Six months earlier
Bonnie was over her brothers and their high-handed bullshit. Making her way around the crowded circular tables, trying not to bump into anyone with her dress, she stalked out into the hallway, desperate for some fresh air. She felt bad she’d messed up Valerie’s special night; she understood how important this was for her. But Quinten was being a complete donkey’s ass.
To his credit, Simon had gotten better since she’d been back. But he was still being protective about her “safety” and was content to lock her away in his guest house and throw away the key. But Quinten was all up in her business, especially tonight with Zack, and Bonnie was over it.
Smoothing her dress down, mostly to wipe the sweat off her palms, Bonnie breathed deeply, trying to get over her embarrassment. She hadn’t meant to lose it, but she’d wanted to have a conversation with Zack, and Quinten had blocked her at every turn, going so far as to dump an entire tray of deserts on Zack’s lap when he’d leaned forward to speak to her.
It had embarrassed her, and she’d lost it, further humiliating herself. Bonnie knew better than to act like that in a crowd full of people.
She couldn’t go back in there, that was for sure.
Her gaze fell on the floor-to-ceiling windows that lined the hallway outside the ballroom. They overlooked downtown Austin, the capital building lit up beautifully, and Bonnie tried to clear her mind as she watched the bustle below her.
A throat cleared behind her before she got her emotions under control, and she spun around to find Zack standing there, cane in hand, his tux ruined.
“Sorry about all that. We both know how he is.” As if hearing her voice pinpointed her location, Zack took a few steps toward her. Bonnie backed up against the cool glass, suddenly feeling hot.
“Yup. I didn’t follow you out here to talk about your brother, though.”
“Good. Because I don’t want to talk about him, either.” There were a lot of things she wanted to say. But she was a human being, first and foremost, and could imagine Zack was hurting. “As I was saying, I’m really sorry about your dad being sick. I hope he’s at least comfortable.”
Zack’s voice lowered as he moved closer to her. “I didn’t come out here to talk about my dad, either.”
“Oh.” Bonnie swallowed, suddenly nervous about what he could possibly want to talk about. She hoped he didn’t have anything flirty planned because she was still mad about before. Before they’d grown up and started their lives away from each other. But Zack worked with her brothers, and they had been friends at one point in their lives. Of course, she’d just shouted that very thing at Quinten not five minutes ago.
“I’m sorry, Bon-Bon.” Zack looked pained, his eyes clear and blue and slightly glazed. She knew he couldn’t see her but didn’t know exactly what he could see, if anything. “I shouldn’t have done what I did. I hurt you, and I never meant to do that.”
Okay, so he was going to talk about it. She rolled her eyes at him. He couldn’t even say what he’d done. This was truly one of the last things she wanted to talk about. Tonight was quickly turning into one of the worst nights of her life as anger knifed through her, cutting her to ribbons. But Zack had a knack for fucking up her world. Bonnie could feel things shifting. Between her and her brothers, between her and Zack.
A snort escaped her lips, and she tried to laugh it off, even as Zack took one more step closer. Able to smell the chocolate on his tux as it mingled with his spicy, citrusy cologne, she sighed, trying to get the decadent odor out of her nose.
“Don’t. It was years ago. I know we were both young and stupid, but if you thought that wouldn’t hurt me, you’re a bigger idiot than I thought.” Bonnie was well aware her body and her head were at war with each other. Her emotions were just along for the ride.
He flinched, as if slapped, his crystalline eyes squinting briefly. She felt bad for a moment, but only for a moment. Zack had been the one to bring up the past, whereas she was perfectly content to tiptoe around it.
“So what? We’re just going to forget our history? Pretend we weren’t the best thing that ever happened to each other? It’s going to be small talk about your asshole brothers and my sick dad for the rest of our lives?” He took the last step closer, folding and pocketing his cane in one swift move. It was suddenly an inferno in the hallway outside the ballroom. Bonnie pressed her body up against the glass, trying to become one with the coolness, escaping the heat.
“I guess you threw away the best thing that happened to you. I’ve moved on.” She tried to sound haughty, using the tone her mother had perfected, but it fell flat.
She didn’t know what was next for them, if they could ever have a future together. She wasn’t sure she even wanted one. But as he took the step that ate up the space between them, she realized he’d taken her silence as a challenge.
And she couldn’t push him away. She never had been able to.
