Guarded By Grayson by A.J. Andersen
After downing my whiskey,I slip out the back door into the dark alley to call Xavier and let him know that Dominic isn’t here and the bartender hasn’t seen him tonight. I want to leave. To head back to Luminoso, where I have a small apartment, drink a beer in the comfort of my own place, and get some sleep. Things have been weird enough since Analise took off. Dominic showing up making threats about Xavier not getting on board with his vision of the family hasn’t helped things at all. He was supposed to be back in New York, stepping into Xavier Sr.’s shoes as head of the family, not here poking into the legitimate business my friend has established independent of his father and uncle.
I’ve known X my whole life. Our mothers had been friends since elementary school and they wanted the same for us. X was never going to be on board with the kind of shit that Dominic’s involved in. He didn’t want any part of what his old man was into, and compared to Dominic, Senior was a fucking choir boy. I don’t know what Dom was expecting. Maybe he anticipated exactly what happened, Xavier telling him to take his drugs and flesh trade and shove it. X refusing to get involved in sex trafficking gave Dominic the excuse he wanted to attempt taking him out of the picture entirely. Whether he means to do that financially or literally we haven’t figured out. My guess is that he means to do whatever he can to ruin Xavier financially, and if that plan fails, then I wouldn’t be surprised if he orders a hit on his own nephew.
What it all boils down to is that we need to know where Dominic’s hiding. To figure that out, I need to get close to someone who’s close to him. Starla Edwards. Starla grew up in the same neighborhood as the rest of us, but her family is good people. She left home at eighteen, breaking Geno’s heart, and has been Dom’s mistress ever since. Dom’s own wife didn’t bat an eyelash when he left New York for Vegas, bringing a barely legal Starla along with him. As long as there’s money in Mrs. Cerelli’s bank account, and she doesn’t have to move out of her classic New York brownstone, she doesn’t give two shits where Dom is or what he does. Or with who. Believe me, she was the first person we talked to.
Starla though, she might be completely aware of where Dom is. So, no matter how much I want to get out of here, I make my way back inside the crowded establishment. Waving a hand at Sebastian, I indicate that I’m moving to a dark table in the corner that’s, by some miracle, empty. He nods and pours a double of the same whiskey I was sipping earlier before turning to speak to someone standing in the dim light beside him.
My breath catches in my throat and my heart stops for an split second before it resumes beating at a thunderous pace when I catch sight of the petite woman working behind the bar. She wasn’t there earlier. There’s no way I would have missed her light, caramel-colored skin and vibrant, multicolored hair. All thoughts of Starla and Dominic slam to the back of my mind when she takes the drink from Sebastian and looks right at me. He’s sending her to deliver my drink.
My gaze doesn’t waver as she moves in my direction, the music and loud din of the crowd fading into the background. I’ve never been so drawn to a woman with only a single glance. Watching her wind through the throng, spangled, hot-as-fuck heels strapped around delicate ankles, has every single cell in my body sitting up and taking notice. I lose sight of her, and subtly shift in my seat somehow missing her even though we’ve never met.
“This for you?” A soft voice twangs beside me, immediately giving away her southern roots. I love it. It’s perfect. She’s perfect. My eyes devour her like it was months rather than seconds that she was out of my sight. My perusal starts at small feet encased in those damn shoes and moves up over slim legs, curvy hips, and a lean waist before lingering for a long moment on her perfect breasts. I don’t waste much time on women, but do I love a nice set of tits. Through the clinging fabric of her dress, I can see that hers are just right. Enough to fill my big hands, but not so much that they overpower her petite frame.
“I’m up here, big fella,” she says quietly with a smirk, setting the glass of amber liquid on the small table before pointing to her face.
I grin at her spunky words, loving that she is calling me out for my bad behavior. I follow her directive and tear my gaze away from her feminine attributes and meet her eyes. They’re hazel with a distinct gold starburst around the pupils and rimmed with thick, black lashes. I’ve never seen anything like them in my life. They’re stunning just like the rest of her. Her makeup-free cheeks are flushed a rosy pink. Whether it’s from the warmth of the bar or me checking her out so obviously, I can’t tell.
Up close her hair is a bright swirl of jewel tones. Purple, teal, and bright pink, all blended into a perfect, vivid rainbow. I’ve seen multi-colored hair before but never looking so natural like she could’ve been born with it. It strikes me that she looks like a fairy, or a mermaid, brought to life and into my world. I shake my head, trying to clear it of crazy thoughts.
“Grayson Callen,” I state, reaching out and folding her tiny hand inside my much larger one, not willing to wait another second before feeling her silken skin against mine. I stay seated, not wanting to intimidate her with our size difference, though even sitting I’m still nearly as tall as she is. She lets me close my fingers around hers for just an instant, before carefully disengaging from my grip and lacing her hands together tightly in front of her.
“Hey, Grayson. I’m Nikki.” Her tone is friendly but cautious and I’m glad that she didn’t tell me her last name. Not that I don’t want to know it. I want to know everything about her, right now, but it shows she’s aware that giving her full name to a man she just met is a bad idea.
