They had decided earlier that it would be wiser to have everyone spend the night in the lodge, rather than in their individual cabins as they normally did. That way, if there was an emergency, they all would be close at hand to deal with it. Fortunately, Yo’s, Pud’s, and Clint’s old rooms remained available, and were used only when there was an overflow of clients, who were usually relegated to the upstairs bedrooms.
After Yo passed out candles, matches, flashlights, and lit up a few kerosene lanterns downstairs, the women retreated to their bedrooms, leaving the men alone in the main sitting area. With them gone, Brew felt he could broach the subject that had been on his mind ever since it was mentioned that Celeste could be his lifelong mate.
“Guys…” He got no further when Yo snorted.
“I was wondering if you were going to bring it up.”
Brew tried to frown at the man without cracking a smile. “Bring what up?”
“Sex,” Pud supplied. This from the man who had more secrets than the rest of them combined.
Art chuckled. “This is gonna be good, considering I’m the only dude here without prospects.” The big man leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs, perching one ankle on top of a knee. “Y’all go ahead. I’ll listen. Maybe take some notes for when my time comes around.”
They chuckled, then quickly became serious once again. “What did you feel when you touched her arm?” Clint asked.
“Nothing, at first. I was too busy trying to read her.”
“Tell if she was pretending. Acting. But then it was…it’s difficult to explain.”
“Try,” Yo gently urged. “What did your gut tell you?”
“That I had to protect her.”
Pud pointed his fingers at him like he was aiming a gun. “Bingo.”
“That’s the first thing that happened to me, too,” Yo admitted. “Gator?”
“Ditto,” Clint responded.
“How did you know it wasn’t just a part of your natural charm? Being gentlemanly? Or a result of our military training?” Art half-jested.
Yo laughed. “Trust me, you’ll know.”
“So the sex wasn’t a deciding factor?” Brew continued.
“Well, it definitely didn’t negate anything I was feeling at the time,” Yo quipped.
Clint leaned forward in his chair. “It’ll help cement the fact if you’re already sure you love her.”
“Maybe so, but it’s not my feelings that concern me at the moment. It’s hers. What if she doesn’t reciprocate?”
“You know what I think?” Art spoke up. “Now, I know I’m the only one who hasn’t been bitten yet, and I hope to God that yet comes with a capital Y. But from where I’m sitting, listening to you four, and remembering back on how each of you acted when your prospective other halves came onto the scene, seems to me it was a two-lane road going both ways. Does she love me the way I love her? Does she feel the same way about me as I do for her? Blah, blah, blah. Well, you know what? She did! Yet you both started dancing around each other, like two kids with sticks, wondering who was gonna poke the other one first.” He turned to Brew. “You’d only traded glances at the grocery store before you saw her walking down the road later, right? Yet, she got into your car anyway. Man, if that ain’t trust, I don’t know what is. Or maybe it’s blind stupidity. Who knows? But there already had to be something going on between you two that made her put some faith in you, especially after the shit her stepbrother put her through. That oughta account for something.”
Brew couldn’t argue with the man’s common sense.
The wind seemed to kick up a notch in intensity. He glanced over at where the floor-to-ceiling windows were boarded up. Their reflections stood out in stark relief in the glass. Getting to his feet, he grabbed a flashlight and one of the lit votives.
“I’d better get this upstairs before she starts to freak out,” he muttered.
“Brew, I truly don’t believe the little lady is going to freak out over a hurricane knocking out the power,” Art drawled. “She’s been through hell and back already.”
“I guess you’re right,” Brew replied, and left the group.
The howling wind drowned out his footsteps as he ascended the wooden staircase. When he reached the second floor, he paused in the hallway. What if she was already asleep? What if she—
“Hell with it,” he told himself. Screwing up his courage, he knocked loudly on the door.
A few seconds later, a voice on the other side asked, “Who is it?”
“Brew. We had a blackout so I brought you a candle.”
The latch handle turned, announcing the fact that she hadn’t put the deadbolt or the sliding chain into use. When she opened the door, she flinched at the light, even though he held the flashlight pointed downward and not in her face. Her hair hung in damp strands around her face. Apparently she hadn’t had time to blow dry it before the power went out.
He held out the lit votive. She started to reach for it, then changed her mind and opened the door. “Come in.” When he hesitated, she smiled wearily. “It’s okay. I won’t bite.”
She backed away to let him in. Brew got as far as the bathroom door and stopped, holding the light out to her again. This time she took it from him. When her fingers brushed his, he managed to get a whiff of her scent—warm, musky, and slightly fragrant from the soap and shampoo she’d used. His breath hitched in his chest. Now that he’d imprinted on it, he knew he’d be able to hone in on her in a crowd.
She took the votive over to the bedside table and set it down. Parking herself on the side of the bed, she ran her fingers through her wet hair. He recognized the top she wore as one of Charlie’s. The JayMax Productions logo, representing the company she’d once worked for when she’d first arrived at the lodge, was a dead giveaway. The blouse seemed to fit Celeste, albeit a bit long in the tail. Same for the skinny jeans she had on, with the cuffs rolled several times to prevent them from dragging on the floor.
