Drawn to Josiah’s strength and the heat in his eyes, Ella enters the violence-filled warrens burdened by a secret yet buoyed by hope. In a place where loyalty is everything and the price of betrayal is death, she’s determined to make a life for herself and mother the son who is the reason for her marriage.
But when the warlord takes a dangerous prisoner, the happiness that’s finally within reach is threatened by the sister whose place she took—when Josiah demanded a bride.
Connected Books: The Warrens
Read an Excerpt
“Sit here,” Josiah said to the boy, and the boy slid into the booth to the right of the club entrance, where the building corners were reinforced by thick layers of steel and impenetrable by bullets.
Josiah kept going, aware of the glances his men sent in his direction, aware too of the absence of women though the scent of perfume lingered.
Tables gleamed, capturing lantern light on surfaces as shiny as any that’d be found in gentlemen’s clubs serving the elite behind the towering wall of New San Jose.
He reached the long mahogany bar. Stopped next to DeAngelo.
“Would have brought your drink out, jefe,” Blaine, acting as bartender, said, a smoke stick dipping at the corner of his mouth.
Blaine set a tumbler on the bar, lifted a bottle of whiskey imported from Diego’s warren and poured, stopping halfway up the glass. “Want the kid to have the same but watered down?”
DeAngelo, his ass half planted on a bar stool, the studs in his ears catching the light, snorted. “Kid’s only five.”
Blaine shrugged. “This isn’t New San Jose and the boy’s a warlord’s son.”
Josiah’s gaze went to the fancy mirrored panels on the wall behind Blaine. Like the polished tables and refined air of the place, the mirrors would have been commonplace before the Final War. It’d taken nearly a year to acquire and get them smuggled out of New San Jose.
The boy’s image was captured in the panels, his head ducked, his forearms on the table, his hands curled protectively around the handmade book.
“Serve him juice,” Josiah told Blaine. “You can take it out to him.”
Blaine made it orange juice, left the area behind the bar, the gun shoved into his waistband at the center of his back visible in the mirror as he walked toward the booth.
Josiah lifted his glass and drank, the burn of the whiskey accompanying a hot flash of pride. This was his place. This was his warren. These men were his men and he’d been able to arm them in a world where guns were hard to come by and men who could be trusted at your back were rarer still.
Blaine set the glass of orange juice down on the table. Josiah looked toward the back of the club. Most of the men present sat around tables playing poker, but a group that included Ciro stood facing targets pinned to the soft wood wall.
In New San Jose, there’d be dartboards. But darts weren’t nearly as practical as knives and stars. And hitting a colorful grid wasn’t nearly as interesting as targeting a man.
Jeans riding low, the black tank revealing a tatted arm, Ciro flipped a knife end-over-end, getting a feel for its weight.
Ricardo, one of Ciro’s charges, the teen’s face not free of pimples, said, “A city silver piece that you can’t put it between his eyes.”
Blaine returned to his place behind the bar. He poured himself a whisky, “A fool and his coin.”
“He’ll learn not to bet against Ciro.”
Ciro caught the knife and threw. It sliced through the air then hit the wall, its tip embedded between the target’s eyebrows.
Blaine tilted the mouth of the whiskey bottle toward Josiah. “Another?”
Ciro pocketed the easily won city coin and sauntered to the bar.
“Robbing babies now?” DeAngelo said with a smirk.
“When the babies ask to be robbed.”
Blaine retrieved a mug, pulled beer from a wooden keg, then slid the drink across the counter to Ciro.
Ciro lifted the mug, took a long swallow. His gaze flicked to the boy sitting alone in the booth before meeting Josiah’s. “What’s the point of you being at the bar?”
Josiah forced his eyebrows upward. “I’m not entitled to a drink, amigo?”
“That’s not what I’m talking about and you know it.”
“The boy is my concern.”
“And that’s obvious how?”
“There was a point to banishing the women?”
“Now there’s a good question,” Saul said, joining them at the bar, radiating the leashed violence of a warlord though he hadn’t fought for territory along the towering wall encircling New San Jose.
“Nothing is keeping either of you here,” Josiah said. “Leave, go find women.”
There were plenty who were willing to spread their legs for him or his men. He was the warlord, the law in this warren and his men were his soldiers. They were servants of his justice and protectors of the people who looked to him to maintain order.
Ciro tipped his mug toward the booth. “The boy needs a father. He needs a mother.”
“Too bad Jax paid the ransom,” DeAngelo said. “His woman was a looker. I’d have done her if Josiah passed. Might even have made that one permanent.”
