Capturing the Queen
BOOK 2 in the Damaged Heroes Series
Restoration artist Sean Quinn is perfectly content spending his downtime devouring classical literature, while keeping his OCD and fourth-degree black belt under wraps. But when his FBI agent brother coerces him into investigating stolen artifacts, Sean becomes the target of a ruthless smuggling ring that funds terrorists.
Gretch Allen, a beautiful man-magnet, hides a world of hurt under her icy exterior. When Sean rescues her from a stalker, she discovers her co-worker has an alpha-hot fire burning beneath his geeky exterior. As barriers between them begin crumbling, however, she accidentally places herself in much more extremist danger.
Unable to stop the unraveling events from turning deadly, Sean must conjure his inner hero to save his city and capture the heart of the queen.
Capturing the Queen
Capturing the Queen
is BOOK 2 in the Damaged Heroes Series
The full series reading order is as follows:
Capturing the Queen
THE EXCERPT: Start Reading!
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Sean Quinn thrust a final time, gritting his teeth as nirvana flooded through him. His sated relief lasted only seconds before morphing into such repulsive self-loathing it threatened to drop him. The diminutive brunette in his arms had saved him from utter humiliation back at the bar. It’d be really great right now if he could remember her name.
Shame drove him to kiss her damp neck and murmur an incoherent endearment. She panted heavily, eyes closed, head lolling against the graffiti-covered brick wall. The May breeze stirred her bangs and intensified the stench from the dumpster they stood behind. Rotting garbage mingled with her stale-cigarette breath and perfume that smelled like dying Stargazer lilies. The olfactory overload twitched his nostrils. Fresh survival messages skittered down from his brain. He loosened his grip on her thigh and slipped out of her, compulsively straightening her short skirt even though her panties were still clumped around her ankle.
The woman opened eyes the color of wet leather. They were devoid of emotion or animation or any sense of hope. Her smeared makeup and half-shadowed face reminded him of the disjointed Picasso he was restoring at work. Even though this had been her invitation and they’d both gotten off, it was pretty clear he hadn’t done her self-esteem any favors.
Sean shook his head. Belatedly, he glanced around the dimly lighted alley, then snapped off the condom and tossed it into the overflowing dumpster. A few minutes ago a crowded stadium could’ve watched—that was how much he’d needed to get his rocks off. He tucked himself back into his underwear and zipped his jeans.
God, he was scum. He never did shit like this. Why had he let Gretch get inside his head tonight? The expression she’d flashed from across the dance floor had reopened every adolescent wound he’d suffered at the hands of popular high school girls. Geeks like him would never get the homecoming queen. How many times did he have to humiliate himself before he got the message and stamped out the hope?
“You live around here?” the brunette asked.
Again Sean shook his head.
Her laugh was more of an exhale, puffing out her nose. Maybe it was a sneer. “Not much of a talker, are you?”
“Guess not,” he forced out, instead of the instinctive shrug.
She’d made no attempt to reach for her panties. As he stooped for them, she kicked them aside. “Don’t bother. They’re filthy.”
There was no accusation in her tone, but it reminded him again of how he’d ripped them down and plowed into her with the grace of a bull. How he’d pumped and pumped with barely restrained rage, staring at her full mouth because if he closed his eyes he’d see someone entirely different. Someone who’d used bolt cutters to slash through his carefully fabricated armor.
He’d give his Maria Callas aria collection to time travel back to the moment he’d overheard Gretchen Allen tell their boss her Saturday night plans. Then he’d bitch slap the hope out of his earlier self and stay home to finish Crime and Punishment. Most of the time he understood his place in society. Tonight’s lesson? Casual wall sex with a stranger was soul-wrecking.
Sean stepped back a pace and shoved his hands in his pockets. The least he could do was offer to buy this woman another drink, but that meant going back inside Teenie’s Martinis. Chancing another encounter with Gretch, who’d clearly hooked up with the metrosexual shithead she’d been obscenely grinding against. Sean blinked the image away, drained and desolate.
“Has anyone told you that you look exactly like Adrien Brody?”
Yep. Lots. He didn’t consider it a compliment. “I gotta run,” he said.
“Right. Early day tomorrow?” She smoothed her wall-snarled hair without looking at him.
“Something like that.” He shifted his weight. The serenity of his tiny apartment called like a Siren as he navigated the jagged rocks of after-sex banter. “Can I…pay for a taxi?” He didn’t want to order an Uber—didn’t want to know her address.
She glanced at the dented, steel backdoor of the bar, as if the answer lay there. After a hesitation, her lips flattened. “Yeah. All right.”
They walked in sync but worlds apart toward Erie Street—her in high heels and no underwear, him shouldering epic self-disgust and the creepy-crawly need to wash. What the hell was her name?
