Had To Be You

Chapter One

The last time Slater Shaw had climbed up a fire escape outside his foster father’s Brooklyn bar, he’d been helping his brother out of a jam when they were kids. Showers of iron flakes fell with each step he took. The fire escape had been rickety back then. Ten more years in Red Hook’s sea air hadn’t helped.

Slater cursed under his breath as the telltale scent of cigar smoke permeated the alley where he’d been unloading a crate. He’d noticed his foster father, Pete Calahan—the curmudgeonly ex-cop turned heart patient, who went against doctor’s orders as often as possible—on the roof puffing away like a teenager smoking in the boys’ room.

Slater wasn’t ready for the role reversal, but the consequences from Pop deep-sixing his doctor’s orders were worse than Slater’s fear of confronting the old fart.

He’d thought about going into the apartment and taking the stairs to the roof, but then he’d have to explain Pop’s bad behavior to ten-year-old Nicki—his dad’s newest stray. When Slater reached the top he threw his leg over the low wall and tugged himself onto the roof.

Pop watched, shaking his head, not even bothering to hide the smoking evidence. “Do you have a death wish boy?”

Slater wiped his hands on his pants. “No, but it seems you do. Shit, Pop. Put that damn thing out and go inside.”

“One cigar isn’t going to kill me.” He took a couple puffs and then examined the growing ash. “I don’t know what all the stink is about, it’s not like I inhale.”

“I don’t care. I’ve come here to help and you’ve turned me into a glorified babysitter for you, Nicki, and her big-ass mutt. What the hell were you thinking taking on a little girl to raise at your age?” Nicki was a cute enough kid, but every time he looked at her, he got an eerie step-on-your-grave type feeling.

“I was thinking Nicki reminded me a lot of you boys, that’s what. She needed a home, and I gave her one.”

“You can’t handle her on your own.” Slater didn’t know the first thing about little girls and wasn’t really interested in finding out.

“I don’t have to. I have you boys to help out. I’ll be back to normal soon.”

“Not if you don’t follow the doctor’s instructions. You’ve only been out of the hospital two months and you’re exhausted after working a few hours. You don’t know how long it’s going to take for you to recover fully.” Slater looked out over the bay, and the Statue of Liberty stared back at him. How ironic that the symbol of freedom stood before him, when all he felt was a sense of losing his own. Knowing that the doctors swore Pop was out of danger didn’t make Slater sleep any better. He was a grown man, but he couldn’t understand why losing his dad scared him to his marrow. His fear wasn’t rational, so he did what he always did—he compartmentalized.

Pop sat on an Adirondack chair and looked at him. “Last I heard, you weren’t due home for a few more weeks, then I walk in yesterday and there you are with a chip on your shoulder the size of the Flatiron Building. I’m glad you’re here, but what the hell happened to have you running home early? What put you in such a shit mood?

“What makes you think something happened?” Slater put his boot on the edge of the other chair. They both needed a fresh coat of paint. He’d never cop to being played and dumped, especially not with Pop. How could he have missed that Dominique was engaged? She’d used him like a disposable plate to be thrown away after dessert. He was Chinet and no matter what he did, he’d never be Wedgwood. Fuck.

“I know you, son. Did you finally get your heart broken?”

Slater tried to freeze his features, keep them locked in place, but he knew he failed.

Pop had that gotcha look in his eyes. There was a reason he’d been a great cop before retiring to run the Crow’s Nest.

“No. I’m not heartbroken, I’m pissed. Dominique measured me on her high-society ruler and I came up short in every way.” Every way but the length of his dick and his skill in the sack.

Pop raised his glass of scotch. “Yup”—Pop took another drag off his stogie—“you got your heart broken.”

“Close, but no cigar.” Slater reached over and plucked the stogie out of Pop’s hand and ground it out on the tarred roof.

“Shit, why’d you have to do that?”

“Because I won’t let you kill yourself.”

