Authors: Lauren Gilley
The Dartmoor Series
Price of Angels
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Names and characters are the property of the author and may not be duplicated.
PRICE OF ANGELS
ISBN -13: 978-1508717133
Copyright © 2015 by Lauren Gilley
Cover photograph Copyright © 2015 by Lauren Gilley
All rights reserved.
The Dartmoor Series
Price of Angels
The Skeleton King
The Lean Dogs
Ghost – President
Walsh – Vice President
Michael – Sergeant at Arms
Ratchet – Secretary
Hound – Tracker
Rottie – Tracker (Hound’s former apprentice)
Mercy – Extractor
Aidan – Ghost’s son
Tango – Aidan’s best friend
Collier – Incarcerated
James – Former president (stepped down)
Littlejohn – Prospect
Harry – Prospect
Carter – Prospect
The Old Ladies
Maggie – Ghost
Jackie – Collier
Nell – Hound
Mina – Rottie
Ava – Mercy
Bonita – James
“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.
– Emily Dickinson
Price of Angels
I think I found my killer.
Observant. That was the word for it. Holly knew all the things that she wasn’t. She wasn’t tall, and wasn’t boy-hipped like the glossy girls in the even glossier fashion magazines. She wasn’t smart or brave. Wasn’t clever or charming. There was nothing special or exceptional about her, really. Sometimes, she felt like that was an advantage. She didn’t live on any sort of false hope, based on an erroneous impression of herself. Not smart, but at least smart enough to know that no one cared about her. It was nothing but the truth for her, and that made it easier, in a way, when she unfastened the leather cuff bracelets she wore during her shifts at the bar and passed her fingertips over the scars that circled her wrists. The years and years’ worth of marks where the ropes had bit into her tender white skin time after time.
There were a few things that she
, though, despite all the not-special. And one of these things was
. Holly was quiet. She paid attention to things, little tiny things that no one else took the time to notice. She studied people, tried to learn them. Sometimes she took notes, when she was too excited about a particular observation to keep it to herself. Those tidbits she couldn’t tell the other girls at the bar, but were too important to hold inside. Those she wrote down in her journal, in a careful slanted handwriting that one of the girls had told her was masculine.
All her journal entries the last three months had been about Michael. Michael J. McCall, she’d gleaned from his credit card.
“You trying to steal numbers?” Carly had asked her with a little knowing smirk.
“No,” Holly had answered, truthfully. Not numbers, no, just names. She’d wanted to know his name, ever since that first entry, back in September, when she’d realized he was The One.
She’d come all the way to Knoxville, searching for the Lean Dogs, hoping against hope that one – just one of them – would be The One. She’d found him in Michael, she was sure at this point, after almost four months of studying him.
The trouble was, she hadn’t made her move yet.
“Ginger ale,” Matt said, and slid her drink order across the bar to her, jarring her from her thoughts.
“Thanks.” She smiled at him, just because that always seemed like the thing to do, and he smiled back, as always unaccustomed to one of his coworkers treating him with something besides indifferent politeness.
He nodded to her, and whistled to himself as he turned to pull the next drink.
She liked Matt. He was sweet. But she had no need of sweet. Maybe after, maybe once…well, maybe someday, in the future she’d never been able to imagine, she’d have the chance, and maybe even the bravery it would take to invite someone sweet into her life.
Right now, she only had room for one kind of man.
She took the drink in-hand and headed through the warm, hops-smelling interior of Bell Bar, thankful to be indoors on a bitter night like tonight. The weather had driven in lots of weeknight dinner patrons, in addition to the barfly regulars. The light was yellowed and muted, the dark boards and burgundy leather giving an impression of heat and comfort.
The customer who’d ordered the ginger ale had a small table tucked in a front corner, out of reach of the draft that flowed in each time the door opened. A dark-haired, slender girl with long, narrow fingers that glided over the keys of her open laptop. Her cable knit sweater was dark and shapeless over a pair of pale leggings. At her elbow, a small stack of paperbacks, scrap paper, a pen. She studied the screen, her face washed pale by its light, with rapt attention.
