Gin & Jewels
Books By Kimberly Knight
About the Author
A Saddles & Racks Novel, #5
No portion of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any print or electronic form without permission.
This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, places, events or occurrences, is purely coincidental. The characters and storylines are created from the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The subject matter is not appropriate for minors. Please note this novel contains profanity, explicit sexual situations, and alcohol consumption.
Copyright © 2019 Kimberly Knight Published by Kimberly Knight Cover art © Okay Creations Formatting © Mermaid Publishing House Cover Photographer © by Franggy Yanes All rights reserved.
Gabe – Angels & Whiskey
Paul – Tequila & Lace
Seth – Champagne & Handcuffs
Vinny – Rum & Coke
To my daughter in my belly:
Thank you for sucking away my brain cells and making it difficult to think when I was trying to write this book. You were with me through every word and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
I can’t wait to meet you!
*Please note that you can read this book as a standalone. However, it is recommended that you read it after the first four books in the series to avoid any spoilers.*
Six Years Ago – Fifteen Years Old
“WE’LL BE home by eleven, Little Dove,” Mom stated as she and Dad grabbed their belongings to leave for date night.
I paused The Originals on the TV so they didn’t interrupt my show. “I know,” I replied from my spot on the couch.
Every Friday, my parents had a date night. I; envied the love they still had for each other after twenty years of marriage. I wanted to have that one day, but I wasn’t sure if I ever would because my boyfriend of six long months cheated on me with Jackie Kirkwood—my now ex-best friend.
The garage door closed as I unpaused the DVR and resumed my new favorite show. Since it was a Friday night, and my friends were at the mall, but I chose to stay home because I didn’t want to chance running into Robbie and Jackie. I’d get my license in two weeks when I turned sixteen, and then things would be different. If I saw them at the mall, I could just leave, but right now, I couldn’t chance being stuck with them and having to watch them make out.
Not long after my parents left, the front door opened, and my brother Keith walked in. He was nineteen and still lived at home. I didn’t blame him. My parents let him live there for free while he was supposedly looking for a job, but he wasn’t. They didn’t know that, but I did. I also knew that he made money by selling weed. I wasn’t sure how they thought he made money, though they probably still gave him money. They were cool like that.
“What’s up, loser?” He rubbed the top of my head as he passed.
“Leave me alone,” I spat as I tried to fix my long blonde hair.
“On your period?” he mocked.
I rolled my blue eyes. “You’re such a jerk.”
“Whatever. I’m ordering pizza. Do you want some?”
I heard him call in the pizza as he continued toward the kitchen, not bothering to ask me what kind I wanted, which was always pepperoni and pineapple. I went back to my show, hoping it would be over before Keith bothered me again. Lucky for me, after he ordered pizza, he went upstairs to his room, and I was left with my man Klaus, who for some reason, I had a crush on even though he was supposed to be a bad vampire.
Forty-five minutes later, the doorbell rang. Keith ran down the stairs, and I watched him pay and then shut the door before he brought the box to the coffee table. The smell of cheese and tomato sauce filled the air, and my stomach growled.
Keith opened the lid, and I frowned. “Sausage and bell pepper?”
“What?” he asked and took a bite of the slice he’d pulled out.
“You know I don’t like sausage.”
“Then pick it off.”
I groaned and reached for a slice. To spite him for ordering pizza that I didn’t like, I turned the TV station to Hart of Dixie. I knew he hated the show, but whatever.
“We’re not watching this.” He reached for the remote in my hand.
I held it out of his reach. “Yeah, we are.”
“No, we’re not.”
“Yeah, we are.”
“No, we’re not.” He glared at me, and before I could grab another slice of pizza, he stood and took the box with him up to his room.
“Jerk!” I shouted.
I continued to watch the episode and then went up to shower. I could smell weed coming from Keith’s bedroom next to mine. Once I was dressed in my pajamas, the cover-up smell of incense filled the air instead of the smoke. He only smoked in the house when my parents weren’t home.
I didn’t do drugs. I liked to mend my broken heart with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream or cookies or a bag of Hot Cheetos or anything I could shove into my mouth.
Needing to soothe my aching heart before bed, I walked down the stairs but stopped when the doorbell rang. I looked at the clock in the living room, noting that it was after eleven and my parents weren’t home yet, but figured it was a friend of Keith’s. I went to the door and opened it. It wasn’t a friend of Keith’s. It was two police officers.
“Yeah?” I replied, wondering how the cops knew my name.
“I’m Officer Lamb, and this is Officer Rios. Is your brother home as well?”
I nodded and then yelled, “Keith!”
“What?” he shouted as he opened his bedroom door.
“You’re wanted at the front door.”
“Who is it?” I heard his footsteps on the stairs and glanced over my shoulder. His steps faltered as he noticed the two policemen at the door. “Officers? What can I do for you?”
“We’re sorry to be the bearers of bad news,” Officer Lamb stated, “but there’s been an accident. You need to go to the hospital.”
“SO, I HAVE SOME NEWS.”
Everyone looked at Paul as we sat around the large table at the steakhouse. It was Vinny’s bachelor party, so Gabe, Paul, Seth, Nick, Galen, and I were celebrating with Vinny. After dinner, we were going to a small casino off The Strip gamble and drink free drinks. It was what Vinny wanted to do, and honestly, I was okay with a low-key night. In the morning, I was flying to Nashville to visit my mother. I tried to go home once a month if I could because my dad was long gone. She had a few friends but no one to help her out around the house. That was my job. I was all she had.
“Joss is pregnant?” Vinny asked before taking a bite of his steak.
“I wish, but no.”
“Well, spit it out,” Gabe urged.
Paul took a sip of his tequila and Coke. “I’ve decided to apply to be in the FBI.”
The only one at the table surprised by Paul’s news was Galen because he had only been a part of our group for six months, though Seth was never in the game since he was a cop. It was safe to say that all of the guys (except Nick, Galen, and myself) had been mixed up in drama that revolved around the women in their lives, but it had all worked out for them. Vinny was the last one to get married out of our group. I had started calling them The Fallen because each one of my friends—except Seth—was falling out of the game of escorting and getting married.
“Following in Joss’s footsteps, I see.” Seth smirked.
Paul shrugged and grinned. “I liked being undercover and working with my wife. Is that a problem?”
“Nope,” Seth replied.
“I think it’s your calling,” Gabe stated.
I nodded. “From what I’ve heard, I agree.”
“Thanks.” Paul smiled. “I’m super pumped.”
“When do you start?” Nick asked.
“Just waiting for the call. They have four to five classes a year, so hopefully soon.”
“Congrats, man.” Vinny clapped him on the back.
“Who’s taking over your position at your self-defense business?” Seth questioned.
Paul looked to Gabe and shrugged. “Autumn and I should be okay for a few weeks while we find someone,” Gabe answered.
“I can help on my days off,” Seth offered.
“Me too,” I cut in. “Might be good to get back out there and help others.”
Gabe nodded. “All right. We’ll see about getting you two certified to teach both firearms and self-defense.”
“Great.” I smiled at Seth. Some might think that being friends with a cop would be strange in my line of work, but Seth never asked questions, and I never took money with the mention of sex. I was paid to take a woman out for a good time, and she always paid up front. If things led to the bedroom, or her rental car, or hotel room, or the bathroom at a club, then things led to those places. No money was exchanged for sex because the women were paying for a date and nothing more. Therefore, it wasn’t illegal.
Paul held up his glass. “All right. Drink up, assholes. It’s time to go win some money so Vinny can take Tessa on a once-in-a-lifetime honeymoon.”
The guys and I walked into the smoky casino. Being off The Strip meant it should have looser slots, making it a popular location for the locals, though I wasn’t sure anyone truly became rich from gambling. I never won more than a few hundred bucks, but it was still entertainment.
“What do you want to play first?” I squeezed Vinny’s shoulder.
“I’m a blackjack guy.”
“Then blackjack it is.”
There was a table with only one guy sitting at it, so the guys and I tried to join him, but the moment he saw our group, he decided to leave, which freed up a spot for each of us. We all exchanged cash for chips and waited for the dealer to deal the first round.
“So, who’s next?” Vinny asked.
“Next?” Gabe questioned.
Vinny grinned. “To get married.”
“Oh god,” I groaned. We were dropping like flies in our group. Being a male escort was fun and exciting, the money was amazing, and I planned to do it for however long women booked dates with me. I knew for certain that Nick wasn’t looking because he made it a point to tell us all the time when an engagement or wedding was brought up. He had no desire to quit Saddles & Racks, though each of The Fallen had thought that too. I didn’t know Galen’s story, other than he was new to escorting, so that told me he wasn’t looking to be tied down either.
“I say it’s Brad.” Paul chuckled.
“No.” I shook my head. “Maybe it’s Galen.”
We all looked at our two cards the dealer had dealt face up and then went around the table hitting or staying.
“I just started at S&R,” Galen responded. “I’m not quitting for some woman. I’ve been burned in the past when I fell in love. Dating for money works perfectly around my shifts at the firehouse.”
“Cocktails!” a waitress shouted as she walked closer.
Paul raised his hand to flag her down. When she stepped up to the table, Paul said, “Let’s ask”—his gaze lowered to the waitress’s name tag—“Cassie what she thinks.”
I furrowed my brows. “You think she can tell just by looking at us?”
“Tell what?” Cassie asked, and I looked at her face for the first time. She was beautiful. Girl-next-door beautiful with blonde hair and sapphire blue eyes that reminded me of the purest of jewels. She came up to my shoulders as I sat in the chair, and I knew that if I were to stand up, she would be the perfect height to drape my arm across her shoulders and bring her to my side as we walked ...
Why are you thinking about walking with her? And to where? A date? A room at the hotel next door?
“Settle a bet for us, will you?” Paul requested.
The guys and I snorted with laughter. Hell, maybe we should make it a bet. When in Vegas …
“I can try,” she replied, and her gaze met mine before she turned away.
“All right.” Paul leaned back in his chair while the dealer dealt another round. Vinny, Gabe, and Seth had beat the dealer the previous round. The rest of us busted. “Out of these three”—he waved a finger at me, Galen, and Nick—“who do you think will settle down next?”
She drew her head back slightly. “How am I supposed to know that?”
Paul shrugged. “Just pick one.”
Her blue eyes moved over each one of us, me last. I didn’t know why, but I winked. I winked as though I was flirting, and I wanted to be next.
“Tell me your names,” she said.
I grinned and pointed my finger at the guys as I spoke. “This is Nick, Galen, and I’m Brad.”
Cassie thought for a moment. “Well, just by looking at you three, I’d say him.” She pointed at Galen.
“Ha!” Nick yelled. “Told you it won’t be me.”
“Calm down.” I chuckled. “I don’t think anyone thinks it’s you.”
“Why is that?” Cassie asked.
“Because he’s what women call a ladies’ man,” Seth replied.
“Are the rest of you married?” Cassie asked as the dealer dealt another hand. The last round, she (the dealer) won with twenty and beat us all.
“I am,” Paul stated and then motioned to the rest of The Fallen as he spoke. “Gabe here is too, Seth as well, and this guy”—he clapped Vinny on the shoulder—“is getting hitched in a month.”
