damaged and the saint

Damaged and the Saint

Bijou Hunter

 

Copyright © 2014 Bijou Hunter

Kindle Edition

 

Dedication

Freckles, Tigger, Pooh, and Roo for owning my heart

Mustang Sally and Marvelous Miranda for having my back

Saucy Sarah, Hardcore Patty, and Seductive Stacie for knowing the genre

 

Cover Design

Image from Shuttershock and Aleshyn Andrei

 

Damaged Series

Damaged and the Beast

Damaged and the Knight

Damaged and the Cobra

Damaged and the Outlaw

Damaged and the Dragon

Damaged and the Bulldog

 

Little Memphis MC Series

Little Memphis

Broken Memphis

 

Standalone Books

Gator

Used

 

*****

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Table of Contents

 

Chapter One ~ Harlow

Chapter Two ~ Saint

Chapter Three ~ Harlow

Chapter Four ~ Saint

Chapter Five ~ Harlow

Chapter Six ~ Saint

Chapter Seven ~ Harlow

Chapter Eight ~ Saint

Chapter Nine ~ Harlow

Chapter Ten ~ Saint

Chapter Eleven ~ Harlow

Chapter Twelve ~ Saint

Chapter Thirteen ~ Harlow

Chapter Fourteen ~ Saint

Chapter Fifteen ~ Harlow

Chapter Sixteen ~ Saint

Chapter Seventeen ~ Harlow

Chapter Eighteen ~ Saint

Chapter Nineteen ~ Harlow

Chapter Twenty ~ Saint

Chapter Twenty One ~ Harlow

Chapter Twenty Two ~ Saint

Chapter Twenty Three ~ Harlow

Chapter Twenty Four ~ Saint

Chapter Twenty Five ~ Harlow

Chapter Twenty Six ~ Saint

Chapter Twenty Seven ~ Harlow

Chapter Twenty Eight ~ Saint

Chapter Twenty Nine ~ Harlow

Chapter Thirty ~ Saint

Chapter Thirty One ~ Harlow

Chapter Thirty Two ~ Saint

Chapter Thirty Three ~ Harlow

Chapter Thirty Four ~ Saint

Chapter Thirty Five ~ Harlow

Chapter Thirty Six ~ Saint

Chapter Thirty Seven ~ Harlow

Chapter Thirty Eight ~ Saint

Chapter Thirty Nine ~ Harlow

Chapter Forty ~ Saint

Chapter Forty One ~ Harlow

Chapter Forty Two ~ Saint

Chapter Forty Three ~ Harlow

Chapter Forty Four ~ Saint

Epilogue ~ Harlow

Epilogue ~Saint

About Bijou

Chapter One ~
Harlow

 

Vengeance was a dish best served cold. I wanted my payback. Hell, I needed it really. No doubt destroying those who ruined my childhood would feel righteous. I’d never know though. The evil bastards were dead. The monster known as Playboy paid in blood for his sins, yet I didn’t take his life. What could a person do with a lust for revenge they’d never satisfy?

For me, I worked out my anger while fighting in the Thunderdome for money. I also trained at the local martial arts studio three times a week. Every evening, I ran five miles. Every morning, I worked out at the Reapers’ club gym.

I liked to think of myself as a badass, yet I wasn’t sure what to do with all of my cool moves. One goal was to prepare for the big paintball battles at the Johanssons’ place soon. Yeah, I would kick some badasses’ asses.

Even thinking I was nuts, my parents knew they needed to allow me to grow up. If I wanted to embarrass myself, who were they to interfere? Stepping back allowed Winnie to find love. Now my turn had come to leave the nest.

One of my new routines was running through the woods surrounding Ellsberg. The uneven ground made me focus more than running through a safe neighborhood. I’d suffered plenty of setbacks though. During my first outing, a bird attacked me when I startled it. On my third run, a squirrel dropped a nut on my head as I passed under its branch. On my sixth visit to the woods, I lost my balance near the river and toppled face first into a mud puddle. I was quite the badass.

On my tenth outing, I was on fire. Jumping over rocks, dodging low hanging branches, avoiding animals, I felt invincible. Until I raced up an incline and nearly ran into a man.

Scrambling to stop in time, I gawked at the fearsome figure. He wore a gray hoodie over short brown hair, shadowing his dark features. Wide shouldered and tall, he must have been over six four. Even knowing dozens of tough men, I'd never seen anyone so imposing.

Despite my fear, I refused to be intimidated. I rolled my shoulder into his gut. Yet even using all of my strength, my impact met a brick wall. He never swayed or struggled to remain balanced. Like a gnat crashing into an elephant, the attack didn’t even cause him to change his damn expression. He only stared at me as if bored.

I threw a punch he easily brushed off. My kick was effortlessly dodged. Wearing a smirk now, he was no longer bored by me. Now, I was funny.

Less skilled warrior and more ferocious wolverine, I attacked with hard kicks and punches. He dodged, blocked, and pushed me away. So desperate, I even considered shoving back his hoodie and yanking at his hair like we were chicks fighting in high school. Instead, I kicked at his crotch. No matter how badass he was, a shot to the balls would bring him down.

Instead, he snagged my foot before it made contact. For a moment, he held me still before shoving me back onto the ground. I landed hard on my butt and frowned up at him.

“Sloppy move, little girl.”

Pissed at the world and hating all men, I needed to find a way to defeat this scary bastard. The rational part of me that didn't want to be raped and killed decided to run for my life and warn the world an unkillable monster existed in Ellsberg. Lock your doors! Get out the pitchforks and torches!

His dark eyes convinced me I couldn’t defeat him. If I pulled a knife, he’d take it away from me. If I had a gun, he’d steal it away easily. Unable to win this fight, I ran as if my life depended on it.

