Copyright © 2018 by Nancy Corrigan All Rights Are Reserved.
The richly accented voice carrying through Sullivan’s Pub tensed his shoulders. Crouched behind the bar, Jack Sander set the case of beer down and listened. He didn’t know what the words being spoken meant, but he recognized the rough, heavy cadence as Russian.
Iona, his little brother’s lover, often slipped into her native tongue when she talked on her cell. This conversation wasn’t one-sided, however. The new woman speaking didn’t stir his protective instincts the way Iona did either. The same unexplained premonition that had saved Jack’s life numerous times during his Marine days gripped him.
Eyes shut, Jack dipped his head and focused on his surroundings. Iona was speaking too. She was here, laughing with this other woman. There was no reason for the adrenaline revving his body. The only thing he’d be fighting tonight would be boredom. Mondays were notoriously slow in the summer.
A slow exhale eased the tension in Jack’s muscles. He jerked the flap on the case of beer, opened the cooler under the bar, and refilled the empty shelf. Unlike some of the guys who’d discharged with him, Jack didn’t suffer from PTSD. Hell, had his mama not been making herself sick worrying about him, he’d likely still be deployed somewhere. That life was a hell of a lot more exciting than tending bar in this backwater Pennsylvania town.
“I need a favor.”
Jack glanced over his shoulder to look at the man who’d spoken. His little brother Wyn leaned over the counter. His presence didn’t surprise Jack. Where Iona went, Wyn followed. The two had been connected at the hip since she’d shown up a month ago. The anxiety in Wyn’s voice did set Jack on edge, though, guaranteeing Jack would offer any help he could. “Why?”
“Iona’s pain meds are wearing off.”
“And?” Jack had nothing to offer besides a stiff drink. That wouldn’t numb her pain completely. After the beating she’d gotten from her ex, Iona needed the relief drugs offered.
“She won’t admit to hurting, but I know she is.”
With two cracked ribs and deep muscle bruising, hurting wasn’t up for debate. “Then take her home and get her in bed.”
“I suggested that. She won’t do it.”
This new side to Wyn both fascinated Jack and left him shaking his head. His youngest brother was well and truly whipped, much like their other brother Kyle. At least the prospect of another wedding to plan for and a chance at more grandbabies had put a smile on their mama’s face. For that, Jack kept his mouth shut.
He broke down the case and slid it behind the garbage can. “I’m not getting between you and your girlfriend. Fight your own battles, kid.”
“I’m not asking you to. Besides, we’re not fighting. Iona said before we came out, she didn’t want to leave the house.”
What did this have to do with him? Jack shook his head. Only one way to find out. He pushed to his feet. “Then what do you need from me?”
“Babysit Iona’s friend Blaine tonight while we cut out early, then bring her back to my place.”
Jack slid his gaze to Iona. A blonde woman sat opposite her. He’d never seen a woman with hair like hers. So light and pure she could’ve been an angel. “She looks old enough to function without a babysitter. If she gets bored, I can call a cab for her.”
Wyn sighed. “Blaine’s staying with us for a few weeks, and Iona feels the need to entertain her. Blaine’s used to a faster-paced life than what we can offer. Iona doesn’t want her to get bored.”
Jack laughed. Blaine chose that moment to look over her shoulder. Although he was too far away to pick out the color of her eyes, the force of her stare hit him. Jack turned his back on her and crossed his arms. “And you’re asking me to amuse her? I’m not exactly the most personable man in the world.”
“You can manage. Sit and talk to her about the area or the weather or something. Doesn’t matter what.”
“Can’t. I’m working.” Jack motioned toward the few customers lingering in the room. “Call someone else.”
“It’s only for a few hours, Jack. Tomorrow, I’ll get ahold of Eric. Maybe Levi. Whoever’s free. I just need someone to keep Blaine occupied tonight. It’s her first night in town.”
“I don’t need anyone to keep me occupied.” Blaine slid onto the barstool next to Wyn. “I told you to pretend like I’m not around.”
“Shit.” Wyn ran a hand over his head. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Of course not. You’re thinking about Iona. She’s tired. I can see that too.” Blaine laid her fingers on Wyn’s bicep and urged him to move. “Go on. I’ll get us a round of drinks, then we’ll leave. I’m still adjusting to this time zone anyway.”
Wyn stood and took a couple of steps before facing Blaine. “You don’t mind?”
Smiling, Blaine tilted her head so strands of her platinum hair partially obscured her dark blue eyes. “Not at all. I’m the one imposing on you and Iona. I shouldn’t even be here.”
Wyn dipped his chin, then made his way to Iona.
Jack studied the blonde Russian who spoke fluent but heavily accented English. Perfect skin, gorgeous blue eyes, and a smile that could strip a man of his common sense. She’d destroy his twin and his cousin. Levi would fall in love with this woman, and Eric would get hooked on the sex. She’d use them both, then walk.
