Please enjoy the first 40 pages of my upcoming release, Ex-Con. This stand-alone romance novel will be released on Amazon November 3rd.
You can read the excerpt here or download the PDF file: Ex-Con Excerpt PDF

Ex-ConSmall

Ex-Con

A Stand-Alone Bad Boy Romance

By Shiloh Walker and M.S. Parker

 

 

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 Belmonte Publishing LLC & Shiloh Walker Inc

Published by Belmonte Publishing LLC.

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

There’re few things in my life that are certain.

I need coffee to wake up my brain.

At some point in the month, I’ll pay at least one bill late. Most likely two.

I’ll freeze my ass off through the winter, and roast all summer. The heater in my place isn’t worth shit, and I can’t afford to pay the bill for the A/C so I never turn it on.

And at some point during the year, I’ll be let go from my job.

You see…my luck just isn’t that great.

 

I’d held my current job going on two months, and that was a record, but I had a feeling that streak was about to come to an end.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the job. I was a damn good mechanic, and a damn sight better than the slack-jawed moron standing across from me. But that slack-jawed moron had a wrench in his hand, and if he lifted it in my direction, I was going to shove it up his ass.

In fact, I’d just pointed that promise out to him.

He stared at the wrench for a moment before grinning at me. “Seems to me that a guy like you would probably enjoy it, Bobby. But maybe you should let me do the shoving.”

The joke wasn’t a new one, and it hadn’t been worth getting myself in trouble the first time I’d heard it.

The girl cowering in the corner darted a look at me, and then at him. “Candy.” I waited until she looked at me again, although I didn’t take my eyes away from Frank Hodges. “Why don’t you call your brother to come pick you up?”

Candy helped out up front from time to time, but today wasn’t an ideal day to have her name on the schedule.

Frank pointed at me with the wrench and it took an extra burst of self-control not to make good on my threat right then. “Boy, you ain’t got no place telling the employees when they can leave and when they can’t. You just one yourself.”

“You are.”

His brows scrunched down low over his eyes and I could see him trying to figure it out.

Helpfully, I said, “You’re saying it wrong, Frank.” I pointed at him. “Now see, I really am from the backwoods of Kentucky, but when you talk like that, you make us all look bad. The proper way to say it would be… you are just one yourself.”

His face turned an even uglier shade of red, and he took a step toward me.

I sighed. Shit. He really wasn’t going to let it go.

“You really want to do this?” I cracked my neck and gestured at him. “All you had to do was leave Candy alone. Stop breathing down her neck and staring at her chest. Treat her like a person, and this would all be done, but you had to go and act like an asshole. Now I’m asking you again…do you really want to do this?”

“You’re the one who oughta be asking.” Frank hitched the wrench up and propped it on his shoulder. He grinned at me, baring teeth stained yellow and brown. “All you gotta do is get in trouble one time, Bobby boy, and you know what happens to you.”

I shrugged. “True.” Then I smiled. “But I doubt that’ll be much comfort to you when you’re picking metal shavings out of your ass for the next six months.”

I took a step toward him.

His eyelids flickered.

The door in the back opened in that moment, and the garage owner stepped inside. Peter Brewster studied me, studied Frank and the wrench, and then crossed his arms over his chest. “Why did Candy’s brother just call me?”

Frank’s face underwent a total transformation. “Beats the hell out of me, boss. This ex-con you hired…” He shrugged and jutted his chin in my direction. “He’s always bossing her around, telling her what to do.”

I heard a faint sniff from the doorway, but I didn’t look back.

“That the truth of it, Bobby?”

Running my tongue across my teeth, I studied Peter. He’d been a pretty decent boss, hadn’t made a big issue out of my past, just told me to keep my nose clean. I appreciated the chance, but I wasn’t sure I could keep my nose clean if I had to keep working around Frank. He was going to hurt somebody – a girl like Candy probably. I may be an ex-con, but he was a perverted bastard.

“It’s not true.”

She was the first one to speak, and she peaked around the corner, glanced at me, then at Pete. Not once did she look at Frank. His face bled back to that ugly red, and I subtly shifted, staying between them in case I needed to move.

There wasn’t any need, though, because Peter was doing the same. He’d had his eye on Candy for a while. More evidence that Frank was a dumbass.

She swallowed and in a halting voice, started to talk.

***

Frank ended up getting his teeth knocked down his throat that night.

But it wasn’t me who did it.

Pete was a solid guy, built like a football player who’d let himself go just a little. A little. Not a lot. Under that first layer of semi-soft fat, there was a hell of a lot of hard muscle, and although Frank had come at him after Pete told him to clean out his locker, Pete hadn’t so much as budged.

And then Pete had swung out with one big, rawboned fist, and the dumbass had gone down like a felled tree.

I’d been happy to help haul his ass out.

I was less happy now though.

“I’m sorry.”

An hour later, I was sitting in the office, staring blankly at the wall.

Pete had just given me my final check, along with a bonus that added up to two weeks of pay as a nice it’s been good knowing ya gift. Even though I hadn’t done anything wrong, he was letting me go.

I should’ve just shoved the wrench up Frank’s ass. I still would’ve lost my job, but I might’ve felt better about it.

Pete continued, “I don’t like it, Bobby. You’re a good worker and if I could ride it out, I would. But–”

I shook my head and stood. “You’ve got your own to look after, Pete. I understand.”

I did, too. Mostly. One of his regulars, a stuck-up, tight-ass named Jamie Rice, had thought I looked familiar. Once she’d figured it out, she’d started going around plastering my image on telephone poles and anything else she could find.

 

GUILTY. WE DON’T NEED HIS KIND HERE.

 

She claimed it was her Christian duty that had her speaking up.

Candy had, surprisingly, been the one to get in Mrs. Rice’s face about it. “I’m pretty sure Jesus had thieves and liars and adulterers among his followers. Besides, what was that saying about stones, Mrs. Rice?”

I could have hugged her for it, but I hadn’t wanted to freak her out. She was one of the jumpiest people I knew. After Mrs. Rice had stormed out, Candy had told me, in her shy, nervous voice it would all blow over.

But it wouldn’t.

No surprise there. Things didn’t work like that for me.

The past two weeks, business had been slow and today, one of Pete’s regular contracts had called to say he was taking his business elsewhere. He said he had…concerns.

Concerns.

Didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what that meant.

I held up the bonus check. “Can you afford this?”

“Sure.” He grinned widely. “Pete didn’t get any severance.”

I laughed, and while there was some humor in it, it was tired too.

Pete rose, and after a moment, he held out his hand. “Bobby, you’re a good kid. Something will change for you.”

“Yeah.” I accepted his hand and tried not to think about how wrong he was.

Good kids didn’t make the mistakes I’d made.

Blindly, I gathered up my gear and started out the front. I couldn’t go out the back – there was a deadbolt that had to be locked each time and I’d left my keys in the back.

Candy was standing in the front talking to her brother when she saw me. She gave me a nervous smile. I just nodded back. She started to say something, but she saw my bag and her mouth fell open as she realized what happened.

