PLEASE NOTE: If you received the placeholder version of Dissent during the accidental release in July, the correct version will be available when the book goes live again in September. We offer our apologies for the mistake, however Kylie was hospitalised unexpectedly for multiple surgeries from May until the first weekend in September and was unable to immediately rectify the issue.

AVAILABLE IN SEPTEMBER 2019

 

The last thing he needs is to babysit a damsel in distress, especially one with a mouth like hers.

Zali Mitchell.

Gabbi’s little sister likes to stir drama. Stunningly beautiful and snarky by nature, she’s ready to emerge from her sister’s shadow and strike out on her own—if only she could get rid of her self-appointed guardian.

Jep Haynes. 

He’s an asshole and not afraid to show it. Breaking the rules is his way of flipping the universe a middle finger for the shitty hand he was dealt. Except, the trail of women and betrayed friends he leaves in his wake are cold comfort when there’s no family left to care.

When Hooligan demands that he keep Zali from getting herself into trouble in the city, Jep knows he’s in for a hell of a fight. She’s hell-bent on self-destruction and happy to take him down with her. It doesn’t take long before he realises her bitch act is nothing but a cry for help, and that the man who cares about no one might be the only person capable of saving her.

Dissent is the third book in the Black Hearts MMA series by Kylie Hillman. Prepare to meet the most loathsome duo imaginable. Apart, they’re irredeemable. Together, they might actually become palatable. 

*Non-cliffhanger, full length novel. Can be read as a standalone, however does contain some spoilers for the first two books in the Black Hearts MMA series - Brawl (book one) and Conflict (book two)*

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PROLOGUE

Zali

“We must dissent from the indifference.

We must dissent from the apathy.

We must dissent from the fear.”

~Thurgood Marshall~


I once read that living under the shadow of perfection is tiring.

Well, living under my sister’s shadow is more than tiring, it’s infuriating.

When I look at her, I see red. It’s a burning rage, a damning conviction, an eternal pressure to be more… and less.

She is everything I’m not. And nothing I want to be.

Her attempt to mold me into a caricature who holds the same beliefs as her is unwanted. 

Her desire to make me fit into the neat little box she’s designed for me is wasted.

Her care for my welfare and her concern about my deviousness is misguided.

I don’t want to change. I’m happy with who I am. My tricks. My schemes. My unending need to cause chaos. They’re my crowning glory. They’re well-earned… they are all mine.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve existed as an extension of her.

The second born.

The middle child.

The girl everyone ignored.

Gabbi’s little sister.

No more.

I’m done. The moment the coast is clear, I’m outta here.

I’d already be gone if she’d let me leave without mounting a fight. But she won’t. It’s not my sister’s style. She’s a meddler. A do-gooder with a conscience. And she’s only got worse since she found her Hooligan.

You’d think when she finally got a life of her own, she’d leave me to my own devices.

No such luck.

Gabbi might have moved out, but she turned me over to our father before she left.

The only thing worse than a big sister with scruples is a father with a debt to pay.

It’s just as well that doing things the easy way is not my style.

When I leave, they won’t be able to miss my exit.

There’ll be smoke.

There’ll be flames.

There’ll be complete uproar.

Because I’ll do more than dissent to everyone’s apathy, then flounce off the scene…

I’m going to burn my old life to the ground on the way out.


ONE

Zali

Flipping my hair over, I lean toward the ground and shake the long locks. Once I’ve scrunched up my roots and I’m happy with the volume I’ve created, I flick my head back and smooth down the few flyaways that stick out from my otherwise perfect mane.

“You’re hot as fuck,’ I tell my reflection in the mirror. “He’s going to give you everything you ask for… and more.”

I blow myself a kiss, offer my image in the mirror one last smile, then rearrange my boobs in my halter top. Going bra-less isn’t my normal style, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

My dad might think he can pop back on the scene and tell me what to do after being gone for three years. He might believe he has a say over who I see and where I live, but he has another think coming. If he can be stupidly easy in his acceptance of Gabbi living with her geriatric boyfriend; he can extend the same courtesy to me.

