“Your cousin Lisa can’t pick you up, sweetie.” Her aunt’s voice was warm with apology in the message she’d left. “Something…something came up. But someone will be there for you. Meet them at baggage claim. Hope you had a safe flight. Can’t wait to see you again, sweetie!” And the message ended with a click. The automated voicemail bot prompted her to press five to hear the message again, and Layla hung up instead, sliding her cell back into her purse.
“Well.” Layla took a deep breath and scanned her surroundings, getting her bearings. Passengers exiting her flight were streaming around her, trying to see the arrival board, muttering and cursing her for standing in the way. One thing became immediately apparent: Her memories didn’t do justice to the startling differences between Atlanta and LA. And that was just going by the airport. The voices, the snatches of conversation – the accent wasn’t the stylized drawl Hollywood pretended it was, but something soft and comfy. Smooth-edged consonants and long, rounded vowels. It was August here, and shorts and flip-flops and bright red sunburns melting into golden tans were the uniform components. But there were jeans and boots too. Construction workers. Wannabe cowboys. Country boys – which was a whole other category.
“Move it,” someone off her flight from LAX grumbled, and an elbow caught her in the ribs, throwing her off balance.
She wasn’t going to miss the LA attitude, that was for sure.
Giving herself a mental shake – she had much more pressing issues than Georgia culture to worry about – she pulled up the handle of her black, rolling carry-on and started for the baggage claim.
Someone, her aunt had said. Not her dad. Every other time she’d landed in Atlanta, it had been Mark Russell waiting for her, some cheesy limo driver sign in one hand, pink roses in the other. He always snatched her up in a crushing hug and said against her hair how beautiful she was, and how much he’d missed her. He was one of those dads – utterly clueless, but doting and sweet and wonderful. The kind of dad who brought her flowers. Who thought mac & cheese was still her favorite food and that her favorite song was anything he chose to sing at the top of his lungs, off key. She hadn’t seen him in almost three years, and today, he wouldn’t be picking her up because he was in the hospital. Unconscious. In a coma the doctors didn’t know if he’d ever wake from. Because he’d been shot.
Someone had shot the man who brought her pink roses and told her she was beautiful.
So her steps hastened on the terrazzo as she walked what seemed like miles of airport, on her way to meet someone who would take her to see her dad.
Lisa, was Sly’s first thought. The brunette walking toward him through the crowds looked a lot like Lisa. Same narrow, feminine face, smooth cheeks flushed. Same shiny chocolate hair. And the eyes – those large, round, vivid green eyes. Her shape was softer, though. She had bigger tits. Her narrow waist flared to his favorite kind of grabbable hips. She wasn’t as tan as her cousin, but that didn’t matter. He’d never given a shit about all the fake-pretty modern men wanted their women to trowel on in spades.
Lost little lamb, was his second thought. Because Lisa would have been elbowing her way past people and cursing; this girl had something like fear in her big green eyes and she moved politely, almost gingerly, around the shifting throngs of people.
And then, before he could clamp down on it, a memory came rushing to the forefront of his mind. Because even if this girl looked like Lisa in some ways, she looked a whole lot like another little brunette too. And suddenly he wasn’t wondering if her breasts were real, but wishing he’d sent Eddie to pick her up instead.
Layla, he reminded himself of her name. Layla Russell.
She was in a lemon yellow sundress that swirled around her slender knees and was snug in all the right places; wedge sandals that looked like they weighed a hundred pounds on her tiny, pink-toenail-polished feet. She was nothing like the sorts of women he found in bars. A high maintenance, all-or-nothing kind of girl. He knew that with just a look, and that was before her nervous glance flickered across him.
Would she recognize him? It had been three years ago, and he’d just been this guy lurking in the periphery of the afternoon she’d spent with her dad.
Something, some frightened spark of wonder, flared in her green eyes. She recognized, but she wasn’t sure yet. She couldn’t decide.
Sly pushed away from the square of wall he leaned against and her eyes stayed with him, still wondering. “Lay,” he said, voice a subtle cut above the surrounding noise, and the sound of her dad’s nickname for her made up her mind. He watched her body gather inside her lemon dress and her lips curved in a brave semblance of a smile.
She walked up to him with her rolling suitcase in tow, until she was close enough that the assholes jostling around her took note of him and decided not to do anymore jostling now that she had backup. Her eyes came straight up to his and a little hand extended. Her nails were the yellow of her dress.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But I don’t remember your name.”
“Sly.” He accepted her shake; her grip was sure, but he could feel her arm quivering.
