People see what they want to see. A burly guy with tats and a permanent scowl is probably a criminal and an asshole, right? And I can’t fault ‘em, because in my case, they’re right. My world revolves around righting the wrongs of my past. Atoning for my selfish stupidity. And it’s enough.
Until I meet Viv – a woman who sees right through me. She’s not scared or intimidated. A woman like her is way too good for a man like me. But life as I knew it won’t be enough anymore. I realize now that before I met her, I wasn’t really living. Hell, I was barely breathing.
My bartender stared a second too long at a woman’s big tits and the drink he was pouring overflowed onto the bar. He found a towel under the counter, wiped the spill up and then handed the drink to a waitress, sloshing more liquid out of the glass on the way. She glared at him and I made my move.
“You’re the worst fuckin’ excuse for a bartender I’ve ever seen,” I snapped at him. “Who the fuck hired you?”
“Uh…Mr. Winters did.” His eyes widened with fear as he looked up at me. I was used to this reaction.
“Figures. He’s too damn soft. You pour about as smooth as a teenage kid jerks off,” I growled. “Get the fuck outta my sight and don’t come back.”
He ducked and ran. I pushed through the group of waitresses and customers and got behind the bar. Orders were shouted at me as I poured, mixed and shook my way into catching up the backlog.
At Six, the club I was part owner of, we served light food, but drinks were our main fare. And at a place with a line down our New York City block every night of the week, we couldn’t afford to hire shitty bartenders.
By the time I was caught up and one of the waitresses came back to relieve me behind the bar, I had a line of sweat across my brow. I wiped the sleeve of my white t-shirt across it and stormed across the floor of the club.
The good thing about being me was not even having to say excuse me. When people saw me coming, they fucking moved. As the crowd on the dance floor parted, I made my way through and headed upstairs to Jeff’s office.
I pushed open the door, yelling at Jeff before I’d even entered the room. “Where the fuck did you find that bartend—”
Jeff’s dick flopped out of the mouth of the woman on her knees in front of him as she gave me a surprised look. Jeff scowled at me.
“Jesus, Kane, you heard of knocking?” he barked.
I glared at him. “You heard of not getting head from a waitress when we’ve got a full house down there?”
Amanda bowed her head and scooted back. Jeff, who was leaning against the edge of his desk with his suit pants around his ankles, wove a hand into her hair and eased her back toward him.
“Come back later, Kane,” he said. “I’ll be able to give you my full attention then.”
“No need. I just fired that piece of shit bartender you hired.”
“Again? Dammit, that’s the third one in a month.”
“Third one who sucked ass. And I didn’t fire the first one, she quit.”
“After you said Helen Keller could pour better than her.”
I stared at the dark wood door frame of his office and shrugged. “Truth hurts, man. I’m gonna walk the grounds.”
“Just don’t fire any bouncers. We need all of ‘em for that private party this weekend.” He groaned and I looked over. Amanda was already back to bobbing up and down his rod.
I sighed and headed back to the stairway. Sure as hell wasn’t the first time I’d seen Jeff get a blowjob. We’d been friends for almost ten years, and we’d had some wild times before settling down in New York to open Six with four silent partners.
And now, almost a year in, the club was my life. I was here at two every afternoon to prepare for open and head up a floor meeting for the staff. Rarely did I leave before three AM.
This place was my only shot. I had to give it my all in order to sleep at night. Or in my case, in the morning when I dragged my ass in from work. I didn’t drink, so it was never that I was hungover. The long hours of overseeing club operations seven days a week just got to me sometimes. Jeff saw to the books and HR, and I took care of everything that went down on the floor.
“Kane,” a male voice called as I got to the bottom of the stairs that led to the main level of Six. One of our hosts, Dominic, was rushing toward me. “That private party in the suite upstairs brought in some packaged alcohol. What should I do?”
“Kick em’ out.”
“Yeah, but it’s—”
“I don’t give a fuck if it’s the president.” I looked down at him. “It’s in the contract they signed. No outside alcohol. You need me to do it?”