It’s about time that he saw me as my sister’s equal and not some little girl he can boss around in some ridiculous attempt to atone for his own sins. He left us. There’s no way I’ll let him swan back into my life and play the heavy.

He owes me. And I intend to make him pay…

Especially after he unceremoniously dragged me out of my boyfriend’s house yesterday and made me move home with him.

While Gabbi’s off living by her own rules, he’s trying to force me to toe the line.

“Not likely,” I declare before I blow myself another kiss. “No one tells me what to do.”

My phone pings with a text message. It’s time. Scooping it from my desk, I shove it inside my tiny clutch without checking the text and pull the cold, chain strap over my head so the small bag sits across my body. Yanking open my bedroom window; I check that the coast is clear.

It is.

Apart from Devon’s turbo engine whining roughly in the distance and the heavy bass from the music he’s blasting, I find no other signs of life.

Typical of the McMansion’s in my suburb, my home is huge, but thankfully, it’s only single storey. I’m not sure how well I’d go shimmying down a rain pipe like they do in the movies, at least not in the short skirt and thigh-high, thin-heeled boots I’m wearing.

As it is, I almost fall on my ass when my spiky heels sink into the garden bed beneath my window. Circling my arms in a windmill motion, I barely manage to keep my feet when I stumble backward, crushing the agapanthus’ as I go.

Muted by the leather of my clutch, another telltale ping followed by a vibration alerts me to Devon’s growing impatience. I smooth my skirt down and readjust my top, then hightail it through the front garden and out our long driveway.

When I come into view, my boyfriend sticks his head out the driver’s side window and yells at me, “Took you long enough. Hurry the fuck up. I’ve got a gig to get to.”

I quickly make my way around to the passenger side of his beat-up muscle car. My backside has hardly touched the seat before he’s driving off down the street with the tyres squealing. Grasping the door handle with urgent fingers, I slam my door shut and buckle up my seatbelt.

“Hey, baby,” I murmur in Devon’s direction after I’ve pulled my clutch free of my shoulders and dropped it on the floor by my feet. “Did you miss me?”

Ignoring my question, he keeps tapping his fingers on the steering wheel to the music, seemingly intent on getting out of my suburb as quickly as he can. Relaxing back in my grimy seat, I try to concentrate of the song that’s playing instead of the fact that the houses that line each side of the street are whipping by too fast.

Speed doesn’t normally worry me. I like a good muscle car and have designs drawn of my dream car—a fully rebuilt cherry-red 1969 Camaro—in one of my sketch books hidden at the top of my wardrobe. Not that I’ve ever told anyone about my love of cars; wouldn’t want to ruin my reputation as an air-headed cheerleader by admitting that I’d love to study engineering if my dance career doesn’t pan out.

Devon wrestles his car around a sharp turn and all thoughts of pretty cars and automotive design tumble out of my head. Grabbing the “oh shit” handle, I plant my feet on the stained carpet and try my hardest not to judge my boyfriend when he doesn’t immediately control the skid.

“Woo,” Devon yells. He lets one hand drop off the steering wheel and punches a fist in the air. “Feel the power.”

I offer him a small smile and let go of the handle. His exuberance is out of place considering his car is nothing special. It’s a tin shell with a half-decent engine, but I don’t let him know that. Not when I need his cooperation tonight and he can be, at times, unpredictable.

When we hit the main street of one of the dingier outer suburbs, Devon finally slows down. He peers across my body and starts mumbling street names.

Seems we’re almost at our destination.

Folding my hands in my lap, I push all thoughts of the smelly, overcrowded party his band is about to play and run through the words I’m going to use to persuade him to go head to head with his parent’s so I can move back in with him. If I have my way, tomorrow will be the last time I set foot in the house I formerly called home and that will only be for as long as it takes to pack my belongings and tell my father where to stick his rules.

