Kade: Shifters of Iron Storm Bayou
I’ve finally found my forever mate.
And she’s not what I expected.
She’s innocent. Pure.
I’m broken. Feral.
But I’ll go to any length to protect her.
Even if it means my downfall.
FIRST FOUR CHAPTERS PREVIEW HERE
CHAPTER ONE: IVY
“What the fuck is this?” Roger stabbed the burnt yeast roll with a pocket knife and held it up in front of my face.
“I told you. I can bus tables. I can serve drinks. I don’t cook, especially not for a load of people.” I untied the apron, balled it up, and plopped it down on the counter. “I’m not doing this. I’d rather work at the hole-in-the-wall next door.”
I regretted the words that came out of my mouth. If I quit now, I knew it’d take me at least a week to find another job. I was two weeks away from eviction and I really couldn’t afford to be picky. Plus, there were other consequences. Some unforeseen. And others would be a direct result if I retaliated.
Either way, I couldn’t focus. It felt like I was going to lose my mind.
Roger tossed the contents of the plate in the trash. “Look, you and I both know that if this place goes down, we’re both out on the street. We’re as good as dead. I don’t need any more girls working the front. I have enough stupid girls out there as it is already.”
“You’re such a self-centered jerk,” I said.
Roger shrugged. “I gave you a choice. You could either use your mouth out there or your hands in here. Your cherry’s never been popped. We’ve got rich snobs out there who’ll pay good money for you.”
I shoved straight past him. “I’m not doing that. Hell no.”
“Roger, give her a break!” Sharon, the head cook, grumbled as she lifted the fries out of the hot grease.
“Shut the hell up, Sharon!” he yelled.
“Watch your mouth, asshole, or you’ll have exactly zero cooks in this kitchen tonight,” she replied.
Roger huffed and turned his attention back to me. “If you want to eat and survive, you better get yourself together. Take a break or whatever you need to do.” Roger pointed to the back door.
I exhaled. “Fine.” I took off to the back where I kept my handbag and grabbed a bottle of painkillers, hoping they’d help drive my migraine away this time. The first dose hadn’t done shit. Thankfully, there were only two more hours left until the kitchen was officially closed. And then, I’d be without stress again for the next twelve hours or so.
Sometimes I wished I had fled when I had the chance to—when no one knew who the hell I was. If I could go back in time and warn my pre-teen self about the nightmare I was headed into, I never ever would’ve been in this predicament.
Roger Caron was my oldest cousin, but not blood-related by any means. My step-father’s brother had taken me in when I was twelve-years-old. With no other relatives to claim me when my mom left, I resigned myself to live with the Caron family instead of becoming an orphan of the state.
As I thought back on it now, I didn’t think that the latter was even a choice. Even with my mom and step-dad gone, the Carons would never let me leave scot-free. There was only one sure way out of the mob and that was death.
Roger’s dad, who was also my step-father’s brother, Aaron Caron, was second in command to his mob boss, Harvey Caron. Was. Until they were both killed. Some say they were murdered in a revenge killing. And others say they had it coming to them for their shady dealings around the city. I’ll never know. I’m not sure I want to know. When the boss was murdered, I felt free…but the feeling of freedom had only lasted a moment.
I thought I’d never see the Carons again, and then Roger came stumbled back into my life like a poor rodent ran over ten times by a Mack truck.
As a result of Aaron’s and Harvey’s murders, the Caron mob didn’t exist anymore. There was a new boss in the city now. But the Caron debt didn’t disappear. As long as there was one Caron heir still alive, the debt was valid. And Roger’s never-ending promises to pay have remained broken. I was just as much in debt as he was…or so I thought.
This fucking hell hole of a nightclub was the only reason why Roger was still standing and why the new boss let him live. They pocketed more than half of the profits here. Roger says I’m obligated to help pay the debt and that I owe the Carons my life. If I don’t work for him, he’ll tell the new mob boss who I really am—who I was meant to become.
I pushed out into the bleak night, letting the screened door slam behind me. To the right of me, something moved. Or rather someone. I wasn’t prepared for what would happen next.
A large shadow moved toward me and then a large hand covered my mouth and grabbed my arms. My bottle of pills fell to the ground. My eyes grew stark-wide and all I saw was the outside walls of the brick building in front of me. The tip of my nose was millimeters from being smashed to the hard surface. I could’ve screamed, but the only thing that escaped me was a puff of air.