Up a slight hill, my dad’s Harley was parked on the road. The hoodie guy might have been right behind me, but I refused to look back. I didn’t even slow down when I reached the bike. Once it roared to life, I glanced over my shoulder to find no one following me. I gave myself a second or two to catch my breath before speeding towards town.

I wasn't sure where to go. Home felt like the safest bet, but I couldn’t think about myself. This guy was dangerous. A stranger like him in Ellsberg could be a threat to Cooper Johansson who was the new president of the local Reapers Motorcycle Club. Hell, this guy could be a threat to anyone.

Though I considered he might be a biker from Memphis in town for the paintball games, I immediately blew off the idea. I’d seen the guys coming into Ellsberg and they were all white. The Memphis visitors were also full of bravado as if the next dick-measuring contest was forever on the horizon. The guy in the woods didn’t care if everyone had a bigger dick. He would still win. Defeat wasn’t an option for him.

After nearly crashing while speeding around a corner on the way to Whiskey’s Kirk, I pulled into a grocery store parking lot and settled my nerves. I knew running into Kirk’s place and babbling about a strange man would make me look nuts. The Reapers would lose respect for me and I’d embarrass my dad. If the Memphis guys were around, I’d feel even worse. No way would I humiliate Cooper or myself.

Five minutes passed before I started the engine. Another five flew by while I imagined what to say to Cooper.

Arriving at the bar, I spotted Cooper’s Harley parked next to Tucker’s. Inside, the big, blond brothers shared a beer.

“I was attacked by a guy in the woods,” I announced, walking up to them.

“Why were you in the woods?”

Ignoring Tucker, I focused on Cooper. “I’d never seen him before and he didn’t move like any college student.”

“Describe him,” Cooper said, crossing his arms.

“Dark hair and eyes. Dark skin too. Big guy.”

“Did he look like him?” Cooper asked, gesturing behind me.

The guy from the woods stood at the doorway. Despite being surrounded by allies, I backed away in fear and bumped into Cooper. I stared into the eyes of the smirking stranger.

“I forgot to mention,” he said, looking over me to see Cooper. “I went for an innocent run today, only to be assaulted by this woman in the woods. You sure grow them crazy around these parts.”

The guys around me laughed. Even the waitress snickered. The laughter pissed me off and I stepped closer to the stranger.

“I didn’t attack you.”

He grinned down at me. “I startled you, causing all those womanly feelings to get riled up in your pretty head. You reacted by attacking me.”

Glaring hard at him, I wanted another chance at landing a punch. “Womanly feelings?”

“You missed the part where I called you pretty,” he said, nearly laughing.

My hands were in fists when Cooper stepped behind me and leaned next to my ear.

“Harlow, this is Saint.”

I stared at the smirking assassin for what felt like an eternity before speaking. “I know I should be afraid, but I still want to kick your ass.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, strutting past me. “I hear that a lot.”

Chapter Two ~ Saint

 

Paintball games in Ellsberg, Kentucky weren't my idea of a vacation. I was paid to shoot people with bullets. While this job wasn’t my normal deal, the bosses in Memphis wanted me around. My presence had more to do with the other guys in the games than testing Cooper Johansson. No matter the reason, the job was an easy paycheck.

The college town was what I expected. Old time flavor mixed with new builds. The population consisted of bikers and college kids. The cops never made eye contact, proving they were owned by the club. When passing me on the street, the college girls giggled as if I was a frat boy looking to party.

Smelling another predator in the mix, the dangerous men in town gave me more respect. The college guys bumped into me though, too busy checking out the barely clad coeds to know I’d killed people for less than an inconvenience.

The only appealing part of Ellsberg was the woods. Bored, I trained harder by running through the dense brush and over fallen trees. My mind was on leaving Ellsberg when I ran into a girl who refused to giggle at me.

I could have ended our little fight in the woods by explaining who I was and how I knew who she was. A lot of guys might have taken the easy way out, but I wanted to fight with a cute wannabe badass. Realizing she was whipped, Harlow looked at me as if I was a monster. I didn’t enjoy her fear as much as the tussle. Yet, I got a little hard when she refused to back down at the bar. Harlow Todds might be unstable, but I couldn’t look away.

I laughed at Harlow’s glare, causing her to bolt out of the door. Any normal man would let her sulk and I considered heading back to the apartment complex for a shower. Chasing a pissed woman was a pathetic move. I followed her anyway.

What I knew about Harlow was sketchy. She was tied up with the Devils in Arizona before Vaughn Majors brought her to Ellsberg. A year earlier, I was sent to Phoenix to eliminate most of the club while Vaughn killed the members who showed up in town. Harlow was nineteen, fought at the Thunderdome, and lived with a member of the Reapers. Before I arrived in Ellsberg, I didn’t need to know more about her. She wasn’t a threat whether in or out of the paintball matches. Now I was curious.

“You’re welcome,” I said, following her out the door.

Harlow spun around, nearly losing her footing on the gravel covered parking lot. Her eyes were green or blue. Maybe both. All I knew was they were glaring at me. Her expression would likely make a lesser man squirm. I nearly laughed at the thought of some poor sap wetting his pants over that glare.

“Thank you for what?” she finally growled.

“You know who I am now and what I could have done to you in the woods. I showed mercy for a misguided youngster. I think I deserve a hint of gratitude for my patience and self control.”

Harlow’s glare darkened and I swore she wanted to punch me.

“You made me look stupid in there,” she said, changing the subject.

“No. In fact, you made yourself look stupid. I was only the weapon you used. Don’t blame the hammer because you missed the nail and hit your thumb.”

