Book 5 in the 82nd Street Vandals Series
This series must be read in chronological order, to avoid spoilers
Our feelings for her were like wild animals finally freed from their cage. But my sparrow, she was the most brutal fighter of us all. She’d had to be.
The battles she’s survived, she’s done in silence and alone.
Milo let her go. Jasper took her. Vaughn sheltered her. Liam taught her. Rome connected with her. Doc pushed her away. Freddie went after her. All because we wanted what was best for her.
I was in this fight. Our promises might lie shattered in the debris of the life we’d thought she had, but we weren’t abandoning them or her.
Oh no, I would never leave her again.
My name is Kellan Traschel, I will be whatever she needs me to be. And if war is what must be waged, then hell was what we would rain down.
Book 5 in the 82nd Street Vandals Series
Not even Lainey’s arm linked with mine could slow the wild beat of my heart. I couldn’t even bring myself to look at Doc. Not after that exam. Not after…
Rome reached past me, just barely brushing my arm with his, to open the door to the studio. A shiver skated over my skin, but this was one of apprehension. Stealing a look up at him, I smiled. “Thank you.”
It came out far less wavering than I’d worried it would. A smile touched his own lips, brief, but the warmth never left his eyes. “I want to talk to you.” Though, he didn’t look at Lainey, he added, “Alone.”
While not framed as a question, it also didn’t register as a demand. Lainey chuckled. “I’ll be inside, staring at myself in the mirrors.”
She took the water bottle from my hand before she slid away and closed the door. Lainey seemed to like Rome. Which was good, cause he’d been in our bed the night before. Turning, I looked up at him. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Raising his hand, he waited until I took a step closer before he traced a finger under my eye. They were so sore that even that light contact reminded me of how puffy they were. “What do you need?”
Closing my eyes, I leaned into him and then he wrapped his arms around me. Pressing my forehead to his chest, I just stayed right there. The hug offered security, safety, and even comfort. It was also a promise.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. It was so fucking hard to admit that too. A part of me couldn’t even believe I admitted to throwing up, then again, they were all so worried. You could have sliced a knife at the tension present in that room.
Rome stroked a hand over my hair, the light petting sensation accompanied by his nails gently massaging my scalp had my eyelids fluttering. “Do you still feel sick?”
Not answering immediately, I considered how I was feeling. Between the jumbled emotional and physical reactions, my head was a mess. “I like being back.”
It wasn’t a lot, but—that part was true. Tipping my head back, I looked up at him. “Thank you for coming in last night.”
Lainey being there had been wonderful, but when the dreams came…
“Kel doesn’t know. He was sleeping.”
I didn’t laugh because Rome sounded pleased with himself.
“He was guarding the door.”
My amusement fled at that sentiment. Guarding me.
He’d been guarding me.
With a light touch, Rome lifted my chin up so I’d look at him again. “He cares.”
“I know.” So did I. But I was… Steeling myself, I said, “Broken isn’t bad.”
“It’s not, Starling.”
Burying my face against his chest again, I threaded my arms around him. The scars ached today. I’d had cramps too. Then we’d found the donuts and I’d been so excited and hungry.
Rome said nothing as I clung to him. But I couldn’t hide here forever, no matter if he’d let me. I really was glad to be back.
“I am glad to be back,” I said, hoping he could hear me even if I was talking to his chest. “Just not sure I know how to be back yet.”
“You will.” Simple. Pure. Confidence. “Are you going to dance?”
“Yes.” I’d meant it earlier. I needed to know how much I’d lost. How much muscle, how much flexibility—how much skill. If I’d lost too much… “Dancing is all I know.”
“You know how to fly,” he whispered against my hair, and I smiled at that. “We can mend wings, Starling.”
That sounded amazing.
Another squeeze, then I made myself let him go. He loosened his grip, but when his gaze dipped to my lips once and then back to me, I rose on my tiptoes to meet his kiss. The first brush of his mouth to mine was gentle, the lightest of touches. He raised his hands to cup my cheeks.
Lips parting, I darted my tongue against his and then he deepened the kiss until all I could taste was Rome. He chased away every shadow that lingered from the night before, from the nightmares haunting me, from the endless days in Pinetree and…
My uncle’s face flashed in my eyes, and I pulled back. Rome didn’t hold me captive, but there was no mistaking the concern he wore. I licked my lips and tried to summon a smile. It failed miserably, but Rome cupped my cheek.
