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Chapters 1-3,
A Brooding Bodyguard

Chapter One



Edgar hands me a rock across the crisp white tablecloth of our table for two at Steak Haus. Since he obviously intends for me to take it, I do, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with it. Under the weight of his intense, expectant gaze, I make a sound of appreciation in my throat as I lift the smooth stone to study it under the low lighting of the restaurant. It looks like…well, a rock. It’s grey, hard, and cold to the touch. Presumably there’s something special about it, though, so I beam at him and say, “It’s beautiful. Thank you so much. Is it a precious stone?”

            There’s a snort from the two-top directly next to us, and I grit my teeth, very pointedly not looking at him. Him being Rafe, my discount bodyguard.

            I don’t like bringing Rafe to things. In fact, there’s a lot I’d do to avoid it, but my friends insist that I bring him along on any outings where there’s likely to be press.

            There will definitely be press tonight, because the brand manager both Edgar and I work with, Enoch Laskin, called them and informed them of where we were dining and when, approximately, we would be leaving. That’s why I’m in this fake relationship with Edgar, after all, so we can reap the benefits of the publicity.

Edgar James is a very handsome man, with a flinty appearance and the kind of body you get from spending time outside rather than in a gym. There’s something exciting about that, or at least there was when I first agreed to this arrangement. We’ve been spending time together publicly for weeks, and if he were interested in making things official, I’m guessing he would have done something about it by now. We haven’t even kissed for the cameras, although I’m sure it’s coming. He’s a famous outdoorsman who’s about to be on a new reality TV show—a follow up to his previous hit show, Extreme Camping—and I’ll be putting in a few guest appearances as his “girlfriend.”

            I’m not even sure I want Edgar to make a move anymore, to be honest. Because this is how most of our conversations go—he hands me a rock or makes a cryptic comment about the ecosystem or how the beauty of the sunset being caused by pollution, and I’m left scrambling to make a conversation out of it. I guess some people wouldn’t feel compelled to fill the silence, but that’s what I was raised to do—to entertain. To dazzle. Maybe that’s the problem: Edgar James isn’t the kind of man who wants to be entertained, at least not by me.

            He wants to live.

            I do too, but if there’s one thing I’ve realized since I quit my Netflix show, Sisters of Sin, earlier this year, it’s that I’m not quite sure how to manage it. I’ve tried since coming to Asheville. I’ve taken up gardening, painting, molding clay, and making amuse bouches. I’ve sat through one and half guitar lessons, and I even went on a hike with Edgar that left me panting and dirty and dissatisfied.

            None of those things have brought me the kind of high I saw in Edgar’s eyes when he took in the mountain peaks around us from the top of said dirty hike. I’ve only felt the dissatisfaction of having tried and failed, of not being good at something. Of not having enjoyed something the way I should have.

            Of being a woman of thirty-two who doesn’t know what she likes.

            I guess that’s what happens when the only focus you’ve been given from childhood, from when you were an infant photographed for commercials for packaged spinach paste, is to be famous.

            Maybe I’m broken, because to me, that rock Edgar just handed me is nothing more than a cold rock.

I run my fingers over its surface, finding nothing much to recommend it other than that it’s tolerably smooth.

            “It’s just a rock,” Edgar says.

            I’m pretty sure I hear laughter from the adjoining table, and this time I do give Rafe a withering look.

            He has his sunglasses on, even though we’re indoors, and his button-up shirt shows off a sliver of his chest tattoo, the fabric straining from the job of holding in his massive arms. Have I wondered what the rest of that tattoo looks like?


            He looks like a Viking warrior who got lost on the way to Valhalla, all muscles and intense dark eyes, the irises nearly matching the pupils. His hair is dark and short, like he doesn’t want to be bothered with taking care of it. He’s attractive in an annoying way that makes me want to throw things at him.


            The first time we met, before he interviewed to be my bodyguard, was when I threw a clay banana at his back. It was an accident, sure, but if I’d known him, I would have done it on purpose.

            He claimed it was a dildo.

            Which brings me to my point: Rafe is a jackass, always watching and make snide comments. Always lingering in the background on my public-facing outings.

            When I complained to my sister Marnie that the other day, she sighed and said, “That’s his job, Clair. That’s why we hired him. He’s supposed to keep you safe.”

            “I never had a bodyguard in California,” I retorted. “Isn’t my whole purpose for being here that I can live a normal life?”

