Book 1 in the 82nd Street Vandals Series
This series must be read in chronological order, to avoid spoilers
Emersyn Sharpe doesn’t belong in our world.
In fact, the very last place she should be is with us. But someone is hurting her. We’ve all seen it. We tried to ignore the warning signs. We tried to trust the people around her. We tried to believe in her world.
When she nearly died in front of us, we had to act. We took her. She doesn’t belong in our world, but I’ll be damned if someone lays a finger on her under my watch. I’ll kill them first.
Now that she’s here…I don’t know if I can let her leave. I’m Jasper Horan, anyone who tries to take her will have to go through me and my boys. You’ve been warned.
Book 1 in the 82nd Street Vandals Series
“Emersyn.” The waspish voice raked across my nerves. “You’re late.”
“I know,” I informed Marta as I stripped off my soaking wet coat. “I know I am. There was an accident on the freeway. The car couldn’t move for fifty minutes.” I could have gotten out and walked, I supposed. It was only storming outside. Localized flooding, according to the radio report the driver had been playing. Why didn’t I do that again?
Oh right, I didn’t even know the name of the town we were in, much less how to get to the theatre. As if to remind us both, thunder exploded outside like bombs being dropped. I dragged the scarf off my hair, not that it had done me much good. The short walk from the hired car to the theatre had saturated the rest of me, despite the driver’s best attempts to get me close. He’d wanted me to wait while he took us around front, but I needed to be backstage and I wouldn’t melt. I swore he would have kept arguing, but I just wrenched the door open and thanked him before I darted inside. It might have been my imagination, but his swearing followed me to the door. The last time I glanced back, he was standing with the door open staring at me with such blazing intensity, it left me shivering as I ducked inside.
Marta glared. The woman had been with me in some form or another for over a decade. I used to be terrified of her. The other dancers used to tease me about my ‘nanny,’ but warden was more like it. Right now, this impatience only irritated me, and I found her need to scold me over every damn thing not remotely interesting.
“They wanted you out there for warmups.”
“Well, I can continue to stand here while you verbally spank me, or I can go get ready and take my place. Which will it be?” The sugar in my voice might as well be saccharine. What vague sense of life that might have existed in Marta’s eyes petrified as she turned that stony gaze on me.
“You are not entertaining, Emersyn.”
“Ha!” I chuckled, amused for the first time really, even if I was wet and cold. “I’m hilarious.” With that, I pivoted on a heel and headed down the long tunnel like hallway to the dressing rooms. This was an old theatre. We’d been in—fuck, I still didn’t know the name of the town. We’d been here for a week. First, there had been electrical issues with the venue. Then some contractual mess. Finally, the equipment had been late. The decision to cut a stop and extend this one until we could perform had been a calculated one.
Despite what they thought I paid attention to, I understood a stop hadn’t been cut so much as moved to the end of the tour. Now, instead of ending in eighteen weeks, it would end in twenty.
If I was lucky.
A sigh escaped me. I must be the most ungrateful wretch on the planet, but I’d been on tour every year for the last seven years.
I was tired.
Despite our ‘break,’ I’d spent every single day we could rehearse in a dance studio, working. At least they’d found a school close enough to the hotel that I’d been able to walk back and forth to it. The last two days, though, I’d been here, running the routines over and over.
I could do the damn things in my sleep.
As I plunged deeper into the theatre, the scents, noises, and feel of the place began to seep into my bones. The scents of oil-based makeup, the all too familiar sawdust that inhabited every venue I’d ever performed in, and the ever-present must of sweat. Performers plus hot lights and hurried costume changes left a heavy perfume of sweat ingrained even into the stone walls.
It was familiar.
It was comforting.
I freed the cross strap of my bag as I nodded to some of the others already warming up. We wouldn’t do our costumes for at least another two hours. Warmups and a quick run-through of specific acts were up next. The chorus had probably already been warming up.
One of the theatre techs had the door to my dressing room open, and he was doing something to the doorknob. Steps slowing, I studied him. He had his back to me, but there was no missing the tattoos on his hands as he twisted the screwdriver and tightened the knob.
“Is there something wrong with my door?” I did my best to ignore the pitted feeling in my stomach. The locks were all that offered me privacy when I was here. If they removed the lock…
The man glanced over his shoulder, and the startling slate gray eyes seemed to peer right into me. I forgot how to breathe for a moment as he straightened. I had to tilt my head to maintain eye contact. “No,” he said slowly, the faintest hint of a drawl in his rough voice. It settled into my bones like a bruise that didn’t hurt so much as ache.
