Okay, I iron my jeans. So sue me.
I also fold my socks and organize my shirts according to color and season. Last time I checked, neatness wasn’t a crime. Or a mental illness. Yet from all the flack I continually get, you’d think it were both. I’m often described as anal retentive, and for more times than I care to recount have been called neat freak—apparently a stigma worse than serial killer.
My propensity for organization was evident by the time I turned six, and even though I wasn’t aware of the adage "a place for everything, everything in its place", it could’ve easily been my childhood motto. Tidiness. An unusual characteristic for a boy that age to be sure.
As I got older, I realized my desire for order and structure seemed to stem from an almost compulsive need for control. Of my environment, of circumstances, of myself… Personally, I didn’t consider that a bad thing. At least my parents never had to harp at me about cleaning my room or putting away my stuff. Not once did I leave wet towels on the bathroom floor or my toys on the stairs or my bed unmade.
In fact, I’d learned on YouTube how to tuck in my sheets military style. Weirdly, it was one of the few things that managed to get my father’s attention. Not my 3.8 GPA or latest merit badge but the way I made my bed. Since he wasn’t prone to lavishing praise—if he noticed my achievements at all—the rare accolade was likely given because he was ex-Army and could appreciate a tight hospital corner.
“Goddamn, boy, now that’s an impressive bed!”
Boy. He hardly ever called me Julian. Not even son. But then, I can’t recall a time growing up when I didn’t refer to my father as sir. You could say the use of impersonal monikers pretty much summed up our relationship.
If being fastidious to a fault in high school didn’t brand me a nerd, then my involvement in chess club and marching band did. Thankfully I wasn’t bullied for it, much. My height was likely a deterrent, and I had plenty of like-minded friends to get me through those challenging formative years.
Nevertheless, my reputation as a strait-laced goody two-shoes saddled me with the ironic nickname of Saint Julian. Ironic because my classmates obviously weren’t aware that the original Saint Julian was the patron saint of, among other things, murders. They also didn’t realize that calling me a saint (aka the holiest of men) was a compliment, not an insult.
My biggest fear was that they would find out about the dog-eared Bible I carried around in my backpack. It wasn’t my religious beliefs I wanted to hide but my secret wish to enter the priesthood. (I used to have nightmares about the jocks chanting “Child Molester” as they introduced me to the inside of my locker.) Thanks to the Church’s continued sex abuse scandal making priests akin to pedophiles, how could I possibly consider it a desirable or even viable vocation?
Because here’s the thing… Not every Catholic priest is a piece of shit.
When I was fifteen, I happened to catch a documentary on TLC—while it was still The Learning Channel and not home to Honey Boo Boo—about a missionary who spent his life serving a leper colony on the island of Molokai. For sixteen years Father Damien selflessly saw to their physical and spiritual needs until his own death from the horrible disease in 1889.
The story had an unexpected and profound effect on me. To the degree that I started wondering about a life dedicated to helping others. About being part of a bigger cause, something greater than myself. Up to then I was just a typical teen whose secular preoccupations concerned grades, acne, and the opposite sex. Spirituality, not even on the radar. Despite my family being Catholic, religion played zero part in my upbringing. My parents didn’t attend church, not even on Christmas. And the only time the Lord’s name was uttered in our house was with the eff-word attached.
“Jesus fucking Christ, woman!”
In case you were wondering, woman was my mother. (It wasn’t until I was five that I learned her name was actually Brianna.)
After doing a crap-ton of online research, I came to the conclusion that I might be better suited to joining a religious brotherhood than getting ordained to the priesthood. I was never particularly interested in performing sacramental duties like celebrating Mass or hearing Confession, so being a Brother sounded right up my alley. My dream was to help build schools in impoverished countries, which is why I learned carpentry along with theology. And yes, people did try to get me to entertain a less drastic alternative like joining the Peace Corps.
What they had trouble understanding was that while I wanted to make a difference and better the world, I wanted to do it in the name and glory of Jesus.
At the end of senior year, any thoughts about devoting myself to God took a giant leap from interest to resolve when I applied to Saint Ignatius Seminary. The argument could be made that the decision may not have been entirely altruistic, considering it came on the heels of a family tragedy. At eighteen, my world as I knew it was completely shattered and those closest to me worried I may have acted rashly, that I’d turned to the Church in a period of crisis.
To me, my calling wasn’t a crutch but the Lord throwing me a life line, which I’d gratefully grabbed onto with both hands. It was a light guiding me through the hellish darkness, and cliché as it sounds a blessing in disguise. With a determined mind and open heart, I gave myself willingly. No doubts. No regrets.
Well, maybe just one.
Now here I am at the ripe old age of twenty-six. Three months before embarking on a life revolved around prayer, communal living, and doing God’s work. Ninety days from reaffirming my sacred vows. Two-thousand one-hundred and sixty hours until proving to the world that men of the cloth can do more good than harm… and that Julian Jefferson Reid is nothing like his old man.
“Could be tighter.”
“I don’t want it to hurt.”
The young woman let out a derisive snort. He was kidding, right?
While she lay tied spread-eagle across the bed, her hesitant partner continued fastening one of her wrists to the slatted headboard. He pulled the restraint taut. Heard her groan. Not in discomfort. No, the glassy look in her exotic emerald eyes told him she was feeling something else entirely.
