Aubree Stevenson threw a twenty onto the front seat of the cab and hopped out. The stifling smell of diesel and garbage only fueled her irritated mood as she headed to the front door of The Breakroom. The small dive bar nestled between several closed retail shops would go undetected by a passerby, but she was no passerby. She’d lived down the street for the past four years, and she needed a drink. A stiff drink.
Work had been horrible, not unlike most days. Being a veterinarian used to bring her a sense of fulfillment and joy, but after leaving her suburban practice to work at the shelters in the city, she’d found neither. Most of her days were spent dishing out medications to animals that had been abandoned and left for dead. She would never understand how anyone could simply drop off their pet on a street corner and drive away. Samuel, her miniature pit bull, would never have to worry about being abandoned.
“Hey, Aubree!” a familiar voice called to her as she pushed her way through the crowded lounge. She threw a weak smile at the hostess and found an empty stool at the bar.
“Your usual Diet Coke with a lime?” Greg shot her a friendly smile. A dirty dishrag hung over his shoulder, only partially hiding the large hickey on his neck. She forgave him the crude marking; he was only twenty-two after all.
“Yeah, but put some rum in there, too.” She pulled her purse from her shoulder and propped it on the bar. After digging out her phone, she began scrolling through missed messages and emails.
“Long day?” Condensation from the glass dripped onto the napkin beneath it.
“Yeah, too long.” She sighed and downed her drink.
He watched with amusement when she handed him the empty glass, signaling for another. “Must have been rough.”
He went about refilling her glass. It wasn’t often she added anything other than a lime to her Coke, but it had been a particularly bad day. She didn’t come to The Breakroom for the liquor or the friendly atmosphere—although the bar had both in plenty supply. She patronized the dive because it was a block from her townhouse, and her house was empty—save for Samuel. Some nights she didn’t want empty. She wanted to be lost in a crowd.
Greg slid the second drink in front of her and headed down the bar. He knew her enough to know she didn’t want company. At least not his. She’d turned down nearly every man in the bar at least once. They weren’t what she wanted, and she was tired of dating less than what she wanted. She needed someone strong, someone with a tough skin who could handle her. As much as Greg fit the physical profile—tall, well-built, and drop-jaw handsome—he was too nice. Too willing to concede.
“Well, hello.” A forced deep voice interrupted her moment of tranquility. She moved her eyes, glancing next to her to find an overly dressed man facing her. He wedged himself between her and the peaceful beer guzzler beside her. “I see you’re just about finished, can I buy the next round?”
“Will you buy it and leave, or do I have to endure the stench of your cologne while you prattle on beside me for the next ten minutes?” She swiveled on her stool to face him. Having nearly finished her second drink, and not being one to drink much at all, the rum had begun to take its effect. The room spun just enough to make her grab the bar as she stared down the intruder.
His eyes widened at her words. He almost looked wounded. “I was just offering to buy you a drink,” he muttered, starting to move away from her.
She knew she should feel bad. He had only offered to buy a drink, and although his cologne had made her head spin more than the rum, he hadn’t been offensive. But she’d taken care of too many wounded animals today to give a damn.
Greg showed up a moment later with a third drink, and she downed it as fast as the first. “Wow. Must have been a real shitty day.” He grinned and produced another. “Slow down, Aubree. You have all night, sweetie.” Greg gave her a wink and headed back down the bar to help out with a large crowd of college kids who had suddenly overtaken the bar. “Blake’s not gonna want to scrape you off the floor.”
Blake. Now there was a man she could sink her teeth into. He owned the bar with Greg, but didn’t work the floor as often. She’d gotten to know him well enough over the past months to know he wasn’t a pushover. His entire persona screamed strength and control. But being the coward she was, she never suggested or hoped for more than the friendly conversations.
What if he wasn’t the type she craved? What if she would have to walk away from him, too? It was too risky. She enjoyed being able to chat with him when he peeked out from his back office. She couldn’t lose that.
“Hey, you’re out late.” Blake picked up a glass and started to wipe it down from behind the bar. She hadn’t been paying attention; when did he get there? Usually, a little shiver told her he’d come out of his office. Like her body had some sort of Blake alarm, but she hadn’t felt it this time. Probably the alcohol. It started to dull her senses.