            That was the point in the conversation where Marnie reminded me that I have a stalker—one who doesn’t much like that I’m in this fake relationship with Edgar James. I’ve made the argument that this stalker can’t be very intelligent or observant if he thinks that I’m in an actual relationship with Edgar, to which she replied, “He doesn’t have to be intelligent to kill you. Plenty of unintelligent people kill other people every day.”

            I guess she had a point, although my superfan has only sent me one threatening message since I acquired Rafe’s services several weeks ago. The private detectives who signed on to help me look for him seem bored by their task. There’s nothing for them to do but study the typewritten messages he’s slipped under my door. The dead flowers. There are no fingerprints, and although there was camera footage of his last “visit,” he wore a mask in the likeness of Justin Bieber that completely concealed his face. Either that, or I inadvertently did something to piss off Justin Bieber when I saw him at the MTV Choice Awards last year.

            Rafe smirks at me. I give him a look that would make a plant shrivel and die.

            Edgar clears his throat.

            Shifting my attention back to him, I lift my eyebrows and shape my mouth into a little “oh” of surprise. I’m aware this expression serves my features well because my mother once had me practice it in the mirror for half an hour. “Where’s this just-a-rock from?”

            If it’s not valuable because of what’s inside of it, it must be valuable for another reason.

            “It’s from the first site where we’ll be filming the show,” he says. Most men would smile here or offer some sort of expression to telegraph what they’re thinking, but Edgar never offers any cues. It’s disarming, because cues have always helped me craft my own reactions.

            There you go again, not knowing to how to react naturally.

            I hug the rock to my chest, and an unexpected sharp edge nips at my skin. I smile through it. “I’ll treasure it, Edgar. I’ll miss you when you’re gone. I can’t believe they were able to get everything sorted so quickly.” Filming starts next week. It would have taken months longer, but they had all of the arrangements made for another show that got cancelled because the star was arrested for taking videos of women using the restroom without their permission.

            “You won’t need to miss me,” he says, literal as always. “You’ll be visiting me on set. Sooner rather than later, hopefully.”

            The thought of extreme camping doesn’t thrill me, to say the least, but Enoch is adamant that if I don’t want to go straight from being cast as a teenager to being the teenagers’ mother, I need to change my image. Hence the whole Edgar thing. Fake dating him is supposed to make me look edgier, like the kind of woman who wouldn’t cringe if she broke a nail. I would, obviously, but if people think I wouldn’t, then maybe they’ll ask me to be in adventure movies. Or films or shows that are actually good.

            I think I want that…although part of me wonders if that’s just because I don’t know what else to want. It certainly isn’t pottery or painting. Or hiking.

            “Yes,” I say with a smile that I know is convincing. “I can’t wait.”

            Another laugh-cough issues from Rafe, who doesn’t even have the decency to pretend he’s not listening. I avoid the itch to look at him. Scratching that itch will lead nowhere good.

            “Will you keep it for luck?” Edgar asks, nodding to the rock.

            It’s too big for my clutch, so I’ll have to walk around with a rock in my fist like a kid who’s up to no good, but I widen my smile. “I’d be honored.”

            Our food comes, and we continue to pretend to have a conversation. Or at least I’m pretending. Edgar seems quite content with silence as he eats a steak that looks so good my mouth is salivating. I have a salad, dressing on the side. I almost always have a salad, dressing on the side.

            It always goes to your hips, my mother would say, clucking her tongue. No one’s going to give a hippy girl a place on TV. You know the camera adds ten pounds.

            Except…fuck my mother.

            Fuck her.

            I flag a server down. “Can I get a steak, medium rare? And…French fries.”

I think the last time I had a French fry was when my father brought us kids to McDonalds after school one day when I was twelve. I said I wasn’t going to order anything, but Marnie gave me a look, and in a small voice she said, “No one will know, Clair. We won’t tell.”

            If my father heard her, he didn’t say. And if he knew my mother was already talking to me about hips and extra pounds, he didn’t say anything about that either.

            Still, I got those fries, and I ate every last one. Marnie was right. No one told.

            Twenty years ago. That’s twenty year too long to have gone without a French fry.

            I feel like a kid doing something naughty, but Edgar nods in approval. “Lots of iron in steak. Don’t want to get anemic.”

            Shit. While I’d gnaw off my own arm for that steak and those fries, there’ll be a price to pay. I inadvertently made this silent dinner even longer.

I need him to talk. I physically require it, so I say, “So, Edgar, tell me about your family. I don’t think I’ve asked you before, do you have any brothers or sisters?”

            “One sister, Denise. She’s a stained glass artist. Lives in a small town a few hours away.”

            She sounds like more fun than him, but it’s shitty of me to think so. “That’s wonderful, being so close to family. I have a sister and brother here in Asheville.”

