Roy didn’t expect a woman to answer the door.
He blinked, and the words he’d planned to say dried up in his throat. Damn, she was gorgeous. Tall. Long brown hair fell past her shoulders, the ends teasing full breasts covered snugly by a soft sweater. His eyes must have lingered a bit too long on those breasts because she cleared her throat. “Can I help you?”
He flushed as he glanced up at her face. She arched one carefully groomed eyebrow and a hint of a smile played on her lips. It seemed to say, As much as I appreciate the attention, I can’t stand here all day.
His tongue felt thick. This woman’s unexpected presence, not to mention her beauty, had him as tongue-tied as an awkward kid. Had he made a mistake? No, it was the right place, but…
“I’m looking for Victor Varrano,” he blurted, moving the shopping bag he held from one sweaty hand to the other. “Is he here?”
The woman’s expression changed instantly. Her features went blank, and she stepped back, as though preparing to slam the door in his face. “What’s this about?”
A twinge of envy pinged through Roy. This Varrano was a lucky man. This babe, whoever she was, had his back. “I need to speak to him. It’s a private matter.”
She was as stiff as a broom handle. “Well, you can tell me.”
No, he couldn’t. He’d made a promise to Travis, even though Trav wasn’t around to hear it. Before he could say more, she demanded, “Who are you?”
Well, he could tell her that much. “My name’s Roy Girard. Is Victor here?”
She hesitated. “No.” Her narrowed gaze swept over him. “What do you want with…Victor?”
Roy shifted his feet and rubbed the back of his neck. “I need to speak with him.” Shit. They were going in circles. He couldn’t tell her more, and she was obviously running interference for Varrano. Protecting him. Why? And who was she?
“Look, could I leave my number? Would you ask him to call me?”
After a moment she nodded. “All right.”
He patted his jacket pockets. Crap. Nothing to write with. “Uh, do you have a pen?”
“Just a minute.” She closed the door, and he heard it lock. His ears burned. Did he look that scary to her?
Before the door opened again, he heard the chain being secured. She slipped a pen through the few inches of space the latched chain allowed. As he took it, Roy realized he had no extra paper either. Batting a thousand, Girard.
Rather than asking for something to write on, he turned over the paper scrap with the address and wrote his number on the back. When he handed it to her she peered at it, her forehead crinkling.
“That’s my cell phone. He can call me anytime,” Roy said.
She held the paper with two fingers as though afraid it might burst into flame. “All right.”
“Thanks.” He jammed his hands into his jacket pockets, a clumsy clown, wanting to say more. But what?
She shut the door in his face.
* * * *
Venetia studied the slip of paper in her hand. Roy Girard? She didn’t know him. He wasn’t the type of man a woman would forget. A big man, but not fat. He didn’t look like a gym rat but someone who kept in shape with physical labor. His blond hair was a bit shaggy—it needed a good trim. And a mustache. She didn’t much care for facial hair on men, but on him it looked good. Damn good.
He liked her looks too. There’d been nothing creepy in the way his gaze had drifted over her. She’d felt admired. There’d been a spark between them.
She shook her head to clear it. Hold on, you have no clue about this guy. Now is not the time to be thinking with your panties. Focus, girl, focus.
He wasn’t someone from the past. God knew there wasn’t much she could forget about her youth, though she’d tried to wipe it from her memory. But try as she might, she couldn’t forget the time when she was known as Victor.
But she’d never really been
Victor. She’d known that, or at least had known that she was somehow different, since she was a child. And as she grew and that difference made itself clear to others, her life had become a nightmare.
At home, there was no way to explain it. Her parents wouldn’t, couldn’t, understand because she had no words to tell them: Mom, Dad, I know I look like a boy, but I’m really a girl.
She tried for years to pretend. Tried to be the son her parents wanted. Tried to fit in at school, so no one would guess her secret. Never muscular enough to be a jock, she’d managed to join a few clubs and garner some good friends. But she’d still ended up being a target. She’d been taunted and bullied mercilessly, called every dirty name in the book, shoved into lockers, punched and kicked in the locker room, beaten up with regularity off school property. Her friends had been as helpless against the mean kids as she was. And when adults had intervened, the bullies just got sneakier.
And the saddest thing was the feeling that somehow she’d deserved it. That the creeps had in some way figured out that she was a boy who wanted to be a girl. The cruelty and beatings were punishment that she had coming, for being a freak.
She remembered every one of the bullies. Their names were burned into her brain. Sam Ennis. Gabe D’Annunzio. Travis Lemcke. She hated their guts. People might say forgive and forget, but Venetia just couldn’t do it. They’d made her life hell and had driven her to the brink of suicide.
She shook her head. That was the past. She knew who she was, and those boys couldn’t hurt her anymore. But this Roy Girard. Who was he? And what did he want with her?
* * * *
Dumb ass. You never even got her name.
Roy sat in his truck, the shopping bag beside him on the passenger seat, wondering what the hell had just happened, remembering what had brought him here in the first place.
Trav had mentioned that Victor had two younger sisters, but he couldn’t remember their names. He never forgot Victor, though.
“How can you forget the name of the kid you tortured for four years because you hated yourself?”
Roy had been sitting in his brother’s living room having a beer when Trav made this confession. Hard to believe it had been only a few months ago.