He stared down at the beautiful nude girl laid out before him like an all-you-can-eat buffet, his hand buried in the open fly of his jeans trying to coax his cock into service. He was chagrined by the fact he was only half hard. Given the situation, his damn dick should’ve been a two-by-four. Yet the young man wasn’t necessarily alarmed. He knew that impotence wasn’t the reason for his semi. The niggling reservation roving the back of his brain was to blame.
She smirked prettily. “Whatever you want.”
“I want to fuck your brains out.” Dirty. Direct.
Good, she liked that. “First thing’s first.” Her dilated eyes flicked to the nightstand.
“I didn’t forget.” With a sly tilt of his mouth, he picked up the cat-o-nine tails. “I have to pay to play.”
Like a teacher praising a student for giving the correct answer, she cooed, “That’s right.”
“I draw the line at breaking skin, though.”
“But short of that…”
“Do you?” she murmured. That makes one of us.
“Don’t worry your pretty little head about it, sweetheart. Travis will make you come. Make you come reeeal good.”
“No, that’s not what I wa—oh!” She gasped as strips of red leather lashed her breasts, the familiar sting instantly tightening her pierced nipples.
Spurred by her response, the young man flogged her again. When her back arched off the mattress his cock seemed to really like that, becoming stiff in a matter of seconds. Which concerned him. The insta-erection might mean he was actually getting off on this shit.
Fuck no. No fucking way. He wasn't some sadistic perv. Was he?
Putting himself to the test, he flicked the whip a second time. When she jolted and cried out, his dick jerked violently as a result. There was so much pressure building up in his balls he felt on the verge of exploding. Well shit.
Guess that answered that. Every lash he administered thereafter pumped blood directly to his groin. He couldn’t recall ever being this hard, and damn if his modest six-incher didn’t look fucking huuuge. Hell, had he known…
As he continued flaying her small but perfectly molded tits, the delicate skin turned pink, further exciting him. He eased up only when angry welts began forming. Only then did he realize how carried away he'd gotten.
It was true then. He was a fucking degenerate, no different than the pathetic girl writhing and moaning before him.
“Don’t stop,” she panted. “You’re not done. I need more.”
Suddenly furious, he roared, “Told you, not going there!”
She ran her tongue over her lower lip as if parched, with water just out of reach. “A few more times. Over my pussy. Then you can fuck me.” Turning her face into the pillow, she squeezed her lids. She didn’t want to look at him. Didn’t want him to look at her, to see her depravity and the wild desperation in her eyes. “Please. I-I need it.” The words were muffled but the plea in her voice came through loud and clear.
He shook his head in disgust. Christ, what the hell had he gotten himself into? Out of all the available tail at the club, he’d decided to follow this piece home.
For a Thursday, Next Ibiza had been packed to capacity—wall to wall with sweaty youthful bodies bumping and grinding to a DJ’s techno beat. The club was considered pussy central with hot, horny girls never in short in supply. In tonight’s crowd, despite each seeming more beautiful than the next, this particular one managed to stand out.
No small feat considering he first saw her from behind. Or rather, saw her behind. Though outfitted in a low-cut blouse and micro skirt allowing for easy access—he'd guessed right about her not wearing panties—it was her ass that got his cock’s attention. With butt cheeks that bubblicious, he hadn’t cared what the rest of her looked like. Yet when she turned around, it was her face that completely ensnared him.
Fuck, those eyes…
But hell, how was he to know she’d turn out to be one of those girls? The ones who needed a side order of pain to go with their pleasure. Needed it rough to get off.
As he dragged the knotted thongs lightly across her shaved snatch, he swept the ends back and forth in a slow, seductive rhythm meant to tease and titillate. It wasn’t always wham-bam-thank-you-mam. He did occasionally like to take his time.
His attempt to introduce a gentler form of foreplay was met with a furious buck of the girl’s hips. “No!” she snapped, glaring up at him. “Not like that!”
“Jesus, what do you want from me?”
“I want you to do like I told you. Like you agreed!”
The cat came down so suddenly she barely saw it before it smacked her crotch. “Like that?” he snarled.
Pain bit into her, sending a sharp shiver spiraling up her spine, frying all her brain cells and making her go blissfully numb inside.
The whip came down again. “And that?”
Welcoming humiliation like an old friend, she nodded feebly. “Again,” she groaned as her eyes rolled back into her head like a junkie shooting smack.
The sight of her bare labia damp with pussy dew drove him to keep flaying her. Until her folds swelled and reddened. Until her clit burned. Until she was thrashing wildly and babbling incoherently.
She was on the cusp of coming. He could almost feel her orgasm building as much as his own. This kinky kitty was going to cream the sheets solely from the pain he was inflicting! Marveling at the wonder of it and at the unexpected level of his own excitement, he whipped her even harder.
“Yes. Yes. Yes,” she chanted, tossing her head from side-to-side.
Flinging the flogger to the floor, the young man pulled a condom out of his back pocket, tore it open with his teeth and jerked down his pants. He couldn’t roll it on fast enough and literally dove on top of her. As his cock slid into her slick passage like a bolt in a greased lock, he released a euphoric growl then began pounding mindlessly into her.
This guy whose name the girl couldn’t even remember—Trevor?—was giving her his all.
“Harder,” she grunted. “Fuck me harder!”
Apparently his all wasn't good enough.
Cursing under his breath, he ramped up the depth and pace of his thrusts until their bodies were shiny from sweat. Until the headboard was putting a dent in the drywall. Until he was wheezing as if he'd sprinted a marathon.
“I said harder, damn you!”
And still the woman barked orders at him like a goddamn drill sergeant!
Hoping to finish her off, he reached down to finger her clit. “Don’t!” she screeched. “Don’t fucking touch me!”
