After the nightmare she’s endured, can he help her find the courage to love?
A young Atlanta social worker struggles to put her life back together after a brutal attack. Her best friend and protector has her back, but will she ever be ready for more with him?
Angel Gilliam has it all—a brand-new master’s degree, an apartment with her best friend, Brad, and the chance to take their friendship to a whole, hot new level. But on the night of their first kiss, a would-be rapist rips her bright future apart. Stuck in a never-ending cycle of fear and depression, Angel is determined to find herself again, even if it means putting herself at risk.
Brad Donovan has loved Angel since he saved her from a playground bully in the fifth grade. But just as it seems Angel’s eyes are opening to the true feelings between them, it all falls apart. When Angel disappears on the night of a freak Atlanta snowstorm, Brad searches frantically, determined to find her. Angel can’t hide any longer. It’s time to wake her up—to a life without fear, and to a love that can heal even the deepest wounds.
Angel Gilliam wrestled the butterflies in her belly as she forced her key into the stubborn lock and finally managed to turn it. She was through the apartment door and calling Brad’s name before she could tug the key back out.
The silence that met her call deflated her excitement like a leaking balloon. Damn it, she wanted him to know first, in person, not over the phone. He was the only one who would understand how much this meant to her.
A glance around the darkened living room confirmed its emptiness. The heavy blue curtains Brad had hung when they moved in a month ago were drawn across the windows, pulling a smile from her as she crossed toward the kitchen. She’d teased him about their joint living room being a “man cave,” but who was she to argue. She hadn’t found a full-time position here in Atlanta yet, and five years in college dorm rooms hadn’t left her with a ton of homemaking supplies. The only curtains she owned were floral and gauzy and hung in her bedroom down the hall. And honestly, she didn’t mind if it was masculine. From the time they’d decided to share the apartment, she’d known she wanted as much of Brad in it as she did her own style. It was like the old T-shirts she’d snitched from his suitcase whenever he visited her at FSU, only better. Here, it wasn’t just his scent surrounding her, comforting her; it was his presence. Walking into the apartment was almost as good as being wrapped in his arms. Almost.
The kitchen was empty too. Maybe he was still in the shower? Hope sent her on a mad dash down the hall that ended in a quick skid. She barely managed to stop by hanging on to the doorjamb of the master bedroom, but as she swung inside, she found Brad’s room was also dark and still. The faint scent of soap and hot water lingered in the air, confirming her fear that he’d already left for work.
She slumped onto Brad’s bed, the king-size monstrosity that took up three-quarters of his room, and let the soft comforter cushion her as she considered her options. The only thing in her mind since she’d gotten off the phone with Henry Lockwood at the Atlanta office of Child Protective Services had been telling Brad about the interview she’d landed. She didn’t want to wait until he got home around four in the morning, if she could even stay awake that long. Waiting till he woke up was even worse. And she was pouting, darn it. She hated it when she pouted. She’d just so wanted to tell him, and tell him now. If only she hadn’t been stuck waiting for the bus to bring her home.
Turning her head to bury her nose in the soft down of the comforter, she filled her lungs with the scent of Brad’s cologne and something else, something vitally him that she couldn’t put a name to. When had she first noticed it? She wasn’t even sure she knew, it had happened so gradually. He’d visited her at school every chance he got, even during summer breaks when she was busy loading up on classes so she could get through her bachelor’s and master’s programs in five years. But even when her roommates and girlfriends were falling all over themselves chasing after him, his focus had been on her. And somewhere along the line, her focus had centered completely on him.
So why hadn’t they done anything about it?
Tugging her bottom lip between her teeth, she stood and crossed the hall to her bedroom. Clothes lay scattered on most of the surfaces. Makeup, jewelry, shoes. After sharing a room with one fellow foster child or another through her teen years, always keeping her belongings locked up, protected, then doing the same in the dorm, Angel reveled in the ability to mark the space as hers. To claim ownership with the sheer presence of her things. Brad teased her about it, about “letting her hair down” after so many years of being the model foster kid, but she knew he got it. He’d understood the fears hiding down deep inside her even before she did, understood why she’d always tried to be perfect, to overachieve, to not be sent back into the system. He got her.
She eyed the folded clothes stacked at the end of the bed, ready to be put away. Right on top lay the red cashmere sweater Brad had given her for Christmas a couple of weeks ago. Their first Christmas living together—as best friends. The look in Brad’s eyes when she wore that sweater, though, went way beyond friends. It even went beyond the emotion that, if she was honest with herself, she knew she’d seen in his eyes over and over when he’d visited her at school. The emotion she’d heard in his voice every time they talked on the phone. An emotion she’d come to anticipate, to want, even if she hadn’t fully understood what it was. That look Brad gave her was crystal clear. Hunger. It made her shiver. And it felt right, as if all the years they’d spent together had naturally led to this, wanting each other as well as needing each other.