I shook my head to free it from the awkward thoughts. “Then why are you messing with it?” It was probably his job, and the last thing I needed was to be harsh so I kept my tone even. At the same time, that dressing room was the one place I could legitimately call my own when I was with the company. My escape.
“Fixing the lock,” he told me, and I shifted my workout bag. “I’ll be done in a couple of minutes.” He moved to the side to let me in. “But I wanted to make sure this was secure for you.”
The volume of gratitude swelling through me was ridiculous. Smiling, I touched his arm as I moved past him. “Thank you.”
The firm muscle of his biceps flexed under the brief touch, but I withdrew my hand and shut up my internal observations. Bodies, their build, their musculature, and how they moved always fascinated me. But most people didn’t like it when I stared, so I learned to save it for when I was people watching or waiting in the wings while others went through their routines.
Safer that way.
“The other one was flimsy.” His words came out as more of an accusation than anything else, but I only nodded as I hung up my dripping coat and dropped the bag on the little sofa. It was just another dressing room in a long line of them. A room not bigger than sixty-eight square feet, but it was mine. I took a savage kind of satisfaction in that.
“I know,” I said absently. Two notes waited on my table. One had Marta’s distinctive handwriting. The bitch had keys to my room. “Um…” I paused to glance over to where he still stood, staring at me. “Who else gets the keys to that?”
Keeping my gaze pinned to his unfathomable eyes rather than his beautiful muscles—where had that come from?—I unzipped the hoodie I’d worn under the jacket. Layers. Always layers. When I performed, I’d be damn near bare, but that was when I was on stage and moving with the music and the silk drapes. When I flew.
Otherwise, I needed my layers of clothing like armor. Except right now, when that armor was still wet enough to leave me chilled.
“Just you,” he said as if he had to measure out the words, but I’d turned away to keep from staring and stripped the hoodie off. I wore just a tank top under it with a simple cotton bra. I’d be changing everything. The jeans had to go too. Speaking of which, I stepped out of my shoes.
The silence behind me grew intense, and I flicked a look up at the mirror. My guest glared at me, the heat in his eyes promising the kind of violence I was all too familiar with. Chills raced across my skin, and I swore. I shouldn’t have started stripping with him right there, even if my clothes were damp.
Folding my arms, I pivoted to face him, but he’d already looked away. His movements were harsh and stilted as he finished his work. “I added a deadbolt,” he said, motioning to the device. “It only locks from the inside.” From this angle, the hint of a tattoo peeked out from below his collar, just the tip of a wing. I had to wonder what the rest of it looked like.
“Thank you,” I said when I found my voice. Despite the dangerous expression he’d worn, I was grateful. Now, if he could just go…
Only discipline kept me from flinching at Eric’s voice. It was the only warning I received before he loomed in the doorway. Or would have, except for the fact that my gray-eyed visitor easily had two inches in height on him. He also shifted his position so that he all but blocked the open door.
Oh, I was going to pay for that later. “Sorry, Eric,” I told him in my most soothing tone. “The weather did crazy things to the roads, and it was a bear to get here. I’ll be changed in ten.”
At six foot, Eric towered over me. A fact he always used to his advantage, when he wanted something. Weirdly, the guy running interference was even taller and broader, but the icy-hot chill rippling over my scalp and down my spine had been utterly absent, even when he’d been glaring at me.
Maybe after all these years, something inside me had finally broken.
“Who the fuck is this?” Eric demanded as he motioned to the theatre tech. “What the fuck is he doing here?”
Yes, totally paying for it later.
“My job.” The crunch of those two words echoed into the silence like he’d thrown them as punches. “Back up.” Gone was any glimmer of the kindness he’d shown me. Kindness? His voice had been all kinds of rough and husky, and I was calling it kindness? The guy didn’t take his gaze off Eric as he bodily invaded his space and forced Eric to either back up or have this guy touching him.
To my absolute shock, Eric retreated.
“Check the deadbolt,” the guy told me over his shoulder without looking at me. “I want to know it works.”
Instead of bristling at the order, I headed straight to the door as he forced Eric backwards and pulled the door closed behind him. I twisted the deadbolt, and the solid click of it driving in sent relief singing in my veins. Forehead against the wood, I let out a long breath, then tested the lock below.
“It works,” I said against the door.
A second later, a piece of paper slipped underneath and a key sat in the center. “All yours.”
“Thank you,” I said, scooping up the key lest someone snag the paper and drag the key back. Someone being Eric. The metal bit into my palm as I closed my fist. A scant second later, a heavy hand hammered on the door, and I jerked away from it.
“Five minutes, Emersyn. Don’t keep me waiting again.”
Yeah, I was going to pay for the tech’s attitude, but right now, I didn’t care. With the show on tonight, Eric would have to be careful where he left bruises. We had performances all week. Turning away, I caught sight of myself in the mirror and sighed.
