His bravery was rewarded with a high-pitched feminine giggle.
Greg wiped his hand across his eyes and let the woman come into focus. Tall, bottle blonde, had the freshly fucked look. The previous evening came back to him, and he groaned. He must have fallen asleep before escorting her back to her apartment.
“Cherry, put that damn thing out,” he groused and reached for his boxers hanging from the bedframe.
“Sorry, but I couldn’t get the window opened,” she said, walking past him to the bathroom attached to his bedroom. He unlatched the window and slid it open, giving her an exasperated look when she returned after flushing her cigarette.
“I told you no smoking in my place,” he reminded her and sat back on the bed, rubbing his temples. The smoke made his head hurt, or maybe it was her presence. He needed to cut the ties, and quick.
“I know,” she said, snuggling up to him and pressing his head to her chest. If she thought her tits were magical enough to make his mood change, she really had a shock coming to her. “What are you going to do? You want to spank me again?” she asked in a forced heavy voice.
“I don’t think that would work for you, Cherry.” He gently shoved her away and got back to his feet. Cherry wasn’t a real submissive. She only played spanking games with him because she wanted him. But he didn’t want fake, and that’s all she had to offer. From her chemically induced hair coloring down to her acrylic toenails. Nothing about her was genuine, but she’d been fun to party with. Now, the party was over.
“Sure, it would. It was fun,” she said with her soft giggle. He’d been attracted to it at first, the innocence, but after spending more time with her, he knew it was as manufactured as the rest of her.
“Cherry,” he sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. Breaking up with someone had never been his strong suit—luckily most women who didn’t fit what he wanted figured it out easily enough for themselves and dropped him hard before running for the hills. But he hadn’t shown Cherry all of him yet, so she couldn’t know what he was really wanting. What sort of depraved games he actually wanted to play.
“Greg, really. I liked it.” She forced a smile across her red lips. How long had she been awake? She already had on her face paint for the day.
“That wasn’t a real spanking, sweetheart. You wouldn’t like a real one. Not like I give them.” He shook his head and went in search of his jeans.
“Why? Do you think I’m too weak?” The little pout in her tone made his skin crawl. Innocence turned him on to a point, but what she displayed bordered on whining. And he didn’t have a thing for that.
Give him a woman who could stand on her own two feet, had a good head on her shoulders, and eagerly sank to her knees when commanded. That was the woman for him. Cherry. Well, Cherry would probably cry if he gave her an order to drop to her knees, and she’d probably have a mini stroke if he snapped a leash onto her and took her for a walk.
“No.” He found his jeans and shoved his legs inside, zipping up his fly and running his fingers through his hair. “Cherry. We’ve had a great time, but we just don’t have anything in common.” Other than their passion for fucking. That they saw eye to eye on.
Cherry swept her hair behind her ears and put her hands on her hips. He didn’t say anything else, just waited for her response. After a long, awkward moment stretched between them, she dropped her hands to her sides and shrugged.
“So? We’ll just keep things casual.”
“You mean you want a fuck buddy.” He pointed a finger at her. As much as the idea tempted him, he shook his head. She’d play games. It’s who she was. Game playing wasn’t his thing.
“Why not?” she pushed when he didn’t give in.
“Because the things that turn me on, the things I’d want to do with you wouldn’t be appealing to you,” he said, hoping she’d just accept it and move on. They’d had a great few days together, but it was done with.
She wouldn’t budge. “Like what? Anal? I can do anal.”
He paused in putting on his socks to stare up at her with a slacked jaw. He hadn’t thought of anal sex with her, not that she didn’t seem that type, but he didn’t want to put the effort into it with her.
“How many fuck buddies have you had?” he asked, sounding more incredulous than he had any right to be. He wasn’t exactly close to virginal status either.
Her eyes narrowed and those hands of hers were back on her hips. “Fuck you, Greg.”
“See. Now, if we were together, really together, I’d have to punish you for saying something like that.” He finished dressing and walked over to her. The idea of being punished either turned a girl on or repulsed them.
Cherry was repulsed.
He walked over to her and gently grabbed her arms. “I told you, the things I like aren’t what you like. It goes way beyond anal. I don’t want to waste your time, is what I’m saying.”