“Fuck,” my boyfriend exclaims. He makes a loud U-turn across the four-lane road speeds off back in the direction we just came from. “I think it’s the next burb over.”

The song changes. Devon leans over to turn it up and I silently groan, even as I begin to sway in my seat to the rhythm.

“Good isn’t it?”

Nodding, I offer him a tight smile. “Yes.”

Devon is the lead guitarist for an “up and coming” grunge-pop band. At least, that’s how they bill themselves on the hundreds of posters they plaster around Sydney. I don’t necessarily agree, considering that I’ve been with Devon for over a year and he’s never had more than two paying gigs in that time. Most have been at house parties like the one we’re headed to tonight—where the guys get paid in beer and crystal meth—so I’m not sure how much longer they can bill themselves as the next big thing.

Especially when their music is honesty dreadful. A mishmash of genres, cliché lyrics, and an emaciated lead singer with a severe case of acne, the only thing they have going for them is Devon’s bad boy good looks and they know it.

A swell of pride spreads throughout my chest. Leaning over, I kiss his cheek. He pulls away from me, almost plastering himself against his door to evade any further contact with me.

“What’s wrong?” A jolt of panic invades my body and I brace for him to either lash out at me or try to guilt me over some perceived offence I’ve caused him.

Devon shakes his head. Narrowing his eyes at me, he scrunches up his nose. “What the fuck are you wearing?”

The second I note his enlarged pupils and the frenetic rage that’s growing in his brown depths, my panic turns from mild to full-blown alarm. It appears that Devon’s been paid for this gig in advance, and if I can’t manage to talk him down before he works himself up into a meth craze, I’m in for a bad night.

Looking down at my outfit, I shrug and try to play to his ego. “It’s new. I brought it for you. I thought you’d like it?”

“Well, I don’t. You look like a whore,” he snaps before looking back at the road.

I hold my breath and wait for his next comment. It will be the litmus test for tonight’s outcome.

Bad or really bad.

He remains silent for a moment before he uses his long arm to fish around behind his seat. The car veers over the white line and an oncoming vehicle blows its horn at us. I gasp and reach over to take control of the steering wheel. When we swerve back onto the right side of the road, Devon tosses a piece of black fabric in my face then slaps my hand away from him.

“Put this on,” he snaps.

Shaking out the material in front of me, I inwardly groan. It’s one of his band’s T-shirts—faded black cotton with a wrinkled ironed-on logo. Acting as a walking billboard for his band is a recipe for disaster. Some guy will get too handsy, thinking I’m a perk that comes with hiring the band, and Devon will take it out on me.

I guess tonight is officially in the really bad category.

When I twist the shirt in the right way, the smell of cigarettes and cheap perfume invades my nose. To make matters worse, I’m pretty sure it has been used as a cum rag recently. The wet patch and the distinct smell of sex is a dead giveaway.

I know this isn’t left over from us. I’d lived with Devon until yesterday and we hadn’t had sex for four days before that because I’d had weird cramps and it’d hurt when we’d tried. When I drag in a breath to steady my growing anger at him doing this to me again, I get a lungful of the perfume clinging to the T-shirt and all hopes of handling this rationally disappears. The scent is recognisable—one of their few groupies wears this generic chemist crap which gives everyone she encounters a headache.

Without thinking through the consequences, I bundle it in a ball, so the wetness is facing outward, then lean over and jam it right in Devon’s face.

“Did you fuck Heidi?” I scream at him.

His reply is muffled by the T-shirt until he pushes it away and twists to slap me across the face. The car fishtails before Devon yanks the steering wheel toward the side of the road and we squeal to a halt. I clutch my burning cheek; anger burning a trail though me when Devon does what he always does and turns his bad behaviour back around on me.

“Who I fuck has nothing to do with you. If you were a decent girlfriend I wouldn’t have to get my end wet elsewhere. Maybe if you told Daddy that you were staying at my place instead of running home with your tail between your legs, Heidi wouldn’t have been the only cunt available when I got horny. Huh? Did you think about that? Dumb bitch.”