That had been the problem from the get-go. Bonnie wanted to be near Zack. The way her nipples pebbled as he pressed his chest against hers proved it. He was smearing chocolate all over her dress, and she didn’t even care.
“Have you?” She forgot what she’d said, but he seemed to read her, maybe even better now that he couldn’t see. “Moved on?
Zack’s scent was overwhelming her. His heat invaded her space. Then his hands conquered her, and she hadn’t even realized he was touching her. Her whimper was the only response she could give, and he took it. Whole-heartedly.
Gripping her waist tightly as he bowed his head down to her neck, he spoke into her ear, the whisper against her skin sending goose bumps rippling across her flesh.
“See? Your body still reacts to me. I can hear your breathing changing.”
He was right. She was gasping for air, suddenly not getting any. Her eyes zeroed in on a clump of chocolate on his neck, a few crumbs of cake that were stuck to the pudding lava from inside the desserts Quinten had dumped on him. Without thinking, her tongue snaked out and gave it a swipe.
Zack groaned, a strange mix of triumph and defeat, before his mouth pressed against hers. Her world changed then. As the familiar feel of his lips moving against hers registered in her brain, Bonnie knew she was finished fighting him. At least for now. The past didn’t matter. Her brothers didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except Zack and Bonnie. They were together again, in t
his moment, and she was taking advantage of it to erase the pains and hurts of the past.
Her fingers tangled in his hair, even as the sticky goo of chocolate squished between her fingers. It was warm, adding another sensual texture to everything Zack right now. Her mouth opened for him, and his tongue swooped inside as he gripped her waist tighter, his body against her, his thigh pressing into her sweet spot.
Zack had changed so much. He was bigger, harder, manlier, but the connection between them was the same. It was like adding gasoline to a fire, and as soon as he touched Bonnie, she wanted to explode.
She couldn’t get enough of him. Her mouth wanted to consume him, and together, they were incendiary as their mouths suckled and nipped, tongues entwining together in a dance older than time itself.
And then Zack’s hands began roaming. As one slipped down her hip to her thigh, he inched her skirt up until it bunched in his palm. A hitch in his breath told her he’d discovered her stockings. The rough pad of his calloused index finger traced the edge in a seductive dance. As his finger dipped under the elastic, popping it, the sting against her flesh had her gasping for air.
Bonnie hadn’t noticed his finger moving toward her panties until it was already there. She was too distracted by everything else—the cool glass against her back, his mouth on hers moving down her jaw to behind her ear, his other hand palming her breast through her dress.
But when he tugged her panties out of the way and swiped along her folds, she moaned. Remembering they were in a very public place, Bonnie clamped a hand over her mouth.
And Zack was still working.
He was a man on a mission, wholly focused on her pleasure. When his mouth moved down her collar bone and started working on the tops of her breasts, she felt the goose bumps rupture all the way down her arms. But that was barely noticeable, as his fingers were still working under her panties.
Bonnie bit the back of her wrist as she threw her head back and arched into his touch. His fingers delved into her heat, pumping in and out furiously. Bonnie wasn’t worried about people seeing, as her skirt was so full, but if someone walked by, it would be no secret what was going on underneath it.
She sighed against her hand, forcing air into her lungs as Zack pressed his thumb against her clit, his fingers still thrusting in and out of her. When he rubbed a hard circle over the tiny nub of nerves, her body exploded, shudders wracking through her, even as she bit her wrist hard.
A slight cough nearby had Zack spinning around, blocking Bonnie from whoever had just walked up on them.
“Uh, Simon’s looking for y’all. Do I tell him you guys are coming?” A guy with dark curls on his head and a physique to rival an elite body builder was standing there. “Figuratively speaking, of course,” he added with a smirk. It was one of the guys from Pierce Securities, but Bonnie didn’t know which one. She thought it might be the computer guy since she hadn’t seen him much. Bonnie had heard some murmurs about him—he was rich, smart, and utterly taken with his fiancée.
“Yeah, let me get this chocolate off me and we’ll be in there. Thanks, Evan.”
“No problem, man.” The smirk remained as he deftly spun on his heels and went back into the ballroom, a smattering of applause erupting at something someone had said into the microphone as he walked in. Then the door shut behind him, followed by silence.
Zack spun back around. “Clean up and we’ll go back in together?” His eyes danced around her forehead, her mouth, the air around her face, as he spoke. She wondered what exactly he saw.