“I’m glad you came. I need to talk to you about a few things,” she admitted.
He kept the flashlight on, but tucked it under one arm. She frowned. “I told you I wouldn’t bite. Take a seat.” She waved at the desk on the other side of the room, and Brew retreated to the safety of the chair. Somehow, her scent was permeating the air to the point where it was making his head swim.
As soon as he parked himself, she got straight to the point. “Are you turning me in after this storm is over?”
“No,” he immediately replied, paused for a second, then continued. “We’re hoping you’ll turn yourself in.”
Her face went instantly pale and she emphatically shook her head. “Oh, no. No, no, no. Forget that.”
“Are you freaking insane? Do you know what Doc will do to me if I snitch to the cops?”
“He won’t kill you, if that’s what you’re implying,” Brew calmly told her. “But you know as well as I do that he’ll most likely beat the living shit out of you again. Or worse. And I’m not even going to go into what his two buddies might do.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but no sound came out. Her eyes sparkled in the dim light, the beginning of tears. Brew pressed the issue, keeping his voice soothing yet persistent.
“We have a lawyer we know will take your case. His name is Justin Flacker, and he’s damn good at what he does. Celeste, you have a clear-cut case. Your stepbrother kidnapped you, literally, and held you against your will. He forced you to become an accomplice in his schemes, and when you refused or balked, he beat you.” His eyes involuntarily dropped to her arms where the greenish-black marks were evident, even under the poor light. Celeste saw where his gaze went and crossed her arms to help cover up the bruises.
“I’ll go to bat for you,” he told her. “But it all has to start with you. I’m not going to force you to do anything. If you decide you don’t want to take the chance, and you want to hit the road tomorrow, we won’t stop you. But if you don’t take a stand now, you’re going to have to face him again at some point, and you know that. Sooner or later, he’s going to come after you, and chances are he’ll find you. It may take months or even years, but do you want to spend your life always looking over your shoulder? Living in fear?”
“Brew, I have no other choice.”
“Yes, you do. Listen, we have an option for you. We’re offering you a job here at Bag It and Tag It. Right now we can only pay you minimum wage, but the offer includes room and board, so you don’t have to worry about paying rent or buying groceries.”
The expression on her face told him she didn’t quite believe him. “What’s the catch?”
“Yeah. Why this generous offer? Why are you trying to be so nice to me?” She was suspicious, and he couldn’t blame her. He gathered himself to answer her, breathing in her floral scent until it filled his lungs.
“Because we’ve been through shit ourselves. All of us. Charlie’s even spent a few days in jail after her boss came down here and nearly blew Gator into a hundred pieces with an illegal grenade.”
Her eyes grew larger. “Gator?”
“Clint,” he corrected himself. “Gator’s his nickname.” He tapped his chest. “My real name’s William Estes. Some people call me Bill. Some call me Billy. The guys here call me Brew.”
He chuckled. “It’s a long story. But, please, I want you to consider our offer. If you decide you want to decline, we’ll give you some money and let you go on your way. I’ll even drive you into town to catch the bus and buy you a ticket to wherever you want to go. But if you decide you’re willing to take the chance, I’ll drive you straight to Justin’s law office, and we can start the process of ridding you of your stepbrother once and for all.”
“But what if he comes for me anyway?”
Brew gave her a big smile. “Let him and his buddies try. Me and the guys, we’re former Marines. There’s no way he’ll mess with us.”
She looked down as she wiped her cheeks with her hand and sniffed. He could sense that wall she’d erected starting to crumble, or at least develop some cracks in it. Her bluster, attitude, and seemingly thick skin was her armor, but it was beginning to wear thin, exposing the frightened and deeply traumatized young woman underneath.
“How long will I have to work for you?”
“As long as you want. We’d only put one restriction on you.”
Her head jerked upward. “What restriction?”
Brew jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Our offices are also the shop where we sell guns and ammo. We simply ask that you don’t go in there for now. Not until you’ve been trained in handling firearms and are comfortable around them. Do you have any experience using a gun?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“I didn’t think so.” He started to mention the fact that her stepbrother and cohorts were also inexperienced, which made them twice as dangerous, but he stifled that thought and got to his feet. “I’ll let you go and get some sleep. You don’t have to make any decisions until tomorrow, or until this hurricane passes. Whichever comes first.”
He started for the door when she stopped him. “Brew?”
“Thank you.” Those two words sent a warmth through him. Giving her another smile, he also nodded.
“You’re welcome. Goodnight, Celeste. Sleep tight. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“You, too,” she replied as he slipped out the door.
He waited in the hallway to see if she would activate the inside locks on the door, but after another minute and he didn’t hear anything, he continued down the stairs to let the guys know what had gone down.