“Can you cover for me?”
Ava Dayton dumped the spent coffee grounds into the trash as she glanced at her friend and fellow waitress. “What’s up?”
Stacy’s long dark hair was a sloppy mess, barely held up in a drooping bun. Fatigue shadowed her brown eyes and dulled her skin. Even her clothes looked tired. “The twins are both sick and constantly fussy. Carl has been playing Superdad, but he has to get up in four hours for his shift. There are only two full tables left, I’ve refilled all the salt and pepper shakers and the condiments, and—”
Ava lifted her hand. “It’s fine. Really. I’ve got this. Go home to your family.”
Stacy sagged in relief. “Thank you.”
The poor woman was burning the candle at both ends: waitressing, being a mom to twin toddlers, and getting a business degree online in her spare time—what little of it there was.
Ava grinned. “Just admit it. You want to slip away so you can have wild monkey sex with your hot husband rather than wait tables.”
That got a flicker of a smile to touch Stacy’s mouth. “That’s it. You’ve found out my deep, dark secret. Now I’ll have to kill you before you can report me to the boss.”
“Alas, I am defeated,” Ava said as she spun her tired friend around by the shoulders and untied the green polyester apron that was their cross to bear. While the Billy Hill Grill was the best steakhouse for fifty miles in any direction, what it had in good meat, it lacked in good taste.
The place hadn’t been redecorated since it had opened in the seventies. The wallpaper was yellowed with age and cigarette smoke until it was all a delightful shade of neglect and nicotine. The wooden beams—which were dusted once a decade whether or not they needed it—were a bit on the fuzzy side, and home to more than one variety of spider.
But the mounted stuffed heads of longhorn steer and deer… Ava still didn’t know how anyone could eat with one of those grim reminders looming over their table, watching them with dead eyes—especially Ed, the one with his tongue hanging out, like he was a fresh kill.
Still, people flocked here from all the nearby counties, crawling out of their country homes for some good meat, outdated decorating, and mediocre service. Ava’s theory was that it made them feel right at home.
“Maybe I should stay,” Stacy said. “I hate to leave you to clean up and close by yourself.”
“Just go,” Ava said. “Rudy will help. And if I can’t handle the last half hour of a Monday night shift, then I have no right to wear this apron.”
Stacy smiled. “Honey, you’re so cute you even make green poly look good. The hottie at table thirteen has been looking at you like he wants to eat you up and sop up what’s left with a biscuit.”
Ava rolled her eyes. Stacy thought that every cowboy who walked through those doors was a hottie, and not once had any of them made Ava do so much as look twice. The men here were all… flat. Colorless. They left her completely cold. It was enough to make a red-blooded girl think there was something wrong with her when she couldn’t find even one interesting man in the lot.
“I’m sure I’ll find a way to reject Mr. Hottie’s advances without hurting his tender feelings. Now go. Carl needs his beauty sleep.”
Stacy nodded. “Mr. Hottie wants sweet tea with two lemons.” With that, she was gone.
Ava made the tea and carried it out to table thirteen.
The man sitting there was big—built on the same grand scale as skyscrapers, mile-long bridges and hydroelectric dams. There was a stillness about him, a kind of immovability that made her wonder if he was even breathing. He had dark skin, and wore a red plaid flannel shirt unbuttoned just enough that she could see the tendons in his thick neck. Beneath his sleeves, he wore a pair of heavy leather bands. Whether some kind of wrist braces, a fashion statement, or kinky bondage gear, she couldn’t be sure. The dark hair on his head was cut short, leaving a scar visible on his scalp where no hair grew at all. The raised, smooth flesh in a scrolling shape looked suspiciously like a brand.
Maybe he was into some really kinky stuff.
As she approached, he lifted his head and looked right at her.
Ava came to a dead stop in the middle of the aging restaurant. Sweet tea sloshed over the rim of the glass, leaving a sticky mess on her tray. She could see from the corner of her eye that she’d drawn the attention of the only other customers present—an elderly couple sitting at table eight—but there wasn’t a thing she could do about it. She was lucky she could still breathe with that man staring at her.
He was more than merely hot. He was scalding, blazing like the surface of the sun, compelling in a way that made her incapable of diverting her shocked gaze. She couldn’t even bring herself to blink.
His eyes were the color of polished bronze, glowing with an inner light that made them shine. His face was all chiseled angles and deep shadows that pulled her in and refused to let go.
Her gaze followed his mile-wide shoulders all the way down his thick arms to the tip of his blunt, utterly manly fingers. Just the idea of being touched by something so magnificent made the hair on her arms lift in eagerness.
And his lips… Heaven, help her. They were full, starkly defined and so yummy her mouth watered.
Her fingertips tingled with the need to trace those lines and feel the heat of his flesh against her own.
Ava forced herself to pull in a breath. Only then did she realize it had been a while since her last one. Her feet refused to budge. It was like the bottom half of her was disconnected from the rest—too busy squirming to bother listening to her commands.
Heat swirled beneath her skin, coalescing at her breasts. Her nipples tightened so hard that even the stout polyester apron couldn’t hide them from sight.