Harlow shook her head, so angry she couldn’t speak. Wondering if she was always so pissed, I suspected she was making a special exception for me.

Harlow’s expression suddenly shifted and she lost her anger. For a moment, she looked lost. Blinking a few times, she shrugged and turned away.

“Sorry I thought you were a pervert in the woods. Thank you for not killing me. Have a nice day.”

I should have let her walk away. Wanting a cold shot of tequila and a big meal, I had plans that didn’t involve charming angry chicks.

“Who trained you?” I asked, following her to a Harley.

Harlow glanced at me over her shoulder, debating whether to ignore me or take the bait. I honestly didn’t know what she might decide, though my money was on her being tempted by the question. I won that wager.

“Why?” she asked, crossing her arms.

I leaned against a truck and grinned at her frowning face. “He’s doing a shit job.”

“I’m taking classes at the martial arts studio. The instructors are black belts.”

“Okay, then they suck at a black belt level.”

“Just because I couldn’t take down a professional killer doesn’t mean my instructors suck.”

Putting up my hands, I shared her frown. “Hey, maybe you ought to announce that professional killer info on a billboard? Save us the time of wondering if you’ll get me killed.”

Harlow glanced around, her expression changing again. No more teenage tantrum, now a smart woman.

“Sorry.”

Studying Harlow’s relaxed face, I admired her big eyes and those pouty lips. “You like fighting and I assume you want to be good at it.”

“I want to be strong. Fighting makes me that way.”

“You fucked up when you came at me in the woods,” I said, stepping closer. “You gave up your advantage by entering a larger opponent’s sphere. Didn’t your black belt instructors warn you about the male to female body differences?

Harlow frowned darkly. She wanted to complain, even defend her attack moves. Yet, they hadn’t work on me and I doubted they would have worked on a lesser man.

“What should I have done instead?”

“Assuming I was a real threat?”

“Yeah, assuming that.”

“Let me come for you. The ground was rocky and uneven. I would be at a disadvantage. You also would have been able to retreat if I pulled a weapon. Instead, you came at me without knowing if I was armed.”

Stepping closer again, I stood only a few feet from her. Harlow felt the change in proximity, immediately on alert.

“You have an advantage in a fight against a man,” I continued, “especially a stranger. He’ll see a young woman and assume you’re an easy target. You don’t want to give away your advantage until the last moment. They should have taught you that in your classes.”

“It’s not that kind of classes,” Harlow said, now sheepish. “It’s martial arts, not what you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about winning. Learning how to do a fancy kick won’t win a fight.”

“Well that’s the kind of training I can get in Ellsberg. I guess I could ask Vaughn, but he’s pretty focused on Raven right now. Besides, he doesn’t like me fighting.”

“Vaughn sees you as the little girl he saved years ago, not the woman you are now,” I said, scratching at my goatee. “I could train you while I’m in town.”

Immediately suspicious, Harlow narrowed her eyes. Her angry expression nearly had me laughing.

“Why would you help me? Is this a trick to get into my pants?”

As my gaze darkened, Harlow’s eyes hinted at how she noticed the change in my demeanor.

“Do I look like the kind of man who needs to trick women into his bed?”

Harlow shook her head like a scolded child. Even irritated, I found her interesting. She was beautiful and I sensed complicated layers under her bratty demeanor. My mother was a stubborn woman too, giving me a soft spot for ladies who told me no.

“Why would you help me though?” she asked in a small voice.

I shrugged. “I’m bored in this small town and you entertain me with your womanly rage.”

Eyes narrowing again, Harlow wanted to mouth off. I saw her ready to put me in my place. She kept her womanly rage in control though.

“So you’d do this for free?”

“Yeah, but you’d have to be ready to train hard. I work out a lot,” I said, suspecting I’d need to work out more if I spent too much time around this sexy blonde brat. “I won’t treat you with kid gloves just because you sit down to take a piss.”

“You’re making me want to say no.”

“Say no then. I’ll find other entertainment in town,” I said, taking a step back while hoping she fell for my ruse. “In fact, I’m going back to the bar, having a drink, and finding somewhere to eat. If you change your answer to yes, tell Cooper to give me a call.”

Harlow’s big eyes watched me until I disappeared into the bar. I felt them on me, long after I stopped looking. She was just as curious about me as I was about her. Despite her womanly rage, she would call Cooper.

Chapter Three ~
Harlow

 

Feeling like an idiot, I couldn’t catch my breath once Saint showed up at the bar. At first, I thought he was simply scary. Now I had to admit I was attracted to him. My feelings meant nothing. How could they? Getting hot for a man like Saint was a no-brainer. Any woman would swoon, yet stay as far away from him as possible.

Once Saint spoke to me, my feelings morphed into a ball of crazy. He both insulted me and offered me a chance to get stronger. Saint treated me like a woman rather than a child. I still felt silly in his presence. Even wanting him to like me, I doubted anyone impressed a man capable of killing men like the Devils.

By the time I arrived at my sister Winnie’s house, I felt lost between my need to prove myself worthy of Saint’s respect and the desire to keep him at arm’s length until he left town.

Hearing the Harley, Winnie hurried out the front door to see me. My sister’s long, dark hair was a mess from her yanking on it before I arrived.

“I heard you were attacked,” she cried, meeting me at the driveway of the house she shared with her husband Dylan.

“Who told you that?”

“The girl at Whiskey Kirk’s. She called me and said you were harassed by one of those out of town guys,” Winnie said then added, “She did say he was hot. Not that him being hot makes him being an asshole okay.”

“He didn’t really attack me. I thought he was a threat and tried to kick his ass.”

Following me into the house, she asked, “Did you hurt him?”

“Not even a little bit. I did hurt my knuckles trying to take him down.”

