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Billows 2: The Tarnished Knight (Sample)

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Chapter 1


The sound resounded around the suddenly quiet bar as Matti’s hand left the boy’s forehead.

“Dude! What did you do that for?” young, scrawny Taylor asked, his china-blue eyes wide with shock.

“For ignoring my warnings about being stupid,” Matti declared. He watched as Taylor’s normally pale skin turned a striking red where Matti’s hand had landed. Oh, shank! He thought as he beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen.

He leaned against the inside of the kitchen door and closed his eyes. What the hell had just happened? Had he really just slapped young Taylor Burman against the forehead? He pinched the bridge of his nose and bit his lip, but it wasn’t enough to stop the fits of laughter.

“You okay, chil’?” He looked at his kitchen manager through blurred eyes. She was five–foot–nothing, and she always reminded him of the chocolate version of Mrs. Pillsbury. She was from the depths of Louisiana, with her roots firmly set in her Creole ancestry. She had bright grey hair and the softest hazel eyes that invited your confidence. She also had the gentlest touch that could either soothe a young man’s foolishness or mix up the lightest batch of muffins. Ma May was the grandmother the Billow boys had never had.

She was also the last person Matti wanted to tell about what just happened with Taylor. “Just something that happened in the bar, Ma. How’re my orders doing?”

Her eyes flew up sharply, telling him that he was in trouble. “It’s done.” She pushed two laden trays into his hands and turned her back to him as he tried to maintain his balance. He chuckled as he headed to the door, and then hesitated. Taylor was on the other side of that door.

Growing up with two older brothers, and having lived the life he had, you did not survive without knowing how to bluff. He acknowledged his weaknesses, his expressive slate grey eyes, and narrowed them, keeping their emotions shadowed by his thick black lashes. He then straightened his impressively wide shoulders, cloaking himself in a ‘don’t touch me’ air, something that wasn’t difficult to do at six-two. He sucked in a breath and pushed through the door.

What he had done had so many implications, and he hoped that Burman would not push the issue. Billow Talk was all he had now. Though he had a legion of friends, his two best friends, his brothers in blood and arms, were far away, one in northern Kansas and the other in Texas. He was all that remained of their family in Concordia. How could he have been so stupid as to put his lifeline in jeopardy?

His mind whirled with everything that could happen as he made his way to deliver an order to a table not too far from where Taylor was sitting. He set the tray on the edge of the table and placed the plates in front of the two beautiful women who occupied it. He flashed a smile as they thanked him, and was about to leave when one of them put a hand on his arm. He looked into a pair of light blue eyes that held laughter, and a blatant invitation.

He pursed his lips as he looked at her. She was a ‘typical’ beauty as the Billows would describe her - tallish, long legs, blond bouncy hair, well-rounded, cheerleaderish, the girl the quarterback always dated at school. Okay, Matti conceded to himself, one of the Billow boys had always been the quarterback at school, and they had always dated the captain of the cheerleading squad. He narrowed his eyes again, looking at her. She was a bit too skinny for his taste, but she interested him. He quirked his dark eyebrow, wondering if he should take up her unspoken invite.

“That was awesome,” she breathed. Then covered her mouth as she glanced at her friend and giggled. “I have never seen anyone do that before.”

Yep, typical beauty. He also glanced at her friend and smiled. She was the typical cheerleading captain’s best friend - as pretty, maybe smarter, but liked the same things she did. Where her friend was blond, she had black hair with big eyes the color of a summer’s day. “He had been annoying for most of the night, and if it hadn’t been you, someone else would have slapped him, and it could have been worse.”

Okay, maybe a lot smarter. “Just tried to do my civic duty, ma’am.” He looked at her and felt more intrigued with her dark, quiet beauty than her friend’s obvious appeal.

“Thankfully. I wouldn’t want to arrest anyone tonight,” she smiled, taking a sip of her bright pink drink.

He laughed. “Could use those cuffs for a better purpose, you’re right.” She winked at him, making him laugh again. “Anything else I can get you, ladies?”

“How about your number?” The blond asked. Again he pursed his lips as he looked at her, not sure if he liked her forthright manner. He flashed his ‘Lothario’ smile as his brothers called it, his secret weapon where the opposite sex was concerned, and saw her eyes darken. Maybe...

He turned as his name was called and listened to what one of his barmen had to say. He again smiled at the two ladies and excused himself. He scrawled his name and number on the bill of the cheerleader when the waitress showed him their table and forgot about them as he became busier with the filling bar.

“Here, chil’. You need ta eat som't'ing,” Ma May said as she put a plate of food and a glass of soda next to him where he sat at one of the tables in the empty bar. The doors had closed a half-hour earlier, and the night staff was just finishing the preparations for the next day. He preferred doing the night’s paperwork after closing for several reasons, the main one being that he couldn’t sleep when it was dark. He could also do the tedious work with no disturbance. It was also the first time in a night that he sat down after the doors opened.

