telling me this now?" I asked.

"It's the only thing that was keeping me alive," she spat. "Once you have what you want, I'm of no use."

"And now?"

"Now, I want the fuckers found, and I was raised to believe that lives are worth fighting for."

XIX

Stella

"Stella, you need to leave your room," Tony yelled from the other side of the bedroom door.

Atlas was successful in avoiding me for two days. Sal and Tony constantly hovered, sitting outside my door and never letting me out of their sight. I had never felt so alone and so crowded at the same time. I wasn't sure what to make of Atlas's disappearing act. He gave me a look into the past and the deep secrets he was trying to unravel, only to abandon me when he needed my help.

I swung the door open and stared at Tony. The concern on his face was unmistakable.

"Why do you care?" I asked. "Where is Atlas?"

"He went into the city but should be back tonight," he explained. "You need food and sunlight."

"Trying to keep me alive just long enough?" I asked. Without waiting for a real answer, I pushed past Tony and started down the hall.

I wasn't stupid. From the moment the shock wore off in the hospital on the worst night of my life, I knew my greatest possession was what I had seen. It could get me killed or save my life. In the beginning, keeping that secret was the key to my survival. I saw nothing, knew nothing, remembered nothing. When Atlas came and demanded the truth, I held it as my last bargaining chip. It would be the key to unlock my freedom when the time was right.

I wasn't too sure what I would eventually earn when I traded my knowledge in the end. Somehow, I couldn't see myself walking the streets carefree ever again. A normal life seemed so far away and impossible anymore. If I was honest, normal died with the rest of my family.

I missed them. I missed my big brother. I hated feeling this alone when I needed someone the most. I couldn't let them die for nothing. Ace obviously believed in what he was doing. If Atlas was telling the truth, they wanted to put an end to the trafficking his father was doing. If I could help them, I would like to try. I really didn't have anything else to do with my life anyway.

I pushed open the doors to the back deck and inhaled the crisp air. I felt weak, mentally and physically. My mind was spinning with possibilities, both good and bad. My nights were restless and my bones ached carrying the emotional load. Atlas ignored me, pushed me aside like the tool I really was. There was a point where I thought he would save me; now I wasn’t too sure.

"You okay? You look pale," Tony said behind me.

"Just fine."

I wasn't fine. I stared over the water until I heard Tony step back inside, no doubt still close by. Despite feeling so lonely, I wanted to be left alone. I wanted company, not a body guard or babysitter.

A chill ran through my body as I looked out over the lake. The trees around me were changing color. This place could actually be very beautiful if you could block out all the bad. I leaned over the railing, looking over and into the murky water. I pulled myself up on the ledge. Slowly, so I wouldn't lose my balance, I pushed myself up upright.

I stood on the wood railing and all I could see was the water. I wanted to block out everything behind me, my past. Confinement, fear, and eminent death waited for me back there. The wind blew through my hair and I felt lighter in the chill with nothing below me but water. My balance wavered but I didn't care if I fell.

"I bet it's freezing," Atlas said behind me. "You going for a swim?"

"I don't know how to swim," I admitted, slowly turning to face him.

Atlas looked perfect as usual. His suit jacket hugged the muscles I knew were under there. His tie was gone but he looked put together. Always in perfect control. He watched me carefully, debating and planning. With measured steps, he came closer until he was right in front of me.

"Get down from there, Stella," he demanded. "Don't make me force you."

I laughed, the bitter sound echoing in the emptiness. My head was fuzzy and I felt tired. Tired of fighting, running and hiding. I wanted it all to be over already. I just didn't know how this story would end. Did it end with my death? My security and a happy ending? Only Atlas could give me any kind of finale.

"Stella, you don't look so good," Atlas said, coming closer and reaching up. "Please get down."

"Now I don't look good?" I asked bitterly. I was acting like a child but couldn't seem to stop it. "It's the black hair, isn't it?"

Atlas sighed and rubbed his face roughly. "I like the hair. That's not what I meant. Just come down."

I shook my head but the movement threw off my whole balance. I stumbled and swayed, losing my footing on the thin railing. When I expected to hit the cold water, warm arms wrapped around me. I hit a hard chest and my body went limp.

"Shit, Stella. You're burning up."

I felt myself moving but I couldn't keep my eyes open. I tried so hard to open them. I needed to see where they were taking me. What if I needed to fight back? I couldn't even lift my head enough to look around. My cheek stayed firmly pressed to Atlas's chest.

"She passed out," Atlas told someone. "She's burning up. What the hell happened?"

"Nothing. She didn't even leave her room," said Tony. "She hasn't eaten or anything."

I heard my bedroom door being kicked open and saw my familiar ceiling. I stared up at this ceiling so often, it was sad I would instantly recognize it. Atlas put me down on my bed and I sunk into the soft mattress and down comforter. His large hands ran over my face and forehead. His touch was gentle and soft, unlike any other way he ever touched me.

"Get something she can drink or eat," Atlas said quietly, followed by the sound of footsteps.

Atlas ran his hands down my face and neck. His fingers were feather light. It was a stark contrast to the roughness he had always showed me.

"You still with me?" he asked quietly.

"Think so," I whispered, my throat sore and raspy. "You can break your promise, Atlas."

"What promise?"

I struggled to open my eyes and finally blinked them open. Atlas's dark eyes were staring down at mine. His face was so close I could smell the faint scent of whiskey. Light stubble lined his strong jaw and I noticed a small scar on his bottom lip. I briefly wondered how he got it.

"I'm no use to you anymore. You can just let me die and Ace will never know the difference," I told him, still staring at his lips and the scar.

"Don't be stupid Stella," he said. "We are gearing up for war here, Little Star. You aren't done here yet, so quit trying to chicken out."

Atlas pulled away from me and my eyes fell closed. A coldness wrapped around me as voices whispered around me. Sounds faded out and back in. Atlas tried to pull me up but I couldn't hold myself up. I wanted to, but I couldn't fight anymore. I had nothing left.

"You need to try to eat this," he said to me, putting a spoon to my lips.

Atlas and Tony force fed me chicken broth. It burned my mouth but the salty familiar taste warmed me from the inside. My head pounded, my eyes burned as I tried to refuse the soup. I didn't want their help. I didn't want anyone's help anymore. I just wanted it to be over.

Just when I thought I was going to have my peace, I was awake. Ice cold water was spraying on me and I gasped in shock.

"What the fuck!" I shouted, trying to get away from the freezing water.

"Stop," Atlas demanded in a voice that made me pause.

He was in his boxers and white collared shirt. He was soaked, holding me in the shower.

"I had to cool you down," he explained. "Your fever got too high."

I relaxed into his chest and let the water cool me down. I was shivering but I could feel the sweat on my skin. My hair was damp so I dipped my head back, letting the cool spray soak through. The sound of my teeth chattering echoed in the large bathroom.

"Thanks," I mumbled, weak and exhausted.

"Don't thank me," he said. "Come on. You need food now that you're conscious."

He reached over and turned off the water. I took Atlas's outstretched hand and let him pull me to my feet. I lost my balance, but Atlas was quick to grab me. His hands held my hips and he looked down at me. We were both soaked in our clothes and his hair dripped water on my face. We were so close, I could feel his body heat and the beat of his heart through his chest.

"Don't give up yet, Stella," he said, running a thumb over my skin. "You are better than that. Better than us."

Atlas didn't give me a chance to respond before he pulled me from the shower. I got my privacy to dry off and put on warm, dry clothes. I was slow and weak, but I could stand on my own two feet. When I stepped into the bedroom, Atlas was sitting on the bed with a tray of food. Too tired to argue, I sat next to him and took the tray when he passed it over.

The soup was chicken noodle from the can but reminded me of home. My mom would make it whenever one of us was sick. The whole family would eat chicken noodle soup and crackers even if just Ace had the cold. Dad teased mom that it was just so she didn't need to cook extra. I think she didn't want one of us to feel left out.

I stared down into the broth and felt my eyes misting over. I tried to blink and hide it in time, but I was too late.

"I followed you," Atlas said, breaking our silence. "My dad sent me down after the cops found the bodies. He tried to tell me one of his enemies went after Ace, taking out the family, but you escaped."

I put down my spoon and looked up at him. I knew he had found me before the night of the club, but I was unsure how far back.

"I watched you at the funeral," he admitted. "I never saw you cry. Even those nights alone, you never broke down."

I swallowed the lump in my throat. Atlas followed me for months. He stalked me, watched me and saw every move I made. I should feel violated, scared and maybe even angry. Somehow knowing that he was somewhere close those dark and lonely nights gave me a sick feeling of comfort. Someone was there.

"I didn't want them to win. I thought that if I never told the police that I saw anything, they would leave me alone," I said. Hearing it out loud, I realized how naive that had been.

"They won't win, Stella. I will make damn sure of it," Atlas said, his voice low and angry. "My father promised he had nothing to do with Ace or your family. He lied to me and will pay for that."

"But he's your father," I said, confused how he could follow in the man's footsteps only to turn his back on him.

"Blood may determine your family, but it doesn't have to be blood shared. It can be blood spilled. Ace died for a reason, and I will finish what he started and make anyone who stood in our way pay."

XX

Atlas

I snuck out of the room while Stella slept. Her temperature had returned to normal but she was still exhausted and weak. I had spent the last twenty-four hours forcing her to eat and drink. Most of our time was spent in comfortable silence, but I could almost hear her thoughts.

I isolated her. Stripped away what little she had left. I had never seen her break down in sorrow and loneliness before. But here, in her weakest moments, I saw the pain shine through. Not only was the pain surprising, but so was my reaction to it. I was angry. Angry that Ace wasn't here to fix this. Pissed that I had to witness her breaking.

I should never have touched her. Before, holding back was a struggle and now it would be near impossible. It was a mistake that could cost us the mission. When I saw her, I couldn't think straight. It took heading to the city for me to able to see clearly. Sometimes just being in the same isolated house was too much to be able to concentrate. I needed distance and couldn't let that happen again.

In my office, I searched through the footage I got from visiting my dad in the city. With a new determination, I looked for a new face. He must have someone new to be his right-hand man dealing with trafficking the women. I had compiled a group of men who were new by the time Sal and Tony joined me.

"There's a buzz in the family," Tony said. "A general unease that something is up."

"And there is," I said, looking up from the computer.

"Rumors are spreading," Sal added. "Some are saying you want out. Others think the old man is stepping down for you to take over. Either way, change is in the air."

"There will be change, boys," I told them. "We are getting ready for war. The final phase is falling into place so we best be ready."

"We are armed and ready," Tony assured me.

"Our guys are ready," Sal said.

We spent weeks quietly spreading the word about the darker part of the "family business." As expected, many didn't agree. My father may still have been the boss, but I was the one with the real following. We had an arsenal stocked and ready for just about anything.

"And the girl?" Tony asked.

"What about her?" I asked, glaring up at him. "She lives for now."

We spent the day going over plans and backup plans. We weren't planning to simply kidnap a young woman here. We were going to war with the boss. In the last decade, no one had tried to overthrow the head of the family in Chicago. My grandfather had ruled before my dad, and I was to take over after him.

I looked up at the painting of Atlas on my wall. He led the war against the Gods and paid for his mistake for eternity. Would I end up like my namesake? Was I leading us all into a trap, only to be defeated? Lives would be lost without a doubt. The only question was how many, and who would stand when the smoke cleared?

"Atlas," I heard in the doorway. I looked up to see Stella standing there, looking much better than the night before. "I'm sorry, I just didn't know where anyone was," she said, trailing off at the end when she realized she was interrupting something serious.

"How are you feeling?" I asked her, standing up.

"Better, thank you," she said, looking at the floor. She was nervous, scared, and uneasy around me.

Coming around from behind my desk, I walked toward her. I kept walking as she backed up, hitting the wall behind her.

"I need you to stay in your room until I come get you," I told her. "Tony, take her to her room, please."

Her eyes went wide as Tony came for her. When he grabbed her upper arm, her eyes met mine. Her bright, blue eyes sparkled with fury as she glared at me. I watched calmly as he dragged her away. It was for her own good but she wouldn't see it that way. I was treating her like a prisoner, like a pet.

"She is your weak spot," Sal pointed out.

I didn't answer as I came back to my seat. He stared at me with a knowing look.

"Everyone has a weakness," he continued. "You just need to know to arm them before your enemies find them."

I looked back up at the painting. Gods didn't have a weakness. That’s what made them Gods. Heroes were human, had faults, and were able to be defeated. Titans were strong and brave, but conquered. It was then that I realized my father had named me after the Titan doomed to eternal punishment. He named me after the one who would always be beneath him. Maybe it was time history was changed.

"There's no reason anyone would think she is here and alive, right?" I asked him.

"No. The missing person report circulated the news for a few days before losing steam. With only that Liddy girl, she was quickly forgotten."

That was a shame because Stella was someone that people should miss. She should have a family member on the news every day, begging and pleading for her safe return. There should be a worried boyfriend searching the ends of the earth looking for her. A big brother should be kicking ass for answers. Stella should not have disappeared so silently.

Sal and I continued to go through the people involved. We had a running list of the men working the trafficking business. We were able to figure out the port in Miami he was shipping from and the trucking company used to move the girls around the country. I was embarrassed and enraged that it had taken this long to figure out what was going on right under our noses.

Tony came back in and took his seat. "She's feeling much better. Even put up a fight."

I laughed. There was a fire left in her after all.

"I gave her food but she threw the plate at me," he said, wiping at the small cut on his forehead.

"What did you do to her?" I asked, knowing he wouldn't have taken the blow nicely. I clenched my fists, ready for a fight.

"Tied her ass up," he told me, hands up in surrender. "You can deal with the little devil. She's all yours."

We worked well into the night. It was almost winter and I was expected back in the city any day now. I couldn't go back yet. I couldn't leave Stella here unattended and couldn't leave business unfinished. We had reached the point of no return. Everything Ace and I worked for the last few years was finally coming to its epic conclusion. I wished he was here to see it. I only hoped I did him right. I kept his sister out of their hands and would end their reign of terror. Maybe I would find the girl he had been searching for all this time.

At the time, I couldn't understand how Ace was willing to risk everything for a girl he barely knew. He risked his job, his life, and ultimately his family's life, to find her. The girl could be dead by now for all we knew, but the circumstances called for an end. Were we fighting for all women, or the one he loved? I tried to think if it was Stella, how far would I go to save her from that life? Was me keeping her here any better?

I knew without a doubt that it was. I never forced her and knew damn well she wanted me just as badly as I wanted her. Her attraction was written all her face and body. I tied her up, but would never have taken her if she had been unwilling. She may have fought how she felt for me, but she never fought me.

Thinking of Stella, picturing her tied to the bed had me walking down the hall to her room. Since the moment I had brought her here, seeing her restrained was my favorite. I would have left her tied up all the time if I had thought it would have gained her cooperation. I loved any woman tied up, but Stella brought out a beast in me that I didn't know existed. I knew I was fucked up, more violent than one should be, but she brought out a stronger monster.

I pulled open the bedroom door and found her on the bed. Her arms were spread, tied to the headboard. Her dark hair covered half of her face while she slept. A thin sheet covered most of her body, the rest peaking though to tease me. My restraint was being tested, but I was never one to hold back.

Walking to the foot of her bed, I noticed her chest rising and falling quickly. Little pants passed her wet lips. In her tank top, I could see the sweat glistening on her chest. One bare leg stretched out, snaking out from under the sheet. I could see her pale skin up to her hip to her thin panties. I clenched my fists thinking about Tony holding her down like this and tying her up.

I stepped closer to her, running a finger up her exposed leg. A moan escaped her lips, even with her eyes closed. She was dreaming but not one her usual nightmares. Her back subtly lifted off the mattress, and I noticed how flushed her cheeks were. Who was she dreaming about? Who was making her moan when she could imagine anyone she wanted?

Stella moaned again and pulled on the ropes holding her wrists. Her breathing was labored and coming faster. I knew that sound, she was close and I instantly hardened at the sound. I wondered briefly if she would come while I watched her. Was I about to watch her fall her apart? In a moment of weakness, I ran my hand slowly but lightly over her stomach, pulling some of the sheet away. Her body arched into my touch and she whimpered.

I should leave this room. This was supposed to be one place she had a little sense of privacy. I promised I would keep away and never touch her again. Stella was my poison and greatest battle. Watching her while her body climbed higher and higher wouldn't be right. I wouldn't be able to walk away if I stayed any longer.

When did I ever do the right thing? History proved one thing; this girl was my weakness.

XXI

Stella

Every part of me was hot. I could feel myself melting, or evaporating; I couldn't tell which anymore. My skin tingled and buzzed with sensation. I was hot. Too hot but not from a fever this time. I was burning and my breathing was hard. I needed relief but I couldn't move. I was powerless against him, I always was. My nipples brushed the thin sheet, shooting bursts of pleasure through my body. I could feel the wetness pooling between my legs. The bed was damp under me and I rubbed my thighs together to relieve the building pressure.

It wasn't enough. It was never enough. I was so close, dangling over the edge but unable to fall over. I was chasing that burst of ecstasy. My surroundings were hazy but I sensed him. I could feel his touch and smell his cologne. I couldn't see him but I could feel what he was doing to my body. He was playing me like I was his instrument. My body begged for more as the waves of electricity rolled through me.

I was so close, I could feel myself rocking on the brink. I could hear my own panting as I gasped for air and begged for release. I tugged at the ropes and felt the pain biting into the raw skin. The pain intensified my awareness and a moan rumbled from my chest. Almost there. So close.

I arched my back and prepared to be dragged under, but it didn't happen. I felt the sweat collecting on my skin, and I was dripping between my legs. I was almost there as my dream started to dissolve. I whined and willed myself to stay asleep just a little longer. Just a few more seconds and I would be done. Please.

Reality trickled slowly in. I felt him before I even opened my eyes. I was shaking and panting when I forced my eyelids open. Atlas was leaning against the dresser at the foot of the bed. His sleeves were rolled up to show the muscles flexing in his arms that were crossed against his chest. His eyes were darker than I'd ever seen them and my skin tingled.

"Atlas," I gasped, my heart pounding louder.

"Close, weren't you?" he asked, his voice low but smooth. Just the sound sent goosebumps over my skin. So low and deep, promising the darkest of pleasure and pain.

He stepped forward, calm and composed compared to my buzz and trembling. Steady and controlled, he walked over to the side of bed. I clenched my thighs together, my need only growing more now that I was awake. I pulled and struggled against the rope, wanting my hands free. The need to run was intense, but I wasn't sure which direction I would run toward.

"Who were you dreaming about, Little Star?" Atlas asked, leaning over me.

"No one," I panted.

"Don't lie to me," he said, trailing one finger up my bare leg. He stopped and squeezed my knee, waiting for my answer.

"Please," I begged. I needed him to leave, or stay. I wasn't sure anymore.

"Please what?" Atlas whispered, his lips close to my ear. "You want to come?"

I bit down on my bottom lip to keep from telling him the truth. A dark smile spread on Atlas's face and I realized I didn't need to tell him the truth. He knew. The sheet was quickly torn away, leaving me exposed and cooling my overheated skin. I gasped as the cool air touched my skin, feeling like a caress with my senses heightened.

"You want to know my first mistake?" Atlas asked me as he took in the sight of my body.

"Yes," I whispered, unaware he made many mistakes.

"Tying you up when you first got here. I could almost forget how badly I wanted you in that club until I saw you like this," he said, sweeping his hand over me.

I pulled against the ropes again and watched as his dark eyes flared. He liked it. Atlas started to unbutton his shirt and I squirmed under his intense stare.

"My second mistake was kissing you in the bathroom," he continued as he worked the buttons free.

Everywhere he looked, I could feel it, like it was a physical touch. My tank top was riding up, exposing my stomach and my breast felt heavy under the thin material. I needed to be touched, and soon.

"The third mistake was fucking you because that is all I can fucking think about since then."

He glared down at me with dark eyes. The intensity of his words and his look made me desperate.

"Who were you dreaming about?" Atlas asked again as he rounded back to the foot of the bed. He waited with one knee propped on the mattress like he would pounce at any moment. My body was begging for him. I arched my back and squirmed, trying to get closer.

"You," I gasped, my face heating with shame and embarrassment.

I didn't have time feel much else because after a growl from Atlas, his hands were at the sides of my panties. His large fingers twisted under around the strings on the side and he pulled, ripping the fragile fabric off my body.

"What did I do to you?" he asked, his words floating between my legs. "You moaned so sweetly. Did I feel good?"

"Yes. Please," I begged, even though I didn't know what I was asking for. I wasn't even sure I could handle what I was asking for.

"Did I lick your wet pussy?" Atlas asked, spreading my legs apart and lowering himself to the bed.

I could only pant as he ran a finger over me, feeling how wet I already was. This was only the first touch and I was already dripping. I could feel a rumble in his chest before I looked down and watched as he lowered his mouth to me. I cried out as his tongue tasted and massaged. I should be pulling away, but I found that I didn't want to.

I dropped my head back and pulled on the ropes. Every stroke was too much, but not enough at the same time. I squeezed my thighs and locked his head between them. That didn't slow Atlas down. He continued to assault me with his tongue until I was sure I would come all over his lips. My eyes rolled to the back of my head and my body tensed, ready.

Atlas stopped. He pulled himself away and I cried out in pain.

"What the fuck?" I yelled. "Why?"

"I'm not done with you yet," he said, crawling over my body.

His lips crashed on mine as I rolled the familiar words around in my head. When would he ever be done with me? My lips moved with his, desperate for more of him. I could taste myself in his mouth as my tongue swept in. I moaned into his mouth and wrapped a leg around his, pulling him closer. I wanted more of Atlas.

With my hands above my head, I couldn't touch him. I fought again and felt Atlas grow harder on my thigh. He was huge, and rock hard. Pulling at the ropes made him flex against me. I should have found it sick, but I pulled harder, loving the reaction I could get from him. With a final growl, he lifted off me and worked his pants off quickly. This time around, I had time to feel and notice things like his body, the way he tasted, and the sounds of our breathing mixed together.

When his shirt hit the floor, I took a second to take in his naked body. He was strong and built to last the worst. His skin was perfect, stretched over tight muscles. As he lowered himself on top of me, I looked up into his face. His eyes were on mine already. I felt a surge of pleasure rush my body at the fire I saw in them. He may have been my weakness, but I was his as well.

I tilted my hips and Atlas pushed fully into me. It was blunt, hard and fast, just like he was. There was no warning, no easing and no softness. I didn't expect anything different. He filled me up, taking over every inch of me and every sensation. Atlas demanded and took every nerve, every inch of skin, every gasp for air.

"I warned you before," he said in my ear. "I will hurt you."

"Do your worst," I rasped.

Those words were like the crack of a whip. I felt the control snap in his muscles and Atlas kept his promise. Raising up on his elbows, he pounded into me. He was deep and hard, and I screamed with every thrust. Sweat covered our skin as the room's temperature turned to sweltering. With a strength I only imagined, Atlas took me. He took me hard with no apology or shame. I accepted it with no fear or regret.

Every time he bottomed out inside me, I cried out his name. My moans pushed him, spurred him on. I expected nothing different from Atlas. He was harsh, commanding, and powerful. I felt it with every stroke. He was everywhere, owning every sensation, smell, and sound. This man moved without restraint, and I got a rush from his loss of control.

I started to clench around him, and I felt it all over. My body was owned by him and racing toward the fire he promised. It hurt, but the pleasure won in the battle. An energy buzzed as Atlas’s eyes burned into mine. Without warning, I was screaming and clenching around him. The wave of pleasure hit so hard and fast, I lost control. I pulled at the ropes as wave after wave hit me and my eyes squeezed shut.

Atlas tensed and pulled out of me, leaving me feeling empty. I opened my eyes to watch him pump his cock twice and then come on my stomach. He groaned lowly as the warm liquid hit my hot skin and I arched into it, wanting to claim it as my own. I watched his face in fascination as it went from tensed to relaxed. When he opened his eyes again, they were a calm dark gray, like the sky after a violent storm.

The room was silent except for our panting. Atlas stared down at me with an unreadable expression. His hair was damp with sweat and I wanted to run my fingers through it. My bound wrists stung when I tried and I winced.

"I should undo those ropes. They make me lose control," Atlas grumbled, tugging on the ropes that held my arms above my head. "But I can't do that now."

I should have been upset, but I felt safe and protected for once. It was a feeling only Atlas had been able to provide for me since I'd been alone in this world. My limbs felt loose and dead. I didn't even mind the heat anymore as I drifted away into nothing. I wanted to fall asleep, but part of my brain was still awake and demanding attention.

"Are you going to kill me?" I asked him, unable to see his face as I said the words.

He sighed and climbed over top of me.

"If you can still speak after I'm done with you, then I didn't do a good job."

He wrapped my legs around his waist and pulled the ropes tighter so I couldn't move. I gasped when I felt him hard and pushing against me again. That round, Atlas was successful in shutting me up and turning off my mind. Sweaty and sore, I fell into a dreamless sleep.

XXII

Atlas

Quickly, like I'd done it a hundred times (because I had), I undid the knots holding her in place. Stella moaned and closed her eyes. A power surged through me when I saw the effect I could have on her. I couldn't control her any other time but now, with my dick in her or mouth on her. She was so agreeable and free when we were naked.

Even more powerful was the effect she had on me. There was no use denying that now. I needed to confront it and own up to it. You are only as weak as your secrets. The man always with a plan wasn't sure how to work around my loss of control when Stella was around. Unless I got rid of her, I would need to deal with it.

Knowing the sun was rising on another day, I dressed and left her room. With our time running out, I needed to pull every resource we had. The days following were spent in my office. We called in favors from all over the world and spent obscene amounts of money. The air was thick with the buzz of anticipation. It was like feeling the electricity of lightning before a storm.

Stella spent most of her time in her room or on the deck. At night, I snuck into her room. She never asked any questions, but she never turned me away. As compelled as I was, I would have left if she had asked me to. But she never did. Wordlessly, she opened up to me and let me release my pent up energy on her while she remained tied up. Sometimes it was rough and the marks would spur me on the next day. Other times it was rushed like we couldn't wait a second longer.

The sun going down was a stark contrast to the daylight. Sunlight poured in the windows while we planned war. While we discussed lying, cheating and killing, the sun graced us. It was in the shadows that it all disappeared. Only Stella and I existed in whatever way we wanted to. When darkness came, I pretended the evil wasn't there, and she acted like I wasn't a monster.

Sometimes I wished it wasn't. I wondered if my mom had stayed if I would have turned out differently. Could I have been the person Stella thought she saw inside me? The shitty thing about the past is that we could never change it. We couldn't even change the effects it had on the present or future. We could only look back and wish it were different. Maybe when this was all done and over with, she could find comfort in this one time when she caught a glimpse of someone worthy of her.

Most likely, I would end up one of the bad guys her dad had warned her about. If she had a choice or options, I was sure she would never let me touch her. Stella was raised in the opposite atmosphere I was. She was taught that life was valuable and never to do harm. I was taught how to get away with murder. It was a wonder I ended up with any morals at all.

It was cold the morning I woke Stella up and forced her get dressed quickly. I only gave her a few hours of sleep before I was hauling her out of her warm bed. In a last act of desperation, I had an idea I prayed would pay off. Otherwise, I was risking everything.

"Where are we going?" she asked and she put her arms through the flannel jacket I shoved at her.

"Home," I said, pushing her out of the bedroom.

"Your place?" she asked.

"No. Yours."

Stella's feet froze but I picked her up, carrying her easily to the waiting car. I shut the door and Tony pulled away from the lake house.

"I don't understand," Stella said, her voice shaking with nerves. "You're letting me go?"

"No," I answered bluntly, taking the blindfold Sal handed back to me. "Put this on."

Stella's shoulders sunk and she hung her head while I tied the black fabric over her eyes. The car was silent as we weaved through the dark gravel roads away from the lake. With the cold moving in, the tourists had fled the area, leaving only the crazy locals. Even I should have been back in my plush penthouse, overlooking the city I controlled with violence and fear. Instead, I was taking a trip down memory lane.

After an hour of driving, the car came to a stop.

"Are you going to kill me now?" Stella whispered.

I didn't answer and instead opened my door. Coming around, I helped her out and guided her away from the car. It was still dark enough we would go unnoticed. I still needed to be careful.

"Don't scream," I said in her ear as I pushed her forward. Her entire body was trembling as we stepped through the doorway.

When I pulled away the blindfold, I stepped back and let her take it all in. Stella gasped when her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She spun around, taking in the bare walls of the house she had lived in her entire life. What was once a home was now a cold and vacant house.

"Why did you bring me here?" she asked me, turning to face me with tears in her eyes.

"If Ace was last here and left a clue for you, me, or even your dad to follow, we need to find it," I told her. “We can't have anything in the hands of the wrong people.”

I stepped forward and took her shaking hands, pleading wordlessly for her help. Stella pulled away and slowly walked the halls. She ran her fingers down the walls of the hallway to the bedrooms. Some furniture and items still remained since Stella was still the owner of the house. With her missing, the place wasn't sold or emptied completely yet.

"This was his room," she said, pointing to the room with blue walls and a single bed inside.

I walked inside, checking the closet and under the bed for anything hidden. Ace wasn't a novice teenager hiding dirty magazines or drugs. He was a professional, so his hiding spot would be good but I knew what to look for. We learned from the best. When I didn't find anything, I looked around to find Stella was gone.

I found her down the hall in her old room. It looked much like the night she left it. Most of her stuff had been packed and sent across the country. She seemed lost in herself until she heard my footsteps. Giving me a sad look, she motioned for her to follow her to the closet.

"This was my hiding spot," she said, pushing on a loose board on the floor.

Stella pushed on the corner of the board and one end came up, enough for her to pull it away. Underneath was a sizable space, filled with a tiny wooden box and papers. I knelt down and pulled them out. The papers were worn and old but smelled like Stella. I unfolded one, finding a drawing of the house we were standing in.

"You drew these?" I asked, flipping through the rest.

"Yeah," she admitted quietly. "It was a hobby of mine for a while."

"Why hide them?" I asked while staring at a sketch of her mother. I could easily see the resemblance in her and Ace. It was rough and unfinished, but talented and beautiful.

"They aren't that good. I just liked doing them."

I shook my head because she was so wrong. Not one was finished and full of rough lines and harsh shading because she gave up before perfecting them.

"They are good," I told her.

She took them from my hands roughly, one of the papers ripping in the process.

"It doesn't fucking matter because no one will see these. No one will see this woman that I drew from memory," she hissed, thrusting the drawing of her mom in my face and throwing it to the ground.

"No one will know about the lone survivor of the Harlow family who could draw, because what does that matter with the backlash of murder, mob involvement, and crime? Who the fuck cares about me in all this?"

Angry tears streamed down her red face.

"I do." I said as I handed back the corner of paper that fell to the ground. She couldn't give up yet. She needed a reason to keep going just a little longer.

"What is this?" she said, taking it back and looking at it fully. It was then that I noticed the handwriting on it for the first time.

Stella sat on her bed and sorted through the drawings to find one that was not her handwriting. I recognized it immediately as Ace's. Stella silently read it, holding the missing piece to make it whole. Her eyes glistened as she soaked up her brother's words. I wanted to rip it from her hands and read it, but I couldn't take any more from her at that moment.

She flipped through the rest of the drawings and sprawled them out over her bed. Picking out one of a beautiful woman who looked slightly different than the other drawings, she handed it to me.

"He asks we never forget her. Memorize her face and fight for her every day that he can't." Her words were choked at the end.

I took the drawing of the girl. It was the girl from the casino that Ace had fallen in love with. This drawing was finished and detailed down to the reflection in her eyes. This face was innocent and undeserving of what I knew she would have gone through.

"He said that I had to make sure you kept your promise," she said, pulling my eyes away from the pencil marks Ace left behind for us to find.

"What's in the box?" I asked.

Stella opened it, and looked shocked to see what was inside.

"Nothing," she said, revealing the empty box.

I looked outside to find the sky changing to dawn. "We need to go. We have enough."

I pulled Stella off the bed and rushed her to the car. I locked the front door behind me and we pulled away. Ace found the proof he needed and it no longer mattered what that was. I would keep my promise. I would make those fuckers pay. Starting with the people who took his girl and killed his family. I would end with the man who brought me into this world. That was the thing about family. You killed for them and you died for them. I would do them both for Ace.

XXIII

Stella

I woke up sore. Everything hurt. My legs ached, my skin was raw and my heart was broken. My brain felt scrambled. A familiar fog settled over me much like the one after losing my parents and brother. That feeling of unbelieving and sadness was swallowing me.

A heat was wrapped around me. Atlas. When we got back from visiting my old house, Atlas brought me to my room. For the first time since he started sneaking in, he fucked me without the ropes. It was also the only time he had ever stayed. It was his way of distracting me, keeping away the bad memories that were threatening to take me under.

His heat reminded me I was alive and still breathing. Still fighting. I had fought the fog off before. What kind of person would I be if I let it back in? I was raised better than that. I was stronger than that. Atlas clung to me and held me to his chest. I was safe for now. With open eyes, I recalled my trip home. I remembered the way he fucked me, hard and unrelenting when we returned to the lake house.

I closed my eyes and dug into the dark spots of my mind. The places I never dared to go. They were the parts of my memory that only came out at night. Shadows disappeared in the dark. In the darkness lie my demons and greatest fears. It was there that the memory of the night I saw a murder was hidden. That was where I would find the man who shot my mom and dad.

"You're shaking," Atlas said in my ear. He could have been screaming but I barely hear him.

My brother's written words replayed in my mind. He told me to trust my gut because I had the "Harlow intuition." Ace said he loved me more than anything and never to stop fighting. His letter warned me that he sent a friend to come for me, but I found it too late. His parting words ripped a hole in my heart.

"Stella!" he was shouting. "Come back to me."

"I can't" I said as I threw myself from the bed.

Memories played in my head like a movie. Unlike every other time they bubbled over, I didn't fight them. I embraced them. I saw the dirty dishes from dinner stacked on the counter. I could see the floral pattern of my mom's robe. The lines on my dad's face looked so real in my mind. I even saw the man who was about to take their lives.

Atlas grabbed me as I crawled on the floor. He tried to grab my hands, but I fought him. I needed them. I needed to draw.

"I can draw," I said. "The man who came into my house and killed my parents."

"You can draw his face?" he asked, trying to understand my shaking words.

I answered with a nod.

"Why would you do that now?" he asked.

I knew that it was my last bargaining chip. It was the only piece that kept me alive this long. I just wanted it all to end. Not just for me, but for everyone involved.

"Pen. Pencil," I rasped. I felt the tears rolling down my cheeks and saw Atlas notice them too.

He listened though and found a pen in the pocket of his jacket that he had tossed to the floor earlier. Using my teeth, I pulled off the cap and crawled to the wall. Quickly, perfectly and quietly, I drew the face I hated to see. I drew his eyes that held only evil and pain. I drew the lips that lifted into a smile as he pulled the trigger. I drew the scar on his chin that I was sure he had deserved.

I worked without interruption, forgetting I was naked. If Atlas tried to talk to me, I didn't hear him. I was lost in my nightmares. Lost in my past. At some point, I broke the pen and used the spilled ink for better shading. By the time I was finished, I had taken up most of the wall. I stepped back and dropped the pen.

"Stella." The voice was gentle in my ear.

I turned and Atlas stood behind me. He had pulled on pants at some point and held a robe out for me. Feeling a sudden chill, I turned and let him slip my arms through the sleeves. He stared back at me. All ink and flat, but real to me nonetheless. This man didn't just kill a cop and his wife in their kitchen. He killed their daughter who was left alone and unprotected in their absence. The Stella they raised was buried with them, leaving someone else entirely in her place.

"You should shower, Little Star," Atlas said, forcing me to look at him.

I looked into his eyes and saw my own anger and hate reflecting back at me. I saw the thirst for revenge and justice. I recognized the hunger for truth and blood. I saw a part of me in Atlas. Or did I see a part of Atlas in me?

We went to the bathroom where Atlas helped me under the hot water. Shedding his clothes, Atlas washed me, using his hands and lips to erase the memories. As his fingers glided over my skin, it warmed me and brought me back. His lips breathed life back into my lungs. His voice pulled me from the fog. When he dried us both, he wiped away the guilt and fear.

"That's him?" he asked when we stepped back into the bedroom fully clothed.

"Yeah," I growled.

"I'll find him," he said forcefully.

"Do me a favor," I said. Atlas looked down at me with a questioning look.

"Make him beg for his life before you end it."

After a quick nod, I pushed past him and out to the hall without an ounce of regret for my request. I could hear Atlas following and I knew he would keep the promise. I didn't feel bad. My dad said sometimes you had to hurt people to save others. The man belonging to the face on my wall needed to be hurt to save others. There were probably more who needed to be hurt to save lives.

Atlas opened the door to let Sal and Tony come inside. They stood staring at my depiction of a killer. Their faces were hard and I saw Tony clench his fists. The three men whispered quietly while I waited numbly. There was nothing left for me to do at this point. I gave them all they needed so my job was done. I was useless.

Tony and Sal left the room looking like men on a mission. I looked up to find Atlas watching me with an angry glare. Swallowing, I felt resigned. I knew a long time ago that this day would come. I didn't know why I had even bothered running in the first place. My brother's trouble would have caught up to me eventually.

"Come on," Atlas said roughly, pulling me up to my feet.

Atlas pulled me out of the room and down the hall. He didn't take me the direction of the office or kitchen. We went the direction I had only gone one other time. My heart pounded loudly in my chest as he pulled the basement door open. Forcing me before him, I descended the stairs into the darkness.

It was silent when our footsteps stopped. I couldn't see or hear Atlas behind me anymore. I spun around, searching in the darkness for him. I knew he was there. I could sense him somewhere. Willing my eyes to adjust and reaching into nothing, I was still blind and lost. Alone.

"I can hear your heartbeat," said Atlas in a calm and even voice.

I spun around, trying to pick out where he was. His voice was everywhere, but nowhere at the same time.

"Are you scared, Stella?" he asked.

My breathing was heavy and my hands shook as I reached out, searching for him. I wasn't sure if I was looking for safety or the very thing I needed saving from.

"Answer the question," he whispered in my ear. Turning around quickly, he was already gone and out of reach.

"Yes," I admitted.

My answer was met with more silence. I could only hear my own pounding heart and short, shallow breaths.

"What are you afraid of?"

I tingled with awareness that he was near, but I feared how close he could be. Or how far. I couldn't even tell anymore what I was so afraid of. Alone in the pitch black, I was exposed and vulnerable. A familiar panic started to grow and my palms started to sweat. Just when I opened my mouth to let out a scream, I was thrown back

My scream was cut off as my back slammed into the wall. I could smell Atlas as he pressed against me, stealing away my air. Then I felt something hard and cold against my neck. A knife. My gasp pushed my skin into the sharp edge and a chill washed over me.

"Are you afraid of what I will do to you?" he asked. His voice was a low growl, sending shivers over me. "Answer me!"

"Yes!" I shouted, careful not to move enough to cut myself.

"Do you think I'm going to kill you?" he said and I felt the whisper in my ear, warming my face.

I nodded and waited for his next move. Would this be how it ended for me? In this dark basement in the middle of nowhere after fighting all this time?

"Stella," he said, running his fingers over my lips. "Remember this fear. That dark feeling in your heart that you feel because you think you are moments away from death. Hold on to it."

"Why?" I asked, needing to know why he felt the need to do this to me.

"Because, Little Star," he said, his lips now touching mine, "you feel this fear because you don't want to die."

Atlas pulled away from me and cold air took his space. I gasped for air and slid down the wall to the floor.

"Remember this fear the next time you think about giving up. Don't you dare fucking forget that you want to live. Others didn't have that choice, so don't take it for granted."

The sounds of his footsteps echoed as he walked away from me and up the stairs. I was alone and I could feel it around me. I hung my head between my knees as I sucked it up and calmed my breathing.

Atlas was right. When faced with dying, I was scared. My parents didn't get to just give up. They wanted to fight but it wasn't enough. Ace went out fighting and I would be a disgrace to do anything differently. If they were watching me now, and I truly hoped they weren't, I wanted them to be proud.

I slowly stood and walked to the stairs. I didn't know what stood on the other side of that door, but I wasn't going to hide anymore. Tomorrow could bring more pain and danger, but I would try to make it through. Holding the feeling Atlas had just given me in the darkness, I stepped outside and into the light.

XXIV

Atlas

From the safety of my office, I watched on the surveillance stream as Stella left the basement and headed to the kitchen. She moved around my house freely like she had all the freedom in the world. I smiled to myself while I put the finishing touches on the final stages of our plans. Now that Stella had snapped out of it, I would have one less thing to worry about.

I let her sleep that night without interruption. It took all my control to stay away. It was at night that I finally felt relief. Tying her up and controlling her was how I kept myself sane. Without the release, I was feeling on edge, angry and more than ready to rip someone's head off. When Tony came in the office, he was the perfect target.

"What the fuck took so long?" I asked as soon as I saw his face.

"Is that a serious question?" Tony asked with a glare. "I said days. We are back within a day. Don't be a dick."

I rubbed my face and felt the stubble there from being too busy. I didn't even know how many days I had been here anymore. A quick stay at the lake house turned into so much more. It became a turning point, a battlefield, and a command center.

"How did it go?" I asked, leveling my voice.

"Your dear daddy is back in Miami, so it went better than expected," he told me with a wide grin.

I stood and brushed the wrinkles from my suit jacket. Slowly and methodically, I buttoned it up and straightened my tie. I never liked to meet people looking less than perfect. It intimidated them, made them feel inferior. As I left my office, I became focused on one thing only.

"Get the girl," I said.

Everything went black and white as my mind cleared. The familiar feeling of zoning in on a target filled me. I entered the living room and took a deep calming breath. The open space was perfect.

"Atlas?" I heard her behind me. Stella's blue eyes went wide when she saw what caused us to haul her out of bed in the middle of the night.

In the center of the room, a man kneeled on the floor. His head was hung low and his shoulders heaved with his heavy breaths. Tony stood behind him, a gun pressed to the back of the man's head. Sal held Stella firmly as he pulled her into the room. She looked panicked and confused.

"What’s going on?" she asked, her eyes pleading with me.

I stepped forward, pulling out my own gun. I traced the pathetic excuse for a man's face with the barrel, forcing him to look up at me.

"Look at me," I spit at him.

His dark and empty eyes met mine and I had to step back to keep from pulling the trigger. I had seen evil, but this man was sick.

"You recognize him, Little Star?" I asked her.

Stella stepped forward and Sal let her. Her body was tense as she looked down at him. I saw when she finally got a good look at his face. A sound of pain escaped her mouth and she jumped away from him.

"It's him," she whispered. She was between breaking down and breaking out in a fit of anger. Which one would win out?

The fucker on his knees had the nerve to laugh. "You are dead, little girl."

The blunt end of my gun smacked into his skull, shutting him up. His didn't flinch or even make a sound as he glared up at me.

"You would go against your dad for this piece of ass?" he asked with blood dripping down his forehead.

I had had enough. I steadied myself and put my gun right between his eyes. He showed no fear, just amusement. I pulled back the safety, the click echoing in the room.

"No!" Stella cried, grabbing my arm.

In surprise, I looked down at her watering eyes. Our victim started to laugh.

"I want to do it," she said quietly, effectually shocking everyone in the room. Dead silence.