Holly knew who she was thanks to all those observational powers of hers. Ava Lécuyer, wife of Mercy Lécuyer, daughter of Ghost Teague. MC royalty.
“Ginger ale,” Holly announced in her bright, waitress voice as she reached the table and set the drink down. She whisked out a cocktail napkin and slid it under the glass. “Can I get you anything else?”
Ava’s expression was polite, almost friendly, but there was a screen up there. This was a careful girl, who didn’t make friends lightly or easily.
Holly understood that.
“No, thanks.” Ava started to turn back to her computer, then thought better of it. “Actually, bring him a Johnnie Walker Red.” She tapped the empty place at the table across from her.
being her husband, Mercy, who made Holly more than a little afraid.
“He’ll be here any second.”
From Ava’s table, she swung by the other Dog-affiliated patrons who were in-house tonight. RJ and Walsh were at one of the tall tables, sharing a pitcher of Michelob.
“You boys doing alright?” she asked as she collected the empty pitcher.
“One more, darlin’,” RJ said, with one of those flirtatious smiles he wouldn’t stop flashing her.
Walsh didn’t make eye contact; he was a quiet one, a little like Michael, but social too. He puzzled her.
“You bet,” Holly said to RJ. She lingered, when she should have whisked away again. She knew, before she asked, that she should keep her mouth shut. She didn’t want to arouse suspicion. But she said, “Hey, RJ, do you know if Michael’s coming in tonight?”
RJ’s smile became wry; his brows gave a little jump as if to say
why am I not surprised?
“Dunno. He doesn’t tell me what he does and I don’t ask. He’s a weird-ass, if I’m being honest.” He gave her an almost sympathetic look. “What would you want to see him for? Ain’t nothing fun about Michael.”
Her own smile felt stiff. “Yeah, well…” There was no way to explain herself. “I’ll be right back with more beer.” And off she went.
The pitcher went to the bar, and she checked her other tables, fetching second and third rounds for the men who looked down the low cut of her tank top and pretended they weren’t trying to finger the silk edge of her uniform shorts as she turned to leave their tables. She didn’t care; she was dead to it. Let them look if they wanted; let them imagine. Her body had never been her own anyway.
Ava murmured a distracted thanks when Holly took the Johnnie Walker to the table.
RJ thanked her profusely when she took him the new pitcher; he asked her if she had any interest in coming to a club party sometime, and she managed to say “no thanks” and back away from the table before she broke out in a full terrified sweat.
Party. The word conjured a hundred awful mental images. The possibilities were horrible and endless. Too many men full of too many drinks, on their own turf rather than in public, free to do whatever they wanted. And her only five-two and not strong and not brave and not special…
She couldn’t think about it. She’d end up hiding in the ladies room, deep-breathing into a paper towel if she did.
She slid into the dark back corner behind the register, where she had a view of the whole bar, and a modicum of privacy, as she caught her breath and sought to wipe her mind clean. She pressed her clammy palms to the wall.
You’re fine, you’re fine…
A strong gust of cold air funneled into the bar as the door opened, a high whistling sound ringing up among the table lamps. More than a few pairs of eyes swept toward the man who’d entered, because he was one of those men so tall as to attract uncommon notice.
Ava’s husband Mercy always gave Holly the impression of some wild animal who’d been mistakenly let into the house. He had the longest legs of anyone she’d ever seen, and was very lean, which made his height all the more exaggerated. Usually, he wore his black hair tied back in a tidy knot, but when it was down, like now, it made the harsh cut of his cheek- and jaw bones all the more severe. Dark-eyed and golden-skinned and Cajun enough to seem like an alien here in Tennessee, there was an edgy, too-alert quality to even his friendliest smiles, and he made Holly nervous.