“Don’t you dare make a sound.” The voice was deep and gruff.
I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed that this guy wouldn’t put an end to my life. For who I was. For my connection to the Carons.
“You’re going to nod if yes. Understand?”
The male, who I knew was larger than most men I’d ever met, had my hands pulled behind my back. He was strong. I barely moved an inch in his steel-hard grip.
“Do you know the owner?”
“Who is it? Caron?”
The answer was complicated, but I shook my head. The wind blew, fanning across my face. I caught a whiff of his scent. Husky, just like his voice. He wore cologne, or maybe the woodsy scent was just what he smelled of. I hardly ever visited the woods. Had never even once gone camping. But I recalled a time or two when I was close. The man currently holding me hostage…he smelled just like the woods. Maybe that’s where he came from. A path led from the garbage receptacle right through the trees. From then on, there was just dense wilderness.
“Do you work inside?” he asked.
I nodded once. Why was he asking so many questions? Had the new mob boss sent him? Had he come to assassinate Roger and me? But no assassin would ask questions. I’d be bleeding out on the stinking asphalt by now if he’d come to kill me.
“Are you a trick?”
I’d heard the term once or twice before. There were tricks inside, granting sexual gratification to any person with the money to pay, but I wasn’t one of them. In fact, women in that role were paid more than me.
I shook my head slowly. I struggled in his grip. I wanted to beg for my freedom. My life. But I couldn’t.
“Calm down, sweetheart. It’s best that you don’t see me. If you do…won’t end well for you. Understand?” His voice was so calm. Deep. Calm. But firm.
“I’m going to remove my hand. If you scream or direct attention, I’ll break your neck.”
One whimper and a nod were all it took and he let go of me.
“Who are you?” I whispered.
There was a brief silence and then, “I never told you to talk. Don’t turn around. Count to ten and then go back inside.”
I swallowed and nodded.
“Start counting, little doll.”
“One…two…three.” My breath tripped, but I couldn’t. I made it to about seven and then stopped. I turned around and shifted my gaze to the direction of the woods. I don’t know why I did, but something told me to look in that direction.
Amongst the trees, I saw a set of bright gray eyes looking back at me through the bushes. These eyes couldn’t have belonged to any human. One…the eyes were too low in proportion to the ground to belong to a man. Or maybe the person was just crouching. And two…the pupils were large and round with the inner corners of the eyes slanted downward. A wolf. It was a wolf.
My lips fell apart and I exhaled. One blink and the wolf was gone.
I shook my head as a surreal feeling swept over me. “What the hell?” I bent over and picked up the bottle of pills. I wasn’t hallucinating or anything like that. I hadn’t even taken one pill yet.
I looked back toward the darkness and at the thick line of trees leading into the forest.
Something was amiss.
CHAPTER TWO: KADE
“She wasn’t telling the truth,” I stated.
“About knowing the Carons?” Alarik asked as he leaned against the banister of the deck.
“She knows the owner but shook her head no when I asked if he was a Caron. Her heart jumped. Maybe she knows who they are. She hesitated when she answered.”
“Maybe she was scared from you coming up behind her,” Alarik replied.
“She was, but she still knows something.”
“Do you think she’s one of them?”
“One of who? A Caron.” I shook my head. “There was no resemblance.”
“You didn’t get inside. So, what happened?” Alarik asked.
“I had just walked up to the backdoor when I heard the girl yelling from inside. Her and some guy. Her supervisor, a boyfriend, maybe. I didn’t see his face. He kept inside after their argument. She almost saw mine though.”
“She popped out through the backdoor. I almost didn’t see her. She looked like a sly little cat with those green eyes. Her hair was almost jet black, as dark as the uniform she wore.”
“Black hair?” Alarik looked puzzled. “Then she’s definitely not a Caron. Their seed is strong, it seems. Most Carons are blondes. The males are anyway.”
“I could’ve stayed longer, found out more, but not with her onto me like that.”
Alarik pressed his lips together. The inner corners of his brows almost came together at the center. “Sounds like she affected you more than you affected her.”
I snorted. “Never.”
