Even under the most ideal conditions, blending in with a crowd was difficult for a guy like Russell Jackson. A tall, muscular Black man with a lot of tattoos, he’d spent a good chunk of his adult life attracting unwanted attention. And in a redneck bar like the Salty Dog Saloon, the task was all but impossible.
Not that it really mattered. He’d never been a blend-in kind of guy. If given the choice, he’d rather employ the kick-down-the-door-and-take-no-prisoners approach to whatever life threw in his path.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option in this particular situation.
Onstage, the three-man band finished their set, and as the sound of music faded, hooting and applause took its place. Someone let out a piercing wolf whistle, and then pre-recorded country music piped over the house speakers.
Ignoring the stares of a pair of women playing eight-ball, Jackson skirted around the dance floor and wove a path through the building in search of Essie, his wife. Correction: ex-wife, though he hoped to rectify that soon. She was in here somewhere; he’d seen her enter the building, but finding her among the sea of bodies felt like a giant game of Where’s Waldo?
Hindsight being twenty-twenty, he never should have agreed to the divorce. He sure as hell hadn’t wanted it. He’d never stopped loving his wife. But he’d been hurt and angry when the process server slapped him with those damn papers, and by the time he got his head screwed on straight, the proceedings were well underway.
A tall, skinny, good old boy knocked shoulders with Jackson when their paths crossed near the restrooms, a common occurrence for Jackson whenever he patronized places like this. Liquid courage made some people aggressive, and that usually meant they wanted to try their luck with the biggest dude they could find, which unfortunately often ended up being him.
Sure enough, the guy whirled around, a sneer on his face and his shoulders thrown back as he snarled, “What the fuck!”
In response, Jackson straightened to his full height and gave his best don’t-mess-with-me glare, and the guy suddenly decided that maybe this wasn’t such a great idea.
At last, Jackson spotted Essie at the bar, and the sight of her made his whole body come alive in a way it hadn’t in more than a year. He’d tried to forget her, to move on with his life, but it just wasn’t going to happen. In the eyes of the law, they were no longer husband and wife, but that didn’t mean a damn thing to him. He had every intention of keeping his vow to love, honor, and cherish this woman until the day he drew his last breath, and he planned to do everything in his power to convince her to give their relationship another chance.
For months, he’d respected her boundaries and given her space, hoping she’d come around on her own. He was tired of waiting. He wanted his wife back. And if he had no chance of getting her back, he needed to know so he could begin to heal the huge hole in his heart.
As if sensing his approach, her head turned toward him, and for the briefest of moments, her lips parted with what appeared to be genuine surprise. Was there longing as well, or was that wishful thinking on his behalf? God, he hoped it was the former.
In her left hand was a bottle of Coors Light, which struck him as strange, considering her distaste for beer. She wore cowboy boots, skin-tight denim, and a bright-red blouse cut low enough to show a tantalizing glimpse of cleavage. Her brown hair was loose, and the long, soft waves hung past her shoulders. She had the bluest eyes he’d ever seen, the color of Caribbean waters on a summer afternoon. It was sappy, he knew it, but he could drown in the depths of those eyes and be perfectly content.
Back when she worked covert ops for the United States government, she’d often worn colored contact lenses to darken the blue to brown because in that line of work, having memorable features could get a person killed. She’d been among the best in her field, and she’d always taken precautions. Even so, he’d lost track of the number of times she’d come home bloodied and bruised—though from what, he had no idea. She couldn’t tell him, and he’d learned not to ask.
Now she worked in the private sector, because corporations utilized spies just as much—if not more—than governments around the world. Of course, they didn’t call them spies. They preferred the term “security consultants.”
He claimed a spot beside her at the bar and ordered a Budweiser draft from a bartender who looked at him as though he’d never seen a Black man inside his bar before, which could very well be the case. This place was whiter than Wonder Bread. He paid for the beer and took a sip. Cold, crisp, and a little watered down, pretty much what he’d expected.
Almost a full minute passed before she finally acknowledged his presence, though her focus remained fixed on the mirror behind the bar. “Where’s Thing 2? Never mind, I see him.”