His gaze swept over her. Twice. When he made his way back to her eyes again, the slightest hint of a smile curled one side of his luscious mouth.
Mr. Hottie, indeed. The man was going to make her spontaneously combust.
This is what all the girls talked about, giggling late into the night—this feeling of falling and flying all at the same time. For the first time in her life, Ava understood what all the fuss was about.
It was just her bad luck that her hormones finally started working after twenty-five years of numbness. With a complete and total stranger. One who was likely just passing through town. And when she had more important matters to deal with than her own inconvenient desire.
“Ava, honey?” asked Mrs. Langsford at table eight. “Are you okay? Is that man bothering you?”
Bothering her? Definitely. But in the most delicious way.
Ava gathered her wits enough to offer a distracted, “No. I’m fine, thanks.”
She was still a good ten feet from the stranger, but she could hear his quiet voice easily. “Is that my tea?”
Like the rest of him, his voice was dark and sexy, with more than a hint of roughness lingering around the edges.
A shiver slid through her, and her nipples tightened even more until they ached.
She couldn’t stand here all night. She had to find some way to convince her legs to cooperate.
He crooked his finger, beckoning her closer.
As if her legs were under his command, she instantly remembered how to walk again, and crossed the rest of the distance to his table. Her hand shook as she picked up the glass. The slippery surface was no match for her weak grip, and before she got his drink placed safely in front of him, it started to slide out of her hand.
Mr. Hottie’s reflexes saved the day, and by the time he was done moving, his hands were covering hers, trapping them against the icy glass.
He guided his drink in for a landing, but once it was safely in place, he didn’t let go of her. Instead, he held on, cupping her hand in his much bigger ones.
Warmth. Strength. Restrained power.
She felt all of that in his grasp, and once again she was struck stupid.
A normal girl would have pulled away or offered some kind of amusing quip about her clumsiness. A normal girl would have smiled and thanked him for saving the day. A normal girl would have done something besides stand there, staring and shaking and wishing she could find enough air to speak.
Sadly, Ava had never been normal.
His bronze gaze dipped to her chest and back again. “Thank you, Ava.”
How did he know her name? She hadn’t told him.
Then she remembered her nametag. Duh. She really was made brain dead by this man and her unbelievable attraction to him.
“Uh. Sure. I mean, I’m sorry. I’m usually pretty good at setting down glasses. At least a fifty-percent success rate.”
His grin stretched out to cover both sides of his mouth.
Full, smooth lips drew her gaze, and for the first time in her life, at the ripe old age of twenty-five, she fantasized about what it would be like to kiss a man.
His thumb swept across the back of her hand. A shivering, squirming frisson of excitement winged up her arm and settled in her chest. She could feel her heart beat faster in response, and her breath started to do that disappearing act again.
Before it could—before he could steal whatever sliver of sense she had left in her head—she tugged her hand from his.
The skin he’d been touching went instantly cold and she missed the warm, safe cave his grip had offered.
Safe? Yeah, right.
She didn’t know this man. He was about as safe as a wild dog that may or may not have rabies—and a gun. One wrong move from her and she’d find out just how dangerous he was—the hard way.
Ava fixed her gaze on a point just past his left ear and fumbled for her order pad. “What would you like?”
He paused long enough that she was forced to look at him again.
Smoldering hunger darkened his eyes. His gaze roamed over her body like he owned the thing. With any other man that would have irritated her, but with Mr. Hottie, it made her burn. Melt. Tremble.
“Since you’re not on the menu, I’ll have steak. The biggest you’ve got. Rare. Baked potato with everything times two, and some kind of vegetable. Your choice.”
Her pen shook as she wrote, but there wasn’t a thing she could do to stop it. “The salad is a little long in the tooth, but the grilled squash is excellent.”
“Throw some butter on it, and we have a deal.”
She’d just finished writing it down so Rudy the cook could decipher her scrawl when her freaky sense of impending doom went off.
She had no idea where the sixth sense had come from or if it was normal for people like her to have it, but she knew better than to simply ignore it. Big or little, her little gift for knowing something bad was coming was never wrong.
The restaurant door swung open.
Ava stifled a groan.
More patrons this close to closing would make her late getting out of here, but there wasn’t anything she could do about that. With Stacy gone, cleanup would take as long as it took.
The first two men she recognized as regulars. They were farm hands who worked nearby and came in often. They were a little rough, but mostly housebroken. The last man—the one in the camo baseball hat—she also recognized, and the instant she did, she switched her grip on her pen so she could use it as a stabbing weapon.
Now she knew why her sense of impending doom was freaking out. Chances were she’d be in jail before the night was over.
Rage pumped through her system, building with every beat of her heart. In the space of two breaths, she was shaking with it.
The trio of men took a booth in the corner, talking about the latest race they’d seen on TV. They acted like nothing had happened, like Emily hadn’t come home bruised and bloody last week after her date with Beau.
Mr. Hottie’s demeanor changed instantly. “Do you know him?”
She didn’t have to ask him who. Her death stare was fixed on the culprit, unwavering. “His name is Beau. He hurt my sister.”
He frowned. “Sister?”
