Excerpt from Not Quite Broken (Callaghan Family & Friends, Book 2)
“Can I get a bottled water or a seltzer or something?”
Brian turned toward the quiet voice and obliged. Tori eased herself onto the barstool, discreetly wiping her cheek before pulling out her phone and frowning at the screen. A light scent of something clean and fresh tickled his nose, reminding him of mountain mornings and cool lake waters.
“Problem?” he asked.
“No, just having a little trouble getting in touch with my ride. I’m sure he’ll show, though.” She sounded doubtful as she pushed a bill across the counter. Brian pushed it right back. “No charge for water.”
She nodded and sipped her drink. Brian’s eyes were immediately drawn to her mouth. She had full, soft-looking lips, a dark shade of pink that might or might not have been enhanced by lip tint. Not lipstick, though. In fact, she didn’t seem to be wearing much in the way of makeup at all.
Catching himself, he snapped his eyes back up pronto, thankful that she didn’t seem to have noticed. There were women (like the one earlier) who were suited to the kind of no-strings relationships he was interested in, but his instincts told him Tori wasn’t one of them. Therefore, her pleasant fragrance and fresh face were strictly off-limits.
He didn’t know her well, just enough to share a friendly nod or polite exchange. He’d seen her working out around BodyWorks over the last couple months, usually early in the morning. It would have been impossible not to notice her—Tori Donovan was a very attractive woman. Dark brown hair, light brown eyes with flecks of green, a curvy body that was toned but still soft-looking.
They’d never really spoken. She tended to keep her earbuds in and her eyes to herself, completely unaware of the appreciative looks she received. He was guilty of looking, too – he was a guy, after all – but prided himself on being less obvious about it than some of the others.
He’d overheard one of the guys say she was a physical therapist and had the hands of an angel. Personally, Brian was glad his therapist was a former Marine and fellow vet. At least he didn’t have to worry about sporting wood when Zeke put him through his paces.
He kept busy, tending to other customers, shooting the shit, cleaning up and restocking. He refilled her water once, but other than that, they didn’t speak. She didn’t seem keen on striking up a conversation with him or anyone else, content to watch the late news on the suspended flat screen and scowl down at her phone occasionally.
“Hey, Brian, turn that up, will you?” One of the regulars waved toward the mounted television where a “breaking news” banner flashed across the screen. Brian grabbed the remote and increased the volume.
“…here at the edge of Grim’s Woods, where a group of local teens made the gruesome discovery earlier this evening. Official identification of the victim has not been released, but sources say they believe the remains are that of twenty-six year old Ashley Brunkowski, reported missing last month by concerned neighbors.”
A picture of the missing woman appeared on the screen, along with a tip line number. Then the camera panned away to where a stretcher was being lifted over the guard rail, the image zooming in on the black body bag strapped onto it.
“This is the third body in as many months, leading authorities to believe this is the work of the Lonely Hearts Killer. Police are asking anyone with information to come forward and are urging all women to take extra precautions, especially when traveling alone …”
Brian glanced over at Tori. Her eyes were on the screen, concern etched on her features. He wondered if she was taking extra precautions, then realized she probably was if she had made advance arrangements for someone to pick her up. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like those arrangements were panning out.
She certainly seemed to be the cautious sort. While he’d seen her laughing and enjoying herself earlier, she hadn’t gone overboard. She wasn’t nearly as lit as the other women had been. Her eyes were a little brighter than normal, her peachy skin slightly flushed, but otherwise, she seemed steady and clear headed.
And increasingly annoyed as the night wore on.
When Brian made last call, she exhaled heavily and sighed.
“No luck, huh?”
She shook her head, dropping her eyes as if she was embarrassed. Before he could think better of it, the words were tumbling out. “Hey, his loss.”
Her eyes snapped up. Brian pressed his lips together, determined not to say anything else. Then her eyes softened and she gifted him with a small smile. “You’re right. It is his loss.”
She stood and tugged at her top, smoothing it over her hips self-consciously. As before, his eyes latched onto the movement. He wanted to tell her she had nothing to be self-conscious about but decided against it. She might misunderstand and then things would become awkward.
She looked up at him, those pretty brown and green eyes reaching farther than most. And once again, his brain to mouth filter disengaged and went AWOL. “I can give you a ride.”
Her eyes widened slightly and for a moment, he thought she would take him up on it, but then she shook her head. “Thanks, but I’ll just call an Uber or something.”
Equal parts relief and disappointment flooded through him, and yet his mouth seemed determined to continue on its suicide mission. The news report and images of that body bag flashed in his mind’s eye, his protective instincts rushing up to the surface – instincts that had been forged and honed by being the big brother to two younger sisters.
“It’s almost two in the morning. Do you really want to take your chances with someone you don’t know?”
Technically, she didn’t really know him, either, but he was a familiar face and a friend of a friend. He figured that was close enough.
“No, but… I don’t want to put you out.” She worried her bottom lip and pulled at the hem of her shirt. It must have been these small tells of vulnerability that were screwing with his good sense. He’d always been a sucker when it came to women in need of assistance, his white-knight tendencies rearing their ugly heads. His sister, Lacie, said that was one of the reasons he and Kieran got along so well. Apparently the youngest Callaghan was afflicted with the same sense of chivalry as he was.
“Where do you live?”
“Not a problem. It’s on my way.” It wasn’t.
He waited, unaware he was holding his breath until she nodded. “Okay, if you’re sure.”
“I’m sure. Just give me five minutes to lock-up.”
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