Winnie didn’t want to laugh, but she did anyway. I grinned at her laughter.

“I’m sorry. I bet you were a real badass.”

Rolling my eyes, I smiled wider. “It was like fighting a wall. Well, a wall that can fight back. He was completely unfazed, but that makes sense since it was Saint.”

Winnie’s smile faded. “The guy who took care of the Devils in Phoenix?” When I nodded, she exhaled uneasily. “And you tried to beat him up?”

I couldn’t help laughing. “Yeah, I tried to take down a professional killer. Hard to believe I didn’t take his ass to the ground, huh?”

Winnie smiled, but she looked worried. “Was he mad?”

“No. He thought it was funny. He also offered to train me.”

Winnie stared at me in the dark way she got when the words in her head were too difficult to say out loud.

“What does he want from you?”

“I don’t know. I know he’s a killer and he’s good at it. I’m sure he can lie well, but I really don’t think it’s a trick to hurt me. I think he actually wants to train me to fight better.”

Winnie didn’t respond. Her hazel eyes flickered around the room. I remembered how scared she was when they first moved into the house. How she called me most nights. How I called her the nights she didn’t. Eventually, she learned to live with Dylan and those calls weren’t so regular. These days, she slept fine without me.

“What’s he like?”

“A jerk, but in a likeable way. You know, the same way as Cooper or Vaughn. He seems smart too. Certainly knows how to read people.”

I thought to mention his dark, intoxicating looks. Or his smile. No man capable of such violence should possess such a warm smile. Saint did though. He was big, strong, and gorgeous. I hated admitting I noticed the last part. Attraction to men wasn’t something I ever wanted to feel. Saint wasn’t just any man though. He was the one who killed the threat haunting me for years.

“Do you want him to train you?” Winnie asked, snapping me out of my thoughts.

I shrugged, but Winnie knew I was full of crap.

“When will I ever get a chance for someone like Saint to train me? Vaughn thinks I’m a kid. Dad doesn’t want me getting hurt. Everyone humors me, but Saint doesn’t look at me like a child. He’s only in town for a few weeks, so I don’t have a lot of time to decide. Besides, I want to say yes.”

“Maybe you should ask Dad first.”

I frowned. “I’m an adult. I don’t need permission.”

Winnie gave me a look that I suspected she would use on her kids one day. “Not for permission, Harlow,” she said in an overly patient voice. “For guidance. You might be an adult, but you’re still really stupid.”

I narrowed my eyes. “You spend too much time with Bailey.”

“Actually, it was Raven who said you were stupid,” she said, grinning.

“Why the hell am I stupid?”

“Not really stupid, just the stupider sister anyway. She said she was the smart sister in her family and you were the dumb one in our family. I think she was trying to compliment me more than attack you.”

“Oh, then I’m super cool with being called stupid.”

“What are you going to do? Beat her up? She’s carrying Vaughn’s spawn. Her words, not mine.”

Frowning, I stood up and walked to the kitchen. “You keep talking trash then blaming it on others, but it won’t keep you from getting smacked. You’re not carrying spawn, are you?”

“Not yet,” she said, following me. “Not for a while hopefully. Taking care of the twins is enough baby time for me.”

Winnie poured me a cup of coffee then one for herself. I suspected she was moving slowly to avoid continuing the conversation. I didn’t blame her since I didn’t know what to say either.

“What do you plan to do with the training?” she asked as we walked onto the enclosed back porch. “You can’t keep fighting at the Thunderdome forever.”

“I’m nineteen. I could keep fighting for ten years and it wouldn’t be forever.”

“Why would you want to?”

“I don’t want to go to college. I don’t want to work as an office clerk or waitress. I don’t have many skills, but I can fight. Saint can teach me to fight better.”

Winnie’s expression reeked of disapproval. I didn’t blame her. If the roles reversed, I’d be pissed to know my sister was fighting.

“I can’t do what you did with Dylan,” I said after a long while. “I don’t want to do what you did. The idea of a guy touching me makes me sick. Pisses me off too.”

Nodding, Winnie looked sad. This new life of hers was perfect and she wanted everyone to feel the same kind of happiness. In her mind, we all needed to find our Dylan and fall in love like her. Except love was the last thing I wanted out of life.

Chapter Four ~ Saint

 

Whiskey Kirk’s menu looked decent, so I stuck around to eat. I also figured Harlow would be calling her buddy Cooper soon. Waiting on her call, I enjoyed a decent helping of pot roast and a not so decent slice of garlic toast. As bar food went, the place was above average.

Covered in skulls, demons, fallen angels, crosses, hot women, the men around me were all tatted. Some tattoos looked like works of art. Others were crude. I planned to get tatted once I retired for real. Until then, tattoos were a no-no for any real assassin.

Over the years, I’d played the part of foreign businessman and boy-toy to rich women. Once I even played a tech nerd. Tattoos interfered with the roles. They also made recognizable tells for witnesses. With my mixed race, people reported I was Mexican, Samoan, black, and even an Eskimo. One key to remaining free was leaving the cops with no viable info to use. A witness might remember a tattoo though, so I remained ink-free.

I had a few ideas for my first tattoo. Something from my childhood, back when my soul was pure and my dreams were bigger than a good shot of Tequila and a decent meal.

Whiskey Kirk’s was full of badasses, keeping me constantly aware of their locations. Sitting in the back of the bar so no one got the jump on me, I noticed Cooper Johansson heading my direction. A big guy, he was used to throwing his weight around. To me, he was just a kid relying on his dad’s rep along with his own size to scare weaker men. I wasn’t those men.

“Want to tell me why you offered to train Harlow Todds?” he demanded in a hard voice while taking a seat across from me.