Jackson tracked her line of vision and saw his buddy, Navarre, near the dartboards, chatting up a curvy redhead with a chest large enough to put Dolly Parton to shame. Every ten seconds or so, Navarre’s gaze cut to Jackson and then back to the woman, a sign he was paying attention to what was going on and ready to help if the need arose. In a place like this, things could go south in the blink of an eye, and it was comforting to know a close ally was watching his six.
Jackson turned his attention back to his wife. “If you gave him a chance, you’d see he’s a really good guy.”
She made a noise to convey exactly what she thought of that statement. From day one, the two had disliked each other, and for the life of him, Jackson didn’t understand the animosity between them. He’d asked each of them about it on multiple occasions, and their responses were usually something along the lines of, “You need to ask him/her,” or “He/She isn’t good for you.”
The music changed, from something fast and twangy to something slow and twangy, and a dozen or so couples made their way to the scuffed parquet dance floor in front of the stage. It reminded him of that dive bar outside Baidoa, and how perfect Essie had felt against him on that sultry summer night.
Fighting the urge to reach for her, Jackson leaned against the scarred wooden counter and sipped his beer. He waited for Essie to speak again, and when she didn’t, he filled the void. “So who’s the bunny?”
Her expression remained unchanged. On the outside, she appeared aloof, but he knew from experience that she was hyper-aware of every sight, sound, and smell around her. Most likely, she knew the location of every exit and what she could grab in a pinch to use as a weapon. “There is no bunny.”
“Oh, come on, Es. You’re a world-class liar, but I know you better than that.” He inched a little closer and dropped his voice to avoid being overheard. “You hate country music. The only way you’d be caught dead in a place like this, wearing clothes like that, is if you’re on the hunt. So who is it?”
The muscle along her jaw twitched a fraction, one of the few tells in her otherwise flawless ability to mask her true emotions. “None of your business.”
“I can help.”
“I doubt that.” Turning toward him, she pinned him with her fiercest icy stare. Most folks would have been intimidated by it, but he’d seen it so many times, he’d become desensitized. “Go away, Jackson. You’d get pissed if I bothered you on the job.”
“Well, ain’t that a shame? I wouldn’t be here if you’d answered my calls.”
She let out a huff of annoyance. “I didn’t answer your calls because there’s nothing for us to discuss.”
“I disagree.” He placed his beer on the bar top. “For starters, we need to talk about—”
“Excuse me, ma’am, is this boy bothering you?”
Jackson glanced over at the Bubba standing to his left. Garden-variety redneck, though there was a softness about him that implied he only played the part on the weekends. Blue jeans, flannel shirt, cowboy hat and boots, and a huge wad of tobacco jammed between his cheek and gums. The only thing missing was a mullet. At some point in time, the guy might have been fit, but now a soft roll of pudge threatened to spill over that ridiculously huge belt buckle.
He knew “boy” was meant to piss him off. It did, but he refused to let it show. “Ain’t nothing for you to worry about. I’m just talking with the lady.”
“Yeah, well, the lady made it real clear she don’t want to talk to you.” Bubba stepped closer, chest puffed up, feet firmly planted, thumbs hooked in the pockets of his jeans. A couple of his buddies had fallen in behind him, clearly itching for the opportunity to pound Jackson into next week. The thin guy on the right wasn’t much of a threat, but the bearded hulk on the left looked as if he spent every waking moment at the gym. That didn’t necessarily mean he could fight worth shit, but if he landed a punch, there’d be some power behind it.
Tension charged the air. The slightest spark would cause it to explode. A crowd began to form around them, clearly hoping to get a good view of the coming shitshow.
Navarre slid in behind the hulk, an almost-empty beer bottle in his right hand. Not particularly big in height or build, he wore weathered jeans, a plain green shirt, and an old pair of hiking boots. With his lightly tanned skin and short brown hair, nobody gave him a second look, because unlike Jackson, he fit right in with this crowd. Most people underestimated him, an assumption he wasn’t shy about exploiting to his advantage. If pushed too far, or if the situation warranted it, he could go from cool, calm, and collected to Tasmanian devil on crystal meth.
“Cody, leave the man alone.”