At her panicked almost violent reaction, he withdrew his hand with a startled jerk. What the hell was up with this chick? Time to wrap this shit up and get the fuck out of here.
He thrust into her three mores times before spewing his jizz and collapsing on top of her, either not catching or not caring that she never achieved orgasm.
His dead weight rendered her immobile, as did the restraints now cutting into her wrists and ankles. She began jerking and pulling against the bindings. Not in any attempt to free herself but for the exquisite torture the motion provided.
She’d been called a lot of things in her twenty-three years but that epithet had to be one of the more memorable ones. It was from a suit who’d picked her up in a Starbucks a couple years ago, after she insisted he choke her during sex. Despite refusing (like most do initially), his cock was taken with the idea and talked his conscience into it. In fact, the asshole got so into it he damn near strangled her to death!
That was from the dude who’d spanked her ass raw as he took her from behind. Oh, he found it novel fun at first, until she wouldn’t let him stop. Not even when her lily-white buttocks turned red as blood and his palm started to sting like a sonovabitch. He wasn’t finding it such a party then. His dick, however, had the time of its life.
Yet another one she could add to the list. This guy currently heaving on top of her—Tyler?—had muttered it under his breath earlier. Probably didn’t even know he’d said it out loud. The pejorative was short and sweet and pretty much summed her up. Might even be her current fave. Good one, Romeo.
The young woman let out a bitter chuckle as her beautiful green eyes welled with tears.
Julian woke with a start.
Fumbling for his phone trilling on the nightstand, he noted the caller and time through groggy slits—Summer 2:37 am—and hissed a curse, something he rarely did out loud if he could help it.
“You know how late it is?” he answered, voice gravelly with sleep and irritation.
“Julian?” The female voice on the other end sounded tentative. Raspy.
He sat up in alarm. “Who is this?”
“Summer asked me to call you.”
He bolted out of bed. “Where is she?”
Slight hesitation. “At the Mount Pollard police station.”
“But she’s okay,” the woman hastily assured him. “There was just a little, um, trouble, at Kit Shickers. You know the place?”
Confusion made him pause. “Yeah… I know it.”
Summer usually frequented the dance clubs in neighboring Kansas City. What was she doing at a local bar known for their live country music and scantily clad waitresses? It was a Hooters for the Stetson and Wrangler set, not exactly her scene.
Flipping on the light, he padded quickly to his closet. “Just what kind of trouble?” He grabbed a black clerical shirt from the half-dozen meticulously aligned on matching wood hangers and wrestled into it. “You sure she’s all right?”
“Yes. Yes, she’s fine.”
“Put her on.” He opened a dresser drawer.
“She’s, um… sleeping it off.”
At the euphemism, Julian let out a harsh exhale that sounded like static on the receiving end. Passed out. Shit! Since recently turning twenty-one, his baby sister seemed hell bent on making up for lost time, stumbling home shit-faced every weekend from one club or another. Ending up in the drunk tank was so far a first.
“Has she been arrested for something? Never mind.” After hurriedly slipping on a pair of black trousers and matching loafers, he grabbed his jacket and headed out. “Just wake her up and tell her I’m on my way. I’ll deal with it when I get there.”
With the phone cradled in the crook of his neck, he locked the front door behind him then hung up realizing he hadn’t learned the caller’s identity.
Jumping into the family Volvo, Julian pulled out into the early morning mist and put pedal to the metal. As he tore down the deserted freeway exceeding the speed limit for the first time in years, an eerie sense of foreboding gnawed in the pit of his stomach.
“I don’t understand.”
Clack. Clack. Clack…
The desk sergeant continued his two-finger typing. “Says she’s not leaving without her friend,” he repeated, his focus never straying from the computer screen in front of him.
Julian shuttered his eyes and took a calming breath. He usually had a tight rein on his emotions but Summer was one of the only people who could spark his temper and make him lose control. It was all he could do sometimes not to throttle the brat.
“Can I talk to her?”
The officer craned his neck back. “Hey, Lipinski…” he yelled out. “Take the good father to holding, wouldya please? He’s here for the Reid girl.”
“Brother,” Julian mumbled. “I’m a Brother.”
“He’s her brother,” he shouted.
Julian opened his mouth to clarify but the officer had already returned to his keyboard.
Clack. Clack. Clack…
A female in police uniform approached, her name badge identifying her as Lipinski. Julian gave the officer a friendly nod, which was met with a professional head-to-toe perusal followed by an arched brow. It was the collar that spawned her skepticism.
He understood the all too common reaction. In clergy attire, Julian didn’t meet anyone’s preconceived notions of what a man of the cloth looked like. While people expected Father Dowling, what they got instead was a boyish Father Ralph de Bricassart. No matter how capable or devoted a cleric, his youthful good looks would always overshadow.
The officer escorted him through the bustling precinct, past cubicles of staff glued to phones or monitors, to the rear of the building where crowded jail cells confirmed that another weekend was in full swing. The area smelled like a combination distillery, locker room and cologne factory.
As they reached the last pen, Summer was waiting with her tiny hands wrapped around the bars, her chubby face smooshed between them. She greeted him with a dopey grin. “Heya, Jules…”
His brows collided like head-on freight trains. It wasn’t as if he’d never seen his baby sister drunk as a skunk before, just never from behind bars! She was a disheveled mess. Her sleek auburn bob looked like it’d lost a fight with a leaf blower and there was more make-up under her eyes than on them. Hell’s bells, was that large purple thing manacling her wrist a bruise?