“So, do you think the Carons are in New Orleans trying to make a reappearance?” Alarik inquired.
“I doubt it. Even if they are here, they’ll never gain the same respect or support they once did. That place looked like shit compared to the high-end establishments the Carons were known for.”
Alarik took a seat and ran his palm through his hair. I’d known the guy long enough to know that he still carried vengeance in his heart for the murder of his uncle, our previous alpha. The Carons had been a non-issue for just over a year, but every now and then, Alarik would feel the need to check-in. There had been no activity for months, and then a little birdie at the police precinct told us that organized crime was on the rise once again with a possible link to the Carons.
Those Carons had caused many problems for us. Conflicts with them almost caused the pack our homeland and our safety.
Not only were they responsible for the murder of Alarik’s uncle, but they had also brought a lot of speculation to our community when they unlawfully—and without permission—used our territories for their illegal dealings. But that situation happened under Alarik’s uncle’s leadership.
Under his uncle, we were damn near forbidden from confrontations and physical altercations with humans. But not anymore. Now, no one crossed into our territory unless we knew about it.
The new alpha—Alarik—was a different beast altogether. He spoke my language. Sometimes you had to give people something to fear. And our alpha…both beast and human feared him. Those who knew him didn’t cross him.
“The Carons may be gone, but the Verde mob has caused a rift between the authorities and some politicians. Our connection at the precinct wouldn’t lie about the link they found between these two mobs. Either way, something is happening. And I must say, someone is messy. Very messy,” Alarik offered.
“Right. And they’ve left too many blood trails these last few months. Or maybe they don’t care and they have some politician’s phone number tucked away to clear them.”
“Not this time,” Alarik added. “Another cop down at the precinct picked up the lead and of course we’ve got nosy reporters on this like spectators gathering around a train wreck.”
I rubbed my chin. “We gonna get involved this time?”
“My hope is that we aren’t already. I sent you to this place to check on a lead. Other than a few motorcycles marked with the Verde symbol, did you see anything else out of the ordinary?”
I leaned against the railing. “Verde mob members at a suspected Caron establishment…wouldn’t you say that’s out of the ordinary?”
Alarik nodded. “Hell yeah. At least I’m not crazy. So, why would the Carons be linked to the Verde mob leader who practically stole all of their business?”
“Is your source positive about this connection?” I asked.
“Some details aren’t clear, but he’s told me what he knows is true. Thinks I might have something to offer, seeing as how I’ve crossed paths with Verde once or twice and made it clear that my territory is completely off-limits to their activities—all of which are illegal. They know what I did to the Carons.”
“Yet, you still believe the Carons are active in the city?” I asked.
Alarik nodded. “They’re up to something. If the Carons and Verdes have somehow joined forces, I just might have to rethink my truce with the Verdes.”
“I understand, alpha.” Even though this issue crossed into Alarik’s personal vendetta, this was also a pack vendetta. The Carons were bad news for our pack. Their hatred for our kind went back years, even decades.
“I can’t have anything to do with the Carons, which is why I might be forced to separate myself from the Verdes. My uncle didn’t deserve the end they gave him.”
“I agree with you,” I said. “I’ll uncover more info on the link. Send me in again. You and Bastian have your hands full. You, with the humans. And Bastian, with checking in on that crooked DA for you. I can deal with it. If they’re here…if they’ve come back, I’ll find out why.”
CHAPTER THREE: IVY
My protest against being in the kitchen worked. Being there didn’t suit my agenda. I feared for my safety, but my safety was the smallest concern compared to what might happen next if I didn’t go through with my plans. I just needed a bit of courage to set them into motion.
A group of regulars decided to hold a poker tournament in one of the VIP rooms. Roger needed extra wait staff to handle the occasion. I was one of them. I wouldn’t call myself lucky. The timing was just right.
So, it was busy. Busier than usual. All of the staff were preoccupied with their tasks. No one had time to lurk, loiter, or lounge around. No one had time to ask me questions about what I was doing here in the first place or why I had agreed to work in a place like this. It was complicated, just like the rest of my life.