She ran her tongue over her over-whitened teeth and shoved his hands away. “Fine.” In a huff, she marched out of the bedroom and into the living room.
Not being a total asshole, but feeling one hundred percent like one, he followed her.
“You know, Greg. If you don’t want to be with a girl, maybe you shouldn’t fuck her like you do,” she snapped at him, while working her foot into her shoe.
What did that mean?
“I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong impression—”
“No!” She sliced her hand through the air. “I don’t want your apologies. Just forget the last few days. Delete my number from your phone, and don’t bother coming to my place for dinner tomorrow night.”
Had they made plans? He worked nights at The Bar; why would he have dinner plans with her?
“Are you sure you’re thinking of me?” he asked, unable to stop himself.
She huffed again, her face reddening, but then realization swept over her face. She hadn’t meant him.
He managed to stifle a laugh, but the grin couldn’t be contained.
“It’s fine. I’m sure he’s a better match for you.” He opened the door to the apartment. She didn’t respond, just gave a little yelp when she stumbled on the edge of the rug and headed out the door.
Greg followed her down the narrow stairway to help unbolt the bottom door that led out into the parking lot of the building. She remained stoic and silent, staring up at the ceiling to avoid looking at him, and once the door was opened, she shoved past him and disappeared into the morning sun.
“Well, she didn’t last long, did she?” Aubree’s sweet voice startled him. He whipped around and found her standing at the end of the hall carrying a large box.
He put himself into motion and snagged the box of toilet paper from her.
“It’s a little early for you to be working,” he said and carried the supplies down the hall to the closet.
Living in the apartment over the bar he ran with his brother meant he ran into his brother and his sister-in-law at all hours of the day.
“Bella woke me up, and I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I decided to get a jump on a few things,” she explained as she walked behind him.
“Where is my niece? You put her back to bed?”
“She’s in the office coloring,” Aubree said.
The three-year-old didn’t like sleeping in late on Saturdays, no matter how much her parents begged her.
“Hey.” Blake appeared through the back door. “Here you are.” He narrowed his gaze at his wife.
“Where else would I be?” she asked with a bit of a huff. Greg recognized that tone and turned to head toward the office. Some time with his niece would give them enough time to work out their issue.
“You didn’t leave a note, and I texted you.” He heard his brother chastising his wife. “Greg, wait, don’t go anywhere yet.”
“I didn’t get your text,” Aubree stated with annoyance. “And I did leave a note, right—” She paused mid-sentence then cursed. “I’m sorry. I think I wrote it and stuffed it in the diaper bag when I left.” She leaned against the wall.
Blake’s mouth pinched together in a straight line. “You’ve been working too much and keeping up with Bella is getting harder now that she’s into everything. Greg and I will handle the inventory this morning. Bella can hang with us, you go home and get some sleep.” Blake’s no-nonsense tone would have frightened some females; they would have seen his tone as angry. But he was in protective mode, and once Blake shifted to that gear there was no talking him down.
But Aubree was no ordinary woman.
“I’m not tired,” she argued.
“I didn’t ask if you were. Now go home and get back to bed. Lie there and count sheep, repeat the alphabet backwards, whatever you gotta do, but you don’t get up again until I call you.”
Aubree sighed. “Fine.”
“We’ll take care of Bella, just get some sleep,” Greg interjected. Playing with dolls didn’t exactly ring his bell, but spending time with his niece was always full of adventure. She had her mother’s magnetism for trouble.
“Okay, okay.” Aubree threw up her hands. “I’ll just give her a kiss and head out. Don’t forget she has playschool at eleven. Are you sure you can get her there?”
Blake nodded and pressed a kiss to his wife’s forehead. “Not a problem. Just rest up—because if your attitude gets much worse you’re going to have bigger problems.”
A sweet blush bloomed. No matter how many times Blake made the same threat, her reaction was the same.
“Your brother’s here,” she said and gave Blake a playful shove.
“And always willing to lend a hand.” Greg smiled broadly, crossing his arms over his chest. Years ago, he’d have given his right hand to have Aubree draped across his lap. But seeing how she was with Blake, he couldn’t imagine anything between them ever being anything more than platonic.
“You’re as bad as him.” Aubree shot him a punch in the arm as she passed and headed to the office.