She smiled, though. Her face was all sweetness. Not at all like her cousin in that respect. “Dad’s friend,” she said. “I recognized you.” Her smile stretched, shaky with nerves. “Sorry you had to come all the way down here and pick me up.”
He dropped her hand with a shrug. “Somebody had to.”
Her smile faded.
“This all your stuff?”
She was sheltered, this one. Not used to anything remotely close to brusque. Whatever. Not his problem. “No,” she said, tidying her hair and looking away from him, green eyes going to the baggage carousel. “I have two more.” She started forward and he stopped her with a light touch at her shoulder. Her head whipped back around, hair rustling against the front of her dress. Up this close, he had a view down the front of it; her bra was white satin.
“Stay here and I’ll get ‘em. What do they look like?”
She blinked, surprise coloring her eyes. “Um…okay. I’ve got two of those” – a smile edged with embarrassment cut across her face, cheeks flushing – “awful yellow American Tourister cases. There’s red ribbons tied to the handles.” Her gaze moved over him, speculative this time. “Thanks.”
She remembered him now. He may have been one of her father’s closest friends, but Sidney Hammond wasn’t the sort of guy anyone ever mistook for giving off an uncle vibe, so she’d never thought of him as such. He had to be almost forty now, lines pressing back from the corners of his eyes, bracketing his mouth, just faint shadows in his suntanned face. He was pleasantly unremarkable: tall, lean and muscled, wide enough shoulders that tapered to narrow hips. He was a mechanic and he dressed like one. His hair was the color of wheat straw, and just long enough on top to be mussed. He was the kind of man you didn’t notice at first…but then found yourself staring. There was something…something she’d never been able to put her finger on…that inspired a double, triple, quadruple look. He was forever lurking in corners with a cigarette, and seemed to draw her eyes anyway. She didn’t know if she liked him, wasn’t sure if she trusted him, and definitely was afraid – a little bit – of his eyes. They were a spooky pale blue, almost colorless at times, foamy like sea water at others. They belonged on a sled dog, some snarling mongrel defending its owner from the wolves that circled an artic campfire. They were neither predatory, nor fiery – they were assessing. Calculating. Knowing. He knew everything there was to know, and that unnerved her.
Sly pulled both her suitcases off the carousel and shot her a flat look, nodding ahead of him, wanting her to lead the way. It had been…she couldn’t remember how long…since a man had offered for her to go first. “Ladies first” was dead in LA. She wanted to smile, didn’t, and started through the fray, suitcase clacking along on its plastic wheels behind her.
She realized, though, after a dozen steps, that she had no idea where she was going. “Where – ” she started to ask over her shoulder, and a hand – rough and worn and warm – landed on her arm, fingers curving around her elbow.
“Over there,” Sly said right in her ear with that emotionless voice of his and steered her in the right direction. She shivered and told herself it was the air conditioning. A fast glance proved he had one of her cases tucked under his arm, the other in hand, and had an arm free with which to guide her forward.
He released her when they reached the parking deck, but stayed close; she could feel him right up behind her; saw their shadows mingling beneath the halogen overhead lights. Hartsfield-Jackson was one of the busiest airports in the country, and it was downtown – there was something reassuring about the way Sly loomed behind her. It felt a little like having a security detail, an impression made stronger by the way he studied the rows and rows of cars around them as they walked, head on a slow swivel.
“Have you seen my dad yet today?” she finally ventured. He didn’t have I-love-chitchat stamped across his forehead, but she’d never been good with awkward silence.
He spared her a fast look as they walked. “I just came from there.”
So Mark wasn’t wasting away in a hospital bed alone. Layla offered him a smile and he turned away. “What are the police saying?” she asked. Her sandals were getting too heavy and she sounded out of breath. “Any leads?”
Another look, and what might have passed for a smile. “Leads?”
“That’s what they call them,” she defended, feeling a blush start along her cheekbones. “I watch TV.”
He did smile, a fast, semi-passable one. Then soured. “No. Not that they aren’t trying to get one. They stop by the hospital every fifteen damn minutes. Dicks.”
She lifted her brows. “You don’t like cops?”
“I don’t like it when they can’t do their jobs right.”
She chewed at the inside of her cheek, not sure what to make of that. Everything possible was being done to ensure her dad’s shooter was caught…right? “Mr. Hammond,” she said, and he came to an abrupt halt, suitcases swinging in his hands. The look he shot her was an eerie color in the parking deck lights, expression blank with surprise.
“Okay…none of that Mr. stuff. Okay?”