“It’s because of her?” Her eyes narrowed.

I shrugged. Mrs. Rice may not be the nicest person in the world, but I wasn’t going to put the blame anywhere other than where it needed to be. “It’s because of me. She’s just letting people know.”

I looked at Candy’s brother and gave him a short nod. Noise blared from the TV, and instead of getting into a conversation I didn’t want, I watched the screen as I pulled on my miserable excuse for a jacket.

The caption across the bottom read: The Princess Is In Town!

Below that, the words: Derby Parade Grand Marshal!

The screen flashed to a woman. Blonde, built and beautiful. “I thought the princess had brown hair,” I said, latching onto the distraction with both hands.

“Not that princess,” Candy said, laughing a little. “That’s–”

A familiar set of lights reflected in the windows across the street and I craned my neck. “Aw, hell. My bus.”

I shoved outside, but I was already too late. The bus was already lumbering up Broadway before I’d gotten two steps. I cursed as I watched it go.

“You need a ride?”

Candy’s brother stood in the door with her peering around him. I blew out a breath and then shook my head. I wasn’t about to have him hauling her down to the area where I lived. I doubted he’d be comfortable with it either. He was a nice guy. A good kid.

“I’m good.” I forced a smile, then turned around, walking away from the garage for the last time.

It was a six-mile walk, but it wouldn’t kill me.

Maybe I’d luck out and see a help wanted sign along the way.

Yeah. Right.

I had a bit of extra money stashed. Not even close to a lot, but it would let me pay for the rent on time, which meant I wouldn’t have to worry about being out on my ass just yet, and for a few weeks, I didn’t have to worry about going to bed hungry while I searched for a job.

I’d be okay, for a while. If I was careful.

The big problem was going to be telling my parole officer. That had me grimacing and craving a drink.

Striding down West Muhammed Ali, I cut through the crush that was already forming around the so-called party venue that was Fourth Street Live. It was cold. Louisville, Kentucky is one of the weirdest places on earth, as far as the climate went. Last week, it’d been almost eighty, hot enough that I’d been dripping with sweat as I worked in the garage, but now it was in the low thirties, and people were gearing up for all the stuff the city did for the Derby. Two minutes of horses racing around a track, and the city treats the whole month of April like a party.

Right now, the area around Fourth Street was packed, a stage set up in the middle, cold weather be damned. Girls were tottering around in heels, their skirts barely wider than the palm of my hand. Their shirts, if they could be called that, bared arms and flat, toned bellies, backs, tattoos and pierced navels flashing.

I’m a healthy, warm-blooded male, so yeah, I looked. And I wanted to grab them a damn coat. It was freezing. I was shivering in the threadbare coat I’d found in a secondhand store back when the winter had moved in on us, and I was still freezing my ass off. Under that pathetic excuse for a coat, I had on a flannel and T-shirt and I was still freezing. How could they stand to be out here in what little they were wearing?

I guessed the alcohol helped.

One of the young women looked up at that moment and caught my eye. A slow smile curled her lips, and a hint of appreciation twisted through me, but I just kept on walking.

That place had a dress code and dollar limit even for their outside venue that I couldn’t afford. If I had to drink, it was going to be some of the cheapest shit beer available. My money had to stretch, and my taste buds could survive.

Up ahead, a couple of cop cars sat, lights flashing.

It was instinct that had me turning left on Fifth. There were more of them the next block up, and I hooked another left, swearing as it led me back to Fourth. I made a right and strode past the ritzy Seelbach. I didn’t bother to look at the hotel. That was where the high-rollers stayed. Around Derby time, this place got crazy, but it was only the first week of April, so it shouldn’t have been lunatic crazy.

Except it was.

I dodged a couple of reporters and ducked my head, scowling as I waded through the mass of people. Dammit, I’d gone that way to avoid people.

I was so busy trying to avoid that I missed seeing her right up until she crashed into me.

I caught her arms, trying to steady her.

She was a cute little mess of blonde curls and the kind of curves our society likes to mock. The kind of curves I actually preferred.

For one brief second, we stared at each other and I thought…wow. Then I thought whoa, because she tore away, quicker than that dynamite body should’ve been able to go. Even as she was moving away, my brain started picking at the puzzle.

She was familiar.

Why was she familiar?

She moved so fast, I was left standing there with my hands in mid-air while I pondered the question. Lowering my hands, I looked up to see if I could find her, and then swore, lunging for her just as she took a step onto the road.

We ended up sprawled on the street with me half on top of her. “The fuck’s the matter with you?” I growled at her as the car laid on its horn, speeding by without even slowing down. Big shock there. Asshole driver. “You want to end up dead or what?”

She glared at me. “Get off of me, you idiot.”

I narrowed my eyes. I’d just saved her life. I wasn’t expecting a reward or anything, but being called an idiot didn’t really seem like an appropriate way of thanking me.

“Carly!”

She didn’t even turn her head, although I had no doubt who they were talking to since her entire body went tense beneath me.

“You got a death wish?” I asked. I started to shove off her, my weight going to my hands. Then my body kicked on, sending a loud and clear message to my brain that maybe I didn’t want to move. Fuck.

“Get. Off. Me,” she said, enunciating each word like she thought I was slow.

“With. Pleasure,” I said, echoing her speech pattern and drawing my words out more than normal. The Eastern Kentucky twang came through more thickly as I took care to enunciate those two words.

Her eyes narrowed as I pushed off her and settled on my heels, offering her a hand to help her up. Her dark pink dress was now streaked with grit from the road. The pink was pretty, not garish. It made me think of roses. I’d bet my last nickel that the dress was trashed now. Expensive stuff wasn’t made to last.

She didn’t accept my hand, sitting up slowly on her own. She was just a few inches from me and when I breathed in, I caught a headful of her scent. Wow and whoa echoed inside me again.

She licked her lips.

I glanced down at her mouth and had the fleeting desire to kiss her, trace my tongue across those gorgeous lips.

Then she could slap me, and maybe even press charges.

That would cap off my night just right.

But I was still considering it, might have even put some real thought into doing it, except somebody shouted her name again.

She still didn’t look away.

I cocked my head. “Carly,” I murmured.

She lifted an eyebrow. In contrast to her goldilocks blonde, her eyebrows were strong, dark arches over eyes of vivid blue. A sexy combination, especially when combined with that little mole by the right corner of her mouth. “It’s Carly—not Carralee.”

“Carly,” I said, taking care to draw it out again. I smirked. “That’s what I said.”

She gritted her teeth. “Are you always this obnoxious?”

Before I had a chance to answer, two men grabbed me from behind. That was their first big mistake. I’d been grabbed from behind before. A man couldn’t do time and not get grabbed from behind.

I reacted more out of instinct than anything else, and it ended only a few short seconds later. One of them was doubled over, coughing, struggling to catch his breath. The other was faster, and he’d figured out quickly I wasn’t some dumb-ass who couldn’t fight. But in less than a minute, I had him bent over with his arm twisted up behind his back.

“You move,” I warned. “I break it.”

I was dead serious. When it came to fighting, I was always dead serious.

