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I collapsed across my bed as soon as I made it into my room – I hadn’t taken a hit in alongtime, and my tolerance for it was apparently low now.


Unfortunately, I wasn’t in a place to sit here and recover – I had to keep moving.

Encountering a thorn out here?

That was no coincidence.

Roxy came bounding into the room, tongue out, tail wagging, leaping to throw her fluffy brown body across mine. She immediately jumped off when I winced at her touch, cursing in response to the unexpected pain.

Did that motherfucker break one of my ribs?

I swallowed hard, gritting my teeth to pull myself up. I grabbed a bottle of pain relievers from my bedside drawer, swallowing what was probably too many before I closed it up. I took it with me to the closet, adding it to the bag of supplies – weapons and ammo and a few changes of clothes, a wad of cash, and a few protein bars – that I kept stashedjustfor the inevitability of something like this.

I’d maybe gotten too comfortable here, but I was ready to go when necessary.

I wanted to take a few minutes to shower, but that felt like a luxury I couldn’t afford. Instead, I peeled off my sweaty, grimy work clothes, exchanging them for leggings and a long-sleeved tee shirt – clothes that were comfortable and would allow me to move.

If I had to fight again, I needed nothing holding me back.

I really, really shouldn’t have come here.

I should have crossed it right off my radar.

But after everything that went down with theGarden, I was… lost. Drifting in the wind. Stupidly, maybe, I’d decided to look into my life before theBelroses, to see exactly what history they’d stripped me of.

It wasn’t much.

Apparently, I was an orphan – living on the streets until I was taken in by some agency – which, should’ve been a happy ending.

Instead, I got trafficked to a criminal organization who turned me into what many would call a monster.

And… they wouldn’t be wrong.

In any case, Ididhave family, they just had no idea I existed. I followed that line to this shitty town outside Vegas, to my great-uncleBig Jake’slong-abandoned garage. It was nothing to forge the paperwork I didn’t actually have, proving it was supposed to be mine.

I used those same fake credentials for the background check and everything else I needed to get a place, tucked into a quiet neighborhood where nobody was likely to bother me.

A whole life where I could justbe.

One that bought me enough time to clear my head of everything else and justthink.

I was free.

Now what?

Once I was dressed, Roxy came back for another attempt at love, winding herself around and through my legs until I bent to pick the little dog up. She was a recent acquisition, from a local shelter. I’d never been a dog person – because I’d never had the opportunity, really – but having her around had likely saved me.

There was a deep, gaping loneliness to who I was, and my options for avoiding it were few.

And now… I had to give her up.

I indulged her to desire to lick my face for a few seconds before I hefted my bag over my shoulder, carrying her with me as I quietly exited my little house. It was more like a studio apartment than a traditional home, but I’d been sold on having just enough space for myself, while still having my own entry and exit.

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