Authors: Lori Foster
“This is going to be fun.”
Like a lobotomy. “Ya think so?”
“Sure. I get along with everyone. It’ll be like a girls’ night out. When do I get to meet the other women?”
How the hell did he tell her that the other women weren’t like her? They were sarcastic, lusty, often raunchy and loud—and those were the nice ones. He shook his head. “You and Morganna will get along. She’s the redhead.” And he meant red, as in flaming red. “She’s…flamboyant.”
“You saying I’m flamboyant?”
“In a pushy, disrespectful way, yeah.”
“You’ve already met Barb. And Patti’s nice enough.” Just too damn grabby. She made him feel like raw meat set before a hungry pit bull. “But Amy is…different.”
Bryan remembered his reaction when he’d first met Amy. He looked away. “She’ll be okay, but she’s still a little wounded.”
“Wounded how?” Shay’s voice had turned as cold as death. “What does that mean?”
Bryan set the pen aside because otherwise he knew he’d break it. “She’s young and scared. Her pimp is not a nice guy, and he had control of her for far too long.” He shrugged, trying to relieve some of his own tension, then added, “She’s afraid. Of just about everyone and everything.”
How Bruce managed to keep his cool in this job amazed Bryan. When he’d seen the bruises on Amy, the utter dejection in her green eyes, he’d wanted to find the fucker who’d hurt her and pound him into the dirt.
But Bruce had been clear on what he could and couldn’t do, and mangling anyone was on the “couldn’t do” list.
Besides, for some reason he couldn’t understand, Amy blamed only herself. She’d thought she was special to the guy, thought he cared about her more than the others. Bryan wasn’t sure she’d given up on that fantasy.
If she were his daughter, he’d—
Shay made a small sound of distress. Bryan turned to her, saw she was rigid with anger, and in the next second, she exploded.
It was so unexpected, her previous manner so laidback, so relaxed, that he jumped in surprise at her ferociousness. She turned to the counter and slammed down a fist. “It’s so damned unfair.”
Her hand would be bruised, he thought as he rose from his seat.
With two long strides, he reached her. He grabbed her shoulders, trying to turn her. She might be tall, but he probably outweighed her by eighty pounds or more. She was no match for his strength.
Still, she tried to brush him off and Bryan hesitated, not wanting to hurt her but not wanting her to hurt herself, either. “Calm down, Shay.”
She looked feral and dangerous, a woman to be reckoned with. Bryan raised a brow, admiring her temper despite himself. “It’ll be—”
She rounded on him in a fury. “Don’t you dare tell me it’ll be all right, that things’ll work out.” She squeezed her eyes shut tight, and in the meanest voice he’d ever heard, rasped, “I hope the guy who hurt her is miserable now, I hope he—”
“Rots in hell? Yeah, me too.”
Her eyes snapped open and she gaped at him.
Bryan’s hands were still on her shoulders, and somehow he was caressing her with his thumbs, soothing her without even meaning to. “Close enough. They couldn’t nail him for what he did to Amy, since she wouldn’t testify against him, but he got busted on a drug-related charge. He should be doing some jail time.”
Bryan grinned. “My thoughts exactly.”
She looked startled, then exasperated. “You are the oddest sort of preacher.”
Wondering if he’d ever survive this, Bryan said, “Yeah, I know.”
As he watched her, she pushed her hair away from her face. Her hands were shaking. “Sorry for losing it. It’s been a long day.”
Her thoughts flitted across her face before she came to some decision. “I had a friend get hurt earlier. I’ve been edgy ever since.”
“A friend you work with?” He hoped like hell she’d open up a little. He detested mysteries. He detested secrets. He wanted everything laid out where he could examine it.
Her lips quivered, and he had to lock his knees to keep from pulling her against him. Holding her seemed like a real good idea, when he knew it’d be dumb as dirt.
She shook her head, but he didn’t know if that was an answer or a gesture of futility. “She was afraid to go to the police.”
“That’s tough.” He’d prefer her harassment over this show of emotion any time.
Taking Bryan by surprise, she leaned into him. Her hands fisted in his shirt and she tucked her face into his neck as if she’d done so a hundred times. Softness touched him everywhere, the softness of her body, her scent, her hair, her breath—and her compassion.
He stood there, stiff, appalled, incredibly turned on and feeling like a sick bastard because of it. “Shay.” He pressed her shoulders, intent on moving her away.
Her lips touched against his throat; he felt her mouth tremble, felt her breath become jerky, and then she slumped into him and began to cry in near silence.