The odd question pulled her out of her efforts to kill Beau with her glare from across the room. “Excuse me. I’ll get your order right in.”
She walked toward the kitchen, wondering just how sharp the knives were, and whether or not she could get away with murder in front of so many witnesses.
Radek had thought the sexy waitress was the one, but the woman he was searching for didn’t have a sister. She didn’t have any family at all. Her mother had brought her here when she was a child and died shortly after.
Still, even if Ava wasn’t the woman he sought, there was something compelling about her—something that made his instincts sit up and stretch with interest.
He watched her ass wiggle enticingly as she rushed to the kitchen. Every step she took held him in a bizarre kind of hypnosis. He couldn’t have pulled his eyes away from her if the leader of the Raide army himself walked through the door.
Radek’s blood heated with arousal. He gripped his iced tea to help cool him off, but as soon as steam started rising from the glass, he knew he had to stop. He couldn’t draw any unwanted attention to himself here. Blending in as human was the only way he was going to get close enough to his target to figure out if she was the woman he was tasked to find.
He closed his eyes and concentrated on dark, grim things. The war. His prison cell. The poison coursing through his bloodstream.
After a few seconds, his libido crawled back into its cage and released his mind for more important tasks than figuring out what Ava looked like under that ghastly green apron.
She had to be Loriahan. A human woman would never intrigue him the way she had.
Maybe he’d been on this world too long, or maybe it was a side effect of his recent lack of company. The two men he’d been working with had been sent home, leaving Radek alone on a planet not his own. He wasn’t pansy assed enough to admit he was lonely, but he definitely felt their loss.
Ava came back out from the kitchen with a meat cleaver in one fist, and a dark flush of rage painting her beautiful face. He could almost imagine she’d look just like that in the throes of orgasm, only it wouldn’t be anger causing the red tint to her skin, but instead the heat his touch would ignite in her.
The sweet dimples in her cheeks he’d glimpsed earlier were gone now, but he still remembered the way they’d made his heart melt a little and brought out his protective side.
He could sweep her away from here and keep her all to himself. Protect her. Cuddle her. Fuck her.
Not going to happen. Get a grip.
After a few deep breaths, he was able to focus again, though his hold on reality was tenuous at best.
Ava was smaller than she should have been, but many of the Taken were. The gravitational pull of this world was less than his own, and the thick bone and muscle mass it took to move about in heavier gravity had left its mark on him, just as the lesser pull of this planet had left its mark on the people here. Their frames were thinner, more fragile. Practically delicate. Even the men here looked like mere boys on his home world, and Ava was smaller than them.
Even so, the way her chin was down as she marched across the restaurant—the way she gripped the weapon in her clenched fist—told him she wasn’t concerned with size. She wanted to inflict pain. Possibly worse.
He couldn’t let her do violence. That would draw the police and the kind of notice he was ordered to avoid. If she was who he thought—who he hoped—it was his job to keep her safe long enough to send her home.
His traitorous mind flirted briefly with the idea of taking a small detour with her—one that would give him a chance to see just how lovely she was under that horrible apron. A few hours spent loving a willing woman would have gone a long way toward easing his homesickness.
Before she’d reached her intended target—Beau—Radek stepped in front of her, blocking her path. He grabbed the hand wielding the cleaver to hide the blade between their bodies. The fewer people who saw her violent intent, the better.
“Get out of my way, Mr. Hottie.”
Mr. Hottie? He was pretty good with English and all its slang, and as far as he could decipher, that meant she thought he was attractive.
If she thought he was even half as sexy as he found her, there was a good chance that before the night was over, he’d have her naked and crying out his name while she came.
That idea was so distracting—so appealing—he almost forgot his job. “My name is Radek, and I can’t let you do this.”
“You don’t know me. You don’t know him or what he’s done. It’s none of your business, so just butt out.” Her fury was potent enough to spill out across his face in a wave of heat.
He tightened his grip to let her know he was calling the shots. “I’m making it my business. Whatever his crime, do you really want to go to prison for revenge?”
“I don’t care about that. He hurt my sister. He has to pay.”
“You would care,” Radek said. “As soon as you were locked in a cage, you’d regret everything.” He almost told her that his was the voice of experience talking, but he thought it better not to tell her she was being given advice from a prisoner. He couldn’t do anything to jeopardize whatever trust he could build with her.
The older woman sitting a few feet away finally noticed what was going on. “Ava, dear? Is this man bothering you? Harold, get on that there cell phone and call the sheriff.”
“Left it at home,” Harold said, far too loudly, to adjust for his lack of hearing. “Damn thing’s always out of batteries. Can’t hear a damn word.”
“We don’t need any police,” Ava said. “Beau and I just need to have a few words.”
“With a meat cleaver?” Radek whispered.
She looked up at him, fuming. Her eyes were a pale sea green with rays of dark blue at the center. He couldn’t remember ever having seen anything quite as pretty as she was right now, snarling and fighting against his hold.
The urge to pin her to a bed and fuck her hard washed through him, nearly scalding his insides with its potent force.
What was it about this woman that threatened his control? He’d encountered lots of beautiful woman—both human and Loriahan—in his travels, and none of them had affected him the way Ava did. She turned off his logic and made his instincts go wild. All he wanted was to let his animal side roam free and claim her as his own.
