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Is love in the cards?
Since birth, Lexie Berry has had nothing but bad luck. Orphaned at an early age, she had a rough childhood and a boyfriend who was murdered. Now the beautiful, stylish Lexie is determined to change her luck and her life. But first she’s got to make good on a promise: to pick up Ty Walker from prison. One look at the gorgeous ex-convict and Lexie knows she’s in trouble-and already thinking about taking a walk on the wild side . . .
For five years, Ty was imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. Now he wants revenge on the people who framed him. Yet when the high-stakes poker player sees the leggy Lexie, he suddenly has other desires on his mind. When Ty tells Lexie that he’s innocent, she tries to stop his plan for vengeance and help him become a better man. But as Ty battles his inner demons, dirty cops and criminals plot to take him out. Can he and Lexie find a way to escape the past?
Table of Contents
A Preview of Breathe
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MY CELL RANG, I snatched it off the passenger seat, looked at the display and it said, "Shift calling."
I flipped it open, my other arm twisting so I could look at my watch.
Twelve oh two.
Shift was impatient, as usual.
"Hey," I said into the phone.
My eyes went out the passenger-side window, through the two guard towers, down the long tunnel created by two sides of high, cinder-block-walled fence topped with razor wire circling through lines of barbed wire, the heat sweltering on the day making the air down that open empty tunnel wave and shimmer.
"Nope," I answered.
"Fuck!" Shift clipped. "What's takin' so fuckin' long? He's supposed to be released at noon."
"Shift, it's noon oh two," I told him.
"Yeah, so?" he asked back, sounding pissed and impatient. "They're releasing him from prison. I doubt he's sticking around for a going-away party."
I doubted that too.
"I'll call," I promised.
"They got seven minutes," he threatened, and I stifled a sigh.
This was Shift. He was a thousand miles away. He was a full-time pimp slash drug dealer and part-time asshole. Though, that said, he put far more effort into being an asshole than his other occupations. And he thought he had some sway over the California Corrections Department.
"All right," I said.
"Call me the minute that brother breathes free air," he bit off and hung up.
I flipped my phone shut wondering, for the seven thousandth time, why the fuck I was doing this.
I came up with no answers except for the fact that when Ronnie was murdered, he'd left me with one thing.
I would have preferred a vast estate, a fortune in jewels or, perhaps, nothing.
I got Shift.
And although after Ronnie died I wanted nothing to do with that part of his life, I wanted to move on, turn my back on it all, Shift wouldn't allow that. If Shift got his talons in you, they went deep, attached straight to the bone, the tips sprang open into claws that sunk into your marrow and didn't let go. Not for anything.
And Shift had his talons in me. I didn't want it, didn't invite it but there they were.
The good news was, he didn't often scroll down to my number on his phone.
The other good news was, when he did, the shit he asked for was usually not that hard to do and it was never illegal. He knew me. He knew where I stood. He knew there was no fucking way I'd get involved in any of his garbage.
But he also knew I loved Ronnie more than anything in this world and Ronnie—for reasons only known to Ronnie—loved Shift only slightly less than he loved me. Though, I had to admit, sometimes then and now, I wondered if he loved me slightly less than he loved Shift—but I didn't often go there.
So he knew I'd take Shift's back.
Unless Shift tried to get me dirty. Then he knew I'd throw him right under the fucking bus even if I had to take my life in my hands to do it.
So he avoided that. Not that he cared about my life, just that I might succeed before he took me down.
The other good news was, Shift loved Ronnie more than anything in the world so he didn't play me… too much.
The bad news was, he was in my life and therefore I was sitting outside a prison in southern California in my 2011 electric blue Charger with the two wide, white racing stripes that went up the hood, over the roof and down the trunk and spoiler waiting for a man named Ty Walker to be released from prison.
Shift did not give me a full brief about this assignment. He told me to be sitting right where I was at noon, to wait for Walker, to call him the minute Walker got released and then to take further directions from Walker. He also told me Walker would know it was me and my Charger waiting for him.
I took a week's vacation to do this. I had nothing else planned for my vacation and Shift was footing this bill so I thought… whatever. I thought this mainly because that was the only thing I could think. Shift didn't take no for an answer very often and Shift freaked me out. He loved Ronnie, this was true, they weren't blood but they were closer than it. But Shift was not right. Not at all. There wasn't something missing in Shift that most other human beings had. There were multiple somethings missing. And all the things that were missing were the good things like compassion, humor, decency, honesty.
He knew about loyalty. He knew brotherly love. That was all he knew. Other than that, he had no morals that I'd witnessed. None.
And Ronnie was dead.