Not Ava, though. She smiled as she greeted him, face glowing, tipping her head back to accept the kiss he leaned forward to press to her lips.
Mercy folded gracefully into his chair, returning his wife’s domestic questions with some of his own, and Holly watched the way the two of them locked together – mentally, emotionally – in a way that eased the tension in both of them, and brought an obvious warmth to both their faces. They completed one another’s electrical circuits. Matching pieces. Ava wasn’t the poor unsuspecting woman who’d let the wild thing into the house; she was the wild thing’s mate, creeping indoors at his side.
Holly couldn’t conceive of that kind of connection. She didn’t believe in its existence, even though she was staring right at it.
She felt the knot forming in her throat, the stinging at the backs of her eyes, the old familiar reactions to the things she’d never understand or have. She pushed the emotion down deep, where it couldn’t draw a physical reaction from her.
And then the door opened again, and there was Michael.
He entered quietly, in the vacuum left by Mercy’s entrance, and no one noticed him as he ghosted across the boards to his usual back corner booth.
No one but Holly, anyway. For her, he was neon, as he walked with loose, easy, ground-covering strides, his posture military straight, but his head bowed the slightest. He was a man who didn’t want to be noticed.
They had that in common. But she had the breasts and the shiny hair, and that always seemed to draw eyes, the way his nondescript, dark-haired plainness never did.
Michael carried a hardback book under one arm, as per usual, and he slid into his booth with catlike grace. Holly watched him get situated, opening the halves of his cut, tugging at the legs of his jeans: little masculine settling gestures, unconscious and long-practiced. He opened the book on top of the table, flipped to the page marked with a slip of paper, and set the bookmark off to his right. No looking around for a waitress, no impatience for a drink. He exuded an aura of patience. That was what had captured Holly’s attention; unlike all his brothers in arms, he was the Dog with the unflappable calm, the unshakeable aplomb.
And he was cold. So very cold.
She went to Matt and asked for a double Jack, neat.
He smirked. “Your boyfriend showed up?”
“Don’t have one of those,” she said as she carried the drink off.
Her pulse picked up as she approached Michael’s table. She knew that he noticed her – not as a man noticing a woman, but as a
man noticing the approach of someone, anyone. She saw the quick flicker of his lashes, down at his cheekbones, the twitch of his fingers on the corner of the page, the subtle tightening of his entire frame. In the span of a heartbeat, he tested the air for threat, and she knew when he recognized her the moment his body relaxed, the hard bundles of his biceps unclenching inside his sleeves.
That unclenching was important to her. He’d never shown her a thread of aggression.
“Your usual,” she said, setting his drink on the table as she reached him.
He nodded a silent thanks, and didn’t glance up at her.
Holly set her tray down propped against the booth and slid onto the seat across from him, elbows braced on the table, eyes filling with the warm overhead lamplight as they landed on his now-familiar face. “What do you want for dinner tonight?” she asked, quietly, intimately, a voice just for the two of them. Men liked that – being treated like they were special. And she wanted him to think that he was special to her. Men, in her experience, needed a few standard inducements, and feeling like they mattered was one of them.
A single finger tapped at the page and he sucked at one corner of his lower lip as he decided, exhaling through his nose in an audible little rush.
All part of the nightly routine. Normal so far.
“Salisbury steak,” he said, gaze finally lifting. His eyes were dark, but not brown. A sort of amber-streaked hazel. Pretty. Animal eyes. They’d frightened Holly, the first time they’d attached to her face like this, the utter focus of them. But then she’d realized that focus was exactly what she needed in a hired gun. They were intense, those eyes, the kind that you didn’t want watching you all the time, just in fits and snatches.
“Seasoned fries,” Michael continued. “And a slice of key lime pie, if you’ve got it.” He had one of those low voices that carried. Even, modulated.
“We have it,” Holly said, nodding. “You want me to put the order in? Or do you want to read for a bit?”