The sounds of downtown Chicago on a Saturday night grew louder. A horn honking, a shouted profanity, two women squealing with laughter…
Luck was with him at the curb, and he hailed a passing cab almost immediately. As he flipped open his wallet, she slid in and muttered an address to the driver. Sean shoved two twenties in the front passenger window.
“Hey,” she said softly, reaching to close her door. “What’s your name again?”
Oh good. “Sean.”
He paused. This was the time to say “Quinn,” right? Then ask her name? Fatigue washed over him. “Does it matter?”
The driver cleared his throat. She ignored him and grinned up at Sean, the smile never reaching the world-weariness in her eyes. “I guess not.”
“Goodnight.” Sean knocked on the roof twice and stepped back, watching until the taillights faded. He glanced back at the giant, neon-blue martini glass. Should he go back in? Make sure Gretch was okay? Right. Like she needs protecting. Like he hadn’t learned his lesson with her a million times before.
Sean turned and trudged toward the Franklin El station. A screech of tires peeled around a corner behind him. He swiveled around, blinded briefly by a flash of brights. A shiny black Suburban with illegally tinted windows crossed into the opposite lane and aimed straight for him. He lunged behind a lamppost just as the car jumped the curb and screeched to a halt feet away.
The passenger door kicked open, and a suit got out. Crew cut. Bulge of a holstered gun, left side. Mirrored shades. At midnight. The stereotype almost made Sean chuckle, but there was nothing funny about the FBI pinpointing his exact location. Or contacting him this late.
“Get in.” Although respectful, Crew Cut’s voice had the calmness of someone used to being obeyed. Feared.
“You’ve got the wrong guy.”
The rear window whirred down, and Sean glanced back. Son of a bitch! Sure explained the dickhead vehicular dramatics. “I resigned, remember?” he snarled. “You applauded.”
“Obey the nice man, Nancy. Get the fuck in.”
Amid the body-thumping techno beat, Gretchen Allen squeezed through the partiers toward her housemate, her gaze flitting left and right. Of utmost importance was maintaining the expression of cool confidence. She nodded to acquaintances, acknowledged the overt looks from men and the flashes of jealousy from women. She hardly saw any of them.
Where is he? What a weird freaking night. To have encountered Sean “the Enigma” Quinn here of all places. He didn’t do bars. Didn’t even sit in the break room with the rest of them during lunch. Yet not ten minutes ago, he’d stood at the edge of the dance floor, looking aloof and oh-so-hot… She couldn’t have embarrassed herself more, gaping at him like a half-wit. Christ in a cradle!
Gretch craned her neck the other way, hunting for the stiffly out-of-place coworker in black jeans and a white button-down, instead of his usual slacker-wear. They were barely passing acquaintances, but she’d give her right arm to figure out what made him tick. Tonight she had home field advantage—maybe in this loud, boisterous atmosphere she wouldn’t feel so stupid talking to a guy who was soooo cerebral that her only defense was to pelt him with snark.
No sign of him. Damn it. Maybe it had been a mirage…or someone who resembled him, because, come on! Sean at a nightclub?
Gretch reached her housemate’s side, unable to continue the blitheness of her façade. For some reason the night now stretched mind-numbingly monotonous before her.
“Uh oh. That’s your order-an-Uber-Dwayne-I-ain’t-driving-you-home face.” Her housemate boomed the good-natured, thoroughly incorrect observation, ignoring the stares his foghorn voice and massive bulk generated.
“I haven’t decided,” she called back. “You wanna cast a vote?” They both turned toward the jam-packed bar, and she tried to view her LVR app date, Brandon, through her housemate’s eyes. Tall, blond, fit… Without a doubt the hottest-looking guy here. A great dancer. And best of all, she’d only caught genuine male interest—nothing predatory or freaky about him.
“Do-able,” she declared flatly, turning back to Dwayne. She clasped his shoulder and eased off a stiletto, wiggling her pinched toes. If only she could snap her fingers and be home, curled up on the sofa, laughing at one of Dwayne’s porn-style critiques of a RomCom hero.
“On the pro side”—Dwayne tapped his chin with an index finger—“I like the whole Norse Viking thing he’s got going on. Very delicious. But massive points off for the incessant need to flash his cash at every available opportunity. Trés bourgeois.”
Brandon was at that very moment stripping off bills, grinning at the bartender’s quip amid the teeming throng clamoring for drinks. Even, white teeth. Lovely smile. She could get through this.
Her date du jour clutched two martini glasses and searched over the heads of the crowd, spotting her immediately. She smiled at the compliment. He smiled back and jerked his chin.
Dwayne imitated a game show buzzer. “And massive deductions for that entitled-white-male expression. Big yuck.”
“Oh, shut up,” Gretch said with a laugh. “You’d do him in a second.”