“Actually, he’s worse,” Blake offered. Aubree’s face reddened another notch, and she disappeared into the office.
“You should keep that woman locked up. It’s too early for her to be up working,” Greg said to his brother.
“Well, since Bella came along it’s gotten a little harder to keep her in her cage,” Blake sighed. “I’m working on it though. Between her part-time hours at the veterinary clinic and here, she works too hard, too much, and still tries to be the perfect mother. Nothing a long session with my belt can’t fix.”
“Take a night off and handle it.” Greg leaned against the wall and ran his hand over his chin. He needed to shave. After spending four years in the marines, he’d gotten used to having a clean look.
“Don’t worry about her. I have it handled.” Blake nodded. “I’ll check in on Bella and make sure she’s not tearing up my office. I have a list of errands for you.”
“Great.” Greg forced a smile. He should have stayed upstairs and let Cherry find her own way out.
“That woman I saw stomping her way across the lot when I pulled in, she yours?” Blake asked, walking down the hall to the bar.
“No. She won’t be around anymore.” Greg settled onto a stool and waited for his honey-do list.
Blake shook his head. “You’ve been home six months. And you’ve gone through at least a dozen girls.”
“Don’t go all big brother on me,” Greg warned. It had taken enlisting in the marines to get his brother to back off, and he wasn’t looking to get back into old habits.
“Fine. Fine. What’s up with the security thing? I thought you were going to start looking into getting into personal security?”
“Why? You don’t like having me working here?” Greg asked.
“Fuck, Greg. Of course I do, just—I don’t know.” Blake’s brow wrinkled with concern.
“Don’t worry about it. Where’s that list?” Greg held out his hand. Better to jump into the day, then work out what his brother was worrying about.
Greg came home different than he’d left, that he knew. And it worried Blake, he knew that too.
But analyzing the situation wasn’t going to change it. He was home now and had to get his life back to some form of normalcy.
Blake handed over the short list of errands and Greg hopped off the stool.
“I’ll get these done and be back by lunch. You’ll need help feeding that kid of yours. I’ve seen Aubree battle her, and she’s better at it than you. You’ll need reinforcements.”
Blake laughed. “You’re probably right.”
Greg headed out with a strict plan. Run errands. Pick up lunch. Get home to eat and nap before his night shift at the bar.
Planning and lists. It all helped keep things in perspective. Don’t stray, and he’d be able to handle the entire day without incident.
“Shit!” Elenora dropped the long-stemmed rose and shoved her thumb into her mouth, sucking on the injured finger.
“Poke yourself again?” Antonio, her boss and owner of the flower shop, chuckled from behind the counter where he scanned the newspaper.
“I’m fine. Thanks for asking.” She frowned at him.
He laughed. “It will take more than a fucking flower to take you down.” He shook a finger in the air and kept his eyes glued to the paper.
He wasn’t wrong. She was made of stronger stuff than that.
Shaking off the sting from the thorn, she went back to trimming the stems and getting the arrangements ready for pickup. She’d always liked flowers. Twiddling away in the garden when she was old enough had been more fun than hanging with friends at the mall. If she’d had a lot of friends growing up, she was sure she’d still find that fact to be true.
“Don’t spend too much time on that one,” Antonio called over to her when the phone started ringing. “Just wrap a big ribbon around it and be done.”
She looked over the roses at him while he picked up the phone. Just throw it together? Fuck, no. If she was going to do a job, she was going to do it right. It would be the perfect arrangement.
Her father didn’t raise a slacker.
The bell over the front door dinged, drawing her attention to the entry. Two men walked in carrying a floral box each. She’d seen them before. Antonio had introduced them as his cousins, but he looked too nervous to have been telling the truth. But she’d only been working with Antonio for a few months and didn’t ask too many questions. She’d been lucky to score the job. Getting too close to him, badgering him with her questions would have made things more dangerous than she could handle yet.
She needed to bide her time. Work smart, not fast. She’d get the confirmation she needed, and then she’d act. But not before she was completely certain. Once she had no doubts, she’d do what she needed to do. She’d take care of it, and then maybe she’d get some peace. Just maybe.
“Nora! I’m going to the back for a few minutes. Watch the door, okay?” Antonio called out to her.
