Rules of engagement:
1) You have the right to use force to defend yourself.
2) Fire may be returned to stop a hostile attack.
3) You may not seize the property of others to accomplish your mission.
4) Detention of civilians is authorized in self-defense.
Delilah Morgan and her older sister Destiny have been on their own for two years, since their parents burned down the family home and went to jail for cooking meth. She’s street smart and tough. Nothing about her says sixteen, and she’s not about to tell anyone, especially Bran, the hot ex-marine bartender Destiny has her eye on. He’s stable and successful and everything her sister needs to keep them off the street. The only problem, something about Bran inspires her and suddenly she’s writing the best music she ever has. About him.
Branson Silo knows what it means to be in the line of fire. Home for a year from his second tour of duty in Afghanistan, he thinks he’s safe…until he meets Delilah. Despite her sharp tongue that makes him want to take cover, he can’t deny the attraction. But when he hires her to play weekends at his family’s saloon, he finds out she’s more than he can handle…which is saying something considering he used to blow things up for a living.
When the grenade finally explodes and the shrapnel flies, will Bran be left standing? Or has he survived years at war only to be taken down by Jail Bait?
I shouldn’t have fucked her last week. That was my mistake, and I feel like a douche—something I’m not used to.
I watch Destiny tuck a long strand of platinum hair behind her ear with her pen as she finishes taking drink orders at the table near the door. She shoots me a secret smile when she turns and makes her way over, and I mentally shoot myself for getting caught looking. This train’s already careening down the track, barely holding onto the rails, and when I pull shit like this, it only picks up momentum.
“We got Hendricks?” she asks, slapping her order on the ancient mahogany bar between us.
I look over the order. “Closest thing I got is Tanqueray.”
The smile falls off her face and she blows out a sigh. “I’ll ask him.”
I follow the curve where her tiny waist blooms into a killer ass as she turns and heads back to the table.
She’s hot. That’s what it boils down to. When I took her home last week, it was after her first training shift with Carol. We’d sat at the bar and knocked back a few after closing and I got caught up in everything she had going on. I totally missed the signs. I didn’t see that she was looking for more than a hookup until after it was too late—until she didn’t leave after we’d done the deed.
The only guy at the table with three women—some total wannabe with a dark suit jacket over a turtleneck and pressed jeans—scowls and gives Destiny some lip. I can’t hear what he says over the piped in Kat Country, but she shrugs and says something back, then offers me an apologetic squint when the guy pushes up from his seat. He starts my direction on polished loafers, but his eyes widen slightly and he pulls up short when he sees me.
The reaction’s not unusual. When I left for boot camp six years ago, I was already in decent shape. I was Oak Crest High’s first ever (and only, as far as I know) four sport athlete all for years—football in the fall, wrestling in the winter, and baseball and track in the spring. Which is probably a big part of the reason my grades weren’t good enough to do anything but enlist. But the Marines made all that training look like fucking Romper Room, and it was only a matter of weeks before my bulk didn’t fit into any of my old clothes anymore. Since Pop owns the local gym and my sister Brenda runs it, when I’m not working behind Mom’s bar at the Sam Hill Saloon, I spend most of my time lifting weights. I’ve managed to stay in pretty decent shape…which means guys like this pansy ass are generally intimidated. Course, the tattooed six-foot-three thing doesn’t hurt the intimidation factor. Since I let my dark flattop grow out, I look more like a biker than an ex-Marine.
After a beat, his shiny shoes start moving again but he stops three feet short of the bar, out of my wingspan. “Tanqueray or Tanqueray number ten?” he demands, putting on a “big man” show for the women he’s here with.
I step aside to show him the rack behind me and he flinches a little at my movement. “For top shelf gin, Tanqueray’s what I got.”
He closes his eyes for a moment and exhales his disappointment, then scans my top shelf again. “Tanqueray isn’t even in the same league as Hendricks.”
I shrug. “You want the citrus, I’d go with the Seagrams. Something drier, I’ve got Beefeaters.”
He rolls his eyes toward the ceiling as if my suggestions are all so far below him he’s afraid of getting a nosebleed if he has to look all the way down at them. “Just give me the Tanqueray. Make it a Tom Collins so I don’t have to taste it.”
He stalks back to his table and drops into his seat as I start on their order.