He shook his head. “No, sir. I can handle it.”
I nodded my approval. Dominic was a college student who busted his ass here and pulled good grades. He was a good kid. Funny how I saw him as a kid when he was twenty-two and I was thirty-four. But I’d lived a hell of a lot in my years on this Earth. A little too much at times.
My next stop was the kitchen, where I watched the staff silently from a corner. I made sure the food was leaving the shelf and heading to customers table shortly after being plated. We only served light food to most of our customers. Those in our VIP rooms could get anything their rich little hearts desired, though, whether it was a perfectly grilled steak or a bowl of Fruity Pebbles. We went out of our way to make Six a cut above the rest.
The sound of muffled, angry male voices caught my ear and I turned for the kitchen’s swinging door. I’d just gotten it open when I heard glass shattering. Motherfucker. I wasn’t about to allow a bar fight in my upscale club.
A crowd was clustered around a table near the bar and I pushed my way through. A couple of frat boys were throwing punches at each other and a third one held a broken beer bottle up, trying to hold off two more pimpled brats.
“Gimme that, you pussy,” I muttered, pulling the broken bottle out of the guy’s trembling hand.
I put it on the table and grabbed each of the two fighters by the collars of their shirts.
“Get your asses out of here,” I said as I dragged them toward the door. “Go spend your lunch money getting wasted somewhere else.”
Two of my bouncers, Cecil and Dan, approached. They each took one punk and finished dragging them to the door. I looked back and saw that another bouncer was sweeping the broken glass into a dustpan.
With that fire out, I decided to patrol the outside of the building. If nothing else, I needed some fresh air. Wiping the asses of adults all the time was fucking exhausting.
Eric raised his glass in the air and smiled, his eyes full of meaning as they met mine.
“To new beginnings,” he murmured.
He clinked his glass against mine and raised it to his lips, tossing back a big drink of the amber liquid. I sipped my wine, my heart hammering in my chest. I had a very good feeling about him.
Could it really happen so quickly? This blind date was about the hundredth I’d gone on since accepting a job at a family law firm in New York City. I usually knew right away whether I’d met someone who’d make a good friend or someone who I should draft up a restraining order for at the end of the date.
Never had I met a man I could see a second, third and fourth date with. Until now.
Eric Masterson checked every box on my list for the perfect man. He was a good listener with a great sense of humor, had a great career as a stock broker and was very easy on the eyes. With dark, close-cropped hair, an athletic build and warm brown eyes, he’d drawn a second look from the women at the table next to us when we’d arrived. For the first time since arriving in the Big Apple ten months ago, I actually hoped for a goodnight kiss at the end of a date.
“So, Vivian,” Eric started.
“Viv,” I reminded him. “My friends call me Viv.”
“I’m hoping to be more than a friend.”
I felt a goofy grin spreading across my face. “Well, you’re off to a great start.”
I sighed and looked at my watch. “I wish I could, but I have an early hearing.”
I liked setting up dates for Thursday nights so I could beg off in the name of work when I needed to, but in this case, it was because I actually had to. It was after eleven, and my alarm relentlessly sounded at six every weekday.
Eric’s face fell. “Oh. I thought—”
“I really do have to get up early,” I said, putting a hand on top of his on the table. “Can we get together again sometime soon?”
His expression brightened. “Yeah? How soon? Wanna share a cab?”
“Sure. If we’re going in the same direction.”
He signed the check and tucked his credit card back inside his wallet. “What if we both go in the direction of my place?”
I bit the inside of my lip, forcing myself not to let my defeat show. He thought he was getting laid tonight. That explained his enthusiasm.
Dating was the worst. THE. WORST. I needed to take a month off of it and watch chick flicks and eat takeout in my pajamas. I was persistent and damned if I was a quitter. People at work even called me tenacious. But dating required a streak of masochism and I was over it. For now, anyway.
“I think I live in the other direction,” I said, getting up from the table. “Thanks for a nice evening, Eric.”