“Are you going to let me go?” she asked. “Or do I have to make you?”
Radek was wearing a shirt, so he couldn’t easily feel the heat signature of anyone behind him, but even with his shirt on, he could tell someone was approaching. Ava’s eyes narrowed and she bared her teeth at whoever was heading this way.
She growled and ripped out of Radek’s hold. “Beau, you motherfucking ass-wipe. I’m going to chop off your dick and feed it to you for what you did to Emily.”
Beau was a handsome, clean cut young man with a confident swagger and a buddy standing behind each shoulder. His blond hair was cut close to his scalp, barely showing a mark where his hat had been. He stood loose and relaxed, like he was ready for a fight. Eager, even.
He gave Radek one quick once-over, then put his attention squarely on Ava. “Nice to see you too, Ava. How’s Emily?” His smile was smug. Knowing.
Ava lunged forward, cleaver raised, but Radek grabbed her around the waist and held her back. “You don’t get to speak her name. Ever. Not after what you did.”
“It was consensual,” Beau said, casually dismissing the whole thing as a non-event.
“And her bruises? Were those consensual too?”
“She’s fair skinned and bruises easily. I barely touched her. If you don’t believe me, just ask her. The sheriff already did, and that’s exactly what she told him.”
“I don’t care what she told your dad. She lied because she’s afraid of you. And him. But I’m not.”
Beau glanced at the cleaver, which was not hidden as well as Radek had hoped. “Assault with a deadly weapon is a serious crime, Ava. I’d hate to see what would happen to Emily if her fierce big sister wasn’t nearby to protect her.”
The two men flanking Beau chuckled.
Radek hadn’t gathered a whole lot of details about what had happened to Ava’s sister, but he gleaned enough from their conversation to know what he needed to.
Beau had hurt Emily. Perhaps, even raped her. And he was going to get away with it because his father was the head lawman.
Radek couldn’t let Beau’s crime go unpunished. He wasn’t supposed to interfere in the lives of humans, but some assholes needed to be interfered with. Hard.
Before Ava could do something she’d regret, he disarmed her with a quick jerk, ripping the cleaver from her hand. While she was still gasping in outrage, he sank the blade into the nearest table so deep, it was going to take two human men to retrieve it.
“Enough!” he bellowed. Everyone in the room went still at the power of his voice.
Radek pointed at the three men. “You. Out. Now. The restaurant is officially closed.”
Beau put his hands on his hips. “You have no right to tell us what to do.”
“I can deal with this trash without your help.” Ava grabbed Radek’s arm in an effort to turn him around to face her ire, but he didn’t so much as sway.
Beau flicked his wrist, silently ordering his buddies to move forward.
The old couple across the room stood up to leave. “We’ll be reporting this to the authorities,” the woman said, while the man threw some cash on the table to cover their bill.
“Leave it alone, dear,” her husband nearly shouted. “The world is going to hell and there’s not a thing we can do about it. Hooligans. All of them.”
He grabbed his wife’s arm and ushered her out while she fumed about the downfall of society.
Beau’s buddies were close now. Radek had been tracking them while he watched the couple leave. Behind him, he could still feel Ava’s body heat hitting the narrow band of bare skin at the base of his skull. That heat was fading as she walked away, presumably to get another weapon.
Having a reason to put his hands on her again didn’t bother him nearly as much as it should have.
“You don’t want to do this,” he warned the men. “It’s not going to end well for you.”
“Says the man who’s all by himself,” Beau said. “You may be big, but there are more of us.”
“My argument isn’t with you two,” he told the men inching closer. There was uncertainty in their eyes, and more than a little hesitation in their movements. “I really don’t want to hurt you.” Radek flashed a glance at Beau. “You, I want to hurt. A lot.”
“You’re going to have to go through us,” said the man on the left. He had white-blond hair and a handsome face.
Too bad Radek was going to have to damage it.
As soon as it was clear there was no other course of action—that these followers were going to go through with their leader’s orders—Radek acted. No point in delaying the inevitable.
He threw a hard, fast punch right into the bridge of the white-blond man’s nose. The snap of breaking bone was audible. The guy screamed, cupped his face and rolled aside as blood poured out from between his fingers.
The man on the right took pause as he saw his buddy fall, then stopped.
So did Radek. “Do I have to hurt you too?”
He gave Beau an apologetic look. “Sorry, man. I got a kid at home now. I’m outta here.” He left.
Now that Beau was alone with only a moaning, bleeding buddy, some of his swagger fell away. He was still a cocky fucker, but not nearly as puffed up as he had been when he’d had two men shielding him.
Ava’s heat splashed across the nape of his neck, warning him that she’d returned. He glanced her way, but instead of another knife in her hand, she wielded a shotgun.
Radek couldn’t tell if she aimed it at him or Beau, but it didn’t really matter. At this range, they were both targets of the same blast.
“Get out,” she ordered. “All of you.”
He couldn’t leave her alone—not when Beau looked like he was still searching for a fight. What if he came back in after Radek left? If Ava was who he hoped, he couldn’t leave her in danger.