Saul snorted. “Brave words from a man who’s rarely with the same woman twice.”
Blaine poured a shot of tequila and pushed the glass to a stop in front of Saul.
Saul tossed the drink back. “Let the whores in, Josiah. There’s no point in protecting the boy from the truth about women, your sister and Rosa excluded.”
In the mirror, Josiah saw the boy looking at him, a quick, shy glance toward the bar followed by the curl inward of small shoulders.
Mierda. He needed to do something.
Rosa’s care wasn’t enough. She might soothe. She might be as fierce and protective as a hen guarding a house occupied by a small brood.
Her will was finely honed, her words like a sharp beak pecking at resistance until those in her charge—even a much-feared and powerful warlord—conformed to her expectations. But she was old enough to be the boy’s grandmother. She hadn’t been a part of the boy’s life from his earliest memories as she had been for Makayla and him.
Josiah set the empty glass on the bar.
“Another?” Blaine asked.
A nod and it was poured. Josiah polished it off but the drink didn’t provide inspiration. It didn’t send him to the booth though he was not a man who sought courage in a bottle.
Coward. He called himself what he’d kill another man for saying about him.
He’d brought the boy here, into the company of his men, hoping it would ease the way. Hoping it might help him find a comfortable way to relate to the boy.
Dios, how quickly his life had changed, his needs had changed, his plans had changed.
In the mirror, the boy carefully moved to the next page of his precious book, bringing the memory of walking into the parlor and seeing him snuggled next to Jax’s woman as she read to him on the love seat.
It weighed down Josiah’s heart, and sensing the weakness, Ciro said, “Get the boy a mother, Josiah. You don’t have to care about the woman you choose, only ensure that she’s protected. All that matters is that the boy loves her.”
“Truer words have never been spoken,” DeAngelo said, slipping one of the throwing stars from the bandolier draped across his chest. He placed the star on the counter and spun it on the glossy wood. “Gather candidates pretty enough to fuck and let the boy choose his own mother.”
The boy would have chosen Jax’s woman. He’d waited at the door, eyes begging her to stay. He’d cried in his room after she left with Jax.
The boy needs a mother. Not a day passed when Rosa didn’t give him that same lecture.
Josiah tapped the wood next to the empty tumbler. Blaine dutifully poured another drink.
“I won’t take a bride from the warrens,” he said, not his warren, not one controlled by another warlord. He wouldn’t be able to trust the woman not to betray him.
“Fuck me,” Saul said. “You’re not seriously considering marriage.”
“It’s the only way,” Ciro said. “The vows would bind her to the warlord, but more importantly, to the boy.”
Saul stroked the first of the twenty-five bullets in his bandolier. “Loyalty is everything. The oath only means it’ll make it cleaner when it’s decided she needs killing.”
Ciro shook his head. “Dark predictions, amigo. Dark thoughts when it comes to women. I pity the one who catches your eye for more than a fast, hard fuck.”
Saul dropped his hand to the bullet that rested with its copper tip above his heart. “This one’s for that mythical creature.”
Ciro downed the rest of his beer. “And which one is for me?”
Saul’s mouth tipped upward at the right corner. “I won’t waste a bullet on you, brother.”
Refilling Ciro’s mug, Blaine said, “Now that we’ve gotten the lovefest out of the way, let’s talk about where a bride should come from. Two choices.”
DeAngelo smirked and spun the throwing star. “Two? You’re seeing us straddling horses instead of the motorcycles? You’re suggesting we bust our nuts out in the wild lands hunting down a tribe so Josiah can bargain for a woman?”
Ciro lifted his mug and tipped it toward Blaine. “That’d give his balls more action than they usually get.”
Blaine’s smoke stick dipped. “Fuck you.”
Ciro laughed. “See what I mean? Man’s desperate for some action.”
“A woman from the wild lands is out,” Saul said, nodding in the direction of the teen who’d bet a silver piece against Ciro. “First chance she got, she’d grab whatever her tribe wanted and be gone, probably leaving at least a couple of fools with their throats slit.”
“And the voice of darkness speaks again,” Ciro said. “Not that he’s wrong about a woman from the wild lands. But I can’t see a woman from New San Jose giving up the safety of the city, and that’s assuming Josiah could meet one he’d want.”
Saul tapped a finger against the bullet at the bottom of his bandolier. “That’s assuming he wouldn’t end up with one of Merati’s spies.”
“And we circle back to killing,” Ciro said.
Saul shrugged. “Truth is what it is. The boy can grow up without a mother. Half the men in this room did, or would have been better off without one.”