“But we’re voting on whether he’s good enough for you, your Highness.”
Brandon strode unhesitatingly through the crowd, his innate assurance seeming to part the masses before him. Okay, a little arrogant, but a man with a healthy sense of self-worth helped feed the perpetual black hole inside her. She was beautiful and desirable enough to capture a guy like this. Her stomach roiled, but ignoring the reaction was second nature, and Gretch increased the flirt in her smile as Brandon closed the final yards.
“Final verdict,” Dwayne said in her ear, “I stood next to him in the urinal. I vote: oh-hell-yes.”
So be it. Gretch squeezed back into the narrow stiletto. “My best friend from childhood, Dwayne Collins,” she introduced. “Brandon Myers. He’s in banking too.” As expected, the men launched into a quick six degrees of separation to find commonalities. Gretch sipped her martini. It tasted like battery acid, and she grimaced.
“…hedge fund portfolio manager,” Brandon ended.
“I’m on the other end of the spectrum,” Dwayne boomed. “I cull your clients for signs of money laundering. Hang the rich!” His belly laugh jiggled his chins. More people paused and glanced their way.
Gretch smiled at Brandon, who did not look amused. Hmm. Getting along with her childhood bestie wasn’t a make-or-break factor, but it was definitely a canary in a coal mine. Maybe this was a mistake…
Brandon turned to her. “Let’s head out.”
Her spine stiffened at the curt command. Sign number two. No one ordered her around. Was this a mistake? Why was her antenna so fucked up tonight? Behind him, Dwayne made silly googly eyes at her date. Gretch relaxed. Everything was fine. Her evening had just been thrown for a loop was all. “I haven’t finish this drink.” She sipped the battery acid again, partly so Brandon understood that she held all the control, but mostly for courage.
With the ruthless cruelty of a Disney stepmother, she ignored the inner protests and slipped her hand in his. This was the price she paid. And she was prepared to pay it over and over until she finally filled the gaping pit others called a soul.
Sean climbed into the Suburban and slammed the door. “Has hell frozen over?”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” his oldest brother said. “I’m not happy to be working with you either.”
“Glad we agree for once. Have your Men in Black drive me home.”
Jace Quinn, suited like the assholes in front, nodded to the driver watching in the rearview mirror. The Suburban bumped off the curb and smoothly ran a red light, the glow washing Jace’s tense profile in soft rose hues. “I need you to identify something.” His tone was low. Not because of the goons in front. Because he was embarrassed to ask for help.
Sean was the youngest of five Black Irish boys from the South Side. His older brothers, aged a year apart, had dominated their rough neighborhood growing up. They were collectively responsible for the State Football Championship trophies the high school still proudly displayed, and each had signed up for multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And then there was Sean. Seven years younger than The Pack. Uninterested in team sports. Skeptical of the patriotic dogma masking the blundering greed for oil that had given rise to Al-Qaeda and ISIS. But his worst faults in the Quinn family’s eyes? His archaeology and fine arts degrees. Conserving and restoring art for a living. Devouring opera and classical literature in his downtime.
Yeah, it was all fun and games bashing Baby Brother’s sissy lifestyle until they needed his expertise. Sean thumbed the road behind him. “I live in the opposite direction.”
“I’m not fucking around here, Sean.” Jace inhaled like he was about to go off on a rant, then glanced at men in front and exhaled, jaw tight. “We think another avenue opened up and artifacts are being smuggled in through O’Hare. I just need you to authenticate something so we can begin tracing it to ISIL operations.”
“Newsflash: you and I were a disaster working in the same organization.”
“Knock off the histrionics. You quit because I made you look bad.”
Because you took all the credit for work I did. Sean shook his head mutely, staring ahead.
“Besides, the contract anthropologist works normal hours. I want to tag this smuggler tonight, red-handed.”
Ah yes. No human on earth was more dangerous than Jason Robert Quinn with something to prove. That explained this mini kidnapping. Jace, a former SEAL, was still incensed at being hired at the bottom of the FBI operations hierarchy. In a nod to Lady Irony, Special Agents were required to have a college degree. Given Jace’s military expertise, the Chicago Field office was piloting a new Associate program, fast-tracking vets like Jace into SA positions while they attended night school, but at the moment Jace was still humping along as a lowly Special Agent Associate.
Both the driver and Crew Cut stayed silent. If either of them were in charge, they’d have done the talking, which meant this late-night espionage trip was Jace’s idea and probably not even sanctioned by the FBI. “Shouldn’t you three have a special agent supervising you?”