When Ronnie was alive, he stood between Shift and me and he stood between Shift, his world and my world.
But Ronnie was dead, and I didn't suspect loyalty and brotherly love for a dead man would stop Shift from doing what he had to do to get what he wanted, including from me.
I didn't have to balance this line often but it was there. I knew I could push him and I also knew just how far I could push him. And, for whatever reason, me picking up Ty Walker was important to him. Important enough that I knew Shift's loyalty to Ronnie would vanish if I pushed him too hard and then I'd topple over that line.
I didn't need that shit.
So there I was, waiting for a soon-to-be ex-con to walk out of prison.
I sat in my car in the hot sun, no breeze flowing through my opened windows, thinking that it seemed like I spent a lifetime doing this kind of crap to steer clear of shit. It was exhausting. I was tired of it. Bone tired. And scared. Because I knew the odds were against me that I could stay clear of it. With Shift in my life and my number on his phone, someday he'd need me to do something and it would be something where I'd get hit with shit.
I had to get out.
I glanced at my watch to see it was twelve oh seven then I glanced down the tunnel again and something was moving through the shimmers. That path was long and the heat on the day was immense so I didn't see much but something made me keep watching.
And as the thing moving through the shimmers formed into a man, I kept watching as my breath started sticking in my throat.
Then the man kept getting closer, coming into focus through the heat waves, and my breath grew shallow as my body got still.
I didn't blink. I didn't move. I just watched that man coming at me and my car.
He got even closer and my body moved for me. I didn't tell it to move, it just did. Without taking my eyes off him, my hand reached for the door handle, released it and I unfolded out of the car, losing sight of him only when the roof was in my way for less than a second.
Shit, shit, fucking shit!
He was huge. Huge. I'd never seen a man that big. He had to be six foot five, six foot six, maybe even taller.
His shoulders were immensely broad. The wall of his chest was just that. A wall. His hips were narrow, his thighs enormous. He was muscle from neck down, pure, firm, defined muscle. I saw it through his skintight black t-shirt, his tattooed arms, his jeans that tightened on his thighs as he moved.
His hair was black and clipped short on his head, another tat drifted up his neck.
His jaw was square and strong. No stubble. Clean-shaven. His brow was heavy, his eyebrows black, arched and thick but the left one had a line through it, a scar that matched the smaller one under the eye.
But this scar did nothing, not one thing, to mar his utterly perfect features. Strong, straight nose. High, cut cheekbones. Full lips. His eyes were shaped like almonds, turned slightly down at the sides and ringed, even when he was the width of my car away, I could still see, by thick, curling black lashes.
That said, his face, though sheer male beauty, was blank. Scary blank. Expressionless. Completely. His eyes were on me standing in my opened door watching him round the hood and turning with his movements. But there was nothing in those eyes. Nothing. Void.
It was terrifying.
Ronnie and Shift didn't hang out with good people. They were the dregs of society, but even dregs had dregs and the dregs of the dregs were who Ronnie and Shift hung out with. Again, it didn't happen often but it wasn't like I hadn't come into contact with some of these people. And I didn't like being around them but I learned a long time ago to hide that.
But this man, Ty Walker, was something else.
I did not think he was the dregs of the dregs. Or even the dregs.
I just had no idea what he was except downright terrifying.
I made an almost full circle as he cleared my door and walked half a step in, pinning me between him and the car, and I had to tilt my head way, way, way back to look up at him.
It was not an optical illusion, a trick of the heat waves. He was tall and he was huge.
And also, his eyelashes were long and curly.
I'd never seen eyes that shape, lashes that thick and curly. I'd never seen any single feature on any living thing as beautiful as his eyes.
He stared down at me with his beautiful but blank eyes and my only thought was that he surely could lift one of his big fists and pound me straight through the asphalt with one blow to the top of my head.
"Uh… hey," I pushed out between my lips, "I'm Lexie."
He stared down at me and said not a word.
Then I said, "Shift wants a call the minute you're out. I, uh…"
I stopped speaking because he leaned into me with an arm out and I couldn't stop myself from pressing my back into the car. But he just pulled my cell from my hand, straightened as he flipped it open, his gorgeous eyes staring at it as his thumb moved on the keypad. Then he put it to his ear.
Two seconds later, he said in a deep voice that I felt reverberating in my chest even though he was three feet away, "I'm out."
Then he flipped the phone closed and tossed it to me.
Automatically, my hands came up and I bobbled it but luckily caught it before it fell to the asphalt at our feet.
"Keys," he rumbled, and I blinked.
His big hand came up between us, palm to the sky, and I looked down at it to see his black tats and the veins sticking out on his superhumanly muscled forearm.