"What?" I probably didn't hear her right.

"It was my family," Stella said with an even voice.

Stella's cold fingers slid down my arm and wrapped around my fingers that were holding the gun at a man's head. She gave it a gentle squeeze to remind me to let go, so I did. Her hand fell with the unexpected weight, but she corrected quickly. I stepped back while she squared her shoulders and faced her family's killer.

Stella was taught to shoot. She and her dad had frequented a shooting range as their own way of bonding. I'm sure he felt he was teaching his little girl a skill to protect herself that she would never need to put to use. I was sure he never imagined his little girl using those skills to get revenge for his death.

Stella raised her arms and held the gun at his head. She moved her thumb so she was clear of the safety and held her feet slightly apart for balance. I could see the slight tremor in her body. She was scared but fighting her fear. Her beautiful eyes held so much pain and hate as she looked at the guy she was ready to kill. I looked over at Sal who stood next to me, his gun also aimed and ready.

"Do it," I said.

A gunshot pierced the air, followed by a hollow thump. Stella's gasp echoed in the room and could be heard over the ringing in my ears. As the thin cloud of smoke cleared, I could see the red puddle growing on the hardwood floor. Stella still stood with the run raised, ready for the shot. Sal lowered his weapon and I gave him a nod in thanks.

"I . . . I didn't," Stella stammered.

"I know," I whispered, coming for her and taking my gun from her shaking hands. "You didn't need to."

"I wanted to," she admitted, looking up at me with fear in her eyes. She was afraid of that part of her that wanted to take a life. Stella had never had to meet that dark side of herself before.

"I know. It's done."

Stella looked back at the body in my living room. Instead of screaming in terror like when Hector was in my hallway, she looked thoughtful. Sal and Tony started to bag the body as I pulled her out of the room.

"Why did you that?" she asked me as I led her back to her room. "I would have done it."

"I know you would have, but I didn't want you to," I answered.

"Why?" she asked once in her bedroom.

"You aren't like us. You're a good person, and though you wanted revenge for the people you loved, you wouldn't like taking a life. I didn't want you to have to feel that guilt."

Stella sat on the edge of the bed and stared down at her hands. Those hands could have killed someone tonight. I wasn't entirely sure if she would have pulled the trigger. I told her I thought she would have, but I wasn't sure. She had never taken a life and, if she had, I wasn’t sure she could have lived with herself afterward.

"Leave the killing to the real monsters," I told her.

"Is it over?" she asked me.

I never had to really deal with women and the hidden meaning in their words. I never kept them around long enough or really cared what they meant. I was smart enough to know Stella was asking about more than the search for the man who killed her family. She meant more than the war I was starting with my family by having his body delivered to my father's beach house in Miami.

"There's more," I told her before I took her lips with mine.

Stella's hands came to grab my shoulders as I leaned over and pushed her to the bed. I never pulled my mouth off hers as I took off my jacket and shirt. She ran her soft fingertips over my chest and back. My tongue fought hers as I pulled her pants down her legs and thrusted my hand up her thin tank top.

Stella's head dropped back with her moan as I pinched her nipple. When she looked at me, her eyes were wild and clouded over with want and need. I would make it all disappear for her. I could erase it all with my body and mouth if she let me. She would let me. She always did.

I picked her up and threw her up higher on the bed. As I crawled back up, I pushed my pants down and pulled her legs apart to make room for me. Nestled between her thighs, I pushed her tank top over her head. Stella was bared for me and her chest was pink with the rush of blood.

Taking a nipple in my mouth, I cupped the other breast in my hand. I earned a long and low moan from her that made me want to bite down on her skin. I held back, the restraint making me tense and grow hot. With all the adrenaline rushing my veins, I wanted to unleash on her. I wanted to use up all my energy until I was spent.

"Atlas," she moaned as I licked down her stomach. "Tie me up."

"I can't," I said honestly. I couldn't hold back with her held down and mine for the taking.

"Please," she begged. "Tie me up. Let it out."

I looked up into her eyes that were full of need and fire. Something else lingered behind the want, something deeper. Understanding.

"You have no idea what you are asking of me, Little Star. I will hurt you," I warned her darkly. My dick was rock hard and pressing against the panties that I could feel soaking through.

"No you won't. Please, tie me up."

I broke with her words. Climbing over her, I grabbed the ropes on the headboard and quickly tied her wrists. I pulled the ropes so tight she hissed when I was done. Stella squirmed as I pulled back to look at her. She was open and helpless to whatever I wanted to do her. Tearing her panties off, I pushed her legs apart.

"So fucking wet," I whispered, running my fingers over her.

Stella arched off the mattress and I stroked my dick, watching her lost in the feeling. Neither one of us would think about anything outside of this room tonight. I would make damn sure of that. I held her thighs apart and lowered my face between them. Using my tongue, I licked and sucked until she came so hard I thought she would pass out from screaming.

Taking my dick in my hand, I pushed into her. Her pussy was still convulsing from the orgasm my mouth gave her and it squeezed my dick. I let out a low groan as I pushed as far as I could. Stella gasped when I pressed even deeper, pushing harder and deeper than I ever had before. It probably hurt, but she asked for it and I was giving my all.

I took a leg and hitched it over my shoulder, wrapping the other around my waist so I could get deeper. I watched as her chest rose and fell quickly, letting it urge me on. The effect I could have on her never got old even though I kept waiting for her to get boring. Without an ounce of control, I thrusted into her, making her bounce off the mattress.

I repeated the movements. I fucked her so hard I couldn't tell if she was crying out in pain or pleasure. Her pussy squeezed and milked my dick so I kept going. The headboard banged against the wall loudly as I used every ounce of energy on Stella. I leaned down, going even deeper and biting her neck as I did.

"Is this what you wanted?" I growled in her ear, finally losing all control.

"Yes!" she screamed.

She clenched down on my dick and screamed my name. My balls pulled tight and an orgasm wracked my body. Every muscle went hard and tight before I burst open into her. Her screams kept me going as I pumped us both empty. Sweat dripped down my body and hers when I collapsed on top of her.

Stella got her wish. I let it out on her until I couldn't keep my eyes open.

XXV

Stella

I stared up at the ceiling for hours. I was alone in the bed and the sun was starting to rise. Everything was sore and my wrists were raw and burned from the ropes. I asked for it, even wanted it. In the morning light, I felt the effects of the rough way he took me.

Atlas always lost the most control with me, and I knew that. Part of me loved seeing him finally unhinge and knowing that I did that to him. Last night, I wanted to break that last string holding him back. I watched it snap and he pounced.

It hurt.

It was amazing.

What did that say about me that I loved being hurt by Atlas? Every bite brought me higher, and his punishing thrusts pushed me over the edge again and again. I loved it as much I feared it. It was as pleasurable as it was painful, and I wore the marks from it proudly.

Forcing myself to shower, fear started to sink in. I was scared of what I saw last night and what it meant. What would happen next? Why didn't I pull the trigger? I wanted to and I knew how to. I just didn't pull it. How could my conscience spare my family's killer? Part of me knew that if Sal hadn't killed him, I would have. I wanted to and that scared me more than watching his blood spatter everywhere. I screamed not because of the familiar sight of spilled blood but because of the overwhelming feeling of relief that had washed over me in that moment.

I walked the quiet halls in search of Atlas. I had too many questions and it didn't hurt to just come out and ask. There wasn't much they could do to me anymore. I had no leverage to keep myself safe, and they had no reason to punish me, or keep me alive. The house was quiet and I froze when I came to the living room.

It was clean without any sign of what had happened in here just hours before. I could smell a trace of bleach much like after Hector. A lot of death happened in this little lake house. So much blood had been spilled. Would I be the next person to paint these floors with their blood? Could I just be washed away with bleach like I had never existed?

I found Atlas in his office, alone. He watched me closely as I walked inside and closed the door behind me. Neither of us spoke and I looked up at the painting of the constellation in the sky. When Atlas first told me the story of the Titan who led the war against the gods, I thought the Titan was foolish. How could I feel bad that he was eternally punished for picking a fight he could never win? I understood now.

"You scared, Little Star?" he asked, his voice low and level.

"Yes," I whispered.

I was scared of him and myself. The person I was becoming was someone I didn't know. I was scared of the way he made me feel. I was terrified of what would happen next.

"Are you going to kill me now?" I asked Atlas, turning to look in his eyes.

He stood and I noticed he was in jeans and a white shirt. I had never seen him dress down and it surprised me. Atlas came around his desk and leaned back against it.

"I made your brother a promise to protect you," he said.

"So you'll let me go?"

Even as I said the words I realized how crazy they sounded. How would I just walk away and pretend nothing had happened. I had seen too much and knew too much. They could never let me go and I would never be able to move on. I wasn't sure I would want to.

"You know I can't do that," he said quietly. "The war isn't over yet."

Atlas hung his head and when his eyes met mine again I saw something I had never seen before: regret. A chill ran down my spine.

"You leave here, they will find you and kill you. I can't let that happen."

"Why not?

"Several reasons," he said, standing and circling me while I stood in the middle of his office. "That would be breaking my promise. If it came down to me or them getting you, I would be easier on you. They will torture you. But there is one main reason I will keep you."

My heart hammered in my chest because I wasn't sure if I wanted the answer. I didn't know if I could handle his truth.

"Why?"

Atlas stopped in front of me and placed both his hands on the side of my face. Tilting my face up to look at his, I saw a fierce determination in his eyes.

"Because I want to keep you. I'm still not done," he growled.

His lips crashed to mine and I clung to his forearms. He held my face tightly but not enough to hurt me. It was a gentle touch coming from him, but his lips were hard on mine, taking what he wanted. I gave into him, knowing he owned it all already.

Our tongues danced and tasted each other in slow motion. His possessiveness over me should have scared me or pissed me off. Instead, I felt safe and warm. I clung to his broad shoulders and wanted to be underneath him. I needed to know that I meant something more to him than a pawn in his games.

Atlas grabbed the back of my thighs and lifted me. Wrapping my arms and legs around him, I held on tightly without breaking our kiss. He walked me down the hall and I vaguely realized it wasn't the direction of my room. When he reached forward and opened a door, I pulled my lips away to see where I was.

We stumbled into a large bedroom with a window overlooking the lake letting the sunlight in. A huge bed with a black iron frame stood in the center of the room. This had to be Atlas's bedroom. In all the weeks I had been here, I had never seen where he slept. This was a rare glimpse into the man who controlled my life.

Atlas backed me up to the large bed and let me fall onto the soft covers. He stood above me, looking over my body. The familiar burn and heat grew inside of me. I reached for him and he willingly came, leaning over me. His lips found mine again and he took his time, like he was savoring my taste. Atlas had never taken his time before, seeming to always be driven to take me against his better judgment. I always let him against my better judgement.

His lips moved down to my neck, kissing and sucking the sensitive skin lightly. His shirt was off and tossed somewhere. I pushed my pants down my legs, kicking them off. He licked over my pulse point where I was sure he could feel my blood pumping. I titled my head back, giving him access. My eyes opened, and I looked up to the iron headboard as he drug my panties down my bare legs.

"No ropes in here," he whispered on my collarbone.

My head spun as Atlas flipped us, leaving me on top of him. My hands rested on his hard chest as his hands skated up my shirt. I lifted my arms so he could slowly pull it over my head. Atlas lifted his hips, and pulled down his jeans. I was on top of this strong and naked man. Someone who never relinquished absolute control was underneath me, under my hands.

My fingers tickled and explored his chest, arms and hard stomach. His skin was warm, smooth and soft under my touch. Atlas hissed as I smoothed my fingers over the V that led under my thighs. His muscles were tense with impatience and I smirked down at him. I could make him squirm, too.

"Not funny," he growled.

Done with waiting, he lifted my hips and placed me over his hard cock. Our eyes locked as he let go and I lowered myself down on him. Slowly, painfully, and perfectly. I let out a long moan as he buried himself inside of me as deep as he could. Once there, I waited before finally moving.

As I rose and pushed myself back down on him, something took over my body. I was loud and in control, taking from him as I wanted. My back arched, my hands held my sensitive breasts, and sweat collected on my skin. Letting go, I used my instincts to lead my body.

"You are so beautiful," Atlas murmured, his eyes hooded as he watched me ride him.

I felt beautiful. I felt amazing, alive, and energy buzzed in my veins. Atlas flexed and stiffened inside of me, hitting deeper than I had ever felt him. Unexpectedly, I was coming and screaming his name, totally lost in the wave taking me under. Large hands gripped my hips and Atlas thrust hard a few times before his own release hit him.

I fell to his chest, sweaty but satisfied. His heart was pounding in my ear and I fully relaxed. When I woke some time later in the darkness, Atlas was asleep and I was curled into his side. I looked up into his face. He looked younger and more innocent when he was sleeping. I could forget about all the bad things he'd done when I looked at that face.

Slowly and silently, I climbed out of his bed. I grabbed his white tee-shirt from the floor and pulled it over my head. My bare feet padded across the cold floors quietly as I left his room. The house was quiet, dark and cold. I almost turned to crawl back in bed with Atlas but my spinning mind needed space.

I tiptoed onto the deck and inhaled the fresh, cold air. I felt free for the first time since my parents had died. The walls that seemed to constantly close in on me broke down. That fear that followed me lifted. Their killer was dead and, for some reason, I believed that I was safe here. I didn't know what that said about me as person.

The vast and calm lake stretched before me. The only sounds were the crickets and leaves blowing in the breeze. I was alone. I could have left if I had wanted to. The greater question was, did I want to? The idea of leaving Atlas behind gave me a sickening feeling. For weeks, all I wanted was to run for my freedom. But here I was with my feet firmly planted. Could I leave? What did I have waiting for me out there?

XXVI

Atlas 

Her scent was everywhere. I could feel her sweat on my skin. What I couldn't feel was her body still pressed to mine. I opened my eyes and reached for her, feeling empty sheets. Sitting up, I quickly scanned the room to find it empty. The sun was starting to rise outside, letting in little light. I quickly dressed and went to find her.

I'd done something I had never done before with anyone. I gave her control. I gave her the choice and let her have her way. Watching her come apart above me was fascinating. It quickly made up for losing my control. The way her eyes came to life as she rode me to her own orgasm made it all worth it.

Sal and Tony had left us alone to dispose of the body and watch for my father's next move. I would need to return to the city soon. I came to the living room and found it empty. Same with the back deck. A cold feeling sunk into my bones and every muscle went tense.

"Stella?" I called out. Where the fuck was she?

I didn't tie her up because I didn't believe I needed to. I killed a man for her. I did it so she could have her justice and didn't need to pull the trigger herself. I could see the relief in her eyes. I saw the acceptance. She wouldn't run.

"Boss?" Tony asked as he and Sal came in the front door.

"Where is she?" I growled, searching the kitchen.

"Fuck," Sal swore as he headed toward her room.

"You didn't lock her up?" Tony asked me as we followed.

"I didn't need to," I told him, knowing he wouldn't understand.

This was the part of the plan where I was supposed to kill her. There was no way to take her to the city and I couldn't stay here much longer. Her part was done and she was no longer needed. By now, the rest of the family knew I was on to them and their dirty secrets. My father would be looking for me but I couldn't make myself end her.

We froze once we entered Stella's room. It was trashed. The closet doors were open and clothes were strewn across the room. The bed was a mess and the ropes were removed from the headboard. In the bathroom, the mirror was broken. Broken glass was all over the floor and I saw my furious face looking back at myself from a shard of mirror on the floor.

"Fuck!" I roared.

I punched my fist through the bathroom door. I didn't even feel the pain as I seethed. She left. She fucking ran after all. The one time I went against my plan, it backfired and left me in the worst position. I couldn't believe I was so fucking stupid.

"Find her," I seethed. "Now."

The boys left the room in a hurry. We would find her and I would stick to my plan. I was going to kill her. She would die for running. I would make her pay for making a fool of me. After everything, I thought she would stay willingly. I promised to keep her safe. Protection and safety were the things she craved and needed the most. I offered it to her and she threw it back in my face.

I tore through the house looking for her. My temper rose until I couldn't see straight. In the living room, I broke every bottle and piece of glass from the bar. I should have killed her. I regretted taking her to my bedroom last night. If I would have stuck to the plan, this wouldn't be happening.

She didn't deserve my gentle touches. I should have choked her while I fucked her roughly. Her body should be covered in my bite marks and bruises. Instead of putting a bullet between her eyes, I would have squeezed her throat while she gasped for air. As my anger boiled, I closed my eyes and imagined her death.

Her hands would have clawed at mine, eyes begging for release. I would have clenched harder and watched the life fade from her eyes. That light that I always searched out would dim and fizzle out. Darkness would take over just as it had for me. Her limp body would fall to the floor, naked and bruised. Used up with nothing left.

"She's nowhere on the property," Sal reported. “But I found this.”

I took the piece of paper from his hands. It was one word written neatly in the center. My blood boiled as the truth started to sink in. In parting, all she had to say to me was “Goodbye.”

I stomped to my office and pulled up the surveillance feed. A chill ran down my spine to find it all black.

"Lines were cut," I said, looking up at Sal.

His eyes went wide and I clenched my fists. Smart little bitch. I pushed past him and grabbed my keys from the lock box near the door.

"Where are you going?" he asked, chasing after me.

"To find her and kill her," I told him. "You find her, call me but don't hurt her. I want to give her every ounce of pain she deserves."

I left the house and ignored him calling after me. I lost control and my anger and bitterness were driving me. For the first time, I was without a real plan. I just knew one thing. I needed to find her.

My car raced down the open roads. It was very early in the morning so they were practically deserted. Without having any idea of when she had left, I didn't know how far she could have gotten. Had she been planning this all along? When she asked me to tie her up, making me believe she liked it, was she just playing me?

I was stupid and let sex cloud my mind. When I fucked her, I thought she wanted it. I actually thought she loved it as much as I did. She screamed for more and begged for it. Was it all a joke? I never thought she would be so conniving and deceitful. She deserved the slow and painful death I had planned for her.

My tires squealed when I pulled into her own neighborhood. I knew the streets well from my time stalking her. I drove to her house barely able to see past the anger and hate. Turning a sharp corner, I slammed on the brakes and stared ahead.

Red and blue lights flashed in the early morning light. People crowded around the scene in their robes and pajamas still, wanting to get a glimpse. Black smoke filled the air, looking like black ominous clouds. Stella's house was nothing more than a charred frame of what it once was.

Firetrucks and police swarmed the area, fighting to keep people clear as they fought the remaining flames. I parked the car and went closer to the house. The air was thick with smoke and ash. When I was close enough to feel the heat, I stopped. A police officer walked by and I grabbed his arm.

"Was there anyone inside?" I asked.

"The house was vacant, so we don't think so," he answered.

"Don't think so?" I glared at him and he shrunk back at the intensity of it.

"If there was, we won't know until the examiner goes through what's left. Everything, and anyone inside, is only charred remains now."

He pulled away and stomped off. Would Stella burn down her own home? I didn't think she would be dumb enough to go back there because she’d know I would find her here. Part of me hoped she came here knowing I would come for her. My phone rang and I pulled it out, walking away from the scene.

"Tony?" I said once it was to my ear. "You find her?"

"Not yet. We went to her friend's house. The one from the club."

"Liddy?" I asked.

"Yeah, but she's gone too," he said.

"She could be in class or something. Wait her out," I told him, getting back in my car.

"Doubt it," he said. "The place is a mess like she left in a hurry. She's gone and I don't think she will be coming back."

"Fuck," I growled and hung up the phone.

I punched the steering wheel in frustration. Stella probably thought I would go for her friend if she ran. She was smart like her brother. She had better hope she was smarter than me because if I found her, she would wish she had died with her parents that night. Starting the car, I sped away from what was left of her home.

Stella had been a very busy girl this morning. She must have crawled out of my bed as soon as I had passed out. I wondered if she had meant to wear me out on purpose. Was she riding me, bringing out every ounce of pleasure and coming all over my dick just so I would let down my guard? I didn't want to believe that. She would have needed to be planning this for a very long time.

I pulled into the driveway of the lake house feeling numb. I couldn't believe I was that dumb to fall for her and her innocent act. Last night, I thought we shared something different without the ropes and the pain. Stella had just been using me.

I would find her. And when I did, I would pull every last scream out of her until she couldn't make another sound. I would make her nightmares seem like a fairytale compared to what I would do to her.

XXVII

Stella

My swollen eyes fluttered open, but all I could see was darkness. I was cold and wet, and everything hurt. I could smell the familiar scent of blood, and I could taste it in my mouth. I licked my dry and bloodied lips. My head throbbed and my throat hurt.

I had no idea where I was. My arms and legs failed me when I tried to pull myself up off the damp floor. I couldn't see or hear anything as my mind tried to piece together my memory. Last I remembered, I was on the deck looking over the lake. I felt so calm and relaxed, I should have known it would end.

Tears sprang to my eyes as I remembered being pulled from behind. A hand went over my mouth and something stung my nose as I smelled it. Then everything went black. I woke up somewhere unfamiliar for the second time in a few months. This time, I could feel death looming close. I wouldn't find a tainted hero in this damp hell.

Fighting to push myself up, I noticed the familiar pain on my wrists. Pulling them up to my face, I didn't see the rope I had eventually come to trust. It was chains. The weight of the metal pulled them back down, and I finally let myself cry. I felt too dried out to cry, but the tears flowed anyway. The tears stung as they slipped over the open cuts on my face.

Where the hell was I and how did I get here? Did Atlas change his mind and decide to kill me anyway? This wasn't his basement though. It was cold and damp where ever I was. I could hear water dripping somewhere in the distance. My chains clanking together echoed in the darkness. I could hear my own stuttered breathing mixing with my pounding heartbeat.

Once again, I was trapped and facing a monster. Since I had seen my parents shot, I didn't think I had ever actually lived. The moment that gunshot sounded, I became a victim who needed to hide from the enemies my brother left behind because I was a witness. Atlas found me, and I used to think that was for the best, but now I knew I was wrong. I was right where I should have ended up all those months ago.

Heavy footsteps pounded toward me and I trembled, inching back into a corner. They came closer, stopping near me. I couldn't see anything but I could hear his heavy breathing. The footsteps came closer and I was yanked to my feet.

"Please," I cried. "Please let me go."

A low and throaty laugh answered and I was pulled roughly toward him.

"Shut the fuck up or I'll bury you," he snarled.

I waited on shaky legs as he held my wrist together and pulled my chains from the wall. He spun me away from him, and I felt the heavy fabric go over my eyes before being pushed forward. I stumbled on my bare feet on the rough, stone floor. I cried quietly as I climbed the stairs into the unknown.

It was warmer when I was pushed to the floor. The air was humid and nothing like the cool, crisp air at the lake house. Every forced step I took, the sinking feeling grew in my stomach. I was ready to throw up by the time we came to a stop. Whatever was going to happen, I just wanted it to happen soon. I had been fighting too long and I was exhausted.

"This her?" someone asked.

"This is the one," the guy pushing me around answered.

"Hot little thing," the other guy said, causing a shiver to crawl across my skin. "Do we get a taste?"

A finger trailed down my arm and across my stomach. I was still in Atlas's shirt which meant I wasn't very decent, but at least I wasn't naked.

"Fuck no," the other guy said, pulling me back roughly. "The boss said don't touch. He has plans for this one."

"Shit. I don't want to know what those are."

Neither did I. My mind was spinning, wondering who the boss could be. I just knew in my bones it wasn't Atlas. I was far away from Atlas and his lake house. I doubted I was even near Chicago anymore.

"Hose her down and take her up."

With that, I was shoved forward into another man's hands. He took my chains and pushed me down to the floor.

"Crawl," he growled down to me.

I held myself up on my hands and knees, unwilling to move.

"Move bitch." Then a heavy boot kicked me in the back, forcing me to move.

My knees hurt on the hard surface and the metal cuffs cut into the soft skin of my wrists. I almost hoped they would cut me and I could bleed out. That would be a better fate than the one I was crawling to, I was sure.

"Stand," he ordered while pulling my chains.

I listened as they were hooked somewhere and his heavy footsteps led away from me. I started to run, but was pulled back by the chains. Screams ripped from my throat when a cold burst of water hit me. I was actually being hosed off like an animal. Water filled my open mouth, and I choked until the water finally shut off. I was left freezing and shivering.

Other footsteps sounded and I knew we weren't alone. I could feel the eyes on me. I could only imagined what I looked like, soaked and dressed only in a large, white shirt. My skin was crawling as I waited for what would happen next.

"Is she hurt?" a deep voice asked.

"Not severely. Some bruising and scrapes. She will heal fine," another voice answered.

"I told you not to hurt her."

"She was bruised before we got her here."

Silence hung in the air and I wanted to laugh. Atlas left his mark on me and it ruined me. It saved me.

"Let her dry. She will ship out soon."

The footsteps faded as they walked away, leaving me to dry like laundry on the line. I was treated like an object, a prisoner, a product. My mind raced with the possibilities. I remembered the story about the girl my brother loved. The secret dealings in selling woman in the family. It all clicked. I was meeting the ending I always should have. I was a victim of the very thing I was used to fight against. Life was ironic and cruel.

Was this the real end for me? I would have rather been shot in the head than sold off to a life of slavery and violence. Atlas promised me that they would torture me and make me suffer. Being his captive was much better than what was waiting for me now. The tightness in my chest grew as reality crashed down around me.

I didn't know how long I had waited before I was gathered and forced to crawl again. Every time I stopped moving, a kick came to my ribs or back.

"You're not supposed to hurt me," I cried, pain radiating through my chest.

"Doesn't matter anymore," he answered. Grabbing a fistful of my hair, he pulled my head back. "Speak again and I will cut your tongue out."

Something told me he meant it. His voice rang of true evil. A killer with no remorse or empathy. There was a chill that men like him gave me. It was sad that I had been around enough to know. By now, it was too late to protect myself. I was a statistic. One of the victims my father fought to protect and find justice for.

We reached a set of stairs and I was pulled to my feet by my hair. Every step felt like defeat. When I felt I had landed on level ground, I made a run for it. I gritted my teeth as I felt my hair ripping from my scalp. The guy yelled but I ducked and moved as quickly as I could. I fell, scraping my knees, but scrambled back up.

"Fucking bitch," the guy cursed behind me.

My chains stopped me, pulling me back so I fell on my ass. Pain shot up my spine and my head smacked the floor. I felt the man stepping over me, lingering and laughing at me.

"I really wish I could kill you for that," he said, spitting on me.

He didn't even bother getting me back up. He grabbed my ankles and pulled me the rest of the way. The floor scraped and cut my back and I screamed the short distance until he let me go.

"Just kill me," I hissed from the floor.

"I wish I could," he said. "But you have something far worse waiting for you."

He secured my chains and walked away, his steps echoing in my prison.

"Atlas should have killed you when he was supposed to."

The metal door clanked shut and my tears fell freely, soaking the blindfold. I listened as his steps faded away. When he was gone, I heard similar sounds to my own cries. I was surrounded by them. The sniffles and quietly prayers were whispered all around me. I realized I was not alone.

I sat up, feeling around and ripping the blindfold from my face. I couldn't see anything, but I heard them. I could feel the fear and sorrow everywhere, suffocating me. I crawled around, reaching out, hoping to find something or someone.

"Hello?" I called out.

"Shh," another voice hissed. "They will hear you."

"Who are you?" I whispered.

"I am no one," she answered. "Now shut up before you get us killed. Or worse."

I snapped my mouth shut. I could only imagine what could be worse than getting killed. I leaned my head back against the stone wall. I wished I was still at the lake house. I regretted ever doubting Atlas. Although I didn't think he had always intended to keep me safe, he would have never allowed this to happen to me.

I faded in and out of sleep, listening to the other cries for help and whimpers of fear. There was no light and no hope. My stomach hurt with hunger and my throat burned with thirst. I had no idea how much time had passed. In this darkness, I only wished for the end. Atlas was right. I once wanted to live. I fought for it and I would have killed for it. None of that would end up mattering in the end.

XXVIII

Atlas

A full day went by without sign of her. My frustration and anger grew with every passing hour. Stella was smart, but I wasn't sure if she was smart enough to hide from me forever. My anger and hate for her festered. The things I would do to her when I found her couldn't even be described.

Sal and Tony watched the apartment in San Francisco she thought she would move to, but she didn't go there. Her friend Liddy seemed to have vanished with news reports filling the airwaves looking for her. Amazing what a difference having a family makes. Someone was looking for her. No one, but me, looked for Stella.

After searching the remains of her home that burned to the ground, I walked into the lake house. I smelled like smoke and was covered in ash. No bodies were found inside. The official reports said the house was empty but I had to know for myself. I only trusted myself and a few other men to give me accurate information.

When I shut the front door behind me, I felt something was wrong. My instincts told me something was off and I wasn't alone. Grabbing my gun from my holster, I quietly stalked down the hall. The light in the living room was on, confirming my suspicion. I pulled my weapon close and disarmed the safety, ready for whatever waited in that room.

I stepped into the living room, every muscle tense and alert. Quickly scanning the room, I found two glasses of whiskey on the bar. Frost still coated the outside of the glass. As I stared in confusion and shock, I let my guard down. A crack sounded as pain split across my face starting at my nose. My vision went dark just long enough for my gun to be kicked from my hand.

I stumbled back but righted myself quickly. Opening my eyes, I saw something I never thought I would ever see again. My own gun pointed at my face, ready to fire. My vision was spotted from the break in my nose but I knew who held it.

"You sorry mother fucker," he growled. "You made me one fucking promise and you couldn't even keep it."

"Ace?" I whispered.

There he stood, well and very alive. Very angry. The vein in his neck was throbbing as his finger twitched on the trigger. His blue eyes, much like his sister's, were clouded over in a murderous rage.

"I thought you were dead," I offered lamely. I honestly didn't have a back-up plan for resurrections.

"Yes. More than we could say for Stella," he hissed.

"I didn't," I said, raising my hands in defense. "I didn't hurt her."

"No. You didn't save her."

I couldn't speak. I couldn't fight. My best friend and partner stood before me in the flesh. Someone I thought was dead and gone forever. I mourned his death. I fought for his revenge and honored him.

"She ran," I said, anger coming back to me when I remembered the girl I tried to save.

"Did she really?" Ace asked, coming closer with the gun. "You just can't possibly fathom that you failed, can you?"

My own anger started to rise. He made me think he was dead. He thrusted the burden of keeping his stubborn sister alive. Best friend or not, I was fucking livid.

"What the fuck are you talking about?"

"Imagine my surprise," he started, lifting a glass to his lips and taking a sip. "I'm watching your dear old dad's place and I see a very familiar girl passing through."

My stomach sank.

"She has black, short hair but I would know her from miles away."

Silence hung over our heads while I tried to catch up. Stella was in my bedroom and then she was gone. This place was locked up, but I had let my guard down. All this time, I thought she had played me.

"You were supposed to protect her," Ace roared, coming at me with his fists again.

I let him hit me because I deserved it.

"I asked you to keep her alive, not fuck her and then let her end up in their hands you sick son of a bitch."

I swung back out of instinct and he fell off me. A smirk grew on his face as we stared at each other panting.

"She's in Miami?" I asked. My voice was hollow as I tried to gather my thoughts.

"Yeah," he said sadly. "They have her and her friend Liddy there."

"You didn't get her out?" I asked, glaring at him.

"Oh yeah. I just went in there alone against thirty or so armed guards. No big deal."

I sighed and rubbed my face, forgetting that he pounded into it. I pulled my hands away finding blood in them. I deserved it and more.

"You promised," he whispered. The words were heavy and hung in the air.

"I thought she ran," I told him.

"She was taken," he said. "How the fuck was she alone that someone could get her?"

I couldn't answer. I didn't have one good enough.

"You should have kept your dick out of it," he growled, pointing the gun at me again.

"Are you going to kill me or what?" I asked.

"We are going to get her back and then I will deal with you. Xander is watching the place so I know she’s still there," he said.

"Xander? He knows you’re still alive?"

"Yeah," he said with a bitter laugh. "I sent him up here to check on you. I was shocked to hear you had a pretty girl on your arm."

"I was trying to protect her," I explained.

"Why?" he asked. "Because you are a man of your word or because she deserved to live?"

"Both."

Ace sighed and slid the glass of whisky to me. I took it and quickly downed it, needing something to numb the turmoil I was feeling. Knowing Stella hadn't run from me redirected some of my anger. Now I was just furious she was taken.

"Well, let’s go," I said, starting to stand.

"Not so fast," Ace said. "I'm waiting for backup."

"You want me to wait?"

Ace stood, coming to his full height and strength. I stood too, ready to defend myself now that I had something to fight for. I saw the anger and darkness in him, too. Blood would be spilled for every second Stella suffered. I knew then we would save her. The only question was how much would we lose doing it?

"Yes. While you were busy shacking up with my baby sister, I was making connections and getting men on our side," he said, coming to stand chest to chest with me. "We will get her back, and we are taking them down for good."

He was talking about my dad. The man who brought me into this world and taught me everything I knew. We would need to kill him and most of the leaders in the family. I was next in line and would rule the criminal underworld of Chicago. It was a day we had dreamed of, but I honestly thought would never happen.

"You ready for that brother?" Ace asked me. His look was challenging but trusting.

"Ready."

The next few hours went by fast. Sal and Tony showed and were more than ready to join the fight. We pulled every connection we had to get more men on our side. The lake house soon filled with criminals and ready to fight. Xander waited in Miami, watching my dad's compound for any sign of Stella. Weapons were loaded and packed up. Plans and back-up plans were made.

In the cellar, I pulled the bottle my father sent back as a gift. At the time, I didn't trust it. I sure as hell didn't now. I grabbed the bottle and shoved it in my bag. When I turned, Ace stood there watching me.

"Ready?" I asked, trying to push past him.

"Are you?"

"I will keep my promise, Ace. No matter what," I said.

After several tense seconds, Ace nodded and followed me up the steps. The boss had all his people close so no one would see the flock of armed men leaving my little lake house and boarding my private jet. He might suspect I would come looking for him, but he would never imagine how many I managed to turn against him or how quickly we could form a small army against him.

As much as Ace's death had torn things apart, it was a genius idea. With the invisibility of death, Ace was able to move without being watched. He found members spread across the country and revealed the dark secret only the top people knew about. Even if they were not against the selling of innocent women, they were pissed about being cut out of the profits. Ace had collected a lot of important resources that my father could never defeat.

The darkness concealed our convoy leaving the airport in Miami. We parked at a nearby pier and walked the rest of the way to the beach house so we wouldn't be seen by the guards. The sun was rising on the ocean's horizon while we hunkered behind the sand banks. The house looked still and almost relaxing if a person didn't know any better. Only we knew of the dungeon full of girls that hid under the house. Every man going in knew Stella's face and her safety was key. My fingers stretched and clenched around my gun.

"Atlas?"

I turned to look at Ace from where he kneeled, watching the house.

"I know you let her in," he said. "Get her back and keep her."

"I will," I promised. "And I'm giving her her brother back."

After that, the signal was made and I snuck down the sand hill. Approaching the house, I found one guard. He didn't even see me coming before I took him from behind and slit his throat. The limp body fell to the ground and I stepped over it. The next two were just as easy before I reached the window. I waved to my men watching before slipping inside.

The house was small compared to my dad's normal mansions. I tiptoed down the halls until I heard his voice. It was deep and it used to sound powerful and controlled to me. Now it just sounded sick and evil. Father was a word reserved for men like Officer Harlow. Men who loved and protected their children. Men who taught them to fight and to know right from wrong. This piece of shit was nothing but a sperm donor who knocked up a beautiful woman. He only took that spawn she created to be his assistant and help spread his evil.

As I stepped into the kitchen, he sat by himself. The man we all feared and respected was clipping his fingernails in his last moments of life. His eyes widened when he saw me and he reached for his gun. Only I was faster and had the barrel to his temple already.

"Atlas," he hissed.

"Pops," I said with a smirk. "I thought I would drop by for a visit."

His wide eyes and loud swallow told me he knew I wasn't here for a chat. Most parents would be thrilled to see their only child at their doorstep just to see them. My father knew better. He knew that I was here for one reason.

"I brought whiskey," I said, holding up the bottle.

I grabbed two glasses from the cabinet and slammed them down on the table. Using my knife, I cut the wax seal and was met with the hiss of air. I smirked at my old man as I poured two glasses and pushed one over to him.

"Should we make a toast?" I asked, taking a seat across from him. The shocked look on his face brought me great pleasure.

"To what?" he asked cautiously.

"To new leadership. New beginnings."

XXIX

Stella

At some point, I stopped worrying about what would happen to me. I wasn’t really sure when that had happened, but I knew that it did. Now, when I heard the cries and someone praying to live, I hoped they would. I wanted them free more than anything. More than I wanted my own freedom. These other women were someone's daughters, or wives, or even mothers.

I was no one. I was an orphan old enough to take care of myself. I was a number and name in a database no one looked at. I used to be a daughter and sister. I would never be a wife or mother. No one missed me and I felt lucky for that. When I heard the girl crying on the other side of the wall, my heart broke for her family because she couldn’t be any older than me. Someone missed her and was worried sick over her disappearance.

Without light, we didn't know how long we'd been held. Atlas would know I was missing by now, but I wasn’t sure he cared. He could have allowed this to happen from the beginning. Maybe he used me to find my brother's killer, then sold me off to the highest bidder. Was all that shit about trying to find my brother's lover a ploy to earn my trust? In this dark and damp place, I trusted no one.

"Hey," I whispered when the crying next door didn't stop. "You're going to get yourself killed."

She sniffled and tried to stop. I hoped she could because the weakest were always dragged upstairs. As much as these dark cells sucked, I was sure upstairs was not any better. Those girls never returned. Maybe they didn't know what I knew. They didn't know those girls were killed or sold off to a worse future.

"I want to go home," the girl next door cried.

"I know," I said, trying to sound calm and soothing. "But you need to be quiet. They’re punishing the ones that are loud."

She was quiet enough that I could hear the thuds upstairs. I could hear muffled voices and footsteps above my head. I was scared for the rest of us. The sound of footsteps came, making the dread grow. It was never me, but one of the others. That was worse for me. When my door opened and the dark shadow came for me, I felt relief.

I was pulled up and unchained from the wall. It was me this time and not one of the others. I went without fight as some sick man pushed me up the steps. They didn't even bother to blindfold me, so I knew this would be bad.

Bright sunlight met me when the door opened. I squinted and was momentarily blinded. I was used to darkness. I was pushed forward and my feet blindly carried me. I was ready for the end. I wasn't ready for what I would actually walk in to.

"There she is," a deep voice announced. It was familiar and set every nerve on end. I heard the voice my first day here. He rang with power and force, much like another monster I knew. My memory flashed to when I was first in Atlas’s basement. This was the same deep voice that ordered Atlas to kill me.

"She's sold of course," he continued. "Shipping to Spain in the morning."

"Is that so?" another voice asked, causing my head to rise.

Atlas.

He sat with an older man who looked much like him. He was leaning back in the chair like he didn't have a care in the world. Was it so easy to see me, still in his shirt and ready to be sent to the highest bidder? His dark eyes roamed my body, taking in the blood and bruises I endured both here and with him.

"How much?" he asked and I shivered at hearing his voice again.

"Too much for you," the man answered. "You already had it. For free."

Atlas's hands clenched and I recognized the anger in that move. He was pissed. I looked between the two men. I noted the way their noses bent, although Atlas's was bruised. This man had to be his father, their looks and mean glares were too similar for them to not to be related.

"And you took her," Atlas said. "I wasn't finished with her yet."

"You were supposed to kill her," his dad said, slamming his fist down on the table. I flinched but Atlas stayed still.

"I thought I would make her suffer a little longer. She's a fighter, but I like it when they scream," he said, a sick grin taking over his face and my stomach rolled. I thought he kept me around because he didn't want to kill me. He was only keeping me so he could fuck me?

"You lied to me," his dad said, standing and coming for me.

I trembled and watched his boots come closer. No one would save me and I knew it.

"It didn't matter," Atlas said. "She was gone."

The man came to stand next to me and roughly shoved me down to my knees. I hissed but stopped myself from crying. That would only make them hurt me more. I didn't know how long I had been here, but long enough to learn that.

"And now she will really be gone. Her buyer doesn't keep them around for too long before he breaks them in half."

I fell forward, gagging and crying. This was really happening. The man who dragged me up here kicked me in the back so I would shut up while his boss laughed manically.

"Touch her again and I will kill you."

My head shot up at the threatening voice. The familiarity tugged deep in my heart and I was sure I was hallucinating. The tears cleared and I was finally able to focus on the newcomer.

"Ace?" I whispered.

"Hang in there," he said only to me.

His gun was pointed at Atlas's dad while time seemed to have stopped. I briefly wondered if I was going into shock, or maybe I was already dead. I glanced around, half expecting my parents to come out as well.

"Mr. Harlow. It's good to see you alive, son." I could tell in the tightness of his voice, he was in fact not happy.

"I'm sure, Mr. Omega. I see you met my baby sister."

"Let's cut the bullshit," Atlas interrupted. "We are taking the girl and any others you have. You're done here."

His dad laughed and my skin scrawled with the sound. It was hollow and haunting.

"You aren't leaving here alive," he told them. "And neither is your little plaything anymore. Kill her."

I looked up into Atlas's eyes as the other man stepped forward. Most of the time, Atlas was locked away inside. The only thing I ever saw when I looked in his eyes were lust and anger. For the first time, I saw fear and panic. I felt the cold metal at the back of my head as the boss stepped away to avoid the blood spray. My eyes closed. I couldn't see the only people I had left as they witnessed the very thing they'd fought so hard to avoid.

A gun shot rang out and I fell to the hard floor. When I heard another shot, my eyes flew open. The first thing I saw was blood, but it wasn't mine. The red pool was coming from the guard who was supposed to have killed me. As I scrambled back, I saw Ace holding his bleeding hand. Atlas was on his back while his dad pinned him down with a gun to his chest.

"I will kill you myself, Atlas."

"No you won't because I will kill you first."

His dad laughed again before looking back at Ace in warning.

"Anyone moves and I will pull this trigger."

We were at a standstill. The atmosphere with thick with humidity, tension, and death. I could smell the blood I was covered in. Closing my eyes, I fought to calm my breathing. Now was not the time to slip into the past and lose it. Ace was bleeding, Atlas was unarmed and it seemed no one would leave this room alive.

Fighting back the panic, I spotted the gun covered in blood. I could probably reach it if I was quick enough. If I wasn't fast enough, he could shoot Atlas. I glanced up at my brother and he shook his head once. His eyes said 'don't fucking move'.

"Your men are all dead," Ace said. "No is coming to help you and we aren't leaving without Stella. Make this easy for yourself. Get up and walk away."

"And what the fuck will you do about it?"

"I will kill you," my voice cut through the silence.

I slowly pushed myself up to stand, keeping the gun aimed right at the man who had caused this shit storm. His eyes danced in amusement and my blood boiled.

"You don't think I will do it?" I asked, feeling patronized. I was sick of feeling weak and victimized.

"I know you won't," he said, sounding fully convinced. "You want a man's death on your conscious? You want that to haunt you?"

"This is all your fault," I said. I didn't know who I was trying to convince more, myself or Mr. Omega. "All this time, I blamed Atlas for ripping apart my family and my life. But it's you that I should hate."

