The limo pulls up outside a large, gated site that from the outside looks little more than an industrial estate, but given the heavy duty security and the rows and rows of expensive cars already parked inside, appearances aren’t as they seem.
“Where are we?” I ask Zayn, who’s been broody and silent for the last five minutes.
Ignoring my question, he taps on the glass divider between him and the driver. “Pull up around back, Grim is meeting us there.”
“Sure thing, Scar,” the driver agrees before the glass divider slides back in place.
“Grim?” I question. The name is vaguely familiar, but I can’t quite place it.
“She’s the owner of this fight club and well respected. Don’t piss her off,” Zane responds, leaning over and opening a hidden draw beneath the seat.
“Why would I piss her off…” I begin, only to lose my train of thought when I notice what he has in his hands, a red mask. The exact same one I wore when we were kids.
“Why have you got that?” I ask as Zayn places the mask in my lap. I’ve not seen this for three goddamn years, and it brings back way too many memories, most of them unhappy given the way the night went. My gaze snaps up to meet his.
“You’re going to need to wear that.”
“Where did you find it?” I ask him. Has he kept hold of it all this time? More importantly, why is he asking me to put it on now? What the fuck is going on?
“Put it on,” he repeats.
“Why?” I croak, my voice quivering with past memories, many that he has no knowledge of.
“Put the damn mask on, Pen,” he orders darkly, pulling out another mask from the draw. This one isn’t made of plastic like mine, but is a full head mask, with a space cut out for the eyes and mouth. It resembles a balaclava but looks like it’s made out of some kind of thin, silky material. He pulls it over his face, adjusting it until it sits exactly right. Then he grabs a pair of leather gloves, pulling them on too.
“Are we about to rob a bank or something?” I joke.
“Not today, no,” he responds dryly, and I can’t tell if he’s joking or not.
When I’m too shocked to do anything but stare at him, Zayn shifts towards me, grabs the mask from my lap and secures it over my face, making sure the strap is pulled tight around my head. His gloved covered fingers gently run over the length of my hair, adjusting the strands so that they fall over my cleavage. It’s a surprisingly gentle act, but not as surprising as the words he whispers into my ear next.
“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry too,” he mutters, his breath a warm caress against my cheek.
I should be relieved by his words, but something about the tone of his voice and the finality of his apology makes me nervous.
For just a second, he leans his head against the side of mine and I can feel the heat of his body through his clothes. It takes everything in me not to throw my arms around him and forget we’re no longer friends. Instead, I reach for his hand, my fingers brushing against his. I expect him to pull away. Instead, he captures my fingers within his grasp and squeezes them gently, the pad of his thumb running over my knuckles.
“Pen…” he starts, staring into my eyes, searching for something. His onyx eyes bleed with unanswered questions, muddying our past and the friendship we once shared.
“I’ve missed you, Zayn,” I whisper, hoping he hears the sincerity in my voice and sees the truth of that statement in my gaze.
It’s a truth that I can no longer hold in. I’ve missed him so fucking much. Maybe it’s stupid to admit how I feel. Maybe I’m reading into this silent conversation way more than I should be. Maybe I’m just a fool, but I can’t seem to help myself.
“Fuck, Pen,” he mutters, and just like that the animosity I’ve felt between us falls away and we’re left with a momentary stalemate. Right at this moment, we’re just two old friends who aren’t sure how to move forward with all the bad blood between us, but maybe, just maybe, are willing to try. Then the car stops moving and the bubble around us bursts.
“We’ve run out of time. Fuck!” he exclaims. His eyes are wild, fearful.
“What is it?” I question, feeding off his fear.
“Follow my lead. Do not question my actions and for fuck sake don’t call me Zayn,” he says quickly.
“What do you mean don’t call you…?” but the door to the limo is pulled open and he jerks away from me, leaving my question unanswered and a sick feeling in my stomach.
With no other choice but to follow him, I step out of the limo. Outside the air is surprisingly cool for a September evening, and I wish, not for the first time, that I’d chosen something far less revealing to wear. Keeping on Jeb’s good side is essential though, so I follow the rules like I always have because all I care about is keeping David the fuck where he is.
Before me, an attractive woman greets us. She has long dark hair shaved off on one side, and left long and loose on the other. It tumbles over her right shoulder in a mess of waves. From behind her black, jewelled masquerade mask, she gives me a once over, noting my attire and immediately dismissing me. I know what she thinks. I’m arm candy, nothing more. That riles me up more than I’d care to admit, but my pride has to take a backseat. If this is what I need to do to keep Lena safe, then so be it.
“Good evening, Mr Bernard. It’s my pleasure to welcome you here tonight,” she says, holding her hand out to shake. Zayn takes it, nodding briefly.