His dad studied him like a jeweler studying a diamond, searching for just the right place to make the next cut. “There’s more to this than you’re telling me. I know it and you know it. Whatever it is, it’s embarrassing—I can tell by the color of your face. So you got taken in by a woman. Congratulations—every man does at least once.” Pop stood. “If you want to talk about it, I’m here.”

“Thanks, but there’s nothing to talk about.” He’d take this one to the grave.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Now come down through the apartment the right way, the last thing I need is Nicki watching you play Spider-Man—she already has an unhealthy fascination with Wonder Woman.”

Pop turned and took the stairs down to the apartment and Slater reluctantly followed.

He slipped out into the alley undetected, used the crowbar, and ripped into the crate entombing the one thing he did love. He hammered the crowbar under the wood, urgency pumping his blood in time to the throbbing of his temples.

He had to get to her.

He wanted her.

He wanted her with the same burning desire a pubescent boy wanted a centerfold.

Another board fell to the ground and a flash of chrome shone through the darkness. Baseball-sized knots in his upper back and shoulders loosened enough to give his neck free range of motion. He’d been home for less than twenty-four hours and he already needed to escape. Escape from the apartment, escape from his past, escape from Red Hook.

He ripped another board off the crate and threw it against the brick building with more force than necessary. He’d lived in Seattle for two years, and when he’d left, it had surprised him that there was no one he cared to say good-bye to. And for the first time in his life, that bothered him.

Slater tried to erase Dominique from his mind but it wasn’t working. No matter what he did, no matter how far he’d come, the only chance he had to clean off the stink of poverty was to sign that contract with OPEC. The money they were offering more than made up for his crack-shack beginnings.

“Whatcha doing?”

Slater jumped. Shit. He couldn’t believe Nicki had snuck up on him. He looked over his shoulder; her long curly brown hair whipped in the icy late-fall wind. The girl was all legs and feet, too skinny for her height, and her jacket swamped her slight frame. Clothes that were three sizes too wide and three inches too short hid her bone-thin arms and legs.

“Just unloading my bike.”

Nicki hesitated before moving closer. He saw himself in the haunted, wary look in her eyes, like she’d seen someone use a crowbar as a weapon instead of as a tool. He didn’t know what was worse, how much she reminded him of himself at that age, or that she’d probably seen that kind of violence. Both made the unsettled feelings he had about Nicki even worse.

“Pop said he’d buy me a bike this spring. Maybe you or Logan or Storm can teach me to ride it in the park. Bree won’t let me ride on the street—she’s weird about stuff like that.”

His brother Storm and sister-in-law Bree were on their honeymoon. They’d grown up together and from what Slater remembered of Bree’s overprotective mother, the fact that Bree wouldn’t let Nicki ride her bike in the street wasn’t all that surprising.

“It’s not a bicycle, Nicki. It’s a motorcycle.”

“Oh.” She turned a little red and kicked a piece of broken pavement into a pothole. “So, can you take me for a ride sometime?”

“I guess that’s up to Pop.” He gazed at the second floor of the building and wondered if the old man had sent her down to keep him company. “If Pop says it’s okay, I’ll take you for a ride. It’s pretty cold this time of year.” Way too cold for a kid with no natural insulation.

Nicki’s hair flew across her face and she pulled the jacket tighter. “I’m going in to ask Pop right now, okay?”

“Sure, but it’s getting late.” He needed to take a long, cold ride. Not the kind of ride he’d take with a slip of a girl on the back of his bike. No, he needed to let out the throttle and go balls to the wall. He needed to rid himself of the antsy feeling he’d fought all day with nothing to do but roam the apartment. “Even if it’s okay with Pop, I’m not taking you out tonight. We’ll have to do it when it’s still light.”

Nicki’s shoulders slumped, making her look like a longer-haired version of a Dora the Explorer Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon with a bad leak. “You promise?”