"Stella, run," Atlas hissed at me. I ignored him, knowing if I looked at him I would obey. I always gave in to him.

"Who do you think brought your brother into a life of crime? I wasn't the one who tied you up and kept you locked away, using you for your pussy."

Ace started to move and Atlas got in a punch to his dad's face before the butt of the gun hit his face. When the barrel pressed to Atlas's temple, everyone froze again. Ace looked livid and Atlas spat blood.

"Run, Stella," my brother ordered, still glaring at his former boss who currently held Atlas down.

"I can't," I whispered.

"Stella," Atlas barked. "You don't want to be like us. Run while you can and never look back. Don't be a monster."

Would that make me a monster? I wished my dad was here. He would save me or know what I should do. I remembered the day he told me sometimes good people had to do bad things to save the ones they loved. I even told Atlas that once. I'd seen him kill two men for me even if he said it was for his own benefit.

I looked behind me and saw the open doorway. I could run fast. I would be free forever. My hands shook as I lowered the gun just a little bit before one last bang echoed in the room.

XXX

Atlas

I closed my eyes and waited for the pain. There was a part of me that knew I would never leave this house alive. It was sickly ironic that the same man who brought me into this world would be the one to take me from it. My chest felt heavy. Was this that feeling of loss and devastation I thought I would never feel again?

The ringing in my ears faded and gave way to crying. Sweet and soft crying. Slowly, my senses came back, and I could smell the blood and smoke. My eyes shot open and I saw my father's lifeless eyes looking back at me.

"Stella," I heard Ace grunt.

I shoved the body off my chest and rolled over, my head throbbing from the blows I had taken. Ace pulled himself over to the small girl on the floor. A loud thud came when she dropped the gun to the floor and scrambled away from it and her brother.

She killed him.

"Stella," I called to her, but she didn't seem to hear me or Ace.

I never wanted her to have to do that. She was a good person and had a respect for life that I was never taught. This would eat her alive.

"Little Star," I said gently. Her big, blue eyes snapped to mine. "There you are."

Stella seemed to come back to us, looking around quickly before struggling to stand. Ace was there to pull her up in a second. His large arms wrapped around her small frame so tightly I thought he might break her. Stella pulled back and looked up at the brother who she had thought was dead. Her hand came to his face and the smack echoed in the room.

"Shit!" Ace cursed, holding his cheek.

"I thought you were dead!" she shouted, smacking him repeatedly. "You left me all alone! I needed you!"

I wrapped my arms around her waist and pulled her back.

"Easy, Little Star," I said in her ear. "He's already bleeding."

Stella turned on me, punching and hitting my chest. I let her until she collapsed in my arms and I held her up. Her body shook with sobs as I carried her out of the room. Outside, I set her down in the sand and let her cry. Ace came out shortly after, sitting down with his hand wrapped up in a towel.

"How bad?" I asked him.

"Grazed. Need stitches but I have all my fingers."

We sat silently in our guilt and remorse as Stella let out all the pain and fear we both put her through the past several months. We both had a choice to do the right thing. I wasn’t sure how I would have done things differently, but I wished I would have. Anything so Stella wouldn’t be falling apart in my arms over what she had had to do.

We had forced her to make an impossible choice. It was just as hard as the choice for Ace to stay or save the women he knew would die. It was harder than my choice to keep her safe instead of killing her. She could have run. I saw her look back and thought she would. I had hoped she would.

I don't know how long we sat on the beach before Stella went silent in my arms. Her breathing evened out and the shaking finally subsided. I knew Xander and my men were close by, waiting for my signal.

"Are you okay?" I asked her quietly.

"Not yet," she answered, pulling away from me. I felt cold without her in my arms.

"Stella," I started but she cut me off.

"We have to save them," she said. "The girls."

"We will," I promised. "Let me see you."

I helped her stand and looked over her body carefully. She was dressed in my shirt and I gritted my teeth knowing she was taken right after our night in my bedroom.

"I thought you ran," I said in her ear as I circled around her, looking her over for injuries. She was covered in bruises and blood. I wished she hadn’t killed my father because I would do it over again if I could.

"I thought you gave me up," she confessed.

I grabbed her cheeks and forced her to look at me. "Never."

Ace stood up behind her and shot me a glare before rubbing at some dry blood on her hands. It wasn't hers.

"I thought you were safe," he told her.

"I hate you for putting me thought that right now. I hate myself." She turned and walked to the water, wading in and using the salt water to wash it all away.

Neither one of us had anything to say to make it any better. We both put her through a war she didn't start. She fought and killed for a cause she never had a part in. The blood on her hands might wash away in her eyes but never in her heart.

"Hey guys," Xander called from behind us, approaching cautiously. "Can we wrap this up and get the fuck out of here?"

"Yeah. Go inside," I ordered and turned back for Stella.

"There are girls locked up in the basement," she told us and she joined us in a wet, white shirt. I quickly tore mine off and pulled it over her head.

"Take her to the trucks," I told Ace.

"I don't think so," Stella said, pushing off his hands. "I think I deserve to see those girls brought up alive."

I looked at Ace and dared him to argue with that. I was willing to give her anything she asked for. He looked like he might fight her, but relented and headed inside the house. I followed slowly behind him and my hate only grew with every step. Once I was in the basement, I wished I had been the one to kill my father. He deserved a slow and painful death.

The guys wore masks as they broke locks and pulled young women from the cells. Some went willingly, weak and defeated. Others fought back, not believing we were here to save them. Ace worked his way through every cell and checked each woman's face. He was looking for her. Looking around, I almost hoped she wasn't here.

"Hey," Stella told one of the women who was fighting Xander, "we are helping you."

The woman froze and struggled to push her wild hair out of her face. Stella reached forward and pushed her hair back, looking in her face.

"Liddy?" she whispered. "Oh my God."

Liddy threw her arms around Stella. The two girls held each other tightly while the chaos of getting the women out ensued around them. Their bodies shook with their cries but they didn't let go of each other. Stella rubbed her friend's back and whispered quietly in her ear. When the basement was finally empty, I touched Stella's shoulder.

"We need to leave," I told her.

She nodded and helped Liddy to her feet. When she almost fell over, Ace came up and lifted Liddy in his arms. We climbed the stairs and I looked back at my father's body before leaving the house. Outside, Xander was loading the women in cars and trucks.

"They are coming with us," I told him, indicating Stella and Liddy.

He nodded and signaled the guys to leave. Xander had a house ready for them to get cleaned up and ready to be set free. While planning, I didn't really think I would find anyone else other than Stella, but wanted to be prepared. We had enough men on our side to make sure those girls were taken care of.

In the van, I buckled the girls in the back seat. When we arrived at the airport, my plane was waiting as promised along with an ambulance I had on payroll. Ace got stitches on his hand while the girls were checked out. Stella wouldn't leave Liddy's side as a nurse fussed over them. I leaned against the truck watching a woman carefully check Stella for injuries.

"She's in good shape considering what she went through," the doctor told me. "Dehydrated and some bruising, but nothing too serious."

"And the other one?" I asked. I wasn't sure I wanted to know because I was ready to kill someone already seeing them hurt.

"She wasn't so lucky," he said with a sad voice.

We were loaded on the private plane where the girls passed out quickly. I sat in my seat and gripped my glass of whiskey so hard I thought it might shatter. I couldn't even go to Stella because I was afraid I would hurt her in my rage. I itched to break something. The blood shed today wasn't nearly enough.

"I didn't find her," Ace whispered with a raspy voice. "All of this, and I didn't get her back."

"We saved some," I told him. "It's not over."

Ace looked back at this sister and then to me. "She should hate me."

"She should hate us both."

XXXI

Stella

Death was a bitch. I was shaped by it, changed from it, and sick of it. I watched too many die and one at my own hands. It was something I could never forget. The way the gun kicked in my hands and the way his body fell limp was engraved in my mind. It would join my nightmares.

I stared at myself in the mirror and didn't recognize the girl looking back at me. Her hair was changed, her face was thin and pale, and her eyes were dull. A part of me died in Miami. I didn't know if I could ever get her back. Maybe she was with the old Liddy.

My best friend lost herself. It was days before I could coax her to eat or drink. It was even longer to get her to talk to me. When she finally spoke, I wished I had never asked. I was saved just in time. I didn't think I could have survived what Liddy had gone through. When I thought about what they had done to her, I felt a little less guilty for pulling the trigger.

Liddy called her parents and made up some excuse about taking a last minute vacation with a boy. She wasn't ready to face them and she didn't want to talk to police. The other women were returned to their homes and some even spoke to the police. I didn't know what Atlas did to keep them from telling them who was to credit for their escape.

There was a certain emptiness I felt. For so long, my life had become fear and hiding. Every moment, I was waiting for the past to catch up to me. Even when Atlas found me, I was fearing what would come for us. Now, it was all over. My parents were forever gone but I still had my brother. No one would ever come for me again. I wasn't sure what do with myself anymore.

"Stella, you need to talk to me eventually," my brother said from the bathroom doorway.

"That may be true, but it doesn't mean it needs to be right now," I said, pushing past him and into the bedroom.

I was still at the lake house in the bedroom I had come to think of as mine. The four walls that were once my prison were now my safety. Not even Atlas dared to enter them. The first night back here, I waited all night for him to come in like he used to, but he never did. Was he giving me space or did he not want to see me?

I was the girl who killed his father. It was my bullet that left a dead body on his chest and covered him in blood. They told me to run but I couldn't. I was too weak to run anymore.

"Do you have any idea what you put me through?" I asked, spinning to face Ace. "I needed you. I stood at our parents' funeral, alone!" I was screaming now but I didn't care. "I was scared, sad and I needed someone. You left me behind!"

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I watched you. I sent Atlas for you. I thought you were safe."

"But I was hurting." The tears followed my last word.

Ace's arms wrapped around me and I melted into him. It had been too long since I had seen him. When we were younger, his hugs were rare but priceless if I could sneak one out of him.

"He's worried about you," Ace said in my hair.

"He has a funny way of showing it," I said, unable to mask the bitterness in my voice.

Atlas hadn't spoken to me since we returned to the lake house. He returned to the city the next morning for a few days and had avoided me since then. He didn't come to me at night like he used to. I didn't know what I had expected exactly, but the coldness wasn't it.

"He's just pissed and I think he's scared he will snap if he sees you."

"Because I killed his dad."

"No," Ace said quickly, grabbing my face to keep my attention. "For making you kill him. For putting you through that and what they did to you. That's all our fault."

"I don't blame either of you," I said.

"You should have run," he whispered, his blue eyes glistening.

"Dad would have stayed and fought."

Ace nodded, knowing I was right. I couldn't walk away knowing they were in danger. Before that day, I thought Ace was the only child to inherit Dad's courage and morals, but maybe we both did. Maybe I wasn't as weak and scared as I thought I was. As much as what I had done sickened me and would haunt me, I didn't see how this could have ended any other way.

"I love you, Stella," he said and my heart broke at the words.

It had been too long since I had heard those words and my anger melted. I threw my arms around him and held my brother like he had come back from the dead, since he had. He squeezed me and I let go all the tears I had held in since we had returned to the lake house. A throat cleared in the doorway and we broke apart.

"Atlas," I whispered.

Atlas stood in the doorway looking as dangerous as he was. He cooly watched our exchange like he wasn't making my heart race just by being near. Ace gave me a squeeze and left us alone in my room, giving a slight nod to Atlas as he passed.

"Stella. Are you okay?"

"You ask me now? Days later?" I asked, frustrated with how distant and cold he was.

"I had some things to take care of in the city," he answered evenly. He was too calm and collected.

"I'm fine," I told him with a heavy sigh. "I'm sorry."

"Don't you dare," he said, coming forward to grab my face. "Don't fucking apologize to me."

"I killed him," I whispered, my heart breaking with the admission.

"I'm sorry," he said, his voice cracking. "I never wanted you to have to do that."

His hands dropped from my face and he took a step back, giving us space. I didn't like it. I wanted him close. I wanted him to touch me, wrap me up and tell me nothing would ever hurt me again. Instead, he moved across the room as if he couldn't get far enough.

"In the hallway is a bag," he told me. "It's yours. Inside, you will find your keys to your apartment in San Francisco and everything you need to get on with your life."

"Get on with my life? What are you saying to me right now?"

Atlas rubbed his face roughly before looking me right in the eyes. The coldness made my stomach sink with dread.

"I took you from a new start. I kept my promise and kept you safe. No one will hurt you ever again."

"So, that's it? I just pretend none of this happened?"

"Exactly. You can never speak of anything you heard or saw here. Ever."

"You mean how I killed the leader of the most powerful mob family in Chicago? How we shot a man in the head as revenge for killing my family? What about the man killed for trying to rape me?"

Atlas crossed the room with a quickness of a predator. Large hands grabbed my throat and pinned me to the wall. The thrill of having his hands around my throat again heated my body.

"Never," he growled. "You are safe if you keep your mouth shut."

I nodded and stared back into his eyes. They went dark as he looked at my lips. I thought he would kiss me but he dropped me, pushing away from me.

"You need to leave. Go to California and go to school. It's paid for and you will be safe."

"You want me to leave?"

"That was always the plan, Stella," he said, his voice dripping with resignation. "I kept you safe, even if that meant killing you before my family got to you. It's over now and you have no reason to hide anymore."

My chest hurt thinking about leaving. This house was once a prison. Then it became a place of my own. I felt safe here. I was being thrusted back into the real world. A scary and vast place that I hadn't been a part of since my parents had left it.

"I don't want to leave," I bravely told him.

"Stella. Go. Take Liddy and start over."

Start over? He said it like it was so easy to leave everything behind. My childhood home was gone. My parents were gone. Ace would continue to look for his missing girl. I thought I had actually found something to fill that void, but he was pushing me away.

"There's money and everything is ready for you both. She will need you. This is the life you were meant for before I pulled you into a battle you had no business fighting."

"Sure," I finally said resignedly. "I will leave in the morning."

Atlas slowly came back to me where I stayed leaning against the wall. His hand gripped my chin lightly and tilted my face to his. I could smell his minty breath as he closed the small space between our lips. Our mouths connected and my body instantly reacted. My skin heated and my fingers clung to his jacket. I wanted to crawl inside of him.

Atlas's restraint broke and bit my bottom lip as he sucked it into his mouth. I could taste the cooper of my blood but it didn't scare me. It made my hungry for more. I pressed harder to him, wanting the pain and possession he would give me. But it never came. He pulled away just as quickly as he gave it and left me gasping against the wall.

"There will be a car ready for you both," he told me before walking out of the room.

As always, Atlas had kept his promise. I found my two-bedroom apartment just as I had expected. The bag was filled with money, and my wallet and keys. The book of boudoir photographs that we had once looked at together was also in my bag.

XXXII

Stella

San Francisco was nothing like I thought it would be. When I signed my lease, I thought I would live alone, in fear and paranoia. But here I was with a roommate, eating ice cream on the couch and watching Grey's Anatomy. I was okay.

"This can't be good for us," Liddy said, hitting pause. "We are in our twenties, hot and single. We should be out partying and shit."

"Last time you said that, I ended up tied up," I blurted.

Liddy knew everything that had happened since the last time I had seen her at the club. After a night of too much wine, I had told her everything. I watched as her face went from shock to horror to sadness. It was therapeutic to finally have someone know the truth and all the secrets I had been carrying.

"I need out," she said, standing and taking the blanket with her. I grabbed the carton of ice cream before it hit the floor.

"Liddy, I don't know," I said. I was scared and not too sure I was ready for that yet.

"Stella, it can't be healthy for us to stay locked up like this. Neither of us leave unless we need to. I can't stay locked up with my thoughts like this anymore."

I frowned because I was so focused on myself sometimes. I would never forget what Liddy went through. I was in the cell next to her but was lucky to never have endured the hell that she had. I listened to her any time she needed to cry or talk about it. Sometimes, I was so lost in my own feelings that I didn't consider Liddy's.

"You're right," I agreed. "Let’s go."

"Fucking A," she said, jumping up.

While we got ready like normal women in their twenties, a feeling of normalcy filled me. I didn't think I had ever gotten to be a normal girl before. I couldn't continue to be a ghost of who I was anymore. Atlas set me free so I could take the life I was looking for. What I really got was something better. I had looked pure evil in the eye and had survived. I knew without a doubt someone was looking out for me, and I had my brother.

"Ready, babe?" Liddy asked me from the doorway, looking hot in her little black dress.

"Fuck yeah," I said, grabbing my bag and pulling her from our apartment.

Down on the street, we quickly hailed a cab. I could feel how tense Liddy was. This was her first time out, too. I held her hand, wanting to be strong for her. Liddy needed this more than I did. As much as she told me it wasn't true, she got into that mess because of me. They took her looking for me and knowing Atlas would go to her as soon as he found out I was missing.

There was nothing better than being ushered into a club when the line was down the block. Liddy and I linked arms and walked inside calmly even though I knew we both wanted to jump in excitement. Inside, the lights were flashing and everything was neon and glowing. It was dark except for the black lights and glow sticks, lighting up the club enough to be fun and exciting.

We grabbed our glow necklaces and reached the bar, ordering neon-colored drinks. Liddy smiled widely at me, but it looked forced. Liddy had been more withdrawn since we had moved out here. I knew she had gone through something terrible and I didn't know how to help her. She downed her drink and quickly ordered us another one.

"Let's dance," I shouted to her over the music.

I didn't even let her try to back out. I grabbed her hand and dragged her into the middle of half-naked bodies grinding on each other. I pushed away the memory of how similar this was to several months ago. The roles were reversed with Liddy trying to cheer me up. We could pretend to be normal girls in their twenties for one night.

The music took control of our bodies. The club was dark, with only flashes of bright, colored lights darting around the room. I only saw flashes of faces and body parts as the heat consumed me. For a second, I thought I saw the one face that haunted my dreams. When I opened my eyes and looked again, it was gone.

Atlas didn't come to me at night anymore, but that didn't stop me from seeing him in the darkness. As much as I tried to be angry and hate him, I never could. He pushed me away when he was done with me, but it didn't change what had happened between us in that lake house. Atlas may have ruined my life, but he saved it, too. I just didn't know how to feel about either of those things.

Hands touched my sides and wrapped around to my stomach. I started to pull away when one large hand pushed on my chest and pinned me against a hard body. My heart pounded against the stranger's palm as I tried to pull away. He didn't back away, instead moving his hand to wrap around my throat.

I froze as warm fingers rested over my racing pulse. A familiar panic washed over me. In the flashing, I couldn't see Liddy and I knew screaming wouldn't do any good. The only thing that made me more uneasy than the person holding me was how it was making me feel. I warmed with the excitement and thrill that Atlas once gave me.

I tilted my head back and gave the stranger more access to my neck. Making myself vulnerable and exposed as my body melted into the one behind me. My eyes closed and I let myself hold on to this feeling for just another second. It had been too long and I may never have this again.

The hand tightened on my neck, making it impossible to breathe. Finally realizing what I was doing, I roughly pulled out of his arms. I spun around, stumbling into a random dancer and tried to search out the man. All I could make out were flashes on body parts and faces. No one even noticed me while I frantically spun in a circle, seeking him out. A hand rested on my shoulder causing me to jump.

Liddy's wide eyes looked back at me. She nodded her head toward the club entrance, looking ready to bail. I nodded and took her hand. Maybe neither one of us were ready for this tonight. Too many monsters haunted us. Too many memories lurked in the darkness.

"Sorry," Liddy said once outside. "I just couldn't do it."

"I understand." I couldn't either.

Back at the apartment, we locked up and went to bed. Both of us were lost in our own memories and thoughts. I was stupid on the dance floor. Instead of running or protecting myself, I got pleasure out of the threat. Frustrated with myself I tore off my dress and left it on the floor, climbing naked into bed.

My hands coasted down my stomach and between my legs. I felt the wetness that wouldn't go away since I had been touched on that dance floor. I wanted so badly to feel the way he used to make me feel. I missed the control he took while making me feel safe at the same time. I wanted to feel completely owned again.

My hands moved on their own as I closed my eyes. I let myself drift to the past in my mind. I pictured his hands on my body and pinching my nipples. I spread my legs wide, pushing my fingers deep and letting out a long moan. I added a third finger, needing more. I always needed more.

My muscles clenched around my fingers as I pushed them deeper inside. I was so lost, I could almost smell him and feel his body heat. One hand left my nipple and I wrapped it around my neck. With gentle pressure, I felt myself soaking my hand as it thrust into my body. In my mind, Atlas was doing this to me. With an image of his face and body over mine, I was so close.

I bit my lip to keep from being too loud. I fucked myself hard, chasing that release I desperately needed. I was close and my back started to lift from the mattress. The pressure on my neck intensified. In my haze, it took a second to realize another hand covered my own. My scream was cut off with the tight squeeze and my eyes shot open.

Dark eyes glared down at me and I combusted inside. I felt myself milking my fingers as I stared into the face that I saw every night when I closed my eyes. I came silently and breathlessly. Atlas glared down at me with a storm of emotions swirling in his eyes.

"Bad girl," he growled in my ear, using his own body to push me into the mattress. "You aren't supposed to come without me."

"Atlas?" I gasped, fighting for enough air. "Are you really here?"

"I am," he said in my ear, releasing the tight hold on my airway. "I tried to stay away."

"Why?"

"Because I am dangerous to you."

My heart was pounding so loud, I almost couldn't hear him. I couldn't catch my breath with the shock and the orgasm. Atlas lowered his body between my legs that were already spread for him and a calmness settled over me.

"You saved me," I told him.

"And you ruined me," he said as he wrestled off his jacket and pants. "You destroyed me. Broke down my defense and got inside my walls."

He took his belt and quickly wrapped it around my wrists. Pinning them above my head, he stared down at my naked and waiting body like a man starved.

"No matter how fucking hard I try, I can't get you out. You manage to do the one thing that can't be undone. You have to deal with the consequences of that now, Little Star."

"What am I paying for?" I moaned as I felt his skin on mine again.

"Making me fall in love with you," he bit out before pushing into me.

Atlas wasted no time, thrusting into me rough and hard like he was punishing me. He tasted everywhere he could reach without releasing my hands. His sucked and nibbled on my neck, biting my ear. Every second spent apart was turned into the power he displayed on my willing body.

"You wanted it at the club," he hissed. "You were aching for it."

"Yes, I was. I wanted it to be you," I told him as I wrapped my legs around his waist.

"Were you thinking about me when you touched yourself?"

"Yes," I shouted, close to another orgasm. "It's always you. I never stopped thinking about you."

"Fuck," he breathed on my skin. "You wrecked me. I can't leave you."

His words were pushing me higher than his relentless thrusts were. He was deeper inside me than ever before and it wasn't just physically.

"Then don't. Keep me. I love you."

I was cut off by my screams and I clamped down around him. Atlas groaned and pumped into me slowly while I fell apart in his arms. Tears streamed down my face and wave after wave of intensity hit me. I felt him pulsing inside me as I slowly spiraled back down. Our sweating and spent bodies clung to each other.

Atlas slowly rose and pulled out of me. Staring down at my face, he pushed the hair out of my eyes.

"I can't let you go."

"You don't need to. I'm yours to keep."

XXXII

Atlas

I was still awake when the sun came up. After taking Stella hard, I gave it to her slow to make up for the marks she would show in the morning. Even in my frustration, anger, and built up hate, Stella was able to handle me. She could always take me at my worst and was probably the only person that ever could. She finally passed out after we showered and I carried her back to the bed.

I stared up at her ceiling as sunlight stared to fill her room. It was a dark blue with silver balls scattered. The paint was thick and wasn't there when I checked the place before she moved in. I finally realized it was the night sky with the stars. I recognized the pattern of the stars placed in the sky. It was the constellation of Atlas.

"When did you paint that?" I asked her when I felt her waking. She rolled on her back and looked up at the ceiling with me.

"A few nights after we moved in," she said. "This way, you are always watching over me."

"I was always watching over you, Stella," I told her, rolling over to look at her.

"I needed you with me," she whispered.

"I thought you were safer away from me. Everything you went through was because of me. You've seen too much spilled blood and that's my fault."

"Why did you come back then?"

I sighed and pushed myself up in the bed. Stella looked up at me, waiting for me to explain why I kept hurting her.

"I wanted to leave you alone. I thought I could get rid of you easily and move on with my life. I watched you to make sure you were safe and it killed me not to go to you. I realized I might never be okay with letting you go, but I was going to for your sake. For once, I didn't want my selfish actions to hurt you."

Stella sat up ready to argue and I placed a finger over her lips, silencing her.

"You didn't look happy though. I had this image of you moving out here and becoming someone different, but you still looked lost. Like you were missing something."

"I was."

"I waited for the day you would find it. I told myself that I would walk away then and never look back. But then I saw you and Liddy go to that club. It reminded me of the night I took you. I couldn't help it."

"That was you on the dance floor." It wasn't a question because she knew.

"You didn't react the way you should have. I expected fear or for you to run, reminding me of what I did to you. But you melted into me like you had been waiting for that moment."

"I was. You never hurt me, Atlas. You hurt me when you left me," Stella said.

"I have hurt you, Stella. You are just too strong to see it but I am prepared to make it up to you."

"How?"

"Every tear," I said pulling her face to mine, "I will kiss away." I kissed her cheek and moved to her neck.

"Every bite, I will soothe. Every bruise, I will cover up with pleasure. For every moment you spent alone and hurt, I will make you happy."

I lowered her back to the bed and took her lips. I hoped she believed me, trusted me, and wanted me enough. I took my time with the kiss because for the first time, there wasn't a deadline. The ticking clock that had always hung over my head with her was gone. We weren't going anywhere. I was done being without her. Neither one of us were happy like that. And if you couldn't be happy, what was the point? Why fight a war when you had nothing to fight for?

A bang in the kitchen broke us both apart and Stella jumped from the bed. I grabbed her just before she pulled open her door.

"Stay," I said, pushing her back a few steps.

Silently, I walked down the short hall and heard a scream. I came around the corner quickly to find Liddy with a pan in her hand, looking ready to swing. Ace leaned against the counter with his hands up in surrender.

"What the fuck?" I growled at him. Liddy jumped when she heard my voice.

"I just touched her hand," he explained as he slowly removed the pan from her shaking hands.

"Ace?" Stella asked from behind me. "What are you doing here?"

"Came to check on my girls and to make sure the boss here behaved himself," he said as put the pan on the stove. "By the looks of your hair, he didn't."

Stella blushed and ran her fingers quickly through the mess until Ace swept her up in a tight hug. I stepped aside and joined Liddy in the kitchen.

"So, you're back?" Liddy asked me. "Finally pulled decided to put her out of her misery?"

"I'm not here to hurt her," I snapped.

"I meant by coming back for her," Liddy said, stepping away from my outburst.

"Right. Sorry," I told her. "I came back for you both."

"What?" Stella asked, looking between her brother and me.

"I'm not taking you away. We can go where ever the fuck you want to go," I told her. "You aren't leaving behind your best friend either. I have casinos and homes in almost every major city. Wherever you want. I'm not tying you down."

"But I like the ropes," Stella blurted.

I ignored Ace's glare and rounded the counter, pulling her little body flush against mine. Her eyes widened when I poked her in the stomach with the proof of what her words do to me.

"Don't you worry, Little Star. They will go wherever we go."

The war within the family was far from over. There were still enemies hiding and women missing. In the last month, Ace and I had managed to take down three other holding spots for the girls. Ace hadn't found his girl yet. Every time we would think we were close, he'd come up empty-handed. After everything he had gone through, it couldn't all be for nothing.

Ace grew concerned with his sister and Liddy living alone in San Francisco. Neither one looked happy or well. Stella held her head high, but her eyes were dull like before I took her to the lake house. Liddy wasn't healing or dealing with what had happened to her either. That angered Ace even more, and he fought harder to find every man who was to blame for the way she cried herself to sleep at night. I promised her the best help we could get her. And revenge.

"Anywhere?" Stella asked, her eyes clouded over and barely focused.

"Anywhere. You won't get away from me again."

EPILOGUE

Stella

Six Months Later…

Paris was beautiful in the spring. The fog of the winter had finally lifted. The trees sprouted into full bloom, covering the land in flowers. The air smelled sweet with the cherry blossoms decorating the sky. The warmer air wrapped around me as I stood on our balcony, watching families board their sailboats for the first time this year. It was perfect, calming, and inspiring. I never wanted to leave.

"You ready, Little Star?" Atlas asked.

He came up behind me and wrapped his arms around my stomach gently. The large bump made it hard to fit his thick arms around me. I never thought I could see him as gentle as he was with me in the last few months. Atlas touched me like I might break or he would hurt the tiny life growing inside me.

"I guess so. I hate leaving."

"I know. We will come back, I promise. We need to fly out before you can't do it safely anymore. Liddy and Ace are waiting for us."

I reluctantly came back inside, leaving the beautiful view I had fallen in love with behind. Atlas would keep his promise so it made waking away a little easier. I hoped to love the view at our new lake house just as much.

When Atlas asked where I wanted to go to have our child, the lake house was first place I thought of. But I couldn't go back with all the blood that I knew was on the floors and the pain inside those walls. Atlas built us a new one in the area. I wanted to be close to the city so he could still work, but far enough from the corruption and poison.

I should have been scared to bring a child into this world. I was. I was terrified of what could happen, but that wouldn't stop me from trying to give him or her the best life ever. Atlas had saved my life many times over, and he would do so for his baby. He would never turn into his father, that much I knew. Ace teased that the baby would make him soft. I didn't think that would ever happen. Not in any one else’s eyes anyways.

"The plane is waiting," Atlas told me, taking my hand and leading me out the door.

This penthouse had been my home for the last six months. While Atlas and Ace had trailed leads about the trafficking ring and had made alliances, I had enjoyed Paris and the art here. I no longer felt in danger, although I probably was now more than ever. I was the boss's woman and just as hated or respected as he was.

There was no doubt Atlas would keep us safe. Even as we get into our car to travel to the airport, I was surrounded. Sal and Tony were in the car with us and were never too far away. Ace was with Liddy in the states and would be joining us at the lake house. Knowing I would see them soon made our departure less bittersweet.

Our car parked on the runway and we boarded our small plane. I would never get used to the money Atlas seemed to have. I knew not all this money was earned legally, but this was the life I had chosen for myself. I would like to think my dad was proud that I had found someone to take care of me, and who was good on the inside, despite what he'd done on the outside.

"I think the belt is buckled," I told Atlas who was still checking the seat belt on my lap.

"Just making sure," he mumbled. He still didn't look satisfied with the hold.

"Atlas." I waited until I had his full attention. "I love you."

"I love you too, Little Star."

Forgetting about buckling me in so tight I couldn't breathe, he stood to tell the pilot we were ready.

"Let's go. Uncle Ace and Aunt Liddy are waiting for us at home!"

I smiled during takeoff with excitement and squeezed Atlas's hand tightly. I missed my brother and my best friend. I was anxious to see how Liddy was doing. Ace was trying to help her and get her revenge, but I knew she hadn't healed yet. Maybe she never would. Maybe none of us would ever be the same.

I knew I still had wounds and cuts that would never close. Some pain would never go away and some nightmares would always come back. Certain things would forever haunt me and I wasn’t sure I could get rid of them. I might always see the death of my parents when I slept or the way it felt to shoot and kill a man. Those nightmares might not go away, but I wouldn’t let them consume me again. The only thing I could do was to fill the holes with enough happiness and love to make the bad worth it.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed Atlas, please consider leaving a review.

Thank you

Atlas is the sixth book I wrote. I am lucky enough to say that I have a few people that stuck with me through most of them. Atlas, and the others, would not be here without my little support system. The people that stood by me, virtually and physically.

My husband rocks because put up with me when I was crabby, tired and stressed out as I worked on Atlas. He deserves a medal for that. I was a witch. My fur babies never left my side either.

My family never stopped believing in me. Thank you for your never-ending support and love.

Thank you Steph. I love you and you were always there to talk me down or just keep me company. I needed that. I have no idea what I do without you.

Tiffany. You are amazing and came into my life when I needed you the most. Thank you for your kind words, support and loyal pimping.

Thank you to the small group of Alyne’s Angels for your help spreading the word. [Jordan: you are a superstar!]

Huge thanks to R.B.A. Designs. Thank you for making the perfect cover for Atlas. You never cease to amaze me with your talent!

Thank you Jen at Beyond the Cover Editing. You fixed my hot mess. I don’t know how you sorted it all out.

Thank you to my beta readers, Missy and Ashley. You ladies have been with me though every book now!

Thank you to every blog, reader and reviewer that has shared or will share Atlas. It means the word to me and I would be invisible without you!

Most of all: Thank you for picking up this book and taking a chance!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alyne lives in Ohio with her husband, two dogs and cat. Working full time in an office all day, she spends her nights reading, writing or watching an entire TV series in a night. She refuses to grow up and loves Disney movies and anything with owls. She couldn't live without her coffee or her furry "children".

Alyne wrote her first novel titled "Light to the Darkness" in 2014, followed by the Conflicted Encounters Series.

To stay up to date on what Alyne is working on, teasers and more: Sign up for the newsletter.

She loves to connect with readers so feel free to stalk her!

Website: www.AlyneRoberts.com

Like Her on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/AlyneRoberts

Books By Alyne Roberts: 

Light to the Darkness

Memorized

Conflicted Encounters Series:

Jolted

Impacted

Shaken

IN MY HEAD

S.L. Schiefer

Prologue

It’s amazing, looking back, what all I missed. Things that were obviously right in front of me. I couldn’t see how things looked from the outside, because I was in my own world of denial. I had no idea how I got to where I did.

If I had known, I would have gone about things differently.

I would have stayed out of my head.

Chapter One – Last  Call Wonders

“LYLA! What are you doing here?” Ben asks over the thump of the bass in the bar we’re in. We just finished our first semester of college so we decided to come out and celebrate. We being myself and my roommate Michelle.

Ben is a sophomore, studying business management. We don’t have any classes together, but every time I’m at the library he’s always there. So we’ve become study partners. Even though we can’t help each other at all. The only reason I agreed is because he’s nice to look at. Okay, nice might be putting it mildly. Ben is the epitome of my wet dream. He’s has black hair, green eyes, a strong chiseled jaw, and a constant stubble. It’s like he uses clippers to keep his beard trimmed down without getting rid of it completely.

“Celebrating! What are you doing? Here with a hot date?” Ben goes out a lot, but never with the same girl twice. He’s not a bad boy, but he does have the reputation of one.

“I’m kind of hoping I can get this one girl to go home with me,” he says, then puts his bottle of beer up to his lips to take a drink. I watch his throat as he takes a long pull of the amber liquid.

“Oh, ya?” I start glancing around the bar, trying to see if I can pick out the girl he’s trying to hook up with. “What’s she look like?”

“She’s a little short, has the stubbornness of an eighty year old man, and has the deepest brown eyes I’ve ever seen.”

I turn and give him a puzzled look. “That does not help me pick her out in this crowd of people.”

“I think you’ll have a hard time picking her out. She isn’t like anyone else I’ve ever met before. I’ve actually been trying to catch her attention for a while now, but it seems she doesn’t have the slightest idea that I’m interested.” He stares at me intently, while I just stare back. I’m not really sure what to say to that. It’s no secret, well to me and Michelle, that I want this guy for myself, but I’ve never let him in on that secret. I couldn’t take the heart break of rejection that would likely occur. I’m not on the same level as this guy. To even delude myself into thinking that is absurd.

“Well, whoever it is had better realize just how lucky she is. To have a great guy like you wanting her.” I turn away and take a drink of my amaretto stone sour. This stuff is like candy, and almost just as good to fix a heart ache.

I feel Ben come in close behind me, and I feel the brush of his lips on my ear right before he says, “Lyla, I’m positive she would feel that way if she would open her eyes and see what’s standing right in front of her. Or, right behind her in this case.”

Butterflies burst into flight in my stomach. What the hell is he going on about? If he’s toying with me, he won’t be able to perform in bed for a very long time. “What, Ben?”

“Lyla, for as brilliant as you are, you’re so blind,” he chuckles and I feel his breath on the back of my neck. My skin breaks out in goosebumps from the intimate feel of the situation.

He grasps my shoulders and turns me around to look at him. All the while I stand there frozen. “Lyla, I’ve been trying like hell to get you to see how I feel about you.”

“Is this some kind of joke? It isn’t April. This is seriously fucked up, even for you, if you’re toying with me,” I growl at him.

“Sunshine, why would I play around with you about this? I’ve seen the way you check me out when you think I’m not paying attention. What you fail to see, though, is how I look at you. Even when you’re looking.”

This is like a dream come true. Finding out that the guy you’ve been lusting after is actually into you after all. But, is it possible to go from good friends to boyfriend and girlfriend? Without it being weird?

“Now, let me take you to the bar and buy you a drink. I have no expectations of tonight. I just want to get to you know better, but know that I don’t want to see you with another guy after tonight. You’ve been mine for a while now, you just didn’t know it.” He smiles his panty dropping smile and takes me by my hand and leads me to the bar.

We’ve been at the bar ever since he told me the truth. I’m unaware of how much time has went by. But, the next thing I know “last call” is being shouted throughout the bar.

“You want to come back to my house?” His green eyes are so hopeful. It’s not like I haven’t been back to his house before. Since we ran into each other, and became more comfortable with each other, we’ve been to each other’s houses a lot. But, this is different. So different.

I look away from his eyes, and mumble, “Sure.”

***

Walking in his front door, he leads the way to the kitchen. Where I hop on yet another bar stool. But, I put my arms up on the counter top and prop my head on my hands. Watching Ben work his way around the kitchen making me a drink. Which gives me a minute to check him out.

He’s wearing dark wash jeans, and a tight black button up with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, black chucks, and a light blue beanie. The beanie is the only amount of color he has showing. I know for a fact he has the start of a sleeve on one of his arms that has a lot of color in it, but they’re covered up.

“What makes you decide you want a specific tattoo?” I break our silence as he turns to place a drink in front of me.

“Meh, whatever strikes my fancy is usually what triggers me wanting a tattoo,” he tells me.

“I don’t have any tattoos. I’ve always wanted one, but never could decide on one when it came down to it.”

“Well, I can draw. If you can think of something you want, let me know and I’ll draw it up for you.” I smile at him, but don’t say anything.

We just sit there and stare at each other. My eyes scan over his face, finally locking in on his eyes. Trying like hell to read into his mind through those green depths. I want to be cautious of this, but I want to dive head first into it. What does that say about me? I feel like we’ve had months of foreplay, so this is the right next step… right?

I sigh, “What do you want from me, Ben?” I need to know what he wants out of this before we go any further.

“Lyla, I may not always be right about things when it comes to my life. But, I know I’m right about this. You’ve given my life a giant amount of sunshine in the short time I’ve known you. You’ve brought smiles to my face, even when I’m not with you. The only thing left, that would make me even happier, is giving yourself to me. One-hundred percent giving yourself over to me, to this, to explore what we could have. Because, sunshine, what we could have could be some epic fucking romance. One that I don’t want to let myself miss out on.”

Well. What do you say to all that? I stand up, walk over to him on the other side of the counter, and press myself against his front. Running my hands up his chest, up the sides of his neck, and into his hair. I push my fingers into the hair at the nape of his neck, the hair that’s too long to fit under his beanie. I pull his head down to mine, and right before I press my lips against his, I whisper, “I can’t miss out on epic, either.” Then I kiss him, and he furiously kisses me back. And if our kiss is telling of our future, it will be nothing short of passionate.

CONTENTS

Title Page

Blank Page

Copyright

Dedication

Prologue

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

X

XI

XII

XIII

XIV

XV

XVI

XVII

XVIII

XIX

XX

XXI

XXII

XXIII

XXIV

XXV

XXVI

XXVII

XXVIII

XXIX

XXX

XXXI

XXXII

XXXII

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

About the Author

In My Head

Copyright © 2015 Alyne Roberts

All Rights Reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law..

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Any trademarks, service marks, product names or named features are assumed to be the property of their respective owners, and are used only for reference. There is no implied endorsement if we use one of these terms.

Cover by: R.B.A. Designs

Editing: Beyond The Cover Editing

“According to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.”

― Plato, The Symposium

PROLOGUE

Stella

"Have you ever shot anyone, Daddy?" I asked.

I was sitting on the kitchen counter with my legs dangling down, kicking the cabinets. Mommy hated it when he let me do this. My dad stopped spreading the peanut butter and looked back at me.

"Why would you ask me that?" he asked, his eyes laced with concern.

I shrugged. "Kelly said that cops have guns and shoot people."

My dad wiped his hands off on a towel and came over to me. He hefted himself up onto the counter with me and I stared at him with wide eyes. Mom was gonna be so mad. He could probably change her mind though. Daddy was good at that.

"Well, Kelly is right that cops have guns," he said. "But I don't go running around just shooting people. I only shoot when I have to."

"Why would you have to?" Daddy always said no matter what, you never hurt someone else.

"There are bad guys out there," he explained calmly. "It's my job to protect everyone from the bad guys. Cops sometimes have to shoot them to do that."

"Kelly said guns are bad. She's in second grade so she's pretty smart."

"Guns are bad if they are in a bad person's hands. Sometimes, good people have to do bad things to save others from bad things. I'm a good guy, but I would do anything to keep you safe. Even if that meant hurting someone who deserved it."

I wrinkled my nose and looked up at my dad's face. My tummy hurt when I thought about bad guys trying to hurt him.

"Why do you have to do it?" I asked. My words were getting caught in my throat.

"Because, baby," my dad said as he put an arm around me. "Everyone has a role and a job in this world. Mine is to keep people safe. I feel good because I can save people's lives."

"Like a hero?"

He laughed. "Yes. Kinda like that."

"What's mom's job?" I asked. What does she do if dad is so important?

"She is a mother. A wife. She is my support and brought me two beautiful children. It's because of those children that I fight bad guys."

I laughed when he pulled me closer to his chest. "But dad, that's not right."

"What's not?"

"She only gave you one beautiful kid. Ace is pretty ugly," I managed to say through a giggle.

"I heard that, butthead," my brother said as he came into the kitchen.

He tossed his baseball mitt on the table and picked up my sandwich. Before I could stop him, he took a massive bite out of it.

"Hey!" I yelled. "That was mine."

"You snooze, you lose," he said with a full mouth.

I was ready to launch at him and take my sandwich back when Mom came through the door.

"Really? On the counter?" she asked with a stern look.

Dad and I hopped off and gave her our best smiles. They usually worked. Dad's was the best. She turned to look at us and, as I knew she would, she smiled back. Just like that, we are out of trouble. Daddy shot me a wink before I ran off to get my sandwich back from Ace.

"All gone," he said, holding up his empty hands as proof. He stuck his tongue out at me.

"Gross." It was covered in bread and peanut butter.

I looked back at Mom and Dad but they were holding each other and paying us no attention. I remembered that Daddy said she was his support. Maybe he needed support right now. My eyes welled up because I was still hungry and no one could make me another peanut butter sandwich.

I shoved my older brother and stormed to my room, slamming the door behind me. I ran to my bed and grabbed Unicorn and held him close. Hugging always made Mom and Dad feel better, but it wasn't working for me. I tossed the stupid stuffed animal across the room just as Ace poked his head in my door.

"No boys allowed!" I yelled at him. I was so mad at him that I started to cry again.

"Here," he said, handing me a plate.