“I see.” Cassie gave a cute smile—maybe it was just a smile, but I thought it was cute. “Well, I’m still sticking with Galen. He has this boy-next-door vibe.”
“Hey,” I protested. “What about me?” Why was I protesting?
“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “You look like the one who would break my heart.”
My eyebrows furrowed, and I grunted. I’d never broken a woman’s heart in my entire life. I always knew I wanted to be a Marine, so I didn’t bother having girlfriends in high school, because I knew as soon as I graduated, I would go off to boot camp. I quickly became a sergeant and was sent to various countries on special details, which I’m not allowed to discuss. After being stationed in Barstow, California, and spending free days in Las Vegas because it was less than three hours away, I became friends with an escort who had previously worked for Saddles & Racks ...
“I can’t hang tonight,” Colin, my friend in Vegas, stated into the phone.
“Why not?” I asked, the phone cradled between my ear and shoulder as I buttoned my shirt to get ready for our night out in Sin City. Two of my officers—Wells and Romero, my first and second lieutenants and the men I was closest with on-base—had made the drive to Vegas with me for the weekend. It was what we did to let off steam and relax.
“I have a date.”
“Well, cancel it. You said you’d get us into Tryst.” Tryst was the hottest club in Vegas, and we wanted to find out why—and also meet some ladies.
“I’m still getting you into the club, but I have a date and can’t meet up with you.”
“Bring her with us.”
“It’s not that kind of date.”
I stopped buttoning my shirt. “What do you mean it’s not that kind of date?”
“Remember how I told you that I have a side job?”
He took a deep breath. “It’s escorting.”
“Escorting?” I balked. “What do you mean, escorting?”
“I get paid to go on dates.”
I laughed. “You’re fucking with me, right?”
I sat on the end of the bed and looked over at Wells as he ironed his shirt. Romero was still in the shower. “How?”
“I work for an escort service, and when a client books me, I do whatever it is they’ve specified they want.”
Colin chuckled. “Well, not legally, but if the date is going well, I don’t turn them down.”
“So, what you’re saying is you’re bailing on me to get laid?”
“Maybe.” I rolled my brown eyes just as I heard the water shut off in the bathroom. “Your names are on the list—you’ll get into Tryst. Tomorrow we can meet for lunch, and I’ll explain Saddles & Racks to you. We’re always recruiting, and I think women will go crazy for a man in uniform.”
The next day, we met with Colin, and he explained how he made a shitload of money to go on dates that often led to sex. Every weekend that the guys and I would go to Vegas, Colin would try to get us to join S&R. It took a few years, and a lot of convincing, but ultimately, I decided that the money was too good to pass up. My mother, back in Tennessee, had become sick, and her medical bills were too much for her to handle. The Marines didn’t pay enough for me to take care of her, so after ten years of service, I quit and became an escort.
I grinned at the pretty cocktail waitress. “No, princess. I’m the one who would rock your world.”
Under the fluorescent lights of the casino, Cassie’s cheeks turned beet red. “Okay then. Well, what drinks can I get you guys?” We each ordered our drink of choice: a Negroni for me.
“Way to scare the poor girl,” Vinny chastised playfully after Cassie walked off.
“It’s true.” I shrugged.
“Are you going to ask me who I think will be next?” the dealer asked as she dealt another round.
“Sure,” Paul replied.
“I think it will be you, Brad.”
“And why’s that?” I questioned with a grin.
She motioned for Nick to hit or stay. “Because you got butt-hurt when Cassie chose Galen.”
I grunted. “I did not get butt-hurt.”
“Yeah, you kinda did.” Gabe smirked.
I rolled my eyes. “No, I didn’t.”
“One of you will be next,” Vinny said. “It’s only a matter of time.”
“Will you guys come back and tell me who it is?” the dealer asked.
“Sure,” Paul replied, “but my money’s on Galen.”
“Me too,” Nick agreed.
“You know,” Gabe said, “I’m betting on Brad.”
“Me too,” Seth agreed.
“I’m thinking Brad too,” Vinny stated.
I looked at Galen, and he held up his hands. “Don’t look at me. I just know it won’t be me.”
“Well, then, I’m saying Nick too.” I really didn’t think it would be him, but I knew barely anything about Galen, and Nick had had girlfriends in the past.
“Yeah, fucking right,” Nick replied. “I’ve tried being in a relationship, but it doesn’t work out with our line of work, and you know I ain’t quitting. Ever.”
“I’m not either,” I argued.
“And I just started,” Galen stated.
“Well, one of you will,” Gabe said.
“How does it even happen?” Galen questioned.
“Well”—Paul smirked—“you’ll meet a woman who you’ll start to care about, and then before you know it, you’ll never want to go a day without her.”
The Fallen all nodded while Gabe replied, “Exactly.”
Four Years Ago – Seventeen Years Old
MY WORLD CAME to a screeching halt when I was fifteen. In an instant, both of my parents were dead. The last night that I saw them, they were leaving the house for dinner. On their way home, my father had a heart attack while driving and crashed head-on into the center divider on the freeway.
They died on the way to the hospital ...
Keith sped through the streets toward the hospital where the cops had told us to go.
“What do you think happened?” I asked.
Keith shrugged. “Probably nothing serious. Just a few broken bones or something.”
My gut was telling me differently, and I was sick to my stomach as we got closer to the hospital. After Keith parked, we raced into the emergency department, looking around for our parents. I didn’t see them, and Keith stepped up to the desk.
“Our parents were in a car accident and brought in by ambulances,” he stated.
“The last name?” the lady asked as though a ton of people had been brought into the ER after car accidents.
“Davidson,” Keith replied.
She typed some things on the computer and then said, “Have a seat. A doctor will be out shortly.”
I couldn’t sit. Instead, I paced back and forth from one end of the waiting room to the other. I wasn’t sure how long I did that, but finally, a doctor came out and called us.
Keith jumped up from his seat as I rushed toward the doctor. “Yes?” we both said at the same time.
“Follow me, please.”
I swallowed and looked at Keith. Was he taking us to see our parents? I didn’t have much experience at hospitals, but from what I’d seen on TV, they usually gave an update in the waiting room.
We quickly followed the doctor into a small room that looked like a mini living room. He closed the door behind him and took a deep breath. With a look of sorrow on his face, he said, “As you know, your parents were in a car accident tonight.” Keith and I nodded. “I’m sorry, but they didn’t make it. They died on the way here.”
I blinked again.
“They died on the way here?” I repeated as a whisper, not believing my ears.
The doctor nodded. “Yes, the paramedics tried everything but they weren’t able to save them.”
“Are you sure?” Keith asked.
“Yes.” The doctor bobbed his head again. “Once the autopsy is done, we’ll know for sure the cause of deaths, but I’d say they both died from internal bleeding.”
I couldn’t speak; the news wasn’t sinking in. A few hours ago life was perfect, but then all of a sudden they were gone. It didn’t make sense.
“Can we see them?” Keith asked.
“Yes. You’ll be able to say goodbye shortly.”
That wasn’t true. Saying goodbye would involve having a conversation with them, one where I would get to hug my mother and hear my father’s voice. Not have a one-sided conversation and then leave, knowing I’d never get to see them again. Never eat my mother’s peanut butter cookies again. Never ask my dad for help with a math problem again.
Never get to tell them that I loved them again and they be able to hear me.
My legs buckled and I crumbled to the thinly carpeted floor as sobs shook my chest. I couldn’t breathe. Keith wrapped me in his arms and held me, whispering that it was okay.
It wasn’t okay.
My parents were dead.
Since Keith was nineteen, the courts gave him guardianship rights over me. The judge figured it was for the best since I’d lived in Vegas my entire life and because I wasn’t close with our family that lived out of state. They also assumed that the life insurance money would provide for us both. They assumed wrong because my brother was selfish.
It provided for him. And only him.
Our house was paid for with the life insurance money, and the rest of Keith’s half went to whatever Keith wanted to spend it on: strippers, hookers, drugs. We had to wait until I was eighteen to get the remaining money. In the meantime, I was left to fend for myself.
Since I didn’t want to turn out like him, and I needed to survive, I got a job at a sandwich shop after school and on weekends. It was enough to feed me and keep the lights on in the house and put food on the table for us. I didn’t have to worry about gas money or car insurance because I never got my license. How could I? A car had killed my parents, and the thought of getting behind the wheel again made me sick—literally sick and puking. So, I took the bus everywhere, even to school. Thankfully, I was graduating in a few weeks, and I’d already planned on starting classes online for hospitality management in the fall. Plus, once I turned eighteen, I’d finally get my cut of the life insurance money.
There was a knock on my bedroom door. “What?” I called out, looking up from my laptop as I sat in the middle of my bed.
The door opened, and Keith stood in the doorway. “We need to talk.”
“Talk about what?”
I rolled my blue eyes. “I don’t have any.”
He crossed his arms over his lean chest. “But you will.”
I glared at him. “You’re not taking my part of the life insurance money.”
“Yes, I am.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am. I’ve let you live here for two years and provided for you—”
“Provided for me?” I got off my bed in a huff.
“You’re fucking delusional, Keith. You’ve never paid for anything in this house.”
“I have, and it’s time you paid me back.”
“Pay you back? You’ve never given me a dime.”
“You eat the pizza I order and the Chinese food that’s delivered, right?”
I snorted. “Sometimes, but I’m usually at work or at school.”
“And it’s time you paid me back.”
“Fine. I’ll give you like a thousand bucks.” That was more than enough. I paid every single electricity bill, cable bill, water bill, and I did all the grocery shopping while he was out doing God knows what.
Keith chuckled. “You’re cute, but I’m taking it all.”
“Bullshit!” I pushed him, but he barely budged. “It’s my money. I have college to pay for.”
“Look, Little Dove,” he said, using the nickname my parents gave me. Dad had always said I was the pure heart of our family. “I’m on your bank account, and once the money is deposited on your birthday, I will take it. There’s no stopping me, and it’s better if you don’t fight me on this.”
“I need that money,” I cried.
“And that’s why you work.” He turned to leave and then called over his shoulder, “Don’t forget to get Hot Cheetos when you go to the store.”
I slammed my door and groaned loudly. How was I going to stop him from taking my money?
I had a plan.
The morning I turned eighteen, I set my alarm so that I’d get to the bank right when it opened, and I could get the money as soon as it was deposited into my account. But when I got to the bank and had the teller bring up my account to withdraw the money, she stated that it was already transferred into another account.
I didn’t know how he’d beat me, but he did. He even took the money that I got working as a sandwich maker. It was only a few hundred dollars, but my account was left with a zero balance. What kind of brother did that to his only sister? Apparently, the one who cared more about himself and drugs than his own blood.
I was left with nothing.
After taking my name off of the bank account and opening another one in my name only, I walked the few miles back to the house, needing to think about what to do next. I couldn’t move out because I didn’t make enough at Freshly Baked.
I felt lost and helpless.
By the time I got home, I realized that the only thing I could do was let Keith think he’d won. He could have my money, but when the time came, I was going to get my revenge.