Destiny comes over and watches me mix. “That guy’s a jerk,” she say with a flick of her eyes back toward the wannabe professor. “Thank God he’s Carol’s to deal with in fifteen.”
“You’re giving Carol the tip?” I say with raised eyebrows.
Her lip curls. “Guys like that don’t tip.”
I lift my eyes to him as I shake his Tom Collins. “He give you a hard time?”
“He thought I should’ve known what kind of Tanqueray we have.” Her face scrunches. “I didn’t even know there were different kinds.”
I glance at the table again. City folk for sure. Probably up here in the foothills for something at the college. “Guess he didn’t realize he’d wandered out of his natural habitat.”
She busts out a laugh as I pour his drink into the highball. “So, I was thinking…” she says when her laugh dies. “I could swing by your place when you get off. If you want.”
“Listen…” I start, setting the drink on her tray. But just as I open my mouth to tell her I don’t do relationships, Mom shoves through the swinging door from the kitchen. Five years in the Marines and two tours in Afghanistan, and I’ve yet to come across another single person who intimidates me…except my mom. She makes some of my Marine COs look like kindergarten teachers.
“Hey Vicky,” Destiny says. “Has Carol punched in yet?” She tosses her eyes at Mr. Hendrick’s. “I’m giving her that table as soon as she does.”
“She just clocked in,” Mom answers, glancing suspiciously at the table. “What’s the issue?”
Destiny shrugs a shoulder and picks up the tray of drinks I slide across the bar to her. “That guy needs to get over himself. Carol’s better at dealing with people like that.”
It’s the “take no crap” chromosome in the Silo family gene pool. My cousin is almost as intimidating as Mom. She has a way of putting pricks like that in their place without them even realizing how it happened.
Just as I’m thinking it, I see her pass by the porthole in the wooden door to the kitchen, pulling her dark curls back into a ponytail. A second later, she pushes through the door.
She looks at the three of us and her eyes narrow as she slings her short, black apron under her bulging belly and ties it. “You guys do know that when everyone clams up and stares at you when you walk into a room, that’s a dead giveaway they were talking about you, right?”
“All good, cuz,” I say, lifting one hand in surrender while picking up my bar rag with the other.
She gives us a glare that could fry bacon. “I’m not fat.”
“No, you’re not,” Destiny says, handing her the tray of drinks. “But I’m punching out and I need you to take that table.”
Carol’s gaze shifts to the table in question. “What’s wrong with them?”
“The guy’s a sanctimonious prick,” I say wiping down the bar. “He needs to be reminded his shit still stinks in the way only you can.”
A slow smile pulls at her mouth and she takes the drink tray.
“He’s the Tom Collins,” Destiny says. “The chardonnay is for the girl on his right and the Cosmos are for the other two.”
She bats her eyelashes and starts toward the table. “Coming right up,” she says, all breathy and sweet.
Mom turns to me once she’s gone, her frown deepening. “I came out here to remind you to put a note in the drawer if you pull petty cash, Bran.”
I give her a dubious smirk. “Really, Ma? I’ve been doing this for almost a year. Think I’ve got the drill down by now.”
“Well, the drawer came up exactly sixty short last night. So how else do you explain that?”
I feel my brows lift. My drawer’s never off by anything more than a few pennies. “You sure you didn’t pull it for the wine order?”
She scowls at me and crow’s feet crease the corners of her eyes. “I might be old, but I’m not senile yet.”
For her age, I have to say Mom looks pretty damn amazing. She met Dad sometime in the stone ages, when she used to dance at a strip club in San Francisco, and even still, I can see why he picked her out of the crowd. She’s got a deep worry line at the inside corner of her right eyebrow, but otherwise her face is deceptively youthful. The only thing that gives her age away is the skunk stripe that starts on the left side of her forehead and winds through the sea of dark hair pinned onto the back of her head like a the first swirl of cream into black coffee.
“I didn’t take any cash, Ma. Seriously.”
She sighs wearily and rubs her eyes. “It’s been a long day. I’ll check the numbers again tomorrow morning when I can think.”
I lean down and give her a peck on the cheek. “’Night, Ma.”
She hooks her elbow around my neck and yanks me in for a hug. “See you tomorrow, baby boy.”
She’s the only one I’d ever let call me baby or honey or any shit like that because, like I said, I’m a little scared of her. I watch her disappear through the kitchen door.