The sound of someone behind me caught my attention, and I looked up, never easing the pressure I had on the man’s arm.

The second man squinted up at me as he struggled to catch his breath. “You’re going to jail over this, you know. Might as well make it easy on yourself.”

I laughed at him. It wasn’t a pleasant sound. I could tell by the way his mouth tightened. “I’m going to jail because I reacted when you two tried to jump me? You know the laws in this state? Just back the hell off.”

Chances were, I would go back to jail because of this, but these assholes didn’t need to go throwing their weight around just because they were rich. Except I didn’t get the chance to find out exactly what would’ve happened because I suddenly found myself being accosted.

A huge bag hit me in the head and I almost lost hold of my captor. I turned my head, gaping down at Carly. I had to blink twice to bring her into focus and I knew I was going to have a nasty headache later. “What the hell is the matter with you?” I demanded.

“Let him go!” She brandished her purse at me.

I snarled. “I swear, if you–”

The man I held tensed.

I reacted.

There was a particularly sickening noise a bone made when it broke. I’d heard that sound more often than I cared to admit, and it turned my stomach every damn time. But as I’d rather the sound came from somebody else instead than me, and I didn’t give empty warnings, I had no choice.

As he howled in pain, I let him go. He’d be down for at least a minute, most likely more since I hadn’t gotten a super-soldier kind of vibe off of them.

Then Carly swung her purse at me again.

I swore and caught the damn thing, throwing it down. “What is your problem?!” I shouted.

That’s when everything went crazy.

The man still standing rushed to put himself between the two of us.

Some guy with a camera practically tackled Carly, and I grabbed him, throwing him back.

The dude with the broken arm surged to his feet, cradling his arm but struggling to get between Carly and the crowd. Dimly, I realized what was going on. Reporters. Something else clicked too.

Carly was somebody important. Or at least somebody the reporters wanted a piece of.

So I did the only thing I could do.

I’d caused this mess. Only seemed right to help fix it if I could.

Another reporter nosed in and I grabbed him, shoved him back. Did the same thing over and over as I cleared a path between me and the men who fought to keep between Carly and the horde. She was pale and furious, and when her eyes met mine, I could tell she wished she had the room to hit me with her purse again.

If she had the chance, I planned on giving her a free shot.

One bearded burly guy with a camera shoved in close. So close that the lens of his camera came within inches of her heart-shaped face, and I was near enough to hear her startled intake of air.

That was it.

I shoved between them, blocking his view of her. “Back off,” I growled.

“Freedom of the press,” he said, grinning madly.

Then he shoved me.

“Yeah?” I glowered down at him, using every inch of my size to show him that I didn’t give a rat’s ass about what he thought he knew. “You just put your hands on me. I’m pretty sure freedom of the press doesn’t cover that. So what are you going to do when I lay you out – in self-defense, of course – and you spend the night in the hospital?”

“Are you threatening me?” He shoved his face into mine once more and this time, he used a thick, stubby finger to drill a hole into my chest.

I didn’t touch him. Just sneered. “No, limpdick. I’m telling you that if you touch me again, I’m going to defend myself, and it will involve a whole world of pain for you.”

“Touch me and your ass will go to jail.”

“Won’t be the first time. And I can guarantee you, the pain I bring you will be worth every minute of it.”

I smiled as I said it, pushing aside the knot in my stomach at the thought of going back. On the plus side, I’d get three square meals and I wouldn’t be freezing my ass off.

He must have seen the truth on my face, because his eyes flickered away and I saw him swallow, watched as he fell back a pace.

In the next moment, a group of black-suited men surrounded us. I found out a few minutes later that they were security from the hotel.

I blew out a breath and waited for them to call the cops on me.

I wasn’t going to take off running. That didn’t ever go well, and there were cameras around here. My face would’ve been captured already, and I’d be identified in no time.

But as I huddled, freezing, against the wall, the two men in their very expensive suits spoke with the blonde firecracker and the other suits…and no flashing lights came. Well, not exactly. An ambulance came. The man whose arm I’d broken stubbornly shook his head and my respect for him grew again. No super-soldier, but he was dedicated, and that meant a lot.

“I’ll go in a bit. In a cab. Not now,” he said.

“Jake!”

That came from Carly.

“No, I’m staying,” he said, and shot me a glare.

I smiled serenely back at him. He flipped me off and I couldn’t say I blamed him.

A few minutes later, I was ushered into the glittering golden beauty that was the Seelbach.

We weren’t in the lobby long before we were whisked into an elevator. It got quiet as the doors slid close, and that’s when I realized that they were all working very hard at not looking at me. I hated awkward silences. As it stretched out, I finally cleared my throat and looked over at Carly. “Look, if ya’ll aren’t calling the cops on me, can I just go?”

Carly cocked her head.

I stared at her. Hard. “If you are calling the cops, just do it.” I shrugged. “They really are the only option because if you’re looking to sue me, the only things I got are the clothes on my back, two or three more pairs of jeans and a few more shirts. Oh, and a couple of blankets, some dishes I got at a yard sale, and a few second-hand books.” I pulled my check out of my pocket. “This is pretty much all I’ve got that’s worth anything.”

Now all of them were looking at me.

Carly’s mouth fell open.

I wasn’t embarrassed. What was the point? The truth of it was, I had more now than I’d had for a good long while. I had some clothes, I had a few books, and I had a roof over my head. More importantly, I had no bars around me.

“Are you serious?” she asked, her voice hardly more than a whisper.

I thought about the list I’d given her, then shrugged. “There’s a couch and a backpack. The table isn’t mine. Came with the apartment.” I rubbed my hand on my chin and felt my stubble scratch at my palm. “Not exactly the sort of thing you’d lie about. So if you’re looking to sue me about what I did to your arm, man…” I slanted a look at the man cradling his broken arm. “I can’t give you shit.”

He ran his tongue across his teeth and then looked away. “I have insurance. Don’t sweat it.”

Now it was my turn to look surprised. “Don’t sweat it?” I echoed.

Sweat beaded on his pale brow and he managed a pained smile. “You heard me. Just tell me one thing…what style of fighting did you study?”

Style? I arched my brows and studied him. Then I grinned. “The school of hard knocks taught me, man. The school of hard knocks.”

For a minute, he looked nonplussed. Then he chuckled. It was a rusty sound, like he didn’t laugh often.

In the next moment, the elevator opened on a whisper and we all spilled out. Everybody else fanned out into the room.

I stood there staring, trying not to let my mouth hang open. I could think of exactly one thing I’d seen that had been this beautiful. And it was the woman who turned to look at me with an amused expression on her face.

“Are you going to join us?”

 

Chapter Two

“I need a drink.”

While I was still standing there trying to take everything in, Carly made her announcement to the room in general.

“Anybody want to join me?”

I heard a few denials. Nobody said yes. Considering what just happened, I had to give them credit for refusing.

“What about you over there?”

Realizing she was talking to me, I looked away from the elegant white of the room to meet her gaze. “What?” As soon as I asked it, I felt stupid. She’d been talking about drinks, so she was offering me one. I shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. I still had no clue what I was doing here. “You don’t need to do that.”