“Um, sure. Yeah.”
Now that he was done, it was as if they hadn’t done anything at all. Zack extended his cane and ambled to the restrooms, his fingers trailing on the walls until they got to the braille signs.
Suddenly, all Bonnie’s doubts rushed back to her.
Zack Ward was a manwhore. She’d known it back then, she knew it now, and Bonnie didn’t want to be the latest in a long line of conquests. He’d seemed genuine when they’d spoken before the kissing— like he really wanted her.
But she was older now. And wiser.
She didn’t know exactly what she wanted from Zack. At one time in her life, she’d wanted everything. Bonnie had wanted forever with him, for better or worse.
And then the worse had happened and he’d thrown her away. The pain returned in the form of a weird roiling in her stomach as it sank.
Yeah. She wasn’t going through that again.
Smoothing her dress for the umpteenth time that night, Bonnie held her chin high and strode to the elevator door, strong in her convictions.
Zack Ward had hurt her for the last time.
Zack’s eyes watered through the pain as the dark shadow advanced on him, skewing his already deteriorating vision. Holding his gloved hands in front of his face, he missed the sucker punch to his ribs.
“Goddammit, Q. What the hell?” Zack’s voice came out harsher than he’d intended because that shit hurt, but he couldn’t show weakness in front of the guys. Not any more than he already did when he bumped into shit, but whatever.
Quinten’s voice was a satisfied rumble. “You wanted to spar, sharpen your skills you said. Get with it. You have to sense me coming if you can’t see me.”
He was right, but that didn’t make it any easier. Still recovering from his dad’s death and all it entailed, Zack’s head wasn’t in the game, and the shadow that was Quinten kept coming at him. He tried to focus on the other man’s breathing, something to alert him to another strike.
They were both breathing loudly. It wasn’t hard to determine when Quinten changed his tactic because his breath hitched slightly. Zack heard his feet as they bounced out of range and came back from a different direction.
When he knew Quinten was within reach, he fluttered his left arm, readying for a punch to Quinten’s nose. When the shadow reacted, Zack shot out his right arm, lightning fast, and hit a torso. A gratifying exhalation of air hit his ears.
His sense of satisfaction was short-lived, though, as Zack immediately lost his own air in a rush. His brain registered the nausea-inducing blunt force to his rib, right where Quinten had just hit him.
That was going to bruise.
The shadow retreated; it was Zack’s turn to advance. He knew he didn’t have a chance against Quinten. He was a scary badass.
“How’s Bonnie been?” Zack knew better than to taunt Quinten about his sister while he was in the ring playing punching bag with the man, but he was hoping to get under the guy’s skin so he could get an edge. “Y’all let her out of her gilded cage yet?”
As Quinten growled low in his throat, Zack second-guessed himself. Quinten won fights like this all the time, but Zack had been under the illusion this was a friendly spar. He’d been sorely mistaken. Quinten had been distant with him the last few years, something he’d chalked up to Bonnie, and taunting him like this was a dumbass move. He’d just given him the excuse he needed to kick Zack’s ass.
Quinten had never been out-and out-aggressive with Zack. It was like his friend finally had the chance to express his anger for the way Zack had treated his sister.
Zack had thought all that was water under the bridge, chalked up to immaturity, but when he’d tried to have a conversation with Bonnie at the masquerade thing several months ago, Quinten had turned back into the twenty-year-old who didn’t think Zack was good enough for his baby sister.
And he’d been acting like that ever since. Zack wondered if Bonnie had said something about what happened between them to her brother but didn’t think it likely. He couldn’t dwell on that now, not while he was in the ring with the guy.
When he felt himself in the other man’s space, he launched himself, desperately grappling with Quinten like the blind man he was. He used his feet to kick the backs of his knees, bringing him to the ground with an oof.
But he should have known better. Quinten was in his element on the ground.
Before he knew what had happened, Zack was on his stomach, his right forearm ready to snap between Quinten’s legs which were somehow contorted around Zack’s body. Of course, Zack had no idea how he’d managed to get himself in this position.
“Stay the fuck away from my sister,” Quinten murmured as if he weren’t even out of breath, while Zack was panting and practically foaming with pain.
And all the other guys were there, watching. That was more humiliating than the fact his so-called best friend was kicking the shit out of him.