And then it’s just Destiny, waiting for an answer.
I take a deep breath and blow it out slowly as I turn to her. “Listen, Destiny. There’s no question you are fucking amazing, and I had an awesome time the other night…but I feel like you might have gotten the wrong idea about what this is.” I drop the bar rag and splay my hands on the bar between us, holding her gaze. I may be a dick, but I’ve got a moral compass that points in the right general direction most of the time. She deserves to be told straight up. “I’m not the kind of guy that does relationships, and even if I were, you wouldn’t want one with me.”
It’s not like I expect her to whine or beg. I’ve only known her for a week, since Mom hired her for day shifts, but she seems generally more together than that.
What I also don’t expect is a shameless smile to spread over her face as she leans closer. “So, are you saying that pounding me until I scream your name is too much of a commitment?”
I blow out a laugh and give my head a slow shake. “This isn’t how I pictured this conversation going.”
She pushes away from the bar and unties her apron. “I’ll be back before closing. Maybe have a drink or two. And when you leave, if you take me with you, you won’t be sorry. If not…” She shrugs. “…no harm no foul.”
I watch as she disappears through the kitchen door behind Mom to punch out. Carol drops another drink order on the bar on her way to the kitchen and I go back to work.
The Friday evening crowd picks up and it’s not long before all the tables are full and patrons start lining the bar. I dim the lights—the closest we come to ambiance.
The Sam Hill Saloon has been here since the gold rush, when the town of Oak Crest was established as a mining camp. After they got married, Dad brought Mom out here and bought her this bar to keep her “busy,” since he didn’t want her taking off her clothes for horny men anymore. She got it in the divorce and has run it for the last thirty years, but the truth is, almost nothing here has changed for nearly three quarters of a century. There are pictures on the walls of grimy gold miners lined up at this very bar. Even most of the chunky wooden barstools and tables have survived. At some point, some owner lined the front wall under the windows with three booths, and Mom added a big-screen TV, but other than that, it looks exactly like the pictures. And there’s the faint stench of stale beer emanating from the floor planking that no amount of bleach will ever get out.
But it’s a landmark, and the only bar in town, so we’re usually busy.
I’m blending a pair of frozen daiquiris with one hand and shaking a martini with the other when out of the corner of my eye, I see a solo blonde slide onto the barstool at the end, near the beer taps. I finish what I’m doing and prepare the tray for Carol to pick up before glancing over and seeing its Destiny.
A guy in the middle of the bar makes eye contact and nods at his empty beer mug. I grab it and start filling without really looking up at her. “Didn’t think I’d see you again till closer to closing.”
“Sorry?” she says. “Are you talking to me?”
The voice is off—slightly raspy and a pitch lower than her usual. I look up again and squint at her, wondering if she’s already started drinking. She’s taken her straight hair down from the ponytail she always wears it in and it’s not as long as I remember it from the other night—the only other time I’ve seen it down. There’s also a fading blue stripe cutting through the platinum over her right ear that I’ve never noticed before.
“What can I get you?” I ask her instead of pushing it.
I’m already reaching for the vodka and cranberry to start on a Madras, her drink of choice last week, when she answers, “Rum and Coke.”
“That’s different,” I mutter, shooting her another glance.
She gives me a puzzled look. “Look, I really just wanted to find out if you hire entertainment.”
My face mirrors her puzzlement, I’m sure, as I try to process her statement. “Why?”
She hunches to the side and pulls something up from her feet. I see it’s a battered black guitar case when the narrow end peeks over the top of the bar. “Because I need a gig.”
“Didn’t know you played,” I say, pushing her drink across the bar to her.
That baffled look is back as she pulls it toward her and takes a swallow. I can’t help following the curve of her long neck downward toward a pair of large round tits perfectly outlined by her snug, low-cut T-shirt. She is definitely hot, and if we’re on the same page, then I’ve got nothing to feel guilty about. She wants me to fuck her till she screams? I’m perfectly capable of that. She sets her drink down and catches me staring. She cuts me that wicked smile again, causing my cock to stir. I return the smile, sending the innuendo right back at her.
She props her elbows onto the bar and leans forward, giving me a clear look down her shirt. “Considering that we’ve never met before, I don’t find that surprising.”
I’m so absorbed in images of my face buried in those magnificent tits that it takes me a second to process what she said.