This woman, Grim I’m assuming, isn’t wearing a revealing dress like me. She’s got tight leather pants on and a sheer red shirt showing off a black lace bra, paired with chunky black biker boots and a really fucking impressive rose tattoo that winds up the side of her neck. Next to her is a huge bear of a man who has his gaze fixed solely on Zayn as though he’s the biggest threat around here. He isn’t wearing a mask, and I get the distinct impression he doesn’t give a flying fuck who sees him. He’s here to protect Grim, that much is obvious.
“This is Beast. He’s my partner and will not hesitate to end anyone who he deems a threat to me or our club.”
“Understood,” Zayn responds.
“Good. Let’s get you seated,” she says, twisting on her feet and striding towards the huge warehouse, Beast keeping pace alongside her. When he reaches over and lays his hand on her lower back, his fingers tracing the mound of her arse, I realise that he’s more than just a business partner, because a woman like her isn’t going to allow just anyone to put their hands on her uninvited. She might be a foot smaller than him and slight against his large frame, but it’s clear who holds all the power and it isn’t the six foot seven, man-beast with the same name.
“The fight is due to start in ten minutes. We have your table ready. Your crew has already arrived,” Grim says.
“Good,” Zayn responds, his voice sounding off, weird, as we step into the warehouse and into a caged area that is made private by large black curtains encircling the space.
“Mr Bernard, Grim’s club has strict rules. No weapons. I need to search you,” Beast says, stepping towards Zayn who promptly holds his arms out to the side and spreads his legs. He’s patted down swiftly, and when Beast is satisfied Zayn’s not carrying a weapon, he steps back and nods at Grim before turning his attention to me and arching an eyebrow.
“Don’t even think about it,” Grim snarls, shooting me a warning look even though I’m just standing here and not encouraging any kind of interaction in the slightest.
“She could be hiding something,” Beast says, holding back a smirk that makes his lips twitch.
“Unless she’s got a weapon stuffed up her coochie, then she’s good,” Grim snaps, giving Beast a look that could slay the toughest of men.
It doesn’t seem to bother him though as he barks out a laugh and looks at Grim with the kind of love and affection that makes me feel sad and, weirdly, angry. I’m angry that someone like her, a criminal who’s clearly up to shady shit, has found love. It pisses me off.
“Stuffed up my coochie?” I snap, unable to hide my indignation. I’ve not had anything stuffed up my coochie for three fucking years, let alone a fucking weapon. Actually, I’m fairly sure I’m a born again virgin, and my hymen has grown back for all the lack of use.
Grim shrugs, looking me up and down before turning her attention back to Zayn. “In my club there is no fighting between crews, period. Anyone starting a fight will be dealt with swiftly and finally. Understood?”
“Good, follow me.”
Unlocking the wire cage door, we all pass through the curtained off area and into the main building. The space is huge and set up like some fancy nightclub with soft lighting and chandeliers hanging from the vaulted ceiling. In the centre of the warehouse is a huge fighter’s cage with dark patches of dried blood splattered across the padded canvas.
Surrounding the ring in a semi-circle are tables filled with masked men and women. The tables are covered with red material and lit with flickering candles. Crystal decanters and cut-glass tumblers adorn every surface alongside bottles of Dom Perignon and fluted champagne glasses. The air reeks of a mixture of weed, cigar smoke, masculinity, and heady perfume, making it even more difficult to breathe in a mask that is all but suffocating. I remember being barely able to breathe in the damn thing before, now with my senses on high alert and my heart pumping wildly, it’s even harder.
The air is thick with tension as we follow Grim towards a table situated nearest to the cage. All of the tables are filled with men dressed similarly as Zayn, in expensive suits and facemasks of varying designs. Plenty of bling accompanies the tailoring as is custom with gangsters, there’s enough gold here tonight to fund a small country with all the Rolex watches, chains, diamond studded earrings, gold teeth and rings. Some of the women accompanying the gangsters wear similar outfits to mine: provocative, sexy, and barely covering their tits and arse. Though I do spot others who are more demurely dressed and who ooze power. I’m betting they’re not merely arm candy but gangsters in their own right.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” I mutter under my breath.
Zayn reaches for my hand, grasping it in his then drops it, acutely aware that all eyes are on us. No doubt the other crews are trying to figure out who we are and which crew we belong to. The masks give a level of anonymity, yes, but I doubt it would be very hard to work out which crew is which if someone really wanted to put their mind to it. There are way too many giveaways: tattooed covered hands and necks, accents, mannerisms, all of them dead giveaways. Grim is a brave woman to hold such a gathering when rival gangs could be sitting mere feet from each other. Then again, she seems to command a certain level of respect, going by the almost friendly nods of acknowledgement as she walks past each table. That is a feat in itself given the criminal scene is predominantly run by men. Whatever she did to gain their respect must’ve been pretty fucking epic. Despite her attitude towards me, I begrudgingly admire her for it. Either way, the atmosphere, though tense, isn’t half as volatile as it could be. Partly due to the fact that there are armed men high above circling the space on a grated walkway, and partly because people can pretend to be whoever they want behind a mask.