Even if we were blood.
ONCE THE PLANE touched down at the airport in Nashville, I rented a car and drove to my mother’s house about thirty minutes outside of the city in a small, one-stoplight town. Saddles & Racks gave me the freedom and money to be able to go back home whenever I needed or wanted to, which typically was at least once a month.
“Mom,” I called out as I entered the two-bedroom, two-bath house that I’d purchased for her after my first year of escorting. Instead of buying a home for myself right away, I chose to help her. I made sure she had everything she needed and wouldn’t have to worry about paying a mortgage or rent. My father had divorced her when I was ten, and she never remarried. Escorting had paid very well in the three years I’d been doing it. My three-bedroom house with a pool, my luxury truck, my mom’s house, and her medical bills were all paid for.
“I’m in the kitchen,” she yelled.
I smiled and shut the door behind me, setting my bag down before walking through the small living room to the kitchen. The air smelled of home: lavender, vanilla, and my mother’s cooking. “Whatcha makin’?”
Mom turned and held out her arms for me to walk into them. “A peach cobbler. Mary is coming over with her granddaughter for afternoon coffee.”
I pulled back and looked into her chocolate eyes. Mary was the sweet older lady who lived diagonally across the street. She had become close friends with my mother. “How old is her granddaughter?”
She grinned. “Why? Do you want me to set you up?”
I narrowed my eyes. “No, I know you. This is already a setup.”
Mom chuckled and stepped back to continue sautéing the peaches. “Can you blame me? I want a grandbaby before I die.”
My mother didn’t know what I did for a living. When I started at Saddles & Racks, she was going through recovery from her double mastectomy. I spent a month on leave with her while she recovered before I made the decision to become an escort so I could help her out financially.
When I told her I was leaving the Marine Corps because I’d found a job in Vegas that paid well, she’d asked what it was, so I told her I’d be working in customer relations at various hotels—a tiny lie because it was customer relations at various hotels, I just wasn’t working for the hotels.
“Well, lucky for you, you’re not dying for another thirty or forty years.”
“And I better have a grandchild or two by then.”
“Right.” I rubbed the back of my neck. I had no plans of ever settling down or having kids. “So, I’m going to go change and then mow the lawn.”
“Do it shirtless.”
“What?” She grinned. “I want Mary’s granddaughter to see your abs.”
“And how old is she?” I asked again.
She took the pan off the stove and then started to get her dry ingredients. “In her twenties.”
I took a deep breath. “If, and I mean if I think she’s pretty, I’ll consider taking her out while I’m here, but I’m not making any promises.”
I watched as she poured the pie filling into the crust, gauging to see if she was in any pain or anything. She looked good. “How are you feeling?”
Mom smiled warmly at me. “Better. I think I’m ready to start looking for a job.”
“Really?” My heart swelled because all I wanted was for my mother to be healthy and like her old self again.
“My body has healed a lot since my surgery. I think I can handle it.”
“Maybe a part-time job,” I suggested.
She nodded. “Maybe. We’ll see.”
Even though Vegas was hot as hell, the Tennessee humidity in the middle of July was no joke.
Cutting off the mower, I wiped the sweat from my forehead with my forearm. I was shirtless, but not because my mother wanted me to be on display for Mary and her granddaughter. It was hot as balls out, and there was no way I was going to mow wearing anything more than absolutely necessary.
When I opened my eyes, Mary and her granddaughter were walking toward the house. Their eyes were glued to me, and the younger woman had a look of want on her face that I’d seen more times than I could count over the last three years in my line of work.
“Ladies,” I greeted.
“Hey, Bradley,” Mary replied. “It’s good to see you again.”
She smiled. “This is my granddaughter, Holly.”
My gaze moved to the dark-haired woman next to her. She looked as though she was barely in her twenties. There was nothing wrong with that—I loved all women—but the younger women usually couldn’t afford me, and I didn’t date them.
She waved, and I smiled. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“You too,” Holly replied.
“Mom’s making her delicious peach cobbler—go on inside.”
“Thank you,” Mary said, and she and Holly walked up to the small porch. Just before entering the house, Holly turned her head and gave me one last look with a smile.
I put the mower in the shed near the garage and went inside to shower off the sweat and humidity coating my body. When I was done, I walked into the kitchen to see an empty dessert plate and a half-empty coffee cup in front of each lady. “Save any for me?”
“Of course,” Mom answered and started to stand.
“I can get it.” I waved her off to sit back down.
“Have as much as you’d like.”
“I will.” I chuckled. I loved my mother’s cooking and baking and always got my fill when I visited.
“I was just telling Holly that you live in Vegas. She’s never been,” Mom said.
I looked over my shoulder as I cut into the cobbler. “Really?”
“Yeah, I just turned twenty-one.”
I knew it. “It’s a fun place. You should go.”
“Maybe I will, and you can show me around?”
I put the cobbler on a plate and turned to see all eyes were on me, waiting for me to confirm that I would take this young lady under my wing in the City of Sin. “Yeah, I mean, everything you need to see is on The Strip. Not really much to show you besides just walking around.”
As I sat in the empty chair at the table, I felt my mother’s heated glare on me. “What?”
“You can’t let her wander around by herself.”
“She shouldn’t go to Vegas by herself,” I countered and stuck a sweet bite into my mouth.
“I wasn’t going to,” Holly confirmed. “If I ever go, I’m sure it would be with friends.”
“You’ll have fun. There’s a lot to do.”
“Anything in particular?” she questioned.
I could still feel my mother’s gaze on me, and because I was a gentleman, and especially because I wanted to make my mom happy, I said, “Actually, how about tomorrow for lunch we go to Dovie’s for a bite, and I can give you a list of things to check out?”
“I’d like that.” Holly beamed.
All the women were smiling again. I could get through one lunch and humor my mother, but I sure as shit wasn’t going to be the next to fall, even if my mom did want grandkids as soon as possible.
The next day, I walked to Mary’s house to take Holly to lunch. When Holly opened the door after I’d knocked, she was dressed in short shorts and a tight, bright yellow tank top with spaghetti straps that barely held up her tits. She had on a good amount of makeup, and her hair was curled. I preferred a woman who didn’t feel the need to cover up her face or try too hard to impress me. My dates always made sure to wear a shit-ton of makeup because they thought they needed it.
“You look beautiful today,” I stated, turning on my charm.
Her cheeks flushed. “Thank you.”
She closed the door, and we walked down the street toward my rental car. “I hope you’re hungry,” I said, opening the passenger door for her to slide in. “Dovie’s serves big portions.”
I nodded as I closed the door, then rounded the hood to get into the driver’s seat. I liked a woman who could eat. On my dates, the women were usually too nervous to eat even when they wanted to meet at a restaurant and have a proper date before going back to their hotel room. After a few drinks, they’d calm down but not enough to eat the food they’d ordered. I actually found it hilarious because there was nothing to be nervous about. We both knew I would take the lead and make it a good night. It was why I was hired, right?
After starting the engine, I pulled away from the curb. “Is this your first time in Nashville?” I asked, even though we were technically on the outskirts.
“No, I used to come here all the time growing up.”
“And now you’re back visiting your grandma?”
“I’m actually a student at Tennessee State. I came here for a week or two to try to find an off-campus place to live when I start back in the fall.”
“Can’t live with Mary?”
“I could, but that’s my last resort. I don’t want to be the one girl living with her grandma while everyone else is having parties at their place every weekend.”
I grunted softly. I felt as though I was starting to get too old for partying, and the thought of a college party actually made my stomach turn. A lot of my dates wanted to go clubbing, so I had to dance and shit, but my idea of partying at thirty-one was a steak dinner out with the guys to followed by a little gambling—like we had for Vinny’s bachelor party—or drinks down on Fremont Street.
Fuck, I was starting to sound like an old married guy.
“I get that,” I said, driving into the small parking lot. Dovie’s was a little silver restaurant that served delicious southern comfort food. As we walked up the steps to enter, I noted the Help Wanted sign in the window. I had to tell my mother about the sign since Dovie’s was my favorite place to eat when I was in town. Well, besides my mother’s cooking, of course.
She made the best chicken and dumplings I’d ever had.
WHEN KEITH STOLE MY MONEY, I thought I would get my revenge sooner rather than later, but it had been four years, and I hadn’t been able to get my money. In fact, I was certain it was gone just like his share was spent as if it was pennies instead of thousands of dollars.
I tried to stay out of Keith’s way, acting more like roommates than brother and sister. We had our moments, especially on the anniversary of our parents’ deaths when we seemed as though we still had love for one another. I did love him, though—of course, I did; he was my brother. I just also hated the way he’d turned out. He cared more for his friends than he did about me, and sometimes I wondered how our lives would be different if our parents hadn’t gone out that night.
Keith had his best friend, Micky, move in as well as another friend and his girlfriend. We had a full house, but I was the one keeping the lights on because I still paid all the bills for the house plus food. I fucking hated it, but I had no other options.
I wasn’t able to attend college like I had planned to after I graduated high school, and I had no money to buy the house outright from Keith—not that he would ever allow that. I didn’t have money to hire an attorney either, and I couldn’t just leave because I had nowhere else to go. I didn’t have close friends to turn to because I’d pushed everyone away after my parents’ deaths and hadn’t made any new ones. If I let Keith have the house, I would let my mom down because I knew how much she’d loved the house, and Keith and his friends would run it into the ground if it weren’t for me.
When I turned twenty-one, I got a job at a casino as a cocktail waitress. I hated having to work around cigarette smoke and people that didn’t tip well—or at all—but it was still more money than I was making at the sandwich shop.
“Cocktails!” I called as I approached the tables. It was quiet, given it was mid-day on a Tuesday, but I took whatever shift I could. “Cocktails!”
“Yeah, hot stuff, we’ll take four Bud Lights,” a guy stated. I wrote it down on my notepad.
“And four shots of Patrón,” another guy said, his gaze lowering to my legs and back up, stopping at my boobs.
“Show some respect.” I looked over to see Keith’s friend Micky walking up to the table.
“Excuse me?” the guy snarled.
“Hot stuff? She has a name.”
“Who are you? Her boyfriend?” the second guy mocked.
“Maybe one day.” Micky winked.
Ignoring the two guys, I asked Micky, “What are you doing here?”
“I was driving by and decided to stop in.” He sat at the table and pulled out a one hundred dollar bill to exchange for chips. It wasn’t lost on me that he had money but couldn’t or wouldn’t pay rent.
“Oh, then can I get you something to drink?”
I smiled. “You got it.” I wrote his order down and then moved to the next table. “Cocktails!”
“I’ll take my usual, Cassie,” Steve, a regular, called out.
“You got it, Steve.” Unlike the guys barking orders at me, I liked Steve. He came in almost every day for an hour or so, and he always tipped well. I would be surprised if the other guys tipped at all—even Micky. He didn’t pay rent or provide for the house, so I would be shocked if he put any money on my tray, especially since the beer was free.
I went to the bar and gave Alex, the bartender, my list of drinks. “Having a good day?” he asked as he made Steven’s usual whiskey sour.
“As good as any.”
“No.” I shook my head. “Just wish every time I worked, it was busy like a Friday or Saturday night.”