“She wants to fight, but doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing. I figured I’d train her, so I’ll have something to do while in your little town.”

“Why her?”

I gave him a little grin. “She’s a good looking gal. I’m not like these other guys looking for an easy lay while in Ellsberg. I’m not looking to hit anything besides a punching bag. Harlow is pretty, but she’s cold. All the temptation, but none of the worry about a clingy chick whining when I’m ready to leave town.”

Cooper studied me. While his dark eyes intimidated others, they reminded me of Harlow’s angry expression. Having stared into the eyes of evil without blinking, I couldn’t fear these children.

“Harlow is protected by the club,” Cooper said in his best badass voice. “Don’t be fooled about her dad being a preacher. He protects what’s his.”

“Kid, I know you’re the big dog around these parts, so you enjoy hearing yourself talk. I’ll warn you though. I’m too old to pretend I care.”

“I’m a big dog and you’re a bigger one. Fair enough, but Harlow is my responsibility. If you hurt her, I’ll use my power to hurt you. Maybe I don’t scare you or maybe you’ll think twice now. Either way, I said my piece.”

“When you talk to Harlow again, tell her I’ll pick her up at seven tomorrow. If she isn’t ready, the deal is off. I’m not looking to babysit.”

Cooper stood before changing his mind and taking his seat again. He glanced around before focusing on me. “What do you think of the guys Memphis brought?”

I wiped my mouth and leaned back. “Bikers look all the same to me.”

Forgetting for a moment he was the president of the Reapers, Cooper wanted to mouth off. The kid was dying to put me in my place like any stuck-up boy would. His moment of stupid passed.

“The twins don’t look like much,” he said, tempting me to add my two cents.

“Dayton and Camden aren’t so different than you except their daddy isn’t ready to retire yet.”

Cooper glared at me before his gaze flickered around the bar again. “Why bring those three guys?” he asked. “They’re not in any clubs.”

Studying Dutch and his two buddies, I noticed they weren’t comfortable around each other. I even suspected they first met after arriving in Ellsberg. The three men sat together, yet remained separate.

“Rumor has it, there’s a club doing a piss poor job of following orders from Memphis,” I said quietly and Cooper leaned in like a girl wanting good gossip. “That particular club’s leadership might be on its way out. I suspect those three will be the ones to show them the door.”

Cooper looked too smug for my taste, so I decided to mess with him again. “Good thing your daddy is around to keep your ass safe, huh?”

Cooper narrowed his eyes and my mind returned to Harlow. She was so fucking sexy when she glared. Hilarious too. Shaking off thoughts of sexy brats, I focused on the kid in front of me.

“The Memphis guys aren’t testing me,” he said like stating fact. “They’re testing those guys.”

“Why make it an either or situation?” I asked, standing up and throwing a ten dollar tip on the table. “The Memphis guys aren’t getting any younger. Old timers like stability. You and the twins taking over clubs make them nervous. Now, they have this loser club down south. That’s a whole lot of change to make the Memphis seniors uneasy. So the way I see it, you all need to be on your best behavior.”

“What about you?”

I smiled wide for him. “Kid, I’m golden. The only reason I’m here is to kill anyone who won’t play nice.”

Cooper didn’t react to my words, boding well for him living past my visit in Ellsberg. Leaving him to think over his situation, I paid the bill and headed to the apartment complex the Reapers used for guests. A quiet night awaited me, but tomorrow with Harlow was all I had on my mind.

Chapter Five ~
Harlow

 

I didn’t hate bowling. Okay, I did hate the actual bowling part. What I didn’t mind was spending time with the crew once a week. After being homeschooled in both Ellsberg and Georgia where we lived for a short while, I hadn’t made many friends. That was my fault more than the school situation. I never wanted to let people close to me. Besides, I had Winnie who understood me like no one else could.

My sister loved bowling. She was great at it too. Winnie and Dylan were the only ones who challenged Vaughn and Raven. The four of them quickly became obnoxious once the rivalry began.

The rest of us hung out, eating pizza and drinking beer, while taking occasional breaks to roll the ball down the alley. The couples with kids enjoyed the night out most of all. Cooper and Farah danced slowly to the 1950’s music playing overhead. Not to be outdone, Aaron and Lark poorly reenacted moves from Dancing with the Stars. Tucker and Maddy played with their food, trying to get French fries in each other’s open mouths. Watching them, I wondered if their behavior would ever stop seeming lame.

Judd had the same expression on his face, alternating between watching the bowling and his friends act stupid. Tawny offered to throw a slice of pizza at him, if he was feeling left out. He gave her a look that sent her into hysterics.

“Should we dance?” Bailey asked Nick who was reading on his iPad.

Glancing up from under his hair, he smiled then shook his head.

“We might have lost our loving feeling,” Bailey told me. “I feel like the passion is gone.”

Knowing she was teasing Nick, I ignored her comment and focused on my sister rolling a strike.

“In your face, dingus!” she yelled at Vaughn.

When he faked anger, she ran behind Dylan.

“Stop cheating,” Dylan told Vaughn. “Just because your woman isn’t bowling well tonight.”

“I’m cooking a human being here,” Raven announced for maybe the hundredth time since arriving.

“So you should be a better bowler,” Bailey muttered. “I mean, aren’t you bowling for two?”

Raven flipped off Bailey who met the single middle finger with two of her own. A contest was set off and I lost interest.

“Saint will probably kill you,” Judd said, startling me since he rarely acknowledged my existence.

“Why?”

“Why not?”

“He could have killed me today when I attacked him.”

Bailey stopped messing with Raven long enough to laugh at me. I rolled my eyes, making her laugh harder. Her laughter set off Nick until they were chuckling at my expense.

“They’re laughing with you,” Tawny said, giving me a grin.