“What the holy heck, Summer?”
“Later, gator,” she slurred. “Jez get us the fuck outta here.”
Hearing her drop the f-bomb bothered Julian almost as much as her state of inebriation. Crossing his arms, he said in that parental tone Summer found so annoying, “You better bet we’re going to talk about this later, missy.”
She frowned. “Can we jez go?” Being called missy she hated even more.
“I was informed you weren’t going anywhere without your partner in crime.” Julian’s eyes scanned the dozen or so other women in the cell. Most were wearing next to nothing and it was hard to distinguish the club slut—goers from the bonafide hookers. “I assume she’s the one who called me.”
“My new friend,” Summer gushed.
“What happened to Devon?” Summer’s bestie, the more responsible of the two. Which wasn’t saying much. “Thought you went out together. Why isn’t she with you?”
“Met a dude.”
Julian was incredulous. “She ditched you for a random guy?” Some BFF.
“A hot cowboy,” she giggled, apparently fine with it. “No worries, I had Frankie.”
“So where is this mystery woman of yours? This… Frankie.”
“Behind me, on the floor. The real pretty one.”
There were three women sitting against the back wall. A curvy attractive blonde with a glazed expression. A skinny attractive brunette with a glazed expression. And a ginger whose head was dropped forward, a curtain of riotous curls screening her face. She sat with her arms crossed and bare legs stretched out in front of her. They were tanned, toned and shapely, and Julian berated himself for noticing.
Summer inclined her head sideways. “Oh, Frankeee…” she sing-songed. “Someone wants to meet yooou…”
The redhead raised her face. As the veil of flaming locks fell away and a pair of large feline eyes fused with Julian’s unsuspecting gaze, the air jolted from his lungs.
“Real pretty” was an understatement. The girl was stunning. Literally. His body felt as if he’d been zapped by a stun gun. For starters, her eyes were… Well, they were different. Unusual. Such a vivid green they seemed to glow in the dark, and along with the slightly tilted-up corners gave her the look of a jungle cat.
Those kohl-lined, otherworldly orbs held him captive for what felt like minutes but was really only seconds. He was the first to blink. She was the first to look away.
When Julian caught her eyes graze his collar before averting to the floor, he wished for a moment he hadn’t worn it. Though the notion may have been fleeting, it greatly disturbed him. Since the time he was a young postulant, he’d always displayed the white band around his neck as proudly as a new bride does her wedding band. Now he found himself tugging at it self-consciously.
He watched as the young woman struggled to her feet—bracing the wall for support and favoring one leg as she stood. Over the low cuff of her fringed suede booties, he could see that she had a swollen ankle. He also took note of her “roughed up” appearance. And what little clothes she had on! As his eyeballs did a slow roll down the length of her, what they took in caused his features to twist in objection.
Despite working diligently on being less judgmental, which was his worst character flaw and a trait unbefitting a clergyman, Julian couldn’t help stamping an unfavorable label on the girl based solely on appearances. But in his defense, she was indecently attired and showing more skin than not.
The western shirt she was wearing was unbuttoned to mid chest—no doubt so the efforts of her push-up bra could be better appreciated—and was tied high above her belly button—no doubt to show off her provocative piercing and taut midriff. A sleeve was ripped at the shoulder, an employee nametag dangled crookedly, and the crimson stain splattered across her front was either ketchup, salsa or something much worse.
If that wasn’t disgraceful on its own, her frayed denim shorts were so tiny and tight they left nothing to the imagination. Not. One. Damn. Thing. Those—what where they called, Daisy Dukes?—looked downright obscene!
Julian’s mouth suddenly tasted like cotton. He had to forcibly pry his eyes away from that part of her anatomy where they had no business lingering. That relatively small area of real estate between a woman’s thighs able to bring kings and conquerors to their knees.
With yoga pants a trend that didn’t seem to be fading anytime soon, camel toe was so ubiquitous these days that he was rarely fazed anymore. But Holy Mother, he’d never seen a vedgie quite so... blatant. How the hell was a man not supposed to ogle?
Fighting to keep his gaze on her face, he watched his sister’s “new friend” limp toward them, wincing with every step.
Francesca tried avoiding Julian’s stare but could feel the heat of it on her skin like an infrared lamp. Summer hadn’t said much about him, other than he was older by five years and had raised her after both their parents unexpectedly died in a car accident. She certainly never disclosed the fact her brother was a priest! A scorching one at that.
Besides being sinfully handsome, he was also tall. Not basketball player-sized, although his vertical presence would turn heads in a crowd. His hair was darker than his sister’s and his eyes a lighter shade of blue, yet they shared the same Eastern European features. High cheekbones, full sculpted lips, pale skin…
Was that the reason Frankie was feeling all jumbly inside? Attractive men normally didn’t make her nervous. But a hot-as-hell holy father? A first in her book.
Making her way to Summer’s side, she peered up at Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Delicious through lowered lashes. Well damn, he was even more lickable than previously thought. Her tummy did another little somersault.
“You must be Summer’s big brother.”
Not liking the way her deep, husky voice coiled around him like a sensual embrace, he replied curtly, “Julian Reid.” Also unwelcomed was her play on the word “big.”
“Good looks obviously run in the family,” she murmured, giving his sister a playful wink.
His expression hardened. He didn’t care for the girl’s forward manner. “And you must be Frankie.” He said her name as if biting into a lemon.