Maybe it was time to stop pussyfooting around and bring things out in the open. And she knew just how to do it.
The excitement was back again, humming under her skin, fizzing like champagne through her veins. It had her smiling as she gathered the sweater and her tightest pair of jeans and headed for the shower. An hour later she was standing outside the wide double doors that led into Thrice.
The burly bouncer guarding the door eyed the low curve of her neckline. “Hellooo.”
“Hi.” She handed over her ID, which the man dutifully checked. His eyes might’ve strayed a couple of times, but Angel just took that as a sign that she looked as good as she’d hoped.
He handed the card back, shooting her a wink. “You wouldn’t be inclined to save me a dance later, sweet thing? I get off at ten.”
“I don’t think Brad would like that,” she told him, a little laugh escaping as she left him with his mouth slightly ajar.
Inside, a cacophony of music, people, and movement hit her eyes and ears, flashes of light adding to the confusion. The massive room—the center of a former warehouse, Brad had told her—seemed to sway with the ebb and flow of clubgoers filling every available space.
It took some wading to find the sunken dance floor taking up the entire middle of the room, then the bar area at the far side. When she took the time to think about it, she was still amazed that Brad had walked away from his family money and chosen to work in a bar, especially after his brother’s death. Most people would call it crazy—and a few of their friends had. But it made sense. His degree in business management meant he could work his way up at Thrice, but he also loved being in charge of the bar, interacting with customers, keeping people safe—that more than anything. He’d told her more than once that people shouldn’t pay with their lives for having fun or relieving stress, and he made sure of it with his vigilant watch over those in his care. He wanted to make a difference, no matter how small other people thought it was; they were alike that way.
His blond head came into view first, then the rest of him. Brad moved behind the room-length bar with ease and efficiency. A word here and there passed out with the drinks brought smiles to the people he served, especially the women. The feminine eyes eating him up sparked a dark jealousy in Angel’s core. But it was the look in Brad’s eyes that really mattered, and that look filled with fire when he saw her walking toward his end of the room.
His gaze swept her body, head to toe. And all the way back up. She watched his tongue slide along his bottom lip, saw him shift as if he was suddenly uncomfortable, and the knowledge that other women wanted him faded past caring. When his eyes finally met hers, she smiled, feeling the sexy edge to the way her lips curved, and put a little extra sway into her hips as she closed the distance between them. Brad leaned on the bar top, chin propped on his fist, to watch.
“Is it my birthday?” he teased when she got close enough to hear him.
A man seated on the next closest bar stool turned to look. “Maybe mine?” he asked. He was in his early twenties too, but his conservative hair and business-casual clothes didn’t fit Thrice’s vibe tonight.
“Hands off, Ryan,” Brad warned.
Ah. That explained the button-down and khakis. This was Brad’s co-manager in training. Damien’s secretary. “Hi.”
“And she has manners,” Ryan pointed out, throwing a pained look Brad’s way. He reached for Angel’s hand and leaned over to place a chaste kiss on the back. Angel felt her heart flutter at the sheer mean filling Brad’s gaze as he watched.
“And you are?” Ryan asked.
“Taken,” Brad said at the same time, straightening to his full six-two height. Angel giggled.
“Fuck off, Brad,” Ryan threw out, his eyes still on Angel.
Brad leaned over the bar far enough to pop Ryan upside the back of the head. “Language,” he snapped.
Watching the two of them was like watching brothers torment each other. Ryan was pouting now, but it didn’t earn him any points with Brad. “You can drop her hand anytime, Wonder Boy,” Brad growled.
Ryan slowly released her, but the half smile he shot her way—on the half of his face Brad couldn’t see—told her he was drawing it out for Brad’s benefit, not his own.
Brad whipped the tie at the back of his black apron open and wadded the cloth into a ball. He threw it on the counter. “I’m taking a break.”
Ryan glanced around. “Where’s your relief bartender?”
Pitching his thumb over his shoulder toward the mirror behind him, Brad shrugged. “Take a look at him.”
Ryan’s incredulous expression reflected perfectly in the mirror. By the time he started muttering protests, Brad had rounded the bar and taken Angel’s elbow.
“Get back here, asshole,” Ryan called.
Without missing a step, Brad shot a bird back at his friend. When Angel looked up at him, the amused curve of his lips had her laughing.
“You’re mean,” she said between chuckles.
“Not to you.” He shrugged. “Ryan earns it.” His mouth twitched at her laughter, though, and when he joined in, the noise and crowds surrounding them fell away from her awareness. Brad filled it up too much for anything else to intrude.
He didn’t stop at the curved railing that encircled the dance floor. Angel tugged on the hand now twined with hers. “Where are we going?”