I hadn’t seen Roger since he assigned me to my station. It was better that way anyway. There was less conflict between him and I when he was out of sight and out of mind. Ever since I met Roger years ago when everything seemed picture-perfect, I knew that he’d be trouble. But he got what he wanted. I know he did. The greedy look on his face he gets when he counts all the cash after closing tells me that. Too bad he has to hand it all over the next day. Maybe there will come a time when he could stuff himself to the gills in all of the profits from his business. Either way, I don’t give a shit if he does or doesn’t. I’ll be gone by then. I should’ve been gone already.
Roger’s office was just down the hall from the storage closet. I glanced down the dark hallway at the office door, which I knew was closed. And locked.
I stood there in the middle of the hallway, biting my nails and contemplating the risks.
I spun around to see Ramona coming from the opposite direction with a couple of trays.
I exhaled nervously. “Hey…”
“Do you need a hand getting those things to the room?” she asked.
“No,” I mumbled. “I think I’ve got it. I’ll be right behind you.”
I redirected my steps toward my original destination to the storage in the back, grabbed a couple of supplies, and made my way back out through the crowds. I almost couldn’t stand the noise, but I was getting used to it. The legal activities that went on in this place was only cover up for the illegal ones. I wasn’t even sure if Roger still had an adequate license to be operating it the way he did.
There was lots of gambling. Dancing. Booze and food, of course. There were women. Prostitutes. Many called them tricks. The drunken men who came to visit this place flaunted the cash and the tricks did whatever was asked. The money was good. But some of the things the girls talked about doing always brought a sick feeling to my stomach and bile to my mouth.
But those carnal activities went down on the other end of the building. I could handle the drunken gamblers for tonight. All I had to do was smile and refill drinks. Occasionally, I ‘d have to swat a few dirty hands away from my body. I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to this. Only thing I needed now was an exit plan.
A guy with a long dusty beard and busted out teeth held out his mug. “Well, aren’t you a pretty little bitch? Don’t just stand there like a board, ” he complained, giving me a long sneer. “Fill ‘er up.”
I cringed and filled his mug and then moved to the other side of the room where I pretended to clean up the refreshment table. Not too long after that, a quarrel erupted over the pool table but the bouncers dispelled the situation quickly.
The other attendant and I rushed to clean up the spilled beer and overturned baskets of fries and wings from the floor. Getting on my hands and knees and mopping up the floor wasn’t what I had in mind tonight, but I was just one step closer.
I picked up the bucket of wet rags and said, “I’ll take these to the wash room.”
Ramona ran her palms down her apron. “Okay, this has got to be one of the rowdiest bunches we’ve had in a while, but I think I can handle this. Would you tell Sharon to have someone bring us another order of fries and hot wings?”
I maneuvered my way out of the room, squeezing myself through the tight swarm of bodies. Since I kept my head down, I made it to the kitchen in no time. Sharon, someone from the waitstaff, and two other cooks were in the kitchen.
“Hey, girlie.” Sharon smiled when she saw me and wiped her palms on her apron. “How do you like working the front?”
“It’s alright. I’d rather be away from the crowd, but I’m so slow in here. It’s not that I can’t cook or anything, I just hated messing up your orders,” I said. All of it was true. Reason number two for getting out of the kitchen was that I couldn’t really handle the fast paced nature. On the other hand, Sharon was a pro. I thought she mentioned something about being the cafeteria manager at a local high school before some kids set fire to it years ago.
“No, that’s okay, honey. You do what you can do,” she said.
The other guy and gal in the kitchen with her continued to work to get the orders out while Sharon brought me over to a somewhat quiet corner.
“Are you doing okay?” she asked.
“Yes, I’m fine.” I nodded.
“Just making sure. You took off the other night after you and Roger had words.”
I sighed. “Truthfully, I was a little overwhelmed. I decided to call it a night.” Especially after being twisted up like a pretzel and forced to count to ten so the mysterious man could get away without me seeing him. I told myself this morning that the wolf must have been a figment of my crazy imagination, or maybe this new prescription for painkillers was too strong.
“If I can do anything for you, let me know,” Sharon whispered. “I know it’s kind of hard when you don’t have family around.” She had a daughter who had since gone away to some college out west and her sister was living somewhere in New York. Other than that, it was just her and her spouse. If there was anyone who could relate to the sudden absence of family from my life, that person was Sharon.
“Thank you, Sharon. I’ll let you know.”
“I mean it too,” she said, firmly.