“I feel ya.” He placed five beers onto my tray with the whiskey sour before grabbing four shot glasses. “At least it’s summer.”
“Winters are bad?” I had only worked a few months at the casino, but most of them were summer months.
“New Year’s Eve is amazing.” Alex finished pouring the shots. I grabbed four lime wedges for the shots, and put them in a small glass.
I took the tray and left without another word. The faster I was at getting people their drinks, the better chance I had at a good tip. I delivered the beers and shots first. Of course, they didn’t tip me, not even Micky.
“What time do you get off?” Micky asked.
“Not for a while. I’ve been here only about two hours.”
“Your brother and I are going out later, but maybe when I get home, we can hang out?”
I shrugged. Micky and I had never hung out before. He was Keith’s friend, not mine, and I more or less only stayed in my bedroom. I didn’t know why he wanted to spend time with me now. “Maybe.”
He winked at me again before standing and walking away with his chips and beer. “I’ll see you later.”
“Yep.” Did he just come to see if I was getting off soon? He didn’t stay long at all.
I went to Steve’s table and gave him his drink. “Thanks, Cassie. You’re a doll.”
I smiled tightly. “You’re welcome.”
“Everything okay?” he asked as he slid chips in for his initial blackjack bet.
My smile widened. “Of course.”
I tilted my head slightly, wondering if he’d heard Micky. “No, not guy problems.” I didn’t know Steve’s story, but he was always dressed in a suit, and he looked good for a guy old enough to be my grandpa.
“Well, don’t look so down. You’re a pretty girl. You need to smile all the time.”
“I’ll try.” I grinned and started to walk away, but his words stopped me.
“Don’t leave without your tip, Cassie.”
I turned and saw that he was holding a twenty-dollar chip out for me to take. “That’s a …”
He smiled. “I know. Lunch is on me today.”
My face lit up. “Thank you so much, Steve. You’re amazing.”
“Not a problem.”
“I’ll be back soon with another drink for you.”
I grabbed a couple of drink orders from the slot area nearby before going back to Alex to submit it. “Guess what?” I asked.
“You know that guy Steve who comes in here all the time? Whiskey sour guy?”
“He gave me a twenty-dollar chip.”
“Yep.” I beamed.
“I heard the guy is loaded. Owns a jewelry store or something.”
“Oh, well, that explains it, I guess.”
“Play your cards right, and he may give you more than a twenty-dollar tip.” Alex winked.
I laughed and took my tray of drinks, delivering the slot orders first before going back to Steve. “Here you go.”
“Thanks, Cassie.” He tossed a five-dollar chip onto my tray.
He continued to place bets and ask for cards while we talked. “I like you, Cassie. And you know, I own a jewelry store near West Sahara. You should stop by. I’ll give you the family discount.”
“I would love that, but I’m not sure when that will be. I don’t make a lot of extra money.”
“Is that why you look sad? Money troubles?” Steve looked over at me.
I shrugged slightly. “Some of it. I wish every day was as busy as Friday and Saturday.”
He took his wallet out of his suit jacket pocket and handed me a business card. “Come see me at my store, and we’ll talk. I’m looking to hire someone.”
My eyes widened as I took the card. “Oh my gosh. Thank you so much.” He took another twenty-dollar chip and put it onto my tray. “I will come by first thing tomorrow before my shift.”
I walked away to get more drink orders feeling as though I was walking in the clouds. This could finally be my chance at having a career.
When I got home, I didn’t see Micky. I didn’t want anything to do with him or Keith’s other friends. They were all shady people, and I was certain they all dealt drugs as Keith did. I went straight to my room and stayed there, falling asleep as I watched a few episodes of the new season of Veronica Mars.
The next morning, I had to take two buses to get to Steve’s jewelry store, but I made it there a little after ten. I knew nothing about jewelry, but I wanted to learn. I was eager to learn everything because if Steve could be rich from owning a jewelry store, maybe I could one day be rich too.
When I entered the well-lit store filled with glass cases, I didn’t see Steve, but instead, a guy who was maybe in his late twenties.
“Hi, welcome to The Velvet Box.” His name tag stated his name was Ray. “Looking for anything particular today?”
“Actually, I’m here to see Steve.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
I frowned. “Kinda?”
He furrowed his brow. “What does that mean?”
“I told him yesterday that I would be in this morning.”
“Oh, okay. And your name?”
“Let me see if he’s available.”
He turned and went through a door at the back of the store, while I looked inside the case of beautiful diamond rings. There were no prices on any of them, but I assumed just by the size of the large rocks sparkling in the light, that I would need to sell a kidney to be able to afford one.
A few moments later, Steve stepped out. “Cassie, you made it.”
I smiled and gave a slight nod. “I did.”
“Well, come on back and let’s chat in my office.” I followed him through the door and down a short hall before turning into a windowless office. Inside was a desk with two chairs, and stacks of papers lying around on the desk and filing cabinets. “Have a seat.” He closed the door as I sat.
“Thank you so much for giving me your info.”
Steve took a seat in his chair on the other side of the desk. “As I said yesterday, I’m hiring.”
“Yes, but …” I swallowed and then frowned. “I’ve never worked in a jewelry store before.” I was starting to become nervous, my palms sweating slightly.
“Did you bring your resume?”
My blue eyes widened, and I whispered sheepishly, “I don’t have one.” I never thought about a resume or that I would need one, as my previous jobs had only required an application.
He leaned forward and clasped his hands in front of him. “Is the casino your first job?”
Steve nodded. “That explains it.”
“Is that going to be a problem?”
“Where was your other job?”
“The sandwich shop, Freshly Baked.”
“So no retail?”
“No,” I admitted and frowned again.
Steve gave me a warm smile. “That’s okay. We all have to start somewhere.”
“Tell me a little about yourself.”
“There really isn’t much to tell.”
“Sure there is. Tell me about your family.”
I took a deep breath. Not many people knew about my parents. After they died, I got really depressed. The days turned into weeks and then months without me wanting to be around people. A few of my parents’ friends tried to reach out, but I let Keith handle them. Then I realized Keith spent all of the money that he had been given to help us, and I got a job. My focus had always been on surviving, and I didn’t have time to form relationships.
“Well, my parents died two weeks before my sixteenth birthday, and things became hard since it was just my older brother and me. I started to work at Freshly Baked after school and on weekends to keep the lights on, then I graduated, and I’ve been working ever since.”
“Wow, Cassie. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Thank you.” I smiled tightly, trying to show it didn’t bother me, but it did. I missed my parents every day and wondered what life would be like if they were still here.
“When did you start working at the casino?”
“Just about four months ago. I was hoping to make more money with tips and all, but since I’m the new girl, I get the slow shifts.”
He nodded and paused for a moment before speaking. “Well, as I told you yesterday, I’m looking for someone to help out around here. It was my daughter, but she’s going off to Yale in a little more than a month, and I need to have someone trained and able to cover her shift.”
“I’m willing to learn—and quickly. I promise I won’t let you down.”
Steve smiled. “Aren’t you curious how much the pay is? And what hours I need you to work?”
I chuckled slightly. “Yes, sorry. I’m just excited to work for you if you want to hire me.”
He grinned. “Good to know. Let’s start you off at minimum wage plus twenty percent commission on everything you sell.”
“Wow, thank you,” I breathed. I didn’t know if it would be more than what I made in tips at the casino, but just the thought of not having to deal with drunks and loud people was enough to make me take the job on the spot. Plus, the hours would be much better. From what I saw posted near the front door, the store was only open ten to six.
“Put in your two-week notice, and then we’ll get you started here. During the first week or so, I’ll have you come in and train with me. After that, you should be good to go on your own.”
I reached out my hand as I stood. “Thank you so much. I won’t let you down.”
I ALWAYS HATED LEAVING my mom, but Vegas was where the money was, and I had to go back.
I was hopeful she would get the job at Dovie’s because I knew it would be good for her to get out of the house. As for Holly, I was the perfect gentleman. Paid for lunch and took her back home. I knew she wished for more by her endless flirting, but I didn’t want to give her hope of anything more with me.
When I got back into town, I texted Gabe: Back in Sin City. Need me today?
A few minutes later, he texted: Yeah. Meet me at Club 24. Autumn and I are running a class in an hour. Let’s see if you can handle it.
I chuckled and rolled my eyes. I fucking could handle it. I was a Marine, and I specialized in hand-to-hand combat. I was a trained killer.
Me: I think I’ll manage.
Parking my black, limited edition, four-door, Ford-150 in the parking lot of the gym, I cut the engine and got out. Being able to drive a luxury vehicle was another perk of the job. Life was good.
All the guys worked out at Club 24, and most of us were good friends with the owners. In fact, I always wondered why the youngest brother, Blake Montgomery, never asked us how to get into the game. From what I knew about him, he would be good at escorting—he was good-looking, and the women seemed to love him.
I checked in with the front desk and made my way to the room that Gabe used for his class. He really did have a sweet deal getting in with the Montgomery brothers. Like me, he’d left the military before he could get retirement from the Army, and I was happy that he’d found something he loved to do and could help others. Helping others was something I loved to do too, and that was why I didn’t hesitate to offer my assistance since Paul was going to Quantico.
“Hey,” I greeted as I walked into the room where Gabe and Autumn were setting up. I expected to see Paul since he hadn’t left for the FBI yet, but he wasn’t there.
“Hey,” Gabe greeted back.
I hugged Autumn. “Where’s Paul?” I asked.
“Some top-secret shit or something to get ready to go to Virginia,” Gabe replied.
I laughed, watching Gabe take out thick mats. “Top secret? He’s not even in the FBI yet.”
“You know how Paul is,” Autumn countered. “He’s silly and makes a big deal about everything.”
I nodded. That he did and the dude was always making us laugh. “So what do you need me to do?”
“Just watch this time,” Gabe replied.
A few minutes later, women started to walk into the room. I watched as Gabe and Autumn introduced themselves and shared their backgrounds: Gabe, an ex-Army captain, and Autumn, a victim of domestic violence. Gabe explained that I was going to be an instructor soon as well.
Throughout the class, the attendees partnered up to practice chokeholds, grabs, and simple takedowns. Each one took turns trying to take Gabe down as though he were an attacker. He explained how some of them who were having a hard time could breathe better if they slightly moved his arm from around their necks, not letting the attacker keep the upper hand. He showed them vulnerabilities on his body that they could hit to stun him or knock him off balance, and he showed them weaknesses in his hold that they could exploit to get free. Even though I was combat trained, it amazed me how, even in practice, a woman would freeze when someone attacked them from behind. It was scary to think about it, especially since Seth’s wife, Cat, and Vinny’s soon to be wife, Tessa, had both been kidnapped. But what made me even more excited to help out my friend was that Gabe taught them how to analyze the mechanics of a hold instead of just panicking, and I knew I could do the same.
My group of friends was trying to better the world, and I wanted to be a part of that change, too.
Most of my dates were beautiful, successful, intelligent women who didn’t have time for a relationship or needed something extra in their life. For someone who didn’t truly date before I became an escort, it still amazed me how I could pull it off as though I’d been doing it for years. I’d never had an official girlfriend before, but that didn’t stop me from learning how to be the perfect boyfriend when I needed to be.