His brother cuffed him, which wasn’t uncommon. Crew Cut chuckled a nasty sound. Sean rubbed his head, hardly registering the blow as much as the double sting to his pride. First: he hated his Baby Brother role. He was twenty-nine and a magna cum laude for fuck’s sake, and yet here he was, speeding toward O’Hare against his will. And second: he hated his need to matter in some tiny way to his superhero brother. Despite protesting, he was going along with this mission with all the starch of a wet noodle. Why not admit it? He was intrigued to use his intellect to assist the FBI again, and treacherous Baby Brother puffed with pride at being chosen for the ride-along.
“What’s the situation?” he asked quietly.
Jace reached into a briefcase at his feet and withdrew a thick manila file. “We received a tip from the subcontracting company that supplies O’Hare’s janitors and baggage handlers. They believe one of the nightshift custodians is smuggling in small items stowed beneath seats. My men are interrogating him at the TSA office right now, but he’s one big ‘I don’t know.’ Which is where you come in.”
The file landed on Sean’s lap. He turned on the overhead and leafed through the pages slowly. The top report confirmed what most Americans already knew: ISIS, or ISIL as the government referred to them, smuggled Syrian and Iraqi antiquities to the West in an ongoing effort to pay for weapons and recruiting. Whereas ISIS had previously contracted with diggers and levied a twenty percent tax on their sales, the report showed an alarming new trend: they’d assumed a corporate-like control over all aspects of the digs, equipment, dealers, and middlemen. Even more disturbing, the group had become experts on the values of certain relics and targeted those biblical sites for excavation.
“This item you want me to inspect,” Sean said, scanning pictures of previously captured contraband, “do you know the country of origin?”
“No, but the plane arrived late this evening from Frankfurt.”
Sean checked his watch. Most of O’Hare would be dead quiet. The nightshift custodians were probably sparser and less supervised, and undoubtedly could take a lot longer cleaning cabins than their dayshift counterparts. “Conflict antiquities headed for the West are usually smuggled through Turkey or Lebanon,” he said.
“We know. Now we need to know value, origin, and whether the piece has ever had any legitimate paperwork.”
“Provenance,” Sean corrected, leafing through more pictures of mosaic tiles, clay jars, and jewelry the FBI now possessed. He closed the file and watched the night speed by. Intrigue pumped a second wind into him. A potentially priceless artifact… Quite a different ending to what had been a disastrous evening. “Did you trace me through my cellphone?”
“When I didn’t find you tucked in your bed on a Saturday night? Yes.”
Thank God the Suburban hadn’t arrived five minutes earlier.
“Why were you out barhopping? You don’t even drink.” Oddly enough, Jace looked like he was interested in the answer.
“I wasn’t barhopping.” I’d finally gotten up the courage to ask out a coworker. Until I saw the look on her face.
Jace arched a brow. “Trolling to get laid?”
A snort from Crew Cut in front. Sean handed the file back without answering. A right cross, left hook combo would instantly dislocate both their jaws. Sean visualized the exact degree of torso twist, the power of his delivery, the crack of bones. He had a shelf jam-packed with martial arts and kickboxing awards; he could pull this off. But then Mom’s birthday dinner at the Quinn house next week would be a bitch. Not to mention being arrested on federal felony assault charges.
“ETA five minutes,” the driver said.
Sean breathed in slowly, centering his chi. “How long will this take?”
“Ballpark it, Jace,” he snapped. “I have a shitload of work in the morning.”
“It’s Sunday, stupid.”
“The billionaire waiting for his art doesn’t care.”
His brother folded his arms, his expression falsely sympathetic. “Aw, dusting paintings for a living. Sure sucks to be you.”
If only Jace possessed the skill of properly motivating people. One microscopic gesture of appreciation would go so much farther than being a Quinn bully. Sean stared out the window, rapidly tap-tapping the side of his thumb on his thigh.
“Fuck you too,” his brother murmured.
Sean grinned without looking over. So the former SEAL, decorated war veteran, dickhead of a brother still remembered Morse code. Long ago that shared skill had changed their relationship. One of the few times Sean had captured his hero-brother’s respect. Emphasis on long ago.
The two-way mirror provided a perfect view of the stark and brightly lighted observation room. The plaque on the door read Federal Inspection Station Holding Cell. Inside, a task force from TSA, FBI, ICE, and CPD ringed the perimeter, all in a threatening arms-crossed, legs-spread stance. Jace sat across from the custodian, barking out questions that were answered in broken-English, but stubbornly repetitive, “I don’t know’s.”
On the other side of the mirror, Sean fisted his hands in his jeans, awaiting the arrival of the smuggled item. Evidently it had been taken through a TSA screening machine to make sure it wasn’t a bomb. Which was sharp foresight given the plane had landed after a ten-hour overseas flight and the passengers were long gone. Sean glanced at his watch. Almost one. He had to be at work at eight. The epically humiliating evening at Teenie’s Martinis seemed like days ago, although the woman’s perfume had transferred onto him, so the essence of his remorse filled his every breath. My kingdom for a shower.