I smiled. “I know. You’re a good friend.”
“Alright. Let me get back to work, ‘kay?”
“Okay. Also, we’re gonna need another order of hot wings and fries for the poker room,” I said.
“Yup. I should have known. I’ll get that on their tab and send someone to bring it out,” she said.
After dumping the bucket and throwing the rags in the laundry crate, I walked back out into the back hallway to take a quick bathroom break. The line for the bathroom was nearly a mile long, so I scurried in the direction toward the administration offices where there was one private stall for the employees.
With just about every staff member out on the floor, just about every office was dark. I relieved myself, washed my hands, and fixed my hair. On my way out of the stall, I just about collided with one of the sex workers on duty.
“Excuse me,” I said.
She rolled her eyes and then rushed into the bathroom. The walls were paper-thin, so the sound of her barfing and coughing were clear. I was thinking about waiting to see if she was alright, but something at the other end of the hallway caught my attention. Something like a shadow.
I shook my head and rubbed my temples, making a mental note to cut down the number of pills I took a day for this consistent migraine. On the other hand, maybe this was a sign. The coast was clear as day. It was probably now or never.
I hurried down the hallway until I reached Roger’s office. It was off-limits when he was out. He’d made that clear to every staff member here. He even kept it locked, but the locks were trash.
I plucked a paperclip from the supply cart under the bulletin board, bent it, and pushed it inside the keyhole. The lock released immediately. I slipped inside and closed the door behind me. Except for a small window next to a file cabinet, the room was dark. I didn’t bother turning the light on.
I felt a bit like a criminal walking around in the dark in a space that wasn’t mine, but I had to know. I promised little Bryan that he’d be safe.
I walked around the back of the desk. I could tell the computer hadn’t been used in weeks. The keyboard and monitors were dusty and streak-free. Roger wasn’t into technology. He barely sent emails. He preferred word of mouth and direct meetings with his friends and colleagues. He knew computers and cell phone records could leave damning evidence against him that could be damaging to his reputation. He took after his dad. His uncle too. They used to be very cautious…but not cautious enough.
One would think that Roger would be on his guard after what happened to him, but lately, his behavior had become erratic. I wasn’t sure where he was. Maybe in meetings. But with whom? He didn’t even have a permanent address. Aside from a couple nights a week at a hotel and overnight flings with several of the sex workers working for him, he usually slept out of the club right here in this office. By the looks of how the sofa cushions were now faded and lopsided, it was likely he crashed right on the couch. The closet, which was left open, was stuffed with every day clothes, business suits, and a few suitcases. I would’ve liked to think that a few outfits and a suitcase were all that was left of his belongings, but I knew that was a lie he told me so I’d feel sorry for him. He had the business here, of course, and I knew he had other assets hiding in places I never knew about.
I pulled out the top desk drawer. My gaze ran across some pens and pencils, a stapler, and a checkbook. I picked up a set of keys which looked like it might fit one of the cabinets next to the closet. I knew my answers wouldn’t have been in such an obvious place, but it was worth a try. I took the keys over to the storage area, and starting with the tallest filing cabinet, I started trying all the locks. As I thought, none of them gave way.
I returned the key to the drawer and shoved it closed, careful to leave everything where I found it.
I jumped when I heard voices just outside the hallway. A shadow moved across the window, so I crouched down low, planting myself between the desk. That’s when I saw it. A hidden compartment under the desk on the left side. Desks didn’t usually have drawers in this location, so this was odd. I grabbed for the keys again and stuck them inside. Just like before, the lock didn’t budge.
I crawled out from the space just a minute to get my hands on another paper clip. I opened it up, bent it into shape, and crept back under the desk to get the drawer opened. It took me almost five minutes and a few nicks to my fingertips, but I was finally able to pick the lock and pry the drawer open.
The contents of the drawer were meager. Sitting right on top were several wads of cash. One hundred dollar bills. Money he probably hid from that mobster he was dealing with. Money he kept for himself. Money he kept off the books. Other documents and papers were stacked under the bank rolls. I carefully took out a file folder and glanced through it. Inside were fake documents and a passport with a plane ticket to Canada with a date that had already expired. That didn’t surprise me. Roger had always wanted to get away. He failed so many times.
