Read Beneath the Burn Online

Authors: Pam Godwin

Tags: #Romance, #Music, #Adult, #Thriller, #Contemporary

Beneath the Burn (3 page)

“Oh, now this is absurd.” Was Noah behind this? Why would he want other men hitting on her?

“We’re meant to be together.” He shoved his coke bottle lenses up the bridge of his nose and sniffed.

“We hardly know each other.”

Red blotches crept from his collar and spread over his face. “Love doesn’t need to know. It just…is.”

Sounded like something Noah would say. She crossed her arms and arched a brow. “Did Noah put you up to this?”

He squeezed the radio on his shoulder and barked ten-codes into the mic.

She cleared her throat.

“Got to…uh…” He spun, half-running, half-hopping toward the front office. “Got a…thing. Bye, Sarah.” In a blur of standard issue blue, he vanished beyond the door.

She approached the hallway cautiously, wondering which of St. Louis’ finest would fall upon her next. The path was clear until she reached the stairs.

Maurice Crane squatted on the bottom step, no doubt creasing his handsome black suit. She wasn’t surprised to see him. He worked for Noah’s brother, Nathan, who ran a private security firm two blocks away.

Nathan and his team spent a lot of time at the precinct, consulting, leveraging skills, or just horsing around. Noah and Nathan weren’t just brothers by blood. They were brothers in the Marines. Nathan’s entire firm was made up of their tightknit rifle squad.

“Hello.” Crane grinned then wiped it away with the back of his hand. His skin, dark as mocha, tightened through his face, relaxed, tightened again. He wouldn’t hold back that laugh much longer. “Will you—”

“Nope.” She bent and placed a kiss atop his silky bald head. “Sorry, Crane, but you did
not
have me at hello.”

He collapsed over his leather loafers, rolling with laughter. As she smiled with him, it made her want things. Things like friendship, good humor, and closeness that came with being part of a group.

Disillusion stripped the grin from her face as soon as she remembered the consequences of making friends. She stepped around him and climbed the stairs. She’d bet Jay’s twenty dollar bill that Noah’s protective older brother would be waiting at the top.

On the third floor, she eased the door open to the corridor that led to the pit, where Noah would be holed up working on case priorities, analyzing leads, or plotting next steps with fellow detectives.

Just outside the pit door, Nathan sprawled in a chair, balancing on two metal legs, shoes planted on the opposite wall. He raised his eyes and watched her close the distance. “Sarah.”

Lean, hard, and soldier-boy handsome, he looked so much like Noah, it was discomfiting. “Nathan.”

The chair continued its two legged poise as he stretched out his arms then twined his fingers behind his blond head. “Will you make me the happiest man alive?” The cheesy question belied his GI Joe stare down.

She shrugged. “That’s a tall order.”

“Marry him and you’ll make us both very happy men.”

Her heart gave a thump. Of course his happiness was dependent on his brother’s. After Noah saved his life in Afghanistan and carried him twenty miles to safety, Nathan’s loyalty to his brother knew no bounds. “He’s happy now.”

The chair dropped and, in the next breath, he towered over her. “He loves you, Charlee. Enough to help you carry that baggage you’re dragging behind you.”

She stopped breathing. He said her name…he said her name…he used her
real
name. “What did you call me?”

He stepped back and reclined against the wall, frowning. “Charlee Grosky.”

Oh God, oh God.
Her heart rate spiked. “How?”

“It’s not what you think.” He swiped a hand over his whiskers and spoke in hushed tones. “I have a lot of questions, but this is neither the time nor the place.”

“You investigated me?” Her knees wobbled. She should’ve guessed. Noah was a detective, and Nathan made his living in private investigation. But she’d covered her tracks, made it impossible. Apparently not impossible. Her lungs labored.

“Calm down. Here.” He moved toward her, halted the fingers twisting at her belly, and pulled her to the chair. Then he crouched before her. “Listen. I’m working on an undercover case. One that
must not
attract attention from anyone. This morning, my client gave me a photo of a girl. I wouldn’t have recognized her…”

Her hand shot to her hair, what was left of it.

“You’ve made drastic changes to your appearance since the photo was taken, but your eyes…no one has eyes like yours, Charlee.”

Her heart plummeted, landing like a rock in her stomach. “Does he know?” She glanced at the pit door.

He shook his head. “Undercover, remember? My involvement must remain low profile.” Strong fingers interlaced hers. “I haven’t been working this very long, but I’ve gleaned enough to know you’re linked with a very powerful, very dangerous man.”

She swallowed, squeezed his hand. “My gut is screaming at me to run right now, Nathan. He’ll hurt me. And Noah.”

“Yet you lived with him.”

He was diligent in his homework, but… “It’s not what it seems.”

“Because he didn’t let you go. You escaped.”

Memories of that night forced air from her lungs in shuddering waves.

“And the bastard’s been hunting you since.”

“He owns me—”

His eyes fired.

She winced. “He
thinks
he owns me, and his jealousy is a poisonous thing.” The tremble in her voice made her sick. “I can’t give him a reason to be jealous.”

He sat back on his heels, his jaw working as he stared at their hands. Noah’s safety would be his priority. Always.

After a few breaths, he met her eyes, whispered, “I know you care for my brother, which makes the decision you face an impossible one. You need to decide if you love him more than you fear for him.” His thumb rubbed circles over hers. “No matter your decision, I’ll pull my resources to hide you, protect you, whatever is needed.” He released her hands and stood.