“I’m here,” he promised. “I won’t leave.”
Not, I won’t leave without telling you. No, just, I won’t leave.
“Thank you.” I touched his hand with mine and then he let me go as I turned to the studio door. Another glance at him, though, I couldn’t help myself. His eyes. The color. It was what I’d searched for while I’d been in Pinetree before… “Maybe we can have lunch in a few hours?”
“Yes.” No hesitation. “What do you want?”
I chuckled. Food sounded horrific at the moment, but—I needed to eat. “Think I can get a salad? A big one—like a Chef or a Cobb salad?”
Neither sounded appealing, but they’d be lighter and I could eat around anything my stomach didn’t want.
I shook my head. Nope. Not tempting fate with that one.
Reaching around me, he opened the door again. “Be careful?”
That satisfied him. Lainey glanced over from where she leaned against the barre when the door opened.
“Do you want lunch?” Rome asked her.
“As long as it isn’t greasy or made from processed foods.” The lightness in her tone practically dared someone to challenge her. Making a face at her, I glanced back at Rome.
“She likes the same kind of salads I do. Please.”
He flashed me a smile, and a nod, then closed the door and left us alone. I stared at it for a long moment, a sliver of longing alongside loneliness. Squaring my shoulders, I dragged my attention around to find Lainey giving me a sympathetic look.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” she counseled, and I shook my head. “You just got back, and while you haven’t told me what happened…”
“I did,” I argued.
“You told me a little,” she flung the ball back into my court. “I know when someone is guarding their words to protect me.”
From anyone else, that might have sounded like an attack, but this was Lainey…
Moving to the floor, I slid down into a split. The pull on my thighs, my hamstrings, and my groin was intense. But I didn’t force it, I just went down inch by inch as muscle memory helped muscle elasticity.
This was going to hurt.
“Em, when are you going to trust me?”
“I trust you.” When she said nothing, I finished the stretch and held it until my muscles stopped trembling. Two-plus weeks was a lot of physical ground to make up. Finally, I glanced over at her. “Lainey, I do trust you.”
“You were going through hell—all these years—you were in Hell. Why didn’t you tell me?” It was the one question she hadn’t asked. The one she’d given me room to breathe on since I’d found her in the clubhouse.
Coffee in one hand and my water in the other, she crossed to where I stretched and sank down on the floor in front of me. Pain flickered in her eyes and I had to blink back more tears. I’d cried more in the last few days than I think I had in my whole life.
At least more than I could remember.
“The clinic,” she said slowly, but I could read the question amongst the pain in her eyes.
I shook my head. “I don’t know if it was his or Eric’s. I never wanted to know. I just—I couldn’t.”
“I hate that I didn’t know. I knew he—”
I hated that she was in pain over this. “Lainey, I couldn’t tell you. It was never about trust. Ever.” I reached out to grip her hand and she fisted mine.
“But I knew something was wrong. I knew he was hurting you.” The absolute conviction in her expression arrested me. “I wanted so badly to help you—but I didn’t know how.” Then the pain flickering there turned to fury. “And fucking Adam…”
She didn’t finish the thought, taking a sip of her coffee instead. “Lainey…”
“Do not defend him to me,” she said with such absolute rancor.
“He tried to help me. Well…” I sighed. “It’s difficult to explain, but he did offer.”
Her frown was swift. “What did he do?”
“He came to see me on the tour—about a week before it came to Braxton Harbor.”
Surprise flickered across her face.
“He was really the last person I expected to see. Beyond—when I saw him with you and what you said about him, he and I aren’t friends.”
Weariness crashed through me and I leaned to the right, forcing myself to keep stretching. I needed to move. Keep moving or collapse into a fetal ball.
Fuck, I didn’t want to cry anymore.
“What did he want?” Lainey asked when I didn’t say anything.
“He asked me to marry him.” That whole conversation had been so fucking weird.
“He did what?” Shock registered first, her chin rising, her eyes flashing, and even her voice climbing in pitch.
“I said no,” I told her with a wry smile. “I couldn’t. But he didn’t want my answer then. And I know it’s not funny, but Lainey, you look like you’re going to turn into one of those cartoon steam kettles with the whistle screaming.”
“Good, then I look like I feel. What do you mean he asked you to marry him?”
Shifting to stretch the other way, I let out a breath. “It’s been a few months, so bear with me, and I’m still a little—fuzzy.”