My eyes snap to hers. “Wait…what?”
She reaches across the bar, offering me a hand. “Lilah.”
There’s a full second all I can do is stare, wondering if this is one of those split personality things you hear about sometimes. And in that second, through the dim lighting, I take in all the tiny details—a dark mole at the outer corner of her right eye; her eyes, silver instead of blue; the missing white crescent-shaped scar above Destiny’s right eyebrow; and lips, a little fuller than I remember—which are smirking at me now.
“You’re not Destiny,” I say as it all clicks.
It’s not a question, but she shakes her head. “No. I am most definitely not Destiny.”
“Twins?” I ask.
She cocks her head playfully. “What do you think?”
“You’ve got to be. You’re fucking identical except for the eyes.” I tap my forehead. “And you’re missing a scar.”
Her perfect blond eyebrow raises in amusement. “She’s the pretty one and I’m the smart one.”
I bark out a laugh as I reach across and shake her hand. “Bran Silo. Good to meet you.”
She doesn’t let go of my hand for a second after we’re done shaking—just long enough to send a clear message that she’s interested.
A knot forms in my gut, and I realize it’s guilt. Destiny and I have an understanding, but regardless, I’m pretty sure fucking her sister would be way outside the bounds of gentlemanly behavior. Not that anyone would ever mistake me for a gentleman. “Destiny never mentioned she had a sister.”
“Doesn’t surprise me.” She takes another drink, nearly polishing it off in a few big gulps.
I tip my head at it her glass. “Another?”
“My limit is one,” she says, pushing her glass toward me. “Just Coke this time, thanks.”
Carol sweeps by on her way to the kitchen, dropping an order on my bar. “Thought you left,” she says to Lilah without slowing down. “Careful or your favorite customer might ask for you,” she adds, jerking her head at Mr. Hendricks as she disappears through the swinging door.
I bark out a laugh as I scoop ice into Lilah’s glass and fill it with Coke. “Good to know I’m not the only one.”
Lilah shrugs. “Happens all the time.” She slides out of her chair, lifting the guitar case. “So do you want to hear me play or what?”
I look around the crowded room, loud with chatter, drowning out the background music. “We don’t generally have live entertainment,” I say, which is really an understatement. We’ve never had live entertainment. But for some reason, I’m not willing to shut Lilah down so fast.
When my eyes find her again, annoyed impatience shines loud and clear out of her gaze. “So that’s a no?”
I feel my mouth pull into a cocky half-smile. “I didn’t say that.”
She opens her case and pulls out her guitar, unabashedly climbing through the window I left ajar for her. I watch as she sets herself up on the stool and rests the guitar in her lap, gripping it softly but confidently. She starts strumming, and I expect her to be discrete, since this is basically an audition, but there’s not a shred of self-consciousness or embarrassment anywhere in her disposition as she begins to belt out lyrics—an old No Doubt song that I can’t remember the name of.
The way she plays, as if on instinct; the passion in her voice, and the fact that she’s really fucking good, starts to turn heads at the tables closest to us. As they quiet and listen, more tables still, and soon the only thing she’s competing to be heard over is the Kat Country on the speakers. But she doesn’t decrease her volume. If anything, as eyes find her, she becomes louder, feeding off the attention.
I reach under the bar and click off the stereo, then lean onto the back counter and cross my arms, listening as she finishes one song and launches into the next.
A guy at the bar pulls a five from his pocket and flags me down with it. I grab his beer mug, but he shakes his head. “Is there a tip jar?” he asks with a nod toward Lilah.
I pull a fresh mug from under the bar and he slips the five inside, then I set it at the end of the bar near Lilah. She cuts me a smile and her eyes slide down my body as she sings.
And fuck me. I lean my hands on the bar and press against the lower counter when my dick won’t yield to my will. Without a doubt, everything Destiny has going on, Lilah’s got that and more.
Mia Storm is a hopeless romantic who is always searching for her happy ending. Sometimes she’s forced to make one up. When that happens, she’s thrilled to be able to share those stories with her readers. She lives in California and spends much of her time in the sun with a book in one hand and a mug of black coffee in the other, or hiking the trails in Yosemite. Connect with her online at MiaStormAuthor.blogspot.com , on Twitter at @MiaStormAuthor, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MiaStormAuthor