Could she trust him? Could he be working for Roy? Or could he be involved in some Federal investigation and drag her through court proceedings that would leave her vulnerable and exposed? “Thank you,” she rasped through a dry mouth.

“Go on.” He jerked his chin at the door. “He’s been waiting long enough.”

She didn’t miss his double meaning. Noah’s wait was over. She would marry him with full disclosure or she would slip away in the night.

Shoulders loose, chin raised, she choked back her heart and followed her proverbial gut through the door.

The pit exhaled an everlasting aroma of coffee, as if it were burnt into the walls and carpeting. Scribbled-up maps covered a central table. Mug shots and crime scene photos were taped to the walls. Paper containers and cups from various drive-throughs littered desks and overflowed trash bins. And amongst the clutter stood a beautiful man.

Hands tucked in the pockets of his suit pants, he leaned his butt against the table ledge. His smile was affectionate and unassuming, and it creased the tanned skin around his blue eyes. A picturesque blend of allure and good intent, he wasn’t trying to charm her. He was simply happy to see her.

She went to him, quickening her stride with each step. A breath away, he stared down at her, eyes roaming her face. “Hi.”

As reckless as it was, she wanted to sink to her knees and do the proposing. “Hi.’

“Good day?”

“Good day. Interesting evening.” She narrowed her eyes. “You’ve been a busy man, plotting your little game.”

He was unruffled, as always, in his commitment. “No games. Just trying to clean you out of excuses by the time you reached me.”

If he hadn’t already held her heart, he’d have it then.
Keep it physical, dammit.
“While you aced me on creative effort, Noah Winslow, my ever growing list of excuses runs as long as”—she dropped her gaze to his pants—”your cock.”

A groan vibrated in his throat. He cupped her chin, lifting it. His other hand slid around her waist, down the crease of her butt and seized her upper thigh, slamming their hips together. Then his mouth opened over hers, and his tongue swept inside. Not an aggressive kiss. It was soft and doting, warm and giving.

Before Noah, she’d only known one kind of intimacy. The unwanted kind that held her down and wounded her flesh. Noah showed her the pleasure of a man’s reverent touches, his humbled breathing no matter how hungry, and the respect in whispered words moving over her skin.

But his frustration over his inability to bring her to climax wedged between them. The problem wasn’t his. There was something wrong with her. The things she wanted and couldn’t ask for, the way she wanted them…her tastes tilted toward dark and sick.

The kiss slowed, and he breathed against her lips, “Let’s get out of here. Yours or mine?”

Not the question she expected. Maybe he sensed she was nearing a decision and didn’t want to put undue strain on her. She let out a breath. “Yours. I need to swing by mine and pick up clean clothes.” She lived above Kilroy Tattoo, which was on the way. Had she known she would need her things, she would’ve just met him there. But he’d had a plan. “I’m curious. You talked your buddies into participating in this elaborate proposal tonight. I expected you on your knee when I came in.”

His nose stroked the side of hers, up, down. “I saw the answer in your eyes, Sarah.”

What he’d seen there was the lingering shock of Nathan’s announcement. “Noah—”

“I’ll meet you at the shop.” He dropped his arms and leaned back, smiled. “We’ll take my car home.”

Home
. Another disagreement he hadn’t gained footing on. The amount of time they already spent together was too damned risky.

“Okay. See you there.” She pecked his lips and fled for the door before he could gather his things. Being seen out with him, getting caught doing something as simple as holding his hand, could cost him his life. The station could be under watch at that very moment.

“Sarah.” The soft tone stopped her at the threshold, turned her head. He raised his eyes, captured hers. “No more proposals.”

Oh God, he’d had it. He was done with her. Her heart pounded out of control even as her gut told her the decision would save his life. Her gut was right, but her heart hammered to break out of her chest and fight.

“I’ll make this loud and clear, sweetheart. We are not breaking up. You say you don’t need a certificate to be with me. I’m holding you to that.” His fists, buried in his pockets, flexed. “I want to give you everything.” It was a heated whisper, and his throat bobbed. “I think this concession will make you the happiest.”

The backs of her eyes inflamed. He’d already given her everything, and she hadn’t given him so much as her real name. She nodded, a jerky movement. “See you at the shop.”

3

Charlee swiped through the playlist on her phone until she found the song she wanted. Squatting behind the shop counter and plugging it into the sound system, her thoughts circled around Jay and his scars.

He wasn’t intentionally dominating, but his aura exuded alpha, calling to her darkest desires. His mysticism only magnified the effect. She wanted to learn more about him, wanted to nestle deep inside and unearth the man who seemed all too familiar with pain.
Real
pain. Maybe he’d identify with her own.

She sighed. Damn her concentration. What she needed to be focused on was surviving Roy Oxford and making a clean break from Noah and Nathan Winslow. Leaving Noah was an excruciating necessity, and she had zero confidence in her ability to do it.

The lock jiggled, and the door scraped over the welcome mat. A chill tingled down her back.

Stop it.
Noah was minutes behind her, and he had a key.

“Sarah?” His voice rumbled through the shop and breathed a flush through her cheeks. What would her real name sound like in that baritone?

Familiar footfalls closed in. So did her decision. The weight of it pushed against her chest and clenched.

Fuck Roy for making her so damned fearful. She hadn’t signed up to be the girl whose father sold her as payment for his gambling debt. Yet that terrified girl endured. And she had escaped.

She closed her eyes and let herself want. She wanted to swing on front porches and cross streets holding his hand. She wanted to share her past and participate in his future. But did she want to marry him?

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