She pushed her empty glass toward him and asked for another.
“Just Coke?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Rum.” She motioned for the bottle Greg had put down near him.
“Work?” he asked, but the hesitancy in his tone suggested he knew otherwise. She’d had bad days at work before, and she didn’t top the day off with a drink. Drowning her sorrows wasn’t her way.
“His parole hearing was today.” She took a long gulp of her drink, enjoying the bite of the rum. “Denied,” she announced when he continued to stare at her.
The few people with whom she had shared the news of her father’s latest parole attempt had looked at with her pity. A pat on the back and a well-intentioned Sorry you have to go through this speech. Blake kept his dark eyes focused on her, but she didn’t feel small or weak beneath his attention.
“It’s a good thing.” She took another sip. “The girl’s parents appeared at the hearing. I think they always will. I mean, I would if I was them.” She signaled for another drink.
It hadn’t been enough for her father to drink himself into a bottle nightly, or her mother to live in constant fear of him and his moods. He had needed to top off the years of battery, the years of belittling, the years of threatening by driving them both head-on into another car. Killing her mother and the teenager driving to her after-school, part-time job.
He could rot as far as Aubree was concerned. So, all the pity glances, all the pats on the back weren’t for her, because his parole being denied was a victory. She wasn’t drowning out the pain; she was celebrating.
Blake made another drink for her then leaned against the bar.
“At some point, he’s going to be released.” Blake’s matter-of-fact tone grated against her. Of course he would; even if he sat through his entire sentence he’d be out in another twenty years. Two lives apparently only cost him twenty-five years off of his. And eventually he’d probably be granted parole. Good behavior and overcrowding would see to that.
“Well, not today.” She smiled.
The ice clinked against the side of the glass as she swirled the soda.
A loud crash drew her attention to the center of the bar where several of the kids were screwing around and shoving each other. She grunted. Boys would always be boys.
She heard Greg call out to them to knock it off as she finished off her drink.
Blake took the empty glass and filled it up again.
After taking a sip, she scrunched up her face. “You forgot the rum.”
“No, I didn’t.” He shook his head, picked up the rum bottle, and put it away on the shelf. “You can’t drown out everything with liquor. It’s not like you.”
His tone didn’t suggest she argue, but she’d lost most of her reasoning skills two drinks ago.
“I’m not drowning out anything. I’m celebrating. Finally, some justice.” She wiggled her glass again, but he continued to shake his head.
When instead of picking up the rum bottle, he continued to stare her down with disapproval, she scoffed and slammed the glass down, spilling some of the soda over the sides.
“You aren’t going to tell me I have to forgive him, are you?” she asked. Because that would never happen. Ever.
He handed her a towel and motioned for her to wipe up her spill.
“It’s not him I think you need to work on forgiving.”
Another yell went up from the group of frat boys and a chair toppled over.
“Did you go into work today or just the hearing?”
She worked on wiping the little puddle of pop up and shook her head. “I didn’t go to the hearing.” She handed him back the towel and smiled wide. “But I saved two dogs today, so that was a huge win.”
“Oh, emergencies?” A lot of dogs were brought into the clinic that had been hurt at home or strays that had been hit by a car, but today had been different. Today, she’d had a complete victory.
“Not really. They were in a dog fight this afternoon, but I got them out and back to the clinic. Not too much damage. I was able to patch them up, and they’ll be able to find homes once we test their temperament.”
Blake leaned across the bar with narrowed eyes. With a set jaw and dark expression, she probably should have been warned he wasn’t going to be patting her on the back.
“You went to a dog fight?”
Another yell, more crashing, and an uproar of the crowd drew his attention. “Stay here,” he said and went off to the brewing fight.
Aubree turned on her stool to watch the group of friends and noticed how heavy her body felt. Shrugging it off, she slid from her seat and kept her eye on two of the guys. They weren’t sporting the same playful grins as their friends. Their eyebrows were drawn together and each had a snarl on their lips, definitely a heated discussion. Curious, she took a few steps toward them and jumped in surprise when they erupted into an all-out fight.
Fists flew, along with a few chairs. One couple jumped up from their table just as the larger of the two men threw his combatant on top of it. The others in their group cheered them on as they forged a circle around the two, encouraging them.