“What the hell?” He was lousy with crying women. Hell, he ran away from women when they started blubbering. He couldn’t take it. But Shay had a death grip on him and wouldn’t turn him loose.
She even curled closer. “I’m…I’m sorry.”
Bryan’s cynicism melted on the spot.
The rest of his body was rock hard and throbbing.
She’d seemed so indomitable that her vulnerability was amplified. He stopped thinking about right and wrong, about his brother and propriety. He gathered her in and held her tight.
He didn’t know if it helped her any, but he sure as hell felt better.
His hands rubbed up and down her slender back as he attempted to offer reassurance. He wasn’t very good at it, and he felt awkward as hell. The nonsense he whispered to her brought his lips close to her ear. He breathed in her scent; his cock twitched in temptation.
Pressing his mouth to her hair, then her cheek, he tried to offer comfort, while at the same time wishing she was naked, wishing he was naked, too.
It didn’t make any sense. He was a damn good bounty hunter because, despite the sob stories he always heard, he could stay untouched. He had a keen sense of right and wrong, of his own terms of justice, and he never confused the issues.
At the moment, he was lost in confusion.
He knew only one way to make women feel better, but he doubted a screaming climax would work in this instance.
Then she turned her face up to him, drawing in a slow, shuddering breath. Her gaze was soft and liquid, her lips open.
And somehow, despite his intelligence and cynicism, despite his loyalty to his brother and everything he knew to be right and wrong, he let her kiss him.
And damn it, he even kissed her back.
he shock of feeling him pressed against her body, the power in his arms, his warmth and caring, swept away all caution. Shay’s hands lifted and her fingers tangled in his silky, still-damp hair, holding him closer, refusing to let him escape when he tried to pull away. This was a revelation, a unique experience she didn’t want to give up.
A preacher. A man. A hunk. Her lips opened more, inviting, and his tongue came inside, slow, warm and wet. Nothing had ever felt so right. Nothing had ever made her so warm and alive and—
A raw groan escaped him, and he thrust himself away. He was breathing hard, and his face mirrored his struggle—a struggle he won. Holding her back the length of his arms, he rasped, “Damn it,
“Yes.” Blindly, she reached for him.
With something close to a shove, he paced away from her, both hands thrust into his hair. He looked narrow-eyed and mean.
Even though she still ached, Shay could feel the heat of his anger—at her or at himself?
She swallowed, and without even meaning to, whispered, “Please?” Not since her days in the last foster home had she ever begged for anything, but God, it felt like she’d been turned inside out, like she needed a man. This man.
He couldn’t say no.
But he did.
“Knock it off, Shay.” He had resistance written in every line of his hard, rugged face. “This isn’t what you want, and it sure as hell isn’t what I want.”
“You don’t even know me,” he accused. “You’re just confused.” His intensity was back, his gaze probing and hot, his voice thick.
Her heart beat so hard, it shook her. “I’m not a child, Bryan,” she whispered. “I know what I want.”
“A blind fool could see you’re not a kid.” The words were heavy with irritation. “But this is
going to happen. You’re here under my protection, and you’re my responsibility.”
Shay drew a slow breath, feeling like a fool who’d dug a hole for herself and now couldn’t climb out. He wouldn’t touch her because of what he believed her to be, yet she’d repulse him if he knew who she really was. That left her with few alternatives, none of them to her liking.
She straightened her spine and looked at him squarely. “I’m not a prostitute.”
His disbelief scorched her. “This isn’t about what you do. You don’t have to lie to me.”
Between rejecting her and insulting her, he batted a big fat zero. “Pay attention, Bryan, okay? I am
His brows pulled down. “Is that right?”
This part wouldn’t be easy, and she’d have to do a little verbal dancing, but she had to convince him. “You assumed I was a prostitute,” she said with a shrug, “so I let you believe it. But I’m not.”
Folding his arms over his chest, he studied her. “Okay. Then what—I mean
—are you? A biochemist? A fighter pilot? What?”
She winced. “I can’t tell you.”
“Right.” A cynical smile curled one side of his mouth. It was obvious he still believed her to be a hooker, but for now, he’d play along. “So why’d you lie?”
She lifted her chin with scathing disregard. “I didn’t exactly lie. I just let you believe what you wanted to believe.”
“Uh-huh.” And then he reiterated, “Why?”
The words rushed out, a little too urgent, a lot too desperate. “Because if I told you the truth, you’d hate me. And you were being so nice to me, I didn’t want you to send me away. I wanted to get to know you better and—”
He took one hard stride toward her, effectively cutting off her rambling explanation. His expression was forbidding, his eyes almost black. Shay started to back up, but it just wasn’t in her nature to retreat. So she braced her legs apart and waited.