Speaking of which, Grim stops at a table where two other men are seated. They’re both wearing the same black mask as Zayn. I feel their gaze on me as Zayn pulls out a chair. I sit, immediately recognising the two men opposite. York’s piercing blue eyes and plump lips are a dead giveaway as are Xeno’s green orbs that flash with derision at my outfit. They stare openly at me and my cheeks flame beneath my mask at their blatant perusal.
“The fight will start shortly. Your bets have already been noted. If you need anything, Mr Bernard, be sure to let me know,” she says directly to Zayn.
“I will,” Zayn retorts gruffly.
Grim nods her head at Xeno and York, completely ignoring me. “Gentleman.”
I watch her leave, wondering why she’s treating Zayn like he’s the leader of the Skins. It makes no sense. Xeno taps the table, then leans forward suddenly and pours Zayn a double shot of the golden liquid. His hands are covered with black, leather gloves just like York. Now, I understand why. Tattoos on hands are dead giveaways to the identity of a person. They’re keeping their identities closely guarded.
“Where’s Dax? Jeb?” I mutter, my heart thundering and my head full of questions.
What the fuck is going on? Why am I at Grim’s Fight Club with the Breakers and not Jeb? Where the hell is he? My internal question is answered a few moments later when another man dressed in a suit, wearing leather gloves and the same black head mask as the rest of the crew, sits down next to me at the table.
“Good evening, Penelope. You look beautiful. I see my money was well spent.”
Opposite, Xeno slams his glass on the table.
“Jeb?” I whisper, my whole body quaking at his sudden appearance and the animosity Xeno is throwing my way. He’s glaring at me with such fire and fury that I can’t help but react. I could submit to my fear, to the sick feeling that something huge is about to go down. Instead, I straighten my spine and stare back at Xeno, daring him to spill the derision from his lips.
“No that’d be the man sitting to your left. I’m Zayn,” Jeb responds with an evil chuckle.
On the other side of me, Zayn stiffens, but I don’t get to question what the fuck is going on as the overhead lights go out and music starts pumping over the speaker system.
The second the warehouse falls into darkness, their black masks transform, lighting up with the outline of neon red skulls. My mouth falls open at the eerie, floating faces around me. Like headless spectres waiting for the moment to consume me whole and drag me into the depths of hell with them.
“Nice touch, don’t you think?” Jeb says with an amused laugh.
I swallow hard. Nothing about this is nice.
Before me, a spotlight brightens the cage dragging my attention away from their hellish masks. I watch as Dax walks onto the canvas barefoot, wearing just a pair of black boxing shorts with the same red skull motif emblazoned across the silky material. His hands are wrapped up with tape and when he looks over at our table, Dax makes eye contact not with Jeb on my right, but Zayn on my left. A look passes between them. Then, for the briefest of moments, Dax rests his eyes on me, his scowl deepening. I’m not the only one to notice how his fists curl, how he bares his teeth and snarls.
Fuck, who is this man?
“Perhaps you’ve been wondering what the Breakers have been up to these past three years, hmm, Penelope?” Jeb asks, his voice low.
I snatch my head around to look at him, focusing on his eyes beneath the mask, so similar to Zayn’s, yet so vastly different and lit with a red hue that makes him seem more beast than human. “I haven’t,” I hiss. Another lie. I’ve thought of nothing else.
“It turns out that these boys aren’t just talented dancers, but have other gifts too. Dax is a brutal bare-knuckle fighter and performs best in the cage. My nephew can hold his own in a knife fight. York is as light on his feet in the boxing ring as he is on the stage and Xeno, well, Xeno has a special kind of talent. Don’t you Xeno?” Jeb asks, a cruel laugh seeping out from behind his mask.
Xeno’s eyes flare with anger and for a moment I swear he’s about to launch across the table at Jeb, but the music changes and our attention is drawn to another man who enters the cage. Well, at least the attention of the three of us on this side of the table, York and Xeno still have their backs to the cage and seem more interested in what’s going on behind us than anything else. They’re like coiled springs, expecting trouble, ready for it.
Ripping my attention away from them both, my heart flip-flops as a tough looking guy, matched in height and width to Dax, enters the cage. The only advantage I can spot is youth. Dax is probably at least ten years younger than the mean looking bastard. But that means shit. I’ve heard about these underground fight clubs. I know that the fight only ends when the opponent is knocked out or too injured to fight back. Despite everything that’s happened recently. I don’t want to see Dax hurt. I must give away my feelings because Jeb leans closer.
“Relax, Penelope, we both know that Dax is more than capable of winning. He’s brutal when pushed.”
He’s right, Dax is.