Prologue: - Grant, Two Months Earlier
The last of a dying breed.
At least that’s what I felt like. I tried to keep my sigh to myself as I raised my third or fourth glass of bourbon to my lips. Under any other circumstances, I wouldn’t be caught dead in a dingy, smoggy strip club like I was currently in, but when the last of your buddies decides to tie the knot, you do what you have to do.
“To Snyder!” Mike exclaimed, raising up the rocks glass in his hand causing the other six in our group to do the same. “And to one vagina forever!”
The guys all laughed and clinked their glasses while I just rolled my eyes and took down the remaining amber liquid in my cup. Despite the fact that I was currently single, I’d actually been the first to get married. Before I’d even met most of these idiots. Freshly graduated, newly enlisted, and as bare faced as a newborn baby, intent on spending my life with the same girl I’d dated since grade school. We got married in a courthouse shortly before my first deployment. We loved each other, sure, but it had more to do with making sure she was taken care of while I was away. And being young and maybe not fully understanding what that kind of commitment entailed.
Being married to a career military man wasn’t easy, and it sure as shit wasn’t what Gwen thought she was signing up for with me. We battled from afar on more than one occasion, but every time I came home, we fell right back in love. Or at least that’s how it went for a while anyway. By the time we were in our thirties and had two kids, we were on the verge of divorce. She wanted me to leave the Marines and I wasn’t willing to. She stayed for a few more years, until our kids were grown and out of the house and then filed. She died before I could even put a pen to the page. A drug overdose. Pain medication I didn’t even know she had been struggling with. A huge part of her life I had apparently missed. It had been almost ten years now, and I still hadn’t found it within myself to move on.
I’d now been a retired Marine Commander for almost two years. Acclimating back to civilian life hadn’t been easy, but I had the boys, most of which I’d served with at one point or another. Mike, Snyder, and I got together and purchased a bar so at least I had something to keep myself busy with, and considering we were close to opening our third location, busy was an understatement.
“You’re the only one left.”
I turned as Snyder sank into the barstool next to me and the bartender poured me another glass. I gave him a nod. “Not sure it counts considering I was married,” I retorted, taking my first sip.
“How long you gonna punish yourself?” Snyder asked with a sigh.
I narrowed my gaze at him. “Pardon me?”
“Gwen’s been gone for ten years, man. Have you even gone on a date since then?” Snyder took a swig from the bottle in his hand, his gaze not even faltering.
I scratched my fingers through the two-day shadow that covered my jaw. “Can’t say I’ve even really thought about it.”
“Bullshit,” Snyder immediately fired back. “Ain’t no way a man who hasn’t been laid in ten years hasn’t thought about it.”
I scoffed and gave my head an amused wave. “You’re assuming too much there, bud.”
“So, you’re not an asexual robot alien man,” Snyder smirked. “Good to know.”
I rolled my eyes. “How about you worry about the state of your own dick, huh? I hear you’re about to have one pussy for the rest of your life.”
“Yeah, but at least it’s a good one.”
I grimaced. “That’s my fucking sister, you troll.”
Snyder snickered as he rose from his seat. “You’re the one that set us up.”
“Inviting you both to a barbeque doesn’t mean I was fucking setting you up.”
“Sure, it doesn’t.” Snyder chuckled and headed toward the rest of our group who’d taken up a table at the front of the stage. “Come on. Maybe we can get you a lap dance.”
“Hard pass,” I said with a bit of a groan as I got up to follow him.
I’d skip the lap dance. Hell, I’d have skipped the whole damn strip club if I’d had my choice. But your baby sister only gets married to your best friend once… And knowing Snyder the way I did, it was probably better if I stayed and kept an eye on him.
After about an hour, and more scantily clad asses grinding on me than I’d ever actually agreed to, I had about hit my limit. On both being social and top-shelf bourbon. I excused myself from the group to hit the can, but before I could make it to the bathroom door, a hard thunk in the middle of my chest nearly knocked me off balance. Instinctually, I grasped both of her biceps to keep her from hitting the floor.
“Sorry! Sorry! Fuck, I’m so sorry,” exclaimed a silk-robe covered woman, all tanned complexion, with molten chocolate-colored curls. Even in the dimly lit bar I could see the redness in her eyes and the worry etched into her soft features.
My hackles were already on edge as her stress seemed to seep into me. “Hey, it’s okay,” I assured, my eyes scanning her face in search of whatever was bothering her. “No harm, no foul. You okay?”
She sniffed and pulled from my grasp. “Yeah, yeah. I’m… just clumsy.”