Though they were of a similar height, he was all solid muscle, wide shoulders and throbbing power. Their gazes were nearly level, yet he seemed to tower over her. “You actually believe I would have sent you away?”
Shay blinked in surprise. He hadn’t lambasted her for lying. He hadn’t lost his temper. He was just…insulted by her lack of faith in his scruples?
“Answer me, Shay.”
She jumped at the lash of his demand. “Yes.” His tone would have angered her—
talked to her like that—but with him so close, it was damn difficult not to touch him again. There was no room in her thoughts for anything else. “You would have sent me packing, but I don’t want to go.”
“And I guess that means you won’t tell me why you were really at that bar, dressed the way you were, hanging around outside in a storm?”
“My business is my own,” she said, and before he could start growling about that, she explained. “Until my dress got soaked, it was in the best of taste. It’s just that the rain made it transparent. Otherwise, it would have been fine.”
She thought that might sidetrack him a little, but he wasn’t moved one bit. If anything, his jaw hardened in that now familiar manner of annoyance.
He managed to say her name without his lips moving. Probably a bad sign. “I can’t tell you.” And then, going on the defensive, she added, “Why does it matter so much? I’d like to stay. Here, at the safe house.” She bit her bottom lip, then really pushed. “And if you wouldn’t mind too much, I’d prefer the other women believe I’m a hooker.”
With droll sarcasm, he said, “You’re not a hooker, but you want everyone to think you are?”
That did sound idiotic, but so what? “Yes. They wouldn’t like the truth any more than you would.” It looked like his eyes might cross. “I’m only telling you this much so you won’t think you’re taking advantage of me.”
He stared at her so long and hard, Shay felt rattled.
“Could I stay? Please?”
It seemed to take him forever to come to a decision. “Shit.” His frown seared her. “Yeah, of course you can stay.” She had just started to relax when his jaw jutted forward. “But your reasons for being here won’t change anything. While you’re here, you’re off limits. So you can just keep your hands to yourself.”
“Just don’t cause any trouble.” Struck by his own words, his back straightened. “Speaking of trouble—you’re not a reporter or something, are you?”
Taken aback, and highly insulted, Shay gasped,
He leaned closer, his gaze flinty and his manner challenging. “If I find out otherwise…”
The threat went unsaid, but she knew he’d think of something dire. Shay shoved him back a step, out of her personal space. “I’m not, so quit trying to bully me.”
He grunted. “As if anyone could.” He said it more to himself than her, then turned back to the table. “Whatever problems you have, they won’t matter, not to me and not to anyone else in this house. What you tell the other women is up to you. But I mean it—
Shay crossed her heart. “Scout’s honor.” She felt a little ashamed of herself for taking advantage of him. But not enough that she’d relent. She still wanted him. And once he got over his noble streak, he’d admit he wanted her, too. “Thanks.” And for good measure, she added, “I’m sorry for misleading you earlier.”
He dropped into his chair without replying, probably because he still didn’t believe her. After a long stare, he said, “As long as we’re apologizing…I’m sorry for what happened. It won’t happen again.”
His brows lowered. “You took me by surprise with the tears.”
Shay actually felt herself flushing. “I’m doubly sorry for that. I’m not a person who ever cries much. But sometimes I just get so frustrated…”
One eyebrow arched up.
“I don’t mean sexually! Well, that, too.”
He snarled in exasperation.
“But I meant when I try to do things and they don’t work out the way I want them to.”
“That’s what happened tonight?” He tapped the pen against the table. “Things didn’t work out, your friend got hurt, and you ended up stranded in a rainstorm during a blackout?”
Shay could just imagine all the ridiculous conclusions he drew. She shrugged, wondering how much she should tell him about Leigh. She’d tried to help the girl but it wasn’t until after Leigh had gotten hurt that she’d finally accepted Shay’s offer.
“Do you mind if we eat while we talk?” She picked up both plates and joined him at the table. “I’m starving.”
The sharp look he sent her way made her roll her eyes. “It’s an expression, Bryan. I’m not literally starving. It’s just that I didn’t have much breakfast, and then lunch was ruined by a crisis, so—”
Well, now she definitely had to tell him. She only hoped he’d at least know something about Leigh’s background, something Shay could use to help the girl.
She took a bite of her potato salad, giving him leave to start on his own meal while she contemplated how much to share.
