DELIVER TO ABANDONED warehouse
4 miles E of city
5 pm sharp
It was the last line of Hill’s text that’d made sweat drip down to my balls, not the roasting D.C. heat made worse by asphalt and rush-hour car exhaust. My Chevy Impala had barely crawled forward six inches in the last ten minutes. A glance at the dashboard clock showed 4:53. Yeah, I wasn’t going to make it.
But none of that mattered as much as his weird request. Why the hell would he need a shovel? Unless the shovel wasn’t meant for him, but for me to dig my own grave. But I already did that when I was “recruited” to work for him.
Recruited, blackmailed—same difference.
The light ahead finally turned green. Maybe, just maybe, I might be able to creep along a whole seven inches this time.
Shit. I cranked the dial on the radio, the speakers blaring a before-my-time Metallica song, and glanced in the rearview mirror. A crowbar and Hill’s small, brown-paper-wrapped package sat on the backseat. A crowbar, not a shovel, because my day job didn’t have one.
Probably should’ve put everything in a slightly less obvious spot. But since I was such a dutiful blackmail-ee, I’d really tried to be on time. In my rush to get out of work early, I hadn’t exactly thought things through. If Hill had a problem with it, maybe he should’ve sent me the text this morning instead of late afternoon.
The car ahead pulled forward. As I touched the gas, a perky ass to my right made me do a double take. It stuck up in the air like some kind of supernaturally rounded homing beacon. The woman the ass belonged to stood in the middle of a crowded sidewalk with three bags of luggage surrounding her. She bent over each one, fiddling with the zippers, while her white shorts rode higher on tan, shapely legs.
There was no chance I was the only guy checking her out. Or female. Hell, the shrubbery probably wanted to bang her. She clearly had no idea she was putting on a show for the length of Virginia Avenue since her hands moved in a panicked rush. She must’ve been looking for something. Hopefully not a longer pair of shorts.
She straightened, ran a quick hand through her long, dark hair, and turned slightly to gather all her luggage. Brown eyes crashed into mine for an instant, but it was long enough to wreck me from the inside out.
I knew her, had known her since I was a kid. Paige Sullivan. Paige fucking Sullivan, the star of my childhood fantasies, the girl who’d given me my first boner just by hugging me when I was eleven. The girl. I would know those intelligent eyes, those pouty lips, and that half-Latina honey gold skin anywhere.
So was she coming or going? My mind took a wicked left turn. I imagined myself standing behind her, her ass in the air while I screwed her thoroughly, minus the soccer moms pushing baby strollers past and all the other spectators. She was definitely coming.
The thought made my cock twitch. I winced on a groan. Not only did my dick hurt, but putting any kind of expression on my face did, too. Before I’d left work, Barnaby, or Barn for short because he’s built like one, decided to smash his fist into my eye because he thought it would be a good way to warn me against checking out his girlfriend. The girl had more five o’clock shadow than I did, but because hitting on the opposite sex felt more natural than faking sick to get out of work early, I’d flirted and Barn had attacked with both arms swinging. Not my best idea ever, but my boss had sent us both home early from the car shop.
Paige leaned one bag against the bars of her rolling luggage, shouldered the other, and with a frustrated swing of her hair, she stomped down the sidewalk toward the front door of the public library.
I suddenly had the urge to read a book.
Two minutes just to talk to her. That was all I needed. Besides, what if this was my only chance to see her? I could show up to the warehouse two minutes later and use traffic as an excuse since it was the truth. Mostly. But knowing Hill, he would probably string me up by my balls even if I did make it by five. And if I didn’t...well, I was dead either way. Might as well have some fun beforehand.
But should I go after her? I tapped the steering wheel, my car still moving at a crawl, and stared in the direction Paige had disappeared. The light ahead turned yellow. I wasn’t even close to the intersection.
I swerved into the right turning lane to the tune of several honking horns and pulled into the library’s parking lot. After a quick check of the bruises and cuts on my face in the rearview mirror, I decided to hide most of the damage behind a pair of mirrored sunglasses so I wouldn’t freak Paige out.