"Keys," he repeated.
My eyes went back to his beautiful ones.
"But… it's my car."
"Keys," he said again, same rumble, same tone, no impatience, no nothing, and I got the sense he'd stand there all day fencing me in and repeating that word until I complied.
I was thinking I didn't want to spend the whole day in the hot sun having a conversation with a mountain of a man where his only contribution was one one-syllable word.
"They're in the ignition."
"Passenger seat," he replied, and I wondered if he knew any verbs.
I didn't think it wise to ask this question. I nodded and noticed he didn't move. There was a slip of space on either side of him between door and car but only a small slip. He didn't intend to get out of my way.
I turned sideways, sucked in my gut and squeezed by him, the front of my body skimming the hard side of his, the back of it skimming the car door.
I got free and moved around the trunk to the passenger side.
He'd adjusted the seat and folded his big bulk into the driver's side by the time I angled in the passenger side.
The second I pulled the door shut, my precious baby roared to life.
He didn't put his seat belt on or wait for me to do so as he skidded out, wheels screeching against asphalt and we took off through the waves of heat down the road in front of the prison.
* * *
"Two," Ty Walker rumbled at the woman who was wearing a yellow waitress dress, white cuffs on her short sleeves, a little white apron, a little white cap on her head, the whole outfit belonging in a sitcom from the '70s.
She had her head tilted way back and she was staring up at him blinking rapidly, easily read expressions moving across her face. Awe. Fear. Titillation. Curiosity. Lust.
"Two," Ty Walker repeated when she didn't move then he added, "Booth." Then he finished, "Back."
She kept blinking.
I stepped in front of him and waved my hand in hopes of getting her attention.
She blinked a couple of times and her head tipped down so she could look at me but it was still tilted back because I was also taller than her and I would be even if I wasn't wearing platform sandals.
"Hi," I said chirpily. "Can we have a booth at the back of the restaurant?"
She stared at me, her eyes flicked up to Walker then they came back to me and she nodded. She turned to the hostess stand, grabbed a couple of menus and hustled through the diner to the back where there was an open booth. She slapped the menus on the table and Walker rounded her and sat with his back to the wall. I slid in on the other side.
"Thanks," I said, smiling at her.
"Coffee," Walker said over me. "Now."
She nodded quickly.
He kept speaking. "Bacon, crispy, double order. Sausage links, double order. Four pancakes. Four eggs, over medium. Four slices of bread. Hash browns, double order. After the coffee."
She blinked at him and it hit me that was the most he'd said since our hourlong ride from the prison to this diner consisted of no talk at all. And it also hit me that maybe he actually didn't know any verbs since he still hadn't used any but one and that was to tell Shift he was out. Even so, he'd only used two words to do that.
Then she looked at me.
"I don't know what I want to eat yet but a Diet Coke would be sweet. I'll take a look at the menu. If you can get my guy here his food, though, that would be good," I said to her. "He's, uh… hungry," I finished, pointing out the obvious since he ordered enough to feed four.
"We have Diet Pepsi," she whispered, her whisper holding a tremor of fear, like me not getting Coke would send Walker into a violent rage the bloody results of which would make network news.
"That works too." I smiled at her again.
She nodded and rushed away.
I looked at Walker. He was looking out the window.
Then I looked at the menu.
She came with the coffee first and I ordered a tuna melt and curly fries. She came back with my diet. Then she came with his food before my tuna melt. Finally, she delivered my sandwich.
By this time, Walker was almost done with his food.
And, I will note, he said not one word throughout.
As I chewed a fry, I figured it was time for me to suck it up and attempt conversation if just to find out what was next.
"Is it good?" I asked as he shoved pancake into his mouth, thinking to ease into it.
His eyes cut to me.
What he did not do was speak. He just chewed and swallowed while forking into pancake and, once he swallowed, he shoved more pancake in.
Then his eyes moved through the diner and didn't come back to me as he continued to scan his surroundings.
I tried again, deciding on a more direct approach as, clearly, this guy was not into idle chitchat.
"So, um… what's next on the agenda?"
He looked at me again. Then he speared a sausage link with his fork, brought it to his well-formed lips and bit it in half with even, very white, extremely strong-looking teeth.
He did this and he didn't answer.
So I kept trying. "It would kinda be nice to know, uh… what we're doing and, um… where we're going," I told him.
He ate the rest of the sausage link.
He again didn't answer.
"Uh… Ty—" I started, but he finally spoke and when he did, he spoke over me.
"Name," he rumbled.
"Name?" I asked, confused.
His beautiful eyes didn't leave me and he also didn't explain.