Brad glanced down. “To get away from this noise,” he said, voice raised above the din. “The last thing I want to do is shout at each other over this mess.”
Angel agreed. Of course, going somewhere without noise probably meant going somewhere without this many people…or any people. She swallowed hard at the idea of being alone with him. She wasn’t a tease, and she’d been making it plain what she wanted for the last half hour. Now it was time to pay up. What if she couldn’t?
Nerves multiplied like tribbles in her veins as they went through the entry area of the club. Brad led her down a dark hallway to one side marked Employees Only. The hall was dotted with doors, and Brad opened one about halfway down. They stepped into a brightly lit room lined along one side with lockers and the other with a comfy seating area. The counter, sink, fridge, and microwave proclaimed “break room” loudly. When the door slid shut, the sheer relief of relative silence distracted her from her nerves for about a millisecond.
“So…” Brad pulled her toward the couch but turned before they reached the brown leather monstrosity. His gaze went straight for her breasts in their soft red cover, and he seemed to lose track of what he was saying. In the moment it took for him to break himself away, Angel felt that look right down to her clenched thighs.
Shaking himself back to awareness, Brad finally asked, “To what do I owe this unexpected visit?”
Angel felt every muscle go tense. Say it! Say you have feelings for him—new, different feelings. You want him to know. He wants to know; just look in his eyes and see it. Tell him.
She cleared her desert-dry throat, opened her mouth, and said, “I got the interview.”
Not what she meant to say. Definitely not. And not what Brad expected her to say, from the sinking look on his face. But it didn’t last. Brad was Brad—a huge grin appeared, and the next thing she knew his arms were around her waist and he was twirling her through the air with a loud “whoop!”
Her smile felt bittersweet as love swelled in her chest. He was always putting her and her needs first, before what he wanted. He lifted her up, gave her whatever he thought she needed, even if it was far less than he might want. How long had he been doing that?
And how long was she going to be a coward and let it continue?
When he finally settled her on her feet, she was breathless with anxiety. She met Brad’s warm gray eyes…and immediately, all the chaos whirling inside her settled. She reached to cup his stubble-covered cheeks. “I came by for something else too,” she said, surprised by the suddenly low, raspy tone of her voice.
“This.” She pulled him down until her lips could meet his and kissed him.
She felt his jolt of surprise, felt the sudden tight clamping of his grip on her hips—and then he took over just like he did with everything else.
His lips were firm against hers and fit perfectly, as if they’d been made for each other. They probably had. The two of them fit together in life too, so it made sense that their bodies would align as well as their souls. His mouth opened over hers, moving, molding, shaping. No hesitation here, nothing tentative, just a rush of heat that threatened to overwhelm her. He tasted of Brad, of beer, of hunger. She wanted more, so much more, moaning her need into his mouth and lifting one leg to hook around his, pulling him closer.
Right there. There was that hard center she’d wondered so much about. The firm length of his erection nestled directly against her mound thanks to the high-heeled boots she wore. He rocked against her, and a mewling sound escaped at the zing of sensation reverberating through her core. He rocked again, the base of his shaft grazing her clit. Afraid her legs might give out, Angel dug her nails into Brad’s wide shoulders and clung for dear life. She wasn’t sure if moments or hours passed; everything disappeared but Brad’s mouth, his body, and the love flowing between them. It had to be love. Nothing else could feel this good.
It took some time, but desperation finally forced them to stop for air.
“God, Angel.” He groaned, his lips brushing hers. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve waited for this?”
She shook her head, not because she didn’t know but because words were beyond her. Brad didn’t wait—he took her lips again. This time when he opened hers, he delved inside.
His tongue took her over, took her breath. He pulled back and pushed in, the smooth glide mimicking the rhythm of his hips. Every hard advance caught her throbbing clit, teasing, tempting, driving her higher until she held her breath, certain the next slight touch would send her off like a rocket. Brad’s head fell back, and she marveled at the agony in his expression as he pushed against her once more.
The sound of the door opening startled them both.
“I’m sorry,” Ryan drawled. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
Brad cursed, curbing the last syllables with a quick glance at Angel. The final stream of words was a fairly accurate impression of Joe Pesci’s character in that old movie Home Alone.
“Of course you’re interrupting—and you know it,” he managed eventually, the words strangled with cutoff need and frustration. “Who’d you leave up front?”
“Malik.” Was that glee lacing Ryan’s voice? Yes, wicked glee. Despite the protests of her body, Angel found herself choking back her own amusement.
“I hate you,” Brad said, though the words lacked heat. He shook his head, but Angel could see the reluctant laughter in his eyes—and the beginnings of calculation. She had a feeling Ryan would be paying for this, and when he least expected it. “Come on, Angel.”
