Faith Wells wearily pushed a strand of hair behind one ear. Her feet hurt and the stabbing pain above her left eye wouldn’t quit. A fly crawled across the smeared surface of the clock above the counter. Still another hour to go.
Faith hurried over to the kitchen window to pick up the plates. The odor of greasy food made her stomach turn over. “Thanks, Clint.”
He nodded, his dusky grizzled face creased in a frown. “You okay, sweetheart? You look kind of pale.”
“Just a headache.” Faith forced a smile. “No worries.” She carried the order over to two men seated by the window. They were both big, muscular guys—brothers by the look of them. They thanked her in low, rumbling tones that made her shiver despite how lousy she was feeling. “More coffee?”
He must be the younger brother. His hair was several shades lighter, cut short on the sides and longer on top. He smiled at her, his green eyes crinkling at the corners in a fascinating way. “Zane?”
The other man was, frankly, gorgeous, with dark hair that touched his collar, tousled as if he had just rolled out of bed, and pale eyes that examined her face before answering. “Not for me.”
Caught in his ice-blue gaze, Faith shook off a sudden surge of attraction as she topped up baby brother’s cup, before moving away to the counter. She set the pot back on the burner, just as a group of four entered the café. Alton Lynch and his gang of hyenas. Damn it. Why did he have to come in here?
Alton smiled at her, a cold smile that promised retribution for turning him down at the club last night. Over-privileged ass. Faith turned on her heel and went through the door to the kitchen, finding it empty. Clint must be down in the cellar. She took a deep breath, convincing herself to go back and serve her customers. It was her job, after all, and she really needed the money. Her headache pulsed at her temples. She grabbed her purse and rummaged for her pain medication.
Alton barged through the swinging door behind her. “So, this is where you’re hiding? Careful, darlin’, I might start thinking you’re trying to avoid me.”
Of course, she was hiding. Alton hadn’t changed a lick since they were in high school. He was still a bully and a dangerous one at that. Faith retreated, her back to the cupboards. “What do you want?”
Alton edged closer, the smell of his expensive aftershave overwhelming in the small space. “Just a little taste of what you’re gonna give me later.”
Faith eyed him coolly. “I won’t be giving you anything. This area is off-limits to customers. You have to go back to the dining room.”
He boxed Faith in against the counter, one arm on either side of her. “I don’t have to do anything, darlin’, except what I want. And right now, that’s you.” Alton nuzzled her throat, and she jerked her head away.
“Get off me!”
Alton frowned. “You aren’t very friendly, are you? You weren’t so stuck up back in high school.”
Faith pushed his beefy chest. “That was a long time ago. I’ve changed.”
He grabbed her hand, shoving it toward his crotch. “Snooty little bitch. My old man runs this town and that means I get whatever I want.” He grabbed her breast. “Including this.”
Faith jerked away. “You disgust me.”
Anger clouded his features. Alton grabbed her hair and yanked it, bringing tears to her eyes. No, this wasn’t going to happen. Faith stomped on his foot, hard, and he danced away, swearing. She backed up, feeling for the door that led out to the parking lot. Alton grabbed for her, his face crimson with rage, just as she slipped outside, banging the door shut behind her.
Faith flew down the stairs, her heart pumping in a furious rhythm. She was out of here—this café, this whole town. She almost reached her car, when the door banged open and Alton clattered down the stairs.
“Come back here, bitch!”
Not so much. Faith shoved the key in the car lock and turned it, throwing open the door and diving in. Alton grabbed her cruelly from behind, pulling her out of the car. He slammed her against the fender, groping under her skirt. Faith screamed, trying to wriggle away. She heard the crunch of boots on gravel, and Alton suddenly let go. Faith glanced over her shoulder to see his big body flying backwards before landing on the dumpster with a thud and sliding onto the gravel. His head flopped to one side and he lay still. What was going on?
“You okay, miss?”
Faith nearly jumped out of her skin as she spun around. Zane stood watching her. “Did you… do that?” She jerked a thumb at Alton’s limp form.
“Yeah. He scared you.” He paused, those pale eyes roaming over her face. “I didn’t like that.”
“Well, thank you.” She hesitated. “Is he… alive?”