The mottled bruising under my ribs showed where the tank dipped low. My arms, neck, and face were clear. So were my legs. After I stripped off the rest of the damp clothes, I eyed myself critically. The black, blue, purple, and green bruises littered my chest and torso. The ones on my side were made from hands, but they were bruises layered over bruises.
The venue had wanted me in the minimalist outfit. The first set of numbers called for my stomach to be bare.
That couldn’t happen. But I had the black one piece that was all mesh save for the circles to cover my nipples and a patch over my crotch. Even my ass would be visible through it, but the black would hide the bruises and titillate.
I rolled my eyes and then shook myself out of this negative headspace. I needed to focus. In a few hours, I would fly, riding the music, and the rest of the world would fall away.
At least for a little while.
If only the crash back to Earth didn’t hurt so damn much.
I put on the solid leotard for the practice run and tied my hair up in a messy knot before tucking the keychain onto a necklace and hiding it under my collar. Fortunately, I could lock it by hand before I left. My tech—wait, he wasn’t my anything. The tech was gone, as was Eric. The noise level had increased. More performers were coming down to grab food, drinks, and in some cases, smokes before they got ready.
That meant the stage would be available for my warmup.
Eric waited for me right in the center. His face was all hard angles and fierce in its beauty. The first time I met him, I’d half-fallen for his angelic looks. He could have stepped right out of a painting by Raphael or Michelangelo.
He was that perfect.
The cold eyes fixed on me as I strode toward him. Without me even having to say anything, the music started. Our bodies knew each other well, and when his fingers dug in brutally to my sides as he hoisted me up, my expression never changed.
What was one more set of bruises?
Someone would die today.
Rephrase, I was going to kill someone today. The phone buzzing in my pocket warned me I’d lingered too long. But fuck that. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have seen what I just had. The plan for the day had just changed.
And that bastard’s name was now on my list.
I shook one of the cigarettes out of the half-crushed pack. That was like pissing money, but I needed some measure of control.
“Take that shit outside,” the foreman for the crew ordered, and I lifted my chin to acknowledge the words, even if I mentally flipped the fucker off. He knew better than to take that tone with me, and the flash of fear in his eyes told me he probably shit himself saying it. As long as he did, I’d let him play his role. I slammed the door open to the alleyway and stepped out into the damp cold.
It had been raining on and off for days. It was cold, damp, and stunk of trash back here, but it was also out of sight from the main stretch and gave me a chance to look over all the access points. I knew this theatre inside and out.
I’d been planning this for a while. But today had been all about getting in, getting a good look, and getting out. My phone buzzed again like a nag, and I pulled it out to stare at the message on the screen.
Rome: F got pinched. He’s not gonna be there.
Me: Get your ass down here then.
Rome: No can do. Sending the new guy.
Was he fucking kidding me right now? Two days ago, Rome fucking lost his shit when I told him he couldn’t come down here. Now he wanted to pull this crap?
Kellan and Vaughn were already in place. I couldn’t pull Kellan, and I didn’t want to pull Vaughn.
Might not have a choice.
I took a long drag on the smoke, letting it fill my lungs as I played out the scenarios in my head. This was what I did. I could see the possibilities. Tonight was a meeting, pure and simple. We would do business. We didn’t even need to have a conversation. We were uptown because it was neutral.
Well, as neutral as anything got in Braxton Harbor. Still, the guy coming in didn’t know our city. A handshake deal meant face-to-face. I could do it without backup. Freddie had a bit of a temper on him, but he was also the steadiest hand with a knife.
Guns weren’t always an option in venues like this. Anyone coming in the front door would go through the metal detectors. Another reason I got the union to cover me being here for the day. An itch between my shoulder blades nagged at me.
Me: Send the new guy. What are you doing?
Rome: Already sent. And how did you put it? None of your fucking business.
I groaned and blew smoke straight up. Goddammit. Rome needed to get his head out of his ass.
Me: Don’t do anything stupid.
Rome: Fuck off.
I thought about sending him another text, but fuck it. Rome was gonna be a jackass until he got over me telling him he couldn’t come. He was too damn hotheaded, more inclined to impulsive actions.
And he’d have already painted that fucking stage in blood.
We needed cooler heads for this. I’d have some time backstage. I also had a key to the new lock I’d just installed.
The door behind me shoved open, and I pivoted easily. The faint sneer on my face froze as she pushed outside. Sweat dripped from her forehead and down her arms. She was dressed in nothing but a dark leotard that molded to her body so tightly, there was no missing the shape of her hips or her breasts.
