I promised on Facebook last week that I'd post Chapter One this week, so here goes! Please keep in mind that this is raw text, straight from the document, so there may be a typo or two. Apologies.
Price of Angels
Copyright © 2015 by Lauren Gilley
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 was, though, despite all the not-special. And one of these things was observant. 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.
Him 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 watchful 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?”
“Put it in. I can’t stay long.” And his eyes flicked back down to his book in dismissal.
It would have been a rude gesture coming from someone else. But from Michael, it seemed natural. There wasn’t anything polite or personable about him.
Her knees were a little bit shaky as she slid back out of the booth; they always were, after he’d put his eyes on her. A side effect she didn’t know how to classify or handle.
She put the order in and then it was time to check on her other customers. “One more o’ these, darlin’,” from the man in the trucker cap. “Smell this. Does this smell like it usually does, honey?” from the man with the double bourbon who wanted to look down her shirt as she leaned over the table. “There, that’s just for you,” and a wink from the man old enough to be her grandfather in the front booth. He patted her ass as she turned away.
The Lécuyers were deep in a close-leaning discussion that seemed to involve Ava’s laptop. Ava looked nervous, and Mercy was grinning at her over the rim of his glass, and they gave off the air of husband encouraging wife toward something. Ava was a writer – Holly had learned that in tidbits. Probably had something to do with some project she was working on.
Holly left their refills on the edge of the table as she passed. Ginger ale, she thought. Ava must be pregnant.
“Order up,” Hollis shouted from the kitchen, and the bell went off.
The Salisbury steak was from the freezer, heated up on the grill and slathered with heated-up gravy and onions. It didn’t smell like anything to write home about, but it was hot, and it was meat. Holly had eaten it herself a time or two, and had been too excited over the idea of it to much care that it wasn’t fresh and made from scratch.
Steam curled from the plate as she lifted it, toting it over her shoulder back to Michael’s table. He took one last hard glance at the page before him, nodded to himself, then closed the book and slid it aside as Holly set the plate before him.
“And the pie,” she said, placing the small dessert plate in her left hand alongside his drink. “Anything else?”
“No, thank you.”
She resumed her seat across from him. Watched him unroll his silverware and cut into his steak with precise movements. He always ate slowly, with table manners she’d never expected from an outlaw biker.
With his eyes on his plate, she could study his face. In the past four months, she’d made his face the topic of countless mental research papers. Carly thought he was “nothing special to look at,” but Holly didn’t agree. In her eyes, there was something beautiful about the straight lines and exact angles of his features. His eyes were large, though he narrowed them purposefully. And his dark hair was thick, and lustrous, clipped close to his head, shining in the dim lamplight. Not a cruel face – she knew what those looked like – but a serious one. A man without laughter in the lines around his mouth.
“What are you reading this time?” she asked, folding her arms on the table, getting comfortable. His unshakeable calm was soothing to her.
His eyes darted to the book, then to her face, briefly. “Dostoyevsky. Demons.”
His brows flicked upward.
“Like something I don’t want to read,” she finished with a laugh.
One corner of his mouth twitched in what she’d finally realized, after months of observation, was a hint of a smile. “He’s not for everybody.”
“You’re always reading somebody who’s not for everybody,” she teased.
Thus far, it hadn’t worked, but she felt that she had to keep using the old tricks, the moves men didn’t ever seem able to resist. She leaned forward, propped her elbows up on the table, plumped her breasts together, inclined her head toward him, so a shiny sheet of hair slid over her shoulder.
Michael continued to methodically cut and eat his steak.
She dropped her voice a fraction, put a little purring sound in it. “So why can’t you stay as long tonight?”
“I got something I gotta do,” he said, without looking up.
Undaunted, she said, “Well what are you doing after? Do you have plans for later?”
He made a negative sound in the back of his throat. Tension had crept into his fingers, as they worked the knife. There was a little twitch in his face as he reached for a fry.
“See, I was thinking,” she said, leaning in even closer, pressing her breasts into the edge of the table so they strained at her tank top. It was the most suggestive thing she’d ever done. “I live just down that way,” she said in a heavy whisper, pointing toward the room she rented down the block, even though he wasn’t looking, “and maybe, after you get done with, well, whatever it is you have to do, you could stop by. For a drink. Or for…whatever. I get off work at three-thirty. We close at three tonight, and we could meet here if you want, or you could come to my…”
His head lifted, face incredibly harsh under the lamp, his jaw locked tight. “What are you doing?”
Her pulse leapt to a choppy gallop. Her palms slicked with sweat in a sudden physical reaction, as fear flooded through her veins, the adrenaline spiking.
She wet her lips. “I – I’m inviting you to my place.”
“Well…well, yeah.” She felt her face go scarlet. Months she’d spent, trying to cozy up to this man, the one she’d judged The One, her chosen killer, and finally, when she worked up the courage, it was a cold, flat disinterest he presented to her.
Holly kicked up her chin, so the lamplight could go sliding down her throat, giving him an exquisite look at the tops of her breasts. “Don’t you want to?” she asked, and heard the tremors in her voice.
He stared at her a moment, expression unfathomable.
Then he said, “No.” His head dropped again, as he speared fries with his fork and mopped up the extra gravy with them. “Bring me my check. Please.”
Holly felt the sting of tears in her eyes as she got to her feet.