His excuses and accusations wash over me. Waves of shame and bitterness try to drown me, and my rage finds a new target when I remember what set this all in motion. This is all Gabbi’s fault. If she’d just told Cooper’s teacher where to stick her meddling, then Dad wouldn’t have been called and I’d still be living with Devon, and stupid junkie bitches like Heidi wouldn’t be fucking my boyfriend the second my back is turned.

“I know… I’m sorry—”

The rest of my attempted apology is abruptly ended when Devon punches me in the mouth. Red stars invade my vision and a hot pain cascades through my face. He follows that strike with another. This one bounces off my temple and makes me woozy. I barely have time to cover my face before he swings at me again.

“Stop,” I plead. “Devon, stop. Please.”

“Fuck you,” he snarls, hitting me again. “I’m sick of your bullshit. Fucking fed up with being the only band member with Miss Priss for a girlfriend. If you’d grow the fuck up and realise that groupies are normal on the music scene, I wouldn’t have to teach you a bloody lesson all the fucking time.”

While the punches rain down, I curl into a ball against my door. Devon’s slapped me a few times, usually when I’ve said something stupid or embarrassed him in front of his friends, but he’s never been like this.

Shoving the wet T-shirt in his face was obviously the final straw.

I fucked up, hardcore.

As soon as that thought hits me, my inner bitch rages back to life. Why the hell am I taking this from some third-rate guitar player who lives in a converted loft over his parents’ garage? There’s no way I’d put up with this crap from anyone else and I’ll be damned if I’ll take it from Devon.

I love him.

He’s cheated on me.

Multiple times.

I’ve done nothing but turn myself inside out to please this asshole. All because I thought I needed someone to call mine in this stupid world. With an absent father, alcoholic gambler for a mother, stuck up know-it-all bitch for a sister, and a little brother who prefers everything and everyone, including his PlayStation, over me, I knew I’d be all alone if I didn’t have Devon.

Well, fuck that bullshit.

I’d rather eat pigeon shit for breakfast than accept another serving of Devon’s twisted version of love.

Sitting up straight in my seat, I turn so I can face him. He manages to hit me in the mouth again, but I don’t fall back this time. Instead I start swinging myself.

“No. Fuck you.” I spit a wad of blood tinged saliva in his face. “You’re nothing but a wannabe. Your band is pathetic and you’re never going to make it further than where you are now. Nobody wants to watch a bunch of out-of-tune, Nickelback wannabe’s parade in front of them like morons.”

“Fuck. Jesus, Zali,” he protests, holding his hands over his face. “Calm the fuck down. Fucking psycho whore.”

With my fingers bent like claws, I scratch and tear at his face until he’s the one pressed against his door. Once I’m satisfied that he’s not going to hit me again, I reach behind me and pull the lever to open my door. My feet aren’t even solidly planted on the ground before he’s speeding away from me.

“Good fucking riddance,” I yell after him. “Go running back to Heidi and her chlamydia ridden crotch.”

He thrusts an arm out his window and flips me the bird.

Ignoring the pulsing ache in my face, I watch him leave until his taillights are no longer in view.

And that’s when it hits me.

My bag is in that car.

I’m stranded on the side of the road with no phone and no money.

A quick inspection of my surroundings and I work out where I am.

Tonight just keeps getting better.

He’s ditched me in Sydney’s version of the Ghetto.

This is not my usual stomping ground. Fortunately—or unfortunately, depending upon how I look at it—I know one person stupid enough to live in this hellhole, but she’s the last person I want to ask for help.

Bloody Gabbi.

This is not how I saw this night going. I’d planned on using every feminine wile I possessed to sweet-talk Devon into browbeating his weak-assed parents into allowing me back into the loft with him so I could escape my father’s version of Gestapo rule.

I was certain I’d be getting my way. Turns out I was dead wrong about that.