I closed the passport folder and grabbed another. A few life insurance documents for his father and his uncle were contained in the next one. The pages were all out of order. Some of them were even missing. It look like someone had spilled coffee or maybe even blood on most of the sheets. My stomach rolled in panic and disgust. I was no stranger to spilled blood, but every time I thought about the violence I was once apart of, my temples ached and throbbed.
Realizing that I had a limited amount of time, I fumbled through the rest of the folders in search of some information about Bryan. Everything else was here, but there was nothing on Bryan. It was like he had never existed.
I bit on my thumbnail and sat on the hard floor, defeated. I was exhausted. I just wanted to run. Away from this. But I made a promise…
“Damn it,” I cursed.
I shoved the drawer close and rose above the desk again. My knees cracked from being crouched for so long on the hard concrete floors, but the pain was nothing in comparison to the throbbing in my head.
I glanced down at my wristwatch, recalling Roger telling Sharon earlier that he’d be back before midnight. Midnight was only an hour away. But did he mean one minute before, thirty minutes before or…?
I couldn’t be here when he got back. I didn’t have an excuse for being in here. None at all.
Afraid of what the consequences might be, I exited the office and shut the door behind me. I leaned against the adjacent wall and tried to catch my breath before turning the corner. It seemed that everyone was still preoccupied with their assigned tasks up front, so there wasn’t anyone in the back offices at the moment.
While gnawing on my thumbnail, I took a moment to gather my bearings. Frustrated with the headache that I was trying to ignore unsuccessfully, I fished out my bottle of painkillers from my vest and took out a pill. I was just about to swallow it whole when a dark shadow moved across my feet. An ominous feeling took over me. That which I could not see feared me, but why? Just the instant tension between myself and what stood before me had me frozen to the spot.
I glanced up slowly with the pill still held midway to my mouth. A big man with a black hood was standing right in front of me. Bright gray familiar eyes looked back at me. His gaze narrowed and he tilted his head. Just as I recognized him as the man from the night before, he showed signs of recollection too. I had not seen the man’s face before, but I had felt his presence all around me. And those eyes…those eyes were enchanting.
My heart felt like it was racing about a thousand beats per minute. My hands shook and the little white pill slipped from my sweaty fingers. I didn’t even bother losing eye contact to pick it up.
“Hello, little doll.”
CHAPTER FOUR: IVY
He’d called me the same thing the night before.
His voice was deep. Calm. The tone vibrated through my body, causing yet another surprising emotion in me. One I hadn’t felt in so long.
“You…” I mumbled.
The man’s gaze swept from me to the door behind me.
“Are you Vamos?” he asked.
I almost asked him who the hell was Vamos, but then I realized he was reading the nameplate on the door. Mr. Vamos was Roger’s alias.
I shook my head no.
“You can talk now. Nothing’s stopping you, or is it?”
I swallowed. “Okay.”
“If you are not Vamos, then why are you in the office?” he asked.
“I…I…I work here.” The reply slipped from my lips, but that was good enough.
“Do you need this to lock up?” The man held up the bent-out-of-shape paper clip I used earlier to gain access to the office.
I forced a smile and plucked the clip from his fingers. “Oh, thanks. I must have dropped it.” Before he could ask me another question where the truthful answer would incriminate me, I turned the tables on him. “You were the guy here last night. Out back. Why were you here? Why don’t you want me to see you?” I peered under his dark hood, but everything was a blur except for the sexiest pair of eyes I’d ever seen.
“I was. I was doing my duty. You don’t want to know me, trust me.” His answers came quick.
“Are you one of the newer bodyguards?” Maybe I had missed something last night? But I was sure that wasn’t how bodyguards presented themselves. Why would Roger hired men to guard the back lot? But then again, with Roger being who he is or was before, that would make sense. But why was the shifter there?
“I’m no bodyguard.”
“Then what are you?” I asked. He was large. Over six feet tall. More like six and a half. Maybe more. The average guy in this city was what? Maybe five-eight, give or take. He was built like he was from the countryside, maybe even the swamps.
“What I am isn’t important,” he said.
“Then who are you?”
“Last night, you told me that the owner wasn’t Caron.” He had totally ignored my question. His eyes shifted to the nameplate again. “Is it Vamos?”