“Funny.”

“Saint is no one,” Judd said, taking a swig of beer. “He doesn’t live anywhere. Doesn’t have a real name. No one knows anything about him. He has skills Memphis needs. So if he were to do something to you, they wouldn’t punish him. They’d likely tell Cooper to let it go too. Do you get my meaning?”

“Be honest though. If you could have him train you, wouldn’t you say yes?”

“Sure, but I’m me and you’re not.”

“Yeah, I’m a chick and he just wants to mess with me. Except he’s already taught me stuff and I want to learn more.”

“So you can go into his work?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

Judd smirked before turning away. Vaughn stared at us from the lanes, clearly listening. I knew he wanted me to follow Winnie’s lead and find a nice guy to take care of me. Love would heal my wounds. I’d pop out a few cute kids and enjoy playdates with the other girls. Might even find a job that made me feel accomplished.

Unfortunately, nice guys pissed me off. I never understood why until I went on a single date during high school. The guy was sweet as sugar, great manners, and respectful to the point of being a wuss. Yet, he didn’t want real. Every time I said something too rough, he got a weird look as if I was crapping on his happy buzz.

I refused to spend my life lying about my past. Winnie didn’t have to lie with Dylan. Of course, he wasn’t really a nice guy. He was moody and had a killer instinct. He was the kind of nice guy someone like me could end up with, yet my friends had already claimed all the viable messed up possibilities in Ellsberg. Ending up alone wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to me.

I normally felt no curiosity about the romantic entanglements my friends shared. After meeting Saint, I found myself startled by my attraction to a man. Even when not thinking about him, I sensed him lingering around the edges of my thoughts. I was insanely curious about Saint and excited about spending time together tomorrow.

Even knowing the training would be brutal and likely leave me embarrassed, I hadn’t felt such anticipation in my life. My first night in the Thunderdome only hinted at the rush I enjoyed whenever thinking of Saint.

Morning couldn’t come quickly enough.

Chapter Six ~ Saint

 

The Reapers put up their guests at an apartment building in the middle of town. Close to everything, the place included a gym, pool, and hot tub. The only feature missing from the place was room service. I heard Memphis honchos Arlo and Mikey sent their guys for food rather than having it delivered. Even in this college town and under the Reapers protection, the Memphis guys didn’t take any chances. They likely tested their food for poison before eating it too. Paranoia kept them alive into their sixties, so who could blame them for being careful.

Without a lackey to send on errands, I picked up a few sandwiches from a deli along with a bag of chips and as much Gatorade the fridge could handle. The sparse one bedroom apartment felt eerie, so I dragged a chair onto the small balcony. Watching the traffic three floors below, I tried to relax and failed.

A million times over the years, I’d considered retiring from this life. No more killing or hiding. I wasn’t a kid anymore. My mom frequently asked me if I ever planned to settle down. She didn’t really understand what kind of man I was now. Her confusion was a calculated choice. Mom wanted me to return to the boy she raised and spoiled. In her mind, I should be past my demons by now. Instead they followed me, leaving my plans for retirement forever postponed.

On one balcony below mine stood Dutch. The biker didn’t understand why he was in Ellsberg. Most of the guys figured they were special to be chosen for the great Paintball Battles. Instead, they were being tested as much as Cooper Johansson. Maybe Dutch understood this fact because he gave me a knowing nod when our gazes met in the warm evening.

Once he disappeared back inside, I sat on the balcony with my feet up. I wanted to think about Harlow. No getting round the fact that she tempted me. Tomorrow, I planned to find out if my temptation was misguided. My hope was she kept me amused during my time in this small college town.

Leaving the balcony, I headed down to the gym where I worked out until barely able to stand. My body exhausted, yet my mind raced with the logic I refused earlier. Why did I offer to train a damaged young woman? I hadn’t been myself since returning to the job a year ago. I’d really believed I was ready to retire from killing. I was wrong. The nightmares became unbearable and I stopped eating. Finally, I accepted I wasn’t ready to play Average Joe. Maybe I’d never be capable, but I still dreamed of giving up this life of death and lies.

A shower and sandwich later, I rested on the couch and watched a horror movie on regular cable. In my mind, I relished the cinematic suffering rather than the genuine pain awaiting me in my dreams. Years ago, a shrink I wasted a single session on claimed I suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Having someone point out the obvious wasn’t worth my time or money.

Harlow likely suffered from PTSD too and dealt with her share of nightmares. After our encounter earlier in the day, she knew once again how the world was dangerous in a way she wasn’t capable of defeating.

Dozing off into what proved to be brutal dreams, I knew Harlow needed my help. All her rage made her sloppy. Stupid even. With my training, she had a chance to survive not only a dangerous world, but her own demons. If she distracted me from my demons, we’d both come out winners.

Chapter Seven ~
Harlow

 

Up by five, I stood in the family room and waited for Saint. Dad sat on the couch, silently giving me pep talks.
Don’t let him mistreat you. No matter who he is, you can say no. Don’t let him bully you. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Be careful. Come back to me safe.

My eleven-year-old brother Jace wandered into the room, half-asleep on a pee break, and hugged me.

“I’ll mourn you,” he said, eliciting a frown from our dad.

“You’re in charge of my eulogy. Be sure to cry a lot and do the crying snort thing too. Really make a show of it.”

Staring up at me through thick black hair, he smirked. “I’m too old to cry, but I promise to snort.”

He shuffled out of the room, leaving me alone with Dad.

“If you need help, call,” Dad said, running a hand through his still thick red hair.

“He won’t hurt me.”

“No one knows anything about him. He might be crazy.”

“I doubt it.”