Carly rolled her eyes at me. “Of course I don’t need to. If I didn’t want to, I wouldn’t have offered it. So do you want one? After what happened the past twenty minutes, you could probably use one.”

I jutted my chin at the suits. “If that’s the case, why aren’t they having one?”

She shook her head, an amused smile on her face. “Julio’s boys don’t drink on the job.”

A dark-skinned dude built like a tank smiled faintly as she gestured at him. I assumed the men behind him were his boys and he was Julio.

She gestured to the other men, including the one with the broken arm. “And my boys? They don’t either, even though I keep telling them it’s not a big deal when we’re here. But they won’t ever relax.”

“It’s our job not to relax, Carly.” The guy with the broken arm spoke through gritted teeth.

He was going to need to get that looked at.

She rolled her eyes again and then smiled at me. “Have a drink with me. Makes me look a little less like a lush.”

“Ah, yeah. Sure.” I shrugged. If I was going back to jail, I figured I should probably enjoy the moment. “Whiskey, I guess. If you’ve got it.”

She didn’t even blink. “What kind?”

Kind? Running my tongue across my teeth, I thought that through. Okay. Yeah, I knew there were kinds. I was born in Kentucky after all and even if I hadn’t had much chance to experience it, this was the land of milk and bourbon. But my idea of variety, as far as whiskey went, ran the gamut from the kinds that didn’t burn your stomach lining right off and the kinds that did. Rather than confirm my ignorance, I acted like it didn’t matter. “Anything is fine.”

She studied me for a moment, and then she smiled. It was a somber kind of smile, one that was curiously sad, and because it made my chest feel sort of tight, I looked away. This was why I tried to avoid people. No one looked at me like they actually saw me, just who they thought I was.

While she busied herself at what I guessed was the bar, I moved over to the window. I found myself staring out at a city I barely recognized. I supposed when you lived in the west end, in some armpit apartment that really ought to be condemned, then maybe you didn’t notice the bright and shining lights, or the pretty glow of the bridges at night. My city was vastly different from hers.

“Here.”

I turned at the sound of her voice, and I found myself caught up in the sight of her again, the scent. Really, she was an entire experience. Golden curls, pale, soft skin and sweet, sweet female. The kind of sweet, sweet female I’d never had the pleasure of knowing, and when her fingers brushed mine, it made me twitchy.

It had been way too long since I’d been with a woman, any woman, and she was right here…

“Here,” she said again, smiling as she pushed the glass of whiskey into my hand. “Try this. I bet you’ll like it.”

To cover the flush that seemed to be rushing up my neck, I grunted a response, and turned back to stare out the window. Then I tossed back a swallow, ready for the burn of it.

It didn’t burn.

It glided. Like hot, sweet silk.

“Damn,” I murmured a second later.

“Nice, yeah?”

Instead of responding, I lifted the glass and took another drink, a smaller one this time, taking care to savor it. It was just as good this time as the last and I enjoyed it that much more for taking my time.

“Nice is one word for it.” I lifted the glass and studied it, decided I could maybe make it last ten minutes if I was careful. I’d learned a long time ago that ten minutes could last a lifetime. At least these would be a good ten minutes.

“Angel’s Envy,” she told me.

I frowned and looked over at her.

She tipped her glass at me, tapping it with a nail that was painted pink to match her dress. “The bourbon. Angel’s Envy. Good stuff. It’s one of my favorites. Kentucky makes some excellent bourbon, I must say. It’s almost as good as Pappy Van Winkles.”

She had to be joking with that one. Squinting at her, I said, “Pappy Van Winkles?”

“Yep.” She winked, one quick drop of her lid. “If you’re nice, maybe I’ll share it with you some time.”

With a name like Pappy Van Winkle, it would probably taste like pure rotgut. Then again, she didn’t exactly look like the sort of woman who’d throw back that shit. My experience around the opposite sex had been with that sort, and she sure as hell wasn’t like those women.

I gave her a tight smile and went back to savoring the bourbon. Angel’s Envy – the name was perfect. It was almost gone, and I wished I hadn’t belted that first drink. If I had more, I’d have a reason to linger, and considering what I had waiting for me when I left, lingering didn’t sound like a bad idea.

Around me, I could hear the low murmur of voices, the two men who’d chased after Carly at first, and the others who joined up soon after. I heard what sounded like a report, and then a stream of cussing, a promise of regular updates. I didn’t look at any of it, letting myself enjoy the time alone with my drink.

I finished it far sooner than I wanted to and finally turned around. I saw the neat little bar area where she’d poured the glass and went over, intent on washing it up. I may have been rough around the edges, but I had some manners.

“Do you have a job?”

Carly’s question stopped me in my tracks.

I went still, my spine going poker straight. Slowly, I turned. Meeting her gaze dead-on, I inclined my head. “Why?” It came out more harshly than I’d intended, but I didn’t apologize.

A cute, impish sort of smile curled the corners of her pretty mouth. Man, I should have stolen a kiss when I’d had the chance. I’d regret that for the rest of my life. Maybe she’d never remember anything else about me, but if I’d kissed her, I could have given her something to remember.

“You don’t know who I am, do you?”

That question caught me off-guard, and I didn’t have an answer for her. Scowling, I reached up and rubbed the back of my neck, trying to figure out the best way to answer.

From the corner of my eye, I saw the looks a few of the hotel suits slid me. They were quick. Subtle, too. But I know that kind of look. You stupid or something?

Or something.

I curled my lip in their direction.

Judging by the subtle tensing of Julio’s body, he realized something was amiss. Now he was real subtle, but I caught the quick turn of his head, the way he cocked his eyebrow at his people. Their faces blanked quick as you please.

Fuck ‘em.

“I figure you had to be somebody,” I said, shrugging. “Reporters don’t go around shoving their cameras in the face of your everyday average bombshell just for the hell of it. But…no. I don’t know who you are.”

Carly’s head fell back as she laughed. Maybe I should’ve been embarrassed by that, but the sound of it wasn’t mocking. I knew when I was being laughed at.

And I knew that wasn’t it. I hadn’t heard the sound of pure and simple happiness very often, and maybe that was why I recognized the difference so easily.

She was just happy. Delighted, even. And it had something to do with the fact that I didn’t know who she was.

This day just kept getting weirder.

She came toward me, still grinning, although the laugh was fading. I could still hear the echo of it, and it was hard not to let my mouth curve up in reaction. I wanted to smile at her, share in that bright, infectious pleasure, despite the fact that I didn’t really understand why she was so delighted.

It was a puzzle, and I was so busy trying to figure it out that she caught me off-guard. Not something that normally happened to me. It wasn’t smart, not for a guy like me. It could end up getting an ex-con like me dead, so I’d spent years honing my awareness. But she was something I’d never expected. Or experienced.

I tensed as she reached out, my body reacting instinctively. When her fingers brushed my cheeks, I caught her wrists. What the hell was she doing?