One crazy car ride, a split lip, a thumping headache, and abandonment on the streets of Sydney later and I’ve been right about a sum total of one thing tonight…

Desperate times definitely call for desperate measures.

And I’m desperate enough to gate crash my sister’s romantic evening with her new father figure—aka: her ancient slumlord of a boyfriend.

Kill me now.

 


TWO 

Jep 

“He wants what?” I pause the game I’m playing on my X-box and shoot Nate a disbelieving look.

“Butter chicken, two dozen tea candles, and rose petals,” my housemate replies.

He exchanges a look with his girlfriend, Amy, then they both laugh.

“What’s so fucking funny?” Nate laughs at my question. “You want to take my car, don’t you?”

He shrugs at the same time that Amy nods. They glance at each other again and dissolve into another fit of laughter.

Rolling my eyes at their antics, I watch Nate take Amy in his arms and hug her to his chest.

He seems to be doing better.

Call me paranoid, but as much as it makes me happy to see him happy, I can’t push away the feeling that he’s not being completely genuine with me. He’s been out of the hospital for just over twelve hours after an almost successful suicide attempt a week ago. Looking at him hurts the deep cavity in my chest that passes for a heart, and I can tell from the way Amy keeps searching his face whenever he’s not looking, that she’s feeling the same thing.

It doesn’t help that every time I close my eyes, I can see him swinging from the rafter in our shed.

“So… we can take your Camaro?” Amy asks. She nudges Nate, smirking. “I’ll drive.”

Nate snorts and they start arguing over who’s driving. Blinking slowly, I watch them for a moment then push all thoughts of Nate’s suicide attempt to the back of my mind and concentrate on finding an excuse that will get me out of letting his tiny girlfriend drive my pride and joy. My Zaffre Blue 1969 Chevy Camaro is my baby with my Harley Davidson Fat Boy a close second. I restored every inch of that car with my own hands and I haven’t let anyone, but Angelo, drive it—and that was only because he let me take his 1978 Ford Cobra for a spin in return.  

“Um, I… ah, it’s… not…”

I trail off when Nate slings an arm over my shoulder and puts me out of my misery. “We’re just fucking with you. Can you drive us to get the candles and shit, then pick up the Indian he’s ordered so we can drop it off at Gabbi’s apartment? Something’s come up and Hooligan’s changed his plans… apparently, they’re eating in tonight.”

“Indian food stinks. I don’t—”

“We’ll put it in a foam box in the boot,” Nate promises, pre-empting my next excuse. “I’ll even pay for detailing if I have to. Hooligan’s promised me an IOU, and after the week I’ve had, I need one up my sleeve.”

The flippant way he talks about trying to end his life makes me want to punch him in the face. I’m equal parts mad at him for doing it as well as pissed at myself for not noticing his downward spiral until it was too late.

Truthfully, I did notice, but I’d decided that he was someone else’s problem.

Mark another notch on my ever-growing list of screw ups.

I’d been too busy trying to fuck Hooligan’s new girlfriend, Gabbi before he did to bother alerting anyone to Nate’s issues, which is par for the course with me. I’ve been deliberately fucking up my life by fucking over everyone I know since I could talk.

I don’t fight under the name Judas for no reason.

“Earth to Jep,” Nate quips, clicking his fingers in front of my face. “We need your help. Angelo dropped me and Amy off here since her mum needs her car for the weekend with the booster seat for Max. Taking a taxi will cost a fucking fortune. Now Steve’s dropped me, I’m skint as fuck.”

“Whatever,” I grumble. He’s snookered me. Punching his arm as I pass, I head into my bedroom to retrieve my keys, grumbling all the way, “I should make you take your Harley. Would serve you right for not telling Hooligan the truth.”

When I re-emerge from my room, Amy is standing on the couch in front of Nate. She’s fussing with the collar of his jacket, turning it up and zipping it as high as it will go to hide the residual bruising and welts that colour his neck. Swallowing hard, I avert my gaze from the damage he did to himself and curl my hands into fists at my sides. My arms can still remember how heavy he felt that night and how hard it was to hold him in the air while Amy tried to undo the rope around his neck.

