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Duke: Chapter 1


With his voice full of venom, Kingston shouts, “Let her go!” He takes a step closer to me, the wild look in his eyes telling me he’s not fucking around.

Good. Now that we’re under the assumption the OG Bastards have cameras in the house and who knows where else, hopefully they’re catching all this, because we’ve got Kingston so angry his body heaves with it. We’re doing exactly what was requested of us—have been all fucking night—and, so far, I’d say we look like the bastards the OGs want us to be.

Not wanting to let on that I’m inwardly agitated as hell that we’re having to put on this bravado, I hide the deep fortifying breath I draw into my lungs. It’s expected that I take point on this. Could Bear or Mason? Sure. But it’s an unwritten rule that I’m the spokesperson of this group even though none of us truly considers ourselves the head of Bainbridge Hall in the same way Kingston is at Hawthorne Hall.

I give a menacing chuckle. “Come on now. You may be top dog at KU because you’ve got the Kingston name, but when it comes down to it, your bark is worse than your bite, bitch. You’ve never been able to handle your shit.” I make a show of twisting my lips in a way I’m certain looks completely sadistic as I leer down at Elliot. Another deep breath, and I shrug. “You want her? Pay up. You three fuckers will have to top my winning bid.” I clench my teeth, upping the rage factor for the brothers of Hawthorne Hall by tracing my fingers over Elliot’s trembling jaw and down her neck. One step further ought to do it. I ghost the very tips of my fingers over her collarbone. She shudders.

A muscle in my jaw twitches. I have no desire to hurt this girl. We don’t know what the fuck the OGs want with her in the first place and can’t imagine how she’s mixed up in this. This entire event is turning into one huge clusterfuck. Maybe my opinion would change if we weren’t kept in the goddamn dark, but that’s not the way our fathers work. My mind whirls, though, unsure if bidding on Elliot and hauling her off like we did has turned out to be the right move.

From the way Tristan and Derek said the addition of Elliot to our sorority girl roster had something to do with getting Murdock out of prison, I’d kinda assumed Hunter was planning to slide in and snatch her up at the last possible second. But he hadn’t. He’d outright disappeared, and we were left to figure out a plan on the fly—albeit one that had saved Lennon from having to go through with being auctioned. But at what cost? What the hell happened? Because right now, all I see coming is a fight when we didn’t really want one—one we’re forced to go through with to prove to the OG Bastards that we can be who they need us to be.

I steel myself for what’s to come and try to turn off the worries shooting through my head. I’m overthinking. Like I always do. And I can’t afford to draw my attention away from the formidable fighters in front of us.

Silent communication passes between Kingston and the big guy, Cannon, who nods and withdraws his wallet from his pocket, a surly expression stealing over his face. This isn’t about the money at all, though we’re no doubt better off taking it from him.

This isn’t about Kingston and the angry feelings I harbor where he’s concerned, either. I will always believe Kingston should have been watching Juliette more closely. Maybe if he had been, her death could have been prevented. But fuck. It’s been four years, and as much as I hate to admit it—as much as I’ve hated him—it’s time I try to move on. Heal.

I’m also no fucking hypocrite. It’d be absolutely dickish behavior to get in Hawthorne’s face about whatever he has going with Elliot … especially with the way I’ve been letting Lennon into my life recently. I never thought my hollow heart would allow me to find someone who could make me feel again—and therefore if I couldn’t, neither should he. But the closer I get to Lennon, the more I’ve come to terms with wanting her. I see how she’s changing me, making me look forward instead of continuing to look back and make comparisons. I have to move on with my life, but I’ll never forget Juliette. Never. I will find out what led to her death. That’s one thing I won’t ever let go of.

Giving myself a firm shake, I take in what’s happening around me. While I’ve been accosted by the memories that run rampant through my head, Cannon has counted out the $4200 bid. He narrows his eyes on me as if to say, You dickhead, before dropping it on a nearby table.

I don’t spare it a look but aim a steely glare at the three of them. Then, partly out of curiosity and partly for show, I ask, “Mind telling us how exactly this hot piece of ass came to reside with you? I want to know if Miss Elliot Ashford is indeed from Hawthorne Hall and isn’t from one of the sororities.” I lower my head beside hers and let my breath fan over her face, then breathe her back in before I shoot a smile toward my boys. I don’t know if they read the get ready look in my eyes, but I hope they’re prepared to throw down, because I think that’s where this is going—where it has to go to maintain this fucking act for the OGs. “Surely, she didn’t mean what I think she did. She’s not a brother.” I tilt my head to the side, eyeing Kingston carefully, twitching jaw and all.