Or the fucking bruises visible through the near sheer material. Something kept her nipples from peeking through.
“When you’re done checking me out, could I hit you up for one of those?” She had slipped around to hide behind the door as it swung closed as though she didn’t want anyone to see her. All that dark gorgeous hair was pulled up and away from her face, but I’d seen the lush waves earlier. The flush to her pale cheeks had added a definite warmth.
Fuck me. Those lips though.
Puffy. Full. And…
Fingers snapped in my face, and I raised both brows.
“What?” I grunted.
“Sorry to interrupt your ogling,” Emersyn Sharpe said in a near lyrical voice, her sharp intonations far more amused than arrogant. “But do you mind if I bum one of those? I’ll turn around and let you get a good eyeful of ass if that’s your thing?”
I stared at her. I got hit by a baseball once. It slammed into the side of my skull. This was kind of like the same thing. The offer entertained me for all of about thirty seconds before I scowled. “You’re not a slut, don’t act like one.”
Her perfectly manicured eyebrows rose. The honey-colored eyes lost every ounce of their warmth. “Never mind.” She pivoted on those impossibly thin slipper-like shoes that had no business in this trashy alley, but I caught her arm before she could escape. Only to lose my own cigarette when I had to catch the swing of her free hand aiming for my face. “Let. Me. Go.”
“Keep your panties on, princess.” Not that she could be wearing panties in that get up. “You didn’t get your smoke yet.”
Tugging her back a step, I crushed the cigarette that had fallen under my boot. Then I let her go and shook out two fresh ones. The heat licking through her eyes promised she was not amused. Yeah, well, I wasn’t here to entertain her. I put both in my lips and lit them, then I removed the second and held it out to her.
Yeah, I wanted her to have a little of me on her lips. Her nostrils flared, but she took it and pressed it to her mouth, and I tried not to think about her lips wrapping around my dick as she sucked in a deep breath. The cherry flared, and I withdrew a couple of paces to give her some air. When she exhaled with such emphatic force, I found myself studying her.
The bruises visible through the leotard were not the only ones. She had bruises on her thighs. Up close, there was no mistaking one was a handprint. Probably the big fucker on stage.
Well that was one hand that would be broken. I did a mental inventory, cataloguing every mark.
“Did I do something to piss you off since you installed the lock on my door?”
I shrugged. “No.”
She frowned, but I wasn’t going to elaborate. I wasn’t even supposed to be having a conversation with her. I’d gone for the new lock after I got into her dressing room without even trying. Fuck that. Not in my town…
After a beat, she skipped her gaze away, and that irritated me. There was nothing out in this alley. Just a cold breeze and damp air. The sweat on her had begun to dry, leaving only some dark patches on the leotard.
When she finished the cigarette, she glanced around, and I lifted my chin. “Just drop it, I’ll put it out.”
At her side-glance, I shrugged and she nodded, then flicked it to the ground at my feet. Red ash flared against the damp ground. It was half-extinguished already. I put my foot on it to crush it the rest of the way.
The door jostled and she backed right up to the wall, and I narrowed my eyes as it shoved open and the brute from the stage stood there. I met his gaze as I sucked on the cigarette. He towered over her on that stage. Then again, so did I. But the fucker wasn’t that big up close.
He glared at me, and I just gave him a bored look. If he took another step out of that door, he wouldn’t be walking back inside. The fact Emersyn had plastered herself to the wall like that filled me with rage.
I didn’t know what the fuck was going on, but it was going to stop.
“You alone out here?”
I made a point of taking a long drag and exhaling it straight into his face before I said, “Do you see anyone else?”
He scowled, then glared at me before he turned around and stomped inside. The door slammed behind him, and I slid my gaze to Emersyn. She blew out a breath so relieved, I flicked my cigarette down and stepped on it. The fucker couldn’t have gone that far. I could start with breaking his smug fucking face and work my way through the other two hundred plus bones.
“Thank you,” she said, then ran a hand over her hair like she had to straighten it. I didn’t miss the way her gaze slid back to the door, and I could almost see her counting off the time since the asshole left.
“You want to tell me what the fuck that was about?”
“Not particularly,” she murmured, then gave me the first real smile I’d seen on her face, and it slammed into me like a fucking truck. “Thank you though. For that, the lock, and the smoke…” She reached for the door, and I stood there like some moron as she vanished back inside.
My phone buzzed, and I glanced down at the screen as I raked a hand through my hair, the crisp scent of burnt tobacco lingering in my nose along with a far sweeter scent tangled with the muskier scent of sweat. I didn’t know what she used, but I was never going to forget it.
I had to focus. Work before pleasure.
But I’d be seeing her again, real soon.
That was a promise.