Through the window to the kitchen, he could see the cook’s back as he worked over the grill. He bounced along to some kind of music being piped in through his earbuds. Apparently, he hadn’t heard a word of the confrontation.
“What about my meal?” Radek asked Ava. “I haven’t eaten all day, and I’m starving.”
“Too bad. If you wanted to eat, you shouldn’t have taken my knife away.”
“I couldn’t let you kill him,” Radek said.
“I wasn’t going to kill him, just hurt him a little.”
Beau scoffed. “You like to think you could get one over on me. I bet you’re just as weak as your sister—she barely fought me at all.”
Ava’s finger moved to the trigger. Radek stepped aside, because he really didn’t want to be in the line of fire when she pulled it.
“Now I want to kill him,” she said to Radek. “See the difference?”
The man with the broken nose had recovered enough to stand upright. He was dialing his phone.
“We’re going to have company soon,” Radek told her. “And from what I heard, Beau’s dad isn’t going to lend a very sympathetic ear. Maybe you should kill Beau another day. You know, when you won’t be guaranteed to get caught and imprisoned.”
Beau laughed. “Bitch can’t do a thing to me and she knows it.”
Radek didn’t take his eyes off of Ava as he moved closer, but that kind of comment could not go without response. “I wouldn’t be talking like that to the furious woman pointing a loaded shotgun at you.”
Ava tightened her grip on the weapon. “Both of you just shut up!”
Radek continued on his path, getting closer to her while doing his best to stay out of the line of fire. “I think you should leave, Beau. She hasn’t pulled the trigger yet. There’s still time.”
“I came for supper. I’m staying until I get some.”
Stupid, stupid man. Couldn’t he see how serious Ava was? How furious?
Radek could feel it spilling out of her in waves of heat. Her heart was pounding hard, and her adrenaline was spiked.
This was the way blind rage killed. This was how people got shot.
He had to find some way to stop her. “Play this out, Ava. Tell me how it goes. You pull that trigger. Beau gets splattered all over the wall. Then what?”
“My sister is safe. He won’t ever hurt her or anyone else again.”
“What will you do with his body?”
She hesitated. “Doesn’t matter. Put him down the disposal with the rest of the garbage.”
”What will you say to the police? More important, what will you say to your sister?”
“I don’t know.” Ava closed her eyes for a second, but that was all the opening Radek needed.
He charged, taking control of the shotgun and pointing it high. He didn’t know how he managed to lift it out of reach before she pulled the trigger, but with the space of a split second, the gun was in his control and out of hers.
“You bastard,” she growled. “You have no right.”
He gave her what he hoped was a sympathetic expression. “I promised to protect you, even from yourself. I can’t let you go to prison.”
Before she had time to respond, Radek leveled the weapon at Beau, keeping his voice was calm and quiet. “I have no reason to kill you. No motive. They’ll never connect me to your murder. I don’t live here. No one even knows my name. If I were to pull this trigger right now, I’d never get caught. I suggest you leave before I decide to test my theory.”
Beau’s buddy scrambled for the door, dripping blood as he went. After a heartbeat of hesitation, Beau followed his lead.
Ava was shaking so hard, Radek could see it in his peripheral vision.
“You should have let me kill him.”
Radek turned to her. “I saved your life. One day you’ll see that.”
“All you did was let him go to hurt some other innocent girl. Maybe even hurt Emily again.”
“Do you really want it to be your job to bring him to justice?”
“No one else will. What choice do I have?”
While Radek was intimately familiar with the justice system on his world, he didn’t understand the intricacies of the legal system here. But what little he did know told him that Ava taking matters into her own hands was as much of a crime as what Beau had done.
He emptied the shells out of the shotgun and set it down. “I’ll do it. I’ll punish him.”
“What? You don’t even know me. Why would you care?”
“Wrong is wrong.”
She stared at him a minute, looking at him like he was telling some kind of joke. “You’ve got to be kidding. This isn’t your problem.”
“You believe that if Beau doesn’t learn his lesson, he’ll keep hurting young girls, right?”
“I don’t want that any more than you do. So I’ll take care of it. What punishment do you think is suitable? Do I kill him for you? I could do it tonight. In his sleep. Of course I’ll have to kill the other man too. And the old couple. No witnesses.”
Her pale eyes widened with distress. “No. You can’t hurt them. Only Beau.”
“I won’t go to prison for you. So you’ll have to decide what you really want.”
Her fury had faded enough that she was starting to think more clearly. He could see it in her face, hear it in her voice.
“The Landers are a nice couple. And Beau’s buddies weren’t involved in what happened to Emily. I don’t want them killed.”
“So what, then? You mentioned something about cutting off his dick. I could bring it to you. Maybe show it to your sister so that she knows she’s safe.”
Ava winced. “Um, no. I don’t think she’d like to see that.”
“But you would?”
“I’ll just throw it away, then. Of course, being unmanned might piss him off enough that he comes after her…. Maybe I should just kill him.”
Ava closed her eyes and covered them with her hands. “Just stop, okay? You’ve made your point.”
“And that is what?”
