He slid onto the bar stool beside her and flashed his most engaging grin, knowing the effect it had on women. Dazzling white teeth coupled with a tanned, handsome—but not too handsome—face, tall, muscular-but-lean body clothed in a perfectly-fitting Armani suit as black as sin, he was every woman’s dream.
She said, “Don’t get too close.”
He said, “Why…you don’t bite, do you?”
She sipped the strawberry daiquiri he’d had the waitress bring her. “I might.” Her cool, gray eyes met his over the rim of the glass, laughter dancing inside storm clouds. She licked her full, red lips.
“And I just might like it.” He bent his head and moved in close, letting her catch a hint of his expensive, musky aftershave.
She leaned away and their eyes made contact again. Swirls of darkness ebbed and flowed inside the gray. He’d never seen eyes like hers; they excited him even though no cuts, bruises, or blood marred her body.
People are looking at me funny, especially the ladies at the registers, ’cause I come here nearly every day. But I can only buy what I can carry home. Mama can’t come and we need food, and if anyone finds out Mama can’t come, me and Lizzy and Josh will have to go to one of those foster homes. And they ain’t good places to be.
I know ’cause I was put in one last year. Lizzy and Josh was put in them too.
My third-grade teacher, Miss Fincher, had seen my busted lip and had called someone and they’d picked me up at school and taken me to this place where a woman in white had looked at me all over, my privates too. I hadn’t liked that one bit. Then she’d told a big woman with red hair that I had been “physically abused.”
Cassie drifted up and down aisles stocked with mess kits, ammunition boxes, helmets, and such inside Big Mike’s Army Surplus, waiting for the few customers to finish their shopping and leave. Then she’d make her purchase.
Dark head bent, she browsed the racks of clothing that bristled brown and green and beige. She pulled out a camo jacket and checked its size, fingered a faded black tee. She examined a row of scuffed boots that lined the back wall, looking for a pair in her size. No luck.
She wandered on.
At last, the door dinged behind the last customer. Cassie approached the counter and peered down into the glass case. There it was—her salvation.
“What’cha eyeballing, Cassie?” She glanced up at Big Mike. He grinned around the unlit cigar clamped between his teeth.
“Um…I was just wondering…what does that cost?”
Mike’s gaze followed her pointed finger. His brow furrowed. “That thing?” He gestured at the slim, wooden case that lay open beneath the glass, exposing its shiny insides.
“Yeah. How much you want for it?”
Mike scratched his ample stomach. “Now what in hell would a pretty young thing like you want with that?”
Cassie had known Mike for years. He knew things about her no one else in the entire world knew, including her mother—most especially, her mother—but this was none of his business.
She pulled a wad of cash from the front pocket of her baggy, black jeans and plopped the crumpled mess onto the counter. She dipped her head, a fall of purplish-black hair curtaining her face. “I just want it, that’s all.”
Shaking his shaved head, Mike picked up the cash. “Kids these days, spoiled rotten. Think they gotta have everything they want.” He smiled at Cassie, reached out and ruffled her hair as if she were six, not sixteen. Then he began to count.
Cassie’s hand came up to her mouth. She chewed on a blood-crusted thumbnail.