Then she swayed closer and the shock had me loosening my grip. I didn’t understand why her goons weren’t stopping her. Because there was no way she actually wanted…

She dragged my mouth down even as she rose up on her toes. Before my brain could process, she pressed her lips against mine.

Hard.

Lust, visceral and hot, twisted through me like a punch to the gut.

Fuck.

She was already retreating when I caught her shoulders and did exactly what I’d wanted to do pretty much from the second I’d tackled her out on the street. Then, it would have been pretty damn out of place. Now…well, maybe it was out of place, but for that split second when her lips had brushed mine, I felt it. That strange, seductive tug.

And, hell, she started it.

I waited for her to pull back, but she sighed against my mouth and leaned closer.

What should have been a fast, impersonal kiss became something slower, softer…sweeter. I licked at her lips and she hummed deep in her throat, opened her mouth for me. My fingers tightened on her shoulders and I started to slide my hands down.

But the loud clearing of somebody’s throat interrupted before things could go any further.

We broke apart and I could feel my face heating up while she studied me. There was something in her eyes I hadn’t seen until that moment, and I wasn’t sure how that made me feel.

She took a step back and I wanted to grab her, pull her close, make everybody go away, make the whole world go away. And I knew she could do that for me, do the one thing that nothing else had been able to do. She could make me forget. Forget where I was, who I was.

Instead of acting on what I wanted, however, I put more distance between us. My booted foot kicked something and I looked down, realizing I’d dropped the glass that had held the bourbon. I stooped down, grabbing it. When I straightened, I caught sight of her from the corner of my eye.

Lust clenched my stomach at the look on her face. She was still watching me, wearing a small smile. The kind of smile a woman gets when maybe she wants a man to make the whole world go away.

I could do it, too. But she’d hate me after, either because she’d found out who I was or because I’d left before she could.

“So.” One of the suits cleared his throat again, cutting through the silence.

I hunched my shoulders and cut around her to the counter. I needed something between us.

The hotel suits were studiously looking elsewhere, while the other two – I decided to call them Tango and Cash – were glaring at me. Hard. That was fine. I planned on getting the hell out of here anyway. Once I left, maybe Tango would finally call that damn cab and get his ass to one of the hospitals a few blocks away, so they could set his arm. He was all pale, his forehead shiny and his mouth tight with pain.

I hurt just looking at him.

He was older than I’d realized too, and that just made me feel worse about what I’d done. He wasn’t exactly old, but he had at least half a dozen years on me.

“Are you going to answer my questions?”

I shifted my gaze to Carly, for just a moment, and tried to remember what she’d asked me. After a moment, it came to me. “No, I don’t know who you are, and no, I don’t have a job at the moment.” I paused and then gave a thin smile. “I’m between projects.”

Between projects sounded so much better than unemployed. Especially when I was unemployed – again – for the third time in a year. I’d start job hunting first thing tomorrow and, sooner or later, I’d find something. But it would be suck work, for suck pay, despite the fact that I was qualified for all sorts of jobs. There were plenty of people out there willing to hire people with a record, but there were ex-cons and then there were ex-cons. I was one of the latter.

“Between projects,” she echoed. “So does that mean you have something else lined up?”

I glared at her. “What is this, Twenty Questions?”

“Is it bigger than a breadbox?” She grinned, apparently not intimidated by my annoyance.

Damn, that made her all the more desirable, even if her questions were annoying me.

“I’m curious.” She shrugged. “I…well. It won’t do me any good to talk about it if you have a job lined up. Do you?”

“There’s always something floating around.” I kept my voice vague and glanced at the door, then the time. It was already nine. It was going to be eleven by the time I got home, even if I left now. And I wanted to get an early start tomorrow, so I needed to get out of here. “Look, I need to get going, so if you all don’t—”

“So, you don’t have anything specific lined up.” Now she looked pleased, smiling that gut-wrenching smile again. “Good. I want to hire you. For a week. I pay really well.”

“Carly!” That came from the one I’d deemed Cash. The one without the broken arm.

Tango was more polite, but it was just as clear that he hadn’t been in on Carly’s offer. He moved forward, his movements easy despite the fact that I knew his arm had to be hurting like a motherfucker. I’d had my arm broken before, so I knew. “Sir…ah, I’m sorry, we never did get your name.”

I tried not to snort a laugh at the sir. “Call me Bobby.”

“Bob, if you—”

“Bobby,” I corrected, hardening my voice. “My name isn’t Bob.” That had been his name, and I never went by that.

“Bobby, then,” he said easily. “We need to speak with Carly for a moment, if you don’t mind.”

“No, Jake,” Carly said, and she said it with steel.

I slid her a sidelong look as she moved in front of me, arms crossed, one high-heeled foot tapping impatiently. My eyebrows went up. Was she actually putting herself between me and her security guards?

“I’m the boss, remember?”

Cash stepped up next to Tango – Jake, I corrected myself. “Carly, you put us in charge of your safety.”

When Jake spoke, I wasn’t sure who was more surprised, Carly or me. “Ryan, Carly’s right. She is the boss.”

Carly gave Jake a brilliant smile and then turned to me.

“So. You don’t have anything concrete lined up for at least a week, right?”

I’d fallen through the looking glass. The rabbit hole. Whatever. Rubbing my neck, I studied her for a few seconds, and then looked around, trying to figure out just how this conversation had gone from what I’d assumed was a thank you scotch, to her trying to hire me. And for what, anyway?

“Look…”

“I take it that means I’m right.” She beamed, looking pleased.

Dammit she was cute. And arrogant too. It was just a little more than confident, but not so annoying that it rubbed me the wrong way. In fact, it rubbed me very much the right way.

I thought maybe about kissing her again. But then she started talking…about a job.

“So, a week, okay? We can talk wages and–”

Time to stop the crazy train. Shaking my head, I turned away. “No. Sorry, darlin’. You can’t pay me well enough to make it worth the kind of trouble working with you – whoever you are – would bring the both of us.”

“Wanna bet?”

Her voice, cocky and confident, should have gotten on my nerves. But, instead, it was making me hard. Yeah, she’s arrogant, alright. I turned back to her, my gaze sliding to the smug grin on her pretty mouth. Fuck. I had to look away or I was going to keep thinking about how that mouth had felt against mine.

If she was smart, she’d stay far away from me. I could see the way all of the suits were watching me. Jake might’ve let her have her say, but it was clear he wasn’t giving me free rein. She couldn’t tell what she was dealing with, but they could. They saw it all over me.

So they were watching. Like they thought maybe I’d make a move on her. Like I’d ever hurt a woman. Any woman. And definitely not that one.

But I could if I wanted to. I knew how to hurt people, had once spent most of my time doing nothing but that. Then I’d been forced to do it to stay alive. I’d never hurt a woman. They wouldn’t believe that, though. They wouldn’t understand the kind of life I’d lived, the choices I’d made, the roads I’d walked. But they didn’t need to.

I didn’t care about them.

I was bothered, though, by the fact that she was being so careless, even as I was strangely drawn to the fact that she wasn’t afraid of me.

