“Okay, babe. I’ll be right there.”

He pulled up to her place twenty minutes later. She sat outside on the little stoop, arms wrapped tight around her knees. She looked impossibly brittle, like she’d explode into a thousand pieces if he touched her. Little red dots spotted her face.


Blood spatter. Fuck.

“What’s up, Soph?” Ruger asked, crouching down. She looked at him with blank eyes. “Did you fall down or something?”

“No,” she said quietly. “Zach punched my stomach and threatened to kill Noah, so I killed him instead.”

Ruger froze.

“Excuse me?” he asked carefully, wondering if he’d hallucinated what she’d just said.

“Zach punched my stomach and threatened to kill Noah, so I killed him,” she repeated, meeting his gaze. “He was mad at me because he’d heard I was sleeping with you. He’s always been crazy jealous, you know that. I don’t know what set him off, but he must’ve been spying on me somehow, because he knew exactly how to find me. He was inside the apartment, waiting, when I got home from the karaoke bar. He kissed me, and then he started asking questions and punched me. He said he was going to kill Noah and I knew he meant it, so I hit him over the head with a cast-iron skillet until he died.”

Ruger swallowed. He didn’t feel sorry for Zach, but this was one hell of a clusterfuck.

“Are you sure he’s dead?”

She nodded slowly.

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“I kept hitting him, just to make sure,” she replied, far too calmly. “I checked his pulse. He’s definitely dead. I’m hoping you’ll tell me what to do next. I finally did my own dirty work, Ruger, but I don’t know how to finish it.”

Damn it. He shouldn’t have left her alone. Should’ve come to check on her when she didn’t show up with the rest of the girls … Fuck giving her space.

“Okay,” he said. “Where’s Noah?”

“Spending the night with Elle,” Sophie said. “She’ll get him ready for school in the morning. I’ll pick him up and take him on the way to work.”

Well, that was something.

“I’m going to go inside, check things out,” he said. “That okay with you?”

“Sure,” she murmured. “No problem. I’ll just stay out here, I think?”

“That sounds good,” he told her, reaching out and cupping her cheek. She leaned her head into his touch, eyes starting to water. Then he stood up and stepped past her, opening the door.

Fuck. Double f**k …

Zach was on the floor, his hair matted with blood. A pool of it surrounded him. A horrible stench filled the air, a mixture of burned meat and scorched hair.

The pan lay next to Zach’s corpse, more blood crusting the sides. It’d splattered behind him, too. That would take some serious cleaning. New linoleum for sure, and they might even need to replace the floorboards underneath, he mused.

Ruger checked Zach’s pulse just to be sure, but Sophie was right. His stepbrother was definitely dead. This was a mess, a big mess, and cleaning it up wouldn’t be pretty.

He was proud of her, though.

She’d defended herself when it counted, and ultimately this was Ruger’s fault. He should’ve killed Zach four years ago. Then he should have killed him when he’d collected the child support. Fucking weak of him.

He’d held off because of Noah.

Didn’t want to kill the boy’s father. Didn’t want to do that to his own mother, either. She’d loved Zach, for reasons Ruger had never understood. So he’d given Zach another pass, leaving his woman to finish the job.

Fucking idiot.

Ruger pulled out his phone and dialed Pic.

“It’s Ruger,” he said. “I’m out at Soph’s place. Could use some help here, it’s delicate. Anyone up for it? Probably gonna need a van …”

“How delicate?” Picnic asked. He hadn’t been drinking much, either, thank f**k. Neither of them had quite relaxed since the kidnapping, and that vigilance might save Sophie’s ass now.

“About as delicate as it gets,” Ruger said slowly. “We should talk in person.”

“Gotcha,” Pic replied, hanging up. Ruger went back outside and found Sophie still sitting on the porch. He sat down behind her, wrapping his arms around her body, legs surrounding hers as he pulled her close. She shivered.

“Hey, Soph,” he whispered, nuzzling her neck. She leaned back into him and he realized she was crying softly, tears rolling down her face.

Good. Crying was better than that creepy calm she’d had earlier.

“I’m really sorry, Ruger,” she told him. “I keep calling you in to fix things, always making you do the hard stuff. First Miranda, now this. I should’ve called the cops …”

“No f**king way,” he said. “That’s a mess we don’t need. You might get off on self-defense, you might not. Not after you kept hitting him. He was just sitting when you attacked, right? He wasn’t about to hit you or something?”

“Not really,” Sophie replied. “He was looking at his hands and I was supposed to be cooking eggs.”

“You did what you had to do,” Ruger said, hoping she believed him. “He chose this—he threatened your son, Soph. You had to protect him. That’s what mothers do.”

She nodded her head.

“I know,” she replied. “He said he’d kill all of us and I knew he meant it. The restraining order didn’t do shit. Going to jail only stopped him for a while … What if he hurt Noah next time? I wasn’t willing to take that chance.”

“We’ll clean this up for you,” he replied, resting his cheek on her head. God, he loved how she smelled, although for once his dick had the grace to stay down. “Hopefully nobody knew he was coming here. He’ll just disappear. If the cops ever come looking, we’ll say I did it, okay?”

“You can’t—” she tried to protest, but he cut her off.

“I’m not planning on it,” Ruger said. “Trust me, prison isn’t on my bucket list. We play things right, it won’t be an issue. He wasn’t here, it never happened. But if the shit hits the fan, you’ll do what I tell you, what the club lawyer tells you. Got me?”

“I just feel so bad dragging you into it.”

“We’re a family,” he whispered. “We take care of each other. That’s the way it works, babe. You protected yourself and Noah, now I’ll protect you. My brothers’ll cover my ass, and we’ll all make it through just fine.”

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