Safe Harbor (Protectors #1)

When Julia witnesses her friend’s murder and is betrayed by one of the marshals meant to protect her, she seeks out Justin Harbor, an old friend of the other marshal, who died protecting her. He’s reluctant to have her at his ranch, but he’ll do his best to keep her safe from the mobster searching for her—and from his personal demons. She’s determined to get closer to the stubborn ex-soldier and breaks through his walls, but he still maintains an emotional distance between them. When time runs out, and she’s taken, he’ll do anything and risk everything to get her back.

Excerpt

Julia brushed past Shanae, jumping in surprise, and almost dropping the tray of drinks and empty glasses in her hand when her coworker screeched and shot away. “You sure are jumpy tonight.” She sidled past the beautiful woman, wishing for about the millionth time that she had a figure like Shanae—or any of the other dancers who worked at G-Strings. “Is everything okay?”

Shanae bit her full lower lip, seeming to be on the verge of sharing something, before blinking. “Everything’s fine.”

She shook her head at her friend’s continued stubbornness as she set the tray on the bar to load the last of the glasses that had been left behind by the patrons Tony had escorted out at closing time one hour before. “If you need to talk about something, I’m here.”

Shanae gave her a shaky grin as she smoothed a hand down the dark skin of her stomach. The skimpy dancer’s costume she still wore revealed the firm tautness of her muscular body. “Nah, I’d better not.”

“Even if it’s about Raze, I promise I won’t say anything to piss you off. Or I’ll try not to.” Just saying Raze’s name sent a slight shudder through her, and she couldn’t figure out what Shanae saw in the balding, chubby, Italian man who frequented the strip club.

He’d been a regular before meeting Shanae, and he continued to come several times a week and ogle the other girls, though he was ostensibly in a relationship with Shanae. Julia tried not to be cynical, but she imagined the wads of cash Raze Marconi flashed around had a bit of something to do with Shanae’s willingness to overlook his odious nature. Not that she could blame her friend for wanting security, but she wasn’t at a point of desperation in her own life where she would ever consider such an arrangement, especially with someone like Raze Marconi.

Shanae let out a little gasp as she turned to face Julia under the auspices of slamming down some empty glasses onto the tray. Julia thought about admonishing her to be more careful of the glassware, but since Shanae had offered to help clean up out of the goodness of her heart, not because it was in her job description, and because she really didn’t care about the glassware in the bar, she held in the reproach.

“Seriously, what’s wrong? You’re usually a little sensitive about him, but I’ve been trying to rein in any comments since you asked me to.” Shanae had made it clear that Raze was a topic that was off-limits, and Julia was trying to respect that despite her disapproval of the relationship. The less she heard about Marconi, the better.

“I’m done with him. That should make you happy. Only problem is, I’m not sure he’s done with me.” As she said that, her gaze drifted to the door, and she bit her lip in a sign of worry.

“You think he’s going to stalk you or something, or not let you end the relationship?”

Shanae shrugged. “It ain’t that. I don’t know how he’d feel about me breaking up with him, but as soon as he realizes what I did, he ain’t going to come after me because of me ending the relationship.”

A chill went through Julia at the words, and she eyed her friend with concern as she turned away from the tray of glasses and the nightly clean-up. Her attention remained focused solely on Shanae. “What did you do? More importantly, why are you afraid of him?”

There was almost a look of pity in Shanae’s eyes. “You don’t know who he is. Bless you for your naïveté, but you’re about the only one around here who ain’t got a clue.”

“A clue about what?”

“Raze is in the mafia. He’s like third in line for the don or some shit. I don’t know. Alls I know is after I figured out what he’s doing, I was done with him. But if he finds out…” She trailed off with a shake of her head, sending long strands of dark hair flying between the two of them. “I gotta get out of here.”

Reflexively, Julia glanced at the clock. “Your shift ended forty-five minutes ago, and all the other dancers are gone. You don’t have to hang around helping me out with clean-up.”