Josiah’s gaze met Saul’s, held steady there rather than dip to the scars they both knew existed beneath the shirt and bandolier.
The message in his underlord’s hard eyes was clear. Don’t take bride.
But when Josiah’s attention flicked to the boy, his thoughts went to how the boy had been with Jax’s woman, then burrowed into his own memories of the mother he’d adored before she died.
Blaine took the smoke stick and tap-tapped it against the counter. “The apothecary has a daughter.”
DeAngelo whistled. “Fucking brilliant. Leverage could be applied to Elliot to get him to agree to a marriage.”
Blaine pointed the smoke stick at the bullets on Saul’s bandolier. “Unless she wants her mother and father killed, odds are she’d tell Josiah if Merati tries to turn her into one of his spies. And if Merati does approach her, we can use her to feed him information, maybe draw someone out for target practice. Be more of a challenge for Ciro than hitting pictures on a wall.”
DeAngelo spun the throwing start. “It’s not like the daughter isn’t fuckable.”
Blaine tucked the smoke stick back into the corner of his mouth. “Only caught a glimpse of her once. But long blonde hair, big tits, what’s not to like? And she’d be a virgin. You know how it is behind the wall, a fucking double standard but it’d work to the big jefe’s advantage.”
Josiah pictured Elliott’s daughter. He’d only seen her once himself, and at a distance. She was beautiful. Fuckable. A man wouldn’t need a dark room or to close his eyes.
She’d be forgettable when he was away from her, unlike the sultry brown-haired beauty who’d sometimes been in the workshop with Elliott. Now there was a mamacita to star in a man’s fantasies. There was a woman who would become a distraction.
When she’d been present, his thoughts had strayed from the business at hand. His thoughts still strayed to her. She’d glanced at him from beneath thick lashes, her innocent eyes revealing she had no idea what kind of desires the quick, shy dart of her tongue put into a man’s head.
He’d imagined tumbling her onto the workshop table and taking her there. He’d imagined more.
But an indentured servant wouldn’t give him the leverage he needed. And the last thing he wanted was to crave his wife.
He’d learned his lesson about falling prey to a beautiful woman with the boy’s mother. He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.
Josiah glanced at the boy. He knew nothing about Elliot’s daughter, not even her name. It was a risk. But take her from the walled city and everything familiar, give her a purpose—to mother a boy aching for love. Give her a position of power as wife to a warlord…
It could work. And it would solve his problem, a problem he wanted quickly solved.
He set his empty glass down. “Make the arrangements, Ciro. Tell Elliot I’ll marry his daughter in two days.”
“Two days? You don’t want to give the choice a little more thought?”
“Taking back your claim that the boy needs a mother, amigo?”
DeAngelo returned the throwing star to the bandolier. “You’ve had a fast trigger finger since the boy arrived. Maybe a virgin in your bed will save a few bullets.”
Josiah smiled and lifted his hand, cocked it as he would a gun, a finger pointed at DeAngelo’s chest. “I’ve only killed men who deserved to die.”
“We’ll collect her at the gate in our territory?” Ciro asked.
“No. Tell Elliot to enter the warrens as he normally would, then cross from Jax’s territory where section two becomes section three. Tell him to bring his wife as well as his daughter.”
“To the public square?”
“No. We’ll do this at the stronghold. Out front, surrounded by soldiers. There’ll be plenty of witnesses.”
Ciro tipped his head toward the booth. “One of those witnesses needs to be the boy.”
“He’ll be there, at my side when she says her vows.”
Josiah shrugged. “It doesn’t matter as long as it’s done by sunset. Santiago can be sent for as soon as they cross from Jax’s territory.”
Ciro drained the mug of beer and put it on the bar. “I’ll go take care of the business of marrying you off. Going to be a lot of whores crying when they hear you’ve taken a bride.”
“Who says I’m going to limit myself?”
His father never had. His mother hadn’t cared.
Ciro laughed and pushed away from the bar. Saul’s gaze met Josiah’s, eyes holding the message, This will end as badly as the last time.
Josiah ignored the message, his chest swelling again with pride, at having gathered such fine men. Even hating the boy’s mother, Saul would sacrifice himself to the cause of vengeance. He would give his life protecting the boy.
“Anything from the men in Krish’s territory?” Josiah asked his underlord.
“Nothing.” Saul’s attention shifted to the booth. “But it’s only a matter of time.”
“That’s always the case, amigo.”
Josiah left the bar. Crossed the room, the eyes of his men on him as he slid into the booth opposite the boy.
His son? If only he had the answer to that question.
A week ago, he hadn’t known the boy existed. Now he was supposed to be a father.