All three of them tense. Kingston’s voice is gritty when he rumbles low, “She belongs with us at Hawthorne Hall. That’s all you need to know, you obnoxious motherfucker.” It takes me by surprise when he lunges, wrenching Elliot from my grip.

Bear and Mason were better at anticipating that move, and they’re both quick to grab at him, but he’s somehow able to evade them, whirling around with her. She’s passed from Kingston to Cannon, and finally to Archer. Once Archer’s got her in his arms, he gives me a look that I read as, You really are asking for it, aren’t ya?

Once Cannon’s hands are free, without an ounce of hesitation, he spins around to swing on Bear and catches him in the stomach. And from there, it’s on.

From the get-go, it’s clear Bear will face off with Cannon while Mason and I take on Kingston. The broad motherfucker sidesteps us easily. Fuck. Quick on his feet, I’ll give him that. He definitely knows how to fight. His heavy fist flies toward my face. I twist, dodging away, but bruising knuckles catch a glancing blow off my cheekbone. The impact snaps my head back and throws me off balance, but I’ve been taught well from all the sparring I’ve done with Bear. The moment I right myself, my hands immediately fist defensively in front of my face. I weave to the side, seeking the perfect timing to inflict maximum damage before I throw a punch at him. He smirks at me. Asshole.

Keeping tabs on anything other than Kingston’s flying fists, isn’t easy, but I want to be aware of everything going down in the room. Archer hustles out the door with Elliot, leaving Cannon distracted enough that Bear is able to plow his fist into his jaw. My friend masks his pain, but I know him far too well not to see it behind his eyes. Throwing that punch hurt. Bad. Fuck, if he’s in this much pain now—and who knows what’s about to happen—it sure as fuck doesn’t bode well for tomorrow’s fight. Cannon blinks and blows out a hard breath before raising a hand to smack his own cheek. He’s gotta be confident to goad Bear like that. Cannon’s lips curl into a snarl, and he speaks for only the second time I’ve ever heard—the first being when he bid on Elliot—hissing out, “Pussy.” His eyes glitter fiercely.

Oh, hell. Here we fucking go. We’re in for a fucking knock-down, drag-out fight to the end. Beside me, Mason is light on his feet and supremely fast with his punches. He swoops in, delivering a hit to Kingston’s gut, but it may have done more damage to him than it did to my yearslong enemy. Though Mason can hold his own, Kingston is a brute, and he has anger fueling his every move.

And even though Elliot has already been removed from the situation by Archer, my gut instinct says we’ve got to keep going. Eyes darting around the room, I wonder for the millionth time where the cameras are. Because I don’t doubt for a minute that the OG Bastards have had them installed and we’ve simply been oblivious … until it became apparent they’re getting information somehow, that is.

The thought of being constantly watched has a sick feeling slicking down my spine. But fuck, there’s no time for all this hypothesizing with Kingston on the attack. I’ve gotta hand it to him, he’s managing the two of us pretty fucking well.

Everything is happening so fast, and yet not fucking fast enough. Bear and Cannon slam into each other, grappling. It’s possible Bear thinks he’ll have an easier time on the ground with him—if he can take Cannon down—and save his arm from further injury. But every time I glance over there, his face is etched in pain. He’s looking rough as hell.

My gaze flicks back to my own fight in time to see a punch heading toward my nose. I step out of the way but run into the back of the couch. Pivoting smoothly, Kingston spins and strikes the side of Mason’s head. Mase goes down immediately, landing on the floor in a heap. He’s not out out, but he got his bell rung and blinks hard as he shakes his head. I watch in horror as Kingston takes a step toward him, breathing raggedly.

My heart falls into the pit of my stomach. No. I leap between them, hands out in either direction. My head swings to look from one to the other, then I lock eyes with Kingston. “Stop!” Shaking my head as a breathy gust of air exits my lungs, I wet my lips. “That’s enough. You got your girl.”

He squints his eyes, studying me carefully. His jaw works to the side before he glances down at Mason and grimaces. I don’t have a fucking clue what’s in his head right now. “This isn’t nearly over, Duke. This was the biggest bunch of bullshit I’ve ever experienced.” He shifts, looking over his shoulder to where Cannon and Bear have ceased their struggle.

The two Hawthorne brothers must have a telepathic connection or some shit, because all at once, Kingston gestures in the general direction of the house. “You should check on that girl up in the bedroom. I don’t know who she is to you, and maybe she was just pissed off or whatever—which isn’t a huge fuckin’ surprise since you’ve relished in pissing us off this evening, too—but she’s how we knew where you were.” Annoyance radiates from him, his eyes flicking to his buddy’s concerned gaze.