Blaine had predator written all over her.
Jack dropped his elbows on the counter. “Why are you here, then?”
“That’s a very personal question, Jack.”
His name in her rough feminine voice tightened parts of his body that had no business reacting to this woman. Damn hard to keep his lust in check when the epitome of sin sat inches from him.
“It is.” He leaned closer. “Considering you’re staying in my little brother’s house, I figure I deserve an answer. I look out for Wyn. Surely you understand?”
Blaine’s smile morphed into an amused smirk. “Iona said her new boyfriend’s family was oddly close. I hadn’t quite believed her. I do now.”
He matched her smirk. “Aren’t families in Russia protective of their loved ones?”
“Much like America, I’d say. Some more than others.”
“Great. Then you understand where I’m coming from.” Jack worked his jaw. “Now tell me why you’re crashing in my brother’s house.”
Blaine’s blue-eyed gaze caressed him, leaving him feeling a hell of a lot more exposed than a simple perusal should. He shifted his stance. The corner of her mouth raised slightly. She dragged her gaze lower, lingering on his stomach. Thankfully, the edge of the counter kept his groin out of sight. His dick didn’t need her attention on it. Her voice was enough to stir him.
Finally, she reversed her visual perusal and met his eyes. “My very protective brother insisted on it. So here I am.”
“What? Do you have a crazy ex after you too?”
“No.” Her smile brought out small laugh lines at the corners of her eyes and transformed her features, leaving her more beautiful than she had been moments before. “Boyfriends have no place in my life. I’m happily single.”
“Smart answer. And here, people in the States say blondes are dumb.” His crassness surprised even him. This woman had him on edge, though. He wanted her away from him. Pissing her off would do that. Maybe she’d cut her visit early too.
“And people in Russia say American men are assholes.” She leaned over the bar and lowered her voice. “I suppose if one of us has to be right, it might as well be me.”
Jack snorted. “I guess I had that coming.”
“I guess you did.” Blaine skimmed her fingers over his beard, from his ear to his chin, before swiping her fingertips over his lower lip. “But I won’t hold it against you. I understand what protectiveness can do to a man.”
Jack curled his fingers around Blaine’s wrist and drew her hand away. Fire burned in the wake of her touch. He didn’t need to be sporting a hard-on. Eventually, he’d have to step around the counter. “Yeah? What does it do?”
“For one, it forces me to lay low in this quaint little town of yours.”
The tension returned, tightening every muscle in his body. “Why did your brother insist on you coming here?”
“Didn’t Wyn tell you about the breach in security at the gala event in New York?”
He zeroed in on where his younger brother sat with Iona. Their heads were close. He toyed with her hair. Jack shook his head. “Wyn’s been preoccupied. I know Iona’s ex beat the shit out of her and Wyn saved her from Dmitri, but I don’t know the details.”
“My brother was shot by one of his own men that night. Until he recovers and can act as my bodyguard again, I’m to remain here.” Blaine pursed her lips as if considering her next words. “But don’t worry. I won’t be running Iona ragged. I can amuse myself. Besides, I have a show to prep for.”
“You’re the singer, right?” Iona had given the excuse of wanting to see her famous friend to justify her trip to New York this past weekend. Of course, Jack had never heard of Blaine Zima before Iona told him about her. Russian music never made it onto American radio stations.
“Among other things.” Blaine focused on the counter. She traced the wood-grain pattern. “I act. I also play a few instruments. Mother insisted I be well-rounded, but my voice has built my career. Although I don’t assume you would ever have heard of me, which is why Sander’s Valley is the perfect place for me to be right now.”
“It’s a great place to get lost, that’s for sure.”
Silence stretched between them. Jack rolled his shoulders while Blaine continued to follow the pattern of knots in the wooden counter. He cleared his throat. “Well…I’m glad you’re not bringing trouble here. My brothers have had enough to deal with over the past few months.”
“My troubles are much more boring, I assure you. And I promise you won’t even notice me. In fact…” Blaine focused on him.
Each second of her intense study quickened his pulse. He couldn’t look away, though. She’d ensnared him with the force of her will. Her intelligence bled through it. She was judging him. Why, though? He’d given her a subtle fuck-off vibe. He was sure of it. She shouldn’t even be talking to him any longer. She was, though. The “why” bothered him. What was she planning?
Finally, she glanced over her shoulder. “I should make myself as scarce as possible. Iona doesn’t need me around to ruin this thing she’s found with your brother. She’s happy. Happier than I’ve ever seen her.”
“They’re in love.” At least that was what everyone around him kept saying.
“I suppose.” Blaine faced him. “It’s definitely inspirational.”
“Yeah? Is seeing the two of them together giving you second thoughts? Maybe making you think about falling in love too?”
Grinning, Blaine rolled her eyes. “If boyfriends have no place in my life, why would I be looking for love?”
“I don’t know. Women say shit they don’t mean all the time.”