“Sorry. I was just trying to be polite – ”
“Polite’s overrated.” He shook his head. “And it makes me feel weird.”
“All right.” He turned and she hastened to follow him. “Sly,” she started again, above the noise of her carry-on’s wheels and the clop of her shoes. Everything echoed against all the concrete of the parking deck. “Do you know what happened?”
She had the distinct impression that he was being obtuse on purpose and sighed. “To my dad. Do you – ”
He came to a sudden halt and she ran into him, flailing out with her free hand to keep her balance. Her palm landed in the middle of his back, over the ridge of his spine and the lean cords of muscle framing it. She jerked away like she’d been burned, heat rushing to her face, as she stepped back and smoothed the front of her dress. When she glanced up, her gaze collided with his and he was almost smiling at her.
Annoying man, she thought, frowning. He’d done that on purpose.
Layla squared up her shoulders, ignoring the look he was giving her. “Do you know what happened to my dad?” she asked again. “What actually happened that day?” Her hands started to quiver just remembering her aunt’s phone call four days before. “Aunt Cheryl said he was shot, but she wouldn’t give me any details.”
His mouth twitched. “That’s not really a story for mixed company, sweetheart.”
Her frown deepened. “So?”
He regarded her a long moment, eyes going all the way to her pink-polished toes and then back up to her face, lingering in between in a way that was definitely not uncle-like. Finally, he nodded. “I’ll tell you on the way back to the house.”
That was when she noticed that they were standing at the end of a blue Chevy truck. Her dad’s truck: a dark blue Silverado Z71 with mud tires rimmed in red clay.
Her chest tightened and she took a shaky breath, glancing back at Sly. “Actually, can we go to the hospital? It took longer than I thought to get here and I just…I want to see him.”
Something very much like approval flickered through his cold eyes. “Sure.” He hoisted her suitcases over the tailgate into the bed and reached for her carry-on. “Go get in the truck. I gotta make a call first.”
He lingered at the tailgate as she went to the passenger door and wedged herself in; the van beside them was so close she could only get the door open a few scant inches. Stupid, she told herself. She should have worn shorts. She’d been trying to make a good impression with the dress. Trying to…she didn’t know what. She pulled the door shut with a solid thump and inhaled the smoky, stale stink of her dad’s truck. It had always smelled like that. It was comforting, in a way. She was glancing in the side mirror, stealing a glimpse of Sly leaning against the bed with a phone pressed to his ear, when her own phone came to life in her purse.
It was her mother.
“Mom – ” she started, and was verbally trampled.
“Oh, sweetie! Are you okay? You didn’t call when you landed and I thought – ”
“I’m fine, Mom.” She made a slow down gesture that Joyce couldn’t see from the other end of the line. “I landed a half hour ago and I just got in the truck. Safe and sound,” she assured, a smile threatening. Her mother took worry to an extreme, as fretful about her now, even though she was twenty-five, as she was about the teenage children from her second marriage. Layla didn’t suppose she was any better equipped to handle the world than her half-sisters.
Joyce sighed and Layla could envision the deep furrow between her brows smoothing over with relief. “I got worried when I didn’t hear from you. I called the airline, but they didn’t know if – ”
Another sigh. “Who picked you up? Cheryl?”
“No. She and Lisa were busy.” Although, in Lisa’s case, there was no “business” more pressing than her contempt for Layla. “Sly came to get me.”
Her mother hissed a breath across the receiver, the sound too loud in Layla’s ear. “Sidney?”
“No one calls him that.” Or, apparently, “Mr. Hammond” either.
Joyce took another breath and said, “Get out of the car, Layla.”
“Go back in the airport. Wait there until someone else can come. Until – ”
“Mom.” Joyce fell silent. “Why in the world would I do that?”
“You went to see your father,” her mom said shakily. “And God knows you have every right – but stay away from those loser friends of his.” Her voice was just a fine, whispering quiver. “The company your dad keeps isn’t safe, Layla. You need to avoid them. Please, for me. Please, you – ”
Layla didn’t hear the rest of the plea because the driver door opened, startling her, and Sly climbed in behind the wheel. His movements were so sure, so liquid and calm, that for one horrifying moment, her mother’s assertion of danger seemed very real. Then his eyes flashed up to hers through the shadowy cab of the truck, vivid blue and arresting.
“You set?” he asked. He had the calmest voice she’d ever heard. A frozen lake in some still, uninhabited mountain valley somewhere.
“I have to go. I’ll call you tonight,” she said into the phone and hung up while her mother was still protesting. “Yeah,” she told Sly. “Let’s go.”