That was one of the bouncers, dressed in all black, a brick shithouse with muscles on top of muscles and absolutely no neck to speak of. He inserted himself between Jackson and the redneck, hands planted on his hips, his expression making it clear he didn’t want to be there. Jackson didn’t blame him one bit. After leaving the Army, he’d worked security at a few bars around town, and the experience had taught him that dealing with a building full of drunks was about as much fun as going to a strip club with your grandma.
“I’m only helping the lady.” Cody’s chin jutted up as he talked to the bouncer, his Southern drawl tinged with righteous indignation. “This boy won’t leave her alone, even after she told him she wasn’t interested.”
The bouncer had the look of a man who saw the odds of making it through his shift without having to call the cops dwindling. “Ma’am, is this man bothering you?”
The glare Essie slanted at Jackson could have frozen a volcano. “Yes, he is.”
“All right, you heard the lady.” The bouncer jerked his thumb toward the front double doors. “It’s time for you to call it a night.”
Getting angry wasn’t going to get Jackson anywhere. The bouncer was only doing his job; it wasn’t right to get mad at him, though it was tempting to punch the smug smile right off Bubba’s face.
Telling them that Essie was his ex-wife wasn’t going to improve the situation, either. To the contrary, it would compromise whatever job she was on—maybe even get her kicked out as well—and that would make her madder at him than she already was.
That left tactical retreat as his only viable option, even though it was the very last thing he wanted to do.
Jackson’s gaze met Essie’s, and he felt that all-too-familiar jolt of heat flash through every nerve in his body. The need to touch her was damn near overwhelming, but he knew better than to act upon it, so he kept his hands at his sides. “We’ll talk later.”
“Not if I can help it.”
Patrons parted like the proverbial Red Sea as he strode toward the exit. He didn’t need to look to know Navarre was trailing behind, though staying back a respectable distance, just in case Cody and his buddies decided to take a cheap parting shot.
As he opened the door, the band started to play again, and he heard the cheap shot come in the form of Cody’s taunting voice. “Don’t even think about coming back, boy.”
Hands clenched into fists, Jackson stalked across the lot, and it took until the third row of cars for Navarre to finally catch up. His friend didn’t say a word as he walked beside him, and for that Jackson was grateful.
When they reached the next row, Navarre took out his keys and unlocked the door of his classic Plymouth Barracuda. He slid behind the wheel and stretched across the passenger seat to unlock the other door. A year or so ago, when he’d bought the old hunk of junk at an auction, it had to be towed to the house. He’d spent countless hours meticulously rebuilding or replacing every last part, all the way down to the cigarette lighter he’d probably never use. Now the only thing it needed was a fresh coat of paint for it to look as if it had recently rolled off the assembly line.
A turn of the key, and the engine roared to life, a deep, heavy rumble that turned a few heads in the lot. Slowly, he pulled out of the spot, stopping for a few seconds when a drunk staggered across the car’s path. “Well, that went about as well as expected.”
Jackson knew the I-told-you-so was coming. Best buddy or not, he wasn’t in the mood for that shit. “Don’t start.”
“Hey, I’m just saying. Don’t kill the messenger.” But he didn’t say another word about it.
That was the way it had always been with Navarre, which might explain why they got along so well. He wasn’t shy about reminding you of your colossal fuck-up, but once he made his point, he didn’t beat it to death.
As he drove out of the lot, Navarre flipped through the radio channels until he found a hip-hop song he deemed worthy. He was actually more of a hard rock kind of guy, and Jackson appreciated the concession. “Where to now?” he asked. “We going home, or do you want to blow off some steam?”
For Navarre, blowing off steam could mean anything from hitting a club, lifting some weights, destroying paper men at the firing range, or playing video games until his thumbs went numb. Every now and again, it meant seeking out a willing woman, but he preferred to do that particular activity on his own.
None of those options appealed to Jackson. All he could think about was Essie, still in that bar, probably getting hit on by Cody at this very moment. Just thinking about that asshole pawing his woman made his grip tighten around the door handle and his blood pressure shoot up like a rocket.
Forcing the unpleasant thought from his mind, he stared out the window at the passing scenery. “Let’s stop by the store and pick up some beer. Then I’m kicking your ass at Demon Scourge.”