I didn’t even have to turn around to know he was behind me, pushing his way past people to catch up. I’d just pushed open the front door to leave when I felt a hand grabbing my wrist.
“Vivian, don’t go.”
I glared at him and pulled away. “I have to work in the morning. I need to get home.”
The cool spring air on my face was a welcome change from the stuffiness of the crowded club. I headed for the curb to hail a cab.
“What the hell just happened?” Eric demanded from behind me.
I turned. His easy smile was gone. Now his expression was pissed.
“I’m looking for more than just sex,” I said, crossing my arms. “I thought you knew that when we set up this date.”
“Yeah, well…maybe you shouldn’t have flirted so hot and heavy over dinner, then.”
I felt my eyes bulge with indignation. Stepping away from the curb, I approached Eric and pointed at his chest.
“I did no such thing, you asshole.”
He rolled his eyes and smirked at me. “Please, Vivian. The skirt? The way you licked your lips and played with your hair?”
My anger grew stronger, clouding my better judgment. I grimaced at Eric with disgust and took another step toward him. “What? Seriously? Because I’m wearing a skirt? I’m a twenty-eight-year old woman with a pretty decent vocabulary. If I wanted you to fuck me, I would have said, ‘Fuck me, Eric’. Instead, I’m saying fuck you.”
I rarely lost my cool, but the all too prevalent male mindset that a woman in a skirt was desperate to be bedded was just too infuriating to be ignored.
“You’re hot when you’re angry,” Eric said, wiggling his brows at me.
I rolled my eyes. He wasn’t worth my time. I was turning back toward the curb when he reached out and pulled my cell phone from my hand.
“What’ve we got here?” he said, holding it up and out of my reach.
“Give me my phone.”
He backed up several steps and I followed. I’d been very wrong about this guy. As he reached the corner of the Six building, Eric gave me a look that was supposed to be playful and disappeared into the alley.
I took a breath, reminding myself to keep cool. I couldn’t afford an involvement in an altercation that could jeopardize my job. But that was my phone and he was an asshole, and I wasn’t about to get trampled this way.
“Eric,” I said, my voice icy as I entered the alley, “give me my phone or I’m calling the cops.”
My breath whooshed from my lungs and my back hit the brick wall.
“You’re a cocktease.” Eric’s breath was hot on my face. He clamped a hand over my mouth and shoved a knee up between my legs.
My blood ran cold at the unwelcome contact. The phone suddenly seemed like a very stupid reason to follow an unknown man into a dark alley.
“Who’s an asshole now?” Eric’s expression was amused and angry at the same time.
I screamed, even though his hand muffled the sound. As I flailed, I realized my feet weren’t even on the ground anymore. He held me against the wall with his knee between my legs and his weight in front of me.
This was a nightmare. The front door of Six was maybe a hundred and fifty feet away, but it might as well have been a hundred and fifty miles. I was helpless and alone in a dark alley with a man who looked like he was just beginning to amuse himself with me.
He pulled roughly on the fabric of my shirt and I felt buttons strain and then pop off. In an instant, his hand left my mouth and wrapped around my throat.
“If you scream, I’ll choke you,” he said in a low tone.
“You’re a fucking psycho.” My voice wavered, betraying my panic.
Eric pressed on my throat and I felt my airway constricting.
“Say it,” he ground out. “Say ‘fuck me, Eric’.”
“No.” My refusal came out as a whimper and I felt the pressure on my throat increasing.
Terror washed over me like a tidal wave. I was going to get raped and possibly murdered in this alley. In a split second, I realized I didn’t appreciate what I had. My parents loved me, I had good friends and I was kicking ass at an amazing job. I’d wasted it by worrying about whether I’d be the next of my friends to get married or not.
Eric was working his hand under my skirt when suddenly, mercifully, the pressure on my throat subsided. I dropped to the ground and gasped in air. Had he changed his mind?
“The fuck’s your problem, douchebag?” a deep male voice growled. Eric’s body hit the ground like a sack of bricks and I heard a loud thudding sound.