I couldn’t remember the last time somebody had talked with me about anything without giving me the side-eye, wondering if they were going to come out of the discussion intact. Even Frank and shy, nervous Candy had been jittery at first. If people didn’t act nervous, then they were hostile or aggressive, like a dog marking its territory.

Carly had asked me if I knew who she was, but now I was thinking I should have asked her a similar question: do you know what I am?

“You haven’t asked how much I can pay you,” she said, taking another step toward me.

“Because it doesn’t matter.” I jerked a shoulder up as I shoved my hands into my pockets.

Why wouldn’t she just let this go? The scotch had more than made up for her hitting me with her purse. Not to mention that kiss. I didn’t need anything else from her.

“You sure?”

As a smug little smile curved her mouth, I took a step back, and allowed myself a long leisurely look at her, letting my gaze linger over the curve of her hip and the length of her legs. She was stacked. The lush curves of her body could take the weight of mine, and I knew that sinking into her would be like sinking into heaven.

“Just what do you plan to offer me, princess?” I asked and my voice was rougher than it should have been. “Fifty bucks a day? A hundred?”

The room was quiet.

I lifted my gaze back to her, expecting to see her blush or ordering one of her suits to muscle me out of there. I hadn’t been subtle about my perusal of her body and I’d done it on purpose, deliberately making sure everyone in the room knew exactly what I was doing.

To my surprise, she was giving me a bored look. Like she’d been on the receiving end of such a stare more times than she could recall and she didn’t even care. That idea pissed me off – and it left me feeling ashamed. I didn’t like it.

Once our eyes met, Carly crossed her arms over her chest and leaned forward the slightest bit. She smirked. “You’re a little off.”

“Yeah?” I cocked up a brow. “I’m pretty sure you don’t need a mechanic. If your limo isn’t running right, a girl like you just gets a new one, right? So what exactly did you have in mind? Car engines are about all I’m good at.”

“Relax. My limo is just fine.” She looked amused. “No, I’ve actually got something else in mind. See, I’m in town for the rest of the week and this weekend. Jake is going to be…limited, we’ll say. I’m sure you can imagine why.” She slid her gaze to the man who was cradling his arm.

I blew out a breath as guilt started to twitch. Although, okay, really, that wasn’t my fault. He was the ass who’d grabbed me. I’d told him not to move. He’d moved. He couldn’t say I hadn’t warned him.

“Hey, don’t look so grim,” he said, sliding a hand into his pocket and pulling out a bottle. “I was going to be down for the count some of this week anyway. Now I’m just going to be down and in a cast. I’ve got to get some tests and shit done.”

He tossed the bottle he held over to the other suit – Ryan, I remembered – and I watched as Ryan opened the bottle, shook out some medicine, and brought it to Jake. They spoke in low tones and the look on Carly’s face was somber, something sad in her eyes.

It was a private moment and I shifted, uncomfortable being in the middle of something that was clearly personal. The hotel guys were looking away too, I noticed.

Then Carly shook her head a little, as if focusing. When she looked back at me, her brazen smile was back in place.

“We had coverage lined up,” she said. “Except the guy who was here, his wife went into early labor this morning. The other guy? Just took his first vacation in two years. He can get here, but…” Her voice trailed off and her gaze shifted to Jake.

“Ridley needs the vacation.” Jake gave me a cool look, clearly assessing my every reaction.

“Yeah, I bet.” Running my tongue across my teeth, I looked between the three of them and asked, “Just what exactly do you want me to do?”

She cocked her head as she explained, “I basically need you to do just what you did earlier. Help with annoying reporters, keep me from doing stupid things like running out in front of cars.”

“Sounds like you need a babysitter.”

A strange, choking noise came from the couch.

Carly narrowed her eyes on me as I glanced over to see if it had been Ryan or Jake laughing at us, but I couldn’t tell. They both wore that blank face that professional security knew how to do well.

So I looked back at her.

“Well, I pay my babysitters five thousand for the week. Or, at least, that’s what I’m willing to pay you.”

I blinked, waiting for someone else to say how ludicrous the offer was.

Except no one did.

Carly stood there, smiling. The hotel suits looked bored. Jake and Ryan didn’t even blink.

“Okay. I’m waiting for the punchline.”

“There is no punchline, Mr…?”

“Cantrell,” I said. I had to clear my throat, because my voice sounded like a faint ghost of itself.

“Okay, Mr. Cantrell. Bobby Cantrell.” She took a step toward me. “I need another bodyguard for when I’m out and about. Jake will still be with us most of the time. But he’s got a few things to do while we’re here, and since my back-up is going to be preoccupied with his daughter, I need an extra set of hands. Two good hands.” She flashed those dimples at me. “And since Jake has only one now, I figure you owe me yours.”

“You still got the other guy.” I jabbed a finger at Ryan, and then gestured to the other suits. “And all of them. Take one of them.”

Carly glanced at the hotel suits. “I can’t. They’re with the hotel. I need my own personal security when I leave here. That’s why I want to hire you.”

This whole situation was making me antsy now. Skimming a hand back over my hair, I looked from her to the security detail, to Ryan and Jake, and then back at her. “Okay, I’m not getting it. Just why the hell do you need bodyguards? Three of them? Or two and a half. Whatever. Are you Princess Diana’s long-lost daughter or something?”

Carly rolled her eyes, the gesture making me want to laugh. “I wish. Maybe then this circus might be a little more fun.” She shook her head. “This is…bizarre. You’ve seriously never heard of me.”

“No.” I shook my head, drawing the word out. “Why don’t you enlighten me?”

She blew out a breath and then sighed. “My name is Carly Prince.”

I lifted a brow, waiting for the rest.

“My father was Phoenix Prince.” Those lovely blue eyes fixed on me and she smiled just a little. But it wasn’t a nice smile. It was more like resignation. Like she was sure things would change as soon as things clicked.

And then – click – they did and I felt like somebody had just hit me across the head with a sledgehammer.

Phoenix Prince. “Son of a bitch.”

 

Chapter Three

The one thing I’d never imagined was that one day I’d find myself standing face-to-face with the daughter of the man who’d written “Crying Angel.” The song my mother had sang to me almost every night up until I was too old for her to sing to.

Then, as she’d lay dying, I sang it to her.

“Crying Angel” might not have seemed like a kid’s lullaby, but my mother had been a die-hard Phoenix Prince fan, and the song had been playing when I was born. It had also been playing the first night she brought me home, and according to her, it was the only song that had been able to get me to sleep.

Even now, the sound of it soothed me. Bittersweet memories always came with it, but it was my go-to when I needed out of my head.

“Son of a bitch,” I whispered again.

“Well, some people say he was.” She laughed a little. “I honestly wouldn’t know.”

My face went red. “That’s not…I wasn’t…”

“I’m messing with you.” She waved a hand dismissively as she took a seat at the table, leaning forward in a position that put her ample breasts on display.

Dammit.

I kept my gaze on her face.

She was Phoenix Prince’s daughter.

“I know that wasn’t what you meant.” A sad smile curled her lips. “I take it you’re a fan.”