As Essie watched Jackson stalk out of the bar, she mentally checked off the reasons why going after him would be a terrible idea.
The ink was long dry on their divorce decree. They were over. Finished. Kaput. And no, she didn’t want to be friends. On some level, he’d always hold a special place in her heart, but it was best to leave well enough alone. She didn’t want him to get the wrong impression and think there was a chance they could ever get back together.
But most important—at least at the moment—he had no right to interfere with her business. She would have been pissed if he’d blown her cover and ruined hours of work.
Tonight’s job was off the clock, a favor for the friend of a business associate whose soon-to-be ex-husband couldn’t handle the fact she’d rather spend the rest of her life alone than with his sorry ass. He’d harassed her at work. Followed her home. The poor woman couldn’t even go to the grocery store without him showing up and making a scene in the produce section. And now he’d dialed things up a few notches by threatening to release explicit pictures they’d taken during happier times unless he got his way in the increasingly hostile divorce proceedings.
Essie turned her gaze to the asshole in question and offered a flirty smile. Picking up a guy at a bar was more of a challenge than most people assumed, especially when you had a particular target in your sights. Too easy, and the mark might get suspicious. Too hard, and he might move on to what he considered a less challenging conquest.
In a way, Jackson had made her job easier. He’d given the guy a reason to come charging to her rescue, and now that she had him on the hook, the rest should be a breeze.
“Thanks for your help. I didn’t think that guy was ever gonna leave.” She allowed a slice of her native West Virginia accent to seep into her voice. Normally, she kept it buried deep, but every so often she let it emerge when it worked to her advantage. While she was at it, she added a slight slur, because she wanted this guy to assume she was easy pickings.
“No problem.” He sidled up beside her at the bar where Jackson stood minutes ago, and the pungent smell of cheap cologne hit her like a brick. Though a bit softer than she preferred, he wasn’t a bad-looking guy. Too bad he had all the charm of a constipated badger. “I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. I’m Cody.”
“Kerry-Lynn. Nice to meet you. It’s my first time here.” And the last. Jackson was right; she wasn’t fond of country music, and the band wasn’t doing anything to soften her stance. Over the years, she’d gotten pretty good at trolling bars, but if given the choice, she’d much rather spend the evening curled up on the couch with a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and the latest mystery by her favorite author.
Cody tipped his head in acknowledgment. “You new in town?”
“Is it that obvious?” She let out a light, girly laugh as she picked at the label of her bottle of Coors Light. Truth be told, she wasn’t much of a beer drinker either. She’d been nursing this one for so long it had gone warm, which, in her opinion, only made it taste worse, but it had a low alcohol content that allowed her to drink without getting drunk. “So how can I thank you for coming to my rescue?”
His gaze swept over her body in a way that was about as subtle as a sledgehammer. “I’m sure I can think of something. Are you staying nearby?”
“Yeah, my sister’s house. She just had a baby, so I came down to help.” The lie rolled off her tongue with practiced ease. That ability had saved her skin on numerous occasions, and now it would convince this guy to take her to his place. “I’m crashing on her couch for the next couple weeks. You?”
He hitched one shoulder in a casual shrug, while his eyes remained fixed on her cleavage. “My apartment isn’t far from here. It ain’t much, but there’s plenty of beer in the fridge, and I guarantee my bed’s a lot more comfortable than your sister’s couch.”
And people said romance was dead.
Essie fought the urge to roll her eyes as she forced down another mouthful of room-temperature beer. She set the half-empty bottle on the counter and gave a sloppy smile. If things went as planned, she’d be asleep in her own bed in two hours, three tops. “Sounds good. Let’s get out of here.”
A short time later, Cody pushed open the door to his second-story apartment, flipped on a light, and gestured for her to enter. “Ladies first.”
The cool, crisp air inside the building made the hairs on Essie’s arms stand on end. Out of habit, she quickly surveyed her surroundings, noting things such as cover, possible weapons, and placement of exits.
For a bachelor pad, it wasn’t bad. There weren’t any takeout containers crowding the kitchen counter or dishes filling the sink. The furnishings were modern and predictably masculine, and most of them appeared to be fairly new—not surprising, considering the recent change in his relationship status.