“That anything I do will only make things worse for Emily. I can’t always be there to protect her, and Beau knows me well enough to realize that hurting her is the worst thing he could do to me.”
“So you’re just going to let him get away with it?”
“No. But I’ll find someone else to call and demand justice—someone who isn’t his father.”
Radek shrugged, pleased that his ploy worked. “Suit yourself.”
The oblivious cook turned around and slid plates of food into the window. “Order up.”
She looked at the food, then at Radek. “You’re taking that to go.”
“I’d rather eat it here.”
“That’s just too bad. We’re closing up early. Someone spilled blood all over the place and it’s going to take me a while to clean it up.”
“Is that your way of thanking me?” he asked.
She went to the window and began putting his dinner into a white box. “If you want to take it that way, sure. Whatever floats your boat.”
He processed the phrase and tucked it away for future reference.
“Staying here would make my boat float.” Not only was it his job to discover if she was one of the people he was charged to find, protect and send home, he also felt the need to stay close by. Just in case Beau decided to come back with reinforcements.
“Sorry. That’s not an option.” She turned and held out the sack containing his steak.
Rather than upset her further, he took the meal like a good boy and pulled cash from his wallet. “I’ll be outside if you change your mind.”
She gave him an unwavering stare. “I won’t. Safe travels.”
It was a clear dismissal—one he would take as far as the parking lot. Until he knew her true identity—until he knew if she was human or Loriahan—he wasn’t going to let her get out of reach.
Ava vented her frustration on the worn carpet, scrubbing it until the blood was nothing more than an infuriating memory. By the time she was done closing up the restaurant, it was well after midnight.
The whole time she worked, her mind never strayed far from the stranger who’d interfered in her life.
Radek. That’s what he’d called himself. What kind of name was that anyway?
He did sound a bit foreign, so maybe it was some sort of ethnic name she’d never heard before. And those dark good looks… definitely exotic. She couldn’t really put her finger on any one ethnicity, but whatever his heritage, he wore it well.
She locked up and wrapped her coat around her to ward off the cold. Spring would be here soon, but not tonight.
She flung her yoga bag over her shoulder with her self-defense bat in it, and headed for the sidewalk. Walking the few blocks home always calmed her down and cleared her head so she could sleep after a long shift.
Ava hadn’t even made it three yards before she saw him.
He was bare-chested, straddling a big black motorcycle next to a big black truck. His jeans were pulled tight across his thighs, showing off thick, hard muscles. Wide bands of matte leather encircled both wrists, a third of the way up to his elbows. Now that he was shirtless, those bands looked nothing at all like bondage gear. Instead, they seemed to be… armor?
She stood in place while her sense of what the hell faded. Shirtless men clad in armor were not the norm out here in the country, and she wasn’t entirely sure what to think about it.
Other than yum.
She was definitely feeling that emotion in a deep and meaningful way. It hummed along her spine and warmed her all the way down to her toes, burning away all her anger and frustration. Finally, she knew what all of her girlfriends were talking about, why they spent hours in front of a mirror and used every trick in the book to attract male companions.
Only for her, the only male who seemed to do anything for her was Radek.
He saw her staring at him from across the empty parking lot and nodded in greeting. “The steak was excellent. My compliments to the chef. Or the cow. I’m not sure who had the bigger hand in it.”
“What are you doing here?” she asked. Her tone came out more breathless than curt, and she hoped the distance and the wind had masked it.
“Waiting for you.”
Girly little tingles exploded in her stomach and spread out like champagne bubbles in her blood.
He shrugged, and the mammoth expanse of his shoulders became a place she really, really wanted to visit. Maybe stay a while, petting and stroking him. There was plenty of room to explore, and more than enough space to keep her occupied for a good, long while.
“I wanted to make sure Beau didn’t come back for round two. He doesn’t seem like a guy who loses well.”
“He knows I’m armed.” She patted her yoga bag. “Everyone knows about my big ASS YARD stick.”
“I don’t. Don’t I count as everyone?”
As big as he was, he counted as two someones.
She pulled the baseball bat out of her bag. She’d carved ASS YARD in the wood and filled in the groove with purple rhinestones. Thanks to her wicked crafty ways, not one of them had fallen out when she’d wielded it. Which she had. More than once. “It’s my Aggressive Slimeballs Sit Your Ass Right Down stick.”
He nodded with a grin. “You Americans and your love of acronyms. How long did it take you to think that up?”
“I was fourteen. My time wasn’t really all that valuable. I had to do something to entertain myself.”
“Good times.” He dismounted his bike in one smooth, powerful move. “Can I escort you home?”
“Then how about a ride?”
“I’d rather walk, thanks.”
“It’s dark. And cold.”
She nodded at his naked torso, trying not to let the drool spill from her mouth. “Apparently not all that cold.”
“It’s colder where I come from, so I don’t notice the chill.” He grinned, and her whole world lit up with fireworks. He had no right to make her feel like this, and while it was thrilling, she wasn’t entirely sure she liked it. Sure, the tinglies were nice, but she couldn’t think straight. In fact, she was actually considering hitching a ride on the back of a bike with a sexy stranger who was easily twice her size.