Opening and closing my fingers half a dozen times, I try to get the phantom feeling to abate.

It refuses so I grit my teeth and pretend it doesn’t exist.

“He’s had enough bad shit happen,” Nate replies. He takes hold of Amy’s waist and puts her back on the floor. “I don’t want to add to it.”

As explanations go, it’s half-assed at best. The three of us know the truth. The reason Nate doesn’t want to tell Hooligan that he tried to kill himself is his own fear. He knows his uncle will never trust him again, and he’s afraid to face the repercussions of his fuck up.

Dark thoughts swirl around my brain when I think of what Nate did. The heaviness in my hands returns and I gesture for them to step outside before slamming the front door shut harder than necessary. When I stride around them and head for the garage, they trail behind me, whispering as we go. While we wait for the roller door to lift, Amy separates herself from Nate and comes to stand by my side. She nudges against my arm with her skinny shoulder. The first time I ignore her, but when she does it a second time, I glance down at her.

Empathy fills her dark eyes. She slips her hand inside mine and squeezes. After a beat, I return her grip. I want to tell her to get the fuck away from me—I don’t need her support—but her touch has soothed the heavy ache in my hands and made the memories dull a little.

Relaxing into the feel of her, I allow my eyes to flutter shut. I’m so fucking weary. Since we found Nate, my head has refused to be silent. I can’t sleep. I can’t fuck. I hardly have the energy to train. Having Amy squeeze my hand has been the closest I’ve come to a semblance of peace since last weekend.

“If you need to talk—” Opening my eyes before she’s finished her sentence, I drop her hand and take a deliberate step away from her.

The garage door finishes rattling its way into place and I use it as an excuse to put more space between us in case she decides to press the point. All my life people have been offering me the opportunity to talk, to delve into the reasons why I’m such an asshole, to purge my soul of the scars from my shitty childhood.

Only problem with their approach is that I don’t want to talk.

I’m quite content with the way I am.

Unlike Nate—who’s now eyeing me with barely concealed anger after catching the interplay between me and his girl—I’m fine by myself. I have nothing to prove and no one to impress. I’ve survived everything thrown my way and learnt a few hard lessons as I’ve grown up.

I don’t need anyone.

Just give me a bump of coke, the speed of my Harley, and a wet pussy or two, and I’m good to go.

Gesturing to my Camaro, I set about removing the car cover before I turn eyes filled with the promise of death on Nate and Amy.

“Clean your fucking feet. Keep your hands off the upholstery. You fuck anything, you pay to fix it… and I’m not joking when I tell you that it won’t be cheap.”

They take my declaration in the spirit that it’s offered. Dead seriousness.

Nate opens the back door for Amy and helps her inside. He hops in the front seat and sits with his hands folded in his lap while I start the engine. My baby roars to life, her throaty rumble a testament to the power underneath her hood.

“Hold onto your panties,” I tell Amy when our eyes meet in the rear-vision mirror. “You’re in for the ride of your life. Anything Nate has to offer after tonight will feel like a letdown.”

The small amount of tension she was carrying in her shoulders after I cut dead her offer to talk dissipates when Amy grins at me and nods.

Sitting next to me, Nate lifts his arm and balls his hand into a fist like he’s about to punch me. I glare at him and he thinks twice. I won’t hesitate to turf the pair of them out of my car and make them use Nate’s Harley to run Hooligan’s late-night errands, and he knows this. He lowers his hands back into his lap and remains sitting with an unnatural stillness so he doesn’t touch anything he shouldn’t.

Once the Camaro is warmed up, I reverse out of the driveway and take off down the street.

Amy squeals when she slides around on the leather back seat until she manages to grab the “Oh, shit” handle above her door. Nate braces himself on the dash when I take the first corner too fast.

I grin, immediately feeling better than I have in days.

