Walking at a turtle’s pace, I reach Cinder’s bar. I have every intention of hot food and a steaming bath. In that order. The only thing I’m missing is a nice massage. I ache in areas I didn’t think were possible until today, but it’s a delicious ache. I’m sure tomorrow, after a night of rest and my muscles have some time to think about the hard labor they’ve endured, I’ll be thinking otherwise. Possibly cursing my existence. Cinder may have to roll me to work tomorrow.
Feeling carefree for once, and in no rush to get home, I’ve had the pleasure of watching the sun set. The last of its rays burst from the east’s horizon, casting the clouds in brilliant shades of pinks and orange. The tips of puffy, sprawling shapes shine bright gold. Only the sun could paint such a serene picture, dipping below the horizon and closing the end of a day with the promise that it’ll return tomorrow.
Crickets chirp in a small unkempt field across the street, a dark protected forest its backdrop. Purple wild flowers sprout between the long blades of grass and a breeze drifts its sweet scent my direction. I inhale, deep, allowing the aroma to stroke my senses and ease my worry.
Checking over my shoulder, I grasp the handle of Cinder’s bar door and pause. Two men, dressed in intimidating black leather outfits hold a conversation while hovering around their motorcycles. Their attention is solely on each other and whatever topic they discuss. Smoke rises and clogs the air around them, a burning white stick tucked between their index and middle fingers.
I eye their cigarettes and friendly conversation, and my thoughts drift. Chloe mentioned how guarded and reluctant I am to share anything about myself. I know she has a point. I purposely keep myself shielded – mind, soul, body. Any friend could become an enemy. Any lover could break the soul. I have enough going on than to be tangled in a web of conflicting emotions. It terrifies me just thinking about it. But… opening up, finding that one person to place trust in, does have its appeal. The two motorcyclists seem to have that in each other. Watching them interact like old friends warms my heart, yet fills me with envy.
Sighing, I come to a conclusion and nod curtly. Baby steps, I tell myself. If I can manage to keep my body safe, than I will look into feeding my soul. That is, if I don’t die first from whatever condition I suffer from.
Grimacing at that last thought, I yank on the handle and open the door. The smell of deep fried, breaded onion rings greet me first and my stomach rumbles, reminding me I haven’t eaten today. Two customers are huddled near the back, seated at a small round table while they nurse from absurdly large mugs of beer. Their eyes snap to me as I cross the threshold, intent on seeking Cinder. Cinder first, then food, I promise my stomach. And maybe one of those beers. Or two.
Cinder’s bar is known for large drinks and specialty brews. However, it attracts an interesting crowd. For example, those two men are huge and I’d be lying if I told myself I wasn’t intimidated. Through their hooded sweatshirts I can see muscles bulge which rope their upper arms. Both have this outdoor, mountain man look, and their eyes are sharp and focused.
I feel their gaze burning a hole in my back as I walk the short distance to the bar. The hardwood floor squeaks under my light weight, and instead of correcting my posture to quiet my steps, I lumber forward. I’m too exhausted to care that the floor speaks my arrival like I’m a stampede of baby elephants.
Hearing my entrance, Cinder shuffles from the storage room, carrying a large box that hides half of his face. His frown of concentration brightens upon seeing me and I sit on a stool at the same time he props the box at the edge of the bar’s top.
My muscles groan more than the cushion as I plop myself down. I shove the stray hairs from my face. “Have any onion rings left?”
He leans on the counter, and his fingers grasp the edges while his arms hold his torso’s weight. He ignores my question. “How’d the first day go, Jinxie?”
I roll my shoulders, desperate to rid the prickling sensation settled between them. “Not bad. I like it.”
He smiles broad. “Liar. You fucking smell. You could have at least showered before you sat on my clean stool.”
I squint and pucker my lips. “You and I both know these stools are anything but clean.”
“You don’t know that.” He sniffs and rubs his nose with his thumb, belying his own words.
I point a dirty finger at him. “I work here too, you know. Barely, but I do. This bar attracts the primal and horny.” I flick my thumb over my shoulder. “Just like those two. Are they still staring?” I already know the answer to that, but I can’t pass up a moment to prove him wrong. Or maybe I’m exhausted enough to challenge instead of my normal squint of disbelief.