He leaned against the small conference table and wearily tuned back in to the interrogation, which was going nowhere. What had been established was that the man, Ahmet Asuman, was a green card immigrant from Turkey. He’d worked as a third-shift custodian for four years and had a clean employee record. He didn’t know who’d taped the item to the bottom of seat 23A, he didn’t know anyone in Germany, and he didn’t know what was in the package. He’d found it when his vacuum bumped a hard object. It sounded legit to Sean, but Jace leaned over the table, getting all up in Asuman’s face.
“If we pull security tape for every day you’ve worked, will we see you holding other packages that your vacuum has bumped?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s a yes–no question, Mister Asuman. Have you found items before?”
Sweat sheened Asuman’s forehead. His black eyes were wide and wild as he cast about the room for his answer. “Maybe. One, two times?”
“What did you do with the packages?”
The custodian scanned the formidable task force surrounding him and swallowed convulsively. “Throw them out.”
“The security tapes will show that?”
“No. At home I throw them out.”
Jace nodded affably, like he’d expected this answer. Sean stiffened at the casual body language. You had to know Jace to recognize nothing about him was affable right now.
“When were these one or two times?” his brother asked.
“I don’t know.”
Jace pointed to a TSA official. “Start pulling security tapes and have them sent to my office.” He also nodded at Crew Cut, who walked out with the officer. Sean grinned despite himself at Jace’s gravitas. If only Asuman or the officials in there realized this interrogation was being conducted by the FBI’s version of a grunt.
Seconds later, Sean’s door opened and a TSA officer walked in with a package wrapped in brown parcel paper and thick string. Strands of duct tape dangled from the sides. “No trace of explosives. Couldn’t distinguish what it was in the x-ray. To be honest, it looks like junk.”
The gloved guard placed it on the table and Sean knocked on the mirror. When Jace got out of his chair, several officers clustered toward the door too. Sean pulled disposable Latex gloves from a wall dispenser box, snapped them on, and took a seat, not bothering to look up as the group trooped in. His brother sank into the seat next to him and handed over a sizeable Swiss Army knife.
Sean snipped the strings, heart beating faster at the possibilities within. He gently unwrapped the package and pulled away the padded cotton. His breath stilled. “It’s…it’s a cuneiform tablet.”
Jace twitched impatiently. “Speak English.”
Sean pointed at the wedge shapes etched in the ancient clay. “These are some of the earliest forms of writing that archeologists have found.” He rummaged through his recollection. “The text could be Akkadian.”
“What does it say?”
Sean shook his head. “I’m only slightly familiar with Mesopotamian anthropology. It could be a letter or an inventory list… Maybe part of a diary.” He studied the beautiful piece. “I can’t tell you its value either.”
“Okay. The Bureau can scour eBay and art auction sites for similar items.”
Using both hands, Sean gently picked up the tablet, as heavy as a dictionary. Underneath, littering the cotton wrapping, were grains of sand. “Freshly plucked from its ancient home,” he murmured. “If I had to hazard a guess, this came from the biblical city of Mari. In Syria. There’s incredible looting going on in that region, and they’re known for having thousands of tablets on all aspects of their lives.” He glanced up at Jace hovering beside him. “And if I’m right, then we’re looking at around three thousand BC.”
A couple of officials whistled under their breaths. Sean rewrapped the cotton around the plundered artifact, his adrenalin waning. Watching the news clip of ISIS decimating the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, a biblical site so precious to all cultures, he’d wanted to weep. Such powerlessness in the face of mass desecration. Which was worse: ripping an ancient culture from the ground both as psychological warfare and to buy weapons, or bombing the site to smithereens because it was pagan to fundamentalist Islamic beliefs?
Sean refolded the brown wrapping. “Sorry I can’t tell you more.”
His brother clapped his shoulder and squeezed, a gesture so unfamiliar that Sean flinched. Jace let go like he’d been burned. “No worries, little brother.”
“Get the FBI to rehire me,” Sean blurted. “I’ll consult on this smuggling operation.” In the silence that followed, he prayed for the ground to swallow him up. Seriously, could he sound more like a five-year-old wanting to join the big boys? Pick me, Jace, pick me. Memories of that particular plea rose to the surface. The agony when it never happened. Sean tried to channel his earlier reluctance for getting into the Suburban. It was so much safer not caring what you meant to other people. But that dignified guy had been replaced by a pathetic spectacle burning for a crumb of Jace’s respect.
His brother stood, the deliberation on his face crystal clear: his visceral need to solve complex cases and impress the brass warring with working alongside a brother whose oddities baffled him. “How else could you help?”