Frankie suppressed the urge to laugh and demurely dropped her gaze. “Francesca Romano.” She wasn’t sure why Summer’s brother seemed so uptight, but found his stick-up-the-ass attitude amusing. And refreshing. It wasn’t often that a man looked at her with loathing instead of lust.
Julian glared down at the top of her head. Frankie was above average height for a woman but his six-foot four frame towered over her. He was mentally willing her to look up at him so he could verify his suspicion. He was sure those impossibly green irises were colored contact lenses. Seemed all the club kids were wearing them, even summer owned a pair of violet ones.
“Well, Ms. Romano… I make it a point to know everyone my sister hangs out with.” He didn’t bother masking his mistrust. “You, I’m sure I’ve never met.”
If he had, he’d remember. No man forgets a face like that, he added to himself. Then bristled at his wayward, not to mention highly improper musing.
Starburst emerald eyes lifted to meet icy blue ones. When their gazes locked, Julian was disappointed. Up close, they were even more mesmerizing. And not, as he discovered, because of cosmetic lenses. Oddly, the fact irritated him. As did her long, thick eyelashes which he had also assumed were fake. Though she’d been heavy-handed with her make-up application—dark penciled brows, Goth eyeliner and fuchsia lipstick—only a light coat of mascara enhanced her lashes.
“Frankie’s my guardian angel,” Summer tittered. “Aren’t yooou, Frankeee?” Putting a finger to her lips as if it were a secret, she leaned into Frankie’s ear and whispered, “Julian’s busting us outta here.”
“Julian’s bust—getting you out of here,” he amended.
“Come on, Joolee,” she whined, beginning to sway. “You gotta… you gotta bail her out…” Losing her balance, she pitched forward and was caught by Frankie, who grimaced as her ankle buckled under the sudden weight.
“I don’t ‘gotta’ do anything, missy. You’re lucky they’re releasing you on your own recognizance. If it were up to me… Perhaps spending a night in jail might get you to think twice about your actions next time.”
Green eyes flared under pinched black brows. “You don’t even know what happened,” Frankie defended.
For a holy man, Summer’s brother was acting like a grade-A jerk! That old saying about how “handsome is as handsome does” was proving true in this case. Julian Reid definitely looked less attractive to her than he did a minute ago.
“I know she was charged with public intoxication and disorderly conduct.” He turned an admonishing glare on Summer. “How are you so irresponsible?” That’s not the way I raised you, was left unstated.
“For your information, your sister didn’t do anything wrong. It’s my fault we ended up here.”
“Nooo… You tried to help meee…” Summer’s head flopped against Frankie’s shoulder, lids lowering to half-mast. “I’m reason… meee…” Her voice trailed off as her eyes slid shut.
With her ankle on fire and inflating like a balloon, Frankie struggled to keep Summer upright. Her groan of pain drew Julian’s attention. “What happened?” he asked her. It was obvious he wasn’t going to get the story from his sister.
“A douche who wouldn’t take nofor an answer happened.”
Officer Lipinski’s exaggerated throat clear commandeered their attention. “We done here?” She’d been standing by, her inconspicuous presence entirely forgotten till now. “Father?”
“Uh, it’s Brother,” he corrected over his shoulder.
The woman’s eyes flicked from Julian’s face to Summer’s then back to his. “I see the resemblance,” she deadpanned.
“No, I meant I’m a—”
Her head was cocked in anticipation but her expression remained otherwise blank.
He sighed inwardly. “Never mind. Yes, we’re ready to go.” He turned back to his sister. “Summer? Summer, wake up.”
It took several tries before she was able to get her eyes to open up all the way. Eyes, blue like her brother but the color more saturated. Where Summer’s hue resembled a cloudless sky, Julian’s was such a pale shade that at times could appear almost translucent. Like sea glass shot through with sunlight.
With her head still resting on Frankie’s shoulder, she endeared him with a drowsy smile. “Heya.”
A corner of Julian’s mouth lifted. “Heya.” Summer could be a thorn in his side but she was the only family he had, and apart from God the only person he loved more than life.
“Time to go?”
“Yeah, kiddo,” he confirmed softly. “Time to go.”
The policewoman signaled security to automatically unlock the cell, and after a series of loud mechanical clicks the wall of steel bars slid open.
As she stepped forward to escort the young girl out, Summer linked her arm through Frankie’s. “Come on, amiga, let’s get outta here.”
Julian gave her a low warning. “Summer…”
“She’s coming with us!” Her insistence came with a childish pout.
“Afraid that’s not happening, Miss Reid.”
At the officer’s attempt to corral her, Summer clung to her friend as fiercely as a baby monkey to its mother. “I’m not leaving her!” she shrieked.
“It’s okay,” Frankie cooed, trying gently to pry her fingers off. “I’ll be fine. Come on now, sweetie, please… listen to your brother. You need to go with him.”
“Suppose you put her up to this.”
Frankie swung her head around to meet Julian’s accusatory glare. “W-what? No!”
“She saved me, Jules. You owe her!”
Julian’s molars were starting to ache from all the grinding. “Either you step out here right now or—”
“What! You’ll leave me here?”
He let out a long exhale. “Yeah, kiddo, I will. Maybe you can get Devon to come pick you up.”
Her only sibling’s quietly spoken statement brought a look of frozen surprise to Summer’s face. “You serious?” she gasped.
“Look, I’m sorry about your friend here but I don’t have a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card to hand out. There’s nothing I can do.”
“You can pay her bail!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, you just met the woman. You—we know nothing about her.”
“But-but-but…” Like a five year old having a tantrum, she stamped her foot. “Julian!”