“Forgot you’re a fucking nutcase behind the wheel,” Nate quips. “I know you don’t care, but I’d really like to get this shit done quickly and remain in one piece. Slowing down might be advisable.”

My lightened spirit turns thick and murky once more.

Nate’s offhand comment shouldn’t get under my skin as much as it does.

He might think that I don’t care, but he’s not the one who can’t sleep because of the memories of what he did. He’s not the one who’s haunted by Amy’s screams and Angelo’s devastation when I called him for help. Looking at him sitting next to me, offering me advice on how to handle myself, it’s hard to believe that he was ready to end it all a week ago.

The undeniable fact is that he was, and he let me down with his weakness.

Nate’s always been more than a friend to me. He’s my brother from a different mother. A fellow street kid. He’s survived the same kind of shit as me and come out the other side stronger.

Well, at least, I’d thought he had until he went and pulled the rug from beneath my feet a week ago and reminded me why caring for people is a fool’s game.

“Whatever,” I mutter under my breath, slowing down to adhere to the speed limit. “I forgot you’re weak as piss.”


THREE

Zali 

As I’m approaching Gabbi’s apartment complex a hotted-up car goes flying past and turns into the parking lot. A trio—two men and a small woman—get out of the bright blue vehicle and two of them head for the entrance of the building carrying a foam box and a couple of plastic shopping bags that seem to be filled to the brim. They’re just that little bit too far away for me to see their faces, but the way they’re slinking about sets my already frayed nerves further on edge.

One guy remains. He leans back against the hood of the car and stares off in the opposite direction to the way his friends are headed. It’s like he’s a look out or something.

Alarm bells start ringing in my head. Are they delivering drugs to someone in Gabbi’s building? I duck down in the bushes next the row of letterboxes out the front of the complex and pray to God that they leave soon. My feet are tired from walking eight blocks in heels and, after my run-in with Devon, I don’t have the energy to face other people.

I just want Gabbi to drive me home so I can take a hot bath and hide in my cosy bed.

“Why are you hiding?” a smoky male voice filled with undertones of danger asks. “Shouldn’t you be making the most of the empty street corner?”

Before I can respond, he reaches down and takes hold of my upper arm. Yanking me forward, the stranger drags me until I’m illuminated by the streetlight. He gives me a little shake which almost knocks me off my feet and growls at me.

“For fuck sake, you’re a kid. You should be home in bed not traipsing the streets for a john.”

I keep my focus on the cracked cement beneath my feet and concentrate on regaining my balance when he shakes me again. I’ve been strangely mute since he intercepted me. I don’t know if it’s a combination of shock at Devon actually leaving me and disbelief at being accused of being a prostitute, but the events of tonight have closed my throat up tight and I can’t muster the ability to defend myself verbally. 

“What are you?” he askes in a vicious tone. “Fucking mute or something. I thought you had to be half-good with your mouth to work the streets?”

The second insult he lobs my way wakes me out of my stupor. Snatching my arm out of his grasp, I put some space between us. He runs his dark blue gaze over my body then settles on my face. I return his blatant staring with my own; a prickle of awareness settling in on the back of my neck as I get a good look at him. Despite his rugged good looks, this guy appears dangerous. He’s tall and muscly, covered in tattoos, and dressed like a wannabe biker complete with an eyebrow ring, scruffy beard, and stainless-steel chains hanging from his dirty denim.

Totally Gabbi’s type which makes him the opposite of mine.

He’s probably a pimp, hence the dressing down he’s giving me.

Maybe this is his turf?

If it is, he’s welcome to keep it. I want out of this crappy suburb asap.

When I accidentally snort at the thoughts in my head, he glares at me. Then he stalks closer to me again and I retreat. For a few seconds we move in an awkward shuffle. His steps are assured when he advances while I’m hobbled by the blisters on my heels from the stupid shoes I picked to wear tonight as I try to evade him.

After what feels like an eternity, the strangers gaze narrows further, and he cocks his head to the side.