A few days after I returned from Tennessee, I accessed Saddles & Rack’s back office on my phone and saw that I had a girlfriend experience date booked for Sunday afternoon and evening. The woman wanted to include going ring shopping. I didn’t know what a woman gained from having a fake date take her shopping for rings. It wasn’t as though I was proposing marriage to the stranger, but what I had learned in the years I’d worked at Saddles & Racks was that women just needed to feel special and wanted, so if I had to spend a few hours pretending as though I would one day propose to this woman, I would.
This would also be the first time I’d ever shopped for rings, and I didn’t exactly know what I was doing, but I was going to wing it like I did a lot of my dates.
The instructions were to pick Leslie up at her hotel room at the Venetian, so after leaving my truck with the valet, I made my way to the room number that was provided. When the door swung open, I was slightly taken aback. Leslie was beautiful with long blonde hair, stunning green eyes, and legs for days. Usually, the women who wanted a boyfriend experience had a hard time getting a boyfriend for whatever reason, and I didn’t think Leslie would have that problem. Ever.
“You look beautiful, hon.”
“Thank you.” She stepped back for me to enter her suite. “Can I get you a drink?”
Since we were in a hotel room and the bar was limited, I didn’t think she’d have the makings for a Negroni, so I said, “Gin and tonic if you have it.”
“How long are you in Vegas for?” I asked, moving to the window to check out her view. Of course, it was a view of The Strip. It was mid-afternoon, and not as glamorous as it was at night with the sparkling lights, but it was still a place people flocked to.
“Just the week. I’m here for a convention.”
“Oh? What do you do?”
Leslie handed me my drink. “I’m in pharmaceuticals.”
“Ah, so you get all the good drugs.”
She laughed as she sat on the couch. “Something like that.”
I took a sip of my drink and sat next to her, casually resting my hand on her bare knee that was exposed beneath her black skirt. I set my glass on the coffee table. “Are you excited about tonight?”
“Nervous,” she breathed.
I grinned to comfort her. “Don’t be nervous, hon. You’re in good hands.” In fact, I knew the best way to relax her before we headed out for dinner and drinks.
My hand went farther up her leg and under her skirt. I grabbed Leslie’s glass from her and set it next to mine before leaning in and kissing her neck. Things progressed with only my fingers doing the pleasuring until she was loosened up.
In more ways than one.
WHEN I GAVE my two-week notice at the casino, I expected to work two more weeks before my last day, but they let me go right away because they had an entire stack of applications from women wanting to be cocktail waitresses. I was okay with that because I was eager to start my job at The Velvet Box and learn all I could.
It had been two weeks since I started, and I was loving it. I never knew there were so many different cuts and grades of diamonds. I couldn’t wait to own something—anything—from the store once I could afford it.
My mother had jewelry, but when Keith went to sell the pieces, he found out they were fake. The only real pieces she owned were her wedding and engagement ring, and I’d hid them from Keith when I saw him rummaging through her jewelry box the day after our parents died. I knew something was off, and when he asked me where their rings were, I’d shrugged and told him I didn’t know and that maybe they had been burned with them. In reality, I had taken the rings, including my dad’s, and put them in the air vent in my room—I’d seen it done in an episode of Veronica Mars. Before Keith could find out if they still had them on their person, they were cremated, and he assumed—because he didn’t want to look suspicious as to why he was urgently wanting their jewelry—they burned with them.
I was starting to gather my purse from my locker when Steve walked into the small break room. “Cassie, I think you’re doing an amazing job.”
“Thank you so much.” I beamed.
“Have a good couple of days off, and I’ll see you on Monday when I’m back in. Martina and Ray will be here on Saturday with you—they’ll show you how to close up for the night.”
“Can’t wait.” I’d been working only until six when the store closed, but now my hours would be longer because it took another hour to close the store and put all the jewelry in the safe before leaving. Someone—usually Steve and one other person—came in at nine a.m. to put all the jewelry out again.
Grabbing my purse, I walked out of the store and started toward the bus stop when a car horn honked. I turned and saw it was Micky. I’d been avoiding him because I was worried he’d ask me to hang out with him again. I really wanted nothing to do with him.
He pulled up to the curb and rolled down the window. “Need a ride?”
I hesitated because of who it was, but I would get home faster by car than riding the city bus, so I sucked it up. “Um, sure.” I still had a slight fear that we would crash and die. Anything was possible, but over the years, my fear had been conquered more times than not. I just couldn’t see myself getting behind the wheel.
“Where are you coming from dressed like that?” he asked as he pulled into the flow of cars.
I looked down at my black slacks and floral blouse. “Work.”
“I thought you worked at the casino?”
“Worked,” I emphasized. “I got a job at The Velvet Box two weeks ago.”
“The jewelry store?” I nodded. “You get free shit or what?”
“No.” I chuckled. “A twenty percent discount.”
I furrowed my brows. “Five-finger?”
Micky laughed. “Yeah. A five-finger discount.”
“What does that mean?”
He chuckled harder. “It means you steal it.”
I sucked in a breath. “I would never steal from Steve. He gave me this job without me knowing anything about jewelry.”
“All right. I was just joking.” We didn’t speak for several minutes until he asked, “Do you need a ride tomorrow?”
“No. I have the next two days off.”
“I can pick you up on Saturday if you want.”
“Really?” I pretended I was interested only because riding the bus was a pain.
“Yeah. I’m sure the bus gets tiring.”
I grinned. “It does.”
“Then I’ll be waiting for you.”
“I’ll be getting off about seven now because I’ll be closing the store.”
“The store closes at seven?”
“No, six, but then we have to put all the pieces away.”
Micky grinned. “Don’t worry. I’ll be waiting for you at seven then.”
He drove us the rest of the way home. “I need to talk to your brother for a bit, but you want to grab dinner or something?” he asked as I tried to make a break for it by going up the stairs to my room.
“Talk to me about what?” Keith asked, coming around the corner.
I didn’t wait and continued up the stairs to my room, not caring about what the two of them discussed or hearing any of their conversation. I didn’t want anything to do with Micky and would never grab dinner with him.
Plus, I had Veronica Mars to watch.
I was starting to get comfortable talking about the items we had for sale. I was also starting to get sad because most of the people who came in seemed to be looking for engagement rings. My last boyfriend was in high school before my life changed, and I felt as if I’d never have one again. I was used to being alone, but it was lonely, and I wanted to be normal. I wanted to have friends and hang out and go to the movies and have fun and be a normal twenty-one-year-old. I wanted to try my first sip of alcohol and dance until closing at a club.
I wanted to feel love again.
It had been a busy day, and I’d sold two engagement rings, a diamond bracelet, and an emerald pendant necklace. The commission I’d earned was enough to pay all the bills for the entire month, though there were some days when I sold nothing, so I knew I had to be smart about everything. The more I thought about getting out from under Keith’s thumb, the more I thought a clean break was the way to go, but I hated to think that the house my mother had baked cookies in—the house where my dad built Keith and me a treehouse in the backyard—was going to turn into a dump. Though it was already getting there since I refused to clean up after Keith and his roommates.
The door opened as I checked the clock on the wall. We only had twenty minutes until closing. My gaze moved toward the customers, but as I opened my mouth to welcome them, I became lost for words.
When I worked at the casino, I would recognize regulars from time to time because they were regulars, but there were also a lot of one-time patrons. One night I got asked who I thought would be the next to tie the knot out of the three single men who were celebrating their friend getting married. I never thought I’d see any of those guys again because I’d assumed they were in Vegas just for the bachelor party. Yet Brad, the guy I hadn’t picked to get married next because I found him to be more attractive than the other two guys, and therefore, I didn’t want him to be the next to get married, just walked into The Velvet Box. With a woman.
My last words to him at the casino has been about breaking my heart, and I didn’t even know why I’d said that.
As the doors closed behind him, his dark gaze met mine, and he hesitated briefly before he slowly smiled. My belly did weird things, and I wasn’t sure why, but I was instantly nervous, and my palms became sweaty.
My gaze turned to my coworkers Ray and Martina, to see if they were going to help him, but Brad stepped closer to me and grinned wider. “Cassie, can you show us engagement rings, please?”
I snorted under my breath. So, he was the one to settle down next? “Sure, right over here.” I motioned to one of the cases that held the diamond rings, and all three of us walked over, me on the opposite side of the case.
“Show me what you like, hon.”
I waited as the woman peered into the case. When I looked up, Brad was looking at me. He wasn’t looking at his girlfriend as she searched for something that caught her eye, and I wondered why. Was it because he recognized me? My name was on my name tag, so it wasn’t as though he’d remembered it—unless he had? If he remembered me, did he think I would ask him about the bet he had with his friends and was trying to tell me not to bring it up?
“This one is nice.”
I tore my gaze from Brad’s and looked to see what the woman was pointing at. I grabbed the key from around my wrist and unlocked the glass case to take out the one carat, pear-shaped, halo ring. “I love this one,” I stated. “Rose gold is very popular right now, and this is so beautiful.”
“I love all the small diamonds around the bigger one and the small ones on the band,” the woman said.
“Is that the one you’d want?” Brad asked her.
She grinned. “I think so, but I’d love any ring you gave me.” She ran her finger down his chest. A chest that looked hard and muscular beneath his button-down shirt.
My heart clenched. I didn’t know this guy from the next to walk into the store, but if I were honest with myself, he was the first guy I’d been attracted to in … forever. His short hair was dark, almost black. He had dark brown eyes that I swore sparkled like a brown topaz. I wanted to touch his short beard, wanted to feel it against my face as he kissed me. His body looked perfect and fit and strong; I wanted to feel it against mine and know what it felt like to have a man ravish me like I’d seen in romantic movies.
I opened my mouth to talk more about the ring, but my gaze moved past Brad to the door, where I saw what looked like four men coming toward us wearing black ski masks and holding handguns. My heart instantly had another reaction as it started to beat faster in my chest, and once again, I was at a loss for words—not because of the gorgeous man standing in front of me, but because of the terror walking toward us.
Just as the door opened and the men stormed in, Brad turned to see what I was looking at. Before any of the five of us in the store could react, the masked men barreled in. One yelled in a deep voice, “Everyone get your fucking hands up—now!”
Without hesitation, I shot my hands straight into the air. Two of the robbers aimed their guns at Martina and Ray, one stayed by the door as though he was a lookout, and the one I assumed was the leader because he was the one who’d spoken, pointed his gun toward me.
“Get behind me, Cassie,” Brad growled.
I looked to see that Brad was moving his girlfriend behind him. I moved over a step so his body was shielding mine even with the glass case between us.
“Listen up,” the lead robber said, again in a voice that sounded as though he was trying to mask his own. “Do as I say, and no one gets hurt. If I see any of you going for any sort of alarm, I won’t hesitate to shoot you. And you”—he wiggled the gun at Brad as though to show emphasis—“just stay there, and everything will be fine.”
“All right,” Brad replied. “I agree. No one needs to get hurt.”