I took it from him and stared down at the sandwich. There was peanut butter oozing out of the sides. The crust was torn off but not like Daddy did it. It was ugly, but I was hungry, so I took a bite anyway. My lips and teeth stuck together from all the peanut butter and I swore I tasted a piece of crust. I looked up at Ace and smiled wide.

"Fank you," I mumbled, trying to pry my mouth open. "Iff better ‘n Dad's!"

"Really?" he asked, his eyes wide in surprise.

"Yeah," I said, spitting a little. "More peanuh-budder."

Ace nodded and walked out of my room. His head was held high and he looked so proud. I chowed down on my ugly, messy sandwich and imagined my brother would be just like my dad one day. Like Daddy, Ace would make it his job to protect people from the bad guys. He would be a hero. Mommy and I would always be safe.

I

Stella

I had to admit, I looked fucking hot. I never got to dress up or make myself look good lately. My best friend, Liddy, insisted that we go out tonight as one last girl's night. It took some convincing, but I gave in and even let her dress me and do my makeup. I would miss her like crazy when I left. We would be sure to make our last night memorable.

"Promise to have fun tonight," Liddy said to me as we took the elevator down to the ground floor.

"Promise," I agreed.

"Good. You've been through enough in your life. You need some fun," Liddy said, bouncing up and down impatiently.

Liddy was right. The last eight months had been the worse of my life. Some fun and dancing was the least I should do. Everything I owned was in a U-Haul truck on the way to the opposite end of the country. Tomorrow, I would leave the only city I had ever known, and hopefully all the bad that tainted it for me. One last night with my best friend was the perfect way to say goodbye.

My excitement grew as we got out of the cab and approached the bouncer at the entrance of one of the hottest clubs in Chicago. I could already hear the pounding of the bass from inside and it filled me with energy. Giving one quick look at Liddy and me, the bouncer ushered us right in. It was a weeknight so the line wasn't too bad, but I still felt like I was someone important walking inside.

I linked arms with my best friend, and we walked in like we owned the place. Sweaty bodies were grinding against each other as the loud music drove them. I looked at Liddy with wide eyes as she tugged me toward the bar. I was so excited that I was bouncing in the high heels I had borrowed. At the bar, people yelled over the music to bartenders who scrambled to get everyone good and wasted. It didn't take long for one to appear before us.

I couldn't hear what Liddy had ordered, but in a few seconds four shot glasses were being slid across the bar to her. Her blue eyes sparkled at me in mischief as she handed me a shot.

"To your last night in Chicago, you bitch!" she shouted before throwing her head back and downing the clear liquid. I followed, choking on the burn.

"Shit!" I coughed. Tequila.

"No holding back tonight, Stella! For once, just let loose."

We downed our other shots, though it burned less the second time. Maybe my throat was numb from the first one. A grin stretched across my face as we weaved through the crowd. A determination to enjoy tonight filled me. I promised myself I wouldn't worry about tomorrow. I wouldn't think about the goodbye. I wouldn't fear the move I would be making in the morning to San Francisco.

We found a little space for our two bodies to wiggle into, and we started to dance. As the alcohol warmed my body, the heat and people brushing against me didn't bother me. Everything was perfect. I didn't think it was possible for me to enjoy anything anymore, but here I was.

Music washed over me.

Thoughts left my head.

Emptiness was consumed.

The heavy bass thumped through my body as sweat trickled down my neck and my hair stuck to my face. I felt the burn in my cheeks and the exhaustion in my limbs. I didn't care though. I didn't care about anything in the center of that dance floor.

Liddy grabbed my arm, breaking my blissful trance, and pulled me toward the bar. We bumped other grinding bodies and weaved our way through the thick mass of people dancing. I was in desperate need of water and some more alcohol. After a few dozen accidental grabs and apologies, we made it the bar. It was even more crowded than before and I drummed my nails on the bar impatiently.

"Here you go ladies," a bartender said as he slid two water bottles and two shots of a bright blue liquid to us.

"We didn't order yet," I yelled at him over the music.

"From the guy over there," he shouted back to me and pointed to the opposite side of the bar.

Liddy and I both leaned over the counter to get a look at the other end. Already calmly watching us, sat a man in a dark suit.

"Holy shit. He's hot," Liddy said in my ear.

She wasn't kidding. In the dim lighting, I could only guess he was maybe late twenties. His dark hair was styled neatly and his wide body screamed control and power. A chill ran down my body when one corner of his lips tipped up.

"He likes the blonde," the bartender added with a wink at me.

"Go thank him," Liddy said with a playful shoulder bump.

I shook my head and downed the shot. "No. I'll never see him again," I hissed through the burn.

"Exactly," she deadpanned.

I took another glance at the stranger at the other end of the bar. He was still watching, and I wasn't sure if it made me feel excited or nervous. When he stood and started toward us, I held my breath. I had been alone for so long, I wasn't sure how to socialize with handsome men. Especially with one very much out of my comfort zone. He was sexier, more powerful and more intimidating than any college frat boy I had ever flirted with before. I could tell all of this from just one look across the bar.

"Last night. Live it," Liddy whispered in my ear before sneaking off.

I watched her exposed back disappear into the crowd. Her words echoed in my head as I forced my feet to take me to the stranger. She was right. I should live. He watched as I approached and I prayed that I didn't fall on my face. His intense focus made me nervous, as did attention from anyone. I thought of turning around and abandoning the whole idea, but soon I was standing right in front of him.

"Thanks for the drink."

"You're very welcome," his deep voice rumbled in my ear.

A grin stretched across his handsome face and his hand reached for mine. I put mine in his expecting a handshake, but he surprised me when he lifted my hand toward his lips. I swore I could feel my jaw unhinge and fall open as I watched plump lips come closer to my skin. I pulled in a deep breath and he shocked me further by twisting my wrist and placing a soft kiss on the inside of my wrist. It was intrusive, erotic, and exciting all at the same time.

"Let's find somewhere less crowded," he said and started to pull me away from the bar without waiting for me to agree.

Unlike when Liddy and I had tried to make our way anywhere in the club, the crowd parted for him. I didn't know if it was because he was known or if it was the power and the demand to be respected that radiated from him. One look at the man pulling me by the hand told me he was someone to admire and fear. It was the latter that had my heart beating and my throat dry. After months of solitude, any excitement had my body feeding off of it. I was unable to stop from devouring his attention and the way this stranger made me feel.

He led me up some steps, and a bouncer nodded as we passed. The music was a more bearable volume up here, but we still had the view of the dance floor. I stood at the railing and looked into the sea of people. I wondered if Liddy was down there dancing with a cute guy. She always lived without worries or regard for the consequences. Most of the time, I was jealous of her bravery and confidence.

I felt a tickle down my arm and the chill of a glass being wrapped in my fingers. I could sense him behind me. He wasn't quite touching me, but he may as well have been. His presence was felt on every inch of my skin. I lifted the cool glass to my lips to distract myself. The sweetness mixed with the burn and I let it wash away the nerves.

"Are you cold?" he asked behind me.

I shook my head and turned to face him. In the improved lighting, I could see his face better. His eyes were dark, and he had a straight nose and chiseled jaw. His suit was tailored to his body and had to cost more than several months of my rent. A scent of clean linen and fresh air complemented his groomed and perfect appearance. He was perfect and I swallowed, feeling entirely out my league.

He rubbed his hands up and down my arms, sending warmth through me. I was stuck staring at his deep, mesmerizing eyes when I noticed his smirk. With my fair skin, I was sure he could see the blush creeping into my face and spreading down my neck and chest. He confirmed that thought when his finger traced the low cut neckline of my dress, grazing the tops of my breasts.

"So soft," he said in a low voice. My head started to swim with the sensations.

How long had it been since I had been touched like this? Was it sophomore year in college with my last boyfriend before my life went to shit? Was it last year when I still had it in me to touch myself and enjoy it? Was it even before that when my mother would stroke my hair like she used to every time she saw me? Inside, the smart and fearful girl that I had become was telling me this man was a dangerous stranger, but the girl with life in her still soaked up his presence.

What harm could it be anyway? I planned to leave the next day for another state. I would start over and never see him again. It didn't matter if he thought I was easy or never called me after. In fact, that would be for the best. I promised Liddy, and myself, that I would give myself one last good memory in this city.

"Dance with me?" I bravely asked.

His eyes sparkled, and his hands firmly gripped my hips. Without the crowd of dancers, this was intimate and sexy. It felt empowering and reckless; something I hadn't felt in so long. I pressed my body to his and placed my hands on his hard chest. I could feel a steady heartbeat under my palm. It kept me grounded. It reminded me that we were both real and alive.

Even alone, the temperature rose between our bodies but it only made me cling closer to him, like I needed him to keep me from melting. One hand roamed up the open back of my dress, smoothed down my spine and played with the ends of my hair. With every thump of the bass, I grew more confident, and the little voice in my head who told me to be careful fell off her barstool. Having his hands on me and feeling how he liked it outweighed anything else.

He wiped some sweat off my forehead. Before I could cringe with embarrassment, he sucked the thumb he used into his mouth. His eyes closed and I could hear his low moan over the music and my pounding heartbeat. When they opened, they were burning with a fire and intensity I hadn't seen or noticed before. His other hand reached between us, pressing a fresh, cold glass to my lips.

Needing to cool down, I drank the cold liquor without hesitation. My eyes didn't leave his as I drank it down, letting it both numb and cool me. He watched the movement in my throat and I felt a strange sense of power over this man in front of me. I leaned into him to feel the hard intake of breath he took at the contact. The inner slut inside me grinned. I could do this to a man. I was stronger than I looked.

"Not that strong," I mumbled as I swayed, losing my balance and needing him to hold me still.

"What's that?" he asked with a sly smile.

"I feel like jelly," I giggled.

"You're alright," he assured me while he gripped my hips firmly. "I got you."

My head swam and my stomach rolled. The lights were too bright and the music became too loud. My limbs were too heavy to hold me up and I felt like I was suddenly melting, but not in the hot way.

II

Stella

My head pounded as I woke up. Every time I went out with Liddy, I ended up with a hangover. This morning was worse than ever. The pain was not just in my head, but my entire body. I didn't dare to move, in fear that I would just make it worse. I tried to remember how much I had to drink, but the memories were fuzzy.

Nothing felt right. The sheets on my skin were softer than my own bare mattress I was used to. My head was heavier than usual and I was positive that I had been sleeping too long. Slowly, I started to remember the night before. The hot guy who bought me a drink. Dancing with him alone. Trying to find Liddy to get a cab. A stranger carrying me from the club.

Panic slammed into me as I struggled to sit up but wasn't able to move. I was restrained with my wrists and ankles tied to a bed. A scream ripped from my throat. My wide eyes frantically scanned my surroundings, but I didn't recognize anything in the unfamiliar bedroom. A thousand thoughts raced in my terrified mind as I screamed for help and tears dripped down my cheeks. My worst nightmare was coming true.

"No need for all the noise." The voice cut through my own.

"Hello?" I choked. "Someone help me!"

He slowly shook his head as he came to stand at the end of the bed. I was severely underdressed compared to his black slacks and white collared shirt. Dark eyes trailed my body which was dressed in only my bra and panties. The dangerous look on his face made my heart race.

"Why? Why am I here?" I asked him.

"Because I want you to be," he simply answered.

I stared at him in disbelief. The man in front of me wasn't the charming and flirty man I remembered from last night. This man took whatever he wanted and had no concern for anything else. Although still gorgeous, he was terrifying. Everything in my gut last night had told me to run, but I had ignored it, thinking I was being paranoid. I was so very wrong.

"Please," I cried. "Just let me go. I promise I'll never tell anyone."

"I can't do that, Little Star," he said as he crawled over my tied body.

I squirmed underneath him, and I watched in horror as his eyes danced in amusement. He was enjoying watching me struggle. His lips titled up into that half smile that had me melting for him only hours ago. Instead of shivering in excitement, now it was fear. I was helpless and open to him.

"What's wrong? Not as turned on anymore when you're tied up?" he asked in a taunting voice. "Some women like it."

"I just want to go home," I whispered with my eyes closed tightly. I could feel the heat from his chest on mine. He was invading my mind and senses.

"And just where is that Ms. Harlow? Is it the tiny studio apartment on Southport? Is it in California? Or is it that bench in the cemetery you spend so much time at?"

I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. "How do you know all of that? How do you know my name?"

He chuckled low, and I felt his breath on my bare chest. "You don't hide as well as you think you do, Stella."

I started to scream as loud as I possibly could. My lungs struggled to take enough air with his weight on top of me. I didn't know if anyone would hear me, but I needed to try. I wanted to live. My screaming was cut short with a hand tight around my throat.

"Shut up or I will make you," he hissed in my ear.

I had known this day would come. This moment was the one I had avoided for nearly a year. Every night, I woke with the fear of the moment they’d find me. I thought I had stayed invisible for long enough. Every day I survived, I believed that keeping my mouth shut was enough. I was so stupid to have thought that I could finally make a run for it and would be safe.

He ran one finger down my cheek, gliding through my tears and along my jaw. It continued its path down my neck and over my collarbone. I cringed when I felt his finger dip into my cleavage.

"What's the problem, Stella?" he taunted. "You don't like me anymore? Did your attraction for me vanish with the sunrise?"

"Fuck you," I muttered. I couldn't give him the satisfaction of upsetting me more before he did what he had planned to me.

"You wanted me to," he whispered in my ear. His shirt brushed my bare stomach and I held my breath. "Last night, you wanted everything I wanted to do you. I could feel it. I could see it. I could even fucking smell it."

"That was before you fucking drugged and kidnapped me," I growled.

"Still the truth."

His finger continued to slide over my body. My skin was hyper-aware of every touch from him. I squirmed under him, but he was much larger, successfully keeping me pinned and still. I started to think he even liked it when I struggled against him. His eyes held to the spot on my neck where I was sure my pulse was pumping rapidly.

"Too many people saw me with you last night. You can't get away with this," I told him.

"No one will even notice you're gone. If you were successful in anything in the past eight months, it was becoming invisible and isolating yourself completely," he said softly. "No one is in San Francisco waiting for you. You have no one to miss you when you never show up."

"That's not true," I said in a tight voice. It was very true. I opted against getting a roommate and my rent was paid up for several months. No one would know that I never moved in after my belongings showed up.

"You know it is," he argued.

"Liddy," I whispered, hope fading.

"She already received a text that you were on the road. Safe and sound."

The fight left my body. My limbs went weak and I stopped trying to pull my wrists free. No one would know that I was missing. There wouldn't be any hearts broken when I left this world. Everyone would continue with their lives while I rotted in a shallow grave. No one would hear my screams or come to rescue me. I officially blended away into nothing. I was all alone.

"Then just kill me already," I whispered.

I felt him lift himself of my body. I opened my eyes to find him hovering over me, staring down at my face. The look was unreadable, but his dark eyes swarmed with something more than hate. Before I could figure out what that was, he blinked and it was gone.

"You are more of an interest to me alive than dead, sweetheart."

"What?" I asked in a panic. "You can't just keep me here. For what?

"Whatever I need." His eyes once again took in my half-naked and restrained body.

"Your little sex slave?" My voice rose higher and higher with every degree of terror. I never imagined their revenge would be like this. I waited every night for someone to come get me, but I thought it would be quick and over with before I even saw the gun, not this cat and mouse game.

"I can do whatever the fuck I want," he barked at me. "You’d rather be out there? Watching over your shoulder? Waiting for the axe to fall on your head?"

"Hasn't it already?"

He shook his head and walked to the door. With his hand on the knob, he turned back to me.

"Not yet. You can thank me later."

"Fuck you, asshole!" I shouted at him. "You fucking bastard mother fucker!"

I couldn't think of enough curse words for the vile man staring down at me.

"You can just call me Atlas, sweetheart."

The name rang over and over in my head as I watched the door close behind him.

Atlas.

My brother's friend.

The reason my family was dead.

The reason I was next.

The room went black.

III

Stella

Atlas left me tied to the bed for hours. I could see the sunlight fading on the walls as time went by. The straps were fastened to the iron headboard and I tried without luck to release them. The leather cuffs were tight on my wrists and ankles, keeping me immobile. My skin was chilled and my stomach rumbled with hunger. I hadn't heard a sound inside the house since he had left me. There were no footsteps, no city sounds or voices. Only my own breathing and occasional sniffling.

The room was simple with a plain dresser and a reading chair in one corner. The bare walls were a light cream color. There was nothing I could use to escape and nothing I would be able to reach. I was stuck helplessly waiting for Atlas to return and do whatever he had planned for me.

I had plenty of time to think about the situation I had gotten myself into. I trusted a guy I had just met and had let my guard down when I knew better. I thought I would have one last night of fun, flirting and dancing with the hot stranger whom I would never see again. My brother used to tell me never make assumptions about people. People would either disappoint you or impress you. No one was who they seemed to be.

My imagination was running wild. So while I could try to guess why Atlas wanted me alive, I wouldn't dare assume. My brother trusted him, but I knew where that had gotten him, along with my parents. Now it was my turn. I wouldn't trust a word he told me or even my own instincts. I had seen firsthand what people like him could do, which was how I had gotten into this mess in the first place.

When I heard the soft thuds of footsteps, I stiffened. I didn't know if I wished Atlas was coming for me or not. I was hungry and my arms were sore from struggling against the rope. I would feel much better with clothes on. I wanted to know where I was and what would happen to me. Knowing what little I knew of Atlas, it couldn't be good.

When the footsteps neared, my mind was dizzy with anxiety. There was nothing I could do while the knob turned and the door swung open. Atlas stepped through with ease and confidence. Only someone with his amount of power could walk like they didn't have a care in the world when there was a half-naked young woman tied to a bed.

"Let's try this again, Stella," he said to me. "You behave and everything will be fine."

I didn't respond as he stepped inside, setting a few things down on the dresser across the room. He was wearing dark jeans with a white button-up shirt. The sleeves were rolled up to show muscular, tattooed arms. It looked like he was ready to do some work, which was likely bad news for me.

"I'm going to untie you," he told me. "You try to run and I will taser you."

To make sure I believed him, he showed me the taser in his hands. I'd never been hit with a taser before, but I didn’t doubt it would hurt like hell. I swallowed the lump in my throat and watched as he crawled over me and reached for my wrists. My left wrist was released first and he rubbed the raw skin that was exposed. It was a surprisingly gentle gesture in contrast to the brutality I had seen so far.

While Atlas moved to my right arm, I took my time to examine the man I had only heard about. His face had some stubble, and his dark hair was longer than I had thought it was the night before. Dark eyebrows knitted together while he rubbed the inside of my wrist. He dropped my free hand and leaned back to stare down at me. Finally free, I wrapped my arms around my chest for some protection. His fingers moved quickly and smoothly to unbuckle my ankles.

"I brought food. You’ll need to eat," he told me as I pulled my knees to my chest.

"Fuck you," I said. "I won't eat anything you give me."

Atlas tilted his head and watched me curiously. It looked like part of him was trying to guess if I was going to try and run. I was wondering the same thing. Part of me knew I wouldn't get far. My limbs felt like they would buckle under my own weight, and Atlas was probably far faster than I could be even in my best health.

"Come. I'm going to show you something," he said to me.

I glared at his outstretched hand like it was poison, which I'm sure it was.

"Stella." I heard the warning and threat in his voice.

I scrambled to the edge of the bed, refusing to let him help me up. I didn't want to feel his skin on mine again or give him any more power over me. I had spent months hiding in the shadows and keeping my head down. It no longer mattered because my monsters had found me anyway. At least I could spend whatever time I had left as a fighter. It was what Dad would have expected from me.

"Stella. We can do this the easy way, or the hard way," Atlas told me with a glare. His fists clenched at his sides and his shoulders tensed.

"Do what?" I dared to ask.

Atlas closed the space between us in just a few long strides. I gasped when his fingers wrapped tightly around my arm. His grip was firm, but just short of painful. In just my bra and panties, I could feel his body heat on mine, making me want to pull away. Atlas wouldn't allow it, pulling me toward the door and out into the hallway.

There were a series of closed doors, but I couldn't see much else before he yanked me to the right. We came to another closed door at the end of the hall and Atlas dug in his pocket for a key. I could feel myself shaking as he pushed the key into the door and twisted it. The door was wider and heavier than a normal door and my stomach sank when I saw the steep steps leading down.

"Go," he demanded as he gave me shove forward.

I obeyed and took the steps slowly down into the darkness. Atlas held my arm and stayed close but didn't rush me. Every thud of our feet made me feel sicker with fear. I had always known someone would come for me, but I had hoped it would be quick. I felt like I was walking into a torture chamber.

When my feet hit the bottom, a light flicked on, illuminating something I did not expect. The room was empty. Completely empty. There were no chains or bars. No cage or metal spikes like I had expected. It was nothing more than a normal basement with a single pillar in the center of the room. Atlas led me to the pillar and turned me to face him, pushing my back to the cold metal.

"What are you doing?" I asked, looking up into his calm face with panic as he wrapped my arms behind the pole.

"Just remember, I never break a promise I make," he whispered as the metal clicked around my sore wrists.

I opened my mouth to scream, maybe to beg for my life, but the words were caught in my throat. The sound of the door opening echoed in the empty basement, followed by several pairs of heavy footsteps. Atlas shoved a rag into my mouth, quickly covering it with tape. I cried behind my gag as he wrapped another black cloth over my eyes.

This was the end. I was going to join my mom and dad now. They were going to drag this out as payment. They made my dad beg for his life, so I really shouldn't have expected anything different. I was foolish to think that my silence was enough to save my life. I cried quietly as the footsteps stopped in front of me.

"You got her," a deep voice said.

"Obviously," I heard Atlas answer in a bitter tone.

"No one saw you?" the deep voice asked again.

"No. I don't make mistakes," Atlas said.

“Of course not. You always do as you’re asked.”

My entire body was tense with anticipation. I could feel them watching me as my life hung in the balance. If I had to guess, I would have said there were three men who came down the steps. I could feel the danger hanging in the air with their silence. I could hear my own pounding heartbeat and shuddering breaths.

"Good. Kill her."

I started to thrash and scream but the gag and handcuffs kept me in place and muffled. A large, warm hand pushed on my stomach and I froze. I didn't know whose hand was on me, but I wanted to think it was Atlas's. The feeling was familiar and softer than I would imagine the others would be.

"I will. When I'm ready," I heard Atlas say near my ear. "I want to have a little fun first."

His hand trailed down my stomach and over my panties. I bucked away but the pillar wouldn't let me move far enough. The men laughed and my stomach rolled.

"Very well. Just end this for good," the man said. “Quickly. We don’t have time for little whores like her.”

Atlas's hand left my body as the footsteps sounded again. I listened as the door opened and closed at the top of the steps. It was then that I noticed how violently I was trembling. I was cold, petrified, and confused beyond belief. The tape was pulled from my face but I ignored the sting. It was probably the least amount of pain I would experience. The gag was pulled from my mouth and the blindfold fell from my eyes.

"I'm not going to kill you right now, Little Star," he whispered. "I still need you."

"For what?" I choked out.

"I made a promise, and I intend to keep it. I also have a job to finish, and I hate leaving things uncompleted."

"What promise?"

Atlas reached behind me and released the cuffs from my wrist before tilting my head up to look at him. I stared up into his dark eyes and tried to see the evil in them. I knew it resided in him and what he was capable of. I just couldn't understand how I had missed it the night before. Maybe because I had been searching for it all around me for so long, I couldn’t even see it anymore.

"If you cooperate and behave as I ask, then you may stay upstairs in that room," he told me.

"And if I don't?"

His lips tipped up in a sinister smile, and he started to circle me. He was like a shark, circling his prey before going in for the kill.

"Then you will stay down here. Alone."

"What do you want from me?"

"I want to know where Ace is."

 My heart stopped with the mention of my brother's name. It hurt deep down inside more than I imagined to hear his name spoken aloud. I missed hearing it. I missed seeing him. I tasted the salt of my tears as they dripped over my lips. Atlas's large hands framed my face, forcing me to look at him.

"You know where he is," I hissed in his face with hatred so strong and sudden. "You fucking killed him."

Atlas's eyes flared and his lips pressed in a tight line. I tried to jerk away when his grip tightened on my cheeks. I lashed out at him, trying to pull out of the hold he had on me. Desperately, I screamed and kicked at his legs.

"Stella," he grunted and reached out for me. His thick arms wrapped around my waist and he pinned me to his chest.

"No! Fuck you!" I shouted. "Let me go."

I tried to kick and twist away from him. In my anger and pain, his arms were almost comforting. He was warm and strong; something I needed. It had been too long since I had been hugged or touched at all. That only made me hate him more.

"It's all your fault," I cried while trying to punch.

"Stop," he demanded as he grabbed my wrists to stop my hitting.

"You took everything away from me. You killed him."

I clamped my teeth around his shoulder, getting a mouthful of his shirt. I bit down as hard as I could.

"Fuck," he grunted.

With little effort, he lifted me and spun around. The wind was knocked out of me as my back slammed into the wall. Atlas's face was furious as he pinned me to the cold bricks. I couldn't move with his weight, and I realized he hadn't used his full strength on me yet. He was strong and now very pissed off with blood dripping down his chest.

"I didn't kill Ace," he fumed.

"He didn't just leave me all alone after my parents were executed," I threw back. I swore I saw a flash of guilt when I said it. "He would never leave me like that, so I know he's dead."

"Then I need to know who killed him."

IV

Atlas

Stella's eyes glistened and glossed over. I didn't know if I should believe her. I knew Ace better than anyone, and I didn't think he would leave his little sister alone either. He wouldn't leave knowing there was a price over her head as well. But if there was one thing my father had taught me, other than to kill a man slowly, was that you couldn't trust anybody. Trusting Stella wouldn’t be another one of my lethal mistakes.

"When was the last time you saw him?" I asked her. With my body holding her to the wall, she was immobile.

"Eight months ago," she whispered. "The night before my parents were killed."

I felt the fight leave Stella's body as soon as the words left her mouth. Her shoulders slumped in defeat and despair washed over her pretty blue eyes. I released the rough grip I had and stepped back to look at her. She swayed on her feet, and I had to stop her from falling over. Stella was shutting down. After what she'd been through in the last twenty-four hours¸ I'd expect that. If I wanted answers, I would need to stop pushing so hard.

Looking at the broken and lonely girl made me want to believe her. How could someone so lonely and sad earn a top spot on my hit list? I wanted to believe that I wasn't wrong about Ace either. I had softened and had made a mistake of trusting before, and now I was dealing with the consequences of doing so. I wouldn't so easily fall into the Harlow trap again.

"Come. Upstairs," I told her when I was sure we were alone. I didn't give her the option to argue this time. I pulled her to the steps, dragging her up them behind me.

The door opened to the hallway and I led her back to the bedroom. I couldn't stand to see her half-naked another minute. It was clouding my judgment and that was something I used to pride myself in never allowing to happen. I needed to be angry and hard, but I was getting hard in the wrong places.

"Get dressed," I told her, tossing a black shirt at her with a pair of jeans.

Stella caught the clothes and checked the tags before quickly pulling the shirt over her head.

"How did you know my size?" she asked as she slid the jeans up her legs.

"I know a lot about you," I told her before opening the door again.

I took her wrist and led her down the hall. Surprisingly, she didn't fight me. I could feel she was growing weaker. I had had her for over twenty-four hours and she had yet to eat. I needed her alive for this to work.

"This is the kitchen," I announced as we entered the room. "You are welcome to any of the food. There is no phone in here so don't get your hopes up. This room and the bedroom are the only two rooms you will have access to."

"I'm not hungry," she mumbled.

"Bullshit."

"Just kill me already," she said, looking me right in the eyes. "He told you to. Just do it."

For a moment, I felt like a piece of shit. I killed before when necessary and never cared. It was an occupational hazard, and I always followed orders. I didn't have a choice in this family. But when this woman looked at me with dead eyes revealing her pain, I wanted to save her.

"I don't want to have to," I answered honestly. "Let me show you something."

Placing my hand on the small of Stella's back, we walked to the back of the house. I unlocked the doors, leading her to the living room. The back wall was lined with windows overlooking Lake Michigan. I opened the sliding glass doors and we walked out onto the deck.

The night was dark with the clouds covering the moon's light. The sound of crickets and frogs echoed in the darkness. I deeply inhaled the fresh cool air. This place was my own sanctuary. The city lights powered by corruption and violence couldn't reach me here.

"What do you see, Stella?" I asked her when she came to stand at the railing overlooking that water.

"Nothing," she answered.

"Exactly. Nothing," I agreed. "No one will find you here. There is nowhere to run. No one to hear you."

Stella's slim fingers trembled on the wood. I wanted to soothe them like I knew Ace would, because she didn't deserve this. He would kick my ass if he knew what I was putting her through, but the bastard wasn't here to do a damn thing about it. I needed her scared. I needed her to want her freedom and her life more than anything. After all, what else did she really have left?

"Boss?" I heard from the front of the house.

"My office," I shouted in return as I ushered Stella back into the house.

When we reached the door to the bedroom, I stopped Stella and turned her to face me. Slowly, I backed her against the door. I heard the small intake of breath when her shoulders hit the wood behind her. I smirked down at her at the small victory. A tiny flicker of fight flared in her eyes right before her knee connected with my balls.

I doubled over and Stella fled down the hall. I heard her screams for help, probably hoping my two men would be the good guys. She was sadly mistaken. Those were my men. I straightened and lunged for her, grabbing the back of her neck.

"They won't help you, Little Star," I said in her ear when I yanked her back to my chest.

"Go to hell," she grunted but I wrapped a hand around her mouth to stop the shouting.

Her muffled screams vibrated against my palm as I dragged her back into the bedroom. I kicked the door shut behind me and tossed her to the bed. Stella bounced once before scrambling to the edge. I was faster and had a hold of her waist before her bare feet could hit the floor. Pulling her back, she hit the mattress with a thump.

"That was unwise," I told her as I laid myself on top of her to stop her fight.

"Get off me," she grunted as she squirmed and pushed at me.

Taking her wrists, I pinned them above her head and used my thighs to hold her legs still. The friction between our bodies invoked me and set my senses on high sensitivity. Her blue eyes met mine and I watched the fire flare in them. I loved it. As much as I needed to hate her, this was like foreplay to me.

Nestled between her legs, I hardened against her and Stella gasped when she felt it. I always liked it rough and it was difficult to remember my purpose while I held her down. Bred and raised on violence, I had grown to accept it . . . maybe even love it, or need it. With Stella fighting me, and the memory of how she felt against me before she knew my name, she was making this the ultimate turn-on.

"Stop fighting me," I practically begged her.

"Never," she hissed.

"Then we are gonna have a huge fucking problem," I said with a small thrust of my hips.

"I wouldn't call it huge," Stella said with a hard face and direct eye contact.

Little bitch. My hand was around her throat instantly. Tight enough to gain her attention but not tight enough to hurt. I lowered my mouth closer to her face so she could hear me.

"I am being very kind to you, Stella. I expect some respect in return," I whispered.

Her body stiffened under mine as I pulled away. That's when I saw it. The fear in her eyes. The darkness that I saw hanging over her for months was there. A part of me, the part that came from my father, wanted to own it. To exploit it and dive into it. To push and feed off her fear and screams.

The other part wanted to shield her. To tell her that it would be okay and that nothing could hurt her. But that would be a lie. I could easily hurt her and most likely would. I shoved off the bed, hearing a soft exhale of relief as I backed away.

"There are guards on duty at all hours in the house. Get some food and stay in your room. We will discuss the rest in the morning," I told her as I left the room.

In my office, Tony and Sal were waiting for me. They gave me a head nod in greeting as I rounded my desk and took a seat. I pulled up the surveillance and checked that Stella was still curled up in the bed.

“My father gone?" I asked.

"Yes, sir," Tony answered. "He seemed pleased."

"Hope so," I grumbled. My whole life, I aimed to please that man. It was never enough, but I lived to try. I just didn't understand why.

"Think this will work?" Sal asked. He was the one always thinking ahead and running through the possible scenarios.

"It has to."

I knew my dad better than anyone else in the family. I had learned from him, had watched him, and had listened to every word he said. He was as brutal as he was smart. I needed to find out the truth before he figured out what I was doing. You never went against orders, especially directly from the boss, if you wanted to live. Being an actual blood relative didn't exclude me from the rules.

"I need you two to watch her," I told them. "She is allowed access to the kitchen and the bedroom. I don't want to have to lock her up just yet. If she fucks that up, she will go downstairs."

They both nodded, and I knew they would do what I told them. They may have been loyal to the family, but they owed their lives to me, and they knew it. Their allegiance belonged to me above anyone else. They were the only two men that I would trust with this.

"What did she tell you?" Sal asked.

"She doesn't know where she is," I told him. "She says he's dead."

She thinks I killed him.

"You believe it?" Tony asked.

"Not sure yet. I'll make sure she talks."

I hoped she was wrong, and I hoped she was right. Someone had betrayed me, and it was either my own father or my best friend. Was Ace a rat and stabbing me the back? I knew my father was a murderer, but the question was, which of the Harlows did he murder in this case? All of them except the one he sent me to kill?

V

Stella

I cracked open the bedroom door and peered down the hallway. It was dark and empty, exactly how I wanted it. I tiptoed down the hall quietly, holding my breath. The last thing I wanted was for Atlas to see me. I had sat in the bedroom, crying and pacing for an entire day. Too scared to leave and too stubborn to eat, I was starving. I wanted to hide out in my room until a miracle happened and I was set free, but I would soon starve to death with that plan.

So plan B was to sneak into the kitchen, grab something to eat and get back to the room without being noticed. I thought I was clever refusing the food they brought me, but the empty feeling in my stomach was making me regret it. If I ever wanted to escape, I couldn't be ready to pass out. Dying of hunger had to be more painful than a bullet.

Every door was closed in the hall but I saw the light coming from the kitchen. I was almost there when I heard the sounds of voices. I froze in place, listening. I heard the deep rumble of Atlas's voice along with a stranger's voice, or maybe two. My hands shook with nerves and my body wavered between going toward the voices or the kitchen.

What if they could help me? If I told them I was here against my will, would they save me? Surely Atlas wouldn't fight for me if he was outnumbered. The thought of being free had my feet leaving the safety the kitchen could provide and moving toward the voices. Another hall was off to my right and the voices got louder. I poked my head around the corner, hoping to find safety.

French doors opened at the end of the short hall to a dimly lit room. Atlas sat in a dark leather chair, holding a glass on his knee. His eyes were hard as they connected with mine and I saw his jaw tick. Gasping, I didn't even bother to see who was with him before I turned and ran back to the kitchen. I would pretend I had gotten lost on the way.

I came to a skid on my bare feet as I rounded the corner into the kitchen. I made it to the large refrigerator and swung open the door, hoping to look innocent. The inside was packed full of food and drinks. At the sight, my stomach rumbled as I remembered how hungry I really was. The cold air hit my skin and I reached in to grab a yogurt.

"Finally ending your hunger strike?"

I screamed in surprise and spun to find Atlas leaning in the doorway, dressed in a black suit. He had a glass of amber liquor in one hand and wore a confident smirk on his face. His dark eyes trailed down my body in a threatening gaze. I bit my lip and let the refrigerator door close slowly. Facing Atlas, I didn't know what to expect as he stalked toward me.

"Do I need to chain you up again?" he asked when he was closer.

I shook my head quickly and stepped back until I hit the counter. I thought of the night in the basement and cringed. I had never been so scared in my life than I was chained to that pillar, utterly defenseless. I never wanted to relive that again.

"Then I suggest you stay in the areas you have permission to be in," he said. His voice was low and steady. It was a warning. "I was hesitant to let you leave the room at all. Don't make me regret it, Stella."

Every bit of me want to melt to the floor with his glare on me. I wanted to run but I didn't know where. Back to my room where he kept me? To the people that I could only assume wouldn't help me? My options were limited. Refusing to eat did nothing but make me desperate. Being brave and exploring only got me cornered. The only option at the moment seemed to be to do as I was told.

"Go straight back to your room when are you done," he told me before leaving me alone in the kitchen. I listened as his footsteps faded, knowing he didn't go far from the doorway.

I sighed and sagged against the cold counter. After several attempts, I found the silverware and grabbed a spoon. I had come all this way; I might as well eat the yogurt. I lifted the foil top and dug the spoon into the creamy goodness. It wasn't nearly enough to fill me but I was too nervous to stay in the kitchen any longer. I felt safer in my prison, as messed up as that was.

I found the trash and threw out the empty cup. When I turned to leave, two large men appeared in the doorway. Both with dark skin and void faces, staring down at me. One reached forward and plucked the spoon from my grip. I self-consciously shifted, knowing I was only in shorts and a tank top. My wardrobe selection hadn't been very vast, but I did have a closet full of clothes in my size.

"Atlas?" I called out, knowing he would hear me. The two big guys just stared down at me, unamused.

"They will see that you find your way back to your room," Atlas answered from the hall.

My throat constricted with panic and I felt like a caged animal. I backed myself into the corner of the kitchen while the two meatheads closed in on me. Like most animals, my fight or flight instincts kicked in.

With a strength I didn't ever think I could possess, I pushed past the two burly men. With one fist, I hit one square in the balls and elbowed the other in the pit of his stomach when his arms tried to reach around me. Sounds of grunts and thumps sounded and I fell to my knees with them.

My hands and legs scrambled to pull myself back up. Knocking a fruit bowl off the counter, I grabbed a cutting board. A knife would have been better, but they were smart enough to remove those when I was granted access to the kitchen. Armed with a heavy piece of wood, I ran. My feet slipped as I scrambled for the open doorway. The two men were also getting to their feet behind me. The cutting board shook in my hands as I kept my eyes forward. The wood was heavy and I hoped it would be enough to at least cave in one of their heads.

"Stop her," one yelled as I rounded the corner of the doorway.

"Stella! Stop!" Atlas yelled. I could tell he was in the kitchen.

In the hallway, the front door was finally in sight. I knew it was locked and could only opened with their keys. That didn't stop my legs from sprinting toward it anyway, knocking the air out of me when I slammed into it. The side window panels looked too thin to fit myself through. I could hear the pounding of the men’s footsteps coming after me. Their voices echoed as they came closer to where I was pinned against the locked door.

With my blood pumping with adrenaline, I pounded at the glass with the cutting board. Glass shattered and fell to the ground. Stepping back, I felt the tears rolling down my face.

"Stella," I heard Atlas growl from the end of the hall. Only a few dozen feet of expensive hardwood floor separated us.

The sound of his deep and commanding voice pushed one more burst of will through me. I could hear my own cries as I punched the rest of the shards away. The glass digging into my skin didn't register in my mind as I tried to push my body through the thin opening. I was able to fit the upper half of my body through before I felt a hand grab my leg.

"You fucking bitch."One of the goons had my leg and yanked me roughly back.

"Let go!" I cried and kicked. My bare foot connected with a hard body and I was released.

Hearing my name called once more, I used every ounce of strength to pull myself the rest of the way. Glass and wood scraped at my skin, but I didn't stop. I could feel the cool night air on my skin. I could smell the rain that had recently fallen and saw the moon hidden in the clouds in the sky. I was outside!

The night was so dark I couldn't see a more than few feet in front of me. I actually couldn't see any light in the distance at all. My heartbeat thumped and my breath came in hard pants as I ran away from the house. I could hear the shouts for me, and Atlas barking commands, but I couldn't look back. It didn't matter that I had no idea where I was going. My bare feet hit the gravel and my body cut through the night air as I sprinted up the gravel drive. I had to keep going. I had to lose him and find help. I just had to keep running.

"Stella! Stop!" My heart stopped when I heard Atlas's voice behind me.

In a panic, I turned off to the right into the tall grass. I could hear him cursing as he entered the thick brush behind me. The grass and branches slapped my bare skin, stinging me. This would be my only hope to lose him and get away. I kept running, ignoring the pain and shortness of breath until I couldn't hear him any longer.

Bent over with my hands on my knees, I struggled to breathe. Every gasp of air burned and my entire body ached. I couldn't see in the darkness, and all I could hear was my own heartbeat pounding. Even the moon had been swallowed by the clouds. Goosebumps trailed over my sweaty skin as I noticed how very lost and screwed I really was.

"There's nowhere to go, Stella," his voice surrounded me. "You won't get away."

Fuck! Just when I thought I was alone, he had found me. A cry escaped my lips and I tried to run, only to be pulled back. My back hit a hard body behind me at the same time a hand clamped over my mouth. My cries and screams were muffled under the pressure of his hand. Another arm snaked around my chest and fingers wrapped around my throat.

"Shh," Atlas whispered in my ear. "That was fucking stupid. So stupid. You're hurt now."

I lashed out against him but it was pointless. The hand around my throat tightened in warning. His hold was strong and held me immobile in his arms. I slumped against him in defeat and despair. All the strength and determination leaked out of my body.

He found me. I ran and he caught me. I was warned how foolish it would be to run and now I would have to face the consequences. Tears streamed down my face and over his hand as the adrenaline wore off and reality sank in. Everything hurt and it was only Atlas holding me up on my feet.

His lips brushed my ear, sending a shiver down my spine. "Don't you dare fucking scream, understand?"

I nodded once and his fingers slowly lifted from my mouth and wrapped around my waist. I pulled in a deep breath, feeling the pain in my ribs with the inhale. Atlas tilted my head back while still keeping his grip on my throat. Even though I couldn't see his face, I felt his hard stare on me. Anger was rolling off his body in hot waves, and every muscle pressed to me was rock hard.

"I'm sorry," I cried quietly, slumping against him.

"Shut up," he growled as he hoisted me up into his arms. "We are going back to the house and I will clean you up. You are not going to fight me or even think about running again. Do you understand me?"

I swallowed the lump in my throat and nodded against him. I didn't struggle as he walked us out of the brush, with his arms protecting me from anymore scrapes. I didn't even fight as he carried me back up the long driveway. I didn't dare to apologize again for fear of angering him further. I had no idea what he would do to me for running.

Atlas carried me effortlessly and I started to feel the consequences of my escape attempt. My sides ached and stung with every step. My hands felt raw and I could smell the metallic scent of blood. As the light of the house came into view, two large figures lingered near the door as we approached.

“Board up the windows,” Atlas barked at them. “Get this cleaned up.”

"Yes, sir," the other answered as they shrank back at his anger.

"That will be all," Atlas muttered as he stepped up the front door. Glass broke under his steps.

"What about the girl?" Goon Two asked.

Atlas spun to face the two dumb brutes. I squeezed my eyes shut knowing he had gone from very angry to downright furious, and it was my fault. I could only imagine how I would pay for it when they left.

"You two fucking morons can't handle the girl, so you're no good to me at this point," he told them in a scary, low voice that sent goosebumps over my arms and legs. "You had one fucking job. Get. Her. To. Her. Room."

Atlas spun on his heels and slammed the door behind us once inside. My vision swirled and blurred as he carried me down the hall. Nausea mixed with the dread as I knew we were close to my room. When I heard the turn of the doorknob, everything went black.

VI

Atlas

Stella was covered in blood and limp in my arms. Her clothes were soaked, her long hair dripping water on the floor. I ripped off the sheet with one hand and placed her on the bed. Her blonde hair was a mess, strewn with leaves and dirt. Scrapes and cuts covered her face, and her hands were bloody. When I turned, Tony stood in the doorway with bandages and a damp cloth. Pushing aside my anger at him, I grabbed the stuff from his hands.