“Idiots!” she yelled, and took a few steps toward the crowd. The room spun on an uneven axis, but she continued on her path. A large man brushed past her just as several other fights broke out. Apparently, there were two sides to whatever their issue was and their friends all began to take one. She barely missed an elbow to her face and took a step back.
A woman who was dwarfed in comparison to the men brawling tried to get out of the fray, but kept getting blocked or squeezed between bodies. Aubree tried to get to her, shoving people out of her way as she made little ground.
A bottle broke on the floor near her, and she tried to sidestep it, taking a fist to her jaw.
She blinked and looked at the man responsible for the punch. He merely shrugged off his error and turned to reenter the larger fight. Just as he turned, a fist met his nose square on, and he slunk to the floor. Aubree watched him and slowly looked up at the deepest set of blue eyes she’d ever seen glaring at her. How had she missed how dark blue they were before?
“Blake.” She nodded in thanks, thinking to return to her rescue mission.
“Get back.” Blake motioned for her to move. Her feet wouldn’t move, and her legs seemed to feel the same on the subject. She stayed put. The rum had numbed her just enough that the punch she’d taken hadn’t sunk in yet. “Aubree. Go!” He pointed toward the corner, where she had been sitting.
First he wouldn’t give her any more rum, and now he thought he could tell her where to go? Well, she wasn’t having it.
“Fuck you.” She waved a hand and started to move toward the fighting again. She didn’t know where she was going, or why she wanted to see the fight. Maybe because she’d never seen one up close before. Although, as it turned out, seeing a tooth fly out of a grown man’s mouth wasn’t the thrill she had been looking for.
“Dammit!” His growl was heard only a moment before she felt herself being lifted from the floor. Her stomach lurched when it hit a broad shoulder, and the room swirled around her. Once she realized she was hanging upside down over his shoulders, she began to pound on his back. All the good it did, her small fists made no sound or difference against his hard muscles.
“Stop it!” He annunciated his command with a hard slap to her ass. Her spine stiffened, and her eyes widened at the touch.
She heard a door slam, and the loud yelling of the fight outside quieted. Her captor dipped down and deposited her on her feet, but kept his hands on her arms, trying to steady her. His hands were huge, nearly wrapping all the way around her upper arms. She glanced down at his grip then moved up his arm to his face. She’d never been so close to him before.
A dark, short beard covered his chin and face, but his eyes—they were almost too dark to be blue. His glare made her want to bow her head, but instead she moved to check out the rest of him. His short black hair looked disheveled, as though he’d just been in a bar fight. She giggled at her own joke.
“Are you okay?” He moved his hand to her chin, lifting it to get a better look.
“I’m fine.” She shoved his hand away. “Why did you steal me?” she demanded.
His hands fell away from her, and she tried to shove her hands into her jean pockets. But she couldn’t find them.
“Steal you?” He sounded almost amused. But his eyes continued to glare down at her.
“You’re too big to stand so close.” Giving up on her pockets, she gave his chest a shove.
He didn’t move.
“Maybe you should sit down.” He reached behind her and turned the chair around so she could sit. She poked his chest with one finger then two. “Sit, Aubree.” He gently grasped her arms and pushed her into the seat.
“You’re made of stone,” she declared. Her muddled thoughts made looking up at him harder, so she stood back up.
“I’m going to go back out there and be sure it’s settled down. You stay here.” He stopped to turn back to her before he shut the door. “Stay here, Aubree. I mean it. Don’t move.” He pointed a finger at her.
“Whatever.” She waved a hand in the air and took a deep breath. If the room would take a break from spinning she could figure out what the hell was going on. “Oh! A couch!” She managed her way to the black leather couch nestled in the corner of the room and laid her head down, enjoying the cool touch of the seat. She just needed to get a grip on her swirling head then she’d go find out why he stole her.
Blake Tanner leaned against the juke box, surveying the damage. It had taken his two bouncers as well as his brother, Greg, to get the college brats under control and out of the place. Unfortunately, not before they’d managed to destroy several chairs, a few tables, and break a case of beer.
“Could be worse,” Greg pointed out as he scooped up the last pile of broken glass from the floor.