"You mean my name?" I asked.
Again, he continued to stare at me without saying a word.
"Lexie," I told him, guessing that's what he meant and not pointing out I'd already introduced myself.
"Full name," he said then speared another sausage link.
While he bit off half, I answered, "Alexa Anne Berry."
He chewed. He swallowed.
"Priors?" he asked, and I felt my brows draw together.
"Sorry?" I asked back.
"You got a record?"
I was surprised at this question for two reasons. One, he'd used his first verb, and I had convinced myself he only knew caveman-speak. Two, it was a weird question.
"No," I answered. "No record."
Or, at least, not one that wasn't sealed. What could I say? There was a reason Ronnie was my boyfriend since high school. I'd been wild. It was just, back then, he wasn't. Then I stopped being wild, he'd started and he did it better than me. I had a juvenile record but that didn't count. Or I told myself that.
His gorgeous eyes did a head to chest and back again and his head tipped very slightly to the side.
Then he asked, "Sweep?"
"What?" I asked back and also I was back to confused.
"You get picked up in a sweep? Somethin' that didn't stick."
I shook my head, still confused. "A sweep for what?"
"Solicitation," he answered, and my back went straight.
That's when I knew he thought I was one of Shift's girls.
I leaned in and whispered on a slight annoyed hiss, testing the boundaries, I knew, but pissed enough to do it, "I'm not a prostitute."
And I couldn't believe he'd ask it. I mean, did I look like a prostitute? No! And I'd been around enough of them to know. Sure, one could say the ribbed white tank and lowrider, khaki shorts I was wearing weren't the height of fashion, but they weren't slut clothes. Even if I was wearing (very cute, in my opinion) tan, wide-strapped platform wedges (that still took me nowhere near his height).
It was hot out there!
And I wore high heels. It was what I did. It was who I was. A lot of women who weren't prostitutes wore high heels. Even with shorts.
"Shift knows two types of women, whores and junkies. You a junkie?"
"No," I snapped and sat back. "Jesus, of course not."
Now he was really ticking me off because I'd been around junkies too and I really didn't look like any of them. My hair was clean, for one. And I'd had it trimmed not a week ago. I had body fat, for another. Maybe a wee bit too much so, seriously, not a strung-out junkie.
"Shift knows two types of women, whores and junkies," he repeated. "Which one are you?"
"Neither," I bit off.
"Shift knows two types of women, whores and junkies," he said yet again. "He sent you which means he knows you so which one are you?"
Okay, now I just was really ticked off.
Therefore I replied, "You can ask it again and again, Mr. Humongo, but the answer doesn't change."
This was the wrong thing to do. I knew it when he instantly dropped his fork on his plate and both hands flashed out, catching mine by the wrists. He pulled them and, incidentally, me to him across the table, my arms insides up. His chin tilted down and his eyes did a scan of my upper extremities.
He was looking for tracks.
I made a mental note that he might be large but that didn't mean he couldn't move fast.
Then I yanked at my hands.
He didn't release them so I hissed, "Let me go."
He let me go and grabbed his fork. Then he ate the rest of the sausage.
I sucked in breath thinking maybe I should have pushed this particular favor with Shift, as in, put my foot down, refused to do it and took my chances.
Just driving across a few states, picking up some guy from prison, taking him wherever. That's what I thought it was.
It was never just that with Shift.
I should have known better.
"Toes," he muttered, dropping his fork and going after a piece of toast.
"What?" I asked, going after another fry but finding myself not hungry though thinking that my situation was uncertain and therefore I should probably eat when I had the opportunity.
His eyes came to me.
They were light brown. I just noticed that. The shape and the eyelashes had taken all my attention so I missed that they were light brown. This was a little surprising considering his skin tone said he was a mutt and that mutt definitely included African-American. There was Caucasian in him, I was guessing, but no more than half. His skin was as perfect as the rest of him but dark-toned and not with Italian olive undertones but definitely black. Whoever's genes formed him, they gave him the best of the both of them. At least in the looks department. Personality was seriously up for debate.
"Shoot up between the toes," he explained, and my thoughts went from the color of his eyes, the perfection of his skin and his luck with heredity to our annoying conversation.
"I told you, Walker, I'm not a junkie. I've never shot up anything, on my arms, between my toes, anywhere," I stated then bit into the fry maybe a little angrily but still, what the fuck?
And further to what the fuck, why was he asking me these questions?
He studied me, eyes still blank, nothing working back there or nothing he'd give away. But his gaze didn't leave my face.
This lasted a while. It lasted while he chewed on his toast and I made a dent in my fries. It lasted long enough for me to wish he'd scan the restaurant or stare out the window again.