Sean motioned to Asuman, slumped dejectedly in his chair. “Whoever he’s selling the tablet to will have a lot more artifacts. I can go in as a buyer.”
“I’m a fourth-degree black belt.”
Jace picked up the package. “Yeah, I can see handing Mom that bit of logic when the bad guys show up with AK-47s.”
Sean shot up, tipping his chair. The police officer behind him jumped aside. “Sorry.” Sean snatched the chair and shoved it under the table. Why couldn’t he just shut up? These guys were getting the full spectacle of the pathetic Quinn-family dynamics. Up next: whining and clinging to Jace’s leg. Yeah. It’d happened. Chicago’s Air and Water Show, age eight. Sean still hadn’t gotten over the humiliation.
He straightened his shoulders and reached deep for a reasonable tone. “You’ll need someone who knows the worth of the pieces. The lingo. The condition. I can consult through an earpiece if you don’t want me near the dealer.” He closed with motivation too enticing for Jace to ignore. “You know my expertise will make you look good.”
“Fine.” His brother didn’t look over. “I’ll pull some strings. Don’t fuck this up.” He nodded to the driver. “Take him home.”
“How long will you tolerate his beatings before you to take a stand?” Gretch’s frustrated tone barely walked the edge of compassion. Yes, it was totally over the line. Even Zamira, sitting in the next cubicle, raised her eyebrows. Gretch impatiently nodded her understanding of the inappropriate comment, but damn it! She was action-oriented. You have a problem? Solve it! Encouraging victims filled with so much fear they remained paralyzed both tested and inspired her.
This caller, Eve Last-Name-Unknown, was her kryptonite. For two months the smart, well-spoken woman had called regularly, and Gretch had quickly bonded with her. Weeks of applying all her training: empathetic listening, providing resources, encouragement… Even offering her own cell number as a catalyst had failed. The woman remained stubbornly stuck in her clogged sewer of a marriage.
“I apologize,” Gretch said into the headset, although the latest story of the bastard’s abuse ignited a visceral need to shriek and throw the device. “I have no right to speak to you that way.”
“It’s okay.” Eve said softly. “This isn’t who he is. Really. If only his job wasn’t so stressful.”
Gretch opened her mouth, but a snarky retort hovered too close. She let silence slide her skepticism across the open line. In the background of Eve’s home, cartoon hi-jinx and giggles erupted. Eve had mentioned two daughters before. So far the husband had kept his hands off them, but how long before his abuse lashed out further?
Zamira leaned over Gretch’s shoulder and tapped the first item on the crimson Chicago Abuse Hotline poster stapled to the cubicle. Do not become emotionally involved with the caller. Gretch had broken that rule by Week Two.
“Get a grip,” Zamira mouthed, gently wrestling Gretch’s empty coffee mug from her clenched fingers. Gretch nodded. To be of any benefit, she had to step back from edge.
“Is he home now?” she asked Eve, smoothing the Caller Intake sheet on the clipboard beside her. Abuser on Premises? Emergency Assistance Requested?
“He’s at work.”
“Do you need me to call nine-one-one or get a volunteer to take you to the ER?”
“I’ve got ice packs on my bruises, I’ll be fine.” Eve sighed. “I just needed to hear your voice. Talking to you makes me feel sane.”
Gretch stopped ticking items off the sheet. “You are sane,” she said, emphasizing each word with the energy of her old personal training job. “His anger may be directed at you, but you know this is not about you. You’re a good person. You have the right to be loved and be happy. You also have incredible strength and courage—”
“Oh, come on, Gretch. If I were any of those things, he wouldn’t get so angry with me.” Eve’s voice wavered on the last word.
Gretch stared at the poster rules. No magic words there to get Eve to see the light. “Only you have the power to change your world and get out from under this, Eve. We can brainstorm steps right now.”
Zamira set down Gretch’s refilled mug, the coffee a perfect shade of creamy brown. Cinnamon dotted the swirling top and filled the air with homey comfort. Gretch inhaled deeply and closed her eyes. As much as these calls ate away at her faith in basic human decency, her Sunday shifts with Zamira were among her favorite hours all week. Gretch grinned over and touched her fingertips to her chin, withdrawing them a few inches—the ASL sign for thank you. During slow shifts, Zamira taught her the elegant language of the deaf culture, and it was so damn cool.
“I have to go,” Eve said, and the grin slid off Gretch’s face.
“I’m grateful for your time, Gretch. I’ll be okay because he really does love me. Last week, he left some flowers from the garden and a note saying he was sorry.”
The rote sentences came as no surprise, but guilt still squeezed Gretch’s heart. Except for the one time she’d convinced Eve to start a plan, each call ended with this tone of resignation. As always, Gretch reiterated her assurance of support, but when the line disconnected, she slid the headset off with a frustrated grunt.