Shanae shrugged. “I don’t mind helping with that, but I ain’t talking about leaving the club. I need to get out of the city. I gotta figure out what to do with it.”

“With what?”

Once again, Shanae seemed poised on the cusp of confession, or at least conversation, but she abruptly shook her head and turned away. She pretended to busy herself with straightening bottles of alcohol, and Julia let her. It wasn’t as though she could badger her friend into telling her the secrets she was hiding.

They worked in silence for the next twenty minutes, until everything was done. “I just have to close up the till, so you could head out if you’d like, Shanae.”

“I’ll wait for you. I was kinda hoping…”

“Hoping what?”

“Could I crash on your couch tonight? I’m getting out of town tomorrow, but I gotta get to the bank to get most of my money. I have some squirreled away on me, but it ain’t enough to get far away.”

“Of course you can stay, but I’d like you to tell me what’s going on.”

“I can’t. It ain’t safe, Julia. You shouldn’t—”

A sound of raised voices, one of them identifiably Tony’s, interrupted what she was going to say. A second later, three gunshots followed.

“Fuck, he’s found me,” said Shanae. “I knew I should’ve called in sick and just hit the road today.”

“He shot Tony.” Julia was sure of it as she said the words, only vaguely aware of Shanae speaking to her. She seemed to have developed a case of tunnel vision, and the world around her blurred. Her friend’s voice seemed to be coming from a far distance, and she couldn’t make out the words.

However, a sharp sting against her cheek whirled her back into focus, and she stared in surprise when she realized Shanae had slapped her. She understood why, since Julia had been on the verge of a panic attack. “We have to hide and call the police.”

“Use the silent alarm, Julia.” Shanae looked terrified, but her brain was still clearly working faster than Julia’s.

With a shake of her head at her own lack of logic, she stretched under the bar and pressed the button that triggered the police to come investigate. “Now we have to hide.”

There was an eerie calm about Shanae, and she stood with her back away from Julia, facing the entrance to the club. “I’m going to stall him if I can. I need you to get in my purse and take out the flash drive. It looks like a classic car. I gave it to him for his birthday, and then I borrowed it to transfer my school work for my encryption class. Fuckin’ ironic, huh? There’s a lot more than homework on there, and you have to keep it safe. Don’t tell nobody you have it. I’ll get it back from you if I can.”

“What’s on it?”

Shanae turned and glared at her. “Get your ass moving. Find the flash drive and hide.”

Julia was reluctant to leave Shanae to face Raze, but she couldn’t deny her friend’s urgency, and it was suddenly contagious. She spun on her heel and raced to the back room, heading straight to Shanae’s cubicle against the wall. The dancers shared a row of vanity tables, along with three large racks of costumes, but each had their own assigned personal space. Though Julia wasn’t a dancer, her space was also alongside the others.

She pulled out the beige Coach bag, briefly remembering when Shanae had brought it in a few weeks ago, showing off her gift from Raze—or her newest pimp daddy, as one of the other dancers had said in a cattily way. She flipped it open and reached inside, relieved to find the flash drive at the top. She took it out and shoved the purse back into the cubicle out of habit before turning to look for a place to hide.

She wriggled into a space behind some shelves, which was fairly well obscured by one of the racks costumes, as she moved more fully to cover herself. It wasn’t a very good hiding place, but was all she could do at the moment.

It wasn’t a second too soon either, because almost as quickly as she had settled, two strangers she’d never seen before entered the back room. She didn’t know anything about them, but judging from the way the suits stretched over their bulk, along with the discreet bulges under their left arms that suggested they carried pistols, she assumed they were some hired muscle of Raze’s, if he was genuinely a mafia don.

She held her breath as they approached, certain they would somehow immediately find her hiding space. Instead, they turned their attention to the cubicles, rifling haphazardly through the belongings stacked there, including spilling Julia’s purse on the floor. One of the goons kicked it to the side, sending it sliding toward her, and she almost reached out to pull it to safety before realizing what a stupid move that would be. She stifled the impulse and placed her hands over her mouth, trying to keep in any sound of fear as she pressed her hand against her lips while the other clung to the car-shaped flash drive.

