Hey, reading family! The release of Érōs is right around the corner, and I have a sample for you to dig into. Enjoy!
He was menacing to everyone in the room but me. Silence filled the warehouse as an audience of men and women waited on their feet for him to speak.
His name was Ezra Black—but inside the nightmares of men, he was known as the Phantom, leader of the Iron Fist.
I first learned of the notorious gun-trafficking gang by overhearing my father and mother speak in hushed tones when I was barely ten years old. My father wanted to join, and while I expected my mother to forbid it, she was interested in joining, too.
“What’s the Iron Fist, Papa?” I’d asked, coming out of the shadows with curiosity etched across my face.
“Amara, go back to bed,” my mother shooed.
“Tell the girl.”
I glanced from my father to my mother. Her lips rolled inward, and she peered at him, then looked at me.
“Go back to bed.”
I lingered a second longer, then turned and crept back into my room. I never got in bed. I stood idly by the door until they were comfortable enough to speak, and then I snuck back into the hallway.
“I’m going to challenge the leader,” my father said. “We stand the best chance to make the most money and gain respect the fastest if we’re in the position of power.”
“You know the consequences if you don’t win.”
He turned his eyes to her. “I’m not afraid to die, Sierra.”
I gasped, and they turned and shoved the door open.
“Amara, didn’t I tell you to go to bed?” my mother snapped.
Tears replaced the fear I usually had when I was on the cusp of getting my ass whipped. My father mentioned death, and I didn’t understand why.
“I don’t want you to die, Daddy!”
I ran into his arms, and he scooped me up and stroked my back. “There, there. I’m not going to die.”
Teardrops fell off my little lashes onto his shirt. “You promise?”
He pulled back and looked me in the eyes. “I promise.”
I laid my head on his shoulder and wept as he consoled me. I fell asleep on that shoulder, and surely enough, my father didn’t die—that day.
Ten years into his reign as the leader of Iron Fist after his victorious win, someone had challenged him—Ezra Black.
The rules were simple: fight and win. If you lost, the winner was granted the right to spare your life and drop you in the ranks.
If a challenger won, they usually killed their predecessor, fearing that the men loyal to the former leader would stage a mutiny to cast out the new boss. Of course, it was also a brutal show of strength, dominance, and force.
Ezra had gotten the best of my father—and Ezra chose not to spare his life.
Eighteen years had passed since that day and my body heated at the thought of it. Anger filled my veins as I stepped forward into the challenger’s circle—a sectioned area of the floor that was only meant for challenges.
The eyes of Ezra’s crew were on me as I stood resilient, and I refused to acknowledge their presence.
Ezra locked eyes with me, his irises as black as night. A smirk pushed at the corners of his lips. He knew I was the former boss’s daughter, and what this was about as his gaze crawled over me. I locked my jaw, annoyed at his perusal.
High heels clicked against the concrete, growing closer and coming quicker to shuffle at my side. “I need a word with you now,” my mother’s voice rasped in my ear. She glanced around, then looked at Ezra. “A moment with my daughter, please.”
Surprising me, he nodded once. Ezra never gave second chances, but this time he allowed her to draw me to a corner of the room where she whispered sharply, “Have you lost your mind?”
“Mother, I can do this. And I need you to believe in me. Now is not the time to doubt my skills.”
“It’s not that I don’t trust your skills, Amara.”
“Don’t call me that in here.” We stared at each other.
Everyone in the Iron Fist had a name, but of course it wasn’t our government name. Mine was Shadow Strike. I’d earned it because, well, frankly…I was quick, quiet, and moved through the shadows when I struck.
“Shadow Strike,” she whispered. “I love you, and I know why you want to do this. But wait a little more, just—”
“How much longer, Mother? That’s all you’ve ever said; wait a little longer. And then what?” I swept my straight black shoulder-length hair behind my ears.
The crew stared at us.
“I can’t lose you. You’re all I have left. Don’t do this now.” Her voice was strained.
I sighed. “So that’s it. You think I’ll fail.”
“As good as you are, that man has strength and power over you. His mastery and your mastery are different, if for no other reason than he’s stronger.” She lowered her voice further and held up a finger. “One connection. That’s all it takes, and he’ll drop you.”
I could admit she made me think about that for a split second. But the truth was, I’d rather die than live another day with this arrogant prick in my father’s seat.
“It belongs to one of us,” I said.
“That may be so, but—”
“Enough!” Ezra’s voice echoed off the walls, and all eyes turned to him.
“Let the woman speak.”
Sucking in a breath, I bolstered my courage and stepped forward. “I challenge you to a fight for your seat.”
“Oh, my God…” my mother groaned.
Whispers rustled, and Ezra held up a hand. The room fell silent as everyone’s attention locked on me. I could feel their skepticism, their doubts about my abilities, but I stood tall, refusing to back down.
That smug smirk was back on Ezra’s face. He rose to his feet, his thick muscular arms tattooed from shoulder to wrist as he walked forward a few steps.
“You won’t get a chance to change your mind once I step inside the challenger’s circle.”
“I don’t plan to.”
He nodded and stepped into the challenger’s circle. The men fell back, some shuffling their feet while others moved quickly, forming a wide circle around Ezra and me in the center of the warehouse floor. The sun’s beaming rays through the square glass windows illuminated the room, but even the air felt still, expectant, as if it was waiting like the crew watching with tight expressions.
My mother grabbed my arm, turned me around, and quickly pulled my hair back into a ponytail on top of my head. She secured it tightly, then stared at me with tears in her eyes.