In the back of his mind, another version of Zack dwelled. A bigger, buffer version of Zack. His constant companion—or alter ego—had a bushy beard and was two hundred and eighty-five pounds of oily, tanned muscle. Zack fondly referred to his mental companion as Dude.
Right now, Dude was pissed. He raged around the recesses of Zack’s brain, cigar hanging out of the corner of his mouth, sweaty muscles popping from a ripped tank top, as he clutched a fully loaded and cocked .50 caliber air craft mount machine gun in his arms, ready to blow Quinten to smithereens.
“Chill, Dude,” Zack whispered under his breath right before tapping out. Dude looked at him, as best he could, with his own designer sunglasses—the kind worn for style and not necessity. He gritted his jaw but complied, the gun disappearing before he sat on a bench and pantomimed zipping his mouth shut.
Gasping for breath, Zack cussed through the pain with each inhale. A snuffling, wet nose eased his hand, and he pet Shania, his service dog. He’d had her less than six months, but she was the sweetest animal he’d ever known. Initially trained to treat PTSD, she read his moods better than Dude.
“Thanks, bro. I’ll remember that next time you ask me for a favor.” Zack’s voice heaved, and he tried not to puke. The pain focused itself in his gut, roiling around and sloshing, ready to come up his throat at any moment. Swallowing the thick saliva in his mouth, he tamped it down.
“I’m not doing you any favors coddling you.” Yep, Quinten was pissed at him. That made Zack feel worse than the other guys witnessing his humiliation.
Shadow Quinten jumped off the mat, and Zack could only remember what his friend must look like, all six foot seven of him, towering around with his broody façade. At one point, they’d been best friends—brothers almost—but it had been so long ago, Zack only had the memories. Somewhere along the line, Quinten had abandoned the friendship, leaving him grasping at something tenuous.
But grasping he was.
He sat up with a moan, desperate to retain a shred of dignity, even though he was pretty sure Q had broken one of his ribs. Shania licked his ear, and he returned the comforting gesture by burying his hands in her fur to hide the shaking. No. Not broken. If it were broken, he wouldn’t be able to move. Zack focused on that one simple fact and managed to breathe through the pain.
“You alright, man?” Ryan was cool. Zack didn’t know him as well as Quinten and Simon, but he liked the guy a lot. He was level-headed most of the time and knew his shit when it came to survival. Zack knew he’d be the one to stand next to him with a sawed-off shotgun during a zombie apocalypse.
Grunting something that was supposed to be an affirmation, but came off more like a wheeze, Shania whimpered and licked him again. Zack mumbled a cooing noise in her ear to reassure her.
“Quinten, I need Zack later tonight,” Simon admonished his brother. “Don’t kill him.”
Pierce Securities was his life, and Zack wasn’t ready to give up on it yet. Simon, at least, tolerated him. Although Evan and Ryan seemed cool enough, Q used to be his best friend. The guy who swapped locker room talk with him, shared beers, snuck cigarettes, and even helped him through the rough times when he’d started down the path of blindness.
But when Zack made sure Bonnie would leave him when she went off to college, Quinten had left, too. Zack hadn’t meant for that to happen, but it had. And it had been a long, uphill battle getting his buddy back. With this job, Zack had thought things would be easier, but apparently not. His old brother from another mother clearly hated his guts.
“Here are some pain killers.” Andrew, the newest guy on the team, entered his peripheral vision. The jury was still out on whether or not this guy was cool, but Zack listened to some pills shake out of a bottle and reached for them, his willingness to trust in the man overtaking his senses. He looked closely at the pills, seeing three little blue dots on his palm before popping them. “Aleve. Supposed to be an anti-inflammatory.”
“Thanks, man.” Zack swallowed them with ease, his mouth having pooled with saliva from the pain. Andrew chuckled in response, but Zack ignored it. The guy had a fucked-up sense of humor, always trying to get a rise out of Deena Rae for no apparent reason. Her boyfriend, Slade, was about to kick the guy’s ass, and since Slade was his new brother, Zack decided he would happily sit on the sidelines and cheer him on. But right now, he smiled at the guy who had just given him pain meds.
Simon’s voice broke through the red haze of pain, “I need you and Ryan to meet an informant tonight. I’ve got everyone else on assignment, and this one’s pretty important. It looks like you and Evan are right about those girls. It appears the recent kidnappings are a human trafficking/prostitution ring.” Zack’s spirits rose. Simon had to have some faith in his abilities if he were trusting him to meet someone. “It’s Macy’s boyfriend, a kid named Jeff. Says she texted him her whereabouts. But the kid said he was nervous. Didn’t want to talk on the phone.”