Cannon’s rough voice meets my ears like a slap. “We don’t owe you f-fuckers anything. Weird vibes up there. She a-acted like I’d hurt her.”

A cold chill washes over my body, and the hair on my arms stands on end.

Kingston backs away, his jaw tight, clamping his hand on Cannon’s shoulder. They exit without further discussion or interference from us.

Beside me, Mason has finally gotten to his feet. “What the fuck do you think he’s talking about?” He reaches up, gingerly touching his fingers to the side of his head.

It takes me several steadying breaths before I reach out, my hand covering his. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Don’t worry about me.” He begins making his way across the room when Bear stops him with a hand curled around his bicep. “You feel dizzy or nauseated, you fuckin’ say something. That was a hard hit to take. I saw it land.”

Mason nods, shrugging from his grip. “I’m good. Worry about yourself.”

As we hurry out of the pool house and make our way around the pool, heading for the back door, I glance at Bear. “He’s right. You’re no better off. What are you going to do about the fight tomorrow?”

He turns his head toward me, eyes blazing but lined with pain. “I don’t fucking know!” He grits his teeth, eyes crashing shut. “I can’t think about it right now. I need to put eyes on Lennon. Then”—he heaves out a harsh breath—“I’ll fucking figure something out.”

“What about the prescription meds you were taking?” My eyes narrow. Something’s not right.

He avoids my gaze by glancing at the balcony Mason and Lennon share before swiveling his head to the other window. “I’m out.”

“Can you get more from your doctor?” I wet my lips, already having an awful feeling that I know the answer. Tell me that this isn’t what he was talking to his dad about.

“No. No, I fucking can’t. Just—” His eyes blaze with irritation born of terrible pain, tinged with a bit of humiliation. “Drop it. Getting to Lennon is more important.”

I see the problem so clearly now that I’m kicking myself for not picking up on it before. He hasn’t been to see his doctor. He hasn’t told anyone. Except the person who is providing him with prescription drugs.

I catch Mason’s concerned gaze. He starts to open his mouth but must rethink whatever he was going to say as we get to the house. Instead, he mutters, “Let’s go make sure she’s okay.”

An uncomfortable feeling shimmies down my spine as I recall what Cannon said. My feet carry me faster and faster as thoughts tumble through my head. “If Cannon fucking saw her … does that mean she didn’t lock the door behind her? Did she open the door to him thinking it was us?”

Bear’s pace picks up, too. “She wouldn’t. She’s smarter than that.” Through the haze of his pain, I see the immense concern for her flowing from him.

Reaching the end of the hall, I throw open the door to her room. My gut twists. She’s not here. Oh, fuck. She’s not fucking here. “Lennon!” I shout, hurrying to check the bathroom. When I come right back out, Mason has disappeared and Bear is rising from a crouch beside the bed.

“Let’s check our rooms.” Just as Bear says this, Mason returns.

“Not in my room.” His hands plant on his hips for a moment, then, almost immediately, he raises his arms to claw his fingers into his hair. “If I find out he hurt her, he’s done. I will jump on his back and choke that big savage right the fuck out,” he snarls, his tone sharp and lethal.

Bear and I dash to our rooms, but moments later, meet back in the hallway. My heart tugs viciously in my chest. If we hadn’t taken so long with the fight, maybe we’d know where she is. We should never have left her alone. There’s this haunted look in Bear’s eyes that’s a match for how I’m feeling. Fuck. Fuck! Empty-handed, we rejoin Mason in Lennon’s room. He’s seated on her bed, his head bowed.

“Mase?” My brows tug together, creasing my forehead. His dark eyes stare blankly at us as he holds up something black for us to see. My heart clenches so hard, an unbelieving gasp wrenches from me.

The dress I gave Lennon. The one she wore to the auction. So, she definitely made it up here. But why would she have gotten undressed? Where the fuck is she? Panic the likes of which I’ve never known surges through me, filling every cell of my being. A sense of foreboding overwhelms me, but I don’t know what to think. She wouldn’t have gone back downstairs. I’d bet money something happened up here, which is why Cannon felt the need to tell us about the odd energy she’d been hitting him with.

Though I suspect it’s mostly futile, we search the house, barging into every room, looking everywhere we can think of. We usher the remaining members of other brotherhoods out. Fear coats my skin the longer the hunt goes on. But thirty minutes later, we still don’t have any clue what’s happened.

Our girl … she’s gone.


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