Pressing a kiss on my forehead, she pulled back. “Your strengths for this fight will be your ability to move fast, last the longest, and physically wear him out.” I nodded. “Take him down.”
I smiled, nodded again, and entered the circle.
“I’ll tell you one thing, you’ve got guts,” Ezra said, “but you’ve also got a death wish.”
I knew he was trying to rattle me, to undermine my confidence. But I refused to let his words penetrate my resolve. I had trained for this moment the last twelve years, studied his every move, and I was ready.
The tension in the room grew thick as our gazes locked, neither of us willing to back down. Without a word, we launched ourselves at each other.
I woke up to my head throbbing in pain. Slowly, my vision cleared, and I realized I was lying in a bed that wasn’t mine. Panic surged through me as I tried to sit up, but a searing ache in my ribs made me wince and fall back onto the soft mattress.
Confusion mixed with anger as I scanned the room, realizing I was in Ezra’s bed.
How did I end up here?
The memories of the fight flooded back to me. The challenge, the punches thrown, and then…darkness. He had knocked me out.
Anger ignited within me as I recalled his smug face, relishing the moment when he defeated me. I refused to accept that defeat.
I forced myself to sit up, gritting my teeth against the pain shooting through my body. Looking around, I noticed I was dressed in clothes that weren’t mine. It was a deliberate move on his part, an attempt to assert his dominance over me. But I wouldn’t let him succeed.
Pushing through the pain, I swung my legs over the side of the bed and slowly stood up, but another onslaught of aching discomfort settled in the soles of my feet.
“Sit down,” a dark voice barked.
A chill ran down my spine, and I stilled. I’d never been afraid of anything, but in that moment, I experienced terror in the depths of my gut. My body must have felt it, too, as critical areas of me lit up with pain—the areas that had been bruised and pounded by his heavy fists.
With all this throbbing ricocheting through me, my heart still held defiance. So instead of doing what I was told, I shifted into a fighter’s stance, lifting my fists as I scanned the room for him.
Dark laughter resonated in the room, and he finally stepped out of the shadows—tall and strong, a giant over me, his appearance just as dark as his voice, his eyes cold, and his fists knotted tightly.
“I’m not going to tell you again.”
I didn’t respond, determined to fight to my end if I had to—but as I blinked, pain stung my face as he slapped me with a large, callused hand.
My feet flew out from under me, and I landed in the center of the bed. Pain shot up my side, where my ribs were sore. I buckled, my eyes tight as tears rolled down my cheeks.
“Aaaaau!” I grimaced and curled my body into a fetal position.
“Shut the fuck up.”
Whimpers slipped from my lips as I instantly responded to his demand.
I was confused. It was rare for anyone to get the upper hand on me when it came to movements. I was Shadow Strike; my forte was quick, quiet, and deadly.
And yet here I lay, knotted up and exposed to the biggest predator of them all.
“Let me give you a few rules, Amara.”
Saying my government name was another way he showed his dominance over me—reducing me from a respected, skillful fighter and member of the Iron Fist to a civilian girl.
“I’ve decided to spare your life.” He strolled to the window, his form a shadow covered in darkness. I could barely make out his features in the dim room. “But for that to remain in place, you will become my wife.”
I gasped and sat up quickly, refusing to acknowledge the pain that seared through me as I responded, “I will never!”
“You will.” He kept his back to me and brooded in front of the pane of glass as if being powered by the moon’s light. Then he turned, and I could’ve sworn I saw steam rising from his head—the embodiment of the devil reincarnated.
“You see, Amara, if I were in your shoes…if my father had been killed by your bare hands…” he let that sink in before continuing, “I would have worked as hard as you—harder, to be precise—to honor my father and take back his seat.” He nodded. “I’m proud of you for having the courage to do so.”
He sucked his teeth. “But…you should’ve listened to your mother.” He swiped his bottom lip with his thumb. “Do you think I’m stupid enough to leave the two of you alive without keeping you under close observation? Hmm?”
Pressing my lips together, I locked my jaw, defiance on my tongue.
Ezra laughed. “I’ve watched you train for your challenge. Seen you sweat. Understood your agility and, in turn, created my defense. I’m just as quick as you. Well…” he swiped his lip again, and I could finally make out a cut on his mouth. “You’re smaller, so to your merit, just a little faster—a millisecond.”
He dropped his finger. “Congratulations. You clipped me a few times because of that.” He paused, and his eyes glared. “But you should’ve listened to your mother. Now instead of your death, you belong to me. You’ll learn to like me and—eventually—love me. You’ll be my protector, standing at my side whenever I appear anywhere.”
“I’d rather die.”
He nodded. “But would you rather have the death of Silent Lynx on your hands?”
I stilled when he mentioned my mother. Silent Lynx was her name. Much like me, she was quiet when she entered space, but her deadliness came from knowing her strengths and how to best use them. Everyone had the same pressure points, and she used repeated hard strikes there to weaken her opponents, taking them down.
Death came next.
“Leave Sierra out of this.”
He smirked, no doubt noticing how I’d tried to show her innocence by speaking her government name.
“No.” He dragged in a sniff. “If you betray me, Sierra Silent Lynx Delacroix will die before the Iron Fist, and you will watch.”
Hate fueled my anger, but I was at his mercy, and it was the first time I felt the weight of my defeat.
“Rest up, Amara Shadow Strike Delacroix. In ninety days, we wed.” A tight smile curled the corners of his lips. “Amara Black has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”
Moving as silently as an apparition, he left the room, and the pain throbbing inside me now added pressure to my chest. I fell back, rolled over, stuffed my face into the pillow, and wept.
Paperback ships August 16, 2023