            “I know,” he says flatly. Which is fair enough. My sister does freelance graphic design work for him.

            “It’s one of the reasons I decided to move back here.”

            “You have an aunt too,” he points out.

            “Yes, I do,” I agree enthusiastically.

            He gives a nod and takes a bite of steak, and I realize with horror that the conversation has again dried up, and he has no interest in doing anything about it.

            “My aunt’s a swinger,” I blurt out, and Edgar chokes on the bite of steak. There’s an instant when I’m worried he’s actually choking—will I have to do something about it, or will Rafe leap into action?—but the sound suddenly stops, and he places a hand on the table.

            “Excuse me,” he says, then promptly gets up and heads to the restroom in the back of the restaurant.

            I can feel Rafe staring at me. Frowning, I glance at him. Sure enough, his eyes are on me, and there’s that little quirk to his mouth that says I’ve amused him. Again. “What?” I say, putting plenty of wither into my voice. “You obviously have something to say.”

            “You can’t bully him into talking, Clay.”

            “I’m not bullying him into anything,” I say with a scowl. “And most people wouldn’t consider it a hardship to talk to me.”

            He lifts his hands in a warding off gesture that only pisses me off more, because he’s acting like I’m irrational and possibly dangerous—the sort of person he’d wave off if they tried to approach me.

            “Well, they wouldn’t,” I mumble.

            Our server comes by with my plate, the steak glistening, the fries a golden masterpiece more beautiful than any painting in the LACMA in Los Angeles or MOMA in New York. My mouth waters, and everything in me lifts in expectation. When the plate is set down in front of me, I thank the man, and he walks away.

            “Try looking at Edgar the way you’re checking out that steak,” Rafe says as the server retreats, “and maybe he’ll stop handing you hunks of rock and grunting.”

            I bite back the response that wants to come out, Oh, fuck you, and pick up one of the fries. When I bite into it, the crunchy exterior giving way to a pillowy interior, a moan escapes my lips.

            “Or make that sound,” Rafe says conversationally. “That’d do it.”

            “Yeah, right,” I scoff. “He’d probably tell me it’s the sound a raccoon makes when it’s in heat.”

            Rafe shocks me by laughing.

            It’s a nice moment, so I’m not sure why I snap, “Hasn’t anyone ever told you that bodyguards are supposed to be seen but not heard?”

            “You have, several times,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “But Enoch gave me permission to make a nuisance of myself. He says the more people who notice me, the better. Less likely anyone will fuck with you if there’s a big guy following you around.”

            I purse my lips. “You don’t have to wear sunglasses indoors, you know. It makes you look like an idiot.”

            I’m being foul to him, and I’m not sure why. It’s just…I’m mad at him. He’s right—he’s doing what Enoch told him to—but I hate feeling like I’m being watched and followed, maybe because it’s a reminder that someone else is watching and following. Besides, I really did come to Asheville because I wanted to feel normal. Feeling normal isn’t something I know how to do anymore, though, and with a bodyguard and a fake boyfriend who climbs mountains on television for a living, it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

            “Good,” he says lazily, not even lifting a hand to the side of his sunglasses. “I thrive on being underestimated.”

            I eat another fry, then another, suddenly starving. By the time Edgar returns, I’ve plowed through half of them and taken several bites of steak.

            “Ah, a healthy appetite,” Edgar says, and I instantly feel a wash of shame. He didn’t mean it in a bad way, obviously, but it triggers memories nonetheless. I set down my fork.

            “Did I offend you earlier?” I ask.

            He gives me an inscrutable look. “What could have offended me?”

            “The thing about my aunt. You know, you’d probably like her, actually. She’s a pacifist, and she has this thing about coexisting peacefully with bugs.”

            His brow furrows. “We all coexist with bugs.”         

            “What I mean is that she won’t, like, smash a spider or try to rehome it outside. She’ll let it stick around.”

            “That’s wise,” he says with a decisive nod. “Spiders kill other bugs.”

            Another snort.

            Goddammit, does Rafe have to listen to every word we say?

            The conversation carries on in this way—me trying too hard, Edgar stone-walling me—until it’s finally time for the big show. Edgar pays the bill, and we receive Enoch’s confirmation that the press is outside and waiting. Before we leave, I head into the bathroom to make sure my appearance is immaculate. My dress is silky and purple, a color I’ve been told compliments my eye color. I’ve never particularly liked it. feel numb as I smooth down a couple of flyaway hairs and smile for the mirror. I feel…


            But acting is what I do. It’s what I know. So I step out of the bathroom a big smile on my face, and Edgar nods to me as he gets to his feet. “You look radiant. Are you ready?”

