“I don’t need the company, thanks. My boyfriend gets jealous.”
Despite his attempts to ignore the conversation in the booth to his right, Andrew heard every word loud and clear over the din in the steakhouse. He finished his Coke. It was nights like this he wished he still drank. Whoever was next to him had been trying to give some persistent asshole a polite brushoff for the last ten minutes. She’d said everything short of go the fuck away.
“If your boyfriend cared, he wouldn’t make you eat dinner alone. That’s why you’re enjoying my company instead.” That was the persistent asshole.
Andrew rolled his eyes.
His meal was over, and that meant so was the audio dinner show. It was obvious his sister was going to stand him up. As if she knew why he wanted to talk to her. He signed the bill, left a generous tip, and grabbed his credit card.
“He’s working. Some people do that.” Irritation crept into the woman’s sweet tone.
On his way out, Andrew would ask one of the waitresses to rescue her. He wanted to get back to his hotel. It wasn’t that he didn’t care; no one deserved to be harassed like that. He knew how this went down if he interfered, though. Regardless of who she was, the woman would take one look at the scars on his face, and cringe away. Skin grafts had taken care of most of the damage from the third-degree burns, but the ugliness lingered.
She might try to recover and play happy to see him. She might tell him to go to hell. Either way, the rescue would be ruined.
Besides, the only reason he was in town now, rather than waiting a few weeks until Christmas was closer, was to watch the woman he used to love marry someone else. He wasn’t up for another round of rejection. He pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his face. That was the only good thing about the weather—the look wasn’t out of place in this chill.
Instead of his feet moving toward the door, though, he found himself turning down the aisle and heading toward the booth that had been opposite his. He was going to regret this, but it didn’t stop him.
He pasted on a gentle smile as he drew within visual range of the woman, and his brain sputtered to a halt when he saw her face. If it weren’t for the blue hair that barely brushed her ears, she could be Mercy ten years ago. The first time they met. Which was ridiculous; Mercy was that much older now, same as he was. He recovered quickly, grateful his pace never faltered, and approached.
“Hey, sis. Sorry to keep you waiting.” He slid into the seat across from her and braced himself for the backlash. “Snow, traffic, blah, blah, bullshit—held me up. You know how it is.”
Instead of flinching or hesitating or turning away, she treated him to the brightest smile he’d ever seen. Her eyes matched the vibrant color of her hair, and everything about her expression was genuine. “Brady. I thought you weren’t going to make it. So glad things worked out.”
“Buddy, do you mind? We’re talking.” Arrogant Asshole.
She scowled. “He’s my brother.”
“So? You and I aren’t done.”
Andrew was sick of this. He stood, smile growing, and extended his hand. “So sorry to interrupt.” He kept his tone cool. “I should leave you two alone.”
“Thanks, man.” Arrogant Asshole looked surprised, but that didn’t deter him from shaking Andrew’s hand.
Andrew clapped him on the other shoulder, gripped tight and moved in close. The rapid movement pressed the guy into the dividers between the booths and pinned his arm between them.
Arrogant Asshole snarled and tried to wrench free. “What the fuck?”
“It works like this.” Andrew lowered his head, so his mouth was next to the guy’s ear, hoping that made the dude extra uncomfortable. Andrew’s voice was low and steady. “Leave the young lady alone. Tonight. Every night. Forget you ever met her.”
“Fucking psychopath.” Arrogant Asshole’s insult drew attention from surrounding booths.
Andrew pulled back, to look him in the eye, and tightened his grip enough to hurt. He grinned, showing teeth. “How’d you know? Wanna guess which body part I take first from the guys who don’t leave my baby sister alone?” His words were only meant for Arrogant Asshole’s ears.
The guy wrenched free of Andrew’s grip, stumbling in the process. He opened his mouth, and then snapped it shut again, before turning toward the door and all but breaking into a sprint. Once upon a time, a confrontation like this would have sent Andrew’s pulse and adrenaline through the roof. One of the biggest downsides to being in porn was there was at least one guy like that at every industry party. It was sad that assholeness was the norm.
Andrew braced himself to be told off and turned back to the woman with the crystal-blue eyes.
Her grin widened, and she nodded to the bench across from her. “Thank you. I didn’t know how to get rid of him.”
“No worries. Make sure when you leave, you ask one of the waitresses to walk you to your car.” He didn’t take a seat.
“You can join me. I don’t bite.”
He had so many pre-programmed responses to that, starting with that’s a shame and getting filthier from there, but none seemed appropriate with her. She radiated innocence. That was disconcerting by itself. She also had to be nearly a decade younger than his twenty-eight. If she were one of his girls, she’d headline the Barely Legal and Girl Next Door pages without hesitation.
“I wasn’t trying to intrude,” he said.
Her smile slipped but didn’t vanish. She offered her hand. “I’m Shusan.”
“Andrew.” Walking away now would be rude. He shook her hand and sat. Her name—minus the lisp—jarred a memory he couldn’t grasp.
“Thank you again, good shir.” Her words bled into a giggle, as she gave him a mock bow. The laughter stretched on for several seconds, before she met his gaze again. Another couple of snickers slipped out. “Shorry.”
“How much have you had to drink?”