He pushes from the bar, standing upright. “Probably your ass.” He shrugs with a nonchalant expression. “It’s a nice ass. Besides, Aaron and Evan are harmless.”
Frowning, I spin on my stool and get a good look at the watchers. “You know them?”
The two men raise their glasses to me. The guy on the right spills some of his beer and the gold liquid splats on the wooden table top. The color blends perfectly with the detailed grain. Charming white grins are plastered on their sculpted, rugged faces.
“Yep,” he says with a southern accent. “Old pals.”
Now that I’m studying their features, they do look a bit familiar. When I bar-tend on the occasional night, faces blur together. It’s not the faces that are memorable. It’s the favorite drink they order. Even so, I’m not surprised I didn’t immediately recognize them. There’s few regulars that come in here. Most of the time, it’s tourists who grace the bar’s stools and grungy wooden chairs.
Speaking of repetitive orders…I spin back around. “Onion rings?”
He points at me. “You’re going to die of a heart attack if you keep eating like that.”
Ignoring him, I lean forward, reach in my back pocket, and pull out a wad of cash. “Rent,” I mumble in response to the questioning tilt of his head. I mentally high five myself for shutting him up before he could get all motherly on me.
Sliding off the stool, I stride into the kitchen with every intention of helping myself and then disappearing. I grab a paper plate from a shelf above the fryer and load the greasy crisp onions across its surface. The delicious smell has me taking quicker steps and when I walk back to the main area of bar, I reluctantly pause and shake my head at Cinder. He’s counting the crisp green bills like a mob boss who’s just struck a deal with his competition.
The door opens behind me, alerting to the arrival of a new customer. The beautiful song of crickets entice me to see if the sunset is gone, and I look over my shoulder. The outside is barely visible past an extremely attractive stranger. His head is shaven and his clothes are crisp, if not slightly expensive. Our eyes lock and I falter in my stance, the tip of my shoe catching on absolutely nothing. He’s tall, yet lined with sculpted muscles, and the depths of his bronze eyes pour into me, a funnel of focused intensity. His skin is flawless, dark and smooth.
Quickly, I break the eye contact before it can suck me in its alluring depths and bend to grab an onion which fell from my plate. Without looking back, I rush to the steps and briskly climb up my stairs like the coward I am, sore body be damned.
As soon as I enter my apartment, I shut the door and lean my back against it. My muscles scream in anger and my breaths pant in fear. I frown as I listen to my heart thud. Why am I scared? Sure, the guy was extremely attractive, but so is Cinder and I don’t run from him. Maybe it was the way he was looking at me? Either way, I’m a little shaken, and if I’m being honest, completely embarrassed.
The familiar aroma of my belongings calm me and the TV softly casts the news as background noise. Grabbing an onion, I stuff it in my mouth. And then another. And then another, until the stuffing does the trick and calms my nerves. I make my way to the couch, swing my leg up, and drop myself on a cushion. The air wheezes from the backrest and I prop my feet on an overturned crate I use as a coffee table.
Grabbing the remote, I turn up the volume, settle in, and crunch my mouthful of onion.
My mind drifts to tall, dark, and handsome downstairs and my cowardly actions which followed. It’s not like I’ll see him again. I’ve never seen him before, so chances are, he’s a tourist. Let it go, Jinx.
My eyes flick across the screen and find focus on the news lady’s giant nose and flared nostrils, and a little nudge inside my brain forces me to pay attention. It’s my subconscious alerting me. I double blink and look to the news anchor’s backdrop. I stop mid-chew, recognizing the scene.
Yellow tape surrounds the area I was chased to the other night. The factory’s walls look larger than I remember, and the area seems brighter – perhaps due to police lighting.
I turn up the volume once more, my heart jumping to my throat. I know for a fact that what I’m going to hear next, I’m not going to like.