             "I am,” I say, sounding happy about it. But for some reason I glance at Rafe, and he’s not smiling at me. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he looks…concerned.

            "Don’t forget the rock,” Edgar says just as I’m about to step away from the table, and I barely manage to refrain from sighing as I pick it up.

            Rafe leaves first, presumably to make sure there are no maniacs waiting for us other than the ones Enoch’s summoned to take photos.

            Then Edgar takes my hand, the first time he’s touched me all evening, and we walk out together. We look good, and I know it. That used to matter to me, but now I’m more aware of the kernel of emptiness inside of me, radiating outward—the realization that looking good means nothing if you don’t feel good.

            I touch the rock to my chest in feigned surprise when the reporters approach us with cameras in tow. “It looks like we’ve been found out again,” I tell Edgar warmly.

            "Anyone would want to take a photo with you,” he says.

            It's hard to know whether he means it. I’m guessing he’s acting too, but he’s always seemed to appreciate my appearance. He’s almost protective of it.

            “Will you pose for a few photos?” one of the reporters asks.

            “What do you think, EJ?” I ask, using the nickname I picked out for him.

            “If it’ll please you, I’ll do it happily,” Edgar announces with a smile.

            Where was this guy twenty minutes ago? Then again, maybe he’s wondering where this version of Sinclair was at the restaurant while I was hoovering up steak and fries and throwing out irrelevant information about my weird aunt.   

            We’ve posed for several photos when suddenly a tomato hurtles toward us and smashes against Edgar’s Patagonia windbreaker.

            He looks down at it in shock, and I’m looking at it too, my lips parted, as Rafe shoves his way in front of me. He’s so big, he partially covers Edgar too, and he shouts, “Get down” as another tomato pelts him. I’m no idiot, I listen, but not before I get a glimpse of a masked face racing past on a bike. It’s that same Justin Bieber mask as in the video. It’s impulsive, but I hurl the small rock Edgar gave me at the masked figure—just before he or she throws a brick at us. The rock hits; our attacker’s aim fails. The brick lands at Rafe’s feet.

            A brick.

            Horror licks through me because it could have hit him. If it had hit him in the head, it might have seriously injured him.

            Then it occurs to me that my worry should be that it could have hit me. Because it was obviously meant to.


Chapter Two



            “Someone else found out you were going to be here,” Officer Nutman says, chewing his gum like he’s afraid someone’s going to take it away from him. He’s a tall man with a gut that looks like it belongs on a different body from his spindly arms and legs and a head of sparse but wavy blond hair that looks surprisingly well conditioned.

            I resist the urge to tell the officer that what he’s saying is obvious—and also the urge to ask him if Nutman is really his name. It sounds like the kind of thing my screenwriter ex-boyfriend would have come up with because it made him—and no one else—laugh.

            “Yes,” Rafe says, watching as another officer wraps the brick up in a plastic bag. He saw the note attached to it, just like I did—Remember, if he gives you a rock, I’ll give you a bigger one. “We’d worked that much out.” He looks pissed as hell, but maybe he really liked that coat that got covered with tomato pulp. That’d be enough to ruin anyone’s day.

            Officer Nutman shoots him a look of dislike. “Don’t think I don’t remember you, son,” he says, hitching up his belt. Despite having called Rafe “son,” he can’t be much older than us—late thirties at the most.

            “No charges were filed,” Rafe tells him with a shit-eating grin, “and don’t think I don’t remember you.”

            My gaze snaps back and forth between them. “What’s the meaning of this?”

            Neither of them answers me, and Edgar, who’s standing just behind me, fidgets on his feet as if he’s bored and would rather be off climbing a mountain somewhere. I’m sure he would.

            The reporters Enoch called in are still present, and they’ve been documenting everything, form the, including Rafe’s heroic save of my dress and coat and my impeccable aim with the just-a-rock Edgar gave me. I have no doubt it’ll be all over the news tomorrow.

            "Anyway, as I was saying,” Nutman says, looking back at me and Edgar, who’s standing just behind me. A third officer has moved the press off to the side, although people keep snapping photos over his shoulder, so I can’t say he’s doing a terribly good job. The restaurant has continued operating, leaving a little pocket of space for us to talk to the officers on the sidewalk. Asheville’s a tourist town, so there are plenty of people walking past, most of them ignoring us, although I know we’ve also been recognized by a few.