“So do men.” Blaine rested her chin on the heels of her palms. “First thing Mother taught me about boys growing up is a truth I’ve found very helpful in life.”
“And that is?”
“The boys who pull your pigtails and tease you are the ones who will end up kneeling at your feet, waiting for your next command, if you reel them in properly. Once they’re there, a smart woman will use them. Then toss them before they break her heart.”
The tension returned, locking his muscles. He could’ve been surrounded by the enemy in some stifling, run-down village. He wasn’t, though. He stood across from Iona’s friend.
Jack leaned over the bar, an attempt to ease the stiffness in his shoulders that failed miserably. His muscles burned. “That’s not a very politically correct thing to be telling a little girl.”
“Maybe, but it’s still been good advice. I tend to write and sing about the grittier sides of love. Manipulation and betrayal are perfect catalysts for my creativity, but it might be nice to put out something…”
Blaine caught her lower lip between her teeth, but it didn’t hide the sexual interest in her eyes. “I’d need a different type of inspiration for that.”
“Be careful looking for it here. The men in this area who are willing to provide that kind of inspiration aren’t the ones a girl like you should be messing with.” Because if his cousin Eric crossed paths with Blaine, he’d readily offer up his dick for use. The moment he did, he’d lose any chance with the girl he’d loved since high school. Brenna still hadn’t forgiven him for choosing a different date for the prom.
“I hadn’t planned on it.” Her eyes twinkled. Those laugh lines that made her look real showed the depth of her amusement. Blaine was beautiful. Like this, however, she was dangerous. Her smile was addicting. “But I might have to experience a country lover myself while I’m in town. Although, I was thinking more along the lines of a sweeter side of love. You know what I mean. Don’t you, Jack? The kind of love that makes you want to give up everything for a girl.”
“I’m afraid I don’t, actually. Girlfriends have no place in my life.”
“Just one-night stands, then?”
Not even that lately. The last woman he took to bed ended up being one Levi had his eyes on. A night of fucking wasn’t worth pissing off his twin. Girls were interchangeable. Family was not.
Jack shrugged. “Something like that.”
Blaine licked her lips, making them glisten and tempting him to dip his head for a taste. “I understand, which is why I should make myself as scare as possible before I break some code I didn’t know existed.”
Jack stole a quick glance at his little brother before narrowing his eyes at Blaine. “Don’t worry. Wyn won’t be tempted by you, no matter what you try. He’s committed to Iona.”
“Wyn?” Blaine laughed. “No, no. I’d never cause that kind of trouble for my best friend. I do, however, think having me around might make Iona and Wyn’s budding relationship awkward, which brings me back to my earlier thought.”
“And that is?”
“I need to find a different place to stay.”
“There’s a motel in town, but—”
“No.” Blaine shook her head. “I was thinking of something a little more intimate.”
“Intimate?” What could be more intimate than living in Iona and Wyn’s house? Unless she was looking for a different Sander to put her up. “I’m sorry, but if you think I’ll invite you to stay with me, then—”
“A rental, silly.” Blaine covered his hand with hers. “You’ll help me find one. Won’t you, Jack? It’s best for your younger brother if Iona’s not worrying about keeping me amused. If I’m not underfoot, she won’t be fussing over me. She’ll be focused on Wyn.” Those intriguing laugh lines stood out. “It’ll be a win-win for everyone.”
Wyn stepped next to Blaine before Jack could answer. “Iona’s wondering what’s taking so long. Everything okay?”
“Yes.” Blaine flashed a wide smile. No laugh lines showed this time, however. Her eyes didn’t brighten either. “Jack was just volunteering to take me house shopping tomorrow. I want to find my own place to stay at while I’m here.”
When had he agreed to play Realtor? Jack glared at this woman who’d put words in his mouth. “I was?”
Blaine held up a hand. “Trust me. It’ll be best for everyone. Unless you think Wyn would enjoy being woken at daybreak to my regimen of vocal exercises.”
“You know, Ronnie’s dad’s place would be perfect. It overlooks the lake. It’s close. It’s just sitting empty too.” Wyn pulled out his phone and texted. “I’m sure Ronnie will be good with it, and Jack can help you move some stuff up there tomorrow.”
“Oh, that is perfect.” Blaine grabbed Jack’s forearms and leaned over the counter. Her shirt gaped, giving him a peek of her deep cleavage. “Thank you so much, Jack. You’re a sweetheart.”
Blaine linked her arm with Wyn’s. They walked to Iona. A few words were exchanged, then the three of them slipped from the bar.
Jack stared at the door for a long time. The anxiety from earlier finally made sense. He had faced a threat. And lost. Blaine Zima, the famous singer he’d never heard of, had weaseled her way into his life. Too bad he wanted nothing to do with her. Even a quick fuck would be too much.
Blaine had “predator”
written all over her. So did he, though. If they came together, they’d both
walk away wounded.