Authors: Wendy Byrne
Genesis Press, Inc.
Indigo Love Spectrum
An imprint of Genesis Press, Inc.
Genesis Press, Inc.
P.O. Box 101
Columbus, MS 39703
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All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author and all incidents are pure invention.
Copyright© 2012 Wendy Byrne
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Gabriella shifted, clumsily finding the right gear. The Porsche responded with a lurch, the wheels spinning for a second or two before taking hold on the slick pavement. At 3
on a Thursday morning, I-294 North, the highway connecting Illinois with Wisconsin, was nearly deserted. After a glance in the rearview mirror, she drew in a long deep breath.
Her passenger moaned in his seat, excruciating pain etched onto his face. At least he was still alive. For a terrifying couple of minutes, she wasn’t sure he was still breathing.
Despite the circumstances, she nearly smiled as she envisioned the headline:
Gabriella Santos Saves Shane O’Neil.
She imagined the details that would follow: Gabriella Santos, stiletto-wearing blues singer, courageously saves big bad Shane O’Neil, all six feet, four inches and two hundred pounds of him. Then again, she shouldn’t get ahead of herself.
G.I. Jane she wasn’t. But still, by some kind of miracle, she’d pulled it off. At least for the time being.
Apprehensive after everything she’d gone through in the last several hours, she peeked at his still form. He definitely needed a doctor. But before he passed out, she had promised him no cops and no hospital. Since they had both been preoccupied dodging bullets at the time, she hadn’t asked for an explanation. For the time being, she felt obligated to honor his wishes. Fighting the urge to poke him just to hear him moan so she’d know he was still alive, she settled for finding a centimeter of skin not bruised or swollen and touched it. When he felt warm but not feverish, she let out a sigh of relief.
Since leaving Florida a month ago, she’d been followed, mugged, threatened, and shot at. She wasn’t in law enforcement like her brothers. She wasn’t even gainfully employed most of the time. She was a blues singer, flitting from one gig to another, never quite knowing where she’d find herself.
But the very last place she would have expected to be during the early morning hours of August twenty-fourth was running from a carload of bad guys with a nearly dead man sitting next to her. How could she possibly take care of a half-dead guy when she couldn’t even take care of herself?
It had all started mere weeks ago when she entered the Blues Stop that humid August afternoon…
* * *
For Gabriella, getting ready for her first gig in Chicago took hours. Finally, she decided on a tailored silk paisley vest and paired it with a short jeans skirt. At five feet, nine inches, several feet of mocha-colored legs peeked from beneath the bottom fringe. To show off sculpted and toned arms, she wore a coiled metal armband around her left bicep. On her right arm, she wore fifteen thin bracelets that dangled somewhere between her elbow and wrist. In the ‘V’ of her vest rested silver chains of varying lengths.
Satisfied with her sultry-blues-singer look, she left the hotel and hopped into a cab. Fifteen minutes and twenty dollars later, she yanked open the door to the Blues Stop on North Wells Street at exactly five minutes to four on August first. With one last fluff of her long, unruly black hair, she sashayed inside in a pair of to-die-for Jimmy Choos.
In contrast to the bright afternoon sun, the inside of the club was dark, almost cave-like. A blast of cool, air-conditioned air brought out goose bumps on her exposed arms. Chairs were still stacked upside down on small round tabletops, evidence a cleaning crew had been hard at work some time earlier. The scents of disinfectant and wood polish hung in the air, providing the illusion of cleanliness.
“Hello?” A hint of trepidation slithered along her back as she made her way further inside, her four-inch heels echoing in the intimate confines.
Reaching the bar, she ran her hand down the polished wood and sat on one of the stools. Spinning it around, she faced the small stage. Considering she’d accepted the gig sight unseen, so far it didn’t look too bad. She chalked that nagging feeling playing the keyboard of her spine up to the eerie silence.
She heard male voices right before the back door was flung open and two arguing men rushed inside: one black, one white. Instead of making her presence known, she crossed her legs and waited. Sooner or later they’d figure out they weren’t alone.