He looked at her, got that déjà vu feeling again, and fought off a shiver that had nothing to do with the dropping temperature. “If it’s okay with Pop, then I promise I’ll take you for a ride. But if Pop says no, it’s no.”

Nicki’s eyes rolled around like a Magic 8-Ball landing on Don’t count on it and she dug her sneaker into the pavement. “Pop and Bree don’t have to know everything. I’m not a baby, you know. I’m almost eleven.”

“That old, huh?” The girl was actually trying to work him. “Good try, Nicki, but I’m not gonna shake Bree’s cage. I’ll be here awhile, and believe me, when Bree gets back from her honeymoon, I plan to stay on her good side. I heard she took a cast iron skillet to Storm’s hard head—”

“You should have seen Bree hit him with the frying pan of truth. It was epic.”

“Not so epic for Storm, but it couldn’t have been that bad—he married her. I have no problem learning from my brother’s mistake. I’m not gonna mess with Bree—even for a kid as cute as you.”

Nicki studied her shoes. “You’re not gonna snitch on me, are you?”

“No, but I’m not falling for your charm either. I’m immune.” Something else he got out of his relationship with Dominique—he figured it was like an inoculation. He might have been sick as a grass-eating dog when he’d gotten it, but he wouldn’t fall prey to that emasculating disease again.

“You think I got charm?”

He let out a laugh. “Charm—kid, you’ve got so much charm, you have everyone in the family wrapped and you know it.”

She stuffed her hands in her pockets and shrugged. “Not everyone. I’m gonna go do my chores before I ask Pop if I can go for a ride on your bike. Maybe then he’ll say yes.”

“Good luck, Nicki.” Slater watched her sneak back into the restaurant’s kitchen. And she was sneaking. She’d even stuck her head through to make sure the coast was clear. He’d heard Skye tell Nicki that she wasn’t allowed in the alley alone. Nicki hadn’t been alone, but it damn sure didn’t look as if she’d asked permission to join him.

Slater rolled his bike out of the crate and cleaned up the rest of the wood. He straddled his bike, the only woman who just wanted him to ride her fast and hard and never asked for anything else. His blood pressure dropped a good twenty points when he put on his helmet. As always, she started on the first try, he gave her some gas, let out her throttle, and took off.

A part of him was trying to outrun his demons. Here in Red Hook, they were not only too close, but there were too many to count. Maybe he just needed to make peace with being made a fool of, make peace with his father’s health crisis, and make peace with spending the next five years living and working between the Middle East and Vienna. He sped down the straightaways at breakneck speeds, took the turns too fast, and flew through the icy wind coming off the bay until he lost feeling in most of his appendages.

He drove fast, skirting the edge of control through neighborhoods he remembered from his youth. Ones he’d never planned to revisit and had successfully avoided for years. Yet here he was in Red Hook. He’d serve his one-month sentence helping Pop with the bar and Nicki, and then he was off to Bahrain.

Slater returned to the Crow’s Nest and parked his bike out front—in a spot so perfect, Dominique would have called it princess parking.

Too bad it wouldn’t be any easier to run from his demons there than it was in Red Hook. He’d traveled the world and no matter where he went, his demons were always licking at his heels, singeing his consciousness, waiting to possess him.

Slater squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, and tried to prepare himself to step into his not-so-rosy past. He pulled the heavy door open and walked into the Crow’s Nest.

He’d hoped the ride would clear his head. It hadn’t worked—his mind tumbled like dice on a craps table—Dominique, his dad, Nicki, Red Hook. The result: emotional bankruptcy.

He pushed his way through the crowd—and it was a helluva crowd, which, when it came to the Crow’s Nest, was a new one on him. If he hadn’t seen the sign outside, he would have never known it was his father’s place.