No sane woman did that. In fact, there was only one kind of woman who did that: Dead ones. Mutilated, dismembered, skinned, cannibalized, dead ones.
With those images firmly in mind, her resolve hardened, giving her the strength she needed to resist his potent effect on her. “Good night, Radek.”
He grabbed the frame of the motorcycle and lifted it straight up into the air. Muscles bunched beneath his skin, bulging with power. With what seemed to be no effort at all, he set the bike in the back of the truck like it was a stand made just for that purpose.
His blatant display of strength should have been a warning sign—a giant red flag that she was no match for him, even with her bat. Instead, some deep, feminine part of her stood up and clapped. It cheered his strength and melted her insides into a sticky pile of useless goo.
When he finished the job and turned back to her, she hadn’t taken even one step toward home yet. Missing that kind of show would have been criminal.
His charming grin widened, as if he knew she was snared in his trap. “There’s room in the tuck. All nice and warm.”
She wanted to go with this half-naked man—wherever he wanted to take her. That alone should have scared some sense into her. But all she could manage to feel was a buzzing sense of excitement and anticipation, like even she didn’t know what her answer would be.
“I can’t,” she finally managed. “I won’t. I don’t know you.”
His grin faded, but he wasn’t defeated. “Another time, then. Once you get to know me.”
“I think it’s best if we just go our separate ways.” Because she wasn’t going to be able to keep resisting his charms for long. Not that he needed to know that.
He sighed. “You’re going to make me work for this, aren’t you?”
“I’m not making you do anything. Good night, Radek.” With that, she turned on her heels and walked away.
She was almost out of earshot when she heard him say, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Ava.”
It took every scrap of willpower Radek had to let Ava walk away. The urge to follow her pounded through him, demanding he obey. He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth in an effort to resist, but in the end it did no good. He had no choice but to give in to his need to ensure her protection.
Those men meant her harm. How much, he wasn’t sure, but any amount was more than Radek could tolerate.
His kind had been bred to protect and defend, and while he knew she didn’t want his interference, blood was far more difficult to deny than the misguided preferences of a woman who was being hunted.
And if she was who his instincts said, then Beau and his friends weren’t the only ones who wished her ill.
The Raide were here. Radek had seen them with his own eyes. All of their kind he’d encountered were dead, but they’d set their sights on this world. There could be more nearby, cloaked in the armor that rendered them invisible.
If one of them found Ava, he was going to be a lot less friendly than Beau and his asshole buddies had been.
Radek went on foot and followed her heat trail home, hanging behind far enough that she had no chance to see or hear him. The path her warmth left behind was easy enough for him to trace now that he’d taken off his shirt and bared his chest. The sensitive heat sensors in his skin picked up on minute tendrils of thermal variance, telling him where she’d been as clearly as if she’d left a strand of rope trailing behind her.
The cheerful little house she went home to was lit up from the inside. Like some kind of peeping Tom, Radek hovered in a puddle of shadows left by overgrown bushes in the park across the street. From here he could see two other people moving around inside, casting shadows over the sheer curtains. Ava passed through the house into the kitchen, where she poured herself a glass of water. She didn’t drink it. Instead, she pressed it against her forehead as if to cool herself.
Anger and frustration tightened her expression and pulled her shoulders high. Her whole posture screamed of stress and emotional overload. The crazy urge to march across the street and demand she let him rub some of that tension away poured through him. Only knowing that she’d likely slam the door in his face kept him where he hid.
Her skin was too pale. Even the flush of anger she’d worn earlier was gone. Standing alone in her kitchen with no one watching, she seemed to finally let down her guard. And when she did, the tremors of fear or fatigue vibrating through the glass of water were visible even from this distance.
She shoved her springy blond curls away from her face, revealing the sweet line of her cheek. The cute dimples she’d displayed earlier were gone, but not forgotten.
Even for one of his kind, Ava was stunning. And as far as he was concerned, Sorican women were the loveliest, fiercest creatures to grace the universe.
The curve of her waist and hips called out to his hands, tempting him with how perfectly they’d fit. The way her hair curled in a rioting mess reminded him of long nights spent in the throes of passion.
As he watched her, his blood warmed, sliding through his veins with pulsing ease. It had been a while since a woman had called to him like she did, and he’d forgotten just how such attraction heightened his senses and thrilled him all the way down to his booted feet.
He wished they’d met on better terms. If they had, maybe he could have knocked on the door and asked for a little of her time to hear him out. Maybe she would have invited him in. Once he told her why he was here—once he told her of the danger she faced without his protection—she would have thanked him for his efforts to find her and keep her safe. Maybe she would have asked him to stay the night to protect her, which he would have gladly done. And as soon as he knew she was no longer afraid of him, he’d soothe away some of her anger and worry in the best way possible.
He’d like to see her try to be worried and mad after he made her orgasm a few times.
The warmth coursing through his blood turned hotter and more intense at the thought. Small tendrils of steam lifted from his skin, dissipating on the cool night breeze.
He had to remind himself that those tempting thoughts were nothing more than fantasy—something Radek knew to keep separate from reality. Prisoners who didn’t, they often went mad inside their isolated cells, raving about whatever world their tortured minds created in order to escape. Some even killed themselves, leaving their families to pay for their crimes.