One of the two dark-haired men picked up Shanae’s purse and dumped it on the floor. He sorted through the things quickly with his foot before tossing aside the bag and shaking his head at the other one. “It isn’t in there.”

“We should tell the boss.”

“Yo, Mr. Marconi, flash drive isn’t in her cubicle,” shouted the first one.

The other goon rubbed his ear. “I could’ve done that. I meant go talk to him. You didn’t have to shout at him. You know how he hates that.”

Before the other goon could offer a retort, Raze was suddenly in the doorway, dragging Shanae behind him.

Seeing her friend’s fear increased Julia’s own, and she tightened her hands even more around her mouth to keep from crying out. She felt powerless sitting there, hiding in her cubbyhole, as Shanae faced the three angry, armed men.

“I told you I don’t know what you’re talking about, Raze. Why are you treating me like this?” Shanae said the words in a convincing way, complete with her own dose of attitude, but her trembling lips and rapidly blinking eyes gave her away. Even Julia could see that from her obstructed view provided by a gap between two costumes hanging on the hangers.

Marconi shook her violently. “I know you took it. It was on my computer desk when I left this morning, waiting for Enzo to deliver it to the relevant party. It was gone when I got back, and you and the guys are the only ones who have access to that area of the house. It sure as fuck wasn’t my old maid, who worked for my father and wiped my ass when I was a baby.”

She was trying to pull off a pout, but it didn’t look convincing. “Well, maybe one of your goons took it, but I didn’t.” She tried to tug her arm free, but ended up teetering on her high heels that she hadn’t bothered to change after her last set had ended.

“Don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not. I didn’t—”

Julia let out a small gasp, but it was quiet enough that no one seemed to hear and look her direction. What had prompted the reaction was the violent way Marconi had suddenly turned on Shanae, hands clamped around her throat. He was strangling as hard as he could, and her friend’s eyes were bugging out as her fingers dug at the beefy hands wrapped around her throat. Her long acrylic nails made deep furrows in Marconi’s hands, leaving blood dripping down his skin, but it clearly wasn’t enough to free her.

“You don’t ever lie to me. I’ll find the fucking thing without you. You probably sold it to someone, didn’t you, you greedy cunt?” Marconi hurled the accusations, but he didn’t give her a chance to respond. He simply kept tightening his hands until Shanae’s dark skin had taken on a grey cast, and her eyes looked like they were about to pop out of her skull. When he eventually let go, her body fell to the floor, and he kicked her aside as though she was a piece of garbage.

“She must’ve hid it somewhere. If it’s not here at work, it has to be at her apartment. That’s where we’re headed next. We’ll tear it apart, then her car. Then we’ll start on the list of her friends. I want that flash drive back before it falls into the wrong hands.” He paused to look down at Shanae, his disdain obvious. “You mess with the bull, and you get the horns. You thought you could blackmail me? Get a good payoff and disappear? Guess you were wrong, you whore.” He kicked her body again before walking out, his goons following in his wake.

Julia remained where she was, frozen in fear, for several moments longer. She was afraid to move, just in case they were observing for any other occupants. She didn’t think the thought had occurred to them though. They hadn’t really bothered to search anywhere besides Shanae’s cubicle. Apparently, they had assumed Shanae and Tony were the only ones left. She was never more grateful in her life to be unable to afford a car that would have betrayed the presence of a third employee in the building.

She still couldn’t force herself to move away from her hiding place, but she did stretch far enough to reach her purse where one of the goons had conveniently kicked it, grabbing hold of the strap and dragging it toward her. She fumbled for her cell phone and called nine-one-one, barely managing to form a coherent sentence when the operator answered, wondering if the woman on the other end of the line got much of what she was saying as she tried to relay there had been a murder, and she wasn’t certain the murderers were gone yet. She was reassured that she had pressed the silent alarm, so police would be coming whether or not the dispatcher understood her.

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