He reproved her with a stern look. “If you want to keep her company, be my guest. But I’m leaving. With you or without you. Your choice, missy.” He folded his arms and waited none too patiently for her answer. “What’s it going to be?”
To his relief, Summer released her death grip on Frankie’s arm. But instead of stepping out, she retreated farther into the cell. “She stays… I stay.” Her chin was raised in a display of defiance.
Julian’s heart plummeted. Damn the brat’s pigheadedness! His brotherly instinct was to lunge in and drag her out by force. Before he was able to do anything, the cell door suddenly slid shut, startling everyone with an ear-splitting clang.
“Suit yourself, Miss Reid,” Officer Lipinski said.
With a helpless shake of his head, Julian turned away from the sister he’d taken care of since she was a rebellious thirteen year old. Even as a rebellious twenty-one year old he still felt responsible for her and always would. But Summer was legally an adult and at some point he needed to let her grow up. Maybe this was that time.
Reluctance stiffening his steps, he willed one foot in front of the other as he followed the police officer down the hall. When Summer saw that her brother was really intending to leave her behind, she rushed the front of the cell, reaching through the bars like an animal in a zoo.
“Julian!” she screamed at his retreating back. “Julian, wait!”
Despite her desperate plea, he somehow managed to keep moving forward. It was the words she cried out next that made him falter.
“What would Jesus do!”
The sky was a deep purple slashed with light mauve ribbons of early dawn. The hour before sunrise had always been Frankie’s favorite time of day, when most everyone else was still asleep and silence the only sound. It felt as if she had the whole world to herself, the peace and solitude like the calm before the storm of another day.
In his rearview mirror, Julian watched the girl in the backseat watching the changing horizon, her head turned to the window. Whatever his opinion of her, he couldn’t deny her singular beauty. Her profile was as exquisite as her face—the bone structure fine and sculpted like a Greek statue of some mythical goddess, a liberal dusting of rice powder giving her already pale complexion the illusion of marble.
It was her hair color that kept her from looking completely ethereal. A shade of bright red not found in nature, her wild waves were too fluorescent, too raspberry pink, too in-your-face not to be born from a box. Yet it worked on her—complimenting the artificial green of her irises and grounding her angelic features in reality.
Without removing her gaze from the passing landscape, Francesca unzipped her jacket. His jacket. The one Julian Reid had lent her earlier after noticing her shivering outside the police station. Though the gesture was chivalrous, she couldn’t say if he did it because he was concerned for her comfort or because he wanted to cover up her cleavage.
On more than one occasion she’d caught his eyes flick to her chest, which was promptly followed by a frown as if the sight offended him. Recalling his disdain made her lips curl into a wry smile. She was well aware that it wasn’t the show of skin the godly man was pissed about, so much as his own base male reaction to it.
On a whim, Frankie buried her nose inside his jacket and inhaled warm leather, beachy aftershave and unmitigated man. Finding the heady scent to her liking, she took another whiff and happened to glance up to find him staring at her in the rearview mirror. The man may be insufferable but damn if his glower wasn’t sexy as all get out!
Instead of feeling embarrassed about getting caught sniffing his jacket—essentially sniffing him—Frankie held his gaze. It wasn’t until he was the first to look away that she lowered her eyes to her lap, and to the head of chestnut hair cradled there.
Summer lay balled up on the seat beside her, slumbering soundly while Frankie had been suffocating under a thick blanket of tension from the time they left the station. Her brother hadn’t uttered a single word to her! Resentment Frankie got. But his unwarranted hostility?
She supposed she couldn’t blame him for being pissed. Finding his sister in the clink was bad enough without then being shamed into bailing out a complete stranger. Though Frankie had initially refused the offer, her protest was merely a polite formality. She didn’t want to appear desperate. Which she was. Or let him think it was her idea. Which it wasn’t. But Summer forcing his hand resulted in Frankie now sitting in a car and not a jail cell. She really had to hand it to the persistent little pixie.
Her only other option would’ve been to post bail herself through a bondsman, but they charged a nonrefundable ten percent fee and required collateral. Frankie didn’t have one hundred dollars to her name let alone one thousand. And she definitely wasn’t going to put up her mother’s ruby cross necklace, the only thing she had to remember her by.
“I want to thank you again for what you did for me back there.”
Irritated by her smoky voice, or rather the perturbing effect it had on him, Julian kept his eyes fixed on the road. “Thank Summer,” he clipped.
“If it weren’t for you I’d still be—”
“Thank Summer.” Subject closed.
If the man’s intent was to spurn her, his rudeness only served to spur her. Frankie Romano was tenacious if anything. She’d crack this grumpy nut if it was the last thing she did, and have a little fun at his expense doing it.
Easing her purse under Summer’s head to replace her thigh, she unbuckled her seatbelt and scooched forward. “Aw, come on, Holy Man…” she purred behind his ear. “Don’t be like that. I’ll make it up to you.”
The hairs on the back of Julian’s neck raised at her warm breath and dark promise. Pulling his head away, he returned gruffly, “Just make sure you show up for your court date.”
Frankie leaned farther between the front seats. “You’ll get your refund. Cross my heart and hope to die.” Her teasing words trickled down his spine.
He shifted sideways but there was nowhere to go. There was no escaping her. Not her encroaching presence and not her intoxicating scent. He hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath to keep from inhaling her. If he were a poet, he might describe the fragrance as a fusion of gardenia blossoms and honey bourbon—a combination one would encounter rocking on the front porch of a Southern cottage in summertime.