I knelt on the mattress, using the wet cloth to wipe the blood from her hands so I could see where it was coming from. Behind me, Sal appeared with the first aid kit, loaded with antibiotic cream, pain reliever and rubbing alcohol. After cleaning up her hands, I found few cuts from where she broke the glass windows. I didn't think she would fit through the small space, but the little shit was determined.

Stella didn't wake as I poured the alcohol over her cuts. Tony put blobs of antibiotic cream on them, but nothing looked deep enough for stitches. I wanted to kill him for letting her get away, but he was one of the few I trusted with my mission. I would need him, but I would be kicking their asses later for fucking up.

Sal was busy cleaning up her face. After the dirt was wiped away, I could tell that the scrapes were only minor. The brush out there was thick and unforgiving. It was the reason very few lived in the secluded area and why I chose this place as mine.

"She's fucking fast," Tony mumbled when he was done with her hands.

"She ran track in high school and college," I said. "Go fix the damn windows."

Both men nodded and left the room. I should have never trusted her alone. I was too busy trying to gain her trust and too concerned about her not eating that I let that override my common sense. If she was anything like her brother, she was stubborn and wouldn't eat the food I handed her anyway. I underestimated her and the balls she had.

My name was one to be feared and respected in this city. Not many dared to stand against me, but this little girl wouldn't back down. I had spent months planning, watching, and getting ready for this moment. I wouldn't have all this unravel now, or ever.

I ran my thumb over a cut under her eye and Stella groaned. Her eyelids slowly fluttered open and soon she was looking up at me. She blinked, looking around the room. I saw the moment she remembered where she was and what happened.

"Let me die," she whispered. "Just let me bleed out. You owe me at least that much."

I pinched the bridge of my nose and shook my head. Stella was more of a headache than I had anticipated. This was supposed to be the easy part.

"You aren't going to die, Stella," I told her. "You're not bleeding enough. I don't owe it to you to let you die. I owe it to you to save your fucking life."

"I don't even know what that means," she mumbled, fading in and out of consciousness. "What do you want from me?"

I leaned over her and grabbed the sides of her face. Her skin was cool and still damp from the rain. I lightly smacked her cheek and her big blue eyes opened back up, locking onto mine.

"I need to know what you saw that night. The night your parents were killed."

Stella's eyes went wide and she shook her head, breaking out of my hold. "I didn't see anything. I don't know anything."

I could hear the fear in the slight tremor of her voice as she recited the practiced lie. It was something I would normally feed off of. When a predator sensed the fear in their prey, it was a sign that victory was within its grasp. I lived and thrived off fear and weakness, conditioned to recognize it. Stella's distress told me enough.

"I know you saw who did it. You may have lied to the cops and everyone else, but I know the truth. So, Little Star, tell me what you saw."

"No," she whispered. "I saw nothing."

Stella tried sitting up but I grabbed her hands and pulled them out from underneath her. She fell back to the bed and I pinned her wrists above her head, careful not to press too hard on any of the cuts. She struggled for a few seconds before I felt the rest of her energy drain from her.

"Please. Let me go," she pleaded.

"No can do," I said. "You think that if I didn't drug you and bring you here that you would have actually made it to California? You think that it was actually enough that you kept your mouth shut?"

"Kinda," she answered weakly.

"No, Stella. It wasn't, and if I hadn't gotten to you first, you would have met a very similar fate as your parents. I'm sure you know what that would be like."

Stella's hand broke free of my grip and her closed fist connected with my jaw. I quickly snatched up her wrist and gritted my teeth to keep from breaking her hand.

"Do you have a fucking death wish?" I growled.

"Obviously," she snapped back. She glared up at me with hate, anger and fire.

"Too fucking bad," I said, pulling her up and off the bed. "Trust me, it would be easier to just kill you."

Stella swayed slightly on her feet, and I could see that the movement hurt. Her clothes were still wet and her shirt was torn. She would feel like hell in the morning.

"Hands up and keep them up," I demanded. Just to be sure she listened, I grabbed the small blade I kept on my belt. Her eyes went wide but she raised her hands like I ordered.

I stepped closer, grabbing the shredded hem of the tank top, and slowly pulled it up and over her head. Stella's muscles went tense and I watched as goosebumps scattered on the skin exposed in the cool air. The shirt fell to the floor with a heavy thud. Stella glared at me as her nipples hardened. I clenched my jaw with anger when I noticed the ugly bruises and scrapes that marred her perfect skin.

"Stay put," I said, pointing the blade at her.

I walked backward to the closet and pulled out a long robe. I could make her strip and expose herself entirely to me. I could watch as she struggled with herself while trying to decide if she was terrified or intrigued. It would be so easy to make her anticipate my next move while she was naked and defenseless. Having control was mostly making others fear you.

"Put this on," I told her as I handed the thick robe to her.

Stella took it and quickly wrapped it around herself, tying the waist tightly.

"Thank you," she said quietly. I could hear that she was starting to shiver.

Using the knife to wave her over, I directed her over the en suite bathroom and unlocked the door for her. I let her walk in first and followed in closely behind. Stella stood in the center of the bathroom, looking unsure of what to do next. I pulled open the shower doors and started the water, making sure it was hot.

"There is nothing in here that you can use to hurt yourself or anyone else," I told her. "Shower and get warm. I'll be outside."

I left her standing in the bathroom and closed the door behind me. I waited until I could hear the change of the water stream from hitting her body before I put my knife away. In the closet, I found some warmer clothes that she could change into when she got out. The night was not supposed to end with me dressing the girl like a doll.

"Shit," I cursed, running my hands roughly through my hair.

Gaining her trust was harder than I thought it would be. Understandably, Stella had her assumptions about me and my family. In most circumstances, she would be right. I was ruthless, a killer, and had no room for soft spots. But true to my ethics, I would protect my own and keep my word. I had no desire to kill her without reason, but she seemed determined to give me one.

I placed the clothes on the marble sink in the bathroom without being noticed. When Stella finally came out, a cloud of steam followed her. I sat on the bed holding antibiotic cream and bandages.

"Your hands," I told her.

Stella looked down at her knuckles, seeming to notice the blood and cuts for the first time. Hesitantly, she walked over to stand in front of me and offered her hands to me. Taking both wrists with one hand, I used the other to grab her chin and forced her to look at me.

"You do something like that again, I won't patch you back up," I warned her. I roughly let go of her face and spread some cream on her fingers.

"Why are you now?" she asked, trying to bend and get a look at my face.

I looked up and into her eyes. She could see how empty and cold I really was. "Because I'm not done with you."

Stella wisely chose to shut up and let me finish up cleaning her hands. I ignored her flinches and hissing as I put the bandages on. I was beyond pissed that she was hurt, but I couldn't coddle her. She needed to respect and fear me enough to never try something like that again.

"Lift up your shirt," I asked her when her hands were taken care of.

Stella took a deep breath before she lifted the flannel shirt to expose her stomach, keeping her breasts covered. There were scrapes and bruising on her ribs from pushing through the small window. One large gash decorated her stomach and I touched it gently, causing Stella to jump away.

I grabbed her hips, pulling her between my knees and running my fingers over her stomach. The skin was soft and warm under my cold hands. Stella held her breath while I inspected her body. I tickled down her ribcage, checking for any broken bones under the purple skin. The cut was the worst of the injuries so I cleaned it with alcohol and covered it with gauze.

I reached up and cupped her cheek, tilting her head to look at her face. The scrapes on her face from running in the brush were minor. They should clear in a day or so. I moved my fingers gently through her wet hair, feeling for any cuts on her head. Stella's eyes closed as she tipped her head back and I drug my fingers through the long strands. My hands trailed down her back and to her hips.

"Anything else hurt?" I asked, still holding her between my legs.

"Don't think so," she answered, her voice low and breathy.

I stood before I decided to pull her onto my lap. My chest rubbed against hers as I did, and I heard her sharp inhale. I smirked, letting her know that I had heard, and I pushed her back a few feet.

"Go to bed," I told her as I pulled the wingback chair from the corner across the room.

"What are you doing?" she asked. "Are you . . . are you staying?"

"Fuck yes, I'm staying," I told her as I sat in the chair with my back to the door, facing the bed. "It's either this or I tie you up again. Or you can go to the basement. I obviously can't trust you alone."

Stella shook her head but climbed into the bed quickly. She pulled the covers over her and I reached up to switch off the lights. We were plunged into darkness and silence and I could hear her staggered breathing. Tomorrow, I would come up with a new plan. I would feed her, forcefully if needed, and I would figure out a way to keep her inside and give me what I needed.

VII

Stella

I could feel it in my bones that something was wrong. Sitting up in my bed, I could see light in the hallway. I rubbed my eyes and waited for them to focus. When I heard the voices, a chill ran down my spine. It sounded like crying.

I crawled out of my bed and tiptoed to the doorway. I could feel my heartbeat pounding in my ears, but I forced myself into the dim hallway anyway. I could barely breathe with the feeling of doom and fear swallowing me, but I needed to see. I needed to know what was happening. I hoped I was just being paranoid and that nothing was wrong. 

I wasn't being paranoid. My mom was kneeling on the kitchen floor. Her face was in her hands and she cried quietly. My dad knelt beside her, looking ahead with determination and hate. Something was very wrong. The man I thought was the strongest and bravest man in the world was on his knees in our kitchen while my mom begged for their lives. 

My feet were glued to the floor as the gun pressed to my dad's forehead. I held my breath and prayed the scene in front of me wasn't real. I watched, frozen in horror, as the sound of the gunshot blasted through the silent night. Red splattered and another blast sounded, silencing my mom's screams. One scream continued to pierce the air louder than any gunshot.

I fell to the floor as I watched the blood pool on the tile. The kitchen my mom cooked countless dinners in was red instead of black and white. The room my parents, my brother and I talked in every night was ruined. The two people who meant the most to me had just vanished before my eyes. The dark figure who took away my world vanished just as quickly, as I crawled into the pool of blood my mom and dad were drowning in. 

My own scream filtered in my ears along with my name being screamed. I didn't want to leave yet. I wanted to save them, but it was too late.

"Stella!"

I was being shaken and my name was being yelled. I forced my eyes to open and look around. I wasn't in my kitchen. The floor was carpet and not the checkered tile covered in red. Strong hands held my face, and as the tears dried in my eyes, a face appeared.

"You with me?" Atlas asked. He looked at me with shock and curiosity.

"Yeah," I said with a rough voice. My throat hurt like I had been screaming. I probably had.

Atlas let me go and leaned back on the bed, watching me carefully. I ran my fingers through my hair, finding it damp from sweat. My clothes were wet under the warm robe and my hands felt clammy. My breathing was still coming in hot pants.

"Bad dream?" he asked.

"Something like that," I answered. A dream would imply that it was fiction and not real.

I tore the robe off, tossing it to the floor. I needed to cool down. I could feel Atlas watching me and I knew he wanted to ask a million questions. I would never answer them. I had never told a soul what I had seen that night, and I didn't ever intend to do so. For a while, I thought that was the only thing keeping me alive. Now, I wasn’t too sure.

"If I go get you a drink, will you try to run?" Atlas asked.

I shook my head. I didn't think my legs would hold me if I tried. I was finally feeling the consequences from my escape attempt. I hung my head as Atlas quietly left the room. When I was alone, I let three tears go—one for each part of my heart that was taken from me.

I jumped when the door opened again. Atlas came in with a glass and shut the door behind him. His shirt was only held closed with the last three buttons, exposing most of his wide chest. The shirt used to be white but was now covered in dirt smears, and one sleeve had a small rip. His hair was unruly and his face had a little more scruff than I had remembered.

"Orange juice," he said as he handed me the glass. "It's already five in the morning so we might as well stay up."

"Did you sleep in the chair all night?" I asked.

"I did. I couldn't strap you down with your hands like that," he mumbled as he pushed the chair back in the corner.

I awkwardly drank my juice, looking at my hands and the damage I had caused. They were sore and cut up. At the time, I didn't even feel it. I had just wanted to escape. This morning though, I was sore all over. My ribs hurt, and I felt like I had fallen down a cliff. Thanks to Atlas, I seemed to be cleaned and bandaged up.

"Go get dressed," he told me as he stalked over to the end of the bed. I shrunk down under his angry glare.

"And Stella," he started and leaned toward me. "As much as I would prefer you alive, do not assume that secures your life. The moment your life becomes too much of a risk to me, overcoming the potential outcome, I will dispose of you. Understood?"

"Yes," I whispered. There was no doubt in my mind that he meant it. I also didn't believe that he wouldn't kill me if I did cooperate. I knew what people like him were like.

"Despite what you say, you actually want to live," he said. "Otherwise, why hide? Why fight? Why lie to the police and say you didn't see anything that night?"

A chill ran down my spine and I clenched my jaw to keep my mouth shut. The images from my nightmare, and real life, were too fresh in my mind. I could still smell the freshly spilled blood. I could remember the sound of my scream echoing in the night. I remembered how cold my mother's body felt as I held her in my arms until the paramedics dragged me away.

Atlas wanted to know what I had seen that night, but I kept it locked away. It only came out at night. Only when the darkness took over and there was no light left did the truth have the courage to surface. It was a truth that I would never let out because Atlas was right. I wanted to live. Keeping my secrets was the only thing that kept me alive.

I got up abruptly, picked some random clothes from the closet and took them to change in the bathroom. It wasn't a coincidence it was full of clothing in my size. Atlas had obviously known who I was long before we met at the club. I ran my fingers through my knotted hair and rinsed my face. A hairbrush was apparently too much to ask for.

I came out of the bedroom to find Atlas sitting on the edge of the bed waiting. His dark eyes trailed down my body dressed in simple leggings and a long shirt. His gaze felt more sensual than it did when I was practically naked. Atlas tilted his head and cracked his neck. Standing, he motioned for me to follow him.

Without many other options, I followed him to the kitchen where he pulled out fruit and made me a bagel. I couldn't escape. The windows were boarded up and Atlas never took his eyes off me for more than a few seconds. I heard the footsteps of his guards nearby, but didn't see them. I reluctantly picked at the fruit and pulled off parts of the bagel.

Shoving a piece in my mouth, I tasted the thick cream cheese and my stomach rumbled. I hadn't realized how hungry I was until a piece of food landed in my stomach. I quickly devoured the fruit as well. Atlas kept pushing more food toward me until I couldn't shove anymore in my mouth. I paused, eyeing the fork in my hand.

"Don't even think about it," he warned, his voice low and full of threat.

Setting it down, I looked up at him. This man's attitude toward me had me spinning. One second he was flirting then shoving me in a truck. Then he nursed my wounds before going cold again. I knew who he was. My brother thought he was secretive, but I knew the family he was working for. Atlas was no different than rest of the Omegas.

"Good girl," he said, reaching forward and slipping the fork away from me.

As he walked around behind me, I stiffened and held my breath. When he moved my long hair off my back and over one shoulder, I shuddered.

"You think you could kill with just a fork, Little Star?" he said in my ear.

I shook my head.

"No? If you get the right spot . . ." he said, putting the tines at the pulse point on my neck, right under my chin. "You think this will kill someone?"

"Yes," I gasped when he applied slight pressure. I could feel each tine pressing into my skin.

"Or here," he said as he moved the fork to my chest. He dragged it over the top of my breast and poked the skin right over my heart.

I could feel my heart pounding in my ears and against the fork pressed to my chest. I tried to even out my breathing so he couldn't hear how scared I was. Men like him fed off of it, thrived off of it even. I could feel his body heat on my back as his hand moved from my shoulder and down my arm.

"So you see why I can't let you out of my sight?" he asked, releasing me from his hold.

"I won't do anything stupid again."

"I'm a very careful man."

Atlas washed the dishes and cleaned the kitchen like it was any other morning after breakfast. Maybe this was a regular occurrence. For all I knew, Atlas could bring back a different woman every few days as his prisoner. When he got whatever it was that he wanted, he’d get rid of them. I didn't know what exactly it was that Atlas wanted from me, but I wouldn't be giving it to him. He said he wanted information that he surely already knew.

"Sir?" I heard from behind me. I turned to see the two goons from yesterday.

"My office in ten," Atlas told them. Like soldiers, they both nodded and left the room.

"Did you get enough to eat?" he asked me once we were alone.

"Yes," I said. "Thanks."

I hated thanking him and I wished I could take the words back. I wanted to be my dad's daughter and kick him. I should be leaving this world fighting. Kicking and screaming. I shouldn't be hiding. Cowering and obeying a killer would have Daddy rolling in his grave. I closed my eyes and prayed that he wasn't watching me now. I could only hope that he was too busy keeping up with Mom and Ace in Heaven.

VIII

Atlas

I led Stella down to my office. As much as I hated the idea of her knowing where this room was, I couldn't allow her to be alone. She was smarter than I gave her credit for. Even after months of watching and waiting, I didn't know all there was to know about Stella Harlow. It made me feel unprepared and surprised. I hated it.

"Sit," I told her as I shoved her into a chair in the corner. Sal and Tony were waiting for me as I had asked.

"She looks pretty good considering last night," Sal muttered under his breath.

He was right. Stella had some bruises and minor cuts, but it was minimal for what she had gone through. Sal had a black eye and Tony had a decent cut on his cheek. They didn't even go through the broken glass like she had. I made a mental note that she was tougher than I had predicted as well. She wouldn't be easy to break.

"What's the word?" I asked them. I sat in my chair behind the desk where I could see my men and Stella in the corner.

"Your father seems quiet. No movement on his end," Sal started. "Rumor has it you killed the last Harlow. No missing reports on the girl yet."

I looked right at Stella and her eyes were wide. I smirked at her and she glared. Now she knew no one was looking for her, and the only people who were, wanted her dead.

"Good. Tell Larry and Tim that I killed off the whole family."

I heard Stella gasp as Sal and Tony exchanged a look.

"Those two idiots?" Tony asked me.

"Those two idiots are perfect," I answered. "They have the biggest mouths and word will spread fast. The only man who will argue that fact is someone wanting the credit themselves."

I saw it click in my men's heads and the confusion all over Stella's face. Little did she know that only she held the real answers. I was fishing in a pool of sharks. There was blood in the water and no one was safe. Only the biggest fish would survive. I had to be smarter and one step ahead of the rest of my family. I needed the truth out of the girl I had locked away in my house.

"And Hector has been asking to see you," Tony added.

I groaned and rubbed my temples. Hector had been trying to get together for weeks, but I kept blowing him off. There was no specific reason other than I hated the fucker. He was creepy and more evil than even my old man. It made my skin crawl just being around him, and I had been around some of the worst of men.

"Nice work," I told them. It took over a year to find guys I could trust. Other than Ace, they were the only people I ever trusted.

They left the room and Stella waited in the corner quietly for me. She looked at me with so much hate and pain. Normally, I loved seeing that look. It was much better than seeing hurt and betrayal on her face. I wanted to erase that look. She may not have believed me, but I was looking for the same monsters under the bed.

"You?" she asked. Her voice cracked. "You killed my parents?"

"You know damn well I wasn't the one who pulled the trigger that night," I said, walking over to her and placing my hands on each side of her on the arms of the chair.

She shook her head at me and tears welled in her eyes.

"You saw who was in your house that night. Tell me, Stella. Who did you see?"

Stella shut down. It was like watching the Christmas lights go out on the tree. They all dimmed at once, and the room was thrown into darkness. She wouldn't look up at me, and when I titled her face to mine, her eyes were void. She had checked out. I wouldn't get any answers from her.

I walked back to my desk and spent a few hours getting some work done. There was money to move, people to contact, and leads to chase down. Tapping into security cameras was one of the best ideas we had, but it was tedious and time consuming to go through all the footage.

"Stella," I called over to her. She looked at me with a blank stare that I couldn't handle another second.

I pushed off the desk so hard my chair hit the bookshelf behind me. She didn't even flinch. Taking her face in one hand, I took one second to savor how soft her skin felt. After that, I smacked her. It was nowhere near as hard as I could, but just enough to wake her up.

"Listen to me very carefully, Little Star," I said, looking deep into her eyes. "I will only say this once."

I waited until I was sure she was with me. Her breathing accelerated like it usually did when I was near, and the pink tint returned to her cheeks.

"I am not going to kill you and I did not kill your family. I want to know who did. You know who did. Now can you see the connection?"

Stella chewed on her bottom lip, and I watched in fascination. I was sure I knew everything about this girl. I knew her clothing size, her favorite coffee, that she preferred boy shorts to thongs, and she loved dance music. I didn't know she chewed on her lips when she was deep in thought. I didn't know that she slept on her stomach or that she was tough as nails.

"You need to tell me what you saw that night," I urged her.

"No. I didn't see anything," she lied. I saw the fear all over her face. She was smart enough to know what would happen if she told anyone.

"I heard you in your sleep, Stella. I know that's not true. You need to tell me."

"You seriously expect me to trust you?"

"Kinda," I admitted giving her a grin that usually worked to get my own way with women.

"Want to know who I trust?" she asked.

I didn't really want to know where she was going with this. I could tell she was getting worked up for some righteous rant that I didn't have the time for.

"My dad, who believed the law existed for a reason and that no one was above it. My mother who stood behind her man and supported him and her children no matter what. My brother who would have protected me against the evil likes of you."

I sighed and rubbed my face. I needed to shave and this wasn't going well. I knew the girl would be a handful because her brother was more than that, but I never thought she would be this fucking difficult. I didn't want to have to break her, so I needed to change her mind. Breaking her, and making her fear me so deeply that she gave in, was my last resort. Some sacrifices were necessary for the greater good. One lost to save many.

"You may not have a reason to trust me," I agreed. "But know that your brother did. Ace trusted me with his life."

"Right," she laughed harshly. "And we see where that got him. That life he trusted you with is gone!"

Stella raised her hand to strike me. I had plenty of time to stop her but I let her punch me in the chest. I let her smack at me and pound on my body until she ran out of energy. Even with all her might, it didn't hurt enough to make her stop. This was her letting it out. In the ten months since her parents’ death, I had never seen her lash out or let out the anger. She quietly cried in her sadness and grief. She hid in fear but never let out the anger and hate she had.

When she finally wore herself out, Stella fell limp in my arms. When I put my arms under her legs and carried her from my office, I could feel her shaking against me. I took her down the hall and into her bedroom. She didn't look at me as I placed her in the bed and covered her up. I didn't stay to watch her. Instead, I turned off the lights and locked the door from the outside, giving her privacy to get herself back together.

I headed back to my office where I paced the room for about an hour. Every day having her here was a risk. If anyone ever got wind that Stella wasn't really dead, then I would be next on the hit list. Even my own dad wouldn't bother to save me. In our family, your place is determined by loyalty, not by blood. I'm only his golden son because I was everything he ever raised me to be.

Much to my own surprise, I actually developed a set of values and skills on my own. I grew up into a man who wasn't created by the great and powerful Mr. Omega. I may have killed, lied and stolen, but there was a thin line that I refused to cross. There was a point that I thought was too far into the depths of darkness. I also had the skills and the lack of morality to end it at the expense of my blood family.

IX

Stella

I had been captive in the house for almost a week before I was finally allowed to see outside. I was kept in my room with the door locked most of the day. Sometimes Atlas would make me sit in his office with him while he worked. I had no idea what it was that he was doing, but I didn't dare ask. If I didn't want to answer any questions then I should expect the same from him.

"You're getting pale," Atlas said. His voice startled me. I was curled up in the chair in the corner of his office with a book.

"That's what captivity does to you," I threw back.

"Come," he said, standing and coming over to me.

Confused, I followed him down the hall I only been down once the night I had arrived. He opened the wide doors and we stepped into a large living room. It was bright and open, contradictory to Atlas. The exposed wood beams and wood floors reflected the afternoon sun that poured in through the tall windows.

Outside, the lake sat waiting for me. It was calm and beautiful. I smiled when we stepped out and I felt the sun and wind on my face. The only sounds were from the birds and the trees swaying. I walked to the railing and looked down into the water. I felt Atlas behind me but I ignored him. I wanted to be alone for just a second, even if it was only pretend.

"Will you ever let me go?" I asked when I couldn't bear the silence any longer.

"No, Stella. I won't."

"Will you just keep me here forever?" I asked. The thought made my throat tight but it was better than the alternative.

"Would that be so bad?" he asked as he stepped closer to me. I could feel his chest on my back even though he wasn't actually touching me yet.

The hairs on my body stood on end. He always made me feel so aware, and every sense was heightened. The first night I met him in the club, I loved the feeling. It was exhilarating and, for the first time in a very long time, I actually felt alive. Now, it was terrifying. I felt like an animal about to be eaten. I felt dead, not alive.

Atlas gently trailed his fingers down my bare arm and goosebumps followed in their wake. I fought to keep my breath from quickening. My body's reaction made no sense to me. It was a mixture of curiosity, pleasure, and fear. The emotions swirling made me dizzy trying to figure them out.

"You know what I want from you," he said in my ear.

What was it that he really wanted from me? Was it the answers to his questions? Was it my body? I gave up hope that anything I did would earn my freedom. I grew up in a family that was familiar with criminals like Atlas and his "family." I knew too much. I was a risk and could never walk out of this lake house.

"I can't give you what you want," I whispered.

"Sure you can," he said as he quickly backed away from me. "Let’s make a deal. A trade if you will."

"A trade?" I asked as I turned to look at him curiously.

"Keep in mind, dear, that I really don't need to be nice to you. Only out of respect for your brother do I refrain from chaining you up in my basement and torturing the answers from you."

My eyes widened because he issued that threat with such ease, without so much as blinking. He was being completely honest, and torture didn't seem like something he felt very guilty about.

"To be honest, I would actually enjoy that very much." Atlas licked his lips and looked me up and down. "But I will offer you an alternative."

I crossed my arms over my chest protectively. It did nothing to make me any safer.

"Here's is the deal. You answer one question and I will give you one freedom of your choice, within reason."

I chewed on my lip and mulled over the options. How hard could one question be? One freedom could save my sanity. It was tempting to think of becoming less of a pet and more of person.

"I want to be able to come out here or stay in my room instead of sitting in your office," I said.

"Deal. If you answer me this," he started and made eye-contact with me. "Did you see your parents murdered?"

I swallowed as the memories flood back in. "Yes."

Atlas nodded once. "You are free to go between your bedroom and this deck."

I exhaled in relief. One answer. One more day.

"Stella, I am a man of my word. You may think I'm dirt, but I live by a set of morals and loyalty. If you start to believe that, this could be a hell of a lot easier."

I tilted my head to try to see him in a different view. He looked the same. Powerful, strong and deadly. Even in his own home and alone, he dressed as I always saw him. He wore dark slacks with a collared shirt. When I saw him the first time, I almost drooled over him. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I must have thought he could be someone who could protect me.

"I'll be inside," he said. I nodded and before he left, he came and leaned into my ear.

"Don't fuck this up, Little Star, or I will slit your throat."

With those parting words, he turned and left me alone on the back deck. I stared after his wide shoulders as he slipped back inside. I saw the shadow of one of the guards in the living room. I wasn't truly alone but I could pretend for a while at least. I wouldn't jump into the lake and try to swim to safety like I had thought of too many times.

I watched the sun go down that evening. I spent hours watching the fish and bugs while humming to myself. I forgot what it was like to be outside. It wasn't something I had necessarily enjoyed before, but now it was something I wouldn't take for granted. I barely noticed when the air turned crisp. I never wanted to go back inside, but soon I started to shiver.

I opened the sliding door and walked into the living room. The lights were dim and the large fireplace on one wall looked cozy and inviting. Knowing Atlas, he bought the place for the secluded location and not the features like the hardwood floors and beautiful stone walls. I wanted to linger but didn't know if that was allowed, so I decided to head to my room.

In the hallway, I saw the light from Atlas's office. One of the guards, Tony maybe, stood in the hall near the kitchen watching me. I put my head down and turned the direction of my room. A hot shower sounded soothing. Tomorrow, I would be able to go back outside. Maybe I could bargain for a book or magazine. Even the newspaper would keep me occupied.

I was almost to my room when another figure came out one of the bathrooms. I froze for a second before walking again. Another day, another guard. This house was crawling with hardened criminals and killers. My dad would have loved busting into this place.

"Well, what do we have here?" the new guy asked.

I kept walking, deciding that was probably the safest option. I didn't need any more trouble tonight after having a decent day.

"I asked you a fucking question," he bit out and grabbed my arm roughly. The stranger yanked me back to him and pushed me to the wall.

"I was just going to my room," I told him.

"Is that so? Maybe I should come with you," he said with a sickening smile.

I shivered from my head to my toes. My heartbeat quickened and every muscle tensed in my body. A heavy feeling settled in my stomach as alarms rang in my head. Something bad was going to happen. I tried to break from his hold but he held me tighter. I could feel the bruises forming under his fingertips.

"Let go," I begged, trying to hide how scared I really was.

"I don't think so. Now I see what has Atlas so busy he can't meet with me. He got himself a new toy," he growled and he pushed me harder to the wall with his body.

"No," I argued. I could smell the cigarettes and whiskey on his breath and it made me sick to my stomach.

"Your pussy that tight?" he asked and I almost threw up all over him. "Maybe I should see what the all the fuss is about."

He wrapped one hand around my throat to keep me in place while his other hand grabbed my thigh and pushed my dress up to my waist. I bucked against him and tried to scream but I didn't have enough air in my lungs to make a sound. He was choking me and tugging at my clothes while I was helpless.

His fingers forcefully pushed and dug into my skin. My throat burned as his hand started to pull at my panties. His movements were rough and clumsy. I tried kicking but his body and hands kept me still. I squeezed my eyes shut as the darkness started to take over my vision.

His brutal hands left my body suddenly and a warm liquid splattered on my face. I fell to the ground with his grip no longer holding me pinned to the wall. A familiar metallic smell filled my nose, and I opened my eyes even though everything inside me told me to keep them closed. I was once again covered in blood.

"Damn it," I heard Atlas curse a few feet away. I could barely hear him over the ringing in my ears.

I heard several sets of footsteps coming toward me, but I couldn't look at them. I couldn't look away from the eyes staring blankly at me. Part of the side of his head was a disgusting mess. Hands grabbed my arms to pull me up, but I fought them blindly. I didn't want to be touched. I swung at Tony as he tried to pick me up from the floor.

"Stella," Atlas said, kneeling down and putting the gun in the back of his pants. He cupped my cheeks to get my attention. "Are you okay? Are you hurt?"

"I don't know," I whispered.

"What the fuck was he doing here?" Atlas asked Tony, who was still holding me.

"I don't know how he got in," he told him. "Hector had been trying to get a hold of you for a few days now. He must have decided to just come see you in person."

I watched as Sal grabbed my attacker by the feet, dragging him down the hall and out of my sight. Tony lifted me to my feet as Atlas paced the hall.

"Fuck," he growled. He pulled at his hair and I watched the muscles in his jaw clench. He was furious. When he looked back at me, he froze and let his hands fall to his sides.

"Get this cleaned up. Don't speak a word of it to anybody," he told Tony. "I'll deal with the girl."

I didn't fight as Tony passed me over to Atlas, who took my upper arm to lead me to the bedroom. It was the lesser of evils in the moment. I would do anything to get away from the bloody mess in the hallway. Atlas took me straight to the bathroom and turned on the water in the shower.

"I can't tell if you're hurt with all the blood," he mumbled as he pulled my sticky hair from my neck. "You need to clean up."

I pushed the straps of the dress off my shoulders. The fabric clung to me and wouldn't come off easily with all the sticky blood. Atlas roughly pulled on the hem, sending the ruined dress to the floor. My stomach rolled with the slick feeling on my body. I ripped off my panties and bra without caring that he was seeing me naked. I felt like I was ready to crawl out of my own skin. The smell, the sound of the gunshot, and the emptiness inside was all too familiar.

I slid open the doors and stepped under the hot water. It was almost scalding but I didn't care. I wanted to burn tonight off of my skin. Atlas closed the door and I closed my eyes. Memories flashed behind my eyelids, new and old. I pushed them down, swallowed the cries, and pretended it was all washing down the drain with the red-tinted water.

X

Atlas

I watched her silhouette in the shower without disturbing her. She was completely silent as she washed and scrubbed. The bathroom was filling with steam, and I wondered how she could stand the heat of the water. I was sure she knew I was out here, but she didn't ask me to leave. I wouldn't have anyway.

A knock sounded at the door and I opened it a crack to find Tony on the other side.

"Cleaned up?" I asked quietly, opening the door a little wider to see him. I wasn't going to leave this bathroom.

"Yeah. Sal is bleaching the floors. Might smell for the night," he told me. "She alright?"

"Not sure yet," I said with a glance back at her. I couldn't make out much with the frosted glass but I could see her leaning back against the wall, letting the spray hit her face.

"She might be in shock," he offered. "Especially if you're right and she saw her parents knocked off."

"I know she did. Being covered in blood probably isn't helping. Police found her holding her mom, covered in their blood."

"Shit," Tony hissed. "You are just determined to make that girl relive it aren't you?"

"You know I need to."

"The front door's lock was broken. That was probably how Hector got in,” he told me.

"What the fuck did he want?" I asked.

"He wanted to know what you were so busy with," Stella called from behind me. The knobs twisted and the water cut off.

"Did he tell you that?" I asked as I grabbed a towel and closed the door so Tony didn't get a show, too. A possessive feeling raged inside when I thought of him watching her get out of the shower with water dripping down her body.

"Yeah," she admitted, taking the towel and wrapping up in. "He thinks you're hiding away with a new plaything."

I grunted and tilted her head back to look at her neck covered in bruises.

"I'm sorry I shot him," I told her, looking into her confused eyes. "I should have beat him to death instead."

"I'm okay. Just sore," she told me

I clenched my fists and let her into the bedroom where the guys were waiting for us. Stella sat on the bed, keeping the towel tightly wrapped around her. My men kept their eyes off her and on me, waiting for their next orders.

"Find out what he knew," I told them. "If he talked to anyone, we are royally fucked."

"He didn't have any outgoing calls on his phone for the last hour, so I doubt he told anyone about the girl," Sal said.

"We need to be sure," I reminded.

"I watched Stella come inside just a few minutes before we found Hector with her. He couldn't have known about her before that," Tony said.

I looked over to where Stella was watching us calmly. She was too much in shock to care about how big a deal this really was.

"Stella, get dressed and I will be right back," I told her.

She nodded and I ushered the guys out into the hall. My nose stung with the smell of the bleach. I closed the door behind me and leaned against it. I doubted she would try an escape tonight, but it was not the time to take any more chances.

"If anyone hears I have the girl here, it's over. For all of us," I told them.

"You cut her loose now, all this shit will be for nothing," Tony argued. "You got nothing from her so far."

"I fucking know that," I growled at him.

"You said when the risk was greater than the outcome, we would end this," Sal reminded me. "Hector is high ranks. He probably knows her face."

"But instead of reporting it, he tried to get him a fucking piece," Tony said. He was in the girl's corner, which was clear.

"If someone comes looking for him and finds her," I started, but Tony shook his head. We all knew there was a plan for that.

"Give it a few days," Tony urged. "You just killed a man for her. You saved her ass. That may convince her to cooperate."

I looked over to Sal while I debated my options. We could kill her now and dump her with Hector. No one would know the difference. The family wanted her dead and thought I had already done the deed. We could keep her and hope no one knew she was still alive in the meantime. Once I got what I needed, it was all over anyway. One sacrifice to save many.

"Keep your eyes and ears open," I told them, my mind made up and plan formed. "And double up the security on doors and windows. No one gets in and no one gets out."

"Got it boss," Tony answered, pleased with my decision.

"We get so much as a feeling that they know she is here, get rid of her," I told them before pushing back into the bedroom.

Stella was curled up in the center of the bed, passed out cold. She looked so small and alone on top of the covers in the big bed. Rage and hate burned inside me to see the finger marks on the side of her neck. She was mine to mark up and push around, but I never liked hurting her.

I pulled the blankets back and covered her up. I don't know how long I sat on the bed and watched her sleep. It was a few hours before she started to toss and turn like she usually did with the nightmares. I wondered what she was dreaming about tonight. Was it her parents or Hector she was seeing in a pool of blood?

In the morning, I woke in the bed next to Stella. My eyes sprung open and I shot up when I realized where I was. I hadn't meant to fall asleep, let alone in here. Reaching to my back, my gun was still there. When I looked down, Stella was already awake and watching me. By the looks of her, she had been up for some time. I glanced at my watch, it was almost afternoon by now.

"Morning," she said. "I'm starving."

I couldn't help but laugh as I got out of the bed.

"By all means, let’s feed you."

In the kitchen, Stella picked at her food. She looked fine, but seemed broken. She was putting on tough act, but inside, she was terrified. Was she scared of me since she had seen me kill a man? She knew that was the man I was. But I killed for her.

For the first time, I realized how she could interpret my actions. Did I just give her evidence that I needed her alive? I killed one of my own to save her. Before I had treated her like she was disposable. Now, she might think that she was valuable and worth saving. She couldn't think she had the upper hand.

"You need a haircut," I told her harshly.

"What?" she asked, confused. She ran her fingers through her hair, looking at the locks as they slipped between her fingers.

"If by chance Hector told anyone of a girl here, it wouldn't take a genius to figure out it was you," I explained. "You need to look different from the girl I was supposed to kill in the basement."

"So we need to cut my hair?"

"Yes, and dye it. It's that or kill you."

Stella's eyes widened and she swallowed the grape she had been chewing for the past several seconds. She grabbed some hair and looked longingly at it. I would miss her long, blonde hair too. I would never get to fulfill that fantasy of pulling it from behind her, tilting her head back to look at me.

"What color?" she asked quietly.

"Black."

She stood from her stool and looked right at me. "I lost bigger things than this. Let's get it over with."

Snarky. I had watched her for months. I had witnessed her go through the five stages of grief and come out on the other end. She wasn't the same person, but she was alive. Hiding, but alive. Just when I had thought she was down and wouldn't get back up, she did. Every hit took a little out of her, but she came out on the other side, still breathing.

I grabbed the bag Sal had left on the counter for me and scissors from a locked kitchen drawer. I led her back to her bathroom where we stood in front of the mirror. I let her twist some hair around her fingers one last time. It was a shame we had to get rid of it.

"Here we go," I warned her.

Stella closed her eyes, and I wrapped my hand around the bottom of her hair. I clipped away what was above my fist. The hair fell to my feet like gold ribbons. The rest fell around her shoulders. It was still long even though about nine inches were at my feet.

"May I?" she asked, reaching back for the scissors.

"You're fucking kidding me. No."

Stella sighed and met my eyes in the mirror. "I just want to even it out. It looks like shit. I won't do anything stupid."

I handed her the scissors and reached behind myself, pulling out my gun. I pushed it into her back, letting her feel the cold metal of the barrel between her shoulder blades. Stella nodded in understanding and leaned forward, closer to the mirror. She clipped a few pieces here and there, cleaning up my messy style and giving herself sweeping bangs. I held the gun to her and bounced between looking at her ass while she was bent over, and watching her wield a pair of scissors.

Stella finished and handed me the scissors. I put them and the gun back in my waistband and let her rinse the stay hairs from her hair. As much as I liked her long blonde hair, the new look was hot too. It brought out her high cheekbones, light skin, and bright eyes. I could see her pretty face better with less hair to hide behind.

"Looks good," I told her.

"I'll get used to it," she said.

Stella read the directions and mixed the hair dye. I leaned against the doorframe, not really much of a help. With the shorter hair, it didn't take much time to apply the black dye.

"Now we wait twenty minutes," she told me.

We walked to the back porch to escape the fumes in the bathroom. The sun was bright, as though it didn't know of the horror that had taken place behind these walls overnight. The sun seemed to rise every morning, never knowing what happened when she was on the other side. She graced us all with her light, even those who didn’t deserve it.

"Why?" she asked me.

I didn't need to ask what she meant. Stella always seemed curious as to other's intentions, like their actions could be explained. Why save her? Why kill a man? Why change her look?

"I'm still not done with you," I said. "I need something from you. I did you a favor, now you can return it."

"That's why you killed him?" she asked, looking at me with those big eyes that were no longer hidden behind her hair.

"Yes. Don't think I did that for you," I told her. "I still need answers and I’ve dealt with you too long to give up now."

"Times up," Stella said after a long moment of silence.

"What?"

Stella was already walking back to the house.

"Time to rinse," she called back over her shoulder.

XI

Stella 

I grabbed the shower head wand and dropped it in the tub. If there was one thing that didn't suck about being trapped here, it was this shower with two shower heads and the massaging water jets. I turned on the water and played with the temperature until it was perfect. Kneeling on the floor, I leaned over the drain.

"Here," Atlas interrupted. "You're soaking the floor."

Atlas took the shower wand from me and pushed between my shoulder blades so I bent over. Gently and carefully, he ran his fingers through my hair, letting the water wash out the dye. He was even careful to keep the water out of my eyes. I watched as the black dye swirled down the drain, washing away what I used to look like.

A virtual stranger was washing my hair. He was gentle, considerate and even consoling. His fingertips may have caused pain and death, but they were washing away all the memories of it from my mind at the moment. For once, I felt comfort and not the pain and fear that I had been living with for so long.

When was the last time that I hadn't needed to look over my shoulder? Was it before my parents were killed? Not even then. Before my brother became involved with the likes of Atlas? Maybe. It had been so long, it seemed like all I'd ever known. I didn't need to watch my back anymore. I knew what was back there now. I had already been caught in the chase.

Atlas applied the conditioner to my hair and slowly rubbed in it. His hands felt so big on my head, but I wasn't scared. I didn't want to shy away from his hands. I wanted them on me. They were a reminder I was done running and it was over. One way or another, I wouldn't walk the streets in fear that I would be taken at any moment anymore.

Weeks of deprivation made me desperate for contact. I closed my eyes,concentrating on the sensations of his touch and the warmth of the water. The water was running clear but we both ignored it. My hip was pressed against his, and I knew my breathing wasn't steady since his hands were on me. My mind refused to remember the bad and concentrated on the moment. For once, I wasn't looking behind me.

"Ready?" he asked, his voice low and husky. It reminded me of when he whispered in my ear at the club.

"For what?" I asked, knowing I was playing with danger. It was like sticking your hand through the fence when you knew the dog would bite.

His hand stopped at the back of my neck and he gave it a squeeze. I could feel the bruises from the night before under his touch. I wanted him to erase them. He could cover them up, make them something else entirely.

Atlas used his grip to pull me so I was sitting up. I gathered the nerve to look at him and saw what I was feeling reflecting back at me. It was a confused mixture of want and lust. Water dripped from my hair down my shirt, making the already thin material cling to my skin. I watched as his eyes followed the water, zoning in on my nipples that I knew where hard.

"Stella," he said in a warning. I wasn't sure what for.

"Atlas," I said back. My voice was breathy and low.

"Shit," he cursed before he pushed me against the vanity.

I spread my legs and he crawled between them, leaning over me. His eyes were everywhere, taking in all that he could. He was trying to read me, see what it was that I really wanted. I licked my lips and pushed my chest out a little more, letting him know what it was that I needed. His lips parted as he clenched my thigh. For this one second, he was the weakest I had ever seen him.

One hand was still on the back of my neck as he reached behind me, moving it to my throat. I swallowed and tipped my head back, letting him get a better grip. When Atlas finally realized what I wanted, he pulled my face to his. My eyes shot up to look into his. I saw the understanding flash in his face.