The screen flashes back to the same scene, but on a different day. Paramedics wheel a black body bag into their ambulance. Blood splatters the factory’s metal wall, dripping to the ground before it had time to dry. My jaw snaps shut, crunching food, when I see a detective bending with tweezers balanced in his fingers. He grasps the fragments scattered across the ground, and lifts them to his eye. My stomach rolls. That looks like skin. What the hell happened?
The screen flashes to the present day news anchor. “There are still no answers to what happened to this gentlemen. We don’t know the nature of this attack, and the police haven’t discovered the murder weapon.”
The screen turns to an interview with a civilian recorded during daylight. “The head was blown clean off.” The young factory employee shifts his weight from foot to foot. He’d rather be anywhere but there.
The news anchor turns the spotlight back on herself, and goes on to describe the date and time of the attack. When she begins to ask witnesses to come forward, her voice drowns to the blood pumping in my ears.
The man in the body bag . . . That was the man . . . my attacker. It explains how I got away unscathed, but what weapon would cause such damage? And what hero has the capability of such destruction?
The stool I sit in is still warm from Cinder’s apartment renter. Admitting to myself, and my curious wolf, that she wasn’t what I expected is difficult enough, but to smell her scent… honeysuckle and lemon, yet a hint of something I’ve never smelled before. The unnameable aroma pokes my curiosity. The way Cinder talked about her – I had pictured her as an attention-seeker, a woman with breasts half out of her shirt and enough makeup to supply a circus for a year. That’s usually the type Cinder goes for, and even without much proof, I assumed, as everyone else did, that Cinder was sleeping with the woman.
The moment I landed my eyes on her, I knew that wasn’t true. She’s kind-natured, yet guarded. It was obvious when she ran from me as soon as our eyes met. I can’t imagine she runs from everyone. Something about me spooked her enough for a quick exit. There’s an attraction there, a pull. Lust, maybe?
More importantly, and back on point, anyone who runs from another man’s attention, isn’t someone who’s sleeping around.
Cinder pockets a wad of cash while I continue to look at the dark stairwell. Aaron and Evan sit on either side of me, the silence stretching until Evan clears his throat.
I push my tongue into the cheek of my mouth, turn, and place my elbows on the counter. Cinder’s eyes swivel from me, to the stairs, and back again. A sly grin pulls at one side of his lips, but he wisely keeps his thoughts to himself.
Aaron lifts his beer and takes a gulp. Foam coats his upper lip. “What are you doing here, Jacob?”
Cinder rests his back against the counter across from the bar. “I was thinking the same thing. You never come here. Has something else drawn your interest?” His smile widens.
Evan slaps my shoulder. “The man needs a break. Get him a beer, Cinder.”
I hold up a hand to stop Cinder. “Chloe’s coming.” As soon as the words leave my mouth, Rex walks in with Reese shuffling behind him, her face stuffed in her book. I honestly wonder if she has a death wish. Walking and reading is just as dangerous as texting and driving. Reese stubs her foot on a chair and hisses. I grin.
“Why?” Cinder asks.
I shrug. “She said she had some information.”
Aaron turns his full body to me. “About the mystery murder? Did you learn anything at the morgue?”
“I have no idea what she needs me for.” I run a hand down my face, wiping the smile from it. “Or why it couldn’t wait until we arrive back in pack territory.” I sigh deeply and relay all the information we learned today. The men listen intently, their drinks and sarcasm forgotten. Just as Rex, they know when to put business aside.
Rex sniffs the air, a confused look scrunching his eyebrows. He turns to Cinder. “Who have you had in here? Anyone you don’t recognize?”
Cinder matches his scowl. “No. Why?”
“That scent…” he sniffs again and stops when the bar door opens and Chloe walks in.
Chloe looks around, adjusts her purse on her shoulder, and marches straight for me. I turn my stool and take in her determination. Chloe can be a force to be reckoned with, so whatever news she has to tell me will most likely be blurted.
She looks to me, then to Cinder over my shoulder. “Jinx – his tenant – my new employee …” She raises her voice, and blurts as expected. “She isn’t who you think she is.”
“Excuse me?” Cinder inquires with a high-pitched tone.
I cross my arms over my chest. “What do you mean?”
She drops her purse on the table behind her. “I mean, she isn’t human.”
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