Sometimes my mouth took off without me. Especially when adrenaline was speeding through my veins and my heart was pounding. After I’d shut the diner door, I had to force my sweaty hands to leave the doorknob and to turn my shaky body around to face the next problem.
I probably shouldn’t have been able to talk at all; I was so scared. And if I could talk, I shouldn’t have looked at the big stranger with the shaved head in front of me and said, “I suppose you aren’t going to believe I ran in here to find out if there was any soup of the day left.”
But I did say it. Every stupid word.
I’d heard the rumors about the new owner of the diner. Right now I hoped all of them were true—at least if he would let me stay here for the next few minutes. From the way he stared at me, scowling, his giant hand shoved up against the counter, I figured the odds weren’t so good on that score.
I tried to pull my shirt closer together, but since the buttons had been torn off, that didn’t work. Most guys wouldn’t mind a look—hell, they paid for a look—but this guy wasn’t one of them.
“Usually people do that for the chicken noodle, not the vegetable.” He looked behind my head, and I saw him pull something out from behind the counter. He rested it in his hands, not letting me see just what it was. He jerked his chin toward the door. “Are those friends of yours?”
I didn’t have to turn and look to know who was hanging around outside. Don’t let them in. Please. Not by the hair of my chinee-chin-chin.
“No. Not at all.”
“They got guns?”
“I…I don’t think so.” If they did, they would’ve threatened me with them right off when they had the chance, right?
He pulled out the baseball bat completely then, gave it a test thump on the counter, and rested it between the cash register and the dessert shelves. “Why don’t you go to the restroom and get cleaned up some? Unless you want to call the sheriff first.”
Right. Like the sheriff would help me with the mayor’s kid and his delightful companions.
“I can stay here.” I fumbled in my pocket for my pepper spray. Too bad I’d had no time to use it before Chad and his asshole buddies had jumped me. Which made wishing for Mom’s pistol even stupider. I’d just’ve had a better weapon not to use. But damn, I wished she hadn’t taken it with her. I liked the idea of blasting those bastards.
“I think I can handle this without your backup.” His voice, calm, a little amused, and dangerous underneath the smooth, gave me unexpected shivers. Who the hell had last handled things without my help? “In fact, they’ve already left.”
That meant I should offer to leave. Oh God. If I left, I’d have go out to wherever they were waiting, away from this badass guy and his equally badass baseball bat.
“You need to call to get a ride home, Miss…” His voice trailed off.
He was staring at me, and I didn’t understand what he meant. I couldn’t. My brain had shut down. The good shivers I’d had when he was standing between me and the shit to come had already changed to bad shivers. I’d just postponed the problem, not solved it. Chad could afford to bide his time. Where was I going to hide? With thoughts like that, of course I wasn’t too focused on polite conversation.
I opted for a direct and marginally polite question. “What?”
“I’m fishing for your name, kid.”
“Le. Um, McCarthy. Le McCarthy.” Yes, I think I’d heard every possible joke about that name. And no, other than my mom once saying my dad’s last name was Le, I have no idea why she picked it. She didn’t like the guy. It was probably a decision made after a night of too much Wild Turkey. “And I’m not a kid.”
It was important to establish that. I’d turned eighteen two months ago, thank God, and was legally an adult. No one was going to be able to poke into my business anymore.
In a little over a month Marcos would be eighteen. One less kid to worry about in my strange little family. We just had to get through June.
Not that anyone was making that easy for us.
I needed to think. I needed help.
“And…uh…no. I don’t have anyone to call. Sir.” I looked at the guy through my lashes. Some men liked the shy type. Maybe he did. My protector. My hero. Hopefully my patsy. It wasn’t like I hadn’t figured out how to lead a man around by his cock or his ego after a few days working in a strip joint. Maybe he was going to be my way to get through the next months safely. If he’d play bodyguard, I’d be willing to trade a few shy looks—hell, I’d trade my body—for that.
“The name is Harris. Not sir. Officers are the ones who like that kiss-ass kind of thing.” He turned toward the counter. “I’ll get you that soup, then. You’re in luck. There is still about a bowlful left. Hope you don’t mind if I scrape the bottom of the pot for it.”
It was a joke, mister!
I didn’t want any soup. I wasn’t sure my stomach could handle food, even soup, right now. On the other hand, I didn’t have a ride home. Once Marcos’s tires had been slashed, we were out of transportation. I tried not to think about how much replacing the motorcycle’s tires would cost.
So yeah. The man had a point. I could stay here with this big guy in the bright light and relative safety of the diner and have some soup. Or I could go out in the dark and find out what was waiting.
Well, once I put it like that…
“I’d love some soup.”
I settled into the booth closest to where Harris was ladling. He and I were going to be best buds for as long as I could milk it tonight.
Postponing my problems didn’t sound like a bad idea.
This was a strange kid. I’d handled spooked kids and cocky kids and clueless kids and even a few brave kids while I made them good soldiers. But I couldn’t tell what camp this one fell into.
For a few seconds I hadn’t thought she was a kid. A stripper from Casey’s, yeah. A stripper who was already half-undressed and was running right into my diner toward me. Can I help it if I got hard? That was a porn fantasy come true.
She still looked like a stripper. She had a push-up bra that piled her breasts as high as any female could get her boobs and still breathe. Since that was about all I could see of her outfit while she hid in that booth, my grandpa, assuming he was still around and in good health—God rest his soul—probably wouldn’t have whupped me for noticing it.