            "Someone found out you’d be here,” Nutman continues. “That’s the risk you run when you want to put on a little show. Far as I can tell, you got yourself a big one.” His gaze drills into me, and I see a familiar look in his eyes, a toxic blend of desire and dislike. Men have looked at me this way for years, ever since I was the winner of the Little Miss Music competition when I was sixteen. “You’ll want to be more careful if you really do think you have a stalker following you around, Miss Jones.”

            From the way he says it, it’s obvious he thinks the stalker is either a product of my imagination or someone I paid with my bankbook.

            “Are you implying I made this up?” I ask, my fury breaking through. “What, you think we hired that guy to run around in a Justin Bieber mask and throw tomatoes and bricks at us?”

            Nutman lifts a hand. “Now, now, real life isn’t an episode of your show, Miss Jones. No one’s suggesting anything as wild as that.” He smacks his gum. “Probably just a little practical joke gone wrong, is all.” He lifts his eyebrows. “But you did call the press, and it seems mighty convenient that they got to see spectacle like that, wouldn’t you say?”

            “So you do think we hired that guy,” I say, giving him a hard look. “Why would I ask someone to throw a brick at me? Or to let me throw a rock at them? What could possibly make that worthwhile for me?”

            He shakes his head slowly, as if he can’t bear to listen to any more of my rational thoughts.

            “I assume your department is going to look into this incident further,” Edgar states, his tone firm, and I’m annoyed by the way Nutman instantly transforms for him, standing to attention like Edgar’s an authority figure whose approval he wants.

            “Of course, sir,” he says, and Rafe doesn’t attempt to mask his laughter. Nutman slips into a scowl but keeps his gaze on Edgar. “To be on the safe side, we’ll be running the brick and note for prints.”

            “What about the just-a-rock?” I ask.

            “Excuse me?” Nutman asks.

            Damn. I hadn’t meant to say that out loud. “The rock I threw,” I say. “The one that hit him. What if there’s, like, DNA evidence on it? Will you be checking that?”

            Nutman makes a huffing sound and hitches his belt again, as if it’s really straining to hold up his pants. “What do you think this is, CSI Asheville?”

            “If it’s not going to be used for evidence, can she have it back?” Edgar asks, and I can’t help but do a doubletake. He thinks I want it now? He puts a hand on my shoulder. I don’t really like the way it feels, but I don’t try to shove him off. “It has special significance to us.”

            I don’t want a rock that might have my stalker’s DNA on it sitting around in my apartment looking like...well, a rock. Where am I supposed to put it? A display shelf? Does he want me to dip it in gold? But I don’t have to say so, because Nutman does another belt hitch and purses his lips. “No can do, boss. We should collect it just in case. Presuming we can find it.”

            I’m not sure what he intends to do with it, but I’m happy to let him have it. Nutman passes on his directives to the guy who just bagged the brick, and he goes off, presumably to look for the just-a-rock.

            “Don’t you love the feeling of law and order being restored?” Rafe says. I’m not sure whether he’s talking to me, but a laugh almost rips out of me. Then he looks up at the dark sky in his sunglasses, and the laughter I’m holding back dires up. He’s obviously only still wearing them to fuck with me. It has to mess up his vision to wear dark glasses on a night like this.

            “You’re trouble, Serkin,” Nutman tells him, then spits out the gum he’s been chewing on the ground.

            My mouth falls open, and I can feel Edgar straighten behind me. He’s not the kind of man who’d care for littering either.

            “Littering’s against the law,” Rafe comments lazily.

            “Who’re you going to call? The Ghostbusters?” Nutman asks with a laugh.

            “Doesn’t seem like an appropriate occasion for humor, Officer Nutman,” Edgar says. He sounds pissed, and I’m strangely grateful for it. I’ve never been able to suck any emotion from him at all up until now, and it’s nice to know that he feels them. I don’t want to be the only one who’s a mess behind my makeup and nice clothes.

            Nutman straightens as abruptly as if someone just pinched his ass. “Sorry, sir, gallows humor. I take the situation seriously, of course.” He nods to Edgar, then to me, although it might as well just be a second nod to Edgar. His scowl slips back into place. “Still, I feel I should warn you about this menace.” He gestures to Rafe. “He’s not someone you should want your woman around, sir. I don’t know how he wound up getting hired to be a bodyguard, of all things, but he’s as likely to get her in trouble as he is to do anything useful.”

            To my surprise, Rafe doesn’t say anything. He just stands where he’s been, his face slightly inclined toward the sky, like he’s hoping a meteor will plummet down and wipe Nutman off the face of the earth.