He nodded. “Still breathing. Maybe you should go home. I’ll take care of this.”
“I-I should go in and explain to Clint…”
Zane shook his head. “Not a good idea. His three friends are still in there. Why don’t you let me tell Clint what happened?” He moved smoothly up to the door and held it open, tucking Faith into the seat before she could protest. He did up her seatbelt and closed the door. Faith blinked and started the ignition. He was still watching as she pulled onto the highway and sped home.
Zane Hunter watched the girl’s car spin out onto the road. She drove too fast. He strode over to the young man lying crumpled against the metal bin. The dip-shit was bruised and unconscious, but with no serious injuries, which Zane found a little annoying. Still, it was probably easier to deal with this situation rather than having to bury the body. He returned to the diner by the front door, as silently as he’d left.
Brock was still seated at their table, his gaze suspicious. He would have heard the whole altercation from in here. “Where is he?”
“Out by the dumpster. The dip-shit annoyed me.”
Brock nodded. “The girl okay?”
“Shook up, I guess. I sent her home. Back in a minute.”
Zane went through the door to the kitchen just as Clint climbed the stairs from the cellar, a bag of potatoes over his shoulder. Zane explained the events briefly to the cook, who gave him a cool nod when he finished. “Those guys are troublemakers. The one who went after Faith—Alton Lynch—well, his old man practically owns Tilney Mills. He’s a bad enemy to make.”
Zane showed his teeth. “I make a worse one.”
“Uh huh.” Clint set down the bag and dusted off his hands. “Did you want a piece of pie? Sounds like you earned it.”
Zane considered. “You got cherry?”
“Sure.” Clint crossed the room to the reach-in refrigerator. He pulled out a pie and set it down while he hunted for a knife. “Faith must have been really upset.” Clint frowned. “She forgot her purse on the counter.”
“I can drop it off on my way home,” Zane offered.
Clint stared at him for a moment. “All right. Pick it up on your way out.”
Zane went back to his dinner, observing Lynch’s cronies discreetly as he ate, while pretending to listen to Brock droning on about the latest in a long line of girlfriends. Like that never got old. After a moment, he heard voices rising in agitation. Zane’s head lifted. He could smell their uneasiness. The dip-shit’s friends were getting restless, wondering where their leader was.
“I saw him go into the back after that cute waitress,” one of them said.
“Guess he’ll be back when he’s done,” another snickered, making a lewd gesture with his fingers. The others laughed. Zane growled.
His brother paused, fork in the air. “Now, come on. I want to finish eating.”
Zane shrugged and relaxed against the chair. “Okay. I do want that pie.” He knew Brock was staring at him. “What?”
Brock pointed his fork. “You like this girl.”
“I don’t even know her.”
Too bad his little brother could read him so easily. Zane shrugged. “There was just something about her.” Like caramel curls, chocolate-brown doe eyes, and a sweet, curvy figure he wanted to explore every inch of.
Brock gave him a look. “Right.”
Soon after, Clint came by the table with his cherry pie and Zane dug in, while he tuned out his brother’s whining about some redhead who wouldn’t go out with him. It was always the same story with Brock. He’d see a girl he wanted, chase her until he caught her, and then he’d get bored and move on. Like a dumb mutt chasing a bone.
“Are you even listening to me?” Brock demanded.
“Not really.” Zane took a last mouthful of tart fruit and flaky pastry. It really was good pie. “Your new girl sounds like a keeper, though.”
“Why do you say that?” Brock asked suspiciously.
“Because it sounds like she has good taste.”
“Good taste? But she won’t go out with me… oh.” It took his brother a moment to process the insult. Brock crossed his arms over his chest. “That cocky attitude of yours is going to get you into trouble someday, and I won’t be around to save your ass.”
“Sure, you will. You love me.”
Brock’s lips twitched. “Jerk.”
Brock stood up and threw twenty dollars on the table to cover his share of the bill. He stalked out of the diner, but when Zane tracked him through the window, he could see his brother was smiling.
Zane grabbed the twenty from the table and walked over to the cash register. He handed it to Clint, along with another twenty. “Keep the change.”
“Thanks.” Clint rang up the sale and reached below the counter for Faith’s purse. “Here. I hope this won’t ruin your reputation.”