Dad grunted before focusing on the morning news. Ignoring him because he was making me tense, I planned to play cool when Saint arrived. Instead of behaving like a badass though, I nearly jumped up and down when his SUV pulled up in front of our house.

Dad tugged me into a hug. “Don’t die.”

“Subtle.”

“The subtle stuff wasn’t working.”

Hugging him back, I smiled. “I better go before he honks and wakes up the neighborhood.”

Once Dad released me from the bear hug, I grabbed my bag and hurried outside. Saint wasn’t sitting with his hand hovering over the horn like I expected. I opened the door to find him with his head leaning back on the headrest.

His exhausted expression startled me. I’d pictured him as a machine rather than a man needing a solid night’s sleep to function.

“You look tired,” I said dumbly while climbing into the SUV.

“I am. You look wired.”

“I'm excited to learn something.”

Saint frowned at me. “I need coffee before I can tolerate such peppiness.”

Once he heard the click of my seatbelt, Saint hit the gas and headed for a local coffee house.

“Starbucks would be faster.”

“College kids live there. No way am I awake enough to deal with those punks.”

“Did you go to college?” I asked.

Saint gave me a grumpy side glance. “What do you think?”

“I think you did,” I said, messing with him. “I think you were on the rugby team and in a frat. Bet you had a nickname like The Budmeister.”

Grinning now, Saint nodded. “It’s eerie how well you read me.”

I shared his smile, feeling amazing to have teased Saint and survived. Maybe he didn’t seem so scary when he was tired or maybe I’d built him up too much in my head. Either way, he felt warmer now, approachable even. Okay, not approachable, but I could imagine patting him on the back without him snapping me in half.

When we arrived at the coffee shop, Saint held the door open for me. My father would definitely approve of his good manners.

“I need caffeine and sugar,” Saint mumbled, ordering a giant coffee and two enormous cinnamon buns.

Staring at the food, I said, “I think those are supposed to be shared.”

“If you want something, I’ll pay for it, but I’m not sharing my food.”

I laughed. “You growled like a bear when you said that.”

“I’m an only child. I never share. If you accept this fact now, we’ll avoid me stabbing you in the hand with a fork in the future.”

“I don’t think I should eat junk before working out.”

“Carbs are good,” he grunted, buying three.

We sat at a table away from the locals. No one gave Saint much attention which surprised me. The guy was big, exotic, and sexy as hell, yet people barely gave him a glance.

Saint held himself differently now. At Whiskey Kirk’s, he stood taller with his shoulders flexed out. He took up more space, demanding to be noticed in a room full of large, intimidating men. In the coffee shop, Saint was like any other guy. The change was unsettling.

When he yawned for the third time, I asked, “Late night?”

“Bad dreams. I’m sure you know about that.”

Hating the haunted look in his dark eyes, I lowered my gaze. “Yeah, everyone has bad dreams.”

Saint sighed painfully. “The past refuses to be forgotten. The more you try, the more it claws to the surface.”

“I guess.”

“You can only face the past and stare it in the eye. Take away its power by refusing to blink.”

“Does that really work?” I asked, hating to see him look so worn down.

Saint downed the giant sized coffee then gave me a wink. “Most days.”

“What do you do for the days it doesn’t work?”

Finishing his second cinnamon roll, he wiped his mouth then stood up. “Distract myself with training. When that doesn’t work, I lie to myself. Much like you probably do in your therapy sessions.”

“What makes you think I go to therapy?” I asked, shoving my uneaten roll in my bag for Jace to eat later.

Saint almost laughed at my question, yet controlled himself. “Sorry, but you have therapy kid written all over you.”

“I’m not a kid,” I grumbled, following him out of the shop.

“True, but you’re less tempting when I think of you as a child.”

Pausing at the passenger door, I frowned as he climbed into the SUV. Saint ignored my expression and started the car. Before he drove off without me, I climbed into the SUV and dared to ask my question.

“Tempting how?”

Saint gave me a little grin. “Are you so vain that you need me to spell it out?”

“Yes, please.”

Shaking his head, he made a U-turn and passed Judd and Vaughn on their Harleys. “I don’t want you thinking about how pretty you are. Better for you to focus on learning everything you can from me while I’m in town.”

“What will I learn? I mean, I’m not your size and I can’t do what you do.”

“Typical thinking. There’s more to being a badass than size. Most of it is mental. You fight at the Thunderdome, right? You ever beat a woman bigger than you?”

When I nodded, Saint continued, “Size is the one thing you can’t fix. You’re a woman. Not a petite woman, but you won’t intimidate anyone unless you go buff like those girls in the muscle mags. Assuming you don’t want to go that route, your only real way to fight off a guy my size is with a weapon. Knife, stun gun, pistol. Guns are the best gender equalizers. My mom carries a .45 in her flowered purse, next to her makeup and perfume.”

Smiling slightly at the mention of his mother, I asked, “If your advice is for me to get a gun, why do I need training?”

Saint parked the SUV on the side of the road where my Harley sat the day before. He turned off the engine and climbed out, forcing me again to keep up.

“Your weakness is mental,” he said, opening the trunk and retrieving a backpack he strapped on. “If you had a gun yesterday, would I be dead now simply because you got spooked?”

I stopped in my tracks and stared at the back of Saint as he stretched. He glanced at me over his shoulder then sighed.

“Give you a gun and someone will die. Who knows if that person will even deserve to die?”

“You make me sound crazy.”

“Trigger happy isn’t the same as crazy,” he explained while squatting down then leaning on one leg. “You should stretch before we run.”

Setting down my backpack, I followed his example. Saint looked sexy flexing his muscles and I hated how I noticed this fact. My lust wasn’t really my fault. He was a gorgeous man. Other women noticed too, making my lingering gaze on his hard ass okay. I was a woman after all.

