Chapter One

Okay, so maybe driving from Washington, DC to New York City during the first week of January wasn’t the smartest thing I’d ever done, but since I had a history of always doing the right thing, the responsible thing, I figured I was allowed an occasional misstep.

I, however, seemed to be the only one who believed that to be true.

Right on cue, my mother’s voice shouted in my head. “You’ll regret this, Bryne Dawkins. You have no clue how good you have it.”

Despite what my mother thought, I was acutely aware of how fortunate I was. I remembered what it was like before my dad died, before Mom and I moved in with Nana and Papa, her grandparents, my great grands. I remembered lying in bed and hearing my parents arguing about rent and grocery money. And I could remember walking into Nana and Papa’s house, staring up at the ceiling so high above me with its glittering chandelier, unable to believe that we were going to live there now.

I wondered what Nana and Papa would’ve thought about what I was doing. They died shortly before I graduated high school, one of those couples who hadn’t been able to live without each other. Nana had gone first – her heart – and then Papa had followed two months later in his sleep. That’s when things started getting weird between Mom and me.

I sighed as I flicked my windshield wipers to high speed. It didn’t do much good. The visibility still sucked, and even though it was the middle of the afternoon, it was pretty dark. I probably should have waited to move since I wasn’t on any sort of timetable, but ever since I told Mom what I’d planned to do, she’d been impossible to live with. If I’d put off my plans, she would’ve used it as an opportunity to tell me how much I was messing up my life. Well, more than she already insisted I was.

“I can do this,” I whispered to myself. I wished my voice sounded a little more solid, more like I knew what I was doing.

I risked a glance down at the GPS that was supposed to take me to the hotel where I’d made a reservation. Except nothing had changed on it since the last time I looked.

Shit.

Something was wrong with the signal. I wasn’t a techie enough person to know what was wrong or how to fix it, but I did know that I was somewhere in the middle of New York City, completely lost, in a car that had been making a weird noise for the past twenty minutes.

Lost in New York.

In the snow.

In January.

At least the traffic wasn’t bad. I’d been dreading that part of driving in the city. Then again, the fact that I’d only seen two cars since I’d last turned was probably a good indication that the roads weren’t exactly safe at the moment.

I caught a glimpse of a bright light to my right just as my car sputtered to a stop, completing the end of a less than stellar day. I barely managed to pull it up to the curb before all forward momentum disappeared.

“No, no, no.” As if the denial would actually change the fact that every light in my dash was shining like a Christmas tree.

Dammit! I slammed my hand on the steering wheel. Because, of course, that would help things.

“Come on!” I tried turning my key off, then on, but all I could hear was the clicking sound that I knew meant something had gone more sideways than usual.

Mom had tried to tell me to get a new car, but this relic was the last of my father’s things. After he died and we moved, Mom had thrown out almost everything, but I’d put my foot down about the car. Nana and Papa had understood and offered to store it until I decided what I wanted to do. When I got my license, I declined their offer to buy me something new and insisted on insuring this thing. Mom told me I was being a sentimental fool, but I’d insisted.

You’re so hard headed. Your stubbornness will get you in a world of trouble one day.

Today is that day, it seems. Maybe I should’ve listened to her after all.

I put my forehead against the steering wheel and closed my eyes, telling myself that I wouldn’t cry. I was an adult dammit, and that meant I couldn’t sit here on the side of the road and indulge in the tears that were burning my eyes. I had a problem, and I needed to find a solution because no one else would do it for me.

I loved my mother, but her voice had haunted me from the moment I started loading my things into my car. Now, it wasn’t only her voice, but I could see her in my mind, her head shaking in disappointment.

We looked enough alike for people to comment on it. We were both short and curvy and had the same “cute” features that made us look younger than our actual ages. My eyes were from my dad though, the only feature of his that I got. Green. The same color as the leaves of a juniper tree, he always said.

Dad wouldn’t have wanted me to sit here and feel sorry for myself. He’d been a boxer, and he always told me that it wasn’t about how many times the other guy got in a punch, or even how often he got knocked down. What made a champion was that he kept getting back up. Not that getting back up had made my dad into one. I hadn’t minded though. Things hadn’t been perfect, but I’d loved my life even before I could afford anything I wanted.