Eric cried out in pain and curled into a ball. A large man’s burly, built frame bent and leaned over him.
“I’ll fuck you,” he spat out. “How ‘bout a baseball bat in your ass, motherfucker?”
I panted and wrapped my arms around myself. I was saved. This man had saved me from a nightmare. He pressed a large, dark boot to Eric’s throat and raised his face to look at me.
I nodded, the lump in my throat preventing me from finding my voice.
“You want me to spend some more time with him, or you wanna press charges?”
His gravelly tone made my stomach somersault nervously. I bunched my hands into fists and steeled myself. “Press…” I stopped to cough. “Press charges.”
He nodded and pulled Eric up by his hair, knocking his head against a metal fire escape stairway. Eric groaned and crumpled.
“Sorry, my hand slipped,” the man said unapologetically, dragging Eric up and out of the alley.
As soon as we got back inside Six, he shoved Eric into the arms of another burly man and told him to call the police and babysit until they arrived.
He turned to me then and I took him in, holding my torn shirt closed. He was tall and broad, with a bald head and tattoos snaking out from beneath his white t-shirt and up under the collar. His short facial hair was dark.
As I studied him, he did the same to me, his hazel eyes steely. Everything about this man was intimidating. At least, it should have been. What I saw was my savior. The man who’d saved me from a horror that would’ve changed me forever, if I’d survived it.
“You’re…” I cleared my throat and tried to ignore the staring onlookers. “Thank you. What’s your name?”
“Thank you, Kane.”
Tears welled in my eyes and I looked at the floor.
“Come on,” he said, waving a hand and turning. I clutched the two sides of my shirt and followed him through the darkened club. Lights flashed on the people around me raising glasses in drunken celebrations.
Kane went down a long, dimly lit hallway and walked through a door. I hesitated for a second, but followed.
We were in a room with rich, wood paneled walls and a large desk with a single stack of papers on it. It looked like a vacant office.
After he opened a door, Kane pulled out a big flannel shirt and walked my way. He held it out and I just stared at him.
“Take it,” he said gruffly.
I reached out and grabbed it, my other hand still holding my shirt closed.
“Bathroom’s over there,” he said, pointing at another door on the other side of the room.
Silently, I walked over to the bathroom and went in. It was a sanitary white space made of marble and limestone. I slipped the shirt on and buttoned it. It covered me to mid-thigh and hung down past my hands. After I’d rolled up the sleeves, I walked out and saw Kane standing next to the desk. His expression was hard to read, but it seemed uncomfortable.
“Yours?” He held up my cell phone.
I nodded and he brought it to me, also handing over a pen and paper.
“Write down your name and number and I’ll have the cops contact you about a statement. You don’t have to stay since I was a witness. Unless you think you need to go to the hospital, I mean.”
I shook my head. “No, I just want to go home.”
“Can I offer you a ride?”
My mouth hung open as I tried to think of a response. Kane had saved me, and I was beyond grateful, but right now I didn’t want a strange man driving me anywhere. I still felt overly exposed.
“That’s…no, you don’t have to…I can just catch a cab. You’ve done more than enough already. Thank you again.”
I wrote my contact information on the pad of paper, and when I looked up, Kane was giving me me a wry look that bordered on a smile.
“I didn’t mean me. Our driver will take you home.” He walked over to the door and opened it.
I followed him out a side door to a black SUV. He opened a passenger door and nodded toward the vehicle, encouraging me to get in.
“Lex, take her home, please,” he said, his clipped tone all business.
“Yes sir, Mr. Kane,” a voice called from the driver’s seat.
I climbed in and met his eyes again. “Thanks again, Kane. I mean, Mr. Kane.” I gripped my phone tightly, his unwavering gaze unnerving me. “Thank you.”
He just nodded and closed the door.
“Where to, ma’am?” a friendly man’s voice called from the front seat.
I gave him my address and he headed down the darkened alley. The alley that was now burned into my mind as the place I’d almost lost a piece of myself. And also the place where a strong, compassionate stranger had kept me intact.