The only thing he recognized was the huge carved antique mahogany bar. The rough longshoreman crowd—gone. The stained drop ceiling—gone. The cheesy prints and cheap barstools—gone. They were replaced by an upscale clientele, high-back stools, and a tin ceiling with crown molding that matched the bar. The chipped plaster walls had been ripped down to exposed brick with the patina of age. Damn, the place was nice. High-back booths lined the wall opposite the bar, round tables filled the center, and Tiffany-style lighting set the mood. But the lighting and decorations were nothing compared to the sultry, sexy voice of the woman singing an Adele song on the stage. He couldn’t see her—the stage was just out of his line of sight.

With the number of people packed into the place, he’d expected the normal raucous shout-if-you-want-to-be-heard noise level, but all he heard was her. She had the crowd enthralled: the men mesmerized, the women envious.

A big guy behind the bar nodded to him and finished pouring a drink. He slid the glass in front of a customer, grabbed her cash, and rang it up. Strange silver eyes met Slater’s head-on. “What can I get you?” the bartender asked, and tossed a napkin on the spotless bar in front of him. The singer announced that she and the band, Nite Watch, were taking a break.

Slater waited for her to stop speaking before he answered. “A Sixpoint Bengali Tiger IPA and a shot of Jack.”

The bartender gave him an assessing look and Slater assessed him right back. Slater’s too long hair and badass leathers made people wonder if they should have the cops on speed-dial. He supposed he should be glad the bartender kept an eye out for trouble, but lately he’d had a hard time working up much in the way of appreciation.

A minute later his drinks were delivered. Slater pushed his hair out of his eyes, tossed a twenty on the bar, and watched a cool platinum blonde with her back to him fill a glass with water. She had short choppy hair, a long neck made for a man to nibble, and an upper back and shoulders that told him she’d been a pretty serious dancer in the not-too-distant past.

He didn’t know what she was doing behind the bar in a long dress. She turned and he realized it was only long in the back, the front was so short, the dress was just a tongue-lashing away from indecent.

He didn’t mind that it looked more like a bathing suit cover-up than a dress. The wild tropical print on the layered, floaty material didn’t cling to her, but ensured that every curve demanded attention. She belonged barefoot on South Beach in Miami, not in a corner bar in Red Hook in December. He had the urge to offer her his jacket just to cover her. Shit.

Slater had ordered the shot to warm up, but one look at the blonde and he didn’t need it.

The slash of fluorescent blue that sliced through her side-swept bangs covered one eye, and pointed to a wild streak. He couldn’t see her eye color, but he’d bet his Harley they were blue. He’d always had a thing for blondes with blue eyes, and wondered how she felt about bikes.

She said something to the bartender and then walked the length of the bar in heels so high and pointed, they were an engineering marvel—not to mention what they did to her legs.

He downed the shot. She had one hell of a walk. It highlighted every muscle in her legs, every curve of her ass, and made her breasts even more drool-worthy.

Unfortunately, he should do anything but follow. No, he was the last person who should be looking at a woman. Any woman. He’d learned from experience it was much safer to clear his head by flying down the streets of Red Hook on a motorcycle on a cold night. He might have frozen his balls off—but that was what he’d needed. He just wished it had worked.

Slater took a pull off his beer and still felt antsy. Maybe it was being back home. In his mind Red Hook was like the Munsters’ house in that old TV show—gloomy and gray, with a big cloud hanging directly over it. That was why, when he’d been old enough to enlist—he did.

The navy had been the only way Slater knew to get the hell out of Red Hook and make something of his life. He and his brothers had each made his escape and left Pop here to fend for himself. Now it was his turn to come back and take care of Pop, the Crow’s Nest, and Nicki. But unlike his brothers, he wasn’t getting sucked back in. He was giving it a month. One month—then he was out of here.

He roamed the bar and was amazed at the amount of food still being served this late. The kitchen was doing decent business—something that hadn’t happened when he’d been a kid. The stage lights came on and he checked his watch—almost ten, time for the band to start. He wasn’t sure why they’d been playing earlier, but he’d figure it all out in time. Running the place would be his job starting tomorrow. Today, he wanted to see how things worked before anyone found out who the hell he was.

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