My gaze moved to his girlfriend, who was pressed up against his back, her face buried into it. I wished with everything I had in me that we could trade places. I wanted to hide behind him like that, to actually feel protected and not just hope he’d stop a bullet if someone were to fire.
“Now,” the same robber declared, “we’re going to hand you bags. All you need to do is fill them up, and then we’ll leave. Got it?” I nodded again, watching as Martina and Ray started to fill their bags. The leader came over to me and extended his hand with a black bag in it. “Be a good Little Dove and do as you’re told.”
I blinked as I reached for the bag. Little Dove? Was it Keith?
Before I took the bag from Keith, Brad reached for the gun and swiftly removed it from his hand. “Now, you listen to me, motherfucker.”
Keith laughed, and I waited with bated breath.
“Cassie, go hit the silent alarm,” Brad ordered.
I started to move, but Keith lunged for Brad, his fist hitting him in the jaw just as Brad pulled the trigger. The gun didn’t go off; the only sound it made was a click. While Keith and Brad tussled, the other guys snatched the bags from Martina and Ray and moved toward the exit. Brad rotated, hooking his arm around Keith’s neck.
“I could kill you right now,” Brad seethed.
And then it happened.
A gun went off.
I jumped, and Brad’s girlfriend screamed. I didn’t know who took the shot, but in a blink, Keith groaned, and Brad dropped his arm. When he was free, Keith ran out the door with the others. I looked at Brad and saw blood seeping through his blue button-down shirt.
Five Years Prior …
THE DIRT and dust kicked up outside the Humvee as Fields, Brown, and I were on our way back from doing a routine check on an Iranian village not far from our basecamp. It was just the three of us making sure the village had everything the people needed, and that no one required attention or medical care.
An explosion shook the ground and lifted the Humvee off the ground, rolling onto its side. I was shaken, rattled, and jerked around with the vehicle. When I came to in the back seat, my ears were ringing, and my head was throbbing.
“Everyone okay?” I asked, trying to blink the pain away.
Fields groaned. “My leg is pinned.”
“I’m good,” Brown stated. “You, Rhodes?”
“Fine.” I heard chatter coming toward us, but not loud enough for me to make out any words. “We gotta move. Call for backup, Fields.”
My door was against the ground, so I moved, opening the gunner’s hatch to climb out.
Bullets hit against the dry dirt near me, and I got behind the back of the Humvee in the opposite direction of the firing guns. Brown followed. “Did you see anyone?” I asked.
I nodded and motioned that I would go right and he would go left. Brown agreed, and we moved, firing without hesitation. There were more than three, but we were well trained and able to take down multiple enemies. Just as we were almost finished, a bullet came out of nowhere, piercing through my side.
“I’m hit!” I shouted, the burning engulfing my entire right side. I didn’t fall. Instead, I kept shooting, needing to protect Brown because we didn’t leave a man behind nor alone to fight.
Once the last enemy was dead, we retreated, going back to the Humvee. I could see our backup coming, and I leaned against the side of the vehicle as the pain overtook me.
Present Day …
* * *
“OH MY GOD, YOU’RE BLEEDING,” Leslie shrieked.
I looked down and saw blood seeping onto my shirt, and then it felt like my armpit and right pec were on fire. I’d heard a gun go off, but I hadn’t realized I’d been hit. “It’s okay,” I stated. It wasn’t the first time I’d been shot.
“It’s not okay. You’ve been shot,” Leslie argued.
I looked over at Cassie to make sure she was okay. Her arms were still in the air. “Cassie,” I whispered. Only her gaze moved to mine. “You can put your arms down now.”
She nodded as she lowered them, and I heard her male coworker say, “Yes, I pressed the silent alarm a few minutes ago. I work at The Velvet Box, and we were just robbed. Also, I think one of our customers has been shot.”
“Bradley, I think you need to sit down,” Leslie suggested.
“I’m fine.” I gave her a tight smile. It felt nothing like the time I was shot in Iran, so it was probably just a graze.
“You’re bleeding,” she pressed as though I didn’t know.
“I’m fine,” I stated again. “Is everyone else okay?”
Everyone nodded and said they were fine, except Cassie, who still seemed to be shell-shocked.
“Hey.” I walked over to where she still stood behind the jewelry case. “It’s okay. It’s over.”
Her gaze met mine again, and she nodded, but I didn’t think she understood. Before I could reassure her further, firetrucks and ambulances pulled into the parking lot. The paramedics rushed in a few moments later.
The ambulance drove me from the jewelry store, and I was taken into surgery to remove the bullet that was lodged in my right shoulder. It wasn’t a graze as I’d assumed. I woke in a hospital bed, florescent lights blinding me somewhat as I tried to open my eyes.
“Good morning, Mr. Rhodes.”
I blinked at a nurse near my bedside. “Morning?”
“It’s 2 a.m., and we’re going to be transferring you to a room shortly. How are you feeling?”
“Thirsty,” I replied hoarsely.
She smiled and walked over to a pitcher and poured water into a cup. “Take a few small sips to make sure you can keep it down. The anesthesia is still in your system.”
I nodded once and grabbed the cup from her, sipping through the straw. I was able to keep the water down; however, I quickly fell back to sleep.
When I woke again, I was in a different room, but I wasn’t alone.
“Welcome back,” Gabe greeted. He sat in a chair near the window.
“How long was I out?”
He stood and walked to the bed. “Not sure. I just got here not that long ago. Had to use my dimples to get in too.”
I chuckled only to groan as pain tugged at my shoulder. “Don’t make me laugh.”
“Fuck, dude. I’m glad you are laughing.”
“You were shot.”
“Not the first time.”
“Well, it better be the last.”
I grinned. “Not when I hang around with you fuckers apparently. Bad news follows.”
“None of us have been shot before.”
I rolled my eyes, the only part of my body that didn’t hurt. “That doesn’t make me feel better.”
“If that’s what you want, then I can tell you that the doc said the surgery went well, and they removed the entire bullet, and there wasn’t any major damage to your muscle or blood vessels. You’ll be out of commission for a few weeks, but should be fine.”
“Great. How’d you know I was even here?”
“Mark called me after your date called him.”
“Ah. Guess Mark’s not paying me for that date then.”
Gabe grinned. “Nah. He still will. Plus, all women love heroes. I bet she’ll give you a huge tip too.”
I grunted, causing pain to race down my arm. “We’ll see.”
“I’ll let you get some rest. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“Thanks, man.” I smiled again.
“The others should be by when visiting hours start, and they’ll probably ask you a million questions.”
“I don’t doubt that.”
Gabe left, and I closed my eyes to fall back asleep, not believing that I had been shot on a date. Thankfully, I was the only one hurt.
Though Cassie was pretty shaken up. I hoped she was sleeping and doing better than I was.
MICKY DIDN’T COME to pick me up as he said he would, which led me to believe that it was for sure Keith and his friends who robbed us.
After the cops took my statement—I left out who I thought was behind the robbery—Martina was kind enough to drive me home, a home that I was scared to walk into. I wasn’t sure what was on the other side of the door.
“Thanks for the ride,” I said as I reached for the handle.
“Try to get some sleep, okay?”
I smiled tightly at her. “Yeah, you too. Have a good night.” I shut the car door and walked up the driveway, my heart pounding once again. When the robbers came in, I’d thought the worst. I’d never had a gun pointed at me, and even though Brad had played the hero and been my shield, I was still scared shitless. When I heard the gun go off, I froze. Flashes of my parents came to me, and I’d wondered if it was time for me to see them again.
With my hand on the doorknob, I took a deep breath and opened the front door.
“Bite the wooden spoon and shut up!” Micky yelled.
“I wouldn’t have to if you hadn’t shot me!” Keith yelled back.
I walked into the kitchen to see Keith lying on the kitchen island, his friends around him and bloody towels near him. “Cass,” Keith called when he saw me walk into the room. “Help me.”
Anger immediately washed over me. “Help you? You fucking robbed my work tonight!”
“So what? It’s not like we robbed from you.”
“You scared the shit out of me, and you injured a customer. He had to have surgery.”
Keith blinked. “Wait. What?”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “You scared the—”
“No.” He sat up with a groan. “That guy had to have surgery because he was shot?”
I nodded. “That’s what I was told, and I saw him bleeding.”
Keith looked over at Micky and then turned as though he was trying to look at his back. “Did the bullet go through me?”
“I was trying to tell you that you had two holes,” Alex, another roommate of Keith’s, stated.
“So you only need stitches,” Micky said.
“Here.” Alex’s girlfriend, Audrey, stuck out her hand. It looked as though it was a standard sewing needle and thread she was trying to give him.
“You’re going to use that?” I asked.
“We can’t go to the hospital,” Keith stated.
“Why not?” I questioned. “It looks like you’ve lost a lot of blood too.”
“Because I was shot, and doctors report that shit,” he seethed.
I rolled my eyes and left. I didn’t want to deal with any of those idiots anymore.
As I headed up the stairs, I heard footsteps behind me and then Micky called out, “Cass, wait up.”
I turned, my foot on the top step. “What?”
“I know I said I would pick you up tonight, and I would have if things had gone as planned.”
I snorted. “As planned? Why was there even a plan? I can’t believe you guys did that!”
He took a step forward. “I know. We just wanted to get some jewelry to sell so we could make money.”
I closed my eyes and shook my head slowly. “And when you found out that I worked there, you thought it was the perfect plan?”
Micky shrugged. “Yeah?”
“What if you would have shot me?”
“No one was supposed to get shot. The other guns weren’t loaded.”
“And why was yours?” I crossed my arms over my chest.
“Because I didn’t feel comfortable going in unarmed. I didn’t know if you had a security guard there or not.”
“So you would have shot him if we did?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged again.
I looked him straight in the eye. “I should turn you all in right now.”
“No!” he shouted. “You can’t turn us in.”
“You”—I poked at his chest—“betrayed me. Why shouldn’t I do the same to you guys?”
“Because”—he waved his arm toward the kitchen—“that’s your brother.”
I chuckled. “A brother who didn’t care what this would do to me.”
“What do you mean?”
“You guys scared the shit out of me, and I saw an innocent man get shot.”
“To be fair, I think you only saw your brother get shot. The bullet went through him and hit that guy. And,” he stressed, “I would have never shot you.”
“But apparently you didn’t mean to shoot Keith.”
“That guy threatened to kill him. What was I supposed to do?”
“Not fucking rob my workplace!” I yelled and walked away, slamming my bedroom door behind me.
A week later, I was starting to feel less worried that Keith and his friends would come back in. I’d been avoiding them all like the plague, though it wasn’t like I ever hung out with them to begin with. I assumed they got Keith patched up because he was still alive. A few times Micky tried to ask me if I’d talked to the cops, but I ignored him and stayed in my room.
I didn’t tell the cops anything. While I felt bad for Steve, he said that the insurance covered what was stolen, and that made me feel a little better. He also hired security guards, which made me—and I assumed the rest of the staff—feel safer. There was no way I would turn Keith in, though. I couldn’t.
He was my blood.
He was my family.
He was my only family.