Radek had often taken solace in the fact that he had no family left. He was the last of his line, and no matter what happened to him, no one he loved would be left to suffer in his place. It was a lonely way to live, but he knew it was for the best.
The price for that peace of mind was loneliness, but one he was willing to pay.
For a while he’d had friends nearby—men who’d always had his back. That was more family than a man like him could have ever hoped for, and he wasn’t going to do anything to screw it up. He was free, here and now, and grateful for the reprieve.
A wave of dizziness slammed into him, knocking him off balance. He grabbed a handful of the nearby bush’s branches to hold himself steady while it passed. As soon as it did, he said a silent farewell to Ava and headed back to his truck.
The freedom he enjoyed here was merely an illusion—something he was reminded of every twenty-six hours. Warden Trathen’s grip was still tight around Radek’s throat in the form of the poison coursing through his system. He had only a small window in which to inject himself with the antidote or his time here—or anywhere—would be over.
Still, illusion or not, Earth and the limited freedom it offered beat the hell out of a prison cell. At least here he was surrounded by strangers, rather than completely isolated, and that was enough for him.
It had to be.
Ava had just rid herself of enough tension for the idea of sleep to seem possible when her little sister Emily came stomping into the kitchen.
Her long, straight blond hair was pulled back into a messy bun. The sleep shirt she wore hung on her thin frame even more than usual. The hollows under her cheeks were more pronounced since the night Beau attacked her, as were the dark circles of fatigue rimming her sleep-deprived eyes. For a second, Ava thought Emily looked almost as sick as Mom, which was a terrifying thought.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” Emily demanded in a harsh whisper.
Ava set the glass of water down and faced her normally calm sister’s fury. “I haven’t touched your clothes in months. Not since I ruined your sweater.”
“I’m not worried about some stupid sweater. This time it’s my life you’ve ruined.”
Emily wasn’t usually a drama queen, so the seriousness of the charge caught Ava off guard. “What are you talking about?”
“Brandon put pictures of himself up on Facebook.”
“The man whose nose you broke tonight.”
“It wasn’t me.”
“He said it happened at your restaurant.”
“It did, but I wasn’t the one who did it.”
“You’re lying,” Emily accused, her whisper getting dangerously loud. If Mom heard the confrontation, she was going to start asking questions—ones neither of the girls wanted to answer. Mom had enough on her plate. She couldn’t handle more stress on top of the chemo.
Ava covered her sister’s mouth and did her best to keep her anger in check. “I’m not lying. Someone else broke Brandon’s nose. Because if I’d been the one throwing punches, I probably wouldn’t have stopped until he, Beau, and all of his other asshole buddies were puddles of bloody goo on the carpet.”
Behind Ava’s hand, Emily paled. She pulled away to speak. “You don’t mean that. You can’t. You’ve got to stop fighting my battles.”
“Well, you’re not doing it and someone has to.”
“No, they don’t. Just let it go, Ava. I don’t need you coming to the rescue every time someone bothers me.”
“Bothers you?” Ava asked, her voice rising with disbelief. “The man assaulted you. If I hadn’t known something was up and stopped him, he would have raped you.”
“But he didn’t.”
“Only because I hauled him out of the car and dumped him on the pavement before he could. I know your memory of the events can’t be that bad. It was only a few days ago. Have the bruises even healed yet?”
Emily’s chin trembled and tears filled her big brown eyes.
Ah, hell. Ava couldn’t stand to see her baby sister cry. There’d been far too many tears lately, and it just broke Ava’s heart.
She grabbed Emily up in a gentle hug. “That’s enough of that. I didn’t mean to upset you. Tell me what I can do to fix it.”
“Leave Beau and his friends alone.”
“I can’t do that, honey. Beau needs to answer for his crimes.”
“You know that’s never going to happen in this town. All I want is for the chaos to die down enough that I can get on with my life and concentrate on college. If you keep riling him up, he’s never going to leave me alone. He’s got all of his friends recruited in the Hate on Emily campaign as it is. He doesn’t need more fuel for the propaganda machine, okay?”
The last thing Ava wanted to do was make Emily’s life harder. Between the assault, college exams and Mom’s cancer, things were hard enough.
Still, there was no way she was going to let an asshole like Beau walk around like he hadn’t committed a heinous crime against the sweetest girl in town.
But Emily didn’t need to know that.
“Fine. I’ll let it drop for now.”
“But if he so much as looks at you funny, I’m going to hurt him.”
“That isn’t exactly letting it drop. If you keep on like this, Mom is going to find out what happened. She can’t handle that kind of stress.”
Ava let out a long sigh filled with all of the night’s frustration. “I know. I know. We agreed it was best to hide this from her and none of that has changed.”
Emily nodded. “The next time you want to hurt Beau, just think of Mom.”
“You’re playing dirty, sis.”
“No, I’m playing smart. And so should you. If I can be civil to him, then so can you.”
Ava wasn’t so sure, but for her family, she was going to do her best. But if Beau hurt Emily again, Ava was going to delight in hurting him back. Repeatedly.