Fuzzy was a kind word for it. The anger drained out of her expression. “You don’t—”
“I do, I’ve wanted to tell you since it happened. But…” I gestured to the studio. “This wasn’t something I could tell you in a secret text message.”
“I get it.”
“Please, don’t be mad at me.”
“Oh, trust me,” she said in a tone of velvet steel. “You are not the one I’m angry with.” Then she blew out a breath. “Tell me. I can handle it. After the last few days…” An entirely different light came into her eyes. “I can handle anything.”
Sorry, Adam, I apologized mentally. My thighs burned as I shifted my stretch and pointed my toes.
We had to talk about the last few days too. Why they had kept her here. We’d talked about so much and nothing at the same time. All the cracked shards seemed to tremble inside of me. Nothing held them together at the moment, not really.
One step at a time, I cautioned myself.
Broken isn’t bad.
“Like I said, he came to see me while I was on the tour. Honestly, when he knocked on my hotel door—he was the last person I expected to see.” Looking back, I could barely remember what I’d been thinking at the time. “It was weird—I was…I was bruised up. Eric had been particularly unkind a couple of days before and when he saw the bruises, he offered to take care of it for me.”
Huh. I’d almost forgotten that part. I squeezed Lainey’s fingers once before letting go and moved to pull my legs from the splits. Instead, I went into cobbler’s pose, pressing the bottoms of my feet together. My hips protested it, but my body and I had a long, long acquaintance with pain and discomfort.
“Did he?” Lainey asked.
I shook my head. “No.”
Her expression turned dark.
“And the problem isn’t a problem anymore.” I wouldn’t say another word about it. The guys had taken care of it. The Vandals. Jasper. Kellan. Vaughn.
They’d ended that particular problem, and I still had not one fuck left to give for how Eric died.
“I hope from the expression on your face that mad crew of violent misfits made sure that problem suffered on his way out.”
I cut my gaze to the mirror and the hint of a smile I wore surprised me.
“The thought of me torturing him turns you on, doesn’t it…”
The whisper of Jasper’s question from a few months earlier teased me. It was like a puzzle piece sliding into place. Maybe I should ask them how they did it.
Or would that be weird?
When I flicked a look back to Lainey, I caught her raised eyebrows, and I lifted my shoulders a little. “I’m just glad he’s not my problem anymore.”
So. Fucking. Glad.
We shared a small grin and then I pressed forward, leaning over my feet and elongating my back.
“Anyway… When he showed up, at first, I thought it was about you and that something had happened. He assured me you were safe though, and I sent you a text later and you answered. Oh…” I straightened. I had sent her a text. Good.
It was kind of hazy that night. Like I watched it happen through some gauzy veil.
“He was being—weird. I guess that is the only word I can use for it. When I told him to get to the point, he said he’d come to ask me to marry him, and honestly, I thought it was a joke at first. He pointed out I was eighteen and there was a lot he could do for me…”
Her lips compressed.
Straightening, I looked her in the eye. “When I asked him what, he said a lot. That he could ‘protect’ me and make sure I would never be hurt again.”
Not that I’d believed him.
“When I asked him why, he said he’d tell me after I married him.”
“What an asshole,” she said with a grim look.
I shrugged. “I told him I couldn’t—no matter what he could do for me—not without talking to you first.”
Her smile was fleeting. “Bet that pissed him off.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. He said to not answer him then and to think about it. He’d call me in a couple of weeks…”
And then, well, then I wasn’t there to be called. I’d been here, safe and hidden with my Vandals even if I hadn’t understood how safe I’d been.
That seemed so long ago.
So very, very long ago.
“I think he meant it,” I finally said. “For what it’s worth.”
“That he wanted to marry you?”
“Well, I don’t think it had anything to do with me.” I shook my head. “But what I think he meant was the protecting me part.”
“Nothing for you to be sorry about, Em. Not a damn thing.” Her gaze went distant for a moment, then rocketed back to me. “Adam and I were a fable, a fairy tale, a stupid, stupid childish dream. I hope he did mean he’d protect you. That would at least make him less of an asshole. Not much less, but definitely less.”
“Maybe. Then again,” I said, bracing my hands on the floor and prepping myself for the pain as I pushed all my weight up onto them. Fire raced along the nerves in my forearms and everything trembled. Damaged tissue. Scar tissue. Abused muscles. “The only reason he could want to protect me would be for you.”