“It can always be worse.” Blake nodded. Too many years in the Marines with three deployments had taught him well. And if he hadn’t committed the lesson to memory, having to come home to bury his parents and take care of his little brother had sealed it for him. No matter how shitty something seemed, another level of misery waited somewhere.
“Where’s Aubree?” Greg kept his gaze down, but Blake knew his brother. He had it bad for the redheaded hellcat sleeping comfortably on his couch. He couldn’t blame Greg. Her rounded curves and soft features would capture any man’s libido, and often did. But Blake had seen her chew up and toss out every man that had come near her, so had Greg. The woman had thorns. Blake had no doubt she’d gnaw on Greg for a bit and spit him out like the rest. Greg had a good heart, but was too soft a touch for a woman like Aubree. She needed a firmer hand, a stricter sense of rule.
She’d had a shit show of a day. He didn’t work the bar often, but managed to find a reason to get some work done outside his office when she came in for her nightcap. She was a regular, but not like the rest of them. Never ordering anything stronger than a Coke with a lime twist, he recognized she hadn’t come to drown out her day with liquor. It was the noise, the people she needed to push her demons away.
If he could get a minute alone with her father, he’d gladly spend time behind bars for what he’d do to that asshole. Aubree didn’t like to talk about him, but she talked about her mother plenty. Enough for Blake and Greg to put together what a house of horrors she grew up in. Never knowing if Daddy was going to come home drunk or sober, angry or melancholy. He hadn’t raised a hand to her, only her mother. While Blake had his suspicions her mother had shielded Aubree the only way she thought she could, Aubree saw it differently. Aubree took all the blame on her shoulders.
“She’s sleeping it off on the couch.” Blake nodded toward his office and pushed off the juke box. He didn’t say anything else to his brother before he went into his office, and Greg wouldn’t follow.
Blake sat at his desk, staring over at the gentle woman sleeping. Her face relaxed, soft. No worry-creased brow, and her lips weren’t scrunched up in a pout or scowl. Her lips. He allowed himself a moment to think about what it would be like to kiss them. Would they be soft and warm, or would they be demanding and hard against his? Would she give in beneath his ministrations, or would she fight for control?
From what he’d witnessed, she might fight for it, but in the end, she would concede. She didn’t want to dominate her relationships, but that didn’t mean she would give over easily. And fuck. He hoped she wouldn’t.
She had left her hair down for once, forgoing her usual bun or tight braid. A few errant strands covered her forehead as she slept. She had tucked her hands between her knees when she’d curled up on his couch. He remembered the feel of her firm ass beneath his hand when he’d delivered the one slap. She’d been surprised, but she hadn’t fought harder because of it. She’d reacted exactly as he’d hoped, she’d calmed. But he couldn’t tell if it had been the several drinks she’d consumed that had loosened her inhibitions, or if it had been her inner self coming to the surface.
Her eyes fluttered open with a low groan as she woke from her nap. She’d been asleep for hours, and he’d been watching her for the last half. Aubree slid her hands from her knees and grabbed her head, sitting upright on the couch and looking around. There was a loud gasp when her eyes finally settled on him.
“Did you sleep well?” he asked, standing from his chair. He grabbed a bottle of water from the small fridge he kept in his office and offered it to her. “Here, you’ll need to rehydrate.”
“Where the hell am I?” She took the bottle from his hand, starting to drink it before he answered.
“My office,” he answered. “You’re welcome for the water, by the way.” He pulled the chair from his desk closer to her and sat down. Other than needing a few more hours of solid sleep, she looked well enough.
“The bar. The fight.” She turned to look at the door. “You-you picked me up and brought me in here.” She sounded more accusatory than grateful.
He doubted she’d ever been the one on the receiving end of a rescue before. He pegged her for the rescuing type. Rushing in to save someone before assessing the situation. Much like she had done with the mob in the bar.
“You’d already taken one punch to the jaw, and were well on your way to getting an elbow in your eye. I put you in here to keep you safe.”
She drank more of the water in silence. He watched her throat constrict with each swallow and reminded himself he didn’t take advantage of women who’d drank too much. Which meant he needed to get her sober, because he’d had just about enough of just being a casual friend.
Not after what he’d seen the weekend before. Seeing her outside the bar had shown him his suspicions about her weren’t unfounded. Aubree did not want to be the dominating force in her relationships. He hadn’t talked to her about what he’d seen, wanting to wait for the right time.