“One day she’ll be ready,” Zamira said in her rich, soothing voice. Her fingers shaped each word gracefully as she spoke.
Gretch recognized the signs for one and day. She also knew a few swear words, which she signed back. “Give me five minutes with that husband,” she retorted, jaw stiff.
“Unwise. That man has no problem hitting a woman.” Another call came through, and Zamira reached for her headset, placing it carefully over her elegant peach hijab. “Your shift ended ten minutes ago. Go enjoy your Sunday.”
Gretch made no move to leave, although she straightened the cubicle for the next volunteer, Sandra, who was chronically late. No way would Gretch leave Zamira alone. What if another call came in? No one deserved to be put on hold when it took every ounce of courage to place the call in the first place.
Gretch scrubbed her fingers through her hair, both to release frustration and fluff up her headset hairdo. Enjoy your Sunday. Knowing Eve would face that bastard when his shift ended?
Gretch sipped her coffee. Her day was officially wrecked. She should just go home and do laundry. No, Dwayne was visiting his family; being alone when she was this frustrated wasn’t a good idea. Maybe head to the gym and lift weights until her muscles shrieked as loudly as the thoughts in her head? Too many men. She couldn’t deal with the entire gender at the moment. She needed a place that renewed her faith in couples in love. A walk through Lincoln Park? Watch the world go by at D’Angelo’s Café? It had received top reviews in last Sunday’s Tribune for romantic ambiance. Granted it was across the city, but the afternoon loomed, lonely and empty.
On the corner of the desk, her muted cellphone screen lit with an incoming text. Brandon. You left too soon. Let’s meet up so I can repay the (.gif of fireworks bursting.)
A shudder rolled through her. She typed a cryptic blow off. Men were not on the agenda today. At all.
Even in the blinding afternoon sun, Sean recognized Gretch’s willowy figure and spikey platinum hair like he would a Bernini masterpiece or the first strands of La Boheme’s Che Gelida Manina aria. His heart beat so erratically that if EKG leads had been stuck to his torso, an ambulance would be screaming in the distance. The sudden hush couldn’t be his imagination. He glanced around. Yep—the other patrons were as drawn to her as if an asteroid streaked toward the peaceful café.
Gretch jaywalked across the wide street, her long-legged stride and confident poise a smoke-and-mirrors trick hiding her prickly temperament. Okay, that wasn’t accurate. She defined bold majesty, like some mythological warrior goddess. She took what she wanted, said what was on her mind, and didn’t suffer gawking fools. He’d fallen hard for her fearlessness, her determination to live life on her terms, but he’d quickly learned to worship her from afar. Any verbal encounter meant matching her acerbic wit to the point of a WWE smackdown. He’d reigned as champion until last night, across the bar’s dance floor. He hadn’t been able to shut down the pathetic pining fast enough.
Sean set his cup of tea cup down before the tremor in his fingers outed him further. Pull it together!
So he’d fucked up last night. The bar scene was her turf, and being the best restorer at Moore and Morrow was his. But here—this café? It was the perfect place to finally show her he was dateable. Hi, have a seat. Can I buy you a coffee? How hard was that? What if they had a great conversation? Found lots in common? Sean steadied his erratic breathing as if facing down a martial arts opponent.
She headed closer, her eyes locking onto the last empty wrought-iron table just as a couple carrying a loaded tray nabbed the seats. Sean grinned at the haughty displeasure flashing across her face.
Those Queen of Fucking Everything expressions. Last year he’d impulsively bought a tin of peppermints with that phrase emblazoned across the lid, but it still lay at the bottom of his knapsack because she was so out of his league. Today? This was serendipitous. Hi, have a seat. Can I buy you a coffee?
At ten feet away, her gaze landed on him. Her stride stalled. His introverted instinct was to pretend he didn’t see her, but one did not not notice Gretch. Sean forced his hand into an indifferent wave.
She scanned the populated tables once more and halted at his. The perfect spring day morphed into air so oppressive he had to breathe through his mouth. His heart thudded like a conga drum. Here goes. “Hi—”
“You do realize you’re taking up an entire table for four.”
The invitation died on his lips. His sarcastic alter ego awoke like Godzilla. “Is this your charm-school way of asking to sit with me?”
“Hell, no. I can’t tolerate men today.”
“I see.” He ignored the insecure side of him that was paralyzed by her ire. She’d said men so A: this wasn’t about him; and B: she’d included him in the species subset. His brothers wouldn’t have been that generous. Sean touched the knapsack at his feet. “Allow me to vacate, so that you, a single, can occupy the table for four.”
Her lips pursed. Not like his logic had stumped her, more like she’d expected her brushoff to be met with laughter and a second, cajoling invitation to sit with him. His breath streamed out. Oh shit. Why couldn’t he instinctively know how to act before everything became a social gaffe?