The door to the store opened, and when I looked up to see who had walked in, my heart skipped a beat. It was the same reaction from before. Was it because of the man who walked in or because I knew who was responsible for the sling he was wearing?
“Oh my gosh, how are you feeling?” I asked. A part of me wanted to run around the counter and hug him because he tried to be my shield and because he’d been shot. I felt as though I was responsible in some way.
Brad smiled a smile that made my belly dip. Not only was his arm in a sling, but his beard was a little longer since the last time I saw him. “Doing good. On the mend.”
“That’s good.” I relaxed a little, hearing that he was going to be okay.
“I came to see how you were doing.”
“Me?” I furrowed my brows. “You were the one who was shot.”
“Yeah, but you were pretty shaken up if I remember correctly.”
“True, but we hired security”—I motioned to the guard at the door—“so that makes it better.”
Brad looked over his shoulder to where I’d pointed. “That’s good. Makes me feel better too.”
I liked that he was checking on me because no one else had. “And you’re going to make a full recovery?”
He looked back at me. “Yeah, the bullet didn’t go in deep, and I’ll probably get to take this thing”—he messed with the strap of his sling—“off in a few more days.”
“Good. That makes me feel better too.”
Brad looked at me with his dark eyes. “What time is your lunch break?”
I felt my face get hot. “My lunch break?”
He smirked. “Yeah, Cassie. I was wondering if you’d like to have a quick bite with me?”
I glanced over at Ray, and he made a shooing motion at me as though he approved of Brad wanting to take me out. I looked back at Brad, still feeling guilty about what Keith had done. “Sure. I have an hour break.”
I grabbed my purse from my locker and met Brad out on the floor. “Ready.”
He gestured for me to walk ahead of him, and after the guard opened the door for us, Brad asked, “What are you in the mood for?”
“I usually have a sandwich or something.” In fact, I had a sandwich in my locker that I was planning to eat.
“I know a good sandwich place.”
We stopped in front of a large black truck, and he opened the passenger door for me with his good arm. “Yeah, it’s just down the street.”
“Freshly Baked?” I asked as I hoisted myself up into the cab. For some reason, I felt comfortable getting into his truck. I wasn’t used to getting in strangers’ vehicles or being around men in general, but something about Brad’s demeanor and charm put me at ease. Plus, it didn’t hurt that he’d tried to protect me during the robbery.
“Yeah. Ever been?”
I grinned. “I used to work there in high school.”
“No shit?” I nodded. “Then you’ll have to tell me what the best sandwich is on the menu.”
I nodded as he closed the door and then rounded the hood. Brad slid in and started the engine. “Everything is good on the menu, but I love the peppered turkey.”
“I like that one too.” He drove toward the small sandwich shop.
“The salami is good also.”
“I think anything on the bread they make would be a killer sandwich.”
“True.” I smiled. We were silent for a few moments as he drove down the street and into the parking lot. “Thank you for what you did during the robbery.”
He cut the engine and looked over at me. “Not my first time being outnumbered by men with guns.”
I blinked. “Really?”
“I was in the Marine Corps for ten years.”
“Oh, wow. That’s cool.”
He smiled. “Yeah. I loved it.” He motioned for me to follow him as he opened his door. “Let’s talk inside. You only have an hour.”
When we went inside, my old boss was behind the counter like he always was, and his wife was at the register. Their faces lit up as soon as they saw me. “Cassie!” Verlene beamed. “How are you?”
I grinned. “I’m good. How are you guys doing?”
“We’re doing well.” Verlene’s gaze moved to Brad and then back to me. With a knowing smile, she asked, “What can we get you two for lunch?”
Brad and I both ordered the peppered turkey sandwich with everything on it, a bag of chips, and a bottle of water.
“We’ll bring them out to you,” Verlene stated.
“How much is it?” Brad asked.
She waved him off. “They’re on the house.”
“No, don’t do that,” Brad argued.
“It’s our pleasure,” Verlene admitted, and my heart swelled. “Cassie was one of our favorite employees, and we hated to see her leave.”
I gave her a warm smile. “Thank you. That means a lot.”
Brad pulled out a twenty from his wallet and put it into the tip jar. We took a seat at an open table and waited for our sandwiches. “They seem to love you. Why’d you quit?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Money. I needed more than the minimum wage and the few tips we get here.”
He opened his bottle of water by holding the bottle with the hand in the sling and twisting the cap with his other. Just seeing him struggle slightly made my blood pressure rise. If it weren’t for Keith and Micky, the poor guy would function with both of his arms. “Understandable. I quit the Marines because of money too … and I hated getting shot.”
“You’ve been shot before?”
Brad bobbed his head. “Yeah, made a full recovery from that, and then I was stationed in Barstow and not deployed any longer. My mother got sick, and her medical bills were starting to pile up, so I decided I needed to get out and help her.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Is she better now?” I took a drink of my water. I loved that he cared enough for his mother to help her with her medical bills. Even though I didn’t know him, it told me that he was a good guy. After all, he practically took a bullet for me, and he didn’t know me.
“She had breast cancer but is now in remission. Saw her a few weeks ago, and she’s finally looking like her old self.”
Verlene placed our sandwiches in front of us and then patted me on the back. “Enjoy.”
“Thanks, Verlene,” I said.
We dug into our sandwiches, and it was just as I’d remembered: warm and delicious with super soft sourdough bread.
“Tell me about yourself,” Brad said after taking a sip of water. “Are you still working at the casino?”
I shook my head. “No. I was going to continue working there part-time, but I was tired of the drunks and the smoke.”
He smirked. “I hate going to the casinos because of those reasons too.”
I chuckled. “You and your friends didn’t seem to mind the other night.”
“That was a once in a blue moon thing. Vinny wanted to gamble, so we took him out.”
“Oh, right. Did he get married?”
“That’s this weekend.”
I took a bite of my sandwich. “That’s cool. I’ve never been to a wedding before.”
“Really?” He furrowed his brows.
I shrugged a little. “Haven’t known anyone getting married.”
“This will be the fourth wedding for our group.”
“And three more to go?” I joked, remembering they were making a bet on who would be the next to get married.
Brad laughed. “That’s what they think, but I don’t see any of the three of us getting tied down anytime soon.”
My heart sank into my stomach, and I didn’t know why. “Why is that?”
He leaned closer and lowered his voice as I stuck a chip into my mouth. “Because we’re male escorts.”
I choked and grabbed my water to wash it down. “Really?” He nodded. “But what about that woman you were buying a ring for?”
Brad chuckled. “That was a paid date. There wouldn’t have been a ring purchased.”
“Oh. She was a client?”
“Yeah. A one-time-you-put-me-in-danger client.”
“Geez. That must have been really scary for her.”
“Yeah. I actually haven’t seen or talked to her since. She called my boss when I was taken to the hospital and told him what happened, but when I try to call her, she doesn’t answer.”
“That’s shitty of her.”
He shrugged. “To be fair, she didn’t get the date she paid for.”
“What do you mean?”
Brad smirked. “Come on, princess, I know you know what I mean.”
“You mean sex?” I whispered.
“Well, the whole date in general. We started off good, but then I decided to take her off The Strip to get the full boyfriend experience and ended up getting shot.”
“She can’t blame you for that.”
“No, but most of my clients hire me one time because they need something they aren’t getting. She clearly didn’t get what she needed from me either.”
I was jealous when I saw him with her, but knowing it was fake and she’d paid to be with him made it a little better for me. “Well, I’d say she had a once in a lifetime date, even if it wasn’t what she paid for.”
“True.” He nodded.
We finished our lunches and then got back into his truck. He drove the few miles back to my work. “Thank you for lunch. This was nice.”
“I’m glad you’re doing okay after everything.”
“Thank you, and I’m glad you are too.” I reached for the door handle, but he stopped me by grabbing my wrist lightly.
“Let me get your number. That way, I can call to check on you instead of showing up at your work.” He handed me his cell phone.
I smiled as I took it. I didn’t mind him showing up at my work at all, but I wouldn’t mind him calling me either. I handed him back his phone after I put my number in it. “Here you go.”
“Would you …” He hesitated and rubbed the back of his neck. “I was wondering if you’d like to go to Vinny’s wedding with me on Saturday?”
I blinked. “Really?”
“Yeah. I mean, you said you’ve never been to one, and I liked getting to know you better today, so why not? Be my date.”
“A free date?” I teased.
Brad chuckled. “Yeah, a free date.”
I smiled. “Well, I actually have a secret to tell you then.”
He grinned back. “What’s that?”
“Saturday’s my birthday.”
“So, you already have plans?”
I snorted. “Well, I didn’t say that.”
“No plans for your birthday? You have to come now. It’s meant to be or something.” His grin was huge, and it made my insides tingle.
I shrugged. “Yeah, maybe.” Steve had already given me the day off, and I really had no plans except to eat cake alone in my room and finish watching the new season of Veronica Mars. Not being at home locked in my bedroom on my birthday sounded like just what I needed.
“I’m in the wedding, but I can pick you up beforehand. My friends’ wives will take you in and make you one of their own. I promise you’ll be in good hands.”
I opened the truck and slid out. With a huge grin on my face, I teased, “Maybe I should have picked you as the next to get married.”
I shut the door to his truck before he could respond.
AFTER A PHYSICAL THERAPY APPOINTMENT, I found myself driving down West Sahara, and without thinking twice, I pulled into the parking lot of The Velvet Box. I saw Cassie through the window and decided I was going to check on her, and then I found myself taking her to lunch. Before I realized it, I was asking her to be my date for Vinny’s wedding. I was going to get so much shit from the guys at the wedding, I just knew it.
I liked Cassie. There was something pure and innocent about her that drew me to her. I found her radiant, and her smile made me feel good. It also felt good to not have to put on a show in front of her. I was honest about my job and didn’t feel as though I needed to woo her.
I did find it weird that she had no plans for her birthday. We lived in Vegas, and there were clubs upon clubs to party at. What about her friends? Her family? A boyfriend? There had to be something planned.
Me: Hey, it’s Brad. Now you have my number.
I rolled my eyes after I sent the text. Now you have my number? I had better game than that.
Cassie: And so I do.
Me: What are you doing Friday night?
Cassie: Working until 7.
Cassie: Nothing. Why?
Me: Ever been to the drive-in?
Cassie: I haven’t.
I smiled as I texted back: Want to go? We can stay out past midnight to ring in your birthday. Sleeping through it would be boring.
Cassie: Sleeping was my plan …
I chuckled as I texted back: Then change it.
The dots on my screen started and stopped, then started and stopped again. Finally, her reply came in: Is this another free date?
Shit, it was a date. A free date.
Me: Yeah, another free date. I don’t give them away to just anyone now. I couldn’t stop smiling as I flirted with her.
Cassie: Then I won’t say no. Just tell me when to be ready.
Me: Depends on what kind of movies you like.
I looked up the times for the scariest movie and texted her back. She replied with her address, and I was left stunned because I was going on a date. A real date.
I walked into Herbs & Rye, a dark, rustic bar not far from The Strip, feeling as though I had a huge secret to tell. I did, but I didn’t want to share it with the guys. Whatever I was feeling for Cassie wasn’t real. I was convinced of that.
