Keeping Bad Company, Copyright © 2014 by Lauren Gilley
A month ago, Layla had pressed a key into his palm with the sad request that he come back home if he needed to. Tonight, as he fit that key into the back door, home was exactly what he needed.
All the lights were out in the modest ranch house Sly Hammond had bought his new bride and baby. Layla had planted bright yellow mums and purple pansies just visible in the glow of moonlight that skimmed across the patio.
Arlie rested a hip against the glass-topped table and chewed at a fingernail. “Are they asleep? Will they be mad?”
“Yes, and probably not.” He heard the lock disengage and turned the knob. The kitchen was a well of blackness, and as he stepped in, he fumbled toward the light switch to his left…
A hand locked around his wrist and his own weight and momentum were used against him as he was pulled from his feet, flipped end-over-end, and sent flat to his back on the linoleum. All of this happened in the span of a breath. The air rushed out of his lungs, leaving him gasping and dizzy, gaping up into the darkness above.
And then the lights came on, flooding his eyes, bathing the room in sunbursts and stars.
“You dumbass,” Sly said; he didn’t sound winded or alarmed, both of which any normal man would have sounded after Judo-flinging a guy across his kitchen.
“Shit,” Layla said on a breathy gasp. “Johnny?” The sound of her bare feet pattered around the breakfast bar and her face swung into view over him, blurry thanks to his watering eyes, her hair a dark curtain framing her startled eyes.
“Who’s this?” Sly wanted to know.
Somewhere deeper into the house, Mick let out a thin wail that said he’d been startled awake by the noise.
Johnny pushed up on his elbows, waved his sister’s offered hand away, and got his bearings.
Sly and Layla must have been in bed – Sly was in sweats and a white t-shirt, Layla in a black silk robe. Both were barefoot. Both carried handguns. Jesus – the sight of his tiny big sister brandishing a revolver was always going to be a shock. Sly had turned her into Lisa – maybe even something more ferocious.
He turned toward the door as he lurched to his feet. Arlie was staring at Sly with a terror afforded copperheads.
“Guys,” he said with a sigh, “this is Arlie. Arlie, this is my sister, Layla, and her husband, Sly.”
Layla Hammond wasn’t what Arlie had expected – and yet she was. There was a gentleness in Johnny, something that hadn’t yet been tarnished by running with the Dogs; it spoke of the love and kindness he’d been given.
His sister was petite, brunette like him, her features delicate, her eyes vivid green like his. Arlie sat at a Formica-topped kitchen table and noted the steadiness of Layla’s small fingers as she shook down a sugar packet, tore it open and poured the contents into her coffee. Arlie’s own hands shook like she had palsy.
“Sorry,” Layla said as she went back to the counter for a carton of half & half. “I’ve realized I’m more Southern than I always thought – I have to make food in a crisis.” She glanced toward Johnny as she settled in her chair. “I’m assuming that’s what this is?”
Sly returned from checking on the baby – who was now quiet – and Arlie tensed before she could catch herself. She wasn’t frightened of him, but she had been struck right off by the threat that lingered beneath his cool exterior. He had one of those expressionless, non-spectacular faces directors liked to cast in the roles of hired assassins. The Dogs looked dangerous; Sly Hammond looked like he’d been born that way and transcended to a whole new level, unselfconscious, assured, and effortless. He wasn’t a thug; wasn’t a gangbanger. This was a man the SEALs must have been sad to lose.
He pulled out the chair beside his wife and fell into it with unstudied grace, shoulders settling at a relaxed angle. “Does Stack now you’re here?”
Johnny shook his head. “And he can’t find out.”
Sly nodded like that was a given. “What’s up?”
Arlie glanced toward Layla, wondering if she might make some excuse and leave the room, if she herself would be towed along.
But Layla said, “No secrets. Family-wide policy.” She gave a small, reassuring smile that made Arlie feel, stupidly, that she could be counted among that family if she played her cards right.
“Spill,” Sly said, and Johnny did.