I left the crowbar where it was, but deposited Hill’s package in the glove compartment before heading toward the large building. Hill would probably make me regret this whole thinking with my dick thing, but it wouldn’t be the first time it had gotten me in trouble.
The library’s air conditioner blasted over my skin. I breathed in the slightly musty smell of paper and sweat. Several yards ahead, Paige rounded the corner past the security officer who eyed me warily. I gave the guy a tip of my chin in acknowledgement, then followed Paige past the busy front desk. She acted like she knew exactly where she was headed, and knowing Paige, it was probably some book-related emergency.
When she wasn’t starring in my childhood wet dreams or palling around with my older brother, all she did was read. Constantly. That’s how I’d first found her, sitting on our front porch steps, her full lips tilted into a frown, a book glued to her hand. I’d been speechless then, a total goner. When she was sixteen, she moved out of D.C. to Kansas, of all places, and my favorite sexy book girl was gone for good. Until now, seven years later. And I had no idea what to say to her.
Hi. Remember me? I’m Sam Cleary.
Hey, it’s SamRam Cleary from back in the day. Thank you for never calling me by that annoying nickname, by the way.
Hey, baby. I’ve got your hardcover right here.
No, no, and hell no.
The wheels of her luggage rolled silently behind a shelf of books near the back wall, but I kept my stroll at a leisurely pace. And then there she was, standing in the middle of the aisle in front of a section of battered paperbacks, her mouth slanting into that same adorable frown while she scanned them.
I jerked to a stop and pretended fascination with the books at the end of the aisle, suddenly feeling like a creeper sneaking after her like this. Anything that fell out of my mouth would sound too wannabe-stalker, but if I acted like just some guy in the library, a stranger with a book fetish, then maybe our “mutual interest” would put her at ease. I’d share my real identity like some kind of superhero when I was sure I wouldn’t send her screaming out of the...
Wait a second. I tipped several books out of their spaces. An awful lot of these books had half-naked men on their covers. Fuck, was I in the romance section?
A throaty laugh to my right snapped me out of my horror.
“You don’t look like a men-in-kilts type of guy,” she said. “No offense.”
“Yeah. None taken. I think I’m in the wrong section.” I nodded and slid her a grin I knew from experience would liquefy women’s panties. Judging from the blush brightening her cheeks, mission accomplished. What I wouldn’t give to slide my fingers over her heated skin, feel the give of those plump lips, then track lower to see just how wet I’d made her. Right here in the romance section. Fuck those men in kilts.
“Um, so what are you looking for?” she asked, her gaze directed everywhere but me.
You, I wanted to say since it was the truth. Instead, I said, “Automotive. I’m a mechanic.” Also the truth.
She nodded. “Instead of taking a left after the circulation desk, you should have taken a right. Automotive is in the 600s.”
“Thanks,” I said, and didn’t even pretend to move in that direction.
She seemed to notice I was perfectly comfy right there, taking all of her in, and her eyebrows drew together as if I’d just given her an uncrackable riddle. “You’re a reader?”
She went back to scanning the paperbacks, as if she was dismissing me for more important things.
Okay, no more truth, since that wasn’t exactly what a hot book addict wanted to hear. All I usually needed to do was eye-fuck a girl until she was begging to ride me, which was hard to do behind sunglasses. But Paige wasn’t the type of girl I normally hung out with. She was smarter, better. Always had been.
Maybe it was the heat outside or the library’s arctic air conditioning, but my mouth felt like I’d just swallowed the desert. I ran my tongue over my bottom lip. My whole body clenched while Paige’s eyes tracked the movement.
She traced a slow finger over several books on a shelf, her gaze never leaving my mouth, and there was something so sexual about the way she caressed them, I nearly choked.
“I mean, sometimes I read.” Wow. Not much better at all, asshole.
Her dark eyes searched my face, a playful glint inside them. “You just like to look?” she asked. Her voice held a note of playfulness that cracked a grin across my face.
She was playing with me like some kind of sparkly toy. And I liked it.