“Sure thing.” She smiled, wiped her hands on her apron, and headed toward the counter. The two men, Teo and Anthony turned away from her when she got close enough to say hello. Taking their rudeness as a sign to stay away, she didn’t comment. They’d never been chatty when they came into the shop. She had a good idea what they were doing there, and she found herself feeling more and more comfortable with staying outside their line of vision.
Antonio gestured for his cousins to follow him, and they rounded the counter to head into the back.
Teo stopped and turned back to her, his fat finger pointed right at her. “Don’t leave the counter. For any reason.” The threat in his tone was real, but it confused her more than scared her. Where else would she be?
“Okay. Got it. Stay at the counter.” She smiled wider, hoping the whole ‘kill them with kindness’ thing her father talked about actually worked—in the literal sense.
He disappeared into the back room, and she plopped down on Antonio’s stool. The paper was opened to the movie listing, so she checked out what was playing. Not that she would go. Not that she had time or money to spend at the movies just messing around. But knowing what she was missing out on, sometimes worked well enough to keep her nose to the grindstone so one day she could have time and money to waste. Responsibility first, then playtime.
Knocking on the door interrupted her reading. She looked up and saw a guy standing outside the door waving at her. Looking at the door to the back room then back at the customer, she tapped her fingers on the counter. Teo didn’t look like he had been fucking around when he told her to stay at the counter. If the door was locked, it was because they’d locked it when they came in.
She wasn’t entirely naive. She knew the brothers weren’t exactly Antonio’s biological cousins, and she had a pretty good idea why they brought those boxes in every time they stopped by. But she had enough sense to keep her mouth shut. She didn’t stick her nose in where it could get chopped off.
The knocking continued. Not wanting the brothers to hear the racket, she hopped off the stool and went to the door.
“Can I help you?” she asked, only opening the door enough to peer through.
The guy wasn’t a guy at all. She couldn’t call him a guy, not when he looked so damn masculine. No, he was all man. From his neatly cut hair, to the square jaw covered in a five o’clock shadow, he looked like something stepping out of one of her fantasies.
“I need to put in an order.” His voice. Fuck, his voice, deep and rough. She could really lose herself in that voice.
“Uh—” Nora looked behind her. The door remained closed, and he was a customer. Her job was to make the shop money. “Sure.” She opened the door and gestured for him to come inside. After taking a quick look down the street to make sure no one else was headed their way, she shut and locked the door.
When she turned around she found herself eyes to chest with him. Craning her neck, she found his face. His eyebrows were wrinkled.
“Are you really not open?” he asked, pointing at the door.
“Oh. Yeah, we’re open. Just not open open right now. It’s fine. I can take your order.” She stepped around him, finding his curious stare unsettling.
Once safely tucked back behind the counter, she pulled out the order pad and grabbed a pen from the Mason jar. Silk flowers were wrapped around each pen, a DIY craft she’d found on Pinterest.
“You’re not open open?” he asked with light amusement. “What does that mean exactly?” His forearms leaned against the counter, and she got a good look at all the tattoos running up his arms. It was already hard for her to keep her heartbeat at a normal pace with his rugged features, his navy-blue T-shirt stretched across his muscular chest, but now he had to go and show her all the ink on his arms.
“Right. So, what can I order for you?” She poised the pen over the pad but was still scanning the pictures embedded in his skin. She stopped when she noticed the name peeking out from under the sleeve of his left arm.
She blew out a hard breath. Of course he had someone. Look at him, for shit’s sake! And Bella was probably some six-foot blonde bombshell. Unlike Nora’s five foot four, her dark shoulder-length hair that frizzed with the humidity of the city.
His hand appeared in front of her face. “You okay?” His fingers wiggled before her eyes.
She cleared her throat and gave herself a mental shake.
“So, flowers. What can I get you? A bouquet?” She fixated her eyes on his chin.
“No. Actually I need like a bundle of flowers or something.” He pulled out a scrap of paper from the back pocket of his jeans. Flattening it on the counter, he turned it to her, so she could read the script.
His girlfriend even had beautiful handwriting. Of course.
“You need carnations. Okay, easy enough.” She scribbled on her pad, noting her chicken scratch didn’t compare to the script on the note. “It doesn’t say a color here. We currently have them in white, peach, pink, and yellow but we can spray the ends of the white petals if you’d like something different.”