Saint’s tanned skin looked soft and I ached to touch it. Shoving my hands into my pockets, I focused on how he thought I was unstable and weak. No way was that sexy. My anger insisted Saint wasn’t sexy. I refused to admit anything was ever sexy, even if he was bent over with his ass facing me. When did I start lusting over guys’ asses?

Suddenly staring at me, Saint wore a dark gaze too intense for me not to look away. I had no idea what caused his expression, yet sighed in relief when it disappeared and he gestured for me to follow him.

Jogging steadily, we followed the paths into the woods. I kept up well, but suspected Saint paced himself for my benefit. A little part of me wanted him to let loose, so I could witness him in all of his glory. He held back though and I was able to keep up all the way to the river where he slowed down.

Saint walked along the riverbank, kicking over large rocks. Reminding me of Jace, he was like a boy looking for frogs and worms. His expression shifted when a branch snapped nearby. The look on his face was fierce, terrifying really. I stared at him, struggling with my lust. Alert killer was an amazing look on him.

Once Saint was certain the noise came from animals, rather than a threat, he looked at me. “You have weaknesses most women don’t,” he said casually.

“How do you figure?”

“You were raped.”

I felt as if he’d slapped me. No, it was more like a gut punch, choking off my breath instantly. No longer walking, I watched him keep going. When Saint noticed I’d stopped, he found my gaze.

“Did someone tell you that?” I asked.

“I know the basics about how you ended up here. I don’t need the details. They’re written all over your face. All of your weaknesses are here,” he said, gesturing to my face. “Anyone can see your secrets and use them against you.”

“Is that what you’re doing?”

“Do I look like the enemy?” he asked in a dark voice.

Feeling exposed, I lowered my gaze. His words tore away my confidence, leaving me with the urge to hide away from the world.

“There’s no shame to being raped,” Saint said softly. “Despite what people believe it’s like any other crime. The shame comes from thinking it means more.”

“How would you know?”

“I’m a wise man, Harlow. Seen the world. Seen enough people doing stupid to know what not to do. Seen enough people being weak to know how to be strong. I’m trying to help you be strong too.”

“Talking about it won’t make me strong.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” he said, gesturing for me to follow him.

Hiking through the woods, I waited for him to make his point.

“There are two kinds of fears. The rational and irrational. You can’t do a whole lot about the irrational ones. Mainly because logic doesn’t tend to fight irrational thoughts. I knew a guy who feared snakes. He tried everything to get over it. Studied about snakes, spent a lot of time looking at them at the zoo. I think he even watched Anaconda and Snakes on a Plane. Really put himself through the ringer, but he never got over the fear.”

I followed him past a downed tree resting half in the river.

“This same guy had a fear of public speaking. As a kid, he’d embarrassed himself in front of his class. This was a rational fear that he overcame. After all, he had a real reason to fear it unlike with snakes. The guy forced himself to talk in front of groups. Got a job where he had to do it every week. He was psycho scared in the beginning. However, the more he did it, the less it bothered him. When he thought about speaking in front of crowds, he stopped remembering his embarrassment as a kid. Instead, he remembered all the times he did it successfully. With rational fears, you can train yourself to overcome them.”

“Are you the guy in your story?”

Saint glanced back at me and smirked. “You wish.”

I couldn’t help sharing his grin. Every time he refused to tell me something, I only wanted to know more about the guy behind the cool exterior.

“You have a rational fear of talking about your past. Rational means you can overcome it. If you ever plan on being a truly tough broad, you need to face your fear of talking about rape. Otherwise, you’ll leave yourself open to someone hurting you with your past. Never give people an opening. Trust me that they’ll take it.”

“How do I get over it when I haven’t after years in therapy?”

Saint stopped at the bank of the river and inhaled deeply. “The world has a lot of beauty in it, but people get immune to seeing it. The day I do, I’m a dead man.”

I studied at the water rushing by. Logically, I knew the river was beautiful, yet I felt none of it. Since Saint said that ugly word, I was mostly numb.

“You need to take the power away from your past,” he said, glancing down at me.

I watched him remove his water bottle and drink nearly half before handing it to me. Taking the drink, I barely sipped it.

“I don’t have germs,” he said, nearly laughing.

“You upset me. I don’t want a drink.”

Saint shook his head. “I didn’t upset you. You upset yourself by letting something bad from years ago still control you. The people who hurt you are dead. You survived. Why let anyone hurt you with the past?”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Sure it is,” he said, tugging off his backpack and dropping it next to an old tree. “Just say the words, ‘I was raped.’ Say it enough until the words lose their power.”

Digging out a bag of trail mix from his pack, Saint shoved a handful into his mouth then offered it to me. I shook my head.

“Just say them to you?”

“Sure,” he said, chewing. “I’ll turn around, if that’ll help.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

“Tell you what,” he said, shoving more food into his mouth. “If you can say the words to my face, I’ll tell you something about me. I know you’re curious.”

“Will you tell me your real name?”

Grinning, he shook his head. “I will tell you where I got the name Saint though.”

Saint turned his back to me, still eating his trail mix. I had a decision to make. Each option scared me. Since showing weakness in front of Saint terrified me more, I focused on the back of his faded blue shirt.

“I was raped,” I whispered.

“Louder. I’m chewing peanuts over here.”

Glaring at him, I inhaled deeply and forced out the words again. Saint turned to me and nodded like I’d announced my favorite color or something as trivial.

“Now say it with me looking at you.”

“I can barely say anything while looking at you.”

Saint lifted an eyebrow as if surprised by my confession. He was full of crap. No doubt most people had trouble looking him in the eye. The guy exuded arrogance and barely chained aggression.