“I know you,” he says at the same time as I finally find my voice and snap at him, “I’m not a fucking kid or a whore.”

My protestation about being labelled a prostitute die on my tongue once his comment registers in my head, and I stop to really look at him. Recognition dawns and brings with it a wave of embarrassment.

He’s right. He does know me. Just like I know him.

And he’s seeing me at my lowest for the second time in a few short months.

Uh! I hope he doesn’t remember how we met.

“You’re Gabbi’s little sister. Zara or Zoe? I know it starts with a Z.” He clicks his fingers like that will bring my name to him.

Shit. No such luck. Something akin to sympathy flickers across his face and I know he’s remembering the night he helped Gabbi’s boyfriend, Hooligan, and Amy’s boyfriend, Nate, take down my mother’s latest conquest after he smacked me around and held a knife to my little brother’s throat to try and get Gabbi to settle our mother’s debt to him.

Yeah, I know, such fun times we have in my dysfunctional family. 

I bite the inside of my cheek and drop my gaze from his eyes to his heavy, black, biker boots, so I don’t cuss him out for labelling me as Gabbi’s little sister. In the scheme of things he’s called me in the last five minutes that should be the least of my worries, however it’s the insult that sets my teeth on edge. I know I should be used to it by now; after all, it’s all I’ve ever been known as.

My sister is the measuring stick I’m held next to… and the example I always fall short against.

Dragging in a ragged breath, I force my gaze back to his and reply as evenly as I can, “You were close. It’s Zali.”

He closes the distance between us and takes hold of my chin with a firm grip. Tilting my head to the side, he inspects the damage Devon inflicted. The longer he searches my face, the harder his eyes get.

“Has your mum got a new man? I’m more than happy to deal with him, if you need?”

Jerking my chin from his fingers, I shake my head and scowl at him. “No, she doesn’t. And I don’t need your help. Not that it’s any of your business, but I kinda broke up with my boyfriend and things got a bit heated.”

“He hit you?” This friend of Gabbi’s—I’m pretty sure his name is Jep—is really starting to piss me off with his questions. My scowl deepens and I try to sidestep him to head for Gabbi’s building. For the second time tonight, he takes hold of my upper arm and uses it drag me away. “My offer still stands, ya feel me?”

“Look,” I say, pushing up to my full height and standing on my tiptoes so I can glare right in his eyes. “He got a couple cheap shots in, but I dealt with it. Like I deal with everything. Now, if you’d kindly let me the fuck go, I need to get my sister to drive me home. My dumbass-ex drove off with my bag, so I don’t have any money or a phone to get a cab…”

I trail off when he tightens his grip on arm. I attempt to shake him off. He squeezes tighter.

Our eyes lock and I inadvertently take a step backward at the sheer depth of anger I encounter in his gaze. He’s almost vibrating with rage. The straight set of his shoulders and the tension that emanates from him in waves doesn’t make sense to me.

“I’ll take you home,” he states in a voice that brooks no arguments. “You shouldn’t be walking the streets at this time of the night. Hooligan will have my ass if something happens to you.”

“No. I’m fine. Besides, Gabbi won’t mind taking me home.”

He shakes his head at me and the anger in his expression morphs into contempt. Arching a dark eyebrow, he scoffs, “You’d interrupt your sister’s birthday celebrations to have her drive you home? Why fuck up her night just because you chose to go out with a dickhead and ended up stranded? Just leave her to enjoy herself and let me take you home. Problem solved. Everyone’s happy.”

Normally, his judgement would rush straight over me without making me pause. I couldn’t give two shits if I disturbed Gabbi mid-fuck with her geriatric boyfriend. Except I pushed Gabbi too far earlier today when I took Dad to her apartment to confront her and I was honestly afraid for the first time in my life that my sister might actually hit me.

It hadn’t worried me on the walk here, but now, with an audience, I’m not as certain of her cooperation.

With a sigh, I sag in his grip, and concede with a slow, solitary incline of my head. “All right. You can take me home.”