He sat back and kicked the opposite chair out with his foot. “Have a seat.”
“How gallant.” Gretch folded into it sideways, hooking a slim leg over the arm. He’d never seen her in jeans, and impossibly, they emphasized her coltish legs more than miniskirts. Her stilettos were a shiny, Ferrari red and sharply tapered at the toe. She cocked her head and assessed him with eyes a unique blend of rosy brown and kobicha. In his spare time, he’d tried to recreate that exact shade with his paint palette, to no avail.
She seemed oblivious to the men around her, but their voracious glances emboldened him.
“They don’t have wait service out here,” he said without stuttering, drooling, or his voice cracking. “Can I get you a coffee? Pastry?” A tin of mints that describes you perfectly?
“No. Thank you.” She tapped long, red-with-silver-glitter nails on the table. “Any more caffeine and I’ll turn into a comic book supervillain.”
And this is where he got stuck. Should he cite stats on caffeine and its effects on the human body? He could expound for hours. What would guys like Jace do with that cute supervillain remark? They’d say something cute and goofy back. Do it!
“You, uh—smell like cayenne pepper.” He chugged his decaffeinated tea. Seriously, it’d be so great to choke and die on the spot.
She arched a brow. “Why are you here?”
He glanced at his cup instead of replying.
“I mean, why aren’t you cleaning the Wickham art? You told Hannah you’d finish this weekend.”
“I worked all day. I’ll wrap up tomorrow.” He frowned at the third degree. It wasn’t like she was his boss. “Why are you here?” So much for serendipity.
Gretch nodded at the D’Angelo Café sign with royal indifference. “The Grand Opening was written up in the Tribune.” She kicked her leg around and sat up. Her heel struck the pavement with a sharp click. “Why were you at Teenie’s Martinis last night?”
He swallowed convulsively. Answer with protective snark, or open up honestly? He placed the cup on the table, turning it in microscopic increments until the café logo faced him squarely. “I overheard you tell Hannah where you were going.” He traced the logo with his thumbnail. “Thought I’d check it out. Buy you a drink.”
“Then why didn’t you?”
He paused. He’d braced for: “I’d have to be awfully drunk to accept a drink from you.” What now? No way would he tell Gretch he’d lost his nerve, bumped into the other woman slinking his way out the backdoor, and succumbed to her lewd proposition. “Turns out I’m not into that scene.” Any of it. But because Gretch hadn’t battered him with the sentence he’d expected, he added, “So…would you’ve had a drink with me?”
She cocked her head and examined her nails instead of answering. Sean glanced at the patrons, the bustling square, the long shadows easing toward their table. Five cars slowed for the traffic light: white Prius, cream Acadia, candy-apple Mustang with its convertible top down, black Charger, black Odyssey. He retraced the logo, his knee jiggling. He should’ve chosen snark, because whatever came out of her mouth next would wound deep. Her silence strained every muscle in him, stretching him like some medieval torture rack. Five more seconds and he’d beg for mercy.
“You’re a nice guy,” she said in that awful, kind tone his brothers’ girlfriends used. He braced for The Adjectives. Weird. Strange. Peculiar… Gretch rested her arms halfway across the table, fingers splayed, still looking at them instead of him. “I was so sure I couldn’t tolerate any man this afternoon without going ballistic, but you’re…different.”
Hope rose. Different wasn’t bad! “Maybe we can—”
A faint smile appeared on her face, and his vocal chords seized. Hope swan-dived off Kilimanjaro, the free fall stealing his oxygen.
“You’d never survive me, Sean.”
The nerd panicking within wholeheartedly believed her. The fourth-degree black belt took exception. “You hardly know me.”
“I date a certain kind of guy for a certain kind of reason.” She reached over and twisted his cup so the logo slanted at an unacceptable sixty-two degree angle. Immediately his skin crawled with the need to right it, but she’d stuck her chin in her hand and waited, that faint smile still in place, like a cat watching a cornered mouse.
He folded his arms. “What insurmountable feat does it take to be that guy?” His jiggling knee made the table quake.
Gretch laughed, and the throaty sound washed over him, almost capturing his attention from the cup that needed turning. Desperately.
“It’d take a miracle.” She rose gracefully. “See you at work.”
Sean multi-tasked dragging the cup into position, watching the smooth sway of her hips, and thinking up a miracle. She wouldn’t tolerate chasing. It’d be smarter to ignore her for a day or two—act as if this encounter hadn’t taken place. He inhaled until his lungs hurt. Amid the dominant aromas of coffee, gas fumes, and cigarette smoke, he could still catch her peppery scent.
His smile hurt his cheeks. She’d called him different. That was huge.