“She’s been having some problems with…a guy.” Though Leigh had called him her boyfriend, Shay couldn’t say the same. The man was a conscienceless animal who’d used Leigh as a sexual bartering tool, and he deserved to be locked away. “He’d threatened her a few times, shoved her around, bullied her. But it got worse suddenly.”
“I get the picture. He was pissed about something and taking it out on her?”
“He said she hadn’t brought in enough money lately, money he needed to support them both. He accused her of not doing her share. Today, he threw her out—but not before…” The words stuck in her throat, and she shook her head twice before managing to say, “Not before beating her up.”
His eyes flinty, Bryan asked, “Who is she?”
Very softly, Shay said, “Her name is Leigh.”
Rising from his seat, he leaned forward, his palms flat on the table. “Where is she?”
Stunned by the menace he exuded, and by the fact that he obviously knew Leigh, Shay rushed to reassure him. “She’s safe, and she’ll be okay.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
No doubt he was used to commanding fast answers. Too bad she couldn’t accommodate him. Shay asked, “You know her?”
“Yeah. And I told her this would happen.” He sounded furious with himself. “I tried to get her to stay here, but she wouldn’t.” He loomed over Shay. “So where is she?”
With a shrug of apology, Shay said, “I can’t tell you.” Before he could insist further, she explained, “She’s afraid, Bryan. That’s why she wouldn’t go to the police. I had to promise not to tell
Maybe she didn’t mean you. But maybe she did. All I can tell you is that she is okay now. You have my word.”
Bryan’s stare held her a moment more, then he sank back into his seat. “If she’s really away from him, that’s a start.”
“A very good start,” Shay agreed, and with a sigh: “But it’s been an upsetting day. Seeing someone hurt like that makes me feel so damned helpless, as if there’s no escaping the bad stuff.”
Bryan leaned forward again. “I don’t know what’s going on with you, Shay, how you’re tied in with Leigh or why you were hanging around the bar. But if you stay here, I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
She’d only meant she felt helpless in her inability to help the others, but he’d taken it as personal fear. And now, with him offering his protection, she saw no way to correct the misconception. “Thank you. That’s very…” What could she say? Gallant? Heroic? She shook her head. “Thank you.”
He picked up his pad of paper, all business again. “Tell me about yourself.”
For such a big, hard, macho guy, he was damned endearing in his attempts to help. She peeked at the paper he held, saw it had pretyped questions on it, and shrugged. “Sure. What do you want to know?”
“Start with family.”
“Okay.” Shay continued to eat, waiting for him to begin, but he hesitated. “What is it?”
Rubbing the back of his neck, appearing uncomfortable with his task, he said, “If I hit on a sore spot, just tell me, okay?”
“I’m not shy.”
“I noticed.” Their gazes met and held, until he looked back at the paper. “What about your father?”
“My birth father or my adoptive father?”
“You have both?”
She had no idea what he was thinking, but it didn’t look good. “Start with your father. Do you think he’s interested in where you are?”
The rude sound she made was answer enough. Her father was slime. But her adoptive father, if he had any idea what she’d gotten herself into, would probably give her enough lectures to last a lifetime. Not that it would do him any good. He knew she couldn’t be stopped once she’d set her mind on a course. So he usually just ended up offering his full support.
She gave Bryan a smile of reassurance. Her father, and his lack of interest, had no impact on her life. “He’s a world-class pig. I haven’t seen him since I was five, and that was when he left me at the bus station.”
His expression hardened. “What do you mean, he left you?”
“He said he was going to buy us something to drink, but he never came back. I sat there almost the whole day waiting, until I had to go to the bathroom. Then I didn’t know what to do. When I started to cry, a woman offered her help, and the next thing I knew, I had everyone’s attention.”
She hadn’t meant to say quite that much. She hadn’t talked about those long-ago days since she was a child. But with Bryan’s undivided attention, the words just seemed to come out. “The police figured my father had abandoned me, and after a few months, they finally located him three states away, living with a woman and her sister.” Her smile went crooked. “He denied being my father.”
Bryan’s expression didn’t change, but there was now an alertness in his dark brown eyes that hadn’t been there earlier.
“What about your mother?”
She shrugged. “The reason my father had me with him in the first place was that my mother refused to keep me any longer. She was what the authorities termed ‘emotionally abusive.’ That was after they found me in the bus station and did a thorough checkup into my past.”
Bryan had the paper and pen out in front of him, but he hadn’t written a word. His jaw looked like granite again. “And after they did the checkup?”
She tried to skim over details while still giving him a truth or two about her past, enough that she wouldn’t get tripped up in it later. But she didn’t want to hurt him with her truths, not when they no longer hurt her.