Authors: Laura Kaye
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense, #Contemporary, #Military, #War & Military
To the Fearsome Foursome, for so many reasons.
To AB, for all the margin smilies and squees.
To JRW, for making me cry in a public place and giving me one of the best moments of my life.
To Brian, for making it possible once again.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
rystal Dean hurried out of the private party room and let the fake smile drop off her face. Damn bachelor party. A lot of times, the groom-to-be was totally embarrassed by his buddies’ surprise strip-club party, so things stayed low-key. No such luck tonight. Instead, her guest of honor was so rowdy, handsy, and intent on sampling the wares that she wished she could warn this slimeball’s fiancée to run fast and hard in the other direction.
Not that Crystal was an authority on making good choices. Or else she wouldn’t be working at Confessions, the strip club where her sorry excuse for a life had landed her as a waitress. Although, it wasn’t like she’d had much of a choice. At least her wares weren’t up for sampling . . . anymore. And she didn’t strip or give “private shows” in the back rooms.
No, Crystal’s boyfriend had shielded her from all that. And, anyway, Bruno was too possessive to share her with anyone else. At least there was some benefit to his control-freak tendencies.
Hurrying down the dim, private hallway that threaded between the party rooms, Crystal ran through a mental checklist of what she needed to do. Another round of drinks for this party. Deliver the appetizers for her other party. Check in with Bruno to see if he was ready for dinner—
The door to the back parking lot wrenched open and a group of men—some who worked for her boss, Jimmy Church, the head of Baltimore’s most notorious gang, and a few she hadn’t seen before—poured into the narrow space. Crystal stepped back into the shadows, hoping to avoid their notice.
Decked out in a suit and tie that must’ve strained the resources of even a men’s big and tall shop, Armand Lewis, or Big Al, guided the men down the other end of the hall toward Mr. Church’s private lounge. The big guy was an Apostle, a senior gang member who had paid his dues, earned the operation some serious money, and proven his loyalty in a whole host of ways you just didn’t want to know about.
With their dark slacks and jackets, nothing about the newcomers’ appearance was particularly noteworthy, but they exuded an air of authority and self-assurance Crystal recognized. And the unusually subdued demeanor of Al’s men proved she wasn’t the only one.
She’d place good money she didn’t have that these were the “guests” everyone had been preparing for and whispering about the past few days. Tensions had been tight as a rip cord around here. Crystal didn’t know who they were or what their business with Church might be, and she didn’t want to know. Ignorance—real or feigned—was a survival skill she’d honed early.
Thank God they hadn’t seen her. She didn’t want any part of whatever they were about.
Crystal was mid-sigh-of-relief when more men pushed through the door. Two of Church’s goons struggled to get a barely conscious—and badly injured—man through the opening and into the hall right in front of her. Each of the guys held one of the man’s arms over his shoulders, while the man’s feet attempted to keep up but mostly couldn’t. The poor man’s head rolled on his shoulders, revealing bruised, delirious eyes and a busted lip. Dried blood left a trail all down the front of his dingy T-shirt, probably from that lip, or maybe his nose. And she really didn’t want to know what the bundle of bloody gauze around his hand hid.
Goon Number One looked her way and did a double take when he noticed her standing there. “Bring some food. Room at the bottom of the stairs.” Without another word, they dragged the guy down the steps into the basement, cursing and complaining and puffing as they went.
What the hell had the injured man gotten himself into? Because people only ended up in one of the basement rooms when they were being held against their will. She would know.
It was better all the way around to remain ignorant of the goings-on downstairs. Crystal hated herself a little for thinking that way, but it wasn’t like she could do anything about it.
Snapping out of her thoughts, Crystal took off down the hall. Part of not being noticed around here was doing your job, doing it right, and doing it fast. It was a small price to pay for being left alone. Her rush toward the kitchen was why she didn’t notice that a man had stepped through the curtained doorway that led into the main part of the club. She walked right into him, her body feeling the hard muscle of his chest at the same time her nose registered his scent—something crisp and clean, like he’d recently showered.
“Whoa,” the man said, catching her in his arms.
Oh, crap. I can’t believe I just did that
. Guys around here never tolerated anything that might embarrass or annoy them, and they always enjoyed the opportunity to put someone in their place. The apology scrambled from her mouth. “Oh, my God, sir. I’m so sorry,” she rushed out. Crystal shook her head, stepped back, and dropped her gaze until all she could see was the ridiculously sheer pink lingerie and heels she wore. Her uniform for working the private party rooms. “Please. I’m sorry.”
“No harm done, darlin’.” His voice was full of Southern charm, sweet and warm as fresh molasses. The smile in his tone drew her gaze up over the muscles his shirt did nothing to hide and, sure enough, he
smiling. And holy wow, this guy had a pretty-but-tough thing going on that was really freaking hot. His jaw and cheekbones were all hard angles, but his lips were full and playful, and his unusual gray eyes crinkled at the corners, like he might’ve been amused. “Say,” he said. “We’re company, and we got turned around when we went out to the bar. Any chance you know which way everyone went?”
Crystal forced her gaze away from his mouth and tilted her head back to meet those eyes. Maybe some of Big Al’s visitors had come in through the front, too? But this guy just said they’d gone
to the bar, not come in through it . . . She looked over her pretty boy’s shoulder into the eyes of two other men. An impatient intensity blazed out of both of their expressions, giving her the same authoritative vibe she’d gotten off of Al’s guests a few minutes before. The guy in front of her arched a brow, more of that humor sliding into his eyes.