She skimmed one hand along the arm of the black leather couch as she walked past. “You live here long?”
“Three months.” Cody closed the door behind him and hung his hat on a hook by the light switch.
“It’s nice. Cozy. I like it.” Essie felt his stare on her back as she sauntered to the entrance of the galley kitchenette. She turned to face him and grinned. But before he could make a move, she asked, “What kind of beer you got in that fridge?”
“Uh…let me check.” He set his keys and phone on the dining room table on his way to the kitchen, where he opened the refrigerator door. “Looks like you’ve got your choice of Miller and Budweiser.”
“Miller sounds good.”
Cody took out two bottles, used the edge of the countertop to pop off the caps, and handed one to her.
“Thank you.” She forced down a sip. Ugh. But at least it wasn’t as bad as that drink she had years ago in Finland. She couldn’t recall the name of that particular abomination, but just thinking about it made her mentally shudder. Searching for a distraction, she pointed to the aquarium against the wall by the couch. “What kind of fish you got?”
“At the moment, I ain’t got much of anything, just a few tetras and an algae eater. Once I get some plants established, I’ll probably get a couple of gouramis or some angel fish.”
He set down his beer and reached for the container of fish food on the table. When he turned to sprinkle some flakes in the tank, she slipped the drug from her purse and into his drink. It wasn’t anything lethal, just a little chloral hydrate, a mild yet effective sedative. The dosage wasn’t high enough to cause any kind of permanent damage, but combined with the beer, it should knock him out fairly quickly.
Essie handed him the bottle and watched him down nearly half of the beer in one long chug. “So what kind of work do you do?”
His answer didn’t surprise her. Not much did anymore. She’d learned a long time ago that creeps came from all walks of life.
“You mean like Viagra?” she teased.
He let out a huff of amusement before he drank another swig of beer. “Yeah, among other things. The company I work for makes everything from antifungals to experimental cancer treatments.”
“Wow, sounds exciting. I bet you’re really good at what you do.”
The ego stroke was enough to send Cody on a bragging tear about how great he was at his job, and how everybody else in the company paled in comparison. As he talked, his eyelids began to droop, and though he hadn’t drunk all of his beer, Essie took the bottle from his grip and set it on the small table by the aquarium.
“Why don’t we get comfortable?” The last thing she wanted was a call to 911 because he passed out and slammed his head on the coffee table.
He did as suggested, his arm sliding around her waist as they sank down onto the leather couch.
He moved in for a kiss, wet and sloppy, and it took just about everything she had not to gag or shove him away. His hand moved to her waist and steadily inched higher, but she grabbed his hand and dragged it down before it reached her breast.
“Hey, I’ve got an idea.” Needing to put space between them before he made another run for second base, she hopped off the couch and crossed to where he’d set his phone on the dining room table. A press of a button, and the screen lit up. “What’s your password, honey? I want to take some pictures.”
His eyelids were heavy, his pupils dilated, his movements sluggish as he adjusted his position on the couch. It wouldn’t be much longer before the drug completely saturated his system. “What kind of pictures?”
She caught her lower lip between her teeth. “It’s a surprise. I promise you’ll like it.”
Men were so predictable, especially when sex was on the line. A lazy grin stretched over his face as he rattled off the password.
A few swipes and she found his image gallery and the lurid photos she’d been tasked with destroying. In the grand scheme of things, they were fairly tame, but she understood his ex-wife’s desire to keep them off the internet. Not only could they kill her career, they also had the potential of attracting a lot of sick people.
Essie tapped on one of the more modest pictures and angled the screen toward Cody. “Who’s this?”
It took a moment for his glassy eyes to focus, and then his upper lip peeled back into a sneer. “Bitch ex-wife.”
“You got these anyplace else? Laptop, cloud?”
Confusion creased his brow. “Huh? No. Why would I?”
“Just curious.” Talk about amateur. If it were her, she would have stored multiple copies all over the damn place, just in case something happened to the phone. She gave a coy smile and unfastened the top button of her blouse. “I need to use the bathroom real quick. When I get back, I’m going to make you forget all about your ex-wife.”
By the time she came out of the bathroom, he was out like a light, his breathing deep and even and his head tipped back against the couch cushion.