Seriously? Julian cringed listening to himself. Shit, he knew it! Knew the moment he laid eyes on the girl she was going to spell trouble with a capital T. Or was that temptation with a capital T? a little voice inside him asked.
“You need to sit back and put your seatbelt back on.”
Frankie remained where she was. The only muscles she moved were the ones bracketing her mouth. “Why do I get the feeling you don’t like me very much?” The observation was laced with amusement.
“I have no opinion about you either way.”
She tilted her head. “That’s interesting.”
“Indifference is not the vibe I get from you.”
Julian white-knuckled the steering wheel. Don’t ask. Don’t ask. Don’t— “What then?” Damnit!
“You absolutely have an opinion about me. A fairly strong one, as a matter of fact.”
When she didn’t elaborate, he impatiently inquired, “Well? You going to keep me in suspense?”
“Wasn’t sure you cared.”
“I don’t. Just curious.”
“All right then. It’s disapproval. You look at me with disapproval.”
Julian’s scowl deepened. He didn’t like being called out on his shi—shortcomings. Especially not by someone who appeared to have plenty of her own.
Judge not, lest you be judged.
On that front, the servant of god had a lot more work to do still.
“It’s okay, I get it,” she said. “I’m not exactly the type of girl you bring home for Sunday dinner.”
Think what he may of her, she was not without self-awareness. “I don’t disapprove of you.” That earned him a scoff. “But I don’t not disapprove of you, either. I don’t know you.”
“That’s right, Julian Reid… you don’t.” Putting her mouth beside his ear, she whispered, “Would you like to?”
Delivered in that suggestive throaty voice, the innuendo caused pin pricks of electricity to dance across his scalp. “Seat. Belt,” he ground out, bracing the steering wheel. “Now.”
Frankie was tickled by how easy it was to bait him. Amateur. But then, a man sworn to abstinence wouldn’t offer much of a challenge for a woman whose bedpost was decorated with notches.
As she settled back and refastened her belt, Julian thought he heard her chuckle. His pale blue eyes narrowed at her through the mirror but Frankie’s attention had already returned to the window. It was now his turn to be ignored.
After several interminable minutes, he cleared his throat—the harsh sound shredding the silence like tearing paper. “So how did you and my sister meet?”
For a moment he didn’t think she was going to answer. “She was sitting in my section.”
“At Kit Shickers. I work there.” Used to, anyway.
“You’re a waitress.”
She snorted. “Why else would I be dressed like a slutty Annie Oakley?”
The discovery that her nothing outfit turned out to be a uniform didn’t necessarily change his mind about her. After all, it was her choice to work at a place that objectified women. She could just as easily be waiting tables at Denny’s.
“So how did Summer go from hoedown to hoosegow? Country music’s not her thing.”
“I got the impression it was her friend’s idea. But only after an hour she took off with one of the regulars, leaving Summer to fend for herself.”
He shook his head. “I thought Devon was more loyal than that.”
“Yeah, whatever happened to chicks before dicks?”
“Go on,” he prompted.
“Some sleazeball in a ten-gallon hat started plying her with tequila shots.”
As if to herself, she murmured, “Never takes long for the wolf to converge on the lost lamb.”
A muscle in Julian’s jaw ticked picturing his sister as prey. “So what happened?”
“They were knocking back so many that I eventually had the bartender cut them off.”
A finger of remorse poked him in the sternum. He’d been quick to accuse Frankie when he should’ve known it was Summer’s poor judgment and lack of common sense at fault. “I appreciate you doing that for her,” he mumbled contritely. “When it comes to men and their, uh, sometimes less than honorable intentions, my sister can be a little naive.”
“That sounds like victim blaming. Maybe Summer’s not streetwise but she seems like a pretty smart kid to me.”
His lips twitched at her use of the word kid. “You don’t look much older.” He wondered her age but refrained from asking. The less he knew about her the better.
Frankie made an ambiguous sound in response. Compared to Summer, she felt forty going on eighty.
True, there were only a couple years difference between the two women yet a chasm of life experiences separating them. By her sixteenth birthday, Francesca Emilia Romano was already a mature adult in every sense except age—the insidious robbing of her childhood perpetrated by the very person supposed to protect her.
Nobody in the world loves you more than me, baby girl.
Frankie dug her fingernails into her palms as the memory like toxic waste oozed over her. After a moment her head lifted to meet Julian’s reflection. “W-what?” she croaked.
“I said, I’m unclear why you and my sister were arrested.”
“Joolee?” Summer groggily pushed herself to a sitting position and kneaded her fists into her eye sockets. “We home?”
“No, kiddo. Not yet. We’re dropping Frank—your friend off first.”
“Hey, sweetie.” In a motherly gesture, Frankie smoothed the hair from Summer’s face. “How you feeling?”
“Like I’m going to yuk.”
Julian’s head whipped around in alarm. “Need me to pull over?”
“Need a nap,” she murmured, drifting off again.
Thank you, baby savior. Summer tossing her cookies in the car was the last damn thing he needed tonight! “Yeah, that’s a good idea. I’ll wake you when it’s time. Buckle up first, okay?”
“Mm’kay…” After strapping herself in, she nestled against Frankie’s shoulder and closed her eyes. Lulled by the hum of the engine, she was soon snoring softly.
As he continued driving, Julian realized that Frankie’s directions were leading them into the seedy part of town. Southside East, an area where the good citizens of Mount Pollard could safely go slumming during the day but avoided like the clap after sundown. It wasn’t a neighborhood where a single young woman should live alone.