            I expect Edgar to tell the officer he’ll take it into consideration, but he surprises me by saying, “Seems to me that he acted just the way a bodyguard should, Officer. If our assaulter had started with the bricks, I assume we’d be having a very different conversation right now.”

            Go, Edgar. I like this hard line he’s taking with Nutman. Do I think it will have any impact on this investigation or the police’s lack of concern about my stalker? No, absolutely not, but at least he’s not coasting through this encounter. Maybe he is interested in me.

            A voice in my head quietly asks, Yes, but are you interested in him?

            This is exactly the kind of question I’m bad at answering. If I were good at knowing what I liked, I wouldn’t be in my present situation. I wouldn’t have blown through fifteen thousand dollars on hobbies that I don’t really like, producing pieces of “art,” that look like they were pity-bought from a yard sale.

            Nutman nods five times in quick succession. “Sure, sure. He did take those tomatoes bravely.” He laughs nervously.

The other officer, the one who went off looking for the just-a-rock, returns and lifts an evidence bag in victory. “I found it.”

           "Yes, well, be sure to give it back to us once you’ve gotten what you need,” Edgar says, his tone suggesting he knows as well as I do that it’s going to molder in an evidence box until the end of time.

            "We will,” Nutman says, rocking on his feet. “Now, we have all your information.”

            "Don’t you want to know about the bike he was riding,” I blurt.

            "Oh, did you notice the make and model?” he asks, not taking out a notebook or a phoen or anything.

            "No,” I admit, “but I’m guessing someone did.”

            “We’ll ask around,” he says unconvincingly. “And we’ll let you know if we need anything else.”

            "Don’t you need to officially take our statements?” Edgar says, not budging.

            "We’ll let you know if we have any questions, sir,” Nutman demurs.

            "You’re not planning on doing anything,” Rafe comments. I have to say I agree with him. He finally takes off his sunglasses, sticking them in his coat pocket as if he’s getting down to business.

            "Oh, decided you want to see, huh?” I comment without thinking.

            "Sinclair, he saved your life,” Edgar says in a tight tone. Which is pretty rich, since I’m the one who might have saved Rafe’s life.

            "Clay threw that rock,” Rafe comments. “If she hadn’t, I’d have one hell of a bruise right now, but no one’s life was seriously danger tonight.” I squawk, my mouth opening to argue with him, but he cuts me off. “Which isn’t to say this asshole isn’t dangerous. He’s escalating, Nutman. Do you even know what that means?”

            "Why, you insolent little—”

            The other officer grabs Nutman’s arm and gives it a tug, and he pales, his gaze darting over my shoulder to Edgar. He instantly shuts his mouth.

            "This guy started off by sending her notes,” Rafe continues. “Flowers. Little things left at the door of her apartment, where no one should know she lives. Then, tonight, he must have been in the restaurant at some point. He was close enough to see that”—he waves dismissively at the rock in the evidence bag—“thing Edgar gave Sinclair. And he threw a fucking brick at her. Isn’t that enough to tell you she needs protection?”
           “We don’t have the resources to send a squad car around to follow a celebrity,” Nutman says, rocking on his feet. “Haven’t you seen the headlines in the papers? We’re down to a bare bones staff.”

            "I’d follow her in a heartbeat,” said the other officer, grinning at me. He looks like he’s in his late teens or early twenties, just like I’ve been pretending to be on TV for years.

            "She’s already got a stalker,” Rafe quips.

            "Can it, Williams,” Nutman tells the younger officer. “The thing is, Rafe, she doesn’t need protection from us.” He grins, but it’s not a particularly friendly expression, and I definitely don’t like it. “She’s got you.”



Chapter Three



            Of course they called Nutsack in. The guy was an asshole after the incident at my old gym, and he’s even more of a sore on humanity’s taint now. I mean, sure, I did punch a customer when I was a trainer there, and yes, that’s definitely not the kind of thing we were supposed to do. But if you’re the kind of man who thinks it’s funny to try to bench press a woman who’s told you “no” several times, and you keep at it, in front of a room full of people who are asking you to stop, then you deserve a punch. Take it like a man.

            The kid’s friends called the cops, and of course Nutsack was the guy who showed. By then, my friend Shauna had calmed the kid down, mostly by threatening to post footage of the whole incident, which several people had filmed, on every social media site in existence if he attempted to press charges.

            No charges were filed, but the kid’s nose was broken.

Nutsack was pissed that he didn’t get to take me in, particularly since he knew about the rest of my history. It probably soothed him at least a little when I was fired on the spot.