“I do like to look.”
“I can see that,” she said with a lifted eyebrow.
What was I supposed to look at? The books?
I waved an arm at her luggage. “Do you always bring your luggage to the library?”
She glanced at me coolly. “Not always.”
“I see,” I said, leaning against the shelves with my arms crossed. I let my gaze roam over her while she stretched on tiptoe for a book. God forbid I offer to help since the view was just fine from here. “Let me guess, your house burned down, and the suitcases and their contents are what’s left.”
“Not even close,” she said, shaking her head. “And how would I have time to pack if my house burned down?”
“Fair point.” I didn’t care how stupid my theories were. As long as Paige was acknowledging my existence, I would say whatever jumped into my head first. Well, almost whatever. “You have insider information that the zombie apocalypse starts today and you wanted to be prepared.”
There was that sexy, throaty laugh again, so different from the giggly girls I knew.
“The only zombie apocalypse preparedness I know is to collect bubble wrap,” she said.
I frowned. “What?”
“It’s a natural alarm. If you put sheets of it around you while you’re sleeping, the popping noise will wake you if all the moaning doesn’t.” She looked at me again with a smile that completely disarmed me.
I thought I’d committed that smile to memory, but it was so much better in person. Now it came from a woman instead of the girl I used to know. A curvier woman with a reddish color painted on her plump lips that didn’t used to be there. Makeup, but that was the only sign of it I saw, which was another difference between her and my usual fuck buddies. She was so damn gorgeous, made even more so since it didn’t seem to matter to her.
“Well, goddamn. That’s a great idea.” I knew a thing or two about zombie apocalypse preparedness, and I never once considered bubble wrap. It made me want to lick her brain, as well as every other part of her, in a completely sexual, non-zombie way.
She went back to scanning the shelves. “Not every idea I have is a great one,” she said.
I had no clue what she meant by that. I moved closer but not too close, careful not to scare her away. It had been so long since I’d had to give chase. I had to admit I was a bit rusty at it. “You’re not homeless, are you?”
“Graduate student, so almost,” she said. “I’m here for an internship, and I’m on my way to my friend’s house.”
“An internship, huh?”
“At another library.” Her whole face brightened with excitement. “I’m kind of a fan of books.” She lovingly stroked the books’ spines, her gaze locked on mine, and then grinned. “I’m probably boring you to death, aren’t I?”
“Not really, no.” In fact, she was the exact opposite of boring. I would gladly plant my feet right here to listen to her talk about books just to be near her.
She nodded, her mouth twisted to the side, like she was considering if she believed me or not. “Do you always come to libraries to hit on women?”
I held up my hands, faking innocence. “Hey, I’m just looking for an automotive book.”
“In the romance section.”
“Because you keep talking about internships and books. If I wasn’t here, you’d be talking to yourself,” I said, then leaned in and lowered my voice, “and then people would really start to wonder about you. See? I’m doing you a favor.”
She threw her head back with a laugh, then shushed herself with a palm over her mouth. The overhead lights sparkled her eyes. Warmth I hadn’t felt in a long time filled my insides. Damn. Her laughter could be completely addicting.
“Well, I guess I should say thanks for making me not look like a crazy person,” she said.
“Do you think you could do me one more favor and help me get a book from the top shelf?” she asked. “Height deficiency is a book nerd’s worst nightmare.”
With slow, deliberate steps, I stalked toward her. Hunger darkened her eyes as she watched me draw closer. She parted her full lips to dart her tongue over them. My jeans tightened almost painfully around my crotch. She wanted me, and I wanted to take her right here with paperbacks falling all around us. Maybe that was one of her sexual fantasies, to have someone fuck her senseless in a library, because she backed into the shelf instead of moving out of the way.
She stared up at me, her lips glistening, her chest pressing against mine with every inhale. She stood so close, she had to feel the heat radiating from my cock.
“Which one?” I asked through clenched teeth.
“Have Your Way With Me,” she said and swallowed. Red burned across her cheeks to the tips of her ears.