Zane raised a brow as he grabbed the strap. “Did you actually make a joke?”
“Stranger things have happened,” Clint told him. “You watch yourself, Zane.”
Zane tucked the purse under his arm and pulled out his keys, pushing the door open with his hip. He strode across the parking lot, whistling, imagining Faith’s reaction when he knocked on her door. Would she be grateful? Zane was mulling over various forms of gratitude, when he heard loud laughter behind him as Lynch’s cronies swaggered out of the diner.
There were three of them, in various shades of preppy: expensive haircuts, fancy clothes, and a conviction that they ruled the world. Zane unlocked his truck and climbed in, tossing Faith’s bag on the seat. He waited as the cronies walked across the lot, searching for Lynch, muttering when they found their ride empty. Suddenly, a shout rose in the air, following by running feet, and then a lot of swearing. Zane wondered idly if Lynch was still unconscious.
“Call 9-1-1!” one of them screamed. “I saw his chest move.”
Zane started the engine and pulled out of the parking lot, watching the cronies in his rear-view mirror as they stumbled around like a bunch of chickens with their heads cut off. Real life had just hit those boys in the face, and they didn’t like it, not one bit. Zane was still grinning when he hit the highway. And wondering why a certain pretty waitress smelled like wolf.
Faith finished toweling her hair and combed it out, noting that it was getting too long, past her shoulders now. Her head still pounded. Wrapping herself in a comfy terrycloth robe, she headed down the narrow hall to the kitchen. A cup of tea would settle her stomach. A knock on the door made her flinch. Not a loud knock, just firm. A knock that demanded to be answered. She heaved a sigh and crossed to the door. Her neighbor had a kind heart, but the last thing Faith wanted right now was company.
She slid the chain off the door and opened it. A man filled the doorway, all muscles and riveting pale blue stare. Zane, the guy from the diner who had helped her out. Her fingers closed around the opening of her robe. “What are you doing here?”
Zane held out her bag. “You forgot your purse.” He looked her over, his gaze lingering on her bare legs before settling on her face.
Faith’s body warmed in response to his stare, drawn to this handsome, powerful man. A man who had saved her.
“I also wanted to make sure that you’re okay,” Zane continued. “You looked kind of shook up back at the diner.”
“I’m fine, thank you. I appreciate you helping me and taking care of Alton Lynch.”
Zane rocked back on his heels, completely at ease with his body. “So, you know him.”
Faith flushed. “I used to.” She hesitated for a moment. “Would you like to come in?”
Why had she done that? She didn’t know this guy. But there was something about him, about the way he’d taken care of her and dealt with Alton, something that made her want to trust him. Zane nodded and moved past her into the tiny living room, looking huge in the limited space. He glanced around the room, with the same kind of focused attention she’d felt at the diner.
“I… I was just going to make a cup of tea.”
He frowned. “No.”
“No, you don’t want tea?”
“No, I want you to sit down. You look kind of shaky. I’ll make the tea.”
Zane pushed Faith gently toward the couch, until the back of her knees hit the seat and she collapsed on the cushions. The sound of him rummaging in her kitchen and banging the cupboard doors was comforting. It was nice having another body around. She closed her eyes and tried to relax. The image of Alton looming over her intruded and she shuddered at the memory of his hands on her body. Faith took a deep, calming breath. Alton was still crumpled in the diner parking lot, for all she knew, a fate he richly deserved.
The whistle of the kettle came as a welcome interruption to her agitated thoughts. Screw Alton Lynch. Zane came back into the room with a tray holding a teapot, two cups, milk and sugar, and a plate of cookies. He set the tray down on the coffee table. “I didn’t know how you took your tea.”
Faith’s eyes filled with tears. When was the last time that someone had taken care of her? “Thank you. I don’t even know your whole name. I’m Faith Wells.”
He nodded. “Zane Hunter.” He leaned forward to pour out the tea. “Milk?”
“Yes, please. No sugar.”
That made him frown. “You probably need the sugar after what happened.”
“I don’t like sugar in my tea.”
“I think you should have a little,” Zane insisted.
Faith set her lips in a thin line. “I won’t drink it if it’s sweet.”