Macy was a kidnapping victim her parents had hired the firm to find. Prior to retiring, Hollerman had been investigating cases with missing girls, and there were too many similarities to be ignored. So they’d been working a possible trafficking angle, hoping it would pan out. This was the lead they’d been praying for. The police certainly seemed to be out of them.
Simon had been giving him some responsibilities around the office, but Zack couldn’t help feeling they were all tests of some sort. Like this. He was clearly not the best person for this job, which was probably why Ryan was going along, too. Not that he didn’t want to—he wanted it like he wanted beer and women—but it didn’t make sense.
But having a job like this wasn’t like his other jobs. Other jobs had been in the office. Evan had modified his own sight-impaired computer technology to help him. Zack had even been doing a little computer searching alongside Evan in his tiny, cramped office. But this? This was insanity.
He was totally in.
The clanking of weights and grunts of the guys working out filled Zack’s head. He nodded his affirmation, glad for his sunglasses shielding the watering of his eyes. Pain or gratitude. Didn’t matter.
“When does Hollerman start?” Quinten spoke, ignoring the painfully obvious fact they were counting on a visually impaired man to do a job that probably required eyes. “He just retired from the force, right?”
“He’s a good guy,” Zack offered. Before his blindness, he’d been a cop. Not that he’d gotten far in the force before having to quit, but he’d worked with Detective Hollerman a couple of times.
“Monday. I figured we’re not making his job any easier, he might as well join us,” Simon added with a hiss as he lifted something. He preferred the hand weights to the few machines in the pieced together gym they’d made from used equipment.
A soft chuckle came from Evan, off to Zack’s left over by the pull-up bar. The guy loved his pull-ups and managed to work out nearly every muscle group that way. But his upper body strength was phenomenal.
Jordan spoke up from across the room, “Does the guy have a first name? Or is it just Hollerman?”
Zack grinned to himself. “It’s Poindexter. I dare you to call him that. He goes by Dex, but his real name is an earned privilege.” He had been an eye witness to Hollerman’s temper when people razzed him about his name. Poor schmuck. Zack thought Dex had been formally introduced to everyone at Valerie’s masquerade benefit thing, but a couple of them had apparently missed it.
Deena Rae was the latest new hire, after Andrew, and she was awesome. She didn’t take shit from anyone and was excellent at her job. Right now, after being badly burned, she was supposed to be on medical leave but was home doing computer searches on supposed bad guys. In fact, she was probably doing the job Zack usually did to alleviate stress from Evan, leaving him to do the more complicated things, like find information they had no right to find.
Evan piped up, “If you hire all these people, won’t we need more space?” Zack heard the thud as he dropped to the ground.
“I’ve been thinking about that. The office next door is vacant. It wouldn’t take much to knock out a wall between them as long as it’s not load bearing. But it can be done.”
“Won’t the building owner have something to say about that?” Ryan asked.
“Quinten and I own the building. It’s part of Pierce Enterprises.”
Zack had known that. Growing up with the Pierce kids meant their money was shoved in his face by their parents on a near daily basis. Not that Zack was poor, but hardly anybody in Austin could compete with the Pierce legacy. Their parents had been so disappointed when Simon had gone into the police force, so Quinten had bowed to the pressure to get a law degree. His parents wanted him to go into politics, but as soon as they’d died, the degree had sat in the caverns of Quinten’s brain, nearly useless.
The Pierce boys seemed to almost resent their wealth, never rubbing it in anyone’s faces, acting and dressing like normal people, with the exception of Simon’s penchant for expensive suits. Quinten and Simon could buy them all, besides Evan, ten times over. The sudden silence in the gym attested to the fact most of the guys there had forgotten that fact.
Zack sighed and clambered to his feet, Shania at his side as he found and clutched her harness. “So where am I meeting this kid?” The pain piercing his side was a little better, but not much.
“You ever been to South by Southwest?” Simon asked with a little humor in his voice.
Fuck no. Any Austin native knew to get the hell out of dodge when the largest music festival of the free world descended upon their city. Freeways were jammed, roads were closed, and nothing was normal as millions of people visited the already overpopulated capital.
And Simon was sending him.