            Later that night, I walked over to a bar to meet Shauna, who said she owed me a stiff drink and wing-woman duties, and I was on my way there when a woman threw a clay dick at my back.

            Sinclair claims to this day that it was supposed to be a banana, but if it was, she’s worse at modeling clay than she is at any of her other twenty-thousand hobbies. The story goes like this—she went to a play with Clay class with her sister and a couple of their friends, and they decided to ditch the evidence in a trash can as if they’d killed someone and wanted to stash the body. I objected to serving as target practice, we got into an argument and then went our separate ways.

            A couple of weeks later, my biological father, who’d turned back up in Asheville a few years back like a fucked-up seashell the ocean spits back onto sand, told me he had a job for me. I was skeptical, and when he said it was as paid protection for a celebrity, I straight-up didn’t believe him. For once the old coot wasn’t lying.

I wanted to tell Sinclair that she could pelt someone else with clay dicks, because no thank you very much, I didn’t want her thankless job. But they’d told me about the stalker, and it made the sentimental side of me think that maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that I’d been offered this gig. Maybe this was the universe’s fucked-up way of offering me what I’d asked for: a second chance.

            So I gave her a nickname and took the job.

            It’s not steady work. It’s an every-now-and-then kind of work. Clay has only agreed for me to come to public-facing outings, ones where word could get out, like it did tonight. Add it to my other source of income, though, and I’m doing well enough.

Clay doesn’t want me around; I don’t particularly want to be around her either. She’s the kind of person who can’t walk past a reflective surface without checking herself out. I told that to Shauna, and she laughed and said, “If I had tits like that, I’d be checking myself out in every reflective surface too. Fair. Still, Clay’s the kind of woman who takes two hours to get ready for a hiking date with a man she doesn’t even like. I’ve sat in on each and every of her “dates” with Edgar James, and there’s not enough electricity between them to power a nightlight. It pisses me off that she wants him to want her anyway. He’s not a bad guy, I guess, if you like being put to sleep by watching PBS documentaries, but he’s like flat soda. You might drink it if you’re thirsty and need a caffeine fix, but you won’t enjoy it.

            But that’s their business, I guess—hers and his and Enoch Laskin’s. All I have to worry about is her stalker and my paycheck. Up until tonight, he’s been mia, and the paychecks have been both good and on time. It’s saving me from taking another personal training job at a shittier gym. But now...things are changing, and they’re not good changes.

             Nutsack is leering at me, which isn’t fun, and his buddy is leering at Sinclair, which makes me strangely itchy to punch him.

            “I’m dissatisfied with the response to this incident,” Edgar says flatly, and Nutsack looks like a punched puppy. Edgar nods to the bagged rock, which seems a lot less fucking stupid now that it saved me from a serious bruise. “You be careful with that. It’s important to my lady.”

            I almost snort, but I manage to keep this one in. We’re leaving, after all, which is what I want. I don’t like that she’s still here, out in the open, after what happened. It’s irrational, since Justin Bieber’s not going to roll back in on his bicycle and risk the wrath of Nutsack, but there you go.

            Edgar takes Clay’s hand, and he starts to walk away from the scene. As soon as we’re out of Nutsack’s periphery, the press start to bob toward us. I scowl threateningly at them. Edgar lifts a hand and says, “Thanks for your concern, friends, but I need to get Sinclair home. You understand.”

            She doesn’t say anything, which has to be a first. I glower a little more. They shout questions but give us space. I have that effect on people, and I don’t regret it one bit.

            Edgar leads us back to Clay’s car, a Range Rover, and steps aside. I unlock it, and Edgar nods to me. “Can you give us a minute, Rafe?”

            “Of course, boss,” I say as a reminder that he is not, in fact, my boss. Like I said, an okay guy, Edgar James, but something about him rubs me the wrong way. Clay shoots me a panicked look, like she thinks I’m going to drive off in her expensive ride.

Or maybe she’s worried you’re going to leave her with the Bieber wannabe, you jackass.

            "I’m not going anywhere,” I tell her.

            "Your...jacket,” she says, which is when I realize it’s still dripping tomato juice.

            Ah, it’s her seats she’s worried about.

            Swallowing the temptation to sweep into a bow like the peasant she takes me for, I take off the jacket and roll it into a ball. I Then I get into the driver’s seat and close the door behind me. It’s an expensive enough car that the soundproofing is pretty damn good, so I don’t hear what they’re saying. I can tell she doesn’t like it, though. There are never any of the usual tells with Clay—no furrow in her brow, no crossed arms. It’s just...I’ve gotten good at reading her. That’s what happens when you spend a lot of time with someone, watching and listening.