A moment of silence followed, a battle of wills. Finally, Zane’s shoulders dropped and a slight smile curved his well-cut lips. “Stubborn little cuss. Have it your own way—this time.” He poured milk into her cup and handed it to her. Faith extended her hand, dismayed to find it was shaking.
“It’s all right, Faith, you’re safe now.”
She exhaled slowly, a little of the tension draining from her spine. Taking the cup, Faith sipped the amber brew. “It’s good.”
“I can cook, too. I’m the whole package.” Zane picked up the plate. “Have a cookie.”
Faith shook her head. “I’m not hungry.”
“You need to refuel after that run-in with Lynch.” He offered her the plate again, with a wide grin that made her blink. Zane Hunter was a gorgeous man. “Come on, Faith, I insist.”
Faith wavered between a natural inclination to make her own decisions and the sudden rumbling in her tummy. “Fine. I’ll have one.”
“Good decision.” Zane picked up his own cup and leaned back in the shabby armchair. “You live alone?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because I don’t think you should stay here by yourself tonight,” he told her bluntly. “From what I hear, Alton Lynch is a vindictive bastard.”
“I know. We went to high school together.”
One dark brow went up. “So, you have some history with the guy.”
Faith sighed. “I was a bit of a wild child back then, partying and drinking. Maybe Alton thought my past entitled him to act that way.”
Zane straightened, his brows snapped together in a frown. “Hold up, Faith. A man is never entitled to assault a woman. Never, no matter who the woman is or what she does.”
This time, Faith’s tears trickled down her cheeks. “You’re right. I’m sorry I’m being so emotional. I’m just not used to having someone take my side, without question.”
Zane moved so swiftly. He was beside her in a flash, pulling her into a comforting embrace. Her head dropped onto his broad shoulder. He smelled wonderful, fresh and wild, like the forest.
Faith dug a tissue from her pocket and wiped her eyes. With some reluctance, she straightened after a moment, leaving the comfort of Zane’s arms. She was a big girl, Faith reminded herself. Taking care of her own problems was job one. There had never been anyone else around to help her out.
“You still have that headache?” Zane Hunter didn’t miss a trick.
“How did you know?” Faith asked.
“You keep wincing. You take something for it?”
“It’s in my purse.”
Zane walked over to the hall table and rummaged for her pills. He snapped the cover and took one out, offering it to her on his palm in a strangely intimate gesture.
“Thanks.” Faith accepted the pill and swallowed it down with a sip of tea.
Faith shook her head. “I just want to sleep.”
“You go on,” Zane told her. “I’ll take the couch.”
She stared at him. “You want to stay here? I don’t even know you.”
“You’re safe with me, Faith. It’s Alton I’m not so sure about. Seems like the kind of dick who would stop by your house to harass you.”
“He is, but…”
Zane pushed her gently down the hall. “Quite worrying. You go sleep and I’ll keep watch.”
Faith hesitated long enough for Zane to swing her up in his arms, as easily as if she was a child. She longed to lean against his broad, muscled chest again, but that would be weak—and she needed to be strong. “Put me down,” she demanded.
Zane strode down the hall, and Faith allowed herself to relax in his arms, enjoying their warm strength. He was a man who protected women, not preyed upon them. The long line of his throat was close enough to kiss and, Lord, she was tempted. He smelled so damned good. No, that was a road she wouldn’t go down, no matter how much she wanted to. Faith couldn’t take being let down again. Her heart wouldn’t stand it. Her body didn’t care—it was already all in, her fingers curving into his collar, savoring the softness of his dark hair.
There was only one bedroom in her tiny house, and Zane walked in, depositing her gently on the bed. Faith removed her arm from his neck as he set her down. His ice-blue eyes were warm with understanding, as if he knew what she was feeling. It was all so confusing. She ached to pull him down into the bed, opening her legs wide to receive him.
“Careful, Faith,” he murmured and smoothed back her tumbled hair.
She scooted back on the bed, ashamed of her body’s reaction. But he only smiled and tapped her nose playfully. “Good night, Faith.”
She was too tired to think about anything right now, especially the attractions of Zane Hunter. Untying her robe, Faith dropped it on the floor, crawling under the covers and falling asleep without even turning out the light.