“Thanks, but I should probably go.” She placed the empty bottle on the end table.
“Wait.” He held a hand out to keep her from getting up. “Give yourself a minute. I’ll get you a cup of coffee, unless you’d rather have another water?”
The attempt to stand too quickly must have made her head spin; she held her forehead and sat back down. “Coffee would be great.”
He kept an eye on her while making a cup from the Keurig he kept in his office for late nights. He could brew better coffee than the industrial stuff they kept behind the bar for the occasional order.
“You mentioned a dog fight earlier.” He popped the pod into the machine and hit the brew button. She worked at the local shelter, so dealing with rescued dogs was a daily routine for her. He’d never heard her mention dog fights though, and the twisting in his gut told him exactly what she’d been trying to do.
He carried the cup of coffee to her, along with a few packets of sugar and the nondairy creamer he kept on hand.
“I did?” She took the coffee from him, waving off the cream and sugar.
“Yeah, you did.” He retook his seat, scooting the chair a little closer.
He watched her sipping the black coffee and waited, but she didn’t look as though she was going to be spilling any big secrets. Obviously, she hadn’t meant to tell him about the fights earlier.
“Did you go to a dog fight today, Aubree?” He deepened his tone, knowing it would trigger a response.
The darkening of her eyes and the soft hint of pink brushing her cheeks gave him the exact answer he wanted.
“Nothing happened. I saved two dogs today.” She sat up straighter on the couch. The woman looked damn proud of herself. He might be able to conjure up some pride as well if he didn’t know who ran the fights in their neighborhood.
They didn’t live in a bad neighborhood, but it was Chicago. And if the political corruption didn’t turn your stomach enough, the local gang trouble would. Los Pecadores may not have the strength of some of the older gangs, but the leader was just as dangerous. They wouldn’t tolerate having Aubree trying to interfere with their fights. Too much money exchanged hands.
“You know much about dog fighting?” He folded his hands on his lap. Watching her sip her coffee, her hair a little disheveled, the flush coming back to her cheeks along with her sobriety, he found her too attractive for his own safety.
Her lids narrowed a bit, and she stared back at him in silence. As though sizing him up for some big reveal.
“I was able to get two dogs out to safety.”
“And could have gotten killed for your trouble. Do you know who runs the fights? How’d you even get in?” His heart pounded a bit harder in his chest, imagining her trying to talk her way past the guards. Someone had to have helped her; no way they’d just let her walk right in.
“Aubree. How’d you get in?” He took the coffee cup from her when she finished with it and cradled it in his hands. He would have rather been cradling her, but he wasn’t a teenager anymore. He knew when to hold steady and when to lunge. With Aubree, lunging wouldn’t get him anywhere but stuck behind a solid wall.
“I have a contact. He lets me treat the dogs, patch them up. The ones I can sneak out, I do.”
“So, this guy doesn’t know you’re taking the dogs to save them?”
“Well, he thinks I’m taking the bad ones to the clinic for more extensive care and will return them. Last time, I was only able to get one, so I just told him the dog didn’t make it. I’ll probably have to do the same with these two.”
Blake closed his eyes for a moment to process. He couldn’t totally fault her plan, but it wasn’t complete. Eventually this guy would realize the dogs she took never came back.
“And when he figures out the dogs go but don’t return?” Maybe she did have more of a plan, but when she became awfully interested in the carpeting of the office, he lost some hope on that ground.
“I’ll figure out something. I can’t save them all at one time.”
“Do you understand who you’re dealing with?” He couldn’t keep the fierceness out of his tone.
“Yeah. The Pecadores. As long as I stay under the radar and keep to myself, it’ll be fine.”
He wiped his face with his hand, trying to make some sense out of her. Before him sat a powerful, intelligent woman, yet she behaved like an innocent fool.
“You need to stop. We’ll find another way to help.”
Her eyes narrowed, her posture straightened with his dictate. Ah. She wouldn’t give in easily.
“You can’t tell me what to do.” She crossed her arms over her chest. Her words still slurred just enough to let him know the rum still coursed through her body.
He went to her on the couch, leaning over and trapping her between his arms. He brought his face right to hers. With a soft gasp, her eyes widened.