            My mind jumps back to the restaurant. Someone was in there, watching and listening, and I fucking missed it. I don’t like that one bit. 

            They’ve stopped talking, and I watch as she makes a phone call, Edgar watching her without any expression on his face, as if it could be boring to look at a woman like her. Idiot. When she hangs up the phone, he leads her around to the back of the car and opens the door for her, she slides in, her cheeks pink from the cold. He doesn’t slide in after her.

            “You’ll let me know after you talk to him?” he asks.

            “I will,” she confirms.

            “See you around, Rafe,” Edgar says.

            It’s a factual statement, so I nod. I can’t help but judge him for not coming with us. Doesn’t he feel some responsibility for Clay’s safety? Maybe he’s like Nutsack, happy to pass the buck along to someone else.

            “Where to, Clay?” I ask. I can see her looking at me in the rearview mirror, her eyes a hazel that looks almost gold. I think of Shauna again, saying if she had tits like that she’d look in every reflective surface too. It’s not just Clay’s tits either—it’s her everything. I’d prefer not to notice, but I have eyes and a dick; they’ve noticed.

            “You slid in front of me earlier,” she says.

            “Yes, I saved you a dry cleaning bill. Let’s not make a big deal out of it. I didn’t like the jacket anyway.”

            But she’s still looking at me. “It is a big deal. We both know that brick could have hit you. Or me.”

            A side of my mouth hitches up. “At least it wasn’t a bullet.”

            "You don’t have a gun...and you wouldn’t have been able to shoot him to defend us anyway,” she says with tremble in her voice.

            "Don’t like guns,” I say, something I was upfront with them about from the beginning. Given that the law is particular about such things, I was told it wasn’t a problem. “But I know how to disarm someone. I’ve taught classes on it.”

            Of course, that wouldn’t do any of us any good if he took a shot from the shadows, but she’s already frightened. I don’t want to terrify her. “Anyway, it wasn’t a good. It’s a good thing you have a Little League past you’ve been hiding from everyone. Who would have thought you had a pitcher’s arm?”

            She smiles tightly. “Anyone who’s watched the show, I guess. They made it a plot point on Sisters of Sin.”

            She sounds a bit sad about it, as if they took something away from her by doing that. I almost ask her about it, but I don’t want to make her feel any worse.

            She's the one who breaks the silence. “What was that guy talking about? Nutman?”

            I grip the wheel. “He’s a jackass. He’s the guy they called in after I hit that guy in the gym.” She knows the story—it’s part of the reason I got hired, I think. They certainly didn’t want me for my resume. I’m a personal trainer who’s worked as a bouncer, nothing fancier than that. But I do have the distinction of being willing to get physical with people who cause trouble, without every starting said trouble myself.

            “They called the police on you?” she asks, shocked, as if she thinks police are just called out for murders or drug busts. She’s innocent in some ways, Clay, as if a soft pillow’s been protecting her for years and she doesn’t always recognize the world without it.

            “Sure,” I say. “Would’ve gotten arrested too, but my friend said she’d press charges for being treated like a dumbbell if he tried to press charges for me punching him.”

            “It was good of you to stand up for her,” she says, then falls silent for a moment. “I need to talk to Enoch.”

“Just tell me where to park the chariot,” I say, wondering again why Edgar James had to peace out on this conversation. Isn’t this both important and relevant to him?

            “The bar,” she says. We both know which one she means. Her friends always hang out at Summer Nights, the bar my father has decided is his second home, the first being the couch in my apartment. He’s only been staying with me for a few weeks. Color me unsurprised when it turned out he expected payback for the “good word” he put in for me to Enoch Laskin and Sinclair’s other friends.

            “I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I say. “It’s not likely to be crowded on a Monday night, but you don’t need more attention right now.”

            “I don’t want more,” she snaps.

            I lift my hands. “Never said you did.”

            Despite her tone, she’s not pissed. She looks brittle, on the verge of breaking. There’s nothing polished about her now. I’m surprised by how much I wish there were—not for my sake, but for hers.

            “They’re closing early for the night,” she says in a small voice. “No strangers will be there.”

            “It’s going to be okay, Clay,” I tell her. I’m not sure why I said it. It’s just...maybe she needs to hear it. And I decide then and there that I’m going to do my damnedest to make it true.

Available from January 16-18:

Apple * Nook * Kobo * Google Play

Releases on Amazon and joins KU - January 19:

Amazon US * Amazon UK * Amazon AU * Amazon CA

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