“This is like my fourth Coke? They’re really good here. I should shtop.” She lost herself in another fit of giggles, not calming down until she hiccupped for air. She pressed her palm to her forehead. “Owie. Dizzy.”
He grabbed her glass and took a sniff. No alcohol, as far as he could tell. He might be wrong, but her answer made him think she wasn’t drinking. Unusual in any other state, but welcome to Utah—Mormonville USA.
If she didn’t have any alcohol, that probably meant… Shit. A side-effect of having been a GHB addict for several years was that he knew the symptoms of the high. Odds looked good that Arrogant Asshole slipped her a roofie. “You should get home, Suzie-Q. Do you have someone you can call?”
“I drove. Why would I call someone?”
“Driving’s probably not in your best interest right now. A friend? A family member?”
“Nope.” She shook her head back and forth so hard, he thought it might snap off at the neck. “If my friends were free, they’d be here. Dad’s out of town. Mershy’s at dinner with her fiancé.”
His gut twisted in on itself. That explained why she looked familiar. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…” he muttered.
“Casablanca. Mercy—your sister?”
“Does that make you her brother, too? How’d you know?”
Ask Mercy, and he might as well be. “I’m smarter than your average psychopath.” He pulled his phone from his front pocket and dialed the familiar number. It went straight to voice mail, and he disconnected before Mercy finished asking him to leave a message. He ticked off a list of possibilities in his head. Susan was worse than drunk, and if she was lucky, she’d forget most of this in the morning. She’d also be unconscious, or as good as, in the next couple of hours.
She shouldn’t be alone, so taking her back to an empty house was a bad idea. If he kept her out, he’d be the one who looked like a creeper, and he wasn’t interested in spending the couple of hours in jail it would take to figure the situation out. Other towns, he’d flash a business card and hope it got him a smile and a free pass. Park City? That had a much lower probability of working out in his favor. Telling them he was the owner of the second largest internet-porn company in the world might have him rotting in a cell until his lawyer showed up in person.
“It was nice meeting you. I need to get home.” She stood and stumbled.
He was on his feet in an instant, his arm around her waist. “Getting out of here is a good idea.” He guided them toward the door.
Outside, tinsel trees hung from every other lamp post, lit with multi-colored lights that reflected off the snow. He’d give the town this—it was gorgeous in the winter. Maybe it wasn’t so bad being here for the holidays.
He led them to his rental, grateful she didn’t protest along the way. He helped her into the passenger seat.
She scowled. “‘S’not my car.”
“We’ll grab yours later.”
As he walked to the driver’s side, he called Mercy again. This time he was prepared to leave a message. “Miss Mercy, guess who? I need you to call me A-sap. I have a younger version of you, who needs her big sister. Did I mention A-sap? Talk soon.”
“Who’d you call?” Susan asked the moment he was in the car.
She pouted, crossed her arms, and sank lower in her seat. “She won’t call you back. She turns off her phone when she’s out with Ian and Liz.”
Of course she did. In that case, they were going back to his hotel room, and he was crossing his fingers and praying to every god and goddess who ever existed it didn’t bite him in the ass.
As he headed toward his home-for-the-month, she leaned her forehead against the window. “Where are we going?” The glass muffled her question.
“My place.” He probably should have explained that up front.
“Just ‘cause you saved me doesn’t mean you get to pop my cherry.”
And she was a virgin, too. Please, Jesus, don’t let her remember any of this in the morning. “You can keep that and everything else intact.”
“Cross my heart, hope to die.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her relax in the seat, and her smile returned.
He was grateful she didn’t protest when they reached their destination. Not only for his sake, but it was another reason to be relieved he interrupted the restaurant conversation when he did. If she was this pliant, he didn’t want to imagine what Arrogant Asshole would have gotten away with. He could imagine it. Hell, he had dozens of sites devoted to the various kinks associated with the consensual version, but that didn’t mean he wanted the thought.
She leaned into him on the elevator ride up. She was soft. Warm. Smelling like sugar and vanilla. They made it down the hallway to his room, and he let her inside. She stumbled toward the bed and collapsed without another word.
Within seconds, her breathing evened out. She had to be sleeping. It gave him a better chance to study the faded T-shirt, the jeans with strategic tears along the thighs and calves, and the battered Converse. She was built like Mercy—narrow waist, subtle curves—but nothing about the way she held herself resembled her sister.
“Shtaring is creepy.” She sounded drowsy.
She tried to toe off her shoes and failed.
“Come on.” He helped her sit up, untied the sneakers, and tugged them off.
She settled her palm on his face and used her thumb to trace the scar that ran under his eye.
He couldn’t feel the contact, but he swore it burned down to his skull.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Nothing important.” He helped her slide under the covers. “Old wounds. Doesn’t matter.”
The explanation seemed to appease her. “Okay. Thank you.”
Moments later, soft snores floated from the bed. Holy fuck, it was going to be a long night. He glanced at his phone. It was only eight. Wonderful. How long until Mercy got back to him?
He settled into the chair by the bed, turned the TV on low volume, and waited. With any luck, Susan would be out of here and in a guest bed at Mercy’s before she woke up and freaked out about being in a stranger’s hotel room. The night was about fifty-fifty in his favor so far. He’d hold out for one more miracle.