“The Carons no longer own this place,” I said.
“So, you do know who the Carons are?”
I swallowed and glanced down the hallway. “Look, I should get back to my station. I shouldn’t be here.”
“So, were you snooping or not?”
I folded my arms across my chest. His gaze went straight to my breasts, then roamed back up to face. He turned slightly and I saw just a bit of his silhouette. He had dark stubble on his face, maybe a day or so old.
“Look, I don’t know who you are,” I said. “If you know what’s good for you, I would suggest staying as far away from anyone named Caron as possible.”
That statement seemed to shock him.
“Tell me your name,” he demanded.
“You first,” I said, grinning. Just like last night, I should’ve been scared shitless, but I wasn’t. I guess my past life had prepared me for this somehow.
“Okay, doll, you’re a little naughty.”
“And you’re a little demanding.”
“I’m not little anything,” he replied.
Some voices nearing the front end of the hallway caught my attention. I recognized one of them. Roger’s.
“I have to go,” I panted, walking off down the opposite end of the hallway, hoping there was an open office I could hide in until Roger was out of sight.
The stranger must have sensed my panic because he took me by the arm, cloaking me with his black trench coat. Moments later, I realized we were in a stuffy coat closet not even fifty feet away from Roger’s office. As Roger and another man came down the hallway, I was pressed up against the broad guy’s chest. He smelled a lot like the forest and the waterfalls. I had visited waterfalls once. Niagara. But that was a long time ago when my mother wasn’t sick.
Realized that Roger and the other man were now inside the office, I released a long sigh.
The man’s body felt so good. I was secure. I was protected. I hadn’t felt this way in so long.
When I looked up into his eyes again, I saw more than just a demanding stranger, I saw a gentle soul—a man with a story behind those eyes.
I lifted my hand to take down his hood, but he caught my wrist before I could reveal his face.
“It’s better if you don’t see my face,” he said.
“Why? Are you snooping too?”
He didn’t say a word in reply. He just stared at me. “Who are you?”
He lifted his head. I saw his lips curve up in a grin. If only I could see his entire face.
“Like the poison?” he asked.
I giggled. “Yes. Like the poison.”
“My pa once told me that looks are deceiving, poison ivy,” he commented.
“Your pa was right.”
“What’s a girl like you doing involved in all this?”
I shrugged. “Circumstances.”
“Circumstances can change.”
I looked away and sighed. “I know.”
“Be careful who you befriend, doll. The Carons aren’t good people. This isn’t a safe place,” he said, reaching out for the knob.
“Wait.” I placed my hand over his before he could open the door.
He paused. His gaze drifted from our connected hands to my face.
I had chills up and down my back, but my palms were sweaty too. “I want to change mine. My circumstances…”
He looked puzzled at first, but then his demeanor changed. His features seemed to soften. “What are you doing tomorrow?”
“I have to work,” I said, softly.
“Here?” He spoke gruffly as if the thought of working in this place should have disgusted me. Well, it should have. It wasn’t the place that was disturbing, just the principle of the thing and the way things were run and what went on behind the scenes.
“No. Not here. I have two jobs. I work at the Marionette Hotel in the city. I’m a housekeeper.”
He paused, giving me a once over again. I only wished that I could see his face. What was he thinking? This stranger…what did he think of me?
“I’ll see you at the Marionette tomorrow. We can talk there,” he said, and then he slipped out of the closet.
He didn’t even give me time to respond. When I came out of the closet behind him, I discovered that he had simply vanished as his cloak folded around the corner, as if into thin air. He was such a big strong guy, but oh man, were his moves graceful. Just like an animalistic predator on a secret mission.
He didn’t move toward the crowd, but he let himself out a backdoor that always stayed locked. It was an emergency exit, but somehow he had squirreled his way in. The door closed silently behind him. A cool draft that smelled of sandalwood and acidic rain flooded towards me.
I released the breath I was holding and wrapped my arms around my waist.
Before anyone could find me in the back offices where I did not belong, I half-walked, half-ran back to my station.
For the rest of my shift, I worked in a daze, oblivious to the chaos around me. My migraines were gone. My mind was somewhere else. I was occupied thinking about the brooding, gentle hunk with the bright gray eyes.
I didn’t even know his name. But I would see him again…