It was that hard-headed nature that had given me the courage to move here by myself. Now, it would help me with my problem.

I opened my eyes and took a slow, deep breath. I needed to find out where I was before I could call a tow truck, which meant I needed to get out of the car since I couldn’t see anything from where I was sitting. I zipped up my coat, grabbed my purse, and stepped out into the snow.

I quickly walked around the front so I wasn’t standing in the middle of the street, and before I’d gone more than a few steps, I was cursing the fact that I hadn’t worn boots. The bottoms of my jeans were already soaked, and by the time I made it to the sidewalk, my socks were equally wet.

I really hoped this wasn’t an indication as to how my new life here was going to be.

Once I was safely out of the way, I looked up, squinting against the snow as I searched for the street signs. It was no good. Between the angle and the snow, I still couldn’t see much of anything.

Except the light that’d caught my attention. I could see now that it was a sign. A literal one, not some existential shit. DeMarco’s & Sons. I hoped that the light being on meant that they were open, because I really didn’t want to have to walk any farther than I had to, and I needed to find out my location.

I pushed open the door and stepped inside, blinking at the bright lights. My first impression was more sound than sight. The place was loud, and not just with the sort of noise that came with a garage. Mixed in with the sounds of tools was a radio blasting classic rock along with men’s voices.

“Excuse me?”

No one even looked at me, but that wasn’t surprising. I barely heard myself over the cacophony. I looked at the desk to my right and tapped the bell that was sitting there. Nothing. I scowled. I was no genius, but this didn’t seem like the best way to do business.

I was starting to get warm now, and my frustration at the situation wasn’t getting any better. I was tired and uncomfortable. All I wanted to do was check into my hotel room, shower, eat, and then spend the rest of the day sleeping.

I looked over at a group of four men who were the closest to me. None of them had even glanced in my direction. I sighed and started their way. I didn’t know what their problem was, and I really didn’t care. I just wanted to find out where I was.

Before I reached them, one of the men looked up, and I found myself staring into a pair of deep, vibrant cobalt blue eyes. They flicked down my body and then back up.

“Can I help you?”

Damn, that was some voice.

And some man, I realized, as he stood. Over six feet tall, and every inch of it lean muscle – a fact I was able to verify because he was wearing a skin tight t-shirt and a pair of worn but well-fitted jeans. His hair was dark, the color of cocoa, and tattoos wound their way up his arms, disappearing under his shirt.

I could see the desire in his eyes as I stopped, and it wasn’t the soft admiration or even the sort of inappropriate lechery I’d seen before. This was soul shattering desire that made my mouth go dry and my heart race. I’d never had anyone look at me that way before, and it completely threw me. As if everything else that had happened today wasn’t enough.

By now, the other three men were looking at me, but none of them held my attention like the man still watching me so intently.

“Something we can help you with?” A man to my left spoke.

I glanced at him. “I…where are we?”

“You’re right here, sweetie.”

All the men were standing now, and the two who hadn’t yet spoken took a step closer. The movement drew my attention, and it was only now that I realized coming in here might not have been a good idea. They were shorter than the first man – the one with the eyes – but broader, rougher looking. He looked like he could handle himself in a fight. These guys looked like they started the fights.

“My car broke down.” I blurted it out before I could think better of it. “I want to call a cab, but I don’t know what street we’re on.”

It was only as I said it that I realized I could’ve told a taxi to come to DeMarco’s & Sons and I wouldn’t have needed to come inside. I could’ve gotten back in my car and waited there. It might’ve been cold, but I wouldn’t have felt like I was in some sort of nature documentary – the kind of documentary where an announcer with a British accent talks about how hyenas take down a gazelle who dared to stray from the pack.

And I didn’t need to be a genius to know who the gazelle was in this scenario.

I wondered if I had enough time to dig in my purse for the pepper spray I bought a couple years ago. I had one of those rape whistles too, but I doubted anyone would be close enough to hear it. And judging by the way these guys looked, I doubted anyone would come, even if the thing carried sound across New York.

“I’ll be happy to fix your car for you, baby.” One of the other men leered at me. “And I’m sure we can work out some way for you to pay me back.”

“Or you can just stay here with all of us,” another man said. “You look like you could take us all on.”

“I bet she’d like that.”