“You don’t make decisions like hiring a singer without consulting me. I’m the owner, not you. Right now we’re not making enough money to justify that expense. Besides, we have Donna,” the tall white man said.
“Donna only plays keyboard. We need a singer. You haven’t been around long enough to know they come and go like that.” The shorter black man snapped his fingers.
“That’s because you keep hiring junkies. No self-respecting singer is going to work in a place like this.”
Gabriella slid off the stool and stood. With hands firmly placed at her hips, she interrupted. “I take exception to that comment.”
They stopped arguing and whirled in her direction. After a second or two of hesitation, the white man approached, his stare boring a hole straight through her.
“And you are?” He let the question dangle in the air, half-question, half-threat.
She’d been around clubs long enough to know all managers were variations of the same thing, idiots and bigger idiots. She had a pretty good idea where this guy fit into the continuum. Instead of pondering the thought, she held out her hand. “Gabriella Santos, your new singer.”
He grumbled something which sounded like a string of very inventive curses before he blew out a breath and placed his hands at his hips. “There’s been a mistake. We don’t need a singer after all.”
She hadn’t come all this way just to return home with her tail between her legs. At least not if she could help it. “But I distinctly heard this nice gentleman say you did.” She pointed to the black guy and gave him a flirtatious smile.
“Mack.” From the fake gold Rolex on his wrist, to the gold chain around his neck, to the vibrant blue shirt, this guy’s wardrobe screamed, ‘Look at me.’
“Mack said your singer left.” Barring getting fired right now, she wasn’t leaving town. Besides, she had a point to prove to herself and her family.
The white man scowled, which he seemed to do quite often. “Off on a binge, no doubt. I don’t need that kind of trouble.”
The idea that she had to coerce him in order to sing here rankled her. She was good. Not Billie Holiday good, but she could hold her own. Geez, the lengths she had to go to in order to prove herself.
When she’d found out her old manager, Vic, had been taking more than his fair share of her profits for years, she’d fired him on the spot. But good old Vic had showed her. Irate, he’d blacklisted her in every club in South Florida, telling them she was a diva, a Whitney Houston wannabe without the talent. Needless to say, that didn’t bode well for getting gigs. So she did the only thing she could—she got out of Dodge.
The idea that her brother Enrique might possibly have been right when he told her not to take this gig in Chicago loomed large in her mind. She wanted to invoke his name and recite a litany of his accomplishments as a DEA agent in order to get this bozo to follow through with what he’d promised.
But she wouldn’t. Because someway, somehow, Enrique would find out about it, proving once again to him, his wife Sammie, and the remainder of her family that she couldn’t make it on her own.
Mr. Cranky Pants narrowed his eyes. Reluctance showed in his slowness with which he took her extended hand. “Shane O’Neil. And I’m telling you again, I don’t need a singer.”
“And I’m telling you I expect you to honor your commitment.” This was ridiculous. Maybe Vic had actually earned more than his fair share if this guy was any indication of how club managers operated. Her demo tape, combined with the fact he had no one else available, should be enough to convince him to at least give her a try.
“The last singer we had used the back room to shoot up heroin between sets.”
“You’ve watched way too many made-for-TV movies. Not all blues singers are junkies.”
He eyeballed her from head to toe. “Don’t see any track marks on your arms, but the light in here isn’t the best.”
Had he just called her a junkie?
“Then maybe we should go outside in the daylight.”
Shane reached out and grabbed her wrist, signaling in no uncertain terms he had every intention of taking her up on her offer. He pulled her into the sunlight of the warm August afternoon.
She blinked as her eyes adjusted. When she could focus again, Shane was towering above her, glaring.
Despite the scowl on his face, it was gentleness she felt in the touch of his fingertips. He probed the length of her arms, paying particular attention to the inside of her elbow, poking at the skin, looking for telltale track marks she might have disguised.