Lucky she’d said she was eighteen. I was hoping she wasn’t lying, since he would have surely whupped me, and rightfully so, for sniffing at a minor. Her body, if you didn’t count the tits, was tiny enough to be a thirteen-year-old’s. I could see she was at least half Asian, which likely accounted for the tiny bone structure. So she probably was legal, although not by much.
Old enough to be working the strip club two blocks down. Dressed in that outfit, even before it wasn’t torn, she had to be. I remembered Casey from the old days. If he still owned the place, he was damn careful that his girls were legit.
But she was young. And she’d looked scared at first. That and the hulking shadows waiting in the parking lot calmed my libido down but kept my adrenaline pumped.
The torn shirt and sweat on her upper lip worried me most. Who sat, spooning soup, after whatever had just happened to her out there? Either a stupid kid or one who’d had something like this happen too often. Or she was trying to con me somehow. Her dark hair fell over her face as she ate, but I checked for bruises or scars everywhere else. I didn’t see anything visible, and she was showing plenty of skin. She didn’t seem to be in shock. Right now all she seemed interested in was soup.
So what the hell was going on? I didn’t like any of it, including not being able to get a good read on what was driving Miss Le McCarthy.
She looked at me once or twice—flirting or assessing. Maybe both. I kept the smile from my face. Baby girl might be clever, but I’d seen most everything once. Even twice. Whatever she was trying to hide, I’d find out eventually. All I had to do was wait. I was good at that.
My job in the Army depended on me reading body language and knowing what motivated someone before using that knowledge effectively. Military training had only encouraged my natural inclinations that way. One bang to the head hadn’t scrambled my brain up bad enough to forget all that knowledge. So I kept an eye on her without being too obvious. I saw her glance at the clock and go back to her soup, spooning a little more slowly. She knew the diner’s closing time. The closer it got to three a.m., the more fidgety she got.
The strippers would be done with their last shift soon. Funny about the things that stuck in your memory. The shift always ended at three a.m. sharp. That was when I locked up. I didn’t want to deal with anything or anyone crazy enough to be around after that. That’s also why the diner had never been open twenty-four hours. Grandpa had been right about that, like he usually was. There were about three hours when the town shut down tight enough that it wasn’t worth it to try to squeeze a few more bucks out.
Weekday mornings had the neighborhood regulars; Sundays had the crowd from church. But every evening after dark, the diner was available for the lifeblood of the town—the trade around the strip joint. The town churchgoers might protest, but everyone knew why people got off the interstate and drove twenty miles down the road to Brimstone. It wasn’t for anything but naked women…even if enough outsiders did stop on the way for food or gas to make it worth the town’s while. Stripping kept the rest of the town’s businesses afloat.
Yeah. Out-of-town money came here because Casey’s was here, thoughtfully located right on the outskirts of town, four blocks from the nearest church. And two blocks from the diner. The diner had always been sitting in the middle, ready for any business that showed up.
It was dark now, but the sun would be up only too soon. Come daybreak the town ran on people going to the stores, the latest gossip, and church services on Sunday. I wouldn’t be there for most of it. Miss Mellie Dean would unlock the restaurant door at six thirty a.m. and start serving food to the first of our town regulars—all the old men who had breakfast here every day. I’d been lucky she was still around after Grandpa died, though it was hard to imagine her being anywhere else but here and ready with coffee.
It had worked that way ever since I could remember and likely before then. The day-trade didn’t concern me except for the revenue it brought. It was what happened in the diner after dark that I dealt with. Until closing time, at least.
And I’d done this often enough that I pretty much knew what time closing was without checking on the clock.
Tonight I checked anyhow. I was right on the nose.
“Closing time, Miss Le McCarthy. It was a quiet night. I can lock up as soon as you’re done.”
What the hell did I do with her now? I was half tempted to cut her loose. I didn’t play games without knowing the rules.
Her spoon clattered into the bowl, and she turned toward me, the long dark hair falling back just enough to let me see her face. There
were the nerves. The tightness in my neck relaxed. I’d figured her right all along. She was scared shitless. And because she had finally betrayed herself and reassured me, I didn’t have any problems with saying, “I’m gonna lock up now. After that, where do you want me to drive you?”
“What do you mean?” All pretense at flirting was gone as she glared at me.
“No more than what I said. I’m not anxious to let you go home alone any more than you are.” I shrugged. “If you’re worried, call someone and tell them what I’m going to do. Better yet, have them pick you up.”
I figured she didn’t have anyone like that to back her up, or she would’ve done what I said long ago. I also figured she wouldn’t tell me so. Baby girl, baby girl, if I had wanted to take advantage, it would be too easy. All your suspicion would’ve done you no good…because you need help and have none. I know how to make that work for me. I can make you trust me. More than trust me. Depend on me. Need me.
I didn’t say so, of course. Besides, I wasn’t here to start anything. So I worked to give her my most innocent smile—one I remembered giving to my superiors when I was a green kid myself.
“Give me that bowl, and I’ll dump it in the sink. I hope to God the dishwasher shows up in the morning since he sure as hell crapped out tonight. Miss Mellie Dean will have my hide for not getting them done.”
“All right. Thanks.” She wasn’t as talkative as she’d been when she burst in, running like the devil was right behind her. But she was starting to play on my terms, not hers.
Not that I was planning to play anything while I was here. And not with a kid who may have been taken advantage of too often.
While I stayed in Brimstone, I’d remember that Grandpa wanted me to be a gentleman.