“If you go to another dog fight, Aubree, I’ll take a strap to your ass.” He kept his voice tight. No room for confusion with this situation.
“Are you threatening me?” Her attempt to match his tone failed. Smiling would give her the wrong impression, so instead, he grasped her chin.
“I never threaten. I’m making you a promise. If you step one toe in another dog fight, I will strap your ass until it’s red and swollen.”
She trembled beneath his touch, but the dilation of her eyes assured him he’d been right.
“I really need to get home. Samuel’s probably starving by now.” She turned away, and he let go of her chin.
“Promise me.” He didn’t let her off the couch yet. Not until he had some assurances.
“Blake.” She smiled, forcing a laugh. If she thought he was letting her walk out of the bar and into the hands of the Pecadores, she had a big surprise coming to her.
“I’m not messing around here, Aubree. If you were mine, you’d have one hell of a punishment coming for going alone today.”
“But I’m not yours.” True enough but not good enough. Not for him.
“Maybe not yet.”
She scoffed, half-heartedly pushing against his chest. “Right.”
“Promise me.” Her eyes glossed, and he could see the exhaustion starting to build. She needed to get home and get to sleep.
“If I was yours, you’d really try to keep me from going?” The question sounded more out of curiosity than accusation.
Go ahead, test the waters, sweetheart. “If you were mine, I’d do whatever I thought was needed to keep you safe. If you were mine, there wouldn’t be an ounce of reprieve for disobedience.”
Her pink tongue darted out, licking her bottom lip before sucking it into her mouth.
“Promise me, and I’ll walk you home.” He’d be walking her home anyway, but it would go faster if she would give over.
After a long moment of silence and watching her think, she finally granted him with a nod. “Fine. I promise.”
“That’s a good girl,” he said, pressing a kiss to her lips and standing up. Damn. He hadn’t meant to kiss her. But, now he could taste her on his lips; he could feel the brief warmth the kiss left, and he wanted more.
She touched her lips; apparently, she did, too. She was still tipsy. There wouldn’t be anything else. With a fresh blush, she tried to recover and stood up. “Where’s my purse?”
“Greg put it behind the bar. We’ll get it on the way out.” He walked ahead of her. “He went home about an hour ago. It’s late.” Once he reached the bar he grabbed her bag for her, holding it out to her.
“You don’t have to walk me home. It’s just down the block, I’ll be fine.”
“Your jaw is swollen.” He leaned over the bar and captured her chin in his hand, tilting her face to get a better look. He cursed and released her. If he hadn’t been fantasizing about kissing her, he would have noticed sooner.
“Stay there.” After digging around the ice machine, he brought her back a pack. “Sit down.” He pointed to the stool behind her. He was only mildly surprised when she obeyed. He placed the bag on her jaw. “We should have done this earlier, but you were asleep. Not sure how much it will help now. You’re gonna have a nasty bruise.” He pushed her hand away when she tried to reach up for the ice. Other than a glare, she made no more protest.
“I can do this at home,” she whispered, moving her gaze from his to settle on his chin.
“I had too many drinks,” she confessed quietly. He couldn’t help but smile over the softness of her voice.
“Thank you for letting me sleep it off. I don’t usually drink like that.”
“Can’t you say anything else?” The heat was back in her voice. “And how do you know?”
“This is my bar. I know almost everything that goes on in it.” He took the ice away from her skin and turned her to face him, capturing her gaze. “It’s past midnight. I’m walking you home,” he said once her eyes finally met his. Her throat tensed as she swallowed.
“Fine.” She conceded with feigned irritation. The soft pink brushing her cheeks and the dilation of her pupils betrayed her. No, his little hellcat wasn’t the least bit irritated by his authoritative tone; he bet if he were able to slip his hand down her jeans, he’d find her panties damp with arousal.
“Good.” His knuckles brushed across her jaw as he kept her eyes locked with his. Her lips parted just enough for her pink tongue to dart out and moisten them. Her eyes dilated more. She wanted him to kiss her. He wanted to kiss her. They were close; if he only leaned down just a bit more, he’d get to feel her lips pressed against his again. He grinned at the soft growl she tried to hide when he released her and tossed the ice into the sink. “Let’s go, then.” He grabbed her hand and they headed out.