When he finished his eyes rose to meet hers, his hands still holding onto her wrists. Absolutely mesmerizing, his eyes were the deepest, darkest blue she’d ever seen. The stark contrast with his coal black hair made them compelling and, wonder of all wonders, made him seem a tad vulnerable.
His face itself was nothing to dismiss, either. Sharp angles and strong edges brought a distinct maleness to his features. If he didn’t have such a cranky disposition, he’d be downright gorgeous.
“You don’t look like a druggie.” The comment rolled off his tongue as easily as if he were remarking about the weather.
That forced her mind back into focus. “Just because I’m black and a blues singer doesn’t mean I’m a junkie. In fact, I barely drink.” This guy seemed to be looking for an excuse to fire her, and she was determined not to give him one.
He eyed her as if he wanted to say something, then thought better of it. “Keep it that way if you want to stay employed.” He placed his hands on his hips, notching up the intimidation factor once again. “What hotel are we paying for?”
“The Holiday Inn on Michigan Avenue.”
“Not anymore. There’s a vacant apartment above my office. You’re going to stay there.”
“But there’s no room service.” Not only was this guy cranky, he was cheap.
“No, but there’s a nice twenty-four-hour diner across the street. I’ll have them run a tab for you.”
“What about maid service?”
His jaw clenched tight and he folded his arms across his chest. “You’ll have to do your own cleaning up.”
“Who’s going to move my stuff?”
“You and I, right after your last set.” For the first time since they’d met, he looked her up and down in a way that was sexual rather than intimidating. “For all this trouble, I hope to God your voice matches the way you look.”
Saving face was all about gritting her teeth and bearing it. “Are you kidding? Once the crowds start rolling in, you’ll want to sign me up for another month. In which case, I’ll agree only if you reserve a room for me at the Ritz Carlton.”
“Don’t count on it.”
She followed him back inside but he didn’t so much as hold the door open for her. More than likely he would have locked her out if he thought he could get away with it.
While she didn’t expect politeness, the guy seemed to be going out of his way to be rude. Then again, maybe that was his natural state, in which case it would be a heck of a long month.
* * *
Inheriting this dive of a blues bar because of a debt was bad enough. But with his partner, Garrett, out of the country for at least a month, Shane didn’t have anybody to share the workload.
His patience was wearing thin. And being around that slimeball Mack made him want to strangle the guy with those gold chains he was so fond of wearing. And hiring a blues singer when the place was losing money like a sieve made Shane want to torture Mack before he strangled him, even if the blues singer in question brought the idea of sultry to a whole other level. Judging by her clothes and hair, she also brought high-maintenance to another level, as well.
But she sure was sexy, with her beautiful latte-colored face, her long, dark, just-got-out-of-bed hair, incredible legs that went on forever, and a body that should be plastered on the front cover of the swimsuit issue of
. He’d take her to bed in a red hot minute if he didn’t think it would screw up his life in a major way. Shane knew the signs.
And Gabriella Santos had trouble written all over her.
* * *
For some reason, Gabriella couldn’t get him out of her mind. He was one of the few men she’d ever met who seemed to gloss over the way she looked and hone in on what was beneath, be it good or bad. It was as if he were peeling off a superficial layer of skin to examine what made her tick. That didn’t make her feel so good.
“What’s with that Shane guy?” Gabriella asked the keyboard player, Donna.
Donna shrugged. After turning around to insure Shane and Mack were both occupied in back, she answered, “He and his partner, Garrett Ryan, inherited the place when Walt Cummings, the owner, disappeared.”
“Really?” Now that she knew he wasn’t here willingly, his bad attitude made more sense.
“Walt was going through a nasty divorce and hired Shane and Garrett to do some detective work. Along with a retainer, he gave them a quit claim deed to this property as collateral. One of the checks he gave them bounced, and then Walt headed for parts unknown with a slew of creditors chasing him. Shane and Garrett were the lucky ones. At least they got this place for their trouble.”