Since I’d been shot, my boss, Mark, had put me on leave for a few weeks. Even though I didn’t need my arm to fuck, he wanted me to take time off and heal, despite the fact I’d argued that I could still take a client out for a good time.
The guys were in one of the leather crescent moon-shaped booths with drinks in front of them. I was the last to arrive because I had been on the phone with my mother about my next visit, which would be in a little more than two weeks. I’d had to postpone next week’s visit because of physical therapy, which she thought was due to me hurting my shoulder while playing basketball with the guys. Thankfully, I would have my last appointment before I headed to Tennessee.
“Looking good for a man who was just shot,” Paul greeted as he stuck out his hand for me to shake. My arm was still in a sling, but only because I’d worked it good at physical therapy, and it was always sore afterward. Nothing a little gin couldn’t fix.
“Yeah, well, at least one of us is a hero,” I teased. I shook his hand before shaking hands with the rest of the guys. They had all visited me in the hospital while I was there for two days, and they knew everything. Well, besides my recent trip back to The Velvet Box.
Before I took a seat at the booth, I went to the bar and got a Negroni. When I returned, the guys were in full wedding mode like a bunch of chicks. “Here are your ties and pocket squares,” Vinny stated, passing out blue bowties and orange pocket squares. Most people would think those colors were because they liked the Denver Broncos or even the Houston Astros, but not Vinny and Tessa. The colors were for two rival baseball teams.
Because we were all escorts—except Seth—we each owned a tux in case we needed it for a fancy date, so the guys and I were wearing our own tuxedos for the wedding.
“And,” Vinny continued, “I got you guys a little something.” He pulled small square boxes out of his bag and handed each of us one.
“What’s this?” Nick asked.
I furrowed my brows. “Groomsman gifts?”
“Just open it,” he ordered. Inside was a silver flask with our names engraved on them. “Tessa said I had to get you guys something, so this is what I settled on.”
“Nice. Thanks, man,” Paul said as we all thanked Vinny.
I took a sip of my drink and rubbed the back of my neck nervously. I had to tell Vinny I was bringing Cassie to his wedding because of seating and shit, and the guys would find out eventually. I cleared my throat. “So, um, I’m bringing someone to the wedding.”
All eyes turned to me, and then Seth of all people shouted, “I knew it! I fucking knew it!”
“You knew what?” I asked.
I shook my head. “I’m not next.”
“Who are you bringing then?” Paul asked. “Your mom?”
I rolled my eyes. “Not my mom.”
“Then who?” Nick questioned.
“Does it matter?” I retorted.
“It’s not a client, is it?” Galen inquired.
I chuckled slightly. “No, it’s not a client.”
I looked over at Gabe, and he nodded a slight approval. “Leave the guy alone. We’ll all see who it is at the wedding on Saturday.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “but I’m not next. I’m only taking her to the wedding.”
Seth and Vinny looked at each other. “A lot could happen at a wedding,” Vinny said.
“Or right after,” Seth stated.
Why the fuck was I so nervous? I dated for a living, and while this date with Cassie was only a movie and I didn’t think it would lead to sex, I felt as though it was going to be more than a date. I wanted to find out more about Cassie and be the first to wish her a happy birthday, but I was chalking all of this up to friendship. Cassie was nothing more than a friend.
Yeah, keep telling yourself that.
I pulled up to Cassie’s house. It looked as though they were having a small party because there were at least five cars parked in front and in the driveway. I didn’t know who she lived with or if she had forgotten we had plans, but I went up to the door to ring the bell. I didn’t hear music as I approached, and before I could ring the doorbell, it swung open, and Cassie walked out.
“Hey,” she greeted.
“Hey,” I replied.
“No more sling?” she asked.
I grinned. “Nope.”
“That makes me happy.”
“Me too. Are you ready?”
“Yep,” she beamed.
We walked to my truck, and I opened the passenger door for her to climb in. I rounded the hood and got into the driver’s seat before starting the engine. “I hope you like scary movies.”
She grinned. “I like all movies.”
“So I don’t need to protect you then?”
“Is that why you picked a scary movie?” Cassie chuckled.
I pulled away from the curb and headed toward the drive-in. “Honestly, no. I think the best movies to see at a drive-in are scary ones because it’s different. You’re out in the open, and anything can jump out and scare you.”
“Well, maybe I will get scared then and need to cling to you.”
Cassie didn’t know, but I had put blankets and two lawn chairs in the back of my truck, so we could watch the movie in comfort. We would be under the stars with no cover to protect us while we watched a movie about a demon doll.
“Go for it.” I smiled and we were silent for a few moments. “Are you sure you didn’t have plans tonight?” I asked.
“It looked like you had a full house.”
“Oh,” she breathed. “That was just my brother and his roommates.”
“His roommates? You don’t live there?”
“No, I do, but he invited them to live with us, so they’re his roommates, not mine.”
“Ah. So you live with your brother?”
She was silent a moment. “Yeah. Our parents died when I was fifteen, and that was the house they left us. It’s cheaper than finding my own place.”
“I’m sorry to hear about your parents.” I couldn’t imagine losing my mom—her battle with breast cancer was enough of a scare for me.
“Thank you. That was six years ago.”
I quickly did the math and looked over at her briefly. “So, that means you’re turning twenty-two tomorrow?”
“And you have no plans to go clubbing with your friends or anything?”
“I’d have to have friends to do that.”
I furrowed my brows. “You don’t have friends?”
Cassie was silent again, and I looked over at her. I felt as though everything we were talking about was heavy, and that wasn’t my intention. I just assumed everyone had friends.
The streetlights went in and out of the cab as she took a deep breath. “When my parents died, everything changed. I got really depressed and pushed everyone away. Now, I don’t really open up to people to let them in, and I’m what people would call a homebody, I guess.”
“But you’re telling me things and going to the movies with me, plus the wedding tomorrow.”
“I know.” She took another breath. “For some reason, I feel like I should be doing all of these things and telling you my life story.”
“Hey.” I squeezed her knee. “That’s okay. I feel the same way, and why I told you right off the bat about my job. I’ve been a sounding board for a lot of women, and I want you to know that you can talk to me about anything.”
“How many women?”
I looked at her, and she had a smile on her lips again. “Let’s say more than five but less than one hundred.”
“My number is zero.”
THE ENTIRE REST of the way to the drive-in, I couldn’t believe I’d told this guy I was a virgin.
The entire time we stood at the concession stand, I couldn’t believe I’d told this guy I was a virgin.
And the entire time we sat in the back of his truck waiting for the movie to start, I couldn’t believe I’d told this guy I was a virgin.
And he wasn’t just any guy. Brad was an escort, and from what I’d heard about escorts, they left the woman satisfied before the date was over. What did he think of me? He didn’t seem to feel awkward because he was still talking to me the entire time, but I didn’t expect that he would want to pursue anything further than a friendship, though a part of me had hoped for more.
So much for that.
“Want anything else before the movie starts?” Brad asked as he sat next to me in the chairs he’d packed. There were also blankets, but it wasn’t cold enough for them. Apparently, he’d thought of everything.
“I’m good.” I smiled and stuck popcorn into my mouth. Being under the stars with a giant screen in the distance was cool and exciting.
“Just let me know if you want anything else. I don’t mind going to get it.”
“You’re a good guy, Brad.”
He grinned. “You’re not so bad yourself, Cass.”
My face flushed, and I took a sip of my Coke Zero to avoid his gaze. “Since you know my age, how old are you?”
“Thirty-one.” He took a sip of his water.
“Oh, wow,” I breathed.
“Hey! I’m not old.”
“I didn’t say that.”
Brad chuckled. “No, but it’s implied in your tone.”
“I mean, you’re ten years older than me.”
“Not quite.” He stole some of my popcorn and stuck the handful into his mouth.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re twenty-two in a few hours. I’ll still be thirty-one for a few more months.”
I threw back my head, laughing. “All right. Nine years and a few months isn’t that much of an age gap.”
“See, told you I wasn’t old.” He winked.
A plane flew over the drive-in, and I looked up, wondering if one day I would have enough money to finally travel in an airplane somewhere. Before my parents died, I thought I would go off to college and need to fly home for the holidays. It’s crazy to think in just a few years I’d sheltered myself so much because of money.
“What are you thinking about?” Brad took more of my popcorn.
“Just that I’ve never been on an airplane.”
I shrugged. “Never had the chance.”
“Maybe we can change that one day.”
“I’m always down for a vacation.”
“Never had one of those either,” I mumbled.
He frowned. “Is this because of your parents’ deaths?”
I sighed. “Yeah, and I just haven’t had the money.”
“Then we definitely need to change that.”
“I’m not sure I could ever get in one,” I admitted.
“You’re scared of flying?”
“Flying. Driving. Really anything that could crash.”
Brad furrowed his brows. “Driving? You don’t drive?”
“Yeah, my parents went out for a date night two weeks before I turned sixteen, and my dad had a heart attack while driving. He hit the median on the freeway, and they died on the way to the hospital. I haven’t been able to get behind the wheel of a car since, so I never got my license.”
“Cassie”—he turned his chair to face me and grabbed my hand—“you can’t live your life in fear. That’s no way to live, and the chances of you dying the same way are slim to none.”
I turned my head so I wasn’t looking into his eyes. “That’s easy for you to say. You don’t know what it’s like.”
He reached up and turned my face so I had to look at him. “I was in the Marines, princess. I used to face death daily. I know better than you think.”
He was right, but I was still scared. I didn’t want to be the reason someone died. “I know you’re right, it’s just …”
“Hey, it’s okay. Maybe this is why we were brought together? I love to help people, and this is something I can help you conquer.”
He smiled and hit his back window lightly with his knuckles. “Yeah, driving. I’ll let you take this beast out to learn in.”
I didn’t tell him that I already knew how to drive because I was only weeks away from getting my license before everything changed. I liked the idea of spending more time with Brad, and if I ever got behind the wheel again, I would feel better if it were a tough truck.
Brad turned toward the screen just as the movie started. An hour or so into it, he got out of the truck bed without saying anything. I watched the movie as I listened to him open his driver’s side door and then shut it. He got back into the bed of the truck with a small, square, pink cardboard box. He handed it to me.
“A little something.”
I arched a brow. “You didn’t need to get me anything.”
“Just open it,” he ordered.
I did, not paying any attention to the creepy movie playing in the distance. Instantly, the smell of sugar filled the night air, and I smiled. “A cupcake?”
“It’s officially your birthday. Want me to sing?”
I laughed. “No, that’s okay. Thank you so much.”
“No way. This is your special day, and you get the entire cupcake.”
“You ate one already, huh?” I teased.
Brad grinned. “Maybe.”
We went back to watching the movie as I ate my chocolate cupcake. Occasionally I would look over at him and feel warm and fuzzy inside. I knew he was right.
We were brought together for a reason.
* * *
BRAD PULLED his truck up to the curb in front of my house and cut the engine. “Thank you for tonight. I had fun,” I stated.
“Me too.” He beamed. “Tomorrow we’ll have more fun.”
“You mean later today?”
He chuckled. “Yeah, I guess you’r