I closed my eyes as her breaths, which grew faster, harder, brushed past my chin. God, she smelled amazing, like spicy candy.
Wait. What? Her words suddenly unscrambled themselves inside my brain. Was that an order? She wanted me to have my way with her? Well, if she insisted...
“By Lisa Montgomery,” she finished with a naughty little grin.
Sweet Jesus, she was playing with me again.
“Have Your Way With Me,” I repeated into her ear and felt her shudder against me. I could play her game, too.
I scanned the titles, barely able to register anything but her, and plucked what I thought was the right book from the shelf. When my gaze met hers again, the small distance between our lips made both my heads pound with need.
Her tongue shot out to lick her lips while she stared straight ahead at my chest.
My conscience, who always played dead in these types of situations, stopped me from diving into her and taking her right here in the men-in-kilts section.
She didn’t know who I really was. That I was Sam Cleary, little brother to the man both our families thought she would eventually marry, first semester college dropout, womanizer, and despite my best efforts, a bad guy.
I was a loser compared to Paige. I didn’t even deserve to breathe the same air as her. Yet here I stood, seconds away from kissing the one girl I’d crushed on since childhood.
“Take off your sunglasses so I can see you,” she said.
I held the book out for her to take. “No.”
As she took it, her fingers brushed mine. “Then tell me your name.”
When I didn’t say anything, she placed a hand against my chest and pushed. “Then I guess this is goodbye, stranger. Thanks for the book.”
I pressed myself in so she couldn’t escape. A little too close. So close her lips almost touched mine. “Wait, Paige.”
Her mouth parted, but then her body stiffened. Her eyes searched my face incredulously. “I never gave you my name.”
“Excuse me,” an irritated voice at the other end of the aisle said.
Shit and double shit.
I tore my gaze away from Paige’s probing stare to see a stereotypical librarian glaring at us, bun, cardigan, pissed-off expression, and all.
“This is a library, not a brothel,” she warned. “Have some respect for yourselves and our patrons, please, and keep all body parts to yourselves.”
“Sorry.” I offered her a crooked grin, but it wavered when I glanced back at Paige and her flaming-red face. “We’ll go somewhere else.”
Yeah, probably not.
“See that you do.” The librarian sniffed and walked on.
Without a word, Paige wriggled out of my arms, collected her bags, and ran out of my life. I stared after her a split second before I followed, but it was a second too late.
The security guard stepped between her and me.
“Don’t worry,” I said and plowed maybe a little too roughly around him. “I’m leaving.”
The guard locked thick fingers around my arm in a death grip. “I’ll show you the door in case you get lost.”
Several yards away, Paige sped around a corner, in the opposite direction of the door. I needed to find her, explain to her who I was.
“My girlfriend,” I said, pointing. Right. I wished.
“She’ll meet up with you outside. This way.”
I could’ve shaken him loose and gone searching for Paige, but I didn’t see the point in raising more commotion. She would come out eventually. Then we could talk.
When we were outside, the guard said, “Have a nice day” and shoved me toward the concrete steps.
Point taken. I drifted toward the parking lot while keeping my gaze on the doors behind me.
I’d scared her. I should’ve told her who I was right from the start.
I strode to my car to wait for her, the summer sun quickly melting all traces of the library’s air conditioning on my skin. Stifling heat rolled out from the open door of my Chevy in waves. The seat’s leather burned my back and ass. As soon as I keyed the ignition to crank the air, the back passenger door flew open then slammed closed.
A flash of steel. Something clicked. A gun. Attached to Hill himself, who now sat behind me.
I froze, one hand on the ignition, the other on the steering wheel, so he could see I was unarmed. Except for the crowbar in the backseat next to him, which wouldn’t do me any good now. Whatever happened, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t end well.
“You don’t seem the scholarly type, Sam. So imagine my surprise when I followed you here.” His voice was soft and low and never failed to wig me out. It somehow reminded me of slimy worms wriggling up his throat.
“You were following me?”
“To see how serious you are about paying off your debt.”
I ground my teeth together. “It’s not my debt I’m paying off.”