“Is there somethin’ else I can get fer you?” she drawls, shifting on her heels with a barely noticeable wince. They look like a million bucks but aren’t comfortable. A small furrow creases her smooth brow as she looks at me curiously, waiting for me to respond to her question.
Thinking fast, knowing she’ll leave if I don’t, I ask, “What’s the kitchen making tonight?” I don’t care. I’ll eat pretty much anything if it means I can talk to this perfect little doll standing in front of me. Hell, I have no idea if Tassels even has a kitchen, but it’s a solid bet.
“It’s my first night,” she admits with a small shrug, “I have no idea, but I can go check if you want.”
“You don’t mind?” I ask, and she immediately shakes her head and turns to go. Settling back against the padded leather seat I watch her walk away, her slightly wobbly gait advertising that this girl is more used to sneakers or boots than fuck-me heels. I’m surprised I didn’t notice it before, but I was distracted. Watching her go, back held ramrod straight as she blatantly ignores several customers who try to catch her attention, I can’t help but wonder why in the world she’s working here, of all places. Nothing about her seems like the type of woman that’s usually around Dominic’s clubs. Nothing at all.
Starla is on the stage, living up to her nickname and giving the patrons the show they came here for. She was going to be a professional dancer, with a promising career once she finished her schooling. She even walked away from a scholarship to Juilliard when she got tied up with Dominic. I don’t know why she gave up everything, including Geno, to follow Dom to Vegas and strip on this stage. I always figured he had something on her dad; gambling debts maybe, but Geno was so torn up when she left that I never wanted to bring it up. I wonder if they’ve seen each other since we arrived here. He hasn’t mentioned anything and watching Nikki push toward me through the people piled three-deep around the stage, I’m not going to waste my time worrying about it. It’s none of my business.
An odd sense of foreboding fills my gut when she disappears into the crowd. I rise to my full height looking for her, but she’s so small that I can’t find her in the teeming mass of men. The sight of Star, topless and crawling seductively toward the edge of the stage while the men closest to her set bills out in an effort to lure her closer to them makes my stomach lurch. I avert my eyes and ignore the angry murmurs thrown my way as I jostle people on my way to where I last saw Nikki.
“Let me GO!” Nikki’s shouted words reach my ears moments before I catch a glimpse of her frightened face. She’s hiding it well, but she’s scared. That’s not going to happen while I’m here! Without hesitation, I barrel into the throng. At the sound of her loud voice Star stops her performance and jumps to her feet to stand at the edge of the stage watching, concern reflected on her heavily made-up face. Her eyes fly around, looking for a bouncer I have no doubt. That concerns me.
I understand the reason for her distress when I shove the last few men roughly out of my way. I need to get to Nikki. A circle of drunken men surrounds her, cheering each other on while they pass her around, each of them pawing at her body while they spew all the lewd things they’d like to do to her. Her face is pinched, her eyes squeezed tightly shut as she struggles to free herself from their hands. Behind me, Sebastian is shouting for the bouncers, but I’m not waiting. Not when I see her legs thrashing, trying to dislodge a hand groping underneath her skirt while others hold her firmly by the hips.
“What the fuck is going on here?” I roar, my voice booming louder than the music as I grab one man by the collar of his shirt and haul him out of my way. Silence falls over the drunken bunch. Even as intoxicated as they are, most of them only need one look at me to drop their hands and step away from her. All except for the man holding her against him while he fondles her breasts with one hand and tries to get under her panties with the other. He’s so focused on his assault that he doesn’t even notice my approach.
The second Nikki realizes she’s no longer being restrained by a group her eyes fly open and she wrenches herself loose and spins to face her assailant.
“Your mama would be so proud!” she spits in his face, pushing her dress back down to cover the simple white panties revealed during the struggle. “You oughtta be ashamed of yerself!” she continues, her southern twang getting thicker with her justified anger, color flooding back into her face.
The drunk opens his mouth to speak and she holds up a shushing finger cutting him off. One small fist settles on her cocked hip. “No! You let me finish,” she snaps. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you that no means no?”
Her tirade stops and I step in close beside her, silently lending my support. She glances up, confirming that I’m not someone who’s going to harm her. When she sees it’s me her full lips pull up in a small smile and she stands a little taller, then she turns back to the sputtering man with an expectant look on her face.
“Well?” she drawls, quirking a questioning eyebrow at him.
He opens his mouth, and I’m not sure what I was expecting, but what comes out makes my blood resume it’s hot boil.
“You fucking cunt!” he screams, spit flying off of his lips, “Who the fuck cares what happens to a whore like you?”
I move to step closer, grinning when he gets a good look at me and his eyes widen in terror, but it isn’t me he needs to watch out for.
“Who’re you callin’ a whore?” Nikki asks, distaste ringing in her voice.
“You! Whore!” he yells, eyes glaring daggers at her.
She moves so fast that I don’t even see it coming. The man falls to the ground, his hands cupping his groin as he writhes in agony. She kicked him in the balls! Genuine amusement rolls through me and explodes in unexpected laughter. If I hadn’t thought it already, her ability to stand up for herself would have confirmed it. This woman is perfect!