"I erased that motherfucker," he growled before crashing his lips to mine.

We clashed together like a tragic wreck. It was wet and hard, his lips taking mine and crushing them. I moaned into his mouth and his grip on my throat tightened. The pressure wasn't enough to cut off air, but I felt his touch and no one else's.

Atlas kissed like he lived. He was powerful and forceful, taking whatever he wanted. His tongue parted my lips and I opened to him. I felt the rumble in his chest when he tasted me. His hand squeezed tighter and I welcomed the pleasurable pain. It was exciting and daring at the same time; a toxic mixture.

I squeezed my knees together, pinning his hips between my shaky legs. His body was hard and hot on mine. Atlas grabbed behind my knee and pulled, making me slide down to the floor. He never once released my lips as he lowered me to the floor and hovered over my body. The tile was cold on my back, cooling me down as I was burning up.

I could feel him all over me, although he was only touching my lips and neck. He devoured my mouth and I let him. If I could remember these touches and this moment in the house, maybe I could keep my sanity. Something less devastating to concentrate on and relive in my memories.

Growing bold, or impatient, I put my hands on his shoulders. The muscles flexed under my palms, and I loved the powerful feeling. His hand tightened on my throat when I dug my nails into his back. Atlas was holding back and restraining himself. I could feel it in his body. He could easily break me into a thousand pieces.

"This is a bad idea, Little Star," he said with his lips brushing mine. "I will hurt you. That's what I do."

"I'm already hurt," I whispered back.

Atlas pulled away to look down at me. He took in my lips that were red and swollen from his kisses. My neck that was under his hand, covering any marks. He watched my chest heaving and panting under my wet shirt.

Without warning, he gripped the neckline with both hands and tore the shirt down the middle. He pulled it open and lowered his lips to the skin between my breasts. I gasped when his tongue tasted me. I squirmed under him, but he pinned me with his body. I was trapped again. No matter what I did, Atlas had me trapped. I'm wasn't sure I cared at that moment.

"You think I can make you feel better?" he asked, his mouth trailing down my stomach.

I couldn't answer him. I didn't know if I thought I would feel better. I might feel numb. I could feel less angry. Was someone who only brought me pain and fear capable of taking away those feelings as well? Even he said himself, he hurts. All I knew was that right then, I didn't feel any of that.

I opened my eyes and watched as Atlas licked and sucked his way back up my stomach. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the glint of metal on the floor. His gun. With my legs wrapped around his waist, the gun was in the way so he must have taken it out. He was preoccupied with my skin and didn't notice me staring at it.

I couldn't reach it but if I slid over a little bit, I could grab it. I wouldn't need much time to point and pull the trigger. I knew how to shoot and knew how to pull the safety and fire quickly. With a weapon, I could get past the guards and out of this house.

Atlas stopped what he was doing and I looked down to find him watching me closely. His eyes were dark, mixed with danger and lust. His lips were plump and wet from kissing me. I bit my lip in response to the heated look he was giving me. It warmed my entire body.

Atlas pushed himself off me and leaned down over my face. One hand gripped my chin as he kissed me hard and rough. When he released me too soon, I was gasping for the breath he had stolen from me. When he moved again, I thought he would kiss me once more, but he stopped mere inches from my face.

Atlas reached out and grabbed the gun from the floor. He never looked away from me as he pulled back and tucked it back into his waistband. I couldn't read his look. Was it anger? Was it indifference? My heart hammered in my chest as I held my breath. Atlas slowly rose to his feet and left the room, without a word.

I pulled myself up and sat on the bathroom floor. My veins were pumping with a fear, but not one I expected or understood.

I wasn't scared of what he would have done if he had kept going. I was scared of how I felt when he stopped.

XII

Atlas

I avoided Stella for a few days. Cleaning up a murder in your house was time consuming. Especially if the wrong people noticed the victim was missing. Loyalties were being tested and so was my plan. It was hard to remain undetected when someone was snooping around your shit. I couldn't even call my dad without getting questioned.

"Where are you?" my dad asked when I finally got him on the line.

"Lake house," I said with a sigh. I knew he already knew that. Not much got by him.

"Did Hector make it up there to see you?" he asked.

"No. Was he supposed to?" I asked. It was not in my favor that they knew he was heading here when he went missing.

"That's what he said," my dad said. I could hear the suspicion in his voice but I ignored it.

"Are you in the city?" I asked him. I needed to know where he was, or rather, how close he was.

"No, Miami this week," he said.

My father told me he bought a "vacation home" in Miami and was spending a lot of time there. The boss didn't give a shit about anything other than money, so I didn't believe he was there for rest and relaxation. I couldn't leave to visit and scope out the place while I was tailing Stella, and I definitely couldn’t leave her now.

I had no idea what was going through her mind. I didn't know what to expect when I saw her next. I had one of the guys outside her room at night and they hadn't reported any escape attempts. That didn't mean anything though. I learned that Stella was smart and cunning. She offered her own body to distract me and get away.

"We can meet up next week," my dad offered.

"Sure," I said just to please him. We both knew that wouldn't happen. There had been a strain between us that neither of us had pointed out. Ever since the Harlows had been wiped out, I had more trust issues than usual.

We said our goodbyes and I hung up the phone to continue pacing my office. I stopped at my computer to check the security camera stream. Stella was on the back deck with her feet dangling over the water. Tony and Sal both stood behind her on watch. She looked bored and lonely, or busy plotting. Hard to tell.

I lost myself in the bathroom with her the other night. When I saw the bruises on her neck, I wanted to kill Hector all over again. I should have drawn it out, made his death slow and painful. No man got to take whomever he wanted, and no man got to try to take what was mine and live. I wanted to cover his marks and erase him from her memory. I wanted to be the only thing she could think of.

I thought I was succeeding. It was a powerful feeling to know that you could make it all go away for someone. I made her forget. Stella seemed like she wasn't thinking at all and her body was controlling her. Her breathing was fast, as well as her heartbeat. Her back arched into me and her legs tightened on my waist. Just when I thought I had complete control, I lost it. I glanced up to see her eyeing the gun I had set aside.

I wanted to wait her out and see what she would chose. Would she grab it and try to shoot? Would she freeze at the last minute, fumbling over the trigger? Was she lost in me enough that she would ignore it and let me keep going?

I took the choice away from her. I didn't want to know the answer. Each choice left us damned. Either way offered an insight into her mind that I didn't want to see. I didn't want to know if she would have shot me or let me rip off the rest of her clothes. I had enough mysteries to unravel. Somethings were better left unknown.

Unfortunately, I still needed something from Stella and avoiding her wouldn't get it. I left the safety of my office and went to the living room. A quick survey told me there was nothing that could be used as a weapon in the room. The fireplace tools, any decorations and curtain rods were already removed.

"I'll take it from here," I told the guys once I was out on the deck. They both nodded and left us alone.

Stella didn't turn to acknowledge me but I knew she had heard me come out. Her back went straight and her body went rigid. I wondered if it was from fear or excitement. Stella reacted similarly to both emotions, and I could never tell which she was feeling. I doubted she even knew herself.

I stood behind her and looked out over the water. It was too cold to sit outside, but Stella didn't seem to notice. She was wrapped up in a hoodie and jeans, but barefoot. Her black hair was styled to sweep over one side of her head. With her light skin and eyes, the color looked exotic and beautiful on her.

"May I sit?" I asked.

I lowered myself next to her anyway. I didn't really expect permission.

"You've been avoiding me," she said bluntly. Instead of seeming gratefully, she sounded annoyed.

"I've been busy."

"Doing what exactly?"

"Don't ask questions you already know the answers to," I warned her. "Your dad was a cop. Your brother worked with me. You're a bright woman."

"Not bright enough," she mumbled.

"Someone would have gotten to you eventually."

Stella shrugged and leaned back with her hands behind her. She looked up into the cloudless sky. It reminded me of the approaching winter. I was running out of time. Once the snow fell, I would need a plan. The lake house would need to be closed up and I’d have to return to the city. I couldn't leave with Stella. She would never be safe in the city, or anywhere else.

"Come inside," I told her.

Surprisingly, she followed without arguing. I pulled open the door for her and watched her ass as she passed. I knew better than to touch again, but I couldn't help looking. Inside the living room, Stella turned and looked at me for direction. I pointed to the couch facing the fireplace. I turned the dials and the flames came to life.

"You can come here, the kitchen and the deck," I told her.

"Thank you," she said. She watched me expectantly, knowing I had more to say.

"A trade. You tell me something and you get some more freedom," I offered.

"How am I supposed to trust you? You keep me here against my will and I'm pretty sure you had something to do with my family's death. How the hell do I know that you won't kill me the moment you get what you want from me?"

"Your brother trusted me. I promised him I would look out for you and I am holding up my end," I growled.

"My brother told me to trust no one."

Fucking Ace. Brilliant but probably just screwed us.

"I killed for you, Stella. I took a man's life. A man that dangerous people will come looking for. I did that for you. All I am asking for is for answers."

Stella chewed on her lip as I waited in silence. She had every reason to fear me, I made sure of that.

"You have an ultimatum, Little Star. We are running out of time. You tell me what I need to know and I will protect you. I will make sure people like Hector and the man who killed your parents won't hurt you. No one will find you or touch you as long as you're with me. But I need to know there is good fucking reason for keeping you alive."

"Why do you call me Little Star?" she asked instead.

"Your name means star."

She nodded and chewed on her lip. Stella was stalling but I was prepared to wait her out or resort to drastic measure to get answers.

"What do you want to know?" Stella asked and shifted in her seat. I hated making her go through it all over again.

"You know, I found my mom dead when I was seventeen," I told her.

Stella's eyes went wide. "I'm sorry."

"Maybe I didn't find both of my parents, but I found the only one that I loved floating in a bathtub of blood. I had to face the fact that my own mom didn't care about me enough to stick around and took the easy way out."

Stella was silent as I faced the fire, not wanting to see the pity on her face. I would save myself, and I tried to take comfort that my mom wouldn't be here to see it all go down.

"So I'm not asking about that night," I started. "I know Ace went home the day before. Am I right?"

She nodded and her eyes glistened. "He came to talk to my dad."

I came to kneel in front of her. I needed her trust even though I didn't deserve it.

"What did he tell him? This is very important," I said, grabbing her hands and squeezing.

"I didn't hear," she said, pulling out of my hold. "I caught the end of the conversation."

"Which was?"

"My dad was begging Ace not to leave. He wanted him to stay home, but Ace said he had to go."

Her eyes flashed with anger and pain. She felt betrayed. I knew the feeling. Ace left them there unprotected. For what reason? He had to know they would come for him and everyone important to him. I let myself believe he betrayed me, but I couldn't believe he would do that them.

"You don't know what he told your dad?" I asked.

"No," Stella snapped. "Take your pick of any of the crimes you guys committed. Drug dealing? Murder?"

"You watch too many mobster movies," I said with a chuckle. Stella glared back.

"We own casinos. We operate online gambling operations. We may traffic guns, drugs and even electronics, but the mob has grown more civilized than when you last watched Scarface."

Stella stared at me with confusion and anger. I doubted that helped my case, but I was giving in hopes of receiving in return. I’d give her some intel, she’d give me a little more. Unfortunately, this stubborn woman was the key to finishing what Ace and I started.

"Ace either ratted me out, or he ratted out someone more dangerous," I told her. "Either way, I need to fucking know because it got people killed."

"More dangerous? Than you?"

I laughed, but it lacked any humor.

"Yes, my Little Star. There are men colder than me, more evil. Men who would have killed you in the alley of that night club instead of keeping you alive like some fucking pet."

Stella looked down at the wooden floors, lost in her memories. She never made a move or made any indication in the past months that she knew the family's secrets. She told the police she didn't see anything. I was certain she saw the person sent to end her family.

"I don't know what he told my dad," she said and I knew she was telling the truth. "They were whispering and my mom was crying. Ace told me to stay in my room."

I rolled my eyes. "Which of course, you didn't listen."

"I'm not a child." She crossed her arms over her chest and I eyed her cleavage. No, she was not a child.

Did Ace finally find the proof we had been searching for? I just didn't understand why he would go home before coming to me? My dad claimed he didn't put the hit out on the family or Ace, but I didn't know who I could trust anymore. Why would he put the hit out on her if she didn't see one of his men?

"Atlas?" Sal called from the entryway. "A word?"

I nodded and met him in the hall. Tony was leaning against the wall, an anxious look on his face. Sal looked uncomfortable as well, shifting from one foot to the other.

"Boss called. Wants us to meet him in Miami," Tony told me.

"What the fuck? You are my men. Why does he need you two?"

"Pick up a package for you," Sal answered, knowing it was bullshit.

"Go," I told them. "I got the girl. If we put up a fight, he will only grow more suspicious."

Fucking fantastic. I'm losing my two guards and stuck for the next two days with Stella alone.

XIII

Stella

At home, I was limited to a ten-minute shower. Either the water would go cold or someone would flush, scalding me. Every morning, I rushed to get clean and get out. When I was in the house alone, I got a full fifteen minutes because no one was waiting on me. But the fact that I was alone was too depressing to enjoy it.

Here, I could spend as much time as I wanted. I was well stocked with gels and scrubs, so I always came out soft and smelling nice. The water pressure was perfect with an endless supply of hot water. It was the one thing that took my mind off all my worries. I probably wouldn't be killed in the shower. I was alone and the guards would never dare to step inside the bathroom. Both men actually seemed pretty uncomfortable even in the bedroom.

I was relaxed and content, until I stepped out of the steam to find Atlas leaning in the doorway, waiting. I quickly wrapped the towel around my body, almost falling in the process.

"Atlas," I hissed. "What are you doing in here?"

"Waiting. You were taking a while," he answered casually. He seemed completely unfazed with his invasion of privacy or a naked woman in front of him. He was probably used to both of those.

I was not unfazed or unaffected. Atlas ditched the jacket today, wearing his white shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows. His muscular forearms were crossed over his chest and I stared at the patch of skin peeking from the open buttons of his shirt. I clutched the towel tighter and tried to get out of the shower without getting close to him.

I wrung my hair out, getting used to the lighter, shorter hair. It took less time to wash and dry. With Atlas watching, I wasn't going to stall any longer in the small space. The bathroom was the size of a normal bedroom, but it shrunk with us both in here. The last time we shared this room, I was pinned below him on the floor.

"Hurry up," Atlas said sharply. "I don't have all day."

"Move then," I said, coming to stand in front of him in effort to get out the door.

Atlas didn't move. He just stared down at me, and I swore the steam grew thicker around us. There wasn't much protecting me from him but the thin towel that barely covered my butt. I might as well have been naked because I felt his stare on every inch of my skin. He reached forward and I held my breath as his fingers grazed my neck.

"I will only say this once, Stella," he said, his voice low and deep. "Don't ever let me touch you again. I will leave bruises deeper and darker than any other monster can."

He turned and took the heat with him. When I heard the door of the bedroom close, I finally came out of the bathroom. Unsure if he was still waiting, I dressed quickly. I grabbed a sweater dress from the closet and brushed my hair with my fingers. In the hallway, Atlas was waiting.

"Come on," he said before turning and heading down the hall.

"What's the rush?" I asked. I had to run to keep up.

"The guys are off for a few days," he told me. "I have stuff to do and you need to stay with me."

We entered his office and Atlas sat in his chair, leaving me to stand awkwardly. I had spent a lot of time in here before and was always so stuck in my own head that I had never really looked around. The dark wood shelves were stocked with books. Most were classic literature or history, others on art. I browsed the titles, hoping to find something to keep me busy for who knew how long.

"Where did Sal and Tony go?" I asked. "They weren't around yesterday. You give them vacation time or something?"

"No," he said with a laugh. "They went to pick something up for me."

I walked over to his desk where he sat at the computer. Papers and Post-It notes covered the surface. I had the strange urge to organize it for him. How could anyone get anything done in such madness? Behind his desk was a large painting, grabbing my attention. I had never really looked at it before.

A muscular man was crouched down on one knee, holding the world above him. Chains bound the man to a rock below him. The world was resting on his shoulders. It looked an image from Greek mythology. Atlas noticed me looking at the painting.

"It's the Greek Titan of strength. He held up the sky," he told me.

"I see where the saying 'holds the weight of the world on his shoulders' comes from," I said.

"The myth is that when the Titans went to war against the Gods and were defeated, Zeus sent most of the Titans to Tartarus," he explained. He pointed to another painting that looked like Hell.

"As punishment for leading the Titans in the war for the Heavens, Zeus chose one Titan to stand and forever be forced to hold up the Heavens, to make sure it never touched and mixed with Earth again," he explained. "His name was Atlas."

I turned and looked at him. He was watching me carefully, waiting for my reaction. A man stronger than human, but not quite a god. Someone punished and forced with the burden of holding the sky forever. Did Atlas feel he could relate to the mythology in some way?

"Over there," he said, pointing behind me to another painting of the night sky. It looked like a connect-the-dots between the stars. "The constellation of Atlas."

"Pretty full of yourself," I joked. He actually laughed, and I liked the sound.

"Interested in the family history," he said. "Without knowing your history, you are doomed to make the same mistakes."

I wondered what mistakes Atlas was trying to avoid. Being caught or defeated? Trying to wage a war against the ones more powerful than him? Atlas hinted that he was on some mission and that I was a part of it, but I didn't know his end game. I had a feeling the more I knew, the more likely I would end up dead. What I saw one night had already determined my fate.

Atlas went back to his computer and left me to entertain myself. I felt like a pet. His cat that prowled around his office. Company if he wanted it, but not really needed or desired. I almost felt like I should purr and rub against his leg. Asshole might actually like that though.

He made phone calls about websites and bank accounts. He arranged for new slot machines to be installed in Vegas. It actually all sounded legit, but I knew Atlas enough to doubt that. He argued with someone for a while about a gambling website being shut down. The more frustrated he became, the more buttons on his shirt came undone. His hair was becoming a mess from tugging and running his hands through it. It was barely noon and he already looked wiped out.

Anyone else, I might offer words of comfort. Like my mother, I was caring and nurturing. I might have tried to distract him and calm him down. I needed to remind myself we were not friends. He was the man who kidnapped me, threatened me, and kept me here against my will. When he wasn't directly mean or abusive to me, I tended to forget all that.

"You have a lot of books on art," I pointed out when I couldn't find a single thing I wanted to read.

"I was an art major," he explained.

"Really?" I was surprised. I couldn't imagine Atlas walking a college campus like a normal student.

"Well, yes. I didn't really need a degree for my line of work, so I chose something enjoyable instead."

"Makes sense."

Atlas watched me whenever he wasn't looking at his computer screen. I felt his eyes on me while I browsed the shelves for something to read or look at. Having him watch me so closely caused a strange combination of emotions. There was the fear of what he would do and what his intentions were.

There was also a feeling of being protected and safe with him around. The most disturbing emotion, though, was the excitement. It was a rush of heat and tingles because his attention was on me. It was how I had felt at the club when we had met, but everything had changed since then. Or maybe nothing had changed after all.

I pulled a book from the shelf and sat on the floor, careful to keep myself covered in the dress. It was an art collection with a naked woman on the cover. What drew me in was how beautiful she looked. Not in an overly sexy or pornographic way. It was the lines of her curves and the soft lighting on her stomach. The way her back arched was sexual, intimate, and gorgeous. I flipped through the pages, finding each photograph more intriguing than the next. I stopped on a naked woman with a rope wrapped around her body.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Atlas asked from behind me. I jumped when I realized he was right behind me. "The naked body," he clarified.

"Yes," I agreed, flipping more pages.

Every photo was in black and white. The naked torso of a woman. A man's hands on a bare back. A couple intertwined, bodies pressed together. They were classically erotic and enchanting. It made nudity and sex something brilliant and natural. There was nothing dirty or shameful about it.

"I love a woman's naked body," Atlas practically purred behind me. "The softness of her skin. The curve of her hips. The roundness of her breasts. The arch of her back."

I swallowed and tried to ignore his deep voice. It made me shiver, and I imagined what he would see if I was naked. Those were dangerous thoughts.

"My favorite," he said, putting his hands on my shoulders, "is the neck."

His hands came up and smoothed over my throat. I held my breath as his fingers glided over my collarbone.

"I love the way it looks when her head is thrown back in pleasure."

I instinctually dipped my head back, looking up at him.

"I love the way the muscles feel under my hands," he whispered, gripping my neck in a gentle choke. "That sensitive dip under your chin."

I gasped when he tickled over the mentioned spot. My body heated and I felt my pulse pounding against his hand. My own heart was betraying my reaction to him.

"Tell me, Little Star. Has anyone appreciated that body the way it should be?" he asked.

I shook my head but I didn't know what I was saying no to. No one ever touched me the way I want you to? No one made me feel like I'm sure you would? No, don't touch me? My mind was a hot, swirling mess and the room grew hotter.

Atlas came to kneel in front of me. His hand reached out and his thumb rubbed my bottom lip. He studied my face, almost like he was seeing me for the very first time. I watched him, fascinated with how expressive those dark eyes could be. They were deep and endless, but I could almost see the fear and anger burning in them. I could even make out the hint of want and need.

Atlas inched forward slowly, crawling over me. I leaned back as he came closer. Soon, I was lying back on the floor, looking up at him. His legs were pressed to mine and with each deep breath, my chest brushed his. His knee slipped between my legs and wedged them apart so I could feel how hard he was. I could feel him all over me now. My body was heating up and melting under him.

Atlas lowered his face but froze when a noise came from outside the door. The door flew open and slammed against the wall. Atlas jumped up at the bang and I hurried to sit up. With quick and trained movements, Atlas pulled his gun and aimed at the open door.

"Shit," breathed Sal, holding his hands up in surrender. "Don't shoot, boss."

"What the fuck are you doing?" Atlas growled at him, lowering the gun. "You know better than barging in like that. Asshole."

"We have company," he said gravely. "Now."

"Who?"

"Xander. I rushed in before Tony and him to warn you," Sal said, glancing behind him.

Another face appeared in the doorway. He looked like Atlas a little, with dark hair and eyes. He smiled as he took us in, me sitting on the floor with a red face.

"Dude, didn't you know you had a chick with you," he said with a wink to me.

"Get out," Atlas barked.

Sal pushed the stranger back and closed the door. Atlas quickly locked it behind them. I could feel the rage rolling off him and it scared me. I wanted out of this room but I didn't know what dangers lurked outside the door. Atlas paced the room while I slowly stood up and backed up against the wall.

Atlas turned and glared at me. I wished I was invisible because when he looked at me like that, I feared for my life. If I could rewind to several minutes ago, his eyes would make me hot and want to do things I shouldn't.

"Stella," he whispered, coming at me in long strides. He put his hands on both of my shoulders, pressing me to the wall. "I told you not to let me touch you. Do you ever do what you're told?"

"Not often," I admitted quietly.

"Well, you're life depends on you doing what you're told tonight."

XIV

Atlas

I was a planner. Every plan had a back-up plan, exit plan, and even back-up exit plan. I never let a detail get overlooked. It was how I was raised, or trained, and how I operated. There was a plan to prevent anyone from finding out I had the Harlow girl alive. If anyone was about to discover her, I would make sure she wasn't alive to be found.

Xander's surprise visit could ruin this plan. As my cousin, he had loyalty to my dad and his own dad. I didn't know whose side he would stand on if a war broke out. I didn't know his involvement or what he knew. I could find out, or I could dispose of Stella now, eliminating the risk.

I gripped my gun and looked down into her terrified eyes. Moments ago they were passionate and ready for whatever I could give her. Sal saved her from getting exactly that. There was so much I needed from her still. And there was still the promise I made to Ace. I should at least try to make this work before I put a bullet between her gorgeous blue eyes.

"Stella, I need you to look at some photos," I told her.

"What photos?" she asked with a shaky voice.

I pulled her over to the computer and opened a folder of photos, flipping through them for her. Ace and I had spent months collecting these photos and evidence.

"Tell me if any of these men were the shooter."

Tears welled in her eyes and she swayed on her feet. I put an arm around waist to hold her upright.

"This is very important, Little Star," I said in her ear. "Stay with me. Don't you dare fucking shut down now."

"No. He's not there," she choked out.

I sighed, both relieved and disappointed that Stella didn't recognize any of the guys I showed her. Although I was able to eliminate about a dozen men I thought may have been involved, there were tons more who could be. These were just the guys who went missing in the past few months. If you left behind a witness, you were in a world of trouble. A smart man would disappear on his own or one of us would make it happen.

With everyone denying that we had anything to do with the Harlow killings, there was no one I could interrogate. Chances were that very few knew the real truth. If they knew what was good for them, they would make sure that I never found out either. Taking out Ace was a grave mistake on my father's part if he ordered it. And if a bigger and darker secret was lurking in the darkness, everyone would go down.

In this life, we had few real rules. Spilling blood wasn't a crime, but sometimes it was as necessary as taking out the trash. Lies were a weapon and a defense. The only people you feared or respected were those above you on the family tree. Within the family, you protected your own. As the boss’s son, I was practically a prince. I was in the inner circle, or I thought I was.

"How did you manage getting away that night?" I asked. If anyone saw her, he should have killed her then. You never leave a witness behind.

"When I saw," she paused and swallowed. "I went across the hall to the laundry room. I climbed on the dryer and up into the attic above until he left."

Sneaky. Smart. She would do just fine tonight. I was risking exposing what I was doing to Xander but it was the best option we had. Since he already saw her, I couldn’t just hide her away and lock her up. We would need to be creative. This was one of those moments I wished Ace was here.

"Me too," she whispered. I didn't realize I said that out loud.

"Did he have the power to get you to follow directions?" I asked, earning a small smile from her.

"What do you need me to do?"

"Shower, get dressed and meet in the living room," I told her. "You are not Stella tonight. Be anyone else you want to be, but not the girl I was supposed to have killed."

Her eyes widened but she nodded. I waved her off, needing a moment alone to regain my control. Between the surprise visitor and her, I was losing it.

"Oh, and Stella," I called as she reached for the doorknob. "Don't try anything stupid or I will kill you. Understand?"

"Yes, sir," she whispered and hurried through the door.

I ran my fingers through my hair and grabbed my jacket off the back of my chair. Time to work. I found Sal and Tony with my cousin in the living room. Tony was mixing a drink at the bar and the sliding doors were open to the patio. Xander smiled widely when he saw me.

"Atlas," he said, coming at me to shake hands. "Sorry to interrupt you and the little hottie. I thought you were alone up here."

I laughed and smiled like I wasn't on edge. "I'm never alone," I quipped with a cocky smirk.

"When I heard the boys here were on the way to your lake house, I demanded to hitch a ride back with them," he said. "It's been too long."

"Too long," I agreed. It had been a while since I trusted anyone. "Did Sal give you the tour? There's an amazing wine cellar downstairs."

"I forgot the tour," Sal jumped in. "In fact, there's a bourbon about a hundred years old we should get for tonight."

"I heard Bourbon," Xander said, standing. "Lead the way, Sal."

Sal led Xander out of the room and I hoped the bourbon really existed. Xander was a laid back guy but he was raised in the family as I was. He wasn't stupid.

"What the fuck?" I hissed when they were out of ear-shot.

"He wouldn't take no for an answer," Tony said. "We couldn't push anymore without him getting suspicious."

"You couldn't have called?"

"He wanted to surprise you," he said quietly. "We didn't feel secure using the phones to call you. What are you gonna do about Stella? And what the fuck did they walk into?"

"I have a plan," I said just as Stella walked into the room.

She looked around the room nervously and pulled on the hem of the dress she changed into. I should have told her to wear pants because seeing her long, bare legs brought me to my knees in the office. It would have been so easy to slip my hand up and into her panties. It probably would have happened if we hadn’t been interrupted.

"Where is he?" she whispered as she walked over to us at the bar.

"Sal is giving him a tour of the cellar in the basement," I told her. "Getting bourbon."

"Do you really have a cellar or is he going to kill him?" she asked.

"Shit," I said with a laugh. "I didn't think of that. You look nice."

"Thank you." Her cheeks blushed lightly. I got off on being able to do that.

My cousin's laughter and loud footsteps sounded down the hall. Stella's body stiffened so I reached for her and pulled her close. Tony pushed a pink drink over to her and she took it, quickly taking a drink. I put a hand on her back so she would know I was here and in control.

"Ah, the beauty has joined her beast," Xander said as he entered the room, expensive bottle in hand. It did exist. "Xander," he said, extending his hand for her.

"Alexa," she offered easily. I rubbed her back to let her know she did well. She looked different enough with the new hair that I was sure he wouldn't recognize her right away but her photo circulated for a while within the family.

"Nice to meet you," he said, already busy trying to pour a glass. If all went well, he would be wasted and passed out before the sun was down.

"Now I see what has my cousin hiding away for months," he joked. I felt Stella go stiff and her grip tightened on her glass. I knew those words reminded her of Hector. It reminded me of Hector, and pissed me off.

"Fuck off," I said, shooting him a deathly glare. Xander got the message and poured a drink.

"So tell me, Atlas," he started, handing me a glass as well. "How did you manage to get out of the city? I would kill for a vacation."

I laughed because no one got time off and he knew this. I just took off and no one dared to ask me to do any dirty work. Xander never showed the initiative that I had when we were young. He never seemed to want to run the casinos or gambling sites. Xander always appeared perfectly fine chasing down money or doing the ground work. That's why he never had the same responsibilities that I did.

"I'm not too far from the city," I told him. "It's not like I'm sitting in the Miami sun."

"Right," he said, all the humor leaving his voice.

Interesting. Party boy should love it down there. Sal gave me a look so I know he caught the shift as well. Although Xander had never had much responsibility in Chicago, that could've changed in Miami.

"No talk about work," Xander announced, finishing his drink in one gulp. "Where are you from, Alexa?"

"San Fran," she lied quickly.

"Tell me you have a hot and single sister," Xander said, putting his hands together in prayer.

Stella laughed and shook her head. "Sorry. Only child."

The words stabbed me and I'm sure they hurt her, too. I snaked my hand around her waist and pulled her into my chest. She slightly leaned back into me.

"Damn it," Xander whined playfully. "I had sisters once. It was amazing."

Xander grabbed his drink and Sal led him over to the fireplace. Tony followed as Xander gave a graphic retelling of hooking up with sisters in Vegas. It was a story I heard a dozen times already, so I stayed at the bar with Stella. I was sure she didn't need to hear his exaggerated story anyway. I don't even think the girls were actually related.

"You're doing fine," I whispered in her ear.

"You sure? I feel like he can see right through me," she whispered, leaning her head back so I could hear her.

Looking over, I found Xander watching us. I could tell he was suspicious. Understandably, since I wasn't someone often seen with a woman. Needing to convince him this was another fling, I ran my hand up her waist and over her chest. Stella inhaled sharply as I grazed over her nipple and up her neck. I wrapped my fingers gently around her throat and put my mouth on her ear.

“We're being watched," I breathed into her ear before pulling her earlobe into my mouth.

Stella's eyes fell closed and she went weak in my arms. I pulled her closer and licked the shell of her ear. She tasted salty and sweet at the same time. I tasted the spot behind her ear and down the back of neck. A soft moan left her mouth and I pushed into her in warning.

"Don't," I said against her skin with a soft bite to make a point. "Don't make me lose control."

XV

Stella

I was on fire. When I walked into the room, I was so nervous I thought I would be sick. It didn't take long to forget why I was even there. When Atlas touched me gently like I was his, I forgot how dangerous he was. He took me forcefully and kept me against my will. He was sent to kill me, but when he protected me, that didn't matter. I melted into him, needing the comfort he gave.

Maybe being alone for so long made me desperate for any affection or connection. Someone was finally holding me. After months of looking over my shoulder, I didn't need to anymore. The hunter already found me and had me trapped, but I felt safe in his cage. I wasn't sure if I trusted that he would protect me if I helped him, but part of me wished I could.

His hot tongue licked over my racing pulse before he slowly pulled back. I opened my eyes as the sounds of the guys talking by the fireplace filtered back into my ears. I straightened and pulled away from Atlas, needing my head clear. Looking over, Tony was watching us with a confused expression.

Atlas led me over the fireplace where Xander was telling another colorful tale. Sal made more drinks, and I found myself laughing at stories of Xander's drunken mistakes. While Xander told me about a waking up on a yacht that wasn't his, Atlas pulled me down onto his lap. At first, I froze but he squeezed my hand and I relaxed into him.

While the others chatted, Atlas kept touching me in some way. His fingers played with the hem of my dress. Every few minutes, his lips would graze my neck or cheek. Every touch made my stomach do a flip. Every nerve was awake and buzzing for him. This was how I imagined we would act before he drugged and kidnapped me.

"So Alexa, how did you meet Atlas?" Xander eventually asked.

"At a club," I told him. It was the truth so it was easy to say.

"Surely one Atlas owns otherwise he wouldn't be in one. He has two left feet," he said, laughing into his glass.

"I thought he danced fine," I said quickly. My cheeks burned when I remembered how we danced in the club. At the time I thought I would never see him again.

"That was the alcohol talking," Xander said. "Speaking of alcohol, we need another trip to the cellar. Be right back."

Xander got up and stumbled out of the room. The guys killed a whole bottle in a short time. Atlas seemed sober still. We exhaled loudly when we heard the door close down the hall. I shifted in Atlas's lap, unsure how to act when no one was watching.

"Why hasn't he passed out yet?" Tony asked. "I thought he would be out by now. He has no tolerance."

"This is your plan?" Sal asked, glaring at Atlas. "Pretend she's your girl?"

"It's working, isn't it?" Atlas asked. His grip tightened on my thigh.

"Oh yeah, your acting is spot on. And if he recognizes her?"

"He would have by now."

"Not worth the risk," Sal said, now glaring at me. "There was a plan in place for shit like this."

A chill ran down my spine. They were discussing me like I wasn't even in the room. Like I was a prisoner. Like I was disposable. I started to stand but Atlas stood behind me, stepping around me. He stood in front of Sal, his fist clenched at his side. Tony came up behind me, pulling me back behind the couch and out the way.

"Are you fucking questioning me?" Atlas growled at his man. "Because I have a plan to handle that as well."

"Our lives are on the line, too. Not just yours," Sal said back with equal anger.

"Better to put just hers on the line right?"

Sal looked over Atlas's shoulder at me. I could feel the tension rise in the room and I wanted to run. They were talking about me like I was a pet. Tony came to stand in front of me.

"He already saw her," Tony told Sal. "This was the best option. Now drop it because he's coming."

The men stepped away from each other just as Xander entered the room. I tried to smile at him but my head was spinning. My mind was catching up with what was happening. Sal obviously thought I shouldn't be here. I was a risk to them in some way because I was alive.

"What did I miss?" Xander asked with a slight slur.

"Nothing, cousin," Atlas answered, moving away from Sal with a final glare in his direction.

Xander went to the bar with the new bottle and started to pour more drinks. He was watching us closely and I could see the suspicion. My heart was pounding and I could feel my hands starting to shake with fear. It had become very obvious that the fact I was still alive was a huge problem.

Needing to do something, anything to save my own life, I walked over to Atlas. I needed to do something to take off the suspicion. Wrapping my arms around his neck, I pushed up on my tip-toes. He gave me a quick look of confusion before I pressed my lips to his. Molding my chest to his, he pulled me closer and kissed me back. I sighed into his mouth as he licked my bottom lip. I gripped the back of his neck and tilted my head, giving him better access to my mouth.

In front of the three guys, Atlas nibbled on my lips and kissed me like no one was watching. I slipped my tongue out to battle his. He tasted like the bourbon, and I wanted to get drunk off it. My eyes closed and I pretended for just a second that I was really just his girl and not a pawn in whatever dangerous game he was playing.

"Get a damn room," Xander said from behind us.

I slowly pulled away and opened my eyes. Atlas glared down at me and my skin burned under his gaze.

"What did I tell you, Little Star?" he whispered in my ear.

"To behave or you'll kill me," I told him. He shook his head.

"Don't let me touch you again." He pulled away and looked up at the guys who were watching us. I couldn't look at them. I was too scared to look to see if the suspicion was gone in Xander’s eyes.

"We are going to head to bed, gentlemen," Atlas said, placing a hand on my lower back to guide me.

"It was nice meeting you, Alexa," Xander said, reaching out to shake my hand.

"You too," I said, hearing the slight shake in my own voice.

Xander shook my hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. Atlas was close behind me, urging me forward. With a smile, I finally met Xander's eyes. When I went to pull away, he didn't release my hand. He just stared at me and I could feel the panic rising inside me.

"You look strangely familiar," he said quietly.

Those four words sent the room into a flash of movement. I was pulled back roughly and my knees hit the floor. The unmistakable sound of gun safety clicks echoed. Looking up, guns were pointed in every direction. Sal's gun was aimed at my head.

The room went silent. Xander had his gun aimed at Atlas, who was aiming at Sal but watching his cousin. Tony had his gun trained on Xander. I was defenseless on my hands and knees while Sal aimed at me. It seemed this was the moment all of us never wanted to see happen. Someone was going to die in this room. This couldn't end well and we all knew it.

"Put the gun down, Atlas. I don't want to shoot you," Xander said calmly. All evidence of the buzz he had seemed to have evaporated.

"You know I can't do that," Atlas said, his gun still pointed at Sal.

"Come on, man. We're family," Xander said.

"That's the fucking problem."

Everyone held their ground. Xander's eyes bounced between me and Atlas. Tony kept his attention on Xander, ready to shoot. I could feel sweat forming on my forehead. This had to be what my parents felt like the last few minutes of their lives.

"I'm not like them. And neither are you," Xander said, slowly lowering his gun. "That's why I came to you, cousin."

"Atlas," Sal interrupted. "This is out of hand."

"You shoot her and I will end you," Atlas told him with a menace to his voice that gave me chills.

Reluctantly, Sal lowered his weapon. Tony and Atlas followed and I finally took in a breath.

"You always keep your promises," Xander said. "She's Ace's sister right? She looks like him."

"What do you mean you aren't like them?" Atlas asked. "As you know, she should be dead and I can't have anyone knowing she’s not. Tell me why I shouldn't let Tony put a bullet in your head right now."

Xander rubbed his face and pinched the bridge of his nose. The tension in the room was so thick it was hard to breathe.

"I was asked to get rid of the Harlows," he said.

Atlas lunged for Xander, throwing him into the wall. I stared at Xander but knew he wasn't the man I saw in my kitchen.

"I didn't do it," he rushed out. His words were chocked by Atlas's arm pushing on his throat. "I told him no. Ace was my friend, too."

Atlas looked back at me and I nodded, confirming Xander wasn't the guy he was looking for.

"Who asked you?"

"Who do you think?"

Silence hung in the air. For the hundredth time since I had arrived at this house, I wished I could be anywhere else. I was looking at the people responsible for leaving me alone in this world and it was eating at me inside. Atlas finally pushed off Xander and came over to me.

"You okay?" he asked quietly.

I nodded and took his hand as he pulled me to my feet. He held my hand until I was steady. I glanced over at Sal, uneasy around him now. Moments ago he was ready to shoot me. Everything happened so fast but no one missed a second of it. Those actions would later be replayed and dissected to show true motivation.

One thing became painfully clear in that room. While the crickets chirped outside the sliding glass doors, we stood in silence and stared at each other. The realization washed over me like a cold waterfall, giving me goosebumps. I was never meant to leave this house alive. There was no scenario that my life wouldn't be a risk to these guys and whatever they were doing. The moment I was no longer needed, or too great of a risk, I would be dead.

"Tony," Atlas barked. "Take Stella to her room."

Tony took my arm and we quietly left the room without a backward glance. Atlas meant nothing to me, just as I was nothing to him. Every gentle gesture, touch, and kiss was all part of their cover. I was just a pawn in his plan.

XVI

Atlas

"What the fuck was that?" I roared when all three men faced me in my office.

I slammed my fists down on the desk, glaring at Sal. My fingers were itching to grab my gun and blow some shit up. It was a struggle to keep my cool.

"That was sticking to the fucking plan!" Sal growled back at him. "Anyone figures her out, she is gone. You remember that rule? It's your rule!"

Of course I remembered. It was the first rule I had made when I decided to take the job of killing her, and I kept her instead. Stella was more useful alive, but we agreed to take the chance within reason.

"I'm not done with her. She has information we need," I said to the room. I didn't like being questioned.

"What, you want to fuck her first? Feel those plump little lips around your dick before you put her out of her misery?" Sal fumed.

I lurched across my desk and wrapped my hands around the man's throat. Sal was older, wiser and had seen more than I had, so he wasn't fazed. He showed no fear, just anger as we stared each other down. Releasing his neck, I pulled my hand back and punched him in the nose. The cracking sound echoed in the room and my knuckles throbbed.

"Feel better?" Sal asked, his voice muffled from his hand holding his face.

"No."

Sal straighten and looked me in the eye. "I trust you and what we are trying to do here, but don't you dare forget the consequences if this falls apart. The only weakness you have, besides that girl, is that you only see the end goal. You see the fireworks, the gold at the end of the rainbow. You never consider failure because to you, that is not an option. Unfortunately son, it is a very real possibility."

He was right. I always planned for failure, but I planned meticulously to avoid it. I never planned for everything actually falling apart. There was a good chance my dad, or anyone in the family, could hear what I was up to. An army of men trained the same as me could descend on this lake house and wipe us out before I even heard the first footstep. There would be nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.

"All this is for nothing if she doesn't give us what she knows," I said.

"Get it soon, Atlas," Tony said, surprising me. He seemed against killing the girl, but he was right. Winter was coming. "Don't forget your priorities."

Everyone's priorities were made pretty clear in the living room. Every weapon drawn, pointing a flashing sign toward what mattered the most. Tony aimed at the threat, Xander. He would have shot to keep me alive. Xander aimed right at my chest, seeing me as the biggest threat to his life. Sal pointed at Stella, knowing she was weak link. I should have aimed with him. Even at Xander as he threatened to expose our secrets.

I pointed at Sal. I pointed a gun at my own man, one of the few I trusted. I protected the girl, not the mission. Not the hundreds of others who could fall victim to our kind if we didn't end it. I exposed the chink in my armor. If I had a weakness, we all shared that weakness. As much as my promise to Ace meant something to me, the guys standing with me did, too. The difference was that they were still alive and counted on me. Ace couldn't be saved anymore and if I was being honest, neither could Stella.

I walked past the guys and out to the deck. Funny how that was the selling point of the house, and I had never stepped foot out here before Stella. It was dark so I couldn't see the lake that I knew was out there. Like the monsters and evils, they were out there but you couldn't see them. I sat on the edge of the deck and hung my feet over, wondering what the fuck to do now.

When was the last time I had seen the sunrise? I wasn’t sure I had even looked around since Ace went missing. In my rage, I had only looked toward my end goal. Seeing only my revenge and the pain I would cause those who betrayed me, I didn't see what I was leaving behind. I never cared about what my actions caused.

I attended the funerals of those I had killed before. I sat behind their grieving wives and put a fake consoling hand on their shoulders. I had even taken advantage of the vulnerable state they were in before. I never ended a life that didn't deserve it my eyes. They may not have been good enough to anyone else, but my reasons were mine.

Stella didn't leave behind a distraught family. Her parents were lucky to never know the fate of both of their treasured children. Ace left this ugly world believing that I would keep my promise. And I would. Stella in my hands was better than her being in theirs. There was no doubt that it was only a choice between the two.