At the sound of his snore, she reopened his phone, deleted the compromising images as well as the backups stored in his photos app, and then ran a program to overwrite all of the deleted data, making it virtually impossible for them to be recovered. The phone would work like it always did, but he’d never be able to use those pictures for blackmail.
For the sake of being thorough, she also checked his text messages and emails to verify he hadn’t shared the pictures with his buddies. Then she uploaded a program that would allow her to remotely access the device, just in case he decided to cause more trouble for the poor woman who’d made the unfortunate decision to marry him.
Finished with the phone, she moved to the bedroom. A quick search yielded a laptop. Same password—how sloppy—but it made her job easier, and she searched for copies of the pictures. Finding none, she shut down the laptop and returned it to where she’d found it.
Back in the living room, Cody continued to snore, his mouth wide open and his chest expanding with each deep, steady inhalation. In sleep, he appeared fairly harmless, which only proved how looks could be deceiving. If she still worked in covert ops, this would be the point where she snapped a few compromising pictures of her own, because why not? The jerk deserved it, but her ex hadn’t specifically requested it, so she’d take the high road and leave him in peace to sleep off the drugs in his system.
Besides, she had a mile walk to her car ahead of her, and she wanted to get home in time for a long, hot shower before she climbed into bed. She poured the last of Cody’s beer down the sink, wiped her prints off everything she’d touched, and headed for the door.
As she walked down the stairs, her thoughts turned to Jackson, and unwelcome warmth spread through her that had nothing to do with the Florida heat.
Damn, he’d looked incredible tonight, all smooth, dark skin and well-defined muscles, with shoulders broad and strong enough to carry the weight of the world if necessary. She thought of what that body could do, of how amazing he used to make her feel, and a warm shiver went through her.
Annoyed with herself, she forced the thoughts from her mind. That chapter of her life was long behind her, and she had no intention of repeating past mistakes. What’s done was done, water under the bridge, and all of the other things people told themselves to feel better about screwing up their lives.
She took out the burner phone she’d bought specifically for this job and called the only number programmed into the list of contacts.
“It’s done,” she said as she stepped onto the sidewalk along the main road. At this time of night, there wasn’t much traffic, but the occasional vehicle whizzing by kicked up the wind and rustled her long, dark hair. She supposed she could have ordered a ride, but considering the felonies she’d just committed, she’d rather not leave any kind of electronic paper trail.
She didn’t know the name of the woman on the phone, only that she was a friend of a business associate and Cody’s soon-to-be ex-wife. The woman didn’t know her name either. Essie preferred to keep it that way. The less you knew about a person, the less you could testify against them in court.
“Are you sure you got all of the pictures?” the woman asked, a note of concern in her voice.
“I’d give it a ninety-five percent certainty.” In her experience, dead or alive were the only sure things in life. Everything else came in shades of gray. “If you find out he has more, let Alyssa know, and I’ll take care of those as well.”
A shuddering sigh came over the phone. “Oh, God. Thank you so much. What do I owe you?”
“Nothing. Good luck with your divorce.” She’d settle up with Alyssa later, when she needed a favor in return.
With a smile, Essie ended the call and slipped the phone into her pocket. The cowboy boots had rubbed a blister on her heel, and relief swept through her when she turned the corner and the Salty Dog Saloon’s half-lit neon sign came into view.
Back in the day, at the end of an op, she’d celebrate a job well done with one of her favorite foods and an icy-cold mojito. If she was lucky, Jackson would be home on leave and they’d spend the night naked, sweaty, and wrapped—nope, not going there. That ship had sailed—and sunk—in spectacular fashion, which meant that option was no longer on the table.
She’d parked at the outer edge of the lot, far away from prying eyes and the security camera by the front entrance. The closest streetlight flickered on and off, casting a strobe light effect on that part of the lot. When she got into her car, she pulled off her boots, tossed them onto the floor of the passenger side, and wriggled her pinched toes. Thankfully, she kept a pair of flats in the car, and she slipped them on before she started the car and pulled out of the lot.
She wanted that shower, and she wanted a drink, and then she might be able to stop thinking about Jackson for the rest of the night.
Copyright © 2022 Lori Sjoberg