He led her out. As they crossed the threshold, Ryan gave her a courtly bow. “Again, I apologize, Angel.”
For all his supposed chivalry, there was smug satisfaction in his eyes when they landed on Brad. “Shut up,” Brad grumbled. He tucked an arm securely around her waist as he drew her into the hall, and the look he threw over his shoulder at Ryan was triumphant, the kind of but-I-got-the-girl look meant to rub in his success. Angel hid her grin and the absolutely giddy feeling that surged inside her at that look. He certainly had got the girl. For always.
They made their way to the emptyish entry area of the club. Off to one side was a small alcove, where Brad stopped in the relative quiet and pulled her against him once more. Like a sponge Angel soaked up his heat, the feel of his hard muscles contrasting with her feminine softness in all the right places. She didn’t want to stop, go home, wait for him. She’d waited long enough, and so had he.
But right now, he needed to get back to work; she knew that. She’d taken enough of his time. It’s only for now. We won’t have to wait much longer.
Brad glanced down. Angel watched him watch her, saw the hungry spark in his eyes as he skimmed the contours of her face, down to her almost bare shoulders and the upper curves of her breasts. That part of her anatomy swelled at his attention, but she didn’t look away. She wasn’t embarrassed or scared anymore. Brad wanted her, just as she was. He knew her inside and out. The secret they’d danced around for so long was finally out in the open.
She knew him too, knew when something was bothering him. The hesitant rhythm of his thumb rubbing along her hip bone sharpened her attention. “What’s wrong?”
The outside noise filled the silence while she waited for him to gather his thoughts. “Does it bother you?” he finally asked.
“What?” With that single word she realized what he was asking, and that she might like to turn the question on him. They’d been friends for so long; this new state of being felt at once perfectly right and just…weird.
“This.” She barely felt the nudge of his crotch against her again. She swallowed hard, trying without success to figure out what to say. Did it bother her? Yes, but only because she wished he was harder, that they were alone, that she wasn’t worried about how this would affect their relationship. He hadn’t said the words yet. Did that mean this was just sex, not love?
Brad dipped low, his mouth brushing her earlobe. “I hope it doesn’t, because you have to know, seeing you in that sweater affects me that way every time.”
Now it was Angel’s turn to squirm. No, that didn’t bother her. It was the not knowing that concerned her. Could she gather enough words and courage to say that to him? The intensity in his gaze forced her to close her eyes.
“Don’t tease me” was what she finally said. “Not— If you don’t mean it, don’t.”
Brad’s arms came fully around her, his big hands spreading to cover each side of her spine. “I’m definitely not teasing.” His palms slid up the ridges of her ribs, his thumbs coming to rest at the outer edges of her aching breasts. “I’ve been waiting for years to do more than tease, beautiful. A lot more.”
A lot more. Oh God.
He’d been waiting years. Nobody waited that long because they were horny. He had to feel the same love she did. She believed that with everything inside her.
And so, when his lips touched the skin at the juncture of her neck and shoulder, she sighed and leaned back to give him easier access, opening herself and her protective cocoon to the only man she truly trusted. Letting him in. The tip of his tongue easing gently along her skin told her without words how much that trust was appreciated.
“Tonight, when I get home,” he whispered into her skin, “we’ll celebrate your interview—and everything else—the way it should be celebrated.”
Angel shivered. “I’m looking forward to it,” she said, that siren voice making another husky appearance.
“Good.” He stepped back, taking his heat with him, and ran a thumb across her moist bottom lip before turning toward the bar. The crowd swallowed him whole, but Angel kept watching until even the back of his head was no longer visible.
The same bouncer stood outside as she exited the club. “You have a good evenin’, sweet thing.”
“You too,” she told him. She glanced down the street to the corner and saw a yellow cab waiting for a fare. She hurried toward it, anxious to get home and get things cleaned up before Brad finished his shift. The last song she’d heard before leaving Thrice echoed in her head. There’d been no opportunity for them to dance tonight. Maybe she could come again, or maybe…could she convince Brad to give her a private show? She knew he could dance from the countless nights out and proms they’d been to together, but would he do it just for h—
The sudden scrape of pain across her cheek came out of nowhere. Trying to turn her head, Angel felt instead the clasp of a rough, smelly hand across her mouth, clamping her jaw shut. Her scream muffled against the human gag, she fought the force dragging her toward the dark mouth of an alley nearby. The last thing she saw was the cab’s empty back window, and through it, the cabbie’s head turned toward the street, away from her.
For Just a Little More, I have a heroine badly in need of protection, and I have a hero whose entire being is centered on protecting and caring for those he loves -- and he's loved Angel a long, long time. There was no more appropriate song than this little gem nestled on Daughtry's latest release: "I'll Fight."