I rubbed my face in my hands roughly. I lost the jacket long ago, probably about last night after Tony escorted Stella out of the room. The cool morning air blew off the water and though my hair. It reminded me of the way Stella's fingers moved through my hair the night before. Most women got straight to the point with their hands, and I appreciated that. Stella was too curious; always needing to explore.

I stood from the deck and walked back to my office where the guys were waiting for me. The package from my dad sat on my desk, unopened. I quickly opened the box, sick of all the fucking games. We were either in a war, or I would start one, but I was sick of waiting.

Inside the box was a bottle of whiskey. Dust had collected on the bottle and you could barely read the label but I instantly recognized it. It had sat in my dad's study, for most of my life, on the shelves behind his desk. He had never opened it, saying it was worth too much to just piss away. So why send it to me now?

"Sweet," Xander said, reaching for it. I smacked his hand away.

"Don't touch it. Put the box down in the cellar," I told Sal. "I don't trust a fucking thing from that man."

Sal did as he was told, taking the box quietly from the room. I paced, agitated and on edge. My skin was crawling and I wanted to hit something. The whiskey was a message, not a gift. I just didn't know what he was trying to tell me. I needed to make a move.

"Where is she?" I asked through gritted teeth. It wasn’t safe here anymore. It wasn’t safe anywhere.

"Her room," Tony said. "Locked her in there last night."

"Is that so?" I asked, already leaving the office.

Anger rushed my veins as I marched down to her room. I hated Stella right then. I hated her for being here, for being Ace's sister, for making me feel anything at all. I had made it this far by being ruthless, violent, and never letting anything stand in my way. Stella was a visible flaw in my armor. The guys saw it and if anyone else had, we would all be dead.

Sal was right. Stella was a risk. A risk I wasn’t sure we could take anymore. I unlocked her bedroom door and walked inside without warning. Stella was startled where she stood near the window. She looked like she had been pacing, still in her clothes from the night before. Her eyes went wide, and I watched as her body tensed. She was afraid of me. Good.

I quickly rounded the bed and grabbed her by the throat. Stella gasped as I pushed her to the wall, holding her still with my own body pinned to hers. I pressed into her, dwarfing her easily. It was good to feel back in control.

"You wear this dress to drive me crazy?" I asked her in a growl. "Is that why you let me touch you all night?"

She shook her head and parted those full lips to speak. I didn't let her. I sealed her mouth shut with mine. My lips took hers so hard, I was sure she would bruise. I took her mouth like I owned it, like I was entitled to it. Stella pushed against me in protest for only a moment before clutching on to my shoulders.

Stella squeezed in surprise, and I pulled back to look down at her. Her chest rose quickly with her fast breathing. Her lips were red and plump as her tongue darted out to lick them. I held her to the wall by her neck and grabbed the hem of her dress. With one hand, I pulled and the sound of ripping filled the room.

"Atlas," Stella breathed. Her black lace bra and matching panties were exposed to me.

"I am the one in control, Little Star," I hissed. "And I hate you for making me lose it."

My hand skated up her neck to the back of her head. Pulling her hair, her head tilted back to look up at me. Big, blue eyes sparkled with fire and excitement. Stella was a little scared and a little turned on. I dove down and sucked the sensitive skin of her throat where I held her too tightly.

Stella whispered my name but I ignored her. I couldn't stop now. After days of being with her, months of watching her, hours of touching her, I was a goner. I could think of nothing but having her. My blood pumped hot and thick in my veins. My heartbeat pounded in my ears.

I ran my lips down the column of her throat, savoring her pulse pounding on my tongue. Kissing over her collarbone, I bit down on her shoulder. Stella swore and bucked against me but I held her immobile. In my grip, she was helpless.

XVII

Stella

Atlas had me pinned to wall and completely under his control. I was just as mentally controlled as physically. I was at his mercy as he attacked me with his hands, mouth and words. It was as if he was punishing me with his lips. Every growled word made my stomach flutter with nerves and fear. My hands went to push him away, but the power to do so never came.

Teeth sunk into my skin and I cursed. The pain sent a shock to every nerve ending, waking up my entire body. I was hyper-sensitive to Atlas and what he was doing to me. It was a mixture of pain and pleasure and my head spun trying to sort it out. He licked and kissed away the mark from his bite, only to repeat it over again. I was powerless to stop him as he left his mark from my shoulder to my throat.

Atlas was like a man possessed. It was as if he couldn't control his body when it was with mine. He handled me like he needed to. There was no restraint or holding back anymore. I should have been terrified of what he was capable of.

"I shouldn't have tried to save you," he said into my damp skin.

"I don't think you have yet," I answered, my voice breathy.

If anything, I was in a deeper danger than I was before a gun was pointed at my head in his living room. Not even before I was in his possession was I closer to the monsters. I started to wonder if the real danger I should be running from was the man with his hands on me.

Atlas pulled back to look at my face. I was sure I was flushed and my lips were swollen from his bruising kiss. His eyes were wild and dangerous. I held my breath, anticipating his next move. He was hanging by a single thread of control, and I watched as it snapped. The very power Atlas was struggling to obtain just shattered, falling to our feet.

His hands grabbed mine, pushing them above my head on the wall. I was open to him, exposed in only my bra and panties. He wanted to be angry at my dress or underwear, but he supplied them for me. Atlas had no one to blame but himself and he knew that. He was angry with himself as much as with me. Which one of us would pay the consequences?

When Atlas wedged one knee between my legs, I clenched my thighs together. Undeterred, he kicked my feet apart forcing me to open to him. His thigh rubbed against me, and a moan escaped my mouth before I could stop it. The slight pressure sent waves of heat through my body radiating from between my legs.

"Are you wet for me, Little Star?" Atlas asked with a knowing grin.

Atlas held my wrists together above my head with one hand while the other skimmed down my arms. He continued down over my breasts and stomach, finally landing on my panties. He wasted no time pushing his hand under the thin lace. His fingers slid over my clit, and I cried out before I could stop myself.

"You're dripping for me," Atlas whispered in my ear, biting my earlobe.

His fingers pushed inside me, stretching me. A deep growl rumbled from Atlas, sending vibrations through me. His hand pulled away from me, and I held back a disappointed whine. He wanted the power and control, but I didn't want to give it to him so easily. Dark eyes glared down at me as he slipped his two fingers in his mouth, sucking them clean.

I was fascinated with the calm that took over his features in that moment that I almost didn't notice him undoing his belt. Ripping it from the loops, he quickly and expertly bound my wrists together. With my wrists together, he put them behind his head. The position would feel normal and familiar if it wasn't for the leather forcing them there.

"You make me like this," Atlas said as he hoisted me up against the wall so my legs wrapped around his waist. "Unable to stop myself."

I was clinging to him like I couldn't get close enough. Atlas was holding me up and together at the same time. One hand gripped my thigh as the other moved between us. I hissed at the gentle friction as he reached down to position himself at my opening. I held my breath as his eyes bore into mine.

He was daring me to do something. I had the chance to scream even though no one would come to help me. I could bite him, scratch, or even kick. I could fight him off, or at least put up a struggle. Instead, I relaxed my muscles and waited for him to own me the only way he hadn't yet.

I didn't expect easy and gentle from Atlas and he didn't surprise me. He thrusted into me until he was fully inside me. I cried out, digging my nails into the back of his neck as he pushed into me. Atlas didn't give me time to adjust to his size or get used to being so full. He pounded into me, giving me everything he had.

"Fucking finally," Atlas said with his face buried in side of my neck.

The sexual tension between us was exploding. Every touch and tease had built up just to amount to this moment. It was almost too much feeling while he took his anger out on me and regained his sense of control. Almost.

Our sweaty bodies clashed and rubbed against each other. The sensations were building and my cries were getting louder. It had been so long since I'd been touched, let alone like this, that I was craving it. Every kiss to my neck and nibble to my lips sent me into a combustible mess. I was ready to finally explode.

"Come hard for me, Stella," Atlas growled. "I want to hear you scream."

Screaming was all I could do when I finally was pushed to the point of no return. I was a bomb detonating after a long and torturous countdown. My screams made my own ears ring but Atlas kept thrusting like he was trying to make me louder. My nails pierced the skin in the back of his neck, but it didn't slow him down.

Atlas pulled back just enough to watch my face. I could barely keep my eyes open as he groaned loudly and froze, pushed deep inside me. I could feel my insides convulsing around him as he throbbed inside. Warmth spread inside and my muscles went weak, making me go limp in his arms.

Spinning away from the wall, Atlas dropped us to the bed and pulled out of me. I couldn't breathe or even control my racing heart. I was sweaty, weak, and my mind was all over the place. I couldn't understand why I had let that happen or why I had enjoyed it so fucking much. It was as if we had both finally satisfied a craving that had been eating at us. I closed my eyes, afraid to look into his face while he removed the belt from my wrists.

"Yes. Go clean yourself up."

With that, he left the room, locking the door behind him. On shaky legs, I made it to the bathroom and under the hot spray. I let the scalding water wash away the marks he left on my body. But even the burning water couldn't fully erase it. His teeth marks and bruises still would mark me when I stepped out. There would no removing Atlas from my body.

That was exactly what he wanted. Atlas felt as if he didn't have any control so he took it. Last night in the living room, his true intentions were revealed. He didn't want me dead. I just had the task of finding out why. Was it because of his promise to Ace? Was it because I was innocent and didn't deserve to be executed in front of the fireplace in a lake house?

Not for the first time, I wondered who would attend my funeral when I had one. Liddy may never hear the news. I didn't have any family left to cry over my casket. I had alienated everyone else after the murders to the point that I didn't think I had anyone left to care. Atlas was the only one willing to fight for my life, no matter the reasons. Against all good judgement, that was the only comforting thought that kept me from falling apart.

I stepped out of the shower and pulled on my robe. I wrapped it tightly around me, needing the warmth. I felt alone and scared, but safe and protected at the same time. Only he could give me such contrasting feelings. I hated it but needed it at the same time. My room was empty but filled with the smell of our combined sweat and bodies. It was a harsh reminder of what had just happened.

I crawled under the covers, exhausted from the lack of sleep and everything that had occurred in the last twenty-four hours. As the darkness pulled me under, I couldn't help but wonder what would happen when the sun rose.

When I was a kid, I thought that monsters only lurked in the darkness. It was only at night when evil came out. As I grew up, I learned that the scary stories had that part very wrong. When the sun rose, the evil was still there. If you turned on the lights, the monsters were still there. They were not afraid of light or dark.

Something would be different in the morning. Light was already shed on the evil, and I saw it differently. Atlas was still a monster, a ruthless killer, but not one I would fear. As with anything powerful and strong, there was a weakness. Atlas's weakness was me.

XVIII

Atlas

Stella's breathing was deep and even. She slept without nightmares. After I left her to clean up, I snuck back in when she fell asleep. I fucked up last night. Fuck-ups are unlike me. I didn't have a backup plan for this. There was no Plan B for "Atlas fucked the prisoner we were supposed to kill at the end." Why didn't I think this through?

Where did I mess up? Was it watching her for so long while I learned her habits and waiting for the police to forget about her? Did I make the fatal mistake when I touched her skin at the club? Maybe I should have never kissed her. I knew I shouldn't have fucked her.

How did this make me any better than my own father? This whole thing started because he crossed the line into a territory I didn't want to be in, one I thought we were better than. Keeping her against her will, fucking her, and lying to her only to kill her in the end made me just like him. It was no different than what he was doing.

Stella flinched and I knew she was waking. I could sneak out and send one of the guys in. Sal would be glad to have the task, but that thought made me clench my teeth so hard my jaw ached. I may have strayed from the plan, but I was smart. I could think of another plan. One where I didn't have to watch the life drain out of her eyes would be preferred.

"What are you doing in here?" a groggy voice asked. It was raspy from sleep and screaming the night before.

"Thinking," I told her.

Stella rolled and stretched, the blankets falling off her in the process. She was wearing only a robe that had come untied during the night. Smooth, creamy skin was exposed to me. Red teeth marks covered her neck and shoulders. I promised I would hurt her and I never broke a promise. I lost my control with her, and Stella paid the price.

I was a man who never lost my head no matter the intensity of the situation. I never lost my cool in a fight or any dangerous situation I found myself in. And I absolutely never got so lost when with a girl that I didn't think of protection. Stella has this power to make me lose my fucking mind, and I couldn't even think sometimes when she was around.

Stella quickly pulled her robed closed and sat up. Running her hands through her hair, she tried to tame it but gave it up. It stuck up in all directions from tossing and turning all night. Her face was bare of makeup and her lips were still swollen. She was beguiling first thing in the morning, and I couldn't take my eyes off her. I thought her little dress last night was my weakness, but it didn't matter what the fuck she wore.

I looked at her face expecting to see fear and hate. Maybe even anger for taking her so hard and rough. I didn't see any of that though. I saw a calm and acceptance I had never seen in those blue eyes. Never in the months I followed and watched her.

What had she accepted? Me? Her own fate? The fact that she was paying for everyone else's mistakes?

"I've done bad things, Stella," I said gruffly. "Don't look at me like what I did to you was okay. You need to never let me touch you again. I told you that before."

"My dad once said that sometimes good people have to do bad things to save people from other bad things," she said softly.

Her words sent a shock wave through me. She was stubborn and naive just like her brother had warned. I stood and stalked over to the end of the bed. She had the decency to shrink away from me in the slightest as I approached.

"Little star, I'm not a good person," I said, tilting her face up to look at me. She needed to see what I really was.

"Without a doubt, you've done bad things. Ace too. But whatever you are doing now, I think it's to help someone. Ace would never have gone to my dad that night otherwise," she explained.

She looked so sure, so confident in her assumption. Ace loved his little sister. It was the only thing that made me believe he wouldn't turn on me. To save her. I shook my head, fully convinced then that Ace didn’t go there to tell his dad about me and the family. He was there for help.

"I was raised by criminals," I said. "I was born into the family. My dad is the worst and most dangerous man I know. He raised me as his son."

I remembered instead of going to the middle school dance, I went with my dad to beat up someone who owed him money. That was just child's play, the easiest of tasks. I thought I was so cool that I left Marissa May waiting for me while we left some guy bloodied in a parking lot.

"I played my part and contributed to the family like the rest, Stella. Don't think for a second that I'm innocent. There's too much blood on my hands."

Stella didn't argue but didn't agree either. She sat perfectly still, her breathing shallow and controlled. She asked for the truth so I gave it. She would quickly wish she wasn't so curious. I exposed myself when I pointed my gun at Sal. Along with everyone else in the room, she knew I didn’t want her dead. What she needed to know was that I would do what had to be done in the end.

"It was my responsibly to recruit new guys in. They wanted young and strong to join as lower level men. That's how I met Ace. He wanted the money and excitement. It didn't take much to convince him to tag along with me."

It was my fault it took so long to learn his dad was one of Chicago's finest. Ace and I took to each other, and I instantly trusted him. By the time I learned of his family, he was in too deep. I knew he was committed and one of us.

"We stuck to the usual. The stuff you see in the movies," I said with a smirk. "We put pressure on those who owed the family money. We ran security at the casinos, moved guns if needed. Met with contacts for various deals that weren't legal either. We thought we were untouchable."

Stella stiffened and I start to pace the room. She was smart enough to know that it was going to get bad real soon. She was smarter than us. Two boys who thought they ran the city. We had no idea what was coming for us. It was Chicago for fuck's sake.

"Ace met a girl. She worked one of the casinos, faking the books. We aren't supposed to fuck the help, but Ace thought he would never get caught. Soon, she disappeared. Ace was pissed, wanting to know who did it and what they did with her."

I looked back at Stella. Her eyes were glistening.

"They killed her?"

"That's what we thought for a while. The family isn't much for talking things out. We solved things with blood and tears. Hard lessons. But Ace didn't care and went digging around, wanting to get revenge on whoever pulled the trigger. He found something else."

"What?" Stella asked, sitting straighter and leaning forward with interest. Her eyes were wide and bright, hanging on every word. This was the answer she needed. Like Ace, she lost something and needed to know why. This was a family that believed in justice and balance. Not so different from mine in that way.

"We trade guns, funny money, and anything else for profit. One thing that set us apart from the lowest of the lowest monsters was that we didn't trade women. Until we did."

"Women?" she asked, voice tight.

"That's what's going on but we don't have the proof. It's hidden and only a few know. Those in charge know that not everyone will agree. After some digging, Ace found something that led us to think she was alive."

I hated that I believed my next words, let alone that I needed to say them.

"They sold the girl from the casino."

"Human trafficking," Stella whispered.

Silence hung in the air. I let her collect her thoughts. I shattered her image of her older brother. I probably shattered her image of me and my family. I didn't want her to believe I was a good guy like she said. I wanted her to know that we wouldn't stand for kidnapping and selling women. My mom raised me better than that.

It took losing my mom to realize that a woman was something to be treasured and cherished. They put up with our shit and bring us into this world. Their bodies were built for our enjoyment and pleasure, and vice versa. A woman would give us the world without force if earned. And nothing was ever as sweet and fulfilling as something earned.

"Your dad?" she asked.

"Nothing gets past my dad," I said bitterly.

He knew. He was most likely in control of the whole operation. The fact that he allowed me to stay locked away in this lake house this long confirms my suspicion. Up here, I'm out of his way and not snooping around in his little side business.

"And your promise to protect me? Does that still stand?"

I walked back to the foot of the bed and stared down at her.

"I had to get to you before they did. My father and his people would have no mercy."

I finally saw the fear I needed to see in her eyes.

"You are a traitor's sister. You witnessed one of us killing," I explained, drilling it deeper so she would understand. "They would torture you, make you suffer, kill you slowly or maybe even sell you off to the worst of bidders."

Stella blinked and looked down at her hands. There were red marks from the belt last night. I left my mark on her and, realizing that, I started to get hard. Knowing that I owned her like no one else had and that she let me was empowering. It was exactly what I needed after losing my control because of her. It was a fucked up balance in a way.

"He was there for Ace," she said. "The killer. He asked them where he was. They wouldn't tell him, so he killed them."

"You heard that?"

 "He said that Ace pissed off the wrong people," she said with a tight voice.

My dad. Ace and I were digging around where we shouldn't have. We didn't have enough yet, but we had enough to piss him off. I was now positive that Ace and the Harlows died under my dad's orders. He knew we were on to him, but killing his son would cause a scene. Every member in the city would be looking for justice.

"You are just telling me this now?" I asked.

"It's the only thing that was keeping me alive," she spat. "Once you have what you want, I'm of no use."

"And now?"

"Now, I want the fuckers found, and I was raised to believe that lives are worth fighting for."

XIX

Stella

"Stella, you need to leave your room," Tony yelled from the other side of the bedroom door.

Atlas was successful in avoiding me for two days. Sal and Tony constantly hovered, sitting outside my door and never letting me out of their sight. I had never felt so alone and so crowded at the same time. I wasn't sure what to make of Atlas's disappearing act. He gave me a look into the past and the deep secrets he was trying to unravel, only to abandon me when he needed my help.

I swung the door open and stared at Tony. The concern on his face was unmistakable.

"Why do you care?" I asked. "Where is Atlas?"

"He went into the city but should be back tonight," he explained. "You need food and sunlight."

"Trying to keep me alive just long enough?" I asked. Without waiting for a real answer, I pushed past Tony and started down the hall.

I wasn't stupid. From the moment the shock wore off in the hospital on the worst night of my life, I knew my greatest possession was what I had seen. It could get me killed or save my life. In the beginning, keeping that secret was the key to my survival. I saw nothing, knew nothing, remembered nothing. When Atlas came and demanded the truth, I held it as my last bargaining chip. It would be the key to unlock my freedom when the time was right.

I wasn't too sure what I would eventually earn when I traded my knowledge in the end. Somehow, I couldn't see myself walking the streets carefree ever again. A normal life seemed so far away and impossible anymore. If I was honest, normal died with the rest of my family.

I missed them. I missed my big brother. I hated feeling this alone when I needed someone the most. I couldn't let them die for nothing. Ace obviously believed in what he was doing. If Atlas was telling the truth, they wanted to put an end to the trafficking his father was doing. If I could help them, I would like to try. I really didn't have anything else to do with my life anyway.

I pushed open the doors to the back deck and inhaled the crisp air. I felt weak, mentally and physically. My mind was spinning with possibilities, both good and bad. My nights were restless and my bones ached carrying the emotional load. Atlas ignored me, pushed me aside like the tool I really was. There was a point where I thought he would save me; now I wasn’t too sure.

"You okay? You look pale," Tony said behind me.

"Just fine."

I wasn't fine. I stared over the water until I heard Tony step back inside, no doubt still close by. Despite feeling so lonely, I wanted to be left alone. I wanted company, not a body guard or babysitter.

A chill ran through my body as I looked out over the lake. The trees around me were changing color. This place could actually be very beautiful if you could block out all the bad. I leaned over the railing, looking over and into the murky water. I pulled myself up on the ledge. Slowly, so I wouldn't lose my balance, I pushed myself up upright.

I stood on the wood railing and all I could see was the water. I wanted to block out everything behind me, my past. Confinement, fear, and eminent death waited for me back there. The wind blew through my hair and I felt lighter in the chill with nothing below me but water. My balance wavered but I didn't care if I fell.

"I bet it's freezing," Atlas said behind me. "You going for a swim?"

"I don't know how to swim," I admitted, slowly turning to face him.

Atlas looked perfect as usual. His suit jacket hugged the muscles I knew were under there. His tie was gone but he looked put together. Always in perfect control. He watched me carefully, debating and planning. With measured steps, he came closer until he was right in front of me.

"Get down from there, Stella," he demanded. "Don't make me force you."

I laughed, the bitter sound echoing in the emptiness. My head was fuzzy and I felt tired. Tired of fighting, running and hiding. I wanted it all to be over already. I just didn't know how this story would end. Did it end with my death? My security and a happy ending? Only Atlas could give me any kind of finale.

"Stella, you don't look so good," Atlas said, coming closer and reaching up. "Please get down."

"Now I don't look good?" I asked bitterly. I was acting like a child but couldn't seem to stop it. "It's the black hair, isn't it?"

Atlas sighed and rubbed his face roughly. "I like the hair. That's not what I meant. Just come down."

I shook my head but the movement threw off my whole balance. I stumbled and swayed, losing my footing on the thin railing. When I expected to hit the cold water, warm arms wrapped around me. I hit a hard chest and my body went limp.

"Shit, Stella. You're burning up."

I felt myself moving but I couldn't keep my eyes open. I tried so hard to open them. I needed to see where they were taking me. What if I needed to fight back? I couldn't even lift my head enough to look around. My cheek stayed firmly pressed to Atlas's chest.

"She passed out," Atlas told someone. "She's burning up. What the hell happened?"

"Nothing. She didn't even leave her room," said Tony. "She hasn't eaten or anything."

I heard my bedroom door being kicked open and saw my familiar ceiling. I stared up at this ceiling so often, it was sad I would instantly recognize it. Atlas put me down on my bed and I sunk into the soft mattress and down comforter. His large hands ran over my face and forehead. His touch was gentle and soft, unlike any other way he ever touched me.

"Get something she can drink or eat," Atlas said quietly, followed by the sound of footsteps.

Atlas ran his hands down my face and neck. His fingers were feather light. It was a stark contrast to the roughness he had always showed me.

"You still with me?" he asked quietly.

"Think so," I whispered, my throat sore and raspy. "You can break your promise, Atlas."

"What promise?"

I struggled to open my eyes and finally blinked them open. Atlas's dark eyes were staring down at mine. His face was so close I could smell the faint scent of whiskey. Light stubble lined his strong jaw and I noticed a small scar on his bottom lip. I briefly wondered how he got it.

"I'm no use to you anymore. You can just let me die and Ace will never know the difference," I told him, still staring at his lips and the scar.

"Don't be stupid Stella," he said. "We are gearing up for war here, Little Star. You aren't done here yet, so quit trying to chicken out."

Atlas pulled away from me and my eyes fell closed. A coldness wrapped around me as voices whispered around me. Sounds faded out and back in. Atlas tried to pull me up but I couldn't hold myself up. I wanted to, but I couldn't fight anymore. I had nothing left.

"You need to try to eat this," he said to me, putting a spoon to my lips.

Atlas and Tony force fed me chicken broth. It burned my mouth but the salty familiar taste warmed me from the inside. My head pounded, my eyes burned as I tried to refuse the soup. I didn't want their help. I didn't want anyone's help anymore. I just wanted it to be over.

Just when I thought I was going to have my peace, I was awake. Ice cold water was spraying on me and I gasped in shock.

"What the fuck!" I shouted, trying to get away from the freezing water.

"Stop," Atlas demanded in a voice that made me pause.

He was in his boxers and white collared shirt. He was soaked, holding me in the shower.

"I had to cool you down," he explained. "Your fever got too high."

I relaxed into his chest and let the water cool me down. I was shivering but I could feel the sweat on my skin. My hair was damp so I dipped my head back, letting the cool spray soak through. The sound of my teeth chattering echoed in the large bathroom.

"Thanks," I mumbled, weak and exhausted.

"Don't thank me," he said. "Come on. You need food now that you're conscious."

He reached over and turned off the water. I took Atlas's outstretched hand and let him pull me to my feet. I lost my balance, but Atlas was quick to grab me. His hands held my hips and he looked down at me. We were both soaked in our clothes and his hair dripped water on my face. We were so close, I could feel his body heat and the beat of his heart through his chest.

"Don't give up yet, Stella," he said, running a thumb over my skin. "You are better than that. Better than us."

Atlas didn't give me a chance to respond before he pulled me from the shower. I got my privacy to dry off and put on warm, dry clothes. I was slow and weak, but I could stand on my own two feet. When I stepped into the bedroom, Atlas was sitting on the bed with a tray of food. Too tired to argue, I sat next to him and took the tray when he passed it over.

The soup was chicken noodle from the can but reminded me of home. My mom would make it whenever one of us was sick. The whole family would eat chicken noodle soup and crackers even if just Ace had the cold. Dad teased mom that it was just so she didn't need to cook extra. I think she didn't want one of us to feel left out.

I stared down into the broth and felt my eyes misting over. I tried to blink and hide it in time, but I was too late.

"I followed you," Atlas said, breaking our silence. "My dad sent me down after the cops found the bodies. He tried to tell me one of his enemies went after Ace, taking out the family, but you escaped."

I put down my spoon and looked up at him. I knew he had found me before the night of the club, but I was unsure how far back.

"I watched you at the funeral," he admitted. "I never saw you cry. Even those nights alone, you never broke down."

I swallowed the lump in my throat. Atlas followed me for months. He stalked me, watched me and saw every move I made. I should feel violated, scared and maybe even angry. Somehow knowing that he was somewhere close those dark and lonely nights gave me a sick feeling of comfort. Someone was there.

"I didn't want them to win. I thought that if I never told the police that I saw anything, they would leave me alone," I said. Hearing it out loud, I realized how naive that had been.

"They won't win, Stella. I will make damn sure of it," Atlas said, his voice low and angry. "My father promised he had nothing to do with Ace or your family. He lied to me and will pay for that."

"But he's your father," I said, confused how he could follow in the man's footsteps only to turn his back on him.

"Blood may determine your family, but it doesn't have to be blood shared. It can be blood spilled. Ace died for a reason, and I will finish what he started and make anyone who stood in our way pay."

XX

Atlas

I snuck out of the room while Stella slept. Her temperature had returned to normal but she was still exhausted and weak. I had spent the last twenty-four hours forcing her to eat and drink. Most of our time was spent in comfortable silence, but I could almost hear her thoughts.

I isolated her. Stripped away what little she had left. I had never seen her break down in sorrow and loneliness before. But here, in her weakest moments, I saw the pain shine through. Not only was the pain surprising, but so was my reaction to it. I was angry. Angry that Ace wasn't here to fix this. Pissed that I had to witness her breaking.

I should never have touched her. Before, holding back was a struggle and now it would be near impossible. It was a mistake that could cost us the mission. When I saw her, I couldn't think straight. It took heading to the city for me to able to see clearly. Sometimes just being in the same isolated house was too much to be able to concentrate. I needed distance and couldn't let that happen again.

In my office, I searched through the footage I got from visiting my dad in the city. With a new determination, I looked for a new face. He must have someone new to be his right-hand man dealing with trafficking the women. I had compiled a group of men who were new by the time Sal and Tony joined me.

"There's a buzz in the family," Tony said. "A general unease that something is up."

"And there is," I said, looking up from the computer.

"Rumors are spreading," Sal added. "Some are saying you want out. Others think the old man is stepping down for you to take over. Either way, change is in the air."

"There will be change, boys," I told them. "We are getting ready for war. The final phase is falling into place so we best be ready."

"We are armed and ready," Tony assured me.

"Our guys are ready," Sal said.

We spent weeks quietly spreading the word about the darker part of the "family business." As expected, many didn't agree. My father may still have been the boss, but I was the one with the real following. We had an arsenal stocked and ready for just about anything.

"And the girl?" Tony asked.

"What about her?" I asked, glaring up at him. "She lives for now."

We spent the day going over plans and backup plans. We weren't planning to simply kidnap a young woman here. We were going to war with the boss. In the last decade, no one had tried to overthrow the head of the family in Chicago. My grandfather had ruled before my dad, and I was to take over after him.

I looked up at the painting of Atlas on my wall. He led the war against the Gods and paid for his mistake for eternity. Would I end up like my namesake? Was I leading us all into a trap, only to be defeated? Lives would be lost without a doubt. The only question was how many, and who would stand when the smoke cleared?

"Atlas," I heard in the doorway. I looked up to see Stella standing there, looking much better than the night before. "I'm sorry, I just didn't know where anyone was," she said, trailing off at the end when she realized she was interrupting something serious.

"How are you feeling?" I asked her, standing up.

"Better, thank you," she said, looking at the floor. She was nervous, scared, and uneasy around me.

Coming around from behind my desk, I walked toward her. I kept walking as she backed up, hitting the wall behind her.

"I need you to stay in your room until I come get you," I told her. "Tony, take her to her room, please."

Her eyes went wide as Tony came for her. When he grabbed her upper arm, her eyes met mine. Her bright, blue eyes sparkled with fury as she glared at me. I watched calmly as he dragged her away. It was for her own good but she wouldn't see it that way. I was treating her like a prisoner, like a pet.

"She is your weak spot," Sal pointed out.

I didn't answer as I came back to my seat. He stared at me with a knowing look.

"Everyone has a weakness," he continued. "You just need to know to arm them before your enemies find them."

I looked back up at the painting. Gods didn't have a weakness. That’s what made them Gods. Heroes were human, had faults, and were able to be defeated. Titans were strong and brave, but conquered. It was then that I realized my father had named me after the Titan doomed to eternal punishment. He named me after the one who would always be beneath him. Maybe it was time history was changed.

"There's no reason anyone would think she is here and alive, right?" I asked him.

"No. The missing person report circulated the news for a few days before losing steam. With only that Liddy girl, she was quickly forgotten."

That was a shame because Stella was someone that people should miss. She should have a family member on the news every day, begging and pleading for her safe return. There should be a worried boyfriend searching the ends of the earth looking for her. A big brother should be kicking ass for answers. Stella should not have disappeared so silently.

Sal and I continued to go through the people involved. We had a running list of the men working the trafficking business. We were able to figure out the port in Miami he was shipping from and the trucking company used to move the girls around the country. I was embarrassed and enraged that it had taken this long to figure out what was going on right under our noses.

Tony came back in and took his seat. "She's feeling much better. Even put up a fight."

I laughed. There was a fire left in her after all.

"I gave her food but she threw the plate at me," he said, wiping at the small cut on his forehead.

"What did you do to her?" I asked, knowing he wouldn't have taken the blow nicely. I clenched my fists, ready for a fight.

"Tied her ass up," he told me, hands up in surrender. "You can deal with the little devil. She's all yours."

We worked well into the night. It was almost winter and I was expected back in the city any day now. I couldn't go back yet. I couldn't leave Stella here unattended and couldn't leave business unfinished. We had reached the point of no return. Everything Ace and I worked for the last few years was finally coming to its epic conclusion. I wished he was here to see it. I only hoped I did him right. I kept his sister out of their hands and would end their reign of terror. Maybe I would find the girl he had been searching for all this time.

At the time, I couldn't understand how Ace was willing to risk everything for a girl he barely knew. He risked his job, his life, and ultimately his family's life, to find her. The girl could be dead by now for all we knew, but the circumstances called for an end. Were we fighting for all women, or the one he loved? I tried to think if it was Stella, how far would I go to save her from that life? Was me keeping her here any better?

I knew without a doubt that it was. I never forced her and knew damn well she wanted me just as badly as I wanted her. Her attraction was written all her face and body. I tied her up, but would never have taken her if she had been unwilling. She may have fought how she felt for me, but she never fought me.

Thinking of Stella, picturing her tied to the bed had me walking down the hall to her room. Since the moment I had brought her here, seeing her restrained was my favorite. I would have left her tied up all the time if I had thought it would have gained her cooperation. I loved any woman tied up, but Stella brought out a beast in me that I didn't know existed. I knew I was fucked up, more violent than one should be, but she brought out a stronger monster.

I pulled open the bedroom door and found her on the bed. Her arms were spread, tied to the headboard. Her dark hair covered half of her face while she slept. A thin sheet covered most of her body, the rest peaking though to tease me. My restraint was being tested, but I was never one to hold back.

Walking to the foot of her bed, I noticed her chest rising and falling quickly. Little pants passed her wet lips. In her tank top, I could see the sweat glistening on her chest. One bare leg stretched out, snaking out from under the sheet. I could see her pale skin up to her hip to her thin panties. I clenched my fists thinking about Tony holding her down like this and tying her up.

I stepped closer to her, running a finger up her exposed leg. A moan escaped her lips, even with her eyes closed. She was dreaming but not one her usual nightmares. Her back subtly lifted off the mattress, and I noticed how flushed her cheeks were. Who was she dreaming about? Who was making her moan when she could imagine anyone she wanted?

Stella moaned again and pulled on the ropes holding her wrists. Her breathing was labored and coming faster. I knew that sound, she was close and I instantly hardened at the sound. I wondered briefly if she would come while I watched her. Was I about to watch her fall her apart? In a moment of weakness, I ran my hand slowly but lightly over her stomach, pulling some of the sheet away. Her body arched into my touch and she whimpered.

I should leave this room. This was supposed to be one place she had a little sense of privacy. I promised I would keep away and never touch her again. Stella was my poison and greatest battle. Watching her while her body climbed higher and higher wouldn't be right. I wouldn't be able to walk away if I stayed any longer.

When did I ever do the right thing? History proved one thing; this girl was my weakness.

XXI

Stella

Every part of me was hot. I could feel myself melting, or evaporating; I couldn't tell which anymore. My skin tingled and buzzed with sensation. I was hot. Too hot but not from a fever this time. I was burning and my breathing was hard. I needed relief but I couldn't move. I was powerless against him, I always was. My nipples brushed the thin sheet, shooting bursts of pleasure through my body. I could feel the wetness pooling between my legs. The bed was damp under me and I rubbed my thighs together to relieve the building pressure.

It wasn't enough. It was never enough. I was so close, dangling over the edge but unable to fall over. I was chasing that burst of ecstasy. My surroundings were hazy but I sensed him. I could feel his touch and smell his cologne. I couldn't see him but I could feel what he was doing to my body. He was playing me like I was his instrument. My body begged for more as the waves of electricity rolled through me.

I was so close, I could feel myself rocking on the brink. I could hear my own panting as I gasped for air and begged for release. I tugged at the ropes and felt the pain biting into the raw skin. The pain intensified my awareness and a moan rumbled from my chest. Almost there. So close.

I arched my back and prepared to be dragged under, but it didn't happen. I felt the sweat collecting on my skin, and I was dripping between my legs. I was almost there as my dream started to dissolve. I whined and willed myself to stay asleep just a little longer. Just a few more seconds and I would be done. Please.

Reality trickled slowly in. I felt him before I even opened my eyes. I was shaking and panting when I forced my eyelids open. Atlas was leaning against the dresser at the foot of the bed. His sleeves were rolled up to show the muscles flexing in his arms that were crossed against his chest. His eyes were darker than I'd ever seen them and my skin tingled.

"Atlas," I gasped, my heart pounding louder.

"Close, weren't you?" he asked, his voice low but smooth. Just the sound sent goosebumps over my skin. So low and deep, promising the darkest of pleasure and pain.

He stepped forward, calm and composed compared to my buzz and trembling. Steady and controlled, he walked over to the side of bed. I clenched my thighs together, my need only growing more now that I was awake. I pulled and struggled against the rope, wanting my hands free. The need to run was intense, but I wasn't sure which direction I would run toward.

"Who were you dreaming about, Little Star?" Atlas asked, leaning over me.

"No one," I panted.

"Don't lie to me," he said, trailing one finger up my bare leg. He stopped and squeezed my knee, waiting for my answer.

"Please," I begged. I needed him to leave, or stay. I wasn't sure anymore.

"Please what?" Atlas whispered, his lips close to my ear. "You want to come?"

I bit down on my bottom lip to keep from telling him the truth. A dark smile spread on Atlas's face and I realized I didn't need to tell him the truth. He knew. The sheet was quickly torn away, leaving me exposed and cooling my overheated skin. I gasped as the cool air touched my skin, feeling like a caress with my senses heightened.

"You want to know my first mistake?" Atlas asked me as he took in the sight of my body.

"Yes," I whispered, unaware he made many mistakes.

"Tying you up when you first got here. I could almost forget how badly I wanted you in that club until I saw you like this," he said, sweeping his hand over me.

I pulled against the ropes again and watched as his dark eyes flared. He liked it. Atlas started to unbutton his shirt and I squirmed under his intense stare.

"My second mistake was kissing you in the bathroom," he continued as he worked the buttons free.

Everywhere he looked, I could feel it, like it was a physical touch. My tank top was riding up, exposing my stomach and my breast felt heavy under the thin material. I needed to be touched, and soon.

"The third mistake was fucking you because that is all I can fucking think about since then."

He glared down at me with dark eyes. The intensity of his words and his look made me desperate.

"Who were you dreaming about?" Atlas asked again as he rounded back to the foot of the bed. He waited with one knee propped on the mattress like he would pounce at any moment. My body was begging for him. I arched my back and squirmed, trying to get closer.

"You," I gasped, my face heating with shame and embarrassment.

I didn't have time feel much else because after a growl from Atlas, his hands were at the sides of my panties. His large fingers twisted under around the strings on the side and he pulled, ripping the fragile fabric off my body.

"What did I do to you?" he asked, his words floating between my legs. "You moaned so sweetly. Did I feel good?"

"Yes. Please," I begged, even though I didn't know what I was asking for. I wasn't even sure I could handle what I was asking for.

"Did I lick your wet pussy?" Atlas asked, spreading my legs apart and lowering himself to the bed.

I could only pant as he ran a finger over me, feeling how wet I already was. This was only the first touch and I was already dripping. I could feel a rumble in his chest before I looked down and watched as he lowered his mouth to me. I cried out as his tongue tasted and massaged. I should be pulling away, but I found that I didn't want to.

I dropped my head back and pulled on the ropes. Every stroke was too much, but not enough at the same time. I squeezed my thighs and locked his head between them. That didn't slow Atlas down. He continued to assault me with his tongue until I was sure I would come all over his lips. My eyes rolled to the back of my head and my body tensed, ready.

Atlas stopped. He pulled himself away and I cried out in pain.

"What the fuck?" I yelled. "Why?"

"I'm not done with you yet," he said, crawling over my body.

His lips crashed on mine as I rolled the familiar words around in my head. When would he ever be done with me? My lips moved with his, desperate for more of him. I could taste myself in his mouth as my tongue swept in. I moaned into his mouth and wrapped a leg around his, pulling him closer. I wanted more of Atlas.

With my hands above my head, I couldn't touch him. I fought again and felt Atlas grow harder on my thigh. He was huge, and rock hard. Pulling at the ropes made him flex against me. I should have found it sick, but I pulled harder, loving the reaction I could get from him. With a final growl, he lifted off me and worked his pants off quickly. This time around, I had time to feel and notice things like his body, the way he tasted, and the sounds of our breathing mixed together.

When his shirt hit the floor, I took a second to take in his naked body. He was strong and built to last the worst. His skin was perfect, stretched over tight muscles. As he lowered himself on top of me, I looked up into his face. His eyes were on mine already. I felt a surge of pleasure rush my body at the fire I saw in them. He may have been my weakness, but I was his as well.

I tilted my hips and Atlas pushed fully into me. It was blunt, hard and fast, just like he was. There was no warning, no easing and no softness. I didn't expect anything different. He filled me up, taking over every inch of me and every sensation. Atlas demanded and took every nerve, every inch of skin, every gasp for air.

"I warned you before," he said in my ear. "I will hurt you."

"Do your worst," I rasped.

Those words were like the crack of a whip. I felt the control snap in his muscles and Atlas kept his promise. Raising up on his elbows, he pounded into me. He was deep and hard, and I screamed with every thrust. Sweat covered our skin as the room's temperature turned to sweltering. With a strength I only imagined, Atlas took me. He took me hard with no apology or shame. I accepted it with no fear or regret.

Every time he bottomed out inside me, I cried out his name. My moans pushed him, spurred him on. I expected nothing different from Atlas. He was harsh, commanding, and powerful. I felt it with every stroke. He was everywhere, owning every sensation, smell, and sound. This man moved without restraint, and I got a rush from his loss of control.

I started to clench around him, and I felt it all over. My body was owned by him and racing toward the fire he promised. It hurt, but the pleasure won in the battle. An energy buzzed as Atlas’s eyes burned into mine. Without warning, I was screaming and clenching around him. The wave of pleasure hit so hard and fast, I lost control. I pulled at the ropes as wave after wave hit me and my eyes squeezed shut.

Atlas tensed and pulled out of me, leaving me feeling empty. I opened my eyes to watch him pump his cock twice and then come on my stomach. He groaned lowly as the warm liquid hit my hot skin and I arched into it, wanting to claim it as my own. I watched his face in fascination as it went from tensed to relaxed. When he opened his eyes again, they were a calm dark gray, like the sky after a violent storm.

The room was silent except for our panting. Atlas stared down at me with an unreadable expression. His hair was damp with sweat and I wanted to run my fingers through it. My bound wrists stung when I tried and I winced.

"I should undo those ropes. They make me lose control," Atlas grumbled, tugging on the ropes that held my arms above my head. "But I can't do that now."

I should have been upset, but I felt safe and protected for once. It was a feeling only Atlas had been able to provide for me since I'd been alone in this world. My limbs felt loose and dead. I didn't even mind the heat anymore as I drifted away into nothing. I wanted to fall asleep, but part of my brain was still awake and demanding attention.

"Are you going to kill me?" I asked him, unable to see his face as I said the words.

He sighed and climbed over top of me.

"If you can still speak after I'm done with you, then I didn't do a good job."

He wrapped my legs around his waist and pulled the ropes tighter so I couldn't move. I gasped when I felt him hard and pushing against me again. That round, Atlas was successful in shutting me up and turning off my mind. Sweaty and sore, I fell into a dreamless sleep.