“You usually cry when you bump into a guy? Seems a bit of a severe reaction,” I said with a chuckle, trying to ease at least some of her tension.
She smiled and let out a breath of a laugh. It felt like a quick glimpse of sunlight in this shitty atmosphere. It was more intoxicating than the bourbon I’d been ingesting for the last few hours. “Rough night.”
“Anything I can do?”
“No. Again, I’m sorry…”
“Madeline, we’re not done here,” a low-budget mobster looking animal growled as he stormed out of what I assumed was the girls’ dressing room.
“Tell Braun I will call him tomorrow,” the girl, Madeline, apparently, responded through gritted teeth.
“He doesn’t like waiting,” the man retorted, his teeth even more clenched together than hers. As he took a step toward her, I stepped in between.
“There a problem here?” I asked, towering over the man and the woman behind me. He was big, but I was bigger. Twenty years of being paid to be in top shape didn’t end once I left the military. Didn’t even need to puff up my chest.
The apparent henchman snickered and looked around me, eyes set on Madeline. “You got a protector now?”
“She does,” I interrupted. “If she needs one.”
“You don’t know who you’re messing with, buddy.”
“Neither do you, pal,” I retorted. We had a bit of a stare down. He wasn’t backing down, or intimidated by the looks of things, but then, neither was I. “Need some help finding your way out?”
“Tomorrow,” the man snarled, his eyes bouncing between me and Madeline peeking out from around me. “I wouldn’t blow it off if I was you.”
“I won’t,” Madeline assured, stepping a tiny bit to my side. “First thing in the morning, I promise.”
The man shifted back and forth for a beat, as if he couldn’t decide whether to stay or go. He pointed a finger in my direction and growled again. “You better learn to mind your own business if you know what’s good for you.”
“Never been a fast learner,” I responded dryly. The man let out a frustrated snarl before turning and storming toward the back exit.
I heard Madeline’s giant release of breath before I felt it along the back of my bicep. “You didn’t have to do that.”
I turned to face her. “I don’t take kindly to people getting pushed around,” I stated, my inspecting gaze once again roaming her face. She already looked lighter, happier. “You alright?”
She smiled up at me and I felt an extra hard thump in my chest. Shit, she was gorgeous. Far too gorgeous to be looking at me like that. And far too young.
“You make a habit of rescuing strange women?”
“If they appear to need it.”
Madeline’s smile turned a bit bashful as she brushed her hand against mine. “Thank you. Seriously. I… I really appreciate what you did there.”
“It’s not a problem,” I said with a wave of my head, looking down where her pinkie toyed with mine. “You sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine,” she reassured, giving me another blinding smile. “Seriously. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” I gave her a tight, crooked grin, trying to ignore whatever it was fluttering in my stomach. Bourbon. It had to be the bourbon. “So… Madeline?”
She giggled softly and pushed her dark bangs from her eyes. “Yes. Madeline. But around here they usually call me Sunny.”
“Sunny,” I repeated, my smile growing wider by the second. “Think I like Madeline better.”
“And you are…?”
“Sorry. Grant,” I stated, grasping the hand she held out in my direction. “I’m Grant.”
“Well, Grant, it was lovely meeting you,” Madeline beamed. “But I am about to be late for my round in the champagne room and if I want to keep my job, I should probably not… do that.”
“Sure. Of course,” I smirked, giving her tiny hand one firm shake. “I should probably get back to my friend’s bachelor party anyway.”
“Mm. Well, maybe I’ll bump into you later.” Madeline smiled as she began to back away. It was only then I noticed the insane platform heals on her feet and the long, tan legs that led into them.
“Hopefully not literally,” I smirked.
“No way I’ll be that lucky twice in one night.” Madeline tossed me a wink before she slinked toward the velvet currents that separated the champagne room from us strip club peasants. I watched her hips sway, propelled on those impossibly high heels, body wrapped in a burgundy-colored silk, and tried to ignore the way my heart was pounding in my chest. And my ears. And… other places.
This was a hell of a time to have one of those moments. Ya know, one of the ones where your heart races and your palms sweat and suddenly taking a girl to dinner didn’t seem so outlandish even though you could barely remember the last time you’d done it.
She wasn’t that girl. I’d already rescued her. I’d met her in a strip club, and she was far too much younger for me to even think about, even toy with the idea of wanting to see her again.
I needed to forget it. I needed to walk away and forgive the little jolt our hands meeting had given me. I needed to get out of here.
But first: the bathroom.
“Who was that?” Snyder asked with a shit-eating, problem stirring smirk as I made it back to the table for my jacket.