He smiled his thanks at Ma May and realized that he was hungry. Besides snatching an occasional titbit from the kitchen, he seldom had a full meal while he worked. He wrapped the printed receipt around the bundle of cash he had counted from the tills, and set it to one side, drawing his plate closer to him. He closed his eyes in appreciation as he bit into the burger Ma had especially made for him. When he opened them, he looked straight into her sparking hazel orbs of lightning. She had heard.

“Chil’, ya do re’lize whatya did?” He nodded. Her tone might have been quiet, but he knew, out of experience, that any word could make her go off like a banshee. Ty had the talent of unlocking that particular door. “What was you t’inking? Don’tya re’lize you hav’ peepol dependant on yo’ actions?”

“I’m sorry, Ma. It just happened.” He knew explaining was futile, but he had to try. He shrugged. “It was an instinct thing, Ma.”

“′Instinct t’ing’?” She repeated slowly, her eyes flashing even more. She slowly stood up and leaned her fists on the table, and at that moment Matti believed that she was ten feet tall and capable of anything. She made him quiver; leaving him in no doubt that he was in trouble. “Instinct? It is because of following instinct without common sense, Mateio Jethro Billow, t’at you ended up in da shit you did. Instinct is valueless if you cannot t’ink beyond it!”

Matti swallowed, trying to displace the lump of fear that Ma May had left in his throat as he watched her walk away. He knew she loved him and his brothers, Luc and Ty, as though they were her own, and had been their cornerstone when their world had fallen apart. He also knew that she was right. As annoying as Taylor could be, Matti had a staff of twenty that was dependent on him. What would happen to them if Taylor should decide to press charges? Billow Talk was the first time Matti had taken responsibility for anything without Ty or Luc stepping in to save his ass. And he was proud of the fact that the place was doing so well after five years. Though his brothers were his business partners, the bar was exclusively his. They didn’t interfere with the running of the place. And again the thought crossed his mind; what would he do without it? His staff had families dependent on them. He needed to make this right with Taylor. He took a deep breath and rubbed at a small scar above his left eyebrow.

He only released his breath when he felt his lungs burning. He shook his head, as he thought about what happened. He gave a huge sigh, stretched his shoulders, and then tried to get back to his paperwork. He felt himself relax as he made a decision about the Taylor issue.

James, his head barman, touched him on the shoulder, making him aware that the place was clean and that the staff was leaving. Matti nodded, and returned greetings from the rest of the crew, but called James back.

“Listen, when...if... Burman comes in again, give him a running tab. I’ll cover it.”

James’s eyebrows rose in shock as he looked at his boss. “He deserved what happened, Matti. He had it coming. At least the way you did it stopped a brawl.”

Matti shook his head, although he could not hold back the smile at the shock on Taylor’s face. “At least the cops would have stepped in, and I’d have a couple of tables to fix. If he goes further, it could close us down. I can’t have that happen.”

James looked at the younger man, his respect for Matti rising even more. He had worked for many people in his sixty-odd years, but never for someone as good as Matti. When he had lost his work, and needed to see to his three granddaughters, Matti was the one that saw beyond his age and spotted his value. That was five years ago, when the smell of the paint had still been sharp, and the varnish on the bar was still wet. Matti Billow would always have his loyalty. He slapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll split you on that tab.”

Matti watched James walk out the door, slipping the latch as he closed it behind him. He finished off the last of his admin, packed up the books, and set them in his office. He made sure that the safe was locked and then set the alarm for the office. He picked up the final checklist that James left for him on the bar, and made sure that all the windows and doors were locked, and set the alarm for the storerooms. He signed off the inventory and left it on the bar for James.

He refilled his glass and took his dirty plate with him as he climbed the stairs to his second-floor apartment, switching off the lights as he went. He moved through his space in the darkness, making his way to the kitchen. He put the plate in the sink and then moved to the bathroom. He was tired, he realized as he stood under the shower, and hoped that he would get some sleep.

After his shower, and feeling as though he could collapse on his feet, he made his way to the living room and sank onto the lush leather sofa that Luc had insisted on. He put his feet onto the coffee table and crossed his ankles as he switched on the big screen TV. He flipped through the channels until he found one that had a documentary on Mozart. He laid his head back, enjoying the music that flowed through the dark. A smile tugged at his mouth as he heard the sounds of another piano in another time, another life, and the girlish voice laughed at the joy of the notes coming from her fingers.

He felt himself drift off into oblivion, his last thought being that Kira would be insulted if she knew that her music was the only thing that could make him sleep.

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