XXII

Atlas

Quickly, like I'd done it a hundred times (because I had), I undid the knots holding her in place. Stella moaned and closed her eyes. A power surged through me when I saw the effect I could have on her. I couldn't control her any other time but now, with my dick in her or mouth on her. She was so agreeable and free when we were naked.

Even more powerful was the effect she had on me. There was no use denying that now. I needed to confront it and own up to it. You are only as weak as your secrets. The man always with a plan wasn't sure how to work around my loss of control when Stella was around. Unless I got rid of her, I would need to deal with it.

Knowing the sun was rising on another day, I dressed and left her room. With our time running out, I needed to pull every resource we had. The days following were spent in my office. We called in favors from all over the world and spent obscene amounts of money. The air was thick with the buzz of anticipation. It was like feeling the electricity of lightning before a storm.

Stella spent most of her time in her room or on the deck. At night, I snuck into her room. She never asked any questions, but she never turned me away. As compelled as I was, I would have left if she had asked me to. But she never did. Wordlessly, she opened up to me and let me release my pent up energy on her while she remained tied up. Sometimes it was rough and the marks would spur me on the next day. Other times it was rushed like we couldn't wait a second longer.

The sun going down was a stark contrast to the daylight. Sunlight poured in the windows while we planned war. While we discussed lying, cheating and killing, the sun graced us. It was in the shadows that it all disappeared. Only Stella and I existed in whatever way we wanted to. When darkness came, I pretended the evil wasn't there, and she acted like I wasn't a monster.

Sometimes I wished it wasn't. I wondered if my mom had stayed if I would have turned out differently. Could I have been the person Stella thought she saw inside me? The shitty thing about the past is that we could never change it. We couldn't even change the effects it had on the present or future. We could only look back and wish it were different. Maybe when this was all done and over with, she could find comfort in this one time when she caught a glimpse of someone worthy of her.

Most likely, I would end up one of the bad guys her dad had warned her about. If she had a choice or options, I was sure she would never let me touch her. Stella was raised in the opposite atmosphere I was. She was taught that life was valuable and never to do harm. I was taught how to get away with murder. It was a wonder I ended up with any morals at all.

It was cold the morning I woke Stella up and forced her get dressed quickly. I only gave her a few hours of sleep before I was hauling her out of her warm bed. In a last act of desperation, I had an idea I prayed would pay off. Otherwise, I was risking everything.

"Where are we going?" she asked and she put her arms through the flannel jacket I shoved at her.

"Home," I said, pushing her out of the bedroom.

"Your place?" she asked.

"No. Yours."

Stella's feet froze but I picked her up, carrying her easily to the waiting car. I shut the door and Tony pulled away from the lake house.

"I don't understand," Stella said, her voice shaking with nerves. "You're letting me go?"

"No," I answered bluntly, taking the blindfold Sal handed back to me. "Put this on."

Stella's shoulders sunk and she hung her head while I tied the black fabric over her eyes. The car was silent as we weaved through the dark gravel roads away from the lake. With the cold moving in, the tourists had fled the area, leaving only the crazy locals. Even I should have been back in my plush penthouse, overlooking the city I controlled with violence and fear. Instead, I was taking a trip down memory lane.

After an hour of driving, the car came to a stop.

"Are you going to kill me now?" Stella whispered.

I didn't answer and instead opened my door. Coming around, I helped her out and guided her away from the car. It was still dark enough we would go unnoticed. I still needed to be careful.

"Don't scream," I said in her ear as I pushed her forward. Her entire body was trembling as we stepped through the doorway.

When I pulled away the blindfold, I stepped back and let her take it all in. Stella gasped when her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She spun around, taking in the bare walls of the house she had lived in her entire life. What was once a home was now a cold and vacant house.

"Why did you bring me here?" she asked me, turning to face me with tears in her eyes.

"If Ace was last here and left a clue for you, me, or even your dad to follow, we need to find it," I told her. “We can't have anything in the hands of the wrong people.”

I stepped forward and took her shaking hands, pleading wordlessly for her help. Stella pulled away and slowly walked the halls. She ran her fingers down the walls of the hallway to the bedrooms. Some furniture and items still remained since Stella was still the owner of the house. With her missing, the place wasn't sold or emptied completely yet.

"This was his room," she said, pointing to the room with blue walls and a single bed inside.

I walked inside, checking the closet and under the bed for anything hidden. Ace wasn't a novice teenager hiding dirty magazines or drugs. He was a professional, so his hiding spot would be good but I knew what to look for. We learned from the best. When I didn't find anything, I looked around to find Stella was gone.

I found her down the hall in her old room. It looked much like the night she left it. Most of her stuff had been packed and sent across the country. She seemed lost in herself until she heard my footsteps. Giving me a sad look, she motioned for her to follow her to the closet.

"This was my hiding spot," she said, pushing on a loose board on the floor.

Stella pushed on the corner of the board and one end came up, enough for her to pull it away. Underneath was a sizable space, filled with a tiny wooden box and papers. I knelt down and pulled them out. The papers were worn and old but smelled like Stella. I unfolded one, finding a drawing of the house we were standing in.

"You drew these?" I asked, flipping through the rest.

"Yeah," she admitted quietly. "It was a hobby of mine for a while."

"Why hide them?" I asked while staring at a sketch of her mother. I could easily see the resemblance in her and Ace. It was rough and unfinished, but talented and beautiful.

"They aren't that good. I just liked doing them."

I shook my head because she was so wrong. Not one was finished and full of rough lines and harsh shading because she gave up before perfecting them.

"They are good," I told her.

She took them from my hands roughly, one of the papers ripping in the process.

"It doesn't fucking matter because no one will see these. No one will see this woman that I drew from memory," she hissed, thrusting the drawing of her mom in my face and throwing it to the ground.

"No one will know about the lone survivor of the Harlow family who could draw, because what does that matter with the backlash of murder, mob involvement, and crime? Who the fuck cares about me in all this?"

Angry tears streamed down her red face.

"I do." I said as I handed back the corner of paper that fell to the ground. She couldn't give up yet. She needed a reason to keep going just a little longer.

"What is this?" she said, taking it back and looking at it fully. It was then that I noticed the handwriting on it for the first time.

Stella sat on her bed and sorted through the drawings to find one that was not her handwriting. I recognized it immediately as Ace's. Stella silently read it, holding the missing piece to make it whole. Her eyes glistened as she soaked up her brother's words. I wanted to rip it from her hands and read it, but I couldn't take any more from her at that moment.

She flipped through the rest of the drawings and sprawled them out over her bed. Picking out one of a beautiful woman who looked slightly different than the other drawings, she handed it to me.

"He asks we never forget her. Memorize her face and fight for her every day that he can't." Her words were choked at the end.

I took the drawing of the girl. It was the girl from the casino that Ace had fallen in love with. This drawing was finished and detailed down to the reflection in her eyes. This face was innocent and undeserving of what I knew she would have gone through.

"He said that I had to make sure you kept your promise," she said, pulling my eyes away from the pencil marks Ace left behind for us to find.

"What's in the box?" I asked.

Stella opened it, and looked shocked to see what was inside.

"Nothing," she said, revealing the empty box.

I looked outside to find the sky changing to dawn. "We need to go. We have enough."

I pulled Stella off the bed and rushed her to the car. I locked the front door behind me and we pulled away. Ace found the proof he needed and it no longer mattered what that was. I would keep my promise. I would make those fuckers pay. Starting with the people who took his girl and killed his family. I would end with the man who brought me into this world. That was the thing about family. You killed for them and you died for them. I would do them both for Ace.

XXIII

Stella

I woke up sore. Everything hurt. My legs ached, my skin was raw and my heart was broken. My brain felt scrambled. A familiar fog settled over me much like the one after losing my parents and brother. That feeling of unbelieving and sadness was swallowing me.

A heat was wrapped around me. Atlas. When we got back from visiting my old house, Atlas brought me to my room. For the first time since he started sneaking in, he fucked me without the ropes. It was also the only time he had ever stayed. It was his way of distracting me, keeping away the bad memories that were threatening to take me under.

His heat reminded me I was alive and still breathing. Still fighting. I had fought the fog off before. What kind of person would I be if I let it back in? I was raised better than that. I was stronger than that. Atlas clung to me and held me to his chest. I was safe for now. With open eyes, I recalled my trip home. I remembered the way he fucked me, hard and unrelenting when we returned to the lake house.

I closed my eyes and dug into the dark spots of my mind. The places I never dared to go. They were the parts of my memory that only came out at night. Shadows disappeared in the dark. In the darkness lie my demons and greatest fears. It was there that the memory of the night I saw a murder was hidden. That was where I would find the man who shot my mom and dad.

"You're shaking," Atlas said in my ear. He could have been screaming but I barely hear him.

My brother's written words replayed in my mind. He told me to trust my gut because I had the "Harlow intuition." Ace said he loved me more than anything and never to stop fighting. His letter warned me that he sent a friend to come for me, but I found it too late. His parting words ripped a hole in my heart.

"Stella!" he was shouting. "Come back to me."

"I can't" I said as I threw myself from the bed.

Memories played in my head like a movie. Unlike every other time they bubbled over, I didn't fight them. I embraced them. I saw the dirty dishes from dinner stacked on the counter. I could see the floral pattern of my mom's robe. The lines on my dad's face looked so real in my mind. I even saw the man who was about to take their lives.

Atlas grabbed me as I crawled on the floor. He tried to grab my hands, but I fought him. I needed them. I needed to draw.

"I can draw," I said. "The man who came into my house and killed my parents."

"You can draw his face?" he asked, trying to understand my shaking words.

I answered with a nod.

"Why would you do that now?" he asked.

I knew that it was my last bargaining chip. It was the only piece that kept me alive this long. I just wanted it all to end. Not just for me, but for everyone involved.

"Pen. Pencil," I rasped. I felt the tears rolling down my cheeks and saw Atlas notice them too.

He listened though and found a pen in the pocket of his jacket that he had tossed to the floor earlier. Using my teeth, I pulled off the cap and crawled to the wall. Quickly, perfectly and quietly, I drew the face I hated to see. I drew his eyes that held only evil and pain. I drew the lips that lifted into a smile as he pulled the trigger. I drew the scar on his chin that I was sure he had deserved.

I worked without interruption, forgetting I was naked. If Atlas tried to talk to me, I didn't hear him. I was lost in my nightmares. Lost in my past. At some point, I broke the pen and used the spilled ink for better shading. By the time I was finished, I had taken up most of the wall. I stepped back and dropped the pen.

"Stella." The voice was gentle in my ear.

I turned and Atlas stood behind me. He had pulled on pants at some point and held a robe out for me. Feeling a sudden chill, I turned and let him slip my arms through the sleeves. He stared back at me. All ink and flat, but real to me nonetheless. This man didn't just kill a cop and his wife in their kitchen. He killed their daughter who was left alone and unprotected in their absence. The Stella they raised was buried with them, leaving someone else entirely in her place.

"You should shower, Little Star," Atlas said, forcing me to look at him.

I looked into his eyes and saw my own anger and hate reflecting back at me. I saw the thirst for revenge and justice. I recognized the hunger for truth and blood. I saw a part of me in Atlas. Or did I see a part of Atlas in me?

We went to the bathroom where Atlas helped me under the hot water. Shedding his clothes, Atlas washed me, using his hands and lips to erase the memories. As his fingers glided over my skin, it warmed me and brought me back. His lips breathed life back into my lungs. His voice pulled me from the fog. When he dried us both, he wiped away the guilt and fear.

"That's him?" he asked when we stepped back into the bedroom fully clothed.

"Yeah," I growled.

"I'll find him," he said forcefully.

"Do me a favor," I said. Atlas looked down at me with a questioning look.

"Make him beg for his life before you end it."

After a quick nod, I pushed past him and out to the hall without an ounce of regret for my request. I could hear Atlas following and I knew he would keep the promise. I didn't feel bad. My dad said sometimes you had to hurt people to save others. The man belonging to the face on my wall needed to be hurt to save others. There were probably more who needed to be hurt to save lives.

Atlas opened the door to let Sal and Tony come inside. They stood staring at my depiction of a killer. Their faces were hard and I saw Tony clench his fists. The three men whispered quietly while I waited numbly. There was nothing left for me to do at this point. I gave them all they needed so my job was done. I was useless.

Tony and Sal left the room looking like men on a mission. I looked up to find Atlas watching me with an angry glare. Swallowing, I felt resigned. I knew a long time ago that this day would come. I didn't know why I had even bothered running in the first place. My brother's trouble would have caught up to me eventually.

"Come on," Atlas said roughly, pulling me up to my feet.

Atlas pulled me out of the room and down the hall. He didn't take me the direction of the office or kitchen. We went the direction I had only gone one other time. My heart pounded loudly in my chest as he pulled the basement door open. Forcing me before him, I descended the stairs into the darkness.

It was silent when our footsteps stopped. I couldn't see or hear Atlas behind me anymore. I spun around, searching in the darkness for him. I knew he was there. I could sense him somewhere. Willing my eyes to adjust and reaching into nothing, I was still blind and lost. Alone.

"I can hear your heartbeat," said Atlas in a calm and even voice.

I spun around, trying to pick out where he was. His voice was everywhere, but nowhere at the same time.

"Are you scared, Stella?" he asked.

My breathing was heavy and my hands shook as I reached out, searching for him. I wasn't sure if I was looking for safety or the very thing I needed saving from.

"Answer the question," he whispered in my ear. Turning around quickly, he was already gone and out of reach.

"Yes," I admitted.

My answer was met with more silence. I could only hear my own pounding heart and short, shallow breaths.

"What are you afraid of?"

I tingled with awareness that he was near, but I feared how close he could be. Or how far. I couldn't even tell anymore what I was so afraid of. Alone in the pitch black, I was exposed and vulnerable. A familiar panic started to grow and my palms started to sweat. Just when I opened my mouth to let out a scream, I was thrown back

My scream was cut off as my back slammed into the wall. I could smell Atlas as he pressed against me, stealing away my air. Then I felt something hard and cold against my neck. A knife. My gasp pushed my skin into the sharp edge and a chill washed over me.

"Are you afraid of what I will do to you?" he asked. His voice was a low growl, sending shivers over me. "Answer me!"

"Yes!" I shouted, careful not to move enough to cut myself.

"Do you think I'm going to kill you?" he said and I felt the whisper in my ear, warming my face.

I nodded and waited for his next move. Would this be how it ended for me? In this dark basement in the middle of nowhere after fighting all this time?

"Stella," he said, running his fingers over my lips. "Remember this fear. That dark feeling in your heart that you feel because you think you are moments away from death. Hold on to it."

"Why?" I asked, needing to know why he felt the need to do this to me.

"Because, Little Star," he said, his lips now touching mine, "you feel this fear because you don't want to die."

Atlas pulled away from me and cold air took his space. I gasped for air and slid down the wall to the floor.

"Remember this fear the next time you think about giving up. Don't you dare fucking forget that you want to live. Others didn't have that choice, so don't take it for granted."

The sounds of his footsteps echoed as he walked away from me and up the stairs. I was alone and I could feel it around me. I hung my head between my knees as I sucked it up and calmed my breathing.

Atlas was right. When faced with dying, I was scared. My parents didn't get to just give up. They wanted to fight but it wasn't enough. Ace went out fighting and I would be a disgrace to do anything differently. If they were watching me now, and I truly hoped they weren't, I wanted them to be proud.

I slowly stood and walked to the stairs. I didn't know what stood on the other side of that door, but I wasn't going to hide anymore. Tomorrow could bring more pain and danger, but I would try to make it through. Holding the feeling Atlas had just given me in the darkness, I stepped outside and into the light.

XXIV

Atlas

From the safety of my office, I watched on the surveillance stream as Stella left the basement and headed to the kitchen. She moved around my house freely like she had all the freedom in the world. I smiled to myself while I put the finishing touches on the final stages of our plans. Now that Stella had snapped out of it, I would have one less thing to worry about.

I let her sleep that night without interruption. It took all my control to stay away. It was at night that I finally felt relief. Tying her up and controlling her was how I kept myself sane. Without the release, I was feeling on edge, angry and more than ready to rip someone's head off. When Tony came in the office, he was the perfect target.

"What the fuck took so long?" I asked as soon as I saw his face.

"Is that a serious question?" Tony asked with a glare. "I said days. We are back within a day. Don't be a dick."

I rubbed my face and felt the stubble there from being too busy. I didn't even know how many days I had been here anymore. A quick stay at the lake house turned into so much more. It became a turning point, a battlefield, and a command center.

"How did it go?" I asked, leveling my voice.

"Your dear daddy is back in Miami, so it went better than expected," he told me with a wide grin.

I stood and brushed the wrinkles from my suit jacket. Slowly and methodically, I buttoned it up and straightened my tie. I never liked to meet people looking less than perfect. It intimidated them, made them feel inferior. As I left my office, I became focused on one thing only.

"Get the girl," I said.

Everything went black and white as my mind cleared. The familiar feeling of zoning in on a target filled me. I entered the living room and took a deep calming breath. The open space was perfect.

"Atlas?" I heard her behind me. Stella's blue eyes went wide when she saw what caused us to haul her out of bed in the middle of the night.

In the center of the room, a man kneeled on the floor. His head was hung low and his shoulders heaved with his heavy breaths. Tony stood behind him, a gun pressed to the back of the man's head. Sal held Stella firmly as he pulled her into the room. She looked panicked and confused.

"What’s going on?" she asked, her eyes pleading with me.

I stepped forward, pulling out my own gun. I traced the pathetic excuse for a man's face with the barrel, forcing him to look up at me.

"Look at me," I spit at him.

His dark and empty eyes met mine and I had to step back to keep from pulling the trigger. I had seen evil, but this man was sick.

"You recognize him, Little Star?" I asked her.

Stella stepped forward and Sal let her. Her body was tense as she looked down at him. I saw when she finally got a good look at his face. A sound of pain escaped her mouth and she jumped away from him.

"It's him," she whispered. She was between breaking down and breaking out in a fit of anger. Which one would win out?

The fucker on his knees had the nerve to laugh. "You are dead, little girl."

The blunt end of my gun smacked into his skull, shutting him up. His didn't flinch or even make a sound as he glared up at me.

"You would go against your dad for this piece of ass?" he asked with blood dripping down his forehead.

I had had enough. I steadied myself and put my gun right between his eyes. He showed no fear, just amusement. I pulled back the safety, the click echoing in the room.

"No!" Stella cried, grabbing my arm.

In surprise, I looked down at her watering eyes. Our victim started to laugh.

"I want to do it," she said quietly, effectually shocking everyone in the room. Dead silence.

"What?" I probably didn't hear her right.

"It was my family," Stella said with an even voice.

Stella's cold fingers slid down my arm and wrapped around my fingers that were holding the gun at a man's head. She gave it a gentle squeeze to remind me to let go, so I did. Her hand fell with the unexpected weight, but she corrected quickly. I stepped back while she squared her shoulders and faced her family's killer.

Stella was taught to shoot. She and her dad had frequented a shooting range as their own way of bonding. I'm sure he felt he was teaching his little girl a skill to protect herself that she would never need to put to use. I was sure he never imagined his little girl using those skills to get revenge for his death.

Stella raised her arms and held the gun at his head. She moved her thumb so she was clear of the safety and held her feet slightly apart for balance. I could see the slight tremor in her body. She was scared but fighting her fear. Her beautiful eyes held so much pain and hate as she looked at the guy she was ready to kill. I looked over at Sal who stood next to me, his gun also aimed and ready.

"Do it," I said.

A gunshot pierced the air, followed by a hollow thump. Stella's gasp echoed in the room and could be heard over the ringing in my ears. As the thin cloud of smoke cleared, I could see the red puddle growing on the hardwood floor. Stella still stood with the run raised, ready for the shot. Sal lowered his weapon and I gave him a nod in thanks.

"I . . . I didn't," Stella stammered.

"I know," I whispered, coming for her and taking my gun from her shaking hands. "You didn't need to."

"I wanted to," she admitted, looking up at me with fear in her eyes. She was afraid of that part of her that wanted to take a life. Stella had never had to meet that dark side of herself before.

"I know. It's done."

Stella looked back at the body in my living room. Instead of screaming in terror like when Hector was in my hallway, she looked thoughtful. Sal and Tony started to bag the body as I pulled her out of the room.

"Why did you that?" she asked me as I led her back to her room. "I would have done it."

"I know you would have, but I didn't want you to," I answered.

"Why?" she asked once in her bedroom.

"You aren't like us. You're a good person, and though you wanted revenge for the people you loved, you wouldn't like taking a life. I didn't want you to have to feel that guilt."

Stella sat on the edge of the bed and stared down at her hands. Those hands could have killed someone tonight. I wasn't entirely sure if she would have pulled the trigger. I told her I thought she would have, but I wasn't sure. She had never taken a life and, if she had, I wasn’t sure she could have lived with herself afterward.

"Leave the killing to the real monsters," I told her.

"Is it over?" she asked me.

I never had to really deal with women and the hidden meaning in their words. I never kept them around long enough or really cared what they meant. I was smart enough to know Stella was asking about more than the search for the man who killed her family. She meant more than the war I was starting with my family by having his body delivered to my father's beach house in Miami.

"There's more," I told her before I took her lips with mine.

Stella's hands came to grab my shoulders as I leaned over and pushed her to the bed. I never pulled my mouth off hers as I took off my jacket and shirt. She ran her soft fingertips over my chest and back. My tongue fought hers as I pulled her pants down her legs and thrusted my hand up her thin tank top.

Stella's head dropped back with her moan as I pinched her nipple. When she looked at me, her eyes were wild and clouded over with want and need. I would make it all disappear for her. I could erase it all with my body and mouth if she let me. She would let me. She always did.

I picked her up and threw her up higher on the bed. As I crawled back up, I pushed my pants down and pulled her legs apart to make room for me. Nestled between her thighs, I pushed her tank top over her head. Stella was bared for me and her chest was pink with the rush of blood.

Taking a nipple in my mouth, I cupped the other breast in my hand. I earned a long and low moan from her that made me want to bite down on her skin. I held back, the restraint making me tense and grow hot. With all the adrenaline rushing my veins, I wanted to unleash on her. I wanted to use up all my energy until I was spent.

"Atlas," she moaned as I licked down her stomach. "Tie me up."

"I can't," I said honestly. I couldn't hold back with her held down and mine for the taking.

"Please," she begged. "Tie me up. Let it out."

I looked up into her eyes that were full of need and fire. Something else lingered behind the want, something deeper. Understanding.

"You have no idea what you are asking of me, Little Star. I will hurt you," I warned her darkly. My dick was rock hard and pressing against the panties that I could feel soaking through.

"No you won't. Please, tie me up."

I broke with her words. Climbing over her, I grabbed the ropes on the headboard and quickly tied her wrists. I pulled the ropes so tight she hissed when I was done. Stella squirmed as I pulled back to look at her. She was open and helpless to whatever I wanted to do her. Tearing her panties off, I pushed her legs apart.

"So fucking wet," I whispered, running my fingers over her.

Stella arched off the mattress and I stroked my dick, watching her lost in the feeling. Neither one of us would think about anything outside of this room tonight. I would make damn sure of that. I held her thighs apart and lowered my face between them. Using my tongue, I licked and sucked until she came so hard I thought she would pass out from screaming.

Taking my dick in my hand, I pushed into her. Her pussy was still convulsing from the orgasm my mouth gave her and it squeezed my dick. I let out a low groan as I pushed as far as I could. Stella gasped when I pressed even deeper, pushing harder and deeper than I ever had before. It probably hurt, but she asked for it and I was giving my all.

I took a leg and hitched it over my shoulder, wrapping the other around my waist so I could get deeper. I watched as her chest rose and fell quickly, letting it urge me on. The effect I could have on her never got old even though I kept waiting for her to get boring. Without an ounce of control, I thrusted into her, making her bounce off the mattress.

I repeated the movements. I fucked her so hard I couldn't tell if she was crying out in pain or pleasure. Her pussy squeezed and milked my dick so I kept going. The headboard banged against the wall loudly as I used every ounce of energy on Stella. I leaned down, going even deeper and biting her neck as I did.

"Is this what you wanted?" I growled in her ear, finally losing all control.

"Yes!" she screamed.

She clenched down on my dick and screamed my name. My balls pulled tight and an orgasm wracked my body. Every muscle went hard and tight before I burst open into her. Her screams kept me going as I pumped us both empty. Sweat dripped down my body and hers when I collapsed on top of her.

Stella got her wish. I let it out on her until I couldn't keep my eyes open.

XXV

Stella

I stared up at the ceiling for hours. I was alone in the bed and the sun was starting to rise. Everything was sore and my wrists were raw and burned from the ropes. I asked for it, even wanted it. In the morning light, I felt the effects of the rough way he took me.

Atlas always lost the most control with me, and I knew that. Part of me loved seeing him finally unhinge and knowing that I did that to him. Last night, I wanted to break that last string holding him back. I watched it snap and he pounced.

It hurt.

It was amazing.

What did that say about me that I loved being hurt by Atlas? Every bite brought me higher, and his punishing thrusts pushed me over the edge again and again. I loved it as much I feared it. It was as pleasurable as it was painful, and I wore the marks from it proudly.

Forcing myself to shower, fear started to sink in. I was scared of what I saw last night and what it meant. What would happen next? Why didn't I pull the trigger? I wanted to and I knew how to. I just didn't pull it. How could my conscience spare my family's killer? Part of me knew that if Sal hadn't killed him, I would have. I wanted to and that scared me more than watching his blood spatter everywhere. I screamed not because of the familiar sight of spilled blood but because of the overwhelming feeling of relief that had washed over me in that moment.

I walked the quiet halls in search of Atlas. I had too many questions and it didn't hurt to just come out and ask. There wasn't much they could do to me anymore. I had no leverage to keep myself safe, and they had no reason to punish me, or keep me alive. The house was quiet and I froze when I came to the living room.

It was clean without any sign of what had happened in here just hours before. I could smell a trace of bleach much like after Hector. A lot of death happened in this little lake house. So much blood had been spilled. Would I be the next person to paint these floors with their blood? Could I just be washed away with bleach like I had never existed?

I found Atlas in his office, alone. He watched me closely as I walked inside and closed the door behind me. Neither of us spoke and I looked up at the painting of the constellation in the sky. When Atlas first told me the story of the Titan who led the war against the gods, I thought the Titan was foolish. How could I feel bad that he was eternally punished for picking a fight he could never win? I understood now.

"You scared, Little Star?" he asked, his voice low and level.

"Yes," I whispered.

I was scared of him and myself. The person I was becoming was someone I didn't know. I was scared of the way he made me feel. I was terrified of what would happen next.

"Are you going to kill me now?" I asked Atlas, turning to look in his eyes.

He stood and I noticed he was in jeans and a white shirt. I had never seen him dress down and it surprised me. Atlas came around his desk and leaned back against it.

"I made your brother a promise to protect you," he said.

"So you'll let me go?"

Even as I said the words I realized how crazy they sounded. How would I just walk away and pretend nothing had happened. I had seen too much and knew too much. They could never let me go and I would never be able to move on. I wasn't sure I would want to.

"You know I can't do that," he said quietly. "The war isn't over yet."

Atlas hung his head and when his eyes met mine again I saw something I had never seen before: regret. A chill ran down my spine.

"You leave here, they will find you and kill you. I can't let that happen."

"Why not?

"Several reasons," he said, standing and circling me while I stood in the middle of his office. "That would be breaking my promise. If it came down to me or them getting you, I would be easier on you. They will torture you. But there is one main reason I will keep you."

My heart hammered in my chest because I wasn't sure if I wanted the answer. I didn't know if I could handle his truth.

"Why?"

Atlas stopped in front of me and placed both his hands on the side of my face. Tilting my face up to look at his, I saw a fierce determination in his eyes.

"Because I want to keep you. I'm still not done," he growled.

His lips crashed to mine and I clung to his forearms. He held my face tightly but not enough to hurt me. It was a gentle touch coming from him, but his lips were hard on mine, taking what he wanted. I gave into him, knowing he owned it all already.

Our tongues danced and tasted each other in slow motion. His possessiveness over me should have scared me or pissed me off. Instead, I felt safe and warm. I clung to his broad shoulders and wanted to be underneath him. I needed to know that I meant something more to him than a pawn in his games.

Atlas grabbed the back of my thighs and lifted me. Wrapping my arms and legs around him, I held on tightly without breaking our kiss. He walked me down the hall and I vaguely realized it wasn't the direction of my room. When he reached forward and opened a door, I pulled my lips away to see where I was.

We stumbled into a large bedroom with a window overlooking the lake letting the sunlight in. A huge bed with a black iron frame stood in the center of the room. This had to be Atlas's bedroom. In all the weeks I had been here, I had never seen where he slept. This was a rare glimpse into the man who controlled my life.

Atlas backed me up to the large bed and let me fall onto the soft covers. He stood above me, looking over my body. The familiar burn and heat grew inside of me. I reached for him and he willingly came, leaning over me. His lips found mine again and he took his time, like he was savoring my taste. Atlas had never taken his time before, seeming to always be driven to take me against his better judgment. I always let him against my better judgement.

His lips moved down to my neck, kissing and sucking the sensitive skin lightly. His shirt was off and tossed somewhere. I pushed my pants down my legs, kicking them off. He licked over my pulse point where I was sure he could feel my blood pumping. I titled my head back, giving him access. My eyes opened, and I looked up to the iron headboard as he drug my panties down my bare legs.

"No ropes in here," he whispered on my collarbone.

My head spun as Atlas flipped us, leaving me on top of him. My hands rested on his hard chest as his hands skated up my shirt. I lifted my arms so he could slowly pull it over my head. Atlas lifted his hips, and pulled down his jeans. I was on top of this strong and naked man. Someone who never relinquished absolute control was underneath me, under my hands.

My fingers tickled and explored his chest, arms and hard stomach. His skin was warm, smooth and soft under my touch. Atlas hissed as I smoothed my fingers over the V that led under my thighs. His muscles were tense with impatience and I smirked down at him. I could make him squirm, too.

"Not funny," he growled.

Done with waiting, he lifted my hips and placed me over his hard cock. Our eyes locked as he let go and I lowered myself down on him. Slowly, painfully, and perfectly. I let out a long moan as he buried himself inside of me as deep as he could. Once there, I waited before finally moving.

As I rose and pushed myself back down on him, something took over my body. I was loud and in control, taking from him as I wanted. My back arched, my hands held my sensitive breasts, and sweat collected on my skin. Letting go, I used my instincts to lead my body.

"You are so beautiful," Atlas murmured, his eyes hooded as he watched me ride him.

I felt beautiful. I felt amazing, alive, and energy buzzed in my veins. Atlas flexed and stiffened inside of me, hitting deeper than I had ever felt him. Unexpectedly, I was coming and screaming his name, totally lost in the wave taking me under. Large hands gripped my hips and Atlas thrust hard a few times before his own release hit him.

I fell to his chest, sweaty but satisfied. His heart was pounding in my ear and I fully relaxed. When I woke some time later in the darkness, Atlas was asleep and I was curled into his side. I looked up into his face. He looked younger and more innocent when he was sleeping. I could forget about all the bad things he'd done when I looked at that face.

Slowly and silently, I climbed out of his bed. I grabbed his white tee-shirt from the floor and pulled it over my head. My bare feet padded across the cold floors quietly as I left his room. The house was quiet, dark and cold. I almost turned to crawl back in bed with Atlas but my spinning mind needed space.

I tiptoed onto the deck and inhaled the fresh, cold air. I felt free for the first time since my parents had died. The walls that seemed to constantly close in on me broke down. That fear that followed me lifted. Their killer was dead and, for some reason, I believed that I was safe here. I didn't know what that said about me as person.

The vast and calm lake stretched before me. The only sounds were the crickets and leaves blowing in the breeze. I was alone. I could have left if I had wanted to. The greater question was, did I want to? The idea of leaving Atlas behind gave me a sickening feeling. For weeks, all I wanted was to run for my freedom. But here I was with my feet firmly planted. Could I leave? What did I have waiting for me out there?

XXVI

Atlas 

Her scent was everywhere. I could feel her sweat on my skin. What I couldn't feel was her body still pressed to mine. I opened my eyes and reached for her, feeling empty sheets. Sitting up, I quickly scanned the room to find it empty. The sun was starting to rise outside, letting in little light. I quickly dressed and went to find her.

I'd done something I had never done before with anyone. I gave her control. I gave her the choice and let her have her way. Watching her come apart above me was fascinating. It quickly made up for losing my control. The way her eyes came to life as she rode me to her own orgasm made it all worth it.

Sal and Tony had left us alone to dispose of the body and watch for my father's next move. I would need to return to the city soon. I came to the living room and found it empty. Same with the back deck. A cold feeling sunk into my bones and every muscle went tense.

"Stella?" I called out. Where the fuck was she?

I didn't tie her up because I didn't believe I needed to. I killed a man for her. I did it so she could have her justice and didn't need to pull the trigger herself. I could see the relief in her eyes. I saw the acceptance. She wouldn't run.

"Boss?" Tony asked as he and Sal came in the front door.

"Where is she?" I growled, searching the kitchen.

"Fuck," Sal swore as he headed toward her room.

"You didn't lock her up?" Tony asked me as we followed.

"I didn't need to," I told him, knowing he wouldn't understand.

This was the part of the plan where I was supposed to kill her. There was no way to take her to the city and I couldn't stay here much longer. Her part was done and she was no longer needed. By now, the rest of the family knew I was on to them and their dirty secrets. My father would be looking for me but I couldn't make myself end her.

We froze once we entered Stella's room. It was trashed. The closet doors were open and clothes were strewn across the room. The bed was a mess and the ropes were removed from the headboard. In the bathroom, the mirror was broken. Broken glass was all over the floor and I saw my furious face looking back at myself from a shard of mirror on the floor.

"Fuck!" I roared.

I punched my fist through the bathroom door. I didn't even feel the pain as I seethed. She left. She fucking ran after all. The one time I went against my plan, it backfired and left me in the worst position. I couldn't believe I was so fucking stupid.

"Find her," I seethed. "Now."

The boys left the room in a hurry. We would find her and I would stick to my plan. I was going to kill her. She would die for running. I would make her pay for making a fool of me. After everything, I thought she would stay willingly. I promised to keep her safe. Protection and safety were the things she craved and needed the most. I offered it to her and she threw it back in my face.

I tore through the house looking for her. My temper rose until I couldn't see straight. In the living room, I broke every bottle and piece of glass from the bar. I should have killed her. I regretted taking her to my bedroom last night. If I would have stuck to the plan, this wouldn't be happening.

She didn't deserve my gentle touches. I should have choked her while I fucked her roughly. Her body should be covered in my bite marks and bruises. Instead of putting a bullet between her eyes, I would have squeezed her throat while she gasped for air. As my anger boiled, I closed my eyes and imagined her death.

Her hands would have clawed at mine, eyes begging for release. I would have clenched harder and watched the life fade from her eyes. That light that I always searched out would dim and fizzle out. Darkness would take over just as it had for me. Her limp body would fall to the floor, naked and bruised. Used up with nothing left.

"She's nowhere on the property," Sal reported. “But I found this.”

I took the piece of paper from his hands. It was one word written neatly in the center. My blood boiled as the truth started to sink in. In parting, all she had to say to me was “Goodbye.”

I stomped to my office and pulled up the surveillance feed. A chill ran down my spine to find it all black.

"Lines were cut," I said, looking up at Sal.

His eyes went wide and I clenched my fists. Smart little bitch. I pushed past him and grabbed my keys from the lock box near the door.

"Where are you going?" he asked, chasing after me.

"To find her and kill her," I told him. "You find her, call me but don't hurt her. I want to give her every ounce of pain she deserves."

I left the house and ignored him calling after me. I lost control and my anger and bitterness were driving me. For the first time, I was without a real plan. I just knew one thing. I needed to find her.

My car raced down the open roads. It was very early in the morning so they were practically deserted. Without having any idea of when she had left, I didn't know how far she could have gotten. Had she been planning this all along? When she asked me to tie her up, making me believe she liked it, was she just playing me?

I was stupid and let sex cloud my mind. When I fucked her, I thought she wanted it. I actually thought she loved it as much as I did. She screamed for more and begged for it. Was it all a joke? I never thought she would be so conniving and deceitful. She deserved the slow and painful death I had planned for her.

My tires squealed when I pulled into her own neighborhood. I knew the streets well from my time stalking her. I drove to her house barely able to see past the anger and hate. Turning a sharp corner, I slammed on the brakes and stared ahead.

Red and blue lights flashed in the early morning light. People crowded around the scene in their robes and pajamas still, wanting to get a glimpse. Black smoke filled the air, looking like black ominous clouds. Stella's house was nothing more than a charred frame of what it once was.

Firetrucks and police swarmed the area, fighting to keep people clear as they fought the remaining flames. I parked the car and went closer to the house. The air was thick with smoke and ash. When I was close enough to feel the heat, I stopped. A police officer walked by and I grabbed his arm.

"Was there anyone inside?" I asked.

"The house was vacant, so we don't think so," he answered.

"Don't think so?" I glared at him and he shrunk back at the intensity of it.

"If there was, we won't know until the examiner goes through what's left. Everything, and anyone inside, is only charred remains now."

He pulled away and stomped off. Would Stella burn down her own home? I didn't think she would be dumb enough to go back there because she’d know I would find her here. Part of me hoped she came here knowing I would come for her. My phone rang and I pulled it out, walking away from the scene.

"Tony?" I said once it was to my ear. "You find her?"

"Not yet. We went to her friend's house. The one from the club."

"Liddy?" I asked.

"Yeah, but she's gone too," he said.

"She could be in class or something. Wait her out," I told him, getting back in my car.

"Doubt it," he said. "The place is a mess like she left in a hurry. She's gone and I don't think she will be coming back."

"Fuck," I growled and hung up the phone.

I punched the steering wheel in frustration. Stella probably thought I would go for her friend if she ran. She was smart like her brother. She had better hope she was smarter than me because if I found her, she would wish she had died with her parents that night. Starting the car, I sped away from what was left of her home.

Stella had been a very busy girl this morning. She must have crawled out of my bed as soon as I had passed out. I wondered if she had meant to wear me out on purpose. Was she riding me, bringing out every ounce of pleasure and coming all over my dick just so I would let down my guard? I didn't want to believe that. She would have needed to be planning this for a very long time.

I pulled into the driveway of the lake house feeling numb. I couldn't believe I was that dumb to fall for her and her innocent act. Last night, I thought we shared something different without the ropes and the pain. Stella had just been using me.

I would find her. And when I did, I would pull every last scream out of her until she couldn't make another sound. I would make her nightmares seem like a fairytale compared to what I would do to her.

XXVII

Stella

My swollen eyes fluttered open, but all I could see was darkness. I was cold and wet, and everything hurt. I could smell the familiar scent of blood, and I could taste it in my mouth. I licked my dry and bloodied lips. My head throbbed and my throat hurt.

I had no idea where I was. My arms and legs failed me when I tried to pull myself up off the damp floor. I couldn't see or hear anything as my mind tried to piece together my memory. Last I remembered, I was on the deck looking over the lake. I felt so calm and relaxed, I should have known it would end.

Tears sprang to my eyes as I remembered being pulled from behind. A hand went over my mouth and something stung my nose as I smelled it. Then everything went black. I woke up somewhere unfamiliar for the second time in a few months. This time, I could feel death looming close. I wouldn't find a tainted hero in this damp hell.

Fighting to push myself up, I noticed the familiar pain on my wrists. Pulling them up to my face, I didn't see the rope I had eventually come to trust. It was chains. The weight of the metal pulled them back down, and I finally let myself cry. I felt too dried out to cry, but the tears flowed anyway. The tears stung as they slipped over the open cuts on my face.

Where the hell was I and how did I get here? Did Atlas change his mind and decide to kill me anyway? This wasn't his basement though. It was cold and damp where ever I was. I could hear water dripping somewhere in the distance. My chains clanking together echoed in the darkness. I could hear my own stuttered breathing mixing with my pounding heartbeat.

Once again, I was trapped and facing a monster. Since I had seen my parents shot, I didn't think I had ever actually lived. The moment that gunshot sounded, I became a victim who needed to hide from the enemies my brother left behind because I was a witness. Atlas found me, and I used to think that was for the best, but now I knew I was wrong. I was right where I should have ended up all those months ago.

Heavy footsteps pounded toward me and I trembled, inching back into a corner. They came closer, stopping near me. I couldn't see anything but I could hear his heavy breathing. The footsteps came closer and I was yanked to my feet.

"Please," I cried. "Please let me go."

A low and throaty laugh answered and I was pulled roughly toward him.

"Shut the fuck up or I'll bury you," he snarled.

I waited on shaky legs as he held my wrist together and pulled my chains from the wall. He spun me away from him, and I felt the heavy fabric go over my eyes before being pushed forward. I stumbled on my bare feet on the rough, stone floor. I cried quietly as I climbed the stairs into the unknown.

It was warmer when I was pushed to the floor. The air was humid and nothing like the cool, crisp air at the lake house. Every forced step I took, the sinking feeling grew in my stomach. I was ready to throw up by the time we came to a stop. Whatever was going to happen, I just wanted it to happen soon. I had been fighting too long and I was exhausted.

"This her?" someone asked.

"This is the one," the guy pushing me around answered.

"Hot little thing," the other guy said, causing a shiver to crawl across my skin. "Do we get a taste?"

A finger trailed down my arm and across my stomach. I was still in Atlas's shirt which meant I wasn't very decent, but at least I wasn't naked.

"Fuck no," the other guy said, pulling me back roughly. "The boss said don't touch. He has plans for this one."

"Shit. I don't want to know what those are."

Neither did I. My mind was spinning, wondering who the boss could be. I just knew in my bones it wasn't Atlas. I was far away from Atlas and his lake house. I doubted I was even near Chicago anymore.

"Hose her down and take her up."

With that, I was shoved forward into another man's hands. He took my chains and pushed me down to the floor.

"Crawl," he growled down to me.

I held myself up on my hands and knees, unwilling to move.

"Move bitch." Then a heavy boot kicked me in the back, forcing me to move.

My knees hurt on the hard surface and the metal cuffs cut into the soft skin of my wrists. I almost hoped they would cut me and I could bleed out. That would be a better fate than the one I was crawling to, I was sure.

"Stand," he ordered while pulling my chains.

I listened as they were hooked somewhere and his heavy footsteps led away from me. I started to run, but was pulled back by the chains. Screams ripped from my throat when a cold burst of water hit me. I was actually being hosed off like an animal. Water filled my open mouth, and I choked until the water finally shut off. I was left freezing and shivering.

Other footsteps sounded and I knew we weren't alone. I could feel the eyes on me. I could only imagined what I looked like, soaked and dressed only in a large, white shirt. My skin was crawling as I waited for what would happen next.

"Is she hurt?" a deep voice asked.

"Not severely. Some bruising and scrapes. She will heal fine," another voice answered.

"I told you not to hurt her."

"She was bruised before we got her here."

Silence hung in the air and I wanted to laugh. Atlas left his mark on me and it ruined me. It saved me.

"Let her dry. She will ship out soon."

The footsteps faded as they walked away, leaving me to dry like laundry on the line. I was treated like an object, a prisoner, a product. My mind raced with the possibilities. I remembered the story about the girl my brother loved. The secret dealings in selling woman in the family. It all clicked. I was meeting the ending I alway