“Just a girl,” I stated with a wave of my head as I pulled the thick leather from the back of the chair, I’d previously occupied. “I’m gonna head out.”
“Really? Don’t wanna… I don’t know… check out the champagne room?” Snyder’s grin was barely hidden behind the glass in his giant paw.
“I really don’t.”
“Ya sure, buddy?”
“Snyder, fuck off,” I commanded with a bit of a bite. “I’m going home. Make sure you make it back to my sister tonight or they’ll be fucking hell to pay.”
“I’ll get him back,” Mike chuckled, smacking my shoulder as he arrived back at the table, another round of beers on the tray. “Get going. Surprised you made it this long, honestly.”
“You and me both,” I scoffed. I gave his shoulder a squeeze, gave the rest of the group a nod and slipped on my jacket as I headed for the door.
But the second I got one foot outside, I heard a familiar voice.
“Bailing already?” Madeline asked, now dressed in leggings, boots, and a jacket that damn near matched my own. Even with her dramatic makeup gone, and her luscious locks tied up in a sloppy bun atop her head, the girl was stunning. Maybe even more so. “I thought you were made of tougher stuff than that.”
I shook my head and tried to hide the smirk that stretched my entire face. “Looks like I’m not the only one making my escape.”
“My shift ended,” she retorted with a sassy raise of a dark eyebrow. “What’s your excuse?”
I smirked and rubbed the back of my neck. “Couple hours is my social interaction limit. Already pushed it farther than usual.”
“I feel that,” Madeline said with a bit of a snort.
“Picked a weird career path for being an introvert.”
She shrugged. “Not really an introvert. Just don’t like most people,” she stated, before flicking away the butt of her finished cigarette. “Luckily I’m a good enough actress to make good money anyway.”
There was a bit of silence, both of us looking at each other, then at the street, then back at each other. I rattled my brain trying to come up with something to say that didn’t make me come off as creepy or a douchebag, but I’d apparently lost my touch somewhere in the last ten years. Luckily, Madeline’s brain seemed to work a bit faster.
“So… you headed home then?”
I gave her a slow nod. “Bout the only place I can be found.”
“You… wanna grab a cup of coffee or something?” she asked, her voice going slightly higher with a glimmer of hope. “I haven’t eaten since breakfast, and I know an amazing diner just a few blocks…”
Madeline’s chest deflated a bit as she attempted to hide her disappointment (and surprise) at my quick dismissal. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to overstep.”
“You didn’t,” I assured, looking up from the cement where I’d been watching my boot trace the imprinted lines. “I just… it’s not a good idea.”
“Fair enough.” Madeline gave me a nod and a tight smile. “Get home safe.”
I sighed as she turned to start walking down the street. “Madeline…”
“No, it’s okay,” she insisted, pasting a smile on her face. She kept walking backward even as she spoke. “I get it. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“I’m not upset that you asked.”
“Your wife probably would be. I forget most of the guys that frequent this place aren’t exactly single.”
“I’m not married.”
That made her stop. “Oh.”
“I mean, I am… I wa… my wife died… a long time ago.”
She blinked at me as if she hadn’t expected that admission. Truth be told, I hadn’t planned on saying it, but the filter in my head didn’t to seem to be working right. “Oh…” her usual boisterous nature had quieted. “I’m… I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. Like I said, long time ago.”
“Right.” She gave me another tight nod, looking more uncomfortable than she had any of the rest of our brief interactions. “Well… I guess, have a good night then.”
“Yeah. You, too.” Another pair of exchanged smiles and nods and she turned her back toward me, headed in the opposite direction of where my brain was commanding me to go. And before I could stop it from happening, I called to her “Hey!”
She stopped, almost at the end of the block and turned back around. “Yeah?”
“I… I can at least walk you. After… earlier, I’m not sure you should be walking the streets alone.”
She gave me a sugarcoated smile. “I’m a big girl, Grant. It’s only a few blocks.”
I tucked my hands into my pockets and jogged to catch up with her. “Well, maybe I want to walk you.”
“Yeah?” Madeline asked, biting into her lush lower lip in a way that nearly did me in.
“Yeah. Maybe… maybe I could use a coffee to cancel out some of the bourbon I’ve been drinking all night.”
“A bourbon man?” Madeline asked, spinning on her heels as we started down the sidewalk. “Well, aren’t you distinguished?”
“Nah. Just don’t like cheap booze.”
She laughed and gave her head a wave. “Yet another thing we have in common.”
“You startin’ a list?”
“I might be.”