Feeling like an idiot now, I glanced around. Finally, I moved over to the seat across from hers. “Yeah,” I said. “My mom…” I shrugged, trying to keep my own emotions in check as I spoke, “She loved him. Got me into his music…well, all music, but especially him.”

“Loved…” Carly studied me. Her voice softened. “She’s gone, isn’t she?”

“Yeah.” I jerked a shoulder. “Cancer when I was in high school.”

“I’m sorry.” The words weren’t rote. They were sincere.

Nodding, I focused on anything and everything but her. I couldn’t take seeing pity on her face. I swung my knee back and forth, too much energy coursing inside me. I wanted to get up and pace. “Well, I guess I get why you need bodyguards.”

She smiled and I saw it then.

She had his smile. And his eyes, I realized. Those deep, vivid blue eyes were her father’s eyes. I didn’t know why I hadn’t seen it before.

My brain kicked in then, and I began to remember things I’d heard about her. There had been attacks on her life. Multiple attacks. Somebody had tried to kidnap her. Not once, but twice. There had even been something with a teacher. It’d been this elaborate scheme. The teacher had gone through the whole deal, applying for a position at the girl’s school, biding her time.

When she’d ended up in Carly’s class, she’d asked Carly to wait for a few minutes after class one day, and she’d attacked the girl. It had been a passing teacher who’d saved Carly’s life.

I hadn’t been following news about her, exactly, but because of my mom, I tended to absorb whatever I heard about Phoenix Prince. Including…

“Your mom. She still batshit crazy?”

Even as I said it, I wanted to kick myself. My stomach churned, and I felt like I was going to be sick. Fuck. Why had I said that?

The hotel suits looked appalled, but Ryan started to laugh and Jake looked mildly amused.

Carly reached across the table and caught my hands with hers. “Oh, honey, I think you and I are going to get along wonderfully.” She squeezed my fingers and then pushed back from the table. “You’re taking the job. Say you’re taking the job.”

She stood and walked past me. I forced myself to think and not stare at her legs.

The apology tripped out of me. “I…look, my head – I mean, my brain and my mouth, they aren’t always connected right. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Oh, please.” Carly rolled her eyes and shot me a rueful look. “Trust me. I’ve said much worse. Or at least, I’ve thought worse.”

That stopped me.

“What?”

Her eyes widened. “You think I don’t know what my own mother is like?”

For once, my brain worked and I said nothing.

Carly winked at me and then turned away. “Julio, if you could take your crew out, I want to talk with my new employee.”

Her new employee? When had that happened? I didn’t remember agreeing to this. “Hey…hold up a minute.”

Nobody paid me any attention.

Julio started ushering his men out while Carly turned to Ryan. “We need to get Jake to the hospital. Can you take him while I go over things with Bobby?”

Ryan gave me an uneasy look, and my estimation of him rose. “Carly, I’m not so sure…”

“Now everybody just wait a damn minute!” I raised my voice so they’d listen.

To my surprise, everybody stopped and looked at me.

“I’m not taking the damn job.” I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at the whole stupid lot of them.

“Don’t be silly.” Carly waved a hand at me, like I was some kid who’d said there was a monster hiding in the closet.

“Silly?” Lowering my voice, I took a step toward her. “You think I’m being silly? Sugar, you don’t know who in the hell it is you’re trying to hire to guard your cute ass. You might as well be hiring the fox to lie down with the chickens.” My accent thickened as emotion took hold.

Her forehead wrinkled. She looked confused. And adorable. I wanted to shake her.

And kiss her.

“What are you talking about?” she asked.

I curled my lip at her. “You want a bodyguard, maybe you should get somebody a little more trustworthy, sugar.”

I turned and stormed towards the door.

“And just what’s wrong with you, Bobby Cantrell?” she called out after me.

I kept on walking. At the elevator, I stopped and looked for the down button. Then I scowled.

All I saw was a slot for what looked like a keycard.

Damn rich people.

Frowning, I looked over at Julio who was watching me with a slightly amused expression on his face. “You mind?”

Carly cut between us. “I mind.”

I leaned down so my face was only a few inches from hers. “Sweetheart, there’s a word for keeping people against their will.”

“Yeah? What are you going to do? Call the police and tell them that I’m trying to offer you a job and you don’t want it?” She rolled her eyes. “Cry me a river…sweetheart.” She drawled the last word.

I opened my mouth, only to shut it with a snap a second later.

Straightening, I jammed my hands in my pockets as I deliberated about just how to handle her.

It came to me then. There was a beautifully simple way to end this, and all it required was the truth.

Skimming the room with a quick look, I finally settled my gaze on her. “You should probably know, I’m not exactly between projects. I fudged the truth a bit on that. I just got let go from my last job and haven’t even started looking for my next one.”

“Okay.” She smiled wider. “Sounds like this will be perfect then.”

I gritted my teeth. This woman was impossible.

“No. See, it wasn’t the boss. He liked me, appreciated my work, appreciated my willingness to work hard. But some of his clientele didn’t like my background.”

I watched her closely. From the corner of my eye, I could see her two suits as well. I saw a flicker flash across Jake’s face, saw how Ryan’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly. Didn’t surprise me. I had a feeling at least one of them had already put it together.

“But in the end, he had to make a choice. It was his business, or me.”

“Why?” Carly stared at me, clearly baffled.

“Because I’m a convicted murderer.” I smiled at her, slowly. I took no pleasure from the way her face went pale, nor did it please me to see how dark her eyes suddenly seemed, but I continued on. She needed to hear this. With what was supposed to be an uncaring shrug, I said, “I’ve been out about a year. I did nine years of a fifteen-year sentence. And, yes, before you can ask, I am guilty. I killed a man. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.”

Carly continued to look at me, her eyes all wide and dark…and scared.

That bothered me. I couldn’t hide it from myself. Knowing that I’d scared her hurt me.

But I didn’t let it show.

I just stared right back and gave her a cocky grin while I was at it. It didn’t mean anything, but I wanted the others to think it did. I needed them to make sure Carly was protected from herself.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Ryan and Jake exchange glances. After a few more seconds, Jake leaned closer, nodding his head toward the hotel suits, and then Ryan nodded.

Jake started toward me and I braced myself for some manhandling. I wouldn’t even resist, I told myself. No matter what they did.

But Jake cut around me as if I wasn’t even there.

“Julio, perhaps one of your men could drive me to the nearest hospital? Ryan needs to stay with Carly.”

There was a low conversation that passed between them. I could have listened in, but I was too busy watching Carly. I’d wanted her scared enough to get her to understand why I couldn’t be here, be near her. And I hated that I’d succeeded.

She was still staring at me. She licked her lips and it hit me. I wasn’t going to be able to follow through on that kiss. That sucked, but I knew it was for the best.

As the elevator door swung open behind us, I turned, intending to join Jake and Julio and Company.

Ryan blocked me. “What’s the hurry?” He gave me an easy smile.

“I think I’ve worn out my welcome,” I said, not bothering to hold back the edge of temper cutting into my voice. I could feel my head starting to throb. I just wanted to get home and lose myself in sleep.