The three of them were coming toward me, and I took a step back.

“Would you like that, sweetheart? Three fat dicks–”

“Lay off.”

The words were quiet, but the three men turned toward the first man I’d seen.

“You want in on this, Dax?” The shortest of the three motioned toward me. “I’m sure she can take one more, especially one with a dick as small as yours.”

The man and his two buddies laughed.

I glanced over my shoulder and tried to judge the distance to the door. Tried to remember how far it was from the door to my car. And then wondered if my car would even stop them if they were determined enough.

“Why don’t you guys go fuck yourselves?” The man they called Dax said the question in such a conversational tone that it took me a minute to realize what the words actually were.

For a moment, I thought there would be a fight, but then the trio laughed again, and one of them smacked Dax’s arm.

“We got shit to do,” the shortest one said and threw a wink my way. “When you’re done with her, try to talk her into coming back. We can have a party.”

“Fuck off, Georgie.” Dax walked around the three other men and came toward me, his long legs eating up the distance between us.

Electricity crackled around me, as if his very closeness changed the atmosphere of the room. I was torn between wanting to run away and wanting to know what it was like to be touched by him. Since I had no clue what the best thing to do was, I stayed in place and waited to see what he would do next.

“Dax Prevot.” The words were soft, as was the small smile curving his beautifully formed lips. He held out a hand to me, and I hardly noticed the other three men walking in the opposite direction.

I placed my palm against his and felt that surge of energy I’d been anticipating and fearing. His hand was warm and strong as it closed around mine. His smile faded, and for a moment, he looked as surprised as I felt.

I’m not sure how long I stood there, drawn into the spell his presence cast over me, but it wasn’t until Dax gave my hand a squeeze that I realized I hadn’t offered my own name.

“Bryne,” I said a bit too breathlessly for my liking, which snapped me back to reality. I pulled my hand away and gestured toward the door behind me. “If you could just tell me where I am, I’ll call a taxi.”

“You’re in Hell’s Kitchen,” Dax said as he grabbed a coat from behind the desk. “Let me take a look at the car.”

It wasn’t really a request, I realized as I followed him outside. I shivered as the cold hit me but there was no way I was going to stay inside the shop without Dax. He was a different kind of scary than those other guys.

He didn’t speak as he popped the hood of the car and started fiddling with things. After a couple minutes, he glanced up at me. “Try to start it.”

I nodded as I climbed into the car, my jaw starting to ache from clenching it so tightly. I knew the moment I opened my mouth, my teeth would chatter hard enough to hurt. I breathed a prayer as I turned the key and sighed in relief when the engine turned over. It sounded rough, but it was running.

A knock at the window made me jump. Dax stood outside the passenger’s side door for a moment, then opened it and climbed in without waiting for me to ask.

“Are you okay driving in this?” He didn’t look at me as he asked the question. “I can drive you if you’re not.”

“I’m fine.” I pulled my phone from my purse. “I just need directions. My GPS died.”

“Where are you going?”

“Casablanca on West 43rd Street.” I found myself watching him as he stared out the window. I’d always been pretty good at reading people, but this guy was impossible.

He glanced at me, then went back to watching the shop as he gave me clear, easy directions that I wouldn’t need my GPS to use. When he finished, silence fell, and for a few moments, I felt like we were in our own little world.

“Thank you,” I said quietly. “I don’t know what would’ve–”

“You should be more careful,” he cut me off. He turned toward me, some emotion flaring in his eyes. “Guys like that…” He shook his head and frowned. “Just be careful.”

The warning didn’t annoy me like it did the thousands of times I’d gotten it from my mother, which, I supposed, was unfair to her. In my defense, there was a difference hearing it from the woman who’d spent most of my life nagging me, and hearing it from a scary-hot stranger who’d essentially rescued me.

He opened the door, climbed out, then bent back down to look at me. “You’re new here, right?”

I nodded. “From DC.”

He seemed to be thinking about something, and I waited, hardly feeling the cold air blowing into the car.

“Meet me at Jane’s tomorrow at one. It’s a restaurant on West Houston Street.”

He closed the door before I could even decide if I wanted to accept or decline. Apparently, that wasn’t a request either. I stared at him as he walked back into the shop.

Well, damn. My new life here was definitely off to an interesting start.