“It is now.” He sat back, the leather seats creaking slightly under his weight.
The guy was a skeleton. Life had withered him away to wrinkled skin and bone. The white gloves he always wore with his suit jacket had never seen so much as a stain. He looked ready for a fancy dinner, but even in the ninety-plus degree heat inside the car, he hadn’t broken a sweat.
I was sweating enough for the both of us.
“I was on my way to the warehouse. Got caught in traffic,” I said and dropped my hands into my lap. “Shit happens. I tried to be there.”
“Yes, you did try. Just not very hard.”
“I’m sorry.” I hoped it sounded like I meant it.
When Hill didn’t say anything, I glanced in the rearview mirror at him with a hard swallow. But my throat clamped shut at what else appeared there. Paige, her luggage in tow, five yards away on a direct path toward my car.
Oh, shit no. Even if she didn’t know who I was, she couldn’t see what was happening here, whatever was happening here. Was Hill going to take me out in the parking lot of the public library?
“Sam?” Hill asked.
“What?” I couldn’t tear my gaze away from Paige, drawing closer, still set on this exact direction. Fifteen feet.
Turn, baby, turn.
“Surely this isn’t the shovel I asked you to bring,” Hill said, his voice soft, menacing.
Before I realized what he was talking about, he mashed one end of the crowbar into my hand wrapped around the steering wheel.
Pain shot through me. I threw back my head to howl, but I couldn’t. I wouldn’t do it. Because around the agonizing red flashes that blasted behind my closed eyes at every dig, there was the unmistakable roll of luggage. Paige’s luggage. Coming louder. Ten feet away.
“Do you know how much pressure it takes to break our fragile bones? Only twenty-five pounds. That’s not much at all, is it?”
“I’ll do better next time. Promise.” I forced open my eyes to stare straight ahead as Paige and her luggage drew nearer. Six feet.
Don’t look inside the car. Just walk on.
I crushed my teeth together to keep the pain from showing up all over my face.
“Where’s the package, Sam?” Hill hissed.
Movement to the left. A blur of white shorts and honey skin I’d had the pleasure of sightseeing just minutes ago. She didn’t slow, marched right past with her head held high.
I swallowed back my relief. It was short-lived anyway with Hill’s next growl.
“The money, Sam!”
“Glove compartment. It’s in the glove compartment.”
In front of the car, Paige turned her head in our direction and squinted into the setting sun. She might’ve heard us, but hopefully the glare would prevent her from seeing anything.
The pain in my hand was starting to lessen. I wasn’t so sure that was a good thing. The stink of my own blood inside the heated car rolled my stomach. Sweat trickled into my eyes.
“So predictable.” Hill took the crowbar from my hand then leaned between the seats to open the glove compartment. “You didn’t think to secure it better before your jaunt into the library? Maybe I need to start adding interest to the debt that’s owed me so you’ll take better care of what’s mine. Or maybe we need to end our little arrangement, and I’ll just turn over all the photos—”
“We made a deal.” I tore my gaze from Paige to stare him down. “And interest wasn’t part of it.”
“Neither was missing our appointment.”
Paige turned back around and disappeared behind a van.
“I’ll do better next time,” I said again, unable to keep the relief out of my voice.
“See that you do.” He dislodged the crowbar from between my knuckles.
I fell back in my seat and groaned. Blood leaked from my hand in sticky, nauseating pools that soaked through my jeans. Oh, how I wanted to kill him. Then there would be no more Hill, no more hell for the part of my family I cared about most, no more hidden secrets.
Hill dropped another package into the front passenger seat, this one wrapped in plastic and smaller than the one he’d taken, and readjusted his dinner jacket. “You’ll make the delivery tonight at a yellow house. Give it to Slim and no one else.”
He rattled off an address that I committed to memory around the haze of pain. I nodded my understanding.
Then, with his white, spotless gloves, he slithered out of the car, only to lean back in seconds later. “Let’s behave ourselves, shall we, Sam? Because when I add interest to debts, I usually take a few fingers, too.”