“Oh, don’t worry. Jake or I will let you know when that happens.” He clapped me on the shoulder, not too subtly nudging me back from the door. “Carly, I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”

Carly’s silence seemed to be all the answer he needed. As Ryan pulled his cell phone from his jacket pocket, he shot me a look. “You like burgers?”

I stared at him. What was he talking about?

Ryan’s smile was friendly. “It’s not a hard question, man. Beef, cow, you know?”

“Suck my dick,” I suggested. I wasn’t in the mood to be jerked around.

“I’ll take that as a maybe. Preferred it dressed or plain?”

Since the man was clearly not going to be dissuaded, I just sighed. “Dressed.”

As he busied himself on the phone, I moved back to the window. The glow of the lights was one I didn’t think I’d ever tire of. It was a great view.

“Who was it?”

Carly’s question caught me off guard.

I closed my eyes. “Does it matter?”

“Somebody died. How can that not matter?”

Such a simple statement. So very true.

“He was an asshole. An abusive asshole. He beat on his girlfriend. He beat on his mother. He beat on the whores he hired. He beat on the people who were late paying him money. He beat on anybody who crossed him. He tried to beat on me once, and I kicked his ass.”

“Is…” Carly hesitated and then continued, “Is that why you killed him? Because he hurt you?”

“Nah,” I said, shaking my head. I glanced down at her. “Derrell, he wasn’t worth that. He wasn’t worth much of anything, really. Just a punk. A trouble-maker. He was a dealer. I was a…” I paused, taking my time with how I finished that statement. “I was a problem solver. I was always good with my hands. Strong. Fast. We worked for the same guy. I didn’t mess with the drugs, but if there was a problem, somebody who owed money, or somebody causing trouble, I was the one who got called. But the man in charge, one day, he told me to go after this woman. She was young. Owed him money. She had a daughter. A little girl. He said…”

I closed my eyes and leaned in until I could press my forehead to the window. I felt Carly watching me. I didn’t want to tell her, but she’d asked, and if this was how I could get her to understand why I needed to go, then I’d say it.

“He told me to grab the girl. Use her if I had to. I wouldn’t do it. I grabbed the little girl from her bus stop, took her to her grandmother’s, then called the mom. Gave them money. Told them to leave town, all three of them. They did. He found out. Said he’d send his boys after them, but she had a cousin in Texas who was a Ranger. She went right to him, and my boss, he knew better than to go down that road. I said I’d take her debt, but that wasn’t good enough. He tried to send Derrell after me. Derrell, he said he’d do the job right. Do it the way I should have done it.”

My heart was racing and I could taste the acrid tang of fear in the back of my throat. My time inside might’ve hardened me, but this memory still gave me nightmares.

I took in a deep breath. Let it out slowly. “I had a little girl. Or I was going to. My girlfriend, she was pregnant. I got there just as Derrell was tying her up. And I killed him. Then I called an undercover cop I knew. He’d been looking for dirt on my boss for a while, tried to turn me, but I’d told him no. This time, I told him I’d give him dirt, but he had to take care of my girlfriend, the baby.”

I looked back at Carly.

Dammit. She was crying. Big, silent tears dripping down her cheeks and I flushed.

“Don’t go crying about me.” The words came out harsh and ugly.

“But–”

“Don’t!” I snapped. “I almost got my daughter killed. I don’t even know where she is now. All because I had to take the easy way out. I don’t deserve any fucking tears.”

“If you took the easy way, you would have just grabbed that little girl to begin with!” Carly threw the words at me like a challenge. Her eyes were glittering, but it wasn’t all sadness now. She was angry.

Ryan cut between us before I could say anything else.

“Hey. Truce.” He lifted his hands and when his eyes moved from Carly’s to mine, there was an appraising sort of look there that made me want to squirm. “Sounds like you’ve been down a rough road there, Bobby.”

I sneered at him. “Yeah? Well, it’s my road. I can walk it just fine.”

“No denying that.” Ryan angled his head. “Doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to sit down and take a break every now and then. Come on. Sit. Have a burger. A drink. We can talk.”

***

I was so tired, and the thought of going back out into that fucking cold in just a worn out coat and my flannel, walking the miles still left between me and home made me want to shudder. The tread on my shoes was paper thin, and my feet were already hurting from the walk into town earlier, but I was pretty much broke, so walking was my only option. I wasn’t going to waste the extra money Frank had given me out of pity. It would cover rent and food – not bus fare.

I told myself that was why I caved. When the food came, I ate. And when Ryan talked, I listened. Every minute he spent talking was another minute I wasn’t out in the cold. It was inevitable, and it just kept getting me home later and later, but I’d decided to enjoy what I had while I had it.

Carly’s paternal grandmother had been born in Louisville, so she’d spent time here as a kid. A few months ago, Carly had decided to fund a school where underprivileged kids – like her dad had been – could go to learn a musical skill. The school was opening in five days, and she was here for all of the opening events, including a gala, some interviews, a ribbon cutting ceremony…so much shit, it made my head spin.

They didn’t expect any trouble, and actually had two more men flying in tomorrow, but Carly never went anywhere without at least two body guards, which meant she needed four so they could rotate off.

And I’d cost her one of those four. Jake would still be on hand.

He’d shown up not long after we’d demolished the burgers. Apparently, Julio had connections at the closest hospital, and Jake had already gotten his forearm x-rayed and set. Money talked.

Jake assured Carly he was definitely okay to be doing some basic work, but they did need somebody with two functioning hands.

And for some reason, Carly wanted it to be me. Even the small bit of time I’d known her, I knew I’d never be able to convince her otherwise. So I had to convince Jake and Ryan. She might listen to them.

“Y’all realize I know nothing about being a bodyguard,” I pointed out. I had another glass of that bourbon, Angel’s Envy, in my hand. It was like liquid gold and definitely worth having the discussion. Tipping my glass at Carly, I said, “Asking me to do this is like asking some lightweight boxer to join your team. Just because somebody is strong and knows how to take a hit and throw a punch doesn’t mean jack.”

“There is a lot more to it than taking a hit and throwing a punch,” Jake agreed. “And you proved you’re aware of that. This job takes intelligence. An awareness of your surroundings. An awareness of the people around you. You figured out on your own that Carly needed protection, and although it didn’t concern you, you fought your way through to get to her and provide that protection. Takes guts, smarts and heart to do that.”

He slid his gaze toward Ryan and the two of them shared a long look before he turned his eyes toward Carly. None of them spared me a glance. I got the feeling the three of them were having a silent conversation…about me.

Carly all but glowed as Jake gave her a terse nod.

She spun to face me.

“So. Five thousand for a week’s work…how does that sound to you?” She stared at me with those bright blue eyes and a dazzling smile on her pretty face, as though she knew without a doubt I wouldn’t say no.

“I think,” I said slowly. “It sounds like you’re crazy.”

I turned to go. I knew if I stayed any longer, I’d give in. I’d had too much shit in my life, and I could use something good.

 

CONTINUES IN EX-CON: Bad Boy Romance

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