When he didn’t answer, she raised her eyes to meet his. But he wasn’t looking at her; his focus was trained on the back office door.
Voices were raised back there, but she’d been so caught up in her own mind she hadn’t noticed.
Putting her pen down, she took a step in the direction of the office. Antonio was yelling. Rambling in Italian, but she understood most of it. Her throat clenched.
She ran to the door, flinging it open just as Teo raised a gun in Antonio’s direction.
Even with the silencer screwed on the weapon she heard the pop of the gun, muffled, but it rang in her ears. Two shots. Antonio dropped to the floor. Blood spilled from his chest, soaking his neatly pressed shirt.
A strong hand clamped down on her arm, and she realized she’d screamed.
“Fuck.” Anthony shook her.
Teo sighed and shook his head. “I told you to stay up front.”
“I-I…” She couldn’t tear her eyes away from Antonio, at the vacant stare in his eyes.
“Let her go.” That deep voice rattled her.
“Who the fuck are you?” Teo demanded.
“Let her go, or you’ll be joining your friend there,” the guy from the shop promised. Pure confidence threaded through his tone.
Nora peeked over her shoulder at him. While her insides were rattling around, his composure was completely in check. Having a gun in his hands and pointed at Teo’s head might have helped his confidence along.
Where had he gotten the gun?
“Okay, fine.” Teo nodded to Anthony, and he shoved Nora away.
“There,” Anthony said.
“I don’t know who you are, but this ain’t none of your business,” Teo said, shifting his footing. He still held his gun, but it was pointed at the floor.
“You’re right. I don’t care about that.” The customer nodded toward Antonio on the floor. Nora swallowed back a whimper. “Come here.” He reached out and snagged the back of her T-shirt, pulling her to him. She realized he wanted her behind him and scrambled to take cover behind his back.
Real hero she was. #womanpower would not be included in any tweets regarding her.
“We’re leaving and you two can finish whatever you came here to do.”
Nora took a step back toward the door.
“We have some business with Nora there, too,” Teo said, pointing a finger at the pair of them.
“No. You don’t,” the customer said. “Whatever your business was with her is over now,” he said with authority.
She stared at the back of his head. He didn’t know her. How could he say that? Maybe she did have business with the brothers. Maybe she was their partner. How the hell would he know?
“No, not by a long shot.” Teo took a step toward them.
“It is,” the customer said. “Nora, go up front.”
Now he was giving orders to her in that burly voice.
She would school him later on his arrogance, she decided, and hightailed it to the front of the shop.
“You don’t know who you’re fucking over, kid,” she heard Anthony warn, but she couldn’t hear the customer’s response.
Unbolting the front door, she stepped out into the warm summer sun, looking both ways down the street. She’d taken the bus to work.
“This way.” That same arrogant demand as he grabbed her arm and pulled her down the street.
“Where are they?” she asked, looking over her shoulder as he dragged her along.
He didn’t answer her, just kept tugging her along the sidewalk until he brought her to what she assumed was his car. He yanked open the passenger door. “Get in.” He waved at her.
She looked at the car. Decent. Newish, but not brand new. She didn’t know cars well enough to know the make, but she could tell he took care of it. And he did just save her from having to deal with the brothers.
“I-I don’t think so. I’m good. Just—where are they?” she asked, hearing the panic in her own voice. They still hadn’t come out of the shop. Had he shot them?
“They aren’t coming out yet. Get in the damn car, Nora,” he ordered. His use of her name snapped her to attention.
“I don’t know you!” she argued.
His jaw set firm.
“Seriously? I just saved you from those goons, and you aren’t sure you should get in the car?” The crease in his forehead deepened as his eyebrows shot up.
He had a good point. But still.
“I don’t even know your name.” She continued to watch the entrance to the flower shop, unsure of how much time she had before they came for her. And they would come for her. “Where’s your gun?”
“My name is Greg Turner and my gun is holstered beneath my shirt where it should be. Now get in the damn car before I toss your little ass in there.”
She took half a step back from him, not doubting he would do that.
When he sighed and started to reach for her, her decision was made. She took off in a sprint, heading for the alley.