Did she live alone? Julian wondered. Was she single? Then he wondered why he was even wondering.
“We’re getting close to Burl Avenue,” he said. “Is that going to be a left or a right?”
“Um… left.” Frankie expelled a breath. “I think.” She seemed deflated all of a sudden, as if everything that happened tonight was finally catching up to her and now exacting its physical and emotional toll. “I’m still learning my way around. Palmer’s the cross street?”
“Is that a question?”
“Definitely Palmer. Pretty sure.” She sighed again. “Maybe.”
“You anywhere near Tacos Bueno?” A hole-in-the wall Mexican joint that served the area’s best Chili Rellenos. Ironically, their tacos sucked ass.
“Next door to it.”
Next door? If Julian recalled correctly, a laundromat flanked one side of the restaurant, and on the other there was a…
Why the idea of it should disturb him as much as it did or even at all, Julian couldn’t say. But damnit, the girl couldn’t possibly be living in a homeless shelter! Could she?
After driving a few more blocks, he pulled over to the curb, parking in front of the eatery instead of the shelter to spare her embarrassment. (In case it bothered her as much as it did him.)
“Is this it?” He avoided facing her by speaking into the mirror. “Where you’re, uh, staying?”
Frankie cracked a wan smile at his visible discomfort. “For the time being.”
Julian’s lips parted to ask her the reason. He immediately sealed them shut. It wasn’t any of his damn business why she was residing at a women’s refuge.
“Till I can find an affordable alternative,” she answered, sensing his curiosity. “I’ve only been in town a month. At the shelter, less than a week.”
To hell with it. He had to know! “Where were you before?”
“The Motel 6.”
“I meant where did you move fro— Wait, what? You were living in a motel?”
Frankie couldn’t stop herself, his shocked expression made her laugh. “It’s not the worst place. I had cable, my own bathroom, and hey, daily fresh towels!” she quipped.
Summer came back to life with a loud yawn. “We home yet?”
Annoyed by her ill-timed interruption, Julian answered shortly, “I said I would wake you.”
Summer’s bleary blue eyes panned the dilapidated boarded-up buildings surrounding them. “What are we doing here?”
Taking that as her cue, Frankie released her seat belt. “It’s the end of the road for me, sweetie.” Literally and figuratively.
Summer stared at the Mexican restaurant, confused. “This can’t be your stop.”
Frankie jerked her chin at the adjoining brick three-story defaced with gang graffiti. “That is.” The sign by the barred front door read, Union Gospel Mission for Women and Children.
While Summer gaped at it, Frankie addressed her brother. “You’ll get your money back. Every last cent.” She made the sign of the crucifix over her chest. “Cross my heart.”
At first he thought she might be mocking him again but her wide guileless grin seemed genuinely sincere. Despite her good intentions, he knew the odds of ever seeing his thousand dollars again were slim. He nodded in acceptance anyway, too exhausted at this point to care about anything other than crawling into bed.
After a brief hesitation, he reached down to pop open the trunk. Julian assumed this would be the last time laying eyes on her and couldn’t decide if the emotion he felt was relief or disappointment. “I’ll get your bag,” he told her, getting out of the car.
“Three weeks,” she called out after him. Even as she said it, Frankie wondered how she was going to make the self-imposed deadline.
“I don’t understand. Why are you staying at that place?”
Francesca turned to give her bewildered new friend a heartfelt hug. “I’m really glad we met.” She reached for the door handle about to get out when she paused on a thought. “You have a pure, innocent spirit, Summer,” she said over her shoulder. “Don’t let anyone change that about you, okay?”
“Yeah, okay," she agreed, not comprehending. “But—” As Frankie climbed out of the car, Summer let fly a squawk of protest. “Hey!”
Frankie ducked her head back inside. “We’re going to stay in touch, right? You already got my number. Text me some weekend. We’ll go out, okay?”
“Yeah, okay, but—” The door closed. “Wait!” Summer scrambled out after her. She rounded the back of the old brown sedan just as Julian handed Frankie a large duffel bag bulging to capacity. “You’re not staying here!” she shouted, jerking it from her grasp.
Julian’s jaw locked with an audible click. That was it! His limit for putting up with his sister’s theatrics had been reached. “Damnit, Summer!” That made four times tonight he’d sworn out loud. “You’re not starting this shit up again!” Make that five. A record.
“No, Frankie, we’re not leaving you here! Not when we have an extra bedroom. Jules, tell her! Tell her we have room. Tell her she can come home with us!”
“I appreciate the offer. Really, I do. But I’m perfectly fine where I am.” She tried taking back her bag.
Summer refused to relinquish it. “No, you’re coming with us! This place is-is-is—”
“Only temporary. Besides, it’s not as bad as it looks. We’re talking bunk beds!” Her attempt at levity fell flat.
Truth was, she’d been dreading going back there. Due to a high incidence of assaults, she was forced to sleep with one eye open and kept her stuff with her at all times due to lockers getting regularly broken into. Frankie was no stranger to shelters and she found the majority of them to be safe and clean. This one, however, turned out to be far from hospitable.
“Please, you need to let me go.” They were playing tug-of-war with all her worldly possessions crammed into that one canvas bag.
“Jules!” Summer gave her brother a look both petulant and pleading. “Julian?”
Sensing what was about to come next, Julian’s head felt on the verge of imploding. “So help me, missy,” he warned through his teeth. “If you so much as mouth the word, Jesus…”