Her brain finally communicated with her mouth. “Uh.” She glanced down the hall. “Well, some went to the private party room down that way, and some went downstairs with, um, the sick guy. I’m supposed to be getting him some food,” she said, nearly breathless from the man’s heat and his closeness and the niggling feeling in the back of her mind that something wasn’t right about these men. But who was she to question?
Pretty Boy grinned. And, oh, boy, a playful sexiness just rolled off him until she was fighting the urge to squirm. Bruno would
her—and probably this guy, too—if he saw how close they stood to one another. Her gaze flicked to the security camera above the curtained entrance, but it appeared they were just outside of its range. Thank God for small favors.
“That’s where we’re headed, too. Got a message to deliver.” He winked and nodded his head to the side. “Just downstairs?”
Heart racing, Crystal swallowed and nodded. “On the left.”
“You were very helpful . . .” His brows rose expectantly, and he gave her a crooked grin that tempted her to smile in return.
Bewildered, she stared at him, just soaked in all that easy charm and raw masculinity. And then she realized he was waiting for her to . . .
“Crystal,” she said. “You’re welcome, sir.”
Wearing a satisfied smile, he eased back a step. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”
Doubtful. “Okay.” Seeing her chance to get away, Crystal took off again and didn’t look back. Though the urge was definitely there.
Whatever. She had enough on her plate without fantasizing about a man she didn’t want, couldn’t have, and who probably wouldn’t want her anyway.
Crystal made her way down the dim hallway to the far end, where offices sat behind a steel door. Unthinkingly, she entered the code onto the keypad, waited for the mechanical
and stepped into the nerve center of Jimmy Church’s gang operations. Or one of them, at least. Usually, the girls weren’t allowed in here. But Bruno was one of the Apostles in Church’s operation, just as her father had once been, and her association with those men earned her the privilege, such as it was.
She made her way through the empty outer office and to the second door down the hallway. With a knock on the frame, she leaned into the open door.
Bruno glanced away from the computer, and his expression slid into a scowl when he saw her. “Where have you been?” He rose and rounded the big mahogany desk that dominated the room and clashed with the wall of pin-ups: nude models, bad-ass motorcycles, and classic hot rods. Strip-club chic.
“Uh . . . I’m sorry. I’ve got two bachelor parties,” she said, peering up at him and trying to gauge his mood.
With mountains of muscles built from steroids and hours spent lifting, Bruno Ashe was a wall of a man, his arrogance and ego filling the office and making him seem twice as big. Once, she’d thought his unruly brown hair softened the severity of his face, but now all she could see was the perpetual scowl he wore, made more pronounced by a scar from a knife fight on his cheek. God, how had she ever been attracted to him? How had she ever thought he was the answer to her problems? What she wouldn’t give to go back four years and give her nineteen-year-old self a kick in the butt.
“Hmm,” he said. “Next time you take care of me first.”
Crystal found her fake smile and pasted it back on. “I’m sorry, baby.” She rubbed her hand up his chest and died a little inside. “Can I take care of you now?”
Eight more months. Eight more months.
Heat slid into his dark eyes, and he stepped closer until he was looming over her. His arousal was obvious against her stomach. His brows rose in invitation . . .
And that one small gesture resurrected the memory of the man from the hallway. Just moments before, he’d had her pinned against the wall much as Bruno had her trapped against the door now. But Bruno possessed none of that man’s charm and humor and breath-stealing good looks.
Crystal blinked the comparison away. What the hell was wrong with her? Bruno felt as entitled to her enthusiasm as he did her body. She forced the man out of her thoughts and wrapped her arms around Bruno’s neck.
Bruno’s cell phone vibrated, buzzing loudly against the top of his desk. Ignoring it, he kissed her, hard, demanding she open to him, give in to him. The ring cut off, then started right back again.
Groaning, Bruno pulled away with a look that commanded she stay right where she was, customers and everyone else who might need her be damned. He grabbed the cell like he wanted to strangle it. “What?” he answered. Lethal rage poured into his expression. “
” Pause. “Who the fuck was it?” Pause. “How many? Did you get them?”
Crystal debated whether to stay or go. Whatever this news was, it was clearly going to occupy Bruno for a while. And given his black mood, she didn’t really want to be around him.
As if her thoughts drew his attention, his gaze cut across the room to her. “You see anything unusual out there tonight?” he asked.
For a moment, she stared at him, not realizing he was asking her the question rather than the caller. “Oh. Me?”
Those men. Pretty Boy and his friends. Who went to the bar . . . but didn’t have drinks.
Instinct placed the idea front and center into her head. “No. Nothing,” she said. Because she didn’t really know, and if she raised a concern and Bruno confronted those guys and they were legit? Uh, yeah. That would be all kinds of bad.
On the other hand, she’d just lied to Bruno.
Not that she didn’t do it all the time. Crystal was well aware that much of her life was a lie, a charade, a play in a never-ending series of one acts wherein the climax determined whether she lived or died, remained free or got lost forever in the dark, seedy, underbelly of the world. Sad, sad fact that this place, this situation, this life wasn’t even close to the worst there was.