Then he declared on a low, knowing rumble, "You spread for him."
I stopped avoiding his study of me and looked back at him. "What?"
"Surprising," he muttered, going back to his fork and his pancakes.
I guessed as to his meaning and informed him, "I'm not Shift's bookie."
His eyes shot from his pancakes to me.
"I'm not Shift's bookie," I repeated. "I don't do a spread for him."
He stared at me.
Then he whispered, "Jesus."
"I work retail," I told him.
He stared at me more.
"I'm a buyer," I continued. "At Lowenstein's department stores."
He continued to stare at me.
Then he asked, "How'd he tap that?"
"What?" I asked back.
"A buyer for a fuckin' department store. How'd Shift tap that?"
I shook my head again, my eyes narrowing and I repeated, "What?"
"Why do you," he tipped his head at me as if I didn't know who he meant by "you," "spread for him?"
"I'm telling you, I'm not his bookie. He doesn't place bets with me. And anyway, what bookie would run an errand for a guy like Shift?"
Jeez, maybe he had a hearing problem.
He leaned toward me and said quietly, "Spread." I opened my mouth to reply but he went on, "Your legs."
Then I got him.
My back went straight.
Then I snapped, "I don't sleep with Shift. Gross! Are you crazy?"
He sat back and stared at me again. He dropped his fork, grabbed his cup of coffee and stared at me while he took a sip. Then he kept staring at me as he put his coffee cup back.
I was over the staring so I told him, "This conversation is bizarre. Maybe you might want to say what's on your mind or ask what you want to know, like, straight out and try not to annoy me seeing as I'm not a prostitute, junkie, bookie or sleeping with Shift or anyone like him but instead I'm a buyer at a mid-to-upscale department store."
"All right," he agreed immediately. "What the fuck are you doin' here?"
"Shift asked me to do him a favor."
"And how does a buyer for a department store know Shift?"
"We had a mutual acquaintance. That acquaintance died," I replied, just as immediately. "Unfortunately, the relationship didn't die with that acquaintance because Shift's an asshole. He sometimes invades my life and asks me to do stuff. It's healthier and less of a pain in the ass to agree. So, he asked me to do this, he's footing the bill and I'm here."
"No marker?" he asked.
"As in Shift calling in one?" I asked back.
"Or you givin' him one," he replied.
I shook my head. "I don't want anything from Shift so, no. I've never asked and there will never be a time when I'll need to call on Shift to do anything for me. There's no marker involved."
"But you're still here."
I was sitting across from him so I didn't think that merited a response.
"People don't do somethin' for nothin', 'specially bitches like you," he noted.
I ignored him calling me a bitch, something Shift and his crew did frequently. I also didn't get into what kind of "bitch" he thought I was.
Instead, I stated, "You obviously know Shift."
"Unfortunately," he answered, and this surprised me. First, it indicated we had something in common. Second, it was a five-syllable word. Third, Shift acted like this guy was important to him in some way. It occurred to me only then that when he phoned Shift, they didn't have a heartfelt conversation about his joy at his newfound freedom. In fact, except for Shift (probably) greeting him, he'd said two words to him.
I found this intriguing.
I also didn't get into that.
As far as I was concerned, I was going to drop this guy off wherever he wanted to go (and I hoped that wasn't northern Canada) or, more to the point, let him drive himself wherever he wanted to go. Then I was going to go back to my apartment, my job and my frequent musings about pulling up stakes and getting far, far away from Duane "Shift" Martinez.
What I did do was take a chance.
And the chance I took was sharing, openly and honestly.
So I leaned forward and said quietly, "We're connected, Shift and me, not by my choice. I do not want him in my life but he wants to be there and he stays there. He can make things difficult for me just being Shift. I know this. I avoid this. And the way I avoid this is, when he calls me and asks me to do something, I do it. He knows where my boundaries are and, so far, he's respected them. I'm not stupid. I know he'll push those boundaries and I know I have to get out from under this before he does but it takes a lot of shit to start a new life and I only have half of that shit. The half being me wanting to start it. The money, the job, the destination, all that I don't have. So, until then, he calls, he asks, I do and he stays in the shadows of my life instead of taking center stage and fucking everything up. Hence," I threw out a hand, "I'm here. Simple as that."
His beautiful eyes held mine.
Then he grunted, "Phone."
Then I turned to my purse, dug in, pulled out my phone and handed it to him.
He took it and slid out of the booth, saying, "You finish, pay the bill. Meet you at the car."
Then he